The first time that I ever saw a crack pipe, I must have been five or six years old. My mother was still raw from my father’s suffering and eventual death. He had been only forty-four years old when he passed away. Still young and beautiful by human standards. My mother had dubbed him the “black Tom Selleck.” He stood 6’3 and weighed 220 pounds and his bare chest boasted a shock of silky, jet-black hair against his copper skin. She would joke that near the end of his illness, she’d spend the night at the hospital to guard him from the single nurses. She had been just thirty-four at the time. Seeing my mother winded and widowed too soon, a close friend named Liz had offered something to “take the edge off”—to dull the sting of her loss, to loosen the grip of despair and depression that had begun to suffocate her, to lighten the weight of having to raise her daughter alone. It was cocaine. Eighteen months later my mother had a full-blown crack addiction. And crack addictions require a pipe.
For twenty-two years, she would do battle with this faceless devil. It rumbled gray and heavy like an endless storm tearing roofs from their houses, uprooting trees older than God, sending furniture and cars airborne, leaving lives frayed and unfurled.
It wasn’t just one pipe. There were hundreds of pipes. Literally. Purple ones that seemed to be as tall as me. Short ones that were no longer than a cigarette. Ancient wooden ones that I imagined were so-called peace pipes of the Natives. They were all behind the glass case in what the old folks called a “head shop.” These were small stores owned by tattooed, bald white guys that catered to vice. The merchandise included glass crack pipes, TOPS rolling papers, a wide variety of lighters decorated with dirty words or bare-chested women, heady sticks of incense, brightly colored incense holders, roach clips, guns of what seemed to my five or six-year-old self to be of every size and shape possible. Dazed as children are often rendered when the curtain concealing adult secrets has been pulled back, I squeezed my mother’s hand tighter so I wouldn’t pass out. By the time that I found myself awed in that head shop, Liz had been dead more than a year.
As time passed, I grew to understand that Liz had been the lucky one—succumbing to her illness (her addiction) swiftly. Before it could mangle her youth, beauty, home, job, happiness, family, relationships, and reputation into an unrecognizable heap. Liz’s exit was brutal but quick. My mother’s would be a destructive, dreadful, achingly slow departure. For twenty-two years, she would do battle with this faceless devil. It rumbled gray and heavy like an endless storm tearing roofs from their houses, uprooting trees older than God, sending furniture and cars airborne, leaving lives frayed and unfurled.
* * *
I often overheard other grown-ups—grandmas, uncles, aunts, cousins, play cousins, teachers, preachers—refer to my mother as a “functioning addict.” It meant that because she could hold down a job in between the first and fifteenth of each month and had not yet lost her home, car, or me and had not yet sold her body in exchange for crack that she belonged to the highest rung of junkies in the addict hierarchy. It meant that things could’ve been worse. Much worse.
Because my mother had been employed as a substitute teacher for most of my childhood, the mask of normalcy was easy to maintain. She could choose which days she wanted to work and which days she wanted to use. Paydays and the day or two following a payday were always set aside for using. Even when family and friends could readily recognize the pattern, she denied it vehemently. From the time that I was five, the first seventy-two hours of any given month my mother was a ghost. Quick trips to get a pack of cigarettes, brief dashes to go cash checks, and short rides to a friend’s house almost always swelled into two or three-day long crack binges. She always returned in the dead of night, silent, smelling of musk, stale beer, Newport’s, and the faint odor of Paloma Picasso perfume (her signature scent when sober).
Despite my mother’s struggle I was an honor roll student and she feigned sobriety so well that she was appointed secretary of the Parent Teacher Association at my school. I wore my hair in long plaits, was painfully shy and often labeled a nerd.
Another fringe benefit of being a substitute teacher/addict was that your weekends were always free. Some weekends our house would seem to overflow with “partiers”—fellow users, dealers, enabling friends who smoked marijuana but didn’t do blow or smoke crack. While the men’s faces seemed to switch with great regularity, like people sifting through a busy revolving door, The Women were static, beautiful constants. LP, TM, CS, and my mother were all in their early to mid-thirties and stunning. They shined with the kind of beauty and confidence that comes with maturity. Knowing exactly what shade of foundation blended best with their tone. Clothes that accentuated their curvy legs and hid the stretchmarks on their bellies. Brilliant smiles and large, hearty laughs that echoed self-awareness, self-assuredness. LP was the tallest. She had watery, bright eyes and flawless skin the color of peanut butter. She was a nurse and the single mother of two teenagers. CS was the youngest of The Women, high-yellow and heavy-chested. She spoke with a near-staccato cadence. Her words tumbling over one another. My mother said she was “tie tongued.” TM was thin and waif-figured with African features. She had a daughter my age and we often found ourselves exiled to my room to play while they “partied” deep into the night. My mother was the shortest of The Women, but the toughest by far. Just a shade lighter than a Hershey’s Kiss, she wore raisin colored lipstick and grew her nails long and painted them a deep hue that resembled red wine. The Women were sophisticated and strong and might have gathered at book club meetings or swank happy hour affairs had they not befriended cocaine. They would huddle in the den—a room one door down the hall from mine that Mama had repurposed after my father’s funeral; it had been my half-brother’s room when he lived with us before Daddy died—their heads collectively bowed over a small glass-top coffee table. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think they were chemists in a lab, intensely focused on precise measurements and portions. Their tools were typical: razor blades, foil, lighters, a ceramic plate, sometimes a spoon and Pyrex bowl. They made frequent trips from the den to the kitchen and back. When I got older, I would get a kick out of watching the eyes of men widen to saucers as I told them that I knew how to cook crack before my eighth birthday. I became instantly dark and dangerous and intriguing with the candid revelation. Over time I learned to use it to shock and entice. Like a card trick at dinner parties. Small gifts I suppose.
The parties usually crawled from one day into the next and the adults rarely seemed to notice or mind that they hadn’t eaten or showered in nearly twenty-four hours. The Women never looked the same as they had the night before. Hair tousled and out of place. Mouths dry. Skin dulled and ashen. Pupils dilated. Eyes red with fatigue. Laughter reduced to effortless groans. Luster lost to the reverie of inebriation. Regrets slowly filled in the slight lines on their faces as they filed out one by one to return to reality, daylight, and the other things they had been desperately trying to escape.
From kindergarten right up until the last day of high school, this was my version of “functional.”
* * *
In 1991, “Your Mama’s on Crack Rock” had to have been the most popular song on the radio, certainly the most popular song blasting from boom boxes and thumping from car stereos on my block. At least it felt like it. For fifth-grade bullies, the punchlines wrote themselves. And I had a bright, blinking target affixed squarely between my eyes.
Despite my mother’s struggle I was an honor roll student and she feigned sobriety so well that she was appointed secretary of the Parent Teacher Association at my school. I wore my hair in long plaits, was painfully shy and often labeled a nerd. And while Mama had been able to successfully deceive the teachers and parents from surrounding neighborhoods, there was no fooling the kids who lived on my block. They knew our secret. Their fathers, uncles, and cousins were often my mother’s suppliers. Sometimes they showed up at our house on the weekends. This knowledge was more than enough ammunition for girls who built their reputations and esteem by tearing down girls like me who were quiet, timid, spineless mounds of flesh. Shenita was one of those soul-eating, fire breathing girls. Her uncle was a dark-skinned guy known to everyone as Spencer. He was as notorious as a neighborhood dope boy could be. He drove a black Mustang GT and had a gold tooth that could blind you if the sun hit his broad smile just right. He was buoyant and funny and a frequent visitor to the weekend parties. One day Shenita cornered me at lunch. She asked me if my mama was a crackhead. I froze. She said that Spencer was her uncle and that everyone knew my mama was a crackhead. Feeling the curious and bloodthirsty stares of the other kids at the table, I just shook my head “no” and stared down into the institutional-looking mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables on my lunch tray and prayed for her to just walk away. When I summoned enough courage to raise my eyes from the food, Shenita was still hovering, now with a spoonful of mashed potatoes fashioned as a catapult pointed directly at my face. “Admit it,” she demanded. The “or else” was unspoken, but evident in her bulging bug-eyes. I felt my own eyes start to fill with tears as a teacher approached the group. Shenita put her spoon down but her eyes lingered on my shame. I don’t recall her ever really bothering me again. I guess her mission had been accomplished.
* * *
By the time I entered my teen years, Mama had lost the house (so much for functional) and we’d moved in with my grandmother shortly after Mama’s first stint in rehab. My grandmother’s house was situated in the back of a subdivision called Apple Valley. It had once been a beautiful slice of suburbia when Granny first purchased her house but was soon bastardized by white-flight and Section 8. Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was my favorite album, and Snoop Dog’s “Gin and Juice” was my favorite song. My mother had finally let me get a fashion-forward haircut, boys had begun to show interest in me, and I was discovering ways to cope with my mother’s demons by creating some of my own.
Jesus was my first drug of choice. I discovered Him when I started going to church with my grandmother. She was a freshly-converted zealot. She had just been “saved” and wanted to make sure that everyone that she encountered from that day forward would be “saved” as well. Me and Mama had been first on her spirit-filled hit list. My mother, having been both an adult and addict at the time, was hard to turn. But I was easier pickings. Logging in what felt like thousands of hours at Wednesday night Bible study, Sunday school, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, first and third Thursday young adult meetings, choir practices, annual revivals, vacation Bible school, Mother’s Board meetings, choir anniversaries, Usher Board anniversaries, and a handful of Youth Ministry lock-in’s, I became hooked. Entranced by the prevailing sense of community. Rapt by the notion that all of the answers to life’s most perplexing queries could be found in King James’ version of the Bible. Completely swept by the choir’s sway and melody and Pastor’s guttural, ardent invocation. Like most dependencies, I would leave and return and leave and return again, never quite able to achieve that first miraculous high. Sweet Jesus, indeed.
To outsiders, it must have seemed like torture. My grandmother’s siblings repeatedly admonished her as an enabler.
The only thing that seemed as intoxicating as the holy ghost was the gaze of men and teenaged boys—full of primitive longing, carnality, desire. For me, men and boys were peripheral and taboo. They had always lurked around the margins of my life. A dead daddy. A shipped-off half-brother. Mama’s married, on-again-off-again boyfriend. Drug dealers. Grown men who stared too long at my budding figure. Bumbling, anxiety-ridden, sex obsessed boys. It wasn’t until I became the mother of two sons that I understood the opposite sex to be vulnerable, complex human beings and not beasts that only existed to be tamed, conquered, or feared. When I was fifteen I fell in love with one of those unreachable “beasts.” His name was Charles and he was a low-level dope peddler (marijuana by ounces, not pounds; small quantities of cocaine and crack). He was nineteen, lean, muscular, the color of an old penny, and tall enough that my head lay comfortably on his shoulder in embrace. His eyes were perpetual slits underneath long black lashes, always half-closed. His lips had the shiny brown sheen of someone who smoked blunts all day. His gait was weighed down with disappointment and rage, not unlike most of the other guys in our hood. His mother was an addict like mine, and he let me wear his gold herringbone chain to make it “official.” I wasn’t a virgin the first time I had sex with Charles, but it was still magical in a way. It was more emotional than physical. We were two kids escaping the same pain. Together. We were making love. As with most teenage love affairs, the relationship quickly fizzled. I remember returning his chain by way of his younger brother who was a high school classmate. But I never forgot Charles, his torment, or the sound of his beating heart as we laid naked and pressed together under the cheap plaid sheets on his twin bed, both our mamas too high to care where we were or what we were doing. I was supposed to hate boys like Charles, the black-hearted pushers whose main goal in life was to keep my mother hooked and going back for more. But I couldn’t. I had seen too much of my own anguish in their eyes. Left despondent and bewildered by underperforming schools, half-assed teachers, overworked or absent parents, an ever-present overzealous police state, and dwindling job opportunities, selling dope was just another expected chore for guys like Charles (along with dropping out of school and going to jail). This fate was an inescapable destiny for kids like us. So, I wasn’t surprised when, five years later, I found myself giving to birth to a son while his father—a dealer like Charles—paced back and forth in a 6X8 cage in an Alabama county lock-up.
* * *
Life has a way of becoming less and less black and white as we grow older. The world becomes grayer. Uncrossable lines get crossed. Unthinkable thoughts begin to inhabit the mind. Never becomes maybe and suddenly we find ourselves changing in frightening, unexpected ways.
After my mother’s second failed attempt at rehab, I began to accept the idea that she was always going to be an addict and would always need some kind of vice—somewhere to hide the hurt when life’s relentless foot was too heavy upon her neck. I was also beginning to realize that I was my mother’s daughter. I, too, was an escape artist, constantly in search of a door marked EXIT. And when neither sex nor salvation were at my fingertips, other substances would have to suffice.
Weed became our Switzerland—a neutral, peaceful stomping ground far less damaging than crack, not nearly as risky as alcohol-fueled hook-ups with questionable men, and less manipulative than religion. Even though it was illegal, it was tolerable and soothing. Weed mended a great deal of the fractures that existed in our relationships. Me and Mama. Mama and Granny.
When me and my one-year-old son moved out of my grandmother’s house and into our own apartment, Mama and I celebrated the move at the end of the day by plopping down on my futon, putting our feet up on the coffee table that we’d just assembled, and rolling a joint. I remember her mocking my technique calling my joints “guppies” because they were often fat in the middle. I hadn’t yet perfected the art. We laughed and for a moment I caught a glimpse of the tough, sassy leader of The Women. Radiant.
While Granny still loved Jesus vigorously, her holy-roller streak had subsided. Sometimes I think that she may have even viewed Mama’s penchant for marijuana as a twisted answer to a fervent prayer. Granny had always had a green thumb and loved to watch things grow. So, on a whim, she planted some stray marijuana seeds alongside her squash, zucchini, tomato, and collard plants. Then she loved it, watered it, tended to it, talked to it, doted on it. And it grew into an ample plant, so big that she eventually had to uproot it for fear police might see the small tree from the street. My mother affectionately called the green, leafy, 5-feet-tall bush Bappy.
Marijuana never did what we had wanted it to do. It hadn’t cured Mama. It hadn’t been strong enough to silence the Siren song of cocaine. At best, it’d given us brief periods of reprieve and respite from the tumult and chaos of loving an addict, a temporary break from the arguments, accusations, and tears. It’d offered us a few days out of each month when me nor my grandmother had to worry whether Mama would return when she asked to borrow the car; it’d gifted us with a handful of serene nights spent sleeping and not wondering if she’s dead or alive. Granny and I had learned to be thankful for the good days and prepared for the bad.
To outsiders, it must have seemed like torture. My grandmother’s siblings repeatedly admonished her as an enabler. Don’t lend Pat any money. You know what she gonna do with it. Most of the time Granny heeded their advice. But Pat was her only child. And there are times when one just must believe in their child. How does one just discard their only daughter? The pressure was no lighter on me. As a teen, on more than one occasion, teachers, counselors, and friends’ parents had blatantly suggested that I pursue legal emancipation from my mother. But I’d never seriously considered it. My godmother once asserted, Your mother has never let you finish anything. But that was only half true. Sure, a violin or two had been pawned for drug money and gymnastics and piano lessons and cheerleading had taken a backseat to my mother’s habit. She had disappeared on the night of my first debutante ball and the day after my son was born. But my mother was my mother. And I had learned early in life that death was certain and quick footed and in inexorable pursuit of my mama. She needed me. And I needed her more than I needed sanity or stability.
* * *
The eerie fact—the thought that syphons sleep from my nights—is that Pat would’ve been the perfect mother minus the disease of addiction. Sober Pat was the ideal matriarch. Sober Pat sacrificed her light and life and energy to watch my father die. She aided home health workers in lifting his 200-plus pound frame to wipe his bottom and change his adult diapers and risked arrest yelling at the police officer who had pulled them over on the muted drive home from the doctor’s appointment where they’d learned that Daddy only had six months to a year to live. Sober Pat allowed my six-year-old hands to part her texturized hair into small square sections with a giant neon blue Goody comb and practice plaiting and French braiding when my Barbie dolls no longer sufficed. Sober Pat and I often took naps together on the couch in the den—she laid on her belly, face pressed into the cushion, and my small frame snuggled on her back, soothed by the warmth emanating from her slumbering body. We performed this ritual until I was about eight-years-old (too big to sleep on my Mama’s back). Sober Pat baked cupcakes and brought them to my classroom on my birthday. And when I was in middle school, she let me have a sleepover with three of my friends and spent forty dollars on a tub of Superman-flavored ice cream (it was vanilla with hot pink and blue food coloring) from a fancy ice cream parlor in the mall. When Sober Pat had money, she spared no expense. We vacationed in Disney World and Myrtle Beach. Sober Pat purchased every edition of World Book Encyclopedias from 1980 until 1990, and whenever I asked her a question that was academic in nature, she fired back without raising an eyebrow, Look it up. In doing this, she taught me to love learning and to take charge of my own education. And often, when Sober Pat wasn’t sober, it was those volumes in which I took refuge until Sober Pat returned. Indeed, it was Sober Pat who envisioned me as a writer decades before I could see myself as an essayist and poet. It was she who encouraged me (her shy, self-doubting, eighth-grader) to submit a poem for publication in the Sego Middle School anthology. Once published, a sixth-grader chose my piece to perform in a school talent show. I was flabbergasted. Sober Pat wasn’t surprised at all. It was Sober Pat who believed the doctor when my son was diagnosed with autism and helped me shuttle him back and forth to daily speech and occupational therapy appointments and held my hand in those first IEP meetings while I wept. As selfless as she was, Sober Pat tried to nurse her own fading dreams as well. She’d always confessed a lifelong desire to be a prison warden and, at fifty-three years old, Sober Pat became a POST trained and certified corrections officer with Georgia’s Department of Juvenile Justice.
* * *
On June 6, 2006—twenty days before her fifty-sixth birthday—Mama went to sleep and never woke up, apparently claimed by a massive stroke according the Columbia County coroner. TM was the only one of The Women who called and offered her condolences.
* * *
And even as a crack fiend, mama/You always was a black queen, mama
That’s the line that always breaks me. It picks me up and then drops me from a hundred-story skyscraper. Tupac’s Dear Mama plays on a loop as I scoot my patio chair closer to the sun. I want to feel the heat on my toes. I wash an ill-gotten Adderall down with a lukewarm Corona. It’s my second drink today. I balance my laptop on my thighs and stare into a blank Word document. These are my Mother’s Days now—motherless and teeming with memories too vivid to relive, dreams too distant to imagine. I wish that Mama were still here. I wish that Granny could’ve held her daughter one last time confident in her complete sobriety. I wish that Mama had started using in 2004 instead of 1984. Then, perhaps, a better educated society would have looked at her and saw a person with an illness in need of help and not a lost cause from which to flee. I wish that Mama had been born white and preferred painkillers, then she would’ve been at the center of the Republicans’ “heartfelt” plea to “address America’s opioid epidemic” and not the target of disproportionate and oppressive sentencing laws. I wish Mama were sitting in the chair next to me, round-faced and glowing and laughing, holding an impeccably rolled joint between her thumb and index finger, legs crossed at the ankles, shoeless toes swinging just a hair above the concrete ground beneath. I wish she’d bring the joint to her ebony puckered lips, inhale, and blow small white clouds above her head in the shape of halos. I wish…
Kristie Robin Johnson is an educator, essayist, and poet. The native of Augusta, GA, is a graduate of the MFA creative writing program at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Atlanta Free Speech, HEArt Online Journal, Rigorous, Split Lip, Dear Esme, Under the Gum Tree, and riverSedge.