Tucson Salvage

A jaundiced Christmas filled with yearnings and addictions

The giant Santa towers over the roof of the house. Must be 16-feet tall. Because he's lit from the inside and sports a big red nose I imagine he's a drunk. His creepy smirk reminds me of that guy Ray, the rotund beerswill back in Detroit who always fixed my broken-down car and who had three DUIs so he was forced to ride his son’s kid-sized mountain bike to the auto shop where he worked, even when it was six below. There's a candy-cane propeller atop this little green and red helicopter about 15 feet from the giant Santa. It's filled with oversized ribbons and bows and colorfully wrapped packages, surrounded by squinty-eyed elves. They’re sexualized in avocado-colored jumpsuits pulled up so tight their crotches bulge. Bloated faces show greedy, righteous indulgence—not like the Christmas elves I remember from boyhood—more like those on middle-aged dudes visiting all-nude strip bars for the first time after five years of sexual-addiction sobriety.

The frontyard scene is string-lighted in ivy-greens and berry-reds, and pretty. But tonight, I see only the primary colors, the imagination doesn't allow anything of significance, anything allowing dreams. It’s like a meth-induced vision. I understand but can't understand why I’m drawn to the busted and the downed. Yet I’m stirred by the domestic tenderness of the yard. Feels like wounds.

It's dark. Friday night in December and despite the breeze, it's warm too. Can’t smell the fireplaces and feels like Indian summer. Feels like I’m the only idiot within miles standing in the middle of the street. In short sleeves. And the Santa house is like any sprawling rancher in central Tucson now, pregnant with Christmas tradition. Surely its owners don't see its lovingly decorated yard like how I see it. I’m not wired to see it as an act of love. I’m fighting to keep from drinking, to keep from scoring drugs, or to keep from getting strung out on porn or love or sadness or heartbreak or fear. Struggling to keep whatever’s off-center on-center. Can’t see or create love like this. There is no creating anything. Crippled inside. I understand I need to persevere because maybe that is better than the option.

I’ve carried that feeling of wanting to kill myself around inside since Gale Elementary School, third grade. Where the teachers would get pissed at me for being in a "curiously withdrawn state," which they would write in notes to my parents. But I was too young to comprehend "curiously withdrawn state,” much less the profound melancholy and well-deep fear that blanketed me daily.
I see the black dogs behind me. No one else can. The dogs are the curse, as I understand them, and I nicknamed them The Mean Reds, even though they're black, because that's what an old drunken author called the depression. Read him at a tender age, how he defined things, but consider myself lucky to have finally outgrown the shtick. The shtick that saw my self-medicating hero die young with a hideously distended belly and gin-blossomed schnozzle.

Back to the giant Santa. I’m reminded how Christmas can rise and take you down like addiction. Lifts on bright things from shiny places—makes the serotonin flow, the internals blossom. Like coke and meth in the nervous system. It crashes hard hours or days later and those false joys are displaced with greedy needs to reload, a sickness to supplant sicknesses.

The worst Christmas in Tucson. Down to 120 lbs. Still romanticizing the rock 'n' roll too-much-too-soon bit and hadn't slept in three days, still wholly wired on meth. There was no saliva in my mouth, which made the stuttering sounds coming out of it even more desperate and gibberish-y, on top of the anxiety surging in the gut, coursing up into the limbs and fingers and toes and eyeballs and hair. Even the hair hurt.

That meth stink was like the town’s dump, especially in the armpits, which I’d scrubbed in the bathroom sink after snorting my last bit. All tweakers stink. One can’t hide even a block away. The mirror showed a whimpering mongrel of sorts. The face now tinted yellow, yellower than the previous week. Busted capillaries decorated the cheekbones and nose, my liver screaming. Busted capillaries looked all Christmasy, like those berries.

I knew the refrigerator contained beer and that I had to quickly down at least four to get into that chair at the dinner table. I had no idea how I got to the house in Tucson to spend Christmas with my family. I realized I had my girlfriend's car but not my girlfriend. I arrived penniless with no memory of the previous night, but I did recall the drive on I-10 from Phoenix, into piercing Christmas-day sun, sweaty hands shivering on the wheel and screaming.

I wondered if my sibs and parents could hear the stuttering, though I was certain I had it under control. I lied to my family like I had before, saying I had the flu on top of a cold on top of insomnia on top of toothaches on top of ... The family resembled hallucinations, heads floating in liquid, but even in my state I recognized them as the most beautiful things on earth and I was letting them all down. I was not one of them. I was at best a sticky dirtball outsider.

I was pretty sure my grandmother from Wisconsin was at that family Christmas. Because she was looking at me like how the nuns looked at me when I was an altar boy over at St. Francis de Sales, how they regarded me with cocked heads because they identified my shame, even though I couldn't. But I knew that shame was absolute because they thought so, and, so, it was well-deserved.

My grandma personified grace in every imaginable way and I was the sticky dirtball who'd just spent three days in bed with a nude dancer watching porn, drinking 40s of King Cobra malt liquor and snorting crystal meth. When my grandmother embraced me I only wanted to die.

Back to the giant Santa. I know that if I was going to kill myself I’d be dead. Things were worse before. Even after a million meetings in moldy church basements. Even after myriad unaffordable hours on therapist recliners, and the prescription happy pills and ensuing dial tones in my head. Even after the suspiciously happy nutritionists who forever swore they had foolproof ways to approach the "problem of depression." Even after I stayed off booze and meth for years.

I arrive home from standing in the street outside of the giant Santa house. I’m alone in a room and it hardly matters that it's empty because even if it were filled with friends and things I’d still be alone. It's like the house a few streets over that's been empty for months. Each time I pass it I imagine how it contains the DNA of long-faded families who lived there, sons and daughters, moms and dads, all their memories. The memories must all be streaked in sadness like my own. I try to count the number of Christmas trees that have passed through its living room. The twirling children and Game Boys and dollhouses. The blood-streaked eyes and drunken crimes that nearly happened.

I step outside and in the front porch light and observe the weed with the bright yellow buds blossoming between my tiny concrete porch and the rocks in the yard. The little bastard should've died in October when all the others had turned 17 shades of brown. This little bastard grows. Goddamn, it's Christmastime.

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