The woman driving the purple Saturn onto the Bishop Ford Freeway had not smiled in months. Her hair, wrapped into a bun, was the color of faded gold. It poked straw-like from the tie that tried to hold it back. Her high cheek bones sunk in. Gloss pasted a fake sheen on thin, hard lips. Gold embroidered script on her black apron recalled the name of a popular local restaurant. To most whom past that day, she seemed like just another waitress on her way to work.
Three o’clock traffic was heavy, but then, it is on this particular stretch of Interstate 94. The worst of rush hour was a couple of hours away. Brenda, the waitress, deftly maneuvered the non-descript sedan next to a huge red semi, its eighteen wheels kicked up clouds of dirty gray mist onto the windshield. Worn wipers struggled to clear a path doing more harm than good. The dreary September weather and enormous truck provided a rolling shield from eyes prying into the car.
Ten-month-old Justin cooed in his car seat, while five-year-old brother Tate made rapid fired questions to no one in particular as he peered out of the grimy window. Brenda desperately wanted her son to be quiet. Soon, her jaw tightened and sweat streaked her make-up. Tears clouded her eyes. Nausea welled up. All of these were familiar feelings, daily occurrences. More than anything, she longed to get better, if only one more time.
The daily, and at times, twice-per-day ritual runs into the city were worth the risk to Brenda because of higher quality merchandise. But who was she kidding; it was just a better grade of poison. The ache in her gut meanwhile was getting worse. She felt as if she’d puke at any second.
Maybe some music will take the edge off.
She punched the button. A favorite tune, “How to Save a Life” by the Fray filled the sedan’s interior. The ironic lyrics mixed with the innocence of her small children and the menacing moldiness of stale cooked drugs. She cried. A sense of urgency overtook her. She was unable and maybe even less willing to outrun it.
Tate babbled on. He couldn’t understand what was about to take place, yet sensed all was not right. Brenda rifled through her purse. A vital tool and constant companion was nowhere to be found.
Where is that damn lighter?
“Mommy are you okay?”
God I wish my kids didn’t have to see me like this.
“Mommy will be better soon Tate.” The words rang hollow.
There it is. Thank God. Her trembling fingers wrapped around the plastic cylinder. It felt cool to the touch, familiar, yet repulsive at the same time.
“Yes, Tate. . . Mommy is going to be better soon.”
Brenda opened the console and retrieved a purple Crown Royal bag. Its contents: bottle of water, hypo, miniature baggie, not unlike one a jeweler might place precious gems in, cotton and soup spoon were dumped into the apron. The spoon had been swiped from work. It jarred her back to reality.
The spoon, damn it, I’d better hurry up. Don’t want to be late.
She pushed the accelerator harder. Switching hands on the wheel, Brenda popped the cap off the needle and dropped it into her lap. The water bottle was likewise opened and 10ccs drawn with practiced precision. The baggie was torn with her teeth. An acidic combination of plastic and gas irritated her tongue. Its contents were emptied into the spoon now grasped between the thumb and forefinger of her steering hand. Water was injected. Next the lighter flicked. The blue flame danced on the scorched stainless steel while the mixture popped and fizzed. Elapsed time: about fifteen seconds or another a quarter mile down the road to nowhere.
Cotton, a short piece of cigarette filter actually, was dropped into the mixture. The idea was to filter out dirt and debris. If only it were that easy. The needle plunged into the concoction which leisurely climbed up the tube. Panic engulfed Brenda.
Come on be steady. For God’s sake don’t spill it.
Overhead sign: Indiana Two Miles. The Bishop Ford morphed into the Borman Expressway. Another hand switch at the wheel; she could only get high in her right arm.
Tie off with the apron. That thing gets quite a workout. Jab the needle in the forearm.
Pay attention . . . watch for blood in the tube. Ah, there it is, just a bit of red, a connection. Now push slowly. Men have it easier: bigger veins.
Another quarter mile and the state line crossed. A warm sensation, sweats, shakes, nausea, and cramps all dumped at the border. Soon an unfamiliar feeling reared its head.
What am I doing? I’m not in control.
What was that? Where’d it come from . . . maybe it’s the meetings?
There’s no power to stop. There’s no way out.
At the time, Brenda had been going to Narcotics Anonyms meetings in an effort to get clean. She began to feel as though she had a foot in two different worlds: one life, the other death.But unlike the concrete line that separated Illinois from Indiana, this one couldn’t be straddled. It was an illusion. She wasn’t going to be okay.
I don’t even recognize the person I’ve become. I look in the mirror and hate what I see. This is so far from who I was . . . I wasn’t brought up to be a cheat, a thief and a liar, a junkie. This can’t go on forever . . . something’s got to give. God help me, it better happen soon.
Brenda managed to get into town just in time for her four-to-close shift but still had to drop the kids off at her mom’s house where they’d been living. A girl named Nina had also been staying there and offered to take her to work. Nina then asked to borrow the Saturn for a run into the city. Brenda agreed, knowing she’d need a boost later. The first few hours of her shift flew by, but by 9:30, the high was wearing off.
Nina finally got back to the restaurant around ten and was waiting in the parking lot. Her haunts were in a different neighborhood, one with a dealer unfamiliar to Brenda. Brenda’s craving was getting bad. She asked the manager if she could go out for a smoke, a ruse. Nina passed the Crown bag through the driver’s window.
Back in the restaurant, Brenda grabbed yet another soup spoon out of the bucket and retreated to the handicap stall, her sanctuary. After going through the drill for the umpteenth time, the apron again earning its keep-something wasn’t right. An understatement if there ever was one.
Soon Brenda’s drug arm, the one that carried a broken off needle, a souvenir of what she’d become- turned splotchy, hived and itchy. A bad batch of smack, maybe, but otherwise, a normal high. Brenda brushed off the odd effects and went back to work. Later, almost as an aside, Nina mentioned she had used the needle from the Crown bag. Sort of an “oops” moment to Brenda, but at this point, she didn’t care anymore. Brenda credits a later diagnosis of Hepatitis B to that accidental co-mingling of body fluids.
With the shift over, Brenda went home to get some sleep. She woke up sick, bad enough that she trusted Nina to make yet another run. The Saturn finally reappeared at three that afternoon bearing the ersatz-precious cargo of five ten-dollar bags. Brenda decided the late hour justified doing $20 worth, enough to “get the sick off.” Still, it was a far cry from her $200 days of just a few months prior.
Trouble comes to a junkie in many forms: little plastic bags, dirty needles, flashing blue lights. That sunny Friday in September, it came in the guise of a phone call at 3:45, just as Brenda was getting ready to go to work at the restaurant.
“Brenda, I need you to come in right now.” The firm, yet compassionate voice, belonged to Angela, her long-suffering probation officer. Brenda’s mind reeled. Did she find out about the runs to the city? Maybe it was the last test? What does it matter? I’m had.
She hugged Tate and Justin before she left. She looked each in the eyes and brushed her fingertips across their foreheads. “Mommy loves you.”
Then she turned to walk out the door not knowing this would be the last time she ever saw her younger sons. Her family was unable or unwilling to care for them. Child Protective Services took it from there. Her older two boys were already gone.
The Porter County Courthouse is prominently situated on the town square. An imposing structure, it is constructed of Indiana limestone. Its stark exterior, marble paved halls and high ceilings project an all-business attitude. Post-9/11 security measures rouse a mild prison-like impression once inside. Nina had offered to drive since Brenda was agitated. Brenda took one last drag from her cigarette and stared at the courthouse for a long minute. Then she turned to Nina: “If I don’t come out, take the car to my mom. But I’m probably not coming out.” With that she pulled the door handle, crushed the butt, and marched off to whatever fate had in store. She was so tired of running.
Brenda hesitated at the courthouse entrance to gather her composure. Then she crossed the threshold, two of the longest steps of her life. She made small talk with the guard at the security desk, as if lingering could delay the inevitable. After clearing the metal detector, she turned left and walked through as set of unmarked double-doors. Directly ahead was a single door, also unmarked. Protocol dictated taking a seat on one of the plain wooden benches flanking the hallway and settling in for a long wait. On this day however, she was ushered to Angela’s office within minutes.
“Do you have something you want to tell me?”
Angela’s words carried a mildly accusatory tone. Brenda knew from past experience not to tip her hand. After all, she didn’t know what they knew. She wasn’t ready to fess up, not just yet.
Suddenly she reconsidered and blubbered: “Please don’t put me in jail.”
“I don’t know what else to do with you. You are going to die.”
Angela seemed to speak from genuine concern. In retrospect, Brenda credits her with saving her life. But then again, the train Brenda was riding on was full of rescuers; some of them just never received the credit due. Angela slapped a file on the desk, one that didn’t have to be read to know what it said: two failed tests, probation violation.
“Open your mouth.” As Angela swabbed, she asked the rhetorical question: “Are you going to fail this one too?”
Oddly, the turn of events came as a relief. Brenda didn’t have to run anymore. She couldn’t if she wanted to. But unlike her prior arrests when she didn’t go peacefully, this time she was resigned to her fate. But more than anything, she just wanted someone to save her.
Valparaiso Police responded quickly. “Hands behind your back.” The cop towered over Brenda. He wasn’t exactly mean, but he wasn’t polite either. He’d been through this drill before. Cuffs were slapped on. Her arms were pulled high. And it hurt. She scanned the street as they marched to a waiting squad car. The purple Saturn was nowhere to be seen. It was probably halfway to the city. Ten minutes later, the waitress, still wearing her little black apron reported for her shift at the Porter County Jail. It was to be her home for the next thirteen months. The journey however, had just begun.