“The Freedom from Pain Clinic was the busiest of the city’s pill mills . . .”
An Associated Press reporter had dubbed the river city “The Oxycontin Capital of America.” Whether or not that was an exaggeration, the city and the Freedom from Pain Clinic in particular had become a mecca for people with legitimate aches and pains as well as those suffering from the illegitimate pain of addiction.
The kittens Oxy and Contin were so named because of the addiction they had acquired in their mother’s womb, but since their mother’s death they had been able to find the drug only in trace amounts, amounts so slight that it whetted rather than satisfied their craving. With their acute sense of smell, they had a nose for where to find it, but they had found it only in minuscule amounts. Of the half dozen pill mills in the Ohio River city, the one that became the kittens’ favorite was the Freedom from Pain Clinic because many of those who lined up outside it each day had not blood but Oxycontin on their hands.
The Freedom from Pain Clinic was the busiest of the city’s pill mills, with people traveling from far and near in the Appalachian region to line up with the locals outside the front door, six days a week, before nine o’clock, hoping to get a prescription for Oxycontin from Doctor Phillip Gudenoff. In the three years his clinic had been in operation, the doctor had become a hero to those in the long lines and a maligned figure in the media, a cross between Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Dr. Jack Kevorkian. His name had morphed into the more easily remembered “Doctor Feel Good.” Intending no disrespect, people advised friends and acquaintances in pain to “Go see Doc Feel Good. He’ll fix you up in no time.”
The doctor’s outpatients, as he referred to them, were a grim looking lot as they lined up on a bitterly cold but crystal clear cerulean Saturday morning, early in January. The men, cigarettes dangling from their lips. shifted from foot to foot to increase the circulation in their toes. The women stared down blankly at the sidewalk, looking like the dummies in the window of the Salvation Army Store that was just a couple of empty storefronts away. The scene outside the clinic this morning was like a Movietone newsreel from the Great Depression, only instead of a bowl of soup those in line were hoping for a prescription for the pain killer that was all the rage. In a country where pain had become as un-American as communism, Oxycontin was the medical equivalent of Joe McCarthy.
As much to keep warm as anything, an older man in line cradled Oxy in his arms. In exchange for the warmth the kitten provided him, the older man allowed Oxy free rein to lick the fingers of both his hands. If they were patient, Oxycontin addicts took the pills home and, to defeat its time release properties, pulverized the pills on the kitchen table with a spoon. If they were impatient, they broke the pills in half and ground the two halves between the thumb and index finger. That was considered the more manly method. The addicts then had the choice of swallowing the powder with a liquid or inhaling it nasally, like cocaine. Depraved ghetto users preferred inhaling smoke from burning the drug, but that was considered a wasteful if quicker method. Whichever method was used, traces of Oxycontin remained on the fingers.
The euphoria produced in the first hour was something akin to the ecstasy their Appalachian ancestors had experienced in religious camp meetings and revivals in previous centuries.
“The pill kills the agony of existence and makes you want to start a-singing and a-stomping like Jerry Lee Lewis,” said an older man to a chain-smoking younger man behind him who was in line for the first time. The long braided hair of the older man made him look more like Willie Nelson than Jerry Lee Lewis. He had been a drummer in a rock band in his teens and had audited a philosophy course at the community college in his twenties.
Oxy, in the older man’s arms, was as yet uncontaminated by traditional American addictions—caffeine, nicotine, sugar, salt, fat, sex, money, celebrities, sports, politics, and, of course, religion. Oxy was a purring purebred example of Ocycontin addiction. He licked the older man’s fingers as eagerly as a bear cub would a beekeeper’s gloves.
“What do you mean, ‘agony of existence’?” the younger man asked. Fancy phrases made him uncomfortable. A high school dropout, he felt that people with more education looked down on him and deliberately used terms he wouldn’t understand, like his cousin who was studying computers at the community college. His cousin used input-output acronyms like HTML and ASCII and words like cookies and Bluetooth that had nothing to do with either cookies or teeth. Rarely awake before noon, the younger man had been up late the night before smoking pot and he was experiencing a slight disorientation in which everything seemed a little unreal and slightly sinister—the older man, the line of people, the clinic, even the kittens.
“What do I mean by agony of existence?” the older man said. “I’m sixty-one. I had to declare bankruptcy in a recession twenty years ago. Lost everything. Felt like shit until they came up with this stuff.”
“What stuff?” the younger man asked.
“Why Oxycontin, of course,” the older man said.
The younger man had been trying to ignore Oxy’s sister kitten, Contin, who had been rubbing against his ankle for a few minutes, meowing to get picked up. The younger man finally reluctantly picked her up, holding her in the crook of his left arm, keeping his right hand free for his cigarette.
“You’d feel even shittier if you were my age,” the younger man said, as Contin immediately began trying to lick the fingers of his left hand.
“How old are you?” the older man asked.
“I’m twenty-one,” the younger man said, struggling with the squirmy Contin. Finding only the unpleasant traces of cigarettes and marijuana on the fingers of the younger man’s left hand, Contin tried to get at his right hand, which held the cigarette. “It’s one thing to feel like shit when you’re sixty-one and another to feel that way when you’re twenty-one,” the younger man explained, putting Contin back down on the sidewalk, which was where she wanted to be. She did not want to waste any more time on someone whose pores, breath, hair and clothes reeked of tobacco and pot but whose hands didn’t have a trace of Oxycontin. The younger man watched Contin walk further down the line, wagging her little tail and mewing plaintively, trying to entice someone else to pick her up. She reminded the younger man of the drug-addicted prostitutes parading the streets of the red light neighborhood, near the clinic, trying to get guys cruising in cars to stop and pick them up.
“Twenty-one, what’s wrong with twenty-one?” the older man asked, while Oxy continued licking his fingers.
“If you’re sixty you’re about to croak anyway, but if you’re twenty-one you’ve got to put in another forty years at least, forty years with no job, no hope, no nothing,” the younger man said. “If I couldn’t get stoned once in a while, I’d probably turn on the gas.”
“It’s those foreign monkeys who’re willing to work for peanuts,” the older man said. “They’re the ones. They’ve taken our jobs. They’re ruining this country.”
“Yeah,” the younger man agreed, nodding his head. “They’re eating our lunch.”
Oxy began squirming to indicate to the older man that he’d had enough, that he’d licked the man’s hands clean of all traces of Oxycontin, and that he wanted to be put down. But the older man was too busy complaining about the company he’d worked for twenty years. “They just upped and moved the plant to Timbuktu or some goddamned place.” He went on and on about the company, but the younger man, who had never held a job for more than a couple of months, was no longer listening to him. He was watching Oxy struggling to get out of the older man’s arms, but the older man wouldn’t let go of him, as if the kitten was his link to the past, to his youth, and job he had once had. All Oxy wanted was his freedom back, the freedom to pursue the drug he craved. He angrily turned on the older man, scratching the back of his hand, drawing blood.
“Hey!” the older man yelled, dropping Oxy on the sidewalk like a hot potato. “What the hell is it with these kittens?” He stared in disbelief at the blood trickling like red ink from the scratches.
“You got to be careful,” the younger man warned, “it could be rabies.”
Neither the younger man or the older man understood that it was not rabies but the Oxycontin they were standing in line for that explained the kittens’ strange behavior. Only when he was well down the line did Oxy turn around to make sure the older man was not following him. The behavior of humans, especially the ones in pants, baffled him. Besides, he was exhausted from all his licking, which hadn’t in the least satisfied his craving. Now he was ready for a catnap. Feeling cold and tired, he wanted to cuddle up with Contin in the sun. He meowed for her and she meowed back, coming over to him, and they rubbed noses together, reaffirming their bond with each other as they struggled with their addicted existence. [To be continued.]
Contin and Oxy cuddled up together