T FIRST TIME I STEAL from my mother is when I write a check for pizza without permission while I am drunk with friends. I’m nineteen years old, too old to be rebelling, too young to be lost. The next time I steal, it’s cash from her purse for heroin. Another time, I steal her keys, and as she tries to wrestle them from my hand, I press a key into her skin, and she bleeds. Still, she prays for me.
When I go to rehab, she visits every family night. She brings me cigarettes.
Twenty-two years old. The other women in the treatment center are older and rougher. The center is a house, an old Victorian in midtown Memphis on Vinton Street. A five-minute walk from the hole, which is a clearing between houses and run-down apartments on Sevier Street off of Greenwood. This is where the dope man meets me. He is a middle-aged man with braids. He wants all the young junkies to like him, to see him as a person and not just a dealer. The counselor says that I am in the romance phase. She is right. I am in love with heroin and with the needle, the whole ritual, in love even with the bruises on my arms.
I read Burroughs and Huncke and all the junkie writers. Neal Cassady is my favorite. The real life Dean Moriarty in On the Road. He and Allen Ginsberg were lovers. I want to be all of them. Live wildly. Fuck the world. The women with teeth gone look at me with sad eyes. They try to tell me how the freedom I feel is a lie.
In group, we talk about turning tricks. They describe running out of motel rooms with wallets in their hands and pantsless men chasing them, showering in rain puddles, the men who took their teeth with a backhand across the jaw. They won’t discuss heroin or crack or whatever their drug of choice is. After a week, I leave. I can’t handle being caged in with a bunch of old women. As I walk out the door, I hear things like, She’s gonna be dead in a week on a couch. I wonder whose couch and what the upholstery will be like and who in Memphis has heroin that strong.
The first time I go missing, my mother calls my friends and demands to know where I am. I am in the crack house. I am split open. Passed around. I call her from the dope man’s cell phone and ask if she can come get me. I wait for her on a corner under the moonlight in the cold. This isn’t a place for a young woman to stand at three a.m.
I crawl into her bed. She lies down beside me. I say, Momma, is that you?
Yes, it’s me.
Another time I ask her to pray with me. She wraps her arms around me in her kitchen. I do this to stall her from going to her bathroom where her purse is, the purse that is now emptied of money.
I sit in the lobby of Memphis Recovery Centers. It’s nicer than the last. The sign on the wall in the foyer says, Rest here. My body hurts and is yellowed and I want to rest. My counselor is a man. He knows something was done to me by a man. Something awful that I am not ready to talk about. Joseph is the counselor’s name. He has eleven years clean from heroin. He calls me Katherine. The staff won’t let me go by Kitty, which is what my mother calls me, what my grandma calls me, because they insist it is my street name. Joseph talks about the ritual, and I believe he knows what it’s like to be me.
Joseph tells me to write my autobiography. He doesn’t know that I love writing. He is a bit taken aback when I hand him twenty handwritten pages starting at the date of birth: my sister from my mom’s first marriage, five years older than me; brothers, both from my dad’s first marriage, Bob sixteen years older, Joey fourteen years older; Bob is dead now, AIDS—I haven’t even gotten to my drug addiction yet.
Another recovery center: New Directions.
I have left Louis—the man I loved like heroin, the man who made sure I had dope—or rather he left me, and I had no choice but to come here. I couldn’t stay out there alone. Even my dope dealer urged me to go to rehab. All my dresses are too big. All with holes and blood stains.
Here I share a room with a little old woman, Joanie. Her son has put her here. She smokes crack and really loves it. A man in her neighborhood brings it over and it makes her feel young again. It helps her clean the house. But she spends all her money on it. Then she gives away her pussy for it. My mouth drops open when she says that. But I mean, really, we all give it away for drugs. Later, I’ll think that give is not the right word. Barter, maybe. Swap.
Joanie and I count the minutes until we get to go out to the courtyard. I want to chain smoke, and she wants to feel the sun on her face and watch the young men play basketball. I sit next to Joanie on a wooden bench. The basketball court is really a patio with a hoop at one end. Chairs, benches, and potted plants, dead weeds around the edges, coffee tins for ashtrays. Jackie and Sheila share their secrets of thieving from grocery stores. Jackie has a partner who creates a commotion while she walks out the door with the goods. Sheila’s partner flirts with security guards. I think I’m a better thief because I go in, load up my cart, and walk out the front door. In unison, Jackie and Sheila say, “’Cause you’re white.” As soon as they say it, I know it’s true.
Then the men come outside. Basketballs thwack the pavement. Joanie smiles, enjoying the view, and then she says that Ray, the tall, light-skinned man, makes eyes at me. I know Ray. Ray and I write poems back and forth to each other. Ray slips me a folded-up paper in the line at lunch, and I slide it back to him at dinner. Maybe, like me, he has a past in which he read Hayden, or Basho. We both need a little poetry inside these walls with us.
When I spend the night in jail, my mother takes the phone off the hook and gets a good night of sleep. I will be given probation and fines, and she will help me pay.
When I show up to her house to do laundry, my voice wispy, my throat full of stars, she tells me if I leave the criminal man I sleep in a car with, she will let me come home.
When my father dies, I have two months sober. I walk with my grandma down the hall to the room his body is in. His love of drink had turned into a love of pills that doctors didn’t mind prescribing. It was his heart that killed him, alone in his kitchen, right after he had fed his cat. I think back to when I was fourteen, seeing the body of my older brother in the casket, and how I never wanted that image, that memory. My hands shake. Old feelings roar up through my body as if I could tilt my head back and throw open my mouth and crows would fly out of me and fill the rafters and the windows until all the light is gone.
I relapse again and again. My mother cries on the floor of her living room. Her prayers remain unanswered, but she keeps praying. When she lets me into her house, I nod out and burn holes in her carpet with dropped cigarettes. When I am on methadone, I nod out while running water for a bath and flood her hallway.
When I go to rehab, she visits every family night.
At ten years sober, I travel to Israel with my mother and her church, a church that is open and loving of all. We float in the Dead Sea together. As I walk in, I instantly sink in mud. She is already floating and tells me to just sit down and drift. The water stings and purifies, good for healing wounds. We shoe shop together in Bethlehem in a store where the bottoms of the new shoes seem worn. We wade into the Jordan and are dipped under by the preacher. We stand on top of Mount Carmel, where Elijah faced off against the prophets of Baal. We wade into the Mediterranean and marvel at its translucence, at the lure of the sea and how we must stiffen our thighs so as to not be pulled out by the tide. We sit on the Mount of Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and, where fish rupture the water below, it looks like beautiful sparklers from a Fourth of July somehow alighting on the green surface. Blessed are we. We know. We know.
Kat Moore has essays in Brevity, Diagram, The Rumpus, Entropy, Hippocampus, Whiskey Island, Salt Hill, New South, Split Lip, Passages North, and others.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.