“19 Knives”

Mark Anthony Jarman

January 17, 2024 
The following is from Mark Anthony Jarman's Burn Man. Jarman is the author of Touch Anywhere to Begin, Czech Techno, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, My White Planet, 19 Knives, New Orleans Is Sinking, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, and the travel book Ireland’s Eye. He was an acquisitions editor for Oberon Press and the editor of Best Canadian Stories 2023.

He’s pleased to meet you underneath the horse.
—Elliott Smith, “Speed Trials”

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Carol my caseworker vouched that I was reliable enough for carry privileges, so they let me have a week’s worth of methadone to take home, instead of driving every day to the pharmacy across the island, especially since I had my boy to take care of. Carol knew I wouldn’t sell the meth, knew those days were over.

Back in the days—way back—my buddies were salmon fishermen, buckets of money, growing on trees back then working mildew fishboats way up the rainy green coast. Lost cedar inlets with host springs and bleached totem poles. Too much cash flying like loose leaves through marina bars and government wharves, and the fish piled in dead heaps in the mist, in icy holds and bilgewater that smelled of money and diesel.

No needles at first. We only snorted heroin, a sport and a pastime, the conventional wisdom being that it’s not addictive when just snorting. I planned to stop after a few lost weekends and get back to normal, but something failed me, old school words gave up the ghost, crackers in soup, and new vague words clouded through me like trained white mice.

Those Vietnamese boys in Nanaimo had that good pure stuff, stepped on with a little lidocaine to keep you lining up for more.

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Just a taste, I insisted, that’s all.

Those skinny Viet boys almost giving it away, points of China white going for ten or twenty bucks, deliver it by discreet courier, so the train kept arolling, and then a year or two later you’re boiling up ammonia on the stovetop and the car has an expired temporary permit in the back window and your Swiss cheese brain is pawning your father’s sax and you’ve spent enough to buy a space station.

Here’s the funny thing: I always despised junkies, shunned their inhabited hectic arms, sleepy syllables, and sybarite synapses. Look at those bozos, I said, can’t see a hole in a ladder. I thought I was smarter than the rest with my hornet-hive head. My earthly powers I believed to be manifold, special, hard as teeth on a chainsaw. I knew I could handle it, knew.

I mix my meth with the sweetest orange juice I can find, because the meth is so bitter. It’s really gross. A strip of masking tape on my juice, where I wrote in big felt pen: DO NOT DRINK! I knew my boy loved OJ. I put it in the door away from the regular milk and juice and Kool-Aid containers.

I said, “The stuff in the door is my special medicine.” I said, “Don’t—touch—anything—in—the—door.” I made it very clear. I could not have made it clearer.

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My boy is a light sleeper. My boy wakes up in the middle of the night, our little house quiet. My boy loves orange juice, would say, “I need a dur-ink, Dad.” He wakes up thirsty, a thirst like me, a night owl like me, like me his glasses folded on his nightstand, the night sky violet, quiet as a pyramid in the desert, no one up in our little house, kitchen clock ticking like an IV drip.

Maybe he’s half asleep, floor cool, floating in pale pyjamas, ghostly, across our kitchen floor to the fridge, hesitates like a blank tape.

I couldn’t inject myself at first. I needed help. Others helped, they fixed me, my costive pals summoned it up. Like a good Catholic I grew to love the ritual, admire the finely engineered syringe poised above like a needlenosed hummingbird waiting for you, so precisely tooled, the tiny opening rent, opening.

The door open, fridge light on the lino like blue light by the sea. The salmon are gone now and the boats are quiet and chained to the dock, and Carol and the College of Physicians knew I was OK to take a week’s worth home.

The Nazis developed methadone in World War Two; but they called it Adolphine, thought it sweet enough to name after Adolph. Up to eighty mil a day. It’s not the real thing. I tried to join the Pepsi generation, but they said I failed the physical. Outside in my yard is a pileated woodpecker, a baby. I don’t know if it’s going to make it through the night. Now I hear things at night, or when I’m down in the crawl space, hear my boy walking the floor to the white fridge: this is my new addiction, my crown of thorns, my Jones I can’t kick. Like him, I wake up and need a drink.

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Once I bought my boy a hot dog at the zoo and he dropped the hot dog on the ground and I hit him on the stomach and said, “What the hell are you doing?!” and now I wish I could tell him that it’s OK to drop his hot dog, that there are worse things I know of now. I wish I could say to him admirable things, buy him that booster pack of Japanese Pokémon cards that he was always asking after or that full-colour book on Egyptian mummies, or take a spin at Island Go-Karts.

Start out chippying, but later you need three bags just to be barely all right. You just keep shooting it in, you give and you give, many hoofprints going in, but, none coming out. You think of the boy’s blonde mother, a singer from Montana. She moves through the fair, moves through the airport with balloons of it hidden in her stomach, praying they don’t burst.

I was waiting for her in the bar. Tight as the bark on a tree, I was waiting and waiting (but she didn’t make it) at the ersatz Tudor pub by the piers. The inside décor was Mexican—an uneasy Tudor-Mexican alliance.

“The code is so brutal I can barely edit it,” some tech said to a vibrating table of drinks.

Exactly, I thought. No more stuttering white thrill, no golden robot vibe, no leaping the garden wall. Instead you just want to not feel sick. That’s what your meeting with God turns into. And you want to change before it’s too late, want to change your outfit.

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After he drank my orange juice he wouldn’t wake up in his bed, open those eyelids, no longer a light sleeper. Meth is a slow-acting narcotic, shuts down the respiratory. I knew the symptoms. I called an ambulance to carry him to the hospital.

I knew the hospital because three years ago a policeman shot me in someone else’s backyard. The intruder, locks on your backdoor, the tangled squares of night. One moment standing, next a flash, and it felt like a wheelbarrow hit me, knocked me down, but my hat staying on my head the whole time. I flipped to the ground in the rich careful houses (I found my boy crumpled), the sky on mute, hat still on my head.

The policeman claimed I pulled knife, so he shot me. I had no knife.

An ambulance came to visit my lamentations. The paramedics with their equipment ran bent over as if there were chopped blades cutting above us. I wanted to be witty, make a good impression, didn’t want to be on someone’s patio crying.

The police sealed off the yard so they could look for the knife in daylight. They needed that important evidence. Next morning nineteen knives lay in the grass of that small yard. Every cop in town must have driven by and flipped a knife over the fence.

I don’t blame them for taking care of their own. I should have taken better care of my own. His sleepy eyes, spotting my OJ in the fridge door, forbidden fruit, my small boy in PJs, peering around with a ghost of a smile. We decide things lightly, pursue our pleasures.

At first the paramedics tried the kiss of life, tried driving in a needle of Narcan. How fine he looked in his pale pyjamas. His eyelids. The driver drove and I rode in the back of the familiar ambulance, thinking of that Neil Young line: An ambulance can only go so fast.

We got to the hospital but it was no good. Locks on the door, but I brought the intruder into our little two-bedroom bungalow. We decide things.

At first I just snorted. Nothing serious. A little pick me up, like ten-cent suicide wings, the good kind, dry as kindling. Now I hear him walking.

My boy was smart, loved yacking while I drove him around logging roads. He took first place in spelling bees at school, was fascinated by his library books on ancient Egyptians and their mummies and pyramids, their journeys to the underworld.

The embalmers pulled out internal organs but kept them in beautiful containers with lid handles the likeness of the pharaoh’s head.

We drove around together, and I had a decent car. We were putting my life back together.

Egyptians washed the dead body with oil and spices, but they didn’t keep the brain, didn’t seem to value the brain. Why is that, he wondered.

We were driving in the Electra, flathatting it to a lake up in the clouds. My boy was in the backseat so he had room to play and read. He didn’t get carsick reading there. From the backseat he told me all about the Egyptians preparing the body for safe passage to the afterlife, how the spirit was in two worlds—one world during the day, but at night, travelling back to the body. They worked over the body, made it hollow. With a long hook, they removed the brain through the nose.


Excerpted from Burn Man by Mark Anthony Jarman. Copyright © Mark Anthony Jarman, 2023. Excerpted with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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