(A Cautionary Tale) — In the summer of 2004 Tall Bobby and I were holding down the graveyard shift at Denny's in Fort Bragg, a perfect gig for someone of my nocturnal inclinations and propensity for the old bang-shangalang. We discovered one another's shared predilection for a certain notorious stimulant about 4.5 minutes into our first shift together. From then on it was on to the Autobahn. I slung the hash and Bobby carted it out to the nighthawks and in between we puffed the puddle and waxed philosophical, enjoying the parade of irregulars that is the hallmark of the wee hours.
Along about the time the more respectable types began trickling in for their Grand Slams and the creepy crawlers set out for darker pastures one morning, I noticed a disarmingly pretty girl sitting on one of the stools. In addition to being flat-out gorgeous, her eyes had that vaguely serpentine cast particular to the female members of our tribe. So I figured I'd ooze on out of the kitchen for a minute and see what was what.
After playing "do you know?" for a few rounds we narrowed our degrees of separation down to about zero, since it turned out that she was there for Bobby and I was to be the driver in a mission to procure a quantity of the old Ring Dang Doodle, being the only one of us with Transpo. This was my introduction to Jennifer B., hereafter referred to as Satana McEvil, thrice damned Queen of the Stygian depths. I say this without bitterness or rancor. I count Jen one of my dearest friends. But she is truly the most fiendish of reptiles. I hear they named a cocktail after her at the Welcome Inn — grain alcohol and GHB, in honor of the mixture she serves to her prospective mates before she devours them.
T.B. and I punched out and we all piled into my trusty old Camry. After stopping at First National for a stack of the necessary, I was directed to a house down at the bottom of Spring Street, a decidedly non-tweekerish pad with a two car garage, decked out with hot tub, and a fishing boat parked in the driveway.
We were greeted at the door by a portly, disheveled, bespectacled 50-ish gentleman nonetheless polite and well spoken. He invited us in without a trace of the suspicion and paranoia generally attendant at these first encounters. "Come on in; make yourself at home," he said. "Any friend of Jen's, and all that. My name is Michael."
I introduced myself and we sat down on a big leather couch in a spacious, well lit living room with a pool table.
I thought at first we had made a stop at someone's parents' house or something. Several aspects of this encounter seemed wholly contrary to my previous experience — the politeness and welcoming, to be sure. But also the "well lit and spacious." Like their brethren the rats and roaches, tweakers prefer darkness and clutter for ease of scurrying when disturbed. However, my doubts were dispelled when Mike pulled out a pipe with a bowl the size of a mature walnut, loaded it with about a gram of the old boom shakalacka and ignited it with a full size MAPP gas torch. Color me impressed. Again, this sort of largesse — completely alien to my experience. Usually when someone offers you a pipe they're distracting you while someone copies your keys.
We got to puffing and chatting and it came out that Mike had been a very successful urchin diver who had come to drugs late in life and was taking a hiatus from harvesting echinoderms to bore holes in his brain with an amphetamine drill. That and also to pursue a curious evocation I was soon to find out about.
About 30 minutes into our conversation, Michael turned to me and said, "You seem like an intelligent and reasonable man, and I'd like to get your opinion on something." Sure, I told him. Happy to help. Whatcha got? He handed me a magnifying glass and peeled back a large square bandage on his forearm to reveal a bloody divot about the diameter of a quarter and several millimeters deep. "I'm suffering from an infestation," he said. "Take a look." I did and saw nothing untoward, save for the bloody mess itself. What am I looking for?, I asked. "There, see?" he said excitedly, pointing. "See his little jaws, just munching away? There — there's another one! Whup — he went back under. I think the reflected light from the glass must have scared him."
Now I'm no stranger to amphetamine psychosis and the phenomenon of "meth monsters," but they usually manifest themselves during the latter stages of a run when the sufferer has become a demented, raving, raw nerve incapable of sense or logic. Mike appeared otherwise sane and sensible. I decided on a diplomatic approach — surely enough people had told him already that his bugs were hallucinatory. "I don't see them, but I'm not saying they aren't there. Maybe my eyes aren't sharp enough or I'm not looking in the right place," I said.
"Okay," he replied — "follow me."
Satana and Tall Bobby, for whom this particular rodeo was apparently not their first, elected to take their leave at this point. I told them to wait a bit and I would give them a ride but I think they wanted to get somewhere private to divest their pockets of whatever they had managed to pilfer during their visit.
Mike led me back to what was apparently a bedroom/laboratory, complete with microscopes, long lens cameras, powerful halogen lights, tweezers of every imaginable size and configuration — all the implements and accouterments of a powerfully dedicated Hunter of the Imaginary. Near the microscopes were a number of slides containing what appeared to be scabs, hair, and bloody smears. "I've got a fairly decent evacuation on my leg from going after the Queen the other day," Mike said, pulling a box from under the bed.
Yikes! I had noticed a slight limp. "She's the key, I think," he continued. "But she's pretty well defended." He began pulling photos out of the box and lining them up on the bed. There were literally thousands and every single one was of glass tubing — raw pipe stock — in extreme close-up and in varying degrees of attenuation and deliquescence. They were kind of beautiful, glittering and sinuous with refractive color and light coruscating through them, but I was pretty sure this was no art project. He covered the entire surface of the king size bed with the pictures. "They get in through the glass," he said. "Basically, I'm being colonized. They're injected into the glass when it's in a liquid state. Either aliens or the government. A government, not sure which. But more likely they are extraterrestrial in nature, even if it is our government."
"The bugs are in stasis when they are in the glass. They're activated by the heat and then they enter my bloodstream in the blow smoke. They feed on both my tissue and the meth as they work their way outward to the skin layer."
To what end?, I wondered, and asked if he had any thoughts on the subject. "Mind control — army of drones — automatons, slaves, you know, like that. The thing is, everybody's got them." He peered at me intently through his thick glasses. "But not everybody can see them."
Something stirred under the bed and I nearly shit my pants. An extremely ratty looking poodle that appeared to be in an advanced state of mange or maybe zombie-ism came tottering out. Its fur was patchy and random and its skin was scabbed and raw. Mike scooped it up and began inspecting its surface, fingers probing and picking. "She's got them too. I guess just from the proximity," he said. My own skin was beginning to feel tingly and twitchy but I was damned if I was going to scratch myself in there.
An interesting thing about this psychosis was its specificity, despite it being so pervasive, thoroughgoing and massively defended. It was just the bugs and he had somehow managed to incorporate them into his persona in such a way as to appear most of the time normal. He had a girlfriend, he paid his bills, he held intelligent conversations and even when the subject turned to his infestation, as it inevitably did, he explained it rationally and calmly — never ranting or raving.
We discussed his condition far into the night and I ended up staying there for the better part of a year. While I do admit to occasionally feeding the flames for my own amusement, searching the Internet for like minded wackos and printing out official looking "reports" of similar syndromes or staging pictures with actual bugs, I mostly tried to help — mainly by distracting him when he started burrowing in to his dermis. But also by inventing various placebic panaceae in an effort to penetrate the delusion and ease his mind. I tried, variously, air ionizers, ultraviolet light, Epsom salts, Alka-Seltzer baths, aromatherapy, hypnosis, superglue, ultra high frequency sound (dog whistle), and niacin blasts. I applied direct current using a lantern battery and potentiometer, taping bare wire directly to his wounds. Once I put him under some plastic sheeting with a bucket of dry ice into which I poured vinegar. Caution: Do not try this — ever.
The palliative effects of these remedies varied, at times providing relief for days and others not making the slightest dent. Particularly effective were those that had some visibly active component like effervescence or debridement, or caused significant pain like the electrical current. Less so were the new age airy fairy courses, mostly insisted on by his girlfriend. At one point I considered maggot therapy (fire with fire!), but (perhaps wisely) decided against it.
Michael and I parted ways when I received a kind yet very compelling invitation from the State of California to come enjoy a year at one of their retreats for the habitually acquisitive. The reports I received on Michael's progress grew ever more dire. A succession of arrests for increasingly larger amounts of dope, exorbitant bail and attorney expenses, and several failed stints in rehab. I got out of prison, did a stint at Ford Street Project, and was working for Els & Family over at the Brewing Company. I heard further news that Michael was clean and had been for a while but continued to be plagued by the bugs. Hearing this made me terribly sad. Psychosis without the amphetamine is just mental illness and we all did that drug with the understanding that the craziness would stop when we stopped taking it.
In addition to the toll on his faculties, Michael lost two houses, some Hawaiian acreage, several cars and trucks, his boat, and a couple hundred thousand in savings. However, in a testament to his fortitude and durability, he began clawing his way back up from zero getting back into the water working on someone else's boat, living in a small trailer at Wildwood and hopefully finding some peace.
The night before I was arrested for the bank robbery I stopped in on Michael at 2am, wild-eyed, paranoid, and sweaty. He very wisely turned me away, though in his polite and deferential way. What he said was: "It's great to see you, Flynn. But I'm not really equipped to entertain visitors here." Good on you, Mikey. May your ocean bugs be plentiful and the others less so.