Drugs

Fear and Anxiety in the Speed Lab: My Disastrous Attempt at Meth-Making

"It isn't easy to lose money running a speed lab. I'm one of the few to have achieved that distinction."

Editor's Note:The following is a personal essay by authorJohn Dolan which have been published in installments from the Buffalo Beast. The first four installments have been collected here.


It isn't easy to lose money running a speed lab. I'm one of the few to have achieved that distinction. It was much easier to cook up a batch in those days. You could buy ether and the other precursors at one of the nice, quiet chemical warehouses that sat discreetly on access roads, near onramps, between suburbs. The kind of buildings that nobody ever sees, that are actually difficult to see, not designed for the casual customer.

We were disguised, of course. Well … we thought we were. This isn't James Bond we're talking about here. I had the clever idea of stuffing socks in my waistband to make myself look fatter when we went in to buy the stuff. Butler looked at me funny when I showed him my disguise, my slyly padded expando-waist. I realize now, he must have been thinking it was coals to Newcastle, making me look fatter. But at that time I had the delusion common to all fat young American men that it was muscle. Some of the muscle had slipped a little, that was all.

I also fixed my glasses, cleverly turning them into prescription shades by gluing green plastic to the lenses. I'd cut them almost correctly, except for a few overhangs here and there. Butler pretended to be impressed. After all, he wasn't the one going in to buy the stuff.

On the way to the warehouse we talked. I talked about Heidi. I did a lot of that at the time, without noticing that it was driving everyone around me insane. It was a complete shock the time Falquist stopped and shrieked, "You already told me that eighteen times already! Jesus Christ!" Eighteen didn't seem like a big number to me. That story couldn't be told often enough, because in my fevered, stupid brain it was the basis for what I was about to do. It was why I was permitted, nay required, to become a bad person: because Heidi, who was way out of my league and everyone warned me so, had stooped to conquer me. Which was fine. Which was wonderful, my God, after all those silent years alone in my room eating and reading. Because she liked my poems and the punk jacket I'd sewn for myself.

So once Heidi and I finally got together, I assumed, just naturally, that that was it. What I loved about her was the conscience-free fun, not to mention that body that deserved a Rolling Stone or two. So, being stupid, I thought in terms of oxymorons: she's conscience-free and fun so she'll naturally want to move in with me, the end.

It's the worst thing about twentieth-century tastes, that sucker longing for the big oxymoron. The sleazy drunk party girl who loves the dweeby poet. That was the script I was working from. She felt otherwise. She'd been having picaresque adventures like the one that culminated in my apartment in Berkeley, CAon Dwight Way since age … what, twelve? I hate to think. It could have been way earlier than that. She did tell me that the cops in Santa Cruz used her once to lure this boy who'd gone insane to a meeting where they could wrap him up nice. Oh, and she did mention a few times, when drunk and with pride, that "I sent nine guys to the insane asylum, from me straight there."

None of which meant anything whatsoever to me. It was "colorful past," and everybody was supposed to have it. If anything I felt guilty for not having a good picaresque past to offer in return. But it was all in the service of the real stories: John Paul Jones on the deck of his sinking ship, Robert Emmet at the scaffold, Joan of Arc at the stake.

Oh, I know the punch lines. Believe me, I can do the punch lines. Like those three: "har har, two Presbyterian jihadis and a schizophrenic lesbian." I can joke. But that's now, when I'm dead. Back then I was alive and my body had found in the body of Heidi, no other body, its sole reason for existing and it was not kidding. You may be kidding but your body came straight outta Compton, which is to say "Ouldivai Gorge," and it is not kidding. It was me and Heidi ever after, period. So it came as a total shock to me when she explained that, "you know, the desire to fuck other people always comes up … [long pause] … in a relationship."

That meant all bets were off. Said that to myself a thousand times a day: "All bets are off." I'd gotten it from Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein. He said he'd used that phrase in negotiating with the Brits and then, after Operation Motorman, when he found himself tied in a chair getting beaten by a squaddie, the squaddie said out of nowhere, "Oi Gerry, 'all bets are off!' Remember Gerry, 'all bets are off'?" I liked to imagine that, being tied in a chair getting the shit beaten out of you for Ireland, because it was a million times better and easier than walking around Berkeley California in the nice sunshine where Heidi simply happened not to like you any more.

True, such things did occur in some books but those subplots, bumps in the road. Besides, those weren't the books I was using as my Lonely Planet Guide to Suddenly Meeting Other People at Age 23. I'd been expecting something a little warmer, like the way the superwoman adored the dork in Get Smart and Bewitched. That was the rule as far as I knew: be a total passive dork and the superwoman will attach herself to you no matter how stupid you act, in fact the stupider the better.

All of which was going according to plan. So to see her that morning, her and that Deadhead dishwasher she worked with at Fondue Fred's, coming out of the breakfast place all stumbled over each other … I mean, a Deadhead! A dishwasher! Not the done thing at all! Who do I kill now? You can't kill a Deadhead dishwasher because he doesn't even count. Killing Heidi was the obvious answer, but that would have been like killing the last warmth in a cold world. Back to my room, back to reading Wodehouse and National Geographic for the tenth time in a row.

Therefore, Q.E.D., I was going to become a speed dealer. If one stupid fairytale turns out to be total nonsense, what does the young man do? If you answered, "Wake up and face reality," you don't remember what it was like being a young man. You just go to the next entry in the catalogue of lies you can use to destroy your life.

So much lying, so much self-serving crap, that even while borrowing my parents' car to commit a felony, I saw myself as their avenger against the horde of hick philistines who had outcompeted us in the California economy. I loved them, now that nobody else wanted me. Boo-fucking-hoo. All kinds of weepy selfpitying fantasies. With the money from the first batch of meth that Butler and I were going to cook up, I'd get them a new car. No, two new cars. My mother always wanted a Cadillac, and though I would have preferred something foreign, she and my father were loyal to the end, in this as in the Church, Detroit believers. So a Cadillac it would be. A Cadillac of revenge, a Sinn Fein, Catholic Cadillac that would radiate denouement and retribution and a lot of other Latinate stuff that they'd be sorry about. Heads would roll, as they did before I could get to sleep at night.

Of course Butler was sitting across from me, front seat of my parents' wretched surplus cop Plymouth, indulging all this crap because he needed a backer. He didn't have the cash to start a lab of his own. Or the courage. He'd been running a speed lab for that annoying San Francisco band Animal Things, the one-hit wonders behind "Wanna buy some fucking heroin, wanna buy some fucking junk?" It was a catchy tune, remember? No? Local hit, I suppose.

I saw Animal Things once at Berkeley Square, pasty white kids, sneery. The singer had brown dreadlocks. Then after the first song he took them off. A wig! I couldn't get over it. It wasn't his hair at all.

See? That could've clued me in if anything was going to. It didn't. I was going to call this story something fancy but I think I'll go with the real title: Stupid. In fact, there's an Ernest movie with the best title I ever saw: Scared Stupid. That, as they say, is what I'm talking about.

If it hadn't been for Bongoburgers there would have been no speedlab for me. Bongoburgers was my first gang, my first friends. It was the apartment where Paul and Terry split the rent, and it was right above this Bongoburgers place. The first time I went there, Terry, who was Asian and therefore wellbred, made me a cup of coffee and gave it to me. There I was inside somebody's apartment and they were giving me coffee, like in a movie. And it got better from there.

It was a happy time. It really was. Funny, I have no problem going on and on about any stupid gory misery you care to name, but it makes me very queasy using that word "happy." It's not my field, as academics say. There's a lot of that kind of lying going around, people who were happy once pretending their lives have been all grim. You don't see that with people from really awful places. That's why African music is always cheerful; they don't need to compare scars. They'd rather dance.

So I'll try to describe what happiness was, at Bongoburgers. I can tie it back to this miserable story in the end, because if I hadn't been happy there, I'd never have had the ego to decide to become a bad person. Back when I was alone and despised by the hippies, even suicide seemed too good for me. But when people have liked you, people outside the doomed family that stands for Ireland and the Church and the Ice Age mammals and everything else great and gone -- then you can dream of doing bad things.

Bongoburgers was actually Persian Burgers. A fast food place on Dwight Way in Berkeley. The name Bongoburgers came from the Free Speech days, probably, the whole bongo-drums beatnik era celebrated in bad murals south of campus, cops teargassing hippies and all you could think was, "Good, good, aim for the heads with that canister, you wimps!" That's what I thought anyway, walking to the train alone every night.

Then I met people in workshops who were kind enough to think I was kidding with those poems about the beauty of nuclear war. Thank god for misreadings. Not that everyone misread those masturbatory screeches. Thom Gunn heard them clearly and laughed, and encouraged me to do worse. But he was gay and English and liked leather. For good pious Americans the only option was pretending to think I was kidding, and they were kind enough to do that for me.

Except Paul, because he was from Orange County and his proudest boast was that he had once made Norman Lear's daughter cry. Norman Lear was the bastard who produced All in the Family, and that Family looked and talked exactly like my family, and America laughed at them every week. Why'd he have to hire Carroll O'Connor? That was the question, mumbled very, very quietly at the TV at home. Because that kind of question was extremely dangerous. Don't even say the word.

I knew that much; there were no illusions about Free Speech in our house. Speech was sedition, any speech we could have made, anyway. A lot of very quiet, bitter hatred. You'd think I'd have rejoiced when the sullen majority triumphed later, under Reagan, but by that time I'd lived in Vegas, I'd seen those people and they were worse. Worse than Berkeley? I can hear Paul asking that furiously even now. And yeah, I'd have to say: even worse than Berkeley.

But figuring that out has taken me my life. Back then all that mattered was that these people who were cool with each other in the workshop were also cool with me. There was an initiation, of course, and it was rough, getting sneered at on a half-mile walk through Berkeley by Paul and his even meaner, even more rightwing friend Michael. But then I actually went over to their place and had burritos and went to San Francisco and popped a qualuude, my first and last, and because I was a punk they thought I'd get in fights and I was too shy so Paul decided to start things off by going up to Fast Floyd and yelling at him onstage and Fast Floyd mumbled, "C'm'up here an'I'll show ya" and Paul did, bounced up all eager, and Floyd popped the bottom of his electric guitar right in Paul's eager face, blood and everything. Paul was delighted, though not so much when his two supposedly mean friends and bodyguards, me and Michael, couldn't manage more than going over to Floyd at the break and standing menacingly.

Just boys. I was an oldish boy already, 23, but if you don't get it out in adolescence it has to come out later. There were three years then, of equally silly and chivalrous expeditions, amateurish drug buys, dilettante decadence, and we were friends. If you've never had a gang, a gang is the best thing in the world. These people who talk up the loner cult … I always wonder what they're talking about. Have they tried it? Loners are idiots, they have no clue what's going on around them. Me, I love gangs. I love uniforms. That was where punk came in: I wanted to be loyal to punk to the death, and it irked me that there wasn't a military wing. It would have been great to die with that soundtrack, all full of some overpriced drugs, in proper leather uniform.

It would have been much, much better, in fact. Hey, I still had a chinline at that age; I'd have made a great, soldierly coffin. And none of the bad stuff I did would have had time to happen.

Because Heidi was also in that poetry workshop where I met my new friends. She was with a dumb rich guy, but of course I didn't get that. I was sure money was silly, a consolation prize for those who didn't have a shot at glory.

She took me up, and then she put me down. A footnote in her picaresque narrative, and burial in the heart of a glacier for me. Unthinkable, because it never happened in the movies, to go from lonely misery to happiness and then back? No hero ever went back. Unbearable, unthinkable.

In the murk and chill of that jettisoning I somehow allowed Paul's victim writer girlfriend Marian to jump me one night. It wasn't lust; if it was lust I could have forgiven myself in a second. My body would have declared an absolute amnesty. It wasn't lust. It was her face when I said, "No, we can't." Her face collapsed like the end of the world. I thought it was the end of the world. I didn't know then that she did that face collapse thing about five times a day. I thought the world would end if I said no. So I said yes, and bla bla bla, Paul found out, the guy who taught me how to exist, and fled Berkeley to work minimum wage at a bookstore back in Orange County and I got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, three years of deserved nonstop coughing agony, and nobody would hire me because my thesis was about Sade and … and … and therefore when Butler said we could make money running a speed lab I jumped at the idea. Not so much the money as the crime.

I knew Butler was a bad person; that was the point. He slunk around the edges of the Bongoburgers crowd, avoiding Paul's sharp tongue (that Paul never used on me) but dangling after the weaker members of the group, notably me and Doug. He knew fellow trash when he smelled it.

He had this idea. Saved it for when Terry was out of the apartment. Terry never even locked the door; we all went in whenever we were on Dwight, threw darts at the map of the universe and made instant coffee and played first-generation games on Terry's first-generation Mac.

And then of course Paul had to move out because I betrayed him with Marian and wrecked his life. And Terry offered Paul's room to Butler. Who sat around the formica table talking about how smart he was, and he was, in a mean way, one of these people who hit their peak at the SAT and scuttle around like gifted little scorpions for the rest of their lives.

He had this idea. A lot of money in it. A thousand dollars an ounce. But where would you, uh, sell it? I said, trying to sound cool, like a movie.

Oh, that was no problem either because he had a dealer, very cool guy. Named "Pink Cloud." That was his actual name, apparently, right there on his CA driver's license, "Pink Cloud." Did that send me fleeing for the hills? Obviously not.

Let's do it, I said. Yeah but we need a place to cook it, Butler said. I know, I said, we can use this house my parents have in Benecia. I never hesitated to offer him our one asset, our one hope of something appreciating and lifting us out of the demographic where you wince at every knock at the door, because in those days collectors could come to the door. I winced, knowing I was betraying my parents, but so much was betrayal, what wasn't? I was trying to adjust, and that seemed to be the way things worked, like it or not. And besides, I'd spend the money on them. Little selfish dumb coughing pedantic overage baby Robin Hood, that was me.

Butler jumped at that offer, and the next thing I knew we were in our stupid disguises, in my parents' surplus cop Plymouth, driving down the access road to that chemical supply warehouse. Butler had mentioned that the DEA staked this place out, but by that time I had too much momentum. I was going to crash the bad world's party, I was going to be in it but not of it, robbing the tweaks to pay the … something or other. I'd get my mother that Cadillac, heads would roll, Heidi would be sorry.

It was time to cook up our batch of speed. We were going to do the cooking at the house my mother owned in Benecia, just over the bridge from Martinez. Benecia is one of those sad historical towns. It was the capital of California for a while until Sacramento up the river bribed someone to steal the title. There are a lot of plaques all over Benecia to remind you of the great defeat, and photo exhibits of even sadder-looking camels. The town was also the headquarters of the California Camel Corps, one of the U.S. Army's nineteenth-century boondoggles. They imported dromedaries to cross the great American deserts, except that there was this thing called "railroads" that could do it faster. I forget what happened to the camels. They were shot, probably.

California is full of places like that. They just never get mentioned. It's surprisingly easy to lose your shirt there. It just doesn't make the news. People who succeed are news, people who fail aren't news unless someone dies in the process. And even then it better be someone who's succeeded. The difference between the two groups is very stark there. It wasn't until I went to New Zealand, a place where no one is really famous, that I even glimpsed the notion that non-famous people could have lives.

It was just a matter of what theme song you picked for your stab at fame and fortune. That was the first issue that Butler and I talked about as we entered our criminal enterprise: what movie we should see to launch, to brand, our career as speed producers/dealers. I suggested Scarface, but to my surprise Butler winced and demurred. Risky Business, he said, would be a better choice. Scarface was a little too heavy. Risky Business was more what we wanted to be, it had a light side to it. And Rebecca DeMornay leading a cast of thousands of cheerful prostitutes. We watched Tom Cruise in his first big role, playing a college student turned pimp to pay off the damage his friends do to his parents' house when they're away. He did that famous air guitar to Bob Seger in the empty mansion. It was a mansion, which seems noteworthy in retrospect, but I never bothered about that at the time. Why shouldn't it be a mansion? If you don't have a mansion, why not? That was the correct attitude in 1983, rather than whining about how mansion-y the house in the movie was.

And we were out to get ourselves mansions. That was the point: money. I'd never thought about money much. Glory seemed infinitely preferable, and the life of a famous impoverished band, taking all kinds of glorious drugs and having all kinds of glorious sex on mattresses in a trashed apartment, infinitely preferable to the correct prosperity of the rich suburbs.

But then came Reagan and we all changed our minds. I don't know how or why, and when I try to recall nothing resembling argument comes to mind. The movies instructed us, the columns in the SF papers instructed us, and cars and houses and sheer funds became sexy, in a couple of years. You had to adjust.

Hence me, sitting in my parents' house in Benecia all alone with three boxes of retorts, the chemical kind, and beakers, and other glassware that we'd bought in disguise at the chemical wholesaler on that freeway access road. Butler helped me unload them when we drove up in my parents' old purple cop-surplus Plymouth, and then he'd had me drive him back to Bongoburgers in Berkeley. He was going to stay there for the seven days it would take to cook up the stuff. I had his recipe, photocopied from an old German chemist's notes, now banned by the DEA. I'd stay in Benecia while he held the fort in Berkeley.

That's how dumb I was. Mister Felony, sitting there cooking up the stinkiest and most toxic drug known to man by myself while Butler had cappuccino and read the paper at Mediterraneo on Telegraph.

The excuse I gave Terry and Marian and the rest of my friends at Bongoburgers was that I needed to work on my Ph.D. dissertation in seclusion. It made no sense to any of them, but they were busy at their own avid, senseless lives, all of which have turned out at least as badly as mine.

I was halfway through the Sade dissertation. I'd been planning to write on Wallace Stevens, whom I loved, whose poems I'd memorized long before anybody else thought they were any good, but I talked myself out of that wimpy topic and into one that would guarantee no hiring committee would ever even touch my application: the novels of the Marquis de Sade. Nobody else had really admitted reading them as porn, which I'd been doing since the lesbian couple who kept me as a platonic pet had given me Justine as a consolation prize, something to wank to while they shut the bedroom door and went about their strenuous business. By this time I'd taught myself to read, though not speak French and had worked my way through the seven different versions of Justine Sade wrote in prison, sometimes one-handed because I was making notes in the margins, and sometimes one-handed for the more usual reason. That was my career plan, prove what a bad person I was by doing a dissertation on Sade, and not a clean distant "theory" one but a very hands-on approach. It did not occur to me, and remember I've titled this little opus "Stupid" for good reason, that this might not impress the hiring committees of Midwestern and southern universities when it came time for them to choose a new Rhetoric and Composition teacher. I thought they'd think the way I had: that it was brave and noble to have switched from the cheap easy topic of Stevens -- a man who wrote in my native language, in my own century, for God's sake! What wimpiness, level of difficulty zero! -- to a mad pervert prison scrawler who specialized in torture murders done in eighteenth-century French. How could anyone fail to hire the man who'd chosen the path less traveled by? Well, less traveled by anyone who cared to admit it, though I'm sure Sade has been read by a thousand times more people than have read Stevens as avidly as I did.


So there I was, all set up in the house in Benecia. I drove myself back to our house in Pleasant Hill, grunted at my father to drive me to Benecia, and was dropped off by him on the cracked steps of our "investment property." Even by the standards of that town, it was a sad house in the warm twilight. The cracked steps led up to a wooden porch that was dangerous, especially for someone like me (most of it was muscle, but not all). It creaked in criticism of my eating habits. My mother had warned me tactfully to be careful. I was about 225 at that time, and to keep myself from breaking the 230 barrier I worked out as often as I could make myself on a rowing machine, which I'd brought up in the Plymouth. There it was, through the warped old glass of the front windows, where I'd pushed aside some of the antiques to make room for it. My mother had tried to run this house as an antiques shop, with my insane fat Uncle Fred as her storekeeper, but that hadn't worked out too well, so it became a storehouse for all the antiques that couldn't be sold. It was crammed with them, sad things made of glass, incredibly sad old posters, sad old toys, sad furniture piled to the ceiling in some rooms. And the ceilings were falling down, spotted with mould and water damage. A paradise for spiders.

I went in and cleared a little space for my sleeping bag in the middle room, moving things out of the way, trying not to look at them too much because they broke my heart. Every old unsold and unwanted thing in the world. Every single defeat for whatever thousand years. Little spiders and not so little spiders crawled away from the mass of old whatever, was that some kind of Victorian baby carriage with a swollen-faced albino doll in it? Don't look if you can help it, just shove some room for the sleeping bag before the sun goes down. There was a kind of writing desk from some dead people that would do for writing my Sade chapter I'd promised to do this week. And there was a big bathroom at the back with a huge tub where I could cook the more flammable materials. Butler had warned me that "some are flammable and some are explosive, but flammable is actually worse." I didn't follow up on that information; I was planning mainly on hoping for the best.

I'd warned my parents to stay away for the week it would take to cook, but what if they decided I needed a break from all that study and dropped in to see me? If they found me among the bubbling retorts … I'd just kill myself. That even had a certain appeal.

Or if the cops … that was far, far worse. Even killing myself might not expiate that. It was so awful it crushed my head like a recycled can every time I thought of it. So I wouldn't think about it. It didn't seem to happen in the movies much. The cops hardly figured in either Scarface or Risky Business. Surely that was some consolation.

Step one was to tape paper over all the windows. Step two was to explain the suspicious taping of the windows with painting. I'd brought paint for the outside of the house. The paint would disguise the smell, I hoped, though I had no idea what cooking speed smelled like and Butler had been oddly reluctant to dwell on that particular issue. He had said enthusiastically in the beginning that there were some really excellent sophisticated ventilation systems you could buy that totally masked the smell, but when he heard how much money I had to invest in the scheme -- he had none, the money and the house were my contribution while he supplied the know-how -- he'd changed his tune and said we'd just tape up the windows and hope for the best. I had a private plan, in addition to this: I would personally try to inhale as deeply as I could for the week the stuff was cooking so that I could process as much as possible of the fumes through my own lungs so they wouldn't get out and draw cops.

That was the longest week of my life. Pure terror, and I’m a fear specialist. There is no terror like the terror that follows a loud knock on the door while you’re cooking up a batch of speed.

And the knocks kept coming, the whole long seven days I sat there leaning over the bathtub checking the thermometer in the potion bubbling over the bensen burner. Because the local paper, the Benecia Herald, was having a circulation drive. So several times a day, as I decanted some toxic precursor into some other highly flammable solvent, there would be an apocalyptic banging on the old front door. The knock that says: Cops. DEA. San Quentin. Maximum security. Life as the bespectacled bitch of your cellblock.

With each knock I had to go through the options. You could kill yourself immediately to avoid further embarrassment. We didn’t have a gun or anything; my silent (and absent) partner Butler wanted this to be the cool, non-violent kind of drug operation; but if you really wanted to die, there were about a dozen containers marked with skull and crossbones sitting around me. Just inhaling that stuff moved you up the actuarial tables, so if you actually drank it you’d probably start squirting black slime from both ends and finish up like a salted slug, a melted wad of poisoned mucus.

But each time, after considering the quick chemical quit option, I got up on wobbly legs and wobbled to the front door. A long walk. The bathroom where I was cooking was at the back of the old shotgun shack, and it took about a geological era to get to the front door. In my head I could hear the crackle of cop radios, but in retrospect that was probably just the first overtures of undiagnosed hypertension, tinnitus. Expecting to see big blue heavy-belted cops wavily reflected through the old pioneer glass of the front windows.

And every damn time, I’d open the door to find a a slackjawed hick brat reciting his Benecia Herald spiel in one memorized blurt. Each time I’d listen, fear-sweat from head to toe, to the wonderful opportunity I was being offered. Two months’ subscription for the price of about ten years off my life. If the Norns were watching, the old Swede bitches must have laughed themselves into a stroke at the door gag, then wiped their smoke-bleared eyes and snipped about a third off my life string. When I’d close the door and listen for the kid going away, I could actually feel my heart for the first time in my life, feel it scrambling to get out like a rabbit in a sinking sack.

A few years later, New Zealand Immigration forced me to go to a cardiologist before they’d let me immigrate, and the doctor, this mean, loud, conceited bastard, would check my chest and then yell, “You’ve hurt your heart! How did you hurt your heart?” He made it sound like a felony. There was no way I could play him that scene, of the paperboys banging on the front door while the Bunsen burner bubbled up a life sentence for me in the tub. I just shrugged, reinforcing his clear belief that I was not just fat and defective but stupid as well. “How did you hurt your heart?” Sounds almost like one of those soppy eighties lyrics, but not the way he said it. More like, “Did you break that vase?” Stout denial. After a while he got bored yelling and signed the papers, noting only that “Mr. Dolan could benefit from several lifestyle changes.” Doc, you don’t know how right you were, you miserable runt martinet pig.

The smell from the tub was so awful I tried to avoid opening the door at all. The first thing I did, after shoving my mother’s unsellable antiques aside to make a place for my sleeping bag, was to tape all the windows shut from the inside. That was our security system, our fume-reduction scheme. And of course I slyly started painting the house to offer a visible excuse for any chemical fumes -- which also allowed me good reason to tape cardboard over all the windows. Made the place a little dark -- there was no electricity -- but safety first!

But cooking speed doesn’t smell much like paint. It’s more like cat piss, if the bladders of all the stray cats in Golden Gate Park were squeezed into a pot left on high on the kitchen stove for about three days. Every piece of old furniture in that place, every inch of the peeling wallpaper, was basted by those sickening fumes, rendering the whole house unsaleable forever. Oh yeah, I was going to be Robin Hood of the Meth Cookers, buying my poor parents new cars with the proceeds. All I ended up doing was ruining the only investment we had, that house in Benecia. The first time my parents came in, after we’d semi-cleaned up the evidence, they retched and staggered out the door. “What did you do in here” A reasonable question, answered, as usual, with a shrug and a sneer. Purgatory is a sweet idea, but I don’t believe in it. A few eons in Purgatory and I could make up for that scene -- too late now. We couldn’t sell it; robbers took every last “antique”; the city bought it for nothing, some weed violation. My fault. Live with that and see what happens to your blood pressure.

The cooking was simple enough. It was the noises. Sirens. When you’re legal, you don’t even hear sirens. When you’re leaning over a speed cooker, you become somewhat sensitized to them. The Doppler effect becomes what Stevens would call “a major reality”: if the howl is dropping into tenor range, then your heart can subside to a mere 200 or so beats per minute, but if it’s rising, you have to die one of those thousand deaths the coward is heir to. It’s actually more like a hundred thousand, if you were to count. How did you hurt your heart? Sirens, doc. See, the Benecia Hospital was just around the corner. Not so easy, when you’re cooking speed, to tell the difference between ambulance and cop sirens.

When Butler showed up halfway through the week to see how my felony cooking school was going, he made light of my siren anxiety. He had a way of laying down the law in his pedantic-nerd accent. He was the only Californian I’d ever met whose accent was even more pretentious than mine. The first time he showed up with Doug (trash of a feather), I tried to figure out what country he came from, asked Doug: “Uh, I think Daly City?” It was the accent of Pretentia, and we’d had many a chat in its high nasals, decreeing the proper line on many aspects of existence as we sipped Terry’s instant coffee at the Bongoburgers table and negotiated our little plan to become crime lords. When I told Butler about the sirens, he sniggered -- you don’t see much sniggering, but he was an old hand at it -- and explained, “Oh no. No, no, no sirens. There wouldn’t be sirens. They’d come in both doors at once, front and back, with battering rams! Through the windows, too. Dozens of them. Sirens!” he chuckled at my naivete.

Butler’s cleverest little scheme was what ruined us completely. He was like that, just clever enough to wreck everything he touched. He and his fellow genius Pink Cloud the Dealer had this brainstorm: let’s cook Benzedrine instead of Meth! They’ll never know the difference! And Benzedrine only takes seven days, not eight like Meth! That had a certain appeal to me, since I was the one with the fingerprints all over the glassware. Any reduction in days spent listening to the sirens and going to the door to refuse subscription offers seemed like a good idea to me. And I didn’t know the difference between Meth and Benzedrine; I didn’t like speed back then. Strictly business.

Butler’s clinching argument was classic nasal nerd pedantry: “Besides, studies have shown that Benzedrine is better than Meth, I like it better anyway. Studies -- Benzedrine increases IQ by 25 points and Meth only by 15.” He was one of those fuckups with potential, jerks who hit their peak at the SAT and talk a lot about IQ because you always find them leeching somebody else’s pizza and coffee. He looked like Clark Kent, a saleable look with girls at the edge of the postpunk deal, but he was a Clark Kent who never turned into much.

He told me the cooking was going fine and ate his KFC dinner -- I had no money and even in the catpiss fumes of that place, I was slavering over the smell of that chicken skin, but the bastard ate every last flap of back skin, even the heartshaped twin lozenges of fat over the neckbone. I was living on Safeway bread and peanut butter.

How I managed to stay at 225 with that diet, God knows. Even the rowing machine didn’t help: every day I mounted it and shut my eyes and imagined myself on one of the galleys for the required 22 minutes, then toweled off. And never seemed to get any thinner, just squatter. Strong, sure; most people couldn’t even do one pull of that machine at my settings; but without aggression strength like that is just a heart attack in progress. And I had no aggression. Teach your kids aggression; keep them lean and tell them to use weapons. Skinny is fine if you have an eye for sharp objects and your own advantage. Shoulders are for peasant suckers, hewers of wood and drawers of minimum-wage.

It did turn out handy later, in the scaring-Butler-to-death phase. But we were still allies now, though we hated each other even then, or rather despised each other. He bragged at me and I in my disingenuous way bragged at him and we both considered the other pure trash. While still fearing each other in different ways: he knew I was insane, after Heidi laughed at my wooing, and could have crushed his skull, and I knew he had been on his high-school marksmanship team and knew a lot about poisons. What a team.

He came back again on the seventh day and took over for the final stages of the recipe. We moved the works into the living room and performed the sacrament. It was the only time I ever saw Butler show any respect for anything. He clearly loved this moment, the ritual hush of it. He held a test tube over the beak full of what I’d made and said slowly, “OK, watch this: it’s gonna make little flakes, white little flakes, and every flake, just -- OK, think of every little flake as a $20 bill. That’s how much they’re worth.”

He poured and whispered it again, praying to the liquid, while the little flakes began to drift toward the bottom of the jar: “Every one a $20 bill.”

John Dolan is the author of, most recently, Pleasant Hell (Capricorn, 2005).

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