Rust Belt Heroin Chic

2016-08-20T09:30:12+00:00 July 28th, 2015|

By Ben Gwin

The following is an excerpt from Belt’s The Pittsburgh Anthology.

Summer 2014

At the far end of the West End meeting room there’s an old disco ball hanging above the coffee pot. The meeting that’s about to start is listed as one about alcoholism, but maybe half the people in attendance are recovering heroin addicts, many of them from halfway houses and renewal programs. A few kids sit at folding tables, puffing on e-cigarettes and vapes. Little clouds of mist rise towards the ceiling fan. When I got sober in 2005, you could smoke in there. The walls are still stained nicotine-yellow.

Spring 2009

PittsburghCover sWhen you’re involved in a custody case in Allegheny County, one of the first requirements is parenting class. The class Gracie’s mom and I are assigned takes place in an East End elementary school — a gray stone building with a fenced-in playground. Before class starts, I stand in the shade with my coffee, smoking a cigarette. Across the street, kids play home run derby with a metal bat and tennis ball. It smells like last night’s rain.

Inside there’s a projector and a bunch of tables set up in the cafeteria. I grab a pamphlet and sit. Seats fill slowly. No one says much. Jane shows up in sweatpants, stuffing a half-smoked Newport back into her pack. She sits next to me and smiles as if I were a friend she just ran into at the super market.

Class will run for two hours with a break in the middle.

We watch a slide show which teaches such salient points as: Don’t hit your child, don’t hit your co-parent, don’t fight in front of your child. Get your child to school every day. Feed your child every day. Bathe your child. Do not use drugs around your child.

At break, when I go outside to smoke, the shade is gone and so are the kids playing ball. Jane looks high, but I probably do, too. My eyes itch and they have dark circles beneath them. Jane pulls the half-smoked Newport from her pack and asks me for my lighter which I hand over and stare at until she’s finished lighting her cigarette and I motion for it back. She tells me she can’t afford court. I tell her I don’t care.

August 2009

When I start graduate school, Gracie stays with me two nights a week. I have three night classes and two dinner shifts at the restaurant. I’m living in Avalon.

My lawyer tells me calling Children’s Youth Services is a last resort. Avoid confrontation, he says. Write everything down.

I make lists on envelopes and use them as bookmarks.

Fall 2009

  • Jane is six hours late for agreed drop-off time.
  • Jane is two hours early for agreed drop-off time.
  • Jane asks for money for diapers. I bring diapers to her grandma’s house. She already has diapers.
  • Jane says she needs money for gas to get to her shift at Eat ‘n’ Park. I put gas in her car. Later, I stop by Eat ‘n’ Park, and the manager tells me she was fired months ago. I get pie and coffee.

Summer 2014

Outside the meeting room, in the lobby, there’s a vending machine and a Big Buck Hunter video game. The woman behind the counter is wearing a t-shirt with wolves on it and an ankle bracelet with a blinking green light. She gives me a coffee, I drop a dollar in the tip jar and look around to see if any of my friends made it down. Past the vending machine there’s a chalkboard where people write the names of recovering addicts and alcoholics who have died, details of the funeral arrangements, and upcoming NA dances.

[blocktext align=”right”]I treated everyone in my life like garbage, and lost almost everything. But I played it all up as part of being a writer.[/blocktext]The previous winter, fentanyl-laced heroin called “Theraflu” led to a rash of overdoses. Close to thirty people died in a week. Recovering addicts spoke in meetings about how they wanted to go out and shoot the dope that was killing everyone. Newspapers ran stories of kids dying and think-pieces on the heroin crisis. The stories mentioned the initial flood of prescription drugs, the government regulations and resulting rise in prices. Suburban kids who’d gotten hooked on grandma’s cancer meds started going to the North Side for $10 bags of dope rather than shell out $80 a pill for Oxycontin. In 2006, the killer heroin was called, “Get High Or Die Trying.” The same thing happened then.

I ask a buddy of mine, a recovering addict, about fentanyl and heroin. “Fentanyl is a painkiller, like twenty times stronger than morphine. A lot of heroin is cut with it,” he tells me, “but if the cut isn’t right, you can get a bag that’s mostly fentanyl. If that happens, when you shoot it, you’ll probably die.”

I never shot heroin. I drank. At my worst, I might blackout after three drinks or twenty. I had auditory hallucinations. I drank in the morning. I shook. I puked. I fought. I treated everyone in my life like garbage, and lost almost everything. But I played it all up as part of being a writer. Great effort I put into living like some kind of Kerouac wannabe, so I could write about all the wild shit I did. Towards the end, I barely left my apartment. I barely wrote.

Oct. – Nov. 2009

  • Jane moved out of her grandmother’s house and into an apartment with her friend Lisa in Perrysville.
  • Lisa and Jane’s apartment is one-bedroom. There are 2 dogs. Smells like weed and piss.
  • Fridge is full of crab legs and German Chocolate Cake.
  • Stopped by Jane’s apartment after work, around 11, with table scraps for the dogs. No one was there. Jane’s phone went straight to voicemail.

My lawyer files an emergency motion to remove Gracie from the apartment in Perrysville. Gracie stays with me until Jane moves in with her mom, and we start sharing custody again.

December 2009

Jane is hospitalized after crashing her car at 3AM. Gracie was home sleeping. Her mother didn’t know she had left.

Jane’s mother lives in Evan’s City, a small town in Butler County. Both “The Crazies” and “Night of the Living Dead” were filmed there. About a week after the car accident, I head up for Gracie’s Christmas pageant. I step into the church basement, holding the puzzle I wrapped in the parking lot. Inside, I see Jane with a bag of frozen vegetables pressed against her cheek, sitting at a card table, drinking cider from a straw. I sit across from her, and she takes away the bag. One eye won’t open, the other is dark red. Blue stitches cross her face like rivers.

Jane says, “I fell asleep at the wheel.” She adjusts the bag. “I could have died.”

I pick at the cracked tabletop under the blinking Christmas lights. There’s a row of staples behind her ear, down along her jawline. I ask what happened.

“I was at a meeting,” she says. “We went for coffee after.”

“And you fall asleep at the wheel.”

Jane sets down the bag and raises her voice. “Why are you being so mean?”

The room goes quiet. I fight the urge to go out for a smoke and, instead, shuffle over to the tree and put the puzzle with the other gifts. Everyone eases back into conversations about the Steelers.

I grab a coffee and head upstairs for the pageant.

The camera on my phone won’t work, so I try to commit it to memory: My two-year-old daughter with a tinfoil halo, wisps of hair in her eyes. Her voice is soft, almost hoarse. “Joseph,” she says, “we’ve got good news.”

Two pews over, Jane starts crying, says, “They grow up so fast.” Her family consoles her. They all take pictures.

For the finale, the class sings “Jingle Bells.”

Coffee and cookies afterwards while Santa passes out gifts.

A woman from the church gives Jane a ham.

Still wearing her halo, Gracie hovers at my knees. The rings under her eyes are as dark as mine. “Mommy hurt her face, but she’ll be better soon,” she says. “Me and Gram prayed while she was at the doctor.”

I pull her shoulder close to my hip.

“Daddy, I don’t like Santa.”

“I don’t either.”

“Hold me.”

I lift Gracie up, she grabs my neck, and I watch her mother.

By Easter she’ll be bloated and strung-out. But right now she’s as thin as the branches scraping against the stained glass. Jane pulls the bag from her face, and a circle of parents step back when she shows off her scars. That sky blue thread holding everything together.

[credit: Hendrike, via Wikipedia Commons]

[credit: Hendrike, via Wikipedia Commons]

Summer 2014

In the meeting room, I sit in the corner by the door so I can leave if anyone starts talking about Jesus. The lights are dim. Next to me there’s a pile of donated clothes on a folding table. I stare at the holes in the lace of a skimpy nightgown, while someone shares about gratitude or God, or maybe triggers.

As the hour passes I hear stories: A stolen car traded for $20 worth of heroin. Gold teeth pulled out with pliers to pay for crack that turned out to be fake. Months spent in a condemned house in McKee’s Rocks, high on meth, torturing a dog chained up in the basement. Kicking dope in the back of a van. Copping psych meds in Shadyside when the insurance runs out.

In the opposite corner of the room, by the literature rack, there’s a new girl chewing on her shirt sleeve. She fidgets in her chair and stares at the chipped tile floor. The preppy kid in the teal polo shirt sitting next to her gets up for coffee twice in ten minutes then leaves for the bathroom. When the meeting started, they said they came right from rehab.

February/March 2010

  • Jane’s mom tells me Jane failed a home drug test.
  • Jane’s mom kicks her out of the house.
  • Jane moves back in with her grandmother.

Spring 2010

Jane’s getting lazy. She doesn’t even bother to smear makeup over her track marks anymore. The lies get more outrageous, she contradicts herself midsentence sometimes. One night she drops off Gracie, asks to use the bathroom and runs the shower for half an hour. Says she’s waxing when I knock. I wait, knock again. When she doesn’t answer, I open up the door and she’s asleep on the toilet. Cigarette turning to ash in her fingers, steam fogging up the mirror. Leg wax like puddles of honey on the bathroom floor. Strips of pale skin on her legs. I go through her purse and find stamp bags and needles. I turn off the shower. She comes to and I confront her and she starts sobbing.

[blocktext align=”left”]She knows that I know she’s been lying to me for years even though she’ll refer to it later as a “slip.”[/blocktext]“I need help. Don’t take Gracie away.” Jane tries to hug me. I step back.

She has no one to take her to detox. She’s too fucked up to drive. I can tell she’s stuck between wanting to get indignant over me looking in her purse and the fact that she’s guilty. Guilt I can’t imagine. And she knows that I know she’s been lying to me for years even though she’ll refer to it later as a “slip.” Like, she just had that one little slip where she got high for five years after she’d been clean for seven. No big deal. One day at a time. But for the grace of God. Etcetera.

Gracie is watching Tinkerbell in the living room, in her pajamas.

“Your mom has a really bad headache,” I say. “I’m taking her to the doctor. You’re going to stay with gram. You’ll have so much fun.”

“OK, Dad. Is Mom OK?”

“Yes. She just needs to go to the doctor. For her headache.”

I take Gracie to her grandmother’s, and head to Mercy Hospital. On the way, I stop outside a house in Perrysville, and give Jane ten bucks to cop a couple Xanax.

I drop Jane off at Mercy. On my way home, Jane calls. They don’t have a bed for her. I stop at my place, hide my few valuables. Then I pick up Jane, and she spends the night detoxing in my bedroom. I fall asleep downstairs in front of the TV.

Two days later, we go to the Soboxone clinic in Monroeville. None of the places that will take her insurance can see her without an appointment. The office is like something from a Vonnegut story. There’s New Age music playing, incense burning. Motivational posters on the walls. Mini-waterfalls flow over decorative rock gardens in the waiting room. The well-manicured male receptionist talks like a telemarketer and smiles too much. While Jane deals with the doctors, I take Gracie outside. We sit in the grass island between the strip mall and the office, and toss a plastic ball back and forth while the nurses take their smoke breaks by the dumpster. Then I pay for Jane’s Soboxone, and we leave.

Jane refuses to go to rehab, but the new custody order states I can request Jane be drug tested, and that she must live with another adult for Gracie to stay overnight. Unless I can prove Jane is causing Gracie physical harm, or is under the influence while she is in her care, I can’t get custody.

Fall 2010

My second year of grad school starts, and I spend my loan overages on another retainer for my lawyer. I move to Bloomfield. I start teaching creative writing in the Allegheny County Jail. I’m assigned the women’s class. My students who have children miss them dearly, but I can’t sympathize the way I think I’m supposed to. Maybe two of them aren’t in on drug-related charges. Their stories are all so similar. Stories like Jane’s. A woman is born into poverty. Subjected to domestic abuse from parents and step-parents and partners. She finds heroin or crack or both. A way to cope, maybe. Then comes the crime in support of the habit, but she can hustle, at least for a while, but it gets to be too much. Maybe, she thinks, having a child will help. She’ll have a new purpose, someone to love her unconditionally, but when the son or daughter comes, it gets worse. Maybe her man leaves and her family won’t have her, and there’s a familiar way to cope but she can’t hustle like she used to. Then maybe the state takes the kid to be brought up in the system, ready to repeat the cycle.

Sometimes during class, I wonder what I have in common with the men in my students’ lives. In Jane’s version of her story, I’m the bad guy. I’m the one who wouldn’t take her back when I found out she was pregnant, now I’m trying to take her child. I make fun of her father going blind from MS in the hills by State College. Call her every name you can imagine. Tell her Gracie would be better off if she’d hurry up and overdose and die. Get it over with already so we can move on with our lives. I become self-righteous and indignant. But I hate myself for the position I’ve put my child in. I hate myself for hating her mother. For being too scared to take Gracie and skip town. And so many of the beautiful moments I spend with my daughter during the first four years of her life are experienced under a cloud of constant worry and self-loathing.

Spring 2011

  • Jane’s friend, Lisa, goes to inpatient after getting caught with stolen goods and heroin.
  • I finish grad school.
  • Lisa gets out of rehab, overdoses and dies.

Summer 2011

When I show up to get Gracie, she’s crying on the front steps. “I don’t want to go. Daddy, why are you taking me away from Mom?”

“Honey, its our time to have fun together. Let’s get ice cream.”

Jane steps in. She speaks in an affected, baby talk voice. “Gracie, I don’t want you to go, but your dad says you have to.”

Gracie cries, “No.”

Jane says, “These are the rules.”

[blocktext align=”right”]The stress is going to break me. I write and work and raise a child, while Jane collects welfare and gets high.[/blocktext]The stress is going to break me. I write and work and raise a child, while Jane collects welfare and gets high. Why can’t I get high? Drink myself blind and come-to behind a bar in Western Maryland, covered in piss and dirt, left to piece together the night before using hand stamps and bruises.

Jane buckles Gracie into her car seat and closes the door. Jane and I are standing outside of the car. Pink scars twitch across the bridge of her nose.

I say, “You’ve been strung-out for three years, and it’s my fault you don’t get to see your kid more.”

“We both just have today.”

“You have track marks on your hands.”

“You’re harassing me. I’ll call the police.”

“Good. Call them. Please.”

“Don’t argue in front of my daughter.”

When I get in the car to leave, Jane runs behind me so I can’t back up.

At least Gracie isn’t crying anymore. She’s sitting in her car seat playing with her fairies. “Daddy, what’s mommy doing?”

“I don’t know, sweetie.”

I try to pull ahead through the side yard onto the cross street. Jane runs in front me.

I get out. “You’re insane.”

“You’re not taking my daughter.” She runs up and shoves me. I put my hands above my head in surrender.

Jane screams, “Don’t put your hands on me,” and shoves me.

“Get out of the fucking way,” I say. And I wonder what it would feel like to punch Jane square in the face. Feel her glasses break and her nose explode. Blood on my knuckles, getting stuck under my nails. I’d wind up in county jail, maybe in the writing class I used to teach. Maybe I’d talk to some MFA student about how much I miss my kid while he praises my work for its realness. Get it all on the page. Write through the pain. My life would be over. I’d see Gracie for two hours a month in some Lysol-smelling room in a building in Penn Hills with a social worker taking notes, while we play with worn-over toys on a bald gray carpet.

I keep my hands up.

Jane hits me in the chest. Then her 87-year-old grandfather hobbles outside. “Don’t you touch her.” Grandpa picks up a rake.

This is what my life has become. My drug addled baby’s mom and her rake-wielding, arthritic grandfather, attacking me on their front lawn.

Back in the car, I inch forward, like I’m going to cut through the yard. When Jane tries to get in front of me, I whip it into reverse and drive backwards out the driveway and down the street. Jane sprints after the car.

“Daddy, what’s mom doing?”


We get out of the development, drive a few miles. Flashing lights spin in the rear-view. I pull over. A cop comes to the window, carrying a stuffed moose.

He says my name like it’s a question. Please step out of the car.

The cop opens the back door and hands Gracie the moose. She says thank you, looks curiously at the doll then drops it on the seat next to her.

I get out of the car and explain the situation as best I can.

[credit: Psychonaught, via Wikimedia Commons]

[credit: Psychonaught, via Wikimedia Commons]

February 2012

  • At a Rite Aid near Hampton, Jane is arrested and charged with shoplifting, possession of a controlled substance, paraphernalia, and child endangerment.
  • Jane pleads to misdemeanor possession of prescription drugs. I don’t find out about the charges until the following summer.
  • I enroll Gracie in kindergarten at a magnet school in the city.

August 2012

A month before the start of the school year, Jane tells me she signed Gracie up for another year of preschool in Shaler. She claims I never told her about kindergarten.

I have to go to court just to get my five-year-old daughter into school.

The judge rules Gracie will go to kindergarten in the city. A new custody schedule is set: a 50/50 split.

[blocktext align=”right”]I have to go to court just to get my five-year-old daughter into school.[/blocktext]When Gracie stays with me, we go mini-golfing. We color and play cards and have tea parties. I let her draw on our apartment walls and they’re still covered in seven years worth of stars and trees and clouds of every color. Phrases from children’s songs she writes in her loopy block lettering. For a while, I have a modicum of normalcy and routine. Gracie is happy. Kindergarten comes easy for her.

Halloween 2012

Gracie is inside dressed as a fairy, playing with her aunt. Jane is nodding out on the front steps. I walk up the driveway. “You are fucked up.”

“It’s my medication.”

Her eyes close and she burns her pants with a cigarette.

“Wake up. You’re falling over.”

November 2012

Jane checks herself into rehab.

I tell Gracie, her mom went away to school for a month, and will be back soon. Jane writes Gracie heartbreaking letters that I’ll probably never show anyone.

After rehab, Jane moves into a halfway house for single mothers. Fridays, I pick up Gracie from school and we drive to the group home in Carrick. “Mom has roommates now. Tell me if any of them are ever not nice to you, OK?”

“OK, Dad. Love you, Dad.”

On Saturday nights, Gracie stays with her grandmother. She stays with me Sunday night through the end of the school week.

February 2013

  • Jane leaves the halfway house early, and ODs in the bathroom at her mother’s house. She lives. I don’t find out about the overdose until almost a year later.
  • Jane moves back in with her grandmother.

Everything is calm until November. When I get a Facebook message from this guy Steve, an ex of Jane’s, who goes on a rant about Jane getting high and all kinds of shit I wish I didn’t have to take seriously. He keeps asking to buy me lunch in Butler. I decline. I tell Jane she needs to take another drug test. For the first time, she doesn’t argue about it. She pisses clean.

Summer 2014

bengwin cig

Author Ben Gwin

Someone is sharing about gratitude or God or triggers. With fifteen minutes left in the meeting, the kid in the teal polo shirt comes back from the bathroom and sits down next to the jittery girl he met in rehab. He leans over and kisses her on the mouth. Then he turns bluish gray and falls to the floor in the middle of the meeting. It is the only time I’ve seen someone overdose.

I go outside and smoke while the woman working the counter comes in and shoots the kid full of whatever that stuff is you’re supposed to shoot junkies full of when they OD.

It took getting sober for heroin to effect my life.

I met Jane in 2006, outside the meeting room with the disco ball where they’re trying to pump life back into that poor fucking kid. An ambulance arrives. I get out of the way.

Present Day

Technically, Jane is still not allowed to be alone with Gracie.

It took months after getting out of the halfway house, but Jane eventually got her shit together. As far as I know she’s been clean for over a year. In many ways, she’s a great mother. She figured out Gracie needed glasses and got her eyes tested. I thought she just liked sitting too close to the TV.

Gracie and I still have our weekday routine. The roughest time are Sunday nights when Gracie first leaves her mom.

I put Gracie to bed, and she says, “I miss mommy when I’m not with her. Is it OK if I cry? I can’t stop the tears.”

I hug her and I tell her of course it is.

There’s nothing I can do to stop them either.

Author’s note: All names have been changed, but everything else is true to memory.

Ben Gwin is the Fiction Editor at Burrow Press Review. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Word Riot, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, and others.His novel manuscript Clean Time: The True Story of Ronald Reagan Middleton was shortlisted for Butler University’s 2014 Pressgang Prize. Ben lives in Pittsburgh with his daughter.

This essay is an excerpt from The Pittsburgh Anthology. 


  1. DB July 29, 2015 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    It would be a better world if Jane were no longer in it.

    • LanArch August 28, 2016 at 12:04 am - Reply

      This comment is very unfair. Addiction makes normal people behave in terrible ways. The ‘present day’ vignette says that Jane is sober and a good mother. Imagine how crushed Gracie would be without her.

  2. Cara July 29, 2015 at 3:36 pm - Reply

    I love this.

  3. #9 July 31, 2015 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    Wonderful use of appropriated time, snapshotting definitive moments which the reader can weave together to form his own narrative. I think you succeed in synthesizing a sympathetic, though tragically flawed, character in Jane. In the moments where she, herself, is unsure of her actions it’s plain that she is a person who has forfeited every sense of free-will, including benevolence.

  4. PeterD July 31, 2015 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    I ache when I read this. Beautiful piece of writing, and capturing of an all-too-common-experience, even if not in the specifics. Powerful.

  5. Malibu August 3, 2015 at 5:13 pm - Reply


  6. Kevin October 15, 2015 at 10:14 am - Reply

    Incredible piece. Keep writing, Ben.

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