Meth, bikers, hoarders, and a semester at Humboldt State University. Rob Roberge recounts a harrowing attempt to get clean while getting a degree.
As with so many other things in life, I had no idea what I was getting into. It was, I think, 1989. I say “I think” because I was near the end (but not, it turned out, at the end) of a very bad and long run with drugs and I’d decided to leave Boston for a place that seemed peaceful and tranquil and where I could clean out and lead a life closer to nature and sobriety. Somehow, in my mind, trees were essential to sobriety. Clearly the city wasn’t working, and it was easier to blame the city than myself — so it was time for a move.
I chose Humboldt County.
Now, I had no idea that Humboldt was known for anything, let alone great pot, as pot was not my drug (not even close) and I didn’t hang out with people who did it. When a joint or bong was passed at a party, I’d take a hit, but I really had no idea if I even liked pot, as I’d never tried it unless I already had four of five drugs in my system. When people asked if I liked pot, I’d answer, “It doesn’t seem to do much for me.”
The reason I chose Humbolt was pretty random. I was in my student loan office in Boston, trying to explain why I couldn’t pay them, when I saw a brochure for Humbolt State University. It had a redwood tree. A river. Lush evergreens. No drug dealers I knew lived there. It looked like the perfect place to clean up my act and start a new life. Plus, if I was in grad school I wouldn’t have to pay back my undergrad loans until later. And I didn’t tend to worry much about “later” in those days. Until trying to clean up my act and move out west my plan had been to die by my thirtieth birthday and that was one goal I was well on track for.
So I enrolled at Humbolt State, drove cross country after sobering up for a week and found myself amazed that you didn’t have to wake up puking every morning before your first coffee and cigarette. Me and this clean life were getting along okay. By Lake Tahoe, I had spent more days clean (eight) in a row than I had spent in the previous decade combined. A new life awaited.
The problem was that a new life seemed to await an awful lot of graduate students and there was close to no housing left by the time I’d wandered toward the “Apartments for Rent” bulletin board on campus. There were a few tear sheet tabs with numbers to call in areas like Arcata and Blue Lake, which sounded nice. But when I called (running out of pay phone change), the rooms were all taken. I got turned down at a room at the disgusting Eureka Hotel (which very much fit my young Frank Norris/Ernest Hemingway fantasies) by a man who wore a baseball cap that read “Old Fart” and who called me “College Boy.”
I spent a few nights in my car, spending a good chunk of each at a twenty-four hour doughnut place where it was clear the late shift guy didn’t like me. I scribbled in my notebook, dreamed about being loaded or drunk, and read the classifieds trying to find somewhere, anywhere, to live.
I ended up at the last place anyone should have ended up: I moved in with the Brothers Grimm. This is not a nickname. They were John and Ron Grimm. They looked vaguely alike: both dressed in jeans and flannel over white T-shirts and had the thickest glasses I had ever — or have ever — seen. Both were legally blind and received a monthly government check because their long dead father had worked on the Alaska pipeline. Really the only way to tell them apart was that John had straight long hair and was kind of smart and that Ron had long curly hair and was as dumb as a woodpile. He was also the much fouler smelling of the two — the result of week-long salmon fishing trips after which he left the tub filled with a greasy, hairy gray residue and caused you to pretty much clean the shower with a hazmat suit before you ever wanted to step in. The smell remained, no matter how much you managed to make the tub and tile gleam.
The Grimms were okay, really. Or, rather, they were the least of my trouble. They were friendly enough. John was smart— studying math, for which he had an adorable undergrad named Amy who would read him his textbooks. Ron kept mostly to himself or his friend Brent from Laramie, Wyoming. Which was how he introduced himself — Brent from Laramie, Wyoming, as if it were all one word. Brent was nice enough — if as dumb as Ron. He drove what had to be the closest to not street legal truck I had ever seen. It was as big as a monster truck with tires up to my chest, painted a yellow that could hurt the eyes, and he loved to show it off. You had to actually climb into the thing, and then you’d get in the cab and its most distinguishing feature was the incredibly long gear shift that was necessary because Brent’s right arm stopped around his elbow and had what looked like a child’s four fingers at the end of it.
The Grimms were mellow. I could more or less hang out in the house alone and read and try not to think about drinking. Sometimes John would knock lightly on my door and ask if I wanted to “take a wood’s walk” which was his code for going out with his cool German Shepherd Joe and getting stoned in the woods. I’d say no, but thanks, and things seemed pretty calm.
That lasted under a week. The house we rented was a half log/half shingle (a house divided standing just fine, if hideously ugly) three bedroom. A 70′s forest green Ford LTD sat on cinder blocks in the carport. The house was at the end of a dirt road — 1963 B Street, McKinleyville, CA. The address the year of Kennedy’s assassination, the town named after the last president assassinated before him. I was surprised the car on blocks wasn’t a Lincoln.
The house was the last one on a dead-end road and our neighbor had a hand painted sign for FRESH MILK/EGGS. It turned out he sold goat milk and had chickens — hence the business. But the goats were pretty much free to roam where they wanted, which pleased Ron because he was convinced they would eat any garbage he threw out the back door. This theory proved incorrect. Cans and milk cartons and other garbage piled up in a ten foot semi-circle around the back door to the house.
John complained about the mess.
Ron said, “I thought goats ate all that shit.”
“Not if you feed them, dude. The guy feeds them. They’re not going to eat our shit.”
This, however, did not stop Ron from throwing the garbage out the back door.
I was from back east. From cities. I had never lived next to chickens or goats. I’m not certain I’d ever seen a live chicken until that moment in my life, but I found out rather quickly that they make a hell of a lot of noise and produce a tremendous amount of chicken shit when left to run from yard to yard, as these chickens were.
We were renting from a separated couple, a common-law marriage that had gone south, with two girls under ten caught in the mess. As far as rent went, I was supposed to give John my $250 a month in cash at the end of the month. John, I guessed, paid the couple. Or one half of the couple. Or someone. It wasn’t my concern.
Except it became clear very early it was my concern. That everything wrong in this toxic little corner of the world was to become my concern. At the start of my first month there, I paid my $250 and didn’t think about it again. A week or so later, around eleven at night, there was a knock on the back door (the front room of the house was filled with the couple’s belongings and the kids’ dressers—you could only come and go through the back). The Grimms were out on a “moonlight” woods walk and I had the woodstove burning and I was drinking coffee at the kitchen table and reading, trying to ignore the sound and smell of the chickens and goats.
When I opened the door, I knew I was looking at a meth head. Jumpy. Unpredictable. Every one of them a human active volcano—ready to go at any point. And me out in these woods that seemed like they’d be such a peaceful retreat only weeks before. They now looked like a place to dump a body. My body.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m here for the rent.”
“I don’t follow.”
“This is my house,” the guy said. “There are some blind fuckers renting from me.” He paused and looked at me while wiping his nose on the sleeve of his jacket. “You with the blind fuckers?”
How exactly to answer that? “I’m living here. With the Grimms, yeah.”
“The Grimms,” I said. He looked at me, not saying anything. “The blind-ish guys.”
“Well, I need my rent.”
I told him I’d already paid my third to John
He sniffed again. “Well, get him, then.”
I explained that John was out and he’d have to come back later. The guy said, “Whatever the fuck you guys do, don’t give the money to that whore of a wife of mine, ok?”
“I just give the money to John,” I said. “I don’t have anything to do with anything else.”
“That’s right,” he said and pointed to his head. “Smart man doesn’t get involved in another man’s business.”
If that was what defined smart men, I had a feeling I’d just accidentally left their tribe.
He rustled around in the storage shed. I thought about looking out but decided I would try to be something of a smart man about it and not get involved in whatever business this guy had that involved making a racket outside of the house.
When the Grimms got home, they were pretty mellow about it all. Of course, they were pretty baked. But John said, “We paid the dude. Same day you paid me and our checks came in.”
“The dude I rent this from.”
“Was he the same guy? Some tweeker? Because if so, he thinks you didn’t pay him.”
John put his hand up. “It’s copacetic, man. The dude’s been paid.”
A couple of days later, a haggard looking leather-skinned woman showed up trailed closely by a guy about six-four with a Larry Bird mustache and a mullet. This time the Grimms and I were all home. The woman and the man entered the house without asking. I thought they might be friends of the Grimms, since neither of them protested, but then I realized they couldn’t see much of anything when John said, “Who’s there?”
The woman didn’t introduce herself — at least not by name — but the giant guy said, “Mack. Like the truck.”
I shook his hand.
He said. “Like the truck.” His hand was giant and calloused…like touching some tough-skinned lizard. “It’s a way to remember,” he said. “Mack. Like the truck.”
“Got it,” I said.
While Mack explained his frighteningly simple mnemonic device (to be fair, it has worked, all these years), the woman stalked around the house. Then out the door and to the shed. Then back into the house.
She said, “That cocksucker took my bike.” She looked at me and the Grimms. “And you didn’t stop him?”
Ron was stoned. And in a dead heat with Mack for lowest IQ in the room. He said, “Someone took a bike?”
“That cocksucking ex of mine.” She looked back out the door. “He took at least one of my dirt bikes. And my Honda.”
I said, “Maybe you should call the police. This really isn’t our business.”
“You live in my house, you watch my house,” she said.
And then she asked for the rent.
John explained that he’d paid “the dude.”
“The cocksucker?” she said.
“Well. The guy who rented me the place. I don’t know if he’s the guy you’re talking about.”
“It’s our house, shit-brain. You pay me or him. And from now on, you pay me.”
“Really,” I said. “You might want to call the police. We don’t want to get in the middle of something.”
“You are in the middle,” she said. She wrote a number on some paper and left it on the desk. “From now on, you call me if he comes by and takes anything. And you pay me. Or Mack. If you’re dealing with me, you’re dealing with Mack, too.”
“That’s true,” Mack said, but in a goofy friendly way that made him less scary than he could have been. She went into the front room and started opening drawers. “What else did that fuck take?”
I went into the back yard for a cigarette. Mack followed me. He said, “Were you ever military?”
It remains the only time in my life anyone has ever asked me that. I told him no.
“I was a Marine.” He took a drag. “Okinawa.” He blew three smoke rings. “Got a dishonorable. Can’t go back to Japan, either.”
He was plenty scary now. “Really?”
“Pretty hard to get kicked out of a whole country,” he said. “But it can be managed.”
He and the woman left a couple minutes later — Mack behind her carrying two boxes of what I guessed was her stuff. When I went to get more coffee, the coffee maker was gone.
The best feature in the house was the wood-burning stove. Three days later, I woke up and it was gone. A hole the diameter of a basketball let rain into the living room and I had to go nail a tarp up there since the Grimms couldn’t see well enough to work on the roof.
Around this time, their mother visited. She was one of the loudest, most obnoxious people I’ve ever met, though I only remember two things about her:
1. Her sandpaper voice saying “when the hell does Rod get up?” from the kitchen off my bedroom. To which John would inevitably reply, “Mom. It’s Rob.” And she’d say, “Well, Rod sleeps awful late,” and it would start again.
2. When Ron, John and Brent from Laramie, Wyoming, were playing a game of Frisbee on the chicken shit-laden front yard (which was kind of sad because neither of the Grimms could see well enough to catch a Frisbee often and so it got slick with shit). Brent was pretty great, though — with either hand. Which led the Grimms’ mother to say, over and over “How does he catch a Frisbee with that little hand?”
The kitchen table was a sad loss only two days after the pleasant fact that Mrs. Grimm had departed. I was alone again the next time a stranger came to the door. This time the man was in his early 60′s and was polite and apologetic from the start. He explained that he was the father of the drug addict ex-husband.
“My son has a lot of problems,” he said. “I’d appreciate it if you gave me the rent money. Not him or Penny.”
I told him what had been going on with his son and Penny (who I assumed to be the angry woman who took the woodstove and the kitchen table and the rest).
He said, “I’m the only one who’ll see to it that everybody — especially the kids — gets the money they need.”
“It’s not really up to me,” I said. “I’m just renting here. I don’t even deal with the money.”
“Well, whatever you do, please, please don’t give my son the money.”
I repeated that it wasn’t up to me but said I’d try to do my best for him. By now, I’d started drinking again. And I was drunk and the Grimms were stoned when there was a knock on the door. This time, it was two nasty-looking guys in greased biker jeans and denim with cut off arms. I was at first relieved neither was Mack.
“Where’s Jerry?” the shorter one asked. He looked like Robert Blake from In Cold Blood, which meant he looked like Perry Smith, which meant he looked like someone who had killed at least two people, including a teenage girl, with a shotgun.
I hated this house.
“He owns this place and he owes us money. Where the fuck is he?”
John explained that we were renting and that Jerry — who I now knew to be Penny — had split. The guy asked where Jerry was living and none of us had any idea.
“What are you fucks paying in rent?” He paused and looked at the Grimms. “What’s with the eyes?”
Then, of course, they told us to pay the rent to them.
Within a week I was back to being drunk and loaded every night. I’d stopped going to classes in Arcata — where half the town seemed to read Raymond Carver stories and the other half lived them. At the time, the lumber industry was fighting with environmentalists over the endangered spotted owl and there were signs on lawns begging for their protection and other signs with messages like “YOU LOVE THE SPOTTED OWL SO MUCH? TRY WIPING YOUR ASS WITH ONE.”
I started sleeping on a couch at a friend’s apartment. Though all my things remained at the house with the Grimms. When I came back two days later, the LTD was gone — the drug dealers, I figured. When John came home from a severely needed woods walk with a woman who was a known meth dealer, I ended up doing several lines with her. It wasn’t my drug of choice, and it did no favors for my paranoia from living it that house. But that was soon to be remedied, in a way that left me and the Grimms in a bad spot. The bank had sent two people over, claiming that they’d made several threats of foreclosure on the house and they needed to speak to the owner about payment and that all future mortgage payments had to be made to the bank, or else the house was theirs.
In a stroke of what qualified as luck at that point in my life, my grandmother died. She was a hoarder, though I’d never heard that word — thirty years of garbage in her house that my father had no desire to deal with. I asked him what he was going to do with it.
“Burn it to the fucking ground if I can figure out a way the cops and your mother won’t know.”
We ended up cutting a deal where I got to live for free in my grandmother’s hoarding house so long as I cleaned it. Thirty years of shit. Ten-year-old frozen fish my long-dead grandfather had caught. Mice and rats, some dead and flattened, and their shit all over everything. A smell you could never forget. A series of my grandmother’s cigarette burns in the wood floor from her years of passing out drunk in front of her TV. The house had only two paths: one from the back door to the fridge, and the other to her TV chair. Shit was piled over your head as you walked and stumbled along. Flies like scenes from The Amityville Horror. The house had a dirt-floored basement was filled with mushrooms and about fifty birdhouses my grandfather had made after his stroke to regain his motor skills. I used them as firewood. I drank the cases of odd wines he’d made over the years — apple wine from his orchard. Pear wine. Dandelion wine. They were all hideous. But they were, in their defense, alcohol.
But a path to the fridge where I could keep beer and gin was there. And I knew a Percocet dealer not far away. Things, when looked at in a certain light, were definitely looking up.
This article originally appeared on The Weeklings.
Rob Roberge’s novel The Cost of Living, was released in Spring of 2013 on Other Voices Books. He’s a professor at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in numerous journals. Previous books include the story collection Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life and the novels More Than They Could Chew and Drive. He plays guitar and sings with the LA punk band The Urinals.
Image Credit: jodastephen/Flickr