Frank Bill usually traffics in fiction that hits with the revelatory power of fact—the stories of his debut book, Crimes in Southern Indiana, have the power of bristling frontline reports on the havoc methamphetamines have wreaked on the American heartland. But here Frank steps out from behind his fiction to tell us about a time in southern Indiana when meth was but an exotic treat that came in the mail to only the most enterprising drug dealers. The intervening years would bring all variety of twisted darkness to Corydon, Indiana, but as Frank makes clear here, even in that more innocent time, those looking for trouble—and even those running away from it—had a pretty good chance of finding it.
-Sean McDonald, Vice President and Executive Editor, Paperback Director
Banger’s family got meth in the mail about once a month. It came from the West Coast in a large manila envelope, moist dandruff flakes lumped to the size of an unfolded diaper.
This was before the Sudafed, distilled water, liquid heat, batteries, Coleman fuel, and farmer’s-ammonia craze ignited small-town America, created broken pickets of teeth, catabolized tissue, and scalded the heartland into skin and bone.
This was sometime around 1990, when I chewed on adrenaline and spit madness.
My father was a brokenhearted insurance-selling Vietnam vet who sold policies during the day and tended bar at night, played soldier on the weekends, and tried to make time for his only son. I was a sixteen-year-old delinquent pissing the adolescent blood of two grandfathers I never knew. One was a wife-beating pugilist of World War II. The other was a memory before I was a seed in my mother’s paunch, worked in a Pennsylvania steel mill, and died of cancer when my father was ten.
My mother divorced my father after fifteen years of matrimony. She was a factory-working swing-shift mother, who trusted her only son to stay out of trouble, to call her for a ride if he’d been drinking at a party, and to not do drugs.
I met Banger through Cherry, a creamy-freckle-fleshed female with strawberry strands to the bottom of her chin. We’d dated when I was a freshman and she was a senior, kept close companion. One evening she asked if I’d like to meet Banger, she was going over to cheer him up. He’d been kicked out of school and his girlfriend, Go-Go Boots, had split from him. I agreed. She drove me to Banger’s house, a three-bedroom vanilla-brick ranch-style home with a full basement in a family-oriented neighborhood no more than six miles from my grandparents’ hundred-acre farm. Without knocking we entered the home: images of family hung from the walls, ceramic figures collected on shelves, and a floor-model television blared as we walked through the living room and into the kitchen.
Cherry introduced me to Banger and his mother, Mama, a kindhearted brunette with a grandmother’s warmth. Silver and gold rings decorated her digits. A cigarette curled smoke from an ashtray. After that Mama always laughed at my presence, calling me Spicoli because of my always saying, “Dude!” And the yellow locks rimming my shirt collar, biscuit-baked skin, and the defined nose and sky-blue eyes of my father.
We went to Banger’s bedroom, while Mama chain-smoked cigarettes in the kitchen. Talked on the phone and cooked supper like a modern-day Mrs. Cleaver.
I sat on Banger’s bunk bed, bedroom door half open, took in the dresser lined by stolen Mercedes emblems while we shot the shit and Banger pulled out a crumpled-looking Zig-Zag rolled to the size of my pinkie. Worried, I said, “Your mom’s in the kitchen.”
Banger chuckled, “My mom’s cool.”
And she was. Looking back, I believe if one were to cross Mama she’d have given Wilma McClatchie aka Big Bad Mama a run for her money.
Banger’s trademark attire was a King’s ball cap, a gold ring with diamonds, and black Air Jordans. He had short walnut-tinted hair with an emery-board rattail running down the back of his neck. A pencil-thin mustache etched below his nose while acne scars dented his cheeks like Bic blood blisters and miscellaneous tattoos were tossed over his meaty forearms.
He moved from the West Coast to southern Indiana with his older brother, Trucker, and Mama. They all lived under the same roof. Trucker was a dead ringer for actor Ray McKinnon, he’d a mossy-patched beard and a smoker’s-exhaust drawl. I can’t remember when I first met Trucker, only that he and Mama took to me right away. And once you were accepted into the family’s circle, their home was your home, day or night without restriction. Family and friends were coming and going 24-7 but so were the drugs. It was unlike anything I’d ever been a part of. Friends like Gun, a diabetic Indian ‘banger who lived a few miles down the road in a house trailer with his mother and older brother, spent most of his days at Banger’s. He also ran with my buddy from middle school, Bach, a wiry, thick-headed blond, who’d moved from Indiana to Kentucky my freshman year, but came up to Indiana on the weekends and stayed.
Go-Go Boots and I had started going out not long after Banger and I had met. When word of this splashed him in the face, he was piss and vinegar. Came to school, told me he couldn’t believe I’d hang out at his place, meet his family, then go out with his ex. He threatened to stomp my face into a vat of mush.
Me and my five-foot-five Napoleon complex stood up to him in front everyone in the high-school auditorium, told him she wasn’t personal property, and gained his respect.
My courtship with the short-tressed Go-Go Boots was short-lived.
Banger and I crashed a small party at a huge coffee-stained cabin owned by a logger who’d went out of town with his wife. His daughter, Honey, a stocky female with rusted wires of hair, threw the blowout. Getting shit-faced without Go-Go Boots I hooked up with a pale, toned, head-banging female, Jane Doe. Jane and I took to drinking and craving weed. Before I knew it we were buzzed on Beam and Busch Light Draft, craving each other, and in the logger’s master bedroom, making waves on the water bed.
Honey’s parents were known for smoking the skunky hunter-green buds that left your mind as warped as a water-dried economy stud. Honey couldn’t find the stash. Banger and I rummaged every inch of every room of the cabin. Finding pipes, leaves, rolling papers, and morsels in shoe boxes, dresser drawers, and closets until we found a lonesome joint rolled to the size of a Magic Marker, there was no stash.
The next night, all of us, and other friends from school, crunched down a road of gravel and partied next to a mud-green river where oak and hickory grew up to God. And the scent of fish ruined the air. Before the sun set my mind had been slapped around by Beam and a few joints. I was sweating between Jane Doe’s thighs in the hatch of my buddy Red’s tinted-window Hyundai that was plastered with Grateful Dead stickers.
Red was standing outside his Hyundai, keeping watch and sipping an aluminum, when Go-Go came up asking where I was at. Go-Go Boots didn’t know anything about the night prior. Red waved her away, got into his Hyundai. Jane Doe and I dressed and laughed with Red as he drove into town for smokes and more beer.
When we got back, Go-Go had heard I’d cheated on her the night before, was cheating while she stood outside the Hyundai asking where I was at. Anger formed the molten-orange horseshoe of her mind while Banger fed her booze, glassed her eyes, sugar-coated their wrongs, and reconciled their love.
That night, people camped out in beater cars and rusted truck beds. Snapped tree limbs, cut down young timber, busted and burned two-by-six picnic tables. Fired dope and passed it from pinching forefinger to sucking lips, and chased their whiskey with sweating cans of brew.
Yellow points of flame bounced shadows from the outlines that surrounded the bonfire, while a partier climbed up a tree, hung from a limb near twenty feet in the air above the flame wearing ragged Levis, an unbuttoned hot-pink shirt and untied high-tops, swinging back and forth hollering, “PRAISE THE LORD, BROTHER, PRAISE THE FUCKIN’ LORD!”
Whiskey wielded an anger in me that was untamable, less than a year before I’d swallowed a fifth of Gentleman Jack and wrecked a welcome center, got house arrest and probation. But on this night, lit up by the adrenaline juice, I hopped on top of someone’s car and started jumping up and down on the hood.
Laughing and shouting, Banger pulled me from the top of the vehicle and said, “Holy shit, dude! Don’t you know whose fuckin’ car this is? It’s Hendrix’s car.”
“Who gives a shit?” I said and began head-butting the fender and trunk while Hendrix stared bullet holes through me.
Banger stood between Hendrix and I, calmed him down, and the next thing I remember we were getting acquainted, cruising a country road while I rolled a joint in the backseat. A ziplock of something brown like a dog turd was passed from Hendrix to Banger in the front seat, got chopped into bark-colored pebbles and handed back to me, I sprinkled it in with the dope. Licked the sticky Zig-Zag paper. Thumbed a lighter. We smoked it to a roach and everything slowed down to a static television monitor of zero.
I woke up the next morning on Banger’s carpeted bedroom floor, my forehead was a softball-size bubble. I’d a cracked nose and yellow-jacket sacks formed beneath both eyes. Wanting the thumping frost to melt from my mind, to shower and change my clothes, I watched Gun pull a vial from Banger’s bottom dresser drawer, open a freshly sealed needle, puncture the vial, draw the liquid, pinch his brown belly, and shoot the liquid into his system. “I’m diabetic,” he reminded me.
That was the same day the package arrived in the mail. I don’t know who pulled it from the mailbox but Mama, Trucker, and Banger got their cuts first, sold the rest, it was a family affair.
I’d never heard of crystal meth. Banger’s older brother, Trucker, ran with a veiny, muscled guy who wore a white wife-beater and had plaque-coated teeth. The guy mixed the meth with tap water. Loaded the syringe, flicked it to make sure there were no air bubbles, didn’t tie off, smiled, and said, “Don’t none of you ever try this at home.”
Banger, Gun, Bach, Trucker, and I stood around this guy as if we were freezing nomads and he were the flame that’d warm us. We watched the silver needle prick a blue vein, unload the cloudy liquid into his body. He shook his head, showed those glow-in-the-dark teeth, and exhaled a long “Whew.”
Later that day, in Banger’s bedroom, with the door closed, Banger and I sat on the carpeted floor, he tapped some chalky-moist flakes from a small plastic baggie out onto a cassette case. He razored four even lines. Rolled a dollar bill into a straw, inhaled a line into each nostril, smiled, and offered the rolled dollar to me.
The inhale was a flaming comet singing through the lining of each nostril. The drainage was a harsh chemical taste like chewing on a rubber tire and aspirin. My brain told me, the more you snort the better you’ll feel. If you smoke a cigarette, that’ll be the best cigarette you’ve ever fired up. Beer, the best malt and hops you’ll ever swallow. Every time we started to come down, a few more lines were cleaved and snorted, chasing the dropping-roller-coaster rush from that first sniff.
That evening, Banger and I hooked up with a buddy named Hog, a stumpy sausage-fingered longhair whose favorite narrative was “Aww man.” We took a road trip to Jane Doe’s place in Hog’s fiery red Cavalier. Cruised to the tunes of the Steve Miller Band and Joe Walsh. Jane’s parents owned a tavern down the street from their neighborhood, they were MIA for the night. We hung out snorting lines until all the meth was gone, smoking cigarettes, tossing beers, and swapping stories. Jane told us about a hairy-mammoth guy she went to school with, some other guys he ran with wanted to mess with him, duct-taped him to a tree and left. A neighbor phoned 911 when they seen his state. He had to be cut loose by the ambulance drivers when they arrived, then the duct tape was ripped from him. Taking hair and flesh with it, leaving bald and bleeding patches.
Banger told of his exploits out on the coast, how the easiest car to jack was a Toyota Camry. How he could jimmy the door’s lock by sliding a coat hanger down beside the window, bust the steering column and stab a flathead screwdriver into the ignition, and be on his way in under twenty-five seconds. Sometime later, he showed me a VHS recording of a trial. People he ran with in California. I can’t remember the particulars but they’d been busted for a murder plot they’d taken from a comic book. Banger had a wild and dark past.
That night, Hog dropped us at my mother’s apartment, a small two-story home divided into three rentals. My mother and I lived in the entire upstairs area. She was working third shift. Banger tried to crash in my mother’s room where the AC kept the room like a walk-in freezer. The windows were covered with aluminum foil, duct tape, and window blinds to block out the day for sleeping.
Surrounded by collaged walls of Black Flag, Slayer, Metallica, Megadeth, and D.R.I. posters, I tossed and turned in my twin bed. Sleeping was a violent discomfort from the vibration of my heart rattling my chest cavity and pulsing my eyes open.
At one point, I thought the meth adrenaline punching my sternum would detonate my heart. But it didn’t.
Getting up out of bed, following the hardwood to the kitchen, Banger heard me pacing, got up laughing. “Dude, my heart feels like it’s gonna fuckin’ explode.”
The rest of that week we were jonesing for meth. Banger, Gun, Bach, and I rode around with Hog hunting for something to snort. The cutting and rolling a tube to bridge the damp powder up into our noses had become an addictive ritual. Medicine cabinets of friend’s parents’ prescriptions were raided. Whole bottles of Xanax, Valium, codeine, any and all assortment of painkiller and muscle relaxer were stolen, crushed, and chopped into desert dust, sniffed into our bloodstreams.
Within a month, Banger found out Go-Go and he were pregnant. He got a job at a local tire company, brought home greased nails and prints from changing tires and fixing flats all day. He bought a primered ’69 or ’70 Chevelle with vinyl seats, a clean engine, and raised rear end. One evening he picked me up and we went to the first Thunder Over Louisville, a fireworks expo to kick off the Kentucky Derby Festival.
After parking, we stood shoulder to shoulder with a crowd of men, women, and children, and watched the sky get rifled with neon explosions of reds, pinks, oranges, and yellows.
Leaving to go home, we got stuck in traffic for nearly two hours in front of the Spaghetti Factory on West Market Street. Apparently the city didn’t realize how many patrons would attend the event. They’d no one directing traffic. Streets were gridlocked with vehicles from Kentucky to Indiana.
Keeping the windows rolled up, we passed a resin-coated ember back and forth, smoking the sticky-bud flame as cars walled us in and crowds of people passed up and down the sidewalks. We held the smoke in our lungs for as long as possible. Coughing tiny billows of smoke from our mouths and talked about Banger getting his life on the straight. Getting a better job, an apartment, he had a kid on the way that he’d have to raise and provide for.
That was one of the last times Banger and I hung out.
When the summer hit I began dating a stripper. Moved from my mother’s apartment to the stripper’s place. She was the aunt of Jane Doe. A fit, bleach-bottle blonde with a child. Banger had called my home one day that summer and tracked me down to the stripper’s parents’ place. He wanted come over and hang out. But he never found the place, called and said we’d catch up later.
Later never happened.
I missed a lot of school that first semester of my senior year, so much that my mother had gotten a phone call from the principal. She started stopping by or phoning the stripper’s apartment after work every morning, making sure my ass was going to school.
Banger and Go-Go moved in with her parents. They had a girl. It wasn’t long after the child’s birth that my mother paid a visit to the stripper’s apartment, she was dull-faced with worry, needed to speak with me.
She didn’t know the particulars but Banger had gotten into an argument with Go-Go at the local McDonald’s the previous night. Stormed off for a cruise. When he didn’t make it back to Go-Go’s parents’ house she spent all night and all morning phoning his friends or stopping by their homes.
His vehicle had been found on a country back road. He had been driving too fast. Taken a curve and rolled his car down a steep decline. With no seat belt on and the window rolled down he was half in and half out of the driver-side window. One of the rumors was there might’ve been a chance he’d have lived had someone found him sooner. Another rumor was the claw marks he’d dug into the soil above and around him, trying to pull himself free.
To my knowledge, Banger hadn’t been drinking or doing drugs that night. Had pretty much went clean when his daughter had been born. She was about two months old when he was killed. The funeral was one of the biggest I’ve seen to this day nineteen years later.
Go-Go once told me she hated it ’cause they never got to make up, say she was sorry. I never asked what the argument was over. But being as young as we all were, looking back, it was probably something miniscule.
Everyone felt the void of Banger being gone. Time passed and so did my living with a stripper. I moved back in with my mother, got a part-time job at a lumberyard, graduated. Quit smoking weed. Held different working-class jobs. Started making time for my father. Met my wife and landed a good factory job and began writing.
I never ran into Bach but heard about him through word of mouth. He’d married Jane Doe’s younger sister, had a child, and soon divorced. He still drank and probably smoked weed. But meth was more than likely a memory. I never ran into Trucker or Banger’s mother after he passed. No idea what became of them. One day I bumped into Gun at the CVS Pharmacy. He was frail and sickly as a raisin. His nose was wet with mucus, his eyes stabbed with red lines and a buttery glaze. I smiled and asked how he was doing. But I already knew.
“Not good man, not good.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I said.
He was staying out of trouble, fighting a sickness of sorts, I could see his overall health was in decline. I’d forgotten he was diabetic, wanted to offer a helping hand, but didn’t know where to begin. I told him where I lived, to look me up and to take care.
He never did.
A couple of years later, I heard Gun’d lost his leg, he hadn’t taken care of himself, kept using drugs and drinking. Word was he was still doing meth. Smoking weed. Popping pills and chasing it with booze. He was gonna go out under his own terms. And he did, he died at age thirty-five.
Unlike Banger’s funeral, Gun’s was family only.
Looking back at the two or three years I ran with Banger and Gun, constantly raising the bar, we lived by a code that didn’t recognize limits. We never thought about what tomorrow or the next day would bring, we brought tomorrow until today was gone.
Just before I turned eighteen, I knew that the drugs had to stop. That I’d have to begin my existence as an adult, quit passing life by and begin living it. And I did. My only wish is that I could’ve watched Gun and Banger do the same.
Frank Bill lives and writes in southern Indiana. Crimes in Southern Indiana is his first book.