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How To Kick a Crank Habit

fiction by Nathan Altman

Decide first that you don’t really have a problem. Tell yourself this as you straddle the dirty porcelain of a liquor store toilet and rail sticky brown crystals into long, thin lines with a pocketknife. Even though you can feel your heart pounding and bowels loosening with anticipation, fix your face into a sneer and say, “Fucking peanut butter crank.”

“Now don’t start complaining,” the Night Manager says from over your shoulder. “It’s like the proverbial horse and the mouth and all that.”

Stand up from the toilet seat. Let the Night Manager do his line first. Normally you wouldn’t be so polite, but you’ve told him you aren’t holding any money, so you’ll have to wait for him to roll some dead president’s portrait into a tooter.

When it’s finally your turn, take that tooter in cold, trembling fingers, hold it a few millimeters above the back of the toilet, then quickly snort and swallow the line. Swallow hard. Peanut butter burns like hell, like it’s got glass in it. Jump straight up, clutching at your face, and fall heavily against the plywood wall of the bathroom. Don’t try to breathe for several seconds. Oxygen will only make the burn worse.

Now. There. Don’t you feel better? Hell yes you do. You feel vast as that gay poet you recently saw on TV. You contain multitudes. You feel like sounding your barbaric yawp over the porcelain shitters and sinks of the world.


Get weird out there in the woods. Lie naked in the frozen dew and enjoy your body warming as the sun climbs over the ridgeline and burns the fog off the steep creekbanks that surround your house on three sides. Start thinking about triangles. Realize how tragic triangles are, and life. Life is tragic too. Life is a tragic triangle. Cough out a few tentative sobs, just to test the idea, then curl up in the grass and have a good cry.

Walk back into the house, still naked, still crying, and swallow three Xanax with a tumbler of bourbon. Telephone the Ex. Tell her it’s an emergency. Say, “Baby, come over and be angelic. Come over and take off your clothes.”

“Hon,” she’ll say, “I’d really love to. But I’m just on my way out the door to meet the girls for bowling.”

Don’t believe this shit. Is she kidding? Tell her she never used to like to bowl. Accuse her of dating her dealer. Call him a skinny strip of trailer trash. Fly into an absolute raging fit when she tells you to shut the fuck up. Start punching the bedroom door and screaming, “Bitch. You bitch. You fucking speed whore.”

Keep punching the door even after she hangs up. Your house was built back in the 1920s—back when they still built doors solid enough to blister and crack the skin right off a set of knuckles, exposing bone. But don’t worry. You’ve taken three Xanax and a tumbler of bourbon. You’re about to pass out for a long while.


Wake up feeling somehow both numb and sore. Watch the pale winter light filter through the bedroom window and realize that it’s the most dangerous time of the day, the time you spend most of the money you earn, steal and borrow trying to avoid: the beginning.

You’re afraid of beginnings. You’re afraid of endings too. You’re afraid of lung cancer, no smoking sections, the greeter at Wal-Mart, public transportation, the IRS, AIDS, having your cable disconnected, eating, throwing up, the skunks that live beneath your shower, dentists, doctors, policemen, telemarketers, and getting your ass out of bed.

So suck it up. Get your ass out of bed. Walk groggily across the cold hardwood floors to the even colder linoleum of the bathroom. Stick your whole aching head into the sink and take a long, blissful drink from the tap. Then turn around quick, grab the toilet and vomit. Steady yourself with a few deep breaths. OK. Now vomit again.

This early morning retching will no doubt disturb the skunks. They’ll snuffle and growl testily, scrabbling their claws against the porcelain. Wipe the fluid off your chin and give the rim of the shower a good kick with your heel. This’ll really rile the little bastards. They’ll heave and claw down here in a way that’ll make you retreat a few steps and scan the linoleum for signs of uplift. If none are apparent, take a heavy stride and give the rim of the shower a few more kicks. Curse the skunks. Threaten to call the Game and Fish out. Tell them you’ll purposefully run over some other rodent just to poison the carcass to kill their stinking, carrion hides.

Grow tearful at the skunks’ ambiguous reply. Kneel down and place a hand on the rim of the shower as if it were the head of one of the skunks. Tell them that this arrangement can’t go on. It violates certain laws of nature—laws you know well from watching Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. Try to explain these laws to the skunks. Find yourself snuffling and growling in the attempt to be understood.

Then notice that the hand you’ve laid on the shower looks a lot like a steak after five minutes on the grill—mostly an even pinkish gray, but lots of blood still bubbling along the bone. Tell the skunks this doesn’t mean the conversation’s over. You’ve got to disinfect and wrap this hand, then head to the Triple X for work, but you’ll be back tonight. Tell the skunks they better think about that. Kick the shower one more time to drive the point home.

Go to the kitchen and doctor your hand with the hydrogen peroxide and Ace bandages you keep for such occasions. Then try to choke down something soft and bland—oatmeal maybe, or grits. Work is bound to be the dullest and most depressing form of torture you’ve experienced since the last time you went to work. Give this a thought as you stand by the kitchen window and try not to retch again. You’ve got a couple Adapex left in that bag of pills the Pharmacist traded you for those Cherry Popper DVDs. Adapex are good for energy and alertness. They’ll get you through work. After that, though, you’ll be on your own, and being on your own is like a beginning and an ending rolled into one. Being on your own is your biggest fear.

So page the Night Manager 911. When he calls back, schedule a 7 p.m. meeting at your place. Tell him it’s Tuesday.


As you race your unregistered and uninsured Chevy Celebrity home from work at a speed that’s unwise on a gravel road and four bald tires, try not to think about all the little things that might go wrong. In particular, avoid imagining how the Night Manager might blow you off or just get sidetracked or lost or arrested. Don’t dwell on the awful crash you’ll suffer if he fails to show. Don’t flash forward to desperate hours of dialing and pacing, dialing and licking mirrors, dialing and licking cracks in the hardwood floors.

He’ll be there. He’ll be leaning against the concrete well-house or the big oak tree, smoking a cigarette, and you’ll see the cherry flare orange in the darkness each time he takes a drag and you’ll feel relief, park the car, jump out and say, “Hey. Wasn’t any trouble finding the place?”

“Been out this way a time or two on different deliveries,” he’ll answer, arcing his cigarette butt down the hill toward the creekbank. “There’s a sheriff’s deputy living just across that low-water bridge.”

Tell the Night Manager he must be mistaken. Say, “I moved out here to get away from the law.”

He’ll give his head an authoritative shake. “It’s like Jonah and the whale and all that. Law’s everywhere you go. Behind the billboards on the interstate, tapping into your long-distance calls, watching you jack off in the john via satellite. They keep pictures of that shit in case you run for politics. Try to legalize weed or some other hippie nonsense, they got pictures of you jacking off in the john.” His left cheek will dance an impromptu Saint Vitus as he pauses to survey the sky. “Bet they got some pretty good shots of you. Must’ve been quite a show to fuck your hand up like that. You remember lubricant?”

Look down at your bandaged right hand and say, “Damndest thing. Had a run-in with a door.” Shrug your shoulders and walk toward the house.

“So?” the Night Manager will ask. “What’s the story? Who’s she fucking this time?”

There’s no trash service this far from town, and you have a habit of putting things off until Tuesday, or next Tuesday at the latest. As a result, a growing pyramid of Hefty bags has become your front porch’s primary decorative feature. Kick the nearest bag further into the shadows, unlock the door and skim your hand along the ceiling until you find the light cord. Say, “It’s this new guy she’s buying from, I think.” Then, while he sets up his gear, give the Night Manager a summary of recent events.

“Let me ask you this,” he’ll say once you finish. “Y’all still fuck?”

When you admit that yeah, most times y’all still do, he’ll crack an asymmetrical smile. “Long as I’ve known you, that’s always been your problem,” he’ll say, leaning over his pocket-size mirror and snorting a  line up each of his nostrils. “You lack perspective.” He’ll hand the mirror to you. “Now hoover up and lighten up. Whatever doesn’t kill you and all that.”

The lines will serve to lighten you up. They’ll make you positively weightless, in fact. Float effortlessly off the couch and press Random on your CD player. Moonwalk over to the Night Manager and proffer the 50 you lifted from the Triple X’s till. He’ll be in a hell of a good mood too. He’ll ask if you have an extra light bulb and a pair of pliers. All snort and no smoke, he’ll say, makes crank a dull drug.

You’ll agree, of course. You always agree. But be warned: Smoking is not like snorting. Once you flick that Bic and wrap your chapped lips around that straw, shit will get strange in ways that you’ll be able to influence but not control.

For instance, when the police cruiser pulls up the gravel drive, you’ll manage to turn down the volume on the CD player without much difficulty. To your utter befuddlement, however, this won’t make the cruiser disappear.

So switch to Plan B. Stumble over to where the Night Manager’s still gripping the hollowed-out light bulb between the pliers, waiting for the scorched glass to cool enough so that he can blade in more crank. Snatch the pliers out of his hand and smash the light bulb against the hardwood floor. Slap him hard on the shoulder and say, “Hey, the cops are here. We’re going to have to flush all this shit. Did you hear me? Hey. The cops are here.”

He’ll lurch off the couch and scramble to a window. “Belay that flushing shit,” he’ll order, squinting out toward the drive. “These aren’t cops. They got no lights on top of their car. These are the fucks that’ve been following me the past few days. Persistent sons of bitches. Strictly small-time, though. No need to worry. You own a gun?”

Run down the hallway and dig frantically through the bedroom for your .32. Drop to your knees and rummage around in the bottom of the closet until you find your coat. The gun will be in the right hip pocket. Double-check that it’s loaded, then hurry back up the hallway, stop just shy of the den, flatten yourself against the wall and listen. The Night Manager will be talking to someone in a voice that sounds distressed but not exactly panicked. So stick the gun in your pants and whirl into the room with your best air of casual menace.

“Look what the proverbial cat drug in,” the Night Manager will say to you, gesturing at the Ex, who’s sitting on the couch, cutting herself out a line. “Speak of the devil and all that.”

Quickly survey the rest of the room. The front door may be slightly ajar, but everything else will seem normal. Walk over to a window and peer suspiciously at the night. You won’t be able to see much—just the dark outline of the woods, a scattering of stars and the gibbous moon—but you’ll hear a faint scraping sound, like someone sliding along the exterior wall of the house, perhaps.

Turn to the Ex and demand, “You come out here alone?”

“Oh, hey,” she’ll say, throwing her hands up. “Don’t start with that shit again. You invited me over. Now that I’m here, do me a favor and quit with the headtrips.”

Her tone may strike you as honestly indignant, but remember that she’s lied to you before. Remember that she shouldn’t even know where you live. You’ve never given her the address or directions. Say, “How’d you even find the place?”

“For your information, hon, this ain’t the Bat Cave.” She’ll turn to the Night Manager. “Have you heard him talk about this place? He talks about it like it’s the fucking Bat Cave.” She’ll shake her head, spread her hands as if she’s confused. “You’re in the phonebook. You’re not hiding from anyone.”

The phonebook. Damn. You get so few calls these days, you’d forgotten that you’re still listed. Fix your face into a rough approximation of a sheepish grin and try to sound conciliatory as you say, “OK. My mistake. Do your line and let’s play nice, huh?”

But it’ll be too late for that. She’ll already be riled. “That’s you right down to the work boots, isn’t it? Yeah. Let’s play nice.” She’ll lean over the mirror, snort and swallow the line. “Now you’re a real good guy. Now you’re smart and funny and, wow, even sexy. I bet you’ve got a big dick now and can make me cum. That’d be nice, huh?”

Don’t bother answering. It’s a rhetorical question. Just open the front door wide. Let her see her way out.

You won’t be expecting her to leave quietly, of course. Some nights she doesn’t leave at all, and these are the best nights by far, the nights that make you think maybe you can learn to be someone else—someone who’s happy cuddling his girl on the couch and giggling with her about whatever happens to be on TV, someone who considers getting up to snort another line but doesn’t feel compelled because he’s no longer so afraid of the morning and what it might bring. Such nights are increasingly rare, though. Most nights now she just yells a little about how you’re a sad son of a bitch, how she means it this time, she’s not coming back. Tonight she’ll give a Sci-Fi Channel shriek.

Look at her in alarm. Look at her wide eyes, her pointing finger. Turn around and look at the three large skunks rooting through the Hefty bags piled on your porch. The shriek will have given them momentary pause. They’ll stand still in the midst of all those chewed and torn toilet paper rolls, coffee filters, take-out bags, credit card receipts, and they’ll stare back at you with eyes like tarnished tinfoil—eyes that are yellowed, flat and unafraid.

Ease the .32 out of your pants with your left hand. Hesitate for a moment. Give the skunks this one last chance to recognize how exposed, vulnerable and truly fucked they are. Then fire off a round.

You’re maybe 10 feet from the nearest skunk, but somehow you’ll manage to miss and the bullet will spark against the concrete and the skunks will scatter. Chase after them, firing a few more rounds as you go. You’ll have trouble trying to aim on the run, and using your left hand will make the process even more awkward. Two of the skunks will vanish into the woods. The third will head toward the well-house, then circle back in an attempt to get to the creek.

You won’t be able to smell anything but skunk by this point. The scent will be everywhere—powdery red and black, equal parts panic and anger. Swing around in this cloud of disorientation and try to get a bead on the skunk scrambling toward the creek. Somebody will be screaming something from somewhere nearby—something that’ll sound like either No no no or Now now now. A torch will be burning in the middle of the yard—a naked and unexplainable flame beneath the gibbous moon. Fire off your last two rounds.

The skunk you’re aiming at will seem to leap into the torch’s light as you pull the trigger. The torch will topple to the ground, set the grass ablaze. Drop your gun and rush over with the intention of somehow smothering the flames. Then realize that they aren’t flames at all, that they’re clumps of the Ex’s red hair growing thick and wet all over the lawn. Throw yourself down on her body. Try to scoop the clumps up and press them back where they belong. Say, “Baby. Talk to me. Come on. You can talk. You’re alright.”

“Goddamn,” the Night Manager will say, walking over with his features scrunched in disgust. “I’d forgot how bad a dead body can stink.”

“That’s not her. It’s the skunks. And she’s not dead.”

“Not dead? You damn near blew her head off.”

“But she can talk. And I got hydrogen peroxide and Ace bandages in the house. She’s going to be alright. She’s going to be fine.”

The Night Manager will stare at you for a moment, then turn, walk to his truck and drive away, leaving you on your own.

Cuddle the Ex’s body. Look up at the sky. See the scattering of stars, the gibbous moon, all the airplane beacons and satellites. Then look further. See yourself from the outside. See the way you might look if someone else were watching you on TV. You’re covered in blood. You’re alone with your ex-girlfriend’s unmoving body. You’ve got a problem. Decide.

Please visit to read this story in its entirety.

Nathan Altman grew up a “military brat,” travelling the world and attending Department of Defense Dependent Schools. He decided to become a writer and began writing his own fantasies, complete with elaborate maps, around age ten. He completed an MFA in creative writing at Texas State University in December 2004. He had completed several short stories and was working on a novel at the time of his death in September 2006. This is his first published work.

Posted in Paper City

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