Marie met back with herself after quite a long hiatus. She was sitting in the den, reading the paper and letting tendrils of smoke vine up at her wrists. She met back with herself after she decided to take up gardening and collecting old National Geographic. She met back with herself after realizing that she wasn’t the one she needed to escape from. She met back with herself after she dumped all the pills in the toilet, and swore not to reach down and take them one-by-one, dry them off, and save them. She did that to two, swallowed one, felt half, and let the rest go.
She was reading NatGeo after stepping inside to make tea. The magazines looked like an attempt to get back to the land. In it there were glossed pictures of African women and Siberian native men, seemingly happy, seemingly without knowledge of more intimate pleasures. The most she’d seen is pictures of a few factory workers—some Soviet, some Chinese—stepping out for cigarettes, or drunk after hours. But even the cigarettes looked otherworldly. Between the fingers of people that weren’t her, and in a place she couldn’t be, the cigarettes looked healthy even. Like Chinese Coke, bitter and more bubbly, less sweet. Like Russian Kvass; healthful for fun. As for the tribal folks, the most there was a shaman taking the strange brew, which looked less like fun and more like duty.
Marie thought of what a mistake it may have been to throw out the pills. How, they swam down the pipes and tubes in a moment of peace, and how she might wish she wouldn’t when times became less easygoing. And in some ways she was right to sense that she in the future would be scolding of her in the present. That thought alone brought some tension, some punctuations in ease. She tried to lose herself from it, hiding between the glossy pages, under people who knew better, and beside them as close as possible without kidding herself. She put down the magazine to grab a beer from the fridge. The cigarette in her hand had fizzled out, but it was burnt enough to even think about relighting it. She came back to the magazine with a pint glass of stout, watching the black middle get sandwiched between two shades of foam.
She took small bird-like sips of it, now cautious of anything that feels good. A substitution couldn’t be on its way already. Anything that feels good; enemy. But she kept sipping it and tumbling through the rest of the pages, looking for an answer after having found the camaraderie. She put the issue away and grabbed another from the magazine holster beside the armchair she sat in. This time, the ‘67 issue. It felt heavy, and a bit too holy to not have a few more sips of beer and a cigarette beforehand. She wanted to read it, but wanted to enjoy herself, so she huffed the cigarette until the ember was longer than the ash and took one huge chug of stout. She took a deep breath and opened to the contents. In it was an article: Skim Milk. The title reeked of incredulity. Invitation by title alone compared to the others that started with ‘how’ or ‘when.’ It described the end of the Civil War one-hundred years later.
When soldiers returned from battle, they also returned with morphine addiction. Those who’d survived survived with a slow illness, rather than quick ones. Even if they’d not been killed or severely maimed, they still returned for carvings for the good stuff. To which, they were either put in asylums, or slowly died from the addiction. A doctor treating them had grown infamous for his advice: “to treat morphine dependence, the afflicted should make in their regimen a cup or two daily of skim milk.” Meanwhile, people who went to him still had the disease. The skim milk didn’t save anyone. In fact, drinking skim milk doesn’t even cure calcium deficiency. But they drank the skim milk, still used morphine until death or cold-turkey.
She looked through the myriad of pictures of soldiers trying to stand still. They did a good job, but the slump rest just beneath their eyes. Their pupils were the size of pin-pricks, and for good reason. Eyes like that make the light dim. They maintained their rowdiness in candid shots. Gathering around a small table playing dice, drinking, smoking on pipes. They were distant, unseen, clouded in sepia and scuff marks on the thin glass panes that served as film. They looked like they did, everything normal, just with the weight of morphine resting on them. Everything they did or could do, they would have done. But they hunched over, going about the day-to-day, but weighed.
They didn’t stop drinking skim milk. Even though it didn’t do anything, they didn’t stop drinking the skim milk. They may have died from overdose or stress, but earlier that day they most likely drank a heaping cupful of skim milk. And they didn’t ask themselves why. It didn’t help, but it didn’t hurt. Her interest grew into it, looking glued to the article. She finished her cigarette so she could read more, and the beer was making her woozy. So she clasped the magazine in both hands and tried to dive in.
She couldn’t understand how a doctor—someone who’s in the business of help—could suggest something so bizarre. She couldn’t understand the logic. It wasn’t perfect but they had methods for every other thing. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than years before. It can’t be perfect but it’s always better. She thought that that sort of advice would’ve been outgrown by then, after the war, after most of history. She couldn’t understand it, but also didn’t mind going for a glass of skim milk.
Jack Orleans is a Denver writer whose work has been featured in Birdy Magazine (‘Nobody Leaves,’), SUNY Hopewell’s literary journal, The Finger (‘Edward III’), and Suspect Press (‘Orchid’). He has also published a photo-essay in Stain’d Magazine (‘Paris Syndrome’), and an essay is forthcoming in Litro. Jack can’t seem to fall asleep. He takes the bus late to have coffee. While taking the bus, he’s happy until someone fucks up on the bus. After, he’s happy but with caveats. He knows that he’d be awake regardless of having had coffee. He prefers to be awake and alert over awake and tired. He just doesn’t know what he wants, but it better involve lots of undeserved perks or skymiles.
Photo/Ceramics: Tom Crew