The 13th Burke novel, Pain Management, was inspired by the overwhelmingly intense reaction to Andrew Vachss' short story, "Dope Fiend," which appeared in Everybody Pays. That story is available here, courtesy of Vintage Books.
— 1 —
This all started when Charlene asked me to kill her.
You'd have to know her to understand what that means. It didn't come easy to her, to say those words. Not because she's afraid of dying—it would be a comfort for her, I know that. She just don't want to leave me alone.
It's the pain. Cancer's been eating her bones like a pack of winter-starved wolves. Gnawing right into the marrow. Charlene, she's no stranger to the pain. She was never a big woman. But she was strong. Always did her share, and more. I met her in the tobacco fields, and she was pulling a full load, even though she wasn't but sixteen, and skinny too.
When we left the fields together, we was looking for something better than seasonal. That never seemed to work out, not for a long time. I mean, I'd get work, and Charlene wouldn't be able to find none. Or she'd have to waitress or something while I got that Unemployment. Neither of us never took the Welfare. We wasn't raised like that.
There was chances, but Charlene never would let me take them. A couple of boys where I was raised up, they wanted me to run shine into some dry counties. Real good money if you could drive, and they knowed I could.
Charlene told me I couldn't do it. I told her, I was the man in the house, if I wanted to do something I would. Being against the law don't make something wrong, and we needed the money. She didn't say nothing, just walked off and left me sitting there.
I had a beer and a couple of cigarettes, thinking about how I was going to handle this. Then Charlene came back into the room. She was all dressed up, like we was going to a dance. Except that she didn't look right. Her face was all painted, real heavy, not like she does it. And her blouse wasn't buttoned up. I asked her what she was . . . But before I could even finish, she told me she was going down to Front Street and make her some money. With men. I got so mad I . . . It was the only time I ever raised my hand to Charlene. She didn't even move, just stood there, hands on her hips. And I never did hit her. I couldn't. And she knew it.
Charlene didn't turn no tricks and I didn't haul no shine. We just kept trying.
When I got on at the plant regular, we thought that was it. I mean, it was a union job, with benefits and everything.
We wanted some babies. We'd waited long enough. Charlene said she wasn't going to put no kids of hers in the fields, and I agreed with her. Complete. So, when I got on regular, got my union card and all, then we figured it was time.
But Charlene couldn't get pregnant. One of the benefits I got was this health insurance. So we went to this place they said to go to—a clinic, like. They told Charlene her . . . insides was all rotted out. She had this cancer.
They tried to cut it out. She went into the hospital. The health insurance paid for it. And she had the operation. But the doctor told us later that it was too late. It was into her bones. Nothing they could do.
So Charlene is dying right in our trailer. She can bear that. I mean, she can bear it for herself, dying. Like I said, there ain't but one reason she don't want to go, as much pain as she's got now.
The pain is the thing. Charlene can't take it no more. But the doctors from that health-insurance thing, they said they can't give her no more of the drugs. It's against the law or something. They could lose their license.
I told the doctor plain, I didn't believe him. He showed it to me. On a piece of paper. I couldn't make no sense of it. So I told him even plainer: If it was him in all that pain, they'd give him all the drugs he needed. He didn't say nothing to me about that.
What they give Charlene, it comes in special little bottles. The top is rubber, like. So you can stick the needle right into it and draw out what you need.
Only Charlene don't have what she needs. Every time the nurse comes, Charlene asks her for more. And the nurse just says, "Doctor hasn't prescribed any."
"Doctor." Like he don't have no name. Don't need one. Might as well say "King." Or even "God."
They leave three, four of them bottles at a time. They showed me how to give the injections. It ain't even into Charlene herself. I mean, the needle's already in her, all taped down. I fill the syringe, then I push the plunger into the little spot they showed me.
What hurts her so is between the shots. When she starts to run out of strength to fight. One time, I gave her another shot before the time the nurse said had to pass. And it made her feel better. I could see it right away. She even smiled a little. But when the nurse came and she saw I only had half of one bottle left instead of the two I should have, she said she couldn't do nothing. We had to take the drug when they said so.
Not more than they said. Not ever.
I asked her, nice as I could: Why? I mean, what did it matter if Charlene turned into one of them dope fiends? She was going to die. They all knew that. Why couldn't she die without so much pain?
The nurse didn't say nothing. Her lips was pressed together so tight they was the same color as her uniform.
Finally she said, if you took too much morphine it could kill you. Charlene, she started to laugh then. But the pain took that away right quick. Not as quick as that nurse left, though.
I went back to the doctor. He told me the DEA set the rules. If you prescribed too much painkillers, they would come and make trouble for you.
I asked him, was I doing it right? Could he show me? You could see he didn't want to, but he was scared, so he got one of the little bottles from this refrigerator-thing and showed me how to stick the needle in. I begged him with my eyes to give me that one extra bottle. He looked away.
— 2 —
Now Charlene has all the medicine she needs. It won't be long. If there's any left after she goes, I'm going to take it myself, so I can go along with her right away, down the same road. If there's none left, I'll let the law do it. They've been outside for a couple of days now, screaming at us through their horns. They think Charlene is a hostage.
We both liked that one. It was so funny, Charlene even smiled a little.
I guess Charlene's a drug addict now. A dope fiend. She's going to go soon. But she don't have no more pain.
Neither does Doctor.
for James Colbert
© 1999 Andrew Vachss. All Rights Reserved.
This story appears in Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss.
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