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Cotton Fever

Story by Brandon Courtney (Read author interview) June 28, 2011

art by Dave Reale


Johnny and I were holed up in some off-ramp interstate motel room for eighteen hours before we came down, some sticky summer in southern Iowa, the window unit yawning conditioned air into all four cobwebbed corners. The curtains were moth-eaten, the plastic pulley seized from over-use or under-use, I couldn’t determine which. We kept them closed the whole time, the vinyl blinds and black-out fabric. Everything was shellacked in wood paneling: four walls, two twin headboards cut with a jigsaw, suspended with finishing nails. Even the entertainment center, where the TV dozed between tit flicks and static, was built almost entirely of cheap press board. We tied off with Johnny’s Goodwill web-belt on the corner of the bed, and shot white cross until we were both properly spun.


Johnny was standing under 100-watts of a single bare bulb, picking crank craters into his throat—whole constellations—with his thumbnail and index finger. He was in the late stage of meth mouth. I was in the early stage: the tips of my canines were grey; holes pinpricked my molars and side of my tongue, a whole black mouth dying. Johnny lost three teeth in his sleep last night and damn near choked on a fourth had he not been sleeping on his side. It wasn’t long before he was bent over the dingy porcelain sink, twisting a tooth from his bleeding gums. It caught on the root—a single strand of nerve exposed; then, a slipknot of dental-floss lassoed to the tooth, the other end stretched to the doorknob.


Johnny came home after serving a nickel at the Fort Dodge Penitentiary for selling crumble cookies to a plain-clothed cop. It was still wrapped in cheesecloth when the pig handed over four crumpled hundred-dollar bills. He says he doesn’t remember much: coming to in Mercy’s emergency room, handcuffed to the bed, a uniformed guard standing between the frames of the door spinning his nightstick by the side-handle. The Diet Rite had chewed a hole through the lining of his stomach, and he hadn’t shat for a week. Fifteen Jolly Ranchers and a chain wallet pulled from his pocket were all that sat on the bedside stand.


Johnny got sick when he sucked a splinter of cotton into the barrel of his syringe and harpooned that hillbilly crack into the crook of his arm. His fever broke at 104 degrees. He lay naked in a claw-tub, Annie pouring five-pound bags of gas station ice into the bathwater. I was at the kitchen table cracking blister-packs of pseudoephedrine into a saucepan when the battery man rang the doorbell to show us how to strip lithium from 9-volt Energizers. He had threads of spider webs etched black on the knife points of his elbows and said he would carve a little picture into the canvas of our backs if we got him wired. His rig was made from a voice-recorder motor, the E string from an acoustic guitar—the makeshift needle—and three standard rubber bands wrapped around the ink cylinder like an equator.


Johnny got burned cracking the valve handle on the spigot of an anhydrous ammonia tank. He made me hold his over-and-under with the busted sight and shoulder strap in case we saw the farmer’s flashlight or high beams from his ATV. We filled a Red Ryder full of mason jars in the middle of a soybean field, wheeling the wagon through a half-mile of mud and hulls until we felt the gravel road through the soles of our shoes. He wrapped my flannel shirt around his hand like a boxing glove in the dome light’s soft glow. The glass jars rattled in the hatchback until we hit a landing strip of blacktop stretching through the horizon, a coffee filter full of crystal meth stuffed inside a tube sock and buried in the glove box.


After the Farrell brothers beat him with bicycle chains for selling their older brother junk cut with baby powder, Johnny got straight in the dark part of an alley, where the bums threw lit matches into dumpsters and warmed their crooked fingers punched through biker gloves. I was home throwing bones against my bedroom door with some couch-kid nicknamed Barringer, named after the crater in Arizona. He promised to pay our mortgage when he sold the rest of his brick. Johnny walked in all bloodied and blue. It must have been Mother’s Day—a bouquet of daffodils gowned in cellophane were clutched in his fists. The phone rang and the answering machine cassette clicked on, both wheels grinding their teeth, then the sound of my brother’s voice: we’re not home right now, but if you leave us a meth-age, will call you back. He didn’t even allow the voice on the other end to speak, just unspooled a yardstick’s worth of black tape and flushed what he had in his front pocket down the disposal side of the sink.

About the Author

Brandon Courtney spent four years in the United States Navy. His poetry is forthcoming or appears in Best New Poets 2009, Linebreak, BOXCAR Poetry Review, The Raleigh Review and The Los Angeles Review among many others. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He attends the MFA program at Hollins University.

About the Artist

Dave Reale graduated from Arcadia University with a degree in English. Originally from Philadelphia, he now has set up temporarily in New Orleans to paint.

This story appeared in Issue Thirty-Two of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirty-Two

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