Chapter 1. Codeine Clouds in Grammar School

by Miranda Brumbaugh in ,


Winter

I was drinking codeine long before Lil’ Wayne. I was seven when I first started sipping the sizzurp. The problem was my bronchitis. I coughed too much, too loud, too long at night. Aunt, “You will call me Mom now,” (but I always called her Aunt, or rather Ain’t, anyway) told the doctors she wouldn’t leave without it. 

A prescription of codeine cough syrup was the only thing that would keep me asleep at night, allowing her to sleep so she could go to work. Her morning started at 5 a.m. when she played the funeral announcements loud on the radio. Who died was the daily meditation in our house. She’d make her breakfast. Fried hamburger patty with mustard, and she would sit and eat it in the shadows. 

I always had sugary sweet but slightly wheat tasting Honey Smacks, or sometimes when on sale, lighter, airy Honey-Comb’s. Sometimes there were Corn Pops, those slightly rubbery yellow morsels were good stuff but far from corn. I just sat and read the backs of the cereal boxes, shoveling in the sugar and the sweet milk. 

For those who died, you might know them by extension and that would be exciting. It meant a lot more church stuff, too though. You’d get to visit the funeral home after dark and run around looking at all the name tags on the flower arrangements. Just reading the names see if you recognized anyone. Sometimes you’d get to read the tombstones out in the cemetery while the coffin was going in the ground, but that was only if the dead person was family. Spent a lot of time at the funeral homes and cemeteries.

The codeine, it kept me from coughing. I coughed a lot. It was because I was born with bronchitis and the lungs of a 40-year-old smoker, heavy pack a day smoker. Ain’t said the only thing that would stop my barking was cough syrup with codeine in it. And she gave it to me. Were you thinking maybe she was sipping it herself? Naw. She had plenty of her own prescription medications. Drugs, as long as their legal, are fine. It’s my drug addicted mama who was in the wrong by taking the wrong kind of drugs. Always the drugs.

In second grade I was walking down the steps to the library on the lower level of the elementary school. Somehow I was asleep walking, I knew from the cough syrup. My eyes wouldn’t open from the inside, as if I was on auto pilot and not actually in charge of my mind and body. I was terrified I’d fall down the stairs in my zombie state. 

I loved the library where I could get whatever book I wanted because they were free and for the taking. I was always a little thief as a kid, I stole a watch for my best friend’s birthday present. I got it from the Belk’s store, one of those rad Swatch watches that came with a couple different plastic bands to switch out on your watch. Because it’s a Swatch. It was awesome, so awesome I stole me one, too. 

I still have the photo that got me busted. We were standing there wearing our watches with our arms across each others shoulders at my house on her birthday. My Ain’t developed the photos for me. That wasn’t until fourth grade though.

Still in second grade, I I had a curtain screen shading my inside from the functioning world. 

I was a zombie. Why did I have to feel like a zombie? I knew it was the cough medicine because it helped me sleep so deep. I just couldn’t wake up and sometimes if I coughed before school I had to take it then, too. 

I got sick all the time in the winter, even though I had basketball then, the only sport I played. Because I was tall, not because I was at all good. Because I sucked. I hated running and being in front of everyone like that with them watching you running like a clown. The first two baskets I ever made were for the opposite team. I literally was that tall person that intimidated the other team…and that was it. 

At least I could feel awake by the end of the game. That day walking in line down the stairwell all I wanted to do was walk down those stairs without feeling like I was going to fall down them. They were concrete stairs and the rail handles metal, that rough rusty corrugated red metal. It would be painful to fall on those and hit my head. I never wanted to hurt myself. I hated feeling pain.

Plus if I did get hurt nobody at that house cared. I got in trouble if I coughed, I cried I got in trouble. Nobody has time to hear that crap when everyone’s working all the time. One time driving home I asked “why” a few too many times and got my ass handed to me. Stop with the questions. Look it up when you get home. Why do you have to ask why all the time? I got in trouble when I didn’t know who God was or to say “yes sir” or “please” because nobody had taught me yet.

When I moved in there I had been so excited because of all the food. My first happy memory in that house was on the Easter Sunday when the table was spread with so many dishes piled full of food making me salivate. Southern fried butter battered goodness. Every Sunday we would have a family dinner as it turned out. Not all were nearly as wonderful as Easter Sunday that day but the food was bountiful.

The codeine Ain’t spoon fed me also made me sleep too much. I would go visit Granny on the weekends when I was sick and on the syrup. With her sweet nature, I could sleep all weekend and she wouldn’t say a word to me. She never said a cross word.

She’d feed me homemade sausage biscuits and sugar toast, which was exactly what you would expect—white loaf bread layered in butter and slightly squished but sprinkled with enough white sugar to nearly give it a shell when put under the broiler to caramelize. 

She would give me a bird bath, put an onion poultice on me if the barking from the bronchitis was making my throat hurt, and let me sleep, sleep, sleep. I hated that, too, because I wasted all my time I could have spent with her asleep. Not all the time but enough to wish I would just wake up. She was fun, she was good, she loved me.

Her food wasn’t quite the spread because her cheese came from the government and so did the peanut butter. She got local produce and then had a huge garden every year. She put up everything from pickled okra to stewed tomatoes. She always wanted to can the cream corn, but I don’t think it ever made it in a quart jar. 

She cut the corn right off the cob into this giant metal bowl that she double-boilered on the stove to cook the cream corn. Stirred in a ton of butter, probably literally. It was divine. Salt and pepper, heavenly. We ate it off the stovetop. 

Granny would have company come over periodically. She’d give them the jars of food she canned and preserved. She did have plenty for herself but she would not let a soul starve either.

Later when she was put on morphine after her cancer ate away her spinal column to the point where she couldn’t even get out of bed anymore, the drug made her mean. She would not be the same sweet soul when she had that patch on. Her eyes went black and her forehead shrunk together and she cussed like a sailor. Words that my saintly Southern grandmother would have never said, ever. Out loud, evidently.

It did completely change her personality, the drug. She hallucinated there at the end, something about a little black boy who brought her butter biscuits, or wouldn’t bring them—we couldn’t figure it out—but the nurses in the hospital had already seen it all before. 

This racist nearly 90-year-old woman was living mentally in the pre-Civil War south. She didn’t talk much after that, the coma took over her tongue right before she died and her name was announced out loud on the obituaries in the a.m. Lots of flowers at that one. Lots of flower cards to read and grieve.

When I got out of the house I was 14. I physically felt a veil lift off my soul when I moved. I had always took it to be a depression or a possession, a demonic possession. That’s because when I moved, the feeling of being depressed and dead inside left. The veil lifted. My alligator eyes opened up. I was alert and alive for the first time since I entered the house.

I was no longer taking the medicine. I was not feeling asleep and had lost a lot of weight all the sudden, but also I was having stomach trouble. I just couldn’t eat enough to feel full. I would eat as much sugary, greasy and fast food as possible. Anything like that would make me feel good for as long as I had until the next meal. The lack of the ability to eat and seeing dark shadows on the walls was now my problem.

*Note from Author: This is Chapter 1 of an ongoing project. It’s also a draft so the words you read here might change before they go into print.

**Another Note from Author: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of this author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.