Featured in Colorado Review
Published Summer 2017
The years from 2007 through 2011 blur in my memory. Some moments I can barely make out—they’re like streetlights on a rainy night, no more than gauze in the dark. Others interlock, firm. These are the years my daughter and I lived in Oklahoma, where we landed after brief stops in three other states after my release from rehab in 2006. I was, after all the moves and miscalculations, still mind wandering and restless. My daughter was four.
Halfway between Dallas and the Oklahoma border, there’s a 7-Eleven on the northbound side of I-35 in Denton, Texas, where we now live.
After my daughter’s birth in 2002, there were nights I sat in the rocking chair next to her crib, understanding that the world would be better if I killed myself. And her. I’d grip the arms of the chair and flex every muscle in my body to stop myself. One night, I walked into the room where her father was reading and sat on the edge of the bed beside him. I admitted I had no feelings—for him, for her, for myself—but that we could be friends; we could raise her together. We’d be fine. Our lives would be fine.
He left four months later.
The bed-headed clerk rushes back from the gas pumps outside. He’s apologizing, explaining he’s been shouting away the man who hovers in the mornings asking anyone who’s filling up for a couple of bucks. “Every damn day,” he mumbles. I set my Big Gulp on the counter, fumble in my purse for enough change.
Not long after my daughter’s father left, I described the apathy to my doctor and she diagnosed me with postpartum depression. She prescribed Lexapro, an antidepressant, making me promise to see a psychiatrist, but I knew I wouldn’t do it, couldn’t do it. I was in my final semester of graduate school, and my daughter was six months old. I had classes to teach and seminar papers and a thesis to write. I had very little money, university insurance, and no time. I took the Lexapro anyway. As the weeks passed, I realized I had always felt a little down my entire life. The pills lifted that heaviness.
Twentysomething clerks come and go here, most lasting a month or so except for the stout blonde woman, Sharon, who’s in her mid-thirties and gets her nails painted the color of whatever holiday nears. My favorite so far has been the sparkling silver she had done for New Year’s. She calls me “sweetie” and “babe.” When she’s busy stocking the chip aisle or cleaning the coffee machine during lulls in the morning rush, I wave a dollar in the air on my way to the register, tell her I’ll leave it on the counter. Other mornings, I’ll hand her eighty-six cents on my way back to the fountain drink machine, where I pour Diet Dr Pepper into a plastic cup. Every morning.
A thin boy in a large cowboy hat sets down a twenty, and when the manager hands him two packs of smokes, the boy shakes his head, tosses his hand toward the cigarettes. “No, not this one—the Reds,” he says rudely. The manager, a slight, balding Middle Eastern man, pauses, takes a long look at him before asking for ID. Cowboy looks out to his truck at the gas pumps, says he doesn’t have it. The manager slides the cigarettes back, says, “No.” “But I already paid for ’em.” I feel sorry for Cowboy until he stomps toward the door then shoves it open, hurling a “Fuck you” at the morning.
The Gold Peak tea machine in the back of the store has had a handwritten Out of Order!!! sign taped to it since we moved here about a year ago, and the front window has never been without a Now Hiring sign. I wonder how much 7-Eleven pays, because I see one of the clerks walking back to his apartment in my complex after his shift. It’s not lost on me that as a professor, I share the same housing as an employee at the nearest convenience store.
On a night when the Powerball jackpot soars over 400 million, my daughter and I rush to the store with only thirty minutes before ticket sales end at nine. The strangers inside the store make a ribbon from the two registers and through the candy aisle before curving at the Gatorades in the back cooler. We all stand, shuffling our feet, craning our necks to see what’s taking so long, smiling awkwardly each time someone asks where the line ends. The lottery computer fights and loses against all the other ones churning across the country. Trevor, the clerk, shouts toward us that a ticket took ten minutes to print after the machine shut down and had to be rebooted. And then, a sudden clearing when a young Hispanic woman toward the front of the line hits the floor, fainting. “Someone get some water!” I abandon my place in line, run to the fountain machine and get a Big Gulp of ice and water, then hand it to her, still on the floor. Within minutes, three tall men in navy emt uniforms move through the crowd. They usher her out into a dark night, the flashing blue and red lights blaring against the hush of our shared delusion.
After graduate school, I took a tenure-track position at a small university in Utah. There, a new doctor traded my Lexapro for Wellbutrin. I remember looking at the pill bottle in a drawer in the kitchen and feeling listless, but I don’t remember how Effexor, the orange pill, became my next med. The bottle had a large X on the label, warning me against alcohol, but I ignored it. What followed was a fast dissolve into marathon sessions of Chardonnay that began as soon as my daughter, then sixteen months, fell asleep in her crib. The Effexor catapulted my wine consumption to precarious peaks that left me staggering around the house in the middle of the night, often waking up in the hall, or more than once, on the steps of the front porch. With Effexor, I could drink what is equivalent to a box of wine every night, and after enough of those nights and the toxic mix of the antidepressants surging with the gallon of depressants in my system, my thoughts were as dark as the nights I drank through.
On the morning I called the rehab center, the counselor gave me an intake interview.
“Do you have thoughts of harming yourself?” Yes.
“Do you have thoughts of harming anyone else?” Yes.
Everyone holds doors open here, offers the “go right ahead” at the fountain, says “excuse me” in the aisles, even when we’re not in each other’s way.
A frail, white-haired woman leans over the counter, pointing to the cigarettes. Her words are disconnected, difficult to follow except for the brand names: Winston, Camel, Kool. She settles on a two-pack special of Marlboro Golds. While she’s counting out her money, she turns to me. “I just got out of the hospital.” She points to two plastic ID bracelets on her arm. Under the edge of her thin V-neck shirt, I see what looks like an electrode on her chest.
One morning a bed-headed Trevor slumps in a chair behind the register. He never wears the stiff polyester, red and blue smock the other employees do, never a name tag. He’s more hipster than corporate in his tucked-in plaid, belted corduroys, and smart-guy glasses. I often suspect he’s some graduate student in anthropology or sociology, doing field research during the morning shift.
“Just put it on the counter,” he groans when I pull out my change. “I’m too hungover to move.”
My rehab counselor kept me on Effexor even when I asked if I could stop taking it. I dreaded the morning line to take one from the little paper cup I was given. I tried to explain that when I left, I wanted to be myself, not some distant stranger altered by an orange pill. “Not a chance,” he told me.
I left rehab four days into the new year, and I lasted five months before I dropped off my daughter at a friend’s house, then drove to the next town, sat at a hotel bar, and ordered a glass of wine. From that night on, I was like a pinball, resigning my professor position in the last week of the semester, then zinging up to Montana for a couple of weeks before realizing I had picked the wrong time, midsummer, to find a waitressing job and an apartment. I sped down to Boise to accept an adjunct position for a semester before rolling on to another state, where my daughter and I shared a room and a futon at a friend’s house.
It’s easy to hide when you’re the only one awake in the middle of the night, lost in the kaleidoscope of drunkenness and altering brain chemicals and grief, but it’s another to have a witness, someone unable to sleep through the middle-of-the-night storms.
My friend asked me to leave after two months.
Some mornings the bright Diet Dr Pepper icon on the fountain drink machine turns gray and white, which means it’s out. I’ve watched the manager or a clerk change the small box of syrup and punch through the computer’s steps so many times I can do it myself, so once they’ve placed the box in its slot, they leave it to me to finish the process and return the screen to customer view. On these days, I get my DDP for free.
Trevor, a drawn young man with averting eyes, has been fired and rehired from the store three times. I know about the first two because I was in the store when he erupted at the manager and a few months later when he stood at the door of the back office, explaining in a shaky voice, “Look, I know I fucked up, but you have no right to yell at me.” I’ve seen Trevor walking the sidewalks in the afternoons, once in a Little Caesars uniform. He drags his self-loathing, struggling toward the next hit of whatever it is that’s taken over.
Each new state that my daughter and I moved to brought a new doctor and a new prescription, usually whatever the pharmaceutical rep had dropped off that week. And because I didn’t have health insurance, I could only afford a few pills at a time. If I didn’t take a pill by nine in the morning, my head buzzed and I curled up under the covers, unable to move. I’d eventually shamble into Walgreens, leaning over the pharmacy counter dizzy and nearly delirious, begging for three or four pills because it was all I could afford. I’d pace the aisles while I waited, my head zapping like a bug light. The pharmacists shook their heads while they placed the pills in a bottle, and I paid them twenty-five bucks.
Saturday morning, and the Open sign in the Domino’s Pizza window flashes. I imagine a roughed-up man across town rolling over from his even rougher night to order delivery at ten a.m. Inside the 7-Eleven, an obese woman in a Subway uniform lingers near the case where a medium-sized pizza deteriorates under a heat lamp. She has her ball-capped head tucked toward her purse, and she’s counting out the dollars in her wallet. I pretend to look at the 7-Eleven brand-chip flavors behind her: BBQ, Cheddar Ale, and Jalapeño. After she’s counted twice, she points to the pizza. Sharon disappears into a small room behind the counter and comes back folding a pizza box with the 7-Eleven logo on the top. When I get outside, I pass the Subway woman next to her still-running car. She has transformed her hood into a table, and she takes turns between half-a-slice bites, long sips, and slow drags from her cigarette.
Doctors can prescribe patients up to twelve months of pills at a time. By the time we got to Oklahoma and my daughter was five, I had been through Lexapro and Wellbutrin and Effexor and back to Wellbutrin before a fidgety doctor in Oklahoma spun the antidepressant wheel and landed on Celexa.
I have written about these years before, but I’ve never divulged the antidepressants. It’s like I’ve been etching over the murkiest scenes, submerging them. But in my mind, those moments shimmer the way hot air on roads bends light.
I’m wondering whether anything I’ve written before now has been true.
For the three years I took Celexa, I stopped writing. For three years, I didn’t listen to music—I could listen to only NPR. For three years, I was convinced money wasn’t real, that checks were only pieces of paper, so I signed them and passed them across counters and left them on restaurant tables. I had a suspended license for an unpaid ticket back in one of the states, no car insurance, and an outdated registration sticker. I didn’t have a checking account, just a prepaid debit card, and if I had to cash a check, I drove to the nearest ACE Cash Express store, fifty miles north, and lost ten percent of it to fees. But I was also teaching four classes a semester and reading the raves in student evaluations. Once the undergraduate adviser stopped me in the hall to tell me I was one of the professors students most requested to take again.
Seeing a stranger teetering on some internal, shadowy ledge unsettles me—the strung-out woman at the intersection in cut-off shorts and a sweatshirt leering toward the windows of idling cars, the stoic man in coveralls leaning against the trashcan gripping a Bible to his chest, the woman in a Today Is My Day T-shirt who blocks the front of the door and asks if I have a cigarette.
Being off the highway, this 7-Eleven serves a steady group of travelers, and it’s obvious who’s coming in from the road—they always talk loudly in the store, use the restroom, and carry a sense of urgency that belies the slow pace of the store. Here, we’re all strangers—recognized only by the time of day we stop in and what we get or never do. I think being stripped of our identities makes us more transparent to each another. When I head back to the fountain machine, I don’t have a doctorate. I don’t have a daughter. I am, as I recently heard Sharon inform a trainee, the “lady who comes in every morning for a Diet Dr Pepper.” We’re transient here, fleeting, between one moment and the next. Tomorrow, most of us in here will do it all over again.
In Oklahoma, my daughter and I binge-watched Gilmore Girls, rushing to Hastings and near-running to the TV aisle to rent the next DVD set as soon as we finished another. We spent long hours in the book section there, too, both of us in our own aisle before meeting up to buy a used book. Hastings also offered emergency income when I’d sell books or CDs or DVDs to get us to the first of the month. In all of the pictures I have of my daughter from that time—standing out in front waiting for the school bus or posing by the tree outside—she’s smiling and silly.
A liquor store in Oklahoma had one of my returned checks taped to the wall behind the counter, next to the photo stills from the security camera featuring huddled figures pursing or jacketing a bottle. We were all criminals, stealing booze one way or another. After a while, the owners replaced the Insufficient Funds–stamped checks on the wall with a poster—Hot Check Writers written in red on the yellow board with names: Jill L. Talbot fourth on the list. Every time I paid with my debit card or cash, I’d sneak a glance over at the list. Even after I paid my debt, my name remained. I wondered whether any of my students or colleagues ever noticed my name on the wall. Or how many of them had no inclination to pay attention to such matters or such kinds of people.
I ask Sharon how often underage people try to buy booze or cigarettes.
“All the time.”
“Every day? Once a day?”
“All day. I’m telling ya, all the time. And I’ll tell ya, the ten-thousand-dollar fine I’d get ain’t worth it.”
I think about this for most of the day and when I return the next morning, another question.
“Does anything happen to the store?”
“Same. Ten thousand dollars.”
I have a scar on my left hand from a night in Oklahoma I couldn’t get a corkscrew to wrestle a wine bottle open, so I grabbed a knife and accidentally dug into my hand instead of the cork. When the knife hit, I dropped the bottle, shattering pieces on the kitchen floor. I stood in a flood of Chardonnay, knowing I was drowning again but that didn’t deter me. I drove back to the liquor store with my hand wrapped in a paper towel, the blood clear as I set another bottle of cheap Chardonnay on the counter.
Sometimes my daughter will tell me something she remembers from Oklahoma, and I’ll wander the hallways of my mind, peeking in rooms, trying to find the memory. Some are opaque, others just dark, a blank.
During those years, I went to every school program my daughter performed in on assembly days and clapped loud and long as I leaned against the gym wall. I bought two plastic folding lawn chairs at Walmart so that we could lie out on the lawn at night, talking about our days, watching the sky turn from navy blue to black. I attended every parent-teacher conference, and I remember the afternoon we went to see Toy Story 3, when I sobbed in the dark theater and held her hand, dreading the day she’d be leaving home in ten years.
I’m approaching the counter with my Diet Dr Pepper when an African American woman wearing PINK sweatpants erupts in front of the manager.
“Yes, it is—I checked it!” He shakes his head no, tries to return the Powerball ticket.
“Check it again.” She’s firm, but wavering, nervous.
“I’m sorry, ma’am.” He shrugs, raises his hands. “I only can do what the computer says, and it says it’s not a winner.”
She snatches the ticket from him, rushes to the self-service lottery computer on the other side of the counter. She shoves the ticket under the scanner.
“You see? It’s a winner. Come look!” She’s yelling now, staring at the manager who has turned his back to her. “Come here and look at this!”
She tries the machine again, starts waving the ticket at him. “And you people wonder why black people are so angry?”
The store is suddenly frozen. Not one move.
“It’s because we’re treated like this! You’re lying! He’s lying! He won’t give me my fucking money!”
I hand the manager a dollar and duck toward the door, not waiting for my change.
There are mornings I walk the aisles, sipping my DDP, not really looking for anything, just wandering past the protein bars, the wine selection, the donuts. One morning, I notice an addition to the wine shelves: Mad Dog 20/20 in two flavors, Banana Red and Orange Jubilee, for $3.99.
I yell over the tops of the shelves to Sharon, “I didn’t know people still drank Mad Dog 20/20!”
She laughs. “That’s exactly what I said when they brought it in!”
When I go to pay, I tell her Mad Dog reminds me of high school. Her, too.
Once Telecheck had me in their system, I figured out ways around it. I’d change two numbers on my license when the clerk punched it into the machine so that it wouldn’t match my own. Or I’d go across town to the friendly young girl who had cashed so many of them she no longer asked for the number. I always went alone, never wanting my daughter to witness me steal twenty bucks, and then the next day, another store, a different clerk, and I’d be back again, keeping up nervous conversation in an attempt to distract the clerk from asking to see my license.
For three years, I disappeared. I drank—desperately—as if the Celexa insisted I never withstand an evening without a wineglass in my hand.
On one morning, a woman paces nervously on the side of the store. She’s wearing an oversized Dallas Cowboys T-shirt and pajama pants, a crowd of curly hair around her face.
“Ma’am?” I know what she wants before I step out of my car.
“I’ve got a ten-year-old back home.” She points back to a dingy car, packed to the ceiling with blankets, plastic bags, and lumps of clothes. “My car’s outta gas, and I’m just tryin’ to get some money to feed us and to get back home. Ya think you could give me a buck or two?”
I tell her sure, I’ll get some cash inside, and I recognize the relief on her face, remember the way my panic subsided when I’d find even a quarter in a coat pocket or the bottom of an old purse. Inside, I press the button to get five back. Whether I give her money or not will change nothing for her today. Outside, I press the bill into her hand, tell her to take care of herself. I keep her glance for a moment before walking back to my car, and when I pull away, I hold her in my rearview mirror for as long as I can.
The failure of our lives is not transparent. But we feel the tremors in others when they echo our own.
In Oklahoma, a woman from my doctor’s office called to tell me if I wanted my records I had until five p.m. to pick them up. When I stepped inside the waiting room, I found chaos and hushed whispers—an office abandoned except for other confused patients pressing toward the counter asking for their files, while nurses and staff shuffled through manila folders and answered phones with rings that sounded like nervous questions. The doctor had closed his practice, they said, but their eyes told me he had fled.
It’s Wednesday, and I haven’t seen Sharon since last week. Her shift runs Monday through Friday, six to two, and she’s never missed a day except when she took off in January for a family wedding in Amarillo. Ginger, a friendly, wide-grinned woman with Twizzler-red hair from a home-dye job, tells me she quit. It turns out Sharon had been commuting every weekday from Oklahoma, an hour and ten each way.
“Yeah.” Ginger tightens her ponytail. “What with the gas and the child support she was having trouble payin’, she was makin’ only fifty bucks a week. Whuddn’t worth it.”
“Well, I’ll miss her.”
I walk out to my car wondering about Sharon, sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye or thank her for always being so nice, but I understand that sometimes we need to slip away in silence, not let anyone know we’re going because the reasons we can’t stay aren’t anyone’s troubles but our own. I think of the summer I drove an hour and a half to wait tables because the bigger city restaurant gave me better tips than I could get in any of the cafes in my small town, but I couldn’t measure Sharon’s distance, crossing over into another state, unless Oklahoma garnered any wages she made there. I consider her nails, figuring how much money she spent on them, but I don’t begrudge her—we all do things to ourselves we can’t afford.
It was the next doctor in Oklahoma who stopped the antidepressant roulette and asked why I was on the meds in the first place. When I told him postpartum depression, he wanted to know how old my little one was, and when I said eight, he asked, “You think you might be done with that?” I was. He suggested Dramamine for the withdrawal.
About four months ago, I started taking anti-depressants again. According to my doctor, once people have a “major episode,” such as post-partum depression, they are likely to have recurrences for the rest of their lives.
A tall man, always in monochromatic pants and shirt, lingers at the counter every other week or so, reporting his latest winnings at WinStar, the largest casino in Oklahoma, just across the border. I’ve heard him brag a daily winning as much as $6,000. The first morning I see him, he suddenly turns. “You . . . no, wait. You look just like a woman who’s always at the slot machines. I thought you were her for a moment.” I picture a small, short-haired figure leaning toward spinning cherries. He turns back to Ginger, says something about blackjack, a good run that ran most of last night. I admit it’s tempting to hear him when he stops in, and I wonder if the casino pays him to talk big in convenience stores within a thirty-mile radius of cards, clinking coins, and craps.
A couple of years ago, I told my daughter about Oklahoma, a time she says she barely remembers. I explained the money-as-myth phase, the way I didn’t write or listen to music, the monthly trips to the county courthouse to pay a clerk $160 for the hot checks and fees. It took me three years to pay my Oklahoma debt, the final check mailed from New York two years after we moved there.
Sunday mornings, a young, dark-haired clerk with fuchsia lipstick smiles behind the counter. It’s her only shift, and she never lets me pay for my DDP. If I buy a couple of scratch-offs, she pulls them from the roll and says, “Here, these are good ones.” She’s leaving for the summer to return to her country, Bangladesh.
Last week, my doctor and I discussed whether or not I can drink a glass or two of wine while on the medication. She believes I’ll be fine but urges me to call her if the drinking increases. It’s difficult to sit in a room and tell someone you’re afraid of returning to your worst self, but I can’t be the only one who knows the threat of a battle, because I’ve lost it before.
After hearing about the man panhandling in the parking lot, I always scan the gas pumps for a Lexus. I wonder if he’s been waved away so many times that he now loiters at some other station in town. But one morning, I see him, a heavyset black man in threadbare loafers ducking into his car.
I wonder if it’s the location of the store that invites such weariness, such despair and distress. The highway out there a mirror of transience and escape. It’s not even a bad part of town. Two blocks away another convenience store offers a completely different collection of customers. But I like it here. I understand these people with a clarity that comes only from being one of them for a time. Besides, I need the reminder: If I take a wrong turn and end up in Reckless, I’ll be one of them again.
Some mornings, the manager, always in what appears to be the same white polo shirt and khaki pants, comes around the counter to pat me on the back. “You are not a customer. You are my guest. Good morning. You are my guest.” Other days, he keeps his head down, doesn’t even look at me when he returns my change. When my daughter goes into the store with me one morning, he looks at her, obviously wondering about the tall girl next to me. I tell him she’s my daughter, and he waves my money away, smiles at her, and says, “Free for your mother.”
Trevor’s back this morning, just dazed enough when I walk through the door that he loses the chance to avert his eyes, so we lock into each other for a moment. He’s been in a fight or a car wreck or worse, a large cut on his cheek, a bruise on his chin. His eyes are frenetic and lost at the same time, but then I see a shimmer of recognition like streetlights flickering on at dusk. Then we both see it, the tremors of our lives, transparent.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012). She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Northern Texas.