Upstart by Michael Howard


If I’m gonna trace it all the way back, I guess it started with a cigarette. Harmless enough. I was reluctant at first, my parents would kill me for sure, but then I remembered how sharp Brad Pitt looked in Fight Club, shirtless and gleaming with an air of icy detachment, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.


“Why d’you smoke cigs?” Randy asked one morning as we walked down the street, away from school. “You look like a scumbag.” 

I looked at him and wrinkled my face. “I’m addicted.”

“Here.” He pulled a plastic tin from his pocket and tossed me a small pouch filled with tobacco. “Throw that in your lip, like this.” He demonstrated and I followed suit. Twenty minutes later I emptied my stomach into the street.

“You’re not supposed to swallow it, dude.”


Cigars were always a status thing, and I’d do everything I could to keep the nausea I felt pumping through my body from scribing itself across my face.

“I can get you more of those if you want,” Travis told me as we stood around the bonfire, puffing away. Emma was there that night.

“Cool,” I said, trying to keep from throwing up. “I’ll take as many as you can get.”


When the tobacco trend dried up we looked for a substitute. It wasn’t until junior year that I smoked pot, at a friend of a friend of a friend’s graduation party.

“I don’t feel anything,” I told Erik, searching for his face in the clouds of smoke.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “no one gets high the first time.”


There were more parties that summer, a lot more, and suddenly if you weren’t getting high then you weren’t having fun, and if you weren’t having fun then you weren’t getting laid, and if you weren’t getting laid …

One night we were at a house party in the suburbs.

“These aren’t complimentary peanuts,” the kid said as I held out my hand, eyeing up his dozen or so newly rolled blunts. “Ten bucks.”

That’s when it struck me that I could sell it. Why not? Some pocket change to supplement the paychecks from Red Lobster. I cornered the kid later that night and we talked awhile.

“Cool, man.” He  pounded my fist. “I’ve been lookin to expand my operation.”


I had to get another cell phone. I don’t know whether my parents knew, but if they did they didn’t seem to care, and if they cared they didn’t show it. Emma knew, and Emma hated it. She said it was taking over my life, driving a wedge between us. She said I was becoming a different person. We were “growing apart.” What she didn’t know was that, in addition to her, I was fucking three chicks on the side, all “clients.”


I remember the first line of blow vividly. A club downtown, where we all met up for Jen’s, a close friend of Emma’s, nineteenth birthday. We took a limo and by the time we walked through the door I was already in the bag. Four drinks and some insults later Emma stormed out of the club in tears, as she was wont to do, and I wound up in the bathroom with a premed student from NYU. She gave me a blowjob while I sat on the toilet, numb from the coke we’d shared.


Weed was out. Soft. Hippy bullshit, I used to say. Smoking it, selling it—neither provided a good return on your investment. Not like coke. Coke was the shit. Coke was in. Coke was hip. If you were anybody you did coke. If you were somebody you dealt it. I was somebody.


I hadn’t had a “job” in over two years, but I had more money than I knew what to do with. I laughed as my degree-bearing friends whined about their struggles to find decent jobs.

“I’ve got a bachelors in economics and I work at the fucking Home Depot,” Kevin said as we sat in my living room, sniffing lines.

Whenever he’d get really wasted, the same question, asked in a variety of forms, would stumble from his mouth.

“You need any help?” And he’d have a goofy kind of half smile nailed onto his face.

“Nope,” I’d say. Then I’d patronize him. “You’re the lucky one, man. You’re clean. You’ve got your shit together, you have options. You don’t wanna be like me, dude. Trust me.” 

Of course, in reality, the idea of adopting Kevin’s lifestyle held about as much appeal as being sodomized with a barbed wire bat.


My girlfriend Rachel’s apartment. Saturday night. A group of her friends came over and set up shop in the living room. High on coke, I giggled uncontrollably as the dude, who we called Roy but whose real name, I think, was Charles, wrapped a leather belt round my bicep and slipped the needle into my swelling vein.


Heroin leads to one thing—more heroin. Some fall harder than others. I fell pretty hard. Coke became peripheral as I sated my raging hunger for smack. I injected it, snorted it, smoked it, whatever was convenient. Rachel kicked me out. She couldn’t sit around and watch me “destroy myself.” I was sick, she said. A hopeless junkie. But I was in control. Always in control. I was cool. No prob. I started selling smack. It’s a lucrative business, so long as you’re not a smackhead yourself.


When you shoot more than you sell, you run into problems. You gotta step on your gear before you hawk it. You deal shit. Shit with a tinge of smack. That’s when things get hairy. Users don’t like shit H, don’t like it one bit. But it’s not the junkies you gotta worry about—they don’t care, and even if they do they only care till they’re sick for their next hit. Then nothing else matters. They forget you sold them a bag of powdered milk. They forget about their plans to pump a round of ammunition into your head. They come back and buy more.

It’s the functional users—those are the pests.


You’d think having a gun held to your face would be enough to scare you straight or, at the very least, make you step back and rethink the life you’ve chosen for yourself. It’s not.

Most people don’t think it’s possible to habituate to such a circumstance, to the prospect of having your head blown off. It is.


Life becomes a game. A neverending game of scoring dope, using too much, dealing shit, looking over your shoulder, sleeping, three hours a day if you’re lucky, with your eyes open, scoring more, using more, ducking and dodging wouldbe assassins, escaping by the skin of your teeth, which are now rotting. Whether the constant threat exists or is simply a byproduct of your dopesick paranoid mind is immaterial. For the party involved it’s real.


When I got busted for possession I was relieved. The charade was over. My parents bailed me out and sent me to rehab. I liked it there. The nurses were nice. A few of them were hot, and they rejected my advances with tact. I felt like a small child again, a kid without responsibilities. I was congratulated for completing simple tasks like waking up in the morning and eating breakfast. I was commended for treating people with respect, for treating myself with respect. I was applauded for not injecting illegal drugs into my body.


The next few years are a blurry montage. You know the story. Relapses and arrest sheets and checking into rehab clinics and checking out of rehab clinics. Interventions, requisite suicide attempts, near-fatal ODs. Dozens of clean slates, clean slates waiting to be made dirty again.


Last month I celebrated five years of sobriety in the Bahamas with Kelli.

“You know what to do, babe,” I told her as we surveyed the bar from a distance. The moonlit sand was cool between my toes.

Kelli grinned. “Here goes.” She sauntered over in her twopiece and took the empty stool on his left. After a moment he looked at her and the expression on his face gave me confidence. I relaxed and finished my Corona (doesn’t count).

A couple hours later I saw her coming down the walkway toward the beach. I couldn’t tell whether she was smiling. When she reached me she stopped and looked out over the black water. Her hands were empty.

“Well?” I said after a minute, peering up from my chair.

She smiled wide and reached into the back of her bikini. Seconds later a wallet fell into my lap. Then a checkbook. I felt the corners of my mouth turn up.

I can tell you it beats dealing smack.

Michael Howard’s essays and short stories have appeared in a wide variety of print and digital publications. His website is

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