Michele Hoben and Lisa Ventrella

June 24, 2008

Michele Hoben
Acrylic and collage on illustration board, 40″ x 30″
Inspiration Piece provided to Lisa Ventrella

by Lisa Ventrella

I never imagined I’d be known as “the help,” which is how my mother phrased my employment with Mr. Conrad, but it was a job that found me—since Mr. Conrad knew us—and came with the right hours and pretty decent. Before I started with Mr. Conrad, what I really wanted was to make some big money fast, like how folks win the lottery and then start a new life. When I was younger, my mother always accused me of being fixated money. Probably on account that we didn’t have none. She reminded me of how I loved to make money mowing lawns or selling cookies and lemonade on hot summer days. And then I’d remind her that I wasn’t ten years old anymore.

Since I’d recently turned eighteen and wasn’t going to college, it was time to get a real job, partly so I could help with the rent and to save for what I wanted more than anything in the world: the canary-yellow Mustang convertible that our neighbor Tom Fong was selling. It wasn’t nothing great, old and rusted out by the back wheels, but to me, it was the perfect ride. It was a Mustang! It was Freedom!

Mr. Conrad had been our neighbor for years, an eccentric recluse for the most part who was going blind and needed help with the daily chores of living. He was a painter, a painter who was going blind. He had paintings all over the house – abstract art they called it. Very few had been hung up. Most were propped against the walls, leaning like tired old drunks after a long night of boozing. On an easel, with a light sprinkling of dust, rested a half-done painting with reds, blues and yellows running together and lots of white space where he either hadn’t gotten to it or was too blind to see that he had more work to do. Maybe he’d just forgotten about it and couldn’t see enough to know it was still there, although he says he still paints, relying on bright colors and the memory of line. His lips are caked with dried skin and the blue has mostly evaporated from his eyes. The left eye is like a cloud with grey phlegm covering it. He has a creepy look about him, but he’s sweet like a puppy.

He’d hired me to help out during the day with housework and cooking. He had Mrs. Truitt doing his shopping and whatever else it was that he needed to have done. He wasn’t the chatty type, which suited me just fine. Most times when I got to his apartment, he’d say he was tired and going to lie down. The apartment smelled of body odor, dirty feet and stale ashtrays. It smelled of paint too. Should a nearly blind man be smoking around cans of paint? He says it’s okay as long as it’s not in bed. I empty the ashtrays and the trash and then unclog the sink.

A week goes by and I start to get curious about a few things. Mainly if he had anything that was worth anything hidden away. Like something valuable he’d forgotten about. I didn’t plan on stealing nothing, but was just curious and bored. So, I took to looking into drawers, closets, even under the sink in the bathroom. I was good and quiet too. He didn’t have much, truth be told, but I kept looking anyways thinking I might find some gold jewelry, maybe an old wedding band he’d forgotten about, tucked up in some old sock or something. It wasn’t a great sin just to look. From the next room, I could hear his breathing thick and heavy. And that’s how I spent that particular summer.

Most mornings before my eyes creak open, I remember the putter of a distant lawn mower or the birdsong of the collection of non-exotic birds at my mother’s bird feeders, but never the smell of fresh-cut grass or brewing coffee. Since I’d known Mr. Conrad, I pay attention to and sometimes get overwhelmed with the barrage to my senses. It’s a moment when you realize that what was small before is now the big thing.

This morning the sun rose over the garden wall and a rare blue sky leaped from east to west. I leave and lock my apartment behind me. I step out onto the stoop. In the sky, the birds are leading each other to the next shady tree. The warm lazy air smells of soft tar from the streets and there are sirens in the distance, or is it a freight train like those childhood sounds you’d hear at night … melancholy and sweet-sounding with the power to make your eyes fill with tears.

It’s now months later and Mr. Conrad is living at the home. I have a better job working in the real estate office, a car (not the Mustang but a Saturn with a sunroof), an apartment of my own and have started seeing this guy Bud, a livery driver. Every Saturday night, we like to stroll the boardwalk with its circus of people and dogs and vendors hawking their wares.

With Bud, I’m comfortable and don’t feel the need to be kept alive in continuous conversation. I stare off to the horizon where the sky meets the sea, watching the gulls dive toward the water as they eye their prey, screaming their battle cry, and remember Mr. Conrad, hoping he was well. I can hear his deep, cigarette-laden voice in my head saying, “Be sure to listen to the whispers and watch for the little things.”

Then I notice that Bud has descended the stairs to the beach, looking up at the gulls as they airdance amidst the late summer gusts of airstream, our eyes seeing the same thing simultaneously: swatches of white gulls, beaks open, floating and falling against a faded blue sky.


Michele Hoben
Liquid Sky
Acrylic and graphite on paper, 22″ x 30″
Painted using Lisa Ventrella’s story (below) as inspiration

Liquid Sky
By Lisa Ventrella

It used to be that I would do anything to get more Oxycontin, otherwise known as OC or Oxy by my friends. Eventually, my parents figured something was up. The bastards had cleaned out the medicine cabinet and hidden their cash.

I remember some of those days like it was yesterday when in fact, it has been a long two years ago. I’d rummage through my purse, thinking one might be living amongst the loose change, tampons and notes from Lizzy, slipped to me between classes.


One day, I even get down on all fours and scoured the bathroom floor, my nose close to the dingy, yellow tile hoping that maybe there would be one behind the toilet base or one stuck in the gap between tiles.

Shit. Still nothing. That itchy feeling was starting. I slothed my way to my bedroom, picked up my Hello Kitty phone and called Lizzy.
“Hey!” she said.

“I’m dyin’ over here. I need something bad. I think I’m going to be sick if I don’t get something right now.”

“I’m out too.”

“Shit! What about Michelle or Justin?”

“Can’t you take some from your mom?”

“The bitch has hidden it. I’ve looked everywhere,” I said. I picked at a crusty scab on my ankle that was ready to fall off into the jungle of my lavender carpet.

“Okay, let me call Michelle and see if she has any. I’ll call you right back.”

My hand was shaking as I hung up the phone. My armpits were sweaty. The withdrawal had started. I’d gone through it once before for one wicked afternoon and didn’t plan a repeat of that Hell.

I’d never thought withdrawing from something that was prescription, like Oxy, could be that bad. Oxy was safe. A doctor prescribed it.

I’d never tried E or GHB, like so many kids were into. I was careful about staying away from the potheads, cokeheads and alkies. None of my friends clued me in to the fact that OC could take you from the “I don’t give a shit” mellow mood to straight-jacket crazy when you were out of it. Or at least, that’s where I feared I was heading if I didn’t get some fast. I could see how people could lose it on this stuff.

My Hello Kitty phone starting meowing like a feline in heat, low and loud.

“Hey it’s me,” said Lizzy through the phone.

“Did you find any?”

“Michelle has some Perkies and OC’s from when her dad hurt his back last month. She doesn’t think he’ll miss them.”

I exhaled and wiped away the tiny beads of sweat that were coming in shorter intervals now.

“Thank God. Get over here now.”

“Okay, I’m going to Michelle’s. Should I bring her along?”

“I guess. I don’t care. Just hurry up.”

As I said goodbye, a wave of nausea took me to my knees. I’m gonna puke, I thought, my face brushing against the carpet that I’d picked out when I was in 4th grade. I stumbled to the bathroom with the taste of bile in the back of my throat, my stomach about to explode. My mom would be home from work soon. I’d be in so much trouble if she found me like this. Even if my dad still lived in town, and popped in for a visit, he probably wouldn’t notice. He was more interested in his new family complete with a one and two-year old.

I kneeled at the toilet and gagged. Nothing came up and the sickness passed just as suddenly as it came on. Weird. I sat back on my heels, wiped the tears away, being very careful not to mess up my makeup. It was then it caught my eye. One lone Oxy near the base of the sink. How’d I miss that one? My heart flipped. I cupped the tiny pill in my hand, so as not to lose it again. Using a can of shaving cream, I crushed it into a fine powder and snorted the exquisite tart granules, half for each nostril. Ah, the burning rush. The initial sting transcended into a warmth that spread to my head and then through my body like I was blanketed in a warm lava. Time evaporated and I was one with my Oxy.

Just then, I heard pounding at my front door. It must be Lizzy and Michelle.

“Jesus, what took you so long to answer the door?”

“Sorry, I was in the bathroom.” I floated behind her, following her to my bedroom.

I don’t think she realized I was high. If she did, she didn’t say anything. It wouldn’t last long. I needed more.

“Where’s Michelle?” I asked.

“She had homework, so her mom wouldn’t let her come.”

We both sat on my bed, the pink comforter shiny and cool. I was suddenly tempted to just lie back and close my eyes for a minute, but Lizzy was anxious to get the party started. She dug through her croqueted purse, the one I called her hippie bag.

“Here’s a couple Perkies and some Oxy,” said Lizzy, smirking as if she’d just gotten away with something.

“Hey, why don’t we try grinding them up together?” I said, hopping up from my bed like I’d been thumped by a second wind.

Lizzy’s lopsided grin and raised eyebrow told me she had something else in mind. “I have syringes.”

“No way! Where’d you get those?” I asked. I’d heard that some kids used needles for this shit.

“Justin’s mom is a nurse, remember?”

“She brings home syringes and needles?” I asked, even though I knew it was a dumb question.

“No, stupid. She forgot they were in her work jacket and he found them.”

“Oh,” I said. I’d never considered injecting anything into my body. Gross. I was careful. At first, we just took the pills. Then, we craved a bigger and better high so we grinded them up and snorted them. It was incredible. We were getting a little bored with just snorting, but injecting it? No way.

“I don’t think I can stick myself with a needle,” I said.

“I’ll do it for you,” said Lizzy.

“How do you know how to do it?” I asked but wished I hadn’t because my curiosity was all the encouragement she needed to shoot me up. I noticed my hands trembling a little. I knew I’d need more soon. Jesus, what had I gotten myself into?

“I’ve done it before,” said Lizzy as she opened the syringe and attached the needle. It looked like she knew what she was doing.

“To yourself?”

“Yep. Michelle’s tried it, too. It’s no big deal.”

“I don’t know. I don’t think I can. Let’s just snort it. My mom’s gonna be home soon anyway.”

“Oh come on. She’ll never know. I’ll just give you a little. You’ve got to try it. The trip is amazing. Like nothing else. Liquid sky. Heaven.”

It sounded tempting, but fear bubbled up, stopping me. Maybe being afraid was a sign I needed to get away from this stuff. I didn’t want to end up dead.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“How about I do some and you can decide after you see how it works on me?” asked Lizzy.

I thought about my mom, so happy and busy with her job at the flower shop, spending more and more time there. She’d become so disconnected from me, almost uninterested unless I was causing problems. She’d kill me if she found out about this. She and Dad would send me to a home or something. “I don’t think I can,” I said.

“Sure you can. It’s really awesome. I promise I won’t inject that much. It’ll be safe.”

Just that word: inject made me feel sick. I watched Lizzy mix up the powder with warm water that melted it into a clear liquid that looked like water. She pulled it up into the syringe. She looked like a professional and didn’t seem scared as she penetrated a big blue vein in her forearm with the glistening silver needle. I couldn’t believe she could do that to herself.

Lizzy reclined back on my bed next to my teddy bears. A silly grin consumed her face reminding me of the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland. She grooved to some hip hop shit she’d turned on the radio. I glanced to my American Girl doll collection on my little-girl, white bookcase; their frowns of disapproval seemed to mock me. My eye traveled down to my bookshelf. Back in eighth grade, my mom had said I needed some “classics” to prepare for high school and stocked it with books like The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I thought of running out of my room and away from this. But that would not be cool.

“Well?” smirked Lizzy as she sat up, mixing the next batch of liquid sky. I scratched my forearms. Maybe I could try it just this once and then never again. This would be it for real. I can’t believe how desperate I’d become. What was I, a 15-year old junkie? No way.

I offered up my pale flesh to her, eyeing the pretty charm bracelet my parents had given me for my thirteenth birthday. I couldn’t watch, but I felt the prick of the needle, but only for a second, because this avalanche of warmth quickly followed. I couldn’t move while the liquid heaven blanketed me in a feeling I’d never experienced. I felt like I was floating on puffy clouds that smelled like Johnson’s baby oil. I looked in the mirror and felt beautiful and confident. I was in a peaceful place and knew that everything was going to be okay–and really always had been. I’d go wherever this warmth wanted me to go. I floated back onto my bed and laughed. The fading afternoon light sparkled, glimmering silver, blue … purple and pink. I focused on the shine and shimmer of it, until I couldn’t. That’s all I remember.

The high was spectacular as Lizzy promised, but when my mom found us, both stoned unconscious on my bed, she flipped and called 911. Talk about a buzz kill. We survived, obviously. My parents sent me to rehab in Montana. Lizzy went somewhere in Minnesota. I wasn’t allowed to contact her, not that I wanted to. We were two bad girls put away in remote places with nothing to do but think and talk about our habits. Most kids blamed their parents, but I didn’t. I knew what I was doing and could have stopped. It was like I sold my soul to the devil. He could take away my pain but he owned me. I had one goal during that time in my life: to get to my next fix.

And then I wondered, because it seemed funny, what would someone think of a 15-year-old girl getting healthy in a crazy place, because there really were a lot of head-cases there, biding her time with group therapy sessions and twelve-step programs? Would you think that she was getting the right treatment and exorcising her demons? Would you think it could have been worse; she could have died? Would you think she’d one day have a normal adult life with a family and children? Would you think that something like this couldn’t happen to someone like you or someone you love?


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