By Zachary Phillips…
Sample chapter from ‘Under the Influence – Stories From a Broken Childhood’
The morning that I found out that Dad had passed away, I drove over to his house. I knew the process of sorting through his possessions could not wait at all, it had to be done that day. One of Dad’s neighbours, Jackie, had called to let me know that Dad had passed, and that his house had already been robbed.
She was distraught. Wailing over the phone, coughing the details out between cascades of sobs. Poor lady, they were so close and now she was stuck living there on her own.
Dad and Jackie were long-time friends and neighbours. Thinking back, she was probably the closest friend that my dad ever had. They would spend hours at each other’s house each day drinking coffee and making art together. Dad of course was her dealer.
She was a very interesting lady to say the least. She spoke in a raspy voice developed from years of chain smoking. Every sentence ended with a prominent wheezing cough. Sometimes it would last for so long I would wonder if she was going to die then and there from a lack of oxygen. Her mental health was perpetually in a state of flux, regularly veering from slightly erratic to literally institutionalised and back. It seemed like she was always stoned in some capacity, never quite there. It felt like her mind was drifting between this world and the next, almost as if she was having two conversations with you at once.
That being said, of all Dad’s friends I liked her the most. At least with her I could have some semblance of a conversation. She would ask about my school and work, making sure to remember most of the details of the previous conversations and enquiring further. Sadly, a rarity amongst Dad’s circles.
She seemed to legitimately appreciate my dad. Caring about him on a deeper level then just his ability to provide her with drugs. Over the years I had never heard Dad speak ill of her, she had never ‘ripped him off’ and he would always call her a true friend who ‘understood’ who he was.
Out of Dad’s friends, Jackie was the exception not the rule. These people were all varying degrees of crazy and seemingly addicted to everything.
At best these people were like seagulls, begging for scraps and cleaning up your waste. They would always be asking for cash, pestering Dad for food or some more drugs. Promising to pay him back as soon as they came into some money. Only there for the goods that they could scavenge off of him.
Poor Dad, he was too nice. He would always give in and feed the seagulls. But as we all know, seagulls are never satisfied, they will always want more and more. Squawking loudly, demanding another chip, taking as much as you will give them. Even faking the loss of a leg to con you into giving up more of your lunch. Finally, when you’ve run out of food, they leave without so much as a thank you. If you’re lucky, they won’t shit on you when they depart in search of the next sucker with a picnic lunch. Maybe Dad didn’t realise that if you give people like that a free gift they won’t appreciate it for long. They will soon be back for more, probably bringing their friends along with them.
At worst these people were like vultures, picking at the flesh of a newly deceased corpse for whatever carrion they can find. Dad would always talk about being ‘ripped off’ by his friends. Rarely would he elaborate into the specifics of how they ripped him off, but it was not hard to put the pieces together. It was clear that they had done some kind of deal that went south. Or they just robbed him outright.
One time when I was in year seven, Dad was fixing up a push bike so that I could cycle to school instead of walking. Nothing new or flashy, but still quite useful. However like most promises, this one was also broken. Dad told me that a friend had ripped him off, taken the bike and gone. He said that he had lent it to a friend who needed to ride down to the shops for food. Being the nice guy that Dad was, he offered his friend the bike to use for the day but requested that it be returned later that night. With that his friend left.
Two days later his friend came back on foot, asking Dad for some more weed. Furious, Dad demanded that he return the bike. Turns out that the junkie had ridden it down the street to another dealer and offered it as a trade for his next high. This low life didn’t offer any more explanation than that. Having barely hissed out his half-baked apology, he asked once more for some weed. Dad slammed the door in his face, adding that man’s name to the ever growing list of people who he can no longer trust. Those who had ‘ripped him off’.
Apparently it does not take much for a seagull to evolve into a vulture. I hated those people, all of them. Every day would bring somebody new, another gutter dwelling creep out to score another hit. The whole situation was toxic and terrifying, particularly given the fact that it was occurring in front of two young children.
They would all have the same vibe about them, desperate, poor and hungry. But they were all craving something more than food. Looking into their eyes you would only see the shell of a human, single minded in their desire to score another hit. Like a vaguely hung together blob of flesh covering bones. I could see through them like they were nothing. They were nothing.
Alarmingly, the worst of all of them was living right next door. Just for a moment, consider your neighbours. Really think hard about their character, vividly picture them in your mind. If you are lucky they are just the nice people that you randomly say ‘hi’ to as you leave in the morning for work. Perhaps you occasionally have them over for dinner or walk your dogs together. If you’re unlucky, they might play music a little too loud or don’t tend to their lawns in a manner that is becoming enough for the quality of your street.
If you were my dad however, you lived next to somebody who would go on to literally steal from your lifeless corpse.
Grant lived right next to my dad for the last ten or so years of his life. This guy was beyond comprehension; he was all kinds of messed up.
He made Dad look like a sophisticated gentleman leaving an opera in a tailored Gucci suit. Think of the most vile and disgusting individual you have ever come across. Add to that person a severe drug habit (no particular drug, just all of them, at once). With deadened soulless shells for eyes, constantly dishevelled appearance, a rank smell, no morals and the conversational skills of a baked potato. That and he thought he was Jesus.
I think the correct term for his condition would be something akin to schizophrenia with symptoms including extreme visual and auditory hallucinations combined with delusions of grandeur and paranoia.
He believed himself to be the second coming of Jesus, literally spray painting ‘God Lives Here’ on his front door. He was subsequently in the process of rewriting the Bible, desiring to deliver a new truth to the world. A modern revelation.
Volumes and volumes of ramblings, consisting of half completed notes on scrap paper, newspaper cut outs and some printed work. This is where he wrote his teachings, it was the new gospel that would save the world. He would often describe instances of talking to God, seeing angels and hearing voices that would ‘guide him’. I wonder what they had to say, if it was true that he was following their instructions perhaps they said something along the lines of:
“Grant, this is God. My child, go forth and write a new Bible, the people will listen and will come to you as the sheep come to the protection of the shepherd. But more importantly Grant, be sure to always, always be inebriated. Find and consume every drug that has been put on this earth. Lie, steal and cheat your way to this goal, leave no stone unturned and no man unmolested in your quest. Only then will you be able to completely convey my revelations, only then will the people listen.”
Combine that with a severe overarching paranoia of ‘the government’ listening, wiretapping, mind reading or knowing his plans and you are left with an extremely unstable individual. I can’t possibly hope to understand the inner workings of somebody in his situation, however what I do know is that he represented a significant threat to all of our safety.
I had the displeasure of going into his house once, probably to reclaim a lost ball erroneously kicked over our adjoining fence line. Grants house, made my dad’s look like a pristine palace. He took hoarding to another level. Almost as if he had seen Dad’s house and was so impressed by its look that he wanted it for himself, but just more extreme.
It was like he had taken all of the stuff from Dad’s house, doubled it and then some. I can’t imagine how many discarded needles would await the poor soul who was tasked with cleaning up that mess when he dies.
As Grant was Dad’s neighbour and Dad was his dealer, Grant was always popping by. For years I was exposed to this guy’s incessant ramblings, constant demands for drugs and an ever present feeling that one day he would just snap.
This was a guy that you could never quite read properly, he was very erratic and just never quite there. As such when he was around I was always on edge and on guard, thinking that maybe today will be the day where he loses his shit and shanks us all with a machete. Maybe today will be the day when his cravings are too overwhelming for him, and instead of buying the drugs he decides to just take them, killing us all in the process. Perhaps today would be the day that I accidently respond to his incessant and incoherent ramblings in the wrong way, insulting what is left of his shattered ego.
Physically he was nothing much, average size yet quite skinny, weak and dishevelled. But give somebody like that motive and a weapon and you could end up being another sad news report warning the populace of the ‘dangers of drugs’. Suffice to say, he was a major contributor to my highly strung and anxious state of mind.
Dad didn’t do much to allay this fear either. I remember going into his room and him showing me a steel crowbar, handing it to me and saying
“I keep this here in case Grant gets out of hand or I can’t make him leave, I will bop him on the head if needed.”
I think he was showing it to me to demonstrate that he was looking after all of our safety, suggesting that he would protect us if needed.
You know what would have been safer Dad? You know what would have been a thousand times better than a metal crowbar? Moving away from him, not interacting with him, calling the cops, banning him from your house and not being his dealer. If your only safety mechanism is a weapon, things are bound to get messy.
I remember one night at 3am there was a knocking on my dad’s window. It was billowing with rain and wind was gushing through the streets creating a low whistling sound. Being that my dad’s room was right next door to mine, I quickly woke up and could easily hear what was happening. Outside the house stood Grant. He was sopping wet and desperately knocking on Dad’s window hoping to score another hit. When there was no response, his intensity grew. He began smashing the windows harder and harder with his fists, punching through one in the process.
That’s when he noticed Dad outside, crowbar in hand threatening him to leave. Given the time of night and the weather conditions, I can’t be sure exactly what happened, however Grant did not come back that night. In fact, we didn’t see him for at least a week. Despite this, Grant was still allowed over and Dad was still his dealer. Selling him something to soothe the pain from his now lacerated arm.
This incident and many others like it, made a peaceful night’s sleep quite challenging. The constant fear of home invasion from your crazy, drugged up neighbour would do that. To this day I struggle when it comes to bedtime, on bad nights it takes hours for me to fall asleep. Even then I often wake at the smallest of noises. I guess I am still on guard.
On the day of Dad’s death, I arrived at his house and was greeted by a distraught Jackie. I went inside and found my father’s body slumped peacefully against his work bench, with his small terrier quivering by his side. Through tears and sobs Jackie explained how his death was discovered.
It turned out that it was Grant who had found him. According to Jackie, Grant was looking to score that night and proceeded with his usual routine of knocking on Dad’s window and door in the middle of the night. Apparently Grant could see Dad’s unresponsive body through the window, and when he couldn’t rouse him, decided to break into the house through the bathroom window. When he approached Dad and couldn’t wake him, Grant proceeded to call an ambulance.
I was okay with Grant to this point, yeah he broke in, most likely with the intent of scoring another hit, but nevertheless he did the right thing by calling the ambulance. Maybe there was some good left in him.
I was wrong.
Once the initial shock of seeing my father’s lifeless body subsided I surveyed his room. It was clear that it had been ransacked. Looted for anything of value. All the cash, drugs and any other pawnable possessions were taken. That worthless excuse for a human stole from my dad, stripping his body whilst it was still warm.
I could forgive Grant for taking the drugs. Attending ambulance or police officers would have most likely taken and destroyed them, and in his eyes that would be have been a waste. Fair enough, I can see his point. But what I can’t forgive is that he took it and everything else.
I found Dad’s wallet with its contents emptied in a pile beside his body, it was completely bare. The money was only part of it, what hurt the most was the personal belongings that he also took. Things of little monetary worth, like his art and knickknacks. Stuff that you couldn’t trade for anything, other than a memory.
Earlier that week I had visited Dad in hospital, he had been in and out for the last few months, always seeming to bounce back to his normal self. However, the years of chain smoking were finally catching up with him. This time, emphysema and other respiratory complications had culminated with him staying in the ICU and requiring the assistance of a breathing machine.
Knowing that he was close to the end, he had withdrawn all of his savings. He wanted to give me the couple of hundred dollars in cash then and there, but the hospital had stored his wallet in a safe and it would have been a big hassle to organise its release. Given his condition and because I was not in need of money, I told him that it was okay and that he should hold onto it for when he gets out. He agreed and when the hospital released him the next day, he picked up his wallet and went home.
Given that Dad’s house had already been robbed, it was imperative that I sort through his belongings that day. I didn’t want Grant or some other vulture to come through at night and take any more items that happened to catch their eye. I’m not sure if I could have handled it.
So the massive process began, sorting through his hoard. A lifetime of collecting, placed into many boxes. Most of it was worthless junk which we left for cleaners. But some was quite sentimental, I still have a small collection on display in my house. I’m glad that I have something to remember him by.
During this process Grant walked out of his house and was coming over to greet me. My initial reaction was of sheer rage. I wanted to knock him out cold, slam him on the concrete driveway and stomp on his face until it was unrecognisable. Luckily my fiancée was by my side and managed to keep me from doing something that would have been highly regrettable (albeit quite satisfying). He was just not worth it.
He took my hand and shook it, and with his typical drug induced slur Grant gave his condolences:
“Yourrr fatherr he was a gooood man, Zacy. Did you know? Last night I saw him, you knooow? Like in a vision. He was surrrrounded, escorted to heaven by a dozen, golden soldier angels. They had amaaazing, beautiful armour, glistening and raaaadient…”
This went on and on
“… and in a glorious white light he was gone.”
I was shocked, I don’t know what he was thinking, saying something like that to somebody who had just seen their Dad’s dead body. Maybe he was just trying to be consoling or comforting. Perhaps in his twisted world, that’s what he believed people wanted to hear. Nobody wants to hear that, particularly not from somebody like him.
Do you know what would have been more comforting Grant? Not stooping lower than even I believed you could, taking everything from him. Your deranged ramblings are of no comfort to me. Did you see the angels before, during or after pilfering through my dad’s wallet? Did they give you permission to take whatever you wanted? Did they demand you do so? Did you wave goodbye to my father’s soul, as it was surrounded by heavenly angels, with hundreds of his cash in one hand and his artworks in the other? At this point I don’t know which answer I would prefer. You are scum.
About a year later I was walking through a shopping centre and low and behold, Grant was there. Without hesitation he had the audacity to ask for some more of Dad’s artwork,
“Something to remember him by”.
I just walked away.
I am so saddened that my father didn’t have the strength of will or the desire to rid himself of Grant or the other vultures. I cannot imagine the constant stress that interacting with them daily, for years on end, would have caused. Who knows, perhaps he felt alone in this world and was grateful for any company that he had.
I have felt guilty on and off for years, plagued by the possibility that because I stopped visiting him, he turned more and more to those kinds of people. Trying to fill the gap left in his heart, caused from his son not visiting him. Or maybe he was just an addict, who dealt to sustain his habit. At least with people like Grant in his life, he was assured a steady supply of customers.
Read more of Zachary’s memoir “Under the Influence” here.