Nine Quotes From Bill Clegg’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man



I feel very small and freakishly large at once. Critical and insignificant. At the very center of things and at the farthest edge.


The cabdriver is a handsome, dark-eyed Hispanic guy, and I immediately strike up a conversation. How I get to the moment when I ask him if he parties, I don’t know, but I get there. He says yes and I say, With what? And he answers, Beer and pot. He asks me with what and I come right out and tell him. He pauses and asks if I have any on me and I say yes. He asks if he can see it and, without hesitating, I reach into my pocket, pull out a rock, and hold it up between the two front seats. He slows the cab, eyes the drug seriously, but says nothing. When I pull it back, he laughs and tells me he’s never seen it before, and I ask if he wants to hang out. He tells me sure, later, after his shift, and gives me his cell phone number.


A kind of peace breaks out behind his eyes. It spreads down from his temples into his chest, to his hands and everywhere. It storms through him—kinetic, sexual, euphoric—like a magnificent hurricane raging at the speed of light.


There will never be a time when I smoke crack that doesn’t end up with me on my knees, sometimes for hours—hunched over carpets, rugs, linoleum, tile—sifting desperately through lint and cat litter and dirt, fingering the floor, like a madman, for crumbs.


I am nowhere and belong nowhere. I can now see how it all happens—the gradual slide down, the arrival at each new unthinkable place—the crack den, the rehab, the jail, the street, the homeless shelter, a quick shock and then a new reality that one adjusts to. Am I now in the purgatory between citizen and nobody, between fine young man and bum?


I still know this will end badly, that it always does, and that I’m loading a gun and pointing it at my temple. But that voice, instead of being a deterrent, becomes part of the persuasion. On the other side of this bag is either a groggy day and a no-harm-done return to life or some kind of apocalypse. Lose nothing or lose everything. And losing everything sounds like a relief.


I can’t stop my body from rocking. I watch Mark get up to begin sweeping the glass and notice how his body rocks with mine, how our sway is synchronized—like two underwater weeds bending to the same current—and am both horrified and comforted to recognize how alike we are in the desolate crash that follows when the drugs run out.


I am only sticks and spasms. Money gone. Love gone. Career gone. Reputation gone. Friends gone. Hope gone. Compassion gone. Usefulness gone. Second chances gone. And if there had been any hesitation about dying, that’s gone now, too. I take a huge hit.


I remember the last lines of a book I believed I understood. When it feels like the end of the world, it never is. I knead these words like a rosary and write them in letters and speak them over the phone and into the wind in that field. I lose faith in them, but pray they are true. They are.