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Featured / April 3, 2010
By John Dolan

Speed Lab

This is the fourth installment of John Dolan’s work-in-progress, “Stupid, Or How To Lose Money Running A Speedlab.” Read part three or jump to part one.

That was the longest week of my life. Pure terror, and I’m a fear specialist. There is no terror like the terror that follows a loud knock on the door while you’re cooking up a batch of speed.

And the knocks kept coming, the whole long seven days I sat there leaning over the bathtub checking the thermometer in the potion bubbling on the bunsen burner. Because the local paper, the Benecia Herald, was having a circulation drive. So several times a day, as I decanted some toxic precursor into some other highly flammable solvent, there would be an apocalyptic banging on the old front door. The knock that says: Cops. DEA. San Quentin. Maximum security. Life as the bespectacled bitch of your cellblock.

With each knock I had to go through the options. You could kill yourself immediately to avoid further embarrassment. We didn’t have a gun or anything; my silent (and absent) partner Butler wanted this to be the cool, non-violent kind of drug operation; but if you really wanted to die, there were about a dozen containers marked with skull and crossbones sitting around me. Just inhaling that stuff moved you up the actuarial tables, so if you actually drank it you’d probably start squirting black slime from both ends and finish up like a salted slug, a melted wad of poisoned mucus.

But each time, after considering the quick chemical quit option, I got up on wobbly legs and wobbled to the front door. A long walk. The bathroom where I was cooking was at the back of the old shotgun shack, and it took about a geological era to get to the front door. In my head I could hear the crackle of cop radios, but in retrospect that was probably just the first overtures of undiagnosed hypertension, tinnitus. Expecting to see big blue heavy-belted cops wavily reflected through the old pioneer glass of the front windows.

And every damn time, I’d open the door to find a  slackjawed hick brat reciting his Benecia Herald spiel in one memorized blurt. Each time I’d listen, fear-sweat from head to toe, to the wonderful opportunity I was being offered. Two months’ subscription for the price of about ten years off my life. If the Norns were watching, the old Swede crones must have laughed themselves into a stroke at the door gag, then wiped their smoke-bleared eyes and snipped about a third off my life string. When I’d close the door and listen for the kid going away, I could actually feel my heart for the first time in my life, feel it scrambling to get out like a rabbit in a sinking sack.

A few years later, New Zealand Immigration forced me to go to a cardiologist before they’d let me in, and the doctor, this mean, loud, conceited bastard, would check my chest and then yell, “You’ve hurt your heart! How did you hurt your heart?” He made it sound like a felony. There was no way I could play him that scene, of the paperboys banging on the front door while the Bunsen burner bubbled up a life sentence for me in the tub. I just shrugged, reinforcing his clear belief that I was not just fat and defective but stupid as well. “How did you hurt your heart?” Sounds almost like one of those soppy eighties lyrics, but not the way he said it. More like, “Did you break that vase?” Stout denial, extra stout. After a while he got bored yelling and signed the papers, noting only that “Mr. Dolan could benefit from several lifestyle changes.” Doc, you don’t know how right you were, you miserable runt martinet pig.

For the seven days I cooked in the tub, I made sure to inhale as deeply as possible—to absorb as much of the toxic fumes as possible. My other security and fume-reduction system was taping cardboard over all the windows. Made the place a little dark—there was no electricity—but safety first!And of course I slopped paint over the outside of the house for a couple of hours a day, just to hide the smell.

But cooking speed doesn’t smell much like paint. It’s more like cat piss, if the bladders of all the stray cats in Golden Gate Park were squeezed into a pot left on high on the kitchen stove for about three days. Every piece of old furniture in that place, every inch of the peeling wallpaper, was basted by those sickening fumes, rendering the whole house unsaleable forever. Oh yeah, I was going to be Robin Hood of the Meth Cookers, buying my poor parents new cars with the proceeds. All I ended up doing was ruining the only investment we had, that house in Beneicia. The first time my parents came in, after we’d semi-cleaned up the evidence, they retched and staggered out the door. “What did you do in here?” A reasonable question, answered, as usual, with a shrug and a sneer. Purgatory is a sweet idea, but I don’t believe in it. A few eons in Purgatory and I could make up for that scene—too late now. We couldn’t sell it; robbers took every last “antique”; the city bought it for nothing, some weed violation. My fault. Live with that and see what happens to your blood pressure.

The cooking was simple enough. It was the noises. Sirens. When you’re legal, you don’t even hear sirens. When you’re leaning over a speed cooker, you become somewhat sensitized to them. The Doppler effect becomes what Stevens would call “a major reality”: if the howl is dropping into tenor range, then your heart can subside to a mere 200 or so beats per minute, but if it’s rising, you have to die one of those thousand deaths the coward is heir to. It’s actually more like a hundred thousand, if you were to count. How did you hurt your heart? Sirens, doc. See, the Benicia Hospital was just around the corner. Not so easy, when you’re cooking speed, to tell the difference between ambulance and cop sirens.

When Butler showed up halfway through the week to see how my felony cooking school was going, he made light of my siren anxiety. He had a way of laying down the law in his pedantic-nerd accent. He was the only Californian I’d ever met whose accent was even more pretentious than mine. The first time he showed up with Doug (trash of a feather), I tried to figure out what country he came from, asked Doug: “Uh, I think Daly City?” It was the accent of Pretentia, and we’d had many a chat in its high nasals, decreeing the proper line on many aspects of existence as we sipped Terry’s instant coffee at the Bongoburgers table and negotiated our little plan to become crime lords. When I told Butler about the sirens, he sniggered—you don’t see much sniggering, but he was an old hand at it—and explained, “Oh no. No, no, no sirens. There wouldn’t be sirens. They’d come in both doors at once, front and back, with battering rams! Through the windows, too. Dozens of them. Sirens!” he chuckled at my naivete.

Butler’s cleverest little scheme was what ruined us completely. He was like that, just clever enough to wreck everything he touched. He and his fellow genius Pink Cloud the Dealer had this brainstorm: let’s cook Benzedrine instead of Meth! They’ll never know the difference! And Benzedrine only takes seven days, not eight like Meth! That had a certain appeal to me, since I was the one with the fingerprints all over the glassware. Any reduction in days spent listening to the sirens and going to the door to refuse subscription offers seemed like a good idea to me. And I didn’t know the difference between Meth and Benzedrine; I didn’t like speed back then. Strictly business.

Butler’s clinching argument was classic nasal nerd pedantry: “Besides, studies have shown that Benzedrine is better than Meth. Benzedrine increases IQ by 25 points and Meth only by 15.” He was one of those fuckups with potential, jerks who hit their peak at the SAT and talk a lot about IQ because you always find them leeching somebody else’s pizza and coffee. He looked like Clark Kent, a saleable look with girls at the edge of the postpunk deal, but he was a Clark Kent who never turned into much. 
He told me the cooking was going fine and ate his KFC dinner—I had no money and even in the catpiss fumes of that place, I was slavering over the smell of that chicken skin, but the bastard ate every last flap of back skin, even the heartshaped twin lozenges of fat over the neckbone. I was living on Safeway bread and peanut butter.

How I managed to stay at 225 with that diet, God knows. Even the rowing machine didn’t help: every day I mounted it and shut my eyes and imagined myself on one of the galleys for the required 22 minutes, then toweled off. And never seemed to get any thinner, just squatter. Strong, sure; most people couldn’t even do one pull of that machine at my settings; but without aggression, strength like that is just a heart attack in progress. And I had no aggression. Teach your kids aggression; keep them lean and tell them to use weapons. Skinny is fine if you have an eye for sharp objects and your own advantage. Shoulders are for peasant suckers, hewers of wood and drawers of minimum-wage.

It did turn out handy later, in the scaring-Butler-to-death phase. But we were still allies now, though we hated each other even then, or rather despised each other. He bragged at me and I in my disingenuous way bragged at him and we both considered the other pure trash. While still fearing each other in different ways: he knew I was insane, after Heidi laughed at my wooing, and could have crushed his skull, and I knew he had been on his high-school marksmanship team and knew a lot about poisons. What a team.

He came back again on the seventh day and took over for the final stages of the recipe. We moved the works into the living room and performed the sacrament. It was the only time I ever saw Butler show any respect for anything. He clearly loved this moment, the ritual hush of it. He held a test tube over the beaker full of what I’d made and said slowly, “OK, watch this: it’s gonna make little flakes, white little flakes, and every flake, just—OK, think of every little flake as a $20 bill. That’s how much they’re worth.”

He poured and whispered it again, praying to the liquid, while the little flakes began to drift toward the bottom of the jar:  “Every one a $20 bill.”


“Pleasant Hell”

By John Dolan

Buy John Dolan’s novel “Pleasant Hell” (Capricorn Press).

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Add your own

  • 1. matt  |  April 3rd, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    More Dolan is always appreciated.

  • 2. good 'ol johnny  |  April 3rd, 2010 at 5:16 pm

    motherfuckin dolan slaves

  • 3. Joe  |  April 3rd, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    thanks, please post the last part

  • 4. RecoverylessRecovery  |  April 3rd, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    University of Phoenix, STEP ASIDE!

    I’m taking Prof. Nolan’s Advanced Chemistry distance-learning courses INSTEAD to earn the credits for my MN degree (Master in Narcotics).

  • 5. Harry Ballsach  |  April 3rd, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Are there only 5 parts? I’ve read this like 3X now and it’s still great. It deserves a 2nd run.

    I’m kinda hoping in the back of my mind that there are actually more than 5 parts, and this will take us further than any searching on the net for old stuff can.

  • 6. hey  |  April 3rd, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    You need some money?
    I am absolutely serious in my honor.

    Change your life, get the shitty tons of money here.

  • 7. internal exile  |  April 4th, 2010 at 3:29 am

    Cat piss, eh? You must’ve been using the reduction of phenylacetic acid method. Without a hood, or even much ventilation. And you tried to breath as much of the vapors a possible to absorb them…Mr. Dolan, you are a piece of work.

  • 8. MQ  |  April 4th, 2010 at 6:57 am

    Loving this series…made a $25 contribution last night when I read it. Go, Dolan, go!

  • 9. Bullet eater  |  April 4th, 2010 at 9:04 am

    More depressing than ever, thanks

  • 10. Harry Ballsach  |  April 4th, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Pretty poppies is as far as I’d go.

    I think someone about a mile away was brewing up a batch of meth, stunk to high heaven and like a particularly rotten version of cat piss. They used to hold a garage sale every weekend, it was OK, I bought some stuff from them. I always gave it a look over. But the cops shut ’em down, yeah good thing those damn Mexicans aren’t holding their ugly garage sale now, huh?

  • 11. De_la_Rapier  |  April 4th, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    That is a beautiful article.

  • 12. Bill Rush  |  April 4th, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    I remember reading this piece on the Beast webpage a while back thinking this was the only great article out of all their bush league attempts at comedy. The Beast is to the eXiled to what Cracked Magazine is to Mad Magazine. Both are lame posers to their satiric masters.

  • 13. shinbone  |  April 6th, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    hay… cracked is amazing.

  • 14. Timmy  |  April 6th, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I wonder if Dr. Dolan has this on his CV!
    I’d hire him!

  • 15. Timmy  |  April 6th, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    Seriously, though great writing. The honesty is breathtaking. I hope that you are doing better in your older wiser years, – and that you and your wife are loving, laughing when you can, and taking care of each other. Hope that doesn’t sound too corny!

    When you mentioned in the story that your heart has some sort of injury, I also wondered if maybe you suffered or suffer from sleep apnea – it just seems to me that it’s unlikely a single week of stress/terror would hurt your heart like that. Just a thought.

  • 16. Homer Erotic  |  April 7th, 2010 at 9:02 am

    What’s surprising is that you went along with the plan to make Benzedrine instead of proper Crystal Meth. It’s Crystal Meth that all the speed-heads have been jonesing for ever since the late 80s!

  • 17. peter  |  April 8th, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    So what’s the deal? We haven’t heard from Dolan in along time. Did he ask for more money and you couldn’t or wouldn’t pay him?

  • 18. Joe  |  April 13th, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    Please post fart 5, I mean part 5

  • 19. Will  |  April 25th, 2010 at 7:19 am

    Post next installment plz!!1!

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