top of page

"The Drought of 1995" by J. Archer Avary

Chris Baxter was the new guy at SubWorks Sandwich Factory. He had a head like a cube, bushy eyebrows like caterpillars, and drove a rusted out Chevrolet Chevette with Iowa plates. He was from Dubuque and worked his hometown into every conversation.

“Back in Dubuque we used to huff paint thinner by the riverbank,” he told me as we sliced vegetables together at the prep table. “Then we’d go over to Spider’s house and take acid and listen to Butthole Surfers.”

“Oh yeah?”

“There was always rad shit happening in Dubuque.”

I tried not to be defensive. “Omaha’s cool too.”

“It’s alright,” he said, feeding bell peppers into the crank slicer. “But back home in Dubuque it was easier to get drugs.”

For reasons beyond our understanding drugs were scarce. Even small quantities of pot, normally cheap and plentiful, were unavailable from the usual sources. What a time to be alive, bored stiff and living through the drought of 1995 on minimum wage.

“It can’t stay dry forever.”

“I hope you’re right because I’m losing my fucking mind here. Back in Dubuque there were hot girls. Nebraska girls are fugly.”

Girls from either state weren’t lining up to fuck us. Who wants a guy who works for minimum wage and reeks of onions?

Chris offered to drive me home after work, but the Chevette wouldn’t start. Instead of walking for help at the 7-11 down the block we smoked cigarettes in the parking lot, waiting for someone to drive by for a jump start.

“I’m so fucking desperate to get high,” said Chris.

“I can check in with my weed guy again,” I offered. “He told me he was hoping to get a quarter pound of dank buds sometime soon.”

“Call that motherfucker!”

No luck. Omaha was the new dust bowl.

Chris stood on the edge of the road, waving his jumper cables at passing cars. Eventually a guy in a Ford F-150 pulled in to help; a wispy, no-nonsense older gentleman with tightly furrowed wrinkles. He popped open the hood of his truck, and five minutes later Chris and I were in the Taco Bell drive-thru listening to The Melvins on the Chevette’s tinny speakers.

“These guys played the Capitol Bar a few months ago."

“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen The Melvins,” said Chris. “Dubuque is practically their second home.”

We ordered burritos and ate in the parking lot.

There was nothing to do after that, so we drove around in circles. They called it cruising, and it was the thing to do when there was nothing else to do. Carfuls of drugless young midwesterners going out of their minds.

“Back in Dubuque there were bonfires every Saturday night,” said Chris. “We’d get cases of Keystone Light and drink until we puked.”

“I can’t wait until I’m 21 so I can get drunk.”

“My older brother Kenny used to buy us beer. Now he’s in jail.”

“What’d he do?”

“Armed robbery. Three years for being the lookout. That’s why I’m here, I used to live with Kenny but when he went to prison I came to live with my Aunt and Uncle.”

“Jesus Christ.”

Chris accelerated through a yellow light in the instant before it turned red and pulled into the Walgreens parking lot at the top of the hill.

“I gotta get fucked up tonight,” he said. “Are you with me?”

“I wanna get fucked up too.”

“Have you ever taken Robitussin? It’s a cold medicine, but if you drink the entire bottle, time slows down and you end up tripping balls.”

“From Robitussin?”

“Yeah, but it’s got to be the kind that says DM on the package. The active ingredient is hallucinogenic.”

“How much should we take?”

“Two bottles each should put us in another dimension.”

Chris sent me into the Pharmacy. I found the Robitussin in the cough and cold aisle. I inspected each package carefully to ensure we were getting the highest possible dosage of the active ingredient. I put the Robitussin in a handbasket along with a bag of Werther’s Originals and a copy of Guns & Ammo magazine.

“Is that everything for you?” said the woman at checkout.

I nodded. The woman scanned the magazine and the candies, but paused when she saw four boxes of Robitussin DM.

“I’m afraid I can only sell you two boxes of cough syrup at a time.”

“Why is that?”

“It’s flagged as a frequently abused item in the store database.”

“Look, I’m Mormon. I’m the oldest of eight siblings and we’ve got a bug going around right now, terrible stuff. I got sent out for medicine because I haven’t got the cough yet.”

The clerk folded her arms across her chest. She wasn’t buying the story.

“You’re Mormon?”

“Yes ma’am,” I said. “I just want to do right for my brothers and sisters. I don’t want to see them wheezing and coughing like hyenas. I shouldn’t even be here, because I’ve potentially been exposed to whatever is causing the cough. If you help me out, I’ll add your name to our daily prayer list.”

She scanned the remaining boxes. “Fine, but if I see you buying any more psychoactive cough syrup I will call the authorities. We take over-the-counter medicine abuse very seriously.”

“Thank you, I knew you were one of God’s people

I gave Chris a thumbs-up and got back in the car. As he drove us to his aunt and uncle’s house on the edge of town I told him about how the clerk bought my Mormon sob story.

“That’s brilliant,” he said. “Back in Dubuque the pharmacies could be dicks about buying more than one package of Robitussin. Sometimes we’d have to go to two or three different stores to get enough to get fucked up on.”

“You should’ve seen her face when I told her I was going to put her name on my prayer list. Her eyes nearly popped out of her skull.”

Chris pulled into the driveway at his aunt and uncle’s split-level house but no one was home. “They go to the casino on Friday nights,” he explained as he unlocked the front door.

He led me down a half-flight of stairs into a shag carpeted rec. room. The wood panelling and velvet Elvis painting were relics of the 70’s. Also in the room was a large stereo system, a dartboard, a red lava lamp, a bear’s head rug, a glass coffee table, and two plush leather sofas that had seen better days.

“Whatcha think?”

“This place is fucking awesome. Who killed the bear?”

“Nobody. My uncle got it at a flea market. I don’t think it’s real.”

“Either way, it’s badass.”

Chris loaded a Primus CD into the stereo. It sounded ferocious on his uncle’s top-of-the-line speakers. He brought two glasses of water and a large plastic bowl down from the kitchen.

“Are you ready to trip your balls off?”

“Bring it on."

We each opened a box of Robitussin and cracked through the child-proof safety caps.

“You’ll want to drink it fast, but not too fast because you might puke. It says raspberry flavoured, but it tastes like shit. If you’re gonna throw up, make sure you get it in the bowl and not on the shag carpet, or else my uncle will beat my ass.”.”

Chris tossed his cube-shaped head back and chugged. Then it was my turn. The Robitussin was thick and sickly sweet. I drank half the bottle and felt the urge to vomit. I grabbed the bowl, but kept it down. Chris was already cracking the cap on his second bottle.

“This shit is nasty,” I said.

“Just wait until you’re drooling into the carpet.”

I got the first bottle down and started on my second. I felt myself drifting into an altered state. At first it was a sensation in my ears, like a Nitrous Oxide buzz, but soon it started to impact my perception of the room. Time slowed down. Objects in my field of vision appeared shimmery and distorted, as if I was looking at everything through a rippling mountain stream. My motor skills failed and I found myself, as predicted, drooling into the carpet, face-to-face with the carpet bear’s toothy grin. I was so close I thought I could see plaque on its long sharp teeth.

“I’m so fucked up,” said Chris. “I feel like my heart’s gonna stop.”

I started laughing. The Robitussin in my system made everything funny.

“This isn’t funny, dude, I think I’m fucking dying.”

I pushed myself up onto my hands and knees and crawled over to him. He was face down in the shag carpet and convulsing involuntarily. His skin was pale and grey like aliens in movies.

“You should make yourself puke.”

“I never had to make myself puke back in Dubuque.”

“You might feel better. Lemme get the bowl.”

I crawled slowly through the thick carpet. It seemed like it was alive and growing taller. I pictured amber waves of grain as I retrieved the bowl from the coffee table.

“Here,” I said. “Puke into this.”

“You’re a demon and you’re trying to fuck with my head just like you did back in Dubuque.”

Chris started crying. His trip was going all wrong.

“I’m Jason from Sub Works Sandwich Factory, remember? I’m not some demon.”

Chris pushed himself up onto his knees. His eyes rolled back in his head and he became completely unhinged.

“Devil, I cast thee out of this house!” he shouted. “I smote thee with my righteous fury! I condemn thee to eternal damnation!”

“You’re killing my buzz,” I slapped him across the face. “Get a grip, you’re just having a bad trip.”

Chris collapsed on the shag carpet and sobbed into his hands.

“Why does this always happen to me?”

“If you make yourself puke you’ll feel a lot better.”

I slid the bowl across the carpet. Chris leaned over it and stuck his fingers deep into his throat. He dry-heaved a couple times before it came up, in short hot bursts. Pieces of tomato and lettuce from his burrito floated in a sea of raspberry Robitussin. Taco Bell seemed so long ago.

“That’s it, get it all out,” I said. “Doesn’t that feel better?”

Chris looked at me. His eyes were watery and stomach fluids oozed from his nose, but he looked better, as if the worst part of the trip was over.

“Where am I?”

“You’re at your aunt and uncle’s house in Omaha.”

“Am I dead?”

“You look like death but you’re still alive.”

“I miss Dubuque.”

Chris eventually mellowed. Without having to babysit, I could finally relax and enjoy the psychotropic effects of Robitussin.

I put Jane’s Addiction on the stereo and flipped through my copy of Guns & Ammo, wondering what it would be like to shoot a human head. Chris’s aunt and uncle got home from the casino as I contemplated the physics.

“What the hell is going on here?” demanded Chris’ uncle. “Turn down this goddamn music and answer me.”

“He invited me over to listen to music,” I gestured at Chris, who was writhing face-down on the shag carpet and giggling uncontrollably. “We work together at SubWorks Sandwich Factory and we like the same music.”

The uncle surveyed the room. Four empty bottles of Robitussin DM and a large plastic bowl of vomit sat on the glass coffee table. He shook his head.

“Drinking cough syrup?”

I shrugged. “It’s not as bad as it sounds.”

“This shit fucks you up,” said Chris. “The devil chased me here all the way from Dubuque!”

“You haven’t been huffing paint again,” said the uncle. “You’ve already been to rehab once for solvent abuse.”

“Rehab?” said Chris. “Fuck that place.”

“Get your things” the uncle told me. “I’ll drive you home.”

The presence of reasonable adults sobered me quickly. I climbed into the passenger seat of the uncle’s Ford Ranger and buckled my seatbelt.

“Where’s your place?”

“Just drop me off at SubWorks,” I said. “My parents will kill me if I come home tripping on Robitussin. I have a key to the store and can sleep in the back on the prep table.”

“You seem like a good kid. Why are you hanging out with Chris?”

“I don’t know, he seems okay.”

“He’s got a lot of problems,” said the uncle. “His brother went to prison and we’ve been trying to give him some structure in his life.”

“He said his brother was railroaded, that he was just the lookout.”

“That’s what Chris wants to believe. He loves his brother, but the truth is he was a bad dude. He got in over his head and started robbing gas stations.”

The uncle pulled into the SubWorks parking lot.

“It would probably be for the best if you stopped hanging around Chris. I’m afraid he might be going down his brother’s path.”

I woke up hours later in the back room of SubWorks Sandwich Factory, naked on the prep table with a dry mouth and pounding headache. The morning shift workers would be arriving any minute.

I dressed myself and poured a Mountain Dew from the soda machine. It was cold and sweet, but my stomach couldn’t handle it after a night on Robitussin. I threw up into the prep sink, rinsed away the chunks, found a piece of paper at the manager’s desk and started writing.

I, Jason Robertson, being of sound mind and body hereby resign from my position as Associate Sandwich Builder effective immediately. My tenure at SubWorks has been one of my greatest pleasures thus far, but all good things must end. I must pursue the next steps in my career advancement outside the sandwich industry.

I affixed my notice to the cork board with a pushpin and left without locking the door. I walked to the pay phone and vowed never to abuse over-the-counter medicine again. I dialled my weed guy. There was good news, the drought of ’95 was over.

J. Archer Avary (he/him) was born in the USA and now lives in Northeast England. He used to be a TV weatherman and is the EIC of Sledgehammer Lit. @j_archer_avary

bottom of page