A Shake-and-Bake is when you put your ingredients – Sudafed, antifreeze, lighter fluid, lithium strips from crushed batteries – into a plastic bottle, shake, and wait. After an hour or so, if it doesn’t explode, you can mix it with some aluminum and strain it through a hose and a coffee filter. At the bottom of the bottle, you’ll find your meth.
In Virginia, we used to call it a Drive-Through, because meth-heads did it driving down I-95 to stay up during late-night trips to New York, usually having their trunks packed with guns for sale. But I-95 is a busy road, and the practice didn’t last long.
It’s still popular to Shake-and-Bake while driving, but meth-heads take to country roads, where there’s no speed limit, where there’s no one else. On country roads they can drive forever and never be alone. They can drive forever because it doesn’t matter where they’re going, they aren’t going anywhere. As long as they don’t end up where they were, they can maybe relax.
And country roads are the same everywhere, from Virginia to Iowa, so far down Highway 1 in such an anonymous county as Johnson that the streets aren’t named anymore, where, across from a cornfield and cutting into another farmer’s cow farm, there’s a cemetery where the town founders are buried. The driveway leading to it is covered by knee-high grass. The graves are old, cracked and falling, though the landscape is kept up. The last person to be buried here died in 1917.
Just outside the cemetery, in tall grass and fallen trees, is a broken headstone that reads Father, and nothing else. Maybe it’s just a slab of concrete.
On the other side of the cemetery, tucked deeper in the woods than anyone needs to go, is a Mountain Dew bottle with a hose stuck through it. Maybe it’s just a straw.
Cemeteries are places without explanation. This one lists name, dates, and birthplace – no statues and little ornamentation. Instead of benches, there’s a folding chair propped up against a tree, next to a shattered headstone. People don’t come here to mourn anymore.
The lack of order is surprising. Life in the Midwest, I had heard, is supposed to be well-structured. I had heard that there are ways of doing things in the Midwest, ways that had probably been developed by the very founders laying in this cemetery, ways that become ingrained in people from a young age, and which a kid can be called blemished for not knowing. I could have misheard, but it still feels off to see this cemetery with its scattered headstones in varying levels of decay in the middle of farms with neatly laid rows of corn and even cows that seem to be standing at attention.
And that this is the place where meth-heads are going is also surprising, though not for any reasons involving sanctity – neither the dead nor the meth-freaked have much to say about sanctity. I’m surprised because all around this place is a never-ending expanse of openness, the American Midwest, the flyover states with nothing but space – a suffocating amount of space, even, which can leave these farmboys wondering what else there is, knowing that there’s something else, but with no way to get to it; an amount of space that convinces people they’re nowhere.
Meth doesn’t work as well in cities. Meth makes you feel invincible, and in some ways you are, but the last thing you want when you’re feeling invincible is to run into someone who can show you all the ways you’re not. Besides, you’ve got meth talking to you, filling you with voices, each talking through megaphones at a hundred miles an hour, so that if you can understand one of them you savor it and believe it when it tells you that they’re listening to you through your dental fillings and that when you watch TV they’re also watching you so you need to get out, get out and be somewhere else.
And if you find the graves of William and Elizabeth, hidden in the corner by shrubbery, you can even see change; you could even call it progress. A new generation is leaving in the open artifacts of their independence – the shift from antifreeze to windshield wiper fluid, from Sudafed to Benadryl. If it doesn’t crystallize, they can shoot it, because meth has no requisite method, ingredient or effect. No one will ever tell these new meth-heads they’re doing it wrong.
Erick Brucker is an essayist from Richmond, VA. He earned his MFA from University of Iowa’s Non-Fiction Writing Program in 2015. His work has appeared in Jelly Bucket, Essay Daily, and as a notable selection in Best American Essays 2014. He lives and teaches in Iowa City.