#201: Nine Inch Nails, "The Downward Spiral" (1994)

Malcolm kept turning around to talk to a person in the backseat who didn’t exist. He kept trying to jump out of the car from the front passenger side while we drove full-speed down the highway. Malcolm was pumped full of opiates. Malcolm did this sometimes.

Dark lines of dirt outlined where the medical tape had been on his arms. Tiny traces of white fuzz stuck to the dried blooda ghost image of bandaging. The defined veins in the ditch of his elbow were baby blue, lightened by the freebased heroinMalcolm’s go-to replacement for fluoxetine, benzodiazepine, and chlorpromazine: the typical cocktail of drugs used to treat the symptoms of dissociative disorders.

“I just have to pick up a package real quick,” Malcolm whispered to the nothingness behind him as he reached for the door handle againthe car speedometer reading 80 miles per hour.

“I swear, Malcolm, you better cut that crazy shit out,” I said.

“The door is stuck.”

“I put the child lock on; you’re fucking out of your mind right now.”  I didn’t really have too much room to talk back then; driving fast with a pint of Kentucky Deluxe Whiskey in my stomach wasn’t exactly the definition of sane logic.

Malcolm tried to roll down the window. Locked as well. “He won’t let me out,” Malcolm said to his delusion. I turned up the music so I didn’t have to listen to him mumble.

The whacking noise that opened the album was a sample of a man being beaten with a baton from the 1971 George Lucas film THX 1138. The whacking and subsequent moans started slow and then sped up on the track, a heartbeat beginning to race, before the sound exploded into a multilayered cacophony of electronic discourse, drums, synthesizer, guitaraggressive, abrasive, inescapable.  Malcolm first introduced me to the album when we were in high schoolmaybe a year after he’d been emancipated from his mother and stepfather and about six months before my grandmother would tell me it hurt her too much to watch me live.

Over the discord of instruments banging out a beat fast and loud, Trent Reznor’s lyrics pierced through: I am the bullet in the gun (and I control you) / I am the truth from which you run (and I control you) / I am the silencing machine (and I control you) / I am the end of all your dreams (and I control you).

Malcolm quieted down some in the car once his favorite album was onhis delusion unable to compete with his idol. He sank back into his seat and said the song’s title out loud: “Mr. Self Destruct.”

Malcolm’s recent trip to the hospitalwhere I’d picked him up that morningwas at the referral of a woman at a gas station who noticed the self-inflicted cuts on his forearm which spelled out “Happy.”  “Apathy” would have been more fitting, but sometimes the two seemed interchangeable.

“Can you take me back to my house?” he asked as I cracked the window now that he’d calmed from the chaos erupting from the speakers.

“I’ve told you like five times already that’s where we’re heading.”

Trent Reznor transitioned tracks with a few inharmonious, looped synthesized chords resembling the unconnected frequencies in one’s head during a panic attack. Then a brief silence cued the rhythmic song “Piggy”. Trent Reznor had recorded the entire album in the basement of the house he’d rented at the time. He always maintained he had no prior knowledge of the fact that his house was THE house where the Manson Family had slaughtered Sharon Tate and her friends and then spelled out the word PIG on the walls with Tate’s blood. The gruesome acts of the murders made Charles Manson a symbol for pure evil in America. I sometimes wondered if there was one singular symbol for evil in Malcolm’s life. His father who molested him? His stepfather who beat him? His mother who did nothing to stop the abuse? The voices he heard, which the doctors would say were trauma induced? The razor blade he clung to as therapy? The heroin in his veins? The gun he’d buy at a trade show on his 22nd birthday?

“I think I had a stinger in my past life,” Malcolm said slowly, his eyes drooped halfway shut as he pressed next on the CD player until he reached track number twelve, “Reptile”. “Like I was a wasp or a scorpion. Or a honey bee.”

I very rarely responded when Malcolm would have these conversations with himself. I just listened, the way he could surprisingly be an exceptional listener whenever I spewed out my own war stories.

“I was a honey bee. The way they sting a person and then cannot pull their barbed stingers back out without leaving behind part of their abdomen, muscles, nerves, and digestive tract. The abdominal rupture ends up killing them. That’s how I died.”

I swerved left onto his street. The dilapidated duplex, where he’d lived for the last two years right after turning 18, came into view. Once I turned the ignition off, I unlocked Malcolm’s door and we both got out. There wasn’t a feeling of relief that we’d made it safely from the dealer’s house back to Malcolm’s. There wasn’t a feeling at all. Maybe that’s why Malcolm ended up doing it. There was just the door frontits paint cracked and its frame serving as a walkway for cockroachesopening towards the downward spiral.

—Angela Morris