Julian Morris was raised on what people generally consider the good side of town. It was no secret to anyone who knew him that he came from a lot of money, but he was a unique breed of rich kid — one who was universally well-liked, even by classmates less-fortunate than himself.
Julian was good-looking, congenial, and effortlessly funny — the kind of high-character person who would help the elderly woman next door (whose name was Gladys Hornsby, by the way) bring in groceries from her car. After doing this good deed for Gladys, Julian would often flash a smile that filled the old broad with such joy that she couldn’t help but brag to all her girlfriends about him. “That Morris boy next door is so darn nice,” she’d say over coffee with her gal pals. “He’s going places, you know.”
“That Morris boy next door is so darn nice. He’s going places, you know.”
One of Julian’s more virtuous characteristics — and there were many, to be sure — was his tendency to form close bonds with kids who some would have perceived as being beneath his social stratum. Julian didn’t take into consideration things such as class, looks, popularity, et cetera, when choosing his companions. Perhaps the best example of his refreshing lack of discrimination was his friendship with a kid named Charlie Derwood: a pale and freckled ginger who (unlike Julian) had no athletic talent whatsoever. Charlie spent most of his time reading books and playing the clarinet. The pair met in sixth-grade English class, when Julian — a Harry Potter aficionado — noticed The Goblet of Fire on Charlie’s desk. Julian asked Charlie what Hogwarts house he most identified with.
“Hufflepuff,” responded Charlie, avoiding eye contact.
“Me too,” Julian said, flashing that radiant smile.
From that point forward, until Julian and Charlie left their hometown to attend colleges on opposite coasts, the pair remained tight-knit, trading Pokemon cards during their middle school years and hanging out on Julian’s parents’ boat during high school summer breaks. Charlie, in typical neurotic nerd fashion, was positively terrified of water — until his junior year, at least, when Julian taught him how to swim. Charlie never became a Michael Phelps-type or anything like that, but he was no longer completely swallowed by fear when wading into high waters.
“It’s funny,” said Charlie’s mom, Rhonda, a couple weeks ago. “I was going through some old photographs after I’d heard what happened to Julian, and I noticed that, in every picture of the two of them, Julian has his arm around Charlie, as if to say ‘I got you, buddy.’ Julian was a very intense, extremely friendly kid. He was Charlie’s protector, in a lot of ways.”
Charlie wasn’t the only oddball buddy Julian made during high school. There was Darcy Blaine, an overweight girl with pretty eyes and a gift for remembering obscure history facts. Julian dated Darcy for six months. They attended prom together their senior year and remained friends even after breaking up. There was also Paul Middleditch, an introvert from an alcoholic lineage. Julian and Paul worked together at the local ice cream parlor, bonding over their mutual love of automobiles — a passion that Julian had inherited from his father, Jim, a dentist by trade who indulged his obsession with antique muscle cars on weekends. “He made you feel like you were someone special, even if you weren’t,” Paul, who grew up to become a trusted auto mechanic, said after the news about Julian rippled through the community. “He’s someone worth remembering.”
“He made you feel like you were someone special, even if you weren’t…he’s someone worth remembering.”
While Julian was forming all of these close relationships with ugly ducklings, he was also totally killing it academically and athletically. He made all A’s from kindergarten through his senior year, except for one pesky B he received during his sophomore year in Mr. Kielbowick’s Algebra II class. He graduated third in his class, behind Mary Jo Allen (Yale) and Hunter Smathers (Brown). On the football field, Julian was a dynamic quarterback (cliche, I know) who attracted attention from college recruiters throughout the country. His deft combination of athleticism and arm strength allowed him to set school career records not only in passing yards and passing touchdowns, but also rushing yards and yards-per-carry. Scholarship offers poured in by the dozens, and at the midway point of his senior season, Julian had his top three schools picked out: Pittsburgh, Kentucky and Princeton. He chose Princeton because, as he so wisely put it at the time, “I better get a good education, because I’m not going to play football forever.”
“He was probably the best all-around athlete that’s ever come through here,” said Ernie Poore, who retired a couple years ago after spending 30 years as head coach at Julian’s alma mater. “Polite, too, and with a single-mindedness that’s pretty rare to see. I never in a hundred years would’ve thought that he’d go down the path that he went down.”
“He was probably the best all-around athlete that’s ever come through here. Polite, too, and with a single-mindedness that’s pretty rare to see. I never in a hundred years would’ve thought that he’d go down the path that he went down.”
Julian’s journey down a dark path, as it were, began his freshman year at Princeton. The coaching staff, recognizing Julian’s potential as the program’s quarterback of the future, had redshirted him, meaning he’d sit out his freshman season to gain an extra year of eligibility at the end of his career. Thus Julian became the scout team quarterback during practices, helping the defense prepare for its opponent each week.
The incident that changed everything occurred in late September, as he and his teammates were preparing for a game against rival Harvard. Julian and the scout team offense were running through some routine passing plays, in what was supposed a non-contact setting, when starting defensive end Trevor Watts shoved Julian after he’d thrown a pass. There was no malicious intent, but there didn’t need to be: Julian tumbled to the turf and landed awkwardly on his right arm. He felt something pop.
A couple hours later, the Princeton team doctor confirmed the bad news: a torn bicipital tendon — a season-ending injury.
“I feel terrible, man,” Trevor told Julian after the latter was released from the hospital. “You know I didn’t mean anything by it.”
“Shit happens, Trev,” said Julian, flashing that smile. “I’ll be back on the field in no time.”
The trouble truly started for Julian not when his bicep tendon snapped like a rubber band — that, while a setback, would have been manageable — but instead when the doctor prescribed 30 pills of 60 mg oxycontin to help Julian deal with the sharp spasms of pain typical of such an injury. “You’ll probably need to take one per day,” the doctor said, innocently enough. “If you need more after a month, come back and let me know.”
At first, Julian only used the medication when he felt a sharp pain coming on. But the pills gave him such a crystalline rush of euphoria — “like lying in the middle of the ocean, without a care in the world,” as he once described it a friend — that he began popping them prior to class, before bed, and any other time he felt an urge to disappear in a dreamy world of nothingness. The doctor refilled Julian’s prescription three times before cutting him off. “I can’t justify giving you any more of this stuff,” the doc said. “I’ve seen what it can do to people.”
At first, Julian only used the medication when he felt a sharp pain coming on. But the pills gave him such a crystalline rush of euphoria — “like lying in the middle of the ocean, without a care in the world,” as he once described it a friend — that he began popping them prior to class, before bed, and any other time he felt an urge to disappear in a dreamy world of nothingness.
Julian continued to attend class and football practice like he always had, albeit high as a kite most of the time. Despite his constantly altered state, Julian was able to act like the normal dude he’d always been, thanks to his natural gift for congeniality and friendliness. It wasn’t until about two months into his burgeoning addiction, right around the time he finished his final bottle of doctor-prescribed oxycontin, that Julian’s roommate, Xavier Grove — a linebacker on the football team — noticed a change in his teammate and friend. “He looks tired all the time, and he’s been sleeping through his 10 a.m. history class,” Xavier told several other guys on the football team. “I don’t know — maybe he’s just really down on himself because of the injury.” Xavier never addressed such concerns with Julian. Life went on as usual.
Once Julian’s supply of oxycontin from the doctor ran out, he scrambled for another source that would satisfy his brain’s increasing lust for the ultra-addictive molecule. Raynor Gamble, a cornerback on the football team, knew a guy with an oxycontin prescription who sold 80 mg pills for $5 a pop — or 30 or $125. For Julian, the choice was simple: he needed all 30, stat. And thus Julian continued to tumble: he fell behind in his classes, and was in danger of losing his football scholarship after he’d skipped a couple of practices because he was high off his gourd — lying in bed and drifting off into that ever-widening ocean of numbness quickly becoming his new normal.
“We did everything we could have done for him,” said Julian’s mother, April, a nurse. “He’d always been such a strong, sweet kid, but at some point, he just wasn’t that person anymore. That was probably the hardest thing for me: to watch him fade away right before our eyes, and knowing that no matter what we did, we couldn’t bring back our baby boy.”
No one can say for sure how or when Julian started using black tar heroin, because at that point in his life, he’d isolated himself from virtually everyone he’d ever been close with — anyone who actually cared about him, that is. If one had to venture a guess, a solid estimation might be around his 25th birthday, a full six years after he’d dropped out of Princeton. He’d attended rehab twice, only to relapse mere days after being released each time. Fellow junkies were now his only “friends” — a loose term, to be sure — and most of Julian’s days were spent in and out of a drug-induced stupor while lying on the stained floor of some dimly-lit apartment in the cruddy part of town, only five or so miles up the road from the mansion he grew up in.
Fellow junkies were now his only “friends” — a loose term, to be sure — and most of Julian’s days were spent in and out of a drug-induced stupor while lying on the stained floor of some dimly-lit apartment in the cruddy part of town, only five or so miles up the road from the mansion he grew up in.
Those odd-ball friends Julian had made during grade school? They’d become generally successful young adults: Charlie, now living in Austin, was working as an engineer. Darcy was a history teacher at their alma mater. Paul, as mentioned earlier, was employed as an auto mechanic at a shop on the outskirts of the city, and — in a strange twist of fate — was the last one of the three to see Julian alive, although he had no idea this had been the case.
Julian and one of his junkie “friends” had come into Paul’s shop looking to have a tire replaced. Paul informed the junkie friend that they could take care of the issue — pronto, no questions asked — and then glanced over at Julian, who was so gaunt as to be totally unrecognizable to his old pal. Julian, who never made eye contact anymore, had no inkling that he was in the presence of a trusted old friend. Charlie felt a vague, visceral connection to the guy standing in front of him, looking at the ground like a beaten dog. Charlie was sure he knew the guy from somewhere — absolutely sure of it — and he racked his brain in an attempt to place him. He gave up after a few moments and snapped back to reality.
“The car will be ready this afternoon,” Paul told the junkie friend. “We’ll give you a call when it’s done.”
Justin McCurry, a paramedic, had been asleep for about three hours when the call came over the radio. “Cardiac arrest: possible overdose,” said the dispatcher. Justin slid groggily out of bed and pulled on his pants, annoyed that his peaceful sleep had been interrupted. He hopped in the passenger seat of the ambulance, and off he and his partner went — sirens blaring — to 67 Grand Street. It was 12:03 a.m.
“Fuckin’ junkies,” muttered his partner.
When the ambulance arrived, someone was performing CPR on a body lying in the driveway. “Get out of the way,” ordered Justin, beginning chest compressions. His partner connected the bag valve mask and started breathing for the junkie. It was the third overdose Justin had run in the past eight hours. He’d hit the first two junkies with doses of narcan, which immediately brought them back to reality. But this junkie was different; this junkie wasn’t breathing and had no pulse.
“I still remember the day he was born,” said Julian’s father. “The weird thing is I don’t have a lot of memories from the actual berth —maybe because I was so hopped up on adrenaline about being a father for the first time, or something like that. But what I do remember was how bright and green everything looked as we were carrying him out of the hospital. I can’t really explain it, but it was like I was seeing the world for the first time. Like a vitality I hadn’t noticed before was finally presenting itself to me. It was the strangest, most glorious feeling.”
Justin worked the junkie all the way to the hospital. No signs of life returned. They wheeled the junkie into the hospital on a stretcher, passed him off to definitive care, then rolled the empty stretcher toward the exit to be decontaminated. Justin sprayed the stretcher with disinfectant, replaced the sheets and pillowcases. He fluffed the pillows — like he always did, as a sort of exclamation point on the job he’d just completed — then returned the stretcher to the ambulance. “Another one bites the dust,” said Justin’s partner, matter-of-factly. Justin nodded his head and climbed into the passenger seat.
On the ride back to the station, Justin ruminated on heroin: who could ever start using such an awful drug? And why? Pot, he could see. A little cocaine, here and there, he could understand. But heroin? Who would voluntarily inject toxic sludge directly into their bloodstream? Who would think that was a good idea? Try as he might, Justin couldn’t fathom it. But then again, he wasn’t an addict. So how could he?
Back at the station, Justin pulled off his boots and pants, then slid into bed. It was 1:36 a.m. He was asleep in no time. Within a week — after seven more overdose calls — he’d forgotten all about the dead junkie at 67 Grand Street.
Five hours later, over in the nice part of town, Gladys Hornsby — now in her late 80’s — awoke from what had been a particularly restful slumber. As she lay in bed, a thought arose that she hadn’t considered in years: whatever happened to that Morris boy, the one who used to help with groceries?
“He was just the nicest boy,” she thought to herself.
Then the old woman went into the kitchen and fixed a pot of coffee. Outside, the birds were chirping and the world was so brilliantly green that it seemed impossible that a place so heartbreakingly beautiful could exist in such a cold, dark universe.
One Day in Danville
This once down-and-out mill town is now being called the “Comeback City.” It’s easy to see why.
On the Road Again
Eight years ago, I left my home in Virginia for a temporary life in Texas. This is the unabridged story of that 1,300-mile trip.
I didn’t know what to do the day after Christmas. So I stayed in my pajamas until 11 a.m.