Jessica Canwell wearily climbs three flights of dark, creaky stairs to the top floor of the Hotel Hooker, where a needle waits for her in a cluttered room smelling of stale food and urine.
Less than an hour earlier, her boyfriend had died at Windham Community Memorial Hospital of a needle-borne infection. John Davis took his last breath as Jessica, 22, went for a soda in the hospital's lounge. She came back and leaned her head onto his chest, hoping to hear a heartbeat, to talk to him one last time. He died a day before his 44th birthday.
Jessica's younger sister, Amy-Lee, 21, understands. She lost her boyfriend to a heroin overdose six months earlier, and she prepares her sister's "works," knowing she'll need a fix to cope with the grief.
Jessica injects the cola-colored mixture of tap water and heroin under a scab that has formed over an infected abscess in the crook of her arm, into the same vein she has used for three years. She pumps the syringe, drawing up her own blood, and shoots the dark red mixture back into her arm.
The heroin does nothing to numb her pain. She collapses on the worn mattress and weeps, haunted by memories of her boyfriend's dead eyes staring at the hospital's white ceiling.
"I don't want him to be gone. I just want one more minute. Please, somebody, let me have another minute," Jessica wails to Amy-Lee and some friends who have gathered beside her on the bed. They gently brush tear-matted hair from her face.
The friends bring sympathy bags of heroin instead of flowers or casseroles. They sit next to Jessica and talk about John in soft, consoling voices above the whir of a window fan. A small television blares a rerun of "Law and Order."
Death is a familiar companion at the Hotel Hooker, a grim brick building filled with junkies, the mentally ill and the hopelessly poor. It's a place saturated in heroin, a place where people die.
Shortly before John Davis died on July 15, he told his friends there was a man dressed in black, like the Grim Reaper, lingering in the corner of the room he shared with Jessica. Death has visited many rooms at the hotel, more than once in Room 52.
The previous tenant died of a heroin overdose, and was found lying in the bathtub. Then a woman dropped dead of an overdose on the dirty gray and red linoleum tile in the hallway just outside the door.
"This building is cursed," says Amy-Lee, who lives across the hall from her sister.
"There's spirits in some of the rooms. I've seen them. So have others," says Wendi Clark, a recovering heroin addict who lived in the hotel from 1996 to 1999. "Some of the rooms have seen a lot of overdoses. I once saw the face of a man reflected in the door of my microwave. Some of the communal bathrooms - you go in and you feel someone else is there, even though you're alone. It's creepy."
Amy-Lee awoke last January with her boyfriend lying on her chest, his body already stiff with rigor mortis. Amy-Lee gave her sister the queen-size mattress they shared, no longer able to sleep on the spot where he died. Afterward, Amy-Lee took an overdose of sleeping pills and would have died if Jessica hadn't found her and called an ambulance.
"You're in so much pain. You literally feel your heart breaking apart," Amy-Lee says now as she watches her sister grieve for John. Amy-Lee knows how the hurt can linger; sometimes she thinks she sees the ghost of her boyfriend walking up the stairs to the fourth floor.
Jessica lies in a fetal position on the same stained, sweat-soaked sheets where John had lain a few days before. She has put on his green plaid flannel shirt and tan moccasins despite the stifling July heat, and buries her face in a pair of his khakis to remember how he smelled.
Soiled clothing, empty bags of junk food and stacks of dirty dishes are strewn on the stained, pea-green carpet. The last bowl of uneaten chicken noodle soup that Jessica fixed for John remains on a small table near the refrigerator.
The room is oppressively hot and gloomy as a thunderstorm approaches. The skies open and rain comes in through the fan in the window. Jessica slowly lifts her large frame off the bed and walks, dazed, down the hall to the fire escape. She steps outside, lifting her face into the driving rain mixed with hail, oblivious to the lightning and crashing thunder.
"I'm so sorry, John, and I love you. I do. I love you a lot," she says on the wobbly fourth-story fire escape.
Drenched and drained, Jessica wanders back to her room, her bulging blue eyes pink from weeping and days of sleeplessness. A woman in the hall tells her there is a Puerto Rican superstition that when someone dies and it rains, it means the angels are crying.
"God takes everyone that's good, but never takes the evil people, ever," Jessica says angrily.
Dorcas Velazquez, a social worker who visited John in the hospital and drove Jessica home after he died, thinks Jessica needs to pray. She takes her to a Seventh-day Adventist church a few miles from the hotel, where they sit on the red upholstered pews reading Psalms. Tears fall down Dorcas' face as she talks gently to Jessica, whom she has tried to help for years. She tells Jessica that dying is only a sleep until Jesus comes again, and that she loved John, too, but that he had made some poor choices.
"God doesn't want us to suffer," she says softly. "But every time you put that needle in your arm, you are dying."
Jessica gets back into Dorcas' car and leans her head against the passenger window.
"I feel like I'm not even alive," she whispers.
Corridors Of Living Dead
When the Hotel Hooker was built in 1887, it was considered the finest hotel between New York and Boston, an elegant rest stop for wealthy executives who came to visit the thriving thread mills.
Seth Hooker, who had built other hotels in Colchester and Willimantic, offered 100 rooms that were among the first in eastern Connecticut to have electric lighting. The hotel offered a fine restaurant, billiards and a barbershop, and it was host to meetings of the Venerable Club for gentlemen over 70.
In 1938, Rose Riquier bought the hotel for $14,000 at a time when travelers were gravitating to motels closer to major highways, and the hotel was already beginning to decline. Her son and grandson now run the business, which operates more like a rooming house.
Bob Riquier, Rose's son, says he knows what goes on in the rooms, but insists he has no control over it. "I'm not a cop."
The cops do raid the place on occasion, but with little effect.
In fact, the police and fire complex abut the rear of the hotel where dealers sell heroin day and night, an in-house convenience for the resident junkies. The sales go down inside the rooms, away from the security cameras placed in every hotel hallway and fire escape.
Tenants walk like the living dead along the dark, wood-paneled corridors. Putrid hot air wafts from the open back door like an entrance to hell.
On hot summer days, swarms of gnats gather underneath the brass chandeliers that hang from the high ceilings in the lobby, where yellowing photos of Seth Hooker stare down from a picture frame. The wallpaper in the rooms is peeling, the drop ceilings are bowed and the scurrying of rats is a familiar sound.
The hallway floors are stained from cigarette butts and sticky with spilled beer. The air stinks of cigarette smoke, fried food and urine from the bathrooms on each floor.
A 17-year-old girl, eight months pregnant, lives on the second floor, her sunken eyes weary and sad as she wanders through the hall. Doctors told her that her baby is terribly underweight and will probably be sent to intensive care when it's born.
On the third floor, in the room below Jessica's, there's a man who eats rats. People have seen him catch them by the Willimantic River and fry them up on the stove. His mother once paid Jessica $100 to remove the rats and their cages while he was out one day. She stuffed the rodents into a garbage bag, threw it out by the river and bought heroin with her payment.
The "Rat Man" walks down Main Street wearing only a pair of shorts and heavy work boots, rattling metal chains wrapped around his ankles - he says they help strengthen his legs. Lately, he has been screaming at night about government conspiracies and throwing things around his room.
Another tenant collects hubcaps and hangs them on his walls like trophies. He shows them off to visitors and, with a toothless grin, recites where and how he got each one. He has four televisions stacked atop one another, all tuned to different channels.
Jessica's next-door neighbor says she is hiding from the CIA and spews an endless stream of conspiracy theories.
"I've had big-time trouble with the government," she says. "How come the Secret Service arrives at my door and asks me if I'm a communist?" Jessica hears her talking and answering herself in a strange, deep voice.
Jessica has seen more than a dozen overdoses in the hotel. One man overdosed, and when paramedics brought him back from death's door, he sat upright and said: "Fourth floor, women's lingerie."
In August, a trucker visiting a friend down the hall from Jessica and Amy died after smoking crack and shooting heroin. Unable to maneuver the large man's body down the narrow staircases, firefighters drove a truck up to the fire escape at the rear of the hotel. They slid the 300-pound body into an orange rescue sled and sent it down a ladder into the waiting medical examiner's van.
`The Worst Mistake'
Jessica's room is decorated with blue-check curtains, drawings of Garfield the cat, and various knickknacks. Candlestick holders with white angels sit atop a corner cupboard holding up a drooping ceiling square. Drawings of children, dried flowers and a heart-shaped wall-hanging that reads "Bless this home" cover the pink paint and peeling wallpaper. "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Breaking Bad Habits" are among the books on a shelf that doubles as a television table. Jessica strokes the ears of her black and white cat, Baby.
The hotel is her home, the most stable one she has known, a place where she and her sister have lived together longer than at any other time of their lives.
"Our floor is our family," Amy-Lee says, sitting on the mattress in her room where daytime talk shows blare from a small television set on a worn wooden dresser. "She is like my mother, my sister, my best friend," Amy-Lee says about her sister.
Jessica says she was born in Enfield to a drug-addicted, alcoholic mother who would start the day with a martini and finish it by shooting cocaine. Jessica had been in 12 foster homes and in and out of mental hospitals by the time she was 16. Amy-Lee was raised mostly by her father, she says, but was also in several foster homes.
Jessica and John moved in together at the Hotel Hooker five years ago, a year after they met in a Danielson homeless shelter.
The Canwell sisters say they were abused by their parents, foster parents and their grandmother, who told them all children are mistakes. Jessica still carries a pink, U-shaped scar under her left eye from when her stepfather pushed her down a flight of stairs when she was 7, she says.
Jessica says she was sexually assaulted when she was 6, and torn inside so badly she has been told she can never carry children. Her mother once sent her to elementary school with a mixture of orange juice and vodka in her thermos. Jessica has no pictures of herself as a child or of her and Amy together. The only birthday celebration she recalls is when she got a stale cake in the mental hospital after attempting suicide.
"I was raised like a pingpong ball," she says, blowing a stream of cigarette smoke.
When she was a teenager, Amy-Lee was tied to a bed and severely beaten by a boyfriend when she was 7½ months pregnant. She lost her baby. A few years later, she miscarried twins, and went into a deep depression.
She is drawn to abusive men, and her latest boyfriend is no exception. He became enraged in August after seeing track marks on Amy's arm one night - he thought she only snorted heroin. He kicked her, Amy says, threw videotapes at her and grabbed her arm so hard she couldn't move it for days. Her sister created a makeshift sling out of a red nightgown.
"I know I'll end up in ICU at the hospital or buried 6 feet under," Amy-Lee wrote in a police report when she sought a restraining order against her boyfriend.
Amy-Lee moved to Jessica's room for a night, but then went back to her room, where her boyfriend was living, and lay down in the bed with him.
"I'm not going to be able to sleep tonight," Jessica told her. "Your own cat can't even be in there because he hit her."
Amy-Lee never intended to catch her sister's heroin habit. She came from her aunt's house in Springfield for a weekend visit two years ago, carried her overnight bag up to Jessica's room and never left.
That weekend she met a man with dark, seductive eyes and fell in love. Jessica was already hooked on heroin, but Amy-Lee avoided it, choosing to snort cocaine or smoke marijuana. When her boyfriend died of an overdose, Amy-Lee tried snorting a few bags of heroin because she wanted to end the pain of losing him. A month later, she was shooting it into her veins.
"I told her not to every day," Jessica says. "I never wanted her to do it. I honestly wish she never left Springfield. I love seeing my sister, but not this way. I feel so guilty. She watched me set up the heroin, shoot the heroin. I feel guilty because now she's using."
Amy-Lee's room is decorated like a college dorm room, with posters and stickers on her mirror. Many show her favorite "Winnie the Pooh" character, Eeyore. She still hasn't mastered how to get the needle into her vein.
One day in June, before John's illness took hold, she padded in beach sandals across the hall and knocked on Jessica's door. She asked to borrow the lanyard from a key chain with an Eastern Connecticut State University logo on it. She licked the needle so the heroin wouldn't burn her skin, tied the lanyard around her forearm, and futilely poked the needle into the side of her wrist, already marred by a trail of track marks.
After watching her sister fumble with the syringe, Jessica took over. She found a vein and expertly inserted the needle.
"I don't like doing this for you at all," Jessica said. "It bothers me to have to shoot up my sister."
The heroin Jessica and Amy-Lee shoot up each day is usually just enough to keep at bay the stomach cramps and intolerable bone pain that comes when the dope wears off. They rarely have enough to get high or duplicate the euphoria of the first time.
"It's just the worst mistake I've ever made," Amy-Lee says. "I'm 21 and I feel like I'm 70, like my body is deteriorating. Literally, I feel like my bones are crumbling. If I knew when I did my first bag of heroin there was so much pain attached, I probably never would have done it."
When John was alive, he worked at a poultry farm, where he earned enough money to support their habits. He'd come home exhausted, his jeans and T-shirt covered with chicken manure, and a small amount of cash in his pocket. Jessica sometimes got angry when John didn't come home with enough money, and would demand that he go out "canning." After three to four hours of digging through dumpsters, John would drag garbage bags full of cans to the supermarket to cash in the deposits. Once he got $13, enough to buy a bag of heroin.
At one point, Jessica worked one day a week tending the garden of a local man, but didn't make enough to support her nearly 10-bag-a-day habit.
When they couldn't get enough money for drugs, they ended up sick in bed. When the sisters fought, it was usually because one had more dope than the other.
A Fleeting High
Just two weeks before he died, John's welfare check and paycheck arrived and he and Jessica celebrated. There was plenty of dope, and they shot up so much they actually felt high.
That week, they romped in their shorts and T-shirts in the river during a rare summer outing from the hotel. She playfully wrapped her white legs around his thin, dark body as he spun her around in the water and kissed her lips. Jessica talked to John in a cartoon voice and he laughed.
The sisters filled up two shopping carts at the supermarket and Jessica cooked a feast of pork ribs, cheddar- and bacon-flavored mashed potatoes and wax beans. Later that night, Jessica had a headache. John was still high and went out on the fire escape to watch fireworks that someone was lighting a few blocks away.
The next day, July Fourth, John, Jessica and Amy-Lee shot some heroin and went downstairs for Willimantic's Boom Box Parade. They danced along Main Street, laughing while a family standing along the parade route sprayed John with squirt guns. Jessica caught so much candy from marchers that she collected it in a plastic grocery bag as if it were Halloween.
John became ill a few days after the parade. Jessica assumed his high temperature and pain came from AIDS.
"You didn't go to the doctors and you didn't take your medications. You could have prolonged it," Jessica tells John, half scolding, half crying. "You could have stopped it, but you didn't want to. Now I have to sit back and watch you fade away and it's not fair."
The emergency room sent John home with a prescription for Motrin and a mild muscle relaxant. There was no mention of the infection that would kill him six days later. He limped back to the hotel, barely able to move. John lay on the bed for several days with the lights off and the shades drawn, shivering under two blankets even though the room felt like a furnace. He dozed and watched TV, his head resting against a pillow on which Jessica had written: "Lovin John 4 Life" and "Love hurts."
"I want to help you, John. Hear me?" Jessica said as she gently removed his clothes and bathed him with a damp cloth. His back hurt so much he couldn't change his own clothes. After the sponge bath, Jessica shot heroin into his arm to ward off withdrawal and tried to feed him soup and sips of Pepsi.
She baked a chocolate cake in the rusty toaster oven in their room, frosted it with vanilla icing, and used candy from the parade to spell "Get Well" on the top.
"Look at your cake. Make me feel like I did something good for a change," Jessica urged John.
"It's good, Jess," he said, too sick to make a fuss.
"The way I see it, if she wants to take care of me, that's nice," John said when Jessica left the room. "But the way I look at it is, I've been taking care of her for as long as we've been together. She doesn't ever have to consider going out there to sell her ass."
The next day, John grew sicker. His eyes were filled with fear.
"My wife died from AIDS. My brother died from AIDS, and I watched them. They were on morphine and had machines. I don't want that. I want them to put an IV in my arm and send me home," John said.
He said he needed to say goodbye to his children, his brothers and sister and his mother. He looked as if he had aged 20 years, his ribs and cheekbones pressing through his sweaty skin.
Jessica sat down beside him and gently stroked his long hair. He had given her a fake gold wedding band a few months earlier, and Jessica began referring to him as her husband.
"I swear I love you," she said, kissing his cheek. They stared at each other for a moment. "I love you too," he said.
An ambulance took him to the hospital two days later, when his fever increased and he began hallucinating. A needle-borne infection had poisoned his blood. He died July 15 holding his teenage son's hand, a day after his mother, siblings and children came to say goodbye.
Gift Bags Of Heroin
Three days after his death, John's body lies in a New London funeral home in a cherry-wood casket lined with white satin and surrounded by red roses. His hair is cut short and he is dressed up in a gray shirt and suit jacket.
Jessica has painted her nails a rosy pink and wears a long-sleeved black and white shirt in the 90-degree heat to cover her track marks. Her sister and friends from the hotel show up 10 minutes late for the funeral in a light blue van driven by Dorcas. Jessica is waiting outside for them, crying because she thinks no one is coming. Amy-Lee shows up in a long black dress she borrowed from Jessica, just long enough to conceal the beach sandals on her feet.
When the Rev. Benjamin Watts speaks, Jessica thinks he is lecturing her.
John, he says, made poor choices. John's death should be a wakeup call.
"He himself chose to hang out with some of the wrong people. His demons have fought him so valiantly, they took his life," the minister says. "He is in the hands of God. Do not follow everything he did. Learn from his mistakes."
John's teenage children - two daughters and a son - pause at his casket and weep for the man they knew best when they were small, a man who played ball with them and dressed them for school. He is evident in their smiles and tall, thin physiques.
Jessica hugs them for a long time, then returns alone to John's casket after the funeral home has emptied. She leans over him, and cries softly, her body shaking with grief. She caresses his chest covered with red rose petals and whispers, "I'm sorry John. I'm so sorry." Then she gently kisses his forehead and leaves.
She weeps when she arrives at John's mother's handsomely decorated home on a middle-class cul-de-sac in Uncasville. His mother, a large woman in both size and personality, has put on a spread of homemade chicken, pasta, rice, salad and desserts. She tells stories about how sickly John was as a child, how he'd go into the hospital for one ailment and contract another. John's brother, Phil Davis, an engineer, says he went to the Hotel Hooker three years ago intending to bring John home. He left realizing it was too late.
"His features were different. His cheeks were sunken, his frame smaller. He was someone else by then," Phil says, tears filling his eyes. "When I saw him I knew there was nothing I could do at that point, nothing I could do to help him."
Within an hour of returning to the hotel, Jessica buys a bag of heroin and mixes it with water from the bathroom tap. She squeezes the abscess in her arm until a yellowish-white substance comes out, then jabs the needle into her arm.
Later that night, there's a street fair outside and Jessica comes out of the hotel onto Bank Street, still in her funeral clothes. She walks toward a trailer where a disc jockey is encouraging people to sing through the karaoke machine. She is holding the small hand of her friend's 9-year-old niece. The girl is crying because she misses John. Jessica gently wipes the tears away and holds the child to her chest.
Amy-Lee and a group of friends all put their arms around Jessica, and the group sways gently to "Amazing Grace," sung by an older woman friend. It is the song everyone sang at John's funeral.
Jessica gathers her strength and steps up onto the trailer. In a strong, beautiful voice, she belts out Celine Dion's "Because You Love Me." She weeps when she finishes.
Jessica returns to the hotel, where gift bags of heroin are coming in. She shoots up and smokes marijuana with her friends. She says that when her friends stop giving her drugs, maybe she'll enter a program and get straight, maybe next week.
"I'm tired of waking up sick. I'm tired of going to bed sick. I'm 22 years old and I'm so ... tired."
The Needle Of Mourning
A week later, after a memorial service for John at St. Mark's Chapel, Jessica starts feeling sick. Another week goes by, and she has a high temperature, a terrible cough and excruciating pain in her chest. She tells Amy-Lee and her friends to leave her alone, to just let her die and be with John.
She finally agrees to go to Windham Community Memorial Hospital, and shivers under several blankets as nurses tend to her in the emergency room. Doctors rule out AIDS and then place her in isolation for four days, thinking she might have tuberculosis.
The TB test comes back negative. Jessica is told she has a stubborn staph infection in her lung that will require at least 10 more days of intravenous antibiotics. They tell her she would have died in a day or two without treatment. It's the same type of infection that killed John, possibly transmitted through needles.
After nearly a week on methadone at the hospital, Jessica is looking better, her eyes are bright and she is thinking more clearly. But every time she goes to the bathroom, dragging her IV with her, she imagines John lying in the bed when she returns, his lifeless eyes staring at the ceiling.
She's missing her cigarettes, her sister and the hotel. When a nurse makes a mistake and puts Jessica in isolation again, Jessica becomes unhinged. She curses at the nurses, checks herself out of the hospital and calls a friend for a ride back to the hotel. Her doctor telephones her at the hotel and tells her she must come back for treatment or she might die.
The next day, Jessica agrees to return for more X-rays and to get a prescription for antibiotics. She returns to the hotel. The infection begins to improve and Jessica says the methadone has cured her of her heroin habit.
"I don't do that no more," she says.
Jessica remains clean for a few days, until her dealer gives her a "bundle" - 10 bags of heroin - free until she can pay her debt.
"I wasn't strong enough to say no. They wanted me back into it," she says, crying.
She has made a shrine to John in her room. His picture is pasted on every wall, along with flowers she was sent after his death.
On a sticky August night, a month to the day after John died, Jessica carefully arranges a clean needle and sterilized water on a chair next to her bed. A social worker provides the water and some bleach in an effort to prevent another infection.
Jessica shoots heroin into the crook of her arm, where the infection has healed into bumpy red scar tissue. She fixes her hair, puts on a leopard pattern shirt and a pair of black pants, and goes with some friends to the American Legion hall for a night of karaoke.
Her strong, sweet voice fills the dark, smoky bar as she sings the words to "Angel," a song widely believed to be about heroin, by Sarah McLachlan:
In the arms of the angel, fly away from here, From this stark, cold hotel room and the endlessness that you fear. You are pulled from the wreckage of your silent reverie, You're in the arms of the angel May you find some comfort there.
Within a week, Jessica and Amy-Lee are each shooting 15 bags of heroin a day after finding work at the same chicken farm where John was employed. They're doing triple the amount they used to, and Jessica has started smoking crack.
"You know your limit when you're a heroin addict," Jessica says. She's so high she is slurring her words and starting to nod off. "We feel good now. We don't worry about tomorrow."
Jessica didn't turn to prostitution until nearly two months after John's death. She entered a rehabilitation program in Norwich on Sept. 9 and is now more than halfway through the 60-day program.
Courant Staff Writer Bill Leukhardt contributed to this story.
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