Jessica Canwell wearily climbs three flights of dark, creaky stairs to the topfloor of the Hotel Hooker, where a needle waits for her in a cluttered roomsmelling of stale food and urine.
Less than an hour earlier, her boyfriend had died at Windham Community MemorialHospital of a needle-borne infection. John Davis took his last breath asJessica, 22, went for a soda in the hospital's lounge. She came back and leanedher head onto his chest, hoping to hear a heartbeat, to talk to him one lasttime. He died a day before his 44th birthday.
Jessica's younger sister, Amy-Lee, 21, understands. She lost her boyfriend to aheroin 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 scabthat has formed over an infected abscess in the crook of her arm, into the samevein she has used for three years. She pumps the syringe, drawing up her ownblood, and shoots the dark red mixture back into her arm.
The heroin does nothing to numb her pain. She collapses on the worn mattress andweeps, haunted by memories of her boyfriend's dead eyes staring at thehospital'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 somefriends who have gathered beside her on the bed. They gently brush tear-mattedhair from her face.
The friends bring sympathy bags of heroin instead of flowers or casseroles. Theysit next to Jessica and talk about John in soft, consoling voices above the whirof 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 filledwith junkies, the mentally ill and the hopelessly poor. It's a place saturatedin heroin, a place where people die.
Shortly before John Davis died on July 15, he told his friends there was a mandressed in black, like the Grim Reaper, lingering in the corner of the room heshared with Jessica. Death has visited many rooms at the hotel, more than oncein Room 52.
The previous tenant died of a heroin overdose, and was found lying in thebathtub. Then a woman dropped dead of an overdose on the dirty gray and redlinoleum tile in the hallway just outside the door.
"This building is cursed," says Amy-Lee, who lives across the hallfrom her sister.
"There's spirits in some of the rooms. I've seen them. So haveothers," says Wendi Clark, a recovering heroin addict who lived in thehotel from 1996 to 1999. "Some of the rooms have seen a lot of overdoses. Ionce saw the face of a man reflected in the door of my microwave. Some of thecommunal bathrooms - you go in and you feel someone else is there, even thoughyou're alone. It's creepy."
Amy-Lee awoke last January with her boyfriend lying on her chest, his bodyalready stiff with rigor mortis. Amy-Lee gave her sister the queen-size mattressthey 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'tfound her and called an ambulance.
"You're in so much pain. You literally feel your heart breakingapart," Amy-Lee says now as she watches her sister grieve for John. Amy-Leeknows how the hurt can linger; sometimes she thinks she sees the ghost of herboyfriend walking up the stairs to the fourth floor.
Jessica lies in a fetal position on the same stained, sweat-soaked sheets whereJohn had lain a few days before. She has put on his green plaid flannel shirtand tan moccasins despite the stifling July heat, and buries her face in a pairof his khakis to remember how he smelled.
Soiled clothing, empty bags of junk food and stacks of dirty dishes are strewnon the stained, pea-green carpet. The last bowl of uneaten chicken noodle soupthat Jessica fixed for John remains on a small table near the refrigerator.
The room is oppressively hot and gloomy as a thunderstorm approaches. The skiesopen and rain comes in through the fan in the window. Jessica slowly lifts herlarge frame off the bed and walks, dazed, down the hall to the fire escape. Shesteps outside, lifting her face into the driving rain mixed with hail, obliviousto the lightning and crashing thunder.
"I'm so sorry, John, and I love you. I do. I love you a lot," she sayson the wobbly fourth-story fire escape.
Drenched and drained, Jessica wanders back to her room, her bulging blue eyespink from weeping and days of sleeplessness. A woman in the hall tells her thereis a Puerto Rican superstition that when someone dies and it rains, it means theangels 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 droveJessica home after he died, thinks Jessica needs to pray. She takes her to aSeventh-day Adventist church a few miles from the hotel, where they sit on thered upholstered pews reading Psalms. Tears fall down Dorcas' face as she talksgently to Jessica, whom she has tried to help for years. She tells Jessica thatdying is only a sleep until Jesus comes again, and that she loved John, too, butthat he had made some poor choices.
"God doesn't want us to suffer," she says softly. "But every timeyou put that needle in your arm, you are dying."
Jessica gets back into Dorcas' car and leans her head against the passengerwindow.
"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 hotelbetween New York and Boston, an elegant rest stop for wealthy executives whocame to visit the thriving thread mills.
Seth Hooker, who had built other hotels in Colchester and Willimantic, offered100 rooms that were among the first in eastern Connecticut to have electriclighting. The hotel offered a fine restaurant, billiards and a barbershop, andit 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 weregravitating to motels closer to major highways, and the hotel was alreadybeginning to decline. Her son and grandson now run the business, which operatesmore like a rooming house.
Bob Riquier, Rose's son, says he knows what goes on in the rooms, but insists hehas 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 dealerssell heroin day and night, an in-house convenience for the resident junkies. Thesales go down inside the rooms, away from the security cameras placed in everyhotel hallway and fire escape.
Tenants walk like the living dead along the dark, wood-paneled corridors. Putridhot air wafts from the open back door like an entrance to hell.
On hot summer days, swarms of gnats gather underneath the brass chandeliers thathang from the high ceilings in the lobby, where yellowing photos of Seth Hookerstare down from a picture frame. The wallpaper in the rooms is peeling, the dropceilings are bowed and the scurrying of rats is a familiar sound.
The hallway floors are stained from cigarette butts and sticky with spilledbeer. The air stinks of cigarette smoke, fried food and urine from the bathroomson each floor.
A 17-year-old girl, eight months pregnant, lives on the second floor, her sunkeneyes weary and sad as she wanders through the hall. Doctors told her that herbaby is terribly underweight and will probably be sent to intensive care whenit'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 thestove. His mother once paid Jessica $100 to remove the rats and their cageswhile he was out one day. She stuffed the rodents into a garbage bag, threw itout by the river and bought heroin with her payment.
The "Rat Man" walks down Main Street wearing only a pair of shorts andheavy work boots, rattling metal chains wrapped around his ankles - he says theyhelp strengthen his legs. Lately, he has been screaming at night aboutgovernment conspiracies and throwing things around his room.
Another tenant collects hubcaps and hangs them on his walls like trophies. Heshows them off to visitors and, with a toothless grin, recites where and how hegot each one. He has four televisions stacked atop one another, all tuned todifferent channels.
Jessica's next-door neighbor says she is hiding from the CIA and spews anendless stream of conspiracy theories.
"I've had big-time trouble with the government," she says. "Howcome 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 diedafter smoking crack and shooting heroin. Unable to maneuver the large man's bodydown the narrow staircases, firefighters drove a truck up to the fire escape atthe rear of the hotel. They slid the 300-pound body into an orange rescue sledand 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 thecat, and various knickknacks. Candlestick holders with white angels sit atop acorner cupboard holding up a drooping ceiling square. Drawings of children,dried flowers and a heart-shaped wall-hanging that reads "Bless thishome" cover the pink paint and peeling wallpaper. "Chicken Soup forthe Teenage Soul" and "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Breaking BadHabits" 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 andher 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 inher room where daytime talk shows blare from a small television set on a wornwooden 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 whowould start the day with a martini and finish it by shooting cocaine. Jessicahad been in 12 foster homes and in and out of mental hospitals by the time shewas 16. Amy-Lee was raised mostly by her father, she says, but was also inseveral foster homes.
Jessica and John moved in together at the Hotel Hooker five years ago, a yearafter they met in a Danielson homeless shelter.
The Canwell sisters say they were abused by their parents, foster parents andtheir grandmother, who told them all children are mistakes. Jessica stillcarries a pink, U-shaped scar under her left eye from when her stepfather pushedher 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 badlyshe has been told she can never carry children. Her mother once sent her toelementary 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. Theonly birthday celebration she recalls is when she got a stale cake in the mentalhospital after attempting suicide.
"I was raised like a pingpong ball," she says, blowing a stream ofcigarette smoke.
When she was a teenager, Amy-Lee was tied to a bed and severely beaten by aboyfriend when she was 7½ months pregnant. She lost her baby. A few yearslater, she miscarried twins, and went into a deep depression.
She is drawn to abusive men, and her latest boyfriend is no exception. He becameenraged in August after seeing track marks on Amy's arm one night - he thoughtshe only snorted heroin. He kicked her, Amy says, threw videotapes at her andgrabbed her arm so hard she couldn't move it for days. Her sister created amakeshift 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 herboyfriend.
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 heraunt's house in Springfield for a weekend visit two years ago, carried herovernight bag up to Jessica's room and never left.
That weekend she met a man with dark, seductive eyes and fell in love. Jessicawas already hooked on heroin, but Amy-Lee avoided it, choosing to snort cocaineor smoke marijuana. When her boyfriend died of an overdose, Amy-Lee triedsnorting 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 herto 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 theheroin. I feel guilty because now she's using."
Amy-Lee's room is decorated like a college dorm room, with posters and stickerson 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 sandalsacross the hall and knocked on Jessica's door. She asked to borrow the lanyardfrom a key chain with an Eastern Connecticut State University logo on it. Shelicked the needle so the heroin wouldn't burn her skin, tied the lanyard aroundher forearm, and futilely poked the needle into the side of her wrist, alreadymarred by a trail of track marks.
After watching her sister fumble with the syringe, Jessica took over. She founda vein and expertly inserted the needle.
"I don't like doing this for you at all," Jessica said. "Itbothers me to have to shoot up my sister."
The heroin Jessica and Amy-Lee shoot up each day is usually just enough to keepat bay the stomach cramps and intolerable bone pain that comes when the dopewears off. They rarely have enough to get high or duplicate the euphoria of thefirst time.
"It's just the worst mistake I've ever made," Amy-Lee says. "I'm21 and I feel like I'm 70, like my body is deteriorating. Literally, I feel likemy bones are crumbling. If I knew when I did my first bag of heroin there was somuch pain attached, I probably never would have done it."
When John was alive, he worked at a poultry farm, where he earned enough moneyto support their habits. He'd come home exhausted, his jeans and T-shirt coveredwith chicken manure, and a small amount of cash in his pocket. Jessica sometimesgot angry when John didn't come home with enough money, and would demand that hego out "canning." After three to four hours of digging throughdumpsters, John would drag garbage bags full of cans to the supermarket to cashin 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. Whenthe 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 heand Jessica celebrated. There was plenty of dope, and they shot up so much theyactually felt high.
That week, they romped in their shorts and T-shirts in the river during a raresummer outing from the hotel. She playfully wrapped her white legs around histhin, dark body as he spun her around in the water and kissed her lips. Jessicatalked to John in a cartoon voice and he laughed.
The sisters filled up two shopping carts at the supermarket and Jessica cooked afeast 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 onthe 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 wentdownstairs for Willimantic's Boom Box Parade. They danced along Main Street,laughing while a family standing along the parade route sprayed John with squirtguns. Jessica caught so much candy from marchers that she collected it in aplastic grocery bag as if it were Halloween.
John became ill a few days after the parade. Jessica assumed his hightemperature and pain came from AIDS.
"You didn't go to the doctors and you didn't take your medications. Youcould 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 backand watch you fade away and it's not fair."
The emergency room sent John home with a prescription for Motrin and a mildmuscle relaxant. There was no mention of the infection that would kill him sixdays later. He limped back to the hotel, barely able to move. John lay on thebed for several days with the lights off and the shades drawn, shivering undertwo 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 John4 Life" and "Love hurts."
"I want to help you, John. Hear me?" Jessica said as she gentlyremoved his clothes and bathed him with a damp cloth. His back hurt so much hecouldn't change his own clothes. After the sponge bath, Jessica shot heroin intohis 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 itwith 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 achange," 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," Johnsaid when Jessica left the room. "But the way I look at it is, I've beentaking care of her for as long as we've been together. She doesn't ever have toconsider 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 anIV in my arm and send me home," John said.
He said he needed to say goodbye to his children, his brothers and sister andhis mother. He looked as if he had aged 20 years, his ribs and cheekbonespressing through his sweaty skin.
Jessica sat down beside him and gently stroked his long hair. He had given her afake gold wedding band a few months earlier, and Jessica began referring to himas her husband.
"I swear I love you," she said, kissing his cheek. They stared at eachother for a moment. "I love you too," he said.
An ambulance took him to the hospital two days later, when his fever increasedand he began hallucinating. A needle-borne infection had poisoned his blood. Hedied July 15 holding his teenage son's hand, a day after his mother, siblingsand 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 acherry-wood casket lined with white satin and surrounded by red roses. His hairis 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 andwhite shirt in the 90-degree heat to cover her track marks. Her sister andfriends from the hotel show up 10 minutes late for the funeral in a light bluevan driven by Dorcas. Jessica is waiting outside for them, crying because shethinks no one is coming. Amy-Lee shows up in a long black dress she borrowedfrom 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 demonshave 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 hismistakes."
John's teenage children - two daughters and a son - pause at his casket and weepfor the man they knew best when they were small, a man who played ball with themand dressed them for school. He is evident in their smiles and tall, thinphysiques.
Jessica hugs them for a long time, then returns alone to John's casket after thefuneral home has emptied. She leans over him, and cries softly, her body shakingwith 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 foreheadand leaves.
She weeps when she arrives at John's mother's handsomely decorated home on amiddle-class cul-de-sac in Uncasville. His mother, a large woman in both sizeand personality, has put on a spread of homemade chicken, pasta, rice, salad anddesserts. She tells stories about how sickly John was as a child, how he'd gointo the hospital for one ailment and contract another. John's brother, PhilDavis, an engineer, says he went to the Hotel Hooker three years ago intendingto bring John home. He left realizing it was too late.
"His features were different. His cheeks were sunken, his frame smaller. Hewas someone else by then," Phil says, tears filling his eyes. "When Isaw him I knew there was nothing I could do at that point, nothing I could do tohelp him."
Within an hour of returning to the hotel, Jessica buys a bag of heroin and mixesit with water from the bathroom tap. She squeezes the abscess in her arm until ayellowish-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 thehotel onto Bank Street, still in her funeral clothes. She walks toward a trailerwhere 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 iscrying because she misses John. Jessica gently wipes the tears away and holdsthe child to her chest.
Amy-Lee and a group of friends all put their arms around Jessica, and the groupsways gently to "Amazing Grace," sung by an older woman friend. It isthe 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. Sheshoots up and smokes marijuana with her friends. She says that when her friendsstop giving her drugs, maybe she'll enter a program and get straight, maybe nextweek.
"I'm tired of waking up sick. I'm tired of going to bed sick. I'm 22 yearsold and I'm so ... tired."
The Needle Of Mourning
A week later, after a memorial service for John at St. Mark's Chapel, Jessicastarts feeling sick. Another week goes by, and she has a high temperature, aterrible cough and excruciating pain in her chest. She tells Amy-Lee and herfriends to leave her alone, to just let her die and be with John.
She finally agrees to go to Windham Community Memorial Hospital, and shiversunder several blankets as nurses tend to her in the emergency room. Doctors ruleout AIDS and then place her in isolation for four days, thinking she might havetuberculosis.
The TB test comes back negative. Jessica is told she has a stubborn staphinfection in her lung that will require at least 10 more days of intravenousantibiotics. They tell her she would have died in a day or two withouttreatment. It's the same type of infection that killed John, possiblytransmitted through needles.
After nearly a week on methadone at the hospital, Jessica is looking better, hereyes are bright and she is thinking more clearly. But every time she goes to thebathroom, dragging her IV with her, she imagines John lying in the bed when shereturns, his lifeless eyes staring at the ceiling.
She's missing her cigarettes, her sister and the hotel. When a nurse makes amistake and puts Jessica in isolation again, Jessica becomes unhinged. Shecurses at the nurses, checks herself out of the hospital and calls a friend fora ride back to the hotel. Her doctor telephones her at the hotel and tells hershe must come back for treatment or she might die.
The next day, Jessica agrees to return for more X-rays and to get a prescriptionfor antibiotics. She returns to the hotel. The infection begins to improve andJessica 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," shesays, 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 carefullyarranges a clean needle and sterilized water on a chair next to her bed. Asocial worker provides the water and some bleach in an effort to prevent anotherinfection.
Jessica shoots heroin into the crook of her arm, where the infection has healedinto bumpy red scar tissue. She fixes her hair, puts on a leopard pattern shirtand a pair of black pants, and goes with some friends to the American Legionhall 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 dayafter finding work at the same chicken farm where John was employed. They'redoing 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'sso high she is slurring her words and starting to nod off. "We feel goodnow. We don't worry about tomorrow."
Jessica didn't turn to prostitution until nearly two months after John'sdeath. She entered a rehabilitation program in Norwich on Sept. 9 and is nowmore than halfway through the 60-day program.
Courant Staff Writer Bill Leukhardt contributed to this story.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times