South Phoenix is quiet, and I’m up early, drinking coffee at a round kitchen table, staring out the window at morning sunlight, unfinished yard, empty pool. My husband, John Woten, and I are working on getting the yard planted and filling that pool. I try to convince myself that’s the fun part of my new life, the exciting part, working on the yard, the pool. I gather my keys, step out into the morning heat already in the 90s, walk over the dead brown grass, slide into my six-year-old Ford Taurus bought off Craigslist and drive to work.
I sit in a cubicle, one of a dozen. I have photos tacked on the partition board: my son, Josh Stockdall; my husband, John; my brother Chris Arnold; and my older brother, the comedian and actor Tom Arnold. I drink my coffee and make my telemarketing calls. “This is Lori with Image Incentives,” I tell whoever answers. “Your name came to my attention as someone who inquired about working from home. Is that something you’re still interested in?”
They either say “That depends” or “No,” or they hang up on me. I make 300 calls a day. I make $10 an hour plus commissions.
I used to make $800,000 a month selling crystal meth. I’ve read that I am responsible for the meth epidemic in the American Midwest, that I’m the crankster gangster who introduced the drug to a whole swath of white trash America. One writer said I created “the very concept of industrialized meth in places like rural Iowa.”
I don’t know about that.
But I tell myself, always, I’m not going back; I’m not going back. But damn if I don’t think about it, that life, the fun I had, the freedom I felt and the feeling, during those years when we were really rolling, when the money and drugs were flowing, when we owned the cars and racehorses and airplanes, when even the legit businesses that I set up to launder the money were all making money, that goddamn it, life was just meant to be like that: fun all the time. But now?
I don’t have a lot of options, with my criminal record. Who wants to hire a 51-year-old felon?
“Hi, this is Lori with Image Incentives.…”
“Drug dealer” isn’t something a 10-year-old girl answers when the teacher asks the class what they want to be when they grow up. It’s not even something a 20-year-old girl admits to herself when that’s what she is. It’s something you become gradually. But I know this: For me, it started because I liked to get high, and I was getting high from the age of 13. My big brother, Tom, a year older than me, used to drink Budweiser and Mad Dog 20/20, but he was a jock and wasn’t into the drugs like I was. This was in Ottumwa, Iowa in the mid-1970s. Everyone was smoking grass and drinking, and kids were even doing it with their parents. Everybody wanted to get loaded. The town seemed to have been in economic decline since before I was born. Ottumwa straddles the Des Moines River, and in good times barges filled with coal had been toted up that river to Des Moines. But by the 1970s the strip mines were stripped. There were a couple of foundries outside town and a meatpacking plant in town. The highest-paying jobs back then were $10 an hour. Nobody was rich. Everybody was white. Our idea of international cuisine was Taco Bell.
I was physically mature—all breasts and hips—when I was 13. We were living in a four-bedroom ranch-style house on Elm Street in northern Ottumwa. My mom had left home—she wound up marrying six times—and my dad, Jack Arnold, had taken up with the lady next door, Ruth. She had two kids, and we all ended up moving in together. It was cramped, but once I got over resenting Ruth for taking my mom’s place, it was fun. But I was already staying out late and raising hell, and it wouldn’t have mattered if we’d had a dozen bedrooms and 40 acres, because I wasn’t staying home. I was wearing big bell-bottom flared Levi’s with glitter on them and a low-cut Dr. Hook T-shirt to show off my cleavage. In one summer I went from being a straight-A student in sixth grade to screwing 23-year-old Bobby Roberts in the back of his GTO, blue with white interior. Bobby was a good-looking guy with brown hair, green eyes and a mustache. He was stocky and prone to fight—the first in a series of men I loved who had a violent streak.
The first time me and Bobby did it, when I pulled my pants up before he drove me home, his tube sock got caught up in the back of my jeans, hanging down the belt loops and over my butt.
“Where you been?” my dad asked when I got home.
“Out with Bobby.”
“Then what’s this?” He grabbed that sock.
I was still buzzed, but I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what to say. I was 13, and even I knew that was young for what I’d been doing. But I wasn’t going to change. Tom had already moved across town to live with my mom and her husband, Kenny. Tom had long hair and was one of the coolest kids in school. He was playing drums then, and Kenny was playing guitar and letting Tom play drums with him in his bar band. I told Dad, “I’m following Tom. I’m moving in with Mom.”
Mom had permed dark hair, real sharp features, big brown eyes, a short, well-shaped nose and pursed lips. She was always wisecracking and joking, and every guy in town knew her because of her looks and personality. She lived over on Clay Street, closer to my junior high school—not that I would be going there much—and life at her house was a party. She was waitressing and bartending at a few places, making good money in tips, and Kenny had a job at John Deere. There were always people over, drinking and smoking grass.
I used to drink beer with my mom, and she got me a few shifts helping her out at the Elks Lodge or working banquets at the Holiday Inn. When I got tired she would give me half a diet pill, a Preludin. That’s a drug they don’t prescribe anymore because so many people were getting addicted to it, even shooting it up, and my mom was giving it to me when I was 12, 13. But that’s because she was getting it from her doctor, so she figured, How could it be bad? When I took that stuff my shift went by in a happy blur.
I was also sniffing paint, getting high in front of the school more than I was going into the school. Then I just dropped out. Tom used to dog me out for doing drugs. He didn’t like anybody doing drugs. I was hanging out with the stoner kids smoking dope. But since Tom was a popular kid in school, it helped being known as Tom Arnold’s sister. I knew he would always be there for me, support me, whatever, but he was already busy with other stuff, playing in bands, and he was the class clown. Looking back it’s easy to say, “Oh, Tom Arnold, he was always headed somewhere. He wasn’t going to stay in Ottumwa forever.” But that’s not how it was, because when you’re in a town like Ottumwa, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to go, anywhere to even dream of going. It’s like everybody you ever knew was still there. Or maybe they left town to join the service or to drive trucks, but they all came back.
I was still seeing Bobby Roberts. I had told my parents he was 18 so they wouldn’t freak out about the age difference. But Bobby already had kids and was getting divorced, and one day there was a notice about it in the paper, and my mom read it and slapped me so hard she knocked me over. She said I couldn’t go out with him, but I snuck out to the skating rink to meet him, and then Kenny drove out and found us and said to Bobby, “You can either leave her alone or marry her.” And I couldn’t believe it when Bobby said, “Fine, we’ll get married.”
What? I’m 14 years old and marriage had never crossed my mind. I wasn’t pregnant or anything. I wasn’t even sure what Bobby did for a living, something to do with fixing trucks—or maybe fixing something that fixed trucks.
We had our blood tests and, a few weeks later, after my 15th birthday, drove down to Lancaster, Missouri to get married. It was a quick ceremony, just my mom, Bobby and me, and afterward we went across the street to a bar to get drunk.
We rented a little one-bedroom apartment in Ottumwa with a Murphy bed in it, and my mom gave us a love seat and a table and chairs. The first night we were there Bobby went out with his friends to get drunk. I found a job at Mr. Quick Hamburgers and then switched over to a truck stop out at Southgate, short-order grilling and pouring coffee. The truck stop was about 12 miles outside of town, and if Bobby didn’t pick me up I had to walk home. One night, Bobby and his friends were over watching a Muhammad Ali fight on TV when Bobby walked into the kitchen and began joking around, shadowboxing at me. He started lightly punching me in the arm and slapping me. All of a sudden, he punched me in the face. I covered up and cowered against the wall. That was the first time he hit me.
We were always broke. Bobby picked up occasional work repairing hydraulic jacks, but we depended on what I could make at the truck stop. We were getting by on maybe $100 a week, and most of that Bobby would spend drinking. I was 16, working the night shift, making barely enough to get by, and then one night an old man named Tex came in and offered me $50 if I would go to bed with him. Now, $50 was a lot of money, but I told him to forget it.
When Bobby came to pick me up, I told him about it and he said I should have taken it, because we could use the money. I couldn’t believe it. The next night I took the money and told Tex to come back when I ended my shift at two a.m, but Bobby picked me up at 11. The next night Tex came in shouting and saying I stole his money. The boss was there, and I told her I didn’t know what this old crazy guy was talking about. The manager called the police, and when they came I stuck to my story.
The manager fired me anyway, saying she didn’t need that kind of commotion.
It was Tom who picked me up after Bobby beat me up again. I had burned a pot of beans, and Bobby began smacking me around. I had already caught him in bed with our 12-year-old neighbor, so I was mad as hell for plenty of reasons. I called my mom, and Tom answered and said he would come and get me, and he did, loading my stuff into his car and taking me back to Mom’s.
We went to the bar that night.
I was 16. I got my first divorce. I paid for it myself.
I thought about going back to school, but I had dropped out in the eighth grade, and how could I go back to the eighth grade after having been married? They started me in 10th grade, but I was already working behind the bar over at the Horseshoe Strip Club and drinking and partying and hanging out with all kinds of older guys, so I dropped out again and passed my GED.
In Ottumwa in the late 1970s, members of the Grim Reaper motorcycle gang were like the rock stars of our town. The local chapter had been started by guys who had served in the Special Forces in Vietnam. The Reapers had long hair, wore leather and denim and rode Harleys; we didn’t have any mafia in Ottumwa, but we did have the Reapers. The Reapers had money, guns, drugs; they used to have shoot-outs in bars.
The president of the local chapter was a guy named Floyd Stockdall, a.k.a. Sin, a.k.a. the Big Reaper, who had also served in Vietnam. He had long hair, a full beard and a skinny cruel face like an angry Jesus. He commanded respect. He could clean up a bar by himself. He didn’t really do drugs, but he would sell them. He used to deal coke, speed and grass. But every time he drank whiskey, he would have flashbacks: His eyes would glaze over, he would get these migraines and he would just start whaling on people. Everyone knew Floyd Sin.
And everyone was afraid of him.
When I met him, he was selling speed pills out of a big old pickle jar. He’d bring them down from Des Moines and we’d stick them in a freezer behind the bar. He had Christmas trees, white crosses, black beauties, pink hearts. They weren’t that strong; you needed a handful to stay up all night. I started hanging around with Floyd, and when his car broke down I gave him a ride up to Des Moines to score in this old Galaxie 500 my mom had bought for me. I met some of his other biker buddies up there. I walked into this house with him, and they were doing coke, and there was like $100,000 on the table, and I thought it was the most glamorous thing I’d ever seen, these bikers doing coke and bullshitting and all this money.
I mean, I was 19, I had barely been out of Ottumwa. Nobody I knew had ever left Iowa except maybe to cross the border into Missouri. I didn’t have one idea of what I was supposed to do with my life. My brother Tom had already gone off to the University of Iowa and was heading up to Minnesota to work on his stand-up comedy routine. He said all my boyfriends were a bunch of greasy bikers, and I could tell he was leaving Ottumwa behind, leaving me behind. You can’t give Tom enough credit for doing what he did, for finding his voice, for pursuing a dream, any dream. I mean, we didn’t have many dreams in Ottumwa, or not many that lasted past waking up sober. My life then was blank days doing nothing, then working at the bar and partying all night. If you lived in Ottumwa, that was all there was. There didn’t seem any reason to do much else. This city was the pit of the recession. Everyone was broke and looking for a little something to take the edge off. That’s what the Reapers were doing, just providing a little diversion for folks who desperately needed it.
Floyd and I shacked up in a little tar-paper house on stilts by the Des Moines River. We got married May 17, 1980. Our honeymoon consisted of passing out on the couch. I got pregnant with Josh, and Floyd retired from being the president of the gang and said he was going to find straight work winterizing people’s houses. I had a hard labor, 57 hours straight, and had to spend that time in a state-run hospital for pregnant women because we didn’t have any money or insurance. Floyd drove up to the delivery room, but he didn’t stay because he had a headache and a bad hangover.
Floyd was collecting some unemployment money, and he gave me a budget of $50 a week for everything we needed: food, diapers, clothes. To have an extra $20 would be a miracle. I could get cigarettes, maybe some steak. But we didn’t ever have it.
Our cabin was freezing in the winter, so cold that even with a woodstove in the tiny living room you couldn’t feel your feet or hands, and with a kerosene stove under the house the pipes still froze. In the spring you could hear the ice cracking on the river, like hunting-rifle shots, and then the river would swell up so fast you had to grab everything you could and run or you’d be flooded in.
Between freezing and flooding, I was stuck out there, 20 miles from town, smoking dope and raising my baby boy. Floyd was gone, looking for work now that he wasn’t dealing drugs anymore, and when he would come back, I just prayed he hadn’t been drinking.
One night he came back from the bar, walked in the door and said, “How many do you want?”
“How many what?” I asked.
“Bullets,” he said.
Oh no, I thought, he’s drunk.
He went into the bedroom and started loading a rifle.
I’m thinking this is bad, so I grab Josh and go running out of the house and hide behind the car. I kept my head down because I knew he would shoot at me.
“Come on, Floyd, don’t shoot.”
And he started calling me a gook. He was having some kind of flashback.
He chased me around, then shot at me, bullets bouncing off the car. “Oh my God,” I shouted, “you hit Josh.”
He hadn’t, but my lie made him stop.
Then I ran off to our neighbors about a half a mile away.
By the time the cops came, Floyd had calmed down and was sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee.
“What’s going on, Floyd?”
He said nothing, but I had already told them he was shooting at me, and they handcuffed him, put him in the car and brought him to jail. I read in the paper that he was going to be charged with attempted murder, and I was like, Oh no, he’s going to kill me now.
When I refused to press charges they let him go.