by Michael Capel
It was as bad as itâ€™d ever gotten: for two hours Wally and I had been on our hands and knees, stupid from heavy-duty cough syrup and picking at the basement floor like raccoons, foraging his motherâ€™s orange-brown shag carpet for tiny white particles, particles that looked vaguely narcotic, that we hoped were any narcotic, anything that would take us up after being down so long. Â Our testing method was crude. Â We licked a single finger and dabbed the carpet. Or, if the particle in question was big enough, we used two fingers to pinch it. Â Then we brought it into our mouths and spread it on our gums. Â We had split the room up into halvesâ€”I had the side with the coffee table and the busted futon, and Wally was over between the floor model TV and the love seatâ€” and when we found something and tasted it, we called out the results to each other in a kind of Morse code.
â€œPossibility. Â Possibility.â€
â€œWait. Â Nope.â€
None of our discoveries had been that exciting. Â Most were cheap yellow meth or coke so jumped on I couldâ€™ve sworn it was baking soda, stuff that was months, sometimes years old. Â The flotsam and jetsam of cheap, dirty highs. Â Some of what we tasted wasnâ€™t anything close to drugs: cigarette ashes, cake frosting, fingernail bits. Â It wasnâ€™t until the 150 minute mark that Wally shot up like a prairie dog, and saved the day.
â€œYatzee!â€ he said.
He scurried on his knees to get under the lamp, where I was already waiting for him. Â In the middle of his palm sat what looked like a small, white peppercorn. Â Wally scraped some off and stuck it in his mouth, then licked it, his tongue bulging under his lip.
â€œOh,â€ he said, eyes rolling like heâ€™d just bitten cheesecake. Â â€œIâ€™m not saying anything. Â Just, here.â€ Â He lowered his palm gently in front of me. Â â€œTry. Â You tell me.â€
I rubbed it on my sweet spot: the bulb of gum just above my top-left canine. Â At first it was all acid, then a kind of bittersweet, a mixture of hairspray and carpet dust. Â Then, just freezing cold.
â€œMmmmm,â€ Wally said. Â â€œYou remember?â€
I couldnâ€™t stop licking my gum. Â I said, â€œItâ€™s so familiar.â€
â€œI canâ€™t believe you donâ€™t remember this stuff.â€ Â Wally closed his eyes. Â â€œNovember, 200â€¦ 6. Â Called it Cinderella.â€
I remembered, then. Â Somewhere on TV Iâ€™d seen a program about the memory-conjuring powers of smell, how it was the strongest weapon we had in that arsenal, and Cinderella came flooding back to me in warm jets. Â Clean, arctic cocaine. Â Rocket fuel. Â Tweaker shit. Â Sniffing and smoking Cinderella, weâ€™d rearranged our entire record shelf alphabetically, then chronologically, then finally by geography, so that Hotel California was next to Herb Alpertâ€™s Tijuana Brass Band Plays Whipped Cream. Â The next day we arranged them by the color of the spine, forming a four-shelf rainbow that we spent a third day fine tuning. Â Cinderella. Â That was right around Thanksgiving, just after Iâ€™d gotten the divorce papers from Susie, the packet with all the sticky note arrows and one word messages on them: Â Sign. Â I remember holding the pen that day, too, and how for the first time I could see that my hands were shaky as cats. Â I was twenty-six.
Wally sucked his teeth and sat up on his knees. Â â€œWhatâ€™s your prob, Bob?â€
â€œNothing,â€ I said. Â My sweet spot was so icy it burned.
â€œYouâ€™re bumming,â€ Wally said. Â â€œAre you bumming out a lot or just a little?â€
â€œA lot, I guess. Â I donâ€™t know. Â Enough.â€
â€œDonâ€™t bum.â€ Â He shuffled over to the coffee table and looked at the little pile we had collected, fifteen or twenty specks and the one good-sized peppercorn. Â â€œThereâ€™s a line of something here,â€ he said. Â â€œWeâ€™ll take it to the high school tomorrow. Â I have a contact. Â Money in the bank.â€
I looked at Wally, then back at the table. Â Then back at Wally. Â His hair was too long and made him look a little like Ringo.
â€œWhat?â€ Â He was sucking his teeth. Â Ch. Â Ch.
â€œYouâ€™re really gonna try to sell that?â€
â€œDude, I said I had a contact. Â Thereâ€™s no try.â€
I said, â€œSell it? Â Who are you going to sell it to, a blind man with no taste buds?â€
â€œNo,â€ he groaned. Â â€œMy contactâ€™s in high school. Â Thatâ€™s even better.â€
As was our protocol, we smashed it all with a credit card and lighter to see just how big of a line it would break out into. Â Wally lifted up the card and the line looked like a caterpillar, one of those wooly, segmented ones that are everywhere in spring: patch of yellow, patch of white, then gray, then white, then yellow again.
â€œHot diggity dog,â€ Wally said, shaking his head. Â â€œWe could call this a gram, my good sir. Â We could get eighty green-backed George Washingtons for this.â€
â€œWe could pay back Rondo,â€ I mumbled.
Wally nodded now, the smile slipping a little from his mouth. Â â€œYes. Â Yes we could. Â Thatâ€™s an option. Â That is something we could do.â€
We stared at our creation for a moment.
â€œWe could taste a little, too,â€ Wally said.
â€œShould. Â I mean, isnâ€™t that like the first law of thermo economics? Â Know your product?â€
In half a minute we were both down on the table with tubed bills in our nostrils. Â My heart did this sinking thing it did every time I went down for a line. Â The counselors at Bridge Back referred to it as The Guilt. Â Capital letters. Â The Guilt was what you got when sorrow and anger collided in your heart like blue and yellow making green, your heartâ€™s way of telling you to stop, to think, maybe kick this one upstairs to your brain for a minute. Â Theyâ€™d told me, too, that all the people in my life would funnel away but the drugs would never leave me, and neither would The Guilt. Â And that was true, excluding Wally.
Sink, I told my heart. Â Sink right through my feet and out of my life.
â€œReady?â€ Wally said, bending his neck. Â â€œThree. Â Two. Â One.â€
Wallyâ€™s contact at the high school turned out to be three bag-eyed kids in skinny jeans and pleather jackets. Â One was a girl, but they all wore identical outfits and had the same flip of hair brushed over their eyes. Â I never understood that, girls trying to look like boys. Â Susie had always worn skirts or dresses. Wally and I wore what we always wore, sweatpants and sweatshirts with the hoods up. Â All five of us were shifting on our feet. Â Breakfast at Wallyâ€™s had been cough syrup again, and every ten or fifteen seconds I couldnâ€™t stop my body from thinking it was falling. Â I kept stumbling back for no reason.
When Wally shuffled us all into a cutout in the building, back in the cold Saturday quiet of the desolate bus lane, the kid named Zekeâ€”the one who did most of the talking and I assumed was Wallyâ€™s contactâ€”started laughing.
â€œNice beard,â€ he smirked. Â â€œAre you like, gonna try to sell me a pelt?â€
Wally pulled the stings of his hood tight and looked from side to side.
â€œYeah,â€ he said. Â He rubbed his crotch. Â â€œYour motherâ€™s pelt.â€
Zeke scoffed, his hair flip jumping like a circus flea. Â â€œWhatever. Â Show me something.â€
The cellophane that Wally pulled from his pocket looked depressingly empty in daylight, a loose gram of discolored powder dusted into the creases. Â Weâ€™d each done a line the night before. Â In the morning we had to make up for it. Â We cut the stuff with confectionary sugar and, for taste, a fingernailâ€™s worth of eco-friendly dish detergent. Â The asking price was still eighty, though, a little more than half what we owed Rondo for the eight ball he fronted us the week before. Â Half, as it was, of what little standing we had left in the world.
â€œThat looks alright,â€ the girl said. Â Her voice was the only girly thing about her.
Zeke dipped his head and hissed like weâ€™d just done a card trick.
â€œThat shit looks jumped up.â€
â€œHow the fuck can you see with all that hair in your face?â€ Wally said.
Wally shrugged. Â â€œEighty bucks, bro. Â Its ten oâ€™clock on Saturday morning and you ainâ€™t old enough to buy your own cigarettes. Â Tell me you got another option.â€
The other boy that was with Zeke, the boy that wasnâ€™t a girl, tapped Zeke on the back and nodded to him. Â They huddled in conference. Â Right away, I knew we were losing. Â They looked in different directions when they mumbled to each other, not making eye contact. Â What they were deciding was how low to go. Â But they still wanted it. Â The girl especially. Â She was toe-tapping, trying to listen to the boys without looking like she was listening. Â Her cheeks were moving too, like there was something small and alive inside them. Â She was ready to go.
â€œTeeth grinder,â€ I said. Â I wanted it to sound like a question, but it didnâ€™t. Â The girl-boy looked at me sideways through her hair.
â€œGum,â€ she said.
â€œAh, itâ€™s okay,â€ I said. Â â€œI know what you mean.â€
Her eyes moved a millimeter. Â â€œUm, okay.â€
â€œWhatâ€™s your name?â€
She looked at her boys but they ignored her. Â â€œBryn?â€
â€œWally,â€ I said. Â â€œBryn wants a bump. Â Why donâ€™t you just give her one?â€
Here the crowd went silent. Â All eyes, red and glassy and greedy for a high, were on me. Â Wally looked like Iâ€™d told him there was no Santa Claus, mouth open to speak, big dumb brown eyes searching for a single word to say. Â While he was dumbstruck, I snatched the cellophane from his hand and put it in my mouth, bit off a chunk. Â He grabbed back, but I held it back over my head.
I spat out plastic. Â â€œYou donâ€™t want me to spill it, do you?â€
With the only key I had, the key to me and Susieâ€™s old apartment that neither of us lived in anymore, I forked some powder to Brynâ€™s nose. Â She tooted up. Â Sniffed back. Â Smoothness broke over her face and her jaw finally stopped working.
â€œItâ€™s not bad,â€ she said.
Ten minutes later I had the eighty dollars in my pocket and we were halfway back to Wallyâ€™s. Â He couldnâ€™t shut up, telling me how brilliant that was, asking me how I knew that would seal the deal. Â I didnâ€™t say anything. Â I couldâ€™ve told him how Zeke looked at Bryn after she took that bumpâ€”he had the love-light in his eyes. Â I could see the whole rest of their morningâ€”Zeke and Bryn zooted in bed, all twisted up and giggling, high and lost in the blankets.
I didnâ€™t tell Wally any of that, or how much it confused my heart. Â How sick it made me feel. Â He just kept jabbering until finally I shot cherry-red puke from my mouth, and left it steaming on the street.
We didnâ€™t pay Rondo. Â Firstâ€”and this proved that we had paid attention in school, Wally saidâ€”we were going to parlay the eighty we made from the punks into the full one-fifty we owed. Â That way we could pull the band-aid off all at once. Â What was the point of paying him half? Â I couldnâ€™t answer that question, and the idea of Rondo expecting more, of his soft brown hand waiting for more bills to pile up, made me shoot adrenaline. Â Waiting and making some more money turned the faucet back down.
Between the two of us, we knew a lot of drug users. Â Most of them, though, were separated from us by a scorched bridge: a stolen gram, a wrecked couch, a punch in the face. Â The list quickly whittled itself down. Â From there it was a matter of comparing cost and product, mark-up and demand.
â€œWhat do you think?â€ Â Wally leaned out of the recliner and handed me a notebook. Â It was covered with letters and arrows and numbers and what looked like a swastika.
â€œThis is what, exactly?â€
Wally stood and got behind my shoulder, his beard on my ear like a cobweb. Â He pointed at the pad with the back end of a pen.
â€œSee, if the markets in Japan are any indicationâ€”â€
â€œMarkets in Japan?â€
After a long pause, he gently pulled the pad out of my hands. Â â€œI knew it was too detailed,â€ he muttered.
Focus waned. Â We argued about the existence of Japanese communism, and what a quotient was, until finally we couldnâ€™t speak another sober word. Â Wally called Krycz, because nobody else would take our call. Â And when he came back half an hour later with fifteen spindled bags of brown, I didnâ€™t complain. Â I didnâ€™t say anything to him because I didnâ€™t want to hear him talk. Â I wanted what I wanted, and nothing more.
â€œI fucking despise heroin,â€ Wally said, once we were high as satellites. Â â€œI really, really do. Â Itâ€™s soâ€¦ slow.â€
â€œItâ€™s good to be slow,â€ I said. Â My heels resting on the carpet felt like they were resting in a childâ€™s soft, curly hair. Â Above us, God was vacuuming the heavens. Â â€œI mean, listen to that.â€
â€œSheâ€™s been doing that for like, four or five hours now.â€
â€œI know,â€ I said. Â â€œIsnâ€™t it great?â€™
Wally chuckled. Â â€œYeah,â€ he said. Â â€œIt is.â€
I could do that to Wally sometimes. Â I could steer him, just like he steered me. Â He could drive me up a wall but for those three days, I kept him down in the basement. Â Neither of us changed our clothes. Â We didnâ€™t brush our teeth. Â And no, no sir, we did not parlay a single dollar of those bags toward our Rondo debt. Â We just listened to the heavenly pulse of Wallyâ€™s mother, pacing upstairs. Â She refused to enter the basement. Â A long time ago sheâ€™d caught Wally masturbating to a tennis match, and she couldnâ€™t possibly bear to see that again. Â â€œAll that time I tried to keep it hidden,â€ Wally said. Â â€œI shoulda just let her catch me when I was twelve. Â This place would have been mine for years.â€
I got high with Susie exactly once, a few weeks after weâ€™d gotten married. Â The week before, weâ€™d done a Carnival cruise through the Caribbean. Â St. Thomas, Costa Rica, Jamaica. Â All on her parents dime. Â We did nothing but drink palm wine and smoke glorious brown weed, tan ourselves during the day and at night give each other hard, mind-erasing orgasms. Â We were going to do the same thing when we got back to Riverfront. Â I reserved a balcony room at the Best Western. Â Susie bought a blue negligee, one I could see through. Â Everything was going according to plan until we went to the liquor store, and, with her arms full of sake bottles, Susie leaned into my ear and whispered, â€œI wanna get stoned, too.â€
And we did. Â Instead of the hotel, we went to Rondoâ€™s. Â He rolled us perfect blunt after perfect blunt and we smoked our faces off, laughed at each other laughing. Â It was all different then. Â Rondo was different. Â He was looser, still got high. Â Getting high was different, too. Â For hours we played Monopoly and talked about Jamaica, about Puerto Rico, about how sand dunes should be everywhere so you never had to wear shoes. Â And eventually, of course, Rondo went into his bedroom and came out with his favorite record, Hector Lavoe, hunks of blow covering Hectorâ€™s face like the remnants of a thrown snowball.
â€œOh, itâ€™s cold,â€ Susie said after her first line.
I said, â€œItâ€™s cool, not cold. Â Nice cool. Â Like fall.â€
â€œHmm. Â I donâ€™t know.â€ Â She sniffled and pinched the end of her nose. Â â€œIt feels pretty cold.â€
By four that morning Susie didnâ€™t mind the cold anymore. Â The three of us gobbled up and entire eight, then went deep into a second. Â Iâ€™d blasted-off like that myself more times than I could count, but Susie was new pipes. Â She wanted more and more but her nose couldnâ€™t take it. Â She sneezed. Â Blood came spraying out of her nostrils. Â I donâ€™t know what I was thinking when I saw it, but I remember putting my hand over her face to cover it up, like Iâ€™d elbowed her and itâ€™d been a horrible accident.
â€œWhat,â€ she said. Â â€œWhat?â€
Rondo just laughed.
In the car I tried to talk around it. Â I rambled. Â I kept asking her if she wanted to go find something to eat, if she wanted go to the grocery store, if she needed cigarettes, beer. Â I would go anywhere and get her anything she wanted. Â If she wanted a nice glass of orange juice Iâ€™d drive to Florida for her and squeeze it myself. Â My heart was pumping so hard I told her I would walk there if she wanted me to. Â I would run.
â€œJust donâ€™t take me there again,â€ she said. Â She was staring straight out the windshield. Â A tissue was rolled up her nose and she sounded like she had a cold. Â â€œDonâ€™t ever take me there again.â€
I woke up to Wally gently tugging the last baggie from my pants pocket. Â Iâ€™d put it there, knowing that once the gates were open Wally would just keep marching. Â But I didnâ€™t stop him. Â For a moment, I kept my eyes closed and let him work. Â He was meticulous, tugging, then waiting, then tugging again, so lightly that the plastic didnâ€™t even crinkle. Â Then, when he got it out, he replaced it. Â With the tip of his chubby finger he stuffed another bag back into my pocket. Â My leg jerked. Â Wally slid his finger out and stood still. Â Then he turned and took a step toward the basement door.
When his hand was on the knob, I got him by the hood and yanked down as hard as my swimmy muscles would allow.
It was on. Â All systems go. Â Immediately, Wallyâ€”who was on his back now, arching, his eyes pink and bulbous and wild with the suddenness of his new perspectiveâ€”tried to swallow the bag. Â He hooked his right arm toward his gaping mouth and I stomped on his shoulder.
â€œAwww,â€ he shouted.
I stomped again and the baggie fell into the carpet. Â Wallyâ€™s eyes narrowed, his brows rushed inward, and then his left hand shot to my balls like a falconâ€™s talon.
â€œYou like that?â€
My balls rose like a submersible through my groin, then my stomach, then somewhere just south of my throat. Â I took my own fall to the carpet, just as Wally rose from his. Â He stood wobbling over me.
â€œWhere did it go,â€ he gasped. Â â€œDid you see where it went?â€
It was under my back, a tiny lump of hard in the soft carpet.
â€œFuck you,â€ I said. Â The words nearly came out as vomit. Â â€œIâ€™m selling it.â€
â€œJust tell me where it went, JP. Â Donâ€™t fucking start.â€
I sat up and scooted back, the lump pressing into my butt cheek now. Â My head fell dumbly between my legs and I took nose breaths, deep inhales that my cilia cleaned and purified for me before they got to my lungs. Â They taught us that in Bridge Back. Â How to break up the negative energy around your heart with oxygen. Â It was the resident joke, telling a bunch of sniffers to use their nose for good. Â But it was working now. Â Things were breaking in my chest, and I could feel it.
Wally was on his knees again, squinting and picking at the floor.
â€œWhere the fuck is it, JP?â€ he said.
â€œGimme your phone,â€ I said.
â€œIs that where it is? Â In my phone?â€
I looked him in the bleary, wasted eye. Â â€œIâ€™m going to set up the next thing,â€ I said. Â â€œDonâ€™t worry.â€
â€œWhat next thing?â€
â€œLike I said, donâ€™t worry.â€
â€œAre you going to set it up right now?â€
Slowly, he reached to his back pocket and reached out. Â I took the phone. Â Then I lunged across the room and socked Wally square in his nose. Â Cartilage cracked like a fresh switch. Â Blood poured dark from his nostril and into the floor, the beads suspended in the frayed fibers of the carpet.
â€œIâ€™ll be right back,â€ I said.
I was up and out and behind the slammed door before Wally could close his shocked mouth. Â For a moment I waited, my fist balled and ready. Â But Wally didnâ€™t follow me. Â He didnâ€™t even lock the door.
Bryn was supposed to meet me at the bus station with Zeke and the other kid, but when I got there it was just her. Â She was sitting on a bench across from the bathrooms. Â Her hood was up and her toes drilled into the bare, concrete floor.
â€œWhereâ€™s the other two,â€ I said, sitting on the other end of the bench.
She looked straight ahead. Â â€œThey donâ€™t like your friend. Â Whatâ€™s his name, Paulie?â€
â€œWally,â€ I said. Â â€œAnd that doesnâ€™t put them in the minority.â€
â€œIsnâ€™t he your friend?â€
â€œHeâ€™s my twin brother.â€
Finally she looked at me. Â Her eyes were jittery and dancing through her bangs like field mice.
â€œThey shouldnâ€™t have made you come alone,â€ I said.
She looked at me like something sheâ€™d just spit out.
â€œSo,â€ I said. Â â€œIâ€™m not sure how you wanna do this, butâ€¦ Iâ€™m thinking you give me the eighty first, and then I give you what I got. Â Then I walk out. Â Then you walk out.â€
Bryn shrugged. Â â€œNo go, dude. Â That shit you gave us last time was bunk.â€
â€œIt was garbage, dude. Â Iâ€™m not paying you until I get a taste.â€
â€œYou want to get high here?â€
â€œLike I said, no money till I get a taste.â€
I rose off the bench, slowly. Â My head was light, my heart beat weak and muffled. Â Heroin leaves your system like a snake leaves its skin, I heard a woman say once. Â There was nothing left of me but a husk.
â€œIn that case,â€ I said, â€œfollow me.â€
I had no idea where we were going. Â The bus station was more populated than I thought it would be on a weekday morning, and there didnâ€™t look to be anyplace available in the way of privacy. Â There was only the handicap bathroom, the one with the big door that had a split sign for men and women above it.
I said, â€œWait a minute before you come in.â€
It seemed like forever. Â There was a clock in the bathroom and the second hand went all the way around twice before Bryn opened the door. Â She turned the lock behind her.
â€œOh, thatâ€™s so warm,â€ she said after a little dust off her key.
â€œTold you,â€ I said. Â â€œYou got my money or what?â€
Bryn leaned back against the sink. Â Her head tipped to the ceiling, and then she was lifting herself up. Â She slid into the bowl of the sink, nudging the faucet aside with her elbow. Â All the wax inside her melted.
â€œSlow down,â€ she said. Â There was a movement in her head, almost imperceptible, toward the open baggie on the counter. Â â€œYou can have some.â€
I reached into my pocket and pulled out Wallyâ€™s ringer, the one heâ€™d stuffed in while I wasnâ€™t sleeping.
â€œGot my own shit,â€ I said.
It was baking soda, nothing more or less, and it burned through my middle like a campfire. Â The pain mustâ€™ve shown on my face, too, because Bryn giggled, and said in her treble-stripped voice, â€œBad shit?â€ Â Then I giggled, and it scorched my nostrils, and all I could do was shake my head, no, because I hadnâ€™t been that high in forever.