It was as bad as it’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 mother’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. Our testing method was crude. 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. Then we brought it into our mouths and spread it on our gums. We had split the room up into halves—I had the side with the coffee table and the busted futon, and Wally was over between the floor model TV and the love seat— and when we found something and tasted it, we called out the results to each other in a kind of Morse code.
None of our discoveries had been that exciting. Most were cheap yellow meth or coke so jumped on I could’ve sworn it was baking soda, stuff that was months, sometimes years old. The flotsam and jetsam of cheap, dirty highs. Some of what we tasted wasn’t anything close to drugs: cigarette ashes, cake frosting, fingernail bits. It wasn’t until the 150 minute mark that Wally shot up like a prairie dog, and saved the day.
“Yatzee!” he said.
He scurried on his knees to get under the lamp, where I was already waiting for him. In the middle of his palm sat what looked like a small, white peppercorn. Wally scraped some off and stuck it in his mouth, then licked it, his tongue bulging under his lip.
“Oh,” he said, eyes rolling like he’d just bitten cheesecake. “I’m not saying anything. Just, here.” He lowered his palm gently in front of me. “Try. You tell me.”
I rubbed it on my sweet spot: the bulb of gum just above my top-left canine. At first it was all acid, then a kind of bittersweet, a mixture of hairspray and carpet dust. Then, just freezing cold.
“Mmmmm,” Wally said. “You remember?”
I couldn’t stop licking my gum. I said, “It’s so familiar.”
“I can’t believe you don’t remember this stuff.” Wally closed his eyes. “November, 200… 6. Called it Cinderella.”
I remembered, then. Somewhere on TV I’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. Clean, arctic cocaine. Rocket fuel. Tweaker shit. Sniffing and smoking Cinderella, we’d rearranged our entire record shelf alphabetically, then chronologically, then finally by geography, so that Hotel California was next to Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass Band Plays Whipped Cream. 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. Cinderella. That was right around Thanksgiving, just after I’d gotten the divorce papers from Susie, the packet with all the sticky note arrows and one word messages on them: Sign. I remember holding the pen that day, too, and how for the first time I could see that my hands were shaky as cats. I was twenty-six.
Wally sucked his teeth and sat up on his knees. “What’s your prob, Bob?”
“Nothing,” I said. My sweet spot was so icy it burned.
“You’re bumming,” Wally said. “Are you bumming out a lot or just a little?”
“A lot, I guess. I don’t know. Enough.”
“Don’t bum.” 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. “There’s a line of something here,” he said. “We’ll take it to the high school tomorrow. I have a contact. Money in the bank.”
I looked at Wally, then back at the table. Then back at Wally. His hair was too long and made him look a little like Ringo.
“What?” He was sucking his teeth. Ch. Ch.
“You’re really gonna try to sell that?”
“Dude, I said I had a contact. There’s no try.”
I said, “Sell it? Who are you going to sell it to, a blind man with no taste buds?”
“No,” he groaned. “My contact’s in high school. That’s even better.”
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. 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.
“Hot diggity dog,” Wally said, shaking his head. “We could call this a gram, my good sir. We could get eighty green-backed George Washingtons for this.”
“We could pay back Rondo,” I mumbled.
Wally nodded now, the smile slipping a little from his mouth. “Yes. Yes we could. That’s an option. That is something we could do.”
We stared at our creation for a moment.
“We could taste a little, too,” Wally said.
“Should. I mean, isn’t that like the first law of thermo economics? Know your product?”
In half a minute we were both down on the table with tubed bills in our nostrils. My heart did this sinking thing it did every time I went down for a line. The counselors at Bridge Back referred to it as The Guilt. Capital letters. The Guilt was what you got when sorrow and anger collided in your heart like blue and yellow making green, your heart’s way of telling you to stop, to think, maybe kick this one upstairs to your brain for a minute. They’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. And that was true, excluding Wally.
Sink, I told my heart. Sink right through my feet and out of my life.
“Ready?” Wally said, bending his neck. “Three. Two. One.”
Wally’s contact at the high school turned out to be three bag-eyed kids in skinny jeans and pleather jackets. One was a girl, but they all wore identical outfits and had the same flip of hair brushed over their eyes. I never understood that, girls trying to look like boys. Susie had always worn skirts or dresses. Wally and I wore what we always wore, sweatpants and sweatshirts with the hoods up. All five of us were shifting on our feet. Breakfast at Wally’s had been cough syrup again, and every ten or fifteen seconds I couldn’t stop my body from thinking it was falling. 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 Zeke—the one who did most of the talking and I assumed was Wally’s contact—started laughing.
“Nice beard,” he smirked. “Are you like, gonna try to sell me a pelt?”
Wally pulled the stings of his hood tight and looked from side to side.
“Yeah,” he said. He rubbed his crotch. “Your mother’s pelt.”
Zeke scoffed, his hair flip jumping like a circus flea. “Whatever. Show me something.”
The cellophane that Wally pulled from his pocket looked depressingly empty in daylight, a loose gram of discolored powder dusted into the creases. We’d each done a line the night before. In the morning we had to make up for it. We cut the stuff with confectionary sugar and, for taste, a fingernail’s worth of eco-friendly dish detergent. 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. Half, as it was, of what little standing we had left in the world.
“That looks alright,” the girl said. Her voice was the only girly thing about her.
Zeke dipped his head and hissed like we’d just done a card trick.
“That shit looks jumped up.”
“How the fuck can you see with all that hair in your face?” Wally said.
Wally shrugged. “Eighty bucks, bro. Its ten o’clock on Saturday morning and you ain’t old enough to buy your own cigarettes. Tell me you got another option.”
The other boy that was with Zeke, the boy that wasn’t a girl, tapped Zeke on the back and nodded to him. They huddled in conference. Right away, I knew we were losing. They looked in different directions when they mumbled to each other, not making eye contact. What they were deciding was how low to go. But they still wanted it. The girl especially. She was toe-tapping, trying to listen to the boys without looking like she was listening. Her cheeks were moving too, like there was something small and alive inside them. She was ready to go.
“Teeth grinder,” I said. I wanted it to sound like a question, but it didn’t. The girl-boy looked at me sideways through her hair.
“Gum,” she said.
“Ah, it’s okay,” I said. “I know what you mean.”
Her eyes moved a millimeter. “Um, okay.”
“What’s your name?”
She looked at her boys but they ignored her. “Bryn?”
“Wally,” I said. “Bryn wants a bump. Why don’t you just give her one?”
Here the crowd went silent. All eyes, red and glassy and greedy for a high, were on me. Wally looked like I’d told him there was no Santa Claus, mouth open to speak, big dumb brown eyes searching for a single word to say. While he was dumbstruck, I snatched the cellophane from his hand and put it in my mouth, bit off a chunk. He grabbed back, but I held it back over my head.
I spat out plastic. “You don’t want me to spill it, do you?”
With the only key I had, the key to me and Susie’s old apartment that neither of us lived in anymore, I forked some powder to Bryn’s nose. She tooted up. Sniffed back. Smoothness broke over her face and her jaw finally stopped working.
“It’s not bad,” she said.
Ten minutes later I had the eighty dollars in my pocket and we were halfway back to Wally’s. He couldn’t shut up, telling me how brilliant that was, asking me how I knew that would seal the deal. I didn’t say anything. I could’ve told him how Zeke looked at Bryn after she took that bump—he had the love-light in his eyes. I could see the whole rest of their morning—Zeke and Bryn zooted in bed, all twisted up and giggling, high and lost in the blankets.
I didn’t tell Wally any of that, or how much it confused my heart. How sick it made me feel. He just kept jabbering until finally I shot cherry-red puke from my mouth, and left it steaming on the street.
We didn’t pay Rondo. First—and this proved that we had paid attention in school, Wally said—we were going to parlay the eighty we made from the punks into the full one-fifty we owed. That way we could pull the band-aid off all at once. What was the point of paying him half? I couldn’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. Waiting and making some more money turned the faucet back down.
Between the two of us, we knew a lot of drug users. Most of them, though, were separated from us by a scorched bridge: a stolen gram, a wrecked couch, a punch in the face. The list quickly whittled itself down. From there it was a matter of comparing cost and product, mark-up and demand.
“What do you think?” Wally leaned out of the recliner and handed me a notebook. It was covered with letters and arrows and numbers and what looked like a swastika.
“This is what, exactly?”
Wally stood and got behind my shoulder, his beard on my ear like a cobweb. He pointed at the pad with the back end of a pen.
“See, if the markets in Japan are any indication—”
“Markets in Japan?”
After a long pause, he gently pulled the pad out of my hands. “I knew it was too detailed,” he muttered.
Focus waned. We argued about the existence of Japanese communism, and what a quotient was, until finally we couldn’t speak another sober word. Wally called Krycz, because nobody else would take our call. And when he came back half an hour later with fifteen spindled bags of brown, I didn’t complain. I didn’t say anything to him because I didn’t want to hear him talk. I wanted what I wanted, and nothing more.
“I fucking despise heroin,” Wally said, once we were high as satellites. “I really, really do. It’s so… slow.”
“It’s good to be slow,” I said. My heels resting on the carpet felt like they were resting in a child’s soft, curly hair. Above us, God was vacuuming the heavens. “I mean, listen to that.”
“She’s been doing that for like, four or five hours now.”
“I know,” I said. “Isn’t it great?’
Wally chuckled. “Yeah,” he said. “It is.”
I could do that to Wally sometimes. I could steer him, just like he steered me. He could drive me up a wall but for those three days, I kept him down in the basement. Neither of us changed our clothes. We didn’t brush our teeth. And no, no sir, we did not parlay a single dollar of those bags toward our Rondo debt. We just listened to the heavenly pulse of Wally’s mother, pacing upstairs. She refused to enter the basement. A long time ago she’d caught Wally masturbating to a tennis match, and she couldn’t possibly bear to see that again. “All that time I tried to keep it hidden,” Wally said. “I shoulda just let her catch me when I was twelve. This place would have been mine for years.”
I got high with Susie exactly once, a few weeks after we’d gotten married. The week before, we’d done a Carnival cruise through the Caribbean. St. Thomas, Costa Rica, Jamaica. All on her parents dime. 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. We were going to do the same thing when we got back to Riverfront. I reserved a balcony room at the Best Western. Susie bought a blue negligee, one I could see through. 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, “I wanna get stoned, too.”
And we did. Instead of the hotel, we went to Rondo’s. He rolled us perfect blunt after perfect blunt and we smoked our faces off, laughed at each other laughing. It was all different then. Rondo was different. He was looser, still got high. Getting high was different, too. 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. And eventually, of course, Rondo went into his bedroom and came out with his favorite record, Hector Lavoe, hunks of blow covering Hector’s face like the remnants of a thrown snowball.
“Oh, it’s cold,” Susie said after her first line.
I said, “It’s cool, not cold. Nice cool. Like fall.”
“Hmm. I don’t know.” She sniffled and pinched the end of her nose. “It feels pretty cold.”
By four that morning Susie didn’t mind the cold anymore. The three of us gobbled up and entire eight, then went deep into a second. I’d blasted-off like that myself more times than I could count, but Susie was new pipes. She wanted more and more but her nose couldn’t take it. She sneezed. Blood came spraying out of her nostrils. I don’t know what I was thinking when I saw it, but I remember putting my hand over her face to cover it up, like I’d elbowed her and it’d been a horrible accident.
“What,” she said. “What?”
Rondo just laughed.
In the car I tried to talk around it. I rambled. 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. I would go anywhere and get her anything she wanted. If she wanted a nice glass of orange juice I’d drive to Florida for her and squeeze it myself. My heart was pumping so hard I told her I would walk there if she wanted me to. I would run.
“Just don’t take me there again,” she said. She was staring straight out the windshield. A tissue was rolled up her nose and she sounded like she had a cold. “Don’t ever take me there again.”
I woke up to Wally gently tugging the last baggie from my pants pocket. I’d put it there, knowing that once the gates were open Wally would just keep marching. But I didn’t stop him. For a moment, I kept my eyes closed and let him work. He was meticulous, tugging, then waiting, then tugging again, so lightly that the plastic didn’t even crinkle. Then, when he got it out, he replaced it. With the tip of his chubby finger he stuffed another bag back into my pocket. My leg jerked. Wally slid his finger out and stood still. 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. All systems go. Immediately, Wally—who was on his back now, arching, his eyes pink and bulbous and wild with the suddenness of his new perspective—tried to swallow the bag. He hooked his right arm toward his gaping mouth and I stomped on his shoulder.
“Awww,” he shouted.
I stomped again and the baggie fell into the carpet. Wally’s eyes narrowed, his brows rushed inward, and then his left hand shot to my balls like a falcon’s talon.
“You like that?”
My balls rose like a submersible through my groin, then my stomach, then somewhere just south of my throat. I took my own fall to the carpet, just as Wally rose from his. He stood wobbling over me.
“Where did it go,” he gasped. “Did you see where it went?”
It was under my back, a tiny lump of hard in the soft carpet.
“Fuck you,” I said. The words nearly came out as vomit. “I’m selling it.”
“Just tell me where it went, JP. Don’t fucking start.”
I sat up and scooted back, the lump pressing into my butt cheek now. 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. They taught us that in Bridge Back. How to break up the negative energy around your heart with oxygen. It was the resident joke, telling a bunch of sniffers to use their nose for good. But it was working now. Things were breaking in my chest, and I could feel it.
Wally was on his knees again, squinting and picking at the floor.
“Where the fuck is it, JP?” he said.
“Gimme your phone,” I said.
“Is that where it is? In my phone?”
I looked him in the bleary, wasted eye. “I’m going to set up the next thing,” I said. “Don’t worry.”
“What next thing?”
“Like I said, don’t worry.”
“Are you going to set it up right now?”
Slowly, he reached to his back pocket and reached out. I took the phone. Then I lunged across the room and socked Wally square in his nose. Cartilage cracked like a fresh switch. Blood poured dark from his nostril and into the floor, the beads suspended in the frayed fibers of the carpet.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
I was up and out and behind the slammed door before Wally could close his shocked mouth. For a moment I waited, my fist balled and ready. But Wally didn’t follow me. He didn’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. She was sitting on a bench across from the bathrooms. Her hood was up and her toes drilled into the bare, concrete floor.
“Where’s the other two,” I said, sitting on the other end of the bench.
She looked straight ahead. “They don’t like your friend. What’s his name, Paulie?”
“Wally,” I said. “And that doesn’t put them in the minority.”
“Isn’t he your friend?”
“He’s my twin brother.”
Finally she looked at me. Her eyes were jittery and dancing through her bangs like field mice.
“They shouldn’t have made you come alone,” I said.
She looked at me like something she’d just spit out.
“So,” I said. “I’m not sure how you wanna do this, but… I’m thinking you give me the eighty first, and then I give you what I got. Then I walk out. Then you walk out.”
Bryn shrugged. “No go, dude. That shit you gave us last time was bunk.”
“It was garbage, dude. I’m not paying you until I get a taste.”
“You want to get high here?”
“Like I said, no money till I get a taste.”
I rose off the bench, slowly. My head was light, my heart beat weak and muffled. Heroin leaves your system like a snake leaves its skin, I heard a woman say once. There was nothing left of me but a husk.
“In that case,” I said, “follow me.”
I had no idea where we were going. The bus station was more populated than I thought it would be on a weekday morning, and there didn’t look to be anyplace available in the way of privacy. 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, “Wait a minute before you come in.”
It seemed like forever. There was a clock in the bathroom and the second hand went all the way around twice before Bryn opened the door. She turned the lock behind her.
“Oh, that’s so warm,” she said after a little dust off her key.
“Told you,” I said. “You got my money or what?”
Bryn leaned back against the sink. Her head tipped to the ceiling, and then she was lifting herself up. She slid into the bowl of the sink, nudging the faucet aside with her elbow. All the wax inside her melted.
“Slow down,” she said. There was a movement in her head, almost imperceptible, toward the open baggie on the counter. “You can have some.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out Wally’s ringer, the one he’d stuffed in while I wasn’t sleeping.
“Got my own shit,” I said.
It was baking soda, nothing more or less, and it burned through my middle like a campfire. The pain must’ve shown on my face, too, because Bryn giggled, and said in her treble-stripped voice, “Bad shit?” Then I giggled, and it scorched my nostrils, and all I could do was shake my head, no, because I hadn’t been that high in forever.