Free Fiction: Slow Motion Daydream
Copyright © 2015 Brad J. Boucher
It’s starting again . . .
I’m just about ready to go out, just about to hit the streets and make the night come alive, and I see him again, staring out of his apartment. The old guy across the hall. I don’t even know his name, but he sits there all day long with his apartment door wide open, staring out into the hall. I know it sounds like no big thing, but yeah, it bothers me.
Not the fact that he’s always there and staring, I couldn’t give a shit about that. But lately, when I see him, it feels like he’s waiting for me. Waiting to see me come out and lock my door. Waiting for me to rustle past his door with my hood pulled up high and my hands pushed down low in my pockets.
He watches me walk by; I can feel his eyes burning holes in me. Turning the corner at the top of the stairs, I glance over again, just to be sure. And yeah, there he is, leaning forward in his creaky old recliner, just enough to see me looking back at him.
Three years I’ve been living here, in this shitty building in the same part of town I used to be scared of as a kid. Barely any heat and about enough hot water to take a five minute shower, but here I am. When it’s all you can get then you’ll take it, I guess. Even this is starting to feel sketchy though, like I’m just one more late rent payment away from being out on the streets again.
Jesus, I don’t know if I can take that. The apartment’s cold, sure, but those streets out there . . . man, they’re cold even when the city feels like it’s on fire from the summer heat. They’ll eat you up if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve seen stronger and smarter guys than me show up in alleys with slit throats or foaming mouths. I’ve seen shit happen out there you wouldn’t believe.
This old guy, though . . . I came out of my place one Saturday night and there he was, shoving furniture into place in his dirty sweatpants, looking up to see who was going by his door. I didn’t give him the nod or anything . . . the hell with that, I’m not playing that game anymore. I’m not here to make friends or play welcome committee. I’ve seen enough people come and go around here, I know it doesn’t do any good to get attached. To anyone or anything. You never know who’s going to screw you over and run off. You never know what you’re going to have to sell off if things get bad again.
And they always get bad again, don’t they? You tell yourself they won’t. You tell yourself you won’t let them, but they do.
They just do.
It was almost a year ago when the old guy showed up, I think. Time’s hard to tell these days. Too much going on, too many things to try to think about. Maybe a year, maybe a little more.
All I know is he wasn’t there on some Friday night, but then there he was on Saturday, moving in. I guess he did it at some point while I was still sleeping it off. There was the sound of a TV coming out through his open door that day, some old western or something, the sounds of horses and rifle fire, whooping Indians in scratchy black and white, falling under the guns of the righteous white cavalry.
I remember thinking of my father as I went down the steps, still hearing that old guy’s TV blaring out behind me. My dad used to watch that shit, those old cowboy movies. I’d wake up late at night, just a stupid little kid in my pajamas, half asleep and sneaking down the hall.
Peeking around the corner to see him asleep in his T-shirt and jeans, his boots right there on the floor where he kicked them off when he came home from work. He was a big guy, my father. I’ll always remember that. Or maybe it was that I was just so little when he left, I don’t know.
That first night, though, when the old man moved in, I froze there halfway down the stairway, stopping dead in my tracks. I could hear the shouting from the TV, the movie’s white-hat hero belting out orders to his troops. Circle the wagons, protect the women, no retreat and no surrender. Generic movie lines ingrained in my memory like the desire to breathe or the urge to blink.
Like the need inside, already growing again . . .
My mind played tricks on me, made me turn around and creep back up the stairs. Trying to move quietly and avoid the creaking steps or floorboards, just like that little kid in his footie pajamas twenty years ago. Working so hard to be quiet, holding my breath, wishing my heart could beat more softly.
I couldn’t help but do the math, couldn’t avoid thinking maybe my old man might be the same age as this old guy after all these years. Wouldn’t he be? Wasn’t it possible? And it might explain why he watched me the way he did every time I went past his door. I reached up for the railing and pulled myself up just enough to get a clear line of sight back into his doorway. All I needed was one quick look. I hadn’t seen the son of a bitch in something like eighteen years, but does a kid ever forget the face of his father? Don’t we see a slightly different version of it every single day in the mirror?
I looked through the chipped and crooked banister and across the dirty hallway floor, and there he was. Leaning on the wall in open doorway, smoking a cigarette and staring straight back at me.
Not my father, but one of a thousand other men exactly like him.
I stared back at him for a second and then I was out of there, hitting the streets.
The need was too big to ignore, screaming in my ear and leading me deeper into the ghetto.
Tonight . . .
The night runs dry, but I try my best. Jesus, I really do.
I hit all the usual places, but all the familiar faces aren’t around. On the street corner near Copley, I meet up with Miranda but she’s out of anything I might need. At the far end of the bar at Gill’s, where the shadows are deepest and the music pounds away at your ears, there’s a guy I never saw before, his eyes flicking over everybody, watching everything. I don’t know if he’s a narc, but he sure as hell looks like one, so then I’m out of there.
In the basement on Freemont Street, where I can usually score at least enough to make it through the night, there’s a hush over everybody there. They’re all gaping at me, everybody on edge, and the reluctant word going around is that Jimmy got picked up for possession with intent to sell. They say he’ll be downtown for at least a couple of days. And doesn’t it just figure, because I was actually ahead with Jimmy, for the first time ever. He owed me, if you can imagine that.
I walk out into the heat and the humidity. It’s the hottest summer in eleven years, that’s what they’re saying on the news, but all I can do is shiver. All I can do is hunch my aching shoulders and struggle back home. I don’t have enough cash to take the subway so I have to walk. The blocks pass like pages on a calendar, but somehow I make it.
Somehow I find my way back to the shitty building with the broken security door and the lights in the hallway flickering behind their little metal cages, and I climb the steps with every muscle and nerve ending blazing.
I tell myself it’s not so bad, but I know that’s a lie.
We do it all the time, don’t we? We lie to ourselves over every little thing.
The rent will work itself out somehow. That tightness in our gut is just indigestion. The hollowness we see in the mirror is no worse than it was the day before.
And so that’s what I do, too. I do my best, staggering up the stairs, to tell myself the need is no stronger than it was just a few hours ago. I tell myself the next score will be bigger, and that it’ll last longer. And after that, yeah, things are gonna get better. But just like we always do, no matter how convincing we can make the lies feel, somewhere deep inside, we all know bullshit when we hear it.
And I know I’m hearing it now.
Things are getting worse, and they’re getting that way really fast.
At the top of the stairs, with miles of writhing hallway to go before I’ll be back into my apartment, I lean on the wall and watch the old man’s doorway. There’s that ghostly blue wash of TV light coloring the hallway, and the small-speaker sound of a washed-up celebrity pushing some kind of life insurance for seniors that will make everything sweet and rosy for your family after you pass on.
I leave the wall and do the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other dance along the hallway. I tell myself I will not look into the old guy’s apartment as I go past his door. I will not look in and see him staring back at me from his chair. I will not give him the satisfaction of seeing me this way, with the need breaking my stance and pressing down on me like the weight of everything I’ve ever given up for it.
I will not do it.
I refuse to.
But I do. Of course I do.
And I don’t know why I should have expected anything different, but there he is, watching me.
It’s gotta be two in the morning, two-thirty even, but he’s there. Like he’s waiting for me. I stare back into his eyes; let’s see how he deals with a challenge. Just you try and speak to me. Just try to say something, see what you get.
But of course, he doesn’t say a goddamned thing. He just watches me watching him.
His eyes are dark but going foggy. Giving in to cataracts, maybe, I don’t know. I don’t care, and why should I? There’s old-man fuzz on his cheeks and chin, the look of a man who knows he should maybe shave but really has no reason to.
I look down at his hands, resting there on the arms of his chair. They’re big and spotted, the knuckles bulging; a workingman’s hands, fighting the good fight his whole life, probably. But they’re gnarled and crooked now. I see pain in them, the kind of old man’s hands that maybe struggle just to get the TV remote to do what they want it to.
I study his face again. If he was my father, like I thought that first night, will these be my hands someday? The kind of hands you couldn’t even trust to sign the rent check, to turn the stove off, to wipe your ass?
To push the needle in?
I look away, let me eyes sneak around his apartment.
Not a lot of furniture. A couple of lamps only an old woman would keep around. Something from his past maybe, from his better years? If so, it has no place in this neighborhood. Nothing lasts here. Nothing that matters, anyway.
In front of his chair, pushed out in front of him, there’s one of those walkers, the kind of thing extremely old or incredibly sick people use to shuffle around. Curved metal pipes, tennis balls impaled on its legs. He stares at me over it, saying nothing.
What, am I supposed to say something to him, some magical bit of spoken-word nonsense that’s going to make him feel better? Does he think I could make his legs grow wings and his fists unfurl?
I can’t even find the strength to make my own shakes go away, even for a second.
I’m about to tell him all that, about to tell him there’s no way I could ever help him, or even would, when he raises up one twisted and hopeless hand and points past me out into the hall.
And then he speaks the first words he’s ever said to me, after a year of staring me in the eye from the TV-drenched shadows of his apartment.
“There’s somebody in there,” he says, struggling to make his finger point at my apartment door. His voice is an old man’s voice, weak and hoarse, and filled with the ghosts of things he’d shouted in his youth. “She said she’d wait for you.”
It’s Cassie that’s waiting for me.
I know it before I even open the door.
And I pray I’m right about her.
She’s not exactly a friend these days, but someone who lives deep in my memory as one of the few moments from my past that I don’t mind thinking about. There aren’t many of those for me lately, but she’s one of them. One of the few times in my past life I can think of that is more pleasure than pain, more yes than no. More want than need.
I wonder briefly why it has to be this way. Why do the strongest and most important memories in our lives have to be reduced to such lonesome and subjective moments in time? Are we such fragmented and temporary creatures that a few seconds of our lives could come to represent our entire existence?
A second later the thought is gone, and I’m busy staring at her. She’s thin and weak, creating a convenient home at the skeleton of glass and metal that has become my kitchen table. All her shit is spread out there, her lipsticks and her cosmetics and her little secrets and baubles, all the things that make me think of her as HER. I only get a glimpse of her wounded beauty, lost as I am in my moment of weakness (there are wide eyes and high cheekbones, and skin so pale it borders on frightening), and then I make the mistake of looking back over my shoulder and out into the hall. And across it, of course, into the open doorway and the old bastard’s stare.
And he’s watching me.
Of course he is.
But for the first time since he moved in, somewhere either just before or just after a year ago, there’s what looks to me like a smile on his face.
I push my foot out, somewhat impressed by my own display of poise and balance, especially in my condition, and shove my door closed. I flip the deadbolt and slide the chain; there’s nothing in here worth stealing, but when you live in the city for as long as I have you do these things without knowing it.
And then I’m alone here in the beauty of her eyes.
There are a thousand things I want to ask her. Where has she been? How is she doing? Why did she leave me the way she did? All of these questions pile up behind my lips, all of them important, each of them necessary, but when my mouth opens, none of them escape. Instead, the only question that slips free is the one I knew I would have to get to sooner or later.
“Do you have anything?”
Cassie looks back at me with hardly any expression at all. There’s not a doubt in my mind that she’s still using; Jesus, all I have to do is look at her. She could be the poster child for drug abuse. And I know it should occur to me to wonder if I look the same way—if I look this bad—but for some reason it doesn’t.
But it’s all there in her face. Her eyes are sunken and a bit too wide. Her chin and cheekbones jut out at sharp angles. There’s an ugly yellow and purple bruise on the right side of her neck. And man, that look in her eyes. Hollow and hungry.
Yeah, I know that look. I should; I see it often enough.
I ask her again. “Do you?”
She nods this time and I’m ashamed that I feel a greater relief than I felt just a minute ago when I saw that she’d come back to me, after all this time.
“I couldn’t score tonight,” I say. “I need it bad.”
“I can tell.”
Cassie reaches into one of her packages and digs around and comes up with a little plastic bag, and all at once I’m like a kid on Christmas morning. I make my legs move me to the kitchen table and I fall into the chair across from her. She gets it all ready for me, just like in the old days, and it’s the longest few minutes of my life while I wait for her.
In the end, when it’s ready, my hands are shaking too bad to help myself out, so she ties off my arm and tells me she’ll drive this time.
There’s a sharp stab of pain and after that I’m flying.
. . . I’m flying free of everything I’m flying above it all and there’s no such thing as doubt and worry and pain and the world is the sky is the earth is the ocean and they’re all inside of me pushing down deep into my thoughts all flying inside of me and for this moment I know there’s nothing I can’t do I can leave this place and find something better I can find a job that I won’t lose and a woman that won’t run away maybe Cassie and why not it didn’t work out before but that doesn’t mean it can’t this time I can do that I can make it work between us I know I can and I remember her body so hard and damaged against mine through the dark and the loneliness and the need and she is the sea and the sky and the darkness that hides from the truth and . . .
And then it’s over.When I come down, when the universe collapses in on itself and finds a way to seep out of my body again, I’m on the kitchen floor, my chair knocked over beside me.
And I’m alone.
Cassie’s things are gone from the table. Her bags aren’t on the floor.
But the smell of her hair is still hanging in the air. I’d know it anywhere. There are some things you can never forget and the scent of her hair is like that for me. Christ, I breathed it in for almost a year when we were together, pressed together every night into a tiny twin bed that still felt too big for us.
I roll over and look to the door. It’s still locked and the chain is still fastened.
The place only has one window, the one in the bedroom that leads to the fire escape, and when I stumble in there to check, it’s still locked from the inside.
I don’t know if Cassie would call it love, whatever it was we had between us, but it’s always felt like the right word to me.
Those were different days. Sometimes, looking back, it feels like it could have been a million years ago. A lot of it feels fuzzy, memories tainted by how much I missed her after she ran off. You paint people as saints when they leave your life that way, did you know that? After all the anger drifts away, you forget about all the little things they did that annoyed the shit out of you. You look past their shortcomings and insecurities, and in this new warm glow you’ve built up around them, you only know how perfect they were.
Cassie’s like that for me.
Just about the only thing that never seemed to fade for me was the pain of her leaving. That still feels shiny and new.
And so at first it’s easy to convince myself that everything I remember from last night was all just a part of my high. The sight of her at my kitchen table, all her little baubles spread out across its surface. The look in her eyes when she watched me coming in . . .
Except for that smell, man, the smell of her hair. It’s still here; I know I’m not imagining it.
And what about the high itself? How could that have even been possible? I came home empty last night, I know I did. There wasn’t even anything in the apartment hidden away for a rainy day. My rig is still on the table, though, along with the frayed piece of rubber tubing I use to tie off. Shit, there’s even a sore spot on my arm where the needle went in.
It’s not like I could have dreamed the whole thing. I mean, I have vivid dreams, I always have, but come on. That was real last night, there’s just no way it wasn’t.
I go over it all again in my mind. Opening the door and knowing she’d be here, and the warm-all-over feeling of her eyes on me. No surprise in her stare, no reaction at all really, and now I’m starting to wonder why. I know I don’t look so good these days. I know I have my own hollow stare and the same fish-belly white complexion she had last night, and I really didn’t have either of those things—at least not to this extent—the last time we saw each other.
Shouldn’t her face have shown all that last night? Shouldn’t she have been shocked when she saw me, even just a bit? It replays one more time for me and I follow it: opening the door in slow motion, seeing her there; closing the door and locking us in together because of the old man’s stare.
It hits me then.
The old bastard across the hall.
He told me she was here. He must have seen her going in.
I throw back the locks and pull open the door, and there he is in his chair, staring out into the hall. My legs feel rubbery and weak, but they carry me into his doorway without spilling me, and I use the wall outside his apartment to hold me up.
“The girl that was here last night,” I say, “did you see her leave?”
He frowns but doesn’t say anything. Of course he doesn’t. Something like a year of living across the hall from him and the first time he said something to me was last night.
I try again. “What time was it when she left?”
He doesn’t answer.
“Look, just . . . was it right after I came home, or was it later?”
Even while I’m asking it, I know it’s a stupid fucking question. The door and the window were both locked from the inside. Nobody left my apartment last night, at any time.
“Never mind,” I tell him. “Forget that. What time did she get here?”
He stares at me.
I space the words out like I’m speaking to a child. “The girl. From last night. How long was she here waiting for me before I got home?”
The old man shrugs and looks towards his TV. The sound of some old sitcom is drifting out of the room at me, a forced laugh track and one liners delivered in an exaggerated Southern accent. To me it looks like he’s thinking about my question, trying to gage the time of Cassie’s arrival, and I feel a thin sliver of hope. A dangerous thing for me these days.
But then he looks back at me and tries to set me straight.
“There was no girl,” he says. There’s some vague trace of an accent in his voice. European or something, the kind of elongated vowels and stilted syllables you’d hear in the old war movies my father used to watch. “There was no one here last night.”
It’s the second thing he’s ever said to me and it’s a direct and complete denial of the first thing he’s ever said.
I stare at him. Is he just messing with me? Is this good for him in some way, watching me squirm?
“Listen, I don’t know what the—”
“You came home late, but you were alone.”
“Yeah, I know I was alone, I know that. But you told me there was somebody waiting for me.” I point back over my shoulder at the door to my apartment, as if this simple little gesture will somehow jog his memory. “Last night, you said that.”
He shakes his head. “I didn’t. There’s nothing I would say to somebody like you.”
“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”
His eyes move to my arm, where the needle tracks couldn’t be more obvious if they’d been painted in neon.
“I’d never waste my words on a junkie,” he says.
That old, wrinkled bastard.
For something like an hour I lie on my bed in the stale heat of my apartment and try to think of ways to get back at him. I imagine sneaking in through his open doorway and stealing his walker while he’s sleeping, tossing it in a dumpster somewhere. Only I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him in there asleep. Or I see myself creeping along some kind of imagined crawlspace above his apartment, finding his cable connection and snipping it, taking away his cowboy shoot-em-ups and his precious 70s comedies. Taking away the only thing he seems to care about.
I tell myself how easy it would be to wrap my fists in his ratty brown sweatshirt and yank him out of his chair, how simple it’d be to drag him along the hall and shove him down the goddamn stairs. Head first, you know what I mean? Guy couldn’t weigh more than . . . what? Ninety pounds? Ninety-five? It’d be nothing, over in half a minute. The only thing he’d be able to do would be to scream, and that’s five by five with me, man, I say let him scream.
But I’m not what you’d call a violent man. In my mind, sure, yeah, you could say I’ve been to those dark places. I’ve walked the walk in the safety of those halls. And in the streets, once or twice, I’ve been known to dance that stupid dance when the music said I had to. But those few times . . . man, those came down to self-defense. I told you about these streets and this place. I told you what it’s like out there.
This old guy, though. Calling me a junkie? Telling me I’m not worth his words, and with a year of perfect silence to back it up? Shit, he’s going to talk to me about words?
There was a time, not even that long ago, that I could paint the world in perfect shades and colors with my words, any color you like. They’d sing me to sleep some nights, keep me up others, but they were there for me. They were always there for me, you better believe it.
They even got stronger than me, started pushing in on me day and night, until I couldn’t switch them off. They were like those kids in the school hallways that you try to avoid, always waiting for you around the very next corner, pouncing on you just when you think you’re almost out of their reach.
But they never go away.
They never leave you alone, do they?
Man, if anything, it was the words that really got me using. Or at least started me doing it. Always crowding in, always pushing to be set free. . .
Sometimes, you just need a way to shut off the noise for a while, or to escape from it, you know?
And now my thoughts follow the wheel around and I’m back to the old man again. It’s always like this after a good score. Circular thoughts, puffy and round at the edges, always leading me back home.
That old bastard.
Something bad is going to happen, I can feel it.
There are half a million things I’m feeling for the old man right now, and none of them are good.
Because I can’t get a grip. I can’t figure out which thing he said to me was the lie.
Was it the first thing? That there was somebody in my apartment, waiting for me? And that it was a she? Or did he lie to me later, with the second thing? The denial that he’d ever said it in the first place.
I want the lie to be the second thing. I want the lie to be his denial, and I want that so bad I can taste it. Almost like I could smell her hair for a while afterwards, after I saw her here. I can’t smell it now, but I’m trying to, I really am. And it’s bothering me that I can’t. Jesus Christ, why can’t I smell her hair?
I want to.
I need to.
All right, okay, I’ll say it. I’ll say it.
I miss her.
Are you happy now?
Cassie was the time and the place in my life when everything came together. She was the light and the warmth and the peace that I never had before. And I sell her short sometimes, I know I do; I talk about her like she was some kind of . . . plaything in my life. Some sort of freewheeling time that I can look back on and nudge my friends about. But it’s not true. And besides, I have no friends. At least no real ones. There’s no one to nudge about Cassie anymore.
And so I’ve certainly said nothing about her to the old bastard across the hall. Shit, he doesn’t even know my name.So how could he know about her?
How could that old son of a bitch even know?
The anger comes back again, black and panting, and I try to keep it from crowding in on me. I try really hard.But it does. It does. And doesn’t it always?
You tell yourself the bad times won’t come back again.
You tell yourself they can’t. You tell yourself you won’t let them, but they do.
They always do.
I pick myself up off the bed, listless and weak, but angry. So angry.
There’s a gulf of space between the bedroom and the door to my apartment, but I cross it. Somehow.
The need is back, already, but I don’t know how that can be. Most of the time I think of it as some kind of snake, sneaking up and whispering bad ideas into my ear. It’s starting to whisper now and I don’t know how that’s possible so soon, so quickly.
I cross the kitchen, and I pull back the locks.
And I shove open my door, looking for nothing more than the face of that old bastard, so I can kick his teeth in.
But there she is.
One hand already raised to knock on my door, the other clutching her bags of trinkets and baubles.
God. Her hollowness. Her serenity.
And just beyond her shoulder, the old man, staring back at me.
There’s no little smile on his face this time, just a look in his eyes that says he knows something I don’t, something deep and cryptic, the kind of thing I’ll never know.
I look back to Cassie. The only one who matters now. The only one who deserves my attention.
“What happened?” I ask her. “Last night, where—”
She shakes her head, and her eyes flick to the right, where I can see the old man’s face behind her. It’s clear to me she doesn’t want to talk in front of him. And I don’t blame her, not one bit; this is none of his goddamned business.
Cassie comes inside and I close and bolt the door and then I just watch her. I drink in her hair and her eyes and the shape of her face. Everything about her is so close, so near, so completely . . . Jesus, so overwhelming.
I remember our nights together, and the long, long days, and the feeling that there would always be more time, there’d always be another day. God, how much time did we kill? How many days did we spend getting wasted?
She puts her bags down on the floor again, in the same place as last night, right beside the table. I watch her face as she settles into her chair. And it is her chair, isn’t it? The one with its back to the rest of the apartment, the one that faces the door. Jesus, she always had to sit in that same chair, as if she needed to know before anybody else who might be coming through the door at any given time.
She sits there now and faces me and her hair isn’t any longer or shorter than it was the day she ran away. Her bangs are still clipped back tight against her scalp. Her eyebrows are still barely there, plucked away as much as she had the patience to tug at them and then bleached. It’s a look she’s always preferred, but I’ve never been quite sure why. One thing I can say is that it makes her eyes look bigger.
You hear these writers and singers and poets spinning out a thousand words to describe the beauty of a woman’s eyes. Hey, I could do it too. I could do it right now if I wanted to, snake or no snake. I could spit out pages of verse, comparing her eyes to the loveliest sunsets or the clearest summer skies. But the truth of it is that there’s no need to. All I can say—all I have to say—is that there are no other eyes I’d rather see looking back at me. And there is nothing else I’d ever want her to see besides me.
That sounds ridiculous, I know. I may be stupid, but I’m not stupid. It makes me sound like some lovelorn teenage loser, and if that’s what you think of me, I don’t care. I really don’t.
But I have a past with this woman that you could never understand. The only past I have the nerve to look back on.
I watch her watching me and a cool breeze blows through my head.
“Last night,” I say, “what happened?”
“What do you mean?”
Her voice is exactly as I remember it.
“I mean you were here and then you weren’t. You came back . . . I thought you were back, and then you ran out on me again.” She shrugs. Fucking shrugs, like it’s no big deal. “I came back today, didn’t I?”
“I’m here now. Isn’t that enough?”
That kind of hits me. Doesn’t stop me, exactly, but it slows me down.
I breathe in and I breathe out and I focus not on what I want to say but what I should say. It’s a trap I’ve fallen into my whole life, more times than I want to think about. Like when you’re taking one of those personality tests. Do you write the answer you feel, or the one you know they want to hear?
Yes, if I found a bag of money, I would give it to the police until someone claimed it.
Yes, I would tell her the truth if I knew her husband was sleeping around.
No, I’ve never tried drugs, and wouldn’t even think about doing them.
“No,” I tell her. “It’s not enough.” My answer is like a new kind of freedom inside of me. It’s pointy and sharp and leaves me feeling sure I’ve said the wrong thing and should never try it again. But there it is. It’s out there now.
She nods and reaches towards the floor. Towards her magical bags of past and present and the hint of some mysterious future that I never want to see.
“I have something for you,” she says. There’s a look in her eyes that I haven’t seen in years, but it’s one I understand perfectly well. The same look she had when she first talked me into shooting up with her.
God, how long ago was that?
"It’s yours if you want it,” she says.
I do want it. I want it really bad, but there’s a new fear involved in it now, one that tells me that if I nod out, if I slide out on the thin ice like I did last night, I might wake up on the floor again.
I might wake up on the floor alone.
I might wake up to find her gone.
I don’t know what I’ll do if that happens. Right now, right at this moment, it feels like Cassie is the only thing holding me together, the only thing that’s keeping me from going to the dark place again.
It’s not easy, but I shake my head.
“No,” I tell her. “Let’s . . . you know, let’s talk for a bit.”
Cassie smiles and the sky clears. The stormy weather passes and the sun rises up behind my eyes.
We talk, but not much. She doesn’t ask me what I’ve been up to these last few years. She doesn’t ask me if I’m still writing, or whether I still like to try to get out to watch the sunrise, or how many fucking times I’ve walked by her old house.
She doesn’t ask these things, but it’s almost like she doesn’t need to. It’s strange and it makes me uncomfortable, but there’s a look in her eyes that suggests she knows all these things already. It’s impossible, I know that, but when you feel a certain way, you can only feel it for so long before you begin to accept it as the truth.
As for the things I ask her . . . Christ, where do I start?
When somebody leaves you, you want to ask them where they went. You want to know who they were with, what they were thinking, how they felt inside. You want to find out what it was that was missing in you that made them want to bail.
But how do I ask her these things? How do I frame them into casual questions that won’t chase her out the door and down the stairs and into the street?
And so I don’t. I don’t pose the hard questions. I don’t go for the throat. I’m the recognizable conservative news personality, tossing up the air balls at the Republican Fucking National Convention. Here, hit it. Watch it soar.
I ask her how she’s feeling. I ask about her sister in Portland. I ask her if she still likes to paint, and it’s the one thing I’ve asked so far that I find myself really eager to know.
At this point she looks away from me, towards the door to my apartment. I actually turn and look over my shoulder, wondering who’s going to be stopping by. It’s a muscle-memory thing, I guess. In our better days together, she was so damn good at it; I don’t know how, but she could hear a hand touching the doorknob down on the street, she could sense a visitor in the stairs.
But of course, there’s nobody there.
Why would there be?
I can’t think of anyone I used to know who still checks in like they used to.
“I thought you never liked my paintings,” she says, rubbing the back of her neck. “I didn’t think you ever got them.”
I feel speechless for a moment. It’s a rare thing for me. “Cassie, I . . . what, are you kidding me? Jesus, I always loved your paintings.”
She laughs. “I guess I must be thinking of someone else.”
That hurts. That one cuts deep.
But before I can say anything about it, before I can find the brave words inside to tell her she’s gone out of bounds, she turns and leans across the table towards me.
“You know what we should do?”
I shake my head. At this point, I can barely get my mind around what I should have done, what I could have said.
“We should go into your bedroom,” she says. “We should take off all our clothes, and we should turn on all the lights like we used to.” She pauses and winks at me. Both of these actions are things she perfected long ago. Her pauses spoke volumes. Her winks could say a million different things.
“We should see if we still fit together so good, like we used to.”
I start to nod at her.
Yes, of course, of course we should do those things. Obviously that’s exactly what we should do. But inside I’m frowning. Because the thing about seeing how good we fit together? That’s mine. That’s something I said years ago, on a brutally hot summer night when we were folded together into our tiny twin bed in this same shitty apartment where anybody could hear whatever you had to say through the paper-thin walls.
I remember it. I remember it. But how could she? Did she really hang onto the words I might have used, all that time ago? Were they really that important to her that she’d bring them up again now? Or is she just playing with me?
“Let’s do it,” I tell her.
And so we do.
Hell yes, we do.
. . . we crowd our thin and pale bodies into my narrow bed and the first time goes by very quickly too quickly our bodies connecting just the way they used to just the way I so often imagined they would if we ever found each other again if she ever came back if she ever cared enough to look me up again after all this time and then we rest sweaty and learning how to smile at each other again with our eyes and our bodies glistening and feeling younger and harder like they used to and then the second time is something different somehow better but somehow worse and it’s not what you’d call making love and it’s all the terrible filthy things I suggested to her as a young man growing up with an education in porn and some of the things she suggested to me in the heat of the moment that I wouldn’t have dared to say to her and that lasts longer that is straining and heavy breathing and nudging at the edges of violence and for some reason I’m suddenly thinking about the old man across the hall the old bastard I think about wrapping my hands around his throat and squeezing until there’s not a single gasp left in his body and his eyes grow foggy and distant and he’s not my father I know he’s not my dad and while our bodies are moving together hers and mine in that ancient instinctive rhythm all I can think about is how fucking good it might feel to make that old bastard stop staring at me but then it’s over it’s over and I’m surprised and not surprised to see that it’s been three hours since we climbed into bed three hours since we tried to discover if the intricate puzzle pieces of our bodies fit together like they used to so perfectly so desperately and then . . .
And then it’s over.
I come awake sometime very late into the night, in that boundless fog of time when everyone else in the neighborhood is finally asleep but the few birds in the area haven’t started to greet the new day.
It’s hotter than fuck beneath the crushing tide of blankets and I have to struggle to free my hips and legs. All the while I already know the truth. It weighs me down like an anchor.
The bed will be empty beside me.
Cassie will be gone.
Of course she will.
Me being me, why would she stay?
But then I manage to kick my feet free of the labyrinth of sweat-stained sheets and I roll over and stand up and there she is. Cassie.
It seems unlikely.
Christ, it seems impossible.
But here she is.I stare at her, stretched out the way she is against the sheets. Her pale skin, her ribs showing above her belly. The tattoo on her left shoulder blade, the flaming eye from the inside cover of that Tool album all those years ago. It felt so important to her at the time, so personal. As if they’d been talking just to her when they’d designed it.
I reach out for it, half of me thinking she might vanish at the moment of contact. That my hand will find nothing at all, and I will wake up in some deeply hated feeling of emptiness and abandonment, touching nothing more than an empty bed and an imagination that could never quite be switched off.
But there she is.
She really did it. She really came back to me.
I run my fingertips along her shoulder.
It used to make her shiver and giggle and shake herself awake, but now it only feels right to me. She doesn’t move an inch. No.
I lean towards her. Is she still breathing?
Before I know it my fingers are pressed against her neck, and I’m shaking her, shaking her whole body, gripping her shoulder, my thumb spreading a white circle around that Tool tattoo.
“No,” I tell her. “No, you can’t do this to me. Cassie . . .”
My heart is empty and black and rising towards my throat. All the tears I have refused to cry over all these years of darkness are trying to force themselves out of me. This can’t be right. This can’t be happening.
No god could do this.
No god in heaven or earth would bring back a man’s only moment of happiness just to pull it away from him again.
Who would do that?
I suddenly hate everything. Everyone and everything. Anything that was and anything that will ever be. And all at once I find myself thinking about the old man again. The old man across the hall. Wasn’t he the start of all of this? Wasn’t he the one who let her back into my apartment in the first place?
I feel a great anger building inside of me again. It is the anger that burns cities and flattens kingdoms beneath the floods of righteousness. It is an anger that is just and true.
And it is mine.
But Cassie moves then. Beneath my touch, within my stupid, grasping hands, she moves.
Her shoulders struggle within my grasp, and she arches her back against the stiff mattress. She opens her wonderful eyes and squints against the light. Her mouth quivers in that space between smiling and yawning, the heartbeat existence that only lovers know.
She sighs and my hands relax and my heart starts beating again.
“Wow,” she says.
“I hope I never have that dream again.”
Cassie stretches, the knobs of her spine apparent and shameless beneath her skin, her small breasts pressing against the sheets. I find myself wanting her again then, needing her, as if we hadn’t just drained and exhausted ourselves against each other just a few hours before. Seeing how well we fit together again, after all this time.
How could I want her again so quickly? Is this love? Is this what it’s like? I try to think. Try to think back to our earliest days together. The memories avoid my stare, faded and obtuse.
But Cassie is here for me. She is here and she is now. She is everything.
“I had the craziest dream,” she mumbles, and I stare at her, drinking in every detail. Her skinny arms. Her bright eyes, shining, shining so bright. Her smile, tired and worn down, but so happy. So fucking happy. So much like things used to be. She laughs. “We were in that basement again, over on . . . what was it? Where was that, with Johnny and Scottie B, the band that used to hang out there?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s right. That downstairs apartment they used to be so proud of, and God, it was really just a basement, do you remember that?”
I nod. I remembered it perfectly. Hell, I was just there last night.
My blood feels like jelly in my veins, but Cassie’s still talking about her dream. Still going on about Freemont Street.
“Remember all the times we used to crash there? I mean, it was like . . . weeks at a time, when things were going good?” She closes her eyes and stretches again, arches her back, the sheet sliding halfway off of her. I try to focus on her face but my eyes don’t have the strength to resist her body. Jesus. Was she always this thin?
“In the dream, we’re in the basement, everybody’s there. Scott, Johnny, those brothers, whoever the hell they were, and the girl . . . that blind chick . . . We’re all there, we’re all good and high . . . I mean, we’re really feeling good, and then all of a sudden you’re on the floor, like, freaking out.”
“I’m on the floor?”
“And freaking out. Your legs are kicking and you’re screaming . . .”
I shake my head. “No, this is—”
“And there’s like . . . foam coming out of your mouth.”
I don’t want to hear this. It just doesn’t feel right.
“Stop,” I tell her. “Cassie, just . . . stop.”
She doesn’t hear me, or doesn’t care, I don’t know. She presses on.
“You’re screaming out names, people I never heard of, maybe, I don’t know, friends of yours when you were little—”
“Cassie, for fuck’s sake—”
She giggles and touches her hips. “It’s really embarrassing, too, you even piss your pants, I mean, there’s an actual, like, puddle on the floor—”
I clench my fists. I can feel tears building in my eyes, but I don’t know why.
“Cassie . . .”
“And then the blind girl, Susan, that blind Korean chick that Scott was dating, she stands up, and everybody looks over at her and she says—”
“Cassie!” I shout her name out. It’s the loudest I’ve spoken in years. I can’t even remember the last time I raised my voice to her this way. “I do not want to hear this. Do you get that?”
She stops. She finally stops talking, and she stares at me, her eyes bright and unhurt. Her lashes are still heavy with sleep, but at least now she’s aware of how much I hated the dream she was telling me about.
“Don’t you want to know?” she asks.
“What the blind girl said.”
I shake my head. “Not at all.”
Cassie shrugs. “Have it your way.” She rolls over on the bed and rests her chin on her hands, still watching me. “Sooner or later, you’re gonna want to know.”
“I don’t think so.” And I really don’t. Because there’s something familiar about her dream, as if I’ve had it myself at some point. And if I did, I don’t want to remember it. Why would I, with Cassie here with me now?
Here and now.
That’s what I need to focus on.
Not the dreams of the past, or the false hope of the future.
Here and now. Today. This moment.
And it’s a funny thing, but almost as soon as I have the thought, I can feel the need scratching at the door again. It’s not heavy, nothing like the thing I know it will grow to be, but it’s there. Like the very beginning of a headache, or the first hint of an inch on your arm that you know will become a full-blown case of poison ivy.
Christ, can’t it leave me alone, just for a couple of days?
Cassie’s staring at me, not quite studying me, but pretty damn close. I wonder if she can see it. I wonder if it’s something like when you’re playing poker and you figure out the other guy’s tell; the twitch or the cough or the tug on the earlobe that tells you when he’s bluffing. I imagine my eyes going narrow or my fingers drumming out some secret, unknown rhythm on my collarbone. Can Cassie see me doing these things? Can she look at me and tell that it’s happening again? Is there some difference in my expression or my posture that’s a dead giveaway?
If there is, and if she can spot it, she doesn’t bring it up.
An hour or two goes by in a comfortable silence and then Cassie tells me she’s going to take a shower. There’s nothing in it that sounds like an invitation to join her, and so I don’t.
Instead I sit on the bed and dig into the nightstand drawer and find the old composition book that I haven’t picked up in such a long time. I open it to the last page that has any writing on it and see it’s been more than a year since I’ve put down even a single word.
A year? Could that be right?
I can hear the water hissing in the shower, the pipes groaning. I can hear Cassie humming some old metal tune, in that way of hers that makes everything gentle and slow, no matter how heavy it once might have been. The sound of it feeds my thoughts, and the words start to crowd in on me like they used to.
It’s a good feeling and I don’t fight them this time.
I pick up a pen and scrawl tiny circles on the bottom of a blank page until it comes back to life, and then I lean forward and set everything loose onto the page.
. . . and the words pour out of me it’s like I can’t write fast enough I can’t stop myself and there’s no point to what I’m writing no rhyme or reason no sense but it doesn’t really matter it’s just raw energy naked helpless words spilled out onto the page one page and then two and the start of a third my hand can’t keep up and it’s wonderful its glorious it’s everything I used to want it to be and I find myself writing about everything I had and everything I’ve lost and Cassie and Freemont Street that night on the floor in the basement apartment on Freemont Street and what happened there and how some of them laughed fucking laughed like it was all some big joke everything’s a big joke to them when they’re high like that and then . . .
And then it’s over.
My hands stops and the tide of words washes back out to sea. I blink and Cassie’s standing there beside the bed, her body warm from the shower, beads of water clinging to her skin. She doesn’t ask what I’m writing, doesn’t seem at all curious what I might be working on. She’s looking at me like she’s waiting for me to say something, waiting for me to answer her.
“What’s wrong?” I ask her.
She shakes her head, and her left hand slides slowly up her arm, coming to rest at the inside of her elbow. Her thumb moves against her skin in tiny circles. I know what it means, it’s a signal I’ve seen a hundred times. I don’t even know if she knows she’s doing it.
She’s feeling the need.
I look in her eyes but I can’t see it there. I can’t see the hunger and the emptiness.
So I try to distract her. I ask her if she wants to head outside for a while, feel the sun and the city heat.
I ask her if she wants to go out and ride the subway the way we used to. Keep it simple and get a cheap bottle somewhere and ride the trains, we can take the Red Line to the Green Line at Park Street and ride all the way out to Riverside and back. Cheap fun, just like the old days and we can poke fun at all the freaks along the way.
But she says no to everything I suggest.
“I just want to hang out,” she says. And then: “What’s the matter? Don’t you want to get high with me?”
I want to, sure. Of course I want to. The need is there for me too, big and strong and wearing me down.
But for the second time in twenty-four hours, I say no.
I shake my head and tell her I’ll pass.
I’m just too afraid of nodding out and waking up to find her gone again.
It’s Cassie who points out how little food there is in the apartment.
A day and a night has passed since she came back and already she’s starting to worry about shit like that. Not that’s she’s wrong; there’s a half of a loaf of bread beside the toaster, and a couple of bottles of beer in the fridge with just a few condiments and some questionable leftovers to keep them company.
“You need to go out and pick up a few things,” she says. “Jesus, we’ll starve.”
“Come with me. It’ll be fun. We can even hit that bookstore you used to like so much.”
She doesn’t say no, but she doesn’t say yes either, and twenty minutes slide by without any further discussion. Soon enough, she tugs an old Cramps T-shirt out of one of her bags, pulls it on and then sits down on the floor in front of what’s left of my record collection. It’s a shadow of what it used to be, so many great records sold off during the lean months, but if she notices, she doesn’t comment on it.
She pulls one out of its sleeve and handles it with an angel’s touch, setting the needle down onto the first groove and then the silence is gone. I can’t help but smile as the first notes fill the room.
The Jim Carroll Band. Catholic Boy. Still her favorite, I guess, after all these years.
“You’re sure you don’t want to come?”
Cassie’s head sways back and forth to the music. No. She’s staying in.
I put away my notebook and my pen, and I shrug into clothes that feels cleaner than the shirts and jeans lying around on the floor. I find my wallet and keys and find excuses to waste time, hoping she’ll change her mind and come with me. But of course she doesn’t.
And I put my hand on the doorknob and stand there thinking. Wondering.
I look towards her, but she’s too lost in the music to notice me.
But I have to ask. I have to.
“Are you going to be here when I get back?”
“Sure,” she says. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Because you’ve already run out on me twice. I think it but I don’t say it out loud. Because two times you’ve run away from me, and both times hurt like hell. And I don’t know what’s going to happen if you do it to me again. Something bad, probably.
Instead, I drop her a smile and tell her I’ll be back soon.
She turns and blows me a kiss and my heart swells, but the doubt and the fear are still pushing each other around inside.
I head out to the hall and close the door behind me. Jim Carroll’s voice floats out to me through the door. Barely in control but somehow finding most of the right notes.
Across the hall, the old bastard is looking back at me. He’s not in his chair this time. He’s standing in the doorway, his crooked hands clutching his walker. There’s a look on his face I haven’t seen yet.
What is it? Pleasure? Satisfaction? Senility? What?
He probably thinks I’m just going to walk by without a word, like I have so many times. But I don’t. I throw him off his game.
I approach his doorway and pull out my wallet. I don’t have a lot of money, but I have enough for this.
“I know you don’t like me,” I tell him, “but I need you to do something for me.” I point back towards my door. “The girl is still here. Her name’s Cassie. If she leaves while I’m out . . . I need you to tell her she has to stay. Tell her I need her to stay.”
I hand over a ten dollar bill. He takes it from me but doesn’t say a word.
I don’t know why I say it then, but I do. He doesn’t ask, and it’s none of his business, but the words slip out anyway.
“She’s the only thing I have that matters.”
The streets are on fire.
The heat is a starving tiger, licking its chops and following along in my steps, trying to pin me down.
And of course the need is back now, weighing me down. Jesus, what am I supposed to do? I could have let Cassie take care of it last night but I said no. She offered again this morning and I said I’d pass. What the hell was I thinking?
And so it presses down on me like the jitterbug shadow of every fix I’ve ever had. It’s a snake again and it curls around my neck and whispers in my ear about how good it’ll feel to just say yes, sure, yes, how easy it’ll be to score so early in the day. Shit, there’ll be plastic bags on every street corner, filled with everything I need and tied off with rubber bands tight enough to guarantee that not a single grain of it will slip away.
I resist it as much as I can but the streets of Boston are twisting and unkind, and every step leads me closer to making a score. It’s like the fucking Freedom Trail of addiction, only instead of a wide red stripe painted along the sidewalks of the city for the tourists to follow, it’s a trail of fire meant just for me. Only for me.
And it leads me straight to Freemont Street.
The last place I really want to be right now.
I stand there on the sidewalk in the summer heat and the city noise. I stare at the black-painted door with the number 1111-A stenciled on it in white paint, faded now and barely legible anymore and I tell myself not to go in. I don’t have to. I don’t need to.There’s something in the neighborhood of forty-five bucks in my pocket, wrinkled and sweaty, and it’s cash meant for food, for Cassie and me. Eggs and milk and bread and sugar. The necessities. And here I am, a sudden puddle of need and want, and the only necessity I can think of is the one that will cure my itch and straighten my mind.
I argue with myself for something like three seconds and then I hunch my shoulders up and slouch down the stairs.I go inside.I hate myself.The faces are different but the same. Most of the people we used to know—the ones who lived here and hung out here—they’re gone now. They’ve moved on or they’ve been arrested or maybe some of them are out on the streets again, I don’t know. The blind chick is there, the hot Korean one from Cassie’s dream, but she’s barely aware of my entrance and looks completely strung out. She weighs maybe half of what she used to, and what’s left of her is folded into a corner of the couch where the shadows try their best to be kind to her.
Scottie B. is still there, though, as hard as that is to believe, and he’s a familiar enough face to let me in and hook me up. I ask him about Johnny, but all he can do is shrug and tell me Johnny’s gone. He was booked and released after making some sort of deal with the cops, and then he kind of went away. Two guys were looking for him, Scottie says, and they didn’t look very friendly. Looked like a couple of mopes.
Six minutes later and I’m loading up, telling myself it’s all right. Telling myself she’ll never know, she really won’t. By the time I get home I’ll be right again, by then no one would know any better anyway. And this will take the edge off, won’t it? It’ll chase the need back to the dark side of the moon; it’ll pave the way for clarity and good decisions.
It’ll make everything just fine.
And before I know it, five hours have slid by.
I come around and the Korean chick is leaning into my shoulder. Her lips are hot and wet against my neck but there’s blood at the corner of her mouth. I push her off of me and her eyes flicker open and closed again like a faulty neon sign.
Open and closed, open and closed. There and back again.
Lying on the concrete slab of a floor, foam spraying from my mouth, screaming, pissing myself . . .
Something that feels like a memory tries to push in on me but I shove it away.I have to get out of here.
It’s starting again . . .
The snake is still swimming through my veins all the way home, telling me everything’s fine. Everything’s all right. What do I have to be worried about? In a soft cotton fog I make a half-hearted attempt to pick up a few necessities on the way back. A half-dozen eggs, a pint of milk. A half-pound of sandwich meat that’s marked down because of the expiration date. It’ll be all right.
The guy who runs the shop is busy arguing with some teenaged geek about cigarettes, so I slip a few more items into the pockets of my hoodie and sulk out into the sweating heat and the sinking sun. The snake tells me it’s okay. Nothing can touch me now. I get back to my building and push my way into the entryway, and for the first time it occurs to me that the lights have stopped flickering. Behind their tiny metal cages, the bulbs at every landing have finally given up their fight and gone dark. I used to wonder—in my weaker moments—if they were secretly blinking on and off in some sort of cryptic Morse code. Off and on and off and on and long and short. Sending subliminal messages to all the sorry tenants in this sad excuse of a home.
Stop trying to find a life.
Jesus. These ideas seem so much more possible to me now. The snake tells me they just might be true.
I bump the walls all the way up the stairs and for the first time in a year, for the first time since he moved in, the old bastard isn’t watching me. He’s slumped down in his chair, his chin on his chest, his broken hands flaccid in his lap.
Before I can even think about stopping it, a prayer springs up in my heart. Let him be dead. Please let him be stiff and cold and dead in that goddamn chair of his.
But I can already see his chest rising and falling in an old man snore. I can already hear the churning sound of his breath. Still alive.Asleep, for the first time, but alive.
I fish out my keys and fight with the lock and finally get it undone, and I step inside and put the sorry excuse for groceries down on the table and—
And I finally look around.
The music’s still playing.
The record has been flipped. Jim Carroll is now telling the world that it’s too late . . . just too late.
But the kitchen floor is empty.
Cassie’s bags are gone.
The snake says it’s okay, it doesn’t matter, she’s nothing.
And I tell the snake it’s wrong. For the first time since I let it in, I tell the snake to shut up. I struggle against its influence. I wriggle out of its grip.
Cassie’s not nothing.
She’s the only thing.
I rush into the bathroom, but I already know it’ll be empty.
Her wet towel is still in a ball on the floor. That nasty habit that I could never get to her to break, leaving soaking towels everywhere. On the floor, on the bed—
The bed . . .
It’s empty, too, but her scent is still there.
On the sheets and blankets and on the pillow.
Her hair and her body and her sex, the smells are all still here.But she’s gone.
Once again, she’s left me.
My hands curl into fists.
My jaw clamps shut.
I am not a violent man.
But someone is going to die tonight.
The old bastard.
He’s still asleep when I cross the hall and step into his apartment.
But I don’t let that stop me. I don’t let that bother me at all.I wrap my cold, jittering hands around his wheezing throat, and I press my thumbs hard into his Adam’s apple and I lean into it. I push my weight down onto him and I dig in, I get comfortable for the long haul.
Fuck it, right?
What do I have to lose?
What could anyone take away from me that would matter? My home? My belongings? My freedom? They’re all jokes, they’re all the punch lines of a better man. For me, none of them exist.
I bear down on the old man’s throat and his eyes pop open. I look as deeply into them as I can. I want him to see me. The real me. The real me who’s going to be the last fucking thing he ever sees.
“Do you see me? Do you?”
He gawks at me. “You had one job. ONE. All you had to do was keep her from leaving.”
His lips part and a tiny hiss escapes his mouth.
“Keep it,” I tell him. “Don’t waste your words on someone like me.”
He raises his hands and tries to pull my fingers away from his throat, but I fight him off. I smash my forehead into his. It’s not the first head-butt I’ve ever given, but it just might be the hardest. Goddamn. There’s something freeing about it; the feeling of not caring at all, of giving up entirely on the risk of self-injury, and so I give him another one.
Stars explode behind my eyes. Beautiful.
The snake seeps back into my thoughts again, urging me on. It’s back and I welcome it. Step inside. Come on in. It’s telling me it’ll be all right, if I can just find the nerve and the strength and the blind need inside to see things through to their logical and ridiculously violent conclusion.
Do it, the snake tells me. Do it, all the way.
And why wouldn’t I?
He’s the one who brought her here. The old bastard. He’s the one who let her in again.
“Are you kidding me?” I ask him. “Are you really just kidding with me? You let her in, you fucking SMILED at me and told me she was back. And now you’re taking her away?”
If I could rip his throat out, I would. If I could find the strength and the fury and the human sickness inside to dig my fingers through his flesh and into his windpipe, and tear it loose to throw onto the walls and the floor, I’d do it. But I can’t.
The anger is there, but the animal—the snake, let’s call it what it is, it’s a snake—is struggling to hold back.
With the promise of release so close?
Why would it do that to me?
Right now, there’s nothing left for me to lose. There’s only a lifetime of wondering where she’s gone to, and I don’t care about anything anymore. But then he raises his hand again. The old man, he raises one twisted knot of fingers and points at my apartment door. The door he has the nerve to stare at all goddamn day, every single day.
He struggles to get a few words out and I unclench my fingers just a bit. Just enough to let his words slip free.“She’s there,” he gasps out. “She’s there now . . .”
I stare at him long enough that he’ll know I understood him perfectly, and then I tighten my hands again around his sweaty neck. If I could break it, I would. Just a quick snap and crack . . . and walk away. But I don’t have the strength. And besides, then he wouldn’t see me seeing him die. That’s an important part of this for me now.
“I’m not buying it,” I tell him. “I was just in there, and Cassie’s gone. Gone because of you.”
He does the best he can to move his head back and forth underneath my grip. He’s still trying to deny it. Still trying to say no. Bastard.
I lean in close to him, press my forehead against his. “You want to know something? You’re going to die tonight.”
There’s fear in his eyes now. True fear. Terror. I eat it up like candy.
“You brought her here,” I tell him. “And you let her go. You let her leave.”
And then . . .
Then his face changes. His eyes relax, and the fear seeps out of them. His mouth slowly closes, and what could be a smile rises onto his thin lips.
I let my fingers go slack.
Jesus. Is he dead? Is that what’s happening? I mean, yeah, it’s what I want, it’s what I was after, but . . . but is he really dead? Is he?
The light in the room shifts and from his crappy TV a commercial voice breathes a serious warning about the dangers of choking deaths among senior citizens, and if that isn’t the absolute peak of coincidence, I can’t imagine what is. I turn and stare at it, and all at once the old bastard’s apartment begins to change.
The back wall seems to drift further away, and the light grows dim, the shadows deepen. There seems to be even less furniture than there was a few minutes ago, and the shitty braided rugs he has scattered around the floor, they begin to fade from view. The scratched and battered linoleum that should be there beneath them is gone too, and there’s only concrete in its place. Flat and gray and cold; just a bare concrete floor.
I pull my hands away from him completely, and I lean back.
I stand up and look around because I know this isn’t right.
This . . . it just can’t be right.
I look back at the old man, the old bastard, gasping to catch his breath, there in his chair. He’s the only thing that’s still the same. The only thing that was here when I started choking him, when this was just his apartment, across the hall from mine. But now, everything else is different.
“What did you do?”
He says nothing. He only shakes his head and runs his hands over his red and swollen throat.
At least I know I hurt him. At least I know he’s real.
But the rest of this . . . this is wrong. This is bullshit.
Because all I have to do is look around for a few seconds to understand where I am. All I have to do is let my eyes drift over the crooked B-movie posters tacked up to the wood-paneled walls; at the sagging, moldy couches sitting face to face in the middle of the room; at the piles of clothes and empty bottles that litter the floor . . .
All I have to do is look around and see those things to know that I’m back on Freemont Street, in the shitty basement apartment where I met Cassie in the first place.
“What’s going on?” I ask him. “Why . . . how are we here?”
The old man says nothing. He just sits there, wheezing, his breath coming in short, sharp gasps.
A part of me starts to wonder if this is all just a part of my trip, if I’ve never made it back home after going out for the groceries and ending up on Freemont Street again. If so . . . if so, then, man, whatever Scottie B. hooked me up with must be some serious shit, because this feels real. This feels so completely real.
I try to tell myself this can’t be right. It just can’t be. Because I remember everything I did afterwards. I remember stopping off to buy a few half-ass necessities, and I remember struggling home, and the lights in the hallway not working. I remember the empty apartment, and finding Cassie gone again. I remember watching everything go red inside and choking the old man, my hands clasped tight around his throat . . .
Christ, my hands still ache from holding on so tight.
I stare down at my feet, at the concrete floor, and I remember . . .
. . . something else. Something . . .
It tries to skitter away but I reach for it. I try to cling to it.
It’s a memory, old and slippery. Not of some better time, or of palm trees and sunshine, but important somehow.
Necessary . . .
The snake tries to speak up, its voice softer now, almost gone. It tries to tell me that the memories don’t matter. The past is the past.
Only the present matters. Somehow I find a bit of strength inside and I push it away.
I want to remember this.
I want to.
I need to.
I close my eyes and imagine that cold, bare concrete floor. I imagine its coldness, its endlessness.
I can almost feel it.
Hard and cold. Hard and cold against—
Against my back.
It’s the dream. Cassie’s dream, the one she told me about.
I feel sure that if I open my eyes again, I’ll see myself on the floor, kicking and screaming, foaming at the mouth, pissing my pants . . .
It’s right there, the memory of it, just inches away.
And the blind chick, the hot Korean girl, she’ll open her mouth and she’ll say—
What was it? What was it Cassie said?
I try to think back on it and realize I never heard that part of it. I cut her off before she could go on, but I didn’t know why.
Now I do, though. Now I know. Because it wasn’t a dream she was talking about.
It was a memory.
And . . . oh God.
I know exactly what the Korean chick was about to say.
I open my eyes and the old man is staring back at me again. He’s still in his chair, in his shitty brown sweatpants. He’s still lit from the right side by nothing but the flickering bluish glare of his TV screen, but to his side, the TV is no longer there.
There’s only the Freemont Street basement.
“Stop this,” I tell him. “Make this go away.”
He just watches me. For the first time since I’ve known him there’s something other than a look of judgment in his eyes. It looks like it could be sadness. Or sympathy.
“Please . . .”
He shakes his head.
And he points to the right.
I follow his gesture and I see it all happening.
I see the memories playing out right there in front of me.
A body on the floor, kicking and screaming. Booted feet kicking out, knocking over a tray table, spilling drinks and scattering the needles and bowls of the junkies and freaks spread out on the couches.
Someone’s screaming, shouting out a name again and again, louder and louder, until everyone in the entire basement seems to be aware of it. Not all of them leap up and take notice, and very few of them actually try to help, but they’re all hearing it. It’d be impossible not to, but that’s the way it is in a room full of nodding heads: some of them respond while some of them just sink deeper.
But it’s a name they all know; a word spoken so many times that it begins to lose any sense.
And the Korean chick, the one Johnny’s been seeing for a few weeks, she’s the first to come to her feet and say something. Christ, she’s blind, and she’s the first one to notice that something’s going wrong.
“Someone’s in trouble,” she says. Her voice is soft and meek at first, but then, after she pauses and doesn’t hear anybody else responding, she starts to shout. “Somebody’s in trouble!” she screams. “Somebody’s having an overdose in here!”
It might not even be her words that make the difference. Maybe it’s her accent. Or maybe it’s the fact that, even though they’re flying high tonight, most of the guys here tonight remember just how hot she is, I don’t know. But things start happening.
People start to come to their feet.
More drinks are spilled, and more paraphernalia is hidden away, because now it’s not just a matter of a fight or a bad trip. Now it’s an overdose, now it’s an emergency. And if the paramedics show up, then the cops will too, and nobody wants to be caught holding.
Half the room clears out, and the other half gathers around to watch.
A circle opens up around the body writhing there on the floor, and I’m one of them. Crowding in, trying to see. Trying to get a glimpse of which sorry son of a bitch couldn’t handle their shit tonight. Pressing in close, hoping to catch a glimpse of a face or a familiar T shirt, looking from one standing person to another and struggling to gauge from the process of elimination who it might be that’s going to OD tonight.
And a break in the crowd does open up in front of me, and I see it all.
I see that it’s me down there on the floor.
Just like in Cassie’s dream.
I see myself there, convulsing.
Foaming at the mouth, the heels of my boots leaving black streaks on the bare concrete floor. A dark stain spreading in my jeans. Pissing my pants in front of all these people, a puddle spreading out on the floor underneath me.
And I hear a couple of people laughing.
Somebody’s dying here. Dying. About to leave all the things that made up their life behind forever. And someone has the nerve to laugh about it because of a piss-stain?
I turn to look for them, everything turning red.
I clench my fists.
I am not a violent man.
The faces around me blur together until everybody looks like everybody else. Their voices are just one constant, mingled drone. The sound of everything fading into a single tone, a tunnel of white noise.
The sound stops me cold. There’s a sudden pressure pushing in on me. A weight in my chest. A roar in my eardrums.
And I remember again.
I remember the ring of faces, looking down, staring; the banging of booted heels against the bare concrete, the convulsions . . .
But it doesn’t make sense to me.
It doesn’t add up.
How can I remember seeing myself down there on the floor, writhing in the circle of curious, crowing bodies? How could it have happened to me, if I can remember it this way?
I push in closer, shoving past the moving heads and the jittering shoulders, everyone crowding in and staring. They struggle against me, these junkies and addicts and the assholes who at one time or another I thought were my friends. They’re more like strangers now, stranger wearing the masks of faces that I used to know. They watch me through bloodshot, red-rimmed eyes, watching me get closer to the middle of the circle.
And in a sudden blur of motion, I’m there again, in two places at once.
On the floor in a stupid dance of flailing limbs and clacking teeth . . . and standing at the front of the crowd, looking down on myself.
There’s no sense to it, no logic. Someone brushes against me, practically knocks me off my feet, and I look over to see the Korean chick, muscling her way to the front of the pack.
“Who is it?” she asks. “Who’s down there?”
This is a memory, too, though it seems unfocused and dim to me now.
I remember her saying that, and I remember the panic on her face, her sightless eyes flicking from left to right. I try to tell her it’s not Johnny, don’t worry, it’s not him. I open my mouth to tell her it’s me, I’m the one dying. I don’t know how that could be, but it is, I’ve seen it and I know it’s true.
But before I can get the words out, the guy next to me leans in, and in a breath reeking of cheap booze and stale cigarettes, he beats me to the punch. He’s the kind of guy who loves to share the bad news, the type who can’t wait to fill you in on all the stupid shit you got up to the night before.
“It’s Cassandra,” he says. “That blonde chick . . .”
I turn to the guy to tell him he’s wrong, to tell him no, that’s ME down there on the floor, those are my boot heels banging against the concrete. But then I look down at the shivering body in the middle of the circle and I can see it’s not mine.
I can see the truth of it.
The reality of it.
I remember it all.
And I wish to God I didn’t.
The first time I saw Cassie was here in the basement, the crappy basement apartment on Freemont. She wasn’t so thin back then, but she was pale and looked as though she lived in a constant state of sadness. I’ll always remember that about her, how in those days she always looked as if tears were only a breath away from falling.
It was her eyes that pulled me in. As soon as she looked my way, I couldn’t stop staring at them. Jesus.
I remember leaning on the wall across the room, watching her in the shadows and praying that she wouldn’t leave before a spot opened up beside her on the couch. She ended up staying all night, as it turned out; so did I, and we spent most of that time just talking. Learning each other’s rhythms and quirks, struggling to assign meaning to the smallest gestures or the most subtle facial expressions.
Johnny was the first one to warn me to stay away from her. “There’s a lot you don’t know,” he said, not quietly enough, I thought at the time. “You don’t want to get involved, man, trust me.”
When I asked him why, all he could do was hit me with an idiot’s smile. “She has a lot going on, let’s just leave it at that.”
All of this rushes through my mind now, as I look through the past and onto the concrete floor and there she is.
It’s Cassie kicking and screaming through an overdose, it’s her on the floor in a puddle of her own piss. It’s the heels of her big black boots slamming again and again against the cement.
I rush forward now, just like I did that night, falling down there beside her, shouting her name again and again, louder and louder, until it starts to sound like a word I made up, a nonsense pair of syllables from a nursery rhyme.
There’s foam spraying from her mouth, and her eyes—her beautiful expressive eyes—they’re rolled back into her head now, showing only the whites. I wrestle her head in my lap and try to hold her down, try to soothe her, whispering and crying and shouting all the useless bullshit we say when someone’s hurt really bad and probably dying. They’re meaningless words, probably meant more for ourselves than for the person on the floor, but we say them anyway.
And I did, I said them all, anything that I could think of.
And I screamed up at the faces crowding around me, begging for somebody to call an ambulance, for someone to go and get help. But of course none of them did. How could they? They were all junkies and addicts, losers like me. Were they really going to invite the paramedics and cops down here?
It wasn’t long before Cassie’s eyes swung back down from behind her eyelids, but I could tell she couldn’t see me. Her body went stiff in my arms, her back arching. Her boots left two more black streaks across the floor.
And then she relaxed and let out a shivering, jagged breath and that was all.
And then it was over.
I struggle to my feet and when I blink the basement is gone.
There’s only the old man’s apartment again, alive in blue TV light.
There’s the shitty furniture and the threadbare rugs. The sound of yet another 70s show, thin and scratchy from the TV speaker. A cop show this time, two detectives crouched over a body in a vacant lot, high grass and a thin white arm sticking out from underneath a sheet on the ground.
I turn to the old man. “Why did you do this?” I ask him. “Why would you . . . why’d you make me remember?”
He says nothing. He only stares at me. But his features are softer now. It’s hard to imagine him as the same guy who sat there glaring at me, the same old bastard who told me he’d never waste his words on a junkie.
“I didn’t . . . want to remember her that way.”
He nods at this, but still holds his tongue.
My legs are just matchsticks now, there’s no way they can hold my weight, so I let gravity have me and I fall into an awkward sitting position beside his chair. It’s not that different from the way I sat on the cement floor that night, cradling Cassie’s head in my lap. I remember stroking her face, running my fingers through her hair, whispering her name through the tears.
I don’t know how long I sat there with her that way. I honestly can’t say. And I still can’t remember what happened to her body, how or when the cops or the coroner’s office or the paramedics got her out of there. I just remember that time I spent with her, with her head in my lap, and then waking up at home later on. A few hours later, or the next day, or a week later, I really don’t know.
There’s another memory, though, one that comes on strong now that I know the truth. It’s the way I felt later, when the need came back and I had no one to share it with. That first time, getting high on my own, without Cassie to anchor me down, I remember how badly I wanted to join her. To just plug everything I had into my veins and let the snake take me wherever it wanted to. One last ride, right there on the wreckage of my empty bed. I didn’t care what happened, didn’t care who would find me or how long that might take.
I just didn’t care.
And a part of it was the idea that I wished it had been me. I lay there wondering why it had to be her.
Why Cassie? What the hell had she ever done? Why couldn’t it have been me down there on the floor, with all those faces crowding in to have a look at me?
Christ. No wonder that other memory felt so real. No wonder I’d imagined it was me the Korean chick was talking about that night.
“I can’t do it,” I tell the old man now. “I can’t keep going, it’s not worth it without Cassie.”
I stare at the floor and listen to his ragged breathing. I hear his recliner creaking as he shifts his weight.
When I look up at him, his hand is raised up in front of him again. His crooked fingers are pointing at my door.
“I told you, she’s still there,” he says quietly. “But only if you need her.”
The trip across the hall takes forever. My feet are carved from granite, and when I move across the rutted wooden floor, I imagine a trail of scars behind me, marking my way.
The hallway lights are still dead and cold behind their wire mesh. I guide myself along by the flickering glow of the old man’s TV. The sound of it barely reaches me, but I can still hear the two detectives talking about their case; the body in the field is just another overdose for them. Somebody out on the streets is selling some really bad stuff, it’s a sad situation, but I’m not worried about it. In know that within their allotted hour, after the final commercial break, they’ll get their guy. I feel sure of it.
What I can’t be sure about, what I have strong doubts about, is whether there’s any truth to what the old bastard had to say about Cassie. That she’s there in my apartment, waiting for me. Waiting there for me to come back to her.
I know that’s impossible, and that it makes no sense. She’s dead and gone, I know that now. I remember her dying on that cold, hard floor. I remember wanting to die in her place.
I remember it all.
But I can’t help but cross the hall with something that might be hope twisting in my gut. I can’t help but pray for the old man to be right.
I turn to look back at him again, hoping to gain some sort of strength from his expression. He’s still watching me, of course, and I finally ask him the question I wanted to the very first time I saw him.
The words come easily, and their simplicity surprises me.
"Are you my father?”
The old man shrugs. Something that could be mistaken for a smile wanders across his lips.
“Kid,” he says, “in this neighborhood, I’m everybody’s father.”
I turn away and reach out for the doorknob and I think about how Cassie came back to me twice in the last couple of days. There and then gone again, with the door bolted and the window locked. There and then gone again, helping me out that first night when I needed a fix so bad I couldn’t even load my own rig and plant its tip in my veins.
There and then gone again in my bed, making love and feeling her heat up against me.
And the smell of her hair . . .
Had any of it been real?
Or was every detail of it just a side effect of my screaming need?
I twist the knob and the door starts to open and I close my eyes. If she’s not there, if the old man’s wrong, then I don’t want to know. Because I don’t know if I can take it again. I don’t know if I can look in and see my empty apartment and somehow find another reason to go on.
But it’s ridiculous to hope. It’s a waste of time and sanity to try to put it off any longer.
I push the door open and tell myself I’ll count to three and then I’ll just do it. I’ll get it over with and open my eyes, and if the kitchen is empty—which I have every reason to believe it will be—then I’ll go inside for the last time and figure out how to leave this place forever.
I start counting but I only make it up to two when I realize I’m hearing music.
The Jim Carroll Band again. Catholic Boy, Cassie’s favorite record.
She’s there on the floor, lying on her back with the album cover held out above her. She’s singing along, her voice tired and slightly off-key, but unmistakably hers.
I stare at her, and for a moment I can’t even speak. There’s a pressure in my chest and a weight in my belly that feels as though it will never be moved.
A part of me knows that this isn’t possible, that it simply can’t be, and yet, here it is.
Here she is.
I want to believe that I’m still on some sort of high, that all of this is just some sort of slow motion daydream that I’ll stumble out of eventually, curled into a ball on the kitchen floor. Or sprawled out on one of the ratty couches on Freemont Street.
But it’s hard to convince myself of that when I know what I’m seeing is real. It’s hard to deny reality, even though I’d done my best to run from it for the past year.
“Cassie?” My voice is weak and halting. It’s a twisted, broken thing, but somehow she hears me.
She leans her head back, looks at me upside down along the floor. “You’ve been writing again.”
I shrug, not sure what she means. Not sure what any of this means.
To her right, on the floor, she taps the cover of my notebook, the one I was scrawling in while she was in the shower. I try to remember what I wrote, what it might have been about, but nothing comes.
“It’s good,” she says. “You should keep it going.”
I look towards the table, where her little items have been laid out again. Her little bits and baubles, the things she brings with her everywhere she goes. I see my rig beside them, and I feel a great sense of need sweeping through me. I hear the snake whispering in my ear, telling me it’s okay. It’ll be fine. Just me and Cassie, just like old times, riding high together into the long dark night.
When I look back into the living room, there’s only a ghost on the floor. It’s still Cassie, sure, and she’s still lying there with the Jim Carroll record held up over her face, but she’s only half there now.
I can see straight through her, to the scarred and dirty floor.
Her face is just a suggestion of shadows and light, her body just a wisp of smoke, hanging in the air above the floor. On the table, her baubles are ghosts as well, their shapes and solidity slowly fading, fading from view, becoming nothing at all.
I step forward, my hands already reaching for her.
Jesus, no. Please. I can’t do this.
I can’t lose her again.
In that moment, with the needle forgotten and the voice of the snake silenced, Cassie becomes real again. Her body takes shape and reappears on the floor. Her voice rises into the air once again.
And through the fog, I understand. Finally.
I understand what the old man meant when he said she’d be here, but only if I needed her.
I think back on the last couple of days, and the different times she went away. Once after that first night, when she gave me my fix. She was gone when I came around, the door and window still locked. And then again when I went out for food but listened to the snake instead. I wandered down to Freemont Street, and she was gone when I got back.
Gone when the need for the snake outweighed my need to have her back here with me.
I look at her and wonder if I can hold out.
I look at her pale skin and her thin, frail body and wonder if the snake will take her away from me again.
I stare into the stunning sunset of her eyes and try to tell myself that I won’t let it.
This time, I won’t let it take her.