|Jul/Aug 2016 Fiction|
Photographic Artwork by Victoria Mlady
I'd been in the shelter a week already, the night the lady threw her kid out that window. It was still an infant, the kid, with one of those heads that if you didn't hold it up it'd fall right off—even across the street we could see it was all blanket, baby blue. But the house was going up fast and she was leaning him out now with both arms, bawling like a cow—if what she was screaming was words, it was too shitty and run together for anyone to understand. When the firemen showed up, they spread out their net in a square and kept calling up to her, the same thing over and over, the kid first, but the way she kept going she couldn't hear a thing to save her life. Or the kid's, shit. Maybe it was Spanish, what she was screaming, I don't know. I never passed Spanish.
"The kid first."
Every single one of us up in the shelter came out to watch, even the cook—a hundred of us out there lined up across Broad Street, blowing into our hands like equals. None of us said a word, not word one, while she worked up the nerve to throw him down, going hoarse now and her screams falling apart like wet paper into sobs.
She'd hold the kid out away from the smoke like she was getting ready to let go and then at the last second pull him back in. The firemen started a countdown.
Up and down our fucked up line not a single bet was placed.
Even with everything else going on, the mom and the siren and firemen, you could hear the kid scream on his way down. Or I did at least. Once it hit net, though, I lost it in everything else and they took him off into the ambulance before anyone could tell if he'd made it or not or what.
"Some bullshit," said Reed, and he spit into the street.
Weird how the spell broke before the other shoe even dropped, but everyone started back inside for dinner with her still up there. The cook was first. She jumped soon enough anyway, and then the snow started down, lit up red from the fire and the firetruck, and I put up my hood and sat on the curb to see it through—I could feel the heat on my face from across the street.
Eight days sober, the most I'd had in a year or something. No Subs this time—no methadone, neither. With them all fighting the good fight across the street, I never felt so big and small at once.
I lit a cigarette to think on things, and Al came begging, right on cue.
Next morning at breakfast Reed asked how old I was and shook his head when I told him.
"That's a damn shame."
I felt pretty much the same way, but the way he said it, it was like I was the damn shame and not just the situation I had found myself in, and then plus it was the way he looked at me, like he couldn't fucking believe it, like I did it to him or something, showing up at the shelter young as I was.
I made a whole thing of apologizing to him, saying how sorry I was turning up like this and fucking up his morning, and he said I damn sure was. Sorry, he meant, the dickhead.
"I mean ain't you got a mother or what? You from the Mainline, ain't you?"
Outside Al was doing his rounds. Every morning he'd walk the block, doing his slow, pokey-ass step—the only way he got around. Dude was old as shit and stiff as a stop sign. Tall as one, too, almost. Walking out there with his head bent 90 degrees to the ground so if there were ever two of him out there he'd walk right into himself. He was only looking for butts, but seeing him out there this morning, it hit me, the way he walked, all mopey and shit, he walked like didn't nobody love him. Like only a mother.
"Al you're depressing the shit out of me."
"All this doggone snow, man," was all he said. He threw his hands up like a cartoon, like if he owned a hat he'd have thrown it on the ground and stepped on it. "All this doggone snow."
Al had a point. Overnight the snow came down and covered any butts he might have hoped to smoke today. It was a filthy-ass habit, but Al was a filthy-ass dude. He'd pick up someone else's phlegmy, coughed-on, lipsticked cigarette butt and light the thing and pull like hell, and whenever he let the smoke back out his face would do this thing, like, free at last. I got a kick out of Al.
"Aw, man. If it ain't one thing it's another. If it ain't one thing, yes sir, you just watch and trust it's gone to be another."
Up the block and back down, and back up and down a couple times ran Al's pigeon-toed footprints. He'd done a couple laps already.
"Jesus, Al, what are you, size twenty? I could fit three feet in this footprint."
"I think these boots are fourteen. I'm supposed to be a sixteen, sixteen and a half. Only they never got nothing my size in there."
Inside they called him Albatross Baily, even the staff. They were only busting him up, but it fit like a glove—Al was tall in the worst way, ducking under every doorway he ever passed through, even when he didn't need to. It was like he was apologizing for something. To see him doubled up on a cot at night like that, you felt it in your own back.
I felt for Al, I really did. And still I went ahead and took him for all he was worth, but neither of us knew that yet.
The burnt-out house across the street was already old news, the way the snow shut it up like a lid. As soon as I lit one up, Al started in with the pouting, so I promised him I'd save him some if he shut the fuck up, but he didn't shut the fuck up—he thanked me twice and insisted on shaking on it.
"Fifty-fifty," he said, another thing I got a kick out of.
And so maybe it was just how generous I'd been to Al that whole week, but with the bottom fifty in his mouth and free at last, Al started taking me right into his confidence, pouring out all his troubles. It's not like he hadn't done it before, but none of his troubles ever made a difference to me one way or another till now. Or till soon enough at least when I'd take him up on all of them.
"They up in there stealing my meds, man. Staff is. I been counting. They didn't figure on me keeping count, but I been keeping counting, yes I been."
They kept all the medications in a locker in the meds room, and after every meal there'd be a line of them running out of that room, waiting for their fix. Xanax, Percocet, the works.
"But they not going to get this next bottle off me, Justin. No sir, they not," he said. By now he was smoking his own fingers. "They not going to leave me high and dry without my percocets, no they not. Cause, you look here, see—I got me a plan."
What's that saying? One man's troubles? I lit another for us to share, fifty-fifty, top bunk was me, and like a six-foot-six rose in the concrete, Al opened right up.
Al's plan was to stash his new month's worth of painkillers in his locker, instead of checking them in at the meds room, which he admitted to me was a darn big doggone risk since, and here he leaned all his creaky way down to say in my five-foot-eleven ear, like it was the rest of the world he couldn't trust, "Except my locker don't lock."
Here I'll point out that, yeah, the whole thing put a sort of skip in my pulse, but it was nothing really, or at least nothing I couldn't push back—hand to God it had not even nearly occurred to me that I would take Al for all he was worth, Al's net worth being a figure I hadn't even let myself do the math on.
(That is, one month's worth of Percocet tens at $10 per (a buck a milligram being the rule of thumbs in all things Percocet) and prescribed to be taken every six hours, as needed, and so 120 total, yielding a potential $1,200. Percocet math being the straightforwardest of maths—all you have to do is count them up and add a zero.)
I needed a distraction, so we walked across the street and looked into the first floor window. They hadn't come round to board it up yet. Inside was the living room, magazines on the coffee table, cup of coffee on the TV, all coated in ash. The sooty colander standing upright in the middle of the floor might have even had pasta still in it, but I didn't notice. I was more looking through things at this point, trying like hell to leave it alone.
I tossed an untouched cigarette in the snow a few feet away and pointed it out to Al—a brand-new Newport standing straight up out of the snow like a snorkel. "Someone must have dropped it, Al." How could I have known I was flipping a coin on all Al's troubles?
He screwed up his eyes at the cigarette long and hard, and I screwed up my eyes at him.
A long time passed, and inside of it a whole lot clicked into place for me.
In the end the son of a bitch passed on my cigarette. "The fuck do you mean you better not, Al?"
In the end he said he didn't trust it, brand new cig in the snow like that. "Ain't none of my business," he actually said, and once he made up his mind, he wouldn't even look at it. It drove me fucking crazy. Passing on a perfect cigarette like the only ones he trusted were the fucked up lipsticked ones. Like it was too good to be true, it was too much. It made me want to shake the shit out of him, but you could never shake a dude like Al enough, was the thing.
With every step Al's net worth shook in my pocket like dice. Did I feel good about robbing Al like that? No, I did not. But did I feel good? You mean two percs in, walking on air in the middle of the street—no cars out, what with all the snow—walking on air what with the snow and the percs, and not only walking on air but walking home? Yeah, I felt fucking fine. I had enough in my pocket to make things right, and I was going home to make that happen. But first I had to make a stop in Frankford.
(It's weird the way it doesn't even cross your mind. I mean it didn't feel like any kind of choice I was making, eating them I mean—I took the bottle from Al's locker to make the money to go back home and make things right. That's why I did it. And then but so I had them in my hand, and as soon as I was round the corner, it was off with the lid and two down the hatch—autopilot or something—over and out.)
There was no wind whatsoever when the snow started back down, and I found the el and kept underneath it to keep out of it. When I knocked on his door, Ra Ra only cracked it and watched me through the chain that striped his face.
I watched him back. It must have striped mine, too. For him I mean.
"I know you got good news for me, Jay," he said, at last.
No one ever called me Jay but Ra, a kind of pet name or something I always liked no matter our disagreements. I told him it was good news, the door shut, the chain slid out, and in I went.
The blinds were shut like always, and the only light in there was coming from the TV. There was a girl on the couch I'd never seen before, snow day I guess, with little plastic flowers hanging from her hair. Ra Ra didn't introduce us or anything, and she didn't look up from the TV at all. While he got out the marble notebook he kept the records in, I stood as upright and steady as I could in the middle of the room. She might have been five years old. Or maybe like nine, it was hard to tell.
"Jesus," he said once he saw me, the way the walk had turned my legs to rubber, how I was leaning on the table for balance, and told me to take a seat and make myself at home.
"Not there, you fucking weirdo."
I was already ass deep in the cushions, and she didn't even look up when I sat down next to her, but Ra Ra watched me with his black-ass eyes till I dragged myself out the couch and to the recliner, staring me down the whole way through like we didn't have a history. Like all that money we made over the years didn't mean shit. This should have raised a flag for me, but being honest with you, I was past the point of flags. I watched him back. I wasn't here to make friends, then. I was here to make money. I made him my final offer.
"First and final offer. Did I say good news, or did I say good news?"
He tossed the notebook in the corner without even looking through it. "Jay, you fucking with me, right?"
I gave him a look like no I was not fucking with him. I felt way better than I had any right to feel at this point. I leaned so far back, a footrest popped out.
"You come up in my house, knocking on my door, five in the hole. I'm your best friend for years, and here all a sudden I ain't seen you in weeks, and you asking for a trade. Not a payment. Not to pay off your debt—five fucking hundred, now. A fucking trade. What the fuck is you on?"
But I was cool as a cig in the snow. "Not a trade, Ra Ra." I'd never actually called him by his name before. It always felt silly to say, Ra Ra, but like I said, I was shooting from the hip at this point. "I'm holding. You're buying."
From the look on his face, I could tell he didn't appreciate my tone, or maybe it had something to do with the girl right there, but this was business. Anyway, I broke it down for him: "A hundred perc tens—that's a G in your pocket right now—for a BJ's wholesale price of eight hundred even. Five of that you keep and we're good, me and you. The three I take and I'm on my way." I gave him a look like your move, pal.
He didn't make a move, so I added it up for him. "That's two hundred profit for you."
"I can count, dickhead. And get your snowy ass timbs off my recliner. The fuck you think you are?"
I held his eyes and didn't budge my snowy-ass, dripping-ass timbs an inch. Not inch one. "The fuck I think I am," I said.
Not once did the girl look up from the TV the whole time. If my life depended on it, I couldn't make out what it was she was watching. The sound was off, that much I knew.
"Look, dude. You obviously on one right now, so I'm a just keep shit moving with you. I'm a do you a favor, okay? Say you got a hundo on you. Blue faces. You leave them shits here with me and be on your way, and we square."
I gave him my most disappointed look, like I had expected better from him, because to be honest, I had. "Nuh, uh, Ra Ra. Nuh, uh, no way. I said seven. Not five." I hadn't said seven, I'd already forgot, but, shit, seven would work. Seven I could work with.
Here Ra Ra took a step toward me. It was a meaningful step, but that meaning was lost on me.
I sat up, and the footrest snapped down, sounding as far off as everything else, a step or two behind me. "I'm going to need that two hundred, Ra. Nothing less."
But another reason I figured Ra Ra would be out of his fucking mind to try anything on me was that the kid was five-foot-six, soaking wet. Back when we used to ball, I'd push the kid all up and down the court. Plus there was the girl not five feet away, not five years old, changing colors with the TV. I guess I thought she made it safer.
I made him my final offer. "I'll throw in an extra ten, then. Fair is fair, a 110 of them."
"That's an extra hundred for you."
Here Ra Ra showed me his teeth. "I said I could fucking count, boy."
I should not have stood up as fast as I did. I can see that now. Maybe it was only a head rush from shooting up from the chair like that, but the whole room seemed to tilt, to swerve around what Ra Ra pulled from his waist. The whole world did. Like I said, it could have been the high, but one of the two sat me right back down in the recliner. I did not recline this time.
"Go ahead and give it here and get the fuck ghost." He wasn't even pointing it at me, but it had me in its sights, in a kind of trance, gleaming with whatever colors were coming from the TV, all of them at once so I couldn't tell them one from the other. If the girl looked up at last, I couldn't tell you.
But I couldn't leave without that two hundred, neither. There was no plan B to this thing—bridges were up in smoke already. I swallowed back the pit in my throat and stood up slow, and when he lifted the gun to my chest, I could see how heavy it was in his hand. I mean the thing was bigger than he was. It was bigger than us both was the thing, and even if I gave them up, I knew they weren't going anywhere. So patient they were blue. So forever they were circles. A hundred and something of them there in my pocket, the same flat blue as the el that used to take me home.
That night before, when the lady threw her baby from the window and Al came out begging for a cigarette, he tried paying me for it for some reason. He offered me 50 cents even though everyone knew they were up to seventy-five.
"Come on, man," he said. "Please." I don't know why he didn't just ask for one like he always did. "Please, man. Please. I'll owe you one."
"You owe me ten," I said, and his face hit the floor. Or the sidewalk, I guess. You couldn't smoke a fucking cigarette in that place without someone coming with their hand out. I could still feel the heat from the fire still going. "Seventy-five."
"Aw, shoot, man, you can't do me this one kindness? This one little kindness? I'm begging you, man. Look here, I got 56 cents, and then plus I'll owe you one. I'll owe you one real good. Place like this? I'm a loyal friend to have, and you gone need one. You think on that."
"Yes, sir," he said when he could see I was thinking, "you think."
I still think on what he said. Was that what loyalty meant? To lean on someone like that? The way Al did, homeless all his life, to lean with all you had? It hit me then, and it still hits me now, but it was the baby this whole time, loyal to the mother. How she could let him go like that, three stories down, I have no idea. I'd have bet the house we'd have both gone up, if that was ma and me. I never thought she had it in her.
"Seventy fucking five, I said. Three quarters."
"Aw, horseshit man. Horseshit." It was the only time I ever heard Al curse. "Three quarters. Soon enough it be up to four. You see. Soon enough they gone want the whole thing," he said. "You gone see soon enough, yes they will. And what we gone do but give it to them?"