Nick Meier had just fenced some canned fruit at Jolly Jim’s for three teens of crack. That was enough to start a high with, so he revved his pickup and tooled out onto Lake Street. Off work tomorrow, he reminded himself, savoring how great it sounded. Still, he would’ve felt better if a couple things didn’t bug him. First was Char calling him a dope addict, second was him knowing she got it right.
Char had every reason to fume at him for falling off the wagon, or whatever they called it in the crack world. Nick hadn’t always been like that. He was a hard worker and a real brain, who knew the value of his dough. The only splurge he ever went on was his truck, which he’d bought brand new four years ago. To get the best bang for his buck, he spent weeks reading consumer mags before finally deciding on a Honda. Now here he was, sliding downhill faster than ever before after blowing the rest of his savings on junk. To console himself, he reached out the window and patted the side of his pickup affectionately.
In the past, he often asked himself how he ended up like this and the only answer was boredom. After his student days digging Paul Bowles and Heavy Metal, he caught on as an instructor of freshman comp at a downtown Vo-Tech. Frustrated with spouting grammar rules at welding majors and land surveyors, he started tooling down Lake Street—just like now—to enjoy the sights, mostly high-heeled ladies leaning against decaying buildings or nefarious figures scooting through back alleys. One time he barely dodged big trouble when his fender brushed a shirtless guy holding a 12-pack of beer in one hand and a naked infant in the other. The sun beat down mercilessly on the child while the man ignored Nick’s frantic honking and ambled awkwardly across the street. “Hey, whitey, watch yourself,” someone yelled his way.
When sleep wouldn’t come in the wee hours of the morning, Nick drove aimlessly back and forth. Regular street people along the drag recognized his truck and gathered around hoping to peddle bad stuff or unload stolen goods on him. They rambled on about Mr. Jones, which was their code name for the big dealers. If they crowded in too tight, the cops pulled up behind Nick’s Honda. They knew white guys were usually looking for women, but the only gals that approached Nick were whore chasers, who offered to go find a Mr. Jones for him. Since Nick always said no, the fuzz let him be.
Anybody who’d been on the street knew it was dumb to ask questions about crack, especially why. Deep down, Nick believed he was meant to be a writer or an adventurer seeking truth and excitement, which he always imagined existed on the dark side. And that’s when Anita popped up and showed him the way. My Anita, Nick called her, a skinny white girl he first laid eyes on in a back-alley bar as she performed strip routines on the countertop. To his surprise, she sat down beside him during her break one night. She talked inner-city lingo and claimed she had a kid with some street dude. From the get-go, Anita understood Nick was off the charts different from the usual barflies or macho men that occupied her world. Clear as a bell, she said, he was tuned in to dope more than booze or sex. Nick was a sucker for cool lines, so when she skipped her next bar-top dance, he followed her to a neighborhood house and stayed the weekend. After that, crack houses became a steady part of his life, far from the excitement he once longed for. Crack just is, he discovered.
No wonder Char moved out on him after witnessing what he’d turned into and how he hung around with a low-life like Anita, but after knowing Char for three years, he could tell it like it was with her, too. She was black and had suffered scads of abuse. After her husband ran out, she moved in with a drug dealer, inhaled tons of coke, and went back and forth to Mazatlan with him, doing what Nick never knew. She almost lost her kids when a tough social worker took over her case. That was the thing about Char, though. She was a strong sister and never doubted her ability to get back on track.
About himself Nick wasn’t so sure. He didn’t know if he had it in him to get his teaching job back. Or if he even wanted to. Even so, he remembered the good parts of the old days both in and out of the classroom. After the working week, he could enjoy a weekend in the sun. He’d bump into friends or feel overjoyed to see folks walking with their kids and laughing. Feeling surprisingly good a few months ago, he called his school office about possible reinstatement on the faculty, but they never answered, and he soon dropped the idea altogether.
Some guys said crack was like a siren song, forever singing its irresistible refrain. To Nick, it was a false friend. An Iago, who wouldn’t let him be, so he no longer smiled much. The only job he found was laying sod. Hard as the work was, the landscaper paid good, so Nick got salaried every two weeks. This evening, in addition to the teens, which were cubes the size of a thumb and short-term confidence-givers, he could feel a check for a few hundred bucks burning his pocket.
Yeah, bad enough, but could be worse, he decided, and cruised past a row of 3.2 joints and a Total Mart specializing in stolen firearms. A block ahead stood a check cashing business. Nick eased up under its neon sign and read No One Denied. He spotted Anita on the sidewalk, with a grizzled drunk pestering her. When he honked, Anita walked around the guy and crawled into the truck. Nick smelled her pungent odor, a sign she’d been on the street for days.
“Any moulah, hon?” she asked.
“On my way in,” Nick answered. He piled out, with Anita at his heels.
Close the door! Don’t open the windows! a handwritten sign screamed inside the check cashing office. Nick crossed the sparse, gray room to a worn writing desk, fished out a pen, and signed his check. Anita lingered by an old-fashioned rotary pay phone, which bore an additional warning: Calls no longer than three minutes! Three Minutes!
“Signed on the back? ID?” a grizzled cashier commanded. He deducted a fee, counted out a bunch of twenties, and slid them under the bullet-proof glass, careful not to touch their hands. Anita grabbed the bills greedily and gave them to Nick, who finally smiled.
Anita said the cops kept a stake-out on Lake Street, so she insisted Nick take 28th to Somerset. 28th was a dark road with no glitzy businesses but stop signs galore, which Nick hated. Still, he followed the lady’s wishes. The first thing he spotted at the crack house in Somerset was a lazy wrap-around veranda. Somebody had painted the window casings a bright red and chimes tinkled on the porch. From outside, the place looked so lovely Nick thought he could almost live there, but on the scraggly lawn dust rose up from under his feet as he crossed its countless bare patches.
“Needs sodding,” he said to Anita.
“Wanna give me a hit?” she asked, and kicked at the grass, like this was her territory. “We get teens here for twenty. Lotsa base some nights. The family sells it’re real cool, if they’re around. They tell me when I’ve had enough. This other dude, though.”
“A dealer? What about him?”
“Big on power trips. He’ll make you beg for it, eat shit, you name it.”
Nick shook his head and hid his money, and his teens. No, no hit for Anita. Offering to share, even with his best buddies, only meant they’d take it all.
Without bothering to knock, Anita opened the front door and Nick followed her in. In a darkened room he saw a collection of sullen figures slouched on kitchen chairs by the walls. He flipped a light switch, but the electricity was off. A filthy, miserable dump, he decided, but sat down on the floor anyway, where he started smoking alone. When one teen wore off, he fired up the next.
After his euphoria vanished, Nick felt an emptiness no words could describe. He gazed dully at the deadheads along the wall and saw in them images of himself, waiting, waiting, waiting. Unable to banish crack from their minds, they schemed to get ahold of stuff. Any stuff. Their desperation deepened when no dealer arrived, not even the evil bastard Anita mentioned, who loved to march in and force them to demean themselves in their own faeces and laugh when they did so. In their frenzy, the crack heads quit giving a damn about anyone else or even what happened to their own money. Nick heard them jabbering to each other, till they slowly divided into tiny cliques and tried figuring out how to get a fix. Any old way would do.
“I play in a band,” a black girl with long flowing hair and a perfectly chiselled face said to an older, heavy-set African-American woman sitting beside her. “Bass fiddle. Live with my lady partner, but I been gone from home two days now.”
The older woman tried to fondle the girl’s breasts and leaned in for a kiss. When the girl didn’t respond and grew frazzled, the woman produced a tiny morsel of crack, barely more than a pinhead, and offered it to her for a pickup.
“What your name, dear?”
“Jaynelle,” the girl mumbled. “What if my partner finds out?” In crack-induced bliss, she snuggled up to the older woman, who held her tightly, and glanced around at the same time for a chance to snatch a hit or grab somebody’s purse.
Across the room Nick saw a young couple standing in the candle-lit living room frantically discussing a lead on some stuff. They rushed in and out, banging doors behind them, until they finally collapsed in a corner. The guy whispered hoarsely to his companion, who nodded and then slowly crawled over to Nick. “When that Spanish guy comes in here, tell him we’re gone, okay?” she begged.
“Follow me,” she said. She took Nick by the shirtsleeve and led him into the empty room next door. “See that hombre, over there? Tell him we never came in this room—never—me and him, the guy I left back in the other room, okay? This Spanish dude’s got stuff hid in a closet, somewhere in the house.”
Nick agreed and returned to his spot on the floor. A bearded bruiser sidled up to him and muttered in his left ear, “That couple, over there whispering?”
“What about ‘em?”
“If they ask, say I never kept no junk in no closet. Besides, I got something for you in my car. Come on outside with me. Veng conmigo.”
Nick made a move to follow him but heard another voice in his right ear. “Give something? To the pot?”
Nick saw the lesbian women—Jaynelle and the older one—with their hands extended. “We got great stuff comin’. A real bazooka. Chip in an’ we’ll share. Everybody get some.”
Confused and needing a fix, Nick took out his wallet and stuffed a wad of twenties in the heavy woman’s hand. She clutched the bills and sneered when Jaynelle begged for half.
“My partner’ll kick me out if I ain’t got any dough or crack when I get home,” Jaynelle wailed.
“Or sees you here with that fat bitch,” the whisperer in the far corner barked across the room.
Nick listened in silence, his own paranoia mounting. Even on the drive to Somerset, he’d been thinking how stupid it all was. He had pockets full of cash but nothing to spend it on, and sure as hell no dealer with any brains was gonna waltz into this shithole. With cops circling around everywhere, the smart ones were too wary and the minor peddlers had already hightailed it off the streets or were sitting in the slammer. But Nick was getting to that time of night when Iagos popped up everywhere and spooked him like mad. He knew the clinker was hell, but nothing to match crack jail. Crack became its own prison but without walls, said guys who’d been there. Nick felt pinned in by dope peddlers. If he left the house, he’d hear a street lamp ask him if he wanted crack, and he’d answer ‘yes’ and fish out rolls of dough on the spot, for a stupid lamp post, like a Mr. Jones, sure as hell.
“How long you been on this stuff?” another voice asked.
A young guy plopped down next to him, whose question made Nick realize he’d been talking to himself out loud. Nick shrugged. How long? Another dumb question, like asking why. He answered by repeating the question. “How long for you?” The newcomer was thirty, maybe. Old enough to know better than be here. Seeing his white shirt and tie, Nick judged the guy worked in an office. He sported a wedding band.
“A year,” the fellow replied, “about. But I’ve got it under control. Al, that’s me.”
Nick nodded at his newfound buddy as they sat together. Waiting, like their fellow squatters. There wasn’t any build-up or climax to this idiocy, not like the plot of a Dickens novel or the contents of textbooks Nick used to teach from, with chapters that said sensible things and led to ideas. Here the regulars hung for an hour or a day or a week or, who knows, a couple months, and sometimes even longer, in these broken-down digs in what remained of a once decent neighborhood. Waiting for whatever stuff they could lay their hands on. Begging to spend their hard-earned cash for the smallest snippet. Willing to eat shit for it.
“That’s me,” Al repeated. “I’ve got it under control. Pay all my bills, the rent, the whole schmeer. I’ve got it under control.”
“Better stop, now or never,” Nick said. “Three years and it’ll be too late. Little by little you’ll stop paying your bills. Then the rent. Finally, you won’t even bother to show up for work.”
“Just like me last week,” Nick continued. “I ruined a whole day of business for my boss. You might keep your morals, all right, but you won’t obey ‘em.”
“My boss gave me his company credit card to buy lawn materials. I knew better, but I charged dope to it.”
“What you need is help. Big-time.”
“I’ve still got it here, his card,” Nick continued. He dug deep in his pocket to show Al the plastic, but discovered it was gone, along with his car keys. “Damn! Where’s Anita?” he asked in a panic. “She took my truck!”
“The skinny gal?” Jaynelle answered from her corner.
“I seen ‘er. She left, with some dude.”
“In my Honda?”
The others met his question with silence, so he grabbed his phone to text Char and get help finding his truck. Not knowing the exact address, he wrote Somerset, your old neighborhood and leaned back. Feeling more and more desperate, he listened with half his brain as Al told him he’d come there straight from work.
“Like I said, my job’s secure,” Al explained. “Didn’t even call my wife and tell her where I was going.”
With the other half of his brain, Nick remembered how Anita had offered him a taste of life on the other side. If there’s any why to crack, that’s it, for sure, seeing the other side, he reminded himself. But God, it’s a rocky ride. And not over yet.
“You know, I met this character,” Nick told Al. “Tough guy, did twenty years at Joliet State Pen in Illinois. Got himself off the dope all alone, with no help, after seven years. Kicked it. Kaput. He’d been in a lot of prisons, but none as bad as…” Nick paused, realizing he’d already told that story, but to himself, or somebody else? “Crack prison, it won’t let you go,” he said.
“What about your car keys?” Al asked.
“I can see how far crack’s made me travel by how people distance themselves from me. I locked myself out from home one night, so I went to my old buddy Will’s. He let me sleep on his couch, but ‘back off, buddy’ he told me later. Maybe it’s his wife.”
Al nodded in agreement, which made Nick feel for the umpteenth time how stupid everything was. He explained how junkies stole and lied not because they were mean but were afraid of dying, but Nick had already faced death, like the time two dealers stuck a revolver to his head and demanded five hundred for Anita stealing their dope. “Yer dough or yer dead,” they threatened him. No, Nick had already thought about death. It didn’t scare him, not anymore.
“I just don’t wanna go wrong in other ways,” he said to Al. “Know what I mean?”
“No, not really.”
Nick thought he was talking sense, but he got distracted when Jaylene and the fat lesbian snuggled up to each other again. Jaylene was mumbling melancholy stuff about her band performances and how being on stage got her higher than any dope, which rubbed Nick the wrong way. For some reason that he struggled to explain his blood boiled at seeing such a looker in another woman’s arms, and not his. Crazy, I’m not even here for women, he thought. But seeing the two in what he could only perceive as rapture, he angrily realized the ecstasy enfolding them was something he no longer had a go at, what with Char being so pissed at him. What’s more he wasn’t likely ever to know any overwhelming visceral desire again as long as crack kept him in its grip.
It hit him like a bolt. He was locked out. Locked in this house, but out of happiness and fulfilment. They’re not gonna reach into the pot and give me my money back or go out and get me some crack, he thought in a rage. These creeps don’t give a damn about anything or anybody, only themselves. What about me?
“What’s up, liars?” he shouted and charged at everybody in his way, fists doubled up. “You already been out to get stuff for yourselves, using the money I pitched in. Now you’re about to split with the rest of my hard-earned dough. And my pal’s, too. We’ll get you! I’ll get you!”
In the midst of Nick’s ruckus, people kept coming and going, misfit after misfit claiming to head out for groceries or smokes, or lying that they’d caught whiff of a dealer and would go get some dope for everybody, which only convinced Nick even more they were full of it, he’d heard their bullshit before. Inside his head their voices registered in tandem, like hollow echoes of each other, until he lost track of who was who, or who was clutching whose dough, or which of their words were true, if any. And, worse still, if he could even tell the difference.
Losing his balance, he sank down in the middle of the floor and struggled to grasp where he was. At long last the unbearable crack-house confusion compressed into one solitary thought, “I’ve had enough, dammit!” A climax of anger and repressed fear forced him to his feet as he raged and shouted at Jaylene and the fat woman, “I want my money back!” Hearing no response, he lurched toward them. “It belongs to Char, a hardworking black sister, like you two,” he lied, screaming so he spat in their faces. “She loaned it to me. It’s hers!”
They continued to ignore him, so he grabbed their car keys off a table close by and stuffed them in his pants pocket, along with their I-phone. Or was it his? He couldn’t remember. His failing memory rooted him to the spot. Dumbfounded, he stared at the women.
Still not a word. Nothing. Then he grabbed Jaylene’s house keys from her pants pocket. “Char, she’s a black sister, like you,” he repeated. “I’m out of here, that’s final.”
He headed out the door, but at the edge of the porch he stumbled on the steps and hit the ground. Where am I going? Anita took my truck! He thought, then turned and yelled at the women. “The money! It’s mine!”
When he saw them coming, it should’ve petrified him, or forced him to get up and prepare for a fight, or something—anything—but he started inner-monologuing instead. Crack, you’ve started a war inside me, almost got me killed and robbed me, too. It’s in your nature, you do this to me logically, he told himself, just as the fat woman grabbed his hair and pulled him back. She cursed and yanked at his hair till gobs of it tore free. Nick wailed in pain at the same time Jaylene spotted her keys bulging from his pocket and jumped him from behind. He struggled with both women till a third person leapt from behind and punched him in the gut. Doubled over in pain, Nick waited till he caught a second wind, then wrenched loose and tried to flee across the yard. In confusion he found himself back on the porch instead, panting and frantically doubling up his fists. He realized how fast his strength had faded when the fat woman grabbed his pants and ripped the rear clean off. Jaylene stepped up, seized her keys and tore gashes down his leg with them.
Leaving the leg of his pants in the fat woman’s hand, Nick jumped off the porch and stumbled across the lawn, till he tripped on a tuft of grass and spread-eagled in the dust. The fat woman tore at his shirt as she hunted for her keys.
“I threw ‘em in the hedgerow,” Nick yelled to distract her.
She looked in the hedge, then searched his other pants pocket. Unable to find her keys, she held up Nick’s wallet and his missing credit card, which he realized she, not Anita, had taken earlier.
Nick collapsed and bit the dust, on the very spot he’d said most needed sodding.
What follows the climax in a good book? was all that remained of his garbled thoughts.
When Nick regained his senses, he hacked and spat out dirt. Rolling over, he tried to brush himself off, only to remember one of his pants legs was missing. His shirt was torn and his sleeves hung by threads. He fought back sobs until he could think straight again.
“Under control?” Al asked.
Nick heard him but the pain in his ribs told him to stay still.
“They coulda killed you.”
Not so strange, Nick thought, two spaced-out druggies trying to kill me over a car key. Maybe they’ve been strung out to the max fifty or five hundred times before, so it started feeling like fifty hundred multiplied by five hundred. In their addled crack-brains they were getting even with me for snitching fifty thousand keys.
“Besides,” Nick said, “Jaylene was afraid she’d lose her home. Anything but that.”
“And the fat lady wanted Jaylene? She was jealous?” Al asked. “C’mon.”
Al offered a hand and pulled Nick up. They were standing side by side when Jaylene and the other lady showed up again. “You lied to her,” Jaylene spat.
“About what?” Nick asked.
“The hedgerow. And that black sister.”
“No way,” Al said. “He just needs his billfold and IDs.”
“What if I did,” Nick offered. “Your friend, she had it coming.”
Jaylene stared at him while her older companion sulked and stomped around the others. Protectively she put an arm around Jaylene, who jerked out of her reach in a fury.
“Stay away, bitch!”
“Get off it,” Nick argued, “I need my ID’s to drive.”
“When that chippie drove off in your truck?” the older woman chided him. “What you gonna drive?”
“Let’s bargain,” Nick pleaded.
“No way in hell.”
Nick and the women stood their ground till Al stepped in. “Look, an even deal.”
“My ass,” Jaylene shouted.
“You give him his things. You get your keys back,” Al said. “Fifty-fifty. Simple as that.”
Nick shifted weight to keep his ribs from aching while eyeing the two women, who both glanced sideways, suddenly as wary of the other as they were of him. He couldn’t remember if he’d returned their keys or they’d taken them from him. What was all this about exchanges, anyway? Confused, he stared at the faint morning glow and wondered what time it was. Maybe there’d been more crack than he remembered. Or he’d slept the night away somewhere. Or Char had looked for him all night, only to give up. Nick glanced at Al, who strode over to the fat woman and calmly reached for the wallet and card. The woman yielded to him and handed them over.
“You got your stuff?” Al asked her.
The fat lady looked in Jaylene’s direction and nodded yes.
“Like you said, simple as that,” Nick commented.
He watched the women turn and walk back toward the house. “He lied,” Nick heard one of them complaining. He guessed they were willing to wait. And then wait some more.
With no truck, Nick plodded along till he spotted an apartment building and stretched out in its manicured yard, breathing in the scent of new-mown grass. He searched for his wallet, but soon remembered he had no vehicle and didn’t need his ID. Instead, he tried to work up some guilt over his treatment of Jaylene and the other black woman or shame at his derelict state. Failing at both, he thought about Anita, and why she, more than Char, had such a hold on him. Where had she gone with his truck, and which bum had she spent the night with? Forty-two, he reflected, I’m too old for this shit.
Nick was wondering why Lake Street appeared so temptingly depraved when Char’s Prius silently glided to the curb. He got in, apologized for where he’d been, and tried to think of something to say.
“How’d you find me?”
“It’s Somerset. I grew up here, remember?”
He didn’t answer, so they rode in silence till Char stopped for a traffic light. “You’re a grown-up. Tell me which way from here,” she demanded perfunctorily. “Lake Street or 28th?”
As the sun peeked over the horizon, the traffic light turned from red to green and back to red. The Prius idled patiently, while Nick’s face grew crimson from the shame he finally felt consuming him. He looked at his tattered trousers, the torn shirt, and a totally ticked-off Char, who stared unblinking into the morning haze. Desperately, he willed himself to make the right decision before the light turned green again.
Roger McKnight hails from Little Egypt, a traditional farming and coal-mining region in downstate Illinois. He studied and taught English in Chicago, Sweden, and Puerto Rico. Swedes showed Roger the value of human fairness and gender equity, while Puerto Ricans displayed the dignity of their island culture before the tragedy of Hurricane Maria and the US government’s shameful post-disaster neglect of the island’s populace. Roger relocated to Minnesota and taught Swedish and Scandinavian Studies. He now lives in the North Star State.
Photo by Hanjorg Scherzer
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