Nick Meier knew things should’ve felt better. He’d just fenced some canned fruit at Jiffy Buy for three teens of crack. That was enough to start a high with, so he revved his pickup and turned out onto Lake Street. Off work tomorrow, he reminded himself and savored how great that sounded. Still, two things kept bugging him. First was Char calling him a dope addict, second was him knowing she got it right.
Char had every right to be ticked at him for falling off the wagon, or whatever they called it in the crack world. Nick hadn’t always been that way, going off the stuff and then on again. Or even using it to begin with. He was a hard worker and a real brain, who knew the value of his dough. The only splurge he ever went on was this truck, which he bought brand new four years ago. To get the best bang for his buck, he’d spent weeks reading Consumer Reports before deciding on a Honda. Now here he was, sliding downhill fast after blowing the rest of his savings on junk. To console himself, he reached out the window and patted the side of the pickup affectionately.
In the past Nick used to ask himself why he ended up living like this. The only answer was, he got bored. 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 got in the habit of tooling down Lake Street, just like now, to enjoy the sights, mostly high-heeled ladies leaning against decaying buildings or nefarious figures scooting down back alleys. Once 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 ambled on across the street ignoring Nick’s frantic honking. “Hey, whitey, watch yourself,” someone had yelled his way.
When sleep didn’t come at night, Nick liked to drive around in the wee hours. Regulars 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 name for big dealers. If street people crowded in too tight, the cops pulled up behind the 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 sounded way dumb to ask why about crack. Deep down, Nick felt he was cut out to be a writer or an adventurer seeking truth and excitement, which he 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 saw doing strip shows on the countertop of a back-alley bar. To his surprise, she sat down by him during 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 than the usual barflies or macho men. Clear as a bell, she said, he was tuned in to dope more than booze or sex. Nick was a sucker for cool lines like that, so when she skipped her next bar-top routine, he followed her to a neighborhood house for the weekend. Since then, crack had been a fact of life, nothing exciting like he was searching for. Crack just is, he discovered. He had to have it.
No wonder Char moved out on him, seeing what Nick had 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 put up with loads of abuse. After getting divorced she moved in with a drug dealer, used coke, and almost lost her kids over it. Then she ran off to Mexico and was in bad shape in Mazatlan for a long time. There was that one thing about her, though. She was a strong sister and never doubted she could 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 again. Or if he wanted to. Even so, he remembered the good part of those old days both in and out of the classroom. After work, he could enjoy a weekend in the sun. He’d bump into friends and be happy to see folks walking with their kids and laughing. Feeling surprisingly good a couple of months ago, he called the school office to get reinstated on the faculty, but they never answered, and he dropped it.
Some guys said crack was like a siren song, constantly singing the same irresistible refrain. To Nick it was a false friend. An Iago, who wouldn’t let him be, so he didn’t smile 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 felt a check for a few hundred bucks burning his pocket. Nick kept thinking about it and crack.
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. Another block ahead lay a check cashing business. Nick eased up and stopped under its neon sign: No One Denied. He spotted Anita on the sidewalk. A grizzled drunk was hanging on her. When Nick honked, Anita walked around the guy and crawled in. He 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 shouted inside the front door of the check cashing office. Nick crossed the spare, gray room to a 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 more than asked. He deducted the fee and counted out a bunch of twenties. He slid them under the bullet-proof glass, careful not to touch it or anyone’s hand. Anita grabbed the bills greedily and handed them to Nick, who smiled for the first time.
Anita said the cops had 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 saw at the crack house in Somerset was a lazy wrap-around veranda. Somebody, like a former owner, had painted the window casings a lively red and chimes tinkled on the porch. From outside, the place looked so lovely Nick thought he could almost live there. Except for the scraggly lawn. In its bare patches dust rose up from under his feet.
“Needs sodding,” he said to Anita.
“Wanna give me a hit?” she asked and kicked at the grass Nick was so interested in, 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, too. No, no hit for Anita. Offering to share, even with his best buddy, only meant she’d take it all.
Anita opened the front door without knocking. Nick followed her in. He saw a darkened living room where a collection of sullen figures slouched on kitchen chairs by the walls. He reached for the light switch, but the electricity was off. A miserable dump indoors, he decided, but he sat down on the floor anyway and smoked, alone. When one teen wore off, he took 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 himself in them, waiting, waiting, waiting. Unable to banish crack from their thoughts, they started scheming to get ahold of stuff. Any stuff. Their desperation deepened when no dealer marched in, not even the evil bastard who Anita said made them demean themselves and laughed when they did it. In their frenzy the crack heads quit giving a damn about anybody else or their money. Nick heard them jabbering with each other, till they slowly divided into little cliques trying to figure out how to get a hit. Any old way would do.
“I play in a band,” a black girl with long flowing hair and a perfectly chiseled face said to an older, heavy-set African-American woman next to 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 started to kiss her. When the girl didn’t respond and grew frazzled, the woman produced a tiny bit of crack, barely more than a pinhead, and gave it to her for a pickup. “What your name, dear?”
“Jaynelle,” the girl mumbled but added clearly, “What if my partner finds out?” In crack-induced bliss, she snuggled up to the older woman, who held her tightly, while also glancing around for any chance to snatch a new hit or grab anyone’s purse.
Across the room Nick saw a young couple get up and stand in the near-dark frantically discussing a lead on some new stuff. They rushed in and out, banging doors behind them, until they finally collapsed in a corner and the guy whispered hoarsely to his companion. When he got quiet, the woman crawled over to Nick and begged him, “When that Spanish guy comes in here, tell him we’re gone, okay?”
“Follow me,” she said. She took him by the shirt sleeve and led him into the next room, which was empty. “Tell that hombre, over there, see him? We never came in this room, never, me and him back in there, okay? This Spanish guy’s got stuff hid in a closet, somewhere in the house.”
Nick agreed and went back to his place on the floor. Just as he sat down, a bearded bruiser came over 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 with me. Veng conmigo.”
Nick started to follow him out, but he heard another voice speaking in his right ear. “Give something? To the pot?”
Nick saw the lesbian women — Jaynelle and the old one — with their hands extended. “We got great stuff comin’ up. A real bazooka. Chip in an’ we’ll share it. Everybody get some.”
Confused and needing another fix, Nick took out his wallet and stuffed a wad of twenties in the heavy woman’s hand. She clutched them and sneered when Jaynelle begged for half.
“My partner’ll kick me out if I ain’t got any dough or crack when I come home,” Jaynelle wailed.
“Or sees you here with that fat bitch,” the whisperer in the far corner barked out.
Nick listened in silence, his own paranoia growing. Even on the drive to Somerset, he’d been thinking how stupid this all was. He had pockets full of money but nothing to spend it on, and sure as hell no dealer was gonna come waltzing in this hole. With the cops around, the smart ones were too wary, he knew, and the minor peddlers already safe off the streets or sitting in the slammer by this hour. But Nick had to admit it, he was getting to that time of night when Iagos popped up everywhere around him. Prison was bad, but nothing was like crack prison, guys said, a jail without walls. A feeling of being pinned in by dope peddlers had Nick in its grasp, too. He knew if he got up and walked outside to a street lamp and it asked him if he wanted some crack, “I’d say yes, and buy it on the spot. Yeah, from a stupid lamp post, like Mr. Jones, sure as hell.”
“How long you been on this stuff?” another voice asked him.
Nick saw a young guy had plopped down next to him, whose question made him 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?” Nick saw the guy was around thirty and had an office job, judging by his white shirt and tie. 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 new-found buddy and they sat together, like all the other squatters. Waiting. There wasn’t any build-up or climax to this idiocy, he knew, not like in some well-arranged book. The regulars’d hang out for an hour or a day or a week or, who knows, a month or two, in these broken-down digs in what used to be a decent neighborhood. Waiting for whatever stuff they could get their hands on. Expecting to lay out their hard-earned cash for the tiniest 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 your 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, the card,” Nick went on. He fished 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. Left, with some dude.”
“In my Honda?”
The others answered Nick’s question with silence, so he fished in his pocket for a phone and texted Char to come look for his car. Not knowing the street address, he wrote Somerset, your old neighborhood and leaned back. Feeling more and more desperate, he listened with what felt like half his brain while Al told him he came 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 his other brain-half Nick remembered how Anita had given 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 told himself. But God, it’s been a rocky ride. And not over yet.
“You know, I met this character,” Nick started telling Al. “Tough guy, did twenty years at Joliet State Pen in Illinois. Got himself off dope all alone, with no help, after seven years. Kicked it. Kaput. He’d been in lots of prisons, but none was as bad as…” Nick paused and
recalled he’d already told that story, but was it to himself or out loud to 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 again how stupid everything was. He explained how other junkies stole and lied not because they were mean but were afraid of dying, but he, Nick, had already faced death, like once when two dealers stuck a gun at his head and demanded five hundred from him for Anita stealing their dope. “Yer dough or yer dead,” they had threatened him. No, Nick had already thought about death, it didn’t scare him.
“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 good sense, but he got distracted when he saw Jaylene and the fat lesbian snuggling again. Jaylene was mumbling melancholy stuff about her band performances, being on stage got her almost higher than dope, which rubbed Nick the wrong way. For some strange reason he couldn’t explain he felt his blood boiling, maybe it was dope, or the lack of it. Or just seeing such a great looker in another woman’s arms, not his. Crazy, I’m not here for women, he thought. Whatever, but seeing the two women pressing up against each other, in such bliss, he imagined what they had was like something he wasn’t experiencing and maybe never had or if he had he wasn’t likely ever to know it again.
It hit him like a bolt he was left out of everything he ever dreamed of, happiness or whatever it was called. They’re not gonna give me my money back out of the pot or go get crack for any of us, he thought in a rage. They don’t give a damn for anything, only themselves. What about me?
“Or what’s up, liars?” he shouted at them and charged their way, fist doubled up. “You already went out and got stuff for yourself, using the money I pitched in. Now I see you about to split and take 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, more misfits all the time, some claiming they were heading out for groceries or smokes, others claiming they’d caught whiff of a dealer and would go get dope for everybody, which convinced Nick even more they were full of it, he’d heard their BS before. Crazy as it sounded, in his skull he registered their voices in tandem, like they echoed each other, so Nick started losing track of who was who, or who was clutching whose dough in their fists, or how many things they said were true, if any. Or, even worse, if he could even tell the difference.
Losing his balance, he sank down in the middle of the floor and tried to think where he was. At last the unbearable crack-house confusion got compressed into one thought, “I’ve had enough, dammit!” Feeling a climax of anger and repressed fear he had felt sure only a few minutes before never came to a head in crack houses, he leapt to his feet and shouted at Jaylene and the fat woman, “I want the money back!” Hearing no response, he walked up close again. “It belongs to Char, a hardworking black sister, like you two,” he lied at the top of his voice so he spat in their faces. “She loaned it to me. Hers!”
When they ignored him, he grabbed their car keys off a table and stuffed them in his pants pocket, along with their I-phone. Or was it his? He couldn’t remember. His failing memory stopped him in his tracks. Dumbfounded, he stared at the women.
Still not a word from them, so 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 stopped and then stumbled off the steps and hit the ground. Where am I going? Anita took my truck! He turned and yelled back at the women, “The money! It’s mine!”
He saw the lesbians coming, looking mad. That should’ve petrified him or made him struggle to his feet, or something, like prepare to fight them off, but it only made him start inner-monologing instead. Crack, you’ve started a war inside me, almost got me killed, and robbed, too. It’s in your nature, you do this to me logically, he was saying to himself, when the fat woman grabbed his hair and yanked his head back. She swore and pulled till gobs came out. Nick was yelling in pain when Jaylene saw her house keys bulging from his pocket. She jumped him from behind, so he struggled with both women till a third person, a guy, came out of nowhere and punched Nick in the gut. He crouched in pain till he came to, then wrenched loose and tried to flee. Yet he found himself back up on the porch instead doubling up his fists, but why? He was losing strength fast. The fat woman grabbed hold of his wallet pocket and ripped the rear end off his pants. Jaylene took her keys and tore a long gash down his bare leg with them.
Leaving his pants leg in the fat woman’s hand, Nick jumped off the porch and stumbled across the lawn till he tripped on a clump of grass and spread-eagled in the dust. The fat woman tore his shirt looking for her keys.
“I threw ‘em in the hedgerow,” Nick yelled to distract her.
The woman looked in the hedge, then searched his other pants pocket. Unable to find her keys, she held up Nick’s wallet and the lost credit card, which he then realized she, not Anita, had taken earlier.
Nick collapsed and bit the dust, on the very spot he had 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 spat out the dirt. He rolled over and tried brushing off, only to find one pants leg missing. His shirt sleeves hung by threads. He fought back a sob, feeling he could think more or less 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 told himself, two spaced-out druggies trying to kill me over a car key. Maybe they’ve been stressed out fifty or five hundred times before, so it started feeling to them like fifty hundred multiplied by five hundred. In their addled crack-brains they were imagining themselves 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 came back. “You lied to her,” Jaylene spat out.
“About what?” Nick asked.
“The hedgerow. And that black sister.”
“No way,” Al said. “He just wants his billfold and IDs.”
“What if I did,” Nick offered. “Your friend, she had it coming.”
Jaylene stared at him, while her older companion stomped and then 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 cards to drive.”
“When that chippie drove off in your truck?” the older woman chided him.
“Let’s bargain,” Nick pleaded.
“No way in hell.”
Nick and the women stood their ground till Al stepped up. “Look, an even deal.”
“My ass,” Jaylene shouted.
“You get your keys back. You give him his things,” Al told them. “Fifty-fifty. Simple as that.”
Nick shifted weight to keep his ribs from aching while eyeing the two women, who glanced sideways, each suddenly as wary of the other as of him. He tried to remember if he returned their keys to them or if they took them back from him. In confusion, he stared out into the dark and saw a faint morning glow off to the east, which made him wonder what hour it was. Maybe there had been more crack than he remembered. Or he had slept the night away in a mental fog. Or Char had been looking for him since yesterday, only to give up. He glanced at
Al, who stepped forward and reached for the wallet and credit card. The fat woman handed them over.
“Like you said, simple as that,” Nick commented.
He watched as the women turned and walked back toward the house, to wait some more.
“He lied,” Nick heard one of them still complaining.
With no truck, Nick plodded along till he gave out. He spotted an apartment building and stretched out on its manicured lawn, breathing in the new-mown morning smell. He felt for his wallet, but realized there was no need for it. Then he tried to work up guilt over how he treated the two women or shame at his derelict state. Failing at both, he thought about Anita, 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 to be doing this.
Nick was wondering why Lake Street had to be so temptingly depraved, when Char’s Prius glided silently up to curbside. He got in, apologized for how he looked, and tried to think of something nice to say.
“How’d you find me?”
“It’s Somerset. I grew up here, remember?”
After that they rode on 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 light turned from red to green and then red once more. The Prius idled patiently, while Nick’s face grew crimson from the shame he was finally beginning to feel. He looked down at his tattered trousers and then up at a totally p.o.-ed Char. Desperately he willed himself to choose the right way, before the light went green again.
Roger McKnight is from downstate Illinois. He studied at Southern Illinois University and the University of Minnesota. He has lived and worked in Chicago, Sweden (where democracy works), and Puerto Rico (before Hurricane Maria). He now lives in Minnesota. Roger has published one novel, a book of creative non-fiction, and short fiction in literary journals.
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