A wide orange sun was rising; slowly oozing over the horizon of the pavement and reflecting from the hood of a rumbling golden Cadillac. Knobby knuckles rimmed the leather steering wheel which was just beginning to burn.
I switched a hand from the wheel and slammed the dashboard. The air conditioner buzzed and spat- puttering out a worthless puff of cool air. Hot air blasted through the windows. Sweat was beading around my forehead, lips and into my damned eyes behind black glasses.
Summer’s were oppressive and steadily growing more so with each year. And the sun kept climbing. Rays toasted the pavement, early morning dew receeded quickly, burnt up and over the curb and off the grass running along the highway. I could smell it in the air; singed grass. The highway was unkempt, everything was unkempt. Dust and stone spiraled under the caddy’s wheels. Yellowed newspapers and cigarette butts kicked up along the curb.
The highway was still mostly empty and the air still mostly dead.
In the rear view mirror I pushed back glasses and thought of earlier that morning, well before the sun had begun to cook the earth.
Tiny hands and feet were pressing upon me, jumping up and down. I resisted bleary eyed frustration from lack of sleep; from nothing left to give, and smiled. Or tried to; my face felt taught, unbending.
The kids still smelled sweet; were still coated in the remnants of foggy dreams. The girl, with her pigtails askew and scratching blue pajamas and the boy, stark naked, both blinking back at me expecting something, expecting everything.
I had scooped each under each arm and swung them into the kitchen for breakfast.
The house was a mess. And it was as hot as everything else. It was narrow, leaning between a shitty bodega and an abandoned apartment building. The apartments had been long boarded up. Mostly, junkies used them to get off and sleep, but for me it was a money pit. Strange noises filtered in and out.
The house was the only thing I owned and the only thing still rooting me to that damned neighborhood. I remembered dipping hands and dishes in and out of some kind of murky green water; absentmindedly watching ants running up the cracks in the yellowed kitchen walls. They were coming out from a hole behind the coffee pot, pouring out as if there was something to get at. Black sludge ran around the sink. It smelled something awful, like an old trashcan left sitting out all through summer.
There was mold too. That gooey black substance rimmed everything; corners of the tiles and dotting the ceiling edges. And there was always this dust collecting in small piles in the corners of the rooms. It felt infested and so it probably was.
We had rodents in the ceiling. Water stains stretched out wide across and little holes poked through allowing falling rat droppings from time to time. I wished the ceiling would cave in already and swallow us all up.
Poverty is weighty. The kind of weighty that sags shoulders and forms lumps where the neck slopes down and out. The kind that seems to forever crane the neck, curve the back and drag the limbs. And especially so when you had two pairs of eyes watching you.
Someone else would have deemed the place unlivable, filed some sort of paper work and whisked themselves off somewhere better; somewhere that was clean and smelled nice. They would have dug deep and drug up some kind of optimism, some kind of silver lining, but that was someone else. My mind was bogged down; clogged with sludgy concern over affording food or over keeping the water on or over what it was I was supposed to do for these kids. I almost didn’t hear them behind me.
“Dad, when’s mommy comin’ back?” and it had been the boy. He was at the age of asking questions and I was running out of excuses.
“She aint.” Something hardened in my stomach.
Quick raps on the door and I turned wiping hands on my chest. I had left the door open in a stupor last night so I could see through the screen it was Slim. She was early.
“I’m sorry man,” she began, tweaking and scratching elbows with chewed fingertips. Tension creased along her forehead. Her hair fell in a stringy mop around bony, high cheek bones and wide, perhaps at times sensitive and intelligent dark eyes. Mostly they were cloudy when she was high on the stuff or flicking anxiously back and forth when she was waiting for it. Her lower lip was forever protruding outwards impatiently.
“I know I’m early,” she was nervous, afraid I would turn her away. I let the screen door slam behind me, “my fuckin’ phone died- I’ve been walking all night. You uh, you got anything?”
“Yeah, Slim.” It was best to use nicknames. There wasn’t much sense in getting to know the junkies beyond that. Mostly, they’d end up stiff and six feet under. Like Old Head. I used to serve Slim and Old Head together, and for a moment I wanted to ask- started to ask; started to feel sorry for the kid left running around alone… and stopped. It didn’t matter.
I could feel her eyes on my back, watching me turn the corner down the hall and imagined she caught sight of the kids in the kitchen. Maybe they locked eyes for a moment and she had felt suddenly strange; like an intruder, and took a few steps down the stoop. Anyway, that’s where I found her when I came back with the rolled bundle of waxy blue bags in my hand.
“Is it still the same stuff?” she could not resist a few toes forward. And by that she meant the same stuff that put her friend down a few days before. The same fetanoyl laced dope. Junkies were like that, once they got a whiff of some overdoses, they all came scrambling to whoever had sold the dead the stuff. It meant it was a dirty batch. It meant it was a good high.
They were unconcerned with the prospect of death. Let those who were really alive worry about it, junkies seemed half dead anyway. They barely clung to any kind of scrap of existence with that pale, rotting skin and unwashed hair.
I never touched the stuff. Mostly because the ones who did had this lingering darkness about them. The reaper followed their every sloppy step. I could almost smell the funeral flowers and embalming fluid on ’em.
After I nodded, she had taken the bundle greedily. A shiver ran under her skin and rattled her bones. Crumpled bills were pressed into my hand with a wide serene grin, and then she was thanking me. I was turning and flattening the bills, but I caught her nearly skipping down the crumbling steps and back into the hood.
That was this morning. And that was mostly how each morning went after my wife left. I remember the first few days afterwards. All the colors outside seemed to dim just a shade. Everything went a little grayer, a little more rotten.
My mind returned to the highway. At the next exit I spun off. It was the same exit I came on.
And once around the bend again, the inner slums of Camden rolled back out before me.
Sweat was running in rivers down my neck pooling at my lower back. The city always had some kind of desperate and gone feel to it.
Side walks under the blue and yellow awnings of the bodega’s and abandoned buildings were littered with faces no matter the time; just gone faces roaming aimlessly.
You could always tell how poor an city was by the amount of people walking around during the day, without work, and without anywhere to really be. And the smells on the blocks, the intermittent waves of old piss left out under the sun and fried food.
Out of the masses streaming along the sidewalk, a particularly grey faced man spotted me as I shifted into park and cut the worthless air. The rest of the heads continued wandering, tilting chins upwards and moving lips as if asking for something from the hot sun.
His feet cut left without loosing speed and swung into a full sprint across the street to me. His jowl swung low and loose. The nearer his feet drew him the nearer that stench of death reached me. I hated it. I hated them.
Other stone grey bodies began heading over. It was noon and it was a busier day than usual on the streets. The heat seemed to add frustration, more madness to it all.
All these clammy hands were pressing towards me, crumpled bills falling and collecting like puddles around my feet. I reached to scoop and headily pass bags back out. Their skin hung loose like sacks around bones. And they kept coming.
The emptiness, that death poured towards me and they were pressing into and leaning on the damned Caddy.
“Ay! Don’t scratch the thing!” I yelled with force over the fear I felt bubble in me, in my stomach and in my toes. Something felt off today. Something felt sloppy and too hasty. I was distracted, I was too hungry and I was passing out and collecting frantically….
I was staring with intent, fucking leaning into the damned thing; expecting something to happen. Perhaps a fluttering of eye lids or a scratch at the welts in the creases of the inner elbow… Nothing.
The room was stuffy with silence and dying flowers. It had those low hanging amber lights with cobwebs caking the things, so it was dim. The ceilings were low and domed, carrying conversation high and pitching it back down for everyone else to hear.
I sensed an irritated line forming behind me. I was clogging the flow of impatient mourners. They all wore suits, ties, long black and lacy dresses and their best jewelry. They got dressed up, fuckin’ dolled up to take one last peak at the dead.
I looked down, my jeans were ripping at the seams and my shoes had holes all over the bottoms. I wiped some kind of white powder from my chest, and ignored the line.
I was the only one left who really knew the guy anyhow. Everyone else was dead, or in jail. I recognized none of the faces attached to the tapping feet around me.
I leaned back into the casket and scrutinized “Old Head” one last time. That was his nickname, I never even knew his real first, or his real last name. I always just called him that because he was old, because he knew everything there was to know about dope and which was the best block on any given day, at any given hour.
He was my connection. And now he was nothing, just some kind of pale skinned shell with bloated cheeks and stuffed into a suit like some kind of Christmas goose.
It was surreal. I was just staring at the back of his very live neck from the back seat of his crusty old rust boat. Someone else, some other faceless junkie had been driving and Old Head was rapid fire chattering directions.
He was an idiot when it came to anything else; how to spell how to do basic math and I was convinced he didn’t know how to read. But the sets, he knew the sets like the chalky gnarled and blue veined insides of his forearms and each he would follow; in stone and in blood to find the center for that drool worthy high.
He was the man to have on your side if your pursuit in life was only to crumble into a nest of oozy, doped up warmth.
He was a city kid so he talked fast and with his fists. He was tall but appeared shorter, somehow stockier. Maybe the dope was weighing him down. Etched all over his arms ran these black and turning green jail tattoos. I never knew what any of them were for or how he got pinched- I always just assumed drugs.
In another life he would have worked at some lumber yard, would have taken a quiet wife with a plump face, raised a family and fell to drinking and violence. Instead he lived and breathed the streets. He lived and breathed dope and now he lived and breathed nothing.
Anyway, the drives, those drives we would take together in and out of the slums were a blur. I never payed attention to where we went I just kept my fingers crossed and kept my eyes low, praying it would all go smoothly. No cops. No guns.
The leather seats were nice and cool under clammy palms. I could feel the stitching bumping under my finger tips until the moment after getting off. And then everything went numb, my finger tips buzzed my voice buzzed and everything was alright. It didn’t matter where we were going or where we would find ourselves after it all wore off. For those first few minutes there was nothing just feeling good and wheeling around the highway, chain smoking until our skins were as yellow as that damned sun.
We used to say it was the only thing better than sex, and it was. But that was in the beginning and beginnings only last for so long. After, nothing would ever be enough. After you’d have to get pretty close to meeting the reaper himself to get the same kicks.
But I was still in the beginning. And Old Head had been shooting up yesterday and he had been educating us.
“The best combo- hey! You listening?” he had been looking at me in the rear view and I had lifted my head drowsily from my lap.
“Yeah man, what’s the best combo.”
“I don’t like your tone kid. That’s what’s wrong with your generation you know- ain’t got any respect for your elders.”
“Oh please do carry on, sir, teacher- is that better?” I sneered and rolled down the window. The wind was blowing hard, I remember hair whipping against cheeks and that it was begining to drizzle. But I didn’t mind, I was feeling good.
“Anyway-” he would talk for hours whether or not anyone listened, “it’s any kind of upper, like coke or adderal and your downer. It’s like shooting out of a rocket but real smooth and just staying even- soaring high and steady.” And then he winked his last wink.
I had still been looking at the back of his neck. Acne bubbled around stubby black hair follicles and his skin was so pale and riddled with crusty scabs from picking until he bled.
And then, suddenly he wasn’t firing chatter at me. Suddenly something blue, some kind of blue hue like a broken television was coming over his flesh.
By now we were nearing our block. It was a winding hood with row homes slouching against one another. And he was still quiet. I was getting anxious and wanted him out of the car.
When he spoke again his words were full of too many s’s and none of it made any kind of sense. That damned beast though, he still managed to lift himself from the seat when we pulled up. His palms gripped the seat and the door panel. He was steadying himself with all his might, but now I saw his lips were purpling and he was kind of sliding out of the passenger seat.
The blue was rimming his face, crawling across his body and he squeaked against the car as he slid further.
I knew then that I was watching him die.
I was rubbing my second bag between my thumb and my forefinger and his mom was running out the front door.
The driver, upon seeing this was already using his foot to push Old Head away from the car so we could peel away and I was glad.
Old head was stumbling back on his heels and his mother was swooping in behind him, tiny arms spread to catch him. She was kind, she was frail and her son’s drug use was probably killing her. As the door swung shut, right before the gas was hit, I caught the look of fear, of pure terror in her eyes and she had been mouthing “Why?”
The sky was grey and air brittle. My eyes were fuzzing now and I caught glimpses of the houses tall and narrow as we passed.
His face still looked the same I decided and left the casket.