Fiction | June 01, 2003
I stopped taking the heroin. At least for now. I made no vows. I didn’t go to a place where I paid people to tell me heroin is bad. I didn’t find eternal love or realize that drugs are Satan’s ambrosia. I just stopped.
When I told James, the security guard at the building where I do the money stuff that makes the salary that bought the heroin, he just smiled.
“Quit,” he said. “Just like that.”
“Just like that,” I said. “Pretty much.”
“You haven’t been in since Friday. I figured that might be it.”
I said it was like he’d told me; it was a question of who was in charge.
“And so it is, Captain, and good for you. Just remember, for you the store’s always open. Kinda wonderful, don’t you think? That you can always change your mind? Makes you kinda nervous, don’t it?”
I said I would remember, and as I was no longer a paying client, did he perhaps need a little money?
“Thank you, Captain. Really, thank you. But no, I don’t need no money, thank you. I got a dozen clients in this building. Coke, smack, other stuff. All them women lawyers, too; you gotta help your women. You knew, didn’t you?”
I had known there were others, but James was very circumspect. When I wanted to talk to him, I went down to the lobby and stood in front of the window, looking out at traffic. Eventually James would join me, and we would talk without looking at each other, twitching a hand when someone came close. James said this was the way guys in the prison yard talked. I asked him if he’d ever been in prison. He said no, of course not, why would I think that?
He was always polite and formal, calling me Mr. Gallo or sometimes Captain. I asked him to call me Bill, but he said no.
“Folks’d begin to wonder just why we’re all so friendly, you know?”
“No, Mr. Gallo. No sir, we do not want people to wonder. You work upstairs. I work down here. It’s that simple.”
He wanted me to put the cash (three, then five, then six hundred, and a hundred for James) in a stamped envelope, addressed to a post office box somewhere, and to ask him if he wouldn’t mind mailing it for me. The next day he would greet me and mention that he had mailed that letter, and I would find the foil-wrapped package under the mulch of one of the lobby plants. We did this every two weeks, sometimes sooner if my supply grew mysteriously meager. I asked James if he wanted more than a hundred for himself; he said no thanks, a hundred was correct.
I once heard James explain gravely to a weeping little girl how no parent or anyone else would ever leave her, ever, no matter what. I once saw him with his arm around the president of my company, a seventy-six-year-old man who prefers people not to stand too close. He always made women laugh.
“I am the connect,” he told me. “I make connections.”
He called me Bill on only two occasions. The first time was the day after he told me my package might be a little late arriving, and did I have extras or should he try another source? I said fine, and the dope came the next morning, and that afternoon I found him sitting down with his large, handsome head in his hands. I asked him how he was, and he said not so good, and then he nodded to me and walked outside, and after a while I followed, and we walked around the block.
“Bill,” he said, “I’m feelin kinda wrong here. Kinda wrong. I disconnected there for a minute, and now I cant go back on it.”
It was yesterday, he told me, when he went to score.
“Like, I mean, l know this guy, Bill, I know his woman. Name’s Duane, always been right on with me. We had this little misunderstanding, and I told him okay, deal’s off, and I started to walk, and I don’t know if it was the money or, I don’t know, he can get sorta crazy, but he comes at me with a knife.”
“Jesus. What did you do?”
“Kinda had to shoot him a little.”
“What? What? You did what?”
I whirled around, my heart banging, half expecting to see cops leaping from cars (freeze motherfucker), and I must have looked wild because James put his hand on my shoulder.
“Oh no Captain, don’t worry. Just winged him. In the arm, so he’d drop the knife. No one saw; where we were, the last thing people do is look for who’s shooting, but … I feel bad. I feel like I had all the trust in the world in my hands, and I threw it away. I should call his woman, make sure he’s all right.”
I asked if there was anything I could do, and he said what I hoped he’d say, that there was nothing to be done. I thought I should ask James if scoring was now too dangerous, and I was still thinking that when we returned to the front entrance.
“Well, Mr. Gallo,” said James, shaking my hand, “it’s always a pleasure to run into you.”
The rest of that afternoon I did the money stuff at one remove, just working the cash register, and I thought about James and Duane. Gimme that, don’t come any closer, bang. Freeze motherfucker. I couldn’t see it happening without cameras coming in for a close-up. James didn’t carry a gun, not even handcuffs like mall cops; the people in this building were the sort who obeyed the polite suggestions of someone in uniform. Those women attorneys? They did corporate law.
So what about James? I thought. When we talked I was usually looking away. Had I ever examined his face? How old was he? Forty? Fifty? Would I recognize him on the street, out of uniform? One of those large, easy movers with the look of hard-won calm.
James would surprise people by listening so patiently, reaching out to take someone’s hand. I knew he had a wife, but I didn’t know her name. I knew he had kids, but not how many. So was it the money or was he using or what? It had been almost two years now since he had been making his rounds and found me, on a Thanksgiving, sitting alone in the cubicle hive, staring at the blue light in the computer, imagining that it was the sea and I was diving, becoming blue, bluer, everything blue.
“Mr. Gallo,” he had said. “Hey there, Mr. Gallo. You okay?”
I looked up.
“You’re in trouble, man,” he said.
“Actually, James, I think I’m coming apart. But no one else has noticed, so don’t tell.”
“People don’t notice much, do they? So maybe you need a doctor. You want me to get you to a doctor?”
“What I want, James, what I really want, is about three Percodan and a shot of whiskey, any brand will do.”
“You need a friend, Mr. Gallo.”
“I need drugs.”
“You know, people tell me there’s dope to be had, right here in this building.”
“I wish I knew where.”
“I seen you got problems, Mr. Gallo. How long we known each other?”
“Two years? Three?”
“You know how you come to trust someone?”
“Neither do I. Anyway, store’s open. I can’t get you Percodans, but maybe I can get you somethin’ else.”
So I got a few balloons. Within the hour. James said he had a stash for someone else, but seeing as this was an emergency, a 911 call, he’d divert some of it to me. He asked me if I had a medicine dropper at home, and I must have glanced anxiously at my arm because James laughed and said I’d seen too many movies. Then he pointed to his nose.
When I got home I put the prescribed amount into a tablespoon of water and, as directed, dissolved it by boiling. The resulting solution I used as nose drops. It smelled strongly of vinegar and burned as it went down, making me sneeze and cough violently. Then I lay down and waited.
Bliss is mostly relief.
But why did I keep taking the heroin, even after the first bliss had mostly faded? Why did I order a few more balloons the next week, and then a few more?
Because I couldn’t, as the story goes, stop myself?
Hardly. I took it because I meant to take it. Because I found it useful.
I used it to get through. To the next thing.
To feel like reading the mail and taking the trash out.
To wake up in the morning and want to be awake. Waking up is the hardest.
It wasn’t that the heroin was so bad, or always so good, either. It was just so useful. It made me feel like feeling.
Heroin, you see, gave time direction. Waiting was no longer the listless gray underwater. Now I was expecting, at a specific time, by six forty-two or seven twelve, the feeling of wanting to be. Now, when my colleagues said, “It’s almost five,” I wouldn’t think and then what? because I knew that at six forty-two or seven twelve, I would experience a return on waiting.
Home at night, food prepared, wine and iced tea on the table by the couch, TV remote at the ready, phone unplugged, and I would permit the day’s one dream dose, almost half a balloon, all right, maybe half, choking fire down my nose and throat, and then, yes, here it comes, the feeling that everything will be all right, yes, exactly that, all right, and I would turn out the light, lie back, dream-travel, allow the past to realize and perfect itself. Connect.
Now I could remember Jessica, and Rebecca, and Darren, and have a few words with them. Now I could have the conversation that I always meant to have with Lisa, who left the firm last May, whom I should call, really, except I don’t.
Now eating was pleasurable. Now there were new and fascinating programs on television. Now I might read a little of that famous book I always said was so good but had never actually read.
There was one problem with the dream dose, though. Sometimes I would give in to the relief aspect and sleep for an hour or two, and when you’re asleep you’re just wasting heroin. So I began to use many smaller doses and take from the heroin what I most wanted, which was to make as many moments as interesting as possible, which is, one might argue, what life is about.
Yes, sorry, but heroin didn’t cloud my mind; it didn’t make me dull and stupid. Taken correctly, when the dope gods were favorably disposed, it was clarity and richness. It enhanced. It introduced a new savor, an added dimension allowing time to curve beyond the linear, the usual.
Like I said, sorry, but you didn’t think people risk so much to take heroin because it’s not worth taking, did you?
I became quite a connoisseur in my two years of devotion. I became a gourmet, a researcher, a philosopher of heroin. If there were a Nobel Prize for Narcotics I think that, given a few more years, I might have been in the running.
I began to read some of the drug literature. Burroughs, Cocteau, Gautier (a page here, a page there, between television movies). I could see how arcane philosophies and exotic aesthetic systems attached themselves to the opiate experience. I read about Coleridge and Wilkie Collins, and I thought about writing a book or two myself.
“Sure,” said James. “It makes you feel good, so you want it to be important. ‘Heroin is my inspiration’ and all that shit. Careful there, Captain. We’re just talkin’ about dope here.”
“Maybe it really is important, James. Maybe it’s the most important thing there is.”
“Well then, Captain, you in big trouble.”
James was the only one I could talk to about heroin. One of my office colleagues, Gil, whom we called Gil the Will, once asked me if I ever took drugs. I said of course not. He said too bad, because I seemed like someone who should. Gil makes by far the most money of any of us; he can talk clients into anything.
“Careful there, Captain,” James said. “You’re up to two a day. Or you keepin’ someone on the side?”
“Just me, James. Just me.”
“Don’t go above two. Two’s the limit. Above two you start missin it, thinkin ’bout it, know what I mean? You want somethin’ bad enough, you make a mistake. Say the wrong thing, don’t walk away when you should.”
“How come you know so much about it?”
“My business to know. I’m the connect. So listen, Mr. Gallo, sir?”
“Please, not above two. You know those handcuffs the cops carry? They fit round your wrists same as mine. Even a fine gentleman such as yourself could find himself in a bad place.”
“If you don’t use it, what keeps you so happy?”
“Not happy, Mr. Gallo. Connected.”
“I like to help, Mr. Gallo. I like to be the one has somethin people need. Like to know they’ll smile when they see me comin . And I like, let’s see, I like women. Love the women. And I like Coltrane. And I like the poetry of William Blake. Good night, Mr. Gallo.”
I began taking a little at work, at lunch. It just didn’t seem fair to waste so much time waiting. You always hear people say, “I wish it was time to leave,” or “I shouldn’t have looked at my watch; another two hours to go.” And those two hours? They’re lost in not wanting them. It’s not as if you get them back at the end of your life, as if you can say to Mr. Death, “Hey, listen, I lost twelve years by wishing them away, so now I get them back.”
The drugless time between sleep and lunch was necessary so I wouldn’t acclimatize, but further suffering without good medical reason was plainly irrational, the work of a moralist, so at lunch I would go to the men’s room, sit in a stall and take out my little dropper bottle. There is just enough room there to twist to the left, tilt the head back, and service the right nostril. At four I would twist right and service the left nostril. Then I could listen to Gil and smile pleasantly, causing him to remark upon my newfound health. Then I could think of something clever to say to Lisa, and actually say it.
“You gettin high at work, Mr. Gallo?” James asked.
“Can you tell?”
“Course not, long as you take it easy. But that’s kind of a problem, isn’t it? I mean, smack is kinda like cheating on your wife with this beautiful woman. You want to meet more often. Makes you get real secret.”
“You think heroin is bad for me, James?”
“Not good or bad. People are good or bad. Heroin’s a thing.”
“So you’re not saying I should stop using, right?”
“I’m the connect, Mr. Gallo. You want it, cool; you don’t want it, cool; whatever you say. I must admit, though, that I like the money.”
“You think I’ve got a habit, don’t you?”
“Course not. Course you don’t. You just like to feel good. And we all like that, now don’t we, sir?”
Taking some heroin in the afternoon made my walk home more enjoyable. I usually walked home, two miles; I didn’t need James to tell me to stay in shape. I even ran some on the weekends, and after running the heroin came on warm and sweet.
Halfway home I would stop at the usual place and have a cup of coffee. It was just another little coffee shop that appeared one day and sold pastries and postcards and exotic teas, and last week I went by there and found a travel agency. I had begun stopping there three years ago, in the before-heroin epoch, B.H., because I had looked through the window and the girl behind the counter had glanced around and smiled at me as if I were the sun rising. A blond girl with a face full of light; she reminded me of someone I’d once met on a beach.
So I would stop at the Java Jug on my way home from work. Stacey, her name was, and when I came in the door she was already pouring a cup of French roast, pretending she didn’t see me, then slyly looking up, “Oh, you,” and her smile blazing through me.
But that’s as far as it went; she had a lover who picked her up at six. If I timed it right I could leave the Jug at five-fifty, and, assuming she would be looking, I would glance at my watch and walk purposefully into the office building across the street. At the far end of the lobby, beyond the elevators, there was a door to a stairway that led up to another door on the third floor that opened onto a tiny balcony overlooking the street. Something to service something, I supposed, or just a lost idea; the doors were always unlocked, and I never met anyone using them. I would stand on the balcony and watch the entrance to the Java Jug, and at six the car would pull up, the boyfriend would get out, and Stacey would appear in the doorway, opening her arms as if acknowledging applause.
After the car pulled away I would go to the left side of the balcony, which couldn’t be seen from the street, and I would get up on the cement wall and sit with my feet dangling over the sidewalk three stories below. I would sit there for a while. Then I would place my elbows on the wall and carefully push my hips forward until my body hung out over the edge, held up only by my shaking forearms. After a while I would push myself back up onto the wall. Then I was permitted to go downstairs and walk home.
One day Stacey was gone, no message left for her faithful voyeur. The owner, who sported a forest of black nose hair, told me that they had gone to Denmark or some other place like that.
But I kept my same route walking home, and I still had coffee at the Jug. Not because I was interested in the new girl working there, who seemed unfond of herself, but because I had to go across the street and hang over the edge of the little balcony. Sometimes I would decide to walk on past the balcony, just keep walking, and I would get four blocks, maybe eight, before I would have to go back.
Then at some point there were other permissions I had to acquire. Certain words said, steps counted, before I was released to the next thing. Only Lisa noticed. She asked why I sometimes hesitated before speaking. Behind my back I counted my fingers with my thumb three times, and then I was able to tell her I didn’t know what she was talking about.
I wanted to talk to Rebecca. I wanted to ask to speak to Darren. I would sit by the phone, replace it, try again. But there was something I had to do before I could call. Some key that would unlock the right moment.
It was at the worst of that time that James found me in the empty office that Thanksgiving afternoon. I had been trying to arrange my desk drawer in a way that would allow me to call Rebecca and wish her and Darren a happy holiday, and then for a while I was watching the blue in the computer.
“You’re in trouble, man,” James said.
Then it was heroin time, Heroin Domini, H.D., and things began to flow again. It was as if everything, even trees and windows, had been looking away from me, and now they began to turn back. It was like being loved.
So I began taking some in the late afternoon, before I walked home, and I began to lose the dread and anticipation of the balcony scene. It became like a game or a family joke. Would I do it this time? Oh, sure, why not? And then one early evening on the balcony I looked down at the street. It was fall, and the sky was in its last glow, the streetlights had just come on; it seemed like another world was taking over. It was my last time up there. I continued to walk home that way, and sometimes when I passed the coffee place I imagined this other person on the balcony across the street, staring down at me, and I wondered what he could be like.
Eventually all the permissions and passwords went away. Except for Rebecca; I still couldn’t call her. I thought that maybe if I just took a little more heroin … no, that just made not calling easier.
“You keep asking me,” I said to James. “Why don’t you tell me what you most want?”
“I would most like—since you asked—most like to make this one thing, a sort of song maybe, or just speakin’ with music, like Coltrane and William Blake, like bein’ in the city, kids cryin’, but bein outside too, angels whisperin’ to the kids, it’s all right, all right … you know the poems of Blake?”
“Not really. The Tyger thing.”
“Genuine visionary. The real article. Better’n drugs; better’n sex maybe, though I’d have to think about that. The Trane and Big Blake, jammin’. You see, I can feel it, what I want to do, but I can’t quite see how to get over, over where they are … you know what I mean?”
“I definitely know what you mean.”
“I figured,” said James. “So what about you? Since I asked.”
“To do something worth … to have someone … happy that I’m home.”
“How come you don’t have no kids, Mr. Gallo?”
“Don’t know. Just don’t.”
“No kids. No women. You got a dog, Mr. Gallo?”
“Not where I live. They barely allow people.”
“Course, you could always do a little of what I do. You know, make a run now and then. Connect. Then folks be happy to see you. Then they be smilin’.”
For many months I was on a precise regimen of solace, one o’clock, four, seven, take as needed for anticipation of pain. But then I began having technical difficulties. I suffered a rebellion of the nose. For two months I told people I had a cold and I used a decongestant spray, but finally the spray stopped working and my nasal passages swelled shut.
The interested consumer or sometime fancier may have read about New York heroin, a white powder in a glassine envelope stamped with a clever brand name. But this was Los Angeles heroin, up from Mexico, working class. It came inside colored party balloons, knotted at their necks, their mouths peeled back over their precious bellies, making little rubber balls that could be carried in the mouth and swallowed, should the occasion arise. You cut open the balloon and inside was something that looked like dirt and left a black residue in the spoon. The solution itself was brown, acetic, scorching.
I suppose that, were I in Los Angeles to produce spectacular action films about drug smuggling, I could have had the pure form brought straight from some exotic location by a silver chariot of the air. But what I had was what James brought.
Finally my nose quit.
So I began injecting it. To swallow it would have been too wasteful. In junkie folklore there are so many superstitions, some of which involve the prestige accrued by the route of administration; that is, how you get the dope from the rest of the world into your brain. (For instance, only mainliners are addicts, or, if you’re a mainliner, only mainliners are purists.) But, as James told me, it doesn’t make any difference if you stick it in your ear; if you get high, you get high.
He did caution me, though, about mainlining. “You get strung out on the suddenness of it,” he said. He needn’t have worried; even the thought of trying to find a vein caused my hands to shake.
In junkie stories there is the epic of scoring, and then the romance of vileness: the filthy spoon heated by the lit match, the tepid muck drawn up through a blunt needle rubber-banded to a dropper, the probing for a vein in scarred rotting flesh … otherwise you’re not being true to the melodrama of depravity; you don’t really deserve to get high. Why, you might wonder, watching a movie about rich kids gone bad, do they have to use a lit match? Couldn’t they find a better way to heat water?
Anyway, I did what any sensible person would do (or are you supposed to be so addled by the heroin that you just don’t care?). I knew someone who knew someone whose girlfriend was a nurse, and they needed money, so I could buy as many sealed 1-cc. insulin syringes as I wanted. In the morning I made up a sterile solution of dope, employing techniques I had acquired in a college microbiology class and thought I would never put to any good use.
I placed the product in hypodermic vials provided by the nurse. I put a vial, syringe and alcohol swabs beneath a razor, comb and toothbrush (one can never be too well groomed, after all) in a small, elegant leather carrying case, and I went to work. Around one o’clock, or a bit before if the day dragged, I wandered into the men’s room, sat down in a stall and took out my kit. I could barely feel the prick of the tiny needle in the skin of my arm or thigh. Slowly I felt myself growing lighter, lighter, able to rise and return.
I am sorry to report, to fans of the formulaic, that there was only occasionally a little blood, there was no melon-like swelling (although I had some penicillin saved, just in case), and I never passed out on the tiled floor or spoke in tongues other than my own or was compelled to kneel weeping before my colleagues. Lisa was now gone, and no one in the office noticed that I seemed better or worse or anything at all. People, as James said, don’t notice much.
So there it was: the way I lived. They say heroin does this and that to you. I don’t know because I’m not them, and I’m not you. I know that I liked it then, and I would like it now.
“Here,” said James. “I’ve written down this beeper number. The first two numbers and the last two don’t mean nothin. Call from a pay phone. When they call back, you say your name is Captain and you know me. They’ll tell you where and when to meet them. They’ll be three guys in a car, and they’ll pull over and act like they know you. Wear old clothes, and the first time don’t be in a coat. Short sleeves. They’re sweet guys, but don’t act tough. If you want tough, hire one of them.”
“What’s this all about?”
“Just in case. If I fell off a roof or went to Italy or somethin’. So you have options.”
“Are you all right?”
“Sure. Fine. Fine as fine is. I’d like to go to Italy, though. I’d like to see Raphael’s paintings in the Stanza della Segnatura. Ever been there?”
“That’s a problem with smack. Makes you want to stay home.”
“You’re not in any trouble, are you? What about that guy you shot?”
“He’s okay. I talked to his wife. But you know what? Things happen. All of a sudden things go bad, like when that guy came at me.”
“What if he comes at you again?”
“Wouldn’t shoot no one now. Got rid of the piece. No more, Mr. G. No more. Gotta be a better way, and if there’s not, there still gotta be.”
I wanted to tell him, like he told me, why not just stop? But I didn’t. Because I didn’t want him to stop.
I began worrying that James would go away or just stop doing it, or what if he got caught and they asked him who.. . No, that was paranoia, and besides, would they even believe him? After all … wrong thinking, stop that … but what if it turned out that James … hey, hey there, wrong thinking.
I would watch some old lady smiling to herself, couples poking each other and laughing on the street, and I would think, they do this when they’re not high, so why can’t I? But actually I was sailing away from them. I was feeling more and more that the bad stuff would be better when I was high, and the good stuff would be better when I was high, and even at night after a dream dose and the wine and a little vodka just to keep things going, I would catch myself wanting another little dose to make the better better.
“It’s a Sunday, Captain,” James said. “Moneymaking’s gone till tomorrow. Why you here?”
“You’re here, aren’t you?”
“Overtime. And a favor for one of the ladies on the third floor.”
“I thought I’d come here and make some phone calls.”
“You don’t,” James asked, “have a phone at home?”
“I wouldn’t get around to it, there. Too much else to do, there.”
“Desire’s the killer, Mr. G.”
“I lied to you. I do have a kid. Darren. He’s eight. I haven’t talked to him in two years. Mom doesn’t like me. I was thinking about calling.”
“Jesus Christ. Two years? How you know where he is?”
I pointed to my open address book.
“His mom writes sometimes. He sends cards. I send money. Presents. Money’s easy. For an unsociable single man, even a drug-using one, I make lots of money. I keep trying to call. He’s forgotten me by now.”
By this time I had my own mini-office, not as nice as Gil’s but off the floor. Outside visits were made via computer, but there was a chair by the door, just for show. James dragged the chair over and sat down across from me, sticking his legs out, leaning his head back on his clasped hands.
“What?” I said, wishing he’d leave now. I had just decided that I needed to go home. I had something to do there.
“Listen, Bill. Listen here. Am I your friend?”
“Would you do a favor for a friend?”
“No, Bill. Friends don’t say ‘probably.’ Friends say ‘sure.”‘
“Okay, James. Sure.”
“So, as a favor, for a friend, may I see that address book? Bill?”
James examined the page that said Rebecca and Darren, Portland.
“Just this once, Bill,” said James, reaching for the phone. “Just this one favor.”
I felt a thump of panic, and I wanted to stop him, jerk the phone cord out, but I couldn’t think of how I would explain afterward.
“Hello,” said James. “Yes, hi there, are you Rebecca? Hi, my name is James Robinson, and I’m a friend of Bill Gallo’s, and I was wonderin’ if, well, ma’am, Rebecca, I need your advice on this … do you think Darren would like to talk to his dad? Sure, certainly, yes, I understand that. Yes, he’s right here.”
James handed the phone to me, and I said hello, and she said hello, and there we were. Why hadn’t I thought of that before?
“Billy,” Rebecca said, “I just don’t understand you. Why would you think I wouldn’t want Darren to talk to you? You’re his father, Billy. Remember?”
She said call back at seven.
I hung up the phone and looked at James, who was smiling large and looked like he was listening to Coltrane and reading Blake.
“That’s what I do,” he said. “I’m the connect.”
“You’re my only real friend,” I said.
“Am I, Mr. Gallo? Am I really? Then how come you and I don’t go out now and do a little drinkin’? How come we don’t go hang out, you and me? I got four kids, Mr. Gallo. What are their names?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Actually I don’t. Listen, Mr. G, you know who your real friend is? It’s Darren. You should be nicer to your friends. Take care, now.”
At home I worried about heroin. If I took too much, would Rebecca somehow hear it in my voice? If I didn’t take any, would I be too anxious to speak? But at seven, when I called, it was Darren who answered.
“Hi,” he said. “I got this fantastic game, you should see these monsters, they shoot fire, and yesterday at school we had this fantastic race and I won.”
Two days later Rebecca called me.
“He wants you to come see him, Billy.”
“Are you going to?”
“What about Keith?”
“Keith and I aren’t together anymore. But if we were, Keith would want you to come.”
“Well, it’s just that I thought. . . I thought. . .”
She was crying. And actually, apparently, so was I.
“Billy, do you think I want Darren to forget you? Do you think I don’t care?”
“It’s just that, Billy, sometimes you can be so unhappy. That’s hard to be around.”
I had been told something similar, fairly recently. Last year, when Lisa told me she was quitting. She said she would miss me, that I was nice and funny and so forth. But, she said, underneath, where I was most of the time, I just wasn’t very happy, and there really was nothing she could do about that.
I asked her then if that was why she had stopped seeing me, because I had mood cancer. She said I should call. But so far 1 hadn’t called. Maybe I should have asked James to dial for me.
I figured I would go see Darren that coming weekend, but I asked Rebecca not to tell him yet until I was sure. Friday I called her and said I’d have to put it off.
“I have to get my car fixed,” I said.
“Were you going to drive to Portland, Billy?”
“Oh,” she said.
The following Monday James asked me how it was in Portland. I said I hadn’t gone yet.
“Desire’s the killer, Captain.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Know why I call you Captain, Mr. Gallo?”
“‘Cause if there’s a ship sinkin’ somewhere, you’re determined to go down with it.”
I walked away because after all I worked on the sixth floor and he was just a guard, but later when I saw him I asked what ship, what desire?
“You familiar with the Songs of Experience, Captain? Where that Tyger thing is? My mother groand! my father wept. Into the dangerous world I leapt, Helpless, naked, piping loud; Like a fiend hid in a cloud. I think the real fiend in the cloud is desire, Mr. Gallo.”
I walked away again. Four o’clock. I took my leather shaving kit and went to my toilet stall. When I was high I thought about what James might have said or not said. Just before five I found him in the lobby.
“Okay,” I said. “Connect.”
“People ask for advice,” James said, “but when it’s not what they want they get mad. And fuck that.”
It was my turn to motion him outside. We took a walk.
“Tell me,” I said. “If I don’t like it we won’t go out drinking anymore.
“You got to make your own connection,” he said. “Between here,” he touched his heart, “and here,” and he touched his head. “You have first one goin’, then the other. You don’t go to Portland ’cause you don’t feel like it? That’s dope talkin’. You know why you don’t go? You don’t go ’cause what about this heroin thing? You stop takin’ it, you get sick, you get unhappy, what’s that gonna look like? You take it with you so you can function, be a nice dad and all, what if you get caught? What if she even suspects? How you gonna cook it up there? You keep excusin yourself, oh sorry I have to get somethin’, and you go to the bathroom, for how long? Twenty minutes? And how you gonna boil water there, and maybe you come back lookin’ a little changed, or maybe Darren walks in, then what?”
“Maybe she’ll feel sorry for me.”
“Of course, my man. Of course she will. But guess what? She’ll feel sorrier for Darren. You and me, we’re kinda reckless, kiddie’ ourselves, and that’s fine, but listen, the mothers care, my friend. The mothers care.”
“You think I should go somewhere to quit?”
“There’s a whole business out there to make you do what you can’t but think you should. They got a big stake in keepin you unsure of yourself. What I think is you’re the one’s gotta decide. Question of who’s in charge, know what I mean?”
“Right. So what do you mean?”
“I mean, you want stuff, cool. You don’t want it, cool. Look, man, I’m goin’ to speechify here. Listen, you go through your whole life and you think, ‘I hope I get one true love.’ And you get all these loves, this woman, that, but there’s always somethin’ a little not right. After a while you think it will never be just right.
“But a baby, Bill, a baby. There’s nothin’ there but what you see at the beginning. It’s the purest love there is. I got four kids and each one is my one true love. And that’s all I got to say.”
I forgot. It wasn’t twice. He called me Bill three times.
I expected that quitting the heroin would have a little more of opera and martyrdom. I had seen the movies, read accounts written by people in medical or penal servitude who were looking for a break. Withdrawal was heroically awful, according to them, an intense chemotherapy of abstinence.
So I was prepared. One of the secretaries, who saw at least three different doctors, gave me some Valium. I had some Phenergan for nausea, Lomotil for diarrhea and, of course, vodka, the medicinal drink, for the spaces between. People who make as much money as I do get things easier. They have doctors and insurance and cozy beds and leftover prescriptions.
I put it off for a week. I kept reviewing my possible roles in dope’s morality play: the writhing on the floor, the begging for the fix, sticking pins in your arm to simulate injection. But what I expected, rationally, was a bad case of flu. So exactly why was I so afraid?
Because it wasn’t the sickness. I was afraid that without the heroin I couldn’t go on.
Who the fuck is in charge?, I asked myself. If I couldn’t go on without it, I could always start again.
I cut down, down, down until down was nothing. Then for two days I slept. Then for three days, despite combinations of pills and vodka, I was more awake than I’d ever cared to be. Thoughts gusted furiously, blowing by suddenly wonderful, then exiting before I could remember them. It seemed that every cell in my body was fizzing with alertness and alarm. My muscles felt like I had to clench them.
Finally I gave in to being awake, and an extraordinary time began. I finished that famous book I’d been meaning to read, and I read it again, introducing myself as a character, solving problems for the heroine before they got out of hand. I was always close to tears. When I watched television dramas I would tell the people, wait, I can help you, wait.
And memory; memory was everywhere; the present was at one remove; everything I saw and heard turned toward some deeper past, like the pages of a journal numbered backward.
Turn a page, and there is Stacey, Coffee Princess, passing me a steaming cup. Page again and there’s the one Stacey reminded me of: Sunshine. Sunshine of the Beach.
Nine years ago, and I am running on this beach in Aptos, in Northern California, down on the hard sand at low tide, and I see this figure in white shorts far ahead, walking away, and just by her walk I know I have to see her, and I speed up, drawing her back to me, this slender girl with golden legs, golden hair, and as I pass she turns and smiles as if anything at all is entirely wonderful, entirely welcome, this light in her face, this light, and that’s it, I just stop and stare.
She’s used to it. She cocks her head and looks straight at my eyes, and her smile makes the sky grow darker. She gives me this slight, flirty ironic wave: Oh, it’s you again. (That’s right; that was also Stacey’s gesture. Connect.)
“Can I just stop here?” I ask her.
“Sunshine,” she says.
“I mean, my name is Bill.”
She laughs, drawing in more light.
“Really,” she says, “that’s my name. My parents are new-agers. My middle name is Sparrow.”
I ask where she lives.
“Just staying here. Day after tomorrow I go back east.”
“Can I come?”
We talked, and in the fable I’ve made of it everything connected. Her huge, unscripted happiness made me shy and ashamed. She said she believed in miraculous meetings, the art of destiny. I said yes, absolutely. Her golden skin fascinated me. She said she would be there tomorrow, same time, and maybe I’d happen by, and I said of course, of course, of course.
Then I ran back to Rebecca’s place, where Jessica and I were staying, to tell Jessica that she was right, that I loved her as well as I could and there was no one else, but she was right anyway. Jessica said she wanted us to leave the next morning, get back to San Francisco; she had things to sort out. She said she would be the one to move, and I said no, I would be the one, and so forth, but anyway I thought I’d stay in Aptos for another couple of days, because I had things to sort out.
But I didn’t go down to the beach the next day, after Jessica had left, after I had rehearsed all these dialogues between myself and the miracle girl, because I began talking to Rebecca about Jessica, and Rebecca was so kind and caring, so perceptive, so sweet, and that’s how Darren happened. Connections.
So I would remember the wind on the beach, the catch in my throat when Sunshine smiled, and then I would remember Jessica’s lost, sad, bored look when I said I agreed with her, and then I would remember how when I first unbuttoned Rebecca’s blouse she breathed in and held it.
Memory, like your bedroom in the dark, knowing where everything is.
I remembered the day Darren was born. The sky was so incredibly clear; no smog, no clouds; just distance, purity, light.
I remembered one cold afternoon when I was a freshman at Stanford and I wandered into the empty church, walked through pools of color poured from stained-glass windows to the center of a vast encrypted silence, and then someone began to play Bach on the organ. I wished that James had been with me then.
By the third day the past wound down, the thought upheaval settled, and I could sleep. The next morning I woke up thinking it would be nice to have a little heroin now, but it was all right, thanks, I would pass. I called Rebecca and told her I’d been ill, nothing serious, I needed another few days, but I was looking forward to seeing her.
When I went into work the next day, there was James, smiling. “Quit,” he said. “Just like that.”
I wanted to tell him something memorable, something good about himself, and that night I make up a short speech. But the next day, Friday, was busy, and I barely had time to take James’s outstretched hand when we passed.
On Monday Gil burst into my office, beaming with malice.
“Hey, you know your friend, the guy you always talk to, that security guard? They had him on the floor down there, about ten detectives, guns the size of fire hydrants. Cuffed him and hustled him out. He didn’t say a word.” ”
I said it must be a mistake. I worked very hard at appearing not very concerned. When Gil finally realized there would be no worthwhile reaction and left to spread the good news elsewhere, I noted that my hands were trembling, just a little, on the keyboard.
My word against his, I thought. And anyway I quit. They can test me.
By lunchtime everyone in the building knew. I saw, or it seemed I saw, ad executives, lawyers, brokers with unusually worried faces, sometimes exchanging looks that said, No dope now, or When the police ask questions.
Tuesday there was no James in the lobby. The president of my company actually came in that morning, nodded gruffly to everyone and retreated to his ceremonial office. Later I heard him on the phone, saying, “Mr. Robinson is a tremendous asset to this building, and I just want you to know he has our full support.”
At lunch I saw two of the corporate lawyers talking in the corridor. One was a cute little blond I had thought of asking out. She stopped me and asked if James had tried to call me. I asked why she thought he would. She just stared. I said I had only heard he was arrested. She said, oh, well, anyway she had called the main jail to see if he had an attorney, but she could only find out what he was charged with. She had then called the police and managed to speak with one of the detectives who had arrested him.
“They say that six months ago he shot someone, over a drug deal they think, and they just now got enough evidence to charge him.”
“That doesn’t sound anything like James,” I said.
“Well,” she said, and I could see a blush beginning in her pale, distraught face, “they seem to think he’s been dealing drugs, right here in this building.”
“Yes. Yes, it is.”
“Did you find out his bail?”
“Bill, have you been listening? This is first-degree murder during the commission of a felony. There is no bail.”
The Court of St. James was closed.
I knew that Ron was one of James’s clients. He was a lawyer on the fourth floor, always nattily dressed, always hitting on the women. James of course wouldn’t say, but I had seen them talking, and I had seen Ron loitering about the plants in the lobby. It occurred to me that maybe every plant belonged to a particular client. There were a lot of plants.
That evening I waited for Ron to come out. I said that I had heard about James, and I wondered if we could help somehow.
He looked me in the eyes. There was a little menace there, but nothing else.
“Hardly know the man,” Ron said. “In fact, I hardly know you.”
The next day, so it was rumored, an extraordinary number of people called in sick.
So what was I supposed to do? Hadn’t I said we were friends, and hadn’t James said that really we weren’t? He was the one who said that. I didn’t even know the names of his kids. James was the one who told me to think about Darren. And I was. I had to protect Darren.
In the end I went to the security office and got James’s home phone number. And I learned the name of his wife. Dara. When I called she answered, and when I told her my name she knew who I was.
“Oh, yes, James is always talking about Bill Gallo. Bill said this, Bill did that. He says you’re one of his best friends, that you advise him. It’s so good of you to call. I’m so worried about him. I don’t know what to tell my children.”
I asked how they were getting along. Did they need anything?
“Well, Bill, I don’t know what James has told you, but, you know, I moved out. Six months ago. Took the children. I’m just here tonight to straighten up. Collect a few things.”
“Well, we’d been having problems. For a while, quite a while, and I hope you don’t mind me talking, but I feel I sort of know you, and I’m thinking maybe you can help James.”
“Did you know he was dealing?”
“I thought not. He said he couldn’t tell you because you’d try to get him to stop. But anyway, he was, dealing that is. You don’t exactly get rich in the guard business. I told him, I said, ‘I’ve got a job too, just stop.’ But he wouldn’t. He said people depended on him. He said he was the one who made the connections; people smiled when they saw him. He’s such a dreamer. Such a dreamer. Did you know he writes poetry?”
Two days later a detective dropped by my office. Detective Connolly. A young, meticulously groomed man who spoke softly, with poise, and tried to get you to meet his eyes. Just to chat, he said, because he’d heard that James and I were sort of friendly, and if possible he wanted to help James, he’d taken a liking to him during their interviews, and had I heard that maybe James was selling drugs here? I said no, I had never heard that. Connolly asked what I thought of James. I said James was as good a person as I had ever known.
“Right,” said Connolly. “He seems nice to me too, and smart. And that bothers me, kind of, that he’s in trouble like this. Course, he wasn’t too nice to the guy he killed, this Duane guy. Shot him six times, pretty close range, nine millimeter. When we got there certain parts of that guy weren’t around anymore. Of course there was this knife, which we think belonged to the victim. Never recovered the gun.”
“So how do you know James shot him?”
“Can’t tell you that.”
“Why did you wait so long to arrest him?”
“Didn’t know who he was. Victim’s wife turned him in. Seems James and her was having an affair. Were. Were having an affair. We have this directive at the office: Talk grammatical when you talk. We laugh about that. You ever seen James with someone who didn’t work here?”
“No. But it’s a pretty big building.”
“I noticed that. Anyway, they were having this affair, and Duane knew all about it, and maybe James’s wife knew too … kinda screwy, those people. Just a week ago Duane’s wife finds out James is seeing someone else, maybe a couple of someone elses, and she turns him in, and sure enough, we determine he was the shooter. He was some ladies’ man, James was, but he should have been more careful.”
I remembered just then what a criminal attorney had once told me. He said that you never know why the cops tell you stuff, or don’t tell you stuff, until it’s too late.
Detective Connolly left me his card. He said if I ever just wanted to talk, give him a call. He said he really wanted to help James.
“James called himself ‘a fiend in a cloud,’ and he recited this poem to me. I asked him if he’d written it, and he said he wished he had. Screwy guy. I like him.”
Last night I went for a walk. I go out now. On impulse I took a bus to Hollywood, and I saw many crazy and unhappy people but also some who seemed happy, and some of them didn’t even seem high. Of course you never know; it’s not the sort of question you can ask casually.
I walked for a long time in the City of Dreams (but then that’s what all cities are), and I thought, and walked, and thought. I saw that James was right: he might have been my friend, but I hadn’t been his. When he first called me Bill and told me about the shooting, I think that he meant to tell me everything, but then he saw my face and stepped back. That Thanksgiving two years ago, when he found me sitting there staring at the computer screen, he asked why. But I never thought to ask him why he was there, on a Thanksgiving, away from his family.
I didn’t make the connection.
It was after midnight when I took the bus home. I was sitting toward the back, alone. A young woman got up, came over and asked if she could sit with me, and before I could reply, she did. She was wearing jeans and sweatshirt and ruined running shoes; her hair was a black, tangled frizz, her left cheek was bruised and swollen, she was very drunk. She pressed her thigh sideways against mine.
“I am not black,” she said. “I am Haitian. You like Haitian?”
“You’re pretty drunk,” I said. “You should go in back and lie down.”
“What you mean, hey? I’m not drunk, hey. You think I’m pretty? For twenty I make you feel good.”
“No, thanks. I’m fine.”
“For ten I could still do somethin’ nice.”
“‘No, thanks, I’m fine,’ hey? You got any spare change?”
She looked at me, then decided to shoot for the moon.
I gave her five and said that was all I had, the end, and I didn’t want to do anything, it was nice to have met her. She looked at the floor and nodded. I thought she was falling asleep, and I hoped she wasn’t going to be sick.
She put her hand lightly on my knee.
“Could I just,” she asked, her voice soft and slurry, “put my arm ’round you? Just for now?”
She locked my right arm with her left, as if we might be going to promenade. The man across the aisle raised his chin at us and changed seats. I was going to say something in which the word “enough” would figure, but a certain moment passed, and what I was going to say became less urgent, and then, when she only held on, just that, I said nothing at all. She smelled like whiskey and old newspapers. After a while she put one skinny arm around my neck and leaned her head against my chest. I was embarrassed, sure, of course, to be sitting in public with some homeless street whore, but actually I found myself liking her close. After a while I put my arm around her shoulder. We sat like that.
I began to ask her questions, which she answered in a drunk, sleepy, meandering way, sometimes pressing against me a little to make sure I was still there. Her name was Donna. She had family on the East Coast who wanted her back, but they’d moved, no, she’d moved, no, they didn’t give a shit about her. She had a place to sleep, a good place, down by the beach but not on the sand, she’d never do sand again, and it was secret, no one could find her stuff. She was only passing through, she had friends in San Francisco, good friends, they wanted her. She’d had a kid when she was sixteen, Bobby, or maybe it was Robby, who was seven now, but she didn’t know where he was. She said that for a long time she was so unhappy that she had taken a lot of heroin, but she was over that now.
“You’re over being unhappy?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “Just can’t get no heroin.”
I said I hoped things would get better.
“Maybe,” she said. “I’m cold. Could I have your coat?”
“If I gave you my coat then I’d be cold.”
“Yeah. Okay, honey.”
“Are you really cold?”
“No, thanks, I’m fine. Thought I could sell it.”
“You should go in back and sleep for a while.”
“I love you,” she said. “Could I have two more dollars? In case the tooth fairy comes?”
I gave her two dollars, said my pockets were now empty and sent her to bed. She made it to the back seat, where she curled up. I was still thinking about my jacket and how I shouldn’t let her take advantage and how Rebecca had given it to me and I wanted to wear it in Portland, when I saw my stop coming and pulled the cord. When I got up, Donna said something I couldn’t quite hear. I told her to take care.
It had begun to rain. Outside, I turned and banged on the bus’s door, but it was already pulling away. I had been feeling generous and powerful, but here I was, sorry again.
I had plenty of money in my pocket, lots of money, and I didn’t even have to buy heroin. So what if she sold the coat? I didn’t need the goddamn coat. Rebecca would have given it to Donna because Rebecca was like that. I had had the moment, but I’d lost it. I’d met Mary Magdalene and counted stones.
I thought. All last night. About connections. About how, in memory, you connect to people in the way you wish you had connected before they became memory. I wondered about a sixth sense, or a seventh or ninth sense that perceives connecting paths like magnetic lines of force. Some people have that sense.
It seems like I can feel now, but not quite see, how the girl in the coffee house is connected through Donna to the afternoon in the Stanford Church, and because of Darren through Sunshine on the beach I have to help James. It’s like a story that you know is complete, but you don’t know why, and if you could only find the author, he would explain. He could tell you how the encounters are shuffled just so, why each character has to occur and disappear in just this order.
Or maybe it’s not because of this, therefore this. Maybe it’s because of everything, everything. A feeling I’ve had before, but just a feeling, without consequence. It’s sort of like the heroin euphoria, and maybe it’s just a sentimental notion, but listen, let’s not tell. Let’s pretend. Let’s say that the heroin was a substitute for connecting, and with heroin you don’t get out much, you don’t seek connecting, and are the less for it.
If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.
Want to read more?Subscribe Today
SEE THE ISSUE
Editors' Prize Winner
Jun 02 2021
Keeping Thomas Dodson It was a humbling thing, asking for help like this, needing it so badly. But removing his hat, brushing flakes of snow from brim and crown, Guy
Jun 02 2021
Naming Ceremony Mona Susan Power It’s the spring of 1968 here in Chicago, and Mama says Old Mayor Daley has his big fists wrapped around our necks. She says he
Jun 02 2021
The Burning Gail Upchurch The burning comes right after and all at once. The irony of calling out for a God you swore off back in high school—the day Shawn