Walking Velvet, our eight-pound black Maltipoo, through the neighborhood—with my speaker blasting and some neighbors looking upon me with approval and some shaking their heads in annoyance. Velvet barks too much but, like a baby, she just wants to be held. She always has to be in the middle of me and Michelle when we cuddle in bed. Makes it hard to be intimate with each other when she is always nudging her head in to be a part of it. We push her to the end of the bed but she is so sweet that it would seem gritty and shameful to do it while her curious, loving eyes fall upon us like they always do. Sometimes she falls asleep, but other times she gets lonely and restless and decides to pounce. It’s really a mood-killer, so we relocate her to the floor. Last week we came downstairs to find a Christmas ornament chewed up, with the broken pieces all scattered around the living room. Another time, Michelle went downstairs for a glass of water and I heard her scream: “OH NO! WHAT THE FUUUCK!” I said: “What’s going on?” “Velvet ate a DO NOT EAT packet!” “Where did she get one of those?” I said, running down the stairs to make sure Velvet was okay. Velvet was sitting in her favorite spot in the house—in front of the fireplace. She had a grin on her face that said: Serves you right for kicking me off the bed. She’s a crazy dog. She used to lick electrical outlets when she was just a pup. One time she was standing by the door with something brown and mushy in her mouth. She was so tiny, we’d only had her for a couple weeks. She eats everything, so I went to take it from her. I grabbed it, then dropped it, and shouted: “That was poop! She was eating her own fuckin poop.” We had to sprinkle a probiotic in her food, which would make the smell of her poop unappealing to her. I’m pretty sure if it smelled at all, like anything good or bad, she was thrilled to eat it. On walks Michelle would hold a dandelion up to her face and Velvet would sniff it, like she was marveling at this magnificent specimen, then she would lean in and chomp it down. Walking her is the worst on days I just want to be a mute. Most days I don’t want people to talk to me. Nor do I want to talk to them. But trying to say no to her when she wants to say hi to someone is impossible. She pulls and pulls and cries and cries, and I try to direct her away but then the person in her sight looks up and says: “Oh, Velvet. You’re such a good girl.” Velvet pulls me toward them, and jumps and yaps and scurries around their feet. I just stay quiet, and then when Velvet tires out I nudge her in the way of the walk and she goes, and the person standing there says: “Thanks a bunch. She’s so sweet.” I nod my head and hurry off, until someone else leaves their house. She stops and pulls so much on walks that at one point in the summer I was trying to lose weight and I would walk without her and everyone came up to me and said: “Where’s Velvet? Is she okay?” and then I’d have to explain that I’m just trying to lose weight and Velvet is okay but she slows me down and I need to do this on my own. Then they would say: “Well, I’m glad she’s okay.” One time Michelle took Velvet to New Hampshire without me and I was so lonely without the two of them here and I’d have to take the bus to do errands, and people would be like: “Where’s Velvet?” and I’d say: “Not today, she’s not here today.” I’m such a messy eater that Michelle would be up in bed with Velvet while I’m in the kitchen eating something and then I’d go upstairs and Velvet would smell the food on my breath and she’d go right to the end of the bed and cry because she wants to see what crumbs I left on the floor for her to eat. If I eat anything poisonous to her, like chocolate for example, I eat it over the sink so I don’t drop any pieces on the floor. When we watch TV in the living room she barks at the screen the whole time and it’s so annoying so now we can only watch TV on our computers in bed, and Velvet loves to sit there and watch it with us. She has this intrigued, upright look that makes it obvious that she is watching, now that the screen is closer to her size and therefore much safer to be around. Her bark is the most annoying bark. Saying no to her is incredibly hard because she barks so loud in the middle of the night that we’re afraid it’ll wake up the neighbors, and when she does it right next to me, my ears actually sting. When she was a puppy she would scream when she got hurt because she didn’t understand this strange land and she was scared. Once, my stepdaughter Annmarie dropped her and she howled; it sounded almost human but as loud as a sasquatch, and it just rang on until Michelle picked her up and held her so she would calm down. Now she is four years old. She runs when we go to pick her up; it’s just a game to her. In the last year, I started saying: “Stop running,” and she’d immediately stop so I could pick her up. This one time she got out in New Hampshire when I wasn’t nearby, and I heard Michelle screaming VELVET, and I ran to the door and Michelle was out there trying to catch her and she saw me coming through the door and ran straight toward me and leapt into my arms. That’s why it’s my job to catch her if she gets away. She got out the back door once and ran around to the front of the house and then I came out the front door and she ran straight to me. When she was a little puppy I had to chase her around the parking lot for 20 to 30 minutes when she got out. I only caught her because one of the neighbors was walking to her car and she ran to greet the woman and I asked her to pick up Velvet, and she did, and she handed her to me. She doesn’t run because she wants to get away, but it’s just how she plays. She didn’t leave the parking lot that day, she circled around the grass, and the garages, and the lot, while I would dive in the mud to try and catch her but she’d always slip away from me. I’m glad those days are over. When I come home she gets so excited to see me. She barks her loud nasty bark, accusing me of abandoning her. I get it, I have abandonment issues too, so I understand; and that is why this dog, she is the second love of my life.
My brother found me outside the airport. She and I were tucked neatly beside one another, puffing our cigarettes and staring at the taxi traffic and the herds of people rushing around searching for their rides.
Boston, MA. Logan Airport.
He opened the door and said: Are you ready to go? He seemed to be in a rush. He was always in a rush.
I tapped out my cigarette. I stared in her eyes for a moment. I barely noticed my brother’s intrusion. Then she leaned in and gave me a tight, satisfying hug.
And she was off.
To her connecting flight.
To rural California.
To grow and sell marijuana crop.
This was the hippie chick I had met at the airport.
It was a few days before Thanksgiving. My brother had invited me to his house for Thanksgiving dinner.
I had to fly to Boston from Rutland, VT. I got a ride to the airport earlier than I would have liked, because that was the only time I could get a ride; but it’s okay, I like to be early to most places/// It gives me time to collect myself, and I get to work on my writing and I get to catch up on my reading—all alone. Like the way it usually was, for me….
I checked in at the main desk and lugged my bags upstairs. The Rutland airport was small, which meant you had to hold on to all your checked luggage until you passed through airport security, which wouldn’t be till after your plane had unloaded all of its previous passengers.
There was a large sitting area on the second floor, complete with couches and TVs and a bar and a large floor to ceiling, wall to wall, window that looked out on the barren runway. Rutland had only one plane that flew three times a day, to Boston and back, and the runway looked like a sheer wasteland of abandoned machinery and there was a slight fog that festered over the emptiness.
I was the only one there. I had the place to myself. I went and ordered a coffee at the bar. Sat down on a couch. Pulled a book from my bag and began reading it.
Moments later I saw this girl in her early to mid-20s rolling a suitcase passed the bar and finding a seat a little ways down from me.
I don’t know what it was about her, in her flannel shirt and Birkenstock jeans and rugged Timberland boots, with her long, messy blond hair and slightly freckled face. Something about her drew me in. I know what you’re thinking, I used to fall in love with every pretty girl I saw, so this could have just been one of those moments, but nah, she was different, in her own hippy kind of way.
And maybe, just maybe, I could read her a story I wrote…. Nah, she’d think I was crazy. I had an hour and a half before the flight came and so why not? why not take a chance?
I walked over on cautious footing, with all my luggage in tow, a little worried about how she might react. I didn’t like being rejected, even though rejection was as commonplace to me as anything else. So I guess I was used to it. But riding one hour on a tiny jet plane beside a girl to whom I had made an ass of myself would be rather awkward and so maybe I shouldn’t try. I started to turn around when I guess she noticed me. It wasn’t hard. We were the only ones in this large room and I wasn’t heading toward the bar and the bathrooms were downstairs and I stood there gripping my bags, in the dead center of the room, halfway between where I had previously been sitting and where this pretty girl was smiling at me, and—--
I said: Can I read you a story I wrote?
Her smile grew and she nodded and there was a twinkle in her eye that flicked and ebbed and then it was gone.
And she said: Sure.
I walked the rest of the way and sat down beside her. I propped my bags in the seat on the other side of me. Told her my name.
She told me her own///it was Katie.
I told her this was a story I wrote just a few days ago called “An American Beauty.”
When I got to the end she was still smiling and she told me it read like a rap song.
I chuckled. Yeah, I said. I wrote it in a stream of conscious.
We talked for a while. She was on her way to California to grow marijuana. I said cool. I told her I wished I could do something like that. I was just going to my brother’s for Thanksgiving dinner.
She said: It sounds like you’ve had plenty of adventures and I’m sure you’ll have plenty more.
Maybe you could go to California some time and we’d see each other again.
I kept smiling.
I know, we’ve only known each other for a few minutes but I was smitten with her, and she seemed to dig me too. I gave her my book Derelict America. We sat there and watched our plane land and we went downstairs and crossed through airport security together. We sat in the flimsy seats and I noticed our legs were touching. Our arms too.
When it was time to board the plane I was still smiling and she was dreamily nice to me and there was no awkwardness either; I felt very comfortable around her. I probably stunk of BO and had streams of sweat oozing down the sides of my face, but she didn’t care. We sat in the tiny jet plane, leg to leg, arm to arm, and she rested her head on my shoulder as the plane took off.
We touched down in Boston an hour later and we both really needed a cigarette. My brother was texting me to ask where I was, but I didn’t answer; I was lost in the moment, dancing on impulse, excited but sad because I knew this feeling was fleeting and as soon as I responded to my brother’s text, the moment would be gone and I’d have to go.
We exited the airport and found the smoking spot and we lit cigarettes and stood side by side, smoking, laughing, and watching the crowds.
My brother burst through the door and said: We gotta go now.
I said to him: This is Katie.
He looked at me like he didn’t care.
He said: Really, we gotta go.
I tapped out my cigarette and turned to her. I said bye. Started to walk away.
She grabbed me and embraced me for a few seconds and whispered in my ear: Goodbye.
Who was this angel?
I pulled away from her.
I went in the door and watched through the window as she stood out there finishing her cigarette the whole way until the wall ended and I was going up the escalator and walking to my brother’s car in the parking lot.
I threw the bottle in the air and swirling and spiraling it came straight down crashing on the train tracks and this guy at the scene scolded me for it, saying I can’t do that, and I said: But who? me? He threatened to call the police and me and DP took off to his house, to store the butterfly knife I had just gone and bought him since he was too young to buy one himself. I wore a black hoody with the hood pulled over my head and as we came back out and hit the streets I saw Harry over there standing by the corner next to some other kid a foot taller and I picked up my pace, straight running to meet him but in front of him was a parked cruiser. I stopped just short like a hockey stop if I were on skates and saw him talking to the black cop who I remembered hearing had opened-fire on some young kid’s car, for reasons I don’t know/—or can’t remember———or had forced myself to forget. I stayed in hearing range and ducked off to the side and listened as the cop said: “And Harry, keep your friend out of trouble, will ya?” The cruiser pulled away from the corner and I emerged from the shadows and dropped my hood and for once I knew I could do it again.
Covid was a journey into restlessness. When I went to San Francisco and saw people wearing masks and I heard about the Coronavirus and everyone warned us about going—aren’t you worried about getting sick? they’d say—there was no way I could have predicted a total world shut down———and thus, a restlessness, an irritability, and an acceptance would follow.
I thought the world was going to end. I was one of those people. I was wary at first. I felt like this would all blow over. But that day I went to the grocery store and saw all the toilet paper sold out, I thought maybe I should jump on the bandwagon. A store fully stocked, except for the toilet paper. So I store-hopped in search of toilet paper and hand sanitizer. We stockpiled canned food and emergency meals. We constructed bugout bags filled with all the necessities for surviving the most hostile terrain. We watched apocalyptic, end-of-the-world movies and TV series to prepare—such as Contagion and Station Eleven.
Michelle baked bread, I walked the dog and steered clear of all the neighbors. They were sick and I didn’t want to die. I thought of conspiracies: maybe this is the Illuminate’s way of separating us, because a world separated doesn’t have much of a fight when it comes to global domination.
I remembered when I was told about the secret camps this government had constructed so that they could shepherd us into them when the time was right—when we all believed that this was the safest, easiest way; the government was to be trusted and we all must pile into these camps to be taken care of like pets. We’d be pets to the Illuminate, trained and obedient because we saw no other choice. This was survival.
We built an indoor trampoline for Annmarie so that when we’d shut ourselves in, she’d have a mode of unloading all her useless energy. We cleared the living room and turned it into a roller disco.
I downloaded Spotify and started discovering new bands and downloading them so that when the shit hit the fan and the internet stopped working, I’d have plenty of music to get me through.
Michelle discovered a different sort of spirituality so that when these religious nuts showed up on our doorstep with pitchforks and torches, she’d be ready.
We bought vegetables from a local farm. Drive half an hour to a bumpy, dirty, shifty road, wait in line with masks on, and one after another, we would pull up and pick up our vegetables.
We bought a camper van. It was the only way we could travel so we took up camping because one day it might be all we had left.
We bought a new puppy.
Eventually things cleared and vaccines were being administered. I was wary; we were all wary. Do these vaccines even work? It’s mind control. We’ll all be slaves. Haven’t you ever the read the book Divergent? It’s happening just like that.
People started travelling again. Are they crazy?
We stocked up on Covid-tests. Annmarie went back to school and she wore a mask every day—is this for real? She wanted to see her friends outside of school. At the stores, people were wearing masks. Everyone wore masks. This is the end of the world. It was so depressing. We were all faceless shoppers. We had no names. What we looked like, who we were, hidden behind these veils. I told myself stories that I liked covering up my face. I don’t mind because I don’t want people seeing me. It’s why I always wear sunglasses. Michelle became agoraphobic and I started to drive more often. I used to be a nervous driver and now I drive all the time. I love to drive now. At first I had to drive because someone had to get us groceries.
Things were going back to normal.
I went to my first open-mike in years. I was just an image on a screen. It was unreal. I was condensed to a box. Facebook had won. We were all just faces. On a screen. In a box. I had so many friends and I knew their faces but I didn’t know them—we were all strangers, living in our own filtered bubbles. This was the end of civilization.
Frustrated, restless, I took to taking more errands than needed because I needed to get out and stretch my legs. I walked the dog more often than I should have because otherwise, what else would I have done with my time?
Michelle started her own business. She started selling dolls and dollhouse furniture on Etsy.
I wrote a lot. Took a lot of writing classes on Zoom.
The camper van was unsustainable because we had nowhere to store it in the winter. The guy we had bought it from said: We don’t winter in Vermont. We couldn’t just up and leave. We had a teenage girl to take care of. We would have had to keep it plugged in on days there was no sun or else the battery would die. So much for solar power. We sold it to a used car lot and made back a fraction of what we had originally paid. It was a loss we had to make.
I went to my first open-mike in person, and I was nervous. I’ve never been nervous about going onstage. I was out of practice and my anxiety was at a high.
I wore a mask. There were three other performers, two of them wore masks. There were two other people in attendance—they were not wearing masks.
I took off my mask when I read. So much for needing to hide my face.
Off stage, I mingled. The other mask-wearer played the fiddle, then took off his mask and never put it back on. I went outside, took off my mask, and looked for a cigarette to bum.
This was our world.
More and more open-mikes, less people wore masks. Is this really happening? Everything’s going back to normal. The world, as we knew it, is coming to an end.
We went to Maine and we brought masks with us on our trip. It was the first time we travelled with our new puppy, who was now a full-grown, eight-pound dog. The first time we had travelled since giving up the van. The dog who we had named Velvet sat on my lap the whole trip while Michelle drove. She was so well-behaved.
We stayed in an air B&B. Michelle showed me the town she grew up in. No one wore masks. Things were slowly going back to normal.
Every time we leave the house, Michelle brings a bottle of hand sanitizer. I used to douse both hands in sanitizer every time I left a store; now I forget to bring it with me when I leave the home.
Today we went to a large, in-door flea market. A few vendors wore masks, but only a few. People were smiling; I could see their faces as they talked. They were shaking hands. I watched them exchange products for cash and then go on their way. The crowd was huge; there were so many people, so many faces, so many germs, so much happiness and joy, that it made it rather difficult to remember that this kind of event wouldn’t have been allowed to happen more than a year ago. It almost makes me forget that these past few years were spent mostly inside, at home, with my family.
When we left, Michelle doused her hands with sanitizer and told me to hold out my own….
When I was 19, I was arrested and charged for Possession of Cocaine. We parked our truck in the Staples parking lot because we were meeting a friend when he got out of work and he worked at Staples. So we left the truck in the parking lot and walked to our dealer’s house carrying my Playstation 3. We traded him the console for a small bag of cocaine and then went back to the truck. Sitting in the truck, we each gummed a small amount of cocaine before I turned around and saw through the back window a cop coming toward the truck. I shouted: The police! Andrew rolled down the window and dumped the cocaine and tossed the bag, then rolled back up the window. The cop arrived at the truck and picked up the bag and tapped on the window. He asked us what was in the bag. Then we were arrested.
A few days later the police report came in. Andrew and I thought it was funny because there was no way the cops could have possibly scraped the amount of cocaine they said that we had had off that tiny plastic wrapping.
My lawyer was pretty good. He got me off on a Continuance without a Finding, with a year’s probation. I met with a probation officer. Every day I had to call a number and if my color was up, I had to drive to the Charleston Courthouse and go up five flights of stairs and wait in a room for my turn to stand in a bathroom where every wall was a floor to ceiling mirror and a cop in full uniform sat in the corner and watched me pee. Ever since this experience I have had a shy bladder. I assume it’s because of the trauma of having this happen that I can no longer pee when someone is watching.
One time I was at the Courthouse and I tried to pee but I couldn’t. So after a while I stepped out and had some water and sat down in the waiting room again. They let me try a second time. Still no pee came out. The cop in the waiting room told me I get one more chance and if I am not able to pee, then they will say I was positive for every drug. Well, I tried a third time and thank God, I was able to pee.
10 years later I found out that for all the drug arrests in that period of time, the charges were dropped. Apparently the two women in the drug lab were discovered to have been lying about how much drugs people had had in their possession. It was a big scandal. Now it all made sense.
Yesterday I received a check for a very large sum of money. It was said to be a settlement for my troubles. I guess that money makes up for my shy bladder.
It was a New England winter. We were hunkered down in the Copley train station in Boston. It was me, Russel, and Lacey. When the night ended, I would have a new girlfriend. Russel was the youngest; I thought he was at least 18, but looking back on it I realize he was probly more like 17. He really liked Lacey--a lot. He lived on the North Shore, which is a long way from the city. Lacey was from LA. She went to college near Fenway. I was the oldest. I was 21. When the whiskey bottle ran dry, as it usually does, I braced myself for the cold and trekked out of the semi-warm train station and crossed the street and bought another bottle. I’d known Russel for a while. He and I went way back. I met Lacey, however, the same night Samantha and I had broken up. In the morning I had Lacey’s cellphone and she had mine. No one remembered how or when the swap took place. In fact, the night before I exchanged only one or two words with her, before Andrew led her off in the night with his arm wrapped around her shoulder. We were so cold. The brick-walled station didn’t offer too much protection. But we didn’t want to pay to get in the station proper because then if we left we’d have to pay to get back in. So we huddled together on the steps leading up to the street and down to the station. It was not as cold down here, but still it was brittle. We could feel the excruciatingly cold wind breeze past us whenever the doors opened : : : we all shuddered. Our teeth tremored. We were shaking. The whiskey made everything better. We laughed a lot. We taunted the people that walked past us. We had our fun, albeit fueled by the whiskey. When the bottle ran dry, I’d leave and go buy another bottle, until I was too drunk and the clerk refused to sell me anymore. It was almost like the liquor store was the bar and the station was our stool. They had to cut me off. I really wished they hadn’t. It was so cold and we had nowhere else to go. Nothing else to do. Of course, we could have just gone home. Sleep it off, so to speak. Fuck that, we were granted a gift. A gift of self-destruction. The point of life is to defy physics and see how far we can push it. Test our limits. Presently I’m sitting in an AA meeting and I recognize why the clerk had cut me off, but in the moment I looked at it like he was ruining our good time. Maybe he saved our lives, now that I think about it. I hated everyone who had ever saved my life. Those who didn’t want me to die—fuck them! They were not doing me any favors. Life is a state of mind. If you’re not living, then you must be dying. I was on my way there. I was living only to die. Once I was in Connecticut and these two young boys asked me to buy them liquor but when I showed the clerk my ID he didn’t believe it was me. He and his wife were Indian and they spoke poor English. They said they didn’t believe I was the guy in the photo. In the photo I had black spikey hair but the guy trying to buy liquor at their store had half-green, half-red spikey hair. They didn’t understand that I had dyed my hair. Eventually we did get going. Russel hopped on the train to North Station where he would in turn catch a commuter rail back to his hometown. Lacey and I were going the same way so we hopped on the train together. We were both going outbound. Her stop was Fenway and mine was Newton Highlands. On the train we met an older guy with a black mohawk and a leather jacket covered in spikes studs patches paint & chains and he invited us back to his place.
Many eons ago I was in a dual-diagnoses work/treatment program. Looking back on it, it feels like a whole different life, like I was never even there and it was all just a dream. We lived on a farm and we worked in the woods, with the animals, in the garden, and in my favorite place: the auto shop. I was good at auto-mechanics, especially small engine repairs. When I left the program, I stayed in a halfway house and Mike, the shop leader, let me come on as a paid apprentice. I did that for a year. I lived in the halfway house and I discovered spice and no one knew because spice, although it feels so similar to pot, doesn’t show up in piss tests and I was beating the system. Every night after I came home from work, I smoked spice. After three to four months of living in the halfway house I got to live in my own apartment. I was court-ordered to stay here for a full year and although most residents had to stay in the house for at least six months, I was moved to an apartment because they knew when my time was up, I would run; it was my plan all along. They wanted me to have some experience living in my own place before I took off. So I started drinking again and smoking weed and they all knew about it but I didn’t care and neither did they, it seemed, because they knew the alternative; it was either here or 10 to 15 years behind bars and no one wanted that for me. After a while they were just like: We’ve Had Enough. Although I didn’t claim to be a drug addict/alcoholic, I was using like one; and they could not keep me here if this kept up. I received a letter from my parents that said when my probation was up, I could not return home. I was so fucked, and alone and lost and hopeless. So I started going to meetings. I got a sponsor. I told the world I was clean because I was: except for the Ritalin and suboxone I was using. Ritalin—because I was already prescribed to it and they had no way of knowing. Suboxone—because it doesn’t show up in piss tests unless they are advised to test for it specifically. This program did not test for it and I got high, so high, every night I got home from the meeting. I went to some meetings and nodded off throughout. I was so speedy I wrote like a maniac in my journal for the entire meeting. I chaired a meeting while doped up and manic. I watched the floor turn to water and move like the ocean. It was working; no one knew. Then Samantha responded to my email and she told me she was clean. She was clean and I was trying to get clean but nothing was enough of a reason for me to stay clean. Until her, of course. I came clean about my using. Told everyone. Agreed to do it for real this time. Because she was back and she was clean and we started going to meetings together. She lived in Boston and I lived in Rutland, VT, and on the rare occasions I’d see her we’d go to meetings together. Then I found out she smoked a ton of weed. I mean: A Ton. But she was clean and she didn’t consider weed a drug. But I did. Anything I can abuse is a drug to me. She was as sick as always and I was trying to better myself. Every time we fought I got high because she was my reason for getting clean and when that reason failed me it was: There Is Nothing to Lose. I had nothing to lose. I got so high every time we fought. Of course, she started drinking again and I found a much better reason to get clean which is: Stick Around and You’ll Find Out for Yourself. I started to do it for myself. I worked the Steps. And I worked them hard. Even if I was spun on my own medication, vivance. How else was I going to stay up all night and write? How else was I going to work the Steps? Last time I abused my Ritalin I was lucky I didn’t die—so lucky my heart didn’t give out!—but I was always honest every time I took extra Ritalin. Honest with my sponsor—he never fired rejected or abandoned me. Honest with my therapist—he was always so accepting and understanding. Honest with my doctor—she was always so forgiving. Until I took enough to kill me. She immediately took me off of Ritalin and put me on vivance, which is supposedly better and much harder to abuse, and said if I tried to abuse it she’d take me off of all stimulants—for good! But I needed a stimulant because my ADD was so bad. So I took a little extra here and there, just enough to stay awake longer, and I ran out early every week; but it was no issue because I was happy now and I was doing so well and perhaps everyone knew and just looked past it. I came clean about it after I moved to Burlington because the doctor said I would have random pill counts and I knew I had to come clean. He didn’t condone this behavior but I’m pretty smart and I made it seem like what I was doing wasn’t as bad as it was. It was bad! I wrote the doctor a long letter justifying it. He bought it. I continued to beat the system. I got married and a year into the marriage Michelle said she couldn’t do it anymore. It was either her or vivance. I chose her but it was hard because my support system was stripped away from me. I had to do this and over time I learned I did not need this stimulant anymore and over time I was back to normal, or closer to it. In the end we are all drug addicts. Someone once told me that if I went the same lengths I went to get and stay high and did something else instead, I’d be surprised at how far I would have gone. At the time I didn’t understand what he meant. Because when he said it—I was high as God.
I was sitting downtown, by myself, outside the Radio Bean, listening to a band called the Didjits on my portable speaker. I’d been listening to the Spaceshits, but some strange older woman had told me to turn it up and she said the band reminded her of the New Bomb Turks and then told me I should check out the Didjits. Always on the lookout for new bands to listen to, I said I would; I found them on Spotify moments later. Then she told me her food was ready; she went inside the Greek restaurant beside the Bean, and I moseyed back to the Bean and continued sitting here all alone. As I sat here, the woman walked past me holding her food and asked if I like the Boys. From England? I said. She said: Yeah. And I said: Yeah, the Boys are awesome.
So I was sitting here waiting for the Bean to open and the open-mike to begin. They open at 6:00 and the last two times I had driven down here for an open-mike I had to drive around for a good hour looking for a place to park. Tonight that was not the case; I had found a spot right away. So I got here half an hour early. But that wasn’t the worst: it was a beautiful night and it gave me time to sit here and reflect. And I really enjoy watching people and stuff like that and this is what my life is about—sitting in the midst of the commotion but not too close to become totally absorbed by it. On the outside, that’s where I wish to remain, but close enough so that I can join in whenever it feels right.
At the open-mike I planned to read a new poem called “Devil” and a new story called “In the Absence of Zack.” I wasn’t sure how they would take those pieces, though. “In the Absence of Zack” is about a good friend of mine who had died from a heroin overdose a few years back. A few weeks ago the Bean had cancelled the open-mike because some young girl who I suppose had used to work there had died a few days earlier and they were doing a memorial for her, which is really sweet. I hope people care that much after I die.
Every other week it’s poetry-only and every other week it’s everything else. This week it’s everything else, but I still read, anyway, and normally the Radio Bean brings pretty astute listeners to their venue.
At other joints and venues people are loud and they don’t care what’s going on onstage. We become just ambient noise, for all they care. But here, at the Bean, they watch and they listen and they even applaud when you’re done, and that kind of validation feels good.
Last time I was here, this guy named Bobby was here to perform too, and I used to go to his open-mike at Manhattan Pizza and I’d have him play guitar while I read and it was so much fun. So I had asked him if he’d do the same last time I was here, and he did. Bobby was here tonight, too, and I asked him if he’d do that for me again, and he said maybe, but since I didn’t want to make him feel pressured and plus, that one story I was gonna read is really sad and I didn’t think it would do well with music in the background—it’s one of those pieces that needs to stand alone—I told him not to worry about it; it was probably better that I went on alone.
Outside the Bean this guy with a long ponytail walked past me and I stopped and stared thinking he was my friend Wyatt because he looked just like him and then I realized it wasn’t Wyatt and I texted Wyatt to tell him I just saw his doppelgänger outside of the Bean and he told me I should stop by Lincoln’s tonight—that’s where he works but nobody was there right now and he said I should stop in. I asked him to remind me where that is. He said it’s the speakeasy in the alleyway next to Red Square. I knew where that was, but I could never actually find the entrance to the speakeasy myself; it was apparently a hidden entrance and after many attempts to get in had failed, I figured this place doesn’t even exist.
I was the third to go on. For some reason my anxiety was feeling pretty intense. I got up there and told everyone I was pretty anxious tonight. Hope I don’t piss myself, I added, then immediately regretted saying that and mumbled: But I probly won’t don’t worry. Everyone laughed. I gulped. I read the first poem. People smiled and clapped. I felt a little more comfortable up there now. Then I read the story about Zack. I smiled because people were reacting with sadness and compassion. That was the reaction I was going for when I wrote the story a few weeks earlier.
After I read, I went to collect my stuff and head out, when the two women seated to my left asked me about my books. I didn’t want to stick around any longer, so I gave them each my card with my website on it and they read the blurb on the card and they both smiled.
Then I set out to find Lincoln’s again. I was in the alleyway beside Red Square and I saw a bar and I went inside but I didn’t see Wyatt anywhere. I asked the bartender: Is this Lincoln’s? He said: Next door. I went outside the bar and all there was next door was an ATM. So I continued walking. Up the street I asked a bouncer outside some random bar where Lincoln’s was and he told me to go in that room with the ATM and find the secret button that opens the secret door. So that’s what I did: I went into that room but I couldn’t find the button so I texted Wyatt thinking he was fucking with me or something but then a hatch in the wall opened up and there was Wyatt, and the place actually did exist.
I went in the bar and he served me a coke and told me it was on him and then we caught up for a while and he told me about his birthday party coming up and I didn’t think I’d make it and then eventually I left. After leaving I texted Michelle that I had finally found the speakeasy and that I was walking to the car and I’d be home shortly. But then, feeling bad that I wouldn’t be able to make it to Wyatt’s birthday party, I double-backed to the bar and decided to give him a copy of my newest book as an early birthday present.
So I was in the ATM again and I could not find the button. Earlier Wyatt had opened the door for me. This time he texted me to tell me where the button was. He said it’s that wooden box, so I was searching for it. I thought maybe you had to lift it up and the button was behind it, but of course the box did not move. He said I was getting close. The button is the box. So I pressed the box and nothing happened and he came out and closed the secret door and then whacked the box, hard, and the door opened back up. I said: Oh, I’m good at punching things. And then I punched the box, and he said: Not that hard. And then I gave him his birthday present and walked to the car and went home.
NO MORE BUSSES TO HUNTINGTON AVE., said the guy at the station. WE’RE CLOSING UP FOR THE NIGHT.
WHAT’S THE NEXT BUS? I asked him.
Some whispers. He was chatting with someone just out of view. He turned to me and said: BLUE HILLS. Then grabbed the metal cage and pulled it over the window with a loud clank.
FUCK! I spat. I turned to Samantha and smiled.
She stood there, all innocent and beautiful. I paced up and down the ramp.
Guess we should have spent less time branding each other with smileys from our lighters and more time preparing for the future.
I looked at her again, still smiling.
She was still shrugging.
I nodded up the ramp toward the bus that was just pulling in.
IT’D BE A LONG WALK, I told her. AT LEAST THIS WAY WE’RE A LITTLE BIT CLOSER.
She stopped shrugging and nodded.
We ran through the station, all the while fumbling for loose quarters in our pockets.
The bus doors slid shut just as we got there.
I banged my fist on the glass.
The doors slid open.
The bus driver, an elderly black man with short gray hair and a patchy gray beard, looked at us very sharply. He was considering this. We stood there framed by the doorway as he held his wrinkly black hand over the coin reader.
I started up the steps.
Samantha followed me on the bus.
He removed his hand from the coin reader and looked rather nervous as we walked right past him and dropped our quarters in the machine.
There were two people on the bus, sound asleep. They sat in opposite aisles from one another and both their heads were buried in a large backpack.
We made our way to the back.
The bus jerked up and rumbled out of the station. I watched as Boston flew past me in a blur of lights. Samantha rested her head on my shoulder.
I heard a ding and in a few beats the bus pulled up and one of the passengers got off. Before the bus started up again, the driver glared at me through the rearview mirror. His eyes looked hardened and dead.
A few more streets later the bus pulled up and we gained a new passenger. A black man a few years older than us walked right up to us and sat down in the row in front of us.
Samantha lifted her head and snapped to attention.
The black man said: LISTEN. He was not looking at us. He was looking straight ahead, at the window across from him.
LISTEN, he repeated. DO YOU KNOW WHERE THIS BUS GOES?
UM, BLUE HILLS? I offered.
He chuckled but I didn’t get the joke.
He explained that Blue Hills crosses through Dorchester and Mattapan and was perhaps one of the toughest spots in the city.
I looked at Samantha.
Her eyes said that she was a little bit scared.
I didn’t care. I was ready for an adventure.
The bus driver said: LAST STOP. BLUE HILLS.
As we followed behind the black man, he said without turning around: JUST STICK WITH ME, YOU’LL BE FINE.
I checked the time and it was almost 2AM.
He said he had to go get some smokes. FOLLOW ME.
We crossed the street close behind him.
He entered a 7/11 and I’d never seen a 7/11 that looked quite like that. It was just an empty room and the clerk and all the store’s products were secured behind bulletproof glass.
That was when the fear started to sink in.
We were way out of our league.
Two middle-class white kids.
We didn’t belong here.
He ordered a pack of cigarettes and the clerk turned and retrieved one and slid it through the rectangular window at the bottom of the glass.
We followed him out of the store.
He said: THERE SHOULD BE ANOTHER BUS COMING THROUGH HERE SOON. IT DOESN’T MATTER WHERE IT’S GOING. YOU TWO ARE GETTING ON IT.
We followed him across the bleak inner-city street. There was no noise except for the rattling of cans somewhere in the distance. It really set the ambiance of the night. The streets were empty. Imagine an old Western movie and there’s about to be a showdown and everyone is hiding and all that you can see are tumbleweeds rolling past the screen.
We reached the bus stop and Samantha sat on the ground with her back to the wall as we waited.
Time passed ever so slowly. We could have been there for 30 minutes or a few hours, there was no way of knowing.
A black man and a black woman crossed us and the black man looked us up and down and said: YO, YOU WAITING FOR THE BUS?
He said: THIS AIN’T THE RIGHT BUS STOP. THE ONE YOU LOOKIN FOR IS OVER THERE. He pointed down the street to a dark dark alleyway.
The man we were following turned to him and said: THEY’RE WITH ME!
The strange woman laughed real loud and the man she was with just snarled and said: YOU’RE LOSS.
A cop car drove past and the man we were with flagged him down. They stopped in the middle of the street, but it didn’t matter because there was no traffic whatsoever—they were the only car for miles.
The man said: HEY, YO. CAN YOU GIVE THESE TWO KIDS A RIDE OUTTA HERE?
The two cops exchanged a glance, then turned to the man and said: NOT OUR PROBLEM.
The black man said: DO YOU REALLY WANT TO TURN ON THE NEWS THIS MORNING AND FIND OUT TWO WHITE KIDS HAD BEEN MURDERED ON YOUR WATCH.
Again, they exchanged a glance.
The one in the driver seat said: I GUESS WE CAN GIVE THEM A RIDE TO THE EDGE OF TOWN. WE CAN’T GO ANY FARTHER, THOUGH.
The man looked at us and said: WHAT ARE YOU TWO WAITING FOR?
We hurried into the back of the cruiser. This was my first time in a cop car without my hands cuffed behind my back. They drove us to the edge of town and we walked the rest of the way back to Samantha’s dorm.
It was a Monday. All day I expected Zack to call me. I wasn’t too concerned since I was only letting him crash at my place and it didn’t really affect me if he found somewhere else preferable to crash. Although he did beg me to let him crash with me before he got back. Up and begged for one last chance because he knew he screwed up big the last time I let him stay with me. So I told him this time there would be no drug use whatsoever, and he had to attend NA meetings with me, too. He was okay with that; he just wanted to get his life back on track when he returned to Rutland.
He stayed with me before he had left and he smoked weed and drank and then there was the time he took acid and I had to watch him to make sure he did nothing stupid. I’m not an asshole, I wasn’t gonna deprive him of those experiences even though I wasn’t partaking in them myself.
One day I was planning to print out a bunch of my artwork and see if any stores around there would carry them. Zack said he’d come along. On the way to the UPS Store we stopped at Burger King and there was a guy and a girl he recognized from Rainbow Gathering. The guy introduced himself as X. He had a long beard and glassy eyes. The girl wore a winter hat over her short head of hair, even though it was summertime. I forgot her name.
Zack told me he wanted to travel cross-country with the two of them but I did not advise it. He said why not? like it was up to me to give him permission. Like I was his father. I said because you’re getting clean from heroin. It’s not a good idea, I told him. He assured me that lots of people get clean on the road. I told him I know, but lots of people get high on the road too, and I’m guessing that’s where your head is at. I know he really wanted to go. His older brother Pete was doing it and I know Zack wanted to fall in his brother’s footsteps.
While I went to the UPS Store, Zack hung back at Burger King with his two squatter buddies. When I got back, there was another, different group of squatters there, also in town for Rainbow Gathering. But Zack and his squatter buddies were gone. The new crew told me they overheard the three of them talking; they were talking about going to score some H.
I was so disappointed in him.
I thought that would be the last time I saw him.
But he came back that night and asked if his friends could crash here. I said no. I told him they’re junkies and they’re not staying here. Please, he said. They’ve got nowhere else to go. No, I told him. No fuckin way!
The next day, after Zack went to work, I ran into my neighbor and he told me our porch was a pigsty this morning. Empty coffee cups and cigarette butts were everywhere. He was so pissed and he wanted to tell the landlord but he liked me and he didn’t want me to get evicted.
I texted Zack and said he could not come back here. He really screwed me. The only rule was no bringing people over here without my permission. Otherwise I didn’t give a rat’s ass what he did.
I thought that would be the last time I saw him.
A few days later his mom called me and asked if I’d heard from him. I said no.
His mom was so worried and I gave her my own mom’s number for support. My own mom had been through what she was going through now.
She was very grateful.
I thought I would never hear from him again. He was one of my best friends and I was so sad to let that go.
A few weeks later I got a message from him that told me he was in Kentucky. He was having so much fun. I was happy for him. Truly happy.
I showed him the story I wrote about when he was crashing with me. He thought it was great. So we kept in contact this way.
A month went by and he told me he was ready to come home now and could I give him one last chance? I said I would. On two conditions: No using drugs, and he had to attend NA meetings with me.
The weekend he got back, though, I had to attend my cousin’s wedding in Montreal so for that weekend he had to find another place to stay.
I went to the bus station. I knew Zack was taking the bus home that day too. I wondered if I’d run into him at the bus station.
When my bus pulled up into the station, I saw a familiar face bobbing down the aisle. Apparently he was on the same bus I would be on in a few minutes.
He got off and I gave him a big hug and told him I’d see him when I got back. I reasserted the rules of no using drugs when I got back, so I suggested he get it all out of his system before then. I guess I was just a nice guy and I understand the mentality of being a drug addict.
I got back to Rutland Sunday night. I was looking forward to seeing him again.
On Monday I went to therapy and my life skill’s coach who worked with my therapist told me the two of them wanted to speak with me together. I wasn’t sure why; it was rare that this ever happened.
I followed her into his office and she sat in one of the empty chairs and my therapist sat at his desk and he looked genuinely sad. Did something happen?
I sat on the couch across from him. What is going on? Am I in trouble or something? Did I do something wrong?
My therapist looked me in the eye. Fuck, this is bad.
He took a deep breath. Why is he dragging this out?
He paused and then he told me my mom called him. It was about Zack. I gulped. What about Zack?
Over the weekend, he said, stopped and mulled over what to say next. This isn’t good. Over the weekend, he continued, Zack died of a heroin overdose.
No. he didn’t, I just saw him Friday.
His mom called my mom and she didn’t want to tell me herself so she asked my therapist to break the news to me.
That’s impossible, I said. I just talked to him. We’re gonna meet up today. I’m just waiting for him to call me. And then he’s gonna come stay with me again.
Both of them were really sad. They both had met the kid before too. They knew him. Like me. And then it clicked.
He was really gone\\\