In a room without windows, I stand on a mat in front of a squeaky Hobart and slice pork, turkey, and beef, sometimes lamb. I wrap meat in white paper and no one cares if I vary poundage, so long as it's within limits. For lunch, instead of walking across the street for a hamburger, I go out back to an alley lined with stuccoed buildings and prop my shoulders against a foul-smelling dumpster. A condom, snagged on a packing crate, wobbles in the breeze. I let my belt out a notch and wonder if Roxie will notice the weight I've put on since I last saw her.
At four o'clock I punch out and go to the boarding house on 35th Street. My room's okay for a hundred and fifty a week; I've seen worse. An air conditioner blows cold wind across the bed, and on the wall I've hung a picture of a hiker on the Appalachian Trail. The hiker stands on a rock at the edge of a cliff and he has a cocky smile, the kind I'd have if I wasn't stuck in Atlanta. It's not a meat-slicer smile, that's for sure. Next to him, above an empty bookcase, is a picture of a Maine chef with fingers wrapped around a lobster. The chef has contented eyes, like, if he cooks for the rest of his life, it's fine by him. I'm going up there, to Maine. That's the plan, anyway. I'm leaving the street life and walking on out of here. Roxie can come if she wants but I'm not holding out much hope.
I stare at the pictures until the light through the window turns gray, then go outside and drive the streets in a beat-up Buick. Tonight, the air is hot, a simmer that dries from inside out, and the asphalt, slick from a summer shower, glistens like a black mirror. I breathe exhaust fumes and watch the shadows. Heroin, crack, meth, coke, weed, acid, it's all there.
Both sides of the street, buildings jut into the sky, and signs high on concrete walls blink on and off. Under branched streetlights, women in jacked-up skirts strut the sidewalk. If a john barters with a whore in bad shape, blowjobs start at ten dollars. Barter with a whore in worse than bad shape, and five will do. I drive past a Salvation Army, past a tavern with an open door, past a massage parlor with iron bars on the windows.
A girl in a silver miniskirt waves me over. She has long legs, and she's stoop-shouldered tall, a young woman embarrassed of her height. I pull to the curb and roll the passenger window all the way down. She leans inside, dreadlocks framing a narrow face, and a boob slips from its fold. She smells of sweat and smoke, and I wonder when she last took a bath.
"Taz, honey, you know Roxie would kill me for messing with you," Laketa says, and stuffs her boob behind her halter-top.
"I haven't seen her since I got out of rehab."
"She's down on 30th Avenue. You know the house where TT Charlie hangs? She's down there most a the time. He's got some good dope."
"I'm clean as a bleached floor," I say, thinking of that hiker with the big smile. "That life's over for me."
Laketa backs away, I guess expecting me to babble self-righteously, but I have no sermons to preach, no advice to give.
"I knew you disappeared," she says, and levels her top. "I figured you up and moved on. I'm getting out a here myself one a these days. I got a kid down in Florida. . . . She must be three or four by now."
I dig underneath the seat and pull out a crumpled raincoat, stick it out the window. "Look, Laketa, you stay dry, you hear. You sleep someplace warm tonight."
She shrugs into the raincoat, a grateful look on her face. "Roxie ever turns you loose you come see me. I'll take care a you like you never seen."
I pull the Buick into traffic and tuck behind a minivan. Rain pelts the windshield and taillights reflect off the street in long liquid lines. The humidity makes me wish for air conditioning, but that's too much to ask with this crap car. It has one amenity, a radio that gets elevator music; only elevator music. I dribble my fingers on the dash and nod my head to a sleepy, piano solo. Call it destiny, fate, whatever, but I knew I was headed for the gutter the summer I hitched out west and got a job at a zinc extraction facility outside Denver. Third shift was quiet, the nights lit with stars, and I spent my time smoking weed and hiding from this greasy operator who constantly chased me down. He was bucking for promotion. Moving up in the world, he said.
On the Thursday before my first payday, an hour into the shift, I was stoned on Colombian Gold, easing across the concrete pad, when I stepped into a drainage ditch. Hydrochloric acid soaked through my pant leg and filled my boot. I giggled at the absurdity, one foot in the gutter, one foot out. I had a choice, stoned as I was, and knew it. I could pull the foot out, or step in with the other one. I sensed this was important, that the choice I made forecast my future. The operator whined for me to stop acting like an idiot and get out of there pronto. I looked at him, big grin on my face, and stepped in with the other foot. He came over and yanked me to the pad and hosed me off. I wasn't in long enough to bubble skin, but he said the acid would have eaten me to the bone.
That's what the gutter does to a guy, eats him to the bone.
I've only known Roxie for six, seven months, but she's the kind who gets inside a guy's head, the kind who hits hard. We met at a bar on the south side, danced to a Meatloaf CD, and she asked if I wanted to party. She was too skinny for my tastes, but when I slipped her sleeve up her arm and saw the track marks, I knew we had something in common. We drove to an overpass that petered out on the other side, like the state ran out of money or a rich politician changed his mind, and right there, in drizzling rain, we fucked on the hood of her mother's Honda Civic. After that, we were inseparable.
She's white trash, I suppose, although I think there's more to her. Sometimes, when I least expect it, she works an obscure word into the conversation. Like titular. She used that one time when she was off on a rant about the president. She's told me so many stories about herself I don't know which to believe. One day her father's a Baptist preacher who stuck his finger where it didn't belong, and the next he's CEO of Minute Maid. Supposedly there's a sister in Miami, or Houston, or New York, maybe Memphis. Like I said, the story changes from day to day. Roxie's a habitual liar, but I don't care. What we have, what's between us, is real as it gets.
I pull into a rutted drive, weeds knee-high, get out and walk around to the back of the house. A woman steps through the door and merges with the darkness. A stumble, a sharp curse, and she's gone. I go inside and pick my way down the hall while breathing a urine stench so strong it waters my eyes. In one of the bedrooms, a black man on a mattress, muscular legs expanding and contracting, humps a white girl, or maybe a white boy; I can't tell from this angle. I move on, down the hallway, to the kitchen. Crusted dishes clutter the sink, the counters, the refrigerator. A Mexican lies motionless on the floor.
A moan in the living room, and when I turn the corner, Roxie's naked on her knees in front of a guy on the couch. The guy's name is TT Charlie, and he's zipping his pants. I study her face, so familiar—the mole under her ear, the sliver of a scar on her cheek, the fine black hairs above her lip. Her eyes are my favorite part. They are a green paradox—innocently hard—eyes with staying power.
TT Charlie nods in my direction, then says, "I got me some Peruvian pink lady if you're interested. Ain't cheap. Sixty a quarter."
"I'm all right." I watch a hooker I don't know stumble into the room and sit in the recliner in the corner. She hikes her dress to her waist and spreads her legs wide as a wishbone. Her panties are yellowed in the crotch, and curly black hair, tight as a wire brush, grows on the inside of her thighs.
"White boy," she says to me. "Blow job'll cost you ten, pussy's twenty-five."
TT Charlie pushes Roxie away and hands her a quarter-gram. She pulls on hip-huggers and red blouse, comes over and gives me a hug.
"I got my kid," she says. "My mother left to go up to Atlantic City and she left me with my kid and her key."
"I need to talk to you," I say. "About something important."
The woman in the recliner says, "You watch out, girl, that white boy's Vice through and through. You watch out or he be running you up town. I seen his kind coming and going. He put you in jail and now where you gonna be?"
"Shut up, Fayesha," TT Charlie says. "Taz ain't no vice. That's his old lady."
"All I'm saying," Fayesha spits, "is she should watch her ass. I seen his kind. He don't want no poontang, he don't want no dope, there's something wrong. That's all I'm saying."
"That Mexican out on the kitchen floor might be dead," I say.
"We got us a real genius here," TT Charlie says. "A real community college whiz. That watermelon picker's been dead since morning. We ain't got around to it yet."
"It'll cost you," Roxie says. "Me and Taz'll dump him for an eight-ball."
"Ditch his petrified ass away from here," TT Charlie says, "and you got a deal."
I drag the Mexican out of the back seat and roll him into an alley that backs up to a shopping mall. Roxie fires her lighter, and the Mexican's eyes shine like white buttons. I cover his face with a soggy newspaper and give his side a kick. It's like thumping a melon, that kind of sound, and I kick him again.
"He might have some dope," I say. "Feel down around his balls, unzip and feel down there and see if he has some dope."
"I'm not feeling up no dead man."
"Feel down there and see if he has some dope. He must've died from something. Poor bastard probably overdosed."
"TT Charlie checked him over pretty good; he didn't have no dope and he didn't have no money, no ID, nothing but one of those Spanish phone calling cards. Fayesha says his name was Julio and he was a wetback that worked down at Pizzaria. She said he hadn't eaten in two weeks, probably starved himself to death or his heart stopped or something."
To the south, lightning, like a radioactive vein, branches across black sky. "I'm getting out of here," I say. "I got something in the trunk, a surprise. I want you to come with."
"If I'd known he hadn't eaten in two weeks I would have brought him a sandwich, or something. Maybe an egg roll. Huh, Julio? You think you might have liked an egg roll?"
"I have this plan, to get out of here, go somewhere we can't get any dope. It's impossible to get dope where I want to go."
Roxie unzips Julio's pants, feels under his testicles, and comes up empty. "The things I do for you."
I go over and open the trunk. "See, I got us a backpack and a tent and a stove, and look here, a book about a crippled guy who hiked the Appalachian Trail. I must have read this fifty times when I was in rehab. If a guy with a bad leg could do it, it'd be a piece of cake for you and me."
She holds the book to the trunk light. "Are you nuts? I ain't walking no Appalachian Trail. I ain't leaving Atlanta. I got my kid. Who wants to walk when you can ride?"
"I'm talking about walking out of here up to Maine and I'll get a job as a cook and maybe we'll wind up near the beach and I'll fish for lobsters. You can't get dope on the trail, that's what I'm saying. There's no dealer setting up in the mountains. You can't get dope out there. It's a dope free zone."
"You ain't no cook."
"I can learn," I say. "It can't be that hard."
"You can't even cook eggs."
I can cook eggs, but I don't want to argue the point.
"That all night 7-11?" Roxie says. "I want to stop on the way to my mom's place. I got my kid. Did I tell you? My mom went up to the casinos for the week. I had him since Monday."
Roxie gets in the passenger seat, and I wait while she shoots up. Then I head to 7-11 and buy doughnuts, broiled sausages, and a jumbo package of potato chips. Roxie's quiet when she's high—like she has too many thoughts to sort through—but I don't mind. It wouldn't kill her to offer me some of that eight-ball, she'd still have plenty left for the early morning hours. My hands clench the steering wheel. Whenever I feel craving creep through my body, I think about the Appalachian Trail. I don't like snakes, or bears, or sleeping out in the cold, or mountains; I don't like walking up mountains, and I don't like bugs. No mosquitoes or any type of flying insects for me. I hate the idea of sleeping in a tent. I'd do it all, every one of those things to put myself in a place where I can't get drugs. I've lived everywhere, name it and I've been there, but this is how it is: I can walk into any bar in the lower forty-eight and buy coke within the hour. Can't do that in the mountains, and that's what I'm saying. There is no gutter on the Appalachian Trail.
The Buick's headlights sweep across earth brown as coffee stains, and the trailer, caught in the gleam, shines like an aluminum coffin. I park in the driveway, and Roxie and I get out and walk to the door. A barbecue smell lingers, and I'm reminded of the food we purchased at 7-11. That's another thing that's different since I'm clean. I think about food all the time. Especially chocolate. There's nothing like an oversized chunk of éclair melting in my mouth. I swear it makes me hard. I'm cut out for food. That's why cooking up in Maine's a good idea. I can make it as a cook. I bet I have recipes I never thought of.
"You coming in, or what?" Roxie says. The door thumps siding and windows vibrate. I lug the backpack inside, look around. The trailer is single-wide and has a kitchen and combination living-dining room. There are a few pictures on the walls, an ashtray on a chipped end table. Roxie melts coke in a spoon, cinches a shoestring around her bicep, and holds the string in her teeth. Down the narrow hallway, a doorknob jiggles.
"I'll get him," I say, but she shakes her head. I'd forgotten she never shoots up in front of her kid. Strange how memories fade when lovers spend time apart.
"Help me with this, will you?"
She's been pumping these veins for two years, and purple splotches mottle the inside of her elbow like chicken pox. I press the needle through her skin and find a vein on the first try. Her teeth unclench, the string releases its grip, and her eyes roll back. I'm known for my expertise, and sometimes wonder if I would've made a good nurse or maybe a surgeon. Now that my mind's cleared up, I could go back to school. Maybe get into pre-med and take biology classes. Or I could major in math. At Atlanta Community College, Calculus was my favorite subject.
"This is some good dope," she says. "Hits like a train."
I open the backpack and pull out a miniature radio I bought especially for Roxie because she likes her music.
"See," I say. "This thing runs on AA batteries and we can share it at night. You can listen to your country and I can listen to jazz."
Roxie rolls up my sleeve. She's offering to get me high, and I might as well admit it, the coke in that baggie is killing me. I want it so bad my heart's clenched hard as a walnut. I watch the doorknob down the hall turn clockwise, then counterclockwise, then clockwise. Click . . . . Click . . . . A circular metronome. The turning stops. Then starts.
"We got some box wine and a twelve pack of Old Milwaukee," Roxie says, and goes over to the fridge. She brings the booze and puts it on the table. Trickles me a glass of wine. I drink it, and another. Roxie shoots up and we guzzle beer. We drink wine and I spread the backpacking gear on the floor. Tell her about the tent and how it zips up on the side. Roxie hands me a beer, but I put it on the table and pull her pants to her ankles. She pushes me away, shoots up again. I'm getting drunk and I'm watching that doorknob.
"He wants out," I say.
Roxie takes off her hip-huggers, and walks around the living room in her blouse and panties. She throws the backpack over her shoulder and I'm pleased. She's into the idea, the first time I've seen her think about a future without coke.
"Moowhaaah," she says, and bends at the waist. Head down, she stomps around the room. "Mooooooowhaaaaaah." She extends her index fingers and puts one on each side of her head. Her foot scrapes the carpet. "I'm a stoned-assed bull and you're the matador. Show me some ass, Mr. Matador."
I take off my shirt, my pants, my boxers, and she rams her head into my butt cheeks. Her fingers dimple my skin like pink worms. I laugh so hard my sides ache, then go over to the table and roll the needle in a circle. One bump wouldn't hurt; might temper the zipper of a headache I'm sure to have tomorrow. I can already see I'm not going to work. Maybe I'll call in and maybe I won't. Probably I won't. It's not like I owe them anything. I walk down the hall to the bathroom, relieve myself, then eyeball the mirror. I stick my fingers in the corners of my lips and pull the skin tight. Then I grab a brush on the counter and comb my hair across my forehead. Then I tease it like a Mohawk. I should have been an Indian. I would have walked through the mountains and eaten meat on a stick every chance I got. I love meat on a stick. Chicken, beef, pork, name it, and I've eaten it on a stick. My stomach's stuck on spin cycle, and I lean over the toilet, puke bile into the rusty bowl. If I want to get high, I better do it now. That coke's going fast.
In the hallway, I stop at the door to the room where Roxie's stashed her kid. I wish she would let him come out and play. He's entertaining. One time he stood on his head and looked at us with crossed eyes. Another time Roxie shotgunned him with premo-pot, and he spun like a ballerina until he passed out.
"Hey," I say. "You doing all right in there?"
The knob twists, a tentative movement, and a voice squeezes through the crack.
Roxie cusses in the living room and I hurry in there and shoot her up. "These veins," she says. "These veins are like spaghetti. I got spaghetti veins. I'm a freakin' bull with spaghetti veins."
I pick up the box wine and hold the spigot to my lips. Drain the box, toss it on the floor. Drain the last beer and toss it next to the box. The sun's coming up, and through the window the trailers look dirty in the brown light. A car drifts down the road. Some sucker headed to work, no doubt. In the yard across the way, a woman with curlers in her hair waters petunias. Petunias! Who thinks about petunias first thing in the morning?
"Taz," Roxie says. "Taz, come here."
The woman in the yard looks up and I back away from the window. Although I'm naked as hell, I go to the door, open it, and holler across the street. "Mind your own damned business."
The woman goes inside and another car comes down the road. The sun is up over the trailers and it feels like the start of another hot day. I stand there, on the steps, then go inside. Roxie's on her knees and the baggie is on the floor. She rakes her fingers through the carpet. I think of Odell and I can't remember if we fed him, or what. I have a headache and I'm supposed to start that Hobart machine in an hour, so I'd better get to it. Atlanta would starve if I stop slicing meat. It's hell to be so important.
"Give it up," I say. "That coke's history—"
"You're such a bastard."
"I'll take you to get some more. Just relax and we'll go in a minute. Take a shower, why don't you? You smell like fucking hell." My hands are shaking and I'm staring at that needle.
"Get off my ass, don't nobody care how I smell. TT Charlie don't care and he's the only one that matters. He's got the dope, you ain't got nothin'. You got less than nothin'."
Roxie goes over and throws the backpack out the door. It rolls across the lawn and rests against a picnic table.
"Cook, my ass," she says. "You ain't leaving me and I ain't walking no Appalachian Trail. You put your clothes on and take me to the corner. I'll get us some money and we'll get us some coke and come back here and do it up. You and me, we'll jump in the sack and do it up like old times."
"You take a shower, then we'll go. We're not going anywhere till you clean up."
I follow her down the hall, wait till I hear water running, then open the door to Odell's room. There's bottled water on a dresser, and in the corner a bucket for a toilet. The room smells like a gas station bathroom. Odell darts past my leg and I follow him to the table. Wrappers fly and he stuffs a wrinkled sausage in his mouth. The kid's got shaggy brown hair, a rock star look, and squinty blue eyes. He wears shorts, no shirt, and ribs show through skin like rows of bent branches. He chews through three sausages, then starts in on the potato chips. The boy eats like it's going out of style. If I had a restaurant, I'd want it full of eaters like him.
I look out the window at my backpack, only it isn't there anymore. The dirt is wet with dew and I see tracks coming and going. A guy in cut-off jeans walks up the road, backpack slung over his shoulder, and I watch him go. Good riddance to a bad idea. The sun is up and I look around the living room for a fan. There's the needle, the empty baggie, a dozen empty beer cans, the noise from the shower, and Odell with his mouth full of potato chips. Roxie, towel wrapped around her hair, comes down the hall and sits next to Odell. Breakfast coming up, I say in a voice too loud. I heat a skillet on the stove and get four eggs out of the fridge. I break the eggs over the skillet and watch the whites bubble and brown on the edges.