Alex and Jen peered through the blinds at the two men in the lot.
"That's the same guy as last night," Jen said. "Same coat, same hat, same walk."
A scrawny man passed his hand in front of a short kid with a backpack, their faces hidden beneath greasy baseball caps, and traded items too small to see from a hundred feet.
"It's always that same little punk," Alex said. "He can't be more than twenty-five." Alex and Jen watched as a second buyer stepped into the dark spot between parked cars and brushed hands with the kid. "This is getting out of hand. I need to do something about it."
"Alex." Jen stared at her boyfriend with wide and worried eyes, giving him the same look she gave every time an erratic driver flipped or cut him off on the road. As sweet as he was, he could be a hot-head, and she could tell the heat was rising in him now. "Like what?"
"I don't know," he said, pulling his hands from between the blinds. "Something."
Her and Alex's apartment complex sat beside a small corner shopping plaza where two, two-lane roads intersected. The complex's parking lot shared an edge with the shopping centers', and since most of her building's spots were usually filled by the time she got home, she, like many tenants, frequently parked in the adjacent lot.
Jen took Alex's coarse fingers in her soft palm. "Now don't go doing anything crazy," she said. "Let's just call the police and have them sort it out."
Outside, the dealer yanked shut his jacket and stood with what looked to Alex like a big stupid grin. "Alex? Did you hear me?"
He nodded. "Yeah." Squeezed her hand. "Yes I did."
Instead of grilling the fish she'd bought two days ago and enjoying the mild winter weather, Jen and Alex ate leftover tamales in front of their TV. It was the third consecutive night the dealers had kept them inside.
Their one-bedroom unit had a tiny back porch big enough for a barbeque, a small table, and two lounge chairs. Being one of the complex's rear units, the shopping plaza provided their porch an ugly blacktop backdrop, and immediately after moving in two months ago, they realized that the plaza was good for buying more than ice cream and cheap shoes.
"I think it's heroin," Alex told Jen after three weeks. "They don't seem wired out enough to be methheads."
Alex had seen the evidence: orange plastic syringe caps flattened by tires and wedged against parking blocks; tiny brittle balloons tied at the ends and slit up the center. Common practice was to roll a bead of heroin in cellophane then wrap it in a small balloon to form a pellet that dealers could hide in their mouths and swallow in case of a police search. Alex saw balloon bits everywhere. Once he'd even found a prescription bottle with the patient's and doctor's names scratched off.
The dealers and buyers blended in with the shoppers by day, but when the stores closed at eight and the cars cleared the lot, the not-so-honest shoppers were left exposed like stones at low tide. Men with dark beady eyes buzzed about on cheap mountain bikes. Nervous pedestrians, clinging to shadow, stepped across the lot to make their purchases in view of Jen and Alex's window. Some nights people loitered by light poles and pay phones for up to an hour, often itching their arms and picking their scalps between constant glances at their watch.
Nighttime activity centered around the lot's west side, where the residential and commercial lots met, and where dealers could stand between cars, blend with tenants and remain invisible from the road. After parking his car after work, Alex once turned around and locked eyes with a tan tattooed man. The man's chin went up, his brows raised, but he didn't smile. He studied Alex, not in a threatening way, but eagerly, like he knew him. "Hey," the guy said, tonguing his mouth in such a way that Alex knew there was something in it. When Alex didn't return the greeting, the man pulled up his collar and turned around. The next day Alex bought Jen pepper spray.
This wasn't what the two had envisioned for neighbors.
At nine the next day Jen stepped onto the porch where Alex was keeping an eye out for the dealer. She slipped from her wet wool coat, gave Alex a kiss and plopped down on his lap. Parent teacher meetings had gone well, she said, with few arguments over grades and only one angry parent. "How about here," she said, pointing to the lot, "are the freaks out tonight?"
"Yeah, I had to run some guy from the lot. I told him the cops were on their way and he split."
"Honey, what'd you do that for?" She brought her teeth gently down on the tip of his cold nose then soothed it with a kiss. "It's dangerous. And he could see where we live." Alex lied, explaining that he'd done it from the anonymity of his car then parked on the lot's far side to watch and make his presence known.
"Well, at least the cops know now," she said.
Alex paused. "Mmm, not exactly. But I am going to call them soon." He poked her ribs to break her scrutinizing gaze. "What? I want to wait 'til there's some action they can actually see."
Jen draped her arm across his shoulder and leaned close. "Well, I've got to say there's enough action for me. Every time I reach our door I find my fist clenched around the keys."
Cheek-to-cheek, Jen and Alex stared past the barbeque into the dark lot. Alex alternated between wanting to collect the junkies in a van and drive to the other side of town and wanting to sit down to tell them how good life could be if they only got help.
"I think we should call the cops anyway," she said, shifting in his lap. "Let them know there's a problem. They're professionals. It's what they're paid for."
He gave her waist a squeeze. "No, you're right. I'll call them tomorrow whether there's anything to see or not."
Jen moved to a separate chair so he could rub the tension from the rough undersides of her feet. She spent eight hours a day chasing toddlers around a large Montessori school, and he loved helping her unwind. Alex got to sit through eighty percent of his shift processing insurance claims. Instead of getting sore like Jen, he actually went numb—his feet, his butt, his brain. Data entry was as boring as being a garage attendant, which he'd done during college, and he often found himself weaving through freeway traffic on the drive home just to raise his pulse enough to see if he still had one.
He understood why so many of his coworkers smoked: it got them out of their seats every few hours, got them chatting with people, and the nicotine made them feel better for the few moments following its intake. Secretly, he missed smoking. He'd recently quit, as he had once every year for the last five years, and he knew it only took one smoke to start another year of coughing from a pack a day.
At work Alex dolled his cigarettes out in terms of doses. He believed nicotine relaxed and uplifted him, imparted a calm that overpowered the days' doldrums and stresses. He used cigs the way other people used cups of coffee, scheduling them according to the duration of their effect, so that as one wore off, he'd have another to keep the level of nicotine in his bloodstream high. He figured that by smoking one right before starting work at nine, the nicotine's effect, mixed with a greasy breakfast and a general grogginess, would last the morning. He would smoke another at eleven to re-up the effect, smoke two during lunch, sort of flooding his bloodstream, which he thought eased him through the afternoon slump, then smoked another at three to get through his shift. It was all psychological, he knew, the same unhealthy thinking that got him into drugs in his early twenties. But he couldn't deny it; smoking did help ease the boredom of work.
Seeing her exhaustion from the day of teaching and meetings, Alex cooked Jen a steaming pot of penne, her favorite dish. The apartment filled with the rich scent of wine and ripe tomatoes, the windows steamed up, and he propped three velvet throw pillows in the corner of the couch so she could enjoy her meal in a luxurious nest.
The food was potent with extra basil and marsala wine, just the way she liked it. They spoke between bites, let the flavors linger on their tongues, and afterwards, as always, Alex imagined having a nice relaxing smoke. He had been thinking about the taste of tobacco for the last three months and last Wednesday had finally broken down. There was a guy in payroll, Jim, one of those lifetime smokers with wrinkled eyes and skin the pallor of old bologna who, when he couldn't take a smoke break, just chewed nicotine gum. He ate that stuff as if it were Wrigley's; Alex saw the tiny blister packs piled in the trash. The gum was Jim's methadone.
When Alex finally gave in to his cravings, it was Jim he asked for a cigarette. "I didn't know you were a smoker," Jim said, pulling out a bent pack.
"I'm not. Not really, anymore."
At that Jim grinned and slid the thin white tube into Alex's hand. "I hear that." He opened his mouth, showing a brown square of gum resting on a tongue as chapped as an elephant's hide. "For the next thirty minutes I'm not either."
The brick had punched a hole in the back passenger-side window large enough for someone to crawl through. Angry angular shards covered the floorboards, dash and seats, and sent blinding bits of mercury-gray light into Alex's eyes. Unlocking the car before work that morning, Alex had initially mistaken the glass for cubes of ice, as if maybe he'd knocked over one of his three daily forty-four ounce sodas and sent the slush spilling across the floor. Then he saw the jagged hole. Damn, he thought, blowing fine hairs of glass off the seat and out the door, a fucking brick. Or maybe it was a fist wrapped in a sweater or towel. Alex couldn't tell. He couldn't turn his radio on either; it was gone, torn from the faux leather dash and snipped free of all wires. He reached through the hole to unlock the back door and found two empty beer cans and a spent syringe sitting on the floor with the innocence of old socks. He knew the culprit, would bet money on the guy's guilt, and even if it wasn't the dealer, which he was sure it was, then it was one of those pathetic, desperate, jobless junkies that the dealer drew. God dammed leaches, he mumbled out loud, bottom fucking feeders. At least when he was into junk he'd been in school, had a steady job.
The previous day, with Jen busy at parent-teacher conferences, Alex had waited for nightfall, and when the young dealer appeared between two parked cars, Alex had grabbed his knife from the nightstand, put on a baseball cap and slinked outside.
A cool mist sprinkled down—typical Tucson winter. Layers of clouds blocked the moon Alex knew was shining high above him, reducing all light to a luminous, pallid gray. Alex approached from the east side so no one would see where he'd came from and trudged, chin up, toward the figure. All of Alex's old movements came back to him: the casual strut, the forceful stare, glancing peripherally for cops without moving his head. As the dealer's face came into focus, his hands emerged from inside a puffy Phoenix Suns coat, and their eyes met. Alex nodded. The guy nodded back and followed with an invitation. "What's up?"
"Hey." Alex stepped close. The dealer was maybe nineteen, but with yellowed skin and lips as cracked as an abandoned cotton field, he looked a lot older. "Got any chiva?"
Alex kept his face down. "Just one." He slipped the man a ten, and when the dealer dropped a red balloon in his hand, Alex presented the blade. "Now get the fuck out of this neighborhood and don't come back unless you want a limp."
The man's face turned more sour than stunned. He stared at Alex, his brows twisting like a series of gang hand signals, then reached in his pocket. "Hey." Alex pushed the knife against the guy's wrist and spoke from under the brim of his hat. "Keep your hands where I can see them and walk slowly away. Far away. Don't stop 'til this place is a memory. This lot's no longer open for business."
The dealer glanced at the knife, relaxed, as if it were just another bill, then spit. "Stupid move dude." His smile broadened the way Jen's students' smiles did when they savored their disobedience, yelling out "No!" at her request to sit down or stop running; it was a challenge, a giddy defiance. "Sure you don't want my cell number?" he said. "Good shit."
"Go." Alex tightened his jaws. "Don't make me say it again. Cops are on their way."
The man spun around with an almost mordant compliance, grinding asphalt beneath expensive white sneakers. Alex ducked behind a car in case he had a gun. The guy strutted toward the intersection, his oversized jeans dragging across the pavement, and his arms swinging in big limp circles, as he tried to look tough, undefeated.
A surprisingly deep sigh of relief escaped from Alex's mouth. He was elated, overwhelmed with satisfaction, the kind he usually only felt after taking a day off work or after yelling at a reckless driver who had cut him off. Proudly, he laughed at his performance—"unless you want a limp." He'd heard that line in a movie where a cowboy runs a horse thief out of town with the tip of the thief's own pistol. The rest was a rendition of things from years past.
Alex stayed home from work that morning, describing to his boss the theft and the necessity of getting the glass replaced before the next big rain. He sat on the edge of the bed, playing the dealer's threat over in his mind, hoping Jen wouldn't find out what he'd done, and as he pulled off his work shoes, he checked the nightstand drawer. The heroin balloon sat just where he'd put it: in a tin of Altoid mints. For some reason, he didn't know why, after confronting the dealer, Alex had come into the bedroom, emptied the tin, and like a wintering squirrel, stored the balloon safely inside.
It wasn't the same tin he'd kept his drugs in when he was regularly using five years ago, but it was the same type: two by three inches large, half a thumb-deep, reeking of peppermint. That was a time in his life he tried not to think of, a shameful period that, he felt, was best left in the dimmest chambers of his recollection, buried with the countless bad teenage haircuts and sloppy first kisses. No one still in his life, not his current friends, not even Jen, knew he'd been an addict.
Alex and his friends had been wild and restless. Together they had gone through distinct phases—drinking, smoking pot, trying speed and acid, dabbling briefly in coke, first at parties, then on weeknights—before falling quickly and heavily into heroin their last year of college.
He never injected, he was proud to say, only snorted, but the effect was the same. In only ten months he got himself strung out. On Friday and Saturday nights he and his friends would cruise a certain South Tucson neighborhood where dealers paced in front of little 1940's bungalows that were decorated with chili garlands and shrines to the Virgin of Guadalupe, and each buy a ten. They'd put a gooey brown dab atop a bong hit, smoke a little straight on a piece of aluminum foil, sometimes dissolve it in water and take a snort.
Alex used to like having a big hit waiting for him at home after class, which eventually became before and during, and he soon began storing his utensils in an Altoids tin: a two inch section of soda straw, the broken top of a baby food spoon, a razor for slicing and mixing, and an eye dropper filled with water. That way, he could slip into any bathroom and mix a hit. Later, he started keeping an eyedropper full of a prepared solution so he could just duck around a corner in someone's house or on campus and avoid spending so much time in the bathroom. Heroin was too effective a stress-reducer not to give in to it. With a dose of narcotics in him, few things raised his blood pressure. Reckless drivers, rush-hour traffic, approaching school deadlines—he took them all in peaceful stride. "No problem," he started saying, "fine with me." People honked, cars swerved, deadlines passed, and he rolled with it. Heroin was his Yogic breathing, his chamomile tea. It was his little secret, and the secrecy was thrilling.
He had done pretty well over the years staying sober. He'd thrown away most of the Vicodin the dentist prescribed him for his wisdom teeth. A bottle of Percocet that Jen had for a sore back had been in the bathroom cabinet for over a year, and every day after his shower, he reached over it for his toothpaste and deodorant and never took one. Still, a twisted nostalgia often set in; John Travolta's character in Pulp Fiction, the cover of the book Trainspotting, even the sight of a bent spoon in a café, all reminded him of the warm rush. The same way the dealers did in his backyard.
Alex rolled the hard rubber bead across his palm, pressing it between his fingers, testing its solidity. He wiped his nose, glanced at the garbage can across the room, then dropped the bead back in the tin.