Nicole drove away from Raphael at a good clip, as soon as they had copped the drugs. Nicole was focused and silent. Carl was too. Carl could not drive. Since he hadn’t acquired the skill in all the years he had lived in LA, he safely assumed that he would go to his deathbed without learning.
Carl was in the backseat, tearing open one of the black balloons with his teeth. He had the spoon balanced on his knees. He poured some Evian into the spoon and dropped a nugget of dope into the water. Nicole had the radio on. It was an 80’s flashback weekend again. Every weekend in LA seemed to be an 80’s flashback weekend. Rodney Bingeheimer started to play “Dead Mans Party” by Oingo Boingo and Carl yelled, “Turn that shit off, you’re gonna kill my high.”
She stuck a tape in, The Smiths self-titled first album. Carl instructed her to drive steady, as he cooked the dope, dropped a cigarette filter into the solution, and drew it up into 2 syringes. On the backseat was an empty bag of Jack In The Box from last week which had made the whole car stink of stale onion rings. Not even the smell of just cooked heroin could mask it. Carl had a rubber tourniquet around his arm and his syringe between his teeth.
People were honking at Nicole because she was driving slowly, mindful of Carl’s activities in the back seat. A Toyota Corolla pulled around them, the driver gave the finger, and cursed at her in Spanish. Nicole yelled for him to suck her dick. Carl slid the needle in his arm.
He was burrowing around in there. In was 11am on Saturday morning, and the heat was already oppressive, stifling. They had just spent their last 100 dollars on heroin and crack. They had another 2 weeks wait until the next disability check arrived. It was hopeless. But they couldn’t figure out what else to do. They couldn’t figure out a way of spending the 100 dollars that would save their asses. 100 dollars didn’t go far. It represented either a few more nights in the hotel, food for the week, gas for the car. Other than that it had little practical value. Spending it on drugs seemed to be a much more sensible thing to do.
Carl had been an addict for several years. Before he was an addict, he ghosted from job to job, girl to girl, always feeling somewhat sad and unsatisfied with life. Sex made him happy sometimes, but after he came he would feel slightly sick in the pit of his belly and melancholy in a way that he couldn’t quite understand. As if he had taken advantage of the girl, or himself, and he couldn’t quite figure out how. Every morning he woke up with a sad, disconnected feeling that the day was something to be overcome, like a bout of illness or a mathematics test.
Heroin was rife in the music scene in LA. It seemed that nobody left turds floating in the toilets of LA bars anymore – just crumpled bits of tin foil. Heroin was not hard to track down. For want of a strong pull in any other direction Carl had tried it and liked it, and kept doing it from that day on. It didn’t cure the ache inside of him, but it cured the boredom he felt. Life on heroin was as much of a chore as life off of it, but at least on it he woke up with the feeling that something interesting might happen.
Carl pulled the needle out of my arm, causing some black-looking blood to gout out a little. He thought “Where were you when I needed you?” He stuck the needle back in, a little further down, and started probing around again.
Suddenly the car bounced, and he shot straight out of his seat, hit his head on the upholstery, and tore a hole in his arm the size of a nickel. Carl looked very bloody, and he had somehow bent up the needle too.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he demanded, “Drive slowly, bitch!”
“It was a pothole!” she yelled back, “You can’t expect me to take the blame for all of the goddamned pot holes in this city! And don’t call me bitch. Stop talking like a nigger! You’re Polish!”
Carl got it in. The needle was bent, but he managed to strike red gold on his third attempt, and I fed the shit in, slow and steady. Somebody else was honking at them, as Nicole made a turn into an “El Pollo Loco” parking lot. As the dope hit, the frantic, staccato horn started to sound like John Coltrane blowing on his tenor. When the second guy that day started to curse them out in Spanish, it sounded like he was reading Lorca.
“You just couldn’t wait two fucking minutes. Look at you. You look like you’ve been in a bar fight. You’re such a fucking pig.”
In the parking lot Carl sat back, jaw slack and mouth wide, while Nicole fixed in her groin, knees up on the steering wheel. When they were both high enough that the question didn’t hurt, she asked him:
“So what are we going to do now?”
Carl said: “I don’t know.”
They had already moved their shit out of the hotel, and stashed it in bin liners in the trunk of the car. There was no more money for drugs. The disability checks were arriving at their old apartment, but instead of changing their address, once a month they would stake out the apartment, wait for the mail man, and then sneak their check out of the mailbox before the new tenants got to it. It was stupid system, but the whole process of writing to the county and informing them of the new address seemed unnecessarily long and fraught with potential anxiety. Carl and Nicole didn’t like anxiety. That’s why they took heroin.
“My mom keeps saying we should stay with her to get clean.”
“Will she give us food?”
“Nope. But I know the combination of their safe. As long as we don’t take too much, they would probably never even know. We could detox ourselves, just take the bare minimum and reduce.”
“That doesn’t work. That never works.”
“People get clean that way. I’ve seen it on TV.”
“TV isn’t real, Nicole.”
“Look – some people get clean. They have to. Where do all the ex junkies come from?”
Carl shrugged. But then it was decided. They were going to stay in Nicole’s mom's house, in Venice.
When she first told him that her mom lived in Venice, Carl stupidly thought that she meant Venice Italy. But there was nothing romantic about the part of Venice that Nicole’s mom lived at. It was called Ghost Town. It was a crack neighborhood. Nicole’s mom’s house was beautiful. Nicole’s stepfather had built the whole thing himself. He was a city architect. He had built it in the early 80’s, convinced that Ghost Town was a neighborhood on the verge of a sudden gentrification. He was wrong.
The house reflected his obsession with Japanese culture. It looked Japanese. It had a wood façade, and was surrounded by sliding glass panels. There were mediation rooms and samurai swords on the walls. It looked like it had been airlifted into the ghetto from Osaka or something. You couldn’t see any of this from the street, because the house was surrounded by an imposing brick wall, covering all but the roof. It was like the house was a high-risk prisoner, locked away from the general population for its own safety.
After they moved into the guesthouse, Nicole’s mom left them alone. She seemed quiet and anxious most of the time, ghosting around the two of them silently. The guesthouse was small, and contained a kitchen, a computer, a bathroom and a bed. The first thing they did was smoke some crack. Nicole was showering. Carl opened the door a fraction and watched her. They had met at an East Hollywood bar 2 years prior. Back then she had been extremely pretty, slim: a cute blonde California punk rock girl. Now she had lost too many pounds, and her blonde hair had almost all grown out, and she had tried to dye it red making it come out a kind of dirty shit-brown color. She was bad at shooting up and she had chewed up a lot of the skin on her arms. Nicole would tell him that she didn’t mind looking like this, though.
“It’s a relief. I don’t feel that I have any expectations to live up to. I can just be me now. I don’t have to me, you know, Nicole. I can be me.”
Watching her, her hair slicked back tight against her skull, the dimensions of her face altered, the fat and the innocence eaten away from her cheeks, the eyes bigger, the skull more pronounced, like another face was trying to force its way through the shell of the old one, the breasts smaller with hunger and neglect, and the scabs, bruises, lumps and red raw injection marks which traced the backs of her hands, her arms, even her hips and her legs, Carl started to wonder about fucking her again. It had been a long, long time since they had done that. Carl’s usual explanation for their newfound celibacy was the state of their bed. When a bed is filthy, burned with cigarette holes, piled high with unwashed clothes, stained with blood and wine and malt liquor, the last thing one wants to do on it is get naked. Even after they were evicted, each successive motel bed had transformed with baffling speed into a similar picture of dysfunction. Now there was a new bed, just made by Nicole’s mother, with flesh linens on it. Maybe now he could have her, while the cocaine was in his blood and he fleetingly felt like the thing between his legs was more than just extra weight to be carried around.
But instead of having sex with her, he looked at her naked body one last time and then ran to the fresh, clean bed, threw off his jeans and underwear, and masturbated furiously. It seemed quicker, easier, and fraught with less potential anxieties. Carl did not like anxiety. The thought of the aftermath – the two of them, naked and sweaty in the Los Angeles afternoon murk, making small talk, smelling each other, it was simply too much. After a few moments he realized he could not come, and that Nicole would surely be out of the shower soon, so he dressed again, stuffed his still hard penis back into his pants, and smoked a cigarette.
Over the next few days several things happened. They walked around the neighborhood and found three connections for crack, and began playing them off against each other for giving drugs on credit. Nicole’s mother came to have a serious talk with them about how they were ruining their lives, and by the time she left Nicole had managed to borrow 100 dollars off of her, supposedly so they could pay to get on a methadone program. Carl was pissing one morning, and he noticed that there was blood in his urine. One of Nicole’s molars rotted so badly that a chunk broke off when she was eating a Skor bar. One evening Carl stole a scooter - one of those stupid things that you have to pedal manually - and while he was pedaling away from the yard where he found it, a gang of black kids hanging out on the corner noticed him and yelled, “Hey nice SCOOTER!”
Carl didn’t say anything. He kept pedaling it, trying to get back to the guesthouse, hoping that it might raise a couple of dollars in the pawnshop. But when he heard feet pounding the road he turned and looked, and the kids were chasing him in up the street. They were gaining on him too. They were screaming “GIVE ME THAT SCOOTER, MOTHERFUCKER!” and Carl started furiously pedaling as fast as he could. He hit a hole in the road and flipped off the scooter, flying through the air, and landing in a heap 3 feet from the scooter, which looked rather sad, twisted up, it’s front wheel still spinning in a futile way. Carl stood unsteadily, felt hot blood dripping down his forearms, and fled the kids, cutting through a back alley to escape a beating. He thought he recognized one of them as the black bastard who had sold him a piece of soap instead of crack when they had first arrived in this place.
On the forth day, it was Sunday. Nicole’s mom and step dad were gone for the day. Nicole let herself into the house and took 80 dollars. Nicole took 40 and went downtown to score dope. Carl hit the streets of ghost town to find crack. It was 10am and the streets were empty. Carl found himself wandering, shell-shocked, like the survivor of a nuclear holocaust. Things he noticed lying in and around the streets of ghost town: used tampon (one), broken glass, used condoms (several), dead leaves, bloody underwear (one pair, female) and something that he thought was a dead rat but which turned out to be a weave.
Carl was by a church. Inside he could hear people singing. As he loitered, scanning the streets for a likely face, and old white woman emerged from the church carrying several heavy coats in her arms. There was no doubt that this woman was a crack user. She just had that look that all crack users get over time, as if they are all eventually turning into the same, little old lady. The crack head spotted Carl and walked across the parking lot to speak to him. She was sweating profusely.
“Are you looking for someone?” she asked.
“Yes,” Carl answered, “I am.”
“Are you trying to score rocks?” she said, squinting and looking at him closely.
Even though Carl had seen plenty of elderly crack fiends, something about them still did not compute with him. He could not understand the idea of being an old crack head. Old junkies were something different altogether, but old crack heads were a strange proposition. He started to doubt the evidence of his own eyes. Maybe she wasn’t a crack head! Maybe she was going to call for help if he answered in the affirmative. Startled, Carl started to stutter.
“Wuh-wuh-wuh-wuh!” the old lady imitated, “Well goddamnit spit it out! You looking to score or not? You sure as shit ain’t here to pray! Here… hold these-“
She shoved the coats into Carl’s hand.
“How much money do you have?” she demanded.
“Like, 40 bucks.”
“OK give it to me.”
“Gimmie the 40. I’m meeting Ray-Ray over here –" she motioned towards an alley running off of Rose Avenue, “If we pool our money we can get a bundle. Then we’ll split it up, and we’re both happy.”
“Erm… OK?” Carl said, confused.
“Come on, come on!” she insisted, “Give me the 40! We can’t keep him waiting!”
Carl found his footing again. The old bitch was trying to fast-talk him.
“I ain’t giving you my money! I don’t know you, bitch!”
The old lady looked at him, mockingly.
“Why you gotta go talking to me like a nigger? What are you, a Polack or a wop or something? You don’t look like a nigger to me. Why you talking like that?”
“Sorry,” Carl conceded, genuinely confused now.
“Walk with me.”
They walked away from the church.
“I’ll just go meet Ray-Ray with you,” Carl suggested, although he was still not happy with the idea of then having to split a package of drugs with this old woman. The dealer could be in cahoots with her. This whole deal reeked of a con.
“Ray – Ray don’t deal with people he don’t know.”
“Then introduce me!”
The old lady tutted and they walked into the alleyway.
They found Ray-Ray lurking by a dumpster smoking one of those tiny little cigars that only the extremely poor or they extremely old seem to smoke. Ray-Ray looked to be both. He was skeletal, black, wearing a neat black suit and a fedora despite the 80-degree heat. Tufts of grey hair poked out from under the hat. As they approached he spat on the ground, looked at Carl and then demanded: “Who’s this honky?”
Ray-Ray grabbed the woman by the arm.
“Bitch, I tole you not to be bringing people I don’t know along with you! What the fuck is wrong wit’ you?”
“He wouldn’t wait where I told him to wait! He doesn’t trust me!”
Ray-Ray sucked his teeth. Then he said: “OK quickly, let’s do this. What you want?”
Holding the coats with one hand Carl rummaged in my pocket and pulled out the 40 dollars. He handed it over. The old woman did the same. Ray-Ray pocketed the money and spat out a pretty healthy looking rock. When Carl saw it he started to think that maybe this hadn’t been such a bad idea after all. When split in two, it still represented more than what he was getting for his money from the other goons who operated in this neighborhood. Ray-Ray passed the rock on to the old lady, and split down the alleyway. Before he did it, he glared at Carl and her and said: “Now go on then! Git!”
They walked back the way they came from. As they exited the alleyway and started to cross the road, Carl was asking her where they cold go to break up the rock, when he started to hear yelling. He turned towards the noise, and saw a group of well-dressed young men walking out from the church, yelling and pointing at the both of them. At first Carl had the idea that they were yelling at someone just behind them. He looked, but there was no one there. He looked back at the men, and they were practically on top of him.
“There he is!” they were screaming, “That son of a bitch has the coats!”
“But-!” Carl started to yell.
As he did so he realized that the old lady had vanished in the confusion, and Carl was being grabbed from all sides, the coats pulled from his arms, and the man who seemed to be the leader of the mob punched Carl in the mouth, knocking him to the floor. Carl tasted the hot, coppery-ness of his own blood. After he fell to the ground, a couple of the others, possessed of the sudden bravado of numbers started kicking him and yelling “Motherfucking crackhead!” and Carl just lay there, grunting a little with each kick, until they left him and went back to tell their women folk how they had subdued the drug fiend who’d tried to rip off their Sunday coats.
Carl lay there for a while. There was something comforting about the feel of the tar underneath him, the taste of blood in his mouth, the sounds of sirens below and helicopters overhead. He knew that as soon as he stood, he would be re-engaging with the day, confronted with the reality that he had no money, no crack, and that Nicole would be pissed. Maybe she would not even feel obligated to share her dope with him. This whole string of events had been all down to utter carelessness on Carl’s part; even he had to admit that.
Sometimes Carl imagined that his soul was a large clear balloon filled with black water. When he was high enough, he imagined it frozen solid, dripping with icy particles. He imagined that his soul wore sunglasses, like Eldridge Cleaver on the front cover of Soul On Ice, arctic and inscrutable.
In time Carl would quit, would become re-addicted, and quit again. Nicole would eventually join a Christian commune and shave her head. They would split without a goodbye; something involving a bad drug deal over a particularly long, remorseless summer, only to meet again, 4 years after the men had beaten him and left him on the Venice sidewalk, at an AA meeting in Culver City. Nicole had put on weight, and allowed her hair to return to brown, and had removed all of her piercings. Carl had allowed his hair to grow and had a new tattoo on his forearm that read “Everything Is Broken”. They swapped small talk over instant coffee, and the conversation was forced and stilted, as if they had never really met before this moment. Each glanced over the others shoulder, looking for the easy escape of a less familiar face. Both of them would relapse within the year.
Nicole commented to Carl: “The heart is a small, amputated thing. Lonely and scared.” Carl had nodded silently, unsure of the correct response.
Neither of them would ever really find true happiness, only extreme moments of elation interspersed with many, many years of boredom, sadness, and fear. Drunk on rum playing chutes and ladders with his 3-year-old daughter. Listening to Johnny Thunders. Awash with broken transistors. Time travel and memory. Enough, enough. Carl never learned to drive.
Lying there, on the sidewalk of Venice beach, bleeding and content, Carl was of course unaware of all that life had in store for him. He was for once, truly, unbreakably in the moment. Overhead the seagulls whirled and called. The sky seemed impossibly blue.
is the author of "Down and Out on Murder Mile
" (Harper Perennial)“Digging The Vein” (out in the UK on Wrecking Ball Press[UK], Contemporary Press [US]), “Seizure Wet Dreams: Poems and Short Stories” (Social Disease), and “Songs From The Shooting Gallery” (Burning Shore Press). He lives in New York. He will be featured in the following anthologies: “Brutalism #1”, “Falling From The Sky” (Another Sky Press), “Danger City 2” (Contemporary Press) and “Writing From The Edge”. Please visit http://www.tonyoneill.net/
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