Every day at the bar we check Mugs. Peach pulls it up on her phone when we’re slow. I don’t know who runs it. It’s not the government. It’s just someone who goes to the trouble of posting the day’s mugshots, along with the charge or charges and an appropriate emoji.
Peach recognizes most of the people on Mugs. That’s the world she comes from.
I hovered behind her while she scrolled.
“Oh, she’s nasty,” Peach said, stopping over the mugshot of a girl in heavy makeup.
“Is she sitting down?” I said.
“It’s a wheelchair,” Peach said. “But it isn’t real. That bitch can walk.”
I grunted. Peach scrolled down.
Peach and I work weekends together. A lot of arrests are DUIs (beer emoji), Assaults (fist), and Sex. They don’t use an emoji for sex crimes, though I can think of a few if that’s your sense of humor. Drugs is also popular. That’s a pill emoji. Once in a while you get something weird like Deceptive Practices (finger-over-the-mouth) or Animal Cruelty (that’s a monkey doing the see-no-evil gesture… sad, I know). Meth is easy to recognize. We also like shirtless arrests, face tattoos, and straightjackets. Our favorites are obviously Homicide and Attempted Homicide. It sounds grim, and it is. We check it religiously.
While Peach walked the casino, I snuck out to call my girl.
“Saint Patrick’s Hospital,” the nurse said.
“Put me through to Psychiatric,” I said. “Please.”
It clicked and rang once and then the answering service came on. I waited a beat and then hit 2, then waited a beat and hit 3. It rang and someone picked up.
“Nurse’s station,” she said.
I gave her the name and she went to look around the patient common area and then she transferred the call to the handset and finally she handed off the phone.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” said my girl.
Someone walked into the bar and I covered the phone.
“Be with you in a second,” I shouted. I pressed the phone hard against my ear so that it muffled the bar. “So what’s new?” I could hear the common room TV in the background.
That evening a customer came in and said there was a lady sleeping outside.
“She’s been there for a while,” he said.
Before I had a chance to do anything about it, it slipped my mind. But then another smoker came inside and felt it necessary to make a report. He stomped snow off his boots and brought his beer up to the casino window, where I was bundling one-dollar bills.
“What is it, just a homeless person?” I said.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “She’s been lying on the bench for a while. She’s not moving.”
“Is she bothering anybody?” I said.
He looked surprised.
“No, she’s not bothering anybody,” he said. “I mean, it’s pretty cold out there.”
“Right,” I said. “I’ll look into it.”
Later, a woman I’d never seen before came to the casino window and asked to borrow the bar phone.
“What for?” I said.
“Someone needs to do something about that woman outside,” she said.
“What are you gonna do, call the cops?”
“No,” she said, scowling at me. “I’m going to call Hot Beds.”
“Say what?” I said. I held the phone just out of her reach.
“You don’t have Hot Beds?” she said.
“I don’t know what that is,” I said.
“It’s for, like, homeless people,” she said. “But it’s not the cops.”
I had a line of people waiting to order drinks. I narrowed my eyes at this woman, then slid the phone across the counter to her.
“Okay,” I said. “Whatever.”
A minute later she slammed the handset back down on the bar.
“You guys don’t have Hot Beds here,” she said. “That’s fucked up. But you gotta do something.”
“Peach,” I groaned.
“What?” Peach shouted from the grill. I could hear burgers sizzling. She had a full string of orders. The woman was holding the phone out to me, and my regulars at the bar were giving me that fish-eyed look.
“You need something?” I said to a tall guy standing by the taps.
“I was going to let you know that there’s a person outside who—”
“Alright!” I said. “Jesus.” I took the phone. I felt everyone’s eyes on me.
“I’ll deal with it,” I said. “You, guy, did you need a drink or something?”
“I’ll wait,” he said, smiling.
“I’ll be right back,” I said to Peach. “Everyone out here is fine.”
She waved her spatula.
I took the flashlight and marched out through the front door. Jesus, it was cold. Immediately I stepped in snow over my shoe. There were glasses and empties everywhere.
I found the lady lying on the bench along the side of the building. I recognized her blanket. More than once I’d thrown it away.
“Alright, lady,” I said. “Let’s go.”
She didn’t move. She had a big down jacket on with the hood over her head and she was lying facing the wall. Snow had collected on her in little ridges.
“Hey,” I said. “Let’s go!”
I poked her shoulder with the flashlight. Then I turned it on and shined it on her face.
“Woah,” I said, taking a step back. I waved the beam across her eyes, then used the butt of the flashlight to pull down the side of her hood.
Her cheeks were rosy and her matted hair was pulled back. The skin on her forehead was smooth and slightly damp. And she was smiling. Her eyeballs moved gently back and forth under her lids. It looked like she was having a really nice dream.
This bitch was high.
“Alright, lady,” I said. “Let’s go. Hup, two. Come on.” I poked her in the back with the flashlight. “I’m going to give you three,” I said. “Three, two…”
I should have worn a pair of gloves for this.
I grabbed the shoulder of her coat and shook hard. She wobbled limply and the snow that had collected ran off her like sand. That’s when I caught the smell of poop.
“Oh, fuck,” I said, stepping backwards and directly into a snowdrift. “Fuck, fuck.”
I grabbed a handful of snow and scoured my hands until they were red, then turned and marched back toward the front of the bar. I was breathing heavily through my nose and I could feel my pulse behind my sternum. It felt like I’d swallowed a spoonful of peanut butter. Maybe I was having a heart attack. I was a little bit overweight, yes, and my lifestyle was unhealthy.
There was a cluster of smokers and concerned citizens in the vestibule. They watched me approach with doe-eyed anticipation.
“Out of the way,” I barked, and they parted, leaving a valley of cigarette smoke.
“Did you—?” someone started, but I held up my hand. I opened the door, stomped my wet feet, and went inside.
I called the police.
It took them fifteen minutes to arrive, during which time I was harassed from every direction by impatient customers. When the cops finally showed up, lights flashing silently (which I always find sort of passive-aggressive), Peach took one look, grabbed her smokes, and left through the emergency exit. She must have recognized one or both of the officers. So add to my troubles a full string of orders and a dozen patties sizzling on the grill.
Fuck them. If anyone thought I was going to finish those orders, they were crazy. Let them ask for refunds. They’d have to get my attention first.
Later, I learned that they’d taken the woman away in an ambulance. According to conflicting accounts, she was either dead or high or in some kind of cold-induced dream state. No one saw her move, but several people saw her smiling. The ambulance left silently, red lights flashing, carving through the new snow in our narrow parking lot, lighting up everyone’s breath and cigarette smoke and the brick walls of the alleyway.
And somehow I’m the bad guy.
Beaver came into the bar wearing a floor-length fur coat and holding a wooden box covered in symbols.
“Hold onto this for me, will you?” he said. He stood on his tiptoes and looked around the casino.
“What is it?” I said.
“It’s a secret box,” he said. “It’s full of money.” He swiveled, looking for somebody.
“Okay, sure” I said. It was cheap wood. It looked like something you’d get in a history museum gift shop, or SkyMall. “You want me to hide it or something?”
“No, no, it’s fine,” he said. “It’s my non-gambling money.”
I nodded and counted out five ones from the till. Beav is in our Player’s Club.
“You thirsty?” I said.
Beav nodded and picked a peppermint out of the soil of our potted plant. I looked away as he put it in his mouth. Beaver has enormous teeth, which have suffered in their time.
I filled a glass with Mountain Dew, no ice, and microwaved it for fifteen seconds to take the chill out.
“Good luck,” I told him. I say that to all the gamblers, but in this case I meant it. Beaver is a good tipper.
Later on Beav left for a while and I tried to open his box. It had a series of sliding panels covered in symbols. At first glance, the symbols were varied and mysterious. Upon closer inspection, there was an @ symbol, and a smiley face, and a # sign. If I wedged my fingernail under the edge of the lid, putting pressure on the sliding panels, I could feel them click into place. The code was:
ꓘ ! η & † µ †
King Tut. Inside was $140 in twenties. There were no drugs.
When Beav returned he asked for the box. He took out a twenty, then thought twice and took a second twenty. Then he took all the money and the empty box and went back to his machines.
After the dinner rush, Peach and I checked Mugs again. DUI, shirtless DUI, Partner or Family Assault. That one has a fist emoji and an emoji of a broken heart. The wifebeater had a big gash below his eye. I could smell myself. It was time to do laundry.
“I hope she cut his dick off,” Peach said.
“Mm,” I said. Peach has a keen sense of justice.
“He’s a rapist,” she said. “Look.” She tapped his photo and loaded a grid of older mugshots.
We clicked through the arrests.
“Do you know him?” I said.
She shook her head.
“I know the girl he raped, though,” she said.
I waited for her to say more. She clicked back to the homepage and tapped the next mugshot after his. It was a trollish woman with tattooed eyebrows and receding hair. She looked like she’d been crying. Partner Or Family Assault, 3rd Offense. Same time of arrest, same arresting officer.
“What,” I said. “Is that her?”
Peach nodded. “They got married.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything at all.
At midnight Beaver hit Zeus for twelve hundred dollars. He stood up on his chair and pumped his fist as he swiveled slowly in a circle, his fur coat rippling. Peach went over and paid him out. After he climbed down off his chair, the two of them stood by his machine and talked in hushed voices for a few minutes. I sort of looped around them, collecting empty glasses, hoping to overhear something, but they stopped talking when I got near. I hovered, then finally moved on. From the casino window I watched them resume their conversation. Beav put his hand on her back and made a face and they both started laughing. She patted his arm, and he shrugged.
I went to high school in a different town and by the time I moved here people were basically who they are, either deadbeats or not. But once in a while I’m reminded that Peach grew up here, and has known these people for a long time. They mean something different to her than they’ll ever mean to me. Maybe that’s why she’s so forgiving, even though she can list so many reasons not to be.
Beaver tipped us two hundred dollars.
He left and came back, left and came back, and while I was trading in my tips I heard him behind me at the casino window. His furs were dusted with snow.
“Ayo, Beav,” I said. His pupils were huge. I glanced around for Peach. I knew he’d tip better if she cashed him out. It hurt, but business is business. In any case, she was in the bathroom.
“You got one?” I said.
He shook his head.
“Canyouholdthisforme?” he said. He shoved the wooden box across the countertop.
“Of course, man,” I said. I placed the box next to the cigarette case. Beav stared at it, then looked at me, jerked his head, and darted his eyes downward.
“Oh—sure,” I said. “No doubt.”
I moved the box and set it on top of the floor safe, deep in the shadows, where we keep lost phones and wallets.
“Thanks,” Beav said. “Haveagoodnight.”
“Take care of yourself, Beav,” I said.
I watched him leave. He was all tweaker swagger, his coat billowing around him, but he hesitated for a second at the door, peering out through the window, and he pulled his furs around him and lowered his face as he left.
It was a quarter to two by the bar clock. I locked the front door and turned off the OPEN sign. I finished trading in my tips and got out the timesheet. I was already at forty hours on the week. My fingers were split from doing dishes and my lower back was spasming. It took forever for my eyes to focus on the clipboard.
I unwrapped a peppermint and got out Beav’s box. It was light but full—there was something inside that didn’t move when I shook it. It wasn’t cash. I sucked on the mint and slid the first panel to “ꓘ”. Then I heard a rattling at the front door.
“We’re closed!” I shouted. But the rattling continued. “I said, we’re fucking closed!”
I slid the box back on top of the safe and went to go turn off the lights so no one could see me.
It was the midmorning lull and Peach and I were looking for cool old quarters when a guy in a duct-taped jacket walked into the bar and made a bee-line for the coffee station.
“Hey!” I said. “Get the fuck out!”
Peach stuck her head up from behind the casino counter.
“Is that Hell Yeah?” she said to me. “Yo, you gotta leave!”
“Hell yeah,” he said. He parked himself in front of the coffee station.
“Man, come on,” I said. “Don’t do this shit.”
He opened a creamer and drank it.
“Jesus, man,” I said. Peach was standing next to me, holding a roll of quarters.
“Is he—oh, god,” she said.
He opened another creamer and turned to face us.
“Dude, you gotta go,” I said.
He put the cup to his lips.
“The cops are on their way,” Peach said.
A shadow passed over Hell Yeah’s face.
“Better leave quick,” Peach said.
He took a step toward the door, then paused, turned, and grabbed a handful of creamers.
“Aw, come on,” I said. “Fuck you, man.”
“Fuck you,” he said.
“No, fuck you,” I said.
Peach put her hand on my arm. Hell Yeah shoved the creamers in the pocket of his jacket. He turned toward the door, and as he passed, he mashed all the buttons on the ATM. Then he was gone. Peach released my arm. I was a little proud that she thought I needed to be restrained. I went and got the spray bottle and wiped down the ATM.
You can look him up on Mugs: his real name is Alan. A few months ago we had to call the cops because he started a campfire in the parking lot. Other times he just stands outside and shouts the N-word at our customers. He’s schizophrenic. After I wiped down the ATM, I stuck my head out the front door. Hell Yeah was sitting on the bench lighting a bowl.
“Cops are here!” I shouted. “Cops are here!”
He shot to his feet and took off running, coughing out white smoke as he went. Even in the brisk cold I could smell something sickly sweet in the smoke. I didn’t recognize the smell, and I know the smell of most drugs.
It was Peach who found him, about an hour later, passed out on the bench by the bike rack. His eyes were moving back and forth under his eyelids, like he was watching a tennis match, and he was smiling. The creamer had dried to a crust in his beard. This time, I didn’t hesitate. I called the cops. They took their sweet time showing up. They poked and prodded him, saying “Alan” over and over in that sultry cop voice, but to no avail. Soon enough an ambulance showed up, its red lights flaring silently along the brick walls of the alley, and they scooped him up and carted him off. Peach made herself scarce. The cops asked me a few cursory questions. At the end, the one cop sighed.
“So do you, uh, want to press charges?” he said.
“No,” I said. “I just want him to stop.”
“Do you, uh…” The one cop looked at his partner and smiled. “Do you want to fill out a form for the creamers?”
I put out my cigarette against the bricks. The cops adjusted their gun belts.
“Thanks for coming down,” I said. I spat in the snow. “I gotta get back to work.”
“We’re just glad to have a chance to help the community,” the second cop said. He checked his watch and glanced down the alley toward the gas station and some kind of look passed between them. The other one shrugged, and then nodded.
“You mind if we leave the car here for a few minutes?” he said.
I waved my hand. “Make yourselves at home,” I said. They took off down the alley and I went inside. Our tax dollars at work.
I sat on the crying bucket to make my afternoon phone call. Peach stepped over my legs and I bunched up my shoulders so she could get into the freezer.
“Put me through to Psychiatric,” I said. “Please.”
I closed my eyes and felt the cold air from the freezer against my lids.
The answering service clicked on. I pressed 2, then 3.
Hot grease flecked the side of my face.
“Sorry,” Peach mumbled.
The nurse transferred the call to the handset and I heard fuzz and walking. I was inside the nurse’s pocket. The grill sizzled next to my ear. Something brushed against the mouthpiece and the phone went quiet.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” said my girl. “So. See you tomorrow?”
“Holy shit,” Peach said the next morning. She handed me her phone. It took a second for my eyes to adjust.
“Who’s that?” I said. “Holy shit. Wait. Elton?”
“Yeah,” Peach said. “His name’s Elton. But look.”
I stared at the photo. I stared at the date, and the time, and the charge.
“Wait, what?” I said.
It was Beaver, alright. He looked different without the fur coat. He was in jail orange, with his big pastel chest tattoo peeking out through the v-neck. His mouth was slightly open and his rotten grey teeth looked like candies he was sucking on. He was staring off to the side and he looked scared. I sort of thought it was like yearbook photos, where they insisted you look at the camera, but maybe they made an exception for Beav. He’d been booked at four in the morning, not too long after we closed the bar. It was Criminal Endangerment.
“What happened?” I said. While I was holding her phone, Peach got a text. Before I could read anything she pried the phone out of my hand.
“Um,” she said, reading her texts and ignoring me. I tried to look over her shoulder. She laughed and typed something very fast. “Um,” she said again.
“What happened to Beav?” I said.
She quit smiling. She clicked closed her pop socket and pursed her lips.
“Dude,” she said, refocusing. “I don’t know, exactly.”
“Do you know anything?” I said.
“I mean, not exactly,” she said. I could tell she was weighing whether or not to reveal more information to me.
“Girl,” I said. “Fill me in.”
She took a deep breath and exhaled. She wasn’t wearing deodorant. She’s kind of a dirty girl, and she knows it. It’s sort of like how the Hells Angels would stay grimy on purpose, to strike fear in the hearts of civilians. Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about, but one day you’ll find yourself jerking off to it, and then you’ll understand.
“You know the Havana on East Broadway? With the pool?”
I nodded. “Uh-huh,” I said. “Sure.”
“I guess he was in a guy’s room there and something went down. I don’t know. I guess they had to take the guy out in an ambulance. He was in a coma or something.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know the details.” She started typing out a text.
“What was he doing at the Havana?” I said.
She ignored me.
“That place is sketchy,” I said.
She smiled, but not at me. She hit send and her message plopped into the chat.
“That’s crazy,” I said again.
Peach looked at me. “Um,” she said. “Yeah.”
The conversation was over.
Twice that afternoon I watched ambulances pass by out front, sirens off, red lights kaleidoscoping off the walls of the bar. At ten to six I started my car in the back parking spot, and at six I clocked out and said goodbye to Peach. I took a clean bar towel to wipe off the inside of the windshield. Probably I was smoking too much in the car.
I drove slowly through downtown, sitting forward like a granny to see. Someone’s tires spun out at every intersection, and cars were stopped awkwardly along the sides of the road, mounted on the high wet snowbanks. It was exactly thirty-two degrees out. I crawled out from the yellow lights of the tunnel and slid into a curb outside the guard booth in the parking lot of the hospital. I smoked a bowl in my seat. The ice on the inside of the windshield melted and ran down into the dust on my dashboard. An ambulance arrived, lights flashing silently, and pulled into the emergency loop. They unloaded a stretcher and rolled it inside. After a while they came out with the empty stretcher and loaded it back into the ambulance. The EMTs stood talking to a nurse on her smoke break, the lights flashing on the empty truck. Then they got a call on the radio. They closed the back doors and got in and pulled around the loop, slowed down on the ice, stopped traffic, and pulled out into the street. The nurse put out her cigarette and walked back inside through the wide automatic doors. At six-thirty I put on my mask and got out of the car.
The elevator stopped on a floor before mine and a nurse with a patient in a rolling bed started into the elevator. She stopped when she saw me. There were patients in beds lined up along both walls of the hallway behind her. She backed up and waved me on. The doors closed and the elevator continued upwards.
I had to sign a release form and the nurse at the nurse’s station handed me a manila envelope full of coins, hairties, and a half-empty pack of smokes. There was a big locked double door with wire mesh windows and on the other side of it I could see people in blue scrubs milling around.
The double doors opened. She came toward me. I thought she was going to hug me, but instead she took the envelope out of my hands and put it in her bag.
“Are you smoking again?” I said.
“Let’s go,” she said.
We smoked a bowl in the car while we waited for it to warm up.
“Did you talk to Peach about your shifts?” she said.
I coughed and fogged up the windshield. “Not yet,” I said.
She rotated her nose ring with her fingers.
“Did you even try to ask?” she said.
I didn’t say anything.
“Welp,” she said.
She reclined her seat with a thump and closed her eyes. She exhaled and smoke boiled across the windshield.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said. She curled up her legs underneath her and stared at the side of my head. “You need to take better care of yourself.”
“And that’s coming from me,” she said.
I exhaled in a kind of laugh.
“You should get a coffee,” she said.
She slipped off her shoes and wrapped her jacket around her knees. You fall asleep once at the wheel and no one lets you forget it. Her breathing slowed. They had her on something. Her parents lived on Seeley Lake in a nice house with a big dock. I’d seen it from the outside. I could feel a thread of heat at the center of the air from the dash vents. It seemed like I was always dropping her off somewhere at night, where the lights were on inside. I’d been good about calling every day at ten and four, during common room hours, and then one afternoon when I called the nurse told me she was already on the phone. The air from the vent grew hotter. She twitched, like she was falling in a dream. I pulled out of the parking lot as another ambulance fishtailed silently out from the mouth of the tunnel.
“It’s called Glasgow,” Peach said. She pulled up another mugshot. He was in a state-issue wheelchair with his eyes closed, his head propped on a pillow, the orange vee-neck bunched around his armpits. The charge was “Criminal Possession of Dangerous Drugs (Not Otherwise Covered)”. There wasn’t an emoji for this one, but we’d seen a lot of it lately.
“You smoke it,” she said. “And then you go into a coma.”
She let me take her phone, but she watched me closely as I scrolled.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Then what happens? You die?”
“I mean, I think you, like, go into a coma,” she said. “I don’t know. They’re taking them to the hospital.”
“What if no one finds you?” I said. “That happens to everyone? Or just some people?” I clicked on another wheelchair mugshot.
“What do I look like, a doctor?” Peach said. She’d shaved the sides of her head and was growing out a mohawk. She was out of contacts and had started wearing a pair of men’s wire-rim glasses, cinched tight to her face with red croakies. Her eyeballs looked huge. She still hadn’t showered.
“Does it get you high?” I said. I’d pulled up a mugshot of a very pretty girl, age 20, arrested for aggravated DUI. She was smiling at the camera.
Peach gently pried the phone from my hands.
“Apparently it’s incredible,” she said.
“Do you know anyone who’s done it?” I said.
Peach looked at me sideways and then stood up and stretched.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Probably.”
After my shift I stayed and gambled. I started with a five, lost, then fed in a twenty. I quarter-bet down to $15, then switched to a dollar bet. I hit six-for-eight, then lost it all. I fed in another twenty.
“Look at you,” Peach said. She brought me a beer.
I got in the bonus and hit for $85, cashed out, tipped Peach ten, and fed in another twenty.
A few times Peach came over to watch. I was a gambler by blood, but I’d always held back. I’d watched how people did it and learned from their mistakes. Now I was cashing in.
“Look,” I said, as the grid populated. “Fuck!”
“You’ll get it,” she said. She turned to leave.
“Hey, girl,” I said. “Can I get a draw? Just twenty? Write it down in pencil for me? I’ll pay it back tonight.”
She raised her eyebrows at me.
“And another beer,” I said.
“You got it, buddy,” she said.
I’d already done the math, and I was going to be short one way or the other. Things weren’t exactly working out with my girl. I’d picked up two extra closing shifts and the shifts I wasn’t closing I stayed until close anyway, gambling and smoking and playing Golden Tee. I was in overtime by five or ten hours. The more I worked the more staff meals I got, and I was already eating two bacon cheeseburgers a day. My hands and feet were swollen and my face looked heavy in the bathroom mirror. My dick was shrinking and my blood vessels felt like iPhone cords under my skin.
I was down $600 when I hit the jackpot.
“Fucking right!” I shouted. There was no one else in the casino. I stood up and nearly fell. I pumped my fist and gyrated my hips as my credits accumulated on the screen.
“Look at that,” I said when Peach came over.
“Nice,” she said.
“I had to work for it,” I said. My numbers were still up on the screen, blinking purple, gold coins rainbowing endlessly out of the treasure chest.
Peach went to the back office to get eight bigs from the floor safe. My chair was warm.
I paid back my draws and tipped Peach a hundred.
She looked at me and cocked her head. “You sure, man?” she said.
“Absolutely,” I said. I smiled broadly.
I went and balled out at the all-night diner. I still didn’t have the rent.
At four-thirty in the morning I stood in the shadows behind the dumpster outside the bar. Inside the building it was dark except for the carouselling red glow of the Keno machines.
I unlocked the front door and turned off the alarm. I went behind the casino counter and took Beaver’s wooden box from on top of the safe. I put it under my shirt. I reactivated the alarm, locked the door, and went home.
I had done some brainstorming at the all-night diner. Then I’d done some googling, and checked out Erowid, Craigslist, and Reddit, and finally I’d sent a few texts.
I sat on my futon with the box on my knees. I arranged the sliding panels to:
ꓘ ! η & † µ †
The top lifted off, and the crumpled ziplock freezer bag that had been pressing against it expanded. I lifted it out and held it under my desk lamp.
Inside was a thin waffled sheet of translucent amber material, perforated into squares, each square stamped with the image of a closed eye. At the center of the eyelid was the number 1. The sheet had broken into pieces, and in the corner of the freezer bag it had collected like sand.
I picked up my phone.
“It’s a 1,” I typed.
Immediately the typing bubble appeared. A message plopped onto the screen.
“You sure?” it said.
“I can read,” I typed.
“How many doses?” he said.
“What’s a dose?”
“A square is a dose,” he said. “Like little stamps.”
I held the bag up carefully to the light.
“Like 20,” I said.
The typing bubble appeared, then the message popped up.
“Fuuuuuuuuck,” it said.
I woke up to a lot of new texts. I checked the ones from Peach first. Nothing about the box. She wanted to know if I could come in early for the football game. There was a long text from my now-former girl that I did not open.
Another was a Venmo request from my landlord.
The rest were replies to queries I’d sent out in the middle of the night. They were from my drug-using friends and acquaintances. Most of them didn’t know what I was asking about. The others were emphatic.
“Don’t touch that shit,” my friend Tommy said. “It put my cousin in the hospital.”
“It would be a bad idea to get involved with that stuff, brother,” my friend Craig said. “It turns your brain to Swiss cheese.”
“Lmk if you find any,” another bartender said. “I’d be down to try it.”
“U get life for possession,” another guy said.
“I’ll give you $1g for the whole sheet,” Tyler said. He was the one I’d been texting with last night. He’d asked for a picture, but I told him no. I didn’t know if all the batches looked the same, or what.
I sat for a long time on my futon looking down at the baggie. I hadn’t opened it yet. It was all cracked apart. There wasn’t any information online yet about what this stuff was made of, or how to do it, or the street value, or how it reacted to air or light or heat or whatever. I turned off the lamp.
Then I turned the lamp back on and got out my big coffee table book on African wildlife I use for rolling joints. I put the book on my knees, opened the ziplock, and with some takeout chopsticks I removed a shard from the bottom of the bag.
I was asleep with my wildlife book on my lap when I heard someone messing with the locks on my door. I jerked awake and spilled weed and tobacco all over my futon. The intruder moved from the upper deadbolt to the lower deadbolt and then to the doorknob.
The baggie of Glasgow was on the windowsill. I stood up as quietly as I could. But, my leg was asleep. It stuck in the carpet and I tripped, flipping the coffee table as I fell. My Sherlock bubbler launched into the air, water spiraling out from the mouthpiece, and shattered against the radiator.
“Are you serious?” she said. I heard the chunk of the last deadbolt sliding open and the door swung inward, catching hard on the safety chain. “What the fuck. I asked you to be out of here.” She put her face against the narrow gap and stared at me with one eyeball.
“I’m hurt,” I said.
“Are you not checking your phone?” she said.
“Chelsea,” I said.
“Open the door,” she said. She shut it so I could release the chain.
My leg felt like it was filled with springs. I limped over to the windowsill and gathered the baggie and puzzle box.
“Where are you going?” she shouted through the door.
I pushed aside my winter jackets, opened my safe, and put the drugs inside.
The moment I removed the safety chain, she barged through the door. She had her enormous rolling suitcase with her. It was empty, the big zipper jangling.
“Out,” she said.
“Careful,” I said. “There’s broken glass.”
“Out,” she said.
“Out where?” I said.
She whipped around, her eyes bugging out of her head, held her finger up in the air, and started to say something. She stopped and took a deep breath.
“Get your phone,” she said. “Get a book or something, get your shoes and your sweatshirt, get your keys, and leave for an hour. Don’t come back until I’m gone. Okay? Now, go.”
I gathered my things and stepped out into the hallway. The second I was gone, she slammed the door and locked the deadbolts.
“Wait,” I said, my lips and teeth vibrating against the wood. “Can I pee?”
“Starbucks,” she said from the other side. I heard her unzip the suitcase.
At Starbucks I read the text messages I’d missed. She was coming over to get the rest of her stuff. She didn’t want to see me. I read the earlier text messages I’d ignored. She had identified some inequalities in our relationship. She was disappointed in me. She was working on herself. And you know what? I get it. I’ve had lazy coworkers before.
I didn’t have my wallet or my car keys and my phone was about to die. I got an ice water and chewed the cubes and then went outside. I wasn’t dressed for the cold and I had to stop to tuck my sweatpants into my socks. I felt bad for myself. I felt like a homeless person. My apartment is in a bad neighborhood and I was part of the reason why. I wasn’t taking very good care of myself. I hugged my arms to my chest and pulled the neck of my sweatshirt up over my chin. If there had been any pretty young mothers with strollers they would have crossed to the other side of the street. But there was no one outside. It was three in the afternoon on a Wednesday and it was gross out.
I calculated how much money I’d lost gambling this month.
After half an hour I was really pretty cold. I was only wearing my Adidas slip-ons, so I couldn’t leave the paths where people had shoveled or plowed. I headed north, toward Third Street. Maybe I should go to the bus stop. There was probably a reason homeless people hung out there. Or I could go to the grocery store. Or I could go to the bar and take a draw.
At the bus stop I found a guy I knew. He was lying on his back on the bench, with his bike leaned up against the back wall of the bus stop. He had a little trailer attached to his bike and inside the trailer was a black dog. The dog cocked its head at me when I approached.
“Hey, Julian,” I said. But he was high on Glasgow. His eyes were moving gently back and forth under his lids, and he was smiling. His scarf had come untucked from the neck of his jacket and one end of it was hanging down in the snow. He had frostbite on his cheeks.
I stood watching him for a while. He was the only other person from my high school who’d moved here. I bought a bunch of PYREX jerseys off him once, after he went through a hip-hop phase. I sold them on facebook marketplace. Later he tried to sell me some punk stuff, but I didn’t want any leather pants. I hadn’t spoken to him in maybe a year. I didn’t know he had a dog. Would it have killed him to come to the bar and say hello?
I waved at a cop car, but it didn’t stop. I thought about making an anonymous call for help, but my phone was dead.
The dog watched me leave. He stuck one paw out of the little tent, felt the ice, and pulled his paw back inside.
There was still glass all over the floor. My stuff was untouched, except for a few things she’d pulled out of the top of the hamper. The medicine cabinet was ajar and mostly emptied out. Her old toothbrush was in the garbage. The tampons were gone.
I stepped around the broken glass, lay down on my futon, and opened the book on African wildlife. I hadn’t looked through it in a long time. I bought it brand-new from the art book store downtown when I first started at the bar and was flush with cash. It cost something stupid, like eighty bucks. It was huge. The pages were beautiful, thick, full-color glossy paper that smelled like glue and the photos were giant spreads of muddy hippos lounging in the sun and lions with blood all over their fur. I used to spend hours leafing through it.
I skipped around looking for the hippos and trying to muster a sense of marvel and awe. Instead, I felt sorry for myself.
Eventually my phone charged enough to turn back on. I heard it buzz on the windowsill.
“Offer still stands,” Tyler’s text said.
I lay on my futon reading Mugs with one eye closed. My skull hurt I was too tired to get up. The sun sank outside and the glints of light where it shone through the shattered pipe curved across the far wall.
An eighteen-year-old had been arrested for “Displaying Fictitious or Altered License” (driver’s license emoji). It was his first arrest. And here was a guy wearing a t-shirt that said “VOLUNTEER.” He had a car emoji, for “Failure to Carry or Exhibit Proof of Insurance.” I googled his name, but nothing came up except links to the Mugs page I was already looking at.
The website hadn’t been updating much lately. I hadn’t seen a straightjacket in a while, or a face tattoo. Everyone had their shirts on. No one was attempting homicide.
They’d stopped arresting people for being in comas. The hospitals were full and they still didn’t know how long it took you to wake up. You saw a lot of ambulances on the highway.
Here was an old lady who got got for “Issuing a Bad Check” (dollar-bill-with-wings emoji). Here was “Leaving the Scene of an Accident” (police siren). Here was “Child Endangerment (crying baby). They were all first-time offenses.
Business had been slow at the bar. We had fewer gamblers, fewer to-go orders, fewer tweakers unplugging the machines to charge their phones. A couple of time a week, we had to call to have a car towed from the parking lot. Even if I’d wanted to pick up shifts, the work wasn’t there. If it was, they gave it to Peach. She’s a better worker than I am.
Here was a guy dressed like a woman. He had the sallow skin and sunken cheeks and deeply shadowed facial hair of a French-Canadian hockey player. He was charged with “Stalking,” which is a pair of eyeballs looking sideways.
And here was Beaver, from early this morning. He had a black eye and he’d shaved his head. He was charged with “Violation of Conditions of Release.”
I locked my phone and slid it away from me on the floor. I pinched the bridge of my nose and closed my eyes and sat there like that for a long time. I felt the sun go down. I thought about calling my former girl. I thought about calling Peach. I thought about deleting everything on my phone and throwing it in the river. I thought about driving to California. I thought about becoming an African wildlife photographer. I thought about gambling and hitting the jackpot. I thought about finding a new apartment. I thought about going to jail. I thought about cleaning up the broken glass on my floor. I thought about Seeley Lake. I thought about ordering a pizza and paying the guy in drugs.
When I opened my eyes it was dark out. I hadn’t been asleep. I’d just been thinking.
Maybe what I needed was a break. Maybe I needed to hit reset, and take a breather from work, and from drinking, and gambling, and eating high-fat foods. I needed a little time off from interpersonal relationships. My neurotransmitters were out of whack. My serotonin levels were low and my receptors were flooded with dirty signals. I had poison in my system and I needed to flush it out.
I picked up my dirty laundry off the bedroom floor and piled it into the closet.
I needed to rest my lower back. There was a muscle along the left side of my spine that tingled when I did dishes over the triple sink. I was too young to have back problems and I needed to address it before it turned into a serious condition. Back problems lead to all kinds of other issues, including low chi and opiate addiction.
I made my bed and angled the blinds to let in the thin evening light.
I thought about the way a record will skip until you lift up the needle and set it back down.
I refilled my water glass and set it on my bedside table, along with two unwrapped PowerBars and a bottle of ibuprofen.
I needed to cut down on screen time. I needed to spend less time worrying about what other people thought of me. I needed to practice centeredness.
I brushed my teeth and changed the water in my bong.
It was all about good energy. I put my house key under the mat outside my door, then locked the deadbolts. It was about focusing on my health. I changed into clean sweatpants and a winter hat. You lose eighty percent of your heat through the top of your head. I went pee for a second time, then turned off the lights in the living room. I gathered my bong and my wildlife book and took them into the bedroom.
The art on the walls was gone. So was the memory-foam pillow. No matter. I turned on my bedside lamp and got in under the covers.
Waste products, produced by stress, accumulate in the flesh of the body. That’s why the Masai warriors strive for clean kills when they hunt. If the animal is relaxed when it dies, it tastes better and is healthier for you. That’s an example of the concept that your health is almost completely mental. It’s about positive thinking. It’s about reducing stress, and about mindfulness, and the mind-body connection.
I placed a square of Glasgow One over the bowl of my bong.
My next shift was Friday. Peach could probably handle it on her own. I allowed myself just a few quick logistical thoughts before refocusing on the now. All love starts with self-love. My wildlife book was heavy on the bedspread beside me.
I turned off the bedside lamp and steadied the bong in my lap. I sparked the lighter and held the flame beside the bowl. The thin square glowed amber in the firelight.
My hand was shaking. I released my thumb and the flame went out. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, then another. What should I think about? I opened the book beside me on the bed, and even though I couldn’t see clearly in the dusky light, I imagined the hippos floating languidly in the African swamp, mud caking on their backs, their glassy eyeballs half submerged, and their huge mouths smiling underwater.
I smiled at the thought.
I covered the rush, lit the bowl, and inhaled. The amber square pocked and curled, vanishing into sweet white smoke. I released the rush and took the hit.
Ten, nine, eight. I set the bong on the bedside table. My arm felt warm and heavy. I released the neck of the bong, sending precise instructions to my fingers. I swung my arm slowly, like a crane, back into my lap.
Seven, six, five, four. I leaned back into the pillows and relaxed the muscles of my back, my neck, my jaw, my scalp, and my fingers.
Three, two, one. I exhaled into the dark.
Zero. All love starts with self-love. I felt myself descending. It was time to get back in touch with myself.
It was time.
Click here to read Dwight Livingstone Curtis on the origin of the story.
Image: RAB by Justin Henry, Licensed under CC 2.0.
Dwight Livingstone Curtis:
A friend of mine used to say: to a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish. You can say the same thing about horseshit. I work at a bar, and we check the jail roster every day. We see a lot of familiar faces. When something happens in the world, it trickles into the bar. People still need to have their drink. I’ve been imagining the apocalypse, and how it would feel here. A little different, I think, and otherwise the same. That’s what I was thinking about when I wrote this story: the apocalypse coming to a dive bar.
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