A Day in the Life of 1987
Ever since it was installed in 1951, the carillon atop the Charleston city courthouse plays a piece of classical music after it chimes noon. On a day long since protected by the statute of limitations, I was waiting out a red light in front of the courthouse when the carillon played the Chopin nocturne featured in The Deer Hunter. Maybe I’ve reached the age where my cultural references are “out of print,” but there’s a special sadness in that melody which always sinks me; yet on that day, when I was twenty-eight, I felt nothing at all.
Before the light changed, one of Charleston’s finest cruised through the intersection. We recognized each other and exchanged friendly waves. The officer and his wife were among the many satisfied clients of a highly successful investment firm in nearby Seattle, where I was already a partner. I had to smile. If he knew what was in my purse and what I intended to do with the rented van I was driving, he would have had cause to reverse our business relationship.
Yet I wasn’t worried. I knew I wouldn’t be caught, in the legal sense. I was absolutely certain of it and correct in my assumption. I credit neither Fate nor the Hand of God for that; nor do I blame either for the eventual futility of my actions. You see, the only reason why I got away with an impressive list of felonies so easily that day was that no one gave a shit about my primary victim except me.
My sister Tess and I grew up in the west side of Charleston. It’s the oldest part of town, home to the government shipyard and more than a few impoverished neighborhoods, decayed by time and unpopular demographics. We came out of one of the shittier areas; and although the street I drove to wasn’t the same one in which we lived, it was definitely its kin in flavor. Same old sagging duplexes originally built to temporarily house the influx of WWII shipyard workers; same old uninsurable rusty beaters parked in the streets; more tennis shoes flung up over power lines, and kids everywhere.
I found the address I was looking for. I backed the van across the crappy unkempt yard, stopping just shy of the front door. I got out, opened the back of the van, hammered on the door and spoke some magic words. Of course there’s a chance I could have been at the wrong place, but that weird certainty told me I hadn’t made a mistake.
“It’s me, Tess. I got what you need from Fat Tammy.”
Nobody answered, but I could hear them in there.
“Don’t fuck with it, Tess. Open the goddam the door.”
I heard her say something like “don’t, it’s a trick” to her latest loser boyfriend (Christ, she could pick ’em). Which, I guess was true, depending on how you look at things. Yet there are times in life when a loser boyfriend comes in handy. They lack common sense and always fall for the oldest tricks in the book.
He told me that he was going to open the door just enough for me to say my piece. The instant I heard the deadbolt go and saw the knob turn I focused all my rage and intent on the door. I actually saw the chain that he had assumed would prevent a tall skinny woman like me from doing such a thing fling into the shabby kitchen and smack into a grimey refrigerator as the door flew open. The door didn’t open much further than that, for it bounced off the loser boyfriend’s face and left a mark on his forehead. He crumpled to the floor like a Harryhausen skeleton and whimpered. (That’s another out of print simile.)
“Shut up and make enough for two,” I said, closing the door. I tossed the sniveling fuckstick one of the four balloons of heroin I’d bought from Fat Tammy after I’d gained “Sid and Nancy’s” location from her. (For some fucked up reason it took pressing my .38 between Fat Tammy’s meaty tits to learn the address. I’ve no worries about writing that out loud, the nasty shoat kicked-off due to fentanyl about five years back.)
Here and here only, during my little escapade, had I counted on an assumption to come true. Since this wasn’t the first time I had to dig Tess out of the sewer, I knew she wouldn’t act against me or try to run off until it was clear she had no other choice. Moreover I had stacked the deck in my favor with the heroin, which was a first. No matter the events of the previous six seconds, the stuff in the balloon was the star of the show. And with that ratlike anticipatory glee of the hungry junkie, the loser boyfriend took a taste, smiled at Tess and got out his “works.”
“And use this, dumbass,” I said, tossing him a couple of clean needles. Although the news in 1987 was afire with the AIDS pandemic, there were still stupid fuckers out there sharing needles while equally stupid fuckers claimed you could catch it off a toilet seat. Tess had mixed luck there, she never contracted HIV but she did acquire Hep-C.
I never carry a purse. But I had bought one earlier that day at K-Mart. It was a whopper of a purse, probably had enough room in it for a couple of heads, if it came to that. It had a long strap, which I wore looped over one shoulder, with the purse itself against my opposite hip.
“Sit down, Tess,” I said softly, pointing at the perfectly nasty sofa she was standing behind. The whole goddam apartment was like being inside an infected tooth. I had known going in that both she and that waste of an ovary she was shacking up with were dopesick. Both had a waxy pallor and appeared to be pushing some sort of grease through their skins instead of sweat. Fuck heroin chic, nobody looks like a jonesing junkie on purpose. Nor are the dopesick much good at running away; not when the only thing that matters is cooking away in a spoon.
She really must’ve been hurting, because she sat down without sharing one of those charming Fuck You Nosy Dyke remarks that I was so often treated to throughout the eighties and nineties. Instead, she spoke something we used to say to each other when we were children. “What’s the gag, Sara? Why such a big show?”
Here’s another out of print cultural reference, but you won’t need to google it. You see, Tess was an awful lot like the Devil as portrayed in a Twilight Zone episode called The Howling Man, in which an order of out in the boondocks monks had caught Satan and had him imprisoned in a special cell. But a lost traveller got inside the monastery. Satan easily tricked the traveller into letting him out, and evil was once again set loose on the world.
But I was remarkably hard to reach that day. Whatever makes me human lay at a greater distance than the farthest star. I put my finger to my lips and shushed her and turned to the loser boyfriend.
She might have said something, I really don’t remember. But I do recall watching him fill the needle, carefully set aside a small metal container he had poured the melted contents of the spoon in, and inject her between her left index and middle fingers, because like Elvis and Lennon, her doable veins had long since left the building. The result was remarkable in both its suddenness and effect. Tess went from being semi-alert and mostly dead in the ugliest possible way to a serene and beatific version of the same thing within three seconds. I’d seen it before and many times after, but to this day I have yet to get over it.
“Go into the kitchen and do that,” I said to the loser boyfriend. But first I handed him another of the four balloons I’d brought and an envelope with a thousand 1987 dollars in it. “After you fix you take all this and the first balloon and go away until you see the van gone, get it?”
He got it.
“Two more things,” I said and pointed at nodding Tess, who was trying to light a cigarette, and having no success whatsoever. “First, how much and how often?”
He understood and told me.
Then I held my purse open and up to his face so he could plainly see the .38.
“Second, I’ll tell her that you had to move on because you’re a free bird.”
He got that too, and forever exited our lives.
I sat beside Tess and examined the room for the first time. Really no need, it, like the loser boyfriend, was like the others: mounded ashtrays, maggoty fast food containers and that fulsome, low stench which compares to no other except maybe spent butane. I took the cigarette away from Tess, grabbed another, lit it and held it to her lips.
“Works better from this end.”
Despite the sludgy effects of the heroin, and the plain to even her fact that it was again off to rehab, Tess glanced at me with admiration. “Ya’ shoulda stayed a gangster, like when we were kids.”
“Couldn’t afford the cut in pay.” I rose and began grabbing the few things lying around that were obviously hers. Then I approached her from behind and pulled something else out of my purse.
“So, where to this time? Can’t go back to Holly Ridge, since I smuggled those soma’s in up my butt.”
“It’s a surprise,” I said, and in a few quick motions that I had practiced over and again on a CPR dummy, I handcuffed her wrists, gagged her mouth the way they do in mob movies and came round and cuffed her ankles together. She kicked some, but she really was too fucked up to put up much of a struggle.
I’m a tall woman, a touch over six feet, and what people used to call “wiry.” Although I’ve never weighed more than a hundred-forty in my life, I have ant-like strength, which increases exponentially with my rage. I hoisted Tess over my shoulder like a sack of dried bones; even when she was “healthy” she seldom ingested much more than cigarettes and RC Cola. I gently laid her on a mattress in the back of the van, and secured her in a way as to prevent her from bouncing around too much. Even whilst cataclysmically stoned, she had plenty of those charming remarks about me forming in her eyes. I didn’t take any of it personally.
I drove home and backed the van into the garage. It was mid-afternoon and getting close to Tess’s next fix. I closed the garage door and opened the rear of the van.
Ooooh, Lord, was she pissed. I guess banging around while cuffed in the back of a van, no matter how well padded, is hard on your serenity. Her eyes shone at me with fury and were as wildly electric as those of a cat getting ready to fight. I smiled, but it faltered when I realized that I had made a small mistake. I should have cuffed her hands behind her back. It really didn’t matter when she was deep in the opium fog, nor had she enough play to worry the gag free, but she looked plenty mad enough to want to get in a lick or two. I deduced that from the way she was glaring at me and clubbing her lap with her fists.
“It’s almost time for your medicine,” I said in sing-song, hating calling that destructive white powder by a gentler name. “Try any funny stuff with the cuffs and I’ll open the door with your face.”
I hoisted Tess out and again flopped her over my shoulder, making damn certain she couldn’t reach the purse. She did land a couple of apathetic kidney shots, but they felt for show. I took her to That Special Room in the basement. Once upon a time it was going to be the office in which I’d write the Great American Novel. The house was built in 1950, and That Special Room was a bomb shelter designed with enough space for the whole family to die together from radiation poisoning. The light came on automatically. I flopped her onto a bed which lay dead center in the room, and closed the door. There was a combination lock recently installed in the door. I neglected to spin it. Consider that action the opening ceremony of the Sara Stupid Fest.
That Special Room measured 15-by-12, had an eight-foot ceiling, its own standard-sized bathroom, as well as a kitchenette. I’d friendlied up its gloomy attitude by installing plush carpeting, panelling for the cinder block walls as well as good art reproductions and furniture. The bed was new, as were the blankets and pillows. Hell, it even had cable TV. The only things missing were windows, a telephone, and a way out that didn’t first involve doing something about me.
Oh, yes, Tess had been there before, and always for a similar reason. She was the one who’d named it “That Special Room”; but this was the only time she had entered it trussed like a steer.
I placed one of the balloons on the nightstand and laid my purse on the desk across the room (which proved to be an early event in the Stupid Fest). I already had a melting pot classier than a dirty spoon and clean needles ready. I sat in a chair beside the bed.
“I’m going to remove the gag. Scream all you want. You know nobody can hear us.” For a fleeting second something tugged at my mind like a toddler pulling the hem of its mother’s dress. I intensely dislike children, so I ignored it.
I removed the gag, careful not to get bit.
Tess sat upright, worked her jaw and held up the cuffs, “Have you lost your fucking mind? What about these, bastard?”
“In a minute. I want to get something straight first.”
I stood and paced around the room. It was either that or punch her in the face. Everything I did that day was out of love for Tess–she’s the only human being I’ve ever loved–but I utterly hated what that thing inside her was doing to me. I guess there was something primitive in my eyes which told Tess “not to fuck with it”–another term from our secret language; one to be taken seriously.
“We’re going to California,” I said, facing the wall. “You’re spending the next few months in Malibu.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Either that or two years in Purdy.”
“Two years?” Tess was dumbfounded. “Two years? Who says two years?”
“Judge Clayborn–that’s who. No more little stretches at the county clink or state rehab for you. They want to make an example of someone. A well known habitual offender. Ring a bell?”
“Kinda figured something might be up,” she said. “That’s why I blew off court.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said, turning to face her. I must have had a wry grin on my face. Rhetorically speaking, once upon a time what’s nowadays defamed as “inside trader information” brought out the compassion in certain hard line judges. In these certain cases (long since protected by our dear friend, the Statute of Limitations) you could sway a right wing “Just Say No” type of judge to have second thoughts, and, perhaps, get him to allow an offender to serve a reduced sentence at a fancy rehab center instead of pulling two years at the Purdy Correctional Facility for Women. Ju$tice? No shit. What do you expect from a society in which addiction and mental illness are punishable crimes?
“Why all the drama, Sara, why take the risk?”
Physically speaking, Tess had been born under a lucky star. Except when dopesick, and despite her lack of weight, she was a radiant little blue-eyed thing with long honey-blond hair. Her face was shaped like a heart and extraordinarily expressive, even though most beautiful people never need to develop much more than a stunning smile. She had one of those, too, but by the time she hit her mid-thirties the junk had rotted out her teeth and forced her to wear dentures. I believe it was then, in 1987, when Tess was twenty-six, she reached her acme; soon thereafter came the heartless decline.
I ignored her question for the moment. “Wanna drink?” I asked, pointing at the set up. “I can sure use one. Fuckhead told me your dosage…”
“His name’s Keith.”
“His name’s Gone, like the others.”
“So the great rich Sara with all her fucking money is in control again,” she said in a tone which found the center of my rage, reciting the same old bullshit I’d already heard too many times the first time she spoke it. “When’s your fucking lizzie ass gonna get it that this is my life and…”
I backhanded her across the face. Hard. I knew that was coming, but I’d hoped to have uncuffed her first, as to make it seem fairer, I guess. Yes, I had to smack her around plenty in the past, but that was always out of necessity or in self defense. But this was the first time I’d struck her because I wanted to. And it didn’t feel bad, not in the least. Alas, allowing Tess to play me proved to be one of the starred attractions at the Sara Stupid Fest.
I don’t recall doing it, but the next thing I knew I was sitting on top of her, squeezing both her arms just above the cuffs so tight that all four of our hands turned white. “Yeah, I’m a fucking dyke lizzie pussyeating Jody,” I seethed in her face: “Wanna know a big secret? I’m extra sick in the head because I’m attracted only to twitches like you. That’s what we bulls call ‘em, twitches, the sweet swing of the hips. But being sick in the fucking head I go without. I don’t give a shit what other people think about me, but I don’t like them thinking about me, either. But they think about me, and that makes me all retarded inside. They think about me every time I’m called out of a meeting or got to cut early because you or Mom have fucked with it again. They think to each other, ‘Poor Sara, what a family. Too bad she can’t find a man.’ Then they laugh at me, which I hate even more than the thinking.”
“That’s called giving a shit about what people think, Sar-duh. Now get the fuck off or I keek you in dee ballz an tell everybody you heet like a gurl, senor.”
Only Tess could say something like that and live to see the next sentence. Behold yet another out of print reference: the “I keek you in dee ballz” and so on was Tess’s impression of “The Frito Bandito,”–a hell racist 60’s advertising cartoon character. Although I’ll never get it across adequately in print, her use of that and “Sar-duh” was indicative of her genius–of which she was once in a lifetime. Spoken a heartbeat sooner or later and it wouldn’t have been effective. My appreciation of her genius, however, isn’t entirely kind. Although she was beautiful and smart and an artist whose paintings are worth a pretty penny nowadays, Tess’s true genius lay in playing people. She wanted to bring me down a little, which is precisely what she got.
“I need that drink, Sara, please.”
“All right, all right,” I said, rising, not realizing that Tess had been marking every little detail. I crossed the room and fetched the key from my purse, which I just left lying there, once again neglecting to toss it into the mini safe I’d purchase just for that purpose.
“Hold em up,” I said, unlocking the cuffs. The Sara Stupid Fest kept blazing merrily along because after I had unlocked her I placed the key in my pocket, right in front of her. “I was going to cook and shoot you myself, in case you got any funny ideas about deliberately overdosing and getting out of this through the ER…but since that means two years of you wearing Freddie Mercury hot pants in a cell with a chick who looks like Andre the Giant, my guess is you’ll do the right thing.”
“What about my feet?” she asked, immediately lighting a cigarette, playfully rattling the chain joining her ankles and feigning kicks to dee ballz.
Apparently there was a brief intermission at the Sara Stupid Fest because I said, “What about them?”
What word names the lovely feeling that comes during acts of self destruction and violence? The same forbidden shine that must have been in my eyes when I jammed the .38 between Fat Tammy’s breasts and actually considered, for a moment, pulling the trigger, shone in Tess’s as she ritualistically melted the powder into an amber ichor. I got a vicarious kick out of watching her; it was almost as good as causing pain.
Tess must have been reading my mind. “Say, big sister, how many laws did you break today?”
“More than two years’ worth.”
She drew the correct amount of heroin into a syringe and held it up for me to check. “Are we evil?” She asked, smiling.
“Depends on who you ask.”
Tess carefully laid the needle aside and took off her light jacket. There were track marks shaped like a flock of birds on the inside of both arms, I imagined that her legs were in the same condition. She extracted a length of surgical tubing from her jacket. “I wanna tie off this time. My hand’s getting sore.”
“You got anything left to tie off?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she mumbled, and wrapped the tubing around her right biceps. She repeatedly flicked an area just above the crook of her elbow with her index finger. “Come here and hold my arm like this,” she said like a master instructing her apprentice.
“All right. Like this?” I asked, sitting down beside her, thus presenting a fitting finale to the Sara Stupid Fest.
Just as she was about to inject, she screamed, which startled the hell out of me. Before I could recover she pounced on me and slid the needle into my neck. “It’s gonna be alright, baby,” she cooed, once or twice, as she held me in a headlock. I almost immediately fell into sweet nothingness.
I awoke maybe six hours later, lying on the bed, needing to urinate. My attitude was oddly euphoric. Nothing mattered in a way I couldn’t describe until I heard Hakuna Matata a few years later. This was very strange because I’m most definitely not a Hakuna Matata sort of person. I glanced around and saw my super-sized purse, both sets of cuffs, a needle with heroin in it and, of course, a folded note addressed to me all lying neatly on the nightstand. But none of it mattered more than my need to pee.
While washing up, I saw the tiny bandaid on my neck. It had been placed over what the smack-heads call “the main pipeline.” I pulled it off and saw that I’d been taken by a one-fanged vampire.
I returned to the bed, lay down and lit one of the three cigarettes Tess had thoughtfully left behind. I was neither mad nor confused by the situation. No need to break into a chase, either; she was levels and levels in hell away by then. I had gotten what my carelessness had earned me. Tess had played me better than I’d played her; it wasn’t the first nor the last time that one of us had pulled off a last second miracle in our pointless little war. You see, Tess wound up cuffed and in the back of the van because I could satisfy her hunger, and I ended up like a tranked bear being deposited out in the forest because of my own addiction to anger. I eventually picked up the note she had left behind and read it:
How you like it, hon? So many people live out their lives not knowing they can feel sooo good. I feel sorry for them. Now you know. Left you some, just in case.
I didn’t stick you to hurt you, Sara. I only gave you enough to lay a virgin out for a few hours. I even stayed behind awhile to make sure. I’m glad I didn’t need to use the cuffs. But I was a long time coming around to being glad about it–all things considered.
I was as good as at that swank rehab until I saw you put the key in your pocket. That and that “groovy” purse of yours (remember “groovy,” hon?) just lying there, and you putting the needle in my hand was just too much temptation. You’re beautiful and unbeatable when you are cruel; careless when you boil over and give a shit.
Love that groovy purse. I left an IOU of sorts in for the two grand that I assumed was supposed to be our expense money, for the road, and, of course, the dope. I almost cuffed you on principle when it occurred to me that Malibu is a twenty hour drive from here. We could hardly fly with fives years’ worth of smack, now could we? Twenty hours sounds like an awfully long time in the back of a van, no matter how high you are. (By the way, I know you have a concealed weapons permit; but you shouldn’t leave that gun lying around. No, I didn’t take it. It’s in the lock box, where it belongs.)
I love you, Sara. But there’s nothing you can do about me. I know you really don’t believe that rehab will ever take; and that you try anyway because you love me and you can’t think of anything else to do for me. I understand and appreciate that you were trying to keep me out of prison. Got news for you hon: the only place easier to get drugs into than prison is rehab–the fancier the facility the better…
It went on, but it was full of out of print cultural references and secret words better left guarded by my heart.
The IOU of sorts was the key to a storage unit, whose location was made clear at the end of the note. She’d worn it on a chain around her neck and was perhaps the only legitimate debt she’d never blown off. The unit contained ten original paintings, all but two of which currently hang, on loan, in galleries and museums, primarily on the west coast–never to be sold at any price, whilst I live. She was a moderately successful painter toward the end of her life, and, as the cliche goes, became desirable upon her death. She signed them “Hester”–her real name, which she always loathed. There are only twenty-two known “Hesters” in existence. Although Tess painted fast she only painted while she was in jail or rehab–never when in the caress of her lover.
In the earlier out of print reference about the Devil in the locked room, I neglected to mention that the Devil always gets out, by and by. Tess didn’t grow up on Torqwamni Hill without learning how to scrap. Screaming to create a diversion then harpooning me in the neck with a “heavy” substance I’d never experienced before didn’t require the mind of an evil supergenius to concoct, but it took guts to pull it off.
Six weeks later I was sitting on my deck reading a telegram (another thing which no longer exists). I’d always expected to get word of Tess’s death by telegram; and there were times when I’d even hope for it. Only persons who flinch when the phone rings or know the shortcut to the city jail or stand silently in rage having to take a judge’s insulting heat because you are someone’s guardian or have a quiet nervous breakdown in the employee restroom because the bank called to ask if you will okay a five-hundred dollar check you’d written to your sister, that you could swear was for fifty–and you okay it because nothing else will make her go away–know the kind of hope I’m talking about.
I never got word of Tess’s death by telegram. It would come years later, from a disinterested EMT who was “Sorry for my loss.” No, this time she was in all places Omaha–as in Nebraska. She always had a funny way of asking me for money. Never straight out; she’d just tell me how much the bus fare home and such cost, in a roundabout way. Another funny thing about her, well, us, actually, we never discussed past battles. Our war lasted exactly forty years, yet was endless if not forever.
As I got ready to drive to the Western Union office, I heard the distant carillon atop the courthouse chime noon and play that Chopin Nocturne featured in The Deer Hunter. I felt nothing at all.
Image – Pixabay.com