Five Bucks a Pill

“You think living this long, I’d know all there was to know about myself”, I said not expecting an answer.

“What are these?” she asked, fingering the thin white caplets only half-listening.

“Tramadol”, I told her. “Five bucks a pill.”

“They any good?”

I shrugged but she didn’t see it.

“No oxy?”

“No oxy, no hydro…that’s dry. Maybe some perc’s end of the week.”

“Huh”, she said knocking the pills around with a blood red fingernail that matched her lipstick.

“So whatta you think”, I asked after a moment. “Am I frightening?” She looked up with a crinkle around her green eyes that could have presaged either a smile or a wince. “Do you think I’m frightening? Am I scary?”

She wriggled her ass deeper into the chair and crossed her legs; a bit of stage-business while she fashioned an answer. “You do tend to lean in a bit”, she said finally. “But you always did that.”

“Huh”, was all I could come up with. “But I never saw myself as scary.”

“We’re all used to you, sweetie. You get to be a particular way, we leave you be.”

Fuck, I thought, taking a turn at spinning the pills across the dark Formica tabletop.

“Poor Tommy”, she said reaching across the table and patting my cheek.

“Don’t say that”, I said more sharply than intended. “My mother always says that.”

“How is she?”

“Same. She’ll never die. Too busy killing me.”

“Christ, boyo…” she pulled back a little and reached for her purse. “You wanna get high?”

“Naw. I might get all scary and shit.”

She smiled and took it as a joke, which is probably not how I meant it. “This is bugging you bad, isn’t it? Who said you were scary?”

“I was at a party last weekend up in Mifflin and a girl said…”

She sniffed. “Mifflin? Shit. You have to stop trying to mix with new folks. They don’t know you like we know you. Play in your own sandbox.”

She pulled a crumpled pack of Pall Mall greens out of her purse and squeezed it open to peek. She’d need a new pack soon. “Five bucks a pill seems steep for something I never tried.”

“You should get out more”, I grinned. “Three for you.” She was thinking-counting how many were on the table. I’d go down to two.

“Do you…?”, she asked haltingly, then stopped.

I let the silence ride a little. She was waiting for me. It was my turn to say something. But I wasn’t. I saw how this whole fucker was going to play out. I had the high hand. I didn’t have to do anything to win. All I had to do was sit there and shut up, collect a few bucks and she’d be out of the picture until she was dry again. But I didn’t. Instead I said, “…What?”

“You interested in doing a deal like we used to do?” she asked. “It’s been awhile.” Fuck! It had always been my idea. My suggestion. My task to pull her in. Of course I wanted to, but… “Cause, I’m fine with it, if you are. I’m ready. “

I closed my eyes and leaned back in the creaking chair. For whatever reason, it was Joe Pesci’s voice in my head saying ‘Don’t do it! You better not do it!” When I opened them the first thing I saw was the smattering of faded freckles across the bridge of her nose. And the lines around her eyes were gone, the skin unetched by time. I knew I was seeing memories; not what was in front of me. But I was seeing it that way.

If she only hadn’t smiled just then, I’d a’ been fine. But of course, she did.

“Sure”, I said. “Why not?” Playing it like it had been my plan all along.

Advertisements

Understanding the Opioid Epidemic

The drear gray of another rainy April morning

Almost made me long for February when darkness

At least had the decency to hang around awhile.

The back bar was full of loud nurses off the night shift

At the hospital up the street.

Front bar was us, the shiftless,

Remembering when a morning’s drinking felt earned

By a hard night’s work.

A familiar face at the end of the bar,

I raise a glass, he nods a lifted eyebrow.

Dated his sister years ago.

City detective; don’t know if he’s

coming off or going on.

Vodka and OJ-perfect cover.

Used to call them screwdrivers,

Don’t know if they still do.

This isn’t the kind of place where drinks have names.

There was an empty stool beside me but he stood

Leaning-here but not here-eyes covering the door.

Don’t ask how I know, but he keeps a boyfriend

In an apartment a few blocks up the hill.

Cute kid. College student.

Too young for him but who am I to say?

Both TV’s were muted against the chatter

But you could see they were talking about drugs;

The words OPIOID EPIDEMIC slid across the screen

Like a banner pulled behind a plane.

There were pictures of pills and flashing red lights

And serious faces trying to explain the scourge.

Don’t know what’s so hard, he said.

You feel shitty.

You take a pill.

You feel better.

How tough is that?

The drugs ain’t the problem, he said.

It’s the feeling shitty.

That’s what we gotta get a handle on.

Outside you could reach up and touch the dark, pressing clouds.

It might snow yet, the fucker.

He Remembered to Eat

He remembered to eat, at least.

Two rice cakes with peanut butter.

He did it in front of her as she was leaving for the gym

So she could see.

She kissed him on the cheek and he’d playfully grumble.

Once gone, he would swallow the pills that she didn’t know about

Nor what he did to get them.

They would make

The day tolerable.

No, that was wrong…

They would make the day livable.

No, that’s the same thing.

They would make the day…enjoyable.

He would be right with the world by the time she got home.

She would sometimes mention his good moods

As if complimenting a puppy for not shitting on the rug.

How happy she was to have him back she’d say

Though he never remembered being anywhere.

He’d watch the clock and with every blink of the passing morning feel the

Darkness begin to lift, the grays become tie-dyed.

Feel yesterday’s regrets dissolve and tomorrow become nothing.

He would try to remember the feeling. This fearless thisness, and try to

Recapture it later, without the pills.

He tried that always.

It never worked.

The darkness always lurked, like a thief hiding

Until everyone was asleep.

Those times when she lay her head on his chest as she once had

With no direction, meaning or pretense and he could

Smell her sweet scalp through the shampoo.

Those times he wondered why it wasn’t enough.

Why nothing was ever enough.

Lines

I knew there was a line. Plenty of them-actually. Too fucking many of them. And they always moved, sometimes blurred, but they were there. And why were they scratching at the door so early, the cats? By rights, they were hers and she should have taken them with her. Some bullshit about no room, allergies, carpets, whatever-she just said what came into her mind at the time. So she’s gone, the cats are here. Three years of cooing, baby talk, petting and combing-out the fucking window. So I hadda get up-they wouldn’t stop. I stepped into the hallway dragging my feet so I wouldn’t trip over them-or stomp them-and went downstairs not turning a light on, so they would know somehow that it was the middle of the night and not time to be getting up. With only the streetlight watching I opened the can, split it into two bowls, added warm water and leaned back, listening to them lapping in the dark. I sure as hell wasn’t going to make coffee-had to be too early for that-so I opened the fridge for orange juice. None, of course. But there was a beer. A few actually, left from last night. How long ago could that have been? An hour? Two? It mattered somehow: was it still night, or morning? Quickly tired of waiting for an answer, I popped the top on one and closed the door, slipping back into the shadows. I expected to shiver at the first swallow, but it went down so nice. Nothing had felt that smooth in weeks. My cigarettes were in the jacket pocket over the chair. I grabbed the pack and headed for the door to smoke on the porch but caught myself. My fucking house now. Using a cat’s bowl for an ashtray I sat at the table and drained my first, or one of my last, beers of the day.

Turbid

CSX-CSX-CSX-CSX-CSX

Stenciled letters emblazoned in yellow

On every black coal car that roared too fast

Past his window.

CSX-CSX-CSX-CSX-CSX

He got dizzy and stopped counting at forty-nine

And just stared. Mesmerized.

But they kept passing

Until there were no more.

His vantage point so narrow he never saw the end coming.

When the rumbling subsided, the warm salty silence

Coursed through him again.

He lifted his eyes to the river beyond the tracks where something:

Ducks, geese, gulls, buzzards, crows, tow boats, was always happening.

Except now-everything blanketed in a frigid winter fog

The color of rumpled old bedsheets

Revealing nothing but the darkly spectral fingers of denuded maples

And the big sycamore

Sliding in and out of focus

on the near mud bank.

Still he stared, willing something to happen.

It probably wouldn’t.

As would happen at times like this, he remembered.

He was in bed. That he knew.

But it seemed to be daylight-not night.

Was there light coming through the thick drapes,

Or was it a lamp?

He was young. Not little, little…but young.

You’re not going to like this, she said, sitting on the bed beside him;

Causing him to slide toward her.

Why was she in her underpants if it was day time?

He remembered “turbidity” from his years on the boats.

It referred to particulates-mud, sand, what have you,

Clouding the water.

Was there a similar measurement for air? Or for the fog that pulsed and pressed?

Or for memories? Or his own soul?

The more he stripped away, the cloudier everything became.

Upstairs a thump as the cat jumped off the bed

Probably smelling potato chips.

He sprinkled some small fragments on the floor.

He didn’t mind sharing.

Rapeseed Oil

Twice this month alone

I’ve read poems that allude to

Rapeseed oil.

Two different poets writing about different things.

Once, I could see.

Twice?

Or do poets all write about the same thing?

If so, what’s with the rapeseed oil?

What did I miss? Why didn’t I hear about it?

I’ll stop with the poetry for a while.

A third would be too much.

Across the way the cat pads at his bed

For what seems like hours with that stupid face he gets.

Drives me nuts until I throw a pillow at him and scream for him

To stop.

He hisses and stomps up the stairs, each loud creak

Echoing through the house.

Coffee tastes like burnt wood without half and half;

There are no more cookies and

Only ten oxys left

in the Imodium bottle in the fridge.

Enough for three days if I’m careful.

Then I have to make a move.

Mark

IMG_4761

A December warm front had filled the valley with a thick drizzling fog that turned midday to dusk. I had just left the Vet’s club heading for Tony’s Wild Irish Rose on the corner because I had a thing for the daytime bartender. Too early to tell if she was open or interested, but it seemed promising.  Had to put in the time to find out but things had started to look up over the past couple of weeks.

I stopped short noticing a distinctive shadow down the block in the fog.

“Mark?”

He was less a person from here than a dark smudge on a dirty gray sheet.

“Mark! What the fuck are you doin?”

Mark was below me through a gap where a church had burned, across the alley on the railroad track. From what I could tell, he was more than half way through Master Chen’s 60 movement tai chi form. I knew the form well enough; he’d been trying, with varying degrees of success, to teach it to me over the last two years. But that was in his dojo, two blocks up next to the bodega. Not down on the tracks.

He would do this kind of stuff when it struck him. And it was much easier to deal with him when he was drinking. Then he knew, on some level, at some lizard brain level, that what he was doing might be stupid and would allow himself to be talked out of it. He lived with the hard-wired assumption that he might be wrong because he was a drunk.

Now, four months sober, there was no reasoning with him. He could not be dissuaded from ANYTHING! Today he was frighteningly sober. The kind of aggressive-sober only drunks could get. And he was doing tai chi on the railroad tracks.

“I smell the booze coming off you”, he growled when I got close enough.

Better a shot of CC than getting hit by a train, I thought. But said nothing. His movements were crisp but flowing. Hundreds of years of meditative body mechanics brought to bear on the rocky ballast in the down side of town.

“Put me on the list”, he said.

“Which one?”

“Your pallbearer list.“

Shit, I thought. I had forgotten I’d told him about that. It wasn’t like I’d written it down or anything. And it wasn’t final. There were ten or twelve possibles that moved in and out as the mood struck. Unless they died, then obviously, off for good.

“I said I didn’t want to do it”, he went on. “But that will be fine. I’d like to speak too. Say something about you being weak and a drunk who shoulda died years ago and saved the air for the rest of us.”

“I don’t know if that will go over. I’m sure I’ll have family there.”

“Betcha I won’t get an argument”, he said, still never looking my way.

There was a growing rumble in the tracks. The afternoon CSX, filled with coal, was winding its way down river but was slowed by the big curve and the bridge on the other side of the switching yard. Still-by the sound of the whistle-it was no more than a half mile away.

“Train’s comin’”, I said.

He ignored me and kept to his pace. He’d probably finish in time. Nothing to be done.

I walked up to The Rose and sat at the end of the bar where I could still see him through the window. Treena, following my eyes, placed a beer in front of me and poured a shot. “He was in here earlier looking for you.”

“I was at the Vet’s earlier. What time did you start?”

“Trying to get an extra couple hours”, she explained. “Hadda take tomorrow off. Headin’ down to West Virginia. My old man’s gettin’ outta jail.”

“Your father?”

“No dipshit. My husband. Did eighteen months. Early release.”

“Didn’t know you were married.”

“Who wants to talk about their husband in prison? Went in with the meth-hope he’s coming out clean. Said they fixed his teeth.”

She smiled. Her teeth were good, except for the cracked one in front.

I pounded the shot and chased it with the beer as the train blew by a little too fast; it’s whistle, loud and bawling, rattling glasses behind the bar. Couldn’t see Mark anywhere.

I signaled for another round.

 

Someone once told me that Jerry Garcia died getting straight. If he had stayed an addict, he’d still be alive. I don’t know about that but Mark Krajack never woulda faced down a train drunk. He woulda joined me someplace outta the fog for a beer and tried to converse over the roar of the whistle. That’s what he woulda done.