Oh, shit! Here we go again! Did you see that? No, I didn’t think so. I’m seeing shit again. At least, I think I’m seeing shit. I thought I saw a guy over there looking at me. I can’t be sure. My vision’s a little blurry out of this eye. Hey, that’s to be expected. There doesn’t look like there’s anyone over there now. Great! I’ve got invisible people following me on the last night of my life! Do me a favor: if I think I see someone following me again, sock me in the fucking mouth! Right here, where my lip’s split. Maybe that’ll knock some sense into me? I can’t believe I told Loomis that I thought someone was after me. Get real, Miranda! There’s nobody following you! There can’t be! A fucking Bloodhound couldn’t keep up with me tonight, what with all of the places I’ve been. Maybe it’s the Angel of Death? Seriously, maybe it is? I hope so. If he’s following me, then it means I’m going to succeed. I’m dead for sure. Thank God!
See those people headed up the street? They’re heading for the Chinese restaurant. I told you that they stay open the latest, so they throw their garbage out in the middle of the night. It’s fresh and a lot of it tastes really good so if you can get there in time, it’s the best free dinner you can get out here. It’s sort of a nightly ritual. Every night except Sunday. They close early on Sundays. The sad thing is, there’s no way they’ll throw out enough shit to feed all of those people. That’s a pretty good-sized crowd. It’s bigger than usual; maybe because the cops were on the warpath earlier and so they stayed away from the missions. A lot of them are going to go hungry. That’s how it goes. It can get pretty ugly sometimes. People out here will kill you just for giving them a hard look. Think of what they’ll do for the only decent meal you can get at this hour.
Oh, shit! I know him! The old black guy with the gray shirt! That’s Irv!
Irv’s an old acquaintance. I met him through Charlie. He’s another crusty relic of the streets. He’s not a junkie like me. No, Irv’s a good old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool drunk. He’s been drinking since he was about six months old. I’m not kidding. I think his mother put whiskey in his baby bottle. His liver’s probably petrified. Most of him is probably petrified. He’s a good guy, though. He showed me a few places to crash when I first got here. I don’t know how long he’s been out here. He’s one of those guys who’s probably fifty-five going on ninety. Life’s taken a hell of a toll on him. Look at his eyes. There’s no light in them. Living out here killed him inside. He’s gotten to the point where he’s pretty much just waiting to die. A lot of people out here are like that.
“What? Oh, hey Red! Good to see you, girl. What you be up to tonight?”
“Me? I’m just hanging out. What about you? Going for Chinese?”
“Yeah, I guess so. Tell you the truth, I ain’t really hungry.”
“So why are you going?”
“Somethin’ to do. No reason.”
“That’s reason enough to do anything out here. Damn! What happened to your face?”
“Oh, the usual.”
Me getting my ass kicked is pretty usual around here. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone.
“Took a beat down, huh? What happened? Some guy try to do you?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“Who was the guy?”
“What makes you think it was a guy?”
“On account of there ain’t no woman out here who could take you. Shit, there’s plenty of guys out here who couldn’t take you!”
“Yeah, I’m a regular fucking Green Beret. It was Ricky. Again.”
“Red, you need to stay away from that motherfucker! Can you even see out of that eye?”
“For a while, at least. Tomorrow morning, probably not.”
Not that I’ll need it by tomorrow morning, but I don’t want to tell him that.
“That’s a pretty bad cut on your head. Looks like it hurts.”
Now there’s an understatement! Right now, it’s kind of a combination of burning and stinging. God, I hate getting head cuts! They always hurt, no matter what you do.
“Oh, it hurts all right.”
“So did you get him back?”
I can’t believe he’s asking me that. Irv’s been out here long enough to know that if I tried to fight back against Ricky, I’d be dead.
“Nope. I just covered up and tried to make sure it wasn’t any worse.”
“Yeah, you been beat worse. That’s the truth! I remember.”
“So do I. Remember the time Villich kicked my ass over at the Briarton?”
“Oh, yeah! Damn, that was bad! You got worse than beat! You got stomped!”
That was a particularly bad one. He beat the living dog shit out of me! That one was so bad, they actually took me at the hospital. They didn’t just dump me on the street. I was there overnight. I wasn’t exactly aware of what was going on. I was half in a coma, I think. I would’ve been there longer, but I had a chickenshit warrant and I didn’t want to stay there long enough for the cops to come collect me.
“Yeah, he was a mean son of a bitch. That one almost killed me.”
“I remember! You was one bloody mess! You had to crawl out of that place on your hands and knees, didn’t you?”
“I think I crawled for about four blocks. I wasn’t exactly conscious of what I was doing. I was running on instinct. Or crawling on it, I guess.”
“Whatever happened to that motherfucker? He’s dead, ain’t he?”
“Yeah, he finally got what’s coming to him. He beat the crap out of some guy at that Mexican bar on Stanley Avenue. The guy came back with a gun and blasted him. Put five shots in his chest, right in the doorway.”
“Shit! Was you there?”
“I wish. I heard about it. You know that guy they call Peacock? The one that hangs by the fruit stands? He was there. He told me about it.”
“Serves his motherfuckin’ ass right! What comes around goes around!”
“Too bad it took so long. That son of a bitch should’ve been killed a long time ago.”
I remember that asshole very well. He really did a number on me that day. Villich ran the desk at the Briarton Hotel. A real dump. It’s a crackhead and whore place. Villich was a total motherfucker. Everybody hated him. I was sitting in a chair in the lobby half-asleep and he just comes up and starts wailing on me with a broomstick. I was on the floor trying to cover my head and he started stomping on me. He got me on my back and stomped on my gut a bunch of times. He used to wear these big-assed lumberjack boots and they really fucked me up. I almost choked to death on my own vomit. The paramedics found me unconscious in a driveway near the doughnut stand. They actually had to stick a tube in my mouth and vacuum out the blood and puke. That was probably the single worst beating I ever took. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the last.
“So what’s up with you, Irv? You look thrashed. Are you sick?”
“No, I just ain’t slept in while. In fact, I think I’ll sit down for a bit. You want to sit with me?”
“Sure, why not?”
He doesn’t look good, and for Irv, that’s saying something. I always wondered when all of that drinking would catch up to him. I figured that if he didn’t get killed by walking across a street drunk and getting mowed down by a car, he’d drink himself to death.
“Damn! My feet hurt! Girl, I’ve been walkin’ since sunrise!”
“You know. Just makin’ the rounds. Just makin’ the rounds.”
“Yeah, you and me both.”
“I ain’t seen you in a few days. Where you been?”
“Nowhere. I didn’t go out for a few nights. I just wasn’t up to it.”
“Is it that crazy shit again? You havin’ one of your episodes?”
See? Everybody out here knows I’m crazy. They also know it flattens me from time to time.
“Yeah, pretty much. I was kind of flattened.”
“That’s too bad. Life ain’t easy when you’re crazy, is it?”
“Not by a long shot.”
“Yeah, I can believe that. Too bad they can’t give you nothin’ for it. You know, like pills for that shit.”
“They tried. Lord, did they ever try! I can’t even remember how many different pills they gave me over the years. I can remember what color most of them were, but that’s about it.”
“But the shit didn’t work?”
“Nope. None of it. Not even once.”
“Yeah, it happens that way sometimes. Some folks? It just don’t work. I know about that shit. It’s too bad you gotta be one of ’em.”
“Yeah, lucky me.”
“Well, as long as I’m sittin’ down, I’m gonna have me a smoke.”
“Yeah, a cigarette! I don’t mess with the pipe! That shit’s a rattlesnake! It’ll fuckin’ bite you in the ass!”
“Yeah, well, I guess I can’t criticize.”
“Why? On account of you bein’ on the needle?”
“Yeah. Junkies shouldn’t criticize, you know?”
“I ain’t seen you get down in months. I thought you got off that shit?”
“For the most part. I still chip now and then. But you know what they say: once a junkie; always a junkie.”
“Yeah, Charlie done told me don’t no one ever really get off the big ‘H.’ He says it keeps comin’ back. Don’t matter where you go; there it is. That shit grabs you deep.”
“He’s right. Say, you got an extra cigarette?”
“I thought you didn’t smoke?”
“I used to.”
“And now you gonna start up again?”
“Maybe just for tonight. I miss them. I just want to have one again. Just one more time.”
He’s giving me a strange look all of a sudden. What? A girl can’t bum a cigarette off of an old drunk? What is our little world coming to?
“Red, you talkin’ like it’s your last cigarette.”
“You never know. It could be. So can I have one? ”
“Yeah, I’ll spot you one.”
Hey, why not? I’m going to die in a few hours. A girl’s entitled to a last cigarette, right? A blindfold and a last cigarette. Isn’t that what the condemned get? I don’t have a blindfold, so I’m entitled to a cigarette. At least I can be sure of one thing: I won’t die from lung cancer. You’ve got to love that, right?
“What kind is it?”
“Don’t know. Got ’em off a guy on the sidewalk. It’s real and it ain’t a butt. That’s good enough for me.”
“I’ll say. Damn! I almost forgot how good these things are!”
“Yeah, well, don’t get too used to ’em. Them motherfuckers is hard to come by out here. More than that, they’ll kill your ass. You don’t want to go that way.”
“What? And shooting dope won’t? Besides, what have I got to live for?”
“Can’t argue with that. You still at that SRO?”
“Yeah. For now, at least.”
“Oh, you comin’ up on your time?”
You see? The language of the street. We all speak it fluently. Everyone out here knows you can’t stay in those places forever. It’s like how Charlie told me about Vietnam. As soon as you got there, you knew exactly how much time you had before you could go home. He said you started counting down the days the second you stepped off of the airplane. It’s just like that when Social Services scores you a room. You know you’ve got about a year. I’ve had a little more than that, so I can’t complain. But I started counting down on day one, too. We all do.
“Yep. I’m about due.”
“That’s fucked up. Can’t do nothin’ about it, though. That’s the motherfuckin’ system for you. So you’ll be back with the rest of us, huh?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“It won’t be so bad, girl. You been through it before. You can do it. You know how to get over. Charlie taught you good.”
“He sure did.”
“And it ain’t like you ever left, so it ain’t gonna be no shock to you.”
“So is that why you smokin’ tonight?”
“It’s as good a reason as any.”
“I heard that. Shit, if I was you, I’d be drinkin’ my ass off right now.”
“You got money? ’Cause if you gonna get a bottle…”
“I’d be the most popular girl on the block!”
“Fuck the block! I wasn’t gonna tell nobody else! Just you and me!”
“All of the liquor stores are closed. But I’ll tell you what: we can go over to the gas station. I’ll buy you a pack of cigarettes.”
“Sure, I’m serious! When’s the last time you had a whole pack?”
“Oh, shit! I can’t remember that far back!”
“Well, then I’d say you’re due. Come on! We’ll celebrate my return to the streets with a few cigarettes. Real ones. None of those hand-rolled things. And no picking up butts off the ground! We’ll have time enough to do that later.”
“Shit, girl! Let’s do it!”
“Lead on, MacDuff.”
Despite Charlie’s best efforts, not everyone out here reads Shakespeare. I think the only thing Irv reads is the “On Sale” sign at the liquor store. He’s got to make his money go as far as it can. Don’t we all?
“Nothing. Just one thing: could you help me up? It really hurts. I think I need a hand.”
I think I need a pair of crutches! Fuck that! I need a goddamned wheelchair!
OK, here we are. This is one of the two gas stations near skid row. That’s all we’ve got. It’s actually more than we need. The other one’s on the far side of the sector, and God only knows who buys gas there. This one is the most active. It’s not too far from the police station. I sometimes think that’s why it’s here. The cops coming and going to work must be their only customers. One thing’s for sure: the people out here don’t buy gas. What the hell would we do with it? Start a fire? We do that all the time without the gas! God knows what we’d burn if we had it! But it’s a good place to buy a bag of chips or something late at night. And if you’ve got the bucks, you can get a pack of cigarettes. Most people don’t have the bucks, but seeing as I robbed T.C. of every last dime he had, I can afford to buy a pack of cigarettes. There’s no way I can get the money back to him before sunrise, so I might as well do some good with it. I’m probably going straight to hell for stealing it in the first place. Maybe buying Irv a pack of cigarettes will take some of the sting out of it? It certainly can’t hurt.
Now, here’s where we need to be careful. The people who work here hate us with a passion. I don’t blame them. We’re either hitting up their customers for money or we’re bugging them to let us use the bathroom. We usually stand around and beg the customers for their spare change. The more industrious ones offer to wipe down windshields or even pump the gas for a buck. It drives the customers crazy, and that drives the people who work here even crazier. They probably think we’re costing them business. Give me a break! I think being within walking distance of skid row is what’s costing them business. I mean, this place looks pretty new. It stands out like a sore thumb. The whole sector was a fucking shithole when they built it. Christ! What were they thinking? Is this their idea of neighborhood beautification? A fucking gas station? Anyway, since we don’t have cars, we have to go up and knock on the bulletproof glass and hope the dork inside is willing to acknowledge our presence. A lot of times, he isn’t.
“What do you want, lady?”
“We don’t sell singles.”
Oh, here we go! He thinks that because we’re on the street, we can’t afford to buy anything. “Singles” means selling one cigarette at a time. It’s illegal – you have to sell the whole pack or nothing – but some of the bodegas do it anyway just to placate the homeless. It makes sense. They get five times as much as they’d get if they sold the whole pack. Besides, we’re bad enough on a regular night as it is. Some homeless psycho having a fucking nicotine fit in your store is definitely bad for business.
“I don’t want a single. I want to buy a pack.”
“Yeah, sure you do! We don’t take vouchers from the soup kitchens!”
Not good! I think that just set Irv off big time!
“Hey, motherfucker! The lady says she wants to buy some cigarettes! You ain’t got to be like that!”
“Take it easy, Irv. Look, I just want to but a pack of cigarettes, OK?”
“I got no time for this bullshit! There’s probably some butts over by the trash can. Help yourself!”
What the fuck is with this guy? Just because I’m on the street, there’s no way I can scrape together a few bucks for a pack of fucking cigarettes? Hey, we may not buy a lot of them, but it’s not unheard of. It’s not a total fucking rarity or something.
“I’m serious. I’ve got money.”
“Yeah? Let me see it first.”
One of the first things you learn on skid row is never show anyone your money. Don’t even let another homeless guy see you pay for anything. It’s an invitation to being robbed. Most of the time, someone will just snatch it out of your hand. But I don’t have to worry about this guy. He can’t reach through that little slot in the window. He’d probably go for it if he could. He looks like an asshole. Besides, what are we going to do? Call the cops?
“What did you do? Hit the lottery?”
“No, your mother gave me twenty bucks to go down on her! Now, are you going to sell me something or what?”
You have no idea how many times you have to go through shit like this when you live on the street. It makes me want to scream!
“OK, honey. What kind do you want?”
You know, I don’t even know what brand Irv smokes. But I bet I can guess: Newports.
“Irv, what kind do you want?”
See? Actually, that was an easy guess. Most people out here smoke Newports. I can’t stand them. They’re menthol. It’s like smoking a fucking candy cane. Why are Newports so popular? Because they’re sort of like the official cigarette of the prison system. Whether it’s jail or prison, about the only cigarettes you’ll ever see are Newports. I don’t know how it got that way. I just know that’s how it is. Since a lot of these guys have done time, they smoke those fucking Newports. Prison really does fuck you up, doesn’t it?
“You heard the man. Give me a pack of Newports.”
“One pack of convict sticks, coming up.”
“And give me a pack of Winstons, too.”
“Yo, Red? What’s with the Winstons?”
“They’re for me. I can’t stand menthols. I need the real deal.”
“Ain’t those suckers kinda strong?”
“A little. I used to smoke them when I was a kid. I think I’ll give them another try.”
“Lord, girl! What are you up to tonight?”
I’m not about to answer that one. He doesn’t need to know.
“Here you go, honey. Don’t fucking hang out here! Smoke ’em someplace else!”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be leaving right away. Hey, can you give us any matches?”
“How many do you need?”
“As many as you can spare.”
“What the hell? You’re actually spending some money for a change. This is probably some kind of big deal for you two. Here, have yourselves a party.”
Yeah, maybe I’ll light a match next to one of your fucking gas pumps, motherfucker! God, what a fucking asshole!
Check it out! He threw in five books of matches! That’s pretty generous of him. After that crack I made about his mother, I thought he might tell me to fuck off. Then again, maybe he thought his mother really did pay me twenty bucks to go down on her? Believe me, it wouldn’t be the strangest thing that’s happened out here. It sure as hell wouldn’t be the strangest thing I’ve been asked to do for twenty bucks, either.
“Hey, Irv? You want some matches? Why don’t you take three?”
“Damn! You bein’ a regular Santa Claus tonight! What’s with you?”
“I’m just feeling generous.”
“How come? Christmas is a long way off, ain’t it?”
“Not really. About six or seven weeks; I think. What is today, anyway? I mean, I think it’s November, right?”
“Beats me. I just know it’s getting’ cold. Anyway, it ain’t Christmas. So what gives?”
“Bullshit! What’s goin’ on, Red?”
“Who says something’s going on?”
“Me, that’s who! Don’t bullshit a bullshitter! Come on, Red! Give it up!”
He’s pretty sharp, despite the lifetime of drunkenness. He knows nobody out here spends a few bucks on someone else when there’s nothing in it for them. And he knows I’m no exception.
“I’m just feeling a little weird, that’s all. I thought maybe…You know, maybe doing someone a favor would make me feel better? Why not, you know?”
“Uh-huh! Is that why you takin’ up smokin’ all of a sudden?”
I guess he’s not buying it.
“I don’t know. I just…I’ve been thinking a lot about…you know. About how it used to be.”
“About how what used to be?”
“My life. Back when I was a kid. Before I wound up out here. Before I even knew there was an out here.”
“Come on, Red! You know it don’t pay to dwell on that shit! You can’t get it back. Can’t go turnin’ the clock back. Thinkin’ about it ain’t gonna do you no good. It’s just gonna make you miserable. Folks out here be miserable enough. Don’t need to go addin’ to it. Ain’t no sense in it. Ain’t no sense in it at all.”
“I know. Charlie taught me that a long time ago.”
“He’s right. You should listen.”
“I know, and I try. But lately, I can’t help it. All night long, I’ve been thinking a lot about when I was little. I keep thinking about my mom and dad. My brothers. My house. I can’t seem to stop.”
“You gettin’ all nostalgic, huh?”
“Lookin’ for that fork in the road?”
“Oh, son of a bitch! God damn it, Red!”
Shit! That was a mistake! You just blew it! He knows! He knows for sure, now! Way to go, Miranda! What a fuck-up!
“Hey! Look at me, Red! Look at me!”
“You thinkin’ about goin’ to the bridge!”
See? He knows! I said too fucking much! He knows everything! How many times do I have to tell myself? You can’t put shit over on these old timers! They can see right through you! They know what you mean even before you know it yourself! Stupid, Miranda! Really fucking stupid!
“No, nothing like that! I’m just…”
“Don’t you go tryin’ to bullshit me, girl! You goin’ to the bridge, ain’t you? Tell the truth!”
Let me explain here. “Going to the bridge” means committing suicide. It’s one of about a thousand expressions we have out here for killing yourself. That should tell you just how much we think about suicide around here. There’s a bridge over at the far end of skid row. It goes over the railroad tracks. A lot of people jump there when they want to kill themselves. I thought about ending it there, but the bridge isn’t as tall as the roof of my parking garage and the ground’s pretty much gravel and dirt. It’s a risk. I’ve heard of people who survived the jump. They were broken into a hundred pieces, but they survived. Now they’re paralyzed and breathing through a fucking tube for the rest of their lives. I don’t want to take that chance.
“Look, I’m just…”
“Tell me the truth, Red! You goin’ to the bridge tonight, ain’t you?”
It’s useless. If I tell him no, he won’t believe it. What the hell? Irv’s been good to me. He deserves the truth.
“Yeah. Tonight’s the night.”
“Damn, girl! Why you wanna be thinkin’ like that? It ain’t so…”
“It’s time! It’s time, all right?”
“I got the notice. Come noon today, I’m out.”
“Oh, Jesus! Sorry, I didn’t know.”
“Now you do.”
“Well, yeah, but…come on, girl! You done it before! You ain’t got to…”
“Yeah, I do. I do have to do it. I have to do it tonight.”
“Because I can’t go back to this shit. Not like it was. Not like before.”
“What are you talkin’ about? You’re here now! Ain’t nothin’ gonna be so different.”
“I know, I know. I never left, but it’s different. I can’t go back to what it was like. I can’t handle it anymore. Forty more years of this shit? No, I’ve fucking had it! I had a nice little break. It was enough. I got to sleep in a bed, wash my ass, and stay the fuck out of the rain. There were a couple of minutes where I almost felt human again. It was enough.”
“It don’t have to be that way. You know the streets. You know how to get over. You know how to make the best of it.”
“Look at my face, Irv. Does it look like I know what I’m doing out here?”
“Red, one beat-down don’t mean…”
“It’s not the beat-down. Well, it is, but that’s just part of it. It’s not that simple.”
“What is it, then?”
“Because I don’t have what it takes. You’re right: Charlie taught me a lot of shit. He taught me things I can’t fucking believe. But he couldn’t teach me how to just accept it. That’s something you’ve got to have inside you. You’ve got to bring it with you. You can’t find it here. I don’t have it.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I can’t even look around this place without wanting to scream my fucking head off! I hate it! Even when it blows me away, I hate it! I’m fucking scared out of my mind all the time! I hate myself and I hate what I’ve become and I just can’t let it go! And the more I think about it; the more I just want to sit here and cry. I would if I could. Anymore, I can’t even cry when I want to. Now I only cry when I don’t want to. I don’t have what it takes to make it here. I’m not strong enough. I never was. And I never will be. That’s just how it is. I can accept that.”
“You’re stronger than you think, Red.”
“Yeah, but like Charlie says, it’s what you think that matters.”
“And you think you can’t do it no more?”
“I know it.”
“Feel like you’re all used up, huh?”
“Completely. I’m running on empty. I have been for a long time. I’m so fucking tired. Everything hurts, every fucking night. I just want it to end.”
“Yeah, you was always a little different. There’s a part of you that never fit in here. It was like you saw this shit for what it is. You couldn’t lie to yourself about it, and you got to be able to do that.”
“I wish I could. I mean, once I got to knowing a few things, this place just blew me away. It still does.”
“Ain’t no place like it in the world. If only them motherfuckers in the Emerald City knew.”
“You got that right. In a way, I love it. It’s like the best high in the world. That’s what scares me.”
“You still got a conscience, girl. That’s your problem. Comes from upbringin’.”
“There’s no place for a conscience out here. It’s a fucking weakness. It’s a death trap. This place is for the strong. Everyone else need not apply.”
“It is what it is. We didn’t make it. We just got to deal with it.”
“I can’t deal with it. That’s the problem. I can’t even look at myself anymore. I hate myself. I hate myself so much for being like this. And I can’t make it stop.”
“Why? Ain’t no reason to hate yourself. You got to do what you got to do to get over. It ain’t about right and wrong. It’s about survival.”
“Yeah, but at what cost? The more I know about living out here, the more ashamed I get.”
“There ain’t no shame in doin’ what you got to do. People ain’t perfect. Remember what Charlie said? There weren’t but one perfect person in the whole world. And look what it got him.”
“Nailed to a cross. Yeah, I remember.”
“So why you got to be so down on yourself?”
“It’s not about the ‘why.’ It’s about it just is. I can’t help the way I feel. I can’t stand feeling this way. I just want to scream. I want to scream and never stop.”
“So go ahead. You wouldn’t be the only one out here doin’ it.”
“I don’t have what it takes to join the tinfoil hat crowd, either. I don’t belong here. But I don’t belong anywhere else, either. Oh, I deserve to be here, that’s for sure. But I can’t live with it. Not anymore. I can’t even live with myself. I can’t stand being alive anymore. So I’ve got to put a stop to it.”
“You done lived with it this long.”
“If you can call it that. The dope helped. Charlie helped a lot. Hell, people like you helped. And for a while, I could just lie to myself. I could lose myself in all this. But sooner or later, you have to face facts.”
“I should’ve killed myself years ago. That’s a fact.”
“Damn, Red! I wish you could’ve got out! I wish to God you could’ve got out!”
“I wish we all could’ve gotten out. But that’s not going to happen. No one ever gets out of here. It’s like the gates of hell: ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter.’ You come here; it’s a death sentence. The only things that change are the ‘how’ and the ‘when.’ Now it’s my turn.”
“There ain’t no way you can keep that room?”
“It’s not about the room. Getting kicked out just brought it all back to me. It’s way more than that. Like I said, the last year was a breather. I’m thankful for that. It gave me time. I got to clear my head a little. It gave me time to get ready. That’s more than most people get.”
“Ain’t that the truth?”
“I spent every fucking night roaming around out here, just like I always did. No, this is it. This is what I get. This is the be-all and end-all of my fucking life. I fucked up and I blew it and I ended up out here, just like everyone else. That’s it. And I just don’t have the strength to deal with it anymore. It’s like you said: I’m all used up.”
“So this is what it comes down to?”
“Doesn’t it always? I should’ve done it a long time ago. Hell, I should’ve done it before I ever wound up out here.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Red. I wish I did, but I ain’t that smart. I ain’t no Charlie. Shit, I don’t think even he’d know what to tell you.”
“That’s because you’re a good guy and you know too fucking much.”
“Ain’t nobody ever said I knew too much.”
“I’m saying it now. You know I’m right. Remember what Charlie says? When you’re dealt a bad hand, there ain’t no bluffing in life. You get what you get. That’s the hand you’ve got to play. And if you ain’t got the cards…”
“All you can do is fold.”
“You got it.”
“So you’re gonna fold?”
“Damn right. Tonight.”
“Your mind’s made up, huh?”
“Yeah. I’ve got to do it tonight. If I don’t, I’ll be back on the street and the next thing you know, I’ll be back on the needle and then I won’t have the strength to do it. I don’t want to think about where I’ll be in a couple of months. I’ll be too fucked up to do anything about it. I can do this now. I can do it tonight. I don’t know about tomorrow, so it has to be tonight.”
“Fair enough. You make your peace?”
“Do you mean with God? Yeah, as much as I’ll ever be able to.”
“That’s all any of us can do. What about Charlie?”
“That was supposed to be the easy part.”
“Do you know what I had planned for tonight? I was going to walk around the zone one more time. See the old places. Kind of say goodbye to them. Maybe try to make some sense of it all? You know, one last time? Put the last period on the last sentence of the story of my miserable fucking life. Then I was going to see Charlie and tell him goodbye. I was going to thank him for everything and tell him how it wasn’t his fault and don’t feel bad. I was going to hang out with him for the rest of the night. Then just before the sun came up, I’d take a dive. Boom! Over! Just like that.”
“Didn’t work out, huh?”
“Nothing fucking worked out! Charlie’s in the hospital, I got my ass kicked…what? Twice already? The cops chased me down into the flood channel and I damn near broke my fucking ankle! I’ve had rats crawling on me, I crawled through a goddamned sewer pipe, and I’ve been fucking hallucinating about invisible people following me around! I even asked Loomis to check it out for me! Can you fucking believe it? Christ! Everything’s gone wrong! Not one fucking thing has gone right! Not one! Maybe God’s trying to tell me something?”
“Tell you what?”
“That I’m a fuck-up and I was born to lose. Maybe he’s telling me it’s time to come home?”
“I don’t believe that.”
“Uh, the first one. You wasn’t born to this shit. Ain’t no one born to this shit. I ain’t never gonna believe that.”
“OK, so maybe I wasn’t born to lose. But I sure as hell lost anyway. You talked about the fork in the road? Jesus, I’ve spent the whole damned night trying to find it! Trying to find that one point in my fucking life where I turned left instead of right. Trying to find that moment where I sealed my fucking fate. But I can’t find it. I started out good and just went downhill from day one. I don’t know why. Maybe I really am cursed? Maybe I just fucked it all up myself? Maybe I really am that stupid? I don’t know. It doesn’t make much difference now, does it?”
“Yeah, it does. Maybe you don’t see it, but it does.”
“I’ll take your word for it. Look, Irv, I didn’t mean to dump all this shit on you. I’m sorry about that.”
“Don’t be. I’m the one what pushed you to give it up. No, I’m glad you told me. And I understand. I done thought about goin’ to the bridge plenty of times. Came pretty close, too. And I can’t promise I won’t do it tomorrow.”
“None of us can. It goes with the territory.”
“I wouldn’t wish this shit on nobody, Red. It ain’t right that people got to live like this.”
“That’s for damned sure.”
“I understand what you’re sayin’. Charlie’s gonna understand, too.”
“I hope so.”
“How you gonna get word to him? He’s still in that hospital. Don’t know when he’s getting’ out.”
“I wrote him a letter. I’m going to have Carl give it to him.”
“That sounds like a plan. He’s tight with Charlie. He’ll get it to him. You can bet on it.”
“I am. Hey, thanks for listening to me. I’m sorry I was such a bitch about it.”
“Oh, hell, girl! What are friends for?”
I honestly don’t know anymore. Up until a few minutes ago I wasn’t really sure if I had any friends – besides Charlie, that is. I guess I discovered one good thing tonight.
“You mean besides buying you cigarettes?”
“I’d feel the same if you hadn’t bought me nothin’. You don’t owe me a damn thing, Red. Never did, and never will.”
“Well, I appreciate it. Look, do me a favor, will you?”
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone until after…you know.”
Remember what I said about how these old timers can read your fucking mind? There you go. They can see right into your fucking mind. It’s amazing. And they can all do it.
“Thanks. Look, I don’t what else to say, so I’ll just say it: goodbye, Irv. You’re a good guy. I always liked you. I’m sorry all of this shit happened to you. You deserve better. And I owe you. I owe you a lot. I know I never said it before, but it’s true. I wish there was some way I could repay you.”
“I told you, you don’t owe me shit. You’re good people, Red. A lot better than most of these motherfuckers out here. It was a pleasure knowin’ you.”
“Likewise. You take care of yourself, Irv. You watch your back, OK?”
“I’ll do that. You put in a good word for me when you see Jesus, you hear?”
“Of course I will.”
“Goodbye, Red. I’m gonna miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too.”
Hug the guy and get the hell out of here before you start crying like a baby! Oh, shit! I think maybe we’re both about to start crying! I need to break this off quick. He’s going to feel like absolute shit now, at least until he gets the word that I’m gone.
“Look, I’d better get going before we both start having a meltdown, OK? We wouldn’t want that.”
“OK. God’s gonna watch over you, Red. He understands this shit. Even if nobody else does. You remember that.”
“Hey! Look at me! Last time, OK? Are you sure? Are you absolutely fuckin’ sure?”
“I’ve never been so sure of anything in my life. It’s time. I’ve had my run. It’s over.”
“All right then. I ain’t gonna try and talk you out of it. That ain’t how it works here. We both know that.”
“We sure do.”
“Take care, Red. God bless you. He’s gonna cut you some slack. You was all right. Don’t ever let nobody tell you different. You was all right, and that’s good enough.”
“You, too Irv. Thanks for everything. I mean it. Thanks for everything.”
And that’s that. A final goodbye, and an understanding without any words. We don’t need the words. Not out here. Not when you live like this. You understand. It’s just one more way this place destroys you: with understanding.
Not what you expected, was it? Hey, when was the last time someone told you they were going to kill themselves and meant it? That doesn’t happen in the normal world. But it happens out here. Especially at night. You probably thought he’d knock me down and sit on me to keep me from killing myself. But he wouldn’t. None of us would. Not even Charlie. That’s how it works out here. When one of us decides it’s time to end it all, you don’t try to talk them out of it. You respect it. You have to. You may try to convince them that things aren’t really so bad, but that’s all. Anything more would be insulting. We all know what it’s like to live on skid row. We all know what it does to you. We’ve got no illusions. The truth of this place destroys those illusions. For us, suicide isn’t an irrational act. A lot of times, it’s the last chance we have to take control of our lives before we’re in no condition to ever do it again. Everyone knows it. We respect it. So when we learn that someone’s going to cash in, we say our goodbyes and maybe say a prayer, but we don’t interfere. Not ever. You might not understand that, and if you don’t, that’s OK. I wouldn’t expect you to understand. We live in different worlds. Our ways are different than yours. The rules are different. Reality is different. Just take my word for it. I hope to God you never have to find out for yourself.
And you know, maybe God is trying to tell me something? Maybe that whole thing back there was God’s way of telling me that even though I’m a piece of shit and I live on the street and I’m completely fucked, I’ve still got a few friends? Maybe he’s showing it to me tonight so that at least now, I’ll appreciate them? I hope so. People shouldn’t go unappreciated. Especially out here. We’ve got so many evil motherfuckers out here that the few good people should be appreciated. Hell, they should be cherished. We should build monuments to them. Maybe God didn’t want me to die before I understood that? Maybe he wants me to know that I’m the only one who’ll ever appreciate them? So anyway, I got to say goodbye to Irv. I got to tell him the truth and I got to understand that he was a friend and a really good guy and really good guys don’t grow on trees out here. Of course they don’t. We don’t have trees. OK, so they don’t grow on telephone poles or streetlights or crawl out of crack pipes or anything. He’s a good guy and I got to tell him thanks for all of the shit he did for me over the years. And maybe our conversation will help him explain it to Charlie better than my goodbye letter? I hope so. I really wanted to tell Charlie all of the things I told Irv, and a lot more. You know, how I can’t do this anymore and how I have to end it while I still have the strength and how it’s nobody’s fault but mine. I said it in the letter, but it’s not the same as hearing it in person. That’s something they should here straight from you. I feel so fucking lame writing him a letter instead of saying goodbye in person. No one deserves a face-to-face goodbye more than Charlie. But he’s not here and I can’t get there and I’m almost out of time. It’s like Irv said: you do what you have to do. The letter will have to do.