It’s getting dark, so you’ll see that transformation I talked about pretty soon. One of the things you’ll notice is that a lot of people start heading in just a few directions. This place has its night spots, kind of like the normal world does. People in the normal world leave the places where they work and the stores and the rest of the daytime places and they head for the nighttime places like the bars, nightclubs, and restaurants. Well, we kind of do the same thing, only we don’t have any of those places to go. But we do have our nighttime spots. We’ll be hitting a bunch of them before this night is over. And after you see some of them, you’ll probably never be the same again. Sorry about that. It can’t be helped.
Where the hell is Charlie? You know, he’s usually such a creature of habit that I can find him without even trying. For a guy who’s been out here longer than I’ve been alive, he doesn’t tend to wander very much. He’s got a few places where he hangs out, which is important when you’re the unofficial elder statesman of skid row. Charlie’s status out here makes him very much in demand. People are always looking for him. They’ll hit him up for a favor, or ask for him to intercede when they’re in a jam, or just ask him for advice. I honestly believe that Charlie can fix anything out here. I’ve seen him solve more than a few unsolvable problems, and he usually manages to do it without ever leaving his seat. Oh, he can’t get you out of here – nobody can do that – but he can do just about anything short of it. I’ve seen guys who were marked for death by some serious motherfuckers come to him and beg for help, and Charlie managed to get the death sentence lifted. Usually, all he had to do was send the word to the guy who was looking to kill the poor miscreant that he wanted the hit lifted. That’s all it took. The guy looking to do the murder owed Charlie about a dozen favors and Charlie just called one in. Favors like that are sort of the unofficial currency of skid row, and when you come into possession of some guy’s marker, you make damn sure you hang onto it until you need to call it in. Charlie taught me that one the first week I was out here. He’s got more markers in his pocket than a leopard has spots. I swear, about ninety percent of the people out here owe him about a thousand times over. And that includes me.
Knowing that I’m going to die tonight, I’ve been going back to something my mom told me a long time ago. It’s really weird, because it’s the exact opposite of my situation. You see, I’m going to die young. Very young. But that’s OK, because I sure as hell don’t want to live any longer. But when I was growing up, there was this old man who lived a few houses down the street from us. He was really old; something like ninety-six. Anyway, he always seemed sort of lost. Really sad. He was all alone, and my mom said it’s a certain kind of hell when you live too long. He’d outlived everyone he knew. Everyone he’d loved. And everything had changed so much over his lifetime that one day he looked around and he didn’t recognize the world he was living in anymore. He knew where he was and how he got there, but everything had changed from the world he knew. The world he belonged in. He didn’t belong anymore. He’d outlived his time, and when you do that, there’s no escape from the misery it brings. You can’t start over and you’re too much a part of your time to ever truly relate to the present, so all you can do is sort of wait around to die. Wait and wonder and ask yourself a bunch of questions that you can’t possibly answer. Nostalgia can be the worst kind of pain sometimes. Somehow, I understood it. I was just a little kid, but I understood it. Maybe that should’ve been a hint that I was destined for disaster? Anyway, I don’t know why I always remembered that, but I did. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the last few days. I guess I’m lucky. I’ll never know that kind of hell. God knows I’ve known plenty of other hells in my life. See? Even in death, there’s still a silver lining. Yeah, I know what that sounds like. Hey, I’m crazy. What did you expect?
Another thing I’ve noticed that’s really weird is how much I suddenly remember about my life. It’s actually freaking me out a little. I never had the world’s greatest memory. I forgot all sorts of things all the time. I was bad with names, appointments, and even the shit that happened in my life. It’s like I’ve always remembered bits and pieces of it, but I didn’t have any vivid memories. Well, that’s suddenly changed. I guess it’s a result of knowing that this is it. I wonder if it happens to everybody who knows they’re about to die? You can’t imagine just how much you suddenly remember. It’s amazing. Not just the big stuff, but even little insignificant things. Tiny little moments throughout my life that even now don’t seem to mean anything. Things like riding my bike when I was little, or hanging out in the parking lot in high school, or listening to an old favorite song on the car radio one summer night. Meaningless little memories that I probably forgot about ten seconds after they happened. Things I never remembered before this afternoon. Things I can’t believe I’m remembering now. But if I’m remembering them, then maybe they do mean something? Maybe it’s important that I remember them? It’s hard to say, because it’s a flood of information and I don’t think my brain’s in any shape to handle it. So much information. So many memories. I can’t even keep track of them all. It’s like they’re racing around in my head, trying to overwhelm me. Maybe it’ll help me make some sense of it all before the end? I sincerely hope so.
Now here’s a stereotypical skid row sight: a drunk! Do you see that old black guy over by the lamppost? That’s Morris. He’s one of what I call our celebrated drunks. That just means he’s always drunk and he’s older than dirt and he’s been out here for a hundred years, so everybody knows him. Skid row’s version of fame, I suppose. I kind of like the guy. He’s usually good for a laugh, and he’s always been decent to me. He’s an old friend of Charlie’s. Unlike a lot of the drunks out here, Morris really perks up when he’s got a bag on. Most people just get mean and nasty when they drink. I’d go over and ask him if he’d take my letter to Charlie, but that asshole he’s hanging with is a problem. See that white guy with the long hair and the baseball cap? The one who looks like the psycho gas station attendant from some fucking teen slasher movie? Yeah, him. He scares the shit out of me. His name’s Cohn or something. Something like that. He’s a recent arrival; fresh out of prison. I’ve seen him around over the last few weeks and he’s taken an unhealthy interest in me, if you know what I mean. He’s always staring at me. I don’t like being stared at to begin with, but it’s the way he stares that worries me. Every time I’ve caught him looking at me it’s like he’s imagining ripping my clothes off and fucking my brains out while he chokes the life out of me. I swear I can see it in his eyes. And no, I’m not just being paranoid. A woman doesn’t last out here all these years unless she knows how to spot a fucking rapist. I’ve told him to fuck off a few times, but it didn’t sink in. Fortunately, I’ve always been able to lose him pretty easily. And as if I needed any more proof, I ran into a detective a few days ago and she told me they were looking at him for rape and some other shit. She said if I was smart, I’d stay clear of him. Hey, you don’t need to tell me. I don’t want to get anywhere near that motherfucker.
“Hey, Miranda! Come on over here and keep an old man company!”
Oh, shit! I was hoping Morris would be too drunk to notice me. This could be trouble.
“I really have to get going. Maybe later, OK?”
“Now, where you got to be in such a hurry, girl? Come over and say hello!”
“I wish I could. But I really have to…”
Oh, fuck! Now they’re both coming over here! Maybe I should run? No, I can’t do that. OK, Miranda. Just be civil for a minute and watch that asshole like a hawk. And keep my knife ready.
“So how are you doing tonight, Morris?”
“I’m doin’ just fine, girl.”
“Yeah, I can see that. What are you? Half in the bag?”
“Half? Shit, honey! I’m three sheets to the motherfuckin’ wind!”
“So I see.”
“Say hello to Cole. Cole, this here’s Miranda”
Well, I was close. Cole’s pretty close to Cohn. I didn’t really want to know his name, whatever it is. Being this close to that guy makes my fucking skin crawl. Hold it together, Miranda. Just hold it together.
“We’ve met. Hey, Cole.”
“Hey, honey. Ain’t seen you in a while. Where you been hiding yourself?”
Gee, where do you think? I’ve been hiding from you, motherfucker. God, I know that look. I’ve seen it before. I have nightmares about it. I know exactly what he’s thinking. Not a chance in hell, motherfucker. I’ll fucking kill you first.
“Oh, I’ve been around. Look, I’ve got some shit I’ve got to do. I’m really in a hurry. You take care, Morris.”
“Yeah, that’s Miranda for you. Always on the move. I ain’t never seen nobody walk as much as you. You must do twenty miles a night.”
“I don’t like to stay in one place.”
“I heard that! Safer that way. Keep movin’ and they can’t hit you. Dangerous out here. A woman like you’s got to be careful.”
“That’s the plan.”
Cole doesn’t seem to like the idea of me taking off so soon. Gee, I wonder why?
“Hey, honey, why don’t I go with you? I’ll keep you company.”
“No, I’ve got to take care of this shit myself.”
Keep away from me, motherfucker! If you put one finger on me, so help me God…
“Now, what do you got to do all by yourself? A pretty girl like you shouldn’t be alone. Come on. I’ll go with you. I’ll watch your back. Make sure nothing happens to you.”
Yeah, I’ll bet you will! I’m not afraid of something happening to me. I’m afraid of you happening to me!
“Thanks, but I’ll pass.”
“What’s the matter? You got a problem with me?”
Here we go! Get your knife ready, Miranda! If he makes a move…hold on a minute. Morris seems to be intervening on my behalf. Thank God!
“Back off, Cole! You heard the girl! She got shit to do! That’s all. She don’t need your ass taggin’ along with her.”
“Yeah, I heard her. I’m just going to keep her company for a while. Come on, honey. Where are we headed?”
Think fast, Miranda! You’ve got to lose this asshole. And I think I know just how to do it!
“I’ve got to go over to the Big Lot and see Ricky.”
Nice! That ought to do it! Poor Morris looks like he’s going to have a fucking stroke!
“Ricky? Damn, girl! What you need to see that motherfucker for?”
“Uh, I don’t know. He just said to get my ass over there because he wanted to talk to me. He said it was important, so I want to hurry. You know how he gets when people piss him off.”
I was right. Suddenly my paramour doesn’t seem so interested in keeping me company.
“You still want to come with me, Cole?”
“Fuck no! I ain’t going nowhere near that motherfucker!”
Smart boy! Just like I thought you would!
“OK. See you around, guys.”
And sometimes it really is that easy! You see what a little skid row knowledge can do for you? That’s what they call in the real world “winning the war without firing a shot.” You’ve got to love it.
Well, it’s nice to know that just dropping the name of the biggest fucking psycho dope dealer on skid row lets you shake a would-be rapist in a heartbeat. This is some world I live in, isn’t it? But that’s how it works out here. As much as that asshole Cole probably wanted to drag me into an alley and fuck my brains out before he murdered me, the thought of pissing off Ricky was too much even for him. I figured it would be. That’s why I said Ricky wanted to see me. If I’d told him I was just going there to buy dope, he might have gone with me. Then I would’ve been fucked – literally. But I knew he wouldn’t want to mess with me if he thought Ricky was expecting me. That’s understandable. If Ricky ever found out he’d kept me from going to see him after I was summoned, he’d kill him for sure. And I mean literally kill him. Even that fucking idiot knows it. Everybody knows Ricky’s killed people for a lot less. A fucking asshole like Cole isn’t going to risk ending up on his shit list. Only the truly stupid and the truly desperate do that. I swear, sometimes I think the devil himself is scared of Ricky. He should be. That guy is fucking evil incarnate. So why do we deal with him? Because it just so happens he’s got the best dope in the sector and he never runs dry. Otherwise, no one would come within a mile of him. Not for all the money in the world. But you know, now that I think about it, there was something about Cole…something…I don’t know. That hat he was wearing. It was like…I don’t know, it was like I saw it somewhere. Like it looked familiar. I don’t know where, or why it just struck me all of a sudden. I mean, it’s a fucking baseball hat. Lots of people out here wear them. Still, it was like it was familiar, somehow. It’s probably nothing. Maybe I saw it in a dream? Or a nightmare? The guy creeps the shit out of me. I’ve seen him in a few nightmares already. That’s probably it.
What the fuck was Morris doing hanging out with a piece of shit like that? Couldn’t he find anyone better to drink with? Maybe if he wasn’t drunk, he’d have noticed what an asshole that guy is. Too bad he was drunk. He probably would have killed him if he were sober. I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Morris is a friendly old drunk, but you wouldn’t want to mess with him. He can take care of himself when he has to. Oh, he’s too old to go toe to toe with a guy like Cole anymore, but he’s got a few tricks up his sleeve. He can be pretty ruthless when he has to be. I saw him push a crackhead in front of a car once. The guy was trying to roll him, and Morris grabbed him by his belt and whipped him into the street. Right into the traffic. He didn’t even blink. The car really nailed the guy. I think he was dead before he hit the pavement. That’s another thing you learn out here: just because a guy is old doesn’t mean he’s an easy mark. These old-timers didn’t last this long out here without being able to do some damage. Fucking with them can be a fatal mistake.
Something you may have noticed about me is how the only people I seem to like are the old-timers. Well, there’s a reason for that. Out here, the old-timers are the only ones you can actually be friends with. They’re the only ones you can trust – at least as much as you can trust anyone. The younger ones are a different story. They can be friendly, but they sure as hell aren’t your friends. They’ll sell you out in a fucking heartbeat. Give them two heartbeats and they’ll do a lot worse. The old-timers are different. I guess it’s because they’ve been out here so long that they can’t stand to live like that anymore. They were just as bad when they were young, but over the years it sort of wears at you. You start thinking about the big picture and all that shit. And you just can’t keep it up after a while. Being a hard case, I mean. Living like this takes a lot out of you. You know, always watching your back. Always having to remind yourself not to trust anyone. Always expecting the worst from everyone because ninety-nine times out of a hundred that’s exactly what you’ll get. Always being ready to do the worst yourself. It’s a hell of a way to live. Then again, what we do out here isn’t exactly what I’d call living. I’m not sure what you’d call it. I just know you wouldn’t want to do it. And you never get used to it. At least, I never did. I got good at it, but that didn’t make it any easier. It just made me worse. I can’t stand what I’ve become. I can’t stand knowing what I know. I can’t stand knowing what I’m capable of. I can’t stand the things I’ve done out here, even though I did most of them to survive. Christ, I should’ve thrown myself under a bus before I ever got here. Why the fuck did I let this happen? Why did I give into it? Why did I let myself become one of these fucking assholes out here? Because now I’m going to have to pay for it. I’m going to be dead in a few hours and I can’t escape the fact that I deserve to burn in hell and I know it. Please, God; don’t do that to me. I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done. You know I am. I know I should have been stronger. I know I should have done better. I know I’ve got no one to blame but myself, and I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what you’re going to do to me. I know I’ve got it coming, but I’m asking you to forgive me anyway. Please don’t hold it against me. Please don’t hate me. I hate myself enough for the both of us.
Oh, hell! Heads up! We’ve got a do-gooder headed our way! That’s all I need tonight! Maybe if we just keep walking, he’ll move on to someone else? It’s worth a try.
“You! Young lady! Yes, you! Come over here, please! Let me talk to you for a minute!”
So much for that idea. Oh, great! I’m in for it now. There’s something about his voice. I don’t know him, but I know he’s a preacher. I can always tell. There’s just something in their voices. The preachers run the revival meetings out of little storefront churches. There are a thousand of them out here. Don’t ask me why. This place is definitely the devil’s stomping grounds. A church in this shithole seems almost like a bad joke.
“Sorry Reverend. I’ve got something I’ve got to do. I’m kind of busy right now.”
Always call them Reverend. It’s sort of an unwritten rule out here. God knows they’ve earned it.
“Too busy for God, my child?”
“I think maybe he’s too busy for me.”
“Never! Never, my child! The Lord’s never too busy to save a soul. Please, come in and pray with us.”
I get this a lot out here. Saving souls is big business on skid row, and being a short woman who looks like hell makes me seem all the more pathetic to them. Yeah, see the little store over there with the newspapers on the windows and the lights shining through? That’s his church. What? You were expecting a steeple and a bell tower? Not in this part of town. That’s what a skid row church looks like. Listen. You can hear the people inside whooping it up. The services out here can get pretty raucous.
“I’m not really up for praying right now. I appreciate the offer, though.”
“Prayer can save you, my child.”
“It hasn’t so far.”
“Maybe tonight’s your night?”
Boy, if you only knew, Reverend!
“I don’t think so. If it hasn’t worked yet, it’s not going to.”
“Oh, you can’t give up that easy. God works in his own time, in his own ways. They’re not our ways. A thousand years is like unto a day to the Lord, and a day like a thousand years. He never gives up on us. You have to have faith. Faith can move mountains, you know.”
“Yeah, I know. Matthew seventeen. I forget which verse.”
“You know your scripture!”
Oh, great! Now I’ve fucking stepped in it! Give these guys so much as a hint that you know three words of scripture and they’ll never let go of you! Oh, what the fuck? Maybe he’ll put in a good word for me with God? In a few hours, I’m going to need it.
“Yeah, I know some of it. I was raised Catholic. I know about the mountains and the mustard seeds. The problem is, it doesn’t work.”
“Now, why would you say that?”
“Because mountains don’t move. Faith can’t trump the world. If you don’t believe me, look around you. Faith can’t cure this place. I don’t believe it can cure me.”
“It’s not about moving stones, my child. It’s about saving souls. It’s about saving your soul.”
“I’m afraid that’s a lost cause.”
“Now why do you say that, child? No one is lost if they want to be found. The Lord will answer you if you just call on him. Why don’t you come inside and call on him right now? Ask him to lift you up. Ask him to deliver you. The Lord hears you. He answers your prayers.”
“Yeah, I know. But in my case, the answer was ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
I probably shouldn’t be so irreverent when I’m going to be staring God in the face in a few hours, but I think the Lord’s got me pretty much figured out by now. Anything else would be insincere. I’ve got enough to answer for. At least this way I can say I’m not a liar.
“Now, how can you be so cynical, my child? What happened to you? How can someone so young be so cynical?”
“Uh, have you looked around this place, Reverend?”
“Oh, indeed I have. For many years. Many years. Longer than you’ve been alive, I’ll wager. I know this place can fill your soul with despair. It can break the mighty and sweep away the downtrodden like sand across the ground. But you can’t give up. You can’t ever give up.”
“Sure you can. Sometimes it’s the only thing you can do.”
“No, you can’t. You can’t lose faith. You still believe, don’t you? You still believe in the Lord?”
“Yeah, I do. I’ve tried not to, but it didn’t work. I believe in him. The problem is, he doesn’t believe in me.”
“Oh, now don’t say that, child! How can you say such a thing?”
“Well, let’s see: I’m here. I’m crazy. It’ll never get better. I’ll never get out of here. Things can only get worse. My life is hell and I wish I was dead. Praying didn’t stop any of that from happening. Does that about cover it, Reverend?”
“You’ve been dealt a terrible hand, my child. There’s no doubt of that. But it doesn’t mean you’re forsaken.”
“Uh, I’m pretty sure ending up out here is proof positive that I’ve been forsaken. Praying and believing didn’t save me from ending up like this.”
“Maybe not yet. But there’s always tomorrow.”
I should’ve known this would happen. He isn’t giving up. They never do. God, I’d kill to have this guy’s faith. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. I’ve come to realize that faith is like height or good looks: you have to be born with it. You can’t will yourself to have it.
“Tomorrow’s just today with another name, Reverend. You say you’ve been out here for a long time. Then you know nothing ever changes out here. Not ever.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way.”
“Sure it does. Out here, one day’s the same as the next. The only things that change are the weather and the beatings.”
“You’ve been beaten?”
“Are you kidding? Look at me, Reverend. I’m a woman. I’m five-foot-three. That sort of makes me the community punching bag.”
“It must be terrible for you, I know. It’s always harder on the women out here.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
“Then tell me about it.”
I need to put a stop to this fast. I’m afraid I’m going to say something I’ll really regret. And he doesn’t deserve to have me shit all over him. Christ, he’s trying to do me a favor!
“I appreciate what you’re doing, Reverend. But it’s too late for me. And I really need to get going.”
“You can’t give up, child. The Lord will never abandon you. He promised that. The Lord answers all your prayers.”
Didn’t we cover this already? Did he forget about the whole “God says go fuck yourself” part?
“Yeah, I know. ‘Whatever you ask for in prayer and faith, you’ll receive it.’ Matthew twenty-one, verse twenty-two. I even remember the verse on that one. It’s pretty easy to remember: twenty-one twenty-two.”
“And that’s absolutely right, my child!”
OK, Reverend. You want a debate? You want to put your faith where your mouth is? Fine! I’ll give you one! Let’s see how he answers this!
“Then why am I here, Reverend? Why am I crazy? Why did I end up like this? Why did God let this happen to me? Why the fuck do I wish I was dead?”
“I don’t think you wish you were dead, child.”
“You obviously don’t know me very well.”
“Oh, I think I do. I’ve seen a lot people just like you. Beaten down. Feeling like they can’t go another step. Searching for escape in the drugs. Sometimes that’s how it is. The Lord tests us. He tests us every day. You’ve got to meet the test. You can’t lose faith.”
Hey, who says I lost it? I just had it beaten and sucked out of me over the last seven years!
“I had faith, Reverend. Look what it got me. If this place taught me anything, it’s that faith is for people who don’t need it. Because it just doesn’t help you when you need it the most. I’m living proof.”
“And you honestly believe that?”
“I’ve seen too much not to believe it.”
“I don’t believe you do, child. I think you want to believe that, but deep down, you know better.”
“Then answer me this: how can God say that if you pray for something in good faith it’ll come true, but on the other hand, sometimes the answer is no? Sometimes the answer is no, isn’t it?”
“Well, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean…”
“And doesn’t the bible say that not everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved?”
“Yes it does.”
“And didn’t God say that he loved Jacob, but hated Esau?”
“Yes he did. In the book of Malachi. Chapter one; verse three.”
“So isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the answer to my prayers was ‘no’ and I’m one of the people God hates?”
Christ, Miranda! Why are you shitting all over him? He didn’t do anything to you! What the fuck is your problem? He’s trying to help! He can’t, but he’s trying. Cut him some slack, for God’s sake! Do I honestly want to turn him into a faithless piece of shit like me? Yeah, that’ll go over great when I’m dead! Nice going, Miranda! You broke a man of faith! Here’s your one-way ticket to hell! Enjoy the fucking flames!
“It doesn’t work that way, child. I know it seems like it does, but it doesn’t. It’s not about reason. It’s not about logic. It’s not about what happened to someone else. It’s about faith. It’s about God’s love for us. He loves you as much as he loves anyone in this world. You can’t give up, child. You can’t give in to despair. That’s the devil talking to you.”
“And I heard him loud and clear.”
“We all do. He has a powerful voice. He knows how to get to us. He knows our weaknesses. He knows how to exploit them. He’s the master at it. But you can’t listen to him. No good can come of it.”
“Why not? Just because he’s the devil doesn’t mean he’s wrong.”
“You can’t listen to the devil, my child. Nothing good comes from it. He just wants to bring you down. Bring you to ruin. He hates us. He hates us all. Nothing he tells you is for your own good. I know it’s hard. I know what it’s like out here. Believe me, I do. But you have to keep trying. God will deliver you. He always does.”
“How can you stand in this fucking place and say that? Have you looked around lately, Reverend? Have you seen what this fucking place is?”
“Many times. Many times. I see it all. This evil place has no secrets from me. And I know what you’re feeling. You’ve given up on everyone. You think the Lord forgot about you. You cry out to him and the silence is deafening. You think you can’t go on anymore. You think you just want to end it all and finally get some peace.”
Jesus fucking Christ! Talk about hitting the nail on the head! What is it? Do I have a fucking sign on my face that says “suicide in progress” or something?
“So maybe I am better off dead?”
“Now how can you say such a thing?”
“It comes with the territory.”
“Life is a gift from God.”
“Does that mean I can exchange it?”
“You’re not forsaken, child. You’re just lost, that’s all. It’s not a sin to be lost. What is lost can be found again. You’re a young woman with an old soul. Life’s been hard for you. I know. I can see it in your eyes. You’ve seen things no one should see. Terrible things have happened to you. You’ve walked with the devil. He put his hand on your shoulder and told you there’s no hope. He’s out here, you know. This is his place. He follows you on these streets.”
“Tell me about it.”
“You lost your way and I can understand that. These streets are full of souls who’ve lost their way. But it doesn’t have to be like that. There’s still time.”
“There’s always time. God saw to that. As long as we’re here, there’s still time. The fact that you’re here talking to me is proof of that.”
I’d better put an end to this. He’s starting to get to me. I’ve thought about all of this a million times already, but talking about it out loud just makes it worse.
“I have to go, Reverend. There are things I have to do tonight.”
“Are you sure I can’t change your mind?”
“I’m afraid not. But I appreciate what you said. I wish I was like you.”
“You can be, child. The spirit of the Lord can transform you if you let it. Our door is always open. You’re welcome here anytime.”
“Reverend? Will you say a prayer for me tonight? Just in case?”
“Of course I will. I’ll pray for you every night. What’s your name?”
“That’s a pretty name. I’m Reverend Ehlers. I’ll pray for you Miranda. And you don’t stop praying, either. OK?”
“It’s a deal.”
“And I’m not going give up on you, either. I’ll help you see the light. That’s what I do. That’s why the Lord put me here. You’ll be back. You’ll see. There’ll always be a place for you here.”
“I know where my place is.”
“God bless you, Miranda. I mean that.”
“Thanks. God bless you, too.”
God’s got to bless him if he’s voluntarily spending his life out here, trying to save the worst of the worst. But as for me? I’ve given up on blessings. I’ll settle for eternal rest.
Well, you’ve just undergone a skid row rite of passage. You’ve just seen a genuine holy roller try to save a soul. Consider it the baptism that no one ever seems to want. It’s funny. I’ve been out here for years and I thought I knew all the sidewalk preachers, but I’ve never seen him before. That’s a shame. I kind of like him. Reverend Ehlers. I know I shouldn’t have been such an asshole to him, but I just get so frustrated when people tell me that all you need is a little faith and everything will turn out right. It doesn’t work that way. But don’t try telling him that. Reverend Ehlers is pretty typical of the preachers out here. They’re all old guys, almost all of them are black guys, and they’re all men of unshakable faith. They come to our little Sodom and Gomorrah to try to save the lost souls. They’d be better off if God just leveled the place and turned us all into pillars of salt. But he doesn’t, and still they never seem to give up. For some reason they don’t understand that we’re not lost. We’re damned. We’ve been cast out, like Lucifer and his demons. We’ve committed every sin in the book and most of the time we fucking revel in it. There isn’t a lot of repentance out here. Repentance in hell is kind of pointless. It’s a little late for that. And besides, most of us don’t have souls anymore and the ones who do don’t deserve them. So they’re preaching to the doomed; these men of unshakable faith. Then again, maybe there’s a weird logic to it? I mean, we’re so fucked up that only God could love us. The preachers always say that even if I’ve given up on God, he hasn’t given up on me. Please let that be true. Please God, let it be true. It isn’t so much to ask, is it? Just let me into heaven tonight. Just let me rest in peace forever. It doesn’t have to be paradise. Just peace. I promise I’ll sit all the way in the back and I won’t make a sound. Like I said, I’m willing to settle for less. I know I don’t deserve it, but I’m asking anyway. Please let the answer to this prayer be yes.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t blame God for all the shit that’s happened to me. Oh, sometimes I get really pissed at him and I start mouthing off big time, but that doesn’t mean I think all of this is his fault. I don’t. I don’t believe God ruins peoples’ lives any more than I believe he makes people successful. I don’t believe God plays favorites. I believe he just lets shit happen; good and bad. He made the world, but we made it what it is. He knows that some people are going to fail and for whatever reason that’s just how it’s got to be. It sucks, but it’s true. I sure as hell don’t like it. Hey, I’m one of the people who failed miserably, so that’s to be expected. But I know I’m in no position to tell God what to do. I wish he did things differently, but he’s God and I’m not and that’s all there is to it. It’s his call. And I don’t believe God made me crazy, either. God didn’t give me a broken brain. Nature did that. It’s just the luck of the draw. But at the same time, I know he didn’t fix me, either. I used to pray all the time that he’d fix me, but he didn’t. And it wasn’t just me. I know my parents used to pray that he’d fix me, but they didn’t get their wish, either. Sometimes the answer is no. It’s just that simple. I know he could do it if he wanted to, so it isn’t a question of me not having enough faith. I don’t have a doubt in the world that God can do anything he wants. He just doesn’t want to. The Lord has his ways. That’s what the preachers out here like to say: the Lord has his ways. I don’t understand them and I sure as hell don’t like them, but I understand that’s just how it is. It fucking sucks, doesn’t it? I’ll have to take that up with him when I see him later.
Maybe Reverend Ehlers was right? Maybe I should’ve gone to church? You know, one last time. You should go to church before you die, right? It’s not like I’ll ever have another opportunity. Shit, I still can’t believe it. I can’t get over the fact that in a few hours I’m going to be standing face to face with God. I’m going to see him for real. Talk about a humbling experience! It’s exciting, but it’s pretty fucking scary, too. He’s going to want an explanation for everything, and I’m going to have to give him one. It’s the only way I’m going to get out of burning in hell for all eternity. And I deserve it, you know. I deserve to burn in hell for the life I’ve led. Being crazy and desperate doesn’t excuse everything. Not by a long shot. But maybe I can make God understand that I didn’t want it to be this way and I really didn’t have any control over it? I mean, I know I’m still on the hook for a lot of that shit, but maybe it will soften the blow? And maybe he’ll explain to me why it had to be this way? Please, God! Have mercy on me. Please forgive me. Please don’t send me to hell. Please don’t hate me for losing faith and killing myself. Please understand that I’m not as strong as you. Please understand that I just couldn’t go on anymore and please let me into heaven and let me forget about this world and all the pain and just rest in peace like I was never born. You can do that. I know you can. Please do it for me.
As you may have noticed, I’m scared to death that God is going to be angry with me for killing myself. Like I told the Reverend, I was raised Catholic and the church teaches that suicide is a mortal sin. That means it’s unforgivable. It’s a one-way ticket to hell. I never understood that. I mean, the church says that God forgives everyone who sincerely asks for it, and that Jesus died for all of our sins. So how can there be an unforgivable sin? It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe you think I’m making a big fucking deal out of nothing, but I can’t change how I was raised or what was drummed into me all of my life. And when you only have a few hours to live, those things take on a whole new meaning. I’m really scared. I mean scared shitless. I’m not scared of dying, but I’m scared of offending God. I’ve read the Bible and I didn’t see anything in there that says suicide is a mortal sin. Yeah, Saint Paul said it was fucked up, but Jesus was silent on the issue. But the priests told me it is. They sure as hell made a big deal out of it. They said that if you kill yourself, you can’t even be buried in consecrated ground. They won’t let you be buried in a Catholic cemetery. Shit, if that were all there was to it, I couldn’t care less. Go ahead and bury me in unconsecrated ground. Bury me in a fucking landfill for all I care. Hell, just throw my useless ass in a dumpster in the middle of Grand Alley and let the rats eat me. I honestly don’t give a shit. Just please don’t send my soul to hell. I’m doing this to get away from hell. Hell on earth. Don’t think I don’t know I might burn forever because of it. But haven’t I spent enough time in hell already? Seven years out here? Doesn’t that count for something?
I guess I should’ve warned you before: if you’re going to hang with me tonight, I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with my theological ranting. That’s because religion and faith and philosophy play a huge role out here, as you’ve probably noticed. I’ll bet you never would’ve believed that in a million years if I didn’t tell you, but it’s true. They’re everywhere. We talk about religion and philosophy all the time, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s an institution on skid row. I mean, the missions are all pretty much based on religion. And the Salvation Army is always out here somewhere. This place is crawling with street corner preachers on almost every block. You see them all the time, calling the faithful to the fold. Actually, you hear them more often than you see them because a lot of them are preaching through bullhorns. You heard right: bullhorns. I don’t know where they get them, but they’re loud as a motherfucker! It’s like the world’s biggest football game and all of the coaches and referees are shouting at once. A lot of times the cops come and take them away or write the preacher a ticket for disturbing the peace. They don’t have anything against people spreading the word. They’re just against people spreading it at a hundred decibels. Anyway, everywhere you go, people are urging you to have faith. Have faith, Miranda. Faith can move mountains. Faith can save you. It’ll change your life. Just have faith and everything will get better for you. But I can’t. Not anymore. I know too much. I’ve seen too much. It’s not like I didn’t try. God knows I tried. I tried and tried but I just can’t do it. I was taught that God answers all prayers, but like I told the Reverend, I was also taught that sometimes the answer is no. I’m living proof that it’s true. So is skid row. This whole fucking place is proof that sometimes God says no. If he didn’t, then it wouldn’t exist. No one prays to wind up here, but everyone prays to get out of here. They pray to every God and angel and saint and whatever, but in the morning, they’re still here. Unless they’re dead or in prison, that is. So how can I have faith if I know that sometimes the answer is no? How can I be sure God loves me when I know he doesn’t love everyone? How can I have faith when I know that sometimes it isn’t enough?
I didn’t want to believe it. I really didn’t want to believe it was hopeless. I tried and I prayed, but in the end I know that God allows all sorts of horrible things to happen to people. I’m not sure why. Maybe he has to? It doesn’t really matter, does it? The thing is, I used to have hope. I really did. Even after I got here, I used to go to the services and pray and try to hold onto my faith. I figured it was all I had left. For a while, I was practically a Bible Thumper. Admittedly, that was Charlie’s idea. He knew how I was raised and how my faith had lapsed, and he said that it was worth trying to restore it. He said I should go to church and pray and see if God called to me, so I gave it a shot. I was serious about it, too. I tried to turn my fate over to God, but eventually I came to believe that God just didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I don’t blame him. Would you want anything to do with me? Of course not. And I don’t blame you, either. Who the hell would want to know that someone like me even exists? And this place? Shit, just knowing about this place is dangerous. It’s enough to shake your faith. It can shatter it just like it shattered mine. Yeah, people like me are living proof that sometimes the answer is no. Anyway, I hope God will explain it all to me tonight. I hope that when I get there, God will tell me it’s all over and I don’t have to worry anymore and he’ll explain why it had to be this way. I know he doesn’t owe me an explanation. He doesn’t owe me anything. But maybe he’ll take pity on me and forgive me for all of the horrible things I’ve done? Then he’ll let me into heaven. Lord, please let it be so. One way or another, I’ll find out in a few hours. Think about that for a minute: after tonight, I won’t need faith. After tonight, I’ll know for sure – one way or another.
Wow, a theology lesson! I’ll bet you weren’t expecting that. Well, you get a lot of that shit out here. The unexpected, I mean. And theology. Lots of theology. People on the street think about theology and philosophy and shit like that a lot. You should hear some of the arguments we have about them. Living in hell has a way of making you think about shit like that. Hey, if you lived on a boat, then you’d probably think about the ocean, right? When you live in hell and your life is complete shit, you think about theology and philosophy. You look for meaning behind the big picture. People out here have some pretty interesting ideas about what the big picture really looks like, and it’s not just because they’re stoned out of their minds. It’s about perspective. From where we stand, the big picture is more of a Jackson Pollack than a Rembrandt. I think about the big picture a lot. I always have, even before I wound up on the street. I’ve spent most of my life thinking about why I turned out crazy set apart from everyone else and why I ended up the way I did and how the world got to work the way it does. Actually, to say I think about it a lot is the understatement of the century. I don’t just think about it. No, I obsess about it. It consumes me. It always has, for as long as I can remember. It’s probably because I can’t point to any one thing and say “That’s it! That’s the reason!” I’m not here because I’m a junkie or a drunk or because I lost my job or I lost all my money in the stock market or suffered a blow to the head or something. I’m here because I’m crazy and I reached a point where I just couldn’t function in the normal world anymore and I didn’t even see it coming. But there isn’t any lightning bolt moment that I can point to. There wasn’t some time when I was ten and cracked my head and that’s what made me crazy and one thing led to another and so here I am. I wish it were like that, but it didn’t happen that way. No, it was much more subtle than that. Of course, the fucking result wasn’t subtle. That was about as subtle as being hit in the face with a baseball bat. But the whole process? Well, that was pretty subtle. Hell, it was downright insidious. And the whole thing was happening to me for a long time before I even realized it. And by the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. And now here I am and I still don’t understand it. But it’s not for lack of trying.
We’re on 5th Street, about five blocks from the main concentration of homeless people on skid row. OK, now here’s a typical sight. Pay attention. You need to be able to spot these things if you’re going to make it out here. Or if you just want to get a sense of what life is like on the street. See that guy over by the doorway of that building? That’s a crackhead. He’s getting high. How can I tell? Because there’s no such thing as a chrome-plated cigarette, and those vaping devices are a lot bigger than that. See that little silver tube he’s smoking? That’s a broken piece of a car antenna that he’s using for a crack pipe. Crackheads use those when they can’t find a little glass vial. Look at some of the cars out here and you’ll notice their antennas are broken off. Now you know what happened to them.
And now he sees me. This should be interesting. Crackheads hate being watched. It’s because the crack makes them paranoid like a motherfucker.
“Hey, what the fuck are you lookin’ at, bitch?”
Typical. That’s how a crackhead says hello. Crackheads are paranoid to begin with and when they’re high, they’re wound tight as a watch spring. You have to be careful. They can get violent pretty easily.
“I said, what the fuck are you lookin’ at, bitch?”
“Yeah, well, you ain’t getting’ none of this! This shit’s mine!”
Gee, he doesn’t want to share his crack with me. What a surprise. Thank God I don’t smoke that shit. I’d be a million times more fucked up than I am now.
“Don’t worry. I don’t want it. I don’t smoke crack.”
“So what the fuck do you want, bitch?”
“Nothing. I’m just passing through. Leave me alone.”
“Bullshit! You get the fuck out of here! Now!”
No problem, asshole. I wasn’t planning on sticking around while you smoke your shit up. Just let me pass in peace and you can go back to being a complete dick.
“Hey! Don’t come this way! Go the fuck around!”
Shit! God, how I hate these assholes! If I turn around and walk away, he’ll think I’m weak and it’ll provoke him. I can’t risk it. I’ll end up with a knife in my back or a brick smashed into my head. Just keep walking, Miranda. Don’t look at him. But don’t let him get too close, either.
“Hey! I’m talkin’ to you, bitch! What? You can’t answer? You got nothin’ to say?”
Just keep walking. Don’t look at him. Don’t say anything.
“Hey bitch! What the fuck’s wrong with you? I know you’re not deaf! All of a sudden you can’t talk? What? Are you some fuckin’ crazy bitch?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“Oh, you’re a crazy bitch, huh? What? Is that supposed to make you bad or somethin’? You think you can take me?”
If you get any closer, you’re going to find out, motherfucker!
“Hey bitch! I’m talking to you! Fuckin’ psycho bitch! You think you’re a badass? You ain’t shit! I’ll kick your fuckin’ ass! Fuckin’ pussy!”
This guy’s really wired. Worse than most. He’s looking for a fight. That’s the worst kind of crackhead. If he gets any closer, I’m pulling my knife.
“Hey! I’m talkin’ to you, bitch! Get your ass over here! Let’s see what you got!”
That’s it! Fuck this motherfucker! Out with my knife and get ready for a fight!
“Back off, asshole! I mean it!”
“Oh, you gonna cut me?”
“I’ll cut your fucking dick off and feed it to you! Stay back!”
He hasn’t pulled a knife, so I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have one. He’d have gone for it as soon as I pulled mine. He’s bigger than me, but he’s so fucking wired that I think I can take him if I have to. But I don’t want to have to. Just keep walking. I need to get away from this asshole fast! This is trouble I don’t need tonight!
“Yeah, you get your ass out of here, fucking psycho bitch! You get the fuck out of here! Next time I see you, I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you! Goddamned pussy! You hear me, bitch? I’ll fuckin’ kill you!”
Just keep walking, Miranda. Don’t turn your back on him until you’re a good distance away.
“Fuckin’ psycho bitch! Why don’t you go fuckin’ kill yourself? Fuck you!”
OK, I’m clear of him. What a fucking asshole! That’s all I need tonight. God, I hate crackheads! Sometimes I wish they’d all fucking die!
“Hey bitch! Fuck this!”
What the…? Holy shit! He threw a fucking bottle at me! Motherfucker! I should’ve cut him just for the fucking hell of it! No, just run. Run away. I don’t want this getting any worse.
“Yeah, you better run, bitch! Run, you fuckin’ psycho! I see you again, I’ll fuckin’ kill you!”
You’re lucky I’ve got more important things to do tonight, asshole! I’d actually enjoy kicking the living crap out of a piece of shit like you! Consider this your lucky night!