Oh fuck – hey. Margaret. Margaret. Jesus, not again. Christ, okay, lay her back- Joanne call-
The surfaces breaks hard and she is gasping, light hyperwhite stinging her blind, and there are fingers an inch from her nose snapping snapping like she’s a dog. She sucks air fast and guttural but can’t summon her voice. Finds rolling eye contact with a nurse who says, dispassionate, Here she is. And the fingers retract. There is a drawing away, a quieting. The doctor gives clipped orders on his way out the door. She is tended to by nurses who know her name, her body limp and heavy in their bracing hands. You need to slow down, Margaret, they say. One day we’re not going to be able to get you back. The veil gets thinner, they say.
Later there is a rising commotion of beeping and voices down the hall, a heart giving out, and everyone streams in that direction. She eases the IV from the back of her hand and walks out of the hospital. Keeps her back on her reflection in the glass doors. No change of clothes, no shower for five days. She knows. There is no point in looking. The city opens up before her, containing within it everything and nothing. She needs a cigarette. She needs a shower. She needs fresh clothes. She needs to call her son. But first she needs to get right.
Her dealer is kicked back in his lawn chair on the corner outside the Qwik Chek, where he spends mornings. She has no money so they go in the alley and it’s a taffy pull like always because he’s been using for so long it doesn’t work anymore, but she goes until her arm gives out, eyes unfocused on the red brick over his shoulder, his breathing sad and labored in her ear. Finally she says, Come on, Jimmy, and he relents and gives her what she wants. He tells the kid behind the counter to let her in the back so she shoots up in the privacy of the Qwik Chek bathroom and God it’s good, the first time after getting cleaned out.
She washes Jimmy’s clammy body from her hands. I tried not to be like this, she says to herself, to her son, who is done hearing these empty words. I tried not to be like this.
Her son Jackson is rich. He’s become a rich shit, and she knows this is her fault. She raised him with the privilege she fantasized about as a girl and he took to it like a junky. It hardened him, and distracted his heart. When she suffered her final fall from grace he detached from her with distaste and created success and wealth around himself like a shell.
He has some big finance job that she doesn’t understand for a company she never heard of. But she has his office number memorized. She walks to the pay phone on the corner close to her shelter, one of the only ones left in the city, and calls collect. His receptionist answers and accepts the charges. Then his voice is in her ear, bursting with closeness, Jesus Christ, I told you not to fucking call me collect, do you know how it looks? Where do you even go to find a pay phone anymore anyway?
He is not really asking, she reminds herself. She has learned that her words must be teaspoon measured when she speaks with him. He has a limit, an extreme one, for how long he will listen to her voice. I’d like to see you, she says carefully. Can we meet for lunch?
He is shifting the phone, shifting things on his desk. He is almost gone. What, so you need a meal or something?
I want to see you, she says again. Calm. Calm. Like coaxing an animal towards you.
Fuck. He expels this word hard and percussive, like spitting. There is a muffled silence. His thumb over the receiver, then his impatient breath as he moves it. Fine, he says. And names a restaurant and a time. Hangs up. She knows it won’t be what she wants, that it will hurt to see Jackson, that pulling back in his eyes, the lightlessness, the way he disappears in increments until finally he throws down his napkin and shoulders his way out of the restaurant reckless enough that people look up from their food. And yet. There is a thrill in the core of her heart, a little warmth starting.
She stands in the stale metallic air of the booth holding the disconnected phone a few minutes longer, poring over the memory of his voice. Her palm melts the left behind sweat of others just like her, desperate people making last ditch calls.
When Jackson was seven she stopped at a liquor store on the way to his school play and missed his monologue, which he stumbled over, and which his father was critical of in the car. Jackson stared out the window with tears standing but would not let them fall. When she tucked him into bed she said, I bet your monologue was fantastic. He said, You weren’t there.
When Jackson was ten his friend spent the night. The next day his father came to retrieve him and he was someone she recognized from their social circle, from housewarmings and Christmas parties, flush-faced, overloud with a drink in his hand. She was high that day, not that it was serious – just a handful of painkillers to relax after an intense work week. When Jackson and his friend found them in the foyer her finger was hooked through his belt and her breath was in his ear and he was backing away and then there was a stumbling collision that happened, her hip against the hallway table, catching herself against the wall. The father extricated himself and ushered his son out the door. Then Jackson’s voice, strangled but sharp with condemnation, Mom, and she turned and his face was a raw mottle of embarrassment and hatred. He was up the stairs before she found words.
When Jackson was twelve he had a basketball game and it was her turn to attend. Then there was a meeting that ran late and drinks with a client, just one, just a quick one, and before she could drive a quick line of blow in the bathroom of the hotel bar, and then just one more drink to even out. When she got there the gym was dark and the parking lot was empty. Jackson was on the steps with his gym bag under his feet and his forehead on his knees. She called his name but he didn’t move. She got out and approached him, walking carefully so he wouldn’t suspect she was buzzed, and reached to touch the soft hair at the back of his neck. He yanked himself back and stood, slinging his bag over his shoulder so violently it spun all the way around his skinny body and socked him in the chest. Don’t fucking touch me, he said and it was the rough voice of an adult.
When Jackson was seventeen she was fired from her job for nodding off during a meeting with an important client. It had her by this time, the addiction, had her solid and deadly in its claws and was lifting her gradually out of her life. A box of her things from the last twenty years was neatly packed and waiting on the floor outside of the conference room. No one looked at her as she left. At home, Jackson was playing basketball in the driveway with his shirt off for the benefit of the girl next door. She didn’t mean to stumble as she got out of her car, didn’t mean to drop the box and topple from one knee to her side on the freshly mowed lawn, didn’t mean to wail his name that way as he stood there with the basketball balanced between his wrist and his hip and his chest heaving and that strange expression on his face. She didn’t mean to scream No like that when he slammed into the house. She didn’t mean for the girl to see it. She didn’t mean to stay out there until the sun set and barbecues flared to life all around the neighborhood and her husband swept her with the headlights of his Range Rover and his voice, Oh for Christ’s fucking sake. She didn’t mean to cry on the lawn until two in the morning with her pencil cup and coffee mug and framed pictures and address book and purse and keys and brass name placard all around her because her husband and son would not help her and she felt strongly that she deserved to be helped and it became a stand that she took, alone. She didn’t mean to. She didn’t mean it.
This is how it happens: a slow unraveling.
It is Cynthia’s shift at the shelter. Cynthia hugs her and asks what happened, even though she knows what happened. It is always the same thing that happens, and the same worn speech afterwards. You have to stop, Margaret, you’re getting too old for this. One day we’re going to lose you, you know? Margaret says she knows. She asks for her things and Cynthia brings a garbage bag from the office. There’s a bed for you, she says, if you’re back on time tonight and you’re clean. If you’re not clean, I have to bounce you. Margaret nods nods nods, like a good student, like a good child, and she is lying and they both know it.
On the stiff vinyl common room couch she sifts through the bag in search of something good enough for Jackson but of course there is nothing. Finally she decides on a pink sweatsuit because it is the only thing that is not stained. Prosperous women shopping in Union Square wear tailored sweatsuits with sunglasses and huge purses slung over the crooks of their elbows and cell phones tilting precarious on fingertips as though they cost nothing. She watches them from a distance. She used to be one of them.
This sweat suit is not like their sweat suits but it is close, maybe it is close. Maybe.
In the communal bathroom she rinses her mouth, washes her face, her armpits, runs water over her hair and dries with dissolving brown paper towels that smell like dirt. She avoids her reflection. The woman she used to be would have walked past herself at a high clip, rigid with disgust. Some homeless woman. Some pathetic junky. It is disgusting, femininity untended and gone carelessly to seed. Her skin colorless and rough as sand, her mouth thin, eyes naked and small, her hair greasy black at the roots. The roots are taking over. Roots always take over.
Margaret walks out of the bathroom to the office on shaking legs. Cynthia turns her bright eyes to Margaret and smiles. You look nice, she lies. Are you seeing Jackson? Margaret nods, forces a smile. That shade of pink is good on you, she says. It is the exact color of a rash. Pepto Bismal. Undercooked meat. A fresh wound.
On her way out Margaret sees a fine splash pattern of blood on the cuff of the sweat suit, like a constellation. A scattering of dull brown stars. Everything is stained.
In the very beginning her boss, the head of the PR firm, took her out for a girl’s night. First a manicure and then a drink. She decided the color of polish. She decided the drink. She decided everything. Margaret let her. This kind of attention was new and powerful and ran to her head like the alcohol.
They sat in a round booth at the back of the Chili’s at the mall. You’re good with the clients, her boss said. Everyone likes you. I think you have a strong future. Finish your drink and we’ll have another. Margaret drank, nails throbbing, cuticles stinging from the manicure. It was her first. She watched her boss take a small glass vial from her purse, scoop a mound of white powder with her freshly minted pinky nail, and snort it so quick and sharp Margaret thought she imagined it. She pretended not to be shocked, pretended not to be excited. None was offered to her. Though it soon would be.
Her boss licked the powder residue from the end of her finger, quick and delicate, cat-like. People at the office would notice that their nails were the exact same color. Pink like the inside of a mouth. Like a nipple. Like the hot pink bra she bought with quarters from the discount store as a teenager and wound up throwing away because there was no one to see it.
It’s a power color, her boss said. Embrace it.
Before she can meet Jackson she needs her second hit, safely tucked into the pocket of her sweat suit, and a cigarette. The idea of Jackson looms imminent and she feels anxiety swelling through the calm of the high, which is already wearing off. Forever wearing off.
Jones is always good for a cigarette. He is panhandling in his usual spot outside the Starbucks on Market Street with a cup of coffee spilling slightly in his shaking hand. Every morning a nun from one of the nearby churches buys him a plain black coffee and they pray for peace, forehead kissed to forehead over the cup cradled between them like a grail. Breathing the steam like medicine.
Jones, Margaret says after he retrieves and lights for her a slightly bent cigarette, you can’t beg with a coffee. People will think you can afford Starbucks, they won’t give you any money.
It was my mama what bought me this, Jones says. He stares past her, his dark face creased and striated permanently with grime black as soot. His eyes strangely light, almost gold, darting. He is incapable of eye contact, she has deduced from his fragmented speech, since the war hurt him. His body is riddled with shrapnel. Buried treasure, he calls it. He wears a helmet always in case God falls from the sky. Today is the red helmet with silver along the sides. Once he showed her his war damage, the moon crater expanse of scar tissue wrapped around his ribcage like a burn, and the dent in his skull under the ever-present helmet. I ain’t whole, he told her that day, voice breaking, shaking harder than usual.
Me neither, she said, and helped him cross Market Street safely to his nest of filthy blankets between two dumpsters. Jones is one small good thing in her life of terrible things. Something worthwhile to aim towards. Someone she can pretend she takes care of. A lie that she can wrap around herself like a blanket.
I’m seeing Jackson today, she tells Jones. The words bubble out of her. He’s taking me to lunch.
Watch out, Jones says. His body jitters and the helmet rocks slightly on his small head. A woman tosses a quarter at his feet on her way past. Look up. God falls from the sky when you least suspect Him. Look down. God is below and flies up at you. All kinds of ways to get broken in this world. All kinds of ways.
He stands guard while she does her second hit in the alley. Set it to rollin’, girl, he says and rocks his knees in a small swaying dance. Set it to rollin’. She promises him leftovers.
A child is a many dangered thing, he says as she walks away inflated from the hit, soft and sweet inside and newly minted as an infant.
Her childhood exists in her mind as a series of dark apartments and efficiencies and motels and bar parking lots and skies sliding past high backseat windows, light passing over her and away. Her index finger in her mouth until the skin puckered permanently. Her mother’s slow voice collapsing into itself and the laugh rough and raucous spiraling down to nothing with no one there to respond. The hollow click of a bottle neck to the thin rim of a glass. This sound so small but killing.
She hunkered in hallways, doorways, closets, listening for some unknown disaster, coiled to respond. Swearing she wouldn’t be like this. Praying faithless and without voice. Her mother passed out slack mouthed smelling like vomit and dirty scalp. When she could no longer stand it Margaret begged food from ever-changing unfamiliar neighbors and then made them promise not to call child protective services. Ultimately, people were relieved not to get involved. So she ate alone in the apartment and listened for irregular breathing and the kiss of glass to glass and the screaming retching ringing off tile and empty walls. Swearing she wouldn’t be like this.
Swearing she wouldn’t.
Swearing she would be better or at least human.
Jackson is onto her immediately. Margaret is arch-backed and stiff-faced, struggling with everything she has to look straight. He can’t meet her eyes. Like Jones after he was hurt in the war. All kinds of ways to get broken in this world.
The waitress comes for their drinks and he barks out the whole order both for himself and for her, and it’s something she doesn’t want but that doesn’t matter. I’m in a hurry, he says to the waitress, moving water glasses, silverware, bread plates with pointless intensity. The waitress rushes away. People listen to Jackson.
How is your job? she asks carefully.
Cut the shit, he says, and a couple at the next table glances over. What do you want? Money? A place to stay?
I just wanted to see you, she says. The darkest part of her thinks money. She lifts her hand to her water glass but decides at the last second not to drink because if she faltered and dropped it she would never see him again. His gaze fixes on the IV pinprick and green smear of bruise and red irritated squares of tape residue on the back of her hand and she sees it, that flare of recognition and understanding. He looks right at her then, square into her face, and everything slows down. Sickness washes through her because he is at once so familiar, he is her flesh, they share blood, and so impossibly distant. The dark eyes narrowed sharp and calculating. The tight jaw. The straight nose blanched white at the bridge from tension.
What happened to your hand? he asks, but he knows. He always knew. She tucks it in her lap, cups her palm over this small revealing hurt.
Nothing, she says.
Bullshit. The word is a bullet. You’re using. And you OD’ed – what, today? Last night?
The waitress sets down their iced teas at an arm’s length and disappears without a word. Margaret feels the entire restaurant leaning towards them, discreetly, but with irresistible fixation. Jackson is a visibly breathing mass of rage. She can’t look at him. Every cell in her body is an open mouth thirsting for relief, a drink, a pill, a hit, something to dilute the pain, something to unlock that door inside herself. The escape hatch.
I can’t- I can’t fucking do this, he says then, before she can summon her hollow denial, and his words are soft and broken. Her throat aches with regret she is too weak to release. He works a wad of cash from his wallet, tosses it down, and moves roughly between close-set tables until he is on the sidewalk. People lean away. Jackson is a big man. Sturdy. Though not sturdy enough to withstand her.
She waits until he is out of sight, leaves enough money to cover the iced teas, and tucks the rest into her pocket. The air around her feels breath-held as she makes her way out, taking extreme care not to bump into anything or stumble. As if he is still watching, though he is long gone.
Jimmy’s eyes light on the cash and he grins wide enough that she can see past the gold teeth to the rotten ones in the back. Give me something good, she says. She waits in the doorway of his reeking, lightless apartment where she has done things that she aches to forget but are never forgotten while he limps into the back room and returns with a small bag of white powder and a fresh set-up. He turns her stomach but he always takes care of her. Her eyes blur with tears at the relief of it.
Whatcha running from? he asks, counting Jackson’s money with his long fingers, his dirty nails, but she knows he is not really asking.
The last time she saw her mother: collapsed on the grimy floor of a motel bathroom, smiling, blood in her teeth pounded there by a man who worked the bed springs to screaming, wrought from her mother a torrent of sobbing and panting, infused the air with a chaotic danger that Margaret felt on her skin like electricity. She curled in the bathtub praying, please don’t let him, over and over, please don’t let him please don’t let him please don’t please don’t. She always prayed this way. Open ended, casting a wide net.
Hours later her mother stumbled in on heavy feet and fell, ripping the shower curtain from its rings, and Margaret cringed from the smell of sex and bile, from the slick flat mold on the plastic curtain. She watched her mother grope at the toilet. A toilet thick with other people’s bodies, the residue of lives lived badly everywhere. Margaret stood on numb legs and stepped wide over her body. She said with dead mouth, I’m leaving you.
Her mother smiled and her teeth were yellow red. What you running from honey? she said. Your blood? Can’t run from blood. It takes over. Wait and see.
Margaret looked up homeless shelters in the motel yellow pages, avoiding the ghost of her reflection in the dark lobby window, and within it the unblinking stare of the motel attendant behind her, his hands busy under the counter. She leafed the pages too far, flipped back. Fingers shaking and sticking to the soft paper. She was fifteen years old.
It eases her down like a good lover, that rapturous dragging undertow swallowing her from the inside out. In the spot-flecked mirror of the Qwik Check bathroom, breathing through the throes of it, she stares at herself. This ugliness is new, a constant surprise. Not so long ago she was a decorative woman. Hair soft, nails strong and high gloss pink, pores concealed under the finest grain of make-up. But now. Now. She is unwashed and unadorned. The expensive blonde dulled and exhausted at the ends, dark roots taking over. Roots always take over. Blood takes over. She bares her teeth and she knows the yellow red is there even if she cannot see it. She is her mother, she is the decorative woman, she is the ghost reflection.
Outside it is blue dawn, fog-blind as a cataract. Jones. She needs Jones. Jones will fold her down in the nest of his blankets and soak the breath-warm exhalation of his fractured rambling gospel into her aching bones. The places God hides, where to look, what is above and what is below.
Morning crests and the city smarts with fresh wet light. She shambles through it unseeing, head hung like a snapped neck, one foot kicking in front of the other broken but steady. Broken but steady. Broken but steady. Her skull is a radio tangled buzzing with conflicting frequencies. Everything doubled, must move carefully, don’t knock the tables don’t touch the water glass don’t. Inside she shatters apart like a tuning fork struck by God. God. God this is good, it is good the rolling release set it to rolling the release rolling open everywhere inside and it is bad, all the escape hatch doors ajar like jaws, every window splintered open and voices sliding in like bodiless shadows. I can’t fucking do this, he said. She yearns to unhear it, the softness of his words, anger she can take but sadness it is insidious, it slips into the veins into the furthest reaches like smoke like fingers stretching disease spooring. You weren’t there Mom don’t fucking touch me I can’t fucking do this.
In the glass doors of St. Francis Memorial where they unknot her soul when it swallows itself is another Margaret lurching past and she feels it and she is sorry for this ghost still trapped inside shuffling lost the veil gets thinner they said one day we won’t be able to get you back and she is sorry but there is no rescuing to be done, she must push forward even if that means leaving herself behind.
Hyde Street swarms with men like orange ants crawling eating into the buildings prying open the body of the earth and the sidewalk is boxed in a metal cage like the discarded skeleton of a giant fallen from the sky. God, this could be God. She has to get to Jones, she has to ask him. She enters the cage unsure if this path is a blessing or a curse if this is communion or condemnation and the din of the city muffles down and immerses her in a current of unnatural silence. On heavy feet, one and then the other, one and then the other, broken but steady she drags herself towards Jones, towards the unconditional acceptance he offers and in which she bathes like baptism, and then gradually penetrating the muddy static she is aware of a pounding on the plywood floor like a heart. Rhythmic pulsing pounding even, a healthy heart, the proper clockwork of an obedient body, and in the down-sloping loll of her vision she sees feet she sees legs, it is a man.
Jackson. Is it Jackson? Jackson runs and always has like something is chasing him, hysterical sweat soaking mouth gasping since he was barely a teenager, this was his way: to pour his soul into the meat of his body like it would protect him to be strong and fast. I can’t fucking do this, his voice foundering losing breath losing power echoes down the bone corridor towards her but this isn’t Jackson, this is someone else and she is flooded with rage at the trickery of it the futility of it the flooding disappointment guilty relief of it. How dare he. How dare he.
He is coming towards her closer closer and steps neatly to the side in deft control at a high clip rigid with disgust like she is garbage to be avoided and yes, she crawls with oil and her clothes are stained and she smells of flesh and her hair stick stiff with roots taking over, and yes, he is straight upright calm stone face hard authority with soul firmly mated into the meat of his body but what are you running from honey, she thinks, what are you running from honey we all run from something. He whips past and in his wake she catches the wind surging from him, a wingbeat, a strong hand soft and stifling across her face: laundry detergent shower health cleanliness prosperity symmetry love pure sweat pure air sweeping from the length of him like light and the rage blisters and her mother’s lawless voice cracks through the closed egg of her face, HEY you run over me I’ll break both your legs then, and he says nothing. She mutters, motherfucker when I was the woman before you would have stumbled you would have looked you would have seen but he is legions out of range. Almost gone. His feet strike the wood even and strong even and strong, his tempo aloof and unmarred, and she wants to turn back and stumble after him, Jackson, she wants to tear at his shirt and force his face to hers and drown him with words until he understands, she wants to lift her water glass with strength and confidence, she wants to hear him say Mom without a lurch of pain warping that one loaded syllable. She has turned and she is watching Jackson recede from her, his pace strong and true despite the shrapnel of damage riddling him like buried treasure, and her foot drags forward to close the impossible distance between them but all at once his cadence ceases. The soft sole of his expensive shoe hits the cement beyond the corridor and the city blows open around him and he blurs to nothing in the swell of white morning light. The silence is a heart giving out. She knows in the deep place too raw to touch, the place she feeds and anesthetizes and struggles to appease until she is half dead, that Jackson is gone. Untouchable in the safety of his carefully created life.
No one is with Margaret in the metal skeleton as a cold flame of vertigo sweeps down through her and the plywood rushes up solid and merciless like God below. Her head clips a hollow bone pipe on the way down and it rings, empty and flat, a unheard distress call. Then she is blessedly still.
As always it is a relief to have fallen.
CHELSEA LAINE WELLS has been published in PANK, Hobart, Knee-Jerk, The Butter, Third Point Press, wigleaf, and Heavy Feather, among others, and won a 2015 Best of the Net award. She is managing and fiction editor for Hypertext Magazine and founding editor of Hypernova Lit. You can find out more about her and read more of her work at www.chelsealainewells.com.