A Place Like This
The winos were already there, four middle-aged men wrapped in the coats of giants. I took my place among them. I removed my cigarettes from my pants pocket and distributed them to the fingers trembling toward me. We smoked in silence while responsible people hurried past, heading toward the elevated train station or to the stores that lined this strip of 35th Street. It was my day off from responsibility, I had decided; I’d called in sick to my unit clerk job at the medical center. I wasn’t sure I’d return. I wasn’t sure of much of anything, only that I was out of coke and it was important to be drunk until I got some more.
The winos’ radar clicked in and they moved toward the door seconds before it opened. The proprietor stepped back as we entered, saying good morning to some of us by name. He went behind the counter where three other men stood praising Michael Jordan’s antics they’d seen on TV. All of the winos headed in that direction. They wanted Wild Irish Rose and Mad Dog, kept on the glass shelves above the register, but I had scrounged enough money for something better. Minutes later I emerged from the store with a pint of cognac and a forty-ounce of Olde English 800. A boy who couldn’t have been more than fourteen joined me. He asked me to help him buy some liquor. I told him no. I told him he should be in school. He laughed and said I should be in school.
Years later I would think back to that incident and wonder if the boy even existed, if he were merely my subconscious urging me toward the path of salvation. But I couldn’t comprehend that then, had no way to recognize any latent desire to be saved. All I knew was that at twenty-one my life was a mess and couldn’t get any worse. But things can always get worse.
Sometime later that day I woke on my couch to a ringing phone. It was my friend Greg bearing good news: He’d started working at a dope house near 47th and King Drive and asked if I wanted credit. I told him I’d be there as soon as I found a ride. I called my ex-girlfriend Pam. “Fool,” she hissed, “do you know what the hell time it is?” I didn’t but she told me; it was close to midnight. I promised to get her high. Give her thirty minutes, she responded, maybe a bit longer because of the storm. I moved close to my window and saw that it was snowing, a full-scale blizzard, in fact, weightless flakes swirling in all directions.
While I waited I straightened up a bit, stuffing empty liquor bottles and canned goods into a large garbage bag. For the first time in two days I showered and brushed my teeth. I still had a little of the cognac left but I was out of beer and decided we’d stop and get some more.
The dope house was only a few miles away. Ten minutes after picking me up, Pam double-parked on a side street and let me out. Six inches of powder had blanketed the abandoned lot I trudged through, transforming the debris into something beautiful. When I reached the alley, I made a left and headed for the back stairs of a three-story brownstone. I was on the first landing when from behind me a man’s voice ordered me to stop. Seconds later a hand rummaged through my coat pockets while another struggled to steady a gun. It vibrated against my temple.
“Where’s the money?” the man demanded.
“I . . . I . . . don’t have any.”
“Don’t bullshit me!”
I told the robber I wasn’t bullshitting him, that I was only there to see a friend. He pulled four envelopes from my back pocket, the mail I had grabbed before leaving my apartment lobby. He stuffed them inside his coat and backed away. I turned to leave.
“No, no.” He motioned the gun up the stairs. “Go where you were going.”
I went to the third floor. At apartment six I slipped a hand through the burglar bars to knock on the door. It opened before I touched it, just wide enough for me to see a sliver of Greg’s dark brown face and his signature tan beret.
“I was just robbed,” I said.
We both laughed and shook our heads. “You’re the second one today,” he responded, handing me a gram of coke between the rusted wrought iron. For my “inconvenience” he gave me another one at half price. I promised I’d pay him in two days.
Back at the car, I told Pam about the gunman.
“He didn’t get the coke, did he?” she asked.
“No,” I told her, “he robbed me as I was going up the stairs. He was gone when I came down.”
“You a lucky motherfucker,” she said. “?’Cause I’d have killed you for having me come out here for nothing.”
She knew what mattered.
“Let’s get some beer,” I suggested.
Thirty minutes later we were back at my apartment, and sometimes I imagine that as the first line of coke entered my body, the first bullet entered Greg’s. I see our heads tilting back simultaneously, mine coming to rest on my vinyl couch, Greg’s on the snow-covered tenement stairs. I reach for Pam to rub her thigh as the gunman reaches for Greg to search his pockets. Pam rises and moves toward the bathroom, pausing to wink at me, and the gunman rises to run into the shadows, pausing to shoot Greg five more times. Greg is found with a .32 still in his hand, unused, and Pam finds me with a can of beer in mine, unopened. Greg is dead. Pam is naked. I believe myself to be a lucky man.
I know I am a minute later when I hear the news.
My older brother Tim called to deliver it. He’d arrived on the scene shortly after me in search of free dope too, but instead found a crowd of nighthawks contemplating a corpse, everyone hoping, no doubt, that it wasn’t someone they knew. At first no one could tell; part of his face was missing. But a tan beret was there.
“Maybe . . . ,” I stammered, “maybe somebody else had the same beret . . .”
“Naw, it was his. He’s dead.”
I denied it. Tim insisted and I denied it some more until I did so in quivers, then whispers, and when I fell silent he said he had to go.
I set the phone back on the receiver. Pam tried to comfort me, her hand light on my shoulder. I pushed it away. I told her to get her things and leave. I was slumped on the couch, naked but for my briefs and socks, my bowed head between my hands, half seeing Pam throw on her clothes, half hearing her curse me.
Before she was out the door I’d started crying, wailing like a baby, and even then I knew the life I grieved was my own. Where was the elementary school bookworm? Where was the high school honor student? What had happened to my love of reading? I was a drug addict, high at that very moment on the coke of a dead friend.
I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore and then I rose with the plate of coke and paced the room. I stopped at the window. Outside the snow fell steadily, making its haphazard descent to the street sixteen floors below, and I imagined how it would scatter in my wake as I tumbled through it. This vision replayed in my head as I snorted another line. Then I opened the window. Rather than cold air rushing in, I could feel the warm air rushing out, coaxing me, showing me the way. Several minutes passed before I extended the plate over the sill.
Twenty-five years later, tossing the drug to the wind is still the second most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The most difficult thing is still that I didn’t follow it.
But in a way I did. I withdrew from everyone, so thoroughly isolating myself that the body at Greg’s funeral might as well have been my own. I refused all social invitations. I accepted no visitors. I wouldn’t even speak to Tim.
I left my apartment only to go to work and to the grocery store. For six months my sole companions were telemarketers, smooth-talking men who stayed up with me all night giving counsel, telling me how to get my life together. I was assured from the deck of a yacht that I could make a million dollars selling real estate. I was told that I could regain vigor with the purchase of a juicer. Ginsu knives, I was promised, could make me happy.
Sometimes I received counseling from a porn star. She wore red lingerie as she lay on a bed next to a telephone and behind a stuffed bear that she gently stroked. If I was lonely, she said, I needed simply to pick up the phone and call. One night I did. “What’s your name?” she moaned. I started telling her, not realizing she was a recording until she interrupted me, not understanding that I was paying good money only to listen. But I wanted to talk, too. I hung up and called someone else.
“I’m an alcoholic,” I said.
The woman who’d answered the hotline already knew. “Yes, yes,” she replied. “Of course you are.” Her voice was soothing and kind; I got the sense she cared about me. She asked me what prompted me to call.
“Your commercial,” I told her.
Now she wanted to know my drinking habits, examples of how liquor was affecting my life. I told her it made me do things I’d probably never do while sober, such as make this call.
“Have you been drinking?”
“Yes.” And then I added, “But only beer.” It was all I allowed myself, less and less as the weeks went by.
“People often call while drinking,” she told me. She wanted me to come to a meeting. I said I would. She took my zip code and gave me the address of a substance abuse center not far from where I lived. “So, you’ll be there Saturday at nine, Mr. Jenkins?”
Bobby Jenkins was the name I’d given her. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll be there Saturday.”
But I did not go.
I did not go to the AIDS meeting either.
“Don’t die alone,” that counselor had pleaded with me, a passionate man who seemed close to sobbing. “We can help you. You must want help,” he reasoned, “or you wouldn’t have called.”
“True,” I said.
“How long have you been infected?”
“I’m not sure that I am.”
“Have . . . have you been tested?”
“Have you had unprotected sex with an infected partner?”
“Are you an intravenous drug user?”
“No,” I said.
He hung up.
I bought a Bible. I read from it every morning from four to five o’clock with a televangelist who spoke calmly and reasonably from behind a desk. I ordered the book he’d written, which contained the ten keys to life and the afterlife, five keys on each side. During the month or so he counseled me, the childhood memories of going to church every week with my family made me unbearably nostalgic. After one of my sessions with the reverend, I called home. My mother answered; it was the first time I’d heard her voice in two years. She didn’t seem to mind that it wasn’t yet dawn. “I think I’d like to go to church with you and Daddy this Saturday,” I said. But they had stopped going. I was shocked by this news, because they’d always had been strict believers, or maybe, it occurred to me, they’d only been strict church attendees. It was just as well, though, because I didn’t really want to go back to church. I wanted to go back in time.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Street Shadows by Jerald Walker. Copyright © 2010 by Jerald Walker. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.