The night was quiet save the sound of bugs slapping against the sodium lamp illuminating the Whataburger parking lot the sickly yellow of derelicts with liver disease. The scent of artificial food cooked in dirty grease lingered like a wet fart dealt beneath the sheets. Sam sat next to me, atop the curb stop, eating limp fries soused in ranch dressing. We met three nights previous, I think. She had just disembarked a Greyhound, and noticed me failing to score from any of the several dealers that hung out behind the cash-for-gold shop across the street. She must’ve liked what she saw, because when I said hello, she agreed to come home with me. We spent our time since telling lies about who we were, where we’d come from, and why us together felt like a moth batting against a flame, but before it got burned up, in a dance that was more like forgiving. And for an instant the craving had gone, which for the first time felt mostly okay.
In the back of a Yellow Cab we rode to meet her new friend, also a run-away. She said they met cleaning houses for the same company, but when that would’ve happened was another detail lost to the blur of time that was my first and heretofore most substantial foray into sobriety. Heading east from downtown, high rise offices and luxury hotels devolved into squat government buildings, their windows clouded with what I imaged the vaporized perspiration of generations worth of poverty. Past them spread overgrown lots, liquor stores, bail bondsmen, and dilapidated homes with slanted porches upon which dark-skinned families laughed and sang. The terror shot through me was like I was strapped into one of those zero-G machines that twist off kilter near the mall food court in third tier cities—me spread eagle in the center of a series of concentric rings. Every measure of resolve diffused into the gravity that thinned around my body.
Sam grabbed my hand, and said, Isn’t this exciting?
I’m terrified, actually.
Oh, please, she said. My friend is nice as can be.
That’s not what I meant.
Well then I guess we’ll see.
I pursed my lips, and the cabbie dropped us in front of a slipshod building—sheet metal, wood, and ribbed plastic seemingly held together with too little duct tape. Brass-heavy music seeped through the club’s poor construction, besting the thud of my heart throbbing in my brain. Above the empty front door frame was clipped a shop-light that spot lit a sign that said East Side Swing.
She squeezed my knuckles, and said, Don’t be a pussy.
I met them at the back door, Sam and her new friend LaShae. A melt of scar tissue covered one whole side of the girl’s head, her ear more like a rodent burrow in a fire-fallowed landscape. And for an instant I knew her pain, not for the scars, but for the sure grimaces of strangers, or, worse, their inability to look her in the face. I imagined my insides looked the same, and then she handed me her half-drunk drink.
Vodka, she said.
LaShae nodded, waved for us to follow, then cut across the dance floor, to an unsteady four-top at which sat a weatherworn man and his best lady. She said, This is Pops and Mammy.
Are they dead? I said.
Sam elbowed me.
She smiled a big smile, then said to them, He’s kidding.
LaShae shook her head, then took my last hundred dollar bill to the bar for fresh drinks. I told Sam that I needed to pee, but instead went to the patio, stood beneath an unfinished pergola built from fence plank, and gazed into the trashcan fire, spitting embers, putting off a black smoke that smelled like paint. Shadowy figures jostled about, spitting harsh words at one another, kind ones at me. But I kept my eyes down, taking long, slow sips of my drink. It was perhaps the first time I ever felt guilty, but for what I couldn’t say. And to put it down right here would smack of cliché.
LaShae found me outside, and said, Who you be, Willie?
I said, Nobody.
Ain’t that the truth.
But who is when you really look at the thing?
I don’t know what you mean.
You will one day.
I hesitated, then said, Where’s Sam?
LaShae led me back inside the nightmare of East Side Swing, and set me at the bar, ordered me a whiskey. And then the music dropped and the mob on the dancefloor split, separated down the center, as if at the seam. The two sides faced one another, their postures aggressive, the air between them roiling.
I said, What’s happening?
She disappeared into the sway of bodies.
My nerves burst with electricity.
A sonorous song played.
On the floor, a tribe of men presented their chief, wearing a yellow headdress and an intricately stitched breastplate. He belted a song more like a lullaby for the deranged, then stood tall, jutted his chin, and crossed his arms, more like artillery. The other chief emerged, in a light blue costume, but with wings. Both sides chanted and sang. The chiefs squared up, breathing down the bridge of a major break, then smiled, embraced.
And I was deadened by a crosswise sensation, something like revelatory shame.
I stood on my balcony, urinating through the railing. Sam and LaShae were inside, on the couch, laughing, whispering. On the sidewalk below, a fat cop looked up to me, his head tilted back in such a way that gave him the appearance of a bipedal manatee. He wore a handlebar mustache and sunglasses of the sporty, hyper-aggressive variety. In my gut knotted a ball of pity; there was nothing more pathetic than the false bravado put on by authority. And so I jerked to splash him, but he jumped back, shook his fist, then looked around for witnesses, detaining an accordion-shaped woman carrying a reusable grocery sack stuffed with other reusable sacks. She screamed, and I laughed, then went inside for a bowl of Wheaties.
Sam undid her bra from the front, let it slide down her arms, then flung it away. I licked the smattering of freckles that ran from her belly button, down between her legs. Her body gave off a low vibration, as if she might explode into a low combustion of light, a white dwarf collapsing into empty space. Minutes later we gazed out the window opposite my bed, into what I assumed was the Milky Way. She said that where she was from in real life, on such nights it was like you could see all the way to the other side, glimpsing heaven, perhaps a world that was safe. I said that we were but specks in a bottomless hollow of pain. Stuck in my nose was the smell of wild animals, blood matting their face fur, traipsing a snow-covered…
Sam said, I came to Austin to spite my family. There was an incident; where I’m from, God is everything or you are nothing. It doesn’t matter your brand of Christianity as long as you are bound up in Him, to the point of losing personality. I wasn’t convinced or didn’t think dirt farming a reward for died-in-the-wool faith. The only way I could figure to show them my contempt was to fool around with a boy in the rectory. It wasn’t anything crazy, but by the congregations response you would’ve thought it the rapture coming. And the preacher called me up to the pulpit the next Sunday. I had to ask for forgiveness if there was any hope of being saved. I told him to fuck off; the boy only got a few Hail Marys. I will never be made an example of, and for that I’m not sorry.
Uncertain of what to do or say, I pretended to sleep.
Some weeks later, we crossed paths downtown, heading in opposite ways. She was dressed to party. I had just come to from passing out by the river for who knows how many days. Her eyes met mine, and I looked away. I never learned how she found out that I slept with LaShae, but free of me she looked better, brighter, as if never knowing those three glorious, gruesome days. I would like to say I was happy that she escaped, but that would be a lie—I’m not as noble as I sometimes think. But what I can tell is that things never get better, not as long as there is anything left for them to take. To the bottom of the well we must go in order to find a life that’s reasonably safe.
Matthew is a recovering drug addict living in West Texas. He spends too much time on Twitter.