I enjoy writing and have accumulated a few essays and articles. I make them available here now and again for those who might be curious.
Brush The Night
This essay was first published in Cabbages and Kings, a publication at Monroe Community College, Rochester, NY.
It was the third bar of the night, and they were all what my generation had called "coke bars". There's probably another name for them now, but I doubt I'll ever know it since I gave up on bars along with crack and JD, so I really don't give a damn what they are called nowadays.
These tonight had sure brought back memories, though, like old dreams, as hazy and real as the blue-gray smoke that clung to my mouth and clothes for the first time in 15 years. The scarred wood of the bar and the clacking of pool balls conjured up other dim rooms, cheap speakers and sordid thrills, rousing the spirits of old drinking buddies to roar a distant toast from the shadowed past. The stench of spilled beer resurrected those deranged nights, flickering through my mind: so bright and magical to us, so slurred and pitiful to the passerby, insane dusk-to-dawn demoniac rites hunched around brown bottles, glass pipes and tobacco incense.
The underworld had obviously continued to thrive since my exit, an inexorable bane crossing the generations, a slow, sneaky rotting of the soul cursing those like the tavern haunt seated halfway down the bar from me. Pale-faced with dirty long hair, somewhere between 35 and 50, a stereotype in a tattered denim vest, sniffling and fidgeting, nursing a beer and glancing nervously at the door, so familiar in his misery. It was eerie in a way, since all this was so far behind me, as if time had somehow slipped its tracks and thrown the pieces of my life out of their proper order, dropping me randomly back into one that I'd sworn never to revisit. I knew I no longer belonged in such a place, but there was at a feeling of familiarity to the whole scene that scared me a little.
"Denim Vest" threw me a furtive look that had me wondering briefly what thoughts were scuttling around inside. Hell is full of predators. I doubted he was very dangerous by himself, but desperation counts, and the hungry can come in groups. My guess, though, was that this one was waiting for something to smoke or snort and he just wasn't feeling very patient about it. It can be a little piece of hell, that wait, with the gnawing that falls somewhere between hives and immolation, and the guy was practically crawling with need. I could only hope his mission wouldn't interfere with mine.
I was here because my son was missing. Not an unheard of condition for him, really, any more than it had been for me back in the day. His mother, my ex, had complained to me more than once about it, as though I somehow had the power to change his habits because I'd managed to change my own. I understand I'm only supposed to validate her feelings, not necessarily try to solve the problems behind them, and I'm honestly trying to learn that. Part of my personal growth initiative. Just not quite there, yet, I guess, because I always feel like I come up wanting.
This time, the boy had been out of contact for over a week before she called me. Had I heard from him (not likely) and what did I think she should do? Now, understand, he was 26 years old and not obligated to report his movements to anyone, but he'd been staying with her lately as part of his latest attempt to cut loose from the drugs. I could understand her concern. When I was younger, I had gone for years without contacting my family, but he usually checked in every day or two. Though I was less expressive about it than she, I was of course rooting for him, too. And I had to admit, his recent behavior smacked of a relapse. I was a bit worried, myself. So, I agreed to stop by a couple of his known haunts when I was out and about. I didn't like it much, but I figured I owed the kid since I set such a great example for him when he was still young and clean and full of promise.
The barmaid finally broke off her deep discussion with a walking tattoo and crossed the 20 or so feet to my end of the bar. Hair to the shoulders with a wave or three, dark eyes, about my height (I'm tall in my own mind, a bit under average to the rest of you) and good-looking enough that she might be pretty even after the lights came on. Except she was a bit too pale, with a few broken vessels in one cheek and some glassiness to her eyes; draw your own conclusions. Black tank top with the bar's name in white, jeans, both filled nicely with female flesh about half my age.
"Whatcha need?" Husky, country-singer style, part smoking and part genetics.
"Coke or Pepsi, whichever." I'd quit drinking along with everything else, which is one of the reasons I really hated going in these places nowadays. Sobriety is the best thing that ever happened to me, but bars without the buzz are pitifully dingy and depressing. I'm not big on conversation either, and I don't miss pool, so why the hell bother with any of it anymore? I'm fine with that, too. Just makes it that much easier to stay clean.
"Coke." Appropriate as hell. "Ice?"
"Please. I'm too old to handle it straight up."
She laughed and turned away, leaving me to appreciate the view in a guilty kind of way. Only for moment, though, as nobody likes a dirty old man and the child was already getting less than she was owed by life just by being here. Besides, I remarried.
I hoped she was in school or at least working her way toward some dream. That there was something in her horizon that was bigger than this. I hoped that she didn't have a stem tucked in her purse, or a hangover every morning, or a rotting liver hidden away in her abused young body. Working a coke bar usually means involvement at some level in the lifestyle, but she was young, like my son was, and I could wish she'd escape as I hoped he had.
As I had.
I watched the table while she was pouring, mostly to keep my eyes busy. Three baggy youths, with those pants that start at the butt and end at the knees, two Goth witches in tight black, and something burning in an ashtray on a shelf behind them, by the back door, which was ajar in a weak attempt to support the smoke-free laws. Bottled beers all around. Mediocre pool skills, flushed faces, lively conversation, the smell of weed wafting inward on a draft. Minding their own business, getting high, possibly waiting for the man to make his rounds. If the dealers were vampires, here we had some of the blood donors they lived off, free-ranging cattle that always showed up to be milked. In a vaguely parental kind of way I wanted to make them understand, but experience declared they can't be reached from the outside. They have to open the doors themselves, and that mostly happens when no one is knocking. When they were ready, they'd look for help.
"Two bucks." I even got a coaster, a stained cardboard circle with a green clover.
"Keep it." From a five.
"Thanks, hon. That a hog you rode in?"
"'04 Softtail. Heritage."
"Cool. I had a boyfriend once with a Road King. It was great." She turned back toward the register.
"Hey sweetie, hang on a sec."
Facing me again, maybe a bit wary, but she wouldn't be back there if she was the timid type.
"I'm looking for my son. He used to work here, hung out here a lot. His mother wants to hear from him."
She relaxed when I supplied the name, her reaction telling me she not only knew him, but liked him. He always was popular with the girls. Or maybe it was the coke – when he was handling this bar, he would have had plenty. After awhile, the line blurs. Those guys always have lots of groupies, beguiled by sugar-daddy magic masking bloated-spider souls.
"Yeah I know him. You're his dad?"
Hell, we don't look much alike, so I couldn't blame her. He's taller and lanky, I'm short and blocky. He's brown and hazel, I'm blond and blue. He's 26, I'm 47. I had a clincher for this part, though: he's a junior. I showed her my license.
"Straight!" She brightened up right away. "We're always joking we'll get married someday. Never even went out, but we're always hangin' here. Last time was last week, maybe. Sunday, or maybe Saturday – no, Sunday. That little blues band was here. He's been gone a lot lately, though. New job or something, I guess. He's usually here by now if he's gonna show. You gonna wait around?"
"Just checking around. Any idea where he might be?"
She supplied names for a couple of bars cloned from the same ancestor as this one. None were new to me. One I even remembered from fifteen years past.
"Thanks. Wanna tell him to call his mom if he comes in?" She'd remember, just to be on his good side.
"Sure will, hon. I'll let him know you were here and pass it on."
Right then Tattoo signaled, maybe missing his conversation, so I thanked her and headed out, my Coke untouched. Bar pop tastes like shit anyway. Must be the rigorous cleaning the lines get every ten years.
In any case, I had no reason to hang around since I wasn't intending to play detective any further. Sitting in any one bar waiting for him was worse than a long shot and I had already spent longer on this than expected. There was always the off chance I'd done some good, but he was probably okay, and hunting him down wasn't my normal style. I had always figured he'd come looking for me when he was ready to forgive the past and take what little I might have to offer. Until then, I mostly just trusted to his brains and his survival instincts. God looks after fools and drunks, right?
Besides, addicts are already in hell and everything else that happens to them is really just detail. And chasing one usually just drives him further away. The possibility for disaster always exists, of course, but worrying about an addict can be an all-consuming habit if you let it. It's the kind of thing that could drive you to drink. If you let it.
My hog sat curbside, white paint and chrome and black leather, two years old and almost paid for. There had been a time when I'd thought I'd have to give up riding in order to stay clean, back before I'd fully learned that clean comes from the inside. Back when it felt like the drugs had ruined everything, when I felt as empty and drained as any shuffling late-show zombie.
From behind me, scuffing footsteps echoed that image. I glanced back and saw Denim Vest walk out.
"Got a smoke, man?" Eyes vaguely hopeful, voice not quite whiney, redolent of stale cigarettes, beer, body odor. "One fer the road, ya know? Gotta head out now."
"Sorry. Don't smoke."
"Sure, man. Hey, how 'bout some stuff?" Muttered, just us junkies talking business. "I can get good bags. Heavy! Shit's primo, too!" A quick swipe at the damp nose, unconscious and appropriate, the hand patterned with grime, nails long and gray-black, eyes glittering with reflected streetlight. Or maybe they glowed, a manifestation of possession. Things were different in this world.
"Thanks. I don't do that, either. I'm boring as hell." My best disarming smile. Go away.
"OK, brother. You got a couple bucks, though? For cigarettes, ya know? To get me through fer a bit. Been hard to find work, ya know?" I was beginning to think he might cry, watching his mark slip away, but money was the last thing he needed.
"No cash. Sorry." I don't feed the habit. It's a rule for me, even when it's not my habit.
Vest hesitated, winding up for his next pitch. I stared at him, neutral. I wasn't even mad. Sad, kinda tired. He dropped whatever he was about to start, waved, spun away to head down the sidewalk, walking nervously, nose running, desperate and hopeless. I knew him a million times over, moving from the last hit to the next, nothing else mattering unless it helped him get there or got in the way. It walks, but it's not really alive.
And that, I thought as I sat on my bike waiting to decide what was next, is the real risk relapse would bring the boy. Yeah, he played dangerous games, hustling corner bars, driving drunk or with drunks, running with a rough crowd, sucking down toxins like candy, and yet these were not the things that destroyed an addict. These might kill him, but it's more likely he will survive them to face the greater demon, the one that comes from inside.
To embrace addiction is to betray yourself and the promise you were born to, and that embrace is the only invitation the demon needs. I remember. It starts small, our monster, but it grows, insidious and relentless and consuming, feeding on a piece here and a piece there, nibbling away your self respect, gnawing on your ethics, slurping up your very ability to think clearly, until one day you realize you've not only lost everything material but also every hope, dream and ambition you ever had.
We all walk in the door strong and healthy and vibrant, invincible, and then suddenly comes a moment when we are frozen in horror before the mirror. Sometimes I imagine it must be like the fate of the undead: you're in the same body, you have memories that insist you are you, but you no longer feel anything except drug-hunger and creeping despair. You stare from behind the same eyes as always, trapped and whimpering inside a hollow shell that hides you from strangers who look vaguely like fading memories.
I looked around the area. Bright neon from the bar mixed with harsh streetlights to paint the landscape in shades of blackness, a perfect canvas for my brooding to work with. Two hookers lounged a half block to my left, more zombies with graveyard furloughs that would expire at sunrise. A few cars hunkered at curbside, waiting to be turned into murderous missiles after last call, propelled insanely into shattered families. Across the street, a shadow shifted in a doorway recess, too big for a dog. A dealer maybe, waiting to feed on the next offer of a handful of cash and a slice of soul in exchange for a taste of poison? Horror in the night, fangs hidden behind a false smile?
In the distance I heard traffic, mostly normal people on normal errands, but possibly a few of the tainted, disguised as suburban housewives or little league dads, on their way to refresh their supply or returning home from doing so, swimming invisibly through the unsuspecting crowds.
There, but for the grace of God and all that....
Deja vu. Like remembering another life. I'd walked away, but so many others had not, could not. I'd even recently begun studying medicine and counseling, half-thinking I might someday be in the right place at the right time, but maybe I'd forgotten why I had thought it important . On this night I was remembering. As I pulled on my little pot helmet, I happened to glance skyward where a single star twinkled halfway between parapet walls, maybe a reminder that there's something beyond the ugliness if they would just walk away. Or maybe it was just a star. God knows.
I got a last glimpse of Denim Vest shambling past the hookers as I fired up the hog and pulled out, aiming for the next bar on the list. Maybe it was all a waste of time. I'd know when I got there.