Carter Sickels

We were out of heroin and broke. Didn’t have pills. Nothing to drink or huff. KC said he was going down to Aces. I said I’d go with him. I had nowhere else to be.

Perched on the edge of the couch trying to stay clear of the metal springs that poked through the fabric, I laced up my worn-out tennis shoes, the leather cracked and scuffed, the rubber soles thinning. I didn’t have any socks, and my bare feet were swollen and tender like pink slabs of ham. 

“It’s a new day,” KC said. 

He peeled off a musty T-shirt and shook another one loose from a tangled nest on the floor. His brown skin shone like newly varnished cherry wood floors, the opposite of mine—pasty-white, cheap drywall. KC was almost seven feet tall with arms that spanned the length of the couch. In another life he could have been a Kareem or Magic he said.

KC was my only friend, and he’d been letting me crash at his place. We lived in Columbus, Ohio. The little house that used to belong to his grandmother had no electricity, and city rats lived in the walls. Years ago, under his grandmother’s loving hands, it must have looked like a different place, clean and modest and inviting. Now it was shit. The wallpaper scraped off, and faded yellow stains all over the ceiling like someone had pissed from above. No decorations or prettiness or furniture, except for the dilapidated couch and a mildewed mattress laced with cigarette burns. Whatever had worth, KC had already sold.

I was used to these kinds of places. Before KC, this guy Buddy and his wife let me sleep on their trailer floor, but I got the hell out of there after Buddy, blitzed on bath salts, started waving around a loaded pistol, paranoid that monsters were trying to eat through the walls. After that, I ended up in a shelter on Grand Avenue where they gave me a bed. I wasn’t there one night before somebody stole my phone. I don’t know where I went next. Places, like time, tended to disintegrate into a single blur of darkness. 

Other than this house, KC had nothing, just like me. No phone, no car. I lived the opposite of my parents, with their three-bedroom house, their cars and TVs, clothes and stocked cupboards, the new carpet, matching furniture, and pointless decorations. That wasn’t living. That was just hiding behind pretty things. 

“Materialism is a sickness,” I told KC. He agreed. 

We stood on the rotting porch, blinking like moles in the bright morning sun. Across the street shrieking kids sprayed each other with a green garden hose. An old woman in curlers sat on her front porch in a metal lawn chair and glared at us, the riffraff destroying her neighborhood. Most of the houses in the neighborhood looked like this one. Fights often broke out or shots were fired from the apartment complex down the street, one of those old fortresses from the ’70s where a song of sirens played on replay, and constant red and blue police lights spun like a disco ball.

“Come on,” I said. “Let’s see if we can get a drink.”

“I need more than a drink,” KC said, and when he coughed, his giant body shook. Wrinkles carved out his eyes. KC was at least forty-five or fifty. He told me he was my age, thirty-one, but I didn’t believe him. You couldn’t believe any of us. We were liars. 

We walked into Aces and immediately felt better. Calmer, looser. A bar that opens in the morning invites only drunks and sad sacks. We fit right in. 

Three old black men sat in a line at the counter, staring into their beers, maybe thinking about better times or maybe not. KC slapped hands and bumped fists. He knew everybody; he’d grown up here. 

“Hey, Antoinette, baby,” KC said. 

Antoinette greeted us, nothing but kindness in that smile. Her grandmotherly face open and gentle, cheeks as round as jawbreakers, and a row of teeth too straight to be real. Antoinette was in her sixties, maybe older, and she didn’t care what we did, as long as we didn’t fight. She wore a white fake leather vest and tight pants, and called everyone honey, even me. Her lips and nails were painted dark purple, like eggplant, something I’d never tasted until one summer Ashley grew them in our garden. She dusted the purple slices in cornmeal and fried them in oil. They didn’t taste as good as they looked. In fact, they tasted like shit—and we laughed and laughed. Ashley was my ex-wife. The mother of my son.

“Spot us a couple drinks?” KC asked. 

He towered over Antoinette, but she wasn’t scared. The corners of her smile faded into a spray of tight wrinkles. 

“We’ll pay you back.” KC stretched his long arms in front of him with upturned palms, a giant with a bald head, short beard, and magnificent basketball star hands, offering to carry Antoinette like a bride. “Promise.” 

Antoinette turned back to the television that hung above the bar, to her talk show. On the screen a fat white woman sobbed, her trashy makeup running in black and blue streaks. Next to her a scrawny guy with thinning hair and a neck tattoo tried to look sorry but he wasn’t, I could tell. 

KC started working the elderly drunks at the bar until finally one of them spotted us. KC was persistent that way. He didn’t threaten, just talked and talked, always smiling big, until people gave in just to shut him up. 

Antoinette poured two well whiskeys, neat, and slid the tumblers toward us. We tried to sip like we were drinking hot tea instead of liquor, wanting them to last. The whiskey blazed in my mouth, a fiery, sweet, temporary medicine. I looked past Antoinette, toward the bottles of liquor, and a man with a shockingly pale face and greasy hair and a rat-like mouth stared at me from across the bar. Then I realized I was looking into a mirror, looking at myself. 

I turned away from my reflection, quickly, and eyed KC, whose face lit up. He’d forgotten I was sitting next to him. He was happy to see me. 

“Did you know I used to be a teacher?” he asked. KC always had a story about his life in the Before. Basketball star. Singer. Teacher. That was the one he spoke of most often. He constantly searched for breadcrumbs of his past, like somehow he would find the trail that would lead him back to a fairytale.

“I taught high school,” he said. 

“Bullshit,” I said. 

KC wiped his hand across his sweaty forehead. Just one of his hands could palm my face. He drilled his fingers into his eyes and moaned.

“We need money,” I said. 

I don’t know how much longer we sat there. Our glasses were empty, and we could not ask for more. We had to go out into the world. 

The bright late morning sun pressed down like a needle in my eye. I wished it was a needle. I shot up into my hands most of the time. When the heroin entered me, my body disappeared quietly and perfectly, like flakes of snow on the tongue or some sweet childhood memory that floated me into space, light-filled and quiet, a pond of pure nothingness. 

We walked past buildings with shot-out windows and apartment complexes that Somalian refugees had moved into and an abandoned lot guarded by a chain-link fence topped with strands of barbed wire. Nothing separated us from the part of the city with wine bars and art galleries except for a few blocks. Still, we never went over there. We knew our place. We stayed on what my mother always called the bad side of town. Meaning, the black part.   

When I was a kid, during Christmas, my mother would take me and my sister downtown. We’d go to Lazarus, one of those big old department stores built in the ’40s or ’50s, before strip malls and chains devoured everything else. When we entered the city limits, my mother would instruct us to lock the doors. She never said she was scared of black people, but we knew. We’d stare out the car windows at boarded-up apartments and storefront churches and pawn shops with bars on the windows, guys standing on the corners and girls in bright skirts, flashing bling. We were safe in the cold A/C, all four doors locked to keep out people like KC. And, unsavory-looking white people, like her son. 

We walked away from downtown and eventually limped into the scrapyard, slick with sweat, bodies throbbing with want. We were in bad shape. 

Even though we had nothing to sell him, John sometimes knew about construction sites or houses that still hadn’t been stripped of copper wiring and pipes, and he’d give us tips because he liked KC and wanted to help him. But today he told us he hadn’t heard about anything new, and, anyway, the city was cracking down. “Making us check IDs and shit,” he said. “Sorry guys.” He dipped a handful of fries in ketchup and shoved them in his mouth like bloody fingers. I fought down the vomit twisting in my gut.

We walked back the way we came. The sun flayed our exposed faces. The backs of my legs, arms, and hands burned, and my throat swelled like I’d been poisoned. Little gray birds battered their stubby wings against my chest. Everything hurt.

I checked a few trash cans, found nothing except half-eaten burgers and crumpled chip bags, newspapers and empty 40s. I picked a quarter up off the sidewalk. KC shook the loose change from his pockets. We had eighty-three cents between us. 

The park sat adjacent to the nice part of the city. We usually didn’t come here until evening, when we didn’t stand out as much. In daylight, the cops were more likely to give us a hard time. Especially KC. My white skin had saved me many times. That was one reason KC kept me around.

But we were tired and could not go any further. We sat on a bench under an oak tree, the branches arched out over us like a steeple, the lobed green leaves like thousands of prayers. 

“It’s a red oak,” I told KC.

“I feel bad, real bad,” he said. “I’m gonna be sick.”

A little girl and her mother walked in our direction, and the little girl, ahead of her mother, stopped in front of us. She was probably seven or eight. Barrettes spangled from her frizzy hair like she’d run through a storm of confetti. I smiled, or at least I thought I was smiling. KC hid behind the red oak, puking. The girl looked at me with big, dark, friendly eyes. Looked at me with understanding, with compassion. Yellow and pink and green and purple feathers in her hair. 

Then her mother, tall and dark-skinned, grabbed her hand. “Don’t stare, honey, just keep walking.” 

No, it’s okay, I wanted to explain, but a sudden sharp pain made me double over. Sweat dripping, nose running, everything a blur. Breathe, breathe. I lifted my head. KC was trying to puke but all he could do was cough and spit. A few raggedy pigeons fluttered down in front of me. Dirty and skinny, junkie birds, pecking at the sidewalk with deformed, aching beaks. 

We needed money or something to sell. No one we knew had either, but I knew who did. If they were home, I’d ask them, like I’d asked them before. If they were gone, which I was hoping for, then I’d take.  I’d taken before, too. 

“I’ve got a plan,” I said. 

The only person we knew with a car was nodding out on the front porch of a house where various junkies squatted. Lisa could barely lift her head, and I wished we were on whatever she was. She had the softest hands. She said she used to work at a bank, but I didn’t believe her any more than I believed KC was a schoolteacher. 

“We’re gonna get something real sweet. Real good stuff, baby.”

I let KC do the talking because Lisa was still pissed at me for throwing up in the backseat of her car. “I’m going with you,” she muttered, but she wasn’t going anywhere. KC patted her head.

“We won’t be long. You wait right here.”

It took us awhile to find her car, a banged up Sunbird from the ’80s that looked like it had been parked in the same spot for years. KC handed me the keys—he hated to drive, all the lights and cars coming at him made him panic. He was okay as a passenger, but you didn’t want him behind the wheel. 

I started the engine, and the Sunbird rattled to life. KC and I looked at each other with surprise and joy. The radio was busted, the brake pedal difficult to press, and the fan belt screeched whenever I turned the wheel. I couldn’t get it to go faster than 45 mph. We didn’t care. We had wheels, freedom. I drove us out of the city, across waves of suburbs and subdivisions, sticking to the back roads. The towns shrank. We passed cornfields for sale, a giant Wal-Mart Superstore. 

“Where are you taking us?” KC yelled.

“Don’t worry,” I said.

But he looked worried. “This is white land,” he said.   

The wind blew on our faces and carried the stink out of the car. I felt lighter, looser, clear-headed. Memories floated in and out of my mind, and sharpened as the places I knew came into view: the creek where I used to fish and smoke pot, and up ahead the farm stand where I sold corn and tomatoes and cucumbers when I was a teenager, my first job. There were the baseball diamonds where I played Little League. And we weren’t far from the park where I had asked Ashley to marry me. I told all this to KC, and he told me again about teaching. 

“High-school English,” he said. 

Empty Coke cans rolled on the floor, clattering against each other, and candy wrappers exploded from the cracks between the ripped-up seats. 

“I can quote Shakespeare,” he added. 

“That doesn’t mean anything.” 

I crossed Timberland Avenue and followed the gentle curves down to the road that I’d driven a million times, and when we came over the hill, my parents’ house emerged like a giant white wedding cake. 

“What is this?” KC scrunched down in the seat, eyes wide, reverent, like he’d just woken up from a dream.

My parents lived on the edge of town, and when I was a kid there was nothing around except for fields and woods. Now they had neighbors, and much of the wild land had vanished to make way for big-ass, ugly cookie-cutter houses. I parked on the street behind a gleaming SUV with a sticker on the bumper that said My Child is an Honor Student. Big fucking deal.

My parents’ house looked small compared to all the others. The garage doors were pulled down, windows and doors closed. They weren’t home. 

“You come from money?” KC asked. 

“We weren’t rich.”

“You left all this? Shit, boy.”

“You coming in or not?”

He shook his head. “You on your own.” 

I walked up the driveway, past the basketball hoop where I used to practice for hours, shooting lay-ups, free throws, jump shots. I used to play point guard. KC wasn’t the only one with a past. I also had dreams and hopes and all that shit. 

The front door didn’t budge. Locked, of course. I looked around. Nobody was out in their yards spying, so I slipped around to the backyard, wading through ankle-high grass. I used to do the mowing for my parents. And when I still had my own landscaping business, I helped my mother design her flower gardens. One time we planted a butterfly garden that exploded with the bright colors of bleeding hearts, bee balm, lantana, jewelweed. I planted fruit trees behind their house. 

People always want to know: how did it happen? In the movies and books about people like me, the story is always the same: the downfall, the struggle, and then the phoenix rising from the ashes. Does it matter, the how or the why of it? I drank, I huffed paint fumes, I crushed up and snorted pills. I’ve put just about every drug into my body. Then heroin showed up to our little town. I loved the gleam of the needle. The drug filled and emptied me like nothing else ever had. I tried rehab a couple of times, on my parents’ dime. It didn’t take. 

Apples and pears rotted on the ground, and the flower gardens were a mess of weeds. Still, I stepped around my mother’s pansies and purple phlox, careful not to crush anything, and jimmied the lock on the family room window and pushed it open. As I hoisted myself up, the window pane dug into my stomach. My dirty hands found the pale beige carpet, then I dog-paddled my feet behind me, and fell through. 

The house was still. Everything in its place. Blue plaid couch, flat-screen TV, leather chair with the footstool. All the material things that made my parents feel better about their empty lives. Vacuum lines in the carpet, polished furniture. I hated all of it. I wished I hated all of it.

On the walls hung pictures of my parents and my sister who lived on the other side of the country and ran a flower shop. There was one of me from junior high, a mullet and braces. All the stupid hope in that tinsel-toothed, goofy smile. That kid disappeared a long time ago. My parents, my ex-wife, they wanted me to be somebody else, somebody I could never be. 

I opened the kitchen cupboards. Same fucking plates and glasses and silverware. My face felt numb and heavy like it was made of wet sand, so heavy that I had to crouch on the cold linoleum floor and suck in all the air that I could. The quiet wasn’t just regular quiet, but as if the air was breathing, the way it sounds when you go underwater and hear your heart thudding. We used to take family vacations to Myrtle Beach, North Carolina. When I was little, I loved it—running in the waves, collecting shells, burying my father in the sand. But as I got older, the trips irritated and bored me. I wanted more. Looking out at the expanse of the sea wasn’t enough. 

Now, with my hands over my ears, I took a deep breath, another and another. I couldn’t stop the slow, dull pain ripping open my chest. Think, I told myself. Think.

I opened the door to my parents’ room and stood there, my feet cemented to the gray carpet. The sunlight fell in soft lines across the walls and over the blond wood furniture. The queen-size bed was neatly made, sheets tucked in and hidden under a dark green comforter, the color of forest. Piles of plump pillows. The red and blue diamond quilt that my grandmother had made with her own hands lay folded across the foot of the bed. I wanted to lie down, just for a minute. Curl up, pull the quilt over me, go back to that place, that time, like Goldilocks finding the bed that was not too hard or too soft but just right. I was a stranger in a strange land. Nothing could be just right again.

I walked into my old room. It smelled like Play-Doh. An alarm clock in the shape of a robot flashed meaningless numbers at me. All sizes and colors and shapes of Legos were scattered on the floor. When I was a kid, I used to build spaceships and space stations, believing there was another world out there. Now I stared at the mess and wished I could take the time to snap them together, to connect the pieces and make something. The pain in my chest spread like a fever across my neck and down my arms, and my teeth started to chatter, like a cartoon. I didn’t know what to do. My eyes took in a red T-shirt crumpled on the twin bed. Fuck. I grabbed the T-shirt and turned to go, then saw a piggy bank shaped like a football. The plastic felt cool and clean in my hands, a perfect fit. Its solid weight pleased me.

“That’s it?” KC said when I got back in the car.

“I panicked,” I said. 

“That’s all you got? No jewelry, nothing?” 

KC cussed under his breath. The T-shirt was balled up in my back pocket, the piggy bank in the backseat. I pulled into Kroger’s.

“You crazy? Get us back home, bitch.”

“Trust,” I said.

I went into the store with the piggy bank secure under my arm. I knew I was being stupid—I could run into my parents or Ashley, who still lived here, in a house I wasn’t allowed to step foot in. She worked at a hospital where she drew blood. Did she ever fry up eggplant for anyone else? Did she think of me? Maybe I wanted her to walk in, to see me, to know that I still exist. But nobody here knew me. Cashiers slid items across beeping scanners while shoppers, mostly women, rolled carts up and down the aisles. I walked by displays of oranges and bananas and apples, my head down. 

The machine stood in a corner, next to another machine selling scratch-off lottery tickets. I pried the plastic stopper off the football and turned it upside down and the coins clattered beautifully against the silver grate. As quarters and nickels and dimes and pennies slipped through, making a satisfying, clanging song, the numbers on the screen went up. The machine spit out the receipt, and I took it up to a cashier, a thin white woman with a mean face and hair that had been dyed too many times. She handed me fifty-two dollars and forty-five cents, and didn’t say a word. On my way out, I tossed the piggy bank, now light as an empty carton of milk, in the trash. 

KC was impressed. “I never would have guessed all that was in there.”  

He wanted to go back to the city, but this was where I used to get my drugs, and I’d already made the call from my parents’ house, punching the numbers I knew by heart into their relic landline. I parked at the Exxon next to the air pump and an old pay phone that didn’t work. Nobody noticed us. We waited, sweating and shivering. I held the red T-shirt between my hands. It felt good, like I was sticking my hands down in the dirt. I used to grow things. I squeezed harder. 

A silver SUV pulled in. It was Trey. He still had that same ugly-ass blond buzz cut and wore a giant T-shirt and sweatpants that made it look like he was floating when he walked. The gas station was busy, and nobody noticed us. I went in the store and a moment later Trey came in and we stood in front of the chips, our backs to the cameras, and changed H for cash without saying a word. I bought a Coke and a pack of cigarettes, and asked for the bathroom key. 

KC followed me around to the back of the building. We locked the door behind us. The bathroom smelled like piss and mold. Flies hovered over a trash can overflowing with paper towels and wadded up toilet paper and who knows what kind of sins and secrets and stories.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question.” KC looked at me, impressed with himself. 

“Everybody knows that one,” I said.

“I was a teacher, a good one.” KC looped his belt around his bicep, while I searched my hand for a vein. “Though this be madness,” he said, “yet there is method in it.”

He had a needle, I had one too. The flick of the lighter, the burnt, sweet smell. This was our church. Sitting on the cement floor, surrounded by the stink of the urinal, flies buzzing, I flicked the syringe. With steady hands, I pressed the needle in and pushed the plunger. Blood, my blood. The medicine slowly squeezed through my skin into my thirsty veins. The hurt and ugliness disappeared. Purple light from some sky I’d never seen shone down on me and KC. When we shot up, all the hurt rushed out of us. I opened my eyes. KC had a smile on his face. When we could stand, we went back to the car and strapped ourselves in.

“Man, you need to get us the fuck out of here,” KC said.

Instead of driving back to the city, I went back to the house and parked in the same spot, behind the SUV of the parents so proud of their Honor Roll kid. The garage door was open now, exposing the tail of my father’s red pickup. They were home.

I waited—who knows for how long—and then they walked out of the garage. My mother wore capris and a sleeveless blouse, and my father donned pleated shorts and flip flops and a golf shirt. I slid down in the seat. Across the flat land to the horizon, the sun was sinking, a peach in flames turning everything gold. All I had to do was get out of the car and ask if I could spend the night, ask if they would take me in. 

They were looking in the direction of the garage, their backs to me.

“Come on,” my father called. “It’s going to be dark soon.”

And there he was. Caleb skipped out of the garage and across the driveway, carrying a basketball in both hands. He said something to my mother, and she tilted her head back and laughed, and as the sound rushed over me, I swear I could smell her perfume, light and sweet and flowery, and feel her warm, soft hands on mine. 

“Who’s that?” KC asked. 

Caleb shot and missed.

I lit a cigarette, fighting to keep the lightness in me, to stop myself from sinking back down to earth. “That’s my son,” I said. 

“You have a kid?”

I glanced over and KC’s face scrunched up like he was about to cry, but then his lips pulled back in a wide grin. He made a snorting, dismissive sound. “Bullshit.” 

You couldn’t believe any of us. But, listen: my boy was a redhead, just like his mother. Pale, freckled. Tall for seven, gangly. He shot another air ball, and my dad rebounded. My parents babysat for Ashley when she worked nights. Caleb slept in my old room, which was now his. Tonight, he’d go in and maybe try to build something out of those Legos or maybe go to drop a quarter in his piggy bank. But it wouldn’t be there. My parents would make something up in a pinch. But they’d know the truth, and after Caleb was asleep, they’d search the house to discover what else I’d taken from them. 

When my son shot the ball, he used his whole body, pulling back and heaving himself toward the net. My dad patiently gave him instructions, the way he used to with me, and Caleb stood, head cocked, listening. I wanted to get out of the car. KC could come with me. We would pass the ball back and forth, making shot after shot. Assists, slam dunks, three-pointers. 

KC said we should shoot Lisa’s share. I wanted to wait and ride out what was already in me. 

The slap of the ball on the pavement, my boy’s laughter and my father’s low voice drew together until I felt like the sounds were inside me, like how you hear the ocean when you hold a shell up to your ear.

Then Caleb made a basket, and my father let out a whoop and lifted him up. Caleb laughed and raised his little arms. I pressed the t-shirt to my mouth and smelled the detergent that my mother used and wished that I could feel this clean. When Caleb was born, I couldn’t get over how sweet and new he smelled. I held him in my hands and made promises that I couldn’t keep. The shirt loosened in my hand like it was breathing, and I squeezed tighter, holding it over my mouth and nose, huffing all its goodness into my lungs. 

As the last of the sunlight disappeared, the net began to blend with the lavender sky, and my mother stood up from the flower bed where she’d been pulling weeds. She dusted off her pants. Then the three of them turned toward the house. My son jabbered, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Maybe he wanted to watch a movie; maybe my mother would make popcorn. 

KC let loose a soft whimper, a prayer, and I turned and watched the needle slip from his arm and his head fall lovingly and freely against the seat, and at once my entire body came back to me, a heavy, dirty, broken thing. Lights came on in the house, and the silhouette of my mother and then my son appeared in the front picture window. I couldn’t see their faces, but they seemed to be looking right at me. I started the Sunbird, and the engine sputtered and then roared to life. Before driving away, I lifted my swollen hand, studded with track marks, and waved.