Jade had been in the bathroom far too long given that it should have only taken a second to inhale the stuff I’d just given her, and I fingered the top bill in my pocket, the hundred bucks she’d given me for it, thinking that I’d make my escape after the next song whether she came out of there by then or not, because I wasn’t planning to spend the entirety of my last night in the business with them. Her friends Leyva and Mike had nothing to say that interested me; they were twitching like little rabbits just like the other affected people there. I’d declined their earlier offer of some of my own stuff so I could avoid the tightrope they were on; avoid looking at people with their pried-open eyes and hyper stare. Thankfully this was the last Friday night I’d burn this way. The relative normalcy of being in a club always faded when people started addressing me with the fake friend talk, and my Friday people were almost always clubbers. I’d rather they just addressed me as their dealer, but denial is less terrifying than the truth, and if my entire base had stopped lying to themselves, I would have lost them quite a while ago. No one wanted to look themselves in the eye and admit they were a regular Triple X user.
Saying Triple X made the user feel much badder and cooler and chiller than saying alpha-methyl-dextrose-phenethylamine or the sugarcoated upper or “a secret alliance between some pharmaceutical company and a Monsanto subsidiary that needed to get rid of a lot of excess glucose they’d made from corn.” It was called Triple X because all these women who overdosed right when it first hit the streets were found naked in these poses that seemed, well, cinematic. There were still lots of stupid people who posted ads for their “porn stash” on Craigslist; idiots who didn’t mind if the Feds figured out they weren’t discussing their dirty movies.
Jade was a friend of a friend of a friend who’d gone to NYU with me and got sucked into the boring route in life, something that involved offices and starched shirts and accounts and zero ingenuity whatsoever, and now her friends Leyva and Mike were dragging me out to the dance floor in this club, which is exactly where I didn’t want to go. Almost all the people out here looked as disturbed as they did. We were all jumping up and down in a rhythm that had nothing to do with the music because the notes were moving twice as fast in their heads.
Leyva was a tall, hot blonde who would be even hotter if she stopped doing this stuff and started sleeping every once in a while, and Mike was her similarly hedonistic man, cut from the same blonde, tan cloth that made them look like surfers, albeit surfers that were a little too gaunt or wasted or thin or unmuscular to hike themselves onto surfboards and attempt to survive.
Jade finally crawled out of the bathroom, grabbed my hands out on the dance floor, yanked them around her neck and forced me to dance with her. So we bounced and slid and shook while her hair hit me in the face and I spent every single minute of it thinking about what it was going to feel like when I was outside. The wind would blow my hair up on top of my head and rush through my jacket on my way to the next deal two avenues east and six blocks down at an address across the street from my favorite falafel joint. And then I was there. Outside the club and hurrying along the cobblestones to Friday’s next act, determined to finish my night and leave before Eddie’s people found me.
As the troubles of the world increased during this recession, demand for chemical ways to wipe those troubles from the mind increased, allowing me to put away enough money to retire at twenty-five. Retire from this, anyway. Come Sunday, I’ll be living at my house on Tybee Island and looking for a smaller, less exciting business to purchase and run, like a restaurant or a body shop or something ordinary like that. When I showed up with several inches of cash at the closing, no one batted an eye, because eye batting isn’t really what they do down there. There were a couple of whispers and a whole lot of slow uh-huh-ing, and then I shook some hands and went to look at the water from the second floor deck of my house. Blue and clean country water. After seven years in the city, I was ready to wake up in the morning and look out the window and see nothing but watery horizons and a couple of other beach houses. A view that wouldn’t clutter the eye.
I’m from Georgia, but no one here knows that, because when people ask, I tell them “rural South Carolina” or “backwoods Alabama” and their eyes all glaze over, because no one here wants to spend large breaths of time talking about places they have no interest in locating on a map. So I’m actually, in practice, from “down there,” or “the south,” and the listener always nods and makes a non-committal noise that signifies that they’re sorry I’m not from someplace more easily identifiable yet objectively worse, like Philly. The part of Georgia I’m from is on the wrong side of the fall line, a tiny town that I always imagined was sinking into its red soil out of boredom when I was growing up, and while I’ll be happy to be in Georgia, I sure am glad I’m not going back there. Two more deals to go.
Some large fraction of the world was smoking on the sidewalks between the club and destination number two, and I looked at all the smokers carefully as I went by, watching for the signals of my people. Trembling hands, rapid-fire speech, the juiceboxes that women often carried in their purses for the sugar high that enhanced the Triple X high. The crowds on the streets were popping mints and crunchy candy instead and I liked that, thought it was more original.
The next address was a familiar two story tan brick building in the Village with one of those metal plates on the first floor that said some artist had died there more than a hundred years ago. I’d googled the artist’s name once late at night when I was curious and was treated to a brief summary of the variety of early twentieth century uppers that had killed him, the powders and pills that had excessively stimulated the people of yesterday.
She’d left the front door open as usual and was on the phone talking about some sort of charity event she’d be attending the next day. The conversation was over soon enough, and she came to find me and cradle my chin and take her weekly dose from my left pocket, and I inhaled her scent to wipe my nose clean of clubbing smells before getting too involved in her life for the last time. She only kept me for twenty minutes because I made sure to time our encounter precisely, putting the evidence in the plastic bag she always gave me so I could toss it outside, several feet from her uncurious husband’s domain. Part of me wanted to say something, to clear my mind before I left, figuring that way at least she’d know, even though I knew it would be in terrible taste to tell her about my weekly visits to the tiny apartment he shared with that woman, that woman with the bony nose and sharp chin who’d propositioned me about five minutes before they propositioned me together three days ago when I was last there in one of those moments that made me glad I was leaving the business and purging my life of these people with their bare knuckled needs.
There are a surprisingly high number of people in the drug distribution business. It works just like all other businesses in that it behooves me to concern myself most with the people operating near my own position. Eddie is kind of my boss. He receives large quantities of Triple X, he gives me a fraction of what he’s got, I pay him, I sell the stuff for a profit. If I hadn’t decided to buy the house, I never would have made my relationship with Eddie more complicated than it needed to be.
I needed to add maybe an inch of cash to my pre-existing savings to become a homeowner. And some of that inch came from Eddie’s money. I asked him to front me for this last stash, and he didn’t hesitate, since we’ve been working together for years now. But I have absolutely no intention of paying him back. The voicemails on my business phone indicate that he’s figured that out. But it’s ok, ’cause I’m leaving anyway and he’s not going to waste years of his and other people’s time wandering around the rural South to find me.
I tossed the small plastic bag into the trash can outside her building before stepping into the gap between her porch and the sidewalk and hurrying down the street for the night’s meal. But when I cast my third backward glance at the darkened street, I saw someone duck into a doorway and out of sight. Glance number six proved that someone was still walking around behind me in that odd way, taking a succession of steps and then making a quick movement off the sidewalk.
Fear is a useless emotion. It is a primal mistake that I never allow to fully rise up in my chest. When I feel it coming, it always tries to settle in under my breastbone, and I deny its grip, its determination to rattle my composure. It is best to close the eyes for a brief second and let it dissipate. When I saw that he was still following me, fear attempted to make its clammy entrance into my head and heart, and I turned it back at the door.
It was finally time to hand over my client list, a spreadsheet that told the only section of my history that the people I met those days really wanted to know. Rows and rows of names of people who as far as I knew only had one thing in common. I’d printed it out and it was ready.
Josh reminds me of myself five years ago, doing what he needs to do to pay obscene NYU tuition when his legal money sources proved inadequate. But he’s smarter than me, with a well-thought out plan to quit the business when he graduates in two years and do something above ground and squeaky-clean. Hopefully he’s actually got some follow-through in him. Or he’ll end up like me, with enough money but a ridiculous life.
He showed up in the universal light blue collared shirt of business and a pair of freshly ironed khaki pants. He shook my hand solemnly as he accepted the list. I watched him as he walked out the front door and took a second to look at all the stuff in my apartment before throwing a few things in a backpack and going outside. I threw the apartment keys in a garbage can three blocks away and they clanged on the metal as they touched down.
My college fund ran out after freshman year, but I wasn’t ready to give up on New York then. The city had seduced me with its thoroughly un-southern freedoms and pulsating all-hours activity, and I didn’t want to go back to living life at the pace of growing grass. But I eventually found that I was best suited to this after striking out in telemarketing, retail, and all of those types of jobs that pretend they’re cool and fresh and fun but really revolve around getting someone coffee. It’s not like I woke up one morning and decided to do this. It chose me. And then it chose me again, pulling me even farther in its grasp after graduation, when I failed to land a presentable position doing something else. I tried to resist the pull through waiting tables and ringing up others at checkout while I worked on making something better come along. But I moved here because I had dreams of living a certain lifestyle, and after a few years, it became clear that this was the only thing that was going to make that dream anywhere near possible.
The guy who was following me had dark hair and a nose with an inordinate number of bumps that were highlighted under the glut of New York street lighting as he turned his head to the side in the motion he made before ducking back into the darkness right after I tilted my head to search for him. Why did he think he was so hidden? It was impossible to hide under all the light from bodegas and grocery stores and street lamps and people’s cell phones bluishly and orangely cracking open the dark sky.
The falafel sandwich I downed on my way to my final stop of the night only cost three bucks and was crisp and green tasting from whatever the green stuff is in falafel. Everyone who worked at the falafel shop thought I worked the night shift at one of the many twenty-four hour drugstores around there, because I thought the play on words was funny the first time that lie occurred to me, and I couldn’t pass for a clubber or a third-shift airport employee. I was also probably too starched and stiff seeming to pass for a drugstore employee, because all the drugstore employees I’d ever seen around there had enormous tattoos, and I looked pretty corporate. But the folks frying up the falafel only made that New York level of conversation with me, where you learn everyone’s name and profession and then you turn quickly to everyone’s firm opinions on some flavor of current events and you realize you’ve talked to them for a solid half hour and not revealed an unflattering amount of information about yourself. The falafel guys bounced around behind the counter with a familiar energy while they snacked on something that smelled sweet and I wondered if they’d finally joined the party, a good party to join if you work third shift.
There was only one pursuer, I was sure of it. But his eyes were everywhere. Shiny and moist and obvious. We almost made eye contact around every corner. He’d moved from hiding in a single doorway to sitting in almost every doorway I passed. It was amazing that so many bumpy nosed people lived here.
My ex-girlfriend started out doing infinitesimally small amounts and took forever to move up the chain. She lived in a fifth-floor walk up that I was sure my stuff was helping her climb to every evening. I exhaled deeply from physical exhaustion when I finally reached her landing. She greeted me with a downward turn of the mouth and a couple of garden-variety insults of my character, and I threatened to leave twice before she got in a more acceptable mood. And then she did her line and became pliant and lovable and asleep, and I forgot myself and dosed off for a while.
When I woke up, someone was pounding on the door. Her carpet was thick enough that I didn’t feel bad about sidling right up to the peephole and finding my stalker pacing the hallway right outside between knocks. I tried to wake her up to say goodbye but she was asleep, really dead to the world with limp arms and suspiciously open bare legs, and I looked over on her nightstand and found that she’d done another four lines while I was sleeping. And then I cracked her bathroom window open and mentally prepared myself to scale the building down to her courtyard, where I’d hit the ground and go running for the bus to DC that would take me to the bus to North Carolina where I’d buy a car and drive to Georgia.
Except that I didn’t get out the window before he cracked the door open to stare at me. We made urgent eye contact while I took in everything about him that I could absorb in a couple of seconds. That bumpy nose, his slick dark hair, the angled angriness of his mouth, the dark gun he held in an outstretched hand, pointed roughly at my chest. I readied my own gun for whatever the future held as he approached me, stopping his advance when we faced each other across from her prone body. I could hear the low-level buzzing of the fear that I usually ignored rising up in my ears, and it threw me off my game as he raised his gun and aimed for my shoulder.
The shot was so loud and so close I was sure he’d hit me. By the time the noise cleared, my two intact shoulders and I were out the window, my feet pointed down towards the trees of her courtyard as I made up the distance between her apartment and the ground. I flew past the air and my mind blinked its way into doubt from dread and surprise and I realized I wasn’t sure I deserved to make it to Tybee.