STRIKE THREE AND AN OLD FRIEND’S GOODBYE - ROBERT CRISMAN
Life throws mean curveballs at addicts. And addicts are always surprised when it happens. Especially when strike three splits the plate.
It was Tuesday, late afternoon. Roanne and Michelle were socked in at the crib. Joey came home and brought Rob along with him. They’d made a run by the Mexican’s, so, coming right up, another happy occasion.
Rob sure was happy. A rictus-like smile creased his face. He and Joey had stopped by a Herfy’s for cokes and some extracurricular use of the bathroom.
That took 40 minutes. Joey’s veins were long gone. He’d stripped and banged the insides of his thighs till he’d found one. He yelled ow! ow! ow! ow! all the way.Rob had just marveled. Joey stripped—Michaelangelo’s David, if David was black and had tracks and scars all over his body and was fast on his way to becoming a bent, broken stick. Joey’d been stabbing himself in bathrooms like this for years upon years upon years.
Rob, late 20s like Joey, looked like Malcolm McDowell playing Alex the Droog without makeup; thin, sharp-featured, pale, with eyes like burnt holes in a blanket. He’d been off the dope for two weeks and, then, once again, had said, Fuck it. The 20 he’d geezed at the Herfy’s was sort of a Welcome Home, Brother, and soon he’d be ready for more. Another 20; Rob liked to wade just a little at first.
Joey broke open the dope and the girls jumped like wolves. They had a double scheduled that night—tricking was how they kept up with expenses, of course—and they figured, as always, that grooving would move the thing faster, so why not start now?
Roanne, 29, the Mediterranean sheen all but leeched from her skin. A pretty imp’s face on those rare days she smiled. Michelle, tall, lithe, brown-haired, and suburbanite sexy with big baby blues. Just 22, she had an attitude climbing on angry old age.
Tricks licked their buttholes—and here these girls were, snarling to get the dope in them, to help them forget those tricks’ tongues.
And so now the usual heroin party. Rob and the girls lolling around. Joey, who’d speedballed, just sort of bouncing from this tip to that.
A little later, time to re-up. Joey went to the table, gathered some dope and a couple of rigs, and headed on out toward upstairs. Rob followed. The girls stayed put with the couple of grams Joey’d left them.
Joey and Rob went up to the kitchen. A strange house, really. A three-story monster, owned by a dopefiend. The owner lived up in the attic, never went out, not even to cop; Joey just climbed up the stairs. The guy’d inherited the house from his mother. When she’d gotten the place, she filled it with antiques and knick-knacks and paintings, good furniture, etc. But, Joey told Rob, in the year since she’d kicked the bucket, the dopefiend had pretty much emptied the house, piece by piece. All for the chiva.
They passed through the kitchen to get to the stairs that went up to the second-floor bathroom. Then through a living room stripped bare as bones. The walls were peach-colored, or had been back before World War II. They were actually deep nicotine now, the walls and the ceiling, except where the pictures had hung. Big pictures, small pictures—Nature scenes? Portraits? Kandinskys?—every last one of them gone with the wind. Where they’d been hanging the walls were still, more or less, peach.
The furniture, likewise, all gone. With the rug that had covered the floor. Nice oaken floor, all scuffed and dusty now, natch.
Right by the stairs, an old Chinese screen, folded up, resting against the banister there. Black, gilded etchings, cranes flying, and some old guy who looked like Confucius or something. Rob was no kind of expert, but the screen looked like money, the kind of thing yuppies bust nuts for. The fuck was it still doing here? Dude, holding out for top-dollar action? Rob figured when dopefiend got itchy and sick, top dollar would drop like a rock.
He also thought that the screen would just about fit in his car.
On up the stairs, to the second-floor can. They could hear the guy moving around up above. Joey said, No sweat, he’s on Pluto. Besides, who’s his dopeman? Joey had the run of the place, pretty much.
The bathroom: claw-footed tub, right out of the ‘20s, just like the toilet and sink. Black-and-white tiled floor. They needed a maid with a shovel and blowtorch in here, though the stink wasn’t bad for some reason. A pile of boxes stacked in the corner: Kentucky Fried Chicken and pizza. Spiderwebs all around up above. An old toothpaste tube in the sink. The mirror, so old it was yellow and brown.
All right, to business. Joey went first. Again, he got almost all the way naked: he ripped off his shirt and pulled down his pants, ready to hunt out that last vein in life. He went topside first, dug in his wrist, then the backs of his hands, nothing, nothing, and then his chest, then his neck—ow! ow! ow! ow!—then poked around in his arms. He hadn’t seen veins there in years.
And then, man, you’d had to have seen it. He lifted his arm—and jambammed that rig in his armpit! Just stabbing himself, one, two, three, four—five fucking times! Blood, spritzing out! Rob was just, Jesus Christ!
And then, one more again, and again, and still—nothing. The walls and the mirror, little red rivers.
Joey finally said, fuck it, dry well, let’s head to the feet. Rob, thinking, thank fucking God! Anything, man, just, out of that armpit! He could see it in slow-motion replay: America’s Gnarliest Home Videos, man. Jesus Christ!
Joey, poking the rig in his toes now, this little piggy, that little piggy, and—still no luck, so, on up he went, to his calves, thighs, and—the fuck was there left? Ah, yes, his dick. No, wait, he had one, a vein! Upper right thigh, a crotch shot, oh yeah.
Yessiree Bob! The rig went all red and Joey jacked off, in, out, in, out… Uh huh, boy, this is the one. Mmmmm! yeah, man! He bootlegged some more, and then, finally, he sent it on home.
Twenty minutes and change. Not too bad. There are cats who’ve been known to take months. Okay, now, Rob. You’re up, my man. Joey got ready to fix him right up. Rob was a sissy vis-a-vis needles.
This would go quick. Rob’s veins were ropes. He tied himself off. The rig, in like Flynn, that big vein right there in the crook of his arm. Joey jacked off and then drove it home, and...oh boy...that was a...load, man, big fucking load! The rush, man, it—fuck, man, too much!
Really too much! This big mushroom cloud pushing right through his skull! Now he was dizzy; this wasn’t right! Dizzy, man, could hardly stand now, his eyes weighed ten pounds, and his stomach...Joey grabbed him to keep him from falling. Frogwalked him out of the bathroom. C’mon, man, c’mon, don’t fall over, you’ll never get up!
Joey walked him around. Rob told him, man, I gotta puke.
Joey trundled him down to the kitchen and out through the door. Down the steps to the back yard. Fresh air, man, something.
Out in the yard there, Joey let go. Rob staggered and stumbled, went down on his hands and his knees—and puked, great gobs of puke, geysers of puke, like, for days.
He was puking up stuff from his whole fucking body. Stuff that some other guy ate. Stuff that had never been eaten. Rob puked it up. Rivers and rivers and rivers of puke. Rob couldn’t stop—and then, bang—his head, it exploded.
Red, everything red—and then, black.
Joey stood, frozen. Rob, lying as if dropped from a roof, on his side there, mouth open, eyes wide as plates, blood pouring out of his nose. Joey’s own mouth, agape. He took an unsteady step forward, then one more, then another. Like he’d just lost his crutches. He really did not want to look at this, man. But he had to know what he already knew.
Joey backed up. Walked slowly backwards, eyes wide, fixed on Rob. He groped for the door at his back, found the knob. He pulled the door open, then half-turned to rush down the steps, almost stumbled.
“Roanne! Roanne!” He was almost hysterical now. “Roanne! Roanne!”
She came up quick. “What, Joey, what is it?” She knew it was bad.
Joey said, “It’s Rob, man, he’s—“
“What? What happened?” She came forward quickly.
Joey turned back toward the door. “Out there in the yard...”
“Oh fuck, oh fuck.” Roanne got to the door a step behind Joey. He stopped just outside. She came out beside him and saw.
Disaster, disaster! “Oh, fuck, no!” She practically whispered.
Joey said, “I think he’s dead.” She nodded, not really hearing. She knew Rob was dead.
A moment, then she went forward, then stopped, looked at Joey. He stood there staring, unwilling, maybe unable, to move. Michelle came out then, came up beside Joey, stopped short. She gaped at Rob, and then at Roanne, her face white as sheets and her eyes coming out of her head.
Roanne came back to them quickly. She looked around, hoping—Please, God!—that nobody’d seen this. “Joey...”
Joey, shaking his head, every last fiber inside him searching a way to deny this had happened. He’d been in rooms where guys died, then gone through their pockets. Hell, that’s just how it went. But—this! Rob! At his pad! No one had ever died in his pad!
He’d known Rob a lifetime! They’d been close, you know, something—!
Your ace boon gets scragged in the trench. Do you shit or go blind?
Joey’s cool—just flat blown away.
Roanne told him, “Joey, we’ve got to do something.” She imagined the neighbors, dropping dimes as they stood there. Joey there, gaping. She’d known in an instant, without really thinking, that she was the one who would have to take charge.
She didn’t waste time. All the dope fuzzies were gone. “Joey, Michelle, we’ve got to get him into the house.” They stared and they blinked, and Joey said, “Yeah...”
Roanne and Joey got ready. Roanne said, “C’mon, Michelle.” They went quickly to Rob, rolled him over, flat on his back. He’d shit on himself and his face was puke-flecked. Michelle almost heaved.
Joey grabbed Rob’s shoulders. Roanne and Michelle took his legs. Quick count to three and they heaved. Michelle lost his leg, and they almost dropped him.
Jesus God—Rob, man, he stunk! Puke and shit, puke and shit. Michelle held her breath as her stomach did flip-flops.
They got him into the house, and down to the basement, and—where would they put him? Roanne said, “The bathroom.”
They carried Rob into the bathroom. Michelle stumbled twice, but held tight, eyes all but squeezed shut. By the time they got in there, Rob weighed 800 pounds.
They dropped him into the tub. The stink drove them out of the bathroom.
Roanne walked over and sat in the chair at the other end of the room from the bed. She lit up a smoke and stared off and away. Michelle, with her eyes on Roanne, lowered herself gingerly onto the edge of the bed. Joey just shuffled, here and then there, picking at things, the clothes on the hangers, the crap on top of the dresser, the bedsheets. He kept looking around, this way and that, and always, his eyes would rest for a second or two on Roanne.
He was waiting to hear what the fuck to do next.
Three minutes later, Roanne said, “We’ve got to call 911.”
Just the thought blew Joey’s mind. “What? Roanne—“
“Joey, we’ve got to—“
“We can’t just leave him, Joey, he’s dead—“
“Roanne!” Joey, aghast at the thought of cops coming. This whole fucking thing! Rob dead...
Joey’s cool. Just flat blown away.
He’d always swum like a fish in the chaos—circumscribed chaos. His impulses, whims, his popcorn emotions, along with the changes that come with the dope game—all these had sent him down life’s twisty byways, for sure. He’d pretty much made those byways his home. And death was sure part of the trip, not only the bodies that lay in the thickets, but, if you will, death’s own shadow, shrouding every funnytime turn on the trail. But the shroud was familiar, its weight and its shape and its odor inscribed by routine. Joey’d fall out of bed, bang his wakeup, go meet the connect, then slide through the day, slinging 20s and quarters and eighths to the mutts. He’d visit the bathrooms, of course, on his way to and fro, and, like that. So it goes.
Life threw its spitballs, of course. Maybe his dopeman ran out, or got popped, or he just didn’t show for some reason. Or some mutt would come sniveling and bitching: Joey shorted the weight; or, as likely, the mutt was short on the money. Or some motherfucker might want to take Joey off. Or Joey might fix in a bathroom and miss and come out with an abcess. He might get snatched up on old warrants. Some nosepicking dipshit od’d at this house he was trying to get off at.
All part of the deal. He’d been there 10 million times.
But this! Fucking Rob! At his pad! In his fucking backyard!
Too close to home!
Rob was his...friend? Well, not exactly; what sort of friend can a dopefiend really lay claim to, total creature of need that he or she is? Still, though, man—Rob. Joey had known him since Jesus had stepped out for lunch. And—maybe this starts to get to it—he’d stayed with Joey, up in his mind, through the years. He wasn’t just part of the flotsam and jetsam. They’d always talked, shared perspectives, beyond all the day-to-day bullshit. Where most junkies drooled all those rock ‘n roll mumbles, Joey and Rob had talked politics, man, the social dynamic—cynically slanted, of course; the world, they agreed, was pretty much shit and headed downhill all the way. But they both had sharp eyes and had read some, and knew a lot more than the potbellied nitwits who suck up FOX News and think they’re professors or something.
Joey and Rob. They weren’t just your scuts, am I right? They had opinions, like real-time folks. Dopefiends were outhouse; Joey was something other than that. And, parsing and judging the world with his old buddy Rob had helped bring alive the sense that he mattered somehow, if but for a moment. He wasn’t just some loppo, waiting to die.
Joey might talk, to this mutt or that, and something Rob said, or his laughter, would dance in his mind.
Rob, part of Joey—now dead in the tub. Death, you could say, had tapped Joey’s shoulder and spun him around, and said boo!
“Joey! We’ve got to call 911!” Roanne, not about to let Joey slide.
“I can’t!” Joey, rage climbing inside him, along with a dread that bordered on panic.
“I can’t, I can’t, I got warrants! I can’t call!”
Warrants! That stopped her. But—“Joey, just call them and go! We’ll all go! They come and they get him, and then—“ what? The cops would get here and fish out a body, a stone cold OD in a place just made for ODs. They’d turn the place over. They’d roust old what’s-his-name out of the attic, and he’d drop every last dime in his pocket on Joey and all of them down there. Then what? Who knew, but, one thing for sure, nothing good.
Okay, no call. But, “We’ve got to get him out of that bathtub and out of here, Joey!”
It took some minutes, but Joey made peace with necessity at last. He even came up with a plan: he had this old trunk, an old steamer trunk that used to belong to his mother. God knows why he’d swiped it. He’d never used it, just lugged it around from this pad to that, and—but, now, hey, good thing he’d swiped it. They could cram Rob inside, and then...
Roanne felt this sad, weary feeling well up. Something, this cheap, ugly shit; she might have cried if she could have. Is this what it comes to? This...life?
Rob, garbage now. Toss him.
What else to do?
They’d take him and toss him, out in the weeds, on Beacon somewhere. That was the plan. Joey knew a spot, not far from a place that he’d lived in.
He pulled the steamer out of the closet, unlatched it. It was wooden, a million years old.
Well, let’s get it done.
They wrestled Rob out of the bathtub, Joey on one end, the girls on the other. They lugged him out to the trunk. Rob now weighed in at eight million pounds, and the stink—they all got the dry-heaves and dropped him halfway.
Rob’s head hit the floor with a thunk. Michelle almost puked. Just what they needed. She was practically screaming by this time—Goddamn! Goddamn!—and crying, and just about ready to shriek through the ceiling. Roanne had to bark her down off a full-blown hysteria jag.
They had to fold Rob to get his ass into the trunk. They took off his shoes and jammed his feet in there. Finally, all good. Joey grabbed for the lid—and puked his guts out in the trunk, all over Rob.
That did it! Michelle yelled, “Oh God!” and rushed for the bathroom, to retch till she croaked. Joey wiped off his mouth with his t-shirt. He whispered, “Goddamn, goddamn,” like a mantra. He slammed the lid shut. And then he practically fell on the fucker, eyes bulging and sick.
Roanne just stood there, as if every last nerve in her body had died. She stared dumbly at Joey there, flopped on the trunk. And then she laughed. It just busted on out of her, man. Not loudly, but deep: she could no more control it than fly to the moon. She went and sat in a chair, still laughing, her whole body shaking, tears rolling now. She brought her hand to her eyes, looked away, as if to hide all the laugher.
She kept laughing. Rob’s send-off, a pukefest. Joey there, flopping around, face puffed like a blowfish. Michelle in the bathroom, ack! ack! ack! ack! Absolute soundtrack perfection.
Horror, rendered as nightmare cartoon.
The drama wound down. Joey, at last, latched the trunk. He hadn’t reacted once to Roanne; it was as if she was out of the room. Michelle came out of the bathroom. Roanne’s laughter fell off to nothing.
They’d wait until dark to cart Rob on out of the house.
Then it was: wait, suspended in some crusty limbo. How do you sit there and do...fucking nothing...after all that? What’s there to say? Not a lot. Play pinochle as they waited on darkness?
Joey broke out the dope. What the fuck took him so long? Digging for veins in his neck—ow! ow! ow! Roanne and Michelle followed suit.
Fixing took some of the edge off. Not all of it, though. There was this black, muffled something inside them, lying under the dope, and ready to climb back and bite them the minute the groove thinned a little.
Finally, the clock said, it’s time.
Thank God the place had a driveway that ran from the street to the rear of the house. Joey brought the car down. The three of them lugged the trunk to the car. The car was a hatchback, which meant that they had enough room, with the seat folded over, to shove the trunk in all the way. Huffing and puffing, they did it.
Michelle went inside. Roanne and Joey took off.
Roanne was nervous as hell, with good reason, beyond the fact of Rob’s body back there. Joey usually drove like a drunk who’s just powered down about 900 bennies. Roanne had a vision: Joey, weaving and bouncing at 65 per, with the cops and the army and navy pursuing, and trying to shoot out the tires. The hatch lid flies open and out blows the trunk, right through a cop’s windshield. They go under the jail for 10 million years.
She’d almost asked for the keys at the house, but decided he’d just throw a fit, and, so, fuck it.
Joey drove like a sane person this time. The whole thing with Rob had spooked him right out of his skin. He didn’t say shit on the way, kept his eyes to the road. He drove the speed limit, stayed in the lanes, used his signals, and came to nice, tidy halts at red lights.
Roanne watched him. This man had the fear. A couple of decades of dodging those bullets, nicks here and there, but so what?—he’d been bulletproof, man. And then, Rob brought the news: it could have been Joey, could be him yet, so, smell the coffee. Time’s climbing, man, right on your ass.
They went out through Montlake, then down 23rd through the ghetto. You ever see dopefiends praying to God like they meant it? They got to Rainier. More ghetto, more heartfelt prayers. No atheists in these fucking trenches. They went south a few blocks, then took a soft right onto 20th there, a narrow, dark street that angled on up Beacon Hill.
Trees all around. No houses for blocks. They drove halfway up. The streetlights were out in this neck of the woods. Jump for joy.
A wide, graveled spot on the right, cupped under trees. Joey pulled in.
They sat for a moment, checking the road. No lights in sight. They got out and opened the hatch. They reached in and grabbed the trunk’s handle. They started to pull, slowly, slowly... The fucker was heavy. Now, halfway out—and here came a car! They froze, prayed to every last god that mankind has ever come up with. The headlights bipped by. Just some galoot, not The Man, and, thank you, Sweet Jesus! Now, let’s just do it. They pulled, pulled some more. They could smell the thing now, seeping, seeping, raw shit and puke. Jesus Christ, hurry! A little more now. The trunk, halfway out, teetering slightly—don’t pull too fast! Just—steady the fucker! Don’t—yeah, get your hand under, a little more now, yeah, that’s it. We’ll lay it on down, and—
Joey slipped on the gravel, lost balance, lurched back. Roanne couldn’t hold it. The trunk teetered then—and fell like a boulder, kersplat, right on end, and then over—and busted apart like an overripe mango.
The smell jumped right out of that fucker and jammed down their throats. Joey yelled, “Fuck!” and staggered and lurched to the side of the car. The trunk, split wide open, shards sticking this way and that—and Rob, face up in the middle, eyes wide at nothing, shit-smelling, puke-flecked—
Roanne heaved for days, all over her side of the car.
Joey, yelling, “Let’s go, let’s go!” They dived in the car and tore the fuck out.
They didn’t stop for what seemed like five miles. Directionless, really. Just, somewhere away from that trunk. “Fuck, Jesus, fuck!” Joey’s mantra, attempted purgation. Now, down this street, then up that one, now left, then a right...
Roanne slumped, eyes squeezed shut, with one thought: Please—end this!
They made it down to Sixth South. Miles and miles of wholesale places, not far from downtown. Tuesday night, quiet, no traffic to speak of. Joey pulled into a lot by the side of a warehouse shut down for the night. A couple of cars parked here and there. He pulled to a stop in a shadow and shut off the lights. He left the car running.
They pulled out their rigs, cooked the dope Joey’d brought, poked and probed for the veins that would let in the dope that would take them to some other place.
They were there 20 minutes. A merciful God let them go. They patched out, left Rob’s ghost.
R.I.P., brother. Strike three, you’re out.
BIO: Robert Crisman spent some years living the kind of life depicted in this story. Unlike most of the people who live it, he found his way out. He brought his ghosts with him, however, and his fiction, about lost dogs stuck on the Road With No Exits, is his way of turning his time in the mix to account.
SWITCHBLADE #1 is available. (per Fred Zackel)
16 hours ago