DOWNTOWN - ROBERT CRISMAN
People newly off dope walk a tightrope. Theirs is a world of blandishments, threats, each with this message: Get loaded, get loaded, get loaded.
Roanne had three weeks off chiva. She took Michelle with her downtown to shop for some school clothes. Her loan had come through, and her dad had given her $200 to look right when she stepped into class.
They went to the discount outlet at Nordstrom’s, The Rack, down on Second and Pine. Roanne would have liked the for-real Nordstrom’s up there on Fifth, but two bills is two bills, i.e., not much, and so, discount it was.
Good thing Roanne had the bum’s eye. She knew she could pick up some snazzies for cheap. Snazzier than the jeans and t-shirt she had on her back for damn sure.
Michelle, 22, wore her mini and vest, her old Converse sneakers and anklets; clothes that made guys want to chew them right off. She shopped at Thriftko and looked like a second-tier goddess. A slender 5’7”, all peaches-and-cream, with these big, shiny, baby-blue eyes, she could have been on a billboard.
Roanne, crowding 30, still had this Mediterranean glow. Her smooth olive skin, dark pools for eyes, impish lips. The woman left echoes. In the right clothes, she rated a tier all her own.
Nordstrom had picked a rotten spot for The Rack; Second and Pine is just a short hop from Seattle’s Dope Central downtown. For clean addicts, who’ve spent time on the corner of Second and Pike, the memories come up through their stomachs. Roanne, with three weeks off dope, and Michelle, with two months, felt the gnarlies the moment they stepped off the bus.
They decided, however, that they’d breeze on through, with a stop-n-shop quickie. Let the dopesuckers do what they do. Roanne and Michelle had already given a lifetime or two to the chiva. This was legitimate business.
Inside The Rack, Roanne snatched some good shit right off: a cream-colored blouse that set off her skin, and a red one that shimmered; classy black slacks and some formfitting jeans, also black; black open-toed pumps; and red lingerie, all laces and nothing much else. She looked at some coats, because fall would be coming, but—later for that. She’d spend $150, which would leave her $50 to play with.
Donny, this schlump at the meetings who dreamed of wearing Roanne on his face, would be good for the coat.
She wore the red blouse, the slacks, and the pumps out the door. The jeans and the t-shirt she’d worn, she crammed in a sack. The first can they came to outside, she tossed the sack.
Red-hot July. Roanne shone in the sun. That was the plan. Her skin, darkened, glowing; the shimmering red blouse, allowing a peek at her bra and the cleft of her breasts; the slacks, draped just so; the pumps that added an inch to her barefoot 5’4”.
Roanne was now honed for the wars. Her eyes swept the street with a gleam as she stood there in front of The Rack.
Michelle was delighted. Roanne, armored. The aspect of combat that went with the show jazzed Michelle silly.
Next stop, of course, wherever they sold bright red lipstick. Eye makeup, too. Roanne would soften those eyes, make them echoing pools in the dream we all dream of.
To the Market then, natch, a block down and over. They beelined down Pine, west toward First.
A lot of squares out and about. The city had yupped up this stretch: new shops, widened sidewalks, gussied facades—and had swept out the ghosts.
But not all the bodies. You still saw the skulkers skulking around. Not quite so many as back in the day. And they didn’t just loll in the doorways or cluster in alleys; instead, they kept moving, on to the corner and then down to Pike, where the city hadn’t yet brought in the brooms.
Roanne and Michelle passed the Gatewood Hotel. Roanne said, “Oh, look, people! The Gatewood Hotel! All spitshined, my friends!” She laughed and said, “I ever tell you about the lovely couple of weeks I spent there last summer?”
“No,” Michelle said. “Sounds like a dream, though, for sure.”
“Oh yeah. A dream,” Roanne snorted, laughed. “Nightmare Alley’s more like it. It’s like, before they hosed the place down, every goddamned room in that place held a dopefiend or ten, swear to God. Just, Shit Central, you know? And, wonderful Allen—Goat Boy to all of his legions of fans—and there’s a reason for that, believe me.”
Michelle laughed. “I met him once.”
“And once was enough,” Roanne said. “I hope you bathed after. Unngghh! It gives me the shivers to think about that fucker. Yugh! Anyway. Me and Allen. He got us a room there, let’s see, last June, I believe.” She batted her eyes. Her voice became arch, mocking, sing-song almost. “Yes, June. Those long nights of summer, romance.” She batted her eyes one more time and then rolled them.
“God!” Michelle laughed. “It sounds like a love for the ages!”
“Well, yes,” Roanne said. “Eons, actually. Anyway, Allen, he’s dealing, right? Why else would I be there? And he figured, hey, the Gatewood, why not? The market demographic and proximity, my dear, were ideal. And so, we moved in, and—my God, Michelle, talk about nightmare. I just can’t tell you! They must’ve hauled four or five bodies out of that place our first week, swear to God. And then, toward the middle of the second week, our money runs out. Allen and me being pretty much the main market demographic in the whole fucking place, and—” They laughed. “—and then, fucking Allen takes off, like on a Thursday or something. Says he’s gonna scuffle up something or other, and God knows what that was, you know? But, he’s gonna make it all better. So he leaves me there, dopesick, of course, and—I was sick, too, girl, sick as a dog, and now, Allen, he’s fucking gone, and—I couldn’t even move I was so sick—and then, this was Friday, like three in the morning or some goddamned thing, and this guy comes over, and, lo and behold, he’s got some dope.
“A half-a-gram, girl, and he’s, you know, maybe a smile and a blowjob and he’ll get up off some—and I’m practically, you know, thank you, Jesus, he really did die for my sins, and I’ll fucking do it, whatever, and try not to puke on his dick—” She rolled her eyes, laughed. “—and, guess what! There’s no goddamn rigs! No rigs in that room! He hasn’t got any, I haven’t got any, Allen took ours to the needle exchange—and it’s four o’clock in the morning by now—and so, now, here I am, running the halls of that goddamned hotel, and pounding on doors—and it’s, Jesus Christ! ‘Get the fuck away from there, bitch!’ and—every room in there, I swear to God. Ten billion dopefiends, and I’d blow every guy in the place for a rig, and...” She blew out a laugh. “Fucking nothing! And the guy, he’s going out of his mind by now. Just, here I am, going nuts, making all kinds of noise, and, he’s freaked, and he’s gonna split, and—goddamn! Michelle, it was hell!”
“Yes—and now, girl...my big secret in life.” Roanne looked around, sweeping the street, as if she was searching out enemy spies. A tight little smile played on her lips. “You can’t tell anybody about this, ever, on your absolute word of honor.”
Michelle’s wide grin was something to see. Her eyes were dancing. War stories! The trenches! She loved it! “My lips are sealed.”
Roanne laughed, rolled her eyes. “Well, I guess that’ll just have to do. Anyway—” She clapped her hand to her forehead. “I can’t believe I ever did this, much less tell anybody about it, but, okay. Did you see that dumpster back there in the alley?”
Michelle looked back, then looked at her friend, and then started to laugh. “Oh, Roanne, no!”
“Oh, Roanne, yes!” Roanne laughed. “Four fucking thirty in the morning, Michelle, and, there I was, skulking around in that alley, and rooting and scrounging around in that dumpster. Kicking at rats and pawing through shit, and praying to God that some asshole had tossed his rig in there.”
They both fell out laughing. Horror, viewed from the distance time lends it, plays like a star turn at Giggles sometimes.
Roanne said, “Talk about moments to cherish.”
“If only you’d got it on video, dear,” Michelle said. “Slices of heaven, shared with your friends.” She laughed. “Did you find one?”
“What? A rig? No.”
“Shit. With my luck, I’d’ve come up with a nice case of AIDS.”
“Uh, yeah, there is that.”
“Wouldn’t’ve stopped me. If I’d’ve found one. I swear, they could’ve had AIDS stamped on that fucker in big, bold, red letters. ‘Use this and die, bitch.’ Uh huh, well, that’s later, and this is right now, and I’m on a mission, so eat me, you know?”
“Whooo-eee. Party, party.”
“Yeah, girl, party for sure.”
Their laughter died. The longer the stroll down memory lane, the more the past punches up from the stomach, taking on odor and taste.
They came to the corner. Across First, Market shoppers, a world away from the Gatewood Hotel. The old smells receded.
The light changed. A blasé sashay across First, and—all of a sudden, Roanne snatched Michelle and practically jumped into the street.
“C’mon!” she said. “Let’s get the light!”
Michelle, a bit startled, said, “Wha—?” Roanne was all but dragging her now. “C’mon, c’mon!” Michelle almost stumbled.
What was this? Something, for sure. Roanne had seen something. Michelle looked around to see what the fuck it could be.
“Don’t look, don’t look! Just, c’mon!”
Michelle said, “What—Roanne—?”
“Don’t look!” They got across First. Michelle stopped, pulled free. Roanne reached for her arm. “C’mon, c’mon!”
Roanne started stepping down First. Michelle had to skip to catch up. A half-a-block later, Roanne said, “C’mon, girl, I’m sorry... It’s just, somebody I don’t want to see.”
“Just, somebody, okay? It’s just—it’s nothing. Just, it’s—let’s walk, okay?”
They made it down to the corner of Pike. Roanne snuck a look back toward Pine. Apparently, whoever it was that had spooked her was out of the picture. She seemed to unwind just a little. Not a lot, though; another look back, some more searching, then, “Let’s go this way.” She steered toward the Market arcade, west off First.
Who was this guy? Michelle assumed that, whoever, it was a guy. Someone Roanne owed some money? An old trick or boyfriend? When Michelle asked again, Roanne told her, just some old goober she’d known.
Michelle didn’t buy it—whoever it was had freaked Roanne out—but, well, whoever, whatever; Michelle could accept that her friend had her reasons for busting on down the street like she did.
It was, like, here they were, polished and shiny—shoppers, you know? They were clean! And clean chicks, who want to be everything clean represents—they run from dirt. Even—especially—when dirt has exerted its own rank appeal in the past.
Michelle, a born gossip, would have loved to have known the guy’s story, his pedigree, and so forth. But, fuck it. Roanne had her secrets, and, didn’t they all?
Now, in the Market, Roanne seemed preoccupied, downcast, as if something had gotten inside her armor and sucked the gleam out of her soul. She almost seemed lost, just wandering now, the lipstick she’d come for apparently forgotten.
Michelle felt almost forgotten herself.
She wasn’t quite sure what to do. It felt a bit now like a shroud had come down on the day. She wanted to talk, but—what to say? Roanne there, looking this way and that way at nothing, tight-lipped, brows knitted, and anxious; Michelle didn’t want to get bitten.
They walked down the Market’s main aisle, past vegetable stalls, the Athenian Café, the fruit sellers, butchers, and whatnot, in silence. Going somewhere, but where?
Michelle finally said, “You want to get coffee?” Roanne told her, “Yeah.”
They went to Alex’s Café, where the ramp cuts on down to the second-tier shops. They got a booth by a window that looked over Elliot Bay.
Roanne tried to explain over coffee. Her aim was more to placate Michelle than to serve up the truth, at least the whole truth. The guy, she said, was a guy she’d spent time with, and he’d tried to rape her. It freaked her, seeing him again. She’d be okay, it was just, sudden, you know? She hadn’t expected to see him, and so on.
Filigrees: time, place, the guy’s name, etc., rounded the story and made it more solid.
Left out of the tale were Roanne’s vampish efforts to play the guy out of money and dope, the flirtatious half-promises she’d made, the fact that she’d thought she’d had him in hand, and then, bam—one scary run through an alley, past dumpsters, sprawled bodies...
What boiled in her stomach: those ho-ass flirtations—the fact that she’d set the course into that alley.
Back on the street, just a short while ago, the whole thing had smacked her again, and with it, the feeling that all the world’s judgements were true—that Roanne belonged in that alley. Her home.
Her sponsor, Joannie, once told her that all dopefiends living make homes in that alley. And every last one wants to bury the secret. The only way out, though, she’d said to Roanne, was to spill and come clean.
Roanne heard her out, but—well, she wasn’t quite ready to spill it all yet.
After a while, the bubbling inside her receded. An hour or so worth of coffee sure helped. More to the point, she’d thrown a bone to Michelle, and Michelle wolfed it down, or so it appeared, and, so...good.
Roanne’s fears, like those of all dopers, still using or clean as a whistle, centered precisely on having the cover blown off her life. That’s why the tarp over truth.
Yet, the story she’d whitewashed—she’d fleshed it with facts; it had thereby acquired a certain...legitimacy, maybe? Yes, it was solid; what she’d said happened had happened. She’d told no lies.
She ingested this rationalization, the more easily now as the tremors subsided. The booth overlooking the water, the coffee coursing inside her, the warmth of the place, Michelle’s trust and faith, the tick-tick of time; they all smoothed things further.
The story would serve as the stand-in for the bone-truths buried beneath.
By the time they left the café, Roanne was cheery, almost. As they walked down the ramp, though, sharp eyes might have noticed the steeliness now in the set of her jaw, the hard way she looked straight ahead, a certain coiled tension about her.
Roanne, you could say, had survived an assault that had threatened to spring all the demons. She’d managed to shove them back in their cells, but the effort brought with it this realization: she had to stay on alert.
For the rest, though, this was her day, goddamnit, arrayed in these beautiful clothes as she was. She was clean, and making her way toward new life.
Fuck the fuckers, the old life was dead—and she’d make it.
The lower tier of the Market was crammed to the brim with all kinds of neat little places: curio shops, vintage clothing boutiques, a dealer in coins, who was, went the story, a fence. Also, a guy who hawked Persian rugs, another with opal jewelry for sale, and, yet another, down at the end, who sold old, classic comics. Roanne and Michelle went first to one of the clothing boutiques. Thinking of fall, Roanne tried on a red woolen coat with a hood. Hell of a coat, a fly slenderella, bad to the bone, with a price tag to match. The coat had cost less in the ‘50s, when it was the latest thing out there.
They windowshopped opals, way past Roanne’s budget, and then, just sort of schmoozed, bouncing from this shop to that, giving goods there the idlers’ once-over. They talked tiny talk and checked out the squares. Not too many people around. A couple of goodlooking young guys, in baggies with tattoos for days, gave them a more-than-casual once-over.
That put some pep in both of their steps, you can bet. Roanne’s mood was just about all the way back.
Twenty-five minutes or so, and then they went out, past the comic book shop, to the open-air space by the steps that led down to the water. Musicians and jugglers were strumming and throwing their balls in the air on the broad wooden ramp. Small clusters of people around them, the bulk of them tourists, sprinkled with some of the usual flotsam: winos and tramps, a wingnut or two, some tweakers of course, and that guy nodded out by the rail. Young guys on skateboards were roaring around on the planks.
The music was ‘60s and folksy: the Byrds, Neil Young, and like that. A slender blonde woman, a punked-out earth mother if you can imagine, was picking and singing, high, strong, clear notes. Her guitar case, down on the ground at her feet, held a good chunk of change and some bills. Roanne tossed some money. Her face had softened, though it was no less intent than before. It was as if she wanted to capture the sounds of the woman swooping and soaring, and suck them right in through her eyes and the pores of her skin. She stood there, face lifted a bit, as if she was offering it up to the wind.
Her silence enveloped Michelle, took her right up, and allowed the music to capture her too. Michelle usually dug techno, whatever the clubs blasted out. Roanne loved the Stones. That slender blonde woman, believe it, had brought something new to this earth. Maybe only for moments, but, sometimes, moments are all that there are in this world.
The woman wound down to a soft, steady strumming, then fadeout. And, then, applause, long and heartfelt, and the clink-clink of change and the rustle of bills dug deep from pockets. Even a wino threw in some pennies, yelling and whistling and lurching. He wanted a share of the spotlight, of course; still, he’d somehow been touched, perhaps by the energy thrown by the crowd.
Roanne walked up to the woman and put two more bucks in her case. Michelle added change. Roanne told the woman, “That was so beautiful. Thank you so much.” Michelle, nodding, said, “Yes it was. Thank you.” The woman, smiled, eyes shining, and said, “Thank you, so much. You looked like you really enjoyed it.”
“Oh yes,” Roanne said, “I—” The wino tried to horn his way in at that point. He actually laid hands on the blonde woman’s shoulder. Roanne put this look on the guy, dry ice and danger, that told him he’d better fuck off. The guy blinked, backed away.
The woman laughed, blushed. “Occupational hazard.”
“I bet. Down here,” Roanne said.
“Yeah...” The woman looked down and her smile faded a bit.
Her change of mood disconcerted Roanne.
“I mean...” Roanne said, “it—still, though, you don’t let these fuckers get to you, you know? You’re beautiful. I mean, the way that you play. It was—I hope we get to hear you again sometime.” She laughed a little. “At the Paramount or something.”
The woman looked up, some brightness back in her eyes. She smiled, blushing. “Thank you, thank you.” She laughed a little. “Maybe you will.”
Roanne said softly, “I bet we will. See you. Take care.”
Roanne and Michelle turned to go, to the stairs that led up to the Market’s main level.
A voice shouted out: “Hey, Roanne!”
The girls looked around. Coming at them, a light-skinned black man in dreadlocks, dressed rock ‘n roll chic, but dirty as hell. He was smiling and waving. Roanne stood stock still, eyes widened. It seemed she’d forgotten how to breathe. Michelle checked them both, wondered what this was.
The man came right up and stopped in front of Roanne, with this big smile.
“Joey!” Roanne said.
“Hey,” Joey said, “long time, no see.”
Roanne’s heart was slamming. Dopeman Joey. Sexy Joey. The last guy she’d banged with. Talk about timing! God, was he cute! A rush came over her then, a confusing welter of memories and thoughts, like bullets plowing this way and that, a fusillade, baby. Her mind now, a pileup. Joey, Jesus! All that energy and bounce! She hadn’t been able to bring herself to believe it that first time they’d met, him in that funky old car on the Ave.
Who had she been with? Alicia, somebody... And, fucking Joey! That rap! Aimed right at her! Like a full-throttled powerboat ride! He’d asked her her name, and then zeroed in: Where was she from? Who did she know? Timmy? Linda? Mexican Rick? That blouse she had on; her favorite color was red? His was blue, like blue skies. What was her sign? Aries? No shit? I’m a Pisces. Like it meant something, dig it? And, just for a moment... And then they both laughed.
But the spell wasn’t broken. Turned out—he loved the Stones! He sang her the lyrics to Street Fighting Man! Right there on that street! Accent like Mick’s! He moved just like Mick—like a speed-eating spider, all angles and elbows, staccato rhythms...
Joey could belt every lyric the Stones ever cut. She learned this the very next day at his crib, over warm spoons of dope.
Even then, geezing, the guy just went on, never slumped. But, then, too, his eyes, his whole manner, playful, like a kid in a sandbox, and gentle, almost...
He was quite something new, so it seemed. Not a wolf, really, and, no coyote. Joey was foxy—a fox! Yes, indeed.
The fact he was black? So fucking what? Maybe some added appeal, n’est ce pas?
If she hadn’t OD’d the next night at that crib in White Center, off that dope that he’d sent her away with...
And now, here they were. For the moment, Michelle could have been in Topeka.
Roanne didn’t seem to know what to do.
Michelle stood there, wide-eyed, waiting to see if a fire broke out, or the ground opened up, or, whatever.
Joey said, “How’ve you been?”
“I’m—okay.” Roanne started to smile, timidly almost.
“I didn’t see you, like, after,” he said, “but, I heard, you know, like from Jillie and them, and, like... Wow.”
“Yeah,” Roanne said. “Medics on the lawn, the whole bit. It was something.”
Her nerves, tweaked by the memory, and Joey right here, made her blow out a laugh.
Joey’s eyes brightened, pinned hers. “You doing okay? You look good.”
Roanne almost beamed. “Yeah, I’m doing okay.”
“I like that outfit.” He cocked his head to the side. “Yeah, you look great.”
Roanne laughed, threw a look at Michelle. Michelle, standing there, wrapped in the movie.
“I’m going back to school,” Roanne said.
“Wow. Right on. Where, Central?”
“Cool, man. What’re you taking?”
And so on. Joey, asking questions, rapidamente. Roanne answered, one word or two, or a phrase—and searched for a way to let Joey know she was clean now, for good...in some kind of way that would keep him from riding off into the sunset forever.
Finally, “I’ve been going to meetings.”
A beat, then, “Oh wow.” Joey laughed. “Okay,” he said. Still smiling. Whatever you want, girl.
Roanne felt herself starting to blush. “Yeah, you know...”
Roanne sucked a breath, steeled herself. She’d just have to tell him. And tell him she did. She was clean and going to meetings. She was going to stay clean. She—had to stay clean. School in the fall, design class, you know? The chance to do something, be something. Somebody, you know, who could make her own way. And, it was good, this, being clean, and... She couldn’t get loaded, didn’t want to get loaded. No more.
Joey shrugged and grinned an okay. He could dig it. You know, whatever.
Roanne searched his eyes. He seemed, well, okay...She felt this relief.
They talked, disengaging, a few minutes more. Then Joey got ready to hop on his horse. He gave her a look and said, “See you, be cool,” and bounced toward the steps heading down to the water.
Roanne and Michelle watched him go.
A moment or two, and Michelle said, “Goddamn.” Roanne let out a breath and said, “Yeah.” She seemed almost sheepish.
Michelle searched for words. “He’s—God, Roanne. He’s so dirty!”
Roanne laughed, sort of, and just shook her head. “Yeah. Yeah, he is.”
Michelle had ten million questions, of course, and, well, comments, but—how best to start? She searched Roanne for some clues. Permission, really.
None came. Roanne seemed off on some other planet.
She had a boatload of questions herself, rushing, half-formed ones, speeding past possible answers—all having to do with Joey, of course, and new tremors, just now subsiding.
Two drumming thoughts: I’m clean...and, Wow, Joey!
Joey. Recovery. Between them a chasm, strung with a taut, slippery rope.
With no net below.
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)
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