Charlie met her that morning when he was trying to score from a house across the boulevard. It was, to put it precisely, a whore house, a crack whore haven with a roulette wheel of rocks coming through the door 24/7. Charlie usually avoided this place, but he was desperate, yet again. She was sitting there, wrapped in a plaid shirt, and several other shirts under the plaid, the collars sticking out. It would have been cute in a girl kind of way but the collars drew him to her eyes and there lay the coldest death he could imagine. There was no sex here, she said, but if he drove her to meet her “early guy” she would cop for him and fuck him when they got back. Too good a deal to pass up, Charlie said, and off they went.
The dope got bought quickly, smoked and shot, and the day ran on. She went into the bathroom, locked the door and came out a while later, and after reaching out to caress him, nodded out. After the third time she did the bathroom routine he told her she had to leave the fuckin’ door open.
“You like to watch?”
“Dude, if you die I ain’t got it to go breaking down the fuckin’ door. Again. So, get fucked up but at least this way I’ll maybe keep you from dying behind a locked door.”
She looked at him a long time and said nothing. “I take it that means yes,” he said to her slight head shake.
“Yeah, I guess.”
And so it went for days. They scored early, noon and night, chased the highs, swung from each hit like Tarzan and Jane in a jungle of their own making, got “lost.” No sex, nothing like human intimacy except for the unstated reliance they had on each other to stay alive another day.
On the third or fourth day as they came back from across town, Charlie stopped for gas. She took a five from the drink holder between the seats and went into the convenience store. Charlie wasn’t paying any attention. He got back in the car and waited for her. She came out with a brown paper sack in her hands, clutching it with more interest than Charlie had seen her show in anything that wasn’t china white. She got in the car, put on her seat belt and opened the bag, taking out a big package of strawberry licorice. She looked twelve years old with the licorice in her hands, the offer clean and simple. For the taste, Charlie. You know the taste.
He knew the taste. The rancid, dried-out, endless smoke chemical acid taste of crack cocaine and cigarettes, of no protein, hell, no food and nothing but acid and smoke. For the taste. The junkie diet. Dope and candy, “for the taste.” But there was something else behind it, a recognition of something shared, beyond the desperate need to hide out, maybe.
Charlie looked at her and said, “Where’s your Mom?”
She looked at him a long time after that and said nothing.
Back home he asked her again. She told him they didn’t speak. He said something lame like they should. She said nothing. After a while she said that she had been thinking of her Mom, that she wanted to call her but what could she say? That she was afraid of dying every hit, every morning?
She told him that no one had ever made her keep the door open. She told him that maybe she should speak to her Mom. She said maybe.
The next morning on the ride back from the pick-up he called 411, asked for a number in a city over the mountains to the east. Michelle watched as if it were happening to someone else. The operator connected the number.
“You don’t know me but I know your daughter. Don’t hang up.” “Here,” he said, and he handed the phone to Michelle.
They talked, Michelle and Shannon. Michelle handed him the phone, Shannon said she would call back in an hour. She did, with airline reservations and a plea that Charlie get her Michelle to the plane.
A day and night of cocaine and smack went by but Charlie stayed clear enough to get Michelle to the airport. She stayed high enough to not think about what she was about to do. He left her at the gate. She looked at him, put her arms around him for the first and only time in their days together and said quietly, clearly into his ear, “Charlie, you old hippies got it wrong. It’s make peace, not war.” With that she turned and went down the hall to her plane, a small pack on her back and a bunch of strawberry licorice in her hand.
Charlie sat there remembering. His eyes drifted over to the far window where an old man sat, blue peaked bill cap on his head and a patient, waiting look on a gentle face. After a while Charlie noticed that the cap said World War Two on it. He also noticed a huge spider spinning his way toward the old warrior. Charlie went over to make sure that the spider was outside the window, or at the least, to warn the intended victim. The old guy looked up, smiled carefully. Charlie pointed to the window and they both laughed a little. The spider was outside.
“Where did you serve?”
“You must be 82, 83.”
“86.” With pride.
“You look good.”
“I’m makin’ it.”
Charlie told him he’d had an uncle who’d served on Guadalcanal.
The old man looked on with some more interest.
“I always asked him about what it was like.”
Eyebrows lifted, the old guy said, “And?”
“He never said a word. Not once”
“No” he said, “there’s nothing to say.“
“That’s what he said.”
“Yeah, most of us, we never do. Never will. You serve?” he asked.
“Nope, I got a different war on my mind.”
The old man took a long look at Charlie.
“I reckon you do, young man. I reckon you do.”
Charlie nodded, turned away. He walked back to the other side of the waiting room and sat back down facing the desk, away from the old warrior and his knowing way.
Charlie noticed on the desk calendar that it was November 11. Veterans Day. Armistice Day to guys like that.
The old guy was right. If you hadn’t been there, there was nothing to say. Charlie thought some more about Michelle, thought he and Frenchy needed to get this thing worked out. That he would get back to it, back to looking for lost things, to putting things back together, to his sometime prayer that the healing of time and being wrapped in a sweet, sad memory of a small act of kindness would take him to a better place on this rain-swept grey day in a land of ancient trees and hardscrabble lives.
Photo by Michael Lebowitz. All rights reserved.