Thomas the Addict
Snowflakes swirled in chaotic windy circles through the yellow sodium arc light of the street lamps. Each crystal grew differently according to its own unique path on the wind. Many landed in the streets to be trod upon and filled with car exhaust in their short spans of individuality. Others came to rest high upon rooftops, perhaps to be lifted again by the wind to some other less lofty destination. Yet when the blizzard has passed at daybreak, each snowflake will have found its place of rest among its siblings, perhaps on a gargoyle's wing, or a fence post in the park. For some of the crystals their time will be terribly dark and short as in those that pass into the inescapable oblivion of a sewer grate, and just a few will follow closely this same course only to escape it by the thinnest of margins, eventually coming to rest somewhere better altogether. But these are just mindless flakes of ice adrift on forces beyond their control; surely a last second change in that fatal gust is to blame for their salvation. Or maybe their own unique pattern gave them that certain necessary spin to take them out of harm's way where another of a different shape would have fallen into shadow. If a snowflake can change its destiny, how so much better a chance have we.
Winter in all its stifling glory had settled upon the city, and none were hit harder by its cruelty than the street dwellers. The city was a hostile enough bed the rest of the year, ripe with all manner of misdeeds and debauchery: all the things the locks on people’s doors are designed to keep out. But in winter the streets themselves, not those who walked them, held the greatest threat. Often those who were too tired or drunk to find a warm place to sleep never woke up. The cold existed in the minds of the homeless as a very real threat, and every year it claimed many victims (and many fingers and toes) who no longer had the capacity to find shelter, or who simply did not care enough about themselves to bother. How many were caught unaware by the cold, and how many made a conscious decision to lie down on the soft snowy ground and let their struggles melt away, welcoming that sleep they knew would be their last? None can say. Their cracked blue lips will never speak that secret. This is the story of a man who had just enough will left to get out of the cold.
Tom crouched in a snow-covered alley and peered into the gloom of a sunken basement window. He backed away from the wall and stared up at the towering brown brick side of the building. The wind stung his bare face and gloved hands. His teeth chattered and his body shivered. In the last ten minutes, the temperature had dropped severely. Tom sensed that if he did not find shelter soon, he would surely freeze to death. His gaze rose to the top of the building. Low gray clouds slid past its stone outline, giving the entire wall the illusion of movement. For a moment, he stood lost in indecision and in the beauty of the passing clouds as they reflected the glow of the city.
A great weariness which he could no longer contain seemed to flow out onto the air as he exhaled. He wondered if he should try to make it to a familiar abandoned building where he knew he could find a quiet corner to smoke his pipe. Plus he needed more fire; he only had a few matches left. That meant going out of his way to an all-night convenience store. A tiny voice of logic, a voice as that of an advisor kept in leg irons, meekly suggested the insanity of going out of his way for a book of matches in this blizzard. He guessed that was right, though he dearly needed those matches. He was not going to make it in this weather. Maybe he should just lie down here in the fresh snow and let the numbness take hold completely. Flail his arms and legs and make one last snow angel. Tome had already seen a Bum-sickle curled up on a park bench this winter. He thought about the frozen drool and snot that had formed little icicles hanging from the old man’s down-turned mouth and nose. One arm lay sprawled over the side of the bench, hand still clutching the neck of a green wine bottle. He thought about how all the old newspapers the bum had stuffed beneath his clothes had done no good; and he imagined one of those papers probably contained an obituary of someone who died in the same way. Shreds of paper stuck out from the dead man’s coat, collar, cuffs, and hat, making him look a little like a frosted scarecrow who never woke up from the field of poppies. The sight had filled Thomas with loathing, but right now in his exhausted and food-deprived state, such a fate did not seem so disagreeable. Maybe it was for the best. How much longer before he lacked the brains to get out of the cold like that old bum? Why not speed up his fate? At least then it would be a choice.
A long heavy gust swept through the alley. It knocked Thomas off balance and burned into his flesh, yet he continued to stare up at the night sky. In his mind, the voice of self-preservation screamed at him to get out of the cold before he froze to death. Ignoring the voice, he pressed his hand to his cheek and realized that he could feel neither. The voice changed tactics suggesting that there was no reason for him to give up just yet. He still had two nice sized rocks left to smoke. This idea broke him from his bleak thoughts, and he turned his attention back to the task of survival.
The metal grate covering the basement window was badly rusted at the hinges. Thomas removed his backpack and dug around in it until his numbed hand found the battered plastic handle of a massive flat head screw driver. Long ago he had dubbed the tool, “Richard the Pryer” since he used it almost exclusively to pry into others’ riches. He pulled “Rich” out and threw his backpack down next to the window. With the efficiency of a practiced thief, he wedged the sharpened tip of the screwdriver in between the wall and the edge of the metal grate, took a step back and kicked the screwdriver’s handle towards the wall. The rusty hinge snapped and the corner of the grate bent outward. He did the same to the remaining hinge, and then pried the grate out far enough to allow access to the window. In three quick blows, he shattered the glass with the handle of the screwdriver and knocked the remaining shards into the basement. Sticking his head through the window, he immediately felt relieved. The air inside smelled stale and musty. It seemed the basement was deserted. He dropped his pack down onto the unseen basement floor, and then hoisted himself inside.
Dim light from the broken window revealed the shadowy outline of boxes stacked chest high along the wall. To his immediate right he could just make out the corner of the room, and to his left the wall and stacked boxes disappeared into the gloom. Farther down the wall he could see a faint glow cast by another window. The rest of the room lay in darkness, making it impossible for him to judge its size. Icy air whistled through the open window, making indistinct rustling noises about the room. Thomas felt is way along the row of boxes until he came to an open one. Reaching inside, his fingers brushed against the glossy surface of heaped photographs. He spilled the contents of the box onto the floor, crushed its sides in, and then jammed the box into the windowsill to block out the harsh wind. In the now almost total darkness he groped for his backpack and then sat down cross-legged in the corner.
A delirious and dizzying excitement built in Tom’s chest but he did not give into this feeling. He worked ritualistically. First removing his sodden gloves and casting them against the wall, he then flexed his nearly frostbitten fingers for several minutes trying to regain their dexterity. Not hurrying, not taking his time, but using just the right pace so that everything went the way he so urgently needed it to go. Trembling with anticipation, he removed a small candle in a glass container from his pack and placed it on the cement floor in front of him. From the pocket of his jeans he produced a mangled book of matches. It felt slightly moist in his cold fingers. He tore one of the three remaining matches from the book. Thomas hesitated, his excitement turning to dread as he considered that the matches might be too damp to light. To his great relief, the match ignited on the first strike. He lit the candle and watched its flame grow. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he pulled out a narrow glass cylinder half the length of a pencil and a little pouch of aluminum foil. He placed the cylinder on the ground and unfolded the foil, revealing two irregular pale yellow lumps, each about the size of a jellybean. Not much, he thought, got to make this last until morning. Thomas smiled bitterly at the insanity of this notion. When had it ever lasted until morning? With his fingernail he broke off a tiny piece from one of the lumps and pressed it into the soot-blackened end of the cylinder. He closed the foil up and stuffed it deep into the front pocket of his jeans. The anticipation was almost debilitating now, the way someone might feel as the gun was passed to them during a round of Russian Roulette. Picking the candle up, he brought its flame to the end of the pipe and the pipe to his lips. Thomas inhaled deeply the last hit of crack he would ever smoke.
Suddenly all his present pain and fear, indeed all the pain and fear he had ever known became supremely unimportant. In an instant he found himself transported to a state of mind that was unspeakably passionate yet completely detached. It was as if all the different hues of his emotions swirled violently together to create a single, indefinable and exquisite color that painted life the way it truly was. The feeling was overwhelmingly ecstatic, fulfilling, and sublime. All existence became a joke to which he was the outrageously funny punchline.
As good as the drug made him feel, it was sheer poison to every system in his body. Brain cells died in the thousands as Thomas exhaled a bilious white cloud of smoke. Like a piece of hard candy struck by a single drop of water, his brain dissolved by an immeasurable but unrecoverable fraction. All over his body, blood vessels constricted, raising his blood pressure to dangerous levels. His lungs became a little less able to supply oxygen; his heart became a little worse at pumping blood. With each puff he died a little.
I n a few minutes, the initial rush of the drug began to fade. A familiar unease stirred in him, a gnawing, nagging urge to take another hit. He would hold out against that urge for as long as possible, knowing that the more quickly he smoked the more difficult it would be to control his pace. Thomas returned the pipe to his pocket. He tried to lean back against the boxes behind him but found the position uncomfortable. The candle flame danced and waved in front of him, creating unwholesome shadows on the walls. He rubbed at his severely chapped hands, causing two of his knuckles to split and bleed. Kissing the blood away, he savored the metallic taste. Time began to slow down. Each minute stretched out interminably long. All he could think about was taking that next hit, and the uneasy whisper pressuring him to do so slowly grew in volume. No matter how hard he tried to force his thoughts away from the pipe, the vicious gravity of his addiction returned his consciousness to it as quickly and inescapably as a ball thrown up in the air returns to the earth. Rocking back and forth, he fingered the pipe through the material of his jacket and licked his lips. Maybe it was time? No, not even close. Although it felt like hours had passed since he took the first puff, some part of him knew that it had really been less than five minutes ago. How long was he going to be stuck in this basement? If only he had some cigarettes or a bottle to keep him occupied. Thomas stood up, stretched his legs and scanned the darkness. Perhaps there was something of value down here. He decided to search the basement to pass the time.
The yellow flame struggled in its pool of wax as he picked up the candle and held it in front of him. Its sphere of light revealed little but the vapor of his breath on the cold air. Walking out form the corner of the room, he came to a long rectangular worktable strewn with various woodworking tools and what looked like several unfinished birdhouses. He circled the table. Nothing on it seemed worth keeping except an ancient-looking Swiss Army knife, which he grabbed and shoved into the pocket of his jeans. His fingertips caressed the scarred wooden surface of the table, and traced along the figure of a cross, an eye and several names he saw carved there. After a moment, he set the candle down and reached back into his pocket, intending to use the knife to carve a mark of his own into the tabletop. As the knife came out, it forced the little pouch of foil in his pocket out with it. The pouch fell to the floor, and even in the utter silence of the, basement made not a sound as it landed softly in a small patch of saw dust. Unaware that he was now separated from his precious drugs, Thomas tried to open the Swiss Army knife but found it would not budge. Either it had rusted closed, or his nearly frostbitten fingers were not nimble enough to force the blade open. He put the knife in his pocket and decided to try again later.
His investigation of the basement yielded little of value, certainly nothing worth stealing. He came across dusty filing cabinets filled with long forgotten files, a mass of soldiers, a hoard of paperback books and magazines piled high on two round tables, cleaning supplies, paint cans and other various odds and ends. All these things were all revealed to him slowly as he moved about in the darkness. At the far end of the basement, he came to a locked metal door and hunted for a light switch on either side of it, but found none. He tried looking through the small square window set in the door, but saw only blackness.
I n one corner he came across a long wooden bin the size of a large sofa filled with grimy worn out playthings, almost exclusively plastic dolls and doll parts. Tom could not believe the great number of pieces collected there. He wondered if a toy collector lived upstairs. “It’s the Island of Misfit Toys,” he whispered to himself as he looked the contents of the bin over. “Where do I sign up?” He snickered and picked up a doll’s head from the bin. Holding its matted black hair over the candle flame, he let it catch and burn, and drip flaming blobs of molten plastic onto the floor. A runnel of black plastic oozed down the doll’s peach forehead into its eye, and from there streamed down the plump curve of its cheek. Tom’s mouth opened in disbelief; he felt sure the doll cried. The head began to distort at the top where it now wore a fiery crown. He turned the whole thing upside down so the flames licked up and spread. Then at the last second he dropped the flaming head to the cement floor where it landed face up, buckling and twisting in a slow burn; one corner of its small red mouth melting out to a smirk, one clear blue eye staring at him from the flames even as the face caved in and became an unrecognizable lump. His sinuses filled with the awful odor of burning plastic and suddenly he became fearful the basement had a smoke detector. He glanced about nervously in the relative brightness of the foot tall flame before him.
A curious bit of pale metal glinted down in between the toy bin and the wall. Some object lay there that he had not noticed in the candle’s poor light. He stamped the fire out and whipped the debris from his shoe. Reaching behind the bin, his hand closed around a smooth shaft of wood, curved on one side and flat on the other. He knew what the object was as soon as it met with his hand. A smile spread over his wind burned face as he pulled the guitar out from its resting place. At last, here was something he might be able to sell. He leaned the guitar against the toy bin and brought his candle in close. It was a battered old acoustic model covered in years’ worth of dust. Scratches and dings marred its lacquered surface, and in places on the body, large patches of its finish had been chipped away, exposing the wood underneath. The pick guard was missing, showing a smear of dried glue that had once held it in place, and the sound hole was notched in two places. Turning the guitar over, he found the worst of the damage. A ragged half-foot long gash in the middle of its back connected at either end with a thin crack that extended along the entire length of its body. At many points along its neck, the frets were worn flat where the strings had pressed against them countless times. The barrels of the tuning pegs still had the ends of rusty strings wound around them, but none of the strings were intact; two of them were tangled around the top of the neck and the rest were absent. One of them looked pretty long and he wondered if it would be worth untangling to see if it was long enough to use again. Even if it was, though, the idea of making this broken guitar sound with a lone rusty string, here alone in this nameless musty basement seemed to him hopelessly barren.
Despite its terrible condition, the guitar seemed finely crafted. Each tuning knob resembled a little ornate crab inlaid with mother of pearl, and a metal band bordering the guitar’s head was etched with a delicate looping filigree pattern. The inside of the guitar had a faint but wonderfully earthy and comforting cedar smell to it, and he found himself sniffing many times at the sound hole to relieve the odor of burned plastic that now pervaded the basement. He wondered how much the instrument might be worth new. He knew a fine guitar from a cheap one, and this one probably sounded pretty good. That is, it would sound good if it had any strings. Long ago, he had aspired to play the guitar, but had never gotten very far with it. As he recalled, his guitar was one of the first things he had pawned as his crack habit had just been taking off. The memory stung him like dry ice. Just like everything else, he had tried his hand at over the years, he had come on strong in the beginning and although he showed some talent, he always found some reason to put it down again. He had narrowed this pattern down to three possibilities, either he was afraid of success, afraid of failure or was just a loser. The one thing he truly excelled at was finding and taking drugs. Years ago he had jokingly referred to this concept as his PHD in THC. Tom longed for the carefree days when all he needed to feel alright was a little marijuana. But eventually that just no longer made the grade and he had graduated to crack cocaine.
That had been years ago when he still had a job, an apartment, friends, a life; ages ago before he had become a worthless irredeemable wreck; a snake, a sniveling stab you in the back piece of shit undeserving of the life within him; a horrible hate-filled monster who could do the world a great service simply by slitting his own writs; a physically sick and mentally failing pile of …oh God, after what he had done, o God how he hated…how he hated himself, hated, hated, hated…Thomas clenched his teeth and shuddered as he tried to shake himself from the poisonous spiral of his thoughts. His hand squeezed the candle tightly, and then relaxed. The bad feelings and memories had passed. Nothing mattered as long as he still had some crack left to smoke. And it was almost time to smoke again, hooray! He took one last look at the guitar before deciding to move on, feeling a kinship towards it that he could not express even to himself. He decided it was not worth stealing after all. Then for the hell of it, Tom pulled out all the tuning pegs. Underneath one of them he found a tiny cylinder of foil. He removed and unwrapped it and then unrolled a small strip of paper perforated into three squares, each having a Yin Yang printed on its surface. It could only be one thing. He hesitated for a moment, knowing he was in no shape for an acid trip. Then Thomas the Addict took the squares and placed them under his tongue. Ah the satisfaction of finding a forgotten stash. He placed the guitar down and moved on.
Eventually he made his way back around to where he had dumped out the box photographs earlier. It had taken him a little over a quarter of an hours to explore the basement, and although he felt he had waited long enough, he decided to hold out just a little bit longer before indulging again. He sat down and held the candle close over the pile of photographs, spreading them out and turning some of them right side up. They were mostly black and white portraits of various sizes. The mass of pale, probably long dead faces stared up at him in an eerie candlelit collage; a mixture of men, women, and children wearing stuffy, out of date church clothes. None of the faces seemed to be smiling. They all had a determined yet vacant look All those beady black eyes; they appeared to accuse him of something. Thomas’s mind went unwillingly back to the last face he had seen that evening…
* * *
Almost all humans strive to keep their actions in accord with their own individual moral codes. Even those who commit acts that most of society considers greatly moral are usually still working within their own definition of right and wrong. Thus a man might feel intensely guilty over forgetting his sister’s birthday, but have no qualms whatsoever about beating a stranger to death who made a passing remark about the disrepair of his shoes. Over time this unqi9que structure of our morality can changed for good or ill, but normally its general shape remains. A conscience is like a house; it can be maintained and continually renovated, or it can be neglected, left to the elements and slow decay. Either way the essence of the house persists, it stays true to the style of its architecture and within the boundaries of its foundation. Occasionally, the groundwork of an individual’s conscience can be fundamentally altered and give rise to a completely new design. This requires the old dwelling to be torn down and swept away in order to make room for the new one. It is in this way that hitting bottom can sometimes offer the opportunity for true change. Such was the case with the murderer who asked Jesus for forgiveness upon Mount Calvary. So also was the case with Thomas the Addict.
The worst part of addiction, the most wearying part, the part that if left unchecked eventually erodes a human being into little more (or less) than an animal, is this: the constant daily battle one has to wage against one’s own conscience in order to continue using drugs. Addicts are always drawing lines in the dirt, saying this far and no farther. They say I will do this to get my drugs, but never that. All the while they chip away at their morality with rationalization and self-loathing, using the drug’s effects to shield themselves from the guilt felt over those actions they can find no way to justify. As the addict’s mind suffers more and more damage from drug use, his perception departs further and further from reality. Soon his justifications become absurd. Quickly the addict reaches the line he swore he would never cross, and traverses it without even realizing he has done so. No matter, he can always draw another line, which in time he also crosses and so forth. Unless disrupted by incarceration, incapacitation or death, this pattern may continue until his conscience and personality are virtually destroyed and he is capable of doing anything, no matter how despicable, to continue getting high. In short, addiction is the devil’s wild card.
Thomas thought of himself as a gentle thief. Violence was just not in his nature. Hours before breaking into the basement window he had woken up in his little out-of-the-way room on the third story of a condemned warehouse building. A plastic liter bottle of vodka lay empty next to him, along with his pipe and many empty books of matches. All eh remembered of the day before, was snatching a woman’s purse from her grocery cart in ta super market and finding two hundred dollar bills in it. This was a royal score and he had stopped at the liquor store on the way to see his dealer. The resto of his memory of the day was not even a blur, the rest was just missing. He lay curled up and dry heaving for a time on the foul cement floor, until the intense craving for crack overrode his hangover and he made his way outside.
After a moment of confusion he realized he had slept the entire day, and most of the night. The streets were empty and overhead he could see the moon just peeking through the clouds. The inevitable question rose like an air raid siren in his badly throbbing head. How was he going to score tonight? He checked his pockets and found thirty-five cents and the corner of a sandwich baggie, which he immediately placed in his mouth hoping to absorb crack residue. Oh God, he needed a hit so badly. He cursed himself for drinking so much. All his sure methods of collecting money were ineffective this late at night, and he certainly could do no burgling. , that took careful planning and a clear head to carry out. If he tried breaking and entering in his condition, he would surely end up in jail. This terrified him, not the place itself but the fact that the place would keep him from his beloved drug. His mind welled up with other ways of getting money; heinous acts he did not even want to consider much less carry out. His thoughts honed in on the tire iron back up in his room.
The only sure way to get some money this late at night was to find a weapon and hid outside of a bar. When somebody passed by, he could down and take their belongings. He knew plenty of fellow crackheads that used this method on a daily basis. Not once, though, had he ever committed such a cold-blooded act. The craving was getting worse by the minute, and physical withdrawal began to set in. He felt as if his skin squirmed over the surface of his body and his heart boomed in his chest. The anxiety was stupefying. He had to do something. With a horrible smile of resignation set upon his face, he ran back up to this room, donned his backpack, and picked up the heavy black tire iron.
The area around his abandoned building was not somewhere he could find a worthwhile target. He walked for half an hour until he came to fairly wealthy residential area of the city that lay just on the outskirts of a club district. Hiding behind a trash bin that gave him a good line of sight into the street, he waited. He began to doubt whether anyone would walk by. As he sat in the dirty snow among the rubbish behind the dumpster with the crowbar across his lap he tried to imagine what to expect. He wished he had a gun, or even a large knife, that way he could just demand the money. With a blunt weapon he felt pretty sure he would have to strike first or else they would just run, or even worse, attack him. He was in no shape to fight, moreover he was a coward. He knew that if it came down to a fight he would be the one to run. All his life he thought of himself as a peaceful person, but maybe he was just too cowardly to hurt anyone. What if only large groups of people walked by? It seemed pretty unlikely that someone would be alone on a city street this late at night. Best not to think about any of the details, he decided. Best to just wait and be ready to act when the time came. He could not help feeling like a monster, lurking there in the shadows with the hood of his gray sweatshirt feeling like a monster, lurking there in the shadows with the hood of his gray sweatshirt tight over his head. He was a thrall desperately seeking an offering to bring his powerful master.
After about twenty minutes, he heard the footfalls and boisterous voices of a group of young people approaching. As they passed his position, he saw they were college students, three men and two women. Their drunken carefree laughter filled him with hate and envy for a life he knew he would never experience. The voices faded into the distance and he was alone again. A few minutes later a man and woman passed. The woman was noticeably drunk and the man had his arm under her shoulders, helping her along the sidewalk. The man’s head darted from side to side as he assisted his friend; it was obvious that he was afraid to be on the street so late at night. Thomas stood up quietly. He saw the thick bulge of a wallet in the man’s back pocket and the silver flash of his wristwatch. Money! His mind screamed. Don’t think about it, just do it! His hands tensed around the tire iron as he glowered at the couple, trying desperately to feel anger and hatred for these strangers. They were almost out of view; now was the perfect time. “You can’t stay out in this cold all night, it has to be now, this is your best chance, do it now! Do it now!” goaded the relentless voice in his head. He readied himself to run out to them, to bring the weapon down hard, to strike…But he could not. Whether fear or some vestige of honor stopped him, he simply found himself incapable of mangling a total stranger’s face. Now it was too late. As quickly as it came, the moment passed.
The tire iron fell from his hand and the muted clang that it made against the frozen asphalt seemed to echo into his very being. Leaning forward against the wall, he wept with his face in his hands. Snot dribbled over the palms of his gloves as he wailed silently, giving himself over to the flow of hopelessness, and for a few minutes he found escape in total despair as complete as any drug could give him. After a while, his sobbing abated. He wondered what he was going to do now. He was hungry and tired but could do nothing about either of those things right now. At least he had a box of saltines back up in his room, that was something at least. The idea that his only prospect in the world right now was a stale box of crackers made him feel even worse. Suddenly he felt extremely dizzy and he sank to the ground. He could not face the walk back. He closed his eyes and gave in to his exhaustion. Maybe sleep was the best thing right now. When he woke he would have a clearer head and he could think things out. Yes, just a little bit of sleep and then he would make his way back. But it was so cold; some part of him knew it was far too cold to sleep outside. Still, just for a little while would be safe, and he felt so comfortable here on the ground. When he woke he would have a clearer head and he could think things through. Yes, just a little bit of sleep and then he would make his way back. But it was so cold; some small part of him whined that it was far too cold to sleep outside. He soothed the notion away with the memory of a Pink Floyd song, “Day after day, love turns gray, like the skin on a dying man…” a song that often came to him during the worst of his withdrawal. As his perception began to unravel he recalled one of the neighborhood drunks once telling him that if it was too cold to pass out in the alley, he should climb into a dumpster and pull the trash bags all down on top of him to stay alive. “Remember that, you crackhead, it saved me for sure more than once” old Winston had said through not so many teeth. “Course, with some of the lows we get ‘round here, you want to pick one that’s got a good amount of trash in it, least more than half full. If you climb in and don’t cover up good, you’ll freeze just as solid.” Winston had paused to take a few swigs from a green wine bottle that se3emed perpetually with him, then he smiled knowingly; it was the ragged toothless drunken smile of an old indigent alcoholic, yet it still had the power to make Tom smile back. “It’s not the bags or the trash that keep you warm, you know. It’s the air trapped all inside like in a sleeping bag. You heat the air and then it heats you. It’s like God’s saving Grace, I think. Seems not to be there, people throw it out with the trash every day, but when you need that air in those bags or else you’ll freeze, it’s there for you, by God and it’ll save your life. It’s like...It’s like...like...er...what about that dollar or two you said you could maybe help me with today? Please?”
“Speaking of hot air,” Thomas had said as he handed Winston two folded shabby bills, “that science lesson you just gave is at least worth that.” Then the old bum chuckled both because he had secured his drinking money for the night, and in appreciation of an inside joke. Thomas was one of the few people whom Winston had told about his teaching career, which had been squelched by his alcoholism long decades ago.
As he drifted off, he imagined getting up from the ground and climbing into the rusting metallic box next to him, if not for himself, than at least in memory of Winston. But he had already seen earlier that it was more than half-empty and that excuse was just enough to keep him from seeking shelter. In one of those rare moments of insight; only to be forgotten later; that come to the Almost Asleep, he realized that all of his problems stemmed from his great ability to make excuses. HE had spent his life honing that more than any other skill and he sensed that somehow it would be his downfall. That’s your problem, he thought sleepily, you always think the dumpster’s half-empty. Just before sleep claimed him fully, Tom heard a faint familiar voice coming from the street.
“A What? Freddy, look, I’m not saying it’s your fault but you know I don’t care either way, now what are you handing me this bullshit for?”
Opening his eyes at the sound, he turned his head and saw a tall man in a black trench coat and black beret there on the sidewalk. He was talking into a cell phone and, judging by his agitated tone of voice, he had stopped walking when the person on the other end had given him some bad news.
Crystals of frozen saliva flecked from Tom’s lips and they cracked and bled as his mouth opened wide in disbelief. He could not see the man’s face, but he recognized the voice and clothes instantly. How could he forget that cool joking voice? He had heard it countless times over phone and in person; had pleaded with that voice to cut him a break; had promised the voice that he would pay what he owed if he could please just have a few more days. How could he forget the voice of the man that held the keys to paradise in his pocket? The man standing in the street before him was none other than Saint Pete, his longtime crack dealer. Tom no longer felt sleepy. As quietly as possible, he sat upright. Here in front of h him stood the man to whom he had sold his soul a little at a time. Tom had not bought from Pete in over a year. He would no longer supply to Thomas because Pete only sold large quantities, usually to street dealers, and when Thomas could no longer afford these quantities, he had been cut off. Thomas’s mind churned.
Oh here was a wretched soul if ever there e was one. Here was a man who took perverse pleasure in the corrupt power of addiction. This man who did not care how you got the money you owed him, whether you sold a stolen baby on the black market or murdered your grandmother, it was all the same to him as long as you could pay. And that smile he gave you as he showed you his merchandise, that horrible relaxed smile, one silver front tooth glistening with saliva, a smile that belied his courteous businesslike manner, a mocking sneer that spoke of how he was above the poison that he dealt, of how you were nothing more to him than an acre of land he routinely harvested; in you he grew the need for the drug, and reaped the cash crop you produced until the soil had been fully raped and it was time to move on. Yet always he showed you that sickening false concern, asking you how your day was as he leisurely removed the drugs from his jacket pocket, as if he handed you a business card, as if he did not sense your desperation and longing for the drug. Countless times as Thomas lay penniless, strung out, and wracked with craving after a long binge, he had dreamed of killing this man; imagined smashing his yellow toothy grin into the back of his rotten head. Bashing in that smug grin with a nice hefty…
“I don’t care 'bout that…hey look, I’ll be up there in about twenty and if you’re not there when I get there God Help you…don’t worry, we’ll work it out…Is she there? Oh man oh man…No I can’t right now.””
Gripping the top of the dumpster with one hand, he pulled himself up and stared at the man talking on the cell phone. The tire iron shook fiercely in his hand as he gingerly stepped out into the middle of the alley to clear the path between them. The tall man stood facing the street, his head tilted upwards as he listened into his phone. The promise of what Pete’s pockets might yield, and the promise of revenge; Thomas weighed these things against the threat of the gun he knew this man to carry. IN the less than twenty seconds the man in the black trench coat stood at the curb, Tom considered his options and found his decision an easy one. In the haze of his lust, the scenario before him took on the proportions of a divine mandate, as if fate had sentenced him to the wretchedness of addiction all in order to bring him to this one moment; and had given him no clearer picture in his life of what action the universe required of him. After all, he did not remember Saint Pete ever dealing anywhere near this part of town, and yet there the man was right in front of him. The dreadful recognition of this man’s voice and clothes had stirred him from his death sleep, now in turn he would silence this man forever and the world would be a better place for it. IN the last three seconds of Pete’s conversation, Tom rushed out from the alley bringing the tire iron up to its zenith during the first half of the distance between them, and then down in a perfect quarter arc in the second half. With terrible efficiency it connected with the man’s skull.
The man on the phone heard the crunching of Tom’s boots and turned to defend himself, but only succeeded in being hit in front of the head instead of the back. Blood sprayed in a misty arc where the weapon connected with a thud. The man fell, pleading, sprayed in a misty arc where the weapon connected with a thud. The man fell, pleading, “No, man” but the blood lust was on Tom, and he raised the tire iron as he thought of Pete, this wretched scum. He wanted to know the feel of crushing the man’s skull. And if old Tom had something to gain from the situation, hey, that’s life baby.
In a strange voice the man uttered “Wallet” and Tom sensed something was wrong so he took a good strict look at his victim’s face. At first he saw Saint Pete complete with silver tooth glaring back at him, and then suddenly it was gone and he realized that it was not Pete at all, there was no silver tooth in this man’s terrified grimace; the nose was all wrong, the eyes too, this man was someone else. God no he had brained this total stranger! Tom dropped the tire iron. Then immediately for the sake of survival and sanity his mind diverged into two states; one of which proceeded to rummage for the man’s wallet, and the other which began internally berating, screaming at himself for doing something he thought he would never do. But he had been so certain earlier, he had heard Pete’s voice. Tom found no drugs, no gun. On top of everything else, he could no longer even trust his own sense. In the distance, a voice screamed and he fled the crime. He had maybe killed that man, but Tom kept his head about him as he ran, rummaged through the man’s wallet, found three twenties, pocketed the money, dropped the wallet and ran and ran. After three blocks he found one last diligent dealer still out selling and bought his thirty pieces of silver’s worth.
* * *
The photographs in the basement brought him through his memory and guilt until he sat blubbering softly in the darkness. He pulled himself together with the knowledge that he could make it all go away in an instant. The past was the past, and the future held more crack and now it was time. Creeping back over to the corner, he reached into his right pants pocket, searching for his parcel of drugs. When he did not find it there, he did not panic, he merely began to check all his pockets. When he did not find it in them either, panic crept in as he checked all his pockets again and his socks. A siren, a terrible alarm, repeated itself over and over screaming in his head, “YOU IDIOT, YOU LOST THE DOPE! No it could not be, he could not have committed this king of all party fouls! He must have dropped it as he walked around the basement; where did he stop? At the work table…the stupid knife. Tom raced through the darkness in the direction of the table, stumbling once, then getting down on hands and knees he searched the floor until his roving hand came upon a small metal package he recognized instantly. So great was his relief and elation that he sprang up in joy, and misjudging his distance from the table, struck himself hard on the back of the head against the heavy floor-mounted workbench. The tiny package of foil that he had given so much for went flying away once more and Tom, dazed, fell forward on to the floor, as his head filled with the bright lights of a concussion.
* * *
He woke up lying face down on a wide tree branch and instantly filled with vertigo. There was little light, but he could tell by the feel of the bark beneath him, the swishing sound of leaves all around, and the keenness of the wind on his face, that he was outside. Through the darkness of the leaves hinted a canopy of stars. Slowly his eyes adjusted and he could see the outline of foliage about him. From behind and above his head, he could hear many chicks’ hungry cries coming from a bird’s nest. He looked up and behind him and saw a large nest indeed, then he turned awkwardly on the branch, took a look down and spied an unnatural looking cat, having huge forepaws, elongated legs, and exaggerated triangular teeth that it displayed as its yellow eyes found Tom’s. Yet despite its dangerous look, its fur had a beautiful indefinable shimmering quality that mesmerized him. It threatened from below, clutching its way upward towards Tom’s branch, slinking with its huge claws.
The cat reminded him of a girl named Gwen, who had rejected him after being friends for many years. Some quality of its shimmering appeal reminded him of her so much, and also the way, above all else, she kept her eyes on what she wanted. Tom thought of Gwen as the only woman he had ever loved, and just the thought of her still pierced like a bitter spike through his soul. Oh, the relentless nature of his heartache, and the relentless nature of the cat, its fur undulating like the rainbow of a beetle’s shell. It stalked its way languidly up the tree, its intent clear, to eat the young birds, and Tom would not let that happen, not in his presence, he could not let her eviscerate those defenseless chicks as she had eviscerated his heart. Yet he knew Gwen had not broken his heart, he had broken his own. But this was a cat not Gwen.
With a jolt, Tom realized he had come under the influence of the hallucinogen he had taken earlier. He had assumed it would be expired anyway, but had taken it on principle. Some part of himself realized all this was imaginary, still it seemed real. Where was he? He tried to remember. He tried to will himself out of the tree, in fact he could not remember the last time he had ever been in one. He tried to imagine this was all a hallucination, he dangled his legs over the branch and prepared to leap, but he could not, he was not willing to jump and find out where reality lay.
“in a basement,” voices whispered.
“In Hell,” other voices whispered.
“Both,” a third voice laughed.
“Why do you smoke to death?” The three sets of voices asked in unison. Disturbed greatly, he fell from the branch, but instead of plummeting, he became aware of concrete beneath his cheek., and the screams of the chicks intensified, and then finally with great effort, he wrenched himself free from the hallucination and a fierce pain bloomed in the back of his head as he lay on the basement floor. Everything waved, subtly, flowing into itself and out of itself as if each particle of existence twinkled and frowned like a twirling kaleidoscope. Even the pain in the back of his head seemed to ripple and change shape. It felt close and awful and far away and curious at the same time. What was he doing here? He needed something. What was he looking for? An escape. Crack. Something to take the pain of the miserable reality of his existence away. But the craving had lessened some he noticed, though his head hurt so bad he could barely move.
To his great surprise, a weasel turned the corner of a box and trod towards him. Its manner was calm and did not provoke him in any way. It stopped within six inches of his face as he lay there, sat up on its hind legs and said, “No tea will be served today on account of the weather.” Tom was taken aback by the weasel’s robust and vibrant voice. Just then, it started to rain, forcing Tom to shamble under the table. The weasel followed and stated matter of fact in a high tone, “Your candle is doused and your matches are soaked. Now you will learn to live without drugs.”
“Who are you?” Tom managed, although he did not know if he spoke or thought.
“I am your spirit animal Alexis, it is my voice you heard laughing earlier.”
“The other two?” Tom asked.
“You are not ready to meet Orvis and Vendrall. One has good news, the other bad. But first you must cleanse yourself,” weasel spoke, then scurried away between some boxes. The rain stopped. Tom wondered how the water left on the ground could be part of his fantasy, how could he splash his hand in something that did not exist? Maybe the sprinkler system had turned on because he had burned that baby’s head. Not real, just remember this is not real. Then for the first time he considered the weasel’s words. The furry bitch was right! He checked his matches and they were soaked, and he could not find his pipe either. Panic began its creep into his mind. He touched at the sore lump on the back of his skull nervously as he thought about what to do next. There was only one solution to his dilemma, kill himself. He pulled out the pocket knife and then laughed because he knew he did not have the strength to open it. He would use a piece of glass from the window. “Oh I am sorry for hitting that man” he muttered.
A sound began that he could not describe, distracting him thoroughly. A subtly nuanced whistling of many low tones that came as if an invisible choir stood before him, “I am Vendrall. I have been given permission to show you the glories of Heaven. Behold my Son!” The voice echoed deeply. Then they were both swallowed. Upon the horizons of every conceivable direction they suspended in a lightless light, being everywhere and nowhere at once, silence on a grand scale and the infinity of music and voices and a great presences to behold as friend and Father/Mother, creator splendor, a great connection to all things, but you have to pass the test, that is the terrible bane or boon of freewill. Your life is a cavern carved out forever.
Tom found himself in the basement, joyed by the existence of heaven. That must be the guy with the good news, he thought. HE got down on his knees and prayed and asked for forgiveness for his sins but felt like a hypocrite because he knew that as soon as he was done praying he would start the prayer to his real god, the one where, as a sign of worship, he would comb every inch of this basement floor with his bare hands; as sure a form of reverence as any other. Did he have to? Did he not have freewill? Could not he just eat some snow and go to sleep? Why did he have to look for it? Oh why God was the pull so strong, please God help.
Then he heard a noise coming from the toy bin, a rustling, and snapping sounds, and when he stood up and looked in that direction he saw a strange luminescence within the doll parts that terrified him. There was a movement there, as if a structure was sorting itself out and becoming more organized. Legs, arms, and heads calmly detached from torsos with a snap, so that all the pieces became separate. Slowly a design completed itself, and a toy beast sprang from the bin – a six foot tall conglomeration of doll parts, its legs made of legs, the torso made of torsos, the swirl of arms floating out in front on either side of it beckoned Tom closer. Each doll hand flexed independently, despite their supposed rigidity, yet all part of a whole like a flock of luminous hummingbirds in the formation of an ogre. Each of the hundreds of pieces glowed with an inner light. Worst of all was the ogre’s head: all the little doll heads of various sizes floated there in a loose pattern, some with hair some without, all their eyes with the same trajectory. They stared at Tom. The eyes that could blink did so in unison. Each of their heads sprang into fire as the beast regarded him. They burned but were not consumed. This was more than Tom could take, he turned and scrambled away through the darkness in the direction of what he hoped was the window. But his progress was arrested by scores of tiny hands that grabbed at his clothes and pulled him down to the ground. As more and more hands held him he found himself prone to the floor. Orvis, an impossible creature, stood before Tom’s feet, the scene lit by the glow of his fiery heads.
“What do you think?” and Orvis’s voice was a collection of all the tiny children’s voices.
“A .. a demon.” Tom said, lost in shock.
“Not a demon, I am Orvis. If you saw a demon you would be mad forever, they are that bad. I am a messenger sent to give you a glimpse into hell; I advise you not to go directly. You chose my form, do you think I am real? Nothing is real you know, nothing except the struggle between good and evil. We will win in the end; of that there is no doubt, but it is a long road to that end, and for those that taste an eternity away from God, the lured ones, they are lost. You have done great wrongs in your life, but you will be forgiven, if you do what you know is right. I will let you in on a secret, if you continue down your current path of addiction, you will die in three weeks. I am not permitted to explain the nature of that death. But if you abstain from all drugs from this moment forward, there will be a chance for a rewarding life, and most importantly, your ultimate salvation. A terrible place awaits if you died this instant, for though you have asked for forgiveness and received grace, these things are not enough. You must make restitution for your sins.
The fiery heads stirred all about him and swirling in a circle, and blurred too fast for his eyes to see, becoming rings of light that hovered over him. As he looked through the circle he was filled with knowledge that hell was simply life without God: cold, stale eternal caverns where memories gnawed minds to nothing more than automatons, the edges of their individuality losing definition, they became blurs of themselves. There are punishments for the greater crimes, the murderers are raped, the rapists are murdered, eternally. Most though, just wander in the vast caverns their lives have carved out of the stone of existence and try to figure out where it all went wrong. They are beyond change, instead of becoming everything, they remain one small selfish thing forever. There are far more in hell for simply not giving a damn about anyone but themselves than any other reason. The arms retreated back to Orvis and Tom was free again. He sprang to his feet.
Thom said, “So what do you want from me, it’s too late for me, don’t you understand? I’m sorry but I’ve got to have that stuff! You’re not real anyway! Where is it?” Tom’s voice became angry and took a step forward on Orvis. “Where is it!” A plastic arm darted out and poked him in the eye.
“Show a little respect, I am a messenger of God you know. The bane you seek is two feet from the right of your left foot.” Orvis said. Instantly Tom followed its directions and found the foil package. This time he did not feel like capering, this time the package felt poisoned and evil. He was already plotting that if you could find a soda can he could steal one of Orvis’s flaming heads and get in a quick hit before the wrath of God smote him. Oh he needed help. A crack pipe suddenly appeared in his hand and the lit candle in the other. Now he had all three and he could finally smoke and make these delusions go away. Of course, Tom hesitated, he knew he was being tested, and Orvis had said quit this moment, so what if it could all be real? Even if it was not real, what if it was right?
“Now I will teach you the act of contricion, which you will need in trials to come,” the doll heads said in unison. As it was uttered, Tom felt his mind burned with it as if he studied it over and over again all at once:
“Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended you
And I beg pardon for all my sins
because of your just punishments, but most of all
because I have offended you my God
who is all good and deserving of all my love
I firmly resolve, with the help of your Grace
to sin no more and avoid the near occasions of sin
The last part is the key, to avoid the near occasions of sin. Temptation is the Devil’s weapon,” Orvis said in his strange voices. His countenance floated before Tom on Strings of unseen power. “One last message. God told me to tell you to stop using drugs, to pay for the broken guitar and fix it, and then play it in a band at the church across the street and you will meet a nice woman there, and the two of you will fall in love. But he says you have to stay sober, and make restitution for your sins.”
Tom could not help but believe this angel; after all he had seen, and when he searched his heart he knew that he could do it, could love and be loved again. His mind was changed that second and he began to recover from his disease of addiction. But the crack, the pipe, the candle still remained clutched in his hands, and he could not let go. Then he heard beautiful guitar music. A delicious classical guitar ballad melting on the cold air. Orvis said, “That is you in the future, you have succeeded, if you choose to succeed.” Moving back to its bin, Orvis collapsed back into it, its flames extinguished, now only a pile of toy parts again. The music persisted in the darkness, joyful, sad, beautiful. For just a moment, he felt a sensation that he had not felt in years, he was grateful to be alive. Tom searched until he found a drain in the basement floor and dropped the package of drugs and the pipe through. Placing the candle on the floor, he lay down with his arm pillowing his head and watched the candle flame, and fell into a trance where shapes and colors transposed back and forth between memories long forgotten.
* * *
Hours later he awoke in a clearer state of mind and looked at the scene around him. The candle had burned almost to the end in its glass. He walked to the window and tried to move the box jammed there but found it wedged by the force of the snow. He gave it a jolt and the box came free and snow poured in until it stopped in a mound that reached the opening. He was snowed in and in no condition to tunnel out. What the hell was he going to do now? He would have to bang on the door until someone came to let him out and pray they did not call the cops first. He remembered Vendrall’ s words, and knew the right thing to do was turn himself in as soon as possible for hitting that man. He feared this would be an almost unbearable thing to do. The likelihood that it was all just a hallucination nagged at this mind as he began searching the room for clues, proof that the events of the night before were real. When he looked in the toy bin he noticed that all the doll pieces were separated, yet when he had first encountered them at least some had been whole. But he had so been whacked out, who knows what else he had done on his trip if he did something as crazy as throw away his pipe and dope. Maybe he separated those dolls himself and could not remember. In front of the bin a large hard bound book sat open to a page with a red marker ribbon draped over the spine. He held the candle closely and made out the already familiar Apostle’s Creed. Spots of dried wax sat on the open page. He must have mangled those dolls, read the creed from that book, and then thrown his dope away. He had taken LSD before though, and never experienced anything so real. Tom could not make up his mind. He dearly did not want to die in three weeks. He dearly did not want to quit drugs, but he knew if not three weeks, then three months, or three years would do him in if he kept living smoking crack. He had spent so much of his life embracing fantasy, that he decided from that moment forward he would act upon the events of this night as if they were real and true, whether they were real and true or not. He would make them real and true by the outcome of his life. If he stayed clean and told the truth he could find a way out of this mess. He at least believed that.
Banging on the door and yelling in his tired voice did no good, so he sat down and shivered. The main fluorescent ceiling lights suddenly turned on and someone unlocked the door. And when they opened it he saw it was an old lady in a thick sweater and she said to him, “It looks like you could use a cup of coffee, have you seen the filters?”
“I think they’re on top of the filing cabinet,” said Tom.
“We’re having a meeting upstairs, you should come up,” then with great caution, she got the filters and left.
After the meeting was over Thomas said that he needed to make amends for a crime and that he needed a ride to the police station. Someone offered him a ride and on the way there the car skidded on the ice and went headlong into an oncoming car. The driver of the other car was an old man who was knocked unconscious. Thomas and his driver rushed to the old man's aid and found that the car was on fire and that the doors and windows were locked. The man tried to get his tire iron from the trunk of the car to break the window but the lock was covered in ice and he could not use his key. They tried in vain to break the window with their feet and hands. Finally in desperation with his adrenaline flowing, Thomas hit the window with his head with all his might and it spider webbed inward. Thomas fell to the ground unconscious. The man managed to break the rest of the window with his hands and unlocked the door and pulled the old man to safety. The man then pulled Thomas to safety just as the old man's car exploded. The man rode with Thomas to the hospital. As they brought Thomas in to the hospital, the man who Thomas hit with the tire iron saw Thomas and exclaimed "That's him! That's the man that hit me!" He saw the bloody wound on Thomas's forehead and asked "What happened to this man?"
"Sir, he just did one of the stupidest and most courageous things I have ever seen someone do! He used his head to break the window of a burning car that had a man trapped inside it! I pulled them both to safety just before the car exploded!" The man with Thomas said. The wounded man looked at Thomas for a long time and his hand felt at the bandage on his own head.
Under his breath, the wounded man said "jeez, I didn't even lose consciousness . . ." The man with Thomas waited and then said:
"You said something about this man hitting you? He said he wanted me to take him to the police to confess a crime."
The wounded man seemed lost in thought, then he smiled. "Oh yes, this is the man who hit me with a tire iron last night, and then robbed me, but I don't think I am going to press any charges. This is the season of charity after all." the wounded man said. The man with Thomas smiled back.
"You know it's funny, I was trying to get a tire iron out of my trunk but the lock was frozen. That's why he used his head."
"That is funny" said the wounded man.