Playing with Fire

Let’s walk into Troy’s. Watch your feet. There’s a rusty nail poking out of that third step. And touch nothing unless your tetanus is up to date. Everything is sticky. The fist-marked walls drip dry blood. Sheets or blankets mask the windows. Ashtrays outnumber light bulbs. Lampshades and sconces don’t exist. This is the last stop. 

Troy waves a torch lighter hissing blue flame below a charred spoon bent downward at the neck. Sherry moans and cuddles a beanbag chair, fingering a burn hole. She’s skinny, too skinny, and writhes about slow as Ipecac syrup. Donnie sitting with head drooped, stares down gravity, legs spread beneath the makeshift coffee table, plywood over milk crates. His hair makes his head the shape of a spork. Perched on the carpet near an extension cord leading to the neighbors’ house, a shirtless baby tugging at his diaper licks a gnarled dog toy.

Troy glooms over his arms, both infested with scabs infected blue, some oozing blood and pus.

I’m curious, “Whose baby?” but I don’t care.

“Taylor’s. She’s out.” Troy breaks open a cigarette filter, snips away a piece and drops it into the spoon as a cotton substitute. He plucks the orange cap off his rig. His hands shake, so he needs both to hold the syringe. He hunches over the plywood, presses the needle against the cotton, and draws back the plunger with his lips.

“Can you fix me a hit? I’ll pay you next week.”

“How?” Troy fluffs his beard, “Wait—I never seen you mainline.”

Gravity dismisses Donnie’s head. “Guy, he don’t do it like that. He sniffs it.”

Why am I embarrassed?

“Squirrels,” says Sherry.

“Is she okay?”

“She good.” Donnie’s fingers crawl through carpet fibers beside a milk crate for stray drugs. He inspects a lint ball, “She had a rough night. Some John beated her up,” smells the lint.

“Maybe she should get checked out.”

Troy claps twice. “Sherry.” 

Sherry’s head lowers, face sunken, cheeks bruised, “Boo.”

“See, she’s fine.” 

Spent cigarettes in an ashtray, I uncover one, blow the ash away and light it. “Whatdaya say, man? Front me?”

“Alright—you gotta get me up to Nashua tomorrow, though.”

“Deal. But I’m doing it your way.”

Troy caps the needle, unhooks the belt wrapped around his bicep. “You sure about this?”

I nod.

Donnie coughs. “Don’t do it.”

“There’s no turning back.”

“Nothing to turn back to.”

“I’m only cooking you a little, though. This shit is fire.”

Troy cooks the dope, a task he calls a ritual. The futon harbors urine and rips velcro sounds when I adjust positions.

“You ready?” Troy flicks the needle, squirts out an air bubble, smirks.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.” 

“Don’t be a pussy,” Troy says, “open your eyes,” and watch the needle break your skin. Your blood colluding with the dirty water inside the chamber curls like cigarette smoke rising. Relax. You’re laying tracks to God. Here comes the push and, you’re higher than heaven, stronger than you ever felt, tangled in the fabric of space-time. The stars weep dopamine and tingle against your nape while you copulate with Him. You’re the perfect temperature, your skin a suit of armor. Your heart doesn’t beat; it whispers. You’re weightless but can’t move. You have wings but can’t fly. You’re unconscious but awake, and you never want to leave this place. You belong here, always falling, and when the rush ends as all things do, a chill sweeps the floor, and I quiver, my tongue lying dry on the carpet. 

Brush away bedbugs, twist knuckles in my eyes. A yawn stretches my mouth so wide a bird could fly out, and the corners tear. The sting reminds me the pain is real, activates fight or flight. The amygdala overheats.

I don’t recognize my hands.

Dirty diaper scents ride the strata of stale smoke the room pervades. A plastic baggie’s torn corner shows wet teeth marks, has a brown residue and lies on the carpet near Baby’s constricted pupils. His caterwaul wheezes. My arms pop gooseflesh. Donnie dreams on the futon beside Troy, who’s sleeping or dead. The beanbag chair is empty.

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