A short story by Angus Chapman
Be a noble,
Be a fiend,
Be an equation worked out,
Be a breath of fresh air,
Be the breeze that blows, and punch into musty corners,
Be the dust, in the books,
Be a rainbow, a star, a thundercloud,
Someone’s dream and fancy and kaleidoscopic joy,
Have it all, know why,
But don’t lose your love of not knowing, and
Be like them, but be yourself.
He did it, why not you?
Be the sweat of hard work, and the callused hands.
But don’t lose your soft touch.
Be everything and nothing,
Happy and sad,
Quantized and grey with school,
But still feather the edges and let the fire lick and burn,
Into a bright, brief flash of light of iridescent oil-slick churn,
On the face of the universe.
I wrote that, and then shot up.
A lot of people will tell you dope is like nothing else. They’ll say it burns, or like ice will slow your heart to a dull throb somewhere in your chest. They’ll tell stories of jumping around, singing, dancing, shot through with joy. Or they’ll say they just sit there being crushed under a weight they can’t lift for lack of trying. And I feel sorry for them, because they don’t know what they’re talking about, or are doing it wrong. Because for me, dope is just good.
It’s the best kind of good you can feel. You tie off and work your fingers around, you watch the vein rise up like a weary fighter who can’t resist the sniff of a scrap. I’d always slide the pick up, sensual, like I’m caressing a woman’s thigh in the post-sex musk. When you find a spot and prick it, then you get the jolt. Like an electric shock. Maybe that’s the joy they’re talking about. But then you hammer it in, slowly, you breathe out and sigh as your heart sends dope flying through your body, waking up starved nerves that have lain gasping since your last hit. And you lie back, wrapped in golden, soft air that’s so sweet you can taste it. Everything fades out – deadlines, rows, anxiety, whatever – and the only thing that exists is the softness, and the goodness. They’ll come back later, but muted, like a neighbour’s music playing on a wet, late night. This time nothing is scary, and you raise your head and smile at it all like an old friend. No matter what you do for the next little bit you’ll feel the same way, wearing a suit or a bubble, dragging through the world with nowhere in particular to go and nothing much to care about, letting it slide and spin, glancing off the side of you with barely a scratch.
Until the fog creeps away, that is, and the world creeps back in; slowly at first, but working its fingers into your head through cracks that begin to appear. They get wider, seeping, streaming then pouring through as the last of the fog evaporates away and all light seems harsh, floors and walls are straight and hard and hemming you in, beaming sunlight that melts your eyes into pools of liquid. Everything hurts, you can’t breathe, you can’t think about living again until you cook and fill up one more time, to take the edge off, and keep the knives and sun at bay. And then you breathe again, you remember how easy it is. And you sigh. And fuck, fuck, it feels good.
One of our favourite things to do was shoot up and read some poetry, then go for a walk. It felt so sophisticated, and right. Me handsome, with thrift-store shirts I buttoned hallway up and hair that scraped my shoulders and hung around my face so I could smile through it, or stare off into space. And Sue, her, beautiful, tatted up and scowling, with eyes you’d lose a day in and a hip-waving power-walk that screamed both ‘fuck you’ and ‘fuck me’ if anyone stared. Which they always did. We’d patter a few verses from Yeats (her), or Kerouac or Corso (me) while we enjoyed those first beatific minutes, and then slip out our grimy bedroom window, sweeping dead flies and dust off the sill and jumping down to the landing where we’d stand, hidden by a thick fern which cut the house from the street. We could have used the door, but this way – feeling the air move against the rough, worn front wall, hearing cars which sounded so gentle and far away on this side of the fern, and letting sunlight play across our faces like scraped paint – we felt like we were living in the poems. Everything wants to be us, we’d tell eachother, and ease aside the iron gate – more rust than metal – onto the street.
I scribbled that verse in the last searing moment before release, sitting on the floor, banging my head against the dirty, scratched wall which she’d scrawled all over with pen; little pictures of flowers and spirals in whatever colour she found, only going about a metre up from the sagging floorboards because she always did it lying down, wrapped in a dull blanket. I was scrawling, sweating, punching holes in the paper when I swatted at imaginary flies, moaning with lust and longing, imploring Sue to make it a big one as she sat on the bed telling me shut the fuck up so she could concentrate, firing the bottom of a spoon stained purple with flame, spread outwards from a smear of soot on the underside. She moved the lighter around, trying to get it all evenly, watching the rocks melt so slowly into a dirty-brown puddle and licking her lips like a cat that’s got a bird pinned, and dying. I sat there and tried to push air into my lungs for I don’t know how long until she jerked her arm and I jumped up onto the bed. She held the spoon and I drew the plunger back, with an intensity that only the starving could know, and loaded up. I did me and then her, barely loosening my dad’s old belt – so worn the leather felt like velvet – before our eyes glazed over and we were back in our world. The right world, the good world. I kissed her and looked into her face, seeing it relax and settle into a blissful repose. I watched her slump back on the bed, like she was falling into the arms of some being, unseen.
At times like that, when we’d come right to the edge and watched it crumble, stepping back and stopping just short of the pain, we did think. I did. I watched her fall and just for a second, maybe because I was bigger, slower, maybe my receptors were blunter, I saw that we’d driven ourselves there. When she exhaled, her lips parted like some old puppet and my heart was still screaming and burning in my chest some light fell into the corners of our room; the nests of dirty, useless, broken things, the bottles and ash, the grubby, cheap carpet with holes melted through would echo for a beat. As I lay down next to her, the golden feeling rushing in, I breathed slower and deeper, thoughts ran across my brain like some old film drawing smoothly to a soft, but uncertain end.
Nothing stilted, I saw it all. I saw my parents and hers, with worried, tired eyes. They’d been over just the other day to see the ‘new’ place; our landlord had finally got sick of late payment and glazed half-replies, booting us another few k’s down the road where we’d found a bottom-floor room owned by a gentle old lady who lived upstairs, with a cat and dead husband for company. They were always telling us to get it together, never clear what ‘it’ actually was. Friends? We had us, plus a few rats that lived in the floorboards. Money? We got by. Smack wasn’t gold, we could steal enough. We had good credit with the dealers and could mine Sue’s body if things got desperate. Besides we had that bright, soft rush twice a day, the only wealth that mattered. And a future? Fuck that. The future takes care of itself.
Or that’s what we told ourselves, and our parents’ fear slipped off into memory, buried under a pile of smack. We were fine, we said. We were always fine.
But this time we weren’t. At least, I wasn’t. Maybe I’d mixed it wrong, or only nicked the vein, missing half. My arm didn’t hurt, there was no bruise that suggested I’d pumped the muscle full of poison, but maybe later once it wore off for good. The edges of the world were blurred for sure but the centre was still clear; in sharp relief I could see Sue breathing slowly and slowing, her breaths going deeper into her as she sunk into the mattress. I sat up and blinked at her, my head heavy but annoyingly clear. She lolled toward me, a big drooping grin spilling across her face.
“It’s good aye. What’s wrong with you?”
The words were slurred and lazy.
“Shit’s not working.” I slapped at my arm to demonstrate, and she her fingers up to the crook of my elbow, light and barely there. “I’m gunna go get some darts, try again in a sec. My head’s not right.”
“Lie down, chill out and…” The words were lost as she mumbled, drowning in a sea of bliss. I was annoyed now. It was too hot in the room, the air hung thickly and stunk. The day had a rabid tinge to it and I felt bugs crawling under my skin. I itched, wanted to go somewhere cool and scream.
“I’m getting darts”.
I slipped off the mattress and out the window, out of the cool shade of the fern where the heat smacked me in the face like a wet towel. Sydney in summer, fucking paradise alright.
I sloped off down the street, ambling past empty cafes where old Euros sat in the corner staring at a TV which flickered black and white across their worn splintery old tabletops. The Asian supermarket’s air-conditioner spewed hot air into my face. I must have looked a treat, shuffling and sweating in dirty jeans and a flannel liberated from Vinnies while Sue made a scene screaming at the schoolgirl volunteer, on community service behind the counter. I suppose like an animal, all lank hair and desperate eyes. I was seeing everything too clearly; the university tower topped out over the trees across the park, flag hanging, flaccid, from its smug perch. Light shone and shadows sucked me in as I walked through the little shopping strip near our place, a few hundred metres of dying shops and ‘for lease’ signs plastered one on top of the other in shuttered doorways, awnings fading from sun and neglect. A few people – almost as shabby as me – met my eyes and looked quickly away, recognising the hollow look with a mixture of guilt, fear and relief it wasn’t them. Their pity burned more than usual and I moved faster, wanting to get off the street, to be anonymous again. I burned for a smoke and even more for a hit. A proper one that would blast away all the sun and stolen looks, where I could fade again into the dark Sue and I had let bloom.
I stepped confident as I could into the corner shop and studied the rows of toothpaste, chips and cheap rice intently, putting on a decent show for the young clerk who leaned half-facing the shop, looking from his phone to the wall and back again with a sigh. An Indian guy, styled hair and an ear stud winking from the side of his head. Stubble buzzed tight and fashionable against his jawline, no doubt helping out his old man as he put the takings through the pokies or yelled at his wife. It was dark in here, and cool enough to relax me a bit. Better than the street anyway, though I was jumpy as a cat and was beginning to get the shakes. I wandered around for five minutes, turning boxes over, crinkling packets and leaning behind the shelves to inspect the stuff on the bottom. A bag of 200 rubber bands for $4.95. Not bad.
Then the clerk’s phone gave a dying ‘bleep’ and he, after a cursory, disinterested look into the corners of the shop, slid out to the store room, letting the plastic door with its cheap screen close with a sharp snap. And then it was easy, really. Walk around the counter, between two towers of novelty keyrings that stand sentry on either side, and rummage around underneath. Grab the first cardboard box of the right size I see plus a tenner off the countertop for good measure and get out, casual as anything, letting the bell over the door tinkle in protest as I go. If the young bloke saw me he didn’t care, certainly didn’t get paid or owe his dad enough to run out after me into the world. Better to write it off as a loss and wait, comfortable, till closing time. Less bother that way.
I ambled up the street a little further, where a four-lane road cut it off from the park that dipped and then rose up gently to the front of the university. It was quiet, 2pm on a Tuesday, though every car and truck belching fumes and dust into my face as I waited for the lights to change felt like a personal attack. I resented the drivers, in their seated, cool oblivion, sweeping across my life in an air-conditioned bubble. But I was feeling a bit better, the stolen pack held tightly in my hand, the plastic wrap already filmy with sweat. The lights went green and I followed the little walking man across the tarmac that pulsed with heat down the grassy slope to a tree that leaned over the artificial pond with its broken fountain and grubby ducks bathing themselves in brown water. I leaned back against the bark, cool and rough, felt ants crawling across my neck that were just small enough to distinguish from the bugs that itched under the skin of my arms and ears. I took a smoke from the pack – Camel Blue 25s, it turned out – and lit it, fumbling with shaky fingers. I took off my shoes and shirt but still sweat poured from my hair and ran down my face in beads. I drew deeply and exhaled, getting that first dazzling rush of nicotine and tar, filling my lungs with smoke and my head with stars. A couple more puffs and I breathed normally, but a bit deeper, a bit stronger, the smoke making oxygen heavier and easier to pull through my body, and I felt more normal. For me, anyway, which meant I was less pissed at the people walking around the edge of the park, or up the sandstone steps to the university, and more curious. The air wasn’t weighing me down any more. It felt crisper, cleaner, still hot but not choking, and I could slowly take in the thousands of small permutations of life you can see at an inner-city park on a boiling Tuesday afternoon. Grass stirring gently in gusts too faint to feel, a hobo or two lying shirtless in the shade on old cardboard boxes with their hairy, grime-streaked guts like burial mounds in the dirt, a few birds hopping and lycra-clad women preening like showgirls behind huge sunglasses, walking their little long-haired rats with names like Winky and Boo along the low wall of rough stone which ringed the park and separated it in a long, smooth curve from the footpath and road.
I quickly worked my way through a third of the deck and, against the building tide of pain, my body screaming louder and louder for a hit, a brutal, harsh voice – you’re an addict you moron! Fix me up! I’m sick, sick and dying! – a few scenes flitted across my brain. Grabs from some old movie, all black and white, shadows and grit. I saw the young bloke from the shop wearing sunglasses, pushing past his old man who stood in a narrow doorway with drooping shoulders and a small belly hanging over his belt. He pushes out into the night, into an old white shitbox with a spoiler and roaring engine, and when he hits the accelerator he feels different. Better, new, powerful. I saw the women walking their dogs, shrilly nattering about divorces and gyms, lunches, KPIs, interest rates and status. I saw them slinking through some art-deco front room, waving their hips at a useless husband to remind him how little he means. I saw students bent over books and computers, a library in a dead, sacred hush. I saw myself and Sue, shooting up and fucking, and talking and shooting up and fucking and shooting up again, beating our own time against the movement of the sun, moon, and stars in the little room below that old woman and her husband’s memory. And I saw my parents. Sensible haircuts and sad faces, and the small world they hacked out together from the tangle of suburbia. A world of straight lines and earnest thoughts. I wonder how my brother is. In PR last time I heard. Probably knows those women with the dogs.
And then pain exploded behind my eyes and down my legs. My mind turned from a dull projector with a razorblade edge to an exploded grenade, and shouted. Go! Go get high! Go go go! I buckled just a second too late and booted all over the grass in front of me, getting chunks between my toes. The dope hadn’t worked and I went full withdrawal. I thought of nothing else but the pain and medicine. I felt everything, but noticed nothing. Every fleck of rock or cement was like a spear into the soles of my feet. The air hurt to breathe, I could feel it slicing into me like shattered glass, cutting me to shreds. I started on a shuffling run, always falling forward but never hitting the ground. Straight across the road, leaving a layer of skin to cook on its surface as cars swerved around me, beeping and cursing. A big, white ute sped past, horn groaning, so close I could hear the driver bellowing that I was a piece of junky scum, a dog. I had tears in my eyes, clenching and unclenching my fists to drive the pain up and down my arms lest it stay in one place and bore a hole right through to the centre of my being. Time was nothing, there was nobody but me and the sickness. I tore up the street to Sue and the pick, with my tail between my legs and my heart going mad, like a bird throwing itself again and again against its cage, leaving blood on the bars.
The door crashed back on its hinges. I fell against the wall and booted again on the mattress, soaking it and Sue in bile where she lay still gazing at the mould on the ceiling. With juddering fingers I snatched up the syringe, pricking myself on the point and dropping it, swearing, to scrabble about on the floor for this half-full plastic tube that would make everything alright. Our blood had dried to a crust a quarter of the way down its length. I didn’t bother with the belt, just jammed it right into the middle of the bruise that was flowering inside my elbow and pushed. For a second I gasped and sucked at the air like a goldfish, and it was like trying to drink concrete through a straw. But then I skipped a beat in my chest and an invisible hand knocked me back onto the bed, head on Sue’s legs, and my breathing became more regular, less desperate. Already the screams were receding, the world flowing gently back to the corners of my mind. The pricking and cutting stopped, and my sweat felt cold. I exhaled deeply, with relief, and enjoyed it. What the hell was I thinking in the park, all that stupid shit about futures and lives and guilt. That was all pain, and we didn’t need it, the two of us. We had everything we needed to go on living, or pretending to.
I rolled over, looked up Sue’s body. The dirty white singlet she wore as a dress clung to her, hipbones making two small tents at the top of her legs, in line with her thin, delicate shoulders. Heat still pressed down on us, and the air lay heavy and unmoving. The thin sheets we passed off as curtains hung straight down, and through them a pale square of dappled yellow light was glowing flatly. A lazy fly buzzed around them, bumping gently into the fabric. I kissed my way up, up her legs and hips, and sunken belly, her arms all covered in scabs and bruising tracking the story of us from her shoulders all the way down to bottom of her wrists, so small they looked like they’d snap if you grabbed too hard. I reached her neck, and she felt cold. I realised her breaths were ragged snatches, barely there. I tried to make words but my tongue felt huge and useless in my mouth and I dropped my head to the side of her face, the edges of my vision closing in. The room’s shadows grew deeper and heavier and her breaths weaker, the smells of old clothes and puke drenching the two of us. I saw her grey lips and too-pale face and her eyes, though cloudy and almost unseeing, looked scared nonetheless. Then the dope took over and I fell down into bliss.