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"A Start and a Place," short story excerpt

Wednesday 9/29/21

She had been sitting and thinking. Her thoughts were clear. Small quantities of the drugs were still in her system and that kept her level in the fashion that it appeared like some people’s shoulders had been measured and laid out that way, but not a sufficient amount to change her foundational self. The next few hours would be hard, as everything left the system. Right now she was in that sweet spot, as she thought of it, though she thought of it with shame, of being balanced and somewhat dignified, but still a walking form of arrant fucktitude. The moments nearest to what she knew of peace were the moments laden with fear, because it could all go away, and she could fail again.


She’d sit on the curb, kick away the stones in the street—because there were an awful lot of them, more than you get on a trail in nature. Or some trails, anyway. That was her memory, where she went to, or where she wanted to go to, when she sat with the peace and the terror. Turning as a girl to her father, under the weight of their backpacks, to say, “Hustle up, partner,” as if they’d just cleaned out a stream of all its gold and now it was time to get into town. Those were the times, as she tried to quell the fear, insist to herself that the next day might be different, that were like what the hike in autumn could be for someone else after they’d been cooped up at home for the better part of a week with a chest cold, or finished taking care of a sick relative who had finally died, and now it was time to re-enter the world, because life goes on, goddammit and your dead mom would want you to live for both you and her.


Her clinic was next to the coffee house, but she believed that she’d probably have spent considerable time here anyway, even if the clinic was all the way across town, or in Peru, or at an underground base in the moon.


She liked a coffee house. Liked the idea of being around people whilst having a stack of books at one’s side. And if the world got too hard, you could take a break by putting your hands on the table and your head in your hands, with your book stack serving as a temporary shelter that was so innocuous that no one would know that’s what it was. Or could be as well. You’d fix yourself, feel better, then come back up for more air and life, get another refill of the old java jive. It was just both so practical and creative. Someone close to you might start up a conversation. People shared tables on purpose. They called it community seating. The idea seemed preternatural to her, but it was real.


“How are you liking that book, I read it once,” someone would ask her.


“The beginning was slow, I have to admit,” she’d answer, “but I’m glad I stuck with it, because it jettisons the earlier digressions and really becomes quite focused.”


God she’d be articulate. She’d be confident. She had a term for it that was better than just confident: “Unrattleable.”


She’d love to be able to talk like she thought. It’d feel better than having a clean body. A clean place to be. With fresh-cut flowers she’d add every week, and she’d get so excited about her flowers, like she did when she was a kid, that she’d look up on the computer how much more ozone, or was it oxygen—whatever the term was—a home had if it had a certain number of flowers in it compared to one that did not.


She figured it was probably a super high number, like 37%. She’d tell her friends—because she’d have real friends, then, not people who gave her drugs or people who had been her friends who no longer were after she put parts of them in her mouth in alleys for drugs they just could have given her—and her friends would follow her example. Sure, it’d be a small way, but she’s inspire them, and you have to start small before anything gets big, and sometimes when you do, it’s just big without anyone having noticed any time had passed, like it’d just been that way all along.


Then she’d go from house to house, having tea, returning books she had borrowed, lending books she knew that Amy would love, and surprising Brittany with this to-die for pocket-sized book on French breads because Brittany loved to bake—that was Brittany’s thing—and she’d see what plants and flowers they had added or replaced since the last time. She’d be the overseer of augmentation, without bragging, without even telling anyone, but it’d be implied, and people would get that about her. But there’s more. The last time wouldn’t have been a month ago, or two weeks ago. She was tight with her friends. The last time would have been on Friday, yes, that’s right, Friday of last week, and it was Wednesday now, hump day, the time just went so fast when you had so much to live for.


She’d gone into an alley with a man she hadn’t known for long. Didn’t go through the pretense of hoping they’d be friends. She crouched down before him. Remembered how she’d always wanted to be a catcher, which her dad thought was funny. Didn’t mock her. Didn’t say she couldn’t be one. Didn’t say, “hey you’re a girl!” and “Besides that, you’re a left-handed girl!” They’d play catch in the backyard, and after they had warmed up their arms, she’d get in her crouch, tell her dad to bring the heat, so he’d sock the ball in there best as he could.


“You don’t have to use your mouth,” the man told her. She used her hand instead, and when the time arrived, she dodged some to the left, dodged some to the right, trying not to get anything on her. The man didn’t grunt. He made no noise. Even as some of it was still coming out, he reached to raise his pants. The belt buckle sounded loud in her ears from down below.

“I can only give you this much,” he said, pulling out one of the simple little plastic bags that she always thought would be the kind of bag that a replacement button for a suit sleeve should come in, or a dress that matched her eyes.


“I don’t want it,” she said. The panic was starting. “Please leave me alone.”


She had woken up that day at the shelter and thought, “remember what we said last night. It all changes. Other people have done it, and so can you. You don’t want the world. You want a start and a place. There’s no one who has ever been born who was so pathetic and helpless and weak that if they really tried, with everything they could, that they couldn’t get a start and a place.”


The man in the alley with the loud belt asked her a question she’d never forget. She remembered how wet his lips had been, like the semen had somehow flown backwards and caught him in his own mouth, but which he also didn’t mind that much, like it was the nature of the gig. The cost of doing business.


“How long have you been crazy?” he asked her.


She never thought less of herself than when she honestly asked him back, “What?” Because she wanted to know what he knew, or how he knew. She’d never spoken with less defiance, even in all of the times when she hadn’t spoken with defiance at all.


“Were you always that way, or was there a day when you were like, ‘shit, something has changed from yesterday, whoa, fuck, this isn’t good, I’m crazy now.’ Or is the first news of it you’ve had?”


She ran from the alley, wishing she’d taken the drugs, but not from that man, thoughts pounding and racing in her head, a stampede of tiny, terrible, growing forms, about where she could get other drugs. When she did, she went to the public park, feeling as though she’d entered the atmosphere of another planet, because she’d injected all of it into her veins, and she didn’t need the helmet any more, the breathing system in her space suit. She could breathe just fine now without it. Then she ripped apart the little plastic bag that didn’t house a button for a suit, or a dress like the ones she’d imagine she’d pick through to find the perfect outfit to visit a friend, bring her a new plant—a jade plant, this time. They were easy to care for. It was hard to kill a jade plant, she thought, trying not to simultaneously cry and vomit, and thinking how easy it would be for her to die, and maybe now this was the best chance yet. The bag would never house a button, and she licked the plastic and made herself swallow all of it.


There were so many flowers in that public park on another planet. She pulled them from the earth, giggling at how easy they came out, with no resistance, like they wanted nothing more for her to have a place and a start and to take them home with her. To go to her friend Amy’s house, and then Brittany’s, but not with Amy to Brittany’s because they’d had a fight, which would pass in time, and with her help, because she was a peaceful person, a peacemaker. She caught her father’s hard high ones that weren’t really that hard, but afterwards she’d say to him, “the ball had some real pepper on it today,” which he liked, because if he told her once, he told her a bajillion times, he used to be a pretty damn good pitcher back in high school, if he did say so himself.