Over My Shoulder
By David Sklar
27 September 2010
Part 2 of 2
At a Chelsea boutique called Can't Quit You that sells clothes a real cowboy would've been shot just for wearing, I found a bolo tie with a scorpion in amber for a clasp. I bought it, and I went to Hugo's to play.
The gig was more crowded than the night before. I'd brought extra CDs, and they all sold out. I did not like talking with the crowd; I wanted to be alone with my music, but my music kept inviting them to stay. I made my escape after the encore as soon as I could, and I got on the subway back to the old neighborhood, to the all-night diner. A couple of college students were walking away from Doctor Good's corner table as I went in. The guy was wild-eyed and expansive; the girl had her shoulders hunched up and her eyes looking sunken from worry, but here she was, walking with this guy, just the same. Doctor Good sat at the table, grinning like a cat who'd just sold something illegal to a canary and made a healthy profit for himself.
"Why, Orpheus," Doctor Good said as I approached. "Have you come to apologize for your discourtesy when last we met?"
I tossed the box on the table.
He lifted the lid and inspected the scorpion tie. "Nice," he said.
"I need a favor," I said, sitting down.
He folded his hands together and leaned his chin on his knuckles. "I'm all ears."
"Tomorrow night, when it's time for Vespers to collect. I need you to find me at my home—you know where I live?"
He nodded, though I know I'd never told him.
"I need you to pick me up at home and get me there, no matter what. Is that OK?"
He smiled. "I would be delighted to convey you to your destination."
The waitress came by for my order.
"I'm leaving," I told her. "But give him whatever he wants, on me." I handed her two twenties and a ten, and I walked out.
It was hardly past three when I got home, and Ocean and Star were both sleeping. I showered and climbed into bed, and the song played itself through my head as I drifted off. I dreamed I was in an open-air market, haggling with some goblin over a bag of shriveled peaches that neither one of us really wanted.
The next morning, I got up with Ocean and let Helen sleep. I fed him, helped him get dressed, and played with him, and when Helen woke up, I took her and the kids out to Central Park. I packed a tuna sandwich for Ocean, an eggplant and tofu for Helen, and an eggplant alone for me—because the ham in the fridge was bad—and a bag of Sun Chips. I also brought a Frisbee and a ball, but mostly I just sat back as my wife and child played in the park.
When Star left for her Sunday evening shift at the restaurant, I took Ocean to the Fly Girls' loft. He loves Dragon, but he cried when I left him with her. I walked away without looking back and took the subway uptown to a place I could get what I needed in order to do what I had to do.
In my whole career as a junkie I had never bought the stuff from anyone but Doctor Good, but tonight I did not want anyone, not even him—especially him—to know where I was going or what I was doing. And there was a guy a buddy of mine had told me about, back when I was using, and where to find him, way uptown. I took the subway there and found him under the overpass. He was younger than I'd expected, and he stood with his hands in his pockets, with the brown baseball cap turned sideways and his coat slightly open to show off the brown lining that told you he belonged, that said he was ready to kill you if you talked to him the wrong way.
Me, I had no patience for any of that. "I'm looking for Rico," I said.
"Rico don't work the street no more."
Of course. Even dealing drugs had room for upward mobility. "So who does?"
"I don't know. You a cop?"
"No, I'm just looking for a fix."
"You a rat?"
"I just want a fix."
"Who told you you could get it here?"
It had been over a decade. I had no idea if my contact still came here, or if he was even still alive. "What's your name?" I asked.
He looked at me like I had just shown him a badge. "You can call me Hammer."
"Uh-huh. So, Hammer—have you ever thought about what it would be like to give up a piece of your destiny?"
"I mean, is there a part of your future you'd want to give up, some essential piece of you that you can live without?"
"You messin' with me?"
"Or is it all just a single thing, and if you give up a piece you might as well lose it all?"
"I'm not afraid of you!"
"I'm not trying to frighten you, I'm just asking what piece of your future you would give up if you had to."
He took out a pistol and pointed it at me, that sideways way that gangsters do to show you they're relaxed. "I said I ain't afraid of you. Go 'way!"
I laughed like a man with nothing left to lose.
He grabbed a plastic bag from his pocket and started to back away. "Get out of here!" he shouted.
"I'm not trying to—"
He threw the plastic bag down on the ground.
I squatted and picked it up, without taking my eyes off him.
He backed away, with the gun still pointed at me. "Crazy fucking brujo," he said, still backing away.
I turned my back on him and walked off, without looking back.
I bought a needle at a drugstore. I won't tell you where; people like me need places we can get our works without spreading AIDS, but if you're not already hooked, you don't need to know.
The first thing I did when I got home was to take out the privacy screen that had been mine, back when Helen and I still had separate beds, and unfold it in front of the corner where Ocean's bed was. Then I went around the apartment picking up Ocean's toys, his clothes, his books; anything that reminded me of him I gathered up and hid behind the screen, so I wouldn't have to think of him when I was doing what I did next.
I melted the crystals over the burner on the stove, and I filled the syringe, prepped my arm with alcohol, and plunged the needle in. It was smooth, and calming, the first time in a decade and a half. It was warm when it entered my vein, but it sent a chill all through me, and I lay back. My heart was not my own. My mind was not my own. And soon my future would not be my own, and I gave myself over.
The headlights of cars outside traipsed across the ceiling, my own laser light show. Some Pink Floyd drifted into my head, but the melody slowly morphed back into that new song of mine, the tune that had put me here, the song that would not leave me alone. I dragged myself up to my feet, though I was not steady, and I stumbled over to my electric guitar and took it out of the case. "Shut UP!" I shouted and smashed it against the floor. The strings reverberated, but the guitar was still whole. I smashed it again and broke the body off of the neck, then I snapped the neck over my knee, with the body still dangling from the strings, sounding like something between a slinky and a washtub bass. I tossed the pieces into the case, which now would not close, and I pushed the window open and tossed the whole thing out into the dumpster in the alley.
The song would not leave.
I went back to that corner and picked up my other guitar, the red acoustic that sheds its varnish on my clothes—the one Firefly'd named Red Velvet—the one I had used to make my comeback. The one I had used to write the song that was tormenting me now. I took Red Velvet out and held her in my hands. She had taught me how to play when I had forgotten. The new song hung in the air and soothed me, and the guitar longed to be played. I forced the tune out of my head with Beatles songs, showtunes, music from Barney, LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA! If I was going to give it up, I needed to give it all up, to leave myself no way back. "Orpheus loses everything," I whispered, and I smashed Red Velvet on the floor and threw her out the window.
When Doctor Good came for me, it took him no time to recognize his old friend heroin in my eyes. "Aw man," he said, "what the hell did you have to do that for?"
I watched the trails his glasses made as he moved his head. "Why not?" I asked him back, and my laugh sounded like a bullfrog when the batteries are low. "Like you said, I'm losing everything, anyway."
"But there are protocols," he answered. "There are standards that must be observed."
I had never heard Doctor Good whine before. It amused me. I heard more subwoofer croaking from my own throat.
"Son of a bitch," he said. "I told you. I don't like making trouble for myself. Why did you have to go and do this? Vespers will fuck you up. Vespers will fuck me up. Why the hell are you doing this to me, Orpheus?"
I felt an itch underneath my skin, and I heard that grotesque amphibian chuckle in my throat. "Gotta do it to someone." My voice was like gravel.
"Shit, Orpheus. This is really bad."
I smiled. "I remember bad. I think I know what bad is like. But at the moment, I'd say I feel pretty good." And, having said it, I wondered if it was true, and I knew that underneath the cloud I was floating on, there hung the abyss with all its teeth, open and hungry and waiting for me to come down. I forced myself not to think about it, not right now. My back hurt, and my shoulders ached, but my head was not at all clear, and at the moment that was a comfort to me.
"Dammit, Orpheus; we can't let Vespers see you like this. We can't!"
I laughed again, and all the darkness in the universe was strung together on my voice. "So don't let him."
"Don't let him see me, not like this. Show him the me you want him to see."
"I know you can do it."
I watched him mull this over, like a fish inspecting the hook. I faded out for a moment, forced myself back to myself, did my best to ignore the cobwebs I was sure I felt on my face, and I gave him a smile that I hoped said, once again, You can do it.
He considered a half second longer, then took off his hat and took a small plastic bag from inside of the brim. "Take two of these," he said, tossing me the bag, which was filled with live bees.
I dropped it on the floor before my eyes caught up with reality and I saw black-and-yellow pills. I took two of them without water.
"Do you have any orange juice?" Doctor Good asked. "Doesn't matter, we can get some on the way—ah, there it is." He mixed green tea, instant coffee, crystallized ginger, sage, some leaves from a bag in one of his pockets, a pale gray powder from another one, rolled it in Zig-Zag papers, and gave it to me to smoke.
I inhaled off the hand-rolled cigarette, and it burned my throat, my windpipe, and down into my lungs.
"Put this over your eyes," he said, tossing me a bag of peas from the freezer. The cold stabbed my hand with tiny pinpricks and burrowed in with a spiraling motion, up my wrist and my underarm into the center of my chest. I ripped it open and took a handful of cold peas, spilling more on the floor, clatter clatter, as I tossed the first few into my mouth. They were cold, and they stung my tongue, and then they numbed it. I tried to push them back toward my burning throat, almost choked, and coughed a little bit. Rolling the peas around in my mouth, I leaned back and put the bag of them on my eyes. More peas clattered on the floor, and I felt the frozen spirals cross through my forehead and into my brain.
It was dark in there with the peas on my eyes. I realized Doctor Good might still be off the hook if I died, and he probably knew that too. I thought of him with the kitchen knives, and I listened for his footsteps. I started to reach again for the bag, to pull it off my face, and then I fought the impulse back.
I imagined myself in a tunnel beneath the earth, walking in darkness, groping the air in front of me, groping the concave floor with my feet. Someone might be walking behind me, or maybe not, and I wanted to look behind, but it was too dark to see. I felt like someone was watching me, examining, inspecting. If Vespers could see in the darkness, if he could trade in destinies, then how did I know he wasn't watching me right now, from wherever he was?
I ripped the bag off of my face, breathing hard, and frozen peas clattered everywhere in the room. I could feel my heart racing.
"It's OK," said Doctor Good. "That was probably long enough."
"But what if he already sees me?" I pleaded. "What if he's here in the room?"
Doctor Good looked like I'd just made him swallow a snail. "Shit," he said. He emptied the last of the sage from the spice rack into tiny piles on the windowsill and lit them with his Zippo so they smoldered, then he poured a line of salt across the length of the sill. I sucked on that godawful cigarette like it was the only air in the room, and I felt my lungs become an oven, my heart become a turbine, and the skin of my face stretch tight. I was sure if I looked in the mirror I would see my pupils ready to jump out of my eyes.
"Drink this," said Doctor Good, and he handed me a small glass of orange juice, which I downed in one gulp, burning all the way back, and almost coughed up again, as it reminded me how raw my throat already was.
I tasted stomach acid in my mouth, with orange juice and frozen peas. I gulped it down.
"Does your wife have any concealer?"
"Who, Helen?" I rasped, but my laugh had normalized a bit.
"It's OK," he said. "Take a shower and change your clothes, and you should be ready."
I stripped on my way to the bathroom, leaving a trail of peeled-off clothes on the floor from the sofa to the tub. The hot water calmed me, and woke me up, and the touch of it tickled the hairs on my arms. I scratched until I noticed my arms were red, and then I forced myself to stop. Itch itch itch. I shoved my head underneath the showerhead and exhaled. I covered my face with my hands and breathed in the steam. What if he's watching? What if Vespers knows exactly where I am and what I'm doing?
A hand reached into the shower and turned the water down to freezing.
"Son of a bitch!" I shouted and turned it off.
On the other side of the curtain, Doctor Good was laughing his ass off. I opened the curtain, and my clothes were neatly folded on the counter. Doctor Good glanced at my red-scratched arms. "We'll go with long sleeves," he said, and he took the T-shirt and left the room.
While he was gone, I started wondering again how hopped-up I looked. I wiped the steam off the mirror with my hand.
The face that looked back at me looked depressed and tired. And it was not me. It had my hair, my nose, my mouth, but someone else was looking back from behind those eyes. Was that how Vespers did it? When he watched me, kept up with what I was doing and when—did he see me in the mirror through my own eyes?
I turned away and put on the black jeans Doctor Good had set out. He returned with a black long-sleeve T-shirt and I pulled that on over my head. I sat down on the toilet and pulled on my boots. Doctor Good looked at his watch. "Time to go," he said.
Doctor Good drove a pinkish-tan Nash Rambler in surprisingly good condition, with no seatbelts. I dozed in the car, even buzzing on whatever stimulants he gave me, and the tall trees by the side of the road morphed into wizened faces that looked disapprovingly at me. I wanted to explain, but my tongue was numb and I could not move my arms. When we reached our destination I did not know where we were.
"Here?" I asked, looking up at the bold brick façade of a church.
"In the back," he answered.
We stepped out of the car and walked toward an iron gate to the side. My steps were unsteady, as if I were coming off the sea.
In the garden behind the church there was an alcove, set off from the rest, where flowering vines hung off of every wall, surrounding a circle on the ground in which the paving stones had been arranged into a single labyrinthine path winding from an entrance on the rim to a smaller circle at the center. Vespers was already there, like a bridegroom, halfway through the labyrinth, dressed in black. "I've been waiting," he said.
A cluster of purple verbena to my right sang out, "He knows, he knows, he knows." I looked at those flowers, befuddled, and they were silent and always had been.
"Is something wrong?" Vespers asked.
I shook my head.
On the floor at the labyrinth entrance was a skein of red yarn and a black-handled pair of scissors. For a moment I wondered if I had stepped into the wrong story. Doctor Good put one end of the yarn just under my boot. I pressed my toe down on it, and he measured from there to the top of my head, then cut the yarn. He handed this strand to me, and as I took it he lit the end on fire with his Zippo. I fought back the urge to drop it and step away.
"Orpheus?" said Doctor Good.
I looked at him.
"Don't look back." He winked.
I stepped onto the path with the burning string in my hand, and I wondered what it would feel like to give my fate away. And how to separate one strand of fate from another, and what it would bring. If I gave too much, could I lose everything—Helen, Ocean, my friends, my music, my life? Had I lost them already? If I gave the wrong thing, would it pierce a hole in me through which my soul could bleed out into nothing?
The night air was cool on my skin; my mind was at once both muddled and clearer than it ever had been. I had the distinct sensation that the vines had climbed off of the walls and were crawling the maze behind me in a tangling jungle weave. I almost turned to look, to see if they were already there, but I remembered Doctor Good's warning, and my namesake's legend, and I made my neck stiff against that impulse.
A dull ache began in the side of my neck, just above the right shoulder. I walked on. The small flame continued to climb the yarn. My arms began to itch. I did not scratch. I held the picture of the weaving vines behind me in my head, tried to distinguish and clarify each from the others. This one is life, that one is music, that one is love. The ache in my neck became a stabbing pain. I did not turn.
With my mind's eye I separated each vine from the others, examined, classified them, found the one I sought. It wove through the others, clutching onto all of them. In some places the tendrils clung so tight they threatened to choke the other vines. I held it tight and struggled to disentangle it from the rest. An imaginary thorn pierced the palm of my hand, and I felt real pain. My fingers cramped on that red yarn where I gripped the imaginary vine. An itch like stinging nettles spread across my palm, along my arm, and everywhere on my skin. I wondered if the itch would extend across the yarn to the flame, and if it would burn me when they met. The itch on my hand turned to pinpricks, and the backs of my eyeballs itched.
Tendril by tendril I pulled away that one vine from the rest, and marveled at how robust it still remained. I closed my eyes and continued, trusting my feet to know the path. In my mind's eye I held its turns and my own location, and where Vespers was standing and where to find Doctor Good. The stinging spread up my arm, my chest, my face. In my mind's eye, I saw my skin all turning red. I saw the fire spreading up the yarn too fast and burning my hand. My throat closed up and I struggled just to breathe. I wanted to run to get this over with; I wanted to crawl on the ground.
I rounded the lane to the halfway mark, certain that Vespers would see how I had mangled his rite. I met Vespers there, and I handed him the burning thread, my right hand to his left, and pressed my left against his right hand, fingertip to fingertip, palm to palm. "This of my destiny I give to you; this of my future will be yours." I felt something pass from me, my hand to his, like a candle's breath leaving my lungs through the palm of my hand.
Vespers took the thread from me and he began to scratch his wrist. I fell on my hands and knees. He walked out onto the fourth circle, scratching up the arm to the elbow, and he scratched his neck as well as he walked the long outside loop. Halfway around the outside, he switched the thread from hand to hand, so he could scratch the other side of his neck, the other arm.
On the fifth time around, he reached under his arm and scratched his back, then switched the thread back to scratch the other side. As he walked the sixth loop, he began to shiver. How long would it take him to escape the fate I had given him, and would he come back after me when he did? But as he turned back to take the final lap, I had no fear.
He walked right past me then, his whole body trembling, and I stood up. I resisted the urge to taunt him as he walked past. By now he could barely stay inside the lines, could barely walk. By the end he was down on his knees, crawling into the center, and he dragged the smoldering thread along the paving stones. He lay down in the center there and curled up into a fetus, scratching himself and quivering on the ground.
Doctor Good stared on, stunned, and asked, "What have you done?"
"Isn't it obvious?" I answered, unfolding a handkerchief from my pocket.
I watched the shock on Doctor Good's face turn to a clever smile. Here was a future customer like I could never be, one who had piled up treasures on this earth, collected secret hoards of other people's wealth, well beyond his needs—and, when those were exhausted, who could continue to pay with gifts of the spirit, and the wealth that dwells within.
From the shape of that grin in the moonlight, I think the Good Doctor understood I had just funded his retirement, if he so wished.
With the handkerchief, so as not to leave any prints, I took my rig out of my pocket, still in its case, and I set it down where two of the borders intersected between the paths. "Take this from me," I whispered, "and I shall owe you nothing more." I was changing the terms, of course—but who would contest it? I stood and walked straight across to the outside, stepping only on the lines, not on the path. I remembered where the pawnshop was, where I'd bought Red Velvet. If I went down there, they might have another guitar. The hangover tomorrow would be pretty bad when I went back to work, but nobody would doubt I had really been sick.
I stopped at the gate on my way outside, and, like the Orpheus of legend, I looked back. Vespers was twitching on the ground, in the center of the maze, as Doctor Good approached, squatted down beside him, and, putting a hand on his shoulder, said, "I'm here to help." And, as a friend I did not like escorted my enemy into hell, I felt neither remorse nor sense of loss, because, unlike the Orpheus of legend, I saw nobody in this garden I wanted ever to meet again.