A year ago, trying to break from a fog of drugs, I returned to the Florida college town where I'd first loosed my moorings. I found a job at the university, became a minor minder of the physical plant. On my first payday, after punching out I left with Izzy, my new friend from work. We stopped at the Pop-A-Top and I bought a case of Natural Light. Izzy whistled. His cracker whippet limbs shook with anticipation. He lived in a hacked-out corner of a large and derelict house. Every room was slovenly.
In Izzy's kitchen I sipped my beer and watched him suck down four.
"Just got paid today," Izzy sang over and over, just the one line.
The thin beer tasted like my own trickling sweat. Restraint was a language I couldn't get used to.
"It's a beautiful day, this Friday," Izzy said. "I'm going to get loose as a caboose." He repeated my name playfully, rolling it over his tongue, as if checking out how it tasted. He lit up a joint.
"Don't pass it," I begged him.
"You know you want some," he laughed. He glared at me and pounded his fist on the table, joint slanted in the slash of his mouth. I thought of Khrushchev and his shoe.
I excused myself, went to the bathroom, and locked the door. My tongue was sour with hops. I opened the medicine cabinet and found behind the Band-Aids a Polaroid of Izzy and another man, naked, masturbating each other and grinning, right at the camera. I tilted the image beneath the wan electric light.
Standing there with damp hands I realized certain things: that this picture was meant to be found, and that I had the option to do this with Izzy. I could see Izzy's janitor hands peeling off my shirt and pants, not gently. If this is sobriety, I thought, edging the picture back into place.
I felt frail and out of place, walking down Southwest 13th Street in Gainesville as sports cars rushed past, casting a single shadow in the artificial twilight surrounding the football arena. I crossed the street when the head shop winked at me with its purple lights, but in longing, I was back in the scene. Stroll in, buy a glass stem, make the connection. It was nothing I hadn't done before.
I paced the floor in the apartment I had leased, amazed, waiting out the afternoon heat that smashed against the glass. I wondered: How did I squander the years? I ached, always, weary as my thrift-store furniture. Awake on the mattress, I wished for somebody to come along and give me a massage. That's all: I didn't want any trouble.
Forty push-ups each morning, dumbbells rising and falling. Grapefruit and cereal for breakfast instead of ham and eggs. I had an idea of health in my mind: a white, spacious room with a polished blond wood floor. I saw myself in there, someday, gently dancing.
What wouldn't I have given to zoom backward in time, toward the old city, to see those dedicated hedonists I hung around. See them and tell of what it's come to. It pained me when I could no longer remember a face or a day, as if there was no precision to how I spent the time, just the blur of apartment parties and rough bars and those awful hungover breakfasts at the Friar's Grill. Isaac with his acid and the whiskey violence Sarah never could face up to. Alone I remembered the hopeful dull girl who slept with me on informal occasions. Everything was too simple then. I snuck away each time, out of her apartment and down the stairs and down the street, feeling creepy and liking it. Alone in that apartment I wished to see her, out of bed, in her clothes. Just the floral whisper of her Chanel No. 5 would have shaken me to tears. I wanted to hear her dry voice for the first time in years.
Near the apartment there was a dog that yipped mournfully all night long. A big dog, from the sound of it. All night long sleep evaded me: I was encased in the chamber of that big dog's skull. I wanted to find it among the sour trees, to comfort it or mercifully slay it. Soon I saw myself doing terrible things to the punk who left it tied and ignored: imagined sneaking up his back steps with my sharpest kitchen knife. The urge must have come from all the workouts. Violence was new to me. Once I was everyone's favorite stoner, comic relief, the goofy drunk crushed into the booth.
When the evenly spaced taps began at my door, late one night, I was more than ready for it. I yanked up my jeans and felt around for the waffled rubber grip of my old Maxwell Street hammer. I raised it up before me, the head a streak of dark steel. I rehearsed the way I'd swing it toward an intruder. When the knocking started up again, I flung open the door.
Izzy smelled of whiskey and smoke, sweat and sickness. "Did you puke?"
"No, man," Izzy said. "I don't puke."
"Where have you been?"
"I was drinking at the Salty Dog," Izzy said. "But I had to leave. Why? I got horny, then I got broke, then I kept getting horny. When I get horny, it doesn't stop. Watching all those girls and boys getting together, getting ready to ball, I can't stand it, you know?" He looked around at the apartment, the dim outlines of cheap chairs. "Wait a sec: where's my car?"
"I didn't hear you drive up," I said.
"I did, man, I did!" Izzy spun around unsteadily, charged back toward the door, then stopped and returned, saying, "No, I remember now. I left it there and I walked. I walked all the way down University Avenue." He laughed rawly, a smoker's laugh, and touched my bare chest with his sunburnt hand. "'Cause I wanted to see you."
The moment arrived among uncertain masculine fumble: either Izzy kissed me, or I leaned forward and kissed him. Either way, though, I liked his mouth on mine, stubble grading my chin, his nicotined tongue gentler than I'd have guessed, girlish, not hesitant. Then he backed up on uneven legs. "You know what," he said. "Maybe I had better go sit in your bathroom, man."
Beneath the light, we both had to blink and squint. Izzy fell down, close to the dirty bowl. He looked like a bum from the highway, enormous and disheveled. "I'm all right, I'm OK," he said. "Just give me a minute."
I stood in the doorway and watched him. His rank body was a ripe and colorful thing, posed against the dull mosaic of tiles. I studied him and thought how whatever happened between the two of us in the small hours, none of it would last or matter come morning. It will have no impact, I thought, and this provided astringent relief.
Watching Izzy made me realize how smooth and pleasant it seemed these days to merely breathe, to walk around. I was starting to enjoy the repetitive work and my solitary days--I was a ghost in a gray jumpsuit to the taut-bodied students who flicked past--and I liked having money again.
I remembered the neat pile of bills on my shabby bedroom bureau. No matter what happened with Izzy, where he slept or at what point he left, he didn't need to have a hand in that money. Given his habits and my old ways, it would be best spent quickly. The next day, I resolved, I would handle it: as Izzy stirred, I saw myself in Sapp's Pawn, buying either a police-retired .38 revolver or a Taiwanese knock-off Stratocaster. Tomorrow I would find the thing that explained this process and would keep it moving.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Damon Locks.