The sun was creeping down the horizon as we climbed onto our porch. A new night approached, a third round of madness. We all scattered in different directions to prepare for the evening, except me and Grace. She joined me on the trusty wicker bench. A pack of cigarettes and a lighter lay on the glass table. I grabbed one and lit up, even though I wasn’t craving it.
“That was fun,” she said.
“It was great, I’d love to do it again tomorrow.”
“Me too,” she said smiling, but we both knew it wouldn’t happen again. “Oh my God,” she then exclaimed, craning her neck to look on the second floor balcony. “Carl, you’re alive!” she cried out. The battle-worn Spartan had returned from the dead. He was smoking a blunt with Eddy and Nellie, looking down on us and smiling his goofy, gap-toothed grin. “My lifesavers! Y’all are the damn best!”
“How are you feeling, bro?” I cried. “How’s the foot?” Grace yelled. We were happy to see him, alive and well. I’d forgotten about his ordeal with the stingray.
“Better than ever, buddy! They fixed me right up,” and to prove his health, he took a massive drag off the blunt.
“Hey,” Grace said softly, turning to me, “in a little bit, we should go down to the water for the sunset.”
“That would be great.” I took a drag and contorted my face, exhaling out the side of my mouth to avoid blowing smoke in her eyes. I dropped the half-finished cigarette and stomped on it with the underside of my flip-flop. “Mind if I take a quick shower? I’m feeling gross,” I asked, even though I felt fine.
“Yeah man, go for it. I’m gonna relax for a while, find me later.” She wandered off and I went into my room, where Boris and Nellie were entangled in a heated discussion. Boris lay on a bed, scrutinizing the ceiling thoughtfully. Nellie sat cross-legged on the other bed, looking directly at Boris.
“All I’m saying,” said Nellie, holding up her hands innocently, “is that you can’t trust anyone in a position of power. It’s simple: by virtue of their being in power, they are automatically corrupted. You see what I’m saying?
“Yes yes I get that,” said Boris, “but what then? Where does one possibly go from there?”
“This is how I see it,” said Nellie, swinging her legs off the bed and resting her forearms on her thighs, leaning into Boris with her penetrating hazel eyes. “Anything and everything you hear in the media – whether its the big shiny media like CNN, Fox News, MSNBC – or the supposedly independent media, with their supposedly disinterested aims… I’m just saying, the second your brain receives any information…” she paused to point at her own skull – “the second those words enter your stream of thought, you need to be actively reconditioning that stream to filtrate out all the filth. You see what I’m saying?” she gesticulated unintelligibly.
“Yes, yes I get it but –”
“But,” interjected Nellie, raising her index finger, “I’m not saying journalists are bad people per se; not at all! I mean, who am I to blame them for having their own biases? All I’m saying,” she said while pointing to her collarbone with both hands, “is that anyone who raises her voice is not only putting herself in a position of power, but also has some sort of… of agenda, intentional or not. Whether that person is speaking to an audience of millions, like Anderson Fuckface, or whether that person is speaking to an audience of one, just as I’m speaking to you in this very moment – no matter who’s doing the talking, that person has an agenda, and your job is to disentangle the raw data from all these Goddamn motherfucking agendas. Ha-haha! You see what I’m saying?”
I grabbed a towel and a change of clothes and left to take my shower. While scrubbing the sand off my legs, I wondered what Nellie’s agenda might be; whether she even had one. When I reentered the room, fresh and rejuvenated, the two were still absorbed in discussion.
“Look,” said Nellie, again holding up her hands to protest her innocence, as if wary of being shot, “the stuff I’m talking about isn’t modern phenomena. This fucking struggle is old as mankind.”
She caught our attention with this grandiose statement.
“You see… it began with the dawn of agriculture, when sedentary societies first came into existence. From that moment, there’s always been a surplus of whichever form of capital is most valued by that particular society. In turn, a ruling class has always sprung up to hoard that capital and control its distribution for their own benefit.” She paused for dramatic effect and straightened her spine solemnly. “In the old days, food was the most important form of capital. The alderman of early urban civilizations instituted complicated rules and technicalities as a means of centralizing the process of grain circulation, rewarding those subjects who complied with their demands, while punishing the dissenting minority.”
She was constantly emphasizing words, carefully balancing her modulation. She spoke like President Obama, even if their messages were diametrically opposed.
“Yes yes I get that but what the hell does it have to do with us not being able to impartially receive information?” rejoined Boris heatedly, with disdain and exasperation painted across his reddening face.
“Ha! It has everything to do with us. Let me just ask you this, Boris,” she continued, pointing her index finger at him, unfazed by his ill-will. “Do you see any difference whatsoever between those magistrates who concocted laws to control grain for themselves, and the modern vultures on Wall Street who create obscure forms of leverage that no one understands, and from which no one benefits but they?” She smiled patiently, looking at Boris for an answer.
“Yes but what’s the fucking point,” said Boris.
“The point is that you can’t trust anything you hear! Anything! You see what I’m saying?”
“Jesus Christ I’m gonna be… oh God.” Boris ran to the little wastebasket in the corner of our room and fell to his knees. He hacked up a cupful of gooey slime.
“Fucking, Chobani,” he muttered from the floor.
Nellie watched with a smile of sublime purpose. “Look man,” she said consolingly, “I’m sorry. I know this isn’t easy stuff to hear. I’ll admit that sometimes I push the envelope a little. But I can’t sit back and not speak what’s on my mind, especially on this wacky acid shit. You’re too good of a friend, Boris – I feel obligated to let my heart out with you.”
Her expression of hard-won satisfaction held steady as Boris groaned from the floor. The sight and sound of her friend’s misery did not make her happy. Rather, what made Nellie happy was her interpretation of his puke as a sign that he was beginning to understand and reconcile himself to the terrible truths of human nature, whose essence only she truly grasped.
“Fucking hell,” muttered Boris, grabbing the bed’s edge and finding his feet. “Enough chit-chat, time for dat cocainnnneeeeeeee,” he suddenly roared, thumping his fist against his chest like Matthew Mcconaughey. He pulled out a square Ziploc bag, cleared the nightstand of extraneous objects with a grand sweep of the arm, and emptied the bag’s contents onto the varnished glass surface. He took a credit card from his wallet and began chopping up the crumbly white powder.
“Someone give me a bill I can use.”
Nellie gave him a twenty. I eyed the drugs and felt a wild, rapacious urge to give Boris my bank account information and sniff up every last crumb. Just as Boris was about to do a line, Arnold burst into the room.
“Guys, wazzzzzup!” He cried, his goofy red hair flopping wildly, clearly unwashed for a number of days. He was happy to see us, but we were happier to see him. The positive energy was a breath of fresh air for the somber, rancid, puke-filled room; even Boris managed a wry smile.
“Hey, so umm, I was thinking about grabbing dinner in a little bit… any of you interested, perhaps?” he asked from the doorway.
“Yes, man, let’s go,” I said, eager to escape my own temptations, while also physically conscious of the fact that I’d perish without proper sustenance. Nellie and Boris declined, saying they weren’t hungry. Boris was eying his white powder covetously.
“Hey so um, man,” started Arnold nervously, “so umm, might you be interested in smoking a little kush first? You know, just to get our appetites up a little bit?” I was down, as long as I could be with Arnold and listen to his observations on society. We lumbered up to the attic-room where another round of revelry was revving its engine; Mitch, Mandy, and Zane Zinser were furtively discussing their business operation in the corner. The usual batch of leeches hovered with their skittish dispositions and anxious eyes, wordlessly shuffling their feet and looking down on the dirt speckled floor, as if wary of upsetting their masters, though their physiognomies were more pointed than usual; as if the prevailing sentiment had attained a shade of anger. We approached the drug lords to ask for their bong. I nudged Arnold to do the dirty work.
“Hey umm – excuse me guys – yes, hi! – so sorry to interrupt,” Arnold began politely, waving his hands to get their attention. “Umm, so, would you mind if we use your bong, again?” Zane retrieved the bong from behind the bed in one swift movement and handed it to Arnold without so much as looking at him. Arnold and I sidled our way through the leeches and ambled up onto the roof-deck.
“Wow, man. What a day,” concluded Arnold happily as he loaded a bowl. His stash was beginning to run low. He was very generous with his weed.
“Yeah man, I wish I had seen you more.” And I had. College wasn’t the same without him. He was a stolid, easygoing companion.
“Ah, me too man! But hey, at least we’re kicking it now,” he said, smiling with just about the most generous smile I’d ever seen.
“Tell me about your day, man. Tell me what you did,” I implored, leaning back against the wall, gazing up at the silvery sliver of moon, listening to Arnold piece together his day with the uncorrupted joy of a happy elementary school student. He spoke of Frisbee with Justin in the ocean; recounted Shelly splashing in the sand and laughing hysterically with Nathan; remembered meditating in the surf with Boris at the height of their trips and looking into the everlasting Pacific while revealing to one another, and to themselves, the inmost layers of their souls. He talked about going to the Waco Crew apartment and drinking Coors Light with miscellaneous friends and acquaintances; about how he loved everyone and everyone loved him – of course, he didn’t utter this latter point; he seemed unaware, in fact – but I knew that everyone loved him because I saw him so well for all that he was, all he’d been, from the moment we met Freshman year, and so from atop the roof-deck while I inhaled Mary Jane and absorbed the little details rolling off his tongue, I began to see the colors and shapes of goodwill radiating from his presence to brighten the hearts of everyone within a ten foot radius, undiscriminatingly and without premeditation, which reminded me of how the sweet rays of sunshine had shone down from the pale California firmament for four years running. The perennial sun had given us unqualified joy, but also a stubborn fourth-dimension that defied the traditional constraints of space and time.
“Hey guys, mind if I join?” asked Mandy sweetly as she climbed onto the roof-deck. The leader of the leeches had abandoned her kin to consume our less destructive substance.
“Yes, please!” Arnold handed over the bong. She took a fat rip, sighed, and rested her head in her palms.
“Is everything okay, Mandy?”
“No, nothing’s okay, everything has gotten out of hand. Do you know Sammy and his girlfriend?”
“Is Sammy the one who was going on and on about the sexiness of Oxycontin?” asked Arnold. “The one with the Aviator sunglasses?” I piled on.
Mandy managed a doleful laugh, the kind you’d hear after an elegiac anecdote. “Yep, that’s him alright. And the girl with the bleach blonde hair is his girlfriend. Was his girlfriend…” She trailed off ominously, her dilated pupils glued to her feet.
“Did something happen?” asked Arnold. The realm of possibility struck me, and I felt myself ceasing to breathe; Mandy looked up with tears running down her face.
“I need to tell someone. I need to. Only Mitch and Zane know this, and the girlfriend of course, but she’s gone now. I’ll tell you because us three go way back.” Somehow, Mandy managed a smile and we all remembered introductory Psychology the first semester of our Freshmen year when we’d all been buddies – but times had changed, our paths had diverged. The seriousness of the world had caught up with us. “And I know,” she continued, “that I can trust you both, so please, you cannot tell anyone what I’m about to say. This can’t get around, at least not yet – not while we’re still here. Once we’re gone I don’t care who you tell, just – please, just not yet.”
“You have our word, Mandy.” We were hanging on her every word.
“Sammy was arrested this morning … he was out of his mind on Molly last night, I swear he didn’t know what he was doing. He…he… he…” The night went silent. Arnold and I sat motionless while adrenaline coursed through our veins. Mandy inhaled and exhaled, three times, purposefully, then continued. “Everyone was so fucked up last night. We were just running around the house, there was nothing to do. At some point Sammy must’ve wandered off, because this morning at 8:00 his girlfriend shook me awake, telling me that he was gone, nowhere to be seen. We called his phone – it rang and rang but only went to voicemail. We searched the whole house, thinking he might’ve passed out on the floor or something, but he was nowhere. Then his girlfriend gets a call from him. She puts the phone on speaker and the first thing we hear is Sammy’s trembling voice, asking, ‘Where am I?’ He sounded very… very confused. At first we laughed, relieved he was alive. But then his stammering became… it was pure fear. He was muttering things like, “Oh my God, this can’t be real, this doesn’t make any sense.” And so his girlfriend – fuck, I still can’t remember her name – we were just looking at each other, and she was crying, we knew something was wrong, and we were exhorting him to tell us where he was; we promised to bring him home safely, but he didn’t seem to hear us because he just kept blubbering, ‘Oh my God, this can’t be happening, fuck fuck fuck’, and he wasn’t conscious of us on the other line, he just kept on wailing horribly and muttering to himself for what must’ve been fifteen minutes. With how many drugs we did last night, he was definitely still fucked up. Then his voice it… it went from fear to desperation. Through his sobbing he… he whimpered, ‘oh my God they see me!’ And he cried out to his girlfriend through the phone, ‘Babe, tell them to stop looking at me! Tell them to stop pointing at me! Jesus Christ, the ambulances are here! Come save me, babe, please!’ We pressed him to tell us where he was. We promised to bring him home safely. We said everything would be okay. His girlfriend was going ballistic, it was terrible – she was imploring him passionately, saying ‘Sammy, you’re my everything, I love you more than anything in the world, just tell us where you are so we can help you.’ Then Sammy yawped like a little boy: ‘I don’t want to fall.’
Mandy paused a moment. Her tears had slowed. She managed another doleful laugh. Arnold and I sat still, but my body trembled violently as I physically forced myself to resist from asking, “And then?” because I was so hungry for whatever information was awaiting.
“I’ll never forget those words,” repeated Mandy as she composed herself. “Because in that moment, I knew where he was: I understood his predicament, and I swear that I almost fainted, but I told his girlfriend to follow me, and I took us to that big fucking wooden roller coaster, that Giant Dipper piece of shit, because it’s all Sammy’s been talking about, and sure enough we get to the foot of the ride and already there are ambulances, policemen, a big crane, hundreds of spectators – and of course, Sammy, immobile and terrified, clutching the wooden slats at the very tiptop of the roller coaster’s tallest climb.”
Our jaws dropped – probably literally. Mandy nodded tearfully. “It’s true. His girlfriend went white as a ghost. She was going to yell out Sammy’s name – she must’ve wanted to offer him words of comfort – but I threw my hand over her mouth, because I knew, I knew, that we had no idea what sort of trouble Sammy might be in; that we had no idea how many drugs were on Sammy’s person; that we couldn’t afford to implicate ourselves. So we stood on the curb and watched it unfold. One of the policeman had a megaphone and kept yelling , ‘Stay put, young man, we’re coming up to getcha,’ and I could tell Sammy was still so high. He just sat there, immobile and terrified, watching from above the pandemonium he’d caused. I remember thinking, he was like a cat that’s climbed up a big tree. The firemen went got in the crane and shot up into the sky, and they held Sammy’s hands as he maneuvered into the safety of the box. When they got down to the ground, Sammy stayed in the box with one of the fireman; and sure enough, the other approached the policemen with a mound of Ziploc baggies in his cupped hands; there were so many, he was balancing them against his stomach. I could see it wasn’t just Sammy’s drugs, but what looked like every drug we had – thousands of dollars’ worth. And we sobbed and watched as Sammy was handcuffed and driven away. His girlfriend immediately called her parents and they bought her a plane ticket. She flew home this afternoon. Mitch, Zane and I have no idea what to do about Sammy, let alone what will happen if the police find out what’s been going on in this house. Plus Sammy stole the majority of our drugs, stuffed them in his pockets, and lost them to the police. And now we’re trying to tell our customers that we’re out of supply, but they don’t believe us, and they won’t leave our house.”
The night went silent. We sat motionless under the silver moon. I was too exhausted, too high, too anxious, too self-obsessed to fully comprehend or appreciate Mandy’s tale, much less its immediate ramifications, whatever they may be. I was vaguely aware of Arnold’s reassuring words as my brain splintered; my thoughts zoomed in a million directions, criss-crossing one another before landing on the cynical insight that Mandy’s story would’ve been perfect for storytelling on the drive down in Arnold’s beautiful stallion of a machine, the lime Green beast which I was half-tempted to skedaddle out of town in with Arnold, but instead the beast drove me backward to the blameless epoch of high school – with escalating anxiety – as I tried to withstand but quickly succumbed to the acute horrors of an unfamiliar basement in a lonely Colorado suburb with a flashlight in my face and the threatening voice at the top of the stairs, thinking to myself with certainty, “There goes the future,” and with repentance, “Sorry, family,” but God’s sweet grace was saving me again as I relived, step-by-step, the inborn composure of Tommy, the court jester of suburbia, joshing his way from stage to stage, which had only doubled my ecstasy in the dawning realization that I’d gotten off the hook again, but here I was, 4 years later, and what had changed? Would I get off the hook this time, even if I wasn’t to blame? My reckless ingratitude held firm, unshakeable and irrevocable. Time could not conceal to my heart that my brain was a self-interested lump of matter, and no matter what fancy words the lump of matter could generate and arrange for purposes of self-mollification, it couldn’t prevent God’s sweet grace being smothered by the numbing cold of truth, which rattled my bones in the image of my own face grinning stupidly for photos with my dirt-smeared hands holding a shiny certificate that I would cling to as a lifejacket for the rest of my days while Tommy delivered pizza boxes in lonely American suburbs, paddling in circles until the end of time.
“Buddy?” inquired Arnold gently. “What’s up, man?” He and Mandy were looking at me. I snapped back to reality and realized for the second time in the span of thirty minutes that I was going to die, and sooner rather than later unless I got some food in my stomach.
“Arnold, please, can we please go eat.”
“Yeah man, of course,” but just then a torrent of leeches flooded the roof-deck with their avaricious motion. I saw dilated pupils light up at the sight of weed in Arnold’s hand and the bong at his feet.
“Excuse me, sir,” piped up the sallow, stringy-haired leech, “Could I please have just a pinch of your kush? Please sir, just an itsy-bitsy amount?” The little leech spoke in a lilting cadence that was so sweet, so infantile – so redolent of a Dickensian orphan – that Arnold, of all people, could not refuse him. “Sure man, here you go,” and he handed over the weed and bong. “Please keep it small though, I don’t have much left.” The little leech offered appreciative mumbles. A pair of aggressive parasites had zoned in on the unprecedented circumstance of free drugs. They descended on the little leech and ripped the equipment from his hands without a word. One of them held the bong while the other dumped Arnold’s Ziploc bag over the bowl piece, filling it to the brim and spilling the rest of the contents on the ground. Arnold and I watched in awe as the two parasites took turns taking bong rips, ignoring the little leech’s supplicatory mumblings. When the parasites had finished, they set down the bong and went back inside.
“What the fuck just happened,” said Arnold.
“Man, please, food,” I begged.
“Yeah, let’s get out of here.”
We said bye to Mandy. She was trying to pacify her customers and didn’t hear us. I drifted in and out of consciousness following Arnold down the stairway. My awareness heightened in the living room at the sight of Grace. She and Shelly were talking to a few swimmers. Grace caught my eye for a second without pausing to signify our connection; when I stepped onto the porch and encountered twilight, I recalled her invitation to watch the sunset, and how I’d smoked with Arnold instead. She might’ve hated me, and I suddenly felt very disoriented, but still couldn’t concentrate on anything but food. The sun was setting as Arnold and I shuffled nervously down the boardwalk, wordlessly agreeing to revisit our favorite Mexican restaurant. We placed our orders and sat outside again at a concrete table. I heard screams and looked up to see jubilant passengers waving their arms, enjoying Giant Dipper, apparently unaware of what those tracks had borne witness to a few hours before.
“This might sound harsh, but hear me out: I sort of wish I’d been awake this morning to see Sammy on the rollercoaster.”
“Oh my God – I was just thinking the same thing.”