All cocaine dealers are the same. They're intolerant. And they all like to brag about their latest purchase, a new pair of cowboy boots, a new boat. And they should. It was my money.
I had two dealers, dealer one and dealer two. They both sold the same shit, cut it with the same baby laxative. They both had pagers. They both called back but never too fast and rarely after the first page. They were on dealer time. You waited till they were finished doing whatever they were doing. You never went to their homes. You never chased them down. They might agree to meet. They might drive by your place. But waiting was always part of the deal, never less than an hour, sometimes all night.
That's why I had two dealers.
They started by being available, always at the end of the bar, always walking through, and always around the same time. A nod, a wink, it was like a dinner bell for the drug hungry. Pavlov's dogs barked. They lined up for business and pawed two times. Fifty for a half, a hundred for a whole, secret handshakes exchanged dope for dough, and the bathroom stalls got busy. In thirty minutes the dealer made his money and bar conversation reached its peak. If not in this bar, the other bar, where dealer two ran the same game.
But popularity has its price, and the walk through became a rarity. The dealers didn't need to hawk, their fair share was snared, the addicts. The base salary was established, invested. The risks of undercover rousts were no longer worth the barroom rounds. Those in the know had the numbers. I was on both guest lists, a star client. It was embarrassing.
"You recognize this guy?"
A sick southern accent, both dealers had one, and it scraped like a razor on a plate of pancakes. Late night, early morning, when rare benevolence struck before paranoia, they opened their homes to a cocaine parlor game. I was the focus, circled by a table of powdered nosed strangers and red-eyed vaguely familiars. I had no choice. The drugs were free.
"Come on," the dealer would push and pull, line up another line. "Just look at him."
Jittery, jacked, I sat with pink-caked nostrils and a bloody dollar bill. The chemicals dripped, dropped like the clock, ticking my heart's nauseas second hand. I smiled from my sick belly, swallowing the poison, holding the spew with molars grinding, grinding with each temple beat. Snot and sweat glazed, I wiped, mopped the mess and blinked, blinked back the tears and sting. Exhaling, lips cracked, teeth clacked, my skeleton wanted out, and so did I.
"He's on the news," the dealer would deflate the awkward air. "Yeah."
Faces feigned recognition, interest, before returning to the plate of power and the previous cockeyed conversations its magic coerced. No one cared except the star-struck dealer. Growing up in Alabama has that effect no matter how big a dealer gets. He likes his celebrities no matter how minor.
"Yep," the dealer smiled his country cooked smile, "on the news."
After too many years of late night scrambles, I got smart. I'd make my order, my purchase on Friday afternoon. I scored on Tuesday nights, disco night. But that was the only weeknight I played. I started missing work on Wednesday. It got to be a joke. They called it disco flu. So I stopped the Tuesdays and zeroed in on weekends. The problem with the Friday score was Friday night. What I bought for the weekend, two grams for two hundred, didn't make it, gone by dawn. I'd wake up sometime after noon, find my stomach, find the phone, empty one and dial the other. My tenacity impressed the dealers. So did the depth of my wallet, that limp piece of brown leather that laid empty and twisted on Sunday morning's cold, cold floor.
I barely cared who knew. I didn't like games. I didn't like the dealer's what's my line. But I shared enough Hepatitis C key bumps for a barroom brotherhood. Strange stares in the bathroom didn't bother me unless it was the occasional cop on a piss break. I never flushed my shit, but I came close. One moonlighter caught me cleaning up at the sink, snorting water. He pissed to the static of his radio. I wiped with paper towels. Like a couple of queers in a public park crapper, we considered the quick frisk, the donkey pocket shake down until recognition ripped his face. He zipped, I dipped, and barely a word was spoken. But he knew and he could've known better. I was holding. I was always holding but rarely red handed.
"News guy, right," the cop smiled like he was logging date, place, and time.
"Right," I sniffed. "Can't get rid of this cold."
"It's going around."
"It sure is."
The same cop was busted with a buddy for double dipping, working security gigs at bars on city time. My station's I-Team tipped me, told me to steer clear for a few weeks. I thought the cop might drop a dime, swap my toilet tale for lighter treatment. I was compromised, a hypocrite. But the cop took his medicine quietly, and I bought more of mine.
Complicity, the appearance of complicity, was only a concern the morning after when I carpooled with depression and anxiety. Work was a hall of horrors, my synapse sizzling in the mirrors, distorting not just reality, but the color of the corpuscles spun across my skin like a black widow's death web. Sleep deprivation, conjunctivitis, excuses were easy. Holding on was hard. I had my principles. I never got high on the job. I might do a few left-over lines to get me there but it only delayed the mood dips, the cerebellum swing. So I hung on, cradled coffee near the john, and clenched.
On the streets, on assignment, is where and when I worried. We covered drug murders, drug busts, and sometimes the street was too familiar, the address too close to home. I'd find a shadow and wear it, cover myself in a corner, and peek. Cocaine has a communal quality that benefits the freeloader, the late night lackey, and drug dealer's sycophant. They're ephemeral and faceless like the friend of a friend, the calliope of third parties, the ghost menage that comes back to haunt. I didn't know. I couldn't remember. I got high with a lot of strangers. So I worried and watched for the Judas, the handcuffed, the small timer who might know my name from those stupid, stupid parlor games and yell it out.
"Hey, motherfucker! Remember me?"
My guys, my two dealers, never had cop troubles, though. Their black market business wasn't a secret. They both had neighborhood reps but they kept it confined to a few blocks, a few square miles. The cops popped the south side street corners, the gang-bang crack colors. The white hood, the working neighborhood, might see drunk-driving roadblocks. But red-dog raids, the big black boots of the city swat squad, caved in doors of the poor, mostly. My dealers had jobs, the appearance of jobs, strapping on power tools and tool belts for lunchtime sales. The bricklayers were always ready for an afternoon run. It's how work got done. But the cops still had their fun.
One of the dealers woke up to a pounding door. It was too early for a craving customer. They knew better. But the peephole was empty. He cracked the blinds to find the color of caution. Yellow police tape draped the place. The dealer dashed to his stash, ditched it down the drain. He opened the door but there was no one. The crime tape flapped and somebody laughed. The dealer ran around to the back and there they were, two uniforms in a cruiser. The dealer waved. The cops waved back and flashed their siren. It was either a practical joke or a warning. The cops left the dealer to wonder and yard work.
But a dealer has his limits, and I was often one, my behavior. I needed blow to booze, to drink and stand. They were synonymous substances. When the former wasn't forthcoming, the latter led me down black alleys, blind drunkenness. So I'd scout, make the rounds before the rounds knocked me down. The dealers hated it when I found them unannounced, backslapping and slobbering. They defused pagers for a reason. And the sale was never worth it when a customer's falling on the floor, ripping his pants, breaking bottles. It's bad business, conspicuous. Especially when the loud mouth's on a known mug, a face on the local news. Shoulders froze cold. I'd get the message, and the message was no deal.
"You're a mess," dealer one said.
For a user in need, there's nothing worse than a drug dealer dealing moral hygiene cut with hypocrisy. It stinks when a dirty devil takes the high road and leaves a sinner running low.
"Jesus Christ," he said. "People are staring."
The floorshow didn't bother me. It was part of the act, the drunk in his cups, trying to find a leg to stand on but falling fast on his double-edge sword. Without the score, I was done. And if I was done, it was public. Dealer one didn't like the display, not because of the attention but the affection. He cared.
"I'd rather lose business than a friendship," he said.
He lost both. And with dealer two down or out of town, I'd branch out, no choice. A buddy at a bar knew someone. We ended up making crack pancakes. He cooked and I smoked until our hearts attacked dawn. And there was an Ethiopian who lived in the bungalow behind my place. His refugee parties were always packing. But stories of home preceded politics of the plate. I had to listen before they lined up. The guns in their belts guaranteed it.
Saturday nights were the most desperate. The bars closed, the dealers done, my veins wondered which way to run, vibrated distress like a lab rat. Certain black cats sensed it, crept in for the vivisection. My heart, my wallet, they got both with the lure of hope, the promise of just a little more dope.
I was standing in the hole between dawn and daylight, deep purple time before birds cry. I was checking a friend's building not far from my pad, looking for light, a sign, the shadow of a sale. But there was no one home, no star of Bethlehem. A pair of wise guys walked up, brothers with paper-wrapped bottles.
"What you looking for," one asked.
I told him.
"Give me twenty and I'll be right back."
I walked across to the convenience store with the other brother. But beer sales stopped on midnight's dime. So I took a pull from his and waited for the florescent light to stop licking my mind.
"When's your buddy coming back," I asked.
"Man," he smiled. "I don't know that dude."
The light buzzed yellow. A traffic signal clicked yellow, red.
"I was just walking with the guy when we saw you."
He laughed. I laughed. I had to.
"Come on," he said. "I'll take you someplace."
The lingering taste, the endorphins screaming for another run, kicks common sense in the ass. The body may be beat. But when the spirit's on a bender, the racetrack runs long. The more used, the more desired, no matter mischief. And I was looking for it with my newfound friend.
We shook on it and walked in. Jake hit a low light and whispered.
Jake slipped into a back room like a cheater. I checked the place. It was a starter box, the other side of a section eight but clean, a few toys in the corner. It was new, less than a mile from my dive. Jake came out, made for the kitchen.
"How much you want?"
He was holding a bag and a pipe, a crack shooter with the mesh filter ready to rock.
"It's what I got."
And he had a lot. At ten bucks a pop, I was counting my cash, a hundred minus twenty.
"You got enough," he said. "Let's light your fire."
We sat at the table and told tales. Jake worked sanitation, municipal. His wife worked downtown, clerical. I worked the tube, television.
"I knew it," Jake coughed, almost crapped trying to hold his hit. "I knew I'd seen you somewhere."
Three rocks in, he'd had enough. But Jack Daniels tumbled.
"No thanks," I was starting to enjoy the fry.
"God damn it," Jake shook his head, "my wife and me watch you all the time."
I flicked, flicked, and drew.
"No," Jake drank, dropped, "No. My old lady won't believe it. She'd kill me."
I hung and swung, my head a smoke box listing in the mist. I was high like a vapor, swirling and simple. I didn't know crack. But I could see why so many people liked it, killed and died for it.
"Oh my god!"
Full lights flooded and I froze, pinwheels for eyes.
"It is you!"
Her breasts swayed beneath the nightgown's sheer fabric. Her chocolate areolas looked like cookies. Jake's wife was big. So was her smile. Both filled the kitchen door, beamed and bounced.
"Honey, get my camera."
Jake retreated, the woman advanced.
Her hands enveloped mine and pulled. I smelled the morning of her mouth, foul but fair. Juanita was a beige-skinned beauty. She pointed to an old picture to prove it.
"Well, well," she sang like a song, "just look what the cat dragged in."
Juanita didn't care about the crack. It was Jake's business. But she thought I might be done.
"The kid will be getting up soon," she said. "We've got church."
I got up to stagger off.
"Hang on, baby," Juanita wouldn't let go. "Jake?"
Jake came back in with a cardboard box.
"I can't find it," he said.
Juanita grabbed the box, rummaged around, and pulled out a Polaroid.
"Well, all right," she said, checking for film.
"Oh, it's loaded," said Jake.
"And I know someone else who's loaded."
"Never mind," she said, "hold this."
Juanita put both arms around me, held her cheek to mine.
"Don't get a news celebrity in the house every day now, do we," she snuggled. "Jake?"
The Polaroid popped and whirred.
The crack was still on the checkerboard cover, the pipe still smoldering on the plastic.
"And try not to look so high," Juanita squeezed.
Pop went the Polaroid.
"Oh, the girls are not going to believe this."
"Now take one with me," Jake said.
The couple swapped, popped.
"Yeah," Jake said, "for the crew."
"That's little Jake."
"Come on in here, little man."
The kid came in.
"You recognize this man, little Jake?" Juanita wondered. "Come here."
Juanita put little Jake on my lap.
"Last one," she told Jake. "This one's for the family."
I held the kid. The kid fingered the pipe.
"Yeah," Jake snapped the Polaroid.
"Oh," Juanita moaned, "I'm going to think about this every time you're on the news."
"Me too," I said. "Me too."