He passed by a group of punks – homeless people? Punks? The lines between subcultures blurred together like their matted, dreadlocked, hair – on Wabash Ave by Roosevelt. They sat in a doorway of an abandoned building with their two dogs lying on the ground like so many dying soldiers, panting, desperate for food. Food, which they hadn’t received in days. The punks, who had a grunge vibe to them that was only exacerbated by their hungry, homeless look, played their guitars as he passed, and one drummed on a bucket in time with the music. They played some kind of folk punk, and he wasn’t sure if they had written it themselves or if he had heard it before. He had a feeling their music was written by someone else, because it gave him some kind of feeling. A feeling of home.
He kept walking up Wabash Ave, even though he wanted to talk to them. Take pictures of them. Hear their stories, write down some notes, pet their dogs. Dogs. Those animals were barely dogs anymore. Maybe skeletons? He wished he had a sandwich to give them, a bottle of water, but he had nothing. It was the end of the day, and he was rushing. The last train back to Michigan City was in half an hour, and he had no money. This wasn’t unusual for him. He always forgot money. Money, food, books. It was all interchangeable. He knew he needed all those things to live, yet he left them on his desk, on his bed, on top of his bookshelf full of video games. He never kept books in his bookshelf. He would read them over and over, relishing the flow of the words, hating himself for not being able to write better, feeling the guilt, the shame bleeding into his skin as he read the words of people he idolized. Words were blood. They kept him alive. Since the day he was born (or died, maybe… Being squeezed out of a bloody tunnel into a hurt-filled, hateful world. It never seemed like the beginning of life to him), books were his umbilical cord, and words were the nutrients flowing to the placenta surrounding him. And then he was born, his umbilical cord wrapped tightly around his neck, and since then, words were that same cord, torturing him, forcing the air away from his brain, forcing his eyes to bulge, pupils blown, eclipsing the baby blue irises. He wondered how he lived so deprived. So he left books all over, shuddering as he passed them, knowing he needed to read but not knowing how anymore. He didn’t know how.
He didn’t stop to talk to the punkgrungehomeless people. They would want to read the stories he wrote about them, and he wasn’t ready to show anyone those.
He strode up Wabash Ave, his mohawk bending slightly in the wind, and stopped by the Chase Bank ATM near Eighth St. It was dark outside, and he couldn’t see much, because the lights had gone out in the South Loop, as they were wont to do when he needed to be somewhere. Nothing went his way, nothing, not the party he went to where he was raped by a girl, not the weight lifting which made him lose weight instead of bulking up, not the shimmering black of a crescent moon tattoo on his back which the artist couldn’t finish the day he thought he would have it all done. He shrugged as the streetlight near him flickered on for a second, then went out. He didn’t care anymore. He wanted to get his twenty bucks from the ATM, get on the train, and get home. He didn’t want to spend the night sleeping on the park bench in Millennium Park again. He wanted to go home.
Standing close to the ATM, he entered his PIN number while covering his right hand with his left. This was something his mother insisted on teaching him, “Always be careful while at ATMs. Always.” The memory of his mother showing him how to cover up the keypad while typing in his PIN nagged him. He looked up, feeling his mother standing over him. Telling him. Warning him. Warning him.
He glanced over his shoulder, his veins popping slightly as he turned his neck. As bulky as he wished he was, his neck still had the veins that bulged like bodybuilders did. He rubbed the side of his neck and turned back to the ATM.
The feeling lingered. He rubbed the back of his neck again. The feeling. His mother was watching him. His first day at an ATM, fifteen years old, first high school job. Cover the keypad. First paycheck. Watch the mirror. He glanced into the mirror in the right hand corner of the ATM, and looked back at the screen.
His neck jerked as he did a double take. His eyes whipped back to the mirror as he saw one of the punkgrungehomeless people standing behind him. Were they gypsies? Did he read his mind? Did gypsies read minds? Why was he there? Why did he follow him?
He glanced at the screen. Are you still there? He tapped yes. Yes. I am still here. He tapped on the twenty dollar option, and took his money as it came out of the slot. It always was a game to him, to see if there was more money coming than he had requested. He pinched the bill, but there was only the one twenty that came out. He rubbed the back of his neck again. Mom. Go away, Mom.
He felt a whisper of metal over his neck, and pinched his eyebrows together. It can’t have been his spoon necklace. That was tucked inside his shirt. It was tucked away. Spoons? I have no spoons. He laughed. Maniacally. The spoon theory always made him laugh. You wake up with a certain amount of spoons per day and you have to prioritize them, because once they’re done, you have no more spoons. You have no more energy. Mental illness takes its toll. I never have spoons. PTSD? Depression? Who knows. Spoons are something I never have.
Except the little metal one around his neck, and as he touched his neck for what felt like the tenth time over the span of those five minutes, he knew that the metal song dancing across his neck was not his spoon necklace.
I have no spoons.
He looked into the mirror again, and wondered, idly, if it was a security camera. He stared hard as he realized that he better hope it was a security camera behind the mirror. He stepped closer to the ATM as he noticed the man standing with his hand up behind him. He felt pressure begin to form on his neck where he had been rubbing it, and he turned gingerly around to face the punkgrungehomeless man.
The pressure subsided.
“Give me the money,” the punkgrungehomeless man told him in a harsh whisper. “Give it to me.”
He looked down at the twenty dollar bill in his hand, He couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there. He handed it to the man, gingerly shaking, and the man took it.
“Now the debit card.”
It wasn’t a debit card, he thought wildly. It was a credit card, and it had a two thousand dollar limit on it, and he couldn’t afford to pay that off if someone decided to max it out. He clutched it in his hand, hoping the punkgrungehomeless man would go away. Just leave me alone. You have your twenty bucks. Leave me alone.
“Give me the debit card!” He shouted, and he wished that someone would hear the man screaming. But Wabash Ave was deserted, the scream emptying itself into the void, and he was alone. He was alone in this. He was alone in this life. He felt his stomach contract as he looked down at the man’s hand. A sort of long, sort of bright, sort of deadly knife rested in the punkgrungehomeless man’s loosely curled palm. The older man didn’t hold it tightly, as if begging the younger one to not make him use it. Give me the card, and no one gets hurt.
He tightened his fist around the debit card and turned to run. He was slim. He was lean. He could run. He could run fast enough, for a while, maybe. The punkgrungehomeless man probably hadn’t eaten in days. He kept repeating his advantages to himself as he ran, his feet digging into the pavement, his skate shoes beginning to tighten around his feet as they cramped. He may have eaten more than the punkgrungehomeless man had today, but he still hadn’t eaten enough to run for this long. He winced. The punkgrungehomeless man had his money. He would never get on the train tonight.
He didn’t feel the knife slide into his back at first. His body catapulted a bit forward, but he didn’t feel the cold of the metal as it pressed into the softness of his kidneys through his leather jacket. He couldn’t tell how long the knife was or how deeply it had plunged into his body. He didn’t know whether the man had thrown it at him and miraculously it had landed in his back, or if the man had gotten close enough to him to stab him beneath his backpack. He only knew that he could suddenly run faster. And he did. He ran until he couldn’t, and that moment came sooner than expected. He slowed, realizing the punkgrungehomeless man was no longer behind him, and tried to bend over and rest his hands on his knees to catch his breath. But as he bent over, he felt the knife inside his back muscles, inside his kidney. He felt the blood beginning to stick to his back, his shirt clinging to the smoothness of his skin, and all he could think of was his tattoo, and he hoped that the knife had missed it.
The knife hadn’t moved, but he felt the feelings from the party that night in February. Her fingers pushing inside him. He felt the violation. He felt that terrible feeling coursing through his body, as if it were a poison-filled syringe which had been plunged into his back. He moaned as her fingers stirred up something horrific inside him. It was the same feeling, every time he put something inside his body. Food, drugs, cigarettes; it made no difference. It was always her fingers, her terrible groping fingers, and he was dying, and he couldn’t make her stop.
He reached his left hand around to feel the knife in his back. All the blood rushed from his face as his hand made contact with it.
Mom. I listened to you. I covered the keypad. How did he get me?
He began to hobble as pain from the knife wound spread to his leg. He gritted his teeth and kept walking. He had to make the train.
Hospitals? Fuck. Who has money for hospitals?
He looked down at his shaking knees. I’m never going to make it.
He grabbed the spoon necklace and lifted it from inside his shirt. He clutched the little spoon tightly and reached for his backpack. Somehow the man had managed to stab him underneath his backpack. He let out an involuntary scream as he twisted around. I need this. I need this. I need to do this.
He always wanted to be the one who would never even smoke pot. The real one. A real person who was clean from any sort of impurity the world wanted to hand him on a silver platter and tell him maybe, maybe this joint, maybe this needle, would make him feel okay. But here he was, with a tiny metal spoon in his hand, shaking, shaking, and reaching for the little plastic bag in his schoolboy backpack, and shaking.
He opened the little baggie and took a scoop of the glittering white powder with his spoon. He didn’t care who saw. Spend the night in a jail cell? At least it wasn’t the park bench. I need this. He bent forward, pushed the spoon a little too deep into his right nostril, and winced as he took the hit. He shook his head hard to the left as it hit him, and felt the energy run through him. I can do this. I can go home now.
He ran. His backpack thudding against the knife still in his back. Screaming inside. He ran. Feet pumping. Lungs burning. Heart roaring. I can do this. He felt the blood surrounding the knife and pouring through the wound, and he thought maybe this wasn’t the best idea. But it was too late, as the drip hit his system, and he ran.
He saw the train from a distance pulling into the station, and he pushed himself harder. I can do this. He tore past a small group of people waiting outside the station, and he heard their gasps as he passed by. Maybe they saw blood dripping onto the ground? He didn’t care. The train was approaching. He could make it.
He heard the train slowing over the tracks, the dull thud thud as the wheels turned, and he slowed. The train was in front of him. He made it.
There was so much pressure on his left leg as he climbed the steps up the train. He ignored the people hissing their whispers behind him. He didn’t bother moving quickly so they could get on the train faster. He didn’t give a fuck.
I have no spoons.
He wanted to collapse on the nearest seat, but he was scared that the knife in his back would dig deeper into his kidney. He settled gently onto the bench and twisted to the side so the knife and his back were facing the aisle.
Maybe it was the coke. Maybe it was the run to the train station. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t eaten more than one burrito today. Maybe it was everything. He curled up on the bench, the knife sticking straight out of his back like a Christmas tree, and stared out the window, at the passing scenery in a stupor. It had begun to snow. He hadn’t been wearing more than a light jacket. He was glad his Jeep was parked at the Michigan City Metra stop. He didn’t know if he was okay to drive home, but he didn’t much care.
“Sir. Sir? Can I have your ticket?”
He turned, slowly and painfully, to see the conductor standing over him like a mountain blocking the sun.
“I. I got stabbed in the back while getting the money for my ticket, and I just need to get home. I’ll pay double fare tomorrow. I need to get home.”
The conductor backed off, shrinking away from the blood he had just noticed.
“Okay. Okay. Um. Do you need help?”
He turned back to face the window and closed his eyes as he begins to remember.
He is sprawled across an armchair in the living room of some shitty house in the middle of Indiana. It is too hot in the room, and his shirt is off, flung over like the back of his armchair like some discarded, unwanted animal carcass. The air smells like gasoline and dirt, and he is almost happy when someone brings out a bong. The scent of weed would be more than welcome in this dank and heavy air, even though he knows it would sit in his nose and make him crazy.
He takes a hit off the bong as it is passed to him. Weed never does it for him, but he takes it anyway. He’s tense and tired, and he wants something to calm his mind down and make him feel better.
But as the weed hits his system, he knows nothing is going to change. His brain begins to feel trapped in the small, cramped space of the living room, and all he can see is the crap -there’s no other word for it – strewn around the room. Empty soda bottles – mostly Coca Cola, but some Dr. Pepper bottles were in the mix too – lie on the grimy, dusty, chipped, wooden coffee table and on the floor and on the windowsill. Broken TV sets are stashed in the corner, spilling over the confines of their space into the main area of the room. Dirty tapestries and paintings that would never make their way into any art institute or gallery hang on the walls. The walls themselves need a fresh coat of paint desperately. The living room in his buddy Steve’s house isn’t a good place to be while sober, and definitely not a good place for when you’re having a bad hit.
He begins to look for a way out. Some odd excuse he could take for leaving early. There’s nothing, though; he specifically told Steve that he had nothing to do that night. That he could be at the party.
So when a rail-thin girl in a baggy Michigan State t-shirt and too much eyeliner beckons him into the bathroom, holding a clear plastic bag full of the white powder he has slowly come to need, he doesn’t hesitate. This is something. This is an excuse to get out.
He hauls his body out of the armchair and walks to the bathroom, his limbs moving slowly and painfully, as if he is much older than his twenty one years. She smiles at him as she holds the door open for him, and he looks at her suspiciously as he walks through the door. He’s used to being the one holding doors open for people, metaphorically and literally. Why is she being so nice to him?
She shuts the door and taps a little of the coke onto the grimy, white, bathroom counter. She takes a Discover card out of her tacky phone wallet and slides the coke into a thin, fine line. She gestures at him to take the bump.
He wonders why she hasn’t said a word to him.
He takes a twenty out of his wallet and rolls it up. He leans forward while sitting on the toilet seat and plugs his right nostril to snort the line. He shakes his head, hard, as the drip hits him, He settles back on the toilet. He feels sleepy. This isn’t normal. This is weird. He shouldn’t feel sleepy anymore.
His head lolls to one side and a droplet of drool hangs, poised, on his lower lip, ready to fall onto his chin. He tries to lift his hand up, tries to brush it away, but it won’t move. He can’t move.
He begins to panic. All he can see is the grungy white of the bathroom wall in front of him, and the girl, moving in and out of his vision like a cloud before the sun. He can’t breathe very well. He tries to warn her not to do the coke. Don’t do it. There’s something wrong with it. But he can’t talk, and even if he could, it would not matter. She knows not to do the coke. He realizes that she knows as she sits on his lap and kisses him. He is panicking. Her lips are on his lips, her tongue forcing its way into his open mouth, and he cannot breathe.
She roughly undoes his pants and pushes him onto the ground with surprising strength. He grunts as his chin smacks onto the cracked black tile. He wants to tell her to stop. To go away. To get Steve. Steve? Steve would laugh at him and tell him to enjoy himself. But he is scared, and she smells like weed, and even if she had smelled like roses he would not want to be there, lying on the ground with her fingers poking inside his ass like a cactus. He doesn’t want to be here and he can’t make her stop, and she twists, and his body screams.
But he wasn’t there. He was on the train, and there was a knife in his back, and the memory of her hands and her pain brought tears to his eyes.
His mother didn’t know what happened that night in February. He didn’t tell her because he didn’t want her to worry about him. How could he go home and show her the knife in his back? She would never let him out of the house again. He would never be able to breathe on his own again.
Mom? Mommy? I covered the keypad. Why did he get me? MOM? I need more coke. Don’t let them take my coke from me. Mom. He touches his forehead. He is hot. Burning. Delirious? No. He can think straight. He stumbles from the train to his Jeep. Beautiful Jeep. Take me home. Take me away from this horrible fucked up twisted tormented city. He put the key in the ignition and closed his eyes. Skyscrapers loom above him. They have light in them. He has no light inside of him. His light? Snuffed out by white powder and teeth marks and a girl and puking up stomach lining from too much alcohol and loneliness and a year since February, his mother, and keypads.
There is no light.
There are no spoons.
© Chapin Langenheim, 2019