San Francisco, June 24, 1997
I’m in a dark, trash-filled alley between tall brick buildings. Two men stand in shadows. I can’t see their faces. I hand one of them money and he gives me a balloon of dope. I look up, there’s a light coming from an open window. I hear music, someone is crying. I’m happy I’m going to get high. I’m in a room stuck facedown between the bed and the wall. I hear someone coming. I want to yell, but I can’t. I’m having trouble breathing. I try to move. Behind me a door creaks open. I can’t turn around. I know they’re standing there. I scream…
Gasping for air I sit up in bed and check my hand to see if I still have the dope. The bedroom is quiet, the lights are off, the TV is on with the sound turned down. With an annoyed look on her face, Jenny pulls her arm off me and rolls over, never fully waking up. The cat, curled in a ball, looks up and yawns. Then closes its eyes.
I light a cigarette, run my hand across my chin and lay back against the pillow. I’m covered in sweat, the sheets are wet, my heart is pumping hard inside my chest. I stare at the ceiling. The light from the TV bathes the room in a bluish glow. I blow smoke at the shadows that play across the walls. It’s three-oh-six in the morning, I’m exhausted, and all I want to do is go back to sleep. But I know that’s not going to happen.
Crushing out the cigarette, I look over at Jenny. Her shoulder rises as she breathes and I reach over and touch her. The warmth of her body somehow calming. In the metal box by the side of the bed is a small piece of dope we’ve saved for our morning wake-up shots. Quietly I take the piece and break off half into a spoon. Hurriedly I cook the dope. Then draw it into a syringe.
Jenny stirs and moves closer, her arm reaching for me. I hide the rig under a pillow, shoving the spoon into a pile of trash. Opening her eyes, she looks at me.
“What’s the matter?” she says. “Can’t sleep.” “Ohhhh,” she slurs, and then rolls over. Within seconds her breathing slows. The television a low volume drone as the cat purring away continues to lick itself. Tying off my arm I press the rig into my flesh and pull back on the plunger. No blood flows into the syringe. Pulling it out, I wipe my arm, and stick the syringe back in. Again no blood. Can’t find a damn vein.
I look over at Jenny. She’s asleep, not moving. I put the rig down. Retie my arm, and pump my fist trying to raise my veins. I pierce my arm several more times and still can’t register; yet there’s blood flowing from all the holes from where I’ve tried.
Wiping my arm with the blanket, I try again. A thin red trickle enters the syringe’s barrel and I quickly push the plunger down, then drop the rig by the side of the bed and wait. Nothing—the amount of dope being so small I can’t feel it. Fuckin useless.
Getting up I walk to the bathroom and take a piss. The medicine cabinet is slightly ajar, my face is reflected in its mirror. I stare at myself unable to comprehend who it is I am looking at. I’m unrecognizable. As if it’s me looking out from a different face. Yet there’s a dullness to the eyes. A dullness I’ve seen before.
“You gonna stab me over twenty dollars?”
“I’ll stab you over five,” says the old man. He’s twitching and looking crazy, like he really might be insane.
“Can you identify the deceased?” asked the cop. Even in the morgue I could smell his bad breath as he hovered beside me.
“Yeah, that’s him,” I said looking at the partially covered body.
“Him as in?” asked the other cop who every time he looked in my direction his expression said he wanted to kick the living shit out of me.
“That’s Chris,” I said. Although the only thing that really looked like Chris were the tattoos. With sixty fatal stab wounds, a caved in skull, broken bloodied fingers, and two dull dead eyes staring up from the gleaming stainless steel table—it was hard to actually say that was my best friend Chris lying there dead in the morgue.
Turning on the faucet I run water over my arm, cup some with my hands, and splash my face. On the floor is a towel. I pick it up and dry myself, the smell of stale sweat lingering. I don’t want to go back to bed. I can’t take another night of lying there, staring at the ceiling, listening to Jenny breathe.
Threading my way through the maze of dirty clothes and half filled boxes that crowd the living room, I sit down on one of the chairs and stare at the scuffed wood floor. The cat walks out of the bedroom and rubs against my leg. As I reach down and pet its head it looks up. Its tongue appears to be sticking out of its mouth like it’s stuck.
“What’s with the tongue?” I ask.
Blinking big yellow cat eyes, it sucks its tongue back into its head and walks toward the kitchen. Cold, I grab my overcoat off the floor and wrap it around me. My eyelids are heavy and I lean my head back into dark memories.
Los Angeles 1990: another sleepless night in a cold damp motel room. The electric wall heater, its glowing red heating element visible through the vent, blows damp warm air towards me, but I can’t feel it. Outside the rain is coming down, I hear it falling against the window. The room is dark, the bathroom light is on and the curtains are drawn. I’m sitting on a double bed, the polyester comforter a dark blue. There’s a gun in my hand. The safety is off. There’s a bullet in the chamber. Raising the gun I put the barrel in my mouth, my finger on the trigger. I taste gun oil. I hear the rain. I lower the gun as tears run down my face.
New York City 1987: sitting in a Lower Eastside bar: Dewar’s on the rocks, reading The New York Times. December 24th, Merry Christmas mother fuckers.
Critic’s Notebook: Reflections on a Punk-Rocker’s Death. By Robert Palmer
The news came in a plain white envelope marked ‘’personal and confidential.’’ “Will Shatter died last Wednesday,’’ it said. “He married in November and his wife is expecting their child. Flipper always appreciated your reviews; thought you would want to know.’’
Flipper, the San Francisco rock band Will Shatter sang, played bass, and wrote songs for, had a special relationship with its audience. Some listeners felt that Flipper was the heart and soul of American punk rock, and that Mr. Shatter was the heart and soul of Flipper. During the band’s early days, the West Coast punk scene was steeped in a raging nihilism that all too often turned in upon itself….
Maybe it’s just my imagination, but I can hear the wind blowing through the trees in the backyard. Footsteps, someone’s walking in one of the apartments upstairs. The creak of the building settling, a dog bark, or a person yelling—some bump-in-the-night kind of sound—interrupts, echoes, and then goes away, as the wind wraps itself around me.
With my eyes closed, I see Sweet in a body bag. The paramedics struggling to get him down off the loft he died in. A cop staring at me asking questions, and I’m so full of emotions I don’t even know how to feel let alone answer. The wind was blowin that night too, felt like somebody was watching.
San Francisco 1990:
“Man you heard?” “Heard what?” “Barbara OD’ed last night.” “Really?”
“Word is you were with her.” “No, I wasn’t.” “Said you was getting high with her. Then split when she fell out.” “Fuck you man. I wasn’t there, and if I was I wouldn’t a left her.” Couldn’t even sit through her fuckin wake. Felt like everyone was staring at me, like I’d killed her or something.
“Baby. You okay?” asks Jenny. She’s standing next to me wearing a large t-shirt. She leans her skinny body against me as she puts her hand on my shoulder. “What are you doing out here?”
“It’s cold. Come back to bed,” she says and walks towards the bedroom.
“In a minute.”
The cat runs out of the kitchen licking its lips. Pauses. Looks at me. Then runs after Jenny. The sound of the TV becomes louder. It drowns out the noise of the wind. I hear the strike of a lighter. Imagine Jenny, cigarette in one hand, sitting close to the TV at the end of the bed, playing with her hair, the light from the television reflecting on her face.
What the fuck am I gonna do? Can’t keep doin these robberies. Can’t keep shootin dope. Goddamn methadone clinic wanted as much money as it takes for us to get well. What’s the difference? One drug for another, and I still gotta come up with cash in the end.
A woman’s face. Her eyes looking up at me as I point the gun at her head. She mouths “No” and there’s anger in her eyes. I feel sick. I think about the dope I just did and want more. But this time I want to feel it. I want to feel it like I haven’t felt it in a long long time.
“What time is it?” “Its four o’clock babe. Come to bed.” “I need a smoke Jenny.” “Well fuckin come get one. I ain’t your servant.” “I think I’m losing my mind.” “Babe. Shut the fuck up and come to bed.” Keep hearin that wind blow and I don’t think I can even get up out of this chair. I need a fuckin cigarette.
“Hey O. G. Got any pills?” “Got some Dolaphine.” “What you want for em?” “Two each.”
“Give me ten,” I say and hand him a twenty. As I look into his bloodshot yellow eyes I know he’s trying to beat me, but I put my hand out anyway. Nine fat aspirin looking pills fall into my hand and I stand there holding them with my palm out. “Hey old man. I don’t know what this is, but they sure as hell ain’t no Dolaphine.”
“Thas Dolaphine.” “Man, this ain’t even Codeine. Give me my mother fuckin money back.” Suddenly the old man turns, I feel something pull at my jacket, and I step back spilling the pills onto the sidewalk. Looking down there’s a slice across the front of my leather jacket, the torn lining sticking out through the hole. The old man stands a few feet away, a small knife in his left hand.
“You gonna stab me over twenty dollars?”
“I’ll stab you over five,” says the old man. He’s twitching and looking crazy, like he really might be insane.
“Old man, you outta your fuckin mind,” I say and step towards him. A girl with a baby standing in a doorway behind the old man yells there’s gonna be a fight. Two youngsters come running over and ask the old man if he’s okay. I look across the street. There’s more people coming towards us. I turn around and walk away.
“Yeah motherfucker,” says the old man.
The cat jumps into my lap and I’m startled. My bare feet on the hardwood floor are freezing cold, and when I push the cat off and stand I can’t feel them.
“Where the cigarettes babe?”
“Here,” says Jenny. She’s wrapped in a quilt watching TV. The blue glow has got her skin looking like she’s dead. Although these days it wouldn’t take much to make either of us look dead.
“Why don’t you shoot some dope?” she asks. “It’ll make you feel better.”
“Yeah maybe I will.” “We got any pills left?” “You remember that old man tried stab me? I ask her. “That old man in the Tenderloin?” “Yeah, I just thought about him.” “Why you think bout that?” “Don’t know.” On the television Richard Gere is talking to Edward Norton who’s playing some sociopath in a jail cell. I’ve seen this movie a couple times already as it’s on rotation for some movie channel we’ve pirated by splicing into the neighbor’s cable. Richard Gere turns to Ed Norton, says guess what, it’s raining and I think about Saul.
“I gotta go,” says Saul. “Go where man?” “Back to Iowa I guess.” “Iowa?”
“Yeah, fuckin Iowa.” “What the fuck’s in Iowa Saul?” “Hopefully not heroin,” says Saul. That was months ago. Haven’t heard a word from him. Looking down at the bed I can see the impression my body has crushed into the futon mattress. Two years of lying there nodding away. Cigarette burns dot the blankets. A couple of used rigs stick out from under the bed. A full ashtray, an empty coke can, yesterday’s newspaper, and a book I never read.
I’m gonna die in this fuckin bed.
The clock says five fifteen. I grab the pillow and pull out a bank bag. There’s a few hundred dollars left inside. For some reason I’ve started stashing money in my pillowcase. Like it would be a hard hiding place to find.
The wind blows against the bedroom window. The plastic that’s covering the missing pane flaps back and forth. Two weeks ago I tossed an ashtray through it. We were yelling at each other about something. Right now I can’t remember what. This anger just rose up inside of me and I wanted to break something. Hear the sound of glass crashing, or something crunch.
An hour later a couple of cops showed up at our door asking Jenny if she was okay and did she want to press charges. She told them to go away, I hadn’t hit her. The next day the neighbors looked at me funny. They haven’t talked to me since. Fuck them anyway.
“You hear the wind?” I ask. “Sounds cold,” says Jenny, never taking her eyes off the TV. “Man, we’ve seen this movie about ten times already.” “Nothin else on,” says Jenny. I slide into bed, pull the covers over me and look at the clock. It’s five twenty-three. The cat stands up and stretches doing an imitation of a Halloween cat, its tail poofed straight up. Then it falls over and stares at me.
“I think the cat’s broken.” “What babe?” “The cat. It just fell over like it died.” “What the hell are you talking bout?” asks Jenny as she runs her fingers through its fur.
Edward Norton is looking at the camera with this sly psycho grin. Richard Gere is staring at him, and I’m staring at the both of them on the TV screen as I light a cigarette.
“Seen this movie,” I say.
“Heard you the first time,” says Jenny as she continues to watch with a bored expression on her face. The cat, now up on all fours, purrs loudly as Jenny absentmindedly scratches behind its ears.
The bed is still damp, the scent of my sweat is everywhere. I take a drag on the cigarette, the smoke tasteless as it fills my lungs.
Wish this fuckin night would end.
Jenny’s thin silhouette in the light of the TV hovers in front me. She seems frail and old. Like she’s wasting away to nothing as I sit here watching. Yesterday, when she kissed me and then tried to climb on top of me I told her to get off. I just don’t want anyone touching me I said. The feel of her skinny body reminded me of how hard looking she’s becoming. Can’t help but feel some distorted fucked up sense of responsibility. All of this is my doing, I’m the older one, I should know better. Where’s she going to go if I’m not around? What’s she going to do? How am I supposed to be taking care of her when I can’t even take care of myself?
Rubbing my eyes I feel like I should be crying but no tears are coming. With my face in my hands, I lean forward and start rocking back and forth.
San Francisco 1986: Alicia’s lying unconscious in a hospital bed, tubes are running out of her nose and mouth and there’s an IV in her arm. A doctor stands next to me, a clipboard in her hand, asking if I know what drugs Alicia took, what medications she’s been prescribed. But I don’t know the answers to any of her questions. Alicia’s got so many secrets, so much shit going on I don’t know about.
She looks calm lying there. Like she’s taking a nap or something, as the machines by her bed beep and pulse, and the air conditioning hums. There’s a thin line of black along her bottom lip from the charcoal the doctors have shoved into her stomach to absorb the toxins of all the drugs she took.
I don’t know what to do. I shouldn’t have left when we had that fight. Somehow I’m responsible for her lying there. Somehow all of this is my fault.
“Babe, you alright?” asks Jenny. Opening my eyes I see her leaning towards me, her hand on my knee. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Sorry? Sorry for what?” “Sorry everything’s so fucked.” “Ah babe, it’s gonna be okay.” “You know I care about you, right?” “I know you do.” “Maybe we should go detox down at methadone?” “You wanna?” says Jenny, a strange worried look on her face. “Not really. But what else we gonna do?” “It’ll work out babe. It always does.” “I’m just tired Jenny, sorry.” “Why don’t you try and sleep.” “Dolan’s comin in the morning. We got a job we’re gonna pull.” “Okay babe.”
The wind blows, the movie on the TV comes to an end and the credits roll. The cat walks over and snuggles into my armpit. I put my cigarette out and reach down and pet it. Jenny lies back in the bed next to me, and I tell her she’s right. It’s gonna work out. She turns the TV off with the remote control and the room goes dark.
-—an excerpt from the novel Gun, Needle, Spoon, by Patrick O’Neil