Aphelion Issue 268, Volume 25
December 2021
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The Alley

by R. Gene Turchin

It ain’t the best place to hang out but the way the alley makes a blind right hand turn means nobody from the street can see what’s happening back in that dead end corner. A few years back, the city erected a ten foot chain-link fence to keep us less-savory-elements from doing what we do in alleys. The alley don’t go nowhere except a tall bricked up wall. You could see the outline of where a door had been there once but it’s been covered over for a kazillion years now.

Thing is, the alley is the wide space between the old shuttered ‘home for the criminally insane’ and the bleak building that once housed the ‘hospital for the indigent.’

Everybody’s heard stories about stuff happening in that blind box and the cops don’t care. It’s one of those place where we conduct our business unseen by prying eyes. Whispers say people disappear in the alley. We’re all losers and addicts so our heads ain’t exactly on straight. For a town as small as Grafton, a lot of people go missing but our missing ain’t the kind that make the six o’clock news or have face plastered on milk cartons and utility poles.

It’s us people who don’t live in regular houses that talk about them and then shrug. “Hey, you seen Joe-Bob around?” Joe-Bob was just somebody who crashed in one of our rooms for a while. If he shared drugs or food, he was a good guy, but then one day he’d be gone and somebody might say, “Yeah, saw him heading to the alley with some dude. You know, the place where them crazy lights bang on the walls.”

It was always the lights. When I first got here I thought it was can-fires around the corner or the glow from the crack pipes. Your head gets weird when your high. Hear voices. See lights. Back alley has a rep for weird lights. Some say it’s a kind of psychic leftover energy from the asylum where the doctors performed experiments on patients.

Ernie had dirty dishwater hair, tangled and matted but carried himself with a level of cool the rest of us couldn’t pull off. Maybe it was how he walked, talk and straight backed. He wore a Buddha-like calm born of having seen too much. Lived too much. I think he was 23 but had done four years time for ‘intent to sell’. He told me once he was a Bodhisattva. He’d reached enlightenment and came back to share the path with us mere mortals. Ernie was the first one I knew real well who vanished in the alley. Saw him go in there when the lights were splashing the walls like colored rain. Never came out. Sent a chill up my bones. I called his name three times but didn’t go in. Fear is a dark carion bird roosting in your soul.

Cold came early this year. Weather turned to shit in October and stayed that way. Couldn’t get warm. I broke down and went to the shelter for two nights but those old men in there want blow jobs and I just can’t get that low. At least not yet.

I panhandled with a cardboard sign that read “Cold and Hungry.” None of it was a lie but I needed a few dollars to score something to take the edge off. It makes cold and hungry go away. People didn’t slow down because the wind was a frozen blade slicing their bundled up bodies. They squatted down inside their coats like turtles. I had to step inside the Minute Mart a couple times to escape the cold. My face and hands felt like they’d been rubbed raw with a spinning wheel grinder. Leslie was clerk that day. She’s all right. Let’s us come in and walk around to get warm. She nodded toward the coffee pot when I did my second lap around the aisles. I filled the cup and took it up to the counter like I was going to pay even though there were no customers. We all have our rituals to keep up a pretense of dignity.

“How are you doing today, Johnny?” she asked.

“You been outside. It’s ass freezing cold,” I said taking a sip. The warmth felt good going down.

“You going to hit the shelter tonight?” It’s supposed to be in single digits.”

I shrugged. “I hate that place. If I get through this year I might head down to South Carolina or Florida. Life got to be easier down there, right?” It was her turn to shrug. She knew I couldn’t figure a way to catch a ride. I’d grown up twenty miles from here and except for boot camp and a tour in Afghanistan, I’d never been anyplace else. When I was in school, the counselor said I lacked motivation. Army said the same thing. My old man was like that too. He played drums in a band and I heard they could have made it big but he liked to smoke a lot and then discovered heroin. Music was too much work. He fell asleep on the railroad tracks when the coal trains still ran.

“I worry about you,” she said. Leslie was a year ahead of me when we were in school. I had a thing for her but never followed through. Lack of motivation.

She pulled a twenty from her pocket.

“I shouldn’t do this,” she laid the bill on the counter.

“Keep yourself happy.” I looked down at the bill. It wasn’t the first time she’d spotted me. I looked at my shoes.

“You don’t need to,” I said. She pushed it closer.

“If you ever decide to kick it,” the words fell between us. “Let me know.” she shrugged again.

“I’d help you if I could.”

I put the bill in my pocket, raised the foam cup up in a toast and stepped back into the cold.

The old A&P grocery store shuttered it’s doors long before I hit high school. A succession of other low end grocery stores filled the building over two years until it finally heaved its death breath and died. The front was boarded up but there were ways in by the rear loading dock. Tommy and Derrick used it for their office because the cops never came around. I hoped one of them was there so I could grab a packet. I pushed through the fence along the back where it edged the river bank and went in through the loading dock side door.

“I’ll have some shit for you later,” he said. “Meet me by the alley around nine.” I shoved my hands down into the coat, moved from foot to foot. The cold was freezing my insides and there was that gnawing hunger.

“I ain’t got nothing for you now.” His face got stiff and hard. “And you don’t need to be hanging around while I do business.” His eyes shifted toward the door. It was my cue to leave.

“It’s cold out there,” I said. Tommy gave me that stone look again. No sympathy in his eyes. I backed up and shuffled out.

“Be sure you have money,” he called after me. “We don’t do charity.” My fingers cuddled the twenty.

The cold is like some kind of persistent demon. It attacks everywhere and only lets up to lull your body into a little complacency so it can hammer you again. I believe it has insidious intent. My head was looping as I walked back through town. The sign on the bank read minus fifteen in glowing numbers and it wasn’t even dark. The sidewalk had reached up through my shoes and double socks to wrap its bony fingers around my feet. Toes. It always starts with the toes and creeps back to the ankle and up through the calf, an icy liquid replace your blood. I shivered.

Sheriff met me in front of CVS, waved his hand for me to stop.

“You need to get to the shelter tonight or over at the Methodist Church if the shelter’s full. You won’t make it outside tonight. I don’t want to find your frozen ass in a doorway tomorrow, Johnny.”

“Yeah, got it. I’ll find a warm place.” We’d been in high school together too. Even had a few beers together after I came back, before I fell down the hole. Saw him at those vet meetings a time or two.”

All afternoon, I circled inside the stores until they closed or the clerks chased me out. Nothing I did kept the cold at bay. The little warmth never was never enough to mitigate the creeping chill. Only Tommy’s tiny packets would gut punch the cold.

I stood outside the fence. Was it better to move, stomp my feet, pound my arms against the coat or stand stock still like a frightened rabbit, hoping the cold wouldn’t find me.

The silver SUV pulled up. The back window inched down. A glance up and down the street our of habit.

Tommy held the packet up between index and second finger.

“Twenty,” he said.

I pulled the crumpled bill from my pocket. A moment of fearful trepidation slapped at me. Would he take my money and drive off laughing? I unfolded the bill and stretched it out to him. He handed me the packet. In the dark of the car, the shadow of his hand tapped the back of the driver’s seat. The window crawled up blanking the inside and the car moved off.

A soft humming, the sound of sleepy bees floated across the fence from the alley. I slipped inside the fence, leaned back against the wire, opened the packet and inhaled the powder. Around the corner lights jigsawed patterns across the bricks.

It’s pulling me and I don’t care. The glow is warm and I know it will probably hurt in the end but it has got to be better than this life.


2017 R. Gene Turchin

Bio: R. Gene Turchin runs away from West Virginia winters and hides out in Florida for a few months where he is currently working on a science fiction novel and comic book scripts. Most recent published works can be found in VerseWrights, 365 Tomorrows, With Painted Words, Aurora Wolf, Literary Hatchet, The Ginger Collect, Eye To The Telescope, The Broadkill Review, Astounding Outpost and Event Horizon.

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