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
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
“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
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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