Pursuing the Fix
The knock came down without a whisper. It took Singer a moment to realize the door had opened an instant before the electrons in his fist would’ve bounced off the electrons of the wood. He stood there dumbly, a gnome-like young man with prematurely receding hair and sad eyes the color of a rolling mist after a hot summer storm.
“Oh, it’s you,” said a voice from the inner dark.
Singer opened his mouth to speak, but again he heard only silence. Even the noisy climbers bounding up the stairwells of his heart came to rest somewhere near the center.
“So, come in, come in. I know why you’re here. No point standing there until Old Mrs. Vickers gets a hand on her binoculars and the other on the speed dial to nine-one-one.”
Singer heard a muffled click, and a light awakened beyond the threshold. It brightened slowly as if someone were adjusting the flame on a kerosene lamp. Singer’s eyes focused on the man in the hallway as he came into view: a tall fellow, gangly and somehow off-center like a hockey player. In a gray suit, he would’ve made an ideal undertaker, but the gravity was lost with his maroon Bermuda shorts and punch-bright Hawaiian shirt left unbuttoned to reveal a lean but hairy midsection. The man was barefoot also, Singer noticed as he looked down to avoid the fellow’s gaze.
That was one of the problems with these deals: the embarrassment. Singer’s fingers twitched as his nerves fired off the blue notes of a jazzy solo on the saxophone. His palms were sweating, and he could taste the fear on his breath despite the icy mint gum he spit out moments before stepping from his lime-green Ford. He should’ve been over his awkwardness after all the buys he’d made, all the people he’d encountered and all the strange apartments and houses into which he’d stepped after scenes just like this one. But no … he went into each with the same dread of rejection he felt when making eye contact with a pretty girl drinking alone at the bar.
“Close the door, would you?” said the gangly man. “You’ll let all the light out. Then where would we be?”
Singer didn’t stop to think about what was said. He took two steps forward and eased the door shut, reaching behind himself unconsciously to turn the latch on the deadbolt. He stood there, his face sewn with blankness, then took a few steps down the dimly lit hallway until it opened into the equally jaundiced glow of the living room.
This place couldn’t be called spacious. A worn sofa with a Holstein print lay stretched beneath the window, squeezing sandy curtains taut against the plaster. Two recliners, one brown and one burnt orange, held strategic spots along the opposite wall. An ancient television console sat on a stand by the opening which led to another room, perhaps the kitchen. There was also a small closet door nearly barricaded by stacked milk crates harboring books, DVDs, a few stuffed yellow envelopes and a bright pink cactus, somehow thriving in its environment. There were also cardboard boxes scattered about and a guitar case propped against a lone end table which stood out of place in the center of the room. There were no lamps, just the overhead light spitting out its dull stain. Also, Singer noticed that the place had an odor to it. At first it smelled of something dead, then of flowers, then of death again. It shifted back and forth so fast that he couldn’t wrap his thoughts around it, and then he got used to it and forgot it altogether.
“Have a seat,” said Singer’s host. Singer hadn’t noticed him standing there. “Go on, sit.”
Nodding, Singer began lowering himself onto one of the recliners.
“No, not there.” The man pointed a bony finger toward the couch. “Over there.”
Dizzy with crimson after his mistake, Singer raised up and moved toward the cow seat, dodging boxes and an ashtray in the floor.
“Good,” said the man. “Now, something to drink.”
Singer stared dumbly, unsure if he were being asked a question.
“Coffee,” said the man. “No, I think orange juice would be better.” He stopped, stared, assessed his own judgment. “O.J. it is.” He turned and disappeared through the portal.
That left Singer alone with his thoughts and uncertainties. This was the worst part: the waiting. Every second sucked at his skin like a thousand leeches. Even so, he knew he’d suffer for hours and lose every drop of blood if that was what he needed to get his fix.
His thoughts drifted, and he considered how no one would’ve believed this about him when he was in college making the Dean’s list and working toward his M.B.A. He rarely went to bars then and never joined a fraternity. He probably met the love of his life three or four times in those years—at least, the chance existed—but he always passed her by, putting aside such things for a later, more convenient time. A sigh nearly escaped him as he looked back on those days. He choked it down, refusing to let his lips part or a sound escape.
“Here we go,” said the man. He returned carrying a tall, blue-green glass of orange juice in each hand. In the dullness of the light, that liquid looked almost like honey. “Nice and cold,” he said, handing a glass to Singer. “Drink up. Keep you from getting scurvy.”
Singer felt unsettled accepting the glass. It didn’t seem normal. Nonetheless, he couldn’t risk arguing and offending his host. Best just to go along and do what he was told. Tilting the glass, he took two quick sips. It tasted sharp—at once both sweet and sour. It was as cold as if it had just been retrieved from a snowstorm. As he swallowed the first time, he felt himself stirring to life inside. Then, seeing the man staring at him, he let his head drift back and the fluid flow freely across his tongue.
“That’s it. Now, isn’t that so much better?”
It was. Singer had to admit the juice flared inside him like a match on its way to the kindling for a jolly campfire. He finished it off and handed back the glass, which the man took and placed on the island end table, along with his own which he hadn’t touched.
“Okay, now let’s see. What do you want?”
Singer opened his mouth to speak, but didn’t get the chance.
“What does a man like you ever want? Bad news or good? It doesn’t matter. Your birthday? Christmas? Your sister’s wedding? It’s always the same. The end of the world’s coming. Lightning and thunder. Tornadoes. A brimstone curtain. Oh, well. You need what you need. All this talk about loving your neighbors and being kind to everyone else…? Sure, but it’s still what’s inside of you that’s important. Am I right?”
The man didn’t notice. “Got to fix you. Got to get you your fix.” He paused. “Well, that’s what I’m here for, I guess. I’m the mechanic.”
Suddenly Singer wished he had another glass of orange juice. As quickly as the anxiety had left, it squeezed itself in again, tightening in the pit of his back, fluttering through his underarms, sweating from the ridges of his skull. How perfect everything seemed in that long-ago past when icy nectar was so plentiful. And now….
“You okay? You look flushed.”
I’m fine, he started to say, but didn’t.
“Maybe you should rest a minute. Lie back on the couch.”
Singer wanted to protest, even as his body twisted and his legs rose up. He didn’t bother to kick his shoes off. He dropped his head on the lone pillow—a small square job with a logo from some professional sports team imprinted on the front.
“That’s it. Close your eyes. You’ll be okay as soon as you get some rest.”
The room went out of focus, and Singer realized it was his eyelids oozing shut. He tried to pry them open, but he felt as if he’d lost all control over himself.
“Go on. Close your eyes. That’s it. That’s good.”
He did, then quickly snapped them open.
Still the man stood there, arms akimbo like some comic-book hero.
Twice more, Singer let his eyes shut. Then, twice more, he reopened them, hoping the man would leave him be.
Twice more, the man stood exactly in the same spot.
Again, Singer’s eyes closed. This time, he held them down … waiting, waiting, waiting.
When he opened them again, Singer knew he’d slept, though he couldn’t determine how long or how it could’ve happened. He scanned the room without moving his head.
There was the man, kneeling by the open closet door. His hands rifled through clutter, going in and out of the closet. Piles surrounded him in the floor. Perceiving the eyes focused on him, he turned slightly and said, “Oh, you’re awake. Well, don’t sweat it. Just hang out a little longer. I know what you need. I’ve got plenty. I just can’t remember where it is.”
Singer couldn’t tell if the strange whistling sigh he heard came from him.
Meanwhile, the man kept digging things out of the closet and piling them up all around himself: a bag full of Christmas bows, a black-and-white ceramic kitten, several boxes which he opened and inspected only to quickly discard. “Hmmm,” he said, his right index finger lifting up a pair of red satin panties. “Doesn’t that make you wonder? What kind of decadence have you stumbled upon, my friend?” He tossed the panties aside. “Does that shock you? Does it offend the set of values you were raised to accept? Tell me a little about your upbringing. Tell me about your childhood.”
Singer felt his jaw drop. It immediately righted itself, locking closed.
“Never mind. I can tell you about your childhood. Typical middle class. Not a struggle, but not a walk in the park. Your parents gave, and you took: food, clothes, toys, money, and all the guilt that pays for all those things. You went to a good school, got a good education, wasted it—you had to make your own mistakes. That’s even more guilt. Screwed you up pretty good. Oh, so sorry.” He paused, studying a snow globe he’d found in one of the boxes. Inside stood a polar bear in a bandit’s mask pointing a pistol at two other polar bears, their arms stretching toward the sky. He shook it and then placed it ever-so-gently to the side, a tiny ball of glitter and chaos. “Don’t worry,” he continued. “There really are no good parents. They all screw their kids up, just in different ways: some by not loving them enough, some by loving them too much. It’s easy to see what happened with yours.”
Singer eased himself to a sitting position, never taking his eyes off the man.
A rubber snake slipped out of the closet, borne aloft by its tail. The man tossed it aside. “Now it seems you’re torn between want and guilt and doubt and this sadness you can’t begin to explain. Am I right?”
Reluctantly, Singer nodded.
“Now you’re filling the holes, but what you use to fill those holes cuts new holes.”
“Astounding, don’t you think?” The man shook his head as if to contradict his own words. “Well, it’s not in there.” Leaving all the clutter and the closet door open against the far wall, the man stood, his tall, unwieldy body rising like some demonic shadow of a tree in the moonlight. “Don’t worry. A little patience. I’ll find it.”
Another nod. Another sigh. Another nod.
“Anyway, back to your other problem. It reminds me of this ancient Buddhist teaching.”
Singer felt himself growing anxious again. He didn’t want to hear any more of this mumbo jumbo, this ceaseless jibber jabber. But what could he do? The man had caught Singer completely under his spell.
“It’s something like this, I think. If you meet the Buddha on the road and he stands in your way, kill him.”
“Think about that for a moment.” The man held silence for a breath, then added, “It goes on. If you meet your parents on the road and they stand in your way, kill them. And if you meet your lover on the road and she stands in your way, kill your lover.”
It was too much. Singer pictured the gruesomeness of this scene in his head. It was a hideous massacre. Blood sprayed everywhere. Singer saw himself hacking away with a gleaming silver samurai sword. Again, he winced, shaking his head to erase the movie that kept rewinding and replaying the same scenes.
“Oh,” the man went on, his head bouncing with lightness as he spoke, “I think it also says that if you meet yourself on the road and you stand in your way, you have to kill yourself.”
The image made Singer retch. He started to rise as if he’d found the courage to leave. However, the man waved for him to stay seated, so he did. Still, Singer couldn’t get thoughts of this vicious murder/suicide out of his brain.
“You know,” the man went on as though nothing bizarre had happened, “speaking of the Buddha, think about this for a while. So, the Buddha sat in the shade under an ancient tree and achieved enlightenment, right? He transcended himself and transformed into a being of pure energy. That is, literally, he became light. Right?”
Singer didn’t know what was expected of him, so he kept still.
“Here’s the rub. E equals MC squared, right? Like Einstein said? All mass can be converted into energy if we could just figure out how, and the average guy has enough mass to explode like twenty H-bombs if we could learn to convert it. For someone as clinically obese as the Buddha, let’s say thirty. Enlightening one of his thighs alone probably could level New York City. Am I right?”
This time, Singer didn’t nod or sigh or stand to leave. His mind went from picturing the murder of the Buddha to imagining his detonation as if the coming of the apocalypse.
“You see what that means? When the Buddha transcended himself, he must’ve taken about a hundred thousand people with him. Imagine, some poor devil comes home from work, expecting a little spicy food and maybe a romp with the missus. Then, all of a sudden, someone sets off a Buddha in his neighborhood. BLAM! He achieves enlightenment entirely against his will, along with his wife, kids, friends, bosses, the taxi driver that brought him home, and the grocer on the other side of town who sold him a bag of limes just the Thursday before last. All of them—BLAM!—just like that.”
This story left Singer more nervous than ever. Confused, too. His heart rate quickened, and he jumped slightly every time the man said, “BLAM!” All he wanted was to get his fix and move on. He didn’t see how these stories were helping any. Plus, he’d begun to notice that the smell of the room was somewhere between rose petals and burnt toast. It was off-putting. But what could he do? If he complained about the smell or the stories or the endless delays, he might lose whatever footing he’d gained. Would the man grab him up by his sleeve and show him the door? He couldn’t risk it. He needed his fix, whatever the conditions placed on the transaction. So, Singer tried his best to seem interested, but his eyes kept wandering around the room. Eventually they settled on the leaning black turret of the guitar case.
The man noticed right away. “Oh,” he said, “that old thing?” He walked over to the case and knelt in front of it as if worshipping at a shrine. Stroking the shell like a lazing lover, he fumbled with latches. It opened like a silk blouse. Then he slid both hands inside and eased out the brown Yamaha acoustic. “This is my baby. It’s my therapy.” He ran through a couple riffs, bluesy and mellow but a bit off. Then, just as Singer began to dread another delay, the man told him, “I’d play you a song to cheer you up, but my baby’s got a broken string. I can’t make it work with only five strings.”
Singer forced himself to keep a straight face, refusing to show his relief.
“Que sera sera,” said the man. He eased the guitar back into its case and closed the lid. “Well, I think our time’s about up, don’t you? I guess we should get you fixed up and on your way.” He rose from his crouch, his joints creaking like old stairs as he straightened his long limbs. “Yeah, now I remember where I put it, I think. Wait here. Don’t move. I’ll be back before you can say, ‘Shamalamalamadingdong.’”
Too much! Again, too much! Was that one word or five? Was it meant to be sung or muttered like a prayer for mercy? Was it some sort of code? Singer didn’t use codes for anything, but he’d heard other people talk about biscuits and footballs and peaches and school buses. Whomever they spoke to always knew what those buzzwords meant. It was all too confusing and frustrating for Singer, though. It left him more dazed than hopeful. He wanted what he wanted—that’s all!—and maybe he wanted too much. If so, maybe too much was just the right amount to go through in order to get it. Oh, God, but why couldn’t things be simple, easy, relaxed? Why couldn’t…?
He shook his head to clear the fog. He’d been so dazzled by gibberish that he hadn’t realized until now that the man was gone. Singer looked around, frantic for a sign. The man’s presence was a comfort to him. Now even that had disappeared. He rose from the couch, then slumped back down, equally pouting and surrendering to his own weakness and failure.
Then he stopped himself and listened. There! Sounds! Drawers opening. A door unlatching. The squawks of a medicine cabinet. The clack-clack-clack of pill bottles. He thought he heard water running, then a toilet flushed. He thought he smelled smoke. His mouth grew dry as he sucked at his tongue, and suddenly he couldn’t take it anymore. He needed something to drink. Anything. Eyeballing the man’s spare glass of orange juice on its island, he reached for it and drank it down with one long swallow. It wasn’t icy and rejuvenating like the first glass had been. Warmed to room temperature, now it tasted overly tart, even a little bitter. All the same, it wet his lips and soothed him just enough to keep him from screaming.
He replaced the glass an instant before the man returned. A lonely orange stream ran from the corner of his mouth and dribbled onto the breast of his merlot rugby shirt. He pretended not to notice, though he absently wiped his chin with the back of his hand.
“Here we go,” said the man, smiling boldly. He held out a sealed envelope.
Eager to be fixed, Singer lunged from his seat and accepted the offering. He felt around with his thumbs, squeezing and stroking. Still, he couldn’t make out the contents.
“Sorry to say, it’s not as much as you expected,” said the man.
Singer met his gaze, saddened.
“Don’t worry. It’s enough to get you through until the next time.”
Singer nodded. He felt relief and frustration, joy and disgust. All seven phases of grief stabbed at him simultaneously with their tiny knives. Et tu, Anger? Et tu, Bargaining? Et tu, Acceptance? He slid the envelope into the pocket of his jeans.
“Good,” said the man. “Good. Very good. I think you’ve made some real progress. He stepped forward and embraced Singer before Singer knew what was happening. His bare chest felt like a warm tide through Singer’s shirt. “I’m proud of you.”
It was over as quickly as it began. The man stepped back, smiling and nodding. “Well, I’m sorry to say your time’s up.” He placed a hand on Singer’s shoulder, spun him around and gently marched him to the front door. “Don’t worry about the cost,” he said. “I’ll add it to your tab. I know you’re good for it.”
Singer reached for the door only to find it magically open as though, shooting from the hip with gunslinger speed, the man’s left hand had beaten him to the deadbolt and the knob. Bright, clear sunlight flooded the room, warming Singer’s face and blinding him until he blinked twice and then could see the world again. With one last pat on his shoulder from the man, Singer stepped outside.
“I’ll see you soon, my friend.”
Singer didn’t nod or wave. He kept walking forward.
“You’ll be all right. Just keep the shadow as distant as you can.”
I like to think of this piece as literary sleight of hand. The reader follows it in one direction (direction anticipated by those familiar with my work and personal history); meanwhile, it's leading somewhere else.
Ace Boggess is author of the novel A Song Without a Melody (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016) and two books of poetry, most recently, The Prisoners (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2014). Forthcoming is a third poetry collection: Ultra Deep Field (Brick Road). His recent fiction appears in Notre Dame Review, Lumina, and New Plains Review. He lives in Charleston, West Virginia.