With the electric cut off, the only light in my bedroom came from my neighbor’s obnoxious holiday decorations that burned candy-colored piss radiance from dusk till dawn. I sat on the scuffed-up hardwood floor, my back against the wall, my knees pulled to my chest for warmth.
They’d turned the gas off too: Merry Christmas, Lewis.
I was on my last bottle of rye whiskey, relying on the constriction of my blood vessels to numb me to the stab of the cold. I had plenty of cigarettes, nothing to eat, and a huge pile of cardboard boxes filled with my ex’s shit. I sat there staring at it with a combination of longing and vehemence, taking long pulls from the bottle.
I’d been sober for nine months. Then she walked out and took my will power with her. Now I was on the floor in our broken home, unemployed, wishing for a drunkenness that would not come. I was back from my vacation of normality, back into the raw sewage of my solitude, back in the bottomless bottom. Meanwhile she was out there, with him, probably in a luxury hotel room in some warm climate, a martini glass in one hand and his crotch in the other. All the random crap she didn’t need yet was here with me, sealed up in water boxes from the grocery store, sitting in the corner like a monument to all of my many failures.
The cell phone rang. They hadn’t cut my service yet. So I clicked it on.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Hey, Bubba,” Sal replied.
We hadn’t talked in months, but that was just how it went with us. There were three basic reasons he called me: nostalgia, despair and need. Otherwise he was usually adrift and I had, up until recently, been busy being good.
“Hey there, Sal, how’s my cousin doin’?”
“I’m doin’, I’m doin’.”
He sounded a little wired, but not totally coked-up, which I was grateful for. There was a slight tick in his voice, but the whiskey was slowing me down now too.
“When did you get out?” I asked.
“Six weeks ago.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
“It’s okay. I’m staying with Jeanne.”
“I thought she dumped you.”
“So did I. Turns out she’s not as smart as she looks.”
He laughed and I didn’t. Then we fell silent for a moment. From the noise in the background, I assumed he was driving.
“How about you, Bubba?” he asked. “You still sober?”
“Sure,” I said and took another pull from the bottle. I decided not to ask about him.
“I can’t believe it’s Christmas Eve already,” he said.
“Another year gone.”
“It goes too fast.”
“And faster every year.”
“Amen to that, Bubba.”
We fell silent again for a moment, and then he said “listen”, which let me know that he needed something from me.
“Listen, if you’re looking for work I’ve got an easy job lined up. I heard about Adrian leaving you and about you getting shit-canned from your gig. You know you can always count on me, right?”
“Right,” I said, even though it wasn’t really true. It was important for Sal to think that he could be there for people who were always there for him. But all they could count on him for was disappointment.
“Lewis, man, you should’ve called on me,” he added.
“Just wanted to be alone, I guess.”
“Its not good for you. You should be getting out there and starting over. Go party. Get a woman. Get some dash in your pocket.”
“What this job you’ve got lined up?” I asked, knowing it was something I shouldn’t do, something that could further demolish the straight line life I’d worked so hard to create for myself.
“It’s a total baby dance, Bubba. No worries, easy turn around.”
Things can fall apart so fast in life. I couldn’t believe I was considering this already, but what else was there? I told him to head on over and hung up. Then I finished off the last of the whiskey in one long pull and threw the bottle against the wall. It shattered and the glass fell like tiny, discarded diamonds across the cardboard boxes that just sat there silently like cheap coffins sharing pieces my butchered heart.
“Do we have to listen to this god-awful poison?” I asked.
Sal had Christmas music jingling off of the stereo in Jeanne’s Ford probe. The cheer and merriment of its rancid, childlike sing-song was making my bowels churn.
“Dude, it’s Christmas Eve,” he said. “What the hell do you expect the radio to play?”
“What’s wrong with Black Sabbath?”
“Come on. Where’s your holiday spirit?”
“I deposited it into your mother’s ass. Now turn it off.”
He did and the sound of the winter wind filled the night like an omnipotent poltergeist. I popped open one of the beers from the six-pack at my feet.
“For Christ’s sake,” I said. “That ‘Santa Baby’ song is a bad enough without it being some guy singing it.”
“You’re mean as a whip tonight, Bubba.”
“Then find someone else to do this for you.”
“Its not for me, man, its for us. In the long run, you can make some good money off this little job. Just you wait and see.”
I didn’t reply, but just looked out the window at the tree lot on our left. It was nearly empty and only sad looking undesirables remained. They bent from the weight of the freshly fallen snow, making them look limp and pathetic. I gazed ahead and darkness and ice cloaked the state road, giving it a beautiful drabness: the true face of December.
“You never liked Christmas much, huh, Lewis?”
I shrugged. Sal went on.
“Even when we were kids you never seemed to get too excited.”
“There was never much to get excited about.”
Sal knew what my youth was like. He’d grown up in the same house. I couldn’t believe he would say something so asinine.
“Is that why you hate Christmas? Because we never really got one?”
“Sal, if I hate Christmas its because I hate being lied to, and Christmas is a lie that everyone agrees to tell.”
That shut him up for a few minutes. But silence, much like sobriety, is something Sal could never tolerate. He couldn’t shut up any better than he could stop cheating on his girlfriend. A lot of his chattiness was a result of his decades of substance abuse, his blood so toxic that it was always using his brain like a boxer uses a speed bag.
“Say,” he said, “you remember that one Christmas when we had that bonfire party out by Madison creek? I was about seventeen, so you must have been about fifteen.”
“Holy shit. I had forgotten all about that.”
I couldn’t help but smile at the resurrected memory.
“It was amazing that we had the turn out that we did, it being Christmas and all.”
“Our friends were all like us,” I said. “They wanted to be anywhere but home for the holidays.”
“Yeah, like Joe Ziati and Frank Millan.”
“Total burn outs.”
“They were there. So was Lynne and her sister too. We got so fucking wasted that night. All that Mad Dog, speed and weed. Not to mention the ecstasy everyone was into back then. I think Danny was there even, with Alicia.”
“Jenny Johnson was there too,” I said. Mentioning her made Sal grow suddenly quiet. He loved to reminisce more than anyone else I knew, but he never liked to talk about the dead. If someone were in jail or rehab or just plain out of their minds with misery, he would talk about them without a tear, but when you mentioned people who had gone the way of all flesh, he became more uncomfortable than hemp underwear.
“Yeah,” he said, finally, “Jenny was there too. With you.”
It was a sore spot. We had both had our affairs with Jenny, but I had been with her first and last. Sal had dated her for only a few weeks, and she did it more to get back at me than anything else, though Sal would never see that. But either way, she was dead and Sal didn’t like to think about death. I, however, was very in touch with it, and thought of my dead friends often, especially around the end of every year like this. But even I didn’t talk about Jenny much. It wasn’t just that she died that made it so hard, but how she died; as a crack fiend digging through her carpet, smoking anything that looked like it might be a morsel of a rock.
As we drove on through the blue moon night, I tried to think of her rosy cheeked before the roaring bonfire that Christmas so long ago, her hands keeping warm in my coat pocket while we smoked a joint together, me holding it up to her chapped lips. Jenny was one of those sweet girls I’d held unto so tightly, because they could never be that sweet again.
Sal pulled his woman’s car into the empty lot behind the green of the country club and shut off the lights. He found the darkest corner, under a withered tree limb of heavy shadow, and parked.
“You sure this is a good spot?” I asked, cautious.
“Well we can’t park at the plaza.”
“No shit, Macgyver, but there might be some kind of security guard farting around in a little cart or something, just itching to prove himself.”
“Don’t worry, Bubba. I’ve been scoping this deal out for a while. I know the area. You remember Tina, the little, bubble-assed, spitfire I was nailing all summer?”
With Sal there was always an endless stream of faceless sluts trailing his yesterdays. I didn’t bother keeping track of them. Most I never even met because it all ended quicker than it began.
“Not really,” I admitted. “I think you mentioned her once. Was she the stripper with the missing finger?”
“No, that was Mya, a beautiful but worthless bitch. Tina was the one who hooked me up with all the free samples before she got shit-canned for her sticky fingers. She worked at the damn place. That’s how I know it’s such an easy hit, Bubba.”
He slapped my shoulder and smiled a yellow grimace, proud of himself. His mouth was blistered, dry, likely from crystal meth. The twitch in his eyes suggested it.
“Listen,” he said, “we zip through this part of the golf course and come out into the back of the barbershop. It’ll be easy to get in there. It’s an old place run by old men. No fancy alarm system. No night watchman. No video camera.”
“But we have to lug the tools there and back, on top of the swag. If someone sees us out here on this course, were done.”
“That ain’t gonna happen, Bubba. It’s Christmas Eve. Everybody is deep in egg nog. This is the best possible time. We’re gonna load up on this one. It’ll be smooth sailing till the fourth of July.”
I thought it was sad how full of shit Sal was, and insulting that he thought I’d be stupid enough to believe his exaggerations. But it was even sadder that he lied so much that he even started to believe his own nonsense a lot of the time. Still, I had already agreed to do this, so there was no real sense in holding a grudge about it. After all, I hadn’t gone fighting it when he had pulled into my driveway earlier that night.
I got out of the car and Sal popped the trunk. I reached in and grabbed the small duffel bag. It was the same one he’d had since high school, with the faded Iron Maiden and Led Zeppelin patches on it. The bag clinked and clanked like weights in a gym. I slung it over my shoulder and then reached in with both hands for the sledgehammer.
“I don’t fucking believe this,” I said to myself, astounded by what it had come to, and so quickly. A total snowball effect: losing the job, then Adrian leaving, then the booze, and then this. I was back to this again, the hellish bottom, the stinking corpse’s buck-crack of my life.
Sal locked up the car and smiled at me again like a rotting jack-o-lantern in the moonlight. He was already getting antsy. I wondered briefly when the last time he’d slept was.
“You got that alright?” he asked.
“I appreciate your help with the sledgehammer.”
“It’s why I’m here.”
“I just can’t swing that thing with my shoulder the way it is.”
Sal was always in pain and it was always somebody else’s fault. Sometimes I thought he just used pain as an excuse to get high. He certainly used it as an excuse whenever he was in a clinic or doctor’s office. But his shoulder situation was legitimate. He’d had trouble with it ever since he’d run his car into the telephone pole on his fourth DUI. So I carried the hammer, and the tools, and didn’t really mind once we got moving.
Sal turned and started walking and I followed him through the soft snow. The night was clearing now and everything fell under an eerie winter blue-black. For a while the only sound was our boots crunching and the occasional jangle of the duffle bag swinging.
“Through here,” he said when we reached the rear parking lot of the small shopping center. There were no street lamps in the rear, and only one security light that lay at the far end. The place was almost asking for it. I followed him to a door in the brick wall and he pointed at the lock that I had already been looking at.
“So simple, Bubba. It’s got just a minimum throw at best, and a fragile little strike plate attachment to the frame itself. They might as well lock up the joint with a paper clip and a wad of gum.”
I dropped the bag and we both dug in with both hands. Our rhythm wasn’t off after all this time, and it amazed me how fluidly we moved with the mini-crow bar and drills. In less than a minute the backdoor swung wide open for us and we stepped into the odors of hair tonic and that neon scissor wash. We moved through the dark storage room and I knocked into the push broom and stepped in a dustpan full of hair. Then we made it out into the core of the shop that was lit up by a single dim lamp over the cash register. The till jutted out in empty defiance. The blinds over the enormous front windows were not all the way down so Sal quickly corrected that.
Sal started probing the wall behind the giant barber chairs, looking for an area that would provide adequate space but would also have a minimal amount of electrical wires. He found it near the last sink. He tore away a VFW calendar, moved an end table overflowing with hunting magazines, and kicked the wall with the tip of his cowboy boot. It gave pretty easily. He thumped away with the side of his foot now, finding the studs. There was plenty of room.
“Looks like the right spot,” he said. “I’m gonna see if there’s anything worth taking in here while you work on the wall. You want a nice set of pocket combs or something?”
“Steal me an old fashion straight razor so I can slit my wrists come Valentine’s Day.”
He snickered and wandered off. I swung back with the sledgehammer and then clobbered my way into the wall, obliterating it one slug at a time. My muscles hardened and my neck tensed as I pounded away while my goon cousin looted the shop for whatever trinkets and other crap he could swipe; bonus swag for our trouble. As I sent the hammer’s head into the drywall again and again I felt my anger rise along with the adrenaline rush of the robbery and the sheer physical action. I slammed it over and over, all the while having Adrian’s tear-wet face in my mind, and seeing her sad, dark eyes when she handed me the ring back. I slammed away and thought of her frail arms pushing me away when I tired to hold her. Then I made the base splinter away and thought of her soft lips on this other man.
“Easy there, bad ass,” Sal said from behind me, “don’t knock down the whole building.” He got distracted as he opened one of the drawers in the barber’s desk. “Holy shit. These old hicks have some cheeba in here!”
He reached in and lifted up what appeared to be at least a quarter bag of grass. He smiled and dropped his jaw all at once. The chump looked like a child who had just found ten lousy dollars in the street.
“Should I roll us one while you work?”
“I’m done,” I replied.
He came closer and saw that I wasn’t lying. I’d roughly torn a forty-five by thirty-five hole right through to the drug store on the other side. Looking through, we could see the immaculately vacuumed carpet and the stainless steel wastebasket with nothing it in.
“Sweet Christ, you’re strong, Lewis.”
“It’s why I’m here.”
Sal went through the passageway first, squatting and scurrying while visions of Oxycontin danced in his head. I followed close behind him, wanting to make this a very short visit to the pharmacy. Sal seemed to have the same idea, because he flew over the counter, swinging his legs up and over like a regular Duke of Hazzard. He did seem to know the place pretty well too, and I could imagine he and Tina lying in his waterbed after marathon sex, Sal having her go over every detail of the pharmacy’s back stock while he fantasized about pulling over a quick job on the place. I weakly resented the fact that Sal knew I had hit a low spot and he had immediately figured out a way to benefit from it. Had he asked me to play drugstore cowboy with him just a few months prior, I would have laughed till I pissed and then would have told him to go blow a hobo. But I had regressed into that inner darkness of mine that Sal knew so well, and he knew to strike while that darkness was pitch black. I tried not to take it personally. Sal used everybody. Sure, I was his cousin, but that never made a difference. Junkies dick over family more than anyone else, and repeatedly. Sure, he was bullshitting me about all the money I could make selling this stuff. I wasn’t going to sell anything and we both knew it. He could sell what he didn’t take or feed to his whore of the week, but that money would never come back to me.
Sal unrolled the plastic bags he’d had bunched up in his coat and started dumping huge white jars of painkillers into them. He was murmuring to himself like an alztimers patient, frantically scanning the shelves.
“Take it easy, Sal,” I told him calmly.
But I didn’t even exist to him now. He knocked away containers in a mad search for the opiates. When he finally uncovered the methadone, he was already shaking. He popped the cap off, letting it tumble to the same floor that he himself now slid down to. He kicked back the small bottle, taking a quick swig of the syrup. Calm washed over his face even before the drug could take effect, making him look like the Sal I’d known so long ago, napping in a lawn chair after drawing with chalk on the sidewalk on a cool September afternoon. It wasn’t a smile that fell upon him. Sal’s conniving grin would have cheapened the look. It was peace, even if for just that moment while the methadone began its work.
I knew then that my cousin would never get any better. All the therapy and jail time and rehab had failed to make so much as a dent in his determination to destroy himself; to eviscerate his sanity on the rusty blade of narcotic induced madness. I couldn’t give him safety from himself. I couldn’t even muster up the nerve to judge him. All that I could do for him was understand.
I walked over to him and put my hand on his head and he looked up at me with glassy, exhausted eyes.
“Merry Christmas, Sal,” I said.
Then I started bagging up the rest of the methadone.
When Sal dropped me off back at home, it was Christmas morning but daylight hadn’t snapped on yet. The dawn was creeping up, giving just a slight pink blister to the horizon. He’d invited me to come back to his house with him and spend the holiday with he and Jeanne but I told him I just wanted to crash. Had he known I had no heat or power he wouldn’t have driven off, and that’s why I didn’t tell him.
I walked across my broken gravel driveway and pulled up the garage door. The basement area inside was cold and drab with deep pockets of impenetrable blackness. Some of Adrian’s other miscellaneous boxes were down here, waiting for the day she could be bothered to come over to my broke-down dump and gather her things. I shouldered some of them out of my way as I moved towards the stairs. I stepped up only one, sighed deeply, and then decided to just stay put.
I’d taken only one container of weak painkillers from the swag we’d gathered. I’d told Sal that it was all that I wanted and that he could keep the rest. He accepted this after some forced resistance that was purely for show, and then he’d repeatedly told me he’d be bringing me money from the sales. Now I took the bottle out of my pocket and popped open the cap and took two of them, washing them down with the last gulp from the last can of beer from Sal’s six pack which we’d ripped right through. I finished the beer and threw the can into one of my old school, metal trashcans that sat by my workbench. It made a wonderfully loud and nasty noise.
As I listened to Sal getting further and further away in the probe, I sighed again and hoped the painkillers would kick in soon. Not to take away any physical pain, but to kill that much more prominent pain, that brutal sorrow that has sat like an unwanted mongrel dog in the junkyard of my heart for so, so long.
I went over to one of the boxes of Adrian’s clothes and opened it up. I pulled out the first thing in the pile, a green sweater I’d bought her for her birthday last spring. I lifted it up to my face and touched it to my unshaven cheek. It still smelled of her hair and her soft, full breasts. I breathed it in again and again, this fading aroma which no longer belonged in my lungs. I had truly loved her and now I hated myself for it, because everything she’d done to me over the last few weeks assured me that she deserved only psychotic, unwavering hatred. Most people would say it wasn’t love if it wasn’t meant to be. Most would. But we don’t all get swept away by perfect magic at the perfect time. In fact, some people don’t ever know love as anything other than the undying tenderness you feel for someone who has licked your wounds just enough to make you feel like you were more than just a forever imploding zero.
I flung the sweater into the garbage with the crushed beer can. Then I took the box filled with her clothes and dumped the rest of it into the trash as well. I grabbed another box of hers, filled with some papers, some old magazines and of course some shoes. This crap topped off the old can. I jumped up and sat on my workbench and pulled one of the smokes I’d bummed from Sal out of my coat pocket. I sparked it up and smoked it very slowly, enjoying it while I pulled forward the blue milk crate beneath me with my boot heel. I found the starter fluid in there next to the huge bottle of glass cleaner. I doused the trash can’s components with the starter fluid, using everything in the bottle, taking long pulls on the cig as I drenched my ex’s belongings. I tossed aside the empty can and took a final drag, pushing the smoke out of my nostrils before flicking the butt into the trash. It seemed to spin very slowly, and I figured that the pills were starting to take affect, kicking in faster from the alcohol and my lack of food.
Soon the flames were licking upward. I thought about opening the garage door further for ventilation, but I found that I didn’t want to move. I was hunched over on my bench, just looking at the growing fire, and that was just fine by me. As I stared into the licks of the wild light, I saw everything that could have been simply disintegrating and so I made myself think of happier times. Another Christmas came into mind and I saw myself with my arms around Jenny Johnson, keeping her warm by a bonfire that was not unlike the one before me now. I could feel her body, not withered from crack yet, wrapped up in my embrace, and her wanting more than anything to be within it. I saw myself there, and Jenny, and sitting across from us was Sal. His hair was whipping in the wind just like that fire, pulling away from his innocent face just as the innocence surely was. I could see him exactly as he had been, my young and unbroken cousin, his eyes dilating as he looked into the wild fire, stoned but not hooked yet.
I closed my eyes and tried very hard to hang on to the image. I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t cry, but I was surprised that I wanted to so badly.
Kris Triana is a horror, crime and bizarro fiction author. “Giving from the Broken Down Bottom” is his idea of a Christmas story. He currently lives in Massachusetts with his wife-to-be and their rabbit.