He has a diagnosis for his problem, now: it’s solitude he’s afflicted with, solitude and an excess of pride. For the past year he has bought off the same dealer without fail, and developed sores in his cheeks where he has chewed through them and cuts on his face where he has clawed at it, to say nothing of his bruised legs (violet blooming), the state of his room (animal bones have decayed in houses less rancid), his eyes (they are hollow, hollow), the lurid remainder which we shall leave unburied but neatly forgotten.
From childhood he has been—not reclusive, but private, willing, vulnerable in the domain of the surreal and with a certain curiosity for everything having the potential to kill him in slow, unusual ways. It is the reason he reads the papers for the killings and neglects the politics—seizes rattlesnakes by the neck, watches them flail or fall around his feet—downs bottles of Robitussin in the CVS bathroom, never looking back at his reflection, the cheap bottle-green of the lights over the mirror. The benzos were a mistake: to begin with.
But here he is now, by one of life’s crueller caprices: Buying from a new dealer, dusky suburban affair, standing in the driveway, swaying a little, not quite drunk. The last dealer has gone out-of-state, out-of-country even, and his replacement is nowhere near as shrewd or paranoid. Two houses over, a pair of cats is loudly mating.
Alfred rings the doorbell, waits. The cats have reached climax by the time the dealer emerges.
Facial scarring, the discoloration. Long hair tied up, unkempt hair—the hooded eyes he has only ever recognized in addicts and Slavs. He cycles through a few possible names for this person, and returns with nothing.
They pass him a bag.
Alfred takes it.
And “Hey,” he says, “what the fuck,” he says, “you trying to scam me or some shit?”
Shrugs, one shoulder up. “He, like, didn’t tell me how much to give you.”
“Bullshit.” Alfred leans forward, though not by much. “This’ll last me two days. Three. The fuck did he tell you?”
The stranger looks past his head at a line of migrating geese. Suddenly there’s a cigarette in their hand.
“Why don’t you come inside,” they say, taking a drag, “and we can talk more there.”
His last dealer had a boyfriend. Less than a boyfriend. Short, neurotic, twitching little blond who followed him from room to room wearing cutoff jean shorts, lighting his cigarettes, letting him put out cigarettes on his forearms.
One morning at dawn, Alfred had been coming down from a high, having taken a full bar the previous night and presently worn worse than thin; a black car followed him, and though it wasn’t quite possible to judge the distance from his position and though he was trying to keep his pace even, he heard vaguely the thrum of the engine, the sound of the tires, and he walked faster, slowed, walked faster until he caught sight of the last house on the block which still had leaves clogging its gutters. Approached. Knocked three times.
His dealer answered, stared past Alfred at the car. Alfred rubbed his hands together and shook and shook.
His dealer invited him inside, to the couch. Alfred didn’t notice the boy sitting beside his dealer until he stopped trembling.
And when he noticed him, Alfred could not help but notice more, the way his eyes never stopped watching even when they closed for blinking, for meditation; they landed on certain fixtures of the room every so often, appeared to consider them anxiously, and flitted again to the dealer as though checking for permission to—to observe, Alfred supposed. His pupils were dilated so severely that they looked more or less without color, his brows strong and dark and furrowed.
They had two beers each, save the boy, who gazed as into a well at the opening of his can but never drank. A few times, scattered throughout the visit, Alfred tried at conversation: “What were you two doing last night? What will you be doing tomorrow? Do you believe in… (insert in this place the name of a lost deity)”. The boy’s lips were thin and spoke not a word.
At noon Alfred departed; a plastic bag like a ghost blew down the vacancy of the street, and the street was cold, cold. This was the first time Alfred had seen him, this boything.
The second time…
Here is a mask for image. Here is a mask for the counter-illusion.
In the house of the stranger there is broken glass, there is water damage on the floor. Scratches, stains in garish retro furniture—white paint wilting from the walls.
He’s been told that the fastest way of characterizing a stranger is through their living space: a floral comforter, a tattered bedspread; fan on, windows open, curtains, drapes. A particular intimacy, thinking of them navigating and working within this space, accompanied by no one. And, too, the scents: incense, perfume, sex-sweat-musk.
But this individual truly has little to nothing inside their house, they don’t seem to be a hoarder and certainly not much of a person with an identity. Alfred wonders if they avoid being photographed, too, like those faceless artists.
But how wretched, he thinks, to have no face, and how worse to take pride in the fact. The world has stolen from him a real life, a thievery in which he has been complacent, only so he may have a face: And others have found him, of course, the people with the most power over him have found him because of his face, nothing more.
The stranger notices Alfred’s discomfort, his heaving, shuddering breaths, but makes no move to soothe him. They themself are shifting nervously from foot to foot, their cigarette trembling as they lift it to the windows.
“I can’t charge you,” they begin. Take another drag. “This stuff—it’s like…”
Alfred barely comprehends. His breaths sharp panicked stabs.
“Shit, man.” Clenches his sweating palms, the nails bitten down to the flesh. “Shit, shit.
“Forget what I said, okay? I’ll take what you got, just—God, would you just—”
“Hey, hey, no, no, you’re safe, you’re okay…”
They hesitate to touch him. The pills rattle together as Alfred fumbles with the bag still in his hand, examining then opening it.
Toward the window he turns his face (and it is such a weary face, possessing in its contours the strain of years): the passionless eyes, blue all through. It has become his habit to ask every one of his lovers what he looks like, to trace with the pads of their fingers the cheekbones first and then the jaw, only so he can know there is a separate reality, the world of another, where his face is a thing to be caressed instead of a target and where he himself is able to live free from addiction, from this disease.
Alfred was still a child when he realized, or was perhaps told, that he was too shallow and too dull to ever exist independent of his family. For years he’s been performing his own life, running from abusers who he has no choice but to live alongside. Family ostensibly precedes thinking, it is the purest form of exploitation: but (he laughs bitterly, thinking of the empties littering his kitchen floor) family to him is where he’d first learnt the need for masks, to study rooms and their inhabitants—for if his family is, against everything he has been taught, a threat, then what is a stranger?
He has no personality but smoke and noise.
So he wonders and has wondered, not infrequently, why he has made a task of working against an idea of him which has clearly been already embedded in the minds of others. Once all preconceptions have been cleared, Alfred only has one means of coping with being in strange places, around suspicious people.
He doesn’t say anything. He dry-swallows a bar.
“Come sit down,” the stranger is saying in the present, from the couch now. Their cigarette balanced between two fingers.
Alfred stumbles over: his throat chalk-dust raw, his face like hell.
Here is a mask for happiness. Here is a mask for desolation.
…trawling the pavement of the strip-mall at the time when one can begin to call evening night. Concrete on either side overwhelmed him, and too the neon.
Pleasurable thrumming in the space just behind his eyelids. Small pricklings. With Xanax there always came a phase preceding the crest when all the fullness of the world reversed and left his skin noon-warm, the interior of his mind at once bright and at once subdued. Everything outside him great and dark and empty.
“What’re you looking for?”
The colors and the shadows and the light fell away. Indeed, Alfred had been staring at the pavement for minutes and minutes under some pretense of studying it.
What was on the ground? Cursory glance downward: gum wrappers, peanut shells. A sprig of wild orange. This should not have made him panic, but it did.
Someone was laughing. Alfred’s fingers curled, his limbs grew stiff.
“You’re funny. Come here.”
And, like a dog, Alfred came.
The first time they met, it had not been possible to separate the boy’s features from the paranoia which manipulated them; under joy’s hold, or the hold of the waning light, his expression was less pitiable, with a faint rouge to the cheeks; his posture was natural enough not to be worthy of further questioning, and even the choker which did not quite hide all the bruises at his neck looked as though it belonged on him. And he really was young—he couldn’t have been older than himself. Alfred considered this all, then looked modestly away.
“Sweet, too. Here—would you like some?”
He turned again. Saw the boy holding out a bag of pretzels, his nails chipped and painted black. Glanced up to him, back down, back up.
The boy laughed again.
“Thanks,” Alfred said and took one, but he continued staring at his pretzel, the specks of salt. Even if he ate, it would taste only like his saliva, and the sound of his own chewing would frighten him, like a caged animal afraid of itself.
He handed the pretzel back, sat with his elbows balanced on his knees. After a moment the boy reached out and stroked his hair, but Alfred could not remember years later whether he had leaned into the touch.
“I said, what are you thinking about?”
He remembers what he had said to this.
“My family. Summer.”
Rush of blood between the ears. Sea breeze. It could have been either.
“I don’t know,” Alfred said.
A forlorn quality to the boy’s smile, then, and Alfred thought, why? You were the one who asked me, weren’t you, and you’re sober, and I bet you have a place to live still—but saddest of all is a situation one can already predict, and so when the boy opened his mouth, closed it, and stood up, brushing crumbs off his jeans, Alfred was distantly aware that they had lost something which only could have occurred then, moments ago, in a fragment so brief that not even a petal has time to fall.
The boy reached out his hand, as though he didn’t care at all.
“Come with me,” he said. “I have something to show you.”
They crossed the parking lot walking two feet apart until the boy held out a finger, pressed it to his lips, and ducked inside an alley built from brick, rust on the awnings. Alfred began to recount all the summers he had ever lived through in his head, and had arrived at the unbearably hot year before the half-decade gap he could not remember at all when the boy cautiously emerged. A steel bat at his side.
“Alright. Let’s continue.”
Strange enough that there should be a gap in his memory half a decade wide, to begin with, but stranger than even that was the precision of the timeframe. Nothing in the known world is ever so very clear, Alfred thought; always an about, always a roughly. A psychiatrist once asked him when did it all begin, and he had no answer; but ask, say, when did you begin forgetting, where did the summers end, and he could return, confidently, every time, the year I was thirteen, and we had that awful drought, and a man went to jail for setting off fireworks that killed his daughter, ripped her in two. That’s when I lost all of it.
It was May then, wasn’t it? Summer was half a month away.
The boy stopped, Alfred stopped.
A car, parked ahead of them. Black with tinted windows.
Another smile, but it remained tinged, infiltrated as from outside by that same inexplicable sadness.
“Don’t tell anyone you saw this. Take my hand when I take yours.”
Alfred took a second to process this, and another second to let his breath hitch, saying wait—
The windshield shattered with a sound like remembering.
The boy took Alfred’s hand.
Alfred took his.
They ran, their sneakers streaked with grass, breaths and footsteps overlapping. Hardly running: the boy had to essentially drag Alfred behind him, not that he looked back or spoke or shouted to him even once. Wind against his cheeks, in his hair. And he—and the boy was laughing. Manic laughter, like someone had a gun to his head. Every bit of it the rain of gunfire.
He would still be laughing days later when Alfred had sobered back up, trawling the same strip mall or maybe one another mile down, closing in on an alley. His dealer would be there, poorly concealed by the falling curtain of night, beating the boy, screaming at him, and the boy would be only laughing. Like someone had a gun to his head. You pathetic slut. Not even hearing, every bit of laughter insouciant and beautiful. You pathetic slut, you stupid bitch, dumb fucking cunt…
Alfred lifts his hands to his face. They’re trembling, not that this should be surprising.
“Yeah,” he says. “I’m fine.” He isn’t quite high yet, so he’s uneasy by default and therefore what could just barely settle within the boundaries of ‘fine’, but the stranger clicks their tongue, shakes their head. Blond strands of hair fall in their face.
“I’ll get you something to drink,” they say.
Alfred wonders when this encounter will start to mean anything.
When they return it’s with a glass of clear liquid that, upon being passed to his open hand, smells clearly of alcohol, and Alfred is tempted to laugh himself, manic and terrible, echoing the memory of a poor abused boy. He has, of course, been drunk while high, and really he used to be in the habit of smoking or snorting or swallowing anything he was handed; and now he asks himself every day (no longer desperately, but with a typical apathy) how it is even possible, in the first place, that he’s still alive enough to trawl strip malls and enter strangers’ houses and quiver on their dirty couches.
He drinks, anyway, empties the glass in one swallow.
The stranger takes the glass back, sets it down outside Alfred’s field of vision, puts their cigarette out on the armrest. They murmur what Alfred guesses is a prayer in a language he guesses they share with his old dealer. Russian or Polish, something like that.
He listens for a while, imagining they’re transmitting a psychic message to him, a poem. Why now? It’s no time for poetry; he hasn’t cared for anything made-up in years.
“You’ll let me leave, though, right?”
Their lips stop moving, abrupt. Their eyes narrow, and again they click their tongue, shake their head.
“‘You’ll let me leave.’ Seriously!”
They stand. They’re taller when they’re angry.
“You’re a fool for trusting him, you know,” they say, and begin to cross the room. “Men like him, that old dealer of yours—it doesn’t matter whether they’ve escaped to a city or to a barn in the middle of fucking nowhere. They’ll never leave small towns behind, they’re always either in one or in a state of crossing over to the next.
“You know criminals like that prey on places that stink of hopelessness. You only start to realize you’ll never get out of small towns, doesn’t matter if you’re all grown up, doesn’t matter if you’re fucking eighty years old, when you start working for people like that. Getting to know them, trying to talk to them. But I guess you don’t want to know yet. It drives me fucking insane, you know. It really does.
“You will never understand this violence.”
Alfred blinks. The door is shut, padlocked. All the curtains drawn.
The stranger’s expression softens, and hurriedly they stagger over to kneel before Alfred and cradle his face in their palms.
“Shit. Shit. I’m sorry.”
Alfred is too used to people talking to him like this. Like he’d set himself on fire if they didn’t warn him not to.
So what can he even say? By now the lines of the room have begun to overlap, to become indistinct. And it isn’t as though he’s never thought about this, the fact that he’ll never go any farther forward or back.
Maybe he’ll stay in this house for a bit longer. It’s a microcosm of the town, anyway, if he lets himself interpret it that way: shot through with bullets and cigarette butts every day of its life, always used, always settled for, never any trace of permanence to be found.
“It’s okay,” Alfred says. His fingers intertwining with the stranger’s. It’s the first time he’s felt so seen since—
“I forgive you.”
—he shuts his eyes and lets himself remember.
...and it was evening again when he last saw the boy, but when was it not evening? It might have been nighttime. And it was—yes, it was summer then. The late season oranges had bloomed, the cicada choirs had started up, and everywhere there lingered a sense that the previous spring had left behind a small, personal hell, a hole which couldn’t ever be refilled.
Alfred sat tipsy and watched smoke signals rising from the apartment one block over. Listened to voices rising, rising like smoke signals. One block over. They sounded like radio static.
Closer, now. Were the voices approaching him? No, he was walking. When had he started walking?
“Please, please, man, I have a—a family—I have someone—”
—creeping silent around the wall—
There was someone he had never seen before. Mouse-brown hair. Their back pinned to the wall, eyes narrowed with tears, a snot-smeared face. Gun to their head.
Mere feet away: his dealer, his boy. The boy.
“Why?” This laughter was unfamiliar, the kind of sound that isn’t grating or horrifying until the right context.
“Don’t try to talk to me. I won’t have you trying to stall.”
The boy was holding the gun.
The same boy who had sat on the sidewalk with Alfred just—how long ago? And, God, what had they been doing? Already he could sooner call out his name, get himself shot to death, bang, blood on the pavement, than bring the memory back.
The boy’s arms were shaking. Both hands on the trigger, like he was too weak or too nervous to do it any other way.
“Fucking shoot, Arthur!”
He forced his eyes shut. Sniffed, moaned, pitching to a scream.
He was looking at—
He was crying then. He’s crying now, beginning to. Tears hot on his cheeks.
A voice curls around him like dawn mist:
“You don’t have to be scared anymore, Alfred.”
Alfred, who looks up into the stranger’s face. It appears, he realizes all of a sudden, like a mixture of every face which has haunted his memory since then: green eyes, mouse-brown hair. They both had them. The man pressed up against the wall, the boy.
Alfred forces himself to look around the room without turning his head. There’s an outlet for a plug, though nothing is in it. The television is dead; he can’t see anything reflected save the crumbling wall behind them, white paint wilting. The curtains still drawn.
There’s a vaporizer humming.
Alfred wets his lips.
“It isn’t painful. Just sit here with me. Wait it out.”
He’s high, he’s tipsy. Of course, what the addition of this third chemical means would have occurred to him by now in any other scenario, but now—now no thoughts swarm upon him, except how sorry he is.
“That man was a murderer, you know. Just once. But just once was enough.”
Sorry to have become a person he’s ashamed of. Sorry for more, a lot more.
“Did you know him? The victim?” Alfred asks. His voice is so small. It’s quavering.
The stranger appears through the veil of his tear-blurred vision.
They shrug, sigh, and wrap their arms around Alfred from behind.
“You look like someone he could have loved, you know.”
Alfred doesn’t know what to say to this, either, so he doesn’t try. He isn’t thinking anything right now, just feeling, watching ten thousand dreams, those buried giants, float overhead like colored soap bubbles. Many years ago, he would have tried to grab them, to crush him in his hands. But the dreams aren’t saying anything to him. He wants them for reasons he creates, and he doesn’t have it within him to create anymore.
He does not feel anything important when the still-anonymous person kisses the top of his head. He can feel his skull vibrating. All the atoms in his body are waking up and dying. In the distance, a few yellow-eyed dogs are barking. Then silent.