Any Time of Year
A hanging lamp pelts me with radioactive particles as it swings overhead, raising the girl's shadow before either of us awaken. I feel my eyelids part slowly, a reluctance that intensifies when I take in my surroundings. Cracks bisect the room, from the dripping stucco ceiling to the wall-to-wall roaches. The bed is stained with nicotine and alien fluids. I shut my eyes, and like a blind person my other four senses increase to accommodate the dusty scent of worn-out carbon particles and dull bulges of flesh. I hear dying insects falling inside the walls. The sound is a persistent tick, tick, tick, more persuasive than any alarm clock.
Ignoring the nude half-enclosed in the bed sheets, I go downstairs to the lounge. Breakfast is half a cup of greasy coffee and scrambled eggs that look like the product of a liposuction surgery gone wrong. The bartender is Edgar Allan Poe on a bad day. A pipe, jutting fish-like from the wall, drips venomous goo on his head. I sit in a plastic booth with the punch-drunk nausea that informs all the mornings I've spent here, like a familiar song hovering just outside my skull that I can't quite recall.
Outside, where I cannot venture, fading neon blinks a failing tune.
I finish my eggs, an uphill struggle between me and the gelatinous mass wobbling at the end of my fork. The bill gets paid with a dog-eared romance novel. The bartender flips me the bird, an almost formalized gesture, and the book lands in a convenient beer stain. Two points.
As I pass, the waitress flashes the expansive winter landscape that is her inner thigh; a view spoiled only by the tiny Derringer clinging like a black-faced baby to her flesh. I pause to whisper something in her ear. Same lines every day and I never get tired of it. Neither, apparently, does she; plates drop, cheeks flush, the bartender looks up. I'm already in the men's room with her. She cracks my head against the mirror, which breaks too. Seven year's bad luck for the both of us, I guess.
We finish up in one of the stalls and it's a while before we realize there's someone else in there with us. A pair of wide baby blues locks onto our intertwined bodies; apart from the eyes, the only other thing I could see was the man's incredibly ugly tie. We untangle ourselves apologetically.
As I leave the waitress fumbling with her bra, I hear the guy mutter "That's the third time this week."
I take the stairs like I usually do. Some devil rode the elevator down six feet further than he should have, leaving a rectangle of darkness behind the tarnished doors. Sometimes the corpse speaks to me from the gaping shaft. Most times I ignore him. Today, I toss a penny down the hole, listening to it bounce off the crusted walls.
"Hey, watch it," says a faint voice that seems to be trickling upwards from the darkness in a real struggle with gravity.
"What's up? Oops, that was tactless of me."
I grin and head up the stairs, leaving the corpse muttering to itself in that nest of echoes it calls eternal home.
I stay on the fourth floor. A plant lies withering among ceramic shards in the hall, rank water darkening the carpet. I look around to make sure the hall is free of onlookers, then I scoop it up in my arms. My jacket pocket alone has enough dirt to drown a landfill, so that's where it goes.
To kill some time before the evening, I trek next door to show Jeremy my prize. He's sprawled on his back as tiny black beetles scurry Lilliputian over his cruciform gauntness. He wakes with a face-full of insectide and plaster. I hate bugs.
"Prick!" He gags. "That stuff is poison."
"The insecticide or my prick?"
"What are you, sixteen? Help me up."
Operation Help-Jeremy-Stand is about as easy as picking a toothpick off the ground. He comes up gasping like he's been letting the surf walk all over his face. You could run a train on his ribs. "Jeremy, check out this plant. Some idiot smashed it in the hall. Think you can take care of it?"
If Jeremy's room was home to a rare species of Bengali tiger, I would not be surprised. He takes the limp fern from my hands and studied it carefully. "I think it's a ficus."
"The fuck's a ficus?"
"Kind of a house plant. Anyway, it's not really. I was just jerking you around. This is weed."
"Oh. Should I throw it out?" I know as much about plants as I do about rice paddies in China. Jeremy laughs, and I can actually smell his saliva. If I bottled a sample, I could contaminate a moderately sized water supply. "No, you yutz. It's the weed. Pot. Marijuana. Cannabis. The Unholy Trinity of stoneheads. Wanna toke?"
"I get dizzy just breathing your air, Jerome. I don't want to think about what might happen if I actually took something you endorsed."
"Hmm, Mr. Big Words thinks he's too good for my Mary Jane. Don't worry, big girl, you've got a daddy now..."
Jeremy turns away to stash his stash. His buttocks remain stiff and immobile when he walks; bones poke his skin into unexpected tents, making it look like he's keeping a screwdriver collection in his ass. He finishes hiding the weed, but when he turns around he's holding something in both fists.
"Now what?" I'm not in the mood for this. My veins pulse with the expectation of the coming night, the horrible satisfaction that comes with inevitability, like standing in the middle of a dark tunnel while listening to the growing sound of the train.
"Just pick one," he challenges me. "I'll take it if you won't."
Can't lose with odds like that. I pick the right fist, which opens to reveal a red pill. Jeremy downs it almost before I can identify what it is.
"What's in the other hand?"
"The blue pill," he says, and cackles hysterically to some inaudible joke. I glance not exactly fearlessly at his hidden left palm.
"Fuck, Jerome. You know we're not supposed to take that shit before you-know-what." I feel like a kid saying it that way, but the evening demands to remain nameless, like an ancient creature from time out of mind. "The Captain warned you once already. You wanna get listed?"
"The list is bullshit. Even the bulls know that."
"Fine then. Just don't expect me to help raise your dick when the fun starts and you're too busy puking up your own ass to put anything else there," I say, prying open his fingers to reveal... bare skin. The other pill is already halfway down his throat. "You stupid-"
"C'mon, I'll be fine! It'll be great! There'll be wine, and blood, and all the hors d'orve- hors d'oeuve- All the whores you can eat!" He is really spinning now, a lunatic savant made human dreidl. I catch his arm and am nearly yanked off balance. We stumble out into the hallway together, his exposed body rubbing prematurely against my leg. He says something that starts off coherent enough, but then his speech accelerates into high-pitched nonsense like someone hit fast forward on a tape recorder.
On an interstellar fusion of chemicals with names longer than most inner city streets, Jeremy toes the milky floral pattern of the carpet, pretending that the blue flowers are islands and the pink flowers are lava. "But I have lava-proof feet and no man is an island, so that really means I should be stepping on the pink ones," be babbles to me.
I nod, watching him take an exaggerated step off the border design. Too late, I notice an upright piece of smashed pottery waiting underfoot. Comically, I open my mouth in slow motion, to no avail. Crimson dyes the carpet flowers a grand new colour, and Jeremy screams until the twenty-eighth tenant comes and knocks him out with a soup ladle.
"Oops," say I. "My bad. Shoulda caught that one."
The twenty-eighth tenant looks at me, shakes his head. He and Jeremy are anorexic enough to be illegal, but I hear she likes them that way. "You a friend of his?" the tenant asks.
"Sort of. I'm trying to get him ready for... you know, but he's... you know."
The guy's head bobs up and down on a scrawny neck. "I know. Hey listen, Sabina and I are... with the candle and all... tonight. Bring your friend and whatever he's on right now. We could use some of it, since... Well, Sabina's not really used to this, to tell you the truth. She thinks it's a little creepy." He stops bobbing, lowers his head. "To tell the truth, we're both kind of new at this," he mumbles.
The vets call it Sky Syndrome. When you haven't seen the sky in months, or what feels like months, your sense of what goes where gets a little shaky. I agree to bring the shit and the skinny kid retreats, nodding his thanks. Happy to have an expert joining them.
I hear the door chain skittering into place when Jeremy stirs behind me. His foot has stopped bleeding, but the stains on the floor remain dark as ever. They seem to pulse with their own terrible rhythms, to the distant crash of drums far below. I feel the first pull of the night forming small knots in my stomach, as I kneel to put my mouth over the spreading puddle. Coppery blades shiver through my tongue. Jeremy watches me lick the floor with a dazed expression. "Is it time already?" he murmurs before joining me. Somewhere deep I feel that this is wrong, but it never occurs to me to stop.
Only two things in this building never come out of the carpet when you spill them. One is wine, and the other tastes almost as sweet.
The party has begun.
Continued in PART II.