Hello? Hello? I — Hey? Hello? Lord? — I gotta question for you.
Sorry, I, uh — Hi. Hey there. I feel like you might be confused right about now. Are you confused, man? You’re probably confused to find me here, strung out good on a spoil pile south of the Mason Dixon. I know I was up in Mass last time I checked in. Now, I bet you’re curious how an old hustling homebody like me made it all the way down to Florida. Are you scrambling now, Lord, to rewind the tapes? Were you not exactly focusing on me and now you’re all mixed up? I understand. My life hasn’t exactly been the kind of serial you’d wanna follow.
Well, I’m coming to you now, Lord, hat in hand. I don’t actually got a hat anymore but I’m here with an imaginary hat in my hand. My Sox hat. From 6th grade. Remember that one? Probably not. I don’t expect you to keep tabs on all seven and a half billion of us. Remember that time I kept Tweetie alive in my cell for a few months? I feel like you might’ve tuned in for that. Do you remember her? Her ma made a nest up on the flagpole and she fell out into the yard? I shredded up my bed sheets and made her a new nest. I know birds come dime a dozen for you, but my thought at the time was if I could keep her alive til she could feed herself and fly off, I would’ve made my positive contribution.
Well, the bird died. Just an FYI. You know, in case you were invested but had too much on your plate to keep up. I read a line from your holy book and flushed her down.
It’s a birdless moon out here tonight though, man. I mean, jeez, it looks like something strip searched the world and never returned its valuables. I bet you don’t have spoil piles in heaven. Overburden. That’s what those women kept calling it. Spoil piles. Overburden. Just fancy terms that mean earth that got dug up. Now as you can see I am lying on the overburden. Probably if you did a quick aerial scan you’d think, that is one dead fucking man lying on some dead rocks. Overburden on overburden. Don’t be fooled though, Lord. My lips aren’t moving, but I’m batting a thousand in here. We all got a direct line to you in our heads, I think. Never really understood how that works but I’m hoping the signal is good cause I got a question for you. Can’t exactly remember it at the moment but I know it’s in here somewhere.
I’m a little nervous, honestly, after all those things I called you. Your honorary titles: Cosmic Dildo etc. etc. The Big Friendly Git. Sorry about that. Ha Ha. From now on you are Lord and Lord only. Although, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again if I don’t hear back from you, I’m gonna have trouble buying in. But that’s not a threat, Lord. I promise. I’ll take whatever’s on offer. Don’t need no five paragraph handjob. Definitely no stone tablets. Just an answer. A name. Or a sign. Have a raven drop a detox pamphlet on my head. You know. Something obvious.
Hah. Jeez, asking you to give me an answer when I can’t even pony up the question. Don’t worry, Lord, I know I sound mixed up, but I’m solid. I’m still breathing. I ain’t gonna die.
Here’s something though, Lord. Until I came here to this strange place, I thought I wanted to — die I mean. Even when I’d been living good for a while, living clean. Even then. The thing was, living clean, I felt even smaller than I did when I was using. Had a gig breaking down boxes at Home Depot and a bed in the Kilby Street shelter. You weren’t watching then, I bet. Life was boxes, boxes, cigarettes, then Law and Order reruns on YouTube on my phone at night. I wasn’t paying out at the shelter so I was giving ma money to make rent cause her COPD made it hard for her to do most things. That and her being 80 years old and all.
I know everybody’s got their axe to grind with you, but you fucked me on that good streak, Lord. You should watch the tapes, if you’re archiving that shit. Just so you know what it’s like be so small and fail so bad. Just rewind to when Shawna ODed at the shelter. Red-haired Shawna, who was always packing heat. I had some Narcan and I tried to squirt it up her nose like it shows in the pictures on the box but the government don’t train the shelter staff with it and the attendant stopped me. Thought I was trying to give her more drugs. I watched her gurgling, waiting for the ambulance. When they finally got there she was this light blue color that would’ve been pretty, like she was a pretty alien girl dropped down from Pluto, except she was dead.
Fine, Lord I won’t kid you I’d been using too. I was gonna shoot the same shit as Shawna but I saw her freeze up. Then that big guy on staff pinned me down, though I wrestled to get her that Narcan. He was looking at me all gentle while she was gasping just a foot away.
I slept sick in all sorts of ways that night, Lord. Didn’t fall asleep until dawn and then slept through my shift at the Depot. They said the box breaker downers are a crucial part of the operation and they can’t have this kind of lapse in efficiency etc. etc. My manager said they always give folks like me a chance and then we always make it hard for them to extend a helping hand in the future. Still, I was okay. Shook up from Shawna and all but I’ve seen worse.
Do you know though, Lord, what happened to ma when I stopped paying rent?
Watch the tapes, man. Dust them off and watch them.
Are you watching now? Are you worried, Lord? Don’t worry. I just shot a little bit. Just to tide me over while I think on this question I got for you, just to make this sick go away. It’s nice and warm out here, actually, and the clay is soft from when it rained earlier. No feather bed, but it’s fine. Every time I think of ma though, Lord, the pain in here is so great it feels like there’s some part of me that’s singing, trying to get rid of this extra I can’t hold.
You ever run so hard, man, your shoes wear out and then your skin tears up and then you’re hobble-running on two boney stumps? After everything with ma, I ran that hard. Tore up Worcester. Went to the reservoir where all the doctors leave their unlocked cars and go to jog. I jacked one. Took it for a joyride with Big Jimmy, that little guy I met all those years back at the school for defective boys. We bought dope from his ex, and she told us the stuff they’re selling out in Springfield’s so thick with Fentanyl, it’s killing everybody who so much as looks at it. There’s other ways it could be, man. Jimmy said when we heard that. But we both knew that wasn’t true. A minute later, we were gunning west down the highway and I thought, this is the only way I can stand it, charging the edge like some spooked buffalo. Jimmy and I, a two man herd. Didn’t want to talk to you then, Lord. Just kept thinking, who made the exit sign so goddamn bright.
At some point Jimmy reminded me of when my pops came to visit at the school and he tripped down the stairs when he was leaving. That was the hardest I ever laughed. When Jimmy reminded me of it, I laughed so hard again, I was unsure if I was laughing or crying and it felt so good. I kept my eyes closed a second longer than was right, feeling how it was to laugh again and have my ribs hurt in a sweet way. Then we were soaring, Lord, and then we were still.
The impact was bad. Like my whole body was an abscess, lanced with one punched slice.
When I opened my eyes, I was upside down, caught in the seat belt, and Jimmy was gone. When he flew through the front window, he’d left a glass-jagged mouth, broke-tooth, like the one on that Richards Street whore who could never put on lipstick right. You don’t know her, I bet. Red all over her gums and the few teeth she’s got left. Looking at Jimmy’s hole, I knew I was never gonna use again.
Ha ha. Never again. Do you know what’s here in this overburden, Lord? Those women showed me. Teeth. Shark’s teeth. Meg-a-lo-dons. The women said they’d only been finding shards today. Frags, they called them. They were digging them out of the clay with a screwdriver when I walked out of the woods. Can you tell there’s teeth in here, Lord? Where you are this all must look like grey pimples. I learned from the women, though, rock’s not just rock. It’s bone. And teeth. Old bits and bobs of things sunk down and pressed together and then come back up.
After the women left, I must’ve found a good one. I got it here, got my thumb on it. Three inches, smoothed out at the tip like sea glass. Not like anything that used to tear up whales. I want to bring it to someone, maybe to them, and not ‘cause I want to give it up. I just want to look at it with another person. Even though we’d still be dingleberries on some titan’s ass, we’d be big, remembering back farther than our lives, to when all this was ocean.
Don’t worry, man, I know I’m getting sentimental, but don’t worry. Look, I can’t open my eyes but I can roll them up and down behind my lids. Copacetic, Lord. Everything is A-OK.
My heart’s still beating. Just gonna shoot a little more of this, now, if I can. Mmm.
Lord, just for your records. I did check on Jimmy after the crash. He’d joined you. Then I walked on to Springfield, took a bird bath in Dunkin’s, and got on the next bus south.
On the way down, I shot the shit for a long time with the bus driver, Al. Gifted him my phone. Just ‘cause he seemed like a nice guy. And ‘cause I kept thinking ma might call, though I knew she wouldn’t. Al’d done time too. Took him 20 years to get his license back. He was in some special program where they return it in exchange for you telling kids how messed up it was inside. Al, I said finally, my ticket only covers to Georgia but I need to get farther.
Al said I could ride as long as I wanted. I went to the back then and cozied up. Oh yeah, Lord, and I bought some of what I thought was that good dope in Springfield. I was shooting it all the way down, trying to bite it in the bathroom. Whatever I got wasn’t laced though. Good but not lethal. By the time we were in south Georgia, I was strung out in the backseat with no dope left. When I started sweating, I knew I had a day or so before I shat my insides out.
Soon after the sick came on, man, we entered this town. My eyes were all crusted but when I cracked them open, I was good surprised. I don’t mean to be cheeky, but I thought wow, a place that’s shittier than my own mind. If my muscles hadn’t felt so achy and my nose been trying to turn my face into a slip n’ slide, I would’ve felt like a brand new baby angel compared to this place. I knew there had to be dope around. When I got off, Al even said, here?
Here. I told him for sure.
I walked around for awhile then, feeling right at home. Fiend on every street corner, attracting flies, mumbling about this apocalypse and that devil. Courthouse like the Taj. You get it. Maybe you get it. At the same time, Lord, I felt like I was as far from home as I could be. I felt stretched out, thin and low, having come down from wanting death so bad and starting now to get that sick in me instead. Those shivers. Hot and wet and dry and cold all at once. But I was so tired, man, so not wanting anything, not even dope, that I had a strange feeling I could face any ill was coming on, even if I never got high again. I was a bird wing, Lord, hollow, no muscle or heart or any other of this meat I was sure you’d stuck on me.
I glided through town like this, feeling I was maybe still approaching the edge, just much slower than before. At peace in a way but not at home. No Dunkin’s iced coffee in sight, no Maytime snow melts. Everything around just dusty and hot, like you took a straw, Lord, and sucked out all the moisture from on high. And I was thirsty to match it. Thirsty and drifting and feeling like I was in a dream, or a funhouse, none of the signs making any sense in this town. Like they hadn’t been updated in some time. Like you hadn’t been checking in. Catch a Mighty Swamp Bass! One read, like it and I weren’t in the closest thing to the Gobi this side of the pond. Jenkins’ Swamp Tours, another said, and beneath it was a busted porch with a man on it.
Keep moving asshole. The man said. And I felt seen for who I really was, Lord. I tipped my imaginary hat to him. He spat at my feet and I did what he said. Kept on moving.
Took me a few minutes after that to find my kind of bum, shaded beneath the belly of a giant gator statue in the town center. The gator’s mouth was roaring but some of his scales and a few of his teeth were gone, like he was one of us. Meth mouth, I said, pointing up at the holes. The man laughed. His junk was hanging out the fly of his shorts and he had a Pluto-sized abscess on his leg. Point me to the well, I said. He shook his head. No clean water around. Unless you get a bottle from the Mart. All’s junk. He said. Take it up with Potash.
I told him I didn’t mean that kind of water. I wanted to ask, was this hell that I’d stumbled upon, but then I felt sun on the back of my neck, and warm spreading down my spine. I looked up at the gator, not like any creature you’d find at home, and I felt strange and respectful, Lord. Strangely respectful, and five years old again in the one-room on Kilby. Ma kneeling by the mantle with the cross on it and the crèche I always messed with, swapping out the baby Jesus for the plastic toucan from the Froot Loops. Me on the mattress, sometimes bored, pulling the bible over and licking it to see how books tasted. But most of the time looking at ma, her lips making prayer shapes. This gator seemed like something ma prayed to without knowing, like something the aliens left, man, way long ago with the pyramids. It seemed as distant as Jesus’ words, the ones that never sounded like what people spat from their mouths just outside our window. Felt out of my league looking at it, Lord, like when I would pretend to be asleep but still hear ma praying for you to have pity on me, like we were leaning over the edge of a dirty brick ship and she was holding me out towards a lifeboat with just one spot left in it.
The bum was speaking to me though, and I had to listen. I was still so thirsty. There’re other ways it could be. He said. Excuse me? I said. He repeated himself. There’s the way by the bees, he said again. I won’t lie, Lord, I was swaying while he spoke. So sick and thirsty. He pointed down a street paved with asphalt, heat making the buildings along it jiggle. See the bees, that’s the path to take, he said. Through the woods. Just a mile or so. You’ll see the spoil piles.
Lord, ‘scuse my priorities, but listening to this man speak nonsense, I thought, at least the dope around here is good. Maybe this time it will really kill me.
Sir, I said then, trying to pierce through his dope haze, I am looking to buy some smack.
I know. He laughed. But it’s fit to rain. They’ll be at the spoil pile. Trust me, he said. Wet clay’s good for digging. I looked up and saw the sky then, stretching out like grey wool.
After he spoke, I did what he said, because my skin was also starting to jiggle from the heat and the sick. I walked slow down the street in the shade of the buildings, rounding the corner to see an old tin sign with a cartoon bee on it, smiling and pointing its yellow finger. Darling’s Tupelo Honey it said, the bee pointing towards a line of trees with a path cut through. Someone had spray-painted a giant cock over the face of the bee.
I entered the woods then, where there was no shade, and all of the trees were stumps, not clean cut like they’d been logged but piddling off into rotting fingers. I’ve always felt like a corpse, Lord, but walking through there, I was the only living thing left. I fixed my eyes on the path, from which the earth ran out in cracks across dried marsh and grass, all stuck to itself like hair, yanked and ground down and then plastered where it settled. Soon I thought I’d end up in the white space I go to when I nod off, where my body walks but the ground’s invisible, and all around me’s nothing for miles, and I got to look down at my own hands to remember mattering.
I didn’t though. I hit the spoil piles instead. Should’ve been music, Lord, an organ, but all was quiet, dull, heat-shining mountains of rock stretching out as far as I could see.
I died in the car with Jimmy, I thought then. And they can’t even give me a ride to hell. Made me buy my own goddamn bus ticket. Everything’s got a cost; same’s below as on earth.
I walked right on through those piles, though, Lord. No three-headed dogs. No signs or fences either. Like someone took a shit in public and left it up for grabs, all generous. Had to step around these pools of liquid that must’ve sat awhile. Thick, all of them, and colored like paint.
What a shitty, shitty shithole piece of shit, I thought. And I squeezed my ribs beneath my shirt and tried not to cry. You got it baby, I heard that whore from Kilby Street say in my head. Her mouth sounding full and jangly like her teeth were falling out as she spoke and mixing in with her tongue and messing up her words. You got it. You’re alright.
I saw two women then, with backpacks and black boots, one of them with a gun on her hip and fire-red hair, the other lean and old, kneeling down, scraping at the earth with a screwdriver. I stopped walking, not wanting to scare them. Man by the gator sent me, I called out, and we assessed each other across the pebbles and clay and bone.
Finally one of the women nodded at the other and they made their way over. The one that was packing kept her hand on her hip. Nadia, she said. She had a clear bag full of teeth in her hand. Couldn’t take my eyes off it, Lord. Like she was some mad dentist relieving sores from the earth. Jay, wheezed the other. Then: you looking to score?
I told them yes, but I got no money. Been running all the way from Worcester, I said.
You’re sick, said Jay, in a kindly way. Seen me shiver in the heat, I guess.
We sat down then without a word and they helped me tie a tourniquet around my arm. I asked them about the teeth, just to fill the silence. Trying to remember the last time I let someone touch the inside of my arm, at my veins, around the raw and the festering.
This all used to be under water, one of them said. I couldn’t tell who was rifling through my pockets. I’d nodded so deep, catching only a few sentences here and there. Megs went for the lungs and the hearts, one said. Or the flippers — immobilized you before they took you out.
Leave some for me, I heard myself saying. Don’t leave. Leave just a bit for me. I got nothing but I’ll pay you back somehow. Then I felt one of them press a cooker and a bag into one of my hands, and reach in my pocket. He’s really ain’t got nothing in here, except — she said, pausing, her nails in my pocket, stretching out like an open jaw with fangs and then closing, leaving.
Goodbye sweet, Nadia said. Bye baby, said Jay. Give yourself a break. And then their faces were gone from the sky and I was staring at hot blue and below it, grey peaks.
In my other hand was a tooth. Until now, I thought I found it on my own, Lord. I was sure it was me picking through the spoils today. That I’d come across it. That it was a message, thrust up through time. I thought ma would like it for her mantle, to put next to the bird in the cradle.
But I haven’t moved since they left. Lord? I’ve been here the whole time. Trying to remember my question. I think I remember it. I do, I remember it now.
Is my Bible still in my pocket? I thought of all people, you could see it. I can’t feel it, but
— No wait, that wasn’t it.
What a strange world we live in, Lord. I remember now.
Won’t you help me? Where on earth did I get this tooth?