East of Everything

I gained so much weight sitting in jail that my street clothes didn’t fit when they released me. I had to wear county-issue jeans and a T-shirt on the airplane I took out of California's Bay area that last time.

I

I gained so much weight sitting in jail that my street clothes didn’t fit when they released me. I had to wear county-issue jeans and a T-shirt on the airplane I took out of California’s Bay area that last time. I returned home to Washington with those jeans and a paper bagful of letters from jail and a Pillow Person my sister bought me at the Target store in Pleasant Hill just before I got released.

I took the Bart train from Concord to the Oakland Airport with $50 in my pocket. There were at least a hundred moments when I started to think about getting off the train and heading back into Bella Vista to cop some heroin. And a hundred times I shut it down. It was like a mantra. Not an option. Don’t turn around. Not an option. Don’t turn around. The problem in those first moments of freedom was finding something to focus on. On the streets I had my habit to focus on. In jail I’d had my hearings and finally my date to focus on.

I tried to keep my attention on the landscape pounding past me, especially while the train was still in CoCo—Contra Costa—County. Tried to find something familiar in the dips and rounds of the hills and the ash and tar of the streets.

I left without ever going back to the river or walking over the Seventh Street bridge. My feet never touched the concrete or the grass. But I didn’t allow myself to think about specifics on that train ride. The minute I thought of home—the minute I thought about leaving behind the people and places that had been the only family I’d known for years—I closed down the past and turned toward the front of the car. I denied myself the memories that would have given meaning to my past and the future looked empty and shapeless.

I am one of those rare individuals for whom one extended stay in the county jail was enough to convince me I never wanted to break another law after half a lifetime of drug addiction and prostitution. Three months gave me enough time to kick and enough straight time to realize that I really didn’t want to die young. On the streets and in the middle of it, dying young was just a part of staying alive. But I saw enough hard-timers come and go in those three months to realize that for the most part it was the lucky ones that died young. There were a whole lot of old folks—some who were going to spend the rest of their lives surrounded by razor wire—that went through the county jail while I sat out my time.

Jail was the genesis of my initial desire to move past the needle and the streets and the strange hands on my body. The heavy clanking of doors locking and the enclosed spaces gave rise to the fear that I might not be one of those who died young. Nothing in the past and nothing in the future ever frightened me so much as the thought of a perennial present spent behind locked doors. And the fact that I spent almost two months not knowing if it was going to be three months or three years constantly fueled that fear. I didn’t have any violent crime on my sheet, but by that last stay in jail, even I couldn’t keep track of how many different charges were pending against me. There were multiple charges, ranging from misdemeanor shoplifting and solicitation to felony burglary, and so many different names attached to them that for the first time in a dozen years, I returned to my birth name in order to keep from confusing myself. And in those first months, the hardest part was leaving identity behind without knowing who I would become.

I’d never been to high school. Never had a real job. Never went through any of the socializing processes that bridge the gap between adolescence and maturity. In jail, when I allowed myself to try to conceive of the future, I tried to imagine what average people my age did with their lives. Jobs and relationships and children and homes. All those things I’d never learned how to do. The only thing that seemed familiar in those first moments of freedom was my name—and even it had been buried and nearly forgotten for almost 15 years.

But my birth name was all I really had left from my childhood and it became my first line of defense in my new world. Hearing it would never remind people of a hooker who spent years doing $20 blow jobs to support a three-bill heroin habit. It was relatively clean and free of damage and I used it like a mask. I reclaimed that name as identity and pretended that the girl who lived so many years of my life with so many different names had never really existed. I adopted the lens through which straight people would have viewed her and I hid her away for what I thought was her own protection.

But you can’t just arrive in a small town at the edge of 30 with a 15-year-old hole in your personal history. Friends ask questions and co-workers want to know where you’ve worked before and what your interests are. They ask if you have kids and you have to have an answer when they want to know why your children don’t live with you.

I was a drug addict. It was all I could say for the longest time because it was all I really knew. In the beginning, I made myself a deal. I told the girl I buried inside that once I had half as many years spent in the daylight of the here and now as I spent in the streetlights of her past that I would let her out. I would look at her life. Acknowledge the specifics of memory. I figured on somewhere around seven or eight years it would be safe to remember the names of streets and the color of eyes and the smell of the damp morning grass in June. To think about the red blood and the black heroin. To even begin the process of attaching time to events. The names to the crimes. To cry.

And those five words—I was a drug addict—tended to cover everything missing in the narrative of my life and people didn’t pry further. I didn’t have to name the names or know the dates. They were the words that bought me the first years while I learned how to live this way. While I developed an understanding of the basics. Electricity isn’t free. You have to have insurance if you drive. You have to pay for medical care. Walls and a roof to separate the outside from the inside. Sleeping at night and working during the day. Income taxes. Paying for things I got from stores.

But the names and the dates and the specifics of memory came back earlier than I planned. It began with the birth of my daughter in 1991. She tapped into emotions that had dates and names and places and faces attached to them. She stripped away all the calloused layers and exposed the experiences that gave meaning to those emotions. Until I held her, I hadn’t realized how much I had prevented myself from feeling by cutting out those 15 years of memory. And I didn’t realize until I held her that she had two mothers. She had the woman who’d spent the last few years fishing and running machinery. The woman who’d successfully stayed clean and managed to show up for her life every single day for three years. But she also had the girl who’d run barefoot through the streets for half her life. The girl who learned about truth and guts and commitment from prostitutes and gangsters and junkies. They were of course the same person, but I had so distinctly segregated them that I didn’t initially understand that she not only belonged to both of us—she needed both of us.

And so the memories returned—specific and in detail. But they were still the experiences of a different person. Me but not me. I could create pictures of the moments, but I was never in them. She was never in them. I couldn’t find the woman I was now or the girl I had been anywhere on that landscape. And every once in a while I would wonder if it had really happened. Asked myself if I was entirely sure that I knew where I’d spent those 15 years.

And I became afraid that if I waited the whole seven or eight years to open all the doors, there wouldn’t be anything or anybody left, that there would be no one left to confirm my memories, and so the search became something of a race. I contacted various police departments where I could remember having been booked for one crime or another, hoping to be allowed to look at records or mug shots, but they all told me that the general public couldn’t have access to those records. After that I thought about the newspaper. We didn’t have much access to media back in the day—but we had from time to time made use of the newspaper. The Contra Costa Times always had a police blotter-type column and we’d sometimes used it to keep track of who was in and who was out of the joint. Who died and sometimes even who did it. But even with names and approximate dates, the paper couldn’t help. They didn’t have time and I hadn’t yet figured out how to narrow down the parameters of my search.

Finally I decided the best chance I had of finding anything was to find my old man. Darryl Masters was about as much of an institution as anyone ever got to be in that life—mostly because of his age and how much time he’d done. He had experience and the smarts to put it to good use and if anybody was still alive, I figured it would be him. Furthermore he’d been in and out of institutions since the age of 10 and I knew if he was alive the state of California would be tracking him—at least to the best of their ability. It took less than three phone calls and a half-hour to find him.

In the first letter I wrote him, I was so unsure of my own recall that I prefaced the letter with You may not remember mebut ... When we finally hooked up on the phone the first time, he laughed about that. “‘You may not remember me?’ What’s that all about, Girl? How I’m gonna forget ya? Don’t just forget years of your life like that do ya?” And once we started writing—once I had his letters to touch and read—I recognized his handwriting. There was finally some tangible evidence that I/she (or we) had existed. He called me by her name. The first letter I got from him was addressed to me—Megan Foss. But inside he wrote Dear Mickey.

He did seven months that time and we’d talked often about him coming to visit me, but he was like all old-time junkies. He’d make parole and be fixing dope within hours and then he couldn’t go test for his parole officer and the run was on. I heard from him once in the next year and a half and then in April of ‘95, he got busted again and started calling and writing.

In June I finally went back. Darryl had told me what had become of almost everybody I could remember and by then there almost wasn’t anybody left. Most all the girls I’d worked the night shift with were gone. There were a few old-timers like Darryl left—but for the most part, it seemed like everybody had lost their life or was doing life. And Darryl was locked up when I had the window of time and opportunity that allowed me to go back, so in the end I went in search of my past with no one from it to help make sense of it— except of course for Mickey.


II

CoCo in June is usually hot and already withered and dry. But June was uncommonly wet and the rain pounding on the black tar and concrete steamed and smelled like an odd combination of hot metal and cut grass. One moment the sign that announced my entry was ahead of me and one moment later it was behind me, but even without the sign, I would have known exactly when I crossed the county line. Would have known the land and ground and water and sky that had been home for so many years the same way I recognized my mother after our extended separation. It was hard-wired into me.

I didn’t quite realize it until making that crossing, but I loved and missed the land at least as much as the people. I’d run wild through those streets and like some children long for the homes they grew up in, Mickey had spent the last eight years longing to feel the dust rising up around her bare feet or the crunch of gravel beneath spike heels. The feeling of the river grass pressed against her cheeks at night. For years I’d walked with her just barely an inch outside me—always a shadowed outline—and as I pulled onto Highway 4 and saw the valley spread out before me with the lights of Bella Vista dappled across the delta I wondered if she would finally move into sync.

Bella Vista is east. East of San Francisco. East of Concord and Pleasant Hill. East of the valley and east of the interstate. East of civilization. Virtually east of everything and when I lived on its streets it was incredibly isolated. The Bart train didn’t hook up to the city back then and only a few brave souls were willing to battle the god-awful traffic and commute the 40 or so miles into San Francisco. But that had changed.

I went straight out Highway 4 and from a distance coming over the hill, it looked much the same. Flat and low with the old steel mill providing the tallest point of reference and the river in the distance. And when I got off at the West Pittsburg off-ramp, the same liquor store still stood on the corner on the right. Willow Pass Road still ran the main length of what I remembered as a run-down, poverty-stricken town deconstructing around itself, but little else looked familiar.

I drove south as far as Bailey Road and got caught at the light. I could see all the way up to the freeway on-ramp, but there was a series of parking lots and small businesses where there used to just be the two-lane road that wound its way over the hill—the road that I hitchhiked a hundred times moving between the cranksters on the west side and the junkies on the east. I’d come over that hill almost 15 years before and made Bella Vista my home after traveling and running and calling nowhere home since I’d left my mother’s house for the first time at the age of 14.

The next few blocks had been the stroll. The working girls had been pretty much free to walk between Bailey at the one end and Balcutha at the other. And the first few blocks looked the same. The small narrow park on the left and two small restaurants before you got to the cantina where we’d done our best business. But where we’d walked in the dust and the gravel, they’d put in sidewalks. Formed squares of cement instead of the uneven bumpy shoulder.

There were still the two bars right in a row. The cantina and what had been Marg’s country-western bar next door. Only now I couldn’t tell if it was country. There weren’t any cowboys hanging in front or in the parking lot negotiating date prices with girls in cut-offs and spike heels. And there weren’t any girls.

It seemed like there were dozens of small businesses. Especially the closer you got to Bailey Road. I noticed an insurance office and two real estate brokers as well as a hardware store and a bank. I couldn’t remember there ever having been a bank in Bella Vista. If there’d been a bank in Bella Vista back in the day, it would have got hit every other week. You could have banks in Martinez or Pleasant Hill or Concord. Cranksters are too paranoid to do anything as organized as a bank. Junkies will hit anything if they get sick enough.

I wouldn’t have expected to see much traffic at that time of night. Just sheriffs and the occasional john. Maybe a tweak on their way to cop in cars that had long ago had their tape decks ripped out. And I didn’t see much traffic, but the cars I did see looked like they were being driven by normal people. Maybe somebody going out for a quart of milk for breakfast in the morning or somebody just getting home from a second shift at some tech job over the hill. The cars all looked interchangeable. Sturdy. Economical. Functional. And none of them looked as if they doubled as homes. I chuckled when I realized that my four-door Geo Metro blended right in.

When I crossed Bailey I squinted up at the Taco Bell windows. The Taco Bell had been one of the few places they’d let us go in. At least they’d let us in if we had shoes and money. The only other places that we could go in were the liquor stores and the cantina. The two restaurants and Marg’s wouldn’t let us step foot across the doorsill because they didn’t want us bothering the customers. Wasn’t much danger of that happening at Taco Bell and sometimes we’d go in and buy sodas and then borrow the key to the bathroom and go in there to shoot our dope.

I drove a little farther and then pulled into the laundromat at the corner of Broadway. The sign still said “Open 24 hours a day.” The Pepsi machine still hummed from the neon glowing red white and blue onto the otherwise colorless night. But there was a sign on the wall beside the Pepsi machine that said something about only those people using the machines being allowed to use the premises and I wondered where the street people went to get out of the cold at night nowadays.

I could see “The Tonight Show” on a TV in the corner that had never been there before. Even chained down, the TV wouldn’t have lasted a week. Everybody with a car had bolt-cutters. Bolt-cutters were standard issue along with black tape and Krazy Glue. Everything we needed to take the world apart and put it back together.

And then I caught myself thinking that I needed to move before people noticed me watching. But none of these people looked like the kind of people that got nervous if they happened to catch someone scoping them. These people were busy doing what they’d gone there to do and if they noticed me at all they didn’t strain their brains trying to figure out if I was going to take their dope or turn out to be a fed. Sitting there with the bright lights and the evidence of such blatant normalcy in every direction I thought for a minute that I must have lived through those years in some kind of alternate reality. Like on a “Star Trek” episode where something gets disrupted on the timeline and the future doesn’t turn out the way it was meant to. And I kept waiting for Mickey to say something. To point and say there—I remember that. But she stayed quiet. Shocked—I think as much by those things that were the same as by those things that felt utterly alien. As much hurt by what had happened to her home as she was nourished by what little remained.


After three days I was starting to be sorry I’d come. Never seeing any of it again would have been better than looking and not being sure it was ever there in the first place.

I thought about all the times Darryl had told me how much had changed. I feel so sorry for them girls. Most all them girls got AIDS now. Without the girls there ain’t no way to maintain the heroin economy. Them people are all fuckin’ pitiful. I seen Randy Hinton collecting aluminum cans the last time I drove down Willow Pass Road. All them girls got AIDS now, I tell ya, MickeyPittsburgh dead. I don’t never even go into Bella Vista except to deliver.

Heroin dried up with the girls and Darryl said that left a hole in the market that crack was custom-made to fill. But the youngsters these days are fuckin’ crazy, Mickey. They all packing major fuckin’ artillery and they shoot at anything. They got no honor. How old were we when we were out there, Girl? We wasn’t no kids. It’s scandalous shit goin’ on. Whole neighborhood’s gone to shit.

No girls and a bunch of boys packing guns. Back in the day, it had been the girls that held the weapons. We needed them for protection, but we never pulled them except to save our money or our lives. The guys didn’t pack because it always tacked on an extra 90 days when they got popped for parole violations. And mostly they didn’t need them. Mostly we didn’t kill each other.

Darryl told me that everybody was gone—that nobody worked or lived on the streets—and I’d accepted that idea long before I ever went back. I hadn’t expected to go there and find the same people in the same places. But what surprised me most was the feeling that they’d all been hounded to their deaths or rounded up and put behind razor-wire somewhere. That there’d been a bloodless coup. I had expected to find everybody gone because that’s what Darryl told me and because my own experience of the streets was that virtually nobody could survive and stay free for all the years that I’d been somewhere else. But it wasn’t like it had happened naturally. It was like a campaign had been waged and it hadn’t even been much of a battle. Restrict access to fresh water. Build homes so close together you can’t even grow a rosebush in the ground that separates them. Sweep the stroll so often the johns won’t come out because they don’t want their names to end up in the paper. Starve them out.

That would have had to have been accomplished before they got developers to go in there and build all those houses for all those families. They would have had to invest some serious time to get those streets safe enough for family living. From the freeway you could get an overall picture of the changes. You could see the lack of free space. The crowded houses built right up to the river and the two-lane streets that had been widened to four lanes and the neon signs that heralded a different kind of economy than had governed in the past. It all looked like a model for a larger city’s get-tough-on-crime policy. And in theory that’s all a good thing. That’s what the earth is for. To grow healthy, functional families in healthy, functional communities. But it didn’t feel good. It felt like a new generation of people had built its happiness and its future on the bones and memories of my past. And worse than that, it felt like it had happened without any acknowledgment of the lives it must have cost.

I wondered how many city council meetings it had taken. How many tax levies. It didn’t look like they’d required any additional personnel. In almost a week I’d seen just the two cops. I never would have thought it possible that I could miss the presence of CoCo’s finest, but their absence was a critical indicator in the whole biosphere. On the one hand, it all seemed like a classic example of an environment becoming hostile to its native tribe and on the other, it seemed like a textbook case of successful reclamation.

And as I passed Bailey and headed out across the valley, I couldn’t avoid wondering what had happened to all the people who’d lived on that land they’d spent so much money reclaiming. There’d been at least 20 working girls and the money they earned supported at least 40 habits. And they’d slept in the spaces that were no longer empty and worked on the streets that no longer had places to conduct business and they’d communicated their needs over phone lines no longer intact. Washed their hair and their bodies in water they no longer had access to. Not even counting all the lives beyond those 40 people that depended in one way or another on that community and that economy being there—that still left the 40 and I wondered if anybody in any of those city council meetings or those board rooms had ever given a thought to the indigenous population. I’d expected to find them all gone, but I hadn’t expected something else to be in their place.


Dawn was still there. She lived with Preacher Bob in a trailer right off Willow Pass on Broadway. Back behind the migrant shacks we’d called the Del Monte. And they had a phone there. I knew that because Darryl had given me the number. Guys that do time on a regular basis always know who’s got a phone and after all the years that had passed, when Darryl got busted, he still called me and he still called Dawn.

But I didn’t call before I went over the last Saturday night I was there. I waited until I figured most of her traffic would have died down and drove back to Bella Vista to see her. Darryl never got real specific about what she was up to. When I asked, he always said, “Same old shit.” And I’d always say, “Damn.”

She’d belonged to Darryl a long time ago. She was the girl before me, which meant that if she was still doing the same old shit, she’d been doing it for close on 20 years now. She was an old-timer when I was new. I didn’t think she was actually any older than me, but she’d been there since she was 14. Darryl said that she was still with Carlos but that he was doing 10 to 20 at Pelican Bay.

Dawn got herself off the stroll and pretty much set for life when she hooked up with Carlos. Carlos came into town with a huge bag of dope and unlimited access to. more. He didn’t speak much English in the beginning but somehow Dawn managed to understand everything he said. And she spoke English but slurred and ran her words so bad that even those of us who spent months and years with her had a hard time understanding her. But Carlos could. He was the perfect example of the dealer who came to town and fell for the hooker as hard as the hooker fell for the habit. He never got rich or wore thick gold chains, but he kept her fixed and both of them supplied with rocks for years on end and from what Darryl said, she was managing to keep the business alive in his absence.

Heroin dealers most always quit dealing by 7 in the evening. Sometimes earlier in the winter. And I figured she would have been done and closed up for the night by the time I pulled down Broadway looking for her trailer. I had the address, but even if I hadn’t, I could have picked the place out. Used to be a tweak or a dealer living in every other trailer and it was hard to tell one from the other, but now most of them had flowers and gates and porches with lawn chairs like people actually came out in the light of day.

Except for number 766. Dawn’s place didn’t betray a sign of life. Not a flower living in a pot. Not a blade of grass growing amongst the dirt and gravel that were its yard. Not even a porch light, but even in the dark you could see that the last 6 in the black house numbers was hanging upside down.

The other places had cars with infant seats and four doors—and some of the lots even had neatly appointed storage sheds. But the screen on Dawn’s door hung on one hinge and had a huge tear in the bottom half panel and I wondered how she’d managed to hold out in the face of such an obvious attempt to eradicate her kind.

I thought I saw blinds blink when I turned my lights off and killed the motor. I looked down at my legs. At my feet. At the clothes I was wearing. I lifted my hand to touch the earrings I’d put on. She wouldn’t know me. I wouldn’t have known me. If I’d been her and saw my car pull up I would have had someone posted right close to the toilet and ready to flush. She used to have nightmares about not being able to flush her toilet. I could remember sleeping beside her on the living room floor under a sleeping bag and waking up with her fingers digging into my shoulder. I can’t flush the toilet.

She got worse after Carlos went away the first time. He’d spoiled her. He kept dope in her spoon and rock in her pipe and she never had to think about anything. Dawn was always the only junkie I knew whose life was so easy she could afford to get high. The rest of us struggled so hard just to stay ahead of our sick that we never really tasted that. But she never had to leave her spoon. She just sat there and waited for the dope to fill it up. Carlos made it all easy for Dawn—until he went away.

Then she had to deal with customers and cash and scales and details. She never quite came out of the nod she went into during those early years with Carlos and it initially surprised me when Darryl told me she was still there and still with Carlos and still throwing. That meant she’d made it to damn near 40 without drawing serious time—amazing. But after I thought about it, it made sense. Of us all—Dawn was the most a homegirl. She knew the alleys and the back ways and the tunnels and the attics and the cellars of Bella Vista better than any city planner looking at blueprints could have ever known them. It would have been like the Warsaw Ghetto Battle trying to get her out of there. She would have tossed bottle rockets if that’s all she had and she never would have gone down alive.

Somebody in the trailer across the street opened their front door and looked at my car. I could remember times when I would have given anything to look as normal I did now. To be able to move through crowds in malls without having security guards step in behind me. To be able to walk in a bar without getting asked to leave. But being normal made me look strange now because people like me didn’t visit people like Dawn.

I searched my mind and couldn’t find a single memory of sitting in a place like Dawn’s and having someone normal like me show up at the door. People looking to cop came to the door and hookers with dates came to the door and sometimes somebody with a bullet in a shoulder or a limb gouged or partially severed from a knife wound came to the door. Ambulance attendants came to the door. The sheriffs sometimes came to the door and sometimes it even got as particular as somebody’s parole officer coming to the door. But nobody driving a ‘95 electric-green Geo who just stopped by to catch up on old times ever came to the door.

Sitting in my car and then standing on the step and pulling away the screen door, I’d forgotten that Darryl said she was living with Preacher Bob. I had no idea who Preacher Bob was, but Darryl said he was some old guy with glasses who ran check scams and that I definitely knew him. He even said we’d stayed with him once in some apartment at Shore Acres, but I hadn’t been able to think of anybody who’d been known as Preacher anything. And so he slipped my mind until the door opened and he stood there with the fabric of a tank-style T-shirt stretched across his bulging gut in a pair of dirty brown slacks with thin black suspenders dangling at his sides. Two-thirds bald, but the hair that still grew was thick and wavy and white on his shoulders and his chin. Santa with a habit.

He took up most of the doorway and just stared at me. Something about him did look familiar, but I couldn’t figure out why or where.

He was obviously going to wait until I said something, so I did. “Is Dawn here?”

He leaned into the door frame and ran his forearm under his nose, but he didn’t answer me.

“Is Dawn around?” I asked again and tried to see behind him, but the only light in the place came from somewhere in the back and I couldn’t see anything but vague outlines.

He still didn’t answer and I started to feel uncomfortable. It bothered me that I could feel so alien in exactly the kind of place I thought of as back home during the years I’d been away. And I was starting to feel a little desperate. I was going to try invoking Darryl’s name and see if that lightened the mood at all. “I was told Dawn was living here. I’m a friend of—” But he didn’t let me finish.

“I know who ya are,” he said and stepped back a couple steps. He didn’t say it hostile, but he didn’t say it warm either.

“How do you know me?” I asked.

“I remember.”

“What do you remember?”

“I remember everybody come through this place. I’m old. I ain’t senile.”

“Darryl said I knew you, but I can’t remember.”

“It was a while ago.”

“Yeah—I guess,” I said and turned to look at the room. Inside it looked even darker. There was a kitchen on the left with dishes scattered everywhere and something snapping and popping in a skillet full of grease on the stove. They had a flimsy plastic-and-aluminum dinette set and my eyes went to the half-full glass of water and the torn cigarette filter lying beside the bottlecap with the wire twisted around it. The wire that kept fingers from getting burned when a flame was held under the cap.

He pointed toward the light in the back and said, “She’s in her room. I’ll get her.”

He walked across the living room and hollered. “Hey. Ya got company.” He waited for a couple seconds and then yelled again. “Ya hear me, Girl? Get up.” And I heard her mumble something in the background. Barely intelligible. But in a familiar way. She’d always spoken gibberish. Only every third or fourth word had ever made sense.

“Come see for yourself,” he yelled at her and then I saw her shadow on the wall moving forward and away from the light. He had to move so she could pass by him in the narrow entryway and there in the half-light, she looked so much the same. She was tall—at least two inches taller than my 5-foot-7 frame—but smaller in every other way. None of us had much fat on us, but most of the girls developed pretty decent muscles walking the streets. Dawn didn’t have muscle or fat. By the end of the last winter I went through with her, she looked like flesh shrink-wrapped around bones. And in the shadow she still looked that way. But when she came close enough so that I could make out her features and take in the details of her appearance, the first thing I noticed was that the skin hadn’t stayed tight. The curse of skinny women. They start to age and there’s no fat or tissue to hold the skin up. Gravity. Her cheeks sagged like they were suspended from the high sharp bones in her face and I couldn’t decide whether I would have known her or not if I’d seen her outside her environment.

Her face was still shaped like a heart and the eyes still tipped in that way that she thought made her look exotic. She painted huge lines on her eyes and carried the line out and up at the corners to accent their natural shape. The hair was still long—maybe as long—but it had thinned and faded and I couldn’t even quite make out the shade. It had too much color to be gray but not enough to be anything else and it seemed to have lost most of its weight. It fell away from her face and then feathered down around her shoulders and hips in wisps and strands.

“Hey,” I said and smiled as I stepped forward. If it hadn’t been for the old man knowing me from somewhere, I would have known what to say. I would have said You probably don’t remember me, but I used to work out here10 and 15 years ago. But the fact that he knew me and I still couldn’t place him made that feel awkward.

Dawn dragged her hand across her forehead to wipe stray hairs away and then held it over her eyes like a visor. She wobbled and reached out into the air to steady herself with her other arm.

“Yeah?” she said. I looked to the old man to see if he was going to take the lead, but he just stood there staring and scratching his chest.

I turned back to her. “I don’t suppose you remember me?”

The eyes narrowed further until I couldn’t even see the irises. She shook her head slightly. “No. Who are ya?”

If I hadn’t been looking right at her, I wouldn’t have been able to make out her words. I didn’t say anything and she turned and walked over to twist the switch on the floor lamp with the bare bulb.

“Who are ya?” She’d wrapped her arms tight around her waist and was starting to look spooked. It was good that the old man had somehow recognized me. I never would have got through the front door otherwise. The fact that he let me in and told her to come out was the only thing keeping her from bolting and I’d bet money she had at least a half-dozen escape routes in that place. I never would have been able to find her.

“Megan. Remember? I was with Darryl. We—you and I—we ran together for a couple years here.”

Her eyes widened just a titch and then she shook her head and moved toward the dinette. “I don’t think I know ya. Whaddaya want?”

That question was easy. “I don’t live here anymore. I been gone for a long time and I wanted to come back to see if it was the same.”

“Ya were with Darryl?” she said and slipped into a chair. “Darryl calls me. He called a week or so ago.” Then she turned to the old man. “It was a week or so ago, wasn’t it? Didn’t Darryl call a week or so back?”

“Yup,” he said and drew on his cigarette. “Calls every week. Never sends money for the phone bill, but he calls most every week.”

“I knew he called,” she said and dropped her head on her chest. And then just as suddenly it bobbed back up. “Where is he?” she asked and looked from me to the old man.

I answered her. “He’s at Quentin. He’s doing a violation.”

“How do ya know that?”

“‘Cause he calls me too. That’s how I had your address. He gave it to me.”

“Why would he give ya my address?”

“’Cause he knew I was coming down here and wanted to see you. Do you remember back when Carlos first came to town? Darryl said you’re still with Carlos. I was here when you first met Carlos. Remember?”

Her head dropped again. “Carlos’s gone,” I thought she said. And then she looked up again. “Whaddaya want? I don’t got nothin’.” I didn’t answer right away and she called on the old man. “Tell her. I don’t got nothin’ do I?”

He didn’t respond.

“I don’t want anything, Dawn. I just wanted to see you. To know how you were. I thought about you a bunch of times over the years and I just wanted to see you.”

I started to move toward the door. I wanted to leave. I hadn’t intended to upset her. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to convince her that she knew me. I’d wondered how long it would take her to recognize me but not whether or not she ever would.

“You’re a friend of Darryl’s?” she asked and I stopped.

“Yeah. Yours too.” She put some spit on her fingers and rubbed at the blood that had started to dry on the back of her arm. She said something and I couldn’t understand her at all because she had her head down and the hair fell across her face.

“What?” I asked.

She brushed the hair away and got her eyelids most of the way up. She looked like she was trying to focus and then she started to say something but stopped with her mouth hanging wide open. She put her hand on my arm and it looked like the turkey claws the neighborhood dogs dragged home from the turkey farm around Thanksgiving time. Scaly with red blotches and fingers that permanently curved into hooks. Then she moved the fingers up and rested them against my cheek—fingers fanned out across my face as if she were trying to read it through her fingertips.

“Mickey,” she whispered.

Tiny bumps raised all over my flesh and I felt my eyes smart with tears. I nodded my head with her fingers still on my cheek. “Yeah— Mickey,” I said back to her and she smiled. And when she smiled, the years dropped away. Darryl called me Mickey but it was across phone lines strung over a thousand miles. It helped me believe in my past, but it still wasn’t solid. He couldn’t see the face attached to the voice and the name. Couldn’t be entirely sure I was the same person. But Dawn, finally—after all the years—put the name with the face.

“Ya look so differnt,” she said.

“I got my teeth fixed.”

“There’s more.”

“I got old,” I said and laughed.

She took her hand from my cheek and tossed her head back and hair flew everywhere. “Ain’t we all.”

I nodded. “Yeah.” I couldn’t come up with more words. I had too many things rushing through the mind. Mickey and Megan. Megan and Mickey. The same. She knew me. We had the same memories.

“I think Darryl told me ya were comin’,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. He talks about ya a lot. Said ya go to some fancy college somewhere by Canada.”

“Washington. It’s in Washington and it’s not fancy at all.”

“So what are ya doin’ here?”

“I came to see you.”

Her head lolled on her left shoulder and her eyes kept rolling back. Then suddenly she came to attention and said something so fast I lost her after the first couple words.

I leaned toward her. “I didn’t hear you.”

“I said ya can fix me. I been tryin’ to get a hit for two days.”

The old man stepped over to the table and put his hand on her shoulder. “Skin-pop it, Girl. Ya gonna end up killin’ yourself.”

She shrugged his touch away. “Noo. She can fix me. I remember.”

She shoved her arm out at me and slapped at her veins. “I remember. Ya can do it.” You could still see her veins beneath the skin that looked like onion paper. There were holes and ruptures all along them, but you could still see the blue beds. Her problem had never been finding a vein. Her problem had always been holding one. She had rollers. Great huge rollers that looked like they should have been so easy to spike, but the minute she got flash in her syringe and started to fire, the vein would move and she’d dump her dope in the muscle where it had been.

In the weeks right after Darryl went away that first time I’d stayed with Dawn and Carlos and one of the reasons she’d taken me in without asking for anything in return was because I could fix her. I could hit the veins in the soft underside of her arm near the pit. I could hit her neck. And I could even hit the small feather veins in her ankles if she held still enough.

She’d get up in the morning and cook up close to a half-gram of stuff and as long as I could fix her, I got half. I shook my head. “No. I don’t wanna try to fix you.”

“I didn’t ask if ya wanted to. I asked if ya could.” She smiled when she said it.

I heard the old man chuckle and then he looked right in my eyes. “Ya can do it.”

Dawn started digging in the pocket of her jeans and then dropped a ball that looked like at least a solid gram on the table and started to unwrap the foil and after that the plastic wrap from the shiny brown dope.

I pushed my chair back and started to get up, but she grabbed at my arm. “Don’t go.”

“Dawn, I don’t wanna do this. It’s been years since I fixed anybody.”

“It’s like ridin’ a bike,” the old man said. “Ya never forget.”

I turned from Dawn to the old man. “Who the fuck are you?”

Dawn didn’t let him answer. She told him to get her rig and the next thing I knew her kit bag was on the table and she was stripping the paper away from a 100-unit syringe.

“Dawn, I’m not gonna fix you,” I said, but it didn’t slow her down at all. She grabbed the bottlecap and used her finger to dig out the used cotton ball and then she used the tail of her shirt to wipe it clean. She moved too fast reaching for the water and almost fell off her chair. I put my hand out to steady her, but she pushed it away.

“Yeah, ya will,” was all she said before pulling a tiny knife out from another pocket. She cut the piece of dope in half and then took one of the halves and cut it into smaller sections and dropped them off the blade of the knife into the bottlecap. She went to put the syringe into the glass to draw water, but she wobbled again and jammed the needle into the bottom of the glass.

“Shit,” she muttered and pulled it out to inspect the damage. It wasn’t bent and didn’t appear to have any visible barbs, but it was hard to tell.

“Let me see it,” I said and held my hand out. I gently dragged the needle across my bare arm to see if I could feel any spurs or if it scratched, but it felt smooth and clean.

“Gimme the water,” I told her and she slid it across to me. I drew up almost 50 units of water and she started shaking her head.

“Noo—too much water.”

I’d forgotten. She only used enough water to cook. Less water meant a stronger shot. And less fluid in the barrel left more room to move once you got blood in it. If you missed and went to go again, you didn’t want the rig full—you still needed room to draw back. I squirted half the water back in the glass and the rest over the dope in the bottlecap. They’d been using matches—there were matchsticks all over the table burned down so low fingers must have got hot. I got my lighter out and holding the cap in one hand and my lighter in the other, I started to cook.

I let it go until it bubbled and the thick rich fumes filled the room. When I was a kid we shot the China White and everybody seemed to agree that it was better dope than the tar the Mexicans brought over the border, but I loved the way the tar smelled. Bitter like black coffee but sweet like caramel all at the same time.

While I cooked she tore a piece of cotton from the cigarette filter and rolled it into a ball. I set the cap down and used the top of the plunger to stir and make sure it had all cooked and mixed. She dropped the cotton ball in it and stared at me—sitting there with the syringe in my hand and the dope in front of me.

“Dawn, I’m not gonna fix you with that much dope.”

“I do that much all the time. It’s safe.”

“I’m not doing it.”

Then the old man piped up. “I seen her do more dope than that when she wasn’t sick. Hell—I seen you do more dope than that.”

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Never mind,” Dawn said and pointed at the dope. “Do it.”

“Dawn, I don’t care how safe you say it is. They got laws about people who fix other people and then those people die. You can go to prison for that shit.”

Her voice went way up. “I ain’t gonna die. And if I did, I wouldn’t tell anybody ya did it.” There was silence for a couple seconds while we held one another’s eyes. “Come on,” she smiled when she said it. “Ya done me with more dope than that before. Nothings changed.”

I thought for a second about all the things that had changed. The things that had changed and the things that had stayed the same. I could remember a thousand times I’d sat for hours poking holes in my veins—desperate to get a vein. The panic and the frustration.

“I got a kid now, Dawn. I’ll help you, but I’m not gonna hit you with all that dope. I’m sure you could do that much and then some— but I got a kid now and I’m not taking that chance.”

When I said it I hadn’t expected it to make any difference to her begging—but I’d forgotten what children meant. You could do almost anything and if you were doing it for the sake of a child, nobody in that life would ever question it. Children were sacred. Probably because there weren’t any and she mellowed after I said that.

“OK,” she said, “but make it a good one.”

I nodded and gently pressed the tip of the needle on the cotton ball and slowly pulled back on the plunger—watching the thick dark antidote fill up the barrel. It took three draws, but I got everything up in it. On the last draw I flipped it over and pushed the plunger until one tiny drop of dope came through the eye of the needle. I got a little over 50 units altogether and I squirted close to half of it back in the cap and then held the rig up for her inspection.

“OK?”

“Yeah I guess,” she said. And then, “Where ya wanna try it?”

“Where’s the last place you got a clean hit?”

She screwed up her face for a second and then said, “I think behind my knees.”

I looked around to see if there was another light we could turn on and didn’t see any. “How long since you tried under your arm? Up high,” I said and lifted her arm up over her head. The entire Union Pacific could have run on those tracks. Thick calloused maps of welts vividly etched on skin the color of skim milk. But the veins were still there.

“Lay down on the floor,” I told her and without a word she lay on her back on the kitchen floor.

I knelt down on the left beside her and the old man came and stood over me. “What the Hell are ya doin’ on the floor?” he demanded.

I turned to him. “I guess you don’t remember everything—and you’re in my light.” I returned my attention to Dawn and the shadow passed out of what little light there was. The trick with hitting Dawn had always been getting her to be still. I’d discovered a long time ago that if I got her to lie flat on the floor with her arm over her head, she didn’t move. I got her solid on the first try.

I watched her for a couple seconds. I knew a quarter-gram of stuff wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to take her over the edge, but I watched anyway, just to make sure. After a couple seconds she ran her tongue over her lips and I knew she was tasting it—on her tongue. On her lips. Her eyes finally closed all the way and she just lay there and enjoyed that which she got so rarely—a clean hit.

I got up and moved to the table to clean the rig. As soon as he saw it was a clean shot, the old man said, “Damn,” and moved in on the remains in the bottlecap.

I filled the barrel full of water and squirted it at the wadded-up towel on the floor that they’d obviously been using for just that purpose. It had hundreds of tiny blood spots on it and I added a new arc.

When it was clean I put the orange cap back over the needle. “Does she save these?”

He was just about to hit himself. “Yeah—she’ll use it a couple times.”

She’d started to move—had pulled herself up to a sitting position and was softly rubbing her hands over her bare arms. I moved toward her.

“Dawn?”

No answer. I put my hand on her shoulder and shook it just a tiny bit. “Dawn?”

“She can’t hear ya,” came from the old man. I knew that. I knew Dawn. She nodded like no junkie I’d ever seen and she wouldn’t be making any kind of sense for at least a couple hours.

I grabbed my jacket off the back of the chair I’d hung it on. The old man had got his hit by then, but he didn’t nod off like she did. His eyes drooped just a little, but he was still with me.

“If you get her to lay down where she’s not moving, you can fix her. Her underarms will hold out for a while and you can get her neck the same way.”

“You’re a good girl, Mickey.”

I stared at him. Trying to figure out why the voice sounded familiar. What it was I recognized.

And then he repeated himself. “You’re a good girl.”

“Do me a favor,” I asked and he nodded before I told him what it was. “Tell her I was here.”

“I’ll tell her, but she won’t remember.”

I turned the doorknob and looked back one last time. “Who are you?”

“Preacher Bob. It’ll come to ya.”


III

What I saw in Bella Vista infected my dreams for a long time. I’d dream that it was nine years ago and I was walking down Broadway in my cut-offs and tank top to meet a dealer and then just when he was, going to drop the dope in my hand—everything would shift from the way it had been to the way it is now. And instead of a dealer I’d find myself staring at Preacher Bob and when I asked him where I was he’d just say, “It’ll come to ya.”

I knew that with AIDS and all that, it would have changed. I knew that for the most part junkies just don’t get old. But it all looked like it had been part of a plan. Like they decided to give Bella Vista a face lift and all the people and places that were my family and my home were old and excess skin.

And it was wrong. That land had been ours. We never held title to it—but after all those years we should have had homestead rights. We had been a culture—a society—and now we were within a generation of becoming extinct. Nothing left but an old man and a rag-tag junkie who’d been so isolated by the modernization that she’d almost lost her ability to communicate.

There should have been another way. We talk about reclaiming our streets like it’s some kind of honorable mission—but we do it without any consideration for the people. We do that because we don’t think of them as people. We reduce them to nothing more than the chemicals they ingest or the tricks they turn. They’re junkies or prostitutes, but they’re never someone’s mother or someone’s child. They’re statistics on the evening news and the enemy in the war on crime.

But I knew them—I remember the specifics of their lives. They were like me and I was like them and here I am and so they could have been too. I frequently get told—when people find out about my past—that I’m the exception to the rule. I understand that it’s intended as a compliment, but it bothers me. I’m not the exception to any rule. The only difference between me and Dawn was that I had someone to give me a chance. But it comforts people to believe that such lives are irretrievably lost. That alleviates any feelings of responsibility or guilt.

But they need to feel responsible and they need to feel guilt. When they lie down in their beds at night in houses that have their foundations lodged in the land that was our home—they need to remember that their great American dream was somebody else’s great American tragedy. And they need to understand their complicity. Every girl on that street represented a societal failure. Every girl on that street was somebody that nobody else cared about. And no one wants to acknowledge the humanity of such people when they see them, much less remember them when they’re gone.

But I remember. That’s what I went back there to do. To find my memories. And I did. The only person I found who could confirm my existence was an old man that I couldn’t recall ever knowing and a junkie who could barely remember who she was. But there had been those moments—her hand on my cheek. The red flash in the syringe when I hit her vein. Only Mickey could have recognized those moments.

About the Author

Megan Foss

Megan Foss earned her MA at Western Washington University.

View Essays