The day I turned twenty-four I woke up sincerely depressed.
I had recently rented a small, first floor apartment carved out of one of the corners of a crumbling Victorian stranded in the middle-class section of town. My place had the only private entrance and the only direct access to the dilapidated porch out back. That morning I took a cup of coffee, opened the wooden screen door, and walked over to one of the four-by-fours that held up the porch’s leaky roof. A rusty spring slammed the screen door shut while I took a sip of my coffee.
The month of May had turned the area my neighbors called backyards into an unexpected garden, teeming with life. Purple and yellow flowers grew along Mrs. Aberscat’s side of the back fence, a blue jay frantically explored the vicinity around Whitaker’s pear tree, and the local rabbit hoped to find an early harvest in Johnson’s new vegetable patch. Mrs. Rachlin had hung sheets up on the clotheslines that threaded her property. They swayed on a mild breeze, and when I closed my eyes and concentrated, I thought for sure I almost detected the fresh smell of her fabric softener.
I went back inside, filled my cup with more coffee, and turned on the radio just loud enough to hear it through the screen door. A rock’n’roll guitar gently rattled my worn-out speakers while a couple of bees discovered the Aberscat flowers. I placed my coffee on the metal tray next to the old porch swing and sat down. The sun came in at just the right angle to warm my face so I closed my eyes and leaned back. I rocked the swing with my bare foot. The radio played in the background. I took comfort in the vague scent of clean linen.
Around half past noon I sat up and reached for my coffee. It had long since turned cold, but I had to get up anyway if I ever intended to go over and check on my girlfriend, Tina. I didn’t need to call to let her know I was on my way because it wouldn’t matter once I got there.
My beat-up old Mustang traveled the ten or eleven miles down River Road to Runyon Avenue as if it had been placed on autopilot. Tina lived with her mother about a half-mile down Runyon, on the corner of a nameless, forgotten side street that came to a dead end in front of a pile of loose gravel. I parked my car under a dogwood tree and headed for the house, but something made me stop and turn around. The car didn’t look half bad in the shade. It reminded me of how Tina never got tired of going for rides in that rusted-out piece of junk. She could easily talk me into letting her shift the three-speed on the floor as we drove around town. I loved the way she giggled and the way she clung to my arm when she told me we’d always be lovers.
Today the house looked quiet, isolated from the surrounding sounds of spring. I rang the doorbell, didn’t expect an answer, but waited to be certain. Next to the door today’s newspaper leaned against the one that had been delivered yesterday. Tina had been left alone for two days, probably three.
I fumbled for the key her mother had given me and opened the back door. I called out her name, laid the keys on the kitchen table, called out her name again before I walked down the hall toward her room. The smell of urine and vomit got stronger as I got closer. I found Tina lying on the floor in pajamas stained with urine. Dried vomit had caked into the carpet all around her face.
I went over, knelt down on one knee, and lifted her hair back from her cheek. “Tina? Baby, please wake up.”
She stirred, her eyes flickered, and when she attempted to lift her head she whimpered so softly I almost didn’t hear her.
Litter covered the floor as if she had made the room her campground. A half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich lay on a plate. The bread had turned brown, and it smelled rank when I picked it up for a better look. She had laid out her works on the dresser next to the bed, but the syringe still lay on the floor where she had dropped it.
“Tina, please wake up. You’re scaring me.” She opened her eyes and her lids had that recognizable droop that accompanied what she called ‘her run’. I held her head up and brought myself down on the carpet next to her, but careful not to sit in anything. “How long ago did you shoot up?”
That’s when she must have realized I was holding her. “Johnny, what are you doing here? I’m so happy to see you.” Her head lolled and I tried to control it for her.
“C’mon, I’ve got to get you cleaned up. You stink. How long have you been lying here?” I picked her up and leaned her against the bed. Her eyes were open now but glazed over from the smack.
“Oh, Johnny, you do love me don’t you, honey, even just a little bit?” Her head landed heavily on her chest. A small trickle of drool rolled down her chin.
“Of course I do. Where’s your mother?”
She made no attempt to raise her head or answer me, so I went into the bathroom. I found a towel and a washcloth. Put some shampoo and soap out where I could get to them. I turned on the water and made sure it started to fill the tub before I went back to the bedroom.
When I got back I found Tina right where I left her. I started the struggle to get her undressed. Urine had saturated her pajamas, underwear and even her bra. I slid them into a pile, found a paper bag in the kitchen, stuffed everything in it, and closed it up as tight as possible. Meanwhile, Tina had curled up naked on the floor; her body had been ravaged with needle marks—on her arms, inside her elbows, on her legs, inside her thighs, and on her feet between her toes. Some of the marks were old and scabbed over; others were fresh and looked like they could bleed with the slightest touch.
I held my breath and leaned over her.
“You do love me, don’t you?” she mumbled. Her eyes opened. She looked directly at me.
“Can you stand?” I asked.
She held out her hand with an effort. I took it, pulled her to me, and steadied her dead weight. Then, I wrapped my arms around her hips and positioned myself on her left side. Slowly, we made our way into the bathroom. I helped her into the tub and sat her gently down in the warm water.
“It’s hot,” she said. “You always make it so hot.”
“Come on, it’s not that bad.” I plunged the washcloth in the water and squeezed it over her head. “I want to wash your hair. You’re going to help me.”
“Oh, please, Johnny. The soap always gets in my eyes.”
“Then keep your eyes closed. Your hair stinks like puke.”
She frowned at me, but she soon lost track of the conversation and lowered her head.
I rubbed some of the soap on the cloth. Very carefully, I smoothed it over her face and immediately wiped it off before anything got into her eyes. I stood up, found a glass by the sink, used it to scoop up some water, and dumped it over her head until her hair was soaking wet. Then I took some shampoo and lathered it into her scalp until I felt I had washed out the foulness that had matted itself into her beautiful blonde hair. She smiled up at me, through beads of water, when I rinsed it all out.
I got her to stand for a brief moment and attempted to wash the rest of her. She moaned as I gently scrubbed, her hand massaged my right ear, and her fingers twisted inside my long hair. I sat her back down and reached for a towel.
When I looked back she had slid down. Her face began to submerge. The water rose over her mouth, but she breathed through her nose and her breath made tiny ripples on its surface. I watched as she slid dangerously close to completely going under. How easy it would be for her to end it here and now. No more of this pain. She looked so peaceful. I waited for the water to take her away. I could just let her slide under. No one saw me come in. I could leave and no one would be the wiser. Her mother would come home. such a tragedy. She would call me in tears. Maybe it would be for the best.
At the last minute, I pulled her up and clear from the water and kissed her forehead. “OK, let’s get you dried off and back into bed.” I picked her up and wrapped the towel around her. That would have to do for now because I wasn’t strong enough to do any more.
I took her back to her room, sat her down on the chair against the closest wall, stripped the linen off the bed, and found fresh sheets in the hallway closet. After I made up the bed I found a clean shirt and a pair of clean underwear. It wasn’t easy, but I got her dressed and comfortably into bed with the blankets pulled over her. Satisfied, I sat next to her and stroked her wet hair.
“You’re so good to me,” she said. “What would I do without you?”
I didn’t answer her. I just continued to stroke her hair.
“Johnny, you know what I need?”
“I need it, you know I do.” She looked at me and I really thought her mind was lucid.
“No, you don’t. You know what we need to do? We need to get you clean, baby. No more needles. Wouldn’t you like that?”
She sat up, hooked her arm through mine, and leaned her head on my shoulder. “There’s money in the top drawer of my dresser. Please, take it. You know how to get in touch with Raymond. Please, Johnny.”
Getting in touch with Raymond meant a series of phone calls and a meeting somewhere on George Street. What interested me was where she got the money, but I didn’t dare ask. I opened the drawer, found the wad of bills neatly rolled up inside a rubber band, and stashed it in my pocket.
“I do love you, Tina.”
I cleaned the carpet with some disinfectant I found under the kitchen sink. The liquor store at the end of the block had a phone booth inside the building. I could use it to call Raymond. My Mustang would go unnoticed in the parking lot behind the library. George Street was just a short walk from there. With mercy, I would be back and gone before Tina’s mother got home.
Tina was now completely passed out so I kissed her gently on the cheek and left the same way I came in. I locked up the house, put the bag of her dirty clothes in the trash and went back to my car. I put the key in the ignition, but sat for a moment and watched a robin chirp and dance madly back and forth on a limb of the dogwood. A mating ritual I thought.
Without warning, a tear ran down my left cheek and I quickly flicked it away with the back of my hand. Another one, down the right side this time. I let this one go. A sob convulsed deep inside my chest and it came out in a gasp. I cried, and I cried, and I cried.