Roddy flicked the joint into the littered bush and realized he’d done nothing of what he said he would. Except get to the clinic that morning. But nothing else. Jesus, literally nothing else, fucking idiot. Home, shower, cereal, brush teeth, iron, change, that was the chorus of tasks he’d kept repeating to himself on the subway home, but once he slipped out his phone and locked his eyes in on the screen, his mind began to wander through a carnival of memes and naked men’s asses that his thumb double-clicked unenthusiastically. Who knows how he realized he’d missed his stop. But miss it he did by another three. And the line going back south was delayed by at least half an hour, the fuzzy voice said. 10:00 A.M. He had to speak in front of his nephew’s film class at 11:00 A.M., and there was no getting around the need to shower. So Uber was his only option, even if it did max out his credit card.
He climbed the station steps — the smell of sweet SEPTA piss — into the thick air above ground. Potholes pocked streets lined with abandoned cars and brick row homes featuring boarded French windows. Meanwhile, any greenery to see was decked in fast food wrappers and glass bottles. Roddy slid the phone from his pocket to check his battery. 10%. “Oh, fuck me,” he breathed. “And fuck Instagram.” The cracked device would handle one ride request, he knew, and might die before the vehicle arrived, so he hailed a car without delay and watched the black lines snake to his pin until a nearby driver popped into view. Five minutes, it said. In five minutes he’d meet Jezebel driving a white Chevy Lumina, with a license plate that said “ANGELBB.” What a treat.
“You Robby?” Jezebel squawked, leaning out the driver’s window when she arrived. Long strands of neon green hair floated toward him in the breeze that she spat out and raked back behind her head with a violent scratch.
“Yeah,” he said, not bothering to correct her. Sweat dripped from his pits through the deep holes of his sleeveless white T onto the pavement, and the boozy scent wafted into his nose. God, he needed a shower. Thank God for Jezebel. He only noticed the black garbage bag in the back seat window when it crinkled as he swung it open.
“This doesn’t bode well, Jezebel,” said Roddy.
“Huh?” she squawked again.
“Nothing,” he grumbled.
“Oh.” Her nerves were apparent for no apparent reason, glancing 5 times in the rear view in about as many seconds.
“Hello, how are you today?” she chimed. She must have realized the silence.
“I’m just fine, thank—”
“You like any kinda music in particular?” Her voice strained at that pitch.
“Umm,” he mumbled, “I don’t—”
“Wouldja like a piece of gum or a bottle-a wooder?” Her tone was even shakier now, and she urgently scratched her scalp. Roddy flicked his eyes once to the trash bag in the back seat again before snapping them back to Jezebel, the portly princess with electric green hair.
“Oh don’t mind that,” she giggled, meeting his gaze. “I’m gettin’ that fixed up tomorrow.”
“Oh,” he nodded blankly. “Do you mind if I lie down back here?”
“Oh, go ahead, yes, right away!” she nodded vigorously, green strands whipping all over her face as she spat them out and scratched. “Do you want me to—”
“Good,” he pronounced. “I’m gonna nap real quick. Just wake me up when we get there.” And without a second glance at the woman, he fell sidelong on the torn polyester seat. Roddy could feel Jezebel’s nerves with eyes shut, but he didn’t give a rat’s ass, beginning a sweet snooze as the vehicle rumbled into action. They fell into silence as the Chevy began to trundle. Despite the smell of cigarettes and a crappy coconut air freshener, Roddy felt gratitude for even a little sleep, however poor the sleep might be. Then, Jezebel made a sharp left turn and his head knocked into the right door, underscored by the long car horn of another vehicle passing by. A man yelled over it before speeding off:
“FUCK YOU BITCH!”
Jezebel hit the brakes, honked back, and screeched, “FUCK YOU YOU FUCKIN JERKOFF!”
“What the fuck, man?” Roddy grumbled as he sat up, rubbing his head.
“Holy shit, are you OK?” Jezebel worried out loud.
“I just banged my head into your door—”
“Did it open?”
Roddy blinked. “Um, no, does it do that?”
“Yeah,” she said, breath quickening, “you just gotta keep an eye on it. Keep it shut for me, will ya?”
Roddy shot her some dagger eyes through the rear view and held his gaze. Her red eyes, itchy scalp, dumpster vehicle, and trashy license plate. Not to mention the hair. Or the name. Jezebel was partying on the job, Roddy reckoned.
“What the hell you goin’ through, Jezebel?
“What?” came another squawk.
“What’s your buzz?” he asked. “What’s gettin’ you high right now?”
“Hey,” she barked nervously, eyes and voice rabid. “I ain’t—wouldja like a bottle-a wooder?”
“I don’t want a fucking wooder right now,” Roddy sniped. “I just want you to pull it the fuck together and get me home without killing me or anyone else in the next 10 minutes, and we’ll be just fine. Can you handle that or do I need to tell Uber about this experience?” As if he’d ever take the time to write a review.
“You got it, sugar,” she nodded frantically, pumping her foot with too much excitement on the accelerator. The car sprung into action too quick for its age, and as the intersection 15 yards away came flying into view, so did a bearded man on a bicycle. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Nor the speed more devastating. And between Jezebel’s brakes and abundantly frazzled state of mind, they didn’t stand a chance of slowing down in time.
“FUCK!!!!!” came their simultaneous screams as the bearded cyclist flew into the windshield with a thud and a crack. A terrifying half a second passed in silence before they heard unmistakable cries of pain. His torso was writhing.
“Oh my GOD!!!” Jezebel squawked, scuttling out of the vehicle with lightning speed. Roddy watched her look around the street as she got near him, and he did the same from the back seat. No one was around, it seemed. No eyes were watching. Roddy heard her babbling apologies mix with the man’s groans and stared in shock before he heard the man cry in gripping pain, “FUCKING CALL 911!”
That brought him back to his senses. Roddy slipped his phone from his pocket, but the back seat door flew open before he could turn it on, let alone call an ambulance. He looked up sharply. Jezebel was clamoring in, her face as white as a ghost except for her bloodshot eyes. But something in her face looked stern. Focused, even. She dove her hand into the pocket behind the driver’s seat, rummaging until she fished out what looked like a joint and a clear blue lighter. And a stubby little knife.
“What the fuck are you doing???” Roddy yelled.
“I’m getting rid of this shit, what the fuck does it look like I’m doin’?” she said, voice like gravel. “What, are you calling the cops on me? Huh?” She pointed at his phone with her knife.
“No,” he mumbled. “It’s dead.” A lie told as calmly as he could manage. It’d be true soon enough anyway. Sweat began pouring through his sleeves again, still fuming with last night’s gin.
“Well,” she said, sticking the joint in her mouth and speaking through gritted teeth as she lit it up. “I bet you someone on this fuckin’ street did.” Roddy glanced at the tortured torso on the windshield. Another distant groan that didn’t cause either of them to move.
“Here,” he heard her say, as her paunchy hand and the joint appeared in front of his face. “Take this and get the hell outta here.”
“Are you crazy?” he said. “What the fuck am I—”
“Look, I don’t need no witnesses around when I tell the cops that this dude came flying through the intersection without a helmet.”
Roddy continued to glance between Jezebel and the windshield. Her tone was agitated but not fluttered with nerves like before. And she wasn’t letting go of the knife.
“And here,” she added, pulling a rusty money clip from her jean pockets, knife still in hand. “Take a little cash, too. Don’t go tellin’ Uber on me, now.”
She gestured for him to take the joint again so she could unfurl a few bills. He reached with hesitation. Smelled like pot. Didn’t seem it could do any harm, and he could use some relief… wait, no, this was fuckin’ stupid—
“Hit that fuckin’ thing, kid.” Her command rattled him into taking a deep drag, almost involuntarily. And then he took another, as he watched five sweaty, crinkled twenties pile from one of her grips to the other. Why’d she have all this filthy cash on her? Whatever, he thought, pulling deep on another two hits.
“That enough?” She asked, holding the cash inches from his hand. She wasn’t expecting an answer. He coughed a few times and plucked the cash without hesitation now, not thinking anymore, not hearing the cries of pain from the windshield, just counting for certainty, lost in a light buzz that dangled neatly behind his eyes. But suddenly a wave unlike any he’d ever felt came cascading all over his limbs. The polyester cushions felt like they were swallowing his flesh whole with a sweet slowness and heat waves, sharper than the boiling weather outside, pulsated through his body. A red hue swarmed through every image in his sights. He nearly forgot where he was. He almost started laughing — his body’s way of dispelling the fear — when he heard another cry from the injured cyclist, and as he came back, he wondered if his heart was really racing that fast or if it had moved into behind his ears? His body was still sinking into red polyester.
“What the fuck did I just smoke?” he managed to warble.
“PCP, sugar,” came her swift reply. “Now if I were you, I’d fuckin’ scram before the cops show up.”
Fuck, she was right, wasn’t she? And without wasting another pause, Roddy summoned all the adrenaline he had and flew out of the vehicle and back the other way up the street, out of the view of the unfortunate cyclist, leaving Jezebel and her meth-mobile in the dust.
Angel dust. Fucking Christ, I smoked angel dust, he cursed. Goddammit you stupid motherfucker. Fuck, where was he? He wasn’t sure how long he’d been running or what direction he was going, but he was drenched in sweat, and his shins felt they might splinter into a thousand shards in these sandals. Where was he? Is this how I die, he wondered? Killed by vagrant drug addicts? No, you are the vagrant drug addict today. What time was it? He put his hand out to a woman holding a phone and pushing a stroller to ask her the name of the street they were on, but he could only pant, and she skirted right around him.
“I don’t got change, sir,” was all she said.
“WAIT!” he shouted at her, but she screamed and ran, beer cans and litter flying from her stroller as she fled.
Fuck. Honestly, fuck. He was swimming in a pool of heat, everything around still hued in red. OK, he reasoned. Breathe. Check your phone. 8%. Fuck. 10:22 A.M. Doubly fucked. Fucked over double. Half an hour to get to the school. Pull up Google Maps. 12th and Dauphin. OK, going home no longer an option. Shower in the basement locker rooms? No, holy fuck no. A world of no. Jesus, what a homecoming that would be to his old stomping grounds. Deranged alumnus caught naked in the locker rooms during school hours. Stupid. He took two more drags from the joint. Then he spit the smoke out in shock, as if he could undo the damage.
“FUUUUUUUCK!!!!” he shouted to high heaven. Why was he still holding the joint? He flicked it into a bush and ran, ran against the fire in his lungs, the crush of pavement on his joints, the sound of his heart erupting through his body. He had done literally nothing of what he said he would do, and now he was hurtling himself through North Philadelphia with all cylinders fired up. He passed 13th in no time and soon flew across Broad, dodging oncoming traffic and ignoring the blare of horns. Someone cursed him off. He didn’t care. Trash, cracked sidewalks, kids doing wheelies on trick bikes, and a busted fire hydrant all painted the blur of the next five blocks. As soon as Roddy caught 19th, he swerved left. Ride it all the way down to Fairmount Avenue. No more turns. No more smoke. No more thinking. Just sprinting and ignoring the way the roads began to swirl. His sweat no longer reeked of gin. Just garlic and onions. How could he live three minutes from St. Frank’s and still end up this late, this far from the damn school? Fucking Bojangles free clinic. He should’ve stuck with his chlamydia for one more day.
Minutes and minutes and minutes passed without turning or breaking for air. And even though he felt like he’d run a marathon every step, Roddy never let up his pace, not for a second. He was punishing himself, and rightly so. The Romanesque bell towers of St. Frank’s loomed into view, and as he heard a bell toll, his pace quickened as he begged, Mother of Mercy, that another wouldn’t chime. A few seconds passed in silence. Thank the fucking Lord. Thank His self-righteous saints. Thank His moaning fucking martyrs, it was just one bell. The ¾ bell. He was gonna make it! Albeit disgusting, disheveled, disoriented in drugs, but he’d make it to school on time without a doubt. He just might pull off a crappy, passable talk with these teenagers.
Read Part 2 of this story, “Up and Coming Down,” here.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE
FROM THIS ISSUE