“It’s not like I don’t deserve to be here—” I trailed off, bracing myself as another of the frequent sandstorms raged. On an open highway, with no shelter in sight, there was little I could do against the gale except squint my eyes and reserve the curses for later—assuming there was a later. But it ended as quickly as it began, and I shook the sand out of my hair, wiped my stinging eyes, emptied my boots, and continued walking in that order.
There was nothing else but to walk.
Although the sweat, more of a stink at this point, was a constant regardless of whether I was moving or standing still, the wheezing started again before I’d even covered another quarter-mile. The damn wheezing. I felt sand moving around in my lungs with a life of its own. I knew that eventually I’d be more sand than man, and then I, too, would join the breeze, hot and hateful.
Ash to ash, I thought. Dust to dust.
Being caught in an open sandstorm was difficult for many reasons; and yet, there were two in particular that struck a nasty note. First, it burned. I mean it really burned, scoring my face and any other exposed skin like thousands of little pinpricks. And second, but really the true winner when everyone’s a runner up, was that it wasn’t even remotely cool. It was mockingly hot in an already unbearably hot climate.
And to think I used to love the wind. Craved it, man, craved it almost as much as the sun, craved it almost as much as the junk.
I could remember with painful alacrity a time when a breeze was cool and carried the smell of barbecue—my father’s burgers and my mother’s pies. Those pies could take you places. I could recall with longing a time when a breeze was a reprieve from the harsh sun, cooling while I cooked my skin to a healthy golden sheen. That was the summer of ’75. That was also the summer I lost my virginity to Becky Robertson. And as my skin cracked and flaked from an unhealthy red as I walked the long walk, I could’ve wept from the torture if only I had the moisture for tears.
There was nothing else but to walk.
“But it’s not like I don’t deserve to be here.” My voice sounded hoarse and unfamiliar to my ears. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a drink. A bit of bourbon—fuck, I’d have settled for pig swallow as long as it was wet. And again, as if on cue, the breeze whipped against me, somehow neither pushing me backward nor pulling me forward; rather, it was holding me in place, which seemed fitting.
I was stuck.
I was stuck on this path anyway. Stuck crawling forward under a red, cloudless sky with two merciless suns, one in front and one behind, pushing on me at every step. When one went down, one remained so that there was always the weight winking at me. There were always the eyes, one on me at all times, bloody and vengeful. They saw through me and knew I deserved to be there.
They saw me and I saw them on my long walk to Hell.
The storm abated and I was turning out a pocket of sand when I heard a familiar sound. It was Chuck Berry. “Driftin’ Blues” cut through the exhaustion and silence with licks only appreciated by a sinner and musician—not that there was much of a difference. I turned my head and caught sight of the impossible. It was a 1973, charcoal black, Firebird Formula 400, complete with hood scoops rolling toward me like a fast son of a bitch. I looked around and considered stepping off the road onto the sand, then dismissed the thought just as quickly. If you saw that red death and could step on it then I’d shake your hand because you’d be a better man than me. At that moment, I’d have rather been run down. In fact, I kind of hoped I would. But then, true to the only existence I had left, the fast son of a bitch slowed and stopped about ten feet in front of me. Then we stayed that way, the car idling and me standing, just waiting for the other to make their move.
Finally, I shouted over the engine, “Going my way, partner?”
That was all it took. The figure inside stuck his arm out the window and gestured for me to come closer. I approached and he wasn’t what I expected. Actually, he wasn’t a he at all; it was a she, and one of the finest I’d ever laid my eyes on. “Get in,” she said, all sultry velvet and too much steam.
I’d barely shut the door before she had the accelerator matted. The landscape became an indistinguishable blur, and I could only smile when all I really wanted was to scream. We were covering more ground in a matter of minutes than I’d covered on foot in days, weeks, maybe even years. I pulled my attention back to the driver. She had that look from the animated Heavy Metal movie series I used to love getting stoned to. You know the look I’m talking about. It was that impossibly beautiful yet dangerously alluring bite of a chick with big boobs and even bigger hair. And sadly, the only thing I could think as I traced my eyes up the contour of her tight jeans and midriff baring black shirt with “Blow Me” written in red lettering across her ample breasts, up to her porcelain face accented by dark hair was…
I want to get bent.
Drugs. Any other man would’ve fallen over himself in her presence, but all she did was remind me of what I couldn’t have. Ten minutes earlier, I’d have done just about anything for a drink. Ten minutes later, I’d have literally done anything for a fix.
“Fix me up doctor.”
“What was that?”
I hadn’t even realized I’d spoken aloud. “Just saying thanks for the ride.”
“Funny way of saying it.” She reached down and pushed in the cigarette lighter. “Beats walking, don’t it?”
I remained silent. It’s not like I didn’t deserve to be walking. I knew my place.
“What’s your name?” She asked after it was clear I was content with the silence.
“T.C.!” She barked. “What kind of name is T.C.?”
“Short for Travis Cole.”
“That’s a Southern name, if ever I heard one. You a Southern gent?” She mocked. “You going to treat me all nice and ladylike?”
“From Georgia, originally, but I wouldn’t call myself a Southern gent.”
“So what would you call yourself?” She reached down and grabbed the cigarette lighter, now red hot, and pressed it to her full lips as if it were Lancôme. Her flesh sizzled and smoked as she moved it in a small circle, taking deliberate care to make a full rotation. It couldn’t have taken any longer than fifteen seconds or so, but it was an eternity to me before she put the lighter back into its holder and pouted her charred lips at herself in the rearview mirror.
And again, all I could think was how badly I wanted a fix.
“Oh yeah?” She said, peeling her eyes from the mirror. Her lips were black and blotchy and dotted with red as her wide smile split them anew. The blood trailed down her chin and dripped onto the hollow at the base of her throat. She reached down without looking at either the blood or the road. She watched me as she wiped the blood with an index finger and sucked it clean. It was wildly suggestive and erotic while also entirely nauseating. The combination left me reeling. “I’m just as addictive as any drug,” she said huskily. “Maybe even more so. Plenty of men have gotten addicted to me. Plenty of women, too.”
“I’m sure,” I said, careful to keep my voice neutral. I was wondering if the ride was worth the price just as another storm started, and I knew I didn’t want to be out there. I didn’t want to be in here, but I also didn’t want to be out there. “What’s your name?” I said, trying to steer things back in the right direction.
“Short for Vivian?”
Viv slammed the breaks hard, sending the car skidding dangerously close toward the side of the road. I screamed. There was no helping it, just as I knew there was no coming back when you went off the road. A few days earlier I saw one guy go off the road. I still couldn’t close my eyes without seeing his face and shuddering.
“Let’s get one thing straight!” Viv said. “I don’t tolerate a smartass. If that’s what you are, a Southern smartass, then you can get to walking. Now if you’re a junkie, as you claimed, then we can be friends. What’ll it be, smartass or junkie?”
Viv, definitely not short for Vivian, wasn’t messing around and I didn’t want to walk. So I smiled my best apologetic smile and said “Junkie” with all the conviction in my heart. A lie could be difficult. It involved nuances and subtleties that not everyone felt comfortable with. The truth, however, was easy when I knew exactly what I was, and I was a junkie. I felt no qualms in admitting the truth.
“Alright, Southern junkie,” she said, putting the car back into drive. “That’s a start.” We continued like that for a while, spacing out as the storms batted the car, quiet but uncomfortable. Perhaps I should’ve asked for her story, but I didn’t want to know hers as I didn’t want her knowing mine. We each carry our own burdens and they’re ours to carry. People like to tell others in order to lighten the load, except that I knew I deserved my lot. I deserved my load. Unfortunately, Viv didn’t agree with that philosophy for she just started talking.
“His name was Jeff, by the way, in case you were wondering if I’m married. I was. Sadly, Jeff was a smartass.” She looked at me as she said it and I pretended not to notice, staring fixedly out the window and wishing this mad woman would just shut up and drive. “And Jeff liked to call me Vivian. And I think we both know that I don’t like the name…Vivian. Sadly, Jeff found out the hard way just how much I don’t like that name as I jammed that cigarette lighter into his right eye.”
I’d been walking long enough, even if I couldn’t actually remember how long, and learned that it was best to keep to your own on this long walk. Everyone has a story because no one ends up on this highway unless they bought passage. The stories were our own burdens and it wasn’t my place to judge, so I just nodded. And if she was trying to scare me then she was trying the wrong guy. Fear was the destination. This was just a comic book fabrication that had a husband who said the wrong thing on a bad day of the month.
“That means I’m single, in case you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t. Lady, look, I’m just a user, and right now I’m using you for a ride and you’re using me for an ear. Let’s keep it cool.”
I thought for certain that she’d either jam the lighter in my own eye or throw me out of the car, or maybe both, but surprisingly, she just laughed. I could see how a man would fall for her in spite of it all when she laughed like that. It hinted that there was, at one point in time, something more. Something beautiful, I thought. First beauty I’d seen in as long as I could remember.
“Alright, let’s keep it cool,” she said. “I’ll get you where we’re headed. You look like you could use a drink.”
“I don’t think they have drinks where we’re headed, Viv.”
“Sure they do.”
“What? Shit no. I’m not headed there. I’m headed about as fast and far away from there as I can get, if you couldn’t tell.”
“It doesn’t matter which way you go or how fast. It all ends up in the same place. Look around.”
“You’re acting smart again…” The threat was there.
“It’s the truth,” I pressed. “I know where I’m headed. Why don’t you?”
She stopped the car again and didn’t have to say it. I was walking. I opened the door and got out reluctantly. Then she sped off without another word. Maybe I should’ve felt bad as I watched her go—after all, that laugh was something special—except in the end I could only breathe a sigh of relief and continue walking.
There was nothing else but to walk.
Hours passed before I finally looked around at my surroundings. What was the point? It was something I avoided, always keeping my eyes downcast and ignoring the endlessness ahead and the hopelessness behind. I looked around and was shocked to see something on the horizon—a roadhouse, or so it appeared. I thought of that movie with Patrick Swayze and wanted to laugh at the similarities, although laughing was about as far away from me as the roadhouse. It was at least another hour’s march, probably more. And yet, I thought. It’s something, anything… So I braved the storms and hoped in a land where there was no hope that I’d either find a fix or a glass of something wet.
I got there just the sun ahead was setting so that the one behind cast my shadow out before me. It was the only shade I ever saw on my long walk. And no matter how hard I tried to step inside and switch places, if only for a moment, it was always too quick and I was just too slow. I walked with that shade taunting me at every step with everything I couldn’t have as my skin blistered and popped. I followed it right into the roadhouse, not even paying attention to the glares of the patrons standing out front and the rows of parked cars. Then something miraculous happened.
I caught it.
I’d found shade in the shelter of what was definitely a dilapidated roadhouse. The name in pink neon lettering blinking above the dirty bar read Randy’s. I didn’t give a shit if it read T.C.’s an Asshole as long as it was out of the sun. It’s not like I could say I’d gotten used to the interminable heat—that would have been impossible—however, I could say I’d gotten used to the brief respite in Viv’s car, and my subsequent eviction had only made the walk all the more pronounced. I didn’t know if I could go back out there. Not now. Not after I’d caught shade.
The bartender watched me with a predatory glint to his eyes, as if sensing my thoughts. He was older, fifty or so, and he carried his extra weight poorly. I was reminded of a corn snake I’d once seen that’d eaten a pig rat too big for its body. The similarities were disturbing. Both the bartender and the snake seemed to have too much of something protruding from their belly, trying in vain to escape imminent digestion. At least I’d known what was in the snake’s stomach. I gulped audibly at that thought and strode forward.
“Look what the sand blew in.” The bartender’s voice sounded a bit like that very same sand grating against his vocal chords. I wasn’t surprised. It was only a matter of time before the sand got inside everyone.
“Passing through,” I said. Conversation felt as alien to me as being off the highway.
“Everyone’s passing through. Where you headed?” He chortled as if it was the funniest question he’d ever asked.
“I think we both know where we’re all headed,” I said without thinking.
His face drained of its already pallid complexion and he snorted contemptuously. “I’m not headed anywhere but back to my stool, and that’s how I like it. You got a problem with that?”
“No sir,” I said hurriedly. “I meant no offense. Not my place to judge.” The last thing I wanted was to be forced out to the road. “I’m just looking for a glass of water, if you can spare it. A hose in the back would suit me just fine.”
At this point, the bartender had already plopped his corpulent frame back onto a too-tiny stool and began picking his teeth with a long, yellowish fingernail. He casually looked at me again and made a sucking noise as he got whatever was caught. But there was nothing casual about the gesture because I could tell that really he was scrutinizing me. He was a man that wanted to know my worth, and I was literally all skin and bone. I doubted I’d be much to eat, if cannibalism was his game. And I knew that I wasn’t much to look at with my worn black boots, more red than black from all the sand. My jeans were tattered, my shirt ripped, and my hair was impossibly long and dirty. It was obvious I had no money and I had no fat. I was useless.
“It doesn’t do me just fine. Beat it.”
“Randy, please, I need this.”
“How do you know my name?”
I nodded up toward the sign and he hissed loudly. “Smartass.”
“I’ve been getting that a lot lately.”
“How you going to pay? You don’t look like you got two sticks to rub together.” He paused then added as if it were an extremely clever epiphany, “except maybe those skinny legs.” Again, he laughed a little too knowingly and I didn’t like it. It was the type of laughter that usually accompanied a one-sided joke ending with the recipient either robbed or beaten.
My instincts told me to leave, but my peeling skin and parched throat begged me to stay. “I can work it off, Randy.” I wanted to cringe at the defeat in my voice, but there was no helping it—I was defeated. “I’m a hard worker.”
“You’re a loser. I said beat it!” He rose from his stool and slithered around the bar with a speed that defied obesity. Even as he was moving toward me with the intention of murder in his eyes, I could only stand there and reflect: I thought of how foolish I’d been to dismiss the man’s size—no one got to be that big out here unless he was very good at being very bad; I thought of my thirst for water and for junk, and I couldn’t quite decide which one I wanted more at that moment; and strangely, I thought of Viv’s laughter.
Mustering the strength to either defend myself or run away seemed beyond me. As far as I was concerned, this was the end of the road. But then a voice spoke up, “Hey Ran, c’mon, give the guy a break.” Randy stopped midstride and we both looked at the speaker sitting to the left of the entrance. He had his feet resting on a wooden table, cowboy boots bedecked with silver spurs, and I couldn’t see his face as his matching hat was pulled low over his eyes. The entire impression was one of an old western gunman lounging at a cantina. “Get him whatever he wants and put it on my tab.” He tilted his hat up and shot the bartender a venomous grin, teeth straight and glistening white. “You know I’m good for it.”
Immediately, Randy’s anger visibly deflated as if someone had stuck him with a pin, even his large paunch seemed to lessen slightly. “He doesn’t belong here. What’s he to you?”
“Maybe he does, Rannnndy, how do you know for sure unless you ask? Have you even bothered to ask? Now get him whatever he wants. Okeydokey?”
Randy, now red-faced and again furious, considered the man for another moment, seemingly caught on the cusp of outright defiance and obeisance in equal measure. Whatever internal war raged eventually swung in my favor for he turned back toward me and asked through clenched teeth, “What’ll it be?”
I was initially too shocked to speak. “Water,” I muttered after a long moment, and the big man stormed off into a backroom.
“Hey pilgrim!” He said, his voice all affable enthusiasm. “Have a seat.” The cowboy gestured toward an empty chair at his table and I gratefully accepted. “The name’s, well the name doesn’t matter now, does it? Shucks no! But you can call me Adam, even though I never had me any Eve.” It sounded like a line he’d used often. I arched an eyebrow quizzically. “I’m sure you were expecting something like Clint from the,” he tapped his left spur on the table, “getup.”
“We can’t all be Eastwood. Some of us just have to be Adam.”
“Don’t thank me yet.” He turned an entirely different smile on me than he had used for Randy, although it was somehow still just as wolfish. I wanted to like the man, but I had to remind myself that there were no innocents on this highway. Adam fished a hand out of his denim jeans and tossed a familiar nugget onto the table. “Now you can thank me.”
I reached out tentatively to pick up the brown stone then stopped as realization crept in. “Where’d you get this?”
“I’m a traveler through and through, been to paradise and back, and even to Timbuktu,” he sang off-key in a lilting soprano before adding more seriously, “And I’m good at finding things people need. I found this and you look like a man who needs some correcting.” His voice dropped an octave and the words positively hummed in my ears. “Some fixing…”
Need was an odiously accurate way of putting it. Perhaps “junkie” had unknowingly been tattooed across my forehead, or perhaps the myriad of puncture marks intersecting my arms were as telling as any tattoo; either way Adam somehow knew that even though I may have wanted it, really I needed it. I needed it in the way stars need the night sky to shine. I needed it in the way the drowning need air. I needed it in the way a loaded gun tasted in my mouth.
I needed it.
“Fix me up doctor.”
“Lucky for you the doctor is in the house.” He swept his feet off the table and sat up, voice heavy with the question, “Keep it straight?”
He wanted me to keep it black, keep it quiet. I nodded slowly in confirmation. It wasn’t as if I was new to the game. I’d been traveling down that particular path, which eventually led to this highway, for almost as long as I could remember. The days when I wasn’t a fiend seemed but a small breath in the larger scale of my life. Adam made me feel and think of a time when living was somehow more and less simultaneous. I’d been walking toward the same destination as I was now except that there was one fundamental difference: When the junk flowed through my veins like the elixir of life, I didn’t care about the destination, I didn’t care about the journey; I cared only about being fixed, about being straight.
My hand shook as I picked up the rock and closed my fist around it. The instantaneous sense of relief I felt as the junk pressed into my palm was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. If there was a heaven—and I tended to believe there was as I knew there was a Hell—I doubted it’d be as sweet as clutching my Brownstone.
“Here’s your water.” Randy slammed a small glass of something russet colored and wet onto the table, drawing me out of my deferential reverence. If it was water then it looked like he’d taken it directly from the bottom of a privy. And it was glorious. I’d finished the entire glass before he even had a chance to walk away.
“May I have another?”
Randy glanced at Adam with incredulity, thin eyebrows rising in disbelief. “What’re you looking at me for? You heard the man. Another water!”
“Of course, right away, sir.” Randy’s feigned civility almost certainly guaranteed that the next glass would contain more than just his chew.
“So tell me something,” Adam said conversationally. He sounded like an old gaffer preparing to spin a tale, only it was me he wanted the story from.
“Were you an ‘Oh, God’ or an ‘Oh, shit’?”
“I don’t understand.”
Adam reached inside his denim jacket and produced a very thin, hand-rolled cigarette. He lit it and inhaled before answering, savoring the pull. “It’s an easy question to understand. When you bit it, did you scream ‘Oh, God’ with your last words, or did you scream ‘Oh, shit’? Depending on which says a lot about your character.” The smoke he exhaled smelled faintly of roses and coalesced around his sunken cheekbones, lingering there as if caught in the deep recesses.
“I was an ‘Oh, shit,’” I said absently, still fervently clutching my Brownstone, afraid it would disappear if I let go.
“Of course you were or you wouldn’t be here! I was testing your honesty. Now I, personally, was ‘Son of a bitch.’ But that’s not really all that surprising. I was never one to travel with the current.” The smoke continued to gather around the man and it was getting difficult to discern any real impression of his face. “My momma tried to feed me with the tit, as a newborn mind you, and I nearly bit the left one off entirely. Sharp teeth. Always had ’em.” He made a frightening chomping gesture that showcased the validity of his claim. “So she used to suckle me with dog milk. Plenty of dogs, not many cows.”
“So I’m just saying, it’s not surprising I was a ‘Son of a bitch’ when she fed me from fucking dogs, now is it, friend?”
“Not my place to judge.”
Adam’s voice grew jeering and the smell of roses turned oppressive. “Not my place to judge, not my place to judge!” He roared, slamming a fist onto the table. “Then whose place is it? Huh? If it’s not your place to judge then I want to know who is judging. I want to know who is responsible for me getting caught in this shit stain in between the asshole and the toilet bowl.”
And just like that, whatever glamour had existed was gone. The hat and boots, the welcoming friend, and the dealer were all synonymous with the desperation of a pusher lost on the highway, another guy with a story to tell. Surprise wasn’t as prevalent as disappointment—I wanted the friend. But then, I thought, squeezing my Brownstone a little tighter, when has a dealer ever been more than the sandstorm, holding me back and killing me slowly? What friends could there ever be out here? I needed the rock and he needed the ear; that was it. Same old story: Once upon a time there was an Adam and he needed someone to listen…
“I was the first human,” he said bitterly “to be put down using pentobarbital, which is what they use for animals, in case you didn’t know. That’s monumental. That’s the stuff that legends are made from. And here I am, literally a legend, suckled from dogs and put down like the same, stuck in this dump. I want to know, friend, who is judging me? Who? Are you judging me?” Adam ground the stub of his cigarette out on the tip of his tongue and sighed. “Who is judging me?”
Adam knew, just like I knew, just like we all know from when we’re children and we see that first disappointment in a loved one’s eyes at something we had done or failed to do; it was that first gut-wrenching pain at something we couldn’t yet identify but would later come to recognize as the human soul. I’d had enough of the denial and I’d had enough of the temptation. And I was disgusted.
I was completely done with everything I’d become and everyone around me. From murderous bartenders to smarmy pushers, I was done. From debilitating sandstorms to psychotic ex-housewives, I was done. From oppressive heat to heroin, I was done.
“I’m done,” I said softly, more for me than anyone else, except that Adam had heard. He was the type that probably always heard but never actually listened.
“Sure, sure,” he said. He shrugged noncommittally, telling me as much with his body language as with his words that he’d listened to that particular tune before, perhaps even whistled it on occasion, and it was horribly overplayed.
I opened my mouth to speak, to shout, to say something, anything, but what was there to say? I sat quietly searching for the words that seemed right there in front of me, for the words that seemed as if they’d always been right there in front of me, tantalizing me with the truth. But they were elusive, and they slipped from me between the spaces in my sand-addled mind. The harder I tried to hold onto the thoughts, the more they slipped, until I finally just let go…and then the words found me.
“We judge ourselves,” I said, placing the brown stone back onto the table. “It’s the weight of all our bullshit holding us down.” I crushed the stone with my hand for emphasis and blew the remnants away like dust, watching them settle to the floor. I turned my eyes back to Adam’s and they were no longer shrouded with smoke. They were clear and they were hard. “We fucked up.”
I didn’t try to hold back the genuine shame and regret in my voice. All restraint had shattered with the brown stone. “I was a user and a junkie, that’s it. End of story. And in this now I’m stuck walking. Maybe if I started lying to myself like everyone else seems to do then I could move a little faster.” I gestured to where the heroin settled on the floor. “Maybe even smooth the transition. But none of that’s going to matter where we’re headed.” My voice cracked and the truth suddenly got a whole lot harder. “I don’t know about you, friend, but I know I deserve this highway as much as it deserves me.”
The room, which I hadn’t even noticed was filled with a motley collection of the depraved, identical in all but appearance, varying from ragged sailors in torn, yellowing uniforms to petulant ladies in ball gowns, grew silent. Everyone turned the same angry stare on me, and Randy, who’d apparently been standing behind me during my soliloquy, upended the glass of water for me on the floor. And that was my cue.
I looked at Adam one last time, waiting for something that I knew wasn’t coming. He did tip his hat to me in a slight salute of my convictions and said, “Well, pilgrim, he’s right. You don’t belong here.”
That was more than I expected although I’d be a liar to say I hadn’t hoped, if foolishly, for Adam to join me. But then the walk is an individual journey. And strangely, as I stepped back out under the merciless sun, leaving the cars and people behind me, I didn’t think of the little brown stone I’d also left behind. It had been the world to me in another lifetime. I’d lied, robbed, killed, and ultimately died to get what I needed in order to be “straight.” And just like that, I didn’t want it anymore. I didn’t want any of it anymore.
Maybe even junkies can change, I thought, staring at the distant horizon. It was still a long walk, but for the first time ever it was dotted with storm clouds. There was the potential for rain.
D.L. Legere is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and a student of the MFA program in creative writing at Fairfield University. Fiction, guitar, and black coffee—yes, please.