“Do you have the answers?” I don’t know who she’s asking, but I don’t feel like talking, so I just assume she’s talking to someone else.
“Nope,” I hear someone say. I’m not sure who it was—the sound seems distorted. I shut my eyes, and decide to ignore the rest of the conversation.
It’s just so damn hot, that’s the thing. The air is practically dripping, but that’s about the only movement it’s even close to considering. Whatever breeze there was this morning, it’s long-dead and forgotten. The humidity seems like a living evil of some sort: not just weather but an entity out to exact revenge for some injustice that we’ve all forgotten we committed.
I start to think about what the hell I’m doing here, but it makes my stomach roll over to do much thinking, so I let it go. As I lay there, my face resting on an old pizza box, random thoughts slug through my brain, slow enough that I can recognize them, disgusting enough that I don’t want to. Maybe this is my attempt to live life. Maybe it’s my attempt to end it. I’m no rock star. I’m no poet, no disgruntled writer. Just some guy who seems to keep falling in with the wrong crowds, some guy who can’t get his feet under him because he never knows which way is up. I realize that my life has slipped out of control these last few months, but I can’t decide whether to be apathetic or excited.
And although I’m not thinking about it, I realize that I have no idea what I’m doing here. The last few days, they’ve been a fog, and I have been a ghost fading in and out of that fog—sometimes surrounded by other ghosts, sometimes lost and alone, and once, standing in an alley, laughing at a dog that was pissing on a dumpster. Coherent thought is not an issue at this point. I start to doze, but then she speaks again.
“Do you have the answers?” It’s the fat girl, I think, the one who dresses like she isn’t fat, but if you stare at her stomach for a few seconds, she gets self-conscious and walks away. She thinks she’s going to be famous someday, but I can’t remember why she thinks that. Something to do with puppets, maybe: I seem to recall vomiting into a pile of the trash on the street and hearing her tell one of the others a story about meeting the guy who operated Elmo’s left arm. THE Elmo. She kept saying that over and over again, THE Elmo. I remember saying something like, “After meeting the guy that ran Elmo’s left arm, seeing me puke into a pile of trash must be the second most exciting thing you ever saw.” I don’t remember if she found any humor in that remark, but I’m guessing that she didn’t.
She has that thing that you see in so many people in New York City, that need to be the center of attention, that “Lookatme Lookatme” thing. They come here to be famous because they can’t stand to be ignored, not even for a second, they always have to be the center of attention. One thing I’ve learned on this road to Hell—or this road away from Hell, depending on how you look at it—is that the people who always want you to look at them, you rarely want to.
So there she is, trying to start up the conversation, trying to get someone to say something so that SHE can say something. I can’t decide if I should pass out or vomit.
It’s something like three in the afternoon, and none of us have any business being this trashed, but who’s business is it, anyways? The air is dead, I realize. It hasn’t moved in days, and it stinks like a corpse. Dead, and none of us even mourned it.
I sit up and suppress the urge to puke. I search around in my pockets, hoping to find a cigarette, hoping I’ll forget what I’m looking for before I find it—sucking smoke into my lungs at this point might be the thing that sends my stomach right over the edge.
“You! Bobby?” She’s pointing at me, so I assume she’s talking to me, but my name has never been Bobby, not that I know of, anyways. There’s no telling what I’ve told these people, though. I don’t know them, they don’t know me. We hooked up in some club or another, some bar, some something. I can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter. We’re all fuckin’ stupid. You don’t take chances like that in a city where there are people found in garbage cans on a daily basis. I could be a killer, they could be a killer, none of us know—fuckin’ stupid to be where I’m at, where they’re at. If we all turned out to be killers and killed each other, that would probably be best for the world. “What’s the answer?”
I mumble something. In my head, what I mumble is, “Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, just something.” In real life, it comes out as a warbly bunch of mushy nonsense. Probably better that way.
“What?” She asks.
“I don’t even know what the question is,” I tell her. I look at her, but I don’t know why. She’s drunk as hell, you can tell, her eyes look like red spray-paint on cheap plastic dinner plates. She’s trying to sit up on the couch, but even just sitting there, she’s swaying back and forth a little, like she can feel a non-existent wind. The too-small top she’s wearing has ridden up on the left side, and you can see one of her breasts hanging down, held back only by the faded pink bra. I look up at her face, a welcome distraction from her body, but not much better to see. Her makeup looks like it has melted down her face—I have no idea how long it’s been since this girl even attempted to clean herself up, but I guess that’s true about all of us. Her curly red hair is the color of mildewed rust, sticking up in some places and layered down with sweat in others. I look away—she’s nothing you want to spend too much time observing.
“You don’t know what the question is?” She laughs a shrill laugh that makes my ears ring, it’s high and penetrating, and it feels like the audio equivalent of getting an ice-pick shoved into your eardrum. “You’re the one that asked it.”
I can’t believe I would do something as stupid as ask a girl like this if she has the answers, but it wouldn’t be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. I look at the piles of flesh hanging out of her midriff shirt, and I try to remember if I’ve ever slept with her. I really hope not, but there’s no way to know for sure.
“It doesn’t mean I know the answers.”
“I know ‘em,” One of the guys on the floor says. I think his name is Kyle, but that could be someone else entirely: someone from last week, someone from last month, it doesn’t matter. His breath always smells like rotten Chinese food, I know that much for sure. I don’t remember when we picked him up, or if he was one of the ones who picked me up. I don’t even know who the “we” part of that equation is, if this is how the group started out or if it has mutated. I don’t really know how any of us managed getting together. We’re all strangers, strangers without the inhibitions of good sense, going with the flow, not stopping to think. I wonder again what the hell I’m doing here. I don’t even know where “here” is.
I turn my head a little, trying to get a look out the window. There are buildings out there. They seem to be looking at me with disgust, those buildings, with their hundreds of eyes burning with rage. They look violent, but they don’t tell me anything.
“Here, let me tell you. I know the answers.” That’s Kyle again or whatever his name is, he’s trying to sit up, but he keeps losing his balance and falling over into a pile of beer cans. His hand lands on an over-filled ashtray, and the cigarette butts and ashes are catapulted out onto the carpet. It doesn’t really matter. This isn’t the type of place where tidiness is essential. Kyle finally figures out his personal gravity a little, and he manages sitting position. “I know the answers, but there’s only one of them.”
“And what’s that?” the fat girls asks, and you can tell that she only wants to get him talking so that she can interject something, disagree or agree with something.
“Death?” That high-pitched laugh again, and I feel like clawing at my own skin. I see a bottle of bourbon that has been tipped over. Most of it has spilled out onto the carpet, but there’s still a swallow or two left. I pick up the bottle and see that there’s a few dead ants inside. She laughs again, and I don’t care about a few dead bugs: I swallow the rest of the bourbon, and somehow manage to light a cigarette. “I don’t think it has anything to do with death. What I think it’s about it is-“
“Death!” Kyle yells. “I saw a girl drown.” He looks around the room, expecting some sort of awe, I suppose. Maybe I’m the only one who realizes that the room is filled with drowning people, I don’t know. “Yesterday,” Kyle says.
“Where at?” the fat girls asks. I can’t reach the overturned ashtray, and I guess it doesn’t matter, anyways. I flick my ash onto the floor and try to stand up. It’s not an option at this point—I fall back against the wall and cut my hand on what looks like a broken beer bottle. I’m surrounded by filth, I can’t breathe, I just need to get out of here. If I could get out, I know I could change. This is it, this is rock bottom, and it’s time to start climbing. My arms and legs are numb.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been in an awkward position for too long, or if it’s just a terrible side-effect from some drug or another.
“Central Park,” Kyle says. “I was down there, looking for this guy who had some shit to sell. I hate meeting in public places, but that’s the only way this guy will do it. So I got my stuff, and I wondered off into some shrubs and things, wanting to find a spot just a little ways away from people, just to test the stuff. Even in this shitty weather, that park is just filled, you know? So I had to walk around forever, but I finally found these shrubs, like a big bush, right? And I guess there’s some homeless people that usually live there or something, because inside the bush was all cleared out, and once you got in there, nobody could see you, not unless they were looking real hard, and climbing into the bush, too.
“So I tried my stuff, and I was just sitting there, mellowing, you know? And I saw that you could see one of the ponds—I don’t know which one it was. There was this little girl and her mom, and they were walking along the bank, feeding ducks and stuff. And I guess the lady’s cell phone rang, because she pulled it out of her purse and started talking. And then she started yelling, and pacing all over the place, you know? And the little girl, she leaned over the edge of the pond—you know how they have the bank elevated so that it’s like three feet down to the water? Like with those huge rocks bordering the whole thing? The girl leaned over, it looked like maybe she was trying to pet one of the ducks or something, and she fell right in. The mom was still on the phone, she had no idea, even with all the ducks quacking and going crazy. The little girl tried to climb up the edge, but she just couldn’t reach. I think she must have taken a huge breath of water when she first fell in, because she went down pretty fast. She was coughing and reaching, and then she just sank.”
“Why didn’t you do anything?” the fat girl yells. “Why didn’t you go save her, or tell her mother or something?” Her face is all red, and she looks like some bizarre clown, with her bloodshot eyes and red face and running makeup. She looks like some bizarre nightmare.
“Man, I can’t swim, and I wasn’t going to go tearing out of the bushes with a batch of fresh shit pumping through my arm, you know? As soon as the little girl was safe, they would have hauled me away.”
“You asshole! You ASSHOLE!” She’s pointing at him now, and veins are sticking out on her neck. I go to take a drag off of my cigarette and realize that it’s not in my hand anymore. I don’t know where it’s at. In my head, I smell smoke, but I have no idea if that’s actually something burning or if it’s just the stink on my shirt or in my imagination.
“Then what happened?” The guy that asks, I don’t know who the hell he is. I didn’t even know he was there until he spoke. He’s been sitting in a chair in the corner, I guess, but I have no idea how long he’s been there. In truth, my mind’s so shot at this point that I can’t be positive he’s there right now. “How does that have anything to do with the answer?”
The fat girl’s still sitting over there, yelling about how Kyle is a monster.
“The mom finally turned around, and she saw that her daughter wasn’t there. I don’t know how to describe it, but you could see the look on her face, you could see that she knew everything, even though there was no evidence that her kid had gone over the side. She knew that the little girl was dead, I guarantee that. And looking at her face when that knowledge hit her—man, I think that if you could study her eyes long enough, you could find the answer to any question ever asked in this world.”
I smell smoke, it’s real now—something’s burning. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I say, and stand up. My legs work this time, that’s a real relief, and I stumble down the hall. I have no idea where the bathroom is, I have no idea if there even IS a bathroom. I don’t care. I feel the heat intensify, and realize that my shirt is on fire.
I hear the fat girl yelling at Kyle, I pull the shirt up over my head and touch the little blister on my stomach. I throw my smoldering shirt down on the floor, and the oxygen seems to be all the fire needed to get going. A small flame bursts into life, a tiny mountain of flame in the dark hallway. It doesn’t matter to me, nothing seems to matter. Nothing seems real. I don’t care about the shirt. I step on it, extinguishing the little flame, and the smell of the smoke gags me. I see a door and I go through it. It leads to a stairwell that smells like a long-dead animal.
I search through my pockets, looking for anything of value. My foot catches on the edge of a step, and my ankle twists. There's a sharp pain, but it only lasts for a second, and then I watch as my leg bends under me, and I’m falling down the stairs.
It’s a short flight of steps, and I’m at the landing in an instant. I don’t feel hurt, but I don’t really feel like moving, either. I stay there, flat on my back, looking up the steps. I see a door, and I wonder if it’s the one I just came out of. I see smoke coming out from under it. I can’t hear the fat girl yelling anymore, but I don’t know if it’s because she stopped or because I did something to my brain that made it where I can’t hear anymore. I watch the smoke, let it hypnotize me. It feels nice here, like I belong.
And then I hear the screams again, it’s for sure the fat girl, and probably Kyle, too, it sounds like. I don’t know what they’re screaming about, but I don’t like the sound of it. I try to roll over, and succeed. My arms support me as I pull myself up, and my legs support me once I’m there.
I walk down the rest of the stairs very carefully. I hear sirens, and they sound close; but they always sound close in the city. I walk out into a world that’s nearing dusk, bustling with people, crammed with cars, noises, smells. I notice there are people stopped, looking up. I don’t want to see what they’re seeing. I walk off into the night, wondering where I’m at, wondering where I’ll be at.
Forgetting that I’m supposed to start climbing.