You got anything alongside a river? At Ken’s question Sheila ceased a beat, her shrill charm upended. Her clients in Jet City didn’t care to live anywhere near the White River, its flotsam and flooding hazards, its gravel gnashing like bad teeth.
Sheila found her voice and piped across the continent to Ken in faraway New York. There is one place. But the yard’s a mess. Her lacquered nails tapped her desktop and fumbled for a manila folder beneath a stack of flyers. I can send you some photos.
Ken twisted his telephone’s coil cord. Mumbled something. As long as it’s beside a river, he said, I don’t care about the yard. He jotted down her address to mail a check.
Bearded bull of a man, Ken served two tours in Vietnam. There he grew a tooth for high-grade China White heroin. After his discharge, he trekked abroad with a wad of cash. Found his way to the Golden Triangle, Asia’s main opium-producing region where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand intersect. He sampled flights of its soothing produce and copped a primo kilo – a key. He drew out the long vowels as he said the words to Gloria.
Weren’t you afraid of getting busted? she exploded, her face flushed, tone horse. Some laowais have been bricked away for years. Even gotten hands lopped off. She also could not get why he would want to move so far away from his New York home.
She flicked her Salem in his kitchen sink. She’d flown in from Queens, hoping to pick up where they’d left off before he trekked to Asia, hoping for an invitation to stay. But Ken was indifferent, blasé even about the sex. A sorrowing white noise rose around her, estranging her the way Ken’s distance and the nearby river did. She was antsy with a kilo of dope simmering so near. Smoking steadily, keeping one eye on the street.
Following Ken’s Vietnam jungle-jitters, his lowly high from junk was like being swaddled in rose silk. His recipe for pleasure, his ingredient for liquid bliss. The fruit of the poppy transported him to a melty-swirly do-nothing country, a blissful dream-state. The seizures of a weary world dispersed like so much sidewalk steam. He wanted to stay.
Gloria cabbed herself to the airport and Ken opened his home to Jet City teens, who had never seen anything quite like him. His demands were few. He asked only to be enabled in his tastes. His Afghani hashish, his plaid-banded boater hat, white linen suit and hand-tooled Italian shoes. The bedazzled young admirers all wore rags of light.
On the porch beside his other war mementoes the key was revving when he arrived. It summoned him like sweet tunes from Jazz Alley. Like alpenglow from Mount Tacoma it shone. He had funneled it into a fire extinguisher and shipped it to the house. In a show of fine restraint, Ken held off cracking the package for two weeks, knowing the DEA would have a tougher time collaring him if the wrapper were to remain intact.
Tangles of vine maple and thickets of devil’s club, Oplopana horridus, sent their tendrils into the yard. Pacific red cedars, Thuja plicata, drooped low above the lawn. The roar of the White River ruled the soundscape. Seeping through the walls at night when the stereo was low, muddy water draining to the nearby Salish Sea. High tides gnawed at the coastal shelf. Drying kelp strands reeked in a wave of spring heat.
The parties began in late May and welcomed every comer. Lawn parties, from all outward appearances, genteel affairs attended by well-mannered hippies. Beneath the trees, though, Ken was schooling his pupils how to charge up Salem cigarettes. Twist out the contents, sift together the white powder and cut leaf, tamp the concoction back into the flimsy paper sheath. It was like putting on a condom, an act necessitating finesse.
Lips smacked and lungs sucked when the Salem passed from hand to hand. His new friends seated at Ken’s feet dug his baffling odd generosity, his endless fund of junk.
He served up a dreamier version of Jay Gatsby’s bootleg booze. Missing out on a Daisy Buchanan to focus his devotion, he produced two cool brunettes, mirror images of one other, leggy and lethargic, sultry and remote. Their leaden eyelids, four dark moons, presided over every party. Call girls, the rumors insisted; Ken was pimping them. Even stone-cold sober, the women appeared to be nodding off. Foxy thralls to the nod.
Smoke it, snort it, shoot it, Ken knew it varied only in degree. The impulse to vomit led to the nod, the nod to itching and scratching, the scratching to a down-and-out mug straight off Skid Row. Or, fitter yet, straight off West Marginal Way, the south side of Jet City, Richard Hugo’s seamy burb of White Center. Motorcyclists lounged and fondled handguns there, dispensing odd concoctions from corner lots. Their nasty street stuff often had been stepped on to plump up its volume or mimic the junk’s effects.
Not Ken’s. Ken radiated sheer illumination. His etiquette governed every twitch beside the river. His guests were expected to smoke it only, push pleasure through the cilia of the lungs alone. Those dirty brethren, poor souls on hands and knees downtown, their tangled hair sweeping the streets, they needed to be granted all due forgiveness.
Come, sit, indulge, he sighed in lotus pose from a tatami mat. The White River churning behind him, his charged-up Salem reaching filter-first to visitors, inviting everyone to take their leave beside him. Give it up and become happy slumps. Salem in the Bible was at first Jerusalem, he lectured, holy city and pilgrimage site for Christians, Muslims, Jews. The metropolis in antiquity was known as Canaan, the promised land.
One afternoon Omar proposed that everyone take a swim. A back-eddy invited, but tendrils of the devil’s club threatened punctures. Ken found a machete among his stowed mementos. Bloodying his knuckles, he hacked a path. The sleepy sisters stayed behind. Clothing shucked, six supple and marble-fleshed young men slid to still water. Rock flour from high up in the mountains had colored the water white. Clay oozed between toes and slippery stones. Creeping caddisfly larvae left trails in the silt.
The bath lasted only 30 seconds. Then they formed a tribal round and reached to greet the sun. Omar fired up two joints, passed them in opposite directions. No one self-conscious, language useless beside the river’s rush. A hunting eagle pivoted toward the circle of men and their corona of smoke. Omar shouted, pointed as it winged away.
An émigré from Guatemala, a teacher and a writer, Omar had made a name for himself with his fabulist fiction. When he took up the needle, everyone was sad to learn that had occurred. His smiles and bantering manner drained away. His skin turned to ash. It was as if he had vacated his very brain. The rain of plagues included a job on the skids and a soft johnson. The worst of the grievances were not in his vexing efforts to get it up with his lover, rather in the painful constipation from the dehydrating dope.
Omar did his best to recover heaven by backpedaling out of hell. Pledging himself to the cold-turkey routine, he sweated through a week of cramps and hot chills and cold sweats and rasping teeth. Clean at last to his own taste, he chose to make congratulation with one last drowsy bout. In the twisted logic that ambled the aisle beside him, he meant only to reward and celebrate his glowing self-control. But his tolerance for the concoction had dropped, the street stuff he bought was that much faster, he used the same imprudent proportions as before. That last congratulation did him in.
Come September, Ken’s thinning supply began to divide the dainty dabblers from steady users. The loaded cigarettes gave way to folded glossy paper bindles. Packaged grams passed hand to hand with penknife to scoop and lift the powder to the nose.
The true devotees, the low-baggers, began to buy and transport the stuff to Jet City shindigs. Shuffling in and eying potential clients, offering pinhead tasters for the first time free. After a low-bagger shared his wares, parties folded into itchy standstills. Vinyl on turntables spun without music, no one remembering to attend them.
Ken spent his fund of charisma. The sunny glade, the lawn parties and snazzy threads all fell away. The faded spirit-guide ventured underground to sell the remnants of his key. He was the steadfast lover who would not give up on Eurydice when she was bitten by the snake. Jet City’s autumn rains commenced and the river’s volume lifted.
One day a pair of buyers at the house flashed matching .45s. Government agents on the take, he saw from their license plate. They relieved him of the final ounce he was hoping to sell. No one proved eager to tail them in the sports car with a shotgun, as had happened once before when a deal went south. Ken was scared shitless to consider how close he’d come to cashing it all in. The women went to work at motels on Pacific Highway near the airport. Ken shed weight. The end of the spree became plain to see.
Come March, the river overflowed its banks. It flooded the yard. Stiff winds off the Salish Sea lashed the tall canes of devil’s club. The house built on stilts came away OK, but no one opened the door anymore when friends came by and knocked.
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