There’s still some neon left. Every night, a few old motels flash pinks and yellows and greens, but the rest of the strip is dark. There was a time when Miracle Mile was alive with beautiful lights, restaurants, temptations for road-wary motorists. I let the blinds fall back in front of my window.
All that’s left now are the temptations.
I turn back toward the open room, and she’s staring at me. Claire stands by the front door of our studio apartment, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “This isn’t the end, Howie. You know that right?”
I nod and she starts to twirl her hair with the finger she broke the night I met her.
That was shortly after I had grown tired of using overnights at the Pima County lockup to keep me from slipping. So I had been looking for something new. But they don’t make support groups for what I got—at least none that I’ve found. So, I figured I’d try the next best thing. The closest Narcotics Anonymous meeting was a couple miles from my studio, in the auxiliary hall at Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s. She was on the steps when I arrived late.
“You all right?” I asked her, although I wasn’t sure she was awake. Her face was turned toward the concrete steps, her back rising and falling as if she were snoring. Then, she puked, turned the steps a light yellow.
When she rolled onto her back and fought for fresh, vomit-free air, I saw her finger. “I fucked it up,” she said, holding it out toward me. “When I fell.”
She told me she must’ve been late to the meeting. When I asked her why she thought that, she said, “Because I’m already high.”
We didn’t go in that night. We decided a trip to the diner off the interstate made more sense, and by the time we finished our food, we’d formed a plan. We didn’t need meetings.
I’m not sure why I told her what I told her while we ate hard pancakes and drank cold coffee, but because I did, she’s here. Or, she was here. Now, she’s on her way out.
“You remember what this place looked like when I moved in?” she asks.
I look around the studio. Milk crates hold up a plywood tabletop, two lumpy mattresses lay against the wall closest the kitchen, and a television Claire found on the curb in front of the apartments is propped up on what I think used to be a bookshelf. The television never worked, but it made us feel like real people.
I shake my head and smile. “I remember the stains you made me cover up, and that a sleeping bag wasn’t a good place to sleep.”
“So you agree, I made life better for you.” She laughs, turns her head toward the door, then turns back to me. “I got to go.”
I nod because there’s nothing else I can do. I could beg, but it’s her father we’re talking about. Her daughters. For the first time in three years, she’s got a shot. That her old man took care of the girls this long means he can’t be all that bad, even if he did leave her to puke in the gutters and figure shit out on her own.
She moves across the living room, her hair falls behind her. Shinier than when we met, fuller. Her skin is clear, the scabs healed long ago. Claire leans in, kisses me on the cheek, hugs me, then holds my cheeks in both hands.
“I love you, Howie.”
“I love you, too.”
She smiles and walks back across the room. We bought her new clothes last week. She’s wearing the jeans I picked—the ones she’d said she hated. They would have fallen off when we first met.
At the door, she taps her fingers against the faded wood. She doesn’t turn. “Don’t slip.”
Now, she spins around. “I’m serious. I’m here, and I want you to call me when you need me.”
I smile and tell her I will. I don’t need to make the same promises and suggestions to her. She’ll be all right.
She blows me a kiss and walks out the door.
In the wake of her exit, I see a question mark. I know the question, so I suppose I don’t need to see the words that go along with it. It’s floating right in front of me but too far away to touch. It must be like the floaters my mom used to see before the start of a migraine. Before she’d pass out in her bedroom.
The first time my mother mentioned them, I was six. That also happened to be the first time Dave came into my room in the middle of the night.
I stand and look at the two lawn chairs. I fold one up and place it against the wall next to the front door. I walk to the window and look out again. In my head, she’s down there, staring up, waving at me. But in reality, there’s just the road and a dirt lot across the street with a few weeds fighting through the dry earth.
The interstate marks the horizon, cars rushing by, not daring to detour down the strip. Not that they should. I wouldn’t want them to.
You don’t make friends with anyone but the voices in your head here.
I push away from the window and look at her mattress. I pick it up and drag it on top of mine, then I fall into the cushion of my new bed. It had been months since she last slipped, but I expect to smell the vinegar sweat-soaked sheets I’d grown used to when she was still trying to prove to herself she could quit. Instead, I smell her perfume, and I close my eyes.
That last time—when I made the mistake of leaving her alone too long and she came home covered in piss and missing her purse—she crawled on top of me when I tried to put her to bed. She pressed both hands under the waistband of my basketball shorts. I pulled her hands out and slipped out from under her. She passed out that night before she could be embarrassed or angry.
The next day, I told her there was a time when I would have tried. Or let her try. She asked me why I didn’t, and I told her about the neighbor woman who lived near my mother’s old place when I was a kid. The one who smiled and winked at me every time I passed her house. The one who invited me inside on a hot afternoon.
Claire asked why I would have gone inside the neighbor’s house. “Because I was sixteen and needed to know,” I’d told her.
We made a deal after Claire’s last slip. She would never go out without telling me where she was going. I wouldn’t go more than twelve hours without seeing her. And most important, we’d talk every night. And for her end of the deal, she’d be there. Just be there. She broke that part of the deal, but I’m glad she did. It’s better for her.
I fall asleep, but the first gunshot of the night wakes me around eleven. I stand by the window, waiting for a round to shatter the glass. None come. No more shots, no lucky bullets carving their way through my walls to get rid of the question mark for good.
There’s a liquor store on the corner. Alcohol had been out of the question because of Claire, but maybe I’ll get a six pack and think. I start for the door then remember where thinking gets me. So, I sit in my lawn chair and stare at the blank television screen.
But the thoughts have already come. I think of boys I’ve never met. I see them there on the screen. The first one I see is about nine. He’s playing ball on a field near where I grew up. He’s not real. But he’s there, throwing the baseball on my broken television. I close my eyes and beg Claire to come back.
When I open my eyes again, I’m no longer sitting. I’m pacing the living room. I stand over the phone Claire bought us three months ago. She thought it’d be good to have a way to call for help if we needed it, but I think she knew she was getting better. Closing in on a new life. I think she knew I’d need the phone more than her.
I’ll call her.
No, it’s been just a few hours. That’s ridiculous.
I do fifty-seven push-ups before collapsing face-down on the dirty carpet. Back when trips to jail were my form of therapy, I had gotten up to a hundred and sixteen straight. I’m pissed at myself that I couldn’t keep going, but then I’m not. I wish I didn’t have to do a single push-up again in my life.
I lie on my bed, using Claire’s scent to keep me occupied. I hear voices calling back and forth across the street below my apartment. Young voices. I stand and look out the window. The neon from the Old Wrangler Motel flashes and pops across the black puddle near the middle of the road. I can’t find the kids who were calling out, but I see a woman walking in high heels and a short skirt.
Besides needing a cheap place to stay, that had been the reason I moved here. Before I met Claire, I thought I could buy my way out of my head. The first girl cost two-hundred and fifty dollars and she laughed when I couldn’t get hard.
The shrieking siren of a police cruiser sends the woman scurrying for the nearest alley, but the cop isn’t after her. I watch the cruiser’s lights flash past on its way to something more violent. I walk to the front door, lean my back against it, and slide to the floor. My life isn’t worth thinking about, so I think about Claire’s.
When she was eighteen, Claire was arrested for the first time. She told me she spent years thanking God for that arrest because she met her dealer in jail. “Such an easy path from pain to forgetting with a dealer you could trust,” she’d said with a snort.
Claire’s daughters don’t know their fathers. She told me she was probably high when each of them was conceived.
I think it made Claire feel better that I hadn’t known my own father. I’m not sure why. The logic of me says that her girls need to know their father or they’ll end up fucked up just like I am. But that’s not what Claire thought.
“The truth is, you’re stronger than every fucking one of us. The junkies, dealers, the whores down there walking the Mile. You’re better than us all, Howie.”
“You haven’t given in. You’re fighting like hell, man. No one fights like that.”
She never could understand the fact that I hadn’t fought hard enough. By the time I was ten, I could have stopped him, but Dave kept coming. Once a week, twice a week. Sometimes, he wouldn’t show up for days on end and I’d find myself crying into my pillow wishing he’d open my door and sneak in after my mother fell asleep.
I slam my fist into the floor and shake my head. I can start over and forget everything, but no, I can’t. I just end up remembering the Sunday after my high school graduation.
I know it was a Sunday because I was walking past the church I’d been baptized in—the one that used old saguaro ribs to form a cross on the outside wall. Everyone was spilling into the parking lot, shaking hands and basking in the glow of God’s love. The boy broke free from his family and ran into the middle of the parking lot, did a flying karate kick, and landed like he was a superhero—one fist to the pavement, head up, eyes strong. I didn’t go toward him, didn’t keep looking when the boy’s father ushered him to their car. But I saw him all day in my mind.
I cut myself that night.
There are a million things you can do to take your mind off something, but as soon as you get to one million and one, that’s when you’re fucked. I roll onto my side, pull my knees to my chest, and fall asleep.
I made it three days before finding old distractions. I punched a homeless man in front of the police station, spent the night in jail. I broke into PJ’s Liquor on the last corner before people escape Miracle Mile for the interstate. Spent a couple nights in jail.
Now, I’m back in my apartment, staring out the window as the sun rises over the Catalinas. The blown-out bulbs and shattered signs lining the strip reflect long shadows that do little to calm my mind. The shadows are pointing across the empty lots, beyond the damaged arms of saguaros unfortunate enough to grow around here. They point me somewhere I can’t go.
I smell Claire’s perfume despite the spoiled jug of milk I left on the counter before my last stint in lockup. I see strands of her hair sway and shimmer in the morning light. I’ll grab them, put them together. I’ll build a new Claire.
She hasn’t called. She has the girls, her life. But I haven’t called either.
I have the six-year-old version of myself clawing at my brain. He’s sitting in my head, on the couch his mother used to hold him on. I have the ten-year-old version of myself soaking my shoulder with tears.
The carpet beneath the window sill is cold despite the morning heat coming off the single-pane glass. I sit with my legs folded under me. The room seems brighter than when Claire was here. It’s probably just because the blinds have been open more. Claire preferred hiding us away from the world, lest its temptation suck us back in.
After Claire moved in, a temp agency found her a job downtown filing paperwork for an ambulance chaser. She took the bus to work, ate leftovers at her desk, then came straight home. Like a horse with blinders. The only time she let herself see was when she was home, with me.
One night, when she was pounding on my chest, begging me to let her downstairs and down to the corner for a quick score, I suggested we buy a board game. We bought Monopoly, and we played until the sun came up.
I stand and walk to the closet by the front door. Monopoly rests on the top shelf. I pull it down and hold it in both hands. The game is heavy in my hands. I could open it, play it alone. Pretend. But I always knew there’d be a time when I had to admit what I was.
I throw the game across the room. The box splits open, game pieces bouncing across the carpet. When I leave the apartment, I bring the curious six-year-old version and the desperate ten-year-old version of myself along.
I walk past the cemetery at the far-east end of the strip. The funeral home sits on the opposite corner of an old taco shop, boarded up and tagged with spray-painted words. I step down into the wash cutting between the cemetery and the road. My shoes sink into the soft dirt that feels out of place among the hard clay and rock everywhere else.
I step around a stray jumping cactus and kick my way through the rusted cans and broken glass being swallowed by sand. I beg for a flash flood to sweep me away. Three feet below the road above, I picture myself carried through the wash, downstream, to wherever these things spill out. Maybe it would take me all the way to the Santa Cruz River.
Before the wash ends in a metal-framed tunnel, I emerge at street-level. The tire shop at this intersection—where I’ve never seen a single tire replaced—is boarded up. Yet, I know there are people inside. It’s the place Claire pointed to when I asked her where she scored after her final slip. She told me it had been a Mexican restaurant back in the fifties. Now, it’s a hole in the earth.
I’m going home.
But I end up walking past my apartment building. I know where I’m going, and it’s not home. I try to think about other things. The gas station a couple blocks up where I found out the last car I had couldn’t be fixed. The motel I saw lit up by bullets one night two years ago. The Sonoran hot dog stand that’ll open in a couple hours.
I shake my pocket and know I have enough change to treat myself. But I’m not going to be on the strip in a couple hours when the stand opens.
I turn and walk down Flowing Wells, past the police station. Just three miles from the elementary school. Miracle Mile is behind me, crying for me to come back. The wraiths of what the strip could have been tip-toe alongside my parallel life. The one where I broke free of this.
“You never break free,” Claire had told me a few months ago when I asked her what she’d do when she was done with addiction. “It’s not a fix and forget it kind of thing. It lives inside you. It’s like a cancer that you can always beat back into remission if you try hard enough.”
She might be right. But the way I see it, this life is nothing more than a stretched rubber band. You can only pull on it so many times before it snaps.
It’s funny thinking back on what pacifies. All Claire did was listen to me. If that’s all it took to keep my mind in check, I wouldn’t be half a mile from the school right now.
To be fair, I didn’t do much more for her. I hugged her when she asked, I listened to her when she didn’t ask, and I played board games until the sun came up.
Thinking about it, thinking about her, steals my breath. I suck in, but the air doesn’t reach my lungs. She’s going to land right back where she was. I try to catch my breath but it won’t work, and I cough and slap at my chest. I let her walk back into the world, unprepared, into a cycle of remission bound to break.
When I stop walking, the air comes back to me. I cough and try to turn around, but I keep moving forward instead. The school is right there. Quiet. The kids won’t break for lunch for another couple hours, which means they’ll be coming out for recess right about—
The first line of children rushes from the main brick building across the street. I wave a slowing city bus by as I sit on the bench at the bus stop. The playground is bordered by barrel cactuses placed every five feet around the permitter. And a chain-link fence, of course.
After each burst of children running in groups escapes through the door and onto the playground, a boy—maybe a fourth-grader—walks alone, head down. He doesn’t go to the playground. He walks around the side of the building and sits on the bench nearest a payphone standing on the sidewalk in the parking lot. The farthest spot he can get to without leaving the confines of the school yard.
My right leg bounces in place, and I watch him. The boy’s eyes search the ground in front of him. He lays his hands in his lap. The other kids laugh and scream and jump from the monkey bars. This boy watches a quail half-fly half-run across the parking lot.
I watch the bench he’s sitting on melt into the same one I’m sitting on. The world pulls us together, and we’re no longer on Flowing Wells Avenue in front of the school, but we’re in a ‘57 Bel Air with the top down on Miracle Mile. The sun has fallen behind us and the neon is alive. Every hotel, bar, and restaurant sings with life. The hookers and junkies are gone. Replaced by couples walking hand-in-hand, high school kids trying to score booze. The boy and I just drive, comfortable.
I’m sweating. Everyone’s sweating, but I’m drenched. It’s not yet eighty degrees, no excuse for this. Claire’s voice is knocking on my eardrums, trying to get through.
“My daddy told me there are some things you just got to figure out on your own.” She said that to me the first time she told me about her father. Then she said, “I call bullshit on that one. Nobody figures out jack on their own.”
I scratch my forearm just above the scars until her voice goes away. Then, the boy looks up. He looks at me looking at him, but he doesn’t turn away. I don’t know what comes next, not sure what to do. So, I stand up. I break eye contact first, looking to the street just in front of the school. I shove my hands in my pockets, jingle the change with my left hand. When I look up, the boy continues looking at me.
Claire’s voice tells me it’s all one big choice, then I walk into the street. I wait for a cab to pass by, then I make it to the sidewalk in front of the school. The boy’s eyes have never left mine. They are begging me to get my closure as I near the fence.
But I turn up the sidewalk, and I walk into the school’s parking lot. I keep watching him as I reach the payphone, and he watches me. I lift the receiver, praying for a dial tone, and I get one. I drop the change in and dial Claire’s number.
Justin Hunter is currently working on his MFA at Arcadia University. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Typehouse Magazine, Corvus Review, and Centum Press, among others.