Jul 28, 2020, 06:29AM

Running White for Other Phantoms

As "Bette Davis Eyes" played, I flashed on a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of free-associative stress, sadness and pain of the last few years.

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There was a point in my life some years ago when I was circling the drain—out on pretrial and having violated the conditions of my bond twice, so I was waiting to go back to court for the show cause, aware that I’d almost certainly be remanded to jail until (at least) trial when I did—and while I hadn’t then ever seriously contemplated suicide, I was pretty sure that the sands were running out of the hourglass. There was just an air of doom about life that I can't really explain in words, particularly to anyone who's not experienced it for themselves, but it was a palpable feeling of distance from everything and everyone I've ever loved and sense of encroaching finality. I wasn't consciously attempting to kill myself but was maybe engineering the circumstances for my exit.

I'd fallen into a gig where a rather well-off acquaintance and his girlfriend, who had an open-ended rental of beach cottage in the Outer Banks of North Carolina—Hatteras Island, specifically—were paying me to bring them dope and coke a few times a week, the compensation for which was doing the heavy lifting of financing most of my own habits. Whenever I'd get the call, I was to drop everything to meet their "guy" here in Richmond, pick up the stuff and drive down to Hatteras, more or less without delay; if there was a delay my friend and/or his girlfriend would start blowing up my phone either pretending to be concerned about my well being ("Just making sure you're okay, buddy; we heard about an accident on 168 and just wanted to check on you") or, more often, trying to guilt-trip me about how sick they were getting, as if some low-level scum like me who'd often sleep in his car and might otherwise fly a sign to come up with dope money, fish cigarette butts out of ashtrays to smoke and so forth, was supposed to be all in pieces because this layabout and his lame-ass doe-eyed girlfriend who were blowing through an inheritance courtesy of his recently deceased father were starting to cluck a little because they couldn't make a Vick last a full day.

The trip from Richmond to their location in Hatteras is about 250 miles or so, with much of that highway, but there are also long stretches on two-lane roads through rural areas—occasionally striking, lots of nature and water, but often just kind of depressing in the way that partial-development is, with settlements that are less "small town" than "collection of two or three strip malls"—before you actually get to the Outer Banks, which for anyone who doesn't know, are so-named because they're islands off the coast of the continental United States proper; little strips off land that are often less than a mile across at their widest, so slightly above sea level that the near-constant storms during the spring and summertime leave the shitty little roads that are the only way on or off the islands submerged beneath at the least inches and often better than a foot of standing water.

So there were a number of occasions where I'm shitting along, stressed out already by both the Sword of Damocles I have hanging over my head in the form of my court date for the show cause (and, I should note, potentially being brought up on charges for any number of other sketchy things I'd been involved with around this same period—"perpetually on edge about the other shoe dropping" is another addendum I'd make to my description above about the looming sense of doom and encroaching death) the constant spray of the water I'm plowing through at unsafe speeds in order to get these fucking ham-and-eggers their stupid drugs, and all I can think is, "Please, God, don't let one or both of these assholes call me with some bullshit. I can't take it right now." And, as often as not, one or both of them would call soon after.

They were always keeping things from one another and wanting—each of them, separately, wanting—me to help them with some hare-brained scheme. "J (note: I'll refer to him as J and her as B, even though neither will ever read this since both are now dead—her literally and him in every way that matters) has been hiding the coke from me when he goes out, and I don't like having to do it only when he's here and when he, like, portions it out for me; can you pick me up something and call me when you're about to get to Avon so I can be out on the street when you come and you can pass me my bag before you come in to give J the stuff? Please? I don't have any money I can give you extra, but I would really appreciate it," she'd whisper frantically immediately after I answered the phone, without any sort of lead-in.

"B is being such a bitch, dude. She got drunk—she's such a monster when she drinks, I can't even begin to tell you, bro—and threw a bottle at me because I fell asleep. Can you stay down here for a day or two when you get here? I think if you were here she'd be too embarrassed to act crazy. But don't tell her I asked you to stay, just say you miss hanging out with us. I can probably give you an extra shot of dope if you promise no to tell her about that either." Sure. Sounds great. I don't have anything else going on in my nightmare of a life right now. Then there were other times when, as now, I felt bad for being so dismissive of their own obvious issues and pain; J had, at one point, been a good friend of mine and had just lost his father, and B, while I didn't really know her well, had moved across country with J when he'd decided to come back home from Colorado, leaving behind her family and the small town where she'd lived her entire life up until then. She was also younger than he was and relatively new not only to shooting smack but to "hard drugs" in general; she'd overdosed in Colorado and had to be airlifted to one of the big university hospitals in Boulder or Denver, which was sort of what precipitated their subsequent flight to Virginia. One night when I'd brought their drugs and we'd all gotten straight and J had immediately passed out, B asked me not to go and to please take a walk down to the beach with her; despite the beautiful scenery and being there for the ostensible purpose of enjoying it, she said they hadn't been down to the beach in almost a month—since their first weekend in the cottage.

I've seen it said before that a being able to perceive reality four-dimensionally would see a person as sort of like a snake, with its birth at one end and its death at the other; I've also heard somewhere that, the nature of time being what it is, we carry within us all our lives what our deaths will be. I generally don't put a lot of stock in such things. I value what I can see, hear, taste and touch. But if ever there was a time I've believed it and about whom I've thought it was true, it was B. We walked along the darkened little wooden walkways through the dunes in the warm night air with the smell of the ocean present and verging on thick but not oppressive at all and she took my hand without a word. We walked like that, holding hands, down to the beach, where the sand was very deep.

"Isn't it pretty out here?" she asked after we'd walked maybe 25-30 feet away from the dunes and out to the very edge of where the water reached, where the sand was firm and packed tight. She wasn't facing me but I could tell her eyes were closed and just the outline of her figure had such sadness about it that I could feel, myself, despite the numb floating of all the drugs. She'd taken a step or two away and both our arms were outstretched, our fingers still sort of joined but our hands no longer pressed together at the palms with fingers interlaced. "I'm so scared," she whispered shakily, sounding embarrassed. I don't remember saying anything. I doubt I did. Part of the reason that many people tell me I'm a good listener, I think, but also part of the reason as many or more people get the impression that I'm cold and/or unfeeling, is because I tend not to speak a lot in moments where people are pouring their hearts out, at least not until I'm sure I know what I want to say. Hesitant, she turned toward me and I could see, even with only the light of some stars and what I recall being a crescent- or half-moon, that she had tears welling in her eyes. "I'm sorry, I just don't have anyone else to talk to. I don't have any friends anymore. They're all back in Colorado. It's just me and J now," she said.

I remember her pausing then and letting go of my hand. She tilted her head back a little, her lip quivering, and wiped the tears out of her eyes with both hands, then sort of gathered herself. "I'm so scared that I'm never going to see my family again, that we're just... going to stay here, and we're... I'm going to die here," she said, with tears now rolling down her cheeks and her words coming more easily despite the obvious pain they were engendering. "I want to see my mom and my nephew and my aunt, and I don't think I will again..."

I don't know if she ever did see her family again. I suspect not, since she was dead about six months later. But I remember thinking in that moment that despite the huge gulf in our circumstances and the fact I'd never really had much outside the range of muted contempt and mild tolerance for B, how much of a shared connection existed between us then and how much common ground there was in what we were feeling. Despite the fact that my own family lived (and still lives) in Richmond, I felt every bit as apart from them as she must've, and I felt then as many other nights during that time that there was a very strong likelihood that I’d never again see my mother, brother, nephews or the ex with whom I was trying to make amends.

One of the things B asked of me in the aftermath of that shared moment was that I talk to J and see if I could get him to, if not go to rehab, at least get out of the apparent death spiral he was in and had sucked B into with him. This makes it sound, I think, like she was more concerned for herself, and there was concern for her own well-being, I think, but I believe in spite of the absolute, indisputable toxicity of their Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? relationship, that she really did care about him and could see that, perhaps more than either of us, he was actively working his way toward death. He was doing bigger shots straight out of a fresh bag, without doing any kind of smaller sample shot or sniff (something he'd always done until a short time before this point), which he'd chase by sucking down most of a pint of vodka in a few gulps, at which point he'd often pass out flat on his back. She told me that in addition to her own OD back in Colorado, they'd both overdosed a couple of weeks prior to renting the cottage down here on Hatteras, and that they'd initially come down here with the intention of kicking, but that J had said he'd rather die than get clean (a not uncommon sentiment among addicts reaching bottom, by the way). Of course I thought then as I do now that there was no way for me, a drowning man, to save another drowning man, especially one who wants to drown, but there was such a desperation in her voice and sadness in her eyes that I said I’d talk to him. Smiled warmly and said I would do my best when she said, "He really loves you and respects you. We both do." I said I cared about them too, and that I would do what I could to help.

I'd like to say that I did have that talk with J and that it went well and things worked out, but I suppose I've already given away the ending. They came to visit me a couple of times in jail. The show cause court appearance did result in my being remanded to jail immediately and I did sit and rot there for about the next four months until my actual court date, at which point all but 30 days of the two-year sentence I was given was suspended, which means that I did about 90 more days in jail than I would've if I'd remained out on bond. People routinely get arrested and aren't able to make bail because of the cost so they sit in jail until their court date, at which point they may or may not be found guilty, but by which time the ruin has already been visited upon their lives because in the interim they've lost whatever job they may have had and maybe whatever place they and/or their family was living, and then they're saddled with fines and court costs, non-payment of which results in suspension of driving privileges and can/often does result in being considered noncompliant with terms of probation, when probation is imposed.

I saw B one more time after I got out of jail. They'd moved into a new place, back in Richmond, and things were a little better, she said, though when I stepped inside their little rancher and she hugged me I was just about smacked in the face by that same sense of doom that I've mentioned a couple of times now. Her jaw was working overtime, coked out of her mind, and she quickly plied me with some of the same. J was at work. She had the day off and was lonely, feeling, she said after a while, much the same as she described feeling months earlier on the beach. J had snapped out of his death-funk but she just couldn't shake the feeling something bad was going to happen, more or less confirming what I'd felt in the air and in her embrace upon my arrival there. We sat around most of the day getting high, left to cop a couple of times, got some snacks, etc.

What does any of this have to do with "Bette Davis Eyes" by Kim Carnes? Well, it's just one of those associations one makes between a specific (or general) point in their life and some piece of media. I didn't have a smart phone at the time I was running drugs down to Hatteras for J and B and I think I only ever took anyone along once or maybe twice, so having some music on made the long drive more enjoyable/bearable. At least a few times each way I'd stop on the side of the road, put my hazards on and do a line or, more commonly, oil up some blow and/or dope, then continue on my way. "Raspberry Beret" by Prince is a song I distinctly remember playing on one such occasion somewhere around Williamsburg, VA. "Wild Wild Life" by Talking Heads is another; that was at a deserted little office park somewhere just across the NC state line, stopping to catch a few winks and then doing a couple of lines as an eye-opener.

I remember leaving Avon later that night after I'd had the shared moment with B on the beach. I remember it so well because it was one of the few things that cut through the narcotic death fog I was in most of the time in those days; to feel so vividly again was unsettling. It was very dark out—nighttime in those rural areas always is; there aren't really any street lamps and the businesses mostly close early so, as was the case back on the beach, the only illumination comes from the stars and the moon and maybe the headlights of a passing car here and there—and I'd pulled off the highway to both settle my nerves and perk back up with a speedball. I soon became aware of a hunger in my belly; not a common occurrence on coke. I stopped at a 7-Eleven up ahead and got a couple of donuts and a Super Big Gulp. I ate one of them while I was sitting in the lot and then ate the other as I was driving on, but I was feeling a bit off. I felt like I was heading in the wrong direction or perhaps I'd turned the wrong way when I'd come out of the store's parking lot. I swerved a little. Then I saw the blue lights behind me.

I've had a number of run-ins with the police over the years, some uneventful, courteous, borderline friendly, and others involving open hostility and physical violence. When I've been pulled over in a car while in possession of something I shouldn't have been, as in this case—during which I was also on pretrial and technically not supposed to leave the Commonwealth; I doubted whether this Bumfuck, NC, Sheriff's Office deputy would be able to see this in whatever rinky-dink bootleg computer he had in his cruiser, but who knows? My judgment wasn't exactly unimpeachable during those years—there has been the temptation, however fleeting, to try to make a run for it. When he got out of his car and started walking toward mine, I could throw it into drive, floor the fucking thing and leave his ass standing in the dust on the side of the darkened highway, perhaps even laugh in maniacal triumph in so doing. Wouldn't that be something nice? Cooler heads prevailed, though. I did a quick check of my nostrils in the mirror for any residue, the seats for anything incriminating, polished off the remainder of my donut and took a couple of deep breaths.

He'd pulled me over for the swerve. Also, he said, I'd been driving several miles per hour below the speed limit. I said I wasn't from around here and was having a bit of trouble seeing the lines (which, in my defense, were a bit faded) but assured him I was fine to drive and would be happy to take a sobriety test, which is a decent bluff in these situations, but you have to know your audience and also have to manage your tone; you want less, "Give me the sobriety test then, pig! Oink oink!" and more, "Oh gee, sorry, I didn't realize I'd gone over the line; I haven't been drinking, though, and I can take a sobriety test if you'd like, Officer. Whatever you want, sir." Plus I hadn't been drinking, so he wasn't likely to detect any intoxication unless I did something really stupid. He asked why my hands were so dirty, which caught me a bit off guard. I looked at them and noticed they were stained with chocolate, but I mean, so what? I said I'd been eating a donut, which he repeated in that smug sort of way that people—especially cops—do: "Eating donuts." I don't know what exactly the implication was, but he wasn't buying it. Then he shone his light over into the passenger's seat and saw the 7-Eleven plastic and wax paper, covered in chocolate. His demeanor relaxed and his tone softened. "I see. Well, let me take a look at your license and registration." I passed them to him, he looked over them for a moment and then passed them back and said, "Do me a favor and keep within the lines. I know the lines are a little faded but sometimes we get tourists out walking late at night—sometimes they're drunk, sometimes they're just out for a walk at weird times—and I don't wanna see anyone get hurt. Sound good?" I thanked him and he sent me on my way.

Once I'd gotten several miles down the road and into the next county, I pulled over. My hands were shaking and my thoughts were racing. The station I'd been listening to had turned into a crackling, hissing mess. I tuned to one that was coming in much more clearly. "Bette Davis Eyes" was just starting. The events of the past few hours—to say nothing of those of the past several weeks and months—began to play out in a sort of kaleidoscopic whirlwind of free-associative stress, sadness and pain. As I recall, I hadn’t cried in many years, but I found my breast heaving and my diaphragm convulsing as tears started to well in my eyes and the weight of everything I'd been carrying bore down on me, crushing the air out of me. I sat there for a long time—maybe a couple of hours—and resigned myself to my fate.


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