My story "Tinsel Kingdom" in Ripcord, out now. (My story begins on page 6).
9:31 AM - 12 Feb 2018
The Tinsel Kingdom by Steve Carr
John is in his room breaking things again. The sound of shattering glass reverberates throughout the house. His room is below mine and through the bare wood floors I hear everything he does. When he's in his room the sounds he makes are invasions into my world. I keep the door locked and the cracked window shut to keep his noise from getting in, but it makes little difference.
The mattress on my bed is torn in the middle and stuffing sticks out of the tear like white oozing pus. The mattress has the outline of my body and other bodies, imprinted there by our sweat. It is stained with urine, ejaculate, and spilled liquor. It reeks.The name of the manufacturer is on a label at the end of the mattress; Serta.That is what I have named it, Serta.
Lying naked withmy head resting on my dead best friend's steel helmet on Serta and looking up at the peeling pale green paint on the ceiling I wait for John's noise to end. I cover my ears with my hands and instantly become aware of my beating heartand something indiscernible and very quiet. It sounds like my blood flowing through my veins and arteries.
This room is stiflingly hot with the window closed and I can feel rivulets of sweat flowing down my sides and between my legs. I breathe with my mouth open wide, hoping to drink in whatever moisture there is in the air, which is futile. I am aware ofthe salty, musky aroma of my sweat and know the odor goes beyond me and Serta. My entire room smells. The stench of car fumes, sun-heated red bricks and dried cum cling to the mounds of my dirty clothes and uniforms on the floor. Roach killer sprayed long ago is imbedded in the baseboards and corners. The smell of it hangs in the air like a rancid perfume.
Mr. Dresser is the only other piece of furniture in the room. I have named it Mr. Dresser to keep Serta company when I am away. He has four drawers, three of which are broken and can't be opened. The bottom drawer has my Army medical discharge papers along with my high school diploma, photo album, and news clippings from when I was a champion swimmer while in school. On the top of the dresser is a mirror that, like the window, is also cracked. A single long line stretches diagonally across the glass like a scar. My two forty-pound dumbbells are kept on Mr. Dresser in front of the mirror.
It's early afternoon and I need to sleep.
I awaken to the fading sunlight muted by the dirty window. My mouth is dry, my lips parched, and there is a pounding behind my eyes. It's quiet, so John and the others who live in this house must be gone. I sit up slowly, my skin glued to Serta by my sweat. I pluck a piece of mattress stuffing from my lower back, toss it on the floor and stand up. It takes a moment before the vertigo leaves me and allows me to walk without feeling as if I am simultaneously flying and falling.
I flip on the light; an exposed light bulb in a socket that dangles from the ceiling by a wire. That there is electricity at all is a minor miracle.
At the window, I don't try to hide my nudity. It is still too early for those who roam the streets at night to be out in large numbers, and even if they were, I'm not sure they can see me through the dirty glass. This combination flophouse, crackhouse, and whorehouse is sandwiched between two brick warehouses and my room is at the front of the house. The building is like a pimple being squeezed and ready to pop.
I need to piss badly. I unlock the door and peer out into the dimly lit hallway, allow my nostrils to adjust to being assaulted by the pervasive smell of vomit and marijuana, then step out. There are six of us on this floor who share thebathroom. It is disgustingly dirty. The seat on the toilet is broken and sitting on it always risks being cut by a jagged piece of porcelain. The toiletbowl is a dark brown, probably the result of years of not having shit and puke cleaned off it. I hold my dick in my hand and, as cloudy dark-yellow urine flows from it, I read graffiti that has been written on the wall above the toilet. Nothing new has been added in a long time, but I read it all again anyway. Before leaving the bathroom I turn on the faucet in the sink and bend down to suck in the flowing brackish water. I toss water on my face, under my arms, and on my genitals, turn off the water, and go back to my room.
At Mr. Dresser's mirror I stare at my reflection trying to see if my appearance has changedvwhile I slept. I keep expecting to wake up and look as crappy as I feel, but although paler than I once was, I don't look any different than I did when I left the Army six months before, except my sandy blonde hair is longer and my blue eyes are perpetually bloodshot.
I pick up the dumbbells and while looking at myself in the mirror, I do fifty curls. Finished, I put them back on Mr. Dresser, lie down on a spot I've cleared on the floor and do one hundred push ups, one hundred sit ups, and one hundred crunches. I look at myself one last time in the mirror, then find my army fatigues pants, a black t-shirt, army boots, and my dog tags, put them on and go out the door.
On the corner I go into the small grocery store and buy a bottle of orange juice and a package of Fig Newtons, then walk out and cross the street. Finding my spot against the hot red brick wall, I lean back, one knee raised, the sole of my boot on the wall, and wait.
"Hey Sarge, you're lookin' good," Sammy says as he stops and stands in front of me, looking me up and down as if trying to decide what body part to bite into first. "You seen John?"
Sammy is short and wiry and some part of his body is always in motion. He's wearing sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and running shoes as usual, as if he's out for a job, but he told me when I first met him he wears them because they're to take off when he's in the alley.
I shake my head and take a swig of the orange juice. "He's probably at his spot over on Drake Street," I say.
"Maybe so," Sammy says. "Business should be good tonight. It always is when it's this hot out." He vigorously scratches his crotch. "I've got some smack if you're interested?"
"I can't," I say. "I need to have clean urine at the methadone clinic."
"If you ain't doing this so you can get some bread to score some dope, what ya doin' out here?" he says.
"Saving up to go home," I say.
"Home is where you keep your works," He says. "I'm going to find John. He might want to trade me to get a hit." He reaches down into his pants and scratches.
"Don't give those bugs you're scratching at to John," I say. "He's in no condition to deal with it."
"He's a big boy," Sammy says. "He can look out for himself."
Sammy walks down the sidewalk, the rubber soles of his shoes making sucking noises each time he lifts a foot from the hot concrete. When he turns the corner onto Drake Street it's all I can do to keep from running after him to buy a little of what he's selling.
Night has arrived almost unnoticed. The headlights on the vehicles passing by cast white beams of light across my body. Finished with the juice and cookies, I go into the alley next to the building where I toss the empty bottle and Newtons package into a dumpster. A large brown rat scurries from beneath it and into the dark shadows at the end of the alley. The alleyway smells like a clogged urinal in a men's restroom. It's mostly dark but for a sliver of light from a streetlamp on the crub near the entrance. I scrape off used condoms to stuck to the bottom of my boots on the edge of the curb.
Back at my spot I see Chandelier on the opposite sidewalk. She's walking slowly, her hips swaying as if they were on ball bearings. The wig she's wearing is neon pink, the same color as her mini vinyl skirt. Her spiked heels click on the sidewalk like small explding firecrackers, or bullets hitting metal from a distance. She turns her head, sees me, and waves, so I wave back.
She crosses the street and walks up to me. Her wig is slightly askew and her bright orange lipstick is smudged. "I saw you were talking to that Sammy," she says.
"Yeah, what of it?" I say.
"He's been selling some bad stuff. Stuff that'll kill you," she says.
"I'm not buying anymore from anyone," I say. "I've stopped using."
"I've heard that before from others," she says. "But I wish you luck honey." She walks away, the opposite direction of where Sammy went, and is soon lost in the shadows.
"How much?" says the middle-aged man with a bulging stomach covered by a t-shirt that's too tight. He shifts back and forth in his rust-colored boots as if he will lose his balance at any moment His breath carries the odor of whiskey and beer.
"Depends on what you're looking for," I say. I look up at the light shining like a beacon from the window of my room and feel relief that I have someplace to go when the night ends.
Sitting naked with my legs crossed on the floor I have the bottom drawer of Mr. Dresser opened and my discharge papers in my lap. Typed ont he line for reason of medical discharge is: PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It's just an explanation for why my mind is fucked up.
From below I hear John throwing up. He and I used to shoot up together and turn tricks in the same alley, even bring them back here to my room. Everyone on the streets knows John. He once decorated my room with gold Christmas tinsel he found in a garbage can. I wanted off the dope, he didn't.
I put the discharge papers back and take out the news articles. Most are from my last year in high school. Each article has a picture of me in swimming Speedos. I recognize me of course, but it is a different me. Two tours in a foreign war zone can change a person.
Someone is pounding on John's door.
I put the articles back in the drawer and take out the photo album. I get up from the floor and sit on Serta. Opening the album I aware that the photographs document the passing of my life. There I am, riding my first bicycle, fishing at the lake with my grandfather, going to prom with Tina Macallister, in my purple and white high school graduation robe, and waiting to get on the plane to go to boot camp. There's pictures of my parents too.
John is silent but the pounding on his door continues.
I lay the album aside and lie back on Serta. My body smells of the night: other men's sweat, the dried remains of their cum, pollution that sticks to my skin.
The busting down of John's door makes Serta vibrate.
"John!" a voice screams in unmistakable horror.
Heat rises from concrete and it's like walking on top of an oven burner with a low flame. Long shadows creep across the sidewalk as the sun sets. As a helicopter crosses overhead I instinctively duck for a brief moment as if this is the landing pad at the outpost in Afghanistan. The bulbs in the lampposts have begun to glow.