Monday, August 1, 2011

Heroin Chick, Harley Dude and Feathered Keith

He didn't speak English -- he spoke a caregiver language of acceptance and hope.
        (8/1/2011) I could see the needle tracks on her bony arms as she stood on the porch, smoking, in her chartreuse tank top and skinny jeans. There were no boobs that I could discern. Instead, she had a rack of prominent ribs.

    Her hair was a wild, bleached-to-death mess. She was the most scrawny, caved in and wrecked person I had ever seen. On the shoulder of this shell-shocked stick figure always sat a gorgeous green parrot, who seemed to be murmuring something into her ear, in comforting tones. 
    She and her hugely muscled, Harley-riding boyfriend lived in a dilapidated shack that people in our tidy neighborhood sorely resented.
Some used a sort of English-garden approach.

        I loved my Liberty Park neighborhood. The trees were huge and majestic. Each of the homes, which had been built between the late 1800s and the mid-1950s, had its own special charm, and I enjoyed the diversity of both the architecture and the people.  The shack was three houses to the west of me.

    One could be forgiven for thinking that the freaky-looking people who lived there belonged in a dumpy house. I feel fortunate that I got to see beyond the stereotypes.

    It wasn’t surprising that my neighbors were disgusted with the shack. They objected to the “blight” that it represented. They had put great effort into making their homes and yards attractive, so although we were a middle-class bunch at best, we had created a shared environment that reflected real flair.
Others did a brilliant job with xeriscaping.
     Everywhere you looked, there were glorious flowers – from English-garden style to brilliant xeriscaping -- stone pathways, trellises, windowboxes overflowing with blooms, modernistic sculptures, birdbaths, water features and wind chimes. Some of the oldsters had nothing more than hedges comprised of gorgeous, fragrant roses and a wicker loveseat on the porch – but no amount of originality can beat that.

    I thought it was amazing that this just happened by itself, and got better and better over time.
    I lacked the morale necessary to be as creative as my neighbors, but I had a nice outpouring of flowers, so I felt I was doing my duty.
I just stuck things in the ground and prayed (not really prayed) for a miracle.

    I didn’t mind the shack. To me, it was just another facet of our area’s diversity, although I did wonder how a landlord – a well-known local businessman -- could live with the embarrassment of keeping such a dump in our midst. 
    I was intrigued by the couple who lived there when I first moved into my 100-year-old house.
    The guy roared around bare-chested on his "Hog," wearing mirrored wraparound sunglasses. His entire upper body, all the way up to his chin, was solidly covered in brightly colored tattoos, so his partial nudity really didn't seem nude at all. 
His body was a wonderland of epic classical dramas, jungle scenes and helpless sexpots.
    His physique reminded me of the guys who spent hours in The Yard, pumping iron, in the prison where I once worked. No helmet for him, man. His black hair was flying in the breeze, sometimes partly restrained by a cool-looking bandana.

    Each morning, as I left for my jog in the dark, I could see him sprawled on the front lawn, his arms and legs spread wide. Was he passed-out drunk, or just escaping the heat? It didn’t matter to me – he wasn’t bothering anyone, but I never lost the urge to kneel next to him and say, “Are you all right?”
They enjoyed looking mean, I guess, but Marcos and his friends were true gentlemen.

    I assumed he was fine. But we had never met, or even had eye contact, and I guess I thought a gesture of concern would be a nice way to begin. I was prudent enough to restrain myself from interrupting his sleep. Prudence really isn’t my style, but I manage occasionally to muster it.
    It was his girlfriend who really interested me. I’d never had eye contact with her either. Her eyes were so far gone, so far away, so entirely unresponsive, that she seemed to be turned totally inward. She never acknowledged my waves, but I don’t think she was being rude. She just wasn’t there. 
She used to be beautiful. I believed she could be nourished back to health.

    Her face was emaciated and deathly pale; she wore her black mascara in the Tammy Faye Baker style, clumped and dripping. 
     I felt compassion for her. It was probably the “there but for the grace of god” variety.  Given all the shit I’d put into my body, I ought to look ravaged and zombie-like as well. But I had balanced the smoking, drinking and opiates with maniacal exercise and luscious vegetarianism, and I guess it had been somewhat protective.
She had tracks on the backs of her hands and feet, and between her toes, as well.

      I found her relationship with the parrot to be very touching. He seemed to be whispering to her almost constantly, and she nodded as he spoke.
    Parrots are such heart-warming creatures. God, they are cute. Their colors are stunning. They are so snuggly, inquisitive, and eccentric that you just want to hug them. I have no idea whether parrots permit such expressions of affection, but I would sure try if I got the chance.
    One morning, there was a banging at my door. I almost always ignored whoever was out there, assuming it was very likely a sales person or a missionary.
    But this knocking was so frantic that I felt morally obliged to respond.
    It was Heroin Chick, and she was sobbing.
    “My parrot’s flown off,” she cried. “Will you please come with me to look for him? I feel weird running into people’s yards by myself.”
Maybe he just wanted to go for a joyride with his peeps.

    She smelled like cottage cheese gone bad. Her hands were trembling, and she’d bitten her fingernails down to the quick. The mascara streaked her cheeks. Her jeans kept sliding down; there was no stomach, no hips, no butt to hold them up. She’d stuck her Marlboro Lights into her waistband, but that wasn’t helping much.
Or maybe he just wanted a little inter-species snuggle.
     I doubted we’d be successful, but I had to help her. If I lost my kitty I would die! We scurried around the neighborhood, desperately crying out for “Keith.”  (I guess that makes as much sense as “Polly.”)
    At one point, the woman – who hadn’t introduced herself – had to stop. We were on the sidewalk, and she had sharp chest pains.
    “Don’t call 911,” she said. “This happens pretty often.”
    I put my arm around her waist. God, she was barely more than a skeleton. I honestly experienced physical pain just imagining what it would feel like to inhabit that body.
    I noticed for the first time that she was barefoot. She had needle tracks down there, too.
    Just then, we heard a lovely whoosh of fluttering, and down came Keith, right onto her hunched shoulder, a splendid array of green tones with vivid red and yellow markings. She sobbed with relief, stroking him, calling him “Baby.” He made those murmuring sounds in her ear, “I love you. We’re together. Don’t worry.” (That’s just my interpretation of his inflections  – I don't think he spoke English.)
My image of what heroin feels like, hurtled into ecstasy.
     Ever since I first saw this shattered woman, I had fantasized that some day she would have me over and shoot me up. I had friends in New York’s jazz scene who loved an occasional hit of heroin when their blow started getting a little monotonous. The way they described it was basically indescribable, dazzling, transcendent.  In the movies, when people shoot up, the surge hurls them backward, and they dissolve into mind-blown bliss. I only wanted to do it once.
    Today, she did ask if I wanted to come in for a little smack, but I didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel strong enough. I was kind of worn out by the Keith drama, but mostly by my ache of helplessness in the face of the woman’s terrible downward trajectory. While we were searching for Keith, she told me her teeth were falling out and she had blood in her pee.
   I said, “Why don’t you see a doctor?” and she replied, “I don’t care no more.”
   I understood that sentiment very well.

   A couple of evenings later, I was doing some hand watering in front, and Tattoo Dude walked over.
    “Thanks for helping Val,” he said. “I don’t know what she woulda done if she hadn’t found Keith. That little guy is her salvation.”
    His name was Marcos, and he was in Harley-Davidson sales and service, although he’d gotten a degree in political science 15 years ago. He looked healthy – not just the muscles, but also his bearing, his eyes, his skin and his hair. He was clean and shiny.
     It was hard not to focus on the vast melodrama depicted by his tattoos – dragons, warriors, panthers, torture devices and sexpots in need of rescue -- so I kept my eyes squarely on his.
    “Can Val be helped?” I asked him.
    “We’re gonna give it another try when a bed opens up,” he said. “She’s been through rehab twice already.”
    “At the U.?” I asked.
Where dreams come true -- or are mercilessly shattered.
    “Naw – in Nashville,” he said. “If she hadn’t gotten so fucked up, you’d probably be hearing her on the radio. She’d finally gotten an agent. He said he could get her a record deal for sure.”
    Valerie had been doing backup singing in studio sessions with top-tier country talent for several years, he said, and had even been on tour with Bonnie Raitt, Lee Ann Womack and Tanya Tucker. 
Valerie had done backup for some top country stars.

    “She was a great-looking gal, really making it in the world, earning residuals from about 10 albums  -- and then she just went straight down the tubes,” Marcos said.
    I told him I didn't realize that country-music people were into hard drugs, and he said they weren’t – it was some people she met in a bar.
    “She just wanted to try it one time, and she’s been a goner ever since,” he said.
    I asked him if he was going to stay with her. “As long as there’s some hope,” he replied. “I want the real Val back.”
    “Give her my best – I really feel for her,” I said.
    Marcos reached toward me with his hand. I thought he was going to brush off a mosquito or something, but he gave my shoulder a complete physical, sizing up all three lobes.
    “Great delts,” he said, smiling for the first time. As he turned to go home, he added, “You’re overdoing your traps, though. Women shouldn’t do that.”
Marcos approved of my shoulders but was critical of my overdeveloped trapezius.

    “I know they’re too big, but I don’t know what I’m doing wrong,” I called out after him.
    “Narrow your grip,” he said, continuing on his way.
    This struck me as a nostrum that could be applied to life in general, although I guess it could cause as much ruination as salvation.

    It wasn’t until I saw a For Rent sign that I realized that Val and Marcos were gone. They had been good neighbors. They may have looked like freaky lowlifes, but they didn’t have screaming fights or loud parties or menacing pit bulls. Just two sweet people, struggling together, and that parrot -- that cuddly green caregiver -- who I never got to hug.