Heroin in Her Tears – By Sydney Knox

It was raining and cold the night Angela Hicks found her messiah in the most unlikely of places. ‘Ang’ as her family and frenemies called her, was at the end of her rope and out of ideas. Ang had no money and no place to go. The only thing she did have was a car on its last legs, but unlike people in her life, Nadine, an old blue Honda, with a smashed bumper and 150,000 miles on her, never let her down. Right now Nadine sat outside of a housing project on Nebraska Avenue, the nastiest hoe stroll in the city and the fact that Ang was here, contemplating the unthinkable, was proof positive of just how desperate her circumstances had become.

She was enrolled as a sophomore at the University of Tampa, though at the rate she was going, not for long. Ang had dreams of fame others around her only pretended to have, and the drug she craved had yet to extinguish them. If anything, it made them vibrant, more beautiful to her mind’s eye when she was feeling down. They felt like hope in a hopeless place, and the stories her dreams spun for her were worth telling, but no one had asked to hear them. So she kept them to herself along with the lie that her addictions would make her a better actor one day. Nobody without real pain in their life was good at acting or storytelling anyway. It was something you just could not fake. You have to be able to conjure your despair from a dark well inside you, and good luck doing that if there wasn’t one. It was like threatening someone with a dreaded ghost of Christmas Future and getting a ghost of Christmas Past instead. All smiles and cheer, it just didn’t have the same zing.

Sitting with the engine running and her eye on the gas light that had just come on, she couldn’t see any other ready choice to fix things. At least for a while, until she could figure out something else, she needed 500 dollars and had five of them to her name. The rent was overdue, and the landlord was threatening to throw her out. Her cocaine habit plus a wild weekend had taken up the money her parents sent to pay it. She couldn’t make herself fumble together yet another lie for why she was short, and anyway, this time she was short the whole way. There was no explaining that one since she’d already told them last month the car needed repairs and how many times could she be robbed? If they didn’t already know something was wrong, they would soon enough if she couldn’t make this right.

“How the hell did I get here?” she muttered to herself, afraid to say it louder. Even alone she was ashamed to speak of the utter degradation that rotted her soul. What was left of her spirit and her sanity asked the question and tried to provide an answer. She gave herself a half-hearted pep talk. “Pull it together, Ang. You’re going to be dead and never make it to Broadway if you don’t stop. Is this finally enough?”

She wanted to say yes, to convince herself that after she got out of this jam, she was done. This was her rock bottom, but she knew that for a lie too. Rock bottom was the mask falling away and her sins exposed to the world. Ang was a beautiful girl, with exotic coloring, big hazel-green eyes with flecks of gold and light brown hair. She could sing, dance, was talented and smart in so many ways. She looked too unusual to be where she was; pretty, well-brought-up girls always look out of place when they try to slum it, and ending up on Nebraska Avenue at 11 o’clock at night was definitely slumming it.

Honestly, she wondered, how had she come to be on this street, surrounded by people acting on their worst impulses? She barely remembered driving to Nebraska, but like everyone in Tampa, she knew exactly where it was and what happened there. Admittedly, she was high when she first pulled into the parking lot of the projects on the corner of hell and nowhere good, but that was some two hours ago. No one noticed or bothered her. The cops usually ignored the malignant activities on Nebraska, unless there was a dead body involved, or they wanted to harass a few derelicts, but not tonight. Even the homeless were tucked away under bridges or vacant buildings. Only the most desperate women were on the rainy streets, with just the most pathetic of the johns to troll them.

Ang sat in Nadine on that cold-for-Florida night and wondered how one went about hooking. Like, exactly how did this work? Having to ask the question showed that she had no business being there in the first place, but like everything else in her life, when she had to figure something out, she did it and never asked anybody for anything she could get on her own. And the ugly truth was, she’d done worst things free when she was drunk or high, getting paid for it couldn’t be that much worse, or so she thought.

Being in school helped, she knew how to research, and she’d done a little before she got to this point, just in case she ever needed to know. Ang had read a few books on the subject, mostly old pimp tomes by the likes of Iceberg Slim and others of his ilk. Little good it did, sitting in the rain in high heel boots and a short pleather skirt. She didn’t know how to approach a regular boy, much less a john looking to sex her quickly and for a fee. She wasn’t even sure how much to charge. Decisions, it was almost funny, but the joke was on her. Just as she was about to pull away and go home to cry, there was a sharp tap on her window.

Ang looked up to see a man not much older than her. “You working?” he asked.

For a minute, Ang couldn’t find her tongue. She didn’t even know how to answer such a question or that he would ask it that way. I guess that’s how this goes Ang thought. She squeaked out a frightened “Yeah, I am,” with as much confidence as she could muster, but her eyes must have told the real tale.

The man looked unimpressed by her answer. “You’re no working girl, or least you shouldn’t be. What are you doing out here? Don’t you know you can get killed looking like a lost rabbit on this street?” He shook his head. His jet-black hair was long, shaggy. He’d missed more than a few cuts and shaves. There were bags under his eyes and butter on his teeth. He looked too down on his own luck to have an opinion about her.

Ang found her voice easily then, righteous anger always worked in a pinch. She searched her memory for the kind of hardcore language she picked up reading her streetwalker stories. Fear was not an option, and attitude was everything.

“Who the hell are you to say anything to me, asshole? You came over here to me, not the other way around. So you interested in me, or what? And I’m not as cheap as some of these hookers out here, so I hope you ain’t wasting my time!”

The stranger was taken aback, his eyes widened and he looked genuinely confused for a minute while he tried to figure out if she was a good actor or a not-so-bright whore. Finally, he laughed a bit, telling her, “That was pretty good. You almost made me believe you. Little girl, you don’t know a thing that’s going on out here, but you’ll find out the hard way if you’re not careful. Maybe if you had a cigarette hanging out of your mouth, you’d be more believable.”

“I don’t smoke,” Ang said, still trying to play the hardened prostitute, weary of games.

“Well, I do.” He pulled a pack of Camels from his pocket. “Here, take one and pretend. I’m trying to help you out because I see you need it. I’m not wasting your time, but you might be wasting mine.” He turned to look toward the alley behind him. Throwing a thumb over his shoulder, he told her. “I’m looking to score, and my man behind me is busy. I thought I might as well be busy too until he’s finished.”

Behind them, a sketchy figure was just stepping from the alley. This new stranger was short, fat and zipping his pants as he neared the main road. Not that it mattered; he was dressed in the typical dope man uniform of glitzy sneakers and designer jeans that hung low enough to see his checkerboard boxers. Trailing at his side was a half-dressed woman who held out her hand for her pay, a little plastic bag she greedily palmed like it was the cure for what ailed her, which Ang guessed from personal experience, probably was. Her cheeks were hollow and her eyes sunken into her head. She had dirty, greasy hair and her fishnet pantyhose were more holes than net. As she walked away from him, he gave her backside a playful slap and she blew him a kiss. They could have been lovers parting instead of desperate people transacting dirty business in an alley.

Ang snapped at him. “Well, what’s keeping you? You getting in or you’re going with him? A score is a score I guess, smack or me? You can take your pick. The smack is cheaper, but the high won’t last as long.”

While the man had been watching the dealer and whore emerge from the alley, Ang had been watching him. She looked at his hands. They were unexpectedly clean and manicured. His clothes fit him well and looked like they had been very expensive at some point. Remembering the rules she set for herself, she scanned him for the tale-tell bump of a gun or hidden knife and slid her hand down the side of her door to make sure the .38 her father gave her when she left for college was still there. Same place it always was, as soon as she gripped the cold steel she knew she wasn’t afraid to use it if this guy wanted trouble. If she were lucky, the rest of him would be as clean as his hands, and she could get things over with as quickly as possible.

“Still playing tough? Okay, I call your bluff. I’ll take you and it.” While Ang sat there unsure of what to do, he walked over to the dealer who was ready for him. It took seconds for him to get what he wanted and turn back to her. He walked around to the other side of the car and pulled on the door handle.

Ang just looked at him for a minute. He stared back but didn’t move away. Slowly, she reached beside her to pop the lock for him and the next thing she knew she was in the car with a stranger who expected her to sleep with him and pretend to enjoy it.

Ang took a deep breath. “Where should we go?”

He laughed. “You really are green aren’t you? Pull behind this complex to the trashcans. Nobody goes back there but people doing the same thing we are, and nobody cares. My name is Melvin. What’s yours?”

“An—Nadine.” Ang was glad it was dark so he couldn’t see the deep blush spreading across her face. She almost gave him her real name, and he probably guessed she was lying.

More laughter, “Okay, An—Nadine. Let’s go.”

Ang headed to the back of the complex where it was so dark she could barely see in front of her face. “So, it’s 500 dollars if you want to have sex with me,” She told him. Melvin stared at her, incredulous.

He shook his head. “Baby girl, we’re in the front seat of your car. This ain’t where you pay that kind of money.”

“Well, what will you pay then?”

“I’ll give you 100 bucks and some advice. This life ain’t for you. You remind me of my little sister. I would hate to see you on this road because I know exactly where it leads.”
“What do you know about my life? Why don’t you just pay me, fuck me and get the hell out of my car?”

Melvin paused. “I could do that. But I’d rather save your life. I watched you for 30 minutes. You must have started and stopped yourself a dozen times. I thought to myself, nobody struggling that hard to hook should be doing it. You looked so scared and so lost. I don’t have much humanity left in me, but I remember when I was like you. And if it weren’t for my parents, I’d be homeless or worse right now. I don’t belong out here, but here I am. A user with my best days behind me and nothing but a life of self-hate in front of me. ‘Something about you… I have to do something. It’s my one good deed, and I’m going to do it for you and me. So I know my soul ain’t lost. I’ll give you the 100 bucks, and you don’t have to sell yourself to me to get it. All you have to do is listen to me. Deal?”

Ang looked at him with suspicion. “Okay, it’s a deal, but I want the money first.” She held out her hand and slid the other down to grip her father’s .38 special. Melvin saw her do it. She meant for him to see it but he said nothing, just dug into his pockets and pulled out a hundred dollar bill from a small roll of them and handed it to her.

“Do I have your attention now?” he asked with a small smile. “I told you, I’m not supposed to be here. I’m from Atlanta. My dad owns a bunch of shoe stores, and he’s trying his hand at local politics. My mom is a so-called classy lady, and my sister is in law school at Harvard. I’m here being the black sheep they’re ashamed of, even though they made me this way. They keep me in money, so I don’t embarrass them being arrested for dumb shit. As long as I keep to my usual vices and stay out of trouble otherwise, they don’t give a damn what happens to me. They probably wish I’d go ahead and overdose. Maybe I will soon. I’ve always been addicted to something or someone since I was a kid, and I’m always looking for the next high.”

Ang didn’t know what to think or say. She looked into his eyes, which she was just noticing were the kindest she’d ever seen. For some reason, they made her want to talk to him, to tell him her story that nobody else wanted to hear. And so she did. Ang spoke with Melvin for hours, sitting behind those projects. At some point, she started up the car, and they drove to the gas station where Melvin filled up the tank. He peeled off another four bills and handed them to her too. Ang wanted to refuse them, to give him back the first one too, but he insisted, and she stopped arguing.

When they left the gas station, Ang headed toward St. Pete Beach and as they drove across the causeway, telling stories to each other and sharing their pleasures and pains, a strange thing happened. Ang started to cry, and once she started, she couldn’t stop. Melvin stopped talking. They drove in silence while the tears ran down her face. When Melvin reached over to touch her tear-stained cheek, she didn’t stop him.

Slowly, savoring it, Melvin tasted the wetness of her tears on his fingers. He closed his eyes, sat back in the seat and just let her drive.



When Life Ain’t So Grand – By Sydney Knox

They called him “Chicken George” and whispered that he was a hard-living man, never without his bottle of gin or a woman to share it.  I didn’t know about all that, I just called him Grandpy. I have heard stories about him since I was a little girl.  Not that anybody would tell such things to a six-year-old, but you learn a lot listening outside doors, or playing opossum on long car rides home. I didn’t understand most of what I heard, but I knew it was about Grandpy and it was bad.  Now, I’ve learned to take those stories with a grain of salt, and they only make me love him more.  I can’t tell you why, they just do.

Grandpy isn’t a really old man, but the years of smoking, drinking and wild women have taken their toll and I know soon they’ll take his life.  I’m just waiting for the phone call telling me to come home, Grandpy’s gone on.  It sounds silly but even though I’m sure that call is coming any day now, I’m not ready for it.  And I don’t want to hear about him living in my heart, or any of that other crap folks tell you when somebody is dying.  I just want him to live, period.

“Daddy don’t mean no harm, he’s just a weak man,” my father, a weak man himself used to say. Still, whenever somebody called to tell him, ‘come get George–he’s passed out at Miss Dot’s again’, he would grumble and take his time about leaving.  My mama use to yell at him to shut up and go get his daddy before the other bums turned out his pockets.  I remember being so glad the few times Mama was going somewhere and he had to bring my sister and me along.  I loved to laugh at the sight of him helping Grandpy to the car.  Angie would frown and nudge me but I couldn’t stop, it was all a big joke to me.  I guess I just couldn’t put the staggering old drunk with the man who swung me around in the front yard.  For me, it was like any other part of living in the South. Everybody had at least one drunk and one crazy in the family.

Most folks in my family looked down on my grandfather. They said he was trifling and shiftless. At family gatherings, they would get these strange looks on their faces whenever he came around like they wanted to ask him if he’d had a drink or two, this early in the day. I hated to see that and it made me ashamed for him, but Grandpy took it all in stride.  Especially if he really had been taking a few nips off his bottle. He’d throw his arm over whoever’s shoulder and start telling some long story right into their face. The look in the eyes alone, as they tried to get away, was enough to send me chuckling over to fetch my cousins so we all could watch. It was no better than they deserved for treating my Grandpy like he’d just pissed on their favorite rug.

The only person who could handle my grandfather back then was my Aunt Mable, and she was a character herself; she didn’t take lip off anybody. “I ain’t easy going worth a damn” she would say and nobody messed with her, including Grandpy. He knew there would be hell to pay.  Whenever he went off on one of his drunken tirades and she got tired of it, she would simply say, “Daddy, go sit down.” She never had to say any more or even raise her voice. I believe part of his respect came from some guilt he had about the things he’d done when his kids were coming up.

It was common knowledge in the family that he’d beat my grandmother so much that she had run off to Connecticut leaving Mabel at seven to raise her brothers, Mike who was four, and my father who was only a year and a half. In the meantime, he kept busy making more children with so many different women that until this day nobody knows how many he has. He only claims my grandmother’s three and about four others. Even these old facts about Grandpy don’t change my feelings toward him. I can sit and talk about it with no bad feelings about him at all. To me it’s ancient history and if he’s sorry, or even if he isn’t, who am I to judge him.  That’s not in the granddaughter job description.  All it says is that I should love him.

Loving my grandfather was never something I had to think about because I remember the good things about him and they outweigh the bad. I’m thankful my parents made it a point to have him stay with us from time to time. Their reasons may not have been as simple as mine, but I was happy all the same.  I remember sitting in his lap while he sang me to sleep and waking up to a tickle under my nose when I’d been sleeping too long.  I remember the long walks we use to take and the stories that always started, “When I was a boy …” These are the memories that are precious to me, not the ones about him almost killing his sons driving home drunk.  I can see past them and I know that it was the evil of the bottle ruined him, and I blame it, not him.

The wasted man I saw the last time I was home, haunts me like a ghost I can’t exorcise and again I can’t put him with the feisty man I knew as my Grandpy.  I don’t know this new man.  I don’t want to know him.  I wish he would just go back to the hell he came from and leave me the Grandpy I use to have.   The stroke took away his strength and made him helpless but that’s not what’s going to kill him.   The throat cancer that reared its ugly head five years ago is coming back and this time it’s not going away.  It might have stayed dead if he had stopped smoking and drinking, but he was stubborn and now it’s going to take his stubborn life.  I think that’s the only thing I blame him for.  If he didn’t care enough about himself to stop, then he could have at least considered his grandkids.  In the end, he is a selfish man and I can’t help being a little mad at him. But he’s a dying man and being mad at a dying man won’t bring him back to life.


Ella On The Far Side – By Sydney Knox

Ella was twenty-seven when it happened. She had long been fascinated by the deep end of the lake – the very middle to be exact – since she was a child. The lake was just an old stone quarry, long abandoned by the town that grew up around it. The lake was her favorite place.  She never shared it with anyone. Not another soul came with her to these quiet, man-made waters that spooned as lovers would, around an evergreen forest and jagged pink marble walls.

The trees at the shoreline dipped lazily into the water like the fancy lady Ella could never be. The kind of woman who enjoyed sticking her pinky out while she sipped daintily from a teacup and whose biggest claim to fame was marrying well.  Ella never felt lonely in all the years she visited the lake. Eventually, she knew the mysteries hidden in its depths would entice another to sit on the grassy slopes.  Acknowledging the ambition in her foresight, she waited in patience, but for whom she did not know.  Until she did.  She spotted him from the shore, a stranger in the middle of the deep end of the lake.  She watched as he rowed closer and closer to the hypnotic deception that lurked at the heart of the lake.

He had appeared from nowhere.  At the edge of her peripheral in the zone where she couldn’t be sure she saw anything at all, he appeared for a fleeting moment. It startled her, then afterward she realized it thrilled her too. She had been lounging when he unexpectedly joggled her from a reverie of mischievous imaginings that pleased her even if they wasted time.

When Ella came to her senses, she looked around for the source of the disturbance in her soul.  There in the growing darkness of late afternoon, she found him.  He was rushing toward the waterfront dragging a small, unstable canoe behind him.  He paused to glance back to where she lay in the thick grass near the shoreline.  Her breathing sharpened.  His face was pleasant enough; handsome she suspected if the light were brighter.  She stared hard at him, wondering what he saw and if it pleased him.  She had been dismissive this morning standing naked before her dressing mirror, but now she wished she’d chosen a different swimsuit to wear to the lake.  But she had not expected to meet anyone.

Without speaking a word to her, he smiled.  It was the first time in her life that she could recall seeing one.  It spread across his face in a way that spread heat across her body.  She rose to her feet more curious about this stranger than anyone she ever met before.  When he did speak, she knew it would not matter what he said to her.

He slid the canoe into the still waters.  The last of the setting sun reflected in the lake and into Ella’s upturned face.  She lost sight of him in the confusion of light and motion. She moved closer to the water to find him.  When her eyes located him, he was reclining in his canoe with his arms crossed at leisure.  He waited for her.  She didn’t need for him to say it or even move. It was something Ella felt in her spirit and with the revelation, something within her that was dead sprung forth into grateful life.

She moved without hesitation into the waters.  They were colder than she expected, but she gave it no thought.  Even her body’s unhappy reaction to the chill of the waters did nothing to dissuade her.  Reason explained it patiently; fear shouted, and finally shame added its mean-spirited little whisper to the mix.  The stranger had no name, no plan and no words that could turn this decision into wisdom.  ‘It’s foolish; he will only see your desperation.  Even if you reach him, the effort is wasted.’ the insidious and oh so familiar voice of doubt whispered.

Lies.  Ella stopped listening.  She would allow no vainglorious notions of inferiority to keep her earthbound – not now that she understood flight.  The stranger’s appearance on the lake compelled a new reality, one she could claim without prerequisite.  As she moved further into the shifting black waters, she stopped feeling the icy cold as pain.  Instead, it felt like necessary resistance, something she could push against to speed her through the waves.  Around her, the twilight increased.  The night creatures began to emerge; their splashes were ominous and worse unseen.  Ella turned about her until she found the canoe demarcating a place between Earth and air, but it was empty.  It floated in the distance, its occupant somewhere in the waters with her.

No, beside her.  She felt rather than saw him.  She was not disturbed this time when she encountered that peculiar sensation of his presence near her.  She knew he would be there, that he would not leave her foundering her way to him in an unhappy darkness.  Together they turned towards the middle of the deep end of the lake. There was no point in looking behind them to the shore.  It was closer, but it was impossible to imagine ever going back there or that anything there could be as vivid-bright as what lay ahead.

Their heads met in the waters, their faces inches from each other, half covered.  No words were possible, and none where needed.  Everything in Ella’s world spun together in a dazzling burst of emotion that was as close to exaltation as the living are allowed.  She was exactly where she wanted to be, where she knew she had to be – alone in the doldrums of her beloved lake with an intimate stranger and a canoe to reach.

She felt his fingers encircle her wrist.  The pressure was comforting to her.  He pulled her alongside him, pushing her ahead of him out into the deeper waters.  Ella surged forward.  The stranger launched himself beside her, and soon they matched each other stroke for stroke, their minds set on a singular purpose – to reach the canoe in the middle of the deep end of the lake.  Ella imagined what it would be like when they got there.  She would let their hands intertwine on the chill, wet rim of the canoe. She imagined she could feel the hard bottom when they piled inside, and their unspeakable joy while it ferried them to the other side of the lake.  There the stones and the trees parted wide enough to peek at the rich lands beyond, lands overflowing with bounty enough to nourish them and all who followed for many years to come.

As Ella swam beside her stranger, the waters around them were no safer than they had been some minutes before then.  The same slithery creatures and scavengers that lurked in the depths still lurked there.  The dangers they posed were real.  Yet once in the water, gaining the canoe was not a choice, so Ella’s fears gave way to strength.  She swallowed their bittersweet draft along with a dose of the lake water, stale and unpleasant this far from the shore.  She spit it out.  Her stranger noticed her.  He flashed the smile that had pulled her into this delicious predicament in the first place.  In between strokes, he laughed and so she laughed with him.

In chorus, they reached the canoe, both completely spent from the journey.  Drained of energy, they helped each other struggle without grace into it, neither having the ability to do so alone.  Looking back at the shore, Ella admired how far they had come and how insane an idea this had been from the start.  Yet fortune never favors a timid heart.

From the shore, it was impossible to see the small path that led to the lands beyond the lake but from here the way was clear and the traveling easy.  Their canoe had everything they needed. Her stranger had planned well.  There were provisions enough for two; as though he had somehow known he would not make the trip alone.

There was no reason for them to rush their crossing now.  They took their time to enjoy the night and each other.  The heavens blazed forth with a million stars; the air was heavy with pungent natural smells that seduced and reminded them they were not alone.  All around them life – some of it dangerous all of it beautiful – thrived and would continue to do so long after they had crossed the lake and found what lay on the other side.

But right now they were here, in the middle of the deep end of the lake and finally, he spoke.

“I’m told it’s beautiful beyond these trees.”  Ella looked into his face, seeing for the first time that while his eyes were sightless, it was she who had been blind.

“It is.  Shall we go closer?  I can see the way is clear.”

He nodded.  “Of course, He led me here and He promised it.”  Her stranger leaned back in his little canoe; his arms stretched wide enough for Ella to find her way into them.  She settled back into the heart of him and there they lay together under the stars, sure of their path and hopeful for the morning light to lead them beyond the middle of the deep end of the lake.