You Can Do It Again, by Michael Ian Bell

I come up again at the bodega on 189th and Amsterdam. When the vertigo and nausea pass, the shimmering forms resolve into bodies and storefronts. Trash bags are piled enormous in the street and I stare transfixed, one hand on the doorframe, steadying myself. In my other hand is a cola, cold like ice. I put it against my forehead and it shocks me into the moment. Every time is the same but it never gets so I expect it.

again-pull1As my head clears, I can feel the heat of the summer air. Sweat trickles down and drips from my chin. Sun hot like a furnace. Blacktop steaming all around me.

This is it, I think. This is the last time you’re gonna see Cisco.

And then Rafi is there, pushing me into the street. Sun splashing into my eyes, all I can see is the gaping chasm where his canine was knocked out two weeks previous. “Vamos!” he says, smiling wide, and we start heading downtown. In my mouth the cola stings but a cooling sensation spreads in my stomach.

When we cross into CastleTown, I see the car in the distance. My heart races. The air is hot but a breeze comes off the river, a breath of air that shuffles past us like a ghost. On the corner of Cabrini we see the red Ford in a thick film of dust. The window rolls down and Rafi reaches inside. “Oye, Francisco,” he calls. “Give us a ride!”

But Francisco looks past his shoulder and into my eyes, lowering his sunglasses. I put my hands on the hot metal, lean in. An unspoken thought passes between us, an expression I’ve seen a thousand times, but the old translations don’t fit.

I’ll be late for dinner.

Or: Keep a lookout for dad tonight.

Or: Stay out of trouble until I get back.

But there’s something new that my twelve-year-old eyes would never catch. I meet my brother’s gaze and smile. I feel the warmth of his hand as he reaches out and closes his fingers on mine, a warmth that spreads into my torso, that fills me completely. Inside there’s a love that is pure and genuine. If I could capture that love and seal it in a box, I think. If I could hold onto this moment, hold it in my hand like I hold that grimy pill bottle. If there were no bottle and no pills but only this moment now and forever.

The scene freezes like a photograph. The car’s leather interior, forgotten soda cans on vinyl floor mats. The sun igniting every surface inside and out. A total absence of sound, and far off the smell of something on fire. The look on Cisco’s face, the way his eyes shone. The message contained therein. I file away the details, even though I’ll be back. I’ll stand here again and grip the doorframe and fight and thrash and scream inside. I’ll muster every ounce of energy just to open my mouth and tell him I love him. Tell him to wait, that he doesn’t have to leave, at least to take me with him.

The picture fades and the vertigo returns. But I’ll be back.

As the scene fades, I repeat it like a mantra. I’ll be back here again. I’ll be back.

Some memories float to the surface no matter what; try as you might, that’s just where you come up. Redo’s like that sometimes.

Pale blue sky filters in through the blinds and dust motes hover in illuminated pockets of air. Parallel bars of sun fall across the misshapen couch and the surface of the coffee table, highlighting ashtrays overloading and empty pill bottles marked only with the black felt-tip outline of a clock. I push the pill bottles around with an exploratory finger. They fall soundless across the trash piles and onto the carpet. I rub the heel of my palm across my face and stretch, pull myself up off the recliner and onto uncertain legs.

In the distance, a single siren sings the tale of criminal activity, somewhere deep within the bowels of the barrio.

I move into the kitchenette, where the analog clock reads 7:43. The air is thick with the humidity of another autumn morning. The flat thwack of a basketball and the shrieks of small children rise from some unseen but nearby source.

The cisterns are full again on the makeshift balcony, and I pull them in through the window, a three-gallon bucket and two smaller plastic jugs with the tops cut off. I wash my face in the bathroom with meager handfuls of rainwater. In the mirror, familiar eyes look back at me. My hair is long and greasy and stubble clings to my cheeks and neck. I rub a hand down my chin. “This is reality, Marco. This is you.”

But I feel ancient and the face in the mirror is not that of a 24-year-old. My eyes are bloodshot, dark bags hanging beneath. This is you, Marco.

In the medicine cabinet is another bottle containing six flat disc-shaped pills. I open the door with shaking hands and count the thin pills twice to be sure.

Johnny is sitting at the counter of El Conde Steakhouse when I arrive thirty-two minutes later. He rolls his eyes when he sees me, like he was getting tired of looking at his watch.

“Café,” I tell the woman. “Solo.”

She shakes her head without looking up, points at a crumpled piece of paper tacked to the wall. NO COFFE, it reads. COKE.

I look at Johnny’s cup and he just nods. The woman puts down a saucer and cup and pours from a two-liter bottle.

“My head feels like a fucking steamroller, man,” I tell Johnny.

He pushes his cup toward the woman and she refills it. “Yea yea, I’ve heard that one before. You want some eggs?”

I shake my head. “So did you talk to Rafi?” I ask. “What does he say?”

Johnny snorts and gazes past tinted windows and into the street beyond. “Get it through your head, hombre. No one talks to Rafi.”

“But you were gonna see him, yea?”

Johnny shakes his head. “Man, forget it. Just keep doing what you do. Rafi don’t care who or what you’re looking for. He plays one game only. Speaking of…”

I reach into my back pocket and pull out a brick-sized envelope. Johnny feels the weight, takes a smaller envelope from his jacket and slides it across the counter. From the shape and size I can tell it contains three bottles. I slide it back.

“I told you I can’t,” I say.

“I heard what you said. But you said it before.” He puts a twenty on the counter, stands and unzips his jacket. “And I don’t believe you.”

I take a deep breath and put my hand on the envelope. He claps a hand on my shoulder and leans down to whisper in my ear. “Besides hombre, we need you. Just one last time.”

I sit there unmoving until long after he’s gone.

Just one last time.

Then I’m out on the corner again, Cabrini and 187th, smoke seeping out from between my lips and swirling around my head. Eyes on the street where it disappears in the distance, waiting for the red Ford to pull around the corner like it did for the last time twelve long years ago. I watch through three cigarettes, amped up on cola. The buildings are bombed-out castles, shattered concrete and white brick, graffiti both faded and new. Occupied now by vermin and squatters, restored only to their 1% glory in dreams and in time-bumps. I slip my hand into my pocket and close it around the envelope. Three pill bottles.

Back home, the first thing I do is pull the blinds in the living room. Sunlight pours in, warming the mildewed furniture. I strip down to boxers and sit on the sofa. On the coffee table beneath crumpled hamburger wrappers, the journal waits, its pages filled with dates and bullet points. July 12, 2002, it reads at the top of the latest page. And “the last time” and nothing else. Several more journals lie on the bookshelf, identical entries too many to count.

Next to the journal, the new pill bottles are laid out before me. Forty discs per bottle. One hundred and twenty time-bumps. I stare at them thoughtfully, calculating the time it will take to turn the bottles into stacks of fives and tens. But the math makes my head hurt and I go to the medicine cabinet for relief.

Two aspirin, check. I reach for the bottle with six pills lying inside and bring it back with me. I place it next to the full bottles and regard them for a while. Then I’m slipping a disc onto my tongue. There will be time to hit the streets later. Right now all I want is him.

I sink into the Redo. Window down, one hand on the wheel, Cisco smiles and puts his hand on mine.

We’re only eleven years old the first time we get high. As the scene resolves, I can feel the swimming sensation in my head, the slowed-down feel of time passing us by. The giggling evoked by every word, every look.

We pass the joint tentatively, Johnny and Luis and Rafi and me, up in the Cellblocks. That was Johnny’s word for the apartment complex, cinder-block walls stacked high and spread with tiny windows sporting heavy iron bars. We didn’t know then what prison would look like, nor that we’d find out soon enough. All we knew was that Rafi’s place was fair game at any time of day. His mom was always out working some job. He never mentioned a dad and we never asked.

Francisco is seventeen years old, and he knows where to find me. I haven’t aged-out, so the calls from school haven’t stopped coming yet. This is the day he picks up the phone when the call comes in. He knows instantly where I am. I was too young to realize what would happen next, too foolish. How could I know he would find us like this?

I try to push myself out of the Redo. I try to bring on another memory. I try to toss the joint, to leave the apartment. I try to warn the boys what’s coming. I try for the life of me to change the past. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s possible. I can feel that I’m close.

But there’s a pounding on the door.

And then his voice. My throat constricts.

And then he’s inside and his eyes are wide with fury. Or is it fear?

He’s speaking, yelling, but I’m not hearing the words. My head is reeling with the mortal terror of my eleven years. And then he’s slapping me. Hard. Across the face and back again. The joint flies to god-knows-where. Johnny and Luis and Rafi have vanished. Francisco has my shirt balled up in one shaking fist.

This is the first time he ever hits me. And the last.

It knocks me right out of the Redo and into the moment. When I come to, a storm is raging and the windows still open. My face is wet with rainwater.

That spring morning of ’01 was the first time we got high, but it wasn’t the last. We fell into a routine in the next two years, and by the summer of ’06 we were slinging. I was a man now at sixteen and my one and only plan for September was to not go back to school. I’d be a junior with two more years ahead and prospects uncertain thereafter. There was never a good reason before and I knew it wouldn’t present itself now.

Johnny got us started on the Redo in June of that year. The pot was no longer enough, and the drink wasn’t good for anything but getting into fights. Johnny wanted something more important. Something with significance. But I knew then it wasn’t about the time-bumps, just as the pot had never been about getting high. They weren’t in it for the exploration. They were in it for the game. They were in it for the money.

When Johnny went to prison that first time, Rafi disappeared for two long years. He never visited once. Johnny was too laid-back to care. He lifted in the yard and played poker with the inmates. Said the place was a daycare center, only the nannies were your dealers and they didn’t give a damn what you did, as long as no one got hurt. He got hurt continuously those first three months. It’s normal, he’d tell me, black eyes and fat lips during visiting hours. Did you bring me anything? But the smile he gave me said he never expected I would. Take a break, he told me then, every time. Do something fun. See the world or get a nice girl. But I didn’t want a girl and I sure didn’t find much worth seeing out there.

I was a heavy user by the time they put him away. I wouldn’t bring dope to the prison, but I did anything I could to keep myself in the discs. That was when Luis got me into my routine. They say adulthood starts when you settle into that groove. When each day carries purpose, that significance that takes you to the end of your life. You find your calling; the future comes into focus. You make a plan and you take care of business.

I focused on Redo. And I took care of business, all right. Luis brought me into sales and when Rafi came back I was a street mule. Rafi was some big-time lieutenant to the “boys upstairs.” I couldn’t even see him if I wanted. Luis dropped off the package and I took it to the streets. I sold five bottles a week back then with a ten percent cut. I turned around and poured it into one more bottle. Forty flat discs and the black felt clock on the cap.

again-pull2That was when I settled into my routine, started the journals. It was an easy life and I wasn’t feeling the side effects back then. We were young and we were reckless. Who knew what it did in the long-term, going back to those places again and again? I didn’t care, I wasn’t thinking about the future. I was too focused on the past. July 12, 2002: that corner in CastleTown.

The last time.

Soon, one day becomes the next. The transitions smooth, today dissolves into tomorrow like a disc dissolving on the tongue.

I come up again and the sting of winter descends. Pellets of ice on my face, sliding into my jacket and melting on my neck. My hand in his, strong grip, supportive. Like you could feel the love contained therein. I look up to gaze at him. He is fully twice my size. That smile. That wink. “Come on, big man,” he says.

Neither of us are big but it doesn’t matter. He’s twelve but he looks like a man already. Distantly, I hear myself thinking: That’s how old you will be the last time you see him. But at twelve I was never a man. When were you ever?

He pulls me forward, gently. It’s the worst storm in years, they’re saying. Fur coats and shiny shoes pass here and there, white faces to match the whiteness in the air. And we the dark ones, our jackets too thin, our sneakers wet and frozen. Each building like a castle, with curious figures standing sentinel in windows eight and ten and fourteen stories high. I wanted to know which room the kings and queens slept in back then. And Francisco would laugh and point at various windows.

“Who else lives in a castle?” he asks, playing along. I’m too young to know where we are, to know that it’s a neighborhood on the other side of Broadway. To me it’s just CastleTown. That’s all it ever would be.

“Princes,” I tell him. “The Pope.”

He laughs again. It fills me with warmth. In twenty-four hours the water mains below the street will burst and destroy seventeen subterranean power converters. The Heights will go dark, the castles reduced to the same frigid, poorly lit homes of our neighborhood. But tonight all is twinkling and bright and beautiful.

The scene shifts. My head swims. When the picture resolves all is darkness and chaos. I feel my body rocking. I feel my mind reeling. The thoughts that form make no sense; I’m not thinking in words. I’m thinking in terror.

The bedroom door is shut but the light seeps in from the hallway, falls across the threadbare carpet, paints a line up over the tiny bed, over the animals arranged neatly along the headboard.

The floors rumble. Cisco is holding my four year old body, rocking me. The shouts and shrieks are muffled by his chest, his arms. He shushes me, whispering quietly. It’s okay, he’s saying over and over again. It’s okay.

I’m crying. The tears are wet on my face and his shirt. The voices get louder, the pounding harder. They’re upstairs now, in the hallway. My breath catches in my throat and I hear a thought forming. I’m saying no. No no no no no.

A door slams. The screams end. In the street a car peels away.

After a time Francisco lays me down and smooths the hair down on my head. Kisses me and tells me it’s okay now, it’s okay. Stay here and I’ll be right back. I grip his hand for a moment but then relax. Because I know he’ll be back. He’ll be right back.

Two doors open. Across the hall I hear him whispering. And as my breath slows, I hear her crying and sniffling. The last thing I recall is his arms wrapped around me, his breath on my neck.

My head begins to spin.

The water jugs on the balcony are empty and the sky is clear when I wake up. The evening storms come only sporadically as November draws to a close. I make a mental note to stock up on water. Then I think better of it and write it in crayon on the kitchen counter.

In the fridge are two liters of bottled rainwater, warm. I upend one to nearly empty, swallowing greedily, lean over the sink, pour the rest of the bottle over my head. The AC still works but without the coolant it only pushes around thick, moistened air. All the same, the sun pulls down the temperature as it drops below the horizon. Satisfied, I dress and slip a bottle with fifteen time-bumps into my pocket. Ambitious, but not impossible to unload in one trip.

I head South on Amsterdam and West along 181st. On the corner of Broadway, the theater advertises movies that are coming soon but will never arrive. Someone has pulled the block letters down so all that remains is the word “SOON” in thick black print. Ready when you are, I say to myself.

Across the street, McDonald’s is selling the cheapest burger in the six boroughs. The sun casts a pinkish hue against the line queuing up at the walk-thru window. Bums and well-to-dos stand together amicably enough. A man in black converse and a pin-stripe suit is telling a story of woe to whoever will listen. I keep walking.

CastleTown is still the best place to unload the discs, even after the market crash. Show me a man with something to lose, Luis always said, and I’ll show you a buyer. Why do you think they live in them castles? Why do you think they have all that stuff? It’s cause something’s missing, hermano.

I unload twelve bumps in four hours, sliding down Cabrini with my hands in my pockets, leaning into passersby and whispering, “You can do it again.” One of them calls the cops I guess, because Banks pulls up around one o’clock with his lights flashing. He takes me home and says he’ll look the other way, but this is the last time.

The last time, I think. Yea right it is.

And he’s doing me a favor getting rid of this shit. He fishes the pill bottle out of my pocket and gives it a shake. Frowns a little, like he’s disappointed. But in me or the take, I don’t really know.

Don’t let me catch you on the West Side again, he says. And he slinks off into the night, sans headlights, a white and blue shadow on wheels.

The last time I did a turn up-county, Banks was pushing papers and I was just some no-name kid from the barrio. He did my fingerprints and looked at me sideways, disapproving, telling me what the next twenty years of my life would be like.

“Sure, you’ll do a month in the county before they turn you loose. And then what? Next time you’re carrying weight and packing heat, and then you’ll do a decade in state prison.” He clapped his hands together one-two. “But more likely the deal goes sideways and we’re scraping you off the corner and into a body-bag.”

I laughed because I was seventeen and I knew it all. They wouldn’t keep me a week ’cause I was underage, and after all, I was only carrying a couple of discs. Back then, the boys in blue hardly knew what to make of Redo. Another designer party drug, they thought. Uppers or downers, it didn’t matter. It was all the same to them. Didn’t take long for half the force to get hooked.

I cleaned up my act; I took more precautions. I didn’t move as many discs, but back in those days the Heights were flooded anyway. It got so everyone you saw was either looking for a time-bump or carrying, and most of them were Rafi’s boys or would be soon. He had the Heights locked up in the first few years after Redo hit the streets.

Every once in a while you get a dope-fiend or a speed-freak. But that’s less and less frequent these days. And no one carries that stuff anymore, so they won’t be asking for long. Why bother with a simulated high when you could have a real one, guaranteed and straight from your own past?

Do it again, I whisper as I shuffle past bloodshot eyes and shaking hands. Fort Tryon’s gone to shit in the autumn storms, the torrents cutting dark rivulets into the mud and pushing rocks and leaves across every path and into every sewer grate. But it doesn’t hurt the market any and the park still crawls with hopeful slugs looking only to go back and do it again. There used to be a hopper named Frankie up here peddling Redo as bona fide time-travel. Don’t just do it again, he’d say. Go back and change everything.

One morning he was shot in broad daylight by a client looking for more than a flashback. I was a hundred yards away and it sounded like a firecracker going off. When you got there you could see Frankie face-up with one eye open, only half his face was gone with only the one eye remaining, a bloom of bright red blood painting the canvas of asphalt around his head.

“Go back and change that,” the guy kept saying. “Change that, motherfucker!”

It was Banks who came and put the guy in cuffs. These days, that’s what it takes to get sent upstate. They don’t have room anymore for small fries like me.

You didn’t wait long enough, is what I was thinking. You gotta try harder.

You hear the stories now and again. A guy from the Bronx said he saved his dog from running into the street and getting flattened by an ice-cream truck. The chimes started playing that ice-cream music and the dog set to whining, and then he was out the door and the poor guy didn’t even see him coming. Turned the truck over and spilled ice cream everywhere. The driver was fine; the dog was killed.

So this guy goes back ten times, twelve times, tries to get his hand on the dog’s collar. Finally manages to shout NO at just the right moment, and that’s what does it. By the time the dog is in the street, the truck is already gone. That night the dog shows up at his backdoor, just wagging his tail around and looking stupid and happy.

Or the time Rico down the block got stabbed at the gas station hold-up in ’04. He went in for a pack of gum and these guys came in and cleared out the register. Rico stood frozen, eyes wide, scared to death. Stop looking at me, this guy yelled, over and over, each time Rico goes back to do it again. But Rico stares terrified, so he sticks the knife in his chest, just misses the heart. Cuts through some muscle and into the lung. Rico is messed up for years, can barely move his arm after that.

Rico goes back for the hundredth time and musters up the energy, and when the guy starts yelling, he just closes his eyes. And that’s all it takes. When he came out of it, he said the pain was gone. Full rotation of the shoulder, didn’t hurt to breathe any more.

A lot of folks will tell you it’s bullshit, but I don’t know. The more I see, the more it starts to make sense.

When I wake in the morning, I can hear Paul’s generator running across the hall. There will be gas available down at the Sunoco on 184th, and the balcony cisterns are half-full. I put together enough water to trade for maybe a gallon of gas and stow the rest in the defunct refrigerator. There’s still time to lay in a store before the rains give out in December. Used to be you’d never see a thunderstorm in the city past August, but those were the days when September brought cool air and the trees started to turn. You might not remember those times if you didn’t go back to the old days so often.

My current journal tells of the old days in fifty or so pages of increasingly illegible handwriting. I turn to a fresh page and flex the fingers of my writing hand. I try to make a fist, massage my forearm. Grip the pen and put it to the page.

July 12: I write. The last time.

’01 in the Cellblocks: getting high.

Winter, ’96: Francisco in CastleTown.

1994: The big fight. Dad disappears for weeks.

The penmanship is sloppy and the shakes are getting worse, but I get the important pieces down. Beside the book is my one bottle, four discs remaining, the black clock inked on the grimy white cap.

I turn to the start of the book and push through it mechanically, looking at the headings as the pages flip.

July 12, 2002: On the corner. The hottest summer in the Heights. Rafi and the arcade. Francisco’s car on Cabrini. The last time you saw him.

Again and again. July 12, 2002. The occasional deviation.

November 29, 2001: They fight. Dad breaks all the dishes.

March 14, 1997: Birthday and circus. Francisco buys the bicycle.

And July 12: Hot summer. Francisco on the corner.

And July 12: The last time you saw him.

And: The last time with Cisco

The last time

the last time

last time

for pages and pages and pages.

Books of memories, you could say. But memories don’t change; they can’t change. This isn’t some photo book or home movie. It’s a lot bigger than that.

They say you don’t forget the important moments in life, and I think that’s true. The Redo doesn’t let you forget, and I think it has a plan. You don’t come up just anywhere. You come up where you’re meant to. You go back to the right places, you see things you might have missed the first time around. And you keep going back, well, that’s what makes you stronger. They say muscles have a memory, and that’s how you can’t unlearn riding a bike.

Well I think memory is a muscle, too. And the more you exercise it, the stronger you get. Strong enough to go back and do things right. Strong enough to change what needs changing.

When I come up on that afternoon in July, the sun is bright and the air heavy. The cool sting of cola blends with the aroma of exhaust and burning plastic. Rafi is there again, hitting me playfully, smiling that gap-toothed smile, filling my heart with joy. In my mind there is nothing but a blank slate of possibility. Anything could happen today. This could be the greatest day of my life.

We move into the street and head West into CastleTown. The buildings stand tall and firm. White faces in polished windows, white brick and oak doors with doormen to guard them. Dukes and princes, I hear myself saying, with a giggle. I’m old enough to know there’s no royalty here. There’s no royalty anywhere, not anymore.

The heat is stifling, but an energy courses through my limbs. We bound across 187th and onto Cabrini. Air still and street empty, but in the distance the sound of an engine revving.

This is it, I think. This is the last time you’re going to see him.

The thought echoes and recedes into the depths of my consciousness. The dusty red car appears, rounds the corner onto Cabrini.

He’s pulling up in front of us. The moment of truth.

When the window rolls down and my hands are on the hot metal of the doorframe, I take it all in. His eyes, shining, his hand, strong and gentle and warm as he lays it atop my own. The intensity of the sun as it spills through the windows, painting every surface with light. The car’s interior, tan leather rubbed raw with age and relics of fast food jaunts and soda cans lying here and there. A small plastic bottle tucked into the niche on the driver’s side door, orange and transparent and capped in white.

I capture it again. The moment stretches on for an eternity. I have all the time in the world to gather my strength, to tell him I love him. The well-chosen word here will change everything that follows. This was the last time, yes, but it doesn’t have to be. All I need to do…

He winks and draws back his hand. My stomach churns with love and anxiety. And the engine revs. As the image begins to fade, the vertigo returns.

We’re back here for a reason, of course. We’re meant to come back and change it all. We’ll see what we need to see. Say what needs saying. Some memories float to the surface no matter what you’re going for. Redo‘s like that, you know. It takes you back where you’re meant to be.

So I repeat it again because I know I’ll be back, and next time will be different. Next time will be right.

I’ll be back again, I’m saying. Head spinning, his car vanishing in the distance.

I’ll be back for you, Cisco. I’ll be back here again.

 

mike
Michael Ian Bell grew up in Northern New Jersey, where he currently teaches English and serves as the Director of Campus Life at an independent school.  In summer he co-directs a boys’ camp program in New Hampshire.  When the homework is done or the kids are all tucked away in their cabins, he spends the last hour of his day writing, (or at least, that’s the goal, isn’t it?).  His first published story appears right here, in Shimmer.
Return to Shimmer #24

2 thoughts on “You Can Do It Again, by Michael Ian Bell”

  1. Bravo! Michael Bell! Loved your story. Present tense adds so much tension and you know how to do it. After reading your bio, the influence of your background on the story is evident, and I think that gave your story depth.

  2. I enjoyed the story. I did feel like it was a touch too long. But overall it kept me reading and wondering if the addiction was all there was or if a time jump really would work. The emptiness we are left with is poignant and well done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

Powered by eShop v.6