“We rolled into [Oceana, West Virginia] just as the sun was going down … We noticed that a lot of people were hitchhiking and, being the poor decision-makers that we are, we decided to pick up a few. The first person we met told us about the dark underbelly of the town while he shot oxycontin into his hand, in front of us, within minutes of our meeting him. It was clear to me that what was going on wasn’t normal … A few months later, in April 2012, we went back for a visit and decided then to do a portrait of the area, its people, and the Oxycontin epidemic.” — Sean Dunne, director of Oxyana
Do you know what day it is today?
The man just got here and he wants to know what day it is. A day late and a dollar short? A cold day in hell? It is a timeless question—it suits the room. A white white room. White as a scream, floor to ceiling, bed to nightstand. Maybe it’s supposed to feel clean but in truth we’re locked in the circumference of a second.
Can you tell me your name?
When you say you, do you mean you? Or him? “You” is always other. Of course “him” is also other. Do you mean Ben? Benjamin?
Which do you prefer? Can I call you Ben? Do you know how you ended up with those bandages on your head, Ben?
Dr. Lambert wants to know about the hole. The black hole. If he stuck his finger in, surely Lambert could find a day in there. They shot him. Boy, they did. The boy did. Meant it too. Muzzle to the forehead. Point face, point blank, point of it all. Bullet in. Bullet out—now that was cheating. Shouldn’t be above ground. It’s not a trampoline down there. It’s hell. You get what you deserve. Don’tcha think?
Is that what you think?
Lambert is not the kind of doctor who puts Humpty back together. He’s the kind who roots around in your brains ’til they dribble out your mouth. The kind who traps with phony fool-blue eyes, then tries to muscle into the black hole. Go ahead, buddy. Nothing but tar in there.
Not many survive a gunshot to the head, Lambert says. What do you make of that?
Survive? Who survived? Just because you save the body doesn’t mean you save the man. Shell’s empty. The chicken’s gone.
Hm, Lambert says. So, I’m talking to a shell. Where is Ben?
Wandering in the desert.
And who am I talking to now?
He’s a crafty sonuvabitch. Give him that.
Why don’t you tell me how your body got here, and we’ll get to your self later.
Self. Is that like a soul? Joke’s on him. How does anyone get here? Let the black hole speak: Ben should’ve been with his wife and kid. But he killed them and they killed him right back. First off: He should have manned up and gone to work on his birthday.
Lambert’s got a face like a graveyard when he says, Why don’t we talk about that. You’re employed as a chauffeur, is that correct?
Correct. Ben was driver to the stars and the wish-they-were-stars. Made an extra buck where he could. Maggie cleaned apartments. Twelve bucks an hour. Oldsters mostly. The old ladies loved Maggie. They wanted to give her the world, but all they had was Medicare. So they tipped with pills instead. Old vials of Percocet, Xanax… Ben would sell them to the hungry selves in the back seats. Few bucks here and there. Enough to keep the lights on.
Let the black hole speak: Ben should’ve been with his wife and kid. But he killed them and they killed him right back. First off: He should have manned up and gone to work on his birthday.
Then Ben’s 35th rolled around. The limo service wouldn’t give him the night off so he called in sick. Ben and Maggie had a little birthday party in the living room. After the baby went to sleep. It’s hard to get a two-year-old to bed. They did it though, got him settled and closed the door. Put on a little music. Happy Birthday! Let’s get high! Couldn’t afford weed, so they popped some old lady’s Xanax. Poured a bit of wine. A perfect night, the way the breeze blew the curtains, the moon shone through the window. Ben and Maggie dancing. Just the two of them floating in the kitchen. And then suddenly the baby. Little Frankie climbing up the couch, standing on the windowsill with his hands against the moon. As if he would be taken up. It was a vision. Small hands on the window, pushing until it opened into the night, into the universe. Ashes ashes, we all fall down.
Happy Birthday, Ben. If he had any balls he’d have followed Frankie out the window. But no, not him. The baby broke and so did Ben and Maggie. No more Frankie. No more Maggie.
See, there’s Ben on a Saturday night all alone in a diner, mouth full of pancake and feeling sorry for himself. It’s actually Sunday morning, but nobody in here’s been to bed yet. If you look past Ben out the window, you can see his brother, Cola, coming up the sidewalk, skinny and pale under the streetlights. Cola shoulders his way through the diner’s front doors and stands there squinting under florescence. He sees Ben at the window seat, shakes his head, no, and heads to a seat farther in.
After a minute or so, Ben hears psst. He’s too tired for punk brother shit right now. Been driving all night. He looks out the window, watches a couple of the night’s last stragglers stumble against the dark windows of his curbside limo, and knock on the glass before they wander off. From over his shoulder, another psst. Ben!
He can feel Cola wiggling in his seat the way he did when they were kids. He pictures that diner off the highway. Twenty-five years ago. He was 10 and Cola six. The old man finished his second beer and had gone to take a leak when the waitress set their plates on the table. House rules: no eating without Dad. Dad took forever. Probably had a bottle in there, busy making his beers into boilermakers.
Cola got fizzy with waiting. Quit screwing around, Ben told him. But he didn’t make him stop. You could argue that Ben has always been an empty shell.
Tongue between his teeth, Cola picked up his plate of spaghetti and balanced it on the point of his knife. He gave the plate a spin and wound up with the whole writhing mess all over the table, the floor and himself.
The old man hauled Ben outside. “That’s my money he was dumping on the floor! Little shit-for-brains—you just sit there?” Slap in the mouth. No saving face. The face is the first to know.
A whistle shoots from the space between Cola’s front teeth. He coaxes Ben with a jerk of his head. A waitress pauses to fill Cola’s cup. Ben watches the jut of her hip. She’s young enough that even stiff brown polyester looks half decent. She’s lurking for an excuse to push that flop of hair out of Cola’s eyes, take him home and keep him for a pet. Forget it girlie, Cola’s too busy trying to spin plates.
Ben wipes his mouth, picks up his jacket and schleps to his brother’s booth. “Why’d you sit at a window?” Cola says. “I can’t be all exposed like that.”
“Exposed? Who’re you, Al Capone?” Ben takes a seat. “You must owe someone a real chunk of change this time.”
“I’ll pay ‘em back next week.” He sets his tongue between his teeth as he dumps sugar into his coffee.
Ben shrugs. “Tell them to get in line.”
“It’s no joke. Dudes were waiting outside my place last night. Had to stay at Vera’s. Man, you still not sleeping? You look like shit, brother.”
“How much are you into them for?”
“It was a sure thing.” His voice quiets. “Oxycontin. Buddy had a shitload of it.” Off Ben’s confused face, he murmurs, “It’s like morphine.”
“I know what it is.” Ben blinks, waiting.
“You see that movie, Oxyana? I never watch documentaries, but it’s about this town across the border in West Virginia. All anyone does there is score dope. So, check this: buddy sells to me for 10 bucks a tab, I go down to Oxyana and move it at 50, 60 a tab. I’d be sitting on 40 grand now.” His eyes flit across the restaurant. “I borrowed the money, and fronted the guy eight grand. Now I can’t find him.”
“For how long?”
“Two weeks. Maybe he got busted. S’okay, I got another plan.”
“To prey on a bunch of addicts?”
Cola laughs. “Hypocrite. Just ‘cause you never had the balls to think big.”
Ben nods at the table. “Who’s the asshole?” he mutters. “Barely pay my rent. Can’t look after Maggie.”
“Maggie? Why you gotta look after her? Not like she needs—.” Cola stops. He looks at Ben. “I mean, she’s alone. It’s not like—.”
“I gotta go.” Ben’s jaws work as he pulls out his wallet. He slides out a 10-dollar-bill. “Oh wait, you’re broke, right?” Cola is silent. Ben chucks a twenty on the table.
“Come on, don’t get all pissed. I got a plan. This time next week, we’ll be cool.”
“I got to get the car back.” Ben stands.
“All right. Get some sleep, man. Seriously.”
Ben heads for the door.
“I’ll call you,” Cola shouts after him. “If you talk to Maggie, say hi.”
Lambert is back again. Why don’t we pick up where we left off yesterday, he says.
Used to be an old Jamaican lady who ran the corner store. She’d say, A thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday—already past—like a watch in the night. The old man would bitch all the way home, Christ, I aged about fifty just waitin’ for my change.
What do you think that means, a watch in the night? A watch in the night is like a thousand years in Ben’s soul. Like a thousand white rooms. A thousand bullets to the brain.
See, there’s Ben on a Saturday night all alone in a diner, mouth full of pancake and feeling sorry for himself. It’s actually Sunday morning, but nobody in here’s been to bed yet.
Pick up where we left off: Cola’s big mouth, that’s where. Ben gets a call from him late Tuesday afternoon. He wants to meet Ben at the old diner off the highway. Same place Cola tried to spin plates. Cola and his diners. It’s deserted now. Nothing but chipped wood and peeling ghosts. Ben pulls up in front of the diner in a pink super-stretch.
Cola can’t take his eyes off the limo. He’s jittery, laughing like a tommy gun. “Ha ha. Pepto-Bismol on wheels.”
“Had an airport run for Mary K Cosmetics,” Ben says. “They’ve got a thing for pink.”
“Ha ha. Barbie’s Dream Car.”
Ben faces the diner, the burnt out sign. Can feel that smack in the mouth all over again. “Get to the point, Cola.”
Cola blinks. “I went by my place this afternoon. Those dudes were gone. Door was open and my place was trashed. I don’t know if it was them or Vera. My pillows, my mattress was all hacked open with a butcher knife. Knife was stuck in the floor!”
“Why would Vera do that?”
Cola opens the trunk. Inside are two cardboard boxes. The shipping bills say, Creature Care Clinic. Cola’s new girlfriend, Vera, is a veterinary technician.
Last night, he explains, Vera had to hang around waiting for the courier to drop meds. Vera’s clinic is central to a chain of animal hospitals, the clinic from which all is distributed.
Cola reaches into a box and pulls out a small vial of powder with a yellow label. Telezol. “It’s a pain killer,” he says. “And a sedative. It’s sweet. You talk to God with this shit. You dream and wake up feeling like truth. Me and Vera did a couple caps of it each. We fell asleep and I woke up first. That’s when it hit me. Who needs Oxycontin?” Cola looks at his buzzing cell. “She is pissed, man.” He checks his voicemail and holds the phone to his brother’s ear.
Vera screams an incredulous, “You stole my fucking keys? You stole my fucking car?” Vera is being investigated. They don’t believe her keys were stolen. Vera is going to cut off Cola’s balls with a rusty knife.
Ben waves the phone away. “They can track you through your cell, you know.”
Cola’s eyes bug. He pelts the phone to the ground and stomps it.
Ben looks at the mangled cell. “You stole your girlfriend’s keys, stole her car, went to her workplace and stole pharmaceuticals. After you took dog dope that made you feel like truth.”
“Don’t make it sound all shitty. I gotta get her car back. Can you keep the boxes for me?”
“No.” Ben walks back to the car.
Cola chases. “Please. I didn’t come to your place. I’m not a total fuck up.”
Ben opens the driver’s door. “Put it in a locker somewhere.”
Cola grabs his brother’s arm. “Just ’til I get a buyer. There’s 20 grand here, easy. I’ll split it with you.”
“I can’t go home.” Cola’s eyes are welling up. His hair is flopping in his face. “What if those dudes are there? What if cops are watching? Ben. Please. You’re my brother.”
So, there’s Ben in his crummy basement suite staring at TV, feet resting on a box of dog dope. He surfs from channel to channel and sips a bottle of Bud. It’s midnight and half the channels are playing infomercials. Girls in bikinis: Call me! He turns the TV off.
Silence. It crawls into his ears and slithers down the back of his neck. He turns the TV back on. If he could just sleep. Sweet luscious sleep. He thinks of Maggie napping in the day with Frankie. Ben picks up his cell phone and hovers his thumb over the keypad. Don’t do it. She doesn’t want to talk to you. He opens the photo stream to an image of Maggie with Frankie on her lap. He looks at Frankie’s small damp hands on either side of her face. Ben stares so long, he can feel hands on his own face. This will not bring sleep.
They don’t believe her keys were stolen. Vera is going to cut off Cola’s balls with a rusty knife.
The phone buzzes. Caller ID reads: Pay Phone. Ben answers. “Where are you?”
“Listen, don’t be pissed with me. It was in the lock-up at the vet’s. I don’t know why I took it. I don’t even know how to shoot one.”
Ben looks at the box. “Cola! You better get this shit out of my place.”
“I will. Hey, if you can’t sleep, I made some capsules. I’ll call you.” And he’s gone.
Chucking the phone on the couch, Ben pulls open the nearest box: row upon row of vials. Tossed on top is a clear bag with a label that reads “1000 ’00’ Gelatin Capsules.” Beside it is a flimsy sandwich bag with about 20 filled ones. And then, wedged into the side, he sees the black butt. He eases the gun from its hiding place. It’s a revolver, Smith & Wesson printed down one side of the barrel, .22 L.R. down the other. He opens the cylinder. Brass bullets in all eight chambers. Closing the gun, he sets it back in the box, and lugs both to the closet.
He lies on the couch, pulls a cushion behind his head and stares at the ceiling. He thinks of the landlord up there with his neat little family. Never hear a raised voice, never a coarse word. They must sleep. Long fearless sleeps. He closes his eyes and sees Cola in front of the old diner. It’s a painkiller. And a sedative. Sweet.
Twenty minutes go by. Thirty. He rolls toward the TV, opens his eyes.
He gets up, goes to the closet, and plucks out the sandwich bag.
Back on the couch, he takes out one of the filled capsules, lets it roll down his palm. We fell asleep. He rests the capsule against his lips a moment and then sips it onto his tongue. He sips his beer, lies back, closes his eyes and waits for sleep.
Half an hour later, his eyes snap open. Cola said they took a couple each. Ben must have 50 pounds on Vera. He opens the bag and takes out two more, swallows them, one at a time with a slug of beer.
A minute passes, an hour? Soon Ben is sleeping in a meadow. Prisms of sunlight, warm earth. Sweet. Just like the man said. He turns his head and sees Frankie running in the grass. Squealing with laughter, his son tumbles into his side. He climbs onto Ben’s chest and takes his face in his hands. Ben closes his eyes, inhales Frankie’s applesauce breath. The damp hands leave his face and Frankie says, “Don’t be pissed off at me. It was in the lock-up at the vet’s.” Ben’s eyes open to the barrel of a Smith and Wesson, Frankie’s hands wrapped around the gun. The barrel jiggles when his son laughs. “Ha ha. Barbie’s Dream Car.” Ben slowly brings his hands up. Frankie squeezes the trigger and the sky explodes into darkness.
Ben wakes. He is in his basement suite. He turns his head. Beside him is a naked man crouched on the coffee table, knees up like a gargoyle. The man smiles. As Ben’s eyes adjust it’s clear who the man is. “If you’re me, then who am I?”
The other Ben giggles and disintegrates into specks of darkness.
Ben sits up. The TV is off, but he can hear kid’s music. Xylophones. He feels the weight of another body behind him. Hands land on either shoulder, hot stinking breath against his ear. Words vibrate through his bones: “You never existed in the first place.”
A minute passes, an hour? Soon Ben is sleeping in a meadow. Prisms of sunlight, warm earth. Sweet. Just like the man said.
Ben throws an elbow back, hears the smash. Heart pounding, he stands and looks at the lamp on the floor. The ceramic body is a doll’s now, blood leaking from its cracked skull. The eyes are lit from within. He kneels down and the rancid breath is in his ear again: “Easy, Killer.” He jerks upright, but the words pull him inside-out until he is standing inside his own skull, his own private hell. Clothes melt against his skin. He pulls off his shirt and flesh peels with it. “Get out of my head!” And just like that, he is sucked back through his own eye sockets, the eyes of the planet, the eyes of God. Falling through the air in a rush of embryonic sludge, he lands with a squelch on his couch.
Ben sits up, panting. Hand on his face, he rubs himself awake, turns his head to see himself perched, naked at the end of the couch. “You’re not real,” Ben says.
“No, you’re not real.” A hand shoots out, takes Ben by the ankle, and yanks him down the hall to the woods. The hand on his ankle is a small child’s now and the boy drags him like a stuffed bear up the side of a hill, his flesh snagging on rock and broken branches. At the top, the boy stands at the edge of the cliff and gazes out to the stars. “Now, you go,” he says. Ben looks out to the moon, down to the infinite darkness and sobs as he steps off. Falling and falling, he shrieks in terror but no sound comes.
He bolts upright on the couch, tears streaming.
Beside him, naked Ben reaches to the coffee table and slides the gun closer.
The light of the television shimmers off the stainless steel barrel. Ben picks up the revolver, puts the muzzle flush to his forehead, and whispers, “Please, wake up, please wake up.”
An explosion sends him somersaulting through space, through time and drops him in the desert. He watches as the other Ben salutes him and walks toward the sun. In the hot glare he picks up his cell phone and dials Maggie.
Do you know why you’re here?
That’s Lambert: All question, no answer. We’re here because we’re here. Hear hear. The buck stops here.
Seems that way, doesn’t it. He takes one of his slow epic breaths. Like he’s got all the time in the world. Where is Ben now?
Ben is lurking in the back of a skull, scuttling from shadow to shadow, his head ducked, begging to come home.
Lambert nods. So, we’re all here together. The creases around his eyes deepen slightly. Do you wish that bullet had done the job?
If Ben was trying to do a job, he did a piss-poor one. He didn’t plan to do a job.
Nobody shoots himself in the head by mistake. You tried to kill yourself.
Nobody tried to kill anybody. Clearly, Dr. Lambert, you are out of your depth. You are lost in the white, white world of—
You shot yourself in the head, Ben.
Yes. No, I—. The word “I” feels like an electric chair. He didn’t want to die. He wanted to wake up. I—It echoes. Like an onus, an accusation.
Just to wake up. To get the hell out of hell. Nobody’s got a chance in hell.
Lambert sits forward a little. You’re here, he says. He watches, searching and his eyes are steady. They’re not fool-blue. They’re faith blue. Mercy blue.
I’m glad you’re alive, Ben.
At that moment, Lambert’s voice is as gentle as peace, and its tone vibrates in my guts until a howl erupts and the white room shudders with the force of my sobs.
*This story inspired a new novel, Fugitives from Mercy, to be published in 2015.