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Rae Meadows

Run for the Roses

What are you wearing?

I scratch the dried egg yolk on my sweatpants with my broken thumbnail, trying to remember the last time I ate an egg. I donít even like eggs, let alone runny ones. An occasional McMuffin is good, I guess.

Nothing but fur.

Larry doesnít like for us to put our feet up on the desk out of some strange sense of Pink Door office propriety, but I do anyway, one on either side of the monitor. Three callers on deck. We keep notes on callers to know what they like, to keep them on longer. Letís remember, girls, we all get paid for the minutes, Larry says.

Anything under that fur?

Janet picks up Mr. Swan, the caller waiting the longest. I had him on Tuesday. Belligerent at the onset, likes to talk about trains, sometimes cries. He didnít cry with me. I kept him on for a record fifteen minutes. Heís usually finished in four. When someone calls in and heís a regular, the notes come up next to his phone number as do his cumulative minutes. The guy I have on is up to four hundred thirty-seven minutes and counting.

Leopard silk panties.

Janet sits in front of the window because sheís been here for nine months. I only have three weeks and sit close to the door, facing the mauve painted cinder block wall. Whenever Larry comes in to check on the running minute tally, he inevitably hits my chair with the door. On the wall over my head hangs a print of two huge pears. Iím not sure what thatís supposed to mean.

I adjust my headset. Itís starting to give me a rash around my ear. My skin is extra sensitive these days. Next to my callerís name I type "youngish, likes white girls, fur, and cameras." Our keyboards are outfitted with special silencers so callers wonít hear us taking notes on them.

Where do you think I am, baby?

The scabs on the backs of my hands itch something awful. I pick at the edges. The left one is shaped like Lake Superior. Four weeks off meth is some kind of record for me.

On the bed?

On the kitchen table, smooth and cold against my thighs.

I would like to lay on the floor beneath you. On the black and white tiled floor.

I told J. T., heís my counselor at Walden, that I got a job telemarketing for ARC, the Association for Retarded Children. That quieted him. I have to see him once a week for a half hour so he can monitor my progress. He has buckteeth and dips and has no qualms about spitting during our meetings. He spits into a Coke can with the top cut off. Once I counted. Twenty-three times in one session.

What will you do to me?

You tell me.

 

 

In the half-pie glass above Waldenís front door are etched the words "Live Deliberately." It took me two weeks to notice them then another week to see the plaque ascribing the words to Henry David Thoreau. No matter what they say in here, Iíve always lived that way. Thatís why I left Louisville then Billings then Modesto then Billy Cruz, even with that movie star name.

From the outside, this place looks like a ramshackle Victorian (peeling peach paint, blue trim), which is nice for visitors. Not that I get any. Most people on the block donít even know thereís a halfway house in their midst. I passed this place a hundred times and never knew.

Whereíve you been all day?

Thatís Bo, short for Bojangles. He knows how to tap-dance. Another speed freak I knew from before. Bo ended up here before I did and claims to have found God, but I think itís just that heís sleeping with Mary.

Walking the straight and narrow.

We tried to do it once in the old life, but Bo couldnít get it up. That happens with meth. Mary (ex-heroin addict, ex-prostitute) looks fifty but sheís probably only thirty and she keeps away from me. She has that darting thing in her eyes that makes me wary. Like she might jump on me or burst out laughing or something. Sex is officially against the Walden House rules.

You missed group. J. T. was a little p.o.íd.

Shit. I forgot to tell him I was working.

Emberlina, youíve got to take this stuff serious if you ever want to get out of here.

My nameís really Ember Lee, named after my dad. Well, the Lee part anyway. But most people think the Lee is attached to Ember like Kimberly or Charlie or something. Lee still lives in Louisville as far as I know. He paints signs.

I know. I know. If you see him tell him Iím back, will you?

Sure, baby.

Bo makes me nervous when he says "baby." It slides off his tongue without really ending. I think he likes to imagine he could get to me if he wanted. That he could lure. But I think this clean thing is forever this time. They tell us we canít think that way, that we can only kick it one day at a time. They can say what they like.

My mail slot is empty save a menu for the Star of India, "hottest curry this side of Bombay." I suppose itís because I have no clean friends that I donít get letters or phone calls. Iím starting to like people, though, like Janet at the Pink Door. In my interview, Larry made sure to point out that the Pink Door is like a play on the Green Door, you know, like from Behind the Green Door. I laughed and got the job. Janet is a mother of twin six-year-olds, girls, and lives in Belmont, one of those nice towns on the train line with a family-owned bakery that still sells doughnuts and coffee in Styrofoam cups with no to-go lids. Sometimes when we have the same shift, Janet and I go out into the alley and smoke Merits and she tells me about her kids and her dick of an ex-husband. She doesnít know I live at Walden House.

 

 

My other job three mornings a week is behind the counter at Royal Grounds. Itís not so bad except that itís through a community outreach program for recovering addicts so Jan (the owner, liberal ex-hippie) thinks heís giving me a big break by letting me work at his establishment. He has this intolerably condescending smile, not to mention he likes to pat me on the ass.

Today I feel quite good after my third cup of coffee. Addicts love coffee. Janís kid broke his arm Rollerblading so he wonít be here today. A guy comes in talking on his cell phone (double non-fat latte, V-neck sweater) and I tell him our milk steamer is broken just to piss him off. He squints his eyes at me, still on the little phone, and I just shrug and smile. He leaves and Sally, another girl from Walden who works here, laughs and makes herself a steamed milk and honey. And then I remember itís Wednesday, which is the day the cute guy with the crooked nose and wide forehead and the black lab comes in for a sesame bagel and coffee, black. Thank God I wore Billy Cruzís sweater with the extra long sleeves I can pull down over my scabs. I slip my fingers through the holes of the stretched-out knit like fingerless gloves.

Ember Lee, how much longer for you? Sallyís young. Her parents thought a group home would scare her straight. She shaved her head the first night and now itís growing back in patches.

Depends, you know? It could be only five more months if I behave myself.

Mary says if you blow J. T., he gives you good reports.

I laughed.

Donít listen to Mary. Sheís crazy, I think.

How come tweakers get those sores?

Hell if I know. Probably the Drano the junkís cut with. Seeps up through your veins.

God I miss it.

Mr. Wednesday Morning ties up his dog on the lamppost and comes in. When he is close enough that I can smell the laundry soap on his green flannel shirt he smiles and says good morning ladies and asks for coffee, black. Iím a sucker for charmers. I suppose that comes from growing up with Lee. No matter how messed up or in trouble he was, with a smile, he always had a lady friend to take dancing. This guy has that special something in his one-sided smile. Just like Lee and just like Billy Cruz.

I say, And a sesame bagel?

Iím that predictable? Again the smile.

Just consistent. Itís good to be consistent.

Fair enough.

I grab a bagel from the basket and slide it to him in a paper bag, and Sally pours his coffee.

Two-fifty.

He pulls four bills from his pocket and puts one in our tip jar that Sally has decorated with paper sunflowers. On his way out he turns back around and lifts his coffee in our direction like some kind of salute.

Today when I was waiting for the bus and the bells of St. Andrewís chimed eight-thirty, I smelled spring. I havenít noticed the smell of things for a long time. The thing I remember most about Louisville is hot summer and the smell of grass. In the morning the green green grass sparkles with dew before the day turns hot as balls. Lee was never one to miss Derby Day (mint juleps, big bets). Dust on sweaty glasses. Dust between my toes. The year Genuine Risk won, one of only three fillies in the history of the Kentucky Derby to win, Lee was dating this woman named Delilah who had long pointy fingernails painted the color of flesh. From far away they looked like extensions of her fingers. Delilah taught me how to French-inhale while we waited in line at the port-o-potties in the Churchill Downs parking lot.

 

 

I bet you got big round ones that I could press my face between.

Janet holds two fingers to her mouth signaling a cigarette break. I nod. Iím using my Southern accent with the caller. He sounds fifteen at the most.

Why, I sure do. What else would you like to do to me, baby?

Suck on your toes. You donít think Iím weird, do you?

No, sweetheart. I would like that very much. Let me just take off my clothes so we can all be a little more comfortable. I put my sneakered feet up and bite my thumbnail.

The kid isnít going to last long, Iíll be lucky to keep him on for five minutes. Larry comes in and hits my chair with the door, pointing to my feet to remove them from the desk. He wears a blue suit with a sheen. It rustles when he walks.

Youíre looking sharp today, Lar. New suit? Janet gets away with mocking Larry because he thinks himself rather suave and sheís been here the longest.

Will you rub it with lotion?

Oh, baby. Youíre so hard in my hand. There is a gasp on the other end, then a whimper and then a dial tone. I type in "preemie, quick shooter, standard fare."

Larry says, Jesus, Kimberly. Three minutes? Thatís bullshit. He leans his coiffed head over my shoulder.

Itís Ember Lee.

What?

My name. Ember Lee, not Kimberly. And he was just a kid.

Well, whatever. But you better watch your minutes. Larry pulls down each sleeve of his blazer and shrugs his shoulders before exiting. Janet flips him off from across the room.

 

 

TV is another thing addicts love. The TV at Walden is always on even if no oneís watching. Itís comforting. Most here go to their rooms after dinner to collect and reflect, as they say. After a cigarette on the stoop, I come to the lounge usually. My room is the one place that makes me feel lonely. The weird new guy with a squinting tic is watching CNN. I sit with my back to the TV and leaf through a three-year-old dog-eared Cosmopolitan (Cindy Crawford, white Lycra) but donít read it. My forearms are nothing more than skin over bone, and I am agitated and annoyed and vaguely nauseated. If someone offered me speed just now, I would take it in a second. I close my eyes and think of needles.

Emberlina. Hey girl. Itís black-eyed Bo.

Bo.

I saw Tubbs today when I was waiting for the bus. Tubbs was our dealer. Heís called Tubbs because he wears loafers without socks like in Miami Vice. I ran with him for about a month before getting busted.

So? We all live in the same city. But Bo knows I am piqued. He probably saw my back straighten at the mention.

He asked about you. He said, Howís my Ember?

What you tell him? I flip another magazine page.

Nothing. Bo sucks his teeth and taps a light shuffle ball change on the scuffed hardwood floor.

What, Bo. What?

Just wanted to see if you wanted to join the game tonight. Five card stud. Suicide kings and one-eyed jacks wild.

Weíre good at bluffing here, though the bets are mild (cigarettes, nickels).

Yeah. Sure.

Thatís the spirit, Em.

Heís not allowed to call me that.

I met Billy Cruz at fifteen and I was over the moon for him in about a week. He had a way of heating me up with his eyes. He worked with Lee at the sign company, and Lee thought he was sort of a punk. I cut school to watch him from across Vine as he painted a giant Oldsmobile sign on the brick wall of Johnsonís Used Cars. His arms were brown and sinewy, stretched out holding a paint roller. Against the white paint, his body like the hands of a clock. Iíll admit it. I fell in love with his name. It meant things. It said I donít take any shit. It said Iím better than Kentucky.

J. T. tells me I have abandonment issues, but I donít know how that could be the case when Iím the one who leaves. I asked him if he thought I had a chance once I leave Walden, when left to my own devices. He spit that gross brown juice and said I had nothing to worry about. Obviously heís never tried meth. I think about Janet (permed hair, acrylic nails) eating dinner with her twin girls at a table with matching chairs. Iím not really jealous, but I donít think that can ever be me and once I thought it could. Somewhere along the line, I shed everything I thought I knew.

A year after I left Billy Cruz, I was caught selling a fair amount of meth to an undercover cop. Since it was my first offense I was sentenced to mandatory detox and six months in a halfway house. My room has a single bed and some bookshelves and a window. I donít have any books. On the top shelf I keep a picture of Lee at the Kentucky Derby in 1973, the year Secretariat won the Triple Crown. Now thereís a horse that lived deliberately. I also keep a small crystal bird that Lee gave me on my tenth birthday. I canít believe its beak is still not broken. Lee never treated me like a daughter except when he gave me that damn bird.

Deal, Bo. He winks at me and deals.

 

 

Wednesday finally comes around again. Sally and I are on cup number three at Royal Grounds and the early crowd has cleared out. Jan (bandanna, Birkenstocks) was in early to drop off our measly paychecks but left to attend some "Save the Redwoods" rally across the bridge. Sally says sheís thinking about running. I say I canít blame her. She makes me think about it, too. Lee said we have some Romanian blood in us which I guess is why I like to imagine I have gypsy leanings. I still feel bad about leaving Lee. The day I rolled out of Louisville with Billy Cruz, Lee sat on the moldy couch on the leaning front porch and shook his head. He never said "donít go," because Lee and I are from the same stock and he knew why I had to. He waved but couldnít watch. He stared at the tips of his boots.

Coffee, black. Itís Mr. Wednesday Morning. Iím glad I borrowed Maryís mascara today. I like her better now that sheís not doing Bo anymore. We smoke together after dinner, and she tells me about her son.

Let me guess. Sesame bagel. There goes that smile. He smells fresh like grass.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. I think Emerson said that.

Youíre asking the wrong girl.

I didnít ask anything.

Then Sally comes and sets his coffee on the counter and says, Should I leave you two alone? I get all embarrassed and feel the blush spread across my neck. Thatís one thing that never happened on speed. I was never embarrassed even when I should have been.

Two-fifty, if you couldnít have guessed.

You remind me of my girlfriend.

Damn you, Mr. Wednesday Morning. Whyíd you have to ruin it? People donít get that illusions are good sometimes. J. T. says thatís the problem with me and meth. I liked myself when I was high. I liked its lie. Well, itís true, I suppose. Anyone could tell you that.

He gives that salute wave with his coffee cup and goes out to untie his dog. I never ask his name. I pick a crusty scab (Lake Superior, shrinking) and let it bleed. Sally says she and her boyfriend are going to go to Wyoming or Montana where no one will think to look for her.

Weíll get a little house, she says, and maybe have a baby.

Oh Sally, I say. Donít count too much on things.

She asks, Youíll visit us, wonít you? When you get out. And I say that I will. I wonít stay here, thatís for damn sure.

When my shift ends I donít want to go back to Walden since the sun is out and the wind is low and I know my mail slot is empty anyway. I have to be at the Pink Door by five, which leaves two hours before I have to catch the bus, so I walk down to the park. We used to come here sometimes to score, which makes me a little nervous, but today I see only kids and runners. Besides, the day is downright beautiful. I breathe it all in. The sun is insistent, and I take off my shirt (new bra, no one near) and lie like Iím making a snow angel in the grass. Sally doesnít realize sheís lucky to have someone to look for her if she runs. I let the sun burn it all away.

 

 

Youíre just a little bitch. Lucky me got Mr. Swan as my first caller. Iím mad at Janet for not taking him and going to the next guy, Terrance, whoís always so mild-mannered and gentlemanly. Itís rude to go out of order.

Well, my dear. What have I done? I think the British accent might soothe him.

Youíre all bitches. Every one of you. All you do is take take take.

I only want you.

Whore. This would be a whole lot easier juiced up.

I want to be with you on a train.

What kind of train?

The kind that races through tunnels like a bullet. The kind with private sleeper cars.

Thatís the kind I always wanted to ride in. I took a train once with Lee, when I was a girl. We took Amtrak up to Baltimore for his motherís funeral, and I was so excited. I never met my grandmother so it wasnít like I was sad and Lee couldnít leave me alone in Louisville. He let me hold the tickets (second class, round-trip) and he carried my miniature suitcase. But the train was seedy and smelled foul, a mixture of smoke and urine from the stopped up-bathroom at the back of the car, and it was stuffy hot. The conductor never even came around to punch the tickets. It was a smoking car so Lee did, one after another. He also nipped from the flask he kept in the inside pocket of his blazer which Iíd only seen him wear once before to my cousinís ill-fated wedding. It was faded black and frayed along the edges of its lapels. He let me have the window seat but every time I pointed something out to him, a billboard, a field, a city, Lee sighed and closed his eyes. All the way to the crumbling brick of Baltimore. That was the first time I left Louisville.

You keep pinching me, real hard, all over.

I say when, you bad, bad boy.

Please. His voice trembling and small.

Donít you get that I donít give a shit?

Larry flirts with Janet over by the window. She punctuates her words by tapping his chest with her French-manicured fingernail. Doesnít she see there are two callers on deck? Donít they care that I have a lonely old man crying on the other end of the phone? An overwhelming sense of vertigo makes me grab onto the edge of the desk with my fingers. The giant pears loom above my head.

I only ever loved her, you know. Only her all these years.

I know, baby, I know.

Mr. Swan has already hung up.

I yank off my headset and rub my face in my hands.

Larry says, Kimberly. No rest for the wicked.

Itís Ember Lee, Larry. Ember Lee. But he has turned back to Janet.

 

 

In group tonight, there were two new arrivals who closed the circle. I sat Indian-style, my bony ass hard against the plastic chair, and smoked my Merit Lights. I switched to Lights this week. Bo, Mary, and I are the old guard already. We sat next to each other and cracked an occasional whispered joke. What else can we do? Bo still acts like a big shot but heís no different from the rest of us. J. T. tried his best to be earnest and keep the conversation flowing, but I kept thinking about what Sally said about him and then Iíd start to laugh. Little Sally ran off like she said she would. I wonder if sheíll send a postcard.

I finally saw Tubbs. He slipped into Royal Grounds a few days ago. Luckily my scabs had healed and there was a counter between us so I wasnít as scared as I thought Iíd be. He tried to lock eyes. He asked me if I missed him. He asked if he could visit me and I said no. He spun a small Baggie of junk between his fingers and said, Ember, itís all for you. I still wanted it so bad. I felt my stomach tingle. But then Mr. Wednesday Morning came in and the Baggie and Tubbs slipped quickly away.

Tonight after group I decided I would write a letter to Lee. I donít even know who won the Derby these years. Iím sure he went faithfully each year, though. Howís the sign business, Iíll ask. Howís good old Louisville? Iíll say Iím doing just fine. But then Iíll say I donít know what to do when I get out of here. And then just maybe heíll say youíre Ember Lee, named after your dear old daddy. Thereís room for you back here in Kentucky.

 

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