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
Shit. I forgot to tell him I was
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
I know. I know. If you see him
tell him Iím back, will you?
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
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.
Donít listen to Mary. Sheís
crazy, I think.
How come tweakers get those
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
Just consistent. Itís good to
I grab a bagel from the basket
and slide it to him in a paper bag, and Sally pours his coffee.
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.
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.
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
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
What you tell him?
I flip another magazine page.
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).
Thatís the spirit, Em.
Heís not allowed to call me
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
would be a whole lot easier juiced up.
I want to be with you on a
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
You keep pinching me, real
hard, all over.
I say when, you bad, bad boy.
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.