Excerpt from Purgatory – Ian Townsend

The skeleton man left the shrink’s office and lit his last cigarette before heading toward Laz’s flat. The city was hot, and he felt uncomfortable downtown. Businesses operated and turned a profit over here, and people owned things. They had plans for the future and paid taxes to ensure their civic safety, all of which were foreign concepts to him. It was time to get back to where he belonged. The appointment had been unsuccessful, and he still did not know when or why he had booked it. Why would I willingly subject myself to such cerebral domination, with so little to gain? It must have been on a night when his hallucinations carried out tasks on his behalf, unconsented to by him. Luckily, his resilience had allowed him to slip through the appointment without divulging any information that could be traced back to Dr. Cooper or used against him by the WASP. 

When he woke on Monday morning, he had seen the appointment written on a dirty napkin stuck to his fridge with a magnet that read “Texas Is Bigger Than Everything.” Half the reason he went at all was because he thought Dr. Whyte might understand why he was there. The other half had to do with his file at the WASP. He knew that if he failed to attend a psychoanalytic appointment he’d booked, his monthly salary could be reduced or taken away completely. Like I’m gonna let those fuckers take my money… Walking away from the office and towards East Purgatory, he had already committed to contacting Dr. Cooper for a secret session if he could find out how to do so. 

The start of summer had retarded the city’s activity. A stifling heat was trapped between the tenements. The usual cooling sea breeze had come to a halt, causing the smoke from the industrial park to billow over East Purgatory like a poisonous, sulfur-stinking cloud. The skeleton man’s memory was jogged by the sight of two kids playing Wiffle ball on an unkempt gravel diamond enclosed by abandoned textile factories at the corner of Grafton and 66th Street. It was the same diamond where he had hit his first homerun at the age of thirteen and where, three years later, he and Laz smoked heroin for the first time. 

Despite being a couple of years younger than Laz, the skeleton man had surpassed him in maturity well before they started smoking heroin and using prescription pills. While Laz did not lose his virginity until his early twenties, and even then, only with a drugged-out prostitute, the skeleton man had been a hound. Charming girls older and younger than himself, he would lure them into dark alleyways and abandoned buildings down by the port. Once the trap was set and he’d isolated them, he would coo sweet nothings until their clothes were ripped aside and he could devour their flesh. He was acutely aware of how his desires had changed since his energetic youth. He no longer had a craving for young flesh. All he wanted now was good junk and to be left alone. Today, his desire to be left alone would be surpassed by his desire to find junk. 

Reminiscing about his past had sped time up and distracted him momentarily from the sun beating him into the pavement. He stopped briefly at the corner store near Laz’s tenement to buy a couple of packs of cigarettes. 

“Hey, Samir. You saying, you dirty bitch?” he said to the tall man behind the counter. 

“Who you calling a dirty bitch? Coming in here lookin’ like that. Shit man, I can smell you through the glass.” Samir laughed, rapping his knuckles on the glass divider that separated him from the customers.

“Ah, fuck you, man. You know how it is. Listen, give me a couple packs of Viceroys.” 

“Sure thing, boss. You heading up to Laz’s? Been a while since I seen you around.” 

“Yeah, figured I’ll stop by. Trying to get back on the fix, ya know. Been a few days and I’m done with it.”

“Right on, boss. Yeah, I get ya, but not really. You know I don’t fuck around with that.” 

Samir was one of the few people he knew who abstained from drugs and worked willingly. 

“Your boy was in here last night. Big stupid fucking grin on his face. Going on about the Grey Sox and how this is their year.” 

“Yeah. Ya never know. Early enough that it could be any team’s season.” He took the cigarettes that Samir’d slid under the plexiglass division and nodded to him on his way out. 

As he climbed the stairs to Laz’s flat, he cursed the heat that caused his dirty jeans to stick to him like melted plastic. At the top of the stairs, he doubled over and began wheezing and coughing. He caught his breath and spat a combination of phlegm and blood onto the crusty red carpet. He stared at the amoeba and resisted the urge to touch it. He felt a paternal love for his creation. 

He knocked on the door. “Laz, you son of a bitch.” He banged harder. “Laz! Come on man; it’s me. Let me the fuck in, you asshole.” Still no reply. Irritated, he turned the doorknob. The rancid smell hit him as soon as the door was cracked open. His nose wrinkled as the fumes glided up his nasal cavity and began their assault on his olfactory neurons. The mélange of stale beer, cigarettes, and human sweat blended with the recognizable vinegary odor of recently cooked heroin and produced a horrendous final product that caused him to hawk, spitting a viscous mixture onto the floor. As he entered the apartment, there on the broken futon sat Laz, caked blood in his hair and on the side of his face. His arm was tied off, and a needle was poking out of the skin, the barrel of which was flooded with blood. 

“Jesus fuck, man, what the fuck are you doing.” The skeleton man removed the needle from Laz’s arm. Laz momentarily emerged from his nod and attempted to focus his dilated pupils on his friend. The skeleton man slapped him across the face. “Laz, what the fuck are you doing! It’s not even two PM, and you’re already this fucked-off, Jesus.” He crossed the trash-filled room, crushing beer cans and glass vials. Careful not to slip on a wet spot in the kitchenette that he knew from experience was blood and likely piss, he pulled out the fridge’s only contents, a six-pack of PBRs. He filled a dirty glass with cold water while Laz shifted positions on the futon. He tried slapping him once more across the face. This time, he hit him hard enough to leave a bright-red handprint, but still, his face and eyes remained vacant. Exasperated, he poured the cold water on Laz’s head. 

As the water dripped off Laz’s matted hair, the skeleton man looked around the shoebox apartment that was nearly identical to his own in terms of layout. The kitchenette behind the futon contained a small refrigerator, an old gas oven, and a pressboard table with a telephone. The floor was covered with worn-out linoleum tiles that had so many cracks in them they looked like puzzles. Off the kitchenette was the miniscule bathroom with a stand-up shower and a toilet. The studio apartment had no wardrobe or closets, and all of Laz’s possessions were scattered across the floor in little heaps. In front of the futon was a coffee table scarred with knife cuts like a river map and, beyond that, a shitty box TV. The coffee table was littered with burnt spoons, dirty needles, complimentary matchbooks, and Laz’s only possession of value that he had not hocked for heroin: a photography collection titled Tulsa. 

The skeleton man plopped down on the futon and began flipping through the hardcover collection. He fancied the black and white photos of lean Midwestern kids shooting amphetamines and guns. Flipping through the collection, he lingered on the pages that showed full-breasted nude girls sitting beside young guys with erect cocks. The dead mouse between his legs attempted to access the rusty nervous system that under normal conditions would have connected to his brain. 

Slowly, Laz centered himself on the futon and laboriously pulled himself into a seated position. He blinked, looked left, looked right, then blinked again. “Hey man, I didn’t know you were here. How long …” his voice trailed off as his neck bent and his head hit the coffee table with a loud thud, causing the spoons and needles to jump. 

The skeleton man cracked open a beer, removed the cellophane wrapper from his cigarette pack, and mumbled to himself, “Jesus fuck, some fucking people.” He turned on the television to distract himself from the cockroaches fighting, or fucking, in the corner. Blue, static picture. On the screen, there was an advertisement for stool softeners featuring an elderly homosexual couple walking hand in hand on the beach. A song played over their sunset walk… 

Surfing the channels, the skeleton man landed on ESPN2 and watched highlights from the previous day’s baseball games. After finishing off Laz’s six-pack, he could not wait any longer for what he had come here for. His temper, fuelled by half a dozen beers, spiked. In a last-ditch effort to rouse Laz from his unnatural slumber, he brought his foot up in the air and slammed the heel of his shoe into Laz’s ribs. Crack. He pulled his foot up again and repeated the motion. Crack. The whole process was useless. The blank expression on Laz’s face was enough to know that he did not have any extra heroin and that he would not be mobile for at least another few hours. 

Staring down at the unconscious waste of blood cells and oxygen, the skeleton man laughed to himself. He was amused by the fact that Laz was only thirty but looked like he was on death’s front porch. He walked over to the small, circular table in the kitchenette, picked up the receiver of the battered rotary phone, and slotted his index finger into one of the circles. Covering number two, he spun the dial clockwise. He repeated the process until he had dialled 2-8-8-4-8-8-7. Waiting impatiently for the connection to complete, he mumbled half an Our Father and prayed that the number was still in working order. 

“Operator. ‘ow may I help you?” The accent was lispy, as it always was with this service. 

“Johnny’s Pizza on the East Side. I can be there in thirty minutes.” 

Relieved, he placed the receiver back in its cradle. He lifted the can of beer only to find it empty. He chucked the can at the cockroaches in the corner and belched loudly. As he exited the apartment, he took Laz’s sole possession of value with him.