Serena – Cobi Powell
August 24, 2021
Walking into the bathroom of Zorr’s (Zorro’s typically, but the light on the O had burned out, would likely remain burned out), about midnight, several drinks deep, had been chainsmoking all night long out in the dry February cold that makes everything everywhere at any time of day (and night) smell exactly the same no matter what, have had to bum several smokes off Topshelf by that point, apologetic every time, offering him –– no, insisting on –– a dollar-bill for every smoke smoked, every time all 6’6” of him smiling, putting a hand on my shoulder, saying: “Carp, I absolutely will not hear of it,” then, inevitably: “I should be paying you for the honor. Who wants to smoke alone?” Walking into the bathroom, another of these nights, who do I see but the guy we can’t seem to stop seeing around town. We called him “Snakehead” for a while, owing to the two congruent snake tattoos on head. They began from somewhere below his shirt, somewhere we couldn’t see, ran up two mirrored sides of his body, we guessed, up his neck, meeting at the top of his completely bald head, fangs bared, each one poised to strike at the other, each one glaring at the other with as much malice as I’ve ever seen in any painting, much less tattoo. At some point down the line, though, we learned that his name was Billy.
Billy was hunched over in front of the urinals, fiddling around with a small bag of white powder, trying to shove it back down his shirtsleeve.
“Whoa. Now that’s pretty cool.” The standard thing we said when any of us were wasted and someone pulled out coke. Said ironically enough to establish some distance, so that it didn’t sound like we were just up-and-out asking, but by simple fact of even calling out its bare existence in a goofy, non-judgmental way, the implication was clear: Are you gonna share that? or what? Billy looked at me and grinned. He stopped his awkward attempt at concealment and dangled the baggie from his fingers up in front of his face. He jiggled it and it looked like a worm bleeding life on a hook.
“For free?” I was broke.
I was broke. “Okay. Go find a really tall guy at the bar with a beard.” Topshelf would come to our rescue.
Billy slinked out. I walked out a few minutes later to rejoin my friends at the bar. Billy was up there with Toppy, Toppy at the head of our little crew, flanked on either side by Aidan and Patsy. Billy had his arms around the waists of two girls, both in dresses too tight for the little drug-and-booze-founded guts that our group had likewise long ago developed. This was a development. “You like girls?” he asked the group.
Not waiting for an answer, he nudged one forward a bit and she stumbled up a step or two and introduced herself to Toppy.
“Yes. But with one, only one L.”
Topshelf smiled apologetically. “Well. It’s nice to meet you Moly.” She raised her eyebrows at him and when it was clear he both understood what she was offering and was also with polite lassitude rejecting said offer, she rolled her eyes, walked past me into the bathroom. Billy, always the opportunist, didn’t miss a beat, nudged the other one forward, introducing her as Veronica. She was beautiful in the same debauched way that Patsy was, though Patsy knew that about himself, was eight or nine years older than me and utilized his tough-guy-who’s-seen-a-lot thing, his big arms and tattoos and thick mustache, knew that the above weren’t exactly concomitant with his sad, sad eyes, used it all to hit on girls younger than me. She stepped up and cocked her head at Toppy. After a second or two of consideration she pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away some of the sweat on his face, the nervous sweat, the sweat which betrayed how the red-bearded 6’6” man with the booming theater voice and the confident syntactical mode of speaking was actually feeling. The tenderness stuck him, struck as all. Any collective arousal or romantic interest, in Zorr’s, at that moment, was extinguished.
She read his face. “You have the eyes of a someone.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked down, evaded eye-contact. She continued.
“When was the last time you put your best foot forward?” Bizarre. How big were her pupils right now? how slurred that sentence? She smiled.
The cliché, normally smirk-worthy, drew none from us, least of all Toppy. Someone long-lost, someone unmired in the muck of nostalgia, unknown to us entirely yet comprehensive of us all, of our little crew, our special little crew, and her to us, a figure, a form, sliced out of that life-behind-this-one; playful and errant, a playful and errant restoration of simultaneous owner/object to its own owner/object. She said it to Topshelf. He most of all was meant for it. And that made perfect sense to us. someone rendering discursive what we each had individually already known, though left unspoken, and would probably have never actually told Topshelf.
He half-smiled back. “Well, when it comes to putting my best foot forward, I’m a bit of a double-amputee.”
She giggled at his corny but endearing turn-of-phrase (cliché had all but evacuated the building by this point, after all) and touched his face. “Do you want to spend the night with me?”
He looked back down at the ground, blushed, slowly shook his head. She nodded and followed her friend to the bathroom. Patsy immediately stepped forward, eager to break the reverie, and gestured toward Billy with a little shrug, hands supinated:
“Hey man, we kinda just want some coke.”
Billy’s body was pure acquiescence, as if he had gone through this routine a million nights prior and would go through it a million nights more and then some.
“Apologies. Here’s my card. Give me a call in maybe 90 minutes.”
“Don’t you already have some on you?”
He gave Patsy a look. “I mean, I have mine on me, yeah.”
“Carp!” Aidan calling my name pulled my attention from an altercation that, though unlikely, still at least existed within the realm of possibility. “You want shots?” He pulled me to the bar. Patsy walked up from behind, leaned on the bar to Aidan’s right, who was himself on my right; Patsy’s mouth sagged in a frown, his brow furrowed; looking back I spotted Snakehead himself walking out the bar’s backdoor, undoubtedly traversing through to some universal alley to which only he had access, an inclusionary alley, sure, provided he was the one who approved of said inclusion, him and his great chain of cohorts, constantly refreshing in any order whatsoever provided they remained within his eyesight, his ken. I wondered if the girls were with him, and I also definitely wanted to drink more. Topshelf appeared to my left and leaned on the bar in the same exaggerated manner as the rest of us.
I looked at him. Maybe it was just his height, that compounded with his authoritative voice (a gifted actor, Toppy, he always called it his “theater voice”) and his trenchant way of speak, he never said Like or Um, was always fully prefaced and prepared in speech, never relied on or slipped into redundancy, didn’t even feel the need to use an elevated diction, though God knows he could have, no, was so confident in manner and genuine and humble in spirit that you had no choice but to adore him and his presence, to truly believe he was the one of us here meant to actually do something . . . something. He was always understanding, always empathetic. I got wasted a lot and would tell him a lot, talked at him a lot, just last night, i.e. e.g., I drank more than usual, got drunker than was planned, told him about some girl I followed on twitter, she had a couple of thousand of those, followers, that is, some girl I followed on twitter, and she wrote poetry and would sometimes bashfully share it, and it was good, or at least I thought it was good, I don’t know. She followed me back recently, finally, I felt woozy when she did, because I think I’m in love with her, I told him, she lives states away, a whole country, in fact, she’s in Canada, but I think I’m in love with her, I don’t even know if she’s, like, sexy or anything, she never posts her body or anything, I told him, but her face is the kindest and most beautiful face I’ve ever seen, when I look at her I feel as if something congenitally absent might finally be reconstituted, I said to him, sometimes, and I don’t even have to be all that wasted for this to be the case, sometimes, when I’m falling asleep, I imagine moving to Montreal and running into her on the street and slowly inoculating myself into her life until I’m as much a part of her as she is of me, or at least as much of me as I think she could be, I said to him, she speaks French, better French than me, and we could read Beckett together, because there has to be something missing there, something lost in translation, something void, there just has to be, and I’d stop drinking, I’d change everything about myself, I said to him, and maybe you wouldn’t recognize me when I came back to visit, I almost said “hopefully” right there, but that’s not the case, not at all, just “maybe,” and you wouldn’t recognize me when her and I come back to visit, and I’d wear some motley mask forever, and maybe you and Aidan and Patsy and Parker and Ben and Zakky B wouldn’t recognize me when we came back to visit, but I’d be happy, probably, maybe, because I’m loved, and I love her, and her name’s Cass, and I love her, I said to him. Topshelf just listened and nodded and looked me in the eye through all of it, probably bummed me a cigarette or two, and then told me exactly what I needed to hear, although I can’t remember it. And I looked over at him now, to my left, and he looked as stern and sincere as ever, looking straight ahead, eyesight angled slightly down. Last night was far and away not the first time he’d had to shrive one of us, let alone me. I wondered what he was thinking. Aidan was asking our opinion of something.
“What are we drinking?”
Aidan looked at me like I was stupid. “Are you retarded?” I laughed. “I cannot afford Espolòn.” He looked to his right to Patsy, over my shoulder to Toppy, waved his index finger in the air like a helicopter: “Four shots of Old Crow, four cherry bombs ––“ he pointed at me “–– one with no red bull.” Classic Aidan. Considerate. Remembered how I didn’t drink caffeine after a certain point, how little I slept, how vocal I was about not being able to get any. Sleep, that is. I laughed again.
“One with no red bull.”
We drank. Aidan and Toppy did karaoke, duetted a handful of times, the go-to favorite was the Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow song, Toppy doing Kid’s part, Aidan Sheryl’s. A girl asked me what I did and I said, “I read.” Aidan and I did our secret handshake a few times, always in front of a crowd, Hey-Do-You-Guys-Wanna-See-Something-Cool, and then we all got into some argument over something or other, probably over one of the Final Jeopardy questions that the TVs have going on loop in Zorr’s. Aidan telling me how imperative it is that our mothers meet, that they’d be best friends. Toppy and I smoked and he said “What is writing but a constant act of apologia?” which I thought was corny and then felt guilty over the fact I thought it was corny. And I can’t remember much else of what happened, but it was probably a good time. I do remember, at one point, Patsy insisting we make the trek down the back-alleys to his place. And in the midst of walking back, of some pointless conversation that Aidan and Toppy and I were having, I looked up, noticed the stars, or, at least, the scant few that we could see at this hour right deadsmack Columbus. And above, the stars, dispersed, defying mathematization, strewn about, blinking on and off, the black of the sky punctuated by those distant lights, simultaneously vague and piercing, and us and our little panic steps.
Aidan had just brought up The Wolf of Wall Street, he doesn’t particularly enjoy it, it’s fun, sure, but doesn’t think it does enough to criticize Jordan Belfort, that everything just seems too cool.
“But being rich rules,” I brought up. “It’s awesome. He gets away with everything, not even his own movie cares enough to discipline him.”
“Yeah, but, even then, he still makes a lot of money off that money, from royalties and stuff.”
“I could probably construct, well, yeah, could probably construct some meta-argument that that ultimately serves the movie’s point.” Aidan left it at that.
We kept walking, compared Tinder matches. I thought about something I had snuck off to the Zorr’s bathroom to write. They used to say that about Joyce, his friends did. They’d go, “We can’t find you anywhere ever!” because he’d always just sit in the back, say nothing, probably absorb everything, and then sneak off and write it all down. “Imagination resides within sensibility: it pre-consciously absorbs circumambient experience and shapes it into sensible concepts. The apprehension of the Sublime overpowers the Imagination to such an extent that it (the Imagination) becomes aware of itself –– we become aware of our savage limitations, an experience traumatic and also yet masochistic –– the convergence of these two qualities producing Synthetic Transcendence,” is what I wrote. I wondered if anything could be extracted from this night in particular for a future use and then decided no, probably not. Along the way we stopped at a gas station and picked up more beer; Patsy probably had Old Crow, we didn’t even ask. We all almost always had some. One night at work I sold something like $60 worth to a group and some guy said, “This is the shit that puts hair on your chest!” It was far (far) from being an amazing whiskey, but it was cheap and strong and it whiffed the back of your throat exactly how you needed and wanted it to, I sold that much that one night because they asked what they should shoot, big table, all one tab, so they had money to spend, but I still recommended Old Crow, said “It’s all any of us drink,” which is a spurious claim to say the least, it was all that Aidan, Topshelf, and I drank, Patsy didn’t work with us, but people like to feel included, hence my white lie. We got to Patsy’s and he hoisted his garage door up. We grabbed the little folding chairs he had, turned on the single bare harsh fluorescent overhead, and arranged the chairs in our usual formation, which was the slightest half-circle, the gentlest suggestion of an arc, if you were standing on the street and looking up at our vague silhouettes then would be me on the far left, Toppy to my right, we always sat next to each other, ashtray between us, because we were the only two who really smoked, and I’d just gotten a fresh pack at the gas station, the Patsy to Toppy’s right, Aidan to Patsy’s.
“Oh fuck,” said Patsy.
“What?” we replied.
“Oh shit fuck.”
“. . . What’s up?”
He was slapping his hands on every pocket he had. He sat up a bit and felt around the backpocket of his jeans. “Yes!” He extricated something and held it up to us: Billy’s card, not much of a card, as I could see now, just a pen-scrawled phone number on a torn-off little scrap print of paper. “Let’s get some blow.”
Now this was an idea. Topshelf and I finished our smokes while Patsy texted and Aidan walked to the minifridge at the back of the garage for one of the white claws he’d left here last time. We tossed our butts onto the floor despite the ashtray, two of what, in this rapidly encroaching state of extreme drunkenness, seemed like thousands. We always told Patsy we’d sweep them up for him, but, truth be told, he clearly didn’t really give a shit, so we probably wouldn’t, sweep, that is. “He’d rather me call, he says he doesn’t want this ‘digitized in writing,’” he said with a sardonic smirk. Pretty par-for-the-course for drug dealers in my experience. Patsy could be kind of dense sometimes. I went inside to pee while he started dialing. Truth is, I was a little annoyed with Patsy that night, truth be told, I had like superliked a girl on tinder, the day prior, if I remember correctly, and I also knew her, like in person, which I thought would work to my advantage, and I was hoping she’d see the superlike and then we could match and go on a date, or something, or just hang out, just to see, because she’s cute and cool, but earlier, when we were comparing our tinder matches, on the walk to Patsy’s, he showed us a match, prefacing it by saying, “I matched with this girl like twenty minutes ago,” and sure enough, lo-and-behold, it was her, and I double-checked my matches and, sure enough, lo-and-behold, she hadn’t matched with me, even though she had to’ve seen me. Obviously it was futile to be annoyed with Patsy, but I still was, couldn’t help it no matter how much I attempted to sensibly talk my way through it.
When I came back outside Patsy was yelling into the phone: “I don’t give a fuck if there’s a drought right now, that’s way too much and you know it.” Topshelf and Aidan and I exchanged a look. I had brought out the Old Crow and four shot glasses, prepared them as Patsy continued, now mollified: “Okay. Okay, okay yeah. Yeah that sounds way more fair.” He hung up. “He’ll be here in like ten or fifteen, he says.” I distributed the shots. We were getting plastered but a little bit of pick-me-up just announced its imminent arrival.
“What are we toasting to?” I asked, glasses all in the air.
“Hey –– to life,” Aidan said.
We laughed, repeated the exhortation, and swallowed the Crow. Sat around and shot the shit about whatever it was we shot. Patsy’s birthday was coming up and we all began to sloppily glue together something coming close to a plan, though admittedly it was almost exactly a 1:1 congruence of how these past few hours have went, and how countless nights before this one have gone, and if you could calcify these two nights in particular, this real (“real”) one, extant in present, and this theoretical one, extant in futurity, if you could calcify these two nights, sublimate them into something legible, something to grasp, they’d be identical, different in themselves, of course, but virtually identical, though we all preferred to think of these two nights moreso as jigsaw puzzle-pieces: supplementary, complementary, two articulations of a holism that would certainly one day reveal itself. Are you doing anything that day? during the day? No, I don’t know yet. Seeing your parents? No, most likely not. A brief and fecund pause. We all remembered why, a few years ago Patsy’s Mom stabbed his Dad with a kitchen knife in front of his little sister, she’d always threatened to do it and that night she made good, he didn’t die, just ended up in the hospital. And we probably shouldn’t’ve brought up his parents, we all knew there had been turbulence, why he had left as soon as he could, though God knew how often he had come to us, one of us or us as a group, a little monolithic totality, and outlined the guilt he felt over leaving his two little sisters in the house alone, though they’d both moved out by now and to all appearances were totally okay and well-adjusted. We kept sipping. The night was dark, the lights in the garage were fluorescent and unremitting, the lights in the street and the lamps of the other houses warm and assiduous, punctuated by gradations into shadow, stanzas of bleak unknowing. We sat and sipped. The midnight wind continued its assault, but we could only feel it when it whipped around and hit us from the front. Sip. Two left feet. I wanted to be on a beach somewhere; I felt plugged into some circuitous formation which would perpetuate itself into a blue fire destruction at some point. The other night, behind the bar, over the course of some eight or nine hours, I did enough coke to like neutralize a gorilla, you could just sneak off into the back and rail a line or a bump or two, and I did probably a gram and a half, maybe a little less. I liked speeding. I did too much adderall too, the other night, on top of all the coke. Most of the time life felt like a projection on a screen and I was simply reacting in front of it, on a stage, before an empty audience, because the audience was itself actually behind me, performing in that movie projected onto that screen behind me, I didn’t know who the projectionist was and my shadow obscured several important scenes and characters, but when I did speed I felt comfortably integrated into the texture of the film, became retroactively cast in it, and the auditorium is now full and all watching me and the projectionist is just some pimply 18-year-old who’s favorite movie is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans. When I got in from work that night, that morning moreso, 6:30-ish in the morning, I slept for maybe two hours and dreamt solely of some garishly colored kaleidoscopic abstraction, which I took to be the annihilation of consciousness. I woke up two hours later to the sounds of my roommate leaving for his comfortable 9-to-5 and screamed into my pillow and then coughed crusted blood into the sink.
He walked up, soaked in orange streetlight, silhouetted, but we still knew it was Snakehead, Billy, ol’ Snakehead himself. We walked him to the small card-table in the back and gathered around together, our backs to the street. He pulled out a crystalline chunk from a jacket pocket and placed it down onto the table top. It was a rough, jagged, milky sphere, a blind and long-calcified eye. He grinned as if he had saved us from impending catastrophe.
“. . .”
“What is that?”
“. . .”
“Is that crack?
“Guys,” said Patsy-pie, looking around at us, eyes wide and completely devoid of situational literacy. “Guys . . . that just means . . . that just means that this is really good shit,” he said, picking up the little rock. “We just gotta crush it up.”
Even Billy, the salesman and prospective profiteer, looked at him like he was wet-brained, his grin turning sarcastic: “What did you think this would be?”
“It’s blow, right?”
“Oh. Oh, no. Yeah, it’s, well it’s crack.”
A silent moment or two. I made eye-contact with Aidan: we both raised our eyebrows and cocked our heads a bit, silently agreeing that, Hey, y’know, if you’re down to smoke some crack tonight, well, I guess I am too. Billy took out a pipe and placed it on the table.
Patsy: “What’s that?” (Stupid question. It was a pipe. To smoke crack with.)
Billy smiled loonily: “Apparatus. To smoke crack with.”
A little more silence, a few more ponderous half-seconds. Topshelf stepped in. “I think there’s been a bit of a mistake. We were just in the neighborhood for some blow.”
Billy looked around at all of us, took a step back, arched his head, before finally nodding benevolently. “Ah. My apologies. Must’ve been a miscommunication somewhere down the line.” He put the rock back into a jacket pocket, a different one this time, he had pulled it from his left chest pocket but deposited it into his right. “Again, my apologies.”
“No, no worries, we’re sorry to have wasted your time like this,” Toppy said.
“But no coke?” said Patsy.
Billy shrugged. “Nope. Just this.”
And then he turned around and walked back from where he came, into the yawning encroachment of night-time darkness, and I thought about how, technically, if you were to theoretically keep halving his distance to the darkness, the distance he had remaining until he entered into the darkness, he could, theoretically, keep on walking forever, right, a line on a graph approaching zero on and into infinity and still at the most only ever tickling zero, and then I wondered what we would do next, if any of this could be put into the little book I was working on and, if so, how. My ambition had long since been drank, smoked, and snorted away, yet I was still haunted by its memory, by its echo, by a mystic ontology that had been disproven and laughed-off, it, my ambition, now become a completely detached and abstracted substance floating in some numenous plane from which it could brush and stroke me and yet not I it, a plane perennially denied access to myself and yet not the other way around. I hoped I could get some sleep tonight. I hoped my roommate wouldn’t keep losing the respect he once had for me. I hoped that there were secret cities beneath my feet. I hoped I could get some speed by the next time I had to work; and that when I died it would at least be tragic and bizarre and funny, like I huff some freon from the bottom of an old fridge in a garbage dump for shits and giggles and for a weird high, an unfamiliar sensation; and that my left hand –– which I couldn’t shake the feeling was the precise spot wherein all my casual malice and cosmic indolence was concentrated –– would fall off soon, lest one day I would’t be able to take it anymore and lop it off myself, that when I did lop it off myself it wouldn’t hurt so bad. I’m 23 soon. Right after Patsy’s birthday is mine, pretty much. I have nothing but a voice and I need it to shut up and leave me be and likewise I know if I remain unspoken and unwritten then a brutal confrontation inevitably follows. The boys were behind me and slowly coming up with a plan: we were going to do whippets. Not a bad idea. You can get whippet canisters off of GoPuff now, and Patsy already had a cracker.