Eye for Sin
I climbed into the passenger seat and Tinkles lifted the pint of Southern Comfort from between his legs and offered me a shot. Took a good chug, handed it back and twisted an air conditioning vent in my direction. Pretty much all we needed to say to each other.
Tinkles wheeled the old Corolla back out onto my street, and turned west on Van Buren. We took it easy through downtown, headed north on Seventh Ave. and rolled toward Sunnyslope, a dark burb that rises up a sun-crested hill. There were few cars out and butter-colored streetlights fanned across the windshield. Tinkles flipped the car stereo on to Cher’s “Believe,” and turned it up. I reached out and turned it down. Blown distorted speaker, horrible song. Ears didn’t want it.
“Jesus gonna be there?”
Tinkles nodded and flicked the volume back up.
It was near midnight and Tinkles arrived two hours late. See, waiting to score crystal was madness. All you do is fret and pace. You count minutes and seconds. You count the books on your shelves and the stars in the sky and the zits on your face and how many craps you took that week. You count everything, again and again. And the very first tweeker pathology you learn is that they are never on time. But you wait. You count. Every time. Fucking madness.
Before we got to Sunnyslope we swung by a Circle K and picked up a forty of King Cobra for me and a couple of quarts of Bud for Tinkles and Jesus. I never showed up without a bottle for the host.
I’d met Jesus once. It was nighttime and he was leaning against a tree. He talked at me for two hours in that way that people do when they’re used to being the only one talking. It was more of a sermon involving his missing son and Phoenix’s white-pride underground and the New Testament’s immortal worms of hell and the agony of doing crystal meth in prison because it puts you in another prison and you end up beatin’ your limp dick in the shower stalls for 24-hours straight.
Neighborhood folks said Jesus was a good Christian, christened him “Jesus of Sunnyslope.” He was a New Testament fanboy who strode the hood at night armed with a bible and holstered sidearm, and he treated the streets and those on them as his ministry. They said he had a big heart. They said he protected them. He helped moms with coins for the Laundromat and gave money to those whose food stamps were spent. They said he’d never sell to minors. To score meth off him you had to prove you were older than 18. They said he decapitated some dude once with a guitar string for raping a Sunnyslope girl. A dealer with a heart of gold.
I’d figured prison taught him rules, like how to live by fear, and to rule by it. He controlled the crystal flowing in and out of Sunnyslope. That gave him emotional control. He was the neighborhood protector so the residents owed him. He threatened real violence with guns and a quick-burn fuse. He had eyes and muscle in dark corners of the hood.
We were meeting him because the west side hillbillies were dry. He was never in short supply of good shit, but it had a price: you had to endure him. We needed crank and me and Tinkles laughed that the route to god was through Jesus. Any other time I’d hate his guts.
* * *
Skeletal trees, chain-linked dirt yards and cinderblock-box houses constructed so close together on narrow streets made the hood feel claustrophobic. More than one open door revealed a motorcycle parked in a living room and too-loud big-screen TVs. I saw sallow faces in joyless interiors lit up in reality show colors, the hues of celebrity deification and yearnings for easy fame and wealth. It gave the illusion of living in vibrant lights. Hi-def desperation fueled on meth, fantasy. Police cruiser lights brightened up the all-hour action, cops in real time. Crystal kept the entire neighborhood wired.
The street grew darker the nearer we got to Jesus’s place. It looked pieced together from black-and-white photos of decades-old crime scenes. His was last on the left on a hilltop dead-end, and beyond that a no-man’s land of sharply barbed cacti and jagged rocks descending into darkness.
“Dude, Heart of Darkness,” I said.
Tinkles didn’t respond. He rarely did. He was a reserved dude with a lisp. A comment from him felt like an intrusion. But he was no idiot. He’d bailed from journalism school. In the years I’d known him I’d never heard more than a single sentence, maybe two, drop from his mouth at any one time. He once drunkenly confided that his lisp provided endless hours of agony, especially around girls.
Tinkles flipped a bitch and parked in front of Jesus’ place. He killed the motor and headlights, and swallowed the last of his pint. Streetlights were shot out but we had moonlight. I stepped out of the car and into the hot breeze. Unscrewed the King, swallowed a good one and took in Phoenix splayed out in the valley below. Darkness always calms the city’s harsh edges, and the glimmering reds and ambers comforted. The malt liquor was ice-cold and I was feeling better.
Jesus’s house was hidden behind shit piled high in the fenced front yard. A burnt husk of a Ford Bronco was centerpiece and heaped around it were bedsprings, busted motorcycle frames, a corroded washing machine, a doorless refrigerator, a man-tall plastic Santa, mangled swing-set, and all sorts of junk. Weeds grew up through the chaos and you could taste the rust on your tongue. A barricade passing itself off as some blue-collar art installation depicting a meth-damaged vision of Eden.
Tinkles stepped from the car and a raging pit bull emerged from under the junk and scared the shit out of us. We sprinted up Jesus’s dirt driveway and I followed Tinkles around the house to a side entrance. Now Tinkles is the only overweight tweeker I’d ever met, maybe the only one who’d ever existed, so his trot had me howling. I’d never seen him attempt to run. He looked like one those old Weebles toys, wobbling side-to-side, but with globs of jiggly flesh threatening to split his maroon work slacks and pop buttons from his shirt. Even he laughed.
The side entrance was half hidden by dead vines. We ducked to avoid a smashed up security camera dangling from a cable off its mount.
We knocked. Waited. Knocked again. Waited. Tinkles unpinned his work-shirt nametag and slid it into his pant pocket. We knocked again, longer this time. Panic rose. Every cell in my body screamed for meth. I unscrewed the King and sucked. God bless the King of Malt Liquor. The peephole darkened. Another moment passed. We heard voices on the other side of the door. Another moment passed. Christ! Then multiple deadbolts clicked and, finally, the door swung open.
We stepped inside and tweeker effluvia filled our faces and I almost choked on what smelled of underarms and peeled onions and lawn mowers.
A woman stepped from behind the door and acknowledged us. She was skinny, skull-eyed, dirty blond and pregnant, a pole in faded pastels with a hump in the middle and two heartbeats, one of which was visible in her neck, speed-thumping away. She shut the door behind us and vanished like a ghost down the dark hallway. She had no presence, emanated nothing, and left little impression. People ravaged by crystal meth are like that; like something tangible in their being — astral planers say “aura” — had been eaten away. You see them physically but they’re lighter in every sense of the word.
A Confederate flag stretched across the ceiling, nailed up in the center and corners, backlit by the ceiling bulb. Gave off a blood-red tint of hate.
BRIAN SMITH has written for many magazines and alt-weeklies, and his fiction has appeared in a variety of literary journals. He’s an award-winning journalist, first as a staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times and then as an editor at Detroit’s Metro Times. Before writing full time, Smith was a songwriter who fronted rock ‘n’ roll bands Beat Angels and, before that, GAD. He has penned tunes with lots of folks, including Alice Cooper. At one point he overcame heady crystal meth and alcohol addictions. As a kid growing up in Tucson, Arizona, Smith was a national class bicycle racer. He now lives back in Tucson where he writes a regular column in the Tucson Weekly centered on unsung heroes, people on the fringes and the desolate beauty found in unlikely places. Spent Saints is his debut collection of short stories.
Adapted from Spent Saints, by Brian Smith, Copyright © 2017 by Brian Smith. With the permission of the publisher, Ridgeway Press.