At two in the morning I am summoned to a blacked-out room in the back of a second-story clothes store. Fashion show posters are tacked to the walls, newspapers scattered on a desk. An emerald lamp glows from a low shelf filled with books on photography and art.
Propped in the corner of the floor sits a long-limbed woman, older but chic, with the face of a Nagel and the body of a Degas dancer. She’s wearing party clothes, a black dress and half kicked-off heels and her makeup is runny and smudged, like a paint fight between Picasso and Salvador Dali.
I’m standing in the door with the hallway lights behind me, black Stetson and the lambskin coat, hair down to my waist.
“Come in,” she says. “You look fabulous.”
Become someone else, the fallen angel said. One night after watching Escape from L.A. on HBO, I saw an eye patch at the Rite-Aid for a dollar twenty-five. I bought it but haven’t had the opportunity yet. Tonight would have been the night.
“Hey there,” I say to Ms. Chic.
“Where’d you get that jacket?” she asks.
“I was out riding late one night, just before Christmas and broke down on a back road long way from town. It was cold and I didn’t have a coat. I said this crazy prayer and a tow truck driver showed up and pulled me home. He gave me his coat.”
“Cool,” she says.
Chic flicks a lighter but the flame won’t come. She blows her nose and there is blood. She is a dilated wreck; a fading dial-tone, hands trembling, completely come undone.
“Cocaine?” I say.
“First time I snorted coke,” she says, staring through the window and raking her hair, “was with Andy Warhol in the bathroom at Studio 54.”
“Warhol didn’t do drugs.”
“You weren’t there,” she says. “How would you know?”
“Friend of mine worked with Andy. Said he never did drugs.”
“Maybe you’re right. Might have been Jagger. Bianca, I mean. If you remember, you weren’t really there, they say….” Her voice is so fragile the sound starts to fade before the words are barely born.
I sit by the bookcase, Indian-style. “What was it like?”
“What was what like?”
“Disco,” I say. “I used to DJ nightclubs.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Every night was like the last night of your life. It was magic. Ridiculous. Empty. Drugs,” she says. “We did them in the bathroom but you didn’t have to, you could do them in the middle of the dance floor. If you wanted.”
There’s a Polaroid pinned to a corkboard, the woman, twenty or more years ago, in a strapless red gown surrounded by beautiful people. She’s posing for the camera with her arms crossed and a cocktail in her hand. Her lips are pursed in a practiced pout.
“Like magic,” I say, pointing to the picture. “There you are.”
“Everybody wanted to be the queen, to be important, but when you woke up in the morning you were still your same old ugly, lonely self. So you did more drugs and hoped the stardust would sprinkle and make you rich and famous and fabulous forever.” She stares at the photo and adds as an afterthought. “We never thought about tomorrow.”
I sneeze twice and look around the room. A gray cat is coiled around the lamp, pawing empty air.
“Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says. “Yes, I am.” Defiance and sadness, both are in her words.
“How would you do that?”
“I would light two road flares and jump naked into a barrel of gasoline. At night.”
“If you’re going, go big,” she says. “Leave a mark. Make the front page.”
“That would do it.”
“I still look pretty good naked,” Chic says with a tilt of her head.
“Okay,” I say.
She rests her head against the side of the desk and stares at the photo again. “Pills,” she says. “I’d do it with pills. I’ve got some saved. But I’m not going to the nut house.”
“How many pills saved?” I ask.
“Eighty-six Lortab. Forty Valiums. Some methadone.”
“That’s enough,” I say. My collar itches and my hair feels like it is on fire.
“I’m not going,” she says again, softer this time and more to herself.
The thing about late night psychiatric crisis is you can sit in the silence and try to think of the right next thing to say.
“If this was the other way around,” I ask, “if you were me and I was you, sitting here at three in the morning — if I told you what you just told me — would you leave?”
A long pause. “No,” she answers.
“Would you put me in a car and take me to a safe place?”
“C’mon then,” I tell her. “You know what we have to do.”
She follows me down the hall. In a different light she looks older and frail and cocaine wasted. But she smiles weakly and holds up a ready bag.
“You packed?” I ask. “You knew you were going?”
“I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be in those damned groups and I don’t want to hear those damned doctors and counselors say the same old damn thing. But I know if I don’t get help I’m going to die,” she says. “Do I have to ride in the damn ambulance?”
“Not unless you just want to,” I reply. “I could get them to turn on the lights. It would be pretty damn dramatic.”
“No more drama tonight,” she says, rubbing her forehead. “I just want to sleep.”
“I’ll take you in my truck,” I tell her. “Not supposed to but I really don’t care.”
“Thanks,” she says with a crumpled smile. “Okay if I smoke?”
“Long as you crack the window.”
“I love your outfit,” she says as we cross the river. “Is that why you work at night? So you can be the Cowboy?”
I open the glovebox, take out the eye patch and slip it on. Chic takes a deep drag and flicks her ashes into the night.
“Fabulous,” she says.
Excerpted from Midnight, Jesus and Me, (c) 2013, by J.M. Blaine, with permission from ECW Press.
As likely to quote Axl Rose as Saint Augustine, J.M. Blaine is a licensed sex and suicide specialist who has worked in libraries, haunted houses, psych wards, megachurches, rehabs, radio stations and roller rinks. He is non-fiction editor of the L.A. literary collective The Nervous Breakdown, feature writer for America’s most popular street paper The Nashville Contributor, and a former contributor to the world’s only religious satire magazine The Wittenburg Door. Blaine lives with his happy wife in Nashville, TN.