Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
There was a wounded man lying by the bus stop where Miles caught the M14 home from work. It was four in the afternoon; he had left the gallery early, walking at an anxious trot among the yellow blocks of warehouses that stored not furs or lumber or sheet metal, but art. He felt one of his headaches coming on. Right now the headache was just a premonitory rumble. There might still be time to get out of its way. “Watch out,” someone warned him. “We got a gentleman here.”
The wounded man was lying on his back outside the corner deli where the street people bought their beer, his arms spread out beside him, anchoring him to the earth. He was staring up at the December sky, which was hard and clear and turning purple on its western edge. He was bleeding; there was a thin gash at the crown of his head, a bald, round peasant’s head set like a turret on his truculent, thick neck. But the man’s features were surprisingly delicate. The small mouth was compressed in a frown, as though he were concentrating.
“Are you hurt?” Miles asked. The man glared at him. Well, Miles thought, it was a stupid question. He turned to a bystander, a middle-aged black man with a wool cap and goatee. “What happened? Anybody call 911?”
This man also seemed aggrieved, but he made Miles an accomplice in his grievance. “Yeah, it’s been like ten minutes. I been standing here all this time and nothing.”
Miles bent over the wounded man. He guessed he was about sixty. Blood pulsed slowly from the cut in his head. “You want me to get you some ice?”
“What fucking business is it of yours?” For a moment Miles was too shocked to answer him. He just stared meekly down, his hands braced on his thighs, his butt sticking out like an invitation to a kick. He imagined how he must look, a tall, finicky man in his late thirties wearing an expensive wool coat, blinking quizzically at pain. He felt a surge of anger, as quick and feeble as the striking of a match, but he kept his voice mild. “Whatever. I was just asking.”
He looked at the black man, who shrugged back at him. “I know, man. He the same with me. Must of knocked himself silly.” Miles wanted to walk away, but he still had a bus to catch and so he waited, furtively watching the wounded man as he glowered up at the sky and from time to time insulted the other good Samaritans who bent over him. Once he tried to sit up, exposing a second cut at the base of his skull, a bloody crescent that might have been made by a blow. Maybe he’d been mugged. Or maybe, Miles thought, he was drunk, a fallen-down drunk awash in belligerence and shame, in which case there was no point in feeling sorry for him. “Better keep still,” Miles said. But the man ignored him, levered himself up, blinking with the effort. Miles snapped, “Lie the fuck still! You’re going to bleed to death.”
“I figured it was language he’d understand,” he told Carla later, after the medics had helped the wounded man into an ambulance and Miles had caught his bus. They were sitting in the kitchen, chopping celery and carrots on the white enameled table. A Felix the Cat clock ticked loudly on the wall.
“You were mean.” She said it without accusation, almost diagnostically. The way she looked at him, he thought, was diagnostic, too. Carla blinked more slowly than other people, as though she were reluctant to shut her pale blue eyes to anything.
“Mean? I wasn’t being mean! I was trying to help him, and the bastard insulted me. I’m not a mean person.”
“You wouldn’t make much of a nurse. People insult me all the time when I’m trying to help them. The other night I was putting an IV in an old lady—she looked like somebody’s blessed grandmother—and she says, ‘Keep your hands to yourself, you cunt.’ “
“So what did you say to her?” He was waiting to hear Carla say she’d lost her temper.
“Oh, I told her … ” She broadened her Irish accent. “’That’s all right darlin’, we’re all of us cunts here, aren’t we?’ I figure the poor thing’s dying, let her call me what she likes.”
They’d met two years before. Miles was leading an NA meeting in the hospital’s detox, which was where Carla was working then. She’d been the one who let him onto the locked floor and ushered him to the little room where the meetings were held, walls begrimed by nodding heads and floors scuffed by pacing slippered feet. For the first few weeks that was all she did. She staved off his wistful attempts at friendliness. She was pretty, with lambent skin and a dainty overbite, and she was a nurse: he figured she was used to being hit on. When he took his nightly inventory, he admitted this was what he was doing. He couldn’t decide if it was bad.
One day she asked him, “Do you do this for a living, or are you some kind of volunteer?” There was the lightest contempt in her voice. “I’m just another addict.” He meant it defiantly, but it came out sounding prissy. He winced. She smiled back at him, her overbite making the smile impish and complicitous. “So you’re just helping yourself, then. I’m glad you’re not a do-gooder.” She clapped her hands together as though ridding them of dust. “I can’t abide do-gooders.”
She began helping him set up the chairs and coffee pot and the vinyl window shades printed with the 12 Steps. This was supposed to be the responsibility of the newcomers, the patients—it was meant to get them involved—but most of Miles’s newcomers didn’t want to get involved. They’d come into the meeting whenever they felt like it, mooch coffee, and fidget through the qualification, yawning jaw-splitting junky yawns. So he was grateful for Carla’s help, and he liked listening to the calm lilt of her voice, its matter-of-factness about suffering. It was a quality he thought only recovering people had, but here was someone with no discernible dysfunction who could talk about abscesses without a tremor. And she was pretty.
It had been a long time since he’d gone to bed with anyone who might be a girlfriend, and he was careful. The most he did was hold Carla’s wrists down while he fucked her. The first time he did this, her eyes widened, she pushed back against his weight. Miles had a fantasy of slapping her face, not even a fantasy, but a quick, staticky image, as though he had accidentally tuned into another channel where the program was more interesting. But that channel, he told himself, was outside his reception area. He kissed Carla lightly on the mouth, on the tip of her nose and her fleshy palms, friendly kisses, reassuring kisses, kisses that said ‘I Respect Your Boundaries,’ and she smiled and let him hold her.
They prepared the soup and ate it, spoons clicking in the deep blue bowls. “He must have been drunk,” Miles said. Carla’s face was inscrutable. “Who?”
“The guy by the bus.”
“That,” she said, “would explain everything.”
His head still ached. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Jesus, Miles, I’m just teasing. You don’t have to get—”
“A guy I’m trying to help tells me to go fuck myself and I’m not entitled to feel indignant?” His voice quavered. “I was trying to help him!”
Her mouth twitched at the corners.
“And look how pissed you get at the poor sod for denying you the pleasure.”
He was silent through the rest of dinner. Afterwards he announced that he was going out.
“Fine,” she said. She lit a cigarette and drew in the smoke as though she were biting off a thread. “I hope it’s to one of your meetings.”
He did go to a meeting. His intention was to share about his self-righteous anger and feelings of persecution; by the time he got to the church, he’d ID’d the character defects in question. Instead, he found himself talking about Elise.
“Eight, nine years ago, there was someone I was really mean to. Cruel, I should say.” It was an evasive beginning. Miles had met Elise when he was two years clean, but he couldn’t bring himself to admit that. At two years you were supposed to be having problems with intimacy and commitment, finding your place in the ranks of the ordinary assholes of the world. He told himself that even in these rooms there was a propriety. That propriety might allow you to describe squirting a syringeful of blood and heroin into your mouth, but it excluded discussion of things he’d done to Elise stone sober.
“She’s come back into my life”—he glanced around the room to see if any eyebrows were going up; people here knew he had a girlfriend—”made contact with me. She’s in trouble. And I feel I have to take some kind of responsibility for what happened between us—I don’t know, help her.” Already it didn’t sound right. As much as he wanted to tell the truth, there was something in him that was ravenous for pity, that would betray everything if only someone would say, You poor guy. You poor, poor guy. “You’ve got to understand, I loved her.”
He thought he saw somebody smirk.
He remembered driving with Elise in the foothills after a party, some people in the art history department, a faculty couple who lived in a converted miner’s shack. The desert night was cool but carried the smell of charred things. Elise yelled at him as he gripped the wheel. Actually, she didn’t yell; she murmured. In retrospect Miles found it shameful that he’d done the things he’d done to a woman who rarely raised her voice. But Elise’s murmur had a relentlessness that was at once irritating and unnerving, like someone counting during a game of hide and seek: “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi.”
“What do you want to take me around those people for?” she said. She was a short, waiflike girl with the narrowest waist. Her hipbones reminded Miles of a saddle’s pommel. She wore her blonde hair in a crewcut. Elise didn’t want to think about her hair while she was surveying lizard populations in the desert. She wanted to think about banded geckos. She would lie on her belly in the bleaching sun and watch them scuttle from rock to rock, looking oddly like a lizard herself in her stillness and sudden, flicking movements. “Those people are assholes, Miles. What do you see in them? They’re not nice.” To Elise this was the worst thing you could say about anyone. “That professor was looking at me like I was some kind of whore. Some kind of pathetic whore.”
“He wasn’t looking at you. You’re being paranoid. Why would he look at you? His girlfriend was sitting right next to him.”
“I’m not paranoid. Why are you saying that? He was looking at me. You were in the bathroom the whole time, you wouldn’t know. What were you doing in the bathroom?”
“Plotting against you.”
“Fuck you, Miles. What were you doing?”
The single lane was as straight as a line on a piece of graph paper and chalky in the headlights. They were heading toward the Rincon Mountains, a darkness somewhat denser than the darkness that surrounded them, like the deeper water you sense lying beyond the shallows.
“You think I was doing dope? I don’t do dope any more. Get that through your tiny, addled head.”
“What? Are you listening to me? I said—”
“Who were you doing it with, Miles? Which one of those bimbos?” It was the first time that night she’d raised her voice. “Doing some dope. A dope named—what’s that bitch’s name, the one with the eyelashes? Sandra. You were doing some dope named Sandra.” She laughed.
“Let me see your arm, Miles.” She reached for his shirt-sleeve, and he hit her backhanded. She slapped him but missed his face. He hit her again. He drove the car off the road and into a stand of cholla. He cut the lights.
The meeting was held in the room where the Sunday school met. Miles sat on a child-sized wooden chair, his hands dangling between his knees. The walls around him were decorated with children’s paintings of the Nativity. They were crude and gaudy. In one the Virgin Mary was holding up the infant Jesus, displaying him to the viewer. But the artist hadn’t known how to draw hands, and so Jesus seemed to be floating. Miles liked the room, in which even the most sordid stories, the most ruthless and humiliating desires, were somehow scaled down and contained, reduced to children’s tantrums. Across from him a woman was saying, “We have a light, all of us, inside us. I don’t know anything about God, but I believe in that light. We’re not bad people trying to be good. We’re sick people trying to get well.” Around the room heads nodded. Miles thought, But what if she’s wrong?
He remembered sitting quietly in the darkened car, listening to Elise breathing beside him; she had retreated to the far edge of the seat and curled herself into a ball. It was almost peaceful. Then he told her to get out.
“No. So you can kill me and dump me out here?”
“Get out of the car, Elise.”
“You’re going to kill me.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” he said wearily. “You don’t matter enough.” She swung once more, but when he caught her arm she went limp and let him drag her out after him. In the starlight her round face looked placid, childishly smooth. She studied him. “You want to kill me, though. I can see it in your eyes. Homicide.” It came out in a croon, “Hoooomiciiide.”
“You’re crazy.” Something rustled in the cholla. Miles stiffened. “What’s that?”
“Don’t worry,” she said matter-of-factly. “Rattlesnakes are diurnal.” Then her voice changed again. “Okey-dokey. Maybe you don’t want to kill me. You’re too sweet. Did anybody ever tell you that, Miles? How sweet you are?”
He squinted at her, feeling big and slow-witted and put-upon. “What’s that supposed to mean, ‘sweet’?”
“Nothing. It just means you’re sweet. A sweet boy. A sweet little boy.”
“Why don’t you shut up?”
“Why don’t you make me?”
“This is stupid,” he said. But he shoved Elise face down onto the trunk, and pulled off her jeans. She made feeble attempts at kicking him that made her look buglike and ineffectual. He brought his hand down on her ass. Her moan was deeply satisfying, but she spoiled it by looking over her shoulder and cooing, “You’re sweet.” And she kept telling him how sweet he was between slaps and cries until in exasperation he tore off his tee shirt and stuffed it into her mouth. He took it out only when he began to fuck her, so he could listen to her noises. They were incoherent and pained, the sounds of someone being dangled over a chasm and reeled back at the last moment, over and over again. That he had the power to wrench those sounds from her—that she had granted him that power—astonished him, made him reverent and tender. She was disintegrating for him.
He remembered a trip to the arboretum in Phoenix. Elise said there was something she wanted to show him. They wandered among white pine and mountain juniper, aspen and cottonwood. Many of the trees had been brought over from other parts of the country and were kept alive only by a constant spray of water from rotating sprinklers. Elise led him through the spray, tugging him when he balked at getting wet. Their shirts were soaked; people stared at Elise’s nipples. At last she stopped before a pair of crepe myrtles. They weren’t very tall, but they were slender and shapely, with the shapeliness of living flesh. Their smooth bark had a silvery undertone, as though impregnated with metal filaments. “Look at them!” she marveled. “Aren’t they just beautiful?” She threw her arms out, imitating the sweep of the myrtles’ limbs, and turned slowly. “I wish I were a crepe myrtle. Maybe I’ll come back as one in my next life.”
She wasn’t really a beautiful girl; her features were too small, her gray eyes were always blinking. “I wish I were God,” he said. “I’d make sure you did.”
Afterwards they drove back to his apartment and had sex. Elise made her usual sounds. As she came, she gasped, “I can’t feel my body, I can’t feel my body! My head’s flying off!”
For an instant he almost stopped moving, but his body wanted what it wanted. He sank on top of her, cupping her head in his hands as though he could clamp it back on. “You’re okay. Your head’s right here, honey. You’re safe.”
Elise turned and stared at him. “What are you talking about? There’s nothing wrong with my head.”
“Back when I was drinking, I had this dog.” The speaker was an older black man named Donald. He had been sober a long time, but he didn’t treat this as an accomplishment. He acted as though he had been struck sober in spite of all his efforts to stay drunk. In Donald’s presence Miles always felt shame-faced and fraudulent. He imagined the man reading his mind and sadly shaking his long, jowly head. “Dog’s name was Gumdrop,” Donald continued. “He was all I had. Lost my wife, lost my kids, lost everything that ever loved me. But I still had that dog. One day fellow says, I give you five dollars for that dog. So I sold him. I didn’t need the money. I had plenty money.” Donald stared down at his palms. Whatever he saw there seemed to amaze him. “I don’t know why I sold that dog. I loved that dog.”
It was like doing junk all over again at a slightly lower cost. It was like kicking all over again. Once he tapped hot cigarette ash into Elise’s anus. Once he found himself in the ER of Tucson General with thirty stitches in his wrists and forearms; he’d put his hand through a window while trying to punch her, then cut himself up in remorse. One afternoon a while after Christmas he told her that he couldn’t see her any more. They were in his apartment. She began to rip up the Christmas cards he’d arranged on a bookshelf. She tore them methodically, one by one. First in half, then in quarters, then in eighths. Whenever she came upon a card that had a woman’s name on it, she’d ask: “Did you flick her?” Miles was about to grab her and wrestle her out the door, but he could see it snowballing into the familiar beloved mayhem. He picked up the phone and called the police.
They came quickly, a pair of strapping, tanned Mormons whose sunglasses had left pale circles around their eyes. They looked at Elise and then at Miles, who towered over her by a foot. They looked back at Elise. Each look was a discreet event. “You’re the complainant?” one asked.
“No, I am,” Miles said. “I don’t want this to get physical.”
It seemed to satisfy them, but Miles saw he had fallen in their esteem. From then on the cops ignored him, the way they ignore women. Elise knelt on the floorboards beside her pile of shredded greeting cards. More than ever she looked like a child, a child who is being kept from an important game. She refused to leave. It was Miles who had behaved badly; he was the one who liked to hurt people. She called the cops assholes. For a moment it looked as though they would arrest her.
“You don’t have to do that,” Miles said. He could hear the beggary in his voice. “I just want to get her out of here. This isn’t necessary.”
“I don’t think you’re the best judge of what’s necessary, Sir. Your friend keeps using that kind of language with us, there’s a code.”
The other policeman touched Elise on the arm. His touch was tentative and experimental, like the touch one gives a skittish cat before scooping it up into its carrier. But it was also kind. She began to cry. “Why are you doing this to me, Miles? I love you. Why do you have to ruin my life?”
“I can’t do this any more.” He tried not to look at the cops, who he surmised were making a similar effort not to look at him. “This isn’t sober.”
For a moment they were all silent, stunned by its prudishness and absurdity. Then Elise said, “Be sober, then. It’s important to you.”
It wasn’t until he was alone and sweeping up the wreckage of the Christmas cards that Miles began to cry. He wasn’t sure why. Sometimes he told himself that it was from grief and other times from regret. But he often wondered if he hadn’t cried—and, really, it hadn’t amounted to much, he’d kept sweeping the whole time—from simple relief. He was glad it was over.
He heard nothing more of Elise for eight years. Then, over the summer, she’d called him. The first thing she said was, “It’s getting bad.”
“Who is this?”
Elise’s voice was thin. It was the voice of someone speaking in the dark with a sheet pulled over her face. “Don’t you remember me, Miles? God, don’t tell me you don’t remember me! It’s so fucked up out here. You don’t know what I went through trying to get your number. Where are you, in New York?”
“Yeah. I moved out here four years ago. Where are you?”
“In California. No, in Nevada. One of those places. It’s fucked up here.”
It became apparent that Elise was high. She’d never gotten high when they were together. Miles wondered if he’d given her the idea, whether she saw the drugs as a keepsake, like the baby picture of someone you’d known only as an adult. He remembered her telling him that she loved him. He remembered her telling him he’d ruined her life.
She said she’d been working for the parks department, but people had plotted against her and she’d lost the job. Now she was a clerk in some flyblown doctor’s office out in the desert. The doctor was force-feeding her drugs and making her fuck him.
“He’s forcing you?”
“You don’t believe me. He says I need loosening up. Why don’t you believe me, Miles? Youused to make me fuck you.”
“Elise, I didn’t make you do anything. I’m sorry enough for what I did. I can’t tell you.”
She began to console him. “It’s okay, Miles. You didn’t do anything that horrible. I was the bad one. You were always so sweet.” He listened for a barb in her voice, but there was none. “You’ve got to help me.”
“I can’t give you any money, Elise. You ought to go into detox. I can get a list of them for you.”
“My problem is I lack guile. That’s what’s always gotten me into trouble.”
“Elise, what are you doing, taking this shit? You’re not a dope fiend. You don’t have the temperament. What do you want to hurt yourself for?”
“Oh, why not?” she said, suddenly blithe. “Everybody else does.”
The meeting let out in a soft flurry of hugs, the last bit of comfort before the return to the heartless world. When Miles got home, Carla was ironing in the living room. She had the TV on, and its blue light played over her bare arms. In that light, whose blueness was like the blueness of dawn, she reminded Miles of one of Vermeer’s women, her face lowered to some homely task even as she dreams of a world beyond it. Then she turned, raising the iron so that its hot surface was pointed at him.
“It’s just me.”
“That girl called,” she said.
“Elise. The one you liked knocking about.”
“I wouldn’t say it was a matter of liking.” He reached for her, but she stepped aside.
“Right,” Carla said. He imagined her signing her initials on a patient’s chart. “Between you and me, I’m getting a little tired of it. Is this someone I have to be concerned about?”
“Who, Elise?” He started laughing. “Oh no. Oh, honey, no. This is not someone to be concerned about. This is somebody to pray for. You should listen to her, Carla. She doesn’t know where she is!” He realized that he was laughing at Elise. “Poor thing.”
Caria put the iron down. “What’s the ‘poor thing’ on? Heroin, do you think?”
“Jesus, who knows? Could be heroin, could be codeine, Dilaudid. Haldol, maybe. Elise could walk into any doctor’s office and get all the antipsychotics she wanted, I guarantee you. Maybe that’s what he’s force- feeding her, her doctor.”
She let him lean against her. Suddenly there was that old coziness between them, the camaraderie of professionals discussing a stranger’s symptoms.
“What are you going to do when she calls again?”
“Help her. Get her into a detox or something. I mean, wouldn’t you?”
Later she asked him what he and Elise had done together in bed. They were lying side by side, the sheets tangled at their feet. All winter long the apartment was so hot that Carla kept the windows open. In the street below Miles heard two men quarreling. From their voices he could tell that neither man was really angry. Anger was something they were groping for, like the last bit of sandwich in a bag cluttered with napkins and greasy wrapping paper.
“You don’t really want to know.”
He had his eyes closed, but he could hear Carla raise herself on an elbow. He felt her clinical gaze travel down his body like a zipper. “Oh, you don’t know. I might. Did you use a whip on her?”
“My hand. Sometimes a belt. I don’t like to talk about it.”
“When did you get to be so sensitive?”
“Are you pissed about something?”
“She was crazy even then, you know. It sounds like she always was. Is there something about fucking a crazy woman? We used to have an orderly who liked to do the loonies, the young ones. The police got him. He used to say—”
“It wasn’t like that. She wasn’t somebody in award.”
“Oh, that made it all right.”
“What was I supposed to do?”
“Maybe she didn’t even know who was fucking her. Maybe she didn’t even realize it was sex. In that poor mind of hers it got muddled into one big hairy ball of abuse—”
A car alarm went off. Miles slammed his hand against the wall. “Bastard!” Carla flinched. “What was I supposed to do?”
Some nights later Miles was coming home late from the gallery. It was dark, and he wouldn’t have recognized the wounded man if not for his dressings, a turban of white gauze that glowed beneath the streetlight. He was standing at the edge of a shoal of street people, most of them young and black. With his bandaged head, the wounded man might have been one of the battered peasants on the periphery of a Breughel painting, a veteran of something. Miles remembered the man insulting him and felt a gassy puff of indignation. “See you’re feeling better,” he muttered. But he pressed a dollar into his hand.
When he came into the apartment the phone was ringing. He stumbled for it, finding his way by the path of light that followed him through the open door.
“They want to arrest me,” Elise announced, and although he knew it was a bad idea—one is not supposed to engage the disease on its own terms—he couldn’t help asking what for.
“It’s my doctor. I told him I wasn’t going to screw him any more, well actually, I wasn’t reallyscrewing him, I was letting him do stuff to me, I mean, Miles, you wouldn’t believe how sick this guy is, I don’t know how he ever became a doctor, he’s a pervert!”
“But he wants you arrested.” He took the phone into the bedroom. Carla was at the hospital, but the apartment still felt insufficiently private. He sat down on the bed and looked at the framed photographs on the night table. There was one of him and Carla that had been taken last year at the beach, the two of them in sunglasses, their heads close together, gazing romantically out to sea. It was a good picture. They seemed suited to each other.
“It’s not my fault. I told him I wasn’t going to be his whore any more, which is what I was, basically. His whore.”
“Jesus Christ,” he breathed. Suddenly he had a blasting headache. “I didn’t think you could get thrown in jail for refusing to be someone’s whore.”
“It’s not a joke, Miles. You think everything’s a big joke, but it isn’t, it’s serious. I could go to jail. I don’t think I could handle jail. I told him I wasn’t going to let him do stuff to me any more, like he’d take me out to the desert and beat me—”
He remembered the dark spikes of the cholla, the darker silhouette of the mountains beyond. He remembered Elise splayed over the trunk of the car, her legs hobbled by her lowered jeans. He remembered the sounds she’d made. She had disintegrated for him.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” He must have been silent for a long time. “You think I’m making it up?” Maybe she heard the hysteria in her voice, because she stopped, and when she spoke again her tone was deliberate. “Look, Miles,” she said. “I know you think I’m some kind of sick, pathetic liar, but I swear I am not lying. Not this time. I’m in trouble. I’m in real trouble. He’s saying I stole his drugs and he’s going to call the police—”
“Did you?” At once he knew he said the wrong thing. “Forget it,” he added hurriedly. “It doesn’t matter. Elise, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is you’ve got a habit and it’s going to put you in jail. Is that something you want?”
She cried out. “No! What do you think? Don’t talk to me that way, Miles, I don’t like it, it’s mean. It’s cruel of you. I’m desperate, I’m a desperate person, and you’re—”
“I know you feel desperate, Elise. I’ve been that desperate. I am trying to give you an option. You can walk into any meeting, they won’t turn you away. Just walk in and say, ’I’m an addict and I need to talk.’”
“I don’t need to talk! Talking is not going to make this go away!”
“Then why are you talking to me?” he snapped. “Why are you telling me this shit!? I’m tired of hearing it.”
“Okay, I won’t.” She became distantly polite, like a child thanking a grownup for a present she doesn’t want while her mother prompts her in the background. “Thanks for talking with me, Miles. It’s been nice.”
“Wait. Don’t hang up. I’m sorry, I’m sorry I yelled at you. You don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. A detox, then. They’ll take care of you, they’ll help you kick. You can rest there. Think of it, rest. I’ve got a whole list of detoxes in Nevada. You’re in Nevada, right?” He found it in a drawer. He told her which detoxes had wards for women and which ones admitted at night and which ones accepted patients without insurance. He tried to fence her in with detail, to fence both of them in, because without the detail he knew that he would start to yell again. Do you want to die? He’d yell at her. Is that what you want, to die? Because, baby, that’s what’ll happen to you if you don’t let me help you, you stupid fucked up junky cunt. You’ll die and nobody will shed one tear for you. Nobody will give a shit. He didn’t want to say those things, and so he kept giving her the facts, until at last she said she needed to get another pencil, this one had broken. He heard her put the phone down. And a while later he heard her hang up.
—Peter Trachtenberg is the author of Seven Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh. His journalism and short fiction have appeared in Harper’s, TriQuarterly, Chicago, Salon, and elsewhere.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.