UNDERGROUND VOICES: FLASH FICTION
Sage from a third ave walk-up
Steve and Beatrice Move In
Beatrice sells her little red car to move there; Steve cleans out his bank account. They move to a fifth floor walk-up in Spanish
Beatrice gets a job waitressing in an Italian restaurant owned by Greeks, a father and son. The bosses are mean but she makes good money—all cash. She only gets three days of work per week: Friday dinner, and Saturday and Sunday, twelve hours. This leaves a lot of free time which is perfect because Beatrice wants to be a writer. Steve makes $350 per week working for the phone company. It is only 30 hours a week, which is perfect because Steve is a musician. He plays gigs with John, the guy downstairs, who found them their place. John is a student. Life is easy for all of them; they are happy.
The three of them do drugs together in the afternoons and evenings when none of them are working. It is easy to get drugs where they live; easier than when they all lived in the suburbs. There are spots for everything—bodegas that sell pot, fruit and vegetable stands that sell cocaine, and the Valium Bakery, where clipping two twenties to the sides of your dollar bills gets you forty milligrams in your bread bag. John is able to get all kinds of narcotics—Percocet, Darvicet, Demerol, Vicodin---from his girlfriend whose father is a doctor. They get high and Steve and John practice their set lists while Beatrice sits reading or writing poetry in a notebook.
At night, Beatrice follows Steve and John downtown, where they play gigs in dark, smoky bars. Sometimes Steve goes alone to play piano in the jazz clubs, playing strange, unmelodic riffs, where people come up to him afterwards and clap him on the back, smile. Beatrice doesn’t understand the music, but she understands that he’s good, that other people think he’s talented.
Other nights, Steve and Beatrice go for walks around Manhattan, sometimes walking all the way to midtown, lost in conversation about art, music, and the burdens and rewards of creativity. They are full of plans about the future.Beatrice’s Foot
One night, Beatrice gets up to go to the bathroom and falls over backwards into the tub. She bangs her spine on the faucet and starts to cry. Steve wakes up and leads her back to bed. In the morning, Beatrice barely remembers the incident, but when she wakes up a few mornings later, her foot is numb. The feeling doesn’t come back all day. She can barely walk, but she limps over to Mt. Sinai Emergency Room, holding onto Steve for support. The doctors don’t tell Beatrice anything. They make her see the neurologist on duty. They talk about keeping her overnight. Beatrice refuses. They tell her to stay off her foot as much as possible. The next day is Friday and Beatrice must call her bosses to explain the situation. They are not happy. They ask if she’ll be there the following weekend and Beatrice guesses she will. But by the following weekend she still has no feeling in her foot. She calls out of work again and her bosses are furious.
The neurologist starts scheduling her for tests. Beatrice limps from the bedroom to the bathroom or kitchen and back again. Occasionally she ventures downstairs to get high with Steve and John, but John and his new girlfriend, Anne, make Beatrice uncomfortable with all their questions and staring. The last time she goes down there, they ask her if she thinks she might possibly have MS.
When Beatrice tells her parents about her foot, her mother yells at her : why did you have to move to that hellhole anyway? You’ve had nothing but bad luck in that godforsaken place!
More and more, Steve gets their drugs from John and they do them together, in their own place. One night John gets heroin and they do that. They spend the night in bed, murmuring love words, gently flowing in and out of each other like clouds and sky, earth and water, yin and yang.
Beatrice goes for the first test. It’s an EMG, the neurologist tells her. It turns out to be a test where they stick needles deep into the back of her leg, trying to locate damaged nerves, while Beatrice screams in pain. The neurologist tells her that, depending on what the test says, the next time they’ll have to stick the needles in her spine. Beatrice has been taught to trust doctors, but can’t help thinking that this one is a sick, sadistic fucker. Only his qualifications keep her from telling him so.
Beatrice gets depressed. The Greeks call and say they had to replace her. She avoids calls from the neurologist but in the meantime gets fitted for a brace. When Beatrice ventures outside, people stare, and so she remains inside as much as possible. Steve and Beatrice do more heroin. The only thing Beatrice writes about are her surreal dreams and sexual fantasies. Steve goes to work one morning still high and falls asleep at his desk. He gets fired. Beatrice is happy to have him home during the day. He still plays gigs at night, and they live off of that and the money Beatrice’s parents send to supplement her income now that she can’t work.
Then one day Beatrice meets a junkie on the street who tells her that what she has is called a foot drop. It’s not that uncommon, a lot of people get them who do drugs, he tells her, especially downers—it’s from falling asleep in one position for a long time. The best thing for it, he says, is to walk on it. It is the opposite of what the neurologist told her, but somehow she trusts the junkie. Besides, she’ll do anything to avoid getting those needles in her spine. Steve and Beatrice begin taking long walks through the city in the afternoons and evenings, like they used to. The junkie is right. After about a week, Beatrice can wiggle her toes slightly, and after six weeks she has almost 100% of her feeling back. Four months have passed.The Coffee Shop and Other Jobs
Beatrice begins on the merry-go-round of crappy jobs. Telemarketing companies are always hiring and the pay is decent, but they never last. She gets a job at a coffee shop, downtown. On her first day she has to go to work without any dope. Beatrice can’t deny anymore that she has a habit. She runs around, making lattes and chai teas for rich yuppies and NYU kids. During the first lull in business, Beatrice makes an excuse to her boss to step outside for a moment. She walks out and keeps going until she gets to the subway. She walks east to Lexington Ave and gets on the 6, rides back uptown. Walking up the hill from the subway stop, walking up the five flights of stairs to the apartment, her muscles and bones seem to be screaming. Steve is up in their apartment with John, getting their junk money together. Beatrice waits sweating on the couch while they go out to cop. They are gone for a long time. This is the time before cell phones and all Beatrice can do is wait. Every time Beatrice hears footsteps on the stairs, she opens her eyes, her body rigid. Finally, with much quiet laughter, they walk in through the front door. Beatrice jumps up as though her life has been saved, gets her two bags, sticks her finger in one and sniffs it. Immediately she stops sweating, her body stops panicking, and the room fills with warmth, gold light, easy feelings.Beatrice Applies for Welfare
Of course, going back to the coffee shop is out of the question. The same junkie who told Beatrice about her foot turns her on to the welfare system. They’ll give it to anyone, he says, you just have to make it to all three appointments. Beatrice takes the subway back downtown to apply. She sits in a crowded room filled with desks like school. There are mostly women there, women with little kids. Disgusted workers sit in cubbies at the front of the room. They don’t bother lowering their voices when they talk to the women and Beatrice is embarrassed hearing other people’s personal stories. She sits at the desk and tries to read the book she brought with her, The Sun Also Rises, that she bought from a man on the street for twenty-five cents. Finally, a gray-haired man with a limp calls her name and Beatrice follows him back to his cubby. She tells him about her foot, about losing her waitressing job, about not being able to find work. She signs some papers, he gives her an address in Brooklyn for her next appointment and a voucher for subway and spending money to be used on the day of her appointment, one week from today.
Beatrice walks to the other side of the building to pick up her money. She stands on a long line to claim her twenty-three dollars. She returns home to Steve, twenty-one dollars and fifty cents richer after the subway ride. After discussing it, they decide to spend the money today and find a way to get Beatrice to her appointment in Brooklyn the following week. Steve goes out to score their dope and Beatrice feeds the cats and makes dinner : hot Farina with milk and sugar. Steve returns and they spend the evening listening to music on the stereo, falling asleep and burning holes in the couch with their cigarettes. Beatrice oversleeps and misses her appointment the following week.Steve Discovers Cocaine
One night, looking for Steve, Beatrice wanders down to John’s apartment and finds the two of them doing coke. Beatrice is hurt that Steve has been lying to her about the coke. We both have one habit, she reminds him, isn’t that enough? Steve tells her the coke isn’t really a habit, he doesn’t even enjoy it. I only do it at night, at the clubs, he tells her, when it’s hard for me to stay awake. I only do it when John has some, he says. Please, don’t worry.
Beatrice tries to believe him, but the coke changes Steve. He stays up all night, looking out the windows, thinking people are watching their apartment. He sells their television set, their stereo, anything they have that is worth money. He goes through Beatrice’s drawers, through her notebooks, trying to find evidence that she is cheating on him. He accuses her of being attracted to John, tries to find codes in her writing that will prove it.
Beatrice receives a check in the mail for a short story she wrote and Steve steals the money. Beatrice has known Steve for five years and has never seen this kind of behavior before. She is frightened. They have no money for bills, no money for the rent.
One afternoon Beatrice walks in on Steve chopping lines of coke on a CD cover. They begin to argue, and Beatrice, filled with an uncontrollable rage, picks up the CD cover from the coffee table and smashes it against the wall. They stand in silence, breathing heavily, waiting to see what will happen next. Beatrice wonders what Steve will do to her. Finally, because Steve is basically good and wouldn’t hurt Beatrice by throwing a chair at her or something equally predictable, he gathers her clothes from the orange chair, the end of the couch, and the bottom of the closet, and runs down the stairs with them. He runs down all five flights of stairs without stopping or slowing down. Beatrice follows him, vaguely high, vaguely weeping, wondering what Steve will do with her clothes. He reaches the street and begins to run down Third Ave., still holding her clothes, while Beatrice follows him, calling out for him to stop. Dark faces watch them solemnly from balconies, porches and the steps of bodegas. The sun is going down over Spanish Harlem, staining the sky with its orange light. Steve runs for four blocks, Beatrice following, then suddenly drops her clothes and turns at 101st St. toward Second, still running. Beatrice gathers the clothes and walks slowly back to their apartment.Steve and Beatrice Wait For The End
Finally, their electricity is shut off; they have been in the apartment just over a year. Steve and Beatrice stop talking. When they talk, they only end up screaming at each other. At night, they light candles. Beatrice is waiting for something, some kind of end to all of this madness. She wants to walk away, but doesn’t know how.
It is late afternoon, February. They sit quietly in the apartment, drinking Travelers Club vodka straight from the bottle and chasing it with water. It has been three months since they have paid any rent. There is a knock at the door, then the sound of quickly retreating footsteps. Steve and Beatrice look at one another, without surprise, or even wonder. There isn’t any surprise or wonder left for either of them. Beatrice gets up and opens the door. There is a piece of paper stuck to their front door; it says EVICTION NOTICE. Beatrice shows it to Steve without a word. The afternoon’s light is draining out of the windows. Beatrice stands up and begins to light the candles, one by one. Steve comes up behind her, touches her shoulder. Beatrice places her hand over his and they begin this last bit of waiting.
© 2007 Underground Voices