The following short story was written as part of an assignment for English 405 at CSULB. It is the first draft. A final version is due in December.
Read Part One Here: Chacho and The Five-Dollar Bag
He can hear Kiki’s mother screaming behind the door. His sister Gina opens it, and she’s crying. Chacho pushes his way in, rapping some shit about, “I saw some guys try to rob Kiki, and they chased him into the building, but I told them that he ran down 141st street.” He prayed that Kiki had not given them another story.
Momma is still screaming. Sister is still crying. Kiki has his snatch and run uniform off, holding a towel against his left arm full of blood dripping down onto the black case that he had taken from the old woman on the floor. It was slightly open, and Chacho, huffing and puffing out of breath, could see the corner of a bible inside. Kiki looked at him and then at the black case with the bible book peeking through the unzippered opening and back to Chacho. What the fuck? He mouthed.
There’s so much chaos that Kiki’s mother and sister don’t see the black case on the floor. His mother is on the phone calling someone to come over and take Kiki to the hospital. Chacho slowly bends down and picks up the case, catching Kiki’s eye, who’s mouthing to Chacho to take that shit outa here. Chacho backs out of apartment 12B, talking about how he’s going to find those ladrones de mierda, fucking thieves, who tried to rip off Kiki. No one hears him or cares.
Chacho steps out into the hallway, finds the stairs, and slowly makes his way down twelve floors hoping not to run into those guys who were chasing Kiki or anyone from his family or anyone who knows them. When he gets to the first-floor landing, he stops and opens the black case. Inside a pocket, Chacho can see money sticking out. His eyes bulge in surprise, then he freaks, thinking about taking money from an old woman. But Chacho’s nose is now running full drip of snots, his body shivering from more than the winter cold. All that really matters now is stopping the shaking.
He falls back onto the wall of the first-floor hallway, and his mind races with calculations. Chacho counts it…twenty-five dollars. That’s five five-dollar bags. That’s at least two, maybe three days of getting high.
As he stands in the hallway to his building’s back door, Chacho thinks that, in the future, he will respect all old ladies walking down the streets with their bibles and purses from now until his death. Chacho will ask that they forgive him even as they look at him and wonder, “¿Qué te pasa, chico?” What’s wrong, boy?. “Nada, I just need your forgiveness forever.”
Chacho turns and hustles out the back of the building into the playground, where he walks across Willis Avenue looking over his shoulder for la jara or the guys still looking for Kiki. He passes Sammy’s and scopes the clock inside. It’s eight o’clock, and he really needs to get high soon. Determined but still shaking, he heads to Westchester Avenue, the number 26 bus to 156th and the man with the best dope in the Bronx.
Chacho has heard of El Gato. Big-time drug dealer. What the fuck was he doing up in here? The trashed-up and boarded-up tenement building on 156th Street is littered with dead syringes, yellowed newspapers, beer bottles, discarded glassine bags, and the lingering smell of too much dope, too much alcohol, and too much death. Chacho struggles up the darkness-covered stairs to the third floor, hoping he doesn’t step on no shit and no dead junkie who gave his life for a high that he will never repeat.
When Chacho left the Seminary, his friends, including Kiki, told him that his student deferment was dead. Nothing was going to save him from the draft. It was only a matter of time before Chacho got the call: next stop, Vietnam. Crazy advice followed.
Carlos told him, “If you shootin’ junk, they won’t take you.”
Herman’s idea was even crazier, “Bro, when they call you down, go high. Punch some holes in ya veins, and they won’t draft ya.”
Kiki had the plan all worked out.
“Chacho, it’s real simple. All you gotta do is get strung out. Ride the white horse into the main vein direct to your brain all the way to the draft board.”
Chacho is in a deep hole. This is not what my mother and father had prayed for me.
El Gato lies on a cot in front of an open oven door, trying to stay warm. His hands are smeared with too much pain, blood, and dirt. It’s hard to believe this broken-down-looking man has got the best dope in the Bronx. At least, that’s what Kiki told him.
“He’s a little messed up now,” Kiki told Chacho, “But, he still got good connections.”
A trail of dead food, half-empty beer cans, old smelly rags spill out behind Chacho as he moves a battered stuffed chair closer to the man. El Gato fumbles with a grease-stained brown shopping bag next to him. Out comes a smaller brown bag also marked with blood and dirt.
“I just wanna skin-pop. I don’t mainline,” Chacho says nervously.
El Gato digs into the paper bag for the improvised tools whose only job is to plunge heroin into one’s central vein, where it will crawl up the arm through the body into the brain. He pulls out an eyedropper. A small needle with a red cap is supposed to protect someone from being pricked. That’s funny, Chacho laughs inside. He’s getting ready to shove heroin…or what El Gato claims is heroin…into his body, and they’re worried about their fingers being pricked.
Up until that moment in that jive-ass shooting gallery, Chacho had been snorting or popping, injecting under his skin. It takes a little longer to catch the rush, but he had been assured by the best street dope experts that he wouldn’t get hooked. They were lying. El Gato wonders what the point is.
“Man, if you main, ya don’t have to use as much. Ya get high faster.”
There is always a ritual when preparing for death. First, don’t worry about sterile. Ignore the dirt on the floor. Ignore the old blood dripping down walls that haven’t been washed since the building began or the smell of old piss and dying garbage all around you. “Man, did someone die up in here?” This is not Good Housekeeping certified.
The old junkie has an old bottle full of water.
“I cleaned the bottle, man, before I put water in it,” he assures Chacho, who knows he’s lying, but he doesn’t care.
El Gato takes the rusting bottle cap off and sets it down on a broken-down coffee table next to him. If that table could only talk, Chacho knows it would warn him, “Don’t take this ride on the mainline home.”
The stench from El Gato, the crying voices from elsewhere in the shooting gallery where the same ritual is happening. All of it is starting to choke Chacho’s mind. He just wants to get high and get out of there, down those dark steps, and rush into the street, praying that he has some coins for the bus ride home.
There’s a small ball of cotton stuck to the inside of the cap like it’s permanently engraved there.
“Gimme the bag,” the old junkie snorts.
There’s one five-dollar bag of heroin. Chacho is holding on to the other bags. A five-dollar bag is best for only one person, but El Gato has the works, the tools for the injection.
“Yeah, since we be sharing one bag, you gotta main, or you ain’t gonna get high.”
Chacho is convinced. See how easy it is. Why be in that cesspool shooting gallery if he ain’t going to get high.
Practice makes perfect as El Gato wraps the belt around Chacho’s upper arm, looking for the central vein crying for the high. The muddy water sucks up through the thin needle from the bottle cap through that week’s old cotton ball up into the eyedropper back down through the needle into his bulging vein. His blood percolates back up and down with a rush of warmth.
Chacho knows the heroin is authentic, imported from some foreign country, smuggled across thousands of miles hidden in suitcase bottoms to apartments where naked women mix it with baby milk powder (or worse) into glassine bags into the hands of Paco down the block onto pissed on steps leftover from the last fool who overdosed crying for his mommy into an overused rusting bottle cap with water that ain’t clean through a dirty needle into the main vein. For Chacho, this will not end with a trip home.
Chacho slides down the overstuffed chair until he’s now half sitting in the chair and the floor and his legs are splayed in two different directions. El Gato jumps up from his cot. He’s wearing an army jacket over a full-length wool coat. A scarf wrapped so many times around his neck that it must feel like it’s choking him. Chacho’s eyes are rolling back in his head. El Gato is screaming, slapping Chacho across the face. One cheek, then another.
“Get up, dude. Get up. Ya’ can’t die here.”
El Gato grabs Chacho’s feet while yelling out to other people elsewhere in the apartment. Two dope fiends rush in.
“Help me get this motherfucka’ outa here. He dies here, and we’re all fucked.”
But first, business is business.
“Check his pockets. See if got any more dope or money.”
They ransack Chacho’s motionless body, pulling at his pockets, finding the other bags and a black case they open, seeing a bible inside.
El Gato is pissed.
“Motherfucka’ was holding out on me.”
Junkie number one grabs one arm, and Junkie number two grabs the other arm. All three carry an already or soon to be deadweight Chacho out the apartment door and turn left onto the stairs up to the roof.
“Let’s dump him on the roof,” El Gato says thoughtfully, “Man ain’t gonna be dead in my pad.”
And that’s it. Pedro, aka Chacho, is dying alone on the roof of a five-story shabby-ass tenement building full of shooting gallery apartments where heavenly music crashes with the sounds of sirens and people screaming outside. This is not how the day was supposed to end, as Chacho swears to the night sky that he can’t die. He’s got things to do. There’s that job he has to get. The one that Carmen demanded he gets during their last argument so they can get married. She wants a big wedding and a white wedding dress and a honeymoon in old San Juan. But he can’t get a job because he’s a junkie, and mom and pop tell him that he’s got to move out. “I no want a junkie livin’ here,” tears washing over her brown face.
Carmen will not be getting her wedding, and his parents won’t have to worry anymore about kicking him out.
Chacho wonders if people can see their soul falling, life’s breath oozing out as he goes from looking up at the sky to looking down on his body. How is that even possible is his last fading thought.
Feature Image by RenoBeranger from Pixabay