Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 120 in October, 2009.
As he launched his skate across jittery Canal Street the sun was setting. He olleyed up the curb, but the sidewalk was too crowded, so he had to hop back onto the street. As he turned back to watch for cabs coming up behind him he missed the wide streets of LA. But, it was the peak of the summer when the setting sun cut across the island on its way to the other side of the world and sometimes rested on top of a westward thruway like a giant blood orange sitting at the end of the street.
The Chinese and Africans were closing up shop for the day, shutting metal grates upon boxes of knock-off designer purses and watches, fake leather belts and sunglasses.
The banks had Chinese lettering under their names and the street vendors weren't hawking hot dogs, but melons, guava, mangos and roasted nuts in their native tongue. The sidewalks were packed no less efficiently than if the whole block had been a closet and someone had placed people like objects in every available foot of space. He felt like a foreigner. He stopped on the corner of Mott and Canal as Killian had instructed him. Then, above the heads of Chinese, he saw his friend.
The strong, reticent boy he'd grown up with had become a wall of a man in four years. Walking slowly towards him in camouflage shorts and wife beater he cut a fearsome figure and Mickey was immediately jealous of the power he had accrued with the help of the government. His head was covered with a red stubble, as was his jaw and everything about him seemed to have become denser, including his eyes. For a moment Mickey felt so unprepared to confront the cold new reality his friend brought with him that the thought of running again flitted through his mind. But, he had already crossed the whole country.
He tried to smile wide as Killian approached. He stuck out his hand and Killian gripped it and it took everything Mickey had to hold the calm, appraising gaze his best friend now greeted him with. He wanted to hug him, but he stood and waited for Killian to initiate.
"Welcome to New York," he said. "Come on."
Mickey smiled wanly, nodded and followed. The smell of the raw fish and crustaceans packed dead in buckets of ice in front of the dozens of identical shops outside Killian's apartment building on Mott street permeated the hallway. Killian shouted hello to a couple of Chinese residents on the way up the six flights and Mickey was impressed and happy for his old friend.
“Always the big friendly guy,” ribbed Mickey.
“Right,” said Killian. "Still skating, huh?"
"I see you finally took the sticker off that hat like I told you."
"Thanks for hooking me up so last minute," Mickey said, as he trudged up the stairs behind him.
"We'll get to that later. Your bag scares me."
Mickey had hoped not to have to explain to Killian how much he needed him, that their rekindled friendship would be enough to keep them coasting without too many questions for a month or two until Mickey could figure out what he was doing with his life.
Killian opened the steel door and said, “Not a word.”
The studio smelled of sage, mildew and cigarettes. It was covered in a tan carpet that wasn't as dirty as it could have been. Parallel to the front door, if one could have called it that, for front doors promise a space much larger than what Mickey took in now, was a desk with a closed notebook on it. Next to it was a copy of the New York Tribune. A picture of one of Saddam Hussein's sons lying dead and whitened in his robe, head covering askew and a small trail of blood running out of his nose took up the top portion of the cover. Underneath it said DEAD OR ALIVE.
It was completely devoid of technology. There was no bed, no TV, no DVD, no stereo and no computer. At the far end of the place, which Mickey estimated to have been no larger than three-hundred square feet, there was a mat made of straw bordered by thin strips of black cloth. It was smaller than a single bed and under it rested another very thin black mat of the same size. On the left wall there was a stack of books: architectural, engineering titles and some other nonfiction, all with library stickers on their spine, and a Bible. The walls were bare except for a Chinese calendar, which had Xs on various days. Two windows above the sleeping mat were the only portals to the outside world, besides the door. They faced the street with a fire escape outside. He'd crossed the country to end up in the same place. But worse.
"Bathroom's in the hall. Wear shoes," Killian said.
As Killian went to close the door behind them a voice came from the floor bathroom. Over Killian's shoulder Mickey saw a greasy, nearly hairless man of indeterminate old age who resembled an albino mouse that had been completely tweezed. He scratched his chest under a dingy white v-neck. Listening to him speak was like hearing the approach, passing and disappearance of a car with its driver's hand glued to a horn low on batteries.
“What for, Manny?” Manny shuffled and broke into a wide toothless grin aimed at his ratty brown leather shoe clad feet.
Killian chuckled. “I'd give you mine if I had one.”
Here was a man beaten by life, thought Mickey, but though touched by the gentleness Killian offered him, he was anxious and hungover and all the pity he possessed had been used up on himself.
“Can we smoke in here?” he asked Killian.
“Of course.” Mickey went inside.
“Well,” said Killian, digging for change and coming up with some cotton and two quarters, “since I don't have one. Here. But, on the condition you let me come over and watch it.”
“Be careful, Manny.”
He nodded excitedly as he turned, already someplace else.
As Mickey could have told Killian, it was here Manny's escape began. Having the money in your hand and being on your way to buy something with which to get high was akin to being high. Ten steps down Manny looked up to Killian watching him go.
“I know, Manny.”
“There already is.”
Manny looked him in the eyes belying a trace of the far off human he once was and, for a millisecond, they met as equals. Then the spirits washed the man away and the mouse kept shuffling down.
Mickey was finishing his cigarette when Killian came back in.
“Nice place,” he said.
“I like it.”
“It's been a long time.”
“It's good to see you.”
“You have some time?”
“Man, I got all the time in the world."
Mickey was perturbed by Killian's behavior. The light-hearted stoicism and playful toughness of the old Killian had been replaced by a sad, almost morose, kind of knowing. He noticed the water pipe running across the ceiling with cloth taped to it and felt a twinge of shame thinking of Killian fighting for their country while he snorted coke and slept with a prostitute. He thought of who he used to think he would be at twenty-six and who he was now. The two men were universes away. He wondered if Killian felt the same. He looked over at him. He sat on the ledge and stared out the window at the brick wall as he sipped his tea. Mickey couldn't take it.
“Dude. What the fuck?”
“Sorry?” Killian snapped out of whatever dream he was in and looked at the person who had been his best friend with cold eyes.
“I said what the fuck? What's going on here?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you act like you don't even know me. Why did you even write me in the first place when you got back from wherever the fuck you disappeared to if you're gonna be like this?"
"I wrote. I don't remember an invitation." He still looked out the window, sipping calmly.
"That's fucked up."
Killian just raised his eyebrows, as if he knew nothing.
"What the fuck, man?" Mickey stood up. He was scared, but he refused to let himself be scared of Killian. It just couldn't be that way.
"I haven't seen your ass in four years and I come to visit you, which—by the way—your crib looks like it could belong to a fucking Chinese Unibomber or something—after being on a fucking bus and getting the circulation cut off in my legs for seven days and you treat me like this? I'm walking around here on fucking eggshells, man!
"And I know you've been through it- More than I probably ever will, man. But, FUCK! You want me to fucking leave? Cause, honestly, after the last week I do not give a fuck, bro. Say it. Say the word and I'm out.”
His fists were clenched in anticipation of Killian's explosion.
"It's like after Nine-Eleven—you just—stopped caring about everything you ever cared about before. I mean—that shit fucked everybody up, man."
Killian still didn't look at him. He appeared to be in deep thought. Suddenly, he stood up and Mickey got ready. But, Killian's arms hung loosely at his sides and he met Mickey's eyes.
“I'm sorry,” he said softly.
“I'm sorry. I apologize.”
“I am. I'm sorry. I know.”
“Are you alright, man? I mean, fuck—Are you—” Killian pulled him to him in his big arms and hugged him close. Mickey returned the embrace.
Killian said, “I missed you, man. I did. We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Mickey pushed him away and punched him in the chest lightly. “Fuck, man! You're goddamn right, bro! That's what I'm talking about!” And they slapped hands and half-hugged like they used to. If Mickey could have seen Killian's eyes he would have seen that they were dead, but serendipitously he couldn't and thus the bond was reformed and the old excitement of being twice as strong and twice as alive and having the whole night ahead came back to Mickey with the rush of home.
Killian turned on the stove and got the vial he'd bought from Ziang off the top shelf. He poured a bit of green powder into two teacups. While he busied himself, Mickey took a lungful of air and explained the circumstances under which he'd come. Killian didn't look at him, but the thin wry smile on his lips was his old self's.
"So, I'm sorry, man, if I made it seem like I came just to visit you. I also came to save myself."
"I knew that, Mick. Or a version thereof." He smiled for the first time.
"You didn't know that."
"I know you, bro." Mickey felt good. Things were almost back as they were. "LA tears people up doesn’t it?"
"Yeah it does," Mickey whispered.
"Crips are crazy."
"Yeah they are. It's like they fucking followed me from Eighteenth street. Remember that time?"
"I remember waiting for your ass to catch up."
"I think that was the fastest I've ever run in my entire life," said Mickey, immediately regretting it. He felt as though nothing was in its old context anymore. Every crazy time they'd had was now dwarfed and ridiculed by the war.
"Not many gangs out here," Killian said. "Lotta cops though. Stuck in the system," he muttered.
"You too?" Mickey ventured, rolling his cigarette deftly over and under his knuckles.
Killian stared at his hand. "I never could get that as good as you."
"It was always a good party trick."
Killian poured steaming water from the pot into each cup. “Are you on the wagon now?”
“Good,” he said, handing him the tea.
“Because this would kick you off.”
“What is it?” Mickey smelled it. It reeked of strong, wet bark, but with a metallic odor he couldn't place.
“Because you can only get this shit from some tribe in the jungles of Venezuela or something.”
Twenty minutes later Mickey was not wondering where Killian had gotten the Ibogaine. He was wondering why what he knew to be an off-white wall was slowly turning green.
Killian was watching him. “You alright?”
“I think so. Feels like mushrooms only. Lighter,” whispered Mickey.
“I've been doing this since I got back.”
“From Iraq?” Killian nodded.
“There were rumors. Out there. About doctors giving it to vets. Experimental treatments to make peace with the past. Ecstasy. Acid, too. Are you seeing things in green?”
Mickey nodded, drymouthed.
“Guys conjuring up people they fucked up on a trip. Apologizing. Post-traumatic stress. Whatever the fuck.”
Mickey was getting more and more fucked up as Killian spoke. He had done his fare share of hallucinogens, but this was different. He felt like he was dreaming, far away and trying to grasp the trailing thread of Killian's monologue as one grasps at the sound of an alarm clock while struggling to break the surface of a deep sleep.
Everything was green. The wall, the apartment, the sky outside and Killian were all shades of green. He wanted to laugh at Killian for reminding him suddenly of the Hulk, but then it was all replaced by the site of his mother as a young woman. Beautiful, radiating a forced sweetness to cover her pain, she danced around a small fire in the middle of Killian's apartment while his faceless father lurked in the shadows. Her belly seemed about to burst. Inside of her Mickey prepared to enter the world. Her hair had three braids and she danced slowly, gracefully. She was the only thing that wasn't green.
“Have you ever seen them? The people you?—” he asked Killian, wrenching himself away from the disturbing scene.
Killian took his time answering. He seemed defeated as he did.
“No. I see my sister.”
His mother was dancing again. His father was gone and when he looked back at her she stopped and looked him dead in the eyes. The red evening dress she now wore fit snugly over her pregnant belly and Mickey wanted to tell her she didn't have to wear the black heals. She stood like this looking at him and suddenly she was herself as she was now in Venice, somberly cooking dinner in her apartment. She wore a black dress and at first Mickey thought the tears running down her cheeks were from the rain, which fell off her black wide-brimmed hat and sizzled in drops on the frying pan next to the bacon. Then her eyes looked past him and he turned around to see a casket being lowered into the ground. He lunged upwards to comfort her but there was only air where she had been and he fell onto Killian who caught him quickly with one arm.
He clumsily lifted himself from Killian's grasp and stumbled to the window to light a cigarette, but he only succeeded in holding it between his lips and staring out at the green brick wall.
Killian's arm appeared over his shoulder to light it for him and he inhaled.
“Fucking A.” He offered Killian a cigarette and they smoked standing, facing the window immobile.
After standing in those same positions for two hours without moving so much as to smoke another cigarette Killian suggested they head outside and so they went, very slowly, not as men who were inebriated, but as men who were in no hurry to be anywhere except exactly where they were. Mickey was happy they didn't encounter Manny.
“He's a vet,” said Killian, as they reached the street. “Vietnam. Lives on a disability pension that allows him to stay in the apartment and drink all he wants.”
“Disability?” Mickey asked.
Killian pointed to his head.
As they walked through the deserted Chinatown Killian began to answer a question Mickey had wanted to ask for four years.
"I got locked up too, Mick."
"For what?" Mickey was shocked. "You used to get so pissed at me—"
"I wasn't robbing a liquor store—"
"It's the immigrant in you—"
"Too much respect for your adopted country."
"Not anymore, Mick. Not anymore."
"So? What happened?"
Killian shook his head as they walked and smoked.
"You're not even gonna tell me what you did?"
Killian stopped walking and faced him. "You really wanna hear it, bro?"
"Really?" They stood looking at each other on the empty corner of Canal and Broadway with only the occasional taxicab creeping slowly for a fare to disturb the windless silence of the city asleep, strangers and friends. Killian's rage was like an engine at five-thousand RPMs and Mickey could hear it and it made him wonder if maybe the hood over that engine, once opened, would release something that could not be put back.
"It's okay," he said to his shoes and took a step in the direction they'd been heading. "Tell me when you're ready."
Killian walked with him and soon they were back in the comfortable equinox where their friendship had always rested.
“After?” Mickey asked after a while.
“All over. Nevada. Arizona. Mexico."
“Didn't you think we were all waiting?”
“Are you kidding?”
Killian kept on walking as if he didn't hear.
“Did you ever give a moment's though to what we all went through? Your parents? We thought you were dead."
Killian chuckled and remained silent while Mickey waited again for the explosion. Then he spoke.
“There are things one has to do. To live and not die. Things that nobody else can understand.”
They walked on. Mickey had been friend to Killian for two years when Killian's sister, Maggie, had died. It was the one and only time he'd ever seen Killian cry and he had known enough about Killian's relationship with his parents to know that it was in front of him alone he had shed them. Mickey bought two forties and they drank them on the jetty at Will Rogers beach, pouring out the last few sips in honor of Maggie just like their favorite rappers did. Then they had gone night surfing by the light of the full moon.
A southwest swell had come out of nowhere and the wind had picked up and the ocean had roared as if seeking vengeance for Maggie and floating out there between swells Mickey had been sure he'd heard human screams in the saltwater cauldron. But, Killian would not come in. Finally, Mickey paddled in, leaving him out there. Hours later, as the sun was peaking through the grey of the calming storm Mickey woke and watched him stumble out of the surf, throw his board down and collapse on the beach next to him.
They walked all night and although silence prevailed, a closeness seemed to be re-established between the two young men with every step they took. They walked south. Through Chinatown, passed the courthouses on Centre Street to the Brooklyn Bridge, which they crossed to one side and back. Mickey stopped several times to admire the twinkling lights and bright illumination of all the skyscrapers in this new city of his. He took it all in better than he ever would have drunk or high or sober: The green and yellow tip of the Empire State Building, the perfectly spaced lights of the Manhattan Bridge, the starless sky sacrificed for the starry ground, the unevenly lit windows of buildings of every shape and size which held humans behind each and every one living lives and caring cares he would never know.