Black Tar

Black Tar

By Andrew James Rush

The tenderloin was crawling with cops that night, meandering up and down the one way streets with their searchlights, and junkies were scurrying like frightened rodents when the lights come on. They were trying to score. Trying to use. Trying to get through one more night in the belly of hell. I was doing my best to act like I had somewhere to go, fingering the stolen twenty in my pocket and scanning the little nooks and crevices of the rundown buildings for a dealer. I figured I probably didn’t know all of them, but I’d know one when I saw one, because he would open his mouth and show me all the little twisted baggies of dope he was carrying in there, and I’d just say

“Twenty, black.”

and he’d spit into his palm and then we’d act like we were shaking hands, but we’d transfer contents and I’d have the dope and he’d have the money.

I didn’t look like a junkie. I was on my way home from work and the clothes I was wearing were tattered and covered in flour, but my shoes were brand new. They were my only pair of shoes. A week ago I'd had to throw away my last pair because they were beginning to rot from the mold that had started to grow in the caked on flour, accumulated from months of making pizza at the shitty pizzeria night after night and they wouldn't make it through another shift. My wife had paid for the new ones, reluctantly, and we'd argued about how I was always broke.

Cops were everywhere, and they saw me. I saw them see me. It didn’t matter. They probably knew I was a user. But I was white, and I had a job. They saw me out here every night at around the same time. The restaurant I worked at was open until two in the morning, and I would always walk home through pill hill.

But I was white, and I didn’t look like a junkie. Sure, my hair and beard were unkempt and frizzy, and my clothes were tattered and the flour made them look like they were sun bleached, but I had showered that day. And besides, I didn’t walk like a junkie or talk like a junkie. I kept my head up and walked a straight line, just like I was walking home.

And I was. I was just picking something up along the way.

The one day a month when the cops prowled around like this, obviously making some kind of token effort to arrest anybody they could so they could prove that they were doing something to stop the epidemic of addiction, I just had to be a little more careful. But I wasn’t really worried about that. I was worried I might not score.

I’d already had a scare about it at work. Usually, lifting a twenty from the register was a piece of cake, but that night I’d been training a new cashier, and we'd had to count the till together. I had pulled some crazy slight of hand shit and tucked it in my pocket when she wasn’t looking. I hadn’t been sure I’d be able to pull it off, so when I slipped the bill into my pocket and she hadn’t noticed, I felt a sense of warm relief that almost made my dope flu go away for a few minutes.

But now, doing my best to walk confidently through the crawling streets among the scattering, desperate junkies, I was sick as a dog. My nose ran, and I wasn’t sure how long I could go before I shit my pants. I managed to fight off the tremors, but the biggest thing about dope sickness that nobody tells you is the fear. There’s this ever-present cloud of non-specific terror that hangs over you and rains down doom and bad omens. It feels like the whole world is going to end.

That motherfucker was hanging over me like I owed it money. And I did, of course. Man, I owed it so much goddamn money. All of it. Forever.

When I first started using dope, it had been this kind of giddy little secret I had. It was a secret they’d first kept from me. Nobody told me how good it was, how it made you feel so safe and warm. Everybody acted like it was this evil thing, but it wasn’t. It was just a cozy blanket. I’d wake up the next day and I’d be just fine. Alcohol was the real villain. You drink enough alcohol to feel half that good, and the next day you can’t even get out of bed. The day after heroin I was alive. I was rested and ready to go!

Then after work, I’d score on my way home and I’d play with the little pebble sized chunk in my pocket, practically skipping the rest of the way. Hair-Oh-Weeeen! Hair-Oh-Weeeen! I’d sing silently to myself. My wife worked a regular day job, and she’d always be asleep long before I got home, so I’d have the whole living room to myself, and I’d watch the kind of garbage TV that was on that late at night, the kind of garbage you had to be fucked up to watch, and I’d nod off in my pre-cognitive orgasms until it was time to clean up before she had to get ready for work.

But recently all that had changed. I could barely get high off the stuff. Well, I probably could if I’d just bite the bullet and shoot it, but I knew that would spell the end for me. I was already a full-blown addict, and I was starting to see that if smoking it wouldn’t get me high anymore after months of using, eventually shooting it wouldn’t get me high either. I was going to have to quit.

But not tonight goddamn it. It was only three and I was already almost too sick to walk around acting like I was a normal person. I had to work the next day too, and if I didn’t use there was no way I’d be able to even get to work, much less get through the whole ten hour shift. It was simply out of the question.

I got to the block with my apartment, and I still hadn’t seen a dealer, so I turned down Leavenworth and decided to circle back through the whole neighborhood. Yeah, the cops would see me again, and this time they’d definitely know what I was doing, but as long as they didn’t actually see me score, it would be fine. What choice did I have? If I couldn’t work, I might as well be in jail.

So this is how it happens. This is how people end up like this, I thought as I watched a homeless man leaning against a tree, shitting, his eyes rolling around in his skull as the vile liquid ran down his inner thigh, too thin and watery to exit cleanly. That would be me soon.

I turned on Turk. There was an old white guy kneeling on the sidewalk, his cheeks sunken and gaunt.

“Black?” I asked.

Usually I didn’t ask outright. Most times they would let you know as you walked past, even if you were trying to look like you had perfectly normal business being there and even if you didn’t look like a junkie, which I didn’t. But the way he was kneeling like that, I thought maybe he was waiting for a customer.

He stood up and approached me, and I saw the desperation in his eyes. He thought I was selling. “Look man, I ain’t got cash right now, but front me a dime, huh? I’ll pay you tomorrow, swear.”

“Sorry, I ain’t holdin’, I’m lookin’.” For whatever reason, when I was trying to score I always talked like this. Any other time, I enunciated fully and articulately. But not on these streets. I talked like I was one of them, maybe. Or maybe just not me.

The man shuffled back to his square of sidewalk and knelt down again, his jaw working up and down as he shook his head slowly side to side.

“You lookin’ for black?” another old man called out in a loud whisper. I hadn’t noticed him leaning against the gated alley behind me. Up close I wasn’t sure anymore if he was old.

“Yeah. Twenty.”

He gave a toothless smile and looked side to side. A black-and-white crossed the street at the corner but quickly disappeared. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a single tiny plastic bindle. “I only got one.”

I showed him my twenty, and seconds later I was back on O’Farrell. I felt the rush of certainty. It wasn’t quite like the giddiness of the old days, maybe because I knew I probably wouldn’t get high. Not off of one bag. But my heart rate was up and I took the stairs of my building two at a time, barely aware that I was squeezing my asshole shut so I wouldn’t shit myself. The dope felt slightly different as I fingered it in my pocket, but I shrugged it off.

Once in my apartment, a junior one-bedroom, I immediately set out to smoke the heroin. First I had to turn the TV on so my wife wouldn’t hear what I was doing, but it didn’t matter what was on. Then I went into the kitchen and took a sheet of aluminum foil. I’d done this so many times in the quiet dead of the night I could do it without crinkling the aluminum at all. Silent. I tore it into a neat square and folded two perpendicular creases in it.

Back at the couch, I dug under the cushion and found the ink pen I always used, caked on the inside with resin that smelled like burnt sugar and opium. The little rod full of ink with the writing end was still inside, as if, when someone found it, they wouldn’t notice that it had been used to smoke hundreds of dollars worth of heroin, and they’d just write with it like it was a completely normal pen. I’d once tried to scrape the resin out to smoke it in desperation, but it seemed to bond chemically with the plastic and it didn’t want to come out without scraping out thin ribbons of plastic with it. I took the ink rod out and removed the cap so that it was just a hollow tube, and I put it next to the square of aluminum foil on the coffee table.

I immediately recognized that there was something different about this little bindle of plastic and black substance. For one, it wasn’t wrapped up as tightly as normal. This was not completely surprising or unusual in itself. Often, when the streets are bare, junkies will buy what they can get their hands on, chip off tiny bits of each bag for themselves, and sell the leftover. People out there are always trying to screw each other to get by. Just an endless sea of junkies stealing from each other to feed their habits.

But it wasn’t just that the plastic was loose.

The chunk inside was also far too rigid and jagged, and the little rock part of it was encased in a thin, oily film. Black tar heroin was an extremely variable substance, and I supposed that it was stepped on several times before it got to me. Sometimes it was like rock candy. Sometimes it was like oily toffee.

I tore at the plastic with my fingernails and fished out the little rock. It was much blacker, and it was gritty, and the thin film stuck to my fingers like oil paint.

I just hoped it would be good.

I flicked my lighter and held it under the foil, prepared for the little rock to bubble and slide along the shiny surface, ready to chase it with my pen between my lips and suck up the vapor. It didn’t bubble. There was no vapor. I held the lighter closer. The foil turned orange like the embers of a campfire. Finally, a little smoke started to rise. My mouth was watering.

I sucked up the thick smoke, and when it hit the back of my throat I gagged and coughed, the taste coated my mouth, pungent and toxic like a tire fire. It was tar. Literal black tar.

I’d tried to smoke a chunk of asphalt.

I threw the foil down on the table and gagged again, my mouth still full of the taste. I ran to the toilet, barely making it, and horked up a tiny spurt of bile and mucous. I couldn’t taste it. All I tasted was the asphalt. There on my knees in front of the toilet with my mouth a hot section of fresh highway, it struck me how fucked I was. I’d spent my last twenty - my stolen twenty - on bunk dope, and now I was going to get sick. Really sick. I wouldn’t make it to work. My asshole clenched as I remembered the man trying to shit on the tree, getting it on himself instead. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I don’t know if I was crying. I don’t think I was crying.

I knew what I had to do, but I couldn’t think about it. I did it without thinking. I just went away for a bit, let myself go on autopilot.

The door to my wife’s bedroom, the place where I never slept, opened silently and my hands groped in the dark where I knew her purse would be. When they found it, there were two twenties in the wallet. Better than one.

I walked back out onto the sidewalk and I still couldn’t keep my mouth closed for the taste. There! I recognized a dealer, and I almost ran to her. Maybe I'd get high after all, which was good, because I'd stolen money from my wife and I knew there would be hell to pay for that. She might even figure out that I was still using.

“Hey, take it easy,” she said as I rabidly approached.

“Black. Forty,” I said.

“It’s sixty for one right now my man.”

“What?! That’s not fair!”

“Ain’t nobody else out here. Not with all these cops,” she said with an indifferent shrug. “I ain’t goin’ to jail for twenty.”

“Please, all ll I have is forty,” I begged.

She leaned back against the wall of the building and looked down Leavenworth in the direction traffic came from. There were no cars. “Get outta here, man. You’re drawing attention.”

“Please!” I begged, tears on my face again. I wasn’t crying. I’m sure I wasn’t. “I have forty.”

She looked me up and down. “Fine. But give me your shoes too.”

"What? What do you want my shoes for?"

“I want you to pay me. You want 'em back, bring me the other twenty tomorrow.”

“Yeah. No problem.” I felt my mouth smile wide in spite of myself, a smile that tasted as foul as it truly was, and now I think I was crying.

“That’s just for your shoes,” she scolded. “You want more dope tomorrow, give me twenty for your shoes and then we'll talk.” She put a small chunk of dark brown rock candy in my palm. No plastic at all this time. It was tiny. Maybe a half a bag.

"I can't get well with this," I said with a slight panic.

"You still smokin'?"

"Yeah," I answered.

She handed me a plastic baggie with a syringe and a cotton ball inside. "Come back tomorrow.

“Yeah. Tomorrow.”

I walked as quickly as I could in my bare feet back to my apartment, a patch of warm wetness growing around my asshole, and I passed the tree with a puddle of murky brown shit like chocolate milk, flies already swarming around it. I stepped carefully so I wouldn't get any on my feet and once in the building I took the stairs two at a time again. Never mind the situation in my pants. The heroin was melting in my hands, sticking to my palm, and I kept it moving like a piece of chocolate candy so I wouldn't lose too much before I could shoot it. It was going to be okay.

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