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Jim Feast

{In this excerpt from a longer work, the hero, Raskin Hasp, a reformed drug addict, goes back to one of his old haunts to enlist the help of two ex-friends in trying to get some information on a clinic.}

The building to which I was going opened off a courtyard, up three steps from the hardware-strewn sidewalk. A recently burned-out appliance store stood across the street and accounted for the pipe fittings, wrench sets and hot plates lying on the curb. A row of exploded light bulbs, with merely the base and bits of the lower glass cupola remaining, had been stuck in a first-floor flower box where they sat like stubby, simplified violets.
     Once on the portico, I saw the building had deteriorated since my last visit. The roof had caved in and many windows were boarded up. The place I wanted was on the third floor, an anonymous door with a Popeye slit in the middle.
I rapped and the slit bucked open. “State your business.”
     “I’m here to see Knuckles.”
     “You know him.”
     “He knows me.” The slit boxed up again.
     After it flipped open a second time, I was admitted.
     There was Knuckles. He was a squat, portly, smoked-down cigar of a guy, wearing a black turtleneck and a parka. He saluted me with the hand which got him his name, three of the long fingers clipped down to the first joint.
On the stove behind him four burners were raging, heating pans of water to warm the place.
     Aside from the crib being deficient in steam heat, it had no electricity and was eerily lit by glass-enclosed botanica candles as well as by a few loose ones stuck in the chandelier. A glance deeper in showed me a junkie in a key lime windbreaker booting a hot shot, and others, further back, sitting on a couch, nodding in time to their sickness.
     “Say, punk boy,” Knuckles greeted me. “What the fuck? You been gone so long I thought you got smoked. You copping uptown?”
     “I’m off the shit.”
     “Yeah, walk in here saying that. That’s fucked-up, son.”
     “I’m looking for somebody.”
     “Sheet, punk boy, pull up a bowl and begin puffing.”
     “You seen Apeman?”
     “He’s on tap. He comes by.”
     Somebody bowled out of the darkened back premises. It was a pockmarked, scrawny Hispanic girl. At first Rask thought her hair was dyed with red streaks. As she came into the light, he saw they were lines of blood. She was holding a drained spike. “This shit’s not hitting, Knuckles,” she complained.
     “You got the vein?” he asked. Then they talked a minute in Spanish.
     I glanced in the bathroom that was opposite the front door. A man was sitting fully clothed in a bathtub full of water. I recognized him: Gordy, a freebaser and person with AIDS. I didn’t say anything, figuring he had good reason for whatever he was doing.
     I decided to go sit down, but as I started toward the couch, Knuckles grabbed my shoulder. “What the fuck you doing now?”
     “Thought I’d stretch out on your chaise lounge.”
     “This ain’t the fucking lonely hearts club. If you aren’t dropping any cake on me, you don’t need to be here.” His stooge had padded up behind him, functioning as a kind of human exclamation point to stress the seriousness of Knuckles’ tone.
     “Knuckles, come on,” I pleaded, not wanting to set up shop on the icy street corner. “I always kept it real with you.”
     “Yeah, you’re a great boy. Now bounce.”
     “Just let me chill a half-hour, see if Apeman gets here. It’s like 10 degree out.”
     “Tell you,” Knuckles said, pulling at his earlobe reflectively. “You could run me a little favor.”
     There was a knock at the slit and we all tensed for a minute until the transaction was completed.
     Knuckles then returned to the subject. “I could use some food. Things have been so busy.” He gestured at four or five shadowy figures in the muck.
     “You know, holiday season.”
     “If you could cop some chips, bread, corn beef hash.”
     I got the picture. What the hey, food had been the day’s motif anyway. Naturally, I was buying.
     Since I’m skipping the details, let’s just say I went out into the bracing cold dusk, now made even less hospitable by a filter of snow silting down, and filled a shopping bag with varied comestibles from a local bodega. It seemed even colder as I began trudging back. My perpetual low-grade fever did little to help my body combat the rapidly descending thermometer.
     As I neared the courtyard, head down to edge away from the snow, I was hailed from up ahead. It was the Ape, a florid, heavyset Irishman (a drunk and druggie), with his buddy Stormy, a wiry mulatto. Apeman had a black doctor’s satchel and Stormy carried four or five pairs of pliers he’d probably scavenged from the store.
     “Yo, Rask, I’ve been looking to get together with you,” Apeman said. “Could you lend me a bill? I’m short to cop.”
     “I can’t give you any paper but I can pay it to you.”
     “For what?”
     I explained the situation. I had rented a small cubicle in the Omnicram storage facility. I wanted to go there now and slip over to another cubicle—Wrangler had found out for me which cubicle the Institute rented—and break in. Easy work, just picking a lock.
     “You can do it yourself,” Ape said, “if it’s so easy. Just fork us the money.”
     “I don’t want people to know I broke in. I could break the lock but then I wouldn’t be accomplishing my purpose.”
     We had huddled in an areaway that led into some side chasm of the building.
     “We could piece it, huh?” Stormy contributed.
     Ape pulled his suit jacket closer. “You give me the money to make up my score. I’ll get straight, and then we’ll help you.”
     “Gee,” I said cockily, “I was hoping you’d do the job awake.”
     “That’s a crack, Ape. He’s cracking on you.”
     “Hey,” I told him, “it’s an easy fucking job. A pinball job.”
     “For me, it would be easy,” Ape agreed. “I was the best. With me, you used to get Renaissance-quality thievery. Just spade me some Benjamins.”
     “I don’t play that way, son. But I tell you what. I’ll give you the money when we get on the train. I see you got your tools.”
     Ape looked to Stormy who was checking the time. “I think we can do it. Where is this place?”
     I told him it was about 23rd and the Hudson River, and we set off for the station. Stormy summed it up, noticing how we all had the same set purpose in our eyes. “We trooping now. We trooping.”
     We got on the 6 at Elder Avenue and Stormy and I sat on one side talking while Ape spread across from us. The car was empty and mad hot, so Ape sat back up, removed his topcoat, shirt and undershirt. Then he lay back, bare-chested as if he were in a mobile sauna.
     All I did in response to the heat was remove my hat, a plastic derby reading “Happy 1995.” I’d had it for a long time. I took out my billfold and laid their wages on them.
     Ape straightened up. “More to a job.” He seemed to like the undistinguished phrase. “You know how all this happened?” He waved somewhat imprecisely, seeming to indicate the tunnel lights passing the belly of the car. Was he going to tell me how the subway system originated?
     “I robbed this jewelry store. Clean job. Boosted trays from the safe. And there was a brown paper sack in the back.”
     “I noticed it,” Stormy mentioned.
     “Yeah, Banzai here saw it, so we threw it in the trash bag we were carrying. That little paper sack was a drug stash
     “I wasn’t interested in getting high. I mean, I had my trade and my booze, so what more did I need? Then Banzai calculated how much that part of our grab was worth. It was coke. You weigh it like vegetables. Its value was higher than that of the jewels we grabbed. Like I figured something so expensive was worth one little dip. In the end I lost my job, apartment, and a fine toolbox to that bitch.”
     Delivered of his life history, Ape reclined back on his subway seat. We let what he’d said sink in.
     Just as people dying of AIDS all have a set of stories about the treatments, the doctors, etc., so users have their own master narratives: the first taste of a new drug, near-death experiences, the eternally recurring rip-off from a sleazebag dealer. It was these that gave us a stem of the mythic and made us feel our lives were an adventure.
     A cop barged in, banging the connecting door from the previous car. He walked up with an intent look. “What the fuck is going on?” he barked at Ape. “Get that shirt back on.”
     “I was just sunbathing,” he said lamely.
     “What you’re doing is indecent exposure.”
     While he sat back up to get his togs on, I chimed in, “Officer, would you like a box of corn flakes? They’re frosted.”
     I handed it over to him. He tore the carton open and shoveled out a handful. “My lucky night.”
     Mollified, the bull sauntered off to continue his tour.
     We got into Omnicram without incident, rode the elevator up to my floor, then doubled back to the cubicle we were interested in. After half a moment’s casing the setup, Ape said, “No dice.”
     “What’s wrong?”
     “This lock is fail-safed. If we open it, we will set off an alarm downstairs.”
     “Can’t you disconnect it?” I asked.
     “I wish I had the capability. There is a tool that will take care of it, but I sold mine long ago.”
     I went and leaned against the opposite side. Omnicram was an icebox, an unheated barracks, its high ceilings crisscrossed by long slats of neon, angling from the aisles over the bins, which, except for being unroofed, resembled abandoned beach bungalows. Stormy sounded the wall. “It’s pretty sturdy.”
     Ape cocked his head. “Do you mean: Can I hack through it?”
     “No, I mean: Can you stand on it?”
     I walked over and joined them. “We could boost you up.”
     The Ape scratched his scraggy chin, then went over and fished an apple out of the sack, eating it from his gloved hand. He motioned to the end of the aisle, two cubicles down. Mounted opposite was a fire alarm with a pipe leading up from its top.
     He dumped the apple and strode down to the alarm. Potbellied and not very spry, Ape still had incredible strength in his forearms (hence the sobriquet). He launched himself up the pipe till he could reach the ceiling. From there, he proceeded Tarzan-like, swinging from a pipe, over to the risers. On top of the plywood, he duck-walked over to the Framing Institute’s bin, and stepped down on top of a filing cabinet.
     Ape turned to face us, clicking on his flashlight. Instead of shining it into the cubicle, he played it along the corridor floor till he found the grocery bag. “Weren’t there some Cheese Doodles in there?”
     I gave him the Doodles and he descended to work. Stormy and I crouched down. I couldn’t think of much to say. Finally, I asked, “How did you and Ape get together?”
     “I’m his accountant.”
     Before much time had passed, Ape called out, “I got it.”
     He clambered up on the cabinet and held a folder. “Is this what you want?”
     As I was about to answer, he let it flap open revealing it was empty.
     “Give it here.”
     He dropped it to me and I examined it. It was Yardley Chu’s all right. But the only thing in it was a Post It saying “File on loan to Dr. Vesuvius.”
     “Damn,” Ape said. He had spilled the Doodles. They lay scattered on the floor like shards of stained glass.

Jim Feast is a member of the Unbearables writers group. He is the co-author (with Ron Kolm) of the novel Neo Phobe, and (with Gary Null) of AIDS: A Second Opinion.


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