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The Coke Birds
The young girl reached over and handed me the cigarette. Set against her coal black skin, I could hardly see her brown eyes staring at me as I took a deep hit off the joint. She was wearing dirty jeans and a threadbare halter-top, both hanging loosely from her emaciated body. Hot and humid in her one bedroom housing project apartment, she shivered against a cold that only she could feel. Exhaling the smoke from my lungs, I tried to think if I consciously knew what I was doing or if I was just being carried away by events out of my control. Either way it didn’t really matter as I sat on the dirty bed smoking a crack cocaine laced cigarette with a girl I met less than an hour ago. I watched her watching me as I thought back to earlier in the evening when we bumped into each other in the sea of hedonists flowing up and down Bourbon Street.
Our eyes locked and she smiled when she asked me if I wanted to get high. Of course I do, I heard myself saying as she motioned for me to follow her. Leaving Bourbon Street, we headed east away from the French Quarter towards an area of town where tourists shouldn’t go. “Buy me a drink,” she said as I followed her into the crowded bar at the edge of the darkness.
A few minutes later, we were back on the street walking towards the dark open cemetery on the edge of town. Cemeteries in this part of the country buried their dead above ground in marble and granite crypts. The ground water runs to close to the surface to dig more than a few feet down, that fact and the area’s history of flooding, had caused the locals to figure that it was easier in the long run to just plant them where they drop and cover them up with something pretty. It was a full moon and the cemetery was all-light up with moonbeams throwing shadows onto the ground from the larger crypts. Amidst the eeriness and quiet, I heard a voice inside of me say, “What are you doing? Go back to the hotel and go to sleep.” Ignoring this inner voice, we walked on.
Off in the distance, beyond the last crypts, a row of low buildings came into view. Like a derelict freighter emerging from the fog, they showed no life. Dark, deserted, they came closer. The moonlight glimmered off the broken glass lining the street as we emerged from the cemetery. Rows of identically drab buildings waited for us as we walked towards them. In sharp contrast to the festive jubilance of the French Quarter, the world we entered was one of despair, broken dreams and hopelessness, a place unto itself without connection to where we once were. Walking on the hard packed dirt lawns, I could see sprigs of green struggling to emerge through the wretchedness of their surroundings. As we walked deeper into this world of menace, I caught glimpses of movement on the periphery of my vision. Consumed as they were in shadow and surrounding, I felt like wounded prey being stalked by an unseen predator, and yet I followed her on.
Watching her climb the steps, she turned the unlocked handle, pushing her apartment door open. Following behind her my eyes adjusted to the light in time to see an army of cockroaches scurrying for cover of darkness, like thugs during a police raid. “Have a seat over there,” she said pointing to the dirty single bed pushed into the corner below the one closed window in the room. She sat down next to me, pulled out a cigarette and light it up. Expecting it to be a marijuana cigarette, I was surprised when I tasted the coke mixed in with the tobacco. I should have headed for the door. But my senses were dulled from drinking all day, and the something in me that should have said run for your life chose not to speak up, and so here I was.
As it is when using cocaine, demand seems to always outweigh supply, tonight was no exception. The coke demons were in full swing in my head and the only thought I could manage was how to keep feeding the beast. As if my thoughts were being broadcast loudly throughout the neighborhood, just then the dope guy showed up with a pocket full of rocks. Switching the lights on to facilitate the transaction, I could see clearly whose company it was that I had spent most of the evening with. Her face was lined and wrinkled and her eyes tired and blank. At the oldest she was 19 or 20 but she looked to be in her 40’s, a casualty of the lifestyle she was living.
“You been out all night?” she said to the dope guy. “Mama ain’t gonna like it if you don’t be coming home.”
“I’m back in it, smokin’ non-stop, can’t shake it,” the dope guy said as he reached up to scratch his face.
“Go home baby, your mama is waiting. Don’t be doin’ this shit, more ahead for you,” she said, like he was her little brother.
An hour or so before sunrise you can start to hear them chirping. I call them the coke birds and their singing always strikes a feeling of terror into my heart. The point of no return, this is the time most addicts seek out a dark place to hide out from the day or at the least roll up and die. Hideously anxious, brain tenderized from adjusting between intense endorphin onslaught and soul shrieking craving to get back to where it was just moments ago, these moments before dawn, strung out, played out, just plain out out, pushed me towards the yawning abyss, only by some undeserved grace do I not plummet over.
Running out the door, the humidity hits me in the face like a warm wet towel. Not even dawn and I am drenched with sweat.
She follows behind me, “You don’t want to be out her without me”, she said.” You be ok if I’m with you, if not…”
Looking at her, the sound of the coke birds chirping, the first grey lightness of dawn rising, the sound of downtown traffic signaling the beginning of another business day, I fell to my knees. My head gripped in my hands I am flooded by all the phantom demons of my past, haunted by the fear of a thousand tomorrows, I feel like the vampire caught in the bright deadly dawn.
“Baby you all right, you all right sweetie. Let’s get you some more smoke and you’ll feel better…”
©mordechai zoltan 2010