Red Means Go

Red Means Go

Red Means Go 1920 1200 Steve Gergley

Adam sat beside Cass in a silver Toyota in the back of the CVS parking lot, his internal organs sheathed in frost, his thin body sore and shivering, his nose like a gross faucet left open oozing slick goop around cracked lips, his eyes leaking forever with the kind of acid tears that cook the eyeballs like poached eggs. The car was off because Adam had turned it off a while ago because he had started to get paranoid that the two workers inside the CVS would somehow see the gray line of exhaust rising from the running car and in seeing this they would get suspicious and would instantly know what he and Cass were planning to do and then they would call the cops on them and he’d have to endure the hell of spending the night in jail without having had a taste in almost twenty-four hours but no that wasn’t right because by then it’d be longer than that and Christ Jesus he didn’t even want to think about that so he looked down at his trembling right hand and saw the .357 snub nose in his hand and felt its satisfying weight in his hand and he remembered the two bullets he had loaded in it back at Young Jim’s place and he checked the safety and made sure for the eight hundredth time tonight that the little lever was snapped into the safe position instead of the fire position and in doing this he realized that maybe it wasn’t the job he was worried about but instead maybe he was just paranoid and anxious and pissed off at himself for being so stupid last night and for blowing through the stuff he’d been saving for the morning to keep away the sick even though he couldn’t even remember the hit which was a goddamn shame and a crime but maybe the job wouldn’t be too bad after all as long as he did it exactly how Young Jim had told him to do it so he started to go over the plan one more time in his head to make sure he had it straight. Okay. Reciting the steps in his head, Adam started to imagine how things would unfold eleven minutes from now when he would finally climb back into the world and walk across the dark parking lot with the snub nose in his pocket but then Cass said something for the first time in forever and he lost his train of thought and from here he turned to her in anger even though he couldn’t see her very well with her face hidden in the dark and the haze of her cigarette smoke but then she leaned back in her seat and the orange glow of a nearby streetlight threw some light on her hair and the side of her face and looking there he saw that her hair was as thin and dry as parched scrub grass and her skin hung loose from the jagged knives of her cheekbones and angular chin and in this moment she looked as horrible as an Egyptian mummy come to life like that bald guy in that movie Adam used to love back in middle school ten thousand years ago and in remembering this Adam’s anger suddenly vanished because it killed him to see her like this, this girl he sometimes loved and couldn’t live without but at other times hated for being nothing more than another greedy vein to feed, and then she turned her face into the orange light and his gaze met hers for the first time in what seemed like days and her eyes looked like dead marbles without anything inside, no life, no energy, just hunger and sadness and desperation, so he quickly looked away and squeezed the grip of the snub nose and spoke quietly but forcefully to her.

“Christ, can you please shut up for a second please, babe? I got to run through this shit again so I don’t screw it up because that’s the last goddamn thing we need. So please, let’s just shut up for a second so I can think through it again.”

“You thinking. That’s a new one. Good luck with that.” She blew a hot exhale of cigarette smoke out her window she had opened by a third.

At this he ignored her and thought hard to remember the plan Young Jim had told him earlier in the day: go into the CVS ten minutes before close, hang out by the milk cooler, wait for the guy wearing the tie to take the cash drawers up into the office, swing behind the counter and catch the door before it closes, show him the gun and tell him to empty the safe into a—

“You know, you really got to work on that mouth of yours, baby. Everything is shut up this, goddamn that. That’s no way to talk to people. You don’t hear Tommy talking that way to people.”

Hearing her again he pressed his burning eyes closed and tried to keep Young Jim’s words straight in his head, but the reedy scratch of her voice and the mention of that name shattered them apart and all the disparate pieces fell to the floor in his brain and jumbled up in the wrong order.

“Can you just be quiet for two goddamn seconds please, babe? Christ.” He squeezed the grip of the snub nose and folded his fingers away from the trigger as a few cups of chilled sweat beaded up on his hot skin and crawled down his face. Moments later a tectonic rumble of nausea rolled through his stomach and brought his forehead down against the sticky rubber of the steering wheel. Soon the nausea passed and he sat up and wiped the sweat from his eyes with shaking fingers. Seven minutes. “Goddamn Tommy. If I was you I wouldn’t put too much faith into anything Tommy says. You don’t know him like I do. I’ve been dealing with his psycho manipulator bullshit for twenty years. Guy’s nothing but a lying junkie thief and once we’re done with this job, we’re done with him for good, got that? We’re never going to get clean if we keep bumming around in that goddamn apartment with that goddamn parasite.”

Cass scoffed and looked away and flipped her stringy hair at him and blew some smoke out her window and shrugged.

“Whatever you say, baby. He’s your cousin. All I’m saying is that at least Tommy has a job. At least Tommy has his own place and a bed to sleep in at night. When was the last time you got any of that for us?” She lifted her shriveled, old-woman hand to the top of her open window and dropped the cigarette outside.

Three minutes. He checked the safety one last time and stuck the snub nose in his pocket and zipped up the long, baggy sweatshirt he’d brought to hide the bulge in his pocket.

“Whatever. All I know is that if it wasn’t for that asshole, I wouldn’t even have gotten started on any of this—” he started to say, but he stopped himself there and let his words dissolve in the air because yes it was true that Tommy was the person he had smoked his first joint with and yes Tommy was the person who had first introduced him to heroin and had showed him how to shoot up (“When shooting heroin, red means go . . . ”) and yes he hated Tommy for those reasons and a hundred others, but he hated Tommy more so for the fact that the man pushed off daily but still somehow managed to hold on to all the essential pieces of himself while everyone around him had been eaten alive by the dope and had been shat out into the inescapable black hole of lying and stealing and sickness and desperation and debasement and shame that was Adam’s life right now. But Adam knew he didn’t have time to be thinking about any of this, so he banished these thoughts from his head and turned to Cass and reminded her one last time about her end of the plan.

“Okay babe, do you remember what you need to do? All you have to do is wait FIVE minutes from when I get out of the car, and then you just have to BACK it into a space in front of the store and leave the doors unlocked and the engine running,” Adam said. His face felt like a cheap rubber mask glued to his skull. As he talked, Cass stared at her hands in her lap and nodded to the cadence of something other than his words. “Okay? And don’t worry about the guys inside. Young Jim used to work there and he promised me they’re not going to do anything. He said they get fired if they try to do anything, so we don’t have to worry okay?”

Cass nodded and gave an affirmative grunt in response. One minute.

“Okay.” He snapped off his seatbelt and let it whip against the door on his left. “Last one babe, and then we’re done with this shit for good. Okay? Once we have this dough we’ll pay off that asshole Tommy and then we’ll cop enough stuff to keep away the sick and then we’re done. No more. Then it’s off to that place down in Jersey where they got that miracle drug that’ll help us get clean. That’s the one my brother was telling us about, remember? And if dumbass Leo can do it, anyone can. And then once we’re clean we’ll get a place of our own, and everything will be beautiful. I’ve still got a year left on my forklift license, so I shouldn’t have a problem finding a job down there. And once we’re all set up I’ll buy you one of those fancy-ass electric keyboards so you can play piano whenever you want. It’s going to be beautiful babe, I promise. We’re almost there, okay? Just back her into a spot in front of the store and leave the engine running.”

Zero minutes and she was still staring at her hands in her lap and her face was hidden by her hair that looked like dry hay. Now he reached out with his trembling hand and tried to hold hers for a moment, but just before his fingers touched her skin, she nodded again and spoke.

“Okay baby,” she said in a quiet voice. “Whatever you say.”

From here a pair of headlights shined in his eyes and splattered the interior of the car with a momentary flash of white light. Following this he looked at the clock and saw that he was two minutes late, so he huffed out a hard exhale and clicked the door open. A cool breeze kissed the side of his sweaty neck. Not wanting to jinx the job by leaving on crappy terms, he told her he loved her. It felt good to say this because for the first time in a very long while, he meant it. So on this note he climbed out of the car and closed the door softly, the way he assumed a normal person would close the door when making a late-night stop at CVS.

#

For a minute after she heard the thunk of the car door closing, Cass sat with her eyes closed in the warmth and quiet of the empty car. Through the open window at her right she heard the sticky chirping of summer bugs, the whirring screech of a distant car, and the rhythmic thump of a blasting radio, but she wasn’t paying attention to these sounds or any others outside her head. No, the only sound Cass cared about in that moment was the alluring song of the two baggies of dope Tommy had given her this morning after their usual covert fuck, the silent voice of the dope sounding more beautiful to her than the melodies of Clair de Lune or Satie’s Gymnopédies or Beethoven’s Waltz in E flat major or any of the other pieces she used to play for her mom and Gramma April at her piano recitals back in the stone age of her childhood. But as much as she wanted to dump out her purse and get the bags and find the nearest public bathroom to have a taste right now, she knew she couldn’t use them just yet. First she had to wait for her dumbass, wannabe criminal boyfriend to head into the CVS he thought he was going to knock over. Only then would she finally have the time she needed to have another taste without him finding out. Because if he saw that she had extra dope she wasn’t sharing with him, he’d instantly know she’d gotten it from Tommy, and that they were fucking behind his back. And then he’d go nuts, like usual. From there he’d probably drive over to Tommy’s place like a crazy person and force Tommy to kill him. And then they’d all be screwed. So as much as her tired brain and muddy veins ached for a taste, her mind was clear enough to know that she needed to wait. So she leaned back in her seat and chewed her gnarled lip and watched as Adam tripped over the curb on his way into the CVS.

Three seconds after Adam entered the store, Cass clambered over the center column and slid into the driver’s seat. Now her body moved on its own: finger pressed ignition button, foot stomped brake pedal, palm cupped stick-shift, hand gripped steering wheel. Soon the car was moving, gliding across the dark parking lot, turning onto Pinehill Road, and speeding toward the twenty-four-hour Shoprite just down the street. From here her heart smashed and her mouth watered just thinking about the safety and seclusion of that public bathroom, that place where she would finally be alone once again with that magic dust that was the only force powerful enough to incinerate the metric tons of garbage that had been stacked in her brain for years by her piece-of-shit step-father and his drunken visits to her room each night after bedtime, that reeking landfill of pain and disassociation that for so long she had tried to bury under grassy mounds of politeness and charity and the beauty of her music, but of course it came back, it always did, even on days like today when Tommy woke her up for their secret morning fuck while that dummy Adam was still passed out, even then she still sometimes felt the paralyzing electric twinge of it crackling down her spine, but she didn’t have to worry about that right now because soon she’d be free of it once again, the dope granting her the greatest gift anything had ever given her, the gift of forgetting, of living a life where those things never happened to her, and now here it was, the mouth of the parking lot she’d been looking for, and so the dark wall of trees parted and the black tongue of blacktop rolled out to meet her and she turned into the lot and parked crooked in a space near the door and then she was out in the warm dark and inside the cool store and her shoes were silent on the shiny floor and her eyes felt large in her head and there were giant pallets of plastic-wrapped food at the end of every aisle and she couldn’t stop smiling but it didn’t matter because all the workers were scruffy teenagers with tufts of patchy facial hair and white-wired headphones in their ears and eyes bloodshot from the weed they probably smoked during the drive into work and then an instant later she was there at the ladies room and then inside and a quick bend and peek at the stalls showed that she was alone so she walked back to the bathroom door and locked it and then she went into the spacious handicapped stall at the end and suddenly everything was already set and the needle was in her hand and she felt the sharp little bite of steel breaking skin and then she pulled the plunger back and watched the feathery plume of red swirl and rise (“Red means go . . . ”) and then pressing down with her thumb her eyes rolled in her skull like billiard balls on felt and gold light filled her body and three years passed and her head fell forever down toward her knees but it never quite got there and an unlit cigarette hung loosely from her lips, the paper sticking to her dry lips as a shining line of drool touched the floor and the universe outside her head dissolved away into nothing and she felt perfectly at peace.

#

Back in the CVS, Adam stood in front of the milk cooler as a hurricane of nausea swirled in his stomach and a waterfall of icy sweat ran down his boiling face. Staring through the foggy glass, he waited for the worker in the nice white shirt and cool blue tie to take the registers up to the office so he could catch the door and put the money in a bag and then show the guy the gun and get him to open the safe but no that wasn’t right he’d have to show him the gun first and then the guy would open the safe and put the money in a bag and yes that was the right order but just as soon as he had that straight some muscles in his stomach tightened up and clenched on their own until they were stone hard and burning hot and because of this he could barely expand his chest far enough to slurp the tiniest breath so he bent over and pressed his wet hands against his knees for support and while in this position he was strangled with the terrible fear that he was having a heart attack right here in this stupid little store with a gun in his pocket but then his stomach muscles relaxed and he gulped a heaving breath and leaned a heavy hand against the side of the cooler and when he looked up a minute later he saw that the two CVS workers were suddenly standing right beside him, asking him if he was okay. Still not sure whether he was having a heart attack or not, Adam suddenly didn’t care about what Young Jim had said and now he just wanted to get the goddamn money so he could get the hell out of here and get back to Young Jim’s place and have a goddamn taste to get rid of this goddamn sick so he reached into his pocket and took out the snub nose and pointed it at the guy with the white shirt and blue tie and because he couldn’t hear his own voice over his heartbeat smashing in his ears, Adam shouted at the guy to get behind the counter and to empty the registers into a bag. Then, as the guy with the blue tie held up his hands and walked behind the counter, Adam remembered about the safety that was still on so he turned the snub nose on its side and with his left hand snapped the little lever into the fire position and then pointed it back at the guy with the blue tie but as he did this the gun almost slipped from his sweat-slick fingers so he clenched his hand tight to stop it from falling and suddenly he heard a loud crack and felt a hard jolt scream up his arm and in an instant the guy in the blue tie was gone and the place smelled like smoke so Adam jogged to the edge of the counter and looked over it to see what had happened and looking there he saw that the guy in the white shirt and blue tie was crumpled on the ground and his shirt was soaked in red and seeing this redness Adam turned around and started running toward the front door where Cass would be waiting with the car but before he got there he felt another churn of magma in his stomach and he remembered the sick and how desperately he needed a taste so he turned back to the other worker who had been standing next to the milk cooler with his hands up and his eyes closed and he shoved the snub nose into the worker’s back and said some words he hoped were a command for the guy to stay still and then he reached into the guy’s back pocket and took the guy’s wallet and opened it and took out the two twenty dollar bills that were in there and then he dropped the wallet on the ground and started for the front door but stopped a second later because he knew forty bucks would never be enough for both him and Cass and so without a moment of hesitation he turned around again and this time he ran for the back door instead of the front. Moments later he was at the back door and then through it and stumbling into the storeroom but now there was a horrible screeching noise of some alarm he had tripped and with feet smacking on concrete he scrambled to another door with red words printed across the push-bar and he pressed the bar in but it didn’t move so he took out the gun and looked for a lock to aim it at like people do in the movies but he didn’t see one and with the alarm screeching in his ears and his heart pounding in his mouth he couldn’t hear or think so he started kicking the push-bar with all his strength, the shocks of each impact resonating in his knee, and after five or six kicks the door scraped open an inch and smelling freedom he threw his shoulder into it and burst through into a barren parking lot bathed in the orange light of some spotlight overhead and from here he streaked past a loading dock and a rusty green dumpster and moments later he made the woods behind the CVS and once there he started to climb back into his skin and in doing so he suddenly remembered about the snub nose in his hand so he stopped running and he bent down and dug a little hole in the cool dirt and he put the snub nose in the hole and pressed the dirt back on top and stomped the dirt a few times and threw some leaves on top of the dirt. Four seconds later he was up and running again and yes he was lost in the woods right now and yes he felt like radioactive feces right now but soon he would be back at Young Jim’s place and soon the needle would be in his arm once again and seconds after that he wouldn’t remember any of this, not Cass or the guy in the blue tie or the pipe-dream future of Jersey, and in thinking about this he knew everything would be okay again soon because with the dope in his veins and the sick far away, there was no such thing as tomorrow.

Header photograph © K Weber.

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