Thursday, May 24, 2012

the last days of empire

There were riots again today.  I stuffed my hands in my pockets, with my collar turned up.  Looking straight ahead, I was determined to not make eye contact with anyone on the way home.  Everyone always thinks that life stops when there are riots and war, but, really, it does not.  Life does not care what we do.  Life... goes on.  

Today, my sole goal was to make it home with my contraband, a book and a stolen packet of crackers.  I couldn’t wait to tear into those crackers.  If I was lucky, Vasily would have left me a mouthful of vodka to wash them down with.  I couldn’t stop myself from smiling, (a little), at the thought.  

For some reason, in these times of crisis and starvation, there was always vodka -but no whisky.  “What a terrible time to cultivate a whisky habit,” I often joked to Vasily.  Or, sometimes, he would tease me the same, as he poured for me a finger of the clear liquid we both generously referred to as “vodka” into the Goya can I regularly used as a cup.  

And that was the odd thing too, the few things that became precious and household in these times of dearth.  I’d seen people around me fall apart over what seemed the smallest thing, (an old bent spoon?), but I completely understood, (the rotting spoon was used to shoot up -when the right (or wrong) drugs could be found).  If my rusting Goya can went missing, times would be no more tough for me than they already were -but they’d somehow be a little bit worse without the minor convenience of my Goya “cup.”

The whole thing reminded me of that scene from Full Metal Jacket, the one where Leonard snaps, (you know the scene -or you should).  But, maybe that wasn’t really right.  It wasn’t so much that my Goya can was a convenience as it was a small bit of “home,” (civilization!), no matter how fucked up that little slice of “home” was right now.  And, if my aluminum “cup” went missing, so might my ability to hold on.  

So, I stole books along with my crackers to bring “home,” and Vasily made questionable “vodka” from god only knew what -I never asked; I just drank.  I figured, if it was going to kill me, surely it would kill Vasily first.  Heaven knew he drank enough of the stuff.
The first thing I saw when I pushed open the rotting sheet of wood that was our “door” was the old bent spoon guy -shooting up.  Thank god, I thought.  Not that he had found some tar somewhere (somehow), but that he had found his old bent spoon.  He’d turned our place upside down for days, in a total freak-out, when that spoon went missing.  

I could never remember his name, nor that of his buddy who mysteriously (or not so mysteriously) vanished exactly when that spoon went both lost and then found, but he was nice, very nice -always friendly; always polite.  He reminded me of Bubbles from The Wire.  Haters are gonna hate, but the reason I loved The Wire is because I knew those streets and those drug abusers, and it always seemed to me The Wire was the only one who got it right -drug abusers weren’t necessarily the scary big bad (black, right? always black, right?) kid jacking you up because you had an iPod and were a total asshole about it; no, sometimes they were perfectly polite people with a wee little drug problem, like the old bent spoon guy.  

I really need to learn his name.  He’s always so nice to me, and I’ll never forget my first few days in the “house,” when I’d been scared and alone, and instead of giving me drugs, he’d given me a sandwich.  (“Don’t ever start, girl,” he’d nodded sagely when I had politely refused his offer to share a needle.)  I’m pretty sure if I’d been capable of it, I would have cried, but, instead, I just chewed on my sandwich, even though I had no appetite for it, while he and his buddies shot up in a semi-circle around me.  

Vasily joined the “house” shortly thereafter, and we became fast friends over our love of drink rather than drugs.  No, we were not ones to judge.  No one in these times was kidding anyone that drink wasn’t drugs too -it was just more manageable, and slightly less expensive.

“Do you remember what it was like in the old days?” Vasily asked me as he poured a finger from his latest batch of “vodka.”

“Honestly, they weren’t that different,” I dryly responded.

We both laughed.  This was an old joke between us.  We had both come from harsh, broken childhoods.  These riots; this war; this depression -all of these things were merely just a return to form for us.  And, unfairly or not, (like we cared), there was a pleasure in watching the mighty, especially those who had never known a day of privation in their lives, fall, and fall hard.

And it wasn’t the ones who were hauled off to have their heads removed from their bodies French Revolution-style that we laughed over and mocked.  No, those murders disturbed us more than we’d ever admit to whomever was tenuously in charge at the moment.  No, we laughed at the ones who had escaped the literal axes of the mobs -the ones who didn’t know how to live without when all they had ever known was not-want.

There was serious pleasure to be had in schadenfreude, and any asshat who claimed otherwise was on the wrong side of the mob.

Vasily and I like to trade war stories while we drink.  Today, I started:

“I used to hide food under my bed, and then I’d realize it would be found, and I’d be in trouble, so then I’d force myself eat it, even when I wasn’t hungry,” I paused to take a sip that made my eyes burn, “That really sucked, Vasily.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he nodded his head in agreement, “We were beaten by the parish nuns.  And the priests...”  He took a drink rather than continuing.  He knew about my childhood, and I knew about his.  We nibbled on my stolen crackers in companionable silence.

“You ever wonder about old bent spoon guy?” I asked before draining my Goya “cup,” which Vasily readily refilled.

“He has a car.”

“What?” I almost spun my head around, but remembered my manners.  Even in times without civilization, there are rules.  Besides “no eye contact,” there is also “no sudden movements, (especially when eye contact may occur).”  People have been shot in more “pleasant” times for much less.

Vasily nodded, mostly to himself, “He says it is time for you to go.”

There it was.  I could feel it in my chest and in my head -the threat of tears.  I was being invited to leave, and I hadn’t even asked to go.

Vasily almost reached out, perhaps to put a hand on my shoulder, but he knew better, and he didn’t.  “It isn’t safe for you here,” his forehead was furrowed in that way of his, “you are the only girl...”

“I know,” I sucked in a wad of air, “I’ll go.”

I never found out how he managed to come by that car, of all things, in the middle of a war and a drug habit.  Actually, I don’t know what happened to any of them, not even Vasily, but, sometimes, as I flutter free in the wind, I realize that I don’t wonder about the man with the old bent spoon, but I do wonder about his name.

the last days of empire (audio track)

the last days of empire (video)

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