Chapter Thirty-One (Sacramento)

— — —

Note: Here’s the voice only chapter of the video book, in case you want to watch while you read. The multimedia version has music by Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, but this version ain’t bad all on its own:

The way I had it pictured wasn’t how it turned out. While I’d been with Ginny in Colorado, Melanie had fallen in love with someone else. I know I had convinced myself that she needed to fall in love with someone else, but I had changed my mind by then.

The guy sold heroin. He made a lot of money at it, but it didn’t turn him into a jerk. I liked him. The top of his head was bald. He looked like Shakespeare. I didn’t blame Melanie. He was good for her. Shooting up heroin cured her headaches — along with all the other aches and pains she’d had for longer than she could remember.

Heroin’s an analgesic, a painkiller. You inject it into the blood that goes straight to the pain centers of the brain. And the euphoria Melanie got from being free from the aches and pains she’d had all her life — physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, you name it — gave her mind and her body and her soul a peace and quiet and a joy she had never known. She loved heroin. It took her breath away. It was heavenly. And to the guy who gave her the heroin, she was grateful beyond words. I was sorry I hadn’t thought of it, myself. But I hadn’t. He had.

— — —

Melanie was alone when I finally found her house. I saw her through the front window. She was sitting under a dim lamp with a yellow lampshade, reading Proust. Proust was her friend. Thomas Mann was her friend. Nabokov was her friend. Anthony Trollope was her friend. She had all kinds of friends — Angel Miguel Asturias, that Hundred Years of Solitude guy, Isaac Bashevis Singer, V. S. Naipaul, V. S. Pritchett, James Purdy, Alberto Moravia, Christopher Isherwood, that Mishima guy, the list went on and on — she had a whole world of friends.

She always had a book to read and always read it carefully and patiently, cover to cover, before she picked up another. Her hair had some red in it, like she had been out in the sun. I knocked on the door and heard her clear her throat. She always had to clear her throat before she said anything. She was perpetually shy.

“It’s open,” I heard her say.

I went inside. Melanie had on the white silk nightgown I’d bought her just before the debacle in Burlingame. She hadn’t been expecting me. She’d been expecting someone else. She didn’t stand up. She just sat there with her finger marking her place in the book and looked surprised that it was me — surprised and frantic and disappointed and possibly even a little triumphant.

“Why are you here?” She frowned, slightly.

“I just got back,” I said.

“You can’t be here. Someone’s coming over.”

“Who?”

“A friend.”

“I need to talk to you.”

“Not now, you don’t.”

The guy got there. He didn’t knock. He just walked in like he lived there. She introduced us. We shook hands. I forget his name. I’ve blanked it out. He had a limp, sort of fishy, handshake. He was frail, delicate, almost effeminate — with long, cool, thin fingers and dark pretty skin and big bovine brown eyes and a smooth shiny bald head with wisps of baby-fine black hair around his ears.

He was reserved, cautious, smart, playing it just right. I liked him. I couldn’t help it. He was cool. Melanie marked her place in the book with a fringed bookmark, got out of her chair and stood quietly beside the Shakespeare guy. He touched her hair. She looked worried. I didn’t exactly like it that she was wearing the nightgown I’d given her — not because I’d given it to her, but because it was a little too risqué to be parading around in in front of some guy we hardly knew. I guess I hadn’t quite completely gotten the picture yet.

They seemed to presume that I would go away, but I didn’t go away. I stayed. I stayed the whole night. Whatever was going on between them, I wanted to see with my own eyes. I didn’t want there to be any doubts in my mind. I didn’t want there to be the slightest possibility that I may have misunderstood what was going on between the two of them. I stayed. I saw. There weren’t any doubts; there were no misunderstandings.

It seemed to be okay with the Shakespeare guy that I stayed. He and Melanie looked at each other and shrugged as if to say it didn’t matter to them one way or the other who else wanted to hang around, they were going to get loaded anyway. He went out to his car to get the dope.

Wendy was asleep in the only bedroom. Melanie used the living room for her bedroom. There was a big, freshly made bed with lots of pillows against the far wall.

“You may not enjoy this,” Melanie said when we were alone.

“Look. I’m in love with you,” I said. “I’ve been a huge asshole, I know, but I’m totally in love with you. That’s what I need to tell you.”

“That’s not what I need to hear.”

“I got you this.” I took out the black velvet box with the engagement ring in it. “I want to marry you. I want us to get married.”

Melanie looked like she was going cry. She didn’t say anything — she just looked like she was going to cry. It didn’t look like she was going to cry from happiness, however; they weren’t going to be tears of joy.

The guy came back. I slipped the box into my pocket. The three of us went out to the kitchen. Their junkie paraphernalia was stashed behind the silverware tray in one of the drawers. There were homemade syringes and bent spoons and matchbooks and cotton balls and a new length of powdered latex.

Melanie went first. The Shakespeare guy tied off her upper arm deftly, like he’d done it a hundred times. The veins in the crook of her elbow got engorged.

“God, you’ve got good veins,” the Shakespeare guy said. He bent down and kissed the inside of her left arm. The ceiling light reflected off his bald head.

Melanie had a few healed puncture marks in the biggest of the veins. The heroin was brown. His connection was the Mexican Mafia.

I had never seen Melanie more interested in anything than she was in that long, bright, skinny little homemade hypodermic needle getting closer and closer to the vein in her arm. It was like the guy was teasing her. It was like foreplay. He moved the tip of the needle across the surface of her skin and her eyelids fluttered. Then he stuck it in. She winced a little, and a trickle of blood seeped into the syringe. The anticipation was making her sweat. She so badly wanted that mixture of her blood and his heroin to gush from the shaft of the syringe into her arm — and when it finally did, her whole body sighed such a huge sigh of relief she almost fell off her chair. She slumped down. Her nightgown slid up the sides of her legs and the crotch of her panties came into plain view. They were black silk, with bright red clusters of cherries. The guy pulled the needle out. He reached over and wiped off the drop of blood on the inside of her arm with a fresh sterile cotton ball.

Then it was my turn. The guy didn’t get cute with me. With me, he was efficient. He tied off my bicep. I clenched my fist. He drew the mixture of heroin and boiled water up from the spoon through a new ball of cotton, pricked the skin of one of my veins, let the needle relax, and flicked the nipple on the end of the syringe until I could see my own blood turning maroon and velvety brown inside the syringe. Then he shot the whole works back into my vein — and pretty soon I noticed I was numb. It was like a dream. I could pinch myself and it didn’t hurt and I didn’t wake up.

All of a sudden, I felt sick to my stomach. I had heard that heroin made people nauseous the first couple of times, but there were other things going on, too. As soon as the stuff had gone all the way through me, I was racked with guilt and remorse and regret and such all-consuming love for Melanie I thought I was going to throw up. I was going to throw up.

I didn’t want her doing heroin. Junkies are bad. They rob people and fuck people and don’t give a shit about anything but staying strung out. I wanted us back in Burlingame, out in the yard, with Susie’s ugly puppies nipping at her ankles. I wanted us to get married and live happily ever after. I had the god damn engagement ring in my pocket, for Christ’s sake. What the hell more did she want? Of course it was my fault. I knew that. I didn’t blame the Shakespeare guy. I didn’t blame Melanie. I blamed myself. I was the one who had fucked Ginny on our couch. I was the one who had made Melanie feel so bad she had a headache every day, the one who made her so sad she wanted to die. I was the one who dumped her in Sacramento and took off to see Ginny again — and now here I was, tired, dirty, unshaven, reeking of tabouli and New Age claptrap, thinking I could make it all up to her with some two-bit phony engagement ring…and the worst part was that even with all that going on, I didn’t feel a thing. I couldn’t feel, period — not anything. I was senseless. Anesthetized. Numb. Nothing hurt. Nothing felt good or bad, either one.

I barely made it into the bathroom before I started throwing up everything I’d eaten the whole time I’d been in Colorado — all that hummus and tofu and broccoli. I threw up things I didn’t remember eating. I threw up things I never ate — live lizards and dead palm fronds and soggy parakeets and stuff that looked like it came out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Oobleck!

Bartholomew and the Oobleck.

Ha!

I was throwing up great gobs of increasingly green oobleck all over Melanie’s brand new bathroom — which then got me to thinking about every other Dr. Seuss book I ever read. I couldn’t help it. Ever since my mother read And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street out loud to me when I was five, my imagination has always just taken off on me. I’m like the kid in the book. Marco. I see a tired old nag pulling a rickety one-horse cart down a quiet street in Brooklyn and have it turned into elephants and giraffes pulling a big brass band in no time. I wanted it to stop, but it didn’t. My imagination went on and on, loaded on heroin or not loaded on heroin. Where did it come from? I didn’t know.

It got to be sort of funny, though. I looked into the toilet bowl and wondered, wow, where the heck had that come from? Maybe it was my appendix. Tonsils? Adenoids? What did adenoids look like? What the hell were adenoids, anyway? What did they do? I could hardly wait to tell Melanie and the Shakespeare guy all about what fun I’d been having puking my guts out in her new bathroom. I had a whole comedy routine all worked out. It was hilarious. It was going to make them laugh until their stomachs ached.

When I got back into the living room, the Shakespeare guy and Melanie were in her bed together and didn’t look like they were in the mood for comedy. It would have been a tough audience, no matter how funny I might have been.

— — —

It’s hot in Sacramento in the summer. Even at night. You don’t need blankets. You don’t need clothes. Even a sheet’s too much. The two of them were lying in her big bed with no clothes on. It was like “Nashville Skyline,” like “Lay Lady Lay.” The window was open. There were a few candles burning on the windowsill. There wasn’t any breeze. The flames didn’t flicker. They flared up when the wax overflowed and left a new piece of the wick exposed, but the flames didn’t waver.

The guy was propped up in a pile of pillows pushed against the wall. His arm was under Melanie’s head. Her face was nuzzled into the side of his neck. Her hand was lying limply on his chest. His clothes were hung neatly over the arm of the couch. Melanie’s white nightgown and the black panties with bunches of cherries on them were on the floor.

I took off my clothes and got into bed with them. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. Maybe I was thinking, hey, Melanie had tried things my way, the least I could do was to try things her way. Her way was that she wanted to be with this guy. Okay. That was all right. I’d just go ahead and be with the son of a bitch, too. I couldn’t imagine that she didn’t want to be with me, period. I couldn’t imagine that she only wanted to be with this guy. I was deluded. Her way was that she didn’t want me there. I refused to believe it. She was absolutely in love with me and always had been and always would be. She couldn’t help herself. Why the hell else would she have been killing herself all that time? Because she couldn’t help being absolutely in love with me forever no matter what, that’s why. I couldn’t conceive of it being otherwise. That’s what deluded is — if you know you are, you’re not. I was deluded. I stayed. I stayed the whole night.

The candles smelled like vanilla. They flared up and died down and flared up again. The guy was passive. He didn’t move. He didn’t smile; the muscles in his face smiled all by themselves. His eyes stayed sort of half-open and half-closed, like it didn’t matter whether he was asleep or awake. Everything he did was involuntary. Even his dick kept getting bigger and bigger all by itself as Melanie’s hand made its way slowly down the lean involuntary muscles of his stomach.

Pretty soon her fingers were creeping tentatively around in wisps of his pubic hair. She propped herself up on one elbow and slid her whole pretty naked little body down the side of his bare chest. She opened her eyes briefly and looked over at me as if to reiterate that I really might not enjoy what was yet to come — that if I had decided by then that I wanted to leave, I should probably just get up and get dressed and leave.

Melanie had a certain knack, a way, somehow, of making a guy feel like his dick was as important to her as it was to him. The Shakespeare guy was making it all the easier for her by staying so cool, so aloof — lounging there with such aplomb. Her long pretty hair brushed his nipples. The intellectual concept crossed my mind that I ought to have been kind of turned on myself, but I wasn’t. My own dick was shriveled up to about the size of an acorn buried somewhere near my left kidney.

I covered myself up with a corner of one of the sheets and decided it must have been the heroin. But the Shakespeare guy had done at least as much heroin as I had, and he certainly wasn’t having any trouble with his dick. It must have been Melanie. She was having the same effect on him she used to have on me. Now he was the cocky one, the beneficiary of her unbridled affection. That’s the trouble with guys. Chicks bestow all this unbridled affection on them and they get too cocky, too full of themselves, then use that cockiness to beat up on the chick that gave it to them in the first place. I’d been supplanted, replaced, aced out; it was him she was with, and she was with him in as profound a way as she had ever been with me. It was unimaginable. It was impossible. It was true.

The preliminaries were over. Melanie had built up to it long enough. She was sucking his cock right in front of my face. I could see the vacuum making dimples in her pretty chipmunk cheeks. She seemed to be enjoying herself as much with him as she ever had with me. She gave it a rest now and then, toyed with him, played with him — licked his dick up and down, bit the side of his cock with her teeth.

After he was good and ready, Melanie straddled the guy like she was getting on a horse. She slipped his dick inside her like a saddle horn. He was moving some by then, but his movements were still effortless. It went on like that forever. They fucked each other interminably. She rolled him over on top of her and held onto the sides of one of the pillows. He turned her over and fucked her like a frog. He turned her onto her side and fucked her sideways. She put one of her legs on his shoulder and he fucked her with her leg on his shoulder. She liked it. So did he. I could tell.

I didn’t like it, but I was too stoned on heroin to know what I liked or didn’t like, too stoned to know what I was seeing or wasn’t seeing. She wasn’t fucking me, I could see that. She was fucking some other guy. She was fucking the fuck out of some other guy the way she used to fuck the fuck out of me. I knew that much. After the initial, mind-numbing, immobilizing bliss, the heroin seemed to act as a sort of time-release aphrodisiac for the two of them. They were like morning glories, winding around and around each other for hours on end. I was pretty much just out in the audience. I had a front row seat, yeah, but that was about it.

Melanie reached over and patted my head during intermissions — while the guy was taking a leak or eating a peanut butter sandwich — but then he’d come back and fuck her some more. They put The Kama Sutra to shame. It was an impressive performance, a regular tour de force. If I had been a critic, I would have given it all the stars I had to give. I’d seen enough but had nowhere else to go and couldn’t have gone anywhere anyway, due to being too loaded on heroin to move.

When the sun started to come up, they were still at it. The heroin had worn off a bit. I kept falling into a kind of trance. I still hadn’t slept since I left Colorado. I guess you could call it sleep, but I kept waking up. One time I woke up, I was over on the couch. I didn’t know how I got there. Another time I woke up, the Shakespeare guy was gone and I had my clothes back on. I had no idea how any of that had happened either.

Melanie and I were alone. She was still in bed. She had her nightgown on and was winding the ends of her hair around her fingers, looking for split ends. It used to drive me nuts the way she wound her hair around her fingers, looking for split ends, but it didn’t drive me nuts anymore. I loved seeing her wind the ends of her hair around her fingers. I could have watched her wind the ends of her hair around her fingers forever and have been happy for the rest of my life.

Sunshine streaming through the dust in the air made it feel like we were under a microscope. Everything was too clear, too magnified. The candles had melted into puddles. The bed was punctuated with apostrophes of pubic hair. There was a big semen stain in the shape of a question mark. Melanie looked stunned.

Wendy came into the living room, then. She was rubbing her eyes. She stood in front of me. I shook her by her shoulders and said, “Hey, kid.”

She yawned and said, “Could you take us to the zoo today?”

“Some other day. I really can’t today.”

“Mom would like it, too. Huh, mom?”

Melanie didn’t say anything.

“I’ve got to go,” I said and looked over at Melanie.

If she had said I didn’t have to leave, I wouldn’t have left, but she didn’t say I didn’t have to leave. She didn’t say anything. I had to leave. I left.