Point, No Point
The labs are quiet: centrifuges whirl and peel apart compounds, fridges buzz and crystalize tissue. Research students creep between cluttered fluorescent halls in search of vacant microwaves, technicians huddle around windows for cell reception, professors type with fury in narrow offices. Alone in one of the dozens of labs on the 14th floor, is William. He stands out among the eager doctoral-candidates and tired-eyed techs, a craggy map of wrinkles on his forehead, neat goatee dotted white against his dark complexion, stomach thick and satisfied. Muscle memory moves him around the lab, green scrubs snug around his thick frame. In this quiet, William arranges a mechanical spider of tubes and gauges, knobs and needles move with careful measurement. He annotates a log sheet, teal rubber gloves and red sharpie, and puts the finishing touches on a Big Gulp. William rolls up one cuff, checks the time despite knowing exactly how long it all took. Finally he disappears behind a stout silver tank, fishes for a long noodle of a tube, and bleeds the container a statistically insignificant amount. Big Gulp full of a new liquid, William slinks out of the lab.
William taps his trainers to a secret rhythm as the elevator descends, always funk. He greets each security guard between the elevator and exit by name.
“How you been Bill,” one guard cat calls from down the hall.
“I’m blessed,” William says, floating by on a wave of cordial charm. He checks his phone, a thick biscuit with glowing rubber keys, and reads a text: “They are ready to meet. Bring it.” Several blank spaces below, she signs “From Donna,” like an official letter. William leaves his day job, a Big Gulp of embalming fluid swirling in his grip, ready to begin his night work.
Crisp and cool midday color Philadelphia electric blue. The train bounces along the tracks, glass skyline retreating, and William savors the view. It slips between abandoned factories, tunnels glowing with graffiti, and spills out onto the barren flats that hug the Delaware River. North of the city, neighborhoods fracture and isolate, pockets of small life divided by avenues and money and ethnicity. He rides it until Bridesburg, the lone person to depart onto the rotted wood platform.
He scales the main avenue past a large, tangled intersection where the neighborhood’s few commercial businesses live: former textile factory, brick now coated in cherry red and yellow screams “FURNITURE DEPOT”; wide and stout skeleton of a supermarket long forgotten, now a methodist church swallowed by its too-large parking lot; pasty adult video store, modestly dressed in the shadow of a highway rumbling above. Onto smaller streets, silent houses in rows and pairs slouch toward the beige sidewalk, social clubs and VFW’s collect dust, cars fill sidewalks and vacant lots and anywhere else they can fit.
William is a transplant, but he could live between walls and befriend rodents. These odd blocks north of the city, kneeling under a geyser of smoke from the chemical factory at their center, offer him strange comfort. There is a charm to this urban desolation: a historic factory community bled of capital and left for dead, but refusing to yield, a private defiance. William walks by a row of porches, Polish descendants see-sawing in dusty wicker rocking chairs wave and smile. Flags stand proud above the foyers, whipping in the wind. Most are standard stars and stripes, others flowing black ink stamped by stark white letters, “POW-MIA.” One, toward the end of the street, dances in the rebel’s pattern. A Confederate banner, an objectively cute old couple greeting him at its base. He never saw that flag hung anywhere in the city before moving into this neighborhood, and he always wondered whether polite racism was more, or less, scary. He smiles at the old couple, tells them he’s blessed, decides it’s still scary and heads for home.
He lines up glass jars on his kitchen table, each spaced a fist apart. The house is quiet, only dull TV seeping through thin walls from next door, occasional crack and pop of his cat’s feasting. William carefully peels the lid off his Big Gulp like a scab, exposing the clear mucus underneath. He pours, the formalin filling each jar like honey.
At the other end of the table he spills a bag of marijuana out in front of him, stuffing the sticky lumps of moss into a small metal grinder, his large fists twisting it all to dust. William laughs as he finishes rolling his first joint since college, a miniature car accident. With an exacto knife, he bisects it and tries again. He stops at an even ten, scooping up nine of the joints and grouping them. He wraps a few together with string, tiny knots around their curled paper filters, and dunks them into the deep sea of chemicals. They float like preserved corpses in the liquid, stewing in the embalming fluid. William rewards himself with a joint not baptised in formaldehyde, and makes for his easel. As daylight sinks below his porch window, William stands tall in his bare living room, smoking pot and painting.
The sun creeps to the end of the block, purple and navy lingers on the horizon. William waits down the street from the meet location, denim button down snug on his shoulders and stomach, his backpack heavy. In the growing dark, the corner store ahead glows like candlelight. Finally, a silhouette steps out from the shop, waving him in.
William’s eyes battle the blinding overheads, brown iris speckled with silver behind narrow opened eyelids. The inside of the deli is immaculate, wood counters shine like plastic, the stainless steel display case stacked with cylinders of meat, uninterrupted rows of gum and candy an orgy of color reaching the ceiling. William sits in a wooden chair, his back stiff and knotted against it. Two of the employees surround him, one sitting diagonal to him, another leaning over the meat case, both women watching with intent. They are older, late 50’s or 60’s from the valleys around their eyes, both pale with brown hair struck by gray. So much of this neighborhood is folks his age, William realizes. Children grown and gone, parents left to wither away. Even his own.
A door out of view, somewhere behind a row of whining soda cases, swings open in announcement. Between the bread and toiletries, she arrives. Roma Haas stands in front of him, no intention of sitting in the chair behind her, and mulls William over.
“Who told you this was a place you could be?” Her voice is a river over stones, true Poland still in her accent. She circles William, pushing white clouds of hair away from her eyes. Her face is spotted with age, just as old as her lieutenants if not more, but her frame is thick, decades of labor twisting her arms into milky knots.
“I have a business idea that I think you’ll like,” William says, flashing his smile, surface of skin cool despite the hot springs building in his chest. Roma has seen a hundred men like William sit before her, each one with a plan they are unworthy of. She finally sits down, motioning with her hand for him to continue, already bored.
“There’s a guy who lives on Orthodox Street who has been selling, well, a special sort of cigarette to some of my friends in the bars,” he offers.
Roma groans. Disappointed, tired, she wants to be watching Wheel of Fortune instead.
“If you don’t like his stupid water sticks,” Roma says, before being corrected by the woman leaning on the meat case. “Excuse me, wet sticks, then don’t buy them. Who ever told you I offer refunds was betting I’d shoot you by now.” She rises from the chair, ready to end this.
William begs her to wait, careful not to move in his chair, as the lieutenants on either side of him perk up aggressively, the hot springs in his chest now erupting into words.
“I can make a better product for cheaper,” his mouth evacuates, playing his hand too strong too quick.
She turns back toward him, snatching a pair a dry cookies from a nearby shelf, tearing them open and stuffing one in her mouth.
“Fine,” she says, “pitch it.”
William tells her everything, the script he has been rehearsing for weeks. He realizes that once he finishes, she could shoot him in the face. Murdered in a Polish delicatessen.
“Wait,” she finally stops him. Sweat bubbles up from the shores of his hairline, his breath souring with panic. “That little man from the funeral home pours embalming fluid on his weed?” The lieutenant seated next to her confirms the sentence too enthusiastically, and Roma makes a mental note of concern.
“The difference is that stuff actively kills you from the inside out, not to mention it can light up like napalm,” William explains. “What I’m offering is hospital grade, from a research lab, a soluble that will get them just as high without the risk. Less chance of dead bodies causing your business unwanted attention,” William finishes, patting sweat from his head with the back of his denim wrist.
“I’ll be frank with you, William,” she says, finishing her cookies, “I miss the old days, selling PCP to the deliquents of this neighborhood. Sadly, we’re all priced out of that market now.”
William digs into his bookbag, handing one of jars over to her, joints suspended like fossils in amber.
“I’ll take a 25% cut, William. All transactions that happen this side of Aramingo Avenue.” Roma glides over to the meat case, whispers something in her number two’s ear, and the woman vanishes into the bowels of the store.
“I wonder, William,” she asks out loud, though scanning the meat case for what’s soon to be expired, “why the desperation?” She lets the questions hang in the air. “Debt, or love, or an addiction of your own?” She cuts the theatrics, sits down, and her eyes sift through his smiles and plans.
“I love to paint,” he says, thinking of his son sleeping in a dorm room across the state, having long forgotten his father.
Roma Haas doesn’t blink.
And then she laughs. Hard.
“I, I want to go to school, back to, learn to get better,” William says sheepishly, no longer a smooth-talking hustler, but a failed husband. A failed dad.
“I’m surprised,” she says, her laugh wheezing and retreating, lungs filled with wire and stones. “You know, my granddaughter, she’s an artist. I can say this: the only thing more stupid than taking on student loan debt for your art is selling drugs for it.” They share a laugh, and for a moment, this all seems like it may work.
“Last thing, William,” she says, her lieutenant passing her a brown paper bag from behind the meat case. “This is on the house.”
William feels his stomach capsize, sweat finally vaulting his dam of hair and running wild down his face, as she pulls her chair closer to him. He feels the weight of the bag in his lap.
“We can’t have two people on the market selling the same thing. The little Italian is temper and ego, he won’t stand for competition. Just not a big enough neighborhood for two of you,” Roma says, the other women now standing behind her. William had heard the stories about them, the drugs and the violence, but could never see this woman as more than a hub, importing and exporting.
As William feels the shape of the gun through the coarse brown bag, he tries to see his future. Color theory. Paintings of ducks. His son, speaking to him, remembering that pond.
“Think of the art, William,” she says.
But William will never make it to that campus. He’ll never leave Bridesburg.
William leaves, sailing into the black night. Industrial smoke rises from the horizon, blotting out the moon.
One of the lieutenants asks Roma if he’ll really do it.
“It doesn’t matter,” Roma says. “Watching him shit his pants was worth whatever comes next.”
Roma Haas laughs to herself, fetches another packet of cookies, and makes her back to Wheel of Fortune.