Never fuck with a coven.

I learned this important lesson in the summer of 1996 when I moved to New York City from Richmond, Virginia, without telling my girlfriend. This wasn’t an emotionally healthy or well-planned life decision.

Stories should teach lessons. So this is a brief record of one lesson learned.

My escape plan was simple: pay a fare, cross the river, and never look back. I needed money to do this, which meant breaking into the house where I lived, rent free.

Sixty dollars would buy me a trip two hours north to my sister’s apartment. That was the price Charlotte named when we had briefly talked the night before. I called from a payphone on the street. Her voice sounded far away, as if she were talking to me from the branches of a tall tree she had climbed.

Charlotte had been planning on road tripping to New York where the heroin was plentiful and inexpensive. She waited for me the following afternoon in her ancient VW bug while I tiptoed up the stairs to the front door.

I blew on my fingers the way safecrackers do in the movies because, hey, lucky fingers. The key slowly turned and the door creaked open. I shushed the hinges.

It took me half an hour to find the sixty dollars.

I had developed an irrational paranoia after my first mugging and had taken to squirreling away my cash inside books, and in the back of sock drawers.

Sober me had trouble finding the cash drunk me had hidden.

The house was alive. The wood floors hid lungs. Peel the paint off the walls and they’d bleed.

Her door was closed. Inside her room the stereo was blaring Nine Inch Nails. She was asleep. Noon was her midnight. If she woke up, she’d be heartbroken and furious.

Her python was awake, and that giant yellow snake could taste my betrayal through the filthy aquarium glass. Her name for the serpent was Lucky and he was always on to me.

Lucky escaped his tank once, and I ran out into the street when I found out, convinced he meant to murder me.

I locked eyes with the python and had the following telepathic conversation:

“Where are you going?”

“Shut up, snake.”

I found thirty dollars under the soiled futon in the living room that was her throne.

I spent months of unemployment eating her food, sucking down plugs of smoke from her bong and watching reruns of the sitcom Friends on her television.

She had a plentiful supply of cheap marijuana. But it’s not like I was wasteful. I’d even smoke the seeds. Friends would warn me that smoking the seeds would damage my sperm, but I ignored them because young men are rich with semen.

But the day before was different. After she had left to earn our rent money, and I had cracked open a breakfast beer, I had an epiphany.

Friends wasn’t on, so I watched the first episode of a major story arc on the soap opera Days of Our Lives. This story arc was about how evil Stefano kidnapped the beautiful Marlena and kept her hostage in a golden cage underneath the streets of Paris.

That’s when a heavenly shaft of light punctured the ceiling and consumed me. I was the beautiful Marlena and the golden cage was a metaphor too, man. I had to get out. Escape. Be free.

I mumbled my to-do list to myself. First, fill a pillowcase with clothes. Then take a nice long drag on a pipe packed with her reefer. Third, something or other. Touch my reflection in the bathroom mirror.


I didn’t lock the door behind me.

Charlotte counted the money before turning the ignition. If I had been fifty cents short she would probably have dragged me out of her car by my hair. But it was all there.

The car roared to life.

“Thank you so much.”

“Don’t mention it.”

She wasn’t kidding. We didn’t mention anything for the entire trip to my sister’s condo in northern Virginia.

I couldn’t help but look in the rearview mirror.

The night before running away from home I chased half a box of cold medicine with a couple of beers, because the air conditioning wasn’t working.

The summers in Virginia bend the laws of space and time. They last for years, and they can get so hot and wet it feels like you’re living inside the guts of a great hairy beast.

I had spent the days since watching Days Of Our Lives, avoiding her. Whenever we hung out recently, we’d eventually end up screaming at each other about broken air conditioners.

On this final hike, though, I was pretty buzzed and sometimes large doses of dextromethorphan and pseudoephedrine can really open you up to the universe.

I read in a travel magazine recently that the city of Richmond, Virginia, had become a tourist destination popular with lawyers who enjoy kayaking and Scotch.

Somewhere in Richmond the ghost of rebel president Jefferson Davis sits at a bar drinking rye and mumbling about what he could have done to save the cause.

Let those who lament the burning of that defeated capital take comfort in the fact that history repeats itself because history is a drunk asshole.

I decided to visit Hester first.

Her lights were on, which is why I knocked on the front door.

Hester was my friend. She’d make me pots of tea and we’d have intense ontological conversations. “Conversation” is a generous word for it. I’d sit there and listen to her quietly preach about her favorite topics. Art. Bliss. The Occult.

I’d always managed to have a few female friends I didn’t want to sleep with. I think this is because I once ate two hits of Jolly Roger acid and listened to Tori Amos’ CD Little Earthquakes for eight hours straight. That was a lot of intense goddess energy to absorb while losing my mind on hallucinogens.

I enjoyed hanging out with her because she was a grown adult — a mother with older children — and she seemed to have so many secret answers and hidden knives.

She was an actress, and a poet, and her humble apartment was a crumbling ruin of books. Her girlfriends were always so much younger than she was, and no one ever judged her for her tastes.

I first met her when she was a graduate student starring in a production of King Lear. She played Lear.

There was a comic book character I loved who was unlike the other super heroes. He had grey in his hair, and an elegant red cape. He was the master of the mystic arts and instead of shooting lasers out of his eyes at bad guys, he would cast spells.

Hester should have dressed up like him for Halloween. The suggestion would have made her purr.

Hester spoke with an English accent, and I’m pretty sure she came from England. But if it turned out that was a put on, that she was white trash from the woods, it would have been easy to forgive her.

She ushered me into her lair. We sat crossed legged on giant pillows that had tiny bells tied to each of the four corners.

She knew I was high, but rolled a fat joint anyway.

As she lit incense and candles with a cheap plastic cigarette lighter I asked her the question that everyone asks. The question that is whispered into folded hands and shouted at the moon.

What do I do?

What I didn’t know then was that no one has a plan. Those who think they have a plan either live to see it fail or live to see it fail again, for the second time.

She lifted a stack of cards wrapped in purple silk out of the box. Tarot cards. The cards were ornate. Each decorated with icons and symbols and fantastical images. She told me about them and I listened. Her lips never moved.

Tarot do not tell the future, she told me. Jung thought they had therapeutic value as meditation tools. The Tarot were crammed with archetypes that were bound to stimulate the collective unconscious. I had no idea who Jung was, of course.

She spoke of Egyptians, and the power of rituals. She told me that love is the law, law under will. Thy will be done, and she pointed at me.

What do I do? Whatever I want.

Her deck of cards was designed by a British magician. His name was Aleister Crowley and he laid waste to the gentlemanly world of secret Victorian societies dedicated to the arcane.

She stressed that he was a pioneering scholar of the ancients. But he was also a total creep who loved to do drugs and fuck, and I was naturally enthralled that such a swine ever existed.

Love is the law, law under will.

The cards were laid out in a cross — three horizontally, three vertically. Hester demanded I meditate on the questions I wanted answered. I told her I only wanted one question answered.

“Close your eyes, and see,” she said.

Here’s what I saw: the opening credits of the TV show Friends featuring the cast of NBC’s hit series goofing around in a fountain to the song “I’ll Be There For You.”

But there was something different. The cast had a new addition. Standing in the fountain. Stefano laughed.

I opened my eyes.

Elegant fingers turned each card over. A great tower falls. Eight cups overflowing with tears. A moonrise, a golden lion with many heads, a princess with a sword.

The final card was a jester. The fool. Crowley’s fool almost jumped off the card. Hester explained to me that, usually, the fool is blindfolded, and stepping off a cliff. She was delighted this was my final card. Because the fool leaps. He sees with his eyes closed.

The joker is wild… and wise.

“Lear’s fool disappears after Lear stumbles out of the storm,” she reminded me.

What do I do? The fool answers: jump, and find out.

After a moment of divine quiet, she apologized for farting. We laughed and laughed. We laughed so long that I wore that laughter around my neck like a scarf when I left her. It would be the last time I ever saw her.

I walked a couple of blocks until I found a battered pay phone and called Charlotte.

I puffed on cigarettes while marching down Monument Avenue, a grim parade of statues dedicated to fallen heroes like J.E.B. Stuart, and Stonewall Jackson that I nicknamed the Avenue of Second Place Trophies.

Slave masters strike such noble poses.

A sudden shortcut through the hidden cobblestone alleys behind Richmond’s ancient row houses led me to her backdoor. She was the next person I would see before leaving her high and dry.

I softly tap tap tapped on her screen door until I could hear movement. She knew it was me.

Poppy’s hair was arterial spray. Her aura was leopard print. She had curves that needed guardrails.

Her cigarette cherry sizzled. It was late.

I wasn’t allowed into her apartment unless I brought an offering. I sighed and ran to the grocery store around the corner and bought two ninety-nine cent 22 oz bottles of Colt .44 with pocket change.

She was friends with everyone. Including my girlfriend. Which is what she was, even if I never said that to anyone. I would call her my roommate to some. To others she was just a chick I was banging. If you asked me if we were dating, chances are good I’d ignore you.

Unless you were trying to fuck her. Then I’d try to fight you.

Poppy wanted boilermakers. We shot the liquor out of coffee mugs and chased the whiskey with the double deuces. I made myself comfortable on her couch.

I confessed right away that I was planning to leap without looking. I knew that if I asked her straight out for her blessing she’d never give it.

She listened to me, only moving to take a drag, or shot, or to subtly adjust the thick black frame glasses she wore.

I gave her the facts: I was going to crash at my sister’s. Maybe take a train to Texas to stay with my parents. Then somehow get on a plane and move to New York City.

“What about Nick?” she asked. No one called her Nicole.

People change, I replied. It was an absurd point. What did I know about change? Besides, people don’t change. That’s why there’s tragedy in the world.

“You love her.” Poppy never stained her cigarette with the bright red lipstick she wore at all hours of the day and night. She was right, of course. I loved Nick. But it was a parasite’s love.

“I love her,” I told Poppy. Confided. Whispered. Eyeballs trembling with the promise of possible tears.

“Just tell her something for me. Please?”

A nod.

“Tell her it’s not her,” I couldn’t believe I said that. Or what came next. “Tell her it’s not her, it’s me.”

Technically that’s not a lie. Just a really self-involved truth. I briefly thought I had pulled it off.

“You’re an asshole, D.”

Her nickname for me was simply “D.” That she punctuated the observation with that term of endearment was slightly comforting. She was resigned when she said it, too. Like I was a dog who couldn’t help but lap up his own vomit.

It was times like these that Poppy would recite some wisdom her beloved mother told her. She was close with her mother, and sometimes I’d sit on her couch all night watching reruns while she talked in the kitchen with her using an old wall-mounted rotary phone. Her mother had the answers to all questions. She was a formidable southern oracle who chain smoked like her daughter.

Poppy did not channel her mom. She poured us another round of shots, and toasted me before choking it back.

“I’ll tell her you’re a coward. How about that?

Once again, not a lie.

Poppy ran one candy red talon down my wet cheek and told me that one day I’d get exactly what I wanted. The last time I would hear from her would be a message about Hester dying of breast cancer. Just a few sentences burning on a screen. She asked if I was okay, and I never responded. A year after that I’d get a text message about Poppy. Bad news doesn’t have a human voice in the new century.

She asked me if she could take a picture of me and I said “no.” She waved her hand at me, and went searching for the bulky point-and-shoot.

“Smile, D.”

I did not smile. I tried to look tough. Usually, when I tried to look tough, I looked like someone trying to keep their ice cream cone from melting using the power of their mind.

Her Polaroid camera needed two hands to operate. There was a click, and a whirr, and she fanned herself with the photograph to dry it out. The chemicals mellowed into a blurry portrait.

“You’re going to be handsome when you grow up,” she said.

She secreted the photo into a shoebox stuffed with faded pictures before I could even think to reach for it.

I was sleeping on my sister’s couch with my arms folded over my chest when I heard the first knock. My eyes instantly went lidless with panic.

My girlfriend had found me.

If a tranquilizer dart had suddenly sprouted in my neck, I would have shrugged, unsurprised, as I collapsed.

Her fists crashed against my sister’s door. She knocked as if she were trying to knock through the wood. I could hear the sound of all the metal rings she wore on her fingers. She never took those rings off. They were partially the reason she was able to finish a bar fight my mouth started once.

I opened the door before she shook the entire complex awake.

“You’re a real piece of shit.”

My life on the run lasted barely twelve hours. Charlotte had barely slowed the car down as she pulled up to my sister’s condo.

She just sped off and took the late summer with her.

My sister couldn’t help but groan when I explained that I needed to crash with her for a few days.

I didn’t expect judgement to show up so soon.

“You weren’t supposed to be a piece of shit,” she said.

For a brief moment I thought I could pull off blaming Tarot cards.

Instead, I chose a more dignified solution and quietly begged her to go away.

My sister and her husband were quietly praying to Jesus that she’d drag my ass back to Richmond for whatever reckoning I richly deserved.

I asked her how she found me.

She dragged on her cigarette slowly, making sure a cloud crept inside.

“You literally told everyone you were screwing me over.”

Charolette. Hester. Poppy.

Never fuck with a coven.

“Have you been sucking on whipped cream cans?”

She stepped up to the very edge of the carpet.

“Did you fry your brain?”

Her laughter grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me close to her.

“You’re coming back to Richmond.”

No, no, no.

“I am going to snap my fingers and grow you a pair of balls.”

She gave me a final choice. Break her heart properly — to her face, sitting in our living room while burning a blunt — or risk a pox. She also reminded me that I had left in such a manic hurry that I had forgotten shoes, CDs, and money that I had stashed inside a VHS case of a bootleg copy of the movie Dune.

I wrote my sister a note thanking her for the frozen pizzas, and the couch, and the beers.

Before I knew it, I was sitting in her car. She had made the trip in record time, fueled by NoDoz and the Beastie Boys. The ashtray was stuffed with butts and roaches. Her car was nothing but duct tape and luck. She called it her “Sherman tank.” It would start to tremble once you hit 55. Any faster and whoever was riding shotgun would have to take a screwdriver to the screws as they were unscrewing themselves.

The cigarette lighter’s red cyclops eye illuminated her tired face. I looked away. Shame is what happens when you stop buying your own ridiculous bullshit.

As much as I would have been content to watch Christmas lights blink and eat BBQ potato chips stoned out of my mind, Nick had bigger plans. She loved walking around museums with a buzz and eating Ethiopian food in strip malls. She knew the world and would return to it. I think — I know — I was part of that plan.

Eventually she would move to an island, and we would never speak again.

The tank wheezed, and coughed, and Nick had to suddenly steer it off the highway.

The old car carried her on one more long haul, and died on the side of I-95, about an hour away from Richmond. This was too much for Nick, who immediately started laughing into the steering wheel.

It was not the moment to throw a tantrum, but I did it anyway.

“What else could go wrong? What now?”

She smiled at me.

The Hyundai rattled because we were so close to the dinosaur stampede of 18-wheelers outside.

Nick calmly packed a glass bowl and handed it to me.

“Don’t go anywhere.” She then pounced out of the car and marched into traffic, as if no harm could possibly come to her.

I did what she told me. By the time I looked up with full lungs she was gone. I pressed my face against the window as I exhaled, hypnotized by the red car taillights streaking past, zooming down the dark interstate and into the future.

In 16 years my phone would be smaller and thinner than a deck of Tarot cards.

The messages were ghosts in a mirror. Sudden, silent. I was 20 when I first met Nicole. I was 38 when I heard the ridiculous rumors that she was dead at 41. Impossible.

Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.

The windshield was wet with my breath. Her rings tapping on the glass snapped me out of it.

It hadn’t taken long for her to summon a truck willing to tow us all the way to Richmond.

The driver apologized for the lack of wiggle room in his rig. We crammed into the cabin, but I might as well have been lashed to the hood.

Nick rested her head on my shoulder. The truck sailed down the concrete highway dragging the husk of her hatchback in its wake.

I couldn’t help but look in the rearview mirror.