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It's Just A Start

Chip finally decided to get up. He hadn't been able to sleep for most of the night anyway. He didn't toss and turn; he just laid in bed not even trying to sleep. The last of the dilaudid he'd shot wore off at one or two, but by then he was thinking about getting the money he needed to score some more pills. They could shoplift or steal enough to fence for rent and the like but pills were expensive.

At least I got entertained by that spider weaving its web in the ceiling corner. Bet it eats good today.

He'd watched it go back and forth, back and forth for several hours after dawn. Finally, when the spider crawled to the very corner of the ceiling to wait, Chip decided it was time to get up. He unsteadily sat up, slowly stretched his skinny frame, and then stood with a grunt. Chip ran his fingers through his oily blonde hair and tasted his own bad breath. He stepped into the bathroom to relieve himself and took a quick look in the mirror.

Ain't I just the picture of youth and good health.

Chip shuffled into the kitchen and dumped a couple of teaspoons of the instant coffee he'd shoplifted earlier in the week into a yellowed mug. Stove might be busted but we still got hot water for coffee. He turned on the hot water spigot and waited. As he looked out the window, Chip didn't see anything at all. He didn't see the cockroach crawl out of the sink drain. He didn't smell the soured sponge on the sink edge near the faucet, or the stale smell of smoked cigarettes. He didn't see the large oak tree near the woods at the back of the yard. His mind was a spring that was rapidly unwinding. As it spun, the only thoughts Chip had, involved ways to get more pills. While he continued waiting for hot water he absent-mindedly turned on a small transistor radio on the kitchen windowsill. He was hoping to hear some music, something maybe by Dylan. But all he heard was a report about the probability of Jimmy Carter becoming the next president. Chip shook his head and turned the radio off.

I'm runnin' out of ideas. I got to find another way to get pills. I'm not making any money this way. Pimpin' is just too slow and we're using as fast as we're getting hooked up.

He forced his mind back to at least getting the hot water into his mug. Dope or no dope he needed to begin his day with a cup of coffee.

After taking a couple of sips, his mind opened a bit. He walked through the trash-strewn living room and out onto the front porch, or what was left of it. The hole in the corner of the roof became just a bit worse with every snow or rainstorm. The front railing of the porch was even worse. In places, it was hanging by a nail or two. Chip sat down on an old metal chair. He sipped his coffee, lit a cigarette, and waited. He didn't look at the trees or the unmowed front yard. He looked at the porch floor and then shut his eyes and waited. A half-hour passed.

"Oh shit! Oh shit! Why do I do this shit? I'm gonna puke!"

Ahh. Chip thought. The voice of my special girl. My favorite squeeze. Too damn bad she's as strung out as much as she is. We could get married and have six or seven kids. I could get a job making big bucks and she could stay home like on the TV shows… Just like no one I've ever known.

"Don't puke in there! It smells bad enough. Get out the back door or stick your head out the window."

The screen door screeched open and a young woman of undetermined age stepped out. She could be fifty or twenty. A stranger would have to ask because there was no way to tell from watching her. As she stood at the door she saw her reflection in the glass. Stephanie looked at her dirty brown hair, long boney fingers, and fingernails that looked as though she might be a car mechanic. Stephanie coughed a couple of minutes and reached down to take his coffee cup. She drained what was left and stumbled back inside. Chip could hear her rummaging around muttering. But he knew what she was doing. Looking for his cigarettes. Eventually, she returned to the porch puffing happily. She sat in Chip's lap and blew smoke in his face. He smiled up at her face and asked,

"Any idea how we can make some money this afternoon?"

"Guess that means me hitting the street again." Stephanie said.

Stephanie looked down at Chip and put her hands on either side of his face. She had tears in her eyes. This time there was a hint of anger to go with the sadness she felt.

"Baby. I don't want to do that anymore. Somebody's gonna hurt me sure enough and then what? Go to the hospital? They won't give me anything once they figure out I'm a junkie."

Stephanie slipped lower in Chip's lap and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She started softly crying.

Chip sat there with Stephanie for a few minutes. Then he pushed her to her feet and stood up.

"Steph, we don't get a few pills in a couple of hours there's no telling what we'll do. We've been there before remember? Remember that john we robbed a month or so ago? We got just enough to buy a few pills and took that ratty assed old .38 he'd been carrying. Didn't even have no bullets in it."

Chip laughed a nasty laugh. "We couldn't even hock that thing. Won't worth nothing."

Stephanie was quiet for a bit. She'd taken the chair that Chip had left. She looked out at the yard. She looked at the worn-out Chevy Nova they drove. She surveyed the broken-down porch. Taking full inventory of their lives didn't take but a moment. There just wasn't much there. Stephanie was still crying softly. The feeling of emptiness and impending sickness that follows a junkie was with her like a shadow.

In a couple of minutes, Stephanie went inside too. Chip was in the bathroom and had the door shut so Stephanie turned on the hot water tap to make some coffee. She listened to Chip mumbling about something or other. Losing interest she made her coffee and let her thoughts drift to the large red oak shading most of the back yard. It was good to see something pleasant and even better to enjoy seeing it. She tried to recall picnics up at Mount Pisgah, as a child, where her family enjoyed the shade of large oak trees but that seemed so long ago.

Mostly she remembered stepping off the Trailways bus about a year ago in Asheville and feeling lost. She'd had to get away from things at home and couldn't find another way. She had no one in Asheville and that was the point. Maybe she'd get a new start. That night was black, warm but breezy. If she hadn't been so sad it might have been a fine night for her. She remembered seeing a nice looking guy coming out of the brightly lit bus depot building. She watched as he looked at her and smiled. He asked her if she had a place to stay. Stephanie couldn't believe she'd ever been that innocent and shy. It only took Chip two weeks to get her on the way to being a junkie. Take a taste babe, it'll make all your pain go away. That's what Chip told her. He didn't tell her what it would cost. She spent her money and her self-respect first, then she completed the deal by divesting herself of a future. That first needle was truly nice but it never was the same after. It never felt like the first time again. I wonder if he even thinks about what he's done to me at all.

Chip came out of the bathroom with his white T-shirt rolled up. He was wiping under his arms using the shirt as a towel.

"You ready Steph? Let's get uptown early and see if we can score a preacher. This time of day they're out there trolling. That fat preacher in the orange Maverick has a thing for you baby." Chip seemed all wound up and excited.

Sure he's excited. I'm the one who has to do this nasty stuff. That preacher is OK but I'll probably get one of those smelly construction guys right off work. How'd I get here?

Chip let Stephanie out of the car on Rankin Ave. It ran parallel and in between Haywood Street and Lexington Avenue. Chip noticed that the johns didn't pick any girls up on Haywood Street. He thought there were most likely too many of the regular people walking around the shops up there. If they went to Lexington they had competition late in the evening and sometimes early in the afternoon. But Rankin had mostly parking lots and the girls up there were trolling for better customers and maybe more money. The number of competing hookers was less too.

Stephanie made one stroll toward the east end of the street. She carefully made her way on the sidewalk, chin up and a slightly exaggerated sway in her hips. Chip called this advertising. She noticed a car slowly going west. It wasn't a new car but it was clean. The driver's window was down. The driver was an older guy, gray hair, receding hairline, white shirt, and dark blue tie. He was looking in her direction but kept going. When she looked over at him he didn't look away.

He'll be back. Won't be but a thought.

Five minutes later the same tan sedan pulled up just ahead of her stroll. Stephanie walked over to the open passenger window, rested her arms on the opening, and asked the question.

"Hey, honey. You lookin' for a date?"

The driver maintained eye contact with her. Normally they'd look away and tell her to get in. The first thought Stephanie had was that this guy was an undercover city cop. She had two convictions for prostitution and while it wasn't a big deal it still took her off the street for a few days and made getting high harder to do.

She looked in the back seat and saw law books. They were green and tan leather-bound books with gold embossed titles- North Carolina General Statutes. There must have been seven or eight of them. He saw she'd noticed the books and said, "I'm not from here. Came in from Raleigh last night. Been travelling around trying to sell these damn books for a week. Lawyers are a tight bunch of assholes. I'm just tired of driving, working, and eating bad food. What's your name and how much?"

Stephanie took all this in and decided he wasn't a cop and he probably had some money. Maybe she could rip off his wallet and keep Chip from robbing the guy.

"Ten bucks for a hand job, twenty for a BJ, and that's all right now baby. I got my period."

"Twenty bucks sounds just about right. Get in." When she had shut the door he asked, "Where to? What's your name again?"

"Baby, I'm Wanda. What's yours?"

"Tom Smith."

Stephanie giggled. She knew that he knew that neither of them had just told the truth. She directed him to the backside of an abandoned warehouse on Riverside Drive.

They concluded business behind the warehouse and Stephanie hoped Chip didn't come running up to rob this guy. What she was doing was bad enough but that just added to the insult of being a hooker.

Finally, he reached for his wallet. When he touched it he snickered just a bit. "Why didn't you lift it, Wanda?"

Stephanie's face got hot. "Not sure what you mean there Mr. Smith. It's still twenty bucks."

He pulled a twenty out of a roll in his left front pocket and gave it to her. "Nothing but pictures and business cards in that wallet anyway. You work here every day?"

Stephanie sat with her arms crossed and her back resting on the door. "Not every day. Not every day Mr. Smith."

"Well, you want a ride back?"

Stephanie sat looking out the windshield now and said, "Yes."

He drove her back to Rankin, let her out, and drove away. Chip pulled up and asked how it went. She just handed him the twenty and started walking. The afternoon was sunny and warm, pleasant actually. After a few hours, they had enough money for some pills. Chip drove them over to the Payne's house on Montford where Old Man Bill had been selling dilaudid for years. Chip went in and got the pills. He drove them around to an alley behind a brick apartment building. Daylight was becoming a memory and the streetlight that should have illuminated the alley had been shot out months ago. It was plenty dark.

They weren't really getting high anymore. They just weren't getting sick. No pills meant withdrawal. Stephanie looked over at Chip and watched him stack four dilaudids in the syringe they got from Old Man Payne. He poured some water in and shook the syringe for a couple of minutes. Then he shot up. His eyes were closed and he was paying no attention to anything at all, much less her. Stephanie knew she was just a tool to Chip. Just a way to get dope. If he needed to he'd get another, younger, less strung out girl to get his stuff. Stephanie saw a glimpse of the future and it scared her. She took the syringe from his arm and shot up too.

A couple of weeks later Chip decided to try his luck at conning some doctors in the far western part of the state. He'd never tried doctor shopping before. If he could convince a couple of those backwoods docs that he had migraines or something he could score some scripts that he could take to pharmacies and take in lots of pills. He might even get a big enough pipeline going that he could start selling instead of buying.

Chip slipped away to visit a couple of shopping centers and a few more motel parking lots. He knew he'd find unlocked cars and inside those, cameras, money, a pocketbook once in a while, other things he could pawn or sell to get some money. This money would help pay the doctors and pharmacists to get him going in a new direction. He wouldn't need Stephanie much longer.

Stephanie didn't want to ride all over hell on winding country roads so she had Chip drop her off on Montford Ave. She was actually enjoying herself. No Chip, no johns, no cops; just a pleasant walk and maybe a nap in the sun at Montford Park.

Stephanie wasn't paying any attention to the road traffic until a car pulled up and did a quick honk. She looked over and there was that tan car and Mr. Tom Smith. He pulled up to the curb and yelled across the front seat, "Wanda, get in."

They had been customer and customer service off and on for several weeks. Nothing on a regular basis and as the weeks passed it was becoming less frequent.

Stephanie walked over to the car, leaned in, and said, "Even a hooker gets a day off. I'm not working today. OK?" She straightened up and began walking down the sidewalk toward the park. The car kept pace with her but that was all. There was no calling to her, no yelling at her. She glanced over at Mr. Smith and couldn't keep herself from grinning. Then he drove on with another quick honk.

A week or so passed and again as she walked along Montford Avenue she saw Mr. Smith. He pulled over to the side of the street and motioned for Stephanie to come over to the car. This time she went over and looked in.

"I'm not working today."

"That's not what I want Wanda. Let me park up here and just talk to you."

Stephanie watched as he parked and got out of his car. When she got to the car he was leaning on the front fender. Both of his feet were resting on the edge of the curb.

"What do you want?" she asked

"Talk to you just a bit. Nothing else," Mr. Smith replied.

Stephanie tilted her head just a bit and turned to find a bench in the shade. When she found one, she and Mr. Smith sat down. At first, neither said a word. Stephanie was first to speak.

"What do you want with me? I told you I'm not working. I don't need a boyfriend. I already got one of those problems."

Mr. Smith looked at the ground and not at Stephanie. He used the toe of one of his shoes to make a small indentation in the dirt. Then he looked up at the sky and followed a drifting cloud for a few seconds.

"I'm an addict."

Stephanie was quiet. She was looking at the side of Mr. Smith's face. He hadn't turned toward her after he stopped talking. What the hell was this? She wondered. He didn't turn toward her at first. Then he turned so he was completely facing her.

"I've been clean for three years. I was a thief and a dealer before I got arrested. I went to prison for dealing and did four years. On the way, I started going to Narcotics Anonymous. The warden pushed us to go. When I got out a friend gave me a job but insisted I continue with NA. I'll never be anything but an addict, Wanda. But I have a job and a girlfriend who lives in Asheville now. I have one more thing I want to do before I fade into the background and become just one of the population. I need to help someone that's on the same path as I was. Can I give you some advice that might just save you some damn pain?"

Stephanie was looking at him. She was focused on his words but she was staring at his face. She knew she was going to die if she didn't get away from Chip but this guy just said he had a girlfriend so he couldn't help. What was his game anyway?

He continued after just a bit.

"You have to find a way to get loose of that guy you think is your boyfriend. He's just using you and when he finds another way you're going to be in a mess. Then you have to shake this addiction. I don't know if it's smack, or pills, or what, but I know a junkie when I see one."

Stephanie turned her head toward Montford and stood up without saying a word. She walked away never turning around. She didn't really know where she was going. She just needed to think. She ended up in a small bar on Broadway Street that was frequented by the nearby college crowd. The jukebox was playing but it wasn't blaring the same redneck music like the ones in the bars up the road on Lexington.

A young woman wearing an apron came up and asked Stephanie if there was something she'd like. Stephanie asked for a cup of coffee. The server brought the coffee, some cream and sugar, and a ginger snap. After paying and thanking the young woman Stephanie relaxed and listened to the music. A song was playing by a gravelly-voiced man. She couldn't make out the words the first time; then someone else played it again and she began to understand the song. When she went to the jukebox to see what the song was she saw C-10 was the number. The song was Small Change, by Tom Waits.

Stephanie stayed for another thirty minutes and heard Small Change a couple more times. She had the words down now, interesting lyrics.

Chip returned after three or four days of doctor shopping. He seemed to have a knack for getting medical professionals to write multiple prescriptions for narcotics. Next, he'd found a willing pharmacist in the far northwest part of Georgia. He could take ten or so scripts for dilaudid and a few for drugs like Valium or Preludin and this druggist would fill each one. Chip decided to go into wholesale dope dealing. He wouldn't need Steph much longer. Her addiction and mine will put me in the poorhouse or jail. Chip just needed the right time to set her on her way. As Chip was on the phone talking about all of this planning to one of his buddies he had no way of knowing Stephanie had come home and heard it all. She quietly left the house and walked into the woods where she could hide until Chip left to sell some of his pills.

Soon enough Chip fired the old Nova up and pulled out of the driveway. Stephanie came back into the house and sat down on the stained plaid sofa. She rested her head on the back of the sofa and looked up at the ceiling.

Just like that damn Mr. Smith said. Chip, good ol' Chip, is gonna cut me loose. He made me a damn junkie and now he don't care and that'll be that. What do I do now? I gotta get rid of needing these damn pills first. No, first I gotta get rid of needing Chip. Then get rid of needing the pills. No…let me think for a minute.

I need some pills to get me through till I can find a Narcotics Anonymous meeting or get into a methadone program. I got pills right here but Chip won't let me have any. I don't think he'll let me buy any either. Wholesale now, that's what he said on the phone. If I take some he'll hurt me for sure.

Stephanie closed her eyes just to think. That Tom Waits song kept playing in her head. Suddenly her eyes popped open and she stood up. She rummaged around in their bedroom and found the old revolver that Chip had stolen. She turned the gun up and looked into the opening where the bullets went. Chip was right there were no bullets in the gun. But she remembered Chip telling her to hide a partial box of .38 bullets they'd found robbing a car at a motel one night. She walked slowly; chin up, slightly swaying her hips down the hall. She walked into the small bedroom and over to the smelly, faded yellow loveseat under the only window in the room. She knelt down and pulled the box of bullets from underneath. Stephanie took the gun from her waistband and pulled the trigger. She watched as the cylinder turned. She saw where she needed to put the only bullet she'd need to fix her problem and loaded the gun with one round. She put the pistol back in her waistband and walked to the kitchen.

Stephanie searched the little storeroom where Chip always hid things. She found his stash and took three pills from it. She went through her pocketbook and found a needle. Then she stacked three, four-milligram dilaudids in the syringe and filled it with hot water, and for maybe the last time she pushed the needle into her arm. After she shot it up Stephanie sat back on the couch and waited.

She waited nearly all night. She saw the headlights turn into the driveway just before she realized it was Chip. Stephanie cleared her head and moved to the far end of the couch. It was the side farthest from the front door. She waited for Chip. Stephanie was aware of each and every breath she took, slow and steady.

When Chip came into the living room he saw Stephanie. He realized she wasn't sweating or showing signs of needing to shoot up. He immediately went to the storeroom to check his stash.

"Damn it you bitch! You stole some pills! Didn't you? Get out of this house now before I kill your ass!"

Chip came into the living room furious. His face was red and his mouth was quivering the way it did when he was having a tantrum.

"Get the hell out of here you damn thief!" Chip showed no sign of calming down.

Stephanie kept her seat and asked Chip if he ever really listened to the songs he heard on the radio. Did he ever really listen to the words?

"What? What did you say? What's that got to do with you stealing from me bitch?"

"Chip, you know you really ain't much. You ain't really a man. You're just a dope dealer. You're nothing much else are you?"

Chip started across the floor with rage in his eyes. He made it halfway across when Stephanie stood up, walked up to him, and pointed the old .38 at him. She put the .38 right in his face.

Chip started laughing. "Who you gonna shoot with that piece of crap? This is really funny. A junkie piece of crap trying to shoot a piece of crap gun."

Stephanie looked into Chip's eyes. Empty, unfeeling, selfish eyes were all she could see. She pulled the trigger and the gun went off, the bullet barely missing his left ear.

Chip fell. Stephanie looked at him as he lay on the floor. He had curled into a ball and was crying. Stephanie looked down at Chip and dropped the gun on the floor next to him. She took a wad of money from one of his front pockets, and just before she turned to leave the house Stephanie looked down at Chip and said, "Well, looks like you just got rained on by your own .38 Chip, you dope dealing, no good, sorry excuse for a human."

Stephanie walked to the main road and thumbed a ride to downtown Asheville. She walked to Church Street and found an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. There she asked when the next NA meeting would be. It was the next night but she could stay at the AA meeting if she wanted. She stayed for a bit then left and found a room for the night. She waited for morning and went to the methadone clinic to get into the maintenance program. She thought she might have a chance now. It wasn't even a beginning. It's just a start.

Stephanie thought of another Small Change lyric as she walked away. The dreams ain't broken down here now but they're walking with a limp.