Jacob tries to cut through the tough outer layer of the red pill—with what he calls a click knife—actually a small breakaway box cutter. He steals them by the pocketful from Home Depot … or used to steal them until they fired him. His index finger is already bleeding from the two times the blade has slipped off the slick, tiny surface, “Goddammit!”
The drug companies have wised up lately, making the pills impossible to crush by covering them with a plastic-like coating that Jacob and others like him, have to defeat by whatever means possible, “Hurry up,” Clarisse says; “Janice’ll be here in a half hour. I don’t want her to catch us shooting up.”
At last he manages to cut through the hard shell, severing the pill roughly in half, but one of the pieces goes flying across the table. They get down on hands and knees to search for the precious fragment. Clarisse turns it up in a dust bunny under their beat-up recliner. “Jesus,” Jacob says, sweating profusely; “That’s seventy bucks right there.”
“Watch what you’re doing next time,” Clarisse says.
Jacob has two more cuts to make. At a hundred forty bucks a pill they want to make it last as long as possible, so he continues dividing it into quarters. There’s a knock at the door. Clarisse parts the pink bedspread they have tacked up to the window. Janice is at the door holding her briefcase and clutching a notebook to her eight-plus-month pregnant belly, “Shit, she’s early.”
Jacob sweeps the pill parts and click knives into a drawer and hustles over to the recliner where he tries to look casual despite the beads of sweat on his brow.
Janice knocks again and Clarisse opens the door just enough to accommodate Janice’s big baby bump, “Sorry’ I’m a bit early,” Janice says; “I have a check-up at two.” She pats her tummy.
“That’s so exciting,” Clarisse says; “Do you know what it is yet?”
“Hopefully we find out today. Ultrasound.” She pats her treasure again and gazes down at it proudly.
“I remember when I got my ultrasound,” Clarisse says; “Remember, Jacob?”
Jacob gives her his best “I’m cool” wave, but what he remembers is not giving a shit about the ultrasound. After all, it wasn’t his kid. He only went along because he thought it was within the realm of possibility that he might score some narcos in the doctor’s office but that shit was locked up tighter than his Memaw’s jewelry box.
“Clarisse,” Janice says, “I’ve got some news about Chastity.”
“Oh good. When can I see her? It’s been a month or more since the last visit.”
“Could we turn on some lights?” Janice asks.
Their apartment is gloomy despite the bright sun outside. Every window is covered with a blanket or bedspread. When Clarisse turns the switch on a table lamp, Jacob flinches and shields his eyes. Janice eyes him suspiciously. He seems unusually nervous. “Jason,” Janice says.
“Jacob,” he corrects her.
“Right, sorry, Jacob; Are you working currently? I just gotta get this down.” She’s taking notes in a loose-leaf notebook.
“Yeah, well, sort of. I got applications in at a few places.”
“Name one of the places.”
“Um, well, Walmart.”
Janice looks him up and down. His wife beaters allow the proud display of numerous tattoos. “Uh huh,” she says; “You should probably wear a long sleeved shirt to your interview. You know, Jason …”
“Jacob … Clarisse’s check is only meant to supplement her income. It is certainly not enough to house and feed two people. That’s what supplement means.”
There actually had been three people until the state stepped in to remove Chastity.
“Clarisse only gets $850 a month disability. We’ve got to make that stretch as far as possible. Your contributions would be a great help. It would take some of the pressure off Clarisse.”
“Janice,” Clarisse says, “I could really use fifty today. We gotta get laundry detergent and…”
“It’s only the 23rd.” Janice reminds her; “I won’t have your check for more than a week yet.”
“That’s not fair. It’s my money.”
“Yes but you’ve used all of it for this month.”
Clarisse actually sticks out her lower lip like a pouting child; “I’m thinking about applying to be my own payee.”
“Clarisse, please be realistic. You know they took that right away from you because you often spent the entire check the day you got it. You did it several times. Isn’t it better that we make sure there’s a roof over your head rather than blowing it all in one day?”
“Yeah, but that was because I had to get our TV back out of pawn that one time and that other time our car got impounded on account of the parking tickets.”
“A TV,” Janice reminds her, “is not a necessity of life. Food and housing are. Also, remember, they took your driver’s license after the incident in Florida. So actually, you had no need for a car.”
“Jacob has a license, or at least he did then.”
“Yes but you also didn’t have any insurance so you couldn’t get behind the wheel.”
“It’s not fair that they make you buy insurance.”
“The Government’s always trying to tell people what they can and can’t do,” Jacob says.
Janice looks around. Dirty dishes are piled all around the sink. They appear to have been there for days.
“One of these days,” Jacob begins, “Obama’s going … going to …”
Janice turns his way but he seems to have lost his train of thought. “Clarisse, you’re not really keeping the place clean. You’ll recall that was also part of the agreement if you were to have in-home visits with Chastity. Where is your TV by the way?”
“Some stuff came up. We had to pawn it again.”
Janice makes a notation; “There’s another problem,” Janice says; “According to the SSI office you didn’t make it to your evaluation meeting last week.”
“I don’t see why they schedule those meetings for so early.”
“Your appointment was at 10:15.”
“That’s what I mean.”
“Clarisse, the government doesn’t just give out money for no reason. They have to evaluate you now and again to see that you really have a disability. Bipolar disorder isn’t as evident as a physical disability. You have to have a documented medical evaluation from time to time.”
Jacob scratches at the top of his head. Clarisse claws at her upper arms. Janice jots a note. “Um, about that income that you are supplementing. How’s the Burger King job going?”
Well, I was worried about working too many hours. I’m afraid SSI will cut my payout if I …”
“Look, Clarisse, I don’t think that a few hours over what you now …”
“Actually … they fired me.”
Janice looks up from her sheaf of papers.
“Yeah, they claimed that I was stealing from the drive-through window, but how could I steal from the drive-through? It’s impossible.”
Janice doesn’t say anything.
“I’d have to climb into the window from the outside. How could I do that with my size and all? As you can see I haven’t missed many meals.”
Janice continues to stare at her, unconvinced of this line of reasoning.
“Anyways, Murphy says I have a really good case.”
“Our lawyer. He’s a friend of Jacob’s. He says I can sue them for improper release or improper firing or whatever. So I should be getting … what was it, Hon?”
“Thirty thousand,” Jacob explains helpfully.
“Murphy says it might take a while. But like I said, he thinks I’ve got a really good case.”
“Right,” Janice says; “So in the mean time you’re looking for another job, yes?”
“Murphy says that’s not a good idea. He says that my desperate circumstances, as per in not having, like —an income, as such—makes this decision on the part of Burger King look even more cruel or heartless or something like that.
“Egregious,” Jacob says.
Janice turns to look at him.
“He, Murphy, says that having a job at this point in the negotiations might be detrimental to my case. Isn’t that the way he put it, Hon?”
“Could be seen as a possible hindrance to the proceedings, I think he said.”
“Anyway,” Clarisse says, “What about the news you had about Chastity?”
“Um, yes, well—you see—the state has placed Chastity with a new foster home.”
“OK. Well, I can still get her back right? I mean I’m trying to stay clean.
Janice glances at the puncture marks in Clarisse’s arms. Jacob is becoming more and more jittery.
“And with the thirty thousand,”
“Maybe a little less,” Jacob chimes in. “Murphy will take his cut—vis-à-vis—the settlement. He’s not working pro bono, you know.”
“Right. Anyways, with that money we can get Chastity a bed of her own so she won’t have to sleep with me … and … and I’d get her back in school … and …”
“I’m not sure,” Janice says, “that I’d put all my confidence in this lawsuit.”
“No, really, Janice. Murphy says it’s practically … what was it, Hon?”
“Open and shut,” Jacob says, “An open-and-shut case. Like totally rock solid.”
“Look, Clarisse, this foster family—they are already a bit uncomfortable with what they know of Chastity’s background and well—they, they’re taking her on the condition that she will be permanently separated from … from her natural parent. Parents.”
“That’s not fair. I want to go back to court and try to get her back.”
“Yes. Yes, you have that right. But let’s get your situation straightened out first. Job, money, etcetera. You are attending your rehab, right?”
“Yeah, well, most of the time.”
“Your best option is to get that certificate from rehab, showing that you have completed the program.”
“I’m clean. Really, Janice.”
Janice glances at Jacob who has become so fidgety that he seems to no longer be paying attention to any of this.
“Look,” Janice says, sneaking a peek at her phone, “I’ve got to get going. My appointment, remember.”
“It’s not fair,” Clarisse says. “You’re going to have a baby. They’ll never take your baby away. Because you’re rich.”
“Clarisse, I’m not rich.”
“What about the fifty?”
“The fifty bucks you promised, Janice. I’ll pay you back.”
Janice looks at her but can think of nothing to say that would be helpful. “Right.” Janice digs into her purse and pulls out a twenty.
“Thanks. That’ll help.”
Clarisse watches through the parted bedspread as Janice waddles back to her SUV and drives away. She switches the lamp off.
“Come on, Jacob. Lets get that shit started.”
“You don’t have to ask me twice.”
“Here’s twenty from Janice.”
“Jeez, that won’t go far. I thought you were going to try for fifty.”
Jacob opens the drawer and resumes the process of dividing the red pill. Once all four sections are done he puts three of them in a baggie and stuffs it into the cubby behind the doorframe. He takes the remaining quarter and places it in a bent spoon that he holds with an oven mitt. He heats the fragment with his lighter until the interior begins to liquefy.
Clarisse watches with great interest, tapping her fingers on the table and flexing her hand as though preparing for some kind of athletic event.
Using an eyedropper, Jacob adds a few drops of water to the mix. The plastic-like coating takes on a waxy look before separating from the liquid. It floats on top like a little red boat. He strains the liquid through some pantyhose into a small container, leaving the boat stranded on its pantyhose shoreline.
Clarisse is so eager that he allows her to go first. She pulls her share of the liquid into the syringe and after tapping out the bubbles, injects it into the vein she has plumped up with the rubber tube pulled tight around her arm. The other end of the rubber is clenched tightly in her teeth. The tendons in her neck are stretched taught with the effort. She releases the band and Jacob takes it from her and goes through the same procedure on his own arm using the same syringe. They become quiet. The itching and squirming stop and they each lean for a few serene moments, against the chair and table leg respectively, allowing the concoction to work its magic.
When Jacob emerges from his semi-comatose state, a condition he likens to coming out of a cocoon, he is feeling nearly normal. He puts on the teakettle to make a cup of Earl Grey tea for each of them. They consider the Earl Grey to be a sign of normalcy in their lives, but when he hands Clarisse the hot cup she brushes it away, causing some of the hot liquid to splash out and scald his wrist. She’s crying softly.
“What’s wrong? Jacob asks. “I thought that was a pretty decent high.”
“I’ll never get Chastity back. It’s been months since she was here last.”
“Maybe Janice could arrange one of those supervised meetings at the mall like you used to do.”
“That’s no good. She acts nervous around me like I’m a stranger or something. Pretty soon, she won’t even remember me. Besides, these new foster parents aren’t going to allow that. You heard what Janice said.”
“Um, I wasn’t really listening.”
“They don’t want her to have any contact with me.”
“Aw come on, Babe. Let’s do another quartino.”
He pulls the baggie out of their stash and shakes out another little quarter pill.
“Ok,” Clarisse says, without much enthusiasm but with little resistance to the idea.
A banging at the door awakens Jacob around noon the following day. Jacob peeks around the blanket expecting the police or worse, maybe one of his dealers to whom he owes money but it’s only Stash, a friend with whom he pulls off a few robberies now and then. One pill at a hundred forty a pop is no small habit. Jacob lets him in.
“Hey, Freak,” Stash says.
‘Freak’ is Jacob’s street name. Jacob doesn’t even know Stash’s real name. They attempt an intricate handshake they’ve watched colleagues perform, something that ends in a flourish of fist bumps and finger pointing but after a swinging miss or two, it never quite lives up to expectations. “Got any shit?” Stash asks.
“One quarter,” Jacob tells him.
“One quartillion. One fourtherino.”
“Yeah but we can’t, man. I’m saving that one for Clarisse. She’s kinda down. Know what I mean?”
“Like about the kid again?”
“I don’t get it. Seems like life’s so much easier without rugrats around. I know I sure breathed a sigh when the state took them two off our hands.” They bump fists.
“It’s a woman thing. Some kinda instinct. We’ll never get it.”
“What about a new score?” Stash asks.
“I only got twenty bucks. Clarisse’s social worker gave it to us out of her own money. I think she feels bad for Clarisse because she’s like, super pregnant.”
“Wait, Clarisse is pregnant?”
“No, man. Janice, the social worker is pregnant and since Clarisse has lost her kid,” Jacob explains as though talking to a child, “Janice feels kinda guilty like, strutting around with that giant zygote on display. Know what I’m sayin?”
“What’s a zygote?”
“You should read more, man. Like me. I’m always tryin to improve my knowledge base and vocabulary.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I won’t always do this shit, ya know? I’m thinkin’ maybe law or medicine. Something like that.”
“Weren’t you trained as a welder? Before … before, you know.” Stash waves a hand to indicate everything before him that isn’t representational of the welding life.
“Leonardo da Vinci was trained to be an artist but that didn’t stop him from inventing the helicopter.”
“Da Vinci invented the helicopter?”
“Look, you can’t just say Da Vinci. Da Vinci means from Vinci. Like I’m from Seymour but you wouldn’t just call me ‘from Seymour.’ See what I mean?”
“Yeah, whatever, Brofessor.” Stash absently picks up a business card from the table by the lamp. “Janice Walker, Social Services. Is this the twenty bucks lady?”
“Lemme see that; Hey,” Jacob says, “I think this is her actual home address.”
“Hmm, there could be more twenty buckaroonies where that came from,” Stash says. “That what you’re thinking”
“That’s one of the things I’m thinking.”
Stash takes the card back. “Look, these hours must be when she’s at work.”
“I’m more interested in when she might be home.”
“Jason,” Janice says when she opens the door.
“Sorry, Jacob. Is everything ok?”
He’s dressed nicely, much as she had suggested for his “interview.” Khaki pants, clean white shirt, decent shoes.
“Actually, I’m pretty worried about Clarisse.”
“Well … come in.”
When Janice opens the door, Stash jumps up out of the bushes and shoves his way in behind them. Stash grabs Janice in a chokehold. With her big belly and extra weight she’s put on during the pregnancy she’s a handful for the two skinny drug addicts. Despite this they wrestle her into the bathroom.
“Ow! She fucking bit me,” Stash says. Jacob hands him a towel, which Stash stuffs into her mouth.
“Pull her head back,” Jacob says; “No, more. Yeah…like that.”
Stash does as he is told, exposing the full length of Janice’s neck. Jacob produces one of his click knives and expertly slits her throat.
“I’ll help get her in the tub. Try to keep her quiet until she bleeds out.”
There is surprisingly little struggle from the woman once the gurgling stops. Most of the blood is contained within the tub. Stash removes the towel when Janice is still.
“We probably need to work fast,” Jacob says.
“You. You need to work fast. I done my part.”
“Did my part,” Jacob corrects him.
Stash runs upstairs to the bedroom and starts rummaging through drawers. On the dresser is a picture of the woman and her husband at some beach. He picks it up. She was quite a looker back in the day. The husband must be at work. At least that was the idea. He tosses the photo and as much loot as he can gather into two pillowcases and heads back downstairs with bags of goodies slung over his back like skinny Santa. “How’s it going in there?” Stash yells into the bathroom.
“Pretty good. We probably should have brought that medical book though. Hope I’m doing it right. Listen, I could really use a hand here.”
“Be right with you. Just gotta haul this shit out to the car.” Stash had “borrowed” the neighbor’s car while they were out of town
“Bring that bag of clothes to change into.”
“Jesus, what a mess.” Stash says, “Think you did it right?”
“We’ll find out I guess. Hurry up. Get some more towels out of those cabinets.”
“Boy or girl?” Stash asks.
“Wasn’t paying attention to that. Whatever it is, wrap it up in those towels and let’s get the hell outta here.” While Stash wraps the premature infant in towels, rather expertly, owing to his past experience in swaddling, Jacob strips out of his bloody clothing and into the stuff Stash brought back from the car.
“Throw that shit in the trash liner,” Stash says. They grab everything and start to head out.
“Wait,” Jacob says, “Got any change on you?” Stash gives him a puzzled look. He digs into his pockets, producing two quarters, a nickel and five pennies. Stash takes the two quarters and places them over Janice’s eyes.
“What’s this all about?”
“That’s what Odysseus always did when someone died. It’s for the ferryman.”
Stash gives him a look.
“The ferryman transports you from the land of the living to the land of the dead.”
“You really should read more.”
“Yeah maybe,” Stash says as he removes the two quarters and replaces them with two pennies, “But I mean, who really knows what the fare is?”
“You’re cheap, man. I bet you leave sucky tips.”
“I never tip,” Stash says.
It’s the middle of the day but no one is out in this quiet neighborhood. The house looks exactly as it had before they had set about their tasks. There is no sign of forced entry. “Nobody will suspect a thing until that guy gets home from work, Freak.”
“Jeez, that’ll be a surprise,” Jacob says with an involuntary shudder.
“Oh my God!” Clarisse says when Jacob hands her the bundle. She takes the infant to the recliner and sits with it cradled in her arms. She opens the swaddling to check the genitalia, “A little girl,” she says. Jacob settles onto the edge of the recliner with one arm around Clarisse.
“Look,” Stash says, “I’m going to see if I can unload some of the shit. Be back around six-ish.”
“We’ll be here,” Jacob says. “Bring back something good,” He winks.
“Oh, Jacob,” Clarisse says; “You’ve made me so happy.” She rocks the lifeless infant back and forth, humming a soft lullaby. “This is the sweetest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”