Mark and I are walking along the broken streets of Ft. Sanders, amidst row houses, some A-frames, and the occasional post-Victorian mansion. Many homes have been broken into five, eight, ten apartments where students now spend their life trying to make it through undergraduate programs in Communications or graduate programs in English. Telephone wires hang low here as do faded orange “Go Vols” flags. The further east we walk, the lower the seeming income, the more likely a few vagrants will accost us seeking coins or food.
The more likely they’ll have wayward eyes.
Mark called me earlier that day asking if I could get him some pot.
“Sure. I know this guy.”
Don’t we always seem to know some “guy?”
He really was peripheral to my life, though. The only other time I had met him, an undergrad housemate, Jonathan, had set us up:
“OK, here’s how it goes. I have to call him first, and he’ll tell me whether we can come over. I don’t know if he’ll let me bring you, so just be patient.”
An hour later Jonathan knocks at our door.
“All right, you’re in.”
My wife looks at me with eyes that ask, “Again?”
When we arrive at “Steve’s place,” Jonathan rings the bell. Down a narrow flight of stairs comes Steve.
“Hey man,” he says, grabbing Jonathan’s hand. “Good to see ya. How’ve you been?”
Steve turns to me, and this feels like a formal gathering for tea or port.
“So, you’re Terry? Good, good. Now, let’s go upstairs.”
Steve smiles the whole time, introduces me to his wife and good friend Joe.
“You guys hang out for a bit, and I’ll be right back.”
He disappears into a room just off the formal kitchenette, while his wife and Joe turn down the volume on the Vols basketball game.
“Georgia’s killing us,” Joe says, and indeed, the score is 55-38 with only eight minutes left.
The stereo comes in louder now:
“You act as if you don’t care. You look as if you’re going somewhere…”
Steve emerges then with my bag. His price is high, but according to Jonathan, it’s worth it.
“Do you guys want to do a number?”
“Not me,” Jonathan says. “Too much studying left.”
“I guess so,” I say, and Jonathan looks put out but we smoke anyway. It is very good, and I thank Steve as if he has provided me a study guide for my upcoming Chaucer exam.
“No problem man. You know where I am.”
But what I didn’t know, or forgot, or filed away as needless protocol was the nature of his business. That he wasn’t in this world for taking chances. That I should use his number.
When we turn the corner to Steve’s street, I see him and two other guys playing hacky-sack right out front of his house.
“That’s him,” I tell Mark. “Let’s go sit on the steps until they take a break.”
We wait for ten minutes, and Mark, always a worrier, worries:
“I don’t think he knows you.”
“Sure he does,” I say. “Just be patient.”
While Steve has glanced our way a couple of time, it does appear that he’s ignoring us, that he doesn’t remember me. Another five minutes pass, and finally Steve takes a few steps our way:
“Hey man. What are you doing?”
“Hey Steve, this is Mark.”
“I don’t care. Listen man, I don’t sell on the street.”
He stares at me for another beat, then returns to his game. And as if we’ve just been turned away from a fancy club because we’re wearing Chuck Taylors, Mark and I retrace our path to my place.
“I’m sorry. I guess I should have called him first.”
“Yeah well, that’s just paranoid.”
Spoken like a guy whose chances have just evaporated.
That was on a Saturday. On Monday, I walk by Steve’s place again, just to see. Or to say I’m sorry. I could have called, but somehow, a distended voice doesn’t seem right.
The front screen door is wide open, and I can tell by looking at it that this place is vacant. Abandoned. I walk up the steps and it’s like no one has been living here. Ever. Bare walls, unpolished hardwood. Not a tape or box in sight.
A couple of weeks later, I’m sitting in the University Center sipping a cup of coffee, waiting for my Victorian Novel class.
“Hey man.” Steve is smiling as he says it. As if he’s glad to see me.
As if we know each other.
“Hey. I’m really sorry.”
“No problem man. We’re good.”
His wife is with him, and so is Joe.
“Gotta move on,” Steve says, and so he does.
I know better than to ask anything of him: his forgiveness, his plans, his new number. Chances are few in his world, and I have certainly had my share, as my wife so firmly reminds me that night when I tell her about what I’ll never do again.
Terry Barr‘s prose has been published in such journals as Drunk in a Midnight Choir, The Rain, Party, and Disaster Society, Red Fez, Full Grown People, and Blue Bonnet Review. He teaches courses such as Shadows of the Holocaust, Graphic Novel, and Southern Film Gothic at a small liberal arts college in rural South Carolina. He has also been to Kafka’s family hat shop in Prague and gotten lost trying to find his way back to his hotel.