Fumbling Towards Ecstasy

His footsteps were muffled by the red, moth-eaten carpet ... his shallow breathing lost in the music ... his dark pupils masked by the reflection of the screen in his eyes ... the light played across his face, contorting it, turning it into masks of pain, masks of anguish, masks of despair ... masks of sadness. Chaplin tumbled onto the ground in his usual tramp style. The million times he's done it before and it's funny every time. The black and white poster was put up at the end of the row of chairs -

Charlie Chaplin Film Festival
Final shows of the Plaza

'The Kid' - the movie they'd opened with all those years ago. A fitting tribute. And what a way to go out ... with a bang!
The music picked up tempo, a pivotal scene. He didn't laugh though ... the cramps were getting worse, pain seared his brain, his vision ... but he had made a promise, one that he was going to keep. The consequences of not keeping it were bad, but he was beginning to feel that the effects of keeping it were worse.
He doubled over, keeping his head low .... the sounds of laughter from the audience mingled with the music. He tried to concentrate on the irregular screeching sounds coming from the speakers. The place really had gotten too old.
Sweat soaked the surface of his palms as beads of sweat meandered down his face through the day old stubble. He started to scratch his arms ... it seemed like the flesh beneath his skin was itching ... like the blood coursing through his veins was burning, growing worse with each beat of his heart. Mind over matter, he tried to keep his thoughts focussed on the movie. He'd loved Chaplin when he was a kid ...
He bent over as a wave of nausea washed over him. He picked up his backpack and headed for the exit to the restrooms. The padded door creaked as he pushed against it using all of the strength he had remaining. The narrow crack that opened was enough for his slight frame to get through.
He felt the cracks in the walls against his palm as he stumbled to the rest room at the end of the darkening corridor, the tube light flickering on and off. Faltering, irregular steps closed the distance to the outline of the door. He fell to his knees ... unable to hold himself up, his legs felt like they were made of water. The journey continued in a crawl, toward a goal ... mind over matter. The carpet on the floor felt coarse under his hands.
The wave of nausea finally reached the tipping point as he reached the door. He lifted himself up using the sink as support. The foul odour of his vomit blended with the comparable essence of the old restroom. The nausea had passed leaving emptiness in its place ... emptiness that he'd felt before ... all too many times. Emptiness that craved to be filled ... filling it meant everything. No more ....
He walked into the closest stall and sat on the floor ... the moldy smell overpowering his senses ... threatening to bring the nausea back .... no more! He pulled open the zipper on his back pack with one hand while scratching his neck with the other. Emptying the contents on the floor he leaned back against the wall of the booth ... he was going to break his promise ... the promise he'd made just that morning, standing at the train station. He closed his eyes ... her face ... he saw it light up as he said 'I promise' ... he remembered her lingering touch as she boarded the train ... he remembered the whispered, almost hallowed 'thank you'. The tears mingled with the sweat flowing down his cheeks. He opened his eyes to stare at graffiti scrawled on the booth wall in permanent marker ... a heart with an arrow through it, "R+N" written inside it, the entire work of modern art scratched across as though with someone's fingernails.
He picked out two small brown paper packets, one marked 'H' and the other 'C' and a bottle of Sprite from the stuff on the floor. The bottle fizzed as he opened he opened it and dumped half its content down the toilet. He opened the first packet and stared into it. Stared at the one thing that could provide relief ... stared at his health and his sickness ... stared at the object of his addiction.
Slowly, he poured some of the brown powder into the waiting bottle ... a little of the powder at a time. He'd spent ... lost way too much getting it. He had nothing left to sell except his soul ... and maybe that was already damned. He opened the other packet and poured some of the white powder into the bottle, a little more than the brown stuff.
Taking a lighter out of his pocket he held it under the bottle holding it at the neck. The turbid liquid began to clear as the smell of burning plastic filled the booth. He stared at the bottle, at the tepid liquid inside it ... and after a while through it. Sorting through the stuff on the floor he started to put things back in his bag ... until he found what he was looking for. He tore open the sterilised paper packing exposing the syringe to the elements.
Tilting the bottle to one side he put the syringe in and filled it. Licking the tip of the syringe he tore open the plastic wrapping on the needle ... He had to try twice before he could steady his hands enough to push it onto the syringe.
Holding the syringe in his left hand, he tapped his arm to find a vein. His heart was pumping a mile a minute ... his vein stood out, bluish against the colour of flesh. He winced as he injected himself.
Almost immediately his heart slowed, sounds became distant, the horrible odour of the rest room went away. The face from his memory smiled and faded away. He felt ... lighter, like he was about to float away. His vision swayed with each beat of his heart ... with each movement of the seconds hand of his watch. He could hear his heart ... the soft ticking of his watch ... the drip of a leaky faucet ... the wind blowing his problems away. The graffiti on the wall began to move, began to flow, began to fade.
Pushing himself up against the ground his palm stuck on the floor on the booth ... he stared at it in bewilderment. Stumbling out of the booth, he headed back to his seat ... past the crumbling corridor, through the padded door ... into darkness. Suddenly the screen lit up in blacks and grays startling him into movement.
He got to his seat and stared at the screen ... the tinniness from the speakers was gone, but he didn't notice. He watched the myriad of images formed by the shades of gray on the screen without registering any of them. All he saw were vague shapes that played across his eyes. Sounds that he could see, colours that he could hear ... none of it made sense, but then none of it mattered. The tramp was crying on screen. The music slowed to just over the pace of a dirge. The audience was quiet and tense at the same time. They'd seen Chaplin way too often. This was the calm before the storm. The Sprite bottle found its way to his lips.
All of a sudden he gasped for breath ... the grays turned to white as the cocaine kicked in. He kicked against the seat in front of him, holding his throat. The music reached a crescendo ... the trumpets and violins timed to the movements on the screen, out of sync with the arms that reached out to grab hold of some support, to get the attention of someone ... anyone.
The screen went black.

Running on Empty

A citrine night sky. Ironic, or may be fitting, that a city with a soul so dark would have such a bright night sky. The colour of the sky, a reflection of her cataract ridden eyes, hidden behind the spectacles whose thick lenses haven't been cleaned in days. Callused hands smudge the soot caked over the lens as she takes them off and carefully wipes them on her clothes. Trembling fingers unsteadily perch the cleaned yet now dirtier spectacles on the bridge of her nose. Uncertain eyes focus on the blurry image of dirty fingernails reduced to jagged stubs. They find their way to waiting mouth that hasn't tasted sweet or sour in too long. The gritty texture of the dirt beneath her fingernails hurts her sensitive teeth as she bites into it. Her exploring tongue feels the shard that's broken off into her mouth, pushes it against the back of her teeth trying to delay swallowing it. She finds the gap that was once occupied by a tooth made of solid gold. The tooth that her son had pulled out.
Her heart jumps at the metallic taste of blood that floods her mouth. Her nails tearing her tender gums, adrenaline pumping, making her tongue seem swollen and numb. Suddenly being bathed in the red of the traffic light shocks her back into the present ... time to go to work. The once straight walking stick creaks under her weight as she hauls herself up and limps to the nearest car, hoping that she'll get enough money to sleep with something in her stomach. To sleep ... to dream ... to wake the next morning.
She watches her reflection reaching towards her, hears the soft chime of coins held her in her precious cloth bag. She mouths her plea to her own reflection in the window of the car, unable to see her hopeful benefactor. The window is unmoved, the reflection is unmoved. Onto the next soul. A few people make her richer by a few pennies, a few spurn her for what she has become, oblivious to see what she has been ... a mother spurned ... a wife widowed, her identity lost leaving a fragile shell behind.
The signal turns a shady amber, telling her to start moving back to the sidewalk. Limping slowly towards a destination that seems to be retreating from her, she holds her wrinkled hand up against the rearing monsters facing the starting line hoping that they'll heed her prayer. The light turns, the monsters charge, she hears a screech, all she can make out is a blur ... something large coming towards her.
"Out of the way, you hag!!"
She moves, fast as she can to the safety of the sidewalk. Too old. She's too old for this. Panting, she leans on her walking stick hoping that it won't break under the weight of her feeble frame. She makes peace with the thought that she'll go to bed hungry. A little more money and she might just be able to eat the next day ... the cloth bag jingles in agreement. Just a few minutes ... a little rest. She feels her stick being kicked out from under her.
"Am so sorry! Was in my own world. Didn't see your walking stick. Am so sorry!"
A deep voice from a blur that moved.
"It's alright, son. No harm done ... Could you spare some change? I haven't had anything to eat in days. Please ... "
Maybe he's sorry enough to give her some money.
"Um ... I don't have any change ..."
The genuine sound of regret in his voice.
"Oh, alright. It's just that I haven't had anything to eat ... Thanks, anyway"
The sound of soft footsteps walking away. She settles back down on the sidewalk. Just a few minutes ... just a little rest.
"I'm sorry. But I've had enough bad luck to know that you sometimes need a helping hand. How about I get you something to eat?"
That deep voice again ... Her smile takes in all of him ... the stubble on his face, the large crumpled envelope under his arm, the rumpled coat, the dirty sneakers ... all of it. She tries to get a good look at him ... tries to remember the way he looks ... one of the few kind people she's met, like the woman who had given her the coat she was wearing.
They move towards the closest restaurant ... she limping, he shuffling along. She tells him about her son, her husband who passed away, the street urchins who throw stones at her and call her a hag ... her life.
The shady establishment is identified only by the sign above the olive green door saying 'Restarant'. The greyish paint on the walls peeling, the dingy interiors lit by four bulbs spreading barely enough light to read by.
"So, what would you like?"
She names dishes that she's eaten ... that she's cooked ... that she's heard of but never seen.
"Can I get a sweet too?" in the most innocent voice she can manage.
"Ha Sure, why not."
"And could you please have it packed ... I'd like to eat at home ..."
"Are you sure? It looks like it's going to rain."
"It's ok. I live close by."
He just nods and places the order. They wait and watch the drizzle turn into a downpour. He listens as she rambles about the time she was accused of stealing, about a grandchild she can't remember anymore, about the streets and how they treat her ... about her life.
A child dressed in a dirty vest and even dirtier shorts brings him a white plastic packet and runs off towards the dim outline of a door in the back of the small hall.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay here until the rain stops?"
"Yes, I'm sure. I live close by. Don't worry."
He offers her the parcel. Her trembling hands slowly reach for the parcel as though scared that it might disappear if she touches it. She seems genuinely surprised by the warmth that escapes through the plastic.
"Thank you, son! Thank you so much! May God have mercy on me and give my remaining age to you!"
A sharp intake of breath followed by a sigh.
"Thank you. You don't know how much that means to me."
They pass through the olive green door once more and turn to face different directions. They part ways with a nod and a smile ... one limping, the other shuffling along.
She limps under the awnings of shops, under the cover of trees, clutching the white packet to her chest. She enjoys the contrast in temperatures, the warmth of the packet against the cold of the rain.
A turn into a narrow dark alley puts her in front of a large concrete pipe, its mouth partly covered by a large blue plastic sheet. She moves the rock on the pipe firmly anchoring the sheet in place so that it covers the whole mouth. Home sweet home.
She lights a candle to make out the blurs before her, unpacks the still warm parcel and stares at the food, still unable to believe that she's about to eat, still expecting it to disappear in a puff of smoke at a touch. The lack of a spoon doesn't bother her. She sticks her hands out in the rain but thinks twice about wiping them on her clothes. The contrast in temperatures becomes conspicuous as she puts her wet fingers in the warm rice. She savours each morsel of her supper ... the sweet, the sour, the pungent, the bitter, she tastes it all ... she feasts.
She stares at the empty dishes trying to remember what they looked like when they were full. Hoping that the memory of a feast will sustain her until her next meal. She blows out the candle. To sleep ... to dream. The cold of the night seeps into her bones.
The young man lived for a year longer than the doctors said he would.