The Canals of Lake Okeechobee

There is no sense of time here. Have I been in the Troll’s basement for thirty days? Or has it been thirty years? The other junkies who dropped in here today tell me that it is raining outside. They say it has been raining for days now. It makes me desire to go out and walk. Maybe it will be a warm tropical rain. After all, the summer sits on us; the air swells like wood sucking tropical dew.

I watch Nadia move about the basement. She helps one trembling junkie fix, he moans with the contact of the hit, she presses her lips to his forehead as he reclines with eyes shut. For a moment the terror in his head has been stilled. She rinses his hype and lets it sit in a glass of water. Then she moves on to another junkie who has just entered the basement. His nose is running, liquid salt streams from his eyes, eyes filled with nightmare that only heroin can wash clean. She is our Florence Nightingale, the one who ministers to the cast-outs, the left-behinds, the unwanted, the unclaimed.

Casey sleeps. He is deep in the powder. The Troll sits in a corner. His good eye is closed. Ron de Veux lies at his feet. She twitches, then she wakes with a shudder and a sob. Nadia goes to her, lights a cigarette and places it in her mouth.

I love Nadia. It is clear to me why Simon, the sad angel, chose to sleep with her, chose to go to her for the healing touch, to fill her with the seed of angels. She is the nostalgia that aches within me as the junk wears off, she makes me dream of a time when a woman was important to me, when I believed that a woman had a place in my life. It has been a long time since I have loved.

I beckon to Nadia and she comes to me. I whisper in her ear. She kisses me and rolls up my sleeve. As she helps me fix I imagine that I hear the rain. It is a hot rain. Suddenly the dreams come. For a second there is the face of Ar Lain Ta laughing and then I am back in Pahokee, Florida with my wife. She stares at me with her giant eyes, the corners of her full lips are turned down, she is dark with the bite of the tropical sun as she leans against the pickup truck. She wears a light-coloured summer dress dappled with flowers, one strap falling off her shoulder with a shadow top of a small breast just beginning to show. Body covered with sweat; dress turning to liquid, so hot she could drip it right off. I have a plastic bag full of pieces of cut up salt pork in one hand, a spool of strong string in the other. Jeanie has placed a bundle of sticks on the hood of the pickup and she drains the last of her beer. We are ready to drive the dirt roads that travel along the edges of the canals and set the traps to catch turtles.

I miss the feel of my wedding ring. There is a splash of lightness around Jeanie’s finger where her ring once was.

There is no heroin to be found in this area. Before we moved here we had never smoked crack but, when the soul is fractured by pain and the balm of the opiates is nowhere to be found, fast nightmares take the place of slow dreams.

Two nights ago the rains smashed down and I was out with the two wedding rings looking for a rock to sharpen the edge that Jeanie and I had already cut ourselves on. There are almost no white people in blacktown in Pahokee. Sections of that town are filled with shattered buildings and people weave in and about the maze of them as they race to each new arrival to see if they can get a chip off the old rock or even a fresh ash.

Crack cocaine is fury unresolved, each hit owning you more than the last. Finally you are the pipe, the ashes in the pipe, cracked lips sucking the life out of your life. Would you trade your wedding rings for the next hit? Yes, yes, you would do that and drink dog’s urine and say that it was good if someone held out a pipe full of rock to you while you were in cocaine frenzy.

That night I duck down in the truck as the police rove the blacktown block. I know that my white face is like a red flag waving to a bull. Suddenly I see a man that I have bought the rock from before emerge from the tattered building on the corner. I look around frantically. No police in sight. Leap from the truck, the rain soaks me to the skin, I run to the man, hold out the two rings, beg for merciless bliss.

“Let me see them,” he says.

Not thinking, I drop one of them into his hand. Just like that, his hand closes faster than a mussel springing shut because of danger and he is gone, weaving into a doorway and vanishing like a wisp of smoke above a pipe into the maze of broken down buildings. I curse the storm, I curse the night, I curse myself for needing something so much that my mind has turned to stripped shit within my head. I know that to chase him is futile. There is a voice behind me. I spin. !He is small, one gold tooth glittering from his smile. He stands under the shelter of the broken doorway, a small vial in his hand.

“Is this what you want?” he asks.

I hand him the ring as he hands me the vial. He examines it for an eternity. Five seconds later he disappears into the night and I make a run for the truck, shielding the precious prize from the rain. My paranoid hyper sense picks up the sound of an engine and I know it is the police. I throw myself into the mud by a parked car and wriggle underneath it. My rock and my redeemer are clutched tightly in my hand; I am trying to guard it from all the elements as I lay in the mud. The Judas car cruises slowly by, spotlight flashing methodically about and I cringe into the muck, shivering with fear and cold, wet and dirty, inside and out.

The black and white disappears from sight and I roll out from underneath the parked car, tearing my jacket on a piece of rusted metal hanging from its underside. Into the truck, fumbling with the keys. It coughs once, starts, and then I race out of town, up five miles of country road. There are eyes watching me from the trees, I know there are eyes watching. I pull into the sprawling trailer park that Jeanie and I call home. She is watching for something from the windows. She sees me and opens the door.

“Did you get it?”

I pull the vial out and she rushes to get the pipe. Frantic. She is ready to smoke and I am still soaked but care nothing for anything else. Neither of us can take our eyes off the rock. In the pipe. Match lit, sucking and it melts a little but it will not burn.

I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Both wedding rings gone and all we have left to show for it is a rock of soap.

I begin to cry. Everything saleable has been stripped from the trailer. Our wedding rings were the last to go.

“We have to sell this trailer and move back north to a place where we can find heroin,” I tell Jeanie. “This crack cocaine is going to kill us.”

Jeanie nods her head as the tears spill down her cheeks. We huddle together on the mattress, both of us crying, until we fall asleep. We sleep for thirty hours.

When we wake up I go over to the office of the trailer park and they offer to buy the trailer back for much less than we paid for it. Out of desperation I agree. It will take a week for the deal to clear. Our checks are due on the same day they will pay us. Out of money, out of food, we decide to trap turtles one more time.

The sun is out and the tropical air is like steam. I hammer the stick into the mud by the bank of the canal while Jeanie baits the hook with a chunk of salt pork. She drops it into the water. Two other guys, Archie and Turk, come with us to set traps also. They are experienced and set traps much faster than us. They bring along a cooler of beer and a few joints, which they share. We will split the take tomorrow morning.

All of a sudden we see a Florida State Ranger truck bearing down on us. There are two of them in the truck, big and burley, and they have rifles and handguns. Their truck slows to a stop. They both get out, hands on their guns, and stroll toward us. Eyes like ferrets.

“What’s in the cooler?” one of them asks.

“Just beer,” I reply.

He walks over and opens the cooler, paws through it.

“Mind if I look through the rest of the truck,” he says, while the other ranger just stands there with his hand on his gun. We know that he is not asking for permission and we motion for him to go ahead.

“Any of you got any drugs?” he says.

“Nope,” I lie, “just beer.” Turk has two joints left in his shirt pocket.

They stand around for a few minutes looking for anything that will demand their attention, check the traps we are putting out, and then they get back in their truck and pull around ours.

“Leave the gators alone,” one of them says as they drive away. “We’ll be back around later.” We hear their laughter above the sound of their truck engine.

Turk, who has always lived around here, says, “You don’t fool around with those guys. We could all just disappear here and no one would know who or why, or care for that matter. Don’t think it hasn’t happened. The canals are spooky. People just vanish. God doesn’t want to know what lives in the canals because he had nothing to do with the making of them.”

The next day we pull our traps. Nine large turtles, two of them massive. One of the smaller turtles is dead. We throw it back into the canal. The fish stands don’t want them if they are dead. The first stand we stop at weighs them and makes us an offer for the batch. Turk whispers to me that it is the best offer we will get today. We take it. We buy two large bottles of Wild Irish Rose and three cases of beer. We have enough
left over for hot dogs on buns. Then we start to drink.

I never was much of a drinker. Jeanie, Turk and Archie start putting them away and two other guys join us with weed. By dark we are all staggered and we decide to go bridgewalking over the canals. There are cement walks about two feet wide that crisscross over the canals. We stumble over them, a beer in one hand, a joint in the other and finally we find ourselves on the shore of Lake Okeechobee.

When Jeanie and I first moved to Pahokee we had this naive notion that we could go swimming in that great lake. We found out different when the locals laughed at us. “Sure ya kin, jes’ you two, the gators, the big snappers, the water moccasins, not to mention the things we don’ even know what the hell they is that lives’ in them waters.” We weren’t tempted to try it out. We sit with our legs crossed, never dangling, on the cement walks crossing the canals and toss down one beer after another followed by the reefer. Giant bugs fly around us, sounds of birds that we don’t know the names of call out, sounds come from the canal. A chill runs up and down my spine and I shake it off. We all toss wild ideas out into the night and they come back to us bearing strange shapes.

We get up to travel to another area, maybe go back to the trailer park, no one knows where we are going really, no one. Then it happens. Jeanie vanishes just like that. One second she is there and then gone. There is a splash and she is calling to us. We hear her thrashing about in the dark water but cannot see her. Then we hear the sound of other things splashing into the water. The water ripples towards her and she screams. There is the sound of feet running away. There is the sound of Jeanie screaming. There is only me and Turk left, leaning over the cement walk, hair spilling into our sweaty faces, arms extended, yelling for Jeanie to take our hands.

Then her hand is in mine, her hand is in Turk’s, we are lifting her out of the water but something is on her, something is thrashing about on her, by her neck. We lift her out as her voice modulates wildly. On the cement walkway we see the shape of the thing with its mouth holding onto her neck. It is biting her throat.

It looks like a small man, or possibly a woman, with fins and scales, eyes flashing blood-red in the moonlight, webbed feet and hands, vampire-teeth withdrawing from her throat as it pirouettes into the air and vanishes beneath the water. Jeanie closes her eyes and goes limp. None of us could recall the frenzied walk back to the trailer park, how long it took, how we came to be back there, nothing. None of us could recall the first moment that we noticed that Jeanie’s brunette hair had turned white or that her pupils now filled her eyes with black eating up the blue of her eyes.

When the ambulance came for her Turk and I told them about the creature. The medics looked at each other and muttered something about cocaine psychosis. The doctors examined the bite marks on her neck, referred to them as the lacerations, whispered to the nurses when they saw the track marks on her arms. The hospital kept her under observation for two days, then gave her Stelazine and Klonopin and called me to pick her up. From that night on nothing was the same. The sale of the trailer went through and we packed our meagre belongings and moved up to Boston. We both knew where we could get heroin in that area.

Jeanie would vanish for days at a time and return with no explanation. She would go days without uttering a word. If I mentioned the creature from the canal she stared off into space. Sometimes she would turn to me and say, “You know he’s coming for you, don’t you?” When I asked her if she meant the creature she would shake her head, then turn away and cry. If I reached my arms out to her she would sit still like dead wood in my embrace.

Both of us continued to shoot heroin. Our habits reached phenomenal proportions. I began to dream of small villages in the orient where people were raising opium poppies. There was an old woman that was always on the edge of my dreams. At times, in the dreams, I would be wandering homeless through Harvard Square in Cambridge and there would be a man watching me, following me. When I asked him who he was he told me that he was the son of Nang Saeng Zoom and suddenly the old woman would be there, next to him, smiling at me.

One day I came home to our small apartment and Jeanie was gone. There was no note, no explanation. Every mirror in the apartment was shattered. To this day I have no idea what happened to her. I only know that before she left she was already gone. I wonder whether some day, some place, I will turn a corner and she will be there with her white hair and her pitch-black eyes swallowing me up into her night.

There is no sense of time here at the Troll’s basement. For me, it is better that way. There are only the stories of other junkies like myself that I am here to record. And there are angels on the upper floors. And then there is Ar Lain Ta. He is coming for me; he is coming for us all.

Tonight I know that I am in love with Nadia Chance. Here, in the Troll’s dark basement, the next shot of heroin and the unrequited love of Nadia Chance is all I have. For now, this will be enough.

Please Note: The Canals of Lake Okeechobee appeared in the Porter Gulch Review.