The man went alone to Mass every morning. He sat by himself and listened to the homily with his elbows on his knees and received the Eucharist, always swallowing the body and blood with his eyes closed, and when it was over he filed out alone and never spoke to the priest, nor anybody else. Afterward, he drove the dust and sand covered streets and alleys of the Capitol Mall district with his windows rolled down so the dust and sand swept into his car, along with the other smells of Phoenix—the baking asphalt, spent jet fuel, shit from the people who slept outside, and ate and pissed and washed and otherwise had their entire beings outside, naked they might as well have been, in the desert sun.
Once, he pulled to a stop sign where the street dead-ended at a rail yard. A kid, who’d been sitting with his back against a bent palm tree, stood and stretched and sidled over.
“What do you need?” The kid’s voice—a rasp—slid nearly unnoticed from his mouth, the way a diamondback might slide halfway across Arizona without being seen by anyone, anything.
The man said, “I want to buy some heroin.”
“Ain’t got that.”
“A pill then. Isn’t there a—”
The kid’s lip curled into a smile and he squinted into the rolled-down window.
“Forty dollars for one pill?
“Cheap.” The kid took a broken cigarette from his pocket and pinched the end and flakes of tobacco fell and disappeared on the wind.
“Did you ever know somebody out here called James Parker? Probably went by Jimmy?”
“I don’t ask for names.”
“Your age, maybe. Nineteen. My son. Six foot two. Really skinny.”
“Everybody out here really skinny, man.”
Their eyes met and they stared at one another until the kid from the palm tree said, “You got to tell me which.”
“Vicodin. One. Please.” He pulled a brass money clip from his pocket and peeled away two twenty dollar bills and gave them to the kid. The kid pursed his lips and walked around the corner of an old retaining wall painted pink and flaking in the sun. When he came back, the car was gone. He shrugged, popped the pill into his own mouth and stepped back to the palm tree, picking up a crumpled Dasani bottle. He chased the pill with a slug of water and laughed and laughed and laughed, until his eyes closed and he was submerged under old dreams of vultures and melting blacktop.
PAUL LUIKART — Paul is the author of the short story collections Animal Heart (Hyperborea Publishing, 2016), Brief Instructions (Ghostbird Press, 2017), Metropolia (Ghostbird Press, 2021) and The Museum of Heartache (Pski’s Porch Publishing, 2021.) He serves as an adjunct professor of fiction writing at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He and his family live in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Art by MELISSA LLANES BROWNLEE — Melissa creates art as a way to help her be a better writer. She posts her daily doodles on Instagram @lumchanmfa. She also tweets @lumchanmfa and talks story at www.melissallanesbrownlee.com.