PHOTO BY DMITRY ERMAKOV ON UNSPLASH
by Steven Masterson
Lucy pulled her arms down his thighs until her hands reached his knees and pushed herself to her feet. Picking up her bag, she walked into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. She didn’t worry about Jonnie stealing anything—he was a nice guy, better than most—but she went nowhere without the bag. She pulled out her needle and spoon, panicked until she found the smack. Sitting on the edge of the old cast-iron tub, she cooked and shot. She let herself lean on the drug; no more panic, no more craving. Lucy didn’t get high—she got normal. As normal as she could.
Jon straightened himself up and headed for the kitchen. He needed a beer. The refrigerator in the kitchen corner was humming, just as it always did. He grabbed a can, lit a cigarette, and sat down at the chrome and gray kitchen table. The vinyl was split on his chair, just like the other three. He hadn’t decided whether to buy new or reupholster.
Lucy put her stuff back in the bag and splashed her face with cold water from the sink. She dried her face on Jon’s towel. She liked Jon. He didn’t slap or call her names, and he only used what he paid for. Some guys always wanted more, and some of them took it. She’d been to the hospital more than once. But Jon was kind, almost loving. Sometimes she’d hang around and talk, kill an hour or two, get out of the cold or whatever. She enjoyed it. Jon never asked about her story, but over the last year or so, she’d told him most of it. Plenty of lies too—they were part of life. At least she could admit it. She slipped on her bra and pulled her tee shirt over her head. She took a look around, made sure she was leaving nothing behind, and went out to the kitchen.
“Pull up a chair, Lucy, you want a beer?”
“Sure, but I can’t stay long. I’ve got a party tonight with Amy.”
Jon handed her a beer and sat back down across from her. “A party?”
“Yeah, Amy got it. Some guy getting married. They want two girls.”
Jon wanted to say be careful but didn’t. He’d said it too many times before.
“How’re the kids?”
Nobody but Jon ever asked her about them.
“My mom says they’re fine. The girls were just in the school play. Jessica had the lead. Mom said she got a standing ovation.”
“Into the wrong shit already. He’s going to be just like his old man.”
Billy was fourteen. He’d never met his father.
“Jonnie, I gotta run. They’re going to pick me and Amy up down in front of Mickey’s Lounge. I guess it’s a house party. Good money, Jonnie. I don’t want to miss it.”
“Okay, Lucy. Next week?”
“You’re the boss. Same time?”
Lucy picked up her bag. On the way to the door, she grabbed her money off the coffee table. “See you later, Jonnie.”
* * *
Jon pulled open the drape and watched Lucy hustle down the street. The first time he’d met her, she’d been walking in the middle of the road, a tiny figure with a big bag. She’d been pushing against the rain driven by the cold north wind, a broken red umbrella clutched in front of her face. He’d seen her before, strolling the neighborhood when he was out riding his bike. They had exchanged smiles and once he gave her a small wave, wondering who she was.
Jon let the drape fall, went to the fridge, and took out another beer. He slammed the door and the humming stopped. It would be back. He pushed the footstool back in front of his easy chair and sat down.
On that rainy day the wind had caught Lucy’s umbrella and flipped it over her head, a sail pulling on her backward, trying to drag her down the street. She didn’t let go. Jon swore he’d heard the thud as she landed on her back. He’d watched as she struggled to get up, and he saw she wasn’t going to make it by herself. He hustled down the stairs and out to the street. Putting his body between the wind-driven rain and the woman with her umbrella, he bent over, grabbed her jacket at the shoulders, and lifted her to her feet. The bag came up with her.
“What?” Jon couldn’t hear her above the nor’easter.
“My umbrella! Grab my umbrella!” She’d let go of it to grab Jon’s forearms, helping to pull herself up.
Fifteen feet away it lay ruined, not a spoke unbroken, its nylon ripped and shredded. Jon picked it up anyway. Shielding her from the wind, he half-carried the shivering woman up to his apartment. He wasn’t sure then if she was a blessing or a curse, but that was what he’d done.
She’d stood slapping her arms, doing a warming dance as he put water on the stove for coffee. Then he went into the bedroom and she followed him.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked.
“Take off those wet clothes and wrap yourself in this.” He grabbed a blanket off the closet shelf and tossed it to her. “I’ve got a dryer.” He closed the bedroom door and got out the coffee for his French press.
She came out of the bedroom, covered in the blanket from head to toe. “I know you,” she said. “I’ve seen you around.”
“With the bike?”
“The dryer’s in that closet over there. The coffee is black, hazelnut, or French vanilla.”
She came further into the kitchen and sat on a split vinyl chair, her sodden clothes thumping in the dryer behind her. She was still shivering.
Jon poured the coffee and set it on the table. “What the hell are you doing out on a day like today?”
“Working,” she said. “Today’s no different.”
“It’s a freakin’ monsoon out there. Nothing’s open.”
“I’m always open. Do you want to party?”
Jon sat down opposite her, his mug in two hands, trying to absorb the heat into his still-freezing fingers. He studied her face. “What does that mean?”
Lucy looked at him with a small smile. “I’m a hooker, Jonnie. Do you want a go?” She spread open the blanket.
Jon turned away. Things like that didn’t happen to him, or hadn’t in years. “Please cover yourself,” he’d said.
“Come on, Jonnie. What are you, a Boy Scout?”
“No, I’m just not in the mood.”
“Your loss.” She pulled the blanket around her.
They sat around, talking about nothing, until her clothes were dry. She’d gotten more on edge as the time went by. When the dryer stopped tumbling, she got to her feet. She grabbed her clothes and her bag and got dressed in the bathroom. Jon thought it took her a long time.
“I gotta go,” Lucy said when she came out.
“It’s still brutal out there. You can hang around if you want.” Jon hadn’t changed his mind but he was lonely. There were women at the post office where he worked, but they didn’t appeal to him—or, he guessed, him to them. He’d flirted a bit with the woman in the bodega, but he’d never even asked her name. It was nice having Lucy in his apartment.
“Can’t,” she said. “Need some money.”
“You can’t go out there in that jacket. Take this.” He handed her his Carhartt from the closet by the door. “I want it back.”
“Thanks, Jonnie. I owe you one.” She put the coat on, picked up her bag, and walked out the door. He’d watched as she turned up the street, her head bent against the wind.
* * *
That was a year ago, and Jon still had the umbrella. He’d hung it on a wall, surrounded by white—a conception piece, something someone might call an installation. He called it “Lucy’s Umbrella.” Every time it caught his eye, he smiled. Lucy made him happy.
Jon got another beer. He laughed, thinking about his coat. He’d never seen it again. He’d ask for it and she’d tell him, “I forgot it at home” or “I left it at my friend’s house” or “I’m having it cleaned.” He’d heard everything but “The dog ate it.” Not until Lucy told him about the heroin did he realize she’d sold it. She’d never asked for money she didn’t earn, and she’d never stolen anything from him. But he sure as hell wouldn’t let her borrow his iPad.
Lucy was an addict. Five dollars a bag, twenty bags a day, seven days a week, seven hundred dollars. More money than Jon made at the post office, but he had better working conditions. Lucy was a street whore, at the bottom of the sex trade. Five tricks a day just to ride the horse. More if she wanted to stay warm and eat. She spent long, dangerous hours standing on corners, sticking her head into cars, and being alone with strange men, the whole while looking over her shoulder for the police. They’d busted her twice, for prostitution and possession. One more and she’d go away. She’d told Jon she might be better off. He believed her.
Jon finished his beer and went to bed. He thought of Lucy and her “party” and said a prayer. He never knew if he’d see her again.
* * *
The next night there was a knock on his door. “Jonnie, open up, it’s me!”
He let her in. “Lucy, what’s up?”
“Are you busy?”
“No more than usual,” meaning he wasn’t doing anything.
“I need a break, can I hang around?”
“Sure. Want a beer?”
“Maybe two, Jonnie. It’s been a long day, and I have to go back out.”
“Stay here, take the night off.”
“You don’t think I want to? You think anyone wants to live like this? Tell me how to get out.” She popped the top of her beer can. “I’ve got to feed the beast.”
Jon knew about addiction; he was an addict too. Not on Lucy’s level, but still. Headaches without his morning coffee, a beer in his hand five minutes after he got home, the cigarette dangling from his mouth. The difference was Jon thought he could quit anytime. Lucy knew she couldn’t.
“I could help you, Lucy.”
She shrugged him off. “Did you see the news today, Jonnie?”
This was something Jon really liked about Lucy. She was aware, interested, opinionated, and smart. She could hear through the lies, see through the facades and feints, and reduce things to their basic truths. Maybe it was because she went to college, or maybe it was because she could always spot the con.
“Well, you should. Anyway, how’re things at the post office? Stealing any checks?”
“Just the big ones.”
They talked for an hour or so, about the neighborhood and some of the people in it. They laughed in the funny parts and were serious when they should be. Just two people talking.
“I’ve gotta go to work,” said Lucy, grabbing her bag and heading to the bathroom.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that here.”
“I wish I didn’t do it anywhere, but I’m going to, so it’s here, the hallway, or the street. It won’t look good to the neighbors, Jonnie.” The last part she said as a tease, and that’s the way he took it. He waved her on with his hand.
“Can’t upset old Mrs. Drazak. She’d drop on the spot.”
“Murder charges,” said Lucy, closing the bathroom door behind her.
* * *
Jon and Lucy’s regular date came and went, and two days later he still hadn’t seen her. She’d never blown him off before. He was afraid for her. He didn’t even know Lucy’s last name. She’d never said it, at least not that he remembered. But she did have one constant thing in her life, and Jon knew where she got it and at what times. “Only when the cops are changing shifts,” she’d told him.
Jon parked his car half a block up from the alley and walked back, his eyes searching for Lucy. He didn’t see her. He stepped into line so he could ask the dealer—Lucy had called him Hector—if he had seen her. No credit cards, no paperwork, the line moved quickly. His turn came.
“I’m looking for Lucy.”
“Who gives a shit,” said Hector. “What do you want?”
“Nothing. I’m just looking for Lucy.”
“Lucy ain’t here. You don’t see her, do you? Get out of line, you’re holding things up.”
Jon started back out of the alley. He’d wait and see if she showed up.
“Hey, you,” said a guy in line. “What the hell do you want Lucy for?”
“I’m a friend of hers. I haven’t seen her in a few days and I’m a little worried. Have you seen her?”
“What’s your name, pal?”
“From the storm?”
“She told me about you, says you’re all right. Lucy tried to off herself a couple of days ago—OD.”
“Is she all right?” Jon grabbed the guy’s arm. Maybe he just wanted contact.
“Hey, man, get your hand off me. It’s not my fault! She’s always been screwed up.”
Jon let go. “Is she all right?”
“How the hell would I know? They took her to Saint Joe’s. Try there.”
* * *
“Shit, shit, shit, shit.” Horn blowing, tires screeching, Jon drove like a madman, scaring people out of his way. Bolting into the hospital, he went straight to the desk outside the ICU.
“I’m looking for a woman named Lucy. Is she here?”
The nurse looked Jon up and down. “Who are you?”
“Her brother,” he lied.
“What’s your name?”
“I’ll ask her if she wants to see you.”
Jon wilted with relief.
The nurse came back smiling. “You can go right in, Jon.” She touched his arm. “She really needed a visitor. She’ll be glad to see you. Room four.”
* * *
Jon had expected the worst. He’d heard stories of comas and strokes, but Lucy was awake and alert.
“Jonnie, what are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same. You didn’t show up so I came looking for you.”
“Needed some, huh?”
She slipped him a smile.
“Hey, Jonnie, did you see my mom on the way in? You just missed her.”
“I don’t know. There’s a lot of women walking around out there.”
“Jonnie, I can’t do this anymore. I’m sick of myself.”
“This isn’t the answer, Lucy.”
“No kidding. I’ve changed my mind. I want to get clean, Jonnie. I’ll be here a few more days, and they say they’ve got a bed for me out in Northampton. I want to go.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“Will you help me? I’ll never get out there myself.”
“Yeah. I want to.”
Jon and Lucy talked for an hour, never again mentioning her plan. Jon had seen the news that day so they talked about that. They talked about Syria and Iraq. They talked about the Patriots and Red Sox. They talked about everything but themselves. They talked until the nurse threw Jon out.
* * *
Jon took the day out of work and picked up Lucy at the hospital. A volunteer brought her down in a wheelchair and helped her into his car.
“Jonnie, I’ve got to go see Hector.”
“I owe him money.”
“Lucy, you don’t have any money.”
They were halfway to Northampton.
“Hector’s going to be pissed,” said Lucy.
“I don’t give a shit,” said Jon.
They pulled into the rehab parking lot.
“Please don’t make me go in there.”
They sat quietly in the car. The minutes ticked off.
“Will you walk me in, Jonnie?”
Jon smiled. “I’ll be glad to.”
The place was nothing fancy. It was a large, old, worn-out house, and Jon didn’t see anyone guarding the door. He hoped Lucy would stay. He gave her his phone number. Lucy had never needed it before — she’d just stop in. “Call me when you can. Tell me when I can visit and I will.” He poked her in the chest. “Don’t walk out.”
Lucy looked up at Jon and threw her arms around his neck. Then she pulled his head down and kissed him. Jon kissed her back. It was their first time.
About the author:
For the past three years, Steven Masterson has attended the South Shore Writers’ Club. His work is forthcoming in Forge Journal. Masterson and his wife have owned an upholstery and decorating business for thirty years. He enjoys traveling to other countries and any time spent with his wife.