WHY AM I HERE? Is it only that Sylvia telephoned so desperately
after midnight, and I stood listening by the answering machine as she asked me
to take Ryan? Or something bigger? Because before the sun has burned the dew
from the grass, here I am. I pull into the driveway and turn off the engine, and
Sylvia, who's been standing on the stoop waiting, steps toward the truck. Her
sandals slap the flagstones as she approaches.
I should have realized only a truly serious binge could force Sylvia into rehab, but still, I'm shocked by her appearance. Her blonde hair is slicked back so tight that the waves seem painted on her skull, and her face is puffy, especially in the soft patches under her eyes. She has lines where I don't remember seeing lines before and a sore budding on her lower lip. Nevertheless, she's made an effort to clean up. Her white shirt's freshly ironed, and as she leans in the window of the truck, I can smell mouthwash.
"It won't be that long," she says flatly, and licks her cracked lips. Beneath the pale skin of her face, the muscles look clenched, and I wonder how long it's been since she slept. "Just a tune-up, get me on track. I doubt I'd even do this except my harridan of a sister is making it so - and I'm sort of at my wits' . . ." She shakes her head sourly. "And if it is for the better - who the hell knows? Because for a week I haven't left the house for fear of being away from my - not to take a walk or get him to a movie, let alone work. I couldn't bear to crash. But I mean it absolutely: a tune-up. I'm not looking for a makeover, and I really don't plan to impose him for long. I don't - I don't think I'm a hard case." At this, her eyes well, and I take her hand. She sighs irritably. "After all, Howie, isn't it your problem, too, in a way? Who knows if I'd even be in this spot, but for you?"
I drop Sylvia's hand. I'd love to tell her her pressed shirt has done nothing for her disposition, but instead I just glower at the shut garage door. And Sylvia knows, even through her come-down haze, that she's blundered. She stares glassily at the asphalt driveway until at last I shrug curtly and bark out, "Sh-cke!" It's the best I can do.
"Okay, fine," she says. She knows the score. "Well, I appreciate your coming on such short notice. And we're almost ready. Hang on, we'll get this show on the . . ." To head off another silence, she goes back in the house.
I get out and wait on the fender. It's neither true nor fair to say I'm to blame for her predicament, but I have a long history of letting Sylvia call the shots. And it's not an unappealing notion, her falling apart over me, though in truth, I don't think her situation is so bad. Sylvia's one of those small-time users who does a fair job of managing her cocaine and keeping her kid fed and clothed, and even if she has missed a day or two of work, I think she might be satisfied with the life she's got. I suspect that for a lot of people coke is like a chronic disease or a handicap or injury from which they don't fully recover; if they're smart, they patch around it and keep on going. So my bet is Sylvia will be home the day after tomorrow. She'll realize it's her lot to love getting high, but there are worse afflictions, and the minute she realizes this she'll call me to bring Ryan over. By the time we get there, she'll already be buzzed, and maybe I'll stay awhile. Maybe she'll be grateful or affectionate or dismissive, but nothing will change. Her life - and mine, to the extent it revolves around hers - will start up again at virtually this same point.
I watch a delivery truck pull in next door, and a couple of dogs bark. Over the years I've done my own share of recreationals, primarily hallucinogens, but I never liked snorting for the way it made me aware of my head. Finally I abandoned the drug realm altogether. I don't think Sylvia's forgiven me for not developing a habit myself, but she wouldn't change places with me.
Copyright © 2005 by Dave King
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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