White Dirt 

"I can't move my neck," Vassie said, sensing the party going on behind his shoulder. He knew he was in Rachel's apartment because he could see the Clash poster over the wicker chair and the ferret's cage in the corner, but he couldn't turn to see who else was in the apartment. When Vassie got there the girls from the club had offered him a joint while Rachel was in the shower. He zoned out for a little bit after that and now his neck was stuck.

"Stop it, Vassie," Rachel said.

Two days earlier, Rachel said she didn't want to see Vassie anymore. He thought the relationship had been going OK, even though every once in a while he'd feel a pang, an empty-stomach flop, when he remembered Rachel had been with his pal Tony first. Tony was a good guy otherwise.

If he shifted at all he'd snap the nerve trapped inside the black knot that had sprouted and quickly calcified between the vertebrae of his neck.

"Vassie, you're scaring me," Rachel said. "Get up. It's the same stuff we had. You didn't even smoke that much."

"Bullshit," he said. He had been at the bar since Judge Judy came on.

"You're OK. Why don't you go lay down in my room?" Rachel said. "Why don't you go home and nap?"

Vassie hadn't been able to sleep at his own place. Not that he wanted to--there was too much to do. Whenever he shut his eyes, the plans started spiraling over him, linked end to end so if he started tackling one problem, another would pop up, then another, each inextricably tangled with the rest: a garage sale led to the want ads, the want ads led to the nagging need for a new job. He'd have to get some presentable clothes for that, and getting his GED would help matters. One little bird pecking a seed attracted the whole flock. Making a ham sandwich led to replacing the hot water heater and tearing up a linoleum floor. He had a million things to do. He hadn't been able to sleep more than an hour or two in the afternoons. Long past being exhausted or sleepy, now he just felt dry and crackly. But he couldn't be certain he had accomplished anything in all that time he spent thinking about the things he had to do.

"Damn it, Vassie. Go lay down." Rachel positioned herself between Vassie and the party in the kitchen. "Don't get sick out here. If you're gonna get sick, use the toilet."

A dull ache crept from Vassie's neck to his shoulder. Rachel drifted from his eyesight and Vassie suspected some guys were now in the apartment.

"Get up, you dork. We can't talk now."

Light from the hallway swept into the room just as Vassie began demanding that if he had to be moved, he should be carried. He heard men, for certain now, drinking in the kitchen. Probably the same assholes who came to the Marigold for the "lingerie shows," throwing money around like big shots. He hated that Rachel worked there--now she and the other girls were partying with the customers and he was supposed to just sit and be nice. How did Rachel meet such morons? These guys probably screamed at the TV during football games, as if the steroid freaks could hear them and would care.

"You guys gotta move me, you wanna sit down," Vassie said as three big, beer-fat boys approached. "Noncompliance. Right here. Turn on the fire hoses." No one said anything, so Vassie asked, "When you're watching the football game do you feel a little funny in a weird way? Like, do you want to hug Brett Favre real tight because he's your favorite?"

Hands grabbed Vassie's wrists and dragged him onto the carpet. This wasn't how the night was supposed to end. He and Rachel were supposed to be in bed together, watching movies and eating pizza. At least Rachel yelled protectively, "Don't hurt him." But if she really was on his side, she'd be stopping them. Vassie knew this meant cops were next. People were always calling the cops for his own good. His mother used to call 911 and then scream at him, "I'm just trying to help." And he'd scream back, "You're fucking helping me to death."

Vassie told himself to remain composed this time. Getting mad just brought the cops faster.

As the frat boys carried him out of the apartment and down the hall--an ugly hallway with mirrored walls and red spiral-patterned carpeting--Vassie asked, "So what is fantasy football? You guys get into that? You guys get naked and chase each other around the house? Monkey pile in the locker room?"

Vassie fought them the best he could, but Rachel and her frat boys were able to stuff him easily into the backseat of somebody's car. Rachel sat up front on the passenger side. Vassie was squeezed between three guys, his arms pinned to his sides. When he tried to maneuver one arm free, they squeezed in closer and held him down, someone's arm clamped around his neck.

Vassie saw reflections of streetlights float across the windows, glistening reds and yellows. He didn't fight. He was drained and heavy as a stone--if the car drove into the lake, he'd be the only one to drown. The car turned up a half-circle driveway and stopped under an awning.

"This guy's nuts," one of the frat boys said to a uniformed guy who eventually appeared at the window.

"Don't say that," Rachel said. "He's having a bad reaction. He's gonna hurt himself."

"Yeah, he is," one of the boys threatened.

Security guards and cops and various hospital scrubs were gathering. Vassie followed everyone out of the car as if he was on their side. He had to show he was lucid and understood their concern--that would be the first step to gain their trust.

"I'm OK. Just let me go home," Vassie yelled over Rachel's explanation that he had been hospitalized before. "He told me so," Rachel said. "But it was maybe a long time ago."

Vassie watched the frat boys. They all wanted to sleep with Rachel--that was the only reason they were involved in this mess. Otherwise they were only interested in barking at TV sets and high-fiving each other. These were the guys who got loaded and came out of the bars, barking and whooping and pretending they hadn't all lived this massive homoerotic existence in college with 40 guys in a house, getting naked and pouring beer on each other.

"I'm OK," Vassie called to the crowd. "Will you listen?" The cops and orderlies were focused on Rachel, who talked as if he weren't there: "Corvoisier, that's his name. Watts. Like a lightbulb." She told the cops he had been getting worse lately and no, he wasn't on medication. Vassie noticed she had not mentioned the happy stick they had smoked. He didn't want Rachel to get in trouble, but he didn't want to get thrown to the wolves, either.

Vassie announced to the frat boys that they wouldn't hate themselves so much if they would just admit their feelings for each other. Brave men stood up all the time.

"Will you shut the fuck up and let her talk?" one of them said.

Vassie punched the guy as hard as he could. The recoil shot from his knuckles to his elbow. And the uniforms piled on top of him.

Heavy hands weighed on his shoulders as he was forced into a wheelchair. "You're OK, pal. Just calm down. We're going to get you some help."

Vassie hoped against hope that they weren't going to send the cops in. He'd be locked up again with no money for bond and the problems would start landing, coming down from the wire to peck at the crumbs: He'd be the only white guy in. The job at the plant-watering company would be gone by the time he got out. And at 26th and California he'd have to take the medical test with the swab up the chute again. Getting tagged as a head case might be OK if only to that last one.

Vassie felt like his body was covered head to toe with an X-ray bib from the dentist's office. His childhood dentist had been a patronizing bastard with a box of cheap jack trinkets--spider rings and plastic cars--Vassie could pick from after a cleaning. He started crying once in the chair and the asshole dentist started yelling at him that he didn't deserve a toy. That was what each trip to the hospital felt like: everyone was a dentist yelling at him for reasons he didn't understand.

A muscular man with coffee-colored skin and buckteeth sat down in front of him, snapping him back to the present. "OK, man. I'm Mike. You know why you're here?"

Vassie didn't answer, but he slowly faced forward to study the freckles on Mike's face.

"Why do you think you're here?"

"I pissed someone off."

"That girl, she your girlfriend?"

"Recent ex."

"That's what she said."

"Two months' investment down the toilet."

"Who do you think you pissed off?"


"You said before--"

"I was just messing," Vassie said. "Little fucked-up."

"How are you fucked-up?"

"Chemically." Vassie told himself to keep his comments brief. That would be best. And not to blame others. "Not my brain, chemically. I just smoked something didn't agree with me."

"OK. How about this? We go upstairs just to make sure they didn't give you anything too bad? Just for observation and you're out of here in the morning."

"It was just happy stick or something," Vassie said, feeling the room swerve a bit as he stood. "Is this going to go on my permanent record?"

"What permanent record? I don't got any permanent record." Mike held his hands up as if Vassie's records were written across his palms.

"I can walk home from here. I'm OK."

"Now, you just said they gave you something. Wouldn't be right for me to let you go without giving you a checkup, OK? There's some bad shit out there."

Vassie didn't really feel like walking home, but he saw a chance of getting out without involving police. "If you promise not to write anything down," Vassie said, "I'll get the checkup. This was my fault. I know."

"You got a deal."

Mike had to swipe his ID at each set of doors, and a security guard had to key open the elevator. The windows in the hallways were reinforced with wire mesh. Vassie's guides passed a sign: CAUTION--ELOPEMENT RISK. And his heart jumped for his throat.

"Man, you fucking lied to me," Vassie said, too tired to fight anymore. One set of doors shut behind him before the next opened.

Mike's voice lowered, "You gotta trust me now. This is the only place we got for you--I saw you swing on that guy. If you aren't staying here, it's to the cops."

"Aw, man. Is that guy charging me?"

"You stay here for the night, there's no permanent record like with the police, all right?"

Vassie wanted to believe him, but whenever he really wanted and needed to believe someone they lied to him immediately. Mike, even though he had already proved himself to be a liar, professed to be on Vassie's side the same way female bartenders made guys think they had a chance in hell of going home with them after last call.

Mike and a guard checked Vassie for weapons and drugs. They found no scars or tattoos and Vassie vowed to not tell them anything.

Then Mike led Vassie to a little room holding nothing but two matching school desks. The security guards went out into the hall. "How'd you get to be Corvoisier?" Mike asked.

"Dad liked his booze." Vassie hated his name because people who saw it before they saw his face were always surprised he was white. Mostly the well-meaning liberal types, like Mike, made no comment. The beer-brave folks in the bar started up about it. His best friend in the world, Tony, said of his name on the day they met, "Isn't that niggerific?" They fought and Vassie lost, but he got some good shots in. They were still pals, even though Tony could get a bit superior in attitude at times.

"He still around?" Mike asked. "Your dad?"

"If he is, I don't know where."

"How about your moms?"

"She passed away."

"I'm sorry."

Mike asked Vassie how he was feeling, if he was violent, if he ever thought about hurting himself. Vassie answered it all in the negative.

"You swung on that one guy. What'd he do?"

"I didn't plan it," Vassie said. "Why can't you get over that? What's past is past, man."

"You ever been in the hospital before?"

"No," Vassie lied. "You gotta let me out, actually. I got work tomorrow."

"What do you do?"

"Water plants out at the airport."

"Good work. Better than digging ditches."

"Not if I'm not there tomorrow."

"Tomorrow's Sunday. You work Sunday?"

"Unless the airport is closed."

"Just give me a couple more minutes. That Rachel, she said you were on some kick where you haven't slept in days. That true? She said you emptied all the furniture out of your place and put it in the yard?"

Vassie had been stricken with a frantic urge to clean the house.

"You were going to have a garage sale in the middle of the night?"

Vassie stood up. How could it possibly make any difference where he put his furniture?

"C'mon, man. Sit down," Mike said, standing with Vassie.

Security came in and Vassie sat back down. He couldn't even remember the last time he had been in a fair fight--always this playground crap from authority figures. Mike kept talking and Vassie zoned out most of the content. To erase this from his life he would have done anything--to just be transported out into the street or to disappear completely would have been fine.

"I'm not taking any pills from you," Vassie said.

"There's no doctors here on weekend nights. But you are going to have to crash here."

Vassie agreed that was better than jail and he stopped himself from mentioning how threats of violence also seemed to clear his head.

He had plans that could wait a day or two. The other night in the bar, he and Tony were talking about those bike racks that aren't cemented to the ground. Tony knew of a park where he could steal one of those racks--they'd have to borrow a van from work--and put it at a busier corner with all the boutiques and coffee shops. They'd wait for people to come by and lock up their bikes. When the rack was properly filled, they'd drive by, scoop up the rack, bikes and all, and throw the bunch into the van. Tony said he knew a guy in Rogers Park who had a cousin who had a used bike shop.

Sometimes Tony could be a real jag, but sometimes he was OK.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Christiane Grauert.


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