Tiffany Reed pulled the hood of her sweatshirt over her forehead and kept walking. The hood covered all her hair except four inches of bangs showing roots grown out so long her hair looked only tipped with blonde dye and a deep but ordinary black otherwise. She felt a drop of rain hit her cheek and run in a droplet over the spot she always darkened as a beauty spot just below her right cheekbone.
The spot was actually the scar left from a capillary hemangioma she had from birth until around her tenth birthday. She was the only one of her sisters to have anything like that, and the doctors couldn’t explain it except to say the blood vessels weren’t fully formed. They told her folks they might form fully over time, they might not. In pictures it was always there, what might as well have been a boil about to pull loose in rupture. Now she covered the dime-sized pale scar over with a brown liner. Masking something ugly with something beautiful and sad, the way she always thought Marilyn Monroe looked no matter how big she smiled.
The street was gray from rain. The buildings, the sidewalks, the entire downtown landscape was dipped in gray, and the sky matched the color save for one or two streaking clouds, like primer boot-scraped along a dark wall. She fumbled through a mostly skinless purse with a ropey handle that pinched at the bone jutting up from her shoulder and came up with a lighter and lit a cigarette outside the Ashland Goodwill store. It was little wonder she hadn’t pulled in much last night.
She wore a pair of sweatpants her ass had once filled out so that the word PINK bounced perfectly enough to illicit staring and, soon enough, cat calling and, nearly without fail, a trick. Now the sweats sloughed off her backside like a mudslide beginning at the base of her spine. When she reached back to pull them from sagging, a rip in the arm of her jacket opened wider, soon wide enough she would notice and have to buy a new one. A new jacket alone meant four or five tricks for nothing more than product maintenance.
She took two long draws from the cigarette and then continued down the street, feeling the buzz in the back of her brain loosening, feeling the need for another pill, even one she had to take regular, feeling how it peeled back her thoughts until the only thing she could focus on was the cigarette and the smudged sky. It was difficult to tell if what she was going through physically was caused from the pills or the meth. There was more meth here in Ashland since they left home. Back home there were doctors to shop around at, pain clinics, emergency rooms that pretty much accepted a certain number of people were there for pain pills. Here, with its patchy city sky and buildings along Main Street dressed up in fancy architecture and the tall smoke stacks always visible out by the Ohio River they might as well have been in Pittsburg or Cincinnati, even though it was just Ashland, Kentucky. It was only two hours from Painstville and another ten minutes after that you were in Floyd County. All the same, it felt like a city, smelled like a city, put a hamper on the country heart like a city. And worse, being here meant getting the pills became a game they couldn’t keep up like they did in the Big Sandy region.
At the corner, where the Riddle’s Guitar and Gun Shop took up half a block of real estate, she made a right turn and headed toward King’s Daughters Medical Center. The cafeteria was open all hours and it was always a good place to rest and count her money. Last night had been slow and she knew Jordan would be pissed. If it had been a better night for takers she would have been able to call Jordan and get some more pills, maybe a bag of motivation if selling was going good on his end. That’s the move he said needed to be made after losing his employment a few months back, making meth and moving meth. Motivation in a bag, he called it.
It was dangerous as all hell, though, and Tiffany had said as much to him. He tried to convince her he knew what he was doing, had figured out the method called shake and bake and that he’d been around explosives enough in the mines to be careful. Jordan said he would only do the shake method until he could figure out how to set up a home lab. He had most of the stuff to set it up now. He was probably working on it now and not thinking about her at all, on the street tired, withdrawing, and so sore in her thighs from humping all night she could barely walk.
There was a fine drizzle of rain by the time she made it to entrance at King’s Daughters. Visitors walked quickly from their vehicles with umbrellas or covering their heads, but Tiffany stayed at an easy stroll. When she reached the entrance she tossed her hood off so that it landed like a thick wet dishtowel at the back of shoulders. Standing just left of the entrance, she lit a cigarette and took long draws, watched the drizzle spray in the foreground until her focus went to the mountains looming behind central park across the street.
More like hills, she thought. These weren’t the mountains of Floyd County, the easternmost tip of Kentucky. Those mountains were still mountains even after they stripped the tops off for coal. These were hills, and like everything else here, Tiffany always thought of them as a cheap imitation of home. Not really far enough away for things to seem a lot different and too close by to forget what home felt like.
A twitch started in her lower calf and branched like lightning into her upper thigh muscle. It was the meth gasping out of her, her body letting her mind know it’d been too long. She never used to run short during a shift. She made sure she didn’t. It was hard enough screwing guys for money while high to even think about it trying to manage it sober. She wiped at her nose before it ran across her upper lip and thought of how long it would be before the stomach cramps and diarrhea started. If Jordan was much longer, she’d be dealing with more than just a twitchy muscle.
Inside, the cafeteria was, as usual, a mix of slack-faced nurses and other staff, living out the last hour of the graveyard shift. But there were plenty of them. That was one of the good things about King’s Daughters. It never slept. She always preferred a busy shuffling of bodies and voices. It made her anonymous, noticeable, if at all, in a passing glance. Those glances always came with a smirk or some twisted look of outright disgust, but she could handle all that for a place to wait on Jordan that was even open before daylight, not to mention a place that served food.
Counting the money in her lap, she picked out two fives and bought half a turkey and cheese sandwich, an order of fries, and a fountain drink. The sandwich went down fast, but the fries were mostly burned and there wasn’t enough ketchup in Ashland to fix them. Still, she finished it all quickly and within ten minutes regretted buying anything. Spasms bloomed into tiny, painful explosions across her stomach wall.
Easing up from the cafeteria table, she took the pre-paid cell from her purse and dialed Jordan as she made large strides into the hallway and down to the side entrance doors. He answered on the third ring just as she managed to fix herself into a squatting position against the side of the building with her knees pulled to her chest. Rain, now at a steady pelt, coated her arms and hands from the portico gutter.
“Yeah,” Jordan answered, rushed, impatient.
“Come down here and get me,” she said. “I’m sick.”
A long pause and then, “You’re calling an hour early. It’s still dark outside.”
Tiffany closed her eyes and could only breathe into the phone.
“What do you mean you’re sick?” he continued. “You out? You already out?”
“Yes! And I’m sick!”
“Sonofabitch! You raise your voice at me, bitch?”
She pulled her ear back from the phone and tightened her arm around her midsection. She could hear his words still booming out from the phone and cutting through the rain to try and strangle her. Turning her mouth toward to the receiver, she called out loudly for him to come get her and then pushed the end call button. The quiet that came after, when the worst of the cramps had passed and the land itself seemed at rest, was as pleasant and surprising as bird song in moonlight.
Jordan Hall pulled on a pair of baggy jeans and notched his belt loosely so the buckle sagged to reveal his boxers. Tiff wasn’t going anywhere, he thought, no need to break his neck getting to her. She was early anyway. He examined himself in the small bathroom mirror. He hadn’t lost any teeth the way Tiffany had, but they were coated in plaque where each tooth met the gum line and a bottom front was loose. He wiggled the tooth with the tip of his tongue and ran his fingers through a wad of coarse hair, tying it off in a ponytail that stuck straight out like a barber’s brush. He offered a blank stare at his reflection. He tried for dead man’s eyes. He squinted harder and tried for soldier’s eyes. He wanted to get to the point that he could command a room with his eyes.
He slapped his forearm across his chest three times, widened his eyes again while staring at himself in the mirror and pulled on an oversized white t-shirt. It’s time for my next tattoo, he thought, and left the bedroom in a rattle of keys and loose change.
The house was built more than forty years ago and with two bedrooms it was easy to heat and cool, but beyond that not much good could be said. Stains crawled up the walls from the baseboards to the light switches along the hallway, and the same stains flowered out from the light fixtures on the ceiling. Jordan stepped over two large circles of dog piss and gave the new puppy a pat on the head as he passed. It lay in a pile of Styrofoam and aluminum foil likely pulled from the kitchen garbage. He took the foil and left the Styrofoam and headed to the kitchen. He passed through the arched doorway and stopped where he stood. Three months later and the setup still surprised him.
The home lab was a graduation in progress from the old shake method he first started with when the pills ran out. In the middle of the kitchen he had sat up a folding picnic table. The table was covered in bottles of Heet and packs of Sudafed bought from Alice and Kent, the couple up the street. One entire corner was covered in packs of batteries. He noticed the kitty litter stash was low, with only two bags left. The cats might have to go, he thought. Getting materials for cooking was a full-time job by itself and he hadn’t even started making anything yet. Not with the lab, not until he could figure out proper venting. Until then, it was one pot shaking, just enough for him and Tiffany and Alice and Kent, who he hoped would get on board and pitch in some space for cooking at some point, maybe even a little money if it all went down right.
Ashland seemed like a big city to both of them when he and Tiffany first left Floyd County. Now it was any other place, except when the homesickness came on full. Lately that was more and more. But he had a plan, so no worries, he told her after he lost the first job and things got tight.
This was about four months after the move. He had taken a job with CSX as a freight conductor, the youngest they had hired since first running trains through Kentucky. On every kind of shift a person could imagine he placed cars for loading and unloading for about a month. Then, by month two, he was supervising training on freights and coördinating switch engine crews, keeping up with compliance on all orders, signals, and railroad regulations and operations for FRA. It was while reviewing instructions for his dispatchers and yardmasters so they could be discussed with the engineer and the rest of the train crew the Harrison Pearson incident went down and busted his ass to the house.
It only took Jordan that first month of bossing to get comfortable and lazy. Though skilled from his time working equipment at both underground mines and surface mines back home, if he could delegate, he delegated. Sign of good leader, he figured. But Harrison was a grandson to somebody big and mouthed off at him when Jordan assigned some yard work his way. The short of it was that it came to blows and when Jordan showed up for work the next day and started replacing a set of air brake hoses, they gave him a last check in advance and sent him home.
But he hadn’t come to Ashland empty handed. He and Tiffany had shopped pills before leaving Floyd County. The week before they moved into the tiny house a few blocks from the hospital, both of them hit the five or six doctors across Floyd and Pike counties and stored up Oxys and Xanax. It was one last stocking up of inventory, but selling would be a rainy day scenario, he told Tiffany. By the end of his first week unemployed in Ashland, the two of them had sold enough to pay rent for a month and get buffet supper at Golden Corral.
Would’ve been nice to have kept that momentum, kept that job, but this is what is now, Jordan thought and turned at the gun and pawn, steadying himself for Tiffany, all the while knowing she was steadying herself for him.
Tiffany’s chin rose and fell against her chest. A security guard stopped where she sat propped against the building, started to roust her and then, shaking his head, entered the building. When the headlights of Jordan’s Honda Civic darted across her eyelids, she raised her head and tried to stand. When she did her legs bent sideways at the knees, an outward thrust that pitched her to the ground. The impact jarred everything inside her and before Jordan made it to her she had already shit herself. When he put his hands under her arms and lifted, her stomach turned and shifted again and this time she vomited.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jordan whispered. He struggled with her, keeping away from the mess in her hair and on her shirt, and finally made it to the car. She had just made it upright when the security guard appeared from the hospital entrance.
“Ain’t you going the wrong direction with her?”
“Just got released,” Jordan said, closing the car door and circling the back bumper. “We waited three hours in the emergency room just so they could give her the pink stuff that wouldn’t help a baby with a stomach bug. What are you going to do, though?”
It was a stupid excuse, but it was all they had right away. Jordan got in and pulled the car into reverse. The security guard still stood where he had appeared, but now he was on his hand held radio. He continued to stare when Jordan checked him in the review pulling out.
At the house Jordan loaded a pipe and smoked quietly while Tiffany lay on the couch. He sat at her feet and pulled her shoes off. After a minute or two, she reached up and took the pipe from him. When she positioned herself better to smoke, Jordan caught the scent of her, foul and acrid. He closed his eyes and held his breath, opened them again. Her hair still curled away from his head in matted tags, bruises still dotted the insides of her thighs. He inhaled deeply, once, twice, closed his eyes again. She took the pipe once more while he sat with eyes closed, trying to imagine a different her, a different house.
In the rapid space between heartbeats, he thought of what could have been if Harrison Pearson never came to work that day, never got his Irish up. Behind his eyelids were train cars and yardmen, the surface of the Ohio River like the sun spilled out across two states. After a time he looked again at Tiffany, wondering what she might be imagining, but she was asleep with the pipe resting hot in the crook of her arm. She was tired. Tired in the bones, not only in the heart. He sometimes remembered what that felt like.
Sheldon Lee Compton is a Hillbilly-American short story writer and novelist from Pikeville, Kentucky. He is the author of the novel Brown Bottle and two short story collections, The Same Terrible Storm and Where Alligators Sleep.