“Ah, good, here come the cops to arrest some more mutants,” said Raleigh’s boss, Pete. “Can’t have them just lounging around, living off the fat of the land, snacking on the core of our civilization.”
Raleigh finished counting verdigrised pennies into the grimy hand of a man who wore a heavy overcoat and woolen muffler despite the August heat, then he handed over the brown bag full of Copenhagen slicks. His eyes followed the man out into the heat-warped glare of the street. In the flickering intervals between speeding cars, he could see that the tiny park across the street was full of cops.
“Mutants?” Raleigh said, glancing into the fish-eye mirror at the men who browsed between racks of cello-wrapped magazines and sex toys. “You mean, like, genetic drift?”
“I’m talking sci-fi horror movies, kid. I mean bug-eyed monsters with green skin and the faces of dogs. Nothing remotely human.”
Raleigh looked back at the park. “They’re just bums, Pete. Street people.”
“I must disagree,” Pete said, taking a moment to readjust his John Lennon spectacles, which looked as misplaced as a lorgnette on his oft-broken nose. “Neither hapless hustler nor decrepit wino, Raleigh. These are the genuine item. Homo mutatis. I’ve been studying them for years, from this inconspicuous vantage. And what’s more, I’d wager the police will find their ragged pockets stuffed full of Easy.”
“Easy? That new drug, you mean?”
Pete stood up excitedly, peering past Raleigh and wagging his finger in the direction of the cash register. Raleigh turned to face yet another overdressed customer bearing yet another glossy, overpriced skinzine. As he searched for the dollar value among kroner, pounds, and lire, Pete went on about mutant pharmaceuticals.
“It’s everywhere these days, Raleigh. It’s as common as the mutants themselves. Don’t know where they get it, but they’re all pushers, selling it to each other. They call it ‘Easy,’ I gather, because it’s so easy to fix. A snort, a swallow—no needles need apply. And because once you take enough of it, life seems easy. Easy as pie. Maybe it caused the mutants; I don’t know. You can blame them on solar flares, or pesticides, or the national debt. From my experience, poverty can warp the mind; why shouldn’t it have subtler genetic effects?”
“Thank you, sir,” Raleigh told his customer. “You might want to keep on this side of the street for a few blocks.”
“Won’t matter,” Pete proclaimed. “The police have their hands full at the moment. Hey, Raleigh, take a look at this one. I’ll watch the register.”
Raleigh switched places with Pete in the cramped space behind the counter, and by stepping on the hidden cashbox, he managed to get a clear view of the melee.
“All I see is a bunch of cops,” he said.
“Brown coat, brown hair—it looks like a victim of cosmetic malpractice. And it hops like a frog.”
“Jesus, Pete,” he said. “That’s a person, not an ‘it.’”
“And I say you’re wrong, kid. That comes to $9.95.”
“You have no compassion, Pete.”
Raleigh watched the woman stumble against the metal steps of the paddy van. With both hands cuffed behind her back, and the cops pushing her ahead of them, she stumbled forward like a sack of potatoes. A plastic bag full of gray powder fell from the folds of her coat; one cop snatched it up with a shout. Raleigh had a glimpse of her face: wide, loose lips; basset-hound eyes showing more red than white; skin a cigarettish brown-green in color. As the cops shoved her into the van, he realized why the woman had “hopped,” as Pete put it. One leg of her slacks flapped loose.
“My God, that poor lady. She’s an amputee, and the way the cops are shoving her around —”
“Let me see,” Pete said, striving to regain his old place. Raleigh held on long enough to see her remaining leg disappear into the van, then the door slammed shut.
“Well, that’s that,” said Pete. “But they’ll be back tomorrow, and twice as many, too. Confine them in a cell and they multiply even faster.”
“You’re sick,” Raleigh said. His face burned; his throat had closed up and gone dry. “Those are just regular people, like maybe you and I could have been if we’d had a long run of bad luck. It’s living on the street makes them sick like that.”
“The street, eh? You sure it’s not the greenhouse effect?”
Raleigh sputtered and laughed despite himself. Pete slapped him on the shoulder, then leaned in close, whispering, “So what makes them look like this?”
He referred to the next customer, a stunted, pop-eyed-old man with a fringe of gray beard and a toothless mouth. Raleigh gritted his teeth and counted the proffered money, all in tarnished dimes, though he felt as if he were selling Wet Beaver Beach Party to Snuffy Smith.
“Sorry, gramps,” he said a minute later. “There’s not enough here. Why don’t you go get yourself something to eat?”
“You crazy?” the old man rasped. “That shit’s expensive!”
The next morning, before Pete’s shop opened, Raleigh stood in the park across the street with a lukewarm cup of coffee and a doughnut. Brick high-rises enclosed the little square of balding grass and litter; an alley ran along one edge. Thorny hedges concealed a few long, lumpy shapes like lint-colored turds the size of men; the sound of snoring drifted from them. Otherwise the park was empty.
As he drank his coffee, he saw Pete wandering up the far side of the street, beret pulled down low on his brow. Raleigh drained the Styrofoam cup and tossed it toward the trash can, but a gust of stale wind swept it aside.
The park was full of garbage. One cup more or less made no difference. Yet Raleigh could not avoid the voice of his conscience. Littering was bad, punishable by heavy fines. He wandered over to the hedge and carefully spread a few branches, looking for his cup.
There it lay, swaddled in bloody bandages, steaming.
He staggered back, slashing his wrists on thorns.
Pete hailed him from the door of the shop. Raleigh hesitated, drawn to take another peek into the bushes despite the sickness caused by his first look. He finally broke and ran across the street ahead of a wave of traffic, the glimpse of dirty, blood-soaked swathes still hanging in his eyes.
“I’m glad you came early today,” Pete said as they went in. The shop was dark, and he kept it that way as he went back into his office for the cashbox. “I wanted a chance to talk to you privately.”
Raleigh was wondering about the heap of bandages. He tried to make himself concentrate on what Pete was saying, but it wasn’t easy. He was accustomed to tuning out most of his boss’s words.
“I’m afraid I have to let you go. Business has been lousy lately, as you may have been aware. I’m going to have to run the place single-handedly for a while if I want to break even.” He shook his head and laughed. “Even then, it’s not likely.”
“Wait a minute,” Raleigh said, following him at last. “Let me go? You mean, just like that—cut me off?”
“Like I said—”
“Come on, you can’t even give me a few hours a week? Pete, this job is my security! I’m counting on it.”
“I told you, I’m deep in the red. I wish I could give you some kind of severance pay, but this isn’t exactly a corporation. Of course, you’ll get the usual discount if you want to buy anything.”
“Yeah, right,” Raleigh said, slapping at a stack of magazines that stood as tall as Pete. They toppled and slithered over the floor of the office.
“There’s no call for that,” Pete said.
“You could’ve at least warned me, man.”
Raleigh raised his hands to go after another stack.
Pete stepped in front of him. “All right, here’s your warning. If you don’t get out of here, I’m calling the cops. I don’t need a vandal in my shop.”
Raleigh spun away from him and pushed out of the tiny office, rushed down the aisles of packaged flesh. Behind him, Pete muttered about Vandals, Goths, barbarians, mutants, the beginning of the end.
It felt good to slam the door and shove past the first trench-coated customer of the day.
An hour later he was still stalking the street, pissed off, in another world, and not a cent richer. In fact, he was already five dollars closer to eviction from his Tenderloin studio.
He curbed his anger and bought a pork bao from a dim sum place; the red meat was rancid, so he hurled it into traffic and went back demanding another. The cook came out from behind the counter with a carving knife, while two screaming Chinese women tried to hold him pinned against the wall—what was known in the area as Hong Kong persuasion. He tore free, but their shouts followed him down the street.
Get yourself together, man, he told himself, examining the holes the claws of the women had left in the shoulders of his T-shirt. Make yourself presentable, because you need a job in a hurry.
He headed toward Market Street along peep-show row, ducking into every adult bookstore that he passed. In most of them the scene was so depressing that he didn’t bother offering his services. Men were browsing but not buying. He knew a few of Pete’s competitors, but all of them told him straight out that business was sick. Flesh was a luxury item these days.
By the time five o’clock rolled around, he was no closer to finding a job, and he was forty dollars short on the rent. He knew that he’d be up all night retracing his steps, looking for night-shift positions, but he had the feeling that things would be just as tight.
Standing at the window of his one-room apartment, he watched the neon come to life below him. Bums moved like pigeons in the street, picking through trash bins. Three generations of a Vietnamese family poked through bushes for aluminum cans, bottle glass, anything they could recycle. The grandmother picked up a wad of soiled rags and dropped it with a start.
What you need (he told himself) is to get out of the slums, move into the suburbs or the financial district. Get yourself a haircut, a change of clothes, a telephone number of your own. Make yourself some money.
“Yeah, right. Just like that.”
He examined himself in the mirror. Uncut hair, three-day beard, gray T-shirt slowly fading to black.
“I need money to make money,” he reminded himself. “And where’s that gonna come from?”
In the mirror he surveyed the inverted room. It looked bigger in there, full of promise. He considered the black guitar case, the ghetto-blaster that needed new batteries, the cheap stereo.
“Time is money, and time’s a-wasting.”
He opened the closet, hauled out an old cardboard suitcase, and started to pack his things.
“Hey, kid, wanna buy joints? Crack? It’s good stuff, no shit. Acid? I got everything. Hey, you want Easy? Special today—Easy comes cheap, kid. Tell you what, I’ll let you try it free of charge. If you don’t like it, let me know. I got plenty of other stuff, something for everybody.”
Raleigh kept walking, but the man hung close to him, following him up Sixth Street. He must have seen him go into the pawnshop with the grocery cart full of goods; and now his hands were empty.
“I don’t have money to waste on drugs,” he said.
“First time’s free, baby. You look like an Easy kind of guy. And Easy is something I got plenty of.”
“Nothing personal,” Raleigh said, “but fuck off.”
“Yeah, Jack. You know where to find me.”
Raleigh had checked out of his studio that morning and moved his stuff into the Civic Center Hotel. It was half the price of his old place, but crowded, cramped, and noisy—like a prison, a dormitory, or a motel. The window in his coffin-sized room had a view of a littered rooftop, fifty other windows, and a tattered, illegible billboard. He had enough money in his pocket to pay for a month’s rent, if he did all his eating at Jack-in-the-Box. He wouldn’t be buying any new clothes, though.
He cut down an alley. He didn’t know this part of the city all that well; maybe he should look for work around here. Hell, he had skills, didn’t he? He didn’t have to work in the same old skinshops all his life, right? He could stack boxes, do lifting, deliver papers —
He looked up suddenly, confronted by half a dozen silent figures huddled near a chain-link fence. They were as surprised as he was. One of them dropped a gray plastic bag, creating an explosion of dust like mushroom spores. He started to take a wide detour around them, avoiding meeting their eyes, and they moved back to clear the way even further. There was something familiar about the way a few of them moved.
As he stiffened, craning to look back at them, shouts came from the far end of the alley. A cluster of teenagers stood there, yelling at him.
No, they were yelling at the mendicants. Raleigh heard the bums scuffling away behind him, kicking tin cans and broken glass as they fled, maimed and ungainly. The boys came running toward him. He expected them to ignore him as they went after their unhealthy targets, and a detached bit of Darwinian reasoning flashed through his brain like a sound track lifted from a science program: “Stronger and more cohesive social groups now purge the streets of the sick and dying fragments.” You’re slow, you blow.
They started flinging rocks and hunks of masonry; switchblades scratched the air.
My God, he thought. They’re the ones cutting up the street people.
Raleigh ducked and dashed to one side, desperate for cover, but two of them veered in his direction and knocked him down. They bashed him into the wall, kicked him in the ribs. He felt their hands dig into his pockets after the wallet, and when he screamed at them to stop, screamed for the police, he saw a fist come down clenching a slab of brick that looked like a petrified heart. He didn’t feel it hit.
The pain, when it came, hit him like a strong dose of acid. He didn’t know where he was: he just lay there and let himself ache. It felt like there was grit in his wounds. Maybe a few ribs were broken. He opened his eyes and saw the dark alley, lined with cars now. He thought of the people who had parked next to him, and wondered what they’d thought of him — if they’d noticed him at all. Only another wino sleeping in the gutter. Just another junkie.
He tried to move, but the pain made him moan. He sank back down.
As if invoked by his howl, a shape rose from shadows near the door. It was a man, rising from a heap of black plastic garbage bags. No, the man was clothed in plastic bags, the better to conceal himself in these dark alleys. Raleigh wondered if the trashmen ever tried to collect him.
“You’re hurtin’, kid. Take some of this.”
The man held out a bag. In the light from a distant streetlamp, it looked like it was full of mold.
“No, thanks,” Raleigh said.
“It’s pure,” said the man. “I’ve got a reputation to protect. I wouldn’t mess your head with no inferior item.”
“No, thanks,” Raleigh said again.
“I’m the Man from Glad. I find it fresh! Come on, dude, I know you need it. Just take a little on your palm and lick it up. It’s got no taste. You’ll feel a world better.”
Raleigh tried to move, but his ribs felt like a rack of knives stabbing him all at once. He sank back with tears in his eyes, recognizing that the moans he heard were his own.
“I can’t stand here and do nothing,” said the Man from Glad.
Before Raleigh could protect himself, a handful of dust was shoved under his nose. Some of it went in his mouth; some of it he inhaled; the rest he flung back at the Man from Glad, who laughed and pretended to bathe in it. The dust drifted down like a slow fall of pollen.
“Easy, man, Easy! It’s all so Easy now. . . .”
Raleigh didn’t feel any happier, but he sure didn’t feel so bad. He rose slowly, because he knew that he should be careful; but he was numb, completely numb. Someone else was in control of his body, a pilot he could trust. Maybe this mysterious pilot would guide him to an emergency room, or maybe not. Whatever happened, he was sure it would be all right.
“Better, isn’t it?” asked the Man from Glad.
“Better,” Raleigh agreed through thick lips.
“Now go get yourself cleaned up; look after yourself. I don’t want to see you around here. You’re too young for this kind of shit.”
The Man from Glad appeared to be a shiny, kindly ghost, a crinkling silhouette dancing in the alley. Raleigh smiled and nodded and glided forward. Everything was Easy now, and Easy was everything.
“Where do you get this stuff?” he asked.
“Oh baby!” said the Man from Glad, jigging away from him. “It just falls from Heaven.”
“It’ll come from somewhere,” he told himself. “Money’s like Easy; yeah, it’ll come from somewhere. From Heaven. Don’t worry, Raleigh. You’ll have a room again real soon. You’ll have some clothes and some things of your own. . . . But for now, you’ve got to travel light, right?”
As he zipped up his knapsack, he heard muttering outside in the dark. He took a last look out the window of the hotel. Down in the dark corner of the rooftop, there was a huddle of shapes. It was nearly midnight. When had they climbed up there?
A black shadow pulled away from the group and went crawling toward the dim-lit, featureless billboard. He heard wild laughter, then whispers. Someone darted after the fugitive, but they were too slow, too clumsy.
The person in flight made it onto the lower edge of the billboard and hauled himself out onto the narrow catwalk where the sign painters worked. It was his laughter Raleigh heard. He scrabbled along the gray face of the board, a disjointed silhouette. For a moment he passed through the one beam of light that still shone on the blank sign, then he crept beyond.
High on Easy, Raleigh thought.
The others kept to the shadows, giving up pursuit.
At the far edge of the billboard, the man simply disappeared. It was a three-story drop. He couldn’t have gone anywhere else.
Raleigh backed away from the window, watching not the shadows, not the far edge of the catwalk, but that diffuse white region where the single bulb lit the billboard.
There was a broad red streak across it, as if the man had slapped the sign with a fat, wet paintbrush as he struggled past.
“Oh God,” Raleigh said. “I’m out of here.”
The doctor at St. Anthony’s took his temperature, changed the bandages around his ribs, and gave him the usual packet of aspirin. “Get some rest,” was his only advice.
“Yeah, right,” Raleigh said. “You got a spare bed here?”
“I’m sorry, we’re full,” the doctor said. “We have permanent tenants now. Used to be on a first-come basis, but that’s all changed.”
“How about the soup kitchen?”
The doctor shook his head. “We don’t do that anymore.”
Raleigh rubbed his belly. “Just like that?”
No wonder the people in the street looked so much sicker this year. If they hadn’t been so thin and weak, their desperation might have made them dangerous. As it was, they stirred few emotions but pity.
He passed the Public Library, once a daytime haven for vagrants. Now you weren’t permitted to browse or read there unless you showed a library card. And to get a library card, you needed an address. Raleigh had never used the library when he had a place to live. Pete’s shop had provided all the reading material he needed.
As he stumbled up Larkin, he became aware of the well-dressed men and women hurrying to and from the Federal Building, City Hall, and the Opera Plaza. They moved to avoid him, kept their eyes fixed on the sky, as if enjoying the thin, angular allotment of blue with all their hearts. What Raleigh saw was a chicken bone with every last bit of gristle gnawed from the knobs; a coffee cup swimming with thin liquid and cigarette butts, too disgusting to consider; a crumpled paper bag that he would have searched for remnants, if he hadn’t seen another bum toss it down ahead of him. The trash bin had been scattered over the sidewalk by lunchtime foragers.
There was no end to hunger. It was his constant companion. He thought back with nostalgic regret to the rancid pork bao he had thrown to the cars. Panhandling, he was lucky to raise fifty cents a day, which was less than half what he would have needed for one of the sticky things. He wasn’t yet sickly or ugly enough to summon instant pity from strangers, despite the bandages that he wore for show, now that his injuries had healed.
He saw a young man coming, mirrored glasses, preppy haircut, sport coat and valise. Pretending not to see him, Raleigh thought. He’s my age.
“Got a quarter, mister?”
The guy did a little sidestep. “I wouldn’t give you the sweat off my ass.”
If only he could have been slightly more pathetic. It would have made life much simpler.
The only simple thing about his existence was Easy.
It was always there if he wanted it, whether he needed it or not. Little gray bags from Heaven.
He was afraid of it, though. He took it sparingly when it was offered, and never asked for a second hit. He was afraid it would make him completely indifferent to the street. You could buy it if you wanted to, if you were, say, a hip young dude from the Sunset looking for kicks; but to someone on the street, it was free. He couldn’t find out where it came from. Heaven seemed like the logical source. It did give some comfort to those without food or shelter. But he wasn’t yet ready to accept a numbness that profound, an obliteration so complete.
“Taking the Easy way out,” was what they called it, when he overheard them talking. Most of the street people avoided him, sensing that he had not accepted them as companions. He wasn’t ready to give up—not yet. He still looked up at the windows in the tall buildings, imagined the warm rooms behind them, and planned ways of returning. He just needed to get back on his feet; and to do that, he needed to get a little stronger; and to do that, God damn it, he needed to eat.
He stood in the park across the street from Pete’s shop, and stared at the window half the day, thinking of ways to get in and escape with the cashbox.
Darkness came down. The crowd in the park ebbed and flowed. Matches flared; cigarettes were shared; gray powder poured and was wasted on the wind.
He listened to their talk, but kept to himself, watching Pete lock up and skulk down the avenue through the cold wind and fog, sunk down in his high collar, beret sliding gutterward.
“Fresh batch of Easy,” someone was saying.
“Yeah, where’d this one come from?”
“Shit, man, a box of the stuff sitting in an alley, same as usual. Plenty for everybody. Man from Glad found it first—he’s got a nose for the stuff. You know what I think? I think there’s some fat dude sitting up in one of those towers, mixing it up with government money—”
“That’s where my VA loan went, man!”
“—and handing it out free to all us sick fucks, so that we’ll be happy to stay where we are, and never climb up so high that we can spoil his day. Some kid, prob’ly. Spoiled brat. The higher he gets, the less he has to look at us.”
Raleigh thought of the guy in the dark glasses, skittering past him.
“Yeah? I’d like to get to that guy’s penthouse.”
“You? They wouldn’t let you in the fucking freight elevator. You better forget it and be grateful he thinks enough of you to give you free Easy.”
“Aw, man, stop talking about it and spoon it out.”
Knives in Raleigh’s gut prodded him to his feet. He grabbed onto a lamppost and wondered how long he would have to wait before things settled down enough to let him take a shot at the window. He could smash that glass door, run back into the office, grab the cashbox, and be out of there in thirty seconds.
But it would be the last thing he ever did of his own free will.
He could see all too clearly how such a move would screw him up completely and forever. The cops would catch him with the hamburger halfway in his mouth, then he could forget about ever getting back on his feet.
Raleigh clenched his stomach and huddled over, gritting his teeth. He could almost feel the rock in his hand, the one he would use to smash the glass. He could more readily imagine the cold manacles the cops would clap on his wrists.
I’ll never do it, he thought. I’ll starve first.
After a while he realized that there was a hand on his shoulder. When he felt it there, and knew it for what it was—the hand of an unknown friend, a sympathetic stranger—he started to sob.
A raspy voice said, “What’s the matter, hon?”
Was that a woman’s voice?
He looked up into a face he had seen once before. A face with wide, loose lips; sagging, black-circled eyes; a face with skin the color of Easy.
“I know what your problem is,” she said. “Come on, can you get up? Why don’t you come with me?”
She took him by the arm and pulled him up. He should have been the one helping her to rise, because she had only one leg.
“You’re a new one,” she said. “But I’ve seen you somewhere before, haven’t I?”
He clung to the lamppost.
“You want some Easy?” she asked.
He couldn’t speak; he shook his head.
“You want company?”
“Why don’t you leave me alone?” he shouted. “I’m not like you! Not like any of you, you understand? I’m not gonna get stuck here, numbed out of my skull, helpless and paralyzed. . . .”
“Right on, brother,” someone said. “But how do you plan to get out?”
He realized that many of the faces in the park were staring at him. Conversations had broken off; cigarette tips hung unmoving in the dark.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
“On your own?” asked the one-legged woman.
He drew away from her and spat the worst thing he could think of: “Fucking mutants.”
“That ain’t true,” she said, some vague hurt in her eyes. “We’re people. We take care of our own. And we’ll help you—”
“I’m not one of your own,” he said, “and I never will be.”
“That’s fine, hon. But how are you gonna make it through the night?”
He glanced down at her leg and felt the pain of her loss. It was all mixed up with his own regret.
“I’m sorry,” he said, breaking down now. “Christ, I’m sorry. I can’t handle this. I’m the mutant. I’m the one who can’t adjust. Stupid of me. . . .”
He swung around the lamppost, staggering as if he were drunk—although he was merely weak—and strode toward the far, dark side of the park. He crossed the alley and went into the deepest shadows, where he was sure they couldn’t see him. And there he stopped. For all his denial, he was afraid to leave them. He was not one of them, but he was close enough.
He sank down, trying to ignore the burning hollow in his stomach, fending off the sparks that threatened to consume his vision. He felt himself deteriorating, breaking down into more isolated, desperate pieces. He tore at his fingernails. He forgot where he was.
Later—much later, it must have been—the sound of crying woke him. It was darker than before; the corner markets were shut down; the streets were deserted. He listened to the weeping for nearly a minute, then discovered that it came from himself.
Others had heard the sound. Shadows moved around him, blocking out the few streetlights that hadn’t been shattered or burned out. Shapes closed in, moving awkwardly, some of them hopping.
Terror took hold of him. He had called them mutants, insulted them, told them how he despised them. He thought of bloody bandages in the hedge.
My God, he thought. They’re going to show me. They’re going to make me one of them.
He backed up against the wall. One of the shadows put its hand over his mouth before he could scream. Two of them dragged him down the alley, to where it was even darker.
He struggled, but they knew just how to hold him.
Someone lit a match, back in the recess of the alleyway, and what he saw in that instant surpassed his ability to respond. He did not even try to scream. The asphalt was stained with blood; wads of clotted brown cloth were piled in the corners, stuffed down storm gratings; someone was holding a knife under a stream of alcohol. Bands of surgical rubber lay coiled like worms on the stains. The match went out, but they lit another, touched it to the knife. The blade glowed blue as neon, shining in the eyes of those around him.
“We know what you need,” said the rasping voice of the one-legged woman. “We’ve all felt the same thing. We understand.”
“No,” he mumbled, under the fleshy palm. “Please don’t do it.”
“Sometimes to get what you want, you gotta give something up. You make a sacrifice, and in return. . . .”
The blade flickered and went out, but not before someone touched it to a candle. The tiny flame gradually grew, filling the cul-de-sac with a thin radiance. A skinny, aging man sat in the farthest corner, staring up at them. Raleigh had never seen him before. The knife was in his hands.
“Please,” Raleigh pleaded. “Why don’t you let me go? I’ll find the people who crushed you, the people who hooked you on Easy, the fucking overlords. I’ll make it somehow; I won’t forget you, I swear. I just need—I just need—”
“You need us,” said the woman.
The man with the knife said, “Easy.”
Someone took out a crackling gray plastic bag.
“You need strength.”
Raleigh didn’t try to move. He knew they wouldn’t let him. But he shook his head, and used his most reasonable tone of voice.
“I don’t want it,” he said. “I don’t need it.”
“Don’t worry,” said the woman with the raspy voice. “It isn’t for you.”
The man set the knife in his lap, opened the bag under his nose, and inhaled deeply. He sniffed again and again, then began to lick the insides of the bag until every grain of the stuff had been consumed. He slumped back against the wall, grinning, his eyes rolling up into his head.
Another man dropped down next to him and took the knife. He slit the seam of the ragged trousers and ripped away the cloth.
Raleigh put his hand to his mouth. With a length of surgical tubing, they began to tie off the man’s leg, just above the knee.
He gagged, turned away. They held him more gently now.
“There, there. Do you see? There’s no need to be afraid. Do you want some Easy?’
He gasped for air, shaking his head, but someone shoved a bag against his face, and he couldn’t help breathing it.
“Every now and then, someone comes along, someone young like you, someone with promise,” said the woman. “We don’t mind making the sacrifice. Our strength will become your strength. But everything we give to you, you’ll eventually pay back.”
He felt numbness, acceptance, a sense of purpose. He would never forget these people. He would do everything in his power to help them. Yes, he would make it out of here. He would find the monsters, the mutants, who drove these human beings down into the cracks of the earth, and he would destroy them. The strength to do all this was about to come into him.
“It’s not so bad is it?” said the woman. “The Easy, I mean? We won’t give you much. Wouldn’t want to get you hooked. But believe me, it’ll help you keep down your supper.”
* * *
“Uneasy Street” copyright 1989 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 1989.
Like several young SF writers who lived in San Francisco, I worked for a time at Fantasy Etc., a specialty bookshop in the sleazy heart of the Tenderloin. The fantasy in this case referred to science fiction and fantasy, rather than the pornographic fantasies suggested in this story inspired by my stint in the area. The shop was situated midway between Fritz Leiber‘s apartment and the notorious Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater, where Leiber set a scene in his Tenderloin novella, “Horrible Imaginings,” spiritual sequel to his masterpiece, Our Lady of Darkness. The area held endless fascinations for me, inextricably bound with its literary associations, of which working in a bookstore was the most mundane. Although I no longer worked at Fantasy Etc. when Dad’s Nuke was published, I did hold a small signing party there, and was honored beyond belief when Fritz himself showed up to buy and have me sign a copy.