Monday, March 2, 2009

Costly Convenience

At breakfast with friends recently, the conversation turned--as it often does--to addiction and its toll. One young woman, speaking of her brother, told us he was an addiction looking for a substance. That made a lot of sense. Many have a tendency to think of addiction as a moral shortcoming focused on a particular evil: alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex and pornography... Those of us most intimately acquainted with the subject know different; addictions are shifty things: once one is defeated, another arises to take its place, and the common ground of those who recover is an attitude of constant vigilance.

Which brings up one of my favorite subjects: convenience stores.

Back in the days when I was a substance abuse counselor at a local hospital, I'd always stop for coffee at a Seven Eleven on my way to work. One day it struck me that these uber-American institutions and others of their type that sell everything from scented condoms to soda crackers, were really an addict's heaven.

Think of it. Under one roof, you'll find alcohol, over-the-counter-drugs (including my personal favorites, Robitussin and Listerine), caffeine and nicotine, sugar-laden snacks, nutritionally worthless foods, porno magazines, lottery coupons and other gambling incentives, and of course ATM machines for quick infusions of cash. Most establishments are open 24-7, though in some states you cannot buy alcohol before eight in the morning.

In other words, convenience stores are designed for people who do not like to plan ahead, who are reactive, opportunistic and impulsive. Does that describe your run-of-the-mill addict?

This is not to denigrate the usefulness of such places; for normal folks, convenience stores are lifesavers, but it does serve well to illustrate that what is one man's convenience is another's folly.

Think of that the next time you're craving a Slurpee.

Here's installment 70 of Wasted Miracles.

He retrieved the stick, walked down the stairs to the basement. It was dark but his eyes saw with amazing clarity. He cracked open the first door he came to. It was a bathroom, still steamy from someone taking a shower. A second door opened onto a remarkably neat study housing a computer screen with the omnipresent Windows flying toasters screensaver, a stereo glowing softly, books on shelves, a La-Z-Boy chair, a potted palm. The room smelled faintly of sandalwood incense. A third door across the hallway was ajar. Colin crept in.
Even in the dark he could see long blond hair splayed out. The room smelled like a dentist’s office. There was no mistaking her. She was frowning, knees close against her chest, hands balled into fists. She was bone thin, the skin on the back of her hands almost translucent. From where he stood Colin couldn’t see whether she was breathing or not and for a moment he panicked. Then she moaned and a bubble of saliva grew at one corner of her lips.
He shook her and she made a gurgling sound deep in her throat. She moved her legs slightly and the smell of dry urine wafted up to his face. She turned to her side, muttered something he couldn’t begin to comprehend, drew a small fist to her mouth.
Upstairs there were two sharp popping sounds. Colin held his breath, then lifted Josie up and slung her across one shoulder. She was remarkably light. The smell of urine grew stronger. Nightstick still in hand, he took the stairs two at a time and came face to face with Howard. The man was holding the back of his head with one hand, a large handgun with the other.
Colin swung the nightstick in a long arc that connected with a thud on Howard’s temple. The gun went off with an extraordinarily loud sound. Howard fell to his knees, then on his face. Josie yelped, twitched, struggled without strength. Colin held her tighter, struck out wildly at Howard again, missed. He kicked the handgun down the stairs, saw the black man trying to lift himself up, struck again, this time on target. The stick seemed to sing in his hand. Suddenly he felt himself engulfed from behind in a bearhug, heard Mamadou shouting, “Let’s go, Colin! Now!”
From a corner upstairs window, Comfort opened the curtain less than an inch to watch the car watching the house. He didn’t know who the three men were but doubted their presence meant anything good. In the dim light he could see that two were white and one was black, but that, in and of itself, didn’t mean much. Everyone was in the drug trade, color had little to do with it. Because they were in the trade, that was obvious. Who else would be surveying the place? They weren’t law enforcement, the car was wrong, the method of surveillance too obvious. Their very presence implied something bad on the verge of happening.
Comfort decided it was time to act when he saw the first man leave the car and vanish from sight, only to reappear moments later. He had no intention of confronting the strangers, this was not a good time to get shot at, not a good time to have one’s life plans altered by chance circumstance. In days--weeks at most--if things went right (and there was no reason to think they shouldn’t) Comfort
would be on his way home.
He was just opening the back door of the house when he heard two shots. The sound was unmistakable. He fell to the floor, reached up to push the door open, scuttled like a crab into the small backyard. There were no decent hiding places there so he crawled to the side fence and tried to become one with the shadows. He saw one of the intruders standing guard not fifteen feet away. The man, a white, had his gun drawn and seemed unsure of where he should be or where he should go. Comfort saw all this in a split second, hoped to stay unnoticed exactly where he was. When the man turned towards him he realized this was no longer an option.
When Joe the Cop heard the gunshots, he whipped his pistol out of its holster and, that defiant act realized, remembered the cellular phone. He took it out of his pocket, fumbled with it in the dark.
It had been years since Joe had drawn his sidearm. The weapon had no familiarity, felt foreign in his hand, an unwanted and useless appendage that would probably malfunction. Joe couldn’t remember the last time he’d shot the gun or cleaned it.
He turned to get his bearings, flicked the safety off, a sharp metal sound that filled the night. The shadows loomed large in the small space and he thought he saw something there, a shape that maybe had a head, maybe didn’t. He took a step closer to get a better look and the shape levitated from the ground, became a man that hit him in the face, the throat, the groin. It was like being attacked by a hydra. Joe reeled back, yelled, felt a sharp pain in his wrist, dropped the gun, dropped the phone. With his good hand he managed to grab a shirt collar and pull down. The fabric ripped, gave way. Joe swung wildly where he thought his attacker’s face might be, connected with something fleshy and satisfying.

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