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Boylston Street coming out of the Fenway runs for twelve blocks through Boston as straight as a sumo wrestler on the way to a buffet table before intersecting with Tremont, which in turn does a little improvisational dance into the rat maze that constitutes the Financial District—a place the sun never seems to shine below the twentieth floor.
There are eleven sets of traffic lights from one end of Boylston to where it hits Tremont, seven bus stops, forty-nine fire hydrants, and two mammoth potholes known to swallow small Hondas whole. There are no stop signs.
A leisurely drive down Boylston just taking in the sights—the granite mistake of the Prudential Center, Boston Public Library, Copley Square, Trinity Church and its Gothic reflection in the slate blue glass of the John Hancock Tower, a corner of the Public Garden blooming behind the cast-iron fence—would take about seven minutes, providing you didn’t catch every red light along the way.
I know these and other meaningless facts about Boylston Street because it’s a road I’ve traveled often, way more times than I care to remember, and in just about every condition imaginable, Boylston and just about every other strip of pavement masquerading as a street in this historic landfill. I get paid to travel them, you see. I deliver things. Pick things up. I’m a bicycle messenger. Hell on wheels. A pedestrian’s worst nightmare.
On a social scale, that makes me right about even with the gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe. Maybe even the stuff stuck to the bottom of the gum. But I like it. There are even times I like it because of it. Sometimes I think it’s a lot easier being the gum than the shoe. The life might be shorter, but it’s full of flavor while it lasts.
To make up for my occasional bouts with a lack of professional self-esteem, I like to think of myself as Boston’s lowest paid professional athlete. Though admittedly, I’d be hard-pressed to qualify, considering I’ve yet to submit to drug testing, be sued for paternity, or get stopped on the street for an autograph or handshake. And that’s despite the fact my outfits are tighter than Tom Brady’s game-day uniform and sometimes twice as flashy. I often contemplate hiring an agent. Just about every one of my ex-girlfriends—and there are plenty of those—thinks maybe I should get a real job.
But at this point such drastic measures are out of the question. I get enough of the ball-and-chain nine-to-five during my forays inside the endless cubicle cities and office cells. It’s as close to real as I want to get. I decided a long time ago I needed a longer leash.
So I ride the streets. And the sidewalks. And the occasional lobby if it comes to that—caffeine fueled, adrenaline hyped, my stripped-down silver Fat Chance oiled and tuned to the bone. Almost out of habit it seems. No road too rough, no curb too high, no hangover too debilitating; on most days I never give much thought to what I’m doing or the streets flashing beneath my wheels.
Only this morning is different. This morning I have the time to think about where I am, which happens to be Boylston Street, long, wide, and one-way only. Because this morning in early June, sunny and bright, the birds singing like they’ve been paid in advance, Boylston Street is as backed up as John Goodman’s arteries. Backed up solid. Plugged. Bumper to bumper and heading nowhere fast.
And I seem to be the cause of it. Because this morning I’m lying in the middle of Boylston at the intersection of Arlington, bleeding like I never knew I could. Like a river. Like a pro. Lots and lots of blood coming out from somewhere on my head, my face, my hip, and my leg, blood coming out red, warm, and sticky like someone turned on the faucet and left it running.
And all of a sudden, I’m not having such a swell day.
I blame it on the coffee. It was weak and old, the color of soaking rust, the filter a less than clean dish towel that had been lying around looking for a purposeful existence.
I gave it one.
I lined it inside my weary Melitta, poured in the suspect grounds, added water, and hoped for the best. I was the MacGyver of coffee. I searched the fridge for half-and-half but came up empty and emptier. A poke through cabinets and shelves turned up mass quantities of organic poverty: brown rice, tea bags, peanut butter, and ramen noodles, but no cream or anything remotely like it. This was real life. In real life there’s no such thing as improvising cream.
So I drank it brown. It packed a wallop like Tinker Bell with twelve-ounce gloves and tasted just about how it looked, maybe a little too much like what the dish towel had wiped up a month earlier. I was halfway through a second cup when my Motorola started barking static on the strap of the bag hanging by the front door of the industrial South End loft I share with two roommates.
I ignored it and one-eyed the kitchen’s apocalyptic mess: the sink piled high with plates and mismatched glasses, food and cigarette butts hardening onto their surfaces like glazed ceramic as the faucet plip-plopped cold water torture, drilling a hole through my pounding head. I knew better at that point than to try and fix it.
The faucet, I mean.
Our hot- and cold-water knobs are a distant memory, replaced by a pair of mismatched wrenches, which stick out at forty-five-degree angles and bleed toxic rust-orange streaks into the sink; to turn the water on, you have to tighten the grips on the wrenches and rotate them counterclockwise without skinning your knuckles on the wall. Hot water is hit or miss. The water heater, roughly three feet to the left of the sink and visible under the stairs, wears a sweater of pink insulation and an enormous black brassiere. We named her Joan. She’s haughty and fickle and doles out hot water like UN rations, though a swift kick sometimes prods her into action. But for the most part, we wash in digit-numbing cold water, which might explain why our household tends to catch colds at the same time.
I cleared some room at the table, toppling empty Heineken bottles stripped naked, their labels having joined a hundred other brands in the alcoholic collage that wallpapers half the kitchen and speaks volumes about our overindulgences and lack of brand loyalty. Beer is good, our décor says. You bring it, we’ll drink it.
That goes double for wine—preferably red—with each bottle on the table bearing some mark of a pornographic alteration, crude figurines hand-carved into the amber glass with the sharp edge of a key.
My roommate Nicolette, a legit six feet, hard and lean from working as a welder and set designer, gets fairly creative when she drinks red wine, which is to say, often. When Nicolette isn’t working steadily, she’s prone to violent mood swings that come crashing through the loft in waves of activity masking despair.
Luckily, that activity often comes in the form of hastily thrown dinner parties, as was the case last night. Nicolette can be a handful, but the girl can cook, and on the cheap, too, which is no small thing in our little collective. Our other roommate, David, actually has something approaching a real job, in the sense that he gets up the same time most mornings, goes somewhere, and gets paid every two weeks (I’ve seen the checks). What exactly he does to earn those shekels is beyond me, except I know it’s highly technical and based on the fact he’s relentlessly cheerful, his life goal of achieving world domination through the production and dissemination of earsplitting techno beats must be progressing smoothly. David is short, hairy, and bespectacled; dresses like a ninja down to his polished eight-lace Doc Martens; and is one of the smartest, nicest, and funniest people I have ever known.
Last night, Nicolette threw together black beans with boiled dandelion greens she’d uprooted from the fenced-in alley that separates our block-long former factory building from the hardscrabble ball field behind us. The greens could be considered organic, I suppose, only the neighborhood drug addicts tend to urinate on them—the methadone clinic at Boston City is a zombie stroll away, and the Pine Street Inn, Boston’s largest homeless shelter, is within sight of our front windows, our very own gloom with a view.
To the greens Nicolette added some unidentified spices, chopped peppers, and tomatoes; wept bitter tears of an undetermined nature into a mountain of diced onions; and wrapped everything in pan-warmed tortillas sealed with a layer of burnt cheese.
The guests provided the booze, which in our household always amounts to fair trade. The playlist went a little something like this: Otis and Aretha, because we always start with some soul; Depeche Mode, Rage Against the Machine, Wu-Tang Clan, and Nirvana to take us through and home. At some point Nicolette dragged one of David’s goth-leaning friends into her bedroom and forced him to do unspeakable things while the rest of us listened and played Guess the Position. His black leather Misfits jacket was still draped over one of the chairs, his pockets turned inside out and empty. I don’t remember going to bed, but I know I went alone because that’s how I woke up, nursing a ringing headache, the cat staring at me with scorn.
When my Motorola came to life again, my name surrounded by anatomic-themed curses, I unclipped it from my bag and pressed the side button.
“Argh,” I said into it.
“Let me guess.” It was Martha, my dispatcher, as always gnawing on something loudly. Martha’s thin as a rail and has a mouth like the electrified third, and as far as I can tell, chewing is the only exercise she ever gets. “Red wine, rock and roll, and a whole lot of stick-it-to-the-man, fight-the-power bullshit.”
“Argh,” I said.
“I thought so.” Chew. “You got a pickup at Black Hole Vinyl. ASAP.”
“Martha.” I rubbed my temples uselessly with one hand. “It’s not even eight o’clock yet. Can you please not speak to me in acronyms?”
“Okey-dokey.” Chew. “Black Hole Vinyl. Get your ass in gear. How’s that?”
“Better. Isn’t Black Hole Gus’s account?”
“You can’t reach him?”
“Nope. Please tell me your slut of a roommate didn’t snatch him up again.”
“Snatch?” I said. “As in pussy?”
“Nooo.” Chew. “Snatch, as in you’re a pig. Is Gus there or not?”
“Not. Nicolette tapped someone else last night.”
“Poor thing,” Martha drawled, but I wasn’t sure whether she meant Nicolette or Misfit. “You know where they’re at?”
“Central Square, right?”
“Not anymore. Thirty-eight Newbury Street, sixth floor.”
“Wow, movin’ on up,” I said, starting in on the theme song to The Jeffersons. “To the apart-ment in the sky-I-I…”
Martha chewed through my rendition, unimpressed. “You want it?” she said when I’d finished.
“I want it,” I replied.
“You awake yet?”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Just checking,” she said, swallowed, and faded to static.
I let the drain choke on what was left in my cup.
Copyright © 2017 by Adam Abramowitz