Scout liked the needle. He liked it almost as much as the high, The tidy way the needle slipped beneath the skin, took its discrete bite, then the thread of pure amazement feeding into you. He liked the precision of it. "What does it feel like?" Annie asked him, back when she still wanted to know such things, when there was still a horrid glamour to it all. "Like something grows inside you," said Scout. "All at once, like a Jack-in-the-beanstalk vine, leaves and stems and purple curling flowers, and it fills you up to your fingers and toes. It's like your head is an organ, and someone plays a chord."
But that was a long time ago, in the good part of the bad old days, and Annie's through with pretty words for ugly things. She doesn't want anything in her life that has to be tricked out in poetry, explained away. She's walking on a beach in Oregon, watching the sun go down. There's a thin watery layer of clouds that diffuses the pink-orange light, spreads it as evenly as butter from one end of the sky to the other. The beach is broad white sand, also smooth enough to reflect light, so that Annie walks in glory without having to think of names for it.
There are other people out on this fine evening, strolling along the soapy edge of the advancing tide, or grilling hot dogs over driftwood fires, and here is a young man exercising his cockatiel. He runs along the sand waving a towel, with the cockatiel flapping behind him. Annie's seen him a few times; they greet each other. "Birdie surfing," the youngman calls it. The bird is perfectly tame and won't fly off, but he has to keep an eye out for seagulls. Seagulls are worrisome. This is what Annie wants her life to be now: a procession of ordinary delights.
There's a cliff marking the edge of the beach, with stairs at intervals, and on this cliff edge the town is built up thickly. There are motels and restaurants and houses on minute lots, all of them shouldering each other for space, all of them built of the same weathered cedar or painted pine. The town has strict building codes, aimed at controlling development and preserving a casual beach shack ambiance. The motels all have names like the Gray Whale and the Cove. The shopping district has stores devoted to pottery, seascapes, woven ponchos, hammered brass jewelry, and the like. You can buy jams and honey, locally produced and put up in gold-labeled jars. You can buy soapstone carvings of whales, bleached sand dollars, fudge, pizza by the slice, cookies, and ice-cream cones. There are rentals for roller skates and beach tricycles, and two kite shops. Scout has a job in a bookstore. Annie makes sandwiches in a deli. They've been here two months, just long enough to say tourist about other people.
The ocean is no certain color. Steel and slate, gray and blue, reflecting light like metal or lapping up perfectly clear at Annie's feet. It's always too cold to swim in, even now, in August, unless you're a little kid. Up the beach a couple of miles is a cove where people in black rubber wetsuits windsurf and kayak. Annie thinks it's something she might like to try sometime, one of those violent ocean sports, just because it would be so unlike her. She imagines herself encased in a sleek rubber skin, jaunty and exhausted, her hair a shipwreck of snarls, lungs efficiently exchanging [CO.sub.2] and oxygen.
Scout, of course, jeers at the whole idea. "Buy me a thrill," he says. "All that equipment. It's the MasterCard high." Annie knows the ocean scares him. It's too large and indifferent, he can't get his mind around it. He has to find a way of dismissing it. Annie allows him this because he needs something to despise, as a substitute for dignity.
The trip from Chicago is something Annie can uncover like a scar on her body when she wants to remind herself that she can do anything. She drove every mile of the way. Even at the end when Scout was well enough to sit up and look around him, she was the one who drove. Her shoulders, spine, and pelvis fused into one unit. She was a machine for driving. The car fed its energy into her, and she powered them on. Her fingertips drew in every mile of road. Her feet tickled. The road became her drug. Iowa was black night, and Nebraska sunrise. Headlights pricked out of the darkness, then just as suddenly extinguished themselves. They made Annie start, although she knew perfectly well this was paranoia, mental gymnastics, a trick she used to fuel them across the country on black wings. No one knew where they were. No one would know where they were ever again.
She muscled the accelerator down. In the back seat Scout, moaned and sweated. Annie bought him cartons of milk, milk shakes and jelly doughnutsthe only things he could eat. Even then he puked a couple of times, so the back of the car was full of wet sour paper. At gas stations Annie pulled Scout to his feet and made him use the bathroom. She waited under the banks of humming lights at convenience stores. The lights reflected ten thousand cellophane-wrapped surfaces with crazed precision. Rows and rows of hygenic, appalling food. Sugar highs, caffeine highs, preservative highs. It was a place where you might find yourself reasonably contemplating armed robbery, or dying. Annie thought, I could drive away right now. Somebody else will come along and take charge of him if he sits there long enough, the police, somebody, it won't matter, finally, who it is. But she waited until Scout appeared, looking if anything a little worse, smelling a little more, his junkie's breath, his poisoned sweat, his rash-bearing skin, all of him collapsing into nothingness and bad air. Annie opened the back seat door for him and they drove off.
Scout is twenty, Annie twenty-one. Scout is small, like a jointed puppet, an assemblage of stick arms and legs. So small that once, in high school, he found a Cub Scout uniform in the Goodwill bin, complete with neckerchief and hat, and it fit him. So did the name, which stuck. Scout has a mouse's face and little intelligent mouse eyes behind his wire-rimmed spectacles. Annie is half a head taller than Scout, but thin, and when they stand together they might be brother and sister, or at least members of the same brittle species.
Is Annie pretty? She doesn't think so, particularly. And she's not the kind of girl who gets told it very often. Sometimes, though, she leans close enough to the mirror to see, just out at the edge of her vision, not her reflection, but a kind of shadow cast by her face. She sees a landscape of pale and dark in the liquid shine of her eyes and the grain of her cheek, distorted, mysterious, beyond beauty. Like looking at the moon through a telescope, or an eggshell under a magnifying glass. When she pulls back from the mirror, it's only a face, common and clumsy, no cause for marveling or delight. One reason she loves Scout is that he doesn't notice or care about people's faces.
Back in Chicago, in the good part of the bad old days, they used to walk down to Belmont Harbor to look at the boats. It was always windy, or that's how Annie remembers it, windy gray or windy blue, wind ruffling the water, shivering the well-tended strips of grass, making them dig their hands in their pockets and hunch their shoulders. Scout said the lake was nothing, just a big cold bathtub. It couldn't take you anywhere. What was the point of a boat if it always came back to the same place? (He hadn't yet seen an ocean, hadn't had the chance to be disheartened by one.) The lake was small potatoes. A poisoned fishbowl, an industrial sink, They should reverse the plumbing and flush it all clean. They should blast a hole in the ass end of Superior. Like those crazy old explorers who tried to get to India by way of Duluth. Another crazy thing was ore barges. Tons and tons of rock, floating on water.
Annie let him talk, though she didn't agree with what he said: the lake was bottomless and shoreless and seemed fearsome enough to her. When Scout talked, she made small noises in her throat as a kind of acknowledgment, so she didn't have to pay close attention, or pretend one thing he said followed from another. Scout was the most intelligent person she knew, even when he said stupid things. Ideas kept coming out of him; everything he saw got turned into ideas. She was flattered that he talked to her. She knew Scout better than anyone else in the world did, because he talked to her so much. He imprinted himself on her, until his ideas took up space in her head and her own voice always seemed to be asking a hopeful, anxious question. In bed when he locked his body into hers, gulping air and crying out, tears came to her eyes. The tears had nothing to do with pleasure or pain, only the closeness, their two red hearts keeping exact time. She thought being in love was the most important thing she could ever do.
When Scout was high, he stopped talking. His thoughts were too slick and elegant, his ideas too big, like the slow turn of a planet on its axis. Annie wouldn't touch junk. Never. It scared her more than not doing it scared her. It was another thing without boundaries or measurable depths. When she felt herself wanting to do it, it was to keep from being lonely, and so Scout couldn't smile and tell her she didn't know anything: "Junk ain't no tea party, toots." Annie suspected he liked her not doing it. He wanted to have something he withheld from her, something too big and bad and sad for her.
Whenever she didn't want to do it, she felt guilty and dishonest. It meant a part of her was still not in love and wouldn't follow where he led. Because there is that about her. Something stubborn and mutinous and impatient, or perhaps merely practical, that makes her think Yes but when he talks. Something that will not love him without judging him. Just last week, walking on the Oregon beach, Annie found the clean bleached skull of a seagull. Wedged at the back of its throat was a tight metal spring, of the sort used in mousetraps. She thought the part of her that refused to be in love was like that spring, like the sounds she made in her throat instead of words. Something that wouldn't go up or down, just got caught in her.
The first time they walked out on the beach, they were timid, as if someone might shoo them away, smell the city or the fear on them and determine they had no right to be there. People were flying kites in the buoyant airwonderful kites, kites stacked on kites, ingenious flying cantilevers made of geometric Mylar shapes in neon and black and paint-box colors, trailing cellophane ribbons. There were kites that suggested bats or spaceships or dinosaurs, others that resembled nothing at all, only some idea of flight given whimsical form. Annie laughed out loud at them. The laugh sounded odd, squawking, as if she'd swallowed a bird that was now squeezing its way out. It embarrassed her. "Aren't they something," she said rapidly, to cover up. "I mean, there must be all these people who work day and night just thinking about ... kites."
She meant it was wonderful that people engrossed themselves in something so innocent. It seemed hopeful to her. She thought of all the kites that hadn't been invented yet, or even imagined. She thought that in this new life she might become a water conservation officer, or a mapmaker, or something just as blameless, just as absorbing.
Scout looked solemn and confused. He gaped up at the sky, then at the ocean. His hair was still damp from the shower, combed thinly across his skull, and he'd put on a clean shirt. Shabby, convalescent, scrubbed, he didn't belong there. You might as well take a pigeon out of its concrete roost. Annie didn't want to feel sorry for him; it would be one more weakness in him. "We could get us a kite," she said in a coaxing voice. "One of those big ones, with all the strings, like driving a team of horses."
Scout was still looking out at the ocean, as if he expected it to stop moving eventually. She touched his arm. "Scout?"
"Jesus," he said in a quiet, flattened voice. He rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand, then turned away, his eyes averted and noncommittal. Annie's heart sagged. He didn't like it, and she couldn't fix it for him, not a whole ocean.
But then he reached out and spun her by the shoulders. Annie squealed. The sand made them stagger crazily. The wind blew Annie's long hair into both their mouths. Scout whooped. "We'll get a big goddamn mutha kite. It'll eat all the other kites."
Annie wanted to say that wasn't the point of a kite, but she was out of breath from laughing. Then Scout loosed her and sprinted away. Dizzy, she squinted after him. The sky tilted into the ocean. Scout was running straight into the water, arms outstretched. Ankle-deep, knee-deep, with his pants legs songging and his shoes weighted down, legs pumping, getting nowhere, as if mere stubbornness could turn the ocean floor into a sidewalk. A green wave slid toward him and hit him waist-high. "Hey," called Annie. "Hey dummy." It was important that she be there for him to ignore.
Finally he waded out again. He was grinning. His fingernails were blue and pinched. "You're nuts," said Annie. He looked pleased with himself, perhaps because he'd alarmed her. He peeled out of his wet shirt and swung it around his head, like a stripper. "Glad you're feeling better," she said mildly, which was her way of reminding him where they'd come from, and why.
Annie stooped and dug up a sand dollar, the flat cracked portion of one. She was glad she had something she could use to ignore him back with. She wondered what the thing that lived inside looked like, and how it grew this pleasing cool flat shape. She liked the delicate fossil print, resembling a blossom, or a five-pointed star, or an outstretched hand. She supposed there was some biological reason for the pattern, but she preferred to think it was pure whimsy, like the stripes on a kite. She said, hefting it, "This is great. This place. Everything about it. The cops ride bicycles. They look like kids whose parents buy them fancy bikes."
Scout didn't answer. They were laboring back up the cliff. The sand slowed them. Scout's bare chest was covered with big knobby goosebumps. The glee had worn off and he was sullen and shivering and glum, as if someone else, probably her, was to blame for his being wet. Annie wanted him to say he liked it here. She wanted him to say anything at all. It wasn't fair that she had to keep doing and saying everything, waiting not to be ignored, calling him back from deep water.
When they reached the top, he brightened, as if he'd only wished to punish her for enjoying something on her own. "We did it, cupcake. We discovered the Pacific Ocean."
"What's with you?"
"Nothing." The only thing she could openly accuse him of was running into the ocean, and that didn't seem like a real grievance.
"You worry too much," Scout pronounced. It was what he always told her. They were the same people in a new place. It had been stupid to think anything else.
"Come on, lighten up." Scout's hand in hers was colder than cold. Kissing, she tasted the salt on him. It tasted like tears, only cold. She hugged him hard. His bones were shivering and electric. What was the difference between too much worry and too much love?
* * *
The needle always looked clean, no matter where it had been. Nothing could be cleaner than its thin bright nakedness, its silver eye, its spike. Scout let it fall to the floor. His eyes rolled back in his head like heavy silver pinballs. A piece of indifferent Chicago sky hung in the window. The room smelled of gas and sugar, a closed, wintertime smell. There was a color television and a beanbag chair and a sofa. The chair was dark orange tweed with black welting. Annie hated that chair. It was the single ugliest thing she knew. It absorbed every stink and puddle. It was an altar to ugliness. The needle lay in a fold of its orange hide.
"Scout," she said. A giggle slid out of him. The television was on, a tiny idiot noise, bathing the room in garish candy colors. When Scout's eyes opened again, the colors reflected off them. "Scout?"
After a while he turned toward her. His teeth were scallops of dim light. "Yaas," he said. "Speaking."
His eyes were sugar yellow. His mouth made an O, for OK, When his eyes closed again, Annie turned the television off. She sat and watched the piece of sky grow black. In the kitchen the gas stove burners were turned on for heat. She could hear the blue gas whispering. She heard the city noises, traffic and catastrophe, muffled by distance, like a lion's yawn. This was Annie's secret: she liked these times. Because it was just the two of them, and he couldn't get away. Because he couldn't say things with his needle tongue, and she could say anything she wished. "I love you." She said it small because there were already so many secrets filling up the room.
Scout said she worried too much. He only shot once in a moon. He could handle it. Yes but. The why of it kept itching her. Scout's real name is Edward. He grew up on the South Side, praying to the Polish saints. Their sweet faces were garlanded in roses and lit by candles in pink glass holders. It was the wrong kind of heaven for him, too grave and pastel, smelling too strongly of his mother's hand cream. He wanted more commotion and sweat. He liked alleys and brick dust and gravel and old paint cans; he liked streetlights and the politics of sidewalks. Heaven got turned upside down for him, as it does for a lot of people, and he was curious, bored, resentful. His father drove a bakery truck and the house was always full of stale or staling bread, sacks of butter cookies, doughnuts, coffee cakes dyed a staring yellow. Wasting food was a separate category of sin, involving thrift and ingratitude. Annie thinks Scout is always angry, or at least never very far from it. Like he's been cheated out of heaven and can't find anything important enough to take its place, and maybe that's what junk is. Junk lets you float right up there with those gilded antique saints and choirs of sugar angels, high and mighty. Junk turns all their fussy ribbons and their cotton-puff clouds into grandeur; junk is God. By the end, though, Annie doesn't think Scout's reasons are any smarter than any other junkie's. By the end it's no longer a matter of reasons.
In Oregon they live in a cottage, which is another way of saying converted garage, closer to the highway than the beach. It's a part of town that's home to the waitresses and grill cooks and garbage haulers, everyone making a summer living off the beach. The cottage is paneled in dark uneven boards. Moss grows at the base of the foundation slab. Ferns surround the garbage can. There's a matchbox kitchen, a loft for sleeping, and a shower stall with snails. Their jobs are simple and undemanding, time in exchange for money. On free afternoons they go to the Laundromat and the grocery, like ordinary people. Scout brings home serious books by dead and living philosophers, inquires into the nature of consciousness, or of politics. Annie brings home the ends of turkey rolls, avocados, and slices of cheesecake. They become friends with one of their neighbors, Phil, who delivers soft drinks to vending machines. Phil supplies them with Nehis and Dr. Peppers, and some evenings the three of them set chairs outside the front door and drink beer together.
"Say you like it here." Scout and Annie are in bed, and rain drills against the cottage walls. They are surrounded by water, like a ship at sea. Annie puts a finger in the corner of Scout's mouth to pry the words out. "Say it."
"Don't like all the rain. Being snail meat."
"You like the bookstore."
"I love selling cat cartoons to grandmas."
"Sco-ut." Annie sighs, a cinematic, exasperated sigh. She waits for one of them to get serious. After a minute Scout says, "You want me to say I like being straight."
They listen to the rain, its multitude of voices. "Well, do you?"
Scout's ribs expand and sink. Annie feels his breath in her hair. "I miss it sometimes. I miss the bigness of it. You know?"
Annie nods. Sometimes she misses her own holy pain. Saint Annie of the Spike. Our Lady of Dolors. The one thing she could always count on was that righteous misery. Who is she now? Somebody sadder but less miserable.
"I'm white bread," Scout says into her hair. "I floss my teeth. I watch Wheel of Fortune. I'm boring."
"So is dead boring."
"You want me to say you saved my life. You think like that, don't you? Like an old-time movie."
She doesn't answer because he's right, he can always see through her. Scout goes on in a kindly, mocking voice, "Sure I like it here. I'll like anything you say. After all, you saved my life."
They are silent but the rain keeps talking, subtle and persistent, bubbling up from underneath, invading the house with fronds and jellied creatures, filling their dreams with water-words: secrets, secrets, sleep.
In the bad part of the bad old days the phone rang and rang. Annie said, Hello, hello? The phone was black and dense and listening. The ghost calls only came when Scout wasn't home. They scared her, and she got so she wouldn't answer at all, just cried and let the phone ring. The television was broken. Annie cried over that too, as if it were a pet. She thought it might be Scout on the phone, checking up on her. He was calling from junk heaven to tell her what it was like, saying ecstatic things in a frequency just out of her hearing.
Or maybe the caller wasn't Scout at all, but someone he owed money to or had stolen from, someone he'd brought around. The people Scout brought around were not friends. They were all involved in commerce and betrayal. They had faces like the dulled blades of knives. One day Scout brought home a man named Ace. Ace sat with his hands between his knees, picking at his fingernails, tapping his feet and grinning. "Ace has a car," said Scout. "We could go for a ride."
"Where to?" asked Annie. They didn't do things like go for rides.
"Anywhere. Or just you and Ace could go."
Ace kept grinning his grin. He could have been any age from thirty to fifty. Junkies all looked the same to Annie, like old newspapers. Ace glanced at Scout and wiggled his eyebrows. "Hell of a ride," he said.
Scout was edgy, keyed-up. "Come on," he said to Annie.
"Go yourself, if you're so excited about it." Annie got up and went into the bathroom and shut the door. She wanted to stay in there until Ace left. She didn't like him. He had a smell to him, a chicken-bone smell.
Scout opened the bathroom door. "Do you mind," Annie said, but he wasn't paying attention to things like that. Scout's lips had a dark cracked rim around their inner surface, like someone with a fever. He said, "You got to help me."
Annie looked around the bathroom, thinking he meant something right in front of them, aspirin or a towel. "What do you need?"
"Help me with him."
"Help you what?" said Annie, but Scout just stood there, impatient, persistent, sly, like he was waiting for her to get an especially good joke. Then everything in front of her eyes changed, as if the light had cracked along with her comprehension, and she could not distinguish between the water running from the tap and the rust stain it followed like a river in its bed. "No," she said, then she screamed it, striking out at him.
Scout caught her hands in his. "Listen, I'm into him," he said, as if he had merely explained things badly. "I'm way into him. See?"
She screamed again and looked for things to throw. He backed out the door and she kicked it shut after him. "Jesus, this is important," he shouted. "Am I getting through to you? Huh?"
"I have the scissors in here," she announced, and waited. After a while she heard their feet receding down the stairs.
The phone rang. Annie opened the bathroom door and watched it ring. When it stopped, she went into the bedroom and found a duffel bag and a backpack. She filled them with her things. She put a loaf of bread and three 7-Ups in a paper bag, thinking she must be forgetting something. She'd stopped crying by this time. All those tears. There were rust streaks beneath her eyes.