More Sideways Than Up, by Sheldon Lee Compton

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.

pancakegraveShel­don 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.

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One Response to More Sideways Than Up, by Sheldon Lee Compton

  1. Pingback: “More Sideways Than Up” published today at Fried Chicken and Coffee | SHELDON LEE COMPTON

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