I was jonesing. The fluorescent lights buzzed in my ears, humming their song, and I couldn’t hear anything else. Just the buzz of want. The whir of need. Gotta have it. Gotta get it now.
“So, like, how much?” The red-haired girl before me asked.
I blinked my focus back to Red Head and tried to shut out everything else. “It’s $2.50 per DVD, so that’s $7.50,” I said, but I was staring at Nose Ring — fourth in line behind Bro — dreaming she’d let me tongue the crust from her stud. Girls like that don’t go for guys like me. I’m not bad looking, but as soon as she finds out about me, she’s gone, gone, gone. Girls like Nose Ring don’t care. Girls like Nose Ring can have any guy.
I looked down at Red Head’s movies: Valentine’s Day, The Object of my Affection, When Harry Met Sally (for the third time this month). I saw all three of those movies with Sandy. They were OK. Sandy loved romantic comedies. I liked the way she got soft and cuddly when I brought them home. “And might I add,” I said, “what fine selections you’ve made this evening.”
Sometimes I butter up the lonely girls. Make ‘em feel good about spending another Friday night alone. I’d feel bad if they went home and blew their brains out while watching Meg Ryan fake an orgasm. I get those pictures stuck in my head sometimes. Ever since Sandy. It shouldn’t go down like that. Of course with Sandy it was a different kind of blowing her brains out than Red Head might have in mind.
By the time Red Head got her wallet out, Kelly was already helping Raisin Face. I took my time, pretended I was having trouble with the register. Kelly would end up helping Bro, and I’d get Nose Ring. I made bad change, so I’d have to correct it. Kelly glared at me. Kelly always glares. She’s an anti.
There are two types of people in this world: antis and eaters. Most of the world is antis. You’re probably an anti. Your mom’s an anti. Your mom told you not to. Your mom is the original anti. Red Head in line now…she’s an anti. And Raisin Face…she’s an anti. And Bro behind her. I’d be getting a dig on right now if there weren’t a line of antis out the door.
I’m an eater. I just can’t help myself.
Bro stepped up to Kelly’s register with his DVD of The Expendables 2. He didn’t even look at me when he passed. He pretends he doesn’t know me even though I sat behind him in Algebra II when we were fifteen. It hasn’t been so long, but I guess long enough to forget what you don’t want to remember. Long enough for him to get fat on beer with his frat brothers. Long enough for me to go from classmate to clerk. Ah, the life of an eater.
I gave Red Head the right change and smiled. “Enjoy,” I said.
Then Nose Ring was standing in front of me, and the hum of the lights died down for the first time since I started my shift six hours before. Nose Ring has that effect on me. She makes everything go quiet. She spoke, but I was watching her nostrils flare. Sometimes when you’re lucky, you can catch a glimpse of something on the inside. I can forget about the itch for a minute — just a minute. But nothing’s as good as the real thing.
I looked down at her DVD. Arthur — the Russell Brand remake. “Nothing’s as good as the real thing,” I said and laughed, but she didn’t get it.
Sometimes the bad jokes are just as good as the good ones. Nose Ring breathed heavily with impatience. Her nostrils flared wide. I saw the back of her stud like a delicious silver morsel. I tried to think of something else that might make her mad, but instead I just asked her if she wanted to buy some popcorn or candy. She left with an eye roll, and the fluorescent lights buzzed with renewed vigor.
“I have to take my fifteen,” I said to Kelly.
“You just had your fifteen an hour ago.”
“That was only a five. Please?”
“There’s a huge line,” she said and pointed to Leather Pants, Pearl Necklace, The Kissing Couple and the six or so others in line behind them.
“It’s an emergency,” I said and ran for the back room.
I burst through the metal door to the break room. It clanged and thunked as it opened and closed. No one was in the break room, but I went into the bathroom and locked the door anyway. The break room is so bright. The bathroom, with its single dangling light bulb, is like the room DVD Emporium forgot to redecorate, or didn’t care to, when they made this building another part of their dwindling empire. It was the last DVD Emporium in the city. Probably the last one in the state. Maybe the last one in the world for all I knew. Fifteen years ago this place was a rundown warehouse. Now it’s happy yellows and greens and rows and rows of DVDs. But the bathroom in the employee break room was junk. And that’s how I was feeling.
I plunged my thumb in deep and twisted it around. No good. I was dry. I’d been drying up off and on for the last year. Nothing worked. I blew. I sniffed. I hocked. Nothing. But that’s what you get when you’re an eater: all eaten up. Sometimes for good.
It wasn’t so bad five years ago, ten years ago. I was an eater even then, but I wasn’t used up like I am now. Now it’s all bloodshot eyes. Beads of sweat. Gaping, raw nostrils. My mother can’t even look at me without crying.
After work, I could go down to the basement of Freddie’s Bar and beg a spare off the other eaters there. Freddie’s brother was an eater. He got beat up down on Broadway when a bunch of booger blockers caught him indexing. Kicked him in the stomach. Kicked him in the head. Stole his wallet and his phone. Hocked a big one in his face. He’s in a coma now, so Freddie lets the eaters come down in the basement. We can be safe there. Freddie makes sure no antis get in.
Three loud thumps on the bathroom door jump-started my dying battery. “Are you picking your fucking nose?” Kelly shouted through the door.
“Fuck off! It’s natural. They should sell boogers at Whole Foods!” It’s all indefensible to the antis. Sometimes I don’t know why I even bother.
“Your fifteen is over. You can chow down on your own fucking shit for all I care, but only on your own time.”
Ten, fifteen, thirty. It didn’t really matter. It’s always over too quick, and I’m back walking the floor, re-alphabetizing the movies that customers are too dumb to put back in the right place. I’m making change and talking sweet to the lonely girls, but it’s all just killing time between digs.
So however many minutes went by and I punched the proverbial clock, walked out of the haze of DVD Emporium’s neon sign — the last of its kind in the universe — and headed straight to Freddie’s. I was twitchy. I hadn’t had a pick since before I started my shift, and even that wasn’t enough to get me through five minutes of Kelly’s bullshit. Sometimes when you go that long, the world starts to take a different shape. It’s not round. It’s not flat. It’s like a rollercoaster, and the ground keeps dropping out from under you. I didn’t think I’d make it to Freddie’s if every step was like plunging down from three hundred feet.
Sandy once showed me how you can sometimes scrape a day-old off public bathroom stalls. We were on a road trip, and I was dry. Sandy pulled in to a rest stop and took me with her to the bathroom. “See babe,” she told me as she scraped one off the stall. “A booger is a terrible thing to waste, and everyone knows it.” Lots of people pick. More people pick than you want to believe. But they do it in the privacy of their own home or in the car when they think no one’s looking or, sometimes in emergencies, in a public toilet. Some of them are eaters, so they’ll just suck it down as soon as it’s broken free. The rest will flick it or stick it. There it stays: a pick just a little stale for the picking. I stopped at the Gas ‘N Save to beg the clerk for the bathroom key.
“Bathroom’s for customers only,” he told me, so I bought a bag of pretzels. He handed me the key to my salvation.
I rested myself on the toilet seat and looked around. The stall flipped me over like the Zipper when I realized it had been picked clean. Who needs an amusement park? Being a booger junky’s all the fun and none of the lines. I hadn’t seen them on the way in — probably too blinded by the need — but there they were as I came out. A bunch of eaters with glazed-over eyes circling like flies over dog shit. Moving from the curb to the pump to the big green dumpster. They eyed me. They hoped I was leaving something fresh. They were too far gone to recognize another eater. Sandy called them zombies. “They’ve probably eaten their own brains out,” she said. “Shoot me if I ever get like that!” I walked out of the Gas ‘N Save lot and heard them rustle behind me, running to be the first one to the unburied treasure. No such luck. They’d have to keep digging.
I made it to Freddie’s. He was behind the bar reading a book like he always was on slow nights.
“Anybody down there?” I asked.
“Just a few of the usuals.”
I headed for the back stairs.
“Hey, Kid,” Freddie called out. Freddie had always called me “kid” and probably always would even if I was old and gray or standing at death’s door. “You OK?”
I turned back but kept walking slowly towards the basement. “Yeah. Why?”
“You’re not looking so good,” he said.
“No, I’m good. I just need…” but I didn’t finish the thought, so I didn’t finish the sentence. I went down the stairs into the basement.
It was dark down there and quiet. Six, maybe seven, other eaters were splayed across the furniture and floor, mostly too booged out of their minds to notice I’d come down. Danielle, a pretty blonde I’d met at Freddie’s a few times before, was the only one who seemed alert enough to talk to so I went over. She blew her nose into a tissue and then shoved it into her purse with a bunch of others.
“What’s with the tissues?”
“I went out chasing a few days ago. Caught a good bug. I’m trying to save as much as possible for later. I’ve been real dry lately.”
“Me too. Spare me a boog. I’m so jacked I can barely stand.”
“You can pick me,” she said and she tilted her head back to expose her nostrils.
“No. I can’t do that.”
“Come on. Pick me.”
“No. I can’t.”
She was all sexy and seductive when she said it just like Sandy that night. Sandy loved getting picked. “Come on, babe,” she said in a baby voice and making a pouty face. “Doncha wanna give me a wittle pick?” It was sick the way she wrapped me around her finger with that voice. “Just a itty bitty pick for your baby waby.” Sandy was never dry. We could bolt ourselves in her room and live off her boogs for days, never leaving. Not for a thing. That night when she asked me to pick her, with that lower lip pushed out slightly, those half-lidded eyes, I dug in eagerly. But I must have picked too hard or I don’t know. There was so much blood. I was freaking, but Sandy was cool as always. “No, babe. It’s OK. Look. It’s stopping. I think it’s stopping. I’m OK.” We tried to make it stop, but it didn’t stop, not for a long time. We woke up and we were covered in blood. There were paramedics. And Sandy’s mom. Then they took her to the hospital and then she was gone.
Sandy’s mom says I can’t see her anymore. She says Sandy doesn’t want to see me. That she’s getting the help she needs and that she’s happier now. I don’t know where she is. I don’t know how to find her.
Danielle wanted to be picked. She had a noseful and she was hot for it. But I couldn’t pick another girl. Not after Sandy.
“Come on,” she said more insistently.
“I can’t,” I said and started to cry a bit. A kind of breathless, tearless cry. I wanted it so bad, but nothing would come. “Please. Just give me some.”
“You’re fucking pathetic,” she said. She tossed a used tissue across the room and kicked me away with the heel of her boot. “Fuck! Off!” she yelled when I didn’t move.
Finally, I did get up and go for the tissue. I unwrapped it and looked down at the glowing green center. I did what eaters do. I ate it. And then I was back on the boog and I felt everything as it used to be when things were good. The world was quiet. The room was still. I was new. I was fresh. My head rested in Sandy’s lap while she stroked my hair and kissed my forehead. It didn’t even matter that she wasn’t really there.
Photo by Grant Hutchinson