Ok, so about six years ago, I was hanging out at home when the phone rang. I’d finally tracked Zero down and left him a message on his phone, like fourteen times in about a month. Not too many times, I guess, in the big picture – I mean, the guy was a junkie and pretty busy copping and keeging. We’d sort of fallen out of touch, and now it was like eleven years later.
Zero is a genius character, and we met in rehab – my last rehab, back in 87 or 88. He’s a radical purist, meaning that he holds a viewpoint that is waaaay out there, and he won’t relent. And not just one viewpoint, not just one outrageous belief – oh, no, not Zero. He has a whole philosophy that would put most sane people right up on one ear, feet wagging at the sky and a shocked expression singing it all out loud.
Zero, during the times that we’ve been in contact, had never been able to put more than 11 days together. Of course, as soon as I dropped off his radar, he was able to get like nine years clean and sober, did a bunch of films, and got some credits on some big pictures. I never got to see that part.
But when he finally got back around to me, it was late late in the dark hours of nighttime and he was gowed out.
We spoke for a while, about this and that, kind of catching up on our lives since we’d last seen each a decade earlier. We always had these easy conversations, and they always seemed like no time at all had passed since we saw each other. I didn’t know why he stayed away when he was clean, but that was his choice. I made a joke about doing a painting of the words in block letters: “Got a missing Ø here, people.” Or maybe a pic of me with a check in my hand, surprised & disappointed, over that caption. Or not. We laughed together, and that was good.
Then Zero mentioned ‘Window of Somnus’ and I started in my seat – a classic double-take. Not Danny Thomas classic, but close. It’s a poem I wrote many years ago, probably in that rehab: a few ragged lines about the pain and loneliness of the junkie’s empty night.
“I really like it.”
“Wow, Zero, thanks for the compliment. You remembered that poem.”
“Yeah, Hakim, that was always my favorite poem. Still is.”
“Well,” I said, “it’s just a little poem about junkies, a scrap. The real deal, the puro clavo, is Tommy Swerdlow’s poem.”
“Yah, it’s called ‘Headed for the Medicine,’ and it’s the ultimate heroin poem. I’m still pissed at Swerdlow because he wrote it and so I’ll never be able to put a pen to paper about heroin again. He owns the turf – and there’s really nothing left to write after he got through with it.”
“Who’s Swerdlow, man?”
“Brilliant writer I once knew. And, of course, a junkie. For all I know, he may be dead by now. You know, junkie’s always wind up dead.”
“Yeah. That’s true, man.”
“But he still wrote a great poem.”
By now, Zero was slurring, probably drooling on the phone – his voice coming through the wires sounded like it would crack into shards. “Wow. I’d like to hear it, Hakim.”
So I opened my computer and found the poem and started a command performance for a loaded ǜber-Deutsche tacato over phone lines stretching 400 miles into the long tunnel of night. I hadn’t read in a long time, and I was rusty at first, twigs cracking, but after a few lines I found my rhythm and I was back in the saddle, grooving.
I got about halfway through ‘Headed for the Medicine’ – the part about “I am Buddha, I am barnstorm, I am anything for the team” – when I hear a great thump at the other end of the phone. I stop, shocked as the sound of a handset spinning on a bare wooden floor tickles my ear.
“Zero, you there, man?”
I whistle into the phone, trying to attract his attention. Nothing. I debate what I should do: call another friend of mine (who doesn’t even know Zero) and send him over there? Yah, sure, if only I had an address. Call the cops and send them to his house (without an address)? They could trace the number, but they’d take so long he’d be gone anyway if he were truly out. And if he weren’t truly out, then they’d just lock him up and he’d have me to thank for it. Not that he’d thank me, you understand. Although, knowing this guy, he just might.
I finally hang up, stunned that I might’ve overdosed Zero on poetry. I mean, that isn’t what I mean, exactly – it’s just that, as loaded as he was, he might have gone over the edge at hearing this poem, because I swear I’ve had guys look crooked at me, one eyelid half-mast with their chins on their chests, even if they haven’t had anything for years, when I read this poem. Hell, sometimes I feel loaded just from reading the damn thing. Yah, it’s good.
Just my luck, just the friggin luck to have killed my junkie pal after not seeing him for years. And long distance – with poetry.
So I’m contemplating the weird symmetry of that one when my phone rings.
“Hey.” The voice is creaky, the rattling of brittle newsprint. “You didn’t call anyone, didja?”
“No, man. I figured they’d have taken so long, you’d be dead by the time they got there.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Good. Now where were you? Something about barnstorming?”
And so I finish the poem for him. And then I ring off, hoping that Zero finds the strength or the hope or the exhaustion or the something to get himself out of the long trainwreck of the life he’d been leading.
Zero, come back, man. Find your way back. We miss you, buddy.
© 2011 Hakim - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: use without profit allowed only with author’s express written permission. Please don't wake up my attorney. Please.
Photo: Fair use.