Monday, November 12, 2012

#58: "Thugs Like Us" by CD Mitchell

~This memoir previously appeared as "Memphis" in Big Muddy: A Journal of the Mississippi River Valley (2006)  


Rachel and I left our apartment on June 14th, 1996, closing but not locking the door that swung on a splintered jamb. The swat team and DEA agents had ruined it with that battering ram they used to break in. We drove fifteen miles south to Brookland. I’d arranged earlier in the day for Larry White to meet me there at two o’clock with a brick of crystal-methamphetamine. We were taking it to Memphis, where a buyer would pay twenty thousand dollars cash for it. The buyer was the DEA.
Time and focus have a direct relationship that has always amazed me. It seems the further we are in time from an event, the easier it is to focus on it, and understand the insanity that gripped us. There is the perceived reality of the moment--and the truth, that can only be understood and accepted with time and reflection. Time has helped me to accept what happened that day in Memphis. Time has relieved me of the guilt for what I did. I know I did the right thing at the time; it took me years to realize I did it for the wrong reasons.
            I have changed the names of everyone involved to protect the guilty. No one was innocent.
 
The day started uneventfully, which was good for a change. We got up early--unable to sleep. But the clock kept ticking, and finally the time to leave arrived. Rachel sat in the kitchen, playing with her hands. She’d gone to the window and looked outside two different times while I spoke to Sanders on the phone. As the agent in charge of the Memphis DEA, Sanders oversaw the whole ordeal.
“What do I have to do?” Rachel asked.
“You’ll drive me to Brookland to meet Larry. I’ll ride with him to Memphis. You’ll come get me when it’s over. I can’t tell you anything else.”
            “Go to hell,” she said.
“Sanders hasn’t told me anything. I have no idea where we’re going or what’ll happen when we get there. All I know is you’ll need to come back here and kill an hour before you leave for Memphis.” I got up and walked to the window. Ever since the bust, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they still watched us, even listened to our telephone conversations. I spoke to Rachel as I looked through the curtains. “We’ll have a bunch of paperwork to do. You might as well go to Landry’s when you get there. That’s as good a place as any to wait. Sanders promised he’d send someone to get you and bring you to wherever we’re at.” I turned from the window and walked to the front door. I stepped out on the porch. Someone sat in a car across the street. I took a breath of warm air and walked back in. The apartment reeked of cigarettes and stale beer.
“Do you want me to call Sanders after I drop you off?”
            “No. You can’t have anything to do with this. I’ll call him from the payphone before we leave Brookland.”

We thought we’d been doing great. But the evidence of our downward spiral lay all around us--whether we saw it or not. A roach clip held three past due notices to the back of the month that had just been turned on the Far Side calendar. Rachel had blackened the appointment date for her pregnancy test on June fifteenth. The sink held stacks of dirty dishes, and from across the room I smelled the stench of funk in the sink strainer. The garbage can overflowed with beer cans and whiskey bottles. We didn’t dare do any more drugs after the bust, so something had to fill the void. Rachel’s three ashtrays bristled with Misty cigarette butts, all stained with that ugly purple lipstick she knew I hated. What was left of the tools that I used to build houses sat in the floor in the corner of the kitchen, waiting to go to the pawnshop. Her termination of employment letter from the post office lay in the floor. She’d failed another drug screen.
“Why do I have to be there? I have other things to do today,” she said. 
“I told you. They’ll take his car. I’ll have no way home.”
She drew a long puff off her cigarette and looked at me. She had stopped being kind after she’d missed her period.
            “Have you even thought about any names?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“The baby,” I said.
            “There won’t be a baby, sweetheart. Don’t hurt yourself thinking about it.”
            “I’m sorry. I’ll be okay,” I said. I always thought a pregnancy was something to celebrate, but any mention of it only seemed to depress her. No one would want to have a baby in prison. I’d promised her this would take care of it for her; after today, she’d have nothing to worry about.
            She had no right to be mad or depressed. As much to blame as me, she’d quit taking the pill a long time ago because it made her fat. Then she started throwing up. I’d heard of bulimia. Then she heard that meth helped people lose weight. 
           Long curls of blonde hair fell around her ice blue eyes. A size seven figure--too large for a five-foot frame—kept her on a constant vigil to battle her weight. A size three was her dream. The meth hadn’t helped as much as she thought it would.
“A lot can go wrong between here and there.” After crushing out her cigarette, she fumbled in her purse for her keys. Rachel walked back to the window.
            “For someone who likes to be watched, you sure are paranoid about being seen.” 
            “Let’s go,” she said.

            Methamphetamine can be smoked, ingested, snorted or shot into a vein. It can be made in a number of ways, and once you accept the insanity of the life style, you’ll blow anything up your nose that someone says is meth. We discovered that one of our suppliers in West Memphis (that I didn’t have a chance to set up) made his powder by melting a Vicks inhaler with muriatic acid in a microwave. Now I know why I had no hair left in my nose.
Our marriage was over. Hell, life as we knew it was over, but neither of us would admit it. She told me she would have an abortion. I believe we both truly loved each other, and I firmly believed that was reason enough to have the child. But who wants to have a baby in prison? I’d convinced myself her fear of going to prison was the only reason she considered the abortion. It never occurred to me that we might not be together when all this was through.
I’d received no promises, except they wouldn’t prosecute Rachel, and my cooperation would be mentioned to the judge. She’d go free; I’d go to prison--on a reduced sentence. The reduction depended on my cooperation, and any reduction from the thirty years I faced would help. Her decision to have the baby would be simple after I made the delivery. It took years for me to realize my logic was flawed. It took me even longer to admit it.

            Rachel and I pulled into the Dodge Store at Brookland. White waited for me in a brown Cadillac from his used car lot. A cover that allowed him to launder the money he made from the drug sales, the car lot allowed Larry to report his profits as legitimate income, and pay taxes on it. I chuckled to myself and thought of the irony of it all. A workingman always complains about the taxes he pays, while crooks look for ways to pay taxes in order to launder their money and make it legitimate.
            Rachel pulled up beside White’s Cadillac and stopped. Leaning across the console of her Blazer, I kissed her. I took her hand in mine and touched the wedding band I’d bought at Wal-mart. It was all we could afford at the time, but the ring had meant nothing. All she wanted was to be my wife.
I planned to buy a better ring with all the money I made from the dope, and I’d made a lot of money. We would buy an eight ball of methamphetamine and cut it with Vita-blend. The 2.8 grams that cost us anywhere from $250 to $300 became three times the amount, and still had some potency. We kept our own shit for our personal use out of the original powder. Why cut what we used for ourselves? If we had to make a heavier than usual cut, I’d pulverize some ephedrine pills to add some pick-up to the Vita-blend and mix in some white pepper so the mixture would burn like hell when snorted.
After mixing the blend, we’d take a digital scale--you can buy one at any head shop--and weigh out the powder in quarter grams that actually weighed .2 grams. That way you got five quarters. The five quarters sold for thirty bucks apiece. We placed the powder in a plastic sandwich bag and clipped the corner, then placed the corner into an empty cassette case and sealed the plastic with a match or lighter. I bounced at a local tavern where they paid me $100 dollars a night, and I made anywhere from a thousand to fifteen hundred extra dollars each night with the drugs I sold.
All our profits, though, seemed to go up our noses, or for extravagant weekends in Memphis, and limousines, and for anything but bills. We were two months behind on our rent. We’d been served a ten-day eviction notice seven days ago. But I wasn’t worried about where I would be sleeping in three days. I thought about what prison I’d be sleeping in next year.
Rachel shut the Blazer off. She waved at White in the Cadillac beside us then looked at me. “I’ll leave for Memphis in an hour…be at Landry’s like you said. Call me as soon as it’s over.”
“I like Jesse,” I said. I saw the puzzled look in her eyes and added, “For a name.”
“Go,” was all she said.
“I’ll call.” I got out of the car and walked over to White. Rachel pulled out onto the main highway and drove away. I waved at her, though she didn’t look back. I wondered if I would ever see her again.
“She’s as pretty as ever.”
            “What?”
“She’s beautiful,” said White from his Cadillac.
“You want a soda before we go?”
“Yeah, get me a V-8.”
White always drank V-8s. He said they helped keep him regular, and he always worried about staying regular--regularity kept him from shitting his pants when things got wild. I went inside the Dodge Store where I bought twoV-8s and got three dollars of quarters. When I walked back outside, I handed White his drink through the drivers’ side window.
“I need to call Memphis and let him know we’re on our way,” I said as I fumbled with the change. I thought I was clever, as the DEA number was toll free. Then I dropped the quarters on the asphalt. Change rolled everywhere. I knelt and started to pick them up.
            “Forget it,” White said. “Get in and let’s get the hell out of here.”
I walked around the car and got in. “Just thought I’d save us a little time. He could be waiting for us if I call him now.”
“Don’t like to give them too much time on the other end,” he said. I put on my seat belt as he pulled out into traffic. “I got sixteen ounces of uncut crystal in the car and you’re picking up change off the asphalt.” He laughed after he said the words and continued to poke fun at me as we left Brookland, headed for Memphis.
           I relaxed. He’d always trusted me, and he had no reason to suspect me now. We lived fifty miles apart, so I hoped he hadn’t heard about the bust. The DEA came in the middle of the night, so there were few witnesses to what happened, and there was no mention of it in the papers. That didn’t stop me from worrying. Larry White had killed more than one person who’d tried to set him up. He’d kill me after he found out. The DEA wouldn’t relocate me. I was small fry to them, and I had nowhere to go. If he even suspected a set-up, he’d kill me. There were some good swampy places to dump a body on the road to Memphis.
I had no way of letting Sanders know we’d left. We never used cell phones; anyone with a scanner could intercept the calls. I couldn’t believe I’d missed such an important detail, and Sanders hadn’t bothered to discuss a back-up plan. I wished I’d let Rachel call.
            “Where’s the shit?” I asked.
“In the hole behind the glove box. Grab a rock; they’ll never miss it. I did a couple before you got here.”
I was supposed to sample the meth and get White to do a line. People on meth talk their heads off and never listen to a word being said. White made it easy for me by doing the rocks before he picked me up. I was due a break.
I reached into the glove box, found the hole that we always cut in the dash behind it, and found the package. A quart freezer bag full of powder that looked like brown sugar filled the hole. Laced with crystals the color of smoked topaz and the size of small, odd shaped marbles, the meth in the bag looked like a loaf of unbaked bread, full of pecans.
I opened the baggy and found a small rock. The contents of the bag had a fresh smell, like crushed sassafras leaves that always smelled like Froot-Loops to me. I ate the rock. Bitter and crunchy, the crystal stuck between my teeth like a Jolly Rancher. Instead of a burst of fruit flavor, though, a rush of energy came over me, as if I needed anymore adrenaline than I already had.     
            “That’s good,” I said.
“He can have this pound for twenty grand, but this shit’s too hot to let go for that. Tell him this is a first time discount.”
“All right.  He can make plenty of money, even at that price.”
            “That stuff is pure enough to make four or five pounds if he mixes his cut right.”
            I could tell White to turn back, to go back to Brookland. I could always come up with an excuse to call the deal off. All I had to do was tell him I had a bad feeling. I’d called deals off before and been right about them more times than not. My hopes for a reduced sentence would be shot, but at least I’d live. Rachel would go to prison too, though, and there would be no way to change her mind about that black date on the calendar.
I should have known that her freedom had nothing to do with that black date.
The road sped by, but after looking at the dashboard, I knew we were doing the speed limit. Smart dopers always drove the speed limit; they always wore their seat belts; they always came to a complete stop at all signs and lights; they always signaled a turn or a lane change, and they always carried insurance and registration papers in case the cops pulled them over. We were smart dopers. Yeah, that’s why we were going to Memphis to meet the DEA.
The crystal had taken over my heart. I could feel it pounding in my ears, and through my veins. But it seemed as if everything moved in slow motion, and I noticed every little detail, the cracks in the leather seats, the odometer that read 79,991 miles, the missing Cadillac emblem on the hood, the jerky movements of Whites’ eyes as he shifted his gaze from me to the road, the nervous movements of his hands as he constantly fiddled with his seat, moving it forward, then backward, then tilting it. I wondered if he had his Glock in his pocket.
The radio blared, and I kept time by beating my hands on the dash. I don’t even remember when he turned it on. As I watched the rows of beans and cotton go by, Larry lit another cigarette and played with his seat some more. Delivering meth was nerve racking without all of the extras on this trip. Meth-heads would kill for a pound of un-cut crystal; twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money to change hands in the dark. If you were robbed, you couldn’t just call the police. You never knew when some idiot local marshal operating a speed trap in Hog-eye, Arkansas, might pull you over for driving two miles over the speed limit and want to search you and your car. Or if the DEA, the state police, or some new drug task force waited at the exchange, like they waited for us now. Somehow, knowing they waited for us made it worse than wondering if they were there. I thought of Rachel. I wondered if my vision of our relationship was as wrong as White’s vision of what was happening now.
My veins pounded like a flat tire going 70 miles an hour on the interstate, and the performance I gave wore more and more on my nerves as we got closer and closer to Memphis. I made the shit up as we went now. I thought I did well. Sonny Crockett had nothing on me.
We turned onto Interstate 55 at the Tyronza exit. An hour had passed since my last contact with Sanders. Would he still be waiting? Did the thought even cross his mind that I could be dead in a slough somewhere between Memphis and Brookland? I doubted he even cared. So what if they nailed Larry White on a murder charge instead of a narcotics charge. I couldn’t believe I didn’t go ahead and let Rachel call him after she’d dropped me off.
“Hey, when we get to West Memphis pull off at the dog track so I can call and tell him we’re here.”
He nodded.
Larry exited at the Southland Greyhound Race Track and pulled into the Holiday Inn. I got out, walked into the lobby and asked the redheaded girl behind the counter if they had a pay phone. She pointed, never said a word and never missed a bite on the gum she chewed. I dialed the number. Sanders answered on the first ring. He’d make someone a good secretary.
“It’s me,” I said.
“Have you left yet?”
“We’re at the Holiday Inn in West Memphis.”
            “Shit. Why didn’t you call?”
            “I couldn’t.”
            “You said you’d call.” He sounded angry. I couldn’t tell. I didn’t trust my own words anymore.
“Not every deal can go down the way you plan it,” I said. The redheaded girl at the counter looked at me, never missing a stroke on that gum. I wondered if she were that smooth in bed. I wondered how many drug deals she watched in her lobby.
“Have you got the shit?” he asked.
            “One pound uncut crystal meth. I tried it and it’s the shit. Larry and I had a lot to talk about on the way over,” I said. “You got the cash?”
            “We got ten grand in hundreds if we need it.”
            “Tell me what to do.”
            “Drive behind the Raleigh Springs Mall. Jackson, he was the first one through your door, he’ll be waiting for you in a small blue Chevy S-10 pick-up truck. Pull up behind him and park. You take the package to Jackson and get in the truck with him. Once it’s in his hands, we’ll take over.”
“Doesn’t White need to deliver the package?”
“No. That puts you in the truck with Jackson and isolates White just in case something goes wrong.”
            “Simple enough. Make sure they don’t shoot me.”
“You’ll be in the truck with Jackson. He’s one of ours, and we don’t usually shoot one of ours, long as he’s keeping up his caseload.”
“Hurry up man, I don’t have all day,” I said in an exaggerated tone, so White could hear me while he flirted with the redhead.
“Just don’t take off running across the lot. If you hear shots, hit the ground, and if he tries to get away before the deal goes down, get out of that car anyway you can. He may figure it out, and it’d be a long ride home for you.”
He said he’d need fifteen minutes to set up and asked what we were driving. I told him, and then hung up.
Now was the time to kill the deal. White trusted my judgment on these things. He’d eventually kill me or have it done. Even a life sentence for Larry wouldn’t do me any good. He’d just arrange it from prison. If I went through with this, I was a dead man, but Rachel would go free. She’d have the baby. A part of me would continue to live.
“What’s up?” White asked as he walked over from the gift shop.
“We’re supposed to meet him behind the Raleigh Springs Mall in twenty minutes. He’s in a blue S-10 pick-up. We’ll just pull up behind him and I’ll make the switch.”
We walked outside and got back into the car.
“How you gonna count the money dammit?” he asked.
            “I’ll get in the truck with him and count it right there.”
“Right there in the parking lot?”
“Well, fuck Larry, where else do you wanna go? You got a better idea?” I shouldn’t have said that, but I got away with it.
            “Calm down,” he said. “I just wondered how we’d do it. Sounds great to me. Hell, anything beats going to a motel room. That’s how the DEA sets it up.”
“Not always.” I had to turn my head and look out the window to hide the grin on my face. I was losing it. But what the hell. I reached for the dash and ate another rock.
The Memphis skyline loomed over the river as we approached the bridge. I loved taking the new bridge across the Mississippi whenever we went to Memphis. People fished along the banks, with old straw hats on their heads, and cane poles in their hands. They never knew what went on just over their heads. Their only concern was whether they caught a fish. I hadn’t been fishing in a long time. Fishing was a simple thing to do.
The Memphis Queen chugged north along the eastern bank, her decks lined with tourists longing to see life on the river. Her paddlewheel churned the muddy water as she steered clear of the commercial lanes, where the river boats pushed hundreds of yards of barges loaded with rock, gravel or coal to some unknown destination.
            The Memphis Pyramid sat on the north side of the bridge. I looked back south and saw the Gayoso Hotel. I’d worked there one summer, after it was named to the Historical Register. The Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest raised his first army there, on the steps of that hotel.
            I told Larry about the many nights Rachel and I had spent on Beale Street, of the night we saw B.B. King do a rare live performance at his club and then Jerry Lee Lewis the very next night, in an impromptu performance at his club at the other end of the street.
Rachel and I rode in the horse drawn carriages to Captain Bilbo’s, and I always tipped the driver to come back in an hour and take us around again. He’d drop us off at the east end of Beale Street so we could start at Jerry Lee Lewis’ and club hop our way up the street, stopping in at the Blues Palace Café where Kevin Page played, the Rum-Boogie Café where Don McMinn played, or Sleep Out Louie’s and B.B. King’s to hear Keith Sykes and Little Jimmy King.
Early in the morning we’d reach the west end of the street, and the drivers of the carriages didn’t want to give you a ride, no matter how much you tipped them, especially if they had changed the diaper on their horse. The diapers kept the horses from shitting in the streets, and the drivers had to put a new one on them if they gave you a ride, and take it off again after they dropped you off at the Peabody. One driver told me it just wasn’t worth it, no matter how much you tipped them.
            “Them horses don’t like being touched there,” he’d said.

The sign up ahead announced the Raleigh Springs exit. White signaled his lane change and pulled onto the exit ramp. We drove down the gentle slope of the exit and turned left to go to the mall. Almost there. I hoped they were set up. What if White saw them and took off? Sanders told me to bail out of the car if he did. I looked at the pavement speeding by and could feel it peeling my skin as I imagined rolling across it to escape.   
            I felt sweat trickle down my cheek. I wondered how many agents would be there, where they would hide. What if there’s a shootout and a customer of the mall got shot? What if I get shot? What if I died? Would Rachel cry? Would she name our child after me?
We turned into the parking lot of the mall, and White slowed to a crawl. We eased slowly around the building. As we came around the corner, I saw the blue pick-up with Jackson in it. I saw his lips moving as he talked into the mike I knew he wore.
“Look at that silly bastard. He’s talking to himself,” White said. He drove around the parked truck in a wide circle--like a buzzard circling a corpse. He looked all around for cops that might be there, and I looked all around for cops that I knew were there, and I prayed that I couldn’t see them and prayed that he couldn’t see them and prayed that I lived, and that Rachel wouldn’t leave me.
            White eased into the parking spot behind the blue truck.
“Go get our money.”
            I unlatched the glove box, took the meth, and opened the car door. I looked at Larry for the last time as a friend. I’d thought all the way here about what I’d say when the moment arrived.
I said nothing as I shut the car door and walked to the truck where Jackson waited. Each step seemed a mile as I looked around, searching for agents. They were professionals. I couldn’t see them anywhere, and I envied them. They were a team, and they were good--not a bunch of throat cutting thugs like us. I walked to the side of the truck and dumped the brick into Jackson’s lap.
“Arrest me,” I said.
“Come around and get in,” he said. I did.
“Go Go Go,” he screamed into the microphone, and twenty screaming agents appeared from nowhere. They grabbed White and pulled him out of the car and threw him to the ground with a pistol in his face that wasn’t a Glock, but looked like a Ruger, or a Colt. They grabbed me and threw me to the ground, and they screamed at me that they were Federal agents and that I was under arrest for trafficking drugs. Then the one with his knee in my back handcuffed me. He leaned down between the cars where White couldn’t see us.
“Are the cuffs too tight?”
            I said, “Go to hell.”
He laughed and patted me on the back as he got up. “It’s almost over,” he said. After he picked me up, I saw they’d cuffed White, and they argued about whose car he would ride in because he’d shit his pants. One of the officers offered to go to Beale Street and get one of the horse diapers for him. Later I discovered they were only taunting him.
They’d pulled Jackson out of the truck and cuffed him. Jackson looked at me and smirked and said, “You set me up,” as if he couldn’t believe it could happen to him and I growled as venomously as I could and said, “You’re a dead man.”
They put White in a car and drove him off. They started to read Jackson his rights and he laughed.
“Get these cuffs off me and my boy.” They came, took my cuffs off, and told me I did a fantastic job. They were ecstatic, elated. I should be proud of what I had done.
“Someone needs to go get Rachel,” I said. “She’ll be at Landry’s.”
“She’s not there,” Sanders said.
“She must have made a late start.”
“She’s not coming. When we didn’t hear from you, we thought you’d stiffed us, so we sent a local patrol to your house. She was packed and headed out.”
I wondered if she would name the child Jesse.

*****
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
   
This essay was born as part of a literary journalism writing assignment for my MFA creative nonfiction thesis. No one in the program I attended knew of my past troubles, or of my bad experiences in the city of Memphis, and I was comfortable with the status quo. But writing the essay soon became an act of exorcism as I was finally able to share a small part of the horror I lived that day. I read the essay at my graduate reading—a reading from your thesis given by MFA candidates graduating from the program. It was then I finally realized the power of the essay as I heard the deafening silence of my audience while I shared the event. Big Muddy had already accepted the essay for publication under the title of Memphis. Richard Bausch was the first to speak to me after the reading, and he gave me the new title of “Thugs Like Us.” The essay retells the story of a drug deal set up with the Memphis office of the DEA, and the illogical process—insanity if you will--that led me down that path. I intended to write a piece of literary journalism, extolling the dangers of becoming involved with methamphetamine, while revealing the nightmare of being caught. I seem to have lost the courage I had as an MFA student, because things are good now, and I try to avoid traveling back to that white-hot center of raw emotion for writing material. But there is more of the story to tell. Some day.

*****
ABOUT CD MITCHELL

CD Mitchell has an MFA with concentrations in fiction and creative nonfiction. His stories and essays have appeared in national and international journals such as The Southeast Review, River Teeth, Natural Bridge, Evansville Review, Appalachee Review, The North Dakota Quarterly and others. His story "The Execution " appears in a crime anthology published in the United Kingdom, and a collaborative project with Chicago photographer Jennifer Moore appears in an anthology published by Flying House of Chicago. His essays have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times. He teaches at Arkansas Northeastern College. He is marketing a novel in stories titled Stud Fee and revising a memoir that includes this essay. His home-made webpage, that can best be viewed using anything but Explorer, is www.cdmitchell.net.
CD Mitchell can be reached at mitchell461961@yahoo.com


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