A SCANNER DARKLY -- CHAPTER 1
Once a guy stood all day shaking bugs from his hair. The doctor told him there were no bugs in his hair. After he had taken a shower for eight hours, standing under hot water hour after hour suffering the pain of the bugs, he got out and dried himself, and he still had bugs in his hair; in fact, he had bugs all over him. A month later he had bugs in his lungs.
Having nothing else to do or think about, he began to work out theoretically the life cycle of the bugs, and, with the aid of the Britannica, try to determine specifically which bugs they were. They now filled his house. He read about many different kinds and finally noticed bugs outdoors, so he concluded they were aphids. After that decision came to his mind it never changed, no matter what other people told him ... like "Aphids don't bite people."
They said that to him because the endless biting of the bugs kept him in torment. At the 7-11 grocery store, part of a chain spread out over most of California, he bought spray cans of Raid and Black Flag and Yard Guard. First he sprayed the house, then himself. The Yard Guard seemed to work the best.
As to the theoretical side, he perceived three stages in the cycle of the bugs. First, they were carried to him to contaminate him by what he called Carrier-people, which were people who didn't understand their role in distributing the bugs. During that stage the bugs had no jaws or mandibles (he learned that word during his weeks of scholarly research, an unusually bookish occupation for a guy who worked at the Handy Brake and Tire place relining people's brake drums). The Carrier-people therefore felt nothing. He used to sit in the far corner of his living room watching different Carrier-people enter -- most of them people he'd known for a while, but some new to him -- covered with the aphids in this particular nonbiting stage. He'd sort of smile to himself, because he knew that the person was being used by the bugs and wasn't hip to it.
"What are you grinning about, Jerry?" they'd say.
He'd just smile.
In the next stage the bugs grew wings or something, but they really weren't precisely wings; anyhow, they were appendages of a functional sort permitting them to swarm, which was how they migrated and spread -- especially to him. At that point the air was full of them; it made his living room, his whole house, cloudy. During this stage he tried not to inhale them.
Most of all he felt sorry for his dog, because he could see the bugs landing on and settling all over him, and probably getting into the dog's lungs, as they were in his own. Probably -- at least so his empathic ability told him -- the dog was suffering as much as he was. Should he give the dog away for the dog's own comfort? No, he decided: the dog was now, inadvertently, infected, and would carry the bugs with him everywhere.
Sometimes he stood in the shower with the dog, trying to wash the dog clean too. He had no more success with him than he did with himself. It hurt to feel the dog suffer; he never stopped trying to help him. In some respect this was the worst part, the suffering of the animal, who could not complain.
"What the fuck are you doing there all day in the shower with the goddamn dog?" his buddy Charles Freck asked one time, coming in during this.
Jerry said, "I got to get the aphids off him." He brought Max, the dog, out of the shower and began drying him. Charles Freck watched, mystified, as Jerry rubbed baby oil and talc into the dog's fur. All over the house, cans of insect spray, bottles of talc, and baby oil and skin conditioners were piled and tossed, most of them empty; he used many cans a day now.
"I don't see any aphids," Charles said. "What's an aphid?"
"It eventually kills you," Jerry said. "That's what an aphid is. They're in my hair and my skin and my lungs, and the goddamn pain is unbearable -- I'm going to have to go to the hospital."
"How come I can't see them?"
Jerry put down the dog, which was wrapped in a towel, and knelt over the shag rug. "I'll show you one," he said. The rug was covered with aphids; they hopped up everywhere, up and down, some higher than others. He searched for an especially large one, because of the difficulty people had seeing them. "Bring me a bottle or jar," he said, "from under the sink. We'll cap it or put a lid on it and then I can take it with me when I go to the doctor and he can analyze it."
Charles Freck brought him an empty mayonnaise jar. Jerry went on searching, and at last came across an aphid leaping up at least four feet in the air. The aphid was over an inch long. He caught it, carried it to the jar, carefully dropped it in, and screwed on the lid. Then he held it up triumphantly. "See?" he said.
"Yeahhhh," Charles Freck said, his eyes wide as he scrutinized the contents of the jar. "What a big one! Wow!"
"Help me find more for the doctor to see," Jerry said, again squatting down on the rug, the jar beside him.
"Sure," Charles Freck said, and did so.
Within half an hour they had three jars full of the bugs. Charles, although new at it, found some of the largest.
It was midday, in June of 1994. In California, in a tract area of cheap but durable plastic houses, long ago vacated by the straights. Jerry had at an earlier date sprayed metal paint over all the windows, though, to keep out the light; the illumination for the room came from a pole lamp into which he had screwed nothing but spot lamps, which shone day and night, so as to abolish time for him and his friends. He liked that; he liked to get rid of time. By doing that he could concentrate on important things without interruption. Like this: two men kneeling down on the shag rug, finding bug after bug and putting them into jar after jar.
"What do we get for these," Charles Freck said, later on in the day. "I mean, does the doctor pay a bounty or something? A prize? Any bread?"
"I get to help perfect a cure for them this way," Jerry said. The pain, constant as it was, had become unbearable; he had never gotten used to it, and he knew he never would. The urge, the longing, to take another shower was overwhelming him. "Hey, man," he gasped, straightening up, "you go on putting them in the jars while I take a leak and like that." He started toward the bathroom.
"Okay," Charles said, his long legs wobbling as he swung toward a jar, both hands cupped. An ex-veteran, he still had good muscular control, though; he made it to the jar. But then he said suddenly, "Jerry, hey -- those bugs sort of scare me. I don't like it here by myself." He stood up.
"Chickenshit bastard," Jerry said, panting with pain as he halted momentarily at the bathroom.
"Couldn't you --
"I got to take a leak!" He slammed the door and spun the knobs of the shower. Water poured down.
"I'm afraid out here." Charles Freck's voice came dimly, even though he was evidently yelling loud.
"Then go fuck yourself!" Jerry yelled back, and stepped into the shower. What fucking good are friends? he asked himself bitterly. No good, no good! No fucking good!
"Do these fuckers sting?" Charles yelled, right at the door.
"Yeah, they sting," Jerry said as he rubbed shampoo into his hair.
"That's what I thought." A pause. "Can I wash my hands and get them off and wait for you?"
Chickenshit, Jerry thought with bitter fury. He said nothing; he merely kept on washing. The bastard wasn't worth answering ... He paid no attention to Charles Freck, only to himself. To his own vital, demanding, terrible, urgent needs. Everything else would have to wait. There was no time, no time; these things could not be postponed. Everything else was secondary. Except the dog; he wondered about Max, the dog.
Charles Freck phoned up somebody who he hoped was holding. "Can you lay about ten deaths on me?"
"Christ, I'm entirely out -- I'm looking to score myself. Let me know when you find some, I could use some."
"What's wrong with the supply?"
"Some busts, I guess."
Charles Freck hung up and then ran a fantasy number in his head as he slumped dismally back from the pay phone booth -- you never used your home phone for a buy call -- to his parked Chevy. In his fantasy number he was driving past the Thrifty Drugstore and they had a huge window display; bottles of slow death, cans of slow death, jars and bathtubs and vats and bowls of slow death, millions of caps and tabs and hits of slow death, slow death mixed with speed and junk and barbiturates and psychedelics, everything -- and a giant sign: YOUR CREDIT IS GOOD HERE. Not to mention: LOW LOW PRICES, LOWEST IN TOWN.
But in actuality the Thrifty usually had a display of nothing: combs, bottles of mineral oil, spray cans of deodorant, always crap like that. But I bet the pharmacy in the back has slow death under lock and key in an unstepped-on, pure, unadulterated, uncut form, he thought as he drove from the parking lot onto Harbor Boulevard, into the afternoon traffic. About a fifty-pound bag.
He wondered when and how they unloaded the fifty-pound bag of Substance D at the Thrifty Pharmacy every morning, from wherever it came from -- God knew, maybe from Switzerland or maybe from another planet where some wise race lived. They'd deliver probably real early, and with armed guards -- the Man standing there with Laser rifles looking mean, the way the Man always did. Anybody rip off my slow death, he thought through the Man's head, I'll snuff them.
Probably Substance D is an ingredient in every legal medication that's worth anything, he thought. A little pinch here and there according to the secret exclusive formula at the issuing house in Germany or Switzerland that invented it. But in actuality he knew better; the authorities snuffed or sent up everybody selling or transporting or using, so in that case the Thrifty Drugstore -- all the millions of Thrifty Drugstores -- would get shot or bombed out of business or anyhow fined. More likely just fined. The Thrifty had pull. Anyhow, how do you shoot a chain of big drugstores? Or put them away?
They just got ordinary stuff, he thought as he cruised along. He felt lousy because he had only three hundred tabs of slow death left in his stash. Buried in his back yard under his camelia, the hybrid one with the cool big blossoms that didn't burn brown in the spring. I only got a week's supply, he thought. What then when I'm out? Shit.
Suppose everybody in California and parts of Oregon runs out the same day, he thought. Wow.
This was the all-time-winning horror-fantasy that he ran in his head, that every doper ran. The whole western part of the United States simultaneously running out and everybody crashing on the same day, probably about 6 A.M. Sunday morning, while the straights were getting dressed up to go fucking pray.
Scene: The First Episcopal Church of Pasadena, at 8:30 A.M. on Crash Sunday.
"Holy parishioners, let us call on God now at this time to request His intervention in the agonies of those who are thrashing about on their beds withdrawing."
"Yeah, yeah." The congregation agreeing with the priest.
"But before He intervenes with a fresh supply of --"
A black-and-white evidently had noticed something in Charles Freck's driving he hadn't noticed; it had taken off from its parking spot and was moving along behind him in traffic, so far without lights or siren, bu t ..
Maybe I'm weaving or something, he thought. Fucking goddamn fuzzmobile saw me fucking up. I wonder what.
COP: "All right, what's your name?"
"My name?" (CAN'T THINK OF NAME.)
"YOU don't know your own name?" Cop signals to other cop in prowl car. "This guy is really spaced."
"Don't shoot me here." Charles Freck in his horror fantasy number induced by the sight of the black-and-white pacing him." At least take me to the station house and shoot me there, out of sight."
To survive in this fascist police state, he thought, you gotta always be able to come up with a name, your name. At all times. That's the first sign they look for that you're wired, not being able to figure out who the hell you are.
What I'll do, he decided, is I'll pull off soon as I see a parking slot, pull off voluntarily before he flashes his light, or does anything, and then when he glides up beside me I'll say I got a loose wheel or something mechanical.
They always think that's great, he thought. When you give up like that and can't go on. Like throwing yourself on the ground the way an animal does, exposing your soft unprotected defenseless underbelly. I'll do that, he thought.
He did so, peeling off to the right and bumping the front wheels of his car against the curb. The cop car went on by.
Pulled off for nothing, he thought. Now it'll be hard to back out again, traffic's so heavy. He shut off his engine. Maybe I'll just sit here parked for a while, he decided, and alpha meditate or go into various different altered states of consciousness. Possibly by watching the chicks going along on foot. I wonder if they manufacture a bioscope for horny. Rather than alpha. Horny waves, first very short, then longer, larger, larger, finally right off the scale.
This is getting me nowhere, he realized. I should be out trying to locate someone holding. I've got to get my supply or pretty soon I'll be freaking, and then I won't be able to do anything. Even sit at the curb like I am. I not only won't know who I am, I won't even know where I am, or what's happening.
What is happening? he asked himself. What day is this? If I knew what day, I'd know everything else; it'd seep back bit by bit.
Wednesday, in downtown L.A., the Westwood section. Ahead, one of those giant shopping malls surrounded by a wall that you bounced off like a rubber ball -- unless you had a credit card on you and passed in through the electronic hoop. Owning no credit card for any of the malls, he could depend only on verbal report as to what the shops were like inside. A whole bunch, evidently, selling good products to the straights, especially to the straight wives. He watched the uniformed armed guards at the mall gate checking out each person. Seeing that the man or woman matched his or her credit card and that it hadn't been ripped off, sold, bought, used fraudulently. Lots of people moved on in through the gate, but he figured many were no doubt window-shopping. Not all that many people can have the bread or the urge to buy this time of day, he reflected. It's early, just past two. At night; that was when. The shops all lit up. He could -- all the brothers and sisters could -- see the lights from without, like showers of sparks, like a fun park for grown-up kids.
Stores this side of the mall, requiring no credit card, with no armed guards, didn't amount to much. Utility stores: a shoe and a TV shop, a bakery, small-appliance repair, a laundromat. He watched a girl who wore a short plastic jacket and stretch pants wander along from store to store; she had nice hair, but he couldn't see her face, see if she was foxy. Not a bad figure, he thought. The girl stopped for a time at a window where leather goods were displayed. She was checking out a purse with tassels; he could see her peering, worrying, scheming on the purse. Bet she goes on in and requests to see it, he thought.
The girl bopped on into the store, as he had figured.
Another girl, amid the sidewalk traffic, came along, this one in a frilly blouse, high heels, with silver hair and too much makeup. Trying to look older than she is, he thought. Probably not out of high school. After her came nothing worth mentioning, so he removed the string that held the glove compartment shut and got out a pack of cigarettes. He lit up and turned on the car radio, to a rock station. Once he had owned a tape-cartridge stereo, but finally, while loaded one day, he had neglected to bring it indoors with him when he locked up the car; naturally, when he returned the whole stereo tape system had been stolen. That's what carelessness gets you, he had thought, and so now he had only the crummy radio. Someday they'd take that too. But he knew where he could get another for almost nothing, used. Anyhow, the car stood to be wrecked any day; its oil rings were shot and compression had dropped way down. Evidently, he had burned a valve on the freeway coming home one night with a whole bunch of good stuff; sometimes when he had really scored heavy he got paranoid -- not about the cops so much as about some other heads ripping him off. Some head desperate from withdrawing and dingey as a motherfucker.
A girl walked along now that made him take notice. Black hair, pretty, cruising slow; she wore an open midriff blouse and denim white pants washed a lot. Hey, I know her, he thought. That's Bob Arctor's girl. That's Donna.
He pushed open the car door and stepped out. The girl eyed him and continued on. He followed.
Thinks I'm fixing to grab-ass, he thought as he snaked among the people. How easily she gained speed; he could barely see her now as she glanced back. A firm, calm face ... He saw large eyes that appraised him. Calculated his speed and would he catch up. Not at this rate, he thought. She can really move.
At the corner, people had halted for the sign to say WALK instead of DON'T WALK; cars were making wild left turns. But the girl continued on, fast but with dignity, threading her path among the nut-o cars. The drivers glared at her with indignation. She didn't appear to notice.
"Donna!" When the sign flashed WALK he hurried across after her and caught up with her. She declined to run but merely walked rapidly. "Aren't you Bob's old lady?" he said. He managed to get in front of her to examine her face.
"No," she said. "No." She came toward him, directly at him; he retreated backward, because she held a short knife pointed at his stomach. "Get lost," she said, continuing to move forward without slowing or hesitating.
"Sure you are," he said. "I met you at his place." He could hardly see the knife, only a tiny section of blade metal, but he knew it was there. She would stab him and walk on. He continued to retreat backward, protesting. The girl held the knife so well concealed that probably no one else, the others walking along, could notice. But he did; it was going right at him as she approached without hesitation. He stepped aside, then, and the girl traveled on, in silence.
"Jeez!" he said to the back of her. I know it's Donna, he thought. She just doesn't flash on who I am, that she knows me. Scared, I guess; scared I'm going to hustle her. You got to be careful, he thought, when you come to a strange chick on the street; they're all prepared now. Too much has happened to them.
Funky little knife, he thought. Chicks shouldn't carry those; any guy could turn her wrist and the blade back on her any time he wanted. I could have. If I really wanted to get her. He stood there, feeling angry. I know that was Donna, he thought.
As he started to go back toward his parked car, he realized that the girl had halted, out of the movement of passers-by, and now stood silently gazing at him.
He walked cautiously toward her. "One night," he said, "me and Bob and another chick had some old Simon and Garfunkel tapes, and you were sitting there --" She had been filling capsules with high-grade death, one by one, painstakingly. For over an hour. El Primo. Numero Uno: Death. After she had finished, she had laid a cap on each of them and they had dropped them, all of them together. Except her. I just sell them, she had said. If I start dropping them I eat up all my profits.
The girl said, "I thought you were going to knock me down and bang me."
"No," he said. "I just wondered if you ..." He hesitated. "Like, wanted a ride. On the sidewalk?" he said, startled. "In broad daylight?"
"Maybe in a doorway. Or pull me into a car."
"I know you," he protested. "And Arctor would snuff me if I did that."
"Well, I didn't recognize you." She came toward him three steps. "I'm sorta nearsighted."
"You ought to wear contacts." She had, he thought, lovely large dark warm eyes. Which meant she wasn't on junk.
"1 did have. But one fell out into a punch bowl. Acid punch, at a party. It sank to the bottom, and I guess someone dipped it up and drank it. I hope it tasted good; it cost me thirty-five dollars, originally."
"You want a ride where you're going?"
"You'll bang me in the car."
"No," he said, "I can't get it on right now, these last couple of weeks. It must be something they're adulterating all the stuff with. Some chemical."
"That's a neat-o line, but I've heard it before. Everybody bangs me." She amended that. "Tries to, anyhow. That's what it's like to be a chick. I'm suing one guy in court right now, for molestation and assault. We're asking punitive damages in excess of forty thousand."
"How far'd he get?"
Donna said, "Got his hand around my boob."
"That isn't worth forty thousand."
Together, they walked back toward his car.
"You got anything to sell?" he asked. "I'm really hurting. I'm virtually out, in fact, hell, I am out, come to think of it. Even a few, if you could spare a few."
"I can get you some."
"Tabs," he said. "I don't shoot up."
"Yes." She nodded intently, head down. "But, see, they're real scarce right now -- the supply's temporarily dried up. You probably discovered that already. I can't get you very many, but --"
"When?" he broke in. They had reached his car; he halted, opened the door, got in. On the far side Donna got in. They sat side by side.
"Day after tomorrow," Donna said. "If I can git ahold of this guy. I think I can."
Shit, he thought. Day after tomorrow. "No sooner? Not like, say, tonight?"
"Tomorrow at the earliest."
"Sixty dollars a hundred."
"Oh, Jeez," he said. "That's a burn."
"They're super good. I've got them from him before; they're really not what you usually buy into. Take my word for it -- they're worth it. Actually, I prefer to get them from him rather than from anybody else -- when I can. He doesn't always have them. See, he just took a trip down south, I guess. He just got back. He picked them up himself, so I know they're good for sure. And you don't have to pay me in advance. When I get them. Okay? I trust you."
"I never front," he said.
"Sometimes you have to."
"Okay," he said. "Then can you get me at least a hundred?" He tried to figure, rapidly, how many he could get; in two days he probably could raise one hundred twenty dollars and get two hundred tabs from her. And if he ran across a better deal in the meantime, from other people who were holding, he could forget her deal and buy from them. That was the advantage of never fronting, that plus never being burned.
"It's lucky for you that you ran into me," Donna said as he started up his car and backed out into traffic. "I'm supposed to see this one dude in about an hour, and he'd probably take all I could get ... you'd have been out of luck. This was your day." She smiled, and he did too.
"I wish you could get them sooner," he said.
"If I do ..." Opening her purse, she got out a little note pad and a pen that had SPARKS BATTERY TUNE-UP stamped on it. "How do I get hold of you, and I forget your name."
"Charles B. Freck," he said. He told her his phone number -- not his, really, but the one he made use of at a straight friend's house, for messages like this -- and laboriously she wrote it down. What difficulty she had writing, he thought. Peering and slowly scrawling ... They don't teach the chicks jack shit in school any more, he thought. Flat-out illiterate. But foxy. So she can't hardly read or write, so what? What matters with a fox is nice tits.
"I think I remember you," Donna said. "Sort of. It's all hazy, that night; I was really out of it. All I definitely remember was getting the powder into those little caps -- Librium caps -- we dumped the original contents. I must have dropped half. I mean, on the floor." She gazed at him meditatively as he drove. "You seem like a mellow dude," she said. "And you'll be in the market later on? After a while you'll want more?"
"Sure," he said, wondering to himself if he could beat her price by the time he saw her again; he felt he could, most likely. Either way he won. That is, either way he scored.
Happiness, he thought, is knowing you got some pills.
The day outside the car, and all the busy people, the sunlight and activity, streamed past unnoticed; he was happy. Look what he had found by chance -- because, in fact, a black-and-white had accidentally paced him. An unexpected new supply of Substance D. What more could he ask out of life? He could probably now count on two weeks lying ahead of him, nearly half a month, before he croaked or nearly croaked -- withdrawing from Substance D made the two the same. Two weeks! His heart soared, and he smelled, for a moment, coming in from the open windows of the car, the brief excitement of spring.
"Want to go with me to see Jerry Fabin?" he asked the girl. "I'm taking a load of his things over to him at the Number Three Federal Clinic, where they took him last night. I'm just carting over a little at a time, because there's a chance he might get back out and I don't want to have to drag it all back."
"I'd better not see him," Donna said.
"You know him? Jerry Fabin?"
"Jerry Fabin thinks I contaminated him originally with those bugs."
"Well, then he didn't know what they were. I better stay away. Last time I saw him he got really hostile. It's his receptor sites, in his brain, at least I think so. It seems like it, from what the government pamphlets say now."
"That can't be restored, can it?" he said.
"No," Donna said. "That's irreversible."
"The clinic people said they'd let me see him, and they said they believed he could work some, you know --" He gestured. "Not be --" Again he gestured; it was hard to find words for that, what he was trying to say about his friend.
Glancing at him, Donna said, "You don't have speech-center damage, do you? In your -- what is it called? -- occipital lobe?"
"No," he said. Vigorously.
"Do you have any kind of damage?" She tapped her head.
"No, it's just ... you know. I have trouble saying it about those fucking clinics; I hate the Neural-Aphasia Clinics. One time I was there visiting a guy, he was trying to wax a floor -- they said he couldn't wax the floor, I mean he couldn't figure out how to do it ... What got me was he kept trying. I mean not just for like an hour; he was still trying a month later when I came back. Just like he had been, over and over again, when I first saw him there, when I first went to visit him. He couldn't figure out why he couldn't get it right. I remember the look on his face. He was sure he'd get it right if he kept trying to flash on what he was doing wrong. 'What am I doing wrong?' he kept asking them. There was no way to tell him. I mean, they told him -- hell, I told him -- but he still couldn't figure it out."
"The receptor sites in his brain are what I've read usually goes first," Donna said placidly. "Someone's brain where he's gotten a bad hit or like that, like too heavy." She was watching the cars ahead. "Look, there's one of those new Porsches with two engines." She pointed excitedly. "Wow."
"I knew a guy who hot-wired one of those new Porsches," he said, "and got it out on the Riverside Freeway and pushed it up to one seventy-five-wipe-out." He gestured. "Right into the ass of a semi. Never saw it, I guess." In his head he ran a fantasy number: himself at the wheel of a Porsche, but noticing the semi, all the semis. And everyone on the freeway -- the Hollywood Freeway at rush hour -- noticing him. Noticing him for sure, the lanky big-shouldered good-looking dude in the new Porsche going two hundred miles an hour, and all the cops' faces hanging open helplessly.
"You're shaking," Donna said. She reached over and put her hand on his arm. A quiet hand that he at once responded to. "Slow down."
"I'm tired," he said. "I was up two nights and two days counting bugs. Counting them and putting them in bottles. And finally when we crashed and got up and got ready the next morning to put the bottles in the car, to take to the doctor to show him, there was nothing in the bottles. Empty." He could feel the shaking now himself, and see it in his hands, on the wheel, the shaking hands on the steering wheel, at twenty miles an hour. "Every fucking one," he said. "Nothing. No bugs. And then I realized, I fucking realized. It came to me, about his brain, Jerry's brain."
The air no longer smelled of spring and he thought, abruptly, that he urgently needed a hit of Substance D; it was later in the day than he had realized, or else he had taken less than he thought. Fortunately, he had his portable supply with him, in the glove compartment, way back. He began searching for a vacant parking slot, to pull over.
"Your mind plays tricks," Donna said remotely; she seemed to have withdrawn into herself, gone far away. He wondered if his erratic driving was bumming her. Probably so.
Another fantasy film rolled suddenly into his head, without his consent: He saw, first, a big parked Pontiac with a bumper jack on the back of it that was slipping and a kid around thirteen with long thatched hair struggling to hold the car from rolling, meanwhile yelling for assistance. He saw himself and Jerry Fabin running out of the house together, Jerry's house, down the beer-can-littered driveway to the car. Himself, he grabbed at the car door on the driver's side to open it, to stomp the brake pedal. But Jerry Fabin, wearing only his pants, without even shoes, his hair all disarranged and streaming -- he had been sleeping -- Jerry ran past the car to the back and knocked, with his bare pale shoulder that never saw the light of day, the boy entirely away from the car. The jack bent and fell, the rear of the car crashed down, the tire and wheel rolled away, and the boy was okay.
"Too late for the brake," Jerry panted, trying to get his ugly greasy hair from his eyes and blinking. "No time."
"S he okay?" Charles Freck yelled. His heart still pounded.
"Yeah." Jerry stood by the boy, gasping. "Shit!" he yelled at the boy in fury. "Didn't I tell you to wait until we were doing it with you? And when a bumper jack slips -- shit, man, you can't hold back five thousand pounds!" His face writhed. The boy, little Ratass, looked miserable and twitched guiltily. "I repeatedly and repeatedly told you!"
"I went for the brake," Charles Freck explained, knowing his idiocy, his own equal fuckup, great as the boy's and equally lethal. His failure as a full-grown man to respond right. But he wanted to justify it anyhow, as the boy did, in words. "But now I realize --" he yammered on, and then the fantasy number broke off; it was a documentary rerun, actually, because he remembered the day when this had happened, back when they were all living together. Jerry's good instinct -- otherwise Ratass would have been under the back of the Pontiac, his spine smashed.
The three of them plodded gloomily back toward the house, not even chasing the tire and wheel, which was still rolling off.
"I was asleep," Jerry muttered as they entered the dark interior of the house. "It's the first time in a couple weeks the bugs let up enough so I could. I haven't got any sleep at all for five days -- I been runnin' and runnin'. I thought they were maybe gone; they've been gone. I thought they finally gave up and went somewhere else, like next door and out of the house entirely. Now I can feel them again. That tenth No Pest Strip I got, or maybe it's the eleventh -- they cheated me again, like they did with all the others." But his voice was subdued now, not angry, just low and perplexed. He put his hand on Ratass's head and gave him a sharp smack. "You dumb kid -- when a bumper jack slips get the hell out of there. Forget the car. Don't ever get behind it and try to push back against all that mass and block it with your body."
"But, Jerry, I was afraid the axle -- "
"Fuck the axle. Fuck the car. It's your life." They passed on through the dark living room, the three of them, and the rerun of a now gone moment winked out and died forever.