Friday, July 24, 2020

Fiction Friday: A Drop of Compassion

A Drop of Compassion

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Payday. Rent day. Paycheck in hand, I'm still short of what I need to make rent.

I know. This month was going to be different. But James hit another depressive cycle and tried to drink his way out. No relief, just an empty account. But I can't blame him. We graduated from grad school together three years ago. In those three years, we've only managed to pull together enough between gig work and adjunct positions to cover our loans, rent, and the occasional package of instant ramen.
This month was his turn to crack. I did three months ago, when I agreed to go with my family to Atlantic City, and tried to win money gambling. Throwing it into the ocean would have been more productive.
So I have to visit the clinic. It's just around the corner from our little rat-hole. The sign on the front said "Free Clinic." But we all know it's into Extraction. The people, just a bit too nice for this neighborhood, long sleeves covering their track-marks. The people who look like they belong, smiling at you one day, glassy-eyed the next.
The clinic will help. Take away your pain. Struggling with depression? Just go in, ask quietly for a shot of joy. Walk away, smiling.
But that's for the people coming in. The ones who live here? The only thing the clinic offers is a little extra cash to provide them the raw ingredients.
I started getting extracted six months ago, right after Lucy walked off. I walked in, coughed when they put the stethoscope against my chest and spent ten minutes with the needle. First time I felt "the lows." Stumbling, a little hollow inside. But her leaving didn't hurt as much anymore. Gave them all the love I had for that girl. Earned me a thousand dollars and the ability to sleep through the night again.
But dating really hasn't felt right since. They say you get past it, but the peaks never seem to match what they used to.
I met Amy's eyes as I walked through the clinic's doors. I see the despair in them. "Bob, it's too soon. I told you: I don't want to see you or Jimmie here for another three months." Known her since undergrad. We used to hang out more, but we'd grown distant after Ezme.
Esme had been in the same rat race James and I had been running. Started falling behind, took the razor road. Her note?
 "Let's see them get their money out of me now."
They got $328.67.
I think we reminded her too much of Esme, so she tried to stop us. Tried to get us to slow down how often we came in. Her compassion did her credit, and I told her so, "You take a trip with the needle, you'll get a couple thousand of compassion easy, Amy." She looked at me hard for a second, but before she could say anything, I went on, "I've got to. We need rent money, and James drank up his rent money at the bar last night. This will be the last one for a while, I just need the $250 for a standard extraction."
"And we're not going to deny Robert his freedom of choice, are we, Amy?" Amy's supervisor, the clinic's owner, had come up behind her while we were talking and set a hand on my friend's shoulder, giving me a broad smile full of teeth. "A standard? Follow me, Mister Gibon." I followed the old woman down the hall of the clinic back to the machine. "You were just in here a few weeks ago. Your last physical is still in effect, so we can dispense with that bit of business." I nodded. Extra $20 in my pocket if I didn't have to take a deep breath and cough.
The room with the machine was in what used to be the clinic's operating theatre, back before PP had been run out of business by the third Trump administration. A gleaming mess of tubes and steel filters attached to a new-looking clinical chair. I settled into the chair, relaxing back into it. I could already feel it, that numbness that the machine gives you, even before I felt the needle's prick in my arm. After a few minutes in the machine, I heard the doctor's voice, "Robert, I'm not getting enough through the filters on the normal setting."
I turned my head to look at the neat little row of bottles, all my emotions dripping into medical vials beside my head. I could see that she was right. "Love" and "hope" were dry, while "joy" was almost as empty. The only vials I had filled even to their first markers had been "peace" and "empathy." I knew she was right. What they'd taken so far wasn't worth a hundred dollars, far short of what I needed for rent. I started to panic, my voice catching in my throat. Then the trickle into "peace" stopped. I stopped myself long enough to take a deep breath and ask the doctor, "Can't we turn it up? I need the money for rent. Just enough to make rent?"
She nodded in the affirmative and played with something on the controls, then I felt the machine kick into high gear. I think I also felt the doctor slipping more needles into me, but all I could feel was the oncoming lows as all the chemicals were filtered out of my system. I lost myself in that low trip, or maybe I just passed out from the pain.
When I woke up, I was alone in the operating theatre. On the tray beside me was my receipt and a stack of bills. I folded the bills, thinking about why I was here. What right did James have drinking away my rent money? I decided I was going to head home and straighten the fuckstick out.
On the tray, the receipt: 30ml compassion, $350. 15ml Peace, $100.