This wasn’t the first time Vincent had spoken with a drug dealer. Back in Tampa, a few of his friends were in the game, all small-time stuff, though—weed, pills when they could get them. Vincent didn’t think of these dealers as bad people, and definitely not as criminals. In his mind, they were closer to prom queens tossing candy from convertibles, or modern-day fairies, blunts for magic wands, traveling around town and sprinkling good cheer. And this guy here sure fit the good-guy bill: long, greasy hair, faded tie-dye and a big, moony smile. Seemed he knew half the kids out that night, too, calling out nicknames and quick jokes after them when they passed in their big groups, clumps of pastel Polo shirts and Atlanta Braves caps, blondes sprinkled among them. These groups had more or less ignored Vincent all night, his first hanging around the college bars in downtown Milledgeville, and the dealer’s facility in this scene set Vincent at ease. He felt he could trust this simple, happy, harmless young man in front of him—at least, he felt he could trust him about simple, happy, harmless stuff, like drugs. But then again, Vincent hadn’t been around much.
“Seen you around,” Vincent said. “You came up to our stoop a few nights ago. On MLK.”
This puzzled the dealer. “MLK?”
“Martin Luther King.”
“No shit?” said the dealer, smiling in sudden recognition at some friends in another passing clump: more pastel Polos, Braves, and blondes. Each of these groups was just déjà vu all over again for Vincent, like those backgrounds in Roadrunner cartoons that just repeated—cactus, rock, cactus, rock; Polo, Braves, blonde, polo, Braves, blonde.
The group snaked into a bar and the dealer turned back to Vincent. “So did your parents name you after him?” asked the dealer, the first inkling of interest anyone had shown in Vincent all night. “Or is it just a huge, like, King Kong-sized coincidence?”
“Name me after who?”
“No, man,” Vincent said, held up his hands in a gesture begging clarity, wiping the air. “I said I live on Martin Luther King. The street. Over there.” He pointed north.
The drug dealer clapped a hand to his forehead. “The street?”
“Fuck me, man!” The dealer started laughing. “I thought you meant like,” he said, laughed again. “Like, you were Martin Luther King.”
“I am not Martin Luther King,” Vincent said. “I’m Vincent.”
The dealer introduced himself as Alex, took Vincent’s hand. It was a hippie handshake—loose, quick, effeminate.
Vincent pulled himself closer, whispered in his ear. “Listen: You holding?”
Alex’s eyes widened, and he pulled back a bit, stumbling over his reply. “No, no. Dry tonight, man. Sorry.”
Vincent knew immediately Alex was lying—he was a dealer, and he was stoned, so he had to have something on him. But Vincent didn’t know the reason for the lie, and the first thing he suspected was that it was because he, Vincent, was black. The moment gave Vincent pause. He couldn’t remember a time before when this distinction had ever meant anything. Racism was of course always an issue, it had been that way in Tampa, had been a hideous thing, had in fact loomed large, but because the communities were also so large, those racial divides had always seemed distant, removed, always in the abstract, a thing that surely cast a shadow over his community, but always and only a shadow, and Vincent had never before seen the body that cast it, had known only the darkness and had never encountered in the flesh the walking, breathing, living cadaver itself, that zombie puppeteer that is racism in America, and Vincent understood now that in the bustling city race had been around mostly in the conceptual sense, and so could be as easily dismissed as immaterial to the day-in, day-out workaday world of the lower middle class, and this was as easy to prove there as passing your hand through a shadow, as turning on a lamp, as every night the city skyline itself turned to spires of light. The thing had never before felt so immediate and intimate as it was here, in this small, hot, congested and poorly lit Southern town, and Vincent realized for the first time he was living in its actual presence, and had been for a while, that the American zombie was alive here, slumbering maybe, a lump under a carpet maybe, under a bed, but here all the same, present, and that was a totally different thing. He shuddered, shook it off, took another hard look at his moony, space-cadet companion here and wondered if someone like this could feel it too. He hoped he could. He didn’t let Alex release his hand. In fact, Vincent pulled his hand in closer. “I’d like to get in on it,” Vincent said. “I got this idea. I got my own greenhouse.”
A big group of barhoppers was noisily pouring out of some dive down the street, and Vincent lost hope as Alex turned away from him to check them out, his moony face again lit with recognition. Vincent wondered if Alex had even listened. Alex cupped a hand to his mouth, called out, “Sooooooopa!”
This group was dressed differently. Flannel shirts, ratty t-shirts, tight jeans. They didn’t move on to another bar, just sort of clumped right there around a bench on the corner. Cigarettes were lit, pint glasses of yellow beer emerged from hiding places, probably lifted from the bar. It was the first time Vincent thought to check the street for the police, and of course he found none. They all were probably parked darkly on MLK, staking out Weak’s Market. A girl with dreadlocks, wearing a dark red sarong—long, neat dreadlocks that looked clean, maintained, costly—heard Alex and turned and waved, called back to him with a grin that brought to light a lip ring. “El Pan!”
Alex put a hand on his hip and one in the air and danced a sort of flamenco jig. Laughing, he turned back to Vincent, clapped a hand gently on his upper arm. “Look, I’m just dry now, man. For real. And I gotta split,” Alex said, nodding to the group. “Nice to meet you, though, dude.”
“Vincent,” said Vincent.
“Vincent!” Alex made little guns out of his fingers, shot them in rapid fire at Vincent, smiling.
Vincent acted on this quickly, pulling out his phone before Alex put his finger guns down, catching him mid-congeniality. “Maybe get your number?” he asked.
“Uh,” Alex said, shuffling slowly off, pulled by some force down the sidewalk away from Vincent, toward the group. Then he seemed to have made a quick decision. “Sure,” he said, and rattled off his number. As Vincent punched it into his phone, he watched out of his periphery as the dreadlocked girl in the sarong slinked up the sidewalk to meet Alex. She gave Alex a hug, her body folding luxuriously, like a mink shrug, and she waved at Vincent, who, upon puffing his chest and waving back, swore he caught a flash in her eye, a swelling of something bright and inviting, an opening door.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked Alex.
“This is Vincent,” Alex said. He sounded proud of it now, suddenly in Vincent’s corner. So he must have felt it too, Vincent thought, that flash.
“Hey Vincent,” she said. “I’m Alex.”
“You’re both Alex?”
“We’re both Alex,” she said. Vincent felt his mouth water. He wanted that lip ring between his teeth.
“She’s La Sopa,” Alex the drug dealer said. “And I am El Pan.”
“The soup and the bread!” said La Sopa, and the two of them collapsed into gurgling stoner hysterics. Vincent got Spanish, but he didn’t get this.
La Sopa turned to Vincent. “Come with us,” she said. She pointed to the group. “Curls has got a gas mask.” Vincent followed her finger to a fat guy with a red face and clownish, curly hair. She turned to Vincent. “Ever done a gas mask?”
The best part about smoking out of a gas mask, Vincent conjectured from his Vincent-shaped niche in the basement couch, is you’re always surprised when the smoker pulls it off. The mask looked so creepy, like death itself, with this long hose attached to the mouth, which you smoked out of. Like the elephant of death, Vincent thought. Then, whoever it was pulled it off and, voila, a cloud of smoke and a coughing, laughing hippie! It just about killed Vincent with laughter. Death mask—hippie! Death mask—hippie!
Vincent was very, very high. They’d been passing the mask around for about an hour. Much of what had happened wasn’t clear. For one, he wasn’t too sure just where in town this house was. And he didn’t remember anyone’s name, really, except for Alex and La Sopa, who had spent a warm and lovely few minutes sitting in Vincent’s lap, before leaving for the bathroom or the kitchen or someplace. Much of what was happening now wasn’t clear, either. Vincent felt good, though. This was a familiar feeling, the old basement high. It transcended time and place. It transcended America. And it transcended race. The mask added to this effect for Vincent. Whoever wore it was taking their turn as the outsider. Then they took it off and it was always a surprise to see they were suddenly human again, so red-faced and cherubic from holding their breath, always so lovely, and always so different, so astonishing and funny.
Someone had the mask on now. “Elephant death!” Vincent called out. Vincent felt his outsider status conferred a certain celebrity on him, and he’d sort of slipped into the ringmaster role of the evening, announcing people as they emerged from the mask, giving them spontaneous nicknames. This guy pulled the mask off, and Vincent saw a cloud of smoke for a head, waited for the smoke to clear so he could see who it was and make his announcement—Alex! Vincent called out, “El Pan!”
Alex crashed onto the sofa beside him, blowing out some leftover smoke. He slapped Vincent’s thigh, told Vincent he was awesome. Vincent nodded. He thought this was pretty fucking evident.
“So you said you’re a gardener?”
“I’m Vincent,” said Vincent, lending his voice a bassy thump. “And I am a gardener.”
Vincent made his pitch, simple and clean as he could: to use his father’s old greenhouse, tucked away and nearly invisible behind The New Kroger, to grow lots of dope. Alex was in.
“Dude,” he said, “I know so many dudes in environmental science and biology who could make this a sick nasty operation. And we could get the whole town for the market.”
Vincent didn’t know about that last part, seemed to him Alex meant something more than what he was saying, but Vincent was too corked to ask any effective questions.
“La Sopa’s in the kitchen, dude,” Alex said. “Think she’s crushing on you, big time.”
Vincent smiled at this, received the gas mask from Alex and pulled it over his face. He looked around the room, through the gray, tenebrous goggles at the giggling, slow-motion no-faces, sucked in some smoke and held it, and in the mask he thought briefly of his father, the no-face that had shadowed him his whole life, and his face grew hot and sweaty and he thought of the chemicals his father had made, the chemicals that had been spread all over those people with nowhere to hide, with no masks of their own, who were to his father—and to Vincent, also—much like these faceless people around him now, unknowns, others, and Vincent wondered who or what the real zombie here actually was, whether it was in reality as he had felt back on the sidewalk outside the bars, if he’d really sensed the ancient and horrible animus of this place, of the American South, or if the looming zombie spirit actually dwelt deeper, was something more personal and more devastating than that, if the real zombie in the room was the newly uncovered spirit of his father. Then Vincent suddenly felt the mask lift, his sweaty cheeks cooling in the air of the room, but it was still dark—he’d had his eyes closed—and he blew out the smoke and opened his eyes and beside him magically was the other Alex, La Sopa, and she had the mask in her hand, and she laughed and leaned forward and pressed her lips onto his.
Vincent’s story continues in the next installment of The New Kroger.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.