The thing about him that struck me first was his mode of dress, which was like a grown-up’s. Because of the heat, which persists through December, at least in midday, Arizonans tend to dress like college freshmen, in shorts and t-shirts, whenever they can get away with it. Forced into handouts like greasy black concert shirts, panhandlers typically look worse – like feral high school sophomores. But this person wore a blazer and Oxford shirt, which, despite their shabbiness, made him look like someone worth pausing to listen to.
This was fortunate for him because he didn’t speak so much as mutter. I made him repeat himself three times before I realized he was asking, “Say, brother, do you know anyone who needs some Oxycodone?”
He had said “brother,” not “bro,” which under the circumstances seemed like another unexpected touch of delicacy. On reflection, so did the fact that he recognized his query as one better made under his breath than brayed at the top of his lungs. Although his face sported a couple of open sores, they were small, like pin-pricks.
“Let me get this straight,” I asked. “You need money so badly that you’re actually giving away hard drugs?”
“Not giving away, exactly,” he said. “But I could let you have three for $10. That’s 60 milligrams all told.”
He explained that the prescription was his and that he’d received it after a car had fractured his pelvis when it sideswiped him. He listed other injuries but they failed to register over the sound of my own wincing. I told him to keep his Oxycodone, and promised him a five-dollar handout as long as he would wait while I bought a pack of gum and took cash back from the Circle K across the street. He agreed and matched me stride for stride on the way there – impressive, I thought, for a man still suffering the effects of a pelvic fracture.
There was a reason beyond the man’s refinement and Matthew’s Gospel that I took the trouble. I’d had a brief fling with Oxycodone myself. It came right at the end of my drugstore cowboy phase, which – unless you count booze – ran from 2003 till early 2007. In those days, I had a neighbor named Lisa. Lisa was a lesbian, and an extremely cute one. In her account, her longtime girlfriend was emotionally distant at best and domineering at worst.
The upshot was that Lisa found often found herself feeling – as they say now – skin hungry, or in plainer English, desperate for the gentler species of human touch. At her suggestion, we got in the habit of undressing and entwining in her bed, and…well, that was about it. Though it did occur to me that I should resent being asked to take the place of a St. Bernard or a Baltimore album quilt, I found those hours pleasant. To a person of my essentially bourgeois tastes for whom sex meant one thing only, it felt like a trip into Bohemia, but not one I should be obliged to report to any woman I happened to be involved with more seriously.After we’d known each other for about a year and a half, Lisa was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. I can’t remember all the details of her treatment, but her hair never fell out, though she did lose a great deal of weight. She had a prescription for Oxycodone, which for some reason failed to impress her. She let me cadge a pill here and there. With no actual pain to kill, I enjoyed the high, which was nice and mellow, like wine without the hangover or weed without the nudges into morbid introspection.
In more senses than one, it was Oxycodone that ended up putting the kibosh on Lisa’s and my friendship. One evening, over the course of a DVD double feature consisting of Zulu and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World – you are free to guess which of us did the selecting – I popped four, or maybe it was five. During one of the slower scenes that involved Paul Bettany traipsing over the Galapagos Islands, recording pre-Darwinian observations on the local wildlife, I conked out. Some time later, I regained consciousness to find Lisa’s girlfriend, released early from Home Depot, standing at the foot of the bed.
What followed immediately is left to your imagination. For months afterward, Lisa and I held ourselves to a quick wave hello whenever I passed under her patio or she under mine. Over that period, some mysterious force prompted me to attend my first Mass, and to enroll in RCIA. The next time Lisa called down to me as I stepped out to check my mail, she was, without knowing it, calling to an incipient Catholic.
“Hey,” she said, her voice thin in the night air. “You want to come up for the night?”
If I ever master moral theology, it’ll be thanks to the practice I got in moments like these. Still a few weeks from my rite of welcoming, I wasn’t even a catechumen yet. More than a year would pass before I was expected to renounce Satan and all his empty promises. The time remaining left me some wiggle room to…well, to do things like Lisa was suggesting. Still, though Rumspringen is strictly for Anabaptists, everyone has a conscience. As I was grappling with mine, a question occurred to me that might serve as a tiebreaker, a flipped coin.
“You have any Oxycodone?”
“I’ll get back to you in a few,” I told her. “I’m expecting a call.” And with that, I slipped back to my unit, thinking myself a second Sir Gawaine.
Lisa’s story ended more or less happily. After going into remission, she and the Home Depot manager moved to a state that permitted them to marry. Still, to this day, I kick myself for not going up and trying my hand at corporal works of mercy – holding her hand, doing her dishes, walking her border collie. When I handed that guy a five-dollar bill, I thanked God, first for the chance to do something decent, but also for the reminder of how new I still was at it.