A detail from Sefton Eisenhart's painting Chaos of Heat, showing white shapes on a deep-red background. The author and title name are presented in large blue text in a sans-serif font, with 'A Crime Story' in a smaller font size near the bottom.

“Listen, ain’t nobody want your sister no more.”

Vince felt bad about trying to leverage his sister, not that this was the first time. But he was back at the well because he didn’t have a thing and knew if he didn’t get square with Dash he would be done. Helen used to be able to pull him up out of these situations by wiggling her ass and showing her tits a bit, but at some point during his decade-long fuckup her peak had come and gone.

Now Vince had made off with the wrong guy’s dope, having sworn to sell it quick. Instead he ended up moving enough to get a room in the Rodeway Inn. From there he put the rest in his arm and spent a week nodding out on a dirty bed, falling in love with the bed bugs.

Then it ran out. Dope-sick he stole his mom’s second wedding ring, a plain gold band bought to replace the diamond he had already pawned. He stayed well for a day and from there fell deep into withdrawal, walking around Kroyton in the relentless summer, positive that he was going to die in the street covered in sweat and totally broken.

The only reason Dash was giving him a chance to get right was because they were kind of friends growing up. They cut their teeth selling their moms’ pills as kids, but Vince quickly started taking them all. As time passed and roads diverged, Dash started making some real money. These days they occupied distinctly opposite places when it came to supply and demand.

Three weeks ago they ran into each other out front of the Citgo station in the dead of night. Dash had been drunk and threw some weight at Vince, trying to give an old friend a come up after falsely remembering the ol’ days as good in the fashion only drunks can.

“This was a bad move,” Dash acknowledged as he lit a cigarette and sprawled out on the hot stoop, one of the many stoops on a ten-block planet where the two of them had grown up, held in place by downtown inertia.

“I don’t have shit,” Vince declared like a plea.

“Not my problem. Normally you wouldn’t be explaining right now.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Don’t make me look for you.”

“So that’s it? Man how long have we known each—”

“Stop that shit.”

“Give me a job, you must have something cooking.”

“Yeah, I do.” He flicked his lit cigarette against Vince’s chest, suddenly furious, “’cept I can’t even fucking trust you to wash my car. Cash by Sunday night.”

Vince nodded his head and walked away, his dirty skin bleeding ochre sweat as a brutal midday sun burned him alive. It would not just be an ass kicking. Part of him just wanted to turn around and get it over with. It was so fucking hot out, no escape, only breathless shade and baking apartments. At least if he died it would be cool.

But Vince was a coward, his life was governed entirely by fear and he was scared to die. He heard someone shout his name. Dash was waving at him from the stoop. Vince thought his feet had carried him further down the block, but really he had only sauntered a dozen heavy steps. He got to the foot of the stoop and looked up at the sardonic grin of the man enthroned there. Vince thought he was about to get curb stomped.

Instead Dash informed him that it was his lucky day.

With ten dollars in his pocket, a stipend of sorts, Vince sat quietly in Li’s Kitchen sipping a High Grav and doing everything in his power to not vomit. An out-of-place-looking redneck walked in and authoritatively pulled the sunglasses off his face, surveying the woebegone clientele drinking their breakfast. Vince made eye contact and the hick sprung over in three aggressive steps.

“You Dash’s guy?”


“Let’s go. If you gotta drink in the truck get cans.”

“You got anything else? I’m sick man.”

“I ain’t got shit for you.” He was already turned around walking.

They got in the truck and made their way east on Main Street, going in and out of shitty neighborhoods, driving in the same direction until they got past the projects on the outskirts of the city and reached the suburbs. Since these free-standing houses were in such close proximity to Section 8, they were pretty shitty too. In a barren parking lot surrounding an abandoned mall the boss killed the engine and got out.

“There’s a Phillips head in the glove compartment.”

Vince grabbed the tool and circled back around the vehicle.

“What’s your name?” Vince asked.

“John.” It took him a moment to answer, so Vince assumed it was fake.

John bent down and took off the license plate, then he grabbed another off the ground that had magnets glued to the back and stuck that over top. He lit a cigarette and peered up at the sun, like he was using it to gauge time.

“We’re lifting Tide. We’ll use entrances on the left side of the building because that’s where they stock the stuff. You walk into the store and grab a cart. Fill that fucker up with as many medium size bottles as you possibly can and walk out. I’ll be waiting in the fire lane outside the same entrance with the tailgate down. You load the shit and hop right in the cab. Then we’re off.”

“Sounds easy enough.”

“It is. Don’t stand around, don’t act like you’re shopping, and don’t make fucking eye contact. In and out. These places need to alert a loss prevention employee to stop you; your average stock boy can’t do a damn thing. The more time you take, the longer they’ll have to get loss prevention. Understand?”

Vince nodded.

The car moved slowly and Vince noticed how strange it felt to actually go the speed limit, motivated to follow one law in anticipation of breaking another. Even with the windows down there was no relief. Any breeze felt like a blow dryer.

Being trapped beneath the sun intensified every symptom of his withdrawal. Every time they stopped at a red light and lost ventilation he thought he would simply die and not have to worry about being murdered. He’d just stop breathing and fry on the pavement after John rolled him from the bench seat onto the scorching macadam.

John seemed too focused to be bothered by the temperature. He just chain smoked and peered out into the haze, leaning up over the steering wheel to get an upward view of the sky, as if a circling group of vultures might tell him something. He sweated profusely but never wiped his face, just let it drip off his brow where it collected in splotches on his filthy cargo shorts.

They pulled up to the first store. A steady flow of exhausted patrons was already streaming in and out, leaving or returning to the baking interiors of their cars. John stopped the truck and looked at Vince, probing his face for information. Whatever conclusion he came to left him unpleased.

“You ready?”

“I guess.”

John motioned for him to finish off a can of Old English.

“Don’t get creative,” he insisted, “Walk in, fill the cart, leave.”

Inside the AC hit Vince like a blissful state change. He took the deepest breath of his life, but by the time he made it to the home goods aisle, relief had lost its luster. Withdrawal had him by the brain and body. Instead of looking at people he tried to look through them, not making eye contact, but not shying away from their line of sight. He watched their foreheads, somehow disgusted by them, seeing them independent of a face for the first time, just a fleshy surface that wrinkled and relaxed.

As his sweat started to dry he saw a vivid red/orange from the corner of his eye, glowing like fire against the sanitized appearance of its competitors. Vince’s heart raced, and over the Muzak and chatter he could hear it beating too fast, vibrating against his undershirt. He didn’t look both ways, just cleared the shelf until the cart was brimming. From there he focused on the door and the heat beyond, as though to break out of tunnel vision meant the end. Glances were felt but not acknowledged. The automatic doors parted with a swish and the truck sat idling.

They drove down the road and watched the area get progressively better, traveling on the concrete river that was Main Street. This river separated two banks of commercialism that got more tasteful as they moved east. There were no residential homes along the river anymore. All the mansions had been converted into businesses. The wondrous homes that had been built in the ’20s by Kroyton’s elite families had been converted into offices for dentists and insurance agents.

One home sat unnoticed by mid-level professionals, decrepit and forgotten along the river, its water-swelled wood about to fall in on itself. Vince remembered a time when he had broken in there as a kid, the kind of profitless crime born out of boredom and squalor. It’d been during the twilight of boyhood, just before their daily priorities would shift to something even more sinister, when they still moved about town in small packs, skateboard grip tape scraping away the denim around their pockets, getting more brazen about their cigarette smoking with each passing day. They would sniff coke stepped on a hundred times over and fantasize about their own young deaths, talking heart attacks in between snorts of baby laxative.

They sent their smallest friend through a broken hopper window into the basement. He unlocked the door and they stepped into an airtight tinderbox that housed something putrid. Vince remembered how bright light crept through every opening from outside, and how yellow the interior was, as if he was looking through his uncle’s amber-lensed aviators. The smell grew worse as they explored further. In the kitchen was a dead junky decomposing in the heat.

The crew of boys all took turns shouting irreverent expletives, laughing at a dead man in an effort to prove toughness. They went on pushing the envelope, trying not to throw up from the stench. One boy, the youngest who had crawled through the window, lifted his leg like a punter and kicked the man’s head. A swath of the man’s scalp went flying then oozed down the wall. The boy fell to the floor, clutching his foot in pain.

He broke his toe. The smell was intensified with the opening of flesh and they decided the morbid entertainment was no longer worth it. They all left through the front door, still muttering crude observations. No one helped the new cripple, didn’t even wait for him as he limped slowly, trying to catch up. All youth and brutality.

As Vince drove past, nearly ten years later, he was fascinated how “everything changes, everything stays the same.”

He repeated it like a mantra under his breath, “Everything changes, everything stays the same. Everything changes, everything stays the same.”

All these inanimate objects stood unmoving as lives went on all around them. He had traveled these streets time after time in every phase of his existence, these places bore quiet witness, monuments to all things that had been and would be. If Vince didn’t die, it would get cold, and if he kept on living, it’d get hot again, and that cycle would continue on. This cycle seemed like some insurmountable burden as he peered out into the hot air, grappling with a strong desire to be gone contrasted by fear about being dead.

The second store was a Giant in a better neighborhood. They slowly made their way through the parking lot, which was much busier than the first, and John seemed less severe. Vince had proven himself to a degree in that he didn’t cut and run.

“The further east we go the less risk there is.”

“Why’s that?”

“Less shrinkage at the suburban spots, so they have less loss prevention. Plus, there’s usually a different kind of employee out this way. Downtown they see a lot of wild shit, so they’re more perceptive. Out here they don’t pay much attention.”

“Good to know.”

“That’s not an excuse to get sloppy. Just repeat what you did last time.”

Vince got out of the car and grabbed a cart. The AC hit him again and he felt more relaxed. Without the first-time jitters to expand time, make a minute feel like an hour, he made quick work of the load. The truck was exactly where it was supposed to be.

The success of the second lift made John relax a bit. He pulled into a little six-pack joint remarking how hot it was, as if he had just realized. They went into a dark sitting area and drank down a six-pack of High Grav cans in fifteen minutes. After his third beer John sat real still staring through the empty can, looking like a pensive idiot, wrap-around sunglasses perched on top of his forehead, revealing the milky pale skin around his heavy lidded, unblinking eyes. He was mulling something over with such focus that his body didn’t have the energy to move, every precious resource was being used by his brain to ruminate.

“You okay?” asked Vince.


“’bout what?”

He got up and walked to the truck. Vince followed after polishing off the beer.

They did three more stores with rapid efficiency. Vince felt better. The withdrawal still had him, but it had turned mostly physical, like a terrible cold, full of body aches and fever. He felt accomplished for the first time in years. John casually offered him a cigarette. The thought of smoking made Vince nauseous, but he accepted gratefully and lit it with a smile, like a kid drinking his first beer, proud but secretly disgusted.

There was not a lot of room left in the back of the truck, and they pulled into an apartment complex to position the bottles properly for more space. Kids ran around the pool, the nucleus of the community during summer months. The dumpster they parked beside reeked of hot garbage. Flies buzzed about emitting steady white noise and resting from flight on their faces.

“We’re running out of room.”

“Call it a day?” Vince asked.

“That what you want, considering what’s waiting for you?”

“I thought this squared me?”

There was a long pause while John pretended to focus on the cargo, “Not my call. Whatever thing you got with Dash is with Dash.”

John offered another cigarette, but Vince became emboldened by pending reality and refused, in a flash of anger he didn’t feel the need to ingratiate himself to some guy who, it suddenly became clear, was using him. The arrangement was not an even trade, instead it was Dash trying bleed him dry, get some use out of him. This whole detergent hustle was Dash’s entrepreneurialism, not a quid pro quo.

Helen would be pretty torn up. That’s about it, other than the obvious, that Vince would be dead. A clear vision of his especially delicate mortality made him fall back into withdrawal, taking hold of his brain and leaving him spastic. He vomited a small pond of foul malt liquor onto the hot parking lot, where it slowly spread and mixed with the semi-congealed, iridescent grease that surrounded the dumpster. It took six projectile evacuations of piss-colored liquid before he could get himself under control, his face covered in tears and bile, red-eyed and oily.

John took a few steps back so the creeping liquid wouldn’t reach his feet. He dropped the tailgate back down and pulled out four jugs then told Vince to do the same. Together they moved about the maze of the complex, through worn-out courtyards and strange exterior walkways, everything constructed of ugly brick, adorned with vandalism that only served to deface. They went down into a building where there was a subterranean floor with a few of the cheapest units, a single bulb in the wall lighting a common hallway that smelled putrid and sultry, with sticky linoleum floors that could take your shoes off.

John knocked on a door and an exasperated rumbling of movement could be heard inside. Someone loudly pulled and twisted a series of locks with an ugly metallic crunching. A morbidly obese woman opened the door a chain’s length wearing nothing but an oversized white t-shirt. No pants or bra, just a white tee that could outfit a sailboat. A Misty 100 poked out the crack and she scrutinized the duo before swinging the door wide without a word.

“Need some bags” was how John greeted her.


John looked Vince over, trying to size up his tolerance, “A bundle should do.”

She let out a single snort of condescending amusement, “That ain’t no hundred dollars wortha detergent Hunter.”

He looked at Vince and acknowledged that the cat was out the bag with the fake name, apparently a bit tickled.

“The hell they ain’t,” the smile must have brought out the white trash draw in his voice, “these retail for eighteen dollars all damn day,” he proclaimed with an uninhibited twang.

She scratched her gigantic tits as she did some basic arithmetic.

“Ok, but only cuz you’re handsome.”

She walked across the room and shifted a ceiling tile above her head and tossed a rubber-banded wad of wax paper packages at Hunter. He plucked a single bag and handed to Vince.

“You’re sniffing that, no needles. Can’t have you falling out on me.”

“Just one, man?”

“We’ll see how you hold up.”

Vince walked into the kitchen, the room with the most light, and pulled a straw out of an empty McDonald’s cup. After cutting a section off he ran a paper towel through it to absorb any liquid. Suddenly he was graceful. He moved with precision now that a soothing light shown at the end of the tunnel. Vince took the whole bag up his nose in one guttural snort followed by six more, just to make sure a single particle of dope wasn’t wasted stuck to a booger.

He didn’t get the rush, the rush that he had destroyed his entire life in pursuit of, but he did get the calm. He felt ease and suddenly he walked on a cloud and looked at the people in the room with the contentment of a Buddha, simply being. No thoughts or feelings about anything. He felt fine.

Hunter seemed satisfied and the obese dealer looked pleased. They looked at him the way parents might pleasantly look at their child when the picky kid tries a food he had been sure was disgusting, only to find he loved it. And just like a toddler who had found something that made him feel good, it was about thirty seconds before Vince asked for more.

“No,” was Hunter’s reply.

Nice and high, Vince didn’t have it in him to argue, didn’t want to harsh his buzz by pushing his luck. By his standards, he even showed some initiative by saying, “Well, this Tide isn’t going to steal itself.”

Hunter let out a note of twangy laughter and patted him on the back as they walked out to the truck.

They did six more stores and crossed the Burnsville bridge into Columbo, a small town made up string-bean white guys who wore summertime beanies and orbited around planet-sized women rolling out of faded camisoles. The hottest part of the day was over and some dense clouds had spread across the sky. The river looked bluer than anything Vince had ever seen, the way the ocean looks from space, and the sheer intensity of the hue made him feel blissful.

They were nearly out of room in the truck, and pulled into the last parking lot. Without a word Vince hopped out and walked in, grabbing a cart and swinging it in from of him with the ostentatious flair of a professional. The hard rubber wheels squeaked across the floor and shoppers looked up from their produce.

Vince filled the cart and made for the door, but the stares of customers were stronger, more interested. He didn’t make eye contact, but he could feel the accusations beaming from two dozen eyes and broke out into a light run, which only drew more attention. He heard someone shout behind him. He sprinted the final stretch and got outside. The second the warm air hit him he felt a hand grab him by the shoulder but he didn’t turn around, just lunged forward and broke free. A bald, round, every-white-guy-in-America-looking motherfucker grabbed him by his thin junky wrist.

“They’re calling the cops. Why don’t you hang tight?”

Vince looked down the parking lot and saw Hunter sitting behind the wheel, five yards of pavement separating two guys in very different predicaments. Vince tried to break free but the man only tightened his grip, forced Vince’s arm behind his back, and popped his arm out of the socket. Vince screamed in pain and resorted to pleading, but his captor just smiled, sadistically applying pressure to his unhinged shoulder. Vince dropped and felt a knee force his stomach to the ground, then a hand pressed his face into the gravel, while a gruff, amused voice assured him again that the cops were on their way.

Vince’s eyes flooded with tears that dripped across the bridge of his nose and into his sideburn. He relaxed his body and played dead for a moment, then abruptly went wild in an attempt to free himself, but it was no use. The man applied all his body weight and twisted Vince’s already chicken-winged arm counter clockwise. Vince could see the top of his arm bone through his skin, and the sight made the pain all the more excruciating. He began to beg, in the form of pathetic gibberish, for mercy.

Then there was a screech of brakes followed by the slam of a car door. The pressure disappeared. Vince turned and saw Hunter with a .357 pointed at his oppressor, who now stood with his hands in the air.

“Fucking guys like you,” Hunter sounded suddenly exhausted, “Ready to die for a Wal-Mart.”

Hunter didn’t say anything, just got the truck up to 120 on Route 30, barreling around cars, laying on the horn, driving on the shoulder, rumble strip making a noise against the tires like something terribly broken but running harder in spite of itself. He spun right, got off at the Helton exit, putting the truck on two wheels and almost killing them both. They didn’t hear any sirens as they pulled into a cinderblock garage directly off the ramp, hidden by overgrown brush that had been spreading in every direction for years.

He got out from behind the wheel and threw one of the three garage doors open. Once they were inside he pulled a phone out of a work bench drawer. Then he handed Vince the rest of the bundle.

“You’ll probably wanna get good and high.”

He walked away and made some calls, speaking quietly and pacing nervously.

Vince, like the junky he was, sniffed it all up until he was nodding out. He sat propped against the wall like a wounded soldier, eyes barely open, sometimes conscious enough to wipe the drool off his face.

There was a loud knock on the door, metal on metal. In walked Dash and two others. They spoke with Hunter who motioned to Vince, who was trying to get on his feet without much success, only one arm capable of taking any weight. He ended up standing for nothing, because when he did get straight Dash walked over. Hunter walked outside and looked at the sun.

For the second time that day, Dash informed Vince of his luck.

“The Tide guy vouched for you.”

It was not the worst beating of Vince’s life, but definitely up there.

TEXT © Eisenhart



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