In my previous post, Welcome to Pervert Alley, I briefly mentioned my friend Daniel, a guy who when I met him was in the process of rebuilding his life. He met a woman named Shelly and that all went to hell. This is how it happened.
Daniel didn’t look like he belonged in Pervert Alley. Tall and straight-backed, with sunbleached blond hair and faded blue eyes, Daniel had a sunny, unselfconscious smile and skin that was thick and creased like well-worn leather, looking somehow like something he had earned under God’s own sun.
But nobody ends up at Pervert Alley by accident, and like every sorry member of the vast, shuffling rogues’ gallery snaking back in time to before I was born who called Pervert Alley home, something malignant had once upon a time crept into Daniel’s life and thrown it off the rails. But when I met Daniel he’d gotten himself healthy, and begun the first tender, tentative steps to pick up the pieces of a life which had never really begun.
Daniel met Shelly at an AA meeting. He’d was there by choice; she’d attended at the behest of the courts. Shelly was around forty and had a decent figure, but her hair was her best feature, cheery blond half-curls cut shoulder-length. Her face, though, was the fly in the ointment. She might have been pretty once, but time and bad living had made her features plain, and it was the dark vulpine thing crouching just behind her eyes that made her repellent.
Daniel loved Shelly with the kind of beautiful, monolithic, Junior-year-of-high-school adoration that is the stuff of Hallmark Greeting Cards, effusive and inexhaustible. It was a sentiment Shelly was, I believe, incapable of reciprocating. She was of that low and vulgar tribe of skulkers and creepers, backroad vampires and poorhouse parasites, who survive through the generosity or kindness or vulnerability of the very hosts whose lives they plunder, taking what they find valuable and leaving behind a spent and ruptured husk.
Daniel stuck with Shelly even when she went back to jail for an outstanding warrant, and was there to meet her when she came out, and believed her unquestioningly when she declared herself a changed woman. And later, after she had stormed out of Pervert Alley and Daniel’s life for the first time, and had before long changed her mind, he took her back, joyously and without rancor, and did it again when the same thing happened just a few days later. He took her back every time she left him, which was often, and it got so that the state of Daniel’s door indicated the status of their relationship. The door stood open when they were together, the two of them often sitting on the hovel’s small porch, or wandering the lot, Daniel mostly blissfully, beatifically silent, while Shelly talked at anyone who would listen. When Shelly was gone the door was closed, and the deep, impenetrable blackness would bleed through the small curtained windows.
Shelly started bringing strange men to Daniel’s home—lean young men with the same hungry eyes as Shelly; Daniel didn’t seem to care as long as Shelly came around. Those men would take Shelly places in the car that my grandmother signed over to Daniel in exchange for some work he’d done around her place, but which he could no longer drive because of an infection in his foot. When Daniel went to the hospital, Shelly and her new friends kept Daniel’s apartment warm for him.
Shelly was somewhere else when Daniel came home from the hospital with a nasty MRSA infection, and #6 was dark for a while. She came back to him at least one more time, though, because the last time I saw Daniel, Shelly was with him.
This was at least a year ago now, at an hour by which most decent folks have already gone to bed. I take walks sometimes late at night and they surprised me, two vague shapes conjured from the darkness and seeming to materialize from the shadows of the coffee shop. Daniel was hooded and his eyes were in shadow, his flesh drawn and waxy. He had grown a beard, which I’d never seen before. It made him look hard and a little bit hungry. He offered me a tepid, hesitant smile which never reached the eyes that failed to meet my own and mumbled something friendly by way of greeting.
Shelly seized my hand in both of hers before I knew it. Her hands were firm and smooth and unpleasantly moist and she did not let go. Her weasel’s eyes were in constant motion, suffuse with dark merriment. Her breath was hot and whiskey-fouled. She slurred her way through a string of platitudes about my family and complimented me on my children. I don’t remember exactly what she said; I was only half-listening—although I recall she got my wife’s name wrong— and feeling very much like a coyote with his leg caught in a trap, contemplating whether it might not be worth it just to gnaw the damn thing off. When I finally did get away, I held my right hand away from my body the way you do when you’ve touched something filthy, until I could scrub it pink with soap and hot water.
I guess Shelly left Daniel for good after that, and I heard that he lost a few toes from one of his feet. He’s been gone for a couple months now, down in a hospital in LA and I don’t know if he’s coming back. I saw Shelly once after that just a few weeks later. She was curbside with some shifty nameless no-account in front of the supermarket holding a cardboard sign which read HUNGRY ANYTHING HELPS GOD BLESS.
You probably get that I blame Shelly for what’s become of Daniel, and it’s true, I do. Like some sort of psychic tapeworm, she plundered Daniel, gorging herself on everything that was worthwhile and vital, the very qualities which had set him somehow apart from his Pervert Alley confederates, the things which made him dream of a life so much of the country takes for granted. and when she had taken all this and grown fat off his tears, she cast his carcass aside, her eyes already on the make for a new host. I blame Shelly not only because she understood what she was doing and knew also the unspeakable sum Daniel had wagered on her and what, therefore, her treachery would cost him, but because I truly believe she took pleasure in the ruin of a decent man.
I’m wrong to blame Shelly, though–as much as I want to. It’s like this: when someone we care about falls, we cast about desperately for a culprit, and more often than not, we find it. Drugs and alcohol. Infidelity and divorce. Lay-offs and health woes. Life–these are some of the things we say can destroy an existence. Our thoughtless tongues grant these episodes a totemic power that, mighty as they are, they do not deserve. The truth is sometimes more painful. The truth is that striving to make a life for yourself and trying every day to make it better, and maybe sharing that life with another, raising children, taking vacations, meeting obligations, being loved—all the things we have for so long taken for granted—these things take effort. Every day is a tightrope walk across a yawning chasm at the bottom of which lies abject failure, and our fear keeps us upright and allows us to forget the dark truth that it would be so much easier to simply submit to gravity’s implacable embrace and fall, fall, fall to that grey and lifeless land where nothing is expected and nothing given. Sometimes the thing you want asks more from you than you believe is within you to give. I think that’s how it was with Daniel, really. Shelly was a loaded pistol, sleek and seductive and lethal, but the finger caressing the trigger was always Daniel’s.