People say what a tragedy when you’re 13 and selling it on the street. They say what kind of parents would let that happen and what kind of police force doesn’t stop it and what hope is there for him now. Your life they all agree is going to spiral down down down into some viscid cesspool where to drown would be a blessing. But they haven’t personally met any of the 13-year-olds working the trade—not in the daytime anyway—and they owe too much to their imagination and news and movies and books, which are all more or less the same thing.
I say this because I used to be one of those 13-year-olds, the latest supposed lost boy of the latest lost generation, and my companions were also 13 or 14 or on occasion 15. For years I stood on street corners with Petey and Vishnu and Hirotaka talking about the night before’s janes until a stationwagon rolled up and its window rolled down and the lady behind the wheel took off her sunglasses to give one of us the finger call.
Most just wanted the usual young heat and hormones, but some were sick sad deviants who made you wonder even though you were the prostitute what had happened to them. It was the pitiable pitying the pitiful. One jane for example took me to her house in the Heights and instead of having me dress like an altar boy for a taboo communion, paid me to study math in her kitchen while she filed her taxes online. Another drove me to and from junior league soccer practice in the suburbs every afternoon for a week. A third had me demand sugared cereal in a supermarket aisle while she refused to let me poison myself, until a cashier told us we’d have to quiet down or leave the store, whereupon she cried and held me tightly and said okay, just this once I could have the cereal.
Because life is hard.
Consider my last night working. I was standing in front of a 24-hour juice bar, with Petey and Vishnu just back from a race-riot-orgy put together by some creaky hotel heiress, when a jane flashed her brights from across the street. P and V were too tired to jump so I went over and got in and was told to get comfortable for a drive, and an hour later we were way out in the countryside passing elk-crossing signs and blackened ponds and houses with names.
We stopped at a little unlit boarded-up gas station. I figured we were there to role-play—the rustic young gas attendant meets the randy old socialite—and I asked if she had a uniform for me, but she didn’t answer. Five minutes later I told her we were on the clock and she said, “I’m going to give you all my money. And my house. And my car.” I asked what she was talking about. “You deserve it after what you’ve been through. And I’ve written a note absolving you of all responsibility, so no one will suspect foul play.” I said, Foul play? “My family has been expecting this a long time.” I told her she was scaring me. “Yes, it’s scary, but you’d know that better than anyone. People use you and don’t see you for who you really are, and it’s that way with all of us.” I said, just to say something, that it didn’t matter if no one saw me for who I really was. “Yes it does; it’s necessary for us to exist. If no one sees us we’re not there.” She asked how I spelled my name and then wrote it on a check and on the car title and on a house deed. Handing me the sheaf of papers, she opened her door and disappeared into the shadows.
I sat there for a minute as the night air got colder and damper. It was very quiet. I unbuckled my seat belt and stepped outside. Lady! I yelled. Hey! I went in the direction she’d gone and behind the gas station I entered a solid darkness, where I tripped on a clanging object and stopped and listened and stared but heard and saw nothing. I had a feeling, though, that she was just ahead and that if she made a sound even accidentally I would be able to locate her. Lady, I said, I don’t know how to drive. You can’t leave me out here like this. The silence and blackness were loud and blinding. You’ve got to take me back to the city. I felt detached from my body. Lady? There was a sharp crack, like a branch breaking right next to me. Lady? I said, almost in a whisper, as though speaking softly would close the space between us, as though about existence she’d been wrong.
Josh Emmons‘ history includes two novels with Scribner, “The Loss of Leon Meed” and “Prescription for a Superior Existence,” as well as work in ZYZZYVA, Ecotone, The American Scholar, CutBank, The New York Times Book Review, Details, FiveChapters and elsewhere (two stories received honorable mention in The Best American Non-Required Reading Series).