Note: This is a short story I wrote about the War on Drugs.  Like most of my fiction, it’s about the story first, not philosophy.  But I also thought it was important to put a human face on the state’s war against people drugs.  There’s an old rule of journalism: one dead man’s a tragedy, 10,000 dead men is a statistic.  10,000 families ripped apart by the War on Drugs is a statistic, but one family suffering because the State doesn’t approve of selling drugs is a horror.  Enjoy. 

 

A small pouch of gleaming crystals, shining like snow even in the gloom.

He’d heard it called angel dust, heard that it healed men’s wounds and cured their souls.  He didn’t buy that.  He’d seen first-hand what it did to people.  Seen the haunted cast to their faces, the desperate light in their eyes when they were close to a hit.

It was disgusting.  It debased them, made them somehow less than human.

Which begged the question of why he was standing here, in a dark alley at 12am.  Waiting to sell an entire ounce to James.

A black shape appeared at the entrance to the alley.  He sighed in relief.  Think of the devil.

“James!”  Rats skittered away from the sudden sound.  James spun to face him.

“Richard, ‘bout time.”  He loped towards the dealer, eyes fixed on the small bag in his hand.  He licked his scabbed lips.  “That shit mine?”

“I told you not to say my name.  If the cops get to you…”  It was a bullshit reason, but he didn’t feel like explaining the real cause behind his secrecy.  This area was too frequented, even at midnight.  If someone he knew heard the name, if news got back to his wife and daughter…he shuddered.

“But yes, I have the cocaine.”  He shook his head, wrestling with himself before curiosity prevailed.  “As a dealer to a buyer though, I’m compelled to ask.  Why do you want an entire ounce?”

James’ eyes shifted, scared.  “I got…people…after me.  They want this shit, to sell it or use it I don’t know.”

Richard nodded.  Gangs, small mafias, aspiring drug lords; cocaine was a valuable commodity. It fueled a vicious crime cycle and probably helped fund the “people”’s operations who were threatening James.  Richard tried not to think about that.

“Of course, I wouldn’ mind a little for myself.  Something to get me goin’ before I hand everything over.”  James licked his lips.  Contempt flared in Richard but he forced it down.

“I understand.  I’m assuming you brought my money?”

James reached for his wallet.  Richard stared at it with the same desperate intensity James reserved for the bag of coke in his hand.  Like he was considering taking it at gunpoint.

Damn it.  A burst of self-loathing threatened to overwhelm him.  His professors at Yale had had such high hopes for him.  They’d imagined him a future CEO at a prestigious corporation, using his Accounting degree to help society instead of calculate the margin of profit on a cocaine deal.

But life hadn’t turned out that way.  One bad financial decision led to another, and suddenly here he was.  Selling coke in a garbage-ridden alley when everyone sane was curled up in bed.  He closed his eyes.  Jesus, what had gone wrong?

“Ya, I wanna talk to you ‘bout that.”  The gritty tones forced him back to reality.  He opened his eyes.  “5,000 seems kinda high for an ounce.”

“I don’t care, James, that’s the price we agreed on.  You can’t bail; I bet you can’t put off those people long enough to find another dealer.”

James eyes him, suddenly crafty.  “Maybe not, but maybe I already got another dealer.  A buddy down on 17th what’ll sell me the same goods for $4200.”

He turned to go.

“Wait!” It sounded more desperate then Richard intended.  A plea.  But James stopped.

“You know my cocaine’s the best in the city.”  He met James’ eyes.  “You want this as much as I do.  Maybe we can work something out.”

James eyed him doubtfully.  “Maybe.  Maybe not, though.”

Richard steeled himself.

“Maybe my wife knows a few cops.  Possession of cocaine’s a felony, you’re aware.  Maybe you buy from me or you spend your golden years fending off rapists in prison.”

James’ eyes widened, and Richard felt sick.   But his clients had been drying up lately.  He needed this sale.

He almost laughed.  Sale.  Like he was selling vacuums door-to-door.

But tuition at Amherst wasn’t cheap.  With Julie only a junior, he needed money.  Needs must when demons drove.  He wondered if that motive justified what he was doing.  Did the utilitarian calculations justify selling coke to give his daughter the life she deserved?  Somehow, he doubted John Stuart Mill would come down on his side.

James glared and turned away.

“You wanna inform on me, you’ll be sharin’ my cell.  I’m outta here.”

Richard grabbed his arm.

“Look James, I’m sorry.  That was low.”  James looked doubtful, and Richard’s voice turned desperate.

“Four thousand.  Better cocaine for a better deal.”

James spat.  His mangy hair swung across his face as he wrenched his arm free.

“Fuck you, man.”

“No!” Richard cried.  The plea wrenched from his throat as James turned away.  “You can’t!  I need this!”

James walked away, and he crumpled.  Visions flashed before his eyes.

His wife, beautiful features made haggard by life on the streets.  His daughter Julie, throwing away her future in medicine to bus tables because Daddy couldn’t make it work.

The three of them huddled in a dingy apartment.  Broke and hopeless because he was a failure.  James walked out of the alley, back onto the major street.  Richard started to sob.

 

*          *          *

 

“One count of possession, guilty.  One count of attempt to sell, guilty.  A prior record of two cocaine-sales arrests.  Do you have anything to say for yourself?”  The judge’s tones were clipped as she read Richard’s list of convictions back to him.

He stared around the spacious courtroom, saw the warm lamplight reflecting off wood walls.  Saw the prosecution—an old man with a cane—glare at him from a table to the left, smug in victory.

He shook his head.  How had he been stupid enough to get caught?  Again?  Damn, those undercover cops were getting better.

He looked up at the judge, towering over him from behind her lectern.

He took a breath.

“Your honor, I don’t condone what I do now.  I realize it’s wrong, realize I’m perpetuating a crime cycle on the streets of America.”  His eyes locked on the justice’s.  “But, your honor, I was driven to this career.  I finally realized, ten years ago, that I had a choice: I could go clean, or I could sell cocaine to support the family I love.  Pay for my wife to live in the luxury she deserves.  Support my daughter at Amherst.

“I chose cocaine.  I know what I do is wrong.  But it was the lesser of two evils, and the only one I could live with.”

The judge glared at him.  “I doubt that.”

Richard blinked, caught off-guard.  What?

“You have a degree from the most prestigious school in the nation, Mr. Endergel.  You expect me to believe that you couldn’t find honest work?”

Richard flinched from the condemnation.  Part of him couldn’t believe what was happening, and his mind scrabbled, trying to find purchase on suddenly unstable ground.

“I—I’m sorry, your honor,” he stammered.  “I tried, but when the Repo men came to repossess my house, and my wife was looking at being homeless, and tuition at Amherst was due…” he was babbling.  Christ, he had to get a grip on himself!  He hadn’t been this bad since freshman year at Yale, when a senior had torn him apart in Debate Club.

“My businesses failed, I couldn’t get a job at Venture Capital or Morgan Enterprises or anything, not even managing a Safeway for Chrissakes; I wanted to give my family the life they deserved…”

“That doesn’t excuse your actions.”  The judge’s cold tones cut through his arguments.  He stopped.

“However, you raise a valid point.  Your family needs money to survive, and I see no reason to punish them for your…career choice.

“There’s a work detail in the Franklin Correctional Facility.  It’s manual labor, something I doubt you’ve done too much of coming from the Ivies; but if you can stomach it, I’ll arrange for the money you earn to be sent to your family.”

Richard slumped in gratitude.  Thank God.  His family, at least, would not starve.  But…

“Prison work?  That’s minimum wage, it can’t be more than 20,000 a year!”

The judge smiled.  “Work hard, Mr. Endergel.  Work long, work extra shifts; if you’re willing, the money should be enough to provide your family with the life selling cocaine could not.”

Wait.  He found his voice.  “’Franklin Correctional Facility’, your honor?”

“Perpetuating the drug cycle still carries penalties.  I sentence you to twenty years in prison.”  Her gavel slammed down.

Richard stared.  As the enormity of the truth struck him he crumpled, trying to shut out the pain of the sentence.  Twenty years he would be gone.  He would never see Julie fall in love, never see her face light up as she introduced her man to the family.

Never beam with his wife, watching their girl take up rafting and try new things.  He would leapfrog over the twenty best years of their lives, his daughter becoming a woman while he stared at a prison cell wall.

“Your honor,” he was almost sobbing now.  “Please, please let me go.  I promise –”

The justice cut him off.  “No.  You may provide for your family, but that is all.  You are still prison-bound.”

He nodded, groaning.

A vision flashed in his head of Julie, chatting with friends as she walked to class.  Not knowing she wouldn’t see her father for twenty years.

I’m sorry.