Through the Fish-Eyed Lens

The battered ’87 Dodge Rampage chugged and sputtered up the steep incline toward the drop-off at the Dellinger, the old motel atop 3rd Street. Curled into the dark hillside beside an all-night diner, the single-level, ranch-style court overlooked the freeway, hovering on the edge of the Point, the last borough in the city where you wanted to break down or get stopped, either by police or homeboys, with an eight ball of crystal meth wedged in the wheel well.

Cole always hated coming out here, banks of fog smothering midnight streets too damned quiet. It wasn’t just that the trek took forever, or how the route wound through rough-and-tumble neighborhoods, or even that the Dellinger itself looked stripped straight from the set of Psycho, complete with flickering neon vacancy sign, cadaverous groundskeepers and ghost house vibe. In a city of freaks, the Dellinger Motel was the freakiest, a drug den that catered almost strictly to methheads, and everyone knew that shit turns you into a pervert. Cole had walked in on everything from amateur gangbang porn, to cross-dressing old dudes fucking blow-up dolls with vibrators sticking out their ass. He could only imagine what they’d see tonight. And he wasn’t in any mood. Cole had gotten the papers earlier that afternoon.

Got any smokes?” Davy Jones asked. Davy Jones’s real name was Bowie. No one knew his first name. Everyone called him Davy Jones. Everyone in their little gang had a nickname. Another reason the scene felt played out to Cole. Giving yourself nicknames isn’t cool after the 5th grade.

Cole dug the tiny glassine bag from his dirty jeans and dipped a pinky finger in his personal stash. He brought back a bump on his long, yellow fingernail and snorted hard. Didn’t do jack. He’d been awake too many days; the meth had lost its potency. Doesn’t matter how pure the quality, you reach a saturation point. Awake isn’t awake. Asleep isn’t asleep. The only rest you get comes through the film of fish-eyed lens. The drug stops working after a while, no matter how much you jam up your nose or pump into your bloodstream. The body’s involuntary mechanisms take over, triggering shutdown, like a master switch override, desires be damned, marooning you in a liminal no-man’s land. Like being married without the sex, eating food and not being able to taste anything, all aggravation, no joy.

Cole passed the cigarettes.

He turned his head out the window, used hubcap shacks, 24-hour Laundromats, fluorescents flickering by like the pages of a little kid coloring book, everything outside the lines, nothing colored as it should be, reds instead of green, browns in place of orange. Cole promised himself he’d let up on the speed, get a real job. It was another promise he knew he wouldn’t keep. He let his head fall against the cracked vinyl headrest.

Davy Jones patted down his jacket, then pointed at the glove compartment. “Get my lighter out of there.”

Cole popped the latch. He pushed aside the 9mm, grabbed the Bic, slammed the door shut.

I don’t know why you carry that thing around,” Cole said.

It’s not loaded,” said Davy Jones.

Think the cops are going to give a shit?”

You know what they say. Better to need a gun and have it—”

That’s not what they say,” said Cole through gritted teeth. “And it wouldn’t matter if you did need it. You just said the fucking thing ain’t loaded.” Cole knew he was doing the jaw thing, grinding his molars like meal stone; he felt like a fucktard, unable to control his own bodily functions.

Davy Jones glared like he had something biting to say. Instead he cranked the radio, shrill metal blasting out. Cole snapped it off.

You got a problem with Pantera?” Davy Jones asked.

When we have an eight ball stashed in the wheel well, yeah, I do—which by the way is fucking pointless. If you’re keeping a gun in the dash, no point hiding the dope.”

You’re paranoid,” Davy Jones said.

It’s late. We’re in the Point in your piece of shit car, which I’m betting has at least one taillight out or no registration or some shit. I have a fucking warrant. You have a fucking warrant. Not drawing any more attention to ourselves is a good idea. And I told you to slow down.”

The men sat in silence. Cole counted the far-off cannon blasts from the ballpark in the Basin, like a kid trying to calculate the proximity of lightning based on the intervals of thunder. Game must’ve gone extra innings. Now that it was over, the streets out of town would be flooded, extra cops at freeway onramps directing traffic, more potential problems. Cole looked at his hands, chewed bloody around the cuticles. They shook. He felt the chemical drip down his nasal passages; it tasted like iron. He shoved his hands under his legs, but they were shaking too. “Can we speed this up?”

Now you want me to go faster?” Davy Jones panned over. “You’re a fucking mess. What the hell is going on with you? Take another bump, man.”

Got the divorce papers today.”

Oh, fuck.”

It hadn’t been any surprise to Cole. He knew it was coming. He and his ex-wife were on opposite sides now, her going up, him falling down. Trina was onto better things, already living with her new boyfriend up in the Heights. A producer. How could Cole compete with that? Trina always wanted to be an actress.

She had been the perfect wife. At least in the beginning. Trina used to love to fuck on speed. The closest to God you’ll ever get, she’d say. Hell, she did more drugs than him back then. It was their tie that bound. Nothing like a five-hour speed fuck. Rub your dick raw. But sex on meth is more than just sex; it’s religion, two bodies, one mind, soul.

Then Trina got pregnant.

Cole naïvely didn’t believe anything would change. The rest of the world would never understand, of course. “Drug addict” and “good parent” were mutually exclusive to most. But most people are idiots, fuck ’em, sheeple prostituting themselves for security and shelter. How stupid he had been.

When it started to go to shit, they both pointed fingers, but Cole knew who was to blame. Now only his guilt remained, because Trina got out of the game. He was the bad guy here. All those lies he’d told himself, how doing drugs didn’t make him a bad person, how everyone was on something? The doctor on Adderall. The lawyer on Lithium. Bullshit. No different than the bums he used to laugh at begging for change. He was a slave, too. While Trina was following her dreams and caring for their kid, where was he? On a Wednesday night, with enough product to put him in San Quentin for twenty. She’d been right to leave.

Is it final?” Davy Jones finally asked.

Cole nodded.

What about Stacia?”

Moms usually get custody. Especially when Dad doesn’t have a job.”

Davy Jones made a clucking sound and thumbed toward the rear.

Legal jobs that pay taxes,” Cole said.

Davy Jones waited.

It’s better this way.”

Trina is a mess,” said Davy Jones. “I don’t know why any judge would award her custody.”

She cleaned up.”

Davy Jones glanced over, expression like a sucked lemon gobstobber. “Who told you that? Her?”

Yeah. She told me. And I’ve seen her place. She’s already got a new man.”

Davy Jones brushed off the comment with a wrist flick.

A regular fucking house,” Cole continued. “In the Heights. Can’t fake that.”

Did you even try to get custody?”

You’re a fucking idiot.” Cole shook his head. “Why would I want that for my daughter?”

Because you love her. And you’re her father,” Davy Jones said. “Your view of the situation is distorted. You can do a better job than Trina.” He paused. “I don’t trust the bitch.”

Cole couldn’t explain to someone who didn’t have a kid, but something kicked in with Trina; a switch tripped. Quit smoking the day they left the doctor’s. Primal overtook carnal. Cole felt it too, the impulse to change. But he ignored the calling, finding it easier to find excuses. He jeered her for caving in to societal pressures. She told him he was acting like a thirty-year-old drawing anarchy symbols in an underground fort. Without Trina drinking or drugging, Cole was the odd man out. Not that their absence didn’t tear a hole a mile wide. Maybe that’s what this feeling was. Had nothing to do with tolerance. There wasn’t a drug strong enough to patch a broken heart.

Cole snapped to just as Davy Jones pulled into the motel parking lot. He killed the engine, flicked his butt out the window and made for the handle.

Wait here,” Cole said, unable to hide his anger. “I need a few minutes to clear my head.” He pointed at the diner next door. “I’ll meet you there. Could probably use some food.”

Cole exited, glanced around the unlit lot. Lingering firework smoke drifted across the bay’s black water, horns honking in victory as a steady stream of headlights moved toward them in exodus, like ants up an anthill.

Davy Jones stuck his head out of the window. “Don’t take long. I know you’re all butthurt about what I said. Sorry. Should’ve kept my mouth shut. But we need to get down to San Carlos. We do this, eat quick, and get back on the road, OK?”

Tucking the eight ball into his boot, Cole flinched a nod. “I’m not planning on hanging out with some dude in a feather boa any longer than I have to, trust me.” He smoothed out his pant leg. “What’s the room number?”

Davy Jones unraveled a post-it note from his pocket, holding it arm’s length to accommodate failing eyesight in the dim dashboard lights. “Twelve,” he said.

Get a booth by the window.”

Davy Jones saluted like a deckhand to a captain, and punched the Rampage into reverse.

Cole curled his collar. Had to be 40 fucking degrees, and with the stiff winds whipping off the water, felt a lot colder than that.

Only a couple units had lights on. Cole easily figured out which one was #12. As he got closer he heard the unmistakable mattress squeak of hard fucking. Shit, he thought, now teeth-chattering frigid. He knew firsthand how long it took to bust a nut on crank. His only choice was to interrupt them, get an eyeful of ugly. But before his closed fist rained down, the door swung open and a beefy arm dragged him inside, immediately instructing him to keep quiet.

The room was packed with burly bodies blocking most of his view, but he could see a camera set up on a tripod and a man perched behind it. The bed kept squeaking. A giant black ass passed his line of sight, thrusting violently into something, as if trying to prove a point, animal grunting interspersed between the name calling. Cole tried to look away but found it train-wreck impossible. Every so often a giant wet cock would flop past. Great, just my luck, stumbling onto hardcore gay porno… Why does meth do this to people? No money is worth this. He turned to leave but two big, tatted-up brothers guarded the door, clearly no strangers to institutional living.

Then the director called cut. The trio of yoked, sweat-soaked men climbed off the bed. Leaving behind…Cole’s wife.

Trina glanced over her shoulder, catching Cole’s eye momentarily, pinned and glassy. She turned back around, remaining on all fours, awaiting further instruction.

Let’s try this again,” the director said, gesturing. “This time, you two switch places. T‑Dawg, you take the ass. Boz gets the mouth—”

Hey!” Cole said.

Everyone looked over.

Someone pay the guy,” the director said, motioning to an assistant. Then back to his actors. “All right, let’s go. Trina try to look like you’re enjoying it, OK?”

And everyone, including Trina, laughed.

Cole wanted to say something. He wanted to do something. Instead he stood there, silent and feeble, and carried out a drug deal, dumbly counting out cash, as three men took turns mounting and defiling his wife.

And the men took their sweet ass time, too, trading spots and holes. Even though it was only acting, it tore Cole up, the names they called her and how much she cried she liked it, moaning, begging for more, the beautiful thing they once shared forever cheapened.

When it was over and Trina was wiping herself dry from the mingled bodily fluids, Cole was the one who felt sodomized.

The film crew divvied up the drugs, coiling cables, detaching lenses, getting dressed, congratulating one another. With barely a hint of self-consciousness, Trina snarfed a rail off the TV, then draped a robe and walked over to Cole.

She looked a lot older than she had just five months ago, the last time he’d seen her or his daughter, when she’d met him for lunch on the pier, freshly made up and sporting new shoes, and asked him to stay away. He’d agreed that day because he thought he was helping them move on.

You have a cigarette?” she asked him.

I thought you quit?”

Trina waited until he passed the pack.

I’m sorry you had to see that,” she said.

But not that you did it?”

Don’t, Cole,” Trina said.

The effects of not sleeping, the fury over his cowardice, Cole began to flush and breathe heavily.

Where’s Anastasia?” he demanded.

You should go.” Trina motioned over her shoulder. “These aren’t the kind of guys you want to start trouble with.”

Start trouble?” Cole’s voice grew louder.

A couple men turned.

At barely 5’9”, a buck sixty, never having been in a real fight his whole rotten life, let alone won one, Cole knew she was right. But he didn’t care.

Quiet,” Trina pleaded. “You’re going make them upset.”

Mutherfuckers spit roasting my wife, and they’re going to be upset?”

You got a problem, man?” the director called over. He looked around the room, at everyone getting high. “This guy get paid?”

Someone muttered yes.

Then what the fuck’s he still doing here?”

Trina lowered her voice. “Half these guys just got out of Quentin. You should go.”

Not till you tell me where my daughter is.”

Somewhere safe.”

That’s your new boyfriend. The director?”

That’s John, yes.”

Big movie producer, eh? So you left a five-year-old alone in John’s mansion on the hill, unsupervised?”

Trina looked about uneasily, but Cole caught her eyes linger briefly on the bathroom door.

It was closed.

You didn’t…” He stared at Trina, who wouldn’t look him in the eye.

Cole bolted for the bathroom and shoved it open, flipping on the lights.

There in the dark lie Stacia, curled on a blanket in the tub.

You mutherfucker!” Cole shouted, and before anyone could grab him, he jumped the new boyfriend, John, smashing rights into his nose. Cole punched so hard he felt the bones in his hand crack and splinter.

Then they were on him, steel-toes kicking ribs, stone fists to the head. Trina screamed. Cole figured he was owed a little hurt, so he took it all, and he gave it back any way he could, gouging at eyes, kneeing groins, clawing, biting. Undersized and outmatched, he fought back as dirty as he could. He knew he couldn’t win. But he wasn’t quitting until they killed him.

Stop hurting my daddy!”

The room fell silent as all eyes fell on the bleary-eyed, sleep-tousled blonde girl dressed in Dora the Explorer footsie PJs and wrapped in a blanket.

The ex-cons granted berth, allowing Cole to stand. His insides on fire, eyes swollen like slit plump plums, Cole knew his five-year-old daughter just saved his life.

Grab that fucker!” John shouted.

Arms immediately fastened behind his back, Cole was hoisted to his feet.

Get her out of here, Trina,” said John, hand cupped over his bloodied face.

What are you going to do with him?” she asked.

He broke my fucking nose! I’mma have these boys run a fucking train on him. Slap it on the end as a bonus feature.”

John tugged Stacia.

Don’t touch my daughter!”

Stick something in that cocksucker’s mouth.” John pushed Stacia toward her mother. “Unless you want her to watch this, Trina, I suggest you get her the fuck out of here.”

Trina peered back at Cole, a glimpse of compassion, before reluctantly opening the door, where Davy Jones stood, 9mm leveled.

Let’s go, Cole,” Davy Jones said as he stepped over blackened broken bulbs and used, discarded rubbers, into the room. He aimed his unloaded gun where it would inspire the most fear, squarely at John’s dick.

Cole scooped up his daughter and cradled her head to his chest as she softly sobbed into his ripped, red shirt.


Back on the road, Davy Jones kept checking the rearview, gently taping the unloaded gun between his thighs. Stacia sat curled on her father’s lap, little arms and legs latched tightly around his torso like a toy monkey clipped to a pencil, her breath warm and sweet on his neck.

The steady stream of ballpark traffic passed from the opposite direction, fleeing the city.

What are you going to do now?” Davy Jones asked, wound tighter’n a drum. “Y’know those fuckers are coming for you, right? This is their world, man.”

Cole stroked his sleeping girl’s blonde hair. He could feel the busted bones in his hand clank against one another like chips of a shattered ceramic mug. “They can have it,” he said.

About the Author

Joe Clifford

Joe Clifford is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books and managing editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive. He also produces Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. Joe is the author of three books: Choice Cuts and Wake the Undertaker (Snubnose Press), and Junkie Love (Battered Suitcase Press). Joe’s writing can be found at



In This Issue



Follow Us

Follow us online at Twitter or Facebook, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed.