Harlan Ellison

At the Mountains of Blindness

WHILE WAITING, THERE WERE NINE THINGS Porky was able to watch, in the alley. The first was a bloated rat, the upper half of its cadaverous-grey body thrust through a gnawed hole in a rusty garbage can, gorging itself on refuse. The second was a clarinetist in the building across the alley, running changes, practicing scales. The third was the traffic that ran past the mouth of the alley; the fourth was the winking neon sign DENNY’S JAZZ CLUB in red and gold that had no reason for existence, back here near the stage door of Denny’s.

The remaining five were the nails of his right hand, methodically chewed to the quick. These he studied best of all. Porky was a pusher. He was waiting for his mark to come and make the connection. Porky was also a philosopher of sorts. A phlegmatic philosopher whose ethical view of the Universe, simply stated, was,Them as strikes first don’t get struck.

It was a sultry night, mid-August, a good night to make the connection and then go back to the apartment for beer and Beethoven. The steel fire door of Denny’s shuddered open and a thick slash of light erupted from the doorway, ran up the brick wall opposite.

A snatch of crowd noise and rattling glasses followed, then was sliced off as the door closed.

“Porky?”

The pusher shoved away from the wall and turned toward the raised platform with its metal guardrail. The thin, dark-suited man stood against Denny’s door, back pressed tightly to the metal, staring down into the shadows of the alley. His voice was soft and tremulous. Porky — had he been more the suckblood pushers are characterized to be — might have smiled, knowing that tone in the other’s voice. It was the sound of need, the hunger of want, the stomach-drying, lip-wrenching desire for junk … the last stages of withdrawal before the junkie would start crying, thrashing, cursing, dying a little, then a great deal.

Had Porky not been a phlegmatic philosopher and a good businessman, had he been a succubus as the vice squad typified him, he would have gloated. It meant the market was prepared to stand as much as he could lay on. He would have no trouble wringing the last cent tonight.

“Hey, uh, you out there, Porky?”

Porky stepped into the feeble light cast by the street lamp at the mouth of the alley. “I’m here, Tómas.”

The Latin cast of the young man’s face eased with the passing of apprehension. Porky was here. A fix. It was all right. The sweat — bottled inside — burst forth. “Hey, mon, like I thought you wasn’t gonna make it.”

Softly, Porky made his point, then dismissed it: “I’m here, Tómas.”

The Puerto Rican came down the three steps to the moist stones of the alley. He two-fingered a cigarette from his shirt pocket and stuck it in his mouth, hand shaking. Porky watched. Phlegmatically.

“Nice night, leetle hot, maybe, but a nice night,” Tómas said, staring up into the sky. The sky was filled with nothing. It was that sort of night.

“You got the money, Tómas? I’ve got an appointment.” There was quiet, measured impatience in Porky’s voice. The business at hand, then away.

“Yeah, mon, nice night,” Tómas said. He was sweating like a pig, too much, now.

Porky didn’t speak. He turned to go. It was a bust connection. The mark couldn’t raise the bread; no dough, no H.

“Hey,” Tómas laughed lightly, “take it easy, mon. I got the goods. I was just take’n it light, you know.”

The pusher paused. “I’ve got an appointment, Tómas, let’s get this over with,” he said. Gentle. Nothing but soft. A businessman doesn’t argue with his customers. He merely sets up the supply, to match the demand.

The Puerto Rican reached into his inner jacket and brought out a wallet. He began counting bills. Then he handed the sheaf to Porky. The look of expectancy was on the Puerto Rican’s face; Porky didn’t bother counting.

“You’re short, Tómas.”

The Puerto Rican wiped a hand across his mouth, his cigarette down-to-filter between two fingers, yellowed from cigarettes long-gone.

“I’m not bad, Porky. Listen, we got a gig uptown at some deb brawl tomorrow night, mon, I get you the rest. I’m only down a few bills. Stake me, Porky. I breeng you the rest …”

Porky had laid the money gently on the concrete platform, and was walking away. Tómas lunged for him, grabbed his arm. “Hey, listen, mon, you don’t do thees to me — ”

Porky neither struggled nor fought back. He merely said (gently) “Tómas, you lay a hand on me, you’ll never get fixed again.” No blow to the stomach could have worked more effectively. The Puerto Rican backed off.

“I-I got to have the stuff, Porky. You g-got to take care of me, mon. I’m dead cat if you don’t.” His Spanish accent — submerged since his arrival in Nueva York seven years before — became stronger with his frenzy.

Porky spread his hands, “Sorry, Tómas. You know how I carry on my business. If you can’t pay, I can’t take care of you.”

The Puerto Rican slumped down on the steps. A moan and soft sob. “I tried ever’ting. I bugged my seester lives up on 82ndStreet, I hocked my fiddle case, mon I deed ever’ting. I can’t get it up till tomorra’.”

Porky shrugged. “I’ll come back tomorrow then.”

Tómas clutched at the air in front of Porky. “No, mon, I can’t stand eet. I can’t stand the pain, they comin’ close together now, they gone toss me off this gig if I don’t steady. Some of the other guys they hooked but they make other gigs, mon, they can get the bread — ”

Porky knew. He dealt with half a dozen musicians on this street. Two of them from this group. He knew they had Sutton Place broads keeping them in junk, or money from home, or ex-wives’ wealthy parents, or …

He preferred not to think about where some of them got it.

“Sorry, Tómas,” Porky said. Again, this time with no pretense to draw out the market dealings, he strode off. The shriek came from nowhere, from Tómas, from everywhere, and ricocheted off the brick walls of the alley; the clarinet player slammed the window. Tómas leaped off the stairs, his jacket flying behind him.

His hands locked around Porky’s throat, dragged him backward. Porky gagged, flailed the air, kicked back and missed Tómas’s shin. The steel door to Denny’s slammed open. A heavy voice yelled, “Tómas!Get off him!”

The sound of a body hurling the guardrail, the slap of soles hitting the alley. Three running steps, and rough hands grabbed the Puerto Rican by the ears, as Porky slumped to his knees.

Tómas thrashed as he was dragged by the ears, and the attacker hurled him against the wall. The Puerto Rican — lost, lost, fogged and lost with no way to go — came off the wall, rebounded — and caught the fist in the mouth. The attacker knew where to hit him: not a horn man, hit him in the mouth. Tómas slapped the walking bass, get him anywhere but the hands, the back.

Tómas settled in a heap.

The attacker lifted Porky and stood him against the wall, still holding his throat. “Didn’t he have the scratch, Porky?”

Porky looked up and saw another of his customers.

Norman Eney, leader of the group in which Tómas played bass, stared at the little pusher. His eyes were giveaways: he was just coming down off a high. Yet he had overcome his depression, his withdrawal (light now, but soon to get worse), to aid … who? Porky? Or Tómas?

“That’s my business, Eney. Do you want to buy?” Norman Eney shook his head slowly. He stood away from Porky, not moving, watching him out of cool, grey eyes that said nothing. He was a tall crew-cut man, the natural conception of a trombone player.

Finally, he murmured, “He’s not one of the good ones, Porky. You shouldn’t deal with him: he can’t defend himself the way we can.”

They stared across a knowing abyss at one another. Buyer and seller, both knowing how the system worked. Both knowing Porky was a dealer, but not a decider.

“Everybody’s got the right to go to hell in his own way, Eney,” the pusher said. “Nobody ruins anybody else. They only open doors. No one forces them through: that’s each man’s decision, whether to walk through the door or not.”

“You open doors for too many people, Porky.”

The pusher shrugged. He was a businessman. The ethics of the thing didn’t enter. He turned and left the alley. Tómas stirred feebly as Norman Eney lifted him under the shoulders, carried him back into Denny’s.

The rat continued feeding. There was hunger, and a way to assuage that hunger. Traffic moved. So did the night.

They came for Porky in his apartment.

The pusher’s apartment was uptown, and insulated from the world in which he conducted his business affairs by sight and sound and frame of mind. With the door closed New York was a mythical kingdom, far away. A Babylon not to be confused with realities, as this apartment was a reality. With the door closed, and the draperies pulled, with the air conditioning making an atmosphere all his own, and the stereo handling its Scarlatti, its Bach, its Orff — he was where he wanted to be. In a world not of that other world, in a world he made for himself, with no taints or remembrances from beyond. The sanctity of Porky’s world was a matter of custom-fitted bookshelves, well-stocked larders, and full turntables.

The sanctity was shattered by the ringing of the doorbell. Four-thirty A.M. The jazz joints were closed, the cops in the subways slipped their pennies into the candy machines and received their coated peanuts for the long beat, up and down the platform, looking for mashers, smokers. The cabbies lounged against steering wh ...

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