He lays out on the picnic table behind the nursery shed, his walkie-talkie next to his ear and his hat falling off. He is so fucked up that he can barely walk, yet quickly responds every time a call comes over that radio. A question is asked about a plant; he sits up, hits the button, and rattles off more information than anyone should rightly know about plants, including their phylums and Latin names. With the question answered, he lays back down on the table, and is gone again. The needle lies under the table.
When he first started at the garden center, he seemed like a cool guy. He stood at a lean 5'9, and was what one might call muscular. He had a shaved head and a busted up face that came from being a Golden Gloves boxer in the Army, and a red goatee covered his chin.
We knew he'd had some kind of problems as evidenced by the little blue AA bible he aways kept with him, and he'd have it out constantly, circling passages, writing notes, whatever. No one knew how bad it was, because the garden center is like the French Foreign Legion- we'll take anyone, regardless of your past indiscretions. Murderers, rapists, drug addicts, we don't give a fuck as long as you can move heavy shit...
At 6 o'clock in the morning he'd be there, unloading trailers of heavy plants, brewing pots of coffee so strong it put hair on the hair on your balls, dragging pallets around. He was a far better worker than I am, and by the time I'd gotten there at 9, he'd have already done half the things that needed to be done in the nursery. I work in the stone yard, so I don't have too much contact with the nursery guys during the busy season, but even I could see that between his obvious knowledge of the plants and his willingness to do any kind of work, he quickly became a favorite of the bosses.
It was beyond work ethic with him, though; there's plenty of guys who will work their asses off but are such cocksuckers you can't stand to be around them. Not Kev. He was so polite it was unnerving, especially in a blue collar environment where things can get pretty rough and vulgar. A little Spanish kid showed up for work on a Saturday still drunk from the night before- Kevin called his mother to come pick him up, and tried to keep it quiet.
If you add to this that the guy was in the Army, not to mention was a boxer, well, we liked him. Me and Ryer were all of maybe 18 or 19 at the time, and he would show us stuff about boxing, fixing our jabs so they had more snap in them, or showing us how quick his own hands still were, even though he was getting older himself. A big hillbilly friend of mine who loved to fight told Kev that he wouldn't bother even touching him because he was so damn dangerous- "If we get into it, I'm going to get my gun, because you'll fuckin kill me." That is a compliment among compliments coming from that guy.
As the spring wore on, though, things started going downhill. Kevin hung out a little too much with a shady Sicilian named Danny who had faded tribal tattoos down his arms and liked to drink Southern Comfort in the morning. Stories started being made up back there, great tales about them getting arrested the night before for drunk driving, getting into fights with each other, losing their licenses, getting connections to get those licensces back....all bullshit.
We would watch from the stone yard as they brought trees out from the nursery, getting a little more ragged each time they came out, until by the end of the day you could tell they were both blitzed. Drunks are nothing at the job, so this was all being let go. I'd be driving the rack truck bringing out deliveries, and Danny would be in the passenger seat at 10 in the morning drinking out of a water bottle, swearing up and down that it was iced tea. It's safe to say that as this grimy Sicilian got worse, so did Kevin.
August came around, and we began hearing about needles found in the nursery shed. Kevin and Danny both blamed it on a runt of a guy that worked outside with me (logical only because this other fucker certainly looked like he was on heroin.)
In a month, Danny had disappeared and Kevin was knocked out on the picnic table high as a kite. His war was with heroin, and our boy was losing. Bad. Soon after, he got put in rehab (I don't know who put him there, though I think it may have been the blessed State of New Jersey).
He was gone for a month, and no one really knew his whereabouts, or if he'd ever come back. Eventually, he showed up.
"Do I still have a job?" he asked.
"I don't know man. Go talk to the big man."
"Hey man, you got an extra cigarette?" I nodded. When he was sober he had smokes, when he was fucked up he didn't. Nothing had changed.
We were leaning on pallets of cinder blocks. Ryer looked at him. "So how'd rehab go?"
"All right" he said.
"Did it work?" I asked.
He lit his cigarette, then turned and walked away; after a couple steps, we could see the fifth of Jack Daniels start working its way out of his back pocket. Later that day, while looking for rides back to Paterson, he jumped in a van with a bunch of Mexicans and took off while still on the clock.
That was the last time anyone saw him.