Purchase Lives Less Valuable
Read more

Excerpt from Lives Less Valuable

Ricky's Death (p. 101)

From chapter "Part Three"

They continue to drive. Ray-Ray still thinks about violence. The man in the alley isn’t the only person he has killed. Ray-Ray killed his cousin Ricky, too. But that doesn’t count: that killing was more gift than murder, more an expression of familial responsibility than violence.

Ray-Ray thinks back to last summer, in the back bedroom of his Aunt Claire’s apartment.

As he does almost every afternoon—and toward the end it becomes several times each day—Ray-Ray enters without knocking, and makes his way down the hall. He passes the living room and notices that today Claire isn’t watching television; she sits silently on the couch. For a moment, he considers going in to talk with her, but instead he walks into the kitchen and turns on the tap. He waits till the water is hot, then partially fills a glass. He pulls a spoon from the drawer. The silence in the apartment disturbs him, and he thinks again about asking Claire what’s wrong. But he guesses he knows, and if so, it’s better, he decides, to just not talk about it. He walks out of the kitchen and to the rear of the apartment. The door to the back bedroom is slightly ajar, as it is each time he comes.

Ray-Ray slips inside. He doesn’t turn on the light. While he waits for his eyes to adjust, he listens for the soft sound of breathing that will tell him Ricky made it through another six hours.

Ricky grew up in this apartment, in this room, then left to live on his own, and at thirty-four came home to die. He has cancer, as his father did before him, and also his uncle. Cancer has become something of a tradition in this family, a sorrowful birthright that comes to them by way of where they live.

Ray-Ray hears Ricky say, quietly, “Still here, bro.”

Ray-Ray has a hard time hearing the words, and can just barely make out a dark form on the bed.

“Your stuff,” Ricky says, before taking another breath, “It don’t work . . .”

Ray-Ray doesn’t say anything.
Ricky continues, “It hurts.”
The ticking of a clock in the hallway. Ricky’s breathing, shallow and uneven, and Ray-Ray’s own, too loud in the quiet of the room. Finally, Ray-Ray says, “We got to—”

Ricky cuts him off, “No hospitals.”

Chemo. Surgery. He’s been through it all. Nothing has helped. Nothing except the shit Ray-Ray hooked him on, and which he now gives him several times a day. It was enough of a struggle to get Ricky to go to the hospital in the first place: his father died in one, hands tied to bed railings to keep him from pulling out the feeding tubes.

Ricky says, “Too late.”


“I talked to Mom . . .”


“You said . . .”

Silence, until Ray-Ray says, “I know what I said.”

More silence. The clock, the breathing, the sound of his blood pounding in his ears. It would be easy for Ray-Ray to walk out right now and never come back, to pretend the pain in the room is nothing to him. It would be easy, too, to try to talk Ricky out of the decision, as Ray-Ray and Claire had talked him out of it before. But the first isn’t an option: it’s not how family acts. As for the other, it’s pure selfishness: to put off Ricky’s death for another day or two or three would be doing no favors to Ricky. But Ray- Ray hates to do this. He hates to be the one.

“Cover your eyes,” Ray-Ray says, and turns on the light. He looks at Ricky and hates what he sees. Hollow cheeks. Protruding forehead with deep hollows at the temples. Stick-like fingers covering sunken eye sockets. Ray-Ray looks away.

He puts the glass on the nightstand, then reaches into a drawer beneath, which he resupplied only a few days ago. He pulls out the plastic that holds the tar heroin, and unwraps it. He nearly retches at the bitter, vinegary stench, as happens each time he opens the package. He wouldn’t do this for someone else. The heroin is dark, and tacky to the touch. He uses a pocket knife to scrape a dose into the spoon. He triples the dose just to be sure.

Between breaths, Ricky asks, “You know how much?”

“Yes,” Ray-Ray lies, and triples it again. He considers giving him the whole damn chunk. No need to save it, since Ray-Ray doesn’t use, Claire sure as hell doesn’t, and there’s no way he’s going to feed any of Simon’s habits.

Neither speaks as Ray-Ray rewraps the chunk, then pours a little hot water into the spoon and stirs it to dissolve the tar. Then Ray-Ray draws the liquid through a piece of cotton as a filter into the syringe. But there’s too much junk for the gear. He’ll have to slam him a couple of times.

Ricky extends his arm—a useless gesture, since the veins are gone—and Ray-Ray says, “There’s gonna be a little prick here, Ricky.”

Ricky says, “‘Sides you?”

The same joke everyday, and this is the last time. Silence. Ray-Ray begins to sweat. He says, “Are you sure?”

Ricky nods.

Ray-Ray asks, “Want me to get your mom?”

“She knows,” Ricky says. “We talked.”

“She don’t want to hold your hand?”

“Fuck you,” Ricky says. A long breath. “Don’t make this hard.”

It already is, Ray-Ray thinks. And suddenly he understands Claire’s absence. It would be one thing to be present at your son’s death, and quite another to be there for his killing.

Ray-Ray finds a vein in his cousin’s neck—as is true of his arms, the veins in his legs have long-since collapsed—and injects the heroin. Afterwards, Ray-Ray draws up more of the junk and injects Ricky again. He does it a third time. If he’s going to do this, he’s going to do it right.

He looks away to pick up the spoon and the tar, and out of the corner of his eyes he sees Ricky shudder, once, and then sigh. Trying not to look at the body, Ray-Ray cleans up the nightstand— later that night he’ll throw all the paraphernalia and shit into the river to have it out of his life—and leaves the room. He goes to tell his Aunt Claire. The whole time—even holding her as her whole body shakes—he doesn’t let himself feel. He doesn’t let himself feel until much later, and what he feels then is not so much rage or even sorrow as it is an emptiness that swells up inside of him until it’s bigger than his heart, bigger than all of him, bigger than the whole damn city and everyone in it.

Ray-Ray never talks about the specifics of Ricky’s death— not to anyone—but when anybody asks if at least it had been peaceful, Ray-Ray always replies, “Not for me it wasn’t. Not for me.”