Los Angeles, California, June 1987
Summer in LA: Hot and dry, with a dust-filled wind whipping around the corners of buildings and ripping crumpled newspapers from overflowing trash bins, sending them skittering down the streets like artificial tumbleweeds. A smell on the air of gasoline and baked asphalt mixes with the brown fug of exhaust and smog. Somewhere to the west, the ocean rolls in ceaseless breakers up to beaches where sun-warmed girls in bikinis flirt with the waves and bleached studs play volleyball, showing off for the girls. Somewhere to the north, stately palm trees line avenues of gated mansions belonging to the rich and famous, and tour buses disgorge camera-snapping groups in colorful shirts and sandals. Or so he’s heard. In his year in this city of angels, he’s never been any of those places.
He likes to believe they exist. Sometimes he imagines them: mythical sites of beauty where legends walk. The idea of beauty helps him navigate the bleak reality of a life removed from hope. Of his life, here and now.
Here and now is a shabby picnic table outside a taqueria on a street of graffiti-marked buildings where bums fight rats for the leavings in the alley dumpsters. Grey-haired women in too many coats and rolled-down stockings wheel shopping carts piled with their belongings up and down in an endless search for a place to sit for a while and rest. Half-naked brown children play in the gutters, making games out of discarded take-out cartons and bits of string. On the table before him, a litter of greasy paper and a half-eaten burrito stuffed with anonymous meat he doesn’t want to examine too closely. The mere thought of it makes his already queasy stomach heave.
Tucked beneath the paper plate upon which the burrito rests, edges just peeking out, twenty-five dollars in grimy bills. It’s all he has left of his take from his last job. He doesn’t want to think about that, either. Not the job, and not the need to find more money soon, which will put him back in a place he does not want to go.
Under the table, his leg twitches in an incessant rhythm. Despite the heat of the day, his face is slick with cold sweat. Nervous fingers pluck at the shredded paper wrappers and lift to fiddle with his unkempt hair. The bloke’s late; he’s always late because he can be, because it makes him feel powerful. Sometimes, also because he can, the bloke stands him up. Those are bad times.
Away down the street, an old Alice Cooper song plays on a radio someone has left in an open window:
“I’m eighteen—I just don’t know what I want.”
His eighteenth birthday is over a month away. He’s not sure he’ll live to see it. But he knows what he wants. He wants the bloke to show up and do the deal so he can stop the shakes and the sweats before they get any worse.
How did he come to this? He never meant to come to this. But then, he expects no one ever does.
After Gypsy died, after he did what needed doing, he tried to go home. Not right away. But eventually the chill of the street seeped into his bones, into his soul. He could fend it off for a while with sex, with drugs. Sooner or later, though, it always returned, rolling through him like the fog rolling over San Francisco Bay, engulfing everything living and green in its path. He longed for the warmth of family, for his mother’s arms to nestle him against her breast and assure him everything would come right, as she hadn’t done since he was a wee lad. So, not long after his fifteenth birthday, he was standing on the stoop at his parents’ house, ringing the bell because he felt like a stranger. His mother had screamed and near fainted at the sight of him. His father had gazed at him from the eyes that never lost their calm.
“Come in, then,” he’d said. No more than that.
And at first it had been fine, more than fine, being with the family, seeing his sisters, marveling at how wee Spruce had grown in the months of his absence. Sleeping in a real bed, in the old room with his brother. But it hadn’t lasted. The confines of the house itched him; it no longer fit, not even in the uncomfortable way it once had. The rules, the little rituals of domestic life had become alien. He’d been on his own too long, and he wasn’t the same person who had left. Every little thing sent him into a temper. He kept wanting to shout that he’d watched an innocent girl die and killed a man in cold blood. He wanted them to know him, hear what he’d been through. Yet his gut realized they would never understand. The things he’d done would horrify them, make him more monstrous than ever. Within a few weeks he caught his parents exchanging the glances that said they remembered not being able to handle him and were thinking of the old man again. Thinking of turning him over to someone who might be able to do what they could not. And so, once more, he’d climbed out the window and vanished into the dark.
For a year or so he hadn’t gone far, but had lingered around the Northwest, wandering up to Vancouver, down as far as Santa Cruz. He kept hoping, kept trying to return. It never worked. His own fault. Since shooting Dandy Sam, he’d found only one sure way of keeping the cold from his bones and his demons at bay: riding the white horse into oblivion. The first time had become two, and three, and more until he’d used up the stash he’d taken from that junky and gone looking. It was never far away, never hard to find. Once you’d gone down that road, you saw the signposts everywhere you looked. He didn’t like bringing it into his parents’ house, but that didn’t stop him. And the day came when seven-year-old Spruce had walked in on him cooking a dose in the woodshed behind the house. He’d swept his works into a pile of sawdust, wasting the shot, and roared at her. She’d roared right back, waving the little oak tree medallion he’d carved for her in his face and demanding he take his head out of his ass. And he had, and saw that what he’d become had no place in a world of mother and father, sisters and brother.
After that, he left for good.
“Hola, Safety.” A stocky Mexican slides into the bench across from him, his arrival cutting off the unwanted memories. Finally.
“Carlo.” His head bobs in a brief nod. “¿Que pasa?”
“You look rough.”
Malice in the voice and a mean glint in the bloke’s dark eyes. He likes lording it over the junkies who buy from him. It’s the only clout he has. He runs drugs for someone higher up on the ladder, who gets them from someone still higher, up and up to the leader of the gang that controls most of the vice in this territory. Nothing to be done about it. If Carlo takes a single word amiss he’ll walk; he knows this from experience. And he has no time to score from someone else. If anyone else would see him.
“I hope to be better soon.” The words stick in his throat. Coughing, he wipes his dripping nose on a threadbare sleeve.
“You caught cold, Safety?” Carlo knows very well he hasn’t. “Better take care of that. Word is The Afghani has plans for later. You wouldn’t want to sneeze at the wrong time.”
Against his will, his heart gives a flutter of excited relief. The Afghani, who might or might not be Afghani in truth, holds a strange position in the area, available to any, allied with none. Among other things, he runs crews of enforcers, and he often hires a certain big young man as muscle. Leaving home so young, he never put on enough weight for his frame, and in the last year he’s dropped much of what he had. But he’s still large and strong. The junk has robbed him of a lot, but it hasn’t robbed him of that. Not yet. At any rate, another job will put money in his pocket, and he always needs more money.
Plus, working for the Afghani gives him protection from Green Jack, who hasn’t forgotten his plunge from a third-story window six months back. Green Jack is small fry. As much as he’d like revenge, he won’t go after one of the Afghani’s muscle men.
He hates the work, though. Perhaps it will be soon. If it’s soon, he can be high enough to get through it. He makes a mental note to check into the situation when he’s more himself, and hopes he remembers after he comes off the nod.
“Well, good seeing you, amigo.” Hands clasp across the table and a small plastic baggie shifts from one to the other. “Let me take care of this trash for you.” With a smile that seems almost real, Carlo gathers up the detritus of the abandoned meal, and with it the grimy bills. “Take care of that cold, now. ¡Hasta luego, Safety!”
Carlo slouches toward the taqueria trash bin, deposits the garbage, and saunters away down the street. He sits for a moment longer, willing himself not to open his hand and stuff the contents of the baggie into his mouth. It won’t cure his hunger. He knows this. Still, it takes an effort to move his hand to his pocket and shove the baggie inside.
After a while, he gets up and rambles in the opposite direction from that in which his dealer has gone. He passes beneath an open window, from which Alice Cooper is still singing, or singing again:
“Eighteen—I got to get away,
I got to get out of this place.”
There’s no way out for him. Or perhaps there is only one.