Going to the meet

We drove east on Florence Avenue, and the city continued to remind me of Los Angeles. It was hard to explain, but other places in California didn’t have the same feel. It might’ve been the oversized roads, the prevalence of pawn shops and gang tags. Whatever it was, cruising in Manny’s regal in the morning sunshine made me feel right at home. I lost myself in the sunshine for a minute and then reality came crashing back. Manny and I were on our way to a drug buy.

“What are you buying anyway, Manny? You said dope. What? Heroin? Meth?”

“Fuck no, Homes. That shit’s dangerous. I’m buying good old Mary J. It comes from the earth, Bro. Mary will never hurt you. She just makes you feel good.”

“Hold on, you’re selling weed? Isn’t that legal?”

I had just been musing in my head how much this place felt like LA but as soon as Manny said he was selling weed I realized the one thing I hadn’t been seeing. No signs, billboards or sky-writing advertising marijuana dispensaries. That green leaf I’d gotten so familiar with in LA was remarkably absent.

“Hell no, it’s not legal Bro. If it were, I’d be screwed. How do you think I can afford this sweet ride?”

I relaxed a bit. How serious could things get if we were just talking about marijuana?

“How much are you going to buy? What does marijuana cost, anyway?”

“I’m to buy another ounce off of Lee. He’ll sell it to me for $550 like last time. I mark it up a hundred percent and after it’s all sold, I’ve got a cool $1100 in profit.”

I hadn’t bought marijuana when I was in LA, but that price seemed high. I dismissed that thought pretty much immediately. It was becoming clear to me that wherever I was, it didn’t follow the same rules as home. In an LA where weed was illegal, maybe that was a good price?

“I saw your roll, Manny. You don’t have $1600 bucks. What happened to the rest?”

Manny glanced over before returning his eyes to the road. Despite his appearances, he was driving in a sober and safe manner, unlike the cholo I’d seen earlier. Hands at ten and two, alert and aware of the road around him.

“You clocked that, huh? Yeah, I’ve got just enough to re-up. Moms saw my stack and I told her I was tutoring kids in my spare time for college money. She made me put most of it in the bank for my tuition next year. Sucks, Bro.”

I laughed, the thought of my new friend’s Tiger Mom taking away his drug capital and making him save it for his college education was just too funny.

“What you laughing at, Homes?” Manny asked, indignant.

“Sorry, Manny. It’s just funny. What does Mom think of your outfit?”

“You know I don’t dress like this all the time. My mom would have a heart attack and kill me. Maybe not in that order. I don’t even know what my dad would do. He’s old school man. His dad was Vietcong. Scary. I never met Grandpa, but if you see the pictures of him, he’s got one mean mug.”

“Oh, your family’s Vietnamese?”

Manny looked over at me again, lowering his glasses to give me an incredulous expression.

“Duh, Homes. The fact that I’m all Asian and have a Vietnamese name clued you in, huh?”

He shook his head and returned to his driving.

I didn’t know what to say about that. Telling him that I didn’t know what his real name was didn’t seem like a good idea. The other me, the one who might’ve actually existed before I came in and took over this body, he might have. That guy knew Manny. They were friends. I’d just have to wing it.

We crossed over a short bridge. I looked to my right and could swear I was looking at the LA river. That concrete hole in the earth full of trash, gang tags, and almost no water.

“Manny, what’s that called? This thing we’re crossing right now?”

“That’s the mighty Tadeo river, Bro. What, you lost all of a sudden?”

I resolved to look at a map of San Tadeo and California itself as soon as possible.

Manny pulled off Florence, onto the Highway 710 North on-ramp. It was a big cloverleaf just on the other side of the Tadeo river.

Despite Manny’s attention to the road, he was unable to Dodge a very large pothole and cursed as his right front wheel made a tortured sound. The impact jolted the whole car and popped the glove box open in front of me. It was stuffed full of junk paper.

“Shit, my suspension! I hope that didn’t wreck anything. Can you close that, Bro?” He asked, indicating the glove box.

I leaned forward and caught a glimpse of what was stuffed in the back of the glovebox. Not able to help myself, I reached in and pulled it free. A shining, nickel plated revolver with a snub nose. It was exactly like those guns you’d see middle-aged cops carry on the TV shows. It had a real weight to it, and felt substantial in my hands. I pulled it out to look it over.

“Hey, be careful with that. It’s loaded. Nice piece though, huh?”

I nodded and identified the gun.

Smith & Wesson Model 36 (F) Ammo (.38): 6/6
Handling: B Damage: E Serial: None
Penetration: E Accuracy: E Value: ???

Seeing the guns stat sheet prompted a ton of new questions. No damage numbers? Why was everything rated with a letter, and not something more concrete like a percentage? Or hell, even a DC. Give me a plus to hit and damage, universe. What was up with this JRPG strangeness. Despite my curiosity as a gamer I pushed those questions to the bottom of the pile for now. A more important one was in the front of my mind.

“Manny, what do you have this for? Are you gonna take it into the meet?”

“Hell yeah, I am. There’s no point having a gun if it’s not around when you need it.”

“Hey, you said this wasn’t going to be dangerous.”

“It’s not. Seriously, it’s not. I’ve got no beef with Brass Lee or the Tong. I’m one of their dealers. A customer anyway. Stringer, freelancer, whatever you want to call it. I give them money for their product. The gun is just to show I’m serious. Actually using it’s going to be a last resort, Homes. Rule of Escalation and all that, you know.”

“Rule of Escalation? What’s that?”

“Shit, man, you watched all the same movies as I did. All those gangster flicks. You telling me you don’t remember that?”

“No, what is it?”

“Simple, Bro. You get in a fist fight with somebody, that’s one thing. You win or lose. The cops are probably not going to interfere. But if you get in a fist fight, and when you start to lose you pull a gun, you escalated. You never want to be the guy that escalates. Then it becomes self-defense when he pulls his piece and shoots you, or murder when you shoot him. If you’re going to escalate, gotta make sure it’s worth it. I sure as fuck don’t want to get into a war with the Brass Dragon Tong, do you?”

I definitely did not. What he was saying didn’t exactly jibe with my understanding of law, but again, I was in a new world.

“So the Rule of Escalation is?”

He snorted. “If you escalate it better pay off.”

“That .38 is a clean gun, so if I ever have to use it I just gotta make sure I wipe and toss it before the cops find it on me. Then the cops need solid witnesses to make a charge stick.”

Manny was talking like he was an old hand, but I got the impression that all his knowledge was theoretical. I wanted to test that assumption.

“Have you ever shot this gun?” I asked.

“A couple times. The guy I bought it off of sold me a box of .38 to go with it. I popped off a few rounds out in the mountains. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”

“So you’ve never used it to shoot anyone?”

“Hell no, Bro. I just told you if I ever have to use that thing I gotta toss it. You know, ballistics, CSI that kinda shit. Besides, you know me, Bro. You know I’m not a killer. This is just a side hustle. Mom kinda screwed me up by taking my capital, but she’s right this money is for my college. I can’t put all that on my parents. It’s way too much money.”

I was starting to get a picture of who Manny really was. The one that was walking in the light, anyhow. Whatever his name was. A good kid with a Tiger Mom and a distant father. He wasn’t rich and neither was his family.

I put the gun back into the glove compartment, being careful to make sure I didn’t catch the trigger on anything. I’d seen and even handled pistols before, but never fired one. They scared me a bit.

Once the gun was back ensconced in its nest of junk paper, I closed the glove compartment again.

We were in the far-right lane, cruising at just under the speed limit on Highway 710 North.

“Where are we going anyway? How far is it?” I asked.

“Traffic’s good. Maybe thirty minutes? We’re going to one of Lee’s laundries in Glendora.”

Glendora. That was a name I knew. It was right on the edge of the Angeles National Forest in my world. I put that on the list to confirm later when I could find a map of San Tadeo.

“Laundries?”

“You know, where they clean their cash. I’m not there yet, but after a while you gotta clean it. Can’t buy everything with stacks of cash as much as I might like that. Sad, really. IRS, you know? They got Capone; they can get me.”

I snorted. Of course, the IRS existed. Any thought of this being some kind of heavenly afterlife was now thoroughly debunked. No heaven contained the IRS. Whether I was in hell was still to be determined. Hell would definitely have an IRS.

“Yeah, true enough.”

Conversation lulled a bit, and Manny turned the gangster rap back up, if not so loud as before. He glanced over at me to make sure I was cool with the volume levels before resuming singing along with the lyrics. Like any good wannabe gangster, he didn’t self-censor when using the N word, instead he sang it loud and proud. After a while with the simpler choruses I joined in, although I didn’t find it in me to break that deeply ingrained social taboo and sing the forbidden word along with him.

We continued to drive and got onto the 10 West for another 25 minutes before we exited into Glendora. The surroundings were a lot more lush and green around there. Well-tended lawns, green trees and wide four-lane roads with sprawling bungalows far back from the street. It was gorgeous. One of those quintessential California places, insulated from the crushing reality of life in gang territory not so far away.

Manny obviously agreed. “These dudes out here got it good, no? I bet every one of these houses has a pool in the backyard. Their kids go to college and nobody wants for anything. Look at these cars! Not one of these is more than a few years old.”

He pointed to the cars that we drove past. Shining and clean, they were parked in long driveways or even occasionally out on the street. He was right, it was a mix of high-end and more modest cars. Toyotas, Hondas, Mercedes, BMWs and even the occasional Bentley or Porsche. One thing was universally true, however, none of them were old and beat up like Manny’s Regal.

“Yeah, it must be nice. I know I would’ve loved a pool in my backyard as a kid,” I said, watching the houses pass by and trying to imagine the lives of the people within.

“My kids are gonna have that,” Manny declared, his tone suddenly dead serious. “No shit, Bro. My parents worked too hard to get me here and I’m not going to let the family down.”

I smiled. “Yeah, you’re going to have your mom and dad living with you when you make good? That’s the Vietnamese way, isn’t it?”

“It is, and I am. They took care of me when I was little and helpless. What kind of son would I be if I didn’t return the favor? Old folks homes are for parents whose children don’t really love them.”

That was a perspective I hadn’t heard before. I’d been trying to make a joke. I didn’t know anyone who wanted to live with their parents as an adult, much less a successful adult with a family of their own. The idea was alien to me. I could see where he was coming from, though. Maybe it would be nice.

Would I be willing to do that with my own dad? Was the alternative putting him in a home when he got too old, like Manny said? It seemed like it was. My dad made a good living, but he ran his own business. If he was saving for retirement, I sure didn’t know about it. Maybe it’d be nice to do that with Dad. I’d get a place where he’d have his own space, and he’d always be around his family.

A weight settled deep in my chest when I realized that I might never see him again. It was still unclear to me what had happened to me. All I knew is that as of right now there was no prospect that I’d ever see him again. I was stuck in this world, and I needed to make the best of it.

I realized as I snapped out of it, that Manny and I had been both in our own little worlds, thinking about our families and future. Manny’s family was still intact, and he was doing his best as a dutiful son to make sure he was a success. I envied him that. Despite his clownish wardrobe choices, I was really beginning to like Manny.

“It’s right up here. Remember, be cool, Bro. Let me talk. Just try to look serious. If Lee fucks with you just take it, okay? He can be kind of a dick.”

I nodded. “Got it.”

We pulled into the parking lot of a near deserted stripmall, four shops all in a line. One was a real estate agent, the windows covered in large pictures of luxurious California bungalows in the area with six and seven figure numbers underneath. The only other open shop was a shoe place, Sammy’s Super Shoes.

Manny eased the car into a spot and put it in park, turning the key to kill the engine. It sputtered and complained for a moment but then went quiet, the only sound the ticking of the radiator cooling.

Manny reached over and open the glove box, pulling his .38 free. I honestly expected him to simply tuck it in the waistband of his baggy shorts, but he surprised me yet again. He reached under the seat in front of him and produced a holster, a tiny piece of black synthetic leather. It still had a price tag dangling off of it so he bit it off and spit it out his window. The gun fit tightly in the holster and once it was secure, he lifted the back of his jersey and clipped it to the back of his pants and concealed it again under the jersey.

“I thought you were gonna put it in your pants, like the gangsters do.”

“No way, Bro. Good way to shoot your nuts off. I know a guy who knows a guy that did just that. Not going to happen to me. A holster is not an expensive thing. This one was five bucks.”

With that, he stood up and hopped over his door. I exited the car the normal way, and both of us walked toward Sammy’s.