The Orange House

Ten minutes later we were out of Compton and cruising with the windows down. Manny had found his favorite radio station and the familiar, thumping beat filled the bare-bones interior of the former cop car. Buddy laid his head on Manny’s lap and went to sleep.

“Tell me about this guy we’re going to see, Manny.”

“He’s a friendly dude, but a bit of a pothead. White guy with one of those big curly Afros you see some guys have. I sold him quite a lot of weed, but he hasn’t bought any lately.”

“He told you he needs a house mate?”

“Yeah, Bro. I think he was asking me if I wanted the spot. Anyway, the house is right near our school. You remember the crazy orange place with the weeds out front? It’s that one.”

“Uh, sure,” I agreed, having no idea what house he was talking about. “How old is he?”

“Shit, Bro, I don’t know. Pretty old. Thirty something.”

Some alarm bells were ringing for me. What kind of dude in his thirties approaches his high-school age weed dealer as a potential house mate? How was he even in the same circles as Manny to buy weed? I resolved to save my objections and the call to Chris Hansen for later. Did this world even have Chris Hansen?

Manny pulled onto a busy main street and it was funny what happened around us. He drove like he usually did. Sanely, following the rules. But now things were different.

When he’d been driving the Regal, the traffic around us had been LA normal—about half insane. Manny in the Crown Vic seemed to be a calming influence. People would look over and see what was unmistakably a ghost car and they’d drop to just under the speed limit and stop driving like aggressive assholes. If they saw us behind them they’d drive even more correctly. It wasn’t 100% effective. Some people drove like idiots no matter what was happening around them, and some of them looked close enough to see the two teenagers in the front seats or hear the gangster rap. Still, I had a good chuckle. Manny seemed like he didn’t notice.

“It’ll be great having you so close to the school, Bro,” Manny enthused. “We can move the weed and the scales there, and I can even park the car there before I go to school.”

“That reminds me, where have you got that shit now? Aren’t you worried your mom will find it?” I asked.

“Sort of,” Manny replied. “We’ve got a little shed in the yard. It’s full of junk we never use, so that’s where I do the weighing and I’ve got the weed stashed under a ton of junk in the back. No one ever goes in there but me.”

Manny pulled off the boulevard into a neighborhood full of small houses with neat yards. Out of habit now I was watching for gang tags and seeing plenty. They changed every few blocks as we drove. Once you looked for them, they were almost everywhere.

I was absorbed in that, keeping a running count of how many different tags I was seeing when Manny pulled up to the curb in an empty spot and stopped. I looked up, and I knew we were there.

The house was big for this neighborhood, with a lot about twice the size of its neighbors. If I had to guess from just the outside, I’d say it was probably a three bedroom and two bathroom house. A decent sized house for a family. None of that was unusual, there were other houses like that in this neighborhood. This house stood out.

It was an unusual, “modern” design with towering walls and strange angles—a shape only an architect could love. That wasn’t the worst of it. At some point, probably in the seventies shortly after it was built, some genius had painted it orange. Not a pastel orange, but bright, sunset orange. A quintessential California color, it turned the already eye-catching house into an eyesore.

That would have been enough, but the orange was starting to fade, the paint cracking and falling off in spots. The front yard had once been full of decorative stones and succulents, but was now just a trash-filled square of gravel, dead plants and weeds.

Manny turned off the Crown Vic and got out. With a little more reluctance I got out and followed him. I noticed he grinned as he stepped out, perhaps appreciating a working door once again. Buddy tried to follow, but obeyed when Manny told him to sit and stay. He looked pitifully at us through the Crown Vic’s fully opened windows.

“Stay there, Buddy. I’ll be back soon.”

When it was clear Buddy wasn’t going to follow us, he turned back to the house.

“I’ll introduce you, Bro. Hopefully he’s still got the spot. If not I can take you back to the shop, or another motel or whatever.”

I was a little apprehensive, but not so much. Sure, there were red flags but I doubted it could be any worse than the Highway Star.

Manny and I walked through the gap in the front fence where the gate had once been. It had been broken off and was lying nearby in the yard, rusting. Bits of wrapper blew across the yard and stuck in the remains of the fence. The contrast with the neighbors on both sides with their clean yards and well maintained homes was staggering.

The house looked occupied. A pillar of glass blocks beside the door shone with light, but didn’t show us anything behind them. The large, front window had curtains drawn but we could see light there as well. Manny knocked on the front door and waited. Nothing happened.

“He’s a pothead, so he might be high right now,” Manny said, and knocked again. It was much louder this time.

“Hey, it’s Manny,” he yelled through the closed door.

To my right the curtain covering the front window of the house twitched, but I didn’t catch who’d done it. A shadow crossed the glass blocks in front of us and I expected the door to open, but it didn’t.

Manny looked a little annoyed at the continuing silence. “Dude, it’s Manny. Open up.”

“Who’s that with you?” a muffled voice asked through the door.

“This is my friend. You said you needed a house mate. He needs a place to live. Come on, Bro, let’s not talk through the door.”

After another few seconds of silence I heard two locks click open, and the door opened. The faint smell of smoke and vinegar washed over me, slightly unpleasant.

The man standing in the door was short and skeletally thin. He was dressed in pajamas and a loose-fitting silk robe and everything hung off of him. His face was horribly marred by fresh acne and dominated by a hawk nose far too big for it. He looked us both over carefully before opening the door further. I identified him immediately.

“Smokey”

“Gentlemen, er, guys, come on in,” he said.

We stepped inside and Smokey locked the door behind us. Just inside the front door was a small space filled with discarded shoes, and piles of junk mail. The smell of vinegar got stronger, and I wondered what he’d been doing to make the house smell like that—cleaning a kettle or something?

“I know you, Manny, but I’m afraid I don’t know your name?” Smokey asked, turning to me. He swayed a bit on his feet.

I realized I still had the Sunshrouds on and pushed them up to the top of my head.

“I’m Mack,” I said, and offered my right hand.

He shook my hand daintily, but I didn’t fail to notice him assessing the glasses Manny and I wore.

“Please, come in. Leave your shoes on. You’re looking for a place to live, Mack?” he asked.

“I sure am,” I replied.

“That’s great timing. Follow me and I’ll show you around.”

We followed him through a doorway into the living room. A fireplace dominated the center the long, white tube of the chimney disappearing into the ceiling twenty feet above. The stone base was nearly black with soot and the empty fireplace was full of discarded cigarette packs and other paper trash.

Around it was what I think they used to call a “conversation pit” – a circular depression filled with cushions and rugs. A young woman lounged down there, looking up at us with a lazy, contented expression. She had short, curly red hair and bright blue eyes. She was wearing fashionable shorts and a t-shirt and filled them out nicely. In her right hand a glass with some lime and ice in it clinked as she took a sip.

She smiled up at us. “Hey, guys. Come on and join us.”

I immediately identified her as well.

Gloria Masters, Student (F2)

“Honey, Manny and Mack aren’t here socially. We’ve got business. Guys, this is my girl Gloria,” Smokey said.

“Nice to meet you, Gloria. Maybe another time,” I said to Gloria, trying to be polite. I had no idea what Smokey and his girl were doing in the pit, but I didn’t have any urge to get involved.

“This is the living room. Great for parties, as you can see,” Smokey said.

He then led us into the kitchen just off living room. It was enormous, easily as large as the living room, and was absolutely disgusting. Dirty dishes and take out trash were piled high on the counters, and the floor was so dirty it felt slippery underfoot. Roaches ran around without fear on every surface. Underneath the filth I could see that it was a very well appointed kitchen, even if hadn’t been updated since the seventies. A six burner gas range underneath a large extractor hood, a double built-in fridge and a kitchen island were all just barely visible.

On the other side of the room glass doors led out into a back yard that was too dark to see from inside the brightly-lit house.

“This is the kitchen. As you can see, the maid hasn’t come by for a while and I’m a bit of a slob,” Smokey said as we entered.

I turned to Manny, who looked a bit ill.

“We can bail whenever, Bro. Sorry about this, I didn’t know,” he said, pitching his voice low enough that Smokey didn’t hear.

Smokey however seemed to pick up on our distress and shook his head as if to clear it.

“Shit, I’m sorry guys I’m really high right now,” Smokey said. “This is gross, and I’ll get it cleaned up tomorrow. I promise. Anyway, that’s not what you’re here for. Let me show you where you’d be renting. It’s one of the best parts of the house.”

Being high explained his slightly-off behavior. I was willing to give Smokey another few minutes, so I nodded and he led us around the corner to staircase that led both up and down. I just wondered why I didn’t smell any marijuana.

“My bedroom is down there, in the basement. I’m not fond of heights. Yours is the second floor.”

“The whole floor?” I asked.

“Yeah, let’s go take a look. You’ll love it.”

Smokey went first up the staircase and opened the steel door at the top. The door and the frame didn’t match the rest of the house. The work was rough, but solid and seemed recent.

“The guy that used to live up here left all his stuff, so it’s a bit messy still,” Smokey explained. “If you take the place you can just toss whatever you don’t want. He’s not coming back for it.”

The bedroom behind the door was magnificent, if incredibly messy. The biggest king-sized bed I’d ever seen was on a slightly-raised platform in the middle of the room, facing the floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the backyard. The wispy curtains were fully opened but I still couldn’t see the backyard as every inch of glass was covered in old newspaper pasted to the glass, turning that window into a wall of print.

Thick, off-white shag carpet covered the floor, so deep it lapped at the tops of our shoes. Behind the bed a partition wall hid the bathroom and a dressing area full of drawers and wardrobes built into the walls. The bathroom had a shower big enough for three people and a large soaker tub.

“Whoa, this is crazy,” Manny said, expressing what I was feeling.

I walked through the room, taking everything in. The room was amazing, but what rivaled it was the mess. The mattress of the bed was askew, the bedding stripped and in a pile nearby. Every drawer in the dressing area had been pulled out and dumped on the ground, covering the floor with clothing. The bathroom was the same, the hard tiled floor covered with junk that had once been stowed in drawers or cabinets. The bathroom itself had obviously not been cleaned for quite a while either, with mold growing here and there and a stale mildew smell in the air. Someone, and it wasn’t hard to guess who, had tossed the place.

I picked up a pair of pants off the floor, a set of black jeans with an unfamiliar brand. They weren’t exactly my size—the legs were too long—but they’d fit me. All around me on the floor and still in the wardrobes were clothes that would fit me.

The steel door at the top of the stair was beefy and was fitted with a deadbolt and a padlock hasp on the outside.

I turned to Smokey, who’d been hovering nearby. “Let’s talk price.”