The Hard Stuff

Driving with sunglasses on after dark would have been difficult, but Manny simply pushed them down a bit on his nose and carried on. He seemed more relaxed then he had been. The beers, the dog and our success today had combined to push the worries to the back of his mind and I was glad for him. Buddy lay on the seat between us with his head on Manny’s lap. Occasionally Manny would drop his right hand to give him a scratch before returning it to the wheel.

My thoughts drifted from our day to my new home. I was dreading meeting Smokey. Gloria was a drama factory if there ever was one, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a big scene when I came in the door. In truth, the story of my encounter with Smokey’s girl in the kitchen the other night was starting to seem pretty funny. I really wanted to tell Manny, but I knew what his reaction would be. I didn’t want to spoil the moment.

“That was an epic night, Bro,” Manny said.

“Nice to get a win, isn’t it?” I agreed.

“It really is,” he said.

“You think any more about being a race driver?” I asked.

“Hell yeah I did, Bro. I did some reading at school. There’s a ton of racing around here. Lots of street races, and there are tracks all around San Tadeo. I was going to talk to Flattop about teaching me something today.”

“If I see him tomorrow morning I’ll let him know. About the Hip-” I started.

“Bro, whatever play you want to make with those fuckers I’ll try to back. I don’t know if I can shoot somebody, though. Just thinking about it makes me feel a bit sick.”

I nodded. As far as I knew I hadn’t killed anyone, but I didn’t have the same feelings about it as Manny did. If someone came at me and it was me or them, I was always going to choose me. That went for anyone I cared about. I wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in them if they came at Manny, or either of the LSS boys. Hell I might even do the same for Buddy.

“The Sunshrouds were just a way for us to be able to get some room to breathe, you know that. Some random piece of shit won’t be able to drop a dime on us just because they saw our names. We’ll have to come up with a more permanent solution to the Hip. What that is, I don’t know yet.”

“That’s what I’m worried about right there, Bro. The permanent part. Can’t we just make peace with these guys? Like have a sitdown or whatever? Maybe we can get Big El to set something up.”

I didn’t doubt Big El could set that up, but would Magnus be reasonable? It didn’t seem likely. As long as we were so weak, he had no reason to do anything but crush us. I’d shown him a few teeth, but not enough to make him back off. He literally couldn’t if he wanted to keep his rep. He had to make an example out of us or the Hip would become a laughing stock.

“I’m open to a peaceful end to this, Manny. I’m just not sure it’ll happen.”

“Do what you need to do, Bro. I’ve got your back.”

I was immensely grateful for that. Back in LA I didn’t have anyone like Manny in my life. The D&D group were all my friends, with the apparent exception of Joe. I didn’t think any of them would help me move if I called and asked, much less back my play versus a hostile gang. Despite how rough my life had been since I arrived, and the deep hole in the heart where my dad was, things really were looking up.

“Thanks, brother,” I said, choking back a bit of emotion.

Manny saw it and laughed, slapping me on the shoulder. “There might be some tissues in the glove there. Don’t cry on Buddy, he doesn’t like it.”

I laughed. “Fuck off.”

A few minutes later we pulled up in front of the Orange House and I jumped out.

“Same time tomorrow,” Manny called out the open passenger window. Buddy had already taken my seat.

“See you then,” I agreed, and he roared off.

The house was lit up, but quiet. I let myself in the front door, stepping over a fresh pile of mail on the mat. Mostly junk mixed with bills pushed through the mail slot.

Everything inside was quiet, and looked almost exactly like I’d left it that morning. The kitchen might have had a few more takeout containers, but I couldn’t tell. The garbage can in the corner was overflowing with the lid perched precariously on top of the pile. Otherwise it was the same squalid mess it had been when I moved in. So much for Smokey cleaning it up.

Smokey himself didn’t seem to be home, but when I approached the stairwell I heard faint music from the basement. I wanted to yell at him for not cleaning, but that could wait. I went upstairs first.

Everything was locked up tight as I’d left it. I dropped my empty backpack on my bed and went back downstairs to talk to Smokey. That turned out more difficult than I’d thought.

The basement was huge. While my room was only a portion of the house’s footprint, the basement was all of it. It took a bit of exploration to find Smokey. At the base of the stairs was the laundry room, complete with an ancient washer and dryer pair and sink. Past that was what I can only describe as a bar, or maybe a lounge would be more appropriate.

On one wall was a long wooden bar, covered in empty bottles, dirty glasses and assorted trash. Behind the bar ranks of shelves stood mostly empty, a few oddly shaped glasses here and there still unused and covered with dust. Every liquor bottle I could see was empty.

The floor was covered in another shag carpet, this one a dark brown or black color. It was hard to tell in the dim light of room. Scattered around the space was an assortment of white leather chairs, love seats and low tables. I could see that the white leather was scarred and stained. Large speakers were mounted in the corners of the room, but there was no evidence of a stereo system anywhere I could see.

Whoever had built this house had made it to be a party house, but I’d bet they didn’t expect that the people living here would treat it so poorly. Like the rest of the house, you could still see the faded 70s opulence peeking out underneath the layers of squalor. This had been a hell of a place, once upon a time. Until Smokey and friends had moved in.

On the other side of the lounge was a half-open door, and that was where I found Smokey.

The bedroom was like a dark mirror of my bedroom on the top floor. Where mine was about sunshine, light and bright colors—like the white of the shag carpet—this one was about shadow and darkness. The walls were painted black or maybe covered in black velvet, it was hard to tell. The floor was covered in the same dark shag the lounge had been. The only light in the room was coming from underneath the enormous, circular bed in the center of the space. In the blackness of Smokey’s room, the light had the effect of a halo around the bed. I could just make out two figures sprawled out in a tangle of sheets on top.

Mounted on the far wall I could see the faint green glow of a vintage stereo system and hear the music that had drawn me down into the basement. A song I didn’t recognize was playing. It sounded vaguely like prog-rock from the 60s.

I already felt like I was violating Smokey’s privacy, but I really wanted to talk to him.

I stepped back and knocked hard on the wooden door frame. “Smokey.”

There was no response, so I knocked again and louder. “Hey, Smokey, wake up.”

After a few repetitions of this, with no response from the room I began to get worried. Even yelling at the top of my lungs produced no response. Were they dead in there?

Stepping over mysterious piles just barely visible on the shag carpet, I was soon standing next to the bed looking down on Smokey and Gloria.

It was apparent what I’d been missing all this time in my naiveté about hard drugs. On the bed around their still figures lay the detritus of the heroin addict. A single syringe, a bit of rubber hose and a stained spoon along with some mostly-empty plastic packets. I picked one up, seeing a few tiny flakes of brown in the bottom. It rejoined the trash already on the bed a second later.

Smokey and Gloria weren’t dead. I checked them both, they were breathing and warm. I had a faint memory of junkies choking on their own vomit, so I rolled Smokey onto his side. It felt like he weighed nothing at all. With his robe off, I could see that his arms were lined with track marks. Gloria didn’t need my help, so with that done I left the basement.

Returning to the ground floor felt good, like an oppressive weight came off my shoulders. I had no idea what I was going to do about Smokey. Did I even need to do anything? Was it my business? Not really, but I was living with the guy. All around me in the house I could see what that was like.

While thinking about that, I decided to do a little cleaning. At least I could get rid of the garbage. I filled a big, black bag with junk and was digging through drawers looking for more bags when I found the drawer where Smokey had stashed the bills.

They were all overdue. Gas, electricity and water. The most recent phone bill was a notice of disconnection dated two weeks earlier. I guess when you had heroin you didn’t need a telephone. I knew where my $450 had gone now, and it hadn’t been to the bills. I was starting to get angry about the whole thing, and had a sudden suspicion.

The kitchen had a pair of glass doors that looked out onto the back yard. I unlocked them and opened them up, letting in the cool night air. It washed away the smell I had been ignoring in the kitchen, but it exposed something that made me even angrier. My bike was gone. The u-lock was still there, and a long piece of steel pipe that had been used to force it open.

My right hand itched to do violence, but I pushed the urge down. I didn’t know that Smokey had done this. It wasn’t a big financial hit for me in any case, but it was the principle of the thing.

To calm my anger, I decided to take out the garbage instead. I needed to do something to take my mind off it. I wouldn’t be able to sleep if I didn’t calm down. I picked up the two big bags and went out the front door. I nearly walked into an angry looking man about to knock on the door. He hopped back a step in surprise.

“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.

“I’m Mack,” I answered without thinking. “Who are you?”

“I’m the goddamn landlord is who I am. What the hell are you doing in my house?”