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Chapter One

MAYBE YOU’VE BEEN TO a party like this. The yard is dirt, the dog is locked away somewhere so he won’t go nuts but his house, built on a pallet, is there under the little oak tree by the fence, along with his water bucket and food bowl. The place was hard to find, on a long road that threads the hills between towns, and this is why a speed metal band can set up on the back deck. The band members have pushed the old Weber barbecue and the yard furniture aside and stacked up their hard-bought amplifiers and PA speakers, put the shining drum set in the back by the kitchen window, the microphones up front by the neglected flower beds.

You watch them taking the stage for their second set, ducking under guitar straps, saying “check” into the mikes. They are ethnically diverse—well, white and Mexican—and look like heroin junkies. The vocalist, a skinny, vaguely pretty young man with shaggy black hair and a shoulder tattoo, scans the dozens of people assembled in the dirt, drinking Miller from red plastic cups. He comes out with a sentence or two of self-conscious banter before he gives the four-count and the band, called Slow Death, unleashes a prolonged, hammering explosion of noise and screaming that reverberates up to the clouds where it breaks up and dissipates over the countryside.

It’s ten-thirty at night but you squint against the glare. Four or five flood lights are positioned around the yard, gleaming off people and objects, sending stretched, black shadows off in peculiar directions. A few of the drunker, more precocious attendees start a mosh pit, churning up a fog of dust that obscures your view of the band and causes everyone else to draw back and swipe their hands through the air. There are Mexicans, there are whites. There are longhairs, there are Mohawks, there are crew cuts. Some of the people have passed the point in their lives when it’s acceptable to be at a party like this—pushed onward into their late thirties, even—but they’re still waiting for adulthood to strike, for real life to kick in, and until that magic happens they’re staying high and spending their Saturday nights as they did when they were sixteen.

If you haven’t been to a party like this you may not understand why I was so desperate to leave. I was closing in on thirty now and was, for my part, trying to assume the role of Adult. I had a pregnant fiancée at home and a daily routine that I took comfort in. I had, I felt, left behind this world of wasted, loud, arrogant small town heroes. I was attending Morse Junior College during the day, getting homework done while I cashiered at Vanguard Liquors in the evening and then driving back to my apartment and sleeping peacefully with Jill. I was going to get a degree in business administration, own a gas station or a Subway franchise, for fuck’s sake, and here I was at the hour when I would normally be flossing my teeth, watching over-the-hill teenagers stomp around in the dirt to an incomprehensible cacophony of shit.

I narrowed my eyes at Rich Channing, coming toward me through the clouds of dust. He was supposed to check in with his friend, the drummer, so I could go, but I had watched Rich wander inside the house instead. He strode up now, positioned himself shoulder-to-shoulder with me and leaned over, his beery breath drifting past my nose. “I can’t talk to him until his set’s over. Anyway, I don’t think it’s gonna work out. Can you gimme a ride out of here?”

I turned to him, made a face and said, “Dude, what the fuck are you talking about?” He had shown up as I was closing the liquor store and begged me for a ride. He said he’d get me some money for gas, said the band was badass and I’d like them, said the drummer was his bro and was putting him up and he wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep tonight if he didn’t get to this party.

It was the last reason that made me sigh and say all right. Rich had looked like death under the fluorescents, his skin pale and waxy, blackened hammocks drooping under his eyes. He had been flying high for a few days, I could tell, and now the drug engine had sputtered and died and he was in freefall, beginning his screaming descent back to Earth. I figured I had to take him somewhere—it was that or deal with him begging to sleep at my place.

Rich was one of those people you try to help against all your better judgment, one of those people you’re bound to from the past, who flaunt their blundering stupidity before you with such blank-faced sincerity that you think you can just explain the obvious to them and they’ll stop destroying themselves. We had a history of close friendship that spanned back to when we were both eleven and I had never quite been able to give up on him. Looking back, it was a form of insanity in me.

Now, at this absurd party, he laid his gaze on me hard, trying to communicate with a look so he didn’t have to yell over the band. The glare of the floodlights had a dramatic effect, casting deep shadows off his prominent, straight nose, blackening the dips under his cheekbones. At twenty-nine Rich was a good-looking guy, dark haired, long-legged and well-proportioned. He brought his face close to mine and said, “Sam. Listen, dude, let’s get the fuck out of here. I’m serious.”

I thought a moment, shrugged and said, “Sure, whatever.” We started out of the yard, saying goodbye to a few people on the way, then went around the house and back to where the cars were racked up on the shoulders of the long driveway.

As we rolled down onto the public road Rich could contain himself no longer and said, “Check it out, dude!” and lifted the tinfoil out of the crumpled paper bag he had under his jacket and opened it so the damp reek of pot filled the car. The foil package was the size of a brick.

“Where the fuck did you get that?”

“In the back room of that house, by the pisser, dude! I could smell it from down the hall. It was right there waiting for me on the bed!”

“You telling me you stole it?”

“Fuck that. There’s fucking two hundred people there. The dumb fucks left the weed just sitting there. How they ever gonna know it was me?”

I opened and closed my hands on the steering wheel. A bad feeling, something like a premonition, was creeping up my back, hardening my shoulder muscles. “There were maybe eighty people there,” I said. “And we’re the only ones who just showed up and left. This is dumb, man. This is no good. What do you think you’re gonna do, sell it?”

“Not all of it!”

“So think about it. You’re all of a sudden gonna be selling weed around town at the same time these people’s weed’s gone up missing, you fucking moron?”

He was quiet. We were gliding down a black stretch of road bordered by thick clumps of trees on one side and tall hills on the other. I watched the headlights scudding over the asphalt ahead of us and tried to control my blood pressure with steady, deep breaths.

“I’ll figure something out,” he said, and I glanced over and could make out his frown.

I blew out a slow breath. “Listen, what you ought to do is get rid of it and deny everything. How much money you think that represents, Rich? People are deadly serious about this shit.”

“How about this, Sam? We can go to San Jose—”

“Fuck no. I’ve got nothing to do with this, you hear me? Don’t even try to drag me into it.”

He lowered his head and sniffed. “This is what? A thousand bucks? I’ll cut you in, man, fifty-fifty—”
“I don’t even want to talk about it, all right?”

I slowed and hit the turn indicator, put it into second while still rolling, let the clutch out and accelerated left onto San Gabriel road.

“I’m just trying to think,” Rich said.

I broke out laughing. “Little fucking late for that!” Then I narrowed my eyes at a car passing us and breathed, “Oh shit . . .”

Your mind puts those pieces together fast and you see the cop car before you comprehend it, even on a long dark road late at night. It was coming toward us and my headlights shaped the lightbar on top, the glossy black hood and the car-pusher in front of the grill, and the slow horror of it rolled down onto my thoughts like a mudslide. I glared into my rearview and when I saw the cop’s brake lights ignite my blood got prickly cold. “We’re getting pulled over, man,” I said. “You roll down the window and get that fucking reek out of here and you chuck that fucking weed right now—”

“No way, man!”

“Rich, I’m serious. I’ll fucking kill you.”

“No way.”

“Rich, that much weed is a felony! Think about it. If I get arrested for this shit, I’m gonna rat your ass out, tell everyone what happened, I swear to god. Chuck it, man! You can come back for it later!”

I could sense a light flick on in his brain and he said, “All right! All right!” His fingers flew, sealing the pot back in the foil and rolling the foil back in the paper bag. The window cranked down, filling the car with a whoosh of cool air. His hand reared back and he tossed it out toward the drainage ditch that parallels the road for six miles or so. I watched in my mirror as the cop completed his U-turn and fell in a quarter mile behind me.

Nothing came of it. I wound up with a fix-it ticket for a taillight that wasn’t out but was so dim it didn’t count. The cop was improvising. He was disappointed by the prospects I presented, as I was clearly sober and denied having so much as a sip of beer. I didn’t even get asked to step out of the vehicle. We didn’t have seatbelts on, but my car was a ’64 Fairlane and I guess we were exempted somehow. The cop didn’t bring it up anyway.

As the police cruiser slid past us and I started my car again, Rich said, “Let’s go back and get it, dude!”
“Sure, guy.” I made the OK sign with my right hand. “We’re gonna go hunt for a pound of pot in a roadside ditch at eleven at night when we know cops are prowling around.”

“Yeah, you’re right. That’s cool. I’ll come back for it tomorrow. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’m not.”

“Hey, Sam?” I was shifting into third and I could feel his stare bearing hard against the side of my face. “Can I crash on your couch? Just for tonight?”

“Fuck.”

“Just sleep, man. I’ll get up and leave early. You won’t even know I’m there. Come on. I’ll tell you the truth, bro, I haven’t slept in a couple days. I’m starting to come apart.”

I let out a long breath. “My chick, Rich . . . you know, she’s not gonna like it. She’s already pissed at me for not coming home after work.” I threw him a look. “You better be dead silent and then leave when the sun comes up.”

“I will, man. I swear to god. And watch, I’m gonna get that weed and make some money, and I’ll cut you in, real quiet-like. Nobody’ll know.”

“Please don’t,” I said.


Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Louis
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