We finished unloading the last truck at midnight, and I rode with Randall to his apartment, my hands gnarled, wishing to never see the grocery store again. I'd swiped a pound of ground beef from the meat department before we punched out. I kept it cold and solid near my ribs, as Randall fiddled with the heater in his Datsun. Surely a hero's welcome would greet me once I revealed this score to both Randall, and Randall's roommate, Larry.
But Larry was seeing ghosts, meaning he'd gone ahead and snagged the brick he'd been swearing to. There were beers, as well. Then Randall said I was a fool for taking from the hands that fed me.
I took protein from those hands, I told him, not mentioning the tiny improvements I'd recently seen in my strength and stamina.
Randall groaned when he pulled off his jacket, the Price Cutter patch embroidered proud.
He said, Where are the papers?
Larry's eyes were red and mushy, his grin devilish. He said, Chad was just here.
Randall found the rolling papers and let his lungs work.
I'd been holding onto that ground beef like a fool, so I stashed it back inside my jacket.
Put that in the fridge, Randall said.
I laid it next to the jar of peppers and the remaining beers, taking a tall, frosty one for my troubles.
Chad stopped by, Larry said again.
But Chad was a goner, dead now almost two years. When Larry has a bad stretch of life, he gets high and drinks beers, and he feigns visions of big, lumbering Chad.
Randall said, Where did Chad go, Larry?
Bangkok City, Larry answered. He's gonna meet us there.
Randall nodded, keeping an eye on me.
We're supposed to find a couple of Mexicans, Larry said. He held up the fluffy, evergreen baggie and said, They want to buy some of this.
Sounds good, Randall said.
Is that part true? I asked Larry, because often he mixed the magic with the real. Soldiers from the Fort do hang out at Lenny's or Bangkok City, and we can usually overcharge them for weed.
Larry said, Oh yeah.
Randall put on his flannel coat. I would have to go to that bar in my Price Cutter jacket, and sometimes this rubs the unemployed wrong.
Do you have something I can wear, I asked Randall. Are we meeting some Mexicans?
He said, No.
Larry? I asked.
But you left this fucking thing last time you slept here, Randall said, tossing me the paperback I'd borrowed from the magazine racks at work.
This was a guide to bereavement. I'd taken to reading it before I passed out at night.
Larry said, Chad just wanted some beers, man, so we had a few beers.
Wow, I said. Larry was a classic case of some type of grief, I'd studied.
He offered me a smoke. I showed him the one between my fingers.
Chad was here and we had some beers, he told me.
And you let him drive? I asked.
Larry ignored me, and went for his jacket. Flannel, as well. Yes, I'd be the wild-card.
Randall slapped me across the back of the head for what I'd muttered about Chad driving.
That's cruel, he told me. You're cruel.
But I'd been ready for a peaceful evening, I wanted to say. A hero! And I didn't remind Randall of that meat I'd stolen for all of us. Supposedly, supper among friends is a good way to deal with the loss of a loved one.
Chad was a son-of-a-bitch, though, and I never minded his demise. In life, we knock shoulders with several men of this ilk, strong enough to bully and weak enough to have to. For years, he roughed me up whenever he got a chance, shaking me out of my own space.
I'm fucking with you, he reasoned. He corkscrewed my arm behind me until I had to tap out of our invisible ring.
At a party one late June, Chad pulled his truck close to the spot where I'd taken Ugly Sally, and showed his headlights on our slippery bodies, working against each other in the grass. Someone was in the truck with Chad, and they whistled and hooted. They got a good look at us, and even worse, I got a good look at Ugly Sally, bright and glorious like some blinded, hideous angel. She stumbled back into her pants and ran from me. I couldn't find my underwear.
The night Chad died, a group of us had decided to take a drive to the river. Oh, the spontaneity of youth! Randall and Larry and a girl named Jane and some girl's face I can't remember squeezed into the Datsun and left me to ride with Chad.
I pleaded with Larry as he rested comfortably in the Datsun's passenger seat.
I'm not riding with that nut, he told me.
The girls in the back laughed at me. I staggered to Chad's big truck and calmly tried to make the most of it.
I said, I guess it's you and me, big guy.
He punched me in the collarbone.
I want to see you ride in the Datsun's trunk, he said.
I need my space, he said.
I won't fit.
Oh yeah, you'll fit.
I hurried back to the Datsun, rubbing my wounds, and explained the state of things to Randall. The car detonated with laughter. When the trunk popped open, I sheepishly crawled in, next to an empty bottle of STP and the fan Randall broke the night before.
Occasionally, one of the girls in the back would tap signals to me, though I'd forgotten all the morse code I'd ever learned. Or, this tapping was my lonesome imagination. I had nothing but darkness back there, for Christ's sake! We stopped for tacos, I remember, and though I could hear the electronic voice from the drive-through, no one seemed to hear my screams and pleas for a burrito. A single, lone burrito.
A burrito, I hollered. I pounded against the hood a few times.
I was told later that the woman taking the money had looked at the trunk suspiciously as it sounded. Randall explained that they'd killed a dog and didn't want to leave it on the road.
The woman said, Why isn't it killed then?
With that, Randall grabbed the bag of tacos and sped off.
Eventually, Jane cracked the opening from the back seat to the trunk, and slipped me a burrito.
How did you know? I asked as she shut me out again.
That burrito tasted of hair spray.
I was also informed later that just prior to our stopping for tacos, Chad had passed the Datsun like a madman, chucking obscenities and waving a fist. Later that night, he put the truck into the tattooed concrete of an overpass.
At Bangkok City, the three of us found two Mexicans on weekend leave, sure enough. They wore their hair cropped, but sported street clothes. They were shooting pool with a black guy with a dirty afro. His nappy curls carried bits and pieces.
Larry whispered to us that he'd partner with the black fellow then get to know the Mexicans. I believed he'd whispered this too loudly, but the Creedence on the jukebox had swallowed up his dangerous etiquette.
Randall patted Larry on the arm and said, Go to it.
Larry said, We'll see if they're looking to buy.
Then Randall and I took a table and watched them shoot.
Who's we? I asked Randall.
Larry said we, I explained, lowering my voice. Is the Afro in on it?
Randall threw back some beer. He said, Are you really this stupid?
I should rough you up, he said. Then he smiled.
But who's we? I asked again.
Randall sighed. He said, Chad, probably.
Well, I said, I guess Larry's acting deep again.
Randall ignored me and cheered drunkenly when Larry nailed a trick shot, the stick behind his back, the cue ball knocking off the green rail then softly against a striped one. Then Larry lost his balance and crashed to floor, snapping the stick in half. The Mexicans let out a hearty cheer. The Afro looked sad.
Larry's worse than usual, I said.
The guy misses his friend for crying out loud, Randall said.
We watched Larry pull himself up. I said, His friend?
Have a little decency, Randall told me.
I held my book under the table, and eye-balled it, looking for a particular line on this very thing, but my bookmark had fallen by the wayside. Words like hope and prayer and communion, which is what they called supper with pals, repeated each other.
I did get that hamburger for all of us, I reminded him, playing my hand early.
Yeah, I figured we could have a nice, quiet evening. We could use it.
Oh, you did?
Randall shook his head and called me a faggot. He left to sit at the bar. I would do the same but I think Randall wanted some time away from me.
Keep your eye on him, Randall told me when he came back to grab the coat he'd forgotten.
And between chapters, I did, watching Larry stumble around and miss more shots than he made. The Mexicans ate up his sloppiness. The black guy was distressed they were losing so embarrassingly, though no one watched but me. Pretty girls didn't come here anymore, and the rest of the drunks had their own demons. Larry continued to play the jester.
My memory isn't what it used to be, but I can say with confidence that I don't remember Chad and Larry ever being close. If Chad saw someone joke the way that Larry usually jokes when he's drunk, well, he'd put him in some kind of wrestling move, thwapping his knuckles across funny bones. And he and Larry surely never shared a couple of beers, alone in a smoky apartment. Chad wasn't close with any of us, but he was always around when we were in large groups. In this forum, Chad could get hearty laughs when said things about my bad luck with women. He might say, How's Ugly Sally treating you? And when I didn't respond he'd jump me, crashing into furniture. Then someone could talk him out of keeping me in a sleeper hold.
I'd gasp thankfully for air.
When Chad died, we didn't find out until sometime the next day. At some point the previous night, the Datsun had ended up back at Randall and Larry's, and its occupants had decided against the river, realizing this was the middle of winter. I wasn't in on the vote because I was still in the trunk, but I respected the decision. One of the girls had swiped painkillers from her crippled sister and we tested out different mixes of those pills with several of fat-burning tablets and weight-lifting supplements I'd once swiped from Price Cutter, hoping to get strong enough to return fire on Chad.
The next evening, as the bunch of us sat in front of the television, wondering if we'd ever get to sleep again in this lifetime, a local newscaster broke the story about a terrible one-car accident near the Interstate. The television showed us a clip of Chad's mangled truck, a state trooper being interviewed, and a photo of Chad from high school. He looked unreasonable and mean. He was fatter then.
Larry put the pieces together first. He said, Chad's dead.
Randall told one the girls to shut up when she said, Which one was Chad?
Randall, and Larry, and I all took two days off from Price Cutter to attend the funeral and to mourn accordingly, but we used the time to make a run to Memphis. Chad would've wanted us to make a run, we said. We didn't speak of him once on our journey. We were still on a kick. We took those nutty girls with us, getting from them all we could. Only when we got back to our horrible routine of life did we mention Chad.
I can't believe that fucker's dead, Larry said initially.
We unloaded crates of fruit together. Rank pears often churned my stomach.
Randall shook his head, and I was glad nobody mentioned that I should've died, too, Chad's nature saving me.
The dear-departed Chad, Larry said aloud.
We laughed nervously.
One day Larry said these words and so much and broke down, and Randall pulled him close. The embrace seemed awkward and rehearsed. I watched from my spot in the break room. Then I returned to work. More and more, I believe, Larry started equating our dead-end lives to Chad's being gone. He could rant and rave, or cry and moan. It gave him a goofy forum for this depression we share. Now he takes it even further.
That bereavement manual hopped out at me in the meanwhile. Perhaps I wondered what I should be equating my near miss in Chad's annihilated truck to. The gravity of circumstance seemed lost on my other friends.
In the time it took me to piss and wash my hands in that dingy Bangkok City restroom, Larry and his pals had vanished. Randall hadn't seemed to notice, and as he sat at the bar with what looked to be new friends, I was afraid to break the news.
He's gone? Randall asked.
To where? Randall asked.
I didn't witness him leave.
Randall looked to the man at his left as if to say, Can you believe this guy?
I'm sorry, Randall.
Sorry doesn't find Larry, he said. The man with a moustache and a cowboy hat was repeating every word Randall said. I soon found myself talking to him.
I had to go piss, I said.
Randall grabbed me by the collar of my jacket and didn't speak to me as he sped across town. And dammit! I was afraid to mention the book I'd forgotten again, resting peacefully atop the urinal back at Bangkok City. Randall seemed to be assuming the role of a lost loved one with his recent, awkward harassment of me. My head didn't feel like getting elbowed again.
Sorry, I told him, though he hadn't witnessed the scene I was apologizing for.
When we arrived to the deserted apartment, lights blackened, Randall peered in Larry's room anyway. I checked the bathroom.
Is he there? I called.
No, Randall said. Is the dope still in the bathroom?
It was, a load of it right there on sink, next to a tube of Colgate and an empty coffee mug.
Yeah, I said. Do you think he went to Lenny's?
He could be anywhere, Randall said. His tone clarified that this was my doing.
If he was really hunting down Chad, I said, then maybe he followed him to all the old haunts.
Randall looked at me. I thought twice about my words.
I didn't mean haunts that way, I said.
No, you're probably right.
I watched Randall, believing he'd finally seen through all this silliness and talk of phantoms. Ha. Maybe he'd checked out the book! Maybe he'd slap some sense into Larry, finally.
He said, I'm going to look for them.
Larry and the Mexicans?
Yeah, he said. You stay here.
In case they come back here, he said.
Or in case Chad swings by, I joked.
Randall stepped close to me.
What's your fucking problem? he asked.
Nothing, I said. I'll cook those burgers for us.
And why are you making such a fuss about burgers? Jesus!
Soon I heard Larry thundering up the outside steps moments before he burst through the door. He was missing his jacket.
That black fucker's chasing me, he explained.
He shut the door behind him, and leaned into it, but had trouble getting the lock to work.
Turn it to the right, I said.
He kept pushing it to the left. Then somebody bumped into the door. Larry tried holding his ground. I was caught between helping him and checking out the knocks that were suddenly exploding at the windows.
Who is that? I asked him.
That Mandingo's after me and Chad, he said.
At this line, I smiled briefly, as I remembered Chad's hatred for blacks. Other than Chad's being dead, Larry's quip seemed very plausible. With another, vicious pound at the window, though, I realized the possible danger we were in.
Larry? I asked.
But he figured out the lock and sprinted to the bathroom.
I stepped close to the door, and listened. Someone's voice said, Come on, man, open up.
Who is it? I called through the door.
We're with Larry, more than one voice answered.
I cracked the door. I saw the fellows from Bangkok City.
The cab driver's gonna see us, one of them told me.
Your buddy stiffed us, the black guy told me. He's foul, man.
Larry, I called to the bathroom. How did you stiff these guys?
Fuck that cab driver, he shouted back. Let my boys in!
The guys from Bangkok City, I hollered to Larry.
He didn't respond. He was humming a tune.
That's us, one of the Mexicans told me. Remember us?
I opened the front door all the way and the three guys slipped inside. Before they spoke, I heard more footsteps on those outside stairs. No one pounded on the windows and doors, though.
The shorter Mexican whispered, The cabbie didn't see what door we went to. He just knows we went upstairs.
The other Mexican said, I'm Chuck.
I stuck out my hand and offered my own name, but he missed the gesture. I was left with my hand out for an awkward moment. The short one had Larry's coat and tossed it on the couch.
Chuck said, Your buddy said he had some dope for us to try.
The shorter one said, Larry.
Chuck said, Larry told us he'd pay for a cab, but when we pulled up he just opened the door and sprinted upstairs.
The black guy said, Your boy's foul.
The black guy said, He had that fool swing by Lenny's.
Why? I asked.
The shorter one said, To look for one of your buddies.
I peered out the blinds to see if the cabbie was still staking us out. The yellow car sat just below the window, smoke waltzing from the tailpipe. I went to the door and cracked it again, slow and discreet. An angry cabbie stared into my eyes. His bushy moustache was furious, and I slammed the door, the room's guilt suddenly echoing off the walls. The lock gave me trouble for a moment.
Larry finally appeared from the bathroom, grinning, a smoky trail following like a whisper.
Hello gentlemen, he said.
The cabbie pounded frantically at the door. He shouted a garbled whine.
Your boy's just foul, the black guy repeated.
But the Mexicans were suddenly interested in the joints Larry whipped out.
Sorry Amigos, he told them.
The black guy told me, I can't get busted again, bro.
I said, Who can?
The cops won't show, I assured him.
I don't know, man.
When the knocking stopped, I smiled at the black guy as if to say, I told you so. I smiled towards the others in the room, but they'd sauntered back to the bathroom with Larry.
I heard Larry telling them about Chad.
In turn, they told him they'd pay for a ride back to Lenny's. But they needed to stop at an ATM.
Lenny's? I asked.
The black guy said his line again.
Sorry, I said. No harm done?
From the window, I peeked through the blinds just in time to see the cab ease away. After a safe moment, I opened the front door, letting some air into the room, which was suddenly sticky and hot. The black guy stepped out with me and we leaned on the rail, looking over the dark lot.
You gonna get some of that stuff? I asked him.
He shook his head at me. I got diabetes, he explained.
He was quiet. In the glow of the moonlight, the specks in his afro stood out. I wanted to pick them out.
Then he said, Is there a pool here?
I said, It's the middle of winter for God's sake.
He shook his head.
But there is a pool, I said. I joked, Got any trunks?
I can't swim, man.
Eventually, the Mexicans joined us, blowing syrupy smoke into the cool air.
Larry shut himself up in his bedroom, Chuck told me. He wanted to grab his yearbook.
Yearbook? the black guy asked, beating me to it.
Larry had taken this madness too far, it seemed. These guys wanted to do business, and he wanted to continue with his fantasy games. I excused myself and slipped back inside. When I opened his bedroom door, he banged his head. I tried to remember the calm and rational language of my grieving book, but I didn't have it in me. That advice was for someone near that urinal now.
I said, What are you doing?
He grinned like a fool. He held up a copy of our yearbook, colored bright with Crimson and Cream. Sure, it brought back a few memories, but I grabbed Larry by the shoulders anyway.
What are you doing?
He smiled at me.
You're nuts, I told him.
I'm a pool shark, he bragged.
I shook him, but he only laughed.
Chad's dead, I said. You're . . . channeling something about your disenchantment through Chad.
You heard me.
A few hurried noises sounded outside the window and Larry tried to look. I brought him back to my line of vision. I felt powerful. I tore the yearbook from his hands and threw it against the couch.
Chad's fucking dead, I said. He's gone.
But Larry shook it off and looked down at the yearbook. He said, Shit, that's the wrong year.
When I stepped back outside, the black guy and the Mexicans were gone. A squad car had pulled into a space near the dumpster, and two officers were heading up the steps before I knew it. As calmly as I could, I shut the door, but the knocks came seconds later.
Fuck, I whispered.
Larry was oblivious and hollered, Who is it?
There was no answer.
I panicked and couldn't convince Larry not to answer his door. A moment earlier, I should've knocked him cold. Now the cops would certainly hear the commotion and call for back-up. Swat teams would crash boldly through the windows. Or, at least, crawl through the plywood where the AC unit used to be. I hustled to the kitchen and decided to look busy with the hamburger. Larry answered the door and I heard pieces of conversation. Before I knew it, two cops were standing in the living room.
I said, Hello?
Do you live here too? the older one asked.
No, I'm just visiting.
Larry joined them. He said, I thought they might know where Chad is.
I said, You asked them in?
Then I smiled at the cops as to not look suspicious.
Your buddy said we could have a look around, the young one told me.
The old one said, Seeing as you don't live here, I don't guess you'll mind.
The young one said, Cooking Whoppers?
I stood holding the pound of beef, still wrapped tight in plastic and I shook my head, No.
You got a roommate, the old one asked Larry.
He nodded, continuing to smile, and when he tripped over the coffee table, the young cop caught him.
You guys know Chad? Larry asked again. He eased onto the couch.
I watched the older cop step near the bathroom. He took a big, dramatic sniff and asked, You boys been burning candles, huh?
Larry started to say more about Chad, but stopped. He said, Candles?
It was a joke, Larry, I explained.
Oh, he said. Good one, he said to the young cop.
There was enough dope sitting on that bathroom sink to qualify us as dealers. The young cop asked me, Were you involved with the business with the taxi earlier?
He looked at me strangely when I called him, Sir. He was younger than me.
The older cop had stepped into the bathroom, and I waited for him to return.
The young cop looked at Larry. He said, And you?
It was the black fellow, he said.
The young cop looked back to me. I put up my hands.
You guys have company tonight, he asked.
I looked again towards the bathroom. Without thinking, again I said, No sir.
You got another roommate, the old cop asked. I hadn't seen him re-enter the room.
He's out picking up our other buddy Chad, I said quickly.
Larry didn't even look at me when I said it.
Yeah. Then I'm gonna cook the burgers for all of us.
The young cop looked at me.
I'm holding off until they get back. Chad likes them . . . fresh, I suppose.
The older cop said, Really? That sounds great.
Larry was smiling at me now.
The old cop and the young cop conferred suspiciously but finally told us to keep out of trouble. They walked out of the living room and I stepped across the room, peering out the window one more time, watching a cop car vanish this time.
I turned around half-expecting to see Larry grinning stupidly, half-expecting to see him out cold. But he was on his feet, hands on his hips.
How did that cop miss the dope?
I was more loud and firm with my question when I asked, What the fuck were you thinking?
Then a thought slugged me.
Maybe Larry thought of it the second I did, maybe a second earlier.
Either way, we both hurried to the bathroom, only to find it empty of anything incriminating.
We said, The Mexicans! We said this at the same time, our tones varied.
I couldn't believe our good luck.
Larry couldn't believe our bad luck.
Those motherfuckers, he shouted.
You got stiffed, I laughed.
Fuck, he screamed. He kicked a few things in that bathroom. The toilet, the trash can, a box of video games.
I laughed at him. I shook my head. He shoved out of the way violently, and he slammed his bedroom door shut. The apartment has strange, prevailing winds, every now and then, and Larry had to slam it twice to get the effect he was after.
Randall arrived home not long after and I gave him the scoop. He'd seen the cops about a mile up the road. He said they had the black guy up against the car.
Why did you let them come in? he asked me.
I was in the kitchen, I explained. Larry let them in.
Oh, I said. But they were desperate.
Randall shook his head at me. You're the biggest fool I know, he told me.
This wasn't the first time I'd heard that line.
I said, But Larry let in the cops. They could've found the dope!
Randall looked at me and said, What dope?
The dope the Mexicans . . . stole.
Exactly, he said.
Fate shut my mouth.
Randall started flipping through the yearbook Larry had left on the couch. He found a picture of himself, and laughed to himself. I wondered what he laughed about, but I didn't ask. Soon Randall passed out on the couch and instead of taking a spot on his mattress, which I usually did, I decided to walk home. I took my hamburger from the fridge and stuffed it back inside my jacket.
I thought about leaving a note but couldn't find a pen. I put an afghan over Randall's shoulders and glanced at the pictures in the yearbook. For some reason, I hoped to see the book opened to a picture of Chad and Larry and maybe even Randall, sharing some crazy moment. But a picture like that didn't happen. What really happened long ago had nothing to do with what we used that ghost for now.
I closed the door behind me, and I walked lonely down the steps. Two-story buildings and crooked telephone poles cast strange shadows over the lot.
I stepped quicker. I held the coldness tight against my shirt.
And before I'd made the long journey out of the parking lot, I felt a presence following me. It was thick and heavy, and moved with a pained hum. I didn't turn around, afraid I'd soon be confronted by some ghost of Chad, ready to stake his claim to my sympathy.
You used me, he might say, as if being a ghost had given him any sense.
Just once, I would say. Just tonight.
You used me, he says.
But what about Larry?
Chad would kick in the back of my calves or grab the spot he always grabbed between my neck and my shoulder. It would put me to my knees.
Do you realize you should be dead, he told me.
Perhaps if I was desperate enough I'd blame that guy with the Afro, hoping to misdirect Chad's anger.
Then my pace slowed, and the presence was on top of me.
Hey, a voice called.
I didn't turn around.
Hey, the voice demanded. It was grizzled and battered. It wasn't Chad.
Then I heard the slow sputter of tires against busted pavement, and the buzz of an engine warmed me momentarily. I turned to see a taxi easing towards me. The driver from earlier exploded out and pushed me into a parked car. He swore in a backwards language and pushed me to the ground, resting his knee in my groin and whispering the rest of his threats to me. Tiny bits of gravel and salt dug into my back, their crackling blurry. He took a number of shots at me and I don't remember even getting in a kick. I did spit at his moustache, and I woke not long after, the ethereal presence gone. My extremities tingled, and my head throbbed. I held myself and felt through to the sharp ribs and the sternum. The driver had stolen my hamburger, as well, its cold impression slowly vanishing from my chest.