I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
It’s 12:00 or thereabouts when I wake up. I know this because I never get up before 12:00, and never after one. I don’t need a clock, I have a body clock that always wakes me. I dress and walk over to Bill’s place.
I walk up the wooden stairs leading to Bill’s apartment, knock, add, “It’s me,” and walk in. Bill is sitting in his bathrobe, he doesn’t look up, just continues examining his vein. His head is bent over his arm and his hair looks thinner than usual. I just stand there for a minute and let my eyes get used to the darkness of the room. Bill never lets the light in and it always takes some time for my eyes to adjust when I walk in out of the bright California sun. I must say I like the darkness.
“What’s up?” He asks.
“Not much,” I say and then ask, “Where’s the dope?” He waves towards the bathroom without looking up.
“It’s all in there,” he says, and keeps on picking at his vein. On the shelf above the sink I find the bag of dope. It’s the only bright spot on an otherwise ordinary shelf, full of the usual stuff; toothpaste, razor, comb … I pull my works from my pocket, pour the dope into the cooker and light a match. I then add some coke to the mixture.
“What’re you up to today, anything special?”
“No, I got a little business to take care of later on is all.”
“Oh,” I say, drawing the solution into the syringe and tapping out the air bubble.
“I know this guy who wants a half z, can you get it for him?”
“Uh huh,” I grunt my teeth clenching the belt that ties off my arm.
“Maybe you can do that later,” Bill says.
“Sure,” I say releasing the tie. I wipe the blood that leaks from my vein with a piece of toilet paper, clean the syringe, and walk back into the living room.
“Want some coffee?”
“That would be nice.”
I sit down and he gets up to make the coffee. I watch him as the coke explodes my head and the heroin warms my body and think how funny it is that we drink coffee to wake up just like everyone else.
I had met Bill a year ago when he was doing well. I had gone to his house, a big house in the hills, with an ex-mutual friend. He was introduced to me as Wild Bill. I for my part always called him Bill. I hated nicknames. Some fool would come up with one, and before you could do anything about it, it would’ve spread around town like some social disease and there you were stuck with it. So, as I said, he was always Bill to me. Bill had, like so many other people in Tinseltown, done one too many get-rich schemes and lost everything. Well almost everything, he still had his Mercedes and his girlfriend. Most of the time I wished he’d lost that bitch too for all the trouble she caused him. Bill was a drug dealer whose luck had turned sour, but so was I for that matter. Well a few months ago we ran into each other at a club on the Strip. We had a few drinks, and ended up back at his place shooting speedballs and talking of old times and bad luck. We liked each other’s company and support. That’s when I started coming around a lot, until the pattern developed into a daily routine.
Bill sets down his cup.
“That bitch didn’t come home again last night … I can’t believe her … She goes out yesterday afternoon for a pack of smokes, I’ll be back in a minute, she says and she’s still not back.”
I just stir the sugar in my coffee. How many times will I have to tell him that this bitch is no good? Not that it matters anyway because on this subject Bill’s not about to listen. He calls this love with a capital L. Besides I’m feeling pretty good right now with the dope and all, and I don’t want to ruin it trying to find a new angle to point out the obvious. So I just sit there nodding. Bill paces the apartment ranting while getting dressed. I open my eyes to see him in the bathroom, half dressed, jabbing at his arm with a point. He’s still cursing, but I can’t tell if it’s his girl or his vein he’s going on about. I watch him because he happens to be in my line of vision. For some reason it always pisses me off to watch him poke at his arm in search of one of the few good veins he has left. I watch the blood fill the dropper then run down his arm as he tries for another spot. Disgusted I get up to leave.
“I’ll be back with the half ounce … see you later,” I say and walk out into the bright California sun.
When I get back that evening I knock and walk in. Giggles are coming from the bedroom and the door is closed. I assume she is back and that they’ve made up for the umpteenth time. I sit down. I look at the two coffee cups that haven’t moved, the full ashtray, and a can of Coke that is now on the table by the run down clock which hasn’t worked since I’ve been coming around. Nothing ever seems to change in Bill’s place. I take out the coke and fix myself a shot and sit back to encounter the shattered puzzle of my mind. A while later the bedroom door opens.
“Oh hi, I didn’t know you were here,” she says.
“I wasn’t … ” I start to explain but can’t be bothered and just say nothing. She smiles at the coke. I offer her a shot which she accepts, no arm twisting here. Bill staggers out of the bedroom and joins us.
Some hours later, I realize that the blow is half gone and I start getting pretty worried about how the fuck I’m going to come up with the $800 I need to pay for it. So Bill and I both take another shot for inspiration and that’s when the girlfriend decides to take matters into her own hands. She gets up and calls someone and arranges something, which I can’t quite figure out being so stoned and hearing only her half of the conversation, but when she hangs up she announces, “I’ll just run this over to a friend of mine, he said he’d give me 700 for it.” Well of course I don’t believe her, but not having a better plan of my own and needing the money by morning, I inquire if it’s a sure thing and hint that if she fucks me up on this one I’ll break her goddamn neck. So she turns to me and says, “This is how you thank me when I’m doing you guys a favor?” And off she goes with my blow. I know it’s a mistake but as I’ve mentioned the coke is half gone and if I don’t have the bread for my friends by morning they’ve promised to break my legs. I also know that if the coke had stayed with us, there wouldn’t be any left in the morning anyway.
“You know, Bill, I don’t trust her no way,” I say after the door closes behind her.
“Don’t worry … She’ll be back. She said she would, didn’t she?”
“How the fuck can you say that? She doesn’t come home for two days when she goes out for cigarettes.” He does admit I have a point but arguing it won’t change anything, so we do up some heroin and I go home.
The next day I get up and call the people I owe the money to and talk them into giving me an extra day to pay. Insurance I call it. I then go over to Bill’s. He’s asleep when I get there so I wake him up.
“She hasn’t come back yet but she’ll be here,” he assures me in a sleepy voice.
“The fuck she will. I need the goddamn money now.”
“Well you shouldn’t have given her the blow then,” Bill says.
“What the hell are you talking about? Last night you thought it was a fine idea,” I remind him. And that’s when Bill starts in on this philosophy about how you can never trust women with drugs, “I mean you can trust them and all, but not where drugs are concerned.” And then he finishes this feeble justification with something about them being too weak. So I take this opportunity to point out to him that we are not talking about women in general here, but one bitch in particular who just happens to be his girlfriend, and that if he can’t trust her who the fuck can? Besides what’s this shit about women anyway because I wouldn’t trust him with any drugs, or myself for that matter if saving them were the object. Bill just looks at me in disbelief as if he can’t understand why I’m getting so carried away about the whole thing. And then he says, “Let’s get high and talk about it.” Well that’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard all morning, the first part anyway, so we shoot some heroin and make some coffee.
A week has gone by. I’m sitting on Bill’s couch, the apartment is in shambles, clothes and shit all over the place. Half-eaten candy bars and their wrappers lie here and there. Coke cans are strewn about making the place look like an Andy Warhol painting. All too real. It’s funny that way when you’re sick how things look so real, so real and dirty. So as I said I’m sitting here sipping a Dos Equis, sick as shit and knowing that I wouldn’t be sick now if that cunt had come back with my bread as she was supposed to. But she didn’t, and now we were broke because we’d had to use all the profits from our dealings to pay back my friends, the ones that were going to break my legs. Well now they have their money and I’m sitting here kinda wishing they’d busted my legs, so I could be in some hospital somewhere screaming, ‘Nurse, morphine,’ but I’m not. So I decide to start in again on Bill’s girl. I know it won’t get us anywhere but it might help with the time. Time always stands still when you’re sick.
“I still can’t believe you let her into the house when she came back the other night,” I say. So Bill tells me again how he felt sorry for her and that she really did get ripped off. Now if you believe that you’ll believe anything. And besides he really loves her. I’m sitting here answering, “bullshit” and “my ass” as I judge appropriate and then he tells me how she was crying and she didn’t come home for a few days because she felt so guilty.
“I bet she was crying but not out of any fucking guilt either,” I say. Bill doesn’t hear this and just goes on about how they made up, and drove out to Malibu for a walk on the beach. I can’t believe I’m listening to this shit especially when he starts in about this love crap. How they were walking along the beach and the stormy December seas made it so romantic, and then on the drive back, with the sight of the Hollywood lights which sparkle from the Pacific Coast Highway how she was giving him head and how that was love. Well I want to puke. I mean I don’t mind the head part, but that conniving bitch making him think that this is love, that’s too much.
So I ask Bill, “If she really loves you, where the fuck has she been these last few nights?” Well Bill he can’t answer that, so I add, “I mean tomorrow you go to court, you could be off to jail and she’s not even here for you.” With that Bill just sort of looks at me sad so I decide to lighten up knowing that we’re both sick and all, and he really might be off for awhile in the morning. So I say, “Maybe that’s just her way … ,” and then I stop because even Bill couldn’t believe the line I’m about to feed him, and besides there’s a knock at the door. I go into the other room because if it’s the guy we’re waiting for he’d freak if he saw anyone but Bill.
I’m in the bedroom watching Johnny and some guest I don’t recognize shoot the shit on the tube, only I can’t hear what they’re saying because the sound is off and I’m listening to Bill.
“Yeah, man, why don’t you leave me a couple of grams I should have the money for you in the morning.” I’m silently rooting for Bill. The guy isn’t quite buying it but sounds like he might go for it anyway. I just wish they’d do something so I could get a shot. I’m so sick now that I feel like bursting out of my skin and every second is an hour. Then I hear Bill excuse himself and come into the bedroom with his index finger pressed to his lips and a syringe in hand. I feel like jumping up and kissing him, but I don’t say a word. Bill goes back into the living room and I stick the needle in my arm. My sick body relaxes into bliss. I’m not even mad at her anymore.
We stay up the rest of the night talking of the past for there is no future, and at 8:00 AM we leave for court. Bill has done time before. He says doing time doesn’t bother him. It’s the waiting and not knowing that gets to him. I tell him that no judge with a heart will send him to jail on Christmas Eve, today being the 24th of December. He asks me if I’d ever met a judge with a heart and continues to stare through the windshield at the freeway rolling under us. I drive not saying much just making sure not to get pulled over by the LAPD and thrown in jail on our way to court. We do make one stop at the Safeway when we get off the freeway. You see. Bill is determined that if he’s going to jail, he’s going to take in enough dope to stay high for a day or so. Well I can’t understand the logic in this and frankly think it real stupid but then again I’m not the one going to jail. So Bill walks into the supermarket to buy himself a dollar cigar, the ones that come in those metal tubes. His plan is to cut the tube down, fill it with what’s needed and hide it up his ass before he goes in. I don’t mention the fact that they’ll probably find it during the body search and throw his ass in solitary. Besides, solitary is just as good a place to kick as any.
When we get downtown, I park the car in one of those lots and we walk to the Criminal Court Building. On our way up the stairs I glance at the big clock on the front of the building, it’s a little before ten. I’m immediately reminded of that story in Grogan’s book about this judge who asks a wise-ass defendant, “Can you tell time?” And the kid says, “Sure,” looking over to the courtroom clock, “It’s five to ten,” and the judge goes, “That’s exactly what you get.” But I don’t say any of this to Bill who’s got plenty to worry about shoving that cigar tube up his ass.
We get inside and Bill heads straight to the men’s room, and I walk around this grand old building trying my best to look as casual as possible. Whenever I’m in court I always know that some cop or bailiff is going to make a mistake and insist on locking me up. You can call it what you like but I’m paranoid as shit anytime I’m around the justice system, and the longer I stay the more skitzed out I get. So when I see Bill come waddling out of the bathroom I rush up to him, say goodbye and good luck, and tell him I’ll be waiting for him outside.
He just looks at me kind of weird and says, “Uh, okay, man,” and then adds, “I hope I’ll see you later,” and I go, “Sure you will,” and flash him a real encouraging smile and dart outside.
I sit on the long front steps that remind me of the Roman Senate and I imagine Brutus walking up towards Caesar, and then for some reason I think of Judas kissing Jesus and I light another cigarette. I keep telling myself that I’m doing nothing wrong, I’m just waiting for a friend. But nothing seems to help. Furthermore, there’s never a shortage of cops walking up and down the steps in front of a courthouse, and that does nothing for my serenity either. Finally I see Bill emerge from the building. He starts screaming my name. I run up and give him a big hug and say, “Let’s get the fuck out of here before they reconsider.” And we skip to the car and back to Hollywood.
It’s New Year’s eve, and here I am getting high same as last year. I’m with Bill at his place drinking some sparkling wine. The dope is coming to an end and the conversation turns to money, as it always does when the dope runs low. Bill sips his bubbly and asks me if I want to rob a liquor store?
“You mean with masks and guns and the whole bit?” I ask.
“Fuck no, I’ve got a line on the liquor store downstairs, we wait ’til it closes and go in through the skylight,” Bill says.
“You think they’re just going to leave the bread for us on the counter?” I ask.
“Of course not,” he says real indignant. “I managed to get the combination of the safe.”
“I didn’t know you could crack safes.”
“Well I’ve never done it, but what better time to start,” and then he adds with a smile, “start the New Year with a new career.” Well I point out to him that there’s a big difference between dealing and safe-cracking, and that the only thing I can see they might have in common, is that they’re both a little to the left of the law.
“Sometimes you are so narrow minded you know.” That’s when I fix myself a big shot and boot it. And then without thinking I say, “Why not? Let’s do it.”
We finish the wine and most of the dope and set out through the bathroom window. We scamper across the roof to the store’s skylight. It’s locked. Bill isn’t deterred, he looks around, finds another and manages to open it. He doesn’t seem to care when I mention that it’s not the skylight to the liquor store. He just tells me to be the lookout while he slips on down to check things out. As I’ve said I hate to wait, especially atop a roof overlooking the Strip. And who the fuck am I looking out for anyway? The cops will see me way before I see them and I know how they’d just love to blast me away with their pump shotguns or use my head as target practice before it would ever occur to them to ask any questions. So I crouch down and whisper real loud into the black hole for Bill to get his ass back up here. When he doesn’t show I start to light a cigarette but decide against it. I feel conspicuous enough as it is. Finally he emerges with some leather bags and this big ass hourglass with leather ends.
“There’s no bread down there but I can get all these bags and accessories,” he says real excited.
“What the fuck are we going to do with all this shit?” I ask.
“Sell it,” he answers and starts back down. I grab his shoulders and tell him that I’m not waiting up here one more second for any goddamn bags or accessories.
“I’m a fucking sitting duck … I don’t want a new career, I don’t much like the one I got but at least I’m used to it,” I scream. He tells me to shut up and that if I don’t like it I can split. I tell him that’s exactly what I intend to do, and back down he goes.
I pick up the bags and lay them neatly on the roof then set the hourglass next to them. The sand runs down. I peer into the dark hole, then out along Sunset and turn to go. The sand runs out.
“You asshole,” I yell at the skylight and make my way back across the roof to the apartment. I pick up the rest of the dope and split.
Outside the palm trees swish in the night air. I cross sunset and head down Doheny. The street is dark. The cool night breeze empties my head and the shadows swallow me up. I stop and light a cigarette. I watch the smoke from my mouth bellow up to the street lamps then waft towards sunset and disappear. In the distance I hear some chimes. It sounds like 12:00. A new year.
When I get home I shoot the rest of the dope and drift off.
My bed is shaking. It wakes me. It’s light outside but it’s a strange light. The walls wobble. The glass curtain, the one that makes my tub a shower, is flying back and forth on it’s track making one hell of a racket. Everything is moving. I hear shouts outside the window. I don’t move. I just lie there and shut my eyes. I hope it’s a force ten on the Richter scale.
Michael Massee is a writer and actor who lives in New York City.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee