Cracks Back

Or perhaps it never really left

Photo by Jack GouldThis was the day we were going to score. Ricky was waiting toward the back of the Burger King; he's a small, nervous guy in a coat that's two sizes too big, with his feet up on the opposite bench, keeping time. His gas can was on the floor beside him. As I sat down, he shook a slim stack of grimy ones and fives at me.

"Twenty-five bucks, and that was just a couple of hours this afternoon," he announced. You could see he was thoroughly pleased with himself; he almost bounced on the seat. Ricky was making his living in various ways, one of them being with his gas can. He would station himself at a street corner or freeway ramp, holding the gas can, go up to anybody who stopped and—with a pathetic look on his face—give them some story about a sick girlfriend or whatever and how he'd run out of gas and could they spare 5 bucks. All in all, it was hard work, standing in the fumes. So, as I said, he was happy and bouncing, like any worker after a successful day on the job.

He jumped up, got us coffee and made a point of announcing, "Buyin' you some java!" Coming back to the table, he flirted with a girl who was sweeping the floor; she turned her large brown eyes up to him. He dumped half a dozen sugars in his cup and fanned it vigorously with his hand. He whistled a soundless little tune. We talked about this and that and drank some coffee, with Ricky occasionally waving at the girl.

Then he tapped the table and gave me a look. "Okay, man. So, you wanna go?" he asked. "You ready to do our thing?"

"Sure," I said.

But Ricky kept looking at me, his little boy's face suddenly hard and angular. "I mean, okay, you're really sure you wanna do this?"

"Yeah, yeah."

"I mean, really sure."

I offered the most sincere look I could and then nodded. "Yeah, I am," I said.

But, of course, I wasn't.

"Okay, bro," he said. "Mission time."

We took 17th Street to Bristol and then headed south. Over the Pacific, the sun was fading as night dropped down. As I drove, Ricky chattered and fiddled with the stereo. "Goin' on a mission," he kept saying. "Goin' on a mission." Each time he said it, I got more nervous. I wanted to smack him. Around First Street, Ricky had me turn and then turn again. It was nearly dark now, with thick shadows spreading everywhere. Ricky kept talking, but now it was slower and softer, and I did not respond. We traveled narrow streets of small, fading stucco houses; low apartment buildings; and abandoned markets. Somewhere, a sad ranchera played. We turned again. Dim, coppery streetlights shone through the bones of struggling trees. There were people on the sidewalk here and there, and Ricky studied them all. He was silent now. Then he waved his hand and had me go around the block.

"Pull in behind that pick-'em-up there," Ricky said.

He gave a little shake like a dog and then got out and went up the sidewalk to two guys standing beside a stunted tree in front of a dark house. A cigarette lighter flared, and they nodded together. Then Ricky shook hands with one of them, a guy wearing a puffy silver jacket with stripes on the sleeve. He then turned and waved at me. I shut off the car, took the key out of the ignition and sat there. Ricky waved again, this time more urgently. I got out and walked toward them. Their faces loomed out of the shadows and turned toward me. Ricky smiled, but the other two wore no expression. I stood beside Ricky; my arm brushed his, and I could feel tremors running up and down his flesh. From somewhere not too far away came two loud reports that might have been gunshots but were probably just backfires; nobody paid attention. A siren started up—also not far away—but they ignored that, too.

"Hey," the guy in the puffy jacket said to me. He nodded briefly, but there was only blankness on his face. He looked about 20 years old, and he had a scraggly mustache and a tattoo on his neck. The guy with him didn't speak. Ricky nudged me with his elbow and then held out his hand: in his palm was a rock of cocaine about the size of a fingernail. "Okay, bro?" he asked. "We're cool." Then he turned to the guy in the puffy jacket. "You said back that way, around the side of the place?" he asked. The guy nodded once; his face remained blank, and after he nodded, he turned abruptly away, and he and his companion faded into the shadows.

I followed Ricky along a little cement walkway that ran beside the dark house. I tripped over something, looked down and saw that it was a little toy dump truck. At the back of the house, there was a small, enclosed porch, with a dim lamp glowing inside. I heard a murmur of voices and a quick laugh. Ricky motioned for me to wait while he mounted some steps to the porch, tapped on the door, opened it slightly and said something I didn't catch. After a few moments, he came back and led me up into the little room.

Next Page »