Sanger and Tom were killing time at Jimmy's Sandwich Shack on 19th and Mission. At four o'clock, when the pawnshop next door closed, the plan was to rob its husky Polish owner at gun point. Actually, Sanger would be doing the robbing part. Tom would be waiting in the alley, at the shop's rear exit, to take the loot and make the getaway. This last part, a hotly contested last minute concession.
Four nights earlier, in the wee hours of a black Wednesday morning, Tom had overheard Sanger and Girl Blue discussing the particulars of the plan at her Haight Street tweaker pad. Girl Blue used to date the Pole, and she knew the layout of the place, where the secret safe was, and the timetable for deposits. She said that the old man worked alone on weekends. She swore it was a lock. Sanger was always desperate for money, and Tom was seduced by the outlaw romance of it all.
After they scored, as they walked empty San Francisco streets, Tom said he wanted in on the heist, that surely it was a two man job. Sanger said he didn't want the kid anywhere near the joint. That should have been the end of it, except Sanger and Tom lived together in a storage garage behind 16th, and the boy stuck like glue. When the day came, Tom simply followed Sanger to the Sandwich Shack.
Jimmy's Sandwich Shack only served breakfast and lunch, even on the weekends. At three-thirty-three, the last Saturday of September, the dinette-style eatery was about to close up shop. At the counter, an impish bag lady, multi-layered in a ratty pink overcoat, and smelling of rank cabbage, sat spooning beef bouillon. Overstuffed in the knotted supermarket plastic bags beside her were assorted street people treasures: several left shoes, fishing line, empty pop cans, and unreadable hard cover texts.
Jimmy's had recently been awarded the coveted mantle of "Best Budget Barrio Eats" in the annual SF Weekly "Best Of" critic's poll. The cook, a Buddha-bellied Mexican with beaked nose and oversized pores, hefted from behind the kitchen, an attempt to get the waitress, a middle-aged waif with lacquered platinum hair and too much rouge, to hurry and settle the tab with the only two paying customers in the joint, Sanger and Tom, who were both dressed similarly in dirty jeans, graphic tees, and running shoes, as they sat in silence in a booth by the window, smoking cigarettes. Rather than heed the cook's wishes, the waitress swiped a foul-looking dishrag, repeatedly, over the laminated countertop, getting stuck on the pockets of maple syrup. Pot in hand, she gazed periodically and sympathetically toward the window but neither man gave any indication that he'd like more coffee. Tom was too busy making mental notes of the scene. He planned to include such colorful characters in a story he'd author some day, as he fancied himself a writer. And Sanger never paid attention to such detail.
Nobody knew Sanger's real name, or, at least, people had stopped asking. Sanger was one strike away from spending the next twenty-five years in prison. Much ballyhooed legislation had recently passed dictating mandatory sentencing guidelines for third felony convictions. Sanger had been stuck on number two since he was popped delivering an eight ball of crystal methamphetamine as a favor for a friend. Though it was clear, later on, to discerning observers that the cops had been tipped off, no one was able to ascertain, beyond a reasonable doubt, by whom.
"Yo, Hemingway, what do you keep writing?" Sanger asked with a sneer, dragging a piece of burnt rye through the orange yoke that had already begun congealing on his plate, and shoving the doughy ball into his mouth, before taking a swig of now-cold coffee.
Snapping to attention, Tom quickly folded the newspaper, pushing it behind the jelly rack, next to the paperback anthology of Dylan Thomas poetry that he'd scavenged from the receptacle bin behind San Francisco General two nights earlier and which he'd been carrying around with him since.
Tom felt himself turn red. More than the question, Tom was embarrassed that he'd been caught daydreaming again, a trait that made him an easy mark for Sanger's biting sense of humor. The worst of it was, it just seemed to happen, the daydreaming. Lost in the colors and sounds of Mission Street—the throng of ethnic diversity huddled at check cashing joints and discount travel agencies, the vendors slathering stewed al pastor onto corn tortillas or Ziplocking hunks of honeydew and mango, the toddlers bucking wildly on .25 car rides and gypsies hocking cassettes and incense—Tom wasn't even totally cognizant that he had been writing. But, in fact, he'd been franticly scribbling words on the back of a newspaper with a worn down, yellow lottery pencil long enough that Sanger had had enough time to smoke two cigarettes. Such dissociation is a commonly shared characteristic among the great ones, or so Tom had heard.
"Well?" Sanger said.
"Writing, bright boy. What do you keep writing?"
Although Sanger was his only real friend in San Francisco, Tom knew very little personal information about him. He had no idea, for instance, how old Sanger even was. Judging by appearances one might guess late forties, but it's hard to tell with amphetamines, which can age a man prematurely, and to which both Sanger and Tom were severely addicted. Touring the various tweaker pads of the city for the last two years, Tom routinely came across men and women he'd swear to be pushing fifty, only to find out later that, much to his surprise, these folks were considerably younger, sometimes barely thirty years old.
"Well, you ain't doing the crosswords." Sanger darted over the table and snatched the paper, Tom making a feeble attempt to stop him but being too late.
"Don't. It's stupid," Tom said.
"I'll be the judge of that." Sanger began moving his eyes over the chicken scratch.Through the radio towers and telephone wires of Diamond Heights,
a heavy orange slaps down the back of Dolores Park,
pronounced shadows of signposts, awnings, and bicycles
chained to fire hydrants. Across the street, a Chinaman rolls down
a metal door, wrapping thick chains and clamping a softball-sized lock
in place, before scurrying away like a fruit rat in a vacant lot,
the broken promises of gas station sausage.
"What the fuck is this?" Sanger asked, pointing a crooked finger at the paper he'd just set down.
"It's a poem."
"No shit. I mean, what's it mean?"
"It doesn't mean anything. It's just a poem."
Sanger picked up the paper again, squinting to accommodate his failing eyesight. He read the poem again, this time aloud, making Tom blush.
"I don't get it," Sanger said. "What the fuck is ‘the empty promises of gas station sausage' suppose to mean?"
"Nothing. I told you already. Can I have my poem back? Please."
"When you answer my fucking question."
"It refers to some stupid trip I took with my dad to the Grand Canyon when I was a kid. It's dumb."
Sanger exhaled loudly and snorted back the drip. "Y'know, if I really was your friend, I'd choke the shit out of you."
"Then I guess it's a good thing we're not friends." Tom tried affecting a nasty snarl, but given his youthful appearance and impeccable bone structure, the attempt came across more like a pout than it did a menace.
Tom picked up his fork and began stabbing at his ham, which had been left largely untouched due to a strange, motor oil-like odor emitted.
The waitress ambled over and tore a check from the pad, slapping it on the table. "We're closing." She jabbed a thumb over her shoulder. "Bossman wants you to go."
Sanger winced a smile until she left. "Riddle me this, Batman," he said, turning his attention back to Tom. "What the fuck you doing here?"
"What do you mean?"
"Bright boy like you, you outta be in college somewhere, banging your high school sweetheart, not hanging out with guys like me."
"Thanks, Dad. Can we go now?"
Sanger checked his wrist as if it carried a watch. "Ain't time."
"What time is it?"
"Little before four. Relax."
"I am relaxed. Don't I look relaxed?
Sanger pulled a fistful of dollar bills, coins, and scrunched up bits of paper, from his pocket, prompting Tom to do the same. They each took turns counting their change.
"You got a dollar I can borrow?" Tom whispered. "I'm one short."
Sanger added another dollar in quarters and dimes to the collection, pushing the pile to the middle of the table. Tom made ready to leave but Sanger motioned him to sit back down. He pulled out a crumpled pack of GPCs from his T-shirt pocket. He only had two left. He extracted one and lighted it.
"How long you been writing that stuff?" Sanger asked through an inhale.
"Can I have one of those?" Tom took the cigarette and let Sanger light it. "What stuff?"
"What stuff?" Sander mimicked, sliding a fingernail down an eye tooth and spitting out a piece of tobacco and egg white. "Poems, smart ass."
"I don't know. Since I was a kid, I guess."
"You ever show anybody?"
"What'd they say?"
"I can't remember. Shouldn't we do this?"
"Let me worry about that."
Tinny Spanish polkas played from inside the kitchen; outside freshly washed sheets being hung out to dry several stories up rippled in the air.
"How come a bright boy like you didn't go to college?" Sanger asked, pulling on his ponytail and cigarette. His appearance was riddled with the usual telltale signs of amphetamine addiction: wiry frame; visage peppered with ruptured legions; sallow and gaunt flesh; shot nerves. To Tom, however, these imperfections only added to the allure, making the older man seem more authentic, like a character straight out of Dostoyevsky.
"I did. Two semesters. Cleghorn Community. I didn't like it. Bunch of know-it-alls who don't have the balls to try and make it in the real world so they get off pushing white suburban kids around."
"And you call this," Sanger said, disgustedly, "the real world?"
"I wanted to write books. Then I realized I didn't have anything to write about. That's what they're always saying: write about the stuff you know. And what did I know? Eighteen years in my hometown? Taking a shit? Getting laid in the backseat of my mom's Ford Focus? Nobody wants to read that crap, and I sure as hell don't want to write it."
"So, bright boy you are, you figured you'd come out here, get strung out on crank, and beg for spare change? Yeah, good idea."
"Say what you want but this shit is real, man."
"Real." Sanger spat the word out distastefully, like it was a fart.
Stretching his back, cigarette dangling from his lips, Sanger dragged a hand over his stubble. "I'm not gonna tell you I have a clue what that poem you wrote is about. But I know it's good."
"Don't be a jerk. If I had the folks you got, the talent you got, fuck if I'd be living like this. There's nothing romantic about this dump, Tom. You stay here, you're going to end up just like me. Waiting to get popped one last time so you can spend the next twenty-five years of your fucking life behind bars."
"Thanks for the sermon. I think that's the most I've heard you say in two years. Can we go?"
"I ever tell you about my first time inside?"
Tom leaned back.
"I was younger than you. Down in Bruno. A black waking hell. Place is held together with Duct tape and superglue."
"Yeah, I read an article in the Examiner the other day about how they're gonna close it down."
"They've been saying that shit forever. That place ain't never closing down. Not when they got guys like me on a waiting list to get inside."
"What were you in for?"
"Buddy and me were working this car-stripping scam down in San Mateo. A couple street toughs. Knew this guy had a garage down there. Russian mafia. We'd bring him the car, he'd strip the worthwhile parts, dump the shells, restock the good stuff. Decent chunk of change."
"What do you think happened?"
"How long you get?"
"Six months. But that don't matter. I was sixteen years old. That was felony number one."
"I thought they send you to juvenile facilities when you're that young?"
"In the movies, maybe they do." Sanger dropped his butt into the dregs of his coffee. "But this ain't no movie. No, I was in with the big boys. Giant mutherfuckers. Blacks, Mexicans, Chinks. Hardcore mutherfuckers. I had to keep a razor in my fist when I slept at night."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because what we're about to do, bright boy. You wanted in. This is for keeps. Something goes wrong, that's where you'll end up."
"I can take care of myself."
Sanger moved his eyes over Tom's slight build. "Sure you can."
"If you're trying to scare me, it's not working. I'm a big boy. I make my own decisions."
"Look, I don't give two shits what happens to you. I've been living like this a long time. I got no choice. You want to fuck your life up, that's your business. You want to sleep in my garage with the rest of the rats, more power to you. But know you don't last in this game long, sunshine."
"If I'm a burden, just say so. I have plenty of places to go."
"Yeah? Like where?" Sanger lifted his T-shirt slightly, exposing the black market handle and pushing the gun further down the belt line. "You know how to use one of these?"
"Fuck you do." Sanger stared at Tom for a long time, shaking his head. Finally he pushed himself up in one quick motion. "Alright. It's time. You know what you're doing?"
"Wait at the back door until you unlock it. Take the money. Meet you at the garage." Tom rolled his eyes like he'd been inconvenienced. "It's not exactly rocket science."
"Something goes wrong—"
"Nothing's gonna to go wrong—"
"Something goes wrong, the radio on the workbench. Unscrew the back—"
"Nothing's going wrong. Girl Blue said—"
"I know what Girl Blue said, and Girl Blue is so tweaked half the fucking time she thinks the CIA is planting bugs in her Rice Krispies."
"It'll be fine. You said so yourself, this is a once in a lifetime score. Girl Blue used to go with him. She says it's a lock. If it isn't, we walk away. You probably won't even need that." Tom waved a hand lackadaisically in the direction of Sanger's belt.
"I don't get to walk away, Tom," Sanger said, soberly. "That's my point. And pretty soon neither do you."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Sanger stood up from the table. "What's the use telling you anything? You already know everything."
When twenty minutes had passed of Tom's waiting in the alley behind Mission, and the three squad cars sped by, lights spastic red and blue, he knew something had gone horribly wrong. Tom hadn't a clue as to how much time had actually elapsed. It could've been five minutes or it could've been an hour. Because of that propensity to daydream, Tom often lost track of time this way. Childhood memories were filled with scenes of sitting in church or taking a test, and next thing he knew, someone would be standing over his shoulder, tapping a foot and looking disgusted. What did they expect him to do about it when, half the time, he wasn't even aware what he was doing?
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Why hadn't Sanger unlocked the back door?
Tom hung his head, stuck his hands in his pockets, and quickly rounded the corner just as three officers raced past him up the alley with their guns drawn. Tom came upon the huge crowd corralled behind sawhorse pickets and yellow ticker, tacqueria patrons rubbernecking with burritos glued to their mitts. Alarms now whirred inside the pawn shop. Splintered voices blared and cut out from a cruiser's PA, ultimatums issued about "being surrounded" and "needing to surrender" and "not having any choice."
There were over a dozen police cars, all parked in a reckless fashion, sealing off the entire block. Tom blended into the pack to watch the cops perched on knees, their pistols and SWAT rifles aimed at the large paned window, spray painted orange and black, advertising last minute blow out sales on Gibson guitars, weed whackers, and diamond rings, waiting for their cue. A big boned Pole sat upright on an ambulance gurney. He had an oxygen mask affixed to his beak.
As Tom turned his back on the crowd and began to walk away, he heard the release of chambers, round after round shattering glass, slicing through the late afternoon torpor.
There was nothing he could do for Sanger now, and he sure as hell couldn't go back to the garage. Passing the Quickie Mart on 21st, on his way to Girl Blue's to give her the bad news and ask for a front, Tom was bogged down by a heavy heart. One thought continued to plague him: Why hadn't Sanger unlocked the door? There was no one else with the Pole on the gurney, and if anyone else beside Sanger had been inside the shop, it's unlikely the cops would've opened fire like that. The alley had been clear. There could be only one explanation, although Tom hated like hell even thinking it. But what other conclusion could there be? He'd always known deep down inside that Sanger was a selfish prick.
One Very Important Letter
All the churches are closed tonight, up and down the San Francisco coast. It's the shooting gallery on the top of 23rd St., home to the luckless and the dreary and the death-sentence kids with The Virus. Tom Pitts has Hep C. They all do. Tom says, "It's no big deal, just fatal." We're one-stop shopping. We're rent-by-the-hour hotel. We are artistic discontent, uncapped syringes, wet rolls of toilet paper, and the lesions that never heal. Your fourteen-year-old daughter who ran away, you know, the one you don't know if she's dead or alive? Well, she's drawing up a hit in the bathtub, a little of both.
Listen to the high-pitched squeaks of field mice in the kitchen. There is no electricity in this glorified campsite. Open the stove and see a mouse in death throes, cut in two, lifeless forelimbs frozen in horror, stuck in the grill.
Whenever someone falls out, succumbs to the debilitating effects of The Virus, OD's, whatever, check the pockets, empty the contents, and throw the carcass onto the pile—ain't no one going to be looking for them anyway.
A skinny kid with sheared chestnut hair and poorly drawn prison tattoos on his neck is standing in front of me, mixing up a hit in a large Ziploc bag, in the middle of the hallway. He has several ringworm-like infections around the corners of his mouth, and the restless, nervous quality of every speed freak who comes up to the house to score. He asks for my needle, and I have been too transfixed on the whole operation to be paying much attention. That is not true. I am fucking out of it. I don't know this guy. I may've seen him before. I have so many chemicals pumping through my bloodstream right now that my senses have exceeded their boundaries and are blurring the lines of perception.
Behind the front door, light traffic is making its occasional, slow-motion way up the 23rd St. hill outside my house, going into the projects around the corner at the top. I hear the far off whirly-whirl of police sirens, the constant thwip-thwip of circling helicopter blades, the sound of tractor beams sucking up cattle, ice clinking in a glass. (Clink.) I hear the futile sniff of a plugged nose three houses down, and I blink hard. A deep, bruised purple and navy blue, midnight blue, is to my right, out the cracked window, into the night, next to the broom handle, which is only the handle and no broom, and, to my left, the door to a room, padlocked and chained, with claw marks at the bottom and around the edges, at the top and to the side. I see the close-up of a teardrop, no wait, it's a raindrop, at the end of a brandy snifter, or is it a street sign? and it beads up, robust and plump, before dropping into a puddle, and I hear the echo, like the reverb on a guitar with too much mid-range in a spacious amphitheater. (Listen to those lovely hollow body acoustics.) My bones feel congested. My mouth tastes like cocoa powder and silver oxide, and I hear the whistle of a train approaching, getting closer, now slightly softer, now closer…
I have fallen asleep standing up, nodded out. I have been awake so long, for so many days on end, that my body keeps shutting down—for a few seconds—and then I wake up, suddenly, a stiff jolt. It has been going on like this for a long time, I think, or, at least, for a while, maybe.
I need to get some more speed. I am getting more speed. That is what I am doing. It takes me a while to acclimate myself to my surroundings, to get a sense of where I am. Techno music is pumping out of the room I used to share with my wife but is now occupied by a big-boned, surly lesbian meth dealer, whose name is the same as my wife's, minus one very important letter. I recognize the crappy wood paneling lining the hallway, the piles of refuse around the flat, rotting and festering at my feet, decaying garbage everywhere, and the smell of human feces and urine from the sopped up toilet wafts under my nose, and even with the limited sense of smell I have left, I know that I am home.
There is a skinny kid standing in front of me with an outstretched hand. I know this kid. I have seen him before. He has those god-awful tattoos on his neck. What's his name? What is he doing in my hallway? Where is my wife? He lives under the 101 on-ramp, under the bridge, where they have those fantastic NY-style, line-up-early-in-the-a.m., dope deals. She's gone. She is not coming back this time. He is friends with that guy with the one arm, that cat Gavin knows. What's his name? Charlie One-arm? Jacky One-arm? Nick the Sailor? No, Nick the Sailor is my roommate who thinks I owe him $57,000. Besides, he has both arms. Who is this kid and what does he want from me? Does he want something? No, he is handing me something. A needle. It is my needle. Oh, yeah, that's right, he's giving me a hit. My mouth is cotton dry.
The kid has already begun to tie off. I listen to my own breathing, everything is crawling, slowly, and then it is as if the sound has been turned back up, everyone, everything returning to normal speed and amplified sound, but I can't quite catch up. My thoughts and the action, the reaction, of my body are not quite in sync. I am searching for a vein, detached and sad. I shouldn't be fixing. I should be asking him a question instead. I have to ask this kid a question. I am sure of it. Stop fixing, Joe, and ask the goddamn question!
"Hey," I say, wearily dragging my eyes up from the small popped vein in my right forearm.
The skinny kid looks up, rubber tourniquet wrapped tightly around bicep, but his index finger doesn't stop randomly poking the pockets of elbow flesh, which are turning poked spot white. His nose is dripping, and while he looks in my general direction (he is standing a mere foot away), he can't quite find my eyes to make direct contact.
"Hey, did you mix this up with a clean needle?" I ask.
"This hit. Did you mix this hit up with a clean needle?"
"What, you don't have HIV?"
"No…no, I don't," I say, handing him back the needle.