Somebody once told me suicide’s supposed to be really common for people who’ve won the lottery. Never surprised me. People don’t know what to do with themselves when times are tough; they sure as shit don’t know what to do when things go right for a change. Maybe it’s just kind of hard to know how you’re supposed to respond exactly to good luck when it decides to come along. My best luck came along in the form of the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen.
Thing is, the day I met her, I’d just eaten my adult life’s first ample serving of humble pie. It wasn’t any new kind of story. Any Tom, Dick or Harry who knows factory work could tell the same one. Good old Tommy never finished high school, but he was great at a party. One friend or another gets Tommy a job at the factory up the road. Tommy does okay, makes friends with his boss, and works hard. He doesn’t have any real ambition – just wants to pay the rent and buy himself a beer at the end of the night. The decent retirement’s a bonus he doesn’t think about too much. But then one day the big man up top dies. His sons don’t want to deal with his pain-in-the-ass factory, so they sell it. Buyer thinks it costs too much to pay Tommy to work for him. He finds workers in India willing to do Tommy’s job for about a twenty-eighth of the cost. Plus there’s no retirement package to spring for. So, good old Tommy and his boss and everybody else they’ve worked with for the last 8 years say adios to the closest thing most of them had to the promise of a comfortable future. Such is life.
The day they let us go, my boss took me out for a drink at Nick’s, where we’d always gone after work. “Don’t you worry ’bout a thing, Tommy. I’ll figure something out for us.” People always were that way with me. My teachers, my mom, my friends. Everybody always seemed to want to help me out any way they could. Before she died, my mom once told me it was because of my pretty blue eyes. Damn, I missed her. “I’m looking into stuff, you just wait and see.” Jim was slurring his words already. I was looking into my wallet under the table, trying to be discreet, checking to see if I had enough dough left to get us both a taxi ride home. Jim saw me. “Now, Tommy, put that damn thing away! It’s on me tonight. Dolly, ’nother round!” I looked up at Jim, ready to tell him we’d had enough, when I saw her.
It was like rotating a camera lens, when one thing leaves your focus and another one comes in. All of a sudden, Jim was just a blur and she was all I saw. And I could see her seeing me, too. “Jim…” He’d caught my line of vision and looked behind him, then turned back and picked up his drink.
“Pretty hot shit. Better go get ’er before half the bar’s askin’ for her number.”
I don’t remember standing up and walking over there. When I think back on the night, it’s like I teleported over to her – floated or something. Sure, I’d had a few drinks and I was buzzing. But Jim was ahead of me by a third at least, and he couldn’t handle his booze anyway. I might not remember walking over there, but I sure as hell remember what we said.
“Your hair’s so curly,” she said as I approached. So apparently I wasn’t the only one who’d had a bit to drink.
“What’s your name?”
“Lucinda…for now. What’s your’s?”
“Tommy. What kinda name’s Lucinda for a girl from California?”
“Who says I’m from California? And what kinda name’s Tommy for anybody over the age of ten?”
We paused and just looked at each other. I didn’t know what to say. I was grinning so big, my jaw hurt, but I couldn’t stop. I drank her in – her copper red hair, pulled up into something behind her head….don’t remember what now, but I remember thinking there was a lot of it. Her green eyes. Light green, like the color of grass in the sunlight, I’d tell her one time later. Her mascara and thick black eyeliner had smudged a bit below her eyes, not like she’d been crying, but like it’d been a long day. “Well, Tommy, I was gonna go and have a cigarette. Care to join me?” There were two smoking spots at Nick’s.
“Absolutely. Where we headed?”
I left some cash at the bar for Jim’s cab and was out the door. We didn’t come up for air for three days, when I finally headed home for a shower and change of clothes. By that point, I had about fifteen messages on my answering machine, and about twelve of them were from Jim. I called him back.
“Tommy, what the fuck? You scared the shit outta me. I didn’t know what the fuck happened to you the other night. You coulda called me, for Christ’s sake. Or sent me a fucking letter by now. Shit.”
He was right. I heard him out – I knew he’d forgive me once he saw the extraordinary Lucinda with sober eyes. “Listen, Jim, let me make it up to you. Let me take you out to lunch. I want you to meet somebody.”
“Take me out to lunch with what money? You tryin’ to tell me you’ve got some sort of savings somewhere? Boy, you are unemployed.” The way he emphasized the last syllable grated on my nerves. “But, yeah. You can buy me lunch. I found us a pretty good opportunity. Tide us over for a while. Think you might be into it. Plus you owe me for the years you took off my fuckin’ life making me worry like that.”
Jim was at the diner looking pretty nervous before we arrived. I must have looked like some kid coming home with an A on his science project. And then there was Lucy. Lucinda to the rest of the world, but Lucy now for me. She looked amazing in this long, flowy purple number that just made her hair and eyes scream out for even more attention, as if that was even possible. Every pair of eyes – male or female – was on her. This was the first time we’d gone out together properly, soberly, and I was starting to wonder if I could handle this much woman. I’m not one to think about women in terms of cheap or classy. If I’m being honest, I just love a beautiful woman. But if I had to say, I’d have called Lucy classy as hell any day of the week. She was ravishing. Jim looked excited, alright, but he didn’t seem the least bit fazed by Lucy.
“Jim, I’d like you to meet Lucinda. Lucinda, Jim.”
Lucy reached out her hand and Jim took it, but sort of in a distracted way, as if he’d forgotten simple social customs. “It’s lovely to meet you, Jim. Tommy’s told me so much about you.” Just then he saw her – like, really saw her – and I could swear he almost blushed.
“Well, don’t you believe a word of it, darlin’.” We ordered and ate, and conversation was just fine.
Lucy stood up. “I’m gonna go to the little girls’ room, honey. Order me another iced tea while I’m gone, will ya?” she asked, and turned to walk away. God, she looked good when she walked away.
“‘Little girls’ room’? ‘Honey’? What’ve you guys been fuckin’ for – three days? This chick is a trip, Tommy. But easy on the eyes, that’s for damn sure. You always know how to pick ’em.”
“She’s different, Jim. She’s a keeper. I don’t know how I know it –”
“I know how you know it. It’s that sweet ass she’s carrying around.” He smiled. Jim never meant any harm, even if his mouth was as big as his gut sometimes.
“Listen, Tommy, we gotta talk.”
“Yeah. So what’s this about, anyway?”
And then Jim proceeded to let me in on the most lucrative – if illegitimate – business opportunity of my life. It wasn’t complicated. As a matter of fact, it was downright simple: we’d drive down to Tijuana in somebody else’s car. Back then, any guy with an American accent and a driver’s license could cross the border twenty times a day if they liked. We’d only need to do it the once, though. We’d leave the car in a designated parking lot in TJ, where somebody would pick us up. They’d drive us to a rat hole motel where we’d check in under false names. Somebody else would pick us up in the middle of the night and drive us to the coast, where we’d pick up a motorboat. This is how we got the gig in the first place – Jim was a first rate fisher and knew what to do with a motorboat. And Jim trusted me.
From there it was a bit more difficult. In the wee hours of the morning, we’d navigate that boat up the coast up to some beach in San Diego, just south of the Del Mar Racetracks. Leave the boat put, and walk away. Navigating a boat in the dark seemed to me to be a little tricky. What was trickier was that the boat would be unlit. That is, no light for us – only a flashlight for absolute emergencies. And it would be painted black, just like the song. Oh, and the sideboards would be loaded with grass.
Somebody would come in behind us and take care of the rest. “How much weed are we talking about here, Jim?” I tried to keep my voice at that level between normal and a whisper, so nobody would think we were talking about something fishy, but nobody could hear us, either.
“Stop talking like this is a movie or something, Tommy! Sit up, for Christ’s sake. Shit! Where’s that pretty little thing you brought in here, anyway?” I’d been so engrossed in our conversation, I hadn’t even noticed she’d been gone so long. The waitress passed by. “Can we get some more iced teas all around, sweetheart?” Women never seemed to mind when Jim called them pet names like that. Lucy walked up right then, sat down next to me. I could tell something was up, but I wasn’t sure what. “So, Lucinda, what do you do for a living?” I couldn’t believe it. It hadn’t even occurred to me to ask her that in the roughly 83 hours we’d so far spent in each other’s company, most of them as naked as the day we were born. Come to think of it, she hadn’t asked me, either. Which was just fine, because it meant I hadn’t yet found myself in the uncomfortable position of informing her that her new lover was freshly unemployed.
“I’m sort of self-employed,” she replied, and picked up a french-fry off my plate, mopping up the last of my ketchup with it. She had one arm behind me, and her knees sort of pointed in my direction. Jesus, she made me hot even when she ate. Jim sucked the last of his iced tea from his straw and stared right at her. Damn, I thought. Jim’s getting tough on my account. Ain’t that something? Lucinda licked the ketchup off her thumb and looked at him, grinning. “I’m a designer, honey. I design ladies’ undergarments.” She winked at him. Jim laughed out loud, a little too loud.
“Well, now, Tommy, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but Lucinda, I’d just love to see some of your work.”
Like I said, I’d sensed something funny when Lucy got back from the ladies’ room, and what Jim and I needed to talk about, we needed privacy for anyway. “Hey, Jim, you get this one, and I’ll buy us a beer tonight, yeah?”
“So much for buying me lunch, then, eh?” Jim pulled out his wallet. “Go on, kid. I’ll see you at Nick’s tonight. 9:00. Don’t be late.”
We got into Lucy’s baby blue ’65 Falcon. I told her my old junker had been acting up, but the truth was that before lunch, I hadn’t known how much longer I’d be able to afford gas. Felt kinda bad about it – even though gas was only about a buck a gallon, it’d still cost $20 to fill up Lucy’s tank, and that old beauty could gobble it up in no time. But she didn’t seem to mind.
She put the keys in the ignition, but didn’t turn them right away – just sat there for a second with her left hand on the wheel and her right hand on the keys, like she’d forgotten what she was doing. “What is it, baby? You seemed a bit strange…”
“Tommy, what are we doing? This is fuckin’ crazy. I feel like I just met your daddy. Who the fuck is Jim, anyway? And who the fuck are we to each other? And how come I feel like I’ve known you all my life when I don’t know a thing about you?” I didn’t know what to say, but I thought that if I looked away from her right then, I’d lose her – we’d both lose our nerve.
So I took a deep breath and said, “My name’s Tommy Alverado. Tomás, actually, but since I don’t speak any Spanish, that name seems kinda silly, and I hate the name Tom. And my mom always called me Tommy, and so did my friends in school, so I guess I never saw any point in changing it. And my mom and dad were never married and my dad wasn’t around too much. I think he might have had another family in Mexico. But they’re both dead now – died in a car crash when I was 19, just after I never finished high school, so I’ll never know for sure what his story was. I don’t have any brothers or sisters, and I don’t know my grandparents or my aunts or uncles or anything. It was pretty much me and mom until she died and that was always okay. I’ve been working in a factory making widgets for the past decade or so, not making too much out of my life, but enjoying it as it comes. Jim was my boss there, but he’s more than that…he’s my friend. He looks out for me. There aren’t any women of particular interest in my life – in fact, there isn’t anything of particular interest in my life – or there wasn’t…and that was okay, too. And then I met you. And you are blowing my fucking mind, Lucy. And it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever felt in my life,” or something like that. Finally she turned and looked at me.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to tell you all that much just yet, baby.” I started to respond, but she put two fingers to my lips, the two she smoked with. My nose filled with the aroma of her fading perfume and tobacco, and her eyes filled with tears, but none fell. “I can tell you that I’m liking this, though. I’m liking you in my bed when I wake up in the morning. And it’s been a long time since that’s happened for me. So I’m game to keep playing…” her voice cracked. I couldn’t say anything – her fingers were still gently pressed against my lips, and what was there to say, anyway? “Just please –” now a tear fell. “Please don’t hurt me,” she said in a whisper. I looked her in the eye, but I still didn’t say anything. I didn’t know how to make a promise like that. I still don’t.
That night, two big things changed. The first one was that I gave up the lease on my apartment and moved in with Lucy, much to the building manager’s annoyance. (Chingada madre, Tommy! You know I’m s’posed to keep your deposit for that shit! What the fuck am I supposed to tell the pendejo owners? I don’t fucking know why I fucking look out for you, man. You owe me for this shit. And that bitch better be fine as fuck.) The second one was that I got myself gainfully – if illegally – employed. For a couple jobs, anyway. And the pay wasn’t bad – two grand apiece for one trip. I could make four grand stretch six months, no worries! Jim seemed happy, if a little on edge.
“You sure this is the right idea, Jim?”
“You got any better ones?” I took a sip of the well whisky shot in my hand. All I could think about was looking Lucy in the eye from behind the counter at Taco Bell.
“No, my friend, I do not.”
“Then shut the fuck up and say thank you.”
“Can’t very well do both at the same time, can I?”
“Right now you ain’t doin’ either one.”
The next week was maybe the best one in my life. More money came in faster than I’d ever seen it. Lucy was something special. She didn’t ask questions – not the prying ones, anyway – it was like she wanted me to have my secrets. It was like we weren’t brains with information and memories and ideas when we were together. We were just hearts with feelings and daydreams and fears.
The way she cooked, I knew that Southern accent wasn’t the least bit phony, and during the day she’d sit in the room she called the breakfast nook and work, because it had the most light. She had this stool and this big easel, and most often she’d get started right after she cooked me breakfast – she never ate a thing in the morning. She’d stare at that easel for twenty minutes or so, walking around it like she wanted to fight it, with a cigarette in one hand and her coffee cupped between both, wearing the “ladies’ undergarments” she’d designed: a teddy with a short satin robe, or if it was hot she’d walk around in her bra and panties with that robe wide open, her feet bare and that thick red hair tied up in a bun. Jesus. Just daring that easel to fight her. And then she’d sit there, the ball of one foot pinned to the floor, the other one propped up on the stool, and she’d be there until one or two when she’d come kiss me, smelling of cigarettes and sweat and the faintest perfume and tell me lunch would be ready just as soon as she cleaned up.
And while she showered, I’d peek in at her sketches, that weren’t sketches at all, really – they were works of art. One night we were lying in the grass behind her house, a little bit drunk on Jack Daniels and diet coke (Lucy’s beverage of choice). We had our heads touching, and our feet pointing out in opposite directions from each other, like a straight line. And she said, “You know what, Tommy-Baby?” which was the name she’d started calling me when she was getting drunk. “Don’t get me wrong – I like bras and panties just fine, but really I like drawing naked ladies.” And then she burst out in giggles. She rolled over onto her stomach and looked at me. “No, really! But don’t get any funny ideas. I’m not into the ladies. I just like drawing ’em.”
We never managed to get out of bed before nine. Pulling myself out of bed was hard enough. But pulling myself away from Lucy’s soft, warm skin, pressed up against mine – that was almost impossible. On the hottest nights we’d kick the sheets off and sleep in the open air before we’d let go of each other, and if we woke up sweaty, mostly it just got us excited and we’d end up awake long enough to wear ourselves out all over again without ever getting out of bed, and then we’d wrap ourselves up with each other again and pass out.
But Mondays were different. On Mondays, Lucy would wake up before the sun rose. She’d pull my hand back away from her chest ever so slowly, and without making a sound, she’d steal out of the bed. She thought I slept through it, but it always woke me up, just a little bit. It took me a few weeks to figure out it was Mondays. Then one morning, I had to piss. I could see her sitting at the table in the dining room as I crossed the corridor to the bathroom, but she didn’t see me. In that instant, I saw her fold a letter and stick it in an envelope. But I didn’t ask her about it. I figured she deserved her secrets. I figured that if she wanted me to know, she’d tell me.
I’m not known for talking in my sleep, but I’ve done it a few times. One of those times was a Monday morning – maybe the next one – as she crawled back into bed, her cool body spooning mine from behind. In that stupor between sleeping and waking, I must have forgotten my internal pledge to her privacy. I said, “Who you writing to out there, baby?”
My own voice woke me up, and yet I knew what I’d said, and I turned over to look at her, mentally kicking myself. “Never mind, baby. Forget I asked. I’m sorry.”
“No, no,” she said, sitting up now, pulling the sheet up to cover her breasts. She picked up the joint we’d started the night before from the ashtray next to the bed and looked at it. “I keep tellin’ myself, one of these days you and me, we’re gonna hafta start tellin’ each other some of our secrets.” She put the joint between her lips, picked up the lighter. “No better time than the present, I guess.” She lit it and inhaled deeply.
“Baby we don’t have to…” I didn’t know if I was ready to start spilling my own secrets.
“No, it’s okay – really,” she said, and exhaled. “I’m writing to my brother.” She picked up the ashtray and turned the cherry of the joint around in it, evening it out. “He’s in prison. In Tennessee.”
“What’d he do?” I asked? Now I was sitting up. She handed me the joint.
“Oh, it’s a long story. I’ll keep it simple. My mama had this boyfriend. Rex, she called him. Fuck if I ever knew what that was short for.” She paused, looking straight ahead. I almost said something, she was quiet for so long. Then she continued. “Rex was a dirty motherfucker. I guess my mama was too old for him. So he put his hands on me. A few times.”
My heartbeat increased. I felt so angry all of a sudden, and I was very, very awake. But I took a deep breath. I didn’t say a word. I handed Lucy the joint. “Joey – that’s my kid brother,” she said, “He saw us once. He saw that sick old fuck put himself on top of me. That was all it took. Couple hours later the piece of shit was dead. Bullet between the eyes. With his own gun. Joey’d never shot a gun in his life, but he figured out how to shoot ol’ Rex’ gun just fine.”
“But surely…considering the circumstances, the courts –”
“It was complicated. Mama didn’t believe either one of us. Or at least she said she didn’t. She wouldn’t stand as a witness for Joey. She stood for the prosecution. Said I was a whore, sleeping with everybody in town, that if her Rex’d slept with me, it was only on account of me seducing him.” She ashed the joint, handed it back to me. There wasn’t the hint of a tear in her eyes. They were steely, cold. “Joey got 15 to life. I got a ’65 Ford Falcon and the fuck outta Tennessee. Mama got her own gun a couple years later and followed her Rex into Hell.” She slid back into bed, under the sheet, reached across my lap and pulled me toward her. “Now come back to bed.” So I did. But I didn’t sleep. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever slept quite right since she told me that story. Still, life went on. And life with Lucy was the best life I’d lived that far.
Meanwhile, Jim and I ran those first two jobs as instructed without a hitch. It seemed so surreal – I’d never worked nights, so the only times I’d been up all night had involved lots of booze and sometimes other party favors, too. We got paid in advance, and I didn’t like to think about what might happen if things fell through. Whoever the boss was (I’d never talked to anybody but Jim. The guys we met along our route weren’t the most talkative, and I don’t think they were impressed with my lack of the mother tongue, either), he must have liked our work, because we got signed up for six more trips over the next three weeks. $12,000 in my hands – cash. Man, I’d never seen that much money at one time, and I’d barely tapped into the first four grand we’d been paid.
I guess maybe I should have been a little worried. There was any number of things to worry about: the law, the gangsters we worked for, Mother Nature. But I’d just never felt so Zen in all my life. And for the most part, those six jobs went right as rain as well. Just that last one – the water was choppy when we went out, and I asked Jim if maybe we ought to turn her around. But Jim’s pretty macho about that stuff, and I gotta admit, I get a little thrill from a bit of danger. So we stayed the course. When it started raining halfway through the journey, I made a mental note to go out and buy a nice pricey black poncho. We were about an hour late getting in, though, and the handover was a little tense. Still, the people up top must have been satisfied. The night after that last trip, I met Jim at Nick’s. We sat in a dark booth at the back of the bar, normally reserved for groping make-out sessions courtesy of the drunkest couple by the end of the night. Jim slid an envelope across the table to me. It was so full, it had to be taped closed.
“How much is in here, Jim?”
“That’s twenty large, my friend.”
I let it sink in a bit. We’d been at this less than a month, and I’d barely gotten through $1500 – I’m no kinda big spender. My yearly salary at the factory had been $18,000 at the height of my career. And here was Jim, effectively doubling that for two months of smooth sailing. Half of me couldn’t believe my luck. Come to think of it, neither did the other half. I’d been burying the money we’d made so far in the rose garden behind Lucy’s house, not sure what else I could do with it. All of a sudden, I got scared. “Jim, winter’s coming. What if things get worse on the water?”
Jim smiled calmly. Apparently he was taking all of this a lot more smoothly than I was. “Don’t you worry ’bout a thing, Tommy. I got that covered. I spoke to the big guy. We’ll be carrying walkie-talkies from now on.” He sat back and downed his shot, looking smugly proud of himself.
“What if they don’t work from way out there, Jim?”
“They’ll work, kid! Listen, what’s got you all worked up, anyway? Was it that last trip? Is it Lucinda? How much’ve you told her about all this, anyway?”
I ignored his last question. “No, it’s not that last trip. How much do you know about these guys, Jim? Have you ever even bought more weed than you need to roll up a joint?”
Jim pulled a ten out of his wallet and put it on the table. “Come on, kid. I think we could both do with just that right now.”
We went out into the parking lot and leaned up against the side of his truck. Jim lit a bigger joint than I’d ever seen him smoke before. I couldn’t help it – I laughed out loud. “Hey, kid, don’t knock it! This shit agrees with me!” He passed me the joint. “Now,” he coughed with his mouth shut, smoke coming out of his nose. “What’s all this about, huh? These guys have looked after us! Everything’s been smooth as butter. Why all the doom and gloom all of a sudden?”
I took a pull off the joint and closed my eyes. We weren’t transporting a poor quality product – that much was certain. “I been thinking,” I said with my mouth full of smoke, and then exhaled the rest of the hit. “They’re paying us 10% of the overall profit, right?” Jim nodded as he took the joint from me. “That means they’re making 40 grand with every trip we make, right?”
“Yeah, so? You don’t think we’re making enough out of it, kid? Is that it? I never knew you to be greedy…”
“Nah, it ain’t that.” I took the joint from him and pulled again. “You ever bought an ounce of weed?” I didn’t wait for him to answer. “60 bucks, Jim. So you do the math. If they’re making 40 grand off of us, and they’re selling each ounce for 60, You know how many ounces we’re carrying?”
“What the fuck, kid? I’m not a fuckin’ mathematician. What’s the fucking point, anyway?”
“Six-six-six, Jim!” I shouted, louder than I’d meant to. Now I whispered: “Six-six-six!” I was getting high. “Six hundred and sixty-six ounces of weed, Jim. That don’t bother you at all?”
Jim looked at me like I was nuts. He didn’t answer right away. He took the joint off of me and leaned back into the door of his truck. He took another hit and looked around like he was bored. “Tommy, you’re just lookin’ for a reason to get outta this, aintcha?”
“Nah, Jim, but don’t you think that’s a bit weird? I mean –”
“Tommy, the profit they make doesn’t include what they pay us. It don’t include what they pay anybody, from the growers to the punks pushing it in high school and college campuses across the state. It don’t include what they pay the dirty cops who look the other way, or the gas they put in our boat twice a week. I don’t know all the math – I’m just not that important, and neither are you. But I can tell you this: It ain’t as simple as you seem to think it is. And you spending all that time just to come up with this cockamamie BS…” He took a last hit off the joint, looked at it to make sure it was finished, and flicked it into the distance with his thumb and middle finger. He kept looking that way as he said, “You know, maybe I was wrong…maybe this is too much for you.” He wasn’t being a dick about it. There was genuine concern in his eyes.
When he turned back to look at me, I looked down. I felt ashamed all of a sudden, like I was letting him down. “Nah, Jim, it ain’t that. Look – forget about it. I’m sorry. You’re right…I’m just trippin’.” I grabbed my keys out of my pocket. “When do we ride out next?” I steadied my voice, mustered the courage to look him dead in the eye, feigning as much confidence as I could.
“Friday, kid. You sure you’re up for it? I swear I’d never hold it against you…”
“Nah, I got this. I’m good. No worries.” We shook hands and he pulled me to him for a hug – a man hug, with a couple of macho pats to the back. Then he pushed me back and held me by the shoulder, his right hand still clinging to mine, and looked me in the eye.
“This is our chance, kid. If we keep this up a while, we’ll be set until we can get back on our feet, ya know? Just a few more runs, couple more months – maybe a year – save whatever we can and that’ll tide us over until something better – more legit – comes along. We’ll be alright.” The way he said it, he was sort of pleading with me.
I realized then that, even if he didn’t hold it against me, he needed me. He didn’t have anybody else he could trust with this. And I didn’t want to let him down. I couldn’t. I loved that guy.
Maybe I should have listened to my gut then. The next trip wasn’t smooth at all. In fact, it didn’t happen. We got stuck in a traffic jam from Oceanside to La Jolla. We heard on the radio that six cars had been totaled. By the time we got to the scene of the accident, all we saw was a cordoned-off part of the road, what remained of the cars left little to the imagination as to what must have happened to the drivers. There was even blood all along the asphalt. Took us an extra two hours to get to our first stop, and by the time we arrived and dropped off the car, it seemed our ride had given up on us. We walked to a taquería, thankful it was still open, trying to stay calm and look normal. Jim ordered us a couple of Negro Modelos and I scanned the parking lot for signs of life. This part of the trip was normally so smooth, I hadn’t begun to think about what might happen if we turned up late.
An old man approached the counter. “Una Especial, por favor.” He looked up at me. “Son muy tarde hoy.” At the time I had no clue what he’d said. I looked at Jim.
“He’s with them,” Jim said to me, and then that fat old white guy proceeded to speak what sounded to me like perfect Mexican Spanish with the creepy old man for about five minutes. Neither one of them seemed upset in the least; I had the impression we’d be just fine in spite of the slip-up. The boat didn’t leave for another couple of hours, after all. “We gotta go, kid,” said Jim, not looking me in the eye. That was when I knew there was a problem.
“To the motel?”
“Nah – seems they got somebody to handle this one for us. Seems the big guy wants a chat with me.”
I didn’t know what to say. The coward in me wanted to shout, But then how come I gotta come? But I kept cool, nodded my head and kept it low from that point. The old man took the keys off Jim and we got back into the car we’d driven down from LA. He drove us to a house about an hour away and pointed at a door around the back. As soon as we got out, he drove off. The house didn’t look like anything special from the outside, just painted fuchsia, nothing unusual around these parts. It was at least a quarter of a mile from any of the other houses, which had all been built much closer together. The grass around it was cut, but there wasn’t a flower or a bush in sight. We knocked, but nobody answered. Jim tried the door and we were surprised to find it open. The inside was probably the most bizarre – it was bare. Not a carpet or a couch or a TV. No tiles or paint on the walls – nothing. Looked like it hadn’t ever had anything in it before, either, but it was far from new. We planted ourselves on the dirt floor. Jim pulled out a pack of Camels from his shirt pocket and threw them onto the ground between us.
“When’d you start smoking?” It was the first thing I’d said in what felt like ages. Jim handed me a smoke.
“I didn’t. Just carry ’em around. One of those you-never-know sorta things.” Sure enough, the cigarette was stale and old, but the smoke in my lungs and the taste on my mouth were reassuring in their familiarity. And at least it was something to do. We sat and smoked in silence, staring at the dirt floor, illuminated by a powerful stream of moonlight coming through the window. Jim said, “Why don’t you try and get some sleep, kid? Not sure how long we’ll be here.” No way I could sleep, but I didn’t say anything – just shrugged and smiled a little. I didn’t want him to worry; somehow I felt like I had to help Jim be the one in charge, and the best way to do that was to neither freak out nor zone out. So I just went back to staring at the dirt floor, reaching for another nasty old cigarette from time to time.
It wasn’t until the sun was starting to rise that we heard somebody drive up. I looked at Jim, who was looking at the wall, in the direction of the sound of tires rolling over gravel outside the door. The engine stopped and we heard two car doors open and close. All of a sudden, Jim stood up and brushed himself off, gesturing for me to do the same. I guess he didn’t want anybody to see us sitting on our asses for one reason or another. Maybe it made him feel less powerless, even if it was only a symbolic illusion.
The door opened and a stream of light flooded the room from the sun rising just behind it. “Buenos días, amigos.” He was just a silhouette against the brilliant sunlight behind him. A smaller silhouette stood in the distance outside. I could tell his back was to us only from the direction his cowboy boots faced. “My name is Alejandro. I’ve heard good things about you. The gringo que habla español, y el Chicano who don’t know a word.” He laughed. “Funny story.” He squatted down to where Jim’s pack of cigarettes lay, alongside our many butts and nearly empty book of matches. Suddenly I felt sick from the tobacco, ashamed from smoking so much, like it betrayed our fear. Like Jim, I wanted to look stronger than I felt. Alejandro cut an intimidating figure, black steel-toe snakeskin boots, tight black Levis, black suit vest over his black shirt, buttoned up to the top, black leather cowboy hat. Juanito Cash, I thought. “May I?” he said, holding up the pack with one cigarette left. Jim gestured for him to go ahead. I got a look at Jim just then, holding his shoulders back, his eyes narrowed, and one foot pointed right at me, his knee kind of bent, like he was ready to lunge almost. Maybe to protect me. But then maybe I imagined that.
Alejandro lit his cigarette. “Gentlemen, last night was…problematic, no?” He flicked the match away still lit. I watched the flame expire as it hit the ground, the smoke mingling with the dust already sparkling in the morning sunlight. “Listen, listen,” he smiled and looked down, held up his hand like he’d just told a joke to a live audience. “I get it! Pero there cannot be any excuses here, comprenden?” Neither of us had said a single word. I figured my best bet would be to keep my mouth shut and let Jim do the talking, but he wasn’t doing any of that. Hell, I thought. What’s he gonna say anyway? No excuses, right?
“Anyways, you pendejos are pinche lucky. I don’t know for what, but the boss likes you,” here he looked at Jim, “and he wants for you to keep working with us.” He looked at the cigarette between his fingers sourly. “That’s pretty fucking disgusting, hombre,” he said, looking at me this time. “I thought cigarillos Americanos were supposed to be all better and stuff.” He dropped it and squashed it with his boot, still looking at me. “Okay. Here’s how it’s going down. You gotta do three more trips to make up for this one. You gotta do those on the house, no? So that means you got 14 more trips before we talk again.” He turned to leave, pulling his vest back as he did so the sun caught the metal on the gun tucked into his jeans. “Let’s not talk again, okay?” He tipped his hat and started to walk out.
“Wait!” Jim cried out, sounding a lot less brave than I know for a fact he’d hoped. “Just how the fuck are we supposed to get out of here?”
“Keys are in the car, amigo. Leave it parked wherever you like. We’ll find it.” And then he left.
It was well past 3:00 when Jim pulled up in front of Lucy’s to drop me off. We’d barely spoken three words to each other in the entire 7 hour drive from wherever-the-fuck-we-were, two hours of which were spent driving in circles trying to figure out which direction to go. “Tommy, I—”
“Forget it, Jim. It’s alright.” I couldn’t look him in the eyes. “We’ll get through these next runs, and then we’ll figure it out from there, okay?” I found the courage to look up. “Hey,” I said, forcing a smile, “at least the rent’s paid, right?” Jim smiled the best he could, but averted my eyes when I looked up, pretending to fiddle with the stick on his truck.
“You bet, kid. See ya in a couple days. Go be with that pretty lady you got in there.” As he drove off, I felt grateful for the fatigue that washed over me – that likely washed over Jim – because without it, neither of us was going to get any sleep that night. I flung my jacket over my shoulder and walked to the door. Man, I was not prepared for what I saw.
There she was – Lucy sitting on the floor in her bathrobe, bra and panties, barefooted, hair a mess, a half-empty bottle of Jack to her left, her eyes swollen and her cheeks and nose red from crying. She looked so sad and confused when she looked up at me. I rushed over to her, sat down beside her and pulled her to me. At first she just clutched my arms and wept into my chest. “Baby, it’s okay – I’m here,” was all I could say. I had no idea where all this had come from. But then she was clutching my arms more tightly. I gently reached around to loosen her grip, and she let go right away, but she kept her head pressed up against me, and started pounding me on the chest, lightly at first, and then harder. “Baby, what the fuck? What’s wrong?” I pushed her away, but held onto her arms, trying to get her to look me in the eye. “Baby, look at me! What’s wrong?”
It was almost a whisper: “Where the fuck were you?” The booze on her breath was ripe. “Where the fuck were you?” she asked again, this time more loudly.
“Baby, stuff came up. It’s a little complicated.”
“Fuck you! I’ll show you complicated. They don’t have phones wherever it is you go at night? Pack your shit, Tommy. Get the fuck out. I don’t have time for this.” I still had her by both arms, but the fire had gone out of her. I waited, not sure what to say, afraid I’d fuck it all up if I said anything at all. In that moment, my heart was frozen with what I can only describe as terror. My whole body went cold with fear. More fear than Alejandro could have ever inspired. Finally she looked up at me, sad though – not angry. “I never ask you nothin’, Tommy. Never.”
“I know, Baby.” I was still tongue-tied.
“Where the fuck were you?”
“Can we make a pot of coffee maybe? And then we can sit down and I’ll tell you all about it.” She eyed me suspiciously for a second, then looked down and nodded. So that’s what we did – she went to the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee. I sat down at the table and waited. Man, I’d been dreaming about coming home and getting into a hot shower and washing last night off of me and then convincing Lucy to crawl into bed beside me, no matter how early it was. I’m not gonna lie – I’m no tough guy. I was scared, and all I wanted was for her to hold me in her arms and let me lay my head on her chest while she stroked my hair and we listened to each other breathing. But that wasn’t how it was going to play out. I had to tell it to her plain.
I honestly think the only reason she didn’t kick me out that day was because she was too tired and drunk, but in the end she listened. And for whatever reason, she believed me. About half-way through our third cup, Lucy had started to sober up, and I was getting my head back. “Baby, I’m starved,” I said. “And I’m dying for a shower.” Lucy reached over for the phone and in two minutes she’d put in an order for Chinese. Then she hung up, took my hand and led me to the bathroom, pushing play on the stereo along the way. “Sleep Walk” came on, and I don’t know what song on earth could have been more perfect in that moment. We made it to the bathroom and she leaned over to run the bath. As the hot water poured into the tub and the steel guitar played that grownup lullaby in the living room, she slowly and gently took off all my clothes, kissing me softly sometimes, inhaling my scent, caressing her cheek against my skin. We got into the tub together and she lay on top of me, her arms around me and her head against my chest. We must have closed our eyes, because that’s the last thing I remember before the bell rang with the Chinese food.
“What are we gonna do, Tommy?” she asked me later, as we sat picking at the remaining noodles and sweet and sour pork in the boxes at our feet.
“Nothing, Baby. There’s nothing to do. I just gotta keep on doing what I’ve been doing. Once me and Jim’ve finished that last job, I’ll bow out. Find a real job somewhere. Plus, I’ll have enough money to tide us over until I find something decent.” I put my chopsticks down and leaned over to nuzzle her neck. She pushed me away gently.
“Tommy, it ain’t about that. We don’t need the money. I’m doing alright. Can’t you call it quits now? It ain’t safe, Baby.” Her voice cracked and I looked into her eyes, afraid she’d started crying again. I pulled out a paper and some grass and started rolling a joint. “I almost don’t wanna smoke it, thinkin’ about what you went through last night,” she said. I grinned at her and she chuckled. “Almost.”
As soon as we finished the joint I took her hand and led her to the bedroom, turning off the stereo and the lights along the way. This time I undressed her, although to be fair, all she wore was that sexy green silk robe and a pair of panties. I think I kissed her everywhere that night, on every square centimeter of her milky skin. This time we didn’t fall asleep right away, but after we finished, I laid her down on her back, just as I’d been wanting to do all goddamn day, and I moved her long, thick hair away from her chest, and lay my head down there as I curled up alongside her, draping my leg across hers. And then I reached for her hand and brought it up to my head, and she wound her fingers into my curls and stroked my hair, and in that moment, life was perfect, in spite of it all.
It’s funny, what you remember and what you don’t. For instance, I remember exactly how Lucy’s fingers felt wrapped up in my hair that night, how her short nails gently scratched my scalp, how the moonlight caught the shimmer in her hair. But I don’t remember too much about the next few weeks. Jim came around every Monday and Thursday evening for business, and we went out to Nick’s a few times. Lucy decided to decorate for Christmas, and I swear that was the first Christmas tree I’d had in my own home since before my mom died. I remember how the smell of pine filled up the house, and how I couldn’t help but get a bit sentimental thinking about my mom the night me and Lucy decorated and drank a little too much eggnog. Lucy kept on working and the days turned into weeks. Before I knew it, Jim and I had three runs left before our “contract” was up, so I figured no time better to let him know I was done. Plus, I had more big news.
We went to Nick’s…not sure either one of us knew how to have a serious conversation anywhere else. He was more than cool about it. In fact, I was surprised at how well he took it, but I wasn’t going to question my luck.
“You sure, kid? I know we had some hiccups back there, but it’s been fine since then, hasn’t it?”
I told him it had, told him I was lucky to’ve had the chance to be his right-hand man. “You know, Jim, I gotta be honest, I’m just not that hard, you know? And Lucy…” How would he take it if I told him she knew everything?
“Don’t worry, kid. I get it. I understand. So what’re you gonna do? What’s your plan?”
“Fuck knows! Get a job? I was thinkin’ about going for my GED…just to have it, you know?”
“Sure, I know. It’s a good thing to have. Shame you didn’t get your diploma way back when.”
“And, erm…there’s something else.” My heart swelled with hope – would he be happy? Why wouldn’t he be? I didn’t know why, but I was sweating as I told him: “Lucy’s…we’re pregnant.”
Jim literally whooped. I’m not sure I knew what that word meant until I heard him do it. Then he said, “Hot damn!” like, for real, and I’m pretty sure I’d never heard anybody actually say that before, either. “What is it, a girl or a boy?”
“Oh, we don’t know yet…takes a few months before you find out.” He’d really never done this before. Sometimes Jim’s naiveté amazed me. “But you’ll be the first person I tell. Give you lots of time to get us the right presents.” He grinned. “Jim, I was gonna ask…”
“What is it, kid? You need money? Goddamnit, Tommy – you gone through it already? Now, don’t you worry – we’ll work it out!” I couldn’t help but smile at the concern in his eyes.
“It ain’t that, Jim – we’re okay for cash. It’s just,” I took a deep breath. “Lucy’s dad’s dead, too, and I was hoping – I thought maybe you wouldn’t mind if he – or she – called you grandpa. Or papa, or whatever kids call grandparents.” Jim didn’t say a word for a second, and I didn’t know what to think. Looking back, that was some dumbass shit, but at the time, I still felt like a damaged orphan. I should’ve known Jim would be touched. I should’ve known how much he loved me.
“Shit, kid.” He wouldn’t even look up from his drink. I saw him wipe at his eyes with his sleeve, then he looked me in the eye, tears and all. “I’d be fucking honored,” he said, taking hold of my shoulder for the briefest second and holding me at arm’s length, like he wanted to say something. But he didn’t. He wiped his nose on his sleeve and stood up. “I’m gonna take a piss. Back in a minute.”
Dolly, Jim’s favorite bartender, came over as he left the table. “What’d you go and do to my Jimmy?” she asked smiling. She knew how it was with Jim and me. Hell, she’d have probably known more about what we got up to than anybody else, if she bothered paying any attention to what we said at Nick’s. But I don’t think she did. Dolly kept her nose out of other people’s business. Probably had enough of her own shit to deal with. “I’m just teasin’ ya, honey. But listen, there’s a couple of guys at the bar keep lookin’ this way,” she flicked her eyes up in her head to point them out. “Just thought I’d let you know.”
Up at the bar sat two Alejandro look-alikes, all dressed up for a cowboy funeral, staring at me like I killed the cowboy. When they saw me see them, one of them grinned at me and turned his back, while the other kept on staring, elbow propped on the bar, one boot propped on his barstool, a beer in his hand and a scowl on his face. Jim came back from the bathroom none-the-wiser and sat down across from me, with his back to our admirers. I probably should have said something witty – Don’t look now Jim, but I think we’ve got company – but I was too scared to even think about it. “Jim—”
He must have seen the look in my eyes. “What is it, kid?”
“Don’t look now, okay? Behind you there’s a couple of dudes who seem to have taken a keen interest in us.” Jim stiffened.
“What do they look like?”
“Alejandro. But meaner.”
Jim sat there for a minute, staring at the table in front of him like the answer to this predicament might be hidden in the rings left by so many pint glasses over the years. “I tell you what, if they want to talk to us, they can come right over and say hello. And if they don’t, well what the fuck are we supposed to do about it? Buy ’em a fuckin’ drink for Christ’s sake?” He finished his shot of whisky and looked at me. “Finish your drink, kid. Let’s get the fuck outta here.”
Fair enough, I thought. Can’t jump to any conclusions…and what choice do we have? So I downed my drink and got up, trying to look as normal as you like, as if we were leaving for any reason but the fact that there were two very intimidating fellows at the bar who apparently couldn’t take their eyes off of us. Jim managed to smile and wave at Dolly on his way out. I caught her eye as well. She looked damn worried.
Jim drove us home in his truck and didn’t say much along the way. “Change the station if you like.” . . . “This fuckin’ light pisses me off. They really need to do something about it.” . . . “Shoulda eaten before we left…fuckin’ heartburn.” As he pulled up to drop me off, he said, “Listen, Tommy: don’t you worry about nothin’. I got this one covered, okay? I’ll find out what their beef is and I’ll make it right, okay? In the meantime, you get a good night’s rest before our trip tomorrow, and you give Lucinda a huge kiss for me. You tell her she’s the best thing ever happened to you, and I’m proud of you when she’s by your side. You tell her that for me, will ya? And I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
It was as sentimental as he’d ever been with me. I didn’t know if he said all those things because he was scared, or because he was happy about all the stuff we’d talked about before the boogeymen came and interrupted us. Probably it was a bit of both. Whatever the case, I never got around to telling Lucy.
She was asleep when I got home. Ever since she found out she was pregnant, she’d started this whole new regime. Bed by eleven, up by seven, no more coffee, booze or smokes – not even a puff on a joint once in a while. No more burgers for dinner and bacon for breakfast: It ain’t just me gotta be healthy for this baby, Tommy. You gotta shape up, too. And since she’d never once told me what to do, I thought I could at least try. I crawled in behind her and wrapped my arms around her. God, she was soft. She wiggled a little and pressed her back into my belly and her ass into my groin. Still asleep, she grabbed my arm and brought it up between her breasts, but not before I let my hand graze the beautiful bump that was emerging just beneath them – still tiny, invisible when she was clothed, but I knew her body better than I knew my own, and I could feel the difference even if I couldn’t see it.
Next morning she was up and off before I even got out of bed. I walked naked into the kitchen to find a note: Morning, Sunshine! Off to see the doc and do some errands. Make yourself a sandwich for lunch, will you? Don’t know when I’ll be home, but I’ll be back before you leave. I love you. L. I reread the note a couple of times. I liked the whimsical way she wrote. Somehow, everything she did was just prettier, nicer, fancier. I thought I’d give Jim a call, make sure everything was set for tonight, see if he’d heard anything about the creeps we’d seen at Nick’s the night before.
His phone rang four times. Then, This is Jim. Leave a message. BEEP. I hung up. I thought it was pretty strange that he wasn’t home – Jim almost never got up before noon. But I put on the coffee and got into the shower. Figured I’d call him back in an hour or so. And I did. Still no answer. I thought maybe he couldn’t hear the phone – maybe he was sleeping too deeply. So I tried again twice more. Calling him over and over again was making me nervous. I decided I’d just drive over to his place – it was only 10 minutes away, after all, and at least I could get on with my day if I knew there was nothing to worry about.
Jim had a shitty old driveway, and I cursed it every time I pulled into it, cursed Jim for never getting it re-laid, cursed my piece of shit car. But this time I didn’t even notice. First, I saw Jim’s car, which stressed me out all by itself. Why didn’t he pick up the goddamn phone? Jim never walked anywhere. If he’d left, he’d have taken his car. By the time I realized there was a visitor, I’d already pulled into the driveway behind Jim’s car. I saw his lookout through my rearview mirror, staring out of his own car window, and I swear he made eye contact with me even from there, even through the mirror. I didn’t figure I had much choice other than to go inside, and anyway, I wasn’t going to leave Jim there like that. I was scared out of my mind, but I thought I had to toughen up for Jim’s sake…for my own. I thought running wouldn’t get any of us anywhere, and if they saw how weak I felt, it wasn’t going to help me. Now I know that in this life there are those who call shots and those who don’t. I don’t.
I got out of my car and shut the door, and then turned to look the guy in the eye – just for a second, but long enough that he saw me look at him dead-on. I thought that might let him know he didn’t scare me, even if my gut was turning over like I don’t know what, even if I thought I might throw up at any second. Then I turned and headed to the back entrance of Jim’s place, thinking that might throw whoever might be in there with him just a little. Jim and I never carried weapons. We both agreed that if we had a gun, we’d be more likely to shoot the gun, and therefore more likely to be shot at by other people’s guns. We just figured we’d keep it as simple as we could. We figured if we just did the job well, we’d be in and out of this gig in no time. But in that moment, I wished so bad I’d been packing. Not that I’d have known what the fuck to do with the damn thing – just that it might have made me feel less small, less impotent.
I didn’t bother knocking – just walked right in. In retrospect, that was pretty fucking stupid of me. Could have easily been shot in the head by a goon caught unawares. Instead, cool as ice, three guns were cocked and pointed at my head within the first half a second of me walking in. I raised my hands like I’d seen done in the movies about a hundred times while one of them patted me down, and looked over at Jim, on the other side of the room, crumpled on the floor and looking down, blood dripping from his face. He looked up at me, and I saw that his mouth was split from a hard hit to the right, and his left eye was swollen shut. There was a tooth in the puddle of blood at his feet.
“Goddamnit, kid! What the fuck are you doing here? What kinda idiot walks into a scene like this on purpose! Why didn’t you just fuckin’ drive away? Where are your goddamn instincts, goddamnit?” He started coughing, and I could see from the way his body shook that every cough was excruciating.
I started to walk up to him, but an open hand pressed firmly against my chest. I looked up to my left to see Alejandro smiling at me, just like we’d run into each other at church. “Bienvenidos, Tommy. We weren’t expecting you so early. This really makes things so much easier for us, to be honest.” He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped Jim’s blood off of his fist. I gagged a little, hoped no one saw.
“Jim, what the fuck?” I whispered desperately, as if he could somehow communicate what the hell was happening all around us while they all stood there listening and watching. There were four of them all together, all armed, plus the guy outside.
Alejandro took it upon himself to answer for Jim. “The fuck, Tommy, is that your amigo has a very big boca. That’s a mouth, in case you didn’t know, Americano. Oh, sí, he talks too much! To the wrong people, comprendes? Like, he could have talked to me, no? Or to you – you’re his friend, right?” He walked over to Jim and cupped his bruised and bleeding face in his right hand. “Pero, no. Our trusted amigo had to go and talk to the pinche LAPD!” He backhanded Jim with his left hand as he said the last bit; Jim’s blood sprayed across the tight black jeans of one of the others.
“Stop!” I shouted. I was beside myself. I didn’t know what to do. I was drenched in sweat, and my mind was racing. “Stop for just a second. Please, Alejandro, talk to me,” I pleaded. But I was looking at Jim. “Tell me what the fuck is going on.”
“You expect me to believe you knew nothing, my friend?” He looked up at the others, laughing. “Jaime’s best amigo over here didn’t know nothing. You believe that, Jesus?” Jesus stood silently, his hands folded around his pistol in front of his groin. He just shook his head slowly, robotically. “Me neither!” And with that Alejandro backhanded me with his right hand – the hand now holding his gun. I fell to my knees for a second, saw stars, heard Jim shout through the ringing in my ears, through his swollen mouth No! Stop! He don’t know nothin’!
I blinked as hard as I could. I shook my head and took a deep breath. Blood ran down my face from somewhere – my ear? “Alejandro—” I started, but he cut me off.
“No. No, no, no. You’re done talking for now. Here’s what’s going to happen. We’re expecting a visitor. A very pretty lady. She’s on her way here as we speak. Had to reschedule her doctor’s appointment, apparently.” Jim and I both shouted at the same time; Alejandro decked me, while one of the others decked Jim. God, we were helpless. “Y Jaime, you need to confess your sins to your amigo there so he knows the score. Go on, now.” He gestured for me to walk toward Jim with his gun, and then he gestured for the others to back off. I walked over to Jim slowly, out of fear, but also because my head still spun from the last time he’d hit me. I kneeled down beside Jim. He looked up at me as my face came level with his. God, he looked so sad. His chin quivered as the tears started falling from his swollen eyes, mixing in with the blood all over his face.
“Kid…Tommy…I’m so sorry,” he whispered. He forced himself to keep looking me in the eye. “After the last time, I…I got scared. Not just for me.” As he said the last part his look hardened. He said it sternly, with conviction. “This cocksucker’s right,” he said, nodding his head in Alejandro’s direction. “I talked. But I guess I talked to the wrong guy…I didn’t know which cops were the dirty ones…I thought I was doing the best thing…”
“Jim, why didn’t you tell me?” Now I was crying. I knew this was going to be the last time I talked to my dear friend…he’d been my best friend, less like a father – more like a fuck-up uncle. Somebody I’d known loved me and wanted the best for me. And this was it. He just looked at me so pathetically now…so helpless, so sorry.
“Tommy, I swear, I was trying to protect you…I felt so goddamn terrible for getting you into this in the first place.”
I took his right hand into mine. “I know you do. I know you were. Don’t worry about it, Jim. We’ll get through this.” Even as I said the words, I knew I was lying. So did Jim. He spit out some blood onto the floor.
“Kid, I’m afraid I’ve gotten us in a little over our heads. I hope some day you’ll forgive me for being such a ignorant motherfucker. Shoulda studied up on this crime shit before I got us into it, eh?” He managed some kind of a crooked bloody smile. I could see two missing teeth when he did.
Alejandro stepped toward us. “Okay, enough of this bullshit.” He pulled me up by my collar. The next part just happened so fast. “And now, Tommy, without further ado, let me show you what we do to people who fucking narc.” And he pointed his gun at Jim, who never once stopped looking at me, and shot him in the head. Just like that. I fell to my knees…I’d never in my life felt such a blow to my insides. I watched the blood pool away from Jim’s head where he lay motionless on the floor before me. I vaguely heard Alejandro say something in the distance, and then I felt his open hand slap my face.
“Pendejo! I’m talking to you. The fucking guest of honor has arrived. Why don’t you show some respect, esse?” I looked up to see the worst nightmare I’d never had: Lucy, in a lovely green summer dress and a white sweater. She was pulling at the sweater with one hand where it had torn, where they’d torn it. I remember thinking how chilly she must have been in that dress. It felt like ages before I found the courage to look up at her face. She just kept looking from Jim to me, from me to Jim. She trembled, and leaned toward me, whimpering, with eyes that pleaded with me. They’d hit her at least once – I could tell by her fat lip and the bit of blood now crusting around her nostril. She was sobbing and sweating. Her hair was tied back, but the little bits around her face were stuck to her temples and forehead with perspiration. My mouth went cotton dry.
“Well, Tommy? Where’s your manners? You’re not going to say hello to this beautiful girl? She came all this way just for you!” I couldn’t process any thought. I just wanted to get her out of there any way I could.
“Alejandro –” My voice cracked. I could barely summon a whisper. “Please, she’s got nothing to do with this. Please.” Alejandro walked over to where I was kneeling, squatted down beside me. “Please, Alejandro…she’s pregnant.”
“Is that so?” He stood up again and looked at Lucy. “Why didn’t you say so? Oh, this will go much quicker now.” He stood up, walked over to my beautiful green-eyed Lucy, who looked at me, who looked at me. He put his left hand on her shoulder, and before I could even register what was happening, he pulled his right hand back and punched her squarely in the gut as hard as he could. Lucy screamed. I screamed. She fell to the floor, passed out. Somehow I’d risen to my feet. I was lunging toward her, but two of them held me back. I felt surprised to find myself there, to find them there behind me. Alejandro walked over to me. He held his gun against my temple and brought his face so close to mine I could smell his breath, feel the heat coming off of him. “Listen to me, you wanna-be güero. Here’s what’s going to happen now. I’m going to clean up this mess over here,” he gestured to Jim with his pistol, like he was nothing more than a burdensome pile of garbage. “And you and your lady are going to get the fuck out of here and go home. Tonight, you’ll do this run solo, comprendes? Pero this time you go straight to the motel. And when you arrive, there will be some nice men in shiny uniforms to come and give you a ride to your new home. And you will not say a word to nobody, and neither will that bitch laying right there, you hear me? About any of this, or that, or whatever, hombre, because I promise you that we really liked Jim. And I promise you that we really don’t like you, or your puta girlfriend. So I don’t like to think about how we would punish your bad decisions, okay?”
And that was it. He just walked away from me like I’d vanished into thin air. He and his associates started cleaning up the “mess” they called Jim. Lucy still lay in a pile near the back door. As soon as I saw her I snapped into some kind of gear – I picked her up and carried her out to my car, lay her down in the back seat, pushed the hair away from her eyes and got into the driver’s seat. I drove as fast as I could to the hospital, right up to the emergency room doors like what you see in the movies. A nurse outside was smoking. One look at my face and he said, “Chair or stretcher?”
“Stretcher,” I replied. Lucy had come to on the drive there, but she was in shock and hadn’t responded to anything I said. They made me wait outside for what seemed like hours, but was probably only about an hour and a half…by that point, in spite of the grief, in spite of the fear, I’d begun watching the time, knowing that I had to do this run, or I didn’t know what they might do to me…to Lucy. A nurse came out finally, looking for me. Looking angry. And then she saw my face and she softened.
“She’s stable. Mostly in shock. She’s promised it wasn’t you who did this to her, but she’s refusing to say who it was.”
“Is the baby…”
“Baby? She’s pregnant? Jesus! Okay – I’ll be back.” I looked at the time. I had to go.
“Can I see her? Just for a second?”
“I’m afraid not.
“Sir, it’s not in my hands. And now, I’ve got work to do, if you’ll excuse me.” She started off again, muttering to herself, “If people would only tell us what the fuck is going on half the time!”
“Listen,” I said, fully aware that I was about to sound like the biggest piece of shit asshole on the planet. “I’ve got to go. I’ll be back – tell her I’ll be back. Tell her I love her. And…and tell her I’ll be back, okay?” She started to turn. “Wait!” I reached into my pocket and pulled out an old receipt. “You got a pen?” She exasperatedly reached into her pocket and pulled one out for me. I scribbled as fast as I could, My love for you runs deeper than the roots of the rose bushes in your garden. “Make sure she gets this, okay? Okay?”
“Yeah, okay, buddy. I’ll tell her. I’ll make sure. You know, you need to be seen by a doctor yourself. But whatever. You go and do whatever’s more important than being here, now. You go on.” And she stormed off.
The rest is a blur. I remember coming out of the hospital and seeing one of Alejandro’s goons standing next to an old Cadillac, staring right at me, holding the keys at eye level. Then he dropped them where he stood and walked away. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I had no idea where to pick up the car. Jim had always handled all of that. I walked over to the car, picked up the keys, and got inside. I don’t remember how it drove, whether or not I turned on the radio. I don’t remember passing through border patrol, whether or not I followed the speed limit. I only remember pulling into that roach-infested motel. This time I didn’t have to check in. Somebody was sitting in the dingy, dimly lit reception area on an armchair torn in so many places the springs stuck out. “Vámonos,” was all he said, and we got in another car and drove to the coast.
The ocean was calm that night. As I made my way around the border, a big part of me wished it wasn’t, wished it would swallow me up and wash all this pain away. But the rest of me was in control, and I knew I needed to get back, because Lucy might make it if she could spend the rest of her life hating me. But if I died, I’d take that away from her, too. I owed her that much. She deserved to hate me – not to mourn me. So I would make it to San Diego one last time. And I did, hours ahead of schedule, owing to the hasty hand-over in TJ. And sure enough, there were I-don’t-know-how-many police cars parked in the lot overlooking the cliffs that led down to the beach. I had to look up to see them as their drivers approached the boat. I blessed the soft white sand as they slammed my body down into it to be searched, and then pulled my hands behind my back to be cuffed. They even cuffed my ankles. Before we’d made our way to the bottom of the cliffs, I could hear the crowbar or whatever it was crack into the wood in the boat’s sideboards. We got it! They shouted. Their lucky day.
And that was it, really. I mean, there was a trial, and apparently Lucy was questioned, but I never saw her, and I was found guilty of a whole bunch of trafficking violations, and the judge said that since I was having such a hard time remembering anybody who helped me out, he was going to make an example out of me, blah-blah-blah. And I got twenty. And here I am.
I tried asking at first whether the baby was okay, but anybody I asked either didn’t know or wouldn’t say. My own attorney – court-appointed – did not give a shit, and refused to contact Lucy. Said it would be bad for the case. I said, “Hey, then you must think regular meetings with your client would be bad for the case, right? That’s why I never see you?” I guess I couldn’t blame her. I wouldn’t talk – I couldn’t – and so she had no case. I guess she didn’t really see the point in meeting with me.
I’ve been here three weeks, and I don’t know if I ever felt so low. I can’t read or watch TV, can’t focus. If I was looking to make friends, I’d be sorely disappointed. I blend neither with the peckerwoods nor the vatos. But I’m not interested in friendship. I don’t know if I’ll ever be interested in that road again. At this moment, it’s visiting hour, and I can’t think of a single person in the whole world who would want to see my face. And the way I feel right now, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. I’m sitting on my bunk – the lower one, so I have to hunch, although I’m not sure I could find the strength to sit up straight anymore anyway. I’m staring at the brick wall in front of me. Reflecting on my sins, I guess, which is why we’re all here, right? All of a sudden my thoughts are interrupted by a loud bang at the bars to my cell.
I almost ask the guard to repeat himself. Instead I say, “Are you sure?”
He looks at me for a split second and then turns to leave. “Do I look like I make mistakes, motherfucker? Hurry the fuck up.”
My feet feel light, giddy, as if they’d fallen asleep while I sat there. Pins and needles all over me. I feel excited for the first time in weeks. Who could it be? I think about asking the guard. I don’t know why, but I decide not to. I enter the visitation room, a row of orange backs, all leaning forward to decrease the distance between the prisoner and the outside. Who could it be? I wonder if an old buddy from the factory found out I was here. Maybe somebody who knew Jim. Maybe it’s one of the fuckers who killed Jim.
But then I see that hair – just a lock – behind the window, behind the partition separating our talking space from the one alongside it. And I stop in my tracks. My eyes well with tears. I take a deep breath. I swallow back the lump in my throat, which seems to be caused by my heart trying to escape through my mouth. I knew it was you, I think, even if that’s a lie. I find my courage and move forward, into the chair. She isn’t smiling. She starts crying when she sees me. “I knew it was you,” I say, without picking up the phone, but she hears me, somehow. She puts her hand against the glass and I do, too. And we’re crying together. I pick up the phone. She wipes away the tears from her face and does the same. Then she cautiously looks to her right and left, and reaches into her bra, pulls out some tiny pieces of paper. They’re no bigger than an inch either way, and they look like they’ve been cut with the utmost care.
“I’ve been doing a bit of gardening lately,” she says out loud, and presses one of the pieces of paper against the window: I found it, it says, and then she does something that makes me laugh out loud for the first time since I’ve been inside inside: she eats it! “I needed some time, Tommy, to figure out if I could be the kinda girl who comes to a prison every week to see her man.” She presses the second piece of paper against the glass: Witness Protection, and puts it on her tongue, like the holy wafers my mom used to eat in church. “Think I might need some more time to think. Thought I might learn a new language. What do you think about French?” She swallows, then puts up a third note: Tahiti? I haven’t said a word. “So I might go away for a while.” And finally: Come with me?
“Lucy, I…” I trail off…I’m speechless, but the tears in my eyes and smile on my face, I know she knows my mind.
She smiles back at me just a little, at last. And then she looks serious again. “I think it’d better just be Lucinda…for now.”