I met Johnny Mo’s father only a few hours before he killed himself at the end of what had already been a long day. I hadn’t seen much of Johnny Mo after we’d had the trouble in Las Vegas. After that guy Mike’s crazy father shattered my ankle with a .22 in the drug deal with Johnny Mo and Mike. It’s not like there were bad feelings between the two of us, but maybe we’d fallen out of touch because of the bad luck of our last deal. Maybe we thought the next time would be worse and in some ways, we were right to think that.
I’d ended up healing down in Long Beach with my girlfriend Amber who worked as a dominatrix out of a house in LA and kept us in money while I was all but worthless, sleeping all day on her couch, taking over half her drugs, which consisted mostly of the Percodans and Xanax she kept us in steadily enough for neither of us to get dopesick more than a few times in those months.
Amber had gotten kind of famous, a big fish in the small pond of fetish models and the BDSM scene. She taught extreme-sex education classes and got offered a high-paying job with her ex-girlfriend in San Francisco and said she had to take it, which left me without her. No way could I follow her dragging a foot and not able to work, and I couldn’t pay the rent in Long Beach. And without an apartment it was time to make some choices. I wanted to go with her, but I knew the answer would be no. Along with the issue of my physical and drug problems, she would be living with her ex-but-sort-of-still-current-girlfriend up there. And I was still in love with my wife Olivia, who’d left me when I relapsed, but didn’t divorce me so I’d still have her insurance if I came to my senses and went back to rehab. And Amber knew I loved Olivia. There wasn’t a future with us. So I saved myself the embarrassment of having her tell me there was no place for me in her life in San Francisco.
I had to leave the apartment she was leaving. And I knew I couldn’t keep living the way I’d been living so I entered a thirty-day residential rehab program.
I made it fifteen days before I called Johnny Mo to get me the hell out of there.
Things weren’t good. I’d turned 43. Since I was 18, I’d spent most of that time fucked up. That last stint in rehab worked and I thought I’d left my past in the past. I’d stayed clean for seven years. Rebuilt my life. Got married and got back playing music and started a recording studio that was making good money and good records for a few years. And then when I was on tour two years ago, I broke a finger. Re-broke it, actually, as it’s one that’s been broken a lot over the years of abuse and neglect. Even before this break, I had trouble closing a fist on my right hand. For two shows, I played with the finger duct-taped to another finger so I could hold a pick. The pain became too much. I went to an emergency room and got some Vicodin, thinking I’d grown up and could take them responsibly. The doctor gave me a hundred and twenty pills. The pills lasted five days, and I was off and running.
And here I was, a couple years later, broke, separated from Olivia, unemployed, with a shattered ankle that had escalated my opiate addiction and a new ex-girlfriend.
Before my latest relapse, Olivia had never seen me using. We’d met and been married while I was sober. While I had worked hard to be ethical and good and honest. She was a beautiful person and I hated myself for it, but I’d chosen drugs over our life together. She kicked me out of the house we’d bought and the life we’d made together.
Her last words to me were, “I love you too much to sit around and watch while you kill yourself.”
I hooked up with Amber, who was great, but who considered monogamy an archaic notion. She taught her sex classes all over the country, classes teaching women how to be a “gusher” when they climaxed. How to maintain a polymorphous relationship. How to properly hog-tie your partner without putting them at risk. How to use piercing needles for sexual play. How to use urethral sounds for pleasure and about a hundred other topics and who was already growing weary of me being too fucked up to fuck most of the time.
Before the rehab I’d just left, I wasn’t even really getting high anymore. I was, on a good day, getting just enough drugs to not feel sick. I hated myself with the intensity of a hurricane. It’s one thing to be young and stupid and think you’re only hurting yourself and whose business is what you do with your life anyway? It’s another thing when you’ve gotten clean, faced up to your actions and their repercussions on other people, made amends and become a good person and then started becoming the beast you used to be. I wondered how much longer I could live like this. How many more people who loved me could I keep letting down?
It was no way to plan for a long life. My next overdose could be my last and I wasn’t sure I was too scared by that anymore.
The day Johnny Mo picked me up when I walked out of rehab was pouring rain.
He wore a leather jacket against the wet and cold, or what passes for cold in a Southern California winter. He had Plasticsoul’s new CD Peacock Swagger on, which sounded like a great marriage between the Beatles and Badfinger and it lightened my mood right off.
“So what’s the plan?” he said.
“I just left rehab. I was hoping to get high.” I said it, not even sure if it was totally true. I mean, of course, I wanted to get high. But the price was becoming enormous and devastating. I was just over a week removed from the end of full-blown dope sickness. The first three days of cleaning out are a pain and suffering you can’t believe are happening. And the suffering gets wrapped in awareness that you did this to yourself. That you’d been doing it to yourself for years. Every cramp, every sandpaper hot rusty pained blink of your aching eyes, every stream and eruption of puke and piss and shit you can’t control escaping from your clenched, hurt body, every nerve ending going off like a trillion simultaneous electric shocks, every second of begging for sleep and not getting it. Through all of that, you sit there, rolling on the floor, despising yourself and swearing you’re never, never, never going through this again, no matter what.
And here I was, just over ten days removed from getting the poison out of my body, feeling not really terrible at all at that point, save some massive cravings to feel good again, and thinking, damn I’d love to get high. Love to feel good. Love to shut off the never-ending waves of anxiety and dread and fear and voices that flooded through my brain. I felt like a failure, too, so why not just accept that I was a fuckup? But I knew, too, always, where it ended up. It ended up with me lost, desperate, pleading to whatever force in the universe could possibly listen to please let this agony end.
“I’ve got about five 80-milligram Oxys left,” Johnny Mo said.
I laughed to myself when he said “about five.” A pill junkie might not know what day it is. What month or even year it is. They don’t know who’s the number-one pop singer or the newest famous reality TV star or their senator or whatever else passes for important news and information to most people. But they know, to the grain and spec, how many pills they have left once the number starts to get low. If you have six, you know it. If you have a hundred and eighty, you might not know how many you have left, but get under twenty and you know. The dumbest junkie I’ve ever met could do the quickest math imaginable about how much they had left and how long it could and would last. We can shift metric to standard in our heads and we can tally up the number of pills in our pockets faster than a room full of MIT grads with calculators.
“About five?” I said.
He smiled. “I have eight. You can have one, if you want. But just one. I don’t know where the next are coming from.” He lit a cigarette. “If we can make some money in the desert, I know a guy with some morphine. Then we’re set.”
And this, a single pill, while generous, was the sharpest of double-edged swords. One 80-milligram would have me floating pretty well for about four to six hours, maybe a little more if there was any Xanax or Valium to stretch the high. And then what?
It’s always better to say no to a limited supply. But, then, eventually everything is a limited supply.
“I’ll take it,” I said. “And thanks.”
“You sure?” Johnny Mo said and I couldn’t tell if he was worried for me or if he just didn’t want to put a dent in his dwindling number of pills.
I looked at him and he gave me the little round blue pill with the “80” marked on it. I could chew it, but that would take about ten minutes to get in my system, plus it dulled the high a little bit. I reached in the backseat where Johnny Mo had a bunch of empty pill bottles. I dropped the pill into the bottom of one and started grinding it with the end of a Bic pen to get it down to a powder. Once the powder was fine enough, I took the top end off the pen, licked it and tasted the beautiful residue of the OxyContin, and poked the ink tube out so the tube of the pen could act as a straw. I thought briefly about only snorting half of the pill. Forty milligrams would probably get me going just fine to start, with my body clean. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to save some for later. I snorted all eighty, though, hoping for a better high.
“New sober date,” Johnny Mo said, smiling.
I didn’t smile back and said, “Yup.”
We didn’t say anything for a while and I started picking at this infected abscess on my left forearm with one of the 22-gauge piercing needles Amber kept around the house for needle play. They took all of the ones I had at rehab intake, but this one was left from a coat Johnny Mo had brought me. This lump had been around for about a month, stubborn as poverty, and it had turned hard as a marble under the skin. Still, some days, I could poke around enough with a fresh needle to get some pus out, which meant that it might not have to be lanced. Soon, though, I was going to have to hit a hardware store and grab an X-Acto knife and slice the damn thing open if it wouldn’t cooperate.
I was, I noticed in a warm sudden rush, feeling pretty good. The opiates had kicked in and were busy ironing out every kinked nerve in my body. It was like every good thing in the world at once: the feeling of a warm robe out of the dryer, a cotton candy pink sunset over the ocean, a blow job, cold water after exercise, Al Kooper’s organ in “Like a Rolling Stone,” a peaceful solitude that made you feel like you fit in to every fractured crevice of a fragmented hateful planet. A first kiss. Something like love, flowering inside of you.
Johnny Mo said, “So, you up for some money?”
I was broke. “Sure. Where in the desert are we headed?”
“Twentynine Palms,” he said. “Actually Wonder Valley. To see my dad.”
“You have a dad?”
“Everyone has a dad.”
“You’ve never mentioned him,” I said.
“I don’t remember you mentioning yours.”
I thought about my dad for a moment. Feeling good from the pills, I felt a world away from his influence. “My father killed at least one man,” I said. I didn’t talk about that dead man much, but he still floated to the surface of my consciousness whenever I didn’t expect it. I’d gotten resigned that he always would. There’d be strings of months where I’d only get two hours of sleep before I woke up, seeing him dead on a woodpile. I’d be able to forget the scene for a while, and then the cycle of nightmares would start again. Sometimes they were of the man he killed. The worse ones were of my mother’s suicide.
Johnny Mo looked over. “You shitting me?”
“He killed this guy in front of me when I was 13,” I said, and told him about the man who came to buy the used car. The man my father killed with the axe. I didn’t tell him my father’s side of the story, because I don’t think I believed it. The side of the story where my dad said he killed the guy because the guy had made my dad from his days when he did undercover work. That he killed the guy to protect me and my mother. It could be true—anything was possible. But I doubted it and I didn’t mention it to Johnny Mo. “He was a state trooper. He got away with it.”
“And I thought Mike’s dad was bad,” Johnny Mo said, talking about the guy who’d shot my ankle with the .22 in Vegas.
“I would say Mike’s dad was pretty awful.”
We drove a while before Johnny Mo said, “How’s the ankle?”
It felt, always, like your foot feels after it’s been asleep and starts to jangle with needles of pain. At its best, with some painkillers in me like now, it had a relentless throb of hurt. When I wasn’t medicated, I could barely walk on the thing. Johnny Mo felt responsible, to a degree, that my ankle had been fucked up on that deal that he set up. It wasn’t his fault, but I wasn’t above making him feel a trickle of guilt about it if it could get me more OxyContin.
“It hurts like hell,” I said. “But, what can you do?”
“I am sorry about that,” he said.
I didn’t want to talk about it if he wasn’t going to offer me more pills. “So, why are we seeing your dad? He have money?”
“I was hoping to borrow his truck.”
“You don’t know anyone in LA with a truck?” I said.
“Not a big truck. Before he couldn’t work, he had a water-delivery business out in Twentynine Palms. Lot of people on tank water there. So, he’s got this big truck with a water tank off the back of it. But I only want the flatbed part. I got a deal on some scrap metal.”
I wondered how Johnny Mo had any idea of what scrap metal was worth. He worked, when he worked, at Amoeba Records. Or he sold drugs. “What constitutes a deal on scrap metal? How would you even know?”
“There’s this abandoned construction site from a casino they were going to build before the recession. I know a security guard who’ll let me in and take some of the scrap. Scrap metal’s worth a fortune.”
“That’s not a deal. That’s stealing,” I said.
“It’s a very good deal. Don’t get all semantic on me.”
“Stealing copper wire is jail time,” I said. “They take that shit very seriously.”
“So, we won’t steal copper wire.”
“Copper’s worth the most,” I said. “Plus, all of it’s stealing. The same crime whether you take steel or aluminum or whatever.”
“So we will take the copper,” Johnny Mo said.
I changed the CD to Centro-matic’s Redo the Stacks. One of the great things about an opiate high is that good music sounds so incredible. Like it’s seeping into your cells on some level it doesn’t normally. An invisible goodness, the way radiation is an invisible bad one.
“This is your way to get money?” I say. “Stealing scrap metal?”
“You got any better ideas?”
The rain picked up as we headed out toward the desert, past the sad towns of the Inland Empire, past the former steel town of Fontana, which all the movie people called “Fontucky” when they had to shoot there, where almost a century ago Henry Kaiser had been an early golden god of the shining West Coast, past Riverside with its restored and at times beautiful downtown and then into the hills where junk towns like Beaumont and Banning sat without much seeming purpose. Billboards announced swap meets and chain restaurants off the 10 freeway. Signs most people took that these were towns made to pass through, not towns to settle in.
I thought about stealing scrap metal and if I had any better ideas. There was surely a lot of money to be had in the world, but I didn’t have any thoughts on how to get my hands on it. Sober, I could get paid for playing guitar or sitting at a poker table. Using, I wasn’t worth much. The band I’d formed had fired me twice. Once in the old days and again when I relapsed on a reunion tour three years ago. I said, “Amber’s making a thousand dollars this weekend doing some sex demo.”
“What does she do? Fuck someone for that money?”
“No,” I said. “Well, sort of.”
“Make up your mind,” he said.
“It’s a workshop teaching women how to ejaculate.”
“Like those gushers in porn?”
I nodded. “Amber has this theory that all women can do it. So, she teaches workshops in it.”
“So who does she fuck?”
“Her girlfriend up in San Francisco,” I said.
“That doesn’t bother you, dude?”
“They don’t really fuck. Amber gets fisted in front of all these people.”
“Yeah, that’s not like fucking at all,” Johnny Mo said, laughing.
“The front row at these things, they practically have to wear ponchos. It’s like a porno Gallagher show.”
“And that shit doesn’t bother you?”
“Wouldn’t matter if it did,” I said. And I thought again about what I offered Amber at this point in our lives and I didn’t think I could mount much of an argument for being her first choice in love right now. I cared about her. When she was gone, there was an ache of loneliness I couldn’t even find a name for. But I knew what real love was with Olivia, and me and Amber were just friends who loved each other who fucked. She didn’t ache for me when she was gone. I was lucky enough she kept me around as much as she did. It was amazing to me that anyone was able to make love work in this world, the way our greasy, damaged souls clatter together.
“I don’t think I could handle my girlfriend sleeping with chicks,” he said. “Unless, you know, I was there.”
“She does that, too,” I said.
“Well, that’s something,” Johnny Mo said.
“That it is.”
We got off the 10 and started the climb into Morongo Valley on Highway 62. I poked holes around the abscess on my arm and blotted the blood with the tail of my shirt, which had started to look like a gory Rorschach test.
“Your dad live alone?” I said.
Johnny Mo said, “The thing is, my dad doesn’t much leave his place. He’s gotten fat.”
“Too fat to go out?” I said. “That kind of fat?”
“Actually, yes,” he said. “He’s pretty sick. And over five hundred pounds, I’d say.”
“Jesus,” I said. “And he’s alone.” I wondered about his life. Alone, unable to go out. How could anyone spend day after day like that? I thought about a guy in my friend Brad’s building in Chicago. He was dead a month before anyone knew it. Finally, the smell gave it away. A month of mail piled up at the door and him dead in a recliner and no one in the world missed him enough to even know. I thought, too, of the guy whose apartment Wendell and I cleaned out that one time for the cleaning company he worked for. He’d been dead for weeks. No one to take the body. His possessions auctioned off at public storage. The possessions Wendell and I didn’t take, anyway.
“My mom’s up in Humboldt,” he said. He lit another cigarette and offered me one that I took. “What about yours? She stay with that killer father of yours?”
“My mom died,” I tell him, trying not to let the details and memories slug me. I cracked the window and watched the smoke swirl out. I tried to think about something else. “Has your dad always been fat?”
“Fat, but not obese. This is new. The last few years, he’s let himself go.”
Johnny Mo’s dad lived in a double-wide in a half-deserted blight of a trailer park outside of Twentynine Palms. I don’t know what I was expecting when I heard he’s let himself go, but I wasn’t ready for what we walked into. The two trailers on either side of his were abandoned, both of them littered with graffiti and empty liquor bottles and beer cans.
Johnny Mo shook his head. Less than ten feet from the steps, there was a mattress, soggy from the rain that had turned to snow. In the center was a giant burn hole that went all the way down to the springs and through to the sand beneath it. A lizard zipped from under it, stopped, did its little push-ups for a few seconds and darted back out of sight.
“What’s that about?” I asked.
“Pop smokes in bed. He falls asleep a lot.”
There was a rusted green dumpster, overflowing with garbage. Next to it was, I guessed, the truck we were supposed to borrow. It didn’t looked like it had been moved in a while and it sagged in an ugly unfit way on a flat rear tire. It sank into the sand and the fractured asphalt.
Johnny Mo walked up the creaky stairs and pounded on the screen door. “Pop!” he yelled.
No answer. He pounded again, waited, and then again even louder.
The door swung open and an enormous man stood there. He was too large to get out of the door and he stood in a pair of shorts and nothing more, his gut hanging like a puckered waterfall of flesh, hanging so far down so that all you could see was the bottom tips of his shorts at the tops of his knees.
“Hey kid,” he said.
The minute I saw him, I don’t know why, I got a terrible feeling and my first thought was that I should go back to rehab. This life simply didn’t work anymore. I felt a familiar dread of self-loathing and wondered why I’d let myself get into this again. Here I was, with Johnny Mo, about to do something stupid for money. And if I was lucky, the best-case scenario was that I’d make a few bucks, be able to get high for a day or two, and then be flattened and wrecked by despair for who knows how long. I felt uneasy, like something was about to go horribly wrong, and all I was doing was sitting around and watching. But, then I told myself, I’d had these feelings before, these vague worries that everything was about to go terribly off, and then nothing had happened. Or, rather, the same life just happened over and over. Heavy wet snowflakes fell over us, but didn’t stick to the ground.
The fat man said, “Who the fuck is this?” pointing to me with a cigarette jutting out from between his ring and middle finger.
Johnny Mo introduced me as “A buddy of mine.” When the fat man didn’t respond, Johnny Mo said, “We were hoping to borrow the truck for some work.” Johnny Mo lit a cigarette.
“Some work? That what you’re calling it now?”
“Pop, it’s freezing out here.”
The fat man pushed the door open and let us in. To the right was a living room. The fat man took up the whole hallway, so turning left wasn’t an option and we went into the living room, while Johnny Mo’s dad followed us, forced to walk sideways like a hermit crab in his own hallway.
We sat on a ratty couch in a living room crowded with boxes in piles against every wall in the place. A love seat with a footstool made of a milk crate covered in a pillow faced the television. The walls were covered with pictures of ’50s film and TV stars.
“Big fan?” I said
Jack said, “I used to be a big shot in TV.”
Johnny Mo said, “Pop, can we borrow your truck?”
Jack looked at him and smiled. “You can have the fucking truck for all the good it’ll do you. Fucking two-ton paperweight.” He lit a cigarette with the end of his previous one and dropped the old one on the floor, still lit. He said, “Not an actor. Cameraman. Jackie Gleason’s personal cameraman. Jackie wouldn’t shoot a home fucking movie without me behind the camera.” He laughed. “I shot all his private porn, too.”
“Jackie Gleason porn?” I said and tried to keep the image at bay.
“That man got more pussy than Elvis and Frank Sinatra combined.”
“Really?” I said.
“Danny Thomas, too,” he said. “Wouldn’t work without me.”
I looked around. The walls, sure enough, had what looked to be framed, signed pictures of Gleason, Thomas, Danny Kaye, Sophia Loren and a bunch of other faded and mostly forgotten stars of the ’50s.
I said, “Danny Thomas did porn, too?”
Jack laughed. “No. Danny did his kinky shit behind closed doors. No cameras.”
“What kinky shit?”
“I’m going to tell you something disgusting, kid,” Jack said.
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just tried to look attentive. “Okay.”
“You know what Danny Thomas was into?”
Johnny Mo said, “Don’t tell this story.”
Jack ignored him. “Danny Thomas used to hire two whores to come over to his house and have one tie him up under a glass table and take a dump over his head while the other whore jerked him off.”
“Really?” I said.
Johnny Mo said, “I don’t believe that shit for a second.” He took a drag. “Plus, they’re called prostitutes, Pop. ‘Whore’ is an ugly word.”
Jack laughed and his laugh turned to a painful-sounding phlegmy cough. When he got his breath back, he said, “Believe what you want to believe, but for years after that, every Hollywood whore I knew called shitting on a table or shitting on a guy’s chest a ‘Danny Thomas.’” He laughed again. “Had to come from somewhere. And I knew a lot of whores. A lot of crazy fucks are into that. And every whore called it a Danny Thomas.”
I wasn’t in the business of judging people’s fetishes, not living with Amber. Some things were my thing and some weren’t, but so long as people didn’t fuck kids or animals, who was I to judge much of anything on this planet?
I looked down at the cigarette he’d thrown down, still burning on the floor.
Johnny Mo said, “The truck’s not working?” He sounded crushed. His plan, slim and fragile as it was, floating away like a marine layer under the noon sun.
Jack saw me staring at the lit cigarette. “Don’t sweat it, kid. The floor’s asbestos. You couldn’t burn this shithole down with a flamethrower, welcome as that might be.”
Johnny Mo went to the phone booth of a kitchen, a kitchen so small I wondered how Jack could possibly get in and out of it. He came out with two beers and handed me one.
Jack said, “Get me one while you’re being so generous with my liquor.”
“You’re not supposed to be drinking, Pop.”
“Not supposed to be smoking, either, but if I quit smoking, I’d be dead.”
I wondered how that logic might work and Jack started to tell me right away.
He pointed to his enormous chest. “If I sleep for more than twenty minutes at a time, I go into congestive heart failure.”
I took a long drink of beer and lit a cigarette, happy to be somewhere I didn’t have to be banished to a porch to smoke, especially with the snow outside. “How do you not sleep for over twenty minutes?”
Jack stuck out his hand. Between his ring and middle fingers was an open sore, cracked and bleeding. It looked like a cauliflower of scab and pus and pain. “Just stick a filterless Pall Mall there, take a puff and sleep until it burns my finger.”
I felt myself making a face. “Jesus.”
He flopped down in his love seat and took a drink of his beer. “Yeah. Nice, huh? It’s a hell of a life.” He sounded more tired than any man I’d ever heard. Every breath was a wheeze.
“The truck’s no good?” Johnny Mo said again.
Jack looked at him with a distant expression, like he was thinking about something else. “You know I’ve loved you, right son?”
“What are you talking about, Pop?”
Jack looked at me. “We’ve had our problems, but he was a hell of a good son sometimes.”
I didn’t know what to say. But it didn’t matter. Jack took a hit of his cigarette and fell asleep.
Johnny Mo said, “I can’t believe that fucking truck’s dead.”
“What’s the plan now?”
Johnny Mo shrugged. We sat drinking Jack’s beer and watching him jolt awake every ten minutes or so. He’d jump from his seat, make some hideous snort and drop the cigarette on the asbestos rug. He’d light a fresh cigarette and fall back asleep.
Around 2 am, I was drunk and trying to figure out a way to get another of Johnny Mo’s Oxys. An ad came on the late-night TV advertising money for gold.
“That’s it,” Johnny Mo said.
“You have gold you’ve been holding out on?”
“No, but I know where to get some.” He took a drink of his beer. “Dude, this could be a little ugly, but we’d get some gold. We could pawn it for the morphine.”
“You read about those guys last year that tried to rob Lincoln’s grave?”
I hadn’t heard of much of anything in the last year. I could barely name the president, as much as I kept up with the world outside my life. “You want to rob Lincoln’s grave?”
“No, dude. Fuck Lincoln. My grandmother was buried with a shitload of jewelry on. A couple of miles from here.”
“Buried? Are you fucking crazy?”
“She’s my family,” he said. “If it doesn’t bother me, why should it bother you?”
I lowered my voice, not wanting Jack to hear me. “You want to rob a grave?”
“My grandmother’s grave. Not some stranger.”
“Listen to yourself,” I said.
“Dude, she’s been dead since I was a kid. She’s probably a skeleton by now.”
“They have all sorts of chemicals that stop a body from decomposing naturally,” I said.
“So, we’ll buy some K-Y or something to slide the rings off, if she’s still like a person.” He paused. “With fingers and skin and shit.”
I looked over at Jack, who was a snoring wheeze next to us. I didn’t know what to say to this.
Johnny Mo said, “She’s in this little plot out in the desert. No one would see us. We could be in and out with gold to pawn. I really don’t see the problem.”
“You don’t?” I said. “You don’t see the problem?”
He shook his head, looking a little tired. “I hear you. It’s an extreme move. But it’s money and I don’t know how the hell else we’re going to get it.”
I looked at him hard and thought about it. She was dead. Who would we be hurting, exactly? “Give me two of your OxyContin and I’ll go with you.”
“Dude, I only have a few left. We get this money, we’ll have plenty for both of us.”
“So, give me two now.”
“You’re just out of rehab. You don’t need much.”
“A hundred and sixty milligrams isn’t much,” I said. “You want me to go with you, that’s the price.”
“You have to do more than go with me, you have to help.”
“I’ll dig,” I said. “In the casket, you’re on your own.”
“Well, then you’re digging a lot,” he said and handed me two blue pills. “Maybe all the fucking digging.”
I pocketed one of the OxyContin and, in a hurry, chewed the other one. I took several deep breaths, trying to will the drug to seep more quickly into my system, but I knew it would be ten minutes or more until I felt better.
It had, at least, stopped raining, stopped snowing. I hoped the ground wouldn’t be too hard to dig. I’d done some work in Wonder Valley once, digging a new hole for a thousand-gallon water tank and it hadn’t been so bad. But, then, it was dry and it was summer. The heat was too much, but the ground came up easily in barely resistant shovelfuls of decomposed granite, which was what most of the desert soil was made of. Now, though, with all this rain, and then snow, I had no idea what the ground might be like.
The graveyard looked like something from a period piece movie. It didn’t look like anybody had been buried here in a while—the kind of place you might visit in an old town. Like going to see Lizzy Borden’s grave or something. The clouds had parted and the light from the moon made the desert look luminous. There was light, but little color, like a black-and-white movie. The fence around the graveyard was old and broken in several places.
Johnny Mo carried a spade shovel and a flashlight that was dimmed by low batteries. I had the other shovel. We’d gotten both from his father’s garage. Mine was a square-edged one and we followed his weak beam of light and I listened to his and my boots softly crunch in the dirt. We’d grabbed work gloves and I put mine on, getting ready to dig when we found what we were looking for. He stopped.
“This is easier in the day.”
“We’re not robbing a grave in daylight,” I said.
“I didn’t say we were doing it in the day. I just said it’s easier to find in the day.”
“You better get the right one,” I said.
“Don’t worry. They’re marked. We won’t disturb any stranger’s graves.”
I didn’t say to him that I didn’t really care about that. His grandmother, after all, was as much a stranger to me as anyone else buried here. I just wanted to make sure the person we dug up was the one he was sure had gold on her when they put her down there.
The sand and snow shined in the moonlight. Wind rustled through sagebrush and smoke trees on the perimeter of the graveyard. I followed Johnny Mo and his jerky faint light as he paused and looked at the beaten grave markers. Some were chipped, a couple cracked from age and low-grade earthquakes that had peppered the desert over the years. We looked for what seemed like a long time, but probably wasn’t. I was only scared of being caught, so seconds lingered longer than they normally would have in a fear-stretched sense of time.
He stopped again, looking down.
I said, “This is it?”
“This is it.”
The pill was starting to work on me and I already dreaded the fact that they wouldn’t be working like this in a few days. Stay clean for a couple weeks and you might get three or four days of good highs. After that, life was back to just trying not to be sick every day. For now, though, I had the calm electricity of not giving a shit about anything or anyone. My head was gracefully quiet and I started digging a few feet to the left of the gravestone. Johnny Mo started on the right. The ground wasn’t too bad. Not nearly as hard as I feared it might be.
“How much morphine are we getting?” I said.
He shoveled. Shrugged. “Depends on how much gold. What price we can get. A lot of variables.”
I dug deeper. My muscles ached with the labor, but it was labor with a payoff and I felt the sweat on my body grow cold in the night air. Every once in a while, I paused to see if I could hear anything other than us disturbing the world at this hour. I looked at my watch. 5 am. We had less than an hour until the sun started swelling from behind the mountains out towards Amboy. People in the desert got up early.
“We need to get this done,” I said.
“Really?” Johnny Mo said. “I thought we could linger. Take our time robbing a grave.” He stood straight, looked up at me. “Stop stating the obvious. You think I’m stupid?”
I laughed. “You’re not stupid. You’re a lot of things, but not stupid.”
“What the fuck does that mean? I’m a lot of things?”
“Dude. Look at us.”
He seemed to think about it for a second. He lit a cigarette and handed it to me and then lit another for himself. “Fair enough.”
We kept digging, not taking a break for the cigarettes, so the smoke filled my nose as it curled up and I breathed hard. I hit something hard. It had a warm thuck to it, the sound of the shovel hitting wood.
“I think I hit the coffin,” I said.
In a moment, he’d hit it on his side. The soil deeper down was packed harder than the sand on the surface, more like a dusty clay that came out in fist-sized chunks. We dug faster than I thought either of us were capable of. In under ten minutes, we had most of the dirt off the top of the coffin.
Johnny Mo helped me dig down to the handles on the side. We tried to lift the top off. It wouldn’t budge. We dug a little deeper to get to the big center handle, but it was an odd hardware. Not like the clips on a suitcase or a guitar case. I didn’t see any way to get into the coffin.
“I think we’re fucked,” I said. “Maybe they make these with some safety contraption.”
“Now why the fuck would they do that? It’s not like people try to get out of these.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Saying what, exactly?”
“Maybe they make them so you can’t open them. I don’t know.”
Johnny Mo muttered something about not coming this far and before I could register what was happening, he slammed the shovel onto the top of the coffin several times. He got it to chip and splinter a bit, but it didn’t seem to give.
He leapt from the ground above and started jumping up and down on the top of the coffin.
“Help me,” he said.
The sky to the east warned light was only a half hour away. It seemed as good an idea as any at this point. I joined him.
“Try to stay in the middle,” he said. “It’s weaker there.”
We jumped up and down. At first, it wasn’t much different from jumping on a hardwood floor. Maybe twenty jumps in, though, I felt it start to give. We kept on. My feet ached, my bad ankle felt like it was being hit with a hammer with every jump, but I was glad I’d worn my steel-toe boots into rehab because they were the only shoes I had when I left. The rest of my stuff was scattered like buckshot all over LA County at various friends’ places.
The next time I came down, the coffin totally gave way. My leg broke through the top and I next felt something hard give and snap like a twig under my foot. I rolled my bad ankle and it knocked me off balance. I was down to the top of my thigh through the wood and I’d slipped onto my side. I felt sharp pain in my upper leg. I saw a chunk of wood as long as a ruler deeply imbedded into my thigh. My bad ankle throbbed from whatever I’d broken in the coffin. I tried to lift myself out. Splinters ripped my leg and had lodged deep in my skin and muscle above the knee. I needed Johnny Mo’s help to get out. After we’d broken a hole, we broke through the rest of the top with the shovels. I felt warm blood on my leg.
Johnny Mo had smashed through most of the wood and dirt fell inside as he frantically made his way toward where the neck and the fingers should have been.
“Hold the flashlight for me,” he said.
I aimed the beam of light to where I’d broken through the top. My blood was on the splintered wood of the coffin and for a moment I got scared about being caught but quickly realized my DNA wasn’t in any system. Fear had me thinking crazy. The only thing we could have left that were in the system were fingerprints and we were safe there with the gloves.
Underneath where I’d fallen into the coffin, I saw what I’d felt break under my foot. It was a hip bone and I’d shattered it into several pieces. I shook my head. Why this made it seem worse, I don’t know.
Johnny Mo said, “Could you please hold that light where I’m fucking looking?”
I moved it up by the skull. There didn’t seem to be any flesh left on his grandmother’s body and I was relieved. Clothes still clung to some of the bones. They looked red under the flashlight, but they could have been some other color in full light and I hoped not to find out.
“Yes!” Johnny Mo said.
Down in the coffin, he’d snapped a locket off that sat near the ribcage. He turned and, kneeling, started on the fingers. He must have put some weight on the body because I heard more bones breaking and saw him collapse face down and then push himself up. He stayed down, working one hand’s finger bones, then the other. He jumped out of the grave.
“Four pieces,” he said, smiling. “Not bad.”
“You sure they’re gold?” I said, thinking that she might have been one of those old women who wears crap-ass costume jewelry and brags about how much it’s worth. My family was positively clogged with people clinging to shit they swore was worth keeping that was junk.
“She had money,” he said. “I’m as sure as I can be right now. You want to put it back?”
“Then why ask me if it’s real now?”
He had a point. “Because it occurred to me now.”
“Just ’cause shit occurs to you doesn’t mean you have to say it. Stop being so negative, man.”
I nodded. “Let’s get moving.”
“We have to fill this in.”
“The sun’s coming up, dude.”
He looked at me like I was a stupid kid. “We are about to pawn a shitload of old jewelry not more than twenty miles from here. I’d like to be out of this town when people see this.” He pointed to the hole in the ground.
I started shoveling the dirt and sand back into the hole. My ankle screamed with pain. My thigh was sticky with blood, which had started to get cold on my jeans. I’d need to get a look at it once we made it back to the car.
We filled the grave back up, but there was a problem. With the coffin open, more dirt went inside of it so there was still an indentation in the ground when we were done. It looked like a sinkhole.
“It’ll have to do,” Jonny Mo said.
We found out later that while we were out there somewhere, in the quiet desert night, Jack blew his head off with a shotgun. No note. But, walking out of the graveyard, we didn’t know that. We didn’t know, either, this long day and night in the desert would send us both back to rehab. Not right away. We still had a few ugly runs left in us, but Jack’s house and the night in the graveyard was a turning point in a life of turning points that sent us back to trying to get clean, hoping it was our last time.
In the next few hours, we would sell the gold at Rocky’s Pawn Shop in Yucca Valley for a stunning eight hundred dollars, which got us enough morphine for a while. A hundred and twenty 30-milligram pills—the time-release kind, but you could get around the time release and get a good dose from them. We would go to the Highway 62 Diner where, even though I was starving, I would only drink a Diet Coke because I didn’t want to screw up the high from the last OxyContin and the two morphine I’d taken. I felt so aligned with the world, like all the molecules had lined up in their infinite potential patterns to let me feel good for once, even though I knew it couldn’t last. But still, in that moment, things were peaceful and peace was one of the rarest visitors my head ever received and I wanted to savor it. I watched Johnny Mo eat while I took wood chunks and thick splinters out of my thigh with a pair of needle-nose pliers and the waitress winced while she watched me from behind the counter. I figured I’d take a shower or bath later and soak the slivers out and try to avoid an infection.
After we left the diner, we went back to Jack’s double-wide. We should have just split after the graveyard, but we had been in such a hurry to get to the pawnshop, and then the dealer, we hadn’t gone back for our stuff at Jack’s.
It was still morning, coming up toward a sunny noon and it had stayed cold. The snow had stuck to the ground and glistened on the ocotillo and smoke trees and cholla. The door was closed, but unlocked and we went in and found him in the back bedroom, sitting up in his bed with what was left of his head tilted sideways and leaning against the wall. I’d never seen a gun suicide before. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t what I saw. What I had horrifyingly expected—parts of his head and hair and brain and bone splattered behind and above him—was there. But what I hadn’t expected was the image that stayed with me for months and I guessed would for years after that morning. His left eye was moved across what was left of his face. Like it was looking at us as we entered the doorway, and then stayed looking toward the door when I was looking at him straight on. His right eye looked forward and his left sat nearly where his left ear should have been. His jaw was gone, his throat spread and open so that I saw the bone of his spinal cord from the front.
“Jesus,” Johnny Mo said. “Fuck.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was like all the words at my disposal, all the words that had clanged around in my head and fallen out of my mouth all the years I’d been alive were worthless and hollow and I might as well spit up sand as talk for all the good it could do.
Johnny Mo walked out of the bedroom. I heard him on the phone, probably calling the cops or an ambulance or whatever. It was only then, with the sound of his voice starting to come into my brain, that I realized the television was still on and it reminded me of all the car accidents I’d ever had and how it always surprised me after the accident, in the quiet of the wreckage, how the radio was always still playing.
On the floor, I looked at all the criss-cross patterns of burning cigarettes Jack had dropped over the years, waking him up, over and over and over, when all he wanted, needed, probably, was some sleep he knew he would never get again.
but that was all a few hours down the road. At dawn, before things would turn so ugly they’d scar whatever good had come of the morning, when the day still looked swollen with promise, we left the graveyard and started back toward Johnny Mo’s car.
The sun burned a faint sepia yellow as it came over the mountains. We walked back to the car with our tools, Johnny Mo getting farther and farther ahead of me as I dragged my bloody and damaged right leg behind me, wincing and sweating and seeing my breath as the weak cold light swelled slowly into the morning air.