Santa Barbara–1980 / San Francisco–1982

Santa Barbara–1980

I didn’t have a mattress yet. it had been three months, but I still lay in my room on my dirty clothes, arranged under a fitted sheet. Ron stood in my doorway, leaning against the jamb. He stared at me, idly picking at the skin on his chest underneath a red silk shirt. “So I need a ride over to the west side,” he said. “What do you say?” I shrugged. “I need to cop, I’ll give you a nice bump out of the bindle.” I was hitching out to Vegas the next day for Eddie’s eighteenth birthday and it would be cool to surprise him with some coke, so off we went.

JCB (vertical house)1200
photograph by Jean-Christian Bourcart

In the car, Ron stared out the window talking half to himself, half to me. “This fucker . . . this fucker, man. He always shorts me, always, every time, never fails. Not by much but he does. He must think I’m a punk, thinks I don’t notice but I do, I do man. I got a scale now and always, always he is point two or point three short. Always. Myra says he’s probably just lazy and forgets to center out his scale but he’s a professional. That’s bullshit.”

We wound through the streets into the west side. The houses got shabbier, kids out in the street played with sticks and Mexican ladies sat on their porches lording over their never-ending yard sales. By now Ron was angry, his voice was sharp and full of hate. “There is no way this fucker is getting away with this. He has no idea who he is dealing with. He doesn’t know who I’ve walked the yard with, you know what I mean?” he said, his eyes filled with empty rage.

He motioned to me to pull over and told me to cut the engine. We sat for second, he exhaled a long breath and reached into his sock, pulling out a snub nosed nickel-plated revolver. “I’m going in there and I’m gonna blow that cheater’s toes off and take his stash. Wait here.” And he was gone.

Besides the Banda music spilling out of the Mexican bar down the street all I could hear was the blood pumping in my ears. “Go now, go now, Matt. This is bad. If he shoots this guy you are going to prison, if he kills him you are fucked.” I sat and stared through the window at an ice cream vendor laughing with a customer on the sidewalk and wished I were him. “Fuck the coke, Eddie won’t care, this is ridiculous.” An older couple walked past looking into the car, wondering what this white boy would be doing over here. “Great, now there are witnesses, I’ve been identified so even if I leave now, I’ll still go down. They’ve seen the car. Just sit tight, be cool. If you hear a gunshot, drive out of here as fast as you can, at least it’s a chance.”

Ron slid into the passenger seat, deflated and slumped against the door. “He wasn’t home, let’s go,” he mumbled. We drove slowly back over to the east side. The swooshing in my ears disappeared. “We’ll get him next time, brother,” he whispered. “You can, not me!” I blurted, all the pressure from the last half hour compacted into four words. Ron cocked his head and looked at me. I could feel it but didn’t turn. All he said was “Fair enough little man, sorry to jam you up.”

The rest of the ride was silent. The sun strobed through the high palm trees, the breeze circled through the windows and I saw everything for the first time even though I had just seen it a half an hour before.

San Francisco–1980

The bed was small, an undersized single. I didn’t know they made them like that. Sink in the corner. There was actually a bare bulb, too.

But I had a window, looking out over the roof one story down and, at night, a neon sign on the corner that reflected off the walls outside and turned everything in the room the color of orange sherbet.

I set my books up on the dresser, large cloth-covered volumes that looked good. The stories were crap, mostly manly adventure novels written in the fifties that you could buy for a dime at the library salvage. I’d read them all the previous month. It had been peaceful. My routine was set: up by nine to get in line at St. Anthony’s. Half of the men eating at the long tables never touched their coffee, so I would ask for theirs, pouring it into a large peanut jar.

Home with my jar, books and tobacco, sipping coffee heated up in my popcorn popper. It would get kind of rural in the afternoons, too hot to go out, so people stayed in their rooms to drink and fight and fuck. We could all hear each other and had abandoned the idea of dignity or privacy long ago, so making noise almost became a contest. Anonymous voices would holler out encouragement and taunts to an especially loud fight or fuck. Or sometimes there would be silence and everyone could hear the sounds bouncing off the buildings around us and back into our rooms. When the fighting or fucking would stop, applause and whoops would clatter up and down in sour slaps off the bricks. Screams of pain were always the favorite. Fucking was too common due to the clientele. One prostitute in particular was prolific, bringing in a new client on the hour every hour, like clockwork “That’s right, work it daddy, you’re built like a fucking horse.” After a while, we would chime in with a chorus of horse whinnies when the inevitable line formed. After a couple of days someone yelled out. “For Christ sake, honey, everyone ain’t Secretariat. Get a new line!”

I had no place to go and didn’t want or need one. But I did have a new volume of Jim Talbot, Adventurer, and he was going up the Amazon to set up a dredging operation for Conex. The sun was finally going down and my room was turning orange.

An excerpt from Toughboy, a collection of stories, by Matt McClaren, from Sensitive Skin 13.

Sensitive Skin 13 available here in PDF format here for just $4.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.