I picked up the green garden hose sucked on it quickly yanking it out of my mouth so I wouldn’t taste gasoline and get sick. I had been stealing gas and living in my car since I had gotten fired from my last job as a fry cook at Del Monte Drive Through.
“Hey, man. I am not going to cut up any more lettuce for salads or any other shit. That’s your crew and your job. I put my fucking eight in, and I’m not doing anymore,” I said between clenched teeth.
“Look JC,” he said to me in a flat condescending bullshit attitude. “At this point I’m not asking I’m telling you.”
“Fuck you,” man I said picking up a kitchen knife and throwing at across the kitchen. Lucky for him he ducked in time, or I would have put it right between his eyes.
It had been three months since I’d worked. Now I stole gas to get around, and stood by the side of the interstate on ramp holding a sign, hand lettered on cardboard, asking for food, or money. Some days I got enough for dinner, some smokes, and maybe a little breakfast. Now and then when I was really doing good I could wash my clothes, sitting in the little laundry next to the Chinese take out joint, reading the paper, and drinking a soda. At night, I slept in my car.
Most days I went up and down the interstate moving from on ramp to on ramp looking for money. It was like fishing, and I’d get a little rush every time someone in car or truck handed me some cash. Some days I wanted to beat the shit out of the people who gave me wise ass looks. This was not how I envisioned myself—on the end of society’s dead wire. I always thought I’d be doing something important. Maybe be a doctor or a lawyer instead of a fry cook or dishwasher, and now a plain out and out beggar. I heard once in India they have a cast system. Well, if they had it here in America I’d be at the bottom completely fucked. It’s not that I don’t have the wish to climb out. I do. It’s like this: the longer you’re down the more you get used to it, and you give up climbing out. So instead of doing something about your situation you stand by the side of the fucking on ramp and hold the dam sign, and your eyes search the hot, dry landscape for little bits of things you can identify: pieces off cars, old candy wrappers, and squashed drink cups. It’s a life right out of Club Med.
One day standing out in the hot sun, a car pulled up to the side of the on ramp. A woman stuck her head out.
“Need some help? Can I give you a ride somewhere cool?” She shouted over the slicing sound of passing vehicles up on the interstate.
“Sure,“ I told her and climbed into the back seat.
“Why the backseat?”
“I don’t think you want me to get too close. I haven’t had a shower in a couple of days,” I told her smiling.
“How do you live in the heat? How do you get by?”
I told her what had happened to me at my last job, and how some times a guy can’t pick himself up no matter how hard he tries. We rode along in silence until she pulled off and stopped at the Big D Burger Hut. The building was done up in faded sky blue with weather beaten red trim along the roof, and a neon burger sign out front on top of a poll. “You want something to eat,” she asked me getting out of her brown Benz. I didn’t say a thing, and I followed along like a death and dumb child, grabbing a seat at a booth while she went to the lady’s room. I picked up one of the plastic menus and scanned it. To me everything looked good even if it wasn’t. She came back and slid into the booth opposite of me. She wasn’t bad looking woman. She had high cheekbones and long brown hair with green eyes. She had to be in her late twenties. I sunk into myself and thought about the female relationships I’d had in the past, and how there was something about me that drove every one of those relationships on the rocks. I always thought it was my upbringing, and the fact I never fit in anywhere; at least not with other people. So now look what I’d become. I ‘d heard of times when people got a lucky break, and even I had a few of those fuckers. But this time? I decided to roll with the flow.
We ordered, and she told me about herself. How she had gone to Wesley to major in some kind of political deal, and along the way found out she could make more in the escort business. I asked her if it wasn’t illegal? She told me it was, but if you’re careful there’s a lot of money to be made. I thought about the idea of paying for women, and what kind of men she must have had to put up with.
“What’s that like?” Asking her between a mouth full of hamburger.
“It’s not bad. Sometimes the men are very nice, very classy sometimes not. The ones that are classy are good to you. The ones that are not just give you the money and you go. Some are real assholes want to do kinky stuff.”
“Ever had any bad experience?” I had heard these girls got beat up all the time, and they have a pimp who takes their money and is supposed to look after them.
“Sure who hasn’t?"
At this point she started to tell some of the things gone wrong, and how she worked for a guy named Big Junior, who handled her appointments. Seems Big Junior was not above backhanding her and the other girls when they didn’t keep dates he set up for them or didn’t hand over the money like they were supposed too. He even pulled a gun on one girl and stuck the barrel to her head until she handed him the cash.
We finished our meal, and I thanked her. I figured it was best if I got going. We both got up, and I asked her to please take me back to the freeway on ramp and my car.
"Look," she asked. "Why don't you come to Vegas and you can help me out with a few things. In return I'll pay you and you can go on your merry way?"
At first I thought it looked good. Here's some free money for ridding along with this women. She wasn't bad looking, and what did I have to lose? Then I thought something must be up. No one gives you something for nothing.
"What little things are we talking about?"
"Just some things," she answered with a smile and a singsong voice.
“Would these things have to do with Big Junior?”
She nodded and smiled. It turns out she wanted out of the life. She had saved enough to move to another city, and start over. When she made this play, she needed someone to back her up with Big Junior. “Nothing rough,” she assured me. “Just a show of force.” A show of force I thought. OK, I go with this woman—I don’t even know her name—and get my head bashed in to get spending money. We got into her car and sat there. I had three choices: go back to sleeping in my car and begging for change by the side of the freeway on ramp in the hot sun, or go with this woman and get a gun shoved in the back of my head. I glanced over at her hands. You can always tell a lot about a person by their hands. Her fingers were long, and well kept. They were delicate, and intricate looking. I knew I ‘d say yes and I did. Her car glided up onto the interstate headed for Las Vegas.
We pulled up in front of a faded pink stucco apartment building and walked up a couple of flights of stairs. The black, steel handrails had places where the paint had been worn off. Her apartment was small, messy, and she had a green leafy plant near the front window. “Make yourself at home,” she yelled from the bathroom. I moved over a pile of dirty clothes and sat down on her couch. The damn thing looked like something you’d find laying in the fast lane of the freeway. She came out of the bedroom after changing her clothes.
“We need to get you some new clothes so people in this town will take you seriously. Also you need a shower. Go on and take one, and I’ll be back with some fresh clothes.”
She had me take my pants and shirt off. I felt stupid standing there, half-naked, my face turning red.
“You can stop the “I’m embarrassed act”. I’ve seen plenty of men naked in my time. Take that shower and I’ll be back,” she said with a broad smile on her face.
I don’t know which I was thinking about: fucking her or taking an honest to God hot shower. I decided sex was not a good idea. A hot shower sounded a lot better, and it was great. It had been a while since I had a hot shower to myself. I stood there letting the water run down my back. Funny how small things can become big things when you go without them. If someone had told me someday, I’d think taking a hot shower would be a thrill I’d have laughed them right out of the picture.
I heard her come back, and I stepped out of the shower, dried off, and wrapped a towel around my waste. She had been to the mall and had bought me pairs of pants and shirts. Now I was into her for the food, the shower, and the clothes. We stood looking at each other. It had been a long time, and I wasn’t sure what to do.
“Now you look more human,” she said moving towards me.
There was a part of me that wanted to grab her and a part of me that wanted to run. This was dumb at my age. What was dumber was I still didn’t know her name.
“You could tell me your name,” I mumbled as she pushed closer to me.
“Crystal and yours?”
“Just JC,” she laughed.
“Just JC,” I answered.
We ended up on her freeway couch, and she felt warm and good with her powerful, long legs and green eyes. I couldn’t figure out at different points if this was happening or if I was having a deep sleep dream by the side of a roadway somewhere in the heat and night of the desert. This was the kind of scene you thought of when you were a kid about some girl you wanted in high school. It wasn’t something that happened, and I knew I would end up paying for this.
In the morning, I woke up with a pounding headache and not sure of where I was for a blind moment. Then I figured it out and who’s couch I was on. I looked over at the clothes Crystal had bought me. The blue of the jeans looked so bright and new compared to what I was used to wearing. The shirts were crisp, and clean like something out of a men’s fashion magazine. I sat there fingering the clothes when she walked into the room. She had on a bathrobe and said, “So what do you think?” I wasn’t sure what to say so I told her I thought things were fine. Now it was time to get down to business she told me. She wanted away from Big Junior, and she wanted me to come along in case things got rough. I knew it. I knew this was where it was heading all a long-- like a bad fucking movie except there wasn’t any popcorn to go with the film. She also told me Big Junior owed her money he was supposed to have invested for her, and she intended to get it. What did I have to do? Stand there and look tough to back her up.
In the car on the way to the Silver Dollar Strip Club I watched the people walking up and down Las Vegas Boulevard. They were out in the heat walking along in shorts with cameras hanging from their necks taking pictures of the sights for the folks back in Ohio or Delaware. I was in a mobile glass and steal cage headed for what the fuck knows with a woman I hardly knew and a guy I had never met. Don’t get me wrong. I had been in plenty of tight spots before, and could handle myself if I had too. I also knew I had a short fuse. Hell, how many jobs had I gone through not being able to keep a lid on my temper? It had always been that way with me resulting in being kicked out of grade school, high school, and more jobs than I could count. I knew over the years I needed help, knowing is one thing and doing is another. I never seemed to fit in. Now this.
With the talk about energy conservation these, days the casinos and hotels still had their lights on in the middle of the morning. The reds, blues, and greens looked dull and lackluster against the sun. We turned off the Boulevard and into the parking lot of the club. Exiting the car I wondered if Crystal had ever been a stripper, and how much she got for one of those private lap dances? I wanted to ask her and didn’t. Better not to know. Inside the club was dark—a part reaction to the blinding sun outside—and the usual lighting. Neon beer signs hung from the walls, and the carpet had a onetime red plush look now gone dirty. In the center was a special lit stage for the girls to dance on. The lights made them look as good as they could, covering up pimples, wrinkles, and bruises of any kind, so everyone of them had a honey and cream look to their skin. I found this out from talking to a stripper once when I was fixing her flat tire at a gas station out in the Mojave. I tried to con her into a quick fuck in exchange for the labor on the tire. It was no go. But, hey if you don’t ask you won’t get.
Bump and grind music played on the sound system and there were two long legged girls poll dancing on stage. A few drunks were sitting up front handing the chesty babies money, which they tucked in their g-strings. We made our way to the back of the club and through a walnut door leading to a corridor with dirty plaster walls on both sides. On the other side of the walnut door sagging glamor fused with age. Behind the door shitty, dirty walls. Why was life always like that? We came to a metal door, with a buzzer; it was Big Junior’s office. Crystal pushed the button with one fire red fingernail, and a slat opened up with a set of bloodshot eyes looking at us. It made me think about jamming a fucking screw drive through the square and poking the sewer rat’s eyes out. It was one of those things you think, but never do. The door buzzed and slowly opened, and we walked in. Sitting behind the desk was a large, pork bellied man with a baldhead, a gold earring stuck in his left ear, and flesh so pale it looked like he never saw sunlight. It made me hate him already. He sat staring at us for a full minute before he spoke.
“Where have you been my little sister?” He said in high voice. His vocal chords must have been the size of a midget’s dick.
“I took a small vacation,” Crystal said almost whispering.
“Vacation? When you take a vacation lamb Big Junior loses money. Now you know that. Big Junior thinks something else is going down here. How about you young stud? Where’s your play in this?”
If I had a knife I would have sliced his fat belly open like a slaughtered pig, and let him bleed out right then and there. I fucking hated it when people talked to me like that. I stood and said nothing only looking at his rat eyes. He sat there tapping a pen on his desk and looking at both of us.
“So are we rested up and ready to go back to work little sister? I have dates lined up for you at City Park and the Dollar Sign,” he said looking at both of us. “Or is this the muscle you brought to help bail your bitch ass from this terrible life? He looks pretty puny to me. Are you puny young stud? A regular faggot factor?”
I knew trouble was coming, and I started to care less if I got involved in it or not. No hunk of shit—who pushes women around—was going to talk that shit to me. He better back down and back it down quick or I was going to take his fucking head off.
Now when I look back at that moment I realize the only emotional stake I had in the whole thing was what the lump of shit represented. He was my step dad, my mother, my fucked up household, and every dumb ass boss I’d ever worked for rolled into one. People like that could always push my buttons—but in a wrong way.
“No, BJ I want out, and I want the money you owe me. I want you to leave me alone. You do your thing and I’ll do mine. Let’s call it an occupation change, darling,” she cooed to him. It was more than I would have done.
“You think I’m going to let you off that easy little sister? You’re a thoroughbred moneymaker for Big Junior. It’s not that easy,” he said rising up out of chair. If he weighted a pound, he weighted four hundred pounds. He had a gun is his porterhouse sized left hand; his fat finger hooked around the trigger. His bathrobe hung on him like a velvet tent would on an elephant. The sight of him made me hate his fat guts even more. No one moved for a good five minuets. The only sound in the room was the dull thud of music from the club, and the sound of Big Junior’s heavy breathing. We stood there looking at each other, and I couldn’t stand it anymore. I leaped up over the desk and grabbed for the gun knocking Big Junior backwards. The gun went off with a brassy bang sound to it. We started to wrestle, and then Crystal jumped into the fray beating the big man over the head like a machine with a high heel shoe attached to it. The gun slid under the desk, I stretched my right arm to get it while pushing my left hand against Big Junior’s face. Once I had it, I hit him three or four times with it. He was gone to the world.
I saw he was still alive with his heavy breathing. We took what cash he had in his desk drawer, it had to be a couple of thousand, and made are way out of the club. We jumped in the car, and she floored it, and we were out of there headed down the street. “Count it,” she said slowing the car down to blend it in with traffic. I did as she asked feeling sort of good about knocking that fat hunk of shit to the floor.
“Five thousand. That and with what you got saved it’s enough to start over.”
“What about you,” she said diverting her eyes from traffic for a second.
“I think I’ve more than paid you back for the clothes, the shower, and the food. So how about you take me back where you found me. You need to get out of here, and I’d imagine Big Junior’s business partners will be looking for you.”
She agreed and thanked me. We hit the interstate out of Las Vegas. I thought about my life. If I was going to live a decent life I had to come to terms with my anger and my deep depression. Over the miles, I put together a plan. I would barrow some money from Crystal, it was the least she could do, I’d move into a motel, get cleaned up, get a job, and start trying to do something with my life. We had to be forty miles outside of town when Crystal turned to me and said, “I have an idea. How about one last hot shower on me? I should do it for you after the help you’ve given me.” We pulled into the Alpine Motel, and she rented a room. Inside she sat on the bed, and swung her legs up, and turned on the TV. I started the water, slipped out of my clothes, and got in. It was good and hot, and I stood there savoring every drop. I was lost in the pleasure of the water when I felt her slip in behind me. She started kissing me on my next. Her hands were all over me, and we made slow love in the cascading water.
Later in the car we passed the on ramp where she found me. I reached over and grabbed her hand, and gave her a squeeze. There was something about her hands. You could always tell someone by his or her hands, and those hands were telling me something good, something good enough for me. I sat back and enjoyed the ride. It was a ride I hoped would last for a long time to come.