UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION

JASON HARDUNG

Smoker's Room

         Me and Angelique, a crowded bus rolling down Wilshire towards Macarthur Park. Westwood, Beverly Hills, Miracle Mile, Korea Town,

slouched like dim memories through the scratched window. I wanted to see the real Los Angeles, touch it, wipe the make-up from its face. The bus was a good start- no shade of flesh the same, faces bouncing, eyes conditioned not to make contact. The only eyes I had the guts to look into were Angelique's. It was more like jumping in and swimming in them, than merely gazing. She always joked that they were the color of the L.A. River. But I disagreed.

         We got off on the corner of Alvarado and Wilshire. The sidewalk moved like blood. I was invisible in that crowd, as if I were the rain, or the sky before the fog burns away. Anonymous. Salvadorians whistled from corner to corner when the police rolled by. Hunched-over men hawked cucumbers and mangoes from push carts, pigeons picked leftovers from the sidewalk. A man in a long black robe asked us if we wanted to learn more about witch craft. “Just come inside,” he said.

         Glass buildings reflected the clouds. I held Angelique's hand as we walked through man-made canyons, under their grace to old downtown, finally stopping at 5th and San Pedro-skid row. I dropped her hand. A beautiful woman in ass-hugging shorts usually makes me feel like a man, but this time it didn't. I felt guilt. Guilt for possessing something so beautiful in such an ugly place. I nudged her, “Put your phone away. Stop texting. It's disrespectful.”

         “Homeless people have phones too,” she said.

         Across the street from the L.A. Mission there was a bar. We wandered in. It was called King Eddy's Saloon and an old man inside wore a plastic sheriff's badge. And it meant everything to him.

         “Jason, we have to leave before it gets dark. I don't know the bus routes around here,” Angelique said.

         “It's only two o'clock. We'll be fine.” The day seemed longer in Los Angeles, all that sun--never quite seen, but always warming your face. Drinks were only $2.50. “Cheapest in town,” said the bartender. He had a hat like mine. “This is also the oldest saloon in Los Angeles.”

         A few stools away weathered men talked about the weather. Smokey Robinson crooned through the jukebox. A woman smelled of cheap perfume and sex. She had been crying. Her make up from the night before drew sad lines down her cheeks. She wanted to dance with somebody. I averted my gaze. A Puerto Rican slid his leg like James Brown, a smile of nostalgia under his mustache. “Those were the days,” he said.

         There was a room there, off to the side, more like a little box where about five people could fit. It was for smokers. Inside, under all that smoke, a man that looked just like Charles Bukowski, but with a cane and fedora leaned back on his chair. A big brass belt buckle of an eagle hung below his belly, wings outspread across his waist. Angelique asked his name. “Eagle,” he said.

         Angelique was an expert in dialect. “You aren't from around here. Where you from?”

         “It doesn't matter where I'm from. I'm here now.” He tired of her quickly and turned to me. “I won't say where I'm from, but I will say the government used to test weapons of mass destruction there, different gases. Things of that nature.” He talked of a recent illness, never saying exactly what it was, first pointing at his heart and then pulling up his pant leg running his fingers along the screws in his shin. In return I showed him the metal in me. My calves were small compared to his. He took a liking to me. I saw some part of me in his eyes and I hated him for it.

         After twenty minutes the old man with the badge knocked on the window, “There's a twenty minute time limit. Read the sign.” He pointed at it, tapping his finger on the glass. I saw it before I came in. “Other people might want to smoke,” he said. Us three were the only ones in there. I didn't see a line of people wanting to smoke. We left the box, and left Eagle and ordered more drinks from the bar.

         A while later we were back in the box. A man sat in the corner pulling from a Marlboro 100. He had the hands of a basketball player or a dictator, smoky eyes, and dirt under his long nails, gray prison tattoos fading into black skin. Angelique asked his name. “Rough Rider,” he said. “Spelled R-Y-D-A.” The cigarette smoke hung at our heads like dirty halos. He extended his long hand--

         “I'm Angelique.”

         “Jason.”

         “Rough Ryda you ain't from here, is you?” Angelique asked. When she was drunk she emulated the race of the person she was talking to.

         “I'm from all over--a tramp, but I grew up in Detroit. Been a tramp for a good twenty years.”

         “You had to of rolled through Cheyenne then,” I said.

         “Cheyenne man, been through many times. Actually lived there for a few months and washed dishes at the Village Inn.”

         “I broke my leg right behind the big Union Pacific depot trying to hop a freight. I have metal in there now.” I was proud to have hurt myself. Scars let us know we survived.

         I kept my guard up. I knew the type. Any minute he'd be using street psychology on me. Making me feel sorry for him with some sob story. Tricking me into wanting something I didn't really want. Asking for money to go buy cigarettes and never coming back, or slipping my wallet from my back pocket, or maybe just straight up robbing us. Not because of the color of his skin, but out of desperation. I wouldn't blame him. We have to live another day. Like the wolf to the lamb, the crow from the light pole, the revolutionary for the cause, we are all keeping our eyes open for the tiniest chance. But his eyes were kind and his tone soft. We developed a dangerous camaraderie right away.

         “What you doin' in L.A., Rough Ryda?” Angelique asked, hands on her hips, twisting her neck like--ooh girl, let me tell you somethin'.

         “I'm just here til' the third. Waitin' on my check. Then I'm headin' east to Reno. Blow all that fucking cash. Get me a hotel, a high class ho, get me some wine, some reefer. Gonna have a good time doin' it too. Tell ya that much.”

         “Who knows, you might get lucky. You could win,” I said.

         “If I did win, I'd blow that too. No matter which way you look at it, somethin or someone is gettin' blown,” he said, raising his glass.

         Through the bars on the window people shuffled along the sidewalk talking to themselves. I saw one point at the sky and talk to God, some stopped and said hello to Rough Ryda. Some set up tents on the street. Angelique left the smoking room to use the bathroom. Rough Ryda told me stories of rail yard gangs and hobo conventions. I told him I was a writer. We had a lot in common.

         A Latino man walked in, probably twenty eight, twenty nine years old. Pock marks scratched deep into his flabby cheeks. “Michael is my real name, but I go by Jordan. You can call me what you want.”

         “Well, which one is your favorite?” I asked him.

         “I like Jordan.”

         “Then why don't you tell people to call you Jordan?”

         “Cause it don't matter,” he said timidly.

         “Sure it does.”

         “Ok then, gawd, call me Jordan.”

* * * *

        Angelique stood at the bar. With those dim overhead lights casting their glow on her, she looked like an angel. She was the only one in the place that wore color. Everyone else was swathed in black, brown, white, gray-- like their hair, their skin, their teeth. Not long ago I couldn't keep my hands off her, go to sleep and dream of her, wake to visions of her. Then something happened inside me. I don't know how or why, but I was no longer vulnerable, no longer honest to myself. I despised that person in the mirror—the gap in his front teeth, the skinny arms, the hair in his ears. Through it all Angelique had become my best friend—my muse. I loved her in my bones, still I knew she deserved more. Though a charade, I wore the ugly mask of man—I conquered her, now I was too proud to set her free.

         A guy about my age sat next to her, very close. I tried not to let Rough Ryda see the weakness in my expression. The guy then grabbed her hand. “I'll be right back,” I said. Rough Ryda watched me walk over to them.

         I pulled her dark copper hair through my fingers. “Hey, let's go in here.” Angelique was unique from other girls I had been with, she was loyal and honest. I wasn't worried about what she'd do. I was worried about the predators that hang in dark corners and wait. The bats are always around the corner, waiting.

         “That boy messin' with your lady?” Rough Ryda asked as we shared his last cigarette.

         “Yeah, it could get ugly.”

         It took her a minute but she came back to the smoker room. The guy was right behind. He had bought her a drink. She handed it to me. Under the skin on his forehead were two bumps. The blue light and smoke gave the appearance they were growing. Satan's horns were sprouting under there or somebody had kicked his ass and swelled his head. The guy tried to grab Angelique's hand again. Rough Ryda saw it. “What's your name, my man?” he asked.

         “Kevin.”

         “Listen Kevin, this ain't your girl. You don't touch my homie's lady again. I'm gonna have to tax your ass for that. You need to buy us a pack of cigarettes. We all out. I'll go next door and get them. Give me the money.” Grabbing her fingers, Jordan admired her ring. “You ok though, Jordan.”

         Kevin smiled nervously and handed over a ten from his wallet. The old guy with the sheriff's badge walked by, pointed at the sign and shook his head.

         Rough Ryda came back with the cigarettes, doling them out then handing Kevin his change. “Yo, Kevin, we need a round of drinks.” His eyes were hardening.

         “I just bought cigarettes. Why do I have to buy the drinks?”

         “Because you have money. Plus I'm fining you for hitting on my nigga's old lady.”

         Kevin let out a breath, horns deflating for a moment. Obvious through my painted lens. I was glad Kevin was here. I was all powerful. Drinks came again and again.

         Jordan hovered over Angelique. “Girl, you need to do something about these bangs. And these knee socks. How do you rationalize the pink socks with the blue scarf? Oh my gawd. Don't get me wrong girl, you're still pretty, but not as pretty as Jason.” I was flattered. “Look at those bright blue eyes,” he said.

         Angelique walked away and Jordan sat down next to me. “I love your cheek bones. If I took you to the club the men would eat you up.”

         “Really?” I said.

         “Let me see your hair.”

         I took off my hat and he styled it with his fingers. “Not too bad. ”

         “It's receding a little bit. That's why I wear a hat.”

         He started crying. “It's hard being fat with acne. Gay men are too much into looks.”

         “I didn't even notice your acne. I couldn't even tell.”

         “Are you sure? If you saw me in the club would you try and take me home?”

         “Um, you have a great personality.”

         He grabbed my hand and pulled me away from everybody else. “I need to tell you something.”

         “What?”

         “I met this little Asian boy at the club and took him home. That little whore only lasted three minutes, got dressed and went home.”

         “What a jerk. He didn't hold you?” I asked.

         “Nobody holds me. Why can't I be loved? All these little whores out here just want to fuck. I have needs too you know.”

         “Doesn't it hurt?” I asked. “I mean, I've had a finger up my ass and it didn't feel too good.”

         “You get used to it. So, you think I'm attractive?”

         “You have great character,” I said.

         He grabbed my hand, “Here, come to the bathroom with me. I need to tell you something.” He was smiling now. You could barely see the craters in his face when he smiled. I was glad I made him feel better. I hate seeing people cry. He wasn't quite a monster yet, but I bet he could be. Part of me wanted to hit him in his fat face. Part of me saw my own insecurities in him. “I already went to the bathroom. I'm good. I'm gonna go find Angelique.”

         Angelique, Rough Ryda, and Kevin were in a booth eating nachos and hot dogs. Rough Ryda slid me the nachos, “Here man I got you dinner.”

         Laughing, I asked Kevin if he paid for it. He did. “Look how much Angelique has cost you. And you will still go home alone. The tax man is a bitch isn't he.” Rough Ryda slapped me a high five with an enormous hand.

* * * *

        I went outside to smoke. A woman with sewed on features and no legs scooted up on a skateboard and asked for money under the King Eddy's sign. The sun had fallen miserably and Angelique hadn't noticed. I could hear her southern Californian drawl in the guts of the place. We were supposed to be on our way home by then. Sirens swung lights across brick. Violence lay in the shadows. The voices of it echoed off building walls. A woman yelling to stop and a man not stopping. Crack heads and their big eyes stumbled like newborns from the womb. If I weren't full of Jim Beam, I might have been a little scared. Like I was when I walked into the place. Narcotic vibrations reverberated through the downtown air. They were here. The little man inside me put bad ideas in my head. I went back inside and ordered a drink.

         “Man, I guess this is my last drink,” Rough Ryda said as he pounded his glass on the table in the smoker room. I ordered one for him. I had ten dollars left to get me home to Colorado the next day. His voice was no longer soft. The alcohol had hardened his veins like prison does to empathy. “My momma don't talk to me anymore. She run a congregation back in Detroit. She say I'm living in sin. I been a good son. She don't understand freedom. All I ever wanted was to be free. And I have been for thirty-some years. I go where I want, do what I want, fuck who I want, take what I want.” I envied him, not because he was free, but because he believed he was. He slipped a knife from his boot and held it down low so the light caught the edge. “I'm gonna rob that motherfucker Kevin man. That white boy got all kind of money. ”

         “Man, don't do that. You won't be free anymore.”

         He stared into nothing. “You a true friend, Jason,” he said and put the knife away, pulling his jeans back over the top of his boot. I looked around for Angelique, and .made sure I could see her.

         “Let's get some rock. Give me that ten.”

         “How bout I just come with you. You know how it is. Nothing personal.”

         “C'mon nigga. You don't trust me now?” he said angrily.

         The old man with the sheriff's badge knocked on the window, “It's time to go. Closing time.” We all gathered outside. I handed Rough Ryda the money and waited a few yards away while he made the exchange with a faceless woman. He returned holding three little rocks in his hand. My gut had been here before. Now I was somebody else--a monster. “Let's get around this corner,” he said. I grabbed Angelique by the arm and followed. It was even darker there. No street lights. Angelique was confused. A transvestite with a torn weave was standing in a doorway with a man that easily could have passed as one of Madonna's back up dancers. “Someone give me a fuckin pipe,” Rough Ryda demanded. The transvestite dug into her bra and handed one over. He jammed one of the rocks in there and tried to light it. I grabbed it from him.

         “I paid for it. Let me take the first hit,” I said. He looked like he might hit me. The flame illuminated my face through thick smoke. Angelique saw a ghost—enraged and frightened. My ears rang and everything became light. I floated above skid row on black wings looking down on myself, Angelique, Rough Ryda, all those buildings, the windows, the people inside, the Pacific tide rolling in. We would soon fall from the edge of the earth.

         When I landed, the disappointment in Angelique's eyes sliced me down the middle. Right there my soul leaked out on the sidewalk. The color drained from her face. I needed to forget about it. “Give me another hit ,” I said while blowing out the first one. Rough Ryda was walking away swiftly. I caught up to him. “Where you going with the shit?” I asked. His eyes glassed over, the kindness gone, the animal there. A vestige of his former self. He looked at me like he knew no better. Like an old dog that can't hold its piss anymore.

         “What? Um, oh shit, I dropped it.” He was lying, and I knew it. He pretended to look for a tiny pebble of cocaine in a street full of pebbles, in the dark, with a hundred cadavers shuffling by on rosy heels waiting somewhere between heaven and hell.

         “Man, why are you fucking me over now?” I asked. He didn't answer, just kept trying to walk away.

         “When you get back home we are done,” was all she said, arms folded, too betrayed to cry.

         “C'mon, man, I got you,” the back up dancer said. “Just be cool and follow me.” Rough Ryda walked the other way. I turned around and watched him fade into blackness. I knew it wasn't him. It was that desperation, the freedom he thought he had. He wasn't free. Nobody was.








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