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two hundred miles

“O’Rourke, you’d drive two hundred miles for a piece of ass,” Happy Jack was wont to say, when we were younger men, when I was a rambler. Before Lucia. Long before heroin. Before the virgin prick.

“Bump into this,” I’d say, raising my fist. Everyone would laugh while some barrenness thing that had begun worming through my guts contravened the larkish lips more and more.

Then, one day it happened. Years later. Long after any of us thought that it would, yet in a time when such a notion should have been a dead thing of the past, the worm having turned and at rest, so I believed.

It was after I’d fallen short just at the cusp of three years with Lucia and had quit two years of pushing tack—laying carpet and tar paper and roofing tiles from Canoga Park to North Hollywood all the way to Alhambra, a sorry masquerade for stability—employed under an oily, fat-sack curmudgeon of a boss/grand-exploiter-of-day-laborers named Lobo, Lobo who looked far less like a wolf than some rotten trout in an industrial runoff pond, bloated in his toxins, eyes pushed to the sides of his head, scales feathery with ick and mashed-potato head heaving with gill rot, and whose demeanor was even worse poison, and I took up wine fulltime. It seemed like the best or only thing to do because my woman left, the only woman, the revelation at the wrong end of the rainbow, Lucia, prettier than the prettiest wolf. . . like a. . . I cannot remember her face. . . but she was so devastating in her beauty and boon. A mutt for love, me, against all of the old odds—O Lucia! Lucia! Was I so threatening?! She was gone, and there was little left to do but drink. The tack job was horseshit anyway. Getting bad for the drink was a lot healthier than laying burning, noxious black liquid asphalt in the mad one-hundred-degree Southern California sun. The Valley—though Hell remains its handle by many. I locked myself in the Admiral Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, on the northeast edge of Skid Row. Thirty-two days later I came out.

My room was Number 101, Admiral Hotel, Los Angeles, CA, 90012, the cheapest place I could find. The painted brick walls were off-white, gritty, and soiled (excrementally, so it seemed). There was one window. It faced an abandoned doll factory. On December 1st I went to the market and spent money on booze and enough food to allow the continued intake of booze. Later, most of what I had went to my bill at the Admiral, eleven dollars a day (one of Lobo’s ex-subordinates—his right-hand man and possibly more—with a major grudge worked the lobby and kindly turned his transgressions toward sympathy for me). I paid the month in advance. It was my last paycheck and I had no savings, beyond the single monetary border was nothing but endless sand.

December is the loneliest month. It gets colder and the rain: loneliness. The end of a year: loneliness. Holidays: loneliness. Losing Lucia came right on the mark, the gods on high laughing at tragedy on short order, I could hear them giggling all night long from within the rotten brick walls of that old hotel, tap dancing on ruin with the rest of the vermin, click clack click clack go the black nails. At 4:54 p.m. on Friday, December 1st, I bolted the door. At 6:35 a.m., Tuesday, January 2nd of the following year, I unlocked the thing. The world was the same: grey, but at least I had gotten back in the ring. So I supposed. Or, the booze wasn’t working, and so maybe I’d stepped out to go looking for something better, something more. Something to correct the mess I’d drawn myself into. An eraser for the time. A human eraser, yes. Something worse.


San Diego is about two hundred miles from Los Angeles. That’s a lie—it’s a hundred-thirty, but it’ll do. There’s a man there by the name of Feather Spar. Feather Spar and I go far, far back, an old friend of mine and Jack’s, though admittedly our relationship had become little more than quarterly get-togethers. I never feel comfortable in San Diego. Too quiet, not a good quiet. I always feel like something boring and un-poetic is about to happen in San Diego. Worse than the Valley, even. Feather, he liked the place. It may be pretty to look at, but there’s no gamble in a place like that, at least not for me anyway. It’s too safe and complacent, suburban gothic and unrequited in all of the wrong ways. Clean dirt is the worst kind of dirt. In San Diego, it’s all Astroturf, faux Spanish tile and Navy flags. But hell, what is there not to love about San Diego?—which is to say, of the old crew, Feather was the one still somewhat hardwired for trouble. I called him at noon on that Tuesday and sighted my impending suicide south.

With the name, you’d think that his parents burnt loads of LSD back-when. I’m not entirely sure. He’s as big and tough as they come, a half-Mexican, half-Irishman that most people think is Italian, and who doesn’t think twice about fixing someone who pokes fun at his soubriquet; a virile buffalo of a man who sincerely falls for, and tends to capture, a different but equally insanely beautiful woman every other week. Akin to who I once was, I suppose; I was the cunning version anyway—a shrewd matador to Feather’s wild bull. Before the rise of Lucia, ah yes so long before. . . and now I have erased her face, O Lord, send in the pricks. . .

“Feather,” I said, weak from the sunlight now creeping between the casts of iron January fog. I was on the payphone out in front of the Admiral, the only working payphone in all of downtown Los Angeles. I hadn’t talked on a phone in over a month and my ears burned with it. I’ve been accused of being crazy, but it’s a shame so many people just do not know what pure goodness actually does exist within the madness of spending a month in drunken exile, like relieve a man of the horrible pains of the telephone.

“Hey-lo?” he answered.

“It’s Riley,” I said.

“O’Rourke, my boy.”

“Well,” I said, “Lucia left.”

“Yeah,” he said, as if he knew it all along.

“Gone for good.”

“Step into the confessional, my son. What did you do?”

“Well,” I said, “been holed up in a brick bunker. Wine and Scotch whisky.”

There is an extra-special brand of accomplished and mystical inebriation a man can achieve whilst dousing himself with drums upon drums of Scotch whisky for a month straight. The colors of the room have their own smells, the light bulb speaks, the walls have eyes, memories carry stern fists that pummel the body both nonchalantly and with manic relentlessness. You neither smile or frown as tears empty onto your face, music gets caught in the throat like yesterday’s brick meatloaf, all of it shaken and stirred.

“I mean why’d she leave? What the hell did you do?”

“She just left. That’s all. I’m coming down.”

“So you say. I’m at a different address. Do you know where I live now?”

“No, but is that gal Gina still down there, the one came up with you and Ivy those times?”

“Yeah, she’s here,” Feather said, knowing all too well the pleasures of Gina.

“How’s Ivy?” I asked.

“She’s not here,” he said.

“Oh,” I said. I liked Ivy, and had hoped that she would stick. She lasted damn near sixteen weeks. If Gina doesn’t make a fix. . . “How are you?”

“Me, I’m fine. Another gal, Missy, I’m with her now. She’s the best. It’s good to hear from you, Riley. I can’t wait to see you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Dial up that Gina.”

“You shall be absolved, my son.”

“Halleluiah,” I said.

Gina was a sure bet I had turned down in the past, because of Lucia. Gina—a fine olive thing, electric-blue TV eyes always tuned-in to after-hours decadence, lips of blood and no regrets, she had tried to steal kisses and more even, on the sly at parties, each of the few times I ran into her, but I was entirely faithful. With Lucia, no other could touch me, I’d become impenetrable and proud—love, for once, seemed real and transformative for the good. Now, sadly, I needed to cater to my former weaknesses. Denial dialing over to bargaining on the drag toward acceptance.

I spent the day napping in between searching my room, knowing that while drunk I probably stashed what few bits of cash remained, hiding it from myself, and then forgetting where it was before I sobered up. A twenty in a dirty sock behind the dresser. A fiver tucked in the cap of the pomade on the shelf. A few singles in an empty can of refried beans in a shoebox on top of a box full of empty bottles. Lord, what vivid and honest rubble! My pit shrine to disunion. Mother lode of coin in the pocket of my jacket, which I had stashed under the bed in a box wrapped tight with duct tape while not in use in the indoor month. All I seemed to have around the joint was weird scrap hibernating in weirder places. If I were a poet, it’d be oh so esoteric and meaningful, a metaphor for a wilting flower in the cage of the war, but since I’m a dog it’s just leftover treasure—old, chewed-up bones.

I pulled the money together, drank my last bottle of Napa Valley red with eight shots of Clan MacGregor, and walked back down to the phone. The sky was dark, a wind was there. Yes, January was cruising in, but to tell the truth, the New Year felt no different than the slow, fast, long, short, aching, stupid, and fevered ending of the one that came before it.   


“Jack,” I said.

“Y’ello.”

“It’s Riley,” I said.

“I know,” Happy Jack said.

“Look, I’m in trouble. I need to use your car.”

“Well, well. How was December?”
“December? Eh, lonely.”

“Good,” he said. “Nothing changes.” Happy Jack was treating me with cynicism because I didn’t turn to him more for help when Lucia split, or since in the aftermath; the kind of buddy that needs his friends to hit the skids from time to time because bailing loved ones out is one of the only things that gives life meaning to him anymore. That, and his tireless jokes that make everyone very tired.

“Seriously, I need your car.”
“I’m sleeping,” he said. “We’re working people. Carol’s got to get up at 5 a.m.”

“I’m telling you that I need that car.”

“Where to?”

“Santa Monica,” I lied.

“Santa Monica? You got a new girl over there?”

“No.”

“Bullshit. You can’t bullshit me, you ol’ bum, a piece of ass in Santa Monica, I can smell it through the phone. The old Riley is back!”

“That’s my breath you smell,” I said.

Happy Jack laughed. “Bullshit, O’Rourke. You’d drive two hundred miles for a piece of ass.”

“You’ve been saying that for years. Try something new. Give me the wheels.”

“I know it, and I’ll see it, especially after Lucia. Shit, I don’t blame ya’. If I was down a woman like Lucia, I’d drive it too.”

I didn’t say anything at that.

“You know, as much as I sometimes miss the old lone-dog you, we took a real liking to her.”

“Goodbye, Jack.”

“Wait, wait. I’m sorry. So you’re getting out, huh? Is she a blond or a redhead?”

“What the hell difference does it make?”

“Brunette?”

“Cut the crap, Jack. It doesn’t matter for fuck’s sake what color her hair is.”

“What? You better bet your goddamn ass it matters what color her hair is! Lucia got right under you. You can’t even think straight.”

I shrugged in front of God and the emptiness of downtown, in front of the ghosts of pimps and movie stars and hot suns and fish-head employers and scheming ex-employees, and I said nothing, already getting ruthlessly tired of the telephone after only one day out.

“Ginger snatch,” he said.

“What?”

“Redhead,” Happy said.

“Get off,” I said.

“I knew a redhead once,” Jack said, delicate rumination echoing in his breath like alcoholic nostalgia. “Knock softly. Carol really is sleeping and it’s going to be tough enough explaining to her why I lent you my car, let alone waking her ass up from a night’s shut-eye.” Slight refrain, and then: “And get a cell phone, asshole.”

“Thanks, Jack.” Carol, Jack’s old lady—a real twitch in the maid’s ass, so to speak.
   
On the way back to my room, I passed my old coworker at the front desk. Somehow, well into this new job, he still smelled of tar. We exchanged a knowing nod, as if we both were going to get laid that night and call it justice, but we had no shared common knowledge other than misplaced, petty retribution that only kept us tied to our individual pains. Retribution, when petty, only smells like tar.


I got the car—a ’79 Plymouth Jack had had since high school, nearly as old as Jack himself, a hand-me-down from his old man, Happy, Sr.—and I was doing ninety down the 101. I kicked her up to ninety-five when I lit out of the 5 interchange. The ride was fast, the air was cool and the windows were down, letting it hit my face. I smoked cigarette after cigarette. I stopped to take a piss in San Clemente. The lights of houses dotted the hills like the glowing marbled eyes of stuffed marlins. I took pulls off my whisky flask. Happy Jack, that rotten cocksucker: I was driving it.

I pulled into San Diego at around 10:50. Black hole of anxious night. I was loaded on confusion dressed-up as anticipation. I doused it all with yet more Scotch, but it was quiet, quiet, quiet. I always look over my shoulder in San Diego. It’s always nothing. The Valley I could handle so long as I had Lucia, and downtown Los Angeles alone didn’t kill me, but this place. . . At a gas station I called Feather on the only working payphone in San Diego. He gave me directions. It was not too far from his old place. I wrote it all down on a scrap of cigarette pack wrapper and shoved it into my pocket. Easy enough to remember.

Within moments I was there, twisted on a superior, virtuous drunk, ready for something, anything, puffed chest and gold-medal-testosterone, doused in the cologne of failure tar. Ready for Gina, I was trying my best to convince myself. Anything to even slightly curb the incessant pain of losing Lucia and to justify coming out of my month-long womb in the Admiral Hotel. Anything to harbor myself from the wet, burning eye sockets of pathetic reality—alcohol is good for it, women better, but I didn’t know then that there was something evermore concealing. Or, rather, effacing. Lucia had left because I had no ambition other than to be with her, simple as that. No career, no real hobbies to speak of anymore, just a longing for her. She was the only woman I had ever truly loved, to the point that it was scary—scary for me in that it was the one thing in life that had ever made me completely vulnerable; scary for her because the pressure of my necessity had grown too heavy for someone who had already been too far smothered in life. I, the lone swordsman of yore, had become a blathering puppy too expectant, too demanding, too impatient, and I had unintentionally pushed her away. Simple as that, and far worse than if she’d cheated on me or I’d lost her to some other real tragedy.
   
I pulled up on Alabama St., over by the Hillcrest district. I parked the pulsating, boiling beast of a Plymouth, and rang the door on 4150. The house was dim and there was one of those old novelty signs on the porch that read, “Forget the dog, BEWARE of OWNER!” I laughed a cool, sardonic laugh. There was no answer. I rang again.
   
“Feather! Open the door, it’s O’Rourke.”
   
Nothing.
   
“Feather,” I called again, knocking hard.
   
Nothing.
   
“Balls,” I said aloud, holding the buzzer for an obnoxiously long time. A minute later a voice was on the other side.
   
“What.” The accent was deep, swarthy.
   
“Feather?”
   
“What.”

It did not sound like Feather. “Missy?” I asked, chuckling, taking a long shot. The voice was heavy and bottomless, and entirely unfeminine, but I called her name anyway.
   
“What,” with an accent drawn on the middle, like Waaaatt.
   
“This 4150?” I asked, stepping back to relocate the numbers.
   
The door opened and what stood there was not Feather Spar, not anything that could have even remotely resembled Missy, it sure as hell was not Gina, but instead a colossal monster of a man with skin the color of tarnished-copper, beads of sweat all over his body like the lipid tears of an oil rain lamp, and he was wearing a wooden mask with a six-inch bird’s beak and eye-holes slit in wild demonic Vs. He had a glass pipe in one of his hands and a double-barrel sawed-off shotgun in the other.
   
“Feather live here?” I asked.
   
The man leaned out, nearly poking me with the phallic wooden proboscis. Then he set the pipe down, grabbed my collar, and jerked me inside. He slammed the door with the heel of his bare foot and threw me on the couch. There were two women in there with him. The place was shadowy, candles lit, the frightening silhouettes of dozens of other carved wooden masks on the walls. They were smoking rock cocaine and there was about two-thousand dollars worth of heroin on the coffee table, all tar-balled in a huge pile. Next to it were six packages of balloons with “CONGRATULATIONS!” printed on them. Next to the balloons: a scale, a torch, mangled and burned spoons, rubbers. The big man removed the mask and stood there in nothing but cut-off camouflage shorts, sweating, bleeding sweat worse than a pack mule on a July Mojave afternoon. His forehead bulged as if it were about to burst forth an unholy piñata full of gray matter, resembling some crazed ex-Marine grunt thirsty for blood. The two half-naked women were stoned-fuck out of their minds, with grins that pulled the skin of their faces ear to ear in permanent sneers.
   
“Take awff yawr jacket, and seet,” the man said.
   
“I’d like to keep it on,” I said.
   
“Take a’ muthafucka’ awff,” he said.
   
“I’m not a cop,” I said, I don’t why I said it, but somehow I could tell that it wouldn’t have mattered either way. What I couldn’t tell was whether I felt instantly sober, or further smashed to some point far beyond the demarcation for coherency. He then pointed the gun at my face, and O what a beautiful face I realized I had!

“Dere’s dee coat rack ovuh dere.”
   
I took the jacket off.
   
“Deese are my whores,” he said.
   
“Women,” I said.
   
“Whores,” he said. The two just giggled.
   
I got up off of the couch and hung my jacket on the rack. I stood by the door, wondering if he had locked it. I, too, was now wet with sweat.
   
“They’re women,” I said, enunciating. Lucia would have been proud.
   
“Seet,” the man said.
   
I sat down and one of the whores/women sat on my lap. She unsnapped the top two buttons of my shirt and started stroking my chest hair. I shook out a cigarette and lit it, for the simple reason that I didn’t know what else to do. The other woman put on some Al Green and started doing a strip dance. The women were too beautiful—exotic and mesmerizing, they were sensuously aboriginal, racism be damned is the only way to describe them, and I thought of the mysterious nude tribal women I would lust after in National Geographic magazines when I was a kid.

“Roll up yawr sleeve,” the big man commanded.
   
“May I finish this smoke?” I said, trying to get my head straight. The girl on my lap unbuttoned her bra and started to rub her plump, bronzed breasts in my face, almost burning herself on my Winston and making it a tough square to kill.
  
“Count to turty,” the man said. “When yoowar done, dat cigarillo best be done too.”
   
I started to count to thirty in my head, but lost myself after ten. I thought about Feather, then Gina, then, ultimately, as ever, Lucia. To hell with it, to hell with love—it just doesn’t work. I was still so far gone for Lucia, futilely, and otherwise, in some other future that had just been sideswiped by a new kind of madness, would have been for a long, long time to come. There was a time and place for the wild life, for charging crazy into boundless nights with fast women and no tomorrows, almost innocent, and those days as they’d existed and were lived through were all so unconditionally gone, gone. Lucia had concluded the change, and despite the pain left in her wake, I’m sure I was a better man for it. Gina didn’t really do a thing for me: Riley O’Rourke was just a fool looking for something foolish to get him through the night. Acceptance.
   
But now this.
   
Thirty was up. The woman on my lap and the big man were rolling up my sleeve while the other woman was cooking the H. This was the first time anything interesting ever happened to me in San Diego.
   
“Where are you from?” I asked, eyeing the masks and regarding the accent.
   
“Amereaka,” he said. “Afreaka gave me, Amereaka made me. See? Back dere, call dis a ‘promised land.’ A joke, see? Dis here,” he said, waving his empty hand above the table full of drugs, “be dee free enterprise for dee black man.”
   
“Oh,” I said, overwhelmed suddenly by a broader sadness. “Have you ever been in love?”
   
He put the gun to my temple. “Close yawr eyes,” he said.
   
“What is this stuff? How much? I have forty bucks.”
   
“Close yawr eyes,” he said.
   
I closed my eyes and the girl on my lap started licking my lips. I tried to return the kiss. She was a stone-cold fox—it wasn’t for that, though, but for the sake of my own mortality. She pulled back, teasing, just letting her tongue dart around wherever she pleased, in my mouth, on my nose, my cheeks, my eyelids, both earlobes. A moment later I felt the rubber around my arm and then the stick of the needle. The plunger sunk, and the world turned blue. The virgin prick. Ceremony.
   
I opened my eyes and the two women were dancing full naked to Al Green’s “Have You Been Making Out O.K.” Lord, I thought, and I sincerely couldn’t help the thought: Al must have had pussy falling out of his pockets in his day. In mere seconds I was stoned to no end, and consciousness and, alas, righteousness, oh and certainly faithfulness had grown fuzzy fast. Bliss, beyond anything I’d known.
   
“Geet up,” the African said, shotgun still in hand. I stood up and everything slowed to an annihilating, indulgent crawl. Picture one lone ant walking across a desert of sugar.
   
“G-e-e-t d-e-e f-u-c-k o-u-t,” was all I heard before I was thrown into the middle of the street, jacket and cigarettes and gritting teeth and poked limb and all, the haunting ancestral faces on the walls having come to life upon my exit, bearing down with fiery eyes and mouths hallowed with ancient execrations. I looked up at the sky. All of the stars were aligned in a hand flipping the bird—the constellation of F.U.—before the whole rig arranged itself into the rubber end of an enormous celestial pencil and bore down on me for the rubout.

I had only been in San Diego for about forty-five minutes, but it seemed like a good time to leave. I looked back at the house. The numbers were vibrating. Sure enough, they read 4150. I got in the Plymouth and turned her over. Driving down the street, I was weightless, no pain, no sense, and no consequence, it seemed. My pupils were slit like open veins, this new snake undulating deliciously within me, correcting the pain with erasure. It started with Lucia first and though I love her still, I can no longer remember her face, no way to describe it, lost now to the enchanting features I once so clearly knew, only faint outlines and soft echoes in certain light remain. Heroin is an eraser, the side effect is the high through which everything dissolves.

I stopped at a gas station twenty minutes into the north of S.D. “I-s t-h-i-s t-h-e r-o-a-d b-a-c-k t-o L-o-s A-n-g-e-l-e-s?” I asked the attendant. It was as if I could watch the words tumble out of my mouth like slovenly worms.
   
“N-o,” he said. “Y-o-u h-a-v-e t-o g-e-t o-n t-h-e F-i-v-e.”
   
“O-k-a-y. Y-e-s, o-f c-o-u-r-s-e. T-h-e F-i-v-e,” I said. “S-o-u-n-d-s g-o-o-d.”
   
I got back in the car and took out the piece of cigarette paper that I’d written Feather’s directions on. I hadn’t looked at it since he gave them to me over the phone. It read 4160 Alabama St. I hit the ignition and drove back into the night. I somehow made it to the 5. San Diego was in the rear-view mirror, and I had done heroin for the first time. Visiting Feather was lost without thought, and as for pain, I felt none. None at all. The night could have its spiral of shaky black, its witchcraft masks hunting me deep into Orange County and on; for me, for now, all was too presciently blue, a blue velvet ghost rubbing the moon, saccharine apathy lovingly welcoming the neophyte disciple, until I came around the next morning, back at the Admiral Hotel, and, sick as hell, wanted—and would soon come to need—more, trying to figure out the best way to steer Happy Jack’s Plymouth all the way back down and straight into the barrel of Alabama St. as soon as I was done puking. Heaving out of the window at the mercy of thousands of ghost dolls, I could barely make out in the dim dawn light the diseased trout and the stewed hotel desk jockey arm in arm on the stoop of the Admiral, gunning one another with nails and carving each other up with carpet knives, crying in the retreating moonlight, making love to each other the final way, violently. The smell of tar rising up added to the gagging churn. The heaves grew dry, and bloody, and though sick, I felt no pain. There is a significant difference between sickness and pain. I thought of Lucia, but even that sickness too came with less pain. Watch it over there in the corner evaporating into the distance along with all feeling as I slam the window shut, safe from the dolls and the heartfelt murder below, unsafe suddenly in the absence of San Diego.

I thought, I better call Happy Jack and let the sonofabitch know: no ass, and he’ll get his car tomorrow, maybe. The notion quickly dissolved into the same puddle of melted rectitude I’d carried up from down south of Los Angeles County and now sat in worship to. This was no return to any blithe, rakish pre-Lucia-an yesteryear. I was on to something…else. Feather and the girls, and Happy Jack, they’d all have to wait. Or dissolve, too. No longer did the memory of love solely hold fast, but Old Scratch himself had me now.

Bang.






joseph mattson is the author of Eat Hell (Narrow Books) and Empty the Sun (A Barnacle Book), a novel with soundtrack by Six Organs of Admittance. Mattson is the editor and a contributing author of The Speed Chronicles (Akashic Books), which also features the work of William T. Vollmann, Sherman Alexie, Jess Walter, Beth Lisick, Megan Abbott, Jerry Stahl, James Greer, and more. Mattson was the recipient of a 2011-2012 C.O.L.A. Individual Literary Artist's Fellowship for his novel-in-progress, Hexico, and is also currently at work on a memoir of his mother's death by homicide. He may be reached at josephfmattson@yahoo.com.



©2012
photo credit: Sandra Neumann