I lived in a relatively low end apartment building. After squeezing my admittedly expansive physique into a cot on a submarine for years, pretty much anything was a step up. As I walked towards the exit, the door next to mine cracked open, and I saw someone peer out towards me.
“Good morning, Mrs. Edleman. How have you been?” I tried to be polite to the people who shared my building, even if I couldn’t tell you most of their names.
The door opened further. Mrs. Edleman slithered into the hall, clutching some knitting between her hands. I don’t think that she actually knit, but I think she thought it was expected of any woman over the age of five hundred, a category in which she qualified. She never really spoke, but when she stepped into the hall she stretched out her hand and offered me a mint.
I popped it into my mouth and grinned. “Thanks, cutie. See you tonight.” She rewarded me with a shy smile and slid back into her apartment, waving goodbye.
See, Lopez has the brains, but I have my own gift. Everyone likes me. I may be remarkably forgettable after the fact, but when I’m talking to someone I always seem to know what to say to make someone smile and feel like it’s all about them. I’m the guy who can flirt with your girlfriend in front of you while you laugh. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty useless gift. It never helped me get a job or pick up women. But you need me to make an agoraphobic octogenarian smile, I’m your man.
Out in the parking lot, I slid behind the wheel of my beat up Nissan Stanza, cranked over the engine, and set off for the four block trip to Lopez’s place. We live in Nashville. Lopez moved here for a potential job. I moved here because my family lives nearby and I thought it was as good a place as any. In both of our cases, we really just have kind of floated here without finding any kind of direction or purpose.
The drive wasn’t far, but Nashville has the kind of traffic infrastructure that I’m fairly certain was designed either by a sadist or a mental patient. Four major interstates converge upon the city, bringing thousands of big rig trucks driven by sociopathic men fueled by a near-lethal combination of No-Doze, speed, and Glenn Beck radio. As a result, Nashville’s main roads turn into a parking lot early in the morning, and show little to no interest in changing until lunchtime.
The mist of rain drizzling down from the slate gray sky was that perfect level where turning on my windshield wipers resulted in a sound that made my molars try to claw their way out of my head, but leaving them off left my windshield about three degrees shy of greasily opaque. I eyed the sky nervously. Tennessee has oddly bipolar weather patterns. While there’s some vague approximation of seasons, the climate can shift remarkably quickly, sometimes with disastrous results. One year prior, a gloomy drizzle changed with terrifying speed, spawning a thunderstorm that spat fourteen tornadoes through various subdivisions, one of them containing my parent’s four bedroom colonial. While my parents were unharmed, their home was reduced to a pile of shattered wood and lawn ornaments. By the time they had emerged from the rubble, the sun was shining once more.
Despite the traffic and the weather, I found myself liking this city. There are a few towns across the world that seem to have a pulse, a rhythm that flows through the people and the buildings. Nashville is extremely eclectic, with neighborhoods ranging from slums to clusters of mansions that wouldn’t seem out of place in Beverly Hills, but the music and culture of the town permeate every inch of the city. I wasn’t sure it was where I wanted to remain, but it was a hell of an interesting place to hang my hat for now.
Taking advantage of a gap in the traffic, I broke away from the stagnant herd of exhaust-spewing vehicles and pulled into the side street leading to Lopez’s apartment. Lopez lived in a giant concrete brick of a building, the only character to the exterior granted by a large patch of moss on the wall facing the swimming pool. I pulled into a space next to a Geo Metro with $900 rims and a two foot tall lime green spoiler, slammed my car door shut and began the trudge up to the fifth floor.
I could hear the mechanical creaks and slams of a garbage truck tossing back another bin like a shot of whiskey down the gullet of a particularly cantankerous drunk, and paused in order to check out the guy driving the truck. Didn’t really seem like the drive-by shooting type, but who knew. I refrained from throwing up a gang sign, just in case.
By the time I reached the fourth floor, I heard Lopez’s door open. Looking up, I could see his head poking out over the railing. “Tell me you remembered the fucking Red Bull or I’m dropping this waffle iron on your skull.” He brandished the aforementioned weapon over his head.
I shrugged sheepishly at the shocked expression on the face of a passing woman as her pudgy two year old scowled at me, and tossed the can up in response. Lopez reached out to snag it, and vanished back behind the railing, calling out, “Door’s open.”
Walking into Lopez’s apartment was always surreal. It was always immaculately neat, to an almost obsessive level. Every single thing was in its very specific place, from the remote control to the furniture itself. Everything gleamed, not a speck of dust to be found anywhere. This was first made unusual by the fact that I have never seen Lopez clean anything up, ever. I came over to his place to get drunk and play video games, and we trashed his living room during a particularly contentious game of Pong. Halfway through our last game, I passed out on the floor.
When I woke up the following day, the room was back to its usual standard of cleanliness. I sat up and stared around the room in hung over disbelief, then realized that someone ironed the t-shirt that I was wearing. Creeps me the hell out just to think of it. When I asked Lopez, he just shook his head and muttered something about sushi-loving Presbyterian leprechauns. I don’t fall asleep there anymore.
The other bizarre thing about his place is the fact that nothing matches. It looks as if an Ikea store got hammered on bad tequila, stumbled into the center of his place, vomited, shit itself, and then died. The leopard bean bag chair is precisely fifteen inches from the mahogany captain’s chair, which is set exactly ninety degrees to the pink pleather couch. The refrigerator has a stainless steel freezer door, but a white fridge door. The stove is avocado green, while the dishwasher next to it has an air brushed copy of a Pantera tour poster on it. The floor is bamboo, but kind of stops halfway through the living room and is switched out by sky blue shag carpet. I haven’t been into his bedroom (not sure I really want to see where he sleeps), but I know that there is something large and neon from the otherworldly glow that emanates from beneath his door. Finally, standing in the corner of the dining room is an excellent example of a stuffed duck-billed platypus with a slab of Caberra marble attached to the top to serve as an end table. I don’t know where he gets this stuff, but I get a headache anytime I try to take it all in at once.
Sprawled out on the sofa, Lopez was crushing the can of Red Bull while trying to squeeze the last drop from the can. He looked like shit, but then again, he always looked like shit. Personal presentation always seemed to be an afterthought. Tossing the can to the side, he gave a sigh of deepest contentment, and then glared at me. “One fucking can? I know you have more at that rat hole of yours, you selfish bastard.”
“Good morning to you too, sunshine.” Others have taken offense at the way Lopez tosses around insults without restraint, but anyone who served with him knew that he just hadn’t figured out another way to talk. Could be why he doesn’t have a lot of dates. I plopped down in the bean bag chair and promptly swore; it’s a pain in the ass getting out of the damn thing.
“So what the hell are you up to today, other than bogarting your Red Bulls and squatting at my place? By the way, you look like you have mange… shave that shit.” He snatched up a game controller and resumed a game of Ms. Pac-Man he may have started five days ago.
I rolled my eyes. “You asked me to come over, remember? Said something about a job… although I shouldn’t hold out too much confidence that someone still wearing Yogi the Bear pajamas is on the fast track in the corporate world.”
“First of all, Yogi is the shit, and if you pay attention to his show, he has a hell of a lot to tell us about the way corporate America is sucking the blood of our economy and strangling the American sense of innovation. Right up there with Hitler and Gargamel, the Gap. Don’t ever shop there or you’re punching Uncle Sam in the nut cluster.” He paused the game long enough to shove a half eaten lollipop into his mouth. “Second of all, you don’t want to work some white collar bullshit. Stuck in a cubicle all day, punching in numbers, staring at some screen for hours on end… only way that ends is when you inevitably snap, build a crossbow out of stolen office supplies, and kill your boss and half your coworkers. And don’t think I’m going to be on the news talking about what a quiet friendly guy you were. I’m making up some shit about you having some weird obsession with Mr. Belvedere and the early guys in Menudo.”
“Okay, so what’s the job?” I glared at him, trying not to laugh. After years hanging out with him, I knew that laughing at his random rants would only encourage him to continue. “If this is about that male prostitution ring you want to start again…”
He shook his head. “No, I’ve decided you aren’t nearly good looking enough for that gig. Blue light special of male hookers, that’s you. Besides, I’d gobble up all of our customers with these Antonio Bendaras good looks.” He struck a pose, looking more like one of the before pictures on those laser hair removal billboards than Zorro. I wisely refrained from commenting.
Planting his feet on the ground, he wandered over to the fridge and yanked the door open. With his head and shoulders inside the fridge, he yelled out, “It’s my neighbor. She needs some help, and I told her that these two fine upstanding veterans were more than willing to extend a helping hand.”
“Wait, which neighbor… the one you think is convinced has a meth lab in her guest bedroom? Or the one who you got in the fistfight with when you asked if his wife was Russian or Ukrainian mail order?” God, those are weird questions to actually be asking out loud.
He wandered back to the living room, talking around a spoon piled high with Smuckers shoved in the corner of his mouth. “No, fuck that asshole and his Slavic love slave. I was just trying to get to know him better, pay him a compliment or two.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “You asked him if he got a discount due to the fact that she obviously had been forced to bathe in llama shit for the first few years of her life!”
Lopez considered this for a second, and then grinned. “Yeah, that was awesome.” Sitting back down on the couch, he said, “No, this is Karen. Even if she does have a meth lab, she still needs our help.” Now he looked thoughtful. “Hey, maybe she could pay us in meth!”
Despite his behavior, neither Lopez nor I ever used drugs. For me, it was actually just a fear of needles and snorting anything. For him, well, I think even he was terrified how he might behave with some kind of chemical swimming through his head. Scares me just to think about it.
“So what does she need help with? It better not be babysitting. I’m not going to babysit her five hundred kids.” Although I was pretty sure she only had six kids, I still wasn’t interested. I don’t like kids very much. They’re small, expensive, messy and annoying. I know people say kids are cute, but I have trouble seeing it.
“No, she just said she needed help with something. Said to come over whenever you got here.” He stood up, and headed toward the door. “Come on, Boo Boo. Let’s go get paid.”
“You going to change out of the Yogi pajamas?” It wasn’t so much that I felt they were entirely and completely inappropriate for seeing a potential employer, it was also the fact that they were about five sizes too small and were desperately fighting a losing battle to contain Boo Boo and both of the pikanik baskets. I don’t care how much meth you’re on, that’s not a sight designed to make you feel anything other than slightly nauseous.
He paused, and looked down. I braced myself for an argument, but to my surprise, he nodded. “Yeah, wouldn’t want to intimidate anyone. I’ll go change.”