It was ten on Friday morning, the sun threw diverging stripes through the blinds onto a silent video dancing on the flat-screen, and Don Curtis had class in an hour. He slumped on the couch, tossing his phone between his hands, and watched Pete examine his reflection in the toaster. A big guy, Pete smoothed his orange goatee and tucked his ponytail through the back of his cap. Sucked in his gut, dropped it, and opened the fridge. Don smirked, patting his own flat belly. His phone vibrated.
Incoming message from Sara Costello, the screen read. He opened it and was greeted with:
Still getting three exclamation points, he noted.
Pete emerged from behind the fridge door with a soda.
“Last night you said you’d do it.”
Don shrugged and turned to the TV. He’d have to get a move on soon, with two classes wrapped around lunch and his final ever bio lab after that.
As Pete shifted onto the living room shag, Don returned to his phone.
CAN’T WE TLK ABOUT THIS?, he typed.
Pete flapped his arms from side to side. “Come on, man, it’s all set up. All we do is go from HERE over to THERE,” he said. “You can wait in the car if you want, but we gotta be there in twenty.”
Don exhaled and rubbed his eyes.
“I was angry last night. Which makes me nuts. Like you all the time.”
They’d been shooting quarters at the kitchen counter as a party pulsed through their off-campus house when Chet showed up. He was Pete’s friend from way back and his townie herb connection. Don had been to Chet’s place and met his kid, giggling at them from a baseball-themed bassinet as Chet cleaned his gun at the coffee table and Pete examined bags of weed. Anyway, Chet had hustled them to the back bedroom, without the baby but probably with the gun, and whipped out a joint. It was good stuff, he said, and there was plenty more. He brought up his plan as they passed it around and smacked their lips, the noise from down the hall throbbing the walls.
“It’ll be easy,” he concluded, sputtering while holding in his hit, smoke curling up from the blackened tip of the doobie. His pudgy face pinkened and his stache retracted as he sucked in some escaping tendrils and passed the weed to Don.
“How do you know he’ll have it?” Pete asked, leaning over the back of his chair, lower lip curled around a fat dip.
Chet blew the smoke out the side of his mouth and stretched his lips around like he was doing oral Kegels.
“Cuz he already called. Wants me to get the word out, and fast.”
“Why’s he in a hurry?” Pete asked, spitting juice into a cup.
“Payment due on his Rolls or something? Who knows.”
He grinned. “The old guy trusts me. Through thick and thin, you know.”
A drunken first-year chick bumbled into the room, peeped a scandalized “Ohhh!” and backed out.
Don’s head was swimming, still stunned that Sara had dumped him earlier in the evening. She had found out about the time weeks ago when he’d hooked up with one of her friends. Okay, that hadn’t been cool, but it was just a drunken mistake. He was too ashamed to look at the friend now, and now the idiot had let it slip to Sara in some passive-aggressive oops-moment. Sara had sent an angry text as they were tapping the keg, and he had hurried over to her dorm. He was on his knees when she told him to
“GET THE FUCK OUT!” through clenched teeth, smacking him in the face with the sole of her shoe. “Just beat it!”
He fell back as her voice reverberated around the walls of her room. She wasn’t much for wall hangings. A bulletin board with a few family photos, practice schedules, a poster of Einstein sticking out his tongue. He’d felt all year that it was too damn bright with those white walls and her laptop always shimmering with a half-finished essay. Brushing off his ass now, Sara looking at him with a quivering jaw, he felt a rush of compassion for her and this room. Then Abnormal Psychology collided with his head.
He had gone back to the party; his loyal friends handed him a full cup of brew, and he nursed his wounds over the quarters match, the house filling up, till Chet burst through the door in a cloud of dope smoke.
As he and Pete formulated the plans for ripping off Chet’s family physician, Dr. Hanford Stern, Don shrugged and nodded assent, busy dwelling on his fuck-ups.
“He usually picks up 3 pounds. Even if we each skim an ounce that’s, like, seven grand each,” Chet had whispered, eyebrows bouncing rhythmically which each syllable.
“You’ll be able to stop driving me around everywhere, Donny,” Pete said, his eyes lost in the middle distance.
Pete and Chet had heisted small things here and there, junk food, CDs and whatnot, and talked about bigger things, but they’d never actually set out for anything like this. Seven thousand sounded nice. Most of his friends at Vesta College, a small liberal arts school sprouting from an affluent corner of inland Southern California, had an inexhaustible supply of cash. Scrounging pennies and borrowing from his grandmother for the car had helped—at least now he could drive if they bought—but he was still begging bong hits and beers off his buddies by the time his work-study check appeared every second Friday.
Now, surveying the remainder of the party mess in the morning light, he wasn’t so sure. This old guy could apparently spare the dough like Chet said, but Don found himself leaning on Sara’s words, Sara who had never trusted Chet. He rolled the phone in his hands, waiting to hear from her.
“You want to graduate and go to Hollywood, stay away from that moron,” she’d yelled over the band a few weeks ago. “Five years from now he’ll still be here or in jail.”
His phone vibrated in his palm.
UP YOURS DICKHEAD!!!!
He rolled off the couch.
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
They headed out the door, serenaded by a silent Jay-Z.
A broken strip of concrete split dead crab grass to Don’s Datsun wagon at the curb. Lush lawns and bushes sprouted in all the surrounding yards, and a sprinkler swished across the street. A car pulled away from next door as they sauntered around the Datsun, the driver not waving. Pete flicked his cigarette butt into the street in its wake, and they settled into the sagging threadbare embrace of sheepskin-covered seats. Pete wrinkled his nose.
“Ewww. What IS that?”
Don hooked his thumb towards the back. The rear seats were collapsed and the space taken up by three large aquarium tanks, three-foot sides grimy and two-thirds filled with murky greenish water. The air above seemed to shimmer, and a slimy, rotting odor filled the car.
“My biology experiment. Fermenting algae. Couldn’t leave it in the lab anymore.”
Pete rolled his window down in alarm and leaned into the wind. “You sure that stuff is healthy?”
They drove up a wide avenue toward the hills. Older houses gave way to open space and subdivisions. The sun spread orange light upon the approaching mountains, the highest topped by a dusting of white. Pete lit another smoke.
The road met another hugging the base of the hills. A nursery sat on one corner, with rows of identical potted plants. Vacant lots occupied the other three corners, but a glossy sign advertised a planned development in bold lettering – Majestic Estates: coming Spring 2009. Don turned past the sign along the baseline road. Large new homes surveyed the valley one after another as they drove.
After a minute or so he pulled the car up to a low stucco wall. Beyond stood a two-story house painted peach, with a red tile roof and large triangular windows. They got out and looked around. The street was quiet, not a sign of a doctor or a lawyer or an entrepreneur, not a mom or a nanny or a retiree. Several young palms shot skyward from amidst the deep green patchwork of recently laid sod. Flagstones of irregular shape cut a path to the front door. As they followed them an old truck loaded with mowers and leaf blowers clanked past behind them, crooning tinny Spanish.
Pete peered through the frosted glass window and pushed the bell. The muffled chime echoed through the house, and they waited. Glanced back at the street. Pete tried the door, and it opened with barely a sound.
Don stepped onto the white marble floor in Pete’s wake and glanced at a massive grandfather clock. Twenty after ten. Right on schedule. Wide carpeted stairs and a mahogany banister curved past a crystal chandelier, skylights bathing the space in a pleasant glow.
The only other time he’d been here had been at night. Chet had stood in front of the clock that night three months earlier in his baggy shorts and untied high-tops and introduced them to Hanford Stern, AKA Dr. Happy. His eyes wide and crosshatched behind bifocals, lips smacking, he grasped Don’s hand firmly. He wore a maroon velour tracksuit zipped to the neck.
“Good to meet you, boys.” He ushered them into his sunken living room. “Come see the goods.”
A hop in his step, Dr. Stern walked like a man thirty years younger. Don tore his eyes away from the swirling grey comb-over on his head to look at the long marble coffee table. Several rows of rolled-up plastic bags were spread across the top.
“There it is,” Stern said. “Top notch, primo stuff. The best.”
He paced the room, rubbing his hands together and smacking his lips. Sweat beaded on his forehead as the ceiling fan blew the ends of his hair up and down. He seemed a nervous man, Don thought, despite the house and the Rolls parked out front. He had been happy to make a sale and told the guys to come to his office and he’d write a prescription. Make it all legit, eh compadres?
Dr. Stern had once run a thriving Family Medicine practice. He’d cared for grandparents and singles and the kids of people he’d seen as toddlers. Then, impressed by the help it had given a patient, he’d developed a side practice prescribing marijuana for a wide-range of ailments. Word got out during the early days of decriminalization that he was the man to see for legal dope; he was happy to dispense it for anxiety, depression, and all kinds of chronic pain conditions, and swore by its ability to get his most nauseous and emaciated patients to hold down a meal.
Things had gone downhill, though, after he wrote a prescription for an ounce of the kindest chronic per month to a svelte and honey-lipped 20/20 producer with a bum elbow. They got the whole thing on tape, from first flirtation to final reveal, at which point Dr. Happy’s jaw dropped and he spluttered about the law in the fish-eye lens of the camera pinned to her breast. This may be Cali, but many of Dr. Stern’s patients were older and conservative and jealous. They fled in droves.
At first he embraced his new out-of-the-closet persona of The Pot Doc. He added a pot leaf to his snake and rod and did interviews for High Times and the LA Weekly. But when the Feds began to harass the shops that filled his prescriptions, many patients returned to the streets. Dr. Stern decided to cut out his middleman, driving his Rolls down from Santa Cruz once or twice a month with a big supply for both his loyal legitimate clients and the self-medicating college crowd. Chet, a patient since diapers, became a conduit to campus. Dr. Happy had a soft spot for him because Chet’s recently deceased grandmother had stayed loyal through it all, only pursing her lips at his pot leaf refrigerator magnets.
At the house party, Chet said he’d be able to get the doctor out of the house in the morning after checking out the supply. Dr. Happy liked to take him to a favorite burger joint, do a little mentoring. Chet would make sure he left the dope out. All Pete and Don had to do was show up at the right time and walk off with it.
“What do you plan to say when he finds it gone,” Pete asked.
“Just play dumb, blame the gardener,” Chet shrugged. “If I have to, I’ll rough him up a bit. What’s he going to do, man? He’s four feet tall.”
“Anybody here?” Pete called. His voice echoed back down the stairs. After a moment an erratic thump-thump…thump-thump came from the living room, and they stepped down onto the thick white carpet. A shaggy mutt with opalescent eyes lifted its nose from a pillow and woofed feebly at a spot just to the left of where they stood.
“Hello there, you tough old pooch,” said Don, leaning down to scratch its ear. The dog scraped him with a gravelly tongue, managed another cough-like bark, and laid its snout back down.
“Well, there it is,” came Pete’s voice. Don followed his gaze to Dr. Stern’s coffee table. Next to a framed photo of the smiling doctor surrounded by younger versions of himself rested a stuffed blue and white duffel bag. Pete unzipped it. Half contained dozens of smooth plastic baggies filled with bright green and orange weed. The other half, separated by a vinyl divider, held translucent orange prescription bottles, small, large and larger, all packed to the rim with bushy buds and emblazoned with brightly colored labels: Bubblegum, Lemondrop, OG Kush, The Chronic, Granddaddy, God’s Gift. For a moment they stood transfixed, eyes wide, pulling deep, slow breaths. Then they grinned at each other, and Pete zipped the bag closed.
“We should have plenty of time, but let’s move anyway.”
The dog lifted its head. Don paused, looking at the photo of the doctor and his happy family.
“You sure about this?” he said.
Pete turned, his hand on the doorknob.
“Dude, look at this place,” he said, gesturing at the stairs, the clock, the chandelier. “He’s rich, he can handle it. And,” he pointed at Don, raising his eyebrows. “He’s selling drugs to kids, man. That is so not cool.”
The dog woofed at the air as they walked out the door.
Pete heaved the bag behind the aquariums, shut the liftgate, and settled into the passenger seat.
“What’re you waiting for?”
Don hit the gas, and the car fishtailed through the gravel onto the road.
The neighborhood still appeared deserted. A quarter mile along they came to a red light, and Pete ducked down.
“Shit!” he croaked. “It’s them.”
A two-tone brown Rolls Royce turned through the intersection in front of them.
The gnome-like figure of Dr. Happy, with his gray helmet of hair, peeked over the wheel, grinning as his passenger gesticulated. He wore the same maroon tracksuit, this time open and flapping in the breeze to reveal a sleeveless white undershirt. As they passed he bit into a burger, and Don’s stomach growled.
“Idiot, don’t let him see you,” said Pete, and Don flinched away, but not before the doctor’s eyes brushed across him.
“Oh,” said Don, looking in his rearview mirror. “He may have. Probably didn’t recognize me. We only met the once.”
“Smooth, dumbass,” said Pete, whacking his shoulder. “Well, was Chet there, or what?”
“Yeah.” The light changed, but the car died before he got into gear; he turned the key again, the engine caught, and they jerked across.
“Well, shit, let’s go the long way then, in case he tries to follow.”
“I thought Chet could handle him.”
“He’s like, 80 years old. It shouldn’t be a problem. But, you know…he is a jumpy little guy.”
Don turned sharply onto a side-street, and before long they came back into the main part of town. Cars zipped across a freeway overpass up ahead. Pete kept glancing back behind them. A school bus pulled in front. Don switched lanes but couldn’t get up to the intersection before the light changed. They stopped with a squeak; the water in the tanks sloshed behind them, drops sprinkling the back of Don’s neck. A mother herded two children and a stroller through the crosswalk towards Taco Bell. The light dragged on, and Don drummed his fingers on the windowsill and checked his phone for texts.
A beep jerked his head up, he saw the green, and he started across the intersection. Two more honks drew his eye to the mirror, and Pete turned around again. Their jaws dropped at the fast-approaching Rolls, headlights blinking, Happy Stern behind the wheel.
“Motherfu-,” Pete began, but at that moment a Sheriff’s vehicle pulled in immediately behind them from Taco Bell. The driver’s head tilted to the side to crunch a taco. The Rolls swerved side to side behind the cop, an arm reaching to the sky.
A nervous flush spread across Don’s brow. He rolled down his window.
“Dude, does this car smell more like festering biomass or several pounds of weed?”
Pete, his face pale, sniffed the air and managed a nervous chuckle. “Hard to say, though you could maybe market this as Stony Slop say, or Kinda Gross…”
Don clenched his teeth and watched the road, keeping just under the speed limit. The Rolls continued to trail the Sheriff’s vehicle as the cop followed the Datsun.
“I’d stick with the cop as long as Happy is back there,” said Pete. “Provided you don’t have any unpaid tickets.”
As he spoke, the police car suddenly changed to the right lane and angled towards the I-10 entrance ramp, giving the Rolls an opening to catch up to them.
“Shit, he’s getting on the freeway!” shouted Don.
“You, too! Go, go!” responded Pete, sticking out his arm and pointing. The policeman waved them in just as the ramp left the road.
The back end of the car bounced as they accelerated and entered the fast moving mid-morning traffic. The deputy swung in right behind them.
“Did Happy get on, too?” Don asked, watching the mirror. He glimpsed several cars back there, but they didn’t look right.
Pete craned his neck.
“I don’t see him,” he said.
“What do you think he did to Chet?”
“Who knows? Maybe that dog responds to a kill command.”
The cop’s lights started flashing and the siren whooped. Don’s throat fell into his stomach.
“Oh shit,” he said.
He slowed, and the truck to his left moved ahead. As soon as the lane cleared the cop changed lanes and rocketed ahead.
Pete let out a whoop.
“Whoo-hoo! Free and clear,” he yelled. “Phew! That was close.”
He dragged on his smoke and flipped it out the window towards a minivan, two wide-eyed gawky kids staring at them.
“Dude, drop me off at home before your class,” Pete continued, wiping his hands together. “I gotta divide this stuff up.” He started counting on his fingers, glancing past Don.
Don sighed. He doubted the doctor would leave it at that. Happy knew who’d stolen from him, and being on some crazy dude’s hit list made Don queasy. In one more year he’d graduate, and he didn’t want anything to delay that. He opened his mouth to answer, but caught Pete’s face looking past him, frozen mid-syllable. He turned to the left, and there sped the Rolls Royce. Stern had neglected his hair altogether, and it was whipping in the breeze as he swung his fist. Chet slumped across the back seat, his face a purplish mass of bruises against the window, holding tissues to his nose.
“What the…” Don began.
Stern swerved his car and pointed at the shoulder. The Datsun lurched as Don struggled to avoid a collision, wheels scrabbling at the road. The water sloshed in the tanks, splashing more gunk on his neck, and the duffel bag rolled back against the liftgate.
“Whoa,” said Pete, holding on to the doorframe as the thirty-year-old car rocked and creaked. “You okay there?” But he’d seen Chet, too, and his face was pale and splotchy.
Don pushed the accelerator towards a group of bunched-up semis. Squeezing into the only free lane, they shot forward beyond the trucks. The car bounced and vibrated, and for a moment they pulled away, closing the gap between them and the cover of more traffic ahead.
Slowing to swerve around an overloaded pickup, he found himself face-to-face with Stern again, honking and screaming at them. Don lifted his phone, flipping it to video mode with a BEEP.
“I’m going to get evidence of this,” he said “He can’t harass us in traffic like this. It’s dangerous.”
“You CRAZY?! He can DO whatever the hell he wants to do,” screamed Pete, holding out his hands for balance. “We just robbed him. Put that down!”
Don squared the phone to the window and pressed the record button. But the angle on the screen wasn’t right—he couldn’t see the image. He turned himself a bit more towards the window.
The car hit a dip and bounced, Don felt a flutter in his stomach, and the world turned slightly off axis. His hand on the wheel dropped.
The Rolls suddenly veered towards them. He dropped the phone as the chrome plated door handle loomed, and…BANG!
They bounced away, and Don struggled with the wheel, which felt like it was going to spin right off. Pete was hyperventilating.
“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING,” he screamed. “YOU’VE GOT TO STOP THIS FUCKING THING!”
They floated a bit to the right, and Don steered with it, trying to catch the road again. But they kept gliding; the back end of the car swung out to the side. They continued forward with the traffic around them, and Don could see the whole thing happening slowly in front of him like on a movie screen. The left side of the vehicle thrust forward, leaning towards the ground. The right hand wheels slid along the road for a moment, then let go, and as the road rose to meet his window Don waited, hands clenched, for the inevitable crash of a vehicle from behind. Sooner or later someone would ram into them. Some mother or father, maybe with a preschooler in the back, just in the wrong place at the wrong time, sharing the road with these idiots. Don gritted his teeth. His mother would flip out.
The left side finally scraped against the ground, metal shrieking along the blacktop. Gallons of slimy water splashed and crashed into the front, soaking his head and charging down his neck. The car didn’t roll, but slid along at 70, 65, 60 miles per hour. Don watched the speedometer fall and the asphalt streak by, inches from his face, white dashes rushing past as they changed lanes without signaling, steamy globs of greenish muck sliding around on the inside of the door and window, dripping from his hair. Pete’s massive, howling bulk hovered above him, stretching the seat belt. The roof of the car led the way towards LA, but the expected impact to the undercarriage never came. Don could see out the front windshield that they were approaching the right-hand shoulder, somehow crossing three lanes without hitting anybody, slowing, slowing. Then they hit the curb of an island next to an entrance ramp. The Datsun rocked to a gentle stop, and rolled over onto its roof with a crunch. The aquarium tanks clanked against one another once more, their plexiglass sides intact. The guys hung from their seat belts, an entire semester’s plant physiology experiment clinging to them, and Pete’s wail finally petered out into amazed silence.
All sound ceased, drowned beneath a hollow wind rushing through Don’s head. He released his belt and climbed out. Pete scrambled after him and collapsed in the median. Drivers creeped past, gaping at the crumpled car and the ever-expanding puddle of dank sludge.
Don stood, dazed, on trembling legs, aware of cars inching by, faces turned toward him. He was bombarded by the colors and scents and sounds of the Southern California roadway all at once, washed out, bleeding into one another. He stared vaguely at a small cut on his wrist, but nothing else seemed to hurt. He couldn’t believe they hadn’t caused some huge chain-reaction multiple-injury accident.
A voice asked if anyone was still inside. Don glanced at Pete, sitting on the ground, and shook his head. Footsteps ran up to him, asked, “Are you okay?”
“No matter what, say someone cut you off,” a man said, his hand on Don’s shoulder. “Or the cops’ll hassle you.”
Don nodded, trying to swallow, trying not to shake. His mouth tasted like sandpaper.
And then Dr. Happy was at his side. Don flinched and looked around at the small group of people who’d stopped to check on them, seeing faces for the first time, but the doctor’s eyes were wide and concerned behind his cumbersome glasses. His frazzled hair hung all over. He handed over two water bottles.
“Drink these,” he said.
Don twisted off a top and guzzled the contents. It slid down his throat leaving his mouth as dry as before, and he followed quickly with the second.
“Here’s another,” said Dr. Stern, who held Don’s wrist and watched the hands of his wristwatch. Don finished off the rest of the water, empty bottles bouncing at his feet. After a moment the doctor seemed satisfied, nodded.
“Now, son,” he said, looking over his glasses. His grip tightened on Don’s wrist, but his voice remained kind and calm. Don stared at the faded Marine Corps tattoo on the doctor’s forearm. “The police will be here soon. Don’t you think you’d better give me what’s mine before then?”
Don looked at Pete, who was staring wide-eyed at the doctor. A siren arose in the distance, punctuated by big fire engine honks. Pete lurched up and reached through the broken rear window. He yanked out the dripping duffel bag and held it out at arm’s length. The doctor took it and disappeared into the crowd.
By the time they’d wiped themselves off with someone’s towel and given their story to a bored motorcycle cop, and the tow-truck driver was loading the car onto his flatbed, Chet had pushed through the crowd, the arms of Dr. Happy’s tracksuit wrapped around his bloody head. He didn’t want to talk about it, pitching his head from side to side. The cop eyed him; the paramedics stretched him out on a gurney.
On the way to the tow-yard, Don sat open-mouthed between the truck driver’s greasy overalls and Pete’s flabby thighs.
He should be dead. Pete, fingers trembling on his smoke, should be dead. For what? Why the fuck were they doing this crazy shit?
And did he have time to bum a binger before class?