Tiny sits in his bathtub and wishes he owned a gun. It is something that Tiny often thinks, that he should own a gun. He has always figured himself as the kind of man who will need a gun for something important one day, and is beginning to suspect that not having a gun might be keeping that something important from happening. In his darkest moments he admits that if something important did happen and he were unprepared he would have to do something humiliating, like call the police. The something important will almost certainly involve Celeste Corey, a very beautiful woman who once told him that she would marry him. She was fourteen at the time, so Tiny tries not to think about her too much; but inevitably she crops up in his fantasies, looking him up in the phone book, sobbing into a payphone. She’s in deep and she needs a man, a man with a gun. Tiny swirls the bathwater and doesn’t have any cigars and decides to get a little drunk.
He hoists himself up, locking his arms against the side of the tub and bringing his feet up underneath him; sits like that for a moment, rocking on his heels, letting the lukewarm water lap against his stomach. The muscles in his back clench around the frame of his shoulders, and in a slow moment he gets out. He towels off and shrugs into a bathrobe.
The kitchen floor slaps wetly against the spongy flesh on the soles of his feet. He pours a glass of slow gin. It drowns his tongue and floods the base of his throat but never touches the top of his mouth. The doorbell rings.
A man stands on the stoop, his face clouded by the furious nature of his brow, the shadows under his eyes running down the side of his nose and pooling on his upper lip which is splayed into a wide set smile. People that do not know him think this expression macabre.
Good to see you. The two men embrace and Peter “Tiny” Lida steps aside for Michael and Michael hangs up his coat while Peter goes and pulls on a wifebeater and a pair of sweatpants.
Where’s my sister?
Peter’s bathrobe hangs across his shoulders, he’s a prizefighter, belly jutting evenly from above his waist band, rounding into the broadness at his chest and neck. Fat balloons his shirt when he sits to turn on the television.
Can I get you a beer?
Michael sits sidesaddle, his arm clasped across the back of his chair with the pressure in his fingertips mirroring the torsion in his neck. Peter takes two glasses from the freezer and sets them on the counter at his back. He pours Guinness, which is what Michael drinks. What are your plans for tonight?
I dunno, what are you doing? You wanna watch something? Let’s watch something. They relax and Paul Newman eats fifty eggs. They agree about everything, and when they don’t agree they jostle their own opinions into line, compromising perspective for the sake of friendship. When the movie ends they go outside, and the silhouettes of their bottles on the deck mar the landscape like heavy water reactors.
Summer evening sinks into darkness as the shadows grow and mesh into the half-hearted black of city night. They play cribbage until they can’t see their cards and then Michael stretches and yawns and Peter presses the sliding door back into place behind him.
Where are we going, drinks? You’re cool to drive right? Michael sits for a second and thinks and then nods his head, the dash lights running up and down the bridge of his nose.
The car falls heavily from the hills into the city, burning through quiet reds before coasting into downtown, where it moves in ominous spurts from district to district until it climbs out again, running along the waterfront and then making inroads into the heart of the edge of the skyline; swerving into the deep alleyway of an abandoned VA hospital. From there, half the city writhes beneath Peter and Michael. They can see the high watermark of the ghetto, where gentrification has pollinated a string of burgeoning condominiums that glow like luminescence smeared on low density debris abandoned by the tide.
The car idles while Michael fishes out a spliph from the breast pocket of his coat. They sit and watch the wormy crawl of cars make their way up and down the city arterials. Peter likes to unfocus his eyes until the traffic is blurred into morning stars by the indifference of his retinas, but Michael just looks and blinks as he kills the engine and turns up the radio. Michael is passionate about power ballads.
Peter takes the spliph and crushes the bridge, he makes a little noise of disgust at this and tries to pry the delicate opening wide with one swollen digit, but it tears a little in the broadened corners. He shakes his head in surrender and then pulls. He tries once more to round the crippled bridge but succeeds only in re-crushing it and so again he pulls. Peter hands the mangled spliph back to Michael but Michael doesn’t take it or see it.
There is a girl in the alley. Michael is staring at her in the rearview mirror watching her as she ricochets frantically against a dumpster. She pounds on a service entrance but no one hears her inside. In her arms is wrapped a package, neatly bound in brown paper and crossed with string. She clutches it to her tits as she careens desperately off the service entrance steps. She wears tall heels and Peter is having visions of her toppling out of them in slow motion, but she won’t. Michael turns down the radio, but it’s too late, she’s heard the bass in the power ballads and come sniffing after the warm exhaust. She stands still for a second and then slinks against a wall, wiping away her silhouette with the fluid motion of her body. Peter’s eyes whip frantically from side to side almost nightblind from excitement, but Michael just looks, tracing the little whisper inconsistencies of her creeping form. She slams a palm against the back passenger side window, snapping the door handle in her fingers.
Let me in goddamnit. Fucking let me in. Please, oh god, please, fucking let me in. Peter stairs at Michael and Michael makes a small adjustment to his rearview so he can watch as her palm beats futilely against the glass. Goddamnit fucking let me in right now. Please, oh god, you don’t understand. A van spins easily into the road before them, severing the view and the light of the closest street lamp. Now, Peter knows, all she can see is the blue glow from the radio as it dusts the outline of his face and reflects off Michael’s steady pupils. A door slides open in the van, bathing the hood of Michael’s car with its dry plastic interior bulbs. The girl smears her hand against the glass as she turns to run and well dressed men, like cartoon killers, fly after her. They do not hit her. She spits and swears and swings wildly against their suits and they do not hit her. Once in the van she shrugs out of their hands. They pull away and the spliph has burned down.
Peter and Michael take drinks on a park bench near a beach, rattling cans when they shift their feet and reminiscing about who Peter had always meant to punch before graduating high school. The night has become colder and blacker and neither man is ready for sleep. Michael stands and leaves the bench to piss in the water and Tiny sits alone and runs his right thumb in the palm of his left hand. He thinks about Harold Walsh, a good enough man with a taste for oxycotin who had made him cry in grade school. When Michael comes back Peter asks him, do you remember Harry Walsh?
Yeah, of course I remember Harry.
You remember that time he made me cry in the second grade?
I think so.
He pushed me over a potted plant and I hit my elbow, what a fucker.
In second grade Harold Walsh is surrounded by children his age, they move in with predatory grins, hands outstretched, promising petty abuse. He pushes the nearest boy over a potted plant and the boy begins to cry and the circle, embarrassed, disperses. Harold Walsh, what a fucker.
I think, sometimes, that I’ve never done anything for anyone else in my life, says Peter, a long time from third grade. Michael looks around, for the smallest second surprised. I think that I do the little things for people so that I will owe them nothing when they need more.
You were always good to your family, Peter, I know, I saw.
I’m not good to your sister, not good like I should be. Michael tenses a little, his coat sleeves taking a tiny breath at the flexing of his muscles. I don’t love her Michael, not like I loved Celeste.
You’re drunk, Peter.
You’re not, how come?
I’ve had less to drink. They sit in silence until Peter cracks another beer.
I think we’re working pretty long odds, Peter says as he sips foam off the top of his can.
The odds that we’re the good guys, Michael, because I don’t think I’ve ever done anything for anyone else in my life. I think that’s why we’re here.
Where is here?
You think I don’t see it, Michael, where we’ve been our whole lives. It’s not even that we’re not good men, it’s that we’re not bad men either. We’re mooks, Michael, we have no intrinsic value, in action movies we’re the hero’s collateral damage, in war we die unremarkable deaths, we die of lung cancer and our friends keep smoking, Michael. He casts his words into long shivering exclimations. I’m tired of how I am tonight; tired of doing nothing.
I did something. I watched. Peter shrugs his massive frame and gets up to pee. He goes out onto the beach and slips out of his sandals and pulls up his sweatpants until they cut into the top of his calves. While Michael makes a phone call Tiny pisses with the ocean air in his face, the water running grime between his toes. He grins suddenly, flat, heavy features bending into an unholy visage, and he laughs as the warmth of his urine glides briefly over the tops of his feet and then recedes into the sea.
Michael has to make a stop on the way back to Peter’s, the city is still now, and quiet except for early bird noises and the unhindered acceleration of rarified traffic. They’re in the fringes, where vast firs stand in the awkward corners of modest lots, leaning over ugly flats and happy families. These people are all safe, except for from each other. The city is out of the rearview and hidden somewhere behind the crest of a thousand mild suburban glens. The shape of the land has been so pacified that it is perceptible now only through vaguely worded directions. At the church they’ll be a kind of hill where the road cuts right, follow that past the duck pond and the there’s another kind of hill and if you go over that you’ll be right there; you can’t miss it.
Michael misses it many times, despite the assurances of the glassy eyed convenience store clerk that swore he could not. Clare’s is a 24 hour bistro that no one visits from midnight to five. Michael orders two twenty ounce coffees and goes to retrieve a brick of heroine from the bathroom. Alone in the car, Tiny plays with the motorized seat, pushing himself back and forth above the buzz of tiny servos until a knob breaks in his hand. He inspects it absent-mindedly before stuffing it into the dash. He leans back and reduces his eyes to slits, closing his lids cautiously, double vision making promises of sick, heavy sleep. An electronic bell chimes as Michael pushes Clare’s door open with the back of his shoulder, coffee in hand.
The two men sit in Michael’s car and take their drinks. Michael burns the top of his mouth but Peter doesn’t.
It’s strange, says Michael, working the roof of his maxilla with tip of his tongue.
What, that you burnt yourself?
No, I was supposed to pick something up but it wasn’t there.
Peter says nothing, and takes a single, long, shallow sip from the top of his cup while he digests this information. Oh, he says, is there someone you need to talk to about that?
Yes. Yes, Peter, there is.
Michael pulls four and a half feet from the curb before the chirp of a police siren spikes through the predawn stillness. The next few moments pass slowly. Peter spits out his coffee, and a symphony of shredded droplets fleck the leather of the passenger-side door. There are three full seconds in which Michael’s car acts solely on momentum, while Michael fishes the roach from his cupholder and swallows it whole, passing lethargically into the left lane before wheeling abruptly back to the curb. Peter coughs, adrenaline elbowing for room in his mind, and the car dies as Michael jerks out the key.
Two sweaty, tired, stakeout pigs. One draws his gun and clatters it gently against his pant leg, the other leans into Michael’s rolled down window and forces a big Rosco P. Coltrane chuckle. When Michael takes the registration from the dash the seat-adjustment knob topples out. Rosco wants to see it so Michael passes it to him between his forefinger and index. Rosco shrugs and tosses it to his partner, Enos, who shrugs back but puts it in his pocket. Rosco has a smile like he’s from a Glisten commercial, and he uses it to get Michael and Peter on the pavement. Peter almost prays but instead turns his face, letting his cheek dig into the cement, to where Michael lies calm and prone on the sidewalk. This is nothing, Peter thinks. This is a poker night story. Rosco crawls through the back seat, and then checks under the bucket seats and then checks the dash himself and then pops the trunk and then stares into the wheel wells and then pats down Peter and then pats down Michael. Where’s the dope tubby? You eat it? Enos gets a kick out of one-liners. Rosco needs this bust, but it’s not around, so he waves his partner back into the cruiser to call up Boss Hog and see what’s what.
Boss Hog gives Michael a sobriety test and then tells Rosco that they’ve been foiled again. No apologies are made, just long-toothed smiles from the sidewalk that shed the gravel pressed into Peter’s cheeks and push back the furious nature of Michael’s brow, and then they’re back on the road, charging across town towards little Saigon.
Now the sun is pushing anxiously at the horizon, casting rays over the tops of houses and shining in the glass panes of skyscrapers. Sleep has escaped Peter’s priorities and he has song lyrics in his head, sounding triumphantly off his brain pan as they soar over images of Boss Hog jumping on his bright white cowboy hat.
This is the sound of what you don’t know killing you/
This is the sound of what you don’t believe still true/
This is the sound of what you don’t want still in you/
DPC motherfucker, cop a feel or two/
That was great, I mean that was fucking superb. Michael doesn’t respond, but leans out over the steering wheel to see oncoming traffic. Peter sighs like he’s just made idiot love and grins at the surging rush hour as they sink into a Tong building parking garage. It’s an industrial hovel, designed for back door deliveries but converted to parking by clumsily smearing lines in the corners, a cheap bid to surplant history with modern legitimacy that had, for the most part, worked. There, Peter sits on the back bumper and reads the paper, car suspension whining under his weight, and Michael leans back to watch the cars as they roll through the entrance.
Peter is leaning against a support pillar, arms crossed, head nodding when Michael stretches across the back of the car and wraps the rear passenger side window smartly with one knuckle. Peter’s head snaps up and he saunters after the latest car, leaving Michael alone in the front of the garage. He follows an Audi as it slowly navigates the cement columns and settles in the lot’s rear. A well built, well dressed Caucasian man neatly picks his way out of the driver’s seat. Tiny waves to get his attention and the jogs lightly over. The small man relaxes and stands expectantly at his car.
Yeah, what is i-
Tiny breaks his hand slamming it into the well dressed man’s face. He’s never hit someone so hard with a closed fist before, and his ring finger breaks in two places. The well dressed man pirouettes on impact, his whole body spinning wildly to follow the sudden movement of his neck: torque wrenching his frame so violently that the top two buttons of his jacket pop like champagne corks off an industrial light fixture. Tiny howls at his hand, which is suddenly tangled on one end, and Michael squeals out of position at the front of the garage. Together they push the well dressed man into the backseat and cover him with a wool throw Michael keeps in his trunk.
Back into the hills, up residential side streets and through alleys until the whole city is back below them like a sweaty nightmare. Peter clasps his ring finger and bites his lip, and Michael looks both ways at every intersection and blinks the sun out of his eyes. At Peter’s they search desperately for a mask, and finding none, take an oversized pirate’s hat that Peter doesn’t remember owning. They pull the pirate hat down over the well dressed man’s face obscuring as best they can the demented angle of his nose and draping him across their shoulders, then lifting him, feet dragging, through the foyer and into the kitchen.
Blood leaks onto the hardwood and the well dressed man begins to writhe slowly above it, coagulating it with the friction of his delirious limbs. Peter takes a shot of slow gin, and before doing anything else resolves to set his ring finger. Michael spreads Peter’s shower curtain against the wall opposite the bathroom door, then he leaves the house and takes from under the porch a cut length of hose and a green folding chair. Tiny squeezes hard and his hand cracks in protest, sweat percolates quickly on the nape of his neck and at the base of his chin. Another piece has come away in his finger, he can feel it grinding immediately below his knuckle. He vomits in the sink. Michael places the lawn chair in the bathtub and leaves the hose spooled around the tap. In the Kitchen, he finds Peter hopelessly groping the fragments of loose bone in his ring finger. In clumsy impotence Peter extends his hand to Michael, and before Peter can flinch away Michael clasps the broken finger between its knuckle and first joint. Michael lifts his eyes but before they meet Peter’s and he jams his right thumb flatly into the ring finger, guiding the jagged fragments against the flat of his left hand.
Peter’s howl cuts through the shock of the well dressed man, and he is returned abruptly to consciousness. The world swims for a few second and then Michael brings a bar stool down across his back and he crumples back into the fetal position, motionless. Peter takes off the well dressed man’s suit and helps carry him into the bathroom, where Michael uses hose to tie the well dressed man to the green folding chair. They lock the door and go to sit quietly back by the TV, their silhouettes hulking in its glare. They don’t turn it on, Peter sits back and stares past it, past the wall and past the sunlight and into the day beyond, and Peter just looks.
Do you still feel mediocre?
No, I don’t think I do.
Are you ready to do something for someone else for the first time in your life?
Tiny kills the well dressed man while Michael goes to pick up the brick he left at Clare’s 24 hour bistro.