Authors: Tim Maleeny
Larry was wondering if he could stab his brother under the table without anyone noticing. It was only a passing thought, a spur-of-the-moment plan, abandoned as soon as the waitress brought their food, but it kept him calm just thinking about it.
Larry’s brother, Jerome, was beaming across the table, his features obscured by the steam coming off his plate.
,” sighed Jerome, looking like he’d just won the lottery. The plate set before him was iron, heated close to its melting point before a cornucopia of shrimp, chicken, and vegetables was dumped onto its surface. The iron plate was set in the middle of a black plastic tray divided into three sections. On the left was the guacamole and sour cream, on the right black beans and rice. There was no room for the flour tortillas, which were stuffed in a wax paper bag and dropped unceremoniously onto their basket of chips.
“What did you say?” asked Larry testily.
Jerome spread his hands like Moses, inviting his brother to gaze in wonder upon the awesome power of the mix-and-match combo.
“Fajitas!” he cried. “
A couple sitting at the table to their left glanced over. Larry scowled at the woman before turning the look on his brother. He leaned across the table, getting close enough to feel the steam on his face. He wanted to get a good look at Jerome’s pupils.
“I know they’re fucking fajitas,” he growled. “Now the whole restaurant knows it, too. What’s the big deal? You order them every time we come here.”
“Lighten up, man.” Jerome grabbed the bag and yanked a tortilla free of its waxy embrace. “You want some?”
Larry didn’t say anything, just scanned the restaurant.
Jerome kept talking, oblivious. “I just like the sound of the word, is all.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Makes you happy just saying it.”
Larry did not look happy. “Are you stoned?”
“Just say it,” insisted Jerome. “Fah—
“C’mon, it’ll cheer you up.”
“I asked you a question.”
“I said, I asked you a question.”
“Right, what’s the question?”
Jerome ignored the question, instead concentrating on getting some black beans onto the surface of his tortilla without spilling them. Another plate would help. Maybe he should flag the waitress. She was cute. A little wide in the hips, and a little too gringo for a Mexican restaurant, but nice. Maybe he’d ask her out, right after dessert. He jerked his head toward his brother but didn’t look him in the eye. “You want a marguerita?”
Larry shook his head and grabbed his beer, a Dos Equis. He looked at the marguerita glass sitting in front of his brother, big as a fish bowl, the ice melted, the green liquid swirling around in the colored glass. It had to be ten inches in diameter.
“I’m not drinking margueritas,” he said evenly. “And you’re stoned.”
Jerome looked up defensively and then shrugged, his pupils like two solar eclipses. “A little.”
Larry nodded, his jaw set. “You realize every ounce you smoke is one less ounce we sell?”
“Math’s not my thing, Larry.” Jerome ladled some guacamole on top of the beans, then jammed the wrapped tortilla into his mouth. “That’s why
handle the books.”
Larry shook his head in disgust
. Then why do we split the profits fifty-fifty?
He kept the thought to himself as he sipped his beer. Jerome leaned forward and slurped loudly from his marguerita bowl. Larry just kept shaking his head, the throbbing in his temples a metronome of budding rage.
Larry and Jerome Siegel were known around town as The Sandwich Brothers, an entrepreneurial venture started in their kitchen almost four years ago. The concept was simple enough, an inspiration born of having been fired from perfectly respectable jobs in several small to midsized companies.
Part of the reason they got fired was because they were both fuck-ups. Larry realized that now. He’d matured.
But he also realized a big part of their ineptitude, came from being constantly malnourished. He and Jerome didn’t eat lunch, so they were lightheaded, so they fucked up. When you work in an office in San Francisco, you basically have two options for lunch. You can go to a nearby restaurant, which costs you half your weekly paycheck—unless you order a salad, in which case you won’t go broke until the middle of the month. Only top executives, overpaid financial types, and tourists ate at swanky cafés lining the downtown sidewalks.
The other option was bring your lunch, but who wants to walk to the fucking grocery store, make a sandwich, wake up early to pack your bag for work, and then eat at your desk? OK, so women in the office did it all the time, no big deal.
But that’s what chicks do, isn’t it?
Go on stupid diets, make their own food, and starve themselves during the day so they can eat like pigs when their sap boyfriends take them out to dinner. Larry didn’t have a girlfriend and hadn’t in quite some time, but he was pretty sure that’s what chicks did.
So you’ve got all these half-starving, half-broke guys moping around cubicles all over San Francisco, looking for something to eat.
Why not make them lunch?
It was a brilliantly simple way to make a living. Sleep until ten, then go to the grocery store, make a bunch of sandwiches that cost maybe a buck each, stuff them into a cooler, and sell them to the rubes in the cubes for five bucks each, unless they want to spring for chips, in which case you charge them another dollar.
Word spread, and within a few months Larry and Jerome were delivering sandwiches to offices all over the city. They even had t-shirts with The Sandwich Brothers logo emblazoned on them. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it paid the rent.
Then one night Larry was struck by a bolt of inspiration.
He was trying to do the books while Jerome sat on the couch watching reruns of Scooby Doo, smoking a blunt the size of Montana, ash falling on the carpet while smoke curled in the air and stained the ceiling yellow. It drove Larry crazy when his brother smoked in the living room, so he started to say something when he was struck by an idea that seemed so obvious, he wondered why it hadn’t occurred to him earlier.
Larry had stopped smoking pot years ago because it made him nauseous. Jerome always said that was because Larry was too tightly wound. (Larry always told Jerome to go fuck himself, to which Jerome said,
see what I mean?
) But looking at his brother sprawled on the couch—a slack, doe-eyed expression on his face—Larry realized that most people their age were more like Jerome. Though he hated to admit his brother was right, most of their friends would say Larry
too uptight. Most of their friends smoked pot. As a general rule of thumb, young people would rather get stoned than balance their checkbooks.
Therein lay the opportunity.
They were visiting offices all over the city, staffed by young men and women in their twenties, most of whom liked to party. Many of whom smoked pot, based not only on Larry’s personal experience with his brother but also national statistics. The Sandwich Brothers already had a distribution network which made them invisible, so why not sell weed along with cold cuts and chips? Slip a joint next to the ham-on-rye and take a twenty off the guy instead of a five. For bigger sales paper bags worked just fine, and soon Larry was setting up regular accounts with lines of credit.
Within two months The Sandwich Brothers had quintupled their income, and their reputation spread through underground channels across the city. Interoffice e-mail was fueling their fame and paving the way for new sales.
And Larry would be the first to say that he needed Jerome—at first. The key to the whole operation was spotting the person in the office cool enough to approach for the first sale. Jerome could spot a fellow pot-smoker a mile away. They could be across the room and Jerome would say, “yeah, that’s our guy,” and ten times out of ten he’d be right. Jerome would ask the guy where he could buy some weed, just to see if he was using, then turn it around and offer him a regular supply.
Yes, Jerome had a gift, but of late he’d become a liability. Buying clothes. Leaving big tips at restaurants. Bragging to girls in bars, hitting on waitresses, telling them he was a player. Fortunately, he didn’t look the part, so most advances were rebuffed with a snort of laughter, but the key to long-term success in this game was anonymity. The Sandwich Brothers had to keep up impressions, two hard-working boys feeding the future managers of corporate America. The cover was good, but it would crumble if you looked too closely.
If they started
like drug dealers, they’d get busted so fast they wouldn’t have time to shit before they were suddenly behind bars getting ass-fucked by some Aryan monster named Bruno.
Larry didn’t want that to happen.
“So what happens now?” asked Jerome, talking around a mouthful of chips.
Larry shifted in his chair. “What do you mean?”
“Our landlord’s dead.”
Larry looked at the couple next to them to make sure they weren’t listening. The woman was laughing at something the guy had said. Larry thought it looked like a forced laugh, but she was hot, and Larry was sitting over here with his dumbass brother, so what did he know? Maybe the guy was funny.
Larry leaned over the table. “I know he’s dead. What’s your point?”
“So who do we pay?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the dude was blackmailing us, right?”
Larry frowned. “We had an
,” he said impatiently.
The arrangement started like this: one day about six months ago, Ed the landlord let himself into their apartment to check on a water leak that was called in by a tenant downstairs. The brothers were out, but their month’s supply of pot was laid in neat packages on top of their kitchen table. Ed threatened to turn them in, but Larry figured Ed would have already called the cops if he didn’t have something else in mind. Ten minutes later they had a deal, Ed had supplemental income, and The Sandwich Brothers had a silent partner they were paying every month to stay silent.
“Right,” said Jerome. “An arrangement. So who’s our partner now?”
Larry’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he could get the words out. “
. How much did you smoke, anyway?”
“You changing the subject?”
“We only paid that asshole because he threatened to call the cops. Now he’s dead, so we keep all the money ourselves, just like before.”
Jerome blinked for a minute, thinking about that one.
” he said, a little too loudly. The couple next to them glanced over before turning back to their conversation. Then Jerome added in a not-so-low voice, “Did
Larry clenched the dinner knife in his right hand and almost went for it right then and there, a quick jab across the table, a mad dash out of the restaurant, a plane ride to the Bahamas, and home free. Jerome face-down in his fajitas. Larry would have to tell their Mom eventually, and she usually took Jerome’s side, but Larry knew in his heart that she’d forgive him if she only knew what he’d put up with.
A voice from above changed Larry’s mind. It changed a lot of things.
Larry turned in his seat, the knife still clenched awkwardly in his hand. Jerome looked up from his marguerita. It took them both a second to place the guy.
Midfifties, bald with black sidewalls, tan face, and a paunch that looked like it had been there a while. Deep lines around his eyes and nose, a wry smile beneath a shiny black mustache. He lived two doors down from them, one of the one-bedroom apartments on the twentieth floor. Larry squinted as he tried to remember the guy’s name. Willy. Wally. Wilson. Something like that.
“Walter,” the guy said.
“What?” both brothers said at once.
“That’s my name,” the guy said. “You were trying to remember my name.”
Larry tried a recovery, took the surprise out of his voice.
“Sure. My name’s Walter. I live down the hall.”
Jerome played it wrong, the vestiges of his high mixed with tequila giving him false confidence.
“Good for you, Walter,” he said. “What’s that got to do with us?”
Walter shrugged, the smile still there. “I was sitting at the bar over there.” He gestured over his shoulder. “And I thought I should come by and say hello. You know, get started on the right foot.”
Larry got a sick feeling in his gut, but Jerome jumped in before he could say anything.
“Right foot, left foot,” sang Jerome. “No offense, Walter, but what the fuck are you talking about?”
Larry closed his eyes, waiting for the answer.
Walter’s smile got bigger. “I’m talking about our business arrangement, Jerome. You are Jerome, right?” He switched his gaze. “And you’re Larry.”
Jerome shook his head and turned to his brother, irritated. This guy was ruining a perfectly good buzz.
“Larry, who is this fuckin’ guy?”
Larry studied Walter, now leaning in close, crowding the back of his chair but still smiling.
Now we’re fucked.
Larry sighed, answering his brother’s question but still looking at Walter, his gut hanging over the edge of the chair.
“Jerome, meet our new silent partner.
Sam was floating three feet above his mattress and spinning slowly clockwise. Or maybe the room was spinning counter-clockwise around him. He couldn’t be sure. But that’s what it felt like when he closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
It was four in the morning. Danny Rodriguez left just past midnight, but Sam didn’t go to bed for another two hours. Instead he sat at his kitchen counter and drank the rest of the beer in his refrigerator. It wasn’t much by standards of his youth, but it was too much. Hence the spinning. Middle-age had struck with a vengeance, his metabolism had changed, and he’d become a lightweight.
Maybe he was just out of practice. Since Marie passed, he drank erratically, going for weeks without touching a beer, then forcing himself to go out and sit in a bar, and, on those occasions, probably drinking too much. What he needed was discipline. A consistent, moderate consumption of alcohol to keep his liver in shape and his wits about him.
He reached across the bed with his right hand and felt the sheets, confirming the suspicion he wasn’t really levitating. Though he had the whole bed to himself, he still slept on his side. He put a pillow lengthwise down the middle when he slept, so he could rest his hand there, the way he had across Marie’s hip. He was a back-sleeper, but she always slept on her side. He once read that said a lot about a person, how they slept, but couldn’t remember the specifics. Maybe sleeping on your back meant you were always looking up. An optimist. Marie said he was an optimist, the only cop she knew who wasn’t a cynic at heart.
But he wasn’t a cop anymore. He took time off when Marie got sick, a leave of absence. When he came back to the job it wasn’t the same. Not having someone at home had taken away the motivation, as if Marie’s chemotherapy was killing his ambition instead of the cancer inside her body. No longer was her voice in the room, telling Sam to hang in there, convincing him that what he did really mattered.
Now he looked at his job differently. He put bad guys behind bars, but the courts just let them go again. And two out of three scumbags committed another crime within a year of getting released, usually worse than the first time around. Some guy beat up his girlfriend, next time he killed her. Nothing Sam could do about that.
Not while wearing a badge, anyway.
They asked him to reconsider, and he did. Hung in there almost two years. Tried to get lost in his work, new cases piling up all the time. But with each new arrest, it seemed to matter less and less. He wasn’t making a difference, and there was no one in his life that could tell him any different. He wasn’t a cop anymore. Since Marie’s passing, Sam wasn’t sure what he was.
Maybe you’re lonely.
The thought struck him like a blow to the chest. A heavy, dull thud of awareness that knocked him back into the mattress and caved his head in. Not because it depressed him—he realized he was already depressed, and had been for some time. But the realization demanded action, and Sam had grown quite comfortable in his private cocoon of self-pity. He might not be happy, but he wasn’t vulnerable, either. You care about someone, then part of you dies with them. Between the job and Marie, Sam had seen enough death for one lifetime.
But having acknowledged that he’d become a loner, a social misfit, he couldn’t just ignore it. Sam was a fixer. Something was wrong, he took action. Even if he knew it was hopeless.
He closed his eyes, but the bed stopped rotating. The amusement park of despair had closed down for the night. No more spinning. He felt as heavy as a bag of cement, pressing down against his twisted sheets.
Get to know your neighbors, Sam
. Danny Rodriguez had said it again before he left.
A simple request. A call to arms. A problem Sam could solve.
If only he could get himself out of bed.