IT WAS EARLY JULY—summer break. The humidity that night was a thin layer of gel on my skin. We were crouched behind a green Dumpster in the Travelodge parking lot, relieved to be out of school, ready to get inside and get wasted. From the Dumpster’s shadow, my friends and I watched Darren Glick talk to the manager, a silent movie framed by the motel’s office window. Oliver stood beside me, rattling the bag of pills he kept in his jean pocket. Britt was making that noise he always made with his mouth that sounded like a giant mosquito was flying nearby.
A stench like hydrogen sulfide emanated from the open lid of the Dumpster.
That reeks, I said.
It smells like Oliver, don’t it, Nub? Britt said.
It smells like your mom, Oliver said.
It smells like your mom’s snatch.
It smells like your dad’s breath after he’s given a skunk a rim job.
Under different circumstances—say it was April, the month before Oliver’s father killed himself—Britt would’ve shot back with something equally offensive about his father. The best he could do was redirect an insult back toward Oliver: It smells like your dick after a night alone at the stables.
It was no wonder that none of us had a girlfriend. Our mouths were as filthy as the Dumpster we were crouched behind.
Headlights from a car illuminated our shirts and faces for the briefest moment, shards of broken glass gleamed at our feet.
The brown and beige motel was at the edge of Cerritos, the town where we lived and stole and vandalized, whether it was the record store (CDs Frisbeed over the metal detector) or the movie theater (a coffee can full of marbles poured out in the darkness, rolling toward the screen) or the grotesque monstrosity of the mall (parked car after parked car scraped with fisted keys) or the public library (a box of detergent dumped in the three-tiered fountain until it was frothing over) or Liberty Park (loaded on the slide, loaded on the swings, loaded on the spin ride as the oatmeal of someone’s vomit flew out of his mouth) or the high school we hoped to graduate from (an inflated blowup doll duct-taped hip to hip to the bronze Trojan sculpture that stood at the school’s entrance).
Of the four in our group, I was the youngest by two months. If you saw us all lined up, you’d think I was even younger, fourteen and not seventeen. I had a baby face. After I took a shower I’d lean close to the mirror and inspect my chin, searching for one goddamn hair. My face was smooth, butterscotch brown.
Darren was the only one with a fake ID. He had graduated from our high school the month before. Barely. His whiskered face and husky voice added a good five years to his actual age. His voice was like my dad’s voice, and whenever he shouted out one of my nicknames in the hallway at school, part of me flinched, the part that worried about my dad coming back to beat up my little brother for anything all over again. Like the cranberry juice he spilled that led to a cranberry bruise on his back, or that afternoon Enrique ruined the lawn mower when he pushed it over a rock, or the day he muddied the carpet with his footprints. The ladder he carried and the ceiling he scratched. The wooden bat and the aquarium in the living room he smacked on the backswing, the fish clueless as a steady stream of salt water dribbled out from a jagged crack.
Our dad left us early in the morning on July 5, 2004. The day before there was a big fight in the kitchen—he knocked three teeth out of Enrique’s mouth. His good-bye note was handwritten on a piece of lined paper and stuck to the refrigerator with a watermelon magnet. The note read: I’m leaving. Don’t look for me. He left at dawn with the sidewalks smudged with black powder and the smoky scent of fireworks still in the air. He backed his car out of the garage and left, the dark purple sky above him going lavender. I could see him clicking on the radio. I’m sure he took the 5. He was miles away when Enrique shook me awake. Asshole’s gone, he said.
I noticed that the manager of the Travelodge looked like my dad. He was a large man with a large gut. He was shaped like a pear. My dad’s hands were lined with scars from the years of construction work he did during his twenties. He had narrow wrists like a woman’s but his arms were muscled and stretched the sleeves of his T-shirts. His hair was wavy and as black as a raven’s wing and he had a mole the size of a chocolate chip on the side of his nose. His eyes were mud brown with flecks of gold. Whenever he screamed, the gold flecks of his eyes would shine.
I hadn’t seen my dad in a year, but I was always bumping into someone who reminded me of him. A shoe salesman. The new janitor at school. Some stranger sitting at a bus stop wearing wraparound shades. And now the manager at the Travelodge.
He rubbed his chin and said something to Darren. Darren shook his head and the manager rubbed his chin again.
Give him a damn room already, Britt said.
And just like that, as if he’d heard Britt’s plea, the manager turned to the back wall and pulled a key down from its wooden peg.
Once Darren opened the door, we moved quickly inside as if we were a SWAT team. The room had sea foam green carpet and mauve drapes and floral wallpaper. There was a single king-size bed, a cheap nightstand, a lamp with a conical lampshade, a yellow love seat, and a color TV atop a dresser.
Classy, Oliver said.
Britt sprinted toward the bed and launched his body, twisting midair and landing on his back, the blond wood headboard smacking against the wall.
Idiot, Darren said. He flipped open his cell phone and began making some calls.
I hit the light switch in the bathroom. A dish of dried flowers beside the sink perfumed the air with cinnamon. A sign Scotch-taped above the towel rack said: DO NOT TAKE THE TOWELS. If the manager knew what kind of people we were, he’d have signs taped all over our room. DO NOT TAKE THE BLOW-DRYER. DO NOT TAKE THE TELEPHONE. DO NOT TAKE THE DIGITAL CLOCK RADIO. DO NOT TAKE THE COFFEEMAKER. DO NOT TAKE THE IRON OR THE IRONING BOARD. DO NOT TAKE THE TELEVISION.
Oliver stood beside me and shook his Ziploc of pills. They were white and looked like aspirin. My mom’s stash, he said. You want one?
What is it?
Nah, I said. What else you got?
Oliver pulled from his wallet a small sheet that was perforated into little squares. Bart Simpson’s spiked and yellow head was printed on each one. Acid, Oliver said. My uncle from San Francisco gave these to me before the funeral.
I’ve never done acid before, I said. I examined the sheet, turning it over. What if I have a bad trip?
It happens sometimes, he said. But usually not, he added.
I thought about it. One of my favorite artists was Salvador Dalí and I imagined my world would look something like one of his paintings, full of melting clocks and fluffy clouds and tall elephants with legs like mosquitoes. I tore off one of the square tabs. What about you? I asked.
I already swallowed a couple of these, Oliver said, shaking the plastic Baggie.
You’re going to black out.
How ’bout Britt?
He’s got that Afghan weed.
He’s a Bongoloid.
Good one, I said. I placed the paper blotter on my tongue as if I were licking a tiny postage stamp. I pictured a little man walking out of his miniature house, opening his tin mailbox, and finding my letter, my name so small in the upper left-hand corner it could be anyone’s name.
About my finger.
I was eleven, like I said before. I was a boy on Rollerblades, a skinny kid with daredevil blood. Sidewalk under my wheels and the wind in my face. I had the sound of my dad’s angry voice from the night before looping in my ear, shouting at Enrique that he was useless, branding the word into his skull.
I had a ramp I made with a rectangle of plywood propped on a cinder block. Enrique was my audience. He sat cross-legged on the grass and cheered, Go, go, go!
Midair, I looked down and saw the sidewalk’s history: the spidery cracks, a wad of gum’s fat period, the faded chalk lines of hopscotch. I flew over my hand-print from when the concrete was still wet and the construction workers were done for the day. When I landed, I landed perfectly with my arms stretched out like the wings of a plane.
Suddenly there was a small rock under my wheel and I lost my balance. I swerved to the right and tipped, the ground rushing toward me. I grabbed on to the brick wall that separated our driveway from the Murphys’ front yard. There was the grating sound of a single brick loosening, coming off that wall like a tooth. The brick fell toward my other hand, splayed on the driveway.
Then I blacked out.
When the world came back to me, I was in the hospital with my right hand bandaged up. It looked like a skinny man wearing a turban. My parents were in the room and quietly arguing, full of hisses.
Christ, Nora, my dad said. How could you be so stupid?
There was blood everywhere, my mom said. He was out cold, Enrique was crying. I wanted to get him to the hospital as fast as possible.
You didn’t think to see where all the blood was coming from? my dad asked. You didn’t see his damn finger lying there on the ground?
Don’t you dare blame me for this, too.
Who then? Who? he said.
Enrique sat quietly by himself in a corner chair, playing with his Game Boy. He had that bored demeanor of a child who’d seen his parents argue a hundred times before.
Story goes that after the accident, Enrique had run into the house and called my mom, who was making a pot roast for dinner. Story goes she panicked when she saw me lying there, when she saw all the blood. Story goes Enrique had to help her carry me into the station wagon. When they pulled out of the driveway, Mom left the front door wide open, the scent of beef and carrots and onions drifting into the street.
Sure I was upset, losing my finger and all, but I knew from then on I’d always get my way with my guilt-ridden mother. Anything I wanted.
Mom, can I have fifty bucks?
Mom, can I borrow your kitchen knife?
Mom, can I smoke a joint and piss on that fancy rug in the living room?
While I was lying there in the hospital bed, my father went looking for my severed finger. This brought me some satisfaction, imagining him on the driveway, tie loosened, searching for my lost digit and in the end finding only a small red pool.
I have this theory about what happened to my finger. Our street was always mobbed with crows. By late afternoon you could hear them making a racket outside, squawking as if they were on fire. I’m almost certain that one of them must’ve picked up my finger. I could see the crow now, swooping down and gliding to our driveway, shuffling toward the blood, then taking off with my finger at the end of its beak, pointing at the sky.
In our motel room at the Travelodge I was watching bodies undulate on the television screen. They were rainbowed and speckled with static and swayed as if underwater, swimming in and out of a surface that rippled and waved. The bodies, the two that I could make out, were naked.
Is that a porno? Oliver wanted to know.
Who brought roses? I said. I smell roses.
No one brought roses. You’re tripping.
You don’t smell any roses?
Oliver walked past the television and smeared its colors, which trailed behind him like comet dust.
There was a knock and Darren pushed the drapes to the side before opening the door. It was Beth Guzman and the girl I’d seen two months ago at Tempo Records, her hair now green. At the record store it had been black, a black so dark it turned blue when she stood by the store’s window, sunlit and plastered with band stickers. Now I was tripping and the stud on her nose winked like a star. She turned her head and her hair was green fire swelling. She didn’t seem too concerned about it.
Hey, Marcus, Beth said.
Call him Nub, Britt said.
I’m not calling him that.
But he has one.
I raised my hand. I mostly did this for the green-haired girl. I closed one eye so that she occupied the space where the rest of my finger should have been.
I’m Ashley, she said.
Hi, I said, and laughed because my hand was already up, waving hello.
The night went like this: I sat on the edge of the bed and watched the door close and open and then someone else stood in the doorway. It could’ve been the same person, changing his or her own face, but the room began to fill so I knew that wasn’t possible. The scent of roses drifted in and out. Beer cans hissed open, the sound of bottle rockets taking off. The bodies warbled on the screen. Someone jumped on or off the bed and the mattress bucked underneath me. One voice braided with another voice. When someone laughed, the room exploded with pink light.
Ashley walked past the television screen and the colors followed her.
You’re killing me, I said.
Excuse me? she said, turning toward me.
I’m dying here, looking at you.
You’re still killing me.
Your hair was on fire when you got here and now it’s dripping lava.
Like I said, she said, and stepped into the bathroom.
In the corner of the room, Beth was topless and straddling some guy sitting on the yellow love seat. His hands were a pair of tarantulas that slowly crawled up her naked back.
Yo, Freak Show, Britt said. Oliver’s out, man.
At first I thought he was talking to me in code, but then I looked where Britt was looking and saw Oliver slumped in the corner, the side of his head pressed against the nightstand as if he were listening to something inside one of the drawers. Harsh light from the toppled lamp washed out his face.
Oh, I said.
There was fierce banging at the door and everyone shut up and looked at one another.
Hide, Darren said. Hide, you fucks.
We all scooted into the bathroom, shushing one another. A big guy everyone called Tower carried Oliver and sat him on the toilet. Six people stood in the bathtub. Britt’s eyes were hooded and glossy red. Ashley winked at me, her hair dripping emerald again onto her shoulders. The door closed and someone hit the lights.
Darren’s voice was muffled as he tried to convince the manager he was alone.
Hey, Oliver said. Are my eyes open?
Shut up, someone whispered.
I can’t see.
Dipshit, the lights are off.
Oliver started sobbing. A drunk girl who obviously didn’t know about Oliver’s dad started to giggle, a bell pinging inside my ears. I reached my hand out toward where Ashley had stood before the lights went out and grabbed air. The scent of roses was stronger, as if someone were standing right beside me holding a bouquet. A spotted shark glided out of the darkness with a face like my dad’s. Oh shit, I said, flinching. The shark snapped at me and I flinched again, needles bristled on my arm. I was having a bad trip and there was nothing I could do about it. It was like falling off a high-rise building and telling yourself I don’t want to fall anymore. You just had to wait until you hit the bottom.
Get out, get out, the manager yelled from behind the door. I call the cops.
Some of us were drunk. Some of us were stoned. Some of us were on acid and had an aurora borealis in our head. But we were all on the same leaky boat in that motel bathroom, too dark to see where we were going, too smashed to even care.