I watch him roll a joint. I am a mannequin. I sip red wine out of a plastic cup.
Soul’s hunched over the mossy clumps of weed on the coffee table – a piece of wood on a couple of truck tires – his thin wife-beater exposing the unfinished tattoo of Jesus on his bony shoulder. He’s sitting on a faded gray couch we found in the alley today. The center cushion’s scorched right through, leaving a gaping black burn. I imagine someone took a flame-thrower to it. Or to somebody, who moved out of the way just in time.
I kind of like it. It fits well in the apartment.
Soul empties the cigar wrapper and spreads the green kernels evenly on the brown paper. The tobacco from the cigar sits in a sticky strawberry heap. He lifts the paper to his mouth, licks the edge, seals the paper. Sticks the end between his lips. Flares the lighter. Leans back and sucks hard, eyes closed, like he’s giving it a blowjob. Then a little hiccup as he fills his lungs. And the release, a cloud of artificial strawberry-flavored smoke.
I have memorized this routine. I’m going to fail math this semester, but I’ll never forget how Soul rolls a joint. I’ll never forget this smell, which permeates every corner of the apartment.
Durkee takes it next. He’s almost 30, more than a decade older than me. I feel like I have seen Durkee before, in my previous life, on his motorcycle, passing me on the 5. He’d be the one blaring country music, grinning at me with a giant gap in his mouth where he’s missing a front tooth. He arrived with an open 40 of Miller Light between his legs and a bag of weed tucked in his armpit. Soul knows him from when they were homeless and lived in a tent in the desert.
Looking at him, I’m wondering if he even has money, or if Soul collected up front. Durkee’s holding the joint out to me now. Soon the room is full of smoke. Soul manages our operation. So far he’s brought over Pistachio, the short, mustachioed Latino gang banger; Big Lou, the dishonorably discharged aspiring rapper; and Shweetie Pie, almost 50, a giant bear of a man who lives in a trailer in his parents’ backyard and works in a gun factory. He wanted very much to give me a foot massage.
And today it’s Durkee, smiling at me with that gap.
I can’t remember how it started. Some mornings I can’t remember anything at all. Maybe that’s the smoking, or the drinking, or just my brain blocking it out, trying to protect me from… From what?
When Pistachio showed me the bullet in his shoulder, the skin forming a translucent shell around it, I felt jealous. It was so solid, so tangible. You could touch it. You could lick it, even.
Since I started working for Soul, little pieces of me have begun to break off and float away, and I am not sure how to get them back.
Later, Durkee knocks on the bedroom door. When I’m ready, I open it and he comes inside. He stands so close I can see the network of red lines on his eyes and smell the beer and pot and Hamburger Helper on his breath. He has thin arms and a gut that sticks out over the belt of his cargo pants. I see he’s already taken the liberty of removing his shirt. His face is reddish and patchy like a multi-vitamin pill.
I always have this memory, right at this moment: I’m six, and my parents have dragged me to some family fun-fest on the pier. There’s a balloon stand and a giant helium machine next to it. The machine fascinates me. My mother asks do I want a balloon, and I nod, but just as she goes up to the man to get one, some kid runs up behind the guy with scissors and starts cutting all the strings. In brightly-colored bunches, they begin floating up, up, up into the sky. The man is screaming in a language I don’t recognize, and the kid is running, but you can tell he’s probably laughing. I imagine my mom calling after him, “Don’t you run with those scissors!”, but of course she’s never said that in her life. Maybe that was his good deed, setting the balloons free.
I watch them for a long time, until the last one is swallowed by the clouds.
I don’t know why I always think of the balloons at this moment.
Later, after it’s over and I’ve taken a shower, I lie down on the floor, wet Medusa tendrils leeching water on the carpet. The high and drunk are fading fast.
Durkee wants me to join him but I’m fine on the floor. He turns on his side, leans over the edge of the bed. He reaches his hand down and it hangs over the side of the bed. After a moment, I take it. It’s warm and oddly comforting. I have a sudden urge to tell him about the balloons.
But he lets out a snore, and I stay quiet. I lie on the floor in the towel, holding Durkee’s crusty hand.
Tonight is just like last night, just like the night before that.
“How are you paying for school?” my mother asks. “Do you have a job?”
Around her face, the balloons keep floating, up, up, up into the clouds.
Tomorrow, I think, tomorrow I will wash the sheets.
Samantha Eliot Stier’s short stories have appeared in The Faircloth Review, Infective Ink Magazine, Extract(s), and Gemini Magazine. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles, and lives in sunny Venice Beach, California. Visit her website: samanthastier.com.