Read an Excerpt
Saturday, May 31st
THE CAR CREEPS TO THE END OF THE DRIVEWAY AND turns onto the gravel road, the tires kicking up a small cloud of dust that whips into a spiral in the dead air before disappearing just as quickly as it came. I roll my window down and swallow a heavy gulp of humidity and look at my mom and take a deep breath. She smiles real big, and it seems authentic, and this puts me at ease to a small degree. If she can feel good about my journey, then what is there for me to really, truly worry about?
My mom guides the car onto the boiling black asphalt in front of us, turns the radio up, and rolls her own window down halfway. Her long brown hair blows in the breeze coming in and shines in the sunlight. She looks so pretty. Way better than she ever has over the past six months. She’s wearing an olive green dress and white flats, and she slides her sunglasses over her eyes and says, “I’m so excited for you. You’re going to do great out there, Kaden.”
“I’m sure I will. It’s gonna be fun. New, ya know.”
“Something that you’ve never come close to living,” she says.
I turn my eyes out the front of the window. It’s so sunny today, and the sky is blue. White puffy clouds that look like zoo animals float everywhere above us. And a tiny bit of me still can’t believe that I’m doing this. That I’m going to San Francisco to see Chuck Palahniuk read and stay with my cousin James Morgan, and most important, that I’m seeing the final wish of my brother through. My best friend in the world. I’m doing what he wanted us to do before he died in Iraq. I’m taking care of the rest of the business he couldn’t be around to finish.
We glide past giant spaces of green country, horses, cows, hogs, and big houses that have stood in place for generations. My flight leaves the Cedar Rapids airport in two hours, and I am due in San Francisco at three twenty this afternoon.
That Patsy Cline song, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” comes on, and my mom looks at me and says, “Just remember one thing while you’re running around out there with James.”
“Don’t put too much stock into everything he says. He goes off about a lot of things.”
“Like what, Mom?”
She runs a hand through her hair and sighs. “Just things. He runs his mouth, and not everything is always worth listening to. He can get really carried away sometimes.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. Not one stinking clue. So I shrug and I say, “Got it.” And we barely speak the rest of the ride. The rest of the way spent with me thinking about my brother, Kenny, and how big of a kick he’d get out of knowing I was actually going through with this.
I miss him so much.
My mom pulls up in front of the United Airlines terminal. She gets out. I’m trying to show that I’m not nervous. For her sake, not mine. I step outside and walk to the back of the car and help her pull my suitcase from the trunk. Then she hands me three hundred dollars and says, “I know we already gave you three, but here’s some more plus a prepaid phone card. I want to be sure you have everything you need out there.”
“I’ll be fine, Mom.”
“I know you will, sweetie.” She pats my head and hugs me and says, “Call me when you land. Okay?”
“I love you.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
She hugs me again, and I drag my suitcases into the airport and check in for my flight. I make it through security with no hassles and sit down next to these big windows that look out over the concourse and, beyond that, the endless miles of farmland and country that surround this place.
I have no idea of what to expect. I’m on my way to see my cousin, whom I’ve met once, in a city I’ve never been to, and the deep unknown of these two things combined is putting me on edge, so I slide my billfold out and pull a letter from it. The last communication I ever had with my older brother, Kenny. The words on the paper that changed my life forever when I first read them on that brutal winter day in December:
What’s up, man? If you’re getting this letter, you already know that I’m not making it back from this desert of murder and madness. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to. I’m so sorry, man. Sorry that I’ll never be able to see you again and throw the football around with you again and talk about girls and go creek dipping and quarry jumping with you in the summer at Leland’s property. I just wasn’t ready and prepared, and maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this day-to-day hell. That’s what Iraq is, Kaden. It’s hell. The brutal scent of death is around every corner and along every single road in this godforsaken place. This isn’t just a bunch of American soldiers shooting at shit, this is having to bear over hundred-degree temperatures. Frozen night commands. This is trying to look at a hostile crowd of people of all ages and trying to figure out which one is trying to kill you that day. We know nothing about the people or the place we’re going up against each day. The only thing we know is that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to figure out who the enemy really is. A group of insurgents who arrived here to fight the jihad from one of the neighboring countries? Or members of a family who seek revenge on the soldiers who’ve turned their relatives into collateral damage, destroyed their neighborhoods, driven their people out of the area, and turned their country into a lawless melting pot of religious ideology and horrific street justice more brutal than you are ever shown on the screen of the televisions back home. I’ve seen decapitated bodies slung from buildings while entering certain neighborhoods. Children missing hands and eyes. It’s fucking sickening. Me and some of the other guys in our unit would get physically ill at times while we rampaged through houses and buildings, only to find a group of Sunni men lying face-first on the floor, hog-tied, bullet wounds in the back of their heads. Or a baby, man ? I saw the body of this baby girl who couldn’t have been more than three years old in a trash can in this house. Her throat had been slit and intestines pulled through her stomach. The rest of her family was found stacked together in a pile in the living room with all of their throats cut too, and there was a huge warning note written in Arabic about the consequences of working with the Iraqi Police and U.S. Commanders. I mean, what the fuck, man? What is this madness we’ve been committed to. Our presence, my presence, has brought brutal death to over one million Iraqis, and they’re not all insurgents, Kaden. Hardly any of them really are. We shoot at everything that makes a sudden movement. We hog-tie men and women in the middle of the night in front of their children before whisking them away in black hoods under the rotten cloak of Bringing Democracy to these people, which is just a code phrase for American Imperialism. It’s not right, and all of our soldiers should leave. I have already left, little bro. In a
flag-draped coffin that I’m not sure I’m really worthy of being buried in. We need to leave now before more Iraqis are slaughtered on these killing fields, before more of our soldiers are bled to death in these blinding whirlwinds of sand.
I know what you must be thinking, Kaden. Who is this guy writing you this letter? Where did your older brother go? Where is the kid who was so eager to leave for this fight and win this war for this just country’s noble cause?
Well, here I really am. This is who I was turned into. Telling you all of this is the responsible thing for me to do. Telling you how ashamed I was before my death by what I had taken part in: Blind homicide. Vast torture. The pointless destruction of homes. The massive roundup and incarceration of innocent Iraqis.
The list could go on, Kaden. And I’m certainly not the only one in my unit who grew despaired by how we all became complicit in the destroying of a country and its citizens’ lives. Nobody is into it anymore. Most of us just want to go home. That was when I first started reading books again. One of the other soldiers on the base was really into this writer Chuck Palahniuk. He’s the guy who wrote the book Fight Club. Anyway, this guy was always raving about Chuck’s books and how they were really helping him cope with being in Iraq. He’d been fighting for two years, and the only moments of life he had enjoyed during those years were the moments of downtime when he was able to be swept away into another one of Chuck’s stories and was almost able to completely forget for those few precious hours where he was and what he was facing. The true life-or-death scenarios he encountered in the neighborhoods and villages in and around Baghdad for fifteen hours a day.
The guy told me that anytime I wanted to get into one of his books, to just ask him. He had all of them there. I asked him what I should read first, and he told me to start with Fight Club. That I should read his books in the order they came out, because put together they reminded him of one giant text, each new novel a different chapter. So I asked him for Fight Club, and from the very first line of the first chapter I was hooked, Kaden. I read the entire book that same night. Those hours spent reading were some of the best I’d ever spent in my entire life. Something inside of me took a drastic turn. I felt awakened for the first time. Reading those books, it was like there was an author speaking directly to me and to the way I felt about my place in the world.
Most of the characters in his books were so easy to identify with. Characters who were lost and drifting amid a plastic culture. Characters who felt betrayed by the end results of doing what they were told would make them happy. It made me think hard about how natural the violence inside of us is. But how we should use it in ways other than killing people. The way we bottle things up and are scared of everything and scared of feeling life and living among each other. It was a revelation. A revelation that happened too late.
I mean, I always felt like that myself. How Dad always told us that you do this, you do that, you get through school, and you get a job, then get married and have some kids and then retire and then die. And that’s Happiness. He raised us as if that’s the only way of life there is and that anyone who strayed from that path was somehow not worthy in his eyes, and even though I think Mom didn’t really agree with him, I don’t think she knew how to ever go against his word and how he thought about shit.
It’s strange to have all of these feelings about this right now. And it’s so strange to write a letter to your best bud in the world in this fashion. Already dead. With no chance of ever being able to say this to you face-to-face, man. I can’t say for certain or anything like that, but I really think that if I’d thought about what would’ve made ME truly happy in life beyond Dad’s direct approval, then I don’t think I would’ve joined the military.
And this is why I’m writing this letter to you, Kaden. Because I need to know that you heard all of this somehow. I want you to start getting into good shit right now and do something fucking rad with your life. I want you to be happy, man. Read Chuck Palahniuk. See if it’s for you. My goal was to come back on leave and take you out to San Francisco this summer to catch him do a reading for his new book and meet him. Our cousin James, the author, he lives out there. I asked him about it in an e-mail, and he told me it would be rad to have us out there for that. But I’m not gonna make this one, buddy.
If you’re reading this letter, you’ve already said good-bye to me. I thought about this for a couple of months. That’s how important this is to me. I had to have the letter come from somebody in the States without sending it from here because of some of the vague information that’s inside about operation details my unit was involved in. I couldn’t have the military read it, so I had to pack it with Brady. It was also the only way to get it past Dad. I don’t want you showing this letter to either him or Mom, Kaden. I’m gone. And they shouldn’t have to have their final memories and thoughts about me rehashed and then smashed into rubble. Just let them have their peace about what they thought I still believed about this war and this military. You’re the one who matters now. I love you. Be something. Be anything. Go see what the fuck is out there, man.
I fold the letter and put it away. Take a deep breath. I miss him so much. Every time I read that letter, all I can think of is him and me shooting the shit about girls. Well, him telling me about girls and how to deal with them and how to talk to them. He always had lots of real pretty girls around. They were always calling the house and showing up unannounced and waiting for him after football and basketball games in high school. With every last feeling in my gut I miss my older brother, Kenny, so fucking much.
I walk to a vending machine and buy an A&W Root Beer, and then I sit back down and take another breath. Soothing the nerves. I’ve never flown by myself before. Never done much of anything by myself before. And here I am, fifteen years old, about to be in San Francisco for a week with James Morgan. A person I only know through the outrageous stories and tales from the mouths of other family members. Most of the stuff not very flattering. Most of the stuff pretty fucking ruthless. There was the big uproar he caused with some comments he made on the Charlie Rose show, when he apparently looked fucked on cocaine and went: “I’m pretty sure that the only thing in my life that has ever held me back is the loose association I still have with my parents and my brother and my sister. Once I cut those red chords completely, the sky’s the limit, baby.”
Or this one in Rolling Stone: “The only good thing I can say about my family is that they sucked. My mom and dad were Republicans, and I lost my virginity before my brother did, and he was four years older than me. I was banging chicks when I was thirteen behind toolsheds and concession snack stands while the rest of my family was busy affirming their future roles as people of no significance whatsoever. I mean, I gave my sister her first cigarette when I was twelve and she was fifteen. I was on a path to greatness by then.”
He’s not in touch much with his immediate family, but him and my mom have always had a close relationship. She’s always talked glowingly of him and always talked about taking a trip to San Francisco to see him, much to the dismay of my dad. The only time I’ve ever met him was at a reading he did in Minneapolis for his second book. He nodded and said what’s up to me, and then he spent the next hour talking with my mom over a cup of coffee at a table while I wandered aimlessly through the aisles of the bookstore, bored out of my mind. At that point I’d never read a book that hadn’t been assigned to me in school. I was never a very big reader before Palahniuk. Never had the urge to read before my older brother’s letter came in the mail.
a. my flights
I board my connecting flight to O’Hare. I have a window seat, and I buckle myself into it and put my head against the glass. I’m tired from the night before with Jocelyn. I already miss her so much. It was hard to walk away from her on Pheasant Road. Hard for me to let go of her hands and kiss her lips that last time. And I can still taste her on my lips. I can still smell her on my skin.
The flight is only half full, and I get the row to myself. It’s a short time in the air. Forty minutes it says on my boarding pass, and I know the perfect way to pass the time. I take out James’s second novel, Dickpig: Confessions of a Heavy Metal Groupie, the last one he wrote, and I start reading it, because I’ve never read a word that James Morgan has ever written, and from what I understand of the guy, he totally seems like someone who would get really agitated about something like that.
b. dickpig: confessions of a heavy metal groupie
Hailed as an instant cult classic by the New York Times on the front cover of the paperback edition, Dickpig tells the story of twenty-one-year-old Irene McClusky, a chubby girl from Providence, Rhode Island, who follows her favorite metal band of all time, Hippopotamus Death, around the United States and Canada during their summer tour.
A real summer vacation.
James dedicated the book to “all the trolls and frumpy babes stalking the back rooms of venues across North America. Stalking like vultures ready to pounce on the black carcass mass of beards and leather and wicked solos. I love you all dearly.”
He has lyrics from that band Slayer and lyrics from the Melvins before page one.
I flip the page and read:
I was twelve years old the first time I ever hid a sandwich under my armpit. It was during a class trip to this prehistoric museum in downtown Providence. The museum served lunch that day to all the kids visiting. The lunch consisted of a bologna sandwich, a bag of plain potato chips, a chocolate chip cookie, and a carton of milk. While the museum volunteers brought out the food on these big trays and set them on these large tables in the front of the cafeteria, it was made clear to us at least three times that each student was only allowed one of each item. They practically pounded it into our heads.
What bullshit! I’m not gonna lie at all. I was really fucking fat when I was twelve. I still am. And I knew that one bologna sandwich wasn’t gonna cut it. I had to get more. There were at least fifteen sandwiches left over, just sitting on a platter, not being eaten at all. It was like they were taunting me. It was driving me nuts. So I devised a plan to get more, as I dipped the cookie in my milk and ate it. What I did was I waited until there was some serious traffic near the sandwich trays. I hovered closely, and when I saw that nobody was looking, I snatched another sandwich and shoved it up the bottom of my Limp Bizkit T-shirt and underneath my right armpit, where it wedged all neatly between a fat roll and the underside of my arm. After that was finished, I excused myself to the bathroom, where I sat inside a stall and scarfed it down in three bites.
This whole thing would become a pattern for me as I grew up. Just last week, while I was getting nailed in the butt by Ralph, the drummer for this band Wasted Fly, a blueberry muffin popped right out from underneath my left tit. It was insane. I’d jammed that fucker under there at least four days before I fucked him.
I pull my face out of the book.
What the fuck?
I’m like, Holy shit! What the hell is this? I can’t quit laughing. Seriously. I’m still laughing as I step off the plane in Chicago.
My next flight is full. I have a middle seat, and it is hell. There’s an old lady to my left, who keeps snapping and popping her bubble gum, and then this fat guy on my right, who whistles through his nose every time he takes a breath. I can’t stand it, and I don’t have an iPod. Never knew what that was all about until now.
I put my head against the seat and close my eyes and try and focus on Jocelyn. An image of her and me lying on our backs in a meadow full of yellow flowers and sunlight soothes me.
They announce the in-flight movie: Quantum of Solace. And after we take off, I buy a set of headphones and plug in. Not ten minutes later, barely after the opening credits and action are over, my eyelids get heavy and drop. I’m gone. Off to dreamland.
c. my dream
Me and Kenny are walking down the gravel road next to the house we grew up in. The house is in really bad shape. It’s been deserted, and it’s crumbling, and the roof’s caved in, and there’s all these vines and weeds wrapping around it. Kenny and I are moving at a pretty good pace. I’m not sure where we’re going. It’s cold and dark, but the moon is shining real bright, and Kenny looks really worried. His face is even sad. Every time that I start lagging, he grabs my shoulder and pulls me ahead and goes, “Kaden, we have to keep moving.”
“But I’m tired.”
“I know you are. But we have to keep moving. We have to.”
I never ask him why. I just try and keep pace, even though it feels like something is following us. But when I look over my shoulder, there’s only pure darkness. A wall of black midnight. It’s like the Nothing in that movie The Neverending Story. It’s stalking us.
Then Kenny just stops moving.
“What’s wrong?” I ask him.
He looks at me, and his face is expressionless. He doesn’t even look the same at all.
“What’s wrong?” I ask him again.
And he shakes his head. He goes, “It’s time.” And then something grabs a hold of his leg, and he slams to the ground and is being dragged away from me.
I grab his arm and try to pull him back toward me, but I’m not strong enough. His arm rips out of my grasp, and I fall to the ground, and Kenny gets dragged through the black wall and disappears, and I sit there. I’m exhausted. Crying. I hear a crow cawing. I look up, and I see three of them perched on a power line, silhouetted by the moonlight. I look behind me. The black wall of midnight is slowly creeping toward me, but I’m too tired to move. I wipe my face and turn my head and see someone’s hand come flashing at me out of the corner of my eye and slam into my face.
My head jerks forward. Eyes snap open. The plane is descending into the San Francisco Airport. There’s drool on my chin and shirt. The blue bay water is everywhere. It looks like we’re going to land in it. A little girl across the aisle asks her mom if planes can float, and her mom laughs, and then the runway appears from nowhere and we hit it, we land. The sun beams bright. My bad dream is over. And I’m here in this brand-new place for the first time ever.
I go straight for the bathroom after I get off the plane. I splash water on my face and take a long piss, and then I wash my hands and check myself out in the mirror, making sure I look as rad as I can. And I think I do. I’m wearing a blue and gold flannel, a pair of white jeans rolled up my calves, a pair of penny loafers, and the gold chain I lifted out of my brother’s room the night after his funeral.
I run my hands through my curly blond Afro. I rinse my face again. Wish for a second I didn’t have so many freckles. Then I dry my hands off and find the nearest pay phone, take out the prepaid phone card my mom gave me, and call her to let her know I landed okay.
“Is James with you right now?” she asks.
“Not yet. I’m on a pay phone. I haven’t even got my bag yet.”
“All right. Well, have a great time, sweetie. Tell James I said hi.”
“And just remember what I told you, Kaden. About not listening to everything James says.”
“He goes off a lot.”
“I will. I promise.”
I get off the phone and ride an escalator down to the United bag claim area, and this funny thing happens to me. Nobody’s there to greet me. As all the other people from my flight hug family members or friends or go about things like they know nobody is gonna be there for them, I look desperately around and see no one who resembles James. Not one single person is there to jump out of nowhere, grab me, get my attention, and ask me how my flight was and if I’m hungry and what I wanna do first.
I’m feeling uneasy about everything. I am. But I keep myself under control and make myself not panic and think that maybe James is just running late. Maybe he’s in the bathroom.
That’s gotta be it, I convince myself while I wait for my bag to spit out.
But by the time they come around to me, there’s still no one there, and I’m starting to get pretty concerned. I don’t have a cell phone or anything like that on me. Only thing I got is an address and phone number for James.
I dig the number and the phone card out of my pockets and find another pay phone and call James. Four times it rings before going to voice mail, so I leave him a message about how I’m standing at the bag claim waiting for him, anyone, to fucking pick me up.
This is destroying me. It really is. I could cry. And I could break someone’s face. A dramatic surge of emotion overwhelming me. I think about calling my mom and telling her what’s going on. How this whole thing is a bunch of bologna. Horseshit. I want to, but I also don’t want her to freak out and do something like book a flight out here. Or call James and pick a huge fight with him over the phone. That wouldn’t be good for anyone. The way I’ve heard it about James, you really shouldn’t try and test his patience, even though, from what I hear, he’s pretty fucking good at testing everyone else’s patience.
I decide to just man up for the moment. I walk over to a pop machine near the exit and buy a root beer and go outside.
It’s a zoo. Cars whizzing by. Horns honking. Shuttle buses stopping and going. Airport security shouting instructions at people.
To my left I see a taxi pickup stop. I decide I’m going to just take a cab to the address I have written down and go from there. Be adventurous and see what happens. But right as I start to make my way over to the taxis, a girl’s voice screams my name.
Stopping right in my tracks, I look over my shoulder and see this blue Volkswagen with a girl inside of it creeping up along the curb with the passenger-side window open.
“Kaden Norris,” she calls out again.
The girl slams the car into park. “Awesome!” she says, then steps out of the car, and I’m pretty sure I’m falling in love right there.
She’s the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen who’s ever said a word to me. Boy, she’s so pretty.
She’s Latin. I’ve never met a Latin girl before. She has this real light brown hair, almost blond, that’s pulled back into a ponytail. A Marilyn Monroe–like beauty mark above the left side of her lips. Her body is banging. Athletic and tight and real sleek. She’s wearing short navy-colored running shorts with a single white stripe going up each side, a tight white V-neck shirt, a pair of white socks pulled to her knees, with three black striped rings around each of them, and a pair of black Adidas. She’s so hot. She even has an Indian head tattooed on the inside of each forearm.
“Who are you?” I ask, setting my bag down.
“My name is Caralie. I’m your cousin’s girlfriend.”
“Where’s he at?”
“He couldn’t make it,” she snaps, snatching my bag up.
“Is he okay?”
Caralie stops moving. She looks like she doesn’t know where to begin or even how she might answer that. She says, “I guess it depends on what you mean by okay.” Then she whips around and drags my luggage to the car and throws it in the trunk. “Let’s go.” She smiles.
Well, I mean, kind of smiles.
e. the drive
We shoot past the terminals and onto the highway, the front windows rolled down, the warm Pacific breezes whipping past me, through me. I notice, in between me and Caralie, the printed-out picture of me that I sent James in an e-mail a few months ago so he would recognize me when I got off the plane. And Caralie, she looks real agitated. She’s holding her phone to her ear and shaking her head. And for the most part I really can’t pull my eyes away from her awesome brown thighs. Her shorts are bunched up so far to her crotch that I can see the bottom of her lace underwear. They’re pink-colored.
She looks at me while I stare at this, and she gives me this half smile and puts her phone away.
“I’m sorry,” she says, reaching into her purse. She pulls out a pack of Camel Lights cigarettes. “You mind if I smoke one?” she asks.
“No. My mom smokes. She’s been smoking packs a day in the house since December. So I don’t mind at all. It’s your car, anyway.”
“I don’t normally. And you shouldn’t at all anymore. But I do have one or two on occasion.”
She lights the cigarette, and my eyes fall away from her, around the car and through the windows, the two of us speeding down the road.
I see a bridge poking into the sky.
“What bridge is that?” I ask her.
“The Bay Bridge.”
“Where does it go?”
“To Oakland and Berkeley. The East Bay.”
“Where’s the Golden Gate Bridge?”
“Way to the other side of the city. Do you wanna see it while you’re here?”
“ ’Cause you have to. Anyone who comes here has to see the Golden Gate Bridge.”
I see huge brown hills with large houses on Caralie’s side. The water, the beginning of the Pacific Ocean, is only fifty feet to my left.
And Caralie looks at me, the cigarette balancing between two fingers, strands of her hair blowing around, and she says, “First off, I wanna apologize for the way I look right now.”
“Yeah, dude. I look like shit. Complete and total shit. I was in the middle of a soccer game when James called and asked me to pick you up.”
Her saying this, about her looking like crap, I’m thinking, Shit. If this is what looking like crap is in San Francisco, then easily I’m gonna fall in love fifty times over anytime I go anywhere. Easily.
And she says, “I also need to apologize for picking you up so late. That must have been terrible.”
“It wasn’t so bad at all. Don’t worry about it.”
“Kaden,” I snap, correcting her.
“Kaden. Sorry. It’s a huge deal to me. There was a miscommunication between James and me about your flight time, and he got all caught up with some other stuff.”
“It wasn’t bad, Caralie. I don’t care.”
“But it is bad,” she says, grabbing my left arm and squeezing it. “It’s a really big fucking deal that the two of us left you stranded at the airport for almost a half an hour. It’s absolutely not acceptable.”
She’s getting really emotional about the whole thing. Like deep down what she’s apologizing to me for is something that has nothing to do with me as much as it has everything to do with James Morgan.
She says, “All by yourself. Just a kid. How old are you?”
Letting go of my arm, she says, “It’s not cool at all that this happened to you. I’m sorry.”
“Okay, then,” I tell her. “Apology accepted.”
“Thank you,” she says, then takes another drag and turns the stereo up.
Beats. Beats. And good fucking beats. She’s listening to the new Cage album, and it’s getting me pretty pumped up, putting me in an awesome mood the way only rad music can do to a person on a gorgeous, sunny day riding in a car with the windows rolled down and a pretty girl next to you.
“I love Cage,” I say.
“No shit.” She smiles. “You’re into hip-hop.”
“Way into it.”
“Fuck, yeah.” She looks at me again and winks. “I can see that, I guess. You got some good style with what you’re wearing. You’ll fit in perfectly in the city. There’s been a huge hip trend going on with flannels and cut-offs and rolled jeans. You look cute in it.”
“That’s nice to know. My dad told me I looked like a bum. Like some homeless fuck.”
“Well,” she says, “that’s kind of a trend out here too. Lots of trust-fund types dressing like they’re the scum of the earth. Looking all homeless and grungy on purpose. Trying to make a fashion statement by looking the dirtiest.”
“So you’re saying I look like I’m homeless, too?”
“No. You don’t. You look good. Your dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
“My dad’s a real type asshole.”
“You think so.”
“He’s a miserable prick.”
“Sorry about that,” I say.
She makes a face. “Don’t be sorry at all.” She lights another cigarette. “So who do you listen to?”
“Shit. Everyone. I mean, Jay-Z’s probably my favorite ever. I know every song off of every album. Me and this girl from back home, Jocelyn, love him. I also like T.I.
Lil Wayne. Nas. RZA. Tupac and Biggie, of course. Aesop. The Grouch. Cage, obviously. P.O.S. is sick. Public Enemy. Kool Keith.”
“There’s so fucking much, though. And I’ll listen to anything that’s good. Too Short is one of my favorites. And of course Three 6 Mafia is right up there. What about you?”
“Everyone you just mentioned,” she says. “Del the Funky Homosapien. Shit, the whole Hiero crew, I guess. Um, Common Market is great. Cannibal Ox. Naughty by Nature was like my favorite growing up. And I just saw GZA a few weeks ago.”
“Liquid Swords is one of my favorite albums,” I say.
“His new album is pretty sick too,” she says, giving me another side grin that makes my stomach wanna explode.
I mean, this girl, she’s absolutely something to look at. Stare at. One of those girls that takes the breath of a room away. A girl you notice the moment she enters a room no matter what you’re doing and how crowded the room is. A girl where everyone turns to the people they’re with and goes, “Who the fuck is that? I would do anything to talk to her. The guy fucking her, that guy is the luckiest motherfucker in the world. I would fuck men to get to that.”
She finishes her smoke and says, “I would’ve never thought that James Morgan’s little cousin from Iowa would be all into hip-hop the way you are.”
“James isn’t into it?”
“Not anything past ninety-six really. What he calls the Golden Era of Rap.”
“Really,” I say. “That’s all the hip-hop he gets into.”
She sighs. “It’s complicated.” She turns to me, then back to the road. “He’s one of those guys that hates everything even though he really loves everything too.”
“Oh, I see. So what does he love the most, ya know, besides you?”
She puts a finger to her lips and goes, “2 Live Crew. Guns N’ Roses. The Coachwhips. Aerosmith’s first album. Replicator and Future of the Left. At least that’s what he’s been pounding in his pad for like the last four days. Only that stuff.”
“My brother, Kenny, liked Guns N’ Roses a lot too.”
“Lies and Appetite for Destruction. Can’t go wrong with any of that.”
We take an exit and enter the city, and it’s a quite a sight. Hills upon hills upon hills crammed and stacked with side-to-side buildings. Warehouses and stores and shoulder-to-shoulder traffic.
“Have you ever been here before?” Caralie asks me, turning the music down.
“First time ever.”
“You’re really gonna love it,” she says. “James is gonna show you a great time.”
“I hope so.”
“He will, Kade.”
“Kaden,” I correct her again.
“Kaden.” She grins. “Got it.”
“Where’s he at right now?”
“This crazy place that him and the kids he lives with call the Whip Pad.”
“Why do they call it that?”
“Who the fuck knows. Those guys, really, they’re all off in their own little worlds. It’s like a damn madhouse most of the time over there.”
“Yup. I mean, I’m taking you over there because that’s where he’s at, but honestly, I’m not that big into the idea.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
She scrunches her face and says, “Pretty much everything. The place itself is like this moldy, dark cave with bad plumbing and horrible air circulation.”
“Huh,” I go, looking on as we roll down Ninth Street past homeless people pushing carts, a crazy white woman in rags, yelling, and well-dressed younger-looking professional types sharing the same sidewalks and taking it all in perfect stride. “I would’ve thought someone like James might live in a nice place with how popular his books are and how one of them was supposed to get made into a movie.”
“PieGrinder,” she says. “That was the one.”
“Well, he has another place,” she says, as we cross Van Ness, the golden dome of City Hall glistening a few blocks away. “It’s in the Mission, and he stays there most of the time. He just has a room at the Whip Pad where he keeps shit and rages. And that just happens to be where he’s at right now.”
“Partying?” I ask, even though I know.
“Yeah,” she gasps, rubbing her forehead and changing lanes. “Partying.”
f. the whip pad
It’s in the part of town that Caralie calls the Lower Haight, near the stoplight intersection of Fillmore and Haight streets. She says that it’s a pretty okay neighborhood.
She says, “You’re in walking distance to the Mission, which is rad. There are some pretty decent bars and shops. The food is great. And there’s always something happening on the street. Plus,” she continues, “it’s not a bad couple of blocks. Although ?” She points past Fillmore toward a row of same-colored houses with small green lawns and porches in the front. “That block up there can get gnarly. Two shootings a couple of weeks ago alone.”
“What neighborhood is it?”
“It’s the outer Western Addition and the start of the Fillmore. It’s not nice at all the deeper you go.”
“Huh,” I say. “Don’t have those problems in Dysart, Iowa.”
“I bet you don’t.” She grins. “How big is your town?”
“Dysart is about a thousand people tough. I live on a farm, though. Outside of town. Right off a gravel road.”
“So you’re a farmer?”
“Not me. I hate that shit. But my dad is.”
“What do you grow?”
“Corn and soybeans.”
It takes forever to find a parking space. We seriously circle these three blocks maybe twenty times for fifteen minutes at least before we slide into a spot in front of this hair salon called Edo, with some real pretty girls styling hair inside of it, and this medical marijuana store with two door guys out front doing security.
First time I ever seen anything like that.
The sidewalks are filled with bodies. With the sun shining down, it feels like a festival is happening, but it’s not a festival; it’s just Saturday. There’s a big circle of black kids, my age–looking, maybe a little older, shooting dice on the side of this store called Lower Haters. Up the block from them are groups of people eating sausages in front of this bar Tornado. A couple of kids in flannels and sideways baseball caps are grinding a curb on their skateboards. I smell weed. Lots of weed. And there’s some kids on a stoop drinking forties, and one of them is selling his art.
We walk past this bar Molotovs, with punk rock music blasting through its open windows. We move past a barbecue joint that smells fucking rad. There’s more stoops full of kids. More pockets of pot odor. Kids in hoodies and tight jeans drinking tall cans and listening to N.W.A. on a boom box.
A few guys call out to Caralie.
A few more even whistle.
She ignores this, like it’s nothing, like it’s not happening, like she gets the treatment every time she leaves the house, and then she smiles when some toothless black lady asks me to dance with her.
“I’m all right,” I say, blushing.
“I think she likes you,” Caralie giggles.
It’s pretty cool. Just this one city block in San Francisco is way busier than the annual Fourth of July gathering in Dysart Park.
We stop at the top of a set of stairs going down instead of up. The only set like that on the whole block.
She turns to me, wiping a few shining strands of hair out of her eyes, and she says, “This is it. This is the Whip Pad.”
At the bottom of the stairs is a closed door, smeared green, all chipped up and rotting. And I’m not lying here: I’m real nervous all of the sudden. I’m a tiny frame of a hundred different nerves, and I can barely suck up the intensity of the moment. I’m not joking one bit. If I would’ve been more like my older brother, Kenny, it might be different. He wouldn’t be nervous at all. He never got nervous in social situations. He always projected enough confidence for other people to hide under the invisible cloak of it. He was the guy who owned every place he chose to be. The way Caralie seems to be. Thing is, I don’t know her like I did my older brother, and I know I won’t be able to ride her coattails of cool. Not this soon. Not in the cool capital of the country, entering some slumhole known as the Whip Pad.
She smiles. “You ready?”
Trying my hardest to project a strong sense of calm and toughness, I stick my chest out and square my shoulders and snap my back straight and clamp my jaw down as I follow her down the steps littered with trash and covered in graffiti.
She pulls out a set of keys and pushes the door open, and my whole world gets devoured and reshaped in the blink of an eye. In front of me is a dark, narrow hallway with two doors on each side of it. Picture frames and posters hang on the walls, which are covered in more graffiti. We start walking down the hall. This gross, thick fog of cigarette smoke sits heavily in the air. There are bikes and paint cans stacked together to my right. Superintense and loud thrash metal pounds from a room to my right. Screaming voices trying to be heard over the music are coming from the same room.
Caralie swats at the smoke and says, “Jesus Christ. This place is death.”
Me, I have to cover my face with my shirt. The smoke is that potent.
Caralie pushes open the door where the music and voices are coming from, and I trail her inside of the room. It’s really small and has a low ceiling and no windows. Six people are crammed in there. There are three way fine girls sitting on a futon right next to the door, holding beers. A glass coffee table covered with beer cans and ashtrays and empty whiskey bottles and a large, grimy mirror with a big pile of cocaine on it sits in front of the futon. Almost every inch of the walls is covered with album covers and posters and flyers for shows.
I spot James right away. He’s slouched in a chair on the opposite side of the room, wearing a pair of tight black jeans, red cowboy boots, and this white T-shirt with a V-neck collar that looks like he cut it even farther down his chest.
He nods and I nod back.
His hair is real short, like he’s just run over it with a quarter-inch clipper guard. His face is rough and covered in stubble. He’s wearing a pair of aviator shades with pitch-black lenses. His arms and his chest and his knuckles and his neck are covered with tattoos. On the top of his right hand is the word “self.” And on his left one the word “made.”
He looks pretty much the way I recall him looking at the reading in Minneapolis, except for one thing. His face looks like it’s aged faster than the rest of him. All the partying looks like it’s catching up with him in a big-time way.
There’s also a guy in a navy-blue cardigan with black-rimmed glasses and long brown hair that’s combed real neatly from the left. He’s sitting in a black rocking chair next to James. And then there’s this other dude kneeling next to the coffee table, and he looks like he’s just walked out of a Mötley Crüe video. I’m being dead serious about this too. He has greasy blond hair that hangs past his shoulders. He’s wearing a black Cradle of Filth T-shirt with some serious sweat pools under his armpits. There’s a white bandanna tied around his neck, and he has on these skin-tight black jeans that look like they’re glued to his legs.
It’s crazy how tight they are.
“Oi,” that guy snorts when Caralie and I walk in. “Who the hell are you?” he asks, staring at me. “You’re not very old. Who are you?”
“That’s my cousin, Kaden,” James says. “He’s from Iowa.”
“Ha. That’s the guy you were supposed to pick up from the airport,” the Mötley Crüe extra says.
“Something like that,” says James.
Mötley Crüe extra guy knocks some hair out of his eyes, licks his gross lips, which are chapped white, then looks back at James and goes, “Awesome job with that, dude.”
Everyone in the room except James, Caralie, and me is laughing, and I feel horribly out of place. My cheeks are red. I have nothing to say.
Turning to me, rolling her eyes, Caralie says, “Kaden, that’s Ally over there.” She’s pointing at this superthin girl, sitting on the far end of the futon, with long blond hair that goes down to her mid-back. She’s wearing this blue dress that has a U cut down the front of it. And she’s barefoot and has a solid black band tattooed around each elbow.
Caralie says, “She lives here. This is her room.”
“What’s up, man?” She smiles. Winks. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too,” I say back nervously, waving a hand at her.
Then Caralie points at the guy in the cardigan and says, “That’s Reed Charleston. He also lives here. Next door over.”
Then she points at the guy kneeling and says, “This is—”
“I’m Ryan,” the guy snaps, cutting her off. “I don’t live in this dump, but I love Venom more than anyone else in this room loves Venom.”
I don’t know what he’s talking about, so I just go, “Sure. Nice to meet you.”
And he says, “I heard you were in town to see a Chuck Palahniuk reading.”
“He’s pretty good. He’s a way better writer than your cousin is.”
James shrugs and flips off Ryan. He picks up a bottle of Jim Beam on the desk behind him and takes a pull.
And Ryan goes, “The thing I don’t like about Chuck is that he spends all this time, all those pages, building up these incredible stories, and then BAM”—he slaps his hands together—“he wraps everything up in like twenty pages. He’s like, ‘So in conclusion ?, ’ and then it’s done. The book is finished. It’s really anticlimactic.”
“Huh.” I don’t have anything to say to that except, “That’s an interesting point.”
“Do you even know what the hell I’m saying?”
“Exactly what I fucking thought,” Ryan snaps.
“And what do you think you know about anything except slanging coke for a living?” Caralie snaps back.
I smile wide as a river when that rips out of her mouth. Sticking up for me like that and all. What a rad fucking girl.
“I know about books,” Ryan says. “When’s the last time you read anything, Caralie?”
“You have no idea what I get into, dude. So don’t start.”
Ryan flips the back of his right hand at her. “Whatever.”
Then Caralie points at the other two girls sitting with Ally on the futon and says, with attitude, “I have no idea who they are.”
“I’m Bridgette,” says the girl in the royal-blue skirt and the white Van Halen T-shirt with the sleeves rolled over her shoulders.
“I’m Renee,” the other girl says. She has short black hair that’s cut all crooked across her forehead. She’s also wearing a pair of really big sunglasses and a hoodie that has girls against boys across the front of it.
“Hey,” I say to them.
“Welcome to the Whip Pad.” Ally smirks.
James stands up, cigarette ashes dropping from his shirt, and he steps toward the stereo and turns the volume down.
“Dude,” Ryan cackles. “You just turned down ‘Providence by Gaslight.’ It’s like my favorite fucking Daughters song.”
“Would you just calm down,” James snorts. “Just relax for a minute. My cousin just got here from Iowa. Quit freaking him out, man.”
Ryan looks at me with his cold black eyes. He runs his tongue around his gross lips again. “You’re not scared at all,” he says. “You like this.”
I don’t say anything.
“You love it.” He grins.
Again I don’t say anything.
James moves for Caralie. He grabs the bottom of her shirt and pulls her toward him. He hugs her and kisses her on the side of the face and goes, “Hey, baby. It’s good to see you.”
She pulls away from him. “Your breath smells, James.”
“So what? It’s still good to see you.”
“Yeah,” she goes. “You too.”
James looks at me and sticks a hand out. “It’s good to see you as well, man. Welcome.”
I shake his hand. It’s all clammy and gross. His fingernails are filthy. He smells worse than the room. He smells like what happens when you dump a bunch of cigarettes into a half-full can of beer and leave it baking in the sun for a few days.
“It’s good to see you, James,” I say.
He lifts his shades and rests them on the top of his head. “I was real sorry to hear about Kenny, man. Your brother was a good guy. I tried to get back for the funeral. Things just, ya know, popped up and got in the way.”
It’s about the most insincere thing I’ve ever heard. How he says it, I mean. As if he’s actually known he was going to say those exact lines to me for the past week and just barely recalled them from somewhere deep in the gutter of his brain next to all the beer and the rainbows and the skeletons and the grime.
“It’s all right,” I tell him. “It was a good service. Kenny always liked you a lot.”
“Right.” James slides his glasses back over his eyes. “So, I mean, do you want anything, man? A beer. A pull of whiskey.”
“James,” Caralie snaps, smacking his arm. “He’s fifteen.”
“So what? I was doing blow for days in Chicago with models when I was fourteen. It’s part of life. I turned out just fine.” He looks back at me. “Anything you want this week, man. The world is yours.”
My mom sure wasn’t fucking around one bit when she said the things she did about James. It seems like everything I’ve read or heard about him is pretty much dead-on, from what I’m seeing in the room.
And I ask, “You got a bathroom I can use?”
“Sure, man. Down the hall and to the left, through the kitchen.”
I slide past Caralie, into the hallway. The door across the hall is closed and says Gerry Jones on it in black spray paint. As I move down the hall toward the kitchen, I hear one of the girls, not Caralie, say something like, “He’s absolutely adorable, James. And his hair. That curly blond Afro is so cute. And that flannel is too perfect.”
“Just like a Methodist version of Bob Dylan,” Ryan snorts.
“Just shut up,” Caralie snaps.
“Fuck you,” Ryan says.
“Fuck you,” she says back.
“Both of you shut up,” says James.
It makes me feel good to hear this about my flannel and hair, because other than that I feel so fucking out of place.
So goddamn uncomfortable.
It makes me feel pretty cool, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I make a left into the kitchen, across from another closed door, this one covered with Polaroids.
The kitchen is easily one of the most disgusting rooms I’ve ever set foot in. Probably twenty trash bags are piled into the far end of the room. There are three mini-fridges next to each other along the wall. The counters are covered with spilled whatever and ants. A mountain of dishes and food wrappers is packed into the sink.
Everything smells like ashtrays and mold.
The door to the bathroom is open a crack. I pull it all the way open.
“What the fuck?” is the first thing I hear.
There are two people inside. One is this tall, skinny black guy with an Afro and purple jeans even tighter than Ryan’s, a white V-neck cut just like James’s, and a pair of Chuck Taylors.
The girl he’s with is also black. She’s a fucking fox. She’s wearing this black dress and sandals. Her body is slamming, too. She’s fit. Short hair. Nice boobs. This insane gold necklace with a fake-diamond bulldog hanging on it.
“I’m sorry,” I say, taking a step back.
“Who the fuck are you?” the guy asks.
I’m all red and timid again. “No one.”
“You don’t knock,” he snaps. “Where’s your fucking manners?”
“I didn’t think anyone was inside.”
“Who the fuck are you?” he snaps again.
“I’m Kaden. I’m visiting James. I’m his cousin.”
“Oh ? shit,” the guy says, a smile crossing his face. “I’m sorry, man. I forgot you were coming.”
Whew. I take a deep breath. “No worries, man.”
“I’m Gerry Jones,” he tells me. “Nice to meet you, man.”
“I’m Michelle,” the girl says next.
“You gotta piss?” Gerry asks.
“All right. We’ll get out of your way, man.”
The two of them start to leave, and Michelle goes, “I really like your flannel and your hair.” She runs a hand through my curls. “You got good style, man.”
“Yeah, those loafers are sick, man,” Gerry snaps.
Michelle rubs my forearm and winks. I’m already in complete awe of the city. All this beauty in one single dump pad. All this coolness. This radical debauchery. I’m enamored by the lifestyle. Getting wasted all day. Listening to records in rooms with beautiful girls.
I close the bathroom door, and it smells like sewage in there. Half the ceramic tiles are missing from the ceiling and stacked into piles next to the toilet, with magazines like Vice and National Geographic on top of them.
The toilet water is brown. There are cigarette butts floating in it and empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans filling up the back of the seat. As I piss, I notice this pretty awesome shit written in black Sharpie on the wall above the cans.
Code of the Grifter:
1. Grift or be grifted.
2. Never grift a grifter.
3. Grift or die trying.
4. Grift now ? ask questions later.
Awesomeness. What the fuck is a grifter, anyway? Who the fuck penned that shit? I’m laughing as I leave the bathroom.
The Grifters ? is that who these dudes are? Like a modern-day Outsiders.
The new Greasers.
But as I’m exiting the kitchen, I notice the door across the hall is open just a tiny crack, and I can hear people arguing inside of it. James and Caralie.
I put my ear next to the door to listen.
Caralie is going off on James about how he needs to get himself together and become a positive part of my trip.
She snorts, “James, he’s staying with you. You’re the only person he knows in the city, so you need to start acting like a fucking adult right now.”
“Fuck you, Caralie,” James snaps back. “Me act like an adult? Don’t forget what I do for you.”
“None of that shit matters right now, James. Your fifteen-year-old cousin is here, and you are in charge of him. That’s the only thing that matters.”
“Will you please take him somewhere for me?” he says. “I am not in the right state of mind to play babysitter. Just take him for the next few hours, and I’ll meet up with you later.”
“Jesus,” she snorts. “You have no regard at all for my life.”
“What am I supposed to do with him?” she asks.
“I don’t know. Do some bonding. Introduce him to some of your babe friends.”
“He’s fifteen, James.”
“So what? I fucked a twenty-six-year-old grad student in the back of her car when I was sixteen.”
“Would you stop it with that shit, James? I don’t wanna hear it.”
There’s a pause.
“Please, Caralie. Pretty, pretty fucking please.”
There’s an ever bigger pause.
“Come on, baby,” he says. “For me. Huh ? what do you say, beautiful girl? Do it for me.”
It’s just like listening to my mom and dad argue about doing anything with me since my brother died. It feels so similar. Me listening to the argument through a door. Neither of them exactly excited about dealing with me or even wanting to talk to me.
More silence ensues until it’s broken again. Not by the shitty sounds of combative voices, but instead by the sound of lips and tongues slapping into each other. I hear Caralie moaning. I hear James go, “Damn, baby. I love your lips.”
And Caralie says, “I know you do.”
She says, “Okay, baby. I’ll take him.”
“I love you,” she says.
“I love you too, baby.”
I bail from the doorway and move down the hall back into Ally’s room.
The Guns N’ Roses song “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is blasting, and everyone in the room is singing along with it. I watch Ryan lift the mirror of drugs off the table and hand it to Ally. He looks back at me, and he goes, “Destroy!” Then throws up the rock horns.
I’m actually feeling okay about being here now. Maybe it’s the combination of the familiarity of the song, all of them singing together, and how much fun they’re having. The ugliness of the physical surroundings blending together with the lovely faces of the girls in the room. That Michelle girl dancing all sexy and sweaty with a beer in her hand.
James and Caralie come back in. He grabs my shoulder, leans in to me, and goes, “You’re gonna go with Caralie. I’ll meet up with you two later.”
I nod. Look back at Caralie, who puts on a big fake grin just for my benefit.
Stepping over the back of Ryan’s legs, James whispers something to Reed, who nods, then pulls out his wallet and hands a card to James.
Flipping back to me, James hands me the card and goes, “Do not lose this shit, man.”
I look down at the card. It’s a fake California ID with the same picture of me that I e-mailed him, and I’m twenty-two on it.
“Be very careful about this ID, Kade.”
“Kaden,” I snap.
James grins. “Kaden. My bad.”
Caralie taps me on the shoulder and asks me if I’m ready to go.
“Sure, I’m ready.”
James grabs my hand again and goes, “It’s good to have you here, man.”
“It’s good to be here.”
“San Francisco, baby. Destroy.”
“Let’s go,” Caralie says.
I tell everyone else good-bye and then Ryan says, “Fine, Reginald VelJohnson. Just go run off into your little world of glasses and loafers and vacuum cleaner toothbrushes.”
“What?” I ask.
“Bubblegum gasoline,” he hisses.
“Just fucking leave,” he snarls as Caralie pulls me out of the room and the apartment. But before the green door can close all the way, I hear James snort, “Dude, really. You need to chill the fuck out. You’re a grimy fuckhead Xanie troll, and you’re scaring people.”
And Ryan says, “You wanna lick the sweat from my armpit and boil my cats in caramel mustard?”
The door shuts.
“What’s that guy’s damn problem?” I ask Caralie at the top of the stairs.
“He’s a fuck. He hasn’t pulled his head out of the coke bag in eight years,” she tells me. “That’s his fucking problem.”