We bought spray-foam insulation from Home Depot and three-inch-deep plastic containers from Target. At a Dollar Tree we picked up marbles and gift-wrap paper, and at Party City we found mylar birthday balloons. Ronnie set up the vacuum sealer on the living-room floor, and I made a pot of coffee. We put on The X-Files and latex gloves, and Ronnie scooped handfuls of trimmed bud into Tupperware set on a digital scale. I watched him break a thumb-sized bud into thirds to get the scale to exactly 454 grams, not counting the Tupperware. The pound of bud got vacuum sealed once, twice, wrapped in a mylar balloon, which we believed to be X-ray proof, then sealed a third time. The sealed pound was set in a plastic container along with three or four marbles to make it sound like a toy, some kids’ game with pieces ready to be assembled. I gift wrapped the plastic container, then dropped it in a plain cardboard box and filled the empty space with the spray insulation. The insulation looked like corn-flavored whipped cream and made our living room smell like a locker room for two days. The package was neatly taped shut.
After a few weeks of boxing and mailing weed for Ronnie, I shipped a gift home to my mom. It was like a wool blanket but better — 100 percent Argentinian alpaca. She called to say thank you, then spent five minutes complimenting the wrapping.
Me and Ronnie had just returned from a trip to Lucky’s farm and had gotten back to Oakland late the night before. It had rained most of the trip, which we took as a good omen: Ronnie’s older brother told us cops were less likely to pull someone over in the rain, and we knew he knew cops better than us because of how many times he’d been arrested.
I held open a vacuum-seal bag as Ronnie tipped the Tupperware over it, and we watched the bud pile up. On the TV David Duchovny sat on a motel bed and read a book called The Spirit Dimension.
“Aliens have got to be real, right?” I asked.
Ronnie patted the bottom of the bag. He looked at the TV. “I’ve never doubted it.”
It was the fall of 2013, when there was a lot of push to get legalization on the ballot. Ronnie and his brother were against it. Not long after I’d started working for Ronnie, he had said, “When the laws change, prices will drop and big business will move in.”
“Walmart will have weed in a matter of weeks,” I said.
“Walmart, Kmart,” Ronnie added. “Every home-goods store. McDonald’s will create weed McFlurries.”
My pay rate for boxing and mailing weed was less than what I got for driving it, even though getting caught mailing weed came with higher consequences than transporting it up and down the California coast. Through the mail the weed crossed state lines. That made it a federal crime. But mailing weed was quick — box it up, drop it off, done — and I didn’t have to leave the Bay.
After all the boxes were taped shut, Ronnie lifted them one at a time and tipped them side to side, listening to the marbles roll around. He picked up a box, shook it, set it down, drank coffee, then picked up another.
He said, “Text me after you mail out each one.”
I said I would.
“Make complete stops.”
“OK,” I said.
“And don’t speed. Not one mile per hour over the limit.”
I said he didn’t have to worry. I said he’d hired me to drive.
In Ronnie’s truck I started thinking about dogs. Our biggest fear was dogs. Ronnie and I looked up dog facts like maniacs. Can dogs smell through plastic? Does the USPS use drug dogs? How do you trick drug dogs? How effective are drug dogs? Are drug dogs a scam that the government uses to justify illegal searches?
We learned they weren’t actually called drug dogs but detection dogs, or “sniffers.” A sniffer’s sense of smell was ten thousand times more powerful than a human’s. A sniffer smelled in layers, which meant that when a sniffer smelled a turkey sandwich, the sniffer smelled the bread, the mayonnaise, the mustard, the lettuce, the cheese, and the deli meat itself. A sniffer’s nose identified ingredients, not “sandwich.” A sandwich was a concept.
Sniffers were our biggest fear, our biggest threat. I liked dogs, but I despised sniffers. I wondered if there were people whose senses were as sharp as a sniffer’s. Guys back in the Army used to say that someone was a good judge of character. I wondered if that meant they could smell through people’s layers, differentiate between everything they’re made of, know exactly what it was people were always hiding.
Guys in my platoon had talked about killing feral dogs when they were in Iraq. I found the dogs in Afghanistan to be no more feral than the rest of us. Once, when I was driving, I swerved to dodge a puppy squatting in the road. My platoon sergeant was in the seat next to me, and he yelled because he said there could be IEDs anywhere and I should stay in the tracks of the lead truck. I asked him if he wanted me to go back and run over the dog. When we got back to base, he made me do two hundred push-ups and three hundred squat thrusters. He lectured me about his tours in Iraq, and he told me the names of his friends who’d died.
Ronnie had handed me a Priority Mail Express label for each bird, with a fake return address and a made-up name. He’d come up with names he liked, and I had to memorize them. He’d make me say them back.
“My name is Nate Jones. I am Brad Kilborn.”
We called the boxes “birds” because they flew by plane. Birds came with automatic insurance. We figured the post office didn’t want to pay out insurance money if a package never showed up, so they were committed to the safe and fast arrival of birds. We figured the cops were more likely to walk sniffers past ground packages than birds. We put our money on birds and insurance payouts, and we knew that at the end of the day nothing was guaranteed and that the game would give and take as random as the weather.
“These birds are going to Georgia,” Ronnie had said, pointing to four taped and ready boxes on his left. “And these birds are going to Massachusetts.” He pointed to two on his right. “Thirty-five bucks a bird. Think you can handle it?”
I said I was used to operating under stressful conditions.
Ronnie said I should hide my tattoos.
Out of the forty post offices in San Francisco, Ronnie’s favorite was on Buchanan Street in the Marina District. Nice neighborhood, rich customers. I had bought a pair of khakis, and I put on a sweater and fake glasses and waited in line with the bird under one arm and read The Sea Wolf. I thought about going to sea. I moved forward in line. There was a storm and a shipwreck, and the story turned into a romance. I missed the beginning, when they were at sea, the conversations they had. The knife fights. I moved forward in line again, and a girl asked me what I was reading. I showed her.
She said she hadn’t read it. She said she was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. She was working her way through a reading list she’d found online. Had I read it? No. She said it was sad, and I asked for her name.
We moved forward in line. For a second I forgot what I was mailing. The clerk called, “Next,” and I got Nina’s phone number.
“Anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous?”
From the Marina District I drove to Lombard Street and sent off another bird, and from Lombard I drove to Bay Street and had to park across the road and wait at the crosswalk with a third bird under my arm. I drove from post office to post office. I worked for three hours and then I got sushi near the zoo. I pulled my phone out and looked at Nina’s number. I never asked Ronnie how much he made per pound. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for the work, but I guessed it was around ten times what he was paying me.
I called Ronnie as I drove back over the bridge. He asked me how it went, and I told him fine. He asked if I had the receipts, and I told him of course, and I told him about Nina.
“But you’re sure you sent them Priority Mail Express?”
“I’m sure,” I said. “I’ll be back in fifteen.”
It was October. The sun was warm, and to my left Alcatraz floated like Atlantis resurrected. The 580 East was rough. The pavement looked stitched together. I thought about where I was, where I was from, how quickly everything had changed. I’d once seen a twenty-ton, up-armored truck lift into the air and barrel-roll. It seemed like it happened in slow motion. The shock wave passed through my truck and through my armor. I was fifty meters away. Sergeant Needles said, “Fuck,” and covered his eyes. He’d been blown up before, and his reaction contained something left over from that experience. My reaction was much slower. I watched the truck and didn’t know what was happening until bullets struck my window and spiderwebbed the glass. I would’ve died if not for that glass. If the truck that hit the IED had been a few inches to the left or right and had missed the pressure plate, I would’ve hit it, and I would’ve died. Someone called for artillery and air support, and then the mountains across the valley went up in flames. A whole mountain range on fire. We kept moving. I became the lead truck. There weren’t any more IEDs that day.
Five minutes before I got back to me and Ronnie’s duplex, a 4Runner in the lane next to me rode the bumper of a city bus, and I found myself reaching for a radio mic that wasn’t there. I wanted to call it in as suspicious. The 4Runner swerved around the bus and took an exit. I followed it and read the license plate at a stop sign. I said it out loud five times, then turned south and headed home. By the time I parked, I realized I didn’t care enough to report the driver. I’d forgotten the plate anyway. I’d gotten lost in thought when I’d stopped at a light and witnessed two homeless men fighting over a street corner. One of them had a screwdriver. The other was saying he didn’t know the corner was spoken for.
Ronnie asked for the receipts and pulled out his laptop. He entered the tracking numbers into the USPS website with one finger, looked at the receipt, typed a few numbers, looked at it again, typed. I told him it hadn’t even been an hour yet, and he said he just wanted to have the page pulled up so he could hit REFRESH once it seemed like they should’ve landed.
I texted Nina. I apologized that it had only been a couple of hours, but my evening had freed up and did she want to hang out? She said she was free, and I told her I could meet her wherever. She lived in South San Francisco with her mom and three brothers, and she said they’d kick my ass if they saw her with me. I asked why, and she said because she was Korean and I was white. We both sent laugh emojis. We agreed to meet in the Mission at eight. She asked if I’d ever had soju.
I took the train and got off at 24th and Mission and walked up the red-tile steps and pulled down on my sweater. I took two steps at a time. I stopped, checked my phone then put it away, felt for my wallet, took two steps again, and listened to all the voices grow louder and the music of cars passing by as I emerged into the city.
Nina was on her phone outside the restaurant, and when she saw me, she jumped and waved, and I waved back and smiled. My cheeks blushed and I felt stupid for having used a big over-the-head wave like she did, like someone saving seats in a sports arena.
We hugged, and Nina asked if I knew my way around the city. I thought of what I did know: all the post offices, where to buy vacuum bags, the closest place to rent a car.
“Not around here,” I said.
Nina talked to the hostess, and we waited in the red-lit lobby. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I tried to come up with questions in my head, but everything sounded stupid. I remembered the last time I’d been on a date, shortly after I’d gotten back from Afghanistan: I met a girl online, and we talked for a week. Then I asked if she wanted to go on a walk. We met and she asked about Afghanistan, and I told her it was pretty boring. She said one of her professors said the Russians had lost a war there in the eighties, and a hundred years before that, the English had tried and failed, too. I said I didn’t know much about history. Afterward neither of us called each other, and one morning a month later I saw her coming out of a friend’s room in the barracks. I asked how she was, and she said good and that she had to hurry home. Before she turned down the stairs, she asked where she knew me from. I said, “We went on a walk a few weeks ago,” and she said, “Right. Sorry. I just woke up.”
The waiter covered the center of me and Nina’s table with small dishes of different kinds of foods, one or two that I recognized, but most that I didn’t. Nina asked me if I’d ever had Korean food before, and I said I hadn’t, and she told me what I should eat first.
“This is kimchi,” Nina said. “You’ve really never had kimchi?”
I said no through a mouthful, and Nina asked me what my favorite food was. I told Nina my diet consisted of a lot of taco trucks. I swallowed and said, “But nothing beats a good burger.” That made her laugh. Her laugh was huge. It was a laugh that made me question if I’d ever really laughed before.
Nina caught her breath, put her hand on her chest. I waited. Then she said, “I went to Korea last summer. All I did was eat.”
I pinched my chopsticks and grabbed another piece of kimchi. I opened my mouth. I got it to my lips, but then my chopsticks slipped and the cabbage leaf fell in my lap. I yelled, “Man down,” and Nina laughed and snorted and told me she needed to catch her breath. Everyone in the restaurant was looking at us, at Nina laughing, and my cheeks were warm, and I could feel my smile reaching for my ears.
Nina ordered soju cocktails. Our food came in heavy ceramic bowls. When she asked what I did for work, I told her I was a landscaper. I said I made hanging gardens from free pallet boards I got off Craigslist. It was an alibi I had come up with. When I’d started working for Ronnie, I’d asked him what he told his parents about how he made money.
“They know,” he said.
“They do?” I asked.
“What’re they going to do?” Ronnie said, showing me how to gift wrap a bird for the first time, where to crease the paper, how much tape to use.
I said I’d put my parents through enough by joining the Army. Ronnie used to mow lawns, clean gutters, rake leaves into huge paper bags. “I’ll tell them you started a landscaping business,” I said. “I can say we get paid in cash.”
“Keep it simple,” Ronnie said.
I found pictures of gardens online: neat pebble pathways and fountains and white trellises covered in honeysuckle vines. Ronnie told me to try wrapping the next bird. The paper tore in a jagged scar when I unrolled it, and Ronnie said, “It tears easy.”
Nina asked me if I liked the meal, and I said it was the best thing I’d eaten in a while. Then I asked her what she did for work, and she said she taught science to middle schoolers. Her students had just made crystals out of sugar. “They ate their crystals, and they all had sugar highs,” she said. “Sugar is like meth for kids.”
I picked up a long noodle with my chopsticks and did my best to get as much of it as I could in my mouth.
“That wasn’t terrible,” Nina said, and we laughed.
She asked me if I had any pets. She had a dog named Peanut. Nina pulled her phone out and showed me a picture of some scruffy terrier, and then she asked me if I liked dogs.
“Sure,” I said. “But some can be real assholes,” and that made Nina laugh that great, big, beautiful laugh of hers.
A half hour later I laid a crisp hundred over the bill. I told her my clients paid me in cash. Nina said she was drunk. I texted Ronnie while Nina and I waited for our ride, told him we were coming over, and asked if he could clean up a bit and make sure the vacuum sealer was in his room. He texted, Sure, and then I waited, curious if he might write more, ask what Nina was like, how dinner had gone, or if I thought I was going to get lucky. He never did. Then our car arrived.
Nina straddled me in the Uber and kissed my neck. I met the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. Glass high-rises and concrete skeletons and raw steel scaffolding passed by outside the window. I hugged Nina, pulled her to my chest. She stopped kissing me and rested her head on my shoulder, and I felt like a huge piece of shit for having lied to her. I wanted to tell her the truth, but I didn’t want her to leave. The driver’s eyes confirmed that I was a huge piece of shit. Nina hugged me. She said I gave good hugs.
Nina called my street the “hood,” and I said I had only been living there two weeks. We walked inside, and I held her hand. Ronnie’s door was closed. Nina looked at our bare walls. We didn’t own anything except a sectional and a fifty-five-inch flat screen. There was a stack of books in the corner and a plastic crate with empty vacuum-seal bags. I made a mental note to buy a shovel, maybe a pickax, or even a little diamond-shaped spade.
I grabbed a bottle of whiskey, turned off the kitchen light, and joined Nina in the living room. She took a sip from the bottle and shivered. She said, “I have to work in the morning,” and handed the bottle back to me. I rubbed her back and asked what she was going to teach her students the next day at school. She asked if I knew of any gardening projects they might like to learn.
“I could teach them something,” I said, and then I remembered that I wasn’t really a gardener.
I led Nina into my bedroom. On my desk was a stained coffee mug and a wrapper from a sandwich I’d bought at the convenience store down the block. I apologized that my bed wasn’t made, and Nina said it was fine, that I didn’t need to worry. I was worried. I hadn’t slept with anyone since getting out of the Army. I’d wanted to, but somewhere down the line I’d lost my nerve. I apologized again for the mess, and told her that I didn’t want her to feel like I expected something.
Nina sat down on my bed. I sat down next to her. I put my hand on her leg. She looked at me. Then I kissed her. We fell backward onto the sheets and kissed and scooted up the mattress. I was able to pry off one of my shoes, but I couldn’t get the other one off.
She said she was wet, and I felt her, and she was wet and she was bald, too. Then we were head to toe. I loved the taste of her, but it wasn’t enough to get me hard. Nina asked me if everything was OK. I said everything was fine and I’d probably had too much to drink, but if she kept going, I’d get there. I went through the alphabet with my tongue but stopped at G. I sat up and kissed Nina and said, “Let me just do you.”
My legs hung off the end of my bed. Nina said she’d never met a guy who did that on a first date. I pictured her with other guys. My teeth went dry. She dug her nails into my scalp. I asked her if she came, and she said she hadn’t but that it felt good. I wiped my mouth with the back of my arm and moved up next to her. We were both out of breath, and the room smelled of sweat. It was a good smell. I liked the smell of sweat. Nina’s sweat smelled like gun oil, or maybe that was mine. I used to keep a little bottle of it in my ankle pocket. Afghanistan was all dust in the summer, and the oil in our guns turned to clay when the wind was strong. I was religious about weapons maintenance. The folds in my hands were always brilliant with oil.
Nina woke me up in the morning before it was light, and I said I could use my roommate’s truck to drive her home, but she’d already called a ride. I fell back asleep, and when I woke up again, I was hard, so I opened my laptop.
I went into the kitchen. Ronnie was standing by the fridge. He asked me if I had eaten all the eggs. I told him that I remembered having eggs yesterday, but I didn’t remember if they were the last eggs. Ronnie sighed. I told him I’d gotten laid. Ronnie asked where the girl was now, and I said she had to work.
“A job, a girl — I’d say things are looking up,” Ronnie said.
“Thanks to you,” I replied. “For the job, that is.”
Ronnie sat down on the couch and pulled on his shoes. “How are you feeling?”
I said it felt great to have gotten laid.
“No,” Ronnie said, “I mean, how’s it being out?”
I leaned in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, surprised by Ronnie’s question. Ronnie rarely asked me anything. He always only said what he needed to say, only did what he wanted to do. I, on the other hand, felt like I had to say everything on my mind. My thoughts had always seemed too loud for the space between my ears. If I didn’t get them out, everything would turn to static.
“Sometimes I wake up expecting to be back in the barracks, or like I’m going to get a phone call telling me the Army let me out early and I have to report back first thing.”
Ronnie zipped up his jacket. “What would you do if you got called back?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I have a second cousin who lives in Canada.”
Two crumpled receipts lay on the coffee table next to a glass pipe, the half-empty whiskey bottle, and my copy of The Sea Wolf. Ronnie picked up the receipts and put them in his pocket. “If I check on the birds’ status one more time, I’m going to lose my mind,” he said. “A big breakfast will distract me. You down?”
I said I was and that I bet the pier was nice in the morning.
Paper trash and cans flew off the highway and floated into our yard. That was Oakland. Most of the time the city looked like no one loved it, but even though I’d only been there a few weeks, I was finding that Oakland did have love, it had style, and at different hours of the day Oakland would let you in. It was clear that it would outlast the rest of the country because it was all survivors and dirty fighters and lost-boy types.
Ronnie bought breakfast. We ate until we couldn’t eat any more. I thought to myself, I am doing good.
Two days after I shipped the birds Priority Mail Express, Ronnie let me know that they’d landed. He cheered, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” and hopped on the couch and humped the air in tube socks, jean shorts, and a crewneck sweatshirt. I asked him what the plan was, and he said he had some calls to make, but we had to wait for the money birds to fly back so we could go back north, buy more, mail more, repeat.
I thought about calling Nina, but then I thought I shouldn’t.
Ronnie called his contact in Georgia, some guy who was the younger brother of someone we’d gone to high school with. I remembered him as this little kid who wore anime shirts and picked his nose. Now he had a shaved head. Ronnie said the kid dated the hottest girls in our hometown, and he sold everything: pills, powder, even pussy. Ronnie said he knew for sure that this kid let one of his buddies fuck his girlfriend for two hundred dollars. We called him the Pimp. We thought he was a real piece of shit, and we said this kid wouldn’t get away with pimping in Oakland. He’d get his ass shanked out here. Ronnie said the Pimp would pay whatever Ronnie asked and always covered shipping expenses.
Ronnie hung up his call with the Pimp then called his other contact in Massachusetts. His voice got deeper. He said “ ’sup” and “word.” Ronnie and I knew how to switch voices. Our high school had been predominantly Black, and Ronnie had sold weed to lots of Black kids. He was nice on the phone, and he laughed a lot. I could tell it was a little forced, but it was charming, too, like Ronnie really wanted to laugh at whatever the dealer was saying but didn’t know if he should or not because business was business.
“That’s what everyone is smoking out here,” Ronnie said. Then he said, “Yup,” and, “Don’t be sending me back a bunch of fives and tens like last time. Just playin’.”
That afternoon we drove around Oakland in Ronnie’s truck. We bought beers and sandwiches and ate them by the lake. We sat on a small hill in front of a rainbow sign that said CHILDREN’S FAIRYLAND. The sun was out, so there were a lot of couples and groups, and almost everyone was smoking or drinking. I looked up Lake Merritt on my phone and found out it was the oldest wildlife refuge in the country. I thought that was incredible, that there we were, sitting next to something that was the oldest of its kind, and we didn’t even know it. I told Ronnie what I had learned, and he said I was drunk and sounded like a dork.
The money birds would be back in a day or two, and I knew Ronnie was worried about them getting back safely. He figured cops would rather intercept cash than drugs because they could just stuff it in their pockets. Sniffers could smell cash, too. I was learning all kinds of things. We were always thinking about sniffers. Ronnie didn’t have anyone in Georgia or Massachusetts to teach his contacts how to safely seal up the cash. He had to explain the process to them over the phone. When he felt they weren’t taking the process seriously, he had to explain that he could only keep supplying them if he got the money back. The waiting was stressful. I’d already been paid, though. I thought about Nina. I was drunk enough sitting on the hill by the lake to ask Ronnie if he’d ever had trouble getting it up.
“Hell no,” Ronnie said.
I asked Ronnie if I’d told him about Thailand, and he said he didn’t remember.
My unit went to Thailand the year after we got back from Afghanistan, to train with the Thai army. The Thai soldiers put on a show for us about wilderness survival. Me and Davis thought we were going to learn about the jungle: how to make spears out of bamboo, which plants were poisonous and which were safe. Real Rambo shit. Instead a Thai soldier walked back and forth across a stage and pulled U.S. soldiers up next to him and made them eat bugs. A kid named Schumacher had to eat a fried snake. Another guy, Rubin, swallowed a handful of beetles. My platoon leader bit into the neck of a live chicken, and we all cheered as the blood ran down his chin. The Thai instructor had a hatchet, and its handle was carved like a dick. It had a dark lacquer on it. Every time a U.S. soldier ate a bug or bit a chicken’s neck out, the instructor held the blade end of the hatchet next to his groin and pretended to ram the dick end into the American’s ass. The town we were in was nicknamed Monkey City. There were monkeys on the power lines and monkeys standing in doorways, postured up like bouncers outside LA nightclubs. Me and Davis and Sergeant Needles went out and got ice cream, and there was a monkey with no legs outside the window. It was jacking off and screeching.
I told Ronnie about riding in rickshaws to where the ladies were, how the drivers laughed and swerved in and out of traffic, through six-way intersections, and between buses headed in opposite directions. I told him how the women were sitting outside a motel, how they all wore flip-flops and skirts or little jean shorts, and how, when we pulled up, they stood and said, “Hey, boys,” in perfect California accents. They had paper fans, and their thin legs glistened under the neon bulb of an orange-and-white Tiger beer sign.
It was my twenty-second birthday. Davis told me he’d pay for me, and Needles said he was going to take a walk and that he’d be back to get us. “I didn’t want to do it,” I said to Ronnie, cracking another beer, and Ronnie just gave me this look, kind of smiling, and I felt I should say something else, so I said, “I was somewhere in between wanting to and not wanting to.” Then I told him how two minutes later I found myself in a motel room with one of the women.
The windows were covered with newspaper, and the drop-tile ceiling was stained and sagging. The woman asked me my name. I told her, and she told me her name was Rose. “Like from Titanic,” she said. She got me a beer from a blue minifridge and asked if I’d seen the movie. I said I had, and I sat on the edge of the bed while she sang the chorus to “My Heart Will Go On.” Rose was probably forty years old. I wondered then what my life would be like if I married someone like Rose and brought her back to America. I remembered thinking, I could do that for her. I could make all her dreams come true, and I told Ronnie that remembering that made me feel like a real asshole.
Rose put a condom on me, and when I tried to kiss her, she turned her head to the side. Afterward I took a shower. I met up with Davis in the lobby. I said, “Did you already finish?” He said he didn’t go with any of the women. I asked him why not, and he said whores weren’t his thing, but that he wasn’t judging me. “They aren’t mine either,” I said, and I told him I’d only done it because I didn’t want to let him down.
Ronnie said he couldn’t believe a legless monkey had jacked off in front of me, and he said he liked imagining a Thai hooker singing the theme song from Titanic before fucking.
“Want to know something weird?” I said. “The X-Files was on TV when I slept with Rose.” I don’t know why I said that to Ronnie. It wasn’t true. I couldn’t even remember if the motel room had a TV.
Ronnie popped the cap off another beer with the edge of a lighter. “Scully is such a babe,” he said.
The next day Ronnie jumped out at me from around a corner in our kitchen and sang “My Heart Will Go On.”
I held my chest and backed against the wall. “Fuck,” I said. “You scared the shit out of me.”
He called me a dirty freak. Then he said he had confirmation that the money birds would be back soon and that we’d be able to do more runs. He said we would be going back to Lucky’s. The coffeepot dripped, and steam rose to the kitchen window. Ronnie asked if I wanted cream, and I said a little. Then he sang to himself, “My heart will go on and on and on,” and I told him to shut up even though I was laughing.
That night I got stoned while Ronnie and his girl fucked in his room. I took the bus to Walmart and bought a punching bag, paid for in cash like I did everything. The bag came wrapped in plastic, and the chains for it dangled over the top. I got back on the bus and tripped over the bag while swiping my transit pass. A couple of teenagers laughed at me. I took a seat in the front. The chains rattled with every dip and crack in the road. I tried not to look anyone in the eye, and when I got back to me and Ronnie’s place, I took the bag outside and clamped it to a board under the back stairs. It hung lopsided. One of the chains was too short. I punched it as hard as I could, and my wrist bent backward, and I yelled, “Fuck!” It was an old injury. I’d fallen carrying a machine gun down a mountain on the Pakistan border. The ground was loose shale, and I lost my footing. I went down and landed on my wrist. With all my gear I weighed over 250 pounds. I got up and cradled my gun in the crook of my arm. My wrist was broken. It was sore for the next eight weeks. I ate two thousand milligrams of ibuprofen every day and wore an ACE bandage and gloves to hide it.
The next morning I soaked a rag in a pot and set the pot to boil. When the water bubbled over the top, I turned it off, used tongs to grab the rag, and set it on the counter. I made coffee while it cooled a bit, then wrapped the rag around my wrist. Ronnie came in from out back. He asked about the punching bag, and I told him I’d bought it last night.
Ronnie looked at my wrist. “Hurt yourself?”
“It’s an old wound.”
Ronnie poured himself a cup of coffee.
“Do you want to hit the bag?” I asked, and Ronnie said he did. He asked if I could.
“I’ll use my left,” I said. “Southpaw.”
We walked outside, and as we headed down the stairs, I told Ronnie, “I shot expert right- and left-handed. I was a surprisingly good shot.”
“Why is that surprising?” Ronnie asked.
“Because I didn’t know I could do it.”
Ronnie put his hands up in front of the bag, and I stood behind it. I told him he should be wearing gloves. I leaned into the canvas bag, and Ronnie threw a few punches. He threw jabs, straights, hooks, uppercuts. I told him to give it his all and called him Balboa, the prodigal son. The chains rattled, and the stairs and deck groaned like an old ship. A bunch of blackbirds flew overhead, headed south, turning, twisting as one. The water in my rag cooled, and my wrist began to throb. We didn’t have any ibuprofen, not even a real medicine cabinet, but there was a bottle of whiskey on the fridge, and it was still half full.