The rain’s pouring down, streaking black soot across my window like rivulets of runny mascara tears. I touch the glass and feel the cold outside, another winter afternoon and everything is gray. The only color a neon Budweiser sign glowing red from the bar across the street. An unmarked police car slides to the curb as a wino pushing a shopping cart stops to snatch a discarded umbrella off the street.
I press my face to the cold glass to get a view down the alley that runs into the parking lot behind my apartment building. Strips of faded white paint designate where cars should be parked. But there aren’t any. There’s only the flattened yellow crime scene tape broken free and plastered to the ground in front of where the cops had cordoned off the area around the body by the chain link fence. I stand on my toes to see if there’s a chalk outline on the asphalt, but can’t see one, not even sure if they do that any more, and besides the rain probably washed it away if they did.
Heard three gunshots last night. Then screams. Then sirens. Saw the police response, lights flashing. By then I was out back by the alley with a few of the other tenants. At least the ones that weren’t too loaded to get up and go see what all the commotion was about. It’s like those nights someone set off the building’s fire alarm. Everyone out there bitching, waiting for the firemen to tells us we could go back inside. Only this is a little more real and we’re all just staring at the cops and the paramedics standing around.
“Know who it is?” I ask.
“Ya mean was?” says the lady from apartment 10. Black doo-rag wrapped so tight she looks like a pinhead. In one hand a diet coke, the other clutching the floral print robe to her chest.
“What the hell ya think?”
The droning helicopter is blocks away and still the vibrations hit the air around us. Its searchlight approaching faster than the sound, and suddenly we’re all illuminated in a bright white light.
“Fuck… never get to sleep tonight,” says the kid from next-door, saggy pants and baseball cap all tilted backwards. First time I’ve ever seen him without a joint in his mouth.
“Hey dude, you gots cable?”
“Do I what?”
“Gots cable? Aint a quiz. Either ya got it, or ya don’t.”
“No man,” I say. “Don’t watch TV.”
“Don’t watch TV? What the fucks wrong with you?”
“Man, shut the fuck up.”
“What kinda mutha-fucka don’t watch TV?” He says, but no one answers.
I ignore him and turn back to the woman from apartment 10. “So, they got shot, they’re dead?”
“You kinda quick tonight, huh?”
“No, I’m just… I’m just asking.”
“Look, there a pay-per-view fight tomorrow night homie, wanna see it,” says the kid from next door.
I check him out and wonder just what the hell his story is. The little I know is he smokes a shit load of weed, plays heavy metal, and hangs out with at least one slutty chick that screams a lot at night when they’re having sex.
“I can’t help you, man.” I say.
“Who the fuck don’t watch TV?” He says and wanders off in the direction of his apartment.
“Never mind him,” says the girl from upstairs. “Dude’s a douche bag extraordinaire.”
She’s got a kind of slutty look to her and I wonder if she’s the one that screams at night.
“What happened?” She asks, and lights a cigarette.
“Girl got murdered,” says the woman from apartment 10.
“You know that building across the alley?”
“One with all them junkies?”
“Well, wait, which one?”
“Stucco one got methheads an’ gangbangers. Brick one fulla junkies and ho’s.”
“Yeah, yeah. Brick one. Know that girl with all the tattoos?”
“Honey, you gonna hav-ta narrow it down a bit more than that. All them bitches gots tats. All over them.”
“She the blonde, work the corner by the liquor store.”
The helicopter booms overhead as it makes a complete circle above us in the sky. For a second we’re all lit up. The downward shaft of light causing dark shadows under our foreheads and chins, momentarily we all look like dead-ass zombies and then we’re in the dark again.
“That fat girl with the boob job?”
“Yeah, think so.”
I know her. She gots kids, and shit.”
“Now that’s a shame.”
“I think her name was Martha?”
“Martha? What kinda hooker be named Martha?”
“Well, sure as hell she didn’t go by that. They all do Candy, and Monique and shit like that.”
“I know, right?”
“That girl was fat though. Don’t know how she do it?”
“Honey, men will fuck anything. Oh, sorry, no offense, didn’t mean you, babe.”
“None taken,” I say, and then walk towards the back gate.
“None taken?” whispers the girl from upstairs. “Don’t he talk all funny, and shit?”
The helicopter hovers over the courtyard and lights up the bushes. Shadows play across the walkway, and down from the balconies. I fumble with my keys trying to get them in the lock. Door to the adjacent apartment abruptly opens up.
“Look man, So ok, I knows I ain’t the best neighbor and all that, but I really needs to see this fight.”
“Dude,” I say. “Not lying man, I do not have cable.”
“Yeah, but wait a minute. Why the fuck don’t you have cable?”
“Can’t afford that shit.”
“Then why you think I can?”
“You white, right?”
“What the fuck are you?”
“Well, I ain’t white like you’re white.”
A gust of wind hits as rain spatters the window. The cop car is still there and the wino’s trying to get the umbrella to stay open. I didn’t know Martha, if that was her name. I couldn’t tell you which one of the hookers she was by the liquor store. They all look a mess and one by one had given up on asking me if I want a date. Sadly, I’m amazed that anyone has sex with them. Even more amazed anyone pays for it.
There’s loud banging as someone hammers on my door. I pull it open about to tell the kid next-door to leave this pay-per-view fight thing alone. But instead I’m staring at two cops in plainclothes. One of them shows me his shield. The other asks if I know anything about last night’s murder.
“Know someone’s dead. Think her name was Martha.”
“You knew her?”
“Then how you know her name?”
“Girl lives upstairs said it.”
“She gotta name?”
“Don’t know it.”
“What do you know?”
“What I just told you.”
“Think her name was Martha.”
The cop stares at me hard for few seconds and we stand there in silence. I shrug my shoulders and raise my hands, palms up.
“Like I said, that’s all I got.”
“Hope someone cares more about you when it’s your turn to die,” says the other cop that until then hadn’t said anything.
“If I’m dead?” I say. “Not gonna give a shit.”
“Where can I find that girl, one knows the deceased?”
“Lives upstairs, don’t know the apartment.”
“Just what do you know?”
“Already asked me that. Told you.”
“You fuckin’ people…” says the first cop as they both turn and walk away.
I lean against the doorframe and look up at the sky. Rain is still pouring down flooding the courtyard. Glancing down I notice the center walkway is under water.
The kid from next-door opens his door just a crack.
“Why you snitchin’ bro?” He whispers and I can see into his apartment. There’s an unmade bed, clothes tossed on the floor, and some horrid dropped D tuned Cookie Monster metal turned down low playing in the background.
“Why you such a dumbass?” I say, and we lock eyes before I break it off and go inside and close the door.
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Originally published in Sparkle & Blink 42 5th August 2013 and translated and published as “Elle S’Appelait Martha, Je Crois” in Bookalicious February 8th, 2015
Bruno wasn’t an attractive man. He was even more unattractive as a woman. A union truck driver for 37 years, he’d held it together and then when his wife, that bitch Darlene, said she’d found true love with some muffler repairman she’d been engaging in cybersex with on the internet, Bruno had to admit he wasn’t a very happy guy. Mainly because he wasn’t very happy as a guy. But he didn’t know that yet.
Stuck in the urban sprawl that had once been a highly sought after suburb of San Francisco, but now, in Bruno’s opinion, was more an extension of Southeast Asia – hundreds of little brown families having invaded over the past twenty years – it had gotten so Bruno didn’t even recognize the old neighborhood and worse the signs were all in a writing he couldn’t decipher. Bilingual wasn’t in Bruno’s vocabulary, plus he just didn’t give a shit.
Sitting in their half empty duplex, Darlene having taken exactly half of everything, well at least what all she could fit in a 5×8 utility trailer pulled by a Ford Galaxy, the car Bruno had bought when they first married, and she had insisted on keeping well past its prime.
“Don’t like change,” was Darlene’s motto. But if that was true why was she off banging Mr. Goodwrench and Bruno was still here?
Bruno, in the reclined position of the La-Z-Boy, his feet up so he could stare at his legs encased in nylon pantyhose sticking out of a red cocktail dress – one of many Darlene had left behind. Thankfully she and Bruno were somewhat close to being the same size, and so every night after work he’d come home, slip on a bra, pantyhose, and this dress, pop open a beer, and watch TV until it was time to fall asleep. In other words essentially nothing had changed in Bruno’s life, except Darlene was gone and now he felt free enough to indulge in what he’d only fantasized before.
But as Bruno watched TV he kept seeing a world out there he’d never really thought about, or even considered. And slowly he realized he’d been living a lie. Him and Darlene hadn’t had sex in twenty-three years. The only thing that’d turned him on was fingering her lingerie, and that was only when she wasn’t in it. Night after night they’d shared a bed, not touching, and Bruno laying flat on his back wondering why he couldn’t stop thinking about that prison sex exposé on MSNBC’s Lockdown. Visions of sweaty muscle-bound tattooed convicts fudge-packing each other all night in their dank prison cells ran on a continuous loop through his brain until he feared he’d somehow gotten infected with the homo-gene.
And yeah, there was that one dude at work, Stevie. Everyone sweared he was gay. But him and Bruno had always eaten lunch together, everyday for years. Maybe Stevie was gay, and it’d somehow rubbed off? But then why’d Bruno only get a stiffy when he slipped on a pair of Darlene’s old polyester rayon panties, and not when he’d stared at Stevie’s ass?
“Have I turned gay?” Bruno asked himself as he straightened the A-Line of Darlene’s… well, actually it was his red cocktail dress now.
Segue to the present, after numerous sessions with his therapist, Bruno was no longer Bruno, he was Bridget. His house in the suburbs sold, Darlene forgotten, Bridget had moved into what was known as transitional housing. Otherwise referred to as a “county subsidized single occupancy environment” that San Francisco provided for mental health and recovering drug addicts. Bridget had entered into treatment for GID, gender identity disorder, and because of this qualified for hormone replacement therapy – Bruno had made the decision.
Shaved her legs and then he was a she. She says, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.”
“Wish it was that fuckin’ easy,” said Bruno.
He had to live for at least a year as a woman. Dress like one, and go about life, before he could even think about getting the tuck-and-roll surgery. Of course this made keeping his job almost impossible. If the guys thought Stevie was gay, what were they going to say when he showed up as Bridget? Not to mention the double D’s he’d just gotten implanted. No, it wasn’t going to be pretty and Bruno had no intention of living through that hell. Fuck them. San Francisco was where it was at.
I step into the elevator and there’s a large unattractive woman, or at least I think it’s a woman, but in this building it could be anybody’s guess, and really I don’t care. I turn my back on her and press the button for the lobby. Damn elevator won’t go straight to the ground floor as there used to be a security desk on the 2nd floor, back when it was a building just for clients fresh out of rehab, and they’d hooked it up so that everyone had to check in with a uniformed guard. But now it just stopped on the second floor, the door opening to an empty desk, and then it’d continue its decent to the lobby, where there was nothing to prevent any scumbag from gaining access.
“You smell good,” says the large ugly woman behind me.
“Thanks,” I say. “Must be my hair goo.”
“Pineappley coconut, like a Mai Tai.”
“Name’s Bridget. I could just eat you up.”
I turn and look into Bridget’s eyes and see sadness and pain and shitload of fear that belies her outspoken bravado. Then notice her outstretched hand and quickly grab it to shake. It’s unbelievably rough and calloused, makes mine look nancy-boy soft, her grip like a macho jock.
“Easy there, Bridget.” I pull my hand back, shake it lose. “Kinda partial to havin’ all my digits intact and working.”
“Sorry,” she says with what I assume she must think is the voice of a young girl. Only that girl would’ve had to been smoking twelve packs a day for fifty years to achieve that gravel.
The door opens and we’re at the lobby. There’s sun coming in and a stumbling wino is weaving his way towards us.
“Hole da ‘vator!” he screams and I step out of the way, but he collides into Bridget, the impact sending him backwards onto his ass.
“Holy shit!” he screams. “Ya play fo da Niners?”
Outside, under the elevated freeway that serves as the roof to our building’s front entrance, I stop to light a cigarette.
“Have a nice day,” coos Bridget as she teeters off on high heels, navigating the usual detritus of broken bottles, human waste, and spent syringes that’s always present here on the sidewalks of the yet to be gentrified SoMa district. And I’m standing there thinking how does it come down to whoever Bridget was before she decided to become Bridget making that decision and then living with it? My life is pretty simple right now. All I got to do is stay clean, steer clear of the law, and avoid those deep holes of depression that pop up every now and then. Not like I’m in the wrong body. Or even wondering who I am. Unfortunately, I know who I am. That’s why I’m here. So, I guess I’ve answered my question, because that’s why Bridget’s here too.
I suck in smoke, like my life depends on it. Mixed in with the fine black soot that’s raining down from the freeway and I’m probably looking at emphysema and a host of other terminal pulmonary disorders that will result in my having lived here for years.
“Everybody’s gotta die sometime,” I mumble to myself.
Two days later I’m in the laundry room, switching my clothes from the washer to the dryer, and in walks Bridget with a portable hamper in her arms. Only she’s not dressed as Bridget. No makeup, no wig, no dress, no heels. Just sweats, hoodie, pair of converse, and a flattop haircut.
“Hi Mr. Pineapplehead,” she gushes. But the effect is a little bit unnerving. It’s like as if my soccer coach from eight grade was imitating Marilyn Monroe, and very badly.
“Ya know Bridget, you ain’t gotta do all that with me.”
“Nah, we’re cool just the way it is. Ok?”
“Sure,” and the she’s loading her clothes into the machine I just vacated.
“Thanks,” she whispers.
“No problem,” I say.
It’s a hot afternoon. I’m on the roof in the shade of the utility tower watching the cars come off the Bay Bridge. Up here I’m almost even with the elevated highway, and there’s this melodic rhythm of rolling rubber across concrete that’s deafening, but at the same time hypnotic. When I first came to look at the apartment in this building the county was offering me I said to the lady that showed it that I wasn’t sure I could get used to the constant noise of traffic.
“After awhile,” she said. “Starts to sound like waves in the ocean.”
“Waves honking horns maybe,” I said.
Although now, unless I’m up here, I really don’t notice, and being somewhat mesmerized, I didn’t so much as see or hear Bridget walk up as felt her presence behind me.
“Gotta extra smoke?” she asks.
“Of course, here.”
I pass her the pack of Camels and the lighter. She sits down, lights up, and hands them back.
“Ever feel like bein’ someone else?”
I have to think about it for a second, I mean sure there’s vague desire to be like a rock star I’m sure most everyone’s gone through. Always wanted to be thinner, have a better body, or look real good. But to truly want to be someone other than me?
“Don’t think so,” I say.
“Ya know, I wasn’t always Bridget.”
And instead of making a snide remark, or some of my usual smartassness, I continue smoking as she talks. Telling me all about Darlene leaving, thirty-seven years driving trucks, and why she prefers to dress in women’s clothes. Feels like some sort of confessional, only I ain’t no goddamn priest.
“Don’t like change,” she mumbles.
“Nobody does,” I say, and then there’s just the sound of traffic as we sit there in the shade.
When the sun hits the top of Twin Peaks, and light changes to a softer hue, I notice Bridget is gone. I light another cigarette and wonder why she’d told me her life story and then quietly left without even saying goodbye.
The ambulance is outside, along with the fire trucks and police. They’ve all got their lights flashing. I make my way through, and get accosted at the front door by a cop.
“Checkin’ everybody’s ID,” he says.
“You live in this building?”
“Yeah. Do you?”
“Smart guy, huh?”
“Just tryin’ to get home.”
“What floor you on?”
“Have ta use the stairs, taking the body down now.”
“Nother suicide. This building, y’all should be used to it.”
The elevator door opens. Two EMS workers push the gurney out. There’s a black body bag on it, whoever’s dead was large. The cop puts his arm out, moves me out of the way.
“Make room,” he shouts. But it’s only me and him and the paramedics.
“Who killed themselves?” I ask.
“Ugliest tranny I’ve ever seen,” says the paramedic as he shoves the rolling gurney through the door out onto the sidewalk. “And believe me, I seen a lot.”
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Originally published by The Weeklings April 26th, 2014
Anthony sat on the floor, mindful of his breath, getting ready to meditate. But there was no room. He was all squeezed up by the front bars, his knees below the bunk, his back bent sideways, and he cursed the damn cell for being too small. Less than five feet away, on the back wall, was the steel toilet, and he didn’t want his face anywhere near that shit, so he had no choice but to be uncomfortable where he was.
In general population your commode was sparkling clean. Hell, dudes even stored food in them like free people on the outside with their insulated beer coolers. But here in the Segregated Housing Unit—known to one and all as the SHU—it was nothing but snitches, “J” Category crazies, and stone cold killers like Anthony doing “administrative detention” and none of them, Anthony included, kept a tight house. Especially seeing as how you couldn’t get any quality cleaning products. Correctional Officers considered them contraband, meaning they could be used as chemical weapons. Last thing a CO needed was some overly depressed sociopath drinking bleach or tossing Ajax in another maniac’s face.
Still, Anthony wanted to get his meditation on. He’d been stressing like a motherfucker and thought if he could just get in a fifteen minute sit he’d be all right. Only Rebel, Anthony’s cellie, had a different agenda and wouldn’t shut up for one minute, let alone fifteen. His newest outrage, another example of disrespect; the oatmeal crème pie was missing from his bag lunch. Which of course elicited an ongoing verbal rampage.
“Know them mutha-fuckas in the kitchen stole it, ” said Rebel.
“Just a damn cookie,” said Anthony.
“How can ya say that Ant? Oatmeal crème’s my fave, bro.”
There was no consoling Rebel. He wasn’t going to just say “oh well” and forget all about it. In fact nine months from now when they finally released him from the SHU, he’d take his time getting reclassified and then reassigned to food service. Until he too was part of the assembly line putting together the bag lunches every convict got for their mid-day meal. And then when Rebel looked down that long line of men, each with their own integral assigned dietary segment in their hands, that when put together made up a state certified nutritious 750 calorie meal, he peeped cookie dude all the way at the end. Feigning he’d run out of plastic sporks, Rebel made his way to the boxes of supplies that just happened to be at the end of the line. But as he got up close to the shelves containing dry goods, instead of grabbing a new box, he sided up next to cookie dude and said, “hey, motherfucker.” While slipping out a slim piece of steel he’d managed to get loose from one of the food carts, and for the last four nights scraped against the concrete floor of his cell until it was as near pointed sharp as it was going to get. In one fast fluid ultraviolent movement that everyone else in the room was going to swear they didn’t see, he drove that honed piece of steel through cookie dude’s neck, killing him dead. No matter that the jobs were rotated and it wasn’t the same man that had failed to put the little cellophane wrapped baked good into Rebel’s bag lunch that day, way back when he was in that cell with Anthony.
“Fuck with my oatmeal crème, you die,” he said as they led him off in handcuffs, his kitchen whites covered in blood. Everyone else just staring at him—because like who really cares that much about a damn cookie.
But right now Anthony didn’t know any of that was ever going to occur and besides he thought Rebel weak, not to mention a dumbass, so he just told him to shut up and went back to staring at the cement slab wall on the other side of the bunk.
“Gots to get my nirvana on,” he whispered.
“Gots ta get my oatmeal crème,” replied Rebel.
Anthony’s eyes were half closed. Deep in meditation he was letting go, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief from his anxiety. He saw himself leaving prison, dressed in street clothes, his mother hugging him, an unknown child at her feet. In the center of his chest grew an emotional knot. Anthony was doing life without possibility of parole. He knew that moment would never come. Returning his concentration to his breath, he let the images fade, and wiped the tears from his eyes.
Anthony’s life had been a series of disappointments and this recent prison sentence was no different. At his trial he had just barely escaped Death Row. Murder One was no joke and the DA was hell bent on making Anthony another trophy in her collection of high-profile-low-life convictions. But in their over zealous bravado the cops had really fucked up Anthony’s case. The investigation was shoddy, witnesses coerced, and the evidence was so tampered that even the judge got indignant. Anthony’s PD had all but said it was a mistrial, and it would’ve been if Anthony’s DNA hadn’t been all over the deceased.
“Ever heard of gloves?” asked his PD.
It took the jury 20 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Anthony’s life would’ve flashed before his eyes had he been paying attention. Instead he just concentrated on the DA’s tight skirt and round ass and knew that was the last piece of trim he was ever going to see.
Then it was shackles, a one-way ride on the grey goose up to SQ, and 60 days in R&R. No cigarettes, no showers, no chow hall, just bag lunches and 24-hour lockdown with a noise level that would block out a 747 taking off.
“Winner winner, chicken dinner, we gotta room with a view for you,” said the CO. “Next thing smoking to Folsom, roll it up.”
“Oh, you a funny man,” said Anthony.
Anthony didn’t know shit about Folsom, and that afternoon he sat on the bus in leg irons handcuffed to a serial killer from Tulare and watched the San Joaquin Valley slowly roll by. It was twilight and one could even say a bit beautiful. The sun setting behind them as the bus drove through a small town. A dark building with a huge wall rose up in front of them. It was old school creepy and looked like Dracula’s castle. And something inside of Anthony’s stomach twisted a little. But it was back to another month of R&R before he’d see the joint for real.
His first day in Gen Pop Anthony hit the yard dressed out in his pressed blue bonaroos and freshly scrubbed white Adidas. He was cool, he was popping, he had his stroll down to perfection as he made the handball courts. And then some J-cat going all spaz-mode for the ball stepped backwards to make a long shot, and stomped on Anthony’s brogues. All the dudes in the clique went silent as Anthony inspected the offending scuff on his shoes. He had been up all night with a state issue toothbrush getting those fuckers ready and in one second flat whacko boy had fucked them off.
Anthony’s anger grew up inside of him and it was on. The J-cat never saw it coming. Anthony has been in the SHU ever since, and Rebel was there waiting for him.
Opening his eyes, Anthony is stuck with the futility of it all. Amongst the constant screamed conversations that bounce off the cellblock walls there is a silence in his heart.
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Originally published by Out Of The Gutter December 29th, 2016