Half the fun of malt liquor, or any beer, was the walk up to the store to get it. I looked forward to that nearly as much as I did the beer itself. I’d wait for that horrible sun to descend into that dirty-orange panorama behind the Phoenix skyline before heading out. Best time. That hour before the night lights up. That’s when the heat waned and the neighborhood edges softened. From my place, I’d stroll west down Polk Street to 11th and cut over to my Circle K. A mile and a half round trip.
Now this Circle K was life among the dead, which is why it was my favorite place to go and buy beer. It was the quick fix in a neighborhood where there were no outs. At night its bright fluorescent lights reached out to the middle of Van Buren, offering hope for late-night transience, for the lonely and the reclusive. Hope for the meth-addled prostitutes I’d see whose bodies were long past reclamation, and for the desert-rat day-workers with shot, red eyes who’d stammer through the bell-ringing doors and nod with glee upon discovering that they’d made it before the 1 a.m. cut-off time to purchase Bud Light. It was light for those like me who were taken in by the smell of burnt dogs and fresh coffee and the promise of ice-cold malt liquor, and the existence of at least one other late-night human being. Light for those like me who were just becoming aware that they were speeding on some road to the bottom and not even listening to what their own story might or might not have been telling them.
The Circle K ornamented a neighborhood lined with flimsy houses and indignant dwellings. Lots of mottled stucco and crudely erected rooms made of rusting tin, some held together with bailing wire and putty, and swamp coolers chugged and leaked atop low roofs. Zoning laws didn’t apply here. It was as if any city land-use planning had been grandfathered in from a time long ago that no one can remember. That, and nobody cared. Mean rangy dogs roamed and barked holy hell, and sometimes it was a challenge not to get chased. If I spotted one when too far from home I’d step carefully, avoid any eye contact, or stop altogether and wait for him to move on and be prepared to sprint like a motherfucker if he came at me. I counted lucky stars that I never got mauled by one of those bastards. But not everyone can survive in the Garfield barrio.
The street held other anomalies, including a fading three-story Spanish revival mansion from the early 1900s. A copper-mining baron had built the thing as a wedding gift for his daughter. It became a whorehouse at one point. Now it’s a state-funded home for battered women. The assholes always put the women’s shelters in the worst areas of Phoenix. It had a broad, wraparound porch and arched windows and doors. It was sun-beaten into the color of dirt, surrounded by a man-tall wrought-iron fence, which was gated and chain-locked and topped with strands of barbed wire. I’d see women on the porch sometimes, standing in the strange Arizona-long shadows, silent and hunched over, older than their bones, and cornered. Hispanic, Native American, black, or squat in pregnancy, or thin as hope.
The place had a rich, tended-to garden, which was a whole other wonder to me. How did they get tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers to grow here?
I’d pass lovely Our Lady of Guadalupe grottos, three on my walk. Each was set in a chain-linked yard of hard dirt and sagebrush. I’d tell myself that these Virgin Marys were too graceful to surrender to the heat. They soothed in cyan and magenta, in rosaries and beeswax. They provided a few square feet of guilt and reclamation, particularly on the return walk, when it was dark and after I’d downed some beer. Sundown always triggered that need to crack the day’s first beer. Alcohol beautified the transition from ugly day into beautiful evening. The crooked power lines and untrimmed palm trees stood quiet guard on the suddenly restive streets, which stretched into darkness lit on both sides by porches and living rooms.
As it got dark I’d smell fried masa or beef cooked in cumin and oregano, see dads guzzling Bud Light on hoods of American heaps, and hear Tejano and Norteño faves blaring from too-loud Salvation Army blasters. Sometimes night breezes would be hot enough I’d envision wildfires whipping up through desert arroyos, way out beyond the city limits, and I’d squint into flames the radio towers atop South Mountain.
My Mexican casita was one of seven situated back off the street around an unpaved patio in a mesquite, cacti and Palo Verde oasis. The bungalows housed the only non-Latinos in the neighborhood, and each inhabitant was a drunk, except the landlord, Ira. Ira was a Phoenix ghetto land baron, a dude of 60 who also owned a tai chi studio just west of downtown. I loved Ira because he was honest, and sometimes altruistic. He’d help folks out. He’d rescue outcall hookers by pulling them out of shitty situations. Then he’d move them into one of his bungalows. He’d feed them (and their kids), and then, after a number of weeks, he’d start fucking them. Ira never wanted to fuck them, he’d tell me, it would “just happen.” I believed that he never really wanted to fuck them because once he did he’d wear his guilt. You’d see it. He’d walk with a slouch, as if gravity was pulling his shoulders slightly inward and down. That stoop would creep into his posture every time he’d start sleeping with a new girl. The women and their children would come and go. When they’d move out Ira would begin walking upright again.
Ira had the most beautiful bungalow too. Restored plaster walls, lots of antiquated furniture with feminine curves, old rugs he shipped back from his trips to Mozambique and Turkey. He saw beauty in rusted wheelbarrows and rescued palms and found objects and knew exactly where to place them all. The drunks just trampled over all the beauty there.
The bungalows were bordered by dispirited stretches of duplexes, all of which were inhabited, and had electricity, despite the windows being boarded-up. Overfull trashcans on the porch spilled dead Bud Light cans out into the street, and at night interior lights slanted through the busted up plywood and round faces emerged on dark porches.
Lots of undocumented immigrants would come and go from these duplexes, and there’d be new faces every other week. They stayed fed and amused with little coin and often let out real joy in the nights, and you’d hear it, feel it, for hours. Lots of mad waltz-timed anthems sung in Spanish. Rarely were women around those places and the dudes would laugh and drink and shout shit at me like “Maricón, maricón!” and “dar por el culo.” I might as well have been from Uranus. Hell, I’d laugh at me too: all hungover under a rat’s-nest of unwashed hair, a backdated dreamer with a headful of Henry Miller and old T. Rex. The Latinos were too drunk to follow up the name-calling, and they’d never step off their porches to start a fight; they’d never do anything to draw cops and I figured most had mothers to answer to. Good Catholic sons at the end of the day. Good thing too because I didn’t know how to fight. But I’d be envious of their joy.
I saw big families too on my Polk Street, and immigrants from El Salvador, Chile, Ecuador or Mexico, who lived and laughed and drank, struggled to just be, in a city on a land of the free where they’re judged, hated. Where they work horrible day-laborer jobs as garbage removers, landscapers and roofers over long hours in insufferable heat, earning little money.
Of all the Circle K cashiers, I liked Raul the best. He was gentle but you could tell he was hurting somehow. One night when I was in purchasing smokes and beer he asked if he could come over sometime and drink a beer. I said sure, though I didn’t really want him to, and I didn’t think he would. Few things are ever followed up on in my life. Also, I’m not the biggest fan of houseguests and I like to keep acquaintances at arm’s length. But he did come by, on foot, and it wasn’t bad. We talked and drank out on my porch until about midnight and then he left.
Then Raul began to stop by a couple times a week, usually in the late evening after his Circle K shift was over. He’d be tired from working on his feet for nine hours. He’d bring along a forty of King Cobra (for me) and a 12-pack of Keystone, which I’d enjoy after killing off the forty.
One night he came by and we went to the street and sat on the curb. He cracked my King Cobra and handed it to me and then he cracked a Keystone for himself. It was obvious that Raul had had it. Then he got all teary-eyed, which was uncomfortable as hell.
“Julian?” he said. “What do you do with three kids?”
“I don’t know, man,” I said.
“What do you do with a wife who hates you, and you hate her?”
“I don’t know the answer to that one either. I had a wife but that didn’t end well at all.”
“Did you have kids?” he asked.
After some time he said, “How do you live with a mother-in-law who you hate?
“Do we learn to like ourselves?”
I just shook my head.
Some kid about 12 years old rode by on a chop-shopped bike that squeaked but looked badass. It had brand-new parts and others that were pounded into place. It sported out-stretched forks and a gnarly green-sparkled banana seat, a double-tall sissybar, a bullet headlight, a rainbow of reflectors and down-turned stingray bars slung so low that the driver’s back was horizontal to the street and his face was about three feet from it as he pedaled. Whole thing resembled a lunar-rover some science fiction writer might’ve dreamed up in 1953. His younger sister followed in vain on her pink trike, face squinched in determination, handlebar streamers, shoulders pushing forward with each pedal stroke — hard left, hard right — overcoming drag from half-flat tires. They looked happy as hell.
We watched the little parade pass us by. We watched them roll up the street into the dark, turn around and then ride by again. We drank from our beers.
Raul said, “Man, this just isn’t going to work. I have a car payment and rent and three kids and a wife and a mother-in-law.”
I nodded. I felt for Raul. He really was a good dude. It’s easy to get cornered in a city like Phoenix. You’re especially lost if you don’t have a car, or if you don’t have a real job, much less a career. I didn’t have any of those things.
Folks flock to Phoenix because there’s money here, and lots of it. It’s a city heavily populated by fleshy white people with gluttonous ambitions who drive around in brand new cars that cost more than what my bungalow would sell for. They fear brown skin and live in gated communities and vote Republican. Their own skin rarely touches sunshine or wind. They move from an air-conditioned residence to an enclosed garage to their air-conditioned cars to underground parking garages to air-conditioned buildings. I always figured that if you don’t feel the elements, you shut down inside. But what do I know? Our bungalows had swamp boxes for cooling, which did little more than blow hot, humid air and make things damp and moldy. And if it rained, forget it; the humidity was unbearable.
Raul got me thinking about my own various mental damages. I realized that I at least had a couple of buffers. For example, I had a girlfriend out in Tempe who owned a car and had a real job. Sometimes when I was hungry and broke she’d bring me beer and burritos. I had no kids and no responsibilities except for whatever little writing deadlines or gigs with my band, which was floundering. But I often felt like I was trapped at the bottom of a slimy dark well. I was really only happy once the sun went down and the beer was flowing.
Raul and me were very much alike. We had zero chance of ever becoming one of those people whom others respected and admired. We’d never make it as software developers or phlebotomists or scouts for the Arizona Cardinals. But I was nowhere near as cornered as Raul, and that made me feel guilty when I was around him. My responsibilities amounted to this: I had one key, the one that unlocked my front and back door. My mailbox was broken so it didn’t lock, so I didn’t need a key for that. Because I’d lost the one key so many times, I’d taken to wearing the thing around my neck on a shoestring. The shoestring-key idea was my girlfriend’s. She was just so exasperated at me being locked out time and again. She always said I was a 12-year-old who had managed to gain decades of experience. I needed her but she didn’t need me. Not good.
Raul and I sat there on the curb drinking our beer. We watched a group of weird little desert bats psychotically circle the one streetlight that wasn’t shot out, and the brother-sister bike team paraded by again.
“Want a smoke?” he said.
We smoked on the curb and worked on our beer.
“Do you smoke much?” He said.
“Trying to stop. But I don’t know why I’d even try. It’s like trying to stop drinking. There’s no real reason to.”
“Right,” Raul said. “My wife hates my drinking.”
“Right. And my middle daughter, who turns eight this week, is autistic.”
I shook my head. We were both quiet for a while.
Two dudes drinking beer out on a curb was another dude’s invite to join. So my neighbor Frank walked over and stood next to us but faced the street. He wore khaki shorts with flip-flops and carried an Old Milwaukee. Frank was a short-fingered drunk of about 35, skinny but with an expanding paunch, and he never wore a shirt, day or night, which meant he was tan, and red-faced as all hell. He told me once that he averaged between 27 and 30 Old Milwaukees a day.
“Frank, this is Raul,” I said. “Raul, this is Frank.”
“Hey, man,” Raul said. Frank nodded and chugged from his beer.
All three of us stayed quiet.
Frank was a smart guy. He spoke German and Spanish and a polyglot of Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Grew up on Air Force bases. But like some of the others in the bungalows, he had dropped out of something, or was hiding out from someone, or was just damaged in some way. Pretty sure Frank was all three of those things. He’d earned an MBA from Columbia. He never talked much about how he’d pissed away his marriage and six-figure job. He’d been arrested for some DUIs back in Florida, made bail and wound up down in a Phoenix barrio. He’d been shacking up with another drunk, the manly, boxy-shaped Dinora, a vodka-drip Latina. Dinora had a city job, cleaned up animal feces at the zoo. It surprised the hell out of everyone in the bungalows when Frank moved in with her because we thought for sure she only liked women. She only ever talked about women. I liked that about her. Testosterone ruins everything. Every now and then she’d have a woman friend over. We’d see them through Dinora’s front window enjoying a candlelit dinner. Then they’d get drunk and slow dance to old Emmylou Harris records on the front porch.
Frank and Dinora would drink and then fight. One night a few months before they’d gotten into it worse than usual, Dinora heaved Frank’s prized model airplane through her open front window. It flew over the porch and crashed into their concrete birdbath, the same birdbath the two of them drunkenly carried home one night after abducting it from some old house in the neighborhood. The model was a Messerschmitt Bf 109 WWII fighter. It had a three-foot wingspan. Frank spent months detailing the thing just so. He’d often talk about the hours of work he put into it, how he’d research the plane at the library to get the era’s colors and tone just right. Like I said, he spent months on the thing. He was proud of it.
The Messerschmitt exploded into a hundred pieces when it hit the birdbath. Frank was shattered.
The very next day I watched from my porch as Frank moved his love seat, the one patterned like ’80s golf pants, a stained mattress, piles of half-mutilated books, and a couple boxes worth of shit into a vacant bungalow on the far side of the courtyard. The landlord had a vacancy, which was very convenient for Frank. Didn’t even have to change his address. But since he’d moved, an invisible line of demarcation appeared through the yard that neither Frank nor Dinora would cross.
Anyway, Dinora started banging this big Canadian dude named Logan. I swear I saw him hanging around the courtyard just before she smashed up Frank’s Messerschmitt. Logan had to be at least 50, and he patrolled the dirt courtyard barefoot, wearing only boxers, like some kind of soused soldier. He’d talk of his days as a winning boxer and how he was still an esteemed member of the Canadian Amateur Boxing Federation. He had a full head of neck-length strawberry-blond hair with wisps of gray, and crazy, unblinking eyes. He was tan and tall with a distended gut, had flabby arms, a gold chain and a big red nose. He showed up seemingly out of nowhere with a rotted grin talking about rectal cocaine and Ernest Hemingway and his daughter who just entered college in Vancouver. He shacked right up with Dinora only hours after Frank had moved out. Just like that.
Logan drank beer all day and then at sundown retired to an aluminum lawn chair up on their porch. He was by then blind drunk and shouting shit. If he’d see me in the courtyard he’d call me names. “Footless faggot” was the one that stuck. If I made eye contact with him he’d psychically attack me and because his gaze was so psychotic it was hard to look away. And if I stepped any closer, or away, he’d warn of his “patented” left hook. It was like getting trapped by one of the hood dogs. One night Frank was on the receiving end of that “patented” left hook and it wasn’t pretty. It took a week for him to regain sight in his busted right eye but that eyelid forever drooped.
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By six p.m. Dinora would be home from work and hitting the Smirnoff. By nine o’clock they’d be arguing a shitstorm about anything, like proper torque on wheel bearings, or Rush versus REO Speedwagon, or frostbacks verses wetbacks, and so on. By 10 p.m. their words would be indecipherable, screened in spittle, and, by 11 p.m., they’d be passed out in their chairs, side by side. Frank and Dinora used to do the same damn thing. True love.
Frank owned a car and he worked four days a week walking dogs for rich people. He made a habit of saying that he couldn’t be happier. Because he thought himself to be some kind of spiritual wellspring his beliefs encompassed a variety of traditions, namely those that lifted him into rarified air. He talked of things he’d picked up while backpacking through Southeast Asia, and then in Mexico, and he could quote from English translations of Mahavastu texts until the cows came home, but, really, from what I saw, he was only happy drunk. When he was sober he’d have that alcoholic scowl face, and his scowl face was getting more pronounced as the months went by. He became slightly beady-eyed as the alcohol bloat filled in his cheekbones and widened his beard, which sometimes showed dime-sized bits of day-old vomit.
Raul welcomed Frank. Raul was a nice, trusting guy.
Brian Smith is an award-winning journalist, first as a staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times and then as an editor at Detroit Metro Times. Before writing full time, Smith was a songwriter who fronted rock ’n’ roll bands Beat Angels and, before that, GAD. He has penned tunes with lots of folks, including Alice Cooper. At one point he overcame heady crystal meth and alcohol addictions. As a kid growing up in Tucson, Smith was a national class bicycle racer. He now lives back in Tucson and his debut collection of short stories, Spent Saints, is due out spring 2017. Smith will appear Sunday, March 19, at 6 p.m. at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix to screen 11 micro-short films based on each of the stories in Spent Saints, followed by live music and a reading from the book. Visit www.changinghands.com.