I am walking down Elm picking up cigarette butts when the screen slides out and the cowboy asks me if I’ve had my flu shot. I always get the flu shot, but that didn’t stop me from getting shot with a .45 about ten years ago. He flashes a cavalier smile, brand-new teeth drilled into a square, salt-and-pepper jaw. Get your flu shot today at RexMart and walk out with a free Pangolin Lime on us. The man on the screen in the pinched-front cattleman hat, who has been dead for eleven years now, spins a Colt .45 around his finger and gives one more smile before the screen retracts into the bus stop and I can stoop down to grab a bent-to-hell but only half-smoked Pall Mall lying flush in a crack between poured concrete.
I like Pall Mall better than Santa Fe but less than L&M, which I like more than Maverick but less than Winston, which are much harder to find now that the rumor is they are going All Natural like everyone else after the ascension of the American Spirit, which just recently became popular in this part of the world and which I myself like better than I thought I would, but still less than Marlboro, unfiltered Camel, or Newport. I see myself going All Natural once I finally put The Plan into action and open up my own place. Today is the day that I go legit, as they say (and do) in the movies.
I consider putting the half-smoked Pall Mall into the lockbox but think better of it. The cowboy has come on the screen again, and I feel that I deserve to have a good smoke. It will cost me—for I can’t hardly sell a cigarette that I choose to smoke—but I have been up since 4 a.m. crawling the bus stops and fish markets and have seen the cowboy on My Ads six or seven times already, and I feel my nerves getting frayed. The Ad for antacid tablets didn’t bother me, nor did the one for erectile dysfunction pills, but the banal smile of the digital cowboy turns out to be more than I can take because he’s all that’s left of the flesh-and-blood who used to be the man on the screen. I am hoping a good smoke will do the trick and I won’t kill all of the #4 crumble I’ve been rationing. It will cost me, but it would cost more to buy dope. Plus, I keep a tight budget, work hard, and know the value of a dollar, which entitles me to the pinching of inventory every so often when the going gets rough and does not preclude me from being a man of scruples, from being a man capable of respectability and status.
I get talking when I get high, but otherwise, it doesn’t make much of an impression; I can zip four points of the old #4 and conduct business as usual. I’ve always held that I could’ve been an actor like pop had there been a bit more luck on my side. I can be half nodding, hearing seagulls, and feeling the water wash up on my feet, and I don’t close up shop, no sir. I never go all the way, which is how I know I’m not a heroin addict and why no one would call me a junkie. So that’s what I do. I cook and zip plenty of #4, more than usual, in fact, the rest of my bag, because the good smoke didn’t do the trick, and my whole life feels like a cruel joke, and I am rightfully distraught. But I’ve never been one to let my life be dictated for me. I’m not a fatalist. So although I could really use a nap in the shade, I get ready to set up for a couple hours at the Atlantic. After all, today is the day my fate changes. After I cook up, I count my money ten times to make sure that I have enough to enact The Plan before putting it in my sock before making sure ten times that the money is in my sock before making sure ten times that my shoes are tied before the #4 crashes up into my cognition and the rest is smooth.
My mother died years before the cowboy had been shot on the set of a movie, supposedly by accident. At that point, I still held some hope of revealing to him who I was. I took a Greyhound to Los Angeles and waited outside of his house on Mulholland for three days with no plan and no money. I thought that if a young man appeared on my doorstep and told my valet that he was my flesh-and-blood son, I should invite him in for some sausage and eggs. He didn’t, although it is impossible to know if the valet refused to relay my message or if the validity of my claim was reduced by numerous other supplicants; I was not the only person wandering around the gate with a claim to the cowboy. And so his death was not altogether bad for me. I became realistic about my aspirations, relaxed my budget, as well as certain personal rules about intravenous injection.
On the short walk to the Atlantic I feel optimistic, confident, even. I feel like Bruce Springsteen walking down the street in a leather jacket with my entire life savings in my sock. I sing “Born to Run,” loud. The faces on the screens follow me as I walk, trying to outfox my thin shadow in 4/4 and paying no mind to My Ads. A screen slides out of a bodega’s marquee, scraping all the way. The cowboy says that real chili doesn’t have no beans. I’ve never eaten home-cooked chili; my mother didn’t eat meat, not that she cooked anyway. I assume that what they serve at the ballpark comes from a large can, and I can’t think of any food I like better. In the moment I suppose that it doesn’t contain beans, but think that I would like to try some beans in it, now that I’m going All Natural. The cowboy holds out a can of Dingo and bites off the lid. Would the cowboy really have enjoyed the Dingo brand? I can’t imagine that he would have had time to cook, but I also can’t imagine that he would eat from the same lowly can as his son. I’d love to ask him whether he found beans in chili to be truly inapposite, to know his real-and-honest beliefs and not those of the Dingo brand pouring from his death mask. The shelves at the shelter are lined with Dingo. You’d think they were wasting money running My Ads if I already eat the stuff every week, but My Ads continue to include content from the Dingo brand, more often than not featuring the cowboy. Maybe Dingo isn’t in it for the money. My translucent shadow, shouldn’t it be darker?
Paul the Apostle is the first to show up at the cigarette stall behind the Atlantic, sad eyes pointed in my direction. He spends a lot of time dopesick because he doesn’t have much money, and while I can’t give him any of the money in my sock, I can offer him some cigarettes and hold his hand when I see him lying around confused. Paul walks up picking at his nails and says hello, although he keeps his eyes downcast. I look around to make sure no one is watching before I hand him a few good smokes and ask how he’s feeling. He says okay, better now, and I say I’m happy to hear it, and he looks up for just a second, and he looks happy although still terminally sad and it inspires me to risk a furtive smile. We all with our own loneliness, our own modular histories, our own targeted Ads. Paul is closer than ever on the other side of my folding table, he says I look just like Lucy Van Pelt, meaning no offense, and that I ought to paint The doctor is in on the front of my stall. I make sure to laugh so that he won’t decide to clear out and not come back for a while. We enjoy a comfortable silence wholly uncharacteristic of our environments or our minds or our conditions. I don’t talk because I feel like crying and fear that if I open my mouth I will.
We’re cut short by Charlene’s dog, who runs up sniffing and chases off Paul the Apostle, who was standing there with impossible questions in his watery eyes. He has always been afraid of dogs—I do my best to chase off the ones that I find sniffing around him when he nods off on the sidewalk—so the soundless appearance of the spotted dog with the long, curved teeth sent him down the backstreet. Charlene also doesn’t have much money, but it’s because of the heeler. She feeds him only raw chicken, bones and all, cutting open the turgid and trussed birds right next to my respectable business and leaving the bloody plastic slips lying around every alcove within a mile of the Cost Plus. She herself is a vegetarian, and her status as a beggar and a chooser leaves for her very little to eat, which is why she looks so rangy and hollow—not because of any dope use. I have always respected her moxie and feared her dog.
I was conceived when my father, the cowboy, was sixty years old. My mother was a housekeeper at one of his homes in Beverly Hills when she was nineteen, before she moved away to bring me into this world. He died older, a very rich man, so the sale of his likeness less than a year before his death could be called a surprise. He sat for weeks with small neon cups affixed to his face and shoulders for virtually no money, his brain in the late stages of complete suffusion by syphilis, the back pages reported, looking for immortality. The moment he was in the ground they put him in commercials eating pan-fusion cuisine, holding elegant glass sex toys, standing back-to-back with barratrous attorneys.
Charlene’s upturned hand holds out a few scattered coins that buy her a handful of butts and stubs, although too many of them are Turkish tobacco, she says. I ought to have a sign that tells where the tobaccos are from, she says, so that those of us wanting to support right-here-in-the-USA-type production can make informed decisions about where to put their hard-earned, she says. I tell her that idea isn’t half bad as she combs through her butts to exchange the ones she isn’t so sure about. I assure her that most cigarettes use Virginia or air-cured green Burley tobacco, but she starts waving her hand and her head and says, Just give me Marlboro if you’ve got ‘em. The shadow of her shaking hand passes over my face and my eyes go pulsing, but I can yet read the fine print in my lockbox, or at least pick out the capital Ms among the detritus. I shake my woozy head, and water begins to lick at my feet; the seabirds pick up and soon I can’t hear Charlene over all of the squawk squawking. Her dog is barking but the scene has no sound, and, now this is funny, the water tickles my feet and the warm breeze is so good. I, a good man, have never taken a vacation. My mother never took a vacation one day in her life, but she didn’t work either. She was sick mentally. I am healthy enough to go into business, we don’t all deserve a vacation, you have to earn it. The warm water all up my legs spreads like pissed pants or apricot jam, it gets higher, and soon the sea foam drips from my chin and it tastes like bile, like a rotten and empty stomach, and I feel like an apple core. Despite the dry and the yellow ragged bitten edges, I laugh still looking around the flooded alley for Paul the Apostle, finally ready to ask, let’s go get a meal, and then, about time, everything goes black.
When the light finds its way back into my optic nerve and my thalamus decides it hasn’t quit the business, I awaken shaking under my kicked-over cigarette table. Vomit all down my front and blood on the side of my head, I can only laugh and think the doctor is out as I pick up the nickels scattered about me. I put my hair back in place and light one of the cigarettes in my pocket. The lockbox full of inventory is gone and, as I realize through a frantic search of my own disordered person, so is the money in my sock. I could stay on the ground forever and never get up, but I am still not a fatalist. I believe in the exertion of the will, the impression of the intellect upon a soft and malleable world, the exposure of ideas and the afterimage of manmade forms, the broad strokes of history. I vomit for a while although I am empty, and find the strength to go looking for my money.
I don’t even mind the screens. The pain propels me past them. I don’t take stock of My Ads. It doesn’t even anger me that the content of My Ads are laid bare to the inquiring eye of the passerby, that they can see that My Ads aren’t for luxury cars, software service, or casino resorts. They can look on at the cowboy selling HIV medications and the gruel that lines my stomach, and they can look at my soiled clothes and my lockbox-less arms and moneyless socks. There is nothing left to take from me. I am invincible as I push my way through the crowds, numb to the stares and pinched noses and insults. Charlene is beside the deli ripping open the plastic of an expired whole chicken while the heeler slavers in anticipation. I tell her I’ll kill her dog on the spot if she doesn’t give me my money. I pull out my knife and put it to the dog’s throat, only he keeps licking at the chicken. I am not a threat. The material world is rotten with the rank stench of death and our very own insides. Charlene looks at me and laughs before she says that Paul the Apostle took my little box while my head was bouncing off the pavement. Bullshit, I say, and she says, Do I look like I have a box? And tells me where to find him. I apologize to the dog and move. I know Paul didn’t do it, although I’m sure he’ll be more help than Charlene, delirious and dying from elective starvation.
My Ads, seen on the way to visit Paul, four of which were read by the cowboy’s specter: low-calorie vodka, a smoothie chain, a club that just opened in the District, raw denim, preventative medication of some sort, caffeinated sparkling water. I know Paul didn’t do it, but I think that together we should be able to find my money and that if we do, I’ll buy us some smoothies. We could make a commitment to our health, go All Natural together. I wouldn’t admit it to Paul, but it occurs to me that I have never had a smoothie, and I wonder if I would like it. I imagine my father drinking fruit smoothies in a well-lit kitchen overlooking the Hollywood Hills. I imagine my father drinking vodka under his pinched-front cattleman wearing raw denim in a lively and exclusive club, wet lips pursed and taking a loud sip.
I look for him everywhere. Up and down every labyrinthine street in the District until night falls and morning comes again. I am ready to call off the search to find a bag of #4 when I spot him, Paul the Apostle, passed out in a puddle under one of many iron-bellied bridges beneath which I’d been somnambulating. I’ve never considered it strange that dogs gather around him when he slips into sleep on the street. It never happens to me as far as I know, or anyone else that I’ve ever seen, but for some reason, Paul can’t buy a nap without a litter of street dogs bellying up like they expect milk. I kick the dogs away from his sleeping body as I think about this. I brush the hair out of his eyes and try to wake him when I notice that his arm is in a tourniquet. He’d had no coin that afternoon, so it is a bit suspicious that he would be high already, much less on a serious mid-morning nod. I prop him up and see it. He has my box, the son of a bitch. He went through my things and spent my money and zipped without me. He rolled my convulsing body over and ran his hands over my entirety as my head smacked the concrete and he took all I had, which was not much and had a few minutes ago been earmarked for an All Natural health smoothie for two.
Twenty minutes before I had envisaged Paul and I going All Natural together, and now my life savings had turned into the saliva down Paul’s flannel front. I open my box to find it completely empty. I stand up and look down for a moment at the slumped and inanimate man with the sad eyes. I look at the sunken chest and ripped jeans and bloody cuticles next to my empty box, and I feel gun-red hatred suffuse my chest at the thought of my hard-earned going into his veins. I kick him in his sunken and airless chest, and then I kick him again. I scream in his face, junkie, sodomite, liar, and I squeeze his temples and smash his head on the wall. An empty groan comes from the body on the ground and the sound feeds my naked anger. I take his shirt and pants off and throw them in the gutter. I take his shoes off and throw them on a telephone line. I kick him a few more times, hard, but he does not make the sound again. I scream at him, parasite, urchin, cocksucker, I would have given you whatever you wanted. I scream at him, craven, sick, worthless cunt. I scream and cry over his unmoving body. I think that I’ve killed him, and I mourn the loss of my great nest egg and the man himself, beautiful still in his gym socks and long johns. I pull off his long johns and throw them in the gutter too. I strip off his socks intending to do the same, when something falls out and hits the ground with a gratifying thump. Cash. He’d had it folded up around his ankle. I drop to my knees and count it, not a dollar missing. He hadn’t spent it, nor had he smoked or sold all of the cigarettes, I realize, as I observe the trail of tobacco detritus leading away from the scene. My box had been emptied by a third party after Paul had gone nodding. So he had only been protecting my business, my future, and now lay naked and slumped over a small pool of viscid blood. I had to go. Although I wept for Paul the Apostle, I will not conceal the comfort I felt in finding the cash.
I stop off to treat myself to what I’m told is a finger of #4 diamorphine hydrochloride and a verifiable pack of All Natural good smokes. With the knowledge that my fate had changed, I cook and zip and point my feet in the direction of The Plan, which sits now on the horizon like a pair of great stone statues welcoming me into my personal metropolis, from which I have been away a long time—maybe my whole life. I don’t even clock My Ads as they scream by. My feet are dancing out of the dirty socks that I’ll never wear again. The gear is pushing my blood from my toes all the way to my temples. You can’t get clean heroin anywhere in the country these days. Everything up and down the strip, behind the Atlantic, the wharf, the District, east of the Mississippi, all too white, too powdery, too deadly. Too many paying customers being left out in the cold. There had to be a way to sell some real dope.
My place will be one for everyone, not just those who come in clean looking to buy a whole bottle or a pack of All Natural. Everyone can conduct their business in my place, whether they want a single smoke or a single zip. The thing about myself is that I care about all people myself. Why is it that rich folks can get their fix and poor folks can’t? I want to look after them, make sure their needs are met as much as my own. Imagine single cigarette sales but for the complex needs of an entire population out of its mind with wanting. Single cigarettes, single hits, single clippings from porno mags. I’ll revolutionize life for normal folks like me, who can’t always afford a gram, a pack, a bottle, or a monthly subscription to their preferred hardcore pornography. Everyone will come to me for help, and I’ll be happy to give it to them. Who said the system wasn’t perfect? You can make a living taking care of people in this country. I step into the puddle under the dripping seafoam marquee that bears the legend Digital Twins. My father tells me that I can have him for only $999.99.