Zevon, LA. The sun came up and Ed was still on the floor. Still bleeding. In the small light of morning the room looked gray and he could see there the paint was cracked and waffling in places. It hurt when he breathed. It hurt when he didn’t breathe too, but it hurt worse when he breathed. By now the Dominicans would be gone, and Whitey would be calling at his hotel and getting no answer and, coked to the gills in his condo in west Florida, would be whirling up into a little man-sized cyclone of rage. He was on his side, so he tried rolling over on his back, and when he did he had the sensation of falling. A hotel room. A hotel bed. Misjudging how much mattress was behind him.
His back hit the floor, jarring him and a yellow shot of pain. He remembered being a kid. Couldn’t have been older than twelve, but already at that time in that neighborhood if you were twelve your concerns were for things that teenagers concerned themselves with. Girls and liquor (or wine, which still tasted sick but was a little more palatable) and cigarettes. All of them ended up working the same jobs stuffing papers or hawking fruit door-to-door. A man comes and picks up seven eight twelve kids and piles them in a van and drops them off around the city in little teams of two and comes back a few hours later. There was a kid. A kid like this he shouldn’t have lasted with kids like Ed and all the other kids. Dweeby, skinny. He remembers him now with glasses but who knows if that memory was true if it’s just that a kid like this should have worn glasses. Whatinthefuck was his name? This kid with the glasses? That’s right it was Romeo—he had parents who didn’t know that while this is a perfectly acceptable name in the old country, it was considered something else here. He was a reader, this Romeo, devouring books as big as cinderblocks about missions to Orion’s shoulder, or kelp farms on Neptune. They’d be waiting, passing around a pack of cigarettes that one of them had stolen from his mother or the store and this kid would just talk, tell them about space adventurers and their strange alien first mates, or the desert world where water was as valuable as gold. But it wasn’t an offense to him. Like, years later there was a guy he worked with off and on, a lot sometimes and not a lot some others, and this kind of job you have to spend a lot of time inside a car next to a guy, and sometimes there’s not a lot to talk about. There’s just not. And there’s two kinds of people in a situation like that: the kind who’s comfortable with that silence who will let that silence be, and the kind that’s not, who will begin to just prattle off. This guy Jameson would prattle off—Ed was the other kind, the kind okay with silence—and it was always movies with this guy. What’s worse, though, it was porno movies. How are you going to sit there telling another man the plot of a porno movie? It’s these two chicks, a big brunette, gotta be six five, and a tight little redhead with glasses. They’re sitting around talking about what they want to do and one of them says something about this guy, Mark is his name, or Marcus, it’s the redhead she kind of giggles and says something about how he’s packing some kind of enormous rod. Like this it goes on, and Ed is trapped there, taking it, these words, these stories inflicted upon him, an intrusion, an offense. Until he had to say to the guy Will you shut the fuck up?
But it wasn’t that way with this kid. He knew how to tell a story was the thing. This kid named Romeo, sitting on an overturned peach crate and telling ten or so other kids, hoods, bad motherfuckers—or so they thought right?—about the mysterious malevolent creature of pure light deep in the andronema [sic] system, and the punks, the hoods were hanging on his every word. And what they loved about this kid’s stories was how they ended. The kid told stories with endings like at the movies. Cliffhanger endings they were called.
Ed can see him now. Ed is there now. Ed is looking up at the cracked plaster ceiling. Ed is on the street corner, listening to Romeo. Not a kid but a grown man. It’s such a good fucking story. He’s looking into the kids eyes, and he hears the old man’s van—this is all, remember, on the pretext that the kids are all waiting to be picked up for work—and he sees the kid’s glasses flash in the sunlight as he glimpses the van coming around the corner, a second before anyone else, and he goes into how it will end, how the starship captain all of a sudden notices his helmet is cracked and he can see his oxygen supply turning into a vapor mist as it leaks out into space. He had it in his pocket the whole time and it was all leading up to that, the rest of it was to stall a bit, till he saw that van coming around the corner. The sly bastard, Ed thought, and smiled as the whole world went white.