Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - A Best Friend Named Rick by Nichelle D. Tramble
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A man fresh out of jail heads down a bad road in this provocative story from novelist/screenwriter Nichelle D. Tramble.

A Best Friend Named Rick

Lloyd was sure there were worse things. He knew that if he sat down and thought about it long enough he could come up with at least ten things more fucked up than being caught pumping gas in a clown costume in front of his ex-wife and his former best friend, but at that moment he couldn't imagine anything shittier than the smug look on their faces. It wasn't an accident that the two of them were at his gas station. Everybody in town knew he'd been hired at Uncle Ray's Petroleum Emporium his first week out of lock-up, so he was easy to find.

Besides, Emerick and Linda weren't the first of the old crowd to stop by. A few of his buddies from the high school wrestling team, and one or two from the Circuit City he used to manage had made a special trip to fill up their tanks, and welcome him home, but once they saw him in his circus tent duds their enthusiasm withered. After awhile his friends didn't even bother to stop as they passed on the outer highway. The most they managed was a surfer's greeting—which meant shit in their landlocked state—but Lloyd curled his fist, extended his thumb and pinky and threw it back at them. He knew it was hard for his buddies to see him in such a sorry-ass position so he didn't hold a grudge.

When he first got out, before their pitiful looks got to him, he'd tried to hit on a blond in a convertible coupe and she'd laughed so hard at his proposition he'd forgotten to ask for her money. Uncle Ray made him pay for that mistake out of his own pocket. He yelled at him in front of a carload of teenagers then forced him to climb a ladder and tether the special-order parade clown to the top of the building. Up there, barefoot in his clown suit, and looking out toward the lake he realized just how far his star had fallen.

"Lloyd." Emerick said before he nodded and reached for the gas nozzle. "Good to see you, man."

Lloyd didn't answer him. He couldn't believe Emerick said his name like there wasn't acrimony between them, like his wife wasn't sitting there in the passenger seat of a brand new Mercedes, with new titties and a diamond ring, like Lloyd hadn't beaten the shit out of Emerick because of it then served three months in jail for the assault.

"Lloyd." Emerick waved his hand in front of Lloyd's eyes to get his attention. "What's up, dude? You gonna answer me?"

Lloyd remained silent. His face was covered in red, white and yellow grease paint so there was no real proof it was him beneath the costume. Emerick glanced back at Linda and shook his head in disgust.

"You know, Lloyd," he said, "I just wanted to stop by and say there were no hard feelings on my end. We're grown-ups now, and you should be happy to know I'm taking good care of Linda. Look at her. She's fine."

Lloyd stared at Linda who looked back at him like he was a stranger. He motioned for her to roll the window down further.

"What is it?" she said.

"Did you know that Emerick used to jack-off in his parents bed when we were kids? He'd wait until they pulled into the driveway; call his mother from the upstairs window, then rush to get his rocks off before she came upstairs."

"Jesus Christ, Lloyd," Emerick said, "What the fuck are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about you!" Lloyd screamed the last word mostly out of frustration as he caught sight of himself in the window of the Mercedes. He looked like a fucking clown. Literally. He could crack wise until sundown but he was still the one wearing an orange Afro and face paint.

It took some of the wind out of his story.

"I thought jail might have taught you something. I thought you might have grown up." Emerick pushed a twenty-dollar bill into the pocket of the silk clown shirt. "Keep the change, buddy."

If Lloyd had any pride he would have told Emerick to shove it. He would have asked what kind of white trash, fag-ass name was Emerick. He would have asked him how come he never let anybody call him Rick because a Rick, Lloyd decided, would be cool. A Rick would never, ever bird-dog on his best friend's wife.

A Rick would not have sat in the courtroom pointing at the defendant, or sneaking into motels and doing it on rented beds while watching the reflection in the mirror. A Rick would come to see him in his clown suit with beers in his hand—possibly a joint—and a girl just for him in the back seat of his Camaro.

Lloyd wished he had a best friend named Rick.

"You've got to get a plan, man." Emerick said. "You've got to get a plan or else it's all gonna go to shit."

Lloyd couldn't look at Linda, but he knew she was watching him. He fiddled with his bowtie to avoid her eyes and counted the cars in the drive-thru across the street. When he finally gave up and looked at her she offered him one of her famous cheerleader smiles then crushed his balls in her manicured hands.

"You know you're a knuckle-dragging loser, Lloyd. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, what about him?" Lloyd felt his voice go high. "What about him?" He couldn't think of anything else to say. He'd expected his revelation about Emerick to send her running from the car and back into his arms.

"Him I can deal with. You," she shook her head, "I don't know what about you."

Lloyd lived on the edge of his mother's property in a shotgun house near the woods. It was two rooms with a bathroom off the back, not much bigger than his old cell, with a cot, toilet, and a few sticks of furniture. Being so far out in the country, he never bothered to lock up the house yet he was surprised, when he rounded the corner, to find the front door propped open with a brick, and the screen listing toward the dead cactus plants lining his porch.

He took the stairs in one step, crossed the threshold and felt his day getting better by the second. Decco, his old cellmate, was sitting on the couch with Lloyd's aged beagle in his lap. Ned didn't like anybody—old as he was—but he was curled up in Decco's lap like a cat.

"What kind of guard dog is this?" Decco's voice boomed through the small space. He stood to his full height of six foot five inches and held the dog by the scruff of his neck. Ned didn't make a sound as he dangled there with his legs and balls in the air.

Decco was black, a relatively new acquaintance, and a former halfback at Lloyd's high school. Even though they'd graduated together, one after the other in the commencement line—Declan Milloy and Lloyd Milton—the races hadn't mixed much beyond sports. They usually found each other later in blue-collar jobs and local bars or in the case of Lloyd and Decco, jail.

Lloyd crossed the small room in one step and grabbed Decco in the manliest hug he could manage. When they parted, Decco stepped back and took five minutes to laugh at Lloyd's outfit. Lloyd laughed too, for the first time in weeks he laughed at himself and stopped feeling sorry. The old Lloyd would have laughed from the beginning, clowned it up for the kids in the station wagon, flipped the convertible blond on her back like a beetle and called it a day but in his misery he'd forgotten how to keep it all in perspective.

"Those your work clothes?"

Lloyd nodded.

"Man, I've seen the place you work. That clown on the roof will fuck up a man's high."

Lloyd laughed with his friend. "What're you doing here, man? When'd you get out?"

"A couple weeks back. I would've come seen you sooner but I needed some pussy."

"I hear you." Lloyd shook his head in disbelief. "I can't believe they let you out."

"They can't either."

Decco and Lloyd stared at each other like they were bad-asses, like the sheriff, police and highway patrol had something to fear now that they were back on the loose. The reality was that Lloyd served time for the minor infraction of beating up Emerick, and Decco for scalping tickets at the sports arena. Their three months of hard time was served in the city jail, not county, not state, just the local where they could still see citizens going about their business. On three different occasions, Lloyd saw Emerick and Linda speed by in the Mercedes, laughing at something or singing along to the radio. It almost killed him, and not because they were together, but because they never once looked toward the jail.

On those days, when Lloyd's spirits crashed, Decco kept him buoyed by reciting Rudy Ray Moore movies, verbatim, in all the different voices with the action moves mimed in the confined spaces of their shared cell. He even made the guards laugh with his Dolomite routine and exaggerated dialects, and on the days Decco was down Lloyd would rehash the plot of old A-Team episodes. They weren't as entertaining as Rudy Ray Moore, but it reminded Lloyd of his father, so he helped both himself and his friend.

"What can I do you for?" Lloyd asked.

"A beer would do a brother right."

"Then a beer it is." Lloyd tossed Decco a bottle of Moose Head, the Canadian beer his cellmate dreamed about while they were locked up. "That good?"


"I gotta run some milk up to the main house. You gonna stay awhile?"

Decco shrugged. "Got nowhere else to be."

At his mother's house, Lloyd's state championship wrestling trophies were displayed in the front window. He passed them everyday on his way home from work and everyday they made him cringe. His mother refused to take them down, so they sat there year after year fading in the sunlight, reminding him of a past that had begun to feel as if it never existed.

Lloyd turned away from them as he entered the living room.

"Sweetheart, that you?"

"Yeah, ma, it's me."

His mother came out of the back room still tying the apron on her waitress uniform. She didn't need to work, she was fixed pretty good for money, after retiring as a cook from the public school district, but she waitressed at the casino coffee shop to stay social. She also made pies for the regulars as an off-the-menu item.

"Thank you, baby, I didn't think that cranky boss of yours would give you the message about the milk." She put the carton in the refrigerator. "I made five pies this morning but I'm only taking four to work so pick one for your house." She glanced in the mirror to check her hair. "Thought I heard somebody out back earlier. You got a friend over?"

"Yeah, Decco. Remember him? We went to school together. He played on the football team."

Suzette raised an eyebrow at her son. "Wasn't he in jail with you?"

"Yeah but we knew each other before that."

"Uh-huh." She emptied the contents of her purse onto the couch looking for a lipstick. "Ya'll come by the coffee shop if you want to get some dinner. I'd like to see Decco again. Look him in the eye."

Lloyd shrugged. It couldn't hurt. Suzette possessed an uncanny knack for calling it correct on most people. She'd tagged Linda as a "sprinter" the first time he brought her home in tenth grade. "That one," she said, "will run when the going gets tough."

It turned out to be true.

"We'll stop by." Lloyd said. He let the screen bang on its hinges as he went out the door.

"And Lloyd," she called, "get out of that make-up before you break out in hives."

Half an hour later Lloyd and Decco finished the six-pack and smoked some weed Lloyd found stashed in Linda's old black velvet ring box. After their divorce, she'd sent it back to him—sans ring—in an airmail envelope. He'd kept it because it was the perfect size to store his joints, roach clip and papers.

"You been out to the new casino?" Decco asked. He scratched his stomach and used Lloyd's pliers to turn the channel on the thirteen inch.

"My mom works at the coffee shop out there. She invited us to come for dinner."

"Sounds good to me."

Through the front window Lloyd watched Suzette walk to her car. She hummed something to herself, and he smiled when she dipped back on her heels, like she was dancing with a partner. A couple times he'd caught her in the middle of a one-way conversation with his dead father, talking to the man like he was right there in the room. Lloyd supposed the dip in the driveway was more of the same thing.

He watched until her car disappeared onto the main road. When it was out of sight he became overwhelmed with a feeling he couldn't describe. It took a moment for him to gather his words into a sentence but he knew that once he got them out Decco would understand.

"Man," he said to his friend, "you ever feel like the sand is giving out underneath your feet."

Decco took a long hit off the joint. "All the time, brother. All the time."

"You know who came by the station to see me today?" Lloyd continued.

"In your clown suit?"



"My ex-wife and my old friend. It's been eating at my ass all day." Decco held out the roach but Lloyd shook his head. He was on a tear. "What I'm trying to get a handle on is what made them figure me for the kind of guy to get over on. I could be wrong but I never thought of myself as the type, you know. But once people started talking it came out that the two of them fooled around when we were in high school. When I really wasn't that kind of guy." He ran his fingers through his hair. "I mean, what the fuck."

Decco turned his full attention to Lloyd. "Listen, I'ma tell you something you might not be able to see for yourself." He paused for effect. "Me and you, Lloyd, we're a lot alike and we definitely have the same problem. Our problem, and I'm being straight with you when I say this, is that most people haven't had the taste that we've had, youhearwhatI'msaying?"

Lloyd felt the conversation going the way of the ones in their cell when Decco would preach, he would listen and discover a truth that wasn't so obvious before.

"You and I," Decco continued, "we tasted. We drank from the cup and it's ruined us for the small things. It happened to you with wrestling, and to me with football. We got to peek through that door and see what it all could be."

Lloyd nodded. Decco was right. He had peeked. He had peeked and then stepped through for a brief time. He'd been on the other side when he took his opponents down on the mat, he'd been there after the matches when he claimed Linda for himself, and later, in the backseat of his car, when he slipped inside of her and the applause never seemed to stop.

"You still with me?" Decco asked.

"I'm with you."

"We know great things, me and you. My granddaddy, and probably yours too, worked at the lumber mill most of his life cause that was the thing to do around here. Then my daddy worked at the glass factory cause that was the thing to do. It closed down and everybody went right to the casino. Now, we could take that route, just like them, if we didn't know what we know."

Decco rose and foraged through the kitchen cabinets with so much ease that Lloyd wondered how long he'd been there before he got home. He watched as Decco found a jar of old, brown liquor and two clean glasses that he filled to the rim with alcohol.

He handed a glass to Lloyd..."You want the glory back, brother?"

Lloyd did. The abyss was riding him too hard. His answer was a vehement "I do."

"Then I might have a little something for you."

They held their glasses up in a toast. Lloyd downed his in one swallow. "Tell me what you need."

Decco grinned. "My man. My man, Lloyd. You remember Candy Lane?"

"The stripper who wrote to you in the joint?" Lloyd answered.

"That's the one. She dances over at Emerald City." He looked at his watch. "Just enough time for us to eat then get out to see her."

An hour later they drove in a car Decco borrowed from his brother, an accountant with a wife, three kids and an abundance of patience. Lloyd watched the odometer because he was eager to eat dinner then get out to see Candy Lane in the flesh. She sent pictures to Decco while they were housed together—crotch shots—with her legs arched so high they blocked out her face but Lloyd knew, from the angle of the poses, that she was a redhead.

"You seen her since you been out?" Lloyd asked.

"She picked me up. Helped me get a job."

"You working?"

"Yeah, security at Emerald City."

"No, shit!" Lloyd was impressed.

"Been there since I got out. It meant that me and Candy had to cool it though. We're colleagues now and it's frowned upon." He said the words like they'd been repeated to him more than once.

"How do you handle it, man? All those naked girls?"

"Once you see those girls come in day after day, dragging their behinds and suitcases, before they put their make-up on," he shrugged, "then they go on and on about their problems. Phone bills, boyfriends, kids, their periods. It ain't sexy. T'aint sexy at all."

Lloyd was skeptical. He trusted Decco but he also remembered that his old cellmate had a tendency to be a little stingy with details and information. His way, Lloyd guessed, of staying in control.

The Kalahari Casino was in the middle of the woods on old hunting ground cleared to give a local tribe, and the county, a little money. There were five gambling rooms in the two-story structure, one fancy restaurant, a coffee shop, a show room where they got old Motown acts and hillbilly bands, and a string of boutiques that sold splashy Vegas style clothes.

Lloyd's mother was behind the counter in the Serengeti Coffee Shop talking to one of her regulars. The place was nearly empty and the TV set above the grill was turned to Wheel of Fortune.

"Hey, boys." Suzette motioned for them to sit at the counter.

"Good to see you, Mrs. Milton."

"You too, Declan. Ya'll hungry?"

"I could use some red meat." Decco patted his stomach, and pointed to a glossy picture of a cheeseburger, French fries and a milk shake propped against the cash register. "That there burger would do me right."

"What about you, baby?" Suzette brushed a strand of hair out of her son's eye.

"I'll take some cheese soup, a side of bacon and garlic bread."

"Coming up then." Suzette leaned into the reach-through window and gave the order to the cook, an old man who hummed to the transistor he kept with him. Suzette said he wasn't much of a conversationalist, but he did a nice two-step shuffle whenever Glenn Miller came on the radio.

"What're you boys getting into tonight?"

"Going over to Emerald City." Lloyd answered. "Decco works there as a bouncer."

"That right." Suzette looked at her son's friend, but he avoided her eye. "How you like it?"

"Not as glamorous as you would think."

"Few things are. They pay you good money?"

"Decent. Enough to keep me out of trouble."

Suzette looked Lloyd square in the face after that last comment then cut two pieces of apple pie into pointed slices. She handed the plates through the order window and asked the cook to slap them on the burger grill with a slice of cheese. Suzette knew that Lloyd liked his sweets mingled with a little grease fat. Just like his daddy.

"Your ex-girlfriend," Suzette nodded at Lloyd, "the bubble-blowing one that used to come by the house. What's her name?"

Lloyd was close to his mother, which led him to reveal that his post-jail fling kept child-size bottles of liquid bubble stashed around her house. Her bedroom walls were pocked marked with water stains because she liked to blow bubbles after sex. She said it relaxed her but Suzette, who got a kick out of the story, thought it was a meager attempt on the girl's part to make herself stand out in a crowd.

"Debbie?" Lloyd offered.

"Yeah, Debbie." His mother answered. "She came in about an hour ago with a coupl'a friends."

"What was she talking about?"

"Her new boyfriend mostly. Loud enough for me to hear. My guess is that she wanted it to get back to you."

"So she got her wish." Lloyd held up his water glass. "Everybody's happy."

The counter bell dinged behind Suzette, and she went to get their dinners.

Decco leaned in close. "Who's this bubble girl? You been getting some ass?"

"For awhile." Lloyd said.

Decco shook his head. "You sure can pick 'em."

Lloyd remembered then that he'd confessed a few choice things about Linda while they were locked up together. He changed the subject. "Want to hit the slots after we eat?"

Decco looked at his watch. "I thought we'd pick up Candy Lane first. Maybe go to The Temescal for a minute."

"What's out there?"

"A man I need to see about a horse."

Decco bit into his burger and Lloyd watched the juice run into his friend's moustache. Suzette lit a cigarette and watched them both. As she blew smoke into the air she locked eyes with her son and shook her head. Before she took another drag she pointed at Decco then ran her ring finger across her throat.

At Emerald City, Decco opened the door to the dancer's room without knocking. Candy Lane stood inside as did another girl who was bent over in her high heels plucking her bikini line with tweezers. Lloyd tried to play it cool by leaning against the door jam, but he felt the color rise from his collarbone into his scalp.

Candy Lane had her back to the door as she applied make up in a wall-length mirror. She listened to the other stripper talk about a boyfriend who wouldn't pay her phone bill, or go in half on childcare for her son.

"Cut him loose." Candy advised in a small, dirt-road accent. "What good is he doing you? Give him one chance, not two or three. One."

"That your motto, tough girl?"

Candy turned at the sound of Decco's bottomless voice and smiled wide. Lloyd felt his insides congress in his throat after taking one long drink of her. She had milky skin, brassy hair that gathered in a ball near her waist, and wide green eyes like a comic book villainess. She wore a g-string and a powder blue half-top. A tattoo of red and yellow flames wrapped around her ankles and up the lower part of her calf.

When she hugged Decco with her lower body pulled back, Lloyd suspected that the nudie pictures Candy sent his friend were more about keeping his spirits up than sex. He knew it was true when Decco held on long after Candy dropped her arms.

"This is Lloyd." Decco said when he finally let her go. "The one I told you about."

"Good for him." Candy answered. "Must be nice to be a Lloyd."

Lloyd wasn't sure what she meant by that remark. He wasn't even sure she wanted an answer so he stood with his hands shoved deep into his pockets.

Candy trained her eyes down below his belt. "What you got all the way down there? Anything I need to see?"

"Not much." He answered then realized the stripper had trapped him into making fun of himself.

Candy smiled to let him off the hook while Decco laughed. "What's our schedule, Candy Lane?"

"Ginger's taking my shift tonight so we can leave now."

"Where to?" Decco asked.

"To make our own luck."

Decco repeated her words. "Make our own luck. Yeah, I like that. Make our own luck."

"You like it because you're an optimist. A hopeful person." She turned to Lloyd. "What about you? Are you an optimist?"

"I can be." Lloyd answered.

"And that's worked for you?" she asked.

"It has until now."

"Then lets hope your luck holds." She grabbed her purse and a duffel bag marked with the Emerald City logo. Lloyd and Decco, being gentlemen, let her go through the door ahead of them.

"Where to first?" Decco fell into step behind Candy.

"I figured we'd head to the Temescal to see Kevin." Lloyd recognized both of the names and it made him lose his step.

"The Temescal it is." Decco took the lead and used a key-chain flashlight to illuminate the dark hallway.

"I'll be seeing you, Candy girl." Ginger called from behind Lloyd.

"And I'll be looking out." Candy answered back.

Lloyd sat behind Decco as they drove through the middle of town. The window was open and he could smell the scent of apples in Candy Lane's hair.

"That guy came in tonight. The one I told you about."

"Yeah?" Decco didn't take his eyes off the road but Lloyd could tell by the way he shifted in his seat that Candy's words excited him.

"He talks too much," Candy continued, "so I figure whatever happens to him is his own fault."

"What man?" Lloyd leaned forward so he could hear the conversation but mostly he wanted to be closer to Candy.

Decco glanced at Lloyd in the rearview mirror. "Oh, he's more than a man, brother." Decco paused for effect. "He's the glory."

For the first time that evening Lloyd felt something akin to fear goose step from the base of his spine and take root in his pores.

The Temescal was a single screen drive-in on the edge of the town that serviced about twenty cars a night with third-run double features. When Lloyd was in school, the drive-in was a stoner hang out, but even that group had moved on to the twelve-screen theater at the mall. The only people who kept the Temescal alive were cheating husbands and wives, burnouts, and big families that hid their kids under blankets in the back seat.

"Over there." Candy pointed to the stone perimeter wall at the far end of the property that absorbed the sound from the adjacent freeway. "There's Kevin's station wagon in the third row. Pull alongside. He's probably asleep."

She was right. Kevin was reclined in the driver's seat with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. Decco aligned his car parallel to Kevin's. Candy reached out and knocked on his window. "Stick 'em, up?"

Kevin grinned when he saw her then rolled down the glass. "Well, well, well, if it isn't Candy Apple Red".

"Can we come over?" Candy motioned toward the backseat of Kevin's car.

"Mi casa es su casa. Help yourselves."

Decco cut his engine and Lloyd followed him into the backseat of the wagon while Candy took the front. On screen, Michael J. Fox raced through the wild west with futuristic toys. The squawk box hooked to Kevin's window blared the details of the movie into the car.

"Man, I hate this shit. The first one was decent but this here I can barely tolerate."

"You should get a new office." Candy suggested.

"Don't be drastic. Nothing beats the wide-open spaces. It's worth a bad flick or two." He looked around at his guests. "What can I do you for this evening? I got the usual bag of tricks. Meth, weed, some coke..."

"No," Candy cut him off, "I need something a little off the map." She slid across the front seat and cupped her hand around Kevin's ear. When she whispered her need, Kevin pulled back then whistled long and loud.

"Candy, girl, you don't play, do you?"

"Never have." She turned back to Decco and Lloyd. "Why don't ya'll meet me back here in about ten minutes."

The brightness of the cafeteria-style snack bar threw Lloyd off balance. He shielded his eyes in an attempt to tone down the neon glare, and the white-wall blaze, but the carnival colors throbbed at him like a warning in the crowded space. It made Lloyd feel as if he were under attack. He rubbed his eyes but the measly gesture did little to bring his life back into focus. He was lost, he knew it, and he felt hot. The same hot of a silk clown suit and a long day without wind.

"What's going on?" Lloyd asked.

"With what?"

"With you, Candy and Kevin."

Decco ignored him. "Those fries look fresh to you, Lloyd?" He reached for a ham and cheese sandwich packed in a tin foil envelope..."They don't look fresh to me."

Lloyd barely glanced at the fries that glowed orange under the heat lamp. "They look fine."

The two men locked eyes.

"You're not punking out on me, are you Lloyd? I mean, how many times did you tell me that a person needs to have heart to be a wrestler. And if I remember correctly, you were a champion. What happened to that? Where's the heart?"

"Decco," Lloyd asked again, "what's the plan?"

"The plan is trust, brother. That always has been, always will be, the only plan."

"And after that?"

"Shit, after that we see a man about a horse and take his prize stallion." Outside of the snack bar Decco finished the last of his sandwich then licked each of his fingers before drying them with a napkin. "Candy Lane says there's a guy, comes into Emerald City once a month, like clockwork. Exact time. Exact day. Every month. He spends exactly two hundred dollars on Candy's services. Never changes up.

"She does her female thing on him. He runs his mouth to her. Put two and two together and it's easy to figure this man—the glory in case you forgot—is Kevin's connection. Cocaine, baby. So, me and Candy figured we'd get his stash and his cash, cut Kevin out of the loop, and, all of a sudden, the world looks a whole lot brighter. And you, my man, got it easier than anybody. All you have to do is benefit from my expertise."

By the time Decco finished his speech they were back at the cars, and Lloyd realized the night had slipped out of control. Earlier in the day he couldn't think of anything shittier than Emerick and Linda's smugness but, now, something shittier had arrived and it was unfiltered. It was also just the sort of thing that would go wrong for him. Lloyd knew the entire mission was out of his scope but he'd committed, and truth be told, he just didn't feel cool enough to turn Decco down. But the plan had holes. He could see them. They were big enough to give him a clear view of his future.

"Took ya'll long enough." Candy said. She was reclined on the hood of Kevin's wagon with her legs propped against the windshield. "Thought you guys got lost or something."

From her upside down position, she blew smoke rings into the sky. Kevin amused himself by poking a lazy finger through the holes.

"Just bringing Lloyd up to speed." Decco offered.

Candy eyed Lloyd. "He caught up?"

"Right up to the finish line."

"Good." Candy righted herself and Decco tossed her a box of chocolates Lloyd hadn't seen him buy. "Now, let's take a ride. Decco, me and you will take your car..."

"...and he'll ride with me." Kevin motioned toward Lloyd with his chin. "Keep everybody honest."

With Lloyd riding shotgun, Kevin took the outer highway onto the reservation and past the bullet-ridden sign that read: YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE UNITED STATES. It had been target practice back in high school, and it looked to Lloyd as if it still served the same purpose. The whole area made him depressed. The empty military buildings on the edge of the rez, the marginal housing inside, took Lloyd right back to where he'd started his day. It made him wish for the simplicity of a multi-colored silk suit and an orange Afro.

He sighed. Loud. So loud that Kevin looked his way then turned off the radio.

"Didn't catch your name, brother."


Kevin nodded. "Not much of a talker, huh?"

"Not really."

"I can dig it. I keep things close to the vest myself." He pulled the lighter out of the dash and lit a cigarette. "I do it for business reasons which is harder than you think. Customers want to be assured that they're not lowlifes just because they're buying product from you, yet you don't want them to ever feel like they have the upper hand. It's a delicate balance.

"Mindless chatter helps though. Great equalizer. Bullshit topical stuff. Nonsense. Ease the tension, make people feel like they're getting deep with you while everybody really stays safely on the surface. You know what I mean?"

Lloyd didn't answer. Earlier in the day when he'd been roped out of his silence by Emerick he'd ended up the fool, and now, on an undeclared assignment with a chatterbox drug dealer he could feel himself slipping back into his jester costume. He listened as Kevin went on about the art of reading people, about his ability to recognize, in an instant, when you've met your superior, someone equal or an inferior.

The topic was pothead 101 yet Lloyd knew exactly what Kevin meant. He knew because he remembered that in the old days when he was cock of the walk at Circuit City, or pulling down wins on the mat, he'd been able to do the same thing. He'd know, with just a glance into the eye of an opponent, or a potential customer, who he could take and who he couldn't.

He remembered that and the clouds parted. He slapped the dashboard with an open palm. "Right here, man." Lloyd said. He pointed to a clearing on the shoulder of the road. "This is me, right here. Let me out." He nearly screamed the last words.

"We're almost there." Kevin said.

Lloyd laughed. The sound had so much clarity it rang like a church bell in the confines of the car. "We could drive all night and never get there, man. Right here. This is me. Pull over. Now."

Kevin stopped the car. Behind him Decco wheeled his sedan up to the bumper. Lloyd swung his feet out of the wagon and when they landed on dirt he knew he would walk until he got his shit together.

Decco came around to meet him. "What's up, brother? Everything all right?"

"Everything's beautiful." Lloyd responded.

He held out his hand, the same gesture of equality he used to offer to his opponents on the mat. Lloyd used to love the start of the match when he'd grasp the hand of his rival and look them dead in the eye. In his mind, the bout was decided right there, in that second, and once upon a time Lloyd used to know that. He felt the whole of his soul return to his body. Decco felt it too because he pulled his hand back as if he'd been burned. Lloyd grinned to let him off easy.

A pin wasn't necessary.

"You out?" Decco asked.

"As of now." Lloyd answered. He watched the abyss close just over Decco's shoulder.

"Good move, man." Kevin nodded over the roof of his car with hooded, stoner eyes. "When it's not your boat, why crew it, right?"

Lloyd didn't answer Kevin nor did he look at Candy Lane. He planned to never again look back at anything that could lock him in place. He just went hell-for-leather into the woods.

Lloyd walked until sunrise and then he walked some more. By the time he turned on the main road that led to his house, lunchtime traffic whizzed by him in both directions. When he reached his mother's house the first thing he saw where his trophies glistening in the noon sun. He felt nothing and that felt right.

Suzette waved to him from her mailbox, a replica of the main house given to her as a gift after retirement from the school district.

"Morning, baby." She said. "Looks like you had a late one?"

"Something like that."

"You hear 'bout what happened over at the Temescal?"

"No, what?"

"Some undercover agent got shot there last night. Young guy. They found him in his car."

Lloyd took in his mother's words and realized just how close he'd come. He also remembered Kevin's sincere, stoner-inflected "good move, man."

"How'd you hear about that?"

"Uncle Ray told me when he called here looking for you. He also said for you to just wear your regular clothes today."

Lloyd let that pass.

"What about the guy? He dead?"

"Don't know but they should close that place. It's been a hell-hole for years."

Behind him Lloyd heard the sound of tires on gravel and the click-click of an old engine.

"Somebody's coming."

Lloyd's breath caught until he turned to find an old man staring at him from the cab of a pick-up truck.

"Can I help you?" Suzette asked him.

"Yes, ma'am. Trying to find the outer highway, the one that goes around the reservation. Going through it takes too long."

Suzette smiled. "You're not far. Just go past that yellow house, make a right, drive about two miles and you'll hit it."

"Thank you." The old man started at Lloyd. "I know you?"

"Don't think so." Lloyd answered.

"You look familiar to me."

"I got that kind of face."

"That ain't it. Maybe you went to school with my grandsons."

"Could have. They wrestle?"

"Naw, too lazy." He smiled. "Wait a minute. I know now."

Suzette laughed. So did Lloyd.

"You're that clown over to Uncle Ray's."

"Use to be." Lloyd said. "Not anymore."

About the Author

Nichelle D. Tramble is the author of The Dying Ground (Random House) and The Last King (Ballantine) and is currently at work on Book Three in the series. She was an Edgar F. Albee Foundation Fellow and a Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Debut Fiction Finalist. Nichelle is currently a Story Editor on the NBC drama, Mercy.