Del Murphy awoke in room so dark it made his eyes hurt. He lay on a futon that smelled of stale sweat, in a strange house and he stared into that black hole, his mind burning through money he didn’t yet have in a life that lay beyond the day. The house belonged to a biker named Butch, who at one time dated Del’s wild sister May. Del was there babysitting seven garbage bags of wild growing pot that he’d harvested and was waiting for the deal to go down. He’d never had more than a dime bag in his possession, so when he lucked into that much weed, he had few options. The pot grew on some orange groves outside of Tampa and the farmer wanted nothing to do with it. He let Del have it for a share of the profits.
Del and Butch were not friends, nor had they ever been, but Butch had a place to stash the stuff and he was the only one Del knew who could sell it all. Butch wore thick, steel rings on the fingers of his right hand and had once used them to make ground meat of a man’s face and skull in a bar fight, and though this knowledge left Del leery, he was determined to see the deal through.
The cell phone briefly illuminated the dingy room. It was Eula. Del ignored the call. He lifted the blackout shade letting golden light fill the room. There was something hopeful about mornings and he liked being up early. He just didn’t like getting up early. The crank to the jalousie window was rusted and it took some effort to let in a little fresh air. His right hand was sore. Too many hours gripping power tools. Del grabbed a crumpled pack of cigarettes and lit one. The cell phone lit up again. It was his old man calling to warn him that Eula was looking for him and she was spitting venom. He wished his old man hadn’t opened his mouth. Del had walked out on Eula and the boys again about three weeks before and she wanted the money he’d promised her.
The room had a dank pungency to it, but even through the foul residue of sweat, body odors and other remnants of a biker whorehouse, Del smelled money. Enough to get him right with Eula, get him the hell out of his old man’s house and maybe buy a used pickup. Something he could use to deliver cabinets. Nothing fancy. Even in his imaginings, it had a rusted fender. His old man already said to use the garage as a shop. That would work fine, he just didn’t want to live there. Too many rules. He’d gone down a couple times for small stuff and he knew what it was and didn’t want Del tracing his footsteps.
Three hard knocks at the front door echoed through the house and Del stiffened. Cops were always busting this place for prostitution or drugs. Del stared at the .38 on the nightstand. Butch left gun with instructions to shoot anyone who comes in the goddamned house.
“Del, I know you’re in there,” Eula said in a twang that revealed her as a transplant to Florida from up in the South. Her voice muffled by the front door.
“Shit,” Del said quietly. “Alright. Gimme a minute.” Del’s voice echoed through the house. He dropped his feet to the cool terrazzo where he could feel sand and stickiness from an origin that he didn’t want to contemplate. He looked at the other three futon couches crowded into the small room, each with stuffing bulging from worn seams like cotton aneurisms and he wondered about the business conducted here. He stuffed the gun in the drawer and looked at a framed painting of a sad clown that hung on the wall. It looked to be one of those paint by number art projects and seemed oddly out of place.
A series of muffled pops came from Del’s body as he stretched his sinewy frame, with the cigarette hanging in his lips and smoke rising in coils. Two nights previous he’d worked until two in the morning loading cabinets at his former job and then spent the next day installing. Work for which he had not been paid and the reason he quit. He wasn’t mad at Johnny or Robert about that. Del understood the cabinet business and thought maybe once he got his own shop running they’d sub work to him.
“Come on, Del,” Eula said, pounding on the door. “I got the boys in the car.” Eula leaned against the door frame with a long cigarette in her hand. She wore skinny jeans with slits in the knees and thighs, her long, mousey hair pulled into a ponytail.
Del stood in front of the blue toilet, shirtless, in his gray boxers, white chested with sunburned forearms. The commode had no lid or seat and the inside was stained with black mold and rust. The only sound in the house was that of toilet water running in the fill tank and Interstate traffic traveling close enough to cast moving shadows through patches of dried weeds and gray sand that passed for a front yard. Del pissed and smoked while alternately looking at the bloated vanity door that leaned against the wall and the collapsed remnants of a dead rat that lay beneath the rusted plumbing in the cabinet.
He made his way to the front door thinking of the last words his mother said to him before she ran off with that Cuban lawyer from Miami. She leaned over and kissed him on the forehead and said, “Life is too goddamned short to be unhappy.” She glared at his old man, kissed May and disappeared from their lives.
Del opened the front door as far as the security chain would allow and squinted through a blast of sunlight at Eula’s backlit figure. Her ten-year-old minivan burned oil on the gravel driveway. The shadows of cars flowed steadily across the gray sand yard like the workings of some giant piece of machinery.
“Goddammit Del, I’m in a hurry,” Eula said trying to see into the darkness. “What’re you hiding in there anyway?”
They’d had an on-and-off relationship for the better part of ten years and Del still couldn’t figure out where they were going. They’d never talked about love or said the words. When they first moved in together she brought up marriage and he said, “What’s the difference between this and that?” And that’s where it stayed.
Del unlatched the chain, stepped out of the house in nothing but his boxers and ran a hand through his tussled blonde hair. When they first met, Eula said he looked like that blond dude from Hall & Oates, and though Del took the compliment for what it was, he’d always hated that fucking band. He looked Eula up and down. She was agitated and shifting her weight from side-to-side, but had makeup on and smelled nice, sweet like magnolias. Eula’s face was plain as cabbage and somewhat forgettable, but she was built like a stripper, all tits and ass and that picture was indelible.
“Del, what are you doing here?” Eula asked, gesturing to the house. “Butch scares the hell out of me.”
“He’s off doing biker shit, so don’t worry about it.” Del mindlessly picked at flaking paint on the doorframe.
“You promised money for the boys.” She shook her cigarette at him and he stared at the red lipstick that stained the filter. “And you won’t pick up my goddamn calls.”
“Hell Eula, only one of em’s mine.” Del waved to the boys who were jumping up and down in their booster seats shouting Daddy. One was a redhead with freckles and the other had dark skin and kinky hair.
Her face dropped and she lowered her voice. “If I was a man I would punch you right in your face. Those boys love you and you abandoned them. I need these boys in daycare. I’m a week late at Kiddie Castle and I gotta give Mrs. Mona something. I will report you this time. Don’t test me.”
Del looked past Eula at the boys. Delbert was his. That she lumped Carl in the deal was okay too. He liked being a sometime dad. Del said he had fifty-bucks and disappeared back into the house to get it while Eula waited on the porch to keep an eye on the boys. Del came back wearing a gray T-shirt and faded work jeans. He produced two twenties, a five, and two ones, which he counted into Eula’s extended hand like a store clerk, explaining that the cops were out and he stopped to buy mints on the drive over. She stared at the money and asked for the twenty he kept in the side pocket of his wallet.
“It’s all the cash I got,” Del said.
“Goddammit, Del,” she said.
Del produced the Jackson and asked if she was maybe thinking about going back to dancing. The money was good and she always had cash back then.
“What world are you livin’ in, Del?” Eula said. “Bobby’s clientele don’t care to see a dancer who’s thirty-two and had two C-sections. I’ll keep waiting tables ‘til I get out of school.” Eula was a fast talker and she spit the words out like one of those auctioneers selling livestock.
“I quit the cabinet shop,” he said out of nowhere, thinking that she might take something from that.
“That’s just brilliant.” She turned around clutching the money and cursed words that Del couldn’t hear, then shook her head and turned back to him with that stunned expression of a person whose house has been robbed.
“Look it,” Del said. “I’m working something big with Butch. After that, I’m going to open my own shop and work out of my old man’s garage. He’s got that detached garage out on his property. It’ll make a sweet little shop.”
Eula’s eyes widened a bit and her face relaxed and for a moment, Del thought that she could see his dream as vividly as he could. She said, “I gotta say, that’s a good idea, but it doesn’t help me out and it sure as hell doesn’t get you out of your responsibilities. I didn’t even have goddamned milk for the boys this morning.” Her voice cracked and she turned as if to walk away, then turned back around. “Goddammit, I spent the last of what I had on tuition.”
She blurted this out in the way of a confession it seemed to Del. Eula was close to getting her hygienist certificate and needed him to help pay for that. Her eyes welled as she ran out of fight. She leaned in and wrapped her arms around him. Eula wasn’t one to give hugs but she took them when she needed to. Del put an arm around her and flicked the nub of his cigarette into the yard. She felt nice in his arms. The soft parts of her body felt good. Suddenly three weeks away seemed like a long time. Del watched curiously as Carl rolled down a window in the minivan and stuck his head out.
“Delbert’s gotta go potty.”
“Right now?” Eula pushed away from Del and checked the time on her phone.
“He’s holding his pee pee.”
“Eula, this house ain’t kid friendly,” Del said. “He can go in the yard.”
“Not in sight of the whole goddamned freeway,” Eula said. “Now open the door your son has to pee.” Eula hustled down the porch steps, shut off the Town & Country and unbuckled the boys from their boosters. Delbert, the redhead, was four and Carl, the result of Del having previously walked out on Eula, was five. The boys ran toward the house as Del’s brain worked hard on a lie. Initially, he’d flirted with the idea of showing Eula the pot just to see her expression. To prove something. That was before he knew the boys were there. The boys grabbed Del around the legs shouting, “Daddy.”
“Good morning, Carl. Morning Delbert. I miss you boys.” Del rubbed the boys on their heads and squeezed them. They looked cute as hell in their plaid shorts, T-shirts and Converse All-Stars and they barraged him with questions.
“Is this your house?”
“The paint is peeling.”
“Are we going to move here?”
“I like our old house better.”
Del explained that he was watching the house for a friend and braced himself, swinging open the door. “Make it quick. Straight down the hall. First door on the right.” The boys stepped in and became two statues gawking at the mysterious spectacle.
In the living room, there sat two sawhorses on which rested a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood. Mounded high atop the plywood was a bright green mound of marijuana that nearly reached the ceiling.
“What is it?” Carl asked, while Delbert ran to the bathroom.
Eula stood in that doorway and her lips parted. Her expression of disgust conveyed more than any string of expletives. Del shrugged with a hangdog look.
“Go with your brother right now,” Eula said to Carl.
“But,” the boy stammered, “what is it?”
“It’s oregano,” Del said. “You put it on pizza.”
“Are you a farmer?”
“Go on now,” Eula admonished the boy, who ran into the bathroom.
“Delbert, our daddy’s a farmer,” Carl announced. The sound of pee hitting water echoed through the house.
Eula stared at the mound of pot with her arms crossed and her lips clenched and her head shaking side-to-side. “How much is there?”
“Seven garbage bags or so. Maybe twelve kilos.”
“Well that is about the biggest pile of stupid I have ever seen in my life. You are in way over your head. You’re a cabinetmaker. You don’t know a damned thing about being a drug dealer.”
“Well, that just makes it sound a whole lot worse than it is.”
Eula said she was getting the boys the hell out of there and that Del should do the same and walk away from this. “It’s a black cloud,” she said.
There was no use explaining. Eula was beyond reason. “Eula, it’s a one-timer, to get on my feet,” Del said, as she collected the boys. “I’m just babysitting it ‘til Butch gets here with my money, then I’m out clean.”
Eula marched Carl and Delbert out and upon her departure sucked the air from the room, leaving Del staring at his pile of pot. He walked out to the porch and watched Eula buckle the boys in their booster seats and then climb in the minivan. He was happy they were leaving. Butch and the Renegades were a nasty bunch. Eula turned the key, but the ignition made that clicking sound that signaled immobility and bad luck, and her body deflated into the steering wheel.
“Damn,” Del said softly, seeing the idea of his day take a hard left. He walked out to the minivan and looked in the window at Eula, who seemed on the verge of a breakdown. He said he’d drive her up to Kiddie Castle and pay Mrs. Mona with his credit card and then drop her off at work and she smiled at him in a crazy, giddy way like everything in her world had been taken away from her and then given right back.
“Old MacDonald had a farm eieio.” The boys sang and bounced up and down in their booster seats while Del drove. “And on that farm, he had some…”
“Oregano!” Carl sang out.
“That’s enough singing, boys,” Eula said.
Del’s Chrysler K-car, a sun-faded blue with one shiny red door, limped along with the windows open, while the burgeoning heat of the day swirled through the vehicle like a warm hurricane carrying with it bits of ash and smoke from their cigarettes. In the back seat the boys fanned the flying ash away from their faces. They had not been on the road more than two minutes when Eula started in with the right-lane-left-lane thing. Del liked the right lane. He was never really in a hurry. Eula argued that too many cars turn in the right lane so you’re always having to stop and that was frustrating.
“Would you stop telling me how to drive?” Del finally said, thinking of all those little things Eula did that drove him away in the first place. “You find the most insignificant things to control.”
“I can’t control anything,” she said. “Not one goddamned thing in my life.”
Kiddie Castle was a freestanding, rectangular block structure with the façade of a medieval castle depicted on the front. A handsome blond prince rested on one knee and gazed up at a beautiful princess who looked down on him from the tower window. Lurking behind the tower, a green dragon breathed fire into the air. Del studied the illustration as he and Eula walked the boys inside. He paid the bill and let Eula keep the cash he’d given her. On the way out, Eula held Del’s arm as he escorted her through the illustrated drawbridge. When they were on the road to Alibi’s, the place where Eula worked, Del told her to look in the brown grocery bag that sat between them. While Del was in the house staring at the pot, he had an idea. The way he figured it, all that pot was his. No one really knew exactly how much was there. The only one who’d seen the pile was Butch and he wouldn’t know the difference. So, he stuffed a few handfuls of fat, green buds into the bag thinking that some of Eula’s clients might want to buy some.
“Did you wake up and take a stupid pill?” Eula shouted. “I am not selling drugs. I am going be a hygienist.” She lit a cigarette and stared out the window and they drove on in silence.
Del watched the world moving through the windshield; busy people doing busy things headed to who knows where. At an intersection, he watched a Ford F150 drive by hauling a flatbed trailer loaded with cabinets. The guys in the cab were laughing about something and Del thought, that’s how dreams work. They pass before your eyes and it’s up to you to catch them and make them yours. He made a mental list of things he would need besides a pickup truck, like a table saw, a compressor, power tools, wood clamps, and as the list grew he decided he’d have to write all this stuff down.
Del pulled into Alibi’s parking lot and found a spot under the shade of an oak tree and the car crunched its way over the acorns that covered the black asphalt. Alibi’s was a squat, white building with a flat roof, and nude Bond-girl silhouettes painted in glossy black in various dance poses all the way around. A pink neon-sign on the street corner flashed: nude girls. Inside the place was plush and attracted a mixed bag of clients, from Porsche drivers to those driving beaters as crappy as Del’s. The place was located in an industrial area along with warehouses, lumber yards and manufacturing plants and was directly in the path of Tampa International. Landing planes passed so low that the sound was deafening and it seemed as if the landing gear would skid over the roof of Del’s car.
Del remembered the night he’d met Eula at a place like this. She was dancing and naked and mesmerizing. Though the girl was laid bare for all to see, soulful eyes revealed more to him than the symmetry of her veneer. She had on her ankle a scripted tattoo that read Never Again, and bruises on her arms that betrayed a bad situation. He spent all his money on her and asked her out to breakfast and when it came time to pay he told her that she had all his money and they laughed about that. It was the last time he saw her dance. After that it bothered him to watch. She admitted that she was living out of her car and he invited her home.
“I’ll get your car fixed and pick you up later,” Del said.
She reached her hand toward him and he put his leathery hand in hers. Their hands rested in front of the brown grocery bag. Del looked at Eula then and made an obvious nod toward the pot. She pulled her hand away and said goddammit. “I can’t risk it, Del. Can’t you understand that?”
“Eula, look it. If the opportunity arises, get rid of it and all the money is yours. And that’s way more than what I owe you.”
Eula got out of the car, leaned in the window and waited for the roar of a jet to pass. “You know, I go to hygienist school with Indian girl named Ananya. She’s a Hindu and she said, “Karma has no menu. You get served what you deserve.”
“Damn, Eula, you’re going to give me bad luck talkin’ like that.”
“I’m only on a four hour shift today, so pick me up at two o’clock and we’ll get the boys,” she said. Del nodded and Eula stared at the bag and frowned. “Damn it. Bobby will buy all this shit in a heartbeat and he’s got the cash too.” Eula grabbed the grocery bag and headed into the club and Del watched her pissed-off ass shake all the way to the door.
Del’s mobile phone rang and the caller ID read Butch.
“Where the fuck are you?” Butch said. “And whose fucking car is this?”
“Man cool down,” Del said. “Eula pulled in to get some dough and…”
“You let her in the house?”
“No. You got any jumper cables?” The line went dead. “Butch?”
When Del got to the house, Butch stood next to his chopper holding a pair of jumper cables. Butch was thick, with a ratty beard, tattoos on his arms, a pretty good sized gut, and he wore a black leather vest with the Renegades’ colors on the back. He had a gamey smell about him. Butch dropped the cables on the ground when Del pulled up. He hocked up a loogie, spit it on the hood of the minivan and said, “Get this the fuck out of my driveway.” Then he walked in the house. Del pulled his car next to the minivan and got it started then asked Butch if he’d follow him to the gas station for ride back. Butch gave him the finger and continued rolling himself a joint. Del drove the minivan to a Firestone and walked three miles back to the house. Heat waves shimmered like mirages over the asphalt streets, and with every step under the pounding sun Del got closer to the house and the sickly feeling of having made a mistake. It was like being on a bad acid trip and all he could do was ride it out. By the time he arrived, sweat burned in his eyes and his jeans and T-shirt were stuck to his skin. He walked in the front door thinking about a cold Mountain Dew and stopped to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. Then the room went black.
Del wasn’t out long, at least he didn’t think he was. His right eye throbbed and his head felt like the worst tequila hangover he’d ever had. He sat up and spit blood on the floor from the hole he’d bitten in his tongue and the metallic taste of it made him nauseous. He looked up with his good eye to see Butch sitting a chair with the .38 revolver in his lap. Del touched his swollen eye. It was purple and the whites were red where blood vessels had burst.
“The fuck did you do that for?” The words slurred from Del’s mouth.
“The pile looks light.”
“That why you hit me?”
“I hit you cause I don’t like you,” Butch said. “I know you fucked the deal with May. She liked it up the ass too. Hard.” Then he chuckled and Del realized that was the first time he’d seen Butch’s teeth. There were a couple missing, but they weren’t bad teeth considering, and he thought about Eula and how she could identify which teeth those were. She would have known that one was a cuspid and the other a bicuspid or something like that.
The room teetered. Del tried to rise but felt the blood rush from his head and plopped back to the floor. Blood and saliva seeped from his open mouth like bright red syrup. He pushed himself back against the wall and focused on Butch with one good eye. Butch accused him of stealing some pot.
“Until I get paid it’s my pot,” Del said. “So, fuck you. How did you know anyway?” Del surveyed the pile.
“I didn’t, you stupid fuck,” Butch said.
Butch shifted the revolver in his lap and smoked a joint. Del looked at the gun and asked if Butch was going to shoot him and Butch said he might. Del said that would be stupid seeing how he was the only one who knew where the pot grew and when it’d be ready to harvest again. Butch rocked in his chair, pointed the gun at Del’s face and cocked it. Del stared at the barrel. His stomach cramped. He got tunnel vision. He didn’t want to crap his pants but felt he might.
“You pussy.” Butch waved the gun. “Get the fuck out of here. When we figure this shit out you’ll get your cut. Or we might just kill you and your fucking bitch in your sleep.”
Del wavered and reached for one of the saw horses to lift himself up. His legs wobbled like one of those wooden puppets held together by rubber bands. The burning pot smelled good. Blood pooled in his mouth and he spat on the floor. “That’s about thirty pounds of pot. I want a third or next time I take the deal somewhere else.” He went to the bedroom and grabbed his bag, then took a Mountain Dew from fridge. Butch didn’t move. He sat there with the .38 in his lap staring at the mound of pot with a shitty, half-assed smirk on his face.
Del staggered through the sandy yard like a desperate man emerging from the desert. He sat in the spinning car and with trembling hands opened the Mountain Dew. It burned in his mouth, tingled all the way to his stomach and then came right back up. He leaned out the door and vomited in the sand. The next sip was cold and stayed down, and he started the car and struggled to keep it between the lines. A mile or so up the road he pulled into a parking lot and turned off the engine. The cell phone woke him and he looked around with no recollection of having driven there. It was Eula, who surprisingly wasn’t pissed off that he was late. Though his head ached and his eye throbbed like a heartbeat on his face, the dizziness had subsided. His vision was still fuzzy in one eye but he could drive.
Eula waved and smiled when Del pulled up, but that all faded when she saw his face. She went back in the club and brought out ice in a baggy which she held to his purple eye, and he thought in that moment that she’d make a good dental hygienist. On the drive to get the boys Eula said she was sorry that the deal didn’t work out and Del said, “It ain’t over yet.” Then Eula pulled out a wad of cash and beamed. Bobby had given her a thousand dollars for the pot. Del smiled and didn’t let on that what he’d given her was worth twice that. She looked at him then, with discerning eyes. It was a respectful kind of look, and he could tell that she was thinking about being a regular family and that he was someone on whom she and the boys could rely. It felt good to be thought of that way in the short term. To come through on a promise and be admired. He imagined himself vested in that role. The provider. The man of the house. Working out of his own cabinet shop. Del Murphy Cabinets, he’d call it. Yet, even in that moment of imagining, which is usually as good as things get, it was too much to live up to. It wasn’t in him to hold up to that kind of pressure over the long haul. Living with Eula and the boys, it always felt temporary. Like that part of his life was just a weigh-station on the way to somewhere else. Nevertheless, under her approving eyes, he felt the pendulum swing back toward her and the unhappiness that drove him to leave faded.
“Did you hear about the comet that’s visible in the night sky?” she said. “One of my customers was talking all about it. He’s an amateur astronomer or something like that.”
“I hadn’t heard anything about it,” Del said.
“It’s called the Hale-Bopp Comet and it won’t come around again for another 2,400 years. Can you imagine that? It has been traveling that way for billions of years all around the universe.”
“That’s pretty cool,” Del said. Though he really didn’t care about it one way or the other. Eula always latched on to oddities like that.
“I’d like to see that comet,” she said. “To say I did. Because if you miss it now, no one on this earth will ever see it again. Why don’t you come home tonight? We’ll grill burgers and hot dogs and watch the comet. And then we can say we saw it.”
“I think I’d like that,” Del replied.
They stopped by Kiddie Castle on the way to pick up the minivan and Eula told the boys that Daddy was coming home. The boys asked about Del’s face while he was switching out the booster seats and he explained that he’d had an accident at work.
Del followed the minivan onto the interstate for the ride across town and he thought about Eula’s smiling face and it made him happy. It felt good, the four of them together. Despite his pounding head and failing vision in one eye, he held tenuously to a hopeful feeling. A Tom Petty tune played on the stereo and he turned it up. As he passed by Butch’s front yard, he looked down from the raised highway to see a swarm of cop cars surrounding the house, and bikers in handcuffs bent over police cruisers, and Del sunk in his seat, an indelible stamp of that scene imprinted in his mind as the place where dreams go to die. He wondered if others driving past that scene in that moment saw what he did.