PREVIEW OF CHAPTER ONE
My bones are old and cranky tonight, and my feet are like worn-out rubber, but that’s never any surprise when you push around everything you own in a shopping cart.
Some evenings just make the rubber a little thicker, that’s all.
Then you remember you’re still only 40 and you get to take stock of everything that makes you feel so much older—all those muscle memory aches and micro-twitches of fatigue running up the back of your legs, the tiny wheezing sounds you make sometimes when you breathe. You start actually listening to the weird rhythm of your own heart and wonder how much of it is normal. Then you start laughing because you’re lost in a universe of infinite possibilities and who the hell knows what being normal even is. I think if God were to show up one day on earth—I mean really show up, gloves off and ready for the big showdown—it would be something so darn profound and unexpected that we’d never even know what hit us.
Who are we anyway, trying to comprehend something that big?
Most of us still live in houses, man.
Sometimes I’ll get into these way-out philosophical raps with a few of the guys down at the Row, and we’ll rail for hours about the societal niceties we’ve all turned our backs on, the shopping malls and electronic pick-up bars and whatever else that’ll eventually dress up civilization for the next millennium—The Great Lie of Civilized Man to the Tenth Goddamn Power. You gotta know that no matter how organized and sophisticated it all seems on the surface, no matter how pure and righteous we pretend to make it deep down. . . well, in the end, we’re still just living in caves.
And once you get rid of the cave . . .
Once you figure out the lie . . .
Once you’re just a human goddamn being walking the earth . . .
. . . well, maybe you are a little closer to something that might be a cosmic understanding.
That’s a different kind of truth that’s so far off from anything like throwing up four walls, banging a few nails in place, building an outdoor deck, and carving a sunroof in the ceiling. You’re just a creature of fragile flesh and tired bones locking yourself away in a room on some backwater hillbilly planet when you do that. And then you have a few kids and they’re trapped in there with you. You get to live your whole life like a blind mole, eating Twinkies in front of a 50-inch flatscreen, and assigning names to things you don’t really understand.
Oh, and you get to go on Twitter a lot, too.
I don’t miss that, either.
Anyway . . . I’m no mystic guru or new-age fella or anything like that. Far from it. But whenever my bones make me feel old, my mind does tend to drift in the direction of all that metaphysical business. And I know what you’re thinking—like, yeah, dude, it’s easy for some random homeless schmuck to rail against living indoors where The Powers That Be can’t see ya—but that’s not it. Not at all. I thought about these things a lot before I ever went on the street. I thought about it when I was flying in helicopters, so far above so many houses, all of them on fire. I thought about it when I kicked in doors, one after the other, and heard a thousand screams from a thousand families, all of them shocked out of their own fragile realities by brute force. I thought about it for years after that, as I maintained my sanity, punishing criminals. And I thought about it most in the white hot moment of deep frenzy that happened just before the fall.
My final escape from this fragile earth, so filled with lies.
So full of burning houses.
And now I just walk the earth. That’s when you know you’re really alive—redeemed in the face of pure truth. When you live outdoors, closer to God.
Whatever God really is.
I kind of hope I never find out.
I’m pretty sure if I ever did, it would be a big letdown.
• • •
So the cart is heavy tonight, and it’s late and hot and I feel the rattle in my bones as I push everything I own into the back parking lot of the Hyde Park Bar and Grill. I’m rolling out from the cover of a really nice section of civilization, just at the edge of about twelve square blocks of beautiful homes and lush yards and clean streets with oaks and elms and evergreens on either side, stretching across to meet each other in beautiful overhead arcs. You see these nice tree-lined neighborhoods in movies like American Beauty. Hyde Park is right near Guadalupe Street, which is the main downtown campus drag of Austin, of course. A lot of rich people live here. There’s a bunch of churches in this ‘hood. During the day, you can’t be seen on the pavement in Hyde Park with your cart. Gotta keep that mostly on the Drag with the Dragworms. But at night, you can move around pretty well. Just keep your wheels oiled and your trajectory straight. Don’t mess with anybody and you’re cool. Act like you own the place—like you truly belong here. Which, of course, you do. In the cosmic sense.
At the east side of Hyde Park is this intersection—with lots of restaurants and a locally owned grocery store where everything costs way too much. The Hyde Park Bar and Grill has a juicy dumpster on Fridays. Next to that is Quack’s Bakery and the Jazzmatazz laundry, where a lot of the college kids do their clothes. It’s one of those little hole-in-the-wall, coin-op washes that rarely has an attendant on duty—just some ratty janitor kid named Beaver who shows up three times a week to empty the change machines and the washers, sweep the floor, and go back to smoking pot in his one-room apartment three blocks away on the outer edge of Hyde, where the poor linger just out of sight. The doors to this place automatically lock from the outside at midnight, but if you’re already inside when that happens, you’ve got a place to sleep for the night.
If you jam something in the door, you have a place to stash your cart for an hour or two while you go get some after-hours business done.
It’s Tuesday, and 11:55 p.m. by my beat-up Fred Flintstone watch.
I’m just in time.
Nobody ever washes on Tuesday, and Beaver won’t check in for another three days. No security cams in this place, either. They have those little black orbs all over the ceiling, but that’s all for show, just to discourage the local riff-raff from setting up camp. Nothing behind the orbs. Like black eyes gone blind. The beauty of this place is a lot more pure, though—nobody like me ever hits the Jazzmatazz for an overnighter because Hyde Park is generally considered off-limits to Dragworms.
So get bold and live outside the box.
You’ll love yourself later.
I open the door and roll the cart in. The place is really, really small. Most one-room apartments are bigger. Two rows of washers and dryers and a couple of large wide tables in the middle for folding your clothes. A big picture window looking out at the overpriced grocery store across the street, and an Italian bistro right next to it that’s also way pricy. I went in there and had breadsticks once. They were four dollars. That was before the fall, of course. I never spend four dollars on anything, anymore.
In my cart is a bundle of laundry, all tied in a very specific series of knots, to maximize space. Undoing the knots is easy when you know the combination. It’s like knowing the secret code on a Rubik’s Cube.
I’m good at secret codes, man.
I made a living solving them for ten years before I tossed the towel.
I can still see the whole city of Austin, Texas, sprawled out before me like a puzzle to be worked, all the streets and alleys and dumpsters and secret lives, all entangled in a beautiful working rhythm, all played out in thunder and silence.
I know it all by heart. I always will.
I untangle the knots in just a few seconds, toss the clothes in the nearest machine, use a special steel-plated slug to feed the coin op eight times—only costs two bucks to do your rags here. The slug clinks and clunks in a rolling pachinko rhythm as I fool the primitive technology over and over. It thinks it just ate two bucks and starts pouring water on my rags. I toss in some liquid detergent I’ve been keeping in an old Aquafina bottle. Found the stuff in one of my favorite dumpsters two weeks ago, the one just a few blocks from here, in Hancock Center. So many yummies there, just for the taking.
It disgusts me, of course, even as I live off the dregs.
What humanity has become, I mean.
I hate that we throw away so many things we need. That it’s considered a public service to carry away our own garbage. To cover up the crime.
So many people, so lost.
Fuck the world.
Just as the wash cycle begins, the overhead lights go off. I like it when that happens. Makes it kind of dark and cozy in here, with the warm glow from a soda machine that sells canned water halfway filling the room. The overhead fans stop spinning, but the air conditioning stays on. That’s damn good, because even late autumn nights in Austin can be scorching little bitches. When the lights go off and the fans stop, that means the door is locked from the outside. It’s designed this way so that if you’re still washing, you can leave in an hour (or whenever) once your dryer cycle is done. But you can’t get back in this place unless you leave the door ajar.
I use an old ripped-up shoe I’ve been saving to do the trick.
Then I grab my working gear from the cart. Keep it in an old black backpack these days—more sundries from the dregs. Everything a pro needs.
I check the gear quickly, zip it up, and boogie.
Back into the neighborhood.
Twenty square blocks of richness.
I can still hear the washing machine cycling in my head, like music, even though it’s long gone in just a minute.
• • •
Lots of nice, nice houses on Avenue F.
A real rich ‘hood.
I wouldn’t wanna live here.
Wouldn’t wanna live anywhere, really . . . but we’ve covered that, right?
One of the nicest sections is about five blocks from the Jazzmatazz, deep in the civilized woods of Hyde Park, surrounded by trees. The houses are pretty, some small, some big, some sprawling, some runty. I walk through it slowly, traveling light without my cart. My feet glide soft, like I’m a ghost. Yeah. Just like I’m a ghost, man.
The darkness makes it all look shut down. Not a single light on in any of the homes. It’s late, and the Normal World goes to sleep at ten. I would pity them all if I didn’t have so much regret in my heart. If I wasn’t filled with so much goddamn . . .
. . . no, man.
Back off from that.
It almost destroyed you once, never let it happen again.
Okay. Moving on.
Pretty soon, I’m standing in front of a real nice house on Avenue F. One of the finest in the ‘hood, really—a giant wood frame monstrosity that takes up a huge portion of the block it sits on. It’s gray with white trim and a big front deck, a three-story job. The lawn looks so soft and bountiful, it could be deep shag carpeting made from thin velvet.
The place screams:
I AM RICH SO PLEASE ROB ME.
• • •
I do my ghost number around back, hop a three-foot fence, and the kitchen door is wide open. Imagine that. Don’t even need my tools for this one. Still, I slip on my gloves from the kit and test the perimeter for heat signatures with my night-vision specs. Never can tell, right? And it feels comforting somehow to break out the old school—my snoop gear from a long-gone life. The batteries are still good, even after so many years.
The blacklight lens array tells me the coast is clear.
Just like back in the day.
Then I shoulder the pack and let myself into a kitchen three times the size of the laundromat I just left. It’s dark in here mostly, but there’s some light from the microwave readout and a few twinkles here and there, strange little glints off the surface of several large appliances, all chromed steel surfaces and polished handles. Long rows of cabinets and pantries, food prep stations and racks of equipment for making everything yummy and unnecessary.
Just beyond the kitchen is a short hallway.
At the end of the hallway is an open door that leads to a room.
The room glows with a soft orange light.
I head for it.
The room turns out to be a study, and the light is orange because of the lamps in there—two of them covered in antique wicker shades. Books on the walls, an expensive rug on the floor. The smell of a recent cigar, floating around the place like a dirty ghost. I follow the smell, like a man connecting the dots . . . to the desk against the far wall.
And the fella sitting behind it.
My heart doesn’t freeze and my head stays cool.
Even when the fella opens the desk drawer.
Pulls out a gun.
And aims it right at me.
• • •
It’s a pretty impressive weapon—9mm Ruger with a glasspack silencer that makes the barrel long and extra intimidating. I take two steps closer to the man behind the desk and I almost crack a smile at him.
He doesn’t crack back.
The gun, aimed at my heart, tracks up to my forehead. I see past the long dark tunnel to nowhere—or somewhere—and fix on his eyes. Large blue orbs full of resignation to the inevitable, set in the center of a face full of canyons and roads, all winding here and there and everywhere, across a pale pockmarked landscape. His hand shakes a little. He doesn’t say a word. Finger on the trigger.
I face it on my feet.
Ready to find out what God really is.
• • •
The gun falls from his grip . . . and hits the desk blotter with a muffled thud. He pushes it across to me, smiling. I take another step forward, pick up the gun.
Aim it back at him.
He says, in a low and gravelly voice:
“You look like shit, Joe. Even thinner than the last time I saw ya.”
“Thanks,” I tell him.
“For Christ’s sake, help yourself to a sandwich before you leave.”
“Will do. Thanks again.”
“Hey . . . what are friends for?”
And then I shoot him in the head.
COMING OCTOBER 15, 2013!
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