Hank isn’t a thief. That’s not him. He doesn’t remember closing his eyes, but when they open, Cyco is in the car with him. Again? Still? Hank can’t say. Cyco spends so much time in his car Hank should charge rent.
“I’ve crunched the numbers,” Cyco says.
“Oh?” Hank has no idea what they are talking about. Cyco got his name because he is a Suicidal Tendencies fanatic, which is an unfortunate thing for a grown man to be.
“The US government could give every person on the street a place to live with one simple trick,” Cyco says.
Hank is only half listening. He’s come across a snag in his beard and is pretty sure he doesn’t want to know what it is, but he can’t leave it alone.
“What’s that, Cyco?”
“Have you ever thought about how many churches there are?” Cyco asks. “They’re everywhere, and none of them pay taxes. They’re like parasites on the body politic…”
Hank zones out while Cyco lays out his plan for taxing churches, which involves a shadow army of IRS agents fanning out across the land. The sun is going down, and Hank is watching the charging station across the street. He loves the charging station. Four white pillars glowing with green neon light, like something out of a science fiction story about a new religion. Except this isn’t science fiction. It’s the ass-end of the Bank of America parking lot, and it’s beautiful. He usually parks farther down North Park Way at the church, the weird one by the freeway. No one ever complains about his car over there. Sometimes they even give him food. Soggy sandwiches. Sour soup. They must grow their own tomatoes. That’s probably what’s in his beard.
“You feeling me?” Cyco asks, but it’s not really a question.
“I feel you,” Hank says.
Hank drives a 2001 Ford Taurus. It belongs to his sister, Sally, which makes it even sadder. He’s not sure what the original color was. Butterscotch yellow? Baby-shit brown? Now it’s several sickly shades of beige where the clear coat has peeled off. The windows won’t roll, and the doors don’t lock. The upholstery smells like rat piss (RIP Petey), and the compartment that houses the driver’s side mirror is home to a family of spiders that have covered it in cobwebs. It’s like looking into a dirty cloud.
“Are you paying attention?” Cyco asks.
“Hunh?” Hank says.
Cyco is talking about the charging station. He has thoughts about charging stations.
“Corporations pick a spot on the map, drop a charging station there, and then rich people show up with their land yachts. No regard for the ecosystem!”
“Is that what we are?” Hank asks. “An ecosystem?”
“Not for long,” Cyco says.
“Electric cars are the future,” Hank says.
“The future is fucked,” Cyco says.
“Who you telling?” Hank says, but he doesn’t agree. He has high hopes for the future. It’s the here-and-now he’s not a fan of.
Whenever a new building goes up in North Park, Hank tries to mark it in his mind as a transformation. Otherwise, he’ll forget what was there before. The Target over on University didn’t replace Wang’s; Wang’s transformed into Target. It’s better to be seen than erased, Hank thinks, though Wang probably sees it differently. Hank has a cardboard sign for when he panhandles. Two signs really. One side says WHY LIE? NEED A BEER. That’s usually good for a few laughs. The other side reads DO YOU SEE ME? That one works a little too well. It upsets people. Makes them want to talk to him. Hank doesn’t want to talk. He wants a couple bucks, enough for a 24-ounce Tecate at the liquor store or a pinch of whatever Cyco is peddling. Hank doesn’t have a habit. His drug of choice is “What you got?” He’s not a tweaker like Cyco. He’s an equal-opportunity drug abuser.
“I’m out of smokes,” Cyco says. “Did you quit for real or switch to other people’s?”
“For real,” Hank lies.
Cyco sighs. Another chapter in his litany of woe.
A woman in an all-electric Hyundai mini-SUV rolls up to the charging station and gets out of the car. Her hands are full: keys, phone, wallet, and a ginormous water bottle. Some people, Hank observes, are new to the charging station experience. They fumble with the cable, fiddle with their phones, but this lady knows what she’s doing. Cyco doesn’t quite grasp how the charging station works. Cyco is slow to understand most things that don’t involve drugs or bicycles. The man is obsessed with bicycles. Taking them apart, putting them back together.
“They just plug in their cars and leave?” Cyco asks as the woman at the charging station gathers her belongings like she’s getting ready to go somewhere.
“That or they wait in the car,” Hank says. He’s spent hours watching people sit in their cars, typing away on their phones. Sometimes he imagines he can hear Petey scurrying around the car, but when he opens his eyes, it’s Cyco rifling through his glove compartment.
“How long does it take?” Cyco asks.
“About forty-five minutes,” Hank says.
“Why so long?”
“How long does it take to charge your phone?”
“Look at the size of those charging stations!” Cyco says.
“Look at the size of those cars.” Hank doesn’t know why he’s arguing with Cyco. Hank remembers it wasn’t tomato soup. It was cream of potato, which Hank loves. He could eat cream of potato soup every day. The lady across the street puts her phone in her pocket and walks away from the charging station, leaving her wallet on top of her vehicle.
“Do you see that?” Hank asks.
Of course, Cyco sees it. Cyco sees everything, but when Hank looks, Cyco isn’t there. A decent person would roll down his window and say, “Hey, lady, you left your wallet on your car,” but the windows on his Taurus don’t roll. He is not a thief or an addict or homeless. He has a Taurus that is mostly operational and mostly legit (though his license is another story), and this is where he stays. His ecosystem.
To pass the time, he listens to tapes on an old tape player. How to Speak Spanish in Seven Easy Lessons. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. An old tape from band rehearsal that is mostly the singer telling the others that Hank took all the money in the band fund and they should kick him out, which they did. The Taurus is what keeps Hank from becoming a shopping cart person. Hank knows a couple shopping cart people, and though not all of them are bad, most of them are damaged, like that fucker Branson, and Hank isn’t damaged. He has a sister who lives down the street in Hillcrest. He has an associate’s degree and a library card. He’s working through some things.
“This too shall pass,” Cyco says.
“Hmmm,” Hank says.
“Dante said that,” Cyco says.
Hank doesn’t think that’s right—Dante was into some serious pain, which Hank respects—but Cyco, like Dante, isn’t here. A while back, Hank woke up in the Taurus, and there was a ticket tucked under the wipers on his windshield and temporary NO PARKING signs up and down the street. He was parked in front of the empty lot next to the donut shop. He moved his car but kept his eye on the lot. Sometimes the kids at the donut shop gave him cold coffee and day-old donuts, and he didn’t want them to forget about him. He watched a construction crew fence off the lot and park a portable toilet out front. This was the sign that another condo was coming.
The kids in the coffee shop complained about the smell, so the construction company moved the toilet inside the fence. They kept the toilet locked when it was on the street so that people like Hank couldn’t use it, but after they moved it inside the fence, they didn’t bother locking it anymore. Every night Hank hopped the fence and took a long leisurely dump in the portable toilet. Those were happy days. After they poured the foundation, the construction company moved the shitter onto the concrete slab to make room for the trucks, which meant Hank was now, technically speaking, shitting inside the shell of some future homeowner’s overpriced condo. He started keeping track of how many times he used the toilet so when the condo was finished, he could stand out front, wait for the owner to come out, and say, “Good morning! How do you do? I took eighteen dumps in your living room!” Hank tells his sister about his plan, but she doesn’t think it’s such a hot idea.
“Are you high?” she asks.
He isn’t, though it doesn’t matter. She always assumes that he is, which is fair enough. If he had the means, he always would be.
Hank left home when he was eighteen. Moved to LA to join a punk rock band, but it didn’t work out. He went back to Washington, D.C. to see his mother exactly once. The visit didn’t go well, and he ended up staying with some old bandmates from high school who never liked him, and the feeling was mutual. He met a woman in a bar. He told her he was in town to record some vocals. She brought him home, and all week she took him sightseeing in his hometown, and he pretended he was seeing it all for the first time. He saw the city the way she wanted him to see it, and it was wonderful. That’s what being in the Taurus is like: familiar but new. Except it isn’t wonderful. There’s nothing wonderful about it.
“You know what your problem is?” Sally scowls at him from the passenger seat.
Hank feels cornered. “You’re still here?”
“You say yes to everything.”
“What’s the matter with that?” Hank asks.
“When you say yes to everything, you never learn to say no to darkness.”
His sister knows him a little too well, Hank thinks.
Shitting in the condo was the one thing he looked forward to each day, and then Branson messed it up. He must have seen Hank climb the fence and thought he’d get in on the action. Branson was older and heavier and had a fucked-up leg that Hank tried not to pay attention to because it was unpleasant to look at. One of those sores that keeps getting bigger and more wretched-looking, and you know it’s never going to get better. Branson climbed on top of his shopping cart to scale the fence and then dropped down on top of the toilet, which tipped over, spilling its contents all over Branson and the concrete slab and the nasty open wound on Branson’s leg. Branson hollered. The cops came. A security guard was installed 24/7. That was the end of Hank’s personal toilet. He wants to talk to Branson about it, but Cyco advises against it.
“That dude’s psycho for real,” Cyco says.
“Aren’t we all?” Hank asks.
Cyco doesn’t agree. “That fool carries a gun.”
Hank loves Cyco, but sometimes he would rather listen to the Spanish tapes at chipmunk speed or an orchestra of leaf blowers than to Cyco’s crazy talk.
Hank opens the door as the woman heads west on North Park Way. He’s going to tell her about her wallet.
“Excuse me,” he says, but she crosses the street to avoid him, taking a huge swig off her hundred-dollar water bottle. Hank spent a summer working retail in a store that sold gear for urban hiking: big-ass sunhats, waterproof shorts with ten thousand pockets, and these enormous water bottles. Stainless steel, sheathed in rubber, a state-of-the-art filtration system that breaks the first time you drop the bottle, and the bottles are so heavy dropping them is inevitable.
“What were you thinking?” his sister says to him. He’s back in the car, and so is his sister, which is a lot less upsetting than it ought to be.
“I needed a job. That’s what I was thinking.”
“You were a terrible fit,” his sister says in that hectoring tone they’ve both grown to resent, but she isn’t wrong. His pale skin, shitty tattoos, and thrift-punk attire marked him as someone who avoided the outdoors, shunned it even. He didn’t have the beard then. The beard is newish.
“Who the fuck needs a state-of-the-art filtration system in San Diego?” Hank rants.
Now he has his answer. This woman right here. She can afford the high-tech water bottle, the high-tech phone, the high-tech car. Though, Hank has to admit, the electric Hyundai does look pretty cool. He was only trying to help, and she treated him like a disease. Maybe she deserves to have her wallet stolen.
“Dude, you really wrecked this car,” his sister says.
“Yeah,” Hank says. He will say anything to avoid talking to his sister about Petey, who has been missing so long that he’s afraid he’s going to start smelling him any day now. Petey is the reason his sister didn’t want to give him the car in the first place.
“Petey is going to piss all over everything.”
“Petey isn’t like that,” Hank lies. Petey is very much like that. Hank figures he has a minimum of five minutes and maybe as many as forty before the woman with the water bottle comes back. Depends on where she’s going and if she needs her wallet when she gets there. If she’s going for coffee, she’ll figure out her mistake right away—unless she uses her phone to pay. If she’s going shopping, he has a bit longer. If she’s grabbing a quick bite to eat or meeting someone for lunch it could take longer.
Hank feels stuck.
When he was a kid, he was out in a rainstorm and got his foot stuck in a mud puddle. He wasn’t paying attention. He was looking at the reflection of the sky in the puddles. His foot went into the muck, the brown water like an icy glove around his foot, and when he pulled it out, his shoe got stuck in the mud and disappeared. He never went back for it. Didn’t even look. Just cut his losses and kept going. His mom gave him holy hell for that. This is what being stuck feels like. Part of the body is going one way, and the other part is going, Nope, not today.
“I’ll be right back,” Cyco says
Hank turns to Cyco. “You’re… leaving?” Hank guesses. Cyco is always coming or going. Hank’s never really sure.
“Gotta run to the spot.”
Hank nods. He can see the gears turning in Cyco’s mind because Hank’s gears turn the same way. Hank doesn’t believe for a second that Cyco is going to the spot—the nest of stolen bicycles where he keeps his stash. Cyco’s going to snatch the wallet. There it is sitting on the roof of the Hyundai, bathed in the green glow of the charging station.
“Listen to me…” Hank turns to the passenger seat. It could be Cyco, his sister, or even Petey sitting there—wouldn’t that be something—but the seat is empty, the fabric torn and split, oozing foam.
Hank gets out of the car. He feels lightheaded. He can’t remember the last time he ate. He can’t remember the last time he slept in a bed, or had his teeth cleaned, or ate a cheeseburger. He might be a little bit of a thief. Not much, but a little. His ecosystem understands. What he can’t comprehend is why Branson and his weeping leg would be limping across the Bank of America parking lot. Fucking Branson ruins everything. He’s going for the wallet. His wallet.
“Hey,” Hank says as he crosses the street, but it’s too late. Branson has already reached the Hyundai. The wallet will be in Branson’s grasp soon, and there’s no point in going any farther. Hank should just go back to the Taurus. Bad things happen when he leaves his ecosystem. It’s better to be stuck in the muck, you know, than lost in the wild world and all its unpredictability. But the woman with the water bottle is back, and she’s not the least bit intimidated by Branson. She grabs the wallet and yells at Branson to let go, and when he refuses, she kicks him in his weepy leg and conks him in the head with the water bottle. Branson howls and finally lets go, but now he’s fumbling in his jacket pocket.
“Hey!” Hank shouts, but no one can see him. He is in the parking lot. He is in the mix. He is bathed in the green glow of the charging station. He is on the receiving end of the blast from Branson’s handgun. The round goes through his eye socket and bounces around his skull before blowing a hole out the other side, showering the pillars at the charging station with blood.
“Hey,” he said, because Hank was dead now, forever relegated to the past tense. He was an alcoholic, an addict, a holder of a library card and an associate’s degree. He lost a shoe in a mud puddle and had feelings for a girl in Washington, D.C. He loved Petey and his sister and was loved by both in turn. He was not a thief, he would have wanted you to know. That wasn’t him.