Read Uncle Janice Online

Authors: Matt Burgess

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BOOK: Uncle Janice
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“I don’t need to write it down,” she said.

“Okay, but it’d be a lot easier if—”

“What?” Vita said. “I can hardly hear you!”

“I’m saying if you just wrote it—”

“What?!”

Janice rested her forehead against the pay phone shell, its icy metal
biting clean through her wool dockworker cap. Her eyes ached. Her feet throbbed. A sticker inside the phone shell offered nontraditional psychic services at what it promised were reasonable rates.
DON’T GIVE UP HOPE
, it said.
SEE MADAM SANDRA
. Some previous caller, possibly Janice without even realizing it, had picked away at the sticker’s four corners. “Listen, Ma,” she said. “I gotta get going, okay?”

“Be good,” Vita said, her standard good-bye.

Janice waited until her mother hung up before slamming the phone into its cradle. She stuck her finger into the coin-return slot, just in case, but the metal flapper thingy wouldn’t go all the way up, its chute probably jammed full of cotton balls, an old hustle her father had taught her many, many years ago. You come back later with a wire hanger to empty out a week’s worth of free laundry. Her father’s lesson, as always: there is a world beyond this one, a world made more glamorous by its cigar-scented sleaziness, with ports of entry as diverse as an usher’s open palm or a pay phone’s dark chute. She picked up the germy receiver and slammed it again. With a last glance at the boy in his taxicab, she headed toward the other side of the avenue, more carefully this time, looking both ways before crossing the street.

As she walked past the Korean, he said, “Hey, mama, what you need?”

He banged on the apartment door with the side of his fist. Weirdly chatty on the walk over here, he’d told her to call him Marty and had promised his boy would hook her up with two top-of-the-line crack vials for only ten dollars apiece. Family discount, he’d said. She had the money in her palm, ready to go, hopeful that she could get out of the apartment in under a minute with both Marty
and
the drugs. She needed him outside so the Narcotics investigators could grab him for intentionally aiding the criminal sale of a controlled substance, a felony. He knocked on the door again, for some reason softer this time, as if communicating a secret message. Two tiny golden screws affixed a mezuzah to the frame. Before Marty could knock again, a fair-skinned white guy opened the
door. Short and squat, as wide as Marty but a good six inches shorter, he was much older than she’d expected, in his early to mid forties. Skin tags hung off his eyelids. He dressed young, though, in baggy shorts that went past his knees and an Anchor Steam bicycle jersey too tight for his body. Some semblance of a blond mustache grew only at the corners of his mouth. With a glance he seemed to register her presence in the hallway, but after that he looked only at Marty, without apparent recognition or interest, his face emptied of expression, as if he were posing for a passport photo. She thought maybe they’d knocked on the wrong door, but no: a sudden head jerk waved them into the apartment, which felt feverishly hot. All the radiators were clanking. Dirty cast-iron frying pans crowded the kitchen’s stove range, and when she saw them she knew for sure she was in a crack dealer’s apartment.
WELCOME
, said a welcome mat. It was kept inside the apartment, not out in the hall, probably to prevent it from getting stolen.
PLEASE WIPE OFF YOUR PAWS
. Behind her, Marty turned over the door’s dead bolt, her least favorite sound.

No one had spoken yet. The dealer did not offer to take her coat or even bother to introduce himself, nor did he say anything to Marty, who wandered off alone toward the back of the apartment. A little bowlegged, as if the bicycle jersey were not merely an affectation, the dealer led her into the living room, where an enraged pit bull rose up in its little doggie bed and started barking at her. All the muscles along its sleek back were tensed. The roof of its snapping mouth appeared ridged like a dried creek. And yet, instead of blitzing across the hardwood toward Janice’s throat, the dog stayed, for now, in its fuzzy bed, as if unwilling to leave it. A massively pregnant belly with distended pink nipples hung low to the ground. The room reeked of cigarettes. The windows were all closed, the dusty blinds all pulled down. There was some other shit, too—a futon, a wicker chair, amateur paintings of city skylines hanging on the walls—but she struggled to focus on anything beyond the dog’s barking. Her fist still clutched the twenty-dollar bill. Concerned primarily with keeping that dog in its doggie bed, she acquiesced to its owner and allowed him to lead her farther into the room. She didn’t know what else to do.
She hoped the less she resisted, the faster she’d be allowed to leave. Told to sit down—the first words he’d spoken to her—she fell backward into the huge round Papasan wicker chair. A baby Glock 9mm pistol lay at the bottom of her purse. A small strip of body adhesive kept a nonfunctioning kel-mic taped between her breasts. Every time she went out onto the streets as an undercover she thought she might die, but—despite the investigators in a Chevy Impala a couple of blocks away, despite her partner and ghost, Chester Tevis, probably right across the street under the Peruvian restaurant awning—never before had she felt so alone. In this flytrap of a chair, her feet couldn’t reach the floor.

“Geronimo!” said the dealer, and the pit bull stopped barking. Exhausted, breathless, it dropped down on its side in the doggie bed. A dark tongue unspooled from its mouth.

“Good girl,” said the dealer, looking at Janice.

He left the room, but the tiny men in all the radiator pipes kept swinging their tiny hammers. She wondered if she could outrun a pregnant dog to the door, get out before the dealer came back, but here he was now, with his bowlegged walk and a tall can of air freshener. Pure Citrus Lemon. He pointed it at the ceiling and kept his finger too long on the nozzle, as if to drain the entire can. She started coughing into her armpit. A cloying lemony wetness misted her face.

“Sorry,” he said, sounding delighted. He sat down on the end of the futon nearest his dog. “It’s a lot, I know, but it’s better than the cigarette smoke, yeah?”

“I guess.”

“No, it is,” he said. “For sure.”

Her hands clutched the purse in her lap. “So Marty told me you could maybe like hook me up with some vials or whatever?”

“Marty told me, Marty told me,” he said, his voice retaining all its good cheer. He looked up at the ceiling through an invisible grove of artificial lemons. “Yo, Marty! What the fuck you doing?”

From the back of the apartment, Marty said, “Where’d Cerebral Pauly put the kung fu dummy?”

“You know Marty’s not even his real name,” the dealer told her. His
hand dropped over the futon’s edge to scratch the dog behind its ears. “What am I talking about? Of course you know that. You guys are old friends. It’s my name that’s Marty. His name’s some ching-chong Korean shit you can’t hardly pronounce, so he takes my name like I’m supposed to be flattered. Meanwhile, I am sorta flattered. Hey, so what do you think of my paintings?”

“You did all these? Wow. That’s amazing.”

“You didn’t even look. What’s that one over there? Right there.”

“Chicago?” she said.

“That was an easy one,” he said. “The Sears Tower, it
gives
it away. Tallest skyscraper in North America. Also known as Willis Tower. What about that one over there? What’s that one?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Listen, I’m really just trying to—”

“Take a guess.”

Still wearing her cap and coat, in the hope they might communicate her eagerness for a speedy transaction, she felt beads of sweat rolling down her chest. “I really don’t know,” she told him.

“I know you don’t know,” he said. “Take a guess.”

“Los Angeles?”

“You kidding?” he said. “Los Angeles?” The pleasure he took from her wrong answer scooted him forward on the futon, his hands bunching the bottoms of his shorts. “Try Abu Dhabi. Capital of the United Arab Emirates, the most balling country in the world. Took me three months to get the details correct on that bad boy. No joke. And it lights up, too.”

The dog lifted its head to watch Marty, White Marty, hoist himself off the futon and cross the room toward the painting. A small green cord hung off the bottom of the canvas. When he got down on his knees to fiddle with plugs along the baseboard, she undid tooth by tooth the golden zipper of her purse. She looked first to Marty, then ridiculously to the dog, to see if either of them had noticed.

“There,” he said, sliding the plug into the outlet, and the lights came on in Abu Dhabi. Scores of embedded teeny bulbs lit up behind the buildings’ painted windows. He gave Janice a falsely modest little shrug.
“It looks better at night,” he explained. “I did some of the detailing with this special kind of paint. You should see it. Get a black light going, smoke a bowl, it looks crazy cool. The paint’s very expensive, though, so you can’t really use too much.”

He unplugged the canvas before sitting back down. One at a time, to show her his tattoos now, he rolled up the bicycle jersey sleeves. “This one here, that’s North and South America obviously. It’s a little faded. I’m going to have to get it touched up.” He pointed to the other arm. “And over here, that’s Europe, Asia, and Africa. Because we’re all citizens of the same world, know what I mean?”

“Totally,” she said. “Listen, I really don’t mean to be rude, but I sorta have to bounce pretty quick here. Marty, the other Marty, I guess, was talking about like two vials for twenty? Does that sound all right?”

Once again he looked up at the ceiling. “Hey, Marty? Can you come here real quick?”

He was already on his way. Without his white leather jacket but sweating even more heavily than Janice, he tottered into the living room carrying what she assumed was the kung fu dummy he’d been looking for. The one Cerebral Pauly—whoever the hell that was—had tried hiding on him. An enormous wooden beam, it must have weighed more than two hundred pounds, with a single wooden leg, bent at what was supposed to be its knee, and a pair of arms, also wooden, sticking straight out, as if, truly a dummy, it expected a hug. Dry blood crusted its chest. Made out of what appeared to be high-quality oak, designed to absorb punishment without splintering or complaint, it hit the ground hard when Korean Marty set it down, startling the dog.

“In the closet?” he said. “Like I’m not gonna find it there?” He wiped the sweat off his face with the hem of his T-shirt. “Jesus H., man, it’s like a million fucking degrees in here.”

White Marty said to him, “Hey, before we start punching and kicking here, I just wanna know: where’d you meet this Miss Thing? You know her a long time? This nice lady you bring up into my home?”

“Ah man, what’s the matter with this one?”

She dropped the twenty into her purse, without of course zipping it back up. “Listen—”

“You’re on time-out right now,” White Marty told her. “It’s quiet time for you, okay? You understand?”

She was worried they thought she was a cop and they’d try to blow her cover. She was worried they thought she wasn’t a cop and so they felt they could … forget it. Don’t even go there. Awkwardly lurching, she wiggled herself out of the chair, both of the Martys watching her with what seemed like amusement. She draped the purse’s cross-body strap around her neck and positioned the bag so she could reach into it easily. The dog was watching her, too, although with less amusement than impatience. A yawn snapped its jaws open. Sweat pooled along the backs of Janice’s knees, in her armpits and elbow crooks, and all across her chest. The tape came loose. The kel-mic plummeted, but she caught it, trapped it against her stomach with a hand outside her coat. Her shoulders were hunched. If she moved her hand away, the small black gherkin of the mic would drop out into the open between her knees.

“What’s the matter?” Korean Marty said. “You gotta take a shit or something?”

“You scared her,” White Marty said. Still rolled all the way up, the jersey sleeves seemed to bunch uncomfortably around his shoulders. When she started to walk away, he said, “Hey, hold on! Where you going? I haven’t even told you my dog’s name.”

Korean Marty reached out and grabbed her arm. “Don’t be rude,” he said.

“Yeah,” White Marty said. “Don’t be rude.”

“Geronimo,” she said, and the dog pricked its ears. “Great name. Thanks. See you guys later.”

“Oh, you stupid fucking cunt,” White Marty said. “The dog? The dog’s name is Marty. Come
on
. You kidding? Geronimo, please, that’s just like her chill word. You understand? She’s got like a chill word and an attack word. You wanna hear the attack word?”

“No.”

He quickly nodded his agreement. “That is correct. No you do not. So guess what?”

These two men, especially the bigger Korean Marty, worried her more than the pit bull did. Rolled over on its side, it seemed minutes
away from labor contractions. Matter of fact, a normal dog would’ve already slunk off into some quieter, calmer, cooler corner of the apartment. Back when Janice worked as a patrol officer in the Housing Division, she had met some truly cop-hating pit bulls, trained either to come right up on her and bark or come right up on her and bite, but never before had she seen one work its intimidation across the length of the room, as if it were forbidden to leave its doggie bed. Oh, she thought. The dog acted as if it were forbidden to leave its doggie bed because it was forbidden to leave its doggie bed.

“It’s not gonna work,” she told Korean Marty. He still had her arm in his grip; she still had her hand still trapping the kel-mic against her stomach. “What did I say?” she asked him. “Over and over again: it’s not gonna work. I’m telling you, baby, we just gotta
take
it off him.”

White Marty said, “What?”

Korean Marty laughed, confused. To distance himself from her, to show everyone in this living room where his true alliances lay, he shoved her into the kung fu dummy. A cry rose up into her throat. The dummy’s sharp wooden arm had jabbed her in the kidney. With a soft moan, the dog rose reluctantly onto its skinny legs, but White Marty stayed sitting on the futon with his knees spread far apart and his hands reaching for the lemon air freshener, as if he needed something to throttle. Surely he didn’t believe this double-cross talk of hers, or at least not yet, but she knew the dread of possible betrayal hisses at drug dealers from every corner of their wicked hearts.

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