The roads circling the mall confuse me even when I’m not high. Kick-off isn’t for another three hours, but drivers are still burning down my ass like they’ve missed something. With the bins of weed in my trunk, I drive average. Chick-fil-A, Red Lobster, Old Navy, Doctor Vision—they’re all ticking past.
I’m meeting Roland behind an Applebee’s because last month a cop moved in next door, a breacher on the SWAT team. Every day, the guy looks special ops: lean, mean, and keeping it clean. He has saturated his mulch with enough pesticides that an acrid, chemical tang lingers. Trump stickers on his Navigator, too—like I didn’t already know.
I’ve taken this cop’s arrival as a serious sign, one that has quickened my thoughts for the worse and I end up pulling into Friday’s, curl around back and park. The whole time I think I’m outside Applebee’s.
On the radio Phish is chugging through “Backwards Down the Number Line” and I’m watching two Hispanic dudes struggle to pour a barrel of rank cooking oil into a recycling tank. There’s a bad seal on the barrel. I can see it. The oil is dark and runny. They let it drop. One of them—the one who just fucked up his purple Ravens jersey—slides off to a girdle of grass, lays flat on his stomach, and starts inch-worming, trying to clean up.
I check the time and start blaming Roland for being late.
I get a hunch—a feeling I’m about to miss out—and call my bookie and put another thousand on Baltimore to beat Tennessee. Normally, I’d stay away from a ten-point spread, but it’s the play-offs, and it doesn’t take a big pair of stones to put your money on a hellified, downhill scorer like Lamar Jackson.
At home, Petty was expecting me an hour ago with his Italian from Jimmy John’s. Little things can set Petty off. What he wants he wants, and by now, he’s probably bobbing his head, raking zig zags across his scalp and counting out boos meant for me, his brother.
Last weekend, Petty was fired from his job as a garage attendant, and he has not been himself since. Every time a driver claimed they’d lost their ticket—which happens more than you’d think—Petty let them out for free. That the manager thought Petty was stealing was not anything Petty could understand. And even though Petty can’t drive, something about controlling the mechanical arm from inside that booth made him feel like one day he might.
Roland and I’ve been running weed long enough that I bought Petty and me our non-descript split-level in the suburbs, and I’ve stowed steel lockboxes of cash in the basement ceiling. Sometimes, when I’m down there, I just stare up at that section of drywall. Another year, give or take, and I’ll have enough to move us down to Florida—maybe the Keys—where we can rent jet skis to tourists and chill.
I’m picturing storks and herons wading in lazy, low tides when I realize the weak-ass Friday’s I’ve parked behind is not—and has never been—an Applebee’s.
At Applebee’s Roland is standing outside his Passat, drinking a soda from Wendy’s, working hard to look normal. He walks over. “You’re tardy.”
I step out of the car and a bicyclist coasts by, one of those dudes who takes himself too seriously: gortex skinsuit, fingerless gloves, a third-eye mirror attachment on his wrap-around shades.
“Was that a cop?” I ask.
Roland sips his soda, lifts his eyes, looking around, his smooth face revealing nothing. “That doesn’t even sound like something the law would do.”
I let out a pent-up breath.
“You bring this on yourself,” Roland says.
“Worrying. All this stress,” Roland says. “You draw it to you.”
Eight years ago, Roland and I met in Radio Broadcasting at the community college. We started a campus podcast together, and back then I thought we could actually be on the radio. Anyone who can talk can be a DJ, and ideas came easily to both of us. We’d wake and bake, and Roland would be hitting all his lines, sharp and funny.
Nowadays, I can see Roland rummaging his thoughts like a lotus-eater looking for something to say.
“If something was gonna happen,” Roland says, “I’m pretty sure we’d have known it by now.”
This doesn’t make sense to me, but I keep it to myself.
“How’s Petty?” Roland asks.
“Waiting on me to bring him his sub.”
“That’s what’s up,” Roland says. “Tell him I say, stop eating so much pork.”
I glance past him, expecting the bicyclist to swing around again.
“You guys ready for the game?” Roland asks.
“It’s a wrap,” I say. “The Titans are trash.”
Too risky to move the bins out here so I grab Petty’s sub and we switch cars. I take the keys to his Passat and he gets in my Accord with the weed. In my basement at home there is a lot more weed lined up neatly in trayed rows, tiered and clustered by age, under HID lights, but I’m still glad Roland is the one who’ll be taking it down 95 South to Richmond tomorrow and not me.
At home Petty’s doing a maze from his maze book at the kitchen table. I set down the tubed Jimmy John’s and stand over his shoulder. The maze is ornately webbed. I smell menthol from the Icy Hot he’s slathered on his thighs again, pretending his muscles ache like he’s on WWE.
“How many boos did you give me?” I ask.
“Why don’t you put on the pre-game?” I ask.
He stands and slices the remote at the TV like a light saber.
On the television, there is a commercial for the sleep number bed. A sporty blond, trim and limber, is selecting a firmness for the mattress. She lays back, beaming at her capacity to gratify herself.
Petty peels the masking tape off the butcher wrap, unfurls his sub. He takes a bite, chews and spits it into his palm.
“What’s the problem?” I ask.
“I just bought that, Petty.”
He examines the masticated food in his hand.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s the tomato,” he says definitively. “Tastes bad.”
“So take ’em off. Roll with it.”
“I don’t like Jimmy John’s anymore.”
I fold back the bread on the sub and study the tomato slices and taste one, chewing slowly. “No, it’s good.”
He turns away from me.
I hear myself pleading, “You can’t count Jimmy John’s out because of one bad tomato.” But certain things get stuck in Petty’s head, and this will be one of them. I open the cupboard and clap a can of Chef Boyardee on the counter, which I know he will not eat. “Eat this.”
In the basement, the locks on the grow room are tight, the door warm. I check the paint on the ceiling where I patched in a new square of drywall to hide more cash. I check the camera feed for the day and tidy the curtain hems on the hopper window. For a moment I picture the house over-run with black-clad commandoes, swinging through windows, splintering doors.
But I can hear the pre-game upstairs, and I am lifted by it, my hopes for Lamar Jackson mingling with my own, certain my chances are his chances, and he will carry us past these dangers.
Adam Schwartz’s debut collection of stories The Rest of the World won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House 2020 prize for fiction. His stories have won prizes sponsored by Poets & Writers, Philadelphia Stories, Baltimore City Paper and have appeared in Mississippi Review, December Magazine, Arkansas Review, Raritan, Gargoyle, and elsewhere. His non-fiction has appeared in the Sewanee Review, the Forward, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News, Washington Independent Review of Books, and other publications.