It was mid-week, and Max hung out with his ex, Dina, in her dorm room with the usual gaggle: her suitemate Jo, slouched in the corner, pulling on a smoke; two more of their bouncy friends sharing the bong and giggling; Max's roommate Jerry and his girl, snuggling against one another on Dina's bed. After-dinner shots had been thrown back, and Dina and Jerry and his girl had started in on their pseudo-philosophical garbage. Jerry, paunchy and ripe in a mud-stained jersey and cleats, jewfro pressed against the wall, loved to egg the women on when they were baked, but this got tedious for Max, who had little interest in parsing the big questions of life. When they got like this it awkwardly highlighted Dina's less attractive habits just as he was still pining for her, and he tried to tune them out and hide his annoyance. Jo caught his eye and suggested a 7-Eleven run.
"Yes!" Dina shouted, slapping her hands to her knees and launching herself off her chair. "I'm starving!"
Max shrugged and rose, half a smile crossing his face.
Jerry and his girl preferred to keep their own company, and the bouncy pair seemed to be on something more than just weed, eyes fixated on the molten tips of their Newports, so Max, Dina and Jo headed out through the student parking lot behind the dorms. Grey clouds pressed down from above and snatches of guitar drifted across a forlorn soccer field. They climbed into Dina's Jeep and pulled onto College Avenue.
Vesta College inhabited the suburban oasis of Palomar on the eastern edge of LA County. The oldest of its stucco and red-roofed buildings had gone up in the 1890s, built by Easterners looking to replicate the liberal arts schools of the Northeast. The student body enjoyed the nearby desert and mountains and the amenities of Southern California, minus the blight. Hollywood and the beach were close enough to entice kids from duller climates, but distant enough to reassure their parents.
Mammoth old eucalyptuses crowded the road, and scarlet bougainvilleas clinging to a low wall spilled papery bracts that danced and whirled in the Jeep's wake. Beyond the wall sat ivy-wrapped academic buildings separated by lush patches of grass and criss-crossing pathways. A half-mile down the avenue the Jeep left campus and turned onto Foothill Boulevard, a four-lane road with a grassy median that split Palomar evenly into northern residential neighborhoods, ranging from well-to-do to super-wealthy the farther uphill you went, and the quaint, public services-oriented and middle-class south. It was the main route through the business district, where restaurants, bars and pharmacies clustered beside strip malls, residential motels and the occasional homeless person.
February in So-Cal is the rainy season, and it had been falling off and on all day. The blacktop shimmered in the traffic lights and passing cars swished by as the three of them grooved to classic Burning Spear. The dynamic between them was complicated. Dina and Max had dated the previous year, then broken up for the summer. An artist with a trust fund, she liked to dress in Abercrombie and LL Bean, a designer anorak topping it off tonight as a nod to the rain she always said reminded her of her hometown. Wide almond eyes and a dimpled smile had attracted Max the previous year when he took a chance and beckoned her back to his room as a friend's party broke up. This fall, he'd made the mistake of assuming they'd pick up where they'd left off, grabbing her as soon as he saw her unloading her bags and planting one right in front of Jo. Dina was too nice to make a fuss at the time, but soon she had dropped away from their circle and had been seeing some other asshole for most of the term.
But now that guy too was history, and Max felt like the big man again. He was pleased she seemed unperturbed with him riding shotgun tonight, and Jo's presence in the back seat took the heat off them both. Max still felt a bit exposed around the enigmatic Jo, who on more than one occasion the previous fall had overheard him drunkenly pleading with Dina, sobbing really. A local, her first-generation Korean immigrant parents owned a body shop in the next town over. Also an art major, she kept her long black hair in a ponytail and wore baggy jeans and cozy t-shirts emblazoned with words like "DUDE" and "WICKED" and spent a lot of time splattering paint on them. She captivated and confused Max—he found her both interesting and dull and could never detect how she felt about him. She laughed at his jokes but rarely went out of her way to hang out. The two of them had spent an entire night "passed out" on a bed together during a road-trip a couple of months earlier, Max not at all out of it but too petrified to move, contemplating the repercussions of fooling around with Dina's best friend, even if Dina didn't seem to notice him anymore.
So, it was a little weird, but for a munchies-collecting trip, it was good to travel in numbers.
Dina gunned the engine through yellow as they approached the beckoning sign of the most reliable convenience store chain in California. You couldn't go more than a handful of blocks in any direction without hitting one. They bounced into the lot and jerked into a space. Max stepped straight into a flooded pothole, oily water squishing through a hole in his canvas sneaker.
Jo slapped him on the back and slouched to the door. A tone announced their entry, and the clerk, a middle-aged South Asian man with a trim grey beard, glanced over from completing a sale. The three of them fanned out among the aisles. Max grabbed a box of Milk Duds, the noisy box handy for distraction, a bag of Skittles, and a handful of Tootsie Pops, dropping most of the last into his pocket as he was obscured rounding the corner towards the refrigerated case. As long as he kept something in his hands he always got away with it. The Skittles were secured in his jacket pocket as he stooped for a bag of chips; after scanning the magazines, he headed to the register to pay.
He didn't really need to steal these things, though he often did feel pressure to stretch his work-study earnings as far as possible to keep up with his friends, who always had ready-cash for skiing, top-shelf gin and off-campus breakfasts. Being stoned half the time, suffering from munchies when the dining hall is closed, can be hard on the wallet. Dina, though, and Jo, too, it seemed, had plenty of cash. Clearly, it had more to do with the thrill of lawbreaking, an attempt to get more for their money, show their smarts, stick it to the man. Sidestepping that "the man" in this case was an immigrant just trying to get ahead in one of the few venues open to him in LA's economy.
Standing at the counter, Max pretended to change his mind about the chips, shrugged and placed them back on a rack. The clerk peered over at the girls as he rang the junk up on the register.
"Oh, and a pack of Marlboro Reds, too, please," Max added.
The man nodded and turned. This was Dina's cue to hastily fill her pockets.
"Goood, you got some smoookes," Jo drawled at his shoulder when they got outside. The two of them waited for Dina to finish paying, too much on the downside of stoned to think of anything more to say. Jo tamped down the pack; Max turned from the window and ripped open the stolen bag of Skittles. A low-riding pickup with painted purple flames passed by spouting ranchera, and the door chimed behind them.
"Okey-doke," Dina said as she came out in her flip-flops and knee-length shorts. She held her wild hair back with a colorful strip of cloth and spun her car keys on her finger, grinning at Max, who could see the bulge in her jacket pocket.
Back in the car he lit her a cigarette. The nicotine began to pull them out of their stone funk. Dina tossed a handful of Jolly Ranchers into the air. Reggae filled the car again, Jo laughed, and they swerved through a puddle of standing water along the side of the road.
"What now," Max wondered through a mouthful of sugar.
"More bowls," suggested Dina.
"Oh, no, not me," Jo put in from the back. "I gotta paint."
"Aw," Dina said quickly. She was looking in the rear-view mirror with her bottom lip turned down. Max turned to the open window and took another long drag, forcing a coughing fit.
Jo laughed again.
"Yeah, you two are on your own, ha ha."
"Shoot some pool?"
"Okay," Dina smiled at him this time.
Back on campus, Jerry and the others had cleared out of Dina's room, leaving the door wide open, stereo still on. Jo grabbed her bag and sauntered away with a sly grin.
Max and Dina sat there listening to Coltrane, passing her little ceramic bong back and forth. Tapestries hung from the ceiling and walls, and a massive, half-melted candle oozed a twisted sheet of hardened wax across much of the small octagonal table in the middle of the room. Dina sat among the pile of pillows on her bed and Max took the squat college-issue chair, burn marks dotting its flat lacquered arms. Thick white smoke curled up from a stubborn bud in the bowl, and Dina's lids hung low. Max idly chewed a chocolate Tootsie Pop.
Halfway through the bowl, as Trane intoned "A love supreme, a love supreme..." and Max's mind wandered over to the bed, his phone buzzed on the table.
The screen read, CHARLES BACKMAN. One of Max's best friends at Vesta, Charlie was tall and easy-going, with floppy hair he'd been growing out since freshman year. He almost lived at the school's pimped-out gym and had a smooth, nonchalant way with women. Also a way of asking pointed questions on topics most would consider off limits. All of which made him attractive to women and envied by guys like Max.
Dina expelled a mouthful of smoke towards the ceiling. Max flipped open the phone.
There was a pause and some sort of gurgling noise.
"Hey, man," came a voice.
"Yo. What up?"
"I just talked to my Dad." A sniffing noise.
"Yeah, so? Wait, are you snorting coke?"
"It's my brother. Frank. He, he...he died."
"What? Oh. Oh, shit." Max sat back in the chair, his grin fading.
"I...That sucks, I mean...I'm sorry..."
A chill spread across his forehead. He didn't know what to say or what he felt. Dina looked up from the bowl, eyes struggling to focus.
"Yeah. Listen, can you come up?"
"Sure. Yeah. Um, Dina's with me."
"That's okay. I just got off with my Dad."
"Be right there."
He closed the phone.
"His brother just...died."
Dina drove north into the wealthier residential neighborhoods at the base of the San Gabriels. Groups of students, pooling their parents' money, could afford rent up here and still be within a shout of campus. The mountains rose ahead in dark splotchy humps. Max brooded as the car climbed the steady grade. One thing he and Charlie shared were older brothers who'd battled learning disabilities. Max's brother Rick was five years older, and his problems had been a shadowy source of confusion. Their folks had been preoccupied with helping him, and were probably just relieved their other kid could sail through school. Charlie's brother Frank had similar troubles, and one speed-fueled night Max and Charlie had discovered this and the fact that they'd both only grown close to their brothers after the older guys had left home.
"Looks dark," Dina said as she pulled to the curb.
The two-storied house with worn brown shingles, set back from the street by a patch of overgrown grass, appeared totally still.
"His roommates must be out. He just said to come up."
A raw breeze had kicked up, and a few drops hit the walkway. Dina drew close to Max and shivered. He knocked, and in a moment they heard heavy footsteps and the door opened. No light came from inside.
Charlie seemed smaller than his six feet, with blotched cheeks and bleary eyes.
Max reached up to give him a hug. Dina grasped him for a long time, patting his back, such that Max, holding the door open to let in some light, began to feel awkward.
"Sorry," Charlie said, as they broke apart. "Barry forgot to pay the electric bill again."
"Oh! We wondered," Max said, relieved with the distraction, and felt stupid.
"Come on up." Charlie beckoned, and Max let the door swing shut. Some tentative light filtered down the stairs.
At the top they entered Charlie's room overlooking the street. A candle flickered in the draft as they walked in, and a flashlight beam illuminated a spot on the ceiling, but it remained pretty dark; with the moon clouded over, only a streetlight shone in through the glass. The room was small and spare; a desk, half-filled bookshelf, a pair of art posters tacked to the wall. Charlie paid the second least amount of his housemates; Barry lived in a converted space over the garage in back.
"Fucking Barry," Charlie said, wiping his eyes.
The dim light was a relief to Max, and maybe to Charlie, too.
"Where are the other guys?" Dina asked as she sat on the bed next to Charlie. Max took the desk chair.
"Somewhere with power. I was heading out when Dad called."
They settled into silence, the drizzle outside rising to a steady drone, pitting the roof above their heads then down through the downspouts.
"So...do you know what happened?" Dina asked. Max was glad she had come along. Charlie exhaled.
"San Fran PD called my Dad. Said he was climbing some rocks or a hill or something. In the park. And he just fell they think. Hit his head." He spread his hands and shrugged.
"Ohhh," Dina rubbed his back. Max studied his fingertips.
"They think he was drunk," Charlie said. He paused. "And the other thing is, it looks like he was homeless, actually living in the park."
"Homeless?" Max finally said. "I thought he was going to school..." he trailed off.
"So did I," Charlie shrugged, staring at the floor. All his cool confidence had melted away. In a shameful way, Max for the first time felt on equal footing with his friend.
"I just didn't know," Charlie said, voice cracking, looking at them. "We didn't talk a lot—I only had a PO box. He said his neighbors opened his mail..."
"How much older was he?" asked Dina, her voice catching on the "was".
"Four years. We weren't really close, but better lately."
All of this sounded familiar to Max. When younger, he and Rick had never been buddies. Not until Rick left for college and started to find himself did he become protective of Max, at the same time that Max started to appreciate him in return.
Charlie looked up at him.
"You talked to your brother?"
Max shook his head.
"He's in Europe. Got a letter..."
Charlie nodded and sniffed, and they looked away from each other.
The stillness of the house settled in around them again. Usually one or another of the guys was playing the stereo or talking loudly or Max was here for one of their parties, weaving from side to side, looking at girls he couldn't talk to, hitting off joints, filling up from the keg. Now the place was silent. The face of Charlie's alarm clock stood at ten after eight, the time some electric company employee must've stopped by with a cup of coffee to cut the cord.
"My Dad said he just fell, hit his head...Least that's all he knows."
"Is your Dad going out there?" Dina asked.
"And then you'll go to the funeral," Max added and felt stupid again.
Charlie nodded and tried to smile.
"Thanks for stopping by...It's just...fuck..." he shook his head at the floor.
"Yeah, of course," Max awkwardly thumped his friend's knee. Dina hugged Charlie again, and he leaned into her small body. The rain shifted and pounded onto the glass, and their shadows danced against the wall.
Later, they lay on her bed. She curled close, head on his shoulder. Their 7-Eleven haul remained forgotten on the table, and they listened to the downpour and the mournful, rapturous climax of Coltrane's Psalm, which Max first heard while tripping in the desert under star-filled heavens.
Maui Holcomb lives and writes in Burbank, California. He attended Pomona College in the 90's and sporadically takes classes at UCLA Extension. Previously published in Hobo Pancakes, The Cynic Online Magazine, and Specter, he toils in the lower echelons of the film business attempting to make movies sound good. In his free time he cleans up after two advanced organisms commonly thought to be children.