was fourteen and I had been living on a rooftop mostly for six months the
day Constantine got arrested. It was Constantine who had gotten the acid.
Fat Constantine with his broad shoulders and his shirts and jackets always
He had said that morning to me when we placed
the pills under our tongues, “What I love about acid is that once you take
it there’s no getting off the ride. You’re stuck.” He had smiled when he
said it, and I knew he was trying to give me a bad trip. I despised him.
Smith was arrested as well. Smith was Constantine’s sidekick and his only
relevance was this connection. Smith had a head like a spike and smooth,
sloping shoulders so it was like his face descended straight into his arms.
He leaned forward when he walked and was awful to look at.
Smith and Constantine had already disappeared
by the time we arrived at Wolfy’s, the restaurant across from the high school.
It was lunchtime, everything was neon and vinyl, and the people leaning
across the bright red booths were the ones that didn’t have to worry. They
were either predators—Simon City Royals, Popes, Devon Boys—gang bangers
looking for a fight. Or they were invisible, the normals, the ones
that went to class, maybe played on a team, then went home after school
to the houses near the park or the apartment buildings east and south. They
didn’t cause or attract trouble. They weren’t wolves but they weren’t sheep
and years later few of them would do anything interesting. I was not a normal.
I was a sheep trying to hide in a pack of wolves. But I didn’t know things
like that then. I didn’t imagine my place in the food chain.
Jack and Komo went to the school across the street. Angel had dropped out
already and I was only in eighth grade. We didn’t notice Smith and Constantine
missing. People disappeared all the time. Nobody cared about Smith and Constantine
anyway. I was glad they were gone.
“Dude, why is everybody staring at us?” I asked Angel.
“Shut up, man,” Angel said, covering his ears. “You’re freaking me out.”
“You feel anything at all?” Komo whispered to me. I was sure everyone could
hear Komo talking, as if his voice was coming from a speaker near the back.
His teeth chattered close to my ear like a windup skull.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” I said. We needed to leave. Not just the
restaurant, but the whole neighborhood. Somebody dropped their silverware
and the ping shuddered through the tables. The ceiling and floor were covered
in a thin layer of oil condensing from the smoke billowing off the deep
fryers and Polish grills. The cracks between tiles were filled with hardened
ketchup. Smells came in waves: sweaters, hair gel, french fries. Every door
“What are you looking at?” It was Felix. He was sitting at a table near
the front, his fingers flattened on the formica; I could see past him to
the blur of his yellow cab outside. It was winter and the window corners
were covered in frost. There was a plastic hot dog on a pitchfork over the
parking lot. Felix had graduated years ago, but still hung around with the
Simon City Royals. He wore his black hair cut in a square like some twisted
Russian Elvis. He was a bad person. I’d known him since I was five. Later,
he’d die drag racing on Touhy Avenue and people in the neighborhood would
wear scarves around their arms for him as if he was a hero and I would be
unable to understand it. He had raped Amy Doyle, and everybody knew that.
But there were other things that not everybody knew, and that I didn’t know
either, but I could sense. Before he died he would break my leg in a fight
in the alley behind the McDonalds across from the Harley dealership on Western.
But that hadn’t happened yet. On this day we just didn’t like each other,
and we weren’t sure why.
“You’re about to wear this,” Jack said, waving the ketchup bottle at Felix
and his table full of outlaws.
“Watch it with that thing,” Angel said.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” I said again. I was a coward. That was my
secret but it was one that everybody knew. Older kids, pretending to be
police officers, would stop me and search me on the street. They’d laugh
and impart some wisdom like—Next time, ask for identification—then slap
me on the back as if we were old pals.
“I will cut your hand off if you spray ketchup on me,” Felix said. He was
kind of smiling, kind of serious. But the thing about Jack was that everybody
liked him. His charisma and confidence allowed him to get away with things.
It didn’t matter that he was small and thin and that he never had and never
would do anything nice for another person. At the time I was protected by
the force field of his personality. It was a matter of staying close to
Jack, and everything would work out fine.
The line from the broiler reached to the door where a second line of students
with hands stuffed in their jackets formed along the sidewalk. Jack put
the ketchup down, jumped toward Felix and dipped his hand into Felix’ bag
of fries. “Watch it,” Felix said.
Jack pulled a fry from the bag, smooshed it in his hands, then licked the
mash from his palms.
“You are so gross,” somebody said. It was Danika. She was wearing a big
coat and it was open and beneath it her blue and white cheerleading outfit
and her long, thick legs and clean shoes.
“I’m just a stranger in a strange land,” Jack said, wiping his hands in
“You’re a fucking animal,” Felix said, with something bordering on admiration.
An hour later we were at Betty’s. Betty was Komo’s girlfriend that month
and she wore purple contact lenses. She looked like a cat. “You guys have
to leave,” she said.
We were sitting in her TV room but the TV was off. I was having a great
day in the middle of a terrible year. At some point she was going to get
rid of us, and I was going to have nowhere to go, except maybe the library,
or the laundromat, or the blacktop at the grammar school. It had gotten
cold at night, and I always woke up shivering. What I needed was a blanket.
By now word had filtered to us, through a network of side streets and
park houses, that Constantine and Smith had been arrested. But what for?
We had all taken the acid together, six purple dots. There wasn’t anything
left. Jack, in his blue shirt, with his elbows raised, his baggy sleeves
dangling from his arms, looked to me like Jesus. Everything was calm and
“You’re so great,” Komo said to Betty. He’d taken off his leather jacket
and laid it over his lap. She sat across from us on a tall stool. “Look
at her. She’s great.”
“Tell that to my parents.”
“You’re my angel,” Komo said. He reached forward for her hand but she
wasn’t anywhere near him.
“I’m Angel,” Angel said. “Do you have anything to drink?” Angel asked.
“No. Not like water.”
“We need to get more of this stuff,” I said.
“We’ll get more,” Jack said. “This stuff grows in fields and when you
see it it goes straight to the horizon.”
“No,” Angel said. “It’s chemical. It grows in bathtubs.”
“Everything comes from somewhere,” Jack said. “It’s all natural at some
“Hey,” I said. “What are we talking about?” None of us were moving. I
was going to remember something and bring it up. But not yet. Because
right then I was focused on Angel. He had grown a mustache. It covered
his nostrils and the tip of his nose. He looked like a mustache guy from
a newspaper photograph, but I didn’t know who. Somebody Cuban. Maybe Che
Guevara. Angel was the kind of guy that would borrow fifty cents to buy
a candy bar and then not give you a bite since he intended to pay you
And Komo with his long black hair. He was like a girl. Or he looked like
a girl. He was a sweet little Korean girl with crazy Christian parents
who beat him with bamboo sticks and who, a year from now, were going to
refuse to pick him up from the detention center, tossing him to the mercy
of the court the way zookeepers toss meat to lions. Oh, the things that
were going to happen to him. The things that had already happened to him.
When he dressed like a girl he was the prettiest girl I had ever seen.
He kept running away from home, and every time he ran away from home someone
else molested him. And here he was with Betty, who was terribly good looking.
Did she know? Wow she was good looking, with her round face and her tight,
ribbed jeans. Betty’s jeans were so tight it was like she had denim skin.
But he didn’t really care for her. When Komo didn’t have a place to stay
he would come with me to a broom closet I found in a building on Talman
and we’d sleep together and he would wrap himself around me like a snake.
He’d throw one of his legs over my legs and squeeze my legs together with
it. I’d lay straight as a board and he’d bury his face in my neck. He
had so much love to give, but that would change too.
And Jack, who was just a little bit older than us. Everything would turn
out OK for Jack, which was ironic. And here’s something else I think I
can tell you. Everything would turn out OK for me too, though I’d hit
some rough patches.
“Imagine,” Jack said. “That the air is filled with sound and when you
breathe the sound tickles your lungs.”
We listened for a second.
“Dude, that’s stupid,” Angel said, and then we all laughed.
“It is,” Komo agreed. “It’s stupid. Exactly.”
“I know,” Jack said. “So stupid. I just wanted to say something.” He waved
his hand around and it looked like he had twenty fingers.
And then Betty said, “You’re all stupid.”
“How does she walk in those pants?” Angel said, jerking his thumb at her.
She frowned and when she frowned she looked like a monkey. We laughed
for hours at her expense. I remember very distinctly thinking to myself
that I had never been happy before. It was a small room with cheap, mismatched
furniture, tri-colored carpet, a doorway with no door in it and a television
bolted into a stand on the wall. We were laughing so much. Nobody ever
laughs that much. Our laughter was like a train with no brakes. What a
bad decision Betty had made, being straight while we were all stoned.
What an awful way to live. At one point or another we would each learn
that the reverse was also true. That it’s no fun being stoned and surrounded
by straight people. It’s miserable.
It got even worse when Angel said, “Reagan.”
“Yeah, Reagan,” Jack said, nodding quickly, a huge smile stuck across
his face. I could see he was losing it. “That’s where it starts and stops.
That’s the circle.”
We didn’t know anything about President Reagan. We knew there was this
chain of command that somehow ran from the president to the police officers
that were always giving us a hard time when we sat on the guardrail outside
of Quick Stop. We knew there was a drug war and we were winning.
There was something very wrong with me. I had pains in my back along my
shoulder blades and my feet smelled so bad I was afraid to take my shoes
off. I shouldn’t have been with Jack, Angel, and Komo. If I had other
friends I probably wouldn’t have been spending half my nights on rooftops
and the other half in broom closets and then on really cold nights breaking
into boiler rooms and hugging the pipes. And when I told this to people
in college, because I went to college, that’s how well I turned out, when
I told them how I had been homeless for a year as a child they would always
say, without hesitation, “Dude, you could have stayed with me.” That’s
how I knew I had not had a particularly good group of friends. I was shafted
in the friend department.
“I love you guys,” I said.
“Yeah,” Angel said. I thought his mustache looked great. “Somebody turn
up the heat. Let’s fry.”
“I don’t know how,” Betty said.
“Yeah, I mean it,” I said. “Imagine that we would all meet. The odds against
that are infinitesimal.”
“We’re lucky,” Jack said, snapping out of his trance. “Really lucky. We’re
geniuses.” He spread his arms out over the chair backs. He was posing
for me. It was nice of him.
“I just mean,” I continued. “I don’t know what I mean.”
“You know,” Komo said. “You know to the smallest point what you mean.
I know what you mean too.”
“What I mean is that I want to know you guys forever.”
“Past that,” Komo said. “Even after forever ends.”
“Let’s stick it out,” I said.
“OK,” Komo said. “We’ll make it.”
“You really have to leave,” Betty said.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Jack said. “And you’re going with us.”
Jack’s logic set off another round of laughter and Betty left the room.
I loved Jack so much. I loved all of them. I masturbated in restrooms
thinking about Betty. I thought about her tying me to a chair and sitting
on a shelf and wrapping her legs around my face and pulling me into her
by my hair. I imagined her pubic hair was purple and my nose was inside
her vagina. Sometimes I imagined she had a penis and she would make me
suck it. I didn’t imagine her fucking me with it. I was too young for
that. I would think of that later, in my twenties. But not with sixteen
year old girls. Mostly, I would think about her walking me around in a
leash and handcuffs. Tying me up and saying mean things while she slithered
all over me in her leather catsuit. These were my fantasies. They were
simple and I was young. I was a virgin and I disliked Betty. And fifteen
years later, when I paid a transsexual on Polk Street in San Francisco
one hundred dollars to dominate me and that domination scene went wrong
and I was raped violently in a hotel room above a Kentucky Fried Chicken,
I could maybe trace it back to these early fantasies. But probably not.
All I had said to the transsexual was that I wanted her to be in charge.
I didn’t fight back. She was tall and strong with a strange body forced
in different directions by hormones and plastic surgery. She had made
a choice in her life while I was going nowhere. She said, “Maybe I don’t
want to be part of your fantasy.” I said “no” and “please stop. Don’t.”
I laid in a ball on the red carpet burning, my face cut and swollen, covered
in come and urine, and she kneeled over me, her knee in my ribs, the incisions
below her breasts, her penis over my lips. She stuffed the condom in my
mouth. “Swallow,” she said, holding my nose. I wonder what Betty looks
Komo followed Betty into some other room in the apartment, gripping his
leather jacket in one hand, holding Betty’s hand with the other. Komo
was sacrificing himself for us. He sacrificed all the time. I would be
the best man at his wedding. “Do you think her parents will come home
soon?” Angel asked.
“Trust me,” Jack said, and I did. “We have nothing to worry about.”
Much later that night we were on the schoolyard. The lights had been cut
and the houses were dark on either side of the blacktop. Komo was still
with Betty, whose parents never came home. He had followed her into her
bedroom and they had locked the door. When the acid wore off Jack, Angel,
and I left.
Smith and Constantine met us and I felt like they had nothing to do with
our story. They had been gone all day. They had their own story and there
was no reason for us to compare notes. We were passing around a large
joint that Smith had stolen from his parents. Komo was really missing
out. “I’m glad that’s over,” Angel said.
“I had six more hits on me,” Constantine said. “In a pill case in my crotch.”
“He crotched it,” Smith agreed.
“The cops found them. You guys were a block ahead.”
“Why’d they stop you?” Angel asked.
Constantine stretched his arms, his jacket so taut across his shoulder
it looked like the sleeves would rip.
“They stopped us because this tool decided to tag a garage,” Constantine
said punching Smith on the shoulder and Smith released a laugh like a
It was a simple explanation for a complicated mess. Constantine had six
more hits of acid. Smith, who was like an ogre or some strange deformed
animal that always brought problems, had written something on a garage
and the police had stopped them and found the acid and so they had spent
the day handcuffed to the wall sitting on steel cots. Constantine said
the walls were like television screens.
It all seems simple when put that way. But there’s another way to look
at it. We had come down and the residual speed was scraping the inside
of our veins. We were all going to have to go our separate ways for the
night and for me that meant climbing the tarbox and the gutter drain to
the roof of the convenience store. My parents had moved and left no forwarding
address so the time when I could go home had long passed. If Constantine
hadn’t been arrested he might have shared those other hits with us, though
probably not. We could have tripped longer, which might have resulted
in a deeper connection between all of us. And perhaps together, tripping
along the slanted brick buildings of Chicago’s north side, we would have
found somewhere to go, instead of always splitting up, abandoning each
other to our own devices. That’s what we would have done if we were really
friends. Which, it turns out, we weren’t. But we could have been. Because
this is how bad it would get. Komo wouldn’t emerge from the child welfare
system for years. Jack and Angel would fight at some point and Jack would
break Angel’s nose. The reason they fought was because someone had said
something and I had repeated it so it was really my fault. Shortly after
that Constantine would lead a group of kids to where I kept my clothes
stashed and they would piss all over my stuff. And there was nothing I
could do about it. So when I was arrested and the state took custody of
me I could probably have run away but I chose not to, because I had nowhere