On the way back, Ryan and I started up another lackluster music tournament, but mostly just chatted. Helicopter walked up to the captain seats every once in awhile, but mostly maintained her usual position on the seats in the back. Once we got past Sacramento, we struck east on the familiar Route 50. We stopped for coffee and a 12 pack of J.W. Dundee Honey Lager. I asked the cashier for a straw, and he gave me a very peculiar look before motioning to the back.
We crept into South Lake Tahoe; the first snowfall had happened in our San Francisco interim. We did a loop around the entire lake and stopped at every civic center and post office looking for work and writing down names and numbers, seeing if anything had changed over the weekend. We hit an internet café as well and did the Craig’s List thing. Quinnelly was supposed to drive down to Carson City the next day for the job he’d picked up at Home Depot, but we wanted to fill up the weeks afterward. While he was gone I was going to try to make a big dent in HCS. And, of course, we were constantly looking for a place to stay, hoping that some affordable room or two would pop up. Unfortunately, it was mostly vacation home timeshares out of our price range.
The day faded into night soon enough, and the coffee shop closed up around 6. I called my parents from a pay phone, and they assured me that I would be able to pick up a used cell phone General Delivery at the Tahoe post office. We picked up a 12 pack of beer and wandered around the lake, looking for a place to set-up for the night. I had Rob’s phone number in my pocket the whole time, but I didn’t really want to bother him. That was an emergency number, and Ryan, Heli, and I would be fine roughing it until then. We finally spotted an off-season camp road with an unmanned guard station a few miles south of Sugar Pine. It looked like a good deal, so we parked in there, ran Helicopter around a bit, and cooked up some beans on Ryan’s stove.
As the night got later, and we finished the beer I began to get antsy. We were trying to save money, but if there was anything I had learned from the early opening of Treasure Island Casino in Biloxi, it was that there was always free beer on the game floor. In other words, my go to plan. Ryan wasn’t much of a gambler, but my strategy was foolproof. I told him I’d give him ten dollars and I’d take ten dollars and we’d just gamble slowly and figure it out and try to get as much free beer out of it as possible. He nodded in agreement, so we got the van started and drove to the north Nevada side.
Crystal Bay Casino was not quite in Incline Village, and only tourism relevant for its position a stone’s throw away from California. We parked in the garage, entered the game floor, bought chips, and sought out a waitress for our drink order before perusing the gambling options. Penny slots for a bit before we discovered the dream opportunity for our gambling demographic— $1 roulette. We sat down for a bit with our beers and took turns putting our money on red or black. We could sit and play as long as someone with $50 could on a $5 table in a normal cheap casino. Perfect.
We did this for a bit and eventually struck up conversation with another young guy sitting at the end of our table. Ryan got into it with him a bit, got the crazy eyes and the overemphasized swagger, but I figured he was just screwing around. At any rate, the guy continued talking with me at the edge of the table through another few beers. Ryan wandered away and lost his money playing video poker, and pretty soon I had anted up my own bets out of boredom and was out as well. I went to the bathroom and when I came back, Ryan and the guy were chatting like old friends at the entrance.
“Will, we’re gonna give this guy a ride to his house, is that cool?”
As long as it was on the way, I didn’t really care. The three of us exited and walked across the street to the parking garage. The guy started talking on his cell phone, and got a little ahead of us. Ryan pulled me back for a second, and whispered,
“Thanks for going along with this. This is going to be great.”
What’s going to be great? Ryan smiled.
“Dude, I’m totally going to fight this guy in the parking garage, we’re not giving him a ride anywhere.”
Are you an idiot? You are not going to fight him. That is the worst plan I’ve ever heard.
“No, dude, it will be fun. Go along with it. It’ll be just like the time we beat up that guy outside of the Pub.”
I paused for a second and thought about this. Then affirmed my position, and altered my logic to best fit the situation— there were obviously myriad reasons to prevent violence, but it was only the right one that would dissuade my friend when we were eight beers deep.
Dude. This guy lives here, we are giving him a ride to his house. Why would you fight our first connection here? What if he can get us jobs? What if he lets us stay at his house tonight? Please don’t fuck this up. Do not fight him.
Ryan thought for a second, and nodded. “I guess you’re right.”
We caught up to the guy and walked over to the van. For a terrifying moment I thought I’d completely failed when Ryan shoved the guy really hard. Then everyone laughed it off and it was fine.
The three of us drove back West into California and looped up into his house. He invited us in for beers and weed, so we walked in with Helicopter and sat on his couch. For all intents and purposes, he seemed like a nice guy. He was a Williams grad from the mid 90s, had moved out to be a ski instructor after college, and never looked back.
So you don’t think you’ll ever do anything else? The guy smiled.
“Why would I? This is perfect. Why would I ever want to be anywhere but here?” He passed me the bowl and I took a hit. Ryan didn’t smoke, and began to pass out on the couch. I asked the guy about jobs and a place to stay, and he got really excited.
“Dude, yeah, I can definitely wrangle you guys up something at Diamond Peak or somewhere. And there’s a bunch of places opening up for winter living. Do you guys want to crash here for a few days while you get on your feet?”
It was a miracle. Of course we did. This had worked out perfectly and I was the best thinker ever for making sure Ryan didn’t fight this guy and that we gave him a ride home. This guy had saved us, and I’d known something like this would happen. And then amidst these thoughts, I heard him mutter under his breath that he wished he had coke for us.
Do you think you could get any? The words came out of my mouth without thinking about it, in complete excitement over everything else that had happened— cocaine would be the perfect capstone to this wonderful night.
“I mean, probably. Do you really want some?” I nodded. The guy walked out of the room and made a call. I shook Ryan awake.
Dude, if we pick up some blow, do you want to get in on it?
He looked at me confused. “Sure, are you paying for it?”
Yeah, definitely. Just a couple grams, nothing huge. Ryan shrugged and went back to sleep, and I moved to the kitchen table with the Williams grad. We chatted about Katrina, working in Tahoe, what life was like around here, how much Ryan and I were going to love “the life,” etc, etc. In other words, the typical awkward conversation that one trying to procure drugs has with the 99% anonymous middleman. Twenty minutes later, the sound of a car pulling up into the gravel lot broke the silence and the guy got up to open the door.
He came back followed by an overweight Asian guy carrying a backpack. I stood up and put out my hand. He looked at me, and then looked back at the Williams grad.
“Sit down, sit down.” The Williams grad remained standing, but he looked suddenly nervous. I sat back down. Williams asked if anyone wanted a beer; I took one, but the drug dealer declined. He put his backpack on the table, opening it up as he asked me where I was from. I told him Maryland, but I was on a road trip, my buddy was asleep, we were just looking for work around here and living in our cars until then.
“Uh huh,” the drug dealer nodded, looking into his backpack. Without moving his eyes, he continued:
“So is this guy cool?”
I furrowed my eyes. What?
“I’m not talking to you.” He looked up at Williams. “How do you know this guy?”
Williams looked at him, then at me. “We’re friends, he’s cool man, take it easy.”
Dude, I’m cool, I swear. I mean, my buddy is passed out over there, my dog is running around—
He flipped to me, eyes wide, hands authoritatively leaning down on his bag. “Well, put yourself in my position. It’s 3:30 in the morning, I’m coming over here to try to help somebody out that I don’t even know. I don’t want to get arrested. Do you want me to get arrested?”
I put my hands up. Dude, no. I’m sorry man, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not DEA, I was just looking to buy some coke.
“Who said anything about DEA?” He looked at me intensely. I didn’t really know what to say; the situation was already out of my control. Behind the drug dealer, Williams looked more agitated than ever.
“Dude, I’m sorry man, I didn’t mean to bother you so late. This guy is cool though, seriously.” Williams tapped his hands together.
The drug dealer looked coolly at Williams, and then suddenly broke out into a smile.
“Nah, I’m just fucking with you guys man. I know you’re cool.” Williams and I both laughed and smiled in high relief. The dealer went into his bag and pulled out a CD wallet.
“But you know, just for shits and giggles, let me see your driver’s license.” And just like that, he was dead serious again. I shrugged and pulled out my wallet. He examined it like a jeweler. The tension in the air was high once again, and Williams looked as skittish as ever leaning on his kitchen counter.
“I thought you said you were from Maryland.”
“Well, I am, but I was living in Mississippi before I came in.”
I’ll never know where the conversation might have gone from that moment on if Williams had just kept his cool. Maybe this drug dealer and I would have become great pals, maybe he had family in Mississippi, maybe we could have had a long and prosperous friendship once we’d gotten over this last hump. I somehow doubt that, however. Anyways, I’ll never know, because Williams lost it.
“Dude, I don’t even know these guys, I’m so sorry, I just met them tonight at the casino, and his friend was going to arrest me earlier I think, and this guy stopped it to try to get to you. You’re totally right, totally right that I fucked up, they’ve been acting sketchy all night, I think they might be cops too. I fucked up man, I totally fucked up.”
“WHAT THE FUCK!” The drug dealer threw my license on the table, and got into Williams’ face. I threw my hands up.
Dude, I am not a cop. Everybody calm down, if this isn’t going to work out, that’s fine, but let’s just chill out for a second.
“You sit the fuck down. I’m going to deal with both of you in a second.” He grabbed his bag and marched out of the house. Williams was near tears.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck. You guys get the fuck out of my house. I don’t know you. Get out. Get out.”
I jumped to my feet and ran over to Ryan.
Dude, wake up, wake up. We’ve gotta go. We have to go right now. Right now. Get up.
The urgency in my voice roused him, and he stumbled to his feet and followed me out into the snow. I turned for Helicopter before realizing I didn’t have her leash and she darted out into the woods. On the other side of the parking lot, the drug dealer was fishing through his trunk.
“Ryan, go get in the van, here are the keys.” I ran out into woods and snatched up Helicopter in a lucky few seconds. When I turned to go back to the car, the guy was stalking through the lit parking lot with a small gun in his hand.
Dude. I’m really sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not a cop. Please just let me, my friend, and my dog get out of here.
He stared at me, chest heaving in and out with breath, and then motioned the gun toward me emphatically. “If you aren’t out of my sight in ten seconds, you’re dead.”
I nodded, and ran past him over to Astro. I threw Helicopter in, and pulled the van out of the parking lot. In the rearview mirror, I saw the drug dealer walking up the steps into the house. Then I was blowing dirt and gravel out from the tires and speeding down 89. I breathed heavily, while Ryan had his head leaned back on the captain’s chair, already half asleep.
“Dude, what happened?”
I didn’t respond. I just closed one eye to see the lane line and circled back around the lake, through the wet blinking red light of Tahoe City’s main street, and down the west side. I started playing Ray LaMontagne and said nothing, chain smoking cigarettes and thinking about what had just happened. It was scary. But numbly so. That should have worried me, I supposed. The numbness. But for some reason, it didn’t. Soon enough we got to the dirt road where Ryan’s truck was parked, I pulled up behind it, turned off the van, and we slept.