They call me Smiling Dog, but I wasn't smiling the morning I opened our door to find Joe the Shark standing there. Joe was tall and awkward looking; he smelled bad and had zits on his face. He peered at me from behind a pair of thick, ugly, glasses, that made his eyes look small and stupid.
My buddy Moon, standing next to me, wasn't smiling either. He stood in stony silence; a bad sign. Moon is very vocal. Normally he has something to say in any situation. I knew his silence meant that he had already conceived a dislike for this geek at our door. I had no idea how he might react, and I didn't want to find out.
We had a steady flow of people coming by our pad; some we knew, and some we didn't. Moon usually handled all of this social interaction fairly well, even though it wasn't one of his strong points. I could tell, however, that there was something about this visitor that particularly offended him. In an attempt to head off trouble, I asked the guy at the door what he wanted; hoping that maybe he had knocked on our door by mistake. No such luck.
Our visitor opened his mouth. " Are you Smiling Dog?" he asked me. " I'm Joe - Charlie sent me over. He said you dudes might have some marijuana for sale." He glanced at Moon, whose face was beginning to assume a strange twisted expression. " Is your friend alright?"
" Oh yeah, don't worry. He's fine, just fine." I grabbed Moon by the arm, and tried to drag him into the kitchen. " I'll handle this guy," I hissed into his ear.
I turned around to find that our new acquaintance had followed us into the room and was standing behind me looking wistfully around. From the expression on his face, I gathered that our pad more than lived up to his expectations of what a dope dealer's place should look like.
" Look, I don't know what Charlie told you, but we aren't in business here. We don't sell marijuana, we don't even smoke it. Hell, I don't think I even know what the stuff looks like..."
I fell silent as a huge cloud of marijuana smoke filled the kitchen. It was so thick, that for a moment, everything disappeared from sight. As I stopped talking, Joe faded from my vision like a ship in the fog. Joe was sailing uncharted waters, and now he was about to get lost.
" Oh yes we do have marijuana for sale!" Moon's voice was a foghorn, cutting through the smoke. " We have pounds of it, tons of it, plane-loads, ships-full..." He smiled at Joe whose face appeared as the smoke began to thin. Moon was beaming, apparently happy now that he had someone to sell drugs to, but I was suspicious of his sudden good spirits. Somehow I mistrusted his motives.
I knew that Moon was likely to vent the full scope of his perverse and twisted nature on this poor soul. There was nothing I could do except hang around and pick up whatever pieces were left when the smoke cleared. It was out of my hands; the only way to avoid a scene would have been to get rid of this guy before Moon got interested in fucking with his head. But that chance was gone now.
Moon took Joe by the arm and led him into the living room. He was awesome when he went into action; sitting our visitor down, he rolled several big fat joints and lit them faster than anyone could possibly smoke them. Soon we each had a bomber in our hand, and Moon proceeded to interrogate Joe and extract his life story.
Joe was from Iowa, and he had ridden a Greyhound bus halfway across the country to San Francisco. Joe had come to The City looking for Peace and Love, just like so many other poor fools from all over country did that summer. What most of them found was just another dirty sidewalk. The unlucky ones found a lot of disease and pain. Joe found Charlie.
Charlie was a rich queen from the East Coast, who loved to fuck ugly straight guys like Joe. He would grab them right off the bus, before they had any idea what was going on, and he would whisk them off to his place, where he would get them naked and do it to them. Usually they seemed to be so dis- oriented amid the insanity that is the San Francisco Greyhound station, that they accepted his attentions passively, without question.
Iowa Joe, as I mentally tagged him ( it was later that he became Joe the Shark ), was typical of the guys that Charlie picked up; ugly, not too smart, and somewhat dazed by his recent experiences. For some reason, Charlie had a preference for this kind of guy from Middle-America. I always figured he was trying to get back at his parents. They could handle the fact that he was gay, but that he would consort with such low-lifes, people who were obviously from the lower classes, sent them into paroxysms of shame and rage.
Our doorbell rang again, and I wondered what fresh fodder was about to be shoveled into the trough. It was Sweet Vernon and Little Joe. Sweet Vernon was the counter-person at Reverend Bishop's Soul Food Cafe and Soul Savers Rescue Mission, a little hole-in-the-wall down the block. Little Joe worked in the kitchen of the same establishment.
Sweet Vernon was big, and very soft spoken. Little Joe was small and rat-like; together they made quite a pair. Loaded down with plates of fried chicken, fries, and sweet-potato-pie; they would often show up around dinner time to trade plates of food from Bishop's, for joints.
I tried to get them into a different room, still hoping to keep Iowa Joe from getting involved in our business dealings, in spite of my partner's obvious desires otherwise. Moon was too fast for me, however, he grabbed a plateful of food and dragged Vernon and Little Joe into the living room.
He sat down on the couch, where he proceeded to stuff his face with chicken and fries, while he puffed away on a joint. As he introduced everyone, I noticed that Iowa Joe seemed to be having a little trouble with the fact that our other two visitors were black ( well, actually a sort of a nice chocolate color ). He didn't seem to be able to speak directly to them; he sort of looked off to the side and addressed himself to the room in general.
Moon got Little Joe to tell us the story of how he had been beaten up and robbed the night before. He wanted to make Iowa Joe nervous; to instill a fear of the big city in his heart. So we all sat around and ate Bishop's food, while Little Joe recited his tale once more.
Little Joe fancied himself a big-time-operator. He played the role to the hilt. Wrapped up in a trenchcoat he had acquired someplace, he made the rounds of the night clubs. He bought lids of weed from us and made them up into what he called six-packs; three joints on each side of a little piece of cardboard, covered with Saran-wrap. Dressed up in his trenchcoat, he would go from bar to bar, selling these things for five bucks apiece. He did a pretty good business, especially on week-ends, and he loved it. Until he was beaten up and all his weed and money were stolen from him. That had been a couple of nights ago.
He showed up at our place in the middle of the night, bruised and desperate. His image was shot to pieces; his business empire lay in ruins. And worse, he was broke and owed us money. Moon had taken pity on him and fronted him some more weed to help him get rolling again. Little Joe was one of our steady customers, and we didn't want to see him go out of business.
As Little Joe finished reciting the tale of his trials, I noticed that our visitor from Iowa had perked up and was watching him closely. Although he may have missed some of the nuances of the story, it was clear that he could relate to Little Joe's victimization.
" They shouldn't have done ya like that!" he muttered, shaking his head and speaking directly to Little Joe for the first time. He began to fish around in his pockets, and to my amazement, pulled out a small, leather-bound sap.
" Here." he said, handing it to Little Joe. " My Daddy gave me this when I left Iowa to come out here to California. He said in a big city like this I'd need somethin' for protection. But you need it more'n I do. If they come after you again, at least you'll be able to protect yourself..." his voice trailed off when we all focused our attention on him as a result of this unprecedented participation in the conversation.
Little Joe was enthused. The sap fit perfectly with his image of himself as a mysterious and dangerous character. He turned it over and over in his hands, examining it and shaking his head. Phoenix-like he would rise from the ashes of defeat, dressed in his trenchcoat, and brandishing the sap. He was ecstatic.
" You's alright, Whiteboy!" he exclaimed, beaming at Iowa Joe, who promptly turned red, embarrassed at this unexpected praise. " You is aaaaallright!"
He gestured with the sap, making a few experimental swishes through the air. " This is just what I needs. If those mothers mess wit' dis boy again, they's gonna be hurtin' from here to here." He indicated, with his hands, two spots as far apart as he could reach.
" I'se gonna crack they heads wide open!" With this he brought the sap down hard on the table, causing Iowa Joe to jump.
" Let's go Vernon." Little Joe said. He was eager, I could tell, to be off cracking heads wide open.
With lots of exaggerated thank-yous, the two of them made their way towards the door. Out in the hallway, I slipped Sweet Vernon a small bag of weed in payment for the fine dinner he had brought us.
When I returned to the living room, Moon was briskly rubbing his hands together; ready to conduct some business.
" How much weed do you want ta get anyway? How much bread ya got ta spend?"
The novelty of this new arrival had worn off. All Moon was interested in now, was extracting whatever funds this fellow had in his pocket, and then getting rid of him. He was ready to move on to the next item on his day's agenda.
" C'mon, whattya want?" Moon was getting annoyed. He is impatient with people who do not conduct their business in what he regards as an efficient manner.
Joe was silent, he had drawn back. Something about the situation was making him nervous and he began to lose his self- control. Perhaps it was the mention of his money that did it. Maybe it was the light of insanity - heretofore only a flicker - which now began to burn brighter in Moon's eyes.
Hesitating, unwilling to make a move - perhaps not realizing that he had already gone too far to retreat - he did a very stupid thing: he asked Moon if his dope was any good.
With this, possibly the worst question he could have asked, he sent Moon over the line. Moon takes fanatical pride in his weed, and to have it's quality questioned by this Joe from nowhere, was more than he could take.
Moon was insulted, and he had lost his sense of fun. Once more the situation was headed in a direction I didn't like.
Joe must have sensed that he had done something wrong; his nervousness increased, and he began to sweat. Probably, the massive amounts of weed we had been consuming, were making him paranoid. He looked wildly around the room, huge beads of sweat rolling off of his bulbous nose. This nervous behavior only fueled the fire in Moon's eye; he stood over Joe and demanded to know how much money he had planned to spend
" How much bread do you have? Don't give me any of this 'Is it good?' shit!" He was yelling and flecks of spittle flew out of his mouth, landing on Joe's head. " Tell me what the fuck you had in mind?"
Joe was panicked; something had gone wrong, but he didn't know what it was. Without even his daddy's sap in his pocket, he must have felt especially helpless.
" I w-w-was just afraid y-y-you guys m-might burn me." he managed to stutter; his physical control was suffering under Moon's onslaught.
" BURN YOU? GIVE ME YOUR FUCKING MONEY; I'LL SHOW YOU BURN!" Moon was roaring. He hates to be accused of dishonesty. Joe had unwittingly heaped insult on top of insult.
Joe had been reduced to a bundle of raw nerve endings. Moon was in a full-on frenzy, foaming at the mouth and bright red in the face. At this point, my only hope was that blood would not have to be spilled to avenge Moon's honor.
" GIVE ME YOUR MONEY!" Moon roared again. In a trance, Joe obeyed him. He reached into his pocket and fished out a wad of bills, which Moon pounced upon.
" I'm not gonna burn you, I'm gonna burn your money!" When Moon got like this, there was no stopping him, I just sat back and watched.
Moon strode into the kitchen, and, lighting all the burners on the top of the stove at once, he proceeded to feed Joe's money into the flames. He had a handful of crumpled ones and fives, and bill by bill, he dropped them into the fire. His eyes glowed; Moon loves to burn money - especially other people's.
Joe was immobilized by Moon's pyrotechnic display. He was clearly wondering what this maniac might do next, and seemed to be frozen by his fears. As his money rapidly became a pile of ashes, he turned to me with a look of utter despair. He apparently perceived in me a source of sanity - if not compassion - and was hoping for rescue.
I did what I could. Leaving Moon to his money burning, I helped Joe shuffle towards the door. I stuffed a small bag of weed into his pocket and told him not to take the whole thing personally.
" You just caught him on a bad day," I told Joe, " Moon is really a nice guy." A pathetic attempt at reassurance, never the less, Joe seemed to take my words to heart. He nodded his head, and clutching at my arm, he thanked me for his rescue.
" Oh God, thank you. I don't know what I did wrong...I didn't mean to upset him..." He began babbling, and I pulled my arm from his grasp.
I pushed him out the door as he rattled on: " I sure am sorry I bothered you guys...I hope your friend is okay..." He was still mumbling to himself as he made his way shakily down the stairs and out into the street.
Our neighbors ignored him. They made a deliberate effort to ignore all the goings-on around our apartment.
I went back inside to find Moon standing next to the stove, which was now turned off, with a few bills left in his hand. There were ashes scattered across the stove top, and on the floor.
" I'm gonna go get some smack," he said, " instead of burning the rest of this. That way it won't all be wasted."
Sometimes his logic escaped me.
It was a few days later that Iowa Joe became Joe the Shark. The first person to come to our door in the morning was Little Joe. He was all beaten up again, and this time it was much worse than before. His nose was broken, and one eye was swollen shut. The poor sucker was a total wreck.
" Hey, my man. Looks like you got hit by a bus!" He looked horrible. No trenchcoat today; I wondered what had happened to him.
" You know that sap that dude gimme the other day?" he asked. " Well, some dudes took it away from me, and all my weed, and my trenchcoat, and then beat me up with it." He shook his head with disgust. " Beat me up with my own sap." This was the low-of-lows as far as he was concerned.
" Shee-it! suckers got me good this time..." his voice took on a speculative note. " Hey, uh..." he hesitated, " is there any way you-all could, uh, you know, front me a little bit more...just to kinda get back in business...maybe just a pinch or something...just to get me goin'...?" Humble though he made his request sound, he was clearly determined to get the ball rolling again.
" Man! You don't give up easy do you?" I laughed in spite of myself. " Ready to go back for more, I don't believe it. Maybe you ought to stick to washing dishes down at Bishop's. Nobody gonna get you down there but Sweet Vernon."
" Hey man, I got to get back into business, I got to." I knew it meant a great deal to him to be able to regard himself as a business man, regardless of his level of financial success or the injuries incurred while playing out the role.
I decided to let Moon - silent to this point - make the decision. " What do you think Moon?" I passed the ball to him. " Should we front this dude some more weed, or let him suffer?"
" Nah...I hate to let anyone suffer." A false statement on the face of it. " Let's give him another bag and see if he can get his shit together." To Joe, " If you would just stay out of a couple of places downtown there, you wouldn't have these problems. You know that too. You just love to go down there cause you think it makes you look bad! Well, it does, but not in the way that you want it to. It makes you look like you got bad judgement. And that ain't the kinda bad you're lookin' for."
Moon ducked out of the room and then came back with another bag of weed for Little Joe. " This is it though. We'll give you a couple of weeks to make up your losses, but then I want ta get paid back for them bags that got stolen from you too."
" Alright...you guys is alright." Joe was happy again. He still had a chance to pursue his career. I could see plans and schemes begin to revolve in his head, all meshing together and setting each other in motion, just like the cogs and gears inside a Swiss watch.
The doorbell rang, and Moon went answer it.
When the door swung open, there was Joe from Iowa, and he was holding in his hand a shark's tail. A real, live - or rather, dead - shark's tail. And the worst part about it was that it was attached to a shark. I couldn't believe it, not only had this guy come back, but he had brought a dead fish with him.
" WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?" screamed Moon. " What the Fuck are you doing standing there with a God-Damned dead shark?"
I don't know what kind of reception Joe the Shark ( for that is who he was clearly revealed to be ) expected to receive from us. Somehow he must have convinced himself that we would be happy to see him with this dead fish in his hand. We were not.
We found out later that when Moon took all his money, he came to the conclusion that we were broke and desperate for cash. If we were broke, then we must need, and would probably appreciate, some food. So, when he saw the shark swimming along in the shallow water, near the beach at Aquatic park, he jumped in and wrestled it to shore.
Fortunately for Joe, the shark was sick or suicidal, and it didn't bite him; succumbing, in fact, without a struggle. He somehow got it from the beach. and carried it all the way across town, and brought it to us.
I often wondered what people in San Francisco ( where many strange things occur everyday on the streets ) thought when they saw Joe struggling across town that day with the shark. But there was no need to wonder what Moon thought. He expressed himself loudly and clearly. People across the bay in Oakland, must have heard him.
Not even the fact that Joe's motives were entirely unselfish, softened our anger. Moon yelled at him, I yelled at him, even Little Joe had a few words to say. We carried on with such energy and conviction, that he began to cry. He stood there in the hallway, the shark dripping blood and other vile juices onto the carpet, and cried. His tears fell down to mingle with the mess on the rug.
" Get that stinking thing out of here!" Moon yelled at him. " Are you some kind of fool? Don't you ever come around here with a dead animal again. What do we look like, fucking aquatic undertakers, or something?" Moon pushed Joe the Shark backwards and slammed the door in his face. Then he yanked the door open and started yelling again.
" What's wrong with your brain? Have you been sniffing glue or something? We just don't need this kind of bullshit. Take that thing back to the beach or something." Moon paused, temporarily out of breath.
Joe the Shark was shattered once again. His second attempt at social congress with us had failed more miserably, if possible, than his first. The shark was meant as a gift to us; a way to show us that we were forgiven for stealing his money. To show us that our need was recognized, and that he was concerned enough to help us in any way he could. Our brutal rejection of his offering completely de-moralized him, and he stood in front of our apartment directionless; not knowing what to do next.
Moon ran into the kitchen and grabbed a roll of paper towels. He came back to the door and threw them into the hallway at Joe's feet.
" Go throw that stupid shark away, and then come back and clean up our hallway. And after that, don't come around here again until you get your act together." Once again, he slammed the door in Joe the Shark's face.
The next time I opened the door, and looked out into the hallway, Joe and the Shark were gone. Little Joe, too, had departed. On his way, I am sure, to get a new trenchcoat; in order to properly attire himself for the evening's commerce. Moon was in his room shooting smack. I decided to sit down at my typewriter and try to write a poem.
The hallway smelled like dead shark for a long time.
Story © 1995 by Jan Marica