SMOKY by Ben Austin
by Ben Austin
My freshman year of college I lifted weights and kickboxed five days a week. The kickboxing gym was four miles down Riverside and I biked there every weeknight. There wasn’t a bike lane on Riverside and cars honked. My brakes screeched.
On my way home I stopped for Taco Shack. I tried doing the drive thru once but they said I needed a car to use the speaker box so I ate inside. I was drenched and sometimes bruised from the workouts and the staff looked at me while I ate the burritos.
One of the janitors wore nipple rings that poked into his shirt. The janitor was in his late teens/early twenties. He mopped with a crook in his low back and sometimes he perked up to yell at his coworkers in a Spanglish vernacular I had trouble understanding. His shoulders were undeveloped, his arms small. I looked down on this. For myself I wanted physical greatness. Shoebox calves were my main focus. Growing up I was skinny and Dad and uncles fed me extra steak at dinner parties saying “we gotta get some meat on these bones” and when I first saw results in the bicep region, from Dad’s pull-up bar in the garage, I decided fitness would be a big part of my life.
After getting home from kickboxing I ripped my shirt off used the bong and took in my reflection before entering the lounge where my suitemates drank alcohol and played Cards Against Humanity. I looked down on their ways especially those who never set foot in the gym. They were all getting fat and no one seemed to notice but me.
One of the suitemates Arthur played guitar. Arthur had a great memory for trivial things like stats about climate change and marginalized peoples. Arthur had sex often. He had a pair of logs for calves and he had a way of breaking out in song with the guitar and whenever he began strumming, as if sans agenda, the guys in the room traded looks. The girls looked at their cards or the floor, anything but Arthur or each other.
One morning that fall, sometime in October, I went for hot breakfast at 6:30 and saw the same janitor with the conspicuous nipple rings sweeping in the college cafeteria. He picked his nose and flicked the boogers around the floor. He had razor bumps between his mouth and nose and flakes of dead skin hung from his lower lip. His phone was playing new age rap that sounded almost American but not quite. Interesting fact: you judge people by the music they listen to but also you judge music by the people you associate it with. I wished the man had headphones in. I had an important lift after the omelet. Quiet is sacred, I thought, and that’s when I started feeling hotness in my chest and eyes. I tend to avoid conflict as Anger has been known to take over. I had problems with wall punching in high school and I saw a therapist about it and the therapist said it was Dad’s fault. I enjoyed our sessions but then Dr. Carlsen died in a car wreck and after that I stopped going to therapy. Sometimes people argue with me and I forget how to carry myself because I’m upset and unable to formulate proper sentences. It’s like the production of each word is some complex equation so I end up pausing for longer than acceptable and insert curses for fear of being interrupted and before you know it I’m yelling fucking this fucking that because basically I’ve forgotten how to communicate otherwise.
“Can you turn that down please?”
“Can you turn that down?” I felt weakness in my neck and shoulders.
“Oh yeah man, yeah, my bad man,” and he turned the music down.
I continued talking. “You work at Taco Shack too, right?”
“Yeah, yeah. Taco Shack and Darlene’s.”
“You like it over there?”
“Yeah man. Good people. Free food. Pay’s alright.” He swept while talking but his form was dubious and there was no sign of a dustpan and no accumulation of Cheerios and dust and crumbs. “I got my business on the side though, so probably be outta there soon.”
“Oh, you have your own business?”
“Yeah man, yeah.” The man pulled on his nose and grabbed for his waistband.
“What does your business—What kind of business?”
“Um.” The man grimaced.
I asked Uriel the nipple-ringed Janitor why did he tell me about his business given that I was a student he knew nothing about and wasn’t that risky, and he said he knew I smoked weed cause of my tomato red eyes at Taco Shack every night and I said oh so you did recognize me and he said yes we have a nickname for you over there and I said what’s the nickname and he said stoned Rocky. I said okay good nickname but still, why. And he said he wanted to break into the college market and what better way to do that than through me. And I said why me and he said cause obviously you’re not a pussy like the rest of them, I see you coming through with them fucked up hands and black eyes and most of these college kids too scared to leave campus anyway cause they think it’s all methheads out here. He gestured toward the city. I said true, true, staring into space like someone who knows things, and we traded phone numbers.
The way it worked was I introduced Uriel to customers and he sold me weed for cheap. That and we lifted weights together. I said as a drug dealer he needs to project toughness and what better way to project toughness than by tacking on mass. He said that shit don’t matter but okay, if I can get him into the college weightroom he’ll lift some but nothing crazy, still gotta be light on his feet to run from five-oh haha. I said stronger quads and glutes will optimize your capacity for sprints and he said why you talk like that and I said my bad. I taught him how to squat bench deadlift and I wrote him a plan on Excel, heavy on the legs because you have to build a solid base, and he came in four mornings a week and never missed a day. He even changed his work schedule to optimize growth.
We smoked out of my one-hitter by the science center before and after our lifts. I had Sociology 100 on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:00 and I showed up to every class pumped and stoned. One time I came in late and locked eyes with the fat blonde wolfing down her ritual McDonalds with the supersize soft drink and I broke down laughing and the professor said please leave. Another time I came in late and shoved a bunch of chairs out of the way to reach my desk but then realized that someone had taken my seat, so I turned around and shoved the chairs again, wishing the chairs would please shut the fuck up, and that’s when I heard someone whisper behind me, as if full of wisdom and insight, “He’s so high!” After that the professor had a chat with me in the hall saying you have a D+ average. I said since when is D+ a grade and he said I’m happy to round it down for you and I said I’m sorry I’m having problems with mental health and he apologized and gave me a B- for the midterm.
My other classes were also going badly because I had no interest in academics. As mentioned, I put most of my time and energy into muscle upkeep and development. I had trouble focusing on lectures with my bulging forearms on the desk in front of me. I brought a stress ball to class and watched the triangles of muscle inflate and deflate. When the bad grades started coming in I told each professor I was having problems with mental health. The calc and stats professors asked for a note from the doctor but the religious studies professor Dawn told me depression is no joke and come over to her house tomorrow evening and I said okay. Dawn smelled like candles and she wore tapestries as dresses and usually sandals. In class she talked about sex positivity and discouraged the use of cosmetics and most shampoos. Dawn had a missing thumb from when her neighbor’s pit bull bit it off and she had this unusual habit of inhaling/whispering her one-syllable words, especially the word “yeah.” I went over to her house and she fed me asparagus and gave me sex on the ottoman. She asked could she call me Smoky and I said okay. Sexually I have a small member so intercourse is no picnic but Dawn was tolerant even though she sighed and averted her eyes post-explosion. Dawn gave me a flat C for the midterm.
On my way back from Dawn’s that night I looked at my reflection in whatever glass panes provided it. I felt less upset about my calves than usual because I had just gotten sex for the first time in seven months. The air was dry and the ridges in the sidewalk massaged the arcs of my feet. I smelled pesto sauce like Mom used to make it but then I realized the smell was pot. I had a gram waiting for me at the dorm. I would smoke it do push-ups analyze reflection and walk into the lounge shoulders breathing and maybe participate in Cards Against Humanity, depending on my reception. Although probably I would have to wear sweatpants because my calves were looking small. Either that or fire off a set of donkey calf raises in the stairwell.
As far as the weed one gram would be enough but more would be better so I called Uriel and asked could he swing by. He said he got hung up at work and why you be smoking so much I just sold you a quarter last weekend. I said my bad hombre and he said please don’t call me that and I said just playin,’ and he said why you all happy and I said I just got my nut and he said oh okay well don’t be annoying about it you’d think you never been laid and I said word? and he said aren’t you from Westchester and hung up.
He came by the dorm and we smoked and watched music videos. I fired off a set of diamond-grip push-ups and he said why you doing push-ups at 9pm and I said because discipline, plus I missed my kickboxing workout for the workout with Dawn. He said speaking of discipline what’s your GPA and I said did you or did you not graduate high school and he shook his head and looked at the ground and I said just playin’. People came by to pick up and I stared into space as money was traded for drugs.
Uriel sold better weed and cheaper weed than anyone on campus, except for this one kid Johnny, the drummer in Arthur’s band “Young Dads.” Johnny had a connect in Colorado who sent him vacuum-sealed kilos through the college mailroom. Johnny had long hair and he wore a hoop earring but only on weekend nights. Johnny came from Greenwich Connecticut and his face looked like something that might have been handsome in an alternate dimension but in this one it was pointy and hollow in all the wrong places. Johnny came by my room sometime around midnight. He introduced himself to Uriel and they talked about selling drugs. Johnny said he moved a lot of drugs and Uriel said he moved a lot of drugs and Johnny said I don’t think you move as much as I do and Uriel said okay well let me see what you have and Johnny said okay. We took the underground tunnel to Johnny’s dorm. The tunnel smelled like dryer sheets. We passed the Stench, a student who never showered and wore capes and talked to himself. When we passed him he mumbled something about blueberry pancakes.
Johnny had the poster of Johnny Cash giving the middle finger. The room smelled like hot Cheetos and dirty dishes. There were bottle caps wedged into the ceiling and empty Four Lokos on the floor and a total of three lava lamps, one on the blue-grey carpet in the center of the room. A plastic owl sat on the windowsill facing out. Something new-agey and instrumental played from the dumbbell-shaped wireless speaker. A black banana was becoming one with the desktop and there was clothing everywhere, one heap in the corner, presumably the clean pile. Johnny pulled a safe the size of a cooler out from under his bed and tweaked it open and said okay. He clicked his tongue and dumped the contents on the floor and grabbed for the stubborn bags of weed and tossed them in front of us, as if to say “there.” The countless wads of twenties skipped around and rested. Uriel swayed his head and rubbed the scruff on his cheek. He said okay that’s a lot where you get your shit from and Johnny said Colorado wanna smoke and Uriel said sure and looked at the door. When we left, about ten paces down the hall, Uriel said we’re robbing that faggot.
I toyed with the idea of saying no but then it was the day of the robbery and what kind of friend would I be if I backed out last minute. I met Uriel in the Family Dollar parking lot about two blocks from campus. The car was a light blue Honda Odyssey, a sturdy minivan with good gas mileage. I knew this because Mom had looked into buying one, a wholesome family car she had said, but then she closed on the Range Rover. The bumper sticker on the Honda Odyssey read “Jesus Wants You.” Uriel was in the passenger seat. The driver Craig was eager to share that he had been to prison twice, once for selling drugs and the other for knifing his supervisor at Quick Chek. I guess he thought of his time behind bars as a sort of accolade, which, okay, given the scenario he wasn’t totally wrong. Craig had stick and poke tattoos on his neck and part of his face. He touched his tongue to his nose before and after talking. The Teletubbies car seat rose and fell in the corner of my eye, up and down like a working muscle. A bird crashed into the windshield and Craig said yo that’s good luck and started the car.
Uriel turned to face me and said okay so you let us in your building, right, we take the tunnel and the system thinks you’re going home like any other day. Then we put on these (he handed me a beige stocking with black pineapples on it), and—if it’s open we walk in. If not we knock and move over to the side so he can’t see us through the thing. If anyone sees us with the, uh, with the socks, we bail and try again next week. Don’t say my name, don’t say shit to me. Matter a fact don’t say shit at all you let me talk I let you hit. Put those stupid muscles to use. (He slapped my shoulder, hard.) What’s your shoes?
I pulled my foot up and bumped the car seat. The car seat jingled. Uriel turned to Craig and sighed “White people.” Craig contorted his lips agreeingly even though he was whiter than me.
“You’re wearing purple Jordans.”
“Yeah. Okay. Got it.”
“Leave them in here. Take off your socks, don’t want you slipping and sliding around the carpet when you’re—(he laughed and then paused) when you’re making Jack o’ Lantern out of—(he waved the thought away). Yo—(we slapped hands). Yo, we’re about to be rich.” He reached for the door handle and retracted his hand. “Yo,” he said.
“Hit that motherfucker as soon as we walk in. Hit him in the mouth.”
I slipped off my shoes and socks and opened the door. The gravel nipped at my feet. I smelled the cafeteria food and the kerosene from the dry cleaner down the block. I saw the yellow fire hydrant by the writing center and the black tag on the side of my building that read “Gunk.” I heard the thumping bass from the frat alley behind the library, the crows yacking on the power line, the retch of a motorcycle somewhere deep in the city.
I buzzed us in. Uriel led the way down the tunnel. I noticed he only swung his left arm. The right arm seemed immune to momentum, as if the shoulder and socket had been soldered together. I would have to ask him about his rotator cuff, his posterior mobility. He wore a backpack, dark green with little pockets all over and a spiderweb sewn into the left strap. We caught a glimpse of four students in the laundry room. Three were huddled in a triangle and the fourth sat on the rumbling dryer, his nose in a hardcover. I kept seeing things—fliers, moths, hidden lightbulbs, a striped apron draped over the railing, a straggling pink jellybean at the bottom of the stairs.
Uriel turned to me and said, at full volume, “Okay put it on now.” He pulled his stocking over his head and I did mine. His was a brownish yellow. We raced up, two stairs at a time. I engaged my glutes and paid close attention to my form, careful not to buckle my knees. Johnny’s room was right off the stairwell and Uriel walked in. I followed him and he closed the door the way you close the door to the waiting room at therapy. I saw two bodies sitting Indian-style and a hookah. We stood by the door and looked at them and they looked back at us. They crept to their feet and inched away from the center of the room, and us, and each other. The hookah smelled like the watermelon-flavored toothpaste Dr. Weinburger gave me as a kid. One of the bodies, Johnny, said what do you want. Uriel said Shut the fuck up Shut the fuck up and reached into his pocket and I lunged at Johnny with a right hand, pivoting my left foot, driving the momentum up my leg and through my hip per sensei Chandler’s guidance. Nobody screamed. I grabbed Johnny by the collar and dragged him to the center of the room, knocking over the hookah, then planted my bare heel on the loose coal. I yelped. Black water spilled and soaked into a heap of clothing and the bright orange coal looked up at me like some sort of prophet. I said fuck and soccer-kicked Johnny in the ribs and heard a crunch. Johnny muffled a heave, and the body twitched confusedly. I looked over and saw Uriel pointing a Glock at the second body, Arthur, Arthur the sponge-brain whimpering please and making faces. I smelled urine and I kicked Johnny again, for the same reason you sip your drink twice as fast when you have no one to talk to at the bar.
The bag was full, packed with money and pot. We even made use of the little pockets. Secret pockets my mom used to call them. Great for skiing. Easy access on the chairlift. We took off the stockings in the tunnel. I stuffed mine in my underwear. Uriel said Craig’s out there and I said word. The same four were in the laundry room, unmoved, except the one had put his giant book on the floor, face-down as if in timeout. My heel was throbbing and I wondered if the burn would hinder my squat. I walked on the balls of my feet, engaging my calves. They say you can accelerate growth by up to 20% just by visualizing it.
The funny thing about the getaway drive is that I didn’t have anywhere to get away to. But I got in the car anyway and Craig drove, stopping at stop signs and clicking his turn signals. Uriel was digging through the bag and saying holy shit. Under his breath he said holy shit there’s damn near thirty grand in here. We drove to the Walmart and parked, and Uriel went around back and tapped on the trunk. Craig popped it open and Uriel dug out a shirt and shorts and pushed them through the window. The clothing fell into the crevasse between my seat and the door. The clothing belonged to Craig, I guess, but he didn’t object when I changed into it. I said you can keep my shit I guess and he said nothing.
Back in the passenger seat Uriel turned to me and said you have to walk and I said well okay, can you drop me a couple blocks down it’s like forty minutes from here and he said too risky. I said okay can I get my share. He picked a few wads and baggies out of the backpack and dropped them into a grocery bag under the glove compartment. The grocery bag made loud crumpling sounds. Craig looked out the window. Uriel handed me the bag over his shoulder. Walgreens. He didn’t turn his head and I stared into the bag. I opened my mouth but Uriel talked.
I got out and walked home and never saw Uriel again.
There were cop cars on campus, a cluster of them blocking the intersection between Ridgewood and College Street. The grocery bag was white and the contents were green so I walked in the shade and kept my head down. The bag weighed no more than a pound. I looked like a college student coming home with his pizza pockets and Zoloft.
Johnny was hospitalized, arrested, and expelled, in what order I’m not sure. Arthur wrote a song about the robbery. He called it “Johnny’s Song” and he played it at the campus bar. People cheered violently and you can be sure that Arthur had his pick of the litter that night. Me, I sat in the back of the bar drinking seltzer. I had an important lift in the morning. People looked at me and they would keep looking at me and they could look all they wanted. Scar or no scar, I never left my room without a pair of crew socks on, hugging the base of my stubborn calves.
Ben Austin is a writer from San Marcos, Texas. His work has appeared in Lotus-eater, The Metaworker, and elsewhere. He’s an MFA candidate in fiction at Texas State University. He lives with his cat, Mr. Behavior.
Cover photo by Liam Wheelden from Pexels