High on Haight (part one)

Specialist Richard Henry, of the Fort Knox Military Police Traffic Detail, walks up Haight Street smoking a joint. He is coming from Alamo Square where he likes to sit in a tree and watch the fog move through the Financial District. Just beyond Masonic Avenue is Golden Gate Park and he is going there to buy weed from the kids on Hippie Hill. Henry is six months AWOL, has been living off the last of his Army pay—the bureaucracy, slow but always steady, had cut him off only two months ago—and some mutual funds he bought while in Kosovo. He has spent everything on weed and beer and burritos, is down to his last four-hundred dollars and needs to figure out what to do next. Look for a job or stickup a corner store or go back home to the Army.

“What’s up, Henry? Let me get a hit of that.”

Vargas and Hector and Sun Going Down sit on the sidewalk in front of the All You Knead cafe, their ruck sacks piled beneath a leaning parking meter. Their clothes are layered leather and denim and dirt, their hair greasy and dreadlocked. Hector holds a cardboard sign asking tourists for dollars, Sun Going Down strums a guitar and hums quietly, Vargas is holding out his hand for the joint. Sallie, their white and brown pit bull, rests her massive head between her paws, her black eyes switching left and right. She sniffs the air, sighs, closes them.

“Here you go, man,” Henry says, handing the joint over. “Good day today?”

“Every day’s a good day,” Hector says, taking the joint from Vargas. “But it’s been better than yesterday. Ten bucks so far. I love these German cats. They’ve got more money than they know what to do with.” He inhales deeply and looks at the sky, then blows the smoke into Sallie’s face. It’s a dull yellow, dirty from his dirty lungs, and she whines and covers her nose with her feet. Hector holds the joint out for Sun Going Down but she doesn’t notice so he hands it back to Henry. “What do they do in Germany anyway?”

“Drink beer and drive BMWs,” Henry says, smoking the last of the joint. He pinches the roach out with his fingers and puts it in his cargo pocket with the rest. “They drink a lot of beer. In big tents out of big glasses. They wear funny hats and sing drinking songs loudly.”

“Really?” Vargas says. “How do you know? You’ve been to Germany?”

“Yeah,” Henry says. “Once.”

“What you up to today, Henry?” Hector asks.

“Going to the park,” Henry says. “Need more weed.”

“Shit,” Vargas says. “You always need more weed.”

“Because I’m always smoking you fuckers up.”

“And we appreciate it,” Hector says.

Henry laughs. “Where you guys going to be later?”

“McDonald’s,” Hector says. “Soon as we get to fifteen bucks which shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours.”

“Cool,” Henry says. “I’ll catch up with you there.” He joins the current of people flowing to the park, like a river towards the ocean.


Henry was stretched out on Nikki’s couch. She was on the chair next to him packing a pipe. They were watching bad TV and smoking bowl after bowl of bad weed. Henry started smoking a couple of months ago when he was supposed to be done with the Army. He was still in the Army because the country thought it would be a good idea to invade Iraq and take care of that Saddam fellow who was always irritating them on CNN and Fox News. But they didn’t want to draft soldiers from the colleges because they remembered what happened the last time they did that. So they kept people like Henry around. And why not? They were already here and very much less likely to throw Molotov cocktails into administration buildings.

Henry’s cell phone rang. He ignored it, took a deep hit, coughed, passed the smoldering pipe back to Nikki. The phone pinged a new message. Sergeant Martin from third platoon. It sounded like he was trying hard not to cry.

Matson. She was dead. Killed by a sniper somewhere in Iraq. Funeral next week in Alabama.

“She always liked you, Henry. Always talked about you and her back in Germany and Kosovo. And it pissed me off sometimes, but it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m leaving for Alabama on Saturday and you should come with me. Call me back. Please.”

“What?” Nikki said. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Henry loved Matson. And he loved Nikki.

“Let’s go to California,” he said.

“What?” Nikki said. “Now?”

“Sure,” Henry said. “Or maybe tomorrow. Let’s go tomorrow. I’d like to pack a few things.”

Nikki was quiet for a minute. She finished the bowl and tapped the black ash into a wooden ashtray on the floor. Her narrow face was serious, her forehead wrinkled in concentration. Henry didn’t know what she did for money, she didn’t seem to work and she was always up for spontaneous road trips. Just a month ago she and her friend Katie had disappeared to Canada for two weeks.

“Don’t you have to work tomorrow?” She packed the bowl again, brown green leaves crumbling from her skinny fingers.

“I’ll take some leave,” Henry said.

Nikki smiled. “I love California.”

But Nikki liked girls.

And Matson loved Martin and now she was dead.

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