He aint lyin, Detective. Manny intervened. I was just getting ready to send his broke ass down to Bobby.
Relax, relax, Doc. Just thought Id ask while I had you, so to speak. Ill see you Sunday, but damn, Manny! Thats cold! I reckoned Docs credit was better than that around here! He patted Doc on the butt and turned and ambled back toward the street. All right, then. Halfway there, he turned around.
Was that the Reyes kid? The one that took off with the pack?
Manny shrugged. Maybe.
Well, Id count it twice when it comes back. He was showin tracks the last time I rousted him.
Yeah, right, Manny muttered, but he made a mental note to check the kids arms when he got back. He and the others replaced their effects in their pockets, and as soon as Hugo was out of sight Manny stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled loud enough that there could be no doubt that the runner would hear him.
Pinche Hugo! ¡Cabrón! Manny grumbled. He leaves me alone cause I pay him but then he sits across the street in an unmarked car and picks off half my customers when they leave the spot. That shits bad for business! He spat on the ground and threw in an extra ¡cabrón! for good measure.
Yeah, Doc agreed. The fat son of a bitch takes a fair bite out of my ass every week as well, not to mention the odd course of penicillin on the cuff. Then again, I guess he needs to make it look good... Hey, speakin of on the cuff, Manny, I know I owe you but...
At that moment the kid rounded the corner, huffing and puffing, and handed off the pack. Manny didnt even look inside before grabbing the kid by the wrist and peeling his shirtsleeve back, up above his elbow, to reveal that Hugo hadnt been lying. ¡Maricón! he snarled as he backhanded the kid across the face with such ferocity that blood spurted instantly from both his nose and his mouth, and he tumbled backward in an awkward somersault. He skidded on the seat of his pants but he hadnt even come to a full stop before he was up and gone.
Dont come back, Ramón! Manny shouted after him. And Im gonna tell your mama! He turned back to Doc, shaking his head. I told you, Doc. I cant carry every junkie on the south side that comes up short...
Oh, ferchrissake, Manny. Tell me, have I ever let you down? When did I ever fail to pay a debt, to you or anybody you know! I cant work in this condition. Besides, amigo, I wasnt worryin about money when I was diggin that twenty-two slug out of your ass last year, now was I?
Oh, so thats how it is, huh, Doc? All right, then. See how you do...
The bickering continued until the ritual was completed with an unintelligible grunt and a secret handshake, Manny pressing the little red balloon into the palm of Docs hand. Manny had known he was good for it all along. All the hemming and hawing was just for show, an oft-repeated performance for the benefit of any deadbeats standing within earshot. A businessman had his reputation to consider, after all.
The hardest part of the whole ordeal was the long haul back up the block, retracing the same steps on even heavier, shakier legs. He never carried his wake-up shot back to the boarding house in his pocket or his hatband anymore. Instead, he cupped the dope in the hollow of a clenched fist as if it were some magical winged creature that would vanish into thin air if allowed to escape. He could feel the balloon against his sweaty palm and sometimes he swore that he could taste the dope inside. By the time he got back to his room and cooked it up he had to fight back a wave of nausea, a Pavlovian response to the smell of sulfur and heated morphine. Tie the tourniquet, find the vein, pull the trigger...
Burnt sugar on the back of the tongue, tingling scalp, aches and pains evaporate, leaving only a whisper behind:
Excerpted from I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle. Copyright © 2011 by Steve Earle. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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