I came home from work reeking of coffee grounds. I worked at a coffee-roasting company. It had a café up front, where nice-looking young people served nice-looking customers. In the warehouse in back, I ground coffee beans into containers, everything from big plastic drums to shiny pouches that fit in the palm of your hand.
The dust flew everywhere and I stank of it. It soaked into my clothes. It filled my nostrils. But it was good coffee and I drank cup after cup at work, for free.
I came home late and wanted a beer and a shower. No one was home in the three-bedroom upstairs flat. I hadn’t heard from my girlfriend. I went into the kitchen in the back and opened the refrigerator, wondering what I would find inside.
Someone knocked on the back door that led to the back staircase. I jumped. No one ever knocked on the door and it was never locked.
I opened the door. A huge beast of a man stood on the other side — well over six feet tall, huge barrel chest, long curly grey-blonde hair, long curly grey-blonde beard. His cheeks were puffy and pink and he had a red, bulbous drinking nose. Light blue eyes squinted at me through all the hair.
“Yes?” I asked.
“Is Jim here?”
“Yeah, uh, Jim let me in yesterday and let me use the shower.” His voice was deep and rough, exactly what you’d expect from how he looked.
“No, Jim’s not here. I’m his roommate.”
“I don’t want to use the shower, but it’s cold in the basement. I thought I could come in and warm up.” He held up a half-gallon of Smirnoff vodka.
“You staying in the basement?”
“Does John know?”
John Russo was my landlord. Looking at this man, I remembered: A friend of Russo’s was staying in the basement. My roommate had told me yesterday.
The basement was unfurnished and cold, just a furnace and a washer and dryer and a sink and some old drywall and two-by-fours piled up in a corner. Cement floor. Lots of dust.
Jim told me that the guy was a bounty hunter and really weird, but Jim had let him use the shower anyway and then told him to go back downstairs.
“Come in,” I said.
He followed me though the kitchen and into the living room. He sat down on the couch and slouched into it, spreading his feet out. His big yellow boots were muddy.
“You met Jim?”
“He let me use the shower.”
“Cold in the basement?”
“I’d been washing up in the sink down there. The water’s cold. I was cold yesterday. I wanted to use the shower.”
“Jim told me that you’re a bounty hunter.”
The man took a big drink from his vodka bottle. He didn’t offer any. I looked at it for a moment, and then decided that I didn’t want it, especially if the guy wasn’t offering and was drinking straight from the bottle. I went to the kitchen and pulled a cold beer out of the fridge.
The man was still on the couch, staring up at the big Dali print on the wall, the one with clocks melting over trees and misshapen furniture. I turned on the stereo, some jazz on the radio.
“I’ve got a bunch of CDs downstairs,” he offered.
“What kind of music do you like?”
“Yeah, good CDs. Got a whole box of ‘em. I could go get ‘em.”
But he didn’t move, just sank deeper into the couch, drinking the vodka.
“So how do you know John?” I asked.
“I used to work for him, masonry work. Years ago. I’m passing through town, me and the wolf-like creature, doing some work, and John said I could stay in the basement. Cold down there.”
“Yeah, must be cold.”
“I’ve been washing up in the sink, but Jim let me use the shower yesterday.” He looked away from the Dali and squinted at me. I smelled the coffee grounds on my clothes and wanted a shower.
I asked him a few more questions that he didn’t answer, and finally I said, “Well, I’ve got to go to bed.” I stood up.
He took another pull from the vodka and looked at me.
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“Uh, do you mind going back downstairs?” I asked.
He silently stood up and left.
My landlord, John Russo, was a hothead and wild man. He was in his mid-thirties and Italian. He’d grown up in the duplex he now rented to us. The people who had lived below us moved out recently and left the lower level in a bad state.
John Russo was a general contractor and was slowly repairing and restoring everything. He’d come at odd times with one of his workmen and start on something. One day he’d tear up the floor, then he’d paint. Then he’d work on the windows, then he’d do electrical work. He never seemed to finish anything. All the while he’d get angrier and angrier.
The next morning there was a knock on my front door. It was Russo.
“So what the hell is up?” he asked.
“No school today?”
“I don’t care, man!” He punched me in the stomach, not hard. “You should be partying, chasing around all these hot chicks I see running around here.” He was short, with dark skin, dark eyes, brown hair and a mustache. He was always smiling, even when angry, and he was always angry.
“Want to come in?”
“Well, I got to work downstairs.”
“How’s it coming?”
His expression darkened. “They trashed the place!”
“The floors, the floors are ruined. See this…” He stamped his boot on the carpet. “Under this carpet is hardwood, original. But downstairs their dog pissed all over the carpet. It soaked into the wood and ruined it. Ruined!”
“That fucking bitch and her fucking dog.”
“Let me give you a beer.”
“Ha! It’s ten-thirty in the morning.” He walked into the living room and sat on the couch. “I just wanted to apologize for that asshole in the basement.”
I sat in a chair across from him. Our place was pretty messy, full of overflowing ashtrays and empty beer cans, and my roommate’s dog pissed on the carpet too. But John didn’t seem to notice.
“He showed up last week with his huge dog and wanted a place to stay. So I put him in the basement and told him, two days. Now it’s been a week.”
“Well, he doesn’t bother me.”
“You met him?”
“He came up last night to warm up.”
“Damn, I’m sorry.” He looked genuinely sorry. “I’ll kick him out tomorrow. He’s not here now, or I’d do it right away. But don’t worry, I’ll kick his ass out. Him and that dog.”
“You don’t have to.”
“No, I want him out of here.”
“How do you know him?”
“He used to work for me years ago. He had some problems with his old lady then and stayed with me for a bit. I haven’t seen him for forever, years.”
“He worked for you as a bounty hunter?”
John laughed. “No, of course not. He’s a mason. Was. Crazy that he stays down there. The man is a certified lunatic. It’s cold down there, there’s nowhere to sleep, not even a blanket, and of course no hot water or anything.”
“He came up a couple days ago and used our shower.”
“Really? Damn. I’m sorry. I want him the hell out of here.”
“Let me get one of those beers before I go back downstairs.”
My roommate Jim came home later and told me more about the guy. As a bounty hunter, a bail-bondsman, he tracked down people who borrowed money to make bail and then ran away. He worked with the police and with the businesses that lent the criminals the money. It was all a legal grey area. Jim thought it was hilarious.
“He asked me to go on a hunt with him,” he said. “A hunt. That’s what he called it. Did he ask you?”
“Him and the wolf-like creature. That’s what he calls his dog.”
“I heard that too.”
“It’s this great big furry thing. He keeps it in the basement with him, probably keeps it all close to him while he sleeps to keep warm.”
“What did you say?”
“About the hunt.”
Jim laughed. “Are you kidding?”
Later on we heard soft knocking at the back door. We turned down the music, looked at each other and stifled our laughter. There was just one more knock — a reluctant, apologetic knock, then nothing.
A few days passed and I didn’t see the man or the wolf-like creature. Then one night I was back home again, alone after work, smelling like coffee grounds.
The knock came at the back door. I opened it. The man stood there, with a nearly full bottle of Popov vodka (cheaper than Smirnoff) and a small cardboard box. He handed me the box.
“I brought my CDs.”
We entered the living room. I tried to give him the box back, but he just sat on the couch and took a pull from the vodka bottle. “Have a look.”
I opened up the box. All kinds of pop music was in there: Bell Biv DeVoe, Roxette, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Whitney Houston, Tony Bennett, Crash Test Dummies, Soundgarden.
“Those are good CDs,” he said.
“You like all of these?” I asked.
“Me and the wolf-like creature found most of them. On hunts.”
I handed him the box. “Pick one.”
He took out ZZ Top’s Greatest Hits and handed it to me. I put it on the stereo. “So how’s the basement?” I asked.
No answer. I looked at him for a moment and then went to the kitchen and came back.
“I talked to John,” I said.
No response. He was looking at the Dali again. I folded my hands in my lap and listened to ZZ Top. Finally he looked at me and spoke. “Do you want to go on a hunt with me?”
“I’ll pay you a thousand dollars.”
I sat up. “Really?”
“A thousand dollars.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Me and the wolf-like creature go in the house. You just sit in the car with the cell phone. If there’s some problem, call the cops.”
He drank the vodka. “Me and the wolf-like creature kick down the front door and find the guy. It’s tough because it’s hard to tell who’s who from the little police photo. They all look the same. Sometimes I get the wrong guy. Sometimes there are lots of ’em in the house. That’s what I need the wolf-like creature for. And you, in the car with the cell phone.”
“What do you mean, get them?”
“I have shotgun shells full of rock salt. I shoot ’em and drag ’em out.”
“Sometimes I get the wrong one. But they’re all criminals anyway. A thousand bucks.” He took a big slug from the vodka bottle.
“So I call if there’s a problem, but if there’s a problem, what happens to me?”
He shrugged. “You have the cell phone. You call the cops.”
We sat in silence. I saw it all: me in the backseat of his big brown Cadillac, in the ghetto, clutching a cell phone, waiting for the shotgun blast. Then what? He drags out some poor bastard, stunned and bleeding, while the neighbors scream and call for help? Where does he put him, in the trunk? Or in the backseat with me?
“What do the neighbors say?” I inquired.
“About you shooting one of their neighbors and dragging him out of his house!”
“We do it late at night.”
“So this is your job?”
“Listen, man, don’t you want to answer my questions?”
He nodded at the box of CDs next to him. “You can have all of those CDs.”
“You stole them, right?”
“They’re good CDs.”
“I don’t want them. How did you become a bail bondsman?”
He drank from the bottle, ignoring me again. I wondered how I’d get him out of there. Damn, I thought, if this guy gets any weirder…
But then he spoke. “I turned eighteen in jail. The same day they flew me to Vietnam. I was there for ten years.”
“Something like that.”
“Ten years? So you were still in Vietnam in the eighties?”
“Doing what? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“When I got home they hired me on as a bounty hunter. It’s been a while now. I took a break for a bit after I met John. Then I got the wolf-like creature and got back into it.”
He stood up, taking the box of CDs and the bottle. “I’m doing a hunt tomorrow night, so come down and see me if you want to come. You or your roommate.” He left.
Next day I heard John Russo yelling downstairs as he banged away on the house. Every time he stepped into the flat below, he just lost his mind. I waited until I heard him on the porch and then I went downstairs.
“Never get married,” he told me.
“How’s it going in there?”
He just shook his head. I handed him a beer. He opened it, took a long drink, and said, “So that asshole is gone now.”
“The bounty hunter?”
John nodded. “I came by this morning to kick his ass out, but he’d already left. Freaking lunatic.”
“Yeah, he was different. He asked me to go on a hunt with him.”
John laughed. “A hunt? Like over in the ghetto? Man, I’m so sorry. I should never have let him stay down there.”
“Did he leave a note or anything? Or call to say goodbye?”
“What, like a thank you note? Ha! Yeah right. But he did call last night, saying he was going to Texas. He didn’t say when. He said he’d be back, though. Not in my basement, I told him. I told him to go fuck himself.”
“So he’s gone,” I said.
“About fucking time.”
John sipped his beer and we talked about other things: women, construction, fixing the house. Later, when John went back into the lower flat to yell and do some more work, I went upstairs and turned on the TV.
The news was on. There had been a huge jailbreak in Texas. About thirty prisoners had escaped into small towns in the desert.
I turned off the TV and thought of all the great and necessary ways I could use a thousand dollars. Then I put on my cleanest dirty clothes, ready for work. The coffee grinders were waiting for me.