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The Barcelona Review

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Ice Man is banging around out in the living room again. He doesn’t know it, but he’s reminding me why I’m leaving him high and dry. In the kitchen, I’ve already wiped the counters clean, scrubbed the scum from the steel sink, pulled all the rotten food from the fridge. He’s murmuring something I can’t make sense of. I snatch a half-empty beer can from the counter, flip it upside down. Suds splash down the drain. A loud bang sounds off in the living room. With all the racket Ice Man makes, I’d just as soon crawl into the garbage disposal and let it chew me up. Patience, I keep coaching myself. I’ll be out of here come the end of next week.
       I look beyond the breakfast bar, to where Ice Man is digging around between the couch cushions, ravaging the room on a hunt for the remote control. In all the chaos, between his jagged movements, he bumps his head against the wall and shouts. His real name’s David, but he earned his nickname for how much crystal he can smoke. How many times has he taken the place apart piece by piece? Your guess is as good as mine.
       I take a couple deep breaths, thinking of the deposit I dropped for a little studio on the outskirts of North Hollywood. Depending on traffic, it’s around forty minutes from where we now live in Van Nuys, a part of town expensive enough to bleed you dry but too far from the city to be worth living in. When I first stopped by to check the new apartment out, the toilet leaked and the lights flickered. But Ice Man already keeps me up all night, tearing up whatever he can get his hands on. With what I’ve already paid, all I need now is a couple hundred more bucks to lock down the first and last month’s rent—sixteen hundred, all told.
       I yank the garbage from the can and the bag bursts. Coffee grounds, beer cans, crusty old paper plates, it all shoots across the linoleum. “Can I get a hand in here?” I say. Ice Man may as well be two counties over.   
       He’s a couple years older than me, twenty-four or twenty-five. “Where the fuck is it?” he shouts, tearing the cloth off the table and firing it at the wall. He turns to me and makes a face like he’s surprised I’m here, a look I’ve gotten used to over the last two years. “Oh, it’s you, Tex,” he says. “You’re here.”
       I look at the television screen, little blue creatures tending to their mushroom houses and working in their personal gardens. “The Smurfs, huh,” I say, walking over to the couch and putting the cushions back in place. “Haven’t seen this in years.”
       “The Smurfs?” he says. He clenches his teeth. He falls back on the couch, but immediately flies up to his feet again like he sat on a tack. He scoffs, swaying side to side. He says the cartoon is all communist propaganda. Papa Smurf is Josef Stalin, Smurfette some lady whose Russian name he stumbles over a few times before giving up. I have no clue what happened to Ice Man during his time in the military, but he picked up a lot of ideas over there, wherever he was. He sees secret messages in everything. Real sinister stuff. Just when I think I’ve heard it all, he spouts off some new story. He’s halfway through a tirade about The Smurfs before I realize he’s already unpacked this one for me.
       Back in the kitchen I survey the mess on the floor. A spider inches over a tiny dune of coffee grounds. Ice Man’s still speaking, but I can’t follow a word of it. “I gotta turn this shit off,” he shouts.
       Neither of us has slept in days. Red lines crack all around his pinpoint pupils. His skin is sallow and pockmarked, and the blue veins beneath it could burst right through. Stains spread under his armpits. Threads of sweat trickle down his forehead, winking in the sunlight. “This commie bullshit, man, you can’t let it in your head.” He smacks his palm to his skull a couple times. 
       “Whoa, whoa, bud. Take it easy. The remote will turn up. Till then, just ignore the TV. Or get up and hit the switch on the box,” I tell him, but he’s already stomping off to the other room, kicking the wall all the way down the hall.

***Two years ago I packed up everything I owned, backed my old pickup out of my mom’s driveway, and pushed out to Los Angeles. Fresh from high school, I showed up with small dreams. I knew better than to try and get famous. A lot of people head west with big hopes about stardom and wind up doing dick flicks. A good job and admission to a photography school would be enough for me, maybe a gig doing photo shoots for rich people one day. But I’d ended up renting a room from Ice Man in the Valley, sloshing around with him in all that the city spits upstream. 
       Ice Man was clean when I met him. Over time he slipped up on his sobriety and our lives started to bend sideways. He couldn’t lock down a job and eventually stopped sending out applications. Some months, the disability check the state sends him—it has to do with whatever’s wrong with his head—shows up short, others it doesn’t come at all.  
       When he’s on a good one, he can go days without so much as blinking. He stays up all night, loading and reloading his pipe and tinkering with appliances: the dishwasher and the disposal, the toaster and television. I sometimes lie in bed listening while he rearranges the photos and posters on the wall, takes a hammer to the hot plate. He fires up his pipe again and again, and the sharp smell—too chemical to be sweet—is enough to wake me on its own, washing right through the walls. On bad nights I swear I can hear his teeth grinding from all the way back in my bedroom.
       I make eight fifty an hour at GNC, a quarter more than minimum wage, pushing protein and prostate pills off on middle-aged men. Back home in Texas, my mom tells all the neighbors I hit it big out West working in the self-care industry. On the side, I pull in a couple extra hundred bucks a week taking photos of low-rent celebrities and selling them to tabloids and gossip websites. A few months ago, I told my mom I snapped a shot of some big-wig movie star draining his dick in the alley behind a bar. She started spicing up her stories, telling the whole neighborhood I help famous people fix their broken lives.
       I wonder what they’d think if they knew how I really live, but mom doesn’t need to know I came home last week and found Ice Man scraping a layer of skin off his forearm with a strip of sandpaper. Who wants to hear all that? She’s better off not hearing the story of me choking him out to stop him from prying a molar from his mouth with a pair of rusty pliers.
       Ice Man says the army taught him how to survive any disaster. The way he tells it, he could weather a hurricane. He could survive societal collapse, nuclear war, famine. Me, I worry he might go too far and really hurt himself, maybe even die—who knows? It’s not like I don’t know he’s hurting. But he can’t be helped and I can’t keep on footing the bill for him.


Ice Man storms back into the living room, tossing aside the newspapers and magazines I’ve left stacked on the stand in the corner. The couch cushions come next, crashing into the wall and knocking down a Prince – Purple Rain poster. Ice Man’s mom gifted him that poster. It’s got that old photo of Prince posted up on a motorcycle, a cloud of smoke behind him. One night, when Ice Man was tying one on, he told me how much it meant to him. His mom mailed it to him shortly before she got strung out or died—I couldn’t remember which—and that poster was all he had left of her. I pick up the poster and place it on the coffee table. Sunlight shifts through the shades. Shattered glass glitters in the carpet. Ice Man cranks his head to look beneath the couch, doesn’t notice the shards sprayed out all around us. It could break your heart, seeing someone that gone. I almost have to turn away.
       I ask, “Can you ease a bit up out there? You broke your poster, man.”
       He shoots me a look and huffs, then heaves the couch up on one end and searches beneath it. I broom the trash into a pile on the kitchen floor and scoop it all into a new bag, twist the top into a tight knot. “I’m off to work,” I say. “Enjoy the cartoons.”
       I open the door and look back. “Bullshit propaganda,” Ice Man shouts. He’s pointing an accusatory finger at the television screen, but I’m already on my way out.


Sitting on a stool behind the counter, I flick vitamins onto the floor and watch the clock tick away seconds. I’ve already wasted most of my shift switching the pills in the bottles, replacing the lysine tablets with libido boosters. I snatch a pack of energy pills off the display case and chew a few up. My hands rattle for the next hour. How the meth doesn’t melt Ice Man, I can’t say.
       In the year and a half I’ve worked here, we never have gotten much business. The store is located in a dodgy strip mall at the edge of Canoga Park. The crosswalk guards pickpocket you. The dope dealers are all plain-clothed police, and the uniformed cops sell smack. Not many people around here think about multivitamins.
       As soon as I save up the rent money, I’ll hand in my two-week notice, tell the manager how stupid he is for running a health store in a neighborhood where you can’t walk down the street without getting mugged or arrested. On work days, I hide my cash under my sweaty foot in my sock.
        In North Hollywood, I’ll be closer to the action. I’ll make contacts, maybe even go legit. I might be the real deal one day, a sought-out photographer doing shoots for actors and rap stars, the kind of work my mom could really brag about.
       For now, the pills have got me smoking like a busted oven. I nearly burn through a pack of Parliaments. My phone dings. It’s a message from Steven Nuy. He’s an editor at Hollywood Whispers, a website that made its name for photo-shopping pictures of celebrities: nip slips, up-skirts, they turn any innocent accident they can into a national scandal.
       “Look for some Real World washout at The Chaser?” the message reads. He means a bar in West Hollywood. “In half an hour. Two hundred bucks in it.”
       I fire up my last smoke and think about it for a moment. I need to start packing, but I need the cash more. “On it,” I reply. I count the bills in the register and scrawl Stepped Out for Family Emergency on a sheet of paper. The strip mall security guard eyeballs me as I lock up and tape the note to the front door, but it doesn’t matter. “Yeah, yeah,” I shout at him.
       “What?” he says.
       “Call the manager for all I care.”
***I spend an hour hunting around behind bars on a hunch, juking junkies and winos, before I spot my guy. His hair is messy in an intentional way, his shirt pressed. The light from the lamppost blinks off his silver watch. His jacket is slick and loose on his thin bones. His dress shoes have big, shiny buckles.
       He looks different than he did on MTV, but that was five, six years ago. Rumor has it he’s got connections to black business, real rough people, all underground. Ever since his housemates voted him off the show, the tabloids have been running stories about his coke addiction. It shows. His eye sockets are sunken, his face yellow, and a rim of raw, reddened skin wraps around his right nostril. But there’s no mistaking his face.
       He shoves his hand halfway down a bartender’s blouse, crawls the other up underneath her apron. I lean against the wall and make myself small, take a couple photos. The chorus of cars honking nearby and women screaming somewhere far away drowns out the sound of my shutter snapping. I think of the cash I’ll make off this and tremble, I’m so excited. My shadow sprawls out on the pavement beside me, shivers when my body shakes. 
       An old Pabst Blue Ribbon can—that’s what gives me away. I step on the can, hear it crunch. He whips his head in my direction. I dive behind a dumpster, but it’s too late. He’s on me in less than a second, throwing his arms every which way and screaming what the fuck this and what the fuck that.
       He shoves me and I tumble back onto a pile of trash bags. His knee crashes down on my sternum. Some kind of jealousy wells up within me when I catch a whiff of the bartender’s perfume on him. He slaps, spits, says he’ll kill me. But I move quickly. I duck, roll, twist. Each time he snatches for my camera, he comes back empty-handed. I make it to my feet, point at the bartender, and shout, “Oh, my god. Is she alright?”
       I’m halfway down the alley before he realizes I’ve made a run for it. He takes off, huffing behind me, but I hang a couple corners and his footsteps grow distant until they eventually fade away. Behind a dumpster I crouch and try to catch my breath.
       I check the photos—framed nicely, good use of shadows, quality composition. There are at least a dozen photos on my memory cards back at the apartment, waiting to be sold. I do the math in my head. Enough cash to drop a check off at the management company next week. I realize my wallet is gone, it must have fallen out of my pocket. But it’s okay, the wad of cash is still in my sock, like a growth on my foot. 
       I close my eyes and imagine my new life, try to remember what a full night of sleep feels like. Around me, trash spills from the dumpster: dirty diapers and half-eaten vegetables, all rotten. The night hums, humidity thick in the air. The stink soaks my skin. That’s alright. Goodbye, Ice Man. California turns you cruel like that, I think, and a rat skitters over my sneaker.
***Ice Man pops open a Keystone Light. He chokes down a mouthful and goes on at length about how good a roommate I am, speaking so fast I worry his heart will stop. “I’m going to pay you back for all you’ve done. Even these beers,” he says, motioning toward the thirty-pack on the coffee table. He couldn’t pay me back if he wanted, but he gets like this when he drinks, makes promises he can’t keep. He picks a pock on his arm, squeezes out a drop of blood.
       I picked up the thirty-pack on the way home, half wanting to celebrate my escape, half feeling guilty. He cracks open one beer after another, handing me a can each time he grabs a new one for himself.
       Nine, ten beers deep, my head starts hurting. I stand and kick the cramps from my legs, but I sit back down when Ice Man starts unfolding a sheet of tinfoil, readying himself for a long night. He wields the razor blade slowly and with care, and I think back to my mom spending all day in the kitchen the day before I left, dicing onions and peppers and slow-roasting pork flank. “You need a good home meal before you set off. God knows how long it’ll be till your next,” she said, but I didn’t think much of it then.
       “It’s like a ceremony,” I say now, and Ice Man nods, quiet for once.
       “Learned this in the military.”
       “They teach you how to chop up meth in the military?”
       He looks at me, all offended. “They teach you how to take your time and do things right. They teach you the process matters as much as the outcome.”
       He sounds like a cheap motivational speaker, but what he’s saying makes sense. “I understand,” I reply. And in a way, I do. It’s the least confusing comment he’s made in months.
***I jolt awake sitting upright in bed, slick with sweat and snagged in sheets, not sure how I got here. The clock flashes five. My blinds are shut tight. A bird chirps outside my window. I remember the time when a neighbor and I, still in high school, sniffed ourselves stupid with crank, staying up until the birds broke day, tweeting us into a terror. Ice Man is still up out in the living room, banging on something. I roll over and bury my head beneath the pillow, but he doesn’t let up.
       I creep over and press my ear to the bedroom door, hoping to figure out whether whatever he’s breaking will come out of my security deposit. It thuds and cracks, thuds and cracks, until the noise suddenly stops.
       Walking down the hall to the living room, I spot the writing Ice Man’s scrawled in black sharpie on the wall, all in rigid capital letters: Prince – Purple Rain. There’s even a little stick figure with squiggles for curly hair, sitting on a little stick motorcycle with big wheels, and scribbles meant to be smoke, I guess. Then, I notice a guy, a real rough type sitting on the couch. He’s smiling in a way that makes me uneasy.
       “You got a friend over, Ice Man?” I say, but he says nothing. He’s sitting on the carpet hugging his knees, childlike. Sleeving the sleep from my eyes, I notice a blue bulge beneath his right eye, a big gash on his eyebrow.
       “We only just met,” the man says, “but yeah, you could say we are friends, aren’t we?” He nudges Ice Man’s shoulder with the sole of his boot. “Aren’t we?”
       “Friends, yeah,” Ice Man says.
       “How much he owe you?” I ask.
       “So, what’s this?” I say. “A robbery?”
       “You better watch who you call a thief.” I notice the hammer in his right hand.
       “That’s what this is, isn’t it? You came to steal?”
       “You’re the thief, buddy. You stole someone’s privacy, didn’t you?”
       He raises his other hand, holding up my wallet. He sets the hammer in his lap, pats the wallet on his palm a couple times like it’s a pipe he wants to pound me with. “You like to take photos, that right?” he says.
       I ignore the question, instead watching Ice Man sniffle. “You okay, Ice Man?” I say, but he won’t look directly at me. He squeezes his eyes shut like it’s all too much to see.
       The man clears his throat in a way that makes him seem older than he looks, which is about thirty-five. He’s got on a fake-looking leather jacket, and his shirt is only buttoned-up three quarters to the top, revealing a patch of tightly curled chest hair. “We’re going to get rid of these photos, alright,” he says, his voice confident in a way that shows you how rough he can get, if he wants. “And then I’ll give you an ass beating—nothing too serious, just so I can be sure you’ve learned your lesson. And then we’ll never see each other again, you and me.”
       The man moves the hammer from his lap and fishes a memory card from his pocket, pinching it between his thumb and his index finger, and tells me here’s what’s going to happen: He’s going to watch while I delete all the photos I took of a certain famous someone, someone who has plenty of friends I should worry about, not just him, because he’s perhaps the most reasonable of them all, and then he’ll be out of our hair. I will never take photos of the certain famous someone again, he adds, because they’d be the last photos I ever took.
       The man stands up to walk my way. “Let’s get your laptop,” he says, but Ice Man springs to his feet behind him, snatches up the hammer. It all slows down now, moves dragged-out in frames, Ice Man cranking his arm back, whacking the man on his head, driving him toward the entrance. I fling open the door and Ice Man shoves him out with all the force he can summon. The man hits the pavement like a sack of garbage. I slam the dead bolt into place. 
       Stunned, I stand there for a few moments. There’s a splatter of blood on the carpet, soaking in. Even from inside, the man snorts, chokes on his own breath, so loud we can hear everything.
       Ice Man picks up the memory card from the floor. He hands it to me. “You’re supposed to be the smart one here,” he says. “What did you do this for?”
       “Why’d you let him in? What were you thinking?” A wave of anger rises up inside me, washes my heart down into my stomach. I could kill him. I look at the hammer, still there on the floor, and imagine his face flattened, flesh opened.
       “Because he knocked.”
       “He knocked? Because he knocked on the door? That’s why you let him in?”
       He winces for a moment, looking wounded, and then his face turns stern. “That sort of thing can get you in trouble, Tex.”
       “Hundreds of dollars on this memory card,” I say, waving it at him. “Weeks and weeks of work, and I almost lose it all because someone knocked on the door and you’re too dumb to not let him in?”
       I snatch the hammer, white-knuckle it.
       He seems to understand where my thoughts are, and a look of resignation appears on his face. But then he grabs my shoulder, fastens his fingers into the flesh. “Be careful. This kind of thing gets people killed. You can’t die, man. Don’t do that to me.”
       I try to read Ice Man’s face, but there are no messages in it, nothing sinister. Just fear. I have two minds, maybe a hundred. I think hard for a moment, feel something sharp snap in my chest.
       “Okay,” I say. “Break it.”
       “Break what?”
       I toss him the memory card and hand off the hammer. He winds up a little bit and gives me a look meant to ask whether he’s understood me correctly. Then, it clicks for him. He brings the hammer down hard on the memory card, so hard that a floorboard cracks down under the carpet, a loud, splintery crack sound. Crouching, I flick away what’s left of the memory card. The fragments, little, plastic shards, fan out everywhere. Ice Man is in the kitchen, reaching for the broom, when I say forget it. Later, I tell him. Tomorrow or the next day. I’ve got nowhere else to be.
       Ice Man looks like he’s got something to say, but nothing comes out. “Try and get some rest,” is all I manage. When the tears gather in his eyes, I have to look away.

© 2021 Patrick Strickland

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