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             Usually when the world gets fuzzy, or when I get tunnelvision, I’m drunk. Or like right now, a little drunkenness and a lot of fight. What can I say? I’m driven by my passions. I can barely see the cowboy standing over me; can hardly hear his cursing. The hard parking lot feels like a cool mattress. For a moment I consider sleep. Here comes the words that I think I’m hearing.


       “Had enough, boy? Maybe you should cut off that fuckin’ mohawk.”

       “Had enough of what?”


        I don’t like being called a boy. I’m over thirty. So I have a mohawk. Big deal. I throw some dirt and glass and lunge his way even though I can barely see. I feel the boot again—its hard point hammers right into my side. I feel my ribs crack and let out a gasp. A knee comes hard across my head. I’m so fucking tired I can’t even protect myself. I hit the ground hard wondering why I keep coming back to a Honky Tonk when I clearly associate with punks. It’s the goddam music and atmosphere. This bar is a dying breed and I seem to appreciate all the shit-kickin’ nuances of the last residue of the Bakersfield Sound.


       I feel the cowboy sit on the ground next to me. Feels like an anvil is on my head; makes it hard as hell to raise my neck and see what he’s up to. He wipes something from his mouth. Good. I drew blood. And his hat’s knocked off. That’s success for a washed-up journalist who a year ago couldn’t fight worth shit. I push myself to a sitting position. He reaches for his hat, sets it on his lap. 


       This same fucker’s already beat me up twice this year just for coming to listen to Baker Brown, one of the last old country crooners of the Seventies. Instead I get tossed on my fucking head.


        As the crowd leaves he finally dusts off his hat and puts it on. Then he holds out his hand for me to shake. I’m a stupid fuck but I grab it. His fingers are as course as an oilfield worker’s. “Hardee Nichols,” he says.


        I’m still breathing like I just pushed a car out my ass.

        “Mike,” I say.

        “You did better this time around,” he says. “Tell me, Mike.” He says my name slow. “Why the hell can’t you stay away?”

        “Baker Brown’s a legend.”

        “He’s just a damn old truck driver.”

        “I’m just an oilfield worker,” I say.


         I always thought being an oilfield worker was like being in a shitty B movie. There’s all the drama, and most if it’s bad and not well acted out. My face can’t hide the oilfield dirt where every rig is a dinosaur and not just the residue left behind by thousands of them. My nostrils swell with each breath of grime. Hands sweat with each pull, each lift of pipe. The hard hat the oil company gave me can’t hide the yellow eyes, my dazed oilfield stare. People said we’re like soldiers having been on the front lines too long. Sort of hopeless just trying to survive the spell, the acrid desert heat. That’s how any of us feel, how all of us stare. We work two weeks straight, get a day or two off. By the second shift our eyes get a sparkle of hope drowned in beer by midday, hopeless again that we will have to haul back out to Kelso by four a.m.


        Every now and then there’s a washed up A player. He’s the star of the B flick oilhead drama. He glistens with oilfield sweat as he stops giant mutated ants from attacking some innocent town where all the faces are dirty from sandstorms. He’s a real star caught in a low budget whirlwind. All those B stars want to be on the A list, so they have the attitudes to match their unknown faces; thus all the drama as they claw over each other for position next to the A-bomb who would blow up in their faces for a latte. It’s all meaningless. Fuck being fifty feet in the air. I’d rather slave in the mudhouse.


        I drive around town like I’m the wannabe star. My hand hangs out the window. I flick the mirror while I stare at a reflection of the road, the white-line border, potholes like black eyes. Give me some make-up and I’ll make everything look good. This is my movie after all.


       Today I want to take up smoking.

       I want to tear a hard box of Marlboros open with my teeth; right after tapping it like any bona fide Hollywood B actor would. OK, let’s step it up. Let’s go for the A train. You know the sight. I want to look James Dean wonder boy tough with a hard cig. I want the camera close-up on my eyes. I’ll see through my own smoky breath. I’ll tell it like it is. “Kill the whole fucking lot,” I’ll say. That’s when the carnage begins—cameras roll—pan the slight afterglow of my cigarette to a window where the sun hangs in twilight orange. Bodies lay like exploded stars tangled with the bellies of upturned spiders. Birds dart in front of the fireball. Oil wells across the horizon burst and melt. Then grows a mushroom cloud. Not even the burst can hurt me. Next scene. You see him don’t you? His guitar a righteous machine gun defending poverty-stricken humanity; the cigarette hanging from his lips like he’s DeNiro making a dirty fucking deal. And not a bad deal in the end, but one that has some greater good wrapped all gilded around the thorny edges. Save Africa. Save L.A., and well hell, save Bakersfield, California.


        I’m having smoker anxiety and I’ve never even inhaled.

        I park my truck and walk into USA Cigarettes on Chester Avenue, completely delighted about buying a pack. All the guys on the crew are gonna love me.


        Dammit if Jimmy Peace isn't here. The fucker’s gonna talk me blind. It’s the middle of July. Peace wears a beany to cover his big bald noggin’ on a 105-degree night. He blabs to the owner as if they’re long lost brothers.


       “Get me the fuckin’ Pall Malls, Mahmoud. I gotta have my smokes,” he says.

       “If it isn’t the pied piper. Where are your children?” Mahmoud looks like he’s been smoking since before Yemen became a country.

       “I’m working on a serious tumor and I’m way fucking behind. I locked the kids in the basement. Pall Malls, Mahmoud. Pall fucking Malls.”


        Jimmy has naturally nervous hands. He digs a cig out of a pack like every moment is a tense movie battle scene waiting to explode. Only he’s in no war movie but his own. He’s an ex-punk rocker turned house painter. It’s all a cover-up for his anxiety that he can’t find his place in life now. The way I figure it, he doesn’t play bass and urinate on the stage anymore. And that pisses him off. He misses those San Francisco days where he worked the drug scene and the rock scene. His own personal meth lab built and paid for with drug money. Forget the rock money. That scene was all about shows, surviving, and not pissing yourself when you’re higher than astronauts and losing control of your bladder at the beginning of a set. Funny, Peace claimed his biggest achievement wasn’t the meth or the punk, but stealing Courtney Love’s diary. “It was all in there,” he told me one night over a few five-dollar beers. “I know who killed who, and who she was sleeping with the night Cobain pulled the fucking trigger.”


        I don’t know if any of his accusations are true. The way he tells the stories, sounds like his life was one big meth lab. Everyone’s a liar in his world trying to score to help calm the constant jitters. Too many nuclear cocktails back in the day. Too many explosives in the bloodstream.


        “Those corrupt motherfucker San Francisco police are the worst,” he said to me while we drank that night. “They wanted money from every drug dealer in town. But my gig, that was secret. Nothing off the top. I just sold that shit and made a filthy amount of cash. And I’d sell to anyone too. Until they tried to bust me. They were trying to figure out where my meth lab was—right under their hairy noses of course. I hid that shit underground and dumped it when the time was right. Snuck it out the back door as they came in the front, right into a detective’s cruiser who I paid ungodly amounts of cash to. He actually sold my lab to someone else in exchange for a permanent cut of every deal. That’s how it works in Frisco. That’s the streets. Forget that shit when Dolores Huerta got her ass kicked. She didn’t change anything except what happens to protestors.


       “They had me followed for years. You don’t know when you’re being followed by the Frisco vice. Those bastards are sneaky. Lucky for me I was clean after that. Every time they stopped me I just had my “eat shit” grin and said “yessir”. My meth lab was long gone.”


        Peace downed his beers and went on his way. I don’t know where he lives. Never wanted to ask. Never wanted to get that close even though we hang out and drink and tell stories like there’s nothing but truth in the world. He says he changed his life. Had to get back to taking care of the baby.


       “Why the fuck you wanna smoke?” I heard him tell a punk kid last week, the same week he fell off his ladder while painting his house. He landed on his hip, didn’t even break the skin but claimed he had a bruise that kept him in bed. He did hit a punk show that night in downtown Bakersfield. He limped in. “Look, in real life, that’s where you whine and bitch and moan about aches and pains. But not punk rock. Punk rock is pain. Get it? Fuck the limp.”


        The punk kid eyeballed him. The kid didn’t actually look punk rock at all, though I’d seen him at all the shows hanging out with the kids with the mohawks and faux hawks.


         “Everybody wants to be a movie star,” the kid said. “Ain’t you a retired one?”

         “Or a rock star, kid. Get it straight. Now go buy your own smokes. But stop wearin’ diapers first.” Jimmy literally kicked the kid in the ass as he walked away.


         The kid called him a prick but Jimmy didn’t care. “Tell me something I don’t know, you little shit. I mean fucking god damn, like I don’t know I’m a prick?”


         Mahmoud wears a pair of thick bifocals. His hair is patchy grey and black. “Goddam, Jimmy,” he says. “You had that tumor a year ago and haven’t died yet? You better buy the whole carton.”


         Jimmy reaches under his beany and scratches a large scar, the one that’s always sore from having taken a Telecaster to his noggin’ in a San Francisco bar fight in the mid 1980s.


        “I would, Mahmoud, I would,” Jimmy says. “But I gotta buy diapers later. And you know how expensive those sons of bitches are. Imagine if they taxed them like cigarettes. There’d be adoptions on every street corner. You’d have a new racket.”

        “You should use the old method. Cloth are less expensive. American women, they don’t want to get their hands dirty.”

        “It’s the on-the-go lifestyles, Mahmoud. No one can risk a cloth diaper malfunction down at the Funplex or in the Starbuck’s drive-thru. Know what I mean?”

        Mahmoud, in a perfectly jovial mood, starts laughing.


        I walk out so I don’t have to talk to Jimmy. Otherwise we’ll end up at the bar again and one of us will start crying. I head around the back and give a bum two dollars. When I walk back into the store Jimmy is long gone.


        “Why’d you leave? Scared of Jimmy?” Mahmoud says as I enter.

        I don’t say anything.

        “That guy has his time budgeted,” he says. “He’s like clockwork, you know. Guys like him won’t spend more than they have on their cigarette habit.”


        I wander around, buy some cheese crackers and a Coke and leave. Story of my life. I’m not going to smoke any time soon and I know it. I’m just pissed at the world. When I get into the parking lot I’m thinking about my next twelve-hour shift when I see Jimmy beating the shit out of that same punk kid. I have no idea why and I don’t want to know. I get in my truck and take the fuck off.

NICHOLAS BELARDES is a Latino writer, teacher, and artist. He’s author of A People’s History Of The Peculiar (nonfiction, reference: 2014), Songs Of The Glue Machines (poetry: 2013), Anhinga (Invisible Memoirs II: 2013), Letters From Vegas (Invisible Memoirs: 2013), Illustrator of New York Times best selling novel West of Here (2011), the first Twitter lit, Small Places (2008), and Lords (fiction: 2005). His journalism has appeared on the homepage of CNN and he has contributed to Memoir Journal, Knock Literary Magazine, 826 Seattle’s What to Read in the Rain, Mission at Tenth, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings, Latino Rebels, Spacious Species and more. He also works with indie movie studio Hectic Films where he has acted in the feature The Lackey and wrote the upcoming feature, Infernum. His artwork and concept work has appeared on the Fremont Street Experience (where he worked as a storyboard artist) as well as in roleplaying and educational games. He has performed at The Beat Museum, MTV’s Rock N’ Read, The Levan Center, art galleries, coffeehouses, libraries, pizza houses, bookstores, and more. Find him at

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