Once, when we couldn’t find it anywhere, Norma asked her friend Debbie to come over.
“It’s shitty dope,” Norma said.
We were sitting on the couch in the living room, watching a talk show. Neither of us were sick, but we were quiet and scared, getting ready to be sick and each trying to think of some solution or some hustle, waiting for sudden inspiration to hit: oh yeah, doesn’t the guy next door have a prescription for vicodin? Or: who was that guy we met one day at In n Out who said he always has a reliable connection?
Paul, Norma’s dad, came home from work with Coronas. “Did you get anything?” Norma asked, suddenly loud and demanding. She always talked to her dad with contempt. She had told me that he spent all his money on dope and couldn’t pay his rent so she let him move in with her. Paul was our main supplier. He worked at an auto parts store on Washington and we would go there in the morning to give him money and come back in the afternoon for our balloons. But lately Paul’s connect hadn’t been answering the phone so we were forced to look elsewhere.
“No,” Paul said, and handed his daughter a beer. I knew he stole the beers from the Albertson’s on Venice and Culver. I knew because neither Norma nor Paul had cars and I had to drive Paul to that parking lot to meet the dealer sometimes. I always waited in the car, and Paul always came back with the balloons and a couple of beers. Sometimes only one of the big beers. I knew no one had any extra money in that house, and he would get back into the car quickly, putting the beers on the floor. I thought he was worried that someone might have seen the drug deal but then I figured it out.
“Don’t you think it’s a little dangerous, stealing beer while you have dope on you?” I asked once.
“The security guards?” He said. “No, they don’t get paid enough to care about that.” And he gave me a kind of condescending smile.
Another time Norma and I spent an hour in that Albertson’s, trying to find someone whose groceries we could buy with Norma’s EBT card in exchange for cash. We offered to pay for $60 worth of groceries in exchange for $40 but it took a long time. People are suspicious.
By the time Debbie got there we were chain smoking on the balcony. Norma lived on one of those streets that backs up onto the studios. We were facing east and from that height I could look straight ahead and see the old water tower, billboards for upcoming movies, and clouds, all dissected at right angles with telephone wires and poles. When I looked down I saw the square of cement that served as the parking lot for Norma’s building. The cement was bordered with a patch of weeds and an overflowing dumpster. Beyond that there was a crumbling brick fence and an alley. Norma’s daughter was riding her pink bike up and down the driveway.
Debbie was tall and skinny, with dirty blonde hair and a scarred face. She had a black eye that she had unsuccessfully tried to hide with makeup. Her voice was raspy.
“How much do you want?” She asked. She didn’t have the dope. She had to get our money and then go meet her connection and then come back.
“Is this that shitty stuff?” Norma asked. I didn’t care and I wanted Norma to just hand over her cash. My body was heating up and I could feel the edges of the crumpled up twenties against my palm.
“It’s not bad,” Debbie said.
Norma didn’t like that answer so we all had to have a cigarette and sit down on the sagging armchairs on the balcony and discuss the quality of the dope and whether this dealer was the same one Debbie always used. I was annoyed. I wanted to get high. But Norma had told me on many occasions that she used to “slang” and so she knew how to get the best dope for the lowest price so I didn’t say anything.