CHAPTER 5: THE CURSED PLACE
I was buzzed awake the next morning by a text from my drummer Jojo:
Arriving from LA at 9. Pick me up.
There was a link to a map with a pin dropped near O’Hare which turned out to be an executive terminal set aside from the main commercial circus. The cars were sleek and black, and the clientele were fat and white. The GTO stood out in the middle of it all like a defiant middle finger. I pulled to the curb and settled in to wait.
A man in khaki slacks emerged from the concourse carrying two enormous, designer-brand suitcases He placed them like an offering at the feet of a dark-haired woman wearing a sequined top and heart-shaped sunglasses. The woman beamed and wrapped her arms around his neck in a hug that was all tits and pointed toes, but her expression faded when she caught a glimpse of me over the man’s shoulder.
The woman rolled her eyes, and mouthed the words ‘save me’ but quickly snapped back into a smile as the man broke the embrace and reached into his pocket to press a fold of cash into her hand. A cocked head.
Oh, no—you shouldn’t have.
Please, it was my pleasure.
My mind played the dialogue without needing to hear it.
A kiss on the cheek. A slap on the ass. Giggle, giggle.
The man got into the car and drove away, leaving the woman alone on the sidewalk. She waved him out of sight, then shrugged off the affect and lit a cigarette, waving me forward.
“Hey baby, you lookin’ for a date?” I called to her out the window.
Jojo leaned down to peer at me over the tops of her sunglasses. The wide collar of her shirt gapped open to her waist. I could smell cloves and some kind of expensive perfume.
“Took you long enough.”
“Didn’t want to cramp your style with your Biggest Fan,” I said.
“His name is Thackery.”
“He has his own jet.” Jojo blew smoke out her nose.
“And all you had to do was…?”
“Let him massage my feet during the flight.” She kept her face straight. I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or not. I shook my head.
“You and your fans.”
I’d been friends with Jojo since kindergarten: back when she was still a shy, chubby, half-Korean kid with scuffed knees named Joseph. Since then, she’d spent every cent she ever made on gender confirmation surgery. There was no doubt about where she stood on the gender spectrum now.
“You getting in, or what?”
“You gonna help me with my bags?”
“I haul enough shit around for you with your fucking drum kit. Handle your own baggage.”
“Bitch, please, you don’t have enough room for my baggage.”
I climbed out of the drivers’ seat and went around the back to unlock the trunk and watched her load in her two giant suitcases, struggling under the weight of them.
“Thanks for fucking nothing.” She brushed her hair back from her sweaty forehead with the backs of her manicured fingers.
“How do you need two giant suitcases? All your clothes are the size of dish towels.”
“A girl needs options.”
Jojo climbed into the passenger seat, tugging uselessly at the hem of her high-waisted shorts as her bare legs landed on the hot leather. She pulled a face. “This fucking city.”
“Yeah, this fucking city,” I said. I pulled into traffic and immediately found myself mired in congestion creeping towards the exit.
“How long are we gonna be in town for?”
“I dunno. At least through Lolla, right? So, a month?” I hoped. I hadn’t given it much thought: it wasn’t like there was anything waiting for us back in LA.
“Maybe we should stay awhile.”
“Oh, come on,” she whined, “we’ve been on the road for months. I’m sick of living out of a suitcase.”
“But Chicago? You hate Chicago.”
“No, you hate Chicago,” she said “Chicago, LA, I don’t really fucking care, but Tombstone wants to see his kids—”
“Don’t talk to me about Tombstone—”
“—and Gorey’s got his family here. I’m tired of babysitting Kilroy on the road. It’s a nightmare keeping the dealers away. Just cuz he’s not freebasing anymore doesn’t mean he’s not an addict—”
“Chicago’s not going to fix that.”
“No, but he’ll be able to have a regular group for a change. Let them handle his sobriety. I still like getting fucked up.”
I resisted the urge to tell her that Tombstone had sold off all her pills.
“Where’re you staying?” I asked, finally accelerating onto the highway.
Jojo huffed out a breath. “I dunno. I’m as broke as you are, dude.” She ran a hand through her hair, pinning it back from her face in the buffeting wind from the window. I glimpsed myself reflected in her sunglasses.
“You not stayin’ with khaki Thackery?”
“Gawd, no. It’s his week with the kids—can you imagine me in the suburbs?”
“Gorey’s got a place,” I said. “I haven’t seen it, but he says it’s cursed.”
* * * *
It was not charming. It was a shitheap.
Gorey hadn’t been exaggerating about the state of the property: it was a derelict Chicago bungalow constructed of brick and misery a few blocks away from Humboldt Park. The first-floor windows were boarded up and mossy shingles sagged down over crumbling brickwork and flaking lead paint. There was a padlock on the front door that Gorey struggled with for so long, I worried he might not be using a key. When he finally shouldered the door open, a musty wheeze of air poured out, fluttering the ribbon ends of police tape stuck to the door frame.
“What the fuck happened here?” Jojo asked.
“A squatter died.” Gorey shrugged. “Don’t worry—they decided it was natural causes.”
“Wait, someone died in there?” I stopped on the threshold without going in.
“People die all sorts of places, dude.”
Reluctantly, I followed him inside.
“Hotter ‘n hell in here.” Jojo stepped into the oven-like heat, fanning herself with the collar of her shirt. Sweat was already dripping down my back. A needle of light found its way around the plywood on the windows cutting a bright line through the murk. Gorey fumbled for a light switch and flicked it on.
“Front room. Kitchen. Dining room ‘round the side.” Gorey pointed to the spaces on the side of the entrance. “Bathroom in the back. Bedrooms upstairs. Basement. Fully furnished.”
“Do the bedbugs cost extra?” I asked.
“They carpet-bombed the place.”
The front room had a pad of green shag carpet spread over a scuffed wood floor. An ancient sofa was shoved in the corner; one broken leg was propped up on a brick. The dining room windows had been bricked up with cinderblocks.
“Where’d they find the body?” Jojo wanted to know.
Gorey shrugged again. “The bathroom, I think? A cleaning service hadda come out and drain all the plumbing.” He stumped up the stairs. The bedroom was divided into two claustrophobic halves beneath the sloping roof. One half had a dormer window that was painted shut. The furnishings consisted of a warped dresser and a single, slumped, queen-sized mattress on the bare floor. The previous owner still resided there in the form of a large yellow sweat stain pooled in the bottom of a body-shaped divot.
The other half of the room was the shell of a little girl’s room: oppressively pink and papered with Hello Kitty stickers.
“Guess we know which room is yours,” I said to Jojo as she gingerly stepped inside to survey the space. Her face was already sculpted into a grimace of distaste. Hustling Gorey back through the dividing wall I slammed the door and wedged it shut with a wooden shim.
“Hey!” I heard Jojo jiggle the doorknob uselessly and then pound on the door with the flat of her hand. “You’re a dickless faggot, Warner!” she yelled. “Open this door before I chum your gnarled choad, you fucking blue waffle!”
Jojo’s repertoire of swears was unparalleled for its range and scope. It would be a while before she ran out of names to call me, so I slung an arm over Gorey’s shoulder and ushered him back down the stairs so we could talk.
“Well?” he asked. “You still want it?”
It was the worst fucking house I’d ever seen, but we needed a place to live. From upstairs I heard Jojo begin to hammer at the walls of her prison with one of her shoes.
“Jojo likes it,” I said, “and, you know, women, amiright?”
There was an audible creak as Jojo managed to pry the plywood off the upstairs window, followed by the sound of glass shattering and a gentle rain of shards on the side walkway. Gorey hastily undid the bolts on the plywood over the side window and stuck his head out in time to see Jojo sling a leg over the upstairs window frame and stretch her bare toes toward a crumbling stone cornice. Gorey stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled.
“Lookin’ good, hotpants.”
“Don’t start with me, you motherless mongrel turd.”
“C’mon, baby, give us a smile,” I piled on. “Show us your tits.”
“I’m gonna punch you in the nuts so hard your grandkids are gonna fucking feel it,” Jojo snarled, climbing down the side of the house like a cat burglar. She made it down to the sidewalk and hurled a shoe at us through the window with the full force of a drummer’s upper body strength. It hit the far wall hard enough that the stiletto heel embedded itself in the plaster. “We’ll take it,” I said.
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