They’d been up three days smoking crack, when Lil’ Bit, a 26 year-old Jamaican who worked as a stripper at the Porthole in Pompano Beach, dialed 911. First the cops came, then the swat team was called in, and 14 hours later, there was a helicopter circling over the house. Finally, John Wayne Grimes, a half-Japanese, half-Irish lawnmower mechanic, busted through the front door with a fistful of Chinese stars. He started throwing them over the hedge, and then the cops shot him in the chest with a beanbag, threw him on the gurney, and hauled him off.
I used to get collect calls from him when he was in the Palm Beach County Stockade, and he told me he’d been reading The Idiot, and said he liked it because it was just like in real life: everybody was screwing everybody over, and everyone was out for himself. Johnny however was more like The Idiot, because he was often overly-generous, and everyone who knew him thought he had a heart of gold. Nevertheless, he did six months in jail, another five or six in a bughouse, and when he got out rumor got back to him that Lil’ Bit quit her job and took up with a pastor from The Fellowship Church of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit in Opa-locka. “Pastors are the worst,” said Johnny. “They start talking all that God shit, and the moment you look up in them heavens to see what the fuss is all about, that’s when they sneak up from behind, yank yer breeches to da floor, and slip yuz da big salami.”
It was the summer of 1997, and Johnny had just moved into the room next door on the second floor of the Golden Sands Inn. He kept his door open most the time, but that day I was in there with him, and it was bolted and locked with a chain, and the thick floral drapes were drawn, and on TV was a movie where the lead actor, a bodybuilder with a long, flourishing mane and horse-sense, always seemed to be dangling off the leg of a helicopter or fractionally escaping some fiery four-city-block explosion. Meanwhile, a loud knock on the door seemed to rattle everything in the room, and Johnny peered through the curtains. Then he unbolted and unchained the door, and let in Ken, a forty-something funeral escort officer, and a wild-haired Cuban with bloodshot eyes, a coffee-stained wifebeater and a bullet-wound just below his neckbone. His name was Raul, and right away he started telling us about some possum his neighbor tased, and the Burmese python and the iguana he kept as pets. “They ain’t ‘diginous,” he said. “No Sir. These things is pigmy-bred.” Then he threw a little baggie of cocaine on the coffee table, and Johnny got a bottle of sherry and four pickle jars out of the kitchen. He brimmed each jar, lit a stump of Mexican candle, and Ken took a razor out of his wallet and started cutting up lines on the glass. “Ken’s a-sweating,” he kept saying. “Poor Ken, do de, do de da.” He wiped his forehead off with the sleeve of his guayabera, and kept chopping and separating and dropping sweat and doing taste-tests by smearing his finger under his bottom lip.”Got a buck?” Raul gave him a dollar and he rolled it tight, leaned down, and vacuumed up a long, thick biker rail. “Breeeeeeeeeeeeezzze…do de, de…”
“DON’T NOBODY MOVE!”
There were three cops-in-crewcuts crouched in the wide-open front door, their guns drawn.
Raul kicked over the coffee table and dashed into the back bedroom.
“On the floor!
I got on the floor.
“Face down! Hands behind you!”
I started putting my hands behind me, and looked over at Ken who was doing the same and sort of whimpering.
In the meantime, Raul leapt off the balcony and started running along Federal Highway, but by the time he got to Gulfstream Lumber, they caught up to him with the van and let the hounds loose. It turned out he was wanted for human trafficking, or pimping, and burglary of an occupied dwelling, and also retail theft, but the cops didn’t have anything on us. They never saw the cocaine scattered on the carpet, and when they finally cleared out, Ken buried his face in it and went sniffing around like a spaniel in a flowerbed. Johnny then stared messing with the broken hinge on the door, and after about ten minutes, Ken got up and sat on the couch and hunched over and started rocking back and forth, looking up to the ceiling every once in a while, and wheezing through his shaggy wormeaten mustachios.
“You alright, Ken?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“You don’t look it.”
He started probing his stomach with his fingers, taking deep breaths. He looked like a pregnant woman doing lamaze. “Just a little gassy is all,” he explained.
“Yeah, I guess it was the Burger King I had earlier. I mean… and it was jes like… jes like I’m sayin’…”
Johnny and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“You want some Alka-Seltzer?” asked Johnny.
Johnny went into the kitchen, and then returned with a tall glass of fizzling water. Ken drained it straight off, and then asked to use the bathroom.
“It’s in my room,” said Johnny.
“You got a cigarette?”
“What do you need that for?”
“I always smoke when I’m on the throne. Helps me concentrate.”
Johnny handed over one of his Camels, and Ken took that and his lighter and kind of lugubriously lumbered off into Johnny’s bedroom. We heard the lock click. Johnny then went back to the hinge, and I went back to watching the bodybuilder with the flourishing mane and horse-sense. Twenty minutes later, Ken was still in the bathroom.
“What’s he doing in there?” Johnny asked. “Ken! You alright?”
“Ken’s fine,” he said through the door.
But then another twenty or thirty minutes went by and he was still among the missing.
“Ken! You fall in or sumptin’?”
We walked back there and knocked on the door. “Ken!”
Still no answer.
“I don’t wanna have to bust this door too. Please, tell me you’re alright…”
“Ya think he’s dead?” I said.
KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK!
We decided to pick the lock, and Johnny went to his dresser to get his wallet, but couldn’t find it, so I gave him a card from mine.He slid it the the crack, finagled for a bit, and finally the bolt clicked and he flung the door open. No Ken. I looked behind the shower curtain and he wasn’t there.
“Fuck! Where’d he go?”
“Out the balcony?”
The balcony door was slightly cracked.
Are you sure you left your wallet on the dresser?” I asked.
“I didn’t think so at first, but now I’m positive. It was right next to my keys.”
“Was there a lot of money in it?”
“You know me. I always carry around a wad.”
We walked out onto the balcony looked down Federal Highway, which was dark, and quiet. It was 2 a.m. A car with a burned-out headlight went by.
“Now what?” I asked.
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
“Do you wanna go out and look for him?”
“He’s probably at Circle K. Isn’t that where he buys his drugs?”
“We’re not looking for him.”
“Then what do you wanna do?”
“Let him have it. He obviously needs it more than me. I’ll just cancel my cards is all.”
Johnny seemed unusually casual about the whole thing, and after we went over everything again – Ken’s timeline, we called it – I asked him why he wasn’t more upset.
“Why should I be?” he said. “Some people you just have to buy out of your life, and for a few bucks, this gets rid of the mooch for good.”