Los Angeles, July 7, 1990
I’m knocking on the front door to the apartment, but no one is answering. It’s 11 AM, the time I normally get here and wake Chris up so we can start the day, shoot some heroin, and begin selling dope to all the junkies whose phone numbers are continually flooding our pagers.
After another ten minutes of knocking and waiting, I walk downstairs, go around to the garage and make sure Chris’ car is there—and it is. Back on the second floor landing I knock once more. A small latched peephole opens and Chris’s face appears behind the security grill.
“Who’s there?” he asks, which is weird as we’re eye-to-eye and I’m staring right at him.
“It’s me,” I say, and crush out a cigarette with the heel of my boot.
“Jesus Christ. It’s fuckin’ me. Me, as in Patrick, your fuckin’ partner. Gonna let me in or what?”
Chris closes the peephole and I wait. Then there’s the sound of a power tool, a drill maybe. The door is shaking and there’s screeching noises added to the whir of the small motor.
When the door finally opens I walk in and find Chris, cordless drill in hand, sort of stooped over, dazed. On the floor are several three-inch screws he’d removed from where he’d obviously used them to hastily secure the door to the frame.
“What’s up, man? You okay?”
“Fuck, dude. You should have been here last night.”
“Why?” I say.
“Cops, man. I was surrounded.”
Chris is making me nervous. I leave him there and wander around the apartment checking the different rooms, seeing if everything is secure. Near every window there’s a pile of cocaine, a syringe, spoon, glass of water, and a gun. All the curtains have been drawn shut, and the rest of the drugs, money, scale, and paraphernalia are in a heap on the bed.
“Something happen last night?” I ask.
Chris closes his eyes and leans against the wall. When he swallows it appears to take a lot of effort. He’s tired. He’s wasted. He’s been up all night shooting coke and he’s past paranoid; he’s bordering on deranged.
From the looks of things Chris had posted up all night at different windows shooting coke: the curtains slightly parted, his finger on the trigger, while hallucinating squadrons of police through blurry eyes.
He feebly gestures toward the window at the end of the hall. “They were in the trees.”
Outside the window I see trees that are young saplings, no more than two inches in diameter. There is no way a small child could climb them without them breaking in two, let alone a fat-assed cop shimmying up to spy in our second-story windows.
“I saw ’em out there. Asked what they was doin’. The fuckers wouldn’t answer.”
“You actually saw them?”
“Then they’re at the front door. Arguing about kicking it in. Arguing for hours. Sounded like a platoon.”
I’m starting to worry. If there is one thing I know about the Los Angele Police Department, it’s they don’t argue for hours about knocking down a dope dealer’s door. They just do it. They come in guns blazing, kicking ass, and, if at all, ask questions later.
“Let’s shoot some heroin, man. You need to chill out.”
Two days later a railroad crew in Ontario, California, came across a metal storage trunk laid across the tracks. Inside was Chris’s folded dead body. Put there like someone had hoped a train would run him over. The following morning it was in all the newspapers and on the news. After the first ten calls I stopped answering.
Two Ontario homicide detectives showed up at my door the next day. They flashed their badges and introduced themselves. Said they wanted to talk with me, but not here. I got in the back of their unmarked car and they drove me for an hour and a half across LA county out to the morgue in Ontario.
I’d been in hospitals and funeral homes, but I’d never been to a morgue. The place reeked of decay and disinfectant. Several covered bodies on gurneys lay stacked in a dark hallway. The overhead lights flickered as the cops led me through a maze of rooms. Nobody had said a word since we got there, and I worried I was going to be arrested. When we finally got to the viewing room, a man in a white lab coat opened the door.
“Ready?” asked the man as he pulled off the sheet.
Chris’ body lay prone on the steel gurney. His skin had turned a pale gray-blue, offsetting his tattoos. His blond hair was matted against the wound on his head. Cuts covered his entire body. His eyes were open, but he was dead.
As we stood over him, the two cops told me they knew all about us selling dope. Said they suspected me of killing Chris to control the business. I stared at Chris’s caved in skull and multiple stab wounds and felt strangely too numb.
“Go fuck yourselves,” I said.
Another week went by before two more detectives came to my apartment.
“We know you were in business with Chris,” one of the cops said. “You’re still a suspect in his death.”
“Only we’re willing to forget that,” said the other one, “if you tell us who your customers were.”
The first one pulled out a notebook and pen like I was going to start blurting out names.
“We want everyone you sold to. We already know the connection, it’s not as if we’re asking for him. So this should be easy.”
The two of them sat there on the lumpy gray couch in my small Hollywood bungalow and talked all kinds of shit. Like they were doing me this huge favor. But what they never told me was that four months earlier Chris had gotten arrested in Long Beach, and when he was being booked he didn’t have an ID and used my name instead of his. Having toured together for years, Chris and I both knew each other’s personal information like social security and driver’s license numbers so we could fill out the required paperwork for car rentals, hotels, or plane tickets if the other person wasn’t there. Thankfully a mutual friend got in touch and told me about it, although he didn’t know what the bust was for. I could only assume it was sales or possession. Yet, then, out on bail Chris never called to warn me, as he had no intention of going to jail. Apparently he didn’t give a fuck if I took the fall.
Either these two jerk-off cops didn’t know about the bust or they didn’t care. Not saying a word, I just stared at them until they finally left.
It’s a typical sunny Southern California afternoon. I’m in a bit of a hurry coming back from ripping off a drug dealer in Van Nuys. Hardcore Mexicans that were for sure going to be looking for me the next couple of days. I glance in the rearview just as the Highway Patrol throws on his siren and red lights. I’ve a bunch of outstanding speeding tickets. I figure this fucking cop is going to arrest me and so I casually stuff my gun and the stolen drugs under the bench seat of my El Camino and pull over.
Five minutes into it and it’s just like I expected, handcuffed and sitting in the back of the patrol car as the cop calls in a warrant check.
The cop looks out over the top of his mirror shades, checking out my chrome mags, blue pearlescent paint, and lowered chassis. “What year’s the El Camino?”
“Seventy-nine,” I tell him, but that’s about as much conversation as we’ve got in us. We sit in silence as the computer starts churning out a massive amount of information: all my traffic warrants, Chris’s Long Beach bust, another warrant for his gun possession, and then, finally, I come up listed as being deceased.
“Holy shit,” The cop turns around and stares at me. “You ain’t dead. How the fuck you do that?”
Chris’s and my information had been mated together in the cop’s main computers and now both of us were listed as dead.
“I ain’t never seen any bullshit like this. I gotta take you in,” says the cop.
For two days I sit waiting in a holding cell and they still can’t figure it out. Everything’s a fucking mess. They don’t know whose warrants are whose, and they don’t know which one of us got busted in Long Beach. But it’s not until after they take my fingerprints that they’re able to figure out I’m not Chris.
Sitting back in the holding cell, I’m watching a slice of Wonder Bread on a bologna sandwich curl up and dry. A detective from Long Beach stands at the bars. “I came up here to try and straighten all this crap out,” he says. “But I take one look at you and know you’re not the Patrick O’Neil I busted. Even if all you punk white boys do look the same.”
An hour later a sergeant unlocks my cell and gives me back my property.
“You’re under investigation. Don’t leave town,” he says.
I get my car out of impound, and drive out into the parking lot, but I don’t know where the hell to go, or what to do. I got a tank of gas, $60 dollars, a 9mm, and a bunch of stolen heroin. I slip the transmission into drive and cruise around trying to figure this shit out. When it starts to rain I use half my money and get a shitty hotel room on the edge of Culver City. Shivering from the cold, I turn on the wall heater and sit down on the bed. The gun, stuck in the back of my pants, digs into me and I pull it out. Almost mindlessly I pull back the hammer and put it in my mouth. The metal against my teeth hurts, the acidic taste of oil invades my gums. The wind’s blowing, and I can hear rain against the window. I’m thinking I don’t want to do this. I’m tired of guns, robberies, people looking to kill me. I’m tired of my friends dying. I don’t want to be alone, or strung-out, or wanted by the police. I just want it all to end. But not this way.
I put the gun down.
I need to get the fuck out of Los Angeles.
Patrick O’Neil is the author of the memoir GUN, NEEDLE, SPOON (Dzanc Books). His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Juxtapoz, Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, After Party Magazine and Razorcake. O’Neil is a contributing editor for Sensitive Skin Magazine, a Pushcart nominee, a two-time nominee for Best Of The Net and a PEN Center USA professional and former mentor. He holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where he is an instructor for the inspiration2publication program. Most days, you can find him teaching some form of creative writing at various rehabs, correctional facilities, institutions and workshops, and he is the co-coordinator for the Why There Are Words, Los Angeles reading series. O’Neil currently lives in L.A.’s monument to broken dreams, the über-hip downtown district, with his fiancé and two giant Maine Coons. For more information, please visit: patrick-oneil.com.
Read a Q&A between AFLW creative non-fiction editor Seth Fisher and Patrick O’Neil about the writing of and story behind GUN, NEEDLE, SPOON here.