Denis Johnson’s Bad Day

Aaron Peters


The day ended like any day—at midnight. Mike, Ted, and I rolled up to the movie theater in Mike’s MGB GT, a junky 60s hatchback that looked like James Bond and his crew hadn’t made the grade. Mike was just a regular guy, like me, but Ted was a skinhead. His girlfriend was a Mexican. She was a skin too. She wore a Chelsea cut and creepers and homemade tattoos on her hands. How they tolerated her, I still don’t know, but she and Ted had been going together for a while, so she might have been grandfathered in.

We were at the midnight movies. There were a lot of other kids roaming the lobby looking for trouble while the security guard flirted with the night manager. Mike was getting popcorn and I was standing next to Ted who was waiting, arms crossed, like a real bad ass in his flight jacket and Docs. Then this Mexican dude walked right up to us. He might’ve been our age but he wore a man’s bushy mustache and a wife beater. He was built.

The Mexican said, “Hey, you bald bastard.”

I thought Armageddon was about to unleash in the lobby of the Regal 6. Instead, Ted and the Mexican did that same bro slap Arnold Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers do in Predator. The Mexican rousted his homies and they all came over and Ted and the guys re-lived old times.

“We go way back,” Ted explained later. “Used to fight his gang in Hayward. Not anymore.” We were sitting in the theater waiting for the feature to begin. It was Surf Nazis Must Die. This black granny was laying waste to the Aryan scum who killed her grandson. Ted laughed it up every time one of his guys died. Either the movie was some kind of reverse-propaganda I didn’t understand or Ted hadn’t fully bought into the charter. Later, I asked him about it as was we drove home in Mike’s MG.

He shrugged. “It’s just a movie,” he said. Then he got out and walked up the driveway to his dad’s huge house on the golf course.

That’s not how the day began. Like most days that summer between junior and senior years, it began at the Round Table on Crow Canyon where Ted made pizzas and I worked the ovens. Ted and I were on lunch break. While I devoured a toasted salami and gorgonzola sandwich, Ted was making a face.

“I guess you don’t have a girlfriend,” he said.

Right then, a middle-aged guy ambled in through the dining room’s side door. He looked like that writer Denis Johnson on a bad day. Dark glasses, big overcoat, paper bag tucked under his arm. Ted and I watched him walk down the hall past the banquet room and into the toilet.

“Homeless shower,” Ted said. While he was eating pizza, I could see Ted working up to something in that complicated shaved head. He pushed the crust into his mouth, then went into his pocket to show me a small knife. It was a shiv, I guess. He said he got it when he was in JDC for fighting on BART. He also got hand-foot-and-mouth disease and had to wear Chucks for a few weeks until the fungus went away.

“Come on,” he said.

I followed him to the men’s restroom. Inside, the guy was slicking back his hair with a comb. The dark glasses were resting on the sink.

“Whaddya want?” he said in the mirror. He glanced at the shiv in Ted’s hand.

“This isn’t a bus station,” Ted said.

“Oh, no?” He stopped mid-comb. We all stared at each other in the mirror, waiting for someone to make the next move. The guy’s face was impassive, and pitted, like a moon scarred by meteors.

“It’s a pizza parlor,” I said.

He nodded as he put the comb away inside of his coat. He wore a self-satisfied look, like we were right where he wanted us. “Whaddya think I got in that bag?” he said. The bag was sitting on top of the paper towel dispenser. It was crushed and greasy.

“Nothing,” Ted said.

The guy just smiled. He put on the dark glasses, then picked up his bag and waved us aside like a royal on his way to somewhere important. We watched him limp down the hall and out the side door. Later, we found the bag sitting on a nearby bench. Ted looked inside. He was right.


Aaron Peters is a graduate of UC Irvine’s Programs in Writing and a recipient of the Henfield Prize for fiction. He lives in Los Angeles.

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