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Getting Your Money’s Worth

The Vipers paid for me to go to law school.

The idea was I’d be lawyer for the Visalia Vipers, and the club would have legal representation no matter what. I’d gone to college on the GI bill, came back to Visalia, and successfully represented myself in traffic court. Twice.

The trick for traffic court was getting cases rescheduled the Friday before three-day weekends when cops were either working holiday overtime or out of town. Kept my Honda Fury out of impound and the tickets got dismissed. I bragged about it more than I should, but my uncle listened. A year later I was at the University of San Diego learning about the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Being away from my brother and my uncle, I started dating girls who didn’t snort fentanyl. I could cover my tattoos with an oxford shirt buttoned all the way. If I wore a t-shirt to a bar, the stick-and-poke on my forearm became part of a story people told about me:

Smart kid, dusty town, ran with thugs, military, straightened up. Eventually, it was a story I told myself, too.

The upper crust called it “life experience” and “personal history.” The further I got from my brother, my uncle, and the plan to be the club’s lawyer, the more the Visalia Vipers became just that: history.

Being a lawyer, I handled my own name change. In Los Angeles, I hid in plain sight: my TV screen glowing from an apartment, one window out of millions. I traded my bike for a Jeep and joined a book club. Drank beer at places the Vandals would never think to visit.

Some nights, in bed with the windows open, the night air carried occasional gasoline shriek from the highway: an unyielding roar of pipes throttling; releasing; screaming torque from concrete to the heavens. Some nights I ignored the sound: thousands of bikes on the road, like thousands of lawyers in Los Angeles. None of us looking for each other.

Some nights, though, I checked the lock on my door. The pistol in my nightstand.

The first year was tough, but like thundering engines on a highway, my fear of my uncle drowned to a whisper I convinced myself was gone.

The bar down the street from my apartment was my speed: cocktails too simple and proven to attract the hip crowd, but too classy a place for a tougher audience. That night I went in for a drink and found a graceful chin resting on a tanned shoulder. Her eyes were impossibly dark and aimed at me. I bought the drinks.

When we kissed, she pried open the top of my mind, and I fell into the deep chasm of those eyes. But the honeyed pleasure of the kiss was quickly replaced by a sensation of falling, and then of tumbling on a rollercoaster. I would’ve begged it to stop but my mind was gone in those impossibly dark eyes that had swallowed me whole.

I woke in my own bed, some distant pounding against my temples, sunlight warming the sweat on my body.

Beside me, her tan skin on my bedsheets had gone slick red, with more blood than I’d ever seen. I had the presence of mind to realize I was holding my gun.

The pounding between my temples was actually two police officers pounding at my door.

My uncle transferred to the county jail in Monrovia a week after I arrived. He even managed to get a cell next to mine, and by that point I wasn’t even surprised.

His first words to me: “No hard feelings.”

He understood making a clean break and start over. “I just think it’s important to get your money’s worth.”

Jailhouse lawyers are protected men. I write and read, and have a pair of fancy headphones to drown out the chorus of inmates while I work on cases for the Vipers.

Sometimes I think about working on my own case and getting out somehow. But I close my eyes and see the tan skin of her shoulder. The Vipers paid for me to go to law school.

They made sure I paid, too.

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