Read the Excerpt: Joe Hustle by Richard Lange

1: Go Dodgers

Junior says he’s had enough of Joe’s excuses: If he doesn’t come up with some cash by Friday, he’ll be out on his ass. Joe thinks this is unfair for a number of reasons.

First off, two hundred a week for what’s essentially a closet is bullshit.

Second, it’s not cool for Junior to be so money-hungry. It was only luck that he inherited his grandmother’s house, where he now gets off on playing Filipinotown slumlord, renting out rooms in the dump for way more than they’re worth.

Third, even with all the money he’s taking in, he still hits Joe up for ten bucks here or twenty bucks there with no intention of paying him back, and after six months of this, Joe feels he’s owed at least a bit of grace.

“And now this fucker Paulo, this Brazilian, moved into the room next to mine,” Joe tells Mexican Mike, the two of them hunched over the bar at the Lotus Lounge. “He’s always watching porn when I’m trying to sleep, and I have to pound on the wall to get him to turn it down. I complained to Junior, but he said he doesn’t get involved in tenant disputes.”

“Tenant disputes,” Mike says.

“In a fucking flophouse,” Joe says.


Joe realizes Mike’s not listening, just repeating words to make it seem like he is. The dude’s been drinking since noon and has more beer than blood in him at this point.

“Anybody want to sing?” the new karaoke guy, Felix, calls out.

The only other people in the joint are Nita the bartender, who’s staring at her phone, and Hoon, who’s even drunker than Mike, so Felix sings himself, belting out “Footloose” like he’s on a TV show.

Tacked to the wall behind the bar are a hundred or so faded and fading photos of customers drinking, singing, and goofing off. Joe spots two dead people without even trying, old Fred and a woman everyone called Mama. He’s only been coming here a few months, and already two regulars have kicked the bucket. There’s a picture of him, too, posing with a young couple from Norway who wandered in one night from their motel up Vermont. He looks like an old man next to them, older than forty-one, an old drunk slurring nonsense and waving a beer bottle. Maybe he’ll be dead soon too.

Mike’s asleep now, his forehead propped in his hand. A strand of drool stretches from his lips to the bar. Why wake him? Why bring him back to this? Joe shakes out a Marlboro and lights up instead.

“What you doing?” Nita screeches in her thick Thai accent. “Outside! Outside!”

“Fuck you,” Joe says. She doesn’t deserve it, but there you go.

He gets up and walks out the door.

Maybe he’s hungry. He heads for Jack in the Box. The sun’s going down, and the sky is blooming like a rose, turning every shade of pink and orange and purple. People take pictures, and an old woman on a bus bench yells, “Que maravillosa, que maravillosa!

I should be soaking this up too, Joe thinks, and forces himself to stop and watch the show. Every sunset is the same, but each one is different, he thinks, and wonders if it’s something he heard in a song. Even if it is, at least his brain is still working, which is good to know. He’s been feeling stupid lately.

Waiting for his cheeseburger, he texts Matt, who, if he’s scheming to rack up enough trips to earn a bonus from Uber, sometimes lets Joe drive his car and use his account.

You been drinking? Matt texts back.

Not yet

K. You can drive till 3. 50%


Take it or leave it

I keep my tips

Night spreads over the city as Joe hoofs it to East Hollywood. Matt’s block is lined with apartment buildings from the 1930s that look like they belong in New York. A film crew has the street cordoned off. They’ve set up lights and cameras and piled fake snow on the sidewalk. Joe joins a crowd watching the filming from behind a barricade. A machine spews more snow, someone yells, “Action,” and two actors in suits and fedoras leap out of an old-timey car and run into one of the buildings.

“They’re paying me five hundred dollars to keep my windows shut,” an Armenian guy holding his baby says to Joe.

“You should ask for more in this heat,” Joe says.

It’s been over a hundred degrees for a week and doesn’t cool down at night. The air’s a greasy slop of carbon monoxide and festering garbage, and transformers keep blowing and blacking out whole neighborhoods. Everyone’s miserable, everyone’s pissed off, everyone’s desperate for relief.

“Maybe they’ll let the kids play in the snow,” the Armenian says.

“That’s not snow, that’s chemicals,” Joe tells him.

The production’s craft services tent fills the parking lot next to Matt’s building. While waiting to be buzzed in, Joe watches a pretty girl eat a bagel. He worked craft services for a while. It was long hours but good pay. He messed up, though, by screwing the boss’ wife, losing a sweet gig for a fuck he was too drunk to remember the next day.

Matt’s elevator is out of order, and Joe gets a sweat going climbing to his third-floor apartment. A bedroom, wood floors, big windows. He must be paying two grand a month at least.

Framed movie posters cover the walls. The Dark Knight, Pulp Fiction, John Wick. Matt’s twenty-eight years old. He came from Chicago to write screenplays but spends all his time driving in order to make enough money to survive. Joe met him at the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard. After an hour of listening to him recount the plots of his favorite Breaking Bad episodes, Joe said, “You’re a writer, but all you’re telling me are TV shows. Tell me about your life.”

“My life’s boring,” Matt said.

“You should write about me then,” Joe said. “I was in the Marines, almost got killed in Iraq. I was in prison for a while. My dad shot his brother.”

Matt was intrigued. They smoked some crack and worked out a deal where Joe would tell him all the crazy stuff that had happened to him, and Matt would turn it into screenplays. If anything sold, they’d split the money. For a month or so they got together a couple times a week so Matt could record Joe’s stories. Nothing came of it, and now, a year later, they only see each other when Joe drives the guy’s car.

Matt hands him the fob for his Prius.

“Take it to a car wash first,” he says. “A bird shit all over it.”

His girlfriend—Mya, Myra—is watching TV on the couch. She hasn’t even acknowledged Joe. This pisses Joe off. She thinks shaking her ass in a G-string at Jumbo’s for tourists and slumming squares makes her something special.

“How’s it going?” Joe says to her.

She rolls her eyes, and Matt laughs.

“She thinks you’re creepy,” he says. “Old and creepy.”

“So you’re scared of me,” Joe says to the girl.

“You don’t even exist,” she says.

“Oh, I exist,” Joe says. “I exist way more than you exist.”

Matt laughs again. He reeks of weed. “She’s a fucking diva,” he says. “Forget it.”

“Divas are supposed to be good at something,” Joe says. “What are you good at besides being a bitch?”

“Get this fucking loser out of here,” the girl says. “He can’t talk to me that way.”

Matt steers Joe to the door. “Have the car back by three,” he says.

Joe sees himself snatching one of the movie posters off the wall and smashing it over Matt’s head, then smashing another over the girl’s. If it was ten years ago, there’d be blood and broken glass everywhere.

He drives a chick with green hair to Echo Park, two gays guys downtown, and a rich old hippie couple out to Venice. Two hours in he’s made forty bucks.

The dude he picks up next—Asian, thirtyish, drunk—has a cast on his left leg. Joe helps him into the back seat and stows his crutches in the trunk. He’s going to Koreatown. After asking Joe to put the Dodger game on the radio, he starts giving directions different from the route Waze plotted. Rule number one is never trust a passenger’s directions, especially if the passenger is drunk, but the guy’s adamant, so Joe gets off the 10 and takes Olympic.

This guy, Dave, alternates between texting furiously and yelling about the game. It’s the bottom of the ninth, and if the Dodgers win, he’ll hit a parlay for over a thousand dollars. “Come on Kenley, strike this motherfucker out!” he screams.

One down, two down, three. Dave explodes, pounding on the back of Joe’s seat and yelling, “Go Dodgers!”

“Bro, bro, bro, I’m so happy right now,” he says.

“Winning’s cool,” Joe says.

“I never win.”

When they arrive at Dave’s destination, a two-story apartment building curled around a small pool, he asks Joe to help him up the stairs to the second floor. Joe is reluctant—the trip has already taken nine minutes longer than it would if he’d followed Waze—but he doesn’t want to risk the dude giving him a low rating.

He retrieves Dave’s crutches and walks with him to the entrance of the complex. Dave yells through the gate to a guy sitting by the pool, “I’m Chloe in 208’s boyfriend. Can you let me in?”

The guy opens the gate. When they get to the stairs, Dave hands Joe the crutches and uses the banister to pull himself up, one awkward step at a time. Joe stays close, ready to catch him, but he makes it to the top without falling.

“I’m only gonna be here five minutes,” he says. “I’ll give you fifty dollars if you wait and drive me to the bar I’m going to next.”

Fifty bucks free and clear sounds good, so Joe follows him down the walkway to an apartment overlooking the pool. Dave feels along the top of the doorframe and checks under the mat. He finally finds a key buried in the soil of a potted plant.

“Come in and have a drink,” he says. “She’s a bartender, so everything’s top shelf.”

The apartment is spotless. It even smells clean,. Nice furniture, nice lamps, nice magazines. The booze is on the kitchen counter. Jack Daniel’s, Patron, Grey Goose. Dave takes two glasses from a rack next to the sink. He pours a slug of Jack into one, downs it, and pours another.

“What’s your pleasure?” he asks Joe.

“Jack’s good,” Joe says. He tries to stop Dave when the glass is a quarter full, but the guy keeps pouring.

“I’ll finish what you don’t,” he says.

Dave looks through the cupboards and pulls out a box of Ritz crackers. He takes a bottle of ketchup from the refrigerator.

“Hang here,” he says, and leaves the kitchen.

Joe sips his whisky. How many more trips can he clock before three? A giggle prompts him to step into the living room and peek down the hall. Dave’s in the bedroom. He’s pulled back the bed’s duvet and is crumbling crackers onto the sheets. He squirts ketchup over the crackers.

“What the fuck are you up to?” Joe says.

“It’s a joke on my girlfriend,” Dave replies.

He takes a picture of the mess and sends it to someone.

“I gotta go,” Joe says.

“Drink your drink.”

Dave’s phone rings. He puts the call on speaker.

“That’s right, bitch,” he says.

“I called the police,” a girl says. “They’re on their way.”

“I don’t give a fuck,” Dave says. He unzips his jeans and pisses on the bed.

Joe hurries out the door and sprints down the stairs. He’s pretty sure he could talk himself out of trouble with the cops, but he doesn’t need them running his license and finding something he’s forgotten about. He hops into the Prius and speeds away to the warble of approaching sirens. That’s what you get for helping people. All of a sudden you’re an accomplice.

July 12, 11:45 p.m.

Okay, I’m recording.

Ask me something.

Where were you born?

[Laughter] Seriously?

Just tell me a story.

I was born in Burbank. Hand me another beer. In Burbank. We lived in an apartment on Verdugo, then moved to a house on Parish. By Burroughs High.

That’s not a story. What kind of shenanigans did you get up to when you were a kid?

Shenanigans? [Laughter] You kids and your shenanigans.

What kind of shit? What kind of trouble?

I started drinking when I was twelve, started smoking weed, dropped a ton of acid. Me and my friends basically lived at this park on Olive. None of our parents gave a shit. This one time I was tripping my brains out there. It was midnight, and I was laying on a picnic table, looking for UFOs. I used to do that all the time, be like, “Come and get me. Take me with you.” Sending an SOS into space.

Did you ever see any?



Fuck yeah. Tons.


You want to hear this or not? I was laying on the table, and I heard heavy breathing, like something big, some big animal, was right there. Did you ever stand next to a horse, or like, an elephant?

I grew up in Chicago, man. Where do they have elephants in Chicago?

At the zoo. They let you pet them on field trips and shit. That’s what it sounded like, like an elephant breathing. Tons of air going in and tons of air whooshing out. I turned my head to look, and what I saw…Check out my arm—goose bumps, twenty-five years later. What I saw was—BOO! Ha! Got you! You fucking jumped!

Is this a stupid campfire story?

Nah, nah, I’m being serious. I turned my head and saw this thing. A black shadow, ten feet tall. It didn’t have eyes, but I could tell it was staring at me. I wanted to yell, but I couldn’t. I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn’t work.

Maybe you were dreaming. Maybe you fell asleep.

I wasn’t asleep.

But you were tripping.

I know what tripping is. This had nothing to do with tripping. This was something super freaky. This thing walked over and put its hand on my chest, and it was so cold, it burned. I passed out, and when I came to, whatever it was was gone.

How long were you out?

Not long. A few minutes. I got up and rode my bike home as fast as I could.

Maybe it was an alien. Maybe your message got through.

It wasn’t an alien.

A ghost then.

I told this goth chick about it, and she said it sounded like a demon, but I think it was Death himself. Death was coming for me, but something stopped him.

What? What stopped him?

I think I’ve got a light in me. I’ve come so close to getting killed so many times, done so much stupid shit and survived, I think I’ve got a light in me that’s stronger than death.

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