Kevin Milan tries to do what is right when his father has an affair with Kevin's best friend's neighbor. Kevin goes straight at the woman to drive her out. His strategy backfires, leaving him the one trying to get back in.
What Is Right
I stand back on my heels, fists in my pockets, and watch Jerry West on television drive the lane and shoot a left-handed lay-up in front of Walt Bellamy. KTLA News breaks into the basketball game to show helicopter shots of the Baldwin Hills Dam breaking. Baldwin Hills is maybe twenty miles from my house here on Holcomb Street in south Spring Valley. I know there is no way the water can reach me, but I feel fluttering in the pit of my stomach.
I’m waiting for my father to come home. He said he’d be back by five so he can take my mother out to dinner and a movie. It’s almost six now. Like some poor guy knows standing in his house below the Baldwin Hills Dam (and maybe like Walt Bellamy knows), I'm sure where all this in my house is headed. My mother knows, too. She has locked herself in her bedroom. The way my parents have been acting lately, anyone could see how this would end, and yet these two adults continue the charade. Why is it so hard for people to just come out and say what they think? So, my dad tells my mother that he has lost interest. My mother tells my dad that she still hopes they can work things out and go back to the way things used to be. But no. They play these games, set up these false expectations, and guess who gets caught in the middle when it all blows up. I know this situation with my parents is not my fault. I don’t take it that way. But when my dad acts like an ass, which is often, I want to protect my mother and my sister. In the name of what is right, I will do what I have to.
The Baldwin Hills Dam, the reporter tells me, did not spontaneously explode. It was built not only on an active fault line and near oil fields where they are doing hydraulic fracturing, but it sits on strata so unstable they had to install a soil lining to keep water from seeping into the foundation. They knew when they built it that the dam had a good chance of failing.
My mom’s mom, Nana, told me once that when my parents first married, they lived with her for about a year. While my mother sat home burping me and changing my diapers, Nana said, my father was out chasing holes. That’s what she told me: “chasing holes.” When I heard that as a little kid, I could not imagine how you chase holes, since they seemed to lie flat on the ground. You can fall in them, but how can you chase them? All I could think of was a cartoon I saw where Wily Coyote ran after Roadrunner through big pipes, in one big hole and out the other. But still, you are not chasing the holes. So probably everybody in my mother’s family knew that her marriage to my father had a good chance of failing.
Here I stand, a decade later, and I still see my father as Wily Coyote. Unlike the hapless cartoon canine, my father has caught a few holes. When he does, my parents separate, our family splits apart, and then we come back together when he crawls back on all fours (like a cartoon coyote) to my mother. During the separations, my sister and I get caught over the chasm.
We are right now, in fact, living in this rundown rental house in a seedy part of Spring Valley because of my father’s latest quest. I’m not sure my mother knows about it, but then again, why else would she hide from my father? I suppose the glue that has held their marriage together through all this is her complicity with my father’s behavior. If she would just proclaim him the cheating liar that he is, she could move on with her own life and save all of us from drowning in drama. Things are very simple if you are willing to open your eyes and see people for who they are.
I catch flickers of movement on the TV screen. A KTLA chopper hovers over the dam that is gushing torrents of what looks like chocolate milk on to hundreds of houses below, and a reporter says that in the morning, a leak was spotted in a pencil-thin crack running down the ten-story face of the dam. Despite frantic repair efforts, the crack widened and gaped until finally the earth shook and roared, the dam gave way, and nearly three hundred million gallons of water thundered down the Cloverdale Avenue canyon in a thirty-five-foot wall.
As I watch the film showing cars and whole houses bobbing and floating down the current like corks, I am not sure what to think, say, or do. “Those poor people,” I say out loud. Glad it isn’t me, I think. What I do is stand, watch, and wait.
I hear the front door open and light pours into the dark room. I feel a glimmer of relief. My shoulders loosen and I relax my gut. It’s not that everything is perfect now and life goes back to normal. Hope for normal fled this family long ago. But we have had long stretches where things move along harmoniously, and my parents even seem happy together. If mom and dad do go out, I might have a less stressful evening.
My older sister, Arianna, walks into the dining room. Her long black hair swings along her shoulders and her silver hoop earrings flash. “What are you doing in there, Gruff?” She has called me that since we were little, and our Mom read us Three Billy Goats Gruff. Ari said that I am like those goats in the story: sly and pugnacious.
She and I have been through a lot together with our neurotic, out-of-control parents. She is calmer and more accepting of things that I am. If I’m a red goat, I would call her a black swan, who glides through the water without getting her feathers wet.
“You’re just in time for the fireworks. Dad’s late and Mom’s barricaded herself in her bedroom again.” I turn my back on the television screen and take a step toward her.
“I’m going to make myself a sandwich and eat in my room,” Ari says, and goes toward the kitchen. “You might want to think about clearing out, yourself.”
Arianna knows me better than that. She knows that I need to be in the thick of it. I can’t seem to help myself. My sense of activism might come from all the time I spent with Nana when my parents were separated. Nana was a protestor: radical liberal, bordering on anarchy: anti-war, anti-animal testing, women’s rights, pro-choice. She led me by the hand to demonstrations all over Orange County, where she lived. I loved the heat and commotion of the conflict, the passion, the sense of righteousness, and trying to protect the oppressed.
I look at the television screen, where firemen in boats are plucking people and animals off roofs and tops of cars and out of trees. I doubt KTLA is bringing back the Lakers any time soon, so I go into the kitchen after my sister.
Arianna is bent forward, up to her shoulders inside the refrigerator. She says something that I can’t hear. I poke her hip and call, “Can you come out for a second, please?”
She turns and clunks a jar of French’s yellow mustard on the counter. “I said, is Dad up at Jimmy Laughlin’s?”
Jimmy Laughlin is my best friend. We have known each other since the seventh grade, when I saw him hanging out of a two-story window at Spring Valley Junior High School, joking with some kid who was passing below. Then I found out Jimmy was in my homeroom. In fact, he was the class president. I came into his homeroom as a new student half-way through the school year. I started junior high school at Pacific Beach Junior High in San Diego. My father sells ad space in the Yellow Pages telephone book. He moved us south to work the San Diego directory.
While we lived in a flea-infested rental house in Pacific Beach, my parents fought constantly. My mother never mentioned anything about my father plugging holes, but she did say they were planning to separate again. They didn’t. Instead, we moved back to our family home on Pemberton Street in Spring Valley, and I entered late the junior high that I was supposed to attend. Jimmy took me under his angel wing right after I was introduced to the class as a new student.
Jimmy lives up in La Pluma Canyon, about five miles away from where I live now on Holcomb. My father would not be at Jimmy Laughlin’s. He does not know Jimmy, although Jimmy knows him. It so happens that my father is currently having an affair with Nicole “The Hole” Corax. Corax lives next door to Jimmy’s grandmother, Mrs. Laughlin, who lives next door to Jimmy and his family. Mrs. Laughlin is the unwitting filler in a scandal sandwich. My father drives a gold hardtop 1960 Jaguar XKE. It is a car hard to miss. And it is parked in Nic Corax’s driveway, day and night, for Jimmy and everyone in his neighborhood to see. When I go up to Jimmy’s now, I feel like I’m the one wearing the “A” around my neck.
“Probably.” I say to my sister. “Where else would he be?” It was true. My father has no friends outside of work and no hobbies (I suppose it depends on how you define hobbies). If he is out and about, he is probably either with or in The Hole.
As I said, I still don’t know if my mother knows about Nicole Corax. How could she not? By now, she must have developed ESP around my father’s philandering. She has never said anything or let on to me that things are extraordinary. It seems finger-in-the-eye obvious to me. But my mother and I choose to navigate the whirly waters of our family life differently.
I first figured out Nic Corax when my father moved us yet again, from Los Angeles to San Francisco for nine months for his work. We moved up there before last summer. I did the first half of my senior year at Balboa High School. I didn’t know a soul. It was one more lonely time of being away from my friends and going to a school as a new student. When you are the child of self-absorbed, neglectful parents who are looking out for their own needs and constantly fighting each other and their own demons, you tend to build character and gather just a bit of bitterness.
During the end of our stay in San Francisco, my dad did a switcheroo. Instead of spending his work week with us up north, he commuted back down to L.A. for the week and flew to us for the weekend. He said he had some loose ends on the closing Los Angeles directory. On Friday nights, he arrived at our shabby house on Persia Avenue in the Excelsior district of San Francisco. Mom would have dinner waiting, and we would all sit down and talk about our week, or more accurately, listen to my father talk about his, minus critical, incriminating information that he chose not share. My mom might mention a book she was reading or a department store sale she scored. Ari talked about school, at which she excelled. I did not say much, staying quiet in my dark resentment at my father for causing me so much misery.
My dad starting coming through the Persia Street door on Friday nights, tipsy, face glowing, eyes glassed, and his mouth smeared a distinct shade of red. As I have said, my father filled in the holes at different times while I was growing up. My first thought, seeing him do a veritable Fred Astaire soft-shoe shuffle into the kitchen, was that he was having an affair down in L.A.
The analogy to Fred Astaire is not unapt. My father underwent a persona uplift five years ago when he turned forty-five. Suddenly he fashioned a new coif, slicking straight back his receding hairline. He invented an upright, gliding, arm-swinging strut. He replaced his wardrobe with tailored suits from Silverwood’s. Colleagues and strangers seemed to find the new Art Milan refreshing and buoyant. Ari and I laughed at his faux bonhomie. Beneath the new skin breathed that same old slithering creature that inhabits a hole.
The last month of our stay in San Francisco, my father was regularly detained down south and did not make it home on weekends. My mother never said a word about him not coming back. But she doesn’t make a practice of sharing her feelings and disappointments with me, her teenage son. She resides in her bedroom or frequents shopping malls.
Arianna lays the slice of sourdough bread on top of her sandwich at the counter. I think about my own meal, because whether my dad comes home tonight, I will need to fend for myself.
“To the lighthouse,” Ari says, carrying her plate out of the kitchen toward her bedroom at the far end of the house.
I wish I could hide out in my room, but to get there, I have to go through my parents’ bedroom, where my mother is holed up. Either that, or go outside, walk about thirty yards down the sidewalk in the dark (in this sketchy neighborhood), come through the gate behind the garage, and enter through the sliding glass door off the patio. I did not have any say when we moved into this dump about who got which bedroom. My room is a drafty, dinghy, mildewed add-on, without its own bathroom. Believe me, my father would never put his debonair derriere in a situation where he is uncomfortable or inconvenienced.
There is no sign of my father at six fifteen. I go back into the living room and stand by the window, watching the curb. “Come on, Dad,” I say. “Jeez. Just come home. Is it really too much to ask?” I look up the quiet dinnertime street.
I turn back to the TV. Three white talking heads discuss the history of problems that have plagued the Baldwin Hills Dam project, located in one of the more affluent black neighborhoods in Los Angeles. These experts agree that the dam should never had been built in that location in the first place. It was, they say, a result of poor public agency management and reckless civil engineering.
With Christmas about two weeks away, I think about the families up there in Baldwin Hills who lost their homes. I am not sure how you pick up and get on with life after something like that. How do you feel the yuletide spirit and spread cheer? I look around this dark room, with its heavy green drapes over the windows, dark, stodgy maple furniture, beaten green carpet. There is no colorful lighted tree here in this room. No decorations. No scent of pine. No wrapped gifts to give and receive. My family members have gone in four directions. We have only days left to get it together, to make Christmas what it used to be. My mother might rally, as she always seems to, but I can’t count on it.
In our old family home, over on Pemberton Street in the more prosperous northeast part of town, we had big Christmases with my aunts and uncles, my dad’s brothers and sisters, and all my cousins. We gathered on Christmas Eve every year and had a big meal with eight or ten adults and as many children. Turkey, ham, stuffing, yams, mashed potatoes, green beans, cranberry sauce. Pumpkin pie and red velvet cake for dessert. All the kids went outside and played hide and seek until we were called in to open presents. My sister and I got bikes and radios and games and toy cars and dolls and all kinds of clothes. Then the adults drank and played pinochle while we ran around, all wound up, screaming and laughing. I am not sure where the rest of the family is this year, but I have heard nothing about a gathering for Christmas.
I hear the front door open again and glance at the clock. It is six twenty-five. My father does his lighter-than-air walk, which means he is drinking. He has an unlit cigarette hanging from his lips. I follow him into the kitchen.
“Dad, what are you doing?” I say. “You and Mom are going out tonight. You’re an hour and a half late.”
He stands at the same counter where Ari stood, pouring himself vodka. “I got held up,” he says, his cigarette flipping up and down as he talks.
“Held up. At gunpoint?”
“Detained.” He looks at me.
I place both my palms flat on the countertop. “Mom is in her room, all disappointed because you didn’t show.”
“Well,” he says, bringing the rim of the glass to his lips, “if she’s not coming out, then I’m not sticking around.”
“Go in and find out,” I say. “Please.”
“You, my boy, are treading in dangerous waters.” My father slams the bottom of the glass on the counter and turns toward the door. “I don’t have time for this shit.” And he is gone.
“Why did you come home at all?” I shout after him. “Oh, that’s right. I forgot. This isn’t your home anymore.”
This is how my dad handles things. It’s his way or no way. I can understand why Mom hides from him, especially when he is drinking. All he has to do is go into her room and say, “Ellen, I’m sorry I’m late. I was detained. Would you still like to try to catch a movie?” or, “Ellen, I’m sorry but I do not want this anymore. I’m sorry to disappoint you.” Instead, he raises and dashes Mom’s hopes, like a buffeted kite, pretending to us that he still has interest in his family.
The next morning, I sit at the kitchen table and ogle photos of Ursula Andress in Look Magazine over my Cheerios when Ari walks in.
“I need to find out more about his brazen tramp,” I say.
My sister leans in, and says, “The German sexpot?”
“She’s Swiss and I’m not talking about Ursula Undress. I’m talking about Nicole Corax.”
Ari heads to the refrigerator for her yogurt, which she will mix with Grape Nuts. “You must have got caught in the shit storm last night when Dad got home.”
“Nothing happened. He came in for about ten seconds, slugged his vodka, and ran like a spooked dog when he found out that Mom was mad at him. He never came back so I imagine he scored a hole-in-one,” I say. I pass her the milk. “I’m going to Jimmy’s after work and get close up and personal with this poser.”
“Why are you suddenly so incensed? We’ve known who she is for months. Now you want to call her out? Do you think anything you do will convince her to give Dad back?”
“I’m not trying to convince anybody. I’m curious, that’s all. I want to stand face-to-face with her, look into her crusty eyes and smell her penile breath.”
“Do what you need to, Gruff. Remember that whatever you do will come back on you.”
This is an inside joke. My sister says this when I strike out to do something. When she and I had pillow fights as kids, she would whomp me hard in the face. I snapped into a red zone of fury and back came at her looking for blood. I swung my pillow like a mace ball, only to be whacked in the back of the head by another of her shots and then doubled over by a blow to the gut. It took me a long time to get that she is bigger, stronger, and quicker. I was out of my element. Finally, the melee ended with her towering over me, laughing at my boiling tears.
But I got my revenge. Who was sly? Her diary would be missing, or her favorite necklace. I would forget to give important phone messages that I took from her friends. She could never prove that I did anything intentionally. She screamed that I was certifiably crazy and could never be trusted.
I pushed my chair back and stood. I said to my sister, “I’m just fact-finding. A little recon.”.
As I went out the door, Arianna called after me, “The train has left the station, Gruff. Time to jump on board.”
After I get off work at the Shop ‘N Save grocery store, I drive past Jimmy’s. In the driveway of the house two doors up the street. I glance at a blue and white fifty-five Ford Fairlane. There is no sign of my father’s Jag. Thank God. What would I do if he were there? Drive away and never look back? Walk up, pound on Nicole Corax’s door, and confront them? Ram the fancy Jaguar with my Mom’s fifty-six Merc? What I do is a U-turn at the end of the block, drive back down, and pull into Jimmy’s driveway. I ring the bell on the gate as Jimmy’s German Shepard, Lucifer, barks and bares his foamy teeth on the inside of the fence. Jimmy comes out of his house, tying his long blond hair into a ponytail. He has probably the longest hair of any guy at Eisenhower High School. He walks with me next door to his grandmother’s front yard.
“What do you have in mind, man?” Jimmy says. “You want to peek in her windows? I can go with that. She’s hot. Intercept her mail? Shadow her?”
“I don’t know. Just find out something about her. Get some useful information.
“Useful for what?”
“I want to find out who she is. Find out why she would have an affair with a man she knows has a wife and two kids. Maybe there is something I can use against her, if I need to. I don’t know yet.”
“What makes you think she knows your Dad is married? You have never talked to her.”
“My father does not live here. Yet. She must wonder where he goes on those nights that he’s not with her, where he stays, when he is actually staying at home with us. It is inconceivable that she would not know. My dad can be a pompous dick, but I can’t see him going into a new relationship like this, built completely on a lie. She has to know.”
It is true. My father does have a sense of justice and fairness. When I got in trouble as a little kid, he always said to me, “You know the difference between right and wrong.” I listened solemnly and bent my head remorsefully when he said that, but I wondered whose right and wrong we were talking about. To agree with him, I would have to accept his ethics. Why is he the arbiter? Is it consensus, or does the wisest person, or the person with authority, decide these things? Maybe my father used that little catch phrase because he did not know what else to do. Occasionally, but seldom, he did turn us over his knees and swat our behinds with the flat of his hand. Once I was about twelve, he stopped doing that. My own innate sense of justice tells me that when someone is hurting someone else, especially for selfish reasons, that is wrong. That is when I put my horns down and knock the troll off the bridge.
We stand at the edge of Mrs. Laughlin’s porch and look below at the driveway next door.
“If my father has not told her and she doesn’t know that he’s married with a family, it is even worse. Then those deluded prevaricators need to be stopped,” I say.
“I can only imagine what this situation must be like for you,” Jimmy says. My best friend can be a little goofy sometimes, but he is full of empathy.
I hear a door close and see movement on the porch of Nicole Corax’s house next door. A guy about our age comes down the steps.
“Shit. That’s Clay Kliban.” I take a step back into shadow.
“What the hell is he doing there?” Jimmy says.
“I cannot stand that guy.”
“He is a complete asshole.”
I poke my head out. “When I went into seventh grade, Kliban rode up to me on his bicycle, threatened to punch me, and smeared lipstick on my face. `Welcome to junior high, Scrub,’ he said.”
“He gave me a karate chop in the back of my neck at Pinewood Elementary,” Jimmy said. “I looked at him and he said, “Take a picture. It lasts longer,’ then when I turned around, he whacked me. I always wanted to kick his ass. But then, I knew he would beat me to a pulp.”
“I heard he joined The Marines.”
“He has the look,” Jimmy said.
“You mean psycho killer with a bad haircut?”
I lose sight of Kliban on the other side of the car in the driveway.
“What does Clay Kliban have to do with your father’s girlfriend?” Jimmy looks at me. His pupils are huge.
“I guess that’s what we need to find out.” I turn and walk off Mrs. Laughlin’s porch.
“Where you going?’ Jimmy says.
“Talk to Kliban.”
“Are you insane?”
“Probably.” I cut across Mrs. Laughlin’s lawn, back toward Jimmy’s. Jimmy runs to catch up with me.
“Guy’s a thug,” he says.
“We’re all grown now. He’s not going to mess with us. He’s a serviceman.”
In front of Jimmy’s house, I turn back up the street. “Let’s walk by him, like we’re headed to the end of the block.”
“But there’s nothing up there,” Jimmy insists.
Kliban sucks on an unfiltered cigarette, sitting on the low rock wall in front of Nic Corax’s house. When Jimmy and I walk by, he lifts his chin, squints his eyes, and frowns at us. His round, fleshy face is tanned, and his haircut skinned on the sides and buzzed on top.
“Clay, what’s up?” I say.
“You remember us? Kevin Milan and Jimmy Laughlin.” Jimmy and I stand with our backs to the road, six feet in front of him.
“Yeah, and the neighborhood. I used to live over on Pemberton.” I shift my weight to the other leg and fold my arms on my chest. “We’re seniors in high school. But it looks like you’ve been out in the big world.”
“I got as far as the brig at Camp Pendleton,” Kliban says, and drags on his cigarette.
“The brig?” Jimmy says.
“Yeah, you know, jail. I pulled a knife on a Gunnery Sergeant in boot camp. I wanted out, and they obliged me. They gave me a dishonorable discharge.”
“You didn’t like The Corps? The few, the proud.” Jimmy straightens up, as if he is standing at attention.
“Let’s just say I’m not big on brainwashing.” Kliban takes a good hard look at the smoky cigarette in his hand.
“What brings you to my neighborhood?” Jimmy says.
I nod my head toward Mrs. Laughlin’s house. “Jimmy lives two houses up. This is his grandmother’s place next door.” I don’t look at Jimmy, but I can feel his wince. “You visiting friends?”
“Staying with my mother here while I figure out a place to live. My father won’t take me back. He’s real big into the military. I’ve probably blown it with him for good.”
“Yeah, she’s been living here about nine months. We used to live over by Clemens Hardware, before my parents split up.” Kliban looks at Jimmy when he says this, as if Jimmy might back up what he’s saying.
I remember Jimmy said he thought Nic Corax was hot. I cannot imagine who Kliban’s father is. He did not get his looks from his mother. His eyes are dull, dark and deep-set. Although his hair is short, his scalp comes down low on his forehead. He has a beard that needs at least two scrapings a day. If Nic Corax has a thing for ugly men, what does that say about the suave Arthur Milan?
“Clay!” a woman calls from the porch of the house.
“Shit,” Kliban says. “Man, I got to go.” He puts out his cigarette butt against the wall, jams it into his pocket, and jogs back up the driveway.
I follow him a few feet, duck behind the Ford, and look at the door. A blonde woman stands in the doorway with her hands on her hips. As Kliban approaches her, she steps out and says, “You know our agreement. You want to stay, you pull your weight. The kitchen is still a mess.” She looks younger than my father but has a son older than me. She is attractive because I can’t take my eyes off her. Before she steps back into the house, she glances in my direction. I duck behind the car.
“Kevin? Kevin Milan, is that you?” she calls.
“Shit, she sees me,” I say, pushing past Jimmy. “How does she know who I am? I can’t believe it.” I groucho-walk back to Mrs. Laughlin’s.
“Where are you going?” Jimmy follows me. “I thought you wanted to check her out. She’s right there, dude.”
My mother stands on a stool and hands down a stack of dishes to my sister from the cupboard as I walk into the kitchen at home. Boxes sit on counters.
“What’s going on?” I say.
“Hi, Sweetie. We’re moving,” Mom says. “Your father got us into Valley Oaks Manor. It’s that beautiful apartment complex around the corner from Pemberton. The one with the big pool surrounded by all the shady plants.”
“Us?” I say, standing in the middle of the kitchen floor.
“It’s a three bedroom,” Arianna says, pushing down the top flaps on a box.
“It’s a week before Christmas,” I say.
“We have to be in before the New Year, the manager said. Would you rather stay here?” Mom says.
“No, but--.” No one listens to me. Mom and Ari each take a side of the box with the dishes and carry it to the corner of the kitchen by the door. I pick up a banana and peel it. I guess we’re moving. “Where is Dad?”
“He’s out getting more boxes,” Mom says.
I slam the banana peel into the sink. “Right. How long are we going to play this? Dad is only moving us there so he can be closer to his girlfriend. Does the name Nicole Corax ring a bell?”
Arianna stops packing and puts her hands on the top of a closed box. “Gruff. This isn’t helping.”
“Surely, Mother, you know this is going on,” I say. “That whole farce in San Francisco when he barely made it home on weekends. He walked in on Friday night smelling like the perfume counter at K-Mart.”
“Are you finished?” Mom says. “We have a lot of work to do here.”
“So, you just ignore him screwing some other woman. Do you know that she lives less than a mile from Valley Oaks Manor? He can walk there.”
“Kevin, please. When you are married for as long as your father and I have been, and have children of your own, we can have this discussion. It’s not your business.”
“It’s my business that he’s fucking my best friend’s neighbor and humiliating me and making you feel so sad, you hide in your room.”
“He is acting badly, but it’s more complicated than that,” Mom says.
“It’s not complicated. He’s a narcissist, and he’s having an affair. And yes, that pisses me off, as it should you.”
“Okay. I understand,” Mom says. “Now, let’s get our things packed up so we can get out of here and move to Valley Oaks Manor while we have the chance.”
“I have to go to work,” I say and walk out, slamming the door. It is impossible to comprehend the depth of my mother’s denial. She would have justification for homicide, yet she acts as if my father has a disability we all need to come to terms with. Not going to happen. He must take responsibility for his actions. We all do.
Shop N Save Market is chaos, with shoppers backed up at all six registers. I finish bagging a huge order, flying to keep up with our fastest checker. I ask the couple if they want help out and the man says no, pushing the stacked cart toward the door. I step back to my shelf, snap open a brown jumbo grocery sack, and look at the next shopper. Nicole Corax walks in front of the checker and stands three feet from me. She doesn’t turn her head toward me, although she obviously knows who I am. I look around to see if another bagger can switch orders with me. Everyone is madly working at the check stands. I watch the first of her items on the belt, an extra-large carton of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, move toward me. The rooster on the box is like a warrior coming out of the ranks to challenge me, mano y mano. Is The Hole getting larger provisions to feed the men in her house? I cannot remember my dad eating sugary cereal. A cup of black coffee (which he has me make him every morning), and he is out the door. Nic Corax still does not look over at me. Now she ignores me? I pack her Banquet frozen dinners, instant oatmeal, potato chips, mac and cheese, Maxwell House coffee, and jugs of Dr. Pepper. I load the shopping cart and look around again for a free bagger to step in and help her out to her car. Everyone is lost in the commotion of a busy Saturday morning grocery store. Nic Corax walks around the cart and heads to the door, fully expecting that I follow with her purchase. I watch her curled blonde hair bounce on her shoulders and her tight round butt move in her shorts. She has good legs.
I try to imagine my father’s flabby, hairy belly laying on top of this hard-body lady, their pubic bones pressed together, lips mashing, staring deep into each other’s eyes. It is gross. She leads me out the door and across the parking lot, walking twenty feet ahead of me. Her tennis shoes are whiter than fleecy clouds. When we get to her Ford, she lifts the trunk lid and stands facing me. Now, I refuse to look at her. I lean in with a sack. She says, “I don’t know what you think is going on, Kevin, but I can tell you it is not what you imagine.”
What does that even mean? Is she trying to trick me with words? I stand up straight and look in her face. She squints her brown eyes and purses her plumpy lips. She is a striking woman.
“You live next door to Mrs. Laughlin,” I say. “She’s my best friend’s grandmother, and he lives next door to her on the other side.”
“The neighbor lady. I see her peeking through her curtains. I have tried to be friendly.”
“She sees all. And my dad’s gaudy car is always parked in your driveway. Overnight. So, when he’s not home with his wife and children, where he should be, he’s with you. That’s what I know is going on. Those are the facts.” I twist the plastic handle of the cart and look around the busy lot. I need to get back in the store before the manager wonders where I went.
“Imagine what you want, but I’m telling you that you have the situation wrong,” Nic Corax says, as she opens her car door and gets in. No explanation. No apology. No empathy.
“Whatever.” I mumble, turn and walk away. “A homewrecker anda liar.”
When I walk into our house after work, my mother, father, and sister sit in the dining room, eating dinner. As I come through the door, I hear Ari talking in an animated voice and then everyone laughing. They act as if nothing is out of step. I stand by the table and stare at my father. The three of them stop talking.
“Hello, Kev. You just get off work? Sit down and have dinner,” my father says.
“I met your friend at the store,” I say.
“What friend is that?”
“Like you don’t know.”
“Sorry, Bud. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
I look at my mother. Her expression is pleading, her eyes looking sad. She shakes her head almost imperceptibly. I can’t do it to her. She was laughing just seconds before. Ari’s face is squeezed tight, as if she is bracing for a slap. “This family is beyond hopeless,” I say, and walk into the kitchen. I make myself a salami sandwich and take it to my room. As I walk through my parents’ bedroom, I smell a vanilla candle, and spot it flickering on the end table next to my mother’s side of the bed. God knows what that is for.
I wake up in the darkness of night, having to pee. I stumble up the steps to my parents’ bedroom door and turn the knob. As I step into their room, I smell vanilla and hear grunting and moaning, coming from their bed across the room, coming from them in their bed across the room. I walk on through and stand before the toilet in the hall bathroom, with the light still off. My bare feet planted on the cold tile, I feel a lump in my throat. As I swallow, sobs burst out of me. What the hell is going on? I swallow again and wipe my eyes with the back of my hand. Is this a dream? No one else sees what I see. No one cares about the selfish lies and the heartbreak. I can’t do this by myself anymore. Maybe Nic Corax is right, and it is not what I think it is. Maybe it is a dream.
I jam my fingers in my ears and rush back through my parents’ bedroom and into my own. I lay on my back in my moldy bed and listen to a cat somewhere nearby wailing at the injustice. My father is correct. I do know the difference between right and wrong. No one can fool me about that. What is right is right. And what is right is mine. I fall asleep as my breath slows and everything around me quiets.
Jimmy calls while I eat breakfast in the kitchen. The light in the room seems a little brighter this morning. I think of my mom sleeping in her bed. At least she and my father are getting along for the moment. Either everyone in the house is still asleep, or they are all gone. I am not going to investigate.
“She’s building a fence,” Jimmy squeals into the phone.
“What do you mean?”
“Your dad’s concubine. She’s putting up a tall wooden fence, blocking all my grandmother’s windows on that side. Gram’s spitting mad.”
“Okay, I’ll come over.” Why does Jimmy call and yell at me? This is how it works. Although I have and want nothing to do with that woman, I am implicated because she is sleeping with my father. Her behavior becomes my problem. That is how this is unfair and how unfair this is.
When I pull up to Jimmy’s house and walk to the wire fence, Lucifer growls and bares his teeth at me. “Knock it off,” Jimmy yells at him and comes through the gate. He wears his usual flannel shirt, cut-off jeans, and huarache sandals. If you didn’t know better, you might think Jimmy is a surfer, light-headed and sun-drenched. Fact is, he hates the water and can’t swim.
“The hammering woke Gram up this morning,” he says. “She said she noticed there was no sun coming in her room. When she looked out the window, all she saw was boards. There’s a pickup in their driveway filled with lumber.”
We walk to Nic Corax’s. At the back of the truck, Clay Kliban lifts a two-by-four on to his shoulder and heads down the driveway. Jimmy and I follow him.
“What are you doing?” Jimmy calls.
Kliban swings around and scrapes the stucco wall just missing his mother’s window with the end of the board. “Shit,” he says.
I look at Jimmy, who bites his lip and shakes his head.
Kliban drops the board to his hands and keeps walking. “What does it look like I’m doing, Einstein?” he says.
“This isn’t even your house,” Jimmy says. “Your mother is renting it. I have known the Coopers, who own it, all my life.”
“The landlord said he’s okay with reasonable improvements.” Kliban stops at the end of the standing fence and sets the board on the ground.
“How is this an improvement?” Jimmy says.
I reach up to the top of the six-foot structure and tug. The whole thing wobbles and sways like Galloping Gertie. “Reasonable?”
“Stop,” Kliban yells. “What are you doing?”
“If you’re going to do it, you might want to think about pouring cement for the posts,” I say.
“No. No cement. This fence is not going to stay. My grandmother doesn’t want it.” Jimmy literally stamps his foot on the ground.
“Too bad, Crybaby. It is not on her property. Maybe you should tell the old lady to quit snooping on my mom,” Kliban says, picking up a hammer.
“We’ll see what Hank Cooper says when he hears you’re putting up a piece of crap fence and harassing my grandmother.”
“Did your mother tell you to do this?” I say.
“We talked about it. I’m surprising her.”
“I think she’ll be surprised. Is she home?”
Kliban turns to me. “She’s at work. She doesn’t want to talk to you anyway. She says you have bad manners.”
“I have bad manners? Why, because I won’t stand there and listen to her cretinous lies?”
Kliban brings the hammer waist-level. “Not a good time to badmouth my mother.”
“You are both crazy,” I say and walk away. I listen behind me for the whistle of a heavy metal object flying through the air. “Say hello to my dad,” I call. “I’m sure he’s a better father to you than he is to me and he doesn’t even know you.”
I look back and see Jimmy standing toe-to-toe with Kliban. Jimmy is about a half-a-foot shorter. They stare at each other, but both have their arms at their sides. As I walk by the chain link fence at Jimmy’s to my car, Lucifer lays on his side on the front lawn and barely lifts his head, as if I’m not worth the trouble.
I pass the ball to my dad, who swims with it in front of him, toward the far end of the pool at Valley Oaks Manor. My mother swims beside him and pulls on his leg. He slides back, and the ball floats to my sister. Ari throws it toward the other end of the pool. “No fair,” my dad calls. We are all in the same spot in the pool, laughing and splashing each other.
When my dad sticks around, life smooths out in the Milan household. The new apartment is ?? better. The place is huge, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. I get my own bedroom and don’t have to walk through my parents’ zombie orgies to get to mine. We have more space and light in every room.
Everyone is up in the mornings together and we all show up for dinner at six. Many evenings we watch TV, with my dad snoring on his back in his recliner.
Although I hate the way my father is acting, he can be okay to be around. Our relationship though has never been Andy and Opie. We never have had a lot of say to each other. When I was growing up, my dad always operated in a narrow groove. There was one right way to do everything. I was ten when we went camping up at Butte Crest. My dad took me because I was working on merit badges for Cub Scouts. He was troop leader. Two of my friends, the Bateson brothers, and my sister went with us. After my dad showed us how to clear the campsite and pitch the tents, he directed us to gather wood so I could build a campfire and get my badge. The three other kids scavenged twigs, sticks, and bark. I used our dull camping ax to chop kindling. I held the blade perpendicular to the log and chopped away. I had some fresh chunks flying off.
My father said, “Cut more at an angle. You’ll get better results.”
I kept doing it my way. He stepped up and tried to grab the ax from me. I hip-checked him and kept cutting.
“You’re getting little pieces, Kevin. We don’t have much light left.”
“I am not. I’m getting big pieces.”
He had enough. He bowled into me and snatched the ax. I got so frustrated, I kicked the log I was cutting and nearly broke my foot. My father grabbed me and put his hands on my neck. I think he would have choked me if the others weren’t watching.
He pushed me and I stormed off. My dad yelled, “Into the tent. Now.”
I went to the tent and dove inside. I thought about ripping the thing to ribbons.
“Don’t mind him,” I heard my father tell the other kids. “He’s feeling sorry for himself.”
Those battles of will with my father made me stay away from him, especially when I was trying to figure out something I couldn’t quite grasp. I would wait until he left the room or wasn’t around at all. I did not take my questions or confusion to him about anything. My mother was much more approachable. Most of the time my father and I kept our distance.
I come into the apartment on a late Saturday afternoon, after work. My mother sits on the sofa in the living room. She has her feet flat on the floor, knees up, with her elbows planted on her thighs. She has her hands over her face, pinkies pressed together. She sobs. I walk to her, and she looks up at me. Her face is a shiny, slathered mess.
“What is going on?” I say. “Someone die?”
“Your father left.”
“What do you mean?”
“He said he’s moving in with that woman.”
“I thought everything around here was good. You guys seemed happy. Dad seemed happy.”
“Your father has never happy. He said that we should never have been married.”
“Oh, my God.”
“He says you guys are nearly grown, and it could be his last chance to find love. He has one life and no choice but to go for it.”
“We will see about that,” I say, and walk out of the apartment.
Nic Corax’s driveway is empty when I pull up. I continue to the end of the street and make a U-turn. I come back down and park across from her house, in case I need a quick escape. I reach in the trunk of my mother’s car for the can of red spray paint. I toss it behind bushes and go up and knock on the front door. No answer. I look into the window along the porch, see the dining room table, and sense no human presence inside. “Hello!” I call into the house. No response. I leap off the porch, grab the spray paint, and walk to the end of the driveway, near the garage. On the unfinished pine slats of the fence, I paint a four-foot-tall H. I skip down three feet and paint an O. Down three feet, L, and finish off with an E. I walk back to the street, look both ways, craning my neck to sweep the fronts of the houses along the road. No one is around to see me. I open the trunk, throw the can in, and head to Jimmy’s
When I get to the front gate at Jimmy’s, his little brother, Simon, tugs on a length of rope that hangs from Lucifer’s jaws. The dog growls and moves his feet backward on the lawn, pulling the towhead seven-year-old boy toward him. Simon laughs and releases the rope. Lucifer shakes it as if trying to detach a squirrel from its skin. “Simon, go get Jimmy,” I yell from the gate. Simon runs in the house, and Jimmy comes out.
Jimmy says, “You headed up to the den of iniquity?”
“Nope. Just thought I’d come by and see you.”
“So, what’s the latest?” Jimmy sits on a wide old tree stump that sits in his front yard. I sit next to him. He smells of reefer.
“The old man finally left us. He’s living with her now. He’s your new neighbor, man. You should take the welcome wagon over with a bundt cake.”
“That must piss you off.”
“I’m looking for ways to rectify.” I stand. “In fact, I just thought of something. I have to go. See you later.”
“You just got here.”
"Where’s your car?”
I walk back up to Nic Corax’s. I go up the driveway to the back yard. I remember when I was decorating the fence that I saw a bedroom window half-open in back. I stand in front of it and look around me. The back yard is ringed on two sides by tall bushes. The view from Mrs. Laughlin’s house is now blocked by the fence. This is what you get with privacy. I lift the window and dive through, head-first, on to the floor on my knees and elbows. I stand in the midst of clutter and chaos—clothes strewn on the floor, furniture, and all over the bed, plates of unfinished food. It smells of body odor and rotted fruit. Kliban’s room, no doubt. The walls are bare. Maybe he hasn’t decided, or she hasn’t decided, if he’s staying. It is not his room I’m interested in. I walk into the hall and turn toward the door at the end. I open it to a king-size bed, covered with a fluffy lilac-colored duvet and headed by about fifteen throw pillows. On the dresser stand photographs in gold frames. One group of photos shows a small child riding a bike. He’s about seven. He has very blond hair with a toothy smile. He wears a red and blue striped t-shirt, blue shorts, white shoes, and an old-fashioned blue cloth baseball cap. The kid looked eerily like Simon. Under the frame is a loose piece of paper with the inscription: “Clint, our little angel who was called back to heaven.” I slip the backing out of the frame, slide the photo out, and put it in my pocket. I open the top drawer of the dresser and pull out a pair of black panties. I leave the drawer half open with underwear strewn out. “For good measure,” I say aloud. Back in Kliban’s room, I lift the pillow on his twin bed and stuff the panties underneath, with just a morsel sticking out. After I climb out the window, I pull it midway, to where it was. Walking up the driveway, I admire my red letters, which have left tailings down into the dirt, in which the fence sways.
After dinner, I drive back to Nic Corax’s. My father’s Jaguar is the first thing I see in the driveway. It is parked so that its rear bumper sticks into the roadway. I pull in at an angle to block my father’s car. I walk straight to the front door. Clay Kliban stands behind the screen when the door swings open.
“Stop pounding. What do you want?” Kliban says.
“Get my father out here.” I consider putting my fist through the screen but decide that violence will increase resistance. “Please,” I add.
“He’s busy.” Kliban begins to close the door.
I pull my fist back to fire it forward. “Get him off your mother and out here.” I show Kliban my fist.
“Keep your drawers on, Whiner.” Kliban says and leaves the doorway. “Psycho,” I hear him say.
My father comes to the door. He wears a pressed honeydew-melon-colored sports shirt and gray slacks, and holds what looks like an ice tea with lemon in his hand. No Vodka Collins.
“Hi, Kevin. What do you want?”
“What do I want? You are such a fucking asshole. I’m your son. You should have asked me that question about seventeen years ago, you self-centered hole puncher.”
“Okay, okay.” He pushes the screen door and steps on bare feet on to the porch, the ice cubes clinking in his frosty glass. “Please keep your voice down.”
“Don’t worry. The neighbors already know that you’re punching Liar Barbie.”
“Is this helping?” He stands in front of me, leaning on his right leg. He sips his drink. I am tempted to knock it out of his hands, send the thirst-quenching beverage flying on to his crisp shirt and the glass shattering on to his hairy, grayish feet.
“Helping? You just walked out on your wife of twenty years and two kids for this person who has the morals of a spider monkey.”
“I don’t think there’s any reason to get personal. She has feelings, too.”
“When did you start paying attention to people’s feelings?”
“I’m not going to do this.”
“Do what? Show your real son some attention and affection? You know the difference between right and wrong, don’t you, Dad? It’s wrong when you hurt people selfishly and ruin their lives.”
“I’m not going to argue with you. I choose to be happy. I hope you can understand that someday. I doubt that I can convince you of anything when you’re so angry. I have to go. We’re sitting down to dinner.” He turns and walks back into the house. The screen door slams behind him.
I am hungry, too. I feel some strange hurt that I am not invited in to sit down to dinner with them. I swallow the lump in my throat. I can’t believe a Piltdown like Kliban gets to be part of their life. “I hope you choke on all the crap she feeds you,” I call into the room, as I leave.
I sit on the edge of Arianna’s bed and tell her about my confrontation with Dad.
“Why don’t you just let it be?” she says. She lies on her back, with her hands behind her head, elbows out.
“This doesn’t piss you off? Dad is a cheating lowlife.”
“It doesn’t make me happy. I don’t like to see Mom in pain. But we need to accept that everything is changed. We have turned the corner. He is never coming back. Nothing will ever be like it was. Maybe that is a good thing. He has moved on and we should, too.”
“I know he’s not coming back, but I wouldn’t mind paying him back some of the pain we’re all receiving.” I stand and face my sister.
Ari sits up and folds her legs in front of her. “Okay, so, who do you think is most put out by this situation? Mom, certainly.”
“Jimmy. His Grandmother.” I sit back down on the end of the bed. “And Kliban. It’s hard to imagine he likes having Dad living there. You know, having to compete for his mother’s love. He’s enough of a shit bird as it is.”
“Your ally is one of them.”
Jimmy and I walk up the street past his grandmother’s house to see if Kliban is out in front.
“The guy is crazy,” Jimmy whispers as he strides beside me. “He said he just put some dude in the hospital by jabbing him in the throat with a pool cue. He said the guy stuck his finger in his beer.”
“The loser lies like his mother. It must be genetic. As if he pulled a knife on a DI in boot camp, right? He’d be dead now or breaking rocks. They probably kicked him out because he’s too ignorant.”
“He said he had to go to court to deal with this pool cue thing.”
There were no cars in the driveway.
“Let’s see if he’s here.” I step on to the porch with Jimmy behind me.
I knock on the front door. “Kliban,” I yell.
The door opens and Kliban stands behind the screen. “Your father is not here. Go blubber somewhere else,” Kliban says.
“I’m here for you.”
“That’s charming. What the hell do you want?”
“Can you come out?”
“Geez,” Kliban says and comes through the door. He wears no shirt. Only gym shorts. He is more muscular than I imagined.
“I’m working out. What do you want?’
“So, how are things going with my dad?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You like having him around?”
“Screw you. Get out of my business.” Kliban turns and heads for the door.
“What if I told you I know a way to get rid of him.” I have no idea what I am saying. I know I can’t deliver, but I do not want to lose him so quickly. I’m thinking on my feet. When he stops before he gets to the door, I know I have him.
The screen door opens, and Nic Corax steps out. “Excuse me. You know a way to get rid of who, now? She turns toward Kliban. “Go inside,” she tells him. He bows his head and slumps toward the door like a four-year-old.
“I gotta go,” Jimmy says and flees the porch.
“You need to get a grip, young man,” Nicole says to me. “All this hurtful mischief. Vandalizing my fence. Breaking into my house and stealing my possessions. Turning the neighbors against me. Being so hostile and disrespectful to your father. We want you to be a part of this change, Kevin, we really do. But if you keep up this behavior, you will lose the chance. One door opens while another closes. I don’t know if you get that. Maybe you’re too young or immature. But please believe me when I say that you do not want to push love away. That’s exactly what you’re doing. It’s very hard to get this trust, love and acceptance back once it’s gone. Virtually impossible. Do you hear what I’m saying?”
“Yeah. Whatever.” I won’t give her the satisfaction of agreeing with her, or even acting like I understand what she says.
She leans in and puts her face in front of mine. I feel the heat off her body. “So, Kevin, either grow up and join us, or go your own way and leave us alone,” she says. “That is the choice you need to make.”
As I walk down the driveway, I say, “Maybe I’ll burn your house down.”
“What? What did you just say?” Nicole calls to me.
“I said, ‘Maybe I’ll turn it around somehow.’”
I doubt I would ever go that far, but you never know until your back is on the wall. I just want The Hole, and my feckless father, to take me seriously. What’s right is right.
My mother works as a legal secretary for a law firm in Glendale. With Arianna’s salary from her job at a flower shop and mine from the grocery store, we get to stay at Valley Oaks Manor. I sit in the living room, talking to my mother, when the phone rings.
“Kevin,” my father says.
“How’s it going?”
“What are you doing?”
“Talking to my mother.”
“Can you come over?”
“Why would I do that?” I can’t seem to give him an inch.
“Do you have a few minutes? Please. I want to tell you something.”
“I have to bring something to Jimmy, so I’ll be up there.” I hang up the phone without telling him when.
I go back to my seat by my mom. “Can Dad get married?”
“He and I aren’t divorced. Unless he wants to break the law and become a bigamist, no, he can’t.”
“He says he wants to tell me something, so I thought that was it.”
When I arrive, Dad and Nicole sit on chairs on the front porch. That’s new: the chairs. There are three of them. They are nice wooden rockers.
I step on the porch; they both stop rocking. Nicole stands and walks to me. “Hi, Sweetheart.” She opens her arms to hug me, and I stand stiff as a redwood. Jimmy told me that he saw Kliban put a bunch of boxes in his pickup truck and drive away, so I don’t think he is going to be my answer. I can’t imagine he ever was the answer to anything, even his mother’s hopes and prayers.
“Kevin, your father and I want you to know that you are always welcome here,” Nicole Corax continues.
My dad stands and joins her. They hold hands and glance into each other’s eyes.
“We are building a big happy family,” Nicole says, “and it includes everyone.”
“And I,” Dad says, “want to make amends to you.”
“What does that mean?” I say.
“It means for one thing that I have stopped drinking. It means that I want to tell you that I’m sorry. I have not been happy for a very long time. I have not been a very good father to you and your sister. I want to make it up to you. We have a chance to create something here that we can all be happy with.”
“By all, do you mean Mom? She’s sitting at home by herself while you bask in your light of love. Is she always welcomed here?”
“In fact, I will make amends to her, too. I was not a good husband,” my dad says. “That will come later. We’ll see what the future brings. Who says she can’t be part of it in some way, if she wants to be. Anything and everything is possible.”
My father seems like a different person. I have never seen him so calm. He was a very wound up and impatient man.
“I have to go,” I say and turn to leave.
“Stay for a while. Sit down and talk with us,” my dad says. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“I got to go. Jimmy needs me.”
“Don’t keep running off,” Nicole says. “We need some time with you.”
“Quit telling me what to do. You don’t need anything from me. I don't need anything from you.” I lift my foot and put it on the arm of a chair sitting at the edge of the porch.
“Kevin, please don't,” my father says.
I don't want to. I don’t need to. It will not prove or improve anything. But it seems something I should do, would do. They are not going to get me so easily.
I draw my foot back and shove the chair off the porch into the shrubs, with a clatter and a snap.
I set the baseball cap on Simon’s head and look at the photograph I stole from Nicole’s dresser.
Jimmy’s little brother takes it off and throws it on the ground.
“Come on, leave it on,” I say. “Please. You don’t know what I had to do to find all this stuff.” I look up the street at Nicole Corax standing in her front yard with a hose in her hand watering. “We have to go.”
Jimmy steps in front of his brother. “What is this about? Why are you dressing him in this costume? He doesn’t like it. Everything’s too small.”
“The lady at the kiddie store said it would fit a seven-year-old. I only need him for a couple more minutes. I already told him I would buy him an ice cream. Let’s just walk up the street and talk to Nicole for a second. That’s all we have to do.”
I lead them out of the yard and head up the street. We pass in front of Mrs. Laughlin’s house. I keep my eye on Nicole Corax, who hasn’t seen us yet. Jimmy pulls Simon by the hand, who tugs on the bottom of the red and blue striped t-shirt that I got him. His white shoes are already grass-stained and dusty.
As we approach her house, Nicole turns her head and watches us come up on to her lawn. She looks confused and takes a step back.
“Hi Nicole,” I say. I take Simon’s hand and pull him in front of her. “Are you sure you aren’t missing something? Does this belong to you? Maybe that’s why you moved here next to Jimmy, so you can be close to this little guy. Is that it?” I cough up a dry hack trying to laugh.
“Oh, Kevin. You poor boy.” Nicole shakes her head. She turns the knob on the sprinkler and stares at me with a horrified expression.
Jimmy grabs his brother’s hand. “We are done here” He heads Simon out of the yard. Simon waves goodbye with his other hand. I run after them.
“What was that about?” Jimmy says. “I thought Kliban was her son. Did he look like Simon when he was little or something?”
“She had another kid who died.”
“Died? Wow, that’s pretty twisted, Dude, even for you,” Jimmy says, throwing Simon’s baseball cap over the fence to Lucifer.
“Don’t worry about it. I wanted to get rid of her and I did.” I look toward Nicole’s and she still stands there, rigid, looking at me.
I haven’t heard from my father in two weeks. He stopped calling me. He called me every day to try to get me to come up, even after the chair incident. Maybe Jimmy is right. Maybe I did go too far. What else was I supposed to say to that woman? I saw a chance to get through to her, to make her face her own issues. I wanted her to leave us alone. She had no right moving into Jimmy’s neighborhood and disturbing my world. I do doubt that it was a coincidence. I need to fight for what is right and what is mine.
I decide to drive up to Nicole’s before work. My dad’s car is way up the driveway, in front of Nicole’s Ford. I see that the fence is gone. They tore it out. That must make Mrs. Laughlin happy. I go up on the porch and tap on the door. Nicole appears behind the screen.
“Hi, Nicole. Is my dad here?”
“I’m sorry, Kevin. He doesn’t want to see you.”
“What do you mean? He’s been calling me.”
“No, he has not. He is done. We are done. I tried to tell you not to do something you can’t take back. You have ruined it. Now, please stay away.” She closes the door and opens it again. “Get some help, Dear,” she calls.
I stare through the screen as she turns away and closes the front door. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I am.” More to myself than to her. I am serious, though. It is not right. I was supposed to get rid of her, and I am the one left standing out here on the porch. I walk over and stick my face near the window and say, “I really want to talk to my dad.” The house is quiet as a granite quarry. I see the table and chairs sitting silently in the dining room. A breeze ruffles the curtains. Nothing else. “He says he wants to make amends,” I call. I listen. “Dad!!” Nothing.
I wait a few more seconds and go down the steps toward my car. I should have listened to my sister. I might never find a way into that house, but I have to try. It is only right.
Kiss or Kill
Egan lives by his own life axiom, which he calls Egan's Law. If he thinks or speaks disparagingly about a person he sees in public, he will find that person sharing his personal space. While attending a lecture by a renowned spiritual teacher, Egan spots a disheveled, surly man whom he dubs Ichabod. The reverberations of transgressing Egan's Law bring harrowing results.
Kiss or Kill
From his folding chair in Patron’s Hall, at Saint Ambrose’s Cathedral, Egan vaguely watched the audience assemble. He hummed the tune to “Truckin’ Like the Do-Dah Man” to keep his thoughts at bay. He held this personal axiom that when he was in a public place, such as boarding an airplane or entering a theater, and he had even a disparaging thought, not to mention a reckless comment, about a person in the crowd he didn’t like the looks of, that person would sit next to him. Despite coincidence and the indomitable dominion of chance, it was Egan’s Law because it was empirically proven. It had happened more than twice. It seemed, in fact, to happen frequently.
When he saw a mother swat her squalling toddler over by the dairy section at the Shoprite, he leaned into his wife, Sarah, and whispered, “Mommy Beer-est.” As Egan stood in the check-out line, the mother with her screaming daughter in tow pressed up behind him, the little girl’s sticky, slurpy paws tugging on his pant leg. It’s the Law, he had muttered, and vowed to never think unkindly again.
Seated in the Hall, next to his wife, on one side, and his friend, Sam and Sam’s wife, Madeline, on the other, Egan felt safe to watch the crowd gather to hear the Manfred Salisbury lecture. He spotted a tall, stooped, rail-thin guy, with spiky black hair and a sparse goatee. The sleeves on his wrinkled long-sleeve white shirt were buttoned, and the shirt half-tucked into shiny black jeans. He had his black, quilted, down vest zipped to the throat. In the throng, the guy swiveled his head and pinballed off people, looking surly and out of place. All you need, Ichabod, is a pumpkin in your hands, Egan thought. No, no. Egan’s Law.
“What’s s funny?” Sarah said.
“No, I’m just noticing all the purples and pinks, and all the gray ponytails. I think I even saw a tie-dye. Looks like an explosion at a Grateful Dead concert.”
“Careful. Instant karma will get you,” Sarah whispered.
Egan watched Ichabod approach several empty chairs toward the front. He leaned over the seats, while the people sitting on either side looked up and leaned away, shaking their heads and gently sending him off.
To divert himself, Egan surveyed the podium. The great man himself, Manfred Salisbury, wearing a crisp charcoal business suit and cordovan tasseled loafers, sat beside an Asian monk in maroon and yellow robes, both in overstuffed leather chairs, surrounded by vast bouquets of colorful flowers.
A young woman with a rosy face and short blonde hair stepped to the rostrum and spoke into the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we have the privilege and pleasure of hearing Buddhist scholar and former monk, Manfred Salisbury, speak on the Buddha’s Brahma-Viharas, the four sublime states of mind.”
Egan gave his attention to Salisbury, as the revered teacher stepped to the mike and talked about what he termed the four heavenly abodes: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. We are to assume these four attitudes, Salisbury explained, and radiate them out to all beings in all directions.
Salisbury told a story about a time when he was a young man in England. He had a good friend, whom he referred to as Clive. Clive betrayed him, by seducing Salisbury’s wife, Rosemary. Clive offered to leave, if Salisbury loaned him eight hundred pounds. Clive left with Salisbury’s money, and Rosemary. Salisbury said he hated Clive, with every fiber of his being. He wished the worst things he could imagine for his former friend. He even visualized Clive getting hit and dragged by a car, having his arm severed by an airplane propeller, living homeless, with AIDS, on the streets of London. He spent so much psychic energy hating Clive, he said, he made himself physically sick. Then he heard that Clive had died of a brain aneurysm.
Salisbury said that the event brought an epiphany. He might or might not have had anything to do with Clive’s demise on a physical level, but it wasn’t even about Clive and his aneurysm. It was about how hating Clive, no matter what the personal reasons, had darkened his own life, and the power of all that psychic energy that he had generated. Creating, holding and pushing that power through his own mind, body and spirit, and then out into his universe. It is energy, and energy, Salisbury pointed out, has its own laws. Once created, energy never dies. It changes into another kind of energy, which affected Salisbury’s immediate world and the people in it. Certainly, psychic energy, as it is transformed, leaves residue in the physical and spiritual bodies. When energy is produced, some of it is wasted or it degrades. So, for all that concentrated, high-level hatred that Salisbury said he produced, so very little, if any of it, was useful as a weapon against Clive.
While Salisbury paused to sip water from a tumbler at the podium, Egan looked at Sarah. She had her head bowed and eyes closed, a tiny gold cross swinging from a fine chain necklace at her throat. Past his wife, across the room, Egan saw the thin, spiky guy, staring back at him. I fought the Law and the Law won, Egan thought.
Salisbury spoke and Egan sat back in his chair. Don’t believe a single word I have said, the great man advised. A titter moved through the audience. Instead, he continued, jump in. Commit. Just do it, as the saying goes. Change the contraction and ill-will in your heart into the four heavenly abodes. Try it. See what it means, starting today, starting this very moment.
And remember, Salisbury concluded, keep trying. If you get caught up in your own paranoia and pettiness, come back to the four attitudes. Come back, over, and over, and over again.
When Salisbury finished, he put his palms together, fingertips at the tip of his ample, hooked nose, and bowed. Members of the audience applauded politely, many returning the bow. Salisbury turned and bowed to the monk. The two of them left the podium and mingled and chatted with people who approached them. Egan stood and looked around. The beatific expressions on people’s faces, the unhooded eyes, the open body language. It was as if the herbal fumes from a Dead concert had wafted through space and time into the hall.
Egan felt a sense of well-being and resolve. From the present moment forward, he was a new man. He hugged his wife long and hard. She hugged Sam and Madeline. He looked around the room, and spotted the thin, spiky-haired guy, talking to Manfred Salisbury, about half-way to the exit. Salisbury leaned back as the guy gesticulated vigorously with his hands. The two bowed to each other and went in opposite directions. Egan watched “he-whom-he-would-not-think-ill-of” go through the doors to the outside.
Egan shook his head and smiled. The four heavenly abodes, indeed, he thought. You pretty much have to live in heaven to pull it off. He walked through the expansive hall, toward the exit with Sarah. He could see the back of Sam’s head at the door. Egan didn’t see Madeline.
“What did you think”? Sarah asked, holding on to his bicep.
“It’s the antidote to Egan’s Law.”
“It certainly seems like something to aspire to.”
“What could it hurt?”
Egan stepped with this wife out through the doors, into the crowd of people loading into cars at the curb. It seemed as busy as an airport loading zone. Egan looked for Sam and Madeline. Sam walked up and said he was going to get the car and pull it up. Maddie was waiting on the curb by a pillar. He headed to the garage.
Egan took Sarah’s hand and cut through the crowd toward Maddie, who stood next to the pillar, her mouth and hands moving, as she talked to someone on the other side of the thick concrete column.
Egan craned his neck to see whom Maddie was standing with. He saw a white sleeve in a black vest and a leg in black jeans. He caught the black spiky hair on the back of a man’s head. He veered to his side to look around the pillar. “No way,” he said. The man he called Ichabod stood with his back to the street, the heels of his black Converses hanging over the edge of the curb. He had his arms folded on his chest, as he faced Maddie. Egan considered changing directions and walking away, maybe trying to short-hop Sam, but Sarah had already reached Maddie.
“Hey, you guys,” Maddie said. “This is Jeffrey. Jeffrey, these are my friends, Sarah, and here comes her husband, Egan.”
“People,” Jeffrey said, with a chop wave.
“Pleased to meet you,” Sarah glided up next to Maddie, beaming.
Egan stood to the side, between the man and the two women.
Maddie said she had offered Jeffrey a ride, to a bus stop up on Twenty-eighth Street. “I thought it would be nice to help him out, since we’re going that direction,” Maddie explained.
Egan looked at Jeffrey, whose head tilted and trembled slightly, as he watched Maddie. Egan noticed that the man’s brown eyes were small and slightly crossed. He had a florid complexion and a long thin nose. He seemed to have a tic of wrinkling his nose, exposing his front teeth. Egan could not imagine why Maddie would invite the guy along, a total stranger, an obviously odd character. But he needed to keep away the negative, hostile thoughts. Egan’s Law was the very reason the man was along for the ride. Back to Salisbury’s compassion. Kind and loving thoughts to turn things around.
Sam appeared at the curb in his red Volvo wagon. Egan opened the back passenger-side door for Sarah, and followed her in. Jeffrey got in on the street side. Sam looked in the back, as Maddie leaned across her seat. She told her husband that the stranger needed a ride. “Just up to Twenty-eighth,” she said, closing her door and clicking her seat belt.
Sam hesitated, “What?”
His wife told him to go. “Just go!”
Stopped at the traffic light, Egan watched Jeffrey, on the other side of his wife. Egan kept one hand on Sarah’s forearm and the other on the door handle. Who is this guy? What does he want? We have no idea if he’s dangerous. He must have asked Maddie for a ride. Why else would she have offered? What if he has a weapon?
Sam looked at Jeffrey in the windshield mirror and asked him where he wanted out.
“Up ahead. Got to find a bus stop,” Jeffrey said.
Egan scoured the curb up the street for a stop. He wanted to help the guy, but he wanted him out of the car. Egan announced that he saw an MTS stop. “By that green awning. There,” he called.
Jeffrey said that that line didn’t take him where he needed to go. He shook his spiky head and wrinkled his nose.
Where do you need to go?” Maddie said, twisting her head to look in back.
Jeffrey said he was fine, not to worry. He would let her know.
Sam drove, head forward, neck rigid as rebar. Maddie kept looking back over the seat, as if she was concerned about Jeffrey’s well-being.
Sarah leaned into Egan and glanced at him, apparently as uncomfortable as he was about riding next to the obvious serial killer in their midst. Egan saw a yellow plastic handle sticking out of the guy’s front pocket. Was it a screwdriver?
Jeffrey asked where they were headed.
“We’re going to dinner,” Maddie said, looking over the seat.
“Where?” Jeffrey leaned forward.
Maddie told him Mitchell’s, on Grape Street.
Sam pounded the heels of his palms on the steering wheel.
“I could eat,” Jeffrey said.
How far do we take this? Egan thought. Do we give up our lives to being loving and kind? Salisbury said whatever the circumstance. This is a circumstance. We need to get rid of this guy.
“Up there, by the CVS, there’s a bus stop,” Sarah cried. She pointed with her outstretched arm, her index finger between Maddie and Sam
Jeffrey said, with some heat, that the buses that ran on Market did not go out to Golden Hill. He turned his body to face Sarah. “Just keep going.” His sanguine face seemed to throb crimson.
Egan felt the tension move between himself, his wife, Maddie and Sam, as if they were connected by a hot wire. Except for the road noise, the inside of the car was bound tight as a tomb.
Maddie turned her head once more. She asked Jeffrey how he knew Manfred Salisbury. “I saw you talking to him,” she said.
Jeffrey said he didn’t know Salisbury. He just went up to him. “He was a jerk,” Jeffrey spat. “He said he didn’t have time. He had to talk to some important people. It was like I had dengue fever and he wanted to get away from me.” Jeffrey said he was tempted to plant one on the guy.
Maddie suggested that maybe Salisbury did have to meet somebody.
Jeffrey smacked his lips. “Maybe he could have been a little kinder. All he talks about is being kinder.”
Egan watched Jeffrey chew on his thumb nail and glare at Maddie. Sarah leaned into Egan so hard, his ribs hurt. This guy is a bomb, he thought. Screw the Heavenly Abodes. This guy is out. He glanced at Sam’s eyes in the mirror.
Sam squinted back at him. Sam turned his head and said that they were turning up ahead on Twenty-eighth.
Jeffrey said that was fine with him. He bent forward, between the front seats, leaning over Sarah.
Sam told him that they had dinner reservations.
“I don’t mind tagging along,” Jeffrey said, his head nearly between Sam’s and Maddie’s.
Sam swerved the car to the curb, nearly clipping another car that was entering traffic. The other car honked, came around, and sped off. Sam put his arm along the back of the seat to turn and face Jeffrey. He told him it was the end of the line. He said, “There’s a bus stop on the corner right there. It’s the best we can offer you.”
Egan gripped the door handle. He guessed that the best thing would be to open the door, pull his wife out with him, tuck and roll. He watched Jeffrey, who scooted to the edge of the seat, turning his head to look out all windows. He twitched his nose, showing his front teeth.
Sam and Maddie both looked in the back. Maddie said she was sorry.
“Okay,” Jeffrey said. “If that’s the way you want it to go down.” He sat up straight and put his hands on his knees, elbows locked.
Egan worked to clear his mind. He pictured Manfred Salisbury’s tanned, smooth face. Think only good thoughts, he told himself. He didn’t want to cause this to get worse.
Jeffrey opened his door and got out. He stepped behind the car and knuckle rapped the back window twice. Sam accelerated from the curb.
“Whew!” Sarah said. “That man was strange. He smelled like rotted apples.”
Egan said that he didn’t know if Jeffrey would kill them or kiss them. He stretched his legs, as his wife slid to the opposite side of the back seat.
Maddie said that Jeffrey had asked if they could give him a ride. “I wanted to be nice,” she sighed.
Sam drove without speaking, head straight and deliberate as a hood ornament. Maddie leaned and patted his forearm. “Say something, Sammy.”
He said he didn’t think it was the best time for him to talk.
Egan suggested that they all wanted to hear what Sam thought. He said. “I think we’re all feeling it.”
Sam turned to his wife asked how she could invite a stranger like that into the car.
Maddie said that she was trying to be loving and kind. “Isn’t that what this whole evening is about?” she asked. “He seemed a little off but harmless.”
Sam asked what would have happened if the intruder had been truly deranged and dangerous, instead of just off, as she put it.
“Do we act compassionately only to people we like or approve of?” Maddie said.
Sam drove down Twenty-eighth, past the entrance to Interstate 94. The thoroughfare was fronted block after block by low-rise condos and multi-unit apartment buildings, with parked cars crowding the curbs.
Sarah spoke up and said that it would have helped if Maddie had checked with them first.
“Yes. But he was standing right there when you walked up,” Maddie said.
Egan pointed out that that was after she told him he could get in the car.
Sam said when he drove up to pick everybody up, this guy jumped in the back seat. ‘I had no idea who he was or if he was actually with us,” he said.
Maddie asked why nobody objected, if they were that concerned. She said she could tell her husband was upset, but he didn’t say anything.
Sam said he felt trapped and blindsided. The guy was already inside the car.
“Let me ask you guys.” Maddie turned to Sarah and Egan.
“Would you have said no if I had asked you when you walked up? In front of him?”
Sarah said she was not sure. But she or Egan might have given her a signal that they were nervous about it. Maybe Egan would have said something. Made an excuse, or just plain said no, sorry, try someone else. She looked at her husband.
“As it was, we were the ones trapped in the back seat, with this bizarre guy about whom we knew nothing,” Egan said.
The neighborhood along the road changed to big, rambling older two-story homes, across from a park. As far down as Egan could see through the windshield, the road ran between two rows of towering palm trees.
Maddie admitted that she should have checked with everybody first. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I put us all in a ticklish situation.”
Sam said that he wished it had tickled. “But, thank you,” he added. “I appreciate you taking responsibility.” He turned the corner on to Grape Street.
Maddie turned half around in her seat and said that she was still left with the question that she thought they had not answered. “Do we only offer our love and kindness, as Salisbury said, in situations where we feel comfortable and safe, where we are not put out and made to feel uneasy?”
Sarah responded that maybe they had to decide for themselves in each situation. “You decided and it wasn’t popular, but that doesn’t make you wrong,” she said.
Sam pulled into a parking space and turned off the car. He suggested they continue the discussion over dinner. “Or maybe we can let it go and enjoy ourselves. I don’t think the Reverend Manfred Salisbury would mind that. Do you?”
As Egan walked toward the restaurant, he spotted a very large man, with wide shoulders and a narrow waist, strutting in the parking lot. The guy wore a cheap toupee that listed left. He had on navy blue sweats, trimmed in red, and teal running shoes. With him walked a small portly woman holding an infant in her arms and leading three little kids. The man looked at Egan, who nodded his head in greeting. Probably a very good dad, Egan thought. Looks light on his feet, quick as a cat. Struggles like we all do to find a little peace and satisfaction in life. “Good evening, Sir,” Egan said and held the door open for the family to enter.
Alan volunteers to attend to a mute old man with tongue cancer. Inspired by the loss of his sister to leukemia, Alan vows to give Picky Walker comfort and consolation. Discouraged by the bleakness of Picky's life and alarmed by the news that Picky is an ex-con, Alan struggles to find compassion. His ambivalence leads to devastating feelings of failing to be there for Picky.
Published in character i Literary Magazine
I heard that Picky wasn’t deaf,but I found myself pointing to the name tag on my chest and mouthing "Alan."
Picky lifted a small whiteboard and orange marker off his hospital bed and wrote "hi alan."
I asked him how he was doing.
He erased, wrote, and showed me "fine."
I asked him if he had much pain.
He looked at me with eyes black and dense as onyx, then at his board. He pointed at "fine."
I could smell the marker stink from ten feet away.
Picky was my first one-on-one, live patient, after I spent six months on the volunteer telephone hotline at Oregon Cancer Support Network. Picky had requested OCSN help. He lived alone and had no family.
“Are they treating you okay?” I said.
While Picky kept his head down, squeaking his pen across the board, I inspected the top of his scalp. It was the color of sawdust and covered with baby chick fuzz.
"ain't the ritz," he wrote. His smile showed brownish toothless gums.
I stepped closer to his bed. I wanted to pull the blanket up to cover Picky’s hairless scrawny thighs, sticking out of his hospital gown, but I just met the man.
I asked him if there was anything I could get him.
I could not imagine what I could do for this guy. He had lost part of his tongue to cancer. He didn’t have a soul in the world who cared enough to be there. And he didn’t seem to have any needs.
I turned down Picky’s offer of a chair and stayed standing, leaning toward the door. All the questions I thought of required more than a three-word answer, such as “How do you feel about dying? and “Why are you lying here alone?”
I said, loudly enunciating, “I just wanted to stop by and introduce myself. I will call you so I can set up a home visit, probably next week.”
Picky nodded his head and mouthed, “Thank you.” He grinned at me, in what I assumed was appreciation, but I didn’t get much warmth. His mouth had turned down too quickly. The eyes kept hooded and wary as a horned toad’s. I vowed to myself to break through, to befriend and enliven this helpless little man. As I had vowed to my sister’s memory, after she died of leukemia, to make a difference.
I patted a bump at the bottom of Picky’s bed, where I imagined his feet were, and left the room, feeling loathsome by the bleakness of the man’s life. When I pushed the button on the elevator, I thought, “Call him. Really?”
A week later, I drove into Eastmoreland, the government-assisted-housing neighborhood where Picky lived. I relayed the message that I was coming through my supervisor at OCSN and Picky’s social worker. Rolling through Eastmoreland, I watched every movement. I had read about a gang shooting in the newspaper just a week before. I parked in front of the single-story, ochre-colored duplex with Picky’s address on it. I sat, breathing deep to keep my stomach down. Maybe it was too soon. Maybe I wasn’t ready for this. I could drive away and tell them to send another volunteer. I needed more training, or maybe a client with less to deal with. This guy didn’t seem to care if he got help or not. What was I going to add to his hopeless life? My heartbeat thumped in my throat. I put my shoulder into the car door and pushed it open. Half the battle, they told us in training, is to show up.
As I stepped up the walk to Picky’s, a guy sitting on the steps of the building across the street returned my stare from behind a gray hoody. I knew I should have brought my wife’s old Toyota instead of my BWM. Ten feet from Picky’s, I heard his television. I rapped on the aluminum frame of the screen door with my knuckle. Through the mesh, I saw Picky rise from a couch and head my way.
“Hey, man, it’s Alan. How you doing?” I called.
Picky pushed on the door to let me enter.
I offered my hand for him to shake and said, “It’s good to see you, my man.”
I looked down at least a foot to the top of his head. He shook my hand, loose, moist, and quick, and spun off toward his seat. I passed a small kitchen, clean white appliances and bare counters. I sat on the couch, next to Picky. On the TV screen, Tom Selleck in a dark blue, red, and fuchsia Hawaiian shirt, jumped into a red Ferrari.
I smelled cigarette smoke, imagining that it came from the apartment next door. There was no way Picky would be smoking with part of his throat, palate and tongue gone to cancer. On an end table, next to a bulbous lime-green ceramic lamp, sat an ashtray, brimming with a smoldering pile of butts. What the hell. Was he suicidal? I should have stood, said, “Sorry, I got to go,” and walked out. The sooner, the better, for everyone. No more worrying about my car out front or what to say to this wreck of a human life. But I sat and stared at the television show. I thought about my sister. Picky didn’t need me to judge him. I could offer the slightest bit of company and consolation.
“So, how you been feeling?” I said, turning my head toward Picky and raising my voice over the volume of a commercial for a technical college.
He reached around the arm of the couch and pulled up his white board and marker. I watched him scribble "sick."
He nodded his head.
“Radiation?” I asked, looking at his thin, leathery lips as if that’s where the answer would come.
He mouthed “and chemo.” The breathy, blunted voice that came out sounded as if he were a deaf speaker.
“Brutal,” I replied.
He laid his board on his lap and went back to the television. I joined, wondering if I could sneak a look at my watch. If I lifted my arm, Picky would know what I was up to. I glanced for a clock, around the living room and small empty dinette, opposite the kitchen. The couch, two tables, lamp and TV were the only furnishings in the house. The off-white walls lay bare.
I didn’t see any point in asking Picky any more questions. When the show ended, I would excuse myself and leave. I sat on a cheap cloth sofa, in one of the worst parts of Portland, next to a small, odd man about whom I knew nothing and with whom I had nothing in common. A stranded dying stranger. My presence seemed to be enough. We were one, he and I, in space and time. A moment of truth.
As the end credits for Magnum rolled on the screen, I slid forward on the couch. It seemed too soon to get up and leave. Another episode of the same program came on. I could watch it, put in the time, and exit. I rested my back against the cushion. I thought the actors’ antics were funny, but neither Picky nor I laughed aloud. We sat three feet apart without talking. It seemed to suit him, but I felt that if I didn’t say something, I wasn’t doing my job.
During the next commercial break, I asked him how long he had lived there.
Picky turned his head and said two months, Section Eight. He could barely form the words. When the show reappeared, he picked up his white board, then laid it on the coffee table. He didn’t offer me anything to eat or drink or ask if I was comfortable.
At the end of the program, I stood and told him I would see him soon. “Take care of yourself,” I said.
I pushed through the screen door. Air entered my body and I yelped with relief. I hurried toward my car. Inside, I put the key in the ignition and thought about Picky sitting in that empty place, alone. How long was it reasonable for me to sit there with him? I held my head up, narrowed my vision, and drove away.
Two weeks later, I stood on Picky’s porch, rocking on my heels. I saw him walk toward me on the sidewalk.
“There he is now,” I said.
He looked better than the last time I saw him, but he was still stick thin and alabaster pale. He walked with a funny sort of hunched swagger. As always, I was knocked back by the flint in his eyes.
“Missed the bus,” he said, when he reached the door.
I asked if he had treatment.
“Radiation.” His speech was much clearer than before.
He went in his apartment and let the screen slam shut behind him. I pulled it open to enter. Picky stood at the kitchen counter, opening a can of Ensure. He carried it to the living room, aimed the remote at the television, and eased himself on to his couch.
Don Johnson, as Sonny Crockett, wearing a powder blue tee and silver sports jacket, stood, talking in a phone booth.
I asked how long he had been doing treatment.
“Sucks. Harder than chemo,” Picky said, glancing at me. “Saps my strength.” He sported a full set of false teeth, which made his s’s whistle.
I asked how his doctors said things were going.
He stared at me.
“Do they say when your treatment will end? Are you making progress? Do they think you can beat the cancer?”
Picky shot me an irritated look. He said no one told him anything. “Six weeks and we’ll see,” he mumbled.
I knew I would not sit on that couch for another month and a half, watching reruns, asking inane questions and dying to escape. I thought about how uncharitable I truly was.
I asked if Picky had family. It was the first personal question I had dared to ask.
He lowered the volume of the television. He told me he had a son, whom he hadn’t seen in years. He said he had spent most of his life locked up. “I drove everybody away,” he concluded.
I told him I was sorry.
“It’s not on you. I made my bed.”
I considered the new turn. Hardened ex-con, who seemed harmless, even pathetic, at the end of his road. Could I trust him? Could he trust me?
The end of Miami Vice played, and I recited my exit line. “Picky, probably time for me to get going.”
“Please stay a little longer,” he said. The first thing he had asked of me. “Please.”
I searched for an excuse but stayed seated.
During the next episode of Miami Vice, I asked him if his name, Picky, had to do with his past.
He smiled and shook his head. He said his parents named him Pickworth Z. Walker.
“Oh, my God,” I said. “I’m not even going to ask what the Z stands for.”
“Zigfried,” Picky said. “Picky Ziggy.”
We laughed hard together. He barked like a seal. I felt relaxed for the first time in that room. I could breathe, but still found it hard to sit still.
When the program ended, I rose to my feet. Picky stood with me. He asked if I could take him to the store. “Real quick.” he said.
I told him I had to go.
He looked at me and waited. I felt resentment rise. Here it goes, I thought, he’s playing me. “Real quick,” I said, leading him out the door.
Seated next to him in my car, I told Picky that he had to use the seat belt. Otherwise, I could get a ticket. He barely reached the head rest. He snapped his belt. “Nice wheels,” he said, looking around and breathing deep, as if he just walked into the Bellagio.
I felt nervous that he knew any details about my life. I lied and said it was my wife’s car.
Picky told me to go right out of his driveway and turn left at the signal. He said the store was at the top of the hill.
I pulled into the lot of the Ore-WA gas station and up to the entrance of the Quikie Shop. Picky opened his door and tried to get out without undoing his harness. He leaned back in and I pushed the button next to his seat. “There you go,” I told him. “Easier that way.”
Picky laughed and left the car.
As he pushed into the store, I thought that it might be a familiar scenario for him. Short, skinny, unassuming guy comes in for a soda and Hershey bar and pulls a gun. He never said why he was in prison, but he did say for most of his life. It had to be serious. Was I the wheel man?
Picky pushed back out the door with a small paper bag tucked in his arm. He climbed in and buckled up. “Okay. Good,” he said.
I asked him what he bought.
Picky looked over at me and said a diet coke and two packs of Salems.
I felt my face burn. If he didn’t care, why should I? I did not speak all the way back down the hill and into the projects. Picky looked out the window as ferns, pink and white rhododendrons, and scrub alders passed by on the hillside. I dropped him off in front of his place.
“Thanks,” Picky said, and slammed the car door. He never glanced back.
“Right,” I said, accelerating out of there.
A week later, as I walked up to Picky’s door, after I had a discussion with my OCSN supervisor, I vowed to be honest with how I felt. If I didn’t agree with what Picky asked of me, I said no, I’m sorry. I can’t do that. I needed boundaries.
Picky slouched on his couch and said he was not feeling so good.
Tom Selleck dropped into the blue churning ocean from a helicopter. I told Picky that I was sorry to hear it. “The radiation?” I asked.
He said he was back on chemo, with radiation. Both now.
I asked what his doctor told him.
“She says we need one more strong push.”
Picky watched the action on the screen for a full minute. I studied the side of his face. It was hard to tell how old he was. His skin was sallow and crinkled, but he held his jaw line. I guessed fifties. His sparse yellow-gray hair spiked around the edges, over his ears and neckline. I searched his bare arms for prison tatts but saw none.
I asked if he was up for it.
“Don’t see lot of options, Alan.” Picky shot me a dark, flinty glance.
“So, you have hope for the future?” I didn’t see how I could keep it light. The man was fighting for his life, and I was sitting beside him. Those were my options. I could stay or bail. As often as I glanced toward the door, I stayed on the couch.
Picky said he had been running on hope long as he could remember. For things to get better. When he was locked up, what kept him going was picturing some normal civilian life. A place to live, job, car, maybe even a little traveling. He got out and got sick. “I just keep moving down the line, best I can. Always have,” he said.
I told him to let me know if there was anything I could do. Even as I said it, I wasn’t sure how much I meant it. I felt his bleak need cover me like a viscous liquid.
The TV showed a close-up of Magnum’s hazel eyes and mustachioed, dimpled smile.
“Would you mind grabbing me a can of Ensure there on the sink?” Picky said.
“Not a problem.” I walked the few steps to the kitchen and returned with his meal.
As one detective show flicked into another, Picky asked what my wife did for a living.
Alicia had nothing to do with me sitting in that room. I did not want to bring her into it. Did he know he was pushing me?
I told him that she worked as a fundraiser for a foundation.
He asked where we lived.
“Steel Bridge. By the river.”
He said he had never been to that part of the city. He said he was pretty sure that he had a brother who lived somewhere near there. “Besides going to the hospital on the bus, I don’t get out much,” he added.
I kept my eyes on the flickering movement on the television screen. I wasn’t sure what he wanted. He said he had a brother nearby. Did he want me to contact him? Drive him by there? I wondered if his son lived in town. Maybe they could help him out. Maybe they would want to know. Maybe he was their responsibility. I excused myself to the bathroom.
As I walked back into the room, I told Picky that I had to get going.
He asked if I could please stay for one more show.
“Picky. I have to go. When I say I have to go, I have to go.”
“Right. Get back to your fundraising wife and big house by the river.”
I took long strides to the door. When I looked back, Picky kept his eyes straight ahead, sipping his lunch from a can.
I took two weeks off and avoided checking in at OCSN. I did hear that another service volunteer went to visit Picky. When I was away from him, I recommitted myself to being there for him, as I wished I had for my sister. I assumed on a Saturday morning I would find him home. He told me that he didn’t leave except to go to the hospital, and I doubted he would have treatment over the weekend.
Going into Eastmoreland, I passed three empty police cars along the curb, idling, drivers’ doors open, blue lights pulsing, and no one in sight. As I walked up to Picky’s, I saw his door stood wide open. When I reached the porch, I heard the whir of a vacuum cleaner, coming from his bedroom. I stepped into the empty living room and called, “Hello? Picky?”
The noise continued, so I followed it back. A stout, middle aged Latina, wearing a long denim skirt and cerise short-sleeve sweater, clicked off her machine, as I waved my arm.
“Mr. Walker?” I said. I glanced at the stripped twin bed, head against the middle of the unadorned wall. I backed out of the doorway, as she asked if I was a relative.
I told her I was a friend.
“I’m sorry, but the gentleman died. Right here.” She pointed at the bed. “A week ago.”
I was out of the hall when she called, “I can give you a phone number.” As I passed through the front door, the vacuum cleaner whirred again.
I called my supervisor and she confirmed that Pickworth Z. Walker died, alone, in his bed. The apartment manager found him.
“I wasn’t there,” I mumbled into the phone.
My supervisor told me not to go there. As volunteers, we do the best we can. We weren’t there to save anybody or change any lives for the better. That was not our job. “We provide some small amount of support and comfort,” she said. “That is all.”
The man died alone. In the middle of the dark, cold, conniving night. Not one living soul in the relative, connected universe cared enough to be there when he passed. His last vision was one of shadow and nothingness.
I sat in the leather seat of my BMW, in front of Picky’s door. I bowed my head and mourned the passing of a man, one miserable, malevolent, wasted human life, as I had for that of my young, gifted, vibrant sister. I didn’t look up for a long time, to see who might be lurking around.
Soft jazzy vocal music carried across the parking lot. I remembered we played Sade at my sister’s memorial. I got out of my car and walked back to Picky’s. I stepped in the doorway. The vacuum still whirred in the bedroom. From the coffee table in the living room, I picked up the remote and aimed it at the television. Magnum spun out in the dirt in his red Ferrari, fishtailing and racing down the highway. I left the television on and walked out the door.
Kevin returns to his car after a high school forensics meet to find a giant locust sitting on the dashboard. After attempts to get the bug out, Kevin drives home. He tells his father that he can't remove the insect. His father is not impressed by Kevin's cowardice. Irate, Kevin's father removes the intruder. When his father moves menacingly toward the grasshopper, Kevin steps up.
I noticed I had left the driver’s side rear window of my mother’s Lexus halfway open. I used one hand to click the remote to unlock the door and the other to hold my silver trophy. Sunlight reflected off the trophy into the back seat. Something flew around the inside of the car. I jumped and then leaned back in, squinting, trying to see through the glass at what looked to be a bat or a small bird. It must have come from the vacant field where I parked, across from the high school gate.
I scanned the front seat and saw the creature sitting on the dashboard, on the passenger side. It wasn’t a winged animal, but an insect, a huge grasshopper. I hadn’t seen one that big since I was a kid, and they hopped in and out of my back yard in Southern California. I was always repulsed by them, and fascinated. They were the most alien looking creatures I ever saw.
I was so mystified by locusts that I wrote a paper for my eighth-grade biology class. Arthropoda Orthoptera Acrididae. The one in my mom’s car was monstrous, the size of a kielbasa, with six legs and female, because of its size and straight abdomen. Usually, an Acrididae has antennae shorter than its body but hers looked about half a foot long. Her compound eyes, capturing light, distance and motion, looked like glossy almonds. Her sleek, latte-colored body, bent stick legs, and long, streamlined gossamer wings, lying on her back and covered with black spots, were still.
I knew from my middle school research that locusts are grasshoppers with a bent to swarm. I read an article about a locust swarm on the Great Plains in 1875 that was eighteen hundred miles long and one hundred ten miles wide, from Canada to Texas. It said some farmer ran into the swarm to scare them away and the grasshoppers ate the clothes off his body. They skinned the bark off trees, bit harnesses off horses, chewed the wood off farm tools, and consumed fence posts and railings, not to mention every speck of vegetation in their path.
In my backyard, I always expected to see a dark, seething cloud descend, but came across only occasional stragglers, standing in the grass or hopping, bush to bush. I knew from watching them that locusts are explosive. They can jump ten feet in the air and twenty feet sideways. They snap their wings when they fly and seem to fly blindly. Away from you or right into your face. Many times, as a kid, I ran, screaming “Momma!” when a locust struck the air.
I also grew up believing the legend that locusts spit tobacco juice. Whether the liquid is actually juice from tobacco or their own brown, caustic body fluid, the legend didn’t say. I never saw a locust do that, but I believed it. They earned the acrid in their name somehow. I had to believe it, as if it were true. I never saw a black widow bite anyone, but I had strong faith in their reputation for biting, and I firmly believed that it would hurt.
I couldn’t wait for the locust to act on her own. I had to get home. My parents were waiting to find out how I did at the tournament. There was no way I was driving with that grisly creature ready to launch itself off the dash. All I could think to do was open the driver’s side doors and hope she picked up the scent from the empty field and left on her own. I pulled the doors open and watched her for half a minute. “I can’t stand around all day,” I said to the bug.
I went around the back of the car, opened the passenger’s side rear door, and watched again. The sun beat on my neck and sweat trickled down my spine. The locust stayed as still as the hot air.
I heard a car pull up and a voice. “Kevin, are you okay?” My forensics teacher, Mr. Abbott, lowered his window. He asked what was going on. He poked his big pink chubby head out the window, his metal frame glasses sliding halfway down his stubby nose.
I was surprised that he knew my first name. He always called me Carlson and told me what to do. He never asked me anything. I earned a second place at the forensics meet because he assigned me a speech to perform in the Oral Interpretation competition called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, written by an eighteenth century, hell and brimstone Evangelical preacher, named Jonathan Edwards. After I got my runner-up trophy, a judge told me that my performance was very good, and I might have won had I picked something a bit more “contemporary and palatable” to present. Maybe a piece more suited to my personality.
I looked at Mr. Abbott’s bloated, red face. I knew he would not get out of his car. He had difficulty moving around with his weight and lack of fitness. And it was unreasonably hot outside.
“There’s a bee in my car,” I called to him. “No problem. I’ll just wait until it leaves.” I felt embarrassed to say it was a grasshopper. And everyone knows that bee stings kill people.
Mr. Abbott stared at me. “Good job today, Kevin,” he said. “You gave it all you got. I knew you would do that piece justice.” He raised his window as he drove along the dirt and on to the road.
“Justice?” I said, into his rising dust.
I had to leave, too. I couldn’t spend the rest of my life, waiting for a bug to make a move. My mom and dad would worry. My mom would, at least.
“Time for action,” I said aloud. I opened the front passenger’s side door. The locust sat at the end of the dashboard, two feet away. The sunshine beat on her through the window. One of her wings, lying on her back, trembled. Now, all four doors stood open. There had to be some way to prompt the creature. I looked on the ground around me. A straight, thin two-foot-long twig rested against the front tire. I picked it up, brought it to the car, and leaned in the door. Keeping my eye on the monstrous insect, I moved the stick closer and closer, my breath shortening, and my muscles tensing, ready to bolt if she leapt. Within half an inch, I waved the stick. She ignored my urging. Her antenna didn’t move. I stared at her steely, mute mask, and jabbed her in the back, once. She took the blow, without flinching. I lowered the stick and leaned in closer. She flew straight up in the air. I screamed, turned, and ran for my life. Throwing away the stick, I made it five yards into the field. I spun and waved my hands around my head, to make sure she wasn’t hovering or attacking. I stood and caught my breath, looking up and down the school’s vacant frontage road for spectators.
I walked back to the car. The locust wasn’t in the front seat. I closed the passenger’s side door in case she was outside and wanted back in. I moved to the back door and looked in. She sat in the middle of the back seat, facing forward, still, unruffled, her hind legs bent, ready to bounce.
I wasn’t any closer to getting her out, and no closer to home. If I decided to drive and she went off again, I could lose control, crash and wreck my mother’s car. The only thing I could think to do was to cover her with something and get her out when I got to my house. The inside of the car and the trunk were clean, thanks to my dad. All I had was the shirt on my back. I slipped it off and leaned in again, close enough to spread the shirt over the locust. Covered, she didn’t stir.
I slid into the driver’s seat, the hair rising on the back of my neck and my back sticking to the seat. I eased the gas pedal and drove into the road. Cars passed me. At every intersection, I slowed to a crawl, turning my head constantly to check the back seat. At one intersection, a car turned in front of me and I had to step on the brakes. I lurched forward and clenched. I twisted around to see that my shirt was still in place.
I did six miles in about half an hour. I rolled to the curb in front of my house and waited a few minutes. I needed to figure out what to do about the insect. I could not imagine lifting my shirt off and having her fly in my face. I could never pick her up, with or without the shirt. The thought of touching her vibrating, brittle body, even through cloth, made me retch. I opened the car door and got out, leaving the locust where she lay. I went around, opened the rear door on the curbside and went into the house.
I tried to sneak past the doorway to the family room, where my father sat sprawled in his recliner, watching football on television.
“Kev,” my dad shouted, above the volume, as I whisked by. I stepped back into the doorway.
He asked me why I wasn’t wearing a shirt.
I told him it was a long story and part of my problem.
I said I needed find my mother.
My father raised his voice. “What is your problem?”
I should have mumbled something and left the room, but he was talking to me during one of his football games. I didn’t want to bother my mother, anyway, so I told him there was a grasshopper in the back seat of my mother’s car.
“A grasshopper. A locust. Gargantuan. A monster!”
“And that is why you are standing here shirtless, interrupting my playoff game.”
I told him I was sorry, but I didn’t know what to do.
He said to go get it out.
I told him I couldn’t.
He turned toward me in his chair and took his eyes off his game. He asked me what I meant when I said that I couldn’t.
“I can’t. I can’t stand them. I can’t touch them.” I stood in front of him, half naked and shaking. “Where’s Mom?” I said.
“What do you mean, you can’t stand them?”
He asked me what I thought would happen when I walked into the house, with my puny, hairless chest showing, and told him that I couldn’t get an insect out of the car.
“I wasn’t thinking. I’m desperate.”
He asked if I thought the grasshopper would fly off on its own, because, obviously, I had left the windows open for it to do just that.
I told him that was where my shirt went. “It can’t fly away.”
“That was a chivalrous touch,” my father chuckled, now sitting forward in his chair.
I said that I couldn’t have it careening around in the car while I was driving. It was dangerous.
“Of course,” he said, sitting back and facing the television. He clicked up the sound.
I asked him if Mom was home.
He ignored me.
I turned and walked toward the door.
“Deal with it,” my father shouted.
I told him I couldn’t.
He sat up and moved forward, putting his feet on the floor. He watched me, with a dark expression.
“Please,” I cried. “I can’t. I can’t stand those things. I’ll have a panic attack.”
He said I was acting like a sissy.
“I know I am. But, please. Help me!”
He pushed himself up, fell back in his chair, and pushed again. He stomped toward me. I stepped out of his way. He went out of the family room, down the hall, through the front door, toward the car at the curb. I followed, at a distance, to see how he handled the insect.
“Where is it?” he yelled, over his shoulder.
I didn’t say anything. I moved along the front of the house, well behind him.
He walked to the car and leaned through the open door into the back seat. In one motion, he ripped my shirt off the locust, grabbed her in his bare hand, backed out of the car, and flung her in the air.
The grasshopper sailed, wings retracted, like a trim short dagger, in a straight line, past me, and landed with a thud in the flower bed, ten feet away. I glanced at her. She didn’t move, either stunned, smothering, or expired.
I watched my father take two steps in her direction. A line came to my mind from my recitation of Jonathan Edwards’s speech: Never was there so great danger of such persons being given up to hardness of heart, and blindness of mind.
I sidestepped to block my father.
He stopped and put his hands on his hips. “Now you are defying me.” He glared.
I told him to please not touch the grasshopper.
He yelled that he was missing his game for his cowardly son and some stupid bug. He turned, slipped on the grass, and fell to his knees. He got up and headed to the house. “You have ruined my pants,” he roared.
I didn’t dare laugh but I remembered Pastor Edwards’s words: Their foot shall slide in due time.
I went to the flower bed and took another look at the locust. The name Serena came to my mind. Serena’s head was buried in the dirt, up to her front wings. Her back wings trembled. She was alive. I dropped to my knees, put my fingers around Serena’s body, and pulled her out of the ground. She felt light and still as a twig. I imagined that she took me into her all-encompassing eyes and rudimentary consciousness. I heard someone coming.
I told her to leave. Now awake and fly from the Wrath to come. I waved my fingers to encourage her to hop off.
I met my mother in the middle of the front lawn. She handed me a shirt. “Your father said you needed this. “What’s going on? What happened between you two?”
I told her about the grasshopper in the car.
“That’s why he’s mad?”
I said he got mad because he thought I was being weak for not getting it out. Then he fell on the grass.
She asked why I couldn’t do it.
I led her to the flower bed to show her the insect’s preternatural size. I pointed at the spot in the dirt. “See!”
“Serena?” She was gone.
I twirled on the grass. “Haste and escape for your life, look not behind you,” I recited.
My mother asked if that was from my speech. She remembered me rehearsing. She asked how I did in the competition.
I walked her to the car to show her my trophy.
My mother hugged me and said that she was very proud of me. My father was too. He just didn’t know how to show it.
I told her to let him know that the door of mercy was wide open.
Coup de Grace
Miranda drives to meet her deadbeat ex-husband after eight years of no word. She plans to tell him all that she has felt about his betrayal. When she faces him across the coffeeshop table, he stops her in her tracks by what he tells her.
Published in Studio Journal
Coup de Grace
My red Mustang rumbling at the curb,I glanced into my side mirror. As far back as I could see, a steady stream of cars rolled east along Los Feliz Boulevard. Were they evacuating Glendale without telling me?
Come on, dammit. Blinker’s on. Give me a break. Let me in. Look at this guy next to me, won’t even make eye contact, lunging forward to make sure I don’t squeeze in. People forget who they are when they drive. Nothing personal. Just another faceless windshield blocking the road. I stomped the gas pedal and jammed in front of the next car in line. The driver in a Dodgers cap hit his horn. I saw him in the rearview mirror, jawing at me for a block. At the left curve on to Western Avenue, I watched his white van shrink behind, as traffic fell away and I hit sixty, around and down the hill and through the green light at Franklin.
My brother, Mitchell, white-knuckled the arm rest between us. “You realize that my mechanic doesn’t close for another six hours,” he said. His eyes were riveted on the windshield. “And it’s only two miles away.”
"You asked for a ride to pick up your car. Maybe you’d rather walk.”
“Why you so edgy?”
I checked the side mirror again and cut into an opening in the left lane. I told Mitchell that I wasn’t edgy, and I wished people would stop saying that. My brother and I didn’t speak for half a mile. He and I spent a lot of time not talking, probably from the hours we spent holding hands in the back seat of our parents’ air-conditioned car when we were kids, as the adults in front argued and then ignored each other.
Just past Hollywood Boulevard, I slowed for a parade of cars and intersecting jaywalkers, between the stores, shops and motels on both sides of Western.
“Where are you headed, after you drop me off?” Mitch said.
“Over on Fairfax?”
“That’s the one.”
He asked when I was there last. Fruit and vegetables to me, he pointed out, meant cherry coke and potato chips.
I told him it had been years.
“Why today, then?”
I said I was meeting someone. I punched it through a yellow light at Sunset.
Six blocks later, Mitchell asked me if I would like to share.
“You want some of my Pepsi?”
“Who are you meeting, Miranda?”
I told him Brett.
“Swanson,” I said. Brett had called the day before and said he wanted to talk.
“You mean your Brett?”
I asked him who else it would be.
He suggested The Hillside Strangler and asked why I would even cross the street for that fool, let alone listen to anything he had to say.
I told him my time had come.
“What does that mean?” Mitch said.
I pulled up for a red light at Santa Monica Boulevard.
A tall, dark, curly-haired woman, wearing candy apple red lipstick and a red and white polka dot dress with white collar and cuffs and white patent leather shoes, crossed in front of us.
“Wonder if the circus knows she’s missing,” I said.
“Snap! Not edgy, huh?” Mitchell said.
I told him I had a stomachache. I said, “Anyway, Brett’s in town and says he has something he wants to tell me.”
“Like `It was all my fault. Take me back’?”
I said I doubted it. Whatever. I leaned forward to check my eye makeup in the rearview mirror. I ran my fingertip over the inch-long scar above my right eyebrow. Mitchell drove me to the ER for stitches the night Brett split my head.
Mitchell recounted that Brett left me for his personal trainer, a gym rat, and, if I remembered right, he didn’t call, write, or try to get in touch with me for years.
I asked him where his car was.
“I told you. The garage is on La Brea, near Beverly.” Mitchell said. “So, you’re going to meet this fool because he thought of something he has to tell you after all this time?”
I warned my brother that I was not in the mood.
He said he was trying to understand why I would put myself through that. “The guy treated you like a dog, Miranda,” he said.
And I never had the chance to thank him, I said.
“What are you talking about?”
I said I was being sarcastic. I was not the person he dumped. And I had some things to say to Brett.
I heard a horn behind me and looked up at the green light. I sped out to lead the other cars.
Mitchell wondered if I was doing this in a public place.
“Serving Brett Swanson a fresh slice of your spite pie.”
“Good,” Mitchell said. “Should be plenty of eyewitnesses, and someone to call 911.”
I swung a left into oncoming traffic, off Beverly on to La Brea.
“Tell me where,” I said.
He pointed to a driveway next to a Chevron station. “Thanks, Meer. Riding with you is an unparalleled experience. I do appreciate your help.” Mitchell jumped out of the car. He told me to head butt old Brett once for him and jogged across the street.
I revved the engine and peeled out, into the blare of an RTD bus horn.
As I turned off Fairfax into the Farmer’s Market parking lot, I thought about Mitch’s reaction. He had it exactly right. Brett showed up out of nowhere with something he had to tell me and expected me to trot back to him like some chuffing chihuahua.
I punched the horn and swerved around a Camry, taking up the lane. “Move it, Granny! What’re ya doing?” I shouted, across the length of the front seat, at the elderly driver, frozen, head barely clearing the steering wheel. I raced to the end of the row and careened into the back of the packed lot.
The place was a zoo. I didn’t care if there was no place to park. I would park up at Griffith Park and walk down, if I needed to. My time had come.
I cut into a spot in the last row, turned off the engine, and slid the shift lever into Park. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes to spare.
Next to me, a Nordic looking couple, with four towhead kids, from about two to twelve, got out of a black SUV.
You will never be the mother of my children. About the last thing Brett hit me with, right before he screwed his trainer, Lydia Downes. Then, he left. The divorce papers arrived in the mail six months later. Master of tact and aplomb, that man. Five minutes: better go.
I pushed open my door and banged the SUV. “Shit,” I said, staring at the fragment of chipped paint and watching the back of the Towheads, as they walked away from me. They were just out of hearing range. I swung both feet to the ground and stood, ran fingers through my newly cut and dyed black hair, and put on my Ray-Bans. The Coffee Bean was directly across the expanse of blacktop. I walked behind the young blonde family, keeping my distance.
Although the lot was filled with cars, I saw only a few other people outside the mall. The air felt heavy and the L.A. sky hung leaden with high thin gray clouds.
Wonder what Brett looks like, I thought. Suppose people don’t change that much in eight years. He was depressed: skinny, black circles, unwashed. Black. Said he felt he was falling into a black hole. Talk about edgy. Never knew who I’d get from day to day. I made a joke, standing in the kitchen with him and Mitch. Said he was among the unwashed. If he got any riper, we would have to pickle him and squeeze him into a Mason jar. He clubbed me with the cupboard door and ran into the backyard.
At the entrance to the Bean, a guy coming out held the door open. He was mid-thirties, stringy dishwater hair. I peered into his face. He smiled, presenting small even yellowish teeth in full lips.
Brett’s left front tooth was chipped, crooked, and gray.
I stared at that tooth on our first date, sitting across from him in a booth at Mel’s on Sunset. It was like a hypnotist’s pocket watch. I could not look away. I thought it was cute then, part of his roguish appeal. Then, as the glow dimmed between us, it became a moldy gate, leading to the shadowy moist maw beyond. Finally, his torpid tongue tip flicked its jagged edges, through scissor-thin lips.
looked around the Bean. About half of the dozen or so tables were taken. I scanned the male faces, without recognizing Brett. I ordered a triple latte and took it to a table in the back corner, positioning myself with a view of the door.
11:08. He’s late? Ironic. He used to get pissed at me for never being on time. Said he could never understand how I could be so inconsiderate. If I did arrive on time, I would wait out of sight, five, ten minutes, then walk up, just to watch him seethe.
I sipped my coffee and decided to give Brett ten minutes. I watched for him on the sidewalk, outside the plate glass window.
The first time we did it was in a tent. I stepped in through the opening and saw him sitting naked, at the ready, on the dirty lumpy floor. Hot, sticky, primal. After that, for months, we screwed four, five times a day. At the end, we hadn’t had sex for probably a year. An argument over barbequed burgers marked the end.
Standing at his Weber, I told him it was time to flip the patties.
He said, “You know as much about grilling meat as I do about douching.”
“Douching?” I shook my head. “You are a crude, insensitive, and ignorant fool.”
He demanded that I hand over the spatula. He grabbed the utensil in my hand and tried to wrestle it away. I yanked his beard, and he stomped my foot. I left him the meat and didn’t talk to him for two days. We never found the fire again. He told me I was frigid and had a problem with intimacy.
I said something snide about a black pot calling out a kettle. I knew it wouldn’t fly higher after that, but I held on tight, for fear of being alone.
Then he informed me of his workouts at the gym with Lydia.
I glanced at the window, as a tall, slender man in tan Dockers, a tucked in red Polo shirt, and white leather running shoes, strode parallel to the window, toward the door.
Must be. Same walk with better posture. Kept in shape.
Brett pulled open the door and entered the Coffee Bean. He put his hand to the side of his close-cut sandy hair, while he scanned the tables. I raised my arm and motioned him over. Brett stepped toward me, smiling. I stayed in my chair as he approached.
Looks better. Rested. More presence. Probably on Paxil. Always compensating. Just what I need is him on top of the world. Shit.
Brett stood before me and offered his hand. I shook it from my seat and felt his warm, smooth fingers wrap around my clammy palm.
“Miranda, it’s truly a delight to see you,” Brett said, his dark eyes glassy. “You’re looking good. Changed your hair color.”
I mumbled a thanks. I pulled my purse closer, to hide my trembling hands.
Brett slid out the chair across the table and sat. He looked at me for a few moments and smiled.
The moldy gate’s gone, I noticed. He got his tooth fixed. A white, glistening smile. Double damn.
Brett asked me how I had been. He guessed it had been, what? four, five years.
I grabbed the sides of my seat. “It’s been eight years, Brett.”
He said he couldn’t believe it. “That long since we last saw each other?”
“Last saw each other?” I threw my hands down on top of my purse. “Do you even remember who I am? We were married and you left. I never heard from you again. Any of that ring a bell?”
Brett’s face sunk and his eyes moistened, as if he’d pulled up a tragic memory. “Okay, okay,” he said, looking to both sides.
I warned him not to okay me. I accused him of walking in and talking to me as if I was some acquaintance he bumped into on the street. “Let me tell you something, pal, you made a big mistake thinking this meeting was a good idea,” I spat.
“Meer, please. I just want--”
“Don’t call me that. You have no right to be informal.”
He said he wanted to tell me something.
“I want to tell you what I think of you.” I called him a coward and a slinking dog. He couldn’t even face me. He vowed that he would always be there for me. “Then you divorce me by mail.” I was nearly shouting.
People stared at us.
“Miranda?” Brett swiveled his head, his face and ears turning crimson.
“No. I’ve spent years gagging on this shit.” I lowered my voice. I told him that for a long time, I believed it was me, but I realized that he was the one who gave up. And that made me feel sorry for him. I knew I was shouting again and that if I got too out of control, someone from the restaurant would ask us to leave or call security. I wanted to stay put and have my say.
Brett nodded across the table as I spoke and kept eye contact. His mouth wore a slack smile. I watched his new clean incisor and thought about throwing my coffee cup at it to bring back the old one. I lowered my voice. I said that for those first few months that he was gone, without a word, I felt like some fucking war bride whose husband was MIA. I had no idea what happened to him or where he was. He could walk back in the door at any moment. I leaned into the table’s edge to ease my aching stomach. “Stop a second,” I said, “and think about how that felt.”
I reminded him that he sent the papers for me to sign. I didn’t get a phone call. Not even a note. Talk about a coup de grace. “You know, that’s when they cut off the bull’s head after stabbing him in the back with the sword.” I nearly stood in my rant.
I looked at Brett. “What did I do to deserve that?” I considered reaching my arm across the table and sweeping everything off on to the floor, our coffee cups spilling, scalding black liquid splattering, napkins sailing, Brett scrambling out of his chair. But I put my hands in my lap and bit my lip.
He said my name again, as a question.
“What?” I screamed. Every head in the room swung toward us.
The large space went silent. I looked over at the counter, where a chubby bald man in a short sleeved white shirt and narrow maroon tie whispered to one of the baristas.
“Everything you say is true,” Brett said. “I’m sorry. That’s what I came to tell you.”
I picked up my cup and drank with trembling hands. I thought my stomach might explode. “You’re such an ass” I whispered. “Why now?”
Brett told me that his mother just died. She fell over dead with a brain aneurysm. He wiped his forehead with his fingertips.
I wished I could have said I was sorry, but I never liked the woman. I could not think of one nice thing to say about her. She never liked me. She never thought I was good enough for her precious son.
He said he understood. “You know that I had my issues with her. But, as it was, I never had the chance to tell her how I felt. She died in the Macy’s shoe department. Fell into a display and hit her head on the corner of a shelf. Everything between them was left unfinished. He said he didn’t want that to happen between he and I. He wanted us to have closure.
Staring at him, I said, “Don’t let me stop you.”
Brett pleaded with me. He admitted that he had betrayed me. He said that he had committed a mortal sin. “I will never forgive myself for that,” he moaned.
People at the other tables had turned back to their own concerns and ignored us.
I asked him what he wanted from me.
Brett stretched his arm toward me, his hand on my side of the tabletop, as if he expected me to take it.
I told him to stay away.
He said he was so sorry and asked me to forgive him.
“Are you in a twelve-step program making amends?” I asked.
He said he was truly deeply sorry for what he had done and hoped that I could find it in my heart to forgive him. “I don’t want it like this between us. I still care about you. I do,” he said. “It means the world to me that we’re friends.”
I told him to quit talking about what he wanted. I didn’t care what he wanted. He took what he wanted eight years ago. And left me with nothing but a broken heart and a hole in my life.
Brett’s face caved in. He looked sad and sorry.
I asked him what happened to Lydia. “Don’t tell me you two married and have kids now,” I said.
He said it went nowhere with Lydia. It wasn’t about her, or them being together. It was his problem. He added that he did have a family but it was no one I knew.
Hearing about his family, and the thought that he had children, made me feel calmer, warmer toward him.
“You were cruel and hurtful,” I said.
He admitted he was and said that if there was any way he could change it, he would. “Just know,” he said, “that I came here because I have respect for you. I care about you, no matter what happens.” He kept his hand on the table, his clean shiny fingernails a few inches from my coffee cup.
“Okay, Brett. Let’s drop it. Let’s leave it at that and get on with our lives,” I said. “I’m tired of holding on to all this negative shit.”
He asked if that meant that I forgave him.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” I picked up my purse.
Brett smiled, with tears in his eyes, showing his even white teeth. “Thank you, Miranda.”
In the few seconds of silence, we both looked toward the door. I stood and Brett followed me out, never having ordered his drink. As we parted at the curb, Brett leaned in for a quick hug. I pushed off on his biceps.
Brett suggested that we meet again soon. “Next time I’m in town,” he said, stepping on to the parking lot. He turned to face me, his hands at his sides, palms out.
“Right, you bet. See you, Brett. Have a nice life and all that.” I spun and walked off in the opposite direction, toward my car, without looking back.
The afternoon had cooled, with patches of blue sky showing through the high gray clouds. A slight breeze kicked up. My stomach felt better.
When I got to my Mustang, the Towheads’ SUV was gone. I pulled open my door and slid into the smooth black seat. The smell of the leather soothed me. With my hands wrapped around the steering wheel, I threw my head back and laughed. Brain aneurysm. What a whopper. My God, Brett. That is your best one yet. Wait until I tell Mitch.
I turned the key, revved the engine a couple of times, and backed out of the parking space. I slid the shifter into drive and rolled out of the parking lot. I kept at the speed limit on Fairfax and made every green light all the way up to Hollywood Boulevard.
He Shot Himself in the Foot
Michael goes with his friend, Danny, on a daybreak mission. They are going to pick up Danny's rifle from Phillip Pfeiffer. On their way back, Danny aims the gun at Michael but shoots himself in the foot instead. It is the start of Michael's decision to end the friendship and take his destiny into his own hands.
He Shot Himself in the Foot
I found it strange that Ricky wanted to walk. Phil Pfeffer’s house was two miles away. Ricky and I never walked anywhere, even the three blocks between our houses. He said he didn’t want to drive because he didn’t want to attract attention. A car in Pfeffer’s neighborhood at five a.m. might make people notice.
I had forgotten how pleasant early morning is. Ricky didn’t talk much as we walked along Strathern Street. We cut over from Vineland Avenue to get off the main road and the radar of the Spring Valley cops. Without the noise of cars, I could hear birds singing in the trees on the parkway, in front of the long row of darkened houses.
I had asked Ricky when he told me his plan why he had to be at Pfeffer’s so early. He clipped the back of my head with his open hand.
“Knock it off,” I told him, and pushed his arm away.
“You get the prize for jerkoff questions,” he grumbled.
I had known Ricky since middle school. During lunch recess, he had tried to hijack me and my friend, Van Laffoon. Ricky and Richie Perez walked up to us and demanded money, Ricky on me and Perez on Van. I told Ricky to knock it off. I didn’t have any money. He backed off. Perez pressed in on Van and they came to blows. The boy’s vice principal broke up the fight, but Van had to hide from the Perez brothers for the rest of the school year. I started seeing Ricky on the school bus and we joked around. I found out he lived near my neighborhood. We hung out sometimes, mostly lifting weights and listening to music in his garage.
In high school, Ricky and I didn’t see much of each other. We went different directions. He joined a car club that had a skull for an emblem. His friends had long greasy hair, drove fast, tricked-out cars, and always seemed to be in the wrong place all the time. All my time was spent getting into a good college. As long as I could remember, I felt my father’s will pushing me toward joining his architecture firm. I kept busy and tried to stay on the square.
I fell back in with Ricky the summer after high school. I was with my friend from the neighborhood, Anthony Antenucci when we drove on Ricky’s street.
I spotted Ricky in his driveway, handwashing a black Corvette Stingray.
Anthony asked how Ricky got a Corvette.
I said I hadn’t talked to Ricky in a while.
“Let’s stop for a second.” Anthony pulled up at the curb.
“Why?” I said.
“He’s got good weed.”
As we walked over, Ricky turned off the nozzle and dropped the hose on the ground.
I wasn’t sure if he would be mad that I hadn’t called him. We just never saw each other. I raised my hand to shake.
“Anthony A.,” Ricky said, grabbing two fistfuls of the front of Anthony’s t-shirt.
“Hey!” Anthony cried.
“Where the hell is the hundred bucks you owe me?” Ricky said.
I stepped back.
“What you talking about, Ricky?” Anthony said, twisting away.
“Yeah. Remember? I bailed your mother out of the drunk tank.” Ricky said, and shoved Anthony.
They both laughed.
“That’s funny,” Anthony said.
Ricky turned to me. “Einstein! How you doing?” Like we had seen each other last week. He lifted two sodas out of a blue and white cooler. He fired a can into Anthony’s chest, bouncing it off his breastbone. He handed mine.
Anthony asked if Ricky was having one, aiming his spray away as he popped it.
Ricky said he was in training. He stood with his hands on his hips.
Anthony and I looked at each other. Forget the pot.
Ricky told us he was doing some boxing. His uncle was his manager. “That’s his car I’m detailing,” Ricky added. “He lets me drive it.”
As Anthony and I left, Ricky said to me, “Michael, stop by sometime, man. We can lift weights.” He glanced up and down my skinny body and laughed. “Or you can spot me.”
Anthony closed his car door and said, “That guy is an asshole.”
“I thought he was your friend.”
“I thought he was your friend,” Anthony said.
“I think he wants you back,” Anthony said.
I was enamored with Ricky’s recklessness. I was tired of being the good kid, the one all the grandmothers adored. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an architect, especially when I had no choice in the matter.
In the early morning on Riverton Street, Ricky and I swung right. Another long, sleepy, tree-lined lane fronting modest well-tended homes. As we passed in and out of the shadows, I asked Ricky what he was picking up at Pfeffer’s. Ricky never told me when he said to come over and help him. He just said it was important.
Ricky said it was a gun.
“A what?” I whispered, figuring his was a word we didn’t want to shout out when it was quiet enough for anybody to hear.
“A what?” he mocked.
Ricky was not a person who parsed words. He wouldn’t have listened to me explain that my interrogative was actually an expression of shock and dismay. My choice was to continue walking by his side or spin on my heels and head home. But Ricky said he needed my help. And Pfeffer was a friend of Ricky’s, as far as I knew. I didn’t necessarily see a lot of danger in what he and I were doing. It was just risky and twisted, as were many things Ricky got me into.
One sunny day the previous summer, Ricky took me for a drive in his mother’s Buick LeSabre convertible. A big, beautiful, powerful automobile. He went out on Glenoaks Boulevard and approached the forty-five degree right turn on to Wheatland Avenue at about twenty-five miles per hour. A bit fast, but nothing strenuous. A woman standing on her porch glared at us as we passed. Ricky made four more rights and came back down Glenoaks at forty, into the angle. A serious lean but nothing more. The woman now stood in her driveway, arms folded on chest. Back on to Glenoaks. It was a wild enough ride to be fun, but my mind began to project. I wasn’t driving and Ricky was speeding up.
Next time, he hit the turn on Wheatland at fifty. He cut it close and the passenger-side rear tire bumped the curb. We slid, slammed the opposite curb and fishtailed, screeching and leaving rubber. The woman ran into the street, yelling and waving her arms. Ricky sped up. He headed right at her, as she stood her ground. “Ricky,” I said. I thought about grabbing the wheel, but he glanced at me, smiled, and slowed. He swung a wide arc around the woman and kept going. “Sorry,” I shouted into her ferocious face.
I asked if he was trying to wreck his mom’s car. Ricky’s mom, Francine, was a dental hygienist, who bought the car out of the showroom. It was a classic, and she kept it as clean as Ricky’s uncle kept his Corvette. Next time he came around to Glenoaks, Ricky went toward Wheatland at sixty. I didn’t want to seem concerned but clenched every muscle and diverted my eyes. Again, nowhere to go and nothing to say. A block before Wheatland and the old woman, Ricky veered off and turned right at Nettleton Street and headed home.
Ricky called me a chicken shit.
I told him he could take the turn at ninety and I would be right there next to me.
“Yeah, peeing your panties.” He pulled the big red Buick into his driveway and went into the garage for a rag to dust the car off.
As Ricky and I came to Saticoy Street, a crow squawked an alert. We jogged left. I couldn’t wait. I had to bring it up.
I asked Ricky whose gun we were picking up.
He said it was his. He loaned it to Pfeffer and Pfeffer wouldn’t give it back. He said he was just picking up what belonged to him.
I asked if Pfeffer knew we were coming.
“Would I be out here with a bawling brainiac like you at five on a Saturday morning if he did?” Sometimes, Ricky could be discerning.
I asked what kind of gun it was. A pistol? Rifle? An Uzi?”
Ricky asked me if I was keeping a journal. He said it was a .22 semi-automatic rifle. “The one my dad gave me when I was eight. Before he deserted our family. I am going over there to get my gun back,” he said.
It was the first time I had heard Ricky say anything remotely sentimental about his father. He refused to talk or answer questions about his parents’ divorce or his father’s whereabouts.
A white panel truck crept by on the street, the driver craning his head to watch us. The truck’s taillights glowed, and it stopped at the corner of Denny Avenue. The trucks back doors flew open, and another guy jumped out with a bundle of newspapers in his hands. He landed on the sidewalk in front of us. The guy was huge, with bared arms thick as my thighs. He bounced the tied bundle off the pavement and watched us approach. I glanced at Ricky, who narrowed his eyes, straightened his body, and threw out his chest.
As we were moving around the guy, nearly brushing his shoulder, he said, “Morning, Gents. Out early.”
I noticed Ricky balling his hands into fists. Would he really take on this dude?
I said that we were going to help out a friend.
“Good on you.” The guy climbed back into the truck and pulled closed the doors. The truck crept on down Saticoy.
About block and a half on Denny, Ricky said that Pfeffer’s house was up ahead. His room was in back. He would go up the driveway and I was to stay on the sidewalk and look out. If I saw anyone coming, I would whistle like a bird.
“Whistle like a bird?” It seemed so simple, but I couldn’t even whistle like a human. And, not to split feathers, what if I succeeded? How would he know it was me and not a real bird? But, again, Ricky had no patience for the finer points. He disappeared in the dark driveway. I stood by a fence post covered in a clump of ivy and wondered how you look inconspicuous, hanging out in front of some stranger’s house at sunrise. A light was on in the house across the street. I didn’t know how long it would be before neighbors started rising and going outside looking for their newspapers and spotting intruders loitering on the sidewalk. I wondered how many residents, such as Phil Pfeffer, had access to firearms.
The light rose and birds got down to their business of greeting the day. I forgot it was such a cacophony. The trilling and squealing and chirping and hoots. I didn’t think I could even hear if someone approached. A car came down the street and passed without checking me out. I decided I would be more useful, and less obvious, further up the driveway. We didn’t really care about people passing in front. If they got snoopy and close to detecting our mission, then we had a problem. Ricky said to come up the driveway if I needed to warn him. I would keep watch a little closer to the action.
I leaned into the slight incline, walking beside Pfeffer’s house, toward the closed garage, about thirty feet back. I peered in the dark windows. If people saw me do that, they would come running, waving whatever protection they had at hand. I stopped at an opening in the hedge and saw Ricky standing at a door with glass panes. He opened it and put his head in. I couldn’t stand the suspense. I skittered up behind him. He seemed to not notice me and proceeded into the room. I looked in and saw a sleeping figure, whom I assumed to be Pfeffer, in bed along the wall. Ricky walked slowly, but without creeping or tiptoeing, toward the closet door directly ahead. Now was the time to look out. I swiveled my head, the hair sizzling on the back of my neck, detecting nothing but lightly swaying tree limbs, mute shrubbery, and raucous bird calls. Ricky opened the closet door and stepped in. Low light was in the room, but I wasn’t sure about the closet. I thought I had to pee. After a few seconds, Ricky backed out, eased the closet door closed, and turned, carrying his rifle in his left hand. He strolled by Pfeffer, who moved in his bed. Ricky stopped, watching his friend, who swung on to his other side and faced toward the wall. I wondered what Ricky would do if Pfeffer woke and saw him. When Ricky came out the door, I stood with my back to the hedge, showing him the escape route. “All clear. Tweet, tweet,” I whispered. He didn’t stop to debrief the mission or share in my levity but headed down the driveway. I stood for a few seconds, looking up the elephantine trunk of a massive palm tree in Pfeffer’s back yard. I did not want to be the one caught, empty-handed but skulking, behind the house, so I ran after Ricky.
As I came to the sidewalk, I realized that, as stealthy as we were walking over to Pfeffer’s in the dark, we now had to walk home in breaking daylight, carrying a rifle. I was getting tired of this kind of shit. It had to stop, I told myself. It was not the first time Ricky got me involved in robbery.
Ricky had asked me to look out when he went over the barbed wire fence at an auto salvage yard on San Fernando Road. He wanted to find a chrome spotlight for his Mom’s car. I went along with the idea because of my loyalty and the adrenaline. No other part of my life offered that kind of exhilaration.
At the last minute, Ricky called off the caper. As usual, he did not explain. My great relief at not having to do it showed me that I was pretty much done with his insanity.
Ricky moved ahead of me on the sidewalk, pressing the .22 against his thigh and walking stiff-legged.
I came up beside him to offer interference. I suggested we get the rifle out of view. I said, “We are going to get busted.”
Ricky led over to Cohasset Street and on to Clybourn Avenue, a quiet street that ran along the airport runway. Wide, with small machine shops, cabinet makers, and unmarked one-story industrial buildings on one side and the sides and backs of homes on the other, Clybourn was dead.
I asked what Pfeffer would do when he found his rifle missing. A descending Alaska Airlines jet rumbled in the distance.
Ricky turned and came at me. “Shut the fuck up. I told you, it is not his rifle. It’s my rifle. And he can do whatever he wants.”
“Alright. Knock it off,” I said.
Ricky stared at me, holding the rifle.
I felt my sphincter clench and I started to shake. I told him that I was finished. “I’m done with this shit.” I walked ahead. He asked me to help and didn’t tell me anything, and then he got pissed when I tried to find out why we were boosting a gun. “This is bullshit.”
“Screw you, Mikey,” Ricky said.
I stopped and stood at the corner of Stagg Street. Ricky walked up, raised the rifle, and pointed it at my stomach. I heard a click and I jumped to the side. I swung my arm and knocked the barrel away. “What are you doing? Are you fucking crazy? Don’t point that thing at me. Geez, what an idiot.”
Ricky snickered. “It’s not loaded, pussy.” He said he checked the chamber in the driveway at Pfeffer’s. “Man, you should have seen your expression,” he laughed.
I mumbled that there was something seriously wrong with him.
Ricky said, “See!” With a stupid smile on his face, he lifted the barrel again, pointed it at his right foot, and pulled the trigger. The rifle popped and jerked. I spun and fell back. Ricky dropped to the ground.
I scrambled over to him on my knees and knuckles. He sat up, and we both looked at his foot. A wisp of smoke rose from a small hole in his black and white sneaker, in the flesh of his foot, about where the third and fourth toes meet. Blood oozed and bubbled out of the hole.
“Oh God, my foot.” Ricky cried. “Oh, my foot. Oh, oh, ooooh!” He whimpered.
I put my hand on his shoulder and asked him if he was alright.
He said he thought so.
“Does it hurt?” I said.
“I can’t feel anything.”
I looked around. Across the street were the dark factory buildings. At the end of Stagg, a cul-de-sac fronted a tall runway sound wall. Along Clybourn, a large brown parcel delivery van sat dark in the center divider lane.
I raised my cell phone and asked Ricky if I should call 911.
Ricky got his left leg beneath him and struggled to his feet. “I can walk,” he said. He put the butt of the rifle on the ground and used it as a crutch. We were still about a mile from home.
I suggested that we hide the gun somewhere, walk home, and drive back to pick it up. “Or,” I said, “I can run, get my car, and come for you.”
“Where the hell am I going to hide a three-foot-long rifle? Maybe up your ass,” Ricky hissed.
“Take it easy. I am just trying to help.”
“Let’s just go.” He hobbled forward.
I could have offered to take his arm over my shoulder or let him hold on to my arm, but I wasn’t much caring if he got home at all. He was an ass, and a dangerous one.
When we reached Strathern, Ricky limped and nearly dragged the rifle.
I asked if I should call Francine.
He told me to use my brains. “What am I going to tell her? I shot myself with a rifle that I stole?” He said his mother would freak and call the cops. She was already talking about sending him to military school. “Man, with friends like you, who needs a bullet wound?” Ricky said.
Watery blood still burbled on his shoe, but I figured he knew best how hurt he was.
We continued along Clybourn, walking ever more slowly, across San Fernando Road, three blocks to Roscoe Boulevard. It was pretty much light now. Ricky stumbled up to the corner at Sunland Boulevard. He dropped and sat on the sidewalk. His head was bent over his knees. The rifle stood on its butt, leaning in the crook of his arm, barrel pointed skyward. Ricky breathed hard and trembled, while cars drove past and people walked by us. No one seemed to notice, or care about a gun in their midst. We weren’t threatening anyone with it. Maybe they thought it was a toy. We still had six blocks to Ricky’s house. It was only a matter of time before what we were doing became an issue. And it was an issue that could ruin a person’s future.
I asked Ricky to let me call his Mom. Or Anthony. We could sneak him in his room if he wanted. I stood above him. “Quit acting like a child and let me help you,” I said.
He raised his head. His face was pinched, coated with sweat. “Get the hell out of my sight,” he snarled. ‘I don’t need you. Go!” He pointed his finger.
I said that we had to get off the street. We were going to get arrested.
Ricky ordered me to get out of his face or we would see if there was another round in the rifle chamber. “Swear to God.” He ran his hand up and down the rifle’s stock.
I told him I couldn’t leave him like that.
Ricky lowered his head.
I said that I was going to his house to tell his mother to come pick him up. “This is ridiculous.” I took a few steps away from him.
“You do that, and you’ll wish I’d shot you at Phil’s,” he said to my back.
I walked away. “Go ahead,” I said. Whatever we had was dead anyway.
When I went by Ricky’s house, Francine’s Buick was not in the driveway. The house was dark and quiet. What was I going to do, leave her a note? Screw it. He can figure it out, I thought. He’s not going to die from a burbling foot wound, sitting on a busy street surrounded by passersby. It was his problem.
I headed home and did as Ricky said. I stayed out of his face. I heard from Anthony that Ricky made it back to his place and told his mother that he had shot himself in the foot with an arrow. Supposedly, the ER doctor bought that story. Ricky would never come by my house because my mother couldn’t stand him. When he was in our house, she walked right past and pretended he wasn’t there. She said his shifty eyes and supercilious grin were downright diabolical. Ricky sent Anthony over to ask me what the problem was, why I never came around anymore.
I told Anthony to say whatever he wanted. Ricky was crazy. “Say I’m busy studying or make up something.”
“Yeah, right,” Anthony said. “The guy will kill me.”
“Probably, if he doesn’t kill himself first.”
I followed Anthony to our front door. I said that I was tired of being pushed around, doing stuff I hated because someone else said I should. I told Anthony that I had things to do.
The first thing I did after he left was to find my dad and tell him that I decided I wasn't going to be an architect. I was starting school in Fall at a junior college, to figure out what it was I wanted to do with my life.
Trick or Treat
Angela's odd cousin, Kurt, puts the trick in Trick or Treat by taking her to collect candy in July. As she goes from house to house, without disguise, she dances, hops and mugs her way into a bag of candy. When she wants to go home, Kurt refuses. He insists that she finish the block. When he abandons her, Angela finds her way home and a new self.
Trick or Treat
Kurt asked me if I wanted candy.
I looked around to see who he was talking to. Those were the first words I remember him saying directly to me.
Kurt came to our house on the day after the Fourth of July, so his mother could say Happy Birthday to my mother. I guess Kurt got bored and my Aunt Lisa told him to go outside and play with his little cousin.
I stood on the front lawn, in my new red, yellow and blue striped bathing suit, cooling off in the sprinkler. Kurt watched, from the top of the front porch, sitting with his legs in his blue jeans stretched down the steps. He had a grin on his face, below his narrow blue eyes and curly black hair. He always had that grin, like the Cheshire cat Alice met in Wonderland. I saw the grin when he opened Christmas presents, when his Dad slapped him for talking back, and when he threw our cat as high as our house, yelling, “Let’s see if you land on your feet.” He had the grin while he told me confusing things about candy.
I kept running through the spray, jumping, squealing, and dodging the pin-needle drops of cold water.
“Do you?” Kurt shouted at me.
I tried my best ballet leap, legs straight out, hands over my head, in the fifth position.
He stood, walked over, and turned off the sprinkler.
I asked why he did that.
“Are you deaf, or just special?”
“Special, I think.”
The grin was gone. “Do you want some candy?” he growled.
“Do you have some?”
“I got an idea,” he said.
Kurt told me to go in the house and get a big shopping bag. He said to hide it from my mom and his mom. He said get two.
When I came back, Kurt suggested we take a walk.
I asked him where. I was not allowed to leave my block. I looked at my front door.
Kurt said it was okay. He talked to my mom.
I told him I did not see him talking to my mother.
“Let’s go,” he said.
I slipped on my pink flip flops and Hello Kitty t-shirt and followed him across the lawn to the sidewalk. We hurried down my street and turned at the Olsens' house on the corner.
I stood on the sidewalk, in the middle of the Olsens’ driveway and told Kurt it was far as I could go.
Kurt walked back to me and said, “I guess you don’t want any candy.”
“Guess I do.”
He said he knew where it was, and he was taking me there.
I stood with my arms folded on my chest, the grocery bags leaning against my ankles.
“Don’t be such a baby. I told you, your mom said it’s okay.”
“My mother and I talk about everything. If she thinks it’s okay, she would tell me, not you.”
He said he told her that he would show me the way and then take me home. Kurt said, with the grin. “You’ll have so much candy, you won’t have to buy any for months.”
He started down the block. “We’re talking about the best, the biggest chocolate bars you ever saw.”
“And Skittles?” I picked up the shopping bags.
“Plenty of Skittles.”
“I love Skittles. They are so scrumptious. They taste like a rainbow.”
Kurt waved me off with his hand.
After two more blocks, we turned again, down another block. I had never been so far from my house by myself, even riding my bike. The houses were bigger than mine and farther apart. I didn’t see any kids on the sidewalk or in their yards. Kurt never said anything. He clomped in his black and white sneakers, a few steps in front, his shadow covering me. I ran to keep up with him.
I smelled cigarette smoke and watched it cloud around Kurt’s head.
“You shouldn’t smoke,” I said. “It causes cancer and heart attacks. Not to mention nasty breath and stinky fingers.”
“Oh, my God. Shut up, you little rodent!” Kurt said, as we came to McLain Boulevard. Cars whisked by from both directions.
I told him he didn’t have to be so mean.
In the first space between the cars, Kurt flipped his sparking cigarette, grabbed my hand, and ran into the street. I stumbled and dragged behind him. One of my flip flops fell off. When we got to the other side, he let go and started down the sidewalk.
“My shoe!” I screamed.
“Man, you’re a mess.” He walked back into the street, cars honking and stopping all around him, and picked up my flop. He came back with a red and twisted face. He threw the sandal down on the ground in front of me. “There,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I jammed my foot in and ran behind him. I thought about turning around, but it was so far back to my house, across all those streets. I didn’t know what corners to turn at. Kurt said something about candy. He was in such a hurry that I decided he must know where they had some.
We turned one more corner past McLain. I carried both bags by myself. They were wet and mushy from my sweaty hands.
Kurt stopped at the house on the corner. It was brick, with two-stories, big shiny windows, and a porch that went along the whole front. The lawn was green, smooth, and big as a golf course.
He said to take my bag. He held the other one. “God, it’s all slimy,” he spat. He held the bag out, between his first two fingers, as if it smelled bad. He ordered me to go up to the door, ring the bell, and say, ‘Trick or treat!”
I cried that it was not Halloween! My bathing suit cut into my sunburned skin.
Kurt asked if I wanted some candy. He said the people in the house didn’t care if it was Halloween. If I went up there, they would put tons of stuff in my bag.
I stared at the door. It was a huge house. The people probably had a lot of candy. I looked back at Kurt. “I don’t know,” I said.
Kurt didn’t have the grin. He put his hand on my shoulder. “Go!”
I complained that I didn’t even have a costume. I pulled away from this hand.
He said that with my red pigtails and freckles, I looked just like Raggedy Ann. “Do something,” he added, “like that stupid dance of yours, or sing, or tell a joke.”
“I don’t know any jokes!”
He told me to just say, ‘Trick or Treat,’ and hold the bag open. It wouldn’t matter. They would give me candy. He pushed on my shoulder blades from behind. “God, you’re boney,” he said.
“Okay.” I walked with my shopping bag toward the house. I didn’t see anybody around. I went up on the porch and took off my sweaty flip flops. I crossed the cool stone to the door. I pushed the doorbell. It sounded like chimes at a church. I waited for a few seconds and the door swung open. A man with bright blue eyes and long stringy gray hair, looked at me, then at my bag.
“Yes?” the man said.
I looked at him and thought about running off the porch. I put the bag out, with shaky hands, and said, “Trick or Treat!”
“What?” The man leaned back, then smiled. “Is this–?” He stepped out on the porch and looked around. “What are you?”
I told him I was a bunny. I dropped the bag, put my two forefingers straight up above my ears, jutted out my front teeth, and hopped around in a circle.
The man laughed and told me to wait a minute.
He walked back in the house. I looked inside and saw a big black piano, with the top up, standing on a white fluffy rug. Beyond the windows, at the far end of the room, I saw a swimming pool, black and white striped umbrellas, and a diving board.
The man came back and reached for my bag, which I picked up and opened wide. He dropped in something. I looked and saw five Snickers bars.
“There you go,” the man said. “You were an excellent bunny.”
I told him thank you and slipped into my flops. I hopped off the porch, one step at a time.
While I didn’t see Kurt as I came down the long path to the sidewalk, he stepped out from behind some bushes and grabbed the shopping bag. One of the paper handles tore off in my hand.
He asked me what I got. Looking inside the bag, he said, “Good haul!”
Kurt put his arm over my shoulders and turned me to face down the block. He said to march. “We’re going to make a killing.”
At the next house, a girl about Kurt’s age answered the door. She had black spiky hair and blue shadows over her eyes. She smelled like coconut. She asked what I was supposed to be, after I told her trick or treat and opened the bag.
“A princess,” I said, and curtsied, holding out the hem of my imaginary gown.
“Too much,” she said, turning into the house. All I could see in front of me was a round mirror on the wall. It was too high for me to look at myself. The girl brought back a big bag of Hershey kisses and poured about half of it into my sack. “Don’t let them melt,” she told me.
At the third house, the thin dark man who answered the door told me to wait a minute. He twisted back into the house and shouted, “Rashmi, come here. You have to see this.” After I put my arms up, hands over my head, and twirled around and around on my tiptoes, the two of them applauded and the man slipped a giant Cadbury bar into the bag.
Kurt was excited to see all the candy I got. He led me by the hand down the block. After three more houses, I told him I was hot. I wanted a drink.
He said we only had to go to the end of the block, three more places, and then we could go home. He leaned in and said, “Think of all the sweet treats you’ll have.”
I stuck my face in the bag and looked at the brightly wrapped candy: the big bag of Skittles, the yellow Butterfingers, the orange Reese’s peanut butter cups, the silver Kisses, the brown M&Ms and Snickers, the red, white, and blue Baby Ruths.
“I get the Skittles,” I said.
“I know. Just go.”
The lady at the next house, who had short blonde hair and green eyes, like my teacher, Mrs. Holmgaard, asked me my name.
I said, “Angela.”
She asked if I was alone.
I told her my cousin, Kurt, was out there. I pointed down to the empty sidewalk.
She asked if my mom knew I was out trick or treating.
I said maybe. I didn’t think so.
She said she would give me something to take, if I promised to go right home and show my mom all the candy. “Is that a deal?” she said.
“Okay.” I smiled and frowned, like a crazy clown.
When I told Kurt what the woman said, he snatched the bag out of my hand and threw it on the ground. “She doesn’t know shit,” he seethed.
I said we had to leave. I had told the lady that I would go home. “I want to see my mom.” I started to sniffle.
“Dammit,” Kurt said. He pushed by me and climbed to the bottom part of the woman’s yard, above the street. He stomped up to a skinny tree with just a few leaves, near a bunch of bushes. He took its trunk in his hands and ripped it out of the dirt, roots and all. He lifted it over his head and brought it down on his knee, snapping it in two. “Trick, not treat!” he yelled, toward the woman’s house. He threw the broken tree into the bushes and walked back to me. I stepped off the sidewalk, out of his way.
“Screw it,” he said, heading back up the street.
I fell in behind him and carried the shopping bag, which was heavy as a watermelon. The empty folded bag rubbed my armpit. Kurt walked ahead, with long steps. I ran, tripping and stubbing my toes.
In the middle of the sidewalk, Kurt stopped and spun around. I almost bumped into him.
He snatched the bag from me and demanded that we go to the end of the street. “We’re finishing this block,” he said.
I yelled that I wanted to go home, now.
“Good luck with that,” he said, heading in the direction of the last three houses.
“Take me home,” I called after him.
“After we do these down here.”
I screamed no.
Kurt kept walking to the end of the block. When he turned back to me, I stood where I was, with my arms and legs crossed, staring at him. He watched me, then stepped off the curb. “Okay. See you at home,” he said. He crossed the street and disappeared down a side street.
“Kurt!” I yelled. “Kurt?” I waited for him to come back. I stood as still as I could, on the same crack in the sidewalk, so he knew right where to find me. I wished so hard that I would see him walking back from that street, but he never came. I have to get home, I thought. What if no one ever finds me? I was down below all these big houses. I couldn’t see anybody in their windows or yards. Nothing moved on the street. I didn’t hear any birds singing or dogs barking. I knew my mom would be worried. I felt like I wanted to throw up. I was shaking and started to cry. I threw the empty gooey grocery bag on the lawn beside me. I stood on one foot, then the other. Then, I had to go to the bathroom. I decided that I couldn’t stand there all day. I had to do something. I had to go somewhere. I stood straight, tugged on the bottom of my shirt, and took a big step off the crack.
I looked down the street where Kurt went. If he went that way, it must go to my house. I might see him, way up ahead and follow him home. I decided to try it. I crossed over and walked fast on the sidewalk. My friend, Maggie, told me that it was faster to walk at one speed than it was to run really fast and then walk slow and run and walk and run. I kept at one speed. When I got to a corner, I turned and thought I saw McLain Boulevard, down a couple blocks. I couldn’t believe it was that close.
I had one red Tootsie Roll Pop, stuck in the waist band of my bathing suit. I had hidden it when my cousin wasn’t looking. I pulled it out and took the wrapper off. I popped the sucker in my mouth and tasted the cherry flavor. I felt better. I walked on the sidewalk, bending my feet so my flip flops would stay on. I swung my arms, like a toy soldier and felt the sun on my hair. I let the sweet candy stay against my cheek until it made bumps in my mouth, then I moved it around with my tongue, making a clacking sound on my teeth, and swallowing the sweet juice. I still didn’t see any kids playing in their front yards or in the street.
When I got to McLain Boulevard, I stood on the corner, looking both ways as cars rushed by. I thought it wasn’t so bad. I could do it. I just had to watch and run as fast as I could, until I got across the street. I took my sandals off and held them in my hand.
I took one step toward the street and heard my name. I turned to see Kurt come out from behind a tree. He carried the sack of candy under his arm like a football, and he wore the stupid grin.
“What are you doing?” I said, as he stepped next to me on the curb.
“I’ve been watching you.”
I told him that was so creepy. “Why don’t’ you go away,” I said. I could get home without him.
“Don’t be such a dick brain.” He walked right out into the middle of the busy street and stopped the cars. “Come on, Fool,” he called, waving his arm at me.
I ran to the other side of the street. He walked ahead of me again, smoking his cigarette. I bent to put on my shoes and let him go. I stayed at my same speed. He got further and further up the sidewalk. It didn’t matter to me if he was there or not. I wished that he wasn’t.
Up ahead, at my corner, I saw my friend, Cicely, on her bike. I felt friendly again and waved. I couldn’t wait to see my mom and tell her happy birthday.
When I got to my front porch, Kurt stood at the top of the steps, blocking my way.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I need to go in my house.”
He brought the bag of candy out from behind him, put it on the step, in front of me, and said, “There.”
I asked if that was my half.
He said it was all of it. “I don’t care about the candy.”
He had the grin. “I just wanted to see if we could pull it off.”
“You mean you wanted to see if you could make me do it.”
He told me to cool my rooster comb. He said nobody forced me at gunpoint to go. I wanted candy and I got it. He turned toward the door. “I’ll go tell them we’re back.”
I sat on the porch, and looked at the hose, tangled up on the lawn. It seemed like forever since I was playing with it. I got up and went into the house to hide my candy in my bedroom. If I told my mother about it, she would ask a bunch of questions and take it away.
When I came out, I heard my Aunt Lisa say that they had to leave. I walked through the kitchen and followed the three of them out to driveway. My mom smiled at me and put her arm around my shoulder. She faced the car and moved her hand up and down, for Kurt to roll down his window.
“Bye, bye, Auntie Sarah,” Kurt said, opening his eyes wide and smiling with his teeth. He looked over at me. “Trick or treat, Angie.”
My mom leaned and called across him to Aunt Lisa, “Remember, Leelee, you can return it if you don’t like it.”
As their car pulled away, I could see Aunt Lisa talking to Kurt, who faced forward, slouched so low in his seat, I could just see the top of his head.
Going up the driveway, my mother asked if I had fun playing with my cousin. She said that we were gone a long time.
I told her that Kurt was alright but he was weird.
“What do you mean `weird’?”
“He’s sneaky, and bossy. And even when he’s trying to be nice, he’s still mean.”
My mother said that he was always an odd boy.
Before we got to the door, she said, “What did Kurt mean when he said, `trick or treat, Angie’?”
I raised my shoulders and eyebrows. “Like you said, Mom, he’s odd.”
When we got inside the house, I told my mother that I was going to take my bathing suit off. I went into my room and closed the door. I picked up the bag of candy off my bed and put my whole head inside. I breathed in deep the sugary and chocolatey smell. As I pulled my head out, I spotted the big Cadbury bar and grabbed it.
I rolled the top of the bag tight and tucked it under some old jeans and sweaters in the corner of my closet. I put on shorts and a clean shirt. From the bottom of my sock drawer, I got out the wrapped box with the turquoise and silver earrings inside. I put the candy bar under the box and held them in my hand. I went into the hallway, got a running start, and pushed through the kitchen door. I did my best flying leap, in front of the sink, holding out my mother’s gifts.
“Happy Birthday!” I yelled. I tripped, crashed into a stool, and landed on my rear end on the floor, in front of my mother. The gifts flew and landed at her feet.
She bent over to help me up. She told me that I was the greatest gift that she could ever possibly hope for.
Lie Like a Dog
Sandy breaks a neighbor's window with a water balloon. He lies to his mother and tells her that he heard the neighborhood bully outside his window. The bully threatens to lie Sandy down like a dog. Friendly intervention saves Sandy, but not from his mother's disappointment.
Lie Like a Dog
Sandy and his brother went over their planas they lay in the dark, eight feet apart, in twin beds.
“You lift the screen and I’ll throw it against the house,” Sandy whispered.
“I want to throw it,” Chris whined.
“Shusha. Keep your voice down. You throw the next one. It’s my balloon.”
“Okay,” Chris said and kicked off his covers.
“Wait. I’ll go fill it.” Sandy walked to the door, pinching and pulling the top of the balloon until it squealed.
“Shusha,” Chris called.
Sandy stuck his head into the hall. He saw nothing but shadow fifteen feet down to the door at the end. From the other side of the door, he heard muffled voices from the television in the living room. He felt sure his father was asleep in his recliner. He could not be sure about his mother. She could be anywhere, in the kitchen, in the den, in her bedroom. She roamed the house like a panther and pounced when Sandy least expected.
Sandy hurried on tiptoe into the bathroom and locked the door. He flushed the toilet and wrapped the balloon’s mouth around the faucet’s chrome mouth in the sink. He filled the balloon with cold water and tied the end, like his father had taught him. He pulled the end over his index finger, under and through, to make a knot. It was harder to do wet. He got it after three tries.
When he finished, Sandy looked at himself in the mirror. Although he had been in bed for only a few minutes, his blonde hair stood up in all directions, looking as if a rabbit had scurried through it. His pupils covered almost all of his blue eyes. He bared his crooked front teeth in a snarl. He looked like the spooked rabbit. He switched off the light.
With the wet balloon pressed against his skin, inside his pajama shirt, Sandy stuck his head back out the door. He heard the same sounds from the front room. He hurried back through the shadowy hall, expecting his mother to jump out and scare him. He lunged into his bedroom and pulled the door closed. He kept the light off.
“Okay. The screen,” he ordered Chris.
Chris jumped on Sandy’s bed, under the window. He raised the shade and released the screen from the bottom. Sandy crawled over him and lifted his head and shoulders out the window. He held the windowsill with one hand and the slick, bulging balloon with the other. He looked at the Randolphs’ house next door, about twenty feet away. There were a couple feet of stucco wall between their back door and kitchen window. The porch light was out, but the kitchen was lit. Sandy turned his head to each side. To his right, his backyard lay quiet in the dark. To his left, an eight-foot cinderblock wall divided the back and front yards. Sandy could just see the street. Nothing moved along Shadycove Drive, although he thought he heard voices somewhere beyond the wall.
Sandy raised the balloon as high as he could, his body pointing headfirst out of the window, like a bowsprit on a boat. He aimed with his eye at the Randolphs’ wall. With his elbow locked in an “L,” he brought his arm forward and launched the balloon. Wobbly, lopsided, and slippery, the bulbous missile sailed on a low arc, hooking right. Sandy grabbed each side of the window frame to steady himself. He heard glass smashing.
“Geez!” Chris said behind him and ducked down.
Sandy saw the shattered kitchen window to the right of the porch. Shards of glass hung in the frame. Sandy struggled to pull himself back into the room. He knew somebody would be out to see what happened. A force ran through his body and he felt light and quick. He drew his head and shoulders inside and stood on the pillow at the head of his bed. He reached for the cord on the window shade. He pulled it down quickly, and it slipped and snapped out of his wet hand. The shade flew to the top of the window sash with a bang.
He reached for it again, as the Randolphs’ back porch light flicked on. Ann Randolph appeared in the doorway, her dark hair spread over the shoulders of her white robe. She looked across at Sandy standing in the window in his pajamas. She put her hand above her eyes to block the glare and squinted. Sandy dropped to his knees on his bed. He couldn’t disappear. She had seen him. He put his head back out the window.
“What happened?” he said, in a hoarse whisper, loud enough for her to hear.
“What’s going on?” Ann asked, watching Sandy.
“Some kids, I think,” Sandy said. “I heard voices. They must have run.”
Ann blinked her eyes and waited.
“I think it was Jackie Armstrong,” Sandy offered, rather than suffer the silence. He didn’t know why he said it, besides the fact that he hated Jackie Armstrong. Armstrong was the neighborhood bully, and always in trouble. He had beat up Ann's kids. She would believe it.
Ann looked out toward the street and shook her head, her black hair swinging around her shoulders. “It’s all wet. I hope it’s water,” she said. She stared at Sandy. “Are you sure about this?”
Sandy heard a loud motorcycle speed down the street beyond the wall. “It was Armstrong,” he said, “I think.”
Ann stepped back into her house, closed the door, and snapped off the light. Again, it was dark between the houses. As Sandy turned around, he noticed that the light was on in his room. His mother stood in the doorway. She stared at him, her fists on her hips.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Chris lifted his head out of his covers, blinking his eyes like a dug-up gopher. “What?” he said.
“What’s going on?” Sandy’s mother asked again.
Sandy stood on his pillow, his back to the darkness. He hid his wet hands behind him. “Someone broke the Randolphs’ window,” he said. “Water balloon.”
“Someone?” his mother said, walking to his bed.
The screen flapped against the bare open window.
“Close it and pull down the shade,” his mother said.
Sandy did what he was told. He turned back, and fell to his knees, covering the water drops on his pillow.
“And who would that someone be?” His mother pushed against his bed with her legs. She took off her glasses and put them in her pants pocket. Her hands went back on her hips.
Sandy could smell her flowery perfume.
“Jackie Armstrong,” he said. “I think I heard his voice.”
“How do you know it was a water balloon?” Sandy felt his mother’s glare on him, like a cat on a moth.
“That’s what Ann said. I was talking to her.” Sandy stole a glance at Chris, who was looking at his mother with his mouth open and his eyes huge.
“She said to you, ‘Someone broke my window with a water balloon’?”
“I think so,” Sandy said. “I don’t know. I guess there was water all over the place. Or she hoped it was water.”
His mother watched him, with one eyebrow raised, her mouth twisted in a figure eight. “Did you guys break the window?” she said.
Sandy felt his mother look right through him. He couldn’t go back now. He said, “No, I told you. It was Armstrong.”
“Mom, please. Why don’t you believe me?” Sandy could not remember lying to his mother before, not this big, not to her face. He brushed his hand through his sweaty hair. He gulped a couple of times to keep everything down. He knew his mother knew. She stood waiting, with a tired, disappointed look on her face.
Chris stayed quiet. Across the room, only his raccoon-shadowed eyes showed over his bedcovers. Sandy threw a glance at him. Chris’s look told him that he was safe. If his brother was mad at him, he would have given him up. Sandy knew he would have to keep Chris happy. He didn’t see any choice.
As he and his mother stared at each other, the telephone rang. Sandy’s mother turned to go to her bedroom to answer it. His father never got the phone at home.
“Why don’t you tell her?” Chris whispered. “She’s going to find out.”
“I already told her I didn’t do it.”
“You’re going to get in more trouble,” Chris said.
“You did this, too. It’s not just me.”
“It wasn't my balloon, I didn’t throw it, and I didn’t lie about it.”
“Shut up.” Sandy got into his bed. He lay on his back, waiting. It was like looking up at the blade of the guillotine.
“You’d better shut up, or I’m telling,” Chris said.
They both stopped talking when they heard the floor creaking in the hall. Their mother came in the room.
“Ann Randolph called. She wants to know what’s going on.” Sandy’s mother stood in the same spot, her legs up against his bed, looking into his face. Sandy pushed the back of his head deeper into his pillow. He wished he could pull the covers up over his head and go to sleep. He felt exhausted. He wished he had never got that balloon from his friend, Ricky Nyland. He wished he had never thought of throwing it against the Randolphs' house. If he had given it to his brother, Chris probably would have popped it. And Sandy wouldn’t have this problem.
“How do I know what’s going on?” Sandy heard his own voice rise and crack. He was afraid he might start crying. He talked slowly, so he could keep control of himself. “Why is Ann picking on me?”
His mother told him that Ann thought it was strange that when she came to her back door and saw him standing in the window. “And then she said you ducked out of sight,” his mother said, leaning over his bed.
Sandy heard a whisking sound come from his brother’s side of the room. He and his mother looked over at Chris, who slept on his back, with his mouth wide open.
His mother took a step back from the bed. She folded her arms on her chest. “Okay, Sanford, I’m going to ask you for the last time. Did you throw the water balloon at the Randolphs’ house?”
Sandy stared into his mother’s blurry, greenish eyes, as if looking at himself in a fogged mirror. He knew he could clean his conscience with one swipe, but he held open his throbbing eyes. His body felt stiff and sore, as if he had rolled on concrete. Pressure built in his head until he felt something snap and he exploded, “No!,” he shouted. “I told you. Why don’t you believe me?”
His mother collapsed inward, as if her plug had been pulled. “I’m going to get your father. Let him deal with this.” She turned and left the room.
Sandy lay on his back in his bed, staring at the flat frosted-white light fixture in the center of the ceiling. It was just like his brother to disappear when the trouble started. He was part of it, too. Sandy wondered if his father was sleeping. He would be madder if he was. He did not like them waking him up. Sandy waited, listening to the bottom of the screen still clacking against the sill. He thought about getting up and fastening it, but he would look guiltier if his father walked in and he was messing with the window. Better to wait. Everything is possible when you wait. His dad hadn’t spanked him in a long time. Sandy figured he was too big to lie across his father’s lap while his father slapped his butt. It depended on what mood his father was in. He heard footsteps in the hall. He sat up as his dad came into the room.
“Bud, what is going on here? Your mother said someone broke the Randolphs’ window.”
Sandy knew he was safe. His father was in a good mood. “It wasn’t me, Dad!” Sandy said. No one could prove it was, except one person. “I heard Jackie Armstrong’s voice outside, then the window broke.” The stakes were getting higher. For the rest of all their lives, he had to keep his brother from telling them the truth. How could he pull that off? But, as time passed, it would probably seem less important, maybe even funny at some point.
“Did you tell your mother that?” his father said.
“Yes,” he whispered. He didn’t want Chris awake while his father was in the room. “But she won’t believe me.”
“Okay. Go to sleep then. I’ll talk to her.” His father pulled the door closed behind him.
Sandy lay awake for a long time. He listened to the leaves shush in the trees in the front yard. He thought he heard voices again outside the window. Maybe Armstrong was out there. Maybe he really did hear him earlier. But Sandy didn’t want to get up to look and wake Chris. Maybe Ann Randolph was out there cleaning up. It was better to let the whole thing die down and go away. It was just a broken window.
Sandy had the sick feeling that he had become a different person. Maybe criminals got started by telling a big lie that nobody believes and then they are forced to keep doing things to make sure no one ever finds out. He wasn’t sure how he was going to deal with Chris. The truth was he felt worst about his mother. He was sad that he disappointed her. She knew the truth and she knew he knew she knew. She probably would never totally believe in him again. The regret that flashed through his mind as he dropped off to sleep was: If only I had thrown it a little bit to the left.
It took only two days after school for Jackie Armstrong to catch up with Sandy. Sandy didn’t see Armstrong around, so he never thought about him. He never gave a thought to the possibility that from what he told her, Ann Randolph might call Jackie’s parents, and that Armstrong would get into trouble for breaking the window. That never occurred to him.
Sandy was late for the bus, so he ran down the sidewalk along the school’s chain link fence. As he lifted his foot toward the first step on the bus stairs, something slammed into him from behind. He crashed into the metal railing and twisted, as Armstrong leaned into him. “Knock it off,” the bus driver yelled. “No fighting on the bus.” Sandy struggled free, climbed into the aisle, and hurried to an empty seat in the middle of the bus. Armstrong walked past with his clenched fist up in front of his bright red scowling face. “You are dead, Sandflea,” he said. “When we get off this bus, I’m going to put you where you belong, Asshole.”
“No cursing on the bus,” the driver shouted, watching them in the mirror above his head.
Armstrong didn’t say why. Sandy could not imagine any other reason. Armstrong was twice as big as any other kid his age and he pushed people around, but Sandy had avoided trouble with him. Now he was going to fight Armstrong. The whole situation with the broken window was way out of hand. It was just a window. Nobody got hurt. Until the moment that he stepped off that bus.
Sandy tried to think of something that he could offer Armstrong, as he stood before him quaking at the bus stop and before his blood splurted and guts gushed to the ground. Money. Indentured servitude. His iPad. The only thing he wouldn’t, couldn’t, give up was the truth.
He thought of pretending that he knew kung fu. His dad, who had done some fighting in his younger days, according to Sandy’s aunt, told him that attitude was as important as strength. If he screamed loud enough, chop punched his fists and kicked his feet, and attacked as if he believed he could take Armstrong, he might stand a chance of surviving. But Armstrong was right: Sandy was scary as a flea.
Sandy sat looking forward, ignoring Armstrong somewhere behind him. He imagined the bully was burning holes in the back of his head with his glare. He heard his name and turned toward the aisle. Mickey Mason, a friend of Chris’s, who everyone called Mouse, leaned in. “Are you really going to fight Armstrong?” Mouses’s eyes bulged and his mouth hung open so wide, drool leaked out.
“I don’t know, Mouse. Looks like it.”
“I promise to be like a brother to Chris when you’re dead,” Mouse whispered and walked away.
“Thanks,” Sandy said to the open seat in front of him.
Everyone on the bus knew he was a dead man. He looked around. No one would make eye contact. He heard whispering and tittering. Maybe he could run home the second his foot hit the ground off the bus. Dash past everyone into his house and lock the door. But then, he could never come out again. His reputation in the neighborhood would be set for life. Sandflea the Weak, the Coward, the Lying, Mother-hating, Back-stabbing, Chicken-hearted vermin.
Normally Sandy hated the bus ride home from school. It took twenty-five minutes and always seemed more like three hours. He could never get home fast enough. This time he looked up and they were already gliding to his stop at the corner, a block from his house. He stood, grabbed his backpack, and hurried up the aisle toward the front of the bus. The door opened and he stepped to the ground. Already six or seven kids gathered around him, in a half circle. The bus drove away. The cloud of diesel fumes swirled around Sandy, and out of the cloud stepped Armstrong. He came to where Sandy stood on the dirt parkway, planted his feet and stared. Sandy looked at Armstrong’s freckled, blotchy, red face. He felt calm. He was sorry for this big ugly kid whom nobody liked and called Baby Huey and Sluggo behind his back.
“Lie down,” Armstrong said, his hands at his sides.
Sandy looked over Armstrong’s shoulder toward his own house. He saw his mother’s car parked in the driveway in front of the garage.
“Go ahead, Sandflea. Lie on the ground.” Armstrong clenched and unclenched his fists at his sides.
“What are you talking about?” Sandy said. He looked at the ground in front of him, covered in stickers, dirt, swarming red ants, and chunks of chalky dried dog shit.
“Fight him, Sandy,” someone called from behind Armstrong.
“Kick his ass!” someone else yelled.
The kids in the crowd started moving. Sandy could hear their shoes swishing in the dirt and their clothes rustling. He saw Chris, standing at the edge of the crowd with a frantic expression on his ashen face.
“Blood!” someone shouted.
Armstrong ignored the taunts. He rocked on the balls of his feet, his hands working at his sides, eyes boring into Sandy. “Lie down before I put you down like a dog,” he said.
“Why? What are you talking about?” Sandy said.
“I want everyone to see what a liar you are. So lie.”
Sandy looked at the ground again. “I am not going to lie in that.” Sandy pointed toward the dog shit.
“Then I’ll put you there.”
Sandy remembered his dad told him that if he got into a fight, the first thing to do was hit the other guy in the stomach. As hard as he could. One quick punch into the midsection and the fight was over. Armstrong still had his hands down and his ample gut exposed. Sandy thought about it, seeing if he could raise the ire to hit another person, without any real reason. He only had to lift his fist, pull it back, and fire it into Armstrong’s ample stomach. Armstrong took a step forward, as an aluminum soda can clincked off his shoulder.
“Back off, Sasquatch,” someone yelled.
“Blood! Blood! Blood!” A chant had started among the group watching.
“Come on, Sandy. Kill the oaf!”
Armstrong moved forward, in long awkward strides, unstoppable like Frankenstein. Sandy had another thought about running away, but Armstrong pulled him into a clench. Sandy’s arms were pinned to his sides, Armstrong’s hold tightening like steel bands around a barrel.
The next thing Sandy knew, he was falling with Armstrong, and rolling on the dirt. Before he could get a sense of exactly where he was, Armstrong was on top of him. Armstrong pressed his whole body on top of Sandy. Sandy felt crushed. He tried to move his head, to find light, air, to see if he had hope of escape. He could not move a muscle. He was jammed.
“Now everyone sees you’re lying,” Armstrong whispered, from somewhere above. “Go ahead and say it, loud, `I’m a liar.’”
Sandy was so squashed, he could not find the strength to speak. Even if he wanted to, he could not make the proclamation that Armstrong demanded. The weight pressed on him. He wondered if he would die there, flattened into panicked ants and fossilized turd. Sandy heard feet shuffle near his head.
A voice said, “Off, Armstrong, or I’ll cave your face in.”
Sandy saw light invade and felt the weight lift off his body. He felt so buoyant, he kept his palms on the dirt to keep from floating into space. As he got to his feet, he saw Ricky Nyland, standing in front of Armstrong. If Armstrong was the biggest kid in the neighborhood, Nyland was the toughest. Legend was he could beat up anyone in high school, although Sandy had never seen him fight. For reasons Sandy couldn’t understand, Nyland was always friendly to him. While other kids feared and ran from Nyland, Sandy hung around to talk to him whenever he saw him.
As Nyland and a couple of his buddies loomed behind Armstrong, Sandy stood chest to chest with the bully. Sandy pushed Armstrong. Armstrong grabbed Sandy’s forearms to hold him off. Sandy had no idea how the faceoff would end. They had nowhere to go with it. Sandy was too soft to end it with a punch and Armstrong was now fighting four, including the toughest kid in school.
Sandy felt tired. He couldn’t remember why he was standing there, surrounded by about a dozen kids, jeering and calling for Armstrong’s blood. He needed a way out. He looked around for his brother but didn’t see him.
Sandy heard his name, called from a distance. “Sanford! Sanford!” He looked toward his house and saw his mother standing on the driveway, waving her arms. Chris stood next to her.
Sandy dropped his hands, looked at Armstrong and Nyland, and said, “Sorry, I have to go.” He walked away and left the crowd hooting and yelling behind him.
When Sandy reached his mother, she put out her arms and hugged him. “You okay?” she said. Sandy pushed against her, feeling shaky and nauseated.
As the three of them stood on the driveway, Jackie Armstrong walked by, heading around the corner, toward his house. He watched them as he sidled past, with a slight limp, his face red, his right eye swollen shut.
Sandy knew he didn’t hurt Armstrong. He barely touched him.
“God, can we put an end to this?” Sandy’s mother said, shaking her head.
Sandy watched Armstrong’s back and followed him a few steps down the sidewalk. “Sorry,” he called.
Armstrong looked back with a frown and kept walking.
“I knew you were in there somewhere,” his mother said, walking in the front door of the house.
Sandy pushed his brother out of the way and followed his mother.
“Stop it or I’m telling.” Chris bawled.
Sandy told his brother to forget it. He would tell.
Answer to Dimka
Hosting a family reunion of sorts, Lucas confronts his abusive Uncle Dimka and Aunt Rosa. Lucas, his priest brother, Alex, and Dimka and Rosa's son, Danilo, join in the fracas. The proceedings go off track when Danilo pulls a gun and orders Lucas and Alex to leave.
Answer to Dimka
Like vomit, it was all coming back up. I had not spoken to Dimka Babic in two decades, and there I was, in a single moment, right where I had been with the old bastard. It was as if our conversation never ended.
Dimka said, "Lucas, you are fool. Always was. I ask you direction to your house, and you tell me turn right and get us lost."
"I told you to turn left, Dimka."
"We are in parking lot of Biggy's Taste of Soul. It is very dark over here."
When my brother and I lived with Dimka and his wife, Rosa, I remembered being shocked, even at ten years old, at the horrible things he said about people different from him. He had dark skin himself and talked with an accent. It seemed mean and stupid.
Now, I had Dimka where I wanted him. "From there, head west on Mandela Parkway and turn south on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. That will take you around the bottom of the golf course and to the freeway again. Then, like I told you before, turn left at Grand. Not right, or you will be back where you are now."
There was a long silence of the other end. "Are you getting us out of here or no?"
"Dimka, it's the way to my house. I have been trying to tell you."
When I hung up, I walked into my living room. My brother, Alex, sat on the sofa, doing a Rodney Dangerfield yank on his clerical collar. His right foot jiggled, balanced on his left knee. Danilo Babic, Dimka and Rosa's son, hunched forward next to him in his dusty work boots, head bowed, palms sliding together between his knees.
"Are you intentionally getting Dimka lost?" Alex said.
"You know the man. It's impossible to tell him anything. They will be here before long."
"You didn't answer my question."
"Yes, I'm fucking with him. He hasn't changed a bit. He's getting what he deserves."
About a month before, I would not have imagined this group of people in the same room together, definitely not in my house. It was about that time that Rosa sent me a friend request on Facebook. I had not communicated with her or her husband in twenty years. I was curious, so I accepted. She messaged back that she saw in the news that I had sold my software company. It was synchronistic that just as I made my fortune, I heard from someone from the deep past. And also, that my experience with Rosa and Dimka had come up in my therapy sessions.
I walked to the front door. "Let's go over and sit on the bench by the lake. Kill some time and cool off."
Alex fell in behind me on the front steps. I waited until Danilo joined us. I led single file to the road, across, and down the grassy slope to the lake's edge.
The sky was overcast, reflecting steel gray on the calm water. Alex sat in the middle.
"Tell me again what you expect to happen today. What are your objectives?" Alex said.
"Spoken like a facilitator," I said.
Danilo sat hunched over, elbows resting on his knees. He looked out toward the lake.
"That's why you asked me here, right?" Alex said.
"You're part of this. Both of you are. My therapist thought this was a good idea. Get everyone in the same room."
"What did your therapist think would happen?" Alex said.
Danilo sat up and said, "I can tell you what's going to happen." He looked over at us. "That crazy asshole is sadistic. You bring your shit up and start blaming him, he will kill everybody in the room.”
I laughed. "What?"
Danilo had just spent three years at Walla Walla State Prison. I would have expected him to talk like that. And his father was a brutal man. Supposedly he had been a ranking officer in the Yugoslav People's Army in the homeland.
I was never clear what Dimka was to my brother and me, something like our grandfather's great nephew on somebody's side. Part of the extended family. I saw Dimka and Rosa at gatherings and had visited their house the when I was really little, before our mother moved out. They had a lot of land, with a pond, barn, and animals--chickens, ducks, goats, a pig, horse, and four dogs. There might have even been a few llamas.
After our father died of brain cancer, my brother and I were orphans. Dad was our world. We had no idea how to get in touch with our mother. In his last days Dad arranged to have his sister, Sherry, take us in. She explained that it might be a little while before we could come live with her, her husband, and four kids. They didn't have room as it was and were building a new house. I think that Sherry must have asked Dimka and Rosa to look after Alex and me until she and her family were ready. A few months at the most, Sherry assured us.
As it was, we stayed with Rosa and Dimka for three months. The moment we crawled out of their car on the gravel driveway, Dimka had us working. He jumped out, with a limp, suffering from a bad knee, and had me and Alex follow him to the barn. He pitched hay, gathered eggs, watered troughs, and scooped dung, virtually with one leg, and with us at his heels. He told us that besides all the work around the barn, and with the animals, it was our job to keep the weeds down in the vegetable garden and hand-mow the grass near the house. Dimka said his son, Danilo, had moved away, and he needed help keeping the place running. If that was the reason he agreed to take us in, as boys, he didn't say. Getting to know Dimka as I did, I understood that it was not from his abounding compassion and concern for us as children, or even to help out the family, that he had us there.
After Dimka showed us the lay of the land, he led us into the house. He showed us where we would sleep, in Danilo's old room. Dimka had brought in bunk beds. We were to make the beds each morning before coming to breakfast, Dimka said, and keep our clothes and belongings picked up, folded and stored. We also had to keep the bathroom down the hall clean--the floor swept, wastebasket emptied, and toilet, sink, and tub scrubbed.
In the bedroom, Dimka stood by the bunks. He reached his hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a quarter. He bounced the coin high off the cover of the bottom bed. "This is my test. It is what I expect. If you fail test, you answer to me," he said. Dimka laid his large leathery hand on Alex's shoulder. "Do you boys understand?" Dimka said.
"Yes," I said, avoiding contact with his big cloudy brown eyes, the color of a mud puddle.
Alex looked from Dimka to me with terror on his face and started to cry.
"Don't worry, little one. you will get used to life here. It is simple. You work, you eat," Dimka said. "Or like my ungrateful piss ant son, you run away. Either way, your choice. All is same to me." Dimka stepped toward the door. "Now, go outside until dinner," he said.
Alex and I wandered from the house out to a stand of trees, in the far grass meadow, behind the barn. Alex grabbed a low branch and climbed into an elm.
"Where do we live?" Alex said.
"What do you mean, where do we live? We live here."
"What about our old house, where we lived with Dad?"
"Forget about it. That's gone. Just do what Dimka says and we'll be out of here in a little while. We're going to live with Aunt Sherry and Uncle Kip."
"Okay," Alex said.
"It will be fine," I said, as if I knew. But he seemed relieved.
"It will be fine," he said.
We quickly discovered what it meant to answer to Dimka. One Saturday, Alex and I cleaned the bathroom. I scrubbed the toilet while Alex swept the floor. As I leaned into the bowl, I felt a jab in my side. I reached out and grabbed Alex's broom handle. "Stop," I told him. Alex swung the broom around and swatted my butt with the bristles. I scooped water out of the toilet with both hands and tossed it in Alex's face, and all over his tee shirt. Alex's smile disappeared as his face reddened with fury. "I'm telling," he screamed, and ran from the bathroom.
I stood, wondering whom Alex would tell. Rosa was mean. That morning, she slapped me across the face for telling her no. Dimka's glare spelled doom.
I got them both. Rosa walked into the bathroom, followed by Dimka. Alex trailed behind. "You bully your brother?" Dimka said, stepping past his wife. He ringed the back of my neck with his massive calloused hand. "I had three older brothers who bully me."
"We were playing," I said. I glanced at Alex, whose face was drained of blood.
Dimka guided me over to the toilet. "On your knees," he said. He pushed me forward by the neck and I stiffened my body with all my strength. He pushed harder. "You do not want to resist me, Little Man," he said. "If I want, I snap your neck easy." Dimka kicked the back of my knee and my leg buckled. I kneeled in front of the toilet. He moved his hand up to the back of my head, pushed my face into the bowl, and flushed the toilet. "Next time, I piss in first," he said. When I pulled out, huffing, my hair sopped and dripping, I saw only Rosa standing by the door. She said, "Don't be a punk."
Alex finally got his. He and I played whiffle ball on the grass near the house. I pitched him a high softy. He swung and missed. "Fuck!" he yelled. Within seconds, Rosa stood at the door to the house. "Alex, now!" Alex marched to the house as if he were shackled, head and arms hanging, feet dragging. I followed, to see what Rosa had to offer. Rosa pulled Alex by his bicep to the kitchen sink. "I told you boys never to let me catch you cursing. Open!" Rosa inserted a new bright white block of Ivory Soap into Alex's mouth. His eyes got big and filled with tears. Bubbles flowed over his chin. He gagged and cried. "This is what the Devil tastes like," Rosa said. I took a step toward my brother. The smell of the soap made me gag. Rosa turned and yelled at me, "Get out of her." I ran away.
One evening, I squatted in the hall. I assumed the position as punishment for walking into Rosa and Dimka's bedroom. We were forbidden to enter their room, at any time, for any reason. But I needed to tell them that toilet paper was gone in the downstairs bathroom, which I discovered while doing my business, sitting on the toilet. I had to squat in the hall for twenty minutes without getting to wipe myself. Rosa came in and said, "Lucas, your Aunt Sherry is on the phone. She wants to talk to you."
"How are things going there, Sweetheart?" Sherry said. "It shouldn't be too much longer."
I couldn't help myself. I burst into tears. "They made Alex eat soap and they won't let me wipe myself."
The next morning, I sat with my brother in the back seat of Sherry's station wagon, as she drove us down the long gravel driveway and away from Rosa and Dimka's. We managed living with her and her family until we all moved into the big house. From or about the Babics I heard nothing until Rosa contacted me on Facebook.
Sitting on the bench by the lake, with Dimka and Rosa's son and my brother, I understood that Danilo was right. His father probably was capable, given the right circumstance, of killing someone. He probably had killed people in Yugoslavia. I thought he might kill me when he stuffed my head in the toilet. And there I was, fucking with the old man before he even got there.
"I'm trying to remember why I agreed to this," Danilo said. "This is a very bad idea."
"Because I agreed to sponsor your parole," I said.
We sat silently, facing the darkening lake. A group of crows kept up a racket in the upper limbs of a fir tree.
"We could kill him first," Danilo said.
I barely heard him above the noise of the birds.
Alex stood and took two steps back. "What did you say?"
I stood and joined my brother, staring at Danilo.
"Messing with you, Man," Danilo said. "It's a joke."
It made me wonder if Danilo carried a gun. I said, "Let's walk back up. They should be here by now"
When we reached the top of the hill, I saw Rosa and Dimka standing on the porch, at the front door of my house. As we approached, Rosa came stumbling down the stairs, her arms open. She ran to her son and blubbered into his chest. "My baby." He kept his arms wide, away from her body.
I watched Dimka on the porch. He looked down on the scene with a scowl. His face was sunken and weathered. He had gone bald on top, with a shiny dome and thin scraggly gray hair on the sides hanging down to his shoulders. "Big rich man keep guests waiting," he said in his booming voice.
"Nice to see you, too, Dimka," I called to him. "How long has it been?"
"Never long enough," he said.
I looked at Alex, and we both raised our eyebrows.
Neither Dimka nor Danilo acknowledged the other's presence.
Rosa side-stepped and hugged my brother, and then me. "I am so proud of you, Lukey," she said into my ear. "You've done well for yourself."
"Let's all go inside and get some drinks," I called. "Alex, if you would lead the way and get everyone seated and set up."
Alex climbed the stairs. At the top, he patted Dimka on the shoulder hello and went inside. Dimka followed him. I let Rosa and Danilo go in front of me.
When I came back into the living room with water, ice tea, and sodas, two chairs faced the sofa. Alex sat on one end of the sofa, Dimka on the other end, with Rosa in the middle. Danilo was in one of the chairs. All were silent, looking at their hands in their laps. I offered drinks and sat. I nodded to my brother.
"It is good to reunited with you all," Alex began. "I'm sure each of us has our own reason for being here today. I thought we might go around and say what our purpose is for coming."
"What?" Dimka said. "What are you talking about?"
"Lucas, maybe you can begin, since it is your house and your meeting." Alex waved his hand at me.
I took a long drink of water, put down the glass, and sat forward in my chair. "Rosa, Dimka, I welcome you, as family. And I have some serious issues that I would like to bring forth and hopefully resolve. If not, at least I would like to get them out in the open. I have carried them for a long time."
"What is he talking about?" Dimka said to his wife.
"I thought we were having a reunion," Rosa said to me. "We're here to celebrate seeing you boys again, for Danilo being out, and your new success, Lukey."
"You guys remember when Alex and I stayed with you, at your farm, when we were kids? Things happened then that hurt me and my brother. Some of your actions were abusive. I think we should talk about that. I'd like to tell you what that did to me, how I feel about it, and get your side, what you were thinking and feeling."
"What the hell are you trying to do?" Dimka shouted. "This is waste of time. I knew I should not drive here. Not for this."
"Shut the fuck up, Old Man," Danilo said. He, too, moved forward in his chair and sat up straight. "Maybe I'll go next. I'm here to kill you, motherfucker. You kicked the shit out of me for years when I was a kid. Most of the time for no reason, except that you are a sick, vicious bastard. Then you threw me out on the street with nothing. Both of you. I was fifteen years old. You have no idea what I had to do to survive. You don't deserve to sit there and celebrate anything. You don't deserve to breathe."
"Whoa, cool off." Alex was the next one to find the edge of his seat. He tugged at his white clerical collar again. "I think we can do this in a calm and respectful way. For the love of God and Lord Jesus Christ."
"I will not sit here and take this." Dimka twisted his body, pushed and pulled to try to get to his feet.
"Sit down!" Danilo said, pointing a pistol in the direction of his parents.
"Baby, what are you doing? Oh, no!" Rosa screamed.
"Shut up, Mother. You sit down. Both of you." Danilo kept the gun pointed at them. "You, two. Lucas, Alex, I want you to leave. Get out of the house."
"Danilo, what the hell? This is my house," I said.
I stood and waited for Alex to get up. I glanced at Dimka, who sat bent over his knees, his face clenched in rage. I followed my brother to the door. "Danilo, man, this is bad. This is not an answer to anything. You're going back to prison."
Alex said, "Remember what we talked about, Danilo."
"Get out!" Danilo yelled.
My brother and I left the house. We walked down the step to the sidewalk.
"Where are we supposed to go? What are we supposed to do?" Alex said.
'I don't know. I think I'm going to puke. What do you think he is going to do? Should we call the police? “I said.
Alex sat on the wall in front of my house. I sat next to him and looked toward the lake.
"Give it a few minutes." Alex said he didn’t get that Danilo was crazy, stupid, or desperate enough to shoot his parents, in cold blood, in my living room, with witnesses around. “He doesn't have that kind of spirit. I had a long conversation with him. He told me his plans now that he is out. Let's have a bit of faith." Alex sat up straight.
The cloud cover over the water had broken and shafts of sunlight shone through. A water skier, with one hand raised as if waving, followed a boat a few hundred feet offshore.
I heard footsteps on the stairs behind me and turned. Dimka came stomping down. "Ungrateful fucking piss ant," he said. He gave us a quick glance and turned up the sidewalk. I noticed he still limped, even more severely. He bounced down the street, cursing in the wind, his long stringy hair flying out behind his head, like an oily rag. He got into the car, screeched off, and turned right at the end of the block.
"What does that mean?" my brother said.
"Dimka is not dead." I hopped off the wall and turned to face the front windows of my house.
"What about those two he left inside?" Alex swung his head toward the windows.
"No gunshots? That's a good sign," I said.
"Maybe Dimka strangled them both."
"Snapped their necks."
I took a step toward my brother and put my hand on his shoulder. "You know, A., this is not at all how I thought this would turn out, although I have no idea what I imagined. It was a long time ago. Life goes on. Those people don't matter anymore, if they ever did. It was a bad experience that could have been much worse. And I got to tell them my truth, for what the hell it's worth."
"Could you expect more?" Alex said.
"True, Little Brother. I'm feeling good right now." I turned toward the stairs. "Let's go up, bust through the door of my own fucking house, and join whatever celebration they have going in there. Dimka’s gone, for God's sake."
"The Lord gives, and the Lord takes. But mostly, the Lord gives," my brother smiled. "Lead the way, Lukey."
Ride to the Rat Hole
Ferris and his friend, Earl, hitch a ride outside of Mesquite, Nevada to Las Vegas. The driver, Tryg, and his girlfriend, Labelle, are looking for some fun on their way to L.A., and they choose Ferris and Earl. Ferris sits next to Labelle on the front seat and fantasizes while Tryg talks smack. On the Strip in Vegas, Ferris and Earl asked to be dropped off and that's where the fun begins.
Ride to the Rat Hole
It was the closest I had come to having my clothes ripped off. I stood by the side of the road, outside Mesquite, Nevada, feet planted, head down, with my thumb cocked. A semi wooshed by, headed west: Las Vegas, Lake Mead, Boulder City, Los Angeles. I don’t know if the driver blinked his eyes as he barreled by, but I closed mine, to the gritty desert sand that he laced in my face. He could well have thought twice about picking up me and my friend, Earl, standing against the Highway 15 sign, in our stiff, stinky t-shirts and shorts, sporting two weeks’ growth of sun-bleached beard and hideous mounds of matted hair. Coming out of Zion the day before, Earl and I waited eight hours for a ride. Too many cars and trucks coming out of Mesquite now to worry about that.
A black 1955 Chevy, with blue and white license plates, approached. I could see two figures in front. I knew from fifty yards that they would stop. After fourteen days on the road and forty-three rides, I had the sense. I looked at Earl, who stared back at me with a scowl. We hadn’t said much to each other since our car’s engine exploded on the Yellowhead Highway in Jasper National Park, up in Alberta, Canada. Earl seemed to think it was my fault that we had to junk his car, load up our backpacks, and hitchhike back home to L.A. I allegedly had checked the oil level last and failed to notice that it was below the line. I copped to his theory, although I didn’t really remember. I had known Earl since seventh grade. He was a friend, but I watched my back with him. A week before, in a dark Denny’s parking lot in Butte, Montana,
he glanced a sucker punch off my jaw
“What the hell,” I yelled after he cold-cocked me.
“We’re even,” he said.
He strode out of the shadows, walking slow enough for me to catch up. “For being an idiot,” he said.
All of that was on the road behind us now. We were where we were, and coming our way was another chance to get closer to home.
I stepped on the shoulder of the road, my crusty Vasque boot on the white line, and shook my thumb at the Chevy’s windshield. I locked eyes with a young blonde woman in the passenger window, as the car passed. A few yards down, brakes lights lit, and the car slid off in a cloud of dust. “Knew it. Let’s go,” I called to Earl. “Got a ride.”
I grabbed my pack and ran toward the car. Earl ran beside me, then past me. He sprinted toward the driver’s side. I veered to the other side, as the driver opened his door and stepped out. I arrived at the trunk at the same moment as the driver. Earl had to go around the front of the car and joined us with his backpack.
“Where you guys headed?” the driver said, looking at me with squinty brown eyes. His thinning dark hair clashed with his thick reddish beard. An open jeans vest laid out his pale concave hairless chest. Stripes of black grease marked the front of his levis. His belt loop was connected to his back pocket by a silver large-link chain. His motorcycle boots were polished black.
“L.A.,” I said.
“Well, well. Hop in.” The guy’s smile showed small yellow teeth, with crooked canines.
I watched his face, and his narrow, slightly crossed dark eyes, and thought about declining the ride. He watched me, pressing his lips into a sneer and drumming his fingertips on the roof of the car, his long face swaying slightly. It was one of those feelings, following my inner compass, but Earl already lifted his pack into the trunk of the Chevy. I figured he wasn’t any more interested than I was in spending more of the day in the moonscape desert. I threw my pack in and followed Earl around to the passenger side door. The driver got in on his side and pulled the passenger’s seat forward, as the woman leaned toward the dashboard.
“One of you will have to sit in the back and one in front here, next to Labelle. We’re getting crowded,” the driver said.
To stall, I reached in my pocket and lifted out a quarter. I slipped it between my fingers and let it drop on the ground. “Damn!” I bent over to pick it up, as Earl stepped around me, and crawled into the back seat. He shoved aside cloth bags, paper sacks and cardboard boxes to make space. He pulled the seat back toward him, and I slid in next to Labelle. I took in the smell. Leather, wet animal and floral perfume. A tiny orange tabby kitten lay between Labelle’s bare legs. The driver swung back on to the highway, accelerating, dust billowing and tires screeching.
“Nice ride you got here,” I called, over the roar of the pipes.
“Restored it myself,” the driver said. “Less than twenty thousand miles on the new motor.”
“It’s a classic. Love this leather tuck and roll upholstery,” Earl added from the back.
“Yeah, thanks. Not bad for a twenty-year-old buggy.” He leaned forward and opened the wind wing window. “So, where you girls from? I see you have all the fancy gear. The JanSport and the North Face and the Abercrappie. You guys rich?”
“Tryg,” Labelle whispered.
“I’m just playing around, Sweetie,” Tryg said.
Earl shouted, leaning forward over the back seat, that we were from L.A.
“No shit. Hear that, Labelle, they’re going to L.A.” Tryg threw back his head and laughed. A small tarnished silver cross earring dangled from his earlobe.
Labelle glanced at me with silver blue eyes and said with a voice as soft as desert dust that that was where they were going. Above her cut-off jeans, she wore a royal blue bathing suit top. Her chest and the tops of her legs, where the kitten lay, were scarlet with sunburn.
“Labelle’s got a cousin in Hollywood. North Hollywood. Know where that’s at?” Tryg said, in a flat, nasal East Coast accent.
I said yes, but those are two different places. “It’s not that far from where we are,” I added.
Tryg slapped Labelle’s left thigh. “Good place for a fresh start. Right, Baby?”
“Trygve, my sunburn,” she squealed.
I looked down at Tryg’s handprint on Labelle’s upper leg. I imagined placing mine on top of it, just to see whose was bigger. I shifted my weight on the hot leather seat, and my leg pressed against hers. She glanced at me with her flashing eyes. The kitten didn’t move. Labelle raised her hand, brushed it through her short, spiky blonde hair, and shook her head. She stroked the kitten’s small haunches.
"What kind of name is Trig-Vuh?" Earl said.
Tryg told him it was Norwegian. He looked at him in his rearview mirror. "You got a problem with that?"
"What? No. I didn't say that. I'm just curious."
Tryg asked Earl his name.
Earl told him and pointed at me. “And that's Ferris."
Earl kept quiet.
Tryg looked over at me. “Ferris? Wasn’t there a movie with that name?”
I thought I'd keep out of it. I didn't say anything.
“What a pair. Squirrel and Ferris Wheel from La La Land.”
“Tryg, enough,” Labelle said.
Tryg said okay. He was just having a little fun. He said to Labelle that he thought that was why they picked us up.
No one talked for a few minutes. Cliffs of sand rose along both sides of the highway. We passed the semi that blew by me in Mesquite. I thought about putting my arm out the window to flag down the driver. Make a quick switch of vehicles, on the side of the road.
“You guys can show us all around L.A.” Tryg said. “Help us get orientated.”
I looked at Earl over my shoulder. He cinched his lips and blinked his eyes for a long moment.
“Problem?” Tryg said.
I looked at him, looking at Earl in the mirror.
Earl said that we weren’t going straight home. We were going to Las Vegas first. “That’s as far as we need to go. Sorry.”
Tryg drove on in silence. Highway Fifteen ran in a straight shot in front of us. Nothing but cars, trucks, scrub desert and low hills, with hazy gray mountains towering at the horizon.
I said to Tryg that I noticed he had Massachusetts license plates on his car. “You from there?” I said.
Tryg asked if I had been back East.
“I’ve been to Boston.”
“Labelle’s Boston born and bred. Aren’t you, Baby?”
“Norwood, Mass.,” Labelle said.
Tryg pulled in his wind wing window. “I’ve been living a little farther out in Walpole, past few years.”
Earl said he thought there was a state prison in Walpole. “I think that’s where the Boston Strangler was murdered, like just a few months ago.”
Tryg said he had heard something about that.
The kitten lifted and dropped its head. I looked down at it and at Labelle’s bare legs, which were covered with freckles and small moles. Her thigh rested against mine. I felt the perspiration build between our legs. She stroked the crown of the cat’s head with her fingers.
I asked if the cat was okay.
"I think she has some kind of heat stroke,” Labelle said. “We found her in a park in Mesquite, just before we picked you guys up. She was lying flat, like this, on a bench. I’m trying to keep her cool and hydrated.”
Labelle leaned forward, reached down to the floor, between my legs, and pulled up a water bottle that was rolling around at my feet. Her breast brushed my knee. She poured water into her palm and rubbed the cat’s fur. “Kitty, kitty,” she murmured.
“Should of ran over it when we had the chance,” Trygve said.
“Tryg, that is exactly the negative thinking we were talking about,” Labelle said. “This helpless creature was put into our lives for a reason. Everything is for a reason. We are doing all we can to help her thrive.”
“Like Squirrel and Ferris Wheel here, right?” Tryg leaned over the steering wheel. “Thrive!” he yelled. He yanked the steering wheel to the right. The car drifted on to the dirt shoulder. Another yank to the left and it came back into the lane in a cloud of dust.
“What the fuck,” Earl yelled.
Tryg looked in the rearview mirror and laughed. "Hang on with your little claws there, Squirrel."
Labelle dabbed more water on the failing kitten. Its ribs moved in and out and its grayish tongue hung out the side of its mouth.
I sat as straight as I could on the seat, my leg touching Labelle’s. My hands rested on my knees. I stretched my left pinkie to within a hair’s width of her knee, as she stroked the kitten’s ears. The way we were sitting, she might have noticed, and maybe even waited for, a brush of my skin, my fingertips on her thigh, my hand between her legs. Her breath quickening, and then mounting, out of control, breathing wildly and squirming in her seat.
I put my face to the window and fogged the glass.
Tryg told me to roll it down.
I thrust my head through the open window, into the wind, catching my breath. A sign on the road said that we were approaching Moapa Town, fifty-five miles from Las Vegas. I pulled myself back in and sat upright on the seat, my hands resting on my thighs. Labelle continued to stroke the kitten, with long sweeps down her orange, water-streaked fur, with both hands. I focused on the oasis riverbed and green fields in Moapa Town, appearing out of countless square miles of mauve desert sand.
Tryg said, “That sign there says there’s a fancy Jack Nicklaus golf course nineteen miles up into those godforsaken mountains. That might be worth seeing. What do you think, Labelle?”
Earl spoke from the back. “Ferris, we’re supposed to meet Hank at the Sahara for dinner.” Hank was code Earl and I had for getting out of situations.
I told Tryg that we needed to keep moving toward Las Vegas. “If you guys want to drop us off, that’s okay,” I said. ‘We can hitch another ride. No problem.”
Labelle lifted her hand and said, “Let’s go on to Vegas.”
“Good idea, Sweetheart.” Tryg pounded the steering wheel with the butt of his palm. “Then we can all go to L.A. together.”
While Earl sat back, I watched the road ahead. Signs for Great Basin Highway, Nellis Air Force Base, and North Las Vegas appeared on the roadside.
Tryg swiveled his head and asked me what I thought of old Tricky Dick quitting.
“What do you mean?” I said.
Earl stayed back in his seat.
“Richard Milhous Nixon resigned as president yesterday,” Labelle said.
“Where you been, on the moon?” Tryg laughed.
I told him that we were up on the Virgin River in Zion. Before that, we hitchhiked down from Alberta.
“Thank God. That guy was a joke,” Earl said, from behind.
“Whoa there, Squirrel. You might not have agreed with his record, but he commands some respect,” Tryg said, watching Earl through the mirror.
“My name is Earl. Not squirrel.”
“You know, Squirrel, if I could have, I would have voted for Nixon. He was better than the yahoo they had running against him.”
“No more politics.” Labelle lifted her hand off the kitten and waved it in the air.
I thought about asking Trygve why he couldn’t vote for Richard Nixon but glanced at a sign whizzing past that said we had entered North Las Vegas. A few miles from the Strip.
I looked at Labelle’s arm, as she went back to fondling the cat. The light, blonde hair on her forearm touched the hair on my leg. I smelled her perfume. Her small breast was on my bicep. I took her in through my skin and felt lightness in my lap.
Tryg pointed to his left at the Little Chapel of the Flowers, below the sign that said Fun City. He waited until she looked. “We should stop and get married. We even have Ferris Wheel and Squirrel as witnesses,” he said.
“We are not getting married here.” Labelle looked back down to the kitten.
I turned to see where Tryg pointed and looked back at Earl. His eyes and mouth were parallel dark slits.
When I turned to the road, I saw the Sahara, and extended my finger. “There. You can drop us off. The Sahara there. That’s where we’re meeting our friend.”
Tryg kept his eyes straight down Las Vegas Boulevard and drove past the Sahara, without a word. Labelle watched him. “Trygve?” she said.
“Hey!” Earl said.
“At Walpole, I dreamed of this, when I had special times at special places with my friends,” Trygve said.
Earl leaned up and stretched his neck across the back of the front seat. He put his head inches from Tryg’s. “We are not your friends. Stop the car!” he shouted into Tryg’s ear.
Tryg twitched his head to the side, as if a mosquito buzzed his ear canal. He kept driving.
“What are you doing?” Earl screamed.
“Take it easy, E.,” I said, leaning into Labelle. “Why don’t we see what happens.”
Tryg turned his head to the left and right, as if he were trying to pull a word out of the sea of neon signs. Labelle continued to calmly stroke the cat. For the first time since Earl and I got in the car, the kitten lifted its head and looked around.
“Oh, lookie!” Labelle squealed. “He’s okay. Hi, Sweetie.” Squirming in her seat, Labelle rubbed her soft exultant skin against my thigh. She put her hand on my knee and squeezed. I nearly arched my back.
I heard Earl rustling through his pack behind me. We sailed down the Boulevard, in light traffic, each of us in front quiet. In my periphery, I saw something move behind Tryg’s head. “Pull over, asshole, or I’ll split your skull like a piece of balsa wood,” Earl said, waving his blunt, rusted camping hatchet over Tryg’s head.
“Man, will you shut up,” Tryg said, peering at Earl in the slit of a mirror above his head. “I can’t think. Somebody shut Squirrel up.” He continued to scan both sides of the street.
Labelle asked Tryg what he was looking for.
He said a buddy of his inside told him to look for The Rat Hole Bar. He said it had a small yellow sign. It was hard to find. He said it was the best party in Vegas.
“I want out, now,” Earl yelled.
“Take it easy, Earl. Come on.” I turned in my seat and pushed my body against Labelle. I felt myself rising. “This might not be so bad.”
“Final warning. Stop this car, or I swear to God.”
“Hey, Squirrel. I told you to shut up. I can’t see the street. If I miss this place I'm looking for, I’m coming back there. And you do not want me back there.”
“Tryg, Honey, please stop the car.” The sound of Labelle’s voice silenced us all. Earl sat back. I stared at Tryg, who looked at Labelle.
“Peaches, please. We’ve drove all this way. Let’s have a little fun with these guys.”
Labelle told Trygve that they couldn’t force us. “These boys are not interested,” she said, turning the kitten around to face her and rubbing it under its chin. “We’ll find something else.”
I felt her pull away from me, as she leaned to take Trygve’s hand. She had said boys. She was probably younger than me. And she said we weren't interested. She never asked me.
Tryg jerked the car to the curb and stopped. He got out and pulled the front seat forward. He walked to the back of the car and unlocked the trunk. He stood aside, as Earl lifted out our gear. I opened my door and looked at Labelle, who smiled at me. I got out and the kitten jumped into my place on the seat and stretched. I pushed the door closed. Labelle put her hand over mine on the window frame. “Have fun,” she said.
“Thank you. And thank you guys for the ride.” I leaned down to see Tryg, back in the driver’s seat. He watched his outside mirror and accelerated into a break in traffic.
I walked to Earl, who sat on the curb, and stuffed his hatchet into his backpack. He yanked tight on the laces of his boots. He stood, lifted his pack, put his arms through the straps, and heaved the load on to his back. “That was fucking crazy,” he said. “Those people were crazy. That Trygve was a psycho. Trygve! For a few minutes there, I wasn’t sure we were going to make it out alive.”
“Dude, you pulled an ax,” I said.
“Screw you. I should have buried it in your head. What was that all about: `why don’t we see what happens, Earl” and “this might not be so bad, Earl.” That girl have her hand on your dick?”
I turned and watched the Chevy, idling at the red light, thirty feet away. Its pipes rumbled softly, smoke tumbling out. Labelle’s bare arm rested on the window frame, where my hand had been. Her body odor still lingered in my nose. She turned her head, looked back at me, and waved her fingers. When I turned to Earl, he was half a block down the street, his dark shape bobbing against the background of colorful, moving neon lights. I looked back at Labelle, who watched me, smiling.
I took a step toward the car. The light changed, and the Chevy moved forward. I saw myself running after it, backpack and all, yelling, “Earl, I’ll see you at home.” I waved, as Earl kept walking. As I ran to the Chevy, the car’s taillights lit, and the passenger door swung open. I jumped in, as Labelle moved over, and Trygve punched the gas. “Party time!” he howled. Labelle looked at me with her fierce blue eyes, her lips red, moistened by the tip of her tongue, her hand on my thigh. She leaned and kissed me, pushing her hot, sticky body into mine. Tryg whooped and cheered.
A car horn honked.
“Ferris, get out of the street. Let’s go,” Earl called, down the block, facing me on the sidewalk.
I looked over at him and back to the Chevy, still idling, waiting for the light to change. Labelle and Tryg sat looking forward. With the green light, they drove off, down the street. I watched their taillights shrink and disappear in the dusty night air.
I caught up with Earl, and we walked side by side on the wide sidewalk. I saw a time/temperature sign that read 7:49, 97°.
“Why do people go on and on about Vegas,” Earl said. “This place is a rat hole. There’s nothing but cement and dead dirt. It looks like the moon.
I told him the place worked if you had money.
“How much money do you have?”
I told him fifty bucks.
He said he had the same and that we would have to pull a two-for-one.
I asked where.
“See that sign up there?” Earl pointed to the “King of the Road Motel. That looks skanky enough,” he said.
“You go in and pay.” Earl stuffed his hand in his front pants pocket, pulled out his bills, and handed them to me. He said he would duck in after he boosted us some dinners from the Shop Rite market across the street.
I shuffled my feet and got in step with him. The hot, breezy night made my tired body feel light and loose. It would be nice to have a bed and a shower on our last night on the road. I glanced at the strip mall to my right and saw a small yellow sign above a storefront window with neon letters that read “Rat Hole.” The small parking lot was empty except for three chopped Harleys, parked at angles in front of the door.
“There it is,” I said, pointing. “Trygve’s party palace.”
Earl, in full stride, pack bouncing on his back, didn't turn his head.
I lengthened my stride to catch up with him.
Spirit of Tabasco
Precocious teen, Julian, helps his mother retrieve a mysterious and possessed ancient Mayan mirror from the hands of his greedy estranged father.
Spirit of Tabasco
I stood in the kitchen and heard my mother shriek.
“Everything, Julian! He sold it all,” she cried.
I stepped into the dark living room and watched her face in the glow of her phone screen. “The storage unit. We didn’t even divide it up yet. Everything we owned, all those years.” She lowered the phone and reached for her wine glass.
I wanted out, but I stood in front of her chair. I offered to open the curtain to let some light into the room. “It’s depressing,” I said.
“I don’t want light in here,” she said. “I don’t want to see this dump.” She sipped her Chardonnay and swore that she would get even with that man, if it was the last thing she did. The gloom of the room, and the stress of battling my father, made her face look tired, haggard beyond her forty-four years.
I congratulated her on her attitude. The cold dish of revenge tastes so sweet and cleanses the palate, I riffed.
“You listen to me!” my mother said. “That man has gone too far. If he thinks he can cheat me out of my half, he’s in for a very unpleasant awakening.”
I sat in the chair and kept my feet flat on the carpet.
My mother warned that Gordon Laigle, my father and her soon-to-be ex-husband, crossed the line, and there was no going back.
“Wonderfully ominous, I must say, Mother. And good luck with that.” I stood and used my homework as an excuse to exit. I walked out as she drained her glass. I stood by the sink in the kitchen and filled a water glass. I could have taken the wine bottle to my mother, but I figured that would be enabling. I never understood why she left the bottle in the next room. Did she think it showed restraint? Maybe by the time she reached it, she figured she earned another glass. Or maybe she worried that if the bottle was right there in front of her on the table, she would finish it off, and then, go get another one.
I don’t remember my mother being much of a drinker before my parents split. Every night when my father got home, she mixed him two or three Vodka Collins, and they debriefed his workday. Usually ,she nursed a glass of wine. At their parties, she was the one left standing by the end, propping him up, while he staggered around making an ass of himself. And she certainly was not the parent who drove through town running Saturday-morning errands with an open pint of vodka jammed in his crotch and two young sons standing behind him on the back seat.
Fantasia of a bygone era. I did not have time to indulge. I had too much else to think about, including three hours of homework. It usually took me an hour a night just to do Chemistry. I was in a new high school, in all Advanced Placement classes and a National Merit Scholar, as a junior. I don’t know how it happened, since no one in my family had ever gone to college. In fact, none besides my mother made it through high school. But I was a star student from the start. In Kindergarten, I was the first to read books. By Sixth Grade, I headlined the District Forensics Tournament. I spent all six semesters in middle school and the first four in high school on the Honor Roll. I am not trying to impress here. It was a fact: succeeding in school was what I did. It came naturally. Some kids are beautiful, some musical, some athletic. I was studious and accomplished. It got me praise and attention from my distracted parents. My mother supported my efforts, but my father seemed most invested in my scholastic success, since he quit high school as a senior to become business manager for a rock band he and his friends started. “Soon, you will be my lawyer, Julian, my consigliere,” he said, more than a few times. “Just think what a indominable team we will make.”
I sat at the cramped table in the ten-by-ten bedroom that I shared with my older brother, Johnny. I looked at my math textbook and read the homework question: Explain which is a polynomial and why: x2 − 4/x + 7x3/2, or x2 − x/4 + 7; the question in my chemistry book read: Explain the difference between the oxidation number and the valency number of an atom.
I put my head in my hands and heard footsteps in the hall. Johnny whisked into the room. He leaped back in a Fosbury Flop on to his bed. “Mom just told me. She is pissed. Maybe we should pay the Old Man a visit. Kneecap him. Adjust his attitude,” he said.
I held up my textbook.
“Sor-ry, Einstein,” he whispered.
I pushed the book aside and said, “Maybe we can water board him.”
“The guy deserves it. He’s cold.”
I reminded him that we were talking about our father.
“Tell him that. He could care less,” Johnny said. You’re his shining star.”
“If this is shining,” I sang, “my heart goes out to all the stars.”
“Who you: Alfred Lord Tennyson?” Johnny laughed.
“You know Tennyson?”
Johnny sat straight and threw out his cleft chin. “…`the moon may draw the sea; The cloud may stoop from heaven and take the shape, With fold to fold, of mountain or of cape.’”
Johnny said just because he flunked high school didn’t mean he was a philistine. He lay back down and leaned on his elbow, head cradled in his palm.
I pointed out that he didn’t flunk. He quit.
“Same difference. A waste of everybody’s time.”
“Teachers don’t have patience for underachievers.”
“I seem to be right on course, working in a laundry and facing a felony charge.”
“Circumstantial,” I offered. I suggested that we leave Dad alone. For now. We would catch up with him.
“Aye, aye, Capitán. In your capable hands.” He got up to take a shower and meet his girlfriend, Thuy. He grabbed clean underwear from his drawer in the dresser and loped toward the bathroom.
I slid my textbook in front of me and stared at the questions. I could answer the second one. I could finagle words. For numbers, I turned to Thuy, a Cal Tech dropout and brilliant at math. But I left my phone in the kitchen. I had to go get it in a hurry.
I crept into the hall, listening for my mother bawling or banging things around. If she was in a state, I would abort the mission and call Thuy later. All I heard was the sound of Johnny’s shower from the bathroom behind me. I put my head through the doorway to the kitchen and took a couple more steps. I heard the clock ticking in the living room. “Mom?” I turned the corner.
“It’s okay. I’m okay. Come here, Jules.” My mother sat up on the sofa and lowered her smartphone. “Come sit by me.”
I walked through the shadowy lamp-lit room. In the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something skitter under the chair. Roaches around there were about the size of mice. Or it might have been mice. I sat next to my mother on the couch, watching my shoe tops. I put my hand in her open palm on the cushion. She and my brother were the only context I had, exiled to this shabby, exit-ramp duplex, after living my whole life in our family home in an upscale hill neighborhood.
My mother informed me that we had suffered a great loss. Her wine glass was missing. Her eyes looked clear. She seemed steady and alert. She said my father had stolen something from our family.
I assured her that we would survive.
She sighed and said I didn’t understand. It wasn’t about our family, she, me, and my brother. It happened on the Suarez side.
“Dad took something that belonged to Nana?” I sat up straight.
“Oh yes!” Mom said. Gordon had taken something of great value. Something of great power. My father had no idea.
I asked what Gordon sold?
She wasn’t sure he sold it. Did I remember the obsidian disk that hung on the wall in our den, across from the windows, on North Screenland Drive?
I always thought that flat black object was some kind of weird art piece that my mother liked.
It was a mirror, Mom said, and it belonged to her grandmother, Mariana, Nana’s mother.
“So, Dad sold a mirror.”
“I wish it were that simple.” Mom’s eyebrows went up, as her mouth sagged.
Johnny strolled into the room. His slicked-back black hair topped his sleek, shiny face. His white long-sleeved Arrow shirt and black jeans snapped with crispness. “What’s the cabal here?” he said.
When I shared that Dad sold something that belonged to Nana, Johnny suggested we turn the man upside down and shake him. “But later. Right now, I’m late for my date.” He went out the door.
I slid up to the edge of the cushion and turned to my mother. I smelled the lavender and vanilla air freshener she installed in the living room. She had not totally given up hope on our home. I asked what we should do about Dad’s larceny.
She couldn’t be sure he had the disk in his possession. He sent her a message saying he sold everything a week ago.
Nana had passed. Mariana, Mom’s grandmother and my great-grandmother, was gone. It was ancient history. Why was this object such a great loss?
Mariana, Mom said, was a bruja.
The English word was loaded. Mom explained that Mariana never called herself a witch. Nor did anyone who knew her powers. She practiced folk magic. In fact, the women in the Suarez family practiced folk magic for generations.
“My mother broke the chain,” Mom said.
“As did you.”
“Yes. And me.”
My question was, how did the mirror fit into the Suarez magic?
Mariana called up powerful energy in the mirror: a spirit, whose name was Jose Maria.
I asked how she knew about all of it, if she was out of the loop, so to speak.
Her mother had shared with her the history when she gave Mom the mirror.
Why would her mother give her the mirror and why would Mom even keep it around if the two of them hadn’t practiced folk magic?
The mirror had been in the Suarez family for hundreds of years. When Mariana left Tabasco, Mexico for El Paso, Texas, she took it with her. Before she died, she wanted to make sure it stayed in the family, that it was safe, and the powerful spirit of the mirror did not fall into the wrong hands.
Jose Maria. Was a that good spirit or an evil spirit?
Mariana didn’t make the distinction. Everything about the spirit’s power depended on intent, Mom said. Mariana’s intention was always to help the people in her village. Jose Maria was her ally.
“You think Dad’s intent is evil, and that it could get him in trouble with Jose Maria.”
She discovered through hard experience that my father’s true nature was greedy narcissism. “There are always consequences for that kind of attitude and behavior,” Mom said. “At least, we hope there are.”
Mom urged me to talk to my father and ask him if he had the mirror or knew who bought it.
At the very beginning of their divorce proceedings, I did a deposition for Mom’s lawyer against my father. I seemed to be the go-between with postures, messages, and threats. “You’re putting me in the middle again,” I said.
Mom apologized. It was for the good of all of us, including my father. “Jules, find the mirror,” she pleaded. “Bring it home.”
From my seat on the couch. I heard, outside the window, a semi’s air horn blare on the I-5 freeway across the street. When the wind blew from a certain direction, that sound jarred our entire duplex.
Not ten minutes after I left a message on my father’s answer machine did his secretary, Ellie Mills, call back to report that Gordon was at the gold exchange in North Hollywood.
“What, he’s King Midas now?” I laughed.
“Heaven help him with that!” she said, “But he is pretty much golden.”
The business was going crazy. He had sold eleven properties in two weeks. Now he wanted to stock up on gold bullion, she said.
I invited myself over. She didn’t ask my reason and I didn’t tell her that I wanted to look around his place to see if the mirror was there. It appeared by his change in fortune that Gordon may well have become acquainted with Jose Maria.
When my parents separated and my father moved out of our family home on North Screenland Drive in Burbank, he rented a luxury condo, five miles away in Hollywood. He brokered high-end commercial and residential real estate, so he found himself a penthouse bachelor pad. The money he spent living like a playboy came out of what he should have given my mother to help us get by while they were separated. He wanted her to go to work before they finally faced the judge in court to determine the level of his child support and alimony obligation. When I told him that I needed a new laptop for school, he suggested I help my mother find a job.
Johnny pulled his car to the curb in front Dad’s condo building at 1541 Vine Street. I should say Thuy’s car. My brother drove our old family Camry until the tires went flat. He couldn’t afford to buy new ones; he probably couldn’t afford to keep gas in it. Johnny made minimum wage as a custodian and clothes-folder at Bright Bubbles Laundry Land and gave part of his salary to Mom. He also was paying a lawyer to get him out of a charge for car theft, which he swore was a misunderstanding between him, his best friend, Nick, and Nick’s uncle.
Johnny looked up at the shiny modern mid-rise building in the heart of Hollywood and pounded the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. ”Dude, this is criminal, considering where he’s making us live.” He swiveled his head around to look at the neighborhood: Sunset Boulevard one block one way and Hollywood Boulevard two blocks the other way.
I pushed my shoulder into the car door and got out on the curb. Johnny came around to the sidewalk from the street.
I reminded my brother as we walked to the door of the building that we were there, not to excoriate Dad, but to find out what happened to Nana’s mirror and why Dad was acting so strange. “I have a sense,” I shared, “that the two are connected.”
Johnny put in his two cents’ worth: If we were talking no good, the Old Man was up to his banjo eyes in it.
I feared the same.
At the reception desk in the lobby of Dad’s building, the security guy phoned up and pointed us to the elevator.
Johnny and I exited at the tenth floor, penthouse level. A short, brightly lit, white-shag-carpeted, white-walled hallway led to the door to Suite 1004.
I pushed the suite’s doorbell button. Johnny drummed his fingertips on the wall, and the door swung open.
Ellie Mills stood, wringing her hands, her face pinched. I was shocked by the size of the bags under her tired hazel eyes. She had been my father’s assistant since I started to walk.
She ushered us into the condo’s spacious, sun-drenched living room. She said that our father had been crazy the past couple of weeks. He was working 24/7.
I could see out of the floor-to-ceiling windows the skyscrapers of downtown L.A. out in the hazy distance. I glanced around the living room for the black disk.
Johnny put his mouth to my ear and wondered how she could tell that Dad was acting crazy. He always acted crazy.
I put my index finger up to my lips and shushed.
My brother and I sat on the charcoal gray sectional, across from the wall of windows and an eighty-inch flat screen on a stand on the floor. A large white plastic, steel and glass coffee table in front of us was the only other piece of furniture in the room. My father sold everything out of our home, so he shed his old life and was starting clean and fresh. When my mom, Johnny and I moved into the duplex on Buena Vista Street in Burbank across from Interstate Five, we bought furniture from a thrift store. My brother and I picked out a couch, which the label called a “Texas Ranch Leather Bunkhouse sofa.” It had four worn brown leather cushions and actual brown and white calfskin sewn into the back cushions and the front of the arms. It came with two calfskin throw pillows. My mother agreed to it only because we harangued her, and it was the cleanest of the filthy couches in the store. She said she could care less what we put in that flophouse.
The duplex had one bedroom, with twin beds, where Johnny and I slept. My mother slept on a ratty spare twin mattress that we dragged into the living room from our room every night. We joked that while she slept, a thousand cockroaches hoisted her up on their shoulders, sang work chants, and carried her around the room, as if she were a queen on her royal palanquin. “Yo, ho, heaaaave, ho. Yo, ho, heaaaave, ho.”
My Dad sold all his and my mother’s stuff out of their storage unit a couple weeks before, I related to Ellie, and I asked if she knew about that.
“Of course,” she said. Gordon had her make a detailed inventory list, and she would make me a copy.
She had filed it in the office. She took two steps, turned back, and asked if she could get us something to drink.
Johnny grimaced while he swallowed and licked his lips.
When Ellie left the room, I urged my brother to drink something if he was thirsty.
He did not want to be there, he said, if the Old Man came back.
“Mi Hermano,” I said. “This is why we are here. To surveil, intercept and retrieve.”
Ellie waved a fistful of pages in front of her as she came back in the room.
I glanced down the items on the list. Our entire house was there: the refrigerator, the television, the dining room table, my bed and dresser set, the barbeque, even my bike and old aquarium. My whole physical environment since I was a baby, sold to the highest bidder, without a moment of reflection or remorse. I focused on the bottom of the list. No disk. I shook my head and looked at Ellie.
“What is it that you’re missing?” she said.
I described the mirror, the black obsidian disk, as a thin, smooth, shiny piece of rock, about as round as a basketball.
Gordon had taken that himself. He would not let it out of his sight, she reported. He carried it with him still.
He was convinced that it brought him good luck. That was all she knew. Gordon said it came from our mother’s side of the family. He thought there was some kind of magic in the mirror.
“He said that? What do you think?” I said.
If the mirror was magical, she asked, why was it causing him so much misery?
I kept my eyes steady on her face.
Ellie described my father as exhausted. He had not slept a wink in weeks. He said he had forgotten how to drop off to sleep. He had lost the knack. “Can you imagine?” she said. “He’s on the edge of collapse and he keeps pushing.”
I stood to leave. My father’s luck was not what he thought. We had to find him. And our mother wanted her mirror back.
I thanked Ellie. She offered to let us wait there for Gordon. She had no idea if or when he might return. He had not been around much since he became so frantic.
We needed to drive over to North Hollywood, to the gold exchange, to see if we could catch old King Midas before he suffered all the mythical misfortunes of his namesake.
I watched Johnny, from across the table in a booth at Mel’s Drive-In on Sunset, drain a glass of ice water in one draught. He put his glass down, gasped for air, and asked what the deal was with the disk.
It had some kind of powers, I said. It used to belong to Mom’s grandmother, who was a witch in Mexico.
I picked up a steaming French fry and put the entire thing in my mouth. It burned and I gagged, chewed, and swallowed fast to avoid spitting the hot mash out on my plate.
“A witch! As in ‘Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog’?”
Mom claimed that her grandmother was not weird or wicked, I said. She tried to help people with her powers.
I sipped my cherry coke to soothe my blistered palate. And, I said, a spirit named Jose Maria lived in the mirror.
“Say what?” Johnny wanted to know if Jose Maria was a dude or a chick?
It was not a person. It was a spirit, a power.
Johnny asked how Gordon Laigle, our father, got in touch with the power.
The million-dollar question.
I know you know everything about these kinds of mirrors, Johnny laughed.
I had done some research on mirrors in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. The Olmecs, Mayans, Toltecs, and Aztecs all used mirrors. The shaman and holy men used them in their rites and rituals. The mirrors were seen as portals to the spirit realm. They were also used as eyes of animals in glyphs and sculptures of their gods. In some dialects, the word for eye and mirror is the same.
In our dialect, Johnny said, the word for grubber and Gordon is the same.
I shared my plan: Get the mirror out of Gordon’s hands before he did serious damage.
Johnny waited until the waitress left after refilling his water glass and said, “Maybe we should let the two of them dance it out, he and this Jose Maria, dude/chick. See where the spirit carries The Old Man.”
I reminded him that Mom wanted her mirror back. And he was our father. If he was in trouble, we needed to help him.
“You do not mean that.”
I waved down the waitress for the check and slid out of the booth. Johnny walked in front of me and I pushed on his back, suggesting we hurry to the gold exchange in North Hollywood before we missed Gordon.
As Johnny drove up Selma Avenue to the Hollywood Freeway, I called my father on my cell phone. As with the half dozen times that I had called, it went to voice mail. We turned on Argyle and a lemon-yellow vintage panel truck turned in front of us. My brother followed the truck, remembering when Gordon won an old truck in a poker game when our family camped in Mexico. It looked just like that one, he recalled, only rusty as an old tin can.
I remembered the poor hombre came back to our campsite to beg Dad to sell it back to him. The old guy claimed to have five kids and the truck was the only way he had to make a living.
And of course, Gordon had to win. A bet is a bet. It’s the principle of the thing, he told his sons. If you can’t afford to lose, you can’t afford to play. That poor old Mexican was crushed. Johnny said he would never forget the desperate look on the man’s face.
Gordon never even brought that truck out of Mexico. He sold it for next to nothing near the border.
As we came down Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood, Johnny took both hands off the steering wheel and pointed and waved. “There he is. There’s the Old Man.”
Gordon walked across the parking lot of the gold exchange building, carrying a cloth sack in his right hand. He stepped up to a gleaming, emerald green Porsche Carrera Turbo, with the dealer plates still on it. He got into the driver’s seat and pulled out just as we bounced into the lot.
“What the hell. Look at that car he’s driving,” Johnny yelled. “When did he get that?”
“I would say recently. Follow him, if you can keep up.”
He could not. As if he saw our shadow, Gordon put his foot into his hulking muscle car and disappeared down the boulevard, running a yellow light just a millisecond from red.
I called Ellie. She said my father had called her on his way to Beverly Hills, to meet with Emil Drescher, an art broker with whom my father worked, staging ultra-expensive homes in the Hollywood Hills. She thought the meeting had to do with the disk, but Gordon did not give her details. She gave me Drescher’s address and phone number.
When we entered the Hollywood Freeway off Coldwater Canyon, we drove down into four lanes of stopped traffic. As far up the freeway as I could see, I did not spot my Dad’s shiny dark green Porsche in the sea of brake lights. I could not imagine him caught in the gridlock with that car. We were sure to miss him at Drescher’s.
High dense hedges, tall fences and shade trees fronted the quiet mansions along North Rexford Drive off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Drescher buzzed us through his massive iron gates and met us at the front door. Drescher said,
“Gordon Laigle’s sons. How wonderful to meet you!”
Johnny quipped that he bet Gordon talked about us all the time.
Drescher said he could not recall Gordon ever mentioning us. “Yet, here you are.”
Drescher led us into a large den near the foyer. A burnished black grand piano, top up, with the name Bosendorfer on it, took up a corner of the spacious room.
Drescher offered beverages, which we declined.
After excusing our inconvenient appearance, I informed Drescher of the important business at hand related to Gordon.
Drescher guessed that it had to do with Gordon’s mirror. He raised a hand, upon three fingers of which he wore large diamond rings.
I informed him that the mirror did not belong to our father. It belonged to our mother. Our father absconded with it and we assumed he was now trying to sell it.
Besides being a broker, Drescher claimed to be a bit of an expert on Mexican art. Gordon did bring the mirror to him. In fact, he had just been there. He left minutes before we arrived. He showed Drescher the piece, which was impressive. It could well predate Teotihuacan, Drescher said.
Did he think it was worth something, dollar-wise? I sat at the edge of the leather chair. Johnny leaned back and inhaled deeply, as if trying to breathe in the grandness of the room.
Drescher thought it might bring a sizeable price.
“Just what that old fool needs is more money,” Johnny grumbled.
“And you are going to help him sell it?” I said to Drescher.
The situation was complicated, to the extreme. Even dangerous. But he had known Gordon for years. Gordon came to him in confidence, with a specific predicament. Drescher said he had to honor that confidence. “If you want to know what he intends,” he said, “I advise that you ask him.”
Exactly what we were trying to do, I explained. But Gordon didn’t return phone calls and now he seemed to be evading us.
Drescher raised his hand and surveyed the gems on his fingers. He said he was sorry. He hoped we could find a way to help our father, because care and concern was what he needed. most. “Have you seen the state he’s in?” Drescher said. “He is a walking zombie. His skin and hair look dry as hay. And he cannot stop or get out of his own way.”
Did the danger and drama have to do with the spirit in the mirror, I wondered, the spirit whom our mother called Jose Maria.
“Gentlemen.” Drescher stood to show us out, saying that he was beyond his ability to further aid or abet. He had given Gordon the name of someone who could help in his situation, a true expert, down in San Ysidro, by the name of Senor Alejandro Aguilara.
As the metal gates rolled closed behind us, Johnny turned on to Arden Boulevard, toward Sunset. He said he had to get to work and he didn’t think he could drive Thuy’s car all the way to San Diego.
Dad was not headed to San Ysidro, I guessed. At least not right away.
Johnny pointed out that the Bosendorfer dude in the mansion sent him south.
Dad would have to be on death’s door to go to a Mexican for help. And he sounded exhausted, so he wouldn’t make it three hours on the freeway. Even in, and especially in, his glorious new Porsche.
Johnny agreed that Gordon did have a thing about Mexicans. How can you live your whole life in Southern California and be as bigoted as he is? Johnny said, “That is insane.”
“And that is Gordon.” I lowered my window to let a breeze in the car. Thuy’s AC was broken. I said I believed Dad’s racism was huge in the whole mess. Mom said Gordon always put down her family. He thought he was better than her half-Mexican brothers who drove trucks and worked as landscapers and mailmen. He would have little to do with Nana.
Had Gordon stolen the mirror out of spite, as a way of screwing over Mom and her family? And then, he looked at the mirror, maybe in the storage unit, and admired his own reflection. He stared into the mirror so often that Jose Maria saw who he really was. These were the conjectures I shared with my brother.
Johnny blasted the car horn behind a white Prius that sat in the intersection on the green light. “Come on, Idiot. Move out!”
Gordon saw Jose Maria, too. Somehow, he peered into that mirror and made the connection that it and the power inside were bringing him good fortune.
Johnny accelerated the car down Sunset. “Where to, Little Man?”
I suggested we go home so he could get to work. We would catch the Old Man on the morrow. I pulled the strap in my lap and tightened my seatbelt.
Gordon had been and gone by the time Johnny, Thuy, and I stopped by my Dad’s place after school the next day. Ellie declined to drive him to San Diego, because she had an ocular migraine.
“What is that?” Johnny said.
Ellie described it as when her front vision blurred, and in her periphery, she saw flashes and gyrating movement, like side glancing through a kaleidoscope. “It is surreal, and it brings on vertigo.” Ellie lay on her back on the gray sofa, a damp washcloth over her eyes.
“I have had those myself,” Thuy said.
“You do?” Johnny said. “I’ve never heard you say anything about that.”
“Maybe I don’t tell you everything little thing,” Thuy said.
“Doesn’t sound little to me.” Johnny put his hand on Thuy’s shoulder.
Thuy said that hers were not debilitating. More a minor nuisance. “Like someone I know.” She jabbed Johnny in the side.
“Funny,” Johnny said.
I told Ellie I was sorry she wasn’t feeling well and asked what Gordon did when she told him she couldn’t drive him.
Gordon wasn’t telling her much of anything. In fact, she had threatened to quit and possibly sue him.
“You two have been working together for years,” I said. “What is happening?”
She had supported Gordon through it all, thick and thin. Now that he was successful, he had the nerve to tell her that he did not have the confidence his success would last. Increasing her salary and benefits could put him in a precarious position in the long term. “What a gob of snot!” she said. “This is how much he values my loyalty and hard work over the years.” She had put up with his insanity and she deserved better. The way things were going, she could not be certain Gordon would survive his success - in the long term!
I apologized and said it was precisely why we needed to find Gordon and get the mirror back where it belonged.
She peeled the cloth from her eyes and said Gordon was headed for the border.
I asked if there was anyone else Gordon might ask to drive him south.
Karl Smulders was my father’s oldest friend. They went to USC together. He was an airline pilot. Karl and his wife, Molly, were my parents’ best friends for years, until Karl had an affair. They split up and we never saw Molly again.
Was Karl going to fly Gordon down in his own plane? was my next question.
Ellie didn’t feel well and needed a nap. She directed me to Karl’s card in the rollodex file on Gordon’s desk. “I wish I could be more help,” she said, and put the washcloth back over her eyes.
Sitting in the back seat of Thuy’s car, I looked at the card with Karl’s address in Marina Del Rey.
She guessed three hours to drive to the South Bay at that time of day.
I leaned my head forward, between the front seats and surmised that we didn’t know for sure where Gordon was or when, how, or even if, he planned to go to San Diego. I thought we needed to step back for the moment. “Let us see what opportunities the powers that be and our friend, Jose Maria, lay in front of us.”
Two days after Ellie’s ocular, Karl Smulders, himself, sat in front of me, in our living room. When I stepped through the door of our duplex from school, my mother was filling Karl’s wine glass, at four in the afternoon.
“Look who’s here, Jules,” Mom sang. It was rare to see her so pleased. “Karl and I are catching up.”
Before I could offer him my hand to shake, Karl pulled me into his slim, erect frame for a hug. He smelled like leather. “You have grown, Kid. Last time I saw you, you were up to here.” He held his hand level with his hip. His twinkly blue eyes, short sandy hair, and strong jaw offered up the stereotype of a jet pilot. Right stuff and all.
My mother asked, with a silly grin, if I knew that she and Karl had dated before she met Gordon. I did not. In fact, she related, Gordon was dating Molly at the time. After the two couples double-dated, they all agreed to switch. The resulting couples ended up married for over twenty years. The way my mother was fluttering and fawning and looking at the man, I wondered if her spark for good old Karl had ever died.
After sipping his wine, Karl cleared his throat, moved his first two fingers along his upper lip to spiff his full sandy moustache, and announced that he was there about Gordon.
I lowered myself into the chair across the small room from him.
Mom asked what Gordon had done.
Karl recounted that Gordon came to see him at the marina, on his boat. They had not been in touch that much. In fact, Karl had not seen Gordon in over a year. Gordon looked terrible. Karl was not sure he had slept in days. His eyes were red and crusty. He went on about a pre-Columbian mirror that he had to get to an art dealer down in San Ysidro.
Mom declared that she knew the piece. It was hers, actually. It belonged to her grandmother.
Karl said Gordon was obsessed with it. He carried it with him in a purple velvet bag. He kept it on his lap, under his arm, in his hands all the time, with an iron grip. It was like he thought it might rise up on its own and overpower him, like Doctor Strangelove’s glove. Karl laughed weakly and looked around the room. Gordon told him that he had to get it to this guy, and he couldn’t drive himself because he was sleep-deprived. He acted so fuzzy and erratic that Karl had to ask him if he was on drugs, which he denied. Karl uncrossed his legs and leaned forward on the sofa.
I asked Karl if he had agreed to take him.
He did. Life and death, Gordon said it was. Karl flew him to San Ysidro that day in his Hawker Beechcraft, for a meeting with a guy named Aguilara. On the flight down, Gordon said he believed a spirit of some kind in the mirror had brought him success he only dreamed of. But the spirit wanted something in return, something that he could not give. He would say no more, and Karl did not ask. “Too sinister for my blood,” he said.
The fog at the border was so dense, they could not land the airplane and turned around and flew back to Santa Monica. Karl shook his head and wrung his hands as if he were complicit in some evil doing.
I asked what Gordon did following their failed flight.
Karl said he was gracious enough. He thanked him for his help and called him a true friend.
I sat forward in my seat and wondered if Gordon mentioned his plans for the disk.
Gordon said he would get down south even if he had to take the train or a Greyhound, Karl said. He said he did not have a choice. “I’m sorry I could not do more; he was so distressed.” Karl brisked his moustache again.
Mom didn’t understand why Gordon was so desperate to sell the disk to this art dealer if he felt it was helping him make all the money. “I suppose I shouldn’t question it too much. It will mean more for us in the divorce settlement.” She tittered and lowered her eyes.
I guessed that it might not have everything to do with money.
“Do tell,” my mother said.
Gordon is, I said, as much running from, as toward, something.
Mom appreciated my insight and said it could very well be. He was the kind of man that avoided difficult situations. She stood and walked to Karl’s chair. “Karl, you are a true friend. You know, I was thinking: it’s Friday night. The freeway will be murder right now. It will take you hours to get back to Marina Del Rey. Would you like to stay for dinner? I have some tri-tips in the fridge. I can pour us another glass of wine.” She had an expression as if she were about to unwrap a Christmas present.
Karl looked at her and said, “Rosie, I would love to, if I am not imposing.”
Rosie giggled that he could never impose. She picked up the wine bottle and refilled his glass.
I grabbed my phone and went into my bedroom to call my brother at work. My mother wanted to be alone, and we had to find Dad before he unloaded the mirror, even if it meant chasing him to the Mexican border.
Johnny, Thuy and I cruised palm-tree-lined East San Ysidro Boulevard at eleven on sunny Saturday morning. Mission-style buildings with red-brick roofs housing banks, fast-food restaurants, and grocery stores, signs in Spanish, and exclusively Latino and Latina people on the streets gave flavor to the fact that the chain-link border to Mexico stood a block away. The address Emil Drescher gave me for Alejandro Aguilara’s office was a tidy strip mall tucked in off the street. As we turned into the driveway, a banner stretched between two palm trunks declared that “Abrigos” were selling for fifteen dollars. Number Six was a storefront between a Little Caesar’s pizza parlor and a perfume outlet.
Gordon was taking a Greyhound bus from the depot on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood, according to Ellie, arriving on East San Ysidro Boulevard, three blocks from Aguilara’s office. Thuy, Johnny and I hustled out of L.A., figuring that we could be beat Gordon’s bus on its milk run south. We would be waiting in front when he approached Aguilara’s.
Thuy reported, as we sat in the car in the parking lot facing Aguilara’s store, that she learned from Wikipedia that the town of Saint Isidore began as a commune in the early nineteen hundreds. Each resident got two acres. They all had a say in how the community was run. They pooled their harvest and sold their crops in San Diego, sharing the proceeds. If somebody moved out, they forfeited their land.
Looking down the major thoroughfare, I imagined that the concept died somewhere along the way.
Thuy said the commune was wiped out by a flood. Eventually the city of San Diego swallowed up the area. Thuy turned her head. “Hey, gringo at four o’clock.”
We swung our heads to watch a tall, skinny white guy in brown and yellow plaid shorts, a yellow t-shirt, and black-and-white sneakers stride by the car. He pushed through the door to the pizza joint.
I decided to check in Aguilara’s store. Maybe Gordon went in there, and we missed him.
Johnny and Thuy got out of the car with me and walked to the Seven-Eleven for drinks. We planned to meet back at the car.
As I approached the door to Aguilara’s store, I saw a small sign by the handle that read in English: “Handcrafted Arts of Mexico.” When I pushed through, I smelled Gordon. His Hugo Red cologne permeated. All my senses heightened, as if my hair were on fire. As I wended through the displays of ironware furniture, red, yellow, blue and green glassware, pottery, sculptures and statues, tiles and murals, I strained to see my father’s skinny back and male-pattern-baldness gray head, hear his high-timbered voice, and feel his nervous, Chihuahua-like presence. When I arrived at the counter at the back of the store, a light-complexioned man in a starched white dress shirt, carmine-red tie with dark blue diagonal stripes, and a stringy black comb-over sat in a swivel office chair a few feet away. He lifted his head and nodded. “Buenas dias!” he said.
My father’s smell was fainter, but still there. I asked the man if he smelled the fragrance. I sniffed a couple times.
“The scent. Cologne.” I did not have enough Spanish to pull it off.
“Hugo Boss?” the man said with a smile.
“Gordon Laigle, donde?” I looked behind the counter for the disk.
The man walked to the counter and asked who I might be.
“Are you Alejandro Aguilara?”
“Mi hijo. Again, I am sorry, but I must ask who you are to be asking such questions.”
As with Emil Drescher, my father must have loved this man’s discretion. I told him my name and that I was Gordon Laigle’s son.
“Señor Laigle. El Espantaparajos. The Scarecrow was just here. Not two minutes ago.”
Gordon walked out just as I came in. “It is extremely strange that you did not see each other,” said Aguilara.
The mirror. It was about the mirror. Had Gordon left the mirror? “It is important that we get it back,” I said, pushing my stomach against the counter.
He confirmed that Señor Drescher from Beverly Hills called him to say that Señor Laigle was coming with the Mayan mirror. Aguilara walked back and reclined in his chair behind his desk.
I leaned over the counter, into the open space between us. Aguilara’s desk was covered with papers, books, coffee cups, and various art objects. I searched for the disk in the pile.
Aguilara sat forward, folded his hands in his lap, crossed his legs at the ankles and said that, indeed, Señor Laigle had shown him the mirror.
I repeated my mantra: It was not Gordon’s mirror. It belonged to my mother. My great-grandmother was a bruja in Tabasco. She used the mirror in her rites and rituals.
Aguilara said he felt my concern. He sat up in his chair and admitted it was a rare piece, the tezcatl.
Did he buy the mirror from Gordon?
Take a step back, por favor, he told me. He stood and walked back to me. The mirror, as I called it, was not a common object to be bought and sold. It was far too powerful. It had to be in the right hands.
“So, you have the mirror, or you don’t have the mirror?”
Considering the condition that my father, El Espantaparajos, was in, I was not sure how patient I could be.
“Yo comprendo.” However, Aguilara pointed out, the issue was not whose hands the tezcatl was in, but who was in the hands of the tezcatl.
What did that mean?
Señor Aguilara described the tezcatl as a powerful ally. It reflected the spirit and the intent of the beholder. Intention was quickly followed by action. The tricky thing about the spirit of the tezcatl was that the more self-serving the intention of the beholder, the more the spirit demanded in return.
I understood then that Gordon was not trying to sell the disk. “What is the spirit demanding from my father?” I asked.
Aguilara squinted one eye and said one of his roles, besides merchant and purveyor and promoter of art, was that of spirit guide to Mexico. Señor Laigle knew what he had to do with the tezcatl and he was assisting him.
“He’s descending south, then?”
Aguilara couldn’t say and called Gordon’s journey with the tezcatl personal.
I looked at the clock on the wall above Señor Aguilara’s desk. If my father left just as I came in, he had a head start.
I thanked Aguilara for his perspective and his service. I had to catch my father to retrieve the mirror.
“Buena suerte. Con mucho gusto, El Sabio,” he called.
I ran to Thuy’s car in the parking lot. She and my brother were not there. I looked toward the street and saw them frantically waving to me. Johnny shook his head and said they had Dad. He had been there, with the mirror.
“What do you mean? You let him go? Where is he?” I looked up and down East San Ysidro Boulevard. Thuy described Gordon as a blind raging animal.
Johnny yelled in his face and grabbed his arm, to get his attention. It was as if he didn’t recognize his own son. He pushed Johnny away and ran up the street, hugging his velvet bag.
"The bus station,” I said, heading for the car.
I sprinted into the Greyhound terminal and saw my father standing in line at the ticket window. Whatever energy he had was gone. His shoulders were slumped forward, his head hanging, the mirror tucked under his arm. He looked tired and defeated. I might have felt sorry for him, but that kind of sentiment was long gone. He had shown no regard for Mom, Johnny and me, while he positioned himself for his new prosperous single life. For Gordon, it was never about affection. It was about business, the edge, the bottom line. It had always been that way. It was the father I grew up with.
He looked up as I approached.
“Hello, Gordon. What’s up?”
“Go away,” he mumbled. “You have no business here.”
I informed him that we had chased him all over Southern California.
“Nobody asked you to get involved in anything.”
I proposed that maybe he had had enough. Two art dealers in the U.S. would not touch that mirror. It was running him toward extinction. “Where are you taking it now? Quintana Roo?”
Gordon raised his head on his ropy neck and shuffled forward as the line moved. A woman stood in front of him, at the head. My father’s rank body odor obliterated his expensive cologne. As the woman moved toward the window, Dad stepped to the head of the line.
I offered to drive Gordon back to L.A. We could figure it all out. I grabbed a pinch of Gordon’s shirt sleeve.
The ticket window cleared, and my father pulled away and stepped toward it. He did not turn his head as Johnny and Thuy ran to where I stood.
I leaned into Thuy and told her to bring her car to the back where they load the buses.
When Gordon came out of the station to board his bus, Thuy drove her car near the bus’s door. As my father stood at the bottom of the stairs, waiting to climb aboard, Johnny ran up behind him and grabbed his arms. He turned him and penguin-walked him toward the open back door of the Corolla. Dad was too concerned about keeping the mirror secure under his arm to struggle. People around the entrance to the bus watched the abduction silently, as if it was something that they witnessed every day. “Drive,” Johnny yelled. He put his arm across Dad’s chest, to keep him pinned. I leaned in back and yanked the mirror in the velvet bag from under his arm. “Hey. Give that back, damn you,” Gordon screamed. Johnny kept the Old Man subdued.
Dad called us useless assholes.
“Thank you,” Johnny said. “I think we have always known how you feel about us.”
“Don’t be stupid. You know that is not true,” Dad said. “But you have no idea what you’re messing with.”
As we drove on to the freeway, I sat shotgun with the velvet bag in my lap. I reached in my hand and put my fingers on the cool, smooth surface of the black onyx disk. I slid it out and held it in front of my face. It was not like a brilliant and clear reflecting mirror that I might use to comb my hair or check my teeth. The reflection was deep, dim and amorphous. The shadow of a face I saw looking back at me might have been the spirit, Jose Maria, that my mother described, but to me it looked more like the image from an old Bob Dylan album cover I remembered, where Dylan looked into the camera from above, holding his guitar with one hand and doffing his hat with the other. The reflection shifted and I heard my Nana’s voice, as resonant and vital as if she were sitting beside me. I felt her hand stroke the top of my head. The porch swing we shared rocked gently. I smelled mown hay and looked out over the wide, lush meadow of her farm. As I heard her say, “You are my little prince,” I felt my heart swell in my chest and tears well in my eyes. I felt perfect peace, as if floating in deepest, darkest space.
I looked up as Thuy waved her hand in front of my face and asked where the hell I was.
Gordon leaned forward in the back seat, pushing against Johnny. He was crying, tears and snot running down his chin. “Please help me. I have to get Him home. Please. I have to get Him home.”
I asked Thuy to pull off the freeway.
She moved to the right lane, steered the Corolla on to the shoulder of the road, and stopped.
I turned to my father to find out what he was talking about. What was in that mirror? As I looked into it, I was transported. It was so real. I believed I was there and could stay there forever.
My father warned me to put the mirror away. I had no idea, he said. He begged us to help get Him back home.
I slipped the disk back in the bag. “You keep saying ‘Him.’ Who is Him? Jose Maria?”
The mirror told my father: All the business he had done, all the success. With Him, Gordon knew what to do, where to go, who to talk to and when. He had an extra sense, an intuition, about the deals. He knew what move to make at every turn. It was a miracle. “I’ve never felt this potent and capable in my life,” Gordon cried.
If he felt that way, Johnny said, what was the problem?
Gordon repeated that He wanted to go home.
Gordon spoke no Spanish, Johnny pointed out. How the hell did he know?
Gordon knew, as sure as he knew anything, he vowed. And I don’t want to let Him go,” he said. “I will never get this power back.”
Gordon ordered that we let him out of the car.
“And if we don’t?” Johnny said.
“I will go down. I’m half-way there.”
“How do you know that’s what the spirit wants?”
“John, please! Have you not heard a word I’ve said?"
I made myself clear, sitting in the front seat and craning my neck to look in back: The mirror belonged to great-grandmother, Mariana, Nana’s mother. It had been in our family for generations. It resided for years in our family house in Burbank. I said, “That is home for Him. That’s where He wants to be.” I had no idea why I declared it, but I felt completely certain.
Gordon claimed it was the village of Buergos, in the state of Tabasco.
So, my father was going to take a bus all the way to Tabasco, over two thousand miles through land filled with Mexicans to take Him where he thought His home to be?
“I have a question, if I may,” Thuy said. “If the mirror was in your house for all that time, why didn’t it ever speak to you before, Mr. Laigle? Why now?”
Gordon looked at her from the back seat, with a puzzled expression, as if she were speaking her native Vietnamese.
I guessed that it was when he exerted his will over the mirror, over ‘Him,” over “Jose Maria.” Gordon looked into the mirror and felt the connection, as had I. “That is when the adventure began. Right, Dad?”
Gordon cried that we were not hearing him. He needed to get out of the car. He had to get Him home, as soon as possible. His life depended on it.
I said, “Thuy, please drive Gordon and Him home.”
Gordon swiveled his head around and said he needed to use the bathroom.
“Now, Gordon, how gullible do you think we are?” Johnny said, gripping Dad’s forearm.
Gordon pointed out that he was not holding the mirror. We were.
I saw a sign for services at the next exit. I said, “I have to pee, too.”
“Me, three,” Thuy said.
Thuy pulled up behind a Chevron station, in front of the restroom doors.
Standing on the asphalt, I let Gordon go in first, as Thuy went into the women’s room. I took my turn after my father came out and stood beside Johnny. I could only imagine what they had to talk about. When I came out, no one was around.
Back at the car, Johnny and Thuy stood, watching me approach.
I asked where Dad was.
Johnny said that he escaped. They all went into the mini mart together. Johnny wanted to grab some Gatorade. The next thing he knew, he searched the aisles and no Gordon.
“Did you look to see if the mirror is on the front seat?” I walked toward the front passenger side window.
Johnny told me not to bother: It was gone.
When we drove back to the freeway, I looked for Gordon. I thought we might catch him hitchhiking at the onramp, headed south, back to Mexico He was nowhere to be seen. He could have been hiding behind a bush, disk in hand, watching us.
On the way back to L.A., I thought of my reverie in the reflection of the onyx disk. I had been transported to more than a dream state. It felt as real as the dream I normally lived in, day to day, and it did not seem distorted or disconnected, like a sleeping dream. I was present in some dimension with my grandmother. It was not mere memory or projection. I felt in my body the love and peace, and her presence as strongly as I ever did when I was with her, in real-time, during her lifetime. No wonder Gordon was willing to perish rather than lose his grip on that mirror.
At Karl’s birthday party, on a Thursday evening, I ate German chocolate cake at our Buena Vista duplex. The phone rang and Thuy came to the table to tell me that my mother said that Ellie was calling. I had not talked to Ellie for two weeks, since we were last there at my Dad’s place, looking for Gordon and the disk.
When we came home from San Ysidro, I told my mother what had happened, and she advised letting it be. It would work itself out. She could see that now. The mirror would find its way home, with or without Gordon’s help.
I didn’t tell her but, by home, I knew exactly where that was, and it had nothing to do with my father. Let it be, she said.
I asked Ellie on the phone how she was doing with her ocular migraines. She imagined they were caused by the fact that she was stuck in the middle of my father’s insanity. She asked me to come immediately to Gordon’s place. It was important: Gordon was in deep shit and she was tired of dealing with it.
I left the party with my brother and Thuy.
When Ellie seated us in my father’s living room and provided sodas all around, she sat on a metal folding chair across from the sofa. She said that Gordon called her. He was stranded in Mexico.
“Tabasco?” I said. Gordon had revealed that as his destination when we kin-napped in the car.
She didn’t hear a word from him for weeks and then he called collect. He was in Veracruz. In a place called Coatzacoalcos, on the coast, in the town of Emilio Carranza.
“In or with?”
Emilio Carranza was a place. She had google-earthed it. It was about two hundred and fifty miles north of where he was now. He was stranded.
I asked what happened to the mirror.
Gordon told her that the mirror was missing. He said he was staying at a hotel in Emilio Carranza and it was just gone,
“Somebody stole it? Wow!” Johnny said. “We could not separate him from it, as hard as we tried.”
Gordon did not say someone stole it. He said it was missing. It was not there, in his room, with him. He made that distinction clear to Ellie.
Gordon was not leaving Mexico, Ellie said, until he knew where the mirror was. He was going on to a place called Buergos, in Tabasco, to see if it was there. He said he would not be able to return for a year and seven months if he did not find the mirror and take it home to its village.
It was all as crazy to her, Ellie said, as it was to us. Why a year and seven months? She lifted her hands in the air like two spooked birds and let them crash smack on her thighs. Gordon sounded on the edge. She did know if he did not get back to his business, everything he had put together in the past few months would fold. He was on very thin ice. “It will not survive for another year and a half without him,” she said.
“I thought you were bailing on him,” Johnny said.
Ellie pinned my brother with a baleful stare and said that she had a responsibility to the business. Gordon was still paying her a salary. And she helped build the business. She hoped they could get through this, and when he got back, they would settle everything.
I wondered what we supposed to do while Gordon ran around Mexico looking for a magic mirror. “Why did you have us come over here, Ellie?” I said.
She wanted to tell us to our faces, and she wanted us all to understand that she did not want this anymore. “You take it on. I will hold down the business for as long as I can. But he is your father, and that is your responsibility. I do not want him calling me anymore. You become his go-to person, Julian, or John.”
Johnny said, for all he cared, the old man could evaporate with the spirit into the stinking jungle.
“You do not mean that,” Thuy said. “He is your father.”
“You have no idea, Sweetheart,” Johnny said. “I am done with him.”
I told Ellie that I heard her. “It is off your shoulders.”
In the car, heading up Barham Boulevard back to Burbank, Johnny turned to me in the back seat and asked what we should do about Gordon Laigle.
I fell on the words of the true wizard, my mother, the wise and wonderful Rosa Suarez Laigle, who advised to let it be. Dad and the mirror would find their own fates. Stay clear. Besides, what could we do about it anyway?
What took me over to North Screenland Drive in Burbank, I do not really know. Well, I do know. I was driven, partly by Thuy in her Corolla. We agreed to leave Johnny out of it.
He was too busy anyway. He settled his court case and got a job as an assistant to Emil Drescher.
Partly, I was driven to Burbank by the same instinct, intuition, inner voice that my father described in knowing what Jose Maria in the mirror wanted. I had to know for myself, and I was compelled to find out.
On the way over to our old house, Thuy described her grandmother’s tales of a spirit that guarded her village in Vietnam when she was a girl. Anything that happened, good or bad, it was because of the spirit.
“How could they ever really know what the spirit wanted?” I said.
“Precisely! That’s the crazy thing.” Thuy guided the Corolla down the center of the street.
We stopped at the curb in front 1508 North Screenland. I knew the Swopes, the family that bought our old house. I played soccer with the son, Stewie, in the sixth grade. In fact, my father was the selling agent in the transaction. I did not have the phone number for any Swope, but I figured they wouldn’t mind if I dropped by. Just for a minute. Then, I would make a request for a quick bathroom visit.
It had been a month since Ellie called us over to my Dad’s office to say that she was out of Gordon’s escapades. I didn’t know if she had, but I had not heard another word from my father. As far as I knew, he was still chasing Jose Maria around southeastern Mexico. I did not know the state of his real estate business, but I knew my father’s life would never be the same. I also knew that Mom went to court and won substantial spousal and child support from him, based on his recent earnings, my testimony, and the fact that he was a no-show at the hearing. She had already found a large, sunny three-bedroom condo in Magnolia Park, near our old neighborhood, which put me back at my old high school. Mom spent time in Marina Del Rey, on Karl’s sailboat.
With my father still MIA, I had to know for myself, based on a revelation that I had not forgotten, after sharing it with captive Gordon, stopped alongside the San Diego Freeway.
Thuy turned off her car. Our old house was set back from the street behind a low, black, iron fence and screening shrubs. While Thuy posed as the get-away driver, I went up to the gate. I looked toward the windows of the house, in case some Swope inside might spot me and scoot out in welcome. Nothing stirred. I opened the squeaky gate and moved up the cement walkway toward the porch, fifty feet back. On the driveway of the house next door, Michael Palmer stood and watched me. Michael was retarded (our special friend, as we referred to him), a portly man in his early forties, whom I had known my whole life. He had his hand flat over his eyebrows, shading his eyes. He watched me walk by. “Hi, Michael,” I said, waving. He waved back, from the wrist.
On the porch, I stepped heavily, to again flush out a greeter. I knocked on the aluminum screen door, waited, and knocked again. After no response, I pushed my fingertip on the doorbell button. The “dong-dong, dong-dong” that drove our old dog, Trigger, crazy came back to me from inside. I waited. Nobody was home.
The room I wanted to look into was our old den, on the other side of the house, along the alley. I could have had Thuy pull right up to the window, got out of the car, and peered inside the room. But, if someone had been home, and in the den, my face peeking in could have caused alarm. A shrieking Swope might sink my mission. And I did not want my brother’s girlfriend too involved with what my caper.
I came down the three cement steps of the front porch. It was the same steps that I had dived into, chasing a broom that Johnny was teasing me with when I was seven. I landed forehead-first on the corner of the top step and got a blood-soaked ride to the ER and three stitches. Off the porch, I stepped on to the lawn of the front yard, where Johnny and I used to skulk around, pretending we were superheroes, and played hide-and-seek with our friends from the neighborhood. I crossed in front of the house and bent under the low-hanging limb of the elm tree that I had helped my father plant probably ten years before, with my red pail and miniature yellow plastic shovel. I glanced over my shoulder to see if Michael still stood on his driveway. He was gone. I walked through the side gate and into the alley. The den had a large window with thirty-two one-foot-by-one-foot glass panes in it. Brown curtains were drawn over the window, with a crack where the two sides met in the middle. I crossed the alley and stepped to the window. I turned my head and looked up and down for anyone walking or driving by. The alley was empty. Behind, twelve shaded windows from two levels of the apartment building next door faced me. I scanned them but saw no one spying. I turned back to the window of the den. I pressed my forehead and nose against its clear cool panes. I waited while my eyes adjusted to the difference in light. I looked directly across the room. Above a low table, against the same wall in the same spot where it had hung for years, was the black obsidian disk. I stared at it. I heard a car engine somewhere but let it go. I could not take my eyes off the disk. A light rose in the room, as if the car’s lights shone from behind, and glanced off the dusky surface of the disk. I noticed a glint in its barely concave surface. I turned from the window, expecting to see Thuy, pointing her car grille at me. The alley was clear and quiet. I walked to the gate next to the garage. I thought that Thuy must have wondered what happened to me. I pulled open the gate and went into the back yard and up on to the porch. My mother said to let it be, but something told me to grab the gold knob and see if the back door was unlocked. It turned all the way to the right, and I pushed.
I stepped into the den and stood before the disk. I stared into its smoky surface without intention, unstirred, unperturbed.
I knew I couldn’t remove it from its place on the wall. It was safe. It was home.
I couldn’t keep breaking into the house to bask in its presence. It had its own eternal fate, for better or worse, as did I. I had to let it be.
It already worked its magic.
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