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The dream of an apartment comes again. A bedroom, closets, a bathroom, a kitchen. In the kitchen a washing machine, dishwasher, all waiting for me to press their buttons. All waiting to perform.
“Deery.” Hector’s voice pulls me from the dream.
The whole world blurs in from gray. Hector’s hand scratches at a scab on his left arm. He picks, peels. Whiteness oozes out.
The scarred wall, the pitted ceiling slide into view.
On the foam mattress flung slantwise on the floor, three year old Buster sleeps. He is still, quiet. One thin brown arm is up over his head. A big hole shaped like a horse’s head gapes under his T-shirt armpit. His mouth opens a little. Now Hector talks and talks. His voice is cranky, busted; the junky’s whine.
“Deery. Wake up. You awake?”
“You awake? Because I am dismay and want to tell you why this dismay. One time was a story about a guy name of Gregory. He turn into a roach. He wake up, he is a big roach. I dream about turning to a roach.”
His sheets rustle with the greasy rustle his sheets have. With Hector everything is greasy. He is the king of grease. He seldom bathes. He fears water. Something about drowning or slime.
He moves, the sheets rustle dull as oilcloth.
“I want you to–look, can you look?–I want you to look at me. Is that a laugh? Don’t laugh!”
“Sorry, Hector. I didn’t mean it.”
He smacks the floor.
“If you had my life it wouldn’t be so funny. I just want you to check if I still human. It ain’t psychotic or anything to think about being a roach. Roaches have eternal souls. They live forever. They go everywhere. On the walls. On the ceiling. In the toilet. Eat scraps from pizza boxes on the floor. Places we can’t go. A grain of sand look like a rock to them. There are these pictures in Life magazine and a grain of sand look like a rock.”
Morning after morning he does this. You can’t make what he’s saying in the morning. He must lay there for hours, breathing and thinking. That’s the main problem. He always tries to think in the morning.
This has got to come out like feathers in milk. When you reel Hector in you have to be gentle. Like talking to a dog. As long as you soothe it out, you can say anything you want, even call the dog a piece of shit. Say it wrong and the dog growls. Hector does more than growl. And since he’s a junkie he can’t judge the damage he’ll cause.
Simultaneously I reach down and lift up Buster. One brown baby hand rubs an eye and he whimpers, soft as a faraway bird. Hector babbles more, all breathy.
“I dunno, maybe it is a dream. From a story in a book. I am up now. Real up. You sleep okay? How did Buster sleep? Hey little guy. You look cold. You cold? Bust?”
Buster yawns huge. Hector waits until Buster is done yawning.
“It was cold last night, no? The footprints of Winter, even in San Diego, Buster. Roaches don’t leave no footprint and look how long they been around. And look, the size my foot. Make you think.”
Buster starts to cry,
but then shoves a thumb in his mouth,
Hector stands up on the bed and reaches for the ceiling, stretching. He sits, never takes his eyes off Buster, his face romantic and soft.
“Looky, Buster. Looky, here come Bernie. That Bernie. He cute, huh Bust?”
Buster sucks his thumb, swivels to look where Hector points and stares impassive. I look over and jump right up still holding Buster.
“A rat! Hector, that’s! Jesus!”
I’m shoving hard up against the wall to escape it. Bernie is in the pizza box. Suddenly it’s so quiet you can hear sharp little teeth nibbling a cold crust.
“What are you talking about, Deery? Bernie not a rat, he a mouse. What you talk about? Jesus Christ. Bernie too small to be a rat. Rats big fuckers. Like this big. What you know about mice and shit?”
“Rats. Jesus. Call the desk. They have something. Poison. It barely hurts. It’s not cruel or anything. Jesus, look what he’s doing to the pizza…”
“What are you talking about, poison? Bernie ain’t bother anybody. He friendly. Let him eat. I ain’t hungry. I don’t need nothing. Some water. Pass me it, that, that, the bottle.”
I kick the edge of the pizza box. The rat takes the hint and skitters to the door. It squashes its gray body down to fit under. Hindquarters, back knees, tail, gone. Like a switch came on, the street noises, car horns, shouts, come back. I set Buster down, grab up the Evian bottle, pass it to Hector. The water comes from the showers down at the beach. I filled it yesterday. Hector hates to go downstairs. That’s why I’m here.
“When Diesel come around with my medicine I went, or once a week to clean up, that’s it. And the sound, the sea, the ancient sea, make me ralph. So stay up here. Fuck the beach. Sand right in here. Been here for years, right on the floor. Who need the fucked-up beach? It all here.”
“Speaking of, you need me to go downstairs yet, Hector?”
“Eh? You know, I was thinking about what you called this place yesterday. What was that? Dago? Bad like calling San Francisco ‘Frisco.’ But I think they call it Dago because that how people around here say ‘Diego.'”
“Hector, I’m going out. Need anything?”
“I say `Dee-yay-go,’ your voice suppose to rise on the first syllable and the last two come out soft like the rain last night. Diego. San Diego. Got it?”
“Hector. Out. Food. Stuff.”
“Out? Can you go to the store? Can you get me some… I got money for it. In the left inside pocket… Shit. It only eight-o-five. Loan me twenty cent, okay? Um, Dunhill, mild.”
He stuffs the crumpled-up bills in my hand. One falls. I bend to pick it up.
I open and close my hand to say good-bye the way Buster likes. Hector’s voice comes out the door after me.
“Don’t get burned,” he calls.
Outside room 14, I go down the hall to the stairs. In the Newport Beach Hotel, the walls flake ship gray paint. The brush of the sea air has daubed them with white warts, white barnacles. My mind drifts to Buster, still upstairs with Hector. Lately it’s the ceiling. You never saw a kid stare at the ceiling so much as Bust. That’s his nickname, Bust. I never spent much time with kids before he was born. The only kid before that was me. Never did much staring.
As you go down the stairs of the Newport Beach Hotel, they don’t creak. But you expect them to. Three are cracked. The middles are worn away smooth and show tan wood. If you get close enough, you can count seventeen coats of paint, lots of different colors, around the edges of the holes. The stairs sag and bounce. They don’t creak.
Out on the street, I walk slowly, still stiff from sleeping curled up with Bust all night on the floor. I try to look happy but feel blunt and burned inside. There’s some Peter Tosh music, it blasts so loud hairs lift up from my head gently, sailing up and around. On Newport Avenue, everybody follows invisible lines on the sidewalk. Old men amble, heads like coconuts from behind. I slide into the walk-beat. If roads are blood vessels, Newport is a slow vein, bringing dead liquid back to the heart. It takes its time and won’t take any shit about it, either. Let the heart get pissed off.
In the store right by the entrance is a fake slot machine. An old Spanish guy is in rapture. He puts a quarter in every twenty seconds or so. I look at the TV screen of it. Each time he gets a jackpot, it flashes a color cartoon of a woman in denim shorts and a tie-on top. Jackpot. Now the top is untied. Jackpot. Now it’s almost completely off.
I shake my head, walk by. A tangy whiff of urine rises from the Spanish guy’s clothes. Past him, a kid eyes the Twinkie rack. He’s dressed like a thousand other Ocean Beach kids, head wrapped in a red bandanna, grayed suit jacket over old blue jeans. I shake my head right at him as if to say, “can you believe this old guy putting quarters in and getting nothing out?” The kid doesn’t return the look. He reads the labels. No shit, kid. They have cupcakes, orange creme and vanilla pudding and chocolate frosted, with no cholesterol in them now. What will they think of next? I go up to the counter, pluck a red-gold pack of Granny Goose nachos from the clip rack. Breakfast. Maybe lunch too. Bust and I are in a recession.
“Pack of Merits.”
“Soft. And a Dunhills mild. Blue box.”
I look back. The old man is having a winning streak. The kid is to the side of the machine, yanking at the cord with his foot. The woman is just about to appear on the screen naked. The screen stutters and goes blank. The old man jumps back, jolted from his trance.
“Hey! Hey gringito! Ve te chingar a tu madre, gringito! Maricon!”
The old guy screams more foul things in Spanish at the kid. I know them all, used to have a second-generation Mexican boyfriend who taught me the lexicon of Spanish filth. It was the only Spanish he learned from his parents. The old man raises a fist. The kid sings,
“Chingo, gringo! Chingo, gringo!”
and bolts from the store.
comes from the street, fading away. The old man is standing outside the door, staring after the kid with hatred.
“Wonder how much he got?”
the clerk asks, waving a hand toward the Twinkie rack.
I shrug, walk over to it. It’s a mess. Some are bitten. One is smashed on the floor. A bunch are just gone.
“At least he only got shit, Twinkies, Ring Dings, Devil dogs…”
I tell the clerk, trying to sound comforting.
I mean, if you want nutrition, go to the Chicken Pie place in Hillside. Ocean Beach is not for those seeking nutrition.
When Buster and I first came to Ocean Beach we slept in the cab of the U-Haul for a week with all our stuff in the back. I slept curled around the hump in the middle of the floor. Bust slept on the seat. That was right after John evicted us. We don’t normally sleep in U-Hauls. When they designed your basic U-Haul, making the cab a comfy place to sleep was not high up on the priority list.
A week later I met Hector on the beach. He’s lived in the Newport Beach Hotel for two years. The showers in the Hotel have been broken for, what? Something like a year. So he takes showers once every two weeks, in the stalls where the surfers go by Dog Beach. It’s really called Ocean Beach, but everyone calls it Dog because it’s one of two beaches in San Diego where dogs can go. You can tell that right away because of the dog shit buried in every inch of sand. It’s like you need a mine sweeper set up for shit detection.
It was three weeks ago last Thursday, one PM and hot in that beachy way. Bust and I are sitting on a blanket by the men’s bathrooms, where the surfers hang. The shower is going. It stops. This guy sticks his head over the edge of the wall, fixes me with a look. He asks if I have a towel.
I say. I go to the U-Haul, unlock the back, yank the door up, climb in and dig through a box, find a towel, jump out, close and lock up, carry it over. He doesn’t say thanks, just takes it and dries off, rubbing his hair for days, weeks. I find a bench and sit. It looks like he’s trying to scrub his head bald. His chest hairs vibrate under the towel like tiny greasy worms, or cilia. He finishes, comes over and holds it out to me.
“Thanks for the towel,”
he finally says. It dangles from his hand, limp and oily. His hair is black and shot with gray lightning bolts. I think of Zeus from Mythology class. Then he starts really into talking and I immediately stop thinking of Zeus.
“Hi, I’m Hector. I live around here. It’s a pretty okay place. Are you from around here? I like your eyes. Nice eyes. What color is that?”
“I don’t know, brown I guess.”
So we met. I told him we just got there, about sleeping in the truck and how it was a drag. Hector made his generous offer and so Bust and I have been staying in his room, at the Newport Beach Hotel, almost three weeks now.
In the three weeks we’ve been together, Hector and I have developed a relationship of sorts. I run out, do things for him, pick up his drugs from Diesel, this tall black man in a running suit with a beeper and a Walkman on his belt. He’s on roller blades; pretty strange guy. But here on Newport Avenue, where everyone is strange, you don’t notice it so much.
Hector told me he used to play for the Yankees farm team. Then one day he got hit on the head with a fast ball. He was in the hospital a while. Now he’s on permanent retirement. The team gives him 6,000 dollars a year and a year’s supply of Demerol and Dilaudid. He sells them to Diesel in a lump, puts the cash in his account at Bank of America. He buys it back from Diesel at cost-plus when he needs it–he calls this `maintenance.’ He only takes some when the sickness comes and he starts lurching over the brown steel garbage can, retching.
That’s his life.
I’m okay. No, really, I’m okay. But the place isn’t good for Buster. The hotel gets very cold at night, they don’t seem to be too keen on heat. I asked Hector how much he pays for a room. He said, `forty dollars.’ I told him he could stay at the Lazy Eight for forty dollars and get heat and clean towels with no holes in them. He just stared at me as if I was crazy even to suggest the idea. I guess the Newport Beach Hotel is as addictive as the stuff he sticks in his veins.
Buster crunches chips. I play with his hair, the soft curly black hair, twirl it, wrap it around my fingers in tight little black loops.
“We have to get a real place to sleep or we’re going to get sick or die, Bust old mustard. I’m going out to talk to this woman I called out of the paper this morning. You’ll be okay with Hector, right?”
Hector gives Buster a little shake. Buster’s head vibrates. He glares, impassive.
“He gone be fine, right, Bust? He gone be great.”
“Hector, don’t you crash. Buster gets into trouble if he knows you’re not watching. Got it?”
“Got it. Go get your place.”
English is cruel sometimes. Imagine the person who made up these words a thousand years ago: six-one, three hundred pounds, teeth sharpened with nail files.
Four weeks ago Monday, I get a letter from my book-keeping job at Santa Clara Auto. The letter asks if I want to continue the medical.
I go in and ask Beverly the personnel girl, “what’s this letter about?”
She goes, “if someone gets let go, the law says we got to give `em the option to continue the medical. It’s the law. It’s called COBRA. You want it to continue or not?”
“Michael didn’t… ?”
“He didn’t say anything.”
“You better call him.”
I hang up and call Michael, my boss.
“Michael, what’s this about I’m fired? Is it true? Because I got a letter about continue my medical and Bev says I’m canned. Is it true?”
He sounds tired.
“Jesus, Deery, I mean. A couple days back I get a memo from Edgar, he says we’re getting some big chain firm to do the books. I meant to tell you.”
Just yesterday, he asked me to go out and get coffee for him. Eggs. Which I brought. He could have told me then. Except he figured I wouldn’t get his eggs.
So I am a statistic. No notice, no severance. My ex Danny would say with some companies the only way to get what’s yours is sue. Auto was one of those places. But to sue, you need an address. And I am two months back on the rent.
I am fucked for another book-keeping job. I never finished college. I just read books, everything: physics, detective novels, chemistry, poetry, history. Book-keeping came from a book, like everything else. Auto hired me because I was cheap. Now something is cheaper.
I go back to the apartment, draw the shades and get in bed. It is eleven AM. Danny isn’t home yet. Bust is still at day-care. With the shades pulled down the room fills with indigo mist. I sleep all day, wake up at six to pick up Buster. We climb into bed at ten. Danny isn’t home yet.
That was Monday.
Tuesday morning. I have a cup of coffee and the classified. Bust plays with his wood fire truck. It’s what, ten? No Danny. I can’t tell if he came in. The phone rings. My stomach drops. Bust picks it up.
It’s cute the way he says, “yo,” instead of hello. He’s not saying, “yo!” He’s saying, “Hello,” because his l’s sound like y’s. His r’s are round too, and he has trouble with consonant constructions like “dr.” So it’s like, “pyease give me vink.”
This does outrageous shit to my heart when I hear it. Hormonal.
“Hi, Daddy. Hi. I’m dood today? I’m home all day. I’m pyay with twucks.”
I grab the phone from Bust. He starts crying and tries to grab it back. We fight over the receiver, Bust screaming,
“I want talk Daddy!”
But I win.
“Danny? You had me so worried. Where are you?”
Danny doesn’t answer.
“Where the fuck are you? You okay? You need me to get you?”
He starts to talk, and it’s obvious he’s stoned out of his mind. Danny’s in NA, that’s Narcotics Anonymous. It’s like AA, but for ex-junkies. Not any more.
“I stayed over Lisa’s. I was sick.”
I make out a few more words. Then I reach critical mass and fission into a three megaton screaming fit. They tell you in ACOA not to get worked up because that’s what the addict wants, attention–negative or positive, it does not matter. At this point, I give two shits about ACOA counseling. The bastard must get out of my life.
So I am screaming, Bust is still trying to get the phone away, and Danny mumbles and sputters incoherently into the phone. Our official family picture.
Later on, I go down to the Seven Eleven and buy a six-pack of Corona, in honor of the end of Danny. I fall asleep with my arms tight around Buster.
That was Tuesday.
Wednesday morning I’m really hung over. The coffee machine burps loud. Everything is too loud. There’s a knock that’s too loud. I open the door, it’s John, the landlord, who owns the bakery in town. He’s got flour on his fists. They’re fists.
“Deirdre, what the fuck are you doing here?”
“I live here. John, listen, do me a favor and come back later? I feel like shit.”
“I can’t come back. Why the hell are you still here? You’re supposed to get out today.”
“Hey, wait. You can’t kick me out. You have to give me notice. Give me another week or two. Look, it’s been tough this week. I got canned, Danny is moving out…”
“You didn’t see the notice I tacked up on the first?”
“No. Eviction notice?”
“Yeah. You were supposed to be out. I came to check out the place for damage.”
“I didn’t know.”
“What do you mean? I taped it to the door and mailed you a copy. You can’t pull that shit! I know the law!”
“Calm down, John-boy. Something could have happened to it. Danny could have taken it down and didn’t tell me.”
“Your stupid junkie boyfriend is not my problem. I got tenants moving in here tomorrow. You have to get out today. If you’re not out by tonight, I’ll come back with the Sheriff.”
He turns, walks down the walk. I call; he doesn’t turn again.
You’ve got the picture by now–we can stop right here, can’t we?
Her eyes are redder than any eyes, ever. She looks stoned. But I can smell pot on people hours after they smoke it. She smelled like cloves. But she is mellow, very mellow. Maybe it is age or worry or something like that. Unfathomable.
“Star Grass. Star, like Aldebaran. Grass, like… you know what that’s like. Good old Jack died four years ago, left me this. I put in the new roof. I mean, two guys staying here did it. Roofs are like car engines, did you know that? You can’t just fix a roof. You got to put a whole new one in. Other than that, it’s been the same for a long time. So you’re looking for a place. I’m full up in the house, but there are some units out back and there’s a vacancy.”
Star leads me out back. Behind the house there’s an apartment building, long, brown, and spotty. It smells and looks like a big piece of bacon. There’s a couple of kids, they can’t be more than seventeen, sitting in the doorway of one of the downstairs units. Number six. His hand is wandering around inside her shirt. She’s making like she doesn’t notice. She’s looking at something. I look up to see what. There’s a cat on the roof. It looks like it’s got a pigeon in its mouth. She’s watching it eat the pigeon. I look down. The boy cups her breast. A feather floats down in front of my eyes. Star looks back at me.
“You want to see the place or not? Come on, I got phone calls to make.”
We go up the steps. She takes out some keys. They jangle like tubular bells. We stop at a door. She looks through the keys, tries a couple in the lock.
“Maybe I brought up the wrong set. Sorry. Have to go back down. I’ll be right back.”
The door opens by itself. The guy’s black black eyebrows go up and down a few times. He looks over at me, back at her.
“Hey Star,” he says.
A beat. She asks,
“What are you doing, Pee-dro?”
“Sleeping. What are you doing?”
“I thought I told you to move out.”
“You said clear out all my stuff. I did that. It’s at the Lock-It place you told me about.”
She turns to me.
“Typical. I tell him to pack up his stuff, he still comes back to crash.”
“Well, you said get the stuff out. What, you wanted me to do something else?”
She puts an arm around Pedro’s shoulder.
“Pee-dro, I know you’re not dumb like you pretend. But let it go. She’s here to see the room. I still have to show it. It clean?”
“Show it. That’s cool. No problem. I got to go to work in a few minutes anyway.”
She looks surprised.
“Work? You got a job?”
“Yeah,” he beams, “I’m painting houses.”
“Imagine that. It’s about time. Maybe you can pay me a little what you owe?”
“Yeah. I was going to come by and tell you.”
He looks at me.
“Hi. I’m Pee-dro.”
“Star’s a cool lady. An all-time. You’ll like her. By the way, what time is it?”
I check my watch.
“Ten of ten.”
“Shit! I’m late, man. Good luck!”
Suddenly he’s got a stained white jacket that sticks out behind him like a cartoon picture of a man running. He flies down past, feet like a drumroll.
Star calls out,
“Don’t forget to pay me!”
She laughs, turns to me.
“He’ll forget. He doesn’t mean it. Makes it more convenient, right?”
I nod in agreement; don’t know what else to do. The place looks good.
She pushes the door. It’s open, we go in. It’s a single room with a dusty rose carpet covered with dark stains like acts of terrorism. It’s empty of furniture, but ten or so boxes lean up against the wall with the picture window. I walk over to the boxes, look in; only some dust balls inside.
“Bathroom’s in there. Wouldn’t go in. Don’t think it’s been cleaned yet. Now the numbers. We charge one month rent for cleaning deposit but you get it back if you leave the place like you found it. There’s a dishwasher. It needs repair. If you get it done, I’ll let you take half what it costs off your rent. Otherwise there’s not much sense in fixing it, because people just keep breaking it. Jack put them in. He hated doing dishes. I don’t think people appreciate them, the way they treat them. When can you move in?”
“I’m not sure. It’s a very attractive apartment. What did you say it was, again?”
“Six twenty five, first, last, and deposit.”
“Not that I have a problem with the price, but it’s kind of high for a studio, don’t you think?”
“You should see what Agnes down the street asks. She gets seven hundred for places the same size. This is a beach town, hon. You want to go down talk to her? I could call ahead.”
“No, that’s okay. Why don’t you give me your number. I’ll check into it and call in, say, two days?”
She reaches into her pocket for her card.
“Here. Wait a second, I think the number’s wrong on this one. Let me.”
She gets out a pen and writes another number, crosses out the first.
“Don’t call this one. Call this one, got it?”
I nod. I nod a lot. Then I leave.
You can tell me you hate me, but:
I had two hundred twenty five in travelers checks.
With the right amount of whining, I could borrow the rest from Hector.
Star would probably let us move in with one month’s rent paid.
She didn’t look like the type with big floury hands who’d threaten you with the Sheriff. So the place looks like a lot like home.
So do it. Hate me.
I walk back across the beach, trying, not always successfully, to avoid the piles of shit. I am singing the Bob Marley song that goes, “everything gonna be alright, everything gonna be alright.” A Golden Retriever runs past, a black stick covered with seaweed protrudes sideways from his mouth like a cancerous antler. He stops, turns to stare. One eye is brown, one blue. Behind him runs a 13 year old boy in a baggy red T-shirt. He’s laughing. The dog takes off. The air smells like burning tires. Something feels wrong. I can’t tell what yet.
Passing Giant New York Pizza, the thought comes, better check out the U-Haul. But first, get back and see Bust.
I turn left at the jetty, go through the sand strewn parking lot at the corner of Newport Ave. Machine gun blasts and electronic stealth bomber fire scream from inside the 25 cent Arcade.
Entering the Newport Beach Hotel I drag a hand against the doorjamb, feel the smooth, sun-drained wood. The clerk is there for a change, sitting at her rust-pitted tan school desk. I smile but she stares through the gauze of bandages that are her thoughts, like a stunned victim in a burn ward. Her hand shakes an inch above the receipt book. I go upstairs.
Room 14 is empty. The smell of burning tires returns, strong, seems directly behind me. Nothing is behind me. Hector should be here but he’s not. Bust is gone. There’s a wallet on the floor. I pick it up. Inside is a ribbon of sand which hisses as it slips to the floor, also three dollars and a bank card. I stuff it in my purse and sprint out.
I don’t know what to do so I head for the lot back of Giant New York Pizza to check on the U-Haul. It’s too early to panic, they’ll turn up. Hector ran out of water. He didn’t run away with Bust.
A kid with half his hair shaved off bumps me and runs by. Another kid with the same haircut comes zooming past the telephone pole, screaming, “Get back here, fuck-er!” They seem to trail that same acrid, lonely, industrial odor.
The U-Haul is okay, still locked tight. One tire is partly flat. I make a mental note to visit Cables’ garage, home of the free air pump. They actually have a sign that says this.
Maybe they are at the showers? I go to the showers. A hundred feet past, by the Beech Deli, cop lights flash red then blue. I don’t habitually approach police. Especially male specimens. But that burning tire smell pings your nostrils like radar.
It’s a festival of blue, cops everywhere, pushing people away; expert, brusque. Through the shifting crowd you can see two still bodies on the sidewalk in front of the deli. The crowd parts to show more. One body has greasy hair, old corduroys, a beat-up pair of Adidas. He lays face-down, one arm up squashed under the head, the hand curled under. A gray metal thing glints in it. Hector.
Hector, what are you doing here? A gun? It’s blocks from the hotel. And the other body? You could see roller blades. Diesel.
What the fuck? Hector killed Diesel? Diesel killed Hector back? How? And where is… What did he do with…
You ever heard them say how when a mother’s child is threatened, she can do incredible things? They’ll tell you the story of the housewife who could barely pick up a chair and move it into the dining room for a guest that suddenly can bend lion cage bars to save her kid. I never believed that shit. Believe them if you want.
I felt a pulling in the stomach. But bars were not at risk of being bent, if you can understand. Maybe because, from the moment his tiny brown head emerged, I always expected to lose Buster. The stomach-pulling was fate foretold and doom come true, not bar-bending.
The Deli seemed a likely place to find out.
Inside the Beech Deli, two men stand behind the counter. My voice is shaking, I am shaking, but can’t show them. I need information.
“Hey, can you tell me what’s going on out there?”
He looks up. His eyes are yellow and red; his silver hair seems held up by magnetism or curved space. He looks at my hands: left, right, left, right. He cannot understand why they are empty.
The other springs forward, planting his hands firmly on the counter as if it will suddenly levitate if he doesn’t hold it down. One blue eye shudders in its socket the whole time he talks.
“They shot each other. I heard it. They was shouting, something about money, I heard the word `dollar.”’
The other butts in, “You can’t be sure. It could have been something else,” and I stand there, unable to do anything but listen to these two.
“It had to be `dollar.’ Then the black guy started screaming and then there’s a bang. Then two more. Bang, bang! First the thought comes that it’s firecrackers. Then you realize it’s a gun and I was scared we’d get robbed so I called the cops.”
“They came real quick too.”
“Yeah, they came real quick. The cop said it’s drug-related.”
“It was drug-related. That’s what it was. Drug related. The place is falling apart. Used to be a lot better place to live. Twenty years ago.”
“Nah, it was always a shithole.”
“We was robbed five times last year. So I called the cops. That black guy with the skates, I saw him around all the time. I always thought there was something funny about him but you couldn’t tell either way.”
I cut in,
“But did you see a little boy? A little mixed-race kid, about three years old?”
They go vacant, both of them, for a second. Red-and-yellow answers, thrusting out an accusatory finger.
“There was two guys laying dead on the ground right outside my store! Guns! You think I’m gonna notice a black kid?”
Suddenly he jerks the deadly finger up and points it at the back of the store, spit flying from his mouth.
“HEY!!! YOU GONNA BUY THAT?! PUT IT DOWN IF YOU’RE NOT GONNA BUY THAT!!”
In the back, the two kids replace one comic book each in the rack, then shrink away.
“Bastard kids. They come in and read the whole book. Then they go out and all the books is wrinkled, got greasy spots.”
I turn to leave. The other one stands, his face serious, lost in thought.
“You’re talking about a black kid, like this high? Kind of quiet and serious like?”
“You saw him!”
“Yeah. I saw a kid like that. He was standing right by the body. I thought it was strange at the time, him standing there. He didn’t cry and he didn’t look shocked or anything. He looked curious.”
“Did you see where he went?”
“Lady, Jesus! Relax. He was standing there when the cops came, then one of them told him to go home. He went toward the beach.”
On the way to the beach, next to the leather store, there’s a bank machine. Hector’s card pops into mind. With the number on the back. There’s nobody in line at the machine. It will only take a moment to check.
I walk up to the machine with the card already out and lined up with the slot. It catches in the slot with a rubbery feeling and slides in, the machine pulling. The whole action reminds me of something, and I shudder.
The machine says,
“Please enter your PIN.”
There’s a moment of panic because I realize the number is on the back of the card and I can’t see it. But then I spot a big red button marked CANCEL. The card comes back out. I look at the number. The card ritual is repeated.
“Please enter your PIN.”
I enter it and select ACCOUNT BALANCE. The machine goes blank for a second, then it displays.
“Account Balance: $ 4,273.55”
I have to look. Again. Things like this don’t happen. To me. They happen to other people.
Four thousand. First. And deposit.
You, don’t get all ethical and shit. Hector would have left it to me anyway. He said himself, there’s no other family he gives a shit about.
If only Buster were here. Not that he’d understand of course.
Then I remember the beach.
Buster plays in the sand with a kid’s pail and shovel. The kid, blonde-haired, future surfer expression on his face, grabs back the pail. Buster thrusts the shovel in the sand, picks up a big sticky wet scoopful, reaches over and carefully drops it into the pail.
The kid looks up in sudden wonder. Buster grins–a huge Buster grin, the kind I haven’t seen in about six months. The kid just stares, wonderment poisoning his good looks. My eyes unfocus. Behind the two boys, stretching for a thousand thousand miles, the ocean pounds, always there, drawing in the vestiges of lies, mistakes, days. It cannot forgive, remember; it never goes away.
Copyright © 1997 Bob Jude Ferrante
Exclusive to bobjudeferrante.com
Copyright © 2011 Bob Jude Ferrante