Episode I. Little Dude
My third day in the halfway house Little Dude broke the stained-glass window. A former resident named Jonathan had installed it. Jonathanâ€™s story: drugs, rape charge, prison, parole, Jesus. A lot of guys tried Jesus after getting locked up. Not me. I busied myself with hobbies. That day it was sunbathing. I was shirtless, wearing shorts and shoes. My face reddened, but the sun refused to stick to my glue-colored chest. It wouldnâ€™t even burn.
I heard glass shatter close by. I threw on my shirt and ran to the front yard. A neighbor was absentmindedly hosing the sidewalk. When he saw me, he dropped the hose and waddled into his house.
I climbed onto our porch and studied the broken window. The wire frame held a few colorful shards and dove wings remained in the top-left corner, but the center, Jesusâ€™ face, was now a hole. Through it I saw Tubby, former carjacker and my most harmless roommate. He was sitting on the couch eating Cookie Crisp.
â€œHe broke it,â€ Tubby said. When I asked who, he spooned a dripping bite and worked his jaw around. â€œSome little dude,â€ he said. â€œThrew a cinder block. Broke a lamp, too.â€
I spotted Little Dude hiding in bushes down the block. We lived in a neighborhood of mega-houses inhabited by retirees and young families. Harris, senior resident of the house and a fellow addict, said the neighbors hated us junkies, drunks and thieves. â€œOne chick called me a plague,â€ Harris told me the day I moved in. As I sized up Little Dude â€” backwards Louisville beanie, pockmarks, skeletal addict build â€” I knew he didnâ€™t belong here.
Little Dude ran, but had a limping gait like a clown galloping a broom horse. I caught him easily.
â€œWhat do you want?â€ he asked.
â€œYou broke our window, idiot,â€ I said.
â€œI donâ€™t know nothing about no window.â€ He snapped the stomach of his shirt, showing his caved-in belly, and chuckled in defeat. â€œOkay. I broke it. But man, Juarez ripped my ass off.â€
Juarez, another housemate, was Mexican and claimed to be a killer, hence the Murder City nickname.
â€œHe put a gun to my head and took my last twenty bucks,â€ Little Dude said. â€œI needed that for my girlfriend. Sheâ€™s pregnant. Pregnant with twins.â€
â€œHe put a gun to your head?â€ I asked.
â€œYeah. I never seen it. I only felt it. Upside my head.â€
I nodded, pretending to empathize. â€œSo you break our window, you little prick.â€
â€œNow me and Juarez, weâ€™re even. He robs me and thatâ€™s what he gets.â€
I thought, But I did not rob you. Neither did the house â€” Tubby and Harris and Father Patrick. Now we have to board up the window. Weâ€™ll be a bigger ghetto stain on the neighborhood. Theyâ€™ll hate us more. Theyâ€™ll call the cops when weâ€™re doing nothing on the porch. Nothing.
I gave him an ultimatum: Make amends with Juarez or Iâ€™m calling the cops.
We walked to the laundry where Juarez worked. He said his name was Dâ€™Angelo and asked if I knew of any restaurants looking for waiters.
â€œBut not some cramped diner. I specialize in fine dining,â€ he said. â€œThese cramped diners? How am I supposed to carry a tray between tables piled on top of each other? I got this limp. See? I ainâ€™t ashamed. No way Iâ€™m tripping on some dudeâ€™s foot and spilling shit on everybody.â€
We cut through a park. Runners wearing skintight sci-fi gear dog paddled air. A man sped a remote control car around the softball diamond. There were a million ways to kill time. That was my problem. Free time led to trouble.
Dâ€™Angelo waited in Smithâ€™s, the bar next to the laundry, and I went to get Juarez. In the laundry a Hispanic woman sat beside the only washer in use. A newsman spoke on the muted television, his words riddled with typos on the closed captioning. Behind the register, Juarez lay on the floor playing Hot Wheels with a small boy. Both had on gray tank tops. They looked like brothers.
â€œI need you a second,â€ I said.
Juarez crashed a truck into his stomach. â€œIâ€™m working,â€ he said.
â€œThis place is dead. I just need you a second. Come on, man. Iâ€™ll buy you a beer.â€
Juarez made the woman and her son wait on the sidewalk. The woman watched her washer through the window. In Smithâ€™s, an early Schwarzenegger movie played on the mounted TV. An Americanâ€™s voice was dubbed over his.
The bartender was holding a Milwaukeeâ€™s Best over Dâ€™Angeloâ€™s head.
â€œHe wonâ€™t give it to me,â€ Dâ€™Angelo said.
â€œMoney?â€ the bartender asked me.
I paid with pocket change. The bartender doled out the beers and then hid behind a newspaper. No alcohol for me. The sponsor of the halfway house, Father Patrick, expected me to stay sober. He expected the same of Juarez, but that didnâ€™t stop him. He took a sip and then taunted Dâ€™Angelo.
â€œYou gonna run?â€ Juarez said. â€œThen get on out you little punk. Punk-assed bitch.â€
â€œWeâ€™re behaving,â€ I said.
Silent minutes passed. Juarez rotated his beer on the bar and took intermittent sips. Dâ€™Angelo thumbed the tab of his empty can.
â€œBuy me another.â€
â€œGet your own,â€ I said.
â€œJuarez stole my money.â€
â€œBullshit,â€ Juarez said. Then he ordered two Miller High Lifes. He told the bartender, â€œGive one to that whiny bitch.â€
â€œI donâ€™t want nothing from you,â€ Dâ€™Angelo said.
â€œItâ€™s alcohol, drunk. Of course you want it.â€
In minutes their shit talking turned jovial. They talked business: houses to rob, people to scam, mailboxes with social security checks to steal.
â€œYour â€™hood is where we should hit,â€ Dâ€™Angelo said.
â€œDonâ€™t think I ainâ€™t on that,â€ Juarez said.
â€œAll those old widows. We run the security company scam. In and out with all kinds of rings and shit.â€
Now they were robbing our neighborhood. I was too pussy to tell them not to. I got up to leave.
â€œWhere you going?â€ Juarez asked. â€œSit back down. Shit. Father Patty better not hear about my drinking. Like you donâ€™t drink. Youâ€™re just too good to drink with a spic.â€
The woman was still at the laundryâ€™s window. The boy was scribbling crayons on the sidewalk.
When I got home Harris was sweeping the front porch. He bitched to me about judges whoâ€™d screwed him, about slob roommates who smoked in the house and burned the couch, about girls who drove him crazy, most of them neighbor girls, daughters of men who cursed our house, men whose bitter smiles translated to Whyâ€™d they have to put them here, on my street, so itâ€™s my property value that tanks.
â€œItâ€™s a black judge I donâ€™t want,â€ Harris said. He held the broom behind his shoulders, muscles taut, never mind the gut. â€œI drop to my knees like, â€˜Lord, please not a black judge.â€™ Since the lady I jacked was black, know what Iâ€™m saying?â€
I went inside.
â€œWindow got broke, dude,â€ he said as I closed the door.
I wanted to be alone. Father Patrick was reading on the couch. I snuck past him and went out back. Tubby was grilling a mound of hamburger. Pink on top and burned on bottom, the burger looked like a scalped chocolate cream. Tubby pried it with a spatula.
â€œIt breaks when I try and flip it,â€ Tubby said.
â€œJust cut it in half,â€ I said.
â€œBut I only got the one bun. You want part, though? I could cut you a sliver.â€
Tubby forgot I was vegetarian. His lack of interest in me made his burger offer bittersweet, like a smile from a stranger who mistook me for someone else.
â€œJuarez ruined my appetite,â€ I said.
â€œHeâ€™s all bark,â€ Tubby said.
â€œI thought we were just petty hacks in here. But heâ€™s like, man, I donâ€™t wanna know.â€
â€œI heard he threatened to shoot a guy over twenty bucks.â€
â€œHis first week in Group he told Father Patty he sliced his daddyâ€™s neck open.â€
â€œOver pills Daddy stole from Juarezâ€™s coat. But that hopheadâ€™s not sure what happened. I wager on nothing happened.â€
â€œI heard he has a gun,â€ I said.
â€œSon of a bitch,â€ Tubby said. Half the burger had fallen in the fire.
At night they roamed the house. Any time their minds could break. When the floorboards creaked, I gripped the bat I slept with and prayed they didnâ€™t smash open the door.
They were keeping us here until we were better.
Episode II. Neighbor Girl
Neighbor Girl was my entertainment. She lived across the street, and I spied on her out my bedroom window. She smoked, talked on the phone, argued with boys in cars. I identified with those crying boys. In high school I fell for the gorgeous ones too, and they broke my heart. And Neighbor Girl was gorgeous. Thatâ€™s why I watched.
She was napping on the porch swing the day I saved her life. Her dad, grilling steaks, woke her and asked if sheâ€™d watch the grill a second.
â€œYou watch it,â€ she snapped.
â€œIâ€™m checking the potatoes. Can you just make sure the steaks donâ€™t burn please?â€
He went inside and she slunk to the grill, lit a cigarette, muttered. I rested my head on the windowsill and imagined owning a car and Neighbor Girl in the passenger seat ripping my heart out. Blood sprayed the windshield and filled the car and drowned me.
Her fingers pinching the cigarette, she picked up the lighter fluid and untwisted the cap. Dangerous scenario. In my mind the cigarette ignited the fluid and a fireball engulfed her.
â€œYou looking to blow up?â€
She flinched. When she found my face in the window, I realized Iâ€™d spoken. She set the lighter fluid down slowly, as if Iâ€™d told her to drop a gun, and waved with her fingers like a shy, curious kid. My face turned red. I closed the window and blinds and got in bed.
Next day I walked to the recycling plant. Normally I bummed rides from Harris, but heâ€™d been earning decent money working on his brotherâ€™s landscaping crew and had no reason to collect cans. I carried four bags four miles and then walked home â€” for less than sixteen bucks.
I was a mile from home when Neighbor Girl pulled up beside me in her green Ford Focus. â€œHey,â€ she said. She rested her head on the open window and gave herself a pinky mustache. â€œYou live across the street.â€
It felt like a beer commercial â€” hot chick picks up hitchhiker to party.
â€œYou need a ride? I mean, weâ€™re headed the same place anyway,â€ she said.
Her car smelled like cigarettes and rattled as she accelerated. Girly blues-pop on the speakers. I fiddled with the empty bags strung through my belt loops. She kind of watched the road. I thought, Sheâ€™s cute, a free spirit, sheâ€™ll grow up to be an accountant.
â€œSo what are you guys?â€ she asked.
â€œWhoâ€™s you guys?â€
â€œDad says youâ€™re convicts. And thatâ€™s cool. I mean, prisonâ€™s cool.â€
â€œI was never in prison.â€
â€œBut itâ€™s a halfway house. God. Dad would kill you if he saw us together.â€
â€œProbation. I just got probation.â€
We passed the shutdown Six Flags. A wooden rollercoaster lined the road.
â€œDo you have anywhere to be?â€ she asked.
She pulled off at a service entrance, parked by a locked gate, and jumped out of the car. The tilt-a-whirl hung over the fence. She dragged a rug out from behind a large green generator and draped it on the barbed wire.
â€œThis is our spot. My ex-boyfriend and me, we snuck into the park and wandered around.â€
I followed her over the fence. The park was a ghost town of gravel and trash. The bumper cars were chained together. A blanket covered a porta-potty thatâ€™d been tipped over. She described childhood memories of the park. Iâ€™d fend her off if she tried to kiss me, but I wished someone would see us together.
â€œSo you have a bunch of DUIs?â€ she asked.
â€œI never said that.â€
She pouted and paced to the shuttered Golden Rings game booth. A bottle of piss was on the counter. Broken glass everywhere.
â€œWin me a teddy bear,â€ she said, miming like she was holding a ring.
â€œI need to get home.â€
â€œOh, come on. You got caught shoplifting, right?â€
â€œNever said that, either.â€
â€œWell what crime doesnâ€™t mean prison time?â€
Oh, the crimes I could commit. Breaking into the park: Crime. Being alone with an underage girl: Maybe a crime. I followed her to the Ferris wheel. She quickly wound through the turnstile smiling, showing off, and sat in the lowest car.
â€œSit with me.â€
â€œI wish we could get it running. Think you can operate the controls? I want to sit in one of the way high cars. The top one. Way, up, there.â€
â€œWeâ€™d have to climb to get up there.â€
â€œItâ€™d be romantic.â€
â€œYou saw how I struggled with the fence.â€
She smiled like, Yeah, you sucked climbing the fence. We held eye contact for three seconds â€” I counted â€” and then I looked away. The concrete was crumbling. Grass and weeds grew in cracks.
â€œYou can buy me beer, right?â€ she asked.
She dropped me off a few blocks from the house. She watched me in the rearview. I ignored her â€” pretended to tie my shoe as she drove away.
Tubby and his buddy Roberto were walking in the street. Tubby was holding a wad of sandwich crust, but otherwise they were empty-handed. A surprise, since most afternoons they collected scrap metal to sell at the junkyard.
Roberto cackled. â€œHell no. You and her?â€ he said. I denied his high five. He slapped me in the chest and hugged me. â€œYou be hitting that? Hell no. No way youâ€™re with her.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s her?â€ Tubby asked.
â€œI got next,â€ Roberto said, stroking his chinstrap beard. â€œGoddamn. Iâ€™d give anything to hit that.â€
â€œWho you talking about?â€ Tubby asked.
â€œNeighbor Girl. Tan girl that lives across the street from yâ€™all? The one with the big ass?â€
â€œThat tall little girl?â€ Tubby said, shoulders covered with dandruff, lips chapped, chewing crust. â€œShe ainâ€™t that hot.â€
That night I went for a walk. Neighbor Girl followed. I ignored her footsteps, her whistling, her look at me! throat clearings. I walked as fast as I could. She couldnâ€™t keep up.
When I got home Father Patrick was at a front window. The lights were off. I hurried past him.
â€œForgetting something?â€ he said and nodded outside. Neighbor Girl slumped down the sidewalk.
â€œSheâ€™s not with me,â€ I said.
â€œDoes she know that?â€
â€œWeâ€™re not together.â€
He crossed his arms. â€œBut pretend you are. You take a girl on a date. You drop her off. It didnâ€™t go well enough to walk her to the door, but do you drive off the second sheâ€™s out of the car?
â€œNo,â€ I said. I took his place at the window and made sure she got inside safe.
Episode III. Guys Like Us
Tubby pounded on my door. â€œI need you come on please buddy Jesus Christ,â€ he moaned. I wrapped my pillow around my ears and shut my eyes. He rammed the door, knocking down my chair-lock. Unlike my other housemates, Tubby didnâ€™t scare me. I liked him. Even so, I readied my bat to smash his skull.
â€œThey killed him,â€ he said, backlit by the eternal hall light. â€œLittle kid as he was and they killed him?â€
By â€œlittle kidâ€ he meant Roberto. The name Roberto, like the kidâ€™s decision to live the scum life, was crafted rebellion. At any time he couldâ€™ve returned to being Bobby and having his parents pay his tuition.
I didnâ€™t believe Roberto was dead, but Tubby seemed antsy. He bounced on the balls of his feet and repeatedly said â€œcome onâ€ while twirling his fingers to say hurry up.
I slept in jeans and shoes, an old habit from my couch crashing days. I told Tubby to calm down and put on a sweatshirt.
â€œAre you sure heâ€™s dead?â€
â€œThatâ€™s why I come to get you.â€
â€œItâ€™s five a.m., dude.â€
â€œCome on and Iâ€™ll show you heâ€™s dead.â€
â€œNo man. Heâ€™s in the shed heâ€™s living in. We was supposed to make a recycling run. And I found him just like dead.â€
In the kitchen, Juarez was eating a thin pool of meat. I slept with my bat because of him. At worst, my other housemates wouldâ€™ve robbed me, but Juarez was a rabid dog. Everyone, including Father Patrick, said I shouldnâ€™t worry about the cutthroat, but they were crazy. I was always nice to Juarez.
â€œSmellâ€™s good,â€ I lied.
Juarez pushed back the plate. â€œIf you donâ€™t want me eating it then fuck you,â€ he whispered, careful to not wake Father Patrick in the next room.
Tubby and I headed downtown. The gold morning sky matched Tubbyâ€™s electric jitter. He seemed more excited than upset by Robertoâ€™s death. I figured no one had killed Roberto, that Tubby was leading me to a dark place where heâ€™d rob me.
â€œYouâ€™re sure heâ€™s dead,â€ I said.
â€œOh yeah. They killed him.â€
â€œWhoâ€™s this â€˜theyâ€™?â€
â€œThey is they. You for real got to ask who they is?â€
The storage park: dozens of long red sheds in neat rows. The guard, sitting in the booth, tipped down his magazine, yawned and pretended Tubby and I didnâ€™t exist.
We followed the fence to the back of the park. The streetlight overhead had been smashed. Tubby peeled back the fence.
â€œCrawl in,â€ he said.
I looked at the security booth, now a block away. I was on probation. If the guard caught us, I was guaranteed jail time.
â€œWhat are you waiting for?â€ Tubby asked.
â€œFine,â€ I said and crawled through.
Tubby followed red footprints to a shed and lifted the door. My eyes fell on lumber, furniture, stacks of magazines, junk, and Roberto, legs straight and body slightly leaning, hand resting on his red gut. He appeared to be down with the flu. He didnâ€™t smell bad.
â€œDonâ€™t step in the blood,â€ I said.
â€œSee. They killed him.â€
â€œAnd robbed him.â€ I pointed at Robertoâ€™s turned-out pockets. Tubby throbbed on his heels. I realized the cause of his jitters. Heâ€™d robbed Robertoâ€™s corpse. The footprints matched Tubbyâ€™s high tops. But I didnâ€™t think heâ€™d killed Roberto. He just found him and then robbed him.
I used a couch cushion to wipe away the footprints. The blood chipped up crusty at first and then smeared dark red.
â€œI just found him like this,â€ Tubby said. â€œBad luck, man.â€
â€œYou know who shot him?â€
â€œBad luck. Thatâ€™s all I know.â€
I sealed the shed behind us and then we headed downtown. After a block, Tubby stopped.
â€œThe house is the other way.â€
â€œWe canâ€™t call from there.â€
â€œThe cops. You want to leave him like that? Stored until they rent the shed in 2015?â€
â€œWe might call an ambulance, too.â€
I stared at him.
â€œRight,â€ he said. â€œProbably no need.â€
In the hospital district, we shuffled past nurses and doctors and zombie families visiting (I imagined) bald children and then trendy restaurants and revitalized buildings. Businessmen sidestepped us like we were litter. I felt repulsive and pitied the poor lumps on bus benches who were on their own, responsible for themselves and therefore worse off than me.
â€œWe passed a good six phones already,â€ Tubby said. He was like a kid being dragged to church, lured by every direction except his destination.
â€œFarther. I want a phone no way they tie to us.â€
â€œWhy you scared â€™bout what they gonna do?â€ he said.
I watched columns of exhaust from high rise roofs and distant smoke stacks. The white columns contrasted with the purple sky, a mesmerizing effect that distracted me from Tubbyâ€™s escape. I found him in a corner store salivating at a beer fridge.
â€œIâ€™m thirsty,â€ he said and bought an RC Cola with a blood-stained dollar.
We soon reached slums where old men drank bagged beer on stoops. I found a payphone outside a bar. Inside, third shift workers drank breakfast. The breeze made the aluminum Miller High Life sign tap against the wall. The promo sign on the sidewalk said â€œDerby Comin Up.â€
â€œBut not that place,â€ Tubby said. â€œNow I canâ€™t go in that place.â€
â€œWe arenâ€™t going in. Iâ€™m just using the phone.â€
â€œThey told me donâ€™t come back. I wasnâ€™t always upstanding like I am now.â€ He crushed the RC can with his foot and pocketed the slug. â€œI used to be a real cuss.â€
Two men wearing coveralls spilled out of the bar. Tubby backed away from their choking laughter.
I picked up the phone and dialed 9-1-1.
â€œDead body,â€ I told the 9-1-1 lady. She was silent for a millisecond. I considered confessing to the murder. I didnâ€™t kill Roberto, but it was hard to stay out of trouble. Always tempted. Someday soon Iâ€™d cave. Why not confess and get my sentencing over with right now?
â€œWhere are you, sir?â€ the 9-1-1 lady said.
â€œDead body,â€ I repeated. â€œStorage shed, corner of Logan and Breckenridge. Follow the red footprints.â€
I hung up. Tubby was already walking home. As I stepped off the curb, a kid on a bike sped into my path. I dodged and turned my ankle in the gutter.
â€œGravy leg,â€ the kid said. The laughing men hugged each other. I hobbled after Tubby.
â€œI ainâ€™t allowed â€™round here,â€ he said.
â€œSlow down,â€ I pleaded.
â€œGuys like us,â€ he said, walking backward and looking me in the chest. His grin was missing teeth. â€œGuys like us.â€
He ditched me. He had a pocketful of money and was worried heâ€™d spend it on something bad, so he ran home. I understood. The house was filled with weak men, constant reminders of wrongdoing. In their company he could behave. I felt the same way.
â€œWait,â€ I begged.
â€œGuys like us,â€ he said. Yeah, guys like us.
Episode IV. Followers
I was smoking in the cellar stairwell, one of the houseâ€™s few places to be alone. Humid. Birds overhead sounded angry. They scattered from trees when Harris chuckled through the yard. When I heard his smokerâ€™s laugh, I hoped he wouldnâ€™t see me. No luck. He doubled over at the top of the steps and called out to me.
â€œI saw, I saw him, I saw the bastard again,â€ he cackled.
I stared up at him, no clue who â€œhimâ€ was.
â€œI told you about him? Old Crusty? Snake tattoo on his face? Ah man. Hang out on the front porch and youâ€™ll see him.â€
â€œOkay,â€ I said.
â€œEvery day he walks by. I canâ€™t believe you ainâ€™t seen Old Crusty Face Tattoo.â€
I didnâ€™t see Old Crusty Face Tattoo until a few weeks later. Iâ€™d just come home from my recycling route. I always started my route by eight a.m. â€” late enough for most bins to be on the curb, but early enough to beat other scroungers to the cans. The porch was empty, a rarity, so I sat on the milk crate and smoked.
The lady from next door hurried to her car. She hugged her purse, gave me a timid glance. Like most neighbors, she thought I was a halfway house monster â€” thief, cutthroat, rapist.
As she drove away, Old Crusty Face Tattoo walked by. The tattoo glowed on his pink face. He was carrying a plastic bag. His legs worked arthritically, knees bent but not bending. He got a tickle in his nose and stopped.
â€œThat you smoking?â€ he asked.
I waved the cigarette.
â€œTheyâ€™re trying to pass that new tax. Did you hear that?â€
â€œAre they?â€ I said.
â€œWell thatâ€™s what I heard. Okay.â€
He walked on. Then my mom walked by. She was thin, had a ponytail the color of dishwater, and wore cutoff shorts. I last saw her twenty-six years ago, when she dumped me at Grandpaâ€™s and then disappeared. Through some kindred connection I mentally age progressed photos of her. Then it was boom, no doubt, my mom passing on the sidewalk.
I cried the entire day she left me. I knew she was leaving forever. This memory exists, but I mustâ€™ve constructed it. I was a two-year-old blob at the time, thereâ€™s no way I could remember the day she left. Seeing her conjured the junky ache I used to feel when I was too broke to buy dope and wound up licking residue from my pockets and old baggies.
I watched her pass. Then I went to my room, counted the cans and multiplied the total by five cents. Less than four bucks. Lucky to be broke. Couldnâ€™t cop. If not broke, wouldâ€™ve broken.
I waited for Old Crusty every morning. Some mornings I had to put up with Harris, who was shirtless and milling around with a broom or mulch. Old Crusty would say hello and Iâ€™d wave my cigarette and Harris would sarcastically say Greetings! and then belt out Irish folk songs to impress Mom, who followed a hundred feet behind Old Crusty and never acknowledged Harris and never looked up from the sidewalk.
â€œThe old bitch is a snob, but Iâ€™d hit it,â€ Harris told me, watching her. â€œBe wreckage on that body, but her hips got some tread left.â€
Harris called her Old Crustyâ€™s caretaker, but she never bothered him and seemed to conceal her presence. I thought she was stalking him. This nagged at me. Because: Why? I came up with a litany of reasons, all too stupid to mention.
I followed them one time. I was about to work a job for Harrisâ€™s brother. He gave landscaping jobs to guys in the house when one of his regulars called in sick or drunk or disappeared. As I settled my ass in the back of the truck, Old Crusty walked by. Mom hadnâ€™t yet rounded the corner. On impulse I jumped out and fell in line behind Old Crusty.
Harris called after me: â€œSo youâ€™re bailing?â€
Old Crusty didnâ€™t see me. Fifty feet behind him, I matched his slow pace. I could feel Momâ€™s presence. I wondered if she recognized the back of my head from when I was a fatheaded toddler.
It was difficult to stay evenly between them. When we reached the corner, where there was a row of shotgun houses turned antique shops, Old Crusty stopped to study a pile of dog shit. â€œPeople canâ€™t pick up after their mutts. You got one of those little bags?â€
â€œNo.â€ I held up my cigarette. â€œStill the same price as before.â€
â€œThat tax? Do you know when that starts?â€
The snake wrapped around his wrinkled eyes in the shape of infinity. Iâ€™d heard Harris and Juarez on the porch debating how he got the tattoo.
Lost a bet.
Got while drunk.
But the reason didnâ€™t matter. It was just a mistake heâ€™d made as a kid, and being a kid he didnâ€™t know itâ€™d last forever. It pulsed on his face as he considered my question.
â€œTax?â€ He searched the sky, hoping itâ€™d clue him in to what the hell I was talking about.
â€œNever mind.â€ I rounded the corner and hid behind a white pickup parked on the curb. Old Crusty headed the opposite direction. Then mom appeared. She held her arms against her chest as if staying warm. She watched her feet. She never saw me.
I followed them to a strip of matching duplexes. The building Old Crusty lived in was nicer than the rest â€” smooth white paint and no weeds or trash in the yard. He went inside and then mom climbed the same porch and entered the neighboring apartment.
Her living room window faced the alley. An inch rise in the blinds gave me a view of the back of her head. I was close enough to yank her ear. She turned on the TV. I heard a laugh track.
I spied on her for only a minute. She watched TV. Iâ€™m sure much had happened during her twenty-six-year absence. She didnâ€™t abandon me to watch television in peace, I told myself.
The television turned commanding. Vivid color shot through her hair. She leaned forward, interested â€” reinvigorated. It was a commercial for pine-scent floor cleaner. I didnâ€™t interrupt her. I was in recovery, getting better. I could have said hi, hello, told her my name. But what if she rejected me? That wouldâ€™ve derailed me. Besides, she wanted to be alone. I felt the same. I went home.
Father Patrick and Juarez were on the porch. Juarez behaved around Father Patrick. No Fuck you. No Suck my dick pasty-ass bitch. He told me Sâ€™up and gave a weak grin.
â€œJust in time,â€ Father Patrick said. â€œWe were bitching about this place.â€
â€œNeutered me,â€ Juarez said.
Father Patrick cracked up. â€œHear that?â€
â€œI donâ€™t get it,â€ I said.
â€œTell him what you told me.â€
â€œThis place, man,â€ Juarez said. â€œIt neutered me.â€
Juarezâ€™s weak grin reminded me of my racist grandpa, who spent his last days in a nursing home grimacing in sleep. My aunt and cousin sat at grandpaâ€™s side and listened for his breathing to stop as if waiting for the washer to buzz. I visited him the day he died. He opened his eyes, saw me, and forced a grin just like Juarezâ€™s. I wondered how people died before nursing homes.
â€œNeutered him,â€ Father Patrick said.
â€œI know what you mean,â€ I said. I wanted to be alone, but I sat on the steps.
Episode V. Group
Father Patrick loved Group. Every Saturday night he herded us â€” Harris, Juarez, Tubby and me â€” to the basement. Butt on the edge of his seat, he grinned at whoever was sharing. We behaved for him and bragged of â€œtriumphs:â€ avoiding fights, signing up for a library card, buying (but not necessarily mailing) a birthday card for an asshole father. Even Juarez, resident psycho, humored Father Patrick in Group.
Juarez: They refused to serve me.
Father Patrick: How did you that make you feel?
Juarez: Small. Like I donâ€™t like this I think.
I kept shares brief: optimistic tidbits about my job search, thanks for my supportive roommates, an update on how many days itâ€™d been sinceâ€¦
First Saturday of October, Father Patrick announced at Group that Harris would soon be free â€” he was checking out next week. Harris leaned back his chair and soaked up the applause, smirked at Juarez and then fist-bumped Father Patrick, who seemed disappointed that Harris was going free. Made sense â€” though prone to rage, Harris was nearly an "average Joe."Â He and Father Harris often stayed up nights bullshitting about sports, movies, etc. With him leaving, Father Patrick was stuck with crazy Juarez, Tubby the klepto, and me, whatever I was.
After the meeting Father Patrick pulled me aside. We called him Father, but heâ€™d rejected the priesthood years ago. He wore tight polo shirts and jeans instead of a black suit and white collar. He was gay. To show my approval I never flinched when he held my wrist as he spoke, one of his odd traits.
â€œWe need a cake. For Billâ€™s last day,â€ Father Patrick said, Bill being Harrisâ€™s first name. He handed me a five-dollar bill. â€œGo to Kroger. They have the sale cakes when you walk in the door.â€
The five-dollar bill was a test. Have you healed? Can you spend this on cake instead of alcohol and drugs? Anticlimactic answer: Yes. I earned money recycling cans and working landscaping jobs and spent it on movies, used books and junk food â€” not junk. The fact that he was testing me made me want to fail. Maybe that was part of the test.
I walked to the Kroger in Germantown. Our house was in the upper-class Highlands, but I felt more at home on Germantownâ€™s cramped streets, among screaming children and smoking parents. I passed three open garages where hermits sat on recliners watching TV. I identified with these hermits. Iâ€™d lived in the house five months and I barely knew my roommates. I was buying cake for a stranger.
A portly guard was smoking outside a liquor store. The columns of bottles behind the window were no more enticing than corduroy. I donâ€™t need you, I told them. Pride wasnâ€™t the feeling. The feeling was fine.
It neutered me.
â€œHow ya doing,â€ the guard said. I echoed his greeting and continued my errand.
Harrisâ€™s PO came to the celebration. He was a beatnik, ex-army, buttoned his black blouse to the chin. He read a speech and occasionally looked up to approve of what heâ€™d said.
â€œBill plans to work on his brotherâ€™s landscaping crew. Isnâ€™t that something? His goalâ€™s to get enough business to start a second unit. Hey. Thatâ€™s nice.â€
â€œIâ€™m getting a team of badass Mexicans together,â€ Harris said. â€œNo offense, Juarez. But for real, youâ€™re more than welcome to slave for me.â€
â€œIâ€™m Colombian, man,â€ Juarez deadpanned.
â€œAnd look here,â€ the PO continued, snapping the paper. â€œHe plans to coach little league softball.â€
â€œBaseball,â€ Harris said.
â€œBillâ€™s a great guy to celebrate,â€ Father Patrick said. He flashed me a signal. â€œIsnâ€™t he, BJ.â€
â€œYep,â€ I said. â€œOh. The dessert.â€
I ran upstairs and tore the cellophane off the sheet of cinnamon rolls and stacked them in a pyramid. Then I remembered: A cake needs a candle. Of course I didnâ€™t have one, so I improvised â€” lit a cigarette and stuck it on top.
â€œNo smoking in the house,â€ Father Patrick said as I came downstairs.
â€œItâ€™s the only candle I could find,â€ I said. Then I realized you put candles on birthday cakes, not get-out-of-halfway house cakes. Harris didnâ€™t mind. He plucked the cigarette and put it in his mouth.
â€œLast day, boss,â€ he said. â€œSmoke down here?â€
Father Patrick herded us to the porch. There we were, among the fancy cars, autumn leaves and giant houses â€” happy losers smoking. Harris in the middle. I felt for him. Downgrade to slums. Forever struggle starts now. Goner.
When the time came Iâ€™d be gone, too.
Brandon Bell's stories have been published or are forthcoming in Tulane Review, Whiskey Island Magazine, Matter Journal, Juked, and Barely South Review. HeÂ lives in Louisville, Kentucky.