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Authors: Tom Matthews

Like We Care (9 page)

BOOK: Like We Care
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The pond that filled Hard Tar Road after every flood was always the gift, the temporary swimming hole that the children of Beckett could splash away in while their parents tended to the back-breaking business of shoveling water and sludge out of their cellars. They weren’t supposed to, but sometimes they jumped right off the 6th Street bridge into the gritty, torpid water below, ignoring the fact that, as the waters receded, the submerged surface of the flooded road drew nearer and nearer.

At dusk on the day after the flood, Jeffy Kind dove into the Hard Tar from the overpass, and there was Walter, tangled in something and swelled up dead from having sat at the bottom of the makeshift swimming hole for the last day and a half. Police sent to feel their way down to the bottom of the boggy pool and pull him loose had to give up until the waters went away. Whatever Walter had got himself snagged onto didn’t want to let him go.

Frank and his mother sat vigil by the side of the flooded road all night, traffic on the 6th Street bridge howling over their heads. It didn’t
have
to be Walter down there, both thought as they watched the water recede inch by inch. But most likely it was.

It was past noon the next day before authorities knew the water was low enough to retrieve Walter. All along Hard Tar, all along the overpass, people gathered to watch, until the police had sense enough to close off the area.

Lucille, too quiet to ever let on how close she was to losing her mind over the past couple days, recognized that this was not the place for Frank. They would return to the house. “Could someone please send word once the job is done?”

The water was soon only knee deep, and Walter’s swollen body met the air once again. Officer Jack Pouter, who had been known to watch out for Walter when life rose up time and again to send things spiraling, took it upon himself to get in close and set Walter free. What he found broke his heart. Made him mad. Haunted him forever.

Walter Kolak wasn’t stuck at all. Instead, he had been chained and padlocked to a sewer grate. As the flood began to batter the town and as the waters rushed down the Hard Tar, he had been alive, had fought for air as the deluge quickly rose above his head. Then, when he was dead, the rampaging river tore at his body, held in place by the heaviest gauge chain link available, the kind that Frank used to marvel at in Walter’s hardware store—the kind Walter used to tell his five-year-old son was the very same used to hold down King Kong.

In his breast pocket, in a plastic sandwich bag meticulously taped shut to keep its contents dry, was a note:

“I did it.”

This was not the work of an exceptionally sadistic killer wandering the land, nor an example of the sort of racial viciousness that still thrived in the South of the mid-sixties. Walter did this, by his own hand; he had needed to make that clear. Even in death, he didn’t want to cause anyone any trouble.

When word got to young Frank, however, the boy heard the same words form a different message. Years later, an adult Frank would explain away those words in a more benign light, but in that nightmarish instant in which the nine-year-old boy was told of the circumstances of his father’s death, when a freshly assaulted mind can hear truths that are too harsh to consider later on, Frank found an air of triumph in Walter’s note:

“I
did
it. I accomplished this! I am free.”

He pictured his old man settling in under the bridge, snapping shut the padlock, dropping the key down the sewer, and waiting patiently for his pain to be washed away—and hoping, this time, that things would work out.

When the rains came, and low roads took on water—these were the days Frank Kolak smoked. Driving to school that morning, he desperately wanted to stop at the Happy Snack for cigarettes, but he could never bear to wade through the knot of teenagers perpetually stationed in the parking lot. They smoked and drank and did God knows what else there, sullenly flagrant in their disregard for laws and consequences. For Frank to walk among them would require him either to condone their behavior, which he could not, or stop it, which he also could not. As he drove past, he looked longingly at the teenagers lighting up so freely. Hopefully, he could bum a smoke from someone in the teacher’s lounge. When the rain started and the students scattered, he would sneak out to the Happy Snack during his sixth hour free time and stock up.

Stand

T
he sign on the Happy Snack’s front door read “No More Than Two Students During School Hours.” At ten o’clock this morning, more than twenty students were inside. Daljit Singh couldn’t possibly monitor them all, and knew for a fact that inventory was being stolen all around him, while he basked in the glow of the market at work.

He had once seen the tightly-guarded formula with which the Happy Snack corporate office folded estimated theft losses into the skyrocketing mark-up of shelf prices, leading to record-high company earnings despite the fact that seemingly a third of its stock was being shop-lifted.

It was an artful exercise in supply-and-demand hijacking, the bean-counters at corporate gauging with fascination the point at which cash-flush consumers would balk at the high prices. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water, blissfully boiling to death as the temperature rises degree by subtle degree, the secret was to bone the customer a penny at a time.

They hadn’t caught on yet. Not even close.

Daljit Singh understood that the more that was stolen, the higher he could raise his prices. The more children he allowed in, the more inventory went out.

There went a pack of Oreos—over there, a bag of rubber bands. Could a six dollar hotdog (wholesale cost: 43 cents) be far behind? Daljit thought so, maybe in his lifetime. If he was not shot dead behind the register.

Not all kids stole, of course, because that would interfere with their spending. So they lined up five-deep at the counter, these moneyed young jackals who took for granted the privilege of education, which they rejected at the school down the street. This was what Daljit Singh hated about them most of all: that they should be offered so much of substance, only to throw it away in favor of squalor and frivolity.

The money changed hands skillfully, smooth, uncalloused white palms emerging from pockets and wallets laden with cash, to be deposited into the brown, needy palm of the humble storeowner.

Sometimes these children, aiming for a show of defiance and disdain in front of their friends, threw the money down onto the counter rather than into Daljit’s hand. He liked this fine—liked to see the cash spread out before him. To these hate-laden toughs, he always offered a timid bow and a slight tremor to the hand as he quickly, fearfully, made their change. He wanted them to know how inferior he felt to their American swagger. He knew they’d come back two or three times during the day to buy more, just for the chance to sneer at a foreigner.

Joel rocked on his feet, almost preferring to be in class than endure this wait.

Oh, the ways to make a dollar in this wondrous, wondrous land.

“The fuck’s the problem up there?” he grumbled.

Todd stood beside him with a one-liter bottle—a vat, really—of Coke. Somewhere in Todd’s brief lifespan, the twelve-ounce can had become a kiddie thing, like training wheels or a hand held crossing the street. Children begged quarters off their mommies to buy
cans
from a vending machine; teenagers demanded vastly more to satisfy their needs.

Now that he was seventeen, Todd just wanted
heft
for his dollar. Coke in a twelve-ounce can was just as sweet, its simple, classic red-and-white packaging just as seductive and fine. But look here:
feel
the weight of the one-liter bottle. Note how its bulk announces itself to your arm, your wrist.
This
is a purchase. Look through the clearness of the plastic (can you see through the can? No!): There’s
more
Coke in there. The red and white label? It’s
bigger
. There’s more bright color. Maybe the eye shouldn’t even see this much red; the optic nerve just might burst from such an intense rush of
red
. Red like a fire truck, like a bouncy ball. Red can be like a friend, sometimes.

If the only reason to choose less over more is money—and there’s always more money—why would anyone buy less? Even if all you really want is twelve ounces of Coke?

That’s what Todd thought. Empires depended on it.

Kurt Berger farted—a dry, spiky one. Berger beamed. His friends—no one Joel recognized and thus no one worth knowing—nodded appreciatively, like an earlier generation might have for the second act curtain of a Noel Coward play.

Joel, next in line and just wanting to get out of this goddamned store, was appalled.

“Berger, you suck.”

Todd smirked at Joel. “Hanging out with you is great.”

“Shut up.”

Berger finished his transaction and left; his gassy accomplishment did not. Daljit Singh sniffed the air and gave Joel the hairy eyeball.

“It wasn’t me! Just. . .” He trailed off bitterly, not feeling like an Eskimo at all.

Todd plopped his magnum of Coke on the counter. He handed the storekeeper a twenty, Daljit rang up the sale with a dead-eyed grimace, and Todd gave Joel a five from the change.

Joel took the money without a word of thanks and stepped to the counter, his pack of Marlboros already waiting for him. The cash register pealed.

“Four-twenty-two.” Daljit’s hand was outstretched, the exchange of cash merely a formality at this point.

Joel fumed: What fucking nerve, this guy knowing from memory what he smoked. He looked at the pack of cigarettes, the stark but familiar label stroking a pleasure node deep inside his subconscious. At this point, the purchase, the zipping off of the cellophane, the tightly-packed set of twenty, straight and white and ready—it all came automatically.

Joel’s throat was still raw from the drag he took in the parking lot. There was nothing wrong with that cigarette. He had just forgotten what it felt like.

Students were growing restless behind him. Daljit Singh repeated what was due him.

“Four-twenty-two.”

Joel set his spine.

“No. You know what? Forget it.”

Todd, still there, sensed something brewing. Joel stuffed the five back into Todd’s hand.

Daljit noted the merchandise on the counter, its conversion into currency forestalled.

“You buy something.” It wasn’t an order. It was a statement of fact, along the lines of “You. Bird. Fly.”

“No. I not buy something,” He turned to Todd. “Let’s go.”

Daljit looked to the line of cash-bearing customers who had gone unplucked while Joel wasted these precious moments. He hadn’t slept in 37 hours.

“You
buy
something!”

“Get bent.”

“You look!” Daljit barked, pointing to the sign near the front door. “‘No loitering’!!”

Joel bore down. “
You
look!” He pointed to a small placard next to the register, a laughable remnant of some long-forgotten legal settlement against the tobacco companies. The one in which they agreed to stop selling cigarettes to kids.

“I’m seventeen years old! You’re not supposed to be selling me this shit!” He jabbed at the pack of Marlboros, inadvertently causing it to slide across the counter and onto the floor.

BOOK: Like We Care
13.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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