Authors: Willy Vlautin
Tags: #Fiction, #General
I guess that time, the time I’m talking about, Earl had been watching me ’cause he came out of the office and walked over to me.
‘It’s all right, son,’ he said in a soft voice as he neared me. He was smoking a cigarette. He had sunglasses on, the kind that lighten in darkness and darken in light, and he wore a brown suit with white dress shoes.
‘You all right?’
‘What?’ I barely got out.
‘I said, are you all right?’ He was smiling. ‘You in there?’
I just looked at him. I was unable to speak. The tears were still running down my face.
‘First thing is, drop the sponge and fuck this car,’ he said. ‘Probably no use even washing it. We’ll probably never sell this
son of a bitch anyway. AMCs are worthless. For a time they were all right, but the later models, Jesus, they just went to hell. You hungry? It’s about that time, let’s go get a bite to eat.’
I dropped the sponge I had in a bucket. I wiped the tears from my eyes with my shirt. Barry was sitting in the front office watching TV when Earl told him we were going for some food.
‘Get me something too,’ Barry said.
‘What do you want?’ Earl said.
‘I don’t know, where you guys going?’
‘We’re gonna go eat the puss out of a dead hog’s ass,’ Earl said in his gruff voice and lit another cigarette.
‘Get me mine without ketchup,’ Barry said and laughed.
‘Will do’ was all old man Hurley said as we left.
He drove us in a 1994 Cadillac two-door Seville to a place called the Halfway Club on Fourth Street. An Italian place run by an old lady, a woman who’d run it for years and years. Maybe forty years. I can’t remember exactly if it’s that long, but it’s close.
Earl ordered me a Coke and himself a Long Island Ice Tea.
‘I’m sorry as hell about your mother,’ he said while we were looking at the menu. He was smoking a cigarette, and you could almost see the lenses on his glasses change in the dimly lit room. ‘When I lost my wife, I about lost my fucking mind, and, shit, you’re only, what, sixteen?’
‘I just turned fifteen,’ I said.
‘I hired you when you were fourteen?’
‘Yeah,’ I said.
He laughed and shook his head.
‘Did I ask you your age?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Did you tell me you were sixteen?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘I was too nervous to mention age at all.’
‘What the hell was I thinking?’ he said and shook his head again. ‘Anyway, that’s beside the point. How’s your living situation, is it okay? I want you to be honest, son.’
‘My brother and me are living at our old house.’
‘You rent or own?’
‘Rent,’ I said.
‘That’s a setback. Your brother, he’s what, eighteen?’
‘Seventeen,’ I said.
‘You got no other family?’
‘Not really, I don’t think so. We had a grandfather but he turned out to be a real son of a bitch,’ I said.
‘You got any money?’
‘My mom’s retirement fund. We have that and we both work. It’s enough, I think.’
‘What you guys eat?’
‘Frozen dinners, we eat at Jim Boys a lot. Burger King, places like that.’
‘You got to eat better than that. At least hit the buffets. Get a salad, some fruit and vegetables once in a while. Get some vitamins.’ He stopped, took a drink, then went into his billfold and took from it a twenty-dollar bill. ‘This here’s for a big bottle of vitamins. Get some sorta multi, make your brother take them too. If I find you pissed the twenty away on anything else, I’ll castrate you. Understand?’
‘Understand,’ I said and took the money. I folded it and put it in my pants pocket.
‘What do you two do at night?’
‘Watch TV mostly.’
‘Sitcoms, I guess. Whatever’s on.’
‘You got to quit that,’ he said. ‘TV’s for fucking morons.’
‘I know,’ I said.
‘I’ll try to lay off some.’
‘Good,’ Earl said. ‘How’s school? You still playing baseball?’
‘Yeah, I’m playing all right. I’m starting on second. They moved me up to varsity. Jerry Lee, my brother, just dropped out. Sometimes I think I might too. Doesn’t seem like there’s much there except sports, and I really don’t like them that much anymore.’
‘Don’t drop out,’ Earl said and took a long drink off the Long Island, nearly finishing it. ‘You won’t miss anything if you don’t quit. All you’ll do is wash more cars or get some other stupid fucking job. You’ll never see any girls around, none your age, and they won’t touch you ’cause you’re not in school and you have no money. Girls love baseball players. You keep playing and you’ll be set. What’s your brother do?’
‘Works for Connelly Concrete.’
‘See what I mean. That’s gotta be a horrible fucking job.’
‘I know,’ I said.
‘His back will be gone by the time he’s forty.’
I nodded my head.
‘It’s convict labor, son. You two ain’t convicts, so don’t start acting like it,’ he said and took the napkin off the table and wiped his brow. ‘Your brother still drawing?’
‘That’s all he does. Sketches things, makes comics, things like that.’
‘I liked that naked girl he drew standing in front of the lot. I had it framed and keep it at the house. How’d he get into that?’
‘I don’t know exactly. He started it more when our mom got sick. He’d just sit in front of the TV and draw. I think he’s taken some classes.’
‘Tell him he’ll get laid a lot more if he stays in school and hangs out with art girls. God knows there’s a lot of them beating around. See if that changes his mind at all.’
‘What were you thinking out there? I mean, when you were just standing there. I think I clocked you at ten minutes, maybe fifteen. I didn’t see you move once. Just standing there with the hose.’
‘I just started thinking about stuff. I’m not sure why it happens. I don’t know, guess I get scared, and sometimes I sorta black out because of it.’
‘I’d be scared too. If I were you I’d be shitting in my pants. It’s hard being alone.’
‘I’ll be all right.’
‘I hope so. There’s a good chance you might be,’ he said and looked for the old lady who ran the place. When she came around he ordered another drink and another Coke for me.
‘Seems like you’re a pretty tough kid. Look, here’s a piece of advice. I don’t know if it’s any good or not for you, you’re the only one who’ll know if it is. What you got to do is think about the life you want, think about it in your head. Make it a place where you want to be: a ranch, a beach house, a penthouse on the top of a sky
scraper. It doesn’t matter what it is, but a place that you can hide out in. When things get rough, go there. And if you find a place and it quits working, just change it. Change it depending on the situation, depending on your mood. Look at it this way, it’ll be like your good luck charm. Make up a place that’s good, that gives you strength, that no one can take away. Then when everybody’s on your ass, or you can’t stop thinking about your mom, you can go there.’
‘Okay,’ I said.
‘Does that make sense?’
‘I think so,’ I said. ‘Could it help my brother Jerry Lee?’
‘I don’t know. Tell him to try it. Or tell him about yours. I used to tell Barry stories all the time when his life was rough. Some of them were true, others I just made up, but they seemed to help him out. Gave him a place to escape to, gave him hope. Hope is the key. You can make shit up, there’s no law against that. Make up some place you and your brother can go if you want. It might not work, but it might. Ain’t too hard to try.’
‘Do you have a place you go?’
‘Sure,’ he said, ‘I go to it a couple times a day. Being an old man, I can’t sleep worth a shit anymore, sometimes late at night I’ll just lay there, and wonder what the fuck I’m going to do. I’m sleeping with nothing but a couple old dogs who steal the covers, I own a half-ass used car lot, and I can’t stop drinking. Sure, I got a place.’
‘The lot’s great,’ I said.
‘Shit, kid, it’s a waste of fucking time,’ he said.
‘You keep getting more cars,’ I said.
‘That’s not the point. I’m not the point,’ he said and smiled. ‘You’re the point.’
‘I’ll get a place,’ I said.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘I hope it helps. If you need anything, anything at all, just let me know. I’m not bullshitting about that either. Let me or Barry know. Barry’s a good one, he’s been through the wringer so he might be able to help you out more than me. I’m talking money and advice. If you get in any trouble, shit like that. It’s easy to get in trouble when you first get out on your own. Everyone does. You probably will, so just let me know. And try to stay in school. I’m serious. Life can fuck you hard. You got to be smart about the decisions you make. School’s easy, there’s girls, you can get free lunch there, you can probably get breakfast too, it’s more or less peaceful. Better than working for Connelly Concrete.’
‘I’ll try,’ I said.
‘Good,’ he said and smiled. ‘Now let’s eat. They got great ravioli and great pizza. The service is slow, the old lady keeps getting older, but she can still cook, and we don’t have any place we got to be either. Barry can fend for himself.’
‘All right,’ I said and smiled at him. ‘But we got to remember to get him something to eat.’
‘Good memory, son. After this,’ he said, ‘I’m thinking we’ll either go bowling or maybe go down to the Cal Neva and you can watch me gamble.’
That evening as I lay in bed I stared out the window into the black, starless sky. Jerry Lee was moving around in his bed, I could hear him, and I knew he wasn’t asleep either. It was past midnight when finally I called to him and told him what Earl Hurley had said that day.
‘Makes sense to me,’ Jerry Lee announced when I had finished.
‘Me too, I guess,’ I said.
‘I like Earl Hurley.’
‘He’s a good guy,’ I said. ‘We ate ravioli and steaks for lunch. He drank four Long Island Iced Teas, and then I spent three hours watching him play roulette at the Cal Neva.’
‘What’s in those again?’ Jerry Lee asked.
‘I don’t know, but they’re strong. I took a drink off one of his while he was in the can, and it almost made me puke.’
‘I like ravioli,’ he said. ‘It’s probably in my top five favorite meals. Shit, I wished I worked for him and not for the Connelly brothers.’
‘It’s a pretty good job,’ I said.
‘Seems like it. Anyway,’ Jerry Lee said, ‘what’s your place gonna be like?’
‘I don’t know yet,’ I said, still unsure of what Earl was really talking about.
‘I’m making a place where the Connelly brothers have to work for me. And I’ll beat the shit out of them every couple weeks, and I’ll get it on with their wives. I’ll fuck both their wives at the same time, while they’re busting their ass for me, up to their hips in wet concrete. “Hurry up, you lazy son of a bitches,” I’ll yell. Then I’d bury my head in one of the bosses’ wives’ tits.’
We both began laughing.
‘I don’t know where I’m going,’ I finally said, ‘but you’ll be there, and so will Mom.’
‘That’s a nice thought, Frank,’ Jerry Lee said. ‘If you come up with any good ones, let me know.’
‘I will,’ I said.
‘Now let’s go to bed,’ he said, ‘’cause, unlike you, I got to get up at five a.m. and get yelled at all day by the Connellys.’
‘Night,’ I said.
‘Night,’ he said and rolled over. I stared back out the window and tried to be still. In time I heard the slow rhythm of Jerry Lee’s breathing and I knew he was asleep. When I woke the next morning at seven he was already gone and his bed was made.
WHEN VISITING HOURS ENDED
I left the hospital and wandered around. I wasn’t tired, but I didn’t want to see anyone, and I didn’t want to go back to my room and sit there all alone. So I went downtown to the strip. The neon lights glowed in the cold, and I felt better just seeing them. Casinos always make me feel better, and I can’t really even explain why.’ Cause when you look at it, really look at it, mostly all they cause is misery.
I walked around for a long time, down Virginia Street then along Second Street and Center Street. I went in and out of Harrahs and the Fitz and the Eldorado and the Cal Neva. When my feet began to get cold I finally went back to my room. A maintenance man had come in and fixed the broken window. They didn’t believe me about the bird and said I was going to have to pay for the window and the labor. I said I would, but I knew I couldn’t, that I had less than sixty dollars to my name, and it
didn’t seem like I could get a job with the way I was feeling.
I turned the lights off and undressed as the small box heater glowed in the darkness. I turned my electric blanket on and got into my bed. From there I can stare out at Fourth Street. I can see if any people walk by, or just watch the cars passing in the night.
It was then as I lay there watching the street below that a horrible feeling came down over me. I felt that the room was going to catch fire and that I’d die in flames and smoke. That I might have a heart attack. That I might die before I hit a good stretch in my life. That Jerry Lee would die. The uncertainty of everything. Spinning and spinning round. It went on like that, even when the electric blanket had kicked in. It was all horrible, the thoughts in my mind were, and I can’t begin to tell you why they started or why they wouldn’t stop. I began getting the shakes, like I was a kid and somebody was yelling at me. I couldn’t control it and finally I had to make myself get up, get dressed, and leave the room.