Copyright © by Driver
Tim called his mother to see if he could spend the night at Ken's, but she wanted him home. He hadn't been back since the weekend. We walked around the back of the house to say goodnight. I didn't want him to go and he didn't want to leave, but we didn't have any choice. We kissed and rubbed cheeks for a while, but mostly just held on to each other. This was a new kind of comfort for me, and it was hard to let go. We finally walked back to his car, hand in hand and kissed one more time before he drove off.
With my suitcase! I went running down the driveway screaming, but he didn't hear me. I walked back up to the house and saw Ken.
"What was that all about?"
"He has my suitcase and all my stuff in the trunk."
"Let's go! Did you bring my guitar back?"
"Yeah, it's there, too. I can't believe I forgot everything."
"Love bites sometimes."
I was tempted to say Tim didn't, but I kept my mouth shut. Tim was just getting his stuff out of the car when we pulled in behind him. He looked at us and gave an appropriate dumb grin. He had 'oops' all over his face. I got out and grabbed my stuff, then kissed him again right in the glare of the headlights. Ken honked the horn, and I'm sure we looked like two deer with our surprise. We said goodbye again and I jumped back into the truck.
I slept in Ken's kids' room that night. I tossed and turned for a while, then I thought about Tim, about being in love. I'm pretty sure I fell asleep smiling.
I woke up to Ken banging on the door. I did my stint in the bathroom, got dressed and went downstairs. Ken was on the phone in the kitchen and frying some bacon. He hung up while I was pouring myself a coffee.
"I think we're all set, kiddo. I got some other clothes I want you to wear. They ain't gonna fit ya, but that's probably good. You finish cooking and I'll get them. I want scrambled, okay?"
I busied myself with breakfast for a while, trying to think how to make myself happy. Hell, cooking breakfast was one thing that I was always happy to do. I was almost done when Ken came back in. He had a ball of clothes in one hand and a baseball bat, glove and ball in the other. He dropped everything on the floor.
"About ten more seconds. What's all that stuff for?"
I started putting our food on plates. "You gotta look the part. You're gonna meet Artie at the little league park. If you go like you are, you'll look outta place. Bring a ball and glove and you'll fit right in. Don't get all nervous. Let's just eat, okay?"
We ate. Ken complimented my eggs as usual. Then he gave me the clothes. It was a pair of dark green pants, a dark green t-shirt and a dark green baseball cap. They were all Ken's clothes, and they were pretty huge on me, especially the pants. I just pulled them up as far as I could and left the shirt hanging out. Ken kneeled down and rolled the pant cuffs up. I adjusted the cap until it fit, then he gave me a pair of sunglasses. He went with me into the bathroom to look. I thought the head looked okay with the hat and glasses, but everything else was so baggy it made me laugh. Ken thought it was perfect.
"It's you but it ain't, Dave. This guy's never gonna know what hit him. You ready? It's almost time."
"He doesn't know where to go!"
"Call him from there. I almost forgot. Here's some dimes. Grab the ball and glove and let's go. Bring the bat, too." He handed me a scrap of paper. "His number's on here. Let's rock!"
Ken headed out the door and I followed him. The pants were so baggy they were hard to walk in. I tagged behind a little until I saw that Ken was going to drive a car this time. We got in and drove the short distance to the little league park, driving right past Artie's house on the way. I noticed that the addition was finished and there was a picket fence along the road. The place was well kept and looked great.
Ken dropped me off by the field house. It was right next to the road. The playing fields were empty. There was a fire truck on the side street, and some firemen were doing something with a hydrant. There was a van just like Barry's in a driveway across the street.
"Okay, Dave. This is it. I'm gonna go, but I'll be in the junkyard right behind the outfield fence. You call Artie from the pay phone and have him meet you on the pitcher's mound on field one. You wait in front of the stand until he's out there. When you join him, go stand in front of the outfield wall. Don't get in front of the ad's. Stay by the green space in-between. Your clothes should make you disappear. You okay?"
"Here's the deal. You keep the ball in your hand. Talk to Artie. Find out what you can. If he does anything ... anything at all that scares you, toss the ball. If you can't toss it, just drop it and we'll be on him like a bunch of snakes. I'm callin' in a lot of IOU's today. There's a whole bunch of people here. I hope it works out, Dave. A factory whistle's gonna blow for coffee break at ten-ten. That's when it's over. Tell Artie he has to go. If he's not done tell him you'll call him back, but make him leave. Okay?" If anything does happen, just jump the fence and I'll be there.
"When did you figure all this out? How smart are you?
"If you didn't take so long in the bathroom you'd know. Ready?"
"When you see my car leave, call Artie. Good luck, kid."
"Thanks, Ken. For everything."
"No problem. We're all right here, so don't worry."
He got in his car and as soon as it started to move I dropped a dime into the pay phone and dialed Arties's number.
"Artie, meet me at the little league park. Pitcher's mound on field one. Okay?"
"You got five minutes. I'm outta here in six."
"I'm on the way!"
I leaned against the wall by the phone. If Artie used the parking lot he wouldn't see me until I moved. It only took him about three minutes to get there. He walked onto the field and looked around for me. I walked out and right past him to the fence, then I turned around.
"Is that you, Dave? That's some getup."
"Yeah? Well I left all my whore clothes at Vic's."
"I didn't mean that. I mean they're kind of big."
"Yeah, well I gotta borrow clothes now. I ain't makin' the big bucks anymore."
"You could have called. I would have helped you, Dave."
"I had enough of your kind of help, Artie. You fuckin' near helped me into the grave. Don't try to help me ever again. Do you understand that?"
"I understand what you're saying. I still don't get why you're all mad at me. I haven't been able to think about anything else since you called. You fuckin' told me what you wanted and I did everything you asked. Why're you mad at me?"
"Artie, are you really fucked in the head? I was fourteen fuckin' years old. You should'a sent me packin', not got me all strung out on fuckin' coke and sellin' my ass to pay for it. Don't you get it? That stuff ain't normal!"
Artie sat on the grass and looked at me. Then he looked down at the grass in front of him. "I'm sorry, Dave. It ain't normal, huh? Maybe I thought it was normal. I spent nine years with your father and uncle. They told me that anytime I wanted something to just ask. That's what I did ... I wanted ... I asked ... I got. That's how I make my living. People want stuff and I get it for them. Why isn't it normal? It's what your father did with the club isn't it? People wanted a drink after the bars closed and he sold them one."
I didn't say anything.
"Why isn't it normal, Dave? I don't get it."
"Sellin' stuff is normal, Artie. It's the shit you sell ... drugs and dirty pictures. That's what's not normal. Drugs kill people, Artie. And kids shouldn't be linin' up to get their butts fucked so some old pervert can get his rocks off watchin' 'em. That ain't normal, Artie. It ain't even human."
"What do you mean, drugs kill people? I never killed anybody. I never hurt anybody in my life."
"Artie, you are really fucked up. You ever hear of an overdose? People die from them. You ever heard of ruined lives? I got a friend. His father has a college education and three kids. He lives at the fuckin' mission, Artie. Everything's gone. It was drugs that ruined him. How the fuck can you think that's normal?"
He looked up at me. "Is that really true, Dave? How the hell would drugs ruin the guy? I thought they made you happy."
He was sounding sincere. The dumb fuck didn't even know what he was pushing. "Drugs don't make you happy, Artie. They just make you feel happy for a while. When they wear off you feel worse than before. That's why I kept comin' back for more. I wasn't fuckin' happy, but I needed the feeling. It's what they call gettin' hooked. Am I making any sense?"
"Then why isn't anybody else mad at me? Everybody seems to like me okay. I give them a place to hang around, I let them use my pool. They all have a good time."
"I can't talk for other people, Artie. How'd you get into sellin' that shit, anyhow? Please don't tell me my father did that stuff."
"He didn't deal with drugs, Dave. Not him or Sal. Just booze and gambling. I started helping out at the club when I got older, just a couple of hours a week. Then I started keeping the books for your father and Sal. They paid me, and some other guys started asking me to help them too. I did a good job. One guy was turning over way more money than anybody else. I started talking to him and that's where I learned about the drug business. It seemed like a good way to make a living, but Sal and your father said it was too dangerous. I've been doing it for four years without a problem, though."
I was getting nervous. Could Artie really think his shit was just another kind of business? "What about the porn, Artie? You gonna try to justify that, too? Just another business deal? I can't believe what's in your head. You don't think that hurts people?"
"It ain't my business, Dave. I did it too, remember. When I was nine fucking years old. I didn't want to, but my father made me. You're the one who wanted it, if you remember. You kept practically begging me for more work. I didn't get anything out of it. They paid you straight up. You're the one that wanted money, Dave. I only tried to help you get what you wanted. How many times did I come to visit you, huh? Every other day at least. I don't get why you're complaining now. You never said anything then, Dave. Not a word. I was trying to take care of you, Dave, can't you see that? All you had to do was say the word and I would have taken you out of there if it was what you wanted."
I was trying to make Artie pathetic in my mind, but he hadn't told any lies yet. I was leaning against the wall looking at him. He was well spoken and seemed pretty smart, but he seemed to be lacking the logic center in his brain. I believed what he was saying, but couldn't understand his concepts. I wondered about him living below the club all those years, his only contact with humanity being people who worked the shady side of the street. And those would be the good ones.
Could he learn decency there? For all the things I blamed him for, he was right - I practically begged him to keep setting me up. Was his view of things really that simplistic? Ask and I'll get it for you? I had asked - out loud and verbally - for everything he got me, everything he did. He'd always been nice to me, even solicitous. I had really liked the guy. Right up until that last night at the motel, I never thought about blaming him for anything. I got myself into my own private dung heap. Artie helped me get there but he never once suggested I take that path. I had to ask for everything. I slid down the fence until I was sitting on the grass. I took the sunglasses and hat off and just stared at him.
"Artie ... I believe you. But you still gotta know what you did was wrong. It was way wrong, man. The shit you're sellin' ain't good for people. I was fourteen, man. You shouldn't be sellin' that shit anyhow, but sellin' it to kids is a fuckin' sin. I almost died. I tried to kill myself just to get away from everything you were givin' me. I know I asked for it, but you should have just smacked me and sent me home. You got a hole in you, man. A big one You're missin' somethin' everybody else has. It ain't just business, Artie. I ain't old enough to be decidin' to wreck my own life. You should'a sent me the fuck away. You hurt me big time. I can see you didn't mean to, but how many other kids are you fuckin' up just 'cause they want somethin' you got?"
His eyes started to tear up. "You keep sayin' I hurt you. I didn't want to. I didn't know I did. You kept coming around, but you never said anything was wrong until yesterday. Your father saved my life, David ... Sal, too. They didn't have to. They could have just forgot about me like everybody else did. I must have a hole in my brain if I was hurting you and not knowing it. I just try to be a good boy. I always tried to be good ... to make people like me. Sal and Dad always said I was a good boy."
I wished Mary was there. I knew what I was hearing wasn't normal, but nothing I could think of would get through to Artie. He thought he was normal. He thought he was being a nice guy, a good boy. He was fucked up, and I wanted out of there, but not before I learned what Ken wanted to know.
"How'd ya get into it Artie? What happened that you ended up sellin' dope?"
"Why should I tell you that? What's the difference?"
"I wanna know, Artie. I been hittin' myself in the head for the last week wonderin' about my family. I just wanna know how much all this has to do with me."
He just stared at me for a while, then, "Are you going to turn me in, Dave? I know that what I do isn't legal, and I don't want to go to jail. I'm not trying to hurt anybody, but I can't picture being in jail. Promise that you won't tell the cops and I'll tell you everything."
I thought about that. Ken and the guys wanted to put Artie out of business. Don had mentioned turning him over to the police. I wanted him out of business, and I didn't care how that happened. I just didn't want to start lying.
"I don't know, Artie. What you do is evil, but I don't want you to go to jail. Don't tell me everything. Just say how it happened. How'd you get where you are? No details. Just a story, okay?"
His eyes were questioning. "Damn! You're as slick as your father. I want an answer. Does what I say go to the police?"
"No. I promise."
"Okay. If I say names you don't hear them. If I say places you don't hear them. I'll tell you, but it's just me telling you a story, okay?"
He looked earnest. I tried to look back the same way. "All I wanna know is why, Artie. Why and how. I'm not callin' the cops."
"Alright. Here goes. I told you I was doing books for some people. I knew how they were making money, and how much. I didn't have a good concept of money, but I could tell a big number from a smaller one. Eddie was selling drugs and making a hundred times what your father did. Everybody was giving me money to take care of their books. By the time I was fifteen I was making five and six hundred bucks a week. It was all cash. I couldn't spend it ... I couldn't go to a store. I just kept it in a box.
"I started talking to Eddie. He liked to brag, Dave, and I learned how he did what he did. I kept a notebook. I had his own book, anyhow. I learned exactly what he did. I just listened and kept filling my box with cash. When Sal died I was sad, but not surprised. He had a heart problem that he inherited. He knew he wouldn't live to old age, and he told me. I had his book when he died, but it was pretty worthless. Really small time stuff.
"Then your father ... our father ... said he had the same heart problem. He didn't think he was going to die, but he knew he could. He told me what to do if he did. By then I was eighteen and legal anyhow. He went to town hall and got me a copy of my birth certificate and told me what I needed to know and how to get other things ... the other papers I'd need. A Social Security card, a driver's license. He got me to sign up for driver's school. That's the first place I went by myself. I had fun. It was just like a real school with a classroom and everything.
"Then he found me an apartment for myself. It wasn't a great neighborhood, but it was my own place. I got a car and could do things by myself. I went a little nuts, I guess, spending a lot of money. Your father made me pull in my horns. Then he died. He was there, then he wasn't. I didn't know what to do. I cried for about two days straight. The only two people who ever cared about me had died within a year of each other. I was all alone and I didn't know how to do it."
"How to do what?"
"Be alone, on my own, responsible for myself. There was a lot of shit I didn't know, and I was scared to death. I went over to the club one night to see if it was still running. Some guys were there, but they were just taking everything out. They told me Eddie had got killed, too. I still had his book. I had all his contacts and customers and their phone numbers. I had a lot of cash. I just set myself up to take over from him. It was pretty easy, really. Just knowing all the names was all I needed. I could call one person and mention another, then everything was fine. It took a while to get customers, but once people knew about me they told their friends.
"It took a couple of years, but I finally had it rolling with enough steady customers to sustain it by itself. I was doing it different than Eddie ... all by myself. I wanted to be somewhere else, though, to do it better. I had your father's book, too, Dave. I knew how much money he had when he died. I figured last year that it should be about gone, that's why I bid on your house. It was perfect to start with. No other houses around, just factories."
"What's the promise you talked about? Was it to my father?"
He stared at me. "It's a promise I can't break, Dave. I won't tell you that, but I can't stop you from guessing."
"Will you tell me if I guess right?"
"Sorry ... I can't. It's nothing bad, Dave. I just can't talk about it."
"Do you have a lot of money, Artie?"
"I guess - quite a bit, anyhow."
"How long could you live on it?"
"I don't know. A while."
"Could you quit? Quit what you're doing and do something different?"
"I could, but why would I? I like it and I'm having a good time. You say I hurt you, but nobody else ever did. You should have told me, Dave. I would have done anything you wanted. Anything at all."
"I want you to quit fuckin' people with the shit you sell. Will you do that?"
"Just stop? I'd have a lot more people than just you mad at me. People depend on me now. A whole lot of people depend on me. I can't just stop."
"What about the sex stuff? Will you stop that at least?"
"I told you I don't do that myself. I know the people who do and if somebody wants to try it I introduce them. It's not my thing. I thought you knew that."
"Can you at least stop doin' that? It's sick, Artie. Especially the kids. You should know! Did you like it?"
"I hated it. I hate my father for making me do it. You said you know where he is?"
"Somewhere around D.C. is all I know. You gonna hurt him, too?"
"Can you at least stop with the porno stuff, Artie? I gotta get somethin' outta talkin' to you. It's so ... well it's evil, Artie. If people want to do it on their own, then that's their business. Will you promise to stop sendin' kids to those guys? I can't stand it. You know what it's like Artie. You were there. Can you please stop?"
"Sometimes it's the only way people can get money."
"It's how your own father got money, Artie. You can't tell me you want it to keep happenin' to other kids like you."
"Alright! I won't do it anymore. It won't stop it from happening, Dave. How's this? If somebody can't pay me I'll just turn them off. I'll kick out the kids under sixteen and won't sell them anything anymore. I'll ask for ID if you want me to. I just can't stand having you hate me like this. I tried to be a good brother. I don't want you to hate me."
"I gotta go, Artie. Is that a promise?"
"It's a promise."
"Bye, Artie. Have a good life."
"I'm not going to see you again, am I? Where were you all that time, anyhow."
"Just around. I'll be around. I don't know if you'll see me or not. You almost killed me. You think I'm your brother, and you can think that. You'll get yours, Artie, if you keep up the shit you're doin'. A lot of people don't like it. I'm glad my father and Sal didn't do all the crap I thought they did. That's the reason I talked to you. If you want to be friends you're gonna have to quit your shit. Bye."
I tossed the bat, ball and glove over the fence, then hoisted myself over and headed towards the scrap yard. I suddenly saw Ken coming towards me. He was a little comical. He kept jumping up, but I finally figured out he was trying to see what Artie was doing. When he got to me he ducked down and made me do the same thing, then we went back to the fence.
"I can't wait to see this. It's startin' right now, Davy. About two more seconds, then look at the parking lot. How'd it go?"
I didn't get a chance to answer. He stood up, pulling me with him so that just our eyes could see over the fence. Artie was opening his door. As soon as he pushed the door latch, the door flew open, knocking him halfway into the street as a huge gush of water poured out of the car. I was mostly surprised, but I thought Ken was going to have a heart attack. He actually fell on the ground. I think he was laughing, but it sounded like wheezing. He had one hand on his chest and the other covering his eyes, and he was bouncing his whole body on the ground. I started laughing, then the picture of Artie entered my head and I started wheezing, too. It had been funny. Really funny. We were both on the ground.
Suddenly there was a shadow over us. I managed to focus my eyes on a Barry who was laughing as hard as Ken. He sat down with us, and it took a long time to recover. The second that someone thought they could say something they just burst out laughing again.
Ken finally managed to speak. "Man, when I saw Donny poke the hose in the car I started laughing. I can't stop. I can't believe he did that! Did you see Loomis when he opened the door? I almost shit. I didn't think of all that pressure ... he must'a thought he got hit by a fast moving truck or something. I want my own fire engine, man. Did you know he was gonna do that?"
Barry was still pretty helpless, but finally managed to squeak out, "No idea", then he burst out laughing again, which set Ken off again. And me. I guess it's a good thing there weren't any muggers around, as I'm sure we would have just handed them anything they wanted and just kept laughing.
Laughing that hard is an exhausting business. When we finally stopped I think we all hurt from it. You couldn't just stop a laugh like that. You'd start to stop, then picture the scene and start all over again. We all had red, tear covered faces.
Barry looked at Ken. "I owe Don about a hundred lunches just for that. It's the best thing he ever pulled."
Ken was still grinning. "It's the best any of us ever pulled. Lunch ain't good enough. We gotta do better. Let's get outta here. Dave needs a diving lesson."
I groaned. "My stomach already hurts. I really gotta do this?"
"Hey, it's a great day for a swim. I got jealous just watchin' Artie."
That set us off again, but I think we were laughed out. Barry put his hand on my shoulder. "Did you find out what you wanted? You guys looked pretty serious."
"Lemme think for a little. It ain't what I thought, that's for sure. Is he still there?"
Barry got up and peeked over the fence. "No, he's gone. You going back home?"
Ken thought for a second. "Yeah, I guess. You coming to watch Davy's dive?"
"I wouldn't miss it. I'll see you in five."
We walked towards the scrap yard. Ken was waving at guys and hollering out thanks as we walked. We got in his car and started back towards the house.
"How'd it go, Dave? Did he talk?"
"He talked, alright. He's off his rocker I think. He ain't all there, Ken."
"You square with him now?"
"I think so. I need to tell Mary the stuff he said and see what she thinks. Can I call her later?"
"Good idea. I'll ask her to come over after work."
"Cool. Do I really hafta jump off the cliff."
"Not if you don't want to."
"I'll be happy to throw you over."
"Is there a third choice?"
"I know Barry'd love to toss you in."
"You know somethin', Ken?"
"I hate swimming."
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