February 1, 2011
"Of course I’m sure. I used to work there." Kyle sat down in the tattered plaid chair.
"If you used to work there, don’t you think they’ll know you were involved?"
"First of all, I didn’t work there that long. And a lot of guys worked there. Remember Tim Sanchez? He worked there. They’ll think about Tim Sanchez before they think about me."
Debbie would be getting off work soon. The last thing I needed was her finding Kyle there.
"It’s a once in a lifetime score." He wiped his red-rimmed nose on the sleeve of his flannel shirt. "That pharmacy is a goldmine. Sid’s about a hundred years old. You think he’s going to mess with some punk kid--especially one built like you?"
"I am not a kid."
"You know what I mean."
"And I’m not a punk."
Kyle had his cap pulled low but I could still see his buggish eyes popping out his skull. He sounded congested as hell. Every time I saw him he looked worse.
"When was the last time you slept?"
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
I got up from the sofa, walked to the fridge, and grabbed a beer. I sat at the counter and switched on the television. For a long time neither of us said anything. I pretended to watch the portable under the telephone; he kept rubbing his nose, straining to think of something clever to say.
"How’s Debbie feel about you being unemployed?" he said. He tried to look smug.
"My girlfriend knows that, unlike you, I’m not content being a fuck-up. She understands winter is a little slow."
"Slow? You ain’t been bringing in money for a long time, bro. I know it. You know it. And, trust me, Debbie knows it." He fished his smokes from the pocket of his dirty jeans and tapped one out. "Where’s the ashtray?"
"Debbie doesn’t want anyone smoking in here."
He knew Debbie didn’t want anyone smoking in here. People automatically assume because of how big I am that I’m stupid.
"C’mon, Randy, who you think you’re talking to?" That was his big comeback to everything. Kyle made a funny face, like he had a bright point to make, but all he added was crack about me taking more night classes.
"Why don’t you take off," I said.
One of the benefits of being built the way I was: there were very few people, even guys like Kyle, who were going to push it.
"I’m not saying anything. Except get the fuck out of my house."
Kyle made a show of roaming his eyes over the place. "This ain’t a house, bro, it’s a trailer. And it ain’t even your trailer, it’s Debbie’s trailer."
He backed down the steps. "You change your mind I’ll be down at Tommy’s."
It was almost midnight. Debbie would be home any minute. She was waiting tables at Johnson’s House of Meat off Sutter Creek. Pretty high end. They charged eight bucks for a cheeseburger.
I’d already picked up the laundry, run the Dirt Devil. I tried to see what else could make the place look a little nicer.
I found a glass to wash when I heard Debbie pull in.
Before Kyle had come over, I’d spread the Help Wanted section over the kitchen table. I’d even circled a few leads. I thought about making notes in the margins but figured that’d be too much.
She didn’t say hi, just headed straight for the mail and the bills, picking each one up, shaking her head like they were a surprise. I’d thought about hiding them. What good would that have done?
I took the beer and sat in the chair, next to the cap Kyle left behind. She saw it, too.
"I didn’t invite him," I said. "He was only here for a minute."
Debbie closed her eyes tightly.
I slammed the beer and snared Kyle’s cap, ripped my coat from the hook, and slinked out the door.
Debbie and I lived in a trailer park by the trestles. When you say 'trailer park,' people automatically think white trash and cars on cinder blocks, vets in wheelchairs, but it wasn’t like that. For one thing, it was in the same town I grew up in, and Mt. Rainer has always been a nice town, at the foot of the Sierras on the California/Nevada border.
I lit a cigarette and started walking. It wasn’t too cold, considering it was midnight and the end of February.
Why couldn’t I just get a job? It seemed so easy when I thought about it like that. I had a million excuses, like not having a car or not wanting to waste my time for minimum wage. I told myself I’d work after the unemployment ran out, and then that became after New Year’s, and then after my birthday, but it was all bullshit.
It was almost three miles to Tommy’s. I don’t recall ever making up my mind to go there.
I chucked his cap at him. "You forgot something."
Tommy’s was on the other side of town, off Highway 80, behind the trucker motel and a Bickford’s 24-hour restaurant.
I ordered a pitcher and a couple chasers. Kyle’s eyes were even wider than before. On the table alongside the empty long necks sat a tiny black notebook. God only knew what Kyle needed a tiny black notebook for.
"What’d you tell Debbie to get the car?"
"I didn’t drive. I walked."
Kyle let out a greasy laugh. "Man, I’d love to be you for a day. What’s it like having that body? People used to be surprised at how quick you moved in games."
"Thanks, I know you’ve always been sweet on me."
"Remember that time before gym class, when Lester Diggins started with me, and you grabbed him and--"
"I need money, Kyle."
He looked around the room, which was pointless. There was no one besides us and One-eyed Willie. "I already told you, bro, this deal’s as sweet as it gets." Kyle leaned closer, spoke softer. "Here’s the deal. Last Thursday of every month, Sid goes--by himself--to the bank to make a deposit. Same time, every time." He tapped the notebook. "Been keeping a log."
"Good work, Dick Tracy."
"You came here asking for my help. You want in on this or not?"
I didn’t answer right away. You can never answer guys like Kyle right away.
"Because I don’t want to waste my time explaining--"
"I’m here, aren’t I?"
When my mom died seven years ago, I got the house.
She had pressed me go to college but I knew I wasn’t the type. It wasn’t the money. Most were offering free rides. I did go check out one program for a school out east. I won’t say the name but they’re a pretty big deal. They were in a bowl game last year.
When a school wants you to play football for them, they treat you like a big shot. I was put up at the Sheraton and told to order all the room service I wanted, booze too. Nobody asked my age. Playing ball is a business, pure and simple. That part didn’t bother me. It was the next day.
The next morning, the recruiter took me to where the team practiced, so I could see the facilities and meet the staff. It wasn’t even 8 a.m. but it was already hot as hell. The whole team was out there running drills. I played guard, so mostly I watched the line work on blocking schemes. The game moved a lot faster than it did in high school.
Whistles started blowing, which meant somebody had missed an assignment. The players scrambled to form a circle around the coach, who was screaming. He stalked back and forth, getting in the linemen’s faces, calling them fat and stupid. In-between the insults, practically at the same time, he was also trying to build them up, barking about toughness and the price of being a winner, the same rah-rah crap I’d been listening to for years. The players were eating it up, too, banging their helmets against each other, grunting, and I’m thinking, what do I need this for? It’s the middle of July and I’ve got a headache. I’m going to come 3,000 miles to get run ragged and insulted? For what? To play a game I’d grown sick of playing?
Plus, I knew my mom wouldn’t have been able to get by without me.
It sounds rotten but after she died I remember thinking how I’d be able to get ahead. I had a job working construction, drilling and splitting for this outfit in Truckee. Seasonal work but pretty good pay. With my own house and without the medical bills, I figured I could start a company of my own.
I’d work here and there, enough to pay rent on a room, eat, attract a girl like Debbie for a few weeks, a few months. But it always ended the same. Each year seemed to bring less, and I began hating to see the morning come.
I was pretty drunk when I staggered out Tommy’s. I don’t remember saying goodbye.
I was hoping Debbie would be asleep. She wasn’t. Perched in the chair like a vulture in pajamas, she waited to swoop down.
Only she didn’t.
"Ran, I can’t do this anymore." That’s all she said. She didn’t even yell.
I passed out on the couch.
I woke with the sunlight in my face and pulled the drapes over the windows. The drapes had pictures of slot machines and dice and a red frilly border. Debbie and I had gotten them when we first started dating, when she’d dragged me to Reno for a time-share presentation. We couldn’t afford the time-share. But we did get a weekend at a nice hotel. And tickets to a show we didn’t go see. And these drapes.
I checked the driveway. Her car was gone. I made coffee.
Mt. Rainer’s not a big town. Kyle had to be into someone pretty good to come to me with this plan. I needed to make sure he could keep quiet.
He stood at the cellar door, rubbing his eyes, which were bloodshot as hell. "What you do that for? They’re about to throw me out as it is." He wasn’t wearing a shirt and you could see his sternum poking out like a spade. "What’re you doing here anyway?" Kyle shielded his eyes from the sunlight.
"We need to talk," I said, pushing past.
We used to throw parties down here when we were in high school. Now it stunk like a locker room, all human-stink and musky. There were half a dozen Snapple bottles filled with piss, stacked on the sills.
"Why don’t you use the bathroom like a normal person?"
"They lock the fucking doors, you know that."
"Why don’t you go outside?"
"I don’t know. What do you want?"
I looked around, thinking that animals don’t live like this. "I want to make sure you keep your mouth shut about what we talked about last night."
"Who am I going to tell? My parents?" He dragged himself to the broken window. Seeing him standing there, so skinny, looking toward the mountains, I almost felt sorry for him. "Who do you even talk to around here?" he said.
He didn’t wait for me to answer.
"When I thought about this, the first person I thought about was you. And not just because of how big and fast you are. You don’t exist in this town anymore. Besides Debbie, who knows you? You live on the edge of town. You rarely leave the trailer. You don’t talk to anyone. You’re the invisible man." He turned from the window and fell into the couch. It didn’t have any cushions. I could count his ribs. He opened his mouth like he had to yawn but gulped at the air instead, like a marooned goldfish.
"And how do you know it won’t be a bunch of checks?"
"There’ll be some checks. We’ll throw them away. There’ll be plenty of cash, too. You know the money they charge for those prescriptions? That’s a good chunk of change for just running up and knocking some old guy down."
"I’m not hurting anybody."
"Fine, snatch it from his hands and give him a big hug, what do I care? By the time ’ol Sid even knows what hit him, you’ll be long gone. With how big you are, how fast you run, who’s going to stop you?"
He was right.
Besides, what choice did I have?
When I left Kyle’s, I actually felt good for a change, like I’d been liberated. I walked to the bank to close my account, get my twenty bucks and find something to eat.
Downtown was busy for a weekday afternoon. Teenage boys in the pizza shop, moms getting haircuts, cars and trucks pulling in, backing out. Workers fixed a traffic light. Kyle was right: I had disappeared. There was a time when everyone in this town knew me. The local paper always carried news about the team. How weird to go from a big shot to an invisible man in barely ten years.
Right before the bank, there’s this pet store called Sally Waggles and there were little puppies on display in the window. I started lightly rapping on the glass. The puppies were getting all worked up, yipping, hopping, tiny red tongues sticking out.
After a while, I felt someone staring at my back.
I turned and looked up. This old guy stood there, grinning goofily, a wrinkled thing with a face like a beaver.
"Randy Meacham!" he said, "Thought that was you! Haven’t seen you in years, boy!"
I didn’t know this guy. I’d never met him. How did he know my name?
He laughed at the question. "Everybody in Mt. Rainer knows you! You’re Randy Meacham, All-State offensive lineman for the Mt. Rainer Raiders."
I didn’t know what to say. I thought I’d disappeared.
"That was over ten years ago," I said.
He swatted a hand dismissively. "Like anyone could forget a boy your size! Could spot you coming a million miles away."
We stayed like that for a long time, neither of us moving, his eyes squinched, me hunched over, the high winter sun so far away, the cars, the people, the puppies inside the pet shop window bouncing and barking.
Then the old man stopped smiling and put his hand on my shoulder and asked if something was wrong.
And I realized I’d been crying.