Tooth and Claw | Chapter 24 of 29

Author: T. Coraghessan Boyle | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1399 Views | Add a Review

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Up Against the Wall

MY CHILDHOOD wasn’t exactly ideal, and I mention it here not as an excuse, but a point of reference. For the record, both my parents drank heavily, and in the early days, before my father gave up and withered away somewhere deep in the upright shell of himself, there was shouting, there were accusations, tears, violence. And smoke. The house was a factory of smoke, his two packs of Camels a day challenging the output of her two packs of Marlboros. I spent a lot of time outside. I ran with the kids in the neighborhood, the athletic ones when I was younger, the sly and disaffected as I came into my teens, and after an indifferent career at an indifferent college, I came back home to live rent-free in my childhood room in the attic as the rancor simmered below me and the smoke rose up through the floorboards and seeped in around the doorframe.

After a fierce and protracted struggle, I landed a job teaching eighth-grade English in a ghetto school, though I hadn’t taken any of the required courses and had no intention of doing so. That job saved my life. Literally. Teaching, especially in a school as desperate as this, was considered vital to the national security and it got me a deferment two weeks short of the date I was to report for induction into the U.S. Army, with Vietnam vivid on the horizon. All well and fine. I had a job. And a routine. I got up early each morning, though it was a strain, showered, put on a tie and introspectively chewed Sugar Pops in the car on the way to work. I ate lunch out of a brown paper bag. Nights, I went straight to my room to play records and hammer away at my saxophone and vocals.

Then a day came—drizzling, cold, the wet skin of dead leaves on the pavement and nothing happening anywhere in the world, absolutely nothing—when I was in the local record store turning over albums to study the bright glare of the product and skim the liner notes, killing time till the movie started in the mall. Something with a monumental bass line was playing over the speakers, something slow, delicious, full of hooks and grooves and that steamroller bass, and when I looked up vacantly to appreciate it, I found I was looking into the face of a guy I recalled vaguely from high school.

I saw in a glance he’d adopted the same look I had—the greasy suede jacket, bell-bottoms and Dingo boots, his hair gone long over the collar in back, the shadowy beginnings of a mustache—and that was all it took. “Aren’t you—Cole?” I said. “Cole, right?” And there he was, wrapping my hand in a cryptic soul shake, pronouncing my name without hesitation. We stood there catching up while people drifted by us and the bass pounded through the speakers. Where had he been? Korea, in the Army. Living with his own little mama-san, smoking opium every night till he couldn’t feel the floor under his futon. And I was a teacher now, huh? What a gas. And should he start calling me professor or what?

We must have talked for half an hour or so, the conversation ranging from people we knew in common to bands, drugs and girls we’d hungered for in school, until he said, “So what you doing tonight? Later, I mean?”

I was ashamed to tell him I was planning on taking in a movie alone, so I just shrugged. “I don’t know. Go home, I guess, and listen to records.”

“Where you living?”

Another shrug, as if to show it was nothing, a temporary arrangement till I could get on my feet, find my own place and begin my real life, the one I’d been apprenticing for all these years: “My parents’.”

Cole said nothing. Just gave me a numb look. “Yeah,” he said, after a moment, “I hear you. But listen, you want to go out, drive around, smoke a number? You smoke, right?”

I did. Or I had. But I had no connection, no stash of my own, no privacy. “Yeah,” I said. “Sounds good.”

“I might know where there’s a party,” he said, letting his cold blue eyes sweep the store as if the party might materialize in the far corner. “Or a bar,” he said, coming back to me, “I know this bar—”

I WAS LATE for homeroom in the morning. It mattered in some obscure way, in the long run, that is, because funding was linked to attendance and there had to be somebody there to check off the names each morning, but the school was in such an advanced state of chaos I don’t know if anyone even noticed. Not the first time, anyway. But homeroom was the least of my worries—it was mercifully brief and no one was expected to do anything other than merely exist for the space of ten minutes. It was the rest of the slate that was the trial, one swollen class after another shuffling into the room, hating school, hating culture, hating me, and I hated them in turn because they were brainless and uniform and they didn’t understand me at all. I was just like them, couldn’t they see that? I was no oppressor, no tool of the ruling class, but an authentic rebel, twenty-one years old and struggling mightily to grow a mustache because Ringo Starr had one and George Harrison and Eric Clapton and just about anybody else staring out at you from the front cover of a record album. But none of that mattered. I was the teacher, they were the students. Those were our roles, and they were as fixed and mutually exclusive as they’d been in my day, in my parents’ day, in George Washington’s day for all I knew.

From the minute the bell rang the rebellion began to simmer. Two or three times a period it would break out in riot and I would find myself confronting some wired rangy semi-lunatic who’d been left back twice and at sixteen already had his own mustache grown in as thick as fur, and there went the boundaries in a hard wash of threat and violence. Usually I’d manage to get the offender out in the hall, away from the eyes of the mob, and if the occasion called for it I would throw him against the wall, tear his shirt and use the precise language of the streets to let him know in excruciating detail just who was the one with the most at stake here. A minute later we’d return to the room, the victor and the vanquished, and the rest of them would feel something akin to awe for about ten minutes, and then it would all unwind again.

Stress. That’s what I’m talking about. One of the other new teachers—he looked to be thirty or so, without taste or style, a drudge who’d been through half a dozen schools already—used to get so worked up he’d have to dash into the lavatory and vomit between classes, and there was no conquering that smell, not even with a fistful of breath mints. The students knew it, and they came at him like hyenas piling on a corpse. He lasted a month, maybe less. This wasn’t pedagogy—it was survival. Still, everybody got paid and they were free to go home when the bell rang at the end of the day, and some of them—some of us—even got to avoid the real combat zone, the one they showed in living color each night on the evening news.

WHEN I GOT HOME that afternoon, Cole was waiting for me. He was parked out front of my house in his mother’s VW Bug, a cigarette clamped between his teeth as he beat at the dashboard with a pair of drumsticks, the radio cranked up high. I could make out the seething churn of his shoulders and the rhythmic bob of his head through the oval window set in the back of the Bug, the sticks flashing white, the car rocking on its springs, and when I killed the engine of my own car—a 1955 Pontiac that had once been blue, but was piebald now with whitish patches of blistered paint—I could hear the music even through the safety glass of the rolled-up window. “Magic Carpet Ride,” that was the song, with its insistent bass and nagging vocal, a tune you couldn’t escape on AM radio, and there were worse, plenty worse.

My first impulse was to get out of the car and slide in beside him—here was adventure, liberation, a second consecutive night on the town—but then I thought better of it. I was dressed in my school clothes—dress pants I wouldn’t wish on a corpse, button-down shirt and tie, a brown corduroy sport coat—and my hair was slicked down so tightly to my scalp it looked as if it had been painted on, a style I’d adopted to disguise the length and shagginess of it toward the end of appeasing the purse-mouthed principal and preserving my job. And life. But I couldn’t let Cole see me like this—what would he think? I studied the back of the Bug a moment, waiting for his eyes to leap to the rearview mirror, but he was absorbed, oblivious, stoned no doubt—and I wanted to be stoned too, share the sacrament, shake it out—but not like this, not in these clothes. What I finally did was ease out of the car, slip down the block and cut through the neighbors’ to our backyard, where the bulk of the house screened me from view.

I came up the cellar stairs from the garage, my father sunk into the recliner in the living room with the TV going—the news grim and grimmer—and my mother rattling things around in the kitchen. “You going to eat tonight?” she asked, just to say something. I ate every night—I couldn’t afford not to. She had a cigarette at her lips, a drink in her hand—scotch and water. There were dishes set out on the table, a pot of something going on the stove. “I’m making chili con carne.”

I had a minute, just a minute, no more, because I was afraid Cole would wake up to the fact that he was waiting for nothing and then it would be the room upstairs, the hypnosis of the records, the four walls and the sloping ceiling and a gulf of boredom so deep you could have sailed a fleet into it. “No,” I said, “I think I might go out.”

She stirred the pot, went to set the cigarette in the ashtray on the stove and saw that there was another there, already burning and rimmed red with lipstick. “Without dinner?” (I have to give her her due here—she loved me, her only son, and my father must have loved me too, in his own way, but I didn’t know that then, or didn’t care, and it’s too late now to do anything about it.)

“Yeah, I might eat out, I guess. With Cole.”

“Who?”

“Cole Harman. He was in high school with me?”

She just shrugged. My father said nothing, not hello or goodbye or you look half-starved already and you tell me you’re going to miss dinner? The TV emitted the steady whipcrack of small-arms fire, and then the correspondent came on with the day’s body count. Four minutes later—the bells, the boots, a wide-collared shirt imprinted with two flaming outsized eyeballs under the greasy jacket and my hair kinked up like Hendrix’s—and I was out the door.

“HEY,” I SAID, rapping at the window of the Bug. “Hey, it’s me.”

Cole looked up as if he’d been asleep, as if he’d been absorbed in some other reality altogether, one that didn’t seem to admit or even recognize me. It took him a moment, and then he leaned across the passenger’s seat and flipped the lock, and I went round the car and slid in beside him. I said something like, “Good to see you, man,” and reached out for the soul shake, which he returned, and then I said, “So, what’s up? You want to go to Chase’s, or what?”

He didn’t reply. Just handed me the tight white tube of a joint, put the car in gear and hit the accelerator with the sound of a hundred eggbeaters all rattling at once. I looked back to see my house receding at the end of the block and felt as if I’d been rescued. I put the lighter to the joint.

The night before we’d gone to Chase’s, a bar in town I’d never been to before, an ancient place with a pressed-tin ceiling and paneled booths gone the color of beef jerky with the smoke of a hundred thousand cigarettes. The music was of the moment, though, and the clientele mostly young—women were there, in their low-slung jeans and gauzy tops, and it was good to see them, exciting in the way of an afterthought that suddenly blooms into prominence (I’d left a girlfriend behind at college, promising to call, visit, write, but long distance was expensive, she was five hundred miles away and I wasn’t much of a writer). My assumption—my hope—was that we’d go back there tonight.

But we didn’t. Cole just drove aimlessly past bleached-out lawns and squat houses, down the naked tunnels of trees and into the country, where the odd field—crippled cornstalks, rotting pumpkins—was squeezed in among the housing developments and the creep of shopping malls. We smoked the joint down to the nub, employed a roach clip and alternated hits till it was nothing but air. An hour stole by. The same hits thumped through the radio, the same commercials. It was getting dark.

After a while we pulled up at a deserted spot along a blacktop road not two miles from my house. I knew the place from when I was a kid, riding my bike out to the reservoir to fish and throw rocks and fool around. There was a waist-high wall of blackened stone running the length of a long two blocks, and behind that a glimpse of a cluster of stone cottages through the dark veins of the trees. We’d been talking about something comforting—a band or a guitar player—and I’d been drifting, wheeling round and round the moment, secure, calm, and now suddenly we were stopped out on the road in the middle of nowhere. “So, what’s the deal?” I said.

A car came up the street in the opposite direction and the lights caught Cole’s face. He squinted, put a hand up to shield his eyes till the car had passed, and he craned his neck to make sure it was still moving, watching for the flash of brake lights as it rounded the curve at the corner behind us and vanished into the night. “Nothing,” he said, a spark of animation igniting his voice as if it were a joke—the car, the night, the joint—“I just wanted you to meet some people, that’s all.”

“What people? Out here?” I gave it a beat. “You don’t mean the little people, do you? The elves? Where are they—crouching behind the wall there? Or in their burrows, is that where they are—asleep in their burrows?”

We both had a laugh, one of those protracted, breast-pounding jags of hilarity that remind you just how much you’ve smoked and how potent it was. “No,” he said, still wheezing, “no. Big people. Real people, just like you and me.” He pointed to the faintest glow of light from the near cottage. “In there.”

I was confused. The entrance to the place—the driveway, which squeezed under a stone arch somebody had erected there at some distant point in our perfervid history—was up on the cross street at the end of the block, where the car had just turned. “So why don’t we just go in the driveway?” I wanted to know.

Cole took a moment to light a cigarette, then he cracked the door and the dark pure refrigerated smell of the night hit me. “Not cool,” he said. “Not cool at all.”

I MADE A REAL EFFORT the next day, and though I had less than three hours’ sleep, I made homeroom with maybe six seconds to spare. The kids—the students, my charges—must have scented the debauch on me, the drift away from the straight and narrow they demanded as part of the social contract, because they were more restive than usual, more boisterous and slippery, as if the seats couldn’t contain them. There was one—there’s always one, memorable not for excellence or scholarship but for weakness, only that—and he spoke up now. Robert, his name was, Robert Rowe. He was fifteen, left back once, and he was no genius but he had more of a spark in him than the others could ever hope for, and that made him stand out—it gave him power, but he didn’t know what to do with it. “Hey, Mr. Caddis,” he called from the back of the room where he was slumped into one of the undersized desks we’d inherited from another era when the average student was shorter, slimmer, more attentive and eager. “You look like shit, you know that?”

The rest of them—this was only homeroom, where, as I’ve indicated, nothing was expected—froze for a moment. The interaction was delicious for them, I’m sure—they were scientists dissecting the minutest gradations of human behavior: would I explode? Overheat and run for the lavatory like Mr. James, the puker? Ignore the comment? Pretend I hadn’t heard?

I was beat, truly. Two nights running with less than three hours’ sleep. But I was energized too because something new was happening to me, something that shone over the bleakness of this job, this place, my parents’ damaged lives, as if I’d suddenly discovered the high beams along a dark stretch of highway. “Yeah, Robert,” I said, holding him with my eyes, though he tried to duck away, “thanks for the compliment.” A tutorial pause, flatly instructive. “You look like shit too.”

The cottage, the stone cottage on the far side of the stone wall in the featureless mask of the night that had given way to this moment of this morning, was a place I felt I’d come home to after a long absence. I’d been to war, hadn’t I? Now I was home. How else to describe it, what that place meant to me from the minute the door swung back and I stepped inside?

I hadn’t known what to expect. We vaulted the stone wall and picked our way through a dark tangle of leafless sumac and stickers that raked at our boots and the oversized flaps of our pants, and then there was another, lower wall, and we were in the yard. Out front was a dirt bike with its back wheel missing, skeletal under the porch light, and there were glittering fragments of other things there too, machines in various states of disassembly—a chain saw minus the chain, an engine block decorated with lit candles that flickered like votives in the dark cups of the cylinders, a gutted amplifier. And there was music. Loud now, loud enough to rattle the glass in the windowpanes. Somebody inside was playing along with the bass line of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

Cole went in without knocking, and I followed. Through a hallway and into the kitchen, obladi oblada life goes on bra! There were two women there—girls—rising up from the table in the kitchen with loopy grins to wrap their arms around Cole, and then, after the briefest of introductions—“This is my friend, John, he’s a professor”—to embrace me too. They were sisters, both tall, with the requisite hair parted in the middle and trailing down their shoulders. Suzie, the younger, darker and prettier one, and JoJo, two years older, with hair the color of rust before it flakes. There was a Baggie of pot on the table, a pipe and what looked to be half a bar of halvah candy but wasn’t candy at all. Joss sticks burned among the candles that lit the room. A cat looked up sleepily from a pile of newspaper in the corner. “You want to get high?” JoJo asked, and I was charmed instantly—here she was, the consummate hostess—and a portion of my uncertainty and awkwardness went into retreat.

I looked to Cole, and we both laughed, and this was a laugh of the same quality and flavor as the one we’d shared in the car.

“What?” Suzie said, leaning back against the stove now, grinning wide. “Oh, I get it—you’re already stoned, both of you, right? High as kites, right?”

From the living room—the door was closed and I had to presume it was the living room—there was the sudden screech of the needle lifting off the record, then the superamplified rasp of its dropping down again, and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” came at us once more. JoJo saw my quizzical look and paused in putting the match to the pipe. “Oh, that’s Mike—my boyfriend? He’s like obsessed with that song.”

I don’t know how much time slid by before the door swung open—we were just sitting there at the table, enveloped in the shroud of our own consciousness, the cat receding into the corner that now seemed half a mile away, candles flickering and sending insubstantial shadows up the walls. I turned round to see Mike standing in the doorframe, wearing the strap of his bass like a bandolier over a shirtless chest. He was big, six feet and something, two hundred pounds, and he was built, pectorals and biceps sharply defined, a stripe of hard blue vein running up each arm, but he didn’t do calisthenics or lift weights or anything like that—it was just the program of his genes. His hair was long, longer than either of the women’s. He wore a Fu Manchu mustache. He was sweating. “That was hot,” he said, “that was really hot.”

JoJo looked up vacantly. “What,” she said, “you want me to turn down the heat?”

He gave a laugh and leaned into the table to pluck a handful of popcorn out of a bowl that had somehow materialized there. “No, I mean the— Didn’t you hear me? That last time? That was hot, that’s what I’m saying.”

It was only then that we got around to introductions, he and Cole swapping handclasps, and then Cole cocking a finger at me. “He’s a professor,” he said.

Mike took my hand—the soul shake, a pat on the shoulder—and stood there looking bemused. “A professor?” he said. “No shit?”

I was too stoned to parse all the nuances of the question, but still the blood must have risen to my face. “A teacher,” I corrected. “You know, just to beat the draft? Like because if you—” and I went off on some disconnected monologue, talking because I was nervous, because I wanted to fit in, and I suppose I would have kept on talking till the sun came up but for the fact that everyone else had gone silent and the realization of it suddenly hit me.

“No shit?” Mike repeated, grinning in a dangerous way. He was swaying over the table, alternately feeding popcorn into the slot of his mouth and giving me a hooded look. “So how old are you—what, nineteen, twenty?”

“Twenty-one. I’ll be twenty-two in December.”

There was more. It wasn’t an inquisition exactly—Cole at one point spoke up for me and said, “He’s cool”—but a kind of scientific examination of this rare bird that had mysteriously turned up at the kitchen table. What did I think? I thought Cole should ease up on the professor business—as I got to know him I realized he was inflating me in order to inflate himself—and that we should all smoke some of the hash, though I wasn’t the host here and hadn’t brought anything to the party.

Eventually, we did smoke—that was what this was all about, community, the community of mind and spirit and style—and we moved into the living room where the big speakers were to listen to the heartbeat of the music and feel the world settle in around us. There were pillows scattered across the floor, more cats, more incense, ShopRite cola and peppermint tea in heavy homemade mugs and a slow sweet seep of peace. I propped my head against a pillow, stretched my feet out before me. The music was a dream, and I closed my eyes and entered it.

A WEEK OR TWO later my mother asked me to meet her after work at a bar / restaurant called the Hollander. This was a place with pretensions to grander things, where older people—people my mother’s age—came to drink Manhattans and smoke cigarettes and feel elevated over the crowd that frequented taverns with sawdust on the floors, the sort of places my father favored. Teachers came to the Hollander, lawyers, people who owned car dealerships and dress shops. My mother was a secretary, my father a bus driver. And the Hollander was an ersatz place, with pompous waiters and a fake windmill out front.

She was at the bar, smoking, sitting with a skinny white-haired guy I didn’t recognize, and as I came up to them I realized he could have been my father’s double, could have been my father, but he wasn’t. There were introductions—his name was Jerry Reilly and he was a teacher just like me—and a free beer appeared at my elbow, but I couldn’t really fathom what was going on here or why my mother would want me to join her in a place like this. I played it cool, ducked my head and answered Jerry Reilly’s interminable questions about school as best I could—Yeah, sure, I guess I liked it; it was better than being executed in Vietnam, wasn’t it?—without irritating him to the point at which I would miss out on a free dinner, but all I wanted to do was get out of there and meet Cole at the cottage in the woods. As expeditiously as possible. Dinner down, goodbyes and thankyou’s on file, and out the door and into the car.

That wasn’t how it worked out. Something was in the air and I couldn’t fathom what it was. I kept looking at Jerry Reilly, with his cuff links and snowy collar and whipcord tie and thinking, No, no way—my mother wouldn’t cheat on my father, not with this guy. But her life and what she did with it was a work in progress, as unfathomable to me as my own life must have been to my students—and tonight’s agenda was something else altogether, something that came in the form of a very special warning, specially delivered. We were on our third drink, seated in the dining room now, eating steak all around, though my mother barely touched hers and Jerry Reilly just pushed his around the plate every time I lifted my eyes to look at him. “Listen, John,” my mother said finally, “I just wanted to say something to you. About Cole.”

All the alarm bells went off simultaneously in my head. “Cole?” I echoed.

She gave me a look I’d known all my life, the one reserved for missteps and misdeeds. “He has a record.”

So that was it. “What’s it to you?”

My mother just shrugged. “I just thought you ought to know, that’s all.”

“I know. Of course I know. And it’s nothing, believe me—a case of mistaken identity. They got the wrong guy is all.” The fact was that Cole had been busted for selling marijuana to an undercover agent and they were trying to make a felony out of it even as his mother leaned on a retired judge she knew to step in and squash it. I put on a look of offended innocence. “So what’d you do, hire a detective?”

A thin smile. “I’m just worried about you, that’s all.”

How I bristled at this. I wasn’t a child—I could take care of myself. How many times had her soft dejected voice come at me out of the shadows of the living room at three and four in the morning, where she sat smoking in the dark while I roamed the streets with my friends? Where had I been? she always wanted to know. Nowhere, I told her. There was the dark, the smell of her cigarette, and then, even softer: I was worried. And what did I do now? I worked my face and gave her a disgusted look to show her how far above all this I was.

She looked to Jerry Reilly, then back to me. I became aware of the sound of traffic out on the road. It was dark beyond the windows. “You’re not using drugs,” she asked, drawing at her cigarette, so that the interrogative lift came in a fume of smoke, “are you?”

THE FIRST TIME I ever saw anyone inject heroin was in the bathroom of that stone cottage in the woods. It was probably the third or fourth night I’d gone there with Cole to hang out, listen to music and be convivial on our own terms (he was living at his parents’ house too, and there was no percentage in that). Mike greeted us at the door—he’d put a leather jacket on over a T-shirt and he was all business, heading out to the road to meet a guy named Nicky and they were going on into town to score and we should just hang tight because they’d be right back and did we happen to have any cash on us?—and then we went in and sat with the girls and smoked and didn’t think about much of anything until the front door jerked back on its hinges half an hour later and Mike and Nicky came storming into the room as if their jackets had been set afire.

Then it was into the bathroom, Mike first, the door open to the rest of us lined up behind him, Nicky (short, with a full beard that did nothing to flesh out a face that had been reduced to the sharp lineaments of bone and cartilage) and the two sisters, Cole and me. I’d contributed five dollars to the enterprise, though I had my doubts. I’d never done anything like this and I was scared of the consequences, the droning narration of the anti-drug films from high school riding up out of some backwater of my mind to assert itself, to take over, become shrill even. Mike threw off his jacket, tore open two glassine packets with his teeth and carefully—meticulously—shook out the contents into a tablespoon. It was a white powder, and it could have been anything, baking soda, confectioners’ sugar, Polident, but it wasn’t, and I remember thinking how innocuous it looked, how anonymous. In the next moment, Mike sat heavily on the toilet, drew some water up into the syringe I’d seen lying there on a shelf in the medicine cabinet last time I’d used the facilities, squeezed a few drops into the powder, mixed it around and then held a lighter beneath the spoon. Then he tied himself off at the biceps with a bit of rubber tubing, drew the mixture from the spoon through a ball of cotton and hit a vein. I watched his eyes. Watched the rush take him, and then the nod. Nicky was next, then Suzie, then JoJo, and finally Cole. Mike hit them, one at a time, like a doctor. I watched each of them rush and go limp, my heart hammering at my rib cage, the record in the living room repeating over and over because nobody had bothered to put the changer down, and then it was my turn. Mike held up the glassine packet. “It’s just a taste,” he said. “Three-dollar bag. You on for it?”

“No,” I said, “I mean, I don’t think I—”

He studied me a moment, then tossed me the bag. “It’s a waste,” he said, “a real waste, man.” His voice was slow, the voice of a record played at the wrong speed. He shook his head with infinite calm, moving it carefully from side to side as if it weighed more than the cottage itself. “But hey, we’ll snort it this time. You’ll see what you’re missing, right?”

I saw. Within the week I was getting off too, and it was my secret—my initiation into a whole new life—and the tracks, the bite marks of the needle that crawled first up one arm and then the other, were my testament.

IT WAS MY JOB to do lunch duty one week a month, and lunch duty consisted of keeping the student body out of the building for forty-five minutes while they presumably went home, downtown or over to the high school and consumed whatever nourishment was available to them. It was necessary to keep them out of the junior high building for the simple reason that they would destroy it through an abundance of natural high spirits and brainless joviality. I stood in the dim hallway, positioned centrally between the three doors that opened from the southern, eastern and western sides of the building, and made my best effort at chasing them down when they burst in howling against the frigid collapse of the noon hour. On the second day of my third tour of duty, Robert Rowe sauntered in through the front doors and I put down my sandwich—the one my mother had made me in the hour of the wolf before going off to work herself—and reminded him of the rules.

He opened his face till it bloomed like a flower and held out his palms. He was wearing a T-shirt and a sleeveless parka. I saw that he’d begun to let his hair go long. “I just wanted to ask you a question is all.”

I was chewing tunafish on rye, standing there in the middle of all that emptiness in my ridiculous pants and rumpled jacket. The building, like most institutions of higher and lower learning, was overheated, and in chasing half a dozen of my charges out the door I’d built up a sweat that threatened to break my hair loose of its mold. Without thinking, I slipped off the jacket and let it dangle from one hand; without thinking, I’d pulled a short-sleeved button-down shirt out of my closet that morning because all the others were dirty. That was the scene. That was the setup. “Sure,” I said. “Go ahead.”

“I was just wondering—you ever read this book, The Man with the Golden Arm?”

“Nelson Algren?”

He nodded.

“No,” I said. “I’ve heard of it, though.”

He took a moment with this, then cocked his head back till it rolled on his shoulders and gave me a dead-on look. “He shoots up.”

“Who?”

“The guy in the book. All the time.” He was studying me, gauging how far he could go. “You know what that’s like?”

I played dumb.

“You don’t? You really don’t?”

I shrugged. Dodged his eyes.

There was a banging at the door behind us, hilarious faces there, then the beat of retreating footsteps. Robert moved back a pace, but he held me with his gaze. “Then what’s with the spots on your arms?”

I looked down at my arms as if I’d never seen them before, as if I’d been born without them and they’d been grafted on while I was napping. “Mosquito bites,” I said.

“In November? They must be some tough-ass mosquitoes.”

“Yeah,” I said, shifting the half-eaten sandwich from one hand to the other so I could cover up with the jacket, “yeah, they are.”

MIKE LIKED THE COUNTRY. He’d grown up in the projects on the Lower East Side, always pressed in by concrete and blacktop, and now that he was in the wilds of northern Westchester he began to keep animals. There were two chickens in a rudely constructed pen and a white duck he’d hatched from the egg, all of which met their fate one bitter night when a fox—or more likely, a dog—sniffed them out. He had a goat too, chained to a tree from which it had stripped the bark to a height of six feet or more, its head against the palm of your hand exactly like a rock with hair on it, and when he thought about it he’d toss it half a bale of hay or a loaf of stale bread or even the cardboard containers the beer came in. Inside, he had a fifty-gallon aquarium with a pair of foot-long alligators huddled inside it under a heat lamp, and these he fed hamburger in the form of raw meatballs he’d work between his palms. Every once in a while someone would get stoned and expel a lungful of smoke into the aquarium to see what effect it would have on a pair of reptiles and the things would scrabble around against the glass enclosure, hissing.

I was there one night without Cole—he was meeting with his lawyer, I think; I remember he’d shaved his mustache and trimmed his hair about that time—and I parked out on the street so as to avoid suspicion and made my way over the stone wall and through the darkened woods to the indistinct rumble of live music, the pulse of Mike’s bass buoyed by the chink-chink of a high hat, an organ fill and cloudy vocals. My breath steamed around me. A sickle moon hung over the roof of the cottage and one of the cats shot along the base of the outer wall as I pushed through the door.

Everyone was gathered in the living room, JoJo and Suzie stretched out on the floor, Mike and his band, his new band, manning the instruments. I stood in the doorway a moment, feeling awkward. Nicky was on keyboards and a guy I’d met a few times—Skip—was doing the drumming. But there was a stranger, older, in his late twenties, with an out-of-date haircut and the flaccid beginnings of jowls, up at the mike singing lead and playing guitar. I leaned against the doorframe and listened, nodding my head to the beat, as they went through a version of “Rock and Roll Woman,” Mike stepping up to the microphone to blend his voice effortlessly with the new guy’s on the complex harmonies, and it wasn’t as if they were rehearsing at all. They could have been onstage playing the tune for the hundredth time. When the song finished, I ducked into the room, nodding to Mike and saying something inane like, “Sounding good, man.”

As it turned out, the new guy—his name was either Haze or Hayes, I never did get that straight—had played with Mike in a cover band the year before and then vanished from sight. Now he was back and they were rehearsing for a series of gigs at a club out on Route 202, where eventually they’d become the house band. I sat there on the floor with the girls and listened and felt transported—I wanted to get up and sing myself, ask them if they couldn’t use a saxophone to cut away from the guitar leads, but I couldn’t work up the nerve. Afterward, in the kitchen, when we were all stoned and riding high on the communion of the music, Haze launched into “Sunshine of My Love” on his acoustic guitar and I lost my inhibitions enough to try to blend my voice with his, with mixed results. But he kept on playing, and I kept on singing, till Mike went out to the living room and came back with the two alligators, one clutched in each hand, and began banging them together like tambourines, their legs scrambling at the air and tails flailing, the white miniature teeth fighting for purchase.

THEN THERE WAS parent / teacher night. I got home from work and went straight to bed, and then, cruelly, had to get back up, put the tie on all over again and drive to school right in the middle of cocktail hour, or at the tail end of it anyway. I make a joke of it now, but I was tentative about the whole thing, afraid of the parents’ scrutiny, afraid I’d be exposed for the imposter I was. I pictured them grilling me about the rules of grammar or Shakespeare’s plays—the ones I hadn’t read—but the parents were as hopeless as their offspring. Precious few of them turned up, and those who did looked so intimidated by their surroundings I had the feeling they would have taken my word for practically anything. In one class—my fifth period—a single parent turned up. His son—an overweight, well-meaning kid mercilessly ragged by his classmates—was one of the few in the class who weren’t behavioral problems, but the father kept insisting that his son was a real hell-raiser, “just like his old man.” He sat patiently, work-hardened hands folded on the miniature desk, through my fumbling explanation of what I was trying to accomplish with this particular class and the lofty goals to which each and every student aspired and more drivel of a similar nature, before interrupting me to say, “He gives you a problem, you got my permission to just whack him one. All right? You get me?”

I was stuffing papers into my briefcase just after the final bell rang at 8:15, thinking to meet Cole at Chase’s as soon as I could change out of my prison clothes, when a woman in her thirties—a mother—appeared in the doorway. She looked as if she’d been drained of blood, parchment skin and a high sculpted bluff of bleached-blond hair gone dead under the dehumanizing wash of the overhead lights. “Mr. Caddis?” she said in a smoker’s rasp. “You got a minute?”

A minute? I didn’t have thirty seconds. I wanted nothing but to get out of there and get loose before I fell into my bed for a few hours of inadequate dreamless sleep and then found myself right here all over again. “I’m in a hurry,” I told her. “I have—well, an appointment.”

“I only want a minute.” There was something about her that looked vaguely familiar, something about the staring cola-colored eyes and the way her upper teeth pushed at her lip, that reminded me of somebody, somewhere—and then it came to me: Robert Rowe. “I’m Robert’s mother,” she said.

I didn’t say anything, just parked my right buttock on the nearest desk and waited for her to go on. Robert wasn’t in any of my classes, just homeroom. I wasn’t his teacher. He wasn’t my responsibility. The fat kid, yes. The black kid who flew around the room on the wings beating inside his brain chanting He’s white, he’s right for hours at a time, the six months’ pregnant girl whose head would have fallen off if she stopped chewing gum for thirty seconds, yes and yes. But not Robert. Not Robert Rowe.

She was wearing a dirty white sweater, misbuttoned. A plaid skirt. Loafers. If I had been older, more attuned, more sympathetic, I would have seen that she was pretty, pretty still, and that she was desperately trying to communicate something to me, some nascent hope grown up out of the detritus of welfare checks and abandonment. “He looks up to you,” she said, her voice choked, as if suddenly she couldn’t breathe.

This took me by surprise. I didn’t know how to respond, so I threw it back at her, stalling a moment to assimilate what she was saying. “Me?” I said. “He looks up to me?”

Her eyes were pooling. She nodded.

“But why me? I’m not even his teacher.”

“Ever since his father left,” she began, but let that thought trail off as she struggled to summon a new one, the thought—the phrase—that would bring me around, that would touch me in the way she wanted to. “He talks about you all the time. He thinks you’re cool. That’s what he say, ‘Mr. Caddis is cool.’ ”

Robert Rowe’s face rose up to hover before me in the seat of my unconscious, a compressed little nugget of a face, with the extruded teeth and Coca-Cola eyes of this woman, his mother, Mrs. Rowe. That was who she was, Mrs. Rowe, I reminded myself, and I seized on the proper form of address in that moment: “Mrs. Rowe, look, he’s a great kid, but I’m not, I mean—well, I’m not his teacher, you know that—”

The room smelled of adolescent fevers and anxieties, of socks worn too long, unwashed hair, jackets that had never seen the inside of a dry cleaner’s. There was a fading map of the United States on the back wall, chalkboards so old they’d faded to gray. The linoleum was cracked and peeled. The desks were a joke. Her voice was so soft I could barely hear her over the buzz of the fluorescent lights. “I know,” she said. “But he’s not…he’s getting F’s—D’s and F’s. I don’t know what to do with him. He won’t listen to me—he hasn’t listened to me in years.”

“Yeah,” I said, just to say something. He looked up to me, sure, but I had a date to meet Cole at Chase’s.

“Would you just, I don’t know, look out for him? Would you? That’s all I ask.”

I SUPPOSE THERE ARE several layers of irony here, not the least of which is that I wasn’t capable of looking out for myself, but I buried all that at the bar and when I saw Robert Rowe in homeroom the next morning, I felt nothing more than a vague irritation. He was wearing a tie-dyed shirt—starbursts of pink and yellow—under the parka and he’d begun to kink his hair out in the way I wore mine at night, but that had to be a coincidence, because to my knowledge he’d never seen me outside of school. It was possible, of course. Anything was possible. He could have seen me coming out of Chase’s or stopped in my car along South Street with Mike or Cole, looking to score. I kept my head down, working at my papers—the endless, hopeless, scrawled-over tests and assignments—but I felt his eyes on me the whole time. Then the bell rang and he was gone with the rest of them.

I was home early that evening, looking for sustenance—hoping to find my mother in the kitchen stirring something in a pot—because I was out of money till payday and Cole was lying low because his mother had found a bag of pot in his underwear drawer and I felt like taking a break from the cottage and music and dope. Just for the night. I figured I’d stay in, read a bit, get to bed early. My mother wasn’t there, though. She had a meeting. At school. One of the endless meetings she had to sit through, taking minutes in shorthand, while the school board debated yet another bond issue. I wondered about that and wondered about Jerry Reilly too.

My father was home. There was no other place he was likely to be—he’d given up going to the tavern or the diner or anyplace else. TV was his narcotic. And there he was, settled into his chair with a cocktail, watching Victory at Sea (his single favorite program, as if he couldn’t get enough of the war that had robbed him of his youth and personality), the dog, which had been young when I was in junior high myself, curled up stinking at his feet. We exchanged a few words—Where’s Mom? At a meeting. You going to eat? No. A sandwich? I’ll make you a sandwich? I said no.—and then I heated a can of soup and went upstairs with it. For a long while I lay on the floor with my head sandwiched between the speakers, playing records over and over, and then I drifted off.

It was late when I woke—past one—and when I went downstairs to use the toilet, my mother was just coming in the door. The old dog began slapping his tail on the carpet, too arthritic to get up; the lamp on the end table flicked on, dragging shadows out of the corners. “You just getting in?” I said.

“Yes,” she said, her voice hushed. She was in her work clothes: flocked dress, stockings and heels, a cloth coat, no gloves, though the weather had turned raw.

I stood there a moment, listening to the thwack of the dog’s tail, half-asleep, summoning the beat of an internal rhythm. I should have mounted the stairs, should have gone back to bed; instead, I said, “Late meeting?”

My mother had set her purse down on the little table inside the door reserved for the telephone. She was slipping out of her coat. “We went out for drinks afterward,” she said. “Some of us—me and Ruth, Larry Abrams, Ted Penny.”

“And Jerry? What about him—was he there?”

It took a moment, the coat flung over the banister, the dog settled back in his coil, the clank of the heat coming on noisy out of all proportion, and then she turned to me, hands on her hips, and said, “Yes, Jerry was there. And you know what—I’m glad he was.” A beat. She swayed slightly, or maybe that was my imagination. “You want to know why?”

There was something in her voice that should have warned me off, but I was awake now, and instead of going back upstairs to bed I just stood there in the dim arc of light the lamp cast on the floor and shrugged my shoulders. She lifted her purse from the telephone stand and I saw that there was something else there, a metal case the size of the two-tiered deluxe box of candy I gave her for Christmas each year. It was a tape recorder, and she bent a moment to fit the plug in the socket next to the phone outlet. Then she straightened up and gave me that look again—the admonitory look, searing and sharp. “I want you to listen to something,” she said. “Something a friend of Jerry’s—he works for the Peterskill police department, he’s a detective—thought you ought to hear.”

I froze. There was no time to think, no time to fabricate a story, no time to wriggle or plead, because my own voice was coming at me out of the miniature speaker. Hey, I was saying, you coming over or what? It’s like past nine already and everybody’s waiting—

There was music in the background, cranked loud—“Spinning Wheel,” the tune of that fall, and we were all intoxicated by David Clayton Thomas and the incisiveness of those punched-up horns—and my mind ran through the calendar of the past week, Friday or Saturday at the cottage in the woods, Cole running late, the usual party in progress…

Yeah, sure, I heard Cole respond. He was at his mother’s—it was his mother’s birthday. Just as soon as I can get out of here.

Okay, man, I said. Catch you later, right?

That was it. Nothing incriminating, but incrimination wasn’t the point of the exercise. It took me a moment, and then I thought of Haze, his sudden appearance in our midst, the glad-handing and the parceling out of the cool, and then I understood why he’d come to us—the term “infiltrated” soared up out of nowhere—and just who had put him up to it. I couldn’t think of what to say.

My mother could, though. She clicked off the tape with a punch of her index finger. “My friend said if you knew what was good for you, you’d stay clear of that place for a while. For good.” We stood five feet apart. There was no embrace—we weren’t an embracing family—no pat on the back, no gesture of any kind. Just the two of us standing there in the half-dark. When she spoke finally her voice was muted. “Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

AS SOON AS I got out of work the next day I changed my clothes and went straight to the cottage. It was raining steadily, a cold gray rain that drooled from the branches of the trees and braided in the gutters. Cole’s Bug was parked on the street as I drove up, but I didn’t park beside him—I drove another half mile on and parked on aside street, a cul-de-sac where nobody would see the car. Then I put my head down and walked up the road in the rain, veering off into the woods the minute I saw a car turn into the street. I remember how bleak everything looked, the summer’s trash revealed at the feet of the denuded trees, the weeds bowed and frost-burned, leaves clinging to my boots as if the ground were made of paste. My heart was pounding. It was a condition we called paranoia when we were smoking, the unreasoning feeling that something or somebody is about to pounce, that the world has become intractably dangerous and your own vulnerability has been flagged. But no, this wasn’t paranoia: the threat was real.

The hair was wet to my scalp and my jacket all but ruined by the time I pushed through the front door. The house was quiet, no music bleeding through the speakers, no murmur of voices or tread of footsteps. There was the soft fading scratch of one of the cats in the litter pan in the kitchen, and that was it, nothing, silence absolute. I stood in the entryway a moment, trying to scrape the mud and leaves from my boots, but it was hopeless, so finally I just stepped out of them in my stocking feet and left them there at the door. I suppose that was why Suzie and Cole didn’t hear me coming—I hadn’t meant to creep up on them, hadn’t meant anything except to somehow come round to tell them what I knew, what I’d learned, warning them, sparing them, and as I say my heart was going and I was risking everything myself just to be there, just to be present—and when I stepped into the living room they gave me a shock. They were naked, their clothes flung down beside them, rolling on a blanket in sexual play—or the prelude to it. I suppose it doesn’t really matter at this juncture to say that I’d found her attractive—she was the pretty one, always that—or that I felt all along that she’d favored me over Cole or Nicky or any of the others? That didn’t matter. That had nothing to do with it. I’d come with a warning, and I had to deliver it.

“Who’s that?” Suzie’s voice rose up out of the stillness. Cole was atop her and she had to lift her head to fix her eyes on me. “John? Is that you?”

Cole rolled off her and flipped a fold of the blanket over her. “Jesus,” he said, “you picked a great moment.” His eyes burned, though I could see he was trying to be cool, trying to minimize it, no big thing.

“Jesus,” Suzie said, “you scared me. Do you always creep around like that?”

“My boots,” I said. “They just—or actually, I just came by to tell you something, that’s all—I can’t stay…”

The rain was like two cupped palms holding the place in its grip. The gutters rattled. Pinpricks needled the roof. “Shit,” Cole said, and Suzie reached out to gather up her clothes, shielding her breasts in the crook of one arm, “I mean, shit, John. Couldn’t you wait in the kitchen, I mean, for like ten fucking minutes? Huh? Couldn’t you?”

I swung round without a word and padded out to the kitchen even as the living room door thundered shut at my back. For a long while I sat at the familiar table with its detritus of burned joss sticks, immolated candles, beer bottles, mugs, food wrappers and the like, thinking I could just write them a note—that would do it—or maybe I’d call Cole later, from home, when he got home, that was, at his mother’s. But I couldn’t find a pencil—nobody took notes here, that was for sure—and finally I just pushed myself up, tiptoed to the door and fell back into my boots and the sodden jacket.

IT WAS JUST getting dark when I pulled up in front of the house. My father’s car was parked there at the curb, but my mother’s wasn’t and it wasn’t in the driveway either. The rain kept coming down—the streets were flooding, broad sheets of water fanning away from the tires and the main road clogged with slow-moving cars and their tired headlights and frantically beating wipers. I ran for the house, kicked off my boots on the doorstep and flung myself inside as if I’d been away for years. My jacket streamed and I hurried across the carpet to the accompaniment of the dog’s thwacking tail and hung it from the shower head in the bathroom. Then I went to the kitchen to look in the refrigerator, feeling desolate and cheated. I didn’t have a habit despite the stigmata of my arms—I was a neophyte still, a twice- or three-times-a-week user—but I had a need, and that need yawned before me, opening up and opening up again, as I leaned over the sink. The cottage was over. Cole was over. Life, as I’d come to know it, was finished.

It was then that I noticed the figure of my father moving through the gloom of the backyard. He had on a pair of galoshes I’d worn as a kid, the kind with the metal fasteners, and he was wearing a yellow rain slicker and one of those winter hats with the fold-down earmuffs. I couldn’t quite tell what he was doing out there, raking dirt or leaves, something to do with the rain, I guessed—the driveway was eroding, maybe that was it. It never crossed my mind that he might need help. And Robert Rowe never crossed my mind either, nor the fact that his speech had been garbled and slow at the noon hour and his eyes drifting toward a point no one in this world could see but him.

No. I was hungry for something, I didn’t know what. It wasn’t food, because I mechanically chewed a handful of saltines over the sink and washed them down with half a glass of milk that tasted like chalk. I paced round the living room, snuck a drink out of my mother’s bottle—Dewar’s, that was what she drank; my father stuck with vodka, the cheaper the better, and I’d never acquired a taste for it. I had another drink, and then another. After a while I eased myself down in my father’s chair and gazed around the room where I’d spent the better part of my life, the secondhand furniture, the forest-green wallpaper gone pale around the windowframes, the peeling sheet-metal planter I’d made for my mother in shop class, the plants within it long since expired, just curls of dead things now. Finally I got up and turned on the TV, then settled back in my father’s chair as the jets came in low and the village went up in flames.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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