Image: Richard Lindner, ‘Poet from Fun City’, 1971, lithograph, MOMA.
Charlie’s uncle Billy had these little legs that couldn’t walk. They were all wrapped up in cloth and looked like sock monkeys. But he had a big, deep laugh; the broad, cartoonish upper body of a professional wrestler; and intuitive, graceful hands: he was a talented, finger-picking guitarist, a deft, sensitive water colorist, and could diagnose the ills of any domestic pickup built in the 20th century with just his probing touch. He was a Renaissance Man despite his legs, he said. Charlie’s mother said he was a lying drunk who believed his own tall tales. Charlie’s father said nothing, because he wasn’t around anymore.
When Charlie’s mother was switched to night shifts at the bottling plant, Charlie had to stay with Billy in his first floor, government-funded apartment until she got home. Charlie liked it okay. Everything was custom fit for Billy, so all the counters and sinks were low, there were no cupboards high on the walls (in fact, there wasn’t anything on any of the walls, except a large leopard-print blanket hanging over the saggy couch). It was all a perfect height for Charlie. But anything interesting was off-limits: Billy’s geodes, and his guitar, and his paints, and his shot glass collection, and his booze, and his knives, and his guns. Mostly what Charlie did was sit on the couch and do homework on the coffee table and listen as Billy, drink in hand, told wild, increasingly unlikely stories.
Billy had long black hair that he whipped back and forth like a shaggy dog when he was about to say something truly incredible. He did this just before he told the story of Sad Bruce.
“You’ll never believe it, Chucky,” Billy said (he always said this). “But I tell you—it’s totally true, man. I knew this guy named Bruce. Saddest dude you ever met. He worked security, graveyard shift, and when he got off, he’d come into Last Chance. I was the bouncer there for awhile. Did I tell you about that?”
“Yeah,” said Charlie, doing his math homework. “You threw Don Johnson out once for groping a lady.”
Billy laughed. “Yeah, that perv. Anyway, so the bar opened at, like, six a.m. And I was there, not working, just there. But good thing I was, ‘cause the guys who drink at dawn, those desperate fuckers are capable of anything . . . Don’t tell your mom I said ‘fuckers,’ okay?”
“I never do,” said Charlie.
“Good boy. So, anyway, Bruce comes in this one morning, all sad—as usual. Says his lady’s been cheating on him. She always was. Do you know what that means? Cheating?”
“You said it was when your lady has too many buns for your hot dogs.”
“Did I? That’s good. I’m gonna have to write that one down. Write that down for me, for my memoirs. So. Here’s Bruce, drinking a Bud at sunrise and he says, ‘Billy, man, I gotta get outta here. I gotta go for a drive. Come with me.’ Well, you know me—I have to drive that shit-heap special van. It’s no fun. But Bruce had this sweet ride, this midnight-black Dodge Charger. So, I’m like, ‘Shit, yeah, I’ll ride in your Charger!’ We throw my chair in the backseat, and we go driving up the coast. Just burnin’ rubber. Racing the day, man. Playing Creedence, smoking, uh—cigars . . . All of our troubles just way the fuck behind us, you know? Finally we get to this lookout and Bruce wants to stretch his legs—and I’m like, ‘Hey, me too!’ It was pretty funny. Anyway, we get out at this lookout point and there’s the ocean and shit and we see a fucking whale! Big old humpback, just jumping out of the water. It had this shit-eating grin on its face and so did we. And I said, ‘I think it’s our lucky day, Bruce,’ so we went to this little casino and I played one hand of Blackjack—just one!—and boom! I won five hundred bucks. True story.”
Charlie had finished his homework and closed his notebook. “What happened to Bruce?”
“Huh?” said Billy. He was mixing himself another scotch and soda. “Oh, I don’t know. I think he died. Killed himself? Drugs? It was after I moved up here, so I don’t know for sure. You ever see a whale, Chucky?”
“Only on TV.”
“Well you should do it in real life sometime, kid. It’s good fucking luck, I tell you what.”
Charlie loved Billy’s stories, but they always left him a little unsatisfied, as though there were some point he had missed. When he read a story for school, there was always a lesson to be learned, or a moral, and his teacher gave them extra credit on their tests if they could say what it was. But Billy’s stories never had a lesson. They sometimes didn’t even really end, they just became other stories, or trailed off into nothing if a song Billy liked came on the radio. Charlie used to ask Billy, “What was that story about?” and Billy would laugh and shake his head and say something like, “Kid, didn’t you listen? It was about me!” Which was never enough of an answer for Charlie, and certainly not the kind of answer you give Mrs. Millbury.
On their way home, Charlie told his mom the story of Sad Bruce. She shook her head. Her hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail and strands of it floated freely around her, as if charged with static. She still had a lime-green earplug wedged into one of her ears.
“Do you think it’s true?” asked Charlie.
“No, sweetie. It’s just a story.”
“But I like it. I like that the whale smiled.”
“Whales don’t smile.”
“And I like that whales are good luck. I want to see a whale.”
“Whale’s aren’t good luck. They’re just big fish.”
“Actually, Mom,” said Charlie, “they’re mammals. Like me.”
“They live in the water, they’re fish,” said his mom, sighing deeply.
The next day, Billy ran out of soda and sent Charlie down to the More for Less to pick some up. Charlie rode his bike. It was a short ride but he took his time, riding back and forth across the empty street, going off onto the little footpaths that cut through the woods to other empty roads, other quiet neighborhoods. There was a veterinary clinic down the street from Billy’s, just across from the More for Less, and Charlie rode in circles through its vacant gravel parking lot. As he came around the building he saw a man hanging out of a dumpster, his spindly legs wagging back and forth. Charlie slowed. The man was jerking back and forth and eventually the dumpster lid fell down on his waist with a dull crash.
“Son of a bitch!” the man yelled. He pulled himself up and out of the dumpster, rubbing his lower back. He was wearing a grey jumpsuit and muddy work boots. He had a poofy brown beard and shaggy brown hair, and in between was a big forehead and a sharp nose. He was very skinny, all elbows and knees; his baggy clothes hung off him like they were filled with wind.
“You okay, mister?” said Charlie.
The man did a little hop and turned around. “Jesus, kid. You creepin’ on me?”
Charlie shrugged. “Just riding my bike to the store.”
“Whoop de doo,” said the man, knuckling his back and grimacing. “Well, hey, you want to help me?”
“Sure,” said Charlie. “What’re you doing?”
“All the frozen dogs are in here, and I’m trying to get them out. I know a guy who pays.”
“There’s no dogs in there.”
“Is so,” said the man. “When they put them to sleep, they freeze ‘em, and a special garbage truck comes to bury them in a pit. I used to work here, I know. Tomorrow’s the pickup day, so I gotta get them out tonight.”
Charlie looked around. He didn’t see a car. “Where you gonna put them?”
The man sighed like Charlie was stupid and opened his mouth to say something, but then just closed it and narrowed his eyes. “Shit,” he said.
Charlie started to ride away, stopped again. “My uncle has a van. He loves adventures.”
The man ran his fingers through is beard. “Is that so? Where’s your uncle live?”
“Just up the street,” said Charlie. “I’m getting him some soda water.”
“You think he’d let me use it?” said the man.
“He likes to do random stuff for money,” said Charlie. But when Charlie asked him, Billy said no.
“Who’s this guy now?” said Billy, stirring his drink.
“His name’s Clark. He’s gonna sell some frozen dogs but he has to get them tonight, and he’s got no car.”
“Are you shitting me kid? Are you making this shit up? If so, I’m impressed. If not, then I’m really irritated.”
“I’m not making it up.”
“Then I’m irritated.”
“Why? It’ll be money. You could split it with him. And it might be fun.”
“Chucky, that van is not for dead dogs. It’s for getting me around and occasional love-making.” This prompted a story that Charlie had heard before involving a fishing trip and a chance encounter with twin sisters. While his uncle was talking, Charlie went over to the window and looked out into the parking lot, where Clark was waiting. Charlie shook his head and Clark’s shoulders slumped.
When his mom was driving him home, Charlie asked her, “What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done?”
“I’m tired, Charlie,” she said.
“I know, but, please?” he was looking out the window. He could see his face ghostly and grey reflected against the flickering black trees.
She sighed. “When I had you,” she said, and smiled at him.
“For real, Mom.”
She rolled her head around her shoulders. They were pulling into their driveway. They stopped and she left the car running. “When I was a teenager,” she said, turning to him. “I volunteered to go to Mexico with a church group to help build houses for poor people. And it was very fun, and very exciting. Okay?”
Charlie smiled. “Okay,” he said. “Mom?”
She turned the car off. “Yeah?”
“Can I do that, when I’m older?”
She smiled. “Sure. If you still want to when you’re sixteen, sure.”
They were getting out of the car. It was a warm night and crickets were chirping.
“Were you religious?”
“Yes,” she said. “A long time ago.”
The next day, Charlie told Billy, “When I’m sixteen, I’m going to Mexico.”
Billy snorted. “Yeah right. You’re mom will never let you. My sister is what we call a ‘wet blanket’.”
“She said so. She said I could.”
“Check with me again when you’re sixteen, let’s see what she says.” And he laughed and laughed.
Charlie felt stupid. Last night, he didn’t doubt his mom but today it did seem far-fetched. Sometimes she said things just to make him happy and then forgot all about it later. He knew Billy was right.
Billy rolled into the kitchen and opened the fridge. “Chucky, I think we’ll switch it up tonight.”
“Yeah?” said Charlie, brightening.
“I think I’ll be having Manhattans. Why don’t you run to the store for me and get some maraschino cherries.”
“Oh,” said Charlie. “Sure.”
He rode through the vet clinic’s parking lot. There were no dogs in the dumpster, it was empty. On the bottom were little flowers of rust floating in a shallow puddle. He bought the cherries and himself a candy bar. When he got back to the apartments, he rode his bike into the carport and saw Clark running a wire into the driver’s side window on Billy’s van.
“Hey Clark,” said Charlie.
Clark jumped. “Jesus, kid. You have a real knack for creeping, you know?”
“What’re you doing?” Charlie leaned his bike against the wall.
“Well, see, your uncle said it was okay to use his van after all. Only I’m not going to get frozen dogs anymore. I’m, uh, going to the coast. Got some stuff to pick up on the coast, and I’m going to bring the van right back.”
Clark narrowed his eyes. “Yes,” he said.
“Cool!” said Charlie. “Can I come? I want to see a whale. They’re good luck, y’know.”
“No they’re not,” said Clark. “They’re just fish.” He did something with the wire and the door popped and opened. Clark smiled. He opened the door and looked inside. “Where the fuck is the seat?”
“Billy’s in a wheelchair,” said Charlie. “There’s a lift, and he rides up into the van and sits in his chair while he drives.”
Clark shook his head. “That’s insane.”
“Can I come?” said Charlie. “I won’t tell.”
Clark groaned and rolled his eyes. “What’s in the bag?”
“Cherries and a Payday.”
“Fine,” said Clark. “You can come. Just be real quiet about it, okay?”
Clark went poking around through the carport, which had little storage cupboards for each tenant. He found a lawn chair in one of the unlocked cupboards and whooped with excitement. He set the lawn chair in the van as a driver’s seat and had Charlie point out how Billy used the special levers and pedals to drive the car. Charlie sat in the passenger seat and as they backed out of the parking lot he thought that this was exactly the kind of thing Billy would do, and so he probably wouldn’t be too mad that they stole his van. And they would bring it back, of course. Plus, it would make a really great story; only when he told Billy and his mom about it, there would be a lesson. He decided he was going to tell the kinds of stories that had lessons.
They drove for awhile and then Clark said, “How about some of those cherries, compadre?”
Charlie handed him the jar and Clark said, “Oh,” and set the jar aside.
They drove out of the foothills and through town. They drove past orchards and taco trucks and rice fields.
“How long does it take to get to the coast?” Charlie asked. He was looking out the window at the dry brown fields, the twisted valley oaks, the crows a-flight and the crows bobbing on telephone wires.
“Not too long,” said Clark.
“Is Mexico far? My mom said I could go someday but I think she lied.”
Clark looked at Charlie, then back at the road. “Hey, how old are you?”
Clark snorted. “Hoo boy,” he said. “Listen, what are you doing?”
Charlie shrugged, looked at his hands. “Nothing.”
“No, you’re doing something: you’re riding in a van with a stranger.”
“I know you. You’re name’s Clark.”
Clark stared at Charlie for a moment with his mouth open. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, it is, but that don’t mean you know me. Don’t be dumb. I could be a murderer for all you know.”
Clark sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “No,” he said quietly. “I’m nobody.”
“Then what’s the problem? Let’s just go to the coast, leave all our troubles way the fuck behind us.”
“Jesus kid,” said Clark, “You talk to your Momma like that?”
Charlie looked back out the window. They were crossing a bridge. Under the bridge a little creek was running, and along the creek were bushes and vines, a big scar of green cutting through the dry brown fields. “No,” he said.
They drove on in silence. They passed a boarded up general store and a decrepit barn with a white “For Sale” sign spray-painted on its side. The sun was low on the horizon and shadows were thickening in the orchard rows. They pulled into a single-pump gas station with a small clapboard snack shop. The windows were greasy and smeared but Charlie could see an old man sleeping behind the counter.
Clark handed Charlie a five. “Tell that guy we need three dollars of gas. And get a bag of pork rinds. Not spicy.”
Charlie got out. There was a stale wind blowing and it carried the smell of smoke. As Charlie reached the door of the shop Clark called out again, “Not spicy!”
There was one rack of snacks, and half of it was chewing tobacco. There were no pork rinds. The sleeping old man stirred and smacked his lips.
“Do you have pork rinds?” Charlie asked.
The old man stared at him, blinking. Finally, he said, “No.”
Charlie put the money on the counter. “Three dollars of gas, please.”
The old man took the money and just held it. “For what?”
Charlie pointed out the door but the van wasn’t there.
“You gonna huff it?” said the old man.
“There was a van there.”
“You gonna huff some gas, kid?”
“My uncle’s van,” said Charlie.
He went outside. The stale smoky wind moved around him. He walked to the road. It was empty in both directions. Across the street was a dry and withered corn field. The smoke rose from the far side of the field in a dense, black curtain. Dark orange flames spiked up here and there from within the corn, advancing in a wave towards the road. He heard the doorbell jingle as the old man came outside. Charlie didn’t turn around. He needed to tell his mom. He needed to tell his uncle. He needed to tell them what had happened but he wasn’t sure what to say, or how to say it. The old man stood next to him.
“Where do you belong?” said the old man.
“Don’t worry about the fire,” said the old man. “They do that every year.”
Charlie understood. He hadn’t before, but now he did.