28 February 2018

Morning is Broken

  There is a thudding on the door, I think. I don't hear the knock so much as experience the awareness of the aftermath of a knock. I've got my blanket over my head, I am swimming in grey. The pounding continues. The fog of my consciousness renders surprise that the knocks are distant, as if I am asleep. I've not slept for hours, days, months, years. I exist only in a grey in-between, in indistinct phasing robbed of the solace of sleep, a cold pasty cloud with me eternally present, eyes pinned open like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, watching a flickering grainy black and white film reel through a haze. I'm not asleep, I'm not awake. And the pounding continues.
  "Joby. Joby. C'mon, open the door, man."
  My brother. My brother is not enough to break through this layer of cold, immobile death.
  "C'mon, Joby, open up. You in there?"
  I heard a scraping, the knob jiggling. The average door lock doesn't pose much of a problem to Chuck, much less a meager bedroom door lock. Just a couple seconds, and he is at the foot of my bed.
  "Dude, c'mon, wake up. You okay?" He pokes at me, shakes me gently. His light prod feels like a jab into my in-between phase, and my arm jets out from the covers and swipes at him. Now conscious, my head pops out, I involuntarily jerk back. My brother has a hair trigger; he's not the kind of guy you swing on. I know he won't come back at me, but still. I look at him, his eyes narrow, he sinks almost imperceptibly back into himself. It's the way he looks when he bites down on an anger flare. He only manages to bite down on his anger when it involves me. I'm his older brother; that's the way it goes. "Whoa, easy, it's just me. I fucking hate that when I knock on this door there's part of me that's not sure I'm going to find you alive."
  "Sorry. I was asleep. Sorta."
  "No shit. When you been awake? I haven't seen you around for a while."
  "I been around."
  "You've been here. You've been in this room. You used to sleep a lot, you used to sleep all the time. But seriously, this is beyond that. For real, I don't think you've left this room for a month, at least."
  "Oh, that's a bit much, I think."
  "Seriously. I mean, we see the rice cooker used . . . for real, do you eat anything else? have you had anything else for, like, over a month now? . . . but that's it. We see signs of your life, but we haven't seen you."
  "Don't worry, I'm still alive."
  "Brah, this ain't what I call livin'. You're alive, but you ain't livin'."
  "Oh, that's very poetic. You are so deep. A real fucking Socrates."
  He hated it when I he thought I was calling him stupid. It was one of the few things that could set him against me. I was prodding his anger, trying to use it as a razor to slash at my clammy skin, to shock me into the present, to tear the veil that covered my being. It didn't work; I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.
  "Look Joby, you need to get up, you need to move around. I don't suppose you've been to work in a while. You talked to them?"
  "No. Just stopped showing up. Needless to say I don't have a job anymore."
  Chuck sighed, and sat down on the bed beside me. "Well, we're not going to worry about that right now. First, just get used to living again. You know, get up in the morning, go to bed at night, do things in between. After that, maybe we can look for a new job."
  "Christ, there's no way I'm ready for that yet."
  Chuck looked away, and I saw stress lock into his eyes. "Well, okay, I know you don't want to think about this yet, and it's not gonna matter anyway unless you can pull yourself together a bit. So just take some time, you know, walk before you run. But we gotta face it, and sooner rather than later. I'm doing my best, really I am. But things are dry for me now; cops are watching, they roust me for no reason when I'm out and about. Everyone is staying away from me, there's nothing I can do. I'm like a laser tag for the po-lice. I do all the off-the-books work I can, but it's not enough." Chuck put his arm around my neck and pulled me over to him. "Look, you can come out of this. It's going to take both of us survive. I know you're having a hard time, but I need you. We need each other."
  I've almost never seen him like this. Even jail didn't break him; but now he was close, very close to being broken. "How bad?"
  "We're two months behind on rent, Jo. The only reason we're still here is that our piece of shit slumlord hasn't got around to kicking us out yet, but he will within the next couple weeks if we don't come up with most, if not all, of the cash we owe him. The electricity gets shut off next week too. I mean, I can run a routine or two to get us through rough times, but that can't be the main source of income for us, at least not until I cool down a bit. As it is, I've used up every trick I have, and I'm on thin ice." He pulled me closer. "I need you, Jo. You know I hate to ask. I can give you a few days, but then you need to get some money. You need to get a job."
  "Maybe we need to get someone else to live here with us, someone to help us with the bills."
  "Well, first of all, we need to have a room to offer them, which means you'll have to move your bed into my room." The rooms in our duplex were 10 x 12, just barely enough for two beds.
  "I can move into the basement."
  "Dude, that basement is not even finished."
  "It's partially finished. I can clean it up."
  "Even so, there's no heat or electrical outlets down there."
  "There's enough room down there for a two man tent. I'll just get a used tent and pitch it down there. We could run an extension cord down from the living room, I could get a space heater. It would stay cool enough in the summer. That could work."
  "C'mon Jo, get real."
  "Okay then, maybe we get a cheaper place. We could make do with a little less room, make do with a one bedroom if the bedroom were just a little bigger."
  "We can't keep falling down, Joby. Never mind having to put down new deposits, rent in advance, and so on. There's a ground floor, and we're on it. We won't find anything that much cheaper than this hellhole unless it isn't fit for human habitation.  And I don't want to harp on the point, but right now, no matter how low the rent is, we ain't got it. The next step down is the street."
  Tears began to well up, I stifled back a sob. "Sorry, man. I fucked up."
  "It's not you. It's a fucked up world. Most of us, it chews up and spits out. Best we can do is surf the wave we catch, and paddle for our lives until the next one comes in."
  "Still, I'm sorry. I really slipped."
  "Forget it. Just go to bed tonight by midnight, get up at nine tomorrow morning. Do that for a couple days, then we'll take the next step, okay?"
  "Sure. I'll try my best."
  "Good. Now, get yourself cleaned up and get out of the house. I got to go out. Got a very thin thread out there, but I can't afford to look past anything. I'll be back for dinner tonight. I'll bring a pizza."
   "Thanks." Chuck ruffled my hair, got up, and moved toward the door. "Chuck, I love you."
  He turned and gave a small half smile. "Love you too, Jo. Now get out the door, just walk around. Go to the library, get yourself a new book. I'll see you at dinner." With that, he strode out of the room.
  I have often wished myself dead. Never more so than now. I sat on my bed and stared at a grease spot on the wall until the horror evaporated into a blankness, like morphine but cold.

***   ***   ***

  I stood in the steaming hot shower for what seemed a year, until the hot water ran out. When I left the bathroom, Chuck was already gone. He had left a clean set of clothes neatly folded on my bed: khakis, boxers, a clean black T-shirt, socks, and a charcoal sweater. He was just a bit bigger than me, especially given my irregular diet over the past several weeks, but the clothes fit well enough, given that he wore his clothes tight and I preferred them a bit loose. After getting dressed and pulling on an old pair of Docs, I went into the kitchen. There he had left me his lined hoodie and a gray wool scarf. On the kitchen table was a roast beef sandwich, a small can of Pringles, and a can of Coke. Tucked under the plate was a ten dollar bill, enough buy gas to get me around for the next day or two. By my lunch was a note: Love you my brother, have a good day.
  I ate my lunch, and went outside to my car. It was a little above freezing, but the wind was cold. I pumped the gas pedal on the Pontiac twice and turned the key. I was mildly surprised, but it started right up. As soon as the car settled into idle, the low gas warning sounded. I drove immediately to the gas station and put the ten in the tank, which still had it well under half.
  I had every intention of looking for a job, but as I drove around aimlessly out by the mall, I couldn't work up the nerve to walk into any store to ask for a job. I couldn't even work up the nerve to talk. I wanted, with every fiber in my body, to be back in my room, in bed. But I couldn't let Chuck down. I had to keep moving until at least six, which is about the time he would be home. It was about noon now. I had no idea how I could last six hours. I had no idea how I could work a job, ever again. Right now, I could only think of one thing to do.
  The car I drove was a 2010 Pontiac G6. It was my dad's car, but he was in prison on his third strike, so he wasn't going to need it for another 10 years, at the very least. He had the car titled in my name so it didn't get seized by the feds when he got busted, but he held on to the title himself, just so "nothing happened to it", making it clear that he expected it to be waiting on him when he got out, and without too many more miles on the odometer. It was, unfortunately, indicative of my father that he thought holding onto the hard copy of the title would be the same as still owning the car, and that the idea of requesting a duplicate title would not occur to him. For all the illegal money he made in his life, he just wasn't that bright. I had requested a duplicate title the day the door slammed shut on his cell.
  There was no way I was working again anytime soon. Between Chuck's words was an unspoken level of desperation unusual for him. $6000 dollars would keep us afloat for long enough to get on our feet. The salesman at Harris Toyota had different ideas.
  "$3000? Dude, in less than a second, I get Kelly Bluebook up on my phone, so why you fucking with me?" I had no phone, but the goon with the "hi-tech" sport fabric polo and khakis didn't need to know that I had to go to the library to surf the web.
  "Then you know it's fair."
  He was getting annoyed with me. Apparently, he saw the hollows of my cheeks and a nice recent model Pontiac and figured he had a cheap and easy sale. I wondered idly just how much I looked like a drug addict. "Okay, then, how much are you looking for?"
  "That's over retail, my friend . . . "
  "No, no it's not. It's totally fair, and leaves a little on the bone for you."
  "Well, you're wrong, but that's beside the point. This little upturn means we sell more new cars, and right now we have a glut of trade-ins. It's a buyer's market. Of course, if you wait a couple months, no guarantees, but things could change . . . " his voice trailed off. He obviously sussed out that I wasn't in a position to wait.
  "Maybe I just go to CarMax."
  "Feel free. But they're glutted as well."
  I wondered if glutted was actually a word; but he was right about CarMax. I had already been there, and the most they were going to go was $3000. Apparently they had the internet too. "I'll go to $5000. That is a good price, and you know it."
  "$3500." He was exasperated and impatient. Maybe he didn't have his second coffee in the morning, maybe his lunch was past due, but he didn't really seem to have stomach for the battle.
  "Are we really gonna play this game? You stair step up and I stair step down, and we meet in the middle?" I realized he wasn't the only one who was starting to wear thin early: agoraphobia was nibbling around my edges.
  He clenched his jaw, and silently walked around the car once, twice. He looked up. "I was supposed to go to lunch an hour ago. $4000 is the best you get today. If that's not good enough, then take it somewhere else. Or bring it back here after we run through some inventory; I don't care."
  "Goodbye." He turned and walked away.
  "Okay, I'll take four."
  "Too late." He kept walking without turning around. I was going to have to give him his victory.
  "Look, dude, you win. I'll take the four. You know it's low miles, you know it's clean, a blue book 'excellent'. You know you'll make your money. I'm hungry, you're hungry, let's wrap this up and get on with our day."
  He didn't stop walking, but he turned and looked over his shoulder. "Well, what are you waiting for? Get the paperwork, and take it in to the cashier. She'll cut you a check."
  "One more thing: I don't have any cash. You give me a couple bucks for bus fare? Take it off the check, if you want."
  He turned around and looked at me as if I had ripped a loud fart at his dinner party. "Republic Bank's two miles up the road. They'll cash the check, free if you open an account." He turned back around and went through the door without holding it for me. I followed him in, but he refused to acknowledge me. He muttered something to the cashier, and walked into an office into the back. The cashier stitched up her face in the most obviously fake smile you could imagine; but at least she made the effort.

***   ***   ***

  So now, I am a little bit less of an American, because I no longer own a car. But I am a little bit more of an American, with my shiny fresh checking account at Republic Bank. The teller gave me a shitty look when I deposited twenty-five of the four grand into the account, taking the rest in cash. I flipped $50 back to her to get a bus pass for the month. She scowled again when I asked for a bus schedule. "They're at the stops" she grunted, without making eye contact. I walked out of Republic Bank with my folder of papers, figuring I'll just kiss that twenty-five bucks goodbye; I had no interest in dealing with those assholes again.
  It picked me up ever so slightly to see a library branch just up the street, and it was one of the big ones too, so I should be able to kill most of the afternoon before catching a bus home. And speaking of catching a bus home, they generally had bus schedules and information at the library, so I could get a schedule and start to develop my public transportation chops.
  I long for the days when all libraries where massive limestone buildings. Old stodgy edifices with heavy wooden doors, iron radiators that hissed, pinged, and banged, huge windows that almost imperceptibly distorted the light and view from the outside, facades obscured by a variety of trees big and small, flowering trees and hardwoods, elms out front with evergreen hollies tucked away on the sides. Instead, this library was an inexpensive two-story brick and glass mid-century that probably looked cool on paper, but just sort of sunk back into the strip mall Walgreens and Dominos that surrounded it. Inside, the open free standing second level lent the interior a spacious feel that seemed slightly ephemeral in a way a library shouldn't. But hey, it was a goddamn library. It had books.
  I'm sure my library account was in serious arrears by now. I would check out books, keep them for a very long time if I returned them at all, and never pay any fines. I figured there wasn't any way I'd be leaving with books short of stealing them, but I figured I would go check. There was an old, slightly balding hippy guy behind the counter who looked to be in charge and friendly enough, so up to the counter I went, digging my old card out of my wallet.
  "So, is this still good?" I handed him my card.
  "Sure it is. It's old, but it still works." He peered at me over the top of old, slightly bent wire framed specs.
  "I mean, is it still on?"
  "Still on?" he seemed puzzled, but then his eyes relaxed in a subtle gesture of understanding and vague apprehension. He reached for the card, scanned it, and popped his eyebrows wryly. "Well, no, I guess it's not 'still on', as you put it. Not until you pay up your fines and return the book . . . ah, books . . . that you checked out oh, so long ago."
  "Uhm, can you tell me the titles?"
  "Do you think you still have them?"
  I knew damn well I didn't. I sold them long ago. "Maybe, I'm not sure."
  He smirked. "Well, I can print this up for you, so you can take it home and look." He squinted back at the computer over his glasses, jiggling the mouse to try to wake it up. "Stupid thing is froze up again. Give me a minute, I'll get you a print out."
  "What happens if I can't find them?"
  "Well, you can't check out books. You're card will stay 'off', as you would have it. Unless you pay for the books and catch up on your fines."
  "How much would that be?"
  "Well, let's see." He worked silently, his lips moving very slightly while he was rinning the figures. "To pay for the books, you would be around . . . oh, say $125, with a generous round down in your favor. Add the fines to that . . . I'll give you a break there as well . . . we're up to about $150, I would say."
  "Yeah, that's not going to happen."
  "Somehow, I didn't think so. How much can you pay right now?"
  "How much do you need?"
  "Technically, the whole thing. But you could pay part of it now, and we can turn the card back on, and you could pay the rest a little at a time."
  "Well, I could give you ten or so now, I think."
  He looked at me again, still staring over the top of his glasses. "What are the chances we ever get another penny out of you?"
  We both knew the answer to that; lying to the man would just be rude. "Pretty slim, I imagine. You would be at the bottom of a very long list that is only getting longer."
  "At least you are honest. Tell you what: I'll settle right now with you for fifty dollars."
  "How about forty? That's what I've got on me."
  "Forty, and you have to register to vote."
  "I have to do what?"
  "Register to vote. This country is going to hell in a handbasket because nobody cares enough to do the simplest things anymore. Like voting. People need to get off their ass and vote, or look what happens . . ." he gestured widely with his hand "so, I do you a favor, and you return the favor by doing your civic duty."
  "I'm already registered" I lied.
  "Are you? And before you answer that question, you need to know that I can check you on that."
  "Didn't think so. Forty and you register to vote. Final offer."
  "So you just take my word that I'm going to register?"
  "Of course not. I'm going to take you over to the computers and stand over your shoulder while you do it."
  "Okay, if that's what it takes. Voting a total waste of time, but I'll register for you."
  For the first time, he started to look pissed off. "See, this is why the country is the way it is, people like you who don't give a shit . . ."
  I was in no mood for a lecture from a hippy liberal. "Yeah, well the president is a douchebag, but . . . "
  "Stop right now if you're going to say one is as bad as the other, that's just lazy rationalization, not to mention completely wrong. Are you even paying attention to what is going on? Or is it okay with you . . ."
  I raised my hands in supplication. "Look, I didn't mean to offend you. Of course I'll register to vote."
  "And you'll actually vote?"
  No, I would not. "Of course. I always did before I moved. I just let my registration lapse."
  "Okay, but I will hold you to that." He calmed down a little bit. "Now give me the forty, then we'll go over and get you registered."
  I reached into my pocket, but quickly recognized it would be rather bad form to pull out a roll of bills after I had just told him that I only had forty dollars on me. "Listen, I'm going to go grab a couple books first, then we'll settle up and check out at the same time."
  By that point he realized that a line was starting to form. "Suit yourself. See you back up here when you get your books, then we'll go over to the computers and do your registration."
  I went back in the stacks without any real idea of what I wanted to get. I wanted to loose myself in The Brothers Karamazov again, feeling buffeted by the world as I did, but I really felt I should read something new. I had tried Tolstoy before, but he bored the shit out of me. Turgenev was a little better, but someone I trusted once told me that Fathers and Sons - which I had already read - was the only thing worth reading. I idly leafed through some Paul Bowles stories, but nothing caught my attention. I wasn't in the mood for any extra macho bullshit like Bukowski or Harry Crews. I read a few pages of Blood and Guts in High School, but I wasn't in the mood for it either. I grabbed a copy of The Real Cool Killers by Chester Himes, but that looked like a quick read, so I looked for something else. Around the corner I saw a copy of Journey to the End of the Night. I had read Céline before, and I had liked him, even though it was viciously depressing, and he was most likely a total asshole. I grabbed it along with the Himes and headed back to the counter.
  Along the way I stopped in the poetry section. I always liked poetry, but I hesitated to tell anybody, not because I was ashamed in any way, but because I was afraid that if I talked about it with someone, they would give me their poetry to read, and no one writes good poetry. Everyone writes really bad poetry, actually; it ranges from bad to apocalyptically horrible. I did hang out with a girl once who had really good taste in poetry, and didn't even get too mad when I told her I didn't want to read any of hers. I remember she liked twentieth century poetry quite a bit, and that she especially liked this really thick anthology called Poems for the Millennium. I found five volumes there; I opted for the third one, because it had the most names I recognized in it. On the way out, I grabbed the Selected Poems of André Breton, since I remember liking a poem by him that she read to me . . . though I couldn't remember exactly why I liked it. It might have been just because we were laying in bed naked together at the time.
  Back at the counter, the hippie librarian took my forty dollars and typed information into the computer. "Okay, all set. Lot of thick books there, you sure you're not biting off more than you can chew here?"
  "Just what are you trying to imply?"
  My tone must have had a little edge to it, because instead of answering, he just scowled at the computer screen. He scanned my card, took the books, and started scanning them. He scanned the Himes and the two poetry collections, but when he got to the Céline, the furrows in his brow deepened. "Celine, huh? You read any books by Céline before?"
  "Yeah, I read Death on the Installment Plan years ago. I thought it was pretty good."
  "'You thought he was pretty good'." His jaw clenched almost imperceptibly. His mouth opened as if he were going to say something else, but he stopped. He finished checking the books out, stacked them up, and shoved them back to me without a word.
  "So, we gonna do that registration thing now?"
  He looked at me with an expression that shaded somewhere between exasperation, annoyance, and resignation. "You know what? Register if you want, or don't. I don't care. This country is turning into a dump, and people don't care, so why should I try to make you care?" He paused, as if awaiting an answer, but I decided to treat the question as rhetorical. "I've noted your account is up to date, You will receive no further breaks from us. Bring back your books on time, or renew them on time. Just consider the people who are trying to keep this resource going for the community, and at least bring your books back on time. Think you can handle that?"
  I'm not quite sure why he turned on me, but I wasn't hanging around for any more of it. "Whatever you say, pops" I sneered, and walked out the door.
  The bus stop was just a couple blocks away. I pulled out the bus schedule I picked up in the library, and saw the 53 would be around in about fifteen minutes. It crossed over Meridian at 32nd, where I could wait ten minutes and pick up the 17, which would get me a couple blocks from home. All told, that was a little over an hour to get back across town on the bus. There was a Walgreens by the bus stop, so I decided to stop in for some peanuts and a small Red Bull, and maybe a cheap backpack to lug my books. While I was in there, I picked up a small radio walkman and a set of upgraded earbuds: I was really starting to feel hung out and isolated, like I was only moments away from a breakdown. Hopefully I could huddle up against a window on the bus, stuff the phones into my ear, turn on the radio, and shut the world out until I could make it back to my bedroom.
  As I walked to the bus stop with my new plastic camo backpack, tuning WWLM in on my new radio, it occurred to me what may have set the hippie librarian off: Céline. Céline most certainly was an asshole, and though I didn't really know much about him, I'm guessing he was also explicitly fascist. I do remember those years ago when I read Céline that someone had mentioned something about his ill repute. So liberal librarian decided he was going to judge me because of a book that I checked out . . . never mind the fact that another book I checked out was written by an anti-fascist ancom. Or probably, in his deadened liberal mind, communists and fascists are equivalent. Fuck him.
  This had turned into a singularly annoying day: the CarMax guy barely talked to me, the Harris Toyota guy treated me like shit, the Republic Bank bozos treated me like shit, Mr. Politically Correct Liberal Librarian treated me like shit. Everybody treated me like shit with the possible exception of the secretary at the Toyota place, who at least went to the trouble to mask her contempt. It's no wonder I hate leaving my bedroom.
  The bus pulled up and I shuffled aboard. It was three quarters full, but I managed to find a window seat near the back, surrounded by folks heading out toward the mall for that 5 to close part time shift. Their moods were no better than mine. As the bus pulled away, Verklärte Nacht came on the radio. I pulled up the hood on my jacket to cover my head, and leaned against the window, my eyes squeezed shut.
  I really don't know if I'll be able to get out of bed again tomorrow.

***   ***   ***

  I'm snapped back into the moment by . . . something, I'm not sure. Again I've been displaced, again I am in some in-between, unsure of what world I'm in. The front door rattles, Chuckie's key scrapes into the lock, the door opens. I am conscious of sitting on the couch, vaguely unsure of how I got here. The old 27" tube TV is on and droning away. Chuck comes through the door, pizza in one hand, a twelve of Miller's in the other. He looks up and spots me.
  "Oh, hey there, buddy. Didn't notice the car out front, so I didn't figure you would be home. Still out of bed; that's good to see."
  Shit. I didn't anticipate having to explain the absence of the car to him. I wasn't ready for that conversation. Not yet, at least. I remained silent, ignoring the implied question.
  He sets down the pizza and beer, absentmindedly ripping away the top of the cardboard twelve pack. He pulls two beers out of the pack, sets them on the table, pops the tops on them, and hands me one, which I take. He raises his in a "cheers" gesture, which I mirror, and pounds it down in a few short gulps. As he sets the empty on the table and reaches for another. I can still see the stress lined around his eyes. I take a few smaller gulps; his attention is diverted by the television.
  "Law and Order?"
  I look at the screen assuming he is right, not having really registered before what program I am watching. Sure enough, there is Lenny Briscoe. "What else?"
  "I recognize that guy: he's a Russian mobster."
  "He's always a Russian mobster."
  "This is the one about the Russian mob."
  "At least half of them are about the Russian mob."
  "Does the ADA get croaked in this one?"
  "What? I don't know. I'm not really paying attention."
  "If you're not watching, you mind if I play some music?"
  "No, go ahead," I say, almost immediately regretting it, because I knew the CD he was going to put on . . . and on cue, as Chuck turned down the sound on the TV and fired up the portable CD player next to it, the all-too-familiar sound clip preceding an overdriven bass, which heralded in a buzzing lava flow of downtuned guitars, announced the commencement of Dopethrone. Not that I disliked the disc, at least not the first thousand or so times I heard it . . . but I really felt like holding a couple bucks back from my bounty to buy Chuck some new CDs. I must have winced when he put it on, because he turned back to the player and lowered the volume slightly to a more conversation-friendly level.
  "So how was your day?"
  "It . . . " I really wanted to be positive. I really wanted to be able to say "it was good!" even if I didn't mean it. But I couldn't. "It kinda sucked."
  "Well, baby steps. You're out of the bedroom at sundown . . . not that you could really tell when sundown was today, with all this gray shit. But hey, you're out of your room and having dinner with me, so that's cool. Here, have some pizza. Pepperoni okay?" He shoved the pizza over to me, and I took a slice. "So I didn't see the car out front. You have to park around the block?"
  There it was. "Uh, about the car . . . "
  The stress deepened on his face. "Please do not tell me something happened to your car. This is not the time for something to happen to your car."
  I paused, the air dead around me. I couldn't think of what to say; all words were beyond my reach. After a long minute, I reached into my pocket, pulled out the roll of bills, and put it on the table.
  "What's that?" Chuck asked, confused.
  "It's money."
  "Well no fucking shit. Where did it come from?"
  "It's what's left. Of the car."
  It was Chuck's turn to be confused. "What's left of the car? Where did it come from?"
  "I sold the car."
  Chuck's eyes started to flash. This was not going to be easy. "You sold dad's car?"
  "It was my car. The title was in my name."
  Chuck's voice started to scale up. "It was not your fucking car. The title was in your name . . . well, you know why the title was in your name. But it was not your fucking car. Do you know how pissed off dad is going to be?"
  Now I was starting to warm up myself. "Fuck him. What has he ever done for us? Outside a few manic episodes, any little consideration we got from 'daddy' was dished out with extreme prejudice. We owe him nothing."
  "Whether or not we owe him anything is not the issue. You sold his goddamn car. That is not cool."
  "Chuck, whether you like it or not, dad is in jail . . ."
  "And he trusted you to take care of his car."
  " . . . and he's not going to be out for ten years. Ten years, Chuck, and that's assuming a level of behavior that we both know goddamn well he's not likely to achieve."
  "That's not the point, Joby. The point is he trusted you with his car, and you went and sold it on him before he was gone even a year."
  "Chuck, it doesn't fucking matter. Even if we should feel obligated to take care of it for him, which I would argue we shouldn't, what the fuck does he expect after ten damn years? Does he expect it to be preserved, the fluids drained, up on blocks so the tires don't go flat and rot, covered with a tarp in some temperature controlled garage? Maybe I'm not totally on top of our situation, but it seems to me that we're having a hard enough time keeping the roof over our heads, to say nothing of keeping a roof over his damn car on top of it."
  "That's not the point . . ."
  "It totally is the fucking point. Whatever you think we owe him, the fact is, first of all, we have to take care of ourselves, and second of all, he has no reasonable expectation of having that car when he gets out in ten years."
  Chuck's jaw was set; he was doing his best to calm himself down. "The first part I'll grant you, but he does expect to have that car when he gets out, and I don't think that's unreasonable."
  "Unreasonable or not, it seemed to me that our immediate survival trumps his expectations. As far as that goes, we got ten years to figure out a solution. Who knows? In ten years maybe we both are flush and we can buy him the latest Caddy, or whatever. But for now, I didn't see that we had much of a choice."
  Chuck was silent. He pounded his second beer, opened a third, and chugged down about half of that one. "Well, what's done is done, I suppose. What are we going to tell him?"
  "Why the hell are we telling him anything?"
  "So we go pick him up ten years from now, and say 'hey dad, welcome back to the outside, and oh by the way, we sold your car?'"
  "Why not, if that's what it comes down to? The point is, we've got time to figure it out."
  "I know you and him never really got on . . . "
  "Oh for fuck's sake, Chuck, it's not about that. It's about keeping a roof over our heads, it's about living to see another day. I don't care for the old bastard, it's true, but truth be told, I would rather still have a car to drive. With this" I gestured at the roll of bills "we hold off the reaper for another day," It was my turn to slug down a beer. I set the empty on the table next to the roll; Chuck opened another beer and silently slid it over to me. Then he took a sip off his own. It took him another minute to speak, but he was starting to calm down.
  "Well, I've got to say, even if I don't agree with what you did, I'm kinda proud you did it. You stepped up and addressed the situation. I really thought best case scenario for you for the next couple weeks is just walking around in the real world like some zombie. But you stepped up and addressed our problems. So I guess I should thank you." He raised his beer to me, and I touched mine to his. We both drained our beers and opened another.
  I started to feel a small sense of accomplishment, but only for a moment. I looked at the roll and realized that, very soon, it would all be gone. A shiver ran through my body. I pulled Chuck's jacket close over my shoulders, and resisted the urge to bury my head into the hood again.
  Chuck took another piece of pizza out of the box. "So how much you get for it?"
  Chuck exhaled in relief. "Good. I mean, you probably should have gotten forty-five or five out of it, but I was a little afraid you would just take whatever lowball bullshit they offered you and run."
  "Well, I had trouble hiding the fact that I wasn't in a position to keep the car."
  "No, no, I get it. I'm saying you did a good job. You did good, Jo."
  The CD was finished, but Chuck didn't get up to change it. "So, is it all there?"
  "Most of it. Minus twenty-five for the checking account, fifty for the bus pass, fifty for some miscellaneous crap at Walgreen's. And oh, forty to pay off my library fines so I could check out some more books."
  "Anything good?"
  "We'll see."
  Chuck picked up the roll of bills, peeled off three twenties, and handed them to me. "Here, take this, live like a normal human for a few days, before we go back to poverty, okay?"
  "Naw, I really don't need . . . "
  "Go ahead. It's okay."
  I took the bills, stuffed them into my pocket. We continued to eat in silence for a few minutes. "So, how did your day go?"
  "Fucking sucked. But not a total loss. Got a job, starting tomorrow."
  "Remember I told you Donnie was going in to jail? I run into him this morning at Mickey's, getting a load on before he went in to court to plead. He had this delivery job, and he wanted me to take it on the condition I would give it back to him when he gets out next year. I told him I would; he's worried I won't give it back when he gets out, I'm worried I can't stand to hold the job for the whole time he's in. But either way, like you said, it's 'bout getting through to the next day. And with this," he waved the money roll, "and my job, we'll do okay. You get a job sometime soon, and maybe we don't live like possum in the alley, at least for a while."
  "So I guess you had a successful day after all."
  "Not exactly. That thread I was running out? It was some punk who has been trying to buy the GTI off me, but he's been clowning . . . "
  All of a sudden, my eyes popped wide open. "Wait, so you were out today trying to sell the Volkswagen?"
  "Yeah, I was going to sell it a few weeks ago, I was just getting ready to list it for forty-five, dude said he wanted it but he didn't have the money, so he would give me forty-eight if I waited for him to scare up the cash. So I waited, I called, he said he didn't have the money, so I told him to fuck off, but he raised it to five if I would wait another week. Two weeks later, I hear he's in the club making it rain, but when I reach out, he still doesn't have the money."
  "You were selling your car."
  "Yeah, so he begs me to hold on one more week, and I don't know why I did it, but I did. So that was today. And he gets there, says he's ready to go, but the thing is, he saw one like mine for forty, and that's what he wants to give me for it. I reminded him, very politely I might add, that I've held on to it for over a month for him, and he told me he was going to pay five, so by god he was going to pay five."
  "You were trying to sell your car?"
  "Yeah. And he says four, take it or leave it, so I told him I would leave it, but not before I beat him down and took a fifty off him to get some dinner and a drink or two."
  "So, you were selling your car to this guy?"
  "Yes, why do you keep saying that? I figured that you had a car, and that the time had come for us to do some ride sharing."
  "You just got done lighting me up for selling my car, and then you're all like 'oh yeah, I tried to sell my car today'? Isn't that something you find, oh, I don't know, interesting?"
  Chuck paused. "Yeah, I guess that could be what you call ironic. Suppose it's a good thing I didn't sell it after all, huh?"
  We both stared at each other for a long minute, and then burst out laughing. We laughed until we had tears rolling from our eyes. I tried several times to say something, but couldn't get it out. Finally I wiped the tears away and looked my brother in the eye. "Now, if that ain't some "Gift of the Magi" shit, I don't know what is!"


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