Chapter 1: . . . And a Criminal
"That was At War With the World, an oldie by Foreigner from their self-titled debut album, Foreigner. And, it is that time of the hour again, and we'll head on over to Alicia at the 98.5 Weather Channel for the afternoon outlook."
The tinny voices from the vintage Emerson squatting in the corner of the garage ricochet off of the barren, unfinished concrete walls. The echo waves by the stacks of mildewed cardboard boxes on the back floor, tool-covered corkboard hung precariously off both sides of single-car space before bouncing off the rear wall. After sailing over the Caprice at the focal point of the room, the sound dissipates out into the commotion and noise that is Baltimore.
I can hardly hear the radio over the hectic chaotic racket of the city outside. Every time a new car goes by, I get to here the wonderfully irritating pump of heavy basses, or the screech of an irate driver reproach some neighborhood kid who just rushed into the street. It's akin to living in an audio version of a Dali or an Ernst painting. But despite the blare of the world, my ears have been numbed to it.
Digging my fingers up around the tampered steel that is the frame of this car, I search for a wing nut that I've dropped between the cracks. When its greased edges finally find my fingers, I squeeze it between my dirty nails and yank it into the light. With a sigh of relief, I place the cap of the carburetor onto its housing with a loud bang and begin to twist tight the final touch.
In the silence that follows, I begin to wonder as to where my boss has disappeared to, one of his many compulsive habits. The only reason I'm aware to his absence he is that I don't hear his disgusting, overly-plastic Brooklyn accent drilling into my ear like a worm. My only guess is that he wandered off to fill his breast pocket with another pack of Marlboros and forgot about his job in a conversation with the clerk at the corner store.
My lower back screams its protest out to me in an ache as I stand up and away from the hood of the car. At my waist, hanging from my leather belt, my hands grasp a paint rag to clean them of grease. But the only thing I accomplish is to make my fingers sting as the grease seeps further into the lacerations from the day's work. My eyes survey my work and I grin, glad to be finished with a car I've been left to completely restore alone.
Every job I complete, especially those without my intelligent and diligent boss, I take another step closer to freedom. With each job, the distance for my mother and I between the wretchedness of our current situation and the comfort of the next decreases. But it seems that I spend more time here with each passing day, on cars most body shops refuse to service, with a manager who's never around. The only comfort is the check I receive each Friday.
Letting free the dirty rag, I slowly spin on heel and begin to march towards the open garage door leading outside. Sweat courses down my grime and soot-covered face and the only thing I want is a bit of relief. Heavy motorcycle boots, long Wrangler jeans and a heavy, black leather jacket aren't good choices to wear during heavy labor. But as I reach the door, I lean my shoulder against the brickwork, cross my legs and relax.
As my eyes drift up from the floor, I stare across the street to where many of the smaller street shops have been shuttered up and in the distance stucco-grey apartment high rises block out the blue sun tinted black by industrial smoke. I frown at the sight of those buildings, standing as ominous reminders to the condition I'm in, something that has burned itself onto my consciousness.
After a loud sigh and a shake of the head, I turn my eyes down to the streets before me. Beat up Plymouths and Mercury's stand side-by-side with the land yachts of the seventies, their paint fading away while trash collects up against their worn tires. Newspapers and McDonald's wrappers nobody had the decency to put in a can rustle across the cracked pavement like tumbleweed in the desert.
A horrid thought spikes into my heart and I grab at the bulge of my wallet in my pocket. Mentally I think about what is inside: license, insurance, discount cards, library card, and money . . . How much money do I have? Is it enough to cover the expenses this week? After a few hurried, horrified moments, I realize that I indeed have enough. The thought of living in a run down apartment is bad enough, but not having enough money is even worse.
Although I work myself to the bone, ever since I finished high school just a few weeks ago the hours numbering ten, sometimes eleven a day, I do not want to have my mother working yet another overtime shift at the American Telephone and Telegraph technical office. I know she despises it like taxes, regardless of the brave face she puts on, but works it so I can go to college.
If only Dad was around to see the state his family is in today. He'd be ashamed, appalled even, but even if he could see the way things are, what could he do? Little next to nothing is all. My hands let free my grease-covered pants and reach out to feel the chill as a cold breeze whips in as a truck rumbles by.
As my eyes lift up, the low rumble of a heavy engine catches my eyes and makes me lean forward to see what has rounded the corner. At first I am thrilled, but then my heart begins to sink like a ship at sea. At the four-way down the street where a convenience store and newspaper shop stand opposite each other, a new, black Lincoln Town Car has turned towards the garage.
With its deep, ebony paint shined with wax and unscathed by the city's cruel atmosphere, the vehicle snakes its way passed out-of-work stores, broken homes and rusting cars. Its paint is so well-maintained it is like still water, with the reflection of the city shimmering off it, making the vehicle appear to make the world slide around it rather than the other way around.
Despite having the windows tinted a deathly black; I already know who it is that owns the vehicle. The man who grasps the steering wheel is Hell's lawyer, a civilized monster, a corporate demon whose only interest is the bottom line, regardless of the lives destroyed in the process. There is no man sitting inside, he is indeed the Devil incarnate, an ogre in a pinstriped suit, red tie and a patched-on smile.
As the car approaches, I pray to whatever entity is listening that it will drift by, but, instead it slips into an open spot right in front of the garage and comes to a halt. Within moments the engine dies off with a sputter and soon the world is deathly still. In the far-off distance sirens wail as firemen rush to extinguish an apartment blaze, and police officers leave to investigate the third murder of the fortnight. Gunshots ring out, and somewhere a few streets over, somebody's baby begins to scream his discomfort.
I return the hard bottoms of my boots to the pavement and begin to turn away as I hear the click of the door open. But before my eyes are averted, I see the tall body of a man appear between the car and its door, placing his expensive leather shoes onto the ground and heaving his heavy body out after dusting off his pants. His posture is impeccable and his five thousand dollar suit and tie are as clean as Heaven.
But before he turns to even look in my direction, he leans down and observes himself in the side view mirror, adjusting his tie with thick, meaty hands and brushing at his blonde hair pulled back as if blown that way by a jet engine and greased down, as sharp as a Wall Street lawyer. Enraged, I turn and march back into the shop where the 1983 Chevrolet Caprice coupe is still parked so I need not see him for at least a few seconds more.
My stride is stiff and swift and immediately upon reaching the front bumper of the car, I snatch up the pole holding up the hood and yank it out. I seize the hood with strong, calloused hands and lower it until I am able to let it slam into place, the sound echoing off the high, empty ceiling like a detonating artillery shell. Immediately afterwards, I march around the corner of the car and wrench open the door.
I seat myself inside and then lean across the bench seat before opening the glove box to search for the number the owner provided us with so to inform him when his car was complete. A section of my mind hopes this meager task will somehow allow me to avoid, or stave off at minimum, looking at or talking to that man.
But, to my dismay and annoyance, I begin to hear the sound of his thousand-dollar French wingtip shoes clacking across the concrete floor. But even as he approaches, my body going cold, I do not sit up to address him. Instead, I let him get closer, the sound getting louder. Finally, before the sound cuts off immediately, I hear him clear his throat.
"What a craphole." I hear him whisper under his breath.
Afterwards there is a strange, unsettling silence in which I wish deeply he somehow spontaneously exploded. After a few more seconds, I hear him whistle, in the distinctive, sarcastic way he does when he looks at something he has no approval for. Then I hear him cluck his forked tongue as he judgingly looks around.
"I knew I would find you here, Jack." He says patronizingly.
Slowly, I sit up and peer at him over the steering wheel while my hands wring the leather of it. At the back of my mind, I contemplate the legal repercussions for running him over with this two ton vehicle. Richard Lewis just stares at me back with his brows hanging low, his smile crooked and his hands delved deep into his pants pockets. He doesn't move, not even a bead of sweat runs down his forehead without his permission.
But, biting my lip and shaking my head, I slide out of the car and stand up. Involuntarily, I grab the rag hanging from my belt and wipe off my hands again as we stare each other down. I have chased this man several times from my person, yet here he is once again, proving himself to be more a nuisance than I want. It's the sad thing about dogs; they always seem to come back, don't they?
"And how did you know that, Dick, did you put 'low jacking teenagers' into your things to do category on your Blackberry?" I say and sneer.
Dick smiles, his lips pulling back just a little bit more, but the rest of his body doesn't react. He chuckles through his clenched mouth, as if what I've just stated means absolutely nothing to him. Or he's just trained himself to make people think whatever they want to think, like a lawyer has learned at college.
"Well, it isn't like you have any friends to be with, Jack." He then states, his eyebrows climbing high onto his forehead.
"Oh, isn't that cute, you know the word 'friend'." I patronize. "You know, those people you enjoy being with, not the ones you use up and then throw away once you're done with them."
But even with that comment floating in the air, the man's face remains marble; his chiseled features appearing more like plastic than flesh. His blue eyes blink repeatedly and then go up and down me once. No doubt he's judging me yet again, as if I'm some toy dog prancing up a show room floor for him. In his eyes, I'm probably nothing more than some dirty criminal, a hood, and he's considering every option he can to discard my body. He's nothing more than an extortionist, a legal Caporegime.
"You've been here for more than eight hours, Jack, I'm sure your mother wants you at home." Richard says after a long pause.
"And I'm sure you couldn't possibly imagine working eight hours, could you." I reply. "Only fools and idiots work that long for so little, right?"
Dick smirks and strolls forward, his eyes revolving to the right and left as he approaches, examining every grease stain settling into the floor, every dirty tool perched upon the wall and putting into his reservoir of ammunition to use against me. Finally, lifting a soft hand from his pocket, he touches the surface of the car and streaks off a collection of dust before rubbing between his fingers
"Is this place really where you see yourself ending up, Jack;" Dick questions, sounding sincere, "a rusting, filthy trash hole run by some third class human garbage? Is this where you really want to be in twenty years?"
"You see, Dick, most people, you not included, have these things called 'morals'." I mockingly say, nodding my head. "It means we're not willing to sell our souls for money. And, unlike you, I'm interested in anything that comes from you."
Finally the smile upon Dick's face begins to wane. And although the expression upon his face may change, the spiel never does. He's little, precious before the judge, so, like any good lawyer, he'll squeeze every painstaking second from it as he can. Slowly, Dick places the palms of his hands down onto the clear coat of the car and leans forward, his head rolling back to look at me.
"I'm a very wealthy man, Jack, don't you understand that? I could drastically alter your life and the life of your mother." Dick states boastfully. "I could whisk you both away from this place, to a house in the Hamptons, and send you to a college far, far from here."
Without knowing it, my fingers began to wring out the top of the window and within seconds, I release it. Rubbing my temples, barely touching my greased-back hair, I look towards the man who beleaguers me daily. Having wished to remain insulting, rather than go into an outright tirade, I restrained myself, but no longer.
"Jesus, Dick, you can't take a hint, can you?" I berate him. "I don't give a damn about your money! I don't want some blood-sucking, money-worshiping Vanderbilt-wannabe parading around my mother as his trophy wife! Do you damn-well understand me?"
Immediately I step back and slam shut the door to the car, the sound filling the awkward silence which follows. Fuming mad, I spin on heel and begin to march back towards the rear of the shop. As I pass by the tool board, I look up and examine all the tools. A monkey wrench, a heavy-gauge socket, a ball-peen hammer, all things I could smash his head in with.
But instead, I disregard that thought and march around the trunk, catching sight of the belligerent man standing erect now, but in the same place still. His face is unchanged, as before, but now his pupils gyrate, which is the only sign I know that his position is crumbling. I'm sure he is sure I'm aware to his faltering.
Finally, after he clears his throat, he pleads, "Don't you want to do something with your life? Don't you want to get away from this hole? You could be a businessman, a lawyer, an agent, you could be whatever you want and I can help you get there."
"And there's where you fuck up, dumbass!" I yell and jab an angry finger over the car. "I'm not interested in any of your filthy money and I will never accept anything you give me, because then I would just be indebted to you! 'How did you become a movie-star, Jack?' they'd ask. And I tell them! I'd tell them I got help from a man who puts poor families onto the street when they can't pay their rent!"
Without words, I just growl at him and turn away, leaning against the rear quarter panel of the car. I lean my head forward and shut my eyes, crossing my arms. I don't look or listen to what Dick does. In the background I can hear the sounds of the city, blaring of car horns and loud, ignorant and angry voices reaching into the silence. After seconds that feel like minutes, I hear a sigh.
"Don't you want your mother to have a better life? You can't be telling me you want her to live in that tenement apartment forever, are you?"
I lift my head and open my eyes. Without words, I bite down on my lip and let my eyes wander through the room. I begin to hear Dick step through the silence, his shoes touching down on the concrete heavily.
Then I stumble, "I . . . I don't-ugh . . ."
"Jack, let's think about it for a second." Dick drills at me his voice deep and resolute. "Your mother is in a very bad position and I can dig you out of the hole you're in. You have too much to gain to be refusing me. But if you never let anybody in to replace him, you'll never leave."
Leaning away from the car, I turn and look to Dick without tensing my muscles, contorting my face or sneering and snarling. Instead, I take a deep, cleansing breath and take one, solid, heavy step towards him.
"I'd rather go nowhere than go anywhere with you, Dick." I respond.
Dick stops walking, about where the door meets the C-column and crosses his arms. His eyes are now as still as steel, his argument turning in a direction that he wants. A small smile pulls at the corner of his mouth, but he doesn't let himself that pleasure. After a few seconds, one eyebrow gently rises.
"You know you can ask me anything you want, Jack." He plainly states. "I've told you everything you want and I've never tried to offend or harm you. I am going to marry your mother; regardless of you want or feel."
"I don't give a damn about what you think you're going to do, Dick; I will die before I see you at the altar." I reply immediately. "I hate your guts just and if you think that trying to get some quality time in with me will change anything, you're more demented and deluded than I thought."
"And what is so deluded about that, Jack?" He questions.
"Because you have in your twisted brain that if you come in here and act like you're some missionary come to save us, us poor pricks from the streets, so we can act the part as a loving, caring, conservative family!" I holler. "Well, I don't want you money right back up your ass because I don't want a part of it! And if you think I'll roll over and let you do this, well, you're a lunatic and an idiot!"
As the words escape from my mouth, I find myself out of breath and huffing for dear life. My shoulders roll from the exertion and my hands shake with pure rage. But through it all, Dick seems unfazed as usual. He glances down at his Rolex and then runs a hand over his emerging five o'clock shadow.
"Then there's nothing I can do to change you mind, is there?" He asks and I shake my head. "Well, is there anything else you wish to ask of me?"
"Yeah," I reply sarcastically, wishing to get in the last blow, "does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?"