The first time my father's quick change scam flubs I'm in a liquor store down on Gano Street. I'm working alone, which is a mistake, and I'm stoned, which the clerk behind the register recognizes in an instant. He shoos me away like he's waving off one of the ten-billion flies buzzing the place.
With a toothy grin he says "Nice try, pal. Next!"
And right away I get confused. My father's patterned never-fail scam misfires in front of this dork, this nobody, this pimply-faced dweep with blue-framed glasses. His smirk—a creepy, knowing look, a charge of stupidity more than an accusation of criminal behavior—generates a dull pain behind my eyeballs that shoots straight to the back of my head.
I step away from the counter and try to regroup. I must have done something wrong so I run through the steps again, my heart clanging like there's a buoy bell bobbing between my lungs. What am I buying? Jesus Christ, I didn't buy anything.
"You're blocking the lady," the kid says.
The scam doesn't work if you don't make a purchase. How in hell could it? There's no change, no transaction to work from. I pocket the twenty and step to one side, allowing a woman customer to slide up to cash and carry. I swallow a giant mouthful of refrigerated air and watch the clerk ring her up.
She's buying four bottles of white wine. (I could buy wine.) She asks the kid for a carton of Camels. (I could buy cigarettes.) She's wearing a light coat and dark nylons; nice legs, nice shoes. Her hair is short but she looks a lot like my mother, that generation, that look.
When she leaves, I follow. We exit single-file though the automatic doors into the soft heat and I watch her get into her car. She folds her legs in, pulls the door shut, starts her engine. I tell her to have a nice day but she doesn't give me so much as a glance. After she drives off I stand there like a dummy and try to find the sun, but it's just a haze between buildings.
When my pulse drops to normal I try coming in again. But I'm too buzzed. Twice I make the electric eye on the door announce my reentry, and twice I approach the register to begin from the beginning. It doesn't matter what I buy, but I don't give anything to the clerk, or ask for anything on the shelves behind the counter. He's about my age, my height and weight, with a bowl cut hairstyle and a round face. His chin is pink with pimples. He stares at my twenty, grinning like we went to scam school together. A sign suspended on a chain tells it all: No Credit. No checks. No Rest Rooms. No Change.
It's a high counter so who knows, maybe he toe-taps a buzzer, or fingers a switch that causes sirens and flashing lights to go off in the back room, because in no time a tall silver-haired man opens a door and comes out. He stands beside a pyramid of cheap vodka. Behind his wire spectacles he's sizing me up, watching me mope. I tour the beer- and wine-section for the fifth or sixth time, flapping my folded twenty against my knuckles; I start to sweat. I strike a pose for the security cameras. Then I have a flash of watching myself being handcuffed on some idiot cop TV show. The old guy takes off his glasses and slants his caterpillar eyebrows. "Problem, son?"
I think he's talking to me because at me is where he is staring. All my standard excuses start streaming through my brain.
But the kid behind the counter answers, "No problem here, Mister Sirois," hiding half his face behind a fat paperback with a green dragon on the cover. He's flipping pages too fast and I'm sure he's mouthing something to the old man from behind the book. My high is 98% gone. My senses generate a code red so I blow a kiss to one of the cameras and head for the door. Just to be safe, I detour, stack a dollar in quarters on the counter, snap a 99-cent bag of cashews from the rack, and exit through the glass doors. I walk home. The elevator is still out of order. I climb four flights in the heat, tonguing cashew crud from my teeth.
Ma's TV is off and she's knitting in front of the window fan which is streaming warm air on high, lifting her lacquered hair up and away like a wing. She doesn't look at me, doesn't say hi. She works her needles, unravelling yarn from one of Dad's old sweaters.
"You smell sweet, like dope," she says.
"I told you. My friends smoke it."
"Get some new friends," Ma says.
I go into the bathroom, and splash water on my face. I make a cup with my hands and slurp a mouthful. Then I splash more water on my neck and on my eyes and I run my wet hands though my hair. I push and squeeze at a new pimple until it hurts, then I go back and stand in the doorway. I comb my hair with my fingers and listen to the hum of the fan and the clicking sound the knitting needles make.
After a minute she says, "Did you forget what day it is?"
I don't answer.
"It's Friday," Ma says.
"I know.""You got anything for me."
I shake my head.
"Why is that?"
"I'll have something for you tomorrow."
I walk over and turn on the TV, then fall down on my cot. "We're shoplifting at the Mini-Mart in the morning. Kelly and me. Kelly's my diversion. We'll bring you back those little powdered donuts you like."
She knits while I flick through the channels.
"You don't scam high," she says. "You know better. You'll end up like your father."
"I'm not high," I tell her, which is the truth now, because my buzzing brain has turned to mud. I shut off the TV.
She clicks her needles. "Where's my money, big shot?"
"I'll have money for you tomorrow."
"Tomorrow isn't Friday," she says.
She knits slow and steady. I stretch out on my cot and think about kicking my shoes off. On the floor by her chair the sleeve of my father's sweater spins as parts disappear.
Ma says, "Shut that damn TV off if you're not watching it, please."
"It's off." I say.
"You're not paying the bills around here."
"I can feel it heating up the room."
"The TV is off," I say.
She looks up, blinks. "Thank you," she says.
Ten seconds later Kelly stumbles in with her arm around a man in bib overalls.
"Don't anybody help me," she says.
She's wearing sunglasses with blue lenses in yellow cat-eye frames but not on her face. The glasses are in her hair, a helmet of bleached white curls and waves. Her makeup is precise. She resembles a movie star on vacation.
The guy she's holding up looks to be in bad shape, like he died once already. He has blotches all over his face, and a sore on his lip and a dime-size scab in the hinge of his arm. He's a putrid fellow, with a clean shaven skull. Rocco is stitched in looping script across the wide pocket.
"Jack, give Rocco your bed." my sister says.
"Don't you drop that sack of shit in my bed."
"Watch your mouth," Ma says. "He's still a guest."
"Screw him," I say. "Let him sleep on the floor."
Rocco perks his chin up. His eyes are slits. "En Ef Double you, Johnny!"
"What's he saying to me?"
"No Fucking Way." Kelly says.
Ma chuckles and says, "Who is he?"
"Rocco's a poet," Kelly says.
"Where'd you find a poet around here?"
"In the park. He bought me supper and watched me eat."
I'm tapping my pockets, feeling for my knife, but I'm not finding it.
"En Ef Double you, Johnny. En Ef Double you!" Rocco says.
I feel my neck heating up. Where in hell is my knife?
"He has an ATM card," Kelly says. "I watched him use it."
Ma chuckles while she knits. "I bet you did."
Kelly steps and nearly drops him. "You could help me, you jerk!"
"Help your sister with her friend," Ma says.
I step away from the cot as Kelly moves Rocco forward, struggling to hold him up. She's taller by a foot. He's thin and hard to look at. Already his sore is oozing something that could be blood.
"Drop him on the floor," I say.
"Put 'chu right down here," Kelly says. "There you go, there you are, honey."
"Easy Johnny, Easy now," Rocco says with a shuddering breath.
"Who the hell is Johnny?" Ma says.
Kelly untangles her arm from his bulk. "Pay no attention." She wipes blood from her fingers onto Rocco's shirtsleeve. "He says that to everybody."
Rocco folds down slow and curls into himself. He lies clumsily on his side, and Kelly lifts his legs onto the cot. She gently turns his head so his face is showing. He looks broken laying there, then Kelly brings his knees higher, arranges him in a fetal position. "Rocco? You still with us, baby?"
The man's going to die on my bed and no amount of washing and scrubbing takes out that stain. Tonight I'll sleep in a chair, or on the floor, or maybe I'll walk the streets, zig-zagging through decent neighborhoods, until my feet get so tired I just drop down on somebodies's perfectly groomed lawn. Tomorrow, or the next day, I'll look for honest work.
"Rocco? Honey?" Kelly says, and gives him a violent shake. He's sprawled sideways, open-eyed, but deathly still. My nose starts to twitch. The newly dead let go of everything, all fluids, solids, gases, anything they've got stored. They leak it out within seconds.
"Give him another minute," Mom says.
Meanwhile his overalls are trapped, twisted tight, caught awkwardly beneath him, and his wallet is popping, his wallet is just bursting to get out.