20 October 2008 | Vol. 8, No. 3
Heroes and Delinquents
She left them both, Jimbo and the boy, hers, not his, four months ago, two weeks before Christmas, and since then the boy was always with food in his mouth, so now his tee shirts were strained in the sleeves and midsection and he looked, at ten, like a small thug. He had the face of his mother, Jocelyn, the ex-girlfriend, who caught one joyride after another until her last ride, which took her someplace West and windy and warm. There had been the one postcard addressed to "Kevie" that came two weeks into the New Year. Jimbo believed it was nothing more than a resolution. The boy saved it for a while, then Jimbo found it torn into sixteen equal pieces and sprinkled on top of the leftover ham salad his sister had discarded. He considered the damp confetti where it lay atop the heap in the trash can outside the back door, turned over one flake with the tip of his finger, then closed the lid. Some things deserve their own memorial, no matter how brief. He opened a neighbor's can instead and tossed in his empty beer bottle.
They avoided each other, banging around that hole of an apartment; perhaps they each reminded the other of her, of her leaving. Perhaps they each blamed the other for her. If they acknowledged one another, they did so to navigate their space, to avoid running into a wall or a piece of furniture. Not long after the postcard, Jimbo caught him with his buddies sniffing glue out on the fire escape. Pissed off, he hauled the boy up by the arms, his thumbs hooked into the boy's pits, and held him level, face to face. He stared into Jocelyn's flat pale eyes and remembered this wasn't his kid and he didn't give a damn. He let the boy drop and when he hit, he stumbled and fell, knocking the side of his head into the railing. Jimbo could see him screw up his face and refuse to cry. The boy whined. "But it feels good," he said. He just wanted to feel good. Jimbo got that and grabbed the boy by the shirt. "Feel bad," he said. "You're supposed to feel bad," and told him he'd beat the crap out of him if he ever caught him with that shit again.
How is it that a larger crime can spawn smaller acts of delinquency? The steady drone of the hurricane that kicks up the fury of a random tornado. Those moments that drive a more general devastation to a discrete point of unimaginable acuity. But Jimbo didn't consider any of this. He considered instead that the boy was too tall for the job. Jimbo watched him drink a cola sprawled out in front of a late afternoon television show. His sister's kid would have been better with those elfin features and pinched elbows and knees, but she would never go along with it. The boy could wear one of his old work shirts; he would seem less portly, then. Including the boy made as much sense as anything else at this point. Hell, maybe the boy needed it like he did.
Jimbo still met up with a couple of guys from his last stint, a warehouse packing job he'd ditched in January, at McCabe's Bar down near the tracks. He could see them drifting away, their conversations gritted with the names of new asshole clients and sons-of-bitches managers who didn't know shit about running a loading dock operation. Names he didn't recognize though he nodded and drank his beer and listened to them rant. Crandall was the smart one. Sure as hell smarter than those lame-ass managers, he could do any figure in his head faster than someone could punch it into a calculator, only he was cross-eyed and would never get beyond running the forklift. Hood wasn't so bright, but he was big. Like the boy, he'd be a good prop. He told them his idea. Maybe it would stall the drift. Crandall laughed.
"That's called 'panhandling with persuasion.'" He shook his head. "If you want to rip people off, do it on the web. Identity theft." That'd be a piece of cake. They'd never see you coming. He rocked back and forth in his chair.
Jimbo was disappointed. He stared at his beer. It'd be easy. A kind of feint and punch.
Crandall measured him with his good eye. "This doesn't sound like you."
"I don't know. It just seems easy." He couldn't explain it. It was more of a tick in the gut, a sense of misalignment. Going along on a broken axel. Going along for so long that maybe he just wanted to get out and kick the goddamned car. Hell, who knew.
He could sink deeper. He needed to get out.
Crandall hesitated. "We could get you a spot back at the warehouse," he said. "I mean, if it's about the money."
He shook his head. It wasn't. Well, not entirely.
Crandall threw a five on the table and stood up. "Count me out," he said. "I gotta head home anyway." He paused, looking down at Jimbo. "And why the kid? Why bring him along?" He laughed. "That'd sure piss off the mom."
Jimbo shook his head. She was long gone. He watched Crandall leave. He was more disappointed than he had expected.
Hood shrugged. "I'm in." He took a rubber band from the collection around his wrist and shot it at their waitress, who was gathering drinks at the bar. He nailed her and she looked over her shoulder, annoyed.
"Another round, sweet cheeks," he called out.
She stuck her tongue out at him and then blew him a kiss.
"Don't make me no promises that you can't keep," he said, grinning.
"The kiss was for your friend," she said. She walked over with two more bottles.
"What's your name, Hon," she said to Jimbo.
"This is Jimbo," said Hood. "But he's a bit raw."
"Well, you're a cutie-pie." She gathered their empties and placed them on her tray. She pressed her hand on his shoulder, more as a ministering touch. "I can mend a broken heart." She smiled and walked back to the bar.
Jimbo glanced at her then returned to his beer. He used to be able to read a woman. For now, though, he held all women between fifteen and fifty in some way suspect.
He had met the boy's mother at McCabe's drinking shots of Cuervo. By the end of the night, she was straddled across his lap. She offered her salty hands to him like a salt lick. The lime on her fingertips carried a sweetness. He watched with a strange thrill as she bolted back each shot. He watched for the sudden tip of her head as if she was to dive blindly over a precipice behind her, then at the last minute, pull back. She led him home after the bar closed to the apartment she shared with her boyfriend and her kid. She said he worked the night shift. When they got there, the door was locked and the boy was sitting on the front steps surrounded by their belongings that had been pitched through the upper window and now dotted the small lawn and sidewalk. She sat down next to the boy, her face in her hands. The boy was to tell her this was the "last straw." She didn't move. Jimbo gathered their things in a box he found behind a convenience store and took them home to his sister's apartment. It felt as if he had rescued a pair of lost kittens.
The next morning he told the boy to meet him at their apartment after school. The boy whined about other plans. "You got a meeting with the Mayor?" Jimbo retorted. Maybe Crandall was right. He brooded on this, slouched on the couch during the daytime television shows. His sister came and went and came back again. She worked long shifts as a nurse's aide. The move-in with her was supposed to be temporary, well over a year ago. He chipped in when he could. When he talked about getting out of there, out of her hair for good, she'd roll her eyes and say, "you're my baby brother," like she was saying shut up already. Like things were hard enough for all of them, walking the edge—where was the point in talking about it.
At four o'clock, the boy appeared as ordered. Jimbo ignored the sullen expression and tossed his old plaid work shirt at the boy's head. He passed through the front screen door, letting it slam behind him. The boy followed, demanding an explanation. He told him he'd explain in the car. They got into his sister's Tercel.
The boy was silent while Jimbo spoke. Jimbo glanced at him in the rearview mirror. The boy was grinning broadly. "You can't look so goddamn happy when we're there," he said. The boy frowned.
Jimbo's mood sank further, as if with his inclusion of the boy, he had passed along to him a sizable wad of his confidence about the job. He slowed the car. Hood was waiting next to the road. He got in.
Hood's head pressed against the cloth ceiling and Jimbo told him to push the seat back. The bucket seat lurched backwards and the boy yelped.
Hood looked over his shoulder.
That was Jocelyn's kid, Kevie, explained Jimbo.
Hood frowned and faced forward again.
"He's staying with me until she gets settled." Jimbo paused, pulling the car back into the road. "I guess."
Jimbo glanced at the boy. His standard sour expression had returned with Hood's arrival and he stared out the side window. Jimbo felt his gloom lift. They headed towards the expressway. The sun, low in the blue-gray sky, flickered through the still bare trees of early spring and the tired clapboard homes along Peabody's streets.
"So where are we going?" asked Hood.
"Burlington," said Jimbo. Nice restaurants and people who could pay those prices. Little chance they'd be recognized and good highway access for a quick get-away.
Hood hooked his arm around the back of the headrest and looked at the boy. He asked him what he thought of all of this.
The boy grinned. "It'll be fun," he said.
"And when you hear sirens, you run like hell," said Hood. "Of course, it's like the one about the hunters in the woods who run into a bear." Hood was talking to Jimbo, now. "I don't have to out-run the cops, I only got to out-run you." Hood looked back at the boy, laughing at him silently.
"There aren't going to be any cops," said Jimbo.
The boy smiled and looked down at his hands. "My gym teacher says I'm fast," he said. "I'm going to play for the Patriots when I grow up."
"Oh yeah?" said Hood. "I didn't know juvie had a football team."
The boy sank into the upholstery and went back to staring out the window. The sun had set and the taillights of cars left a trail of red along the highway in front of them.
They parked on a side street and walked two blocks to the parking garage he had picked. There were a few dim streetlights with only a rare car that passed. A single lamp hovered over the entrance. Hood nailed it with a rock. Inside, the spaces were metered with no on-duty attendant. A car ramp coiled through the center of the building to the upper floors. The single elevator was broken. Only the adjacent stairway provided access, enclosed in a cinderblock alcove with a narrow doorway. Jimbo positioned Hood in the stairwell halfway between the second floor landing and ground floor and the boy near a span of empty parking spaces not far from the garage entrance. The boy started to speak but Jimbo batted his words away. Jimbo settled into the shadows of the stairwell, just inside the doorway, twenty feet or so away. He could make out the figure of the boy standing alone near a supporting column. The boy was to lure them to the stairwell. Jimbo and Hood would take it from there.
They waited twenty minutes. Two men left the garage together, giving the boy the barest glance. Jimbo puffed on a cigarette, leaning against the wall. The boy gazed after them. What the hell was he looking at, Jimbo thought. He looked at his watch. He thought of Crandall's words. They needed to finish this job and get the hell out of there. He kept puffing, then flicked the butt away and checked his watch again.
Another fifteen minutes passed. A car drove through the garage slowly then left without parking. There were plenty of empty spaces. It wasn't a patrol car, but could have been unmarked. Jimbo had never been this nervous before. He went through another cigarette, then crushed the empty pack and threw it against the wall. He could have run sprints. He squatted on his heels and stood again. Suddenly, Hood's voice was in his ear.
"What do you think?" Hood asked.
Jimbo didn't want to end the night empty-handed. They'd give it another five minutes. Hood returned to the landing above.
The boy scuffed at the cement floor. He leaned against the pillar and tried to wrap his arms around it from behind. Then he jumped up to slap it. Jimbo cursed him silently and spat. The boy wasn't convincing at all as a kid lost in a parking garage. Suddenly a car with a lone driver pulled into a spot. The boy stopped jumping. Jimbo heard the car door open; the boy moved away from the column, beyond his field of vision.
Jimbo waited. He expected to hear the boy speak. They should have practiced his lines on the way over. Something seemed wrong.
The boy began.
"Excuse me. Can you help me? I can't find my mom and dad."
Jimbo strained to hear the response. He stepped further inside the stairwell, into the corner next to the stairs and waited. He saw Hood just above him, where the stairs turned. They nodded to each other. The boy spoke again, louder now, approaching the stairs.
"I don't know. I thought my dad parked upstairs, but now I can't find him."
He heard a woman's voice.
"What's your name, honey?"
Jimbo pounded his fist against the wall behind him. Fuck, not a woman. This was all wrong. They were not going to do a woman.
He looked up at Hood. Hood took a step down the stairs towards him.
Jimbo stepped out of the stairwell. The boy was next to a well-dressed woman. She looked about Jimbo's age. Pretty enough. She touched the boy on the shoulder as she spoke. She glanced up as he emerged, then resumed talking to the boy.
He winced as the play unfolded. The boy was too big to be lost, too certain to be afraid.
The woman didn't seem to notice the poor acting.
The boy saw him and froze.
"Marty, there you are," said Jimbo. "We've been looking all over for you." He smiled at the woman. "Kids," he gestured to the boy. "Makes you wish it was legal to use a leash."
The woman glanced at Kevie and laughed nervously. Her hand still rested on his shoulder.
She was pretty enough, thought Jimbo. Why couldn't he be with someone like her?
The boy's face had changed. He looked at Jimbo in some kind of protest against their planned action. He seemed planted under her hand, close to her side.
Jimbo sensed the threads of betrayal. He rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. Fuck this. Still, they were not doing a woman. He thought of Hood and needed her to leave.
She smiled at him. "You've got a nice boy," she said.
It couldn't be her. Not for a while, anyway.
"Good night," he said.
She said good night and left.
Just then, a man walked into the garage, dressed in a suit, carrying a young child. Jimbo paused, watching him. He felt the tick return, the interminable wobble. He could do this. He needed this. He started for the man. The boy followed close behind. He sensed the tension in the boy's body, like his own. He tried to relax, as if he was really asking a favor, as if this was no big deal. It happened all of the time.
"Hey—" said Jimbo. "Hi, how you doing?" He wanted to sound friendly. It was easier now, once he started talking. He could talk to anyone.
The man turned. "Yes?" His single word was loaded with uncertainty, his discomfort with the situation. He shifted the child in his arms to the other side. "Yes?"
"Hey—sorry to bother you. I can see you're in a hurry. But me and my kid here," he shot his thumb back at the boy. "Well, we're in a bind. My car won't start, and I gotta get him to the—"
"Is it the battery?" the man asked. He glanced at the boy. Jimbo looked over his shoulder. The boy had a huge grin. He looked too goddamn happy. Jimbo turned back to the man. Sure, that might work.
"Yeah, I bet you're right. I didn't think of that. Could you give me a jump? We're just parked upstairs." He nodded towards the corner stairway.
Suddenly a woman came into the garage, behind them, with an older boy in tow.
"Man, I'd really appreciate it. We're in a bind," he repeated.
"What's going on?" said the woman, her words tipped with alarm. "What is it?"
The older boy fed off of his mother's nervousness and looked at his father. He was Kevie's age.
"This guy needs a jump," said the man. He stared at the dark stairwell. He turned back to his wife.
"Why don't you wait for me here," he said. "This shouldn't take more than a minute. I'll pick you up on my way down." He passed the younger child into the woman's arms.
The older boy spoke up. "Can I help? I want to come with you."
"You stay with your mother," said the man.
"But I want to come with you," the boy whined.
"Stay with your mother."
The boy sucked in his cheeks. The woman frowned.
"Maybe you should—" she began.
He cut her off. "It's fine. I'll be right down." He regarded his son for a moment.
The man turned back to Jimbo.
He could do this: watch another man's trust turn to fear and shame. He only had to say the words. He could set this into motion. Hood would finish it. He almost wanted to take a step backwards, distance himself from the impending wreck.
They started towards the stairwell.
"This happened to me last month," said the man. "Always happens at the worst possible time, doesn't it?"
From the corner of his eye, he saw Hood now standing on the second step, waiting.
He glanced at Kevie. The boy was staring back at him, wondering the same.
Jimbo brushed up against something. Something he recognized.
He'd gone this way before.
For an instant, the man was gone and it was Jocelyn beside him, leading him to the stairwell. Her hand on his arm, urging him forward. She didn't need to urge; he'd step to it gladly. To the darkness where the bulk of an unseen arm would pin his neck to the cinderblock wall. Where the blackness would produce the sudden blow and exploding pain of a broken jaw, then leave him, sinking to the floor alone, blackness becoming blackness again. Unable to cry out, unable to cry, for the steely pain in his face, in his chest.
He could smash his own finger under a hammer, watch it bubble up with joy. He could drive his car flat out into a wall. The breaking glass would ring like bells. There were collisions of force he craved.
He'd have turned to her. "I love you, Babe." Saying those words was like breathing.
He'd watch her face change, fill with the blush of guilt and apology for feelings no longer there. Her eyes would slip to the side and down. Still, he'd step to it gladly. Water had spilled; yet it puddled in those low places.
He dropped his head.
"You know what? Just forget it. Never mind," he said. "It's okay. We'll figure it out." He turned and walked out into the street, towards the car. The boy followed. He didn't look back to see what became of the family. Hood followed behind them and they walked the two blocks in single file.
They drove in silence back to Peabody. Then, Hood began.
"Well, I don't know about you, but I always enjoy a ride out to Burlington, when I get the chance."
Jimbo didn't say anything. Every traffic light along Route 114 turned red with the Tercel's approach. He wanted to be alone. The boy chirped up.
"So, what happened?" he said. "I don't get it. Why did we leave like that?"
"Shut up," said Jimbo. The light changed and they drove three blocks to another red light.
"We can try again, though, right?" said the boy. "Maybe another place. We didn't get caught. We can do it again." The boy was wheedling.
Jimbo slammed his foot on the gas pedal and they screamed across the intersection. Two cars on the left skidded in their wake and leaned on their horns.
"We're not going to do it again," he said. There was silence from the backseat. Hood said nothing.
"Look. I know what you're thinking but we're not a team. You don't belong to me. I don't know who you belong to but I know it's not me."
He pulled up alongside the curb in front of Hood's apartment. Hood paused.
"Call social services, man. They'll line up a foster home. It'll be okay. He's that chick's kid, not yours." Hood laughed. "Hell, I grew up in foster homes. I didn't turn out so bad."
Hood got out of the car.
Jimbo rubbed his hand hard across his face. What to do; what to do; "goddammit," he said out loud and he hit the steering column with his fist. The horn blared for an instant.
He drove to his sister's, parked along the curb and got out of the car. The boy didn't follow and he turned back and opened the door.
The boy sat, his arms crossed, his chin sunk into his chest. Jimbo couldn't see his face. Everything was fucked up.
"Look, I can't keep you. You understand?" Jimbo rubbed his forehead hard with the palm of his hand. He wanted to say they'd be better off this way. The both of them. It was for the best. They needed to get on with their lives. They needed to move on, without her.
Jimbo thought about the parking garage that night. He wanted to tell the boy he'd be better off without him. The boy would be better off.
The boy didn't move.
"Whatever," he said and slammed the door. In his sister's apartment, lights were shining through the front windows.
Inside, he heard his sister talking to someone. He walked into the kitchen and stopped. Jocelyn was sitting at the table.
"Hey, there," she said. "How's my Jimmy Dean."
He heard his own voice as if it was coming out of a box.
His sister in her bathrobe watched them, her eyes moving from one to the other. "I'm sure you two have things to discuss," she said. "See you in the morning." She disappeared down the hall.
Neither of them said anything at first. The fluorescent bulb in the ceiling hummed. The hand on the wall clock tripped across its face.
"How've you been, Jimmy?"
He took a tumbler and the bottle of bourbon from the cabinet over the sink and poured himself a couple of shots. He leaned against the countertop and took a sip. He couldn't imagine what to say. He stared at the wall across from him.
"I've missed you," she said.
He took another swallow. The alcohol burned in his throat. She wasn't back for good. She wasn't back for him. Her words woke him up.
"What do you want, Jocelyn?"
She sounded hurt. "I don't want a thing from you."
He turned to her. "Didn't it work out with the cowboy?"
She smiled. God, she was pretty. He took another swallow.
"We're doing all right, I guess," she said. "I came back to get Kevie." She paused. "And maybe if you could spare some cash, I could sure use a hand. I'd like to get him some new clothes and all before we head back West."
He laughed. "You're going to haul that kid back, just so you can dump him on this loser, the next time you take off."
Jocelyn looked away. She rolled some stray crumbs on the table with her fingertips. There were cowboy boots and stars airbrushed onto her nails.
He began to feel the bourbon. "Sure, take him," he said. "He's yours. Whatever." He took another drink.
"Where is he?"
"Asleep upstairs," he lied.
"Look," she said, herding the crumbs into an imaginary corral. "I really need the money. It's important. A good cause, that's all I'm going to say. I appreciate you taking care of him. I could tell you were a good one when I met you."
He swallowed the last of the bourbon and set down his glass. Then he opened his wallet and pulled out all of the bills and placed them folded over like a tent on the table in front of her. She stared at them first, then touched them lightly with the tip of her finger.
He remembered how he felt when she was there. When she loved him. She could have asked him for the moon.
He picked up the glass and bottle and headed down the hall. Too much to watch her leave again.
"You're a good one," she called after him. "I always knew you were."
At the end of the hallway, the boy sat at the foot of the stairs, listening. His face was screwed tight. Jimbo jerked his head up and the boy turned and scrambled up the stairs and disappeared into his bedroom. He went into the darkened living room, just beyond the stairway, sat on the sofa, and poured more bourbon into his tumbler. He listened to the changing frequency of the liquid filling the glass, then set the bottle on the floor.
When she left them, in December, it was for a cowboy she had met at the Laundromat—a cowboy without a cow, or a ranch, or dirt under his nails. She packed her belongings in boxes from wine cases in less than twenty minutes, as the boy sat on the bed and watched. She promised to return for him when things were pat. For days, the boy watched the street from the living room window, convinced she could not leave him, that she would reappear. Jimbo watched the boy for signs of life. He knew if it wasn't the boy, it would be him who would sit as their watchkeeper.
A minute passed. He heard the kitchen chair scrape along the floor and the tap of her shoes as she walked down the hall. She paused at the stairwell. There was a silence. Jimbo closed his eyes and listened to the silence swell to fill seconds. He imagined her, still, staring up at the top of the stairs. Don't leave, he thought. It was all he could think. Don't leave him again.
She stepped over the threshold, passed through the front door, letting the screen slam. He heard a car turn over. The sound of its engine moved down the street and disappeared. He opened his eyes and stared at the shadows that painted the walls of the room.
Jimbo woke up the next morning stretched out on the couch. Daylight streamed through the windows behind him and set the room in white light. He rubbed his eyes, trying to bring the morning into focus. Sitting on the floor in front of him, cross-legged, was the boy.
He raised himself up on one elbow. The night came back to him like a glass falling over. The boy's face was badly swollen from crying; his eyes were bare slits through thick folds of flesh. He swung his legs over the edge of the sofa, and the boy winced. He stared at the boy. He realized he too had only been able to see the world through the slits of swollen eyes. He marveled that he hadn't knocked over more than he had, in his near-blinded state.
"Come on, Kev. Let's go get some pancakes."
The boy shook his head. Words were hard things. "I don't think I can eat," he said.
"I know," said Jimbo. "Maybe we'll start by just looking at them."
About the author:
Julie Lekstrom Himes is a physician and a researcher, and lives in the Boston area with her family. She was awarded the 2008 Florida Review Editor's Choice Award for short fiction.