by Shawn Goodman
This is how it started: I froze in the med line. Call me Lithium Fat. Call me Nicotine Stain and Compulsive Collector of Notebook Ticks. Call me Sleeps in Clothes, Bipolio, Massive Depressive. Call me Joe.
The new staff guy checked his clipboard. “Joe,” he called, fingers pushing pills out of blister packs, cupped hand holding them out.
That’s when I froze.
My roommate, Manny Codega, who hates the med line, pushed ahead of me.
The new staff guy put my morning pills, seven in all, into Manny’s hand along with a paper cup. Manny filled the paper cup with water from the cooler and swallowed the pills. He opened his mouth slightly, grinning around the edges to show that he hadn’t cheeked them.
“Next,” the new staff guy said. “Manny?”
Instantly, my feet unfroze. I took Manny’s pill, which was big and white, and swallowed it dry.
I went back to the apartment and waited for coffee, which was Manny’s job. The pot was empty. “What the hell?” I said, but Manny was already sleepy from my meds.
“Where’s the coffee?” Robert, our other roommate, asked. He wore pajama bottoms and a winter vest, no shirt.
“Manny can’t do it,” I said.
“He always makes coffee; it’s his job.”
“He took my meds,” I said.
When it was obvious Manny wasn’t going to get up and make coffee, we walked to the staff office around the corner to ask for our Social Security Disability money. We passed the Chiado Restaurant, and it smelled like baking bread. At the staff office, Gina, our caseworker, was arguing on the phone with her husband. She hung up and made an angry face.
“I’d divorce him if I had the money,” she said.
“How much does it cost to get divorced?” Robert said.
We didn’t really care, but the chances of getting our money went up if we asked about Gina’s problems. She took out the logbook and said, “What’s it for this time?”
“Coffee and a chorizo sandwich,” Robert said.
“The same,” I said. “And cigarettes.”
“No scratch tickets?” Gina said. “Penthouse magazines?”
“We don’t do those things anymore,” I said.
Gina fished our money out of plastic envelopes and wrote down the amounts.
Before we left she said, “Joe, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Why?”
“You seem different.”
“Oh,” I said, not knowing what the hell she was talking about. Except maybe I did, because the office and the street outside seemed sharper, like they were more in focus. I didn’t tell Gina, though, because I didn’t want to go back on my meds. I did not miss the heavy underwater feeling, and I started thinking that Manny could switch places with me more often, like on Mondays and Thursdays.
“Let’s go,” Robert said.
At the Lisbon Market, we pooled our money to buy Doritos, a box of Ho Hos, and a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. And a pack of generic unfiltered cigarettes. On the way home, we bought two chorizo sandwiches from the Chiado and ate them behind the restaurant where Antonio, the chef, keeps a pair of milk crates for us to sit on.
We didn’t have a lighter, so Robert left to get matches. I ate my sandwich and wiped grease off my face with my sleeve when I felt it running down my chin.
When Robert came back, we lit up and smoked without talking, which is really the best kind of smoking. You can focus on enjoying the taste and also the feelings, without having to listen or think about what you’re going to say. But after a few drags, Robert interrupted and said, “What’s that?”
“What?” I said.
There was a canvas satchel by the dumpster. It looked like an old-time doctor’s bag, only canvas. It had leather straps and brass buckles and loop handles. I got off my crate and picked it up. It was heavy.
We smoked some more and argued about whether or not to look inside.
“It’s probably drugs,” Robert said. “Or that powdered poison.”
“That’s a metal band,” Robert said. “I saw them in Providence when I was sixteen. We drove a Plymouth Duster and met girls in the parking lot.”
“I wish I could’ve met girls in a parking lot,” I said.
“You never…?” Robert said.
I shook my head. “Almost. She changed her mind at the last minute, which was a relief at the time. I wish we’d done it now, though.”
Robert nodded and unwrapped his sandwich.
I nudged the satchel with my foot. “I’ll ask Antonio what we should do.”
Inside the Chiado, Antonio was working on a tray of skewered prawns. “No more sandwiches today, Joe.”
I held up the satchel. “Has anyone been looking for this?”
He shook his head, fists filled with prawns. “What’s in it?”
“Nothing.” I don’t know why I lied to Antonio, but I didn’t feel good about it. “I should get going.”
“Come back after lunch,” Antonio said. “I’ll have some boxes for you boys to break down.”
Back at the apartment, there was still no coffee, and Manny was sound asleep. I stood over the couch and said, “You think something’s wrong?”
“He likes to sleep,” Robert said. “Look how happy he is.”
“He does look happy.”
We listened to records and smoked. Robert played Ritchie Havens, the song about chopping down green trees that always makes me sad. I put on the Led Zeppelin III I bought just before I got sick. It skipped halfway through, so we took the satchel back to our spot by the milk crates and went to work on the boxes. Robert got the cutter from our hiding place under the bottom rim of the dumpster, and we took turns breaking down boxes and stacking them flat by the back door. Then we lifted a big granite curb piece on top of the pile, to keep it from falling over.
The satchel sat between our crates like a presence. It wanted to know if we wanted to know what it contained. Something good or not so good? Not knowing was a new kind of fear.
“What if it belongs to someone?” I said.
“The law is on our side,” Robert said in the deep voice he used for bullshit. “It’s called imminent domain. I read about it.”
“You don’t read.”
“It’s true. Imminent domain lasts ten days. No, it’s twenty-four hours.”
“Twenty-four hours, so we can open it tomorrow if no one stakes a claim.”
I thought about it. It sounded fair.
We spit in our palms and shook on it, then smoked our last two cigarettes.
At the Palace Flophouse, which is what Gina, our caseworker, calls our apartment, Manny had finally gotten up and made coffee.
I poured a cup and watched him put a frozen Swanson dinner in our broken microwave. Last week Robert fried its circuitry by cooking a metal saucepan. It had sparked and crackled like the end of the world; after that, it didn’t work.
Manny gave up on the microwave and pushed the cherry compote out of its cardboard square with a spoon. He sucked on it like a Popsicle. “Hey, Joe,” he said, “can I take your meds again?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Good. If the staff gets wise, we can palm the pills and trade them after.”
Robert carried a stack of frozen dinners to 3B, a single apartment that belonged to the Pirate, whose real name was Pete. He had flaming red hair and a mustache, and he always wore a bright yellow windbreaker that made him look like the Gorton’s fisherman. Which isn’t the same as a pirate, but kind of.
“Come on in, guys,” he said like he’d been expecting us. “You want to play Scrabble?”
Robert and I sat down at the kitchen table, while Manny fiddled with the oven and put the dinners inside. The Pirate unfolded his board, which was held together with masking tape. We picked tiles. Robert and Manny opened with “in” and “toe.” I chose “golem,” which I knew was a mud robot from the Bible, but the Pirate said I couldn’t use it because it was from the Lord of the Rings movie.
“That’s different,” I said. But the Pirate said he’d read all of A.J. Tolkien’s books and “Golem” was Smeagol’s informal name, so I couldn’t use it. It didn’t matter anyway because the frozen dinners started to burn, and the Pirate didn’t own potholders. Robert took off his hooded sweatshirt, which worked just as well, and we had a really good dinner.
The next morning in the med line, Manny took my pills, and I took his big white one. Then Robert and I went to the office to get more money. Gina started to lecture us again, but her heart wasn’t in it. We were halfway out the door with our cash when she said, “Food shopping tonight. I’ll pick you up at six.”
We gave her quick nods and got out of there before she could harp on us about haircuts or the shoe outlet. I hated the shoe outlet even though it was in an old stone textile mill, which I liked.
Outside it was cold enough to see our breath, so we turned our collars up and hoofed it downtown to the Manila Jade for a hot breakfast. I ordered the two-egg special with coffee and ham and also a corn muffin. I don’t know if all Filipino cooks do a muffin the same way, but the guy at the Manila Jade was a genius in my mind. His method was to cut the muffin in half, slather it with butter, and then lay each half facedown on a grill so clean you could see yourself in it. It was a thing of pride for him, having a clean grill, and I sure appreciated it when my plate arrived with golden, crisped muffin halves nestled among eggs over easy, a thick slab of ham, and home fries. It was a beautiful thing.
After, we splurged and bought name-brand cigarettes, Chesterfields, and lit up outside the public library. We smoked and watched the pigeons walking around leaving droppings.
“Why do they like to crap on statues so much?” I said.
“Maybe it’s rewarding,” Robert said.
I thought about it and realized I’d never given much thought to other peoples’ or pigeons’ experiences. Maybe it was the meds. I tried to remember how long I’d been on them, but the past felt like an old filmstrip where the projector has gone berserk and burned a hole in the celluloid.
Walking home I clutched the satchel to my chest, wanting and not wanting to open it.
“Open it already!” Robert said.
“Okay, but not until we get back to the Palace.”
At the front of the building, we helped this guy, Alfonse, push his car to the other side of the street. It was a black Pontiac Firebird with gold trim. When we got it in place, we all sat inside the car, smoking. The battery still had some juice left, and we played eight-track tapes of Styx and Iron Maiden.
Halfway through the song “Mr. Roboto,” Alfonse said, “So what’s in the bag?” which meant it was time to go. We ran up the stairs to the Palace and set it on the floor.
“You do it,” I said.
“No, it’s your burden,” Robert said.
My fingers trembled on the zipper, and I realized that they were more like sausages than fingers. How had I gotten so fat? From Lithium and eating chorizo sandwiches. And smoking boxes of generic, unfiltered cigarettes down to my stained fingertips.
I took a breath and peeled the zipper back.
Robert gasped. “Sweet Jesus,” he said.
It was filled with money. Eighteen thick rubber banded stacks of it. I took the rubber bands off one stack and counted thirty hundred dollar bills. I knew enough to multiply that amount by eighteen, but I couldn’t do it in my head. I rooted through the utility drawer for a pen or pencil, but it was filled with packets of soy sauce, long-forgotten keys, and boxes of matches.
I touched each of the keys individually, wondering what they belonged to. Doors, cars, bike locks, padlocks. What other kind of locks were there in the world? Closets. Journals. Army footlockers. I was tempted to let my mind go reeling in the direction of that pointless mystery, but did I want to piss away the next eight hours worrying about lost keys? Maybe.
“Yvette in 2A has a phone,” Robert said.
“So?” I thought of my mother’s black Samsonite suitcase; it had a tiny brass lock with two tiny keys.
“You can use the phone as a calculator.”
We trudged down to 2A and knocked. When Yvette answered, something was wrong with her face; it was so red and swollen that her eyes looked like raisins stuck in a giant lump of dough.
“Ho!” I stepped back, frightened.
“What do you want?” she said. “I’m dying my hair.”
Foil pieces stuck out like flags, along with tufts of jet-black hair.
“How long are you supposed to keep that stuff in?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why? Are you Vidal Sassoon?” And then she said, “Is my head supposed to itch?” She went to check the box and found she was only supposed to leave that stuff in for ten minutes.
“How long has it been?” I said.
“I’m not sure. I fell asleep.”
“Can we use your phone?” Robert said.
“If you go to the store and get me vinegar first.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because, you ass! I’m having a reaction. Vinegar is for reactions. Go!”
Robert and I agreed it was enough of an emergency to borrow from the satchel. We ran upstairs and took two twenties. At the mini mart, we stood at the condiment aisle trying to decide which kind of vinegar to buy: white vinegar, red vinegar, rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or finally, malt vinegar.
“I like malt,” Robert said.
“It’s more expensive,” I said.
“That’s because it’s better,” Robert said. “And if there’s any left over, we can put it on french fries.”
“We don’t have french fries,” I said, suddenly wishing we did.
Robert bought the vinegar plus two deluxe cheeseburgers and a large order of curly fries at the lunch counter. The burgers came with lettuce, tomato, raw onions, bacon, and pickles. At the counter, Robert poured two paper cups each of ketchup and malt vinegar. We dipped and ate and generally enjoyed ourselves, even though we were still very stressed about Yvette’s swollen head.
Back at apartment 2A, we followed Yvette’s moans to the tub where she lay in her clothes with a bag of ice on her face. She looked like she’d walked into a hornet’s nest and then rubbed the stings with poison nettles.
“What took you assholes so long?” she said.
I started to tell her about the cheeseburgers and fries, but Robert gave me the cut sign, so I closed my mouth mid-sentence.
“Forget it,” she said. “Just pour it!”
We did, and she said it smelled really good.
“But does it feel better?” I said.
“I think so,” she said. “More.”
But there wasn’t any more, because malt vinegar comes in a small glass bottle instead of a big plastic jug. That’s when the staff guy came in and said, “What the hell?”
“Hi, Roy,” I said, proud to have remembered his name.
Robert told him about the hair dye kit and how we’d walked all the way to the store to help.
“Why does it smell like french fries?” Roy said.
I started to tell him, but Robert gave me the cut sign again.
“Never mind,” Roy said. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
For the next hour, there was a lot of drama. I didn’t like the noise from the sirens, so we hid out in the Palace and waited for Manny to wake up and make more coffee.
“We owe the satchel nineteen dollars,” I said.
Robert waved his hand. “No one’s going to claim it.”
The thought of all that money and the responsibility that might come with it—like having to wait in a velvet-roped line at a bank and fill out forms to open an account—started to overwhelm me, so I took a notebook from my sock drawer and made a bunch of straight-line ticks, which is what I do when I’m stressed: one, two, three, four, and a diagonal line for five. Begin again. Repeat until calm. I’ve got stacks of notebooks filled with my straight-line ticks. You should see them.
Robert smoked a cigarette until I finished the page I was working on, but I felt no better.
“I know how we can pay back the satchel,” he said.
“You do?” I set down the notebook, suddenly filled with hope. I was glad to have a friend like Robert. He was true.
“OTB,” he said.
“What, the gambling place?” I touched my notebook because I could feel a bad idea coming to strangle me and take the bag of money. My throat prickled right where the bad idea’s thumbs would press.
“It’s not gambling,” Robert said. “It’s a real business.”
I wagged my head. “I don’t know, Robert.”
“It is. They’ve got forms and pencils and chairs,” he said. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
The OTB lobby was like the Registry of Motor Vehicles, except without the angry lines. There were a lot of old men who seemed to know each other. They didn’t know us, though, and we found a corner where it was quiet, with a box of pencils and betting forms. Robert had a system, and although I didn’t understand it, colors played a big role. We picked horses with colors in their names, like Magenta Rose, Inky Black Dynamite, and Tupelo Green. We bet one hundred dollars, which we split up into fifty two-dollar bets. Robert said we were sure to win because our bets were diversified, and also the odds were long on almost all of our horses.
“I’m not sure I like these odds,” I said, not knowing a thing about odds but wanting to talk the talk.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Robert said. “It’s part of the system.”
We watched an old-style television bolted to the wall. I liked being around the old men who wore fedoras and snap-brim caps and jackets with the names of clubs and lodges embroidered on the backs. I wondered if there was such a thing as an embroidery shop. I’d never seen one.
An old man asked Robert if we’d heard about the Gunner horse that got killed because the trainer was doing something called biting up. But as much as we wanted to be one of the guys, we didn’t know a thing about Gunner horses, so we artfully steered the conversation toward colors and Robert’s system. We lost every race.
At six o’clock Gina found us sitting on our milk crates behind the Chiado Restaurant, but we were not happy about it. She was in the maroon minivan, which had the agency’s name stenciled on the doors. It said Fall River Mental Health Alternatives. The van was old and dented in several places, and Gina opened the windows and said, “Go on, boys. Smoke it up.”
Manny and the Pirate were already in the far back seat, staring straight ahead like kids on their way to Sunday school. Which is exactly what it felt like to go food shopping, though whether that was because of the bright lights and crowded aisles or the fact that we weren’t allowed to smoke in the store, I don’t know. But at least we had Alfonse’s almost-full pack of Camels. I didn’t even mind when the security guard at Super Stop and Shop told me I couldn’t bring the canvas satchel into the store.
“Give me your food shopping money,” Robert said. “I’ll get coffee and frozen dinners. You can guard the bag.”
I gave Robert the forty bucks Gina had given me and waited in the van. Gina was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. “Why does he have to be such an asshole, Joe?”
“The security guard?” I said. “I think he’s just doing his job. I don’t mind.”
“No, my husband.” Then she got really angry and bashed the horn with her fists. “I hate him, Joe. I mean, I really, really hate him.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t think of anyone I hated, but I’ve never been married, so I don’t know how bad a broken heart hurts. A lot, I would guess.
I unzipped the satchel and focused harder than I ever had before. Ten one hundred dollar bills made a thousand. And five stacks of ten of those bills should make five thousand dollars, which was how much Gina said a divorce would cost. I peeled off the right amount and then recounted, to be sure.
“Here,” I said.
“What’s this?” Gina said.
“For your divorce,” I said.
“How did you get this, Joe?”
“Me and Robert went to OTB.” I cringed at the lie, even though it was technically true. We had gone to OTB.
“I can’t take this.” She tried to give it back, but I held my palms up.
“It’s okay. We’ve got lots more. I want you to have it.”
“Oh, Joe.” She cried again, and I felt like crying, too, because her face was wet with sad tears and happy tears, and I didn’t know which ones would win out.
Back at the Palace Flophouse, Robert and Manny unloaded all the groceries because I was still too shaken up from Gina’s crying. Aside from coffee, Robert had bought pickled green tomatoes, half a dozen boxes of potato pancakes, and a can of something called chub mackerel.
“What is this?” I said.
“It was on sale,” Manny said.
“We were bargain shopping,” Robert added.
The staff guy, Roy, knocked on the door, so we went down the hall for evening meds. Manny took my place again, but Roy had gotten wise and switched us back. So Manny made a big show of taking his white pill in his palm and then going over to the cooler for a cup of water. He winked at me as he pretended to put the pill in his mouth, and then winked again to make sure I understood. In our apartment, we unstuck the pills from our sweaty palms and traded. After Manny went to sleep, Robert and I borrowed two more twenties from the satchel to buy another pack of Chesterfields and some scratch tickets. Antonio had left a pile of cardboard boxes behind the dumpster, which we broke down, and then Robert did half of the scratch tickets. He won five dollars and used it to buy a bag of meat pies at Sam’s Lebanese Bakery, which looks more like a rundown garage than a bakery, but that’s what it is.
None of my tickets won, but Robert gave me two of his meat pies, arguing that he shouldn’t have to split the third because he did all the walking and waiting in line. I wasn’t going to argue over half a meat pie, but I was still hungry, so I took the change from the pack of cigarettes and went to the Chiado to buy an order of yellow rice. After that I went out back and sat on my milk crate.
“I’ve got a good idea,” Robert said.
“Okay.” It was the perfect time for a good idea, because I’d given away five thousand dollars, plus whatever we’d used for vinegar, scratch tickets, and meat pies. My problems were growing by the minute.
“You remember how I told you I used to play hockey?”
“I was good. I tried out with the Rhode Island Reds.”
“You mean the Providence Reds.”
“Right, but the mascot was a red chicken, so that’s how I think of it.”
“What happened at the tryout?”
“It didn’t go well.”
I thought that was the end of it, but Robert stubbed out his cigarette. He said, “I ran into these guys in the parking lot. They had acid, you know, LSD, and…well, by the time I got my equipment on, I’d forgotten how to skate. I crawled across the ice on my hands and knees to the coach.”
“What did you do?”
“I lay down and rested my cheek on the toe of his skate.”
“What did he do?”
“He put me in the penalty box for the rest of the practice, which was three hours. It felt like a year, though.”
“And then what happened?”
“I went home.”
It sure was a good story, but I didn’t see how it made a plan, until Robert explained that he wanted to buy a pair of skates and a stick he’d been admiring in the window of Demello’s Sporting Goods store.
“I could play hockey again,” he said. “I’ll make the team and get paid each game.”
“Okay,” I said. “But if you get to buy skates and a stick, then I get to buy something, too.”
“A pinstriped suit,” I said quickly, because I’d always wanted one. “With satin on the inside.”
“You deserve a good suit,” Robert said.
At Demello’s Sporting Goods, Robert picked CCM skates, a Koho stick, and a puck with the Bruins logo on it. He’d asked for a Providence Reds puck, but Mr. Demello said the team had moved to Binghamton in 1977, which put a big hitch in the plan, but I tried to stay positive.
“You should get a Bruins jersey,” I said.
“You think so?” Robert took two off the rack with Ray Bourque and Cam Neely’s names on the backs. “Let’s both get one. I’ll take Bourque.”
“He was the best,” I said.
“Sure, but Neely was great, too,” Robert said.
We walked to the rink wearing our new black and yellow jerseys, and Robert skated while I sat in the bleachers. He didn’t exactly crawl across the ice, but he didn’t skate, either. What he did was, he clung to the boards and pulled himself along. The skate guards wouldn’t let him use his stick or puck, so I got to hold them, which was fun. I ate an order of nachos and then messed around by faking wrist shots and checking imaginary goons. After free skate ended, Robert pulled himself to the exit and said, “What do you think?”
“Good,” I said.
“Yeah, it felt good. But it might take a couple more times to get my legs back.”
“Of course,” I said.
Back at the Palace, Manny was awake and was making coffee.
“I still like your meds, Joe,” he said.
“I know it,” I said. “How come?”
“I sleep good,” he said. “I like to sleep. I’m restoring myself. Getting strong. Can’t you tell?”
“Sure I can,” I said. “Manny, what’s the white pill you take?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “They tell me to take it, so I take it. Do you like it?”
“It’s okay,” I said.
The next day after morning meds, we bought two chow mein sandwiches from the Mark Yu Chinese restaurant and a forty-ounce bottle of Old English malt liquor from the package store. We sat at the edge of the dock at Battleship Cove, and Robert threw rocks at a jellyfish. It was white and ugly looking, not pretty and luminous like the ones you see on TV. It might have been a plastic bag.
I wondered at the word “luminous” because I’d never thought it before. How many points would “luminous” get in Scrabble? I’d have to ask the Pirate.
“I think Manny’s pill is making me smarter,” I said.
“About that,” Robert said. “You’ve been acting a little like a know-it-all.”
I took a big gulp of malt liquor. It tasted good but made me feel funny. I figured I was out of practice, but then my vision got blurry and, moments later, I fell over on my side. I threw up my chow mein sandwich, and then there was nothing left in my stomach, but my body kept convulsing. And that was another word I’d never used before. How many Scrabble points for “convulse”? That was my last thought before I passed out.
I woke in the hospital with the worst headache of my life.
“Do you know where you are?” the doctor said.
I looked at the I.V. racks and the shower curtain that cut the room in half. “Hospital?”
“Were you drinking today, Mr. Souza?”
“Joe,” I said.
“Joe. You’re not supposed to drink alcohol when you’re taking Antabuse.”
He gave me a disapproving look. “Joe, you should know what kind of meds you take. And why. Antabuse is for people with alcoholism. It makes you sick when you drink. But I’m more worried about your lithium levels; they’re low. Have you skipped any doses?”
“Yes.” I should have lied, but I didn’t have the strength.
“Mm hmm.” He turned his back and tapped into his computer. “I’m surprised you didn’t have any problems from that.”
“Where’s Robert?” I said.
“I don’t know of any Robert,” he said. “You came in here alone.”
On the way home, I stopped outside the Half Full Lounge because Alfonse, the owner of the black Firebird, invited me to sit. Alfonse used the lounge as his office and was allowed to keep a set of folding chairs in front for his customers.
“Have a seat, Joe,” he said.
I did, and it felt good to put my feet up. It was like we were two important guys. VIPs.
“I’ll get to the point, Joe,” he said.
I shrugged because I’d been through a lot that day, and it was good to sit and listen. Alfonse could get to the point or talk as much as he wanted.
“I’m worried about you walking around the neighborhood with that bag, Joe. Fall River ain’t what it used to be. There’s bad elements. Know what I mean?”
I didn’t, except once I’d seen kids attacking a parking meter with a metal baseball bat. One of them hit it the wrong way, and the bat bounced back and hit him in his face and knocked him down. Maybe he was a bad element.
“I would like to personally offer you some protection, Joe. So you can walk the streets whenever you want, knowing that me and my associates will be keeping an eye out. Understand?”
“How will you keep an eye out?” I said.
“Anybody gives you trouble, you come see Alfonse.”
“And then what?”
“I’ll handle it.” He drove a fist into his palm. “Comprende?”
It sounded like a good deal, so I paid Alfonse one thousand dollars and another two hundred to extend his protection to Robert. We shook on it, and then I walked to the Flint Village Men’s Store to buy the pinstriped suit I’d seen in the window. The shirt and vest were tight, so I wore my Bruins jersey instead. I thought it looked good.
I made it back to the Palace in time for the med line, and after Manny and I swapped pills, Manny lay down on the couch. Robert lay on the floor, watching his cigarette smoke drift toward the ceiling fan. The record player skipped mercilessly across Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.”
“Can’t you stop that?” I said.
I picked the needle arm up and returned it to the holder.
Robert puffed smoke rings and watched the fan split them apart.
“Nice suit,” he said.
“Thanks. How come you’re on the floor? Are you sick?”
“Sort of.” He dropped his cigarette and covered his eyes with his hands. “I’ve got good news and bad news.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“Someone stole the bag.”
My first thought was about all the nice things the money could have bought. Not just cigarettes and food, but maybe a bicycle. Or I could have bought the giant book of baseball facts and statistics that I liked to read at the bookstore. It cost fifty dollars. At the very least, I could have paid off my library fees and gotten my card back. Now I’d have to go back to asking for money from Gina, which strangely, I had never minded before.
“The Pirate took it,” Robert said. “I showed him the money, and he said he could count it for us, so I let him. I also took twenty bucks from the bag because Yvette said she’d do something sexual with me if I bought her a hot lunch.”
“What about her face?”
“It’s almost back to normal,” Robert said. “She looks good. Anyway, when I came back with a hot lunch, the money was gone and so was the Pirate. You want to know the worst part?”
I shook my head because I did not want to hear the worst part. I didn’t see how it could get any worse.
“Yvette broke her deal. She ate the lunch and kicked me out.”
“You said there was good news. What’s the good news?”
“I got you a sandwich.”
For the rest of the day, we wracked our brains trying to figure out how to get the money back. After evening meds the Pirate returned. Gina had to help him up the stairs because his arm was in a sling and one of his eyes was blackened.
Robert and I stared.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I fell in love.”
“With who?” I said.
“She wears tight sweaters,” the Pirate said.
“I’ve seen her,” Robert said.
Apparently the woman in the tight sweater promised the Pirate she’d love him for fifty dollars.
“You got mugged?” I said.
The Pirate nodded.
“Did she love you back?” Robert said.
The Pirate just hung his head.
The next day I decided to go see if Alfonse could get the satchel back. On the way over, I passed the staff office and stopped to watch Gina and her husband, who had shown up in person to argue.
“You want to divorce me?” he said. “I’ll kill you before I let that happen.”
I took one look at Gina and ran all the way to the Half Full Lounge to cash in my protection.
“I need help,” I said to Alfonse, who was sitting in his folding chair smoking a cigar.
“Yes,” I said.
“This is a one-time deal, Joe. Next one costs another grand.”
He grabbed a long, narrow, plastic case, and we walked back. We stopped outside the staff office, and Alfonse pulled out pieces of a pool cue from the case. He screwed them together and tapped the air with the chalky, blue tip.
“That’s a nice cue,” I said.
“Thanks, Joe,” he said.
Inside the office, Gina’s husband called her a liar and a whore.
Alfonse stood in the open doorway listening. But as soon as he caught the drift of the situation, he gripped the pool cue like it was a baseball bat.
“Time to go, buddy,” he said.
“Who are you?” Gina’s husband said.
“Doesn’t matter,” Alfonse said. “What matters is you have five seconds to leave with your teeth, você entende?”
Gina’s husband narrowed his eyes. “Who else did you bring?”
“Just me,” Alfonse said.
“Then you better hit me hard, old man.”
“Don’t worry about that.” But Alfonse didn’t look as confident.
Without taking her eyes off the two men, Gina slid a phone from her back pocket and touched the screen on.
“Go home,” she whispered to me.
“Okay,” I said a little too loud. I might even have shouted it because Gina’s husband looked straight at me.
“I said, ‘você entende!’” Alfonse took a step and brought the pool cue down with a great crack across Gina’s husband’s head. The splintered end of the stick sailed through the air, along with what looked like a couple of white Chiclets that might have been teeth. Probably they were, but I didn’t stick around to find out.
Back at the Palace, I palmed my pills and gave them to Manny. I threw the Antabuse away, though, because I’d found a stray twenty-dollar bill in my bedroom and thought it might be therapeutic to have a drink without having to go to the emergency room. At the package store, Robert and I bought a bottle of raspberry brandy and a new pack of Camels. We went to Battleship Cove and hung our legs over the edge of the pier. There weren’t any jellyfish to throw rocks at, but the brandy was sweet, and it didn’t make me nauseous.
“We failed,” I said.
“I know.” Robert was hogging the brandy.
I stuck out my hand.
Robert passed the bottle. “That’s still a nice suit.”
“I like your Bruins jersey,” I said.
We smoked the rest of the Camels in silence, which is still the best way to smoke. I looked out at the wavelets on the Taunton River and the gray WWII submarine that’s been rusting in the same spot since I was a kid. The brandy gave me a warm feeling, and I could already imagine us walking back to Pleasant Street, stopping at the staff office to ask Gina for more money, which would be our way of checking to make sure she was okay. And from there we’d move on to the Chiado and our milk crates. We’d get the knife from its place on the rim under the dumpster and break down boxes, then eat our free chorizo sandwiches and drink our free fountain drinks—no refills, though.
The same thing all over again.
I stood up and dusted off my new trousers.
Robert got up and put his arm around my shoulders because we were drunk and needed the stability. And because we were friends.
“Do you think Manny’s awake?” he said. “I’d like some coffee.”
I shrugged and we set off to find out.