The man in the Cadillac turned to look at me over his shoulder as the wheels of his car were locked into the conveyor and the vehicle began to move into the car wash. A toothpick was sticking out from between his lips, and he was chewing at it ferociously, his moustache bobbing up and down above his mouth. He stared at me, over the tops of his sunglasses, until the blue flaps of plastic slapped against the back window of his car.
It made me nervous. At first I thought that I was being targeted for some undeserved act of violence, some revenge. I did not know why this strange man would look at me with such intent. The bills he had handed me as he drove up were still clenched in my hand.
He came to the wash more often, passing the money to me slowly. Once, he took my hand and massaged my knuckles roughly, looking up at me. The heated air of the car rushed out from the open window. He pulled his hand away quickly and steered the car onto the conveyor. I realized then that I had mistaken anger for lust.
When he came back the next night and opened the window, I said, "Nothing beats a clean car, sir."
"Winter salt," he said. "Kills the undercarriage. You've got to clean it once a week or risk losing your exhaust system in the summer." He punched in the cigarette lighter and shook a cigarette from his pack on the dash. "You get off at nine? We should get you a hamburger sometime. You like hamburger?"
"Sure," I said.
He lit his cigarette, held it while he sucked in, and blew the smoke out. He rolled up the window and looked behind himself as he backed out of the lot, without getting the car washed.
The next week he was there at nine when we closed, but I didn't see him. Preparing to walk the two miles to get home, I started off down the side of the highway. He turned on the headlights, and I had to put my arm up against the brightness. The Cadillac was right in front of me. My heart raced for a second until I realized that it was the staring man.
He waved me into the car and I went.
We drove one town over, to a tavern I had seen from the road, but had never been to. We sat at the bar under racks of wineglasses. The place was empty. He ordered a beer for me and the bartender didn't seem to hesitate when he brought them over.
"Jake," the man said, extending his hand.
"I'm Derek," I said, putting my menu down. "I want the tavern burger."
He handed me a cigarette from his pack and I took it. "Are you still in school?"
"Yes, sir, eleventh grade."
He gazed across the room.
We ordered our burgers and he took another sip of beer. "Do you know who I am?"
"No, sir. Should I?"
"I didn't know if -- " he began, faltering. "It's a small town."
"I don't get out much," I offered. It was becoming difficult to contain the urge to swivel around on the barstool.
"Still," he said, trailing off. "Let me light that for you."
Jake lit the cigarette and I coughed on it. "Fuck," I said, stubbing it out.
"Don't swear," he said. He gave me a stern look, but I couldn't tell whether or not he was joking.
"All right," I said, still unsure.
The burgers came and I got another beer. Jake only finished half of his burger. He ate slowly and wiped his moustache with his napkin after every few bites. He spent another few minutes watching me eat.
When he got up to use the toilet, the bartender came over to me. His face was drawn and he was frowning. "It's late," he said, wiping from the bar into his hand with a rag. "You should probably be heading home."
Jake came around the corner and I jumped to my feet. "I'll be missed," I said. "It's late."
We drove back in silence. He smoked with the driver's window cracked. The radio was so distant I couldn't tell if it was country music or just talking.
"Drop me off here," I said, well before we had gotten to my street.
"I'll come for you again next week." He gripped the steering wheel.
"Sure." I opened the door, feeling the cold air hit the side of my face.
Jake leaned over to me, his eyes moving around. "Don't stop calling me sir."
I stood away from the door and closed it.
We parked between two of the abandoned buildings down by the river. It was too cold for any of the gangs to be out, and even if they had been, they would have seen us and probably gone somewhere else, mistaking us for cops. Jake turned the lights out and cracked the windows. The wind from the river made a hollow moan through the openings.
The quiet of the motor, the ticking of the engine, had lulled me. When Jake finally spoke, I started. He pulled his coat off.
"I want to show you something," he said. He took out his wallet and flipped it open with one hand. "That's my license. I'm a pilot."
"Hmm," I said, handing it back to him.
He looked at me as he slid the wallet onto the dash. He started doing something with his left hand that I couldn't see. I thought it might be something obscene, but what he was doing was removing a wedding band. I hadn't seen it before. He put it in the plastic cupholder by the gearshift.
"Of course," I said.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" he hissed. I couldn't see his face in the dark. "Christ," he said when it was obvious that I didn't have an answer.
A few moments passed. With the cold creeping in past the window, I was aware of Jake's body heat. My eyes had become accustomed to the dark. I looked out at the snow covered brick buildings on either side of us, shining under the moon. The flat glint of the icy surface of the river was in front of us.
Jake's hand found mine. He guided me over to his lap. He tugged at his zipper with his other hand. "Do you know what we're going to do out here in the dark, Derek? Do you know why we're here?"
My hand found the warm, hard coil of flesh, and I squeezed. "Yes," I said. And then, "Yes, Sir."
Alone and walking to school in the mornings or to work in afternoons, I found myself opening my mouth to say something, but not being able to form any words. I wanted to hum or sing, but kept forgetting the lyrics. Some enormous expectation was lying still inside of me, drawn back and ready to spring out. It was as if I were waiting for an explosion somewhere, a sign or release. Waving cars forward, my heart would beat with an irregular rhythm. I winced at the clanking sound of the wheels engaging the conveyor, every time.
The whole town seemed to sleep after dark in the winter, downtown lights twitching out from across the river. Houses perched up in the hills sparkled warmly, but there were no cars moving in the night. The air was quiet except for the crunching of packed snow beneath my boots. It was an elaborate winter diorama, a prop, and I was its only audience, slowly making my way home. A sky full of stars surrounded me, and I never felt smaller.
At home, my cousin Missy decided to turn making me miserable into a winter hobby for herself. She complained to my aunt that I stank of exhaust and gasoline. When I came home at night I had to remove my clothes in the cold garage. At school, she told people that I pumped gas, that I already had a career lined up for myself.
I lived in the basement, and I could hear the family moving around above me: my aunt, uncle and three cousins. I was witness to their movement and voices. Rarely upstairs, I preferred listening to their radio soap opera from below. Mikey was getting into fights in junior high, colluding with a decidedly bad crowd. Jack was caught taking steroids and almost kicked off the football team. Jack didn't get into state college, so it meant that he'd have to go to community college. My aunt found a pack of cigarettes in Missy's denim jacket. It went on like this and became less interesting as time passed.
In the creaks and groans and clear voices I heard above me, I discovered that the radio soap opera acquired a new plot twist: Missy was pregnant. My aunt was heartbroken, sobbing at the kitchen table, while Missy paced the room. Abortion was out of the question. The father wasn't likely to marry her. "There really isn't enough room for the baby. Well, there's Derek's room. He could leave a little earlier. It isn't our responsibility to take care of him anymore. He'll be better off."
"Of course," I whispered in the dark.
Once, we got a room in Syracuse. His hands moved over me as if he were scrubbing my torso clean, and his eyes were everywhere. He pushed at my legs and held my arms down, wedging himself against me. He tore a condom wrapper open with his mouth and spit the plastic out. I said, "No," meaning it, and pushed him to the floor.
"You think you're special?" he said. "You've got limits? Well, so do I." His body was dark and hairy, a stark contrast to my Polish paleness. He had a tattoo on his shoulder, an anchor with a flag, faded to steel blue.
Jake and I drove back in silence. He turned the tuner knob to the oldies station: Elvis, the Platters and ads for Gold Bond medicated powder. He softened up by the time we reached Binghamton. "I fly commercial flights out of Albany."
I was silent for a moment, but sensing that something was expected of me, I said, "That's quite a commute."
"You better believe it. When staff is short, I fly all over the country. Miami. Hawaii."
I was transfixed by the winter landscape hurtling by, cloaked in night and shreds of moonlight. I could not imagine Miami or Hawaii. They were fables to me, edged with palms and impossible white sand.
"I could take you there," he offered.
"You don't have to," I said, because it was the truth.
"You don't want to see Hawaii? Don't you want to go?"
I sighed. "Yes," I said, hating to admit it.
He moved his hand from the gearshift to my knee. "Maybe you could be more generous."
"Maybe," I said, turning my head towards the window. In it, I saw a faint reflection of my face, backlit by the glow from the speedometer and radio.
"Maybe, Sir," he corrected me, chuckling lightly to himself.
I rolled my eyes at my reflection.
My aunt had left a note on my bed inviting me up for dinner. Once or twice a week she would do this, and I was grateful for the food. Normally, I would wait until everyone had gone to sleep before going upstairs and fixing myself something to eat from the food I had stashed in a corner of the refrigerator.
As soon as I sat at the table, Missy started in. "Derek's been smoking. He smells like an ashtray."
I looked at Missy and said, "I can't smell a thing except for gasoline and exhaust. Which is funny, seeing how I work at a car wash, not a gas station."
My aunt intervened, "Derek is practically on his own already. We're not about to tell him what to do."
"I don't smoke," I said. "I think smoking is trashy." I winked at Missy and she gave me the finger.
At night, planes blinked through the sky like Morse code messages, a stray sentence assembling itself in transit. I mouthed the words to what it might say; "I'm alone when you're away."
It was March and we were sitting at the edge of the river, dangling our feet over the icy water. Jake passed me a flask of bourbon. Our breath came out in clouded bursts. We'd cut a path through the woods from the road.
"Do you still want to go?"
I blew into my mittens, cupping my face. "It doesn't matter, but, yeah."
"You don't believe I'll ever take you, do you?" His face was reddening with the warmth of the alcohol.
"I believe, but it's going to be warm out soon."
"Sometimes I miss you when I'm out of town," he said.
I fought the urge to cover my ears.
"I almost called you from Philadelphia. I snuck out and found a pay phone in the hangar where no one could see me. But I didn't have your number."
"You still don't." He turned away. "You don't need it, either. You know where I am and where I'll always be." I could see a lifetime of cars ahead of me. I wave them on and collect the money. "I'm not going anywhere."
"You'll spend your days on the sand. You'll jump into the water to cool off and then lay back out. People bring you rum drinks and towels from a bamboo hut. There are bars in Honolulu that only men go to. We'll go there at night."
We sat in silence. He took out a condom and waved it around, the red wrapper crinkling in his fingers. "You want to break this in?"
"No," I said.
He threw it in the water. "Fuck this."
"It isn't something I want. At least not now."
"It's stupid. It's nothing."
"What would you give up for it?"
"What do you mean?"
"You should do something that you don't want to do. Like a trade."
He was quiet.
"Shave your mustache," I offered. "It's stupid. It's nothing."
"But I don't want to. I like my mustache. I've always had it."
"Bingo," I said. I kicked into the frigid water splashing myself.
My aunt came down to the basement and asked me to come upstairs for a "family meeting". We sat around the table, Jack with his ludicrous sweatshirt with the sleeves sliced off, Missy with hair standing straight out from her forehead and frosted to a scary arctic tint, my aunt wearing some sort of beige and black peasant-woman shawl, and my uncle with his permanent pessimistic facial expression.
My uncle cleared his throat, a horrifying and mysterious outburst, to break to the silence. "When we took you in, Derek, after the fire, we knew that it wouldn't be forever." He was red-faced, speaking with slow and deliberate concentration.
"Do you need me to move out sooner than next year? It's not that big a deal."
"Uh, yeah," he said. "We've got a baby on the way."
I looked over the table, straight at my aunt, not being able to help myself. "I am so happy for you. Aren't you worried about compli -- "
"No, no." My aunt started shaking her head back and forth, mumbling. She looked away, at the wicker baskets hung up along the side of kitchen wall. "Missy. Missy is pregnant."
I stopped smiling. "Oh," I said. After a short pause I said, "Oh," again, with more feeling.
"We need the extra space of the basement for the baby. Things are tight up here," my uncle said. I nodded my head in agreement, though disturbed by the way he said "up here" in reference to where they all lived. I lived "down there", the basement dweller.
I imagined the baby, a deranged cupie doll with a full head of Missy's hair. "So should I try to find something at the end of school or the end of the summer?"
"Probably after the school year ends," was what my uncle said.
"We're so sorry about this," my aunt said. "We can help you with your security deposit. We can give you some furniture and plates and such."
"We wanted nothing less than to help you get to graduation."
"Some people aren't meant for academics," I said. "Maybe it's time for me to grow up and take charge of my life." Jack had his arms crossed, bored. Missy was playing with her nails. I got up and went to the basement door, already imagining the feel of the soft stairs under my feet as I descended to my part of their home.
We went to the hotel in Syracuse again, to finish the transaction, splitting a pizza and a bottle of bourbon. Outside, the city surged. There are places bigger than Syracuse, more populated, and more energetic. But it was the largest place I had seen. I brought a portable stereo with us. Jake was so tipsy, that he got up and danced with the bourbon bottle in his hand. He was in his threadbare briefs, humming the lyrics, his eyes closed. I couldn't stop touching the bare spot beneath Jake's nose. He no longer looked menacing. He drew back, looking hurt-when I touched him. I laughed a little, filling my hotel water glass one more time as Jake struggled out of his boxers. He collapsed on the bed. I clinked my glass against the bottle in his hand. Bourbon spilt and darkly soaked a patch of the bed cover.
"To paradise," I said.
"You and me and sand and water and rum," Jake said. He looked at me and then turned around, focusing his attention on the box of condoms beside the bed. With great care and deliberation, he took them out, one-by-one and lined them up on the bedside table. "You're not going to have anything else to offer me after this," he said, teasing me, but enjoying it too much. "You better get relaxed. I can get carried away." His hand emerged from his duffel back with a small bottle that he twisted open. He put his nose over the mouth of it and inhaled deeply, finally putting the bottle down and climbing on the bed, beside me. With his face only inches from mine, the hot bourbon of his breath hitting my nostrils, he said, "Ready?"
In the car, parked at an abandoned auto shop outside of town, he ran his hands along my leg. I winced. "Did I really do that?" he asked, incredulously, as if I was imagining the source of the black and blue spots on my arms and legs.
I nodded. Rain was making chaotic, but steady trails along the surface of the back windshield. The glass against my neck was cold.
"I'll try to be careful in the future," he said.
I looked down at the seat. "I'm not doing it again," I said. Jake's erect penis was pressing against my knee, through his underwear. He smelled like beer and sweat. I shifted my leg away from him.
"You're not being very friendly," he said, grabbing my wrist.
"Lay off," I pulled my arm away and was backed up completely against the door.
Jake sighed, reaching for his cigarettes. "It's not like you're anything special," he said. "I see other guys in other cities. Some are better looking than you. And more fun." I reached for my jeans and started pulling them on. "You're just convenient."
"I'll bet I am," I said. "Convenient." I paused and put one arm through my windbreaker. "It used to be that I'd look up at each plane that went overhead and think that you were inside."
"That's stupid," Jake spit out smoke and smiled.
"I know." I opened the car door and practically fell out. "I'll hitchhike home, " I said, standing up straight.
"Wait. I'll drive you back. I want to keep seeing -- "
I slammed the door and walked through wet, overgrown grass to the road.
For a moment I was disoriented -- I imagined that this woman had done something with Jake -- hijacked the car. She wore her hair high on her head, the honey-brown strands dangling over her forehead. The radio was loud and she was in a hurry. One of Jake's pilot uniforms was hanging on a peg above the back seat.
"Wasn't this car here just here two days ago? It looks perfect."
"My husband," she explained, "is completely neurotic about keeping this thing clean. We're going on vacation and don't have a garage to leave the car in. He wants it clean."
I signaled to the booth beside the wash entrance, mouthing, "Supracoat." Before Susan could get her window up all the way, I just asked straight out, "Where are you folks headed for vacation?"
She smiled that smile again, the smile of domesticity and permanence. "Hawaii. It's paradise, even in April."
"Of course," I said.
Susan winked at me, including me in her happiness. I started rubbing my arm, where it was bruised the most. I hesitated to reach for her money even though her hand was jutting out from the car window. She shook the bills in her hand impatiently, but still smiling. I only knew her name from seeing the heading on Jake's checkbook. Now I could give her a body, a voice and manner. She wore his sunglasses. I took the money from her hand. She winked at me, rolled the window up, and drove into the wet spray.
Jake came for me, the same day. The Cadillac was shining under the sun, a black bullet. His mustache had started to grow back, a patchy darkness beneath his nose. I wondered for the first time what he had said to Susan to explain the act of shaving it. Ordinarily, I'd punch out in the office and go out to Jake's car to leave, but today I ignored him. I turned away from the sight of the Cadillac at the edge of the lot and waved the next few cars through.
At five, I ducked into the main building, punched out, and grabbed my backpack. Instead of exiting by the back lot, I pushed through to the front, past my coworkers.
He caught up to me ten minutes later, slowing the enormous car to a quiet purr and rolling the automatic window down. "Get in the car, Derek."
I kept walking, humming and facing the sun, like a child.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he yelled through his teeth. He was pissed in a way that surprised me, but I said nothing. "You can't ignore me." He gunned the engine and cut close to the edge of the road, forcing me to move aside and down a short embankment to avoid getting hit. He took off, squealing the tires.
The apartment I found was past the warehouses and the Grand Union, on the slope of the hill that crawled up away from the river and old factories. Thick wooden posts held up most of the second floor. It teetered out over a slope that was strewn with fast food wrappers, beer cans, plastic food bags, and empty cigarette packs. I had a view of the river and the canal lock left over from the days when the Erie Canal prospered. Now the gates opened for small fishing boats and little else in the way of river-traffic.
Everything in the apartment felt like cardboard and paper. The thin wood paneling was loose and had torn away from the wall in places, and the green carpeting was worn down to the plywood flooring. In the kitchen, the linoleum tiles had begun to curl and twist out of shape. Dirt had accumulated in the creases of the embossed pattern on the tiles and could not be scrubbed away. The wall above the stove was slick with the grease of food from years of previous tenants, a sickly ochre and transparent dripping stain. Each room smelled of cigarettes and rotting food.
When I was looking at the place and walked across the living room to peer out the windows facing the river, I could feel the floorboards strain under my weight. This particular movement, walking to the windows, seemed dangerous, like the entire house would collapse and tumble down the hill into the warehouses.
Jake and Susan's neat, two-story home had a well-groomed lawn and was situated in the eastern part of town, away from the blackened brick buildings of downtown and the shoddy ranch houses that dotted the surrounding hills. It was a nicer house than anyone I knew lived in. They had left a back window open, so all I had to do was force the screen out and try not to knock over a lamp and table as I climbed in.
Passing slowly through the rooms of the house, my stomach clenched up and it was hard for me to breathe. I picked up Jake and Susan's formal wedding photo off the sleek surface of the piano and stared at it, shaking my head. I took the frame in one hand and smashed the surface of the glass on the corner of the piano; several large shards fell noiselessly to the carpeted floor. What remained was a web of cracks and an indentation in the center of the photo. I put the photograph in its place on the piano, where it looked as if it had violently shattered of its own accord.
My mind had been made up to tear apart Jake's pilot uniforms, mangle flatware in the garbage disposal, shred the leather interior of the Cadillac, and flood the upstairs bathroom, but smashing the pictures was better. Limiting myself to photos with both Jake and Susan in them, I destroyed pictures displayed on bureaus, walls and miscellaneous pieces of furniture. I threw the fallen pieces of glass in the kitchen wastebasket. Susan had been waking up every morning with Jake -- Jake buying me hamburgers and ripping condom wrappers open with his teeth.
In the process of cracking their engagement party photo against the nightstand in the bedroom, I sliced my thumb open. Although dripping blood on the bedroom carpet had not been my intention, my hands were shaking and I didn't think I'd be able to do a very convincing job cleaning it up. Holding my bleeding hand tightly, I sat at the edge of Jake and Susan's bed. Comfortable, I swung my legs up and lay on my back, staring at their motionless ceiling fan. The sun was setting, sending orange light all over the ceiling. I calmed my breathing down and closed my eyes.
When I woke up, the room smelled clean and the ceiling was a pure white. It was just getting dark, the sky outside a deepening blue. I thought that I had woken up in a future where I was not a high school drop out, not rummaging around a house that did not belong to me, breaking things. The clean house with a comfortable bed and white ceilings was mine, and after mowing the lawn, I had stretched out to relieve my aching muscles. Someone would be downstairs, cooking the evening meal, and the smell would drift up any minute. I would put on a fresh shirt and go down to the kitchen to eat. The sensation was disorienting and for a minute I forgot that everything I owned was packed up in the basement of my aunt and uncle's house and that I'd be moving to the treacherous apartment building in a day or two. I rubbed my neck in the dark and fumbled for the stair railing.
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