Before I could finish my ninety-nine-cent beef jerky, along came Officer O’Brien. After circling the 7/11 parking lot flashing his baby reds, whites, and blues, he parked next to the bruised Volvo I wasn’t supposed to drive.
“Oh, why hello Brent,” uncle Matt slurred, as he smoked his beer-stained cigarette.
I couldn’t imagine uncle Matt not propped up against the wall of the 7/11. He’d been a devoted loiterer since the grand opening—somewhat wasted, and with hair. Twenty years later, he was still there—ridiculously wasted, with only the ghost of a comb-over to cover the scars on his scalp. As for myself, I’d been there on and off—more so on—since puberty. That ought to have given us squatter’s rights.
My uncle’s cognizance slacking, O’Brien decided I was his new prey. Sort of like the time he arrested me for smoking a tobacco-heavy spliff in the woods, after ruining my one chance to kiss Peanut. As O’Brien approached our stoop, I remembered how Peanut and I had to contain our laughter whenever he came around. I wished she was there, so we could mock the way he jerked his belt over that ever-increasing gut.
“So, what are you fellows up to this evening?”
The cops always asked that question. Although I wanted to exercise my right to remain silent, I figured uncle Matt had a baggie of something, somewhere. So I best be the entertainment for the evening.
“Just sitting,” I said, and chomped on my meat-stick.
It wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the full-story either. I’ve learned that you should never tell cops the full story. If possible, you should skip stories altogether.
In truth, we had just adorned the wall behind 7/11 with the words “KARL MAX IS NOT A MARXIST”. Though our vandalism wasn’t unwarranted, for it was an act of protest against 7/11’s bullshit corporate policies. Apparently on “Free-Slurpee-Day,” 7/11 only doles out free slurpees until exactly three PM – even on the hottest day in August. Because it was just one minute past three, we were denied our right to a free slurpee – and I was pissed, for all I could afford was my ninety-nine-cent beef jerky. To ensure the establishment knew he was unsatisfied with their customer service, uncle Matt lit his cigarette in front of the cash register before he left.
“Don’t worry,” said uncle Matt, once we got outside.
He dropped his gray backpack onto the concrete. I wished he had done so more discretely, for all the underaged kids in town knew the contents of Matt’s gray backpack. He dug through an assortment of stolen beer, and to my surprise, pulled out a broken can of spray-paint.
“We’ll get ‘em back for that one,” he smirked, as black paint trickled down his hand.
Two weeks later, we finally received the three hard knocks I had expected. Before I could even open the door, Officer O’Brien squeezed his way into our one-bedroom apartment. Thankfully, I had hidden my miniscule amounts of pot and uncle Matt’s pipes in an obscure pocket of my suitcase.
“It seems like you fellows have done a bit of re-decorating,” he said, as he dented our flimsy leather chair with his whale ass.
“Any coffee for you, sir?” I asked.
I hoped he couldn’t hear the cries of uncle Matt’s broken harmonica from the bathroom. Although Susan had changed her number five times, he still didn’t get the hint that serenading her voicemail box with renditions of “Oh, Susanna” wouldn’t win her back.
“Cut the bullshit, and get your son of a bitch uncle out here,” said Office O’Brien, saluting our unhinged bathroom door with his styrofoam coffee cup.
I always thought of our bathroom door as a cityscape, for its peeled-wood silhouettes resembled the skyscrapers in travel guides. As O’Brien scanned our coffee table for potentially illicit specks, of any kind or color, I wished I could live in one of the skyscrapers on that bathroom door.
“Did you do it?” O’Brien asked, with a smirk smeared across his ruddy face.
“Before you say anything, consider I have this in my possession.” He tossed a black video tape onto our scratched coffee table.
Between the tape, the Kim Jong Un poster above the couch, and a bookmarked copy of The Communist Manifesto next to me, there was no point in lying – we were already fucked. At least I had no parents to disappoint with another free phone call.
I realized then that my lack of experience, combined with uncle Matt’s lack of sobriety, made us a terrible team. Being it was the first time we defaced property as a duo, I hoped the judge would pity our inevitably imperfect rhythm. When it comes to committing crimes as a pair, having an established rhythm is key in not getting caught. But because uncle Matt was always hanging around the train tracks during my adolescent years, I established a rhythm with Peanut. If I had vandalized the wall behind 7/11 with her instead of uncle Matt, Officer O’Brien wouldn’t have broken the chair in our living room.
Soon after O’Brien’s short Italian cohort came along, we found ourselves handcuffed to a bench too nice for people like us to sit on. Although we inherited aunt Linda’s bed-bug infested apartment in Westchester a few years ago, it still was not home. Even the college-bound teenagers, cheerful they got their speeding ticket reduced to a parking citation, looked at us with disgust as they walked out. I hoped we could sit there in silence, but of course, uncle Matt had some odd story to tell.
“One time I stole a car on Xanax and crashed into a tree,” he slurred.
I nudged his shoulder, and prayed that O’Brien was too busy elevating his cholesterol in the break-room to hear.
“What, man? I’m just sayin’, it could be worse.”
Those were uncle Matt’s last words before he knocked out.
An Opossum and a Rug
Tommy never asked Mr. Nelson for closing shifts, until Anne kicked him out for good. Usually he refused to work past five, as it cut into his beer-drinking time, but he was desperate.
“Have a good one Mr. Nelson. Enjoy your McDonald’s coupon,” Tommy waved at his boss with a trembling hand.
Mr. Nelson grinned and crept out the door like a centipede. Tommy would never had given up a two-for-one dollar coupon, until Anne kicked him out for good.
For a rug emporium, he thought that nine P.M. was a ridiculously late time to close. People only needed a rug every so often, even less so with the growing interior design trend of exposed hardwood floors. Though Mr. Nelson never understood that most people weren’t as fascinated by the stain-resistance of microfiber rugs as he was. If it wasn’t for Tommy’s suggestion that they should also sell tiles, Nelson’s Rug Emporium would have gone out of business. Even with the boost in business from the tile sales, though, Mr. Nelson and his employees barely made enough money to pay their bills.
Once Tommy heard the roar of Mr. Nelson’s ignition, he reached for the duffel bag stuffed under the counter and opened a can of just-expired tuna fish. After dumping the can into his mouth, he turned on the 1998 desktop for its dim light. If he had kept the fluorescent lights on, those who passed may have suspected an intruder – although not many thought to steal cheap rugs. The only rug he could imagine someone stealing would be the ten-thousand dollar sheepskin rug they just ordered for Mr. Banks, a wealthy and devoted client. In the dim light, the photograph of Mr. Nelson and his father at the 1957 grand opening of Nelson’s Rug Emporium made Tommy question his decision to spend the night – or however many nights – but he had no other option. If he hadn’t attempted a banjo-rendition of TLC’s “No Scrubs” at three in the morning the night before, he wouldn’t have had to use his sweatshirt as a pillow.
In the storage room that was also Mr. Nelson’s office, he laid on the thickest rug he could find, and tugged the end of it over his bare feet. As Anne once told him, which she last night revealed was a lie, thickness was more important than length. After adjusting to his substitute bed, with an aching stomach and red eyes, he finally fell into a Benadryl-induced slumber.
Tommy was soon awoken by a shrill squeak. Upon opening his eyes, he saw an off-white, furry animal scamper under a sample display of linoleum. The animal, which he realized based on its pointed pink tail could only be an opossum, was hiding from a whisper behind a cement pillar.
“Here kitty-kitty,” called a man in the darkness.
Tommy kicked the rug off his feet and turned to see a bearded man, cloaked in a ripped, olive-green coat.
“Who the fuck are you?!” He asked.
“Who the fuck are you?!” The man shouted. His burnt-stucco teeth, barely intact, clanked against his lukewarm Rolling Rock.
“I’m an employee of this establishment and I’m calling the police.” Tommy ran to the corded telephone.
“Wouldn’t that be just as bad for you, boy?” He asked, and took another sip, “Ain’t never seen you sleep here before. What is it, lady trouble?”
It was the first time anyone took interest in Tommy’s affairs since he started binge-drinking. Tommy sighed and dropped the telephone.
“She hates me. I wasn’t affectionate enough. I drank too much. Wait, why are you here?”
“Same reason,” the man replied.
“No,” he belched, “I’m homeless. So are you, I guess - but for me it’s permanent. I’ve been kicked out of every God damn homeless shelter in town.”
Tommy knew if he called the cops, not only would Mr. Nelson discover that he was taking shelter in the back room, but the man would be arrested, and have no one to call at the police station. Although he wanted to know how long he had been residing in the back room, he couldn’t ask, as he feared the answer.
“Listen, man. I’m sorry to do this to you – but you have to get outta here,” Tommy said. He hated himself for sounding like Anne, but realized how hard it must have been for her to kick him out for good. He kept his locked to the cement floor, and was soon greeted by the opossum with bulging, black eyes. It brought him momentary joy, until he realized it was chewing on a piece of the sheepskin rug.
“Fuck! This little pet of yours is eating our most expensive rug!”
When Tommy turned around, he saw the window had been barged open, and noticed the man attempting to maneuver a one-wheeled shopping cart.
“Where do you think you’re going?! Take this thing with you!” He shouted.
“Look, kid, I’m not trying to get arrested here,” the man said in the near-distance, “but first - let me tell ya somethin’.”
“What is it?” Tommy asked, willing to take any advice he could get.
“The first time marry for money,” the man belched, “and the second time – marry for love.”
He dropped his beer on the pavement and dragged the shopping cart behind him. As he disappeared into the woods, a part of Tommy wished he would come back. He had lost his home, banjo, pet bearded dragon, and Anne – so he could at least use a friend. He would soon also be unemployed – for Mr. Nelson emphasized the importance of shutting the loosely-attached door, especially because the town had recently become rampant with opossums.