This all happened last Fall. When I drove up to the parking lot at the jail, I saw Chuck standing next to two ladies. The one on the left had teeth jagged and unpredictable as raindrops. She looked to be maybe 26 or so. The same age as Chuck and way too young for me. The other one didn’t look happy. She had called me an hour ago.
“I’m standing next to this guy who says he’s your brother.”
Chuck didn’t see me when I pulled up. He was lost in the downpour dentistry and broomstick clavicle of his new best friend. The other one marched over to my car and started to backhand my window with her wedding ring. She was squat and disappointed looking. I rolled down the window and caught a slice of Chuck’s conversation.
“This time,” he paused like he’s trying to remember the name of a cousin he never talks to “six months. But yeah, I hear you, any time up in there is long.”
“Six months,” she practically gasped. “I’s barely in there for a week and I thought I’d to die.” The other one, putting the Ivan Lendl stroke on my car, started in on me before I could even hear what she’s saying.
“He said you’d give me 20 dollars If he could use my phone. I been waiting.”
Sad sack, this guy. A whole grocery bag of pitiful. Head down couldn’t make eye contact, as if he wants to apologize to the air for breathing it. We pulled away from the jail and I fought the urge to cheer him up. Remind him that he’s on this side of the fence now. Chuck’s skin looked like water poured into a dirty cup. He stopped going to the yard in June. It was almost October and Gallagher Street was brimming with disembodied hands, plastic blood and cardboard graves.
Chuck didn’t speak. He tucked his chin into his chest and made a noise like he’s cold. He may not have been pouting. There’s no heat in this car.
The headliner on my Chevy Cobalt sagged like a broken back. The first time you get into my car you’ll probably assume we’re dragging a body through the undercarriage. The second time you’ll just get used to it. The last few months was the third passenger in the car. Specifically, my absence the past four months is sitting in the backseat asking me to turn the radio on. I had been pretty good about visiting him the first several weeks. But, I began tapering off in the summer and had let the past three months wither completely. It was hard picturing him jumping off his cot in expectation every visiting day and then eventually resigning himself to another 24/7 of checkers played on chessboards and swastika tattoos. But, I’ve learned the hard way that I can forgive myself for anything.
We pulled into the liquor store on the corner beside the bail bonds joint. Chuck can’t go in. His picture is on the wall for packing an airplane bottle’s worth of Fireball out in his jacket last year and a few of his worthless personal checks are displayed like artwork.
“Welcome home, buddy. Let’s get something to drink.” This perked him up some.
“What do you want, bro? I’m buying.” He thought for a minute.
“No gin, ok? Gin makes me sick. And nothing with orange juice. I had some orange juice wine last week that this one dude made. Shit was like grease.” He fished for something in his pocket. He shows me the check the jail gave him on his release: Three dollars 27 cents.
“I can get it cashed tomorrow.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “No orange juice wine.”
When I walked into the liquor store the Asian kid looked up from his phone and immediately gave me the finger. Jin, my liquor store buddy, always happy when I show up.
“9-11 in the building,” he’s trying to sound like one of those guys who emcee pickup basketball games or a cattle auctioneer.
“Jin, your old man’s got you working the overnight?”
“That Bataan death marching motherfucker made me open, too.”
“Builds character.” This cracked him up.
“My dad used to say that about my mom’s cooking. She would try to make pizza and then halfway through she would say fuck it and use the same food to make soup. So it was like soup with dough and shit in it. And my dad would make us eat it. He’d go, build character.” Jin makes his old man sound like some decrepit, opium-addicted ninja. Like the guy who sold Gizmo in Gremlins. In reality his dad is in his mid-forties with slick backed hair and a realtor’s license. He calls us once a week for anything from possums in his garbage cans to couples necking in his parking lot.