You watch too much TV. This is the safest place to meet. It’s far away from everything….”
by chris wilkensen
Steve frisks his own windbreaker to retrieve his smokes and fire. He bends down, shields his back from the wind, lights up. Unclean, dirty-blonde hair drifts into his gray eyes, making him slap his hair back to the side.
“Two days. Forty-eight hours. I don’t know how much longer I can go. Can we make it and go cold turkey?” Jack asks. He hooks his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans.
“Just chill. So this guy we’re meeting now. Should we worry about this guy?” Steve spits on the gravel.
“He dated my cousin. I don’t think he’ll screw with us.” Jack extends his hand, and Steve instinctively offers him a drag from his cigarette. Steve takes a long hit, letting the smoke trickle up the side of his face and into his hoodie.
They look around. A sad sea of beat-up cars waits to be salvaged by car buffs. Several layers of grime cover the colorful paintjobs the cars once sported. This could be a new car lot, if it were the 1970s.
Jack returns the cigarette to Steve. Steve simply smokes. Jack shuffles his feet around on the gritty ground of the junkyard, staining his skate shoes on oil and kicking pebbles around. It is so cold that the oil, what’s left of it, in the old machines is nearly frozen.
“You’re sure this guy’s decent?” Steve asks. He curiously touches a vintage Pontiac with his bare index finger and instantly removes it, like he just felt fire.
“Do we have any other choice?” Jack says.
“You didn’t have to bring me along if it’s not safe.”
“You’ll be thanking me when we get this over with. If it weren’t for me, we wouldn’t even have this chance.”
“It’s not because of you. It’s because your cousin gets around.” Steve laughs.
“Shut up, dude.” Jack turns to Steve and grips him firmly by his jacket, looking him squarely in the eyes.
“Yeah, he’s right. Shut up, dude.” Todd, easily the size of both Steve and Jack put together, walks toward them. He sports a leather jacket and steel toe boots. Jack remembers Todd working as a roofer or something intensely physical.
“Don’t say that about his cousin.” Todd pauses. His voice is deep and slow, apparently thanks to smoking. “My ex.” He lifts his right eyebrow.
“Steve was just trying to be funny, but it didn’t work. He does that a lot,” Jack says.
“Whatever. Anyway, how you been?” Todd extends a hand toward Jack, who reluctantly accepts it. The handshake turns into a bear hug and takes Jack by surprise. He releases after a few seconds.
“Todd,” Jack says. “Long time. I’ve been good. You know, the usual. By the way, what a place to meet. I’m gonna have nightmares from this place.”
Todd thinly smiles.
“You watch too much TV. This is the safest place to meet. It’s far away from everything. The cops never come here. How’s Susan these days, still getting around?” Todd eyes Steve.
Steve pulls his eyes from the others, looking down at his Vans making modern art in the dust.
“She’s good. She’s in school. She’s got an office job downtown too. Receptionist or something that doesn’t really matter, but it’s a start.” Jack glances at Steve, whose eyes are still looking at the ground.
“Yeah, well that’s good to know.” Todd glances at the darkening sky for a while, then at Jack. “Anyway, that’s ancient history. I was just asking. So, back to business.”
“Jack, why are you hitting me up after so long? Looks like no one else can hook you up. Good thing for Facebook.”
“My regular guy got popped and sent up state to do some time. I reached out to my old guy. He’s on vacation up state too,” Steve says.
“I stopped dating your cousin two years ago. You guys are just out of connections, trying to think of anyone you ever met who dealt or who maybe dealt or knew someone who dealt. Sound right?” Todd asks.
Todd walks within breathing distance of Jack, who concedes an inch or two, trying to remain firm. Steve takes a step backward also. Todd stands on his tiptoes, towering over the two like a linebacker to two tennis players. Like a scared puppy, Steve retreats three steps.
“What? What are you doing? That’s how you treat customers? You intimidate them?” Steve asks.
Todd leans down on his thighs because he is laughing so hard. Then, he rubs his eyes. The boys look at each other, still on-guard.
“Customers?” Todd asks. He starts laughing again while straightening his stance.
“What’s so funny about that?” Steve asks.
“I finally get it,” Todd says. “I finally get why you hang out with this loser. He does have his moments. Customers.”
“Can we just get this over with? We have the money with us.” Jack takes his wallet from his pants pocket.
Todd’s phone starts to vibrate.
“Don’t move,” Todd says. “I’m pretty sure you guys aren’t going anywhere in a hurry, right? Then we could get business over with.” Todd walks away, speaking in whispers on the phone.
Steve gives Jack the what-now gesture, his hands slightly below his shoulders like a human scale.
“He’s usually like this,” Steve says. “Don’t worry. He’s all bark, no bite.”
“This guy is just totally psycho. I wish I never came here.” Steve’s feet once again start to play with the stones on the ground. His hands shake, partly because of the cold, partly because of nerves.
“Yeah?” Jack says. “Well, I wish I never did a lot of stuff, too.”
“Don’t you put that on me! It’s not my fault you wanted to try it. I didn’t force you to. You begged me to try it. I just gave in to you.” Steve violently kicks the gravel around like it was going to change something. The past maybe.
Todd comes back with a cigarette. Steve notices it and lights one himself to calm down.
“What are you guys arguing about now? Who’s going to get high first?” Todd takes a long drag. “You can’t wait to get high again. I’ve seen it since the minute you two little junkies walked in here like a couple of nervous chickens on a field trip to KFC.”
“So what are we doing here?” Jack asks. “Are you hooking us up or not?”
“Little man,” Todd says, placing his hand on his chin. “I’m almost thirty now. How old are you?”
“Twenty two,” Jack says. “What does that have to do with anything? I’m just sick of waiting. I’m done with this small talk. Let’s just get this deal over with. Can you just hook us up already? Surely you have some other pressing shit to get to!”
“Twenty two,” Todd says, his hands now on his hips, while looking at the sky. “Seven year difference. You’re going to be seven different people in those seven years when you make it to my age. But first you gotta make it there.”
“Not a goddamn lecture,” Steve says.
“Jack, whatever gave you the impression I dealt anything?” Todd asks.
“Come on, Steve. He’s not going to sell anything to us. He’s wasting our time. Crazy bastard. Fuck him.” Jack flips off Todd. Steve follows suit and flips off Todd. Jack and Steve walk away, still holding their middle fingers in the air.
“Flick me off, huh? You little skinny shits?” Todd laughs. “I got news for you, kids. I’m a cop now and a couple squad cars are coming for you.”
Jack and Steve stop in their tracks. They look at each other. At the same time, they both scream: “Run!”
“Kids! Kids! Stop! I was kidding! Just stop! Just wait a second! I can explain!” Todd screams at them. He starts to jog toward them because he is too big to run. They are too far ahead, anyway. Despite the cold, his big body starts to sweat. He slows down after jogging for forty seconds.
“Did you really think I wasn’t going to tell your cousin, and that she wouldn’t tell your mom? You hit me up after two years just to score? This is serious shit,” Todd says.
The boys only pay attention to the sound of their feet hitting the gravel. They pass rusted metal of all types on machines they never used and cars they never drove, but they have no time to analyze the junk. The finish line is in sight; they stop for a break to breathe properly.
“Are they who I think they are? What are they doing here?” Steve points about fifty yards away.
Jack just stares straight in the distance in front of him. He sees his cousin, his sister and his mother standing behind the junkyard gate.
“What do we do?” Steve asks.
“Just let me think,” Jack says.
They hear Todd coming up from behind, but they remain still, like they’re caught red-handed. Todd circles arms with both of them, gaining a grip on them that neither can evade. They no longer have to make any decisions.
“Where are the squad cars?” Steve asks.
“Why are my cousin, my mom and my sister by the gate?” Jack asks.
They are still too far to see the expressions on the women’s faces. Jack would notice them anywhere, even though he hasn’t seen them in-person for four months. After ignoring calls, messages and e-mails, Jack has little choice but to face them now.
“No questions today. And, by the way, I’m not really a cop.” Todd dragged the two closer toward Jack’s family, an arm around each of the boys.
“I heard that, Todd. You told them you were a cop?” Jack’s cousin asks Todd.
“It was just a joke. They took it too seriously,” Todd says.
At this, Jack’s mother sobs. Jack sighs.
“Like you could pass the physical, in your shape.”
“Kid, why are you laughing? You want me to tell them what you said back there?” Todd still has his arms entangled with the two kids’ arms, still progressing forward on all their accords. But then Jack stops. He says nothing. Instead, Jack gathers all his strength to swerve in front of the big man and use his free right hand to nail Steve’s face. Steve falls to the ground.
The women in Jack’s family gasp in horror.
“Not bad, kid, but calm down,” Todd says.
“That’s the least you get.” Jack spits on Steve’s skate shoes.
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr)