Gifted [excerpt] – Dennis Pells
December 9, 2019
Andy toggled the switch in his brain from off to on, the volume, set to full blast. The words to the song didn’t matter, it never mattered. It was the voice and the magic it held that slowed his racing heart and lightened his feet. Between buildings, up alleys, and over fences he soared. Unencumbered by gravity, he felt invincible.
The water roiled around and between the sun-scorched boulders protruding from the riverbed. Eleven year-old Andy Duval’s rubber soles slapped one rock, then the next; his daring final leap landed him on the far bank. Scrambling hand over hand up the steep bluff he stole a look over his shoulder. Officer Rosario Ruffalo, or Buffalo as he was known on the streets, was back there…somewhere.
Andy hustled along, staying in the shadows till he came to East Avenue. In the distance loomed St. Joe’s church and school and his thoughts turned to his best friend, Billy Browne. Of course they’d have too, that’s where their friendship began; first grade, fourth pew, center isle. He hadn’t noticed him until the church organ held that one long note signaling the beginning of the hymn, ‘Cry out for Joy’. It was then he first experienced the wonder of Billy’s voice. It wasn’t like anything he had known, he could see the notes, feel the joy they held, and when his eyes closed, the sweetness of it filled the air. He could taste the loveliness of it.
But how long had Billy been gone now, two, three days? And he wouldn’t be back for, what, another three or four? Damned family vacations. Andy checked the shadow of St. Joe’s steeple, its silhouette stretched past Main Street and he knew it was after 5:00. I wonder what’s for dinner?
Andy’s sneakers banged up the stairwell’s bare wooden steps. “Mom, I’m home.” He poked his head into the kitchen. “What you cooking?”
His mother, Pattie, stood at the small gas stove, a light cotton dress clinging to her slight frame.
She smiled. “Macaroni and cheese. Why?”
Not answering, he sat down and studied her. Even though it’d been two weeks since she’d dyed her hair blonde she still looked like a stranger to him.
Pattie plucked her cigarette off the stove’s edge and wedged it between parted lips. She took a quick drag. “What are you staring at?” The smoke curled up and around her cheekbones. Irish green eyes sparkling she pointed the long-handled spoon at him. “Don’t you worry, honey, if you don’t like it in a week, or two, it goes back to red. Is that a deal?” She winked and turned back to the stove.
Over her shoulder she asked, “So what were you up to today?”
Andy reached to the pack of cigarettes on the table and secreted one out.
“I played ball at St. Joe’s.”
Pattie wheeled around. “God Damn it, Andy! Put that back, I can’t have an eleven-year old smoking. What would the neighbors think?”
What would the neighbor think? And when did she start caring about that?
He slid the cigarette back into the pack.
At the downstairs screen door came four loud raps. Pattie turned to the stove. “Go see who’s at the door.” With the back of her hand she pushed her bangs out of her eyes. “If it’s any of your friends, tell them we’re eating dinner.”
Andy scrambled out of the chair. At the stairwell he stopped and edged his head around the corner. At the bottom landing stood Officer Ruffalo, his wet uniform matted to his huge frame. Buffalo must have fallen in the river. Snapping his head back, Andy grinned at the thought.
Two more powerful raps.
Pattie leaned into the hall. “Andy, who …?”
Andy watched her jaw clench, his gaze shifted to the floor. “It’s Buffalo.”
“God damn it! What have you done now?” In three long strides she was down the hall. Grabbing Andy’s tee shirt, she pressed her forehead to his. “What did you do today, and don’t you lie to me.”
“I played ball at the park.” Andy attempted an angelic smile, fought back a telling grin, adding, “Honest.”
Her lips stretched tight against her teeth. “Don’t you lie to me.” She wrenched his tee shirt, drew back, and delivered a hard crisp slap to the side of his head. He staggered sideways, Pattie swung again, he ducked, and the blow grazed the top of his head.
Another bang at the door.
Pattie’s white-knuckled grip relaxed and a calm transformed her face into a familiar practiced smile. Chin raised she descended the steps, nearing the screen door Pattie said with a question in her voice, “Officer Ruffalo, you’re soaking wet?”
“Where’s, Andy?” Buffalo pushed his face into the screen’s mesh. “I want him to come down to the station.”
Close at his mother’s heels Andy stuck his head out from behind her. “Mom, don’t let him in.”
At the sound of Andy’s voice, Buffalo’s body coiled, through his nose he drew a sharp breath and cursed. “You. Little. Bastard.”
Pattie grabbed the screen-door handle locking it, like a clap of thunder her voice boomed, “I beg your pardon.” Her chin thrust out. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
Pattie glared at Buffalo. She was ready to take him on. Andy knew she couldn’t win, knew she wasn’t looking to win, she was searching for an opening, a chance to land that one lucky punch. That’s what happened when you got her Irish up, he could see she was zeroed in, like a kamikaze. Her fist balled and Andy saw she was ready to throw a punch right through the screen door.
Buffalo, sensing danger took a cautionary step back.
Andy reached a nervous hand onto her ridged arm. “Mom.” He felt her muscles jump then relax, her arm going soft as he pleaded one last time. “Mom.”
“Andy was downtown stealing… again.” Buffalo said.
Was not, prove it, Andy thought, then wondered for a paralyzing moment. Can they get finger-prints off a banana?
“Stealing what?” Pattie asked.
Buffalo studies his shoes. He raised one eye. “Bananas.”
Pattie laughed. “Bananas?”
“Yes bananas. But, bananas or not, he was downtown. His probation rules don’t allow him to be downtown unsupervised.” Buffalo focused on Andy. “Well, I guess I’ll just have a little talk with your probation officer this afternoon. With any luck, you’ll get a couple of days in detention.”
Andy bristled at the remark. You can’t be serious! What kind of luck is that?
“I hope you both have a nice day,” Buffalo turned, took one slow step down, hawked, and spat on the steps.
”God damn trash,” he said, loud enough for them to hear before he hopped down the last two stairs.
A firm grip on Andy’s neck, Pattie grimaced saying into his ear. “Get your ass up to your bedroom. Right now!” Before her hand released his legs were in motion.
Andy stood behind his bedroom door knowing soon enough his mother would barge through screaming her battle cry, ‘why can’t you behave?’
Why couldn’t he behave? He had no idea.
He checked the time, in ten minutes if she didn’t come he would go get her. It was a fine line, a few drinks would mellow her, any more and it could get ugly.
Andy peered out his bedroom window and wished for divine intervention. God works miracles doesn’t he? That’s what he remembered from school. Of course, that was second grade at St Joe’s and even at the time, miracles seemed a little far-fetched. Parting the sea and all that crap. But, if there was an ounce of truth to the stories, just one ounce, why couldn’t ‘He’ send a miracle his way? Andy considered, in a few years I won’t need a miracle, in a few years she won’t be able to take a belt to me. I’ll snatch it away, shake it in her face, and say, why can’t ‘you’ behave? Why?
Andy hesitated before opening the door a crack. He strained to listen. The refrigerator opened and closed, the clink of ice cubes, a lighter flicking to flame and muffled sobs. Was she crying for his brother again? Johnny was her first, her favorite, he was the smart one, the handsome one, the one most like their father. But if she knew what caused the fire, would she cry then? Andy shuddered at the thought, it wouldn’t be tears, it would be rage.
It’s been two years since Johnny died, would her sorrow ever end? A chair pushed back, next the shuffle of his mother’s feet to the hall closet. That’s where she kept Bruno’s Gazelic’s thick leather belt, it was the only thing left of her one year marriage to her second husband.
Pattie pushed open his bedroom door.
She stood in the doorway. “You lied to me.” Her voice swelled, “Why? Why can’t you behave?” Now shrill, “Get over here and drop your pants!” She stomped toward him. “God help me!”
Andy knew the drill and stood to face her. “Mom, you don’t have to do this.”
Her grip tightened on the belt. “Drop your pants, Andy.”
Andy turned unbuttoning his jeans. They fell without a sound. He waited for the first blow. The belt cracked. He jumped at the sting.
“Hold still and take it like a man! You little bastard, I’ll teach you not to steal.”
The next blow was harder, catching the small of his back. His teeth clenched. Three more blows, four, five, six.
Andy stood ramrod stiff and let the magical musical voice fill his mind. The sound, the notes, a wall, a barrier, a thin layer of calm.
Nine, ten, eleven.
The swish and crack ceased. She dropped the belt. He watched his mother draw her hand up to her face as if to examine it, her eyes shifted and she glared at the belt as it lay coiled on the floor. Dropping to her knees, as if melting, she pooled on the floor. In shudders she wept with little sound. He knelt next to her, arms folded around her heaving shoulders. “I’m sorry Mom.” His face burrowed deep in her bleach blond hair he whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
The sunlight crept through Andy’s bedroom window like an unwelcome guest. Little shards of light worked their way under his eyelids until Andy could ignore them no longer. A light breeze ruffled the frayed curtains and with it blew in the acrid odor of the neighboring foundry and a blue jay’s squawk. “Shut the hell up.” Andy pulled the pillow over his head.
Loud as a gunshot, the phone rang. Andy leapt out of bed and snatched the phone from its cradle. “Hello?”
“Andy, this is Chris Mallard.”
Hearing his probation officer’s voice, Andy responded, trying not to sound too sarcastic. “Yes, Mr. Mallard. How can I help you?”
Chris Mallard mocked with his own sarcastic sing-song voice. “I would like you to come to my office today, Andy.”
“I can’t, Mr. Mallard, my mom grounded me.” Andy grinned into the phone.
“I got ahold of your mother at work. She’ll be calling you soon to confirm it is ok for you to come to my office.” There was a short pause. “I’ll see you in my office in one hour. Room 215, you remember, Andy?”
“Yep,” Andy hung up and panned, “Ok, Mr. Mallard.”
Mallard didn’t have to tell Andy his room number, because he knew its exact location. It was two doors down from the supply room that was sometimes locked, one floor below Mike, the Register of Deed’s office, and two doors east of Judge Wolenzien’s chambers. Andy also knew the clock in Mallard’s office, which hung on the wall askew, was three minutes faster than any other clock in the courthouse. He knew too, Mallard kept a bottle of Scotch in his locked credenza and on his bookshelf, the sixth book from the left was upside down, and that’s where he hid the key. No, he didn’t have to tell him his room number. Andy had Mallard’s number.
The phone began to ring when Andy snatched it up. “Mom?”
“I just got off the phone with Mr. Mallard, he said you’re to come to his office. He wants to go over your probation rules.”
There was a hesitation before his mother answered. “He thinks you don’t understand them… dear.”
“What’s to understand?”
“Goddamn it, Andy, I don’t have time for this shit. If he says you’re to be there at 9:00, you be there at 9:00.”
“You think they’ll lock me up?”
“Don’t be difficult, make your meeting sweetheart, don’t disappoint me.”
I didn’t even steal that banana. Andy raised his eyes to the wall clock and checked the time. Although, I thought about it, and isn’t that supposed to be a sin? But how can you stop yourself from thinking? How can you stop yourself from wanting? He laughed. But it’s ok for Heavy Hank to keep his thumb on the vegetable scale and cheat his customers. Everybody in town knows to watch him when he weighs the produce, but I can’t even think about stealing one of his bananas? I’ve seen him toss better bananas than…and I didn’t even pick it up, until he booted me in the ass.
Andy dressed then glanced at his alarm clock. It’s just a forty-minute walk to the courthouse. Andy raced to the bathroom and brushed his teeth. If I hurry, I’ll be able to stop at Grebe’s bakery for a donut.
Andy put his shoulder into the bakery’s heavy door. “Hi, Mrs. Grebe,” he called out, much louder than necessary.
From behind the cash register Mrs. Grebe called back, “Hi, Andy.”
Ruth Taylor stood at the counter. At the sound of Andy’s voice, she leered over her shoulder before turning back to Mrs. Grebe with a loud “Hrumph.”
Mrs. Grebe’s lips puckered in amusement. “That will be a dollar fifteen, Ruth.”
Andy took a seat at a table in the corner. He loved the veil of flour on Mrs. Grebe’s cheeks, it intensified the rose of her lips. The flour having the same geisha-like effect on her dark brown almond shaped eyes. Although Mrs. Grebe was the same age as Pattie, with her hair drawn up in a tight bun at the back of her head, he always thought of her as younger. But when she let her long, jet-black hair down after closing up shop, that’s when he liked it best.
Ruth rummaged through her purse. She slapped four quarters, a nickel and a dime on the glass counter. With another “hrumph,” Ruth, snatched up her grocery bag staring long and hard at Andy before stomping out of the door.
Both Andy and Mrs. Grebe giggled over the spectacle.
“She hates me, you know.” Andy said.
Eyebrows arched, Mrs. Grebe asked, “Ruth? Why would Mrs. Taylor hate you, Andy?”
“I always cut through their yard when I go to town,” Andy answered honestly. “Last week I cut through and their St. Bernard, Frank… They call him Franklin, but he doesn’t like it, he was tied up. I knew they were at work for the whole day, so, I took him for a walk. Well, me and Frank.” His face flushed pink, Andy closed his eyes and concentrated. “Or, or, I mean, Frank and I.” Andy opened his eyes, searching Mrs. Grebe’s face for approval.
She smiled, gave a nod and Andy continued.
“We went down to the woods by the Fox river. We had a great time, until Frank caught a skunk.” From side to side he shook his head and laughed to himself. “Boy, did we stink! Well, the Taylors got home before we did and Mr. and Mrs. Taylor were running around with their flashlights. They kept yelling, Franklin, come Franklin. So I calls out—” His hands cupped to his mouth, Andy yelled. “He likes to be called Frank.”
Mrs. Grebe put a hand to her mouth and fought back a chuckle.
“So, Mr. Taylor spies me with his flashlight, and starts for Frank and I at a run. Frank got spooked, bit at the flashlight and Mr. Taylor fell to the ground.”
Andy’s eyes widened. “Frank’s got Mr. Taylor pinned to the ground, and he starts wailing, Help, Help!’” Andy slapped his thigh, and laughed. “Then, Mrs. Taylor runs over and whacks poor Frank over the head with her flashlight!”
Mrs. Grebe came around the counter and threw herself into a chair. “Then what happened?”
“Well, Mrs. Taylor got a good whiff of us and grabbed at her throat like she was strangling or something.” Andy, clutched his throat to demonstrate. “Then she…” he let himself go limp in his chair, “Passed out right on top of Mr. Taylor.” Andy took a deep breath. “Poor Frank’s all worked up, he paced back and forth, he started to howl and bark, then all of a sudden he lifted his leg and peed on them.”
Andy looked Mrs. Grebe straight on, arms folded across his chest he smiled. Smiled because, although there was a nugget of truth in there, most of it was a lie. The truth, Mrs. Taylor loathed him because Franklin, all one hundred and fifty pounds, loved Andy. The truth was, Andy did cut through their yard almost daily on his way to town and she could see when they met, nothing was more precious to that dog than Andy’s touch. She watched them through her kitchen window, she saw them play and roll on the lawn together, and she couldn’t stand it.
Andy glanced at the clock. “Mrs. Grebe! Could I have a chocolate doughnut and coke to go, please? I’m going to be late for my appointment.”
Surprised, she hurried out of her chair. Straightening her skirt, she asked. “So, Frank peed on them?”
“Oh yes,” Andy said with satisfaction. “He soaked both of them.”
Mrs. Grebe picked a chocolate donut out for Andy. He set his money on the counter and Mrs. Grebe counted out the change.
As he scooped up the coins, she lightly rested her hand on his, “What is your appointment for, Andy?”
“I’m going to see Doctor Smurl.” Andy checked Mrs. Grebe’s expression. “My mom thinks I might have a pleurisy.”
Mrs. Grebe swallowed hard. “You’ve got pleurisy?”
“Yeah, Mom’s pretty sure that’s what I got. Said I better have ol’ Dr. Smurl check it out. But don’t worry Mrs. Grebe, you can’t catch it from me, I’m not cantankerous.”
Mrs. Grebe’s eyebrows shot up. She answered with a simple, “Oh.”
Up the courthouse steps Andy sprinted, crossing the lobby he waved to the receptionist. “Hey Linda.”
Linda, a paunchy sixty year old with conspicuous black hair and dark red lipstick leaned over the counter and asked with a smoker’s rasp. “What’s the good word, chief?”
“Just here to see Mallard.” Andy checked the clock behind Linda’s desk, reading aloud. “8:48.” He smiled at Linda. “I still have time for a smoke.”
Linda shook a finger at him. “If you were my kid, and I caught you smoking.” She laughed. “I would beat the crap out of you.” Still laughing, she waved as he peeled down the corridor.
Andy ran past Mallard’s room and threw himself onto the wooden bench. He lit up and banged the Zippo’s lid closed.
Mallard poked his head out the doorway. “Put that God damn cigarette out.”
He followed Mallard into room 215 and wasn’t surprised to see Buffalo.
“Sit down, Andy,” Mallard said. He glanced over his black-rimmed glasses to Buffalo. “Have a seat, Rosie.”
Andy flung himself into the large chair.
Mallard plopped his doughy six-foot frame into his seat while Buffalo slid his chair in close to Andy.
Mallard studied some papers on his desk before raising his head. “I have a detention order for you, Andy.”
“Officer Ruffalo reported that on July twelfth you were, again, downtown, unsupervised.” Mallard studied the papers before looking up. “Which is a violation of the rules of your probation.”
“Was not, prove it,” Andy said, and glared straight into Buffalo’s black eyes.
“Andy!” Mallard snatched his glasses off of his bulbous nose slapping them on his desk. “Prove it? That banana you threw at Hank Schmidling.” Mallard paused then yelled, “The impact could have killed him.”
Andy bit his lip trying not to laugh.
Killed him? It was a banana. And if he hadn’t kicked me, I wouldn’t have thrown…
Mallard continued, “Do you know how serious that is? Do you?” He stood. “Take him up to Juvenile, Rosie.”
Buffalo grabbed Andy by the wrist.
“You have some time to think about it, Andy.” Mallard said, and handed Buffalo a fist full of papers.
Andy jumped to his feet, struggling.
“Don’t I get a lawyer?”
Mallard blinked. “You’re kidding, right?”
Actually, Andy did think he would get a lawyer, or at the very least a phone call.
Andy stood, the jailer at his side as the barred door to his cell ratcheted open.
With his hand the jailer made a grand sweeping gesture. “This is home.”
Andy peered in, wisecracking, “Hey, Warden, what we get for lunch in here?”
The jailer turned up his palm and acted as if he were reading from a menu. “To start, we have centipede salad, with fresh eye puss dressing.” He licked his finger and turned an imaginary page. “And from the grill, we have fried shit sandwiches.”
Andy studied his unsmiling face. “Don’t we get an appetizer? Because I’ve had a hankerin for some nice, thick, deep-fried leper scabs and a bowl of chunky camel puke guacamole.”
The jailer’s shove launched Andy into his tiny cell. “Watch what you wish for, kid.”
The door no sooner closed when a voice from another cell called out. “The camel puke guacamole.” The Irish accent made it sound more like guacamoooly. “Well, I don’t think we can accommodate that request.”
Andy’s ears pricked up, the strange brogue fueling his imagination.
The peculiar tongue continued. “As for the scabs, you might ask Nate for a few.”
Andy smiled. “Are they thick scabs?”
“They’re plenty thick, but I hope you like chocolate scabs,” called another voice.
“I love chocolate.” Andy shouted. Which brought a roar of laughter from down the cellblock. Andy lay back on his bunk, he could not believe his good fortune, a foreigner!
The doors clanked open as the lunch-cart rumbled down the corridor. Andy was the first out of his cell and into the holding area. Andy heard, “You still like chocolate?” A tall thin black teen with a swollen lip and several large welts on his head stepped from his cell.
Andy studied him for a long moment, never having spoken to a person of color. “Chocolate donuts are my favorite.”
“I’m Nate Harlow.” Nate extended his hand.
A shiver of delight shot through Andy as he grabbed it. Another guy stepped from his cell as if walking onto a stage. He wore a starched white shirt and khaki dress slacks with a crease so sharp it could cleave bread.
“My name is Ted McMurffy,” he said in a heavy brogue. He examined Andy. “Good God, you are but a wee jailbird.”
A foreigner and a black guy, what incredible luck, Andy thought.
Ted broke into a handsome smile. “I think I’ll call you our jail sparrow.”
A third stepped over introducing himself as Whitey.
“OK assholes, grab your lunch trays,” the old jailer barked. “And watch your language around the fuckin’ kid.”
Ted broke into a grin. “Jailhouse humor.” He glanced from Nate to Whitey. “After lunch, you boys up for a little poker?”
Nate and Whitey both nodded.
Ted shifted his gaze to Andy. “You know how to play?”
Andy shrugged. “I can learn.”
For the next three hours Andy learned poker. He also learned, if you put sugar in a car’s gas tank, it will fry the engine and that to hot wire most Fords, you hooked the red wire to the black wire, but just touched the white to the green for ignition.
Andy peeked from behind his cards, deciding he liked jail, but wished his best friend Billy could be locked up too.
Lockdown came at 3:00. Andy rolled his blanket into a ball and used it as a pillow. He closed his eyes and daydreamed about camping, just like the pictures he’d seen in his Boys’ Life magazines.
He imagined he had on khaki shorts and shirt, with green socks that extended from the top of his hiking boots to just below his knees. On his belt he had his Swiss Army Knife, with its spoon and fork. In his mind’s eye he saw a canoe pulled up on shore, his Zebco 350 rod and reel lying in the stern. Now, he was chopping wood for the campfire with a real axe, and there was Mrs. Grebe frying the large walleye he’d just caught. Mrs. Grebe motioned him over to have a cup of coffee, and a cigarette. She had her hair down, just the way he liked it and her smile was warm and beautiful. Andy pulled a cigarette out of his pack, lit one for Mrs. Grebe with a twig from the fire, then lit one for himself. Next, she passed him a steaming cup of coffee, with just the right amount of cream. Andy took a sip, it was the best coffee he’d ever tasted, and he tells her so.
They smoke their cigarettes and drink their coffee and Mrs. Grebe explained how her husband choked to death on a chicken bone and how she is going to be all alone in the world. Andy gazes into her beautiful brown eyes and takes her hands in his.
“Mrs. Grebe, I’ll marry you.” A tear came to her eye. He pulls her into an embrace and inhales her rich perfume. She smelled just like a chocolate doughnut.
This variation of the daydream was the one Andy liked best— there were several others, one where he rescues Mrs. Grebe from drowning and another where he’s a ship captain and she’s his first mate. But this one was his favorite, he could almost taste the deliciousness of it every time he brought it to mind.
In the holding area, Andy took a seat next to Ted and set his dinner tray down. “What are you in for, Ted? ”
“Forgery.” Ted forked a piece of meatloaf into his mouth. He swallowed hard. “I stole a pack of checks from my rich uncle, got me a fake ID and cashed checks all over the state. I knew I had at least a week, or two, before my uncle would get his bank statement. I was fine when I wrote checks for two, three hundred dollars. But like a fool, I got greedy and penned one for two thousand.”
Two thousand dollars! Why not a million, Andy wondered. “You stole from your uncle?” Andy asked, not knowing what to make of Ted.
“No, you dumb shit. If a bank cashes a forged check, they are responsible. They have to give my uncle back his funds. You don’t know anything about checking accounts, do you, mate?”
Andy didn’t know anything about banking, but by the end of dinner he knew all about checks and bank procedures. Andy knew from then on, he wasn’t going to be stealing bananas anymore. It was going to be money.
The guard did a bed check before the lights flickered off. Soon, Ted’s hushed voice with its heavy Irish accent drifted in. Soothing as a lullaby, he described his homeland in all its detail and grandeur. Andy relaxed on his bunk. He strained to listen, but sleep soon descended like a fog.
Through the haze of sleep, Andy’s mother emerged. He watched her stub the cigarette out before spilling the ashtrays contents into a garbage bag. The bag felt heavy and warm in his arms. Next, Andy’s in the garage and his brother Johnny rushes past flashing a warning scowl not to follow. Johnny scampered up the garage loft’s stairs. Andy listened to the conspiratorial whispers of his brother’s glue sniffing friend Ears. Andy was angry, he wanted to join them, but he wouldn’t tell, he’d never tell. Now his hands felt lighter, cooler, the garbage bag was gone but an acrid smell lingered. He was back in his bedroom when the tendrils of smoke drifted in. The loft’s only window, just visible from Andy’s bedroom held the panicked faces of Johnny and Ears as the flames danced around them. Did he put the bag in the trashcan like he was told, did he leave it on the floor next to the gas can? As in a mirage the jailer appeared before him in his crisp brown uniform and shiny black boots.
“Be careful what you wish for, kid?”
“I just wanted to be with them.”
The jailer’s eyes blazed blue, then red with flame, his nostrils flared, jets of hell’s fury spewed out as inch by inch he transformed into Satan. The jailer opened his mouth wide, and shrill malicious laughter crackled in the air.
Andy awoke bolting upright on his bunk, his eyes wide in terror. The hideous laughter continued.
“You two will have a few days to sober up.” The jailer said. He pushed, first one prisoner into an empty cell, then the next. Andy wiped the sweat from his brow as the sound and smell of someone vomiting wafted into his cell.
“Hey, Frankie, don’t cough up the sponge,” One shouted, before erupting in another burst of callous laughter.
Andy recognized the laugh.
It was Jake O’Malley. He knew the other guy had to be Jake’s buddy Frankie Sabatinie. Andy had seen them around the pool hall and everybody in town knew they were bad, scary bad, the kind of cross-the-street-if-you-saw-them-coming, bad. Jake, with his albino white hair was lean, six feet of sinew and muscle. His rat-like face, with its pointed features and small close-set eyes, was made even more ominous by the wicked scar that sculptured his upper lip into a perpetual sneer. Frankie, was Jake’s physical twin, except for his dark hair and olive skin. But, standing side-by-side, one would think of them as twin opposites.
Andy slipped out of bed, unrolled several lengths of toilet paper and fashioned two crude earplugs for the night.
The breakfast-cart wheeled up to Andy’s cell at 6:00 a.m. “Hey, Warden, what’s for breakfast?”
“Just for you, Bubb, I mixed up a bowl of warm cow drool and fried maggots.”
Frankie retched, the wet sound of vomit hitting stainless steel came next. The jailer and Andy shared a smile.
“Gee, I was hoping for a bowl of fresh fish guts and a nice carton of sour milk.”
Frankie cried, “Oh, God, stop.”
“So, how do you like your fish guts done?” The jailer asked.
“Oh, I always eat mine raw, but with a little yellow mustard,” Andy said and grinned.
“Knock it off, you fuckin’ assholes,” Jake shouted from his cell. “You’re making me sick with that shit.”
The jailer gave Andy a wink and slid the breakfast tray through the bars.
From the bullpen waiting area Andy heard her coming and wondered why his mother had on heels.
Pattie paraded into the visitation room, a rhythmic sway of her hips to the crisp click of her heels on the hard tile floor. Pattie gave a pained smile and a finger wave with her free hand.
“Hi. What are you all gussied up for?” Andy asked.
“Why? Do you think it’s too much for a lunch date? Don’t you think I look pretty?” Pattie asked and performed a perfect pirouette.
Andy saw the jailer blush and look up at the ceiling.
“I met a wonderful gentleman last night, he asked me out for lunch today.” Pattie checked over her shoulder, the jailer gave a nod and she pulled a Boys’ Life magazine out of her shopping bag.
Andy made a grab for it. “Wow, this is the July issue.” He fanned the pages. “Where did you get it?”
Pattie whispered. “I saw it in the Ryan’s mailbox, so I snatched it up.” She began to pout. “Look at all the trouble I go through for you.”
He reached through the bars for the bag. “What else you have?”
“Would you hold on.” She pulled a Sears catalog out.
“It’s last year’s summer issue, but I know how you enjoy all the camping stuff. It doesn’t change much from one year to the other, does it?” Her eyes fixed in the distance she said. “Andy, you should see him. He’s tall, at least six-two, dark wavy hair, beautiful blue eyes.”
Andy cocked his head.
“You know, my lunch date?” Pattie, gazed up, almost in a swoon. “He’s a real head turner, a ladies’ dream man, he drives a new Cadillac.”
“Ok, ok, Mom, so he’s a great guy. Have a nice time on your date. So, what else do you have in the bag?”
“I’m sorry, honey, it’s just a change of clothes.”
Pattie passed the bag through the bars and began to stutter. “Oh, my God, how could I have forgotten to tell you this?” She stooped and looked into Andy’s face. “Do you know who introduced me to Bob? Bob, you know, my lunch date? It was Herb Nelson. Don’t you remember him?”
Andy gave her a blank look.
“Remember when you were little, and after Grandma’s funeral we went to the Dew Drop Inn? Herbie was so taken with you, he held you on his lap most of the evening.”
Andy smiled at the memory. He remembered falling asleep on Herbie’s lap, being carried to his mother’s car and Herbie covering him with his warm overcoat. “Hadn’t he just gotten out of the Army?” Andy asked.
“Marines.” Pattie corrected. “Last night he took me aside, asked how you were doing. Well…I told him what had happened. But you’re not going to believe what he said after.” Pattie lowered her voice an octave. ‘What that boy needs is more camping and fishing. That’ll keep him out of trouble.’ Pattie reached between the bars. “He put his hand on my shoulder just like this, then he looked me straight in the eye, and said. ‘Pattie, after Andy gets out, if it’s okay with you, I’ll take him camping over to Nagawicka Lake.’”
Andy leaped in the air, his eyes wide. “Oh, my God!”
“And then he told me he knows a spot where you can catch huge walleyes, right from shore.”
“Oh, my God!” Andy dropped the bag and pumped his fist in the air.
“Two minutes,” The jailer called from the corner and pointed at the wall clock.
Pattie thrust both arms through the bars. As they hugged, Andy whispered, “Slip me some cigarettes and matches.”
“Please,” Andy said.
Pattie let go of him and began to cry. A little harder than she needed to, Andy thought. She pulled her purse around in front and rummaged for a tissue. She turned, gave the jailer her profile to block his view as her left hand secreted a full pack of cigarettes and matches into Andy’s open bag.
Pattie wiped at her eyes. “Mr. Mallard says in a few days you’ll be coming home.” With one last sniff, she added, “That’s if you behave.”
In a cajoling voice, Jake called, “Your mommy come and visit?”
Andy plunked down on his bunk as the door to his cell rumbled shut.
Like an eruption, Jake hollered, “I’m talking to you asshole.”
Andy contemplated his answer.
In the same sarcastic voice, Jake asked, “Did she bring her little boy some goodies?”
Andy heard Frankie giggle.
“Just some clothes,” Andy said. “And a magazine and a catalog.”
“You lie, you die,” Jake called out.
A shiver shot down Andy’s spine. Then Andy wondered, did Jake mean die, like dead? Or just, beat the shit out of you die? Andy tried reading his Boys Life magazine, but he knew what tomorrow would bring and it was like the last flight of the Hindenburg. You know it’s going down, but you have no idea how bad you’re going to get burned.
That night, Andy lay awake. The wheeze and snorts of the others in the cell-block ricocheted off the concrete walls. The moon was up and full and a cloud’s shadows swam through the bars of his cell and across the wall. He covered his head with a blanket, lit a cigarette, took a measured drag, and exhaled into his balled up tee shirt.
The next day, in unison, all the cell doors cranked open. A long silence followed before Jake drifted into Andy’s cell like a bad smell. Next, Frankie slithered up to the bars, his ghoulish face pressed between them. Andy sat on his bunk, the Boy’s Life magazine clutched in his hands.
“What ya got there, fuck head?”
Andy held the magazine up.
Jake snatched it from his hand and pitched it at Frankie. His eyes darted around the cell. “How long you been in here, toad?”
Andy cocked an eyebrow. “Why?”
The back of Jake’s hand slammed into Andy’s face. Jake shouted, “I asked you a question.”
Andy heard Ted’s nervous voice. “He’s just a kid.”
Andy spun around to see Ted beside Frankie.
Frankie’s hand flashed out like a snake at Ted’s throat. He grabbed hold and squeezed. “You want some of this, you fucking faggot?”
Jake’s nose twitched as he sniffed the air. “You got some smokes? You lie you die.”
Andy reached under his blanket for the half empty pack of cigarettes. He held them out for Jake and fought back a tremor.
Jake laughed. “Thank you. And the matches?”
Andy took off his shoe and pressed a ragged book of matches into Jake’s waiting palm. He watched Jake’s fingers fold over them before raising his eyes to his mocking face.
The punch was so sudden, so violent, it knocked Andy to the floor.
Jake grabbed him by the hair, lifting him to his feet. He pressed his face to Andy’s. “Where’s the rest of them?”
Behind Frankie and to the left stood Nate, a sock in his hand, a bar of ivory soap tucked in its toe.
“Screw you,” Andy screamed.
In that same instant, Nate swung the sock in a long arch. It hit Frankie’s head sounding like a rock to a watermelon. He dropped to his knees. Nate swung again, sending Frankie sprawling to the floor.
Jake turned at the sound to see Nate and Ted in front of him. Andy backed into the corner of his cell. The punches rained down. Jake, knocked senseless and bloody was dragged back to his cell. Ted and Nate came back to retrieve Frankie when he came to and began to wail, “Fight! Help, fight!”
Inch by inch, the moon rose, a stream of muted moonlight layered the end of Andy’s bunk. Andy laid out his Sears catalog. He turned it upside down. Without a sound, a half dozen flattened cigarettes, several matches and a corner of matchbook fell out. In the dim light Andy pinched the cigarettes round and lit them. He rolled three down to Nate who passed one to Ted and Whitey. No pleasantries were exchanged as all reclined on their bunks and smoked. Andy rested his head on the rolled up blanket, took a long drag and began to worry. He knew Jake and Frankie, and he knew this wasn’t the end of it.