Author Adam Decker

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Chapter 9

Found and Broken Spirits

I

     At lunch all eyes were on me as I walked to our table. I looked back one-eyed

at a few of the faces, but the stares made me uneasy. I could feel them on me

the way you feel gnats around you on a summer day. People laughed and

whispered; I even heard a few claps. But I was just the under-card, John the

Baptist in the desert before the real deal, batting practice before the game.

     It happened just as I sat down at the table. First, it was a few seniors next

to our table. Then it was their whole table. You could hear the sound of chairs

scooting on the concrete floor, one by one. The masses rose throughout the

cafeteria like a wave at a baseball game. Only the wave held firm as it reached the

far end of our lunchtime confines. The clapping followed and continued for a good

five minutes. There were no speeches or half-time buzzer beaters, but still the

masses were on their feet giving the man of the hour a standing ovation, the same

man they rooted against not hours ago.

     I hopped on top of my chair so I could see above the crowd and joined the

clapping. In front of the southeast double doors, in front of the stairwell, stood the

janitor. He was walking with tray in hand and backpack over his shoulder. He

slowed his pace at the cheering and looked to see what the applause was for. His

eyes scanned the far end of the room and then moved toward our table. By the

time he’d surveyed the cafeteria, it was evident that every smile was for him.

    Roman stopped in his tracks, balancing the two cartons of milk on the edge of his

tray. His cheeks blushed, but the clapping continued to get louder until it was

deafening. The prison guards scurried through the crowd searching for a fight and

were at a loss when they found nothing. They could only look and wonder. I did,

however, see off in the corner Mr. Buttworst clap a few soft claps to himself. In all

my years of prison life I’d never seen such a thing.

    Roman began his slow walk to our table with his head down in

embarrassment. The masses pounded on their tables and shook anything that

would make noise. Roman looked for a seat but our table was packed. Sam and

Pick scooted an empty table up to ours and connected the two. Heather and a few

cheerleaders pulled up the chairs. Roman looked around again wanting the ovation

to stop. He put his tray on the table but the noise grew louder. He raised his hand

as if to say enough but the applause continued. Not until Roman sat did the crowd

sit. And not until he spooned up his applesauce did the hands stop. I patted him

on the back. Heather kissed his cheek from the other side.

     I looked over at my old table and now realized why we were so packed.

There wasn’t a soul at Johnny’s table. They were all over here. Part of the

winning team I guess. For the first time in four years the Killer had a legitimate

reason for not being at school. It wasn’t because he came down with the flu after

another nick in the popularity armor. Johnny for the first time was physically

unable to get out of bed. He and Jack could have been roommates at the hospital

for all I knew. One thing was for sure, whatever mind control Johnny used to have

over these people was broken.

     Roman ate fast, leaving little time for conversation with anybody, wishing

the moment would just go away. The rest of our group had permanent smiles

glued to their faces. The volume was lower now, almost like a constant hum. The

ovation sucked the teenage energy right out of the crowd. For once lunch was

peaceful.

    Brunno walked up to our tables as fidgety as a crack whore with

Tourette’s. Before he made it to Roman, Sam Peterman grabbed his arm. He

pulled out a box of adult diapers and sat it on Brunno’s tray. Brunno squinted

reading the labeling on the box over and over. Finally the words registered, and he

threw the box on the floor. He stopped behind Roman, rocking side to side like he

was barefooted on hot asphalt. He said nothing.

    Roman continued to eat until he felt the presence behind him. He turned

around with raised eyebrow. Brunno looked down at his tray avoiding eye contact

with Roman. The cafeteria went silent.

    “Can I help you Brunno?” Roman asked.

     Brunno’s feet tapped faster and his head went back and forth. In a very soft

un-Brunno like voice he said, “I was won-won-wondering if I could sit with you

guys?”

    Roman stood up from his chair. The cafeteria took a collective inhale.

    Roman stared at him until Brunno met his eyes. “You don’t have to ask me where

you can sit. This isn’t my cafeteria.”

    “Th-----anks Roman.” Brunno started to walk to the less-populated end

where Heather had pulled up the chairs.

     Roman put his hand on Brunno’s shoulder and opened his other out toward

the seat where he’d just been sitting. Brunno sat and Roman retrieved one of the

empty seats. Smiles lasted the rest of the day.

II

     By the last bell, I could barely keep my good eye open. I looked at the

clock, realizing I’d been awake for thirty-two hours straight. The adrenaline rush

from the Hollow had kept me going through the day, Roman’s tale had fueled me

through the night, but now the tank was empty. On the way to the Pinto I swore I

was sleepwalking on several occasions. It felt like it was the last few miles hiking

up to Pike’s Peak. I turned the corner of the prison to find that my car was not

alone.

     Sally was leaning on the hood with her books up against her chest. The

naughty smile had resurfaced. Before I could say a word she dropped her books,

wrapped her arms around me, and put her tongue in my mouth.

     She pulled away when my kissing wasn’t as enthusiastic as hers. “What’s

wrong? Are you pissed I wasn’t there for you after the fight? I got swept away in

the crowd and you know I couldn’t go over to Roman’s on account of my parents.”

    “I know. I’m not pissed. It just hurts to open my mouth. I think Johnny

broke my fucking jaw. The only thing I could eat at lunch was that goddamn

lemon jello they always serve.”

    “I bet I could make it feel better. Plus my mouth is fine,” Sally said as she

put my finger her mouth. “My parents aren’t home.”

I took my finger back. “Oh no, I’m not fallin’ for that shit again. Let’s go

to my place.”

III

    In my bedroom it was the usual routine. Clothes flew and in seconds we

were under my covers. This was it. I was sure of it. She’d never been like this, so

aggressive. Just before the eagle had landed...“Oh no.”

    I looked out my window next to my bed, making sure Pops wasn’t home.

No car. “What now? You can’t do it with an injured guy or what. Here look.” I

pulled open the dresser next to my bed and produced a patch. I’d been a pirate for

Halloween back in the day and for some reason kept the eye cover. I put it on.

    “See, now you’re doing it with a pirate, not a hospital patient.”

Sally got out of bed and gathered up her clothes. “My period is starting.”

Before I could speak she was in the bathroom

    I was still clinging to the idea I might get something out of this deal. The

comment about her mouth working fine kept finding its way back into my mind. I

knew the moment she re-entered I could forget about it. I gave it one last pathetic

try. “We can still mess around can’t we?”

    “I want to go home. I need to get home. You don’t understand. I just feel

so dirty.”

    I put my clothes on and drove her home with my best happy face. The sad

part was I really wasn’t mad. I was slowly getting conditioned to the fact that this

is how things went for me. There were no rude comments toward her, and I talked

the entire way. I felt like my Pops driving with my mom.

    I hit the bed when I got home. Don’t remember one thought after my head

hit the pillow. I slept that night from four o’clock until time to go to school the

next morning.

IV

    Roman won the no-sleep category. He had been up for forty hours

straight. He didn’t have the zombie tendencies that I did. Roman didn’t require a

lot of sleep anyway, or was it that he couldn’t sleep? Anyway Roman had already

finished his assigned cleaning duties and was now looking for extra things to do.

    He decided to polish all of the brass keyholes on the classroom doors with a new

industrial cleaning agent the district had recently purchased. He was instantly

reminded of all the late night miracle liquid commercials that graced the small

screen. The ones that could bring back an eighty-year-old sink that had been

sitting in a junk yard for the last decade and make it look as if it were right out of

the store. To his surprise the stuff worked. You had to scrub a little harder than

the guys on TV, but at least it worked.

    Halfway through the keyholes Roman heard footsteps coming up the stairs.

He stopped the polishing expecting to see one of the other janitors. Heather stood

at the end of the hall holding a basket. Roman put his supplies in his cart and made

his way down to her.

   “Is everything all right?” he asked.

    “Fine. I knew you had a break at ten and thought maybe I could treat you

to a snack.”

    Roman said nothing, continuing to smile like a little boy on his first bike

ride without the training wheels. Heather produced a blanket from her picnic

basket and spread it on the floor. It had red and white checkers.

   “We can go in one of the rooms if you want.” Roman said.

   “This is a picnic, silly. You have to sit on the ground.”

   “I’m sorry, how rude of me.” Roman sat down Indian style on the quilt as

Heather began to pull out the basket’s contents. She set the objects in front of

Roman and then sat down herself. “What do we have here?”

   “Peanut butter and jelly, grapes, lemonade in a can, and a Ho-Ho.”

   “Outstanding,” Roman said.

    Heather laughed. “Not quite the French cuisine you prepared at your

place.”

    Roman took a bite of the sandwich, chewed, and struggled to get the peanut

butter off the roof of his mouth with his tongue. When he finally swallowed it, he

popped the lemonade and drank it down. “There’s a time for all foods. You can’t

eat French food on a picnic. This is perfect.”

    They ate the remainder of the food, looking into one another’s eyes the

entire time. Heather lay down on the blanket and stared up at the ceiling. Roman

lay next to her, propping himself up with his elbow on the floor so he could still

see her face. Roman fought a yawn, but eventually it won.

   “You haven’t slept yet have you? That’s amazing. Maybe I can at least

give you a little a peace. Close your eyes.”

Roman shut his eyes.

   “If you try hard enough you can feel the sun on your face. The breeze

through your hair. The trees rustling in the distance,” Heather said.

   “I hear a creek in the background and birds chirping. A bee buzzed by my

ear but didn’t stop. I’m bare footed and the grass is coming up between my toes

because my feet are hanging off the blanket. I can smell lilacs in the wind,”

Roman said.

    Heather smiled. “It’s almost winter outside but in here it’s spring. I can

still taste the grapes in my mouth, and they make my cheeks hurt a little bit from

the sweetness. I’m lying next to the gentlest person in the entire world. I’ve got a

warm tingle in my belly because I know he’s going to kiss me and I can’t wait.”

    Roman moved his lips to hers. She put her arms around his neck making

sure he wouldn’t pull away. They went on for several minutes in that imagined

spring meadow, with the sun overhead, the only two people on earth. Until a

person standing over them cleared her throat.

     Roman looked up to the thick lenses and yellow eyes of Boss Chatterling.

His first thought was of anger, not at her, but at himself for not hearing her

footsteps and for letting his guard down. His second thought was he was going to

be fired, right there, lying down on the job. Boss Chatterling looked at the hallway

and then down at Roman.

    “Swivel, I don’t have to remind you that you’re on the clock and that every

bit of your work better be done before you go on any picnics.”

    “No ma’am.”

    Chatterling looked at the keyhole on the door closest to her and then the

next and then the next. The brass gleamed like it had on her first day on the job all

those decades ago.

    She looked down at Roman again with her sullen no-nonsense face. A

smile tried to break through but she cut it short. “As you were, janitor.”

Roman heard her footsteps turn the corner and retreat down the stairs.

Heather pulled him to her again.

    Heather pressed her lips to his and spoke. “She was a janitor when my

mother went to school here. Why does she work the night shift?”

Roman’s breaths were heavy in-between kissing and talking. “Nobody

knows. It’s like she never sleeps. I think she works every shift. She’s like God.”

The answer must have been adequate. Heather slid on top of him.

    Roman’s back ached, pushed against the marble of the hallway; the thin checkered

blanket was no cushion at all. It was a different kind of ache, though, and Roman

could never remember feeling so good. His hands made their way under her loose

sweatshirt, his fingertips scaled against her smooth back. His lips touched her neck

as well as her lips. Their breathing got louder, but before the picnic escalated any

further Heather pulled away from his mouth.

   She still straddled him in her tight blue jeans, looking directly into his

eyes. She wore her hair pulled back but a few wild strands had fought their way

free and covered her left eye. She puckered her lips, attempting to blow the pests

back to the top of her head. Finally, she balanced herself and brushed them away

with her hand. Heather giggled, kissed him, and they continued until Roman’s

shift was over.

V

    Johnny the Killer hobbled to his table with the arthritic walk of an eightyyear-

old man. His eyes were like a raccoon’s, and he carried his tray with one arm

on account of his other arm being in a sling. He was back just two days after the

Hollow. He was obviously physically able to come to school. What surprised me

is that he was mentally able. Johnny the Killer was not mentally tough—for him to

face the crowd after an embarrassment like that was astonishing.

    But this was not Johnny the Killer. There were no jubilant smart-ass

remarks flying across the cafeteria. There were no head raises to greet his legions

of fans. He didn’t point fingers at people or threaten them. He walked with his

head down. Worst of all for Johnny the Killer, no one was looking back at him.

The little freshman cheerleaders weren’t creaming themselves and the underclass

boys weren’t moving heaven and earth to clear an aisle for him. I think I was the

only one that even noticed him that day.

    As if Johnny’s luck wasn’t running low enough, when he got to his usual

table—the table most of us used to sit at—he was cut down even more. The

science club with their two-inch thick glasses and their pocket protectors sat in

glory at the most coveted table in the lunchroom. Instead of yelling or using one of

the geeks to clear the table, Johnny simply kept his head down, looking at the

floor, and walked to the other side of the cafeteria. Jack made his way one crunch

at a time behind Johnny, finally sitting at the smallest table in the cafeteria with his

master. They sat there, not saying a word, scanning the cafeteria every so often,

trying to remember if they had ever sat there before. They were like transfer

students from another country on their first day school in the States.

    Roman had not only beaten him physically that night in the Hollow.

    Roman also took his respect, his popularity, and worst of all, Roman took Johnny’s

desire to get any of them back. For four years in middle school and four more at

the prison, Johnny was on top of the food chain, the alpha male. Now he was just

one of the inmates. A little bit of me was sad to see it—a man broken down like

that. I reminded myself that Johnny probably deserved far worse.

    Roman and Johnny both received call slips almost simultaneously.

    Principal Hartman liked to call you at lunch so it would give him one more thing to

bust you for if you happened to be skipping. Roman didn’t know what it was for,

but I did. The gladiator story had made its way to the warden’s ears and Roman

and Johnny were now in very deep shit.

VI

    They sat in front of Hartman in the two chairs that were always in front of

the principal’s enormous oak desk. His office was bigger than any classroom in

Collingston High, furnished with paintings and a gold-plated ceiling fan. The

window at the far end was stained glass, but you could still see down to two of the

three student parking lots. The air was regulated and kept at exactly seventy-two

degrees year-round. The floor was carpeted with something you’d find in an

upscale hotel.

    Hartman sat with his hands folded businesslike on the desk and his head

tilted back, looking through the small-rimmed glasses balancing neatly on the end

of his nose—an intimidating posture in the mind of a man who was very selfconscious

and badly lacking in respect. There wasn’t a word spoken for five

minutes—another interrogation factor the warden implemented, designed to make

you squirm a bit before he put down the hammer.

    There would be no squirming today though. Roman, who had been through

more bullshit than most people go through in a lifetime, sat upright in the chair

looking calmly into the eyes of the man who was about to pass sentence on him.

Johnny who had been to the principal’s office more times than one cared to count,

slouched in his chair with his feet up on the wastebasket as if he were at home

watching TV, smacking his chewing gum at high volume.

    Hartman pushed the glasses up to their rightful place with his index finger

and opened a file on his desk. “So who wants to start?”

Silence.

    “I’m well acquainted with Mr. Killman. We have had several meetings in

his tenure here at Collingston. I do not, however, know much about you Mr.

Swivel, and that’s why I had my secretary pull your file. Most impressive. A

perfect four on our scale. It says your past school’s transcripts weren’t available.

Very odd. Why wouldn’t your school have your transcripts available, Mr.

Swivel?”

    “My last school didn’t keep track of grades, Mr. Hartman. Is that the

reason I was called up here?”

    Johnny stopped smacking his gum long enough to let out a chuckle.

Hartman’s face reddened as he leaned forward in his chair and turned his attention

to Johnny.

    “You know the rules about gum in my office Johnny. Pitch it.”

    Johnny smiled and blew a bubble.

    Hartman took out his pen and two form papers and began writing. “The

penalty for physical violence against anyone at this school is indefinite expulsion.

I as principal can lessen the penalty, but since the two of you fail to cooperate or

show any remorse, I’m afraid I’m going to go with what the school guidelines

recommend. That means no graduation for either of you. That means no baseball

for you Mr. Killman and no more custodial work for you, Mr. Swivel.”

    Roman got up and left without saying a word. Johnny had no intention of

going so quietly. Johnny rose like a rusty hinge on the door of an abandoned

house. He leaned over Hartman’s desk and looked at the smug face atop the gray

three-piece suit.

   “Pitch it huh?”

    Hartman smiled.

    Johnny blew with all the force he could build in his lungs. The gum flew

the short distance across the desk and stuck to the lens over Hartman’s left eye.

   Two dribbles of spit slid down the principal’s cheek.

   “You’re a fucking joke, Hartman,” Johnny said as he too walked toward the

door.

   Hartman reached into the pocket of his suit jacket for his handkerchief. As

fast as his fingers would work, he took off his glasses, first wiping the side of his

cheek and then scooping Johnny’s gum off his lens. The smug look remained on

his face, the image of a man who was overcome with satisfaction.

    Johnny stopped short of the doorway. “You know it’s too bad old assholes

in your position never look at the big picture. Me and the janitor’s little scuffle

was the right thing to do. We didn’t go through the halls shooting mini-Uzis. We

settled it the old-fashioned way. Maybe if you would’ve ever stood up for yourself

in school, you wouldn’t have to get your rocks off by expelling good people.”

   “Say what you will, because this will be the last time you ever say anything

in this school. Not surprising though that our definitions of ‘good people’ are not

similar. I’ll take great satisfaction in the thought that every time I drive through a

McDonald’s, you might be fulfilling your life’s ambition flipping burgers.”

   Johnny shook his head and walked into the hallway.

VII

    Heather stormed into the house, slamming the double doors behind her.

When her book bag fell to the floor, she kicked it hard. Her calculus text slid

across the tan waxed floor, bouncing off the staircase and racing toward the

kitchen like the disk used in a curling match. Gina emerged from her relaxation

room holding a vase full of flowers.

   “What’s wrong sweetie?”

   “Roman got expelled from school today. You know he’s only on pace to

be the smartest student ever to graduate from Collingston? He hasn’t missed a

single question in Buttworst’s class. Do you know how impossible that is? What a

bastard that Hartman is.”

   “Oh, I’m so sorry honey. Maybe he can find work at one of the factories or

go to another school.”

    “Find work in a factory? Are you hearing me mother? He’s a genius and

you want him to go shovel shit at a factory. You are clueless.”

    Gina glanced down at the flowers and pressed her nose to the tops of them,

taking a deep breath. She looked back up with a smile. “Maybe these will make

you feel better. They came right before you got home.”

    Heather looked the flowers over briefly and sat the vase on the table next to

the door. What she really wanted was the small envelope in her mother’s hand.

There was no need to rip it open; Gina had already taken care of that. Heather shot

her a look of disgust—one that a parent would normally aim at her misbehaved

child. She didn’t bother scolding her mother. Instead she grabbed the envelope

without saying thank you.

   Her eyes lit up at the sight of the long perfect cursive letters, all slanting at

the same angle, light and swift like the brush strokes of a painter. Unmistakably

Roman’s prose. The small card read: I’ve never been on a picnic with a beautiful

woman before, by a gurgling meadow, with the sun on my face, the trees swaying

overhead, and the birds singing. I barely noticed any of it because of the face

looking back at me. It didn’t matter that it was in a drab school hallway on hard

marble floor. I’ll never forget it. Roman

   Heather read it three times before she looked up. Her heart couldn’t decide

if it wanted to cry or rejoice. The last time she got flowers was from Johnny when

they were freshmen, the day before Homecoming. It wasn’t the flowers that got to

her though. It was the card. She couldn’t ever imagine his words getting old.

   “Were they from Johnny?”

    “You obviously read the card mother. Does this sound like something

Johnny would say?”

    “I don’t know. He probably missed you. You two have been an item for

four years. It’s hard for people to make a clean break. He’s still got feelings.”

    “Well he’ll have plenty of time to get over me now,” Heather said as she

put the card in her pocket, picked up the vase, and retrieved her book bag.

    “Why?”

    “Johnny got expelled too.”

    “Oh that can’t be right. Why would Mr. Hartman expel Johnny?

That...that janitor is the one that beat him up. You must have heard wrong.”

    Heather closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to hold down the

violent words. “Is your sense of reality really that warped? Johnny’s the one that

started all this, Roman was just defending himself and me. Johnny hit me

remember? Mistake or not, he hit your daughter.”

    “I just don’t believe it.”

    “I’m not going to stand here and argue with you mother. You’re like

talking to a brick wall. I’ve got a paper to write and I have to use your computer

because the word processor on mine is the 1976 version.”

    Gina watched as Heather walked up the winding staircase. She put off her

loving mother routine, and the manipulative synapses in her brain began to fire

once again. Her daughter was not going to be with some vagrant janitor.

Especially since he lived by himself and could talk her into sex any time he

wanted. Something had to be done. It would come to her eventually. It always

did.

VIII

    Heather sat down at her mom’s computer, stationed in the computer room

two doors down from her own. It was already on. Heather hit the space bar and

the screen saver of Heather’s first dance recital disappeared. Gina’s email was

open. At first Heather pointed the mouse at the X in the top right corner, but

something stopped her. It was a word, no, a name, on her mother’s email page.

She wasn’t in the habit of snooping through other people’s personal things—a sort

of hereditary trait that she vowed not to pass on to children of her own. But this

was different. In the sent items menu the named that appeared was Lyle Hartman.

    It wasn’t hard to pick up, since her mother was technologically deficient, and very

rarely used email. It was one of two names that were entered. The other name was

one of Gina’s sorority sisters that now lived in South Carolina.

    Heather’s eyes narrowed as she looked at Hartman’s name. The little birdie

that had told Hartman the story lived right here with her. Anger, not curiosity, got

the best of her as she clicked on Lyle Hartman.

    Dear Mr. Hartman,

    I would like to bring something to your attention if it has not already been.

One of your new students, Roman Swivel, violently attacked Johnny Killman on

Halloween night. Johnny was beaten so severely that he did not attend school the

following day and should have been hospitalized. My daughter was also injured in

the attack, as well as others. I know you that you find violence deplorable and I

would hope that you will address the situation immediately before it becomes

public. Collingston High needs to take a strong stand against outsiders who

ultimately are no more than troublemakers. I hope you agree.

    Thanks for your attention,

    Gina Hawthorne

    Although Heather’s mouth hung open while she read her mother’s email, it

didn’t shock her. Four years ago she wouldn’t have thought her mother was

capable of such devious activities, but living with the woman during her own

adolescence was like being on a daily roller coaster ride of manipulation and lies.

Likewise, in her earlier more naive years, Heather would’ve charged down the

stairs with printed email in hand, ready to take her mother to war. But now she

simply printed the email, folded it, and tucked it away in her backpack.

Ammunition for a rainy day, she thought.

IX

    We sat in Carl’s time-warped living room. The orange flowered walls and

the pea green sofa and matching chair didn’t help fight the grayness outside or the

darkness that came only an hour and a half after last bell. One thing that did help,

however, was the Old Milwaukee. Not only did the beer go down smooth but also

the white cans seemed to brighten the atmosphere a touch. Okay, going down

smooth was probably a stretch, but beer is beer to a broke teenager. Carl always

started on the cheap stuff—you could buy a case of the shit for the price you could

buy a twelve pack of the more popular brands. I’m sure once he made it down to

the Tavern he would’ve continued with it if they had it in stock.

    Carl gulped down the last fourth of the can, crushed it in his hand, shot it

into the garbage can at the edge of the kitchen, and popped another open all in one

fluid motion—a routine undoubtedly mastered by years of practice. “How’s the

premium treatin’ ya there, guy?”

    I raised my left thumb as I chugged the rest of my can, trying to keep up

with our host.

    “Tis what beer is supposed to taste like. Not this fucking shit they sell now

by having some pretty little cunny dance around in her skimpies in the

commercials.”

   “I thought you didn’t watch TV, Carl?”

    “Ah, they have it on down at the watering hole. Almost impossible not to

watch it some, it is.”

   I popped another beer, conceding the fact that I would never be able to keep

up with him. I drank the first sip slower this time and looked over at Roman. He

had a ginger ale in hand and rocked back and forth in his chair listening to AM

music on the radio. Roman was unfazed by his dismissal from Collingston. There

was no sign of sadness in his face and no sense that he would fight to come back.

Just the same old Roman. Quiet. Calm. He would have the same expression

whether he hit the lottery or had a terminal illness with only days to live.

    The host on the call-in radio program was wrapping up a segment on the

Loch Ness Monster and moving on to Big Foot. His in-studio guest was a Big

Foot expert—a man who had tracked the beast for the better part of thirty years but

of course had no tangible evidence. Sure, he offered his website address so you

could look at footage of blotched images of something moving through the

bushes. But what was it? Thirty years and all the man had to show for it was

footage of a bear eating some berries at night.

   The radio host’s switchboard must have been lit up, because caller after

caller came on. There was everything from eyewitness accounts of seeing the

creature to people actually being attacked by it. Of course, none of the callers had

any photos or videos to back up their stories. The host and the guest just kept

egging the callers on, gobbling up every bit of it. Carl wasn’t far behind them,

shaking his head in agreement once in a while after a swig of beer. Roman was in

his own mind somewhere, staring through the wall on the other side of the room.

Probably trying to come up with an equation disproving that any such Sasquatch

really existed.

    Carl took another hard swallow, but almost spit it out when the next

segment of the radio program came on—alien abduction. He leaned over to the old

radio and turned the volume dial up. He stayed hunkered over it, his eyes wide and

his left ear to the speaker, stroking the rubber band that tied the whiskers of his

goatee.

    Again with the endless callers, claiming this time to be kidnapped by aliens

in some fashion or other.

    I took a drink and shook my head. “You don’t really believe this shit do

you?”

   Carl said nothing, still entranced with the stories of people not

remembering several hours out of their day, or waking up in a totally different

place than they fell asleep, or having strange items in their bodies show up on an x-ray.

Carl sat back in his chair seeming to be upset with the show. He lit his pipe

and scratched the top of his head. “Not a one of ’em like mine.”

   “Whatta ya mean like yours?” I asked.

   “Like the ones that tried to get me.”

   Where Carl had failed to spit out his beer, I succeeded, spraying every last

drop in a mist that covered the room. Roman looked over and smiled as I wiped

my chin dry with my hand.

   “You think you were abducted?” I said, trying my hardest not to laugh.

   “No. I wasn’t taken.”

   A relief came over me until...

   “But the bastards did try.”

   “So what, these aliens pulled you out of bed with their tractor beam or

what?”

     Carl turned the radio completely off and took a hard drag off his pipe. He

looked at me with his eyes squinted for several seconds, almost offended I’d

questioned him. “I was asleep under a palm tree. It was the rainy season in Nam,

and when the rain started, it didn’t stop for a month of Sundays I tell ya. It didn’t

stop those sons of bitches though, they couldn’t stay away from it, no matter what

the circumstances.”

    “Stay away from what?”

    “Violence. Conflict. They were addicted to it. Not to take part, no, but to

observe. It fascinated them. These visits had been going on for years. Clear back

to Biblical times. Anytime there was a war, you could bet your sweet ass they’d be

there. Waiting. Watching.”

    I looked at Roman, who was of course unmoved by Carl’s remarks.

Leaning over the edge of the sofa, I sat my beer on the floor. Carl had my full

attention. I’d heard countless tales from the man, and every time I went into them

the same way—thinking there’s no chance in hell of one bit of truth in them. I

don’t know if it was the way he told the story, his sincerity, or what, but I always

listened to the end. “So the little green guys came at you underneath a palm tree?”

    “Not little nor green. But I was asleep under that tree, trying to get a little

shelter from that goddamn rain. I was coming about, just a little before my alarm

went off.”

    “Hold on a second. You had an alarm clock with you?”

Before Carl could explain Roman took over. “Soldiers drink an excessive

amount of water before they go to sleep so their bladders wake them up in a couple

hours. That way they never get into a really deep sleep.”

   “Ah, your friend is right on the money. Nature’s alarm clock it is, unless

you’ve drunk too much of the brew that is. Probably didn’t need it though.

Sleeping in the rain is never easy. Those goddamn drops flicking your skull like

mama used to, only over and over. And if you covered your face with your helmet

the rain just got louder. It wasn’t the piss that woke me though. It was one of

those things you sense. I kept hearing voices in my head telling me to get up,

many voices all at the same time, not a one of ’em my own. Before I even opened

my eyes I would’ve bet ya a buffalo nickel the Commie bastards were standing

right over me. I gripped the trigger on my gun. One more little squeeze and I

would be cutting through ’em. But I opened my eyes instead and knew exactly

what was telling me to get up. Directly over me was a long oval-shaped head with

the biggest teardrop eyes you’d ever see. Black as coal they were. Took up about

half of the thing’s face I guess. All at once the voices told me to stand up again. I

obliged the motherfucker, squeezing the trigger as I did. Before even one round

left the chamber, my gun was sucked out of my hands and flew off to my right. I

knew now why there was more than one voice. There was a bunch of ’em. Had

me surrounded they did. All of ’em seven feet tall if an inch. Colorless. Slimylooking

like a gray frog. Long fingernails, same black as their eyes. I don’t

remember seeing any mouths or noses. We wish no violence the voices said

together again. Come with us. I of course told ’em to go fuck each other. No

expletives please. Come with us. It was like I had to agree to be taken. I don’t

know if it was their morals or what have you. I told them this time to expletive

each other. The one in front of me tilted his head, like he didn’t understand. There

was a long pause. I could feel all those black-hole eyes on me, all over me. And

then it happened. The one in front of, or all of em, I’m not positive, started to

choke me. They weren’t using their hands either I tell ya. They were using the

same power they sucked my weapon out of my hand with. I had one thought in my

brain. If I’m goin’ down I’m taking these lizard bastards with me. I pulled a

grenade from my vest. The pin snapped off automatically in those days. They

knew exactly what it was. The moment I jerked it, they tried to suck it out of my

hand. This time though, I held with all my strength. I could feel my windpipe still

choking and that awful pull trying to ungrip my fingers. I guess they got frustrated

and the one in front of me backhanded my arm and ripped my chest with those

long razor fingernails. The grenade flew out of my hand a good distance. I took

about three steps and dove on the ground. The grenade blew in mid air, knocking

the head clean off one of the bastards. That same second the rest of them

evaporated into thin air, leaving a vapor trail, like a mirage you see in the distance

on a hot day. And then there was just me holding my chest.”

   Roman gave a brief smile. I’m not sure if it was because he liked the story,

or because he scoffed at its likelihood. I took my half drunk can and wiped my

forehead, not because I was hot, but more like my brain was overloading from the

tall tale. Carl simply turned the radio back up and sat back in his chair, enjoying

his pipe once again. He didn’t look at the expressions on our faces. He didn’t

care. He told us what he thought had happened and could give a shit if we

believed him or not. We all sat in silence for the rest of our visit.

    Walking back across to Roman’s I remarked, “There’s no way that story

happened.” Roman said nothing. I wanted a response. “You don’t believe in

aliens do ya?”

   “The chance of there being intelligent life out there is greater than of it not

being.”

   Typical Roman response.

X

    Johnny the Killer sat at the bar in The Tavern. There were a least two

empty bar stools on either side of him. His only friend was the shot glass in front

of him. Johnny’s five o’clock shadow was in full force making him look in his

thirties. The crowd kept its distance, like there was an imaginary shield of hate

around him. His credit card sat on the cash register—collateral for the tab. The

bartender filled his glass with the Old No. 7 Brand as quick as the Killer could

drink it.

    No telling how long Johnny had been drinking. His shoulders were

slouched over the shot glass, his elbows on the bar. The only real way to tell if

he’d had his limit was if someone’s head got smashed into one of the poker

machines. As of yet, the machines were all still operational. There had been more

than one occasion where Johnny was asked to leave after beating up some drunk

twice his age. He was eighteen and had never been whipped in a bar fight. Never

been whipped anywhere except one time, on Halloween, down in the Hollow.

   I imagine Johnny started his drinking career about the same time most kids

started riding their bikes around the neighborhood. He was always the first one of

our group to cross the line into uncharted waters. The first to steal a candy bar

from the market. The first to borrow one of our fathers’ dirty magazines. The first

to go down a girl’s pants. The first to smoke a cigarette. Johnny did all these

things without getting in trouble. His Pop was a big time salesman, always on the

road. His Ma worked in an office, a nice enough lady. In the end Johnny’s antics

proved too much for her to handle, and instead of punishing him, she chose to look

the other way.

   Johnny had just beaten the shit out of me, not a week ago, whipped me to

within an edge of my life, betrayed our friendship—but somehow I felt sorry for

him. Deep down I still thought of him as a friend. I was worried about what the

future held in store for Johnny now. All the things that fate put in place to restrain

the Killer, like school, baseball, and Heather, had disappeared overnight. I decided

to test the waters.

   “So you playin’ tonight?” I asked, pulling my money out for a draft.

Johnny continued to look at his shot glass. “Drinking. Just drinking.”

   “Your dad gonna go to the school board over this suspension shit or what?”

   “Haven’t seen him in two months.”

   The bartender filled his glass again.

   “Long business trip huh?”

   A smile filled Johnny’s face. He looked at me, holding the shot glass.

   “Yeah that’s it. Business. I guess if screwing some little blond in Indianapolis is

business.”

   “No shit. I’m sorry man. Does your Ma know?”

   “I found some love letters from his girlfriend when I was cleaning out his

Jag one day. Mom doesn’t know.” Johnny threw back the whiskey once again. I

could see I was not helping matters with my conversation selection. I opted to

grab my beer and head for the back room.

   Pick was dealing blackjack. I always hated when the guys got a wild hair

up their ass for blackjack. Not that I hated blackjack; I’d play it once in awhile.

Six guys sat in front of Pick as he dealt. By the looks of it, he was using

three maybe four decks. To his left sat a stack of green, a good amount of which

had belonged to the players that sat in front of him now. Sam Peterman still had a

fair wad of money in front of him. Scotty and the others were not as fortunate. A

good time to suggest a game change maybe.

   “What’s up boys?” I said as I sat smack-dab in the middle of the table.

That spot was no-man’s land. If you’re going to play blackjack, you should always

sit at either third or first base. If you’re at first, nobody can fuck up your cards by

taking stupid hits or the lack thereof because you always go first. If you’re at third,

you can get a read on how the cards are going and make a better guess on if you

should hit or stay because everyone has already gone before you. “So who voted

for Pick to be the big winner tonight anyway?”

  "Whattaya mean?” Peterman asked.

  “Blackjack is a house game. And right now Pick is the house,” I said.

  “I’m up, house or no house,” Peterman responded.

  “Give it some time, Sam. Give it some time,” I said back.

  “Nobody wanted to play poker,” Pick chimed in as he raked more money

in. “Everybody’s burned out on poker. We needed a change of scenery.”

Pick. What a fucking coward. He sure as hell wouldn’t be playing if he

weren’t the dealer. I can tell you that for sure. Seeing my suggestion was getting

nowhere, I took out my money and laid it in front of me. A hundred and forty

bucks. My winnings from the last two weeks.

   “What’s the limit anyway?” I asked.

   “How much you got?” Pick responded. His winnings had definitely

brought out the cockiness in him.

  “I want to bet sixty.”

  The other players at the table were betting five’s and ten. Pick wasn’t

phased by my gesture though.

  “That’s it?” he said.

  There have always been two cardinal rules for the house, whether it was in

the back room of a broken down tavern in Collingston, Illinois, or at the highrollers

table at Caesar’s Palace: keep them happy, and keep them playing.

  I was about to shoot the cardinal rules to shit. A sixty-dollar bet would

give me enough to double down with if I got the right hand of course, and would

also allow me to leave with twenty dollars in my pocket and a shred of dignity if I

lost. I was playing one hand, win or lose.

   The money was bet, the cards dealt. I had a six and a five. Pick showed a

six. This was the best possible scenario for a blackjack player. The two guys

before me had thirteen and fourteen and both stayed like they were supposed to. I

immediately doubled down. Pick itched his right eyebrow. The hundred and

twenty I had on the table made the son of bitch sweat, even though he had three

times that much beside him. Pick flipped my card—seven of hearts. That gave me

eighteen. In a perfect world it would’ve been a face card, but eighteen wasn’t bad

against his six showing. Scotty had twenty and stood. The guy next to him stood

on seventeen. Everybody had played their hand right so far.

   And then there was Sam Peterman at third base.

   Sam had sixteen, which in normal circumstances was the worst hand you

could get. But Pick had a six up, which to your seasoned blackjack player means

he’s got sixteen as well. There was more of chance of him having a ten down than

any other single value. It was cut and dry. Stay and let the dealer bust. Sam

hesitated though, as if he was confused.

   “Stay,” I said. “He’s got sixteen.”

   Sam squinted at his cards. “I have a feeling he doesn’t have a ten down.”

   “So fuckin’ what, you’ve got sixteen, you can’t take his bust card.”

Sam looked at Pick’s six and then back at his own cards. “Nope. Go ahead

and hit me”

   Without hesitation Pick flipped the card. Before the card hit the table I

knew what it was, and so did my blood pressure. The queen of spades. Busted.

Pick was now a pig in shit, grinning from ear to ear, the nervousness from my bet

long gone. The cocky body language from ten minutes ago was back with a

vengeance. Pick dealt his card—the five of diamonds. The table erupted in

cursing. Pick extended his arm and pushed the money from one side of the table,

scraping up everyone’s bets like a snowplow, all the while smiling.

    The twenty in my wallet gave a brief flicker, wanting to be let out to play.

Just one more hand. I got up from the table, crushing any urge to lose my last

miserable twenty. I told myself I was there for one hand, win or lose, and that’s

what I was going to do. I learned along time ago that it was better to leave with a

penny in your pocket, rather than just the lint.

   “That’s it, one hand,” Pick said smiling as he shuffled.

   “There’s always tomorrow, Pick. Always tomorrow.”

   Sam followed me to the bar. I wanted to get one more beer before I headed

for home. He looked like the guy that just missed the game-winning free throw

with no time left on the clock. I didn’t want to talk to him, but he still leaned

against the bar just next of me.

   “I’m sorry Tony. That was stupid. I guess it wouldn’t be such a big deal if

you hadn’t had all that money on the table.”

   “It didn’t matter how much money I had out there Sam. That’s just dumb

card playing. You always have to assume the dealer’s got a face down. Always.”

   “I just had a feeling. I don’t know. A voice inside told me to hit.”

I put my hand on his shoulder like an older brother. “The next time you

hear that voice deep inside ya, tell him to go to hell and never come back.”

   I actually ended up buying Sam a beer, a gesture for no hard feelings. I

told him he should buy the other guys at the table a beer. He did.

   I looked up from my freshly poured beer and glanced around. Carl was

now in attendance talking to some young guy. It was a deep conversation. Carl

was probably trying to convince him that the earth really didn’t circle the sun or

some shit. The DA sat at a table with his lawyer types. The same old faces sat on

stools in front of the poker machines. Johnny was facing away from the bar

talking to some local thugs, some of Freddy Flowers’s crew. Two low-lifes named

Bobby Dukes and Boochie Anderson. They were always picking fights and shit.

Or tryin’ to pimp hookers outside in the parking lot. Johnny was really living it up

with ’em though, like they were long-lost friends. Bobby Dukes put something in

Johnny’s hand. They tried to make it look like they were shaking hands.

    I swallowed my last gulp of beer as Johnny got up and walked to the

bathroom. I stopped to take a piss on my way out as well. Johnny washed his

hands and looked in the mirror above the sink, making an awful sound like he was

trying to suck snot from his nostrils into his throat. His eyes were red and

watering. I stood at the urinal.

   “You snortin’, Johnny?”

   “What are you my fuckin’ dad now? Mind your own goddamn business.”

   “No. I’m your friend.” I had to talk a little louder because of the noise of

the urinal.

   Johnny gave a sarcastic laugh. “Were.”

   “Come again?” I said.

   “Were my friend,” Johnny said as he stumbled out of the restroom door.

   I stood looking at my reflection in the mirror. The word “friend” echoed

first in my head and then off the glass over the sink, bouncing off the reflection of

my eye. An eye that was now fully open, but still a greenish-yellow.

XI

   Principal Hartman ate as he drove to his castle, seeing the same skeleton

landscape that his students saw on their way. November had finally won the battle,

strangling the last colorful life out of the trees, turning the grass to brown, leaving

the skies overcast even on a so-called nice day, and blowing its cold breath as a

warning that worse was yet to come. It meant the smell of old furnaces, heavy

coats, scraping frost off windshields, and worst of all—total darkness by five

o’clock.

   Hartman hated November as well—but not for the same reasons. That

season for him meant time off, for students as well as faculty. It meant anxious

inmates ready to break for freedom on that Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It

meant his guards and prisoners alike eating and laughing with loved ones. For him

it was just another Thursday with Mom and Dad. It meant that the holidays would

soon be in full swing and his subjects would be free, away from school and out on

their own for at least a week, maybe more. Hartman was at his best when he was

working, when he had his control.

    He opened the door to his office. The lights were on sensors, and came on

when he entered. Hartman set his briefcase where his desk should have been and

jumped in fright when it hit the ground. He took his glasses off, looking the room

over with his own eyes. The lenses weren’t playing tricks on him—the room was

bare. His desk was gone. His computer gone. File cabinet—gone. Not even the

two hundred dollar fake tree he had placed in the corner remained. He wanted to

call somebody but his phone was also missing.

   “Chatterling,” he cursed to himself.

   As quick as her name rolled off his lips Hartman turned and started for the

hallway. Hartman took one step and hit a wall. Not a brick wall, but a soft mushy

one. Still that wall was unmoving, blocking the width of the doorway.

   “You rang?” Boss Chatterling said, towering over the warden.

Hartman either bounced off of the janitor or shot back because of his own

fear. He put his glasses back on and adjusted his tie, trying to compose himself.

   “What’s the meaning of this? Where is all of my stuff?”

   “What stuff?” the boss responded, giving a brief sympathetic frown.

   “What do you mean, what stuff?” The lisps on Hartman’s ‘S’s’ were

coming out stronger now in his agitated state. “My desk, computer, files. All of it.

Where is it?”

   “Oh that stuff. We’re doing a thorough cleaning of your office.

Shampooing the carpets, washing down the walls, spraying for pests. All the

routine things. We took your office and set it up down by the boiler room in the

basement. Right next to my office actually.”

   Hartman looked around his empty office again, noticing that the ceiling fan

had even been removed. “Boiler room? How long is all this going to take?”

“A week. Two tops.”

   “What! Two weeks. I can’t be out of my office for two weeks. I demand

you bring my office back. This is outrageous.”

   “Sorry. I’ve already got my men preparing the carpet cleaner and

disinfectants. I can’t change the plan of attack now. Besides, I told you we set

your office up down in the boiler room, right next to mine.”

Hartman took a step back and tried to read the Boss’s face. Then it hit him.

   “This is about that student janitor I suspended, isn’t it?”

  “You mean the best worker I’ve had in thirty years. The one that does the

work of three janitors. The one who doesn’t take his break at the scheduled time

because he’s obsessed with getting his work done. That student janitor?”

Hartman swallowed hard. “Yes, I suppose that one.”

   “Are you implying that I’m trying to make your life a living hell because

you’ve made mine one? Are you implying that I’d use my leverage to some how

change your mind on a discipline issue? Perish the thought.”

  Hartman scratched the top of his head. “The problem is I expelled another

student as well. If I let one come back, I have to allow the other. The other one

spat at me and used foul language.”

   The Boss gave another sympathetic frown and patted Hartman with a stiff

tap on the shoulder that almost knocked the small man over. “Well, it sure will be

nice having you right next door for a couple of weeks.”

Chatterling turned to exit.

   “Wait. Wait. I’m going to look like a fool if I let a student spit on me and

come back to school the next day.”

   “You already look like a fool, Lyle. But it’s better to be a fool with an

office, than a fool without. Don’t you agree? We’ll get to work cleaning up here

and as soon as I see my janitor skipping through the halls, I bet we can get your

office back together lickity-split. I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.”

XII

   Heather sat next to me at our table, skipping her meal and pretending to

look over her notes for a test she had next hour. Her eyes wandered the page,

trying to find something that wasn’t there. The usual jubilant smile that could light

up a room was nothing more than two lips pressed together.

   Jack had joined our table, having no other choice really. Johnny was gone

and the thought of eating alone was more than Jack could bear. Even the cruelest

of souls needed some kind of companionship I guess. Jack’s eyes were nervous,

looking at the faces around the table, like the faces were new. Jack spent his whole

life being a right-hand man and now that the boss was gone he was no longer

needed.

   The electricity that had filled our table and the whole cafeteria with

Roman’s standing ovation was gone. Today was just another day. Sam and Scotty

picked at their food. Pick had no snide remarks for me or the rest of the gamblers.

There was no stuttering from Brunno, although he did manage to wolf down four

pieces of pizza in record time.

   “So have ya talked to Roman since he was expelled?” I asked Heather.

   The words didn’t register at first. She continued to look over her notes.

Finally she said, “No. He sent some flowers with a note, but I haven’t heard from

him otherwise.”

   “Flowers huh? That guy’s turnin’ into a real Casanova I tell ya. First

romancing ya in the closet, then the candlelight dinner, now flowers. So what’s the

story with you two anyway?”

   She didn’t respond, but as hard as she tried to fight it her smile finally

broke through. I hadn’t seen her look that way in years, probably since she and

Johnny first started dating.

   “Ya think Roman’ll stay around now that he’s been suspended? I mean he

can’t do the janitor thing any more. Why the hell would a guy as smart him stay in

Collingston, Illinois? The cold winters and shit. If I were him, I’d find a nice

beach to call home, like the one in his room that he told us about. Besides he can’t

stay in one place too long, on account of that Johnson character finding him.”

Heather looked up from her paper with a sudden sense of urgency. She had

known Roman only three months, had lived a lifetime before him, but now

couldn’t imagine a life without him. “He won’t,” she said to reassure herself.

   “This is home. People care about him here.”

   “The thing to do is to get your parents to throw a fit with the school board.

   They’ll cave to anybody. Hartman’s got to do what they say. The only problem is,

   Roman obviously doesn’t have any parents to throw a fit for him.”

  “I think none of that will be necessary,” Roman said standing behind

   Heather with lunch tray in hand.

   “Well I’ll kiss a sick dog’s ass. How the hell?” I said.

   Roman scooted a chair up to the table and sat down between us. “It was the

strangest thing. Principal Hartman’s secretary called and said that he had made a

mistake. She said Johnny and I were reinstated immediately. So I walked up here

just in time for lunch.”

   “Glad you’re back. Thanks for the flowers,” Heather said.

  “Somebody went to bat for ya. Any ideas?” I asked.

   Roman shook his head.

  “Mr. Buttworst maybe?” Heather said.

   “Nah, Hartman hates Buttworst. Probably because all the students like

him. It had to be somebody with a little pull. Somebody who had a little power

over the warden. It couldn’t have been the school board. They wouldn’t have met

yet. I bet it was the Boss.”

   “I bet that’s exactly who it was,” Heather stated. “I’m a student helper

second hour for Mrs. Petway. All of the call slips were coming out of the

basement. They moved Hartman’s office down there because they were cleaning

his real office.”

   “You doing more than just cleaning for Chatterling or what?” I said with a

laugh.

   Roman smiled. “Just the cleaning, Tony.”

  The little table Johnny had been sitting at recently was empty. No Killer.

Under normal circumstances Johnny would probably get reinstatement from

Hartman’s office and just decide to skip the rest of the day. There was something

more though this time. I had a feeling Johnny wasn’t coming back.

   “Not that you two give a shit, but I saw Johnny last night at the Tavern

snortin’ the nose candy,” I told them.

   “You’re right. I don’t give a shit,” Heather responded.

  “Something’s wrong with him, I mean more that just being embarrassed

about the fight. It’s like his spirit is broken or something. He was down there last

night shooting whiskey, which isn’t odd I guess, but he was doing it by himself.

   Didn’t talk to anybody the whole night, except for some of Freddy Flowers’s

guys.”

  “Who’s Freddy Flowers?” Roman asked before slurping the applesauce off

his spoon.

   “That’s what bothers me. Freddy is bad news. He’s the biggest thug in

three counties. Got his hands in about everything you can think of. Drugs,

bookmaking, prostitution—you name it. He runs a string of flower shops all over

Central Illinois, so he can launder the money from his real businesses. Johnny’s

gonna be looking through the wrong side of iron bars if he keeps hanging with

those bastards.”

   “Good. He deserves it,” Heather said.

   “Maybe he will come out of it,” Roman said, seeing I was genuinely

concerned.

XIII

    Roman didn’t go for his cart after the janitor assignments were handed out

at roll call. Instead he remained standing in the same spot, like a soldier waiting to

be spoken to by his commanding officer.

   “Something on your mind, Swivel?” The Boss asked.

   “I just wanted to let you know that I can work late tonight and I wanted to

thank...”

   Chatterling held up her hand stopping Roman in mid-sentence.

   “The best appreciation you can show me Swivel is to just do the same kind

of work you’ve done since the day you walked in here. You know I’m not one for

mushy thank you’s. Besides that, when given a chance to put the screws to that

little pip squeak, I usually jump at it.”

   Out of respect Roman stood at attention until she had left the room. He

grabbed his cart and made his way to the elevator. On the third floor he began the

routine, thinking all the while about Heather. He mopped the floor and thought of

their picnic. He emptied the trash and thought of the note he’d written with the

flowers; if it was too sappy Heather had made no indication at lunch. The note

said how he truly felt. He scraped the gum off of the chairs and thought of her lips

on his. He sprayed down the windows, and every time he wiped one of the panes,

he wished her green eyes were in the reflection, looking from behind at him again.

   Roman started the walk home promptly at midnight. As he made the turn

down the big hill on the north side of Kingdom Street, he saw that all his wishes

had come true. Heather sat in her Mustang, waiting. Roman sped up down the

incline turning his walk into a jog, and by the time he reached the house he found

himself running.

   Heather got out of the car. It always surprised him when her face turned

out more beautiful than the way he last remembered it, even if only hours had

passed since their last encounter. “I know we didn’t have plans, but I had to…”

Roman stopped her short. “You don’t ever need an invitation, Heather.”

Heather sat on the couch as Roman changed out of his gray janitor suit.

   She looked away because that was what a nice young lady did. Because that’s

what would please her mother. But she looked at Roman’s reflection in the

window at the far end of the living room because that’s what she wanted to do. He

changed quickly, but there was a time when he was in nothing more than

underwear. She saw the definition in his biceps, the six-pack of his abdomen, and

sadly the scars on his back—a permanent gift from Ed Pentoch.

   Heather was snapped back into real time by a fully-clothed Roman standing

in front of her. “There’s a late movie playing at the dollar theater. I thought we

might go.”

   “What’s the movie?” Heather asked as if it mattered.

   “Rocky,” Roman responded with a grin.

  “I don’t know, boxing? It wouldn’t be my first choice.”

   Roman sat down on the couch and took her hand in his. “You’ve never

seen it? Because if you had seen it, you would know that it’s not about boxing. It

is a love story, the original one was anyway. I will make you a deal. If you don’t

like it, you can pick the movies from now on.”

   “A love story huh? All right. But I hope you can take a steady diet of

Susan Sarandon crying her eyes out from now on if I’m not impressed.”

   “Deal.” Roman thought he would seal the deal with a quick handshake.

Heather had a different idea, which lasted several minutes.

XIV

   They had to park what seemed like a mile away. They held hands while

they wove in and out of the rows of cars, laughing and talking. “Jeez, all these

people here to see a guy get his brains beat out when they could rent it and watch it

at home,” said Heather.

   “It’s not the same as the theater,” Roman responded.

Heather opened her purse at the ticket window, but Roman clamped it shut

a second later. “Even a janitor can afford the dollar show Heather: tickets,

popcorn, the works.”

   The theater was packed, mostly with people in their thirties and forties,

mostly men who assured their wives that they would like the flick, mostly die-hard

fans. Heather and Roman sat two rows from the back. Heather tried to lead him to

the middle of the row but Roman stopped her at the first two seats, so he could sit

on the aisle. A position in the theater where he could make a quick escape, not

having to trample over feet, popcorn, and drinks. A position Heather thought came

now by instinct, engraved in his mind by the years of running.

   At one point in the movie Heather had raised the armrest between them,

taken Roman’s arm, and put it around her. She laid her head on his shoulder. It

might have been when Rocky told Adrian that his father wanted him to develop his

body because he didn’t have much of a brain and Adrian told Rocky her mother

told her just the opposite. It might have been when Rocky told Adrian that it really

did bother him that the press was out to make him a fool. Or when Rocky took off

Adrian’s glasses for the first time in his apartment. Whenever it was, Heather

wanted to be close to Roman. Either to share the moment or to ensure that he

wouldn’t run, at least not tonight.

   They walked back to the car with their arms around each other, as the

crowd rushed by. The people even at this late hour were in a hurry to be

somewhere else. Heather and Roman were in slow motion, trying to get nowhere

at all. Before long they were the only two left in the parking lot, taking baby steps

back to the Mustang.

   “So, am I in for a lifetime of tear-jerkers?” Roman asked.

  “I really liked it. Two lonely souls finding each other in your not-so-average

circumstances is a concept I like. It’s funny how your expectations play a

big role in your perception of a movie. I went into it thinking the worst. So

anything worthwhile in the movie made it really good. I don’t see why you liked it

though, as a man I mean. After all he went through, all that training and abuse, he

still lost in the end.”

   “The movie would have been terrible if he had won. The point was that a

so-called bum off the street went the distance with the greatest fighter in the world

just because of his heart.”

   “I see.”

   “No you don’t.”

   Heather laughed.

   The Mustang pulled up in front of Roman’s. Heather walked with him up

to the porch. Their eyes were close to each other. “My mother wants to have you

over for dinner on Sunday. It makes me sick to my stomach. She’ll be a saint to

your face. The only reason I agreed is maybe if she meets you in person, she’ll get

off my back and see what I see.”

   “I’d love to,” Roman responded.

   “My father will like you. He’s a really good guy, just misled sometimes by

his wife.”

   All of it was conversation for what they both really wanted to say, all a

distraction from Roman inviting her in, from Heather accepting, a detour to keep

her from spending the night and sleeping in his bed. As much as Roman wanted it,

deep down he knew it wasn’t time. In the end Heather got back in her car and

drove home.


 

 

 

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