Gordon called Mom to see how she was doing. “And how’s my favorite mother this fine day?” he boomed thru the phone, then holding his finger over the microphone so she couldn’t hear the bong.
“Sweetie, you’re coming thru just fine,” Mom assured him.
“But you’ve got the TV up so loud I didn’t think you could hear me.”
“Oh that’s not the television. It’s Allen.” She said Allen’s name as if he were some kid of Greek god. Gordon sputtered. What’s Allen doing there? “He’s a real treasure, and I have you to thank for it,” she gushed. “My little baby boy, all grown up and taking care of his mother like he should.”
“I will always take care of my mother. Why I’ve even taken out life insurance, with you as beneficiary.” Or he did once, on impulse, but didn’t keep up on the payments. He absently scrawled on a piece of paper – I Leave All My Worldly Goods to My Mother, Light Of My Life – and signed and dated it. “In fact, I’ve left everything to you into my will. Have you written your will yet, Mom?”
Mom ignored the question. “That’s really sweet of you, dear, but wouldn’t it be better to pay what you’ve borrowed before you die?”
She was really busting his balls. “Aw, Mom, you know I keep putting money by for you. But I had to handle a crisis last week. My car broke down and I had to get it fixed. An accident. I was nearly killed.” There were now bullet holes in his car. He’d needed a new radiator, and his repair guy switched it with another car in the lot for fifty bucks.
Mom sounded distracted. “Well, I’m sure things’ll improve soon. You’re a big boy.”
She was rubbing it in. How callous. “And now the car payment is due, and I’ve gotten a couple of shut-off notices. I’m really tight this month, and I was hoping you could lend me a few bucks so I could get these bills off my back.” He was using that soothing but commanding voice that lulled the dollars from Mom’s pocketbook.
Mom sighed. “How much do you need this time? You know, son, I don’t actually have much of an income, just Social Security and some dividends. And I’ve lent you a great deal already. I think you should try to pay me back before you borrow any more.” Gordon sat in stunned silence. Had Allen been talking to her about him?
Wow, this was way different from the mother he’d been wringing money out of since he was a little boy. She always gave him whatever he asked willingly. He called it borrowing, and he never actually intended to pay it back, but he meant it in the best possible way. Hell, there was no way he could start to repay her for any of the million and one things she’d done for him while he was growing up. And was still doing; every time he asked for something there she was digging deep and sacrificing for his benefit. She didn’t do that with any of the others, and for that he would always hold her in the highest esteem.
Whenever she got persnickety like she was being now, he would just help himself to a few checks that happened to be lying around his drawers somewhere. Gordon cleared his throat. “I’m thinking about starting a family,” he began.
“Does Allen know her?” Mom asked hopefully. She was that eager to meet the girl.
“Uh, no.” Gordon thought quickly back. “Remember Maggie Peters?”
“From high school?”
“That’s her. Well, I ran into her again after all this time.”
“You’re going to marry her?”
“No.” He paused. “We’re just friends. But her best friend. She was with her. She introduced us. She’s going to be best man at the wedding.”
In the end he got a thousand dollars. He got her to give the check to Allen for delivery. When interrogated, Allen mumbled reluctantly about someone named Laurie, and someone else named Roxy, but didn’t seem to know much about either of them.
Mom and Allen sat around in the den watching television and making small talk. They were getting ready to go to the grocery store. They sure did get along well. It always took Mom some time to get ready to go anywhere, and Allen was content to sit and wait. The kids, and even her husband, had always fidgeted and carped at her, but Allen kept her company. A companion.
Allen congratulated himself on his good luck. Not only could he earn that last boy scout badge – assisting the elderly – but she was a damned good cook, and he could tell she was becoming really attached to her. And he was fond of her, too, in a way he couldn’t describe. Like his mother, so alike in some ways. He felt protective, and warm, and just wanted to cuddle up at her feet, or throw his arm around her and shelter her from danger.
He insisted on driving her everywhere. And he never minded that she knew the way better than he did, he just let her tell him where to go. And he carried all the bags to the car, and put them away when they got home, and fixed her coffee and brought it to her in the den. He even saw her to the top of the stairs when she went to bed at night. It was something a girl could get used to.
Allen had it good. Mom’s cooking, the run of the house after she went to bed, a free place to stay and somebody to feel good about. She’d offered him the couch in the den, but it was lumpy and the room was drafty. So after the first night, he pulled open a corner of the playroom, long ago packed with the stuff of four kids grown and gone away, and made himself a nest. A single bed mattress, some old blankets from the laundry room, a stained pillow. She thought he was sleeping on the couch, but he spent most nights tucked away among things that weren’t his, like a pack rat.
He flipped thru the channels after Mom went upstairs, looking for something to watch. She didn’t allow smoking in the house, but since she’d gone to sleep he felt entitled to indulge himself just a little. After a hard day’s work keeping Mom happy. He used an empty beer can to hide the ashes and butts – he was good about hiding the evidence – and he had a find-proof stash of beers in the fridge, which she didn’t allow either.
His cigarette smelled funny, like it was plastic. He was sleepy, and thought the hell with it, and turned the TV off. He was reaching for the lights when he got a good whiff of something burning.
The automatic drapes were smoldering. The little tiny motor that ticked over on standby while not in use. That slowly began to overheat. That had a short in it and started throwing tiny sparks that landed on the flame retardant-treated but inherently flammable lining. Which started smoldering quietly, the smoke drawn out of the top window, which was left open a crack and created a draft. Which stoked the fire.
Allen looked around half the house for the fire extinguisher. Gentle flames were beginning to be visible at the top of the curtains. The ceiling was beginning to blacken. He ran to the sink for a soaking pot of ex-spaghetti sauce as the smoke was beginning to fan out just below the ceiling, and the flames started making sounds.
Mom appeared in the doorway as Allen tossed a pot of greasy tomato water onto her drapes and the wall next to them, and the ceiling above them. She would have to repaint. Allen would repaint. Maybe the whole room. Look at that ceiling. She rushed over to him and gave him a big, grateful hug. “You saved my life,” she said. “Another few seconds and we’d all have been dead.”
He felt energized. “Oh no, Ma’am, no, it was just catching hold. We had plenty of time.” She needed him.
“You can call me by my first name,” she said, blushing.
* * *
Bill met with the Russian Mafia in the parking lot of the Scarlet Pimpernel. He gave them a briefcase, which they inspected on the hood of their car. Then everyone got back into their cars and sped away. The security cameras picked up the whole thing. The cameras transmitted all their data, live, to the basement of Rick’s company, where a bored tech watched it all with an eye for editing.
The next day, Rick sneaked a spycam into the club and hid it in a plastic palm. He put a microphone in the bathroom. He adjusted the monthly invoice to cover it.
* * *
Sam and Dave played hot potato with Bill’s money while sitting in their skanky car waiting for Rick to leave the office. Gordon drove by an hour later and saw them. He pulled over and walked back to their car. They were slumped in their seats, packs of twenties all over the back seat. They looked dead, but he didn’t see any blood. Gordon cleared his throat and tapped on the window.
Sam and Dave started awake and rolled down the windows. They’d been spending so much time at the club, and drinking so much that they tended to fall asleep after a bit of activity, such as they had playing catch awhile back. The stifling heat didn’t help, either.
“Y’all look like cats left you for dead.” Gordon seemed fatherly to them, towering over their little car. “I’ll bet you’ve been burning the candle at both ends, haven’t you?” he asked gently. They had. He reached into his front picket and brought out a gram of coke. “Bolivian Marching Powder TM,” he said, “lest you think it might be something illegal. It’s an all natural energy vitamin that really works. Got a Coke we could mix it into? No? Well, here, I’ll just use the old anatomical snuffbox,” he filled the dimple in his thumb and bent over to snort it. “Ah. Just like that.” He refilled it and brought it to Dave’s nose, who took a deep sniff and then writhed and grimaced as the powder went down the back of his throat. Sam had some too. Gordon left them with the rest of the bag just to make sure they wouldn’t fall asleep again. “See you tonight, fellas.”
* * *
Bill ran into Allen unexpectedly in the club. Bill and Allen went way back. Before a series of DUIs robbed Allen of his CDL license, the boy’d been one of his best drivers.
Allen drank a beer and told him about his new gig, bodyguard to this poor old lady that people were trying to kill. “She’s just like my mother,” he said. “Only I’m starting to have impure thoughts about her.”
“I had impure thoughts about my mother,” Bill responded. “Hell, she was the only girl I knew.” Except for a dozen or two others who lived in the neighborhood.
They talked about the good old days when they used to transport Mexicans. “Yeah, I’m out of that business now,” Bill said with a shrug. He wasn’t out of the business by choice, but he’d just finished firing the guy that did all the driving.
“Sure you are.”
“No, really, man, I took so much flack from Cindy about those damned pots we smuggled for her that I got out of the business entirely. Half the pots were broken and there was all that shit in the news, and I’m still living it down at home. Let somebody else take the risk. I’m done.” No such thing, of course, but then hadn’t he just finishing firing his driver. “Cindy never figured it out, and she still thinks I didn’t know about it,” he chuckled.
Allen thought. “You know, it’s been awhile since I seen her, but I thought I saw Cindy the other day. Right outside where I’m staying. How’s she doing, anyway?”
Bill ran his hand thru his comb-over. “Well, she’s just being a piece of work. You know how she is.”
“Yeah, I remember when she’d come screaming into the office over some little thing.”
“She hasn’t improved any with age. She’s just like her goddamned mother.” He took a long drink of his bourbon. “I’m going to leave her.”
Allen cheered him on. “It’s about damned time.”
“Yep, I’ve been planning this for years. You have no idea. You know how my mistress,” he started. He really liked the way that rolled off his tongue.
“Yeah, Miss Extended Cab 1997.” Bill’s exploits were endless and monumental.
“Well, there’ve been others. And frankly, I’m tired of her. She reminds me of Cindy. But I met someone,” he trailed off, looking into the distance at the end of the stage. “Recently. She’s an angel. She makes me feel so strong. She gives me the most incredible boners. She fucks like a rabbit. I think I love her.”
Allen looked at his old boss, aghast. “Come off it, man, everybody’s in love while they’re doing it. You’re scaring me.”
His face suddenly beamed. “There she is,” he whispered as she ambled toward the stage, sloshing her drink. “Roxy.”
Allen shook his head. “Man, that girl will eat you alive. Don’t trust her as far as you can throw her, man.” But Bill wasn’t listening. “Hey, you know she’s got a boyfriend,” he continued, trying another angle. “He’s right over there.” But Gordon had gone to the bathroom. Laurie moved toward the table with a big smile on her face, gesturing at Allen to scram. So he left Bill to his fate.
* * *
At 2:19 in the afternoon Allen sat in his car at the public library. He’d stopped going back to the apartment to sell shit. Rick kept calling him, but he ignored all calls. Then the bastard had installed some sort of alarm that told him every time Allen crossed the threshold, and once Allen figured out the timing he decided to abandon ship. So now he met his customers in less dangerous locations. Like the parking lot of the Home Depot. Like the Quick Trip. Like McDonald’s.
He was meeting Judy here because the library said safety to her. Quiet, hushed, reverent, people to go to with questions, kindhearted librarians dedicated to defending your freedom to learn about the subject of your choice. They met in the true crime section. Judy was looking deep into the eyes of Charles Manson. They spoke like conspirators, in an exaggerated whisper you could hear in the next aisle, saying nothing.
“Here you go.”
“There’s for you.”
“Well, I’d love to talk, but.”
“Right. Gotta go.”
Judy checked out an armful of books on murderers. The list was recorded as a matter of course and relayed to the proper authorities. Judy’s face and Allen’s back were recorded on security cameras exchanging money for a bag of weed.
* * *