(Art by spoon+fork.)
When I got off the New Jersey Transit train, Johnson honked twice from his car and popped open the passenger door.
“Where’s the old sedan?” I asked.
“That was a piece of junk,” he said. “I think they sunk it in the harbor to give the fish a new place to play.” He looked me over carefully. “Have you put on weight?”
“I eat more than I used to,” I said. “I have more money than I ever had in my entire life.”
“I hope you’re saving some. This city eats money as fast as you can feed it.”
“You are right about that, man.”
“LaVerne treating you right?”
“Yeah, I can’t complain. It’s the most serious job I ever had. I iron my shirts now!”
“I hope you stay on the straight path from here on out because I like you. I want you to know, Sean, a lot of times I had to pretend to be mean.”
“What’s that you’re reading?”
“Oh, it’s a mystery book. I found it on the train. I can see why they left it.”
“What did you think about the reading program when you were in jail?”
“The reading program? Well, the library was great.”
“Yeah, those library books! Did you hear the news that some communist groups have been filling prison libraries with their propaganda books and they had people on the inside who made sure they were distributed?”
“Was it illegal?”
“No, since the books were being donated, but the Church groups are hopping mad. They’ve filed a lawsuit for equal shelf space.”
“It’s Jersey. It’s standard operating procedure.”
“I don’t miss Jersey bullshit at all,” I said, surprising myself. “Any of it.”
“Naw, guess you don’t, ya city slicker! Hey, you going to write a book? Tell all about the whole drug thing?”
“I had thought about it.”
“Let’s just say I understand why people wait until everybody else is dead before they write what really happened.”
“Yeah, you want to see me drop dead,” said Johnson, nodding his head. “But that’s not going to happen. At least not tonight.”
“Thanks for the invite to stay over, but I have that business trip tomorrow. LaVerne’s taking me to the Los Angeles office.”
“Ah, yeah. First time on a plane for you. I understand. For the first time you’re gonna get high the natural way.”
“What’s it like flying?”
“Stop sounding like a kid. At least, don’t ask none of these guys at the bar. They’ll think you’re a pussy instead of a hero.”
When I walked into JJ’s, shouts went up from everyone in the bar. For the second time, I was the only white person in there, but now everyone wanted to come up and clap me on the back and shake my hand.
“Come on over here, I wanna show you a little something,” he said, walking me back to a spot by the jukebox. There was a framed picture of me from the Asbury Park Press.
“You’re the first white man on the wall!” he said with pride.
It was true. There was room made for me between two ancient pictures of doo-wop groups.
“I didn’t do that much,” I said.
“You stopped that towel-headed, snake-charmer motherfucker from selling more drugs to black kids. That’s plenty,” Curly said.
Johnson cleared his throat.
“Come on,” he said, putting an arm around the bartender, “let’s get this man some drinks.”
Curly took a pewter mug down from the wall and washed it out.
“I’m gonna let you drink out of the John Vandyne Heroes Cup!”
“Who’s John Vandyne?” I asked.
“A great man,” said Johnson.
I was scared shitless the last time I was in this place, but in reality, it was one of the safest places in the state. Nearly everybody here was an active or retired policeman, detective or security guard.
One guy was giving me the evil eye, though. When I looked at him straight on, he came up to me and said, “What’s so great about you, huh?”
“Ike, clear off, okay?” Johnson told him.
Ike grunted and moved on.
“What’s his problem?” I asked.
“Some people try so hard to be what they think a man is, they forget how to relate to other people.”
After another beer and a game of Connect Four with a girl I didn’t know, I asked Johnson, “I did the right thing, right?”
“Hell, yes, you did.” He put a hand on my shoulder but looked around to see if anybody was listening. “Look, Sean. Think of all the grief you’ve spared people. Think of those families.”
“What happened to Mrs. Aggarwal?”
“I don’t know. Last I heard, some Orientals came in and bought the Seahorse Hotel from the bank. If anyone can make money in this economy, it’s them.”
“What happened to the money?”
“Yeah, Mrs. Aggarwal told me once she found a pile of cash there one day. She didn’t know how it got there.”
“I guess Raj Aggarwal spent it or got rid of it. My boys didn’t find any money there.”
I hope she got the money, I thought. I hope she got out of there with it.
“Can you take me to the hotel?”
“I told you. Mrs. Aggarwal isn’t there anymore.”
“I just want to see it.”
A chilly, salty wind blew into the car.
“I’ve forgotten what this feels like,” I said to Johnson. I looked across to the twinkling skies. It was too dark to see where it met the ocean, but you could hear the waves.
“It’s like infinity,” I said.
“I should force you to do a urine sample now,” Johnson muttered.
“I’m just a little drunk. I’m losing my tolerance. I can’t afford to drink too often in the city. I kind of have this girl now.”
“So I heard.” He didn’t ask more.
When we came up to the hotel, the streetlight was out, making the whole dark building look a little sinister. The burger stand was boarded up. Our headlights swung onto an Oriental teenage boy, coiling a garden hose in a corner of the hotel parking lot.
I leaned out the window to get a better look at him, and he threw back the meanest stare I ever saw in a kid. I dropped back into my seat.
“You’re right, Johnson. This was a mistake.”
“See, I know what I’m talking about. You can never go back, man. The trees close in on the trail you came in on.”
“Like a forest path?”
“Sure. You know, I have some Indian blood in me.”
At the train station Johnson gave me a CD.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s some of the recordings of you and the Aggarwal woman.”
“Is that it?”
“Yeah, not all the recordings came out.”
I turned over the thin plastic case in my hands.
I asked Johnson, “You ever come into the city?”
“Not too often. I like to spend my time working and supporting the community.”
“I have e-mail now. You should write to me.”
“I still don’t like e-mail, Sean. I’ll just stay in touch with the new bug I stuck in your pocket.”
“I thought I felt you grab my ass.”
“Hey, Sean. I know you’re not going on a business trip tomorrow.”
“I know you still got more of me and Mrs. Aggarwal.”
We shook hands and it made me feel warm.
The only free seat on the train car had some crushed potato chips on it. I wiped the seat clean with my shoe and sat down.
In the apartment lobby, I got a package that wouldn’t fit into my mailbox, so the postman left it on the floor. I picked it up and took the stairs.
I put in the CD of Mrs. Aggarwal and me talking. The first few tracks were of me mumbling curses.
I hated the sound of my voice.
I skipped ahead. We were on the roof laughing and talking. I decided to save it for later and stopped the CD.
I opened my package. It was a knit polo from Crystal, the parrot girl. I told her how cold the office was getting, with the AC on full blast.
Why she mailed it instead of just giving it to me in person is just one of those crazy things I can’t understand.
I lay out the polo on the back of my chair. It looked nice.
Maybe too nice.
The tag said it was made in India.
I pushed the empty cardboard box under the coffee table, but it knocked over a small stack of books and magazines through to the other side.
I came around and saw that “The Corduroy Road” was laying on top.
I put the book behind my head and stretched out full-length on the couch. I closed my eyes.
I had once been so desperate to read that book, thinking it could patch up a little hole in my life. Now, I didn’t even fucking feel like finishing it.
(And so our story ends. Thank you for reading. As always, feel free to swing by http://www.edlinforpresident.com.)