(Art by spoon+fork.)
Howard didn’t bother to show up to work on Tuesday. Didn’t get a phone call, either.
I wasn’t surprised. It was just a matter of time before this would happen. He’d been saying he’d be there for years, but losing the laptop probably soured that fucker. He had enough money, anyway.
Based on my years of working down at the shore, the people who show up late keep showing up late the whole summer, if they don’t get fired. That kind of worker doesn’t have the initiative to find another job or to muster enough courage to quit.
The diligent ones, the people who show up on time, are the ones who leave for good. No two-week notice. Their phone number and address aren’t good anymore. Any personal stuff they had at the job was already brought home over time. That’s quitting Jersey style.
So Howard actually broke the mold — he was the slacker who actually quit.
I was ready for my break in the afternoon when I realized I might not be able to take one. The lock was in bad shape and I didn’t feel like jiggling my key in it for five minutes so I dragged a chair outside and propped it against the closed door behind me.
I stepped into the hotel office.
“Howard didn’t call here, did he?” I asked Mrs. Angrywall.
“Nobody’s called all day,” she said, crossing her arms and slouching lower in her seat.
“He didn’t come in today.”
“And I’m certain you miss him deeply.”
I scratched behind my right ear and said, “You know, if he quit, that means no more, ah, smoking.” Her eyebrows rose.
“I see. . .” she said.
“It’s probably for the best. Every time I lit up, I was putting myself at risk for serious bodily harm from O’Keefe. He’d probably get you locked up, too. Anyway it’s way too risky for me to find another dealer.”
“It’s a shame. I truly enjoyed our time smoking together. Are you still able to get away for breaks?”
“I don’t know. I better call Michael Conti.”
“Er, regular cigarettes. Do you smoke them?”
“Sure I do. It’s like drinking soda instead of booze, though.”
“This situation calls for a carton. I’m off to the 7-11. I’ll meet you back at your stand.”
I went back to the hamburger stand, found the phone number on a fridge magnet and called Michael Conti, my boss whom I had never actually met.
Someone who sounded as sleepy and unconcerned as Howard answered the phone. I had to wait a while as he went to find Michael.
A deeper voice then said, “Yeah?”
“This is Sean, at the hamburger stand in Shore Points.”
“Yeah, the pothead.”
“Is something the matter?”
“Howard didn’t show up today.”
“So spank him when you see him.”
“It would be a little tough working here by myself. I can’t do a good job when it’s just me.”
“Take a break. Put up one of them ‘Back In 10 Minutes’ signs.”
“Aren’t you going to hire somebody to take his place?”
“Aw, it’s almost August, that means there’s one more month left in the season. It’s not worth it. Look at the employee pool out there. It sucks. Just stick it out for me, I’ll get you a better job in the fall.”
“What if I get sick, Mr. Conti?”
“Then don’t come in.”
“What if I quit, too?”
The receiver made a sound like the other end scratched against a stubbly, scabby chin.
“What if you what!”
“What if I quit?”
“Ha! You can’t quit! You have to work for me for a year. That’s the law.”
My heart sank. Sure Howard was no help, but he was company, even if he did make too much noise when he ate or drank. And the pot sure as hell helped.
“Come on, now,” said Michael Conti. I didn’t realize that I was moaning. “Don’t go blubbering on me. I been good to you. Who else would even give you a job, with your record!”
“That’s right. Just hang in there, man, just a few more weeks and keep giving the money to Andrea. And no skimming. I watch them books like a hawk.”
“Okay,” I said.
I tried to make an iced coffee, but I hadn’t used enough ice. I ended up making a lukewarm drink that I poured down the sink. I had a hot cup instead.
I went outside and sat in the bad plastic chair. Mrs. Angrywall came over and sat in the good one.
“Working hard or hardly working?” she asked.
“Fuck you,” I said.
“My, you’re rude when you’re not high.”
“I’m just keeping it real, girlfriend.”
“You like Marlboro?” She shook her pack until about an inch of a cigarette stuck out. I took the pack from her hands and caressed her for a few seconds.
“I’m not!” I said, holding up my right hand. With my left I pulled out two cigarettes, put them in my mouth and lit them.
“This is such a comedown,” I said, handing one to Mrs. Angrywall. “It’s like Kool-Aid after red wine.”
“I’ve always despised cigarettes,” she said before taking a long drag. “Irritates the throat.”
“Anything that burns makes smoke,” I said. I was sucking hard and it wasn’t giving me anything.
“Back in college, my boyfriend had a vaporizer. It was brilliant. Just drop the leaves in and it heats them up. You just have to inhale the little mist that comes out.”
“Those things are like a couple hundred bucks.”
“It’s worth it for the benefits, long term. No smoke smell in the house and fewer toxins. It’s also a more efficient delivery system.”
“Do you think marijuana is addictive?”
“Not particularly. Anything can be addictive when you can’t find happiness in your life.”
“I was happy on Howard’s weed. That made everything easier. I forgot how tough it was to get through the afternoons.”
“It’s even worse indoors, trying to while away the hours,” sighed Mrs. Angrywall. “Yes, Howard’s weed was certainly special, wasn’t it? It’s so odd to me that my husband will never have such an experience. He is a complete square. A goody-goody good boy. He doesn’t even like to light candles.”
She turned to me and tilted her head.
“Do you like candles, Sean?”
“You’re trying to seduce me, aren’t you, Mrs. Angrywall?”
“I’m just being playful.”
“But you really won’t have sex with me?”
“I can’t. I’m married.”
“Well, anyway, do you wish we had slept together that night?”
“I don’t know. But I would have regretted it incredibly if I had.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, really. Sean, I think you repeat yourself more when you’re not high.”
I tapped my cigarette.
“Did the cops ever catch the Dotbusters?” I asked.
“No, but the police have assured me that the hate crimes unit is handling it. ‘Hate’ crimes. That’s quite ridiculous, right? Is there such a thing as a ‘love’ crime?”
“Oh, yeah. In this country we call them ‘crimes of passion.’”
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a car going by. In that quick glance, I thought it looked like O’Keefe’s car.
Let him come over here, I thought. I’ll blow smoke in his face.
One of the taillights flickered and the car took the corner. I wasn’t motivated enough to turn around to watch it disappear.
The ceramic plate that I used to reheat burgers I stole from work blew apart in the microwave. There was a crack in it early on, and it was only going to last for so long.
I went into the thrift store to find a good sturdy plastic plate, the kind the Brady Brunch kids ate off of. Plastic plates get scratched up and change colors, but they last a long time. Think about it. The toughest dog-food bowls are made of plastic. That says something.
I happened to pass by the bookshelf. It was crammed with softcovers for a dime and hardcovers for a quarter. I saw a tattered cloth cover that looked familiar, even though the title wasn’t. All the pages were torn out of it, but the back and front covers were still attached to each other.
“Batten Down the Hatches!” was the title. I definitely had never read it. But the inside of the back cover listed other books from the same publisher. “The Corduroy Road” was the fourth in the series. Maybe this was some sort of sign from God, or maybe even Gaia.
I looked through the stack for “The Corduroy Road,” but of course it wasn’t there.
In the back of the store, I found two plates, one red and one blue. I got a deal on them and two sets of silverware that amazingly matched. I was on a hot streak.
O’Keefe was sitting at his desk, fingers twisted into a big brown knot of knuckles on his desk. We talked a little and I mentioned that Howard quit.
“How long,” he asked quietly, “has Howard not shown up at work?”
“Four work days.” He exploded.
“Been four days and you don’t even bother to tell me!”
“You wanted to know?”
“You don’t think it’s prudent to keep me informed of material changes to your job?” He untangled his fingers and pressed his hands flat like he was trying to hold the desk down. “You need someone to slap some sense into you?”
Just when I thought we were something close to friends, O’Keefe was starting to scare me again. There didn’t seem to be enough room in my seat for me to slide back in.
“O’Keefe, I didn’t think you cared.”
“Didn’t think I cared!” he exploded. “Boy, I’ve been cutting you way too much slack!”
“You never asked me about Howard. If you cared so much about him, why didn’t you ever call the hamburger stand?”
“You told the police?”
“No,” I said. “I should call the cops because somebody quit?” O’Keefe stomped, stood up and wrestled his suit jacket on.
“C’mon! We’re going to the hamburger stand now!”
We got into his car. The engine was making funny sounds at red lights — the same growling sounds O’Keefe had in the back of his throat.
“Sounds like there’s something wrong with your car.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with my car!” he thundered back. “Some friend you are! Guy goes missing a few days and you don’t want to help! You’re not concerned at all!”
“O’Keefe, a guy not showing up for work isn’t something to worry about. If I had quit, I wouldn’t have bothered to call. I’d let Michael Conti figure it out.”
“Yeah, and you woulda been figuring out how to put your skull back together when I found you.”
I turned to the window and watched my reflection float over the gutter.
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why he was so pissed. Was he that much of a control freak that he wanted to keep tabs on me and everyone I knew, too?
I guess Howard was a friend. Hey, if someone who gave you free pot wasn’t a friend, who was?
We got to the hamburger stand and I unlocked the door. O’Keefe charged in first. He poked around near the chair Howard used to slump in and eat noisily.
“He didn’t take anything,” I said.
“I’m looking for clues, son.”
“He never brought anything, never left with anything. The one time he brought something in was his laptop computer. That got stolen.”
“Course it got stolen. Only a dumbfuck would bring a laptop into a place with a bullshit lock like this place.”
When he got sick of looking around, O’Keefe straightened up and folded his arms.
“His last day, did Howard say anything unusual?”
“He always talked strange.”
“Did he say something about how he had to go see someone urgently, or that someone was stepping on him?”
“He didn’t seem to have any problems.”
“Did he ever mention drug suppliers?”
“I don’t think so.”
“You either know or you don’t!”
“Then, no, I don’t. You wanna give me a lie-detector test?”
O’Keefe wiped his lips with his entire left hand from the fingertips to the wrist.
“Now I’m going to ask you something really easy,” he said. “Even a stoned white boy can answer this: Where does he live?”
“I swear,” I said with my voice breaking, “I don’t know.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“It’s true. I’ve never been to his house.”
“You have no idea where he lives?”
“Somewhere, not too far,” was all I could squawk.
O’Keefe exhaled heavily and stared into my eyes the way all of my principals did.
“That hindu woman know?” he asked.
Leave Mrs. Angrywall out of it, flashed in my head.
“Why don’t you call up Michael Conti?”
O’Keefe brought his lips together and nodded.
“I can see that you didn’t smoke all of your brain away, boy.”
When he turned around to dial on his cell phone, I gave him an elbow-bird.
“Yeah, lemme speak to Conti. Yeah, Michael. Speaking, eh? Hey, this is Sean Kerry’s probation officer. Oh, yeah? How’s he doing? Well, he better be. Anyway, I’m actually interested in another one of your employees, Howard, the other boy, er, guy you had. Where does he live?”
I got up to fix myself a soda. O’Keefe shot a look at me. I pointed to the soda fountain and then back to him while raising my eyebrow. He shook his head and hand at the same time. I made myself a mix of Sprite and Coke. O’Keefe continued on the phone.
“Can’t tell me, huh? Privacy, I see. Feel strongly about that, huh? Well, how about I put a call into my cousin over at the health inspector’s? Oh, not for the hamburger stand, for your main restaurant! I’m sure everything’s as good as it was since the last visit, right?”
O’Keefe turned to me and smiled broadly. I took a long sip from my soda. I felt better now that O’Keefe had found another target.
“I see, I see. Well, you can trust me, Michael. Who could ever know? That’s right, that’s right. Where’s that intersection? DuPont and Surf Avenue, huh? Okay, I’ve got it. Thank you, Michael.”
I barely finished off the soda when O’Keefe grabbed my elbow and growled, “C’mon, boy!”
We crawled down Surf Avenue, which ran parallel to the shoreline. It was popular as a cruising street during the summer and a racing street in the off-season. DuPont was just past where the boardwalk ended. On the weekends, the sidewalks glittered amber and green with smashed beer bottles.
O’Keefe eased up next to a typical DuPont rental, which looked like a trailer that had been bricked in.
“This is the place,” he said. O’Keefe reached over and jerked the glove compartment open. It smelled like roller-skate ball bearings, oily and metallic. He pulled out a gun in a leather holster.
Run, I thought. Get out and run fucking run run run. That motherfucker’s crazy.
“You look scared, Sean,” O’Keefe said casually. “You shouldn’t be. This is for our protection.”
I got out of the car and I couldn’t stop rubbing my kneecaps.
“Get up there!” O’Keefe said, indicating the front door. “Get up there and knock. Say you just want to talk.”
I went up to the front door. In the late afternoon light I could see at least three layers of paint flaking off in the sea air. The doorknob was crooked.
O’Keefe snuck up against the house, under the front window.
“C’mon, c’mon!” he whispered at me.
I looked behind me. The street was empty and no people were around.
I knocked. There no answer.
“Call out to him, Sean!”
“Howard,” I yelled. My voice was louder than I meant because of the adrenaline pumping through my system. “Howard! Howard!”
I tried the door. It was open.
“Shit!” said O’Keefe. “Let me through!” He pushed his way in. I don’t know why I followed. The place was a mess. That wasn’t out of the ordinary, especially for a single stoner guy.
There were piles of videogame magazines and porn. Two opened and empty boxes for Macintosh laptops sat on the couch.
In the bedroom every dresser drawer had been jerked open, with long-sleeved shirts crawling out like wounded soldiers in a trench.
The bathroom was disgusting.
In the kitchen there were three bottles of beer in the refrigerator. O’Keefe took out two and handed me one. He slammed the cap off against the counter edge and took a deep drink.
“Bitch took off!” he growled.
I knew Howard wasn’t coming back to the burger stand, but O’Keefe insisted he might.
“I’m going to be prowling just around the block,” he said. “Don’t be surprised if you turn around and see me in your back pocket.”
“I don’t think there’s enough room for you back there.”
“Don’t tell me there ain’t room! You with your skinny ass! And let me tell you something else: Don’t you even think of trying to warn this Howard to stay away.”
“He’s not my friend,” I said weakly.
“Well maybe he is and maybe he ain’t. All I know is — and this is from extensive field testing — is that you white people always stick together and back each other up.”
“That’s not true!” I said.
“Like hell it ain’t!”
“That’s not true!” I said again, but not as clearly because my throat was closing up. “None of my friends came to visit me in jail. My mom didn’t even send me anything.” My nose was caking up with mucus and I had to breathe through my mouth.
“Well, that’s what you get for only having white friends,” said O’Keefe.
I felt tears dripping off of my chin so I wiped it with my palm.
“Can’t we be friends?” I asked O’Keefe.
“Only if you stay clean. Then we’re friends.” He had on a tight little smile. “Believe me, you don’t want me as an enemy.”
That was the truest thing he ever said.
(Part 17 next week.)