Artie's words grated on me as I walked into the kitchen with my mother. She closed the door behind us and indicated that I should take a seat at the table. Her expression was not very happy.
"David, what's going on? Your story and Artie's don't agree on too many things."
I looked at her. I had left out everything I thought I could get away with, but I hadn't lied once. "Whattya mean, Ma? I told the truth, so if it's different Artie must be givin' you the shit version."
"Please stop swearing! You told me that Artie made you get into trouble. He says you asked him to, that he only did what you wanted. What's the truth?"
"Ma, I never said Artie made me do anything. Everything I got, I asked for. All I said was if it wasn't for Artie I would'a never got there. If I never met him, I Waldo never known that stuff existed. Please, Ma. I might be a lotta thing, but I'm not a liar. I did ask Artie for everything, but he shouldn't have helped me. He shouldn't be doin' the sh... stuff that he does, anyhow. Please don't tell me I'm gonna be in trouble for somethin' that guy says.
I could see her mental gears turning. "Nobody's in trouble, David. I'm just trying to learn the truth here. I can see that you and Arthur see two different versions of it. You did tell me that he wasn't all there, and I believe that much. He just seems so sincere. He was doing everything he could to become friends with you. I suppose there's not much use crying over what happened to you at this point. He did everything you asked, so you dug your own hole in that respect. Has he told you about the promise he made to your father?"
I looked her in the eyes. "Artie told me about a promise, but he said he promised not to say what it was. Did he tell you?"
Her eyes softened, She took a napkin and began twisting it in her hands as she looked down. "Yes, he did. Your father made him promise to do whatever it might take to look after us if something happened to him. He was supposed to do it anonymously, not try to come and meet us. That's the reason, the only reason, he did whatever you asked so blindly. He loved our pictures and thought of us as his own family. He had this promise that he'd made, and it was stuck in his head. He bought our house to get me out of a financial hole, and that was a good thing. He helped you ... do those things, and that was a bad thing." She looked up. "David, Arthur doesn't know the difference. He sincerely thought he was living up to his promise to your father with both things."
"He doesn't know right from wrong?"
"I'm not sure, David. I think he does in general, but he certainly doesn't have normal feelings. Do you have a phone number for that Doctor Mary? I'd like to discuss this with her."
"I already told her about Artie, and it even got her confused. She was gonna talk to some other people. What'd you and Artie talk about?"
My mother brought her eyes up to mine. "We talked about you, David. Well, mostly. We talked about your father and his father, and families in general. Do you have any idea how horrible that boy's life has been? I cannot believe that any parents would give their own child up to those people. How weak they must have been! He said you know where his father is, and I'm torn between wanting to know so I can scratch his eyes out, and just hoping it's so far away that I never have to see his face. All for money! For money, David! Do you know how sick that is?" She took her napkin and wiped her eyes.
"What would you have done, Ma? They had his parents over a barrel. Donny told me all about it. They could either give them Artie or get killed one at a time. Would Artie be better off if he was crippled or dead?"
She put her elbows on the table and her head in her hands. "I don't know, David. Artie thought he died when his father started selling ... him. Nobody is better off dead, but a well-adjusted cripple might be a happier person than Artie is now. He's trying desperately to make his way in the world, but he just doesn't know what's right and what's wrong. The worst thing is that he knows he doesn't know."
"You said you'd make him quit the drugs. Do you think you can?" I asked.
"Oh, yes! He's already in trouble with someone, and he's frightened for his life. He's only too happy to give that business up and move in here. We'll get him straightened out, David. I don't know exactly where to start, but we'll figure it out in time."
I was stunned! " Did you say he's movin' here? Where's he gonna sleep? Are you nuts? He has his own house ... our house. Why can't we move back there?"
My mother stood up and looked down at me. "David, like it or not your father brought Arthur into this family. You and I and Lisa and Donna are going to make him feel like a real member of it. That's clear, isn't it?"
"It's clear." I was trying to catch a thought that was wandering through the back of my mind. I finally got it.
"Ma? What would you have done if Dad just brought Artie here when he found him? Was he afraid of something?"
"I asked Arthur that. Your father wasn't afraid of me, just of the men he took Arthur away from. They're in a dirty business, and I guess they'll stop at nothing to protect their interests. He didn't want to bring that kind of trouble into our home." She looked at me and smiled. "Davy, your father and your Uncle Sal were both good men. Unfortunately, like most men, they didn't understand how strong the women they'd chosen to spend their lives with actually were. Your Aunt Loretta and I would have figured out how to take care of Artie, but those two fools were afraid of it. They kept him in that stupid club and did their best for him. It just wasn't enough."
I was thinking of Ken and the guys. They'd done a lot for me, but I could see how I might have a pretty twisted view of life if they were the only people I knew. They were great guys, don't get me wrong. It was Rich and Jerry and Tim and, to some extent, Rafe, Brian and Adam, who brought reality to my life. The older guys taught me a lot, but it was people my own age who let me practice what I learned.
"How's it gonna work, Ma? I need to get ready for school. None of my clothes fit, and I wanna meet Don's uncle to see if he can help me. I'm not gonna have time for myself, much less Artie. Are you sure you can trust him?"
"We all have to trust him, David. I can't ask you to offer him love, but you must try to become friends. He thinks he loves all of us, but all he's ever had were pictures." She smiled. "Those pictures are much quieter, and probably much more pleasant, than anyone in this house. I just want everybody to behave normally and try to make him feel at home. I already told him there would be no special treatment. We'll have to keep the fact that he's here quiet, at least until his business problems go away. Let's go join the others."
I stood up and looked at my mother. It was obvious that she was on a mission to save Artie, and I wasn't sure that I liked the idea. I didn't mind him being saved, I just didn't want it to happen in my house. She was the boss, though. About that there was no doubt. I hugged her.
"I'll try my best, Ma. I love you. Does he hafta call you Mama?"
"Oh, David. I love you, too, and it's wonderful to have you back home. We decided on Mama because none of the rest of you use that term. Let's go and make some plans."
We walked into the living room. Donna and Lisa were watching something on TV. Artie and Tim were engaged in conversation. My mother cleared her throat and they all looked up. She asked the girls to turn off the television, then we all got comfortable.
My mother sat in her rocker and looked around at all of us, then turned her gaze to my sisters. "Girls, this family has suddenly grown. I asked Tim to become part of it the other night, and today I asked Arthur to join us. Arthur will be staying here for a while. I'll explain the reasons later. Right now I want to set some ground rules. I want you to think of Timothy and Arthur as your brothers, and to treat them just as you would David. No better and no worse." She turned to Tim and Artie. "The same goes for you two. Donna and Lisa are your sisters now. You will all respect each other as individuals and, I hope, come to like each other. We all have many things to do this week, Arthur. We'll be quite busy, and I don't want you to think for one second that we're ignoring you. Do you understand that?"
Artie nodded his head. "I understand. I won't get in the way, but I want to help. Anything you need ... anything at all, just ask and I'll do it."
My mother smiled. "Thank you, Arthur. I think we'll start by bringing your car back to your house and bringing your things here. Timothy, David and Lisa will help you. It's best if you leave your car at home so nobody sees it here. Lisa can bring my car and Tim can bring his. That way you should be able to get what you need in one trip. And Arthur, you must destroy your ... uh ... merchandise. All of it. You do understand that, don't you?"
Artie still looked eager, even hearing this news. "No problem! I'll just flush it down the toilet." His expression became worried, "Except the toilet doesn't want to flush."
My mother glared at him. "Arthur, you burn it, or bury it, or grind it up in the blender. Don't even think of bringing it here! Is that clear?"
He looked at his hands. "It's clear. Don't worry, I won't do anything you don't want me to." Artie looked funny. His head was still looking down, but he lifted his eyes to look at my mother just like a little kid would. Then he looked at me and Tim. "You guys ready? It might take a while. I'm not sure what to bring."
I looked at Tim, and he nodded. Then I looked back to Artie. "We'll help you sort through stuff. Let's get goin'."
I handed my mother the paper with Artie's number on it in case she got worried. My mother gave Lisa her car keys and we all headed out, following Artie to his house. When we got there, he pulled way back into the driveway so we had room for all the cars. When we were getting out of the cars, Lisa wondered out loud why Artie didn't have any windows anymore. Tim was beside me, and he punched me gently on the back. I looked at his questioning face and just nodded, making him smile.
Just then, three guys came from the back yard and walked up to Artie. One of them spoke. "Hey, Artie! We been sittin' in the fuckin' rain for almost an hour. What the fuck gives?"
Artie looked at them for a second, then took a glance at us, then back at them. "Sorry, guys. I got busted and I don't have anything anymore." He swept his hand towards us. "These guys just bailed me out. I'm sorry, but I'm outta here. You're gonna have to find someone else. Tell anybody you see ... Artie's out of business for a while."
The three guys surprised me by giving Artie a look of genuine concern. "Shit, sorry Artie. That really sucks. We all liked coming here. You always treated us like real people. Good luck, man. What'd they get you on?"
"Possession with intent. It's probably no big deal, but I gotta lay low for a while and sell comic books or something. I'll be okay, anyhow. I don't have much time right now, so I'll see you guys. Okay?"
They were pretty much in unison. "See ya, Artie. Good luck!"
When they were out of earshot, I looked at Artie. "Busted? Good thinkin', man! Comic books?" I laughed.
He smiled at me. "Hey, I have a great collection. I love to read the comics!"
We both laughed, then headed around the house to the one remaining door. Artie unlocked it and went in, flipping on the light. Redecorating had taken place since the last time I was there. The old linoleum floor had been replaced with what looked like real marble tiles. Everything looked brand new. We walked along the hall following Artie. He went into the living room and turned on the light, which was now a chandelier with what seemed like a hundred bulbs. There was thick carpeting on the floor, and all the furniture looked new and expensive. He turned around to look at us.
"A little different, huh? You want to get rid of the goods first? Lucky there isn't very much. I was just going to stock up this coming week."
I looked at the fireplace. "How you wanna do it? I guess we could light a fire and just toss it in. You sure the toilet won't flush?"
"It sort of flushes, just really slow. I don't think it'll go down."
Tim piped in, "You have a ladder? It's probably just a clogged vent."
"You think? Yeah, there's a ladder in the storage room. Flushing's the best way if you can get it to work. I'll show you!"
Tim went with Artie. Lisa and I just walked through the house, marveling at all the things drug money could buy. I think that if some company made it, Artie had it. This was definitely not the house we'd grown up in. There were TV's and stereos everywhere, but the kitchen was the standout.
My mother would have died for it. It now extended into what used to be my sister's bedroom, more than doubling the space. All of the appliances were sparkling clean and new looking. The tile work was beautiful. Lisa was practically dancing around, opening cabinets and cupboards, checking out Artie's favorite foods. It looked like there were two refrigerators, but one turned out to be a freezer.
Lisa's eyes just about bugged out of her head. "Dave, this guy eats like a king! Look at the stuff in here! Prime rib! Sirloins, pork chops, holy shit he even has crab legs! Forget the clothes, we're bringing the groceries home!"
Lisa liked food more than just about anything. I was laughing with her when we heard faint yelling from outside.
I went to the door. Artie was yelling, "Flush the toilet! See if it works!"
"OKAY!" I ran to the bathroom and flushed. It seemed normal, so I ran back to the door and yelled, "It's fine! I think ya got it!"
I went back to the kitchen with Lisa. After about two minutes Tim and Artie walked in. I looked at Tim. "What was it?"
"Um, just leaves. It happens all the time."
Artie said, "Let's get rid of the stash. I have a lot to pack up." He led us into a room in the addition. You could tell that he had plans for the space, but nothing was quite finished. "Everything's in the cabinet. Let me grab some bags." He left the room, then came back in a minute with a few grocery bags in his hand. He unlocked the cabinet and swept two shelves full of things into one bag, then two more into another bag. "It's going to take more than one flush. You guys want to check to make sure I got it all?"
I bent down and looked inside. The cabinet was empty. We went into the bathroom and Artie dumped about a quarter of one bag into the john and flushed it. I watched him looking at it going down the drain. "What's that worth, Artie?"
"This stuff? I got about ten grand here. I'd sell it for around forty."
I winced as I watched the price of a lot of good things go down that toilet drain. "FORTY GRAND? I could go to college for forty grand!"
Artie looked at me. "You'll go, Dave. I have the money for you to go to college. Tim too, and your other friend that Tim was telling me about. You can all go."
I thought about that, then it came to me where the money came from. "Artie, your money's dirty. I don't want it! I'll sweep streets before I spend any money from your business. Look at what you do to people! Just finish dumpin' this shit and let's go. I don't even wanna talk about it!"
Artie looked stricken, but he shut up and we flushed the toilet about nine more times before everything was gone. I was feeling angry. I didn't want drug money doing anything for anyone I knew, much less myself and Timmy! If Artie wanted to spend it on himself more power to him. Nobody said another word as we finished dumping the drugs. We followed Artie to his bedroom, where he packed two suitcases with clothes. He went into his bathroom and packed up a travel kit with his personal things. We brought it all out to the cars and put it in, then went inside to get some boxes of things he needed.
The boxes were all about two cubic feet, and they weighed a ton. Most of them looked new, but one was older and smaller. The cars were both full. My sister asked Artie about all the food, and he said he'd find a way to get it to our house. Artie looked around before we left, grabbing little things and putting them into a grocery bag.
Finally, "I think that's it. Anybody need a TV or anything?" There were no takers. "Let's go, then."
Artie and I drove back with Tim. We'd packed my mother's car fuller because it was a four-door and a lot easier to get things in, though Timmy's trunk was full of stuff, too. When we got back to my house, we spent another half hour hauling Artie's things up the stairs. My mother showed us where to put everything, then had Artie hang the clothes that needed to be hung in my closet. It was empty, anyhow, so I didn't mind much. While we were doing that, I could hear Lisa telling my mother about all the food and how we could eat it ourselves if we just figured out a place to put it.
My mother sounded impressed. "Crab legs? Prime rib? ARTHUR!"
I had to laugh as Artie jumped up and ran into the other room. We were almost done, anyhow, so Tim and I finished by ourselves. Then we laid down on my bed, Tim's arm under my neck and the door open. I kissed him on the cheek, thinking how good it really felt to be back in my own home. I made a remark about it, but Tim didn't say anything. We were just relaxing when Artie came back in.
"Hey, brothers. I have something for you. Well, it's somewhere here." He was digging through all the boxes. "Here it is! I hope it's enough." He looked at me, very seriously. "Dave, this isn't what you think. I want you and Tim to take it."
"What is it? Comic books?"
"Dave ... Tim ... just take it. It's for you ... and your friend."
Tim and I sat up and opened the box. It was full of money! I looked up at Artie. "I told you I don't want your dirty money, asshole! You can pave the streets with it for all I care, but I don't want it! Get it outta my face!"
"Dave ... Davy, this isn't drug money. It's left from what I had when your father died - the stuff I didn't spend. I earned it keeping books. I worked hard for it, and it's yours. Please take it and go to college ... whatever. Just don't tell me it's not worth anything. I made every dime of it in an honest way, and I want you to have it. Please? You guys are my brothers and you need it. Just please take it, okay?"
I looked at Artie, then at Timmy. Tim and I laid back down. I moved to my left towards Tim, then patted the space I'd left so Artie would know to lie down with us. He got the message and laid down next to me. I wasn't sure of what to do, but had to try.
"Artie ... Tim. We're supposed to be brothers now. Artie, you should know that Tim and me go past being brothers, we're..."
"I know. Mama told me. What is that, anyhow? I've heard the words, but I never got the idea. You don't like girls?"
Timmy started to giggle, and it set me off. "We like girls just fine, Artie. We just like each other better. We were just out last night with some beautiful girls. I mean, they weren't with us, exactly, just we went to the same place together. We know good lookin' when we see it, don't worry. Me an' Tim just have feelin's for each other that we don't have for anybody else. We're in love, and there ain't no question about it. Anybody who wants to horn in is gonna be on the losin' side. You get my drift, Artie? You might think you love us, but you ain't in love."
Artie stared at the ceiling. "Yes I am. I'm in love, Dave. With you and your mother and your sisters. I'm in love with an idea. The idea that this family can have so much love - that your father could rescue me, could love me like his own son ... even call me his son. My own parents ..." He choked on that. "... well, you know what they did. I don't even want to go into what I helped you with. I am sorry, and I hope you know that. We were both being stupid. You said I have a hole in me, and you're right. I just hope you guys ... my brothers ... will help me fill it in. Mama's awesome, isn't she?"
I stared at the ceiling. "You got that right, Artie. Mom's a tough cookie. How much is in that box?"
"I'm not sure exactly how much. Something over sixty grand, I think."
The amount shocked me, but I didn't say anything. I just tried to picture a younger Artie doing book work for people who couldn't use legitimate accountants, then putting his money in a cardboard box because he had nowhere to spend it. I didn't want it, no matter how much it was. I wondered if Artie had thought about a new line of business, something a little more respectable.
"Whatcha gonna do now?"
"Your mother had a good idea. She said one of the soda shops downtown is for sale, and I'd probably make a good owner. I could make it a great place for kids to hang out and have fun. You know ... a good jukebox with music they like, not what I like. Price things for the high school crowd and just let people have fun and make noise. That's the part about the other thing that I liked. Helping everybody have a good time. I won't get rich at it, but I guess I already am. How's that sound? A nice little business that can't hurt anybody."
I had a little trouble picturing Artie making milkshakes, but thought the business would be just about perfect. When I was going to his house he did try to make sure that everyone was having fun. I also thought that if he did it right he could make a decent living. I was remembering how Lou's Pizza let you have fun until your pockets were empty. Artie could give him a little competition.
I wished that I'd been allowed to hear my mother's talk with Artie. "What'd Ma threatin' ya with, Artie?"
"Threaten me? She didn't threaten me, she just made some promises. More like vows ... oaths. Any time somebody wants me to do something for them, I have to check with her first. I need to learn what's okay and what's not. I know I'm missing something, and she won't let me do anything by myself until I learn what it is. I just wish I knew who was wrecking my things."
"Bad people, Artie. You better listen to Ma and stay away from all of 'em. You saw what they can do to your house with you in it. What if they came and set it on fire? You'd be toast and nobody'd know. Nobody'd care. You're not alone, you know. I'm just learnin' how to be good myself. Not just how to behave, but how to be a good person."
"You don't think you're a good person?"
"I haven't been one. I really hafta work at it."
"Do you think I'm a bad person?"
I looked at Tim for a second. He just raised his eyebrows, as if he was as interested in my answer as Artie was. "Artie, I don't know what kind of person you really are. That comes from inside and I gotta watch for a while. I think there's good in you, but you do evil things. I already told ya what I think about that. You listen to Ma. She'll set ya straight. If you need more help ..."
Artie looked at me expectantly. "Yes?"
I giggled. "You can call Timmy. He's the best person there is." I started laughing, then Tim tickled me. I screamed and bounced up about a foot, then Artie started to help him. I was helpless by the time my mother looked in to see what all the noise was about.
"If you break that bed you can just sleep on the floor, David!"
Was she blind? I was the victim here, being ganged up on! I couldn't speak at the moment, so when I couldn't take any more I just tensed up and pushed them both off the bed. Artie landed on the box of money, splitting it open.
My mother stood there looking at us. When she saw all that money spill out of the box she opened her mouth, her eyes wide.
She brought her hand to her mouth and said, "Oh, my!"
We had all been laughing, but we shut up simultaneously and looked at my mother.
Speechlessness doesn't exactly run in the Devino family, but it had stricken my mother at that moment. She just stared at the money on the floor, her eyes opening even wider when Artie stood up and she could see how much was there. It made an impressive mess, for sure. There were bills of every denomination, but the pile seemed to be mostly twenties and fifties.
My mother finally regained her composure enough to look at Artie. "Arthur, what is this?"
Artie looked at the floor, then up at her. "Um, it's money, Mama."
My mother rolled her eyes. "I can see that it's money, and it looks like a lot of it. I meant to ask what it's doing here on David's floor. Haven't you ever heard of banks?"
Artie looked innocent. "Oh, I have a bank account. Two really, checking and savings. I didn't have one when I got this money, so it's still in the box. I can't really put too much in the bank."
"Well, why is this particular money in David's room? What did you plan to do with it?"
"I just gave it to Dave and Tim so they could go to college. He wouldn't take any money from what I do now, so I gave him this. I earned it when I was living at the club."
My mother told Tim and I to leave the room and shut the door behind us. We walked through the living room, where my sisters were watching television, and into the kitchen. I closed the door behind us, then just stared at Tim. He finally smiled. "At least she didn't make us clean up the mess. You got any better boxes around?"
I grinned at him. "I don't need a box. I don't need anything when you're here. Kiss me quick, before she makes us go count it up or somethin'."
I leaned against the door, hoping I'd be able to hear if anyone was coming, then pulled Tim into a hug. I was contemplating a nice temperate kiss, something that wouldn't get us all worked up. We seemed to be lacking experience in the temperate department. After about a minute we got passionate. Part of Tim's brain must have been still working, because a short while later he pulled back.
"Oh, man! This is bein' really dumb, Davy. We gotta cool it. It's your first day home."
Sadly, he was exactly right. We had to cool it. It was depressing. We were always going to have to cool it. I slumped back against the door, hitting my head. "I'm sorry, Timmy. At least we're in the kitchen. You want some more cake?"
"You got more? I'll have some. I have an idea. If we do get caught we can just blame it on the cake ... say there must'a been some kind of love potion in it. It'll give your mom something to think about."
"Yeah, she'll think about not makin' it again." We sat at the table and had cake and milk. Tim told me he thought Artie was pretty nice ... easy to get along with, anyhow. We finished eating, then just sat there joking about all the money on my floor. Tim said it reminded him of Scrooge McDuck and his money bins. Artie walked in.
"Um, guys? Can you give me a hand? I need to move some things."
Had she kicked him out already? "What happened? You goin' back home?"
"No, I just have to move the other boxes out of your room and into Mama's. She thinks they'll be safer."
I had no idea what was going on. Why would she want Artie's stuff to be any safer than anything else in the house? I didn't ask any more questions. We spent the next fifteen minutes moving Artie's boxes from a neat stack in my room to a neat stack in my mother's room. They hadn't become any lighter, and when we finished my back ached. We all laid back down on my bed.
"What is all that stuff, Artie? It weighs a ton!"
"It's money, Dave."
... to be continued
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