I think Tim's jaw hit his chest at the same time mine did. "That's all money in those boxes? Please tell me it's a coin collection. They gotta weigh a hundred pounds each! How much is there?"
"Is four million a lot? Mama says I have to find a way to get rid of it without wasting it. She's letting me keep enough to buy the store if that's what I decide, then enough to live on for a year. I have to give the rest away to make up for the way I earned it. I need to think of a way to do good deeds with it. Do you have any ideas?"
I had my eyes closed trying to picture the number four million in my mind. I was still a kid, and I didn't know what most things cost. It seemed that four million dollars would buy a whole lot of things, but I didn't know what things. "I don't know what to tell ya, Artie. I'll hafta think about it."
Tim pushed himself up on his elbow and looked across me towards Artie. "The first thing you should do is help the families of the guys you sell that crap to. My mother's been workin' two jobs for years just to keep our house because my father got messed up on the junk you sell. You could help out places like the mission, because they end up takin' care of the people you screwed up with that stuff. There's plenty of good things you can do with that much money, Artie. I'll help you if you want."
Artie looked pained. "It's that bad? You're making me feel terrible about what I've been doing. Do you really think I can fix things with the money?"
I decided to say something. "Artie, it's not something you can fix. Somebody's gonna take your place sellin' drugs. Somebody's always gonna get hooked on 'em. You have some money, and you can do good things with it. It might help fix some things, but how can you fix all the years that Tim didn't have a father? You can't do it! You can't make up for sh.. things like that! Tim's lucky his father got straightened out, but most of your customers'll just end up dead. It's a filthy rotten business, and as far as I'm concerned that money is filthy and rotten, too. I'm glad you're listenin' to Ma. It'd be stupid to just burn it, so maybe you can do a little good instead. I'll help, too, just don't go givin' it all away at once. We might get a good idea one day."
Artie just stared up at the ceiling. "I've been that bad? God, I feel awful! It's that hole in me, Dave. I need to think, but I don't even know what to think about. I spent all this time thinking I was being a good guy, doing the world a favor." His eyes were sprouting tears again. "I can't believe I hurt someone as nice as you are, Timmy. Your father wasn't one of my customers, but I still want to apologize. I know how much it hurts when your father just leaves you." His voice seemed to get smaller. "I always loved my Daddy. I think I used to be normal, but I don't even know what it means anymore. I got sold, Timmy. Is that better than getting left?"
Tim was still up on his elbow, but he started to sob. His tears were dropping on my chin. He went on for a moment, then wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "It really sucks, Artie. Sometimes I think Davy's the lucky one. His father had the decency to die young instead of just dumping him."
He looked at the shock in my face, then started crying again. "I'm sorry, Dave. I only meant that at least you know what happened to your Dad, not that his dyin' was a good thing. He didn't leave you because he got hooked on drugs or because he needed money." He looked at Artie. "You know what else sucks? The kid I was tellin' you about earlier, Jerry ... his father's still around, but he just doesn't give a shit! Everybody likes Jerry, but his own parents hardly know that he's alive."
We all took turns looking at each other. Our boats were still afloat, but we'd all suffered from something similar. Tim and I knew each other's stories, but we didn't really know Artie's. I looked at him. "What was it like, Artie? You just got dumped?"
Artie was still looking at the ceiling. He glanced at Tim, then me, then looked back up. "I...I think I didn't just get dumped. I kind of volunteered. My Dad said he was in trouble, and I asked what I could do. He didn't say anything then, but a few weeks later he told me a man was going to come for me and I should do whatever he told me to. He gave me a special bath that first time, saying I had to be real clean for those people. They were important."
I looked at him. "Artie ... don't. Don't go there, please?"
Tim said, "I want to hear it."
"Fine. I don't. I'm going to talk to Ma. Holler when you're done, ok?" I climbed over Artie and went into the living room to do something else. Anything else. My sisters were still watching television. "Where's Ma?"
Donna looked up. "Oh, she's in her bedroom. You better leave her alone."
I decided to take my chances and walked down the hall and tapped on her door.
"Ma, it's me! Can I come in?"
The door opened in a second, and my mother pulled me into a life threatening hug. She squeezed me so hard that I could barely breathe.
"Oh, David! I'm so glad you're home! This has been a wicked, awful year for me." She relaxed her grip, then pushed me to arm's length to look in my face, then she smiled. "You're awfully good at complicating things, aren't you? I was beginning to think I'd just die of boredom, but now I have you back, and you bring Timothy and Arthur with you. Do you want to know something?"
"You're some kind'a kid!"
That had been my father's expression, and it made me smile. "You sayin' I'm a complicated person? I'm really just a dummy. This trouble stuff just follows me around. I'm not a leader, Ma. Is there really four million bucks in this room?"
"Arthur says there is. I haven't looked in his boxes, but there's no time like right now, is there?"
I just grinned at her. One of the boxes hadn't fit on the stacks and was sitting on the floor by itself. My mother got some scissors and cut the tape, then opened the top. We found ourselves looking at comic books. We looked at each other, then back at the box.
I looked back at my mother. "Comic books?" I picked up a Spiderman, then looked at my mother again. "Artie has definitely lost it, Ma. These things ain't worth anythin'."
She picked up a few herself, then started digging them out of the box. They were about four deep. Underneath were neat stacks of money, all sorted by denomination and held together with elastic bands. We each took a few packets in our hands and looked at them. It looked like there were about fifty bills in a packet. I had two packets of singles, and my mother had singles and tens. I could see packets of fives, twenties and fifties in the box. I reached for a packet of fifties, then noticed one of hundred-dollar bills. I picked that one up and looked at it, quickly determining the total amount that it represented. I waved it in front of my mother. "Five Thousand Dollars, Ma! This is five grand in my hand!"
My mother made a face and exhaled. "Well, Arthur wasn't kidding. I don't know what to do, David. I told him he had to get rid of it, but I'm not sure how he should go about it. It's very difficult to explain a lot of cash. It's really too much to give away in dribs and drabs, but questions will always arise if he gives large sums."
I didn't know what to say. "Can't he just leave it on people's doorsteps or something? Why's everythin' gotta be so hard?"
My sister was screaming for me to pick up the phone. I hadn't even heard it ring. I closed the door behind me as I left to answer it. It was Don saying that his uncle could see me either on Monday at eleven or Tuesday at one. I ran down the hall and asked my mother, who said either was fine with her. I went back and told Don and he said he'd set it up for the next day at eleven. He said it'd be a good idea if I didn't wear jeans or sneaks, but casual school clothes were fine. I wondered if small casual school clothes would still be fine, but didn't say anything.
"So, what happened with Artie? Did he come to visit?"
"Come on, man! I have a lot of time in this. Tell me what went on."
"I can't right now."
Don was silent for a second. "Ohmigod! He's still there? You can't talk?"
"That's about right."
"What? Is he staying for dinner or something?"
I could hear Don saying something to somebody in the background and guessed that he was at Ken's house. He came back on. "Let me ask yes or no questions, okay?"
"Okay. Ask away."
"You got him out of his house okay, right?"
"Right. Ken told me how."
"I thought he was coming for cake or something. It's more than that?"
I could hear him talking again. Ken came on the phone. "Artie's still there?"
"He's stayin' there?"
"How's your mother? She likes him?"
"I don't know."
"She feels sorry for him? Sees some potential?"
"Yes, and I don't know."
"What about the drugs?"
"How do you know? You were there?"
"What'd you do, burn them?"
He hesitated, "Let me guess, Tim went with you and he figured it out?"
I was grinning into the phone. "Yup."
"Can you get away later and come over here? We're dyin' to hear the rest of this."
"I'll see. Tim's here, so maybe he'll wanna take a ride."
"DAMN! Hurry up, kid! You're killin' us here! Let me know, okay?"
"I'll call you either way. Let me talk to Don. He never said where to meet his uncle tomorrow."
Ken gave the phone back to Don and I wrote down the address of the Board of Education building, then said goodbye.
I went back to my mother's room, noticing that my door was still shut. She looked up when I came in.
"Ma, are we gonna have dinner or just cake?"
She jumped up. "I forgot all about it! I have a meatloaf ready to cook. Give me an hour."
She just looked at me.
"Can we go shopping for some school clothes real early? I gotta meet Don's uncle at eleven, and I can't wear the stuff I have."
"The stores don't open until nine thirty. Maybe just one outfit?"
"That's fine. I just wanna catch up with my class, and he can help. I gotta look my best. We can get more stuff later. And, Ma?"
"Can I take a ride with Tim later? His father's goin' for a job tomorrow and we want to wish him good luck."
She stared at me again. "Alright, but just for a little while. Can you take Arthur with you?"
Uh, oh. "Um, not this time. Please, Ma? We'll take Artie other places, but this is special."
Her look softened, then turned into a smile. "Alright. You be home by nine thirty."
"Ten o'clock. No later, buster!"
I smiled. "Thanks, Ma." I turned and walked back down the hall. My door was still closed, so I tapped on it.
I opened it and walked in. Tim and Artie were sitting on the side of the bed looking up at me. They seemed to have just ended a major cry fest. Both of their faces were red, and their eyes were puffy. "What's going on?"
Tim started to say something, but Artie jumped in right over him. He started crying again. "Oh, Davy! I didn't know it was this bad! I can't believe you didn't just kill me or something. I am such an asshole ... such a worm ... I can't believe you're being so nice to me. I don't deserve it. I never did anything to deserve it."
I looked at him, then at Tim, who had new tears streaming down his face. I felt terrible, and sat next to Timmy and hugged him. "What the hell'd you guys talk about?" I looked up at Artie, who was sobbing. "I don't kill people, Artie." I was tempted to tell him that was his job, but I bit my lip. "I hate seein' you sad like this, Tim. What's wrong?"
I leaned into him.
Tim kissed me on the cheek, then looked at the floor. "Life can really suck, you know that Dave? Your life sucked, my life sucked, Artie's life really sucked. Nothin's worse than anythin' else. Me an' Artie just decided that we are brothers. We're all brothers, Dave. We spent the most important part of our lives without the most important thing. It got us all fucked up one way or another. Jerry's just like us - he's a brother, too. We have each other now. It's all we need!""
I just nodded. "I know."
Tim continued, "Artie's not the only one with a hole in him. We just got lucky and had other guys to show us what it's about. Artie had your Dad and your uncle for a while, but he didn't have anybody else."
I looked at Tim and Artie. "I know just what you mean. I was just thinkin' about it before. If it was just the guys at the quarry, I'd be as messed up as ... I'd be messed up, too." I looked over at Artie, who'd stopped crying but was looking at me dejectedly. "It takes more people, Artie. I know my father and Sal were good to you, but you got a messed up view of things. You never had anybody your age to try things out on."
Artie looked at me with a question in his eyes. "Will you ... let me try things out on you? You told me I'm fucked up, and I know I am, especially now. Tim told me how you all went out last night just to have fun. I want to know how to do that! What's it take? What's it take to have fun with your friends?"
I laid back across the bed. "You gotta know who they are, first. When I got tied up with you and drugs I had friends. I just didn't know it. I thought it was a lot of people I knew that were all better than me. I never thought I was worth anythin' to any of 'em. I found out different, but not 'til I went through all that crap with you." I started to cry myself, mostly for Artie. He probably didn't even have that - he couldn't. He had no history with other people at all. Then I remembered how genuinely upset his customers had been when he told them he'd been busted.
"You can make friends, Artie. I've seen you do it. Those guys this afternoon ... they cared about you. I don't know if that's who you want for friends, but you can do it."
He sniffed back a tear. "Do you think so? Do you really think so?" He burst out in tears again. "I'd give anything to have somebody care about me!"
I sat up and took his hand in mine. I looked at Tim as he took the other one. He looked at Artie and said, "You made two friends today. That ain't too bad." Tim looked at me, love in his eyes. "It took me thirteen years to make just one. Sometimes it's worth the wait, Artie."
I cleared my throat. "Um, Ma's makin' dinner. You guys should go wash up in cold water. Artie? Me'n Tim are goin' out for a while after we eat. Normally we'd invite you along, but we need to see his father. You'll be okay here with the girls, right? I mean, you gotta get to know them too."
"I can't come?"
"Artie, um, he can't really have visitors. I'm lucky I get to go. It's just this one time, okay? You get to spend some time with Ma, Lisa and Donna. They're better lookin', anyhow."
He smiled a little. "That they are! I think they're beautiful! You two are really my friends?"
Tim looked at him. "We're your friends, Artie. We're more than that. We're your brothers!"
Artie looked like he was going to start crying again, so I stood up. "You guys go wash your faces. You look like hell."
Tim got up and glanced at me. "Like you don't? I hope ... MA ... has a lot of washcloths!" He looked at Artie and giggled. "Sorry, I meant I hope MAMA has a lot of washcloths."
We all laughed a little, but in a second my mother banged on the door. "What's the matter? Who's calling me?"
That broke the tension! We all started laughing as we headed out the door. I think our laughter explained our red, tear stained faces to my mother's satisfaction. She stood there with her hands on her hips as we filed past her. As I walked into the bathroom and flicked the light, I could barely hear her exasperated voice ask, "Oh, dear. Now what? Hail Mary, full of ....."
The three of us were laughing so hard that it didn't matter how much cold water we splashed on our faces, we just stayed all red. We got water all over the place just being careless. Artie looked like he was having fun.
A sobering thought crashed into me. I was supposed to hate this guy. He nearly got me killed! That's not true, he helped me into a position where I only wanted to die - where that seemed like my only option. Now I was laughing as he splashed water on his face, trying to get our shirts wet at the same time.
The fact was, I didn't hate him. I liked Artie! I guess I always had in one way or another. When I first met him he was an agreeable enabler. He happily did whatever I asked him to, only I didn't have the right questions. I blamed him for it, but today I'd learned about his promise to my father - how, in some sick way, he was doing what he promised my own family he'd do.
He was a combination of a sick adult and an innocent little kid. He seemed to have made a powerful connection with Timmy, though. That was nine points out of ten in his favor, in my book anyhow, so I promised myself right there to do whatever I could to make Artie a happy person. It was a confusing thing for me, though. Here's a guy who'd give up four million bucks, the chance to make much more, a house, every gadget and gizmo known to man, just to think somebody cared about him ... cared for him ... that he was a part of something.
We were still messing up the bathroom, and I didn't have time to dwell, but sometimes the things that go on in the back of your mind last longer than the things that occupy your active thoughts. Artie would just toss it all for a single friend, no questions asked. The thought that was in the back of my mind right then was that I would too. Right then, right now, in the future - things didn't matter. People did. All people, even the ones you think are jerks today. Things just end up in dumps eventually, waiting for people like Timmy to decide if they're worth enough to resurrect in the future.
Things are made of stuff that lasts - metal, glass, plastic. People get whatever time they get on this earth, and if they spend that time thinking about things, they've wasted it. It's the human connections we make that count. It starts with parents and children, brothers and sisters. That connection gets broken up way too often and we're stuck with one parent with children, or children and no parents.
I held my own best friends up for comparison. Jerry had both parents, but they were somehow surprised that he even existed, and could care less. I had a mother who was a strong person and who cared deeply for me, but she had never communicated that. Tim had a strong mother, who had held home and family together, but his father had taken off on a long drug-induced hiatus. Artie Loomis had, as a child, tried to hold his family together by volunteering for something he knew nothing about. He had been sold, by his own father, to child pornographers to pay off gambling debts.
Tim was partly right. Life could really stink, but only if you let it. I had told my mother that I wasn't a leader, and that was true enough, but I had become strong enough during the past few months to realize that I could lead my own life to wherever I wanted to take it. I could, at least as long as I had Tim with me.
I looked at him, still trying to get Artie wetter than he was, and smiled. He was absorbed in a simple pleasure, and that always made him the happiest. I was happiest like that, too. Being together was all we needed.
They didn't look like they were going to stop until the apartment downstairs was flooded, so I reached over and turned the tap off, then handed them each a towel. "Dry off, guys, then clean this room up. Ma's makin' meatloaf and it must be time to eat." I turned to go, then heard the tap come back on. I turned to yell, but immediately got two handfuls of cold water on my front. I looked at Tim and Artie, and they had totally stupid expressions on their faces, as if they were trying to see whether they'd gone too far, or if I thought it was funny.
"Oh! Boys will be boys, huh?" The water was still running, so I grabbed the plastic glass from the top of the sink and filled it part way. I poured it on Artie's head, then filled it again and threw it in Tim's face. I tried to escape, but they pinned me against the door while Tim blindly tried to refill the glass with his hand stretched out behind him.
There was a banging on the door from the other side, followed by my mother's voice. "WHAT is going on in there? You're going to wake Mrs. Schneider downstairs! Get out here and eat NOW!"
"Coming, Ma!" I looked at the other two. "You're gonna get it now! Gimme a towel." Tim threw one in my face, but I just grabbed it and dried myself off the best I could. We were all giggling when we walked out and down the hall to the kitchen, but the aroma coming from there sobered us up pretty quickly. We were wet but well behaved when we sat down. My mother told us to start on our salads, then gave us plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy and corn.
It was all delicious, and we ate pretty quietly. Everybody kept taking looks at Artie, but he turned out to be a polite eater. He said that he knew we'd be busy getting ready for school and everything, and that he'd be happy to make dinner while he was staying there. He even offered to bring food from his house if someone could get him there. Lisa volunteered in a heartbeat, but my mother said she needed the car in the morning. All eyes turned to Tim. His eyebrows went up, but then he just looked at Artie and asked what time.
When we finished, I called Ken and told him that we were on our way. Tim and I headed out into what was now a downpour. We ran to his car and jumped in. I watched Tim while he started it up and got the wipers running. "So, am I a real dunce for liking Artie? You two hit it off pretty good, huh?"
Tim was concentrating on the road, but he said, "You're not a dunce. I kinda wanted to hate him ... you know, for the crap you went through. I like him, though, and I feel bad for him. I thought we had it rough, but his life has been one really big pile of shit. I know you and your mother wanna help him, so I'll help too. You know, I cried a lot last year when you took off. I cried just as hard today, and it was for Artie."
I was looking at Tim. We were still in town, and the neon signs and streetlights filtering through the raindrops on the windows created a flickering effect on his profile, just like the candles and firelight had in Vermont. I was struck again by his beauty, but this time I knew it wasn't just the light. A certain beauty of spirit and love radiated from within Tim. He was accepting Artie without question, even calling him his brother, all based on a one hour conversation.
"I love you, Timmy. I really do, and I don't know how to say it better. You're a beautiful person - I can see it coming out your pores. You think Artie's totally honest? I mean, I do. I think that's part of why I always kinda liked him."
Tim still looked straight ahead, but I could see him smile. We were approaching Ken's driveway. "Yeah, he's honest. We talked about that. Growin' up the way he did, he never had a reason to even learn how to lie. How much are we gonna tell these guys?"
"Everything. Unsaid things are just as bad as lies, if you ask me. You ought'a know that."
Tim pulled in, then set the brake and turned everything off. He looked at me. "I do know that. I also know that it's rainin' like hell and you and me are alone in a car right now. Wanna wait 'til it lets up a little?"
Did I ever! Timmy's prized Hurst shifter with the cue ball knob was in the way a little bit, but it didn't matter. We fell into a kiss that lasted until the rain actually did let up a little, then seized the moment and ran for the door. We walked in holding hands. Tim's Dad was the first person we saw, and Tim let me go and ran to him for a hug. I followed, and got a hug of my own. It seemed that Tim's father was pretty good at coming to terms with things. We each gave him kisses on opposite cheeks, then followed him into the kitchen to see the other guys.
They were all there, including Mary and Don's wife. They'd just finished eating from the looks of things, and Don and Barry started clearing the table. Ken grinned at me, then burped a little. "So?"
I was feeling impudent, having just come down from the kiss of the week. "Is that a question?" I looked at Tim. "Is 'so' a question, Tim? Oh yeah, stupid me! Sew is what you do to ripped shirts, right?" I looked at Ken again. "No, I don't know how to sew."
Mary laughed, then leaned over and kissed Ken on the cheek, then she grinned at him. "Kindly state your question clearly, Ken, so this young human person has some idea of what you're asking." That made everybody laugh, then Mary surprised me by sitting in Ken's lap and putting her arm behind his neck and leaning back against him. Progress!
Ken looked around the best he could from that position, then back at me. "Alright, I'll try to be clear. David Devino? I just want to know exactly, precisely, with no words or thoughts left out, and no bullshit, what the FUCK is Artie Loomis doin' livin' in your fuckin house, with you and your mother and your sisters? Do you understand my question now?"
Everybody started laughing. I looked at Tim and asked, "Did you know 'so' could mean all that? Man, I gotta get a new dictionary!" More laughter. "Do I hafta answer all that standin' up?" I answered myself by pulling my butt up onto the counter top. Tim sat beside me, leaning into me.
I told them of the events of the day up to when we went to Artie's house. Everybody was staring at me, and I got a little uncomfortable. Tim told them about his talk with Artie, about the guy's shit pile life. When he was finished, everybody was pretty upset.
Then we took turns telling them about the money, first Artie's offer of 'clean' money to us, then about how much there was in my mother's bedroom.
Don spoke up, "You should really consider installing a sprinkler system if ya don't have one."
That set everyone off laughing again, then Barry asked, "What's going to happen to the money? Is your mother gonna let Artie keep it?"
I had forgotten that point. "No. She want's him to give it all away ... to do good deeds with it."
Barry's eyes opened wide. "What'd Artie say?"
"He's gonna do it. He just doesn't know how. Tim has some ideas, but we really gotta figure that part out." I decided to lay it out for these people. "Artie really is a nice guy, like I told you. Me'n Tim are gonna help him sort'a fill in the blanks." I looked at Tim for confirmation, knowing I didn't need it. "Artie's our brother now. We're gonna take care of him. That okay with you guys?"
Everyone had surprised looks on their faces. Ken eased Mary off his lap and started to stand up. He had barely moved before Jimbo was standing in front of me, staring into my eyes. "Butch? It is you in there, isn't it?" He turned to look at the other guys, then back into my eyes. "I knew it! It has to be him, guys! There ain't no two people like that." He pulled me into a tight hug, tears in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Dave. I know it's you, and I'm not tryin' to compare. It's just that you're right down to usin' the same words. It just about killed all of us when he died, but now you're here, and you're just exactly like him!" He was still holding on tight, but he broke down into sobs.
Ken stood behind Jim with his hands on his shoulders. Barry was behind Ken, and Don was behind Barry. They were all looking at me, as if for confirmation. I felt like I was on display, and looked at Tim. He looked at the four guys, then back at me, then he smiled and shrugged. He whispered, "You're givin' back, Davy. Keep doin' it."
"I will. I want to. It's all I want. Will you stay with me?"
He still had his smile. He kissed me gently on the lips, right in front of his father.
I looked up, and Rennie was smiling at both of us.
... to be continued
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