Muck Breaks a Rule
I got a trick called "The Specials." I used to break it out whenever I had to go to a new restaurant. It always worked. Then one day it didn't. That's how we met.
I'm hungry, and I'm not near one of my regular spots, where ordering is never an issue because I've got the menus memorized. I roll by a diner called Blue's that I've seen before but never stopped at. It's always packed with bodies. I figure that means good food, or good prices, or both.
I squeeze in at the counter. The waitress comes by in a hurry, gives me a half-hearted hello, says her name's Rose, takes my drink order, and drops the menu in front of me. All of that without actually stopping. I open the menu and make a show of reading it. If you saw me studying that menu, you'd think the Pope asked me to proofread the Bible. That's how close I'm reading it when Rose comes back. She stops this time, but everything about her says she wish she didn't have to.
"What can I get you?"
I put the menu down, and pull out my old faithful.
"What specials you got, today?"
Rose is too busy to catch my friendly smile. Turns out she's too busy to run down the specials for me, too. Before I can finish asking my question, she hands me a laminated card, with a lot of words on it. No pictures.
She's waiting for me to order. Not a friendly waiting. More of a hand on her hip, eyes on the clock, angry kind of waiting. I'm angry, too. I don't like people who answer a question with a laminated card, especially one with no pictures. My heart and lungs start working too fast. I put my hands under the counter so no one can see them shaking. I feel my face getting red, because I'm not really angry. I'm having a panic attack. I'm scared.
I've been stabbed, shot, poisoned, married, dropped from a construction crane, mauled by a gator, audited by the IRS, and run over by a 310 pound Samoan riding a Vespa. But nothing scares me as much as when I think somebody's about to find out. So now I'm looking for a way to change the subject. I need to stop Rose from wondering why it's taking me so long to decide if I want one of these specials, until she realizes I don't even know what these specials are. I need a distraction.
I'm still waiting for my coffee. The kid next to me is nursing a hot chocolate, but it's near empty. The big ass lady on the other side is about to dig into a heaping, triple scoop ice cream sundae. Extra nuts. Extra cherries. Potential. I'm hoping I won't have to use it. I'm hoping Rose will tell me to take my time, and walk away. Give me a chance to regroup, or better yet, get the fuck out of there. I'm not hungry anymore.
But Rose isn't taking her eyes off me. She's drilling into me like she's a teacher, and I'm the big dummy who brings the whole class to a grinding halt when she asks him to read a paragraph out of the Social Studies book. I wish I could say I left my book at home.
"Sorry to rush you, mister, but I got a lot of people waiting." She's not sorry at all.
If I look at her, I might cry. So instead, I focus on the wall I'm about to paint with Rocky Road and whipped cream. I'm about two seconds away from breaking the big ass lady's ice cream loving heart, when the kid next to me says the magic words.
"I think he forgot his glasses."
Thirty-three years I've been coming up with tricks. Finding ways to get what I need without telling people the truth. Figuring out how to get by without being able to read. Never dawned on me to just say I forgot my glasses. It's an answer that seems too obvious to be right, but it can't be wrong. If I can't see, I can't read. I don't have to deal with that laminated card with no pictures. I can look at Rose and give her another smile, even better than the first one. Now I'm hungry again.
"Yeah, they must be in my car. I'm having a hard time making this out."
Rose is pissed I didn't say that in the first place. She snatches the card away from me and reads it out.
"We got skirt steak with mixed vegetables, chicken and biscuits, Chinese chicken salad with oriental dressing, or homemade turkey pot pie. Soup of the day is chili. You can get it vegetarian if you're like that."
I don't miss a word.
"Chicken and biscuits sounds good."
Rose takes off like a dog getting let off the leash. I look at my new friend.
"What's your name?"
Spencer lives in a foster home for older kids. The couple that owns the house squeezes twelve beds into two rooms. That's the most they can legally fit in there. It's not because they want to help more kids. It's because they want to make more money. That's also the reason why they only house older kids. Older kids mean you get a higher monthly stipend.
The county calls the place a group home. Spencer calls it a "hostile hostel," but he says it's the best group home he's ever lived in. At thirteen, he's the youngest one there. The oldest one, Victor, claims to be seventeen, but I think he's in his twenties. He sports a full beard, smokes unfiltered Camels, and has two kids of his own. He used to make Spencer do all kinds of things a kid shouldn't be doing, so one day he found himself tied up in the trunk of my car, and we got to know each other on a first name basis. Now he won't even say hi to Spencer.
Spencer's the only one of his roommates who's not in a gang, selling drugs, or robbing people regularly. He's smart enough to know he has a chance to get out of the system some day. He has to make nine o'clock curfew, every night, or worry about getting reported to the Social Worker. He never walks in a second before eight fifty-nine. Before we met, he would hang at the diner when he had enough money for hot chocolate and a piece of pie. If he was broke, he'd stay at the library and watch old movies on VHS. Now he rides with me. I pick him up after school, and we cruise until it's time to check back in to the hostile hostel.
Spencer does his homework, teaches me about phonics, and talks about the things he wants to do in life. I help him with his math, because I'm good with numbers, memorize the sounds for the alphabet, and tell him about the things I wish I hadn't done in life. And every hour or so, I pull up to somebody's house, knock on their door, and reunite them with their lost luggage.
Next time you fly, check the back of your ticket. You'll see it in the fine print. If the airlines misplace your luggage, they have forty-eight hours to get it back to you, without having to reimburse you. After that, they're on the hook for reimbursing you for things you might have to buy while they're locating your bag. And if they can't get it back to you in seven days, they have to come out of pocket for the whole thing.
There was a plumber on his way back from a fishing trip in Montana. He said he had four brand new suits, and a pair of Jimmy Choo's in his bag when they lost it. They couldn't find his bag and they couldn't prove him wrong, so they cut him a check for thirty-seven hundred dollars. That's why the airlines do a better job of tracking down missing luggage, than they do missing kids. And if you're in Southern California when they find yours, there's a good chance you might see me at your front door.
Tonight's been slow. I started with eight bags to drop. By the time I picked up Spencer I was down to three. We shot out to Riverside first, so we'd be on our way back, going against traffic when rush hour hit. The Samsonite belonged to a Marine, home on leave. He had fresh hickeys on his neck, and a cute little half-dressed vampire sitting on the couch, waiting to give him some more. He gave me a twenty-dollar tip.
I dropped a Louis Vuitton at a big house in the thin air of Alta Dena. The lady there looked at me like I had stolen her luggage and gotten caught, and my mother was making me return it. I tried to warm her with a smile, but she just snatched the bag, and scolded me.
"I've had this bag since high school."
I looked her over and guessed that meant the bag was pushing forty years old. I told her to check and make sure nothing's missing before I leave. She thought I was being serious. She went into another room so I wouldn't see her underwear, and came back fifteen minutes later, with a two-dollar tip. I wanted to throw the bills in her face, but I need my job. Plus, I knew what Spencer would say when I told him the story.
"Some is better than none." He's right.
The last bag belongs to Eduardo Vasquez. It's going to a mid-town address.
It's one of those old apartment complexes from the 1920s, with an ornate iron gate in front, and a marquee style sign up above. They call this one "The Regal." I wonder if anyone ever moved in here based on the name. If the rent was reasonable, having a cool name might seal the deal. I know I wouldn't mind being able to say, "The Regal," if somebody asked where I lived. I leave Spencer in the car and head in with Mr. Vasquez' bag.
The gate opens up to a u-shaped courtyard, with bungalow style apartments on each side. The one I'm headed to stands out like a centerpiece. It's at the back of the "U" and it's decorated like a Los Angeles Dodgers gift shop. Pennants are strung along the front porch overhang, like Christmas lights. There are Dodger flags hanging in both front windows - one white, one blue. Two little garden gnomes at the bottom of the steps guard the place. Tough looking little guys, with pointy hats, decked out in Dodger Blue. Mr. Eduardo Vasquez is not your casual Dodgers fan, which means he must be in Heaven right now. The Dodgers are up three games to two in the Fall Classic. Spencer's got game six going on the car radio, as we speak.
I can't even climb the three steps to the front porch, before the door swings open, and Mr. Vasquez is standing there. The best thing about him is his mustache. It's jet black, waxed, and perfectly trimmed. There's not a hint of stubble anywhere around his chops. His mustache makes a good frame for the big old grin spreading across his face.
"Man, it's good to see you." He smiles wider.
He's staring hard at the bag I'm holding, and starting to salivate. I'm starting to wonder what's inside. Maybe he's got a condition with his intestines, and he can only eat a certain kind of food, prepared a certain kind of way, and it's in the bag I'm holding, so he hasn't eaten since it got lost. Maybe he's starving, and that's why he's drooling when I step onto the porch.
I look past him into the house. There's more Dodger gear inside. A blue blanket with white trim, draped over the couch. The bookshelf and back wall are covered with pictures of Dodger greats - Robinson, Koufax, Garvey, Scioscia, Gibson. The centerpiece is a framed poster of El Nino. There's a 60-inch flat screen on the opposite wall. The new one from Panasonic. My guy at Best Buy says you can't find a better picture for the price, that's why he still recommends plasmas over LCD's, or even LED's. I wish that TV was on right now, so I could see for myself, but it's not. That's how I know things are about to get messy.
The man who lives here loves the Dodgers enough to put a poster of Fernando Valenzuela on the wall where his family photos are supposed to go. The Dodgers are in the World Series for the first time since 1988. There's a brand new TV just waiting to show what could be the series clinching game in crystal clear, high definition. It's not on. The man I'm looking at is not the man who lives here.
The impostor holds a twenty-dollar bill. I'm guessing that's my tip.
"Thanks, bro." He reaches for the bag. I don't hand it over. I don't take the twenty.
"I just need to see your ID."
The smile's still on his lips, but it's not in his eyes anymore.
"I don't have my ID on me right now. Left my wallet at work. Stupid, right?"
I don't answer that. I've got this man pegged for a lot of things. Stupid is not one of them.
"I can come back tomorrow. Or you can pick your bag up at the airport. Whichever you prefer."
He undoes the top three buttons on his shirt, so I can see his flabby chest. I can see he shaves his chest hair. It makes me trust him even less. He points to a tattoo over his heart. It's a word, spelled out in old English letters that would be hard to decipher, even if I could read. He runs his finger under the tattoo.
"See? 'Eduardo.' How's that for ID?"
I'm going to take his word for it, as far as that being what the tattoo says, seeing as how the first two letters are definitely 'E' and 'D.' And I know Mr. Vasquez's first name is Eduardo, because that's what Spencer told me. But this doesn't change anything. When I was in the fifth grade there were four kids in my class named Jason.
"I'm pretty sure there's more than one Mexican in the world named Eduardo."
No smiles anywhere, anymore.
"How much do they pay you to deliver bags?"
"I get fifteen dollars for every reunion I facilitate between bag and traveler."
"Plus gas and mileage?"
"How many 'reunions' do you facilitate in a week?"
"A good week? Fifty."
I've got no reason to lie. I know a lot of people who make less than that. I know a lot of people who don't make anything. But I can tell the impostor's not impressed. He's getting real smug now, figuring this next part is going to be easy.
The wad of bills he pulls out is the thickest I've ever seen. If I had a little kid, and I took him to Denny's to eat, I could use that wad for a booster seat. He starts peeling back hundreds. Not one at a time, but in clumps. Like it doesn't matter if he keeps track. Like he could give me the whole wad and he wouldn't have to spend one second wondering how much was in there, or worrying about how high gas prices are getting.
"What do you say we make this the best week of your life?"
He holds out the baby wad. I call it a baby because it was spawned, but it's like a Blue Whale baby, humongous in its own right. It's more money than I've ever seen in one place. I think of all the things I could do with it. Not things I want to do. Things I need to do. Get an apartment. Get new tires. Take reading lessons.
"Sorry, sir. I can't break the rules."
"Who's going to know you didn't check my ID?"
He's right. It's not like my bosses check to make sure. At least, they never have before. But if they did, I'd get fired, and I'm not taking that chance. Besides, even if my bosses wouldn't know, somebody would.
He starts fidgeting. I can't tell if he's mad, scared or nervous, but I can see his carotid throbbing in his neck. His eye twitches. I'm hoping he'll go back in and close the door, because what I don't want to do is turn my back on him. But he just stands there and starts fooling with one end of his mustache. It seems to settle him, almost like Linus with his blanket. Kind of makes me wish I had a mustache.
I hear steps. There's somebody behind me. I shift just enough to catch a reflection in the window. There's two somebodies behind me. Kind of makes me wish I had back up. I look at Mr. Vasquez. He doesn't know I know. I look back at the money, like it's starting to change my mind.
"Maybe we could work something out."
Just like I was hoping, that big grin under that big mustache comes back in full effect. He holds out the baby Blue Whale wad of cash. I hold out the bag. I check the reflection. The impostor's friends relax and slow down, thinking this is going to go down nice and easy, after all. When I swing, I swing for the fences.
I give him the hard right cross. I step into it, let my hips do the work, and follow through like I'm being filmed for an instructional video called "The Perfect Punch." It lands where I want it to, right on the impostor's nose. He lands six feet back, inside the apartment, on his ass.
Boxers will tell you, the first thing to do when get your nose broken real good, is start breathing through your mouth. Otherwise, on top of being dazed, you're going to get a breath full of blood. The impostor with the mustache hasn't learned that lesson. He's making that sound you hear right before the last bit of water goes down a clogged drain. That gives me the time I need to get inside and bolt the door.
I head back for the mustache. He makes it to his knees and reaches back, like he's trying to scratch his ass. I run over to see if I can help. His itch is coming from a hot little .380 he probably had tucked in his pants. His little fall pushed it into the crack of his ass.
"Here, let me get that for you."
I pull it out. Then I use it to beat him. Three good cracks, because three's my luck number.
He can't answer. He's sleeping.
The two somebodies from outside are already at the door. I see the doorknob jiggle when they try to turn it.
"Open the door!"
Maybe they're optimists. Maybe they think I'm stupid.
"I'll be right there. Just give me a second to put on something decent."
"Give us the bag and we let you walk away."
"If either one of you fuckers has ID that proves your Eduardo Vasquez, I'll be happy to give you the fucking-"
The bullets start flying before I can finish my tough talk. I drop to my stomach and crawl behind the closest cover I can find. The impostor. For a second I think he's waking up, the way his body is jerking. But he's not coming to. He's stopping bullets. I don't know how many he'll be able to stop, before one gets lucky and makes it's way through him and into me. So I cross my fingers and run for the back of the house.
The bathroom at the end of the hall feels like its miles away. I'm just hoping there's a window. A way out. I get there two hours later, but the two somebodies are still outside. I've got a chance. Even in a rush, I can't help admiring the attention to detail. The entire bathroom is decorated in a Dodger motif, all the way from the little rug that goes around the bottom of the toilet, to the toothbrush holder and toothbrush. I whip the Jackie Robinson shower curtain to the side to get to the window.
Here's where my high opinion of Mr. Vasquez takes a major hit. The bars outside the window don't fit the theme at all. They are cold, black and twisted. Straight from the "Shit out of Luck" collection. Suddenly the gun in my hand feels like it weighs a hundred pounds. I know I won't get out of this apartment without using it.
I rush back into the hallway, and duck into the first doorway I get to. It's a bedroom. And it's occupied. The man's lying face-up, spread eagle, on the bed. I make him for dead, until I hear him take a raspy breath. His whole body shudders on the exhale. The holes in his chest are still leaking. The Dodgers jersey he's wearing, started off white, but it's red now. I'm guessing it's an authentic, made with that new "moisture-wick" polyester. Super absorbent.
"Mr. Vasquez?" I figure I might as well make it official.
He nods slow, because he can't talk with a gag in his mouth. I pull out the soggy blue cloth with a Dodgers logo on the side. A sock. I look down at Mr. Vasquez' feet and indeed, one of them is bare. He spits out blood, but he still can't talk. His tongue is gone.
I hear the front door give way, with a loud crack. I take a deep breath and hold it, so I can hear better. A hundred sounds collide. Eduardo's moans and grunts invade the space between my ears, competing with the pounding of my heart. I stick the sock back in his mouth, and muffle the sound. Further away, I pick up on the sounds that matter. Scuffling, bumping, scraping. Then nothing. I wait for the footsteps. They'll come any second. They'll be slow and deliberate, tippy-toe steps. When I hear them, I'll know the end is here for me, or for them.
But what I hear is worse. A hundred times worse.
"Muck? You in here?"
"Spencer! You okay?" I scream this. The question is very important to me; the answer, even more so. It doesn't come from Spencer.
"He is not okay, but he is alive." It's the same voice I heard from outside the door. He must be the spokesman.
"The boy for the bag. You have one minute."
You can think a lot in sixty seconds.
A few months after Spencer and I started hanging out he sent in an application for me to be his foster parent, without telling me. He filled out all the paperwork and forged my signature. The Department of Child Services has a list of the kinds of people who need special permission to be caregivers. Convicted felons are on it. That's how Spencer found out I'd been to prison.
My parole officer pulled me in, said I could go back to jail for lying on my application. Spencer hadn't checked the box where they ask if you've ever been convicted of a felony.
Spencer cried when he found out. He apologized for getting me in trouble. I wasn't mad. I was glad to know he saw us as family. He told his Social Worker what really happened, and tried to talk some sense into her.
"There's a difference between committing a crime, and being a criminal."
The Social Worker said it didn't mean I could never adopt Spencer, but I had to keep the same job for two straight years, and be a homeowner, before they would even consider it. That's why I won't do anything to risk losing my job. That's why I save every extra dollar I get my hands on. That's why some is better than none.
Eduardo's got no idea what's going on, or what's at stake. I've seen his kind of focus before. It's the kind of tunnel vision you get when you have to tell your body to do things it's supposed to do automatically. Beat. Breathe. Beat. Breathe.
I take out the sock again. Being quiet doesn't matter anymore, and I need to ask him a question. I'm hoping he can do one more good thing before he dies.
"Mr. Vasquez, do you have a gun?"
He nods, and grunts something I can't make out.
"Point me to it. Please. There's no time."
His arm comes up like a plant sprouting in one of those time lapse videos. So slow. But finally, his finger is talking to me, telling me to look in the closet. Opening the sliding door is harder than it should be, and when I finally push it aside, I see why. Forget the clothes and the shoes and the boxes. Eduardo's hat collection alone is too big for this closet. Half a dozen spill out before I even get the door all the way open. I tear through as quietly as I can, dumping boxes, ripping out clothes, turning over hats. There is no gun, and no telling where it could be. There is just a mess.
I want to scream at Eduardo. Chastise him for choosing the wrong friends, losing his luggage, loving the Dodgers, being a hoarder, getting shot, and having his tongue cut out. I blame him for everything. But I can't risk the bad guys hearing me, so I lean close and whisper hard, sincerely hoping my breath will burst his eardrums.
"Where Eduardo?! Where!"
Eduardo raises his head up a few inches and points with more conviction, but no more specificity. The closet is nothing but chaos and clutter. If I had a day, I would find the gun, but I have a minute. I have less than a minute. I search randomly now, knowing my only hope is to get lucky. I reach into the bottom of a hamper because some books tell you it's a good place to hide guns. The box labeled "memories" gets a good look, because memories deserve to be protected. Nothing. I try to remember the one prayer I memorized as a kid. I don't believe in God, but Spencer does. I whisper it to myself, while I'm looking.
"God is gracious, God is good. Let us thank him for our food." I know it's not appropriate, but it's all I can think of. "By his hand, I am fed. Thank you God for my daily--"
Now I see it. There's a little violin case poking through some clothes in the back corner of the closet. Eduardo moans loud when I pull it out. My spirit rises as I undo the clasps. Eduardo's getting louder. Suddenly, I believe in God. I open the case. Empty. No gun. Not even a violin. Eduardo lets out his loudest moan yet, mocking me. I spin around, ready to shoot him.
He's on his side. While I was searching for the gun, somehow he rolled so he could reach the nightstand, and got his hands on a pen and a piece of paper. He drops the pen when I turn around, and holds up the paper. I see scribbled writing. No pictures. I snatch the paper.
"You wrote down where the gun is?"
He nods, and smiles the sweetest bloody smile. Now I scream.
"I can't read, you fucking asshole!"
The spokesman calls out from the front room.
I have no choice but to go. I look down at the paper, and see my hands shaking uncontrollably. I'm not really angry. I'm having a panic attack.
"Ten seconds." The spokesman calls out.
He starts counting down. Any other time, I'd be tempted to wait until he gets to one, but he's got Spencer. I'm out by the time he gets to four. The first thing I let them see is their buddy's gun in my hand. I want them to understand this won't be as easy as shoot me, shoot Spencer, and walk out unscratched. This might be Kabuki Theater, and we all know the ending, but I'm making sure we go through the motions.
The next thing I show is the bag.
"Put it down." The spokesman has an arm around Spencer's neck and a gun pointed at Spencer's head. He's surprisingly handsome and refined, with a perfect smile. I'm surprised. Pretty boys with good teeth don't usually make it to this part of the club. Life's too easy for them to wind up in a Mexican standoff, in an old Dodger decorated bungalow apartment.
Shootouts are for ugly, quiet people, who never get anything easy. Guys like me, who got blamed for things they didn't do, and couldn't find the words to talk their way out of it. The other guy in the room, the one who doesn't talk, fits the part. I keep my gun pointed at him. I figure he's the real shooter.
The spokesman waits for me to look back his way. When I don't he just starts.
"Put it down."
"The gun or the bag?"
"Not until you let him go."
"Not going to happen. You put the gun down. You put the bag down. We let you walk out."
"Okay, what about this? Tell your friend to put his gun down at the same time as me." The spokesman nods at his partner. The mute and me lock eyes. I hold my gun up. He does the same. I take my finger off the trigger. He matches me like a mirror. We turn our palms up, guns in the middle, and start the long trip down to the floor, in perfect unison. If we were a synchronized swimming team, we'd be on our way to perfect tens.
Our guns make it to the ground. Then we take our hands away, slow, deliberate and exaggerated, like a couple of Marcel Marceauxs. I look at the spokesman. He's smiling. He knows what I know. As soon as I stand up, I'm dead. So I don't. I smile at Spencer.
One of the first things he tried to teach me was how to read sight words. Those are the common words you have to memorize, like numbers or colors. Like "blue." I saw that on Eduardo's note. I read it. My hands stopped shaking so much. The other word had a blend in it. That's two letters that go together to make a special sound. O-O says "ooh," so B-O-O-T-S spells "boots." I read that on Eduardo's note. I started breathing normal again. I found a pair of Dodger blue boots in the closet. The gun was in the left boot. A full clip was in the right.
While the spokesman is still waiting for me to stand up, I reach into my waistband and come out with Mr. Eduardo Vasquez' gun. I empty half the clip into the mute before anyone realizes what's happening.
The spokesman had one chance, it lasted for one second, and he spent it watching the mute, instead of shooting at me. He's still watching the mute when I put a bullet in his head.
I send Spencer running to the car, and head back to Eduardo's room. He's still alive, but he can barely open his eyes. He's got another two-word note in his hand. The second word is "me." The first word starts with an "h." I can guess what it says. But there are too many holes in his chest. There is not enough light in his eyes.
I pick up the phone anyway, and pretend to call 9-1-1.
"Help's on the way." I'm almost out the door when I realize there's actually something real I can do for him.
"Hey, Eduardo. " He barely stirs, but his eyes open. "Dodgers won."
I might be lying, but he'll never know. If he dies the way he is when I run out, they'll find him with a smile on his face.
Rose comes over with my steak and eggs, and Spencer's chili. She waits for one of us to move the bag. I push it as far to the side as I can - another two inches. She gives me one of her looks, that I don't take personally anymore, and jams the plates onto the table.
"What's in the bag?"
Spencer rolls his eyes.
"We don't know. He won't open it."
"It's a delivery. I'm not allowed to open it," I clarify.
Rose nods, puts extra napkins on the table. "Can't someone else open it?"
Spencer and I haven't spoken since we left Blue's diner. I pull up to the hostile hostel. He peeks in the back seat for the hundredth time to make sure the bag's still there.
"You could keep it. Your boss would never know."
"I'd be breaking a rule."
"You could buy a house. A nice one."
I'm thinking the same thing, but I don't say it. I shake my head, like it's not worth it.
"When money like that goes missing, people don't just stop looking for it."
The chance of somebody tracking us down might be a long shot, but it's not impossible. It's a risk I'm willing to take, but I can't make the call for Spencer. I need to be sure he's not asking Santa for a puppy without knowing it might bite when it grows up. Spencer leans back against the door, lets out a deep breath. He takes a long time to talk. Long enough for logic to kick in and tell him keeping the money is a bad idea.
"You could teach me how to shoot."
I shouldn't smile when I hear that, but I do. We both do.
About the Author
Ben Watkins is a writer, actor and filmmaker from Berkeley, California. He currently resides in Los Angeles and works on the television show BURN NOTICE (USA Network).