Friday, October 31, 2008

Spare Change #24

I haven’t been in the back of a police car in a very long time, maybe five and a half years? I guess most people would not think that was a very long break from this kind of experience but it’s all relative.

Relative, relatives…

No. There will be more than enough time for those thoughts all too soon.

We hit a red light and I slide further down my seat, feeling like a criminal even without handcuffs. People see what they expect to see, they don’t ask questions; cops go in the front, crooks go in the back.

I glance up to see Officer Cruz smirking at me in the rear view mirror. Anger flares up but I decide to stare at my shoes and keep my mouth shut. I don’t want to give him any excuses to lock me up.

Last time I took this lonely ride there were handcuffs and ankle restraints; I had been quite the handful. I wasn’t such a good citizen of the streets back then, still had too much pride.

I don’t remember the face so well, but I remember his words: you should all be rounded up and shot – you’re all worthless.

I have blurred images in my mind of tackling him to the ground and punching his face until someone managed to drag me off. I do have several crystal clear pictures though: two broken teeth on the sidewalk; a white business shirt stained cherry red; the look of disgust on a young mother’s face.

That little incident got me a month in jail and six months in rehab. The prison time had the bigger effect – never wanting to go back there was enough motivation to keep my anger and pride in check ever since.

And now here I am, one wrong word from going back.

We turn into the police station parking lot as a light rain begins to fall. Officer Cruz stops the car with a jolt that almost sends me head-first into the plastic barrier between us.

I catch a glimpse of his partner flashing him a dirty look before she climbs out and opens the door for me. I give her a quick nod of thanks and join her in the rain and the smell of wet leaves. The feeling of relief is immediate and overwhelming. I’m tempted to make a break for it.

Officer Cruz’s arm on my elbow, guiding me into the station, ends that thinking in a heartbeat. The lobby is pretty quiet, the calm before the evening storm of drunks and addicts. A few heads turn as we pass through but nobody can be bothered to say anything.

The two cops bring me to a room filled with desks piled high with paperwork. A few officers are busy typing away at keyboards, one is yelling into his phone, the remaining desks are empty.

Officer Cruz helps me take a seat by a desk near the back of the room, none too gently. After a whispered conversation with his partner he sits down across from me. Damn it.

“I’ll be taking your statement,” he says with a flat stare. He pulls out the keyboard tray and logs into his computer while I try to find a believable excuse for needing to tell his partner my story. I don’t even know her name but I’ve seen enough to know she would be more sympathetic than this guy. I’m pretty sure a rhino would be too, for that matter.

“I’ll be over here if you need anything,” she says and begins to turn away before pausing to put a hand on my shoulder. “I’m Officer Strickland by the way; don’t worry, we’ll get this all sorted out for you.”

“Tina, please.” I want to punch him so badly. I say nothing, busy myself with examining the floor tiles.

“Relax Rick, it’ll do you some good,” she says with a smile and slips away before he can reply. I look up to see him glaring at me, jaw muscles clenched.

This is not going to go well.

Friday, October 24, 2008

My Birthday Present To Me

Is to take this week off. See you next Friday.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Spare Change #23

My whole body feels numb, my thoughts move like icebergs in the still waters of my mind. The two police officers gave up on asking me questions shortly after they arrived. She seemed to understand; he looked like he wanted to toss me behind bars.

They are at the counter with Karl, listening to the message over and over and over again. I don’t hear the words anymore, just the voice. I can’t even remember what exactly Ashes said, just the general idea – but it’s enough. Too much, maybe.

I’m sitting on the floor at the far end of the store trying to figure out how my life ended up here. I’m trying to work a job while my half-sister torments me; trying to stay clean and make things right with TJ. Life was easier without hope.

Karl keeps looking my way to make sure I’m okay… I don’t know why – I’d think it’s pretty obvious that I’m not. He told the cops that I started showing signs of shock shortly after he had called them but I don’t remember when this cold, dull ache set in.

I rest my head on the display case behind me and close my eyes. Having one less sense giving me input seems to help so I plug my ears with my index fingers. A thought appears on the horizon that says I probably look like a lunatic right now. I smile.

I open my eyes to find Karl’s face inches away. I have no idea how much time has passed… had I fallen asleep? I unplug my ears.

“They want to take you to their precinct to take a statement,” he says slowly, like he’s talking to a child. “Do you think you’re up for that?”

“What about the store?”

“I’ll cover for you, I’ve already called the office to let them know I won’t be in today.” He eyes me with concern before continuing. “If you’re not ready I can take you there tonight, we can run the shop together today.”

“I’ll go now. I’ll be fine,” I tell him before he can object. “Besides, I can’t go later – I’ve got a date tonight.”

He raises an eyebrow at this but lets it go without comment. He helps me to my feet, nice and slow, before turning to tell the cops that I’ll go with them.

“What about the other one?” I’m starting to really dislike the male cop.

“They’ll need to speak with Tommy as well,” Karl tells me quietly. “He’s the only one who can give them a physical description of Ashes and he can back up your story. Can you tell them where to find him?”

“Did you tell them about the gun thing?”

“The gun… that’s one way of putting it,” Karl says with a laugh. “I had to. But if you don’t press charges and that couple remains just happy to be alive then there shouldn’t be a problem.”

“Or his drug problems? He can’t be considered a very reliable witness – he couldn’t even tell me what color her hair was,” I whisper as the male cop starts making impatient noises in the back of his throat.

“Tommy is all we’ve got to go on – it’s better than nothing.”

I take a few seconds to absorb his point. He’s right, of course, but I don’t want to get Tommy arrested. And I wouldn’t be doing him any favors if I brought the cops to the front window of his less than legal home.

“Tell them I’ll come now to give them my story,” I say, “then I’ll come back later with Tommy as soon as I can convince him to go.”

“I don’t think he’s going to like that,” Karl says after a quick glance over his shoulder. “Officer Cruz seems like he usually gets what he wants, one way or another.”

“So tell his partner and let her deal with him, I’m sure she gets plenty of practice.”

“Alright,” he says and looks me up and down. “You sound like you’re feeling better but you still call me when they’re done with you and I’ll come pick you up.”

I nod and he turns away to pass on the news to our guests. Having something useful to do is pushing the numbness back but I can tell it’s only temporary.

“Let’s see how long I can make myself useful then,” I mutter and move towards the cops. Good thing I got some sleep last night; it looks like it’s going to be a while before I’ll be able to get some more.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Spare Change #22

I open my eyes and stare at the ceiling. Where am I? I close my eyes and listen for clues, hoping to hear a sound that will help me to get my bearings.

A car? Muffled though, like there’s a wall between us; voices, muffled again, I can’t make out what’s being said. Not my place then, I can say that much.

I sneak a finger out from underneath my blanket and touch the floor. Tile… triangles… like at…

“DJ’s,” I mumble and it all comes back to me. The back room, the blanket and pillow TJ fetched for me before placing a goodnight kiss on my cheek, the deep sleep that followed soon after. What time is it?

I struggle to my feet, wearing the blanket like a kilt as I stretch my arms above my head and stumble to the front of the store. I feel like I slept for a month and I could easily sleep for another.

A flick of the switch brings the lights to life and I find the clock on the wall – ten minutes to opening. Perfect timing, that was lucky. The message light is blinking on the answering machine, maybe the phone woke me.

Deciding to save that for later I shuffle to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face and brush my teeth. The toothbrush and toothpaste were gifts from DJ that I had tried, without success, to accept graciously. He had smiled and said something about every little bit helps.

My stomach grumbles a little as I return to the counter but not too loudly – I should be able to make it to lunch. I sit down on my stool and stab the message button with my finger.

“I hope you had a good sleep J.” TJ’s voice is warm and comforting… when was the last time I thought that? “Give me a call later and maybe we can meet up for dinner tonight.”

I smile and listen to her message again before deleting it. The scrap of paper with her work number on it is still in my pocket – that had been another surprise from last night. I can’t picture her doing filing and photocopying but she probably had a hard time imagining me here.

The machine beeps again and another message begins to play but this voice is not such a welcome addition to my morning.

“Rise and shine, little brother – the store opens in fifteen short little minutes.” Ashes’ voice scrapes across my nerves like broken glass. The warmth of last night is quickly replaced by icy dread. “You don’t want to have angry customers banging on your door, do you? So up and at ‘em sleepy head – who knows what today has in store for you.”

The click at the end of her message is like a gun being cocked. After a moment I listen to the message again but this time I focus on her voice. Ashes sounds like a career smoker with a job on the side as a heavy drinker. There is bitterness and hatred there, but also some laughter, like she’s enjoying herself.

I save the message, I’m not sure why. There’s nothing there the police would care about, she had made sure of that. Scrolling through the caller ID list I arrive at her call to find ‘Unknown Caller’. Of course.

So – empty threat or deadly promise? She could have called from across the street or across the country. I’m not in a gambling mood so I reach for the phone and dial the number from memory.

“Hi J, what’s going on?” Karl asks.

“I need a big favor from you,” I say. “Can you come by the store right now?”

“I can be there in fifteen – what’s the problem?”

“I’ll tell you when you get here. Knock four times so I know it’s you – the door will be locked.”

“I’ll be there in ten,” he says before hanging up.

Nine minutes and forty seconds later the four knocks on the front door signal his arrival. I let him in and lock the door again. He hands me a muffin and waits for the explanation.

Between bites I fill him in on the details. The food calms me down as much as talking does. I’m learning quickly that a shared burden is easier to carry.

“I’m calling the police,” Karl says as he moves to the counter. “Keep the door locked.”

“Will they care about this?” I can’t believe that they will. Karl looks up at me as he finishes dialing the number.

“I’ll make them care.”

Friday, October 3, 2008

Spare Change #21

This is the longest day in the history of days. Seconds feel like hours, minutes are weeks and I just want to curl up into a ball and sleep.

I can’t stop yawning, my blinks are nearing nap length and I can’t seem to concentrate on anything. I tried putting out the new stock earlier but the alphabet handed me a dominating defeat.

I could really use a customer to talk to but the last one left two… oh man, only one hour ago? If I could stand the taste of coffee I would’ve ordered a keg of the stuff by now. I wonder if I could get a family sized hot chocolate delivered…

I rummage through DJ’s record stash trying to find the most upbeat, energyful album… no, that’s not right. What’s the word… energizing… energetic! There we go.

“I am not going to make it,” I tell the clock. It mocks me by moving even slower. “Stop doing that you son of a -”

The sound of the door opening cuts me off – luckily for that arrogant time keeper; I was about to really let it have it. I turn to greet my newest customer, reminding myself not to scare them away by being obviously desperate for company, but my words die a strangled death in my throat.

“Hi J, how are you doing?” TJ asks from the doorway, glancing around the empty store. I can’t think of a good reply so I settle for shrugging. “That good huh… looks like you could use some company.”

I nod and sit down on my stool, waving her over. My thoughts are refusing to form a sensible sentence so I wait it out, hoping she’ll take the conversational lead.

“You look like a dog’s breakfast; are you coming down from something?” Oh that TJ, never one for subtlety.

“I haven’t slept at all the last two nights,” I say – coherently, I think.

“You must have taken some nasty stuff J – you gotta be careful, the scene in this city is getting dangerous,” she says with… concern? I blink a few times, trying to make sure I heard her right. “Do you want me to call a doctor?”

“No, I’m just tired TJ,” I say. I consider re-thinking my next words but give it up as too much effort. “I’m clean, by the way – for a couple weeks now.” Has it really been that long?

TJ frowns slightly, her eyes scan my face. It takes me a few seconds to realize she’s trying to figure out if I’m lying to her. Anger is too big an effort right now, so I attempt a scowl instead.

“That’s wonderful J, I’m so proud of you!” She leans over the counter and hugs me hard; my scowl melts into a goofy grin. I manage to tone it down to a satisfied smile before she backs off and holds me at arms length. “Is that why you’re not sleeping, has it been that hard for you?”

“It’s been okay, actually. A weak moment here and there, but generally good,” I say. “The sleepless nights thing is a long story.”

“I’ve got plenty of time and you’ve got no customers,” she says with one of her more captivating smiles. “So tell me.”

So I do. It feels really good to get it all out of my head, to set my worries free from the confines of my exhausted mind. It’s like… therapy, I guess.

When I finish the tale TJ is silent for a long time, but it’s comfortable, like old times. We used to sit on sidewalks together and just listen to the cars, the people, our breathing for hours – I had forgotten how much I enjoyed that.

“So you’re gonna sleep here tonight… you got a pillow or blankets?” she asks after a few minutes.

“No but it’ll be fine – just being in a secure spot will be enough to knock me out. I’m pretty sure I could sleep on this stool… if I haven’t already.”

TJ laughs a laugh that lights up her eyes and I can’t help joining in. Once I start I can’t seem to stop and before we know it we’re both laughing like fools, gasping for enough air to fuel the spasms.

After a long, long time we regain control. We sit and chat and listen to music and we are left to ourselves as the night settles onto the city outside these doors.