A Backward GlanceChapter 18
I stopped by the places where I used to bunk. Full a' people I didn't know. Felt like I'd been gone a long time…….No place for me to sleep.
I went to Anna's place. I shouldn'ta done it, she wanted to keep it a secret, and you can't do that if people show up there all the time. She'd be mad at me. I told myself I was worried about her, that I needed to make sure she was OK. But it was because I didn't have anyplace else to go.
I wiggled in the window that looked boarded up but wasn't before I called her name. No answer. Crossed the big room, through the gap in the bricks, into the next room……and it was empty. No boxes, no candles, no bed. Nothing.
She was gone.
I sat down next to the wall and leaned my head up against it. I guess I could have this place now if I wanted it. It was a pretty good place, and it looked like I was the only person who knew about it. Be a good place to leave my bag so I didn't have to drag it around with me all the time.
If I wanted it. Did I wanna live like this, under the ground, sleep on the dirt? A coupla months ago, I woulda jumped at the chance and not thought twice.
I got spoiled at Frank's. Good food, soft bed, work to do that was only dirty on the outside, somebody who cared if you lived or died…….
Lots of people lived like that. Lots. Maybe I wanted to, too…..
I was always blowing off about taking care a' myself, like I was so tough. But I looked at what happened to me today.…..I had to beg for work, to make a dollar or two. I begged for food; I never thought of it that way before, but that's what I was doing. And I was gonna sleep in the dirt tonight. If I slept.
People who lived like Frank didn't have to worry about being jumped and having the shit beat outta them. Never happened to him once.
I coulda stayed there. If I hadn'ta screwed up so bad, I coulda stayed there. Frank wanted me. Even up till the moment I left, he wanted me. He woulda helped me if there wasn't any way for me to stay with him. And I walked out on him. How stupid was that? There haven't been that many people that gave a damn about me, and then when I found one, I just walked away.
I thought I wanted to be on my own. Well, here I am. Yippee.…………………………
Some dogs snarl at everybody. I suppose they figure it keeps 'em safe from the people who might kick 'em; but it also keeps anybody from feeding 'em or petting 'em, too. Some dogs sit down and wag their tails. Wait to see what happens. Like Rags.
I was one a' the first kind. I hadn't been snarling, exactly, but close enough.
Rags is dead. At first I thought it was because he did a stupid thing. I thought he wasn't a very smart dog. Now I think it was just the luck of the draw. Weinstein mighta turned out to be a butcher that loved dogs, and Rags'd be living high on the hog now. Then we'd be saying how smart he was.
La Donna stepped into the street and got hit by a bus. Rags sat down in front of the wrong butcher. Just bad luck.
Maybe if they'd been snarling dogs, they'd still be alive. I don't know. But dyin's nothing to be scared of; dyin's easy. Rags doesn't have any problems now; and he was happy parta the time while he was alive. The snarling dogs are never anything but miserable, and all alone while they're doin' it.…………………
This is what I thought about while I was sitting there in an empty basement. Alone in the dark.
I told Frank I wanted everybody to leave me the fuck alone…….I felt like if I could get people to leave me alone, it'd be better, nothing bad would happen to me. You know? If there's nobody around, then you don't have to worry about 'em hitting you, you don't have to worry about 'em making you feel bad, you don't have to worry about 'em leaving you……….
But then you got nothing. Like I got now.
Maybe that's what I did with Frank. Tried to hold him off, make him stay away from me so nothing bad would happen. I didn't even think about it. I just did it. But it didn't work. Bad stuff happens anyway. Somebody or something will come out of the blue, like Krause, and knock you on your ass when you least expect it.
It's the good stuff that you miss out on when you do that.
Like my mother. Lots a' bad stuff there………
At first after she got killed I felt so bad I kinda wished my old man wouldn'ta missed my head with the tire iron………so you might think it woulda been better not to care about her, not to think about her, and I tried that……but then I lost all the good stuff, the hugs and kisses I remembered, and the songs she used to sing…….It made me feel bad to remember, but it made me feel good, too. It's like….you can't have one or the other, you have to have both or neither. All or nothing. And not thinking about it didn't make it go away anyway. I tried to ignore it, but it was still there. Under the surface, waiting to ambush me.
You'd think I woulda learned something then, but I guess not.
Didn't even think about it, just felt like if I didn't care about anybody or anything, if I could keep them away from me, then I'd be OK. A coward, that's what I was. So fucking scared all the time, and didn't even know it.
Did I wanna live like this for the rest of my life? Nothing and nobody for the rest of my life? Begging and taking handouts and being scared for the rest of my life? What the hell's the point of that?………………..
Tried to figure out what to do. Something different. Live different, somehow. But I didn't know anything else……..Dammit. Dammit. Too stupid to think of anything.
I couldn't go back to Frank's. That was out. I didn't know for sure why, I just knew I couldn't.
It started to rain during the night. I heard it; I wasn't asleep. Still trying to make my brain work. I guess I started to feel pretty sorry for myself at one point……
By the time the sun came up, I was exhausted, and I'd only come up with one idea. It rankled, a little, but I didn't wanna live this way anymore, I'd take my chances on getting kicked; and if dyin' was in the cards for me, there sure as hell had to be better places than this to do it.………………………………
It took me half an hour or so to get to Officer Beckmann's house. I musta looked pretty scary when he opened the door; half-drowned, bloodshot eyes, my face was puffy and bruised from the punches I took yesterday…….
He said, "Yes?" when he opened the door, then he frowned and peered at me. "Wendell?"
It was hard to make myself say it.
"Good God, look at you," he said. "What on earth---Betty! Get a blanket!"
Do it and get it over with. I took a deep breath.
I meant to ask. I meant to say please. It came out, "I need help."
He put the blanket around my shoulders and pulled me into the house. I wasn't very cold, just wet, but it felt good anyway. Betty exclaimed and went to get me something hot to drink.
"I can't manage by myself," I said. "I'm gonna die in the dirt if I don't have some help." OK, I exaggerated some again; and it was a good thing I had rain water dripping down my face. You have to remember I was fifteen, and I'd been up all night feeling sorry for myself.
One thing I always liked about Beckmann, he wasn't nosy. Oh, he asked me later what happened between me and Frank, but that morning he didn't ask me anything.
"Sure, Wendell," he said. "We'll do the best we can."
He didn't tell me not to worry, he didn't make any promises. After the month I'd just had, I appreciated that.……………………………
Jeffrey made sure the social workers sent me to a halfway decent place the next time; I had to promise to stick it out, though; and I had to go back to school. We talked about what I might wanna do for a living, but I didn't think about becoming a cop until later.
A few months later, he told me Frank had come to him asking about me. "I didn't know whether you wanted to see him, so I didn't tell him where you were, just that you were fine," he said.
I found out later that he got in touch with Jeffrey every few months for a while. Parta me wanted to see him, and parta me didn't. It was easier not to. Jeffrey asked me if I wanted to know about what was going on in Frank's life, and I said no…….
I drove through the neighborhood a few years later. The house was gone, burned down after it was empty by arsonists. The ground had been leveled, but nothing had been built over it. It looked like someone had been keeping the weeds and grass mowed. Mosta Frank's flowers were still there, but struggling.…………………….
Now that I'm older I feel like I shoulda given Frank a break. Maybe I shoulda gotten in touch with him after I was settled with the Coopers. But I didn't wanna; it didn't feel right, you know? Maybe it was because I still felt guilty about Ruby. And you can bet if we'd gotten together, the conversation would have come around to Ruby pretty quick.
Or maybe it was just that feeling of wanting to let the past go.
I don't know. One a' those things I'm not smart enough to figure out……..
Sometimes early in the morning when I can't sleep I think back to the boy I used to be, and I wonder how things would have turned out if I hadn't gotten sent to Frank's. Would I have lived and died on the street? Would I have ended up in jail? Instead I went into the service, and then became a cop.
And then there's women. Ruby did teach me some things. Not the things she thought she was gonna teach me. She was so glamorous, so beautiful…..but she was just a woman. Not that different from any other woman. Her hair got messed up when she slept just like anybody else's; she had bad breath when she woke up just like everybody else; and she used to snore……..I can laugh about it now, but it was a little bit of a shock to me then.
Not some kinda special creature because she knew how to dress, because she was beautiful. A woman.
And maybe I wouldn'ta seen anything besides looks in Lynn if I hadn't known Ruby first. Maybe I wouldn'ta known what she was offering me when she opened up her door and let me in, if I hadn't seen the other side of the coin. You know?
Everything changed because of the month I spent living with Frank. So was getting messed up with Ruby good luck or bad luck?
I still think about it sometimes. I guess it doesn't do any good to dwell on it too much. Answers to questions like that are hard to come by.
But you know what? Some of those sleepless mornings, I look over at Lynn sleeping next to me with her mouth open, and I have to smile. I know pretty soon we're gonna hear Becky screaming from her room, wanting to get outta her crib, or Charles will run in to bounce on the bed until we get up.
And I think………maybe when I was fifteen, I was just paying ahead for what I got later. Whatever happened in the past is what brought me here, where I am now, right? Everything had to be the way it was, so I could have my family now…….a family of my own.
So it's all good. In a way.
Good luck…..no matter what it felt like at the time.
Lots and lots of good luck.