A Backward GlanceChapter 2
I ate some more sandwiches. They were mostly bread. I knew I'd be hungry again pretty soon. And I was getting thirsty. I was hoping the geek would go out to eat so I could look the kitchen over. In the meantime, I took my shoes off and went out in the hallway to find the bathroom.
The bathroom was pink. The sink was pink, the toilet was pink, the towels were pink. There were pink fish hanging on the wall. Pink rugs on the floor. Pink. Damnedest thing I ever saw.
I looked behind all the doors and inside all the cabinets in the bathroom before I went back to my room. Nothing out of the ordinary. A lotta times, if there's something you gotta watch out for at a new place, you can see signs of it by what they got in the bathroom. The junkies I lived with kept their syringes and their other stuff in the bathroom, when they remembered to put it away, like if the social worker was coming.
You might be thinking I shoulda ratted on 'em. But I didn't care what they did as long as they left me the hell alone. I think they pretty much felt the same way. We got along OK. 'Course, I didn't know they were gonna burn the house down.
I filled up on water, too, before I went back down the hall. Memorized the doors and the distance between it and my room so I could find my way in the dark. Peeked in some of the other doors, one of 'em was the geek's bedroom, I figured; he said he had a wife and there was a dresser with a mirror with bottles of perfume sitting on it and shit like that. Fuzzy rugs on the floor. Fancy pillows on the bed.
Wondered for a second what a chiropractor's wife would look like.
Another bedroom, looked empty. A closet with sheets and towels in it.
Heard a noise from downstairs. The geek was still here.
Decided I needed to find a hiding place in case I had any stuff I didn't want to leave laying around. Like cash. I only had a dollar or so in my shoe when I moved into the chiropractor's house, but sometimes I made a little money on the street delivering stuff. Once in a while old Shoemaker at the market needed some help back in the storeroom. 'Course, that was way the hell on the other side of town. Could be I might have a problem finding work here.
I used to have some other stuff, like a couple things my sister made for me, and a note that my mother wrote, and you know, a few things like that. Nothing I needed but just stuff. I lost a coupla things when they put me in the State home after my aunt Mabel threw my box of clothes out on the porch and shut the door, while they were looking for a foster family for me. I was green; I shoulda kept my stuff hidden better, but I didn't think of it in time. Then it was too late. The other things sorta disappeared along the way later. I guess in the long run it didn't matter; they woulda just got burned up with the house, like my clothes.
So that day I was mainly looking for a place to keep my money, when I got any, that might be hard for anybody else to find.
There weren't any little nooks in the closet, no loose floor boards, no cracks between the molding and the wall. No rotten wood in the window frame I could hollow out. I got down on my stomach and wiggled under the bed. Most beds I'd ever had were high enough to store boxes underneath, but this one was low. I could stick things up between the slats and the mattress for the time being, and I put my dollar there. I could pull out the nails in one of the floor boards under the bed, and make a better place, but that would have to wait for later.
I didn't hear him walking back in the room. I didn't know he was there until he crouched down beside me---I was still under the bed from the waist up---and touched me. Put his hand on my thigh. "Wendell."
I crawled backwards as fast as I could, hit my head while I was doing it, and pulled my other knife outta my pocket at the same time. Thumbed the release, and flipped it open in his face before I was even all the way out from underneath.
He looked surprised.
"Back off," I said.
"OK, Wendell," he said, and held up one hand, kinda to hold me off, I guess. "Let's not get excited." He moved back a little before he stood. Then he reached behind him, found the chair, and sat down, kinda just dropped down in it, like his legs were shaky. "I didn't mean to startle you."
I sat up. "Yeah? What did you mean to do?"
"I just…..came up to tell you I made something to eat……it's down in the kitchen……."
"Uh-huh. You have to put your hand between my legs to do that?" OK, so I exaggerated some.
His mouth dropped open a little. He blinked. Like he didn't know at first what I meant. Like he was trying to look amazed. I couldn't tell at the time whether he was just pretending to be innocent, or whether he was really as naïve as he appeared. I figured odds were 50-50.
He turned bright red. It was pretty funny. I just didn't feel like laughing.
"No….Wendell…..I didn't mean…..Good Lord……"
"You touch me like that again, I'll cut you. Got it?"
He nodded. Nothing to say.
"I suppose that's why you wanted a little kid," I said. "You'll just have to keep yourself company for a few days. Even if you call 'em today, you probably won't get a different kid till next week."
I closed my knife and put it back in my pocket. Stuck my head back under the bed and grabbed my dollar before I got up. Not much of a hiding place if they see you there. Have to find another one later.
At fifteen, I didn't think about why a guy who lived in a house like this would be interested in my dollar bill. I just wanted to keep it safe. Things happened that you couldn't predict, that you couldn't control. No such thing as too careful.
He didn't say anything for a long time, just sat there and looked at me. I sat down on the bed and waited.
"I'm sorry, Wendell," he said finally. "I'm beginning to think I'm more ill prepared for this than I realized. Such a thing never occurred to me. I never imagined that there were people that wanted foster children for such a purpose." He paused for a moment. "Have you ever------"
I interrupted him. Enough of this shit. "Didn't you say something about food?"
I thought for a minute he was gonna argue with me, gonna keep asking his stupid-ass questions. But he stood up and said, "Yes, come on down to the kitchen," and I followed him downstairs.
I thought he was a pretty good cook. I like corned beef hash. He didn't eat much himself. Just watched me eat.
I figured a geek wouldn't like having a switchblade waved in his face. Figured he was gonna ask for another kid.
I said, "You can still call, it's not late. Miss Tits is probably still there. She's always there."
He was drinking a glass of milk; if I'd known he was gonna choke on it like that, I'da waited until after he swallowed it to say anything.
"Excuse me?" he said when he stopped coughing. "Miss who?"
"Miss Tits. She's got the biggest pair I ever seen. "
"Stop right there. I can't let this go by. That's extremely disrespectful."
"Yeah, it is."
"What's her real name?"
"I don't know. We all just call her Tits."
"Not to her face, surely."
"We don't getta say nothing to her face, so it doesn't matter what we call her."
"I won't have name-calling of that sort in my house, Wendell. You have to speak of other people with respect."
"Because you reap what you sow."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"It means if you want to be treated with respect, you have to treat others with respect."
"Tell that to Tits."
He was silent for a few minutes. Then he said, "Is there anyone that you do respect?"
"Cause……he's a good guy. He has to pick me up, that's his job, but he doesn't treat me like dirt. You know?" I finished off the last of the hash. "You sure ask a lotta questions."
"Just trying to understand. Nothing you'd like to ask?"
I shrugged and shook my head. "Like what?"
"I don't know…..but if you're going to be living here, we should get to know each other…..I've been asking all the questions, but then I guess I'm a little impatient." He smiled.
"I don't think I'm gonna be here long enough to worry about it."
His smile went away.………………………..
There was this dog, one time, when I was sorta between foster homes, living on the street for a while. This stupid-looking mutt that started following me around. It was my own fault; it looked hungry, and I felt sorry for it. Tossed it a pork chop bone. Then it wouldn't leave me alone.
I tried to make it go away and stop following me; kicked at it once. It yelped and ran off a little way, not far. Sat down and looked at me outta them big brown eyes…….I don't know if dogs cry, but that's what it looked like. I felt like a real heel.
So I went back in the alley a little, and sat down. Patted my leg and told it to come. It ran back. Stupid dog. Woulda served it right if I'da kicked it again, just for doing such a stupid thing.
I gave it a part of a hard roll I had in my pocket. It lay down next to me with its head on my leg.
I guess it was only about half-grown. Starved looking. Brown with floppy ears that were white on the outside and pink on the inside. I didn't know dogs' ears were so soft……
It was stupider than me. Too stupid to last long on its own. So I took care of it for a while. It was a real pain in the ass---it followed me everywhere. I tripped over it more than once. And anytime you needed it to be quiet, it would bark. But it barked once when somebody tried to sneak up on us; and snarled at Moonie when he got back from YA and thought he was hot shit, thought he was gonna show me who was boss. So I guess it was OK.
And why did I think of Rags when this chiropractor was sitting across the table from me talking about getting to know me?
"You haven't been here even a whole day," he said, real serious. "It might not be so bad. If you give it a chance."
I was just a kid. He was supposed to be the adult. So why did I feel like I'd just kicked a dog?
Beckmann always knew where to look for me. Even if I found a new place, seemed like he could find it, too, eventually. And the damn dog didn't bark at him, although after he caught me, Rags got him by the pant leg, growling and yanking. He looked down.
"Tell me this ain't your dog, Wendell," he said.
"Ah, Jesus, Wendell, you know you can't take him with you."
"You could let me go," I said. "You could pretend you couldn't find me. Beckmann? You don't have to take me back. What difference does it make to you?"
He looked down at the ground. I was hoping he was thinking about it. But he wasn't.
"You ain't gonna be a kid forever, Wendell. What're you gonna do, after you ain't a kid anymore? Huh? You gonna grow up to be a wino, like Feltzer there?" He motioned toward a lump in an overcoat in the alley. "You gonna end up like Ramon?" Ramon held up a liquor store and knifed the owner. He might be in jail a long time. "Are you waiting for somebody to rescue you and hand you an easy life? What?"
"I don't know."
"It ain't my place to tell you what to do. But I hate to see you end up in the sewer like the rest of these punks. You know? Maybe they'd like to have a place to go once in a while, too, but nobody gives a good goddam about any a' these other kids. So you maybe got a choice they don't have. The thing is, if you make the same decisions the rest of these guys make, you're gonna end up just like Ramon. Or Feltzer. Or Broome." Broome was dead. "Something to think about."
I thought about it while we drove away from Rags, who ran after the car till he couldn't keep up any more. I thought about it while I was sitting in the State home and they tried to find somebody who wanted a kid that wasn't gonna stick around. I thought about it when we heard they found Moonie's body.
Sitting across from the Doc, in his kitchen, eating his food…..I still didn't know. But I was thinking about it.
I shrugged again. "I guess you never know," I said to the chiropractor with the hopeful face. "We can see how it goes."………………………
In bed that night-I'd never slept in a bed that soft before-I tried to figure out what his angle was. Yeah, maybe he actually was a do-gooder, not a pervert, but even that kind usually had something they wanted. Nobody did anything for nothing. There was something he wanted, had to be something in this for him, I just wasn't smart enough to figure out what it was yet.
I was pretty sure he'd let me know sooner or later.