by Mike Toomey
The phone rang.
‘You know who this is?’
‘Keep talking, I’ll see if I can figure it out.’
‘I’m a guy you used to know.’
‘You still working?’
‘Do you know if you’re still working or not?’
‘Yeah. I mean, I got a job-job but if the right thing were to come along, yeah, I take work if it comes my way.’
‘You know who this is?’
‘I might. Way back, right? Long time.’
‘Long time indeed. You wanna meet me tomorrow?’
‘That diner still there? On Alvont?’
‘It’s a Starbucks now.’
‘The fuck. I guess I oughta try a Starbuck anyway. How about 10:30?’
‘A.M. or P.M.?’
‘A.M., asshole. It’s a meeting not a job. You know who I am yet?’
‘I got an idea. You still got that mustache?’
‘I didn’t have a mustache.’
The phone went dead.
Usually you get a call like that it’s someone who got grabbed up on something and are trying to trade their way out of a jackpot. Usually the number comes up restricted because it’s coming from some police precinct. Usually you take the call then throw your phone in the trash because it is burnt.
But I thought I knew the voice. And it was from the past. I thought it was the kind of guy who wouldn’t try to trade his way out of a jam – and hadn’t. I wasn’t really looking for work, but if it was the guy I thought it was it would be worth meeting him, anyways.
The meet was 10:30; I got to Alvont St at 9 and parked across the street. He rolled up at 10:15 by himself. He got out of the car, looked over his shoulder and went inside.
There was something wrong with his leg. Bad wrong. He walked like he didn’t have a knee. He would plant his left foot and then whip his right leg forward by jerking his hip. Took him forever to just get in the door.
He was the guy I remembered. Older now—thirty years will age anyone, I guess. His name was Jimmy something but he was occasionally called Sven. I never called him that but I’d heard it a few times. Last I’d heard he was doing twenty-five to life on an armed robbery that got fucked. Last time I saw him he had been a young man and I’d been a kid, now he looked like a grandfather.
I waited ten more minutes before I followed him in.
‘Glad you could make it.’
‘I thought you said you didn’t have a mustache.’
‘I said I didn’t have a mustache then, I got a mustache now.’
‘You sound like the guys inside.’
‘I was kidding.’
‘I know. Take a seat…’
There was a long pause and we just kinda looked at each other. Eventually, I guess I sat down across from him.
‘So this is Starbucks.’
‘How’s the coffee?’
“Probably better than what you’re used to.’
‘Probably. Probably. How’s your old man doing?’
‘My father died like eight years ago.’
‘That’s too bad.’
‘But I think you mean my uncle.’
‘Big Wahlid? That was your uncle? I thought you were his kid? I thought Big Wahlid and Little Wahlid were like some Arab father-son team.’
‘Nope, he was my uncle. My father would have discouraged me from doing what I did.’
‘Well, how’s your uncle, then?’
‘He’s dead too.’
‘There’s a lot of that going around.’
I went up and ordered us two house blends, partially because I knew he wouldn’t know what vente meant.
He took it black and winced when he sipped it, underestimating how hot it was.
‘That is good coffee.’
‘Oughta be, for what they charge.’
‘Glad I’m not paying.’
We both sipped our cups. I waited until he got to it.
‘You remember Danny Weslet?’
‘Tall guy? With the bad teeth?’
What I actually remembered about Danny Weslet were his hands. He had girl’s hands. They were white and soft and his nails were always cut into perfect crescent moons. He didn’t take any special care of them, as far as I knew; they just were like that naturally.
‘Yeah. That’s the guy. Though I heard he got his teeth fixed.’
‘What about him?’
‘I got a meeting with him Friday night.’
‘Like this meeting?’
‘Similar. But at night.’
‘What are you looking for?’
‘I mean from me.’
‘Oh. No heavy-lifting. Mostly driving and standing around looking like you’re tough. I don’t get around so well anymore and I can’t be chasing this guy through the woods…’
‘I’m not gonna chase him through the woods either.’
‘Nobody’s asking you to chase anybody. I’m just saying I show up there with half a leg, Weslet’s gonna start wondering about a foot-race. At least if you’re standing there he might think twice. You can stand there, right?’
‘I can do that.’
The other thing I knew about Weslet was this: he did six years on the same rap that put Sven away for twenty-seven. I hadn’t seen or heard of either of them since they went in. My uncle, Big Wahlid, had been killed shortly there-after and I wound up with no connection to the people he worked for so I had to get a real job. I had completely lost touch with that life until the phone rang that night.
A lot of it was just sitting in a car. We drove out 412 late Friday afternoon to this town just inside the boarder. We took his car but I drove, he said it bothered his leg to drive so much.
‘What happened with that?’
‘This White Supremacist did it in the joint.’
‘Did you try telling him you’re white?’
‘Yeah, he didn’t seem to care.’
‘What were you standing up for the rights of your disenfranchised minority brothers?’
‘Nothing that noble. I bumped him on the way back from the food line so he had two of his buddies hold my foot on a bench while he jumped on my knee.’
‘The doctors did a good job of fixing it.’
‘Yeah. The prison doctor and the prison barber are the same guy.’
‘He give you that haircut too?’
We ended up parking down the end of this road in the woods. The houses were far enough apart that you would have to really want some sugar to walk over to your neighbor’s place. The house was number 18 but I don’t remember the street name. It was dark when we got there but not night yet so we just sat in the car watching the house. He pulled a six pack from behind the seat while we waited. He said any more than three beers a piece and we’d run the risk of the cops finding two moes passed out tomorrow morning.
‘What’s it like inside?’
‘No, a woman. Yeah, the joint.’
‘It’s bad, but it’s not bad in the way that you think.’
‘It’s not all dudes jumping on your knee?’
‘No. It’s not. I mean, don’t get me wrong; that shit can happen and it does happen but it’s the little things inside that ruin your life.’
‘Like, for example, I went in there determined to establish a routine. I was like I’ll do these same things at the same time every day and that routine will be the thing that sustains my sanity in here. I’m in there and I’m sticking to this regiment: up, fifty push-ups, breakfast, read for an hour, run a mile in the yard, lunch…you know, like that.’
‘So the guard can’t tell you not to do push-ups before breakfast but he’ll just stand there every morning and watch until one day you don’t want to give him the satisfaction and so you skip it. It doesn’t sound like much but when it’s all you have, giving it up just…cuts. Humans are creatures of habit so when you rob them of those habits you strip us of our humanity. I don’t know.’
A woman opened the door of number 18 and stood in the frame holding the storm door ajar with her hip. A man met her there and kissed her on the cheek. She got in the car and drove off. He went back inside. He was older but the man was definitely Danny Weslet.
I looked at Sven after the car had disappeared.
‘How’d you get out?’
‘I dug a tunnel.’
I just glared at him
‘No. I got that cancer of the prick. They decided it was too expensive to treat it if I was a ward of the fine state of Missoura, so they sprung me so I could deal with it myself.’
‘You dealing with it?’
‘I am dealing with it.’
‘Must be hell.’
‘Hell is when you have to watch some wrong shit happen and can’t do shit about it.’
‘Nothing. It’s time.’
We crossed the street and made our way up the lawn. I thought it was odd that we didn’t have masks or anything.
‘Should I have a gun?’
‘Do you have a gun?’
‘No. Do you?’
Weslet opened the door. He didn’t recognize us at first, I’m not sure he ever recognized me. He looked the same, still youthful-looking and tall. His teeth were fixed but in a way that you could tell they’d been fixed and his hands still looked like a surgeon’s.
‘Can I help you?’
‘Don’t you remember me, Danny? I remember you.’
You could see the moment of realization in Weslet’s eyes. You could see the pupil dilate as he tried to slam the door shut. Too late, Sven’s gimpy foot was already in.
‘Listen, Jim, I don’t know what they told you. I did my time. They had me on a lesser charge; the DA threw out the gun thing because she knew it wouldn’t stick. I did my six and kept my mouth shut. Jim, c’mon. You don’t have to…’
‘Where’s your phone, Danny?’
‘I don’t know. The other room?’
Sven took out his own phone and dialed a number. Sven took the phone when Weslet’s pocket started bleating.
Weslet never tried to run and Sven never touched him. Weslet just led us to a room in the back with a desk, a computer and a small tv. Weslet talked a little, bargaining. Sven would answer occasionally in the way you would answer a small child. Neither of them gave any indication that I was there.
‘C’mon, Jim. It was a long time ago. I’m a different guy now. That was a long time ago.’
‘Yeah, it was. A long time.’
‘Go get your boy.’
‘Your boy. Tell him to come down here.’
‘Jim? No, he doesn’t need to see this. Just do it and go. He’s not…he doesn’t need to…’
‘Danny, go get your boy before I go get him myself.’
Slowly, Weslet got up and exited the room. He walked so close to Sven that I thought he was going to take a swing at him. Instead he just whispered, ‘Jim.’ But Sven didn’t even look at him.
‘Is he gonna run?’
We waited what seemed to be an eternity. The house was bigger than it seemed from the outside but it wasn’t this big.
I heard him before I saw him. Like Darth Vader. It sounded like the kid was having an asthma attack. That wasn’t it.
The kid was in a puffer wheel-chair. He was pitched to one side and drooling on himself. His hands were pressed against his chest; curled at the wrist. There was a clear, accordion-like tube attached to the back of the chair that was helping him breathe.
The kid and his chair took up the whole room once they got in it. He was maybe twenty, probably younger. It was hard to tell. Weslet was crying now, or had been when he had been out of the room. His eyes were red-rimmed and you could tell he knew.
‘Jim. Please. Not in front of my boy.’
Sven took a pair of handcuffs out of his jacket and pointed Weslet towards the chair. Weslet got on his knees. Sven latched one of the cuffs between the rubber spokes of the wheel and had Weslet put the other around his wrist.
‘You can hold his hand.’
That was the end of his humanity.
Weslet took the boy’s palsied hand in his own and stroked it. He was whispering to him, softly so we could hear the sound of it but not the words.
Sven opened a pocket knife and cut the tube that was pumping air into the boy. The accordion kept moving but the air just hissed out; the hose flapping where it had been torn.
Sven jerked his neck towards the door then grabbed me by the collar when I didn’t follow. I wanted to say something. Tell Weslet that I hadn’t known that this was going to happen. Hadn’t known what he was going to do. What we had done. Outside I puked in the grass while Sven dragged his ruined leg into the car.
He drove us back to St. Louis, neither of us saying a word.
Mike Toomey lives outside of Boston where he has been a double agent for the FBI, a genius janitor at MIT, kidnapped a drug dealer's daughter and robbed . Besides that he has seen a lot of movies.