Serve and Protect
I was eleven when Mom’s boyfriend first took me to a bar. Earlier that week, my best friend had moved to another state, so away we went in Keith’s crappy truck. To have fun, he said. That first time I was on fire to see inside of Vic’s, this low-slung place on the outskirts of town. Every bar came equipped with strippers, this much I knew. Cop shows like Cagney & Lacey and Hunter always showed detectives questioning women in heavy makeup and glittery outfits. Strippers in Vic’s would have the dirt on everyone in town, and I’d finally solve the mystery of those reflective metal poles. How the strippers used them, I didn’t know, but when I saw one on TV, my stomach shimmied like a broken propeller.
Behind its gray metal door, Vic’s turned out to be a disappointment. No woman shucking her clothes. No pole. I squinted through cigarette haze. An Indiana basketball game blasted from a radio hung on a rafter. Men in flannel jackets and work boots slumped at the bar. My deep propeller sputtered out. “What are you gawking at?” Keith asked me. “Sit down.”
“Kids aren’t supposed to be in places like this,” I said.
“You an expert on places like this? Sit down.”
As long as I only drank ginger ale, the bartender allowed me to sit beside Keith at the bar. Now that I had no friend to visit, we kept coming back, three more times. No one was at my mom’s house, and I knew our bathroom smelled worse than the one at the bar ever could. With rivers of ash smeared on the gritty floor and the men booing when refs made a call that went against I.U., Vic’s began to feel familiar.
Keith liked to drink beer and smoke and tell me I’d win some and I’d lose some in life. Friends, he meant. He just made it worse, but I couldn’t tell him that. Keith Grimes wasn’t someone you talked over your feelings with.
Then, on our fourth visit, he wanted to know if my best friend’s house was vacant.
“What’s vacant mean?” I asked.
“Empty. Cleaned out.” He gave me a sideways look. “Any of their stuff still there?”
The Marksons’ move had come without warning. My friend Mike had told me on a Thursday night, and Friday morning he wasn’t in school. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him since. His parents could easily have forgotten something in the rush, something they’d come back for. The Sherlock Holmes pipe of Mike’s dad came to mind. “Probably,” I said.
“Now that they’re gone, what’s say we go check their place?” He gulped some beer. “Your mom’s birthday is Tuesday. We’ll find a present for her.”
“You mean . . . steal?” My stomach knotted. “I don’t want to.”
“Not steal.” Keith lit a butt from the crowded ashtray on the bar. “Just what they didn’t take with them. Stuff they don’t want.”
“That was Mike’s house,” I said. A million times better than our house. It never stank from backed-up sewage and wasn’t missing screen doors. No stains from toilet overflows ran halfway down the hall. No one stormed out at midnight only to come back—broken-looking—the next day. I shook my head. “It’s not right.”
“Can’t you be cool, Zip?” Keith often wished I was cooler than I actually was. He’d even supplied me with the nickname Zip, a cool alternative to my actual name Virgil, which he’d said sounded faggoty. “Be cool, just this once. Come on.”
“No,” I said. “I’m telling Mom.”
He laughed. “You’re gonna tell? I’m an adult, man. No one’s told on me since I was your age.” His head bobbed, considering. “You don’t know your mom as well as you think.” He dug a quarter from his pocket and slapped it on the bar next to my ginger ale. “Call her up, if you wanna tell so bad.” I grabbed it and rushed to the pay phone beside the men’s room. From across the bar, Keith yelled, “She won’t give a damn.”
He was right. I’d told her about the trips to Vic’s, hoping she’d tell Keith to knock it off and make him take me to indoor mini-golf. But she’d just shrugged and said, “He’s only trying to be your friend, Virgil.” I wanted to call anyway, even if she didn’t care about stealing from Mike’s. Someone needed to know.
I dropped in the coin and punched zero. I didn’t bother trying her at home. That time of day, she was up from her nap and cleaning rooms at Holiday Inn. It would take a while for the manager to bring her to the phone, and I was afraid my quarter would run out. Tonight she wouldn’t be home. Keith was supposed to meet her at the hotel bar while I watched TV and put myself to bed. This was my only chance to get her on the phone.
An operator’s voice answered, and I asked for the hotel’s number.
“Zip, she’s at work,” Keith said, now at my side. “No personal calls.”
“Would you like me to connect you?” the operator asked.
Keith gripped the metallic cord and pulled on the receiver. “Hey, quit it!” I shouted. He tried to hang up, but I clamped my fingers over the cradle. The operator again asked if she could connect me. Behind us, the bartender’s voice boomed—“Stop messing with the payphone!”
Keith jerked the receiver out of my reach, and a brittle crack came from the phone box. The operator’s voice cut out. He handed me the receiver, trailing its broken cord. “See what you made me do?”
“Damn it, Grimes!” the bartender yelled. “Get out!”
Over his shoulder, Keith called, “Right, right,” and handed me my jacket. “Party’s over,” he said, gripping my neck. He steered me out the door. Above Vic’s, the sky had faded from light gray to dark. His face was blue from the Pabst sign, brow wrinkled like I was the biggest disappointment. Cold rain tinked down on his truck. “God,” he said, “you’re so ate up with we shouldn’t do this and we shouldn’t do that.” He told me to get in.
Rain smacking the windshield, Keith drove toward the Marksons’ house. I pictured their living room, as it had been the last time I was there. Mike and I knelt on either side of the coffee table. In a recliner nearby, his dad Leon was engrossed in smoking his pipe. We were trying out a murder mystery game Mike had devised called Deductive Reasoning. It was like Clue, except that players had to solve a triple homicide.
Mike kept asking his dad for help in eliminating suspects but never got an answer. In uniform, Leon Markson was an enormous Indiana State Trooper who probably made perpetrators crap their pants. But fiddling with his pipe on the swell of his gut, he looked like a preoccupied Santa Claus. After I won the first two games, Mike placed all the cards face-up on the table to inspect them. “Dad, help me fix it.”
Leon Markson took the pipe from his lips. “You’re not gonna let me relax, are you?”
“Something’s wrong,” Mike said and nodded at me. “He keeps figuring out who the murderer is.”
Blinking over his glasses, Leon looked at me then at the cards. “So Virgil’s been winning, huh?”
I nodded and said, “The name Virgil sounds faggoty.”
Before I could add that I went by Zip, he asked, “You know Gus Grissom’s real name was Virgil, don’t you?” I didn’t know this. “He hated that name, too, so he made people call him Gus. You could try that.” I nodded, and he leaned over the table to study the cards. “How do you know Gus here didn’t win with good, old-fashioned smarts?”
After five more minutes in the truck, Keith turned at a floodlit sign for Pine Forge. He slowed to a crawl. The neighborhood looked deserted under the streetlights. And neat. No engine parts or broken kiddie toys in yards. No old boats sat on rusting trailers. “What kind of kid are you anyway?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“When I was a kid, my older brothers picked on me all the time,” he said, “but I’d never rat on them. Not in a million years.” I let this sink in.
I thought of Ray, the widower who lived in a spic-and-span place across the street from Mike’s. Once we got to the empty house, I’d run over and tell him about Keith’s scheme, and that I’d been forced to go along with it. A wave of nausea came over me. Ray had a hole in his throat that drained white spit. Because Mike always wanted a close-up look at the disgusting thing, he’d made up reasons for us to talk to Ray. Tough as it’d be to face the hole, getting Keith shoved head-first into a police cruiser would be worth it.
Keith shut off the headlights. We crunched into the gravel drive at the Marksons’. Yellow light from Ray’s windows across the street did little to reveal their house’s brick face. From behind the seat, Keith pulled a flashlight. He stuck it in his breast pocket and hopped out. I didn’t move. “What are you waiting for?” he asked, swaying in the rain. “Let’s go.”
Out of the truck I went, sprinting toward Ray’s. “Come back,” Keith hissed. Jumping roadside puddles, I crossed the street and scrambled up concrete steps to the stoop. I punched the bell and whacked the storm door with my fist. Inside the bay window, two lamps bathed the living room in buttery light. Again, I knocked hard.
Keith approached but didn’t mount the steps. “What’re you doing, Zip? Get off there.”
“I’m telling Ray.” I pounded the door, but no one answered.
“Take it easy. Come on.” Keith whined like a kid who didn’t want to do his math homework. “Your friend don’t live over there anymore. Besides, there’s no one here.”
“Ray’s home,” I said, hoping to scare Keith. “That’s his van.” A memory surfaced then, of Ray’s other car, a white hatchback that had sat in the driveway. It was nowhere to be seen. With half-hearted force, I knocked again.
“Stop, okay? Just stop,” Keith said, and I turned. His hair was plastered to his temples. He glanced at the black silhouette of Mike’s house, then back at me. “Let’s just look. If nothing’s in there, we’ll go home, okay?”
Rainwater streams snaked beneath my collar. I shivered, wishing I’d told him the Marksons took everything. Shrouded in darkness, the place across looked deserted. Maybe I was wrong about them leaving stuff behind.What they wanted, they packed and took with them. Nothing would be left. “Alright.”
Keith nodded. “Alright.” He waved me down from the stoop, and I followed him across the street. We squelched into Mike’s yard. Keith pulled on each of the front windows. All were locked, so he held his flashlight to the glass. Only dusty blinds. He waved me on and rounded the house’s corner. Three windows were set in the west-facing wall. At the first, the one in Mike’s bedroom, he heaved, and the sash squeaked open. “Here. I’ll boost you through,” he said. “See if there’s anything left.” No matter what was inside, I decided to tell him the place was empty. He lifted me by my belt. Scraping elbows and knees, I tumbled through, going headfirst into the floor. Once back on my feet, I stood huffing cold, stale air. Without Mike’s bed, desk, and bookshelves, the room seemed too big. Scraped-out.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“Nothing.” I put my hands on the sill. “I’m coming back out.”
“No, no.” He lowered the sash to an inch above my knuckles. “Let me in the back door. We’ll look around with the flashlight.” My hands dropped. The sash came down, and the glare of Keith’s light disappeared.
I plodded into the hall, which smelled like old pipe smoke. At the end was the living room where I’d won at Deductive Reasoning. In Glen Ellyn, Mike was probably still testing the game, working out the kinks with some other kid. He’d never had trouble making friends, but he’d kept me around because I’d do whatever he wanted.
Another reason was that I used to stay with Mike three nights a week—Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday—supposedly because Mom had to work third shifts. In reality, she was going out with Keith. But I wouldn’t tell her third-shift story to Mike’s dad, who’d easily detect when a lie crossed my lips. “Mom’s not at work,” I told him. The real reason I’d been put out of my own house, I confessed, was because Mom and Keith liked to hang out at Take Five, followed by more fun at Keith’s brothers’ place. Then they’d come staggering in at dawn. “It’s okay,” Leon said. “Mike wears me and Carol out. When you’re here, we can finally get a minute to ourselves.”
“But what about Keith and my mom?” What they were doing was bad; having me lie about it was worse. Leon just shrugged.
I then reported to him every terrible thing they’d done. He nodded when I complained that our house was falling apart a room at a time. The toilet had broken, and no one would spare any money to fix it. Nasty wetness had spread from the bathroom to the hall carpet, making the air so sour we choked. Every time I needed to go to the bathroom, I put a wet washcloth over my mouth and nose like I was escaping a fire. On the nights I stayed home, Mom and Keith only slept for a few hours before swallowing a couple reds from Keith’s pocket and trudging off to work. I hoped the mention of pills would spur Leon’s interest, but he only said, “That’s too bad.” A couple months later they moved, leaving cold dust behind.
From the kitchen came a rattling. I followed it to the back door. Keith squinted at me through the upper window. Opening up a couple inches, I said, “There’s nothing here,” and tried to squeeze out.
He shoved the door open and brushed past. “I’ll be the judge.” His flashlight played across the cabinets above the sink. “You check these?” Before I could answer, he yanked open one after another all over the kitchen. Nothing. He exited to the hall, leaving cabinet doors to hang open like they were screaming. I shut each one, but it didn’t help. No loot turned up in the rear bedrooms. Keith yelled that he couldn’t believe they took everything.
“See, I told you,” I called. “Let’s go.”
Halfway down the hall, his footsteps halted, and a door clicked open. “They got anything in the basement?” he asked. I said no, but Keith stomped downstairs anyway. “Jackpot! Get down here.”
I left the kitchen and crept down the wood stairs. Keith stood at the bottom, casting his beam around the room. What he was excited about, I couldn’t tell. No furniture remained. Everything had been stripped from the walls except for a Fraternal Order of Police sticker that shined the words “To Serve and Protect.” At room’s center, he pointed his flashlight at his wet boots then played the beam over the carpet’s design. Purple bubbly shapes—like genies and magic bottles—appeared to dance across a yellow field. “Great colors. Good nap,” he said, sounding like an expert. “It’s quality stuff. We could throw out that nasty hall carpet and put this down.” He waved for me to come see for myself.
I stretched my foot from the bottom step, sneaker toe pushing into the carpet, holding it in place. “It’s Mike’s,” I said. Our hallway reeked, but taking carpet from this house ate at me. “We can’t.”
“Oh yes, we can.” Squatting in the room’s corner, Keith tugged at the carpet. He pulled one corner from under the molding. Another hard yank and he exposed the yellowed pad beneath. He tried to peel it back but the carpet stuck to the pad. “Get that box cutter from the truck. It’s behind the seat.”
“No way.” The theft would get back to Leon Markson, I knew. He’d only shake his head, same as he did at Mom and Keith’s other crimes. He’d lump me in with them, say it was “too bad,” and be glad he’d left me behind. “I’m not doing it.”
Keith raised his eyes. “Quit the lip and go.”
I plunked down on the step. “Get it yourself.”
“God! Gotta do everything.” Keith stood. “I’d think you’d wanna help get your mom a nice birthday present. We’re not rich like your precious Marksons.”
My cheeks flushed. “The Marksons aren’t rich.” That gnawed at me too, but I didn’t know why. “They’re just. . . better.”
“Better. Ha.” His laugh bounced off the concrete walls. “Than me and your mom? Ha.” He coughed and patted his jeans for cigarettes and lighter. “What did the Marksons ever do that was so great?”
I thought of Leon’s shrug. It was true that all the Marksons had done was have me over to distract Mike. In the mornings, I still went back to Mom and Keith. “They . . .”
“They thought they were hot shit.” Keith squeezed off another laugh and lit a smoke. “And they got you thinking that you’re hot shit.” He climbed past, leaving the peeled carpet in the flashlight beam. “You better scrounge up money for your mom’s present,” he called down the stairs. “’Cause this carpet’s from me and me only.” He wouldn’t allow piggy-backing like at Christmas: a tag with both our names on the neck of a run-over deer. “You can make venison steaks for a month!” Keith had told Mom. He swore cold had kept it from rotting, but she wouldn’t touch it. The deer had ended up beside our trash cans with snow piled on its tangled legs.
Keith’s footsteps creaked into the kitchen upstairs and out the back door. My fingers touched the roll of bills I kept in my jacket. On the list I’d relayed to Leon Markson had been Keith’s habit of pocketing any money of mine he found. He’d once pilfered five dollars from my McGruff the Crime Dog bank to buy beer. A state trooper should’ve wanted to bust someone for that, I thought. Threaten him with arrest and jail. Something. But all Leon had done was urge me to hide my money somewhere Keith would never look.
At least Mom tried. When Keith stole the five-dollar bill, she went off on him. “Don’t you dare touch Virgil’s money,” she’d said, handing me another five. “It’s his allowance.”
“What’s he do that rates an allowance?” Keith asked. A fair question. I’d done no chores to earn it. I’d heave a big sigh when they left for Take Five or roll my eyes when we had frozen entrées three times the same week and out would come the money. In the flashlight glow, I counted out fifteen dollars from my jacket, which wouldn’t buy her anything good. She deserved more.
Footsteps thumped into the kitchen overhead. I stuffed the bills back in my breast pocket. Keith stomped past me on the stairs, holding the box cutter. “If it’s for Mom,” I said, “then I’ll help with the carpet.”
His eyes scanned me up and down. “They’re not gonna miss it, you know. We gotta make do with what’s at hand.”
“It’s still stealing. I won’t lie if she asks where we got it.”
He shook his head. “You’re such a little . . .” He grunted, swallowing a curse. “Fine. Let’s roll it up and stick it in the truck.” He ran a box cutter along the molding, and we wrenched the carpet from the pad a bit at a time, the glue snapping. Then we strong-armed it into a long roll, and Keith lifted one end. I raised the other end, arms tightening under my denim sleeves. The carpet could’ve covered ten hallways the length of ours, and it was painfully heavy up on our shoulders. After two failed tries and a lot of cussing, we finally got it upstairs and dropped it on the living room floor. Keith peeked through the window blinds. “It’s still raining like hell. We need to cover it with something.” He searched the kitchen but found nothing. “Well, shit. Pick it back up.” He clutched his end. We lifted, and I rested it unsteadily on my shoulder, knees shuddering like a frightened cartoon character. Through gritted teeth, he said, “March,” and led me out the back door. Icy drops stung my cheeks, and wind moaned through bare branches above us. Moving along the house’s side, my shoulder throbbed. Cold muck pulled at my sneakers. We staggered across the front yard to the driveway. Keith tried to set his end on the tailgate and missed, dropping it in a milky puddle. “Fuck!” When he bent to lift it, a bright light snapped on.
At driveway’s end stood Ray in an orange poncho with a huge flashlight trained on Keith. In his right hand was a lit cigarette. “What are you doing?” he said, voice thin and ragged. “The Marksons moved out last week.” He stuck the filter in the hole and inhaled.
Unfazed, Keith said, “I’m a contractor,” which was kind of true. He installed wall units and countertops when he needed extra cash. “Realtor was supposed to leave keys under the doormat, but we got here and nothing.” He shrugged. “Had to climb in a window.”
Behind the glare, the hole sucked again, making the cherry burn bright. I dropped my end in the gravel, wanting to flee to the woods behind the house. “Hey,” Ray said, directing the light at me. “I know you. You played with that boy who lived here.”
I’d hoped it would come to this: Keith caught, nailed for his crime. But now I felt desperate to get out of there. “Yes, sir,” I said, wiping rainwater from my chin. “Mike Markson was my friend.”
“What do you want with that carpet?”
I said, “We thought they wouldn’t need it anymore,” meaning it the same way Keith had said. It came out sounding like the Marksons were dead. Supposedly I could visit them in Glen Ellyn, but a car trip would cost too much. I knew then that I’d never go, that they’d passed out of my life permanently. They’d died and had gone to Illinois and that was it.
“Fifty dollars or I call the cops,” Ray said.
Keith blinked, rain rippling down his forehead. “I’m not giving you a damn thing.”
“Fifty.” Behind his flashlight, Ray’s face was dark and featureless. “Or go to jail in front of your son.”
Keith ran fingers through his hair, shedding water. “Son. Ha.” A pained smile thinned his lips. “He don’t care.” He turned to me. “Won’t mind a bit, will ya?”
My shoulders trembled. “You have any money?” I asked Keith.
Keith tried lighting a cigarette from his pocket, but the droopy thing didn’t catch. He threw it in the gravel. “He’s not getting one red cent from me.”
Ray’s flashlight didn’t move. “Fifty.”
“Please, Keith, give him some.” Keith shook his head. I dug in my jacket for the bills, making do with what was at hand. “Here.” I unrolled the bills and walked to the light. “I only got fifteen, but you can have it.” I thrust the two fives and five ones at Ray.
“Virgil, don’t,” Keith said. “Don’t give him your money.”
From behind the blaze a hand snatched the bills. Ray swung the light off us and sloshed toward his warm house. Linking fingers behind his neck, Keith kicked gravel into the puddle, sinking his cigarette. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Are we in trouble?”
His arms dropped. “Don’t worry. That guy’s just a miserable old bastard.” He gripped the soggy carpet. “Help me lift.” We slid the roll into the truck bed. I ran and locked Mike’s back door, and we exited the subdivision. Wind gusts rocked the cab and sent drops streaking across the side mirror. Keith stared at the road lit by his dim headlights. “I can’t believe you gave that guy money.”
“Think he’ll tell the cops anyway?”
“No. Stop worrying.” Weak heat exhaled from the vents, and we were still shivering when Keith entered the alley behind our house. He backed the truck up to our detached garage, and we got out. Mom, arms crossed, yelled from our back door. “I was waiting at Take Five for an hour! Where were you? And where’s Virgil?” Her eyebrows rose when she got a good look at us. “Jesus. You’re both soaked. What’ve you been doing?”
Keith dropped the tailgate to show her. “We got you something!” he called, as if the soggy roll made it all okay.
“What’ll we do with a bunch of wet carpet?”
“It’ll dry out.” He pounded the roll, sending drops in all directions. “It’ll look real sharp in the hallway.”
Clutching her bare shoulders, she came out on the concrete stoop. “You okay, Virgil? Come inside, honey.”
“He needs to help me get it off the truck,” Keith said. “Go back in. We’ll be there in a sec.”
She shut the door and watched through the kitchen window. It took the last of our strength to wrestle the waterlogged carpet into the garage and heave it upright against the wall. We stood beside it, letting our breathing slow. On the floor, a puddle spread beneath the huge form. “God, it’s drenched ,” I said.
“It’s gonna dry. You’ll see.” He rubbed the slick fibers. “It’ll be great.” I hiked up my damp jeans to run inside. “Zip, wait.” Keith worked a hand into his pocket and removed two wadded one-dollar bills. “Here.” He put them in my palm. “Get you the rest this week. Remember, don’t say where we got the carpet, all right?”
“You said she wouldn’t care.”
Keith scowled. “I know what I said.” He faced the house. “Be cool about it, will ya?”
I nodded, ready to protect him again. Then we raced to our door, rain slapping our shoulders.
Alex DeBonis has a PhD in fiction writing and literature from the University of Cincinnati. He currently teaches fiction writing and literature in West Tennessee. His work has been a finalist in the 2012 Esquire Short-short Fiction Contest and a semifinalist in the 2012 Crazyhorse Fiction Contest. His story “Shout at the Devil, Bark at the Moon” will appear in The Man Date: Fifteen Bromances. He lives with his family in Paris, TN.