It happened fast. Frank went to the counter for a Coke and they were singing Happy Birthday—for one thrilled second he thought for him—but no, it was for some kid with bristly black hair in an A-Team t-shirt, while the dad, a guy with the same bristly hair, brought the kid a slice of cake with one candle. Jesus Christ who doesn’t give a whole cake?
Everybody at the bowling alley snack bar applauded as he blew out the candle looking wary, like he knew something fucked up was coming. And it did. This lady with him, a slim woman with black hair pulled back, she's wheezing and going through her purse with desperation, like she lost her diaphragm and Patrick Swayze’s waiting.
What the fuck, the dad says. Again?
The woman nodding, flaming red spots on her cheeks.
The dad turns to Frank.
Watch him, he says, pointing to the kid.
What? Frank says. Watch him how?
But they’re gone, and the kid is looking at him like, see? I knew something shitty was coming. Frank looking back, half expecting Allen Funt to pop out saying, Smile! You’re on Candid Camera! Which didn’t happen. So Frank asked around and nobody knew the boy, they just sang Happy Birthday to be nice. Frank, sweating, noticing how loud it was with the bowling noises, the thumping and knocking, the pinball machine clanging, and Journey singing true love won’t desert you.
The Gooch came over. He was a slouch with stringy hair and bad skin. His real name was Todd, but in the tenth grade he started calling himself the Gooch, thinking that would make him cool, when in fact he could have played guitar like Eddie Van Halen and he’d still have been uncool. He had something shifty about him people didn’t take to. On the other hand, Frank knew he himself had certain drawbacks, but he was not yet a complete write-off as a human being.
The Gooch said, Where’s my Coke?
Frank said, Some guy left me with this kid.
He left you with this kid?
Not like forever. I don’t think.
Now the kid spoke. My stepmother’s got asthma. She lost her inhaler, I guess they went to the hospital.
Frank said, Is this like a thing they do?
Yeah, it’s the third time she lost it this month.
No, I mean leaving you with a stranger.
The kid shrugged. You seem all right.
The Gooch said, I’m getting a beer.
Frank said, Get one for me, and then he said, No, because he wasn’t supposed to be drinking. He said, Get me a Coke and one for the kid. What’s your name, kid?
You got a sister Angie?
Christ, Frank thought. What the fuck am I supposed to do with him?
He said, You want to bowl, Leo?
Can I finish my cake first?
The kid went to work on his cake, slowly, with relish, as if it were a rare treat, which made Frank feel sorry for him. Frank had his own problems, though. He checked the time: almost three. He had to get to the bank before five—he needed cash for his date with Marie. She’d offered to take him out for his birthday, but he was like, no, I got it. And she’d said, Okay, I’ll do something special for you later. Frank could have wept with gratitude, because she’d caught him cheating and then he did six months for burglary. Basically he was on probation with both the county and Marie.
Leo turned out to be a natural bowler, nothing but strikes and spares. He even showed Frank how to smooth out his delivery. The Gooch was pissed about losing to a child but fuck him. Frank was into the rhythm of the lane, the kid’s shy satisfaction in his own ability. He was sweating again, but in a good way. Any minute now Leo’s dad would claim him, and Frank would have a good story for Marie.
But they were scoring their second game, and it was four o’clock already, and no sign of the parents. Frank thought about calling the cops. Maybe he should have done it first thing: Hey officer, some guy abandoned this kid. But that wasn’t such a hot idea, really. Frank was going straight—at the Rockland County Correctional Center, he’d seen a guy stabbed and he was like, Okay, I’m corrected—and in his experience the best way to stay out of trouble was to avoid the police.
The kid said, I’m hungry.
Frank said, How about a cheeseburger?
The Gooch said, Sounds great.
No, Gooch, you gotta do something for me. Frank took the check from his wallet, made out that morning for a hundred dollars cash. Take this to the bank? Please? When you get back, I’ll buy you a cheeseburger and some beers.
Okay, the Gooch said, eyeballing the check, which made Frank a little hinky. He wouldn’t be that stupid, would he? After the Gooch slouched off to his Tercel, Frank bought cheeseburgers and a side of fries to share, and they ate by the TV hanging from the ceiling, watching a rerun of Gilligan’s Island. The Brady Bunch was next, the one where they enter a talent contest.
Frank said, I had a fucking huge crush on Marcia when I was a kid.
Laurie Partridge is prettier. But she must be old now.
Nah, I saw her in People Magazine, she looks amazing. What’s your favorite TV show?
Leo pointed to his t-shirt. Duh, the A-Team.
I like that show. I pity the fool. I’m not gettin' on that plane.
The kid laughed. You don’t sound anything like Mr. T.
Thanks a million.
Frank made a pile of their empty paper plates and lit a cigarette. He looked at the kid, Leo, wondering what kind of life his parents subjected him to.
So how old are you, Leo?
Cool. I’m twenty-six today.
Today’s your birthday too? Awesome.
Yeah, I guess it is.
Do you have a job, Frank?
My uncle has a gas station with a convenience store, I work there.
Do you like it?
It’s okay. He took a drag of his cigarette. I got out of jail a few months ago.
Leo’s eyes widened, like, now this is interesting. He said, For what?
I was a second story man.
Who told the first story?
Frank had to think about this, and then he kept his face straight, remembering how he’d hated it when grownups laughed at him for saying something cute.
I didn’t tell stories. I was a burglar. You sneak up to the second story to steal shit.
Oh. Did you make a lot of money?
No. No I didn’t. You know the pawn shop on Route 59?
The kid nodded. My dad goes there sometimes.
Frank thought: Of course he does.
The guy’s a fence, Frank said. You sell the hot merchandise to him, jewelry, VCRs, whatever, for ten cents on the dollar. In addition to all the other assholes you have to pay off.
I don’t understand.
Okay, here’s how it works. I knew this girl who was a housekeeper for a rich family. (He didn’t add she was the one who Marie caught him banging.) She tells me the family’s going to Florida, the wife keeps her jewelry in the powder room, top drawer. I break into the house, I get a diamond watch, necklaces and shit, the whole haul is worth maybe five grand. I sell it to the fence for five hundred. I gotta give fifty to the housekeeper for the tip and a hundred to my driver. How much I got left?
Smart kid. It’s a nice chunk of change, right? But not enough to keep me in cheeseburgers. My fucking rent is three-fifty. So in between scores, what am I gonna do? Mug people? Fuck that. I worked for my uncle. It’s an easy job, you do your thing, you go home. Lucky for me he took me back after I got popped.
Leo was riveted. How’d you get popped?
Cause I was fucking stupid. My usual driver was getting married, so I used another guy, a total asshole. He talked tough but once we’re on the job he’s shitting bricks. Every car goes by he’s like, Is that a cop? No, numbnuts, it’s a Buick. So he’s waiting on the corner and the cops actually do drive by, probably on the way to Dunkin’ Donuts, and he panics. He peels out, doing sixty in a thirty right past the fucking cop car. They picked me up an hour later.
That sucks, the kid said.
You got that right, Frank said.
Frank remembered his uncle’s tears streaming down when he arrived with the bail money, yelling, Is this how I raised you? But he paid for the lawyer and let Frank come back to work after he got out. Another reason he was keeping his nose clean: to earn back his uncle’s respect.
Frank checked the clock. Oh shit: four forty-three.
I’ll be right back, he said to the kid. And he saw the fear in Leo’s eyes, probably thinking he was getting abandoned again, and Frank said, I’m going to the payphone right there, you can watch me. Okay?
Frank called Marie. While it was ringing, he watched the door for the father or the Gooch, either would be fine.
How’s my birthday boy, she said.
Somebody left me their kid, he said.
What? Where are you?
Bowl-o-rama. I came to shoot a few frames with the Gooch.
You said you were done with him.
That’s not the point.
What is the point, Frank?
He explained about Leo. From her silence it seemed like she wasn’t interested. Like she thought he was lying. When he was finished, she said, Okay, Frank.
Okay Frank what?
Marie, Frank said, but he was talking to the dial tone.
Leo was standing next to him.
Maybe you should call the hospitals, he said.
Christ, Leo. Why the fuck didn’t you say that two hours ago?
The kid winced. I’m sorry, he said.
Frank saw Leo holding back his tears and he felt like a piece of shit.
No, I’m sorry, he said. I’m just mad because I should have thought of it.
Leo nodded. We’re good.
Okay. Frank took a breath. What’s your stepmother’s name?
He got the phone book and called the Nyack Hospital, no luck. He called Good Samaritan in Suffern, bingo. He waited while they transferred him and the father picked up.
This is the guy with you left Leo with. When are you coming for him?
Leo said, Is Janet okay?
Frank said, He wants to know if Janet’s okay.
She’ll be fine.
She’ll be fine, Frank repeated. Are you coming for Leo?
You at Bowl-o-rama?
No, we’re in fucking Paris, France. Yeah, we’re at Bowl-o-rama. Get over here.
Frank hung up.
Your dad’s on his way.
Okay, Leo said. It might take him a while. Maybe we can bowl again?
Frank dug through his pockets and came up with four bucks, including change, which wasn’t enough for a lane and two meals—he was pretty sure he’d have to buy the kid dinner too. No, he knew it. Just like he’d known the Gooch would keep his money. Shit, he was probably halfway through an eight-ball by now. Frank wasn’t mad though. He had expected it, like he had expected the driver would fuck up the job. Both times he could see himself making a dumbass decision, but he was unable to keep from going through with it. As if he wanted shitty things to happen. As if he’d wanted to get popped, to lose a hundred bucks. To lose Marie.
They bowled a game, and then Frank bought the kid a Coke and a grilled cheese.
You didn’t get yourself anything, Leo said.
I’m not hungry, Frank said.
Leo ate and Frank smoked while they watched some game show on TV.
It’s too bad the A-Team isn’t on tonight, Leo said. We could have watched it together.
Yeah. That would have been cool.
Leo slurped his Coke. Can I ask you something?
Over the boy’s shoulder, Frank saw Leo’s sorry excuse for a father come in through the automatic doors, swinging his fat head around, looking for his kid.
Sure, Frank said. You can ask me whatever.
Maybe we could, like, have our birthdays together next year.
Frank tried to smile. Sure, Leo, he said. That’s a great idea.
Powered by Froala Editor
Powered by Froala Editor