Jan/Feb 2003  •   Spotlight


by Jon Fried

Photo-Art by Kristen Merola

Photo-Art by Kristen Merola

Dad was gone, and though we had some money when we sold Grandpa, it didn't last. Grandpa was sick for two weeks and kept saying, "Hold out for 2,000. Hold out for 2,000," and I kept saying, "No, Grandpa, don't say that. Don't talk that way," while thinking, No way will we get 2,000, but we did, and it gave us, I mean gave Mom time to look for a good job. She sat around drinking coffee and checking the classifieds, depressed really, talking about how her parents had sent her to such a school, but she couldn't do the same for me. She couldn't even curse Dad all the time because he sent us about 15 pounds of nuts. Mom finally got stuck being the stamp meter machine in the Mayor's office. She knew everybody, even the mayor—she'd lived there all her life—and I said goodbye, though I doubt she was listening, and tried to call Dad, though I knew he was no longer in the corner of Collins Drug (probably became an intercom in a big apartment building, he always said he'd do that), and I headed for town, the big city, the land of jobs and glory and big, big bucks.

Winter was coming, so I wanted to be indoors. Shouldn't even have dreamed of it. I was glad my parents never knew. The only thing I could find was in the park, as a plane tree, long after the leaves were gone, and I shivered through four bitter months. I was worried at first about the weight of the snow on the little branches, but when the time came, I was too cold and unhappy to notice it. And besides, even worse than the wind and the ice and snow was the hardness of the ground. It was more frightening than anything else—how cold and hard and dry would it get, and what would happen down there? But I looked around me and saw trees younger and smaller who were taking it, and trees much older who'd been through the same or worse, and finally in April, one weekday, the sun shone all day without a single second behind a cloud, and I felt something go through me, very faintly, but unmistakably present: a glimmering, a twinge, as if a huge and glorious yawn was beginning to take hold of me, a yawn that would reach from root-tip to twig and last a delirious and sensual week or two.

But I never got the chance to experience all that, because a yellow Parks Department truck pulled up nearby a day or two later and two guys got out, walked up to me, and said, "That one, yep. That's one of 'em," and they wrapped a red-orange plastic strip around me.

In two days, before they could bring in the chipper, it was done. I had switched. I was a nearby bench, stone legs, wood slats, with a new coat of thick green paint. This wasn't so bad really. It was a good paint job and kept the spring rains out, and I was in a long semi-circular row of benches near the back of the park, where we stood guard by a statue of the park's architect: a scowling, bushy eyebrowed buffoon and the subject of many of our jokes. With the chatter of spring, I was finally warm.

We were mostly left alone back there, and I suppose this made our visitors that much more memorable. We were mostly asleep, too, catnapping through days and nights, and when we were awakened by someone coming, I hoped it would be some kids with a radio, which they'd turn up loud and put on my seat slats, sending a nice tingling through the wood, and there was also the hope they wouldn't bring any beer or soda to spill on us. The worst company, though nobody admitted it—we're supposed to take pride in being the humble last resort, the bed to some poor unwashed soul—the worst was a bum. If one were coming sometime after dark, I'd hope a squirrel would hop on and stay till he passed. But if it was a young couple, I'd try to look as still and classic as I could, hoping they'd be on a while, so I could listen to the murmuring of their voices and kisses, and maybe if it was a Saturday, I'd feel the weight of an outstretched body pressed into me by another. And then I'd brag all day Sunday.

Guys who'd been there a while talked about regulars—lunchers, weekenders, drinkers—and about a month later I met mine. The big couple. Rod and Sally. He was huge, dark and hairy, with a bristly Fu Manchu moustache, a big square face, and an athlete's physique that was just starting to go to seed. She was a thick one, too, with cute but pouting features and lots of bottle blond hair. I suppose she was fat, but the tight things she wore held her together, and as they strutted every evening toward me, I could see why he, the kind of guy who walked like he owned the whole world simply because there was nothing else to own, was walking arm in arm with her, the kind of girl who walked like she owned nothing in the world, except her man. I didn't make that up. Crispy, the bench beside me did. And down they sat on me.

I assumed they had already been together a while, because they said almost nothing, presiding over the park at dusk as it emptied of people. There they sat, with their hands draped all over each other, slightly bored expressions on their faces, but just as the light was almost gone he'd turn to her, and in a voice as deep as you'd imagine but much softer, he'd say, "Sally, gettin' dark." There was a gentle tone in those few words, and as if transformed by them, she would lean back, look him in the eye, and then fall into him for a long, hungry kiss. Then jumping up, she'd run off without a second look, and he would turn the other way.

By June, when the cool evening breeze and the warm thighs of people in shorts and mini-skirts brought an indescribable sensation, my couple was the talk of the walk, as Crispy put it, and I was the object of fierce envy.

"Don't get better than that," grumbled the old benches with their slats half rotted, while the ones my age prodded me. "What's she like? Where does he touch her?" With a more serious kind of envy brewing inside me, I kept my mouth shut.

Most of all, there was talk about what happened after she left. A few minutes after dark, one and sometimes two men would stroll by, glancing nervously over at me and Rod. He would wait until they had gone a few benches down, and then he would whistle two notes. The men would stop. Two more notes. They would stroll back. Three notes. Then, very quickly, the transaction: he would produce a tiny package from a pouch tied around his waist, and after giving the buyers a peek, he would return it to the pouch, receive their money, count it, stuff it away, and make the exchange. There was something about the pouch—he would slip the goods out of it and into one of theirs just like it—and I would catch a glimpse of this thing that everyone thought was drugs, but it had a strange phosphorescent glow.

Finally, one night, some nervous customer dropped one of the mysterious objects on me, and for a split second I got a close look. I'd heard of them, but wasn't even sure they existed. No one was sure. They were the blue cards, and I didn't know if they were some dangerously secret all-powerful credit card, or if their glowing material was itself the source of their power. It was skinnier than a credit card, skinnier than paper, and seemed to have no actual weight. I felt nothing as it fell on me, and normally I could feel a fly landing. It emitted a faint hum as if it was a machine, but the sound modulated in a human way, like the absent whistling of someone strolling through the park.

"Is it drugs? Is it crack? Dope?" I was asked.

"No," I'd say, and if pressed, as I was almost every night, I'd add, "I don't know." I didn't.

After each sale, Rod would take a deep breath and sit a few minutes. Then, like Sally, he'd jump up and run off. I didn't think I'd ever find out what was really happening, and that made my slats ache.

One thing I did learn that summer was there's nothing worse than the sound of an old park bench grousing, and the moment that changed my life wouldn't have come if I hadn't gotten thoroughly sick of them saying, "You lucky stiff, let a dog piss on you." And, "You don't know how good you got it and it's all down hill from here."

My couple arrived. The humidity hadn't broken. Sweaty night. But still came the moment when he crooned in her ear, and then the wild kiss. But that night something was different—probably the heat—and as he was sliding his hand where she didn't want it, she pushed him away, and somehow managed to catch his watch, which fell straight through two of my slats and hit the ground. Too busy to put it back on, he just reached down and set it on me, and before I even thought, I made my move. The watch had been stunned, maybe knocked out for good, and with a quickness and poise I didn't know I had, I moved in, got that watch flashing again and was a bench no more. After she left, I was on the wrist of her man, and that night I was on the stand by his bed, flashing the hours, minutes, and the date.

Yes. I was more than a little pleased with myself, suddenly up in the glitzy heights of a downtown apartment tower, taken with my own audacity and the glimpse I'd had of the park—an empty darkness—outside and far below. Like one of the benches I'd left behind, I thought I'd wait for the usual sleepiness to come over me. What would happen next? Who knew? I could think about it tomorrow. But blinking—blinking—blinking away I didn't become sleepy—dazed but not sleepy—and besides, I didn't have to wait long for what would happen next. As stupid as it sounds, I hadn't guessed what I was in for after the two of them got in bed and turned out the lights. Can a digital blue watchface blush? Should it have made me feel less embarrassed to know that no one in the world, least of all the two people next to me furiously devouring each other, could possibly have had the faintest clue as to who or what or where I was?

Embarrassed, but curious. I listened and spent a frustrating moment realizing I couldn't turn around to face the bed. I was beginning to realize I might blink myself into a trance, but I wasn't ever going to sleep. Then they were done. Sally quietly slipped out of bed, into my line of sight, and then into the bathroom. She was a little fat, and the semi-darkness could not do for her what her clothes did. She stayed in there from 12:26:16 to 12:43:52, and then she walked to the window and stood looking out over the park and into the suburbs until 1:04:09, when she disappeared into the kitchen for what sounded like something to drink. Then, instead of going to bed, she stood at the desk in the bedroom with her hands on the keyboard of the computer, looking into the dark screen for a full three minutes and 12 seconds. I wanted to know what she was thinking, even more than I'd wanted to know what she and Rod were doing in bed.

The next morning, he was dressed and shaved and was strapping me on to his hairy arm when he said to her, "Hey, get up." She didn't move. He put me back on the table and leaned over her. "What are you going to do, stay here all day?"

"What's the rush?" Her voice was high. In the park, it had always sounded deep and velvety.

"I'm in a hurry." Sheets rustled. "C'mon, what gives?"

"Nothing. Can't I lock up behind me?"

"You know the deal, I don't like anybody here when I'm not here." There was quiet. Once again, I was facing the wrong way.

Then Rod spat out, "Yeah, yeah, okay," and rushed out, leaving me behind.

She dressed and went to the computer. She was nervous and hasty, and everything she saw made her more so, until something she saw made her gasp and stare at the screen and slowly curse aloud. She rushed to her pocketbook and brought some newspaper clippings to the desk.

"Oh my god."

Now her voice was quivering. She kept looking at the clippings and hunting around on the computer, and soon enough she was quietly crying. But straightening herself and shaking her still unbrushed hair, she took a deep breath, rose, and started quickly rifling through drawers, shirt pockets, books, dishes, couch cushions, everything, and finally returned to my line of sight nearly staggering, staring at the fingers of one hand which I could see were glowing with a blue dust. With panic in the back of her throat, she hurried into the bathroom and blasted the tub water (to wash off the dust I was sure), and when I heard the first front door lock turn, I was filled with rage at myself that I couldn't warn her, that I couldn't do anything—at least turn off the damn computer—but she must have heard him because she ran out and shut it off just as his footsteps had started toward us, and then she scurried back into the bathroom with the clippings and locked the door.

His voice was loud. "You still here? Look it's a bad day already, let's go."

She stepped out and mumbled, "Why are you such a prick in the mornings?"

"I work in the mornings."

Still mumbling, she said, "What is your work?"

He started to shout but held back. "Would you get out of here already? I don't like talking about it, and I'm not going to talk about it, and if you don't like it like this, don't hang around, get it?"

She picked up her jacket and pocketbook and stormed out the door, saying through a tightly shut mouth, "I'll see you at the park."

"Yeah," he said.

The door clicked behind her, and I was left with him. He turned to me, "fuckin' watch," and putting me on, he went to work at the computer. I noticed something when he turned it on. There was a flash, and then darkness on the screen, and for a moment it seemed... but he worked furiously, picking up a PDA and slamming it into its cradle, then hammering away at the keys, his leg jiggling, grunting to himself and growling "come on" every time the computer took more than a second to flash what he wanted it to. I couldn't read anything on the screen, his hands were flying so fast, but I could tell he was getting somewhere, letting out short bursts of "go, go, now, do it," until he stood and said, "Okay, George, dammit baby, give me one second, one second," and he took out of the desk drawer a black box, heavy, I knew, by the way the veins on his wrist bulged right under me, and he wired it to the back of the computer.

From a pouch in his jacket pocket he slipped out a glowing blue card and plugged it into a slot in the black box, humming along with it. Then he gripped the keyboard.

"You're my man, George, you and me, buddy. Yes, yes, c'mon, COME ON. Time, George, time." Rod brought me up to his face. There was glee and contempt and nervous hope in his grey eyes, turned green by the reflection of the computer screen. It was 11:22:54.

Then I heard a beep, and he let out a deep but quiet laugh. "Takes one to steal one. Goodnight George," he said, and after shutting off the machine, he remembered something, cursed, and flicked it back on. In that second when the computer was on but not yet working, open and unguarded, I was near the keyboard, and I jumped in. I just did it. As the machine flickered into readiness, and I flickered into readiness inside it, I was flooded with an overwhelming amount of information, numbers, addresses, dates, times, and as I moved C:> login:KL/*346.dbl.cdv to the SETKILLFILE at the click of his mouse, I had time to recognize some famous names, but before I could figure anything out, I was shut off.

I could see, and I could hear, and I watched him put everything away and rush out of the room, and then I heard him slam the door. But everything inside the computer was out of view. If I'm off, do I starve, I wondered? Not if I'm still plugged in, I found out. The afternoon passed torturously, with a clock inside my frame ticking but also invisible to me, and the evening crept along until the two of them came home.

A computer has no night vision, so by listening I tried to decide: was she spying on him? Was she acting? Did she love him? It sounded like she did. He spoke to her in his gentle voice, and a few times she laughed, a high and silvery chime. And when they went to bed, it was endless and unbearable.

She could act when she needed to, though. In the morning, she woke up groaning and complaining of flu. When he nearly lost his temper, she stumbled into her clothes. She teetered, he caught her, and said he'd call her a cab.

"Oh no, no, it'll pass, let me just lie down an hour or so, and I promise I won't stay this time." Hands to her forehead. It worked.

As if she hadn't believed what she'd seen the day before, she went to the computer again. This time, as she stared into the screen, I stared into her eyes. There was nothing I could figure out from the codes and files anyway. So I stared at her. She was biting her lip, tense, scared, wondering what she was going to do. And what was I going to do? As if speaking for both of us, Sally stood and said, "Oh, now what?"

She went to the window, breathing deeply, trying not to become upset, and then she sat on the bed and put the phone in her lap. Good, I thought, call someone, find help. She picked up the receiver and stared at the buttons, put down the receiver and looked at me on the desk, and then picked it up again but still did not dial.

Finally she spoke aloud. "He might be the one. He might be the one. It might be him." Carefully and slowly she returned the phone to the night table and laid her head on the pillow. She was shaking. Eventually her eyes closed.

I couldn't stand it anymore. Do or die, it was time. To hell with it all, it was time to stand up, to be little Troddy, as my mother called me, and I was going to go to Sally, somehow. Like a dishwasher stepping out of his apron, I got out of that machine and on my own two feet, snuck out of the room and went to the door to the apartment, where I turned the locks as slowly and silently as I could, and let myself out. Then I knocked. I heard her jump up and scurry to put everything away.

"Who's there, who are you, are you a friend of Rod's?" She was desperately trying to sound calm as she shouted from inside the door, without opening it.

"Yeah, I'm a friend from back home. I'm in town. I thought I'd, uh, stop in, you know, and surprise him."

When she appeared in the doorway I was, oddly enough, stunned, as if I was finally face to face with someone I'd been reading about all my life.

"My name's... Tr... uh... George," I said, holding out my hand. She didn't take it, and just stared at me. "The truth is, I know Rod's in trouble, and I thought I'd better come."

"You're... you said you're..."

"Rod's friend. I had a long drive. Do you mind if I have some coffee?"

"Oh, sorry," she said and turned and hurried into the kitchen. "I'm sorry, it's just that..." and as her voice trailed off I walked into the living room.

The view was spectacular. The buildings, the river, the distant hills. Even now I couldn't help but stare. It gave me confidence.

"So I guess you know," I said, sitting on the couch as she handed me a cup of coffee.

She nodded, peering down at me through uncombed blond tangles. "I guess I do."

"I don't think it's him," I blurted, though I didn't know why.

"I think," she muttered, "he could've... done that to that poor man." Then she sat next to me on the couch.

That shook me. "You do?"

She nodded. We sat in silence. I wanted to take her away, but I didn't even have a wallet in my pocket, let alone any money.

"I got to go," she said, standing uneasily.

"No wait." I grabbed her wrist, and then took her hand, and she sat again.

"He said... well I guess if you're here..."

"We've got to think a minute."

"What are you going to say to him?"

"He... I... you know, Sally, he talked about you a lot. He likes you a lot but..."

"But what?" she squeezed my hand.

"But..." I looked at her, trying to think of what to say and trying not to feel the skin of her hand, and the door locks clicked.

We both jumped to our feet. "What are you going to do? You've got to help him," she whispered as I walked to the center of the room and Rod shouted from the entranceway, "Who the hell is here, Sally? Is there somebody here?"

Sally turned to me. "George?"

He was moving, I was frozen. He was talking. I could hear the name George. I was silent, fighting to make a sound and then flash *POP!* I was down, down. I could open an eye, one eye, not the other. I could hear, I could think, I couldn't feel much. Not yet, anyway, and I watched them go into the bedroom and heard him shouting, "Did he look at this? Did you look at this? Did he touch this?"

I did not have long. I was on the floor, looking up at the stereo and the ceiling. I turned my head. A plug in the wall. The plug to a strip. I reached, I stretched, my hand shook, and I needed all my strength to pull the wire, and mercifully, the plug came loose and fell. Then I rose, wobbling, waving my hands for balance, though I wanted to touch my left temple, which felt as though a white-hot steel ball the size of a grapefruit had been planted in it. I staggered and reached out with both hands and fell against the CD deck. I held on. I was in. I made it seconds before they came back into the room.

Sally saw the blood and no one there and shrieked. Rod walked up to her and lifted her by the shoulders, and when he spun her around she brushed against me, a CD player, a top name brand, now shattered inside.

"Shut up," he said. "Bastard ran away."

She was incoherent and inconsolable for a long time, while Rod kept saying, "Who was he? What did he say?" She finally babbled something about building maintenance.

"Bullshit," he spat, but then, telling her over and over she was "full of fever," he calmed himself down and went to put on some music. He cursed the CD deck, mashing the buttons with his fingers, and finally he smashed the black metal case with his fist. I was gone.

When I came to I was at the repair shop.

There was a tiny little man behind a tiny counter in front, but in back was a huge warehouse, an endless hangar, and after the man took Rod's deposit and told him two to three weeks, he carried me to a boy sitting in back and said, "Fuhget it, stick it back. Way back."

And with that the boy carried me down past the rows of benches with repairmen working at them and past the racks with the newly fixed machines, all the way to the dusty graveyard of junked equipment and spare parts. He set me down gently enough, and I was glad. I had taken a beating, and it was much more than just a punch. It was a headache, but worse, piercing and pounding, and through it all I heard a raspy little whisper, saying my name, over and over. "Troddy, Troddy."

I tried to picture Sally, but I didn't deserve it, and she wouldn't come to me. All I heard was the rasping whisper as I fell into a strange, nasty sleep that gave me no rest but lasted for what seemed like days. When I started coming out of it, I still heard my name. Just my name, over and over, until I realized it wasn't my own pounding brain speaking it, but it was something else, some one else in fact, and I looked around to see what it could be. And there, not six inches from me, was an old broken intercom system, a board with names and buttons, with a tiny old speaker. Some junk from a huge apartment tower.


It was him.

"Troddy, I didn't know if you'd make it. What do you know, we meet again."

"Dad, I can't..."

"Rest up, Trod, your strength will come back."

That was about the most he said. He wouldn't say much about himself, where he'd been, how long he'd been in the shop.

He asked about the nuts, and I said we'd gotten them.

He asked about my mother, and I said she wasn't doing too well when I left.

"Never did get to school, did you," Dad said.

That made me think of money, and I told him about the blue cards, which he refused to believe. I told him I'd seen them, almost touched them, but he still didn't believe me. "Why not?" I said.

"Cause it ain't right," he said.

"What's not right?" I said.

He didn't answer. I think I was about to convince him that right or wrong, the things existed, when we were scooped off the shelf, tossed into a bucket, dragged into the alley, emptied into a dumpster, picked up by a truck and taken to a recycling center where we were thrown in with the unrecyclable trash and compacted by a huge machine and then placed on a barge on the river which sailed out to open seas and dumped its load.

Somewhere I lost trace of him, and the truth is I doubt he made it. I felt it was my fault. Somehow, I thought, if I hadn't come along, at least he'd still be at the shop. Me, I'd been asking for it. What did I think I was, walking around doing whatever I felt like? Was that me, living the life, meeting the girls?

My head still hurt. But I'd recovered enough to regain my wits and I was floating out there slowly drifting toward shore, thinking the waves were going to thrash me into the rocks and grind me into bits of metallic sand. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Up on a beach, with lots of company. Fresh air. Not such a bad way to go.

But as I floated along I noticed a speedboat coming my way and I suddenly saw a whole different scenario: I'd get into the boat somehow, and once back in the marina, I'd get into a yacht, and this time I wouldn't make mistakes, and I'd find a blue card, and I'd move in—inside a blue card, was it possible? Just the thought made me shiver. But no, I wanted more. One day I'd own a blue card myself and find Sally and take her away. I'd bring in a lot more than 2,000 someday.

"Bye-bye, Dad," I said to myself, and waited for the speedboat.