Al Roosten stood nervously behind the paper screen. Was he nervous? Well, he was a little nervous. Although probably a lot less nervous than most people would be. Most people would probably be pissing themselves by now. Was he pissing himself? Not yet. Although, wow, he could understand how someone might actually—
“Let’s fire it up!” shouted the m.c., a cheerleaderish blonde too old for braids, whose braids were flipping around as for some reason she pretended to jog. “Are we fighting drugs here today or what? Yes we are! Do us businesspeople approve of drugs for our kids? No way, we don’t, we’re very much against that! Do we use drugs ourselves? Kids, those of you who are here, believe me when I say we don’t, and never did! Because, as someone who does feng-shui for a living, there’s no way I could do my feng-shui if I was wacked out on crack, because my business is about discerning energy fields, and if you’re cracked up, or on pot, or even if you’ve had too much coffee, the energy field gets all wonky, believe me, I know, I used to smoke!”
It was a lunchtime auction of Local Celebrities, a Local Celebrity being any sucker dopey enough to answer “Yes” when the Chamber of Commerce asked, “Willing to participate in community antidrug effort Celebrity Auction event tentatively entitled Boys of Summer?”
“So that’s why we’re here raising money for LaffKidsOffCrack and their antidrug clowns!” the blonde shouted. “Such as Mr. BugOut, who, in his classroom work, with a balloon, makes this thing that starts out as a crack pipe and ends up as a coffin, which I think is so true!”
Larry Donfrey of Larry Donfrey Realty stood near Roosten in just a swimsuit. Donfrey was a good guy. Good but flawed. Not that bright. Always tan. Yeow, what was his Boy of Summer? Surfer? Lifeguard? Partial Nudist? Was Donfrey attractive? Cute? Would the bidders consider Donfrey cuter than him, Al Roosten? Oh, how should he know? Did he like guys? Was he some kind of expert judge on the cuteness of guys? No, he didn’t like guys and never had. There had been a period in junior high, yes, when he had been somewhat worried that he might perhaps like guys, and had constantly lost in wrestling, because, instead of concentrating on his holds he was always mentally assessing whether his thing was hurting inside his cup because he was popping a mild pre-bone or because the tip was sticking out an airhole, and once he was almost sure he’d popped a mild pre-bone when he found his face pressed against Tom Reed’s hard abs, which smelled of coconut, but, after practice, obsessing about this in the woods, he realized that he sometimes popped a similar mild pre-bone when the cat sat on his groin in a beam of sun, which proved he didn’t have sexual feelings for Tom, since he knew for sure he didn’t have sexual feelings for the cat, since he’d never even heard that described as being possible. And from that day on, whenever he found himself wondering whether he liked guys he always remembered walking exultantly in the woods after the liberating realization that he was no more attracted to guys than to cats, just happily kicking the tops off mushrooms in a spirit of tremendous relief.
A sort of music started up, consisting of a series of loud, thick bumps punctuated by a smattering of feminine groans and something that sounded like a squeaky door, and Larry Donfrey headed down the runway to sudden cheers and whoops.
What the heck? thought Roosten. Whoops? Cheers? Would he get cheers? Whoops? He doubted it. Who whooped/cheered for the round bald guy in the gondolier costume? If he were a woman, he’d cheer/whoop for Donfrey, the guy with the tight ass and ripped brown arms.
The blonde cued Roosten by pointing at him while pretending to walk in place.
Oh God oh God.
Roosten stepped warily out from behind the paper screen. No one whooped. He started down the runway. No cheering. The room made the sound a room makes when attempting not to laugh. He tried to smile sexily but his mouth was too dry. Probably his yellow teeth were showing and the place where his gums dipped down.
Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity-whoop from near the salad bar.
Roosten brightened and sent a relieved half wave in the direction of the whoop, and the awkwardness of this gesture, the way it inadvertently revealed how terrified he was, endeared him to the crowd that seconds before had been ready to mock him, and someone else pity-whooped, and Roosten smiled a big loopy grin, which caused a wave of mercy-cheers.
Roosten was deaf to the charity in this. What a super level of whoops and cheers. Suddenly he remembered the special turn. Should he try it? Ho ho, he should, he would, and he did, increasing the level of whoops/cheers, which, to his ear, were already at least equal to Donfrey’s. Plus Donfrey had been basically naked, which meant that technically he’d beaten Donfrey, since Donfrey had needed to get naked just to manage a tie with him, Al Roosten.
Ha-ha! Poor Donfrey! Running around in his skivvies, and to no avail.
The blonde threw a butterfly net over Roosten’s head and he joined Donfrey in the cardboard jail.
Now that he had thrashed Donfrey, he felt a surge of affection for him. Good old Donfrey. He and Donfrey were the twin pillars of the local business community. He didn’t know Donfrey well. Just admired him from afar. Just like Donfrey admired him from afar. Once, the whole Donfrey clan had filed into Roosten’s shop, Bygone Daze. Donfrey’s wife had been beautiful. Nice legs, slim back, long hair. You looked at her and couldn’t look away. Donfrey’s kids had also seemed great, two elflike androgynes politely debating something, possibly the history of the Supreme Court?
Each Celeb had his own barred window in the cardboard jail. Donfrey now stepped away from his and toward Roosten’s. How gracious. What a prince. They’d have a chat. The crowd would jealously wonder what the twin pillars were chatting about in private. But, sorry, no: this was between pillars, rabble need not apply.
Donfrey was saying something, but the music was blaring and Roosten was partly deaf.
Roosten leaned in.
“I said, Don’t worry about it, Ed,” Donfrey was shouting. “You did fine. Really. No biggie. Give it a week, nobody will even remember it.”
What? What the hell? By saying he’d done fine, was Donfrey implying that he hadn’t? That he’d done badly? Humiliated himself? Was Donfrey on some other planet? On drugs? On drugs at an antidrug event?
Had Donfrey called him Ed?
Donfrey could kiss his ass. That fake. That snob. He’d forgotten that. He’d forgotten that Donfrey was a snobby fake. That time the Donfreys came into Bygone Daze, they’d immediately turned and walked out again, as if they’d found Roosten’s vintage collectibles too dusty and ill-selected for the Donfrey house, a literal mansion on a hill. Donfrey’s wife wasn’t beautiful, Roosten suddenly honestly admitted; she was an overgroomed scarecrow. As far as Donfrey’s kids—if those kids belonged to him? He’d scruff them up a bit. Try and de-elfify them. Were they girls or boys? You honestly couldn’t tell.
He didn’t have kids himself. Had never married. He had the boys, however. The boys were his nephews. The boys were not elfin. Au contraire. The boys were great. The boys were all-boy. And how. Possibly too much so. Why his sister Mag insisted on taking them to Budgi-Cutz when Budgi-Cutz made them look like three hulking versions of the same odd Germanic roundhead, their bangs cut straight across, he did not know. Every night was a three-way grunting/wrestling fest in the basement, the boys calling one another Skuzzknuckles or FartIngestron until one of them bonked his round head into something metal and they all helped the hurt one upstairs, tears running down their wrestling-engorged cheeks, like three suddenly repentant Nazis—
Not Nazis. Jeez. Germans. Energetic Germanic lads, healthy young Beethovens. Although as far as Beethoven, he doubted Beethoven had ever pried a prayer-book rack off the pew with his bare hands on a dare from another Beethoven, while a third Beethoven proudly displayed, on a hymnal, four tightly rolled snot towers he’d just—
It was the divorce. It was Mag’s divorce that had made the boys wild. It was sad about Mag. In high school, Al had been the popular wrestler and Mag had been the thin girl in ChristLife with a big crush on Christ. They’d lived on their parents’ farm, but somehow only Mag had turned out farmish. Junior year, she’d started dating Ken Glenn, equally agrarian, with plate-size ears. There’d been jokes at the time about Mag and Ken being married in overalls. There’d been jokes about Mag and Ken being married in a church full of barnyard animals. If there was ever a marriage you’d expect to last, this one was it: two homely Christian farmers. But no, Ken had left Mag for another farmer’s—
Mag was not homely. She was simple, she had a kind of simple earthy—
She was handsome. A handsome woman. She—everything was where it should be. She carried herself well. Except when bellowing at the boys. Then her face became a red contorted mask. You saw her frustration at being the only divorced woman in her extremely strict church, her embarrassment at having had to move in with her brother, her worry that, if he lost the shop (as it now appeared almost certain he would), she’d have to quit school and get a third job. Last night, he’d found her at the kitchen table after her shift at Costco, fast asleep across her community-college nursing text. A nurse at forty-five. That was a laugh. He found that laughable. Although he didn’t find it laughable. He found it admirable. A snob like Donfrey might find it laughable. A snob like Donfrey would take one look at Mag in her baggy nurse’s outfit and hustle his spoiled elves back to the stupendous Donfrey mansion, which had recently been featured in the Lifestyles section of the—
Oh, mansion shmansion. Did Gandhi’s house have the largest outdoor trampoline in the tri-state area? Did Jesus have a two-acre remote-controlled car track, with mountains to scale and a little village that lit up at night?
Not in his Bible.
Huh. The cardboard jail was now filled with Celebs. How had that happened? He’d apparently missed the runway walks of Max of Max’s Auto, Ed Berden of Steak-n-Roll, and the freakishly tall twin hippie brothers who ran CoffeeMinded.
The blonde was standing silently now, head down, as if waiting for her experience-based profundity to overflow into the showstopping heartfelt speech that would establish her once and for all as the most pain-racked person in the place.
“Folks, we’ve arrived at our most important aspect,” she said softly. “Which is our auction, which is silent. Without you, LaffKidsOffCrack is just some guys with strong antidrug feelings, wearing weird clothes in their own homes. Write down your bid, someone will come around. Later, if you are the one who won, you’ll be taken to lunch by your Celebrity who you bid for.”
Was it over?
It appeared to be over.
Could he sneak out?
He could if he bent low.
He bent low and booked it as the blonde droned on.
In the changing area, he found Donfrey’s clothes slopped over a chair: expensive pleated pants, nice silk shirt. On the floor were Donfrey’s keys and wallet.
Just like Donfrey to junk up a perfectly nice changing area.
Oh, why be mad at Donfrey? Donfrey hadn’t done anything to him. He’d just made a comment, trying to be nice. Trying to be charitable. To someone beneath him. [#unhandled_cartoon]
Roosten took a step forward and gave the wallet a kick. Wow, did it ever slide, right under a stack of risers. Like a hockey puck. There were the keys, alone now, underscoring the absence of the wallet. Yikes. He could say he’d accidentally kicked the wallet under there. Which was sort of true. He hadn’t thought about it, really. He’d just felt like kicking it and then he had. He was impulsive like that. That was one of the good things about him. It was how he’d bought the shop. Failing shop. He gave the keys a kick. What the hell? Why had he done that? They slid even better than the wallet. Now wallet and keys were far under the risers.
Gosh, too bad. Too bad he’d accidentally kicked those things under there.
Donfrey burst into the changing area, talking loudly on his cell in a know-it-all voice.
She was fine, Donfrey was bellowing. Nervous but psyched. Being brave. Stiff upper lip. Kid was solid gold. Always did her share: carried the laundry down on her day, dragged the trash to the street. Hadn’t slept all week. Too excited. What she was looking forward to most? Finally running with her class in gym. Imagine: all your life you’re limping around with a bent-in foot, then they finally figure out a way to fix it. It was scary, yes, Jesus, the brace literally broke and reformed the foot. Poor thing had been waiting so long. They had to haul ass pronto, pick her up, shoot over to the place. They were running late, the auction thing had gone on and on. He probably should’ve skipped it but it was such a terrific cause.
Roosten finished dressing quickly and left the changing area.
Jeez, what was all that about? Apparently, one of the elves wasn’t as perfect as she—
Well, that was sad. The sickness of a kid was—the children were the future. He’d do anything to help that kid. If one of the boys had a bent foot, he’d move heaven and earth to get it fixed. He’d rob a bank. And if the boy was a girl, even worse. Who’d ask a clubfoot or bentfoot or whatever to dance? There your daughter sat, with her crutch, all dressed up, not dancing.
Hundreds of dry leaf fragments were skittering across the FlapJackers parking lot. A bird on a parking bumper bolted, alarmed at the advance of the leaves. Stupid leaves, they’d never catch that bird. Unless he killed it with a stone, left it lying there. They’d be so grateful they’d declare him King of Leaves.
He gave a pile of leaves a vicious kick.
Shit. He felt like crying. Why, what was it, what was making him sad?
Off he drove through the town where he’d lived his whole life. The river was high. The grade school had a new bike rack. A ton of dogs leaped to the fence as usual as he passed the Flannery Kennel. Next to the kennel was Mike’s Gyros. Once during seventh grade Mom had taken him to Mike’s for a Coke.
“What seems to be the problem, Al?” Mom said.
“Everyone’s calling me bossy and fat,” he said. “Plus they say I’m sneaky.”
“Well, Al,” she said, “you are bossy, you are fat. And I’m guessing you can be pretty sneaky. But you know what else you are? You have what is called moral courage. When you know something is right, you do it, no matter what the cost.”
Mom could sometimes be full of it. Once, she said she could tell by the way he ran upstairs that he’d make a great mountain climber. Once, when he managed a B-minus in math, she said he should be an astronomer.
Good old Mom. She’d always made him feel special.
Suddenly his face was hot. He felt Mom looking at him from Heaven, sternly but wryly, in that way she’d had, as if saying, Hello, are we maybe forgetting something?
Well, it had been an accident. He had just accidentally misplaced some things inadvertently. With his foot. Via spontaneously kicking them erroneously.
Mom’s eyes narrowed in Heaven.
They were being mean to me, he said.
Mom in Heaven tapped her foot.
What was he supposed to do? Go racing back and tell them to move the risers? They’d know he’d done it. Plus Donfrey was probably long gone. Probably Donfrey’s wife had a set of spare keys. Or someone else had driven them home.
But they weren’t going home. They were going to the foot thing for their kid.
Roosten pulled into a white-stoned driveway. He had to think. A Yorkie rushed up to the fence, barking ceremonially. Then a chicken came up. Huh. A chicken and a Yorkie, living in the same yard. They stood side by side, looking at Roosten.
He saw how he could do it.
He’d sneak back in, pretend he’d never left. Everyone would be searching for the wallet and keys. He’d look alongside them awhile. When they were about to give up, he’d say, I assume you’ve already looked under those risers?
Uh, well, no, Donfrey would say.
Might be worth a try, Roosten would say.
They’d get some guys and move the risers. And there would be the wallet and there would be the keys.
Wow, Donfrey would say.
Just a hunch, Roosten would say. I simply mentally eliminated all other possible options.
I’m afraid we’ve underestimated you, Donfrey’s wife would say. We have to have you over to the house soon.
To the mansion, Donfrey would say.
And Al? Donfrey’s wife would say. Sorry about that time we walked out of your shop. That was rude.
And Al? Donfrey would say. Sorry I called you Ed earlier.
No problem, Roosten would say. I didn’t even really notice.
Dinner at the mansion would go well. Soon he’d basically be part of the family. He’d just drop by whenever. That would be nice. Nice to hang out in a mansion. Sometimes Mag and the boys might come along. Although the boys had better not break anything. They’d have to wrestle outside. One thing he did not need was his friends’ mansion trashed. He saw Donfrey’s wife, distressed by all the things the boys had broken, collapse into a chair and start weeping.
Thanks, boys, great, thanks a lot for that. Go outside. Go outside and sit quietly.
Now the moon is full in the big window and he and Donfrey are wearing tuxes and Donfrey’s wife is wearing something low-cut and golden.
This dinner is great, he says. All your dinners have been great.
It’s the least we could do, says Donfrey. You helped us out so much that time I stupidly lost my keys.
Ha-ha, yes, well, about that? Roosten says.
Then he tells them all about it: how he did an unfortunate thing, saw the light, raced back to help.
What a riot! says Donfrey.
That took guts, says Donfrey’s wife. Coming back like that.
I’d say it took moral courage, says Donfrey.
Your honesty makes us admire you all the more, says Donfrey’s wife.
Mag was there, too. What was she doing there? Well, it was fine, she could stay. Mag was a good egg. Decent conversationalist. The Donfreys would appreciate her good qualities, just like they appreciated his good qualities, and wouldn’t Mom love seeing that, her kids finally getting their due from sophisticated people in a beautiful mansion.
An odd inadvertent sound of contentment jerked Roosten out of his reverie.
What the hell. Where was he?
The Yorkie was sniffing the chicken. The chicken didn’t seem to mind. Or notice. The chicken had a laser-like focus on him, Al Roosten.
Yeah, right. Like that was happening. Like he was racing back. They’d see through him. They’d fry his ass. People were always seeing through him and frying his ass. When he’d stolen Kirk Desner’s flip-downs, the kids on the team had seen through him and fried his ass. The time he’d cheated on Syl, Syl had seen through him, broken off their engagement, and cheated on him, with Charles, which had fried his ass possibly worse than any single other ass-frying he’d ever had, in a life that, it recently seemed, was simply a series of escalating ass-fries.
What, that Donfrey doofus never made a mistake in his life? Mom said in his head. Was never inadvertently involved in something unfortunate that sadly occurred? And now wants to label you a dick, or scum, or a bad immature person, because of one small mistake? Does that seem fair? Don’t you think he’s probably needed forgiveness sometime in his life?
Probably, Roosten said.
Oh, definitely, Mom said. I’ve known and loved you all your life, Al, and there’s not a mean bone in your body. You are Al Roosten. Don’t forget that. Sometimes you think something’s wrong with you, but every time, turns out, there isn’t. Why beat yourself up about this and, in so doing, miss the beauty of the actual moment?
The lilt of Mom’s voice in his head cheered him.
He pulled out of the driveway. Mom was right. The world was beautiful. Here was the pioneer graveyard with its leaning yellowed stones. Here was the very vivid Jiffy Lube. A dense ball of birds went linear, then settled into the branches of a lightning-blasted tree. He knew it wasn’t really Mom in his head. He was just imagining what Mom would have said. Who knew what Mom would have said? She could be a crazy old broad there at the end. But he sure missed her.
He thought again of the crippled girl. They’d missed the appointment and had to reschedule. The only available slot was months away. In the dark of night, she reached down for her bent foot and let out a groan. She’d been so close, so close to getting—
That was crap. That was negative. You had to let the healing begin. You had to forgive yourself. Everyone knew that. You had to love yourself. What was positive? The shop: thinking up ways to improve it, make it halfway decent, bring it back to life. He could put in a coffee bar. Tear out that old stained rug. There, he was feeling better already. You had to have joy. Joy kept a guy going. Once he got the shop viable, he’d go beyond that, make it great. Lines of people would be waiting when he arrived every morning. As he pushed his way through the crowd in his mind, everyone seemed to be asking, with smiles and pats on his back, would he consider running for mayor? Would he do for the town what he’d done for Bygone Daze? Ha-ha, what a fun deal that would be, running for mayor. What colors would his banners be? What was his slogan?
Al Roosten, Friend to All. That was good.
Al Roosten, the Best Among Us. Too vain.
Al Roosten: Like You, Only Better.
Here was the shop. Nobody was waiting to get in. A muddy tarp had blown over from the junk yard and plastered itself against the window. Across from the junk yard was the viaduct where the hoboes hung out. Those hoboes were ruining his—
He believed they preferred to be called “homeless.” Hadn’t he read that? “Hobo” being derogatory? Jesus, that took nerve. Guy never works a day in his life, just goes around stealing pies off windowsills, then starts yelping about his rights? He’d like to walk up to a homeless and call him a hobo. He would, he’d do it, he’d grab that damn hobo by the collar and go, Hey, hobo, you’re ruining my business. I’ve missed my rent two months in a row. Go back to the foreign country you probably—
He just really hated those beggars walking past his shop with their crude signs. Couldn’t they at least spell right? Yesterday one had walked by with a sign that said, “Please help homless.” He’d felt like shouting, Hey, sorry you lost your hom! They spent enough time under that viaduct, couldn’t they at least proofread each other’s—
As he parked the car, his mind went strangely blank. Where was he? The shop. Ugh. Where were his keys? On the same old ugly lanyard, impossible to get out of your pocket.
Jesus, he couldn’t stand the thought of going in.
Mag and the boys were counting on him.
He sat a minute, breathing deeply.
An old man in filthy clothes staggered up the street, dragging a cardboard square on which, no doubt, he slept. His teeth were ghoulish, his eyes wet and red. Roosten imagined himself leaping from the car, knocking the man to the ground, kicking him and kicking him, teaching him, in this way, a valuable lesson on how to behave.
The man gave Roosten a weak smile, and Roosten gave the man a weak smile back.