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The Move Ahead

His baseball teammates nicknamed him “Caboose” as a teenager. He’d never been a fast runner. Physically fit, yes; fast, no. His large head always pivoted back and forth with every stride, and, like the bobblehead doll proves, head movement does not always translate into forward progress.

But he was running fast now through the starless night. Or more accurately, he felt like he was. Detouring from his fear momentarily, he tried to imagine the figure he cut, how smooth the arms reached and recoiled, whether his legs appeared blurry in their churn. He had to be really moving, he told himself.

When he’d felt this way in the past and asked friends for confirmation, it had always been pulled out from under him. “No, not really, Bobby, you really weren’t running all that fast,” they’d say, or, “maybe average speed, probably less, though.” In his flight from the carful of men following him, there was no one to ask. It was just as well. He didn’t need any more bad news.

Moving to Denver two weeks ago had presented the perfect set of circumstances. He would help his handicapped friend Lou get up and shower in the morning, fix him breakfast, put him on his way to work, and be waiting at home to help him when he returned. In the precious hours between he would write. At 23, an English major college dropout, he was about to clean himself up and start moving forward.

In the recession years of the mid 1980s, he’d got himself stuck in a vicious circle of small town life — never enough work to stay, not enough money to leave — in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. At least, this is what he told himself over lunch every day beneath the stark fluorescent lights of the soup kitchen he and his buddies visited to cure their hangovers and strategize how they could get more booze again each afternoon. The scale of the jagged mountain peaks surrounding them, and, behind the mountains, the high desert that rolled out for hundreds of miles, framed their efforts with an insignificance beyond a city’s purview.

A few temp jobs occasionally broke up this routine.

There was the “deconstruction” job across the street from the trailer park where he lived for almost two years in a damaged single-wide with no heat or running water. The park sat at the base of an old uranium mill-tailings pile that provided some of the source material for the first atomic bomb of the Manhattan Project during World War II. In the mornings, he put a few extra yards of distance between himself and the radioactivity of the tailings pile by walking across the highway to the abandoned warehouse to be demolished. Most of the building’s red roof’s trusses had collapsed, but its walls stood firm. It was set in a small clearing of a valley that swept west and sank into the rocky, bronzed terrain of Utah and Arizona.

The deconstruction he learned about in literary theory classes didn’t function here. He sat atop a cinder block wall, legs gripping either side of it for balance, while taking a mini sledge hammer to the cinder blocks in front of him — hopefully a safe distance in front of him. It’s true he immediately recognized the elemental misguidedness and baldfaced danger in the task, even before families of bats flew up from the cinder block holes in the wall where he was perched, explosions of black napkins from the chalky dust of the cement. But so much was misguided, he thought. Where did you stop once you began drawing a line?

There was the painting and drywall jobs he did for a Mormon contractor who bought the crew beers every Friday. Bobby considered the beers an extra-generous gesture given the man’s beliefs. But the contractor was always long gone by the time “Mongo,” the 6’6″, 280-pound Vietnam vet drywaller, had to be tackled to the ground by handfuls of the crew to prevent his drunkenness leading to arrest. Though a slightly larger man, Mongo reminded Bobby a lot of his former stepfather back east.

A gunnery sergeant who served four tours and returned home to a hero’s welcome, his stepfather took a job with the city sewer department after the war and coached the boys basketball team at Bobby’s elementary school on the side — heroes’ welcomes are usually neither long-lived nor especially profitable. Unlike Mongo, his stepfather’s rage didn’t require an alcohol trigger. An errant bounce pass or sloppy pick-and-roll caused a volcano to erupt inside him and send basketballs flying off walls and backboards, torrents of screams that left sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade boys frozen in silence while the balls trickled to their lonely stops.

Parents of the players, including his mother, marveled at how well the coach disciplined the boys. They never saw the rage, unless a referee happened to make a questionable call during an actual game. The parents could ascribe the ensuing outburst to a highly competitive spirit caught in the heat of battle, and the piddle that likely ran down the poor referee’s legs was concealed by the black pants of his uniform.

They got married shortly before Bobby’s twelfth birthday. His stepfather was 10 years and five months older than he was. Beaten by his drunkard father, carted off to southeast Asia for four hellish years, sentenced to walk the sewer lines under the streets of the city, tilted toward mania by talentless juvenile basketball players, and now a father. When he might have used a little brother, he got a son.

The trail of jobs this union between his mother and stepfather soon set in motion for him, from painting and landscaping to hauling trash and cleaning out condemned houses, rarely came with payment attached. He wasn’t going to travel two thousand miles to trace those steps again in search of money and sustenance.

Here was an offer from a former college classmate who, with a computer programming degree, possessed skills that attracted more demand than any proofreading or building deconstruction abilities ever would. They had reserved a two-bedroom apartment — with balcony — in the heart of the city’s downtown district. Lou was his ticket out of destitution. And although almost every cent of his compensation as a home health care aide would be in the form of room and board, he didn’t care, he’d finally be able to write without anxiety over those kinds of concerns for a large swath of time. The city could have been Timbuktu as far as he was concerned.

Raised on a pinto bean farm outside of Cortez, Colorado, Lou had no experience at all with urban life. He’d been born with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy called Arthogryposis, which turned what would have likely been a sheltered life if he were able-bodied and could walk, into an existence where his parents practically mapped out the approved paths his electric wheelchair could travel. Bobby knew Lou was stubborn, and that a job in the city presented a way for him to break away from his family. But he had also seen how the helplessness of his condition led Lou to trust no one but his parents. He’d seen him forget friends who worked as his health care aids once the jobs ran their terms. Lou possessed a childlike, jovial spirit and Bobby liked him a lot, but he had to accept the fact that he would always be his employee first. He remembered what Lou told him once: “I was born like this. I don’t know anything else.”

 

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A few old 45 records were tacked on the walls and what looked like a half-lit string of Christmas lights framed the mirror behind the barhead. Though he was winning at pool, he’d never been here before and was wary of making bets. Bar flies buzzed on their stools. The tall man he was playing sauntered confidently up to every shot but moved with a surplus of swagger to hide the twitches and glitches of someone too high to be shooting pool. He could somewhat  identify with this — he played best between four and seven beers, a marker he had just passed with his latest round.

At the first bar of the afternoon, they took a table by the window looking out on Denver’s Colfax Ave. He was imagining beatniks like Kerouac and Cassidy trolling the same street for drinks a little more than a generation ago, young punks raising hell, ready to bounce anywhere with a ferocious passion, when he noticed they were the only men in the bar. The two gals who greeted them with laughter on their entrance now made more sense to him. He waved to them softly and they smiled again and waved back. Lou was getting anxious to see some straight women. They finished one more round of long-neck bottles of beer and moved down the block to their current drinking hole, The Music Box Lounge.

Next to the jukebox in the long and narrow space, a lone man danced animatedly as they entered. There was no music playing. Part of Bobby felt bad for insisting they visit bars in their downtown neighborhood when he knew Lou would rather be at one of the nightclubs in the suburbs looking for co-eds. But they had only been in city a couple of weeks and he wasn’t sure they could survive another of Lou’s drunk driving experiments.

He hadn’t decided whether Lou’s van was built to torment him with danger or tease him with its invincibility, but he was seeing it in his dreams now — a brand-new Chevy with bronze stripes lined across its mud brown coat of paint like grooves in panelled walls. Lou’s parents had it made especially for him. The driver’s seat was removed to create space for his wheelchair and the steering column was crowned with what resembled a chain-link chrome wheel from a low rider’s wet dream. They called it “zero-effort steering modification.” Lou, who packed no more than 110 pounds into his four-foot frame, could not move his fingers with any great dexterity or independence — he typed with a stick in his mouth. But he could swing his arms atop the van’s tiny steering wheel and guide it very capably. When he wasn’t drinking.

At about 80 pounds his junior, Lou could drink as much as Bobby and with equal gusto. His years of drinking heavily overmatched his months of experience driving. On their very first night out in the city they traveled to a dance club in the southern suburbs. It was the Fourth of July weekend. Bobby had downed several drinks in the course of the evening but was still worried when they climbed back in the van to go home, and he never worried when he drank. Less than a mile from making it back to their apartment downtown they hit a 1966 red Cadillac convertible with a white vinyl top. The car was parked. A well-known Greek restaurateur in the city turned out to be the owner. Perhaps because he was too heartbroken or filled with disgust, the man had his wife handle all the insurance claim paperwork.

A few nights after that they missed a down-ramp entrance onto a highway, slid down a steep embankment and basketed the van into the belly of a chain-link fence like a baseball in the webbing of a glove, mere feet from a very crude merge into said highway. Bobby climbed out in a haze and knocked in vain at a few doors before finally convincing a neighbor to call a tow truck. There was no amount of alcohol that could make him feel safe in the van with Lou driving drunk, and it wasn’t a vehicle he could drive himself even if he remained sober. He hadn’t complained out loud yet primarily because it was he who totalled Lou’s old van trying to escape bikers chasing them down Wildcat Canyon outside of Durango, Co., an incident they were both trying their best to forget. Lou hadn’t quite messed up like that yet. But it wasn’t fun waiting for it to happen, either.

“Hey,” he said after getting up and looking out the back door, “it’s dark out.” They were sitting at a round two-top with a pitcher of beer listening to the jukebox. “How’d that happen?”

“Happens every day,” said Lou.

“Sounds like a cause for celebrating, but maybe we should head back and drink at home.”

“One more pitcher and we’ll go.”

He understood Lou would’ve preferred a woman, especially a girlfriend, to witness him naked every day and shower him and dress and undress him. But it had to be evident to Lou that this was not going to be a place where he might meet such a woman, no matter how long they stayed. The bar flies who had hung on were louder now. A woman with front teeth missing stood at the corner of the barhead and laughed to herself, the frosts in her brown hair melted away seasons ago. Most of the newcomers now beat a path through the bar to the restrooms and out the front door again in search of drugs for the evening. The growing crowd now made it difficult for Lou to maneuver his chair as he moved over to check out the jukebox.

With the pool table right next to the jukebox, Bobby figured it was his chance to play one last game. On his first turn after the break, a corner slice back toward the jukebox, he saw a man in his mid-30s talking to Lou. He wore a beaten and torn navy blue windbreaker, jeans and a dirty baseball cap. The man had Lou laughing.

Bobby wanted to go over and introduce himself but he was in the middle of a five-ball run. Amazingly, his luck hadn’t yet left him even though he’d abandoned his pool-shooting drink limit 12 or 13 beers ago. Lou was shaking his head and smiling as the man talked and tapped him on the shoulder with the back of his hand. On his third made shot he saw the man putting a dollar in the bill slider of the jukebox and gesturing for Lou to help him pick songs. Just after his fifth make he saw the man opening the pouch where Lou kept his wallet.

“I’m Lou’s buddy,” he said, extending a hand.

“Well nice to meet you, buddy.”  The man had already pocketed two $20 bills, put the wallet back in its pouch and seemed uninterested in a handshake.

“It’s ok,” said Lou, “he’s gonna go get us a bag and then we can go home.”

“No need to go alone, my game’s over, I can go with you.”

“No, better if I go alone.”

“Ok, I’ll just hang in the background, you won’t even notice me.”

“It’s alright, don’t sweat it,” said Lou with remarkable calm, as if the money he had just handed over was of no more concern than a wrong pick on the jukebox.

“Be right back,” the man said and was quickly out the door.

Bobby wanted longer to weigh the decision as he watched the man walk away, especially given Lou’s nonchalance, but there wasn’t time.

“I’ll be right back, too,” he said.

He heard Lou’s yell above the music as he made the door but he kept going. If he wasn’t back soon, he knew that Lou would go home and wait for him in their building’s handicapped-accessible lobby. This was the default plan they agreed on the day they signed the apartment lease and were given a tour by the building manager.

Trying to focus above the motion of the traffic, Bobby glimpsed the movement of the metal door of a convenience store closing behind the man across the street. Over the rim of his coffee cup, the man’s eyebrows raised either from the press of steam or the surprise of seeing Bobby again so soon.

“Ready whenever you are.”

“Man, I told you I need to do this alone.”

“Look at it like this, though — I’m saving you a trip back to the bar.”

The man headed back across Colfax Ave. and took a left into the tiny parking lot behind The Music Box. For a minute Bobby hoped he would enter the bar again through the back door and return the money to Lou, no harm done, but he walked right by it and quickened his pace. He made a right on the next street and headed north.

“How far you gotta go?”

“I told you to back the fuck off, man.”

Bobby leaped in front of him and turned around.

“Look, just gimme back the 40 bucks.”

“It’s not your money.”

The man walked faster. If he didn’t stay on the man’s heels there would be no way to keep up if he got a running start, and he didn’t know the neighborhood. It was still a hot July night outside despite being well after midnight, and it was dark to Bobby in the way one’s peripheral vision shrinks away from lights after drinking a certain amount of alcohol. Wet streaks lined the cracks of the sidewalks and black water pooled  in the gutters of the streets after a thunderstorm the night before that had been violent enough to bring down tree limbs.

He stopped and turned to face Bobby, who was only inches away. “What the fuck is wrong with you, man?”

“I don’t know. I make bad decisions.”

“You’re making a real bad one right now, motherfucker!”

He cut through another lot. Bobby knew the farther they walked the worse things could get for him. At least he was sure the man had no weapon or he would’ve seen it blocks ago. He followed so closely behind the man’s left side that he was all but stepping on the backs of his feet. When he saw other people on the street, he couldn’t help imagining that, from their vantage, the figure their close silhouettes cut in the night was of a bickering couple, the offended party leading the way and the protester hotly following behind. “He didn’t care about the money now,” he thought in a snippet of melodramatic prose, “he had let it go on too long — he just wanted to be respected in their relationship!”

He had to find a way to stop their progress. The apartment buildings grew shabbier the deeper they walked into the neighborhood. There were projects two blocks west of his and Lou’s apartment on the other side of Colfax, but they lived on the fifth floor of a new secure building, they could wave to the minions below from the nest of their balcony. And that’s where he wanted to be right now, sipping a beer in the open air and looking across the glittery midsection of the city five stories up from the street.

The man suddenly grabbed for a fallen tree branch. They had entered the small parking lot of a building that was surrounded by a steel fence and drooping, weather-beaten trees on three sides. A circle of asphalt was lit by a streetlamp next to the building.

“Stay the fuck back!”

The fat end of the branch was almost the width of a person’s calf. As Bobby scrambled for and found a branch about the same size on the pavement, the man took a looping swipe at him and missed. They squared toward each other awkwardly and tried to find the right grip for their weapons. The branches were too big to parry like swords and too crooked to use as ramrods, so they gripped them in both hands and took their best swings. One man would make an attempt and the other would try to move as quickly as possible into the opening of space created, but their weapons were so heavy they looked like hitters taking swings in slow-motion replays around a loosely defined on-deck circle. The set up and evasion of the swings happened in real time, but the swing itself seemed to cut through molasses.

When the branches finally collided, both men were surprised by the impact that knocked them from their stinging hands. Bobby noticed some blood between his right thumb and index finger. He looked up at the man. The patchwork of beard stubble matched the hard black beads of his eyes. As if what just occurred were no more real than a daydream or hallucinatory interlude from a multi-day amphetamine binge, the man turned around and began walking again.

“Hey!”

“You’re gonna get your ass killed if you don’t stay away.”

They were close-couple walking again now.

“What kind of motherfucker are you? He’s fucking crippled! Just give me the money.”

“Like I said, not your money.”

He had to admit the man was right on that count, and maybe that was the reason he hadn’t been more confrontational with him about it till now. But that approach was going to change, it had to, he couldn’t keep walking further north with the man. Sooner or later an end would be forced on him and his lack of having a plan for that end would be dire.

The man suddenly peeled away at a 90-degree angle and sprinted up some steps into the foyer of an apartment building. He tried to hold the front door closed with his foot to keep Bobby out while fitting the key in the security door. Bobby pushed through just as he opened the inner door and they tumbled inside against a flight of stairs.

Their crash landing had to be heard by everyone in the building, and now there were heavy footsteps coming from the floors above. He put the man in a headlock and pressed his head against a stair while frantically trying to pull out the money from his pockets. Footsteps lit on the floor directly above them. He pulled the man’s pocket inside out and two crumpled $20 bills fell through a railing bannister onto the hallway below the stairs. He saw the tops of boots on the flight of stairs above him, there was no time. He left the money and sprang back from the stairs and out the door as fast as he could.

“He tried to roll me, kill that motherfucker!” the man yelled.

At the sound of tires squealing behind him and the rapidly approaching moan of an engine he darted between two apartment buildings, jumped the next street over and ran between two more homes where he encountered and hopped a wooden fence. He needed to make sure there was only one car, so that he couldn’t be pinched from two directions, but running between buildings would make him less visible than on either the streets or sidewalks. He waited between the two houses for the car to pass. How was he going recognize it, he thought?

A Torino with the same groaning engine slowly crept up the block. He could tell the front and back seat were full. The car stopped and two men climbed out. Damnit, he thought, had they seen him? He re-hopped the fence and ran back the way he’d come, in the opposite direction of his apartment. He needed to be patient.

He shot across three more streets perpendicularly by picking his way through yards and walkways, and waited in the darkness between two buildings. Minutes passed thickly. He saw the car pass down the street, the two men would be coming fast behind him. He waited for the car to round the corner, broke out and ran south down the sidewalk for a block toward Colfax Ave., then went back to cutting between buildings. The car must have doubled back because he could hear tires squealing behind him. But he had to start moving in that direction toward his apartment sooner or later. There was no avoiding the bald stretch of Colfax where he would be without residential lots to use as cover.

He was standing in the small backyard of an apartment building peering down an alley at a slice of kaleidoscopic Colfax traffic when he decided to begin the sprint home. If he mistimed the stoplights, he would dodge traffic or look for parking lots to cut, then run west till he could cross due south. He crouched down as if grabbing for track blocks and took off. Without so much as single car horn calling him out, Colfax parted like a red, green and yellow sea.

He cut across boulevards, scrambled for the smaller streets, detoured down a short alley, ran over the viaduct where the river had swelled from the rain below. His building appeared on the horizon, still several blocks away. He didn’t know how long he had been running or if  he was still moving at a steady clip, he was too busy trying to think clearly through his rapid breath: should he stop running to deflect attention from himself, no, they had already seen him, should he jump down to the river and walk along it, no, that  was just as dangerous, how many days or weeks would he have to stay inside before this blew over, how would word of mouth spread about what he looked like and where he was last seen, how would he know who to trust in a city where he knew no one, how had he fucking done this already, in two fucking weeks! or, would they die in a fiery crash on the highway long before all of that payback stuff, two new and nameless transplants, incinerated without a trace of ever meeting anyone, save for a con man in a bar, and no, holy shit no, he thought, stopping to palm his knees more from the thought of it than his exhaustion — what if the man wasn’t a con at all, just someone down on his luck who Lou wanted to help without publicly belittling him, what if he and Lou had simply arrived at an understanding, one which it had taken him until now to figure out, one that, come to think of it, was not that much different than entrusting a dropout to be your nurse — and no, it wasn’t his money, as the man had tried to tell him, wasn’t his money at all, even less his money than the man’s money in practical terms, and so, all of this for what, he hadn’t even got the money back, not a penny, so all this for what?

He lifted from his knees still catching his breath and stared up at the coal sky, it’s edges ringed by the city lights like fringe around the depthless cone of a black hat. His new home might as well be in that void above him after tonight, he thought. He looked back down at the headlights passing him by, two by two, more pairs of eyes without the power of sight. The mountains and the desert, the city and the sky. And still nowhere to draw a line.

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