The Negotiation: Literary Short Fiction By Alison Ruth
Alison Ruth, author of The Negotiation, has published poetry in Harpur Palate, Helix, Ellipsis, and Common Ground Review. Her short stories have been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize and have been published in CutBank, Confrontation, Chagrin River Review, Curbside Splendor, and J Journal among others.
The sweat from Louie’s football jacket slickened his back as he hid behind the counter. Though the burglar alarm wailed to summon city police, and their Crown Vics would soon be skidding to the curb, he could still hear a phone shrilling close. He crawled his hand up the counter, feeling for vibration. Waves of chlorinated light washed over him, tricking his field of vision, just enough to miss the receiver. Still the phone rang. Someone wanted to talk about something.
Trying a second time to reach the phone, he finally knocked the cash register over. It strangled itself, suspended by wires inches away, close enough to open. The clerk, his eyes blasted, must have realized money he didn’t own hadn’t been worth defending with a .357. For a moment in this blueness, Louie, like a kid, thought if he found the shell, he could reverse the sequence of time. Overhead the strobe and siren cycled in a perpetual spin and drag: blue BLUE blue BLUE. It seemed designed to simulate drowning.
A cardboard swimsuit model come-hithered Louie, with a beer and a surfboard, the lure of white sand rather than the likelihood of a black-and-white ride. He couldn’t help but wish again he could retrace their steps to when they’d both been alive. Their sneaker treads would still be fresh in the sidewalk slush. He and Troy might have kept vaulting over dug-out cars; he might have missed this liquor store. Troy’s face had reflected the moon and the snowfall.
He couldn’t help but wish again he could retrace their steps to when they’d both been alive.
Louie dared not stand low enough even to pull the warm Corona from the paper hand. The phone kept ringing. Someone really wanted to talk about something. He’d targeted this location for its storefront, protected by neither bar nor grate so late in a well-salted neighborhood. But the plate glass had been its own curse, for as soon as he stood, he’d be shot. Beneath the din, he would never hear any distant sirens until it was too late.
He figured, now that everything had gone bad, even in a heavy snow he had at most five minutes. But he might be able to stall by phone two minutes more. So he pounded the counter hard enough at its base till the phone finally tipped over. The phone swung from its cord next to the strangled cash register like a double hanging. The voice crackled from the receiver: Do you want anything? Louie remembered Mr. D telling him once that hostage negotiators trained on suicide hotlines.
Are you still alive? It spoke in a jagged electrical font, like a comic strip. Is anyone with you?Say something if you can hear me. It was like trying to surface in a pool. A city boy who’d never taken swimming lessons, the wash of blue scared him more than the alarm. He aimed Troy’s gun at the light but would not waste the bullet.
You have a friend with you?
No one who could stand. Needlefuls of adrenaline, testosterone, and cortisone steadied their nerves. Bandage the wrists; cage the face: Troy should’ve been able to stop a bullet. Their no-man’s land had ended at a pocked window, its bursts of holes and stars.
“You ride bulls back home?” a postgame blonde, charmed by more than Troy’s accent.
“Brave guys for sure, but they got to be built smaller’n me. So they won’t hurt the bull.”
She swooned in for the kiss.
Troy shrugged at Louie to take off while her blue eyes were still closed. “Kittenface. A lot of those back home.”
You want to get a message to a girl?
Seemingly from the rose-gold paneling, an older Boston brunette materialized in Cashin’s formal dining room. The soles of her slingbacks might never touch snow. Grace dined on a shatterable glass of white wine and seemed content to exist at no higher level than in an evening’s luxury. Troy’s golden arm may have weighed down her shoulder, but it was a silken Alaia that clung to the mahogany chair. Later, in the most private rec room, Troy and Louie slouched, talking spreads, in leather armchairs across from their host, fishing for bottles of beer buried in crushed ice. A kittenface swished Bud Light like mouthwash as she watched a video award show with the volume dial torn off, not by her hand. The Pioneer stereo was wasted on AM sports radio. Cashin would only keep up conversation until the first bars of the national anthem. A golden bottle had been kept chilled for Grace, for whom the paneled doors once again must have slid open, though no one had seen her enter, made even more remarkable, since she had wrapped herself in a fur coat that might never see snow.
Louie had been introduced to Hailey earlier, a girl he thought he’d want. She wrinkled her nose and pushed away a glass brimming green. With a well-timed gulp of Pedialyte, she tried to mask gagging at him. But after Cashin considerately dimmed the recessed lighting, Hailey found Louie’s mouth with her teeth. He wiped away his blood and her disgust to catch Troy unbuttoning his checked shirt.
Though he’d seen Troy’s body for weeks and thought of nothing, amidst this staged seduction, it became something. Hailey bit his neck in a bitch of salt and citrus, but Louie pushed her away. He was stunned to see Troy and a softer kind of slowness, until Grace, who might never need to ask for anything, was asking.
He rode the bus back to his dorm alone, and took care of his disappointment later.
When Troy returned Monday morning, Louie’s curiosity roused his courage to ask why Troy had treated Grace like a piece of crystal. Troy said that his father had told him to treat a whore like a lady, and a lady like a whore.
You want to go somewhere?
The summer after Troy had been recruited, Cashin had invited Louie and the new fullback to Nauset Light as his guests at a beachside colonial monstrosity for the weekend. Superchilled ocean water, six-packs awash in surf. Salt and hops on his lips, spiraling 40-yard passes into the summer sky. He could not swim, but he could run. If the young players’ physicality was being assessed by binoculars, neither of them admitted to knowing. Especially during long, long, cocktail hours; the sun surrendered suddenly during Massachusetts summers. Louie had heard about Cashin’s high-dollar losses, in amounts Louie had never seen, let alone stolen from any cash register. It made Louie wonder why he’d been invited, for all he was a quarterback. Troy, there was never a doubt.
You want a radio?
Clams smoked from a pit of sand on the beach; with both he and Troy digging, Cashin had to tell them that it was deep enough. Troy dove into the waves and foam before the temperature plunged any lower. Cashin threw lit matches into the pit until the charcoal glowed red. He and Louie lounged in half-legged beach chairs, from which angle Louie could close his eyes at the sky. A floating party of cats and kittenfaces—somehow Cashin anticipated each young man to his taste—had crammed into a topless Samurai to find a liquor store that stocked Goldschlager. During the sunstruck afternoon Cashin would speak to the young men only during ads. He seemed transfixed by the speaker on the boom box, and once had to tell the rowdiest girl to shut up or hitch back to her slutfull sorority house. Amidst his rumored losses that summer, Louie could not remember when Cashin had once bragged of a win.
“The only way to watch baseball is to listen to it,” Cashin yelled at Louie only a keg-width away. Had Louie Cashin’s connections, he would have been behind home plate for the entire Sox season. He was flattening a tube of Hawaiian Tropic, pissed that his skin was still as pale as if it had never been summer.
The game seemed diabolically well-matched, 0-0, Sox batting in the 4th. Louie slept out of boredom through the 5th and woke up out of boredom during the 6th, to meet Troy at the safer edge of the Atlantic. Louie brought the ball and felt more like a kid than the teenager he’d been just been a month earlier. Cashin called to them between throws at an ever-increasing yardage. “You guys like being a team of two?”
Louie answered first, in case Troy didn’t. “He’s good.”
“You trust each other?”
Troy answered first, in case Louie did. “I guess he won’t get me killed.”
Cashin laughed not-quite-a-laugh. “You ever see him play in a real game?”
“Then your coach showed you the rated-G version.” Louie tossed Troy a towel to stop him from shivering, although he would have preferred to smother Cashin with it. “Let me put it to you this way, my only safe bet is Louie’s penalties. Don’t give me that look Louie, you’re making yourself uglier; it was hard enough to get Hailey to come back. Come on, don’t sulk, your fouls are creative for a college kid. Remember that finger incident?” Cashin turned to Troy. “What makes Louie great is that he gets away with most of them. You have to know when to look.” Louie was twisting his towel, afraid to look at Troy. But he never cracked a smile.
It was finally quiet enough to hear the broadcast, the batters swinging at brutal pitches, the dreary cheers indistinguishable from the breeze. The booster had to donate a real smile. “But Louie’s a general. He sends his best soldiers out to fight his battles.”
Troy kept watching the waves. Like Louie, he’d never seen an ocean before. “That’s what a quarterback does.”
Cashin smiled not-quite-a-smile. “See a few more of his films.”
Louie blinked away the suntan oil that had sweat into his eyes. Troy shrugged the draped towel around his neck, looking like an Olympic swimmer. When Louie imitated him earlier he looked like a janitor at an inner-city gym. 0-0 still. The sportscasters had turned to the sky, agreeing it was a good day for baseball or a coma.
Troy studied his folded shirt. He stepped backwards, as if he would get dressed. But he stepped too close to the edge of the smoking pyramid. His arms spanned forward, his hands splayed to seize some type of grip on the slippery edge. But for the first time his size was a disadvantage. From the knee-cracking angle of his chair, Louie launched himself. He had one second of anticipation followed by another one of shame, but he tried to grab Troy’s wrist. Somehow Troy scrambled to his feet, finding his lost balance, desperate either to avoid Louie’s help or white-hot ash. Cashin snickered during the Carvel ice cream cake commercial. Whether it was Troy nearly falling into a pit of coal or his obvious disgust at his outstretched hand, Louie thought he could guess.
Troy kicked sand behind him as he hailed the return of the pastel-colored jeep, the promise of goldflake liquor, scorched clamshells, towels used as blankets, and maybe a few extra stars. The sun was beginning to fall into a watery sky and the baseball game had begun to tilt toward extra innings. Cashin stopped the two players with a hand that might stop his run of bad luck. “You get your plays from your coach, or you make them up as you go along?”
Louie would have rolled his eyes, but he had taken off his shades. “Both I guess.”
“Is there some way, say, that the average man, a man not wearing his glasses, can tell you’re going to subvert your coach?”
Sunset backlit, Troy surrendered to a plastic chaise. “Louie would never do that.”
Louie had been tightroping around the still-smoking sand pit, trying to feel exactly where the burning would begin. “Wouldn’t it be better to have a signal that only a man with glasses could see?”
Troy closed his eyes.
“If you’ve got the time…” jingled from the speaker, a reminder that infuriated Cashin even more. He got Louie by the neck, tight enough to black out. “You have a season coming up.” But quick as he had seized him, Cashin released him. Louie wheezed through his crushed windpipe, half-wondering how a man who looked like Cashin could be that strong.
Troy bunched his towel under his neck, eyes still closed. “You want a signal no one realizes is a signal.”
Louie was coughing, trying to expand his larynx. “Before I change the play.”
“You’d do it anyway.” Cashin tried to sound reasonable. The sun was almost floating on the water. “But this signal would be just between you two. Louie will give you a thumb’s up, he’s guarding, Troy’s running the play. Thumb’s down, Troy’s guarding, Louie’s running. You’re still switching to your surprise play, but you do it where everyone can see it, and no one knows but us.”
“The coach will know.” Troy had flipped onto his stomach and his words were buried white.
Cashin clenched his fists before he caught himself. “Troy, your coach understands Louie’s kind of dirty quarterbacking. That’s why we recruited him.” If the game was called at 0-0, Cashin might not win, but he wouldn’t lose either. “Jesus, when will these ads be over?”
If Louie knew how to swim, he would have swum far enough out to drown.
Just a curve of moon rose. The girls had left for unnaturally lit places; not for those so pretty a fractional moon. Cashin waited for the looming double-digit inning in a state of anticipation that was awful to watch. His football players were silent: one could barely speak, and the other did not wish to.
The legendary sportscaster finally called the game. It would remain 0-0 forever, he crowed at the futility, both teams tied up forever in the record books. “A heartbreak for the fans! The true fans, rooting for their guys all day, and you know they would stick it out here all night. The fans are the real losers here. When every pitch is a strikeout, every swing a miss. All I can say is each team ended up exactly with the disappointment they deserved.”
But the junior sportscaster did not laugh with him. “No they didn’t.”
Do you have any plans?
Their homecoming game had been the worst kind of collision. The field surface had frozen solid, and skidding across, even in a uniform, would skin them. Louie cycled through any play he could remember. The coach was bleeding from his eyes. For all that second season, Louie still could not help but crave his approval, even though he could not help but think he might have money riding on his games. The stands simmered in fury because they did. Louie was panting behind his mouth guard; he’d been told before the game he shouldn’t take a picture without his helmet on.
Troy’s golden tan had been outchilled. Louie looked up at the sky as if to find a good omen despite the danger of a shifting wind. All he could think of was being a kid outrunning whomever was on his tail. A young and petty thief of candy and cigarettes to trade, cough syrup and cigars to sell. An older but still petty guy with kind of a gang, some rivals, a few busts but most beat, a couple of hospital trips, of which only one could be considered intimidating a witness.
Court dates, school visits, one case manager after another, none awed by his flimsy crimes. But when Social Services re-stamped his file ACTIVE, they assigned a man who was not yet burnt-out. Mr. D was bemused by Louie’s blown-up stories of small-time crimes, and he acted impressed by the cartoonlike speed of Louie’s getaways racing over cars, hurtling across roofs, jumping through the closing doors of the T. As Louie grew older, he understood his face would tell on him in any lineup, so it became even more essential to avoid arrest. For all Mr. D complained about the frequency of his hearings, Louie could not admit there might have been many more.
A high school quarter of escalating anger was capped by another rejection from another girl and a mostly blank report card. He celebrated drinking root beer schnapps his friends had first lit on fire. The next day he decided to stop being petty and start being armed. But with some kind of prescience, Mr. D had begun to ingratiate himself with the football coach, not overly difficult for a man who maintained a joking relationship with the Vietnam veteran vice principal.
The coach may have barely tolerated Mr. D’s leather jacket, but he welcomed the voluble social worker whenever he shared inside information on rival high school teams, and their district was dense with them. By May, he’d convinced the coach to give #000781963 a shot, even though Louie himself hadn’t been consulted and he wasn’t sure if Louie even watched football.
Rolling a toothpick between his teeth, he explained to Louie that football was good for a fast kid, and playing for an underdog school meant a lesser eye on the rules and a greater tolerance for violence. Louie thought sports were for jerks, and he wasn’t tempted to beat up anyone legally, but he couldn’t help but be pleased—deep inside, where he kept the pieces of himself that hadn’t been broken or stolen–—that Mr. D thought he could be a football player.
It hadn’t crossed Louie’s mind how he could break the rules because he didn’t know them yet, nor would it have occurred to him, until this soft-lit night in college, when he’d been blackjacked by the truth that his only value was in playing dirty. He never spent any time in front of a mirror, combed his hair with his fingers, but Cashin’s nasty honesty warned that whenever he dared look himself in the face again, he would not only see the bad luck there in his bones, but his stupid confidence in his speed and strategies. He had been right never to trust an adult. He might have the body of a man but he vowed never to be one.
Clouds bore down, girded for sleet. Their half of the field seemed to unroll as he watched. He would need to make a hard call and his steadiest man must be sacrificed. So Louie tripped over his shoelace, landing chinguard down on frozen ground. The crowd peered over his padded shoulder. Louie gave them a thumb’s down, yelling to the stands in a real fury that the turf sucked. But the sign had been meant for Troy, high enough that Cashin at the 50 would see it.
Louie kicked what was left of his spirit into snow-thickened mud.
He struggled like a horse caught in a mess of ropes: he could not be braced or pulled. He elbowed and punched to break running from the pile of plastic and sinew. After a while, he could not hear at all; he had either busted an eardrum or broke the barrier. To this no-man’s land he fired the ball. There was Troy freezing downfield, but before he was smashed on both sides and accepted his downfall, there was the skyhigh pass on which Louie had bet his last touchdown.
Louie took a knee, as he’d prayed before this game, with a locker-room echo of teammates who thought they played for real. But when the stretcher surfed away empty from Troy’s wake, Louie thanked not a god, but a bloodied fullback who should have been awaiting either a tranquilizer or a bullet.
An airhorn proclaimed a win that Louie rarely heard for their school. But he wouldn’t stick around for undeserved cheers and paper cups, and threw aside his helmet. Snow had soaked through Troy’s layers of nylon and polyester, and though shaking, Louie hoped more from the cold than the hit, Troy had refused his help off the field, to amazed applause.
You want to speak with the chief?
“My father’s here,” Troy told him, barely listing to one side. Louie was counting change for the bus. His mother expected him at his grandmother’s quilted half-house, though they did not expect him to rise from the couch other than to consume half the turkey.
But Troy trailed him up the gym stairs, past where the chains around the necks of the sandbags hung still. Louie held the door open for him with his sneaker. “My father flew from El Paso,” in case Louie could have forgotten where Troy was from. His bare face was still pale. “He wants to talk to you.” His lips trembled in the cold.
Louie dropped the coins back in the pocket of his good pants. A man wanting to talk to him never meant anything good.
You need money?
Louie used one of his quarters to call his mother from the street pay phone. Her resignation was far gentler than Jerry Lewis’ televised hustle. He hung up on the insistent ringing of the telethon to confront a giant less than Troy. His coach nodded with the tattletale smile Louie usually saw a guard giving the warden. Such an innocent man, his coach. “You want to tell us about that last play?”
You tell me, Louie thought. You recruited me.
You want to turn yourself in?
But Troy’s father was clearly not going to let anyone do the talking for him. Louie recalled he owned a car dealership, and he dismissed the coach like he was telling him to get back on the showroom floor. He pointed Louie to a Lincoln that gleamed with a deluxe wax. “You trying to get my son killed?”
You have a record?
“Looked like you were running from the law. You always order your boys to get their heads cracked for you? Not my son.”
You have a driver?
Troy had compacted himself in a backseat still not big enough for him. From outside Louie could hear how high the heater was running. But then he saw a familiar cat curled in front. Grace was gazing at an expansive windshield view of snowscaped pines. Her only acknowledgement of Louie and Troy was when she switched her eyes once to the rearview. Louie tried to fold himself up in the back without touching Troy. Even a Lincoln wasn’t wide enough for two men thinking of the same woman.
Were you going somewhere?
The hotel restaurant would be in Back Bay. Troy’s father would not relinquish his keys until the valet opened the passenger’s door first. Then it was Troy’s job to assist; he held the hotel door open for Grace and his father. His bent blond head was a final humble touch.
His father ordered ice water for the table, and a kind of bird Louie didn’t know anyone could eat. Grace’s earrings glinted at Troy’s father as if she were thanking him. He, in turn, asked about her career. She was very good at pretending because Louie couldn’t follow any of her conversation. He had thought marketing was another word for shopping.
You have a family?
His cover story established, Troy’s father began to dismember what looked like a robin’s wing. “Do you have kid brothers, Louie?”
“No, sir.” Louie was quick to mimic Troy’s subservience. In Louie’s gangster-run neighborhood, following the chain of command meant survival. He suspected as much in Troy’s house.
“No father in your family, Troy tells me.”
Troy’s eyes promised Louie a gallon of ice cream if he survived.
“I was born unlucky, sir.”
Troy’s father allowed a moment of silence for Louie’s absent sire. “My boys look up to Troy. Though you probably have heard that a scholarship in Boston was no choice of mine.”
“At least he didn’t accept New York, sir.”
Grace knifed a rib of lettuce.
“Run-pass option, Louie?”
Louie wagged his head like he’d never heard of such an outrage. “That was a poor decision, sir.”
“It was lucky for you Troy didn’t need that stretcher.” Troy’s father unbuttoned his suit jacket, and Louie had to respect the move. What good was a concealed carry if you didn’t show it?
Grace reclined in an ambiance of velvet and protection. She seemed quite ready to slide silk downcarpet again. Louie had to wonder if it were her signature move, and decided he didn’t care. He dared not look at Troy. Instead he poked a carapace of potato skin. “I have other plays.”
Troy kicked Louie under the table.
“Sir.” Jesus, he had almost forgotten.
You were going to meet someone?
Troy’s father rose after Grace claimed her evening bag, seemingly beaded of diamonds. Louie wondered how so much money could fit in so small a purse, but realized it would be in high-dollar denominations. Yet Troy’s father wasn’t quite ready to cash out: “I don’t care if your plays are better. Your school will never be worth a damn.” Before he escorted Grace to the hotel lobby, where Florida palm fronds were shivering in the plummeting temperature, he ordered Louie to stand: “Make your plays safer.”
Did the lesser giant not see the size of his son, already at attention? Louie dared not say: “With all due respect, sir.” Louie was the quarterback who would deploy whom he chose. He was already in one adult’s pocket, he would not be cut in half to be shoved in another. Troy had indentured his servitude to Boston. Surely his father must accept this as a manager of men himself. Troy’s father handed his son their claim tickets like he was the bellman; Grace was already swaying to the coat check. Her fur coat slipped through Troy’s arms, as if he’d never laid his head upon it.
Louie faced Troy’s father to distract from the starvation he felt mostly in his stomach. Somewhere back in El Paso, a trailer unloaded cars one by one for Troy’s father’s imminent inspection. “Your coach informed me about your high school record.” Louie knew which one he meant. “I don’t understand how a petty criminal like you got a scholarship.” If Troy’s father thought about it a little harder, he might. “You’re not going to get my son killed on the field. Or anywhere else. Don’t answer back. Not even a ‘yessir.’”
Troy’s father strode to where Grace had been left lamplit and longing. “It’s starting to snow again. You should stay.” His arm around her shoulder seemed heavy as his son’s but weighted by power. He guided her to the concierge, either to book her a room or fake it.
Can you send anyone out?
As soon as Troy’s father sent the elevator to a far higher floor number, Louie felt his lust for luxury burning in the radiator grate. His string of petty crimes had gained him nothing but better quality dope and a collection of mostly suspended sentences. The facets of the wine glass reflected with more intricacy each time Grace raised it to her lips. Louie was buckling ready to head into delirium, and was sinking into the softest armchair when Troy burst past, banging the door back hard enough for the doorman to shake his white-gloved fist. Louie himself gasped in the rush of wind. Feeling cold hadn’t felt so good in a long time.
Do you need anything?
Late the next morning, as Louie and Troy had counted on, their elite dorm was still cleared out for a four-day vacation. They flattened pillows with their backs; the Spartan dinner of the night before demanded Troy pay for both root beers from the machine. “My father’s stuck here. Flight cancelled.”
Louie knew which flight was booked but didn’t need to say it. Troy was unzipping his warmup jacket. “You’re a concealed carry now too?”
“My father wants me to learn how to defend myself.” Troy set a still-shining pistol on his desk. “He doesn’t trust Boston.”
Are you armed?
“Like a guy like you needs a gun.” Louie pretended to recoil and knocked the back of his skull against the top bunk.
Troy spiked a football on the linoleum. Anyone could see the shine of the gun betrayed the innocence of its owner. “You don’t know my friends.” Louie had heard something about them and their NFL contracts.
Louie kicked the football back against the cinderblock. “I know your father.”
“So he took me to a range. You grew up in a city. You just had more chances.” Troy’s plea was a wavering shadow in the window.
“I’ll give you one chance.”
In a coffin-width of bed, Louie had fallen so deep into a chilling sleep he dreamed himself frozen. After burying himself under the sheets, he debated whether he dared to check on Troy, wake him to prevent a concussion. He decided he didn’t want his own.
Fortunately in the frost-feathered morning there seemed no obvious injury to Troy’s brain after the traumatic sack of the day before. He was pacing around his trash and Louie’s clothes. He was trampling over weeks of sports pages; Louie often wondered if his derisive high school newspaper had followed him to college.
Louie looked over at Troy’s desk and the gun was gone.
Troy threw Louie his football jacket. He did not seem to have brain damage and he had not forgotten Louie’s promise. Although the snow was yet too faint to find in the wind, Troy, gigantic in his down coat, would take no risk with the weather.
Tell me what a win is.
“What’s the go signal?”
Louie had fallen asleep repeating this move. “Same as a game.” He flipped his thumb down. “I run, you guard.” He flipped his thumb up: “You run, I guard.” Troy’s additional insulation almost concealed the rise over his heart.
Are you getting cold? Louie felt his face like the condensation inside a refrigerator. The utility company had cut the heat, so the cops were ready now to freeze him out. Time to peel out of his football jacket. He lay it over Troy’s exploded chest. He was probably already cold.
Are you alone?
Louie had spent the night explaining their escapade while Troy gnawed on pizza crust. Louie remembered a story Mr. D had told him about a liquor store robbery. Except in Louie’s version, it was he and his buddies on a spree. They climbed beer case towers, karate-kicked glass, ripped an alarm at its root, sprayed extinguisher foam to cover their back-door escape. With a buddy Troy’s size, he assured him, two guys could manage a place.
Since afternoon was no time for a holdup, there was time to kill. Troy, even in his immense coat, refused to scout the snowslung streets the rest of the day. They had already shook on the Back Bay, where both the money and resentment resided. It went unsaid that Troy’s father wasn’t likely to leave his hotel room that night either.
All Troy had was a post-dated check that wouldn’t cover a bar tab. So Louie grudged him an invitation to dinner at his grandmother’s half a house. Before the indignity of a long bus ride, Louie had to count out the right number of coins. In his neighborhood, snow was sporadically shoveled and trash cans disemboweled. Staple-gunned Christmas lights were ripped loose before December had even started. Louie should’ve blindfolded Troy before they left campus. His mother patted the back of Louie’s football jacket with the smile of the true believer. Troy insisted he would hang up his own coat.
You’re going to hell.
Louie had thought Mr. D was cool until tonight. His black leather jacket, his rapport with local cops, his bona fides. But now Louie winced at Mr. D’s greased-back hair as he quizzed Troy about his accent (“El Paso, sir”), his scholarship (“didn’t really earn it this year, sir”), his grades (“not my best semester, sir”). The adults sat dazed. Every time Troy stood when Louie’s mother rose, Mr. D raised his rum-and-Coke in appreciation, though as tonight’s de facto head of the family, he did not stand.
You’ve got no father.
While each unfortunate diner dredged a serving of canned green beans, Mr. D was interrogating Troy about his associates. Louie expected any minute he was going to make a few calls, just to see if Troy’s story checked out. If Troy were not lying about his honesty, then he should never have accepted Louie’s invitation to an armed robbery. His root beer burned his throat as if it had been once again set on fire.
You don’t have an escape route.
Louie lunged to the bathroom. He wiped the sheen from his face with a guest towel, lowering himself to the lid of the toilet seat. But his eyes were affixed on a dream, the vanishing kind.
You don’t have a future.
Louie forced himself back to the interminable and indigestible dinner. His mother had taken his plate during his embarrassingly long absence. The mixed nuts had already been cracked into shards. Mr. D was still talking, his accent and anecdotes now absurd to Louie, and his mortification only increased with Troy’s courtesy. Mr. D was saying he had “to help kids in trouble, get them set up in school, find after-school activities. But there is another half. The bad side of human nature.” Louie’s grandmother fanned herself with a Star. She dreaded this significant pause in Mr. D’s tales, and Louie wished at this point he would just shut up.
You’re the bad seed.
“You should see the repeat offenders.” Mr. D had helped Louie win his scholarship, despite the busts and the bad grades. Now Louie knew that was his selling point. Yet he had to hope that Mr. D still believed it was Louie’s talent. Mr. D had told him he would sometimes cut work for an hour to sneak off to church, to pray for extra help with a particular kid. Louie had to believe it must once have been his turn.
You will never leave prison.
His mother passed Troy the first slice of cake, but Troy passed it to his grandmother. She smiled into her coffee cup. Louie glowered at his empty plate.
You’re only hurting yourself.
Mr. D finished reciting a night’s replay of radio calls. It reminded Louie that he had never asked him why a social worker needed a police scanner. “That fifteen-year-old was sentenced to sixty years.”
“No chance of parole?”
Mr. D shook his head at the nadir of bad luck and the law. “That was a hard case. Murder. Kid was born bad.”
Louie’s mother pleaded against this heartlessness as if Mr. D were a judge.
But it was to Louie Mr. D replied. He sharpened his black eyes in a face slashed by acne as long as Louie had known him. “I would’ve told him to throw himself on the mercy of the court.”
You have no peers bad enough to judge you.
Louie jerked away from the table, sloshing what remained of his root beer.
“Where are you going?”
In the closet, Troy’s goosedown coat pressed against Louie’s football jacket. Mr. D wore his leather jacket even at the table; he refused to hang up his identity. Louie blew him off at the door. He waited for Troy to shake everyone’s hands, and they lost their own inside his.
Mr. D watched Louie leave from a familiar angle of yellow light. But it was exceptionally cold outside, and Louie had fast ducked into a deep-bricked doorway for Troy to finish his good nights. If he thought Mr. D didn’t know where he hid, he was probably wrong.
There’s nowhere for you to hide.
The streets were slick with runoff ice. Louie kept his eye on Troy in case he lost his balance; he was too big for this sidewalk. Troy did not stop to gape at the barred windows, the boarded doors, the chained bicycles, the gated stores, of the quarterback’s neighborhood. But Louie, walking with him, somehow found Boston had turned into a city of frost. Together they could crumple a building in their fists. Troy became more surefooted where the trees grew taller, and they followed the Charles. Even sloughed with jagged rocks and ice, it kept a rushing sound. They superstitiously checked the Fairmont. The night doorman gave them the finger with his white glove, but they had already laughed their relief into the wind.
Hell is on earth.
“My father is starting to like Boston. He postponed his flight again.” Troy gestured at the top stories, as if his father lived in a heaven, and Louie could have forgotten. Louie was pretty sure Grace was keeping him company up there, but he didn’t need to say so.
At the end of an early November practice, it had already started to snow. Louie could still sprint in shorts, so he shot the ball again to Troy. “No coffee this morning?”
“Try playing Texas in summer. You’d pass out in the first five minutes.” Troy caught the pass with one hand, and aimed it missile-like in return. He paused to curse the oncoming current of clouds, then spiraled the football far above Louie.
Louie waited for it to spin down but for the first time snowflakes falling in his eyes dizzied him, while the wind whipped him like a devil. The football slipped through his hands. He burned and not from cold. “Good day for hockey,” he kicked the ball downfield, far as he could, to send Troy away from him. Yet as Troy diminished, Louie started to run and slide over iced mud and grass. For once there had been no fans, no friends, no teammates, just the silent snowfalling field between them. Louie could no longer see Troy for the snow.
You’ve got nothing left.
Louie swerved them into a liquor store, unexpectedly ideal for a robbery in such a fine neighborhood. Someone must have bought a grandfathered lease. Joe Camel welcomed him as an equally ugly caricature, but offered a conciliatory pack of smokes. Troy hung back for the signal, still the fullback. Louie cruised by a case of California wine. Thumb’s up. The store will work.
Louie waited but he couldn’t see the clerk did too. Why wasn’t Troy heading to the front door to cover Louie’s escape?
Oh god. It was too late. Louie frantically re-signaled thumb down but Troy had already steeled himself. Louie cringed as he had to watch Troy bang his fist on the counter. When the clerk kept too still, Troy might have imagined Louie’s impatience with his inexperience. Louie was forced to witness a lie that had grown twice its size.
In a new kind of horror he sucked in his breath as Troy scrabbled at his inside pocket. When he saw Troy aim across the counter in a trajectory that would only work in skeet, Louie wrung his own empty hands. The door he was trying to guard was taped with Marlboro ads, and each cowboy squinted through a hellish sunset at Louie’s helplessness.
My patience is at an end.
Why didn’t the clerk still not shake? Why wouldn’t he open the register? In the way that a hand jerks from a flame, Louie dove at his fullback’s knees. “Down!” Troy lost his balance and his courage and shot. Lead and death dealt.
The clerk must have been waiting for this. On his last shift he would not be paid under the table.
Troy plastered his face against the floor, finally following the right direction.
“Stay down.” Louie’s face was streaked, sweating and wet. They could hear the clerk’s choking breath. He must have activated a siren, so they could neither see nor hear a loaded .357 locking into place. A $6-an-hour clerk towered over football players for the first and only time in his life, and he would sight the biggest target. Troy exploded in a burst of blood and promise. Louie recoiled so hard he couldn’t wrap his arms around Troy fast enough to catch the pieces.
There’s a cell waiting for you.
Headlights shot up the window, spattering the floor with shadow. In the final five minutes Louie had figured on, the police had swarmed. If he stood up, he would see them aiming across their hoods.
Louie wiped his mouth as if that would help him talk to the negotiator. “I want two more minutes.”
“Call Mr. Garrett at the Fairmont.” He wouldn’t have left Grace yet; Louie wouldn’t have.
He wants to talk to you.
Louie’s hand was shaking as he aimed the pistol at his face; his heart had never been the problem.
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