Word to the Wise
When I had heard that Alex had been jailed, I wasn't sure what to make of it. On the one hand, I'd known all along as did T.J that we didn't have the best intentions in mind when we wandered through the town at night. On the other, Alex had been a friend ever since grade school. When I'd found myself being cornered by three of the biggest boys in my grade, who were looking for a little extra to have for lunch, Alex had come to my aid with a right hook into the chubbiest one's grubby cheek. We'd spent the resulting detention learning about each other's favorite pastimes. Alex loved to explore the old junkyard. I tried to share my enthusiasm for baseball cards. Now he's sitting in the prison block, his hands tarnished for trying to stab a police officer after being caught stealing from a gas station.
We'd found T.J in middle school, a loner who took to us the moment we offered him a seat at our lunch table. The blonde-haired, scrawny teen had shown an appreciation for both mine and Alex's lifestyles. When he wasn't with one of us, he could be seen with the other. We'd learned in due time that his home life, while kind, was also hard. His dad was always away on business, working for some sort of insurance company. His mom was still around, playing the patient housewife. But she sometimes struggled to communicate with T.J. More than once, we found them arguing over school or work. She tried to convince him to dress better, and he'd talk down to her for trying to push a style on him he didn't like.
I could somewhat relate. My household was quiet since Pops usually drank himself to sleep most nights. Mom would object and tell him to pick himself and his bottles up, if not for the dirt and gravestone muffling her out. So long as I stayed out of trouble, dad did little to stop me from going out. He once said that he wouldn't tell me what to do, so long as I kept to my smarts. I wasn't sure if it was the beer talking, or if he really meant it. But I went with it. And so far, I've been happy.
"Hey, Jimmy," A voice called to me and I looked to my left from my seat on the city bus bench. T.J was wearing his usual outfit: a pair of blue jeans and one of the few good t-shirts he had to wear for school. The last bell had rung about half an hour ago. I'd elected to wait until T.J had finished meeting with his teacher about a late assignment. "Thanks for waiting for me, man."
"Sure thing." I said. "It's not like I've got any better place to be." He came up beside me and sat down. Multiple cars drove by as the time ticked on, a multi-colored blur of metal and road rage. "You hear about Alex?"
T.J nodded as he ruffled through his backpack. He pulled out a small bag of chips and snacked on it for a couple minutes before he answered. "I did. I can't believe he'd go and get caught like that."
I shook my head as the bus pulled around the corner. "I can. He was reckless. He never knew when to quit." The transport came to a slow stop in front of us, ceasing the flow of travelers behind it for a time as we boarded. Me and T.J managed to squeeze in between a biker reject and a business commuter. The businessman seemed grateful to have put some distance between him and the gruff looking man on my right. I paid him no heed.
"Well, what do we do now?" T.J asked as the bus lurched to life again. I leaned with the sudden jerk, while the businessman dropped his briefcase, stumbling to pick it back up.
"It's simple," I answered him; "we keep on. It's what he'd want. And I know just the place to go." We dropped the subject for the rest of the ride, parting ways till Sunday.
People have a lot of impressions about breaking and entering. If you watch TV too much, you always think the person or persons doing the act are criminal scum, trying to steal anything of value for their own petty and pathetic lives. If you watch TV too little, you think they don't exist, and that no one would ever try to break into your home. Believe me when I say how wrong they both are. It's not about stealing property, but those kinds of people are around. For us? We do it for the fun.
Our target that night was a simple one. A beaten-up, run down building on the south side of town. We rode our bikes, since taking a car would leave a pretty big indicator as to where we were if either of our parents took notice of it missing. T.J had come up with the excuse to spend the night with me for a homework project. His mother called over after he'd arrived, to let him know that she would be out in town for a time, since he was going to be away as well. Once the last few strands of daylight had gone away, we decided to head out. Dad was already passed out on the sofa. He wouldn't even remember us leaving.
We rode through several side streets and alleyways, making sure to keep out of sight of the usual patrol cars that ran through the most used streets. I led the way while T.J pedaled behind me, his panting breath reminding me that he still wasn't quite as used to such excursions like me and Alex were. If Alex had been here, he would've likely chosen T.J to simply be our lookout while he and I explored. T.J would've protested, and I would've told him to shut up before the neighbors caught on. But the circumstances were different at that point. T.J'd have to learn hands-on.
We pulled up around the side of the warehouse and walked our bikes to the back, peeking around the corner to ensure that we wouldn't be walking in on someone, say a neighborhood watchman, or even just someone walking their dog. Leaving the bikes there, we approached the back door, and I pulled out Alex's handy Swiss Army knife. It was one of the last few things we'd exchanged. He'd been using it for some time and was meaning to purchase a new one. He'd gifted it to me on my last birthday, and I'd kept a tight grip on it ever since. The bright red paint had faded some with age, looking rustic. It was still as light as ever in my grip, and I popped it open, flipping through several of the attachments before finding the simple knife edge I'd come to know. Jamming the key slot and shimmying it for a few moments, I was rewarded with the sound of the lock releasing, the soft click reminiscent of opening that first imaginary treasure box you discover with your fellow sandbox pirates.
I paused as I opened the door partially, moonlight seeping in to reveal a haze of dust that was kicked up from the door's opening. "Now remember," I said as I turned to T.J, "we're just poking around. Don't take nothing. Don't break nothing. And for the love of God, if anyone comes, run." I recited the three rules Alex and I had come up with, our M.O. We didn't hurt anyone or anything, and no one would know we were here but us. It was a way for us to vent those mischievous, rebellious sides of ourselves those psychologists figured would be spent guzzling booze or getting into fights over women like our ancestor the caveman.
T.J gave a nod and followed me in, closing the door behind us as we surveyed the place. Surprisingly enough, it was filled with mountainous heaps of boxes. The wood floor creaked beneath my Asics. The sounds made my heart jump into my throat and slowly climb down back into my chest as I grew used to them. I did my best to filter it out to listen for the noises I'd know were trouble; the shuffling of feet, a door opening, things I knew would make the night more complicated than it ever should be.
The dust lingered in the air, moonlight streaming through a nearby window that had wooden posts crossed over it, forming an X shape that said either keep out or condemned. It assured me that it was safe to explore. Looking over it all, a lot of these boxes seemed to be from different places. I recognized some of the addresses as being here in town, while others were distant. I half suspected it was stolen mail or something, but a peek into one of them revealed nothing but cardboard staring back. "Someone loves them some boxes," I said to myself as I stepped carefully around a precariously stacked set of boxes.
Behind me, I heard a muffled thump and turned to see T.J moving some of the boxes. I would've shouted had it not been nighttime. Well, and the whole breaking in thing. "T.J!" my voice was a hiss across the air, and he glanced up at me before continuing on his way. The wooden creaks came swiftly as I made my way to him. "What the heck are you doing?"
"Relax. I'm just poking around, like you said." T.J dismissed my question with a wave of his hand. "No one's gonna come in here anyway." I flinched as his voice carried through the room like the echoes of a rock concert. The disturbance of the night continued as he lifted away Styrofoam blocks from the box, and flung them carelessly aside. "Dude!" He said as he pulled out a small statue made of brass, an elephant that was reared back on its hind legs. It was tarnished, smudges evident of years past. The moonlight in the window gleamed off of the two jewels implanted into the elephant's head and back. "How much you think this is worth?"
I was about to tell him that it wasn't worth the skin off his ass when I saw another light gleam off the jewels. Looking to the window, I blinked as I thought my eyes had glimpsed a shadowy figure moving outside. The hairs on my neck came to attention, my heart imitating the pace of a rock song in its rhythm. "T.J. We need to go. We gotta leave."
"Naw, man! Look at this stuff! We only just got here, anyway." His dismissal was like that of a jester ignoring his king in court. Only I was lacking any humor, and I was thinking of adding another visitor to the dungeons. "What, you afraid I'm gonna break it?"
"No, but I'm gonna break you if you don't – "
"Hey!" A voice called out to us, and we froze in place. I looked to the doorway and saw a figure emerge, opening the door wide as his flashlight shone past us once before snapping to T.J holding the statue. He immediately froze, as did I, and I observed the newcomer. The more I saw, the more I felt my stomach plunge deeper and deeper into a never-ending hole. He wore an officer's clothing, the dark blue cloth contrasting with the bright light of his flashlight. The badge was missing from his chest, and he wore an odd baseball cap where several grey hairs could be seen poking out.
"Now, what do you two think you're up to?" he said. His voice was firm, but I could hear its age. He was older than both of us, likely older enough that we'd need a third to match up with his number. "Saw a couple bikes parked outside and thought I'd have a look. Then I find you two boys ruffling around in here." His southern accent slurred through the air into my ears, but he wasn't drunk. He didn't stumble, and he certainly didn't sound like dad on a Saturday night.
I looked to T.J. His knuckles were white as he clasped the statue. I slowly raised my hands to head level. "We haven't harmed anything. We haven't broke anything either," I said.
"Funny. You say you ain't done anything. Yet here I find a locked door unlocked, and two boys rifling through this place like they own it. Heck, one of you looks to already have found something he'd like." The officer's light glimmered off of the statue, and I swore under my breath. He knew the building was locked, which means he knew we had to break in to get in. He must have been one of the neighborhood watch who was assigned to this area. The patrolman stepped further in, his boots thumping on the wooden floor as he neared us. "Now, you boys don't have to get in trouble. You can just put that statue down, and come with me." He neared T.J and reached out with a hand, his flashlight casting its shadow across T.J and me.
In retrospect, bringing T.J along without Alex there was a bad idea. Alex always kept him in check. But without him around, it was like letting loose a chained dog kept in the yard. T.J lashed out with the statue, smashing the watchman's hand, causing him to groan audibly in pain and surprise as T.J's face distorted into a mixture of anger and fear. The watchman turned with the blow, holding his hand as my accomplice swung back, the blunt side of the statue cracking at his temple. He was sent reeling to the floor, crashing and knocking over several stacks of boxes. A few of them fell without a sound while others crunched, banged, and thudded to the floor. I didn't stick around to see what other harm we'd done. When the watchman hit the floor, we both bolted out the door to our bikes.
The evening air no longer felt like a calm breeze. Now it was a reminder to ride as fast my wheels could carry me. The chill that ran down my spine with every headlight, every intersection, couldn't be blamed on the wind alone. One of the main sources was right behind me, riding in my tailwind, his statue still in his grasp. I could barely stand the sight of him, so thankfully he kept out of my view. But the image of the watchman falling to the ground, and T.J standing over him looking vicious was persistent. My imagination started to twist it, putting a vile grin on T.J's face, the watchman bleeding from his wound onto the wood floor. I'd finally had enough and pulled ahead to swivel and stop in front of T.J. He came to an abrupt stop and nearly had to hop off his bike to prevent a collision. The only sound was the crickets chirping into the night before he spoke.
"What the hell, man?" he asked me, and I looked up at him. "What's the deal?"
"What's the deal?" I yelled, and he flinched. "What's the deal?! You are the deal, T.J! Look what you did! Now, not only does someone know what we did breaking into that place, you had to go and steal something, and on top of that, you decked a guy WITH what you stole!" A dog barked down the nearby alleyway, and the crickets' chirping seemed muted by the time I was done.
"So what?" He replied. "You make it sound like he's gonna find us or something."
Had T.J always been this dense? "T.J, I don't think you're getting it. What did Alex just get put into jail for? He tried stealing by himself, and he ended up getting the hammer brought down on him because he tried to fight his way out of it. He got what came to him. But you?" I scoffed. "You stole something that wasn't yours. You attacked someone with it deliberately. And he saw your face. He saw my face!"
"Yeah, and I clobbered him hard enough that he'll forget all about it!"
I was left dumbfounded at this. I thought T.J was better, smarter, than the thug I saw before me. "Besides, I can make a nice buck or five off of this beauty." The raised right foot of the elephant had a dark stain that wasn't present before, and his side looked to be caved in partially. "Isn't this what you all do anyway? Why else try it?"
I hopped back onto my bike and pedaled away from T.J, leaving him to eye his little prize as I raced home. The wish to pound his face in was too appealing as my fist clenched around the handlebar. It would've felt damn good, but it would've been the damning of my own self. His questions rang through my ears, muting out the rest of the ride. Why did we do it? Me and Alex weren't some practicing team of criminals. We were kids, not even done with high school yet. All we wanted was to explore, have fun, and bend the rules a little. We never hurt or stole from anyone. We just needed something to occupy our time. Other kids like us threw themselves into beer or drugs. I considered myself better than that.
Pulling up to the house, I parked my bike in the garage. I didn't bother wiping my shoes on the brown welcome mat at the door. It hadn't been washed in a couple months. My footsteps echoed in the quiet dining room, the table bare of any home-cooked meal as it'd been since mom had died. The T.V in the living room was turned to the same sports channel it always was, giving off the summary for the day of football season's big timers. The sound of snoring muffled the report every few seconds, letting me know my dad was home. I stuck my head into the room to check on him.
He made for a sight that would keep one's attention, that's for sure. A floppy, fat-lined face with a double chin was propped on his chest as his mouth gaped open for air and howled every few seconds. His pudgy arms lay packed into his sides, entrapped by his own mass and the armrests of the lounge seat. His beer, the only tonic for his dim personality, lay half-finished on the nearby lamp-table. I could only look at him in mild disgust. It wasn't out of disapproval though. I had no right to try and claim I was better. Not after tonight.
"Hey, Dad. I'm home." I said to him, and he stirred to life with a raspy breath and a cough. I sat down on the sofa to the right of the lounge seat, the vinyl material giving a low groan as it was stretched from my sitting on it. "About time for the news to start, isn't it?" I tried to sound casual, like nothing had happened to me in the past few hours. I pondered if he would be sober enough to tell either way.
"Oh, right, right. The news. Yeah. Home, are you?" he cast a bleary eye at me and I gave him a nod. "Let's see what's going on around the world then." He reached over and picked up the remote, sliding his pudgy thumb over the buttons until he managed to find the numbers from memory. The screen switched to a well-dressed man sitting at the typical newscaster desk, and I let my mind fade into the story of the city council deciding on the summer festival's theme for next year.
Dad and me made it a ritual every Sunday night to watch the news and catch up on what was going on. Sometimes, we didn't say anything and let the T.V do all the talking. It was one of those nights tonight. Dad seemed to have trouble focusing on the television, seeming more intent on finishing his current beer. The only thing my mind could stick on was to wonder if my mug would wind up on there by next weeks' time.
A week passed. I hadn't heard hide or hair from T.J. I didn't seek him out in school, and when he tried to approach me, I walked away and dropped whatever I was doing. That damned elephant statue wouldn't leave my mind; the watchman falling, T.J's face it — all remained with me. I saw it in mirrors, at the sound of every wooden creak. At night, I tried to ride my bike to get some fresh air, only to swerve and wobble every time a light would shine onto my face. I kept expecting that same watchman to come walking forward, the side of his head stained red, his crinkled and straining eyes questioning.
It was after one of these failed ventures of peace that I walked into the house to hear no sports playing, no commentators detailing the up-and-coming future of a star quarterback from high school, no shouting match of stats vs. history. Instead, the clear-cut voice of a newscaster called to me, and I treaded into the room to stand beside the prone form of my father.
"In other news, Jack Bradshaw, a local community figure, was released from critical condition Friday after suffering an assault during his Neighborhood Watch patrol. Jack, being one of the longer standing members of the group, has a record of dedicated service to the police. Fellow members told us several stories about Jack, such as his fondness for wearing his old police outfit on patrol, with permission from local authorities. The assailant has yet to be found, as officers wait for Jack to try and re-construct his memory, having suffered some memory loss due to head trauma." The newsman continued, but I tuned him out as soon as I heard my father speak, perhaps for the first time in several evenings.
"What did you say?" I asked him, having only caught the tail end of his words.
"It's not right. That man being attacked," he said again. His beer sat intact on the side-table. It was unopened. I was hearing a sober man's words for the first time in weeks.
"Yeah, I suppose you're right." My mind immediately pondered if I'd revealed any guilt in that grunt of a response. I had become paranoid about anyone trying to link me to the crime. I didn't know if T.J had felt so empowered by his act that he boasted about it to all who would hear.
"He's as old as me, if not older. And some twerp goes and beats him up. Shows you what kids these days are like," he said, casting a beady eye up to me. The double chin vanished as he smiled. "Not like you though. You're a good kid. Your mother thought the same way, when she was still here."
The reminder of Mom made my body tense. What would she think of my constant night outings? She'd likely scold me, warning me of the dangers of going out at night, of pedophiles, murderers, gangsters. "Dad, not all kids are like that," I said, "and I'm not all that great." Jack's prone form in the warehouse came to my mind's eye. "I do stupid stuff sometimes too."
"And who doesn't? People do stupid stuff all the time. It's in their nature. If they didn't, how would you tell who was smart and who was dumb?" Dad shifted, and the seat gasped for what was possibly its first fresh breath of the night. "Besides. You know how to tell right from wrong, Jimmy. You wouldn't do something like that to that Bradshaw guy."
I prayed that the lack of light in the room kept my face from his sight. A gaping hole had formed inside my stomach, sucking away the relaxed vibe I'd been putting up as a front, leaving my legs to wobble. "No, no, I wouldn't. That ain't right." I said.
"Exactly. See, you're smart." His simplicity seemed to be the key to unlocking the tension between us. He reached over for the beer and opened it, taking a swig and letting loose a belch when he breathed in. For once, I didn't cringe in disgust. "You just gotta use those smarts."
I had nodded and turned to leave when his voice called me back. "Jimmy? What do you do when you go out?" His face was turned towards the T.V, the newscaster giving way to a debate about the Red Sox aiming for the league championship.
"You know, Dad — sometimes smart stuff and sometimes stupid stuff." I went up to my room after that, hitting the bed with a thump and letting unconsciousness take me away from thoughts of guilt and theft, and of a dented model elephant with a blood stain.
T.J finally caught up with me at the same bus stop where we'd met the day of the warehouse break-in. He seemed to be the same, yet carried a new air about him. It was arrogance. The fact that he'd injured another being seemed to be lost on him as he threw various new targets to me, places he'd scoped out for the sake of another nighttime interlude. He expected congratulations, a pat on the back. Instead, I socked him in the face, sending his bag to the ground as he reeled back.
"What the hell, man? What's your problem?" he said, stumbling as he stood up straight.
"I should be the one saying that. You walk up to me like nothing's wrong. Like you've done a damned community service. A man is in the hospital because of you. He can't remember some of his family and co-workers. And you want what, praise? A 'good job'?" I let my anger drive me to a cold indifference instead of spitting raw rage.
"Oh, and you're so wonderful? Why didn't you stop me, huh? Why didn't you keep a better eye out? This is your fault just as much mine. And you know what? No one's gonna know the truth. I'm taking my piece to the pawn shop, selling it off, and going on my way. You can join me if you want to make a quick buck." He sneered. "Maybe replace that bike of yours you've been riding for so long."
I shook my head at him. "I know it's my fault. I've come to terms with that. I found him, T.J. That man you hit. I told him everything." He flinched as if slapped. "The police know what you took. They're looking for you even as we're sitting here. You want to go on your way you'd better start running. Run and don't look back. That's the only way you're gonna get to where you're gonna go."
The bus rolled up, the screech of its brakes filling the afternoon air. T.J looked from the bus to me before he picked up his bag and ran on foot. I watched him go before I turned and entered the bus. Inside, I took my seat next to an elderly woman, who looked up from her romance novel to see if I was a fool who'd try to take her purse. I made no such move, settling instead to rest my head against the glass window and look out the opposing side of the bus, the rush of trees and cars taking me away from the direction of T.J and towards home.