Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands…
by: Richard Fulco
I paid for a Dr. Pepper, a pack of Marlboro’s and a Snickers bar at the Main Street Pharmacy but stuffed a large red ribbon down the front of my jeans when nobody was looking. It’s not like I buy anyone Christmas presents or anything. I just get off on taking things I don’t really need.
My therapist, an Ivy League dork masquerading as Johnny Cash all decked out in a black – buttondown shirt, bolo tie, jeans and boots – thinks my klepto shit started after my brother died. You don’t need a degree to figure that shit out. I mean really. It’s textbook.
“The question is, Timmy, why do you have such an irresistible urge to do harm to yourself?”
Oh, shut the fuck up!
“How many times have I been arrested?”
One more time and yer out on yer ass.
My father’s a compassionate dude. Fuck, what can I say? He puts a roof over my head and has been wasting money on the quack in black for almost eight years now. My old man is worrying about a shit load of nothing though. If I get picked up again, I’ll probably do some real time, and that’ll really cement my place as the “biggest disappointment” in his pathetic life.
I’ve been working at Big Food for as long as I can remember. Mr. Ryan, the store’s owner, is my father’s best friend. They’re more like brothers actually. Grew up in the same neighborhood. Same block. Graduated from the same high school. Fought in Vietnam together. Same platoon. Same tour of duty. Mr. Ryan’s wife recently croaked. I think she had lung cancer or something fucked up like that. When he’s not traveling, my father’s been spending a lot of time with Mr. Ryan, hanging out at the OTB and Reilly’s Pub. Shit like that. You take care of your brother. That’s what you’re supposed to do.
Mr. Ryan gave me a job, the only job I ever had, as a bagger when I was fifteen. By senior year, I was behind the deli counter, and a couple years later Lester, the store’s manager, thought that I’d rise to prominence in The Produce Department. It’s not the worst gig. The salary covers my car insurance, gas, cigarettes and beer. My folks are waiting for me to get a real job though. But I think radishes and turnips suit me just fine.
Lester’s been store manager for like a hundred years, ever since he moved here from Manhattan. He’s always taking nips of some shit from a beaten-up silver flask throughout the day, but he and me have an arrangement. As long as I don’t tell Mr. Ryan about his beaten-up silver flask, he tolerates my sticky fingers and let’s me take cigarette breaks whenever I need one. Lester’s pretty cool that way.
The holidays are fuck-ass busy. But that’s when I make a nice chunk of change, working overtime and shit. This year, I was in charge of decorating the store. I strung silver garland across the Customer Service Desk, taped cardboard candy canes in between the yellow sale signs in the front window and hung ratty old wreaths on the front doors. I assembled the hundred-year-old, hundred-foot fake ass Christmas tree and tied it to the fence where the shopping carts are kept, then strung the white lights, draped tinsel and tossed a pathetic gold star on top.
Don’t ask me why Lester bought a menorah. This is an Irish and Italian neighborhood. Nobody celebrates Hanukkah around here. It took me half the day to figure the damn instructions out. When I was done, I tied the menorah to the fence next to the Christmas tree, and that’s when I noticed weird stares from some of the regular customers like Mrs. Giordano.
I’ll tell you all about that piece of work in a minute. You’re probably more interested in my brother, even though he wasn’t a very interesting guy.
“Your brother loved you very much. He’d want you to get on with your life, get your own place, a real job, maybe even a girlfriend.”
Why does my shrink think that I haven’t moved on? The truth is, I never really beat myself up over Billy’s death. He was my brother. He was never my friend.
I miss him, I guess, but he could be a real douchebag sometimes, taking money from my underwear drawer or stealing my cigarettes. Shit like that.
I used to drink beers with Billy and his friends on the weekend on top of a hill above the train tracks. I was the youngest, and they were Billy’s friends, so they beat my ass with all kinds of jokes and pranks and shit. I guess it was better than drinking alone. Things never really got out of hand. Except for this one night.
We were pretty fucked up and started chucking bottles at the passing trains. Billy was extremely depressed because his girlfriend had broken up with him, so he got wasted, took off his Cure t-shirt, black boots and jeans, placed duct tape over his nipples and started prancing around in his tighty-whities. It was the middle of the fucking winter.
When he was through making a jackass of himself, he must have figured it was time to make a jackass of me, so he tied his black studded leather belt – he was in his Goth phase at the time – around my neck and pulled me up and down the hill. He had me drinking beer from a dog bowl. Shit like that. I went along with it for the laughs.
Then the guys thought that strapping me to the train tracks would be a laugh riot, so they knocked me to the ground and laced Billy’s belt through one of the rails. They moved back onto the hill and tossed bottles at me. I laughed at the madness, but when I saw the oncoming train’s headlights, I shit a pill.
The engineer blew the horn, my ears rang like a motherfucker, and I couldn’t hear a goddamn thing the guys were yakking on about as they walked away.
“Hey, hey, hey guys. Don’t leave me here. Where are you going? HEY!”
I forgot to tell you that they also duct taped my hands behind my back. I couldn’t do shit but scream like a little girl.
My brother came back, but he had a hard time untying me.
“Come on, Billy. Fuck. Hurry up.”
“I’m trying asshole. What do you think I’m doing?”
“The train’s coming.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
The engineer laid on the horn. My jerk-off brother finally got the belt loose, and we rolled off the tracks, down the hill and into a creek.
I landed on top of Billy, and when I noticed that I had an advantage over my older brother, I wrapped my hands around his neck and squeezed with all my might. The others broke it up before I was able to strangle the life out of the fucker.
“What the fuck was that all about? It was like you were trying to kill me, Timmy.”
“I was trying to kill you, Billy. You’re a sick fuck. You know that?”
“That’s right I am and this sick fuck doesn’t want you hanging around with us anymore. Hang with your own friends. Oh, wait you don’t have any friends. Get used to drinking alone, you sick fuck, ‘cause you’re not welcome here anymore.”
“Fuck you, Billy!”
And then I cried like a little girl.
That was the last time we hung out.
A couple days later, the stupid fuck swallowed carbon monoxide from a rubber hose that he inserted into the tailpipe of his ’75 Chevy Camaro. Like I said, he could be a real douchebag sometimes.
Speaking of douchebags, let’s get back to Mrs. Giordano.
If you can believe this shit, Mrs. Giordano petitioned the removal of the menorah. In one piss-ass afternoon, she got about a million signatures from other irate customers. You’d think people would have better things to do with their time.
Mr. Ryan buckled under the pressure.
“A menorah doesn’t have a place in a Christian neighborhood, Mr. Ryan.”
“ I told Lester to take it down, Mrs. Giordano.”
“Then why is it still up?”
“That’s between me and Lester, but it’ll be taken care of, Mrs. Giordano.”
“It better be, Mr. Ryan. I’ve been shopping here for forty years, but you’re going to lose my business along with everyone who’s on my petition if it doesn’t come down immediately.”
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Giordano. I’ll take care of it. I promise you.”
I was taking a cigarette break when Lester stepped out back and slipped behind the dumpster for a nip from his silver flask.
“Everything all right, Lester?”
“Why do they give a shit about a fucking menorah in the first place? Isn’t this supposed to be the season of peace, love and goodwill toward others?”
“Well, it is a Christian neighborhood, Lester.”
“Wait a minute, you’re a Jew?”
“My last name is Lipshitz.”
“I never knew you were a Jew.”
“You know I might lose my job over this shit?”
“Just take it down then.”
“I told Ryan that I’m not going to do that. It’s my holiday. It’s a free country. Don’t I have a right to celebrate?”
“Mr. Ryan won’t fire you. You’ve made this shithole what it is today. Just take the fuckin’ thing down.”
“Yeah, well he gave me an ultimatum.”
Lester toppled off his milk crate and into a puddle of sludge. “Ah, shit. I told Julio to clean this shit up.”
I tossed him my apron, but he tossed it back. That’s the thing about Lester. He doesn’t really accept anything from anyone, and I can respect that.
“Hey, Tim, what do you have stuffed down the front of your pants?”
“Why are you staring at my package, Lester?”
“I know you got something down there.”
“That’s just me. Hung like a horse.”
“C’mon what do you have down there?”
“Oh, this? It’s a zucchini.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“How long have I been telling you that you better get that klepto nonsense checked out?”
“Yeah, I’m working on it.”
“You’ve got to stop stealing from this store.”
“I got a shrink, Lester.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Tim.”
“What are you sorry about? It’s not like I have cancer or some shit”.
“I saw a shrink once.”
“It was around the time I got back from the war, gave up music and moved to this shitty neighborhood.”
I didn’t know Lester was a musician. I thought all musicians were brooding depressives with long hair and an attitude. Lester was a clean-cut dude in an ugly-ass leisure suit and tie. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really know much about the guy.
Billy’s suicide brought my parents closer together. At first. They went to dinner every Saturday night, sometimes even caught a movie, took walks in the park, played canasta with the Ryans, but once the tragedy really sunk in my mother became more withdrawn, while my father began working long-ass hours and traveling a lot more. I hardly saw the old man. Actually, I’ve been kind of avoiding him these past eight years.
My mother always smoked, probably smoked during her pregnancies too, but after Billy did himself in, she smoked like a chimney. The quack in black said that smokers suffer from depression. Tell me, do you know anyone who isn’t depressed? If somebody says they aren’t then they’re lying. Call them out on their shit. Yesterday, I called my mother out on her shit. Let me explain.
I was in the basement teaching myself the chords to a Joy Division song when the phone rang. The whisper of a desperate man was on the other end.
“You’ve got to meet me, Helen. I need to see you.”
“Okay, but I can’t stay long. Helen…Helen.”
“Timmy, I’m going out for a bit. I’ll be back later. Don’t forget to take out the garbage.”
Helen hopped in her Buick and drove off.
I had to know who the fuck my mother was talking to, so I followed her in Billy’s Chevy Camaro, which I inherited. She pulled into the Big Food parking lot, where she pulled up alongside Lester’s run-down Ford Pinto. I backed into the corner spot in the rear and waited for her to make a move. She finally opened the door, stepped out, fixed the hem on her skirt, leaned against the car and lit a cigarette. That’s when I made my move.
“Mom? What are you doing here?”
“Hi, Honey. I didn’t know you were working today.”
“Who are you waiting for, Mom?”
“Honey, you really need a haircut.”
“What’s going on, Helen?”
“Did you take out the garbage like I asked?”
“What are you doing here?”
“What is that thing next to the Christmas tree?”
“It’s a menorah, Mom.”
“I know it’s a menorah, but it doesn’t belong next to a Christmas tree.”
“Stop changing the subject, Helen. What are you doing here?”
“I’m picking up a few things for supper.”
“Mom, I heard you.”
“Heard me? What are you talking about?”
“I heard you on the goddamn phone with some asshole.”
“Don’t speak that way, Honey.”
“Who’s the jerk-off you’re meeting?”
“Honey, that was Arthur.”
“Why’s Mr. Ryan calling you?”
“He wanted to talk about Margaret.”
“Why couldn’t you just talk on the phone?”
“Come on let’s go home, I’ll make you a Sloppy Joe.”
“What’s going on, Mom?”
“Arthur is having a difficult time.”
“So are we. Look at us. We’ve fallen apart.”
“Yes, but he’s our friend and he needs our support now.”
“But why couldn’t you just talk on the phone?”
“Let’s go home. How about a nice Sloppy Joe?”
“I don’t want a sandwich. Does dad know that you and Mr. Ryan “talk”?
My mother took a long pull on her cigarette, tilted her head back, closed her eyes, exhaled, looked down at the hem on her skirt and put her long bony fingers through her frizzy black hair.
“Life’s complicated, Timmy, and sometimes you make decisions, no matter if they’re wrong or harmful, in order to find some peace of mind. To remind yourself that you’re still alive.”
She got back into her car and rolled down the window.
“I’ll see you at home, Honey.”
Life’s complicated? No shit. I didn’t like catching my mother in a lie. It didn’t make me feel particularly good. I just wish she had come clean. Told it like it was. Was that too much to ask for? Life’s complicated? Like I don’t know that.
Mr. Ryan tried to hand Lester a large brown envelope, but he refused to accept it. Mr. Ryan held out his hand, but Lester refused to accept that as well. Ryan tossed the envelope onto the passenger seat and sped off in his Cadillac.
Me and Lester pulled the rusty gates down on the front doors of Big Food. Lester pointed to a swastika somebody had scrawled in red spray paint.
“There are some fucked up people in this world. Makes me wonder why I was fighting for them in ‘Nam.”
“You weren’t fighting for me so don’t even pull that shit.”
“What do you have down your pants now?”
“Stop staring at my dick, Lester. It’s really creepy.”
“For the last time, you better get that klepto nonsense checked out. You might need medication or something.”
“Life’s complicated, Lester, and sometimes you make decisions, no matter if they’re wrong or harmful, in order to find some peace of mind.”
“What kind of nonsense are you spewing?”
“You gotta remind yourself that you’re still alive.”
“You’re not in a cult or something. Are you, Tim?”
“Just something I heard.”
“Don’t forget to toss the menorah into the dumpster. I don’t want you to lose your gig too.”
“I still think you should have told Ryan to suck it.”
“Hey, like you said, Tim, we all want a peace of mind.”
“Yeah, but all you had to do was take the menorah down. I don’t understand.”
“Me and Arthur go back a long way. None of this has to do with the damn menorah.”
“You gonna come around and visit me, Lester?”
“See you, kid. Take care of yourself.”
Lester tossed me the keys and sped off. I snipped the wire that fastened the menorah to the fence, tossed the fucking thing into my trunk, tied it down and sped off.
A few minutes later, I turned off my lights as I pulled into Mrs. Giordano’s driveway. I lit a cigarette, opened a can of Dr. Pepper and just hung out for a while, blasting the mix tape I had just made on Billy’s old stereo. I get off on the way one song ends and the next one begins. Transition really turns me on. When AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” was over, I stepped out of the car just before “Crazy Train” and pulled the menorah from the trunk, dragging the heavy beast onto the front lawn.
I was pounding the stake into the lawn when Mrs. Giordano popped her head out from behind the curtain in the front window. I clicked my heels, greeted her with a Nazi salute and returned to my work. She opened the door and tried shouting over Ozzy’s vocals, but I was so fucking absorbed in my mission that I paid her no mind.
Soon she was on the phone, probably with the fucking pigs, but I took my sweet ass time. When I was done, I stepped back to admire my work of art, but the menorah needed something. Something was definitely missing.
I pulled the large red bow I nabbed from the pharmacy out of the glove compartment and tied it onto the middle candle on the menorah. Then I reached down the front of my pants and pulled out a can of lighting fluid. I doused the menorah, lit a match and chucked it onto the monstrosity. I took a picture with the Polaroid I stole from the camera shop on Sycamore Street.
The menorah was all ablaze when the pigs pulled up. I was leaning against my Camaro, eyes closed, basking in the orange glow. The warmth of the blaze made me all fuzzy inside. When both officers stepped out of their vehicle, I turned around, stuffed the picture in my back pocket, placed my hands on the roof of the car and spread my legs. The skinny pig turned off my car and put the keys in his front pocket, while the fat pig seized my Polaroid, frisked me then slapped the cuffs on me so hard he drew blood.
Mrs. Giordano hosed down the flaming menorah and thanked the officers for fulfilling their civic duty. Then she turned to me.
“I hope you rot in a jail cell, you degenerate.”
The fat pig, ushered me into the back seat of the police car, while the skinny pig got behind the wheel, put on the siren and sped off.
Once my father gets wind of my shenanigans, I’ll no doubt be the “biggest disappointment” in his pathetic life, and he’ll definitely throw me out on my ass. I can guarantee that. When the quack in black reads about the incident in the local newspaper, he’ll most likely think, “Billy loved Timmy very much. He wanted his younger brother to get on with his life. What a waste.” I might even lose my gig at Big Food. But I had finally found some peace of mind. I did what I was supposed to do. I took care of my brother, Lester, and I might have been a sick fuck but I never felt so alive.