Authors: Chris Lynch
All the Old Haunts
Caesar’s father, Victor, has an impression of him. Caesar’s got an impression of his father, too. Victor is a used-to-be-drunk but now he’s a recovered, round-the-clock sober unbearable nervous twelve-step pain-in-the-hole who adds his own thirteenth step to the AA deal because these days nothing is intense enough for him. Victor’s step thirteen is, for all the life you pissed away those many years in the bottle, you have to rededicate yourself to choking the hell out of the lives around you, probably with some kind of freak notion of getting back some of what you wasted. Caesar doesn’t really appreciate Victor’s occupation or his avocation, security guard and church deacon, which the kid says both amount to about the same thing. “Sobocop” is a thing Caesar called his dad sometimes. He isn’t a for-real cop, but he is for-real sober and wears that part of himself like a sheriff’s tin star. In reality he was a roving security guard, going where he was told by the outfit that supplied him with the badge and the flashlight but no, absolutely not, no gun. Victor has a big ol’ heart that you can practically hear ticking, and never goes anywhere without his nitroglycerin pills.
All that, in Caesar del Negro’s opinion, explains the absence of any mother in the house. She hung for all the boozing, which she had no problem with. It was the one year of bitchin’ sobriety that blew her out.
He’s a soft-spoken sober, Victor is. Like he’s apologizing all the time, for being good. When he was bad he was loud, he was a force, he was a foghorn. People were drawn to the foghorn, they followed it. Nobody follows a whisper.
In Caesar’s opinion, Victor’s volume control was attached backward.
Victor’s opinion of his son goes about like this:
“What are you gonna do, Caesar?”
Caesar is sitting on the edge of his bed, head hanging, long black hair falling like a curtain between them as the son ties his shoes. He finishes tying, dangles in that position anyway.
“Caesar. Look at me, Caesar.”
Slowly the kid pulls himself back to upright position. His head is slushy and hot from the upside-down. He smiles at this, and drops down for more.
It’s not like he’s never heard it all before anyway.
“Pick your head up and look at your father,” Victor says evenly.
Caesar does as he’s told because, despite impressions, he is a good boy, and his every impulse is, as it has always been, to do what he is told to the best of his ability.
Victor looks at Caesar’s face, peeking out between twin sheets of fine middle-parted hair. “You got so many pimples now, Caesar. You gotta cut your hair, or at least get it off your face somehow. You got such a great face in there, y’know? Thank god you come out like your mom that way. But don’t spoil it.”
Caesar blushes, feels the same blood rush as when he hung upside down, even though he knows his father is lying, about his great face, and telling the truth, about the acne. Caesar pushes the hair back, smoothing it out on both sides, then lets it go. The hair falls right back over forehead, eyes, cheekbones.
Victor sighs. “What are you gonna do, Caesar?”
Caesar knows what the man means. He asks the question a lot. He asks it in the morning before the two of them head out, he asks it once in a while in the dead of night, crouched beside Caesar’s bed, sweating, red-eyed, and puffing out coffee breath like an insecticide fogger. And he asks it, like now, when the boy is on his way out into night. Caesar knows what he means.
“What do you mean, exactly, Victor?” Caesar groans.
“You know. Wit’ your
What are you gonna do? You’re not even thinking about it, I can tell. And time, Son, time.” Victor stops to look at the floor, to shake his head ruefully, to choke back whole bunches of things. “Time ain’t helpful. It don’t stand still, and it don’t rewind, and it don’t give you back nothin’ you didn’t take with you the first time around.”
“Let me ask you this,” Caesar says, standing and buttoning his shirt in front of the brown oval mirror that’s attached to what used to be his mother’s brown square vanity. So awfully brown, dark and dull lifeless brown, for a vanity, which Caesar believes should be white for a lady to be sitting in front of it. “Do you mean, what am I going to do, long-term, or what am I going to do in the future immediate?”
This is progress. They had never before gotten even this deep into the discussion, Caesar always stopping things with a quick and heartfelt
I don’t know.
Victor is encouraged.
“I’ll take whatever,” he says with a shrug. “Anything you got on your mind, I’m happy to hear it out.”
“Well, Victor, long-term, I still don’t know. But for right now, Caesar’s gonna go plow his ladygirl.”
Sometimes those things just come out of Caesar’s mouth, uncontrollably, like he has some kind of a condition. He doesn’t really want to hurt his father, but his father is pressure, and pressure tends not to bring the best out of Caesar. Pressure corners Caesar, makes him squirm. It also makes him call himself by his name, Caesar. He’d heard athletes do it, with a hundred microphones stuck in their faces, and it seemed to make them happy and confident, proud and calm. All those unimaginable, superhero qualities that had to be faked. Caesar tried it on for himself then, and it played well in his head, stayed in there the way the first song you hear on the radio in the morning plays on and on whether it’s a song you like or not. Caesar, when forced to discuss the subject of Caesar, likes the sound of it,
better than he likes the sound of
“You’re gonna plow
with that attitude, boy,” Victor calls as Caesar descends the stairs.
“Whoever’ll have me,” Caesar says, shrugging.
Caesar still goes to church, though he does not know why. He goes to Mass on Sundays, but he doesn’t take Communion. He does not go to confession. He sits in on special events like Stations of the Cross. He particularly enjoys Stations of the Cross.
Mostly he just goes and sits, though, in the massive aging basilica that is his ornate parish church. He likes all the gold and the flickering bits of life in the countless candles. He likes the small stories in the stained glass windows, and the big story in the gargantuan mahogany Christ behind the altar. He likes the painted ceiling and particularly the center, the rocket-cone center of the place where Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John sit piloting the whole show out to the stars.
He stops there, sits a while, doesn’t pray, whenever he has time, whenever he is on his way to someplace, and he has time.
It’s seven in the morning when Caesar leaves the house to go to church. It is eight when he leaves the church to go to a sub shop called the Pizza Face. When he saw it in the Sunday help-wanted listings, he knew he was looking at an honest-to-god omen right there. Much of Caesar’s previously cloudy future immediate cleared up at that moment. Like when Son of Sam heard the dog talking to him, and he
what he’d be doing the next day.
“The hell you wanna work here for?” Stavros asks. The question isn’t nasty, but it isn’t friendly either. It’s more like a test, the exam for working at the Pizza Face.
“I wanna buy a car,” Caesar says. “And, I like pizza.”
“Well, that’s for sure the truth. As a professional, lemme give you some advice: If you gotta O.D. on pizza, lay off the pepperoni and sausage or your face ain’t never gonna recover.” Stavros chops tomatoes and peppers and onions as he talks, whacking the vegetables with a weighted cleaver, then shoving them aside like he hates the sight of them.
Caesar figures the insulting advice is another part of the test.
“Thanks,” he says.
Stavros stops chopping and looks directly at Caesar. “Don’t you go to school?”
“I’m seventeen,” Caesar offers.
“What, they don’t have school for seventeen-year-olds no more?”
“Not if the seventeen-year-olds don’t wanna go no more.”
Stavros nods. “So then, this is what you wanna do with the rest of your life?” He waves the big chopper knife around at his own store as if he’s looking for a good spot to throw it.
“It is,” Caesar says, nodding at all the brown greasy walls. “This is exactly what I wanted to do, ever since I sucked my first hard sub roll as a kid.”
Stavros laughs, annihilates a cucumber. “You start at noon. Beginning tomorrow.”
“Great,” Caesar says. “Noon till … ?”
“Noon till when I decide you ain’t needed no more.”
Caesar thinks, but not for too long. If he doesn’t like it, he’ll quit. That’s life. Big-time life. Life in the fast lane. “See you tomorrow,” he says.
He goes directly from the pizza joint to school, where Caesar del Negro brings an official close to his formal education.
The event is noted by the vice principal’s secretary who does the paperwork, and by no one else.
“Don’t I get a lecture?” he asks the tall tired woman.
She looks up from the form, looks Caesar in the eyes with a squint, like she’s looking into smoked-glass windows. “What, you mean about what a terrible mistake you’re making?”
“Ya,” he says brightly, “that’s the one.”
She sighs, puts down her pen. “It’s very hard times for a young man, no education, no skills, no job—”
“I have a job,” Caesar cuts in.
She blinks. Pauses. “Well that’s a horse of a different color. Welcome to the workaday world, Mister …” she checks her paperwork, “ … del Negro. Only forty-eight years till retirement.”
Caesar tries to smirk, but he’s too confused. He doesn’t care what this woman thinks she knows. He’s done what he came to do. He gave this a shot and now he’s out, ready to take a flier on the devil he
“Bye, y’all,” Caesar hollers into the empty gym, and then listens as it comes back just as he expected, a beautiful, empty echo.
She never believes him, Sonja doesn’t.
“I did,” he says. “No foolin’. Right there in the square this morning, I saw her, my mother and all her new friends. Ya, she’s riding in a cannibal biker gang now, and none of ’em wear any pants or nothing, and they drive right up on the sidewalk just to run over squirrels and rats and male babies and stuff.”
“Jerk,” she says, but then laughs.
“No lie, Sonja.”
Sonja stares at him.
“Okay, lie,” he says. He tells his tall tales to soften her up for the actual news he is bringing, which might not shock so much next to the first story. Problem is, then he sometimes forgets to get to the real story.
“Okay now get outta here, Caesar, I gotta work. I’m not a young high school punk like yourself with nothing but time on my hands.” Sonja is nineteen years old, graduated high school two years ago. She’s a receptionist at a clinic where the girls in the neighborhood—and maybe a guy now and then—go when they think they might have a baby or a disease they’re not sure they want.
“Well there’s another thing we got in common, soul mate,” he says. “Because I ain’t a high school punk like myself neither. I disenrolled today.”
“Caesar, I have no time for this, really. Lies during working hours are annoying. Come by the house later and you can tell me the nighttime lies, like I like.”
“No lie,” Caesar says, smiling.
She looks further into him now, and she sees it. “Ohhh … no. No, Caesar you didn’t do that. We talked about this …”
“Done. You’re looking at a proud and shiny full-time grease monkey of the famed Pizza Face restaurant.”
She stares at him. It is not a look of approval. The air runs out of Caesar, the lies and jokes along with it, because he cannot bear Sonja’s disapproval, even if it is not unusual and not unexpected.
“I’m gonna get my GED,” he says hopefully.