Authors: P. E. Ryan
To Beverly Neel
(It's Not Easy Being a Sports Celebrity.)
(I'm Not a Narc.)
(You. Are. Stoned.)
(We Don't say that Word.)
(Didn't you move here from One of those Square States?)
(We'll start with the Steaks, and See where it Goes.)
(We haven't Capsized yet, Have we?)
(You're like Money waiting to Happen.)
(This Might Sound Kind of Lame.)
(You have to Own some of this.)
(In the Words of Hannibal Lecter, Quid Pro Quo.)
(You Don't Look so Good Yourself.)
(Pretend We're the Only Two People on the Planet.)
(Would you Shut Up and Tell Me?)
(You make a Rotten Ex-Friend.)
Charlie thought he sailed north on A1A,
is my best friend in the world
This was immediately followed by the thought
How pathetic is that?
Still, if you had to have a car for a best friend, you could do worse. Charlie's was a bright red 1974 Volkswagen Bug, built fifteen years before he was even born, and it was in prime condition. Bone leather interior, whitewall tires, and a shiny chrome bumper he kept polished so that the sun glinted off of it. Best of all was the fact that he'd bought the car
himself with the money he'd saved up over the past two summers. All those hours in the heat, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes while he brushed primer and paint onto other people's houses, had actually amounted to something. He'd spent almost everything he had on the car, and it felt like a rewardânot just for working so hard, but for getting through what he hoped was the worst year of his life.
He pictured himself telling this to Bob Costas on HBO:
You know, I was in a low spot when I was fifteen. My mom had just died, and that was rough, really rough. And I thought, I've got to do something, I've got to get focused or I'll go crazy. So I became obsessed with the idea of saving up for a car. I worked hard, saved my money; and a year later, I was sitting behind the wheel.
The interview would move from there to the humongous contract he'd just signed with the Miami Heat.
For now, he feltâand lookedâlike anything
a pro basketball star. There were paint smears on his T-shirt. His hands stank of linseed oil, and his fingernails were encrusted with glazing compound. His dark hair, he saw when he glanced at himself in the
rearview mirror, was sticking up in sweat-glued spikes. He'd been working on the Danforth house since nine o'clock that morning, and his workday was finally over. He ran a grimy finger around the dial on the radio, found a song he liked, and turned it up.
It's not easy being a sports celebrity,
he'd tell Costas.
There's a lot of pressure that comes with a multimillion-dollar contract. Sometimes I wish I could just go back to being that simple guy driving his VW around St. Augustine, not a care in the world.
As if he didn't have cares. He had plenty. In fact, he was up to his neck in them.
Near the outskirts of town, he came up on the first wave of motels and souvenir shops and tourist trapsâplaces he hardly noticed, being a local. Today, though, he noticed Gatorland because a girl was coming out of the front door, and she was
. She had strawberry-blond hair and wore a tight yellow shirt and a pair of shorts cut so high, it was practically a bathing-suit bottom. Her legs weren't very tanâshe was probably a tourist. Which would make sense, because why else would she be holding a bag from the Gatorland gift shop? They sold nothing but
Florida junk in there. Alligator back scratchers. Plastic banks shaped like space shuttles. He imagined pulling up in front of the shop and offering her a personal tour of the town, Charlie Perrin style.
What's Charlie Perrin style?
she'd ask. And he'd say,
It's what you're going to be telling your friends about back inâ¦wherever you're from.
A horn blared behind him. He jumped in his seat, then realized he'd slowed down to almost twenty miles an hour. As he accelerated, a blue SUV swung up alongside him. “Learn to drive, asshole!” the man shouted.
Go to hell,
Charlie wanted to shout back, and thought about flipping the guy off. Why did people have to be so damn rude? Was it a crime to slow down and check out a girl? Well, sort of. Charlie had no business checking her out, because he already had a great girlfriendâKate Bryant. Besides, what did he know about seduction? He'd never actually
with anyone. Though he'd come close with Kate. In fact, he had a feeling it might be happening before the end of the summer.
Still, the truth was that he was about as close to
being a world-class ladies' man as he was to being a pro basketball star.
But you've got yourself one great set of wheels.
Another horn blared from behind him, this time because he hadn't floored it the instant a traffic light turned green. A few moments later, as he was about to ease into a parking space in front of the Publix grocery store, a rusty green Buick cut right in front of him and stole the spot. He cursed under his breath and ended up driving to the back of the lot before he was able to park the car. Was it him, or were most people justâ¦impossible? Sometimes he thought the best plan was to get rich really fast and then buy an island, build a house on it, and issue special passes,
one a year, to girls who wanted to come and visit. He'd written a composition about that very idea for Mr. Metcalf's philosophy class last year, and after reading it, Mr. Metcalf had approached him with the paper, clucking his tongue the way he did when he was amused. “Charlie, Charlie,” he'd said, half smiling. “Nice idea, but you need to read your John Donne. âNo man is an island.'”
“I don't want to
an island,” Charlie had told
him. “I want to
Mr. Metcalf had clucked his tongue again. “I understand that. But people need people, Charlie. You can be as cynical as you like, but you're still going to find that out. It's why we live in societies. There's no way around it: People need people.”
Charlie had wanted to tell him he sounded like a corny love song. Metcalf was an oddball. He wore bow ties and shoes with little leather tassels. If Metcalf had his own island, he wouldn't be issuing passes to any
, that was for sure.
Charlie walked across the hot asphalt of the parking lot, then passed through the automatic doors and into the icy, welcome air of the Publix. He had some serious shopping to do. That morning, before he'd left for work, he'd noticed there was almost no food in the house at all, and he certainly couldn't count on his father to go to the store during the day. In all likelihood, his father hadn't even left the house. He'd practically become a hermit since Charlie's mother had died.
When she first got sick, they explained it to Charlie as if he were a little kid. The red cells were
fighting with the white ones over who got to control the blood, and the white cells were winning, but they didn't know how to take care of the blood once they'd won it. “The body is a remarkable machine,” one doctor had told him, frowning over the top of a silver clipboard. “We're still learning how to care for it, and there are things we haven't figured out yet.” All Charlie knew was that his mother had felt tired for six months, then had been bedridden for six more. She'd always been thin, but she'd grown even thinner, and her hair had turned almost completely white. It wasn't until she went into the hospital that anyone uttered the word
in front of him. “Is she going to get better?” Charlie asked his father point-blank one night when they got home from another visit to the hospital.
“We need to take this one day at a time,” his father told him.
“Butâis she going to get better?”
Charlie felt a panic in his chest as if a giant hand were squeezing his ribs. “Well, what if she doesn't?”
“I don't know!” his father snapped. He almost
never raised his voice to anyone. “I'm sorry, Charlie. I don't mean to yell at you. I just don't know right now.”
“Is she”âthe words stuck in Charlie's throat, swelling, threatening to choke himâ“is she going to die?”
he wanted to hear his father say.
Absolutely not. Get the thought out of your head.
Instead, his father broke down and grabbed Charlie and hugged him. Charlie was already taller than his father. He had to stoop to rest his chin on his father's shoulder, but he wanted his chin there: He wanted to use it like a hook, wanted, suddenly, to hang from and be supported by his father. For what felt like a very long time, the two of them had stood there in the kitchen clutching each other, their bodies shaking as they quietly sobbed.
Not long after that, while she was still in the hospital, Charlie's mother had died.
Things had changed when she'd gotten sickâso much so that you would have thought they couldn't change any more. But once she died, everything changed again. For the past year, every morning when Charlie opened his eyes, he felt like he had to
relearn his life, relearn that his mother was dead and that everything was different now.
His father was different, too. Since they'd been on their own, he'd all but stopped going in to work, and he did little more now than sit around the house reading books, mulling over the newspaper, staring at the television for long hours, and taking naps that lasted half a day, sometimes. He was a real estate agent, and a good one. But he hadn't sold a house, or even
to sell one, for nearly a year. In fact, the only thing Charlie could really remember his father
in the past year was taking down all the pictures of Charlie's mother and putting her clothes in the attic. To make matters worse, he'd started drinking in the eveningsâsomething he'd stopped doing entirely, years ago. He drank vodka with orange juice usually, though sometimes he drank wine, sipping it slowly and steadily, like hot tea. He never got angry or violent or anything like that; he just drank until it seemed like someone had kidnapped the brain out of his body. He fell asleep most nights without getting ready for bed. Sometimes he passed out on the couch, sometimes on the living-room recliner, once while he was sitting at the kitchen
table. It was a situation Charlie hoped would take care of itself, given enough time. For now, it just meant more responsibility for Charlie.
“Chicken,” he mumbled to himself, looking over his list and glancing down into the basket. “Frozen veggies. Yogurt.” He'd hurriedly compiled the list on the back of an ATM receipt while eating his lunch that afternoon. His scribble was so chaotic and tiny that he could hardly read it. “Ketchup. Bologna. American cheese. Oh, shit.” He'd completely forgotten about cleaning supplies. Both the bathrooms at home needed a good scrubbing, and they were completely out of Comet and Tilex. He shoved the list back into his pocket and hurriedly wheeled the cart back to the cleaning supply aisle.
“Whoa, Perrin, where's the fire?”
Wade Henson was standing at the entrance to the cleaning aisle, blocking Charlie's cart. He was one of those guys who went to the gym but did a half-assed job of it, working their arms and shoulders but never their legs, so they ended up top-heavy and freakish looking. He was wearing a tank top that showed off his bloated shoulders. A faint wisp of a mustache, the
same shade of orange as his mullet-cut hair, was sprouting above his upper lip. “Good thing I ran into you. I was going to stop by your house later onâ”
?” Charlie wouldn't have guessed that Wade even knew where he lived.
“âbut I guess I don't have to now.” He ran his dull gaze over Charlie and sniffed loudly. “You look pretty skanked out, man.”
“I've been working.”
“Have you? Derrick will be glad to hear that.”
Charlie felt the blood rising in his neck. He had liked Derrick Harding once, but he had never liked Wade Henson. If Derrick were a ship, Wade would be a barnacle. Charlie suspected that not even Derrick liked Wade but he kept him around because Wade would do anything Derrick said.
A case of Black Label beer dangled from the end of one of Wade's thick arms. He was older than Charlie, but only by three years, Charlie knew, because he'd been a senior at Cernak High School when Charlie was a freshman.
, Charlie thought.
“Just tell Derrickâ”
“You know what?” Wade said. “Why don't
tell him?” He fished his free hand into a pocket of his baggy shorts, brought out a cell phone, and wagged it in the air.
The blood was really pounding in Charlie's ears now. “I don't need to talk him. Just tell him I'll take care of it.”
“He knows that.” A laugh bubbled out of Wade's mouth like gas. “Question is, when?”
“When I get some money!” Charlie spoke louder than he'd meant to. He glanced around the grocery aisle nervously. In a softer voice, he said, “When I get some money, okay?”
Wade put the phone back into his pocket. “You crack me up, Perrin. You work more than anybody I know. I mean, you work like a grown-up. Look at you, you even grocery shop like a housewife. You've got to be the most responsible dumb jock on the planet. Where's all your money go?”
, Charlie thought.
Man, does it go.
Car insurance. Gasoline. Upkeep. A new stereo he had no business buying. Not to mention all the dates he'd been going on with Kate.
This was insane. He wasn't going to be pushed around in a grocery store by a parasite like Wade
Henson. “That's none of your damn business,” he bit out.
The smirk melted off Wade's face and his eyes closed a little, as if Charlie had gone fuzzy. “You're right, Perrin. It's not my business. But it's Derrick's. And he's the one who asked me to check into it.”
“I'll call him.”
“You ought to.”
“I said I'll call him. Whatever it is, I'll take care of it.”
Wade nodded his mullet head. He held up his free hand, the fingers and thumb spread wide.
“What's that mean?” Charlie asked.
Five what? Five o'clock?
Charlie started to shrug, impatient to get away from this jerkâ¦but then realized what Wade was communicating. It was a sum. The amount he'd stupidly let accumulate with a minus sign in front of it, because for a long time Derrick had been so relaxed about it and hadn't seemed to care at all. Five hundred dollars.