Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Passenger

I picked up Tony on the side of the road few days ago.  I am not sure what possessed me to do it but I can only chalk it up to unchecked masochistic morbid curiosity.  I was just returning from work around four when I saw him walking towards me along the road.  Sometimes I will see him walking "into town" with Bonnie.  She trails behind him usually by a dozen feet caring her purse and reusable grocery bags folded neatly in her armpit.   But he was alone today.  Hands tucked in the pockets of his worn green and black NY Jets jacket.

I slowed down and waved.  He waved to me before he recognized me.  He stepped off the sidewalk and I felt this sudden expectation I supposed to stop and say hello. I was presented with a choice.  I could press the gas and accelerate and just leave our exchange at the polite wave and acknowledgement most neighbors give one another.  From there I could go home and watch TV, play video kids, or write a short two paragraph blog entry.
What good is a short, two paragraph blog entry?  Not a whole lot.  But a short two paragraph blog entry is probably infinitely better than the blog entry I don't write because I am laying naked and dead in some creek bed after he kills me and steals my car.

But I am a sucker for a good story.

I slow down along side of him as my window slides down it catches the fresh rain drop drizzle on the glass.  He hovered on the sidewalk for a moment until my window was fully down then he leaned into my car.  His eyes moved about the interior of the car before making eye contact and for a moment I pondered who was closer to my wallet or phone.

"Well, if it isn't Mr. Deserter. Where is Mrs. Deserter?"
"Heh.  She is still at work."  I am pretty sure I heard what I thought I heard.
"Yeah? Mr. and Mrs Deserter, that's what Bonnie and I call you guys now."
"Because you guys left us!"
"We never left.  We are only in the next building over."
"Still you never told us!  You never came to my party."
To be honest I did not even give it a second thought. It's April now, how many New Years will he keep holding that over my head?   "I wasn't even in town for New Years."  I lied.
"Yeah Yeah." 
"Alright."  I repositioned my hands on the steering wheel. 
"You just getting home from work?" He pulled me back in.
"Yes.  From the surgicenter in Shrewsbury."
"I thought you worked in Long Branch, Tom.  You are the nurse."
"I do.  I am a nurse. This is my second job."
"Two jobs?  Good for you.  I've always had a few jobs."  This conversation was as boring as what I imagined it would sound like in the blog entry I had not written yet.
"Well.  Yup." There was a pause and he looked about the cabin of the car again.  I knew what he wanted and part of me communicated that it was time to flee.  I said moving my hands again on the steering wheel.
"Were you on the way to your apartment?"
"Yup.  You remember the place."
"Tom, do you think you could help me out?"
"Finding my apartment?  I don't think you need any help." I said hinting pointlessly at the package he stole, opened, and subsequently returned weeks later to our apartment door last winter.
He guffawed.  "No. No.  Do you think you can give me a ride?"
"I want to get some cigarettes. Up the road."
"Up the road where?"
"Well, I'll show you."  He reached for the door latch and it snapped back.  I sighed, audibly and unlocked the doors while clearing the seat moments before he nearly sat down on my hand.  It smelled like a damp ashtray climbed into my car.  For a moment as his back pushes into my upholstery and he fastens his seat belt I wonder how often what must be his favorite (or only) jacket gets washed.  He fastened his seat belt and we started to move in the direction he was walking.
As we rolled passed the fenced in abandoned former military housing of Fort Monmouth he offered advice about handling local law enforcement that occupy the road.  He pointed out all the locations cop cars like to hide.  He warned me to never go above 30 mph in the 25 mph zone.  He said that if you are drinking and driving to always drive with the windows down especially in cold weather.

Of course I asked why.

Because if you wait to roll your window down until the cop comes over to you the moment you open your window the cold air will pull the warm air in your car out.  The cop will be able to smell the alcohol easier.  That will give him probable cause to do whatever he needs to do.

This of course is what is known as Tony's Fourth Law of Thermodynamics.  A car that is in motion will remain in motion back home from the bar so long as there is an equilibrium between the temperature and alcohol vapor inside and outside the car.

Tony's Fifth Law then states: Unless the cop is a dick and just wants to fill his quota.

Just after our first turn, we passed a house where two weeks prior I saw Tony getting questioned by the cops.  I asked him what had happened.

"I was just going to see a friend.  I must have fit the description of someone in the area who was breaking into apartments."
"Were you breaking into apartments?"
"No.  I don't even know why she called the cops on me."
"My lady friend.  I went to see her and then when I left she called the cops."
"That makes no sense Tony.  "
"She saw a suspicious looking person in the neighborhood but since she had just seen me that is who was fresh in her mind."
"A friend of yours "accidentally" accused you of doing something illegal?  Are you still friends?"
"No.  But I got a lot of lady friends if you know what I mean. Hey Tom, pull in there."  He said pointing at a nearby parking lot.  A sign over the back door into a rear entrance to a store front read "7 Up Smokers Den."
"What kind of cigarettes are you getting exactly, Tony?" I asked.
"Marlboro's."  He answered unflinchingly.

The location was the cross between the snack aisle in a 7-11 and glass pipes and bong aisle of a head shop.  The selection for both was shit.  The floor was carpeted but the paneling on the underside creaked.  There was a spot by the cooler that felt like I was only standing on carpet suspended over an open floor.  The store was empty of people.

"How's it going Hadji?" Tony asked waving at a man at the counter. 
He was a dark skinned indian man with a mustache.  He stood at attention by the register.  The
"Good. Good. How are you Tony?"
"Eh," he said sort of fanning his hand to indicate he did not want to bother about talking about it. "The old lady is on my case again." He said regardless. "Hadji, This is my friend Mr. Deserter.  I mean Tom."
"Hello.  Nice to meet you Hadji."  I said as politely as I could muster as I held out my hand. 
"Harry." He shook my hand. 
"Hairy?"  I said bouncing between homophones and debating if I was losing something in his accent. 
"Harry." He said gesturing to himself with his other hand.  "Good to meet you too."
"Oh. HARRY!  I am sorry." Still lost.

Tony was opening up the cooler to get a energy drink.  "You know, Hadji.  It's a nickname!  You know from that cartoon?"
I immediately felt like shit.  This fucking asshole is calling him Hadji and introduced me as his friend.  I started weighing where on realm of racist nicknames this one rested.  I was so blinded by how embarrassed I felt I could not even remember the name of the cartoon.  I pulled away and made sure I looked like I was casually browsing, politely to make up for my indirect racism.
"Hadji, do you have any single Marlboros?"  
"Yes."   He opened a drawer behind the counter and pulled out an opened hard pack.  They were talking among each other and I tried to mind myself in the wares.
"Hey Tom.  You want something?  Get whatever you want, I'm buying!"

The goods he had were the sort of things I see when I go to the Englishtown Fleamarket.  Stuff that almost appears to be name brand but when you look closer the colors look a little off or you realize is spelled differently despite appearing in the same font.  I told Tony that I did not want anything but he still asked me again when I approached the counter.  Harry was busy counting through a fist full of change that Tony had spilled on the counter.  From the looks of it Harry was working on trying to take the smallest coin denominations first.  On the counter was a purple colored vitamin water and six individual white cigarettes.

They looked familiar.  I was pretty sure he smoked the same brand my parents did before they quit a decade ago.

Harry held out his hand as though Tony had the capacity to count the coins without repeating or losing count.

"I trust you! Ha! Thanks for helping me get rid of all that change, Hadji."
I wondered how cognizant he was of his own behavior.  It is this sort of social symbiosis.  If I tolerate him being a glaring asshole his visits will be less memorable or at the very least, shorter.  If he knew he was being an asshole all the time but people just sort of accept that something was wrong with him and keep on going.
"Harry." I said under my breath while glancing and the store-owner for a flinch. 
"Oh Tom, I know his name.  It's a nickname."
I wonder if he knew his name.  Or of it's like how he never can remember my dog's name despite repeated reminders.  We left the store and into weather that was floundering between drizzling and raining. I unlocked my car with my remote.
"This car doesn't have an automatic start?  You should get one of those automatic car starters."
"I don't need that."
"I know someone that puts those in.  He does real good work."
I would have gotten away with it too...

...if it hadn't been for those damn storms.
"No thanks.  I've gotten this far in life without needing it."  How many copies of my keys would he make?  I ran through all the torture I could be dealt if he had access to my car.  Would he smash up my car and blame it on teenagers like he did for the van? Would he smash in my headlight and then blame it on weather phenomenon like he did for the neighbors sedan?
"Hey, Tom.  If it's not too much trouble could we make one more stop?"
"I wanted to pick up some Lairds."
Now, writing it here, in this blog right now it makes perfect sense what he wanted.  But if someone asked, verbally, out of the blue for you to pick some Layereds/Layers/Lairs/Lairds up would you know what they were saying?  If he had said, Grey Goose, Smirnoff, Svedka. hell, I would have known Popov.  It wasn't until recently I realized that Lairds is made right here in Jersey, and that is probably why he thought I would know instantly what he meant.

"What? What is that?"
"The liquor store, where do you go?"
"Anywhere.  Usually the Spirits over there." I said while pointing in the general vicinity. 
"Which one?"  There were two Spirits liquors in that direction.  Of course he would be right.  I refused to take him to the liquor store I go to.  Not that my store was special or anything but if he came in with me I would not want to be associated with him.  I drove a little further to the second Spirits liquor all the while debating the moral-do-no-harm implications of me assisting this man in the acquisition of alcohol.
I asked a few probing questions, like when the last time he drank and often he feels the urge to drink.  He told me he hadnt had a drink for a while, but how a demented alcoholic defines "a while" is anyone's guess.

We pulled into a space in the parking lot and he pulled out a twenty and held it out to me.  I furrowed my brow at him quizzically.

"Get me two of the small Laird vodkas."
"Why can't you get it yourself?"
"The owner doesn't like me."
"What do you mean the owner doesn't like you? What did you do?"
"He called the cops on me.  I was just trying to help him out.   Someone was breaking into his car I went back in the store to let him know and he called the cops.  He thought it was me.  When the cops came they threw me in the back of the car."
"Why did he call..." I took the twenty knowing this was the wrong question and I started over. "How did you know it was the owner's car that was being broken into?"
"I didn't.  But when he was describing who did it, since I was just in there buying some beer he remembered my face.  So he thought it was me who did it."  This story sounded oddly familiar.  He was breaking into that guys car just like he was probably breaking into apartments a few weeks ago.  His bullshit "I look like everyone" story sounds like something a lawyer tells you to say on the stand when you sit accused of something you obviously did.
"Two lairds. Small Bottles?" I asked. 
"Two lairds.  Three Fifty Bottles.  They keep them behind the register.  Buy anything else you want with the change.  My treat!"

Fat chance of that, I thought as I got out of the car.  I would not even buy a pack of free matches with his money.   He is like some deadbeat stepfather taking me out and offering me the world so long it fits within the loose change in his pocket or the leftovers after I buy him his medicine.

It was a dirty, naughty feeling, being in line at that liquor store.  At any moment the cops were going to kick open the door and ask who was buying alcohol for that man outside.  The owner will be forced to describe a crude likeness of me to a sketch artist.   Unfortunately, he will describe me because I was just in the store and I will seem familiar. The artist is going to screw up my handlebar mustache and my hair line I just know it.  How are they going to find 5 other people who look like me to stand in a line up?  What sort of insulting thing will Lenny Briscoe say behind the double sided glass once the owner points me out?  Jack McCoy is furious with me.  Treating me as a hostile witness without asking permission from who ever is playing the Judge this week.  

Oh no.  I know nothing. Your Honor.  I plead the fifth.  
"Two of the lairds."
"The three fifty bottles.  Two of them."
"Nine-ninety." the clerk said before he even rang it up.  He knows.  I do not exude a "drinks flasks of cheapass Lairds vodka look", but the asshole he got arrested in the parking lot sure does.   I kept a close watch on his hands facetiously...waiting for him to reach for a panic button.   I put the crumpled bill on the counter, Old Hickory stared up from the scratched and faded faux-wood laminate counter-top.  He took the money and placed a small paper bag in its stead.  He typed away at the register and I quickly asked if I could get a receipt. He sighed as he strenuously hit another button.

Smooth.  Like I am going to deduct this from my taxes.

Line 144: Total Adjusted Gross Alcohol expenditures from Line 143a Beer, 143b Wines (Nonsparkling and Sparkling143c Cheap Applebees Margaritas (Adjusted for Drink specials) and 143d Distilled Hard Alcohols (Includes Lairds Flasks)

He placed the ten, dime, and receipt in my hand and I took the bag gingerly as the two bottles clanged together. When I got outside Tony wasn't in the car.  He was nearby, smoking looking at a Mustang parked off by itself.  Part of me wondered if he had done anything to it yet or if he was still working out in his head what he should do.
He moseyed over to me taking a long drag of his cigarette then pinched the tip off. 

"Here." I held out the bag.  I wanted nothing to do with it anymore.  He rubbed the ashes off the end of his cigarette on the side of a parking lot lamp post.  I walked another 6 or 7 steps with my arm held out like a child, he did not move from the post. I felt like an complete asshole by the time I made it over to him and handed him the brown paper bag.  I had to wait for him to stick the stub of a cigarette in his jacket pocket in order for him to empty out my other hand with his change. 
He looked in his hand.  "Did you get anything?"
"No. I got you a receipt."  I said this just in case he thought I was ripping him off.

Immediately it occurred to me that he knew exactly how much change I should bring back to him.  Like the time he asked Sam and I to buy him a particular beer and handed us a five dollar bill.  He knows all the cheap alcohols and how much they would cost with tax.  He has worked all the math out in the past.  He may not know names and conversations, but his important elements of his life whether it be crime, cars, or getting drunk; he knew unquestioningly.
I was angry at him but sympathetic enough to realize:  What does he have left?  Two flasks that will buy him a night or two of ephemeral bliss.  He tells me that he gets drunk easier nowadays.  I wondered if it was because it conflicts with his medications or its because his liver is so cirrhotic it can not process alcohol anymore.  

The car ride back to the complex was one filled with stories about how he was going to have to sneak around Bonnie tonight.  This man is going to outlive Bonnie.  That is just what good alcoholics like Tony do.  They just keep living, fading away slowly.  But, he keeps telling me he does not live there anymore.  He lives in a home somewhere, he only stays with Bonnie a few days out of the week but that is a secret.  I am not allowed to tell the landlord or the owners because that is not how we do things around here.  If I have a problem with something or someone we solve it amongst each other.

Fuck you, Jonny Quest.