(excerpted from The Other One, a novel in progress)
Mike knew that the gas gauge on the ’76 Dart was unreliable. Mike’s roommate Larry often commented on its capricious nature. For example, once the gauge had read a quarter tank for a week and a half, and then it had suddenly dropped down to Empty and Larry had driven to the gas station on fumes.
The car had several minor eccentricities: the glove box had to be duct-taped shut because it wouldn’t stay closed on its own, there was a crack in the drivers’ side windshield (Larry couldn’t explain how it had gotten there) and the backseat window on the passengers’ side was so hard to crank that Larry preferred that it be left alone. The brakes squeaked, and the car did not like to start in very cold weather. Larry had hitchhiked to work a few times on exceptionally cold mornings.
In general, though, the car was inspectable and perfectly roadworthy. Especially since the muffler had been replaced.
Before the muffler repair, you could hear Larry coming a block away. There was no way the car was going to pass inspection like that, and Larry was scooping change out of sofa cushions and tightening his belt every way he could; he took to rolling his own cigarettes and living on generic macaroni and cheese.
That was summer. Mike was working on a house-painting crew and he was making decent money: ten bucks an hour under the table. He was working a lot of hours, too – getting up at 6 AM and working until dusk. He even worked Saturdays sometimes. He wasn’t drinking too much and he woke up feeling good in the morning. He was making more money than he could spend, and there were wads of cash everywhere: in the pockets of his paint-spattered jeans, and in crumpled heaps on his dresser.
One day when Mike was up on a ladder scraping the side of a house, his eyes and nose full of dust, he decided to lend Larry the money he needed to fix the muffler. It made the hot afternoon go by a little faster, rehearsing how he would approach Larry that night. “I think I can help you with your little problem,” he might say. Or, “I realize you’ve been having difficulties lately, trying to figure out how to pay for that muffler.” Then he would explain that this was an open-ended no-interest loan, and that Larry could pay him back whenever he was able to – in fact, whenever he was able to do so comfortably.
Larry had helped Mike out when he’d come to town, a little less than a year prior. Mike hadn’t known anyone in town at all. In fact, he had never been there before. He’d left Binghamton at two-thirty in the morning. He’d stuck his thumb out, and the first ride he’d gotten, in a brand-new red Ford pickup, had been on his way to Endwell.
Mike liked the sound of it. The guy had said, “I’m only going as far as Endwell.” Mike said that sounded fine to him. The guy was maybe forty. He looked like he had a few days’ growth. His hair was slicked straight back. It looked as if he’d done it with water and a pocket comb in the rear view mirror.
It was a quiet ride. There was almost nobody on the road. Mike watched the broken white lines roll by and he started to fall asleep. He didn’t want to break his unofficial rider’s code, however: if someone picks you up hitchhiking, it might be because they want some company, or because they need help staying awake. It’s rude to just hop in and snooze. Even if they don’t talk to you, it’s polite to stay awake. But the truck cab was warm and comfortable – it was as comfortable as he had been in weeks.
“Go ahead and sleep if you want,” the guy said.
“No, that’s alright,” said Mike, but his eyes were closed and he was drifting.
“Suit yourself,” said the guy. “There’s not much to see.”
“What’s it like?” Mike asked.
“What’s what like?”
“Endwell.” Mike tried to extend his knees. His joints ached. He really was tired.
“Lived there all my life,” the guy said. “I can’t complain.”
All’s well in Endwell, Mike thought, and the next thing he knew, he heard gravel crunching in the truck tires. Mike opened his eyes and sat up straight.
“This is where I turn off to go home,” said the guy.
“Thank you, ” Mike said. “Thanks for the ride.”
The guy was letting him off at a rest area. It was still pretty much the middle of the night. Mike blinked and looked out into the darkness. There was nobody on the road.
“Sorta leaving you in the middle of nowhere,” said the guy.
“That’s okay,” Mike said. He unbuckled his seat belt. “Thanks again.”
“Sure thing,” the guy said as Mike’s sneakered feet hit the gravel.
The nap Mike had taken in the truck had made him realize how tired he truly was, and he found himself laying out on a picnic table and going back to sleep.
In the morning, the cold woke him before the light did. It was springtime, but the mornings were still icy and damp. He wrapped his thin denim jacket around himself and wandered out onto the shoulder of the road. There were no cars to speak of, so he just walked. He passed a sign that said, “Welcome to Endwell,” and he thought, well. Here I am.
The center of town had three bars, one grocery store, a greasy spoon, a gas station, a Chinese restaurant, and Laundromat. There was a barbershop that also offered tax preparation services. Mike sat in the steamy Laundromat for a while and snoozed in a molded plastic chair. Then he went next door to the Busy Bee Diner and ate as much breakfast as two dollars would buy. By the time he walked into the R&J and nodded to the bartender, he was pretty sure he could stay in this town for a little while.
After a couple of draft beers (Piels – the cheapest they had) Mike had asked the bartender whether he knew anyone who was renting a room. The bartender said that one of his regulars had a room for rent in his apartment right around the corner. He said that Larry came in after work, without fail, at around 4:30.
Mike took a bath in the men’s room sink at the R&J and killed some time walking around town getting the lay of the land. There wasn’t all that much to it. He found the public library and the town hall. He found the post office. He thought maybe he would write a letter to Caroline but he wanted to be able to tell her something about what he was doing. Something of interest. There wasn’t really anything about his time in Binghamton that bore repeating. He hoped that he’d have something to say about Endwell, something about a pocket full of money or an interesting job or some new friends that were somehow better than the ones he’d left behind. Something about how all was well.
It was about 4:20 when he went back to the R&J, and true to form. Larry walked in about ten minutes later. Larry was a youngish stocky guy with a thick mustache wearing a blanket-lined levi’s jacket and a Van Halen concert T-shirt.
The apartment was on the ground floor in a sagging duplex. The front door key was missing so only the back door was used. It opened into a small kitchen, which was cluttered with empty beer bottles and stacked-up newspapers. Larry’s bicycle stood in one corner of the kitchen (“It’s a good bike,” Larry said. “I don’t want it to get ripped off.”) There was also a portable circular saw on the kitchen counter. Larry explained that he was working on a few different projects.
There was an old couch in the living room, and a television propped up on a milk-crate. Larry opened the door to the room that was for rent, bypassing his own bedroom door (“You don’t need to see that,” he said, “Trust me.”) The room was small, but it had a closet and two windows. There was a mattress on the floor and a white painted wood dresser. The dresser was pulled away from the wall and all the drawers were ajar.
“The bed and the dresser are yours if you want ‘em,” Larry said. “Frankie left them behind.”
Mike was to hear many stories about Frankie, who had entertained many different ladies at the apartment. Oddly enough, he had left to move in with his steady girlfriend.
“He had girls in the shower, on the back porch, you name it,” Larry told him. Mike was to learn that Larry was the antithesis of Frankie. Larry never brought girls home. One night he got drunk and told Mike about a girl that he liked at work – Larry was a manager at Fays Drugs and the girl was a cashier – but he didn’t have the nerve to ask her out. He thought she had a boyfriend because there was a guy who picked her up a couple times.
“Did they look alike?” Mike had asked. “Maybe it’s her brother.”
“I don’t know, ” Larry had said. “I didn’t get a good look.”
“Well, did she, like, kiss him or anything?”
“I dunno,” Larry shrugged.
Mike had seen the girl a few weeks later when Larry had locked himself out of the house, and Mike had gone up to Fays to bring Larry his keys. It was a long walk along the state highway. The shopping center had seen better days, and they were building an indoor mall across the road, which would surely be its demise. People from the neighboring hill-towns came to Fays to buy pretty much everything – motor oil, baby clothes, big cans of pork and beans. Larry sometimes brought home dented cans of sauerkraut and smashed bags of vanilla wafers.
When Mike got inside, he checked all the registers until he found her. He was sure she was the right girl because Larry had described her in detail. He’d gone on and on about her long, wavy blonde hair and her tiny little hands.
Mike got a good look at the girl and it was true that she was pretty, but the hair color was definitely fake. It looked almost like the shade his mother had used for most of his childhood, which was called Strawberry Summer or something similar. This girl also wore too much eye make-up. She looked like a little doll. And she was young. Maybe a little bit older than Mike’s little brother, who, when last Mike had last seen him, still had baby-fat and no hair on his face. She was probably a high-school girl and this was probably a summer job.
Mike didn’t want to say anything, but this girl was way out of Larry’s league. Larry was 28, and he was overweight, and had no money. This girl was probably engaged to her high-school’s football star, and she would be married and pregnant by the fall after graduation.
There were plenty of single girls Larry’s age at the R&J, but Larry wasn’t interested.
Back in the spring when Mike had moved into the apartment, he had the $150 for the first month’s rent, but that had pretty much cleaned him out. Larry had bought him burgers and beers and smokes at the bar for a few weeks until Mike got a job and got his first check.
There was no real reason for Larry to do this – Mike was an absolute stranger. Mike had kept track of everything that Larry spent and had paid him back out of his first two paychecks, which hadn’t been easy. His first job as a stock-boy the P&C supermarket didn’t pay very well. In any case, the point was, Larry had done him a good turn, and he was happy to be able to do one back.
The night Mike decided to pay for Larry’s muffler, Mike walked into the bar and greeted Larry by clapping him on the back. Larry had looked at him strangely, and Mike had tried to launch one of his prepared speeches. Despite all his careful preparations, none of it had come out right. Mike ended up just handing him a wad of damp bills that he’d been clutching since he’d left work. There were ten twenties – just about enough to pay for the repair.
Larry had just looked at the wad of cash, and then at Mike.
“For the muffler,” Mike had said.
“Oh. Wow.” Larry had replied.
“Pay me back when you can,” said Mike. He could see that Larry wanted to count it, so he added, “There’s two hundred there.”
“Hey, thanks, buddy.” Larry had said. “Wow. That’s really nice of you. Anytime you need a ride anywhere, let me know. Or if you want to borrow the car, it’s all yours.”
In October, the painting job ended. Mike’s old job at the P&C had been filled. The best thing he could find was a dishwashing job at a filthy family restaurant out on the state highway. He had to hitchhike to work and back and it only paid minimum wage plus meals. The food was terrible, though, and Mike knew way too much about the kitchen to be comfortable eating anything that was prepared in it. The rats ran the place, he was fond of telling people later. It hadn’t been funny at the time, though. The cooks were all old black guys who wouldn’t say more than three words to him. The waitresses were all over 50 and had worked there since the beginning of time. There wasn’t even anyone to get a beer with after work.
By the time he reached the R&J, it was lucky if he made last call, and Larry was usually home asleep. Larry had to be at Fays to open at 8 AM, six days a week.
The dishwashing job had lasted about a month, until the Sunday night he’d stood in the rain with his thumb out for an hour, and then finally got picked up by a guy who wanted to see his cock. “I won’t touch,” the guy promised. “I’ll just look.” Mike was so wet and cold and bone tired that he was actually considering it, just to get a ride home. Then he saw that the guy had his own cock out and was stroking it as he drove. “Please,” the guy said.
“Pull over,” Mike told him.
“Please,” the guy said again.
“Stop the car,” Mike yelled, loud enough to let the guy know he wasn’t kidding.
Mike walked the rest of the way home, about a mile and a half, in the pouring rain.
After that, he didn’t go back to the restaurant again. For a few weeks, he tried looking for a job and came up empty. The manager at the P&C wasn’t too happy with the way he’d quit with three days notice in the spring, and besides, he really didn’t have any openings anyway. Larry said he’d keep his ears open at Fays, but he doubted they would need anyone except cashiers. You had to be good at math for that. Mike had just finished the 8th grade and he’d always been bad with numbers. The guy who’d hired him on the painting crew had said there might be some interior work in the fall and winter, but now Mike couldn’t get in touch with the guy because his phone was disconnected.
Since he had a lot of time on his hands, Mike was able to ask every single bartender at the R&J if they’d heard of any jobs anywhere for a guy like Mike, and they all said no. Then again, these days Mike was usually three sheets to the wind when he asked, so they probably said no whether they knew of anything or not.
All the dollar bills that had been forgotten in jacket pockets and dresser drawers now were spent. The pickle jar full of change that he kept on the closet floor was gone – he’d rolled it all and taken it to the bank. There were no more mysterious wads of cash in pants pockets on his bedroom floor. The bottles were all returned for their deposits and Mike started rolling his own cigarettes and foregoing burgers at the bar with Larry at the end of the workday in favor of generic cornflakes and macaroni and cheese.
It had been about three months since Mike had lent Larry the two hundred bucks for the muffler. In all that time, he’d been silent about repayment, but now he knew he’d have to say something. And anyway, couldn’t Larry tell he was hurting for cash? Didn’t Larry know he was out of work? It pissed him off, if he really thought about it.
He resolved to ask Larry about the money on Friday, payday, at the bar, as soon as Larry walked in. But Larry picked this occasion to bring a guy from work to Happy Hour – a first as far as Mike knew. The guy was a loud talker and he was bragging about his softball team. Turns out he was a district manager for Fays drugs and he was trying to get Larry to put a store team together. After a brief introduction, they ignored Mike altogether.
The next night was Saturday, and Larry apparently felt the sudden urge to visit his mother over in Herkimer. Mike found this out on Sunday when Larry walked into the R&J at three in the afternoon.
“Where ya been?” Mike asked.
“Check this out,” Larry jeered to the bartender. “My wife wants to know where I’ve been.”
“He was visiting his mom over in Herkimer,” the bartender said.
“Great,” said Mike. This would be a good time to ask him. Mike thought. Just come on out and say it. Say it. Say it. But then it looked like Larry was going to beat him to it.
“You know, Mike,” said Larry, digging in his pocket. Hot damn, thought Mike. Maybe he’s just going to cough up some cash right now.
“What?” Mike asked.
“You really need to get a job.” Larry pulled a book of matches out of his pocket.
“That girl is never going to go out with you,” Mike said suddenly, surprising even himself. Larry stared at him.
“What girl?” Larry asked.
“You know,” Mike said. “The girl you like. The cashier at work.”
“No shit,” Larry said. “She has a boyfriend.”
That’s not what I mean, Mike thought, but he didn’t say anything.
The next day was Monday. Larry had to stay late at work for inventory. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday passed, and there never seemed to be an opportunity to bring it up.
On Friday, Mike had to get up very early to be awake before Larry, who was usually out the door at seven-thirty. In the morning, he rummaged around the living room looking for the keys. He finally found them under a pile of girly magazines on the kitchen counter, It was almost as if Larry was purposely trying to hide them, Mike thought. But why would be do that?
If you want to borrow the car, Larry had said, It’s all yours. Of course, Mike knew as he lifted the keys off the kitchen counter that this was not at all what Larry had in mind.
The gas gauge was on E. He tapped it with his finger. E could mean anything, Mike thought. He figured he was about fifty miles from home. Could he get there on fumes? His father always said he never came home unless he needed money or his luck was running out, or both. He supposed that was true. He’d have a shower and something to eat. His dad would be at work, and his kid brother would be at school. Just his mom would be home, and she wouldn’t mind. Then he’d call Larry and explain. Larry would be pissed off, sure. But Mike had given him a chance. Mike had done him a favor when he lent him that money without even being asked. The least Larry could do was pay him back.
He thought about what he would say when he saw Caroline. He still didn’t have anything good to tell her. Not about Binghamton, and not about Endwell either. He wanted to feel that he had gone to somewhere, instead of just away from somewhere. Sure, he had a car, but how long was that going to last?
He tapped the gauge again. It was possible, he thought, that there was really a half a tank of gas and that the needle was just stuck on E. Maybe it would suddenly spring up. It was possible.
He knew there would be a lot of hills between Endwell and home. He just hoped that most of them were down.