Pop and I were both staring at him. I was ready to call in the straight jacket people.
"Geez, make it easier on me if nothing else! He is my brother even if he isn't your son!"
It was so quiet. Just the far-off sounds of the baseball game, and a wood-dove somewhere. It seemed like a long time went by before Pop said, "Who told you that?" and I didn't recognize his voice.
Mason looked like a person who had seen Death. His face was gray, even his lips.
"I asked you: Who told you that?" Pop said again. His voice was deadly. The voice of an ex-con.
Mason opened his mouth and shut it, looking strangely like a fish on land. Finally he managed, "Nobody had to tell me. I know when you went into prison and when you got out and I know his birthday. Nobody had to tell me."
Oh, Mason had gotten some weird idea. He was Pop's kid and I wasn't. Man, he was ready for the funny farm. I looked confidently at Pop, waiting for the explanation, the real dates, waiting for him to laugh and say, "You're wrong there, Mace."
He didn't say anything. He didn't move. He didn't look at me.
The room seemed to be getting black. Time stopped, then started back up again. I tried to wake up. What was happening?
I turned to Mason.
"Tex," he said, fighting hard to sound normal, a normal voice coming from an ash-gray face. "I didn't mean ... Texas, listen to me, kid--"
I didn't listen to him. I turned and ran instead. I didn't ricochet blindly down the hall, bouncing off the lockers like a stray bullet. I ran steadily, timing my breathing, not wild or crazy or particularly fast.
Almost like I knew where I was going. Almost like I had somewhere to go.
"Hey, Tex! Hey, kid, hey!"
I finally looked over at the car pulling up along side me. I opened the door and jumped in, even before I realized it was Lem. I just wanted out of here, fast.
"Goin' somewhere?" he asked.
"Wherever you are," I said. My mind would go blank, and time would stop, then start up again with a sickening throb.
"You don't look too good, cowboy," Lem said.
"Am I awake?" I asked. It seemed like I was, but I really couldn't tell.
"Yeah. Listen, Tex, I'm headed back for the city. I got another stop to make."
"So make it," I said automatically. I was flashing hot and dizzy one second, sick and cold the next. The grass smell in the car was making me sick. I pushed the button that rolled the window down.
"I mean, I can't give you a ride back here."
"That's okay. Speed it up, willya?"
He was driving like a poke. A lot of stoned people do that. I'd rather ride with a drunk any day. If Lem didn't speed it up, I was going to reach over and bash his face in ... I couldn't think straight. When I tried to think my mind turned into a crazy red mess.
"You know, I don't really hate ol' Mason."
Lem said it, not me. After a few minutes I realized he was continuing the conversation we'd been having that morning.
That morning was years and years ago. I could barely remember it.
"You hate a lot of people?" I asked him. The word was taking on a whole new definition for me. Like the word "water" would change for somebody drowning.
"Oh, yeah. Sure. My old man, for one. And Connie's parents for a while, they ain't so bad now. I did hate Mace some back when he made the team his sophomore year and got to thinkin' he was such a hot-shot jock and him and Bob Collins got so thick. I thought he figured I wasn't good enough to be his best buddy anymore. But now, shoot, ol' Mace would have left me behind whether Bob was there or not ... people change, I reckon. You know hate is a real funny thing. Like George Regis, I've hated him since grade school. And the only reason I can think of is because he had a lunch pail like I wanted. Weird, huh?"
All these years and I had never hated anybody. I was dumb! It suddenly dawned on me that I must be the dumbest person in the world. I was going to make up for it, though. I was going to smarten up real quick.
Lem didn't notice the conversation being a little strange. Stoned people are always having strange conversations.
"Tex, if you're that cold, put the window back up."
"I ain't cold." I tried to stop shaking. "I ain't cold."
Mason had said, "He is my brother even if he isn't your son." And Pop said, "Who told you that?" and that meant--oh, God, what did it mean? I couldn't think about it. I kept wiping my face off with my shirt sleeve, but the sweat kept pouring down.
"Look," Lem began slowly, "would you mind comin' in with me at this next place? I got some deliveries switched around and have to do some explainin' and it'd help if I wasn't by myself, you know?"
"I wish you were a little meaner lookin'. You're big enough to scare somebody, though, if you just didn't look ... who was that Connie's always saying you look like? Goofy, or--"
"Bambi," I answered absently. My fingers dug into my knees so hard the nails bit through the jeans and into the skin. I concentrated on that.
Lem didn't have anything else to say until after we'd driven through the city awhile. "Look, Tex, you just go along with anything I say, okay? If it looks like there's going to be some hassle, we'll leave. I don't want any trouble."
"You must have burned these guys bad," I remarked, trying to appear interested. I had to be normal. If I wasn't Lem might guess ... Lem might already know ... who else knew...? Everybody? Jamie?
For a second I almost blacked out again. I wanted to wake up, real bad.
Lem was shaking his head. "It was just an honest mistake. I can fix it."
"Don't worry about me," I said, looking out the window without seeing anything. "They try to hassle me and they'll be sorry. I'd like to make somebody sorry."
"Hey," Lem said, "I like your attitude."
By the time we pulled in the parking lot of a big apartment complex, I was really lost. I can't find my way around the city too good, anyway, even when my mind is working.
I wondered where I could go from here. Maybe Lem could use a partner. He could use some help. He wasn't exactly the smartest person in the world. I could make some money. And be doped up all the time. That sounded great. That sounded wonderful.
We went up the stairs to the second floor. There must have been a thousand apartments there. It reminded me of the time me and Mason went to see Lem. Mason never lied to me. Sometimes it drove me nuts, but one thing I could always count on was that Mason never lied to me. He never told me the truth, either.
Lem stopped in front of an apartment that had all the curtains pulled shut. He knocked twice, then twice more. The dramatics of it vaguely irritated me. There were more important things going on...
We heard footsteps stop at the one-way peephole, then the door was unlocked. "We'd been wondering where you were lately. Who's your friend?"
"A connection out in Garyville. He's cool."
We went in and he chained the door shut behind us. The apartment was dark and an old Rolling Stones album was playing on the stereo. I remembered what Lem had said and tried to look mean. I couldn't concentrate on it, though. My brain was out of focus.
It seemed like right away Lem and this guy were into a heavy discussion about samples and deliveries and junk. Other than noticing that the guy seemed hacked off about something, I couldn't pay attention. It just seemed like a bunch of crap. This was not important.
I wasn't Pop's kid. That was what they were saying. My mother--why had I always thought of her as somebody really nice, somebody who would have loved me? I thought I remembered ... but maybe I got what I remembered and what I imagined mixed up together. I had always thought she and Pop had been happy together. He never wanted to marry anybody else. And me--if I wasn't his kid, then who's? Did he even know?
It was going to be never. He was never going to care about me. It wasn't going to be next time he got back from a trip, or when Mason left or when I went on the circuit with him. There was nothing I could do to make him
I realized I was making a strange little sound, like a dying animal. I couldn't stop it; but Lem and his friend didn't hear.
I couldn't see how he could do that to me. Play like he cared, but not really. I couldn't help being born, I was more like him than Mason was, how could he do that? It wasn't my fault, I didn't deserve...
The guy Lem had been talking to started throwing a fit. He was jumping up and down, screaming, acting like he'd blown his mind. Even this took a couple of minutes to get my attention.
"I mean it man! You can't come in here giving out samples and come back with a bunch of crap! What do you think we are man, stupid? Where do you get off with this, buddy!"
Lem was stammering around, not scared, just too stoned to think clear. It annoyed the hell out of me. Mason was right. Lem was stupid. Mason was right about a lot of things. But then, he was the real kid, the one who counted...
"Now wait a minute, Kelly, just wait a minute," Lem mumbled.
I wasn't in the mood for this. I gave up my idea of joining up with Lem. Not if you had to put up with weirdos.
A Chinesey-looking guy came out of the bedroom. "Keep it down, Kelly, keep it down." He was almost too spaced out to talk.
"I'm leaving," I said to Lem. "These people are nuts."
I turned and started to unchain the lock.
"Where do you think you're going?" Kelly quit jumping up and down long enough to ask me.
"I'm leavin'. I don't have to take this stuff." I reached for the doorknob, but Kelly set up such a racket I turned back to watch.
"He's going to narc! He's going to narc!" He raced around the room, yanking open drawers and cabinets, feeling around under the sofa, frantic.
I was amazed. I'd never seen anybody act like that in my life. He was screaming "Narc!" till it was a wonder one didn't show up.
"No, it's cool," his friend kept saying. "It's cool."
"Don't seem too cool to me," I said. Lem nodded. "You're right. We better get outta here."
Kelly found what he was looking for. It was a .22 pistol and he had it leveled at me.
"You ain't going nowhere, man!" he screamed.
I stood there for a second, not believing it. This was the last straw. I'd put up with a lot today and this punk pulling a gun on me was the last straw. Who the hell did he think he was? A white-hot rage flashed over me and I slammed across the room at him like a bull out of a pen.
He fired once, but he didn't get a chance to fire again because I yanked that gun out of his hand and backhanded him with it. Blood gushed out of his nose as he tripped backward across the coffee table. He struggled to get back up, half caught between the sofa and the table, until he looked at me. Then he froze.
I had both hands on the gun, aiming dead on. A .22's kick ain't that bad, it doesn't need a two-handed aim, but I was shivering all over and I didn't want to miss.
His face was gray, looking at the end of the gun. I was going to kill him. I wanted that turkey dead. The trigger was warm under my finger. This was going to feel good.
"Oh, gawd, Tex, don't," Lem groaned. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him shut his eyes and pray. My heart was pounding.
The Chinesey guy was chattering, "Look man, everything is cool. Just leave. Everything is cool."
I didn't pay any attention. If he started anything I'd kill him, too. I'd like to kill him. I'd like to kill them all...
Kelly was too frozen to wipe the blood off his face. It seemed like I had just seen a face like that, waiting for something terrible, the color of ashes...
"Texas," Lem begged me, "don't do it, kid, come on, let's leave."
Not before I settled this. My finger quivered.
Then I wondered if anybody'd show up at his funeral. If he had a girl friend, a mother, a brother. And as soon as I thought that I knew I wasn't going to kill him. So there wasn't any sense in sticking around.
"We're leaving," I said. "You try and stop us and I'll blow you away, man."
"Okay, okay, it's cool. Everything's cool." Kelly's friend went to help him up.
Lem and me backed out the door and ran down the steps. When we got to the car I realized I still had the damn gun and I threw it down the gutter.
"That is a real class set of people you hang around with, Lem. Real nice guys." My voice was shaking. Lem yanked the car into starting and squealed off.
"Man, I didn't know anything like that was going to happen! Honest, Tex, he was on something. Holy cow! Really, kid, I been doing this stuff for over a year now and I never saw nobody pull a gun before! God Almighty! What if he hadn't missed!"
"I said he didn't miss. He shot me and it hurts like hell." For a while it'd been numb. Now it wasn't numb. I never thought about bullets being hot before.
Lem looked over at me and jumped when he saw the red stain seeping through my fingers. Blood was all over. It showed up bright on the car's white interior. It hadn't been real noticeable on my navy blue sweat shirt.
"Oh, shit," Lem slammed on the brakes and stared at me. The car behind us honked loudly and we started up again with a sickening jerk. "Oh, shit. This is great, this is just great."
"What's with you?" I asked angrily. What did Lem have to be mad about? He goes for a year without any trouble and my first time helping him in the wonderful world of drug dealing, some looney shoots me.
Besides I was starting to feel funny and it scared me.
"Now I got to take you to the hospital and they'll want to ask questions and call the cops and that's all I need right now, a bunch of cops--this is just great."
We had pulled up at an intersection, but I think I would have jumped out of the car then if it'd been doing ninety down the freeway.
"Go ahead, Lem! Dump me! Everybody else has and I don't know why you should be any different!" I was shouting at the top of my lungs. "Now get the hell out of here!" I slammed the door.
I looked around. Where did I go from here? There was a shopping center across a parking lot. I spotted a phone on a wall. I wanted to call somebody. I felt really funny. There had to be somebody to call.
I got to the phone, staggering just a little bit. Nobody paid much attention, except for a lady tightening her grip on her purse. Somebody going into the grocery store stopped, stared, and went on. I think they were used to staggering kids around there.
I had trouble getting my quarter out of my pocket. There was blood over it, all over my hand. I looked down and blood was splattering on the cement in a slow drip. I was scared. I wanted Mason. I couldn't think clear, too many things had happened too fast. Mason would know what to do. I got the quarter in the slot and realized I couldn't remember my phone number. I never called it that much. I decided to call Johnny instead. He'd know it.
It was Jamie. Her voice sounded so good to me. I wished I could kiss it.
"Hey, Jamie, this is Tex."
She paused. "Yeah?"
"Yeah, listen, do you know my phone number? I can't remember it."
"You sound funny. Are you drunk?"
"No. I been shot. Listen, I want to call Mason. I got to talk to Mason. So tell me the number. It starts off three-six-six..."
In a very small voice Jamie said, "Did you say you've been shot?"
"Yeah, some doper friend of Lem's."
I heard her swallow. "Are you going to die?"
I thought for a minute. "Well, I don't know. I didn't think so at first, twenty-two bullets are pretty little, but I don't know, I'm feeling real strange--"
I heard her screaming. She was hollering at somebody. Then Cole's voice said, "Is this some kind of joke?"
I stared at the phone in my hand. I started to say, "I ain't laughing," but instead I said, "No, sir." Then, "Listen, let me talk to Jamie again, okay? I..." I paused, trying to figure out what I wanted to say.
"Tex, where are you?"
"In town," I said, a little puzzled by why he would want to know.
"Where in town?" He sounded like he was at the end of his patience. Well, so was I! I might be dropping dead any second for all I knew and I didn't want to waste my time talking to Cole Collins.
"I'm in a shopping center," I looked around. "Down where the interstate crosses the Ribbon, you know, across from that big motel that looks like a castle." My mouth was so dry it was hard to talk. I was really thirsty. "Can I--"
"Tex, hang up the phone."
I hung it up without thinking. Then I stood and stared at it. I tried fishing around in my pockets for another quarter. I couldn't seem to get my hand in my pocket. Damn him! I felt like crying. My last quarter and I wasn't going to get to talk to Jamie or Mason or anybody...
Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was Lem.
"Hey," I said dizzily, "you got a quarter?"
I almost pitched forward. Lem caught me and propped me up against the wall next to the phone partition. "Come on kid, hang in there, we'll go to the hospital, okay? In one minute, okay?"
I blinked at the fuzzy parking lot and wondered what God was going to look like.
"Lem, would you call Mason for me? I want to tell him something." My voice wasn't much more than a whisper.
"Sure. Stay right there."
"I want a Coke," I said, yawning. I heard the coins dropping into the phone. Good. I really wanted to talk to Mason.
A couple of older ladies walked by and stared at me. I stared back. My knees started to buckle and I slid down the wall and keeled over on the cement. They went squawking off into the grocery store.
"Connie, listen, no, listen, get rid of everything. I said everything. I had some trouble at Kelly's--I know what's been paid for, get rid of it! Honey, all of it. Then go over to your sister's. Don't get hysterical, it's probably nothin' bad, but get rid of everything? okay? I'll call you later."
Oh, God. He hadn't called Mason. Gets me shot and goes off and leaves me and now he's calling his wife while I'm probably dying.
"How you doin', Tex?" Lem stuck his head around. "Oh, shit."
He was kneeling beside me, prying my hands off my side.
A bunch of people came stampeding out of the grocery store. I hated for them to be gawking at me like that.