Liz Enright is a Maryland born lady living in the South. She’s working towards a BFA in sequential art and a minor in creative writing and clocks more time at her drafting table than she does with other humans.
The Otis Complex
I flick a soggy cigarette butt off the lip of Otis’ bejeweled dinner bowl before dumping the mush into the crowded sink. You can’t tell it apart from shaved yucca skin or three day old guac.
“Ma, you trying to kill the dog again?” I yell into the dim, half opened bathroom. It’s obstructed by her yellow scooter and a tower of records. “He ain’t a smoker, you know.”
“Tsssss,” she hisses over a rattling fan, “I’m on the telefono, Vincent!”
Her inner Boricua goes off when she’s pissed, so I rinse the bowl instead of arguing. I think about all the work that needs to get done over the next couple of days and the kitchen isn’t even the most cluttered room in the house. I have to convince Ma to let me shift her collections around before Dizzy’s party. I let the water in the sink rise to the brim because the dishes are stuck together.
Otis stomps his wobbly wooden leg around the kitchen tile impatiently while I dry his ridiculous rhinestone bowl. When people listen to Ma talk up her shining French Bulldog, they must imagine the most dignified damn thing to ever walk on four legs. When they see the stubby brown dog-loaf with a serious under bite struggling to hobble alongside her scooter, they cross the street without a second thought. I set the bowl down and peel back the metal tab on a container of Dollar Tree pet food. Otis’ milky eyes bulge in different directions, but he somehow knows whenever Ma, me, and on a rare occasion, Dizzy, are about to feed¬¬ him. Ma thinks he can feel our “vibrations of intention” through that crazy back leg of his, as if that’s common dog knowledge. She’d call me when I was in Pittsburg at the half-way house to report the progress of her craziest craft project yet. I was just happy to get a phone call from home. The sawed off lion’s claw leg attached to a soldered metal dowel hooked into a makeshift duct tape synapse looped into some velvet leopard-print harness sounded good to me. When his pig nose catches a whiff of the salty, syrupy cubes, he twirls around and around until the heavy foot scuffs the floor. The way it tilts in sharp angles makes me nervous so I pick the porker up and sling him over my shoulder so I can finish pouring.
“Damn, man, maybe you should skip a meal.” Otis doesn’t think so. He thumps the wooden leg into my back as I lower the bowl to the floor. “Relax,” I tell him, but he launches himself off my shoulders nearly landing on his broad, flat face.
“Ay Dios Mio!” Ma says with a sharp inhale. She comes out of the bathroom while pulling up the pair of fuzzy purple pants that choke her belly. A small flip phone is wedged somewhere between her plump cheek and dyed bluish black hair. “Si, ah, yes Mrs. Pfeiffer. I’ll be right over.” She plops herself down onto the narrow scooter and a cloud of glitter swirls in the air.
“Is it Dizzy?” I put my ear to hers and she shoos me away while scrunching her round nose.
“No, it’s not like my Lourdes to skip.” She jerks the scooter in reverse, almost knocking over the pile of records. “No, no, especially not detention!” She pivots around and rolls towards Otis, who’s wagging his nubbin tail and licking the bowl clean. “Can you watch her a little longer?” Ma pets him on the head and he starts licking her glue covered hand wildly like it’s a treat.
“Ma, give me the keys. You know you ain’t supposed to drive right now.”
She looks at me the way she looks at stop signs and nutrition labels; viciously, with two arched eyebrows joining at the ends.
“Mrs. Pfeiffer, I’m sending my son.” She taps Otis on the nose before reaching into the metallic purse sitting in the scooter’s tasseled basket. “Yes. Okay.” She pulls the phone away from her face like she’s bit by something nasty.
“Puta! Can you believe she hung up on me?” She takes out a confusing cluster of key chains from her purse and dangles them with annoyance. When they clank together, the ones with little bells cause Otis to growl. His big ears are keener than his giant appetite. He loses control when the sirens blast through the neighborhood at night.
“Have fun with the beast” I jump at Otis, causing him to scoot back before he takes two brave steps forward. “We’ll be home soon.”
“Oh, no you won’t! You’ve got your weekly with Ms. Melinda.” She smiles and flutters her lashes romantically towards the kitchen’s drooping ceiling.
Ma likes my parole officer because she thinks it’s good for me to talk to pretty ladies, but I can barely talk to my teenaged daughter. That’s what these favors are about; That’s why I’m planning her surprise quinceañera, even though she doesn’t know a damn word of Spanish beyond “burrito”. I glance at Otis as he rolls, belly up, into a beam of sunlight coming from the back door. He presses his two dopey eyes shut and the folds around his mouth drape a stupid smile across his face. I walk out the door and wonder if he’ll lay back down the way he was before I eclipsed his tiny ray of sunshine.
“What do you mean she’s already been picked up?” I watch in amazement as a small, thin-lipped woman scuttles across the spirited green and white office to turn off the lights and grab a narrow gray scarf from her desk. Sometimes all you know all you need to about a person the second you meet them. Mrs. Pfeiffer is no exception with her fourty dollar haircut, brown wire-rimmed glasses and a permanent stink-face.
“I am sorry, Mr.” She pauses and her eyes turn into slats.
“Schaefer.” I say, while I consider throwing her “Number One Office Aid” paperweight out the window.
She looks me up and down with indifference, “Yes, well, Mr. Schaefer, when Lourdes’ mother said son I didn’t expect…” She tugs on her heavy silver earring.
“Carmen is Lourdes’s grandmother. Grandmother. I am Carmen’s son. Lourdes is my daughter. How hard is that?” I start to lose my temper.
“Well, Mr. Schaefer, Lourdes has never mentioned a father before.” She pushes in her rolling chair. “And she’s already been signed out. Lourdes is no longer the school’s responsibility.” She opens the door for me but looks out the blinds.
“No longer your responsibility?” I ask, trying to keep it cool.
“It isn’t the first time she’s been picked up by the boy. He certainly looks like he could have been her brother. I’m sure she’ll turn up. They usually do.”
I leave the office and bolt around the back of Wheaton Woods Middle School towards the guest parking lot. I think about what Mrs. Pfeiffer said about the boy who ran off with Dizzy, that he could have been her brother. All brown people in the world might as well be the same to a lady like that. She must think I’m the imposter, with my blue eyes and straight blonde hair. Having a German father and a Puerto Rican mother means you’d only see the Latino in me if you looked close enough on crazy hot summers. My last name and looks have this ability to shorten jail sentences, to land me in Florida instead of Jersey. These things also keep me separated from my daughter. When I was sent to Pensacola she was only two. Ma gave Dizzy her maiden name, Ovando, because we weren’t sure how long I’d be out of her life. I can’t blame her for that. She even looks more like her mother: olive skin, tan, fleshy lips, and dark, reflective brown eyes. There’s not a hard edge on the girl’s body, but during lonely Christmases the boys at the halfway swore that I could hang ornaments on my pointy nose if I really wanted to. For all I know, Dizzy will never accept the things I’ve done, but I have to try. I have to find her.
I walk back to Ma’s gold Ford pickup, embellished with chipped purple flowers and rust. I struggle to untangle her crazy key ring from my back pocket. Like that old truck, I am sorely out of place in the empty lot.
“Hey, you lost or somethin’?” A deep voice emanates behind a yellow dumpster with a terrible mural of the town painted on it. A lanky kid of about nineteen or twenty emerges, smoking a cigarette while pushing down on his gelled hair with a basketball hat.
“Oh, gawd.” Dizzy pokes her head around the cheerful dumpster. She playfully slaps the side of the bin before picking up her checkerboard backpack. “It’s Vincent, I gotta go.” She takes the cigarette out of his mouth and grins. Her teeth are yellow and the gap between her two front teeth bleeds right into the black lipstick she’s wearing.
“Oh, that’s your old man?” the boy grabs Dizzy by the tiny strap of her snug black tank top and she squeals with delight, like I’m not here at all, before putting the stained cigarette back in his mouth.
“No, stupid. Vincent”. She throws her head back like he said the funniest thing, just then.
The boy puts something in her backpack and nods back at me, before walking far across the lot and into his shitty wanna-be muscle car.
I realize that the kid is hardly a kid at all. He’s a man and, as far as I’m concerned, Dizzy is a little girl until her fifteenth. I think about the two day window I have to legitimize kicking his bony little ass.
“What?” She doesn’t look at me when she asks. She’s making clumsy swipes at her touch phone with the long black claws she calls finger nails.
“Get in the car.” I say, more desperate than stern.
I’m powerless. I’m Vincent, not Daddy, and she knows it. I open the door for her and she stands there, texting; probably with the puñeta I should have beaten, but didn’t because I wanted the chance to open the door for her and watch her climb in, just once. But, here we stand, with six months behind us. There’s a door open and she won’t budge. I start the engine and wait for her to wrap it up and climb in.
“Seatbelt,” I say. I take a deep breath.
She rolls her slick brown eyes. I hear the click and we drive into the city in silence.
Ms. Melinda’s office is always so neat, even though It’s small and square with a full bookshelf against every wall. I wonder if I can work the same magic on our house before the surprise party. Whenever Ma comes home from work, she brings home more garbage. Most of the time she returns home late at night so she can be among the first to sort through the Salvation Army’s donation truck. The overtime is unpaid, but for her it’s a goldmine. We’ve got lots of treasures: There’s a five-foot tall nutcracker doubling as a coat rack in the broken upstairs bathroom. We have two rows of mismatched angel statuettes gracing the path to the front door. My least favorite are the boxes of baggy men’s shirts that she thinks I’ll grow into someday. I look at a preoccupied Dizzy, who’s sitting on a plastic chair by the window, and wonder if Ma has found the missing invitations yet. In most houses a stack of glittery greeting cards would smack you in right in the face, but when everything sparkles you might as well give up. Ms. Melinda sorts through stacks of colorful folders. I’ve been coming long enough to know that the yellows are for drug-related cases. Mine has a creased corner and is never too far from the top.
“Vincent, it’s so neat that you brought your daughter today!” Ms. Melinda smiles, but Dizzy only raises an eyebrow.
“Yeah, Lourdes wanted to meet your acquaintance, too, isn’t that right?” I look at Dizzy warily. “She wanted to see just how clean you keep the place, too.” I brim with joy as I drop a clue about the party, but Dizzy ignores me and continues to play with her phone.
Sensing some tension, I guess Ms. Melinda feels like getting right to business. “Alright, well, we should probably talk about your freedom plan”.
A freedom plan is a list of steps social workers like Ms. Melinda photocopy from the state to keep parolees out of already crowded jails. I need to avoid places where I’m likely to relapse, find a place to live, and…
“How’s the job search going?” When she sees me shrug she unlaces her fingers. “Okay, how about this?” She pulls out the day’s Washington Post and flips to the personals. “I’m always looking out for the safe work environments.”
By safe, she means underpaid and willing to hire felons. They’re actually the best place to find drugs, but I don’t mention it. Her hands smell like oatmeal soap, soft and familiar, just like her face. I probably saw Ms. Melinda a thousand times in the magazines I read in Pensacola before the courts assigned her to my case. She turns the paper around so I can see all the red x’s she’s made on the page and glides a cream finger across three bold words: District Paper Co.
“What do you think?” Her honey eyes widen.
I want to tell her I’ll deal with it next week because of the party, but Dizzy’s not deaf, she just pretends I don’t exist.
“Why don’t I give them a call now to set something up. Nothing major, just a short phone interview” She dials the first three digits.
“Oh, well, maybe I should wait on that,” I insist.
Dizzy is looking at the orange sky. I know what she’s thinking: It’s getting late, what the hell, Vincent?
“Oh no, they’ll love you! They just hired some of the gentlemen from here last week.” She presses digits four, five and six. “They always need the help, you know, since so many people still subscribe to the Post.”
Dizzy lays the phone in her lap. I don’t notice the gash in the screen until now, probably because her fingers are always covering it. She reaches for the jumbled car keys I left in my sweatshirt pocket and smiles. Her puffy, painted lips flash some teeth.
“If it only takes a second” I shake my head at Dizzy, silently pleading, while Ms. Melinda enters the final digits.
Dizzy unburies the pickup’s factory keys and firmly presses the red panic button. I parked right outside the window so the room soon fills with an out of tune alarm. Ms. Melinda hangs up the phone and tries to speak over the sound.
“Why don’t we do this next week, Vincent?” She looks at Dizzy as politely as she can and writes down the company’s number, followed by a crooked drawing of a smiley face. “Just in case you feel inspired before then!”
Great, all I need is for my parole officer to think I’m useless. Ms. Melinda, like most in her position, doesn’t like confrontation. Concealed beneath the flowery sundress she’s wearing, is the weapon she’s required to carry. So, parole officers have guns and fourteen year olds have cell phones, and one is more threatening than the other.
“Gawd, turn it off!” Dizzy whines.
She slams her face into a pile of pillows on the couch and kicks the stack of blankets I folded earlier onto the dusty living room floor.
She kicks the way she did when she was little, the way Otis hops around waiting for a treat. I pick up the blankets and toss them into one of the empty chairs. The living room has been my room for the past six months. Ma started collecting things while I was gone, so she used my room to keep the stuff. It didn’t stop there. Now the stairs are somewhere beneath the saucers and tea cups. The bathtub is the only storage container big enough to hold her buttons and yarn.
“Are you going to help?” I try to sound friendly. I focus on sorting through the black garbage bags filled with cassette tapes, weeding out the duplicates.
“I’m trying to sleep!” She curls into the couch to text. Maybe she can do that in her sleep. I don’t know. Apparently I don’t know anything.
“You upset your Grandmother bad today when you told her you weren’t going to school again.” I try the guilt trip technique. Ma always got me that way, but Dizzy is a castle inside the biggest damn moat in the world.
“Whatever. I was tired. I’ll go Monday.” She’s playing with the folds in Otis’ face, making his eyes look like they’re almost ready to pop.
He snorts, wearing the same stupid smile at always. Any attention sounds good to him.
“Forget it,” I walk to the cassette player sitting on top of some tribal looking drum and press next. Otis Redding fills the room, and the drum vibrates at the sound of his voice.
“I hate you!” She makes sure to put extra force into the word “hate” and stomps down the hall to her room. Otis runs around in circles. He bellows like he’s annoyed at the world before his sagging belly settles on the floor again.
Dizzy hates Otis Redding, but she also hates colors, red beans and rice, and mango soda, so I guess I don‘t mind being on a list like that. I remember the phone call I got on a visiting day ten years ago. Ma had just got the gig with the Salvation Army and one night, while sorting through the crap, she found this puppy in a box full of soiled socks.
“He has the sweetest eyes,” She said, “and the cutest patch on his chest.” Looking at him now, kicking a good leg in the air while the wooden one falls to the side showing off his cojones, you would think Ma was crazy for bringing the thing into her house. On the ride home Otis Redding came onto the radio, and the whimpering puppy stopped hobbling around in the back seat and just puffed out his chest. Ma said it only took her one glance in the mirror to see that the brave, three legged, starved thing was an Otis. Of course, Redding died early in his career, but left a strong impression. Ma really didn’t expect her Otis to live a life much different. But, after many abscesses drained, teeth pulled, and trial dog legs tried, he’s still with us. The gems that line the leopard print harness Ma crafted would look silly on any other dog but the one asleep by the couch.
“My baby nothing but a ton of joy.”
Dizzy, yeah she is one ton of joy.”
Otis Redding fills the house while I wipe dust off a collection of bulb-less table lamps.
“My baby nothing but a ton of joy”
I walk back over to the cassette player and think about Dizzy storming off. I push the eject button and the tape hiccups before popping out. I toss it in the pile of duplicates. I need to go outside for a smoke. I walk around to the side of the house, passing the funny assortment of angels and cherubs. The big party tomorrow is taking place out front with the Christmas light covered statues because the side by Dizzy’s window is filled with cigarette butts. I lean against the wall outside her room. The screen is down but her window is open. I smell something mossy, smoky and familiar. I tell myself it isn’t what I know it is.
“Yeah, Andres, I told you” She whines, “I didn’t know he was picking me up neither. Gawd!”
Andres. I realize that’s the guy Dizzy was all over yesterday in the parking lot. I throw out my new cigarette and balance myself on top of a garden gnome who’s face down in the ashen mud.
“Where is he?” I yell, but my forehead is barely visible above the window. I hold onto the plastic siding to keep my balance.
She comes up to the screen and opens it. “What are you doing? You crazy?” She takes the poorly packed blunt out of her mouth and places it on top of a thick book she’s probably never opened.
I’m more worried about Andres than the weed so I look around her room the best I can, “So that’s his name? Andres?”
She bops me on the head with something small and hard, “I’m on the phone, stupid.” She reaches for her backpack.
“What’s that? Did he give that to you?”
Dizzy laughs, “Relax, it’s not like it’s bad for you or anything. Try reading an article once in a while.”
I fume, “Oh yeah? Let me see that”
She hugs the bag to her chest, “You already know. Why do you got to see it?”
“You think guys like Andre don’t put the hard stuff in their product?” Her eyes dim. “It’s cheaper; keeps babies like you hooked.”
“Whatever,” She says, fingering her phone nervously.
“How much did you pay for that?” She was right, I already knew she was sitting on a good amount. I knew Andre’s type because I spent over a decade getting to know them.
“You going to tell mom on me?” Dizzy asks. We both know the money she’s been spending isn’t hers.
She holds her breath and starts pacing the room. It’s something familiar. For once she’s the daughter I used to know.
She did that as a toddler too, shutting herself off to the world, spinning around all crazy whenever she had a tantrum. Her mom and I started calling her Dizzy.
“I don’t want to see him around here. Not tomorrow, not ever.” The gnome can’t hold my weight much longer and I’m losing my grip.
“Why, because of the stupid birthday you’re throwing me?” Her words are lethal.
“Who told you about that, huh?” All the weeks of combating Ma’s piles of junk feel pointless. The house is still a dump.
“I found the invitations behind the cereal last week and threw them out. I hate parties and I hate you!” She crosses her arms and sits somewhere out of sight.
“Please, Dizzy. Lourdes.” My hands are softer than they used to be and can barely hold on.
“No” she says simply.
“Lourdes, you will go to your party tomorrow, or I’m having a chat with your grandmother.” I manage to pull myself up a little higher.
There’s a lady bug on its back between the screen and the window pane. It tries hard to roll over by batting its torn wings.
“Fine,” She says.
The bug is close to flipping itself over
“You’re forgetting something” I blow on the bug to help it along.
“Gawd,” She says.
A double zip lock bag drops to the ground and Dizzy slams the window shut, trapping the ladybug again. I kneel down and pick up the baggy. It’s a lot fuller than I’d imagined. I can’t believe a little girl would know what to do with so much of the stuff, and tuck the thought and the bag away.
“Has Lourdes eaten?” asks Ma.
Her wide frame rocks back and forth. She pauses to lean against the siding and catch her breath. She’s wearing cut-off pants with quilted hearts sewn on the pockets. Her swollen ankles are blue and red from using a cane all day at work. Sometimes I think the diabetes gets to me more than it does to her. I finger the bag in my sweatshirt pocket.
“No, Ma. I cleared out the microwave, so let’s eat in.”
Otis just knows when something exciting’s about to happen, even if he’s got two bad eyes. He made an appearance in the kitchen while Ma was stuffing Tostitos with sour cream. When she wrapped the tray in plastic she called for me to retrieve the porker and watch him in the yard. I’m busy loading up truck. He chases his tail by a budding azalea bush in the corner of the yard while I hoist another angel statue into the truck bed. It takes all my concentration to untangle the string of lights from the others. I give up and throw the mess into the truck bed. I’ll try again later since the party is only an hour away. The yard looks great, even if Ma’ll disagree when she sees how I’ve rearranged things. I told her earlier that they’ll go back to normal after today, that this is for Dizzy. Otis starts to roll around in deer crap until the purple band on his holster is shellacked with the pea green stuff.
“Gross! Cut it out!” I shout.
There’s a small square hole dug out of the ground that I’d almost forgotten about over the years. As a teen, I used to stash my weed outside. Those were simpler times, simpler drugs. It sounds funny now, but anything beats the pain of the cold turkey shakes. I pat the plush baggy that’s still in my sweatshirt. I can’t hide it here until after the party, so I push it further down into the pocket. I put the last angel back on the hole and walk towards the truck.
“Ay dios mio! Put them back!” Ma yells on scooter from inside the house. She’s so mad, she could take a tumble out the open front door. Mulch and glitter line the backs of the cracked steps and I add that mess to the list of quick fixes I need to make.
“Ma, this looks so much better. It’s just for one day. For one afternoon!” I try to reason with her but her face is red.
“Who is going to protect this house? One angel isn’t enough, Vincent. You put them all back, now,” Ma says as she backs up and shuts the door.
Annoyed, I begin to unload the truck, but the lights are completely snarled. Otis sees a squirrel up in the neighbor’s tree and goes for it, but his wooden leg gets stuck in a gopher hole. In the spring we have them all over the front yard, so we usually only let Otis out in the back where it’s less hazardous and mostly gravel and cigarettes. He presses his stout front legs into the grass for leverage, but the chair leg is heavy and lodged pretty deep. He starts to pant and I decide to let him work through it as I separate the green wires from the bulbs.
Ma calls this the Otis complex. The dog doesn’t seem to know just how goofy or strange he is, or that all the odds are against his survival with the cataracts and unstable Franken-leg. Otis just keeps trying, like none of these things matter; like little girls don’t run away screaming when he cantors up to the fence in the back yard to greet them. He tries sitting upright, putting the two front paws between his big, hard belly and pulling back. His good hind leg hangs pathetically to one side, but he keeps pulling.
Ma told me about my dad when I was old enough to understand why I’d never met him and probably never would. I was around Dizzy’s age when she sat me at the kitchen table after hanging up the phone. The house didn’t use to be a mess. I had just started skipping school and the vice principal caught on, so Ma lowered herself carefully onto a chair. We didn’t know for sure about the diabetes then, but she must have had an idea. She light a cigarette and told me about Vincent Schaefer Sr., a tall serious man who she’d met in Old San Juan. He was there on vacation and wore collared shirts the colors of the old Spanish buildings: teal, flamingo, lemon drop. He spoke ugly Spanish, but she found it sweet. She said they fell in love and I made her skip the lovey-dovey crap, though now I wish I hadn’t because she hasn’t mentioned him since. My dad begged her to move with him and at seventeen she couldn’t see herself doing anything better with her life. After a year in the states, he couldn’t handle the stress. He simply tells my mom about his wife and child back in Germany. He said her child was only a few months old, that she should change the name because he already had another son named Vincent. She took the longest drag off the cigarette I’d ever seen before continuing. Years later, she’d told me, she received a letter addressed in his name. A woman from Arkansas wrote some very nasty words about him and demanded child support for their son, Vincent. I guess three’s a lucky number.
Ma dunked the cigarette in a bottle of flat pineapple soda and held onto it for a moment before letting it float. She said I should always try my best and that she was sorry my dad didn’t stick with his best try.
Otis hears a distant siren and kicks his loose paws like he’s trying to swim in the grass. The metal dowel tugs on the harness and it starts to tear. I drop the lights and walk towards him, but the sirens bolster his kicking. The cherry wood leg releases with a popping sound and chunks of earth go flying as he clumsily shuffles sideways. His leg starts to come unscrewed and requires pliers and time I don’t have to spare. Otis shakes the artificial leg and nips at his tail, but he’s too chunky to reach it. Dizzy comes out of the house and squints towards the street. The other houses are still identical plastic boxes and I’m still a resident of the house. She seems disappointed about missing some far away commotion and goes back to texting.
“Mom wanted me to ask you if you can pick up some ice” She hasn’t caked on any makeup yet so I see her round chocolate eyes clearly.
“What about this mess?” The angles are still impossibly tangled and Otis is dragging his wooden leg behind him in the yard.
“Oh, well, I thought I could help you when you get back.” She doesn’t break her concentration from the phone, but smiles, so it might be genuine.
I don’t see any early guests or distant cousins, and begin to worry, “Des, are you sure you called all your friends about your quinceañera?”
She starts to act silly, like maybe she’s excited after all. “Dad, would they miss this?” Dizzy twirls around in her black thrift store dress that Ma attached metal hoops to. She goes right back to texting, but for a moment I was dad and she was happy. I take the hundred dollar bill from her hand.
“This is a lot of money, Des. You sure your mom said this was okay?”
Otis sniffs at the hem of her dark, lace dress and sneezes.
“Gawd! We don’t have much time; Mom said you need to hurry.” She opens the driver’s side door to the truck and motions for me to enter.
“You’re really bossy, you know,” I smile and pull her in for a kiss. Her cheek is cold and she bops me on the head with her phone until I let go. “But, it’s your birthday, so I’ll let this one slide.”
Dizzy picks a lurching Otis up and walks slowly back into the house. “Whatever.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll see you guys soon,” I call out as I release the clutch. She lets the storm door shut itself.
The line at the gas station is short but slow because an ancient man is pissed about the cost of gas today. I finger the baggy and the Franklin in my pocket. Why don’t geezers know that time is a bigger deal than the price of a full tank. The way his head stoops below his shoulders, he shouldn’t be driving anyways. The man gives up and throws his pocket change at the young cashier behind the glass window. The coins just roll to the floor.
“Take it all!” He yells, before shuffling to his getaway beamer. I don’t say anything about it and neither does the attendant. She probably gets that a lot. Her eyes are dark like Dizzy’s but more exhausted. I decide she’s probably paying for tuition and think about my daughter being the first of the family to go to college.
“Six-oh-five” Her accent is thick through the microphone, but there’s no mistaking impatience.
“It’s my daughter’s birthday” I gloat as I slip the one-hundred through the small half-circle opening.
The attendant eyes me suspiciously, scribbles on the bill with a special marker and then holds it up to the light. The clock behind her shows me I have fifteen minutes to drive the two miles home. She nods to herself, and slowly takes the change out of the drawer. I think I’ll lose it when she struggles to open a new roll of quarters with bitten finger nails. She doesn’t smile when she slides me the change.
“Yeah, thanks,” I say while picking up the bag of ice and tossing it the back with the statues and mess of lights.
I take the neighborhood roads back. I wind down the window at a red light and turn off the radio. Sometimes music can’t compare to the feeling. Sometimes silence says it better. I thump my hand outside the window. It’s a perfect spring day: brisk enough that the ice will keep another couple of blocks, but sunny enough to trick you into thinking it’s warm outside. I make a wide left turn down our street and see red and blue lights flashing, breaking the silence. I park across the street because three squad cars are block me from the spot in front of the house. I forget about the ice because Ma and Dizzy are hugging one another. Two officers are hunched over them with notepads. I turn off the ignition, leave the keys in the car, and run up to the house. Ma almost tumbles back onto the ground when she sees me. It takes both men to lower her softly. Dizzy bites her bottom lip and walks into the house with the cellphone clasped between her hands.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
The officers hold Ma’s flailing hands. “Why, Vincent? Why?” She wails.
Otis is at the storm door, yelping. He places too much weight on his wooden leg as he struggles to prop himself up. It’s the lights that are making him crazy. Him and me both. The lights, the strange men and the sirens.
“Mr. Schaefer, please raise your hands above your head.” A third officer steps out of one of the cars and starts to pat me down like I’ve got a bomb.
Otis sneezes and heaves forward with a dry cough.
“What? Why? I didn’t do anything.” I raise my hands and stare at Ma with disbelief.
The officer pulls the change and the baggy out of my sweatshirt.
“No. Oh, no! This is a mistake. I can explain that!” I start to panic. Otis’ leg makes me tense up. It’s wobbling back and forth but the screen door won’t budge.
“Yeah, we get that a lot” he says, as he comes up behind me and slaps on the cuffs. “This is in direct violation of your parole, Mr. Schaefer, you do know that?”
I nod, but can’t find any words. The guests haven’t begun to line our street yet. It should be any moment. Ma is escorted into the house by the other two officers, but Otis runs past their legs towards the cars. He doesn’t make it half way across the yard before the harness snaps and the wooden leg goes gets left behind. He can’t hold his balance and all I can think is the party hasn’t even started.