Slap in the middle of the Albuquerque strip shopping center, Rip’s Bar and Package Liquor dominated its accidental, sagging skyline. First of all, it stacked up a full two stories while other places squatted on the street as one-story nests of cinder block. Second, it had a 50’s front made of narrow blonde stone, forming a planter and a wall that carried a ribbon window above chest height. The window ran black against the facade, but three beer signs glimmered through the glass dimly during the day and brightly at night. Rip’s did not resemble the village center. It did resemble one of Albuquerque’s lost souls.
Across the street a small boy came pounding around the corner of the Thrift Store. He was dressed in a torn T-shirt and shorts, dingy socks and cheap sneakers. With a huff he threw himself under the table out front of the Thrift. He scuttled back against the front wall of the store, sucked himself into a ball, and tried to breathe slow, easy. He could hear running footsteps. Staring sideways, back the way he came, he saw cargo shorts, tanned legs, two large expensive athletic shoes. They stopped right in front of him. Stuffed under the large flat deck of the table, he held his breath. His view of the legs cut off at the thighs. He saw the toes point right, then scuff around to the left. They faced across the street. With a gritty sound on the pavement, they came full around and pointed at him. He held his breath.
He heard the curse, “Chingado.” One of the feet kicked a rock down the street. The shoes scuffed off. He waited as long as he could, and only then let out a long ragged breath. He eased himself up to the front of the table, so he could scan up and down the street. He would wait here.
The strip smelled of trouble, filled with stores that wobbled on the edge of bankruptcy. It had always been in trouble though, and the locals reacted to their impending financial failures with fatalism that matched the overall seediness of the storefronts. First on the right crouched Cut ‘n Curl, the hairdresser’s, with a cheery window hung with pink shears and a regular house door freighted with sleigh bells. The awning overhead missed most of its edging and now sagged alarmingly. Across the way, the boy contemplated the heads that moved back and forth inside the Curl. He was dark, and as dusty as the straggly tree hanging over the street in front of him, a tree that erupted from a two-foot square of litter and cigarette butts. His gaze shifted to the left, to the next store.
Bob’s Taxidermy leaned up shoulder to shoulder with Cut ‘n Curl, and Bob’s glass had once been painted in child’s tempura with an elk poised above a cliff and surrounded with dwarfish conifers. The paint had long since started dropping to the floor inside as dust, and the elk had developed a mange of transparency – Bob himself often stared out through the withers of the beast, waiting. The boy didn’t like Bob, but he did like the elk.
The strip also owned a combination locksmith and Christian bookstore establishment, Key to the Kingdom, and a taco stand, Julio’s Taquería. A pawnshop, Enchanted Valley Cash 4 U, squatted by a bail bondsman known as Soulful.Soulful had titled his place AAA Slammer Relief and hung his windows with stout bars that showed the rusting permanence of an old state penitentiary.Irony ran up and down the street, laughingly dark under the New Mexico sun, but the boy didn’t feel it.He felt hungry.The boy drew his arms back into the body of his oversized tee shirt, leaving the sleeves flapping, and wiggled his shoulders back and forth.He crossed the street, went down a narrow opening between the Bail Bond office and the pawnshop.Appearing armless, he ricocheted down the two walls to the dumpster at the back.
At nine a.m., Red Donnie furtively approached Rip’s door. He scratched at the aluminum handle set in a door of tinted glass, much like a dog asking to be let in. In a moment the bolt clacked once and the door opened. The guardian of the door, a silver-haired man, stepped back so that Red Donnie could enter. Red Donnie eased inside, and the door closed on its hydraulic piston. “Thank you, Tenn,” he said.
“Sorry I’m late opening. We were up until about midnight. Susan was having another crisis, and the boys wanted to help her out.” Tenn led the way, all five feet of him, and Red Donnie followed, towering over him by a foot and a half. The short man marched, shoulders back and head held high, while the tall man threw his feet out in front of him with a scuffing sound. Donnie, his hair tied back in a ponytail, bent forward, casting a shadow over his friend. Their trail was cloaked in dust motes limned by the window’s harsh light. Tenn rounded the counter and stepped up, suddenly becoming six feet high. Red Donnie folded up, a stork on a barstool, and pecked his head forward out of his shoulders. They were eye to eye, the old and the middle-aged.
“Have you seen the boy this morning?” Red Donnie flinched as he asked and diverted his eyes obliquely away.
Tenn squinted up his left eye. “Wasn’t out back when I hauled out the trash.” The bartender set up a shot glass, filled it, and pulled a light beer.
While he waited, Red Donnie prodded a bar mat back and forth. “Listen, Tenn. We should do something. It’s our Christian duty. Either that or our karmic need.”
“Karmic need? That’s a leftover from your hippie days.?”
Red Donnie ducked his head like a youngster. “We’re talking about the boy.”
Tenn said, “What would you do, then? He’s going to run wild. You know that.”
“He’s a good boy.”
“Actually,” said the bartender and paused. “Actually, you don’t know that.”
Red Donnie replied, “We’re all innocent as children.”
“I doubt he’s been raised very innocent in that house.”
“That’s why he left, why he’s always leaving. He turns his back on the things that happen there.” The tall man slurped at his beer, and threw the shot into his mouth. The whiskey drew his face taut and he appeared older, closer to his fifty-eight years.
Tenn said, “You’ve never even talked to him, or at least he’s never talked to you. Damn few people have heard him speak.”
“He needs a good home.”
“Well, Donnie, you sure can’t give him one. Even if he let you, you couldn’t take him home to your mother. If you don’t mind me saying so, your mother is a terror.”
Red Donnie raised up from the counter, dropped his elbows down at his sides. “Mother is a fine Christian woman. Sometimes she can be sharp tongued.” He dug in his pocket and produced four crumpled dollar bills and a quarter. “Time to go to work. Watch out for the boy, if just for me.”
“I tell you what. I’ll set some food out for him. You can owe me.”
Tenn wouldn’t have another real customer for a couple of hours, so he had time. He slipped a paper plate out from beneath the counter, jerked a bag of potato chips off the rack, and added a plastic packet of two hygienically sealed jerky strips. From the bar refrigerator he hauled out a jug of two percent milk and filled a beer mug with it. He trod through the package liquor part of his establishment and into the back storeroom. There a scratched and battered door hung open on its uneven hinges, and Tenn could see through the screen door into the alley. He kicked the rickety screen open with his foot, and caught its edge on his knee as he stepped out. He stooped the short distance needed and set the plate and glass on the back step.
For the next hour, Tenn unloaded the dishwasher, swept the floor, and settled all the chairs back on the ground. He waited behind the counter, working Sudokus.
At ten, the paperboy arrived. The front door creaked and Tenn glanced up from the puzzle. “Hi there, Cabell.”
A young man hesitated in Rip’s door. He stuck his head further into the room, then back out into the street, turning first to the right and then left. “Have you seen the boy?”
“The homeless one.”
Tenn said, “He’s not as homeless as some. He just doesn’t go home.”
“He sleeps outside and eats out of dumpsters.”
“Everybody got to make their choices.”
The young man shrugged.
Tenn hesitated, softened the judgment. “He’s doing okay. You watching out for him now?”
“No. Curious, that’s all. Here’s your paper.” He clumped across the floor in immense unlaced sports shoes and held out the folded Albuquerque Journal. “Why do you call me Cabell?”
“Your name is Calloway, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but….” Calloway’s voice died off. He shuffled his huge feet twice, and deposited his canvas bag on one of the stools.
Tenn said, “Cab Calloway was a singer. Look, your folks named you Ignatius, right?”
“And you don’t like that name, right?”
“So, get another one.”
Calloway scratched behind his ear. “What other one?”
“If you won’t pick….”
“Then I will.”
Calloway said, “I’ll think about it. You always make things more complicated than they have to be.”
“Sit down and I’ll make you a limeade.”
“Can’t. The Journal comes out 365 days a year, and I gotta make my rounds.”
“I’ll make you one to go. Wait there and I’ll be done in a jiff.”
Calloway leaned on a barstool, dressed in a tee shirt and a jacket. His hair hung in bangs across his tanned forehead.
“Say, Cabell, aren’t you hot in that jacket? It’s not exactly winter.”
“Might rain, later.”
“Might not.” Tenn slid a red plastic cup across to the paperboy.
“I worry he might get wet, if it rains.”
“Who might get wet?”
“You know. GMR.”
“The boy? He’s got sense. He’ll find a doorway or a shed and stay dry.”
Unconvinced, Calloway turned to go, “Thanks. For the limeade.”
Regina Talmadge knelt in her bathroom and beheld her black skin, more lustrous than the white porcelain beneath her hands. All around a light rained down from the ceiling. The shadow of her her head was dark, like a byzantine icon of a black Madonna and the hot, bare bulb above created a gloriole showering around the back of her head. She knelt there naked, her wide hips, her small breasts offered up. Staring at her round Madonna abdomen below her protruding curved ribs, she thought, Not enough, not enough. Still fat. She closed her eyes, unwilling to see this part. She gave a small, tentative heave, and it grew, the two breakfast burritos fountaining out into the catchment below her. Her abdominal muscles jerked – and her breath billowed out hoarsely in a huuhnh. Fumbling with her left hand Regina reached up and tripped the handle, listened to the cleansing rush of water and the final belching gurgle as it carried her weakness out and down, hidden. It was getting easier – she didn’t have to use her index finger anymore. She levered herself up with a satisfied grunt, and reached for the breath mints on the back of her john.
At eleven fifteen, the screen door in back opened, and Regina came through Rip’s, her short heels clocking and her African butt swaying behind her. She claimed a table near the end of the counter. She carried a baked potato in a paper boat, with napkin and plastic fork clasped underneath. “Hey, Tenn. There’s a beer mug full of flies on your back step.”
He blew past her announcement. “The usual, Regina?” She nodded, and he proceeded to make a Rum and Diet Coke.
“The flies are on milk. Or in it. Why do you keep milk here anyway?”
“For Richard’s White Russians.”
“Why do you have milk on your back step?”
“The boy, Regina. He might eat lunch here, much as you do. Why do you eat your lunch here?”
“They play the TV in the Potato Barn. Besides, they don’t serve Rum and Coke.”
Tenn came around the counter and placed the drink down in front of her. He glanced at her neck and neckline, checking out her collarbone standing out from her shoulders like a flag. “You’ve lost some weight, Regina.”
“You think so?” She smiled, a tiny grin. “You old liar.” After that, she was silent for a bit as she ate, or at least she didn’t talk. Regina did make cooing sounds as she shoved the fork into the potato, and ‘umph’ing sounds as she moved her jaws around the food.
She said with her mouth full. “It’s a potato, Tenn. It’s only the butter and the sour cream and the jalapeños and cornichons that make it.”
“I think I’ll stick to my cheese sandwich.”Tenn went back to his sentinel’s place where he made a big show of wiping down the counter with a towel.
The glass door in front rattled. In warning, Tenn said, “It’s time for Harry.”
Sunlight suddenly spilled in, and a shout from the sidewalk echoed into Rip’s. “We got the place surrounded. Come out with your hands up.”
Regina shouted back, “Harold Llewellyn Weissman, you get your saggy fat ass in here, and stop terrorizing the neighborhood!”
Harry advanced two steps into Rip’s and posed, each hand held out in the ta-da gesture. The door eased shut behind him. He flared his eyes in the muted light, wrinkling his tall forehead, and reached up, delicately touching his bald crown. He rubbed his hand through his goatee, and turned his eyes around in a considering fashion.
Tenn said, “Coming or going, Harry?”
“Well, you’ve twisted my arm. Lets hope you don’t waste my whole afternoon drinking, like you did last week.”
“I heard it was day before yesterday,” said Regina.
“Naah, day before yesterday I was making deliveries for Bob the Taxidermy Guy. He’s not stuffing many heads, but he’s doing great dressing out game for people. Course, I don’t think the Health Department has ever been in the back to check him out.”
Tenn grinned. “So, you’re driving all over Albuquerque in your dead-ass Japanese car delivering bootleg deer?”
“It’s one of my business interests, yes. Besides, I delivered elk and turkey also.” Harry advanced on Regina’s table. He seized the chair opposite her, sinking his dusty suit and small frame down into it with a gingerly glide. He planted his phone on the table between them.
Regina played it up. She grimaced horribly at him, her lips flattening into a thin line. “Ain’t no other tables you could sit at in here? Looks like a pretty empty bar to me.” Regina waved her plastic fork around the place.
Harry leaned forward and confided, “An educated woman like you, Regina, saying ‘ain’t.’ It’s a mockery of all that college your Daddy paid for.”
Regina leaned back away from Harry. “College never helped me any more than being a Jew has helped you. I bet the folks down at the Synagogue don’t steer much business your way.”
“Been a long time since I’ve been to Synagogue, Regina. I’m more of a citizen of the benign universe now.” Harry leaned back to get Tenn into his view. “Could I have a beer then, barkeep? One of the kosher ones?”
“And which one would that be?”
“You know, comes out of a brass spigot underneath a big handle.”
Tenn drew the beer, and set the tall glass in front of Harry. “There you are. Kosher as we got.”
“Thanks then, Tenn. What’s new?”
“UNM has lost again. The Council is getting more corruption accusations from the Journal. And the police were around to the house in back again last night.”
“The crack house?”
“No, not that one, that’s four blocks over. This is the one with the drunks.”
“Oh,” said Regina. “The boy’s folks. Did you phone in the complaint?”
Tenn replied, “Bars don’t normally complain about the neighbors – it’s usually the other way around.”
Harry asked, “What’s the setup over there? Is it a cult or something? Is it drugs?”
“Don’t think so. No dope smells, no unexplained thefts. I think it’s only a party house full of binge drinkers. GMR’s folks have what you would call friends over all the time. It’s a wonder the kids ever get any sleep.”
Regina asked, “Why do you call the boy G-M-R?”
“Don’t know where it came from, but a lot of people call him GMR. His real name is Gerald Matthew Roger Whittington. He gave me the full name real serious, when he finally introduced himself.”
Regina snorted, “He talked to you? He hasn’t said a word to anyone else.” Tenn gave her the eye.
Harry asked, “So the boy doesn’t live with his party parents anymore?”
Regina supplied, “He ran away from home, a whole block. You see him around, and maybe he goes home sometimes, but who can tell?”
“So, how old is he? He appeared so short and scrawny, last time I saw him.”
Regina said, “He’s ten.”
“Are you sure?” Tenn’s forehead creased up between his eyes. “I thought maybe seven.” Rip’s door swung open and a party of four trooped in. “At any rate, he was going to school this spring, but now school’s out for the summer.” He turned to scurry back behind his counter, up on his raised floor.
Bedrooms should be dark, sheltered, but this one was more. It had been filled with secrets, and secluded from the world. The sole inhabitant opened the laptop on the bed and lay down beside it. Inside, children posed foolishly like adults, naked, tiny penises centered by the lens. The boys gaped out big-eyed off the screen. A white hand reached gently to the photos, going from one to the next, caressed them, possessive. Breath sighed ragged in the glow of the screen.