Prose » Robert Caporale »

damaged goods

Paulie gets word she’s living with this Air Force guy out of Kansas, a dirt farmer flyboy, he calls him, and they’re stationed in Jersey City, New Jersey. She called Paulie in the middle of the night and told him she made a big mistake by leaving him and she wants to get back together, she misses him terribly. According to Paulie she called in tears, whispering and sounding scared. Real scared. So he asks her if her crop-duster flyboy is knocking her around some. She says come and get me Paulie, bring me home. So Paulie shows up at the Acres all fired up and convinces a bunch of us into taking a ride over to Jersey City with him. He’s got the address written down on a crumpled piece of paper. We pile into his car. He’s too wired to drive. TJ drives.

TJ’s a good drive. He’s not a big conversationalist. Does one thing at a time. He once tried to drive himself to the hospital with his jaw snapped wide open. He was working the third shift at Deluxe Bakery. One night, he keeps dozing off so he drops a tab of speed and yawns large when his jaw dislocates, pops right out of the socket, can’t close his mouth to save his ass. He jumps into his car and starts driving himself to the emergency room with his mouth stretched open like a big fish eating plankton when the amphetamine kicks in and freaks him. He can’t swallow. He thinks he might choke to death on his own vomit like rock and rollers. He pulls over and starts knocking on front doors a 3:00 AM. Lights flick on, curtains get pulled aside. Doors open and TJ hops around on the front stoop all dressed in white and covered in flour, drooling and waving his arms and pointing into his wide-open mouth while dancing this ghostly pantomime jig hoping to get someone to help. Who knows what those poor people are thinking. They slam the door in his face, lock up tight and slide a sideboard over.

We stop for beer and wine and we score some smoke. We gas up and hit the Wilbur Cross Parkway feeling pretty good. By the time we blow into NYC it’s dark and drizzly and we’re buzzed. We go clubbing. Paulie’s a little pissed off at first. He’s looking forward to playing the knight in shining armor. He’s been pumping himself up, getting himself into the right frame of mind. Now he can hardly wait to get to Jersey City and untie his college sweetheart off the train track and save her from the evil boom-dropping corn-eating flyboy. But TJ will not give up the car keys, and Paulie’s not really insisting too hard now after watching NYC girls strut their stuff down the neon-boulevards. We go to the Village, Harlem and 42 Street. We buy more dope from a merchant marine, he tells us it’s from “Asia Minor.” Last call 4:00 AM, we do a quick head count and find where we parked. We collapse into the car and TJ squeals onto the Jersey Turnpike. Everyone crashes except for TJ and Paulie. TJ’s a trooper; Paulie’s on a mission. The rest of us are along for the ride. TJ gets the hiccups. He gets these loud grotesque hiccups. He gets them often after long hours of nightclubbing. These hiccups come from deep inside his diaphragm somewhere, and they ricochet out of him in tandem, like from some reverberation chamber. And there’s never any precursor, no rhyme or reason to the timing or spacing between them. After about a half-hour of these maddening sounds Paulie decides he’s going to put an end to them once and for all by scaring the snots out of TJ. He makes like he’s sleeping for a while and waits till it’s death row quiet with only the big V8 moaning a soft sleepy lullaby. Then out of nowhere, anticipating the next round of hiccups, Paulie dives over onto TJ screaming at the top of his lungs and grabbing TJ and shaking him. Instinctively, TJ veers off the highway into a deep grassy gully that separates the east and westbound lanes of the turnpike trying his best to keep the car from flipping over. We’re all jolted awake now and we’re screaming and crawling around because we think we’re about to impact and die some horrible mangled loop-to-loop death. All anyone can make out are the two beams of headlights either trailing up into a drizzly gray night sky, or swooping down filling the windshield full of lime green wet grass. Gray/green. Up/down. Loop/loop. Gray/green. Up/down. Loop/loop. TJ has both hands on the wheel and he’s doing right by us. He’s turning into each looping skid and pumping the shit out of the brakes at the same time. Finally, he brings the whole 75 MPH package to a safe stop and everyone calms right down. No one says a word; we just breathe like thieves on stolen air. After a couple of minutes, TJ hiccups, then shifts the car into gear and spins it out of the grassy knoll and back up onto the westbound lane. Lucky TJ was driving. Anybody else, we’d all been dead. TJ’s a good drive. He’s a pro. Does one thing at a time.

As we pull up in front of this Big Brother looking apartment complex with a row of skinny, sad-ass Jersey City trees lined up in front of it, the night sky is being washed clean away by a misting acid rain, leaving it in this pale industrial state of colorless pain. Paulie wants back-up so he nudges us awake. We stand out on the sidewalk by the car squinting at each other and lighting up cigarettes. We’re all a little woozy with sailor sea legs and we feel like Velcro; everything is sticking to us, the rain, the pale light, even the fire and smoke from the cigarettes. A newspaper delivery van screams up the Avenue. We all turn and stare at it. The van slows down slightly, a bundle of morning papers comes flying out the side door, hits the sidewalk in front of a coffee shop, bounces once then gracefully careens through the plate glass window shattering the entire store front. The noise of crashing glass surrounds us, tightening into our flesh like strands of jagged bailing wire. The delivery van locks em up, beeps backward, stops. The driver jumps out, reaches through the smashed window and retrieves the bundle of morning papers. He carefully brushes off shards of glass and places the bundle innocuously on the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop. He looks over at us and shrugs before stepping back to the van and poking around under the driver’s seat pulling out a red brick. He drops the brick into the coffee shop and drives off. We turn and trip up the stairs to the front door of the Coral Capri Apartment Complex.

Inside, Paulie refers to the crumpled piece of paper a half a dozen times before finding the right flat. The rest of us loiter in the narrow corridor in front of door 202 like a pack of sedated circus animals. Finally, Paulie knocks on the door. He knocks soft and slow, but steady, non-stop for a couple of minutes until it doesn’t even sound like knocking any longer. It sounds more like a dreamy blue drum solo from a somebody done somebody wrong love song. The door cracks open and a slice of the object of Paulie’s desire is standing there like a sweet piece of frosted white cake with long cream legs. Myrna is tugging on a cotton teddy that’s twisted on her perfect little body. Paulie, she whispers in this treacly voice.

Myrna, he whispers back.

It’s a beautiful moment. Beautiful, but brief.

Myrna turns and glances down a hallway behind her. Some of that pale grainy industrial morning is just beginning to filter into the apartment. She opens the door a little more, hey guys, she says.

We nod, shuffle, glance at our shoes.

Paulie says something like, you look great.

We’re trying to hear, but they’re talking so soft. She must have asked him what he’s doing there, because Paulie says, matter of factly, I came for you.

She gives him a puzzling look.

Paulie says, you asked me to.

That’s when the shadowy figure of Flyboy steps out of the bedroom and leans on the door jam rubbing his eyes trying to figure out just what in the hell is going on.

Myrna shrugs.

Christ, Myrna. We all hear that. We all hear Paulie say, Christ Myrna.

Myrna holds out her hand, shows Paulie a sparkling new wedding band. Poor Paulie. All the air seeps out of him . You can hear it escaping like steam heat. He has no idea where to go or what to say. You can almost see him traveling around like a tiny mad man inside of his own body. From one corner to the other, top to bottom, searching for an out.

Flyboy starts dragging himself down the hallway.

I’m sorry, Myrna whispers. You should all leave now.

TJ takes a hold of Paulie’s arm, gently tugs at it.

Paulie pulls away, steps toward Myrna.

TJ grabs Paulie’s arm and yanks a hundred and seventy-two pounds of damaged goods back into the corridor.

Flyboy gets up behind Myrna. He towers over her. His shoulders are wide and his neck is thick. She fits perfectly into his chest cavity. Flyboy folds his arms across Myrna. She melts away.

Please, Paulie, Myrna purrs, don’t do this.

Paulie sighs.

Outside we stand by the car in a fine Jersey acid mist.

Paulie looks up to the second floor window. I should have just dragged her sorry-ass out of there, he says.

She’s married.

He must have some kind of hold over her.

Yea, she’s his wife.

But she called me.

That was just her way of saying good-bye, Paulie.

Paulie peels his eyes off the window. I can’t walk out of here empty handed.

Where’s here? Somebody asks.

New Jersey, somebody says.

Shit.

What time is it?

Sunday.

Everybody in the car, TJ says.

We pile in.

Paulie’s mumbling something.

No one pays any attention.

Damn, TJ says.

What now?

The keys. He gropes in his pockets. I dropped the keys.

Hot-wire it.

Wait here, TJ says and two steps up the stairs and through the doors and back into Coral Capri Apartments.

We stumble out of the car, light up smokes.

Before long the doors to the Coral Capri Apartment Complex bang open and TJ bolts out with Myrna in tow.

They quickstep down the stairs.

TJ’s got a business look about him; that shifty-eyed look of a good thief.

Myrna’s wearing a man’s raincoat over her teddy, a classic London Fog. She’s trying to keep up with TJ and not trip over the sash at the same time.

Christ, somebody says. Kidnapping.

TJ tosses the keys at Paulie. Go, go, go, he yells.

We all flick cigarettes and dive back into the car.

Paulie fires up the big V8, pops the clutch, smokes away from the curb.

Myrna is squeezed in the front seat between Paulie and TJ.

Everyone is looking straight out the windshield.

After a few city blocks whiz past we ask, what happen back there?

TJ and Myrna glance at each other, smile.

Pretty soon we’re all wearing shitty grins.

Myrna slides the wedding ring off her finger, drops it into the ashtray.

Paulie turns and nods at TJ.

TJ nods back.

Paulie veers onto the Jersey Turnpike.

TJ slouches down, closes his eyes.

Flyboy blows out of the front door of Coral Capri Apartment Complex and gazes down the empty boulevard in his boxer shorts and a drip of blood running down his chin.

We never look back. Ever.