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Chapter 18: Victor's House


       "What you want kid?" A man steps through the doorway onto the front porch like he knew I was here, or he was waiting for me to come.

       "I'm looking for Pat. A friend of mine. He said if I came to town maybe I could stay here with him."

       "Yeah?" He stares me up and down and then he peers both ways along the street. "We had a Pat staying here a while back. Gone now." He clamps his thin lips together and looks past me down the street.

       Great. What now? Leave? With no place to stay I have to ask if I can stay tonight anyway.

       "Where'd you know Pat?"

       Might as well go for broke. "At Fire Oak. We were in Taylor Cottage together."

       "You got a name?"


       "Me, I'm Victor. You can stay in the basement for now. Be out by ten in the mornings and stay away all day. And no noise! You make noise and you're out of here. Got it?" I nod.

       He points across the porch to the side yard. "Go in through the door around that side of the house. The door to upstairs is locked. Don't never come up here. Even if some fool's dumb enough to ask you, you don't never come. Hear?"

       "I hear. How much? The rent I mean."

       "No charge. You deliver some packages for me, I let you stay. Just don't bring back no other guys with you. No Cops neither. If they're after you, lead 'em some place else."

       "No problem." I step back down a step.

       "Leave your sacks downstairs, long as they don't have nothing in them you wouldn't mind some guy ripping off ." He snorts, only it sounds more like a whinny. "Then you take off. Don't show up here 'til after dark." He starts back in through the door, but then he turns around. "You going back downtown now?"

       "I guess."

       "I run this printing business upstairs, see, and like I said, I got deliveries need to be made. I'll give you a couple of bucks if you deliver this to the address on the outside." He reaches inside the door and brings out a big tan envelope and pulls a couple of bucks out of his pocket. "It goes six blocks back towards downtown and three blocks south. Got the address on the outside."

       I go back up the porch steps and reach out to take the envelope. "I hear you."

       "Right. You stick around you can make a few bucks every day."

       I look down at the envelope. It's been used over and over. The return address says Acme Printing Company P.O. Box 72219. I tilt it up. The back's taped shut.

       Victor gives me an evil stare. "Don't you never open up anything from here."

       "Right. I mean never."

ThinkLink: What do your senses tell you about this scene?

       "You mind your p's and q's. What's in there's none of your business. No money or nothing else to bother yourself over. I don't give nothing important to no new kid. No cause for you to get nosy."

       "OK. Sure. All right to leave my stuff downstairs now?"

       "Go on then, and be quick. My printing customer, he don't like to wait."

ThinkLink: Have you ever made a decision, then started to wonder if you had made the right choice?

       Victor shuts the door, leaving me standing there wondering what I got myself into now. I walk around the corner of the house and pull the door open. Steps up one side lead to a closed door. On the other side, dark slabs of greasy-looking wood disappear into the dark below.

       As I start down, a voice comes up. "Ten already?"

       At the bottom of the steps I stop and look around. Light from a cellar window comes in at the far end, but I can't see a body with the voice. "I guess so. Where are you?"

       "Over here by the furnace. Don't do no good. They never turn it on unless it's freezing outside, not even then always. Cold-blooded bastard s."

       A guy maybe a couple of years older than me sits up on an old army cot pushed back under big round octopus pipes .

       "I'm John. Who're you?"

       "Guys call me Stilts. You new here?"

       "Yeah. I'm looking for Pat. You know him?"

       Stilts sits up and scratches at a scraggly beard. He's so skinny I hate to look straight at him. He pulls an old army jacket off the floor and drapes it over his toothpick arms. He looks a little better.

       He looks me over, too. "We had a guy called Pat here a couple of nights a few weeks ago. He left some things. I rolled them up and stuck them under that couch. Where'd ya know Pat from?"


       "Yeah, I know 'around.' I been there, too." He laughs. "Where you from?"

       "I live I lived on a ranch , over east from here, up near the Columbia River ."

       "A cowboy, huh? We ain't had one a those yet. Well, stick around. You can pick up a few bucks carrying stuff for the guys upstairs. Don't never let them know you're around, though. Any noise or rough stuff, they kick us all out."

       "I know. The guy Victor told me." I move over to a broken-down couch and dig out Pat's stuff a pair of jeans and a shirt rolled into a blanket that smells like the cement floor. The blanket feels damp. I shiver.

       "Not el-e-gant down here." Stilts stands up and begins to roll up his blanket. "No cooking. Only place to wash up is that laundry tub at the other end. The toilet's down there, too. It runs-over half the time. Slosh some water around. The floor drain takes care of most of it."

       My stomach lurches . I smell the reek of old pee all the way over here.

       Stilts goes on. "This ain't half bad. I been in worse. Like on an open loading dock or under bridges where Cops hassle you. Last week some wino beat me up for change." He rubs his shoulder. "Still sore. So I was plenty glad to find this place, broke toilet and all."

       I nod. Can't argue with that. "The guys upstairs give you any grief ?"

       "They're pretty loose. As long as we don't get in their way. There's four, maybe five guys staying up there most of the time. If one of them comes down here with something to deliver, jump right up or you'll miss a turn."

       "Yeah. Victor said."

       Cement dust has settled over Pat's blanket. I shake it out and shove my sacks under it and stick the whole bundle back of the couch. Just for tonight, I tell myself. As soon as I make some money, I'm out of here.

ThinkLink: Did you ever get the feeling that someone was being friendly to you just to get money or something else out of you?

       Stilts groans and unfolds his long, skinny legs. "I got to eat." When he stands next to me, he looks down on me by six inches or more. "You ready to go downtown and dig up some eats?"

       "Well, I got to deliver this for Victor. He says it's on the way."

       "Jeez, I should've of gotten up earlier. It could've been mine." He pulls a black felt hat from under the cot and jams it down on his greasy hair. "C'mon."

       When we get outside, I squint into the sunlight. The air seems sweet after the basement.

       "I know a bakery. It's on the way to the Square. We can get some day-old rolls. You got some bucks on you?"

       I don't answer for a minute. Ten minutes and he's after money. "Not much. I don't get paid again until next Friday."

       "You got a job? Great, man. We eat." He stretches out his long legs and lopes along the sidewalk. I double-step every third or fourth stride to keep up with him.

       "Just weekends, but I'm going to find another job for weekdays."

       "You think. Six or eight straight guys line up for every job that comes open. What makes you think they'd hire us?"

       Not hire him, maybe. But that's not me. "I'll find something. You work?"

       He spins around and walks backward, talking as fast as he walks. "Sure, sometimes. Nothing regular. I clean up, like in a warehouse , for a couple of hours when the regular guy's sick. I sell blood two, three times a week. They don't even ask how old I am any more. Not had to sell myself out yet." He spins again and walks ahead of me.

       I jog to catch up. "How about halfway houses or foster homes , stuff like that?" Anything looks pretty good about now.

       "I gone way past that, man. I don't want no one telling me when to come and go. I'm on my own. And face it. Maybe we ain't so easy to have around. Who's going to treat us decent? Who'd even want to have us in their house?" He jams his hat down and speeds up again. I'm almost running to keep up. He starts up again, sounding like it's a speech he's given over and over. At least to himself. "On the street, we ain't the weirdos. The straights are. The streets is ours. I got used to the street, so I guess I'm no good for a regular life. How about you? You staying around?"

       "I want to go home, but now there's no place to go back to. You ever think of going back home?"

       "Like you say, no home to go back to. Maybe you're on the run, but lots of us here we're kickouts ."

       We walk along, not so fast now, not talking. A kickout. First time I heard that. We pass a little park, just one square block and I see the leaves on the trees are almost out now and there are flowers planted in big cement bowls. It's spring at the ranch , too, and wheat's probably up six, seven inches. It's like that. Fields all brown one week and all green the next. I catch up with Stilts. Can't think about the ranch. Or Mom or Nick or Lori. Got to think about making it here.

       "Victor gave me two bucks for delivering this envelope," I tell Stilts. "I'll give you half of it if you'll show me where to drop it off. We can buy some rolls at that day-old place. OK?"

       "Sure. If I got up in time, I'd 've of got the delivery, but it's all the same to me. This way, we both eat." Stilts slows down some and I catch my breath. "Hey, maybe we'll find some money laying on the sidewalk and we can buy a real breakfast."

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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