By: George Sparling
Jeb, who would die the next day, smoked another cigarette. Twenty-four bicycles stood in the front yard of the apartment building as he watched Charlie, a swamper by night. A bicycle repairer in daytime, Charlie screwed the adjusting barrel all the way, loosened the holding bolt while squeezing the brake pads together, but re-tightened the holding bolt too much and snapped it. Charlie’s face turned red with rage in the eighty degree heat, perspiration streamed down his fat face and bald head, huge islands of sweat blotched his armpits. He screamed so loud that a partially deaf man in the apartment next to Jeb’s hollered out his window to shut the fuck up, will you. Charlie’s temper went off frequently since he said hello to Jeb’s granddaughter, Nellie, who moved into an apartment on the second floor above Jeb two weeks ago. She came all the way from Texas for the event of granddad’s death.
“Quit your noise, fool, or I won’t pay you anything,” Jeb yelled, coughing up sputum which he spit into a fast food restaurant’s plastic mug. He was gaunt, with an unshaven face full of tobacco stains. When Charlie wanted to make him fork over more bucks, a petty amount, for his work and Jeb refused, Charlie got back at him. He told him that “Magic” Johnson was the best in the NBA; Jeb’s adoration was for the Celtic’s Larry Bird, the great white hope, both players long retired. Jeb’s bile rose and asserted itself, screaming louder than Charlie had today.
“Them’s fightin’ words, damn it, Larry Bird’s the best---You get the hell outta here.”
Charlie hoped the old man would croak; the Johnson/Bird angle was a surefire way to go about it with an old-school Texas redneck. Jeb partially closed the front door. Charlie pushed it wider. Clenched tightly and nervously in his hand was a large cable and housing cutter ("I don’t know why I held it, but it could be a weapon if I chose",
thought Charlie ). He stepped into the living room for the first time. Jeb pulled out a drawer, and took $20 from a shoebox for his work.
The next day Nellie came down to make breakfast for granddad and found him seated in a chair, head lolled back, eyes blank, the TV on. She felt his carotid artery and found no pulse. She called an ambulance and the attendants wheeled his body out. They took him to an undertaker’s mortuary.
“He died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” she said.
“He sniffed oxygen from the tank more and more.”
Charlie had put on the same clothes he wore yesterday. Countless yesterdays, identical clothes. He knew they smelled. "I don’t give a shit about their stench, what has the world given to me but pain", he thought.
Through the opened door of Jeb’s apartment, he saw Nellie pile Jeb’s clothes neatly, placing them in boxes. Charlie watched her bare arms, how Nellie moved her bottom, her tight jersey with “Celtics” running across her breasts, a big #33 below, her abs svelte like she was a athlete herself. He saw her nipples outlined under the jersey’s green.
“They just took him away.” The phone rang and she answered. After a minute, she told him, “I have to go to the mortuary. Sign some papers, other details.”
He stood there, inhaling the scent of her armpits, her pits smelling like Chanel as she swept past him into her car, forgetting to lock the door. "How I’d love to sleep with her, Nellie’s naked body curled into my big, hairy, naked belly, my steampunk novels would mean shit to me then", he thought. Charlie, during sleepless nights, played with himself.
He opened the big drawer and saw the most money he had ever seen. Not counting it, afraid Nellie or police would catch him, he hurriedly jammed the bills into his pockets, into his underwear. His fat thighs looked clownishly wider walking to his nearby apartment. He pulled the blinds down and counted: $3,650. First thought: Take Nellie to a nice restaurant, buy her things, date her, and then maybe marriage. Those knockers, her glossy
lips, her smooth hair, how Charlie wanted to finger each strand. He knew she’d like him once he opened up, confiding in her, maybe even taking a shower with her to rid himself of self-consciousness.
Charlie worked on his bike outside his place and saw her get out of the car. “You alright?’ he said.
She stood thirty feet away and said, “His ashes will be scattered on the Brazos River.”
Charlie walked toward her, wiping his greasy hands on greasy pants unwashed for months, and said, “We could go to a fancy restaurant,” he said, watching her use her key to unlock the door.
“Must’ve forgot to lock it,” she said.
“You’re in mourning, I can see that.”
He watched her smooth bare arm and long nimble fingers as she packed up Jeb's clothes and other things into cardboard boxes. The way her butt moved, her svelte abs, her nipples outlined beneath a green #33 jersey, her skin-tight jeans showing her legs off, the way she squatted to sort through Jeb’s drawers pulled onto the floor, her cameltoe revealed what awaited him: "She was meant for me. I’m those jeans at her crotch", he thought. She found empty shoe boxes.
“Let’s go to the fanciest restaurant in town. Chinese, Thai, Italian, Mexican, Indian. I’ll pay for it.”
“What? Do you keep money in shoe boxes.”
Charlie blushed, because she might be on to him, a gonif, and that he was too poor to afford good restaurants. He cleared his throat nervously and said, “No, in a bank." He lied: a cash only life for him.
“Here’s where Jeb kept his,” she said, turning the boxes upside down.
“In shoe boxes. I’ll buy you anything at Subway.”
Charlie insisted. “I can afford it. Come on, you don’t know how much I like you.”
He looked into the mirror that morning and saw his dented forehead, lips atremble, boils atop his large head.
“You don’t even know me.”
“Jeb talked about you.”
“He never discussed family with anyone,” she said.
Nellie looked at Charlie dressed in filthy pants, pulled to the navel revealing green socks, a bald skull, tufts of hair stuck out uncombed, making him look clownish.
“I like working on bikes, rode one from New York all the way here to the coast.”
“You should try and get a real job in a bicycle shop. Bothering Jeb was bad form.”
“I would but I’m too slow. I know more about bikes than the store owners. I hate to say this but I’m a genius when it comes to bikes.”
“Oh my, I never met one before. What else can you offer girls,” she said.
“I’d like to take you out for dinner. How about tomorrow?”
Charlie came into the bar at closing time, drank a free Bourbon shot and beer chaser, and there sat Nellie at the end of the bar with a muscled-up man in black T-shirt and black slacks. She wore a black cowboy hat, turquoise cowboy shirt, knee-length blue skirt, and dark brown Vibram-soled shoes.
Her drinking pal left for the bathroom and Charlie walked to her and said, “You’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen.”
“I saw you go berserk yesterday. You do that much?”
Charlie blushed, pulled up his jeans and said, “I should own a bike repair store by now and that’s why I’m trying to save up, get a bank loan and quit this swamper thing.”
“You told me that. What do you think I am, a dummy?”
She looked him up and down, slowly, then looked into his eyes, and Charlie thought she really liked me, especially when she said, “I bet you want date with me, no?”
Charlie scratched at his pubic hairs, telling her, “That’s right on the button.”
“That’s the kind of thing granddad said. I don’t like buttons, I like zippers, if they’re opened, you know what I mean.”
Charlie blurted, “Can’t I take you out to eat?”
“We’ll see.” Her drinking partner came back.
“Who’s he?” The guy jabbed his thumb at Charlie.
“Nobody, really. He worked on bikes for Jeb.”
“Need a bike fixed, I’m the best fixer upper.”
The guy moved his butt off the stool, standing over six feet, and shot his arm at Charlie’s face, stopping inches from his nose.
“We want the money back, chump. Or else.”
“That’s enough, Ben, for now anyway,” she said.
Ben dry-spat at Charlie’s feet. “I won’t make you mop up my spit. Your life can get dicey, chump.”
He and Nellie walked out, the guy’s tattooed arm causally draped over her shoulders.
The next afternoon, Nellie knocked on Charlie’s door. “I changed my mind. Sure, you’re not so bad. Sorry about last night. Ben was on uppers. It won’t happen again.”
She drove to the restaurant and Charlie got out quickly, trotted to the driver’s side and opened the door for her.
“How quaint,” she said, and slammed the door herself.
He held her hand a bit too long. They quickly found a table. They drank good wine. Charlie’s face flushed as he talked about his granddad, a cobbler, but Charlie didn’t want to learn his trade.
“My father skipped out on us, what a loser he was. My mom and I visited him in prison. He kited checks.”
“I’m glad you’re not a loser,” she responded, laughing long and hard as patrons lowered their conversations.
“I was too uncoordinated for that trade.”
“Where’d you get that temper,” she said.
“Oh, that. It was hot and I was tired. Swamping and bicycle repairing don’t mix.”
He saw her scan the room. "She’s damned embarrassed here with me, I don’t fit in anywhere, I should’ve invited her to my place, then asked her do a striptease, then stick it into her, I’m sick of being poor, and why am I beginning to hate Nellie", Charlie thought.
“I have 49 notebooks, in tiny print, going back to the time I biked across the country on a stolen bike.”
He rubbed Nellie’s smooth bare arm holding her fork as she was lifting a large bite of calzone, and got his fingers into Mozzarella.
“If you want to feed me you’re out of luck. Maybe you should have a pet, a small mammal would teach you manners.”
He stared down at his plate, concealing his flushed face, then bounced back. “I’ll let you read them someday.”
“No, I like crime novels written by women,” she said
After dinner, he pulled out a bulging wallet filled with fifties and twenties. He put bills on the tray and offered her his hand, which she withdrew. They rode in silence to her apartment.
“Let’s have something to drink,” she said and grabbed a bottle of Jim Beam.
She filled whiskey to the brim of a water glass. She drank hers from a small cup. She flipped open her mobile phone. “It’s Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. Turned up loud", she said, “Ben phoned me from jail. He’s charged with pimping. He’s bailed out.”
“You bailed him?”
“I had money stashed in a shoebox,” she said. A sneer wiped across her face.
“Stay away from that guy. He’s trouble. Nice girls don’t want to get dragged down.”
“How can a swamper not know how the world works?”
“I keep my mouth shut, ears closed, do the work, take the check, and pay my rent. I guess Spike feels sorry for me. Jeb got me the job.”
“Jeb’s granddaughter will show you how the world works,” she said.
She unbuttoned her shirt, undid her bra, letting it fall to her ankles, untied her Nikes and stood before him wearing only black socks. Charlie chugged his glass down and she began to undress him. His socks were so smelly she nearly barfed.
“Let’s rumble,” she said, walking him to the bedroom.
She pushed him back because he wanted to hump her thigh. “That’s what fourteen-year-olds do. Come on, I’ll give you the best time you ever had.”
She scratched bloody the psoriasis on his back and butt. Soon he moaned, “Ohhhh.”
“Nice, isn’t it,” she said. “Let’s drink some coffee to sober up and do it again.”
They sat naked in the kitchen and he drank two cups of espresso, giving Nellie a chance to say, “Give me all the cash you stole from Jeb, or else.”
Stimulated and mostly sober, he said, “Or else what?”
“I’ll sic Ben on you and this time he won’t pull his punches.”
“You won’t get away with it.”
“I’m going back home. I gotta sleep some before I head to Spike’s.”
He left and she blew him a kiss.
He walked the twenty yards to his tiny apartment. A truck’s engine idled outside. He saw Ben open the back doors to the truck. Ben and another man then loaded the bicycles into a U-Haul.
He strips down to his boxers and gets under the covers. He hears his door explode with banging. He peeks out the eye hole and first sees a stranger’s face. It was Nellie.
“You won’t get anymore of Jeb’s property,” she yells.
“They’re not his, they’re his customers.”
“I want the money, dammit,” shouted Nellie.
“What if I call the police?”
“We want that money,” said Ben.
“Police, my butt. I’ll call them and say you raped me.”
The TV’s volume high, Charlie, in boxers, removed the derailleur, straightened the bent derailleur hanger with an adjustable wrench, then lubed the derailleur, cleaning outside grit that could enter moving parts before causing premature impairment. "Inanimate objects, my lovers", he thought. He repeated the process many times, waiting for them to leave.
Finally, he dozed off, waking to his alarm clock. He dressed and walked to Spike’s. After work he saw the U-Haul as it gunned its engine. Nellie and Ben sat in the truck, their accomplice blowing smoke from a bud into Charlie's face. Charlie hated pot, it made him lose concentration. Ben stepped out of the truck and slashed the air with a big knife in Charlie's direction. His burly friend smacked a baseball bat against his palm. So far, Charlie had slipped through life, unscathed by tormentors. He was frightened of this trio hanging around, probably forever if he didn't turn over the cash. He grabbed the money from a kitchen drawer, walked shakedly to the U-Haul and handed the bag to Nellie. The other two got into the truck. As they were driving off Nellie pulled up her shirt, pressed her bare her breasts against the door window and gave him the finger.