Mixed Messages

Jon hit a wall.


When he tried to swerve around a large cardboard box, he tripped and slammed into the back wall of a building. His knees gave way, and he slumped down the bricks, scraping the bare skin of his elbows in an attempt to brace himself. His butt slammed the cold cement beneath his feet. He pulled his knees to his chest, wrapped his arms around them, shut his eyes, and heaved great, rib-breaking sobs.

When he opened his eyes again, his body had finished crying, but his ribs were sore. He was in a narrow corridor between two buildings. There were no back doors leading into them. It was as if when the builders put them side by side, they left a hallway between them to create a watershed. Above him, wide eaves created shadow and shelter, seemingly built to direct the rain away from the base of the buildings. Beyond that, was a dark velvet sky.

Night had fallen. How long had he been asleep? The alley was sheltered, a cave in the wilderness of a big city he knew nothing about. He scooted back until he could fully lean against the wall to rest his head. It was blissfully quiet. There was no sound of traffic, no people talking; there was no commotion anywhere. He should get up and scope out the area. He should. He honestly would, if he could move. He shut his eyes for just a moment. He could stay forever in this quiet.

“This be my place,” a voice grumbled. “You is in my place. Get out.”

Jon rocked his head against the brick behind it.

“Is you deaf? I said, get outta here. This be my place.”

With difficulty, Jon opened one eye, a tiny slit through which to peer. What he saw couldn’t be real. Dressed in multiple layers of rags for clothing, a man weaved in front of him.

“I said, get out,” the spectacle said.

Jon opened both eyes. He was real.

“This be mine. You be in my place. You get out.” The man lunged toward him with hands ready to strike.

Jon tried to move out of the way, but his legs refused to cooperate, and he fell onto his side.

“Get out.” One of the man’s shoes appeared right in front of his nose. He had tied the shoe onto his foot with jute string. He could see two dusty toes peeking out of a hole on the outside curve. That same foot came off the ground and pushed at Jon’s shoulder. “Get out,” his voice grumbled again.

Jon tried to move again, but all he could do was crawl a few inches forward.

“You be hurt?” said the man. “Wha’da matter? You in a fight?”

“No, n-n-no,” stuttered Jon. He barely recognized the croak of his own voice.

“You stay,” said the man. His foot disappeared.

A few minutes later, it was back. This time, the raggedy man knelt in front of him, with a 26-ounce Campbell’s Tomato Soup can in his hands. He grabbed Jon’s arm and hauled him into a seated position. Then he held the can to Jon’s lips and said, “Drink this.”

Jon turned his head.

“Drink. Is water,” said the man. “From de fountain ou’dare.”

Jon sniffed at it.

“You calm down, drink,” said the man.

Jon took a sip, then he placed his hands over the man’s and pulled the can toward his mouth. Greedily, he gulped, but the man took away the can.

“Slow down, you,” he said.

“Th, thank you,” said Jon.

“Alright,” the man replied.

The man sat next to him. After a few breaths, he handed Jon the can. Jon took it and sipped twice, then held it in his lap. He was monstrously thirsty, but the man was right. If he gulped it too fast, it would all end up on the ground. After a few more breaths, he took another sip.

“Thank you,” he said again.

The man nodded. “Alright.”

When Jon finished the can of water, he handed the can to the raggedy man. The man pushed the can back toward him and said, “Keep. Now get out, this be my place.”

Jon didn’t understand at first.

“You get outta here, go, go. This be my place.”

“But, I, I…?”

“This be my place.”

Jon used the wall to brace his weight upon his shaking legs, and slowly pulled himself up. “Th-th-thank you,” said Jon.

The man nodded. Then he leaned against the wall, folded his arms and shut his eyes. “You be gone. This be my place.”

Jon wobbled out of the alley, which opened onto a small plaza. A drinking fountain was in the middle of it, surrounded by a patch of neatly shorn grass. Jon had no memory whatsoever of passing it when he ran through, yet here it was, a tiny oasis in downtown Detroit.

In his mind, he heard Rat say, “Run to the river. Don’t stop.” He could smell the river, but he had no idea which way to go.

He filled the tomato soup can to the brim and drank about half. Then he sat next to the fountain while he thought about what to do next. He was supposed to run to the river but what difference did it make? It seemed like anywhere he went in Detroit he was doomed. Either he contacted his father and met trouble that way, or he hid until the Morelli gang found him.

“Where’s the other one,” Morelli had said. “You know who I’m talking about, don’t you? The little creep who gave that old witch money for my sister, my dead sister, Sobrina. I want to thank him, too.” Jon had no illusions about what that meant.

Was she actually dead? He could not superimpose the beautiful girl in the alley with the one who fought for two lives on the floor of the kitchen in the midwife’s apartment.

How was any of that his fault? He was just an errand boy. That was all. How did that make him involved in any way that justified retribution? Maybe they wanted to know where the baby was. He had no illusions about that either. He had put it down and couldn’t pick it up again. He chose to abandon it in front of a derelict pharmacy. What would have happened if he’d taken it back to Marchesi’s Bar and Grill with him? Would that have changed the course of the lives that had been lost?  

While he sat there agonizing over the choices that he had made, a police cruiser rolled up to the plaza. Jon watched it approach and quickly scooted behind the fountain so he was not in direct sight of the officers in the car. The doors opened and shut. Headlights flashed. Through a bullhorn an officer stated, “Detroit PD. Clear the park immediately.”

Had they seen him?

“Clear the park,” the officer barked again.

They weren’t asking him to present himself; they were asking him to leave. So, he stood and trotted as best he could away from them toward another space between two buildings. However, he didn’t stop in its shelter. He tottered straight through, into an empty lot, and beyond that to an avenue that stretched forever in both directions. The whole time, he was asking himself, “Why?” Why didn’t he approach the officers and ask for help? It would have been so easy.

He stopped a moment to get his bearings. The officers had not followed him. Were they still there? He could go back, or he could go forward. He froze between the two choices.

A few feet ahead of him was another opening between buildings. Maybe it was another alley. He slowly walked toward it. This one looked large enough to hold a dumpster with room for a vehicle to pass. About twelve feet into the alley, the dumpster was flush against a wall. Cautiously, he wandered toward it. There was no one else here. He hunkered down and hid beside it, protected from any onlookers that might pass by. His eyes began to water, and his breath hitched. A sob escaped, and then another, and then another, until he couldn’t stop. He cried himself into oblivion.  

The beeping of a garbage truck backing up, alerted him. He scooted away from the dumpster just as the large arms came down and clamped onto it to lift it over the yawning hole in the side of the truck. He trotted up the alley away from the racket it made. The workers didn’t pay any attention to him at all, which made him think that they had probably seen their share of drifters hiding the same way he had.

Grilled chorizo, the tangy scent reminiscent of the Mexican food truck near Stagg High School in Stockton hit his nose. His stomach rumbled. In a lot next to a service station, a Mexican food truck was rolling out its wares. He still had some money in his pockets: the ten Rat had given him, and a few bills that Charlie Marchesi had given him that he had yet to use. He was the truck’s first customer. The breakfast burrito cost him four dollars and twenty-five cents with tax, an hour’s wage in this town. He wandered back to the little park and filled his can with water. He found a bench on the street that led back to the tiny park with the fountain, and sat. There he ate his burrito. He had never tasted anything so good in all his life.

The city didn’t seem so scary now that morning had come. He was sure he could be successful here.

As he sat enjoying his breakfast, a shiny Lincoln with blackened windows pulled up to the light a block away. How many people drove Lincolns in this town? How many had windows so black they obscured the inside of the car?

Jon shoved the last bite of burrito into his mouth and ran. He made it to the alley where he’d sheltered for the night and hid behind the empty dumpster. The Lincoln rolled past the alley. Perhaps he should have turned himself in last night, to the cops who chased him away from the fountain.

It was too late to worry about that. Now, he had to learn how to stay out of sight. 

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