Den of Inequity, by Jono Walker
Canada, a recently released novel by Richard Ford has me feeling scared and queasy. No spoiler alert necessary because you learn right from page one that the narrator’s parents are going to rob a bank and go to prison leaving him and his 15 year old twin sister alone to fend for themselves. You also learn that somebody will be killed, but I haven’t gotten to that part yet. Meanwhile, it’s deeply disturbing hanging here by my thumbs in such a dark and empty place. There’s nobody within earshot, leaving me with no alternative but to keep on reading.
The book is moiling up some long forgotten childhood fears about how life as you know it might suddenly unravel. It also has me thinking about my own brief brush with the law and the lessons I learned about how it works and how you really never want to get on the wrong side of it.
It was the summer between eighth and ninth grade. I was a caddy at Longshore, Westport’s municipal golf course, and had just grown broad shouldered enough to get put out with the big tippers – guys like Joe Nistico, Sally Peppers and the Izzo brothers Red and Butch. This cadre of elite Saturday morning golfers was made up of teachers and cops and the local business owners who sponsored Little League teams and filled the ranks of the service organizations that delivered meals on wheels and financed the Memorial Day Parade and the fireworks at Compo Beach on the 4th. They peppered their golf rounds with hilarious off-color jokes, and if they ever shanked a fairway iron or missed a two foot putt with money on the line, their long pearls of non-repeating curse words were heart-stirringly inventive. Not only were these men the undisputed kings of Longshore in those days, they were the heart and soul of Westport. While others rode the train into the city each day, these were the guys who stayed in town and made things run. By no means were they saints, but they were as honest as they were rough around the edges. They were the law.
There was this kid, a classmate of mine who will remain nameless – I’ll call him Tee – who instituted a regular poker game on Saturday afternoons that summer. It cranked up just when we were coming in from our morning rounds flush with cash. Tee was severely pigeon-toed and far too scrawny to be a caddy himself, with a wedge of light brown hair that swung down over one side of his face. With two burly body guards in tow, he’d plunk down on the caddy bench, pull out his deck of Bicycle Playing Cards, flash a wise guy’s smile and ask, ready for some poker gentlemen? He taught us complicated games like Low and High Chicago which none of us ever fully mastered (in no small part due to our nagging confusion over simple fundamentals such as what was better, a flush or a straight) and fleeced us week in and out. We were easy marks.
The real trouble started though when Tee announced, after stuffing another wad of our cash into the front pocket of his corduroy Lee jeans, that he had some Cherry Bombs and M-80’s he could sell us at five bucks per handful. I wanted in, and made an arrangement to fork over even more of my hard earned money. The plan was to meet at Compo Beach just before the Fourth of July fireworks display. We’d do the deal right down at the waterline. The best place, he said, to make a transaction like this was out in a big crowd in plain sight. Nobody would suspect a thing.
At the appointed hour I stood at the appointed spot at the waterline in front of the brick beach houses. It was easy to pick out Tee from a distance. One of his trademarks was to never wear short pants no matter how hot and sticky it got, so there he was, far up the shoreline and getting ever closer, dressed in his long corduroy jeans and laced-up desert boots carrying two big grocery bags tucked up under his chin. He looked so misplaced dodging around the swarms of bathing-suited kids I very nearly changed my mind and bolted into the crowd, but the idea of getting my hands on five bucks worth of top grade pyrotechnics held sway. Dreams of mailboxes hurtling into the air and watermelons exploding into clouds of pink mist kept me trued to a course of action I freely understood was filled with risk and entirely wrong.
Next thing I knew I was face to face with that wise guy smirk with the one eye not hidden by the shank of hair looking past me. Tee asked, got your fiver? Because his hands were full he tilted his butt around asking me to stick the bill in his back pocket and to be quick about it. He then said something to the effect that today was my lucky day and instead of pulling out the handful of illegal ordinance I had ordered, he thrust both grocery bags into my arms and turned around. I watched him disappear nonchalantly into the crowd and then peered wide eyed into the bags. They were crammed full of M-80s, Ash Cans, Cherry Bombs, Roman Candles and string after string of fire crackers in more assorted sizes than I ever knew existed. I couldn’t believe it! The sweet exotic smell of gunpowder wafted into the sultry summer air. JACKPOT, I cried to myself just as the heavy hand of the law clamped down on my shoulder from behind.
The arresting officer was fully decked out – blue uniform, badge, Billy stick, revolver, everything –which drew a lot of attention, and so the crowd, the one that Tee so confidently assured would provide us with all that cover, converged around us. In a flash I went from a state of Cherry Bomb ecstasy to a pathetic warm-up act for the fireworks display. The officer took possession of my Grand Union bags, asked the folks to step back and nodded for me to head up the beach. A clutch of little kids chattered closely behind as we made our way around the gawking crowds of beach chairs and blankets on our way to the squad car parked by the cannons.
I will never forget that long perp walk through the loose sand nor the stinging shame of being the person inside the head the policeman puts his hand atop as he assists it into the back seat of a waiting squad car. I sat there feeling scared and queasy for what seemed like hours as the officer sat up front filling out the paperwork. Finally, he tossed his clipboard onto the seat next to him and turned around to face me with a smile I wasn’t sure how to read twinkling up (or maybe not quite twinkling up) at one corner of his mouth. It was my first good look at his face and I immediately recognized him as one of the cops I knew from Longshore, not anyone I had ever caddied for, but one of the guys in the foursome which instantly sent a fresh new rush of heat to my ears. I also knew he was someone my dad knew by name. Dad knew most of the cops in town. Whenever we were at a fair or out to dinner someplace and it came time to leave, you could usually find Dad out on the street having a cigarette and a laugh with whatever cop happened to be on patrol.
Inaudible voices were coming in and out over the radio. My stomach continued to moil. The policeman’s hard to read smile was now twinkling faintly (or maybe not quite twinkling at all) in the corners of the eyes that were boring out of the rear view mirror of the squad car. I heard him whistle through his teeth, and then he said as we were pulling out of the parking spot:
Your old man sure is gonna be pissed now innit he?
One of the conditions of my parent’s grounding was to end my association with that “bad actor” Tee, which I more or less obeyed and unless you count a few instances of under aged drinking, I turned away from my life of crime. In spite of his penchant for wheeling and dealing in the shadows though, Tee was a good kid at heart. He had a wicked sense of humor, knew how to keep a Junior High algebra class lively and after a few weeks of separating me from my lunch money that next fall, he very generously taught me the trick to Three Card Monty.
I’m not sure if Tee went on to Staples with our class. The last time I laid eyes on him came in a five second flash when I was on the football team and running out from the locker room following halftime. As I was trotting along in the stream of bobbing helmets I just happened to catch sight of him on the hill behind the bleachers. He was just as skinny and pigeon toed as ever, with the same swinging lock of hair, same Lee Jeans and desert boots, the only addition to his get-up was a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. For some reason I didn’t immediately understand, he was struggling to raise a rock about the size of a football up over his head while stumbling across the hill. Then I realized he was aiming towards a guy who was facing the other way, lying on the grass and engaged in a quiet conversation with a pretty girl. Another deal gone bad, I thought to myself and wanted to warn the guy but was trapped in the rhythmic roar of football cleats spilling down the asphalt steps to the field.
My head twisted backwards to keep an eye on Tee who was squinting through the smoke of his cigarette that was now held between the teeth of a murderous grimace. He had the rock poised above his head and was ready to strike just as I lost sight of him behind the corner of the bleachers. The team spilled out into the end zone. The band struck up our fight song. My heart struggled not to explode.
Post Post Script:
There was no untoward commotion to be seen as we began our warm-up drills for the second half. Nobody in the stands turned to look over the back of the bleachers. No squad cars converged. My pounding heart began to settle. Tee must have missed. Thank God.