My Ex-Con 1
"Yeah Tuesday at eleven," my brother Jasper says with unusual energy. I'm taking a risk talking to him on my cell now that it's illegal to talk on the phone and drive in the state of Illinois. I have it balanced on my thigh and set on speaker. But this risk is nothing compared to the other, bigger risk I'm taking on behalf of my brother.
Well I can barely hear Jasper even with both of my hearing aids in. I'm not an old lady, not technically. I had a hearing loss when I was eighteen and I've worn hearing aids ever since, but few people know that as I wear my hair long and over my ears. Even when I wear my cap while I paint I keep my ears covered.
As for Jasper, I live in his peripheral vision. Unless I yell. If I yell he pays attention, but I've outgrown yelling. And he's Alice's problem for the last few years anyway, hallelujah. Presently he's so grateful for what I'm doing for his buddy he's actually sounding normal.
He's the one that owes Cullen, not me. He was C's accomplice in the theft that landed that punk in prison. Theft of a twelve hundred dollar gun. With a long list of misdemeanors and shit for a lawyer C got ten and served eight. Did I know him before? Sure. I was just getting going then, just starting my business. Cullen was the punk I came home to find sitting at my table with Jasper eating my baloney and drinking my bottled water. Jasper begged me to let him stay. I told the stray he was going to work for it, and if he did drugs or anything unlawful I'd personally kick his ass to the alley.
Punk love. That's what it was. Young Edward Cullen had a thing for me. Cute? Dangerously so, I'll give him that. I'm kind of deaf but my eyes work fine…with glasses.
Cullen stayed in our tiny apartment with the gross lack of privacy for nearly two months. He said, possibly twenty or thirty words in all that time, but the staring. I had to call him on it. I told him he was not allowed to look at me unless I spoke to him. He just did that smirk and kept staring. My understanding was he got beaten regularly, was a runaway at fifteen, but any kind of constructive discipline, forget it. Jasper wasn't much better. Any better. Those were the days.
But Cullen, behind my back he called me Big B. I heard him one day, two of his twenty words. I'd just told him to step it up, I was paying him to paint by the hour not by the stroke. He called me Big B.
"You're my boss, not my mother," he said another time. That was his single most notable quote.
He was a decent worker…had good hands. But he was a thief. Jasper swore he never stole on a job, but I cry bullshit on that. They were a couple of thieves. Granted they were smart enough about it to keep me fooled and not get called out on it by any of our customers, but obviously they were more into criminal behavior than I realized. I blame Jack Mason, that crook.
Jasper has since reformed. Perfect little angel? Never. But Alice has helped him tremendously. He's almost a fairly good employee, that's when he works. Four days a week he's a peach.
Is Edward the first guy coming out of prison I've hired? No. There's my brother. He did two on a plea bargain over the gun.
The hardest thing for a con—employment. Something that isn't shit. I know what I did for Jasper, and I know what I'm doing for Cullen. And he's in a tight box here. If he even looks like he's going to eff-up he's out.
It's all on Jasper. He's found a place for Edward to live…and he's begged me to take him on.
Glutton for punishment—that's me.
I'm driving to the bus station. I hang up on Jasper because I can't drive and find the right exit. I'm picking Cullen up so we can have a talk. I haven't seen him in all this time.
He thought I was bad before…he doesn't know me now. Yeah. I've worked so hard to get where I am. It's my intention to make him understand and if I get even a hint of disrespect or that he's been using, or insincerity, or anything other than humble gratitude then he's out.
I'm looking for a parking spot when I see him, standing by the huge doors smoking a cigarette. He's wearing jeans and a shirt and that leather jacket, and he's holding a bag and such a feeling of dread and awkward settles on me I think about keeping on going.
But he's seen me first, and I remember the stare, and I don't know how I recognized him but I'd know him anywhere, yet this is not a guy you invite into your car, not like this. I pull to the curb and he's moving to the car and he tries to open the door and it's still locked. I fumble to click the locks, hit the button for the radio and the music dies and this silence. He's in. He's big. I mean…he's everywhere, but he's not. But the stare up close. I'm glad I'm wearing my shades. Prescription.
"Hey," he says. He doesn't touch me. He's heavier. More like a man. But he's looking at me, and it's unguarded and I can't look straight at him for long so I look anywhere else.
I look out my window like the fate of the world is in my hands. I almost pull out in front of a car and slam on the breaks and then I go again, pulling out too fast. A glance shows Edward's long arms braced. The small bag he'd carried is at his feet.
"Sorry," I say. It's my first words to him. I have the feeling I've let a zoo animal into my vehicle. There is a hardness, but it's like he's an alien. He's from Mars. And I'm not from Venus. I'm from Pluto.
I never…ever should have agreed to this. I don't know him. He is a complete stranger. The vibes I'm getting he's been dipped in a vat of shit and debauchery. Those eyes. I have failed him and it's too late.
We're quiet and I'm driving the car but I have no real idea how I've gotten on to the highway. He's looked at me some, then out the window and I feel his tension. I wish I hadn't worn this skirt. I'd dressed up for the funeral this morning. But he's probably thinking about it, my legs. My boots. Or up higher. Why would I wear a skirt to pick up an ex-con? This isn't me being a good Samaritan. This is me being a moron. I said yes to this. I agreed. No one will pity my dead remains when I'm pulled out of the river. Fuck Jasper.
"What?" I say. He said something.
"Are you hungry?" he enunciates.
He says this looking out his window. His hair. It's short. Almost shaved. He's thin for a man his size. His eyes. I can't look anymore.
"Are you?" I say.
"Pizza," he says.
We're going for pizza? His hand is close, gripping his seat, but so close to me. Foot and a half from my genitals. Who thinks this? He's the prisoner. God forgive me. He said pizza not the other p word. Why did I think I could work with this criminal?
I am getting off the highway. I don't know where I'm going. It's a tough neighborhood. But I have someone with me who looks like he could kill if necessary. So we're good maybe. I pull into a place that looks more like a biker bar than anything. The sign says Chicago-style pizza. We're not in Chicago.
"You know this place?" he says looking it over.
"No. Want something else?"
I shut off the car and he opens the door and I open mine, then remember my purse and grab that from the back seat and I'm out.
He waits for me and wants me to walk ahead of him I guess, so I do. We cross the cracked asphalt and it's cold and the wind, and I hold my skirt at the sides and kind of run and I'm in first and he's coming brisk, staring at the ground, hands in his pockets. I'm in the foyer and he opens the glass door, then we glance at one another and I don't know what I see, but it's awkward and I turn away from him and enter the dark bar and a girl in jeans and a black t-shirt comes over, dark choppy hair and a big red smile and she smiles at Edward and heads for a booth in the back and she turns around and smiles again, smiles past me at him, and it helps ground me because I remember how he liked the girls and they liked him.
I slide in my side and he's in his and he's looked up at her a couple of times, then at me, like I give a flip.
"I want a large…everything," he says, "and a big Coke. Bella?"
I guess I'm supposed to get my own. I look at the menu and say the first thing, "Small thin crust mushroom and a Diet Coke."
She's giggling at him.
"Did you get that?" I say.
He looks at me, he's serious.
"How's it feel to be out?" I ask him as soon as she leaves with our order.
He puts his hands on the table and weaves his long fingers together and I remember his hands and the way he held the brush.
"You're just how I remember," he says. "Just…more."
I look at him then. We need to talk. But I'm trying to remember. I know, but I can't get there yet.
"You're older," I say because I'm Einstein.
He smiles. I'm almost relieved to see he still can.
"Thanks for…you sent…."
I wave my hand. "It's nothing."
We are looking down, up then down. It's something big now. It's building in him. I grip the edge of the table and he reaches over and lightly touches my knuckles and I put my hands on my lap and clasp my hands there, squeeze the shit out of them. I hadn't meant to pull away so abruptly, and he pulls his hands back. And she brings our drinks.
I pull the paper from my straw but I'm holding the straw.
"Take off the glasses," he says.
I don't need them. It's dark in here. But he can't ask me for anything. I mean…I'm the giver. He's the taker here. He can't ask.
But I pull the glasses off and I hold his gaze. I want to know who he is now. I want to see.