Wait at a bus stop long enough and you’re bound to fall for a black girl.
Balls visits Spotty’s Grill across the street from the bus stop and names the black girls’ asses. Meringue. Oprah. Hyannis. He uses names of things he likes or knows. Does it to pass the time. He’s there every day.
He can’t keep a job so he lives with his mother on Murray Street. She has lupus and blames the whole world. She watches for the mailman with her checks and coupon books, screams at Balls for putting his feet on the couch or spilling crumbs.
Balls had a good thing going at Wendy’s but one day punched the shift supervisor for no good reason and that was that. The manager had him arrested and because there was a previous on his record, they put him away for ninety days.
It broke his mother’s heart. All she did was cook and tell the mailman that they’d lock up a good kid like Arty but leave the blacks running around. Told the mailman every day the trouble she had with his father, off somewhere and up to no good. She had an NCO against him and he broke it regularly but didn’t mean to; can’t help it, she said. He’s that retarded.
Balls got out thinner and with a front tooth missing. She made him a lemon meringue pie bigger than any he’d ever seen and she recommended a dentist only if it was important to him. She slipped Balls a card with a bassett hound on the front and inside was a bus pass she picked up at the supermarket half price with proof of her disability.
The next day Balls put in six job applications. You did it now through a computer kiosk the stores stashed between the restrooms. His best shot was at KFC where he spoke with the MOD, a short Cape Verdean with Mary J. Blige hair and tits he could see between for miles.
“You got experience?” she asked.
“Depends what kind.”
Balls just shrugged. His entire neck disappeared when he shrugged.
All a guy could do for work with a felony charge was roofing or commit more felonies. That’s what the manager told him, but she handed him her card anyway and said she’d call if she had openings.
Most days Balls lands at Spotty’s by mid/late afternoon. At this time of day it’s all high schoolers loading up on fries and mailmen passing the time. The front window is clouded with talk-breath and grill smoke, and Spotty stays cool when Balls forearms it so he can see outside, even if the mark resembles a penis or a whale.
The mailmen keep a poll going: how high will unemployment go before someone takes a shot at Obama. They’ve been doing this since before Balls went in, using The Price Is Right rules and keeping track on the blanker side of an Outside magazine subscription card.
Today they try to involve Spotty but he stays behind the grill, noncommittal. Spotty has this shit with his skin from back when he was a kid, makes him look mottled like an apple that fell off a tree and got left in the grass to rot.
Spotty is always trying to do something about the smell in the place: onion fog and old grease and sizzled meat. Spotty buys the cheap spray from the Dollar Tree next door but all that does is add cinnamon and pecan swirl to the mix.
When Dumars walks in, though, the whole joint shushes. Some girls can do that. She buys her throwbacks from a guy on The Hill who authenticates them with a certificate and she knows she’s hot: seventeen, but supermodel seventeen.
Balls whistles at her and calls her over, but she throws a hand up over her shoulder. She orders a Sprite and bacon fries. More girls pile in, Dumars’ clones, all done up and illegally inked.
Balls tries again, standing up and pointing at Dumars specifically, but she just laughs and the rest of the girls laugh too. Balls knows her brother, a Dominican with a weird beard and an RX-7. The kid lays tile for Lowe’s and Balls wants his number for networking purposes.
“No shot, guy,” one of the mailmen yells over to him and Balls shrugs. He does this a lot lately.
“It’s my tooth,” Balls says, pointing, and the mailmen get a good chuckle because Balls’s toothlessness is like their obesity or ED.
Except that after leaving Spotty’s, Balls crosses the street to the bus stop, and some girl he doesn’t know and has never seen before says that with the huge gap in his mouth he looks like Lauren Bacall only he’s probably not as classy and she isn’t Italian.
Balls isn’t AFI smart but the girl gives off a good vibe so he lies to her.
“I love Lauren Bacall,” he says.
“Bullshit,” she says, seeing right through it. She’s wearing skinny jeans and flats, a faux fur coat like a piece from an overpass wall. “You don’t even know who she is.”
Dumars and her group bunch up across the street. They have cars. Even a beater outranks the bus. You have to wait for the bus and people with real places to be don’t have time to wait.
The day is overcast and city-windy, gusts pulling grit up from the gutters and into mini-tornadoes. Balls has to blind his eyes every now and then to keep the dirt out, and the girl stands there in front of him with her hip cocked and her hand on it like she’s keeping a leak plugged.
“I ain’t got time to follow movie stars,” Balls tells her.
“You got time standing here for the bus,” she says.
“And the bus,” he tells her, “takes me to my next important place to be.”
Then they stand there forever and the bus doesn’t come. Not any buses. Usually a bus passes headed the wrong way and you’d ride ten miles until one headed the right way showed up but not even that happens today.
The wind picks up and the girl starts counting the cars going by, louder and louder, then Dumars cruises past waving ecstatically. Balls can’t stand it, so he heads home and the girl follows.
“I do got a car,” Balls tells her after two blocks of silence.
“Bullshit,” she says.
“I’m getting a body kit put on it,” he says, and she looks over at him and rolls her eyes.
Her name’s Karla. She handles the introduction, tells him there’s only so much Dorchester a girl can take. She moved with a cousin to Providence last week, into a nice Section 8 on Eddy Street. Twenty hours a week she cashiers at Sally’s Beauty Supply, the rest of the time she spends at the Coin Drop folding her laundry and picking up quarters the gooks leave behind.
“Ain’t never find a nigga leave a quarter behind,” she says, proud like.
“Ain’t never seen one with a quarter,” Balls tells her, and she shows him two lines of the nicest teeth, some expression between a scowl and a smile.
“You can’t imagine how many white girls buy hair strengtheners,” she tells him. Then she tells him another one: “When Bogie started wooing Bacall, he bought her a hair dryer like the ones used in salons. Give a little love and money to a guy and he’s dangerous.”
To get to his mom’s house, Balls cuts through South Side. Advertisements on the signal boxes announce yard sales and salvation in Christ. Last month a WIC sign-up sent eight pregnant women away in cuffs when they shut the doors early. Balls can’t get a job at Rite Aid though the signs been out there six months saying they’re hiring.
Karla stops and bends down outside a convenience store and fidgets with her shoes. She’s got fabric tucked tight behind both heels, compensating for the inch where more foot should be.
“Ain’t that uncomfortable?” Balls asks.
“You got the money for new shoes?”
“You must have other pairs.”
“Not that match this coat, I don’t,” she says and Balls just nods.
The rest of the way Balls watches for a limp and sees nothing. Karla troops on unperturbed. She’s got thighs built for heels, and she talks nonstop. They’re outside his house and Balls sees his mother pull back the curtain, look out, then close it fast.
“You got a job?” Karla asks.
“This where you live?” Karla asks and Balls nods.
“With your mom?”
Balls nods again.
Then a bus appears at the top of the hill and takes the corner wide, traffic reversing one-by-one so it can get by. Drivers lay on their horns and curse, open their doors like they intend to fight about it.
“You got a name?”
“Balls,” he tells her and she looks into the clouds, contemplating it.
As she leans her head back, Balls notices her two-toned eyes, so light they trap everything she’s looking at: the pole wires and pigeons and roof peaks.
“I help around the house,” Balls tells her. “My mom’s got lupus.”
Karla nods like she’s figured it all out.
Then Balls can’t tell what her gesture means, whether it’s good or bad, a backhand flip and giggle. With some girls it’s dismissal. He watches her walk away. A real nice view until the bus door hisses open and people lunge out and Karla disappears inside. Balls thinks he can see her smile at him through the window tint.
The smitten always think wonderful things.
Balls isn’t in the house thirty seconds and his mother shouts warnings about the problems half-black children have growing up and in school.
She has a big dinner laid out: farfalle with sausage, rabe and garlic, bread to dunk.
The coffee table is covered with half-clipped coupons she’ll never use.
It’s like this every night, every night past and a good chance every night future.
Balls sprawls on the couch watching Access Hollywood and talk shows, looking at coot he’s got no shot at landing staying lazy on his mother’s couch. His mother spends the night attached to the wall phone with her sister in Key Biscayne. The sister makes a living cashing other people’s Social Security checks and gets away with it. They complain about their bodies and blight and how easy people make self-renewal out to be when it’s really the hardest thing in the world.
The next morning Balls walks to Eddy Street and waits for Karla to come out of a building.
He’d wait all day, but doesn’t have to because in twenty minutes Karla emerges from a beige duplex cradling a laundry basket down a mountain of broken stairs. She looks at him like she’s expected him to be there all along and hands him the load.
“You come in handy,” she says and Balls smiles at the compliment.
Today she looks like yesterday only the subtle colors in her jeans and sneakers are yellow, not red. Bumblebee hair clips cling to her braids and she plays with them the whole way, picking and pulling at them though they never seem to move.
“You like bees?” Balls asks.
And Karla says, “No. I like the color.”
She’s expert at the Laundromat, balleting between washer and dryer, plunging quarters for soap. Balls has never been good at organizing tasks, never had to do his own laundry.
He sits slumped in the corner watching Karla sort underwear the color of sour candies. He’s got a SuperBall, jimmied from the vending machine, and when he bounces it sometimes he catches it and sometimes he doesn’t. When Karla eyes him going to the ground to retrieve it, she asks him to grab the loose change down there too and he does.
When Karla’s not looking, Balls takes a stray quarter and buys her a rub-on tattoo of a purple bear pierced by a dagger. He wants one of the peaceful ones but gets this one instead. He drops it on a pile of folded t-shirts and she tilts her head the way a dog does at an unfamiliar sound.
“I’m gonna put it on my ass,” she says and Balls nods thinking about her ass.
She takes him to Burger King for helping out. Anything off the menu, she says. They stick the laundry in the booth with them.
They end up at her apartment and watch Lauren Bacall movies on VHS until her cousin comes home and burns a chicken pot pie in the microwave. They open all the windows and invert the fans to get the smoke out. The cousin leaves pissed, picked up in a blue Denali with New York plates.
“I don’t have a car,” Balls tells Karla. She’s on her knees scraping charred carrots off the microwave door. Balls can’t see her face, only the yellow glow framing her head.
“Is that the only bullshit story you told me?” she asks.
“I think so.”
“And you’re looking for jobs and everything?”
He tells her about KFC and roofing.
“How you gonna buy me Jordans frying chicken?”
“I’m just going to have to fry lots of chicken,” Balls tells her, not trying to be funny, but she laughs so hard she forgets about the microwave and lets him put the tattoo on her ass.
Balls spends the next day at Spotty’s while Karla goes to work. Black pants and shirt and a red apron with a name tag shaped like shears. He watches her get dressed then waits with her at the bus stop.
Spotty pays him twenty dollars to scrub egg salad out of the buckets in the fridge. Spotty does this sometimes when it gets too busy and he doesn’t have the time. Balls uses a toilet brush and big rubber gloves, and when he finishes, Spotty hauls in empty buckets of tuna salad but no extra loot.
On his way to Karla’s that night, Balls buys two orders of sweet and sour chicken and an order of beef teriyaki to split. Karla mentioned it last night at the Laundromat, how much she missed eating beef teriyaki as if it had gone extinct.
He’s not in the apartment five seconds and Karla takes the bag from him, rips it open, sniffs deeply. She’s still in her uniform. She comes over and hugs him and asks why his hands smell like cunt. It’s nice knowing she’s joking and he tells her about the caked-on tuna and how he got it all out. They set up the collapsable dinette in the living room, drink from a Pepsi two-liter, and finish everything he bought.
The cousin still isn’t home so they stay up late re-enacting scenes from To Have and To Have Not.
“It’s my favorite,” Karla says. “It’s got all that sexy love talk.”
She gets Balls to read out loud the lyrics to “Hong Kong Blues” and laughs when he has trouble with the lines. He tries to read along with the movie but there are wrinkles in the tape and it trips him up.
“Say, ‘You do know how to whistle,’” she tells Balls and he looks at her and says, “Huh?”
Balls thinks it’s gay but Karla loves it, and after playing movie star, they fuck. She sleeps pressed tight against him, in the morning reaching over and picking the pillage from the cheap bedspread out of his chest hair, and Balls doesn’t mind that her breath smells like sweet and sour chicken.
It goes on like this for three weeks, with only minor variations.
Balls spends every night at Karla’s now and it drives his mother crazy, not that he’s found a girl, but that he’s found a black one.
He checks on her every other afternoon, either on the way to or back from Spotty’s, and once found her decorating the big shadow in the living room. She sat there with a mini-pump inflating party balloons and taping them to the carpet, a makeshift rosary of multi-colored Lifesavers.
“Might as well take care of the other useless thing always in and out of this house,” she said to him.
Watching Karla dress for work in the morning motivates Balls to find a job. There’s a glimmer of hope when Sani-Kan calls him for an interview, though when the owner asks about his recent work history, recent meaning the last six months, Balls knows the guy’s not looking for fired and jail.
He ends up at Spotty’s. Sometimes Spotty has something for him to do and sometimes he doesn’t. It feels good having twenty dollars in his pocket; with it he stops and gets Chinese food like the first time and those nights go great.
Every day the mailmen up the ante: January 2010 now. Just like with any broad, they say. It’s Pelosi that’s going to get Obama killed.
Balls has been watching this one woman at the bus stop for weeks now. She waits at the bus stop with her whole hamper and Balls calls her Coin Drop. He tells Karla about her one night after dinner and a movie, mac and cheese with cut up beef franks, The Big Sleep.
“I could use a roll of quarters right now,” she says.
“Don’t you get paid tomorrow?” Balls asks.
“They cut my hours,” Karla says. “Knocked me down to ten this week and ten next week.”
She watches the television like she’s looking for a way into it. She had nine hundred channels then they all went away. The converter box brings in five, intermittently, depending on the weather. Karla’s cousin never returned, and without her neither did the other half of the rent and utilities.
Balls had a fun name picked out for Karla, On Demand, but he held off calling her that now, it having no pertinence.
They both look into the empty bedroom. Karla’s cousin was into koala bears. Stuffed bears hung from the ceiling fan and got tangled because she used cheap string and was too lazy to unknot them.
That night Balls wakes up to the sound of Karla crying.
“What’s wrong?” he asks. It’s snowing outside. It comes down sideways. When he squints it looks like rain.
“They’re going to shut the electricity off,” she tells him.
“I won’t let them in if they try,” he tells her rather unconvincingly, unsure if he should touch her.
She does the same thing the next night and the night after. Karla plugs the microwave into the bedroom outlet so when she wakes she knows straight up if the juice is off and she doesn’t have to feel big disappointment flicking a dead wall switch if she has to pee.
Then the next afternoon Balls signs for a certified letter while Karla’s in the shower. That’s it, it says. Stock up on batteries. Balls doesn’t know this mailman; the guy tips Balls off though, says the gas company gives a longer heads up than the electric company, one week, not one day.
Nine hundred dollars past due. The amount is printed in big block italics in a red box at the bottom of the page so you can’t miss it.
Karla emerges from the bathroom in a towel, dripping puddles at her feet. Balls watches steam rise off her arms. She takes the letter from him and reads it, putting it close to her eyes.
“I don’t have that kind of money,” she says and right there in the doorway with the door open and the heat pushing out Karla starts crying again. It’s not like before. These are rock bottom tears.
Balls thought it was okay that she hadn’t called him all day. Her phone was off and she was waiting on her paycheck to get the service restored.
Balls told her not to worry when she explained it to him; he knew where to find her. She thought it was cute, him always there for her without being asked.
Give a girl six bucks, though, when she needs a grand and it’s a different story. Balls roots around in his pocket. He’s got the bus pass his mother gave him. It’s dog-eared, but it’s there. There are a few coins and a crumpled dollar bill sticky with soy sauce.
Bogie would know what to do, Balls thinks, but he ain’t here. Karla told him the sonofabitch died old and shriveled and that’s not the way Balls envisions departing.
The funny thing is that Balls knows what to do but has no way to get it done. His mother says that this is a pattern with him, though it’s hard knowing the loop when you’re in the loop. Oprah again.
So he leaves. Walks out. He shouldn’t and doesn’t want to, recognizes the irrevocable ruin he’s bringing to the, so far, one good thing he’s got, but a pressure builds against his temples watching Karla cry and he says nothing, heading out into the snow that really is now just rain.
As soon as Balls gets off the bus outside Spotty’s, there’s Dumars accusing him of glaring at her cameltoe.
“Ain’t you know I’m underage,” she calls out to him. Her friends giggle.
Dumars isn’t Dumars tonight, but Worthy. The whole bunch of them in gold and purple, the ‘85 Lakers right here stretched out in a winter storm, texting and bitching.
“I need to talk to your brother,” Balls says.
“None of your business,” he says.
“Then it ain’t your business where he is neither,” she says.
Weeks ago Spotty decided to open the place nights, Thursday through Sunday. A young crowd streams in when the clubs let out, drunks and winos looking for gagas and handjobs. There’s a police detail posted outside, but the detail doesn’t check where the dumpsters are.
Inside, the place is mobbed and it’s only seven. A crowd three deep surges at the counter. Spotty sees Balls and gives him a wave-shrug.
The whole joint’s looking at Dumar’s cameltoe. Thing’s bulging out like old man nuts. Balls walks over to her. A skinny dude dressed like he lost a paintball fight steps in front of him, but Balls keeps going right through him and the dude’s either too much of a pussy or real bright not to mess with a guy that looks like he needs something bad.
“I don’t want nothing from you but where your brother is,” Balls tells her.
“What’s it like still living with your mom at twenty-five?” she asks, getting a good rise from everyone around her.
First thing Balls wants is to break her face, but he needs her.
Balls walks away all proud of himself. Thinks he’s maturing, or that Karla’s rubbed off on him with her Lauren Bacall stories. It’s something he wishes his mother knew about Karla, the effect Balls suspects she had on him.
He walks to Lowe’s. The new buses don’t take crumbled cards. In the old buses you just flash it like cops in a movie, but only the high-tech buses with security cameras run at night.
Then the only lucky thing that’s happened all day: there’s Dumar’s brother working in flooring. Ever since seventh grade he’s been called Weird Beard; he’s got a pencil thin line of hair running from ear to ear, perfectly trimmed, precise. Balls can’t even remember the name his mother calls him.
Weird Beard waves at him and calls him over. They were close for years and then drifted apart, Balls figuring Weird Beard drifting for the better.
“I do this legit thing to keep the girl off my ass,” he tells Balls. Weird Beard shows him a photo of a fat girl with fucked up teeth and Balls nods politely.
“You working?” Weird Beard asks, and Balls shakes his head, no. Balls tells him about his unaccommodating sister, how he’s been trying to get ahold of him, see if a good word would get him hired fast, here or anyplace else.
“This shit won’t make you a dime,” Weird Beard says, telling Balls there might be something else he could help him out with.
So Balls waits at the McDonald’s across the parking lot until Weird Beard’s shift is over. The guy pulls up in his red RX-7. The car resembles a door wedge. Balls compliments him on the car and Weird Beard waves it off, but preens.
And here’s the proposition:
Weird Beard reads the newspaper. He’s been doing it ten years now, religiously, since dropping out in the tenth grade. “Valuable things in there,” he tells Balls, dunking two McNuggets simultaneously into sweet and sour sauce.
That’s where he found out about copper pipe. The stuff was everywhere and it was money.
He pulls out a map with green dots all over it.
He’s got a guy in Central Falls that’ll take as much as he brings him, no questions asked.
Each green dot represents a foreclosed and/or abandoned house. The updated addresses are listed daily right after the horoscopes. Weird Beard goes nowhere without his map and his paper, a pipe cutter and a crowbar.
This is how Weird Beard draws Balls in. Calls the night “catching up” like they’re his mother and her miserable lady friends. Weird Beard knows where Balls comes from, he says, knows what he’s been through. Balls smiles and tells him about jail, especially the spics, and Weird Beard gets a kick out of it, tells Balls that those guys have been trying to bang his sister since she outgrew Pampers.
Weird Beard gives Balls a lift home. The entire way Weird Beard talks about love of all things, talks about it like it’s something he has power over.
“I had a girl,” Balls tells him, but stops before the end because it’s too confusing.
Outside Balls’s house, Weird Beard says, “I’m saving to get my girl a three karat diamond ring.”
Balls steps out of the car and nods, not thinking about diamonds, but thinking how Karla would look way hotter in a wedding dress than Weird Beard’s girl.
That night Balls tells his mother that he’s not seeing Karla anymore and she hugs and kisses him and defrosts the gravy and braciole she’s kept for weeks.
She gets on the phone with her sister in Florida to relay the good news.
“I was just waiting for Arty to come home and tell me he got that girl pregnant,” she says, getting Balls wondering what tone he and Karla’s baby would have.
Coffee, he thinks, but he knows as much about the shade variations of coffee as he does about babies and he falls asleep instead.
The next night is the first he rips pipe with Weird Beard.
It’s hard, fast work.
Balls pries the boards off the basement windows. The banks put them on tight, double board them sometimes. Weird Beard knows right away if the water’s been cut, says he can eyeball the swell and joints and has never made a mistake. The big tenements have yards of pipe and Weird Beard consults the street map while Balls snips and bags.
On Empire there’s a stand of empty three-families and they make their way from one to another.
“Those big wop hands sure are useful,” Weird Beard says, and Balls holds them up like he’s displaying an award.
Balls does all the ripping, moves easily through it. Weird Beard holds the bag sometimes, but mostly not even that. He’s good at holding the flashlight, though he tucks it in his armpit and it shines haywire if he’s trying to read the map. He’s best at waving his hands all over the place to get rid of the spiderwebs, some as big as three feet wide.
That first night they clear a thousand dollars. Weird Beard counts the money out, hands Balls two-hundred and says he’s still on his probationary period.
They quit early the second night because Weird Beard has to be at Lowe’s for eight the next morning to keep the cash flow looking legit. Weird Beard takes the bag of pipe from Balls and stuffs it into the trunk of the RX-7, says his guy is away for a couple of days.
They stop at Spotty’s for bacon cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes and they sit where the mailmen usually do.
The cash in Balls’s pocket makes him want to call Karla. It’s not a ton of money, but it’s the most he’s ever had all at once. He’s wanted to call Karla for days, but with nothing to offer, why bother?
“When am I going to get the rest of my money?” Balls asks.
“When my guy gets back,” Weird Beard tells him.
“This how long I’m gonna have to wait every time?”
“It is until I trust you,” Weird Beard says.
“When’s that gonna be?”
“When you stop asking so many questions.”
They rip and bag and move street to street for a week, then ten days, then two weeks. Weird Beard rents a van with Commercial Carpet Cleaners stenciled on the side to carry all the pipe they’re coming away with. Weird Beard says he got it cheap from a guy he knows. Everybody in this neighborhood knows a guy.
They head into Spotty’s and Weird Beard pays for both of them.
“Is my probationary period up yet?” Balls asks.
“Almost,” Weird Beard says, stuffing his face so full of fries that it looks like he’s got quills poking out of his mouth.
Balls asks Weird Beard to use his cell and Weird Beard laughs at him the same way his sister laughs at him.
“If that girl didn’t come back yet,” Weird Beard tells him, “she ain’t ever coming back,”
All Balls gets, though, is the automated “Not In Service” message so he leaves Weird Beard abruptly and buys a box of envelopes at the all-night CVS across the street.
Balls feeds cash into the bus meter when the bus arrives and sits hunched over toward the back, puts fifty dollars into an envelope and licks it shut.
He pushes the envelope through the mail slot and waits outside her house until his feet go numb and he can’t keep his eyes open and decides to head home.
The next night he’s supposed to meet Weird Beard but Weird Beard doesn’t show. Balls sits in McDonald’s and watches television and two kids pick each other’s noses with robot toys.
When they ripped last, Weird Beard acted all doting dad proud of Balls, complimented his work ethic and handiness. Weird Beard had this sideways, concentrating look when he told Balls he’d have his money the next time they saw each other.
So Balls waited, then went home, and returned the next night and waited some more.
He went to Lowe’s at different times over a period of a week and different employees told Balls that they hadn’t seen Weird Beard and some didn’t even know who he was, the place was so big.
He’s got ninety dollars left. What he didn’t slip through Karla’s door, he spent on food, and with nothing to do now he heads over to Karla’s house.
He waits two hours, sits on the broken steps and takes the CVS receipt out of his pocket and scribbles a note: I want to make sure you got the money. He maneuvers a branch through the mail slot enough to see that the envelope is gone, and when he realizes that it is, there’s just more angst than he can handle.
Three days later Balls is sitting in Spotty’s going back and forth with the mailmen about assassination and in walks Karla. Her uniform’s different. Instead of Sally’s, she’s decked out in Subway. The visor on her head makes her hair poke up like sun rays a kid draws.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she says, her hands on her hips.
“I got a job,” he tells her. “It ain’t a lot.”
“You roofing?” she asks, and Balls shakes his head, tells her the truth. It’s something she admits liking about him, the way he explains process.
She thinks the truth is stupid, but romantic. She asks right away if some night she can tag along and Balls thinks about it to himself, then tells her that he’s considering it.
“It was only part-time, though,” he tells her. He won’t know for awhile when his next day working will be.
Karla has a couple hours before her shift starts so she proposes a trip to the mall and Balls agrees, says it’s been a long time since he’s roamed the mall.
She’s wearing those too-big shoes again, and when Balls points them out on the bus she shoves him hard against the window, blushing. He tells her she turns a color that doesn’t even have a description when she blushes.
They take the escalator to the third floor. The entire way up she tells him about working the breakfast shift at Subway and Sally’s at night.
“Guys come in before fishing and order ham omelets with black olives and banana peppers,” she says, shuddering, and Balls says that the best omelet topping is beef teriyaki.
She pulls out a wad of cash and rifles through it. Sally’s sends her pay every week and Subway every other because they’re corporate.
“There’s a guy that comes into the restaurant all the time,” she tells Balls. “Old dude. Harmless.” She waves her hand in the air and stretches her neck. “He gives me fifty bucks every day to sit down with him and listen to his stories and all I have to do is say no at the end, when he asks me to marry him.”
Balls laughs not because he thinks it’s funny but because Karla laughs so hard about it.
“Must be nice,” Balls tells her.
“For him or me?” she asks, smiling big.
“Both,” he says.
She buys herself a pair of Jordan VIIIs, purple and teal with the fuzzy logo on the tongue. She shouldn’t spend the money, she says aloud but to herself, that she won’t have any left if she blows it, but she assures herself the money won’t run out as long as she keeps working hard.
They spend two hours in the store. She parades around in them, goes up on her heels then down, tucks her work pants into the high tops and asks him to imagine that they’re her best pair of skinny jeans.
The kid working the register tells Balls, “She looks good in them kicks, man.”
Karla goes to work and Balls goes to Karla’s house. He calls his mom and lies not to upset her and she knows he’s lying. He and Karla don’t even go to bed when she returns, just stay in the living room with all the lights on and the television going until sunrise.
“How’d you get the electricity turned back on?” he asks her.
“The old guy,” she says, flipping through the DVD menu, bypassing the warnings. She curls up beside him, rubs his knee. They fall asleep like that, Balls wondering in that space right before total forgetfulness if the old guy would be jealous of him right now.
“It’s almost like you’re Clitterhouse,” she says, referencing a film they’d never seen together, a comedy about some doctor that joins a gang of thieves to see what makes them tick.
Bogie was still a young man in that picture, not yet forty. Karla tells him this the next day on the bus ride downtown.
Balls has another interview with the Sani-Kan guy.
One night Weird Beard told Balls that by the time he’s forty he wants to have a house on the beach. His own dock and a boat named after his girl. He tells Balls that there’s a whole big world out there. People cruise the Nile now.
That night Weird Beard acted like a broad, asking him about his favorite color and his favorite vacation. Balls told him about a trip he took to Hyannis with his mom when he was little. There was a mini-golf course where you putted into a penguin’s crotch. There was a store shaped like a windmill where the candy was easy to steal.
“We can keep doing this forever,” Weird Beard said, meaning, Balls thought, cashing in bags of pipe.
Balls just shrugged.
Karla pinches him. He looks down at the top of her head and she gets weird. No matter how much she washes her hair it smells like salad.
She keeps wanting to know where he pictures himself at forty and he tells her that’s not something he’s ever thought about.
The bus doors open and they step out, Karla in front, Balls walking behind.
His mother asks him that question all the time, actually. She creates scenarios and lets him pick the ending. What Balls doesn’t realize, though, is that when a woman asks that question, she wants to be a part of the answer.