In this weekend’s story, Martin Barkley gives us violence, youth, asbestos, epilepsy, bravery, and, most importantly, heart. This is an excerpt from a novel we should all look out for, a voice that can’t help but be heard, as Sonny struggles with what it means to love—both others and himself. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
When I was 16 C.J. Johnson came to live with my mother and me in our rented house on Rosepoint Lane. My mother had brought lots of men through our house. She never called it shacking up, but that’s what it was. She’d find these sleazeball losers in bars and dancehalls, even though she didn’t drink. She had epilepsy. She couldn’t drink because it would do a number on her head. But she’d go to bars with her women friends anyway, to dance and have fun and pick up men. I’d wake up on any given morning to find some potential axe murderer sitting at our breakfast table.
She told me C.J. was going to move in and help out with the bills—at least the better ones did that much. She was barely making ends meet on child support and what little she could earn selling shoes down at the Palais Royale department store. She didn’t have a car. She always had to walk to work. C.J. had an old Ford pickup, though, and that solved one problem for us—if he stuck around for a while.
From the beginning I could see that C.J. wasn’t the typical user, but I took him aside anyway to lay down my rules. “Don’t you ever hit my mother,” I said, “and we’ll be all right, you and me. But if you ever do hit her, I’ll track you down; I’ll beat your ass.” C.J. knew I’d beat down grown men before.
The last sleazeball loser, Dale, learned the hard way. He beat Mom about the face in the parking lot of some honky-tonk bar, on his right hand a big-ass gold ring shaped like an Indian chief’s head in a feathered headdress. Later, while I cracked his knee caps, he told me that she’d had a gran mal seizure. That he’d gotten scared and left her there in the parking lot.
She made it home that night, her face a bloody mess, both eyes black, bleeding from cuts where the jagged edge of that Indian-head ring had ripped into her. It was Dale’s fist behind that ring. Right then, two in the morning on a school night, I called my best buddy, Danny. A drop-out, Danny was 18 and already living on his own, in his own efficiency apartment, with his own car.
I said, “If we find him, we’re gonna kill him.”
Danny said, “No. We’ll just beat his ass so bloody, he’ll wish he was dead.”
Then Danny said my name, which I’m not telling you because Dale might be dead now, then again maybe he’s not. I’m not telling that part of it. I will tell that we dropped Mom off at the emergency room. Scared the living hell out of the attending nurse. As soon as Mom was registered, we left her there and went looking for Dale, to beat his goddamn ass.
Dale was 35, a bald-headed, lanky, stringy son of a bitch, and an ex-con for attempted murder. And I never warned him about not hitting Mom the way I did C.J. Because—I’ll admit to it—I was afraid. But what I’ve learned is this: if you’re angry enough and careful enough, you can find ways to beat down a bigger, stronger man.
I thought through the steps of what Dale’d do after he left Mom in that parking lot. He’d have gone barhopping until closing time because he couldn’t control himself at all. Then, since he knew he couldn’t come back to our house, he’d go to his mother’s. That’s how I’d find him. Whack job that he was, he’d beat shit out of a woman and then run home to his mommy. Boy, if that ain’t fucked up I don’t know what is.
Sure enough, about 3:30 he showed up in his red Ford Mustang and parked on the street outside his mother’s house. Danny and I were hiding between two houses across the street, waiting.We caught him while he was locking the Mustang. I snuck up and rapped him hard once across the knees. I heard cartilage and bone crunch. It was like breaking the lock to a house: I was in and he didn’t know until it was too late.
Dale hunched over in pain, cried out. Danny clipped him under the chin with a crowbar, which made Dale flip back hard on his back, then we went to it like a couple of animals. Words were pointless—Dale would know how I felt by how hard I beat his ass. I told Danny to avoid his head, though, because I wanted him conscious. I wanted him through his own pain to feel my pain and that was a wordless task. A way out of violence, that’s what words are for. But I didn’t want that, not yet anyway.
I whopped his ribs with a crowbar, and he huffed out a breath of groaning pain.
So he’d know it was me, I said, “How come you make me have to beat you, Dale?”
“Fuck you, you little shit,” he said, spitting blood at me. Then he said my mother’s name—which I’m also not telling you—and swore she’d had a seizure.
I didn’t bother calling him a liar. I leaned over him, took that big hunk of gold off his right hand, and whispered, “Like certain parts of your body, you’ll never use this again.”
I don’t remember for sure but I might’ve spit on Dale. Danny backed off, though. “Let’s go,” he said. “We did it; we beat him down, so let’s go.” He sounded more like a kid then, not like the raging punk I was, and I guess he was right: if he hadn’t been there, I would’ve gone too far.
The point is, news like Dale’s beat-down gets out on the street and people would just rather not mess with you. Unless they mean to kill you outright. I always hit a grown man when he can’t see me. I go low for his knees. Once you’ve got a man hunched over, the trip to the ground isn’t so far, and once he’s down, well, then he begins to see things like you do. And the fact that, with Dale, there were two of us on one? Unfair? No, that doesn’t bother me a bit. Dale’s bloody hump ass sprawled in the street is my form of negative advertising: Don’t Hit Mommy.
“Okay!” C.J. said with a big toothy smile, lifting his hands up like he was surrendering.
I didn’t think he’d be a problem—that way, violent—but I had to make sure. I wasn’t about to fall into some cliché, some fucking stereotype, that says because I came from a home where my mother was abused, I’d end up an abuser, too. If you beat on a woman, you’re nothing but scum, and that’s why I made sure C.J. understood. As for Mom, after Dale she went right back to selling shoes at Palais Royale, her face like a Halloween mask. I never told her that we had kicked the dogshit out of Dale, but I think she knew. Everybody who knew Dale, including C.J., knew. Never got caught either. What was Dale going to say? That two teenagers had beat the crap out of him as revenge for him beating a woman? Dale’d never tell the truth where his pride was concerned.
Like I said, though, C.J. was different from the other guys; otherwise I wouldn’t bother mentioning him. Most of all he was different because he didn’t try to tell me what to do or talk down to me. He was kind of gentle and knew how to say things in a way that made you go along with his ideas. I had curly, bushy hair down to the middle of my back, and I probably scared the hell out of most people. C.J. offered to take me with him to the barber shop. “You can just get a trim,” he said, “and then we’ll play some pool and drink beer.” I went, mainly because I wasn’t used to anybody paying attention to me. Afterwards he told me, “You know, you look older, more mature,” and the next week I’d go with him again and have it cut a little more, until after a while I cleaned up enough to be presentable.
C.J. knew that I smoked weed, but he never told me not to. He’d say to be careful and not to carry it in his truck, because if he went to jail he’d be busted as an adult with a minor in tow. That was fair, I understood that, and so I didn’t carry when I was with him. Another thing he did, he’d wait up for me when I went out on a weekend tear, like he was really my dad or something. “He’s due home any time now,” he’d tell my mother, but when I came in at three in the morning, he didn’t scold or bitch at me. He was just relieved that I’d gotten home safe, or at all. “My boy’s back,” he’d say, then he’d go to bed. That was different. Nobody ever cared about me like that. It sort of freaked me out and made me ashamed all at the same time.
I guess you could say I felt safe with C.J., and I wasn’t used to feeling safe, but once I did, I began to notice things about him. He carried some sadness around all the time, but he’d never tell me what it was about. He smiled and joked and talked, but the sadness was there, too, underneath. When I asked Mom about it she said he’d lost a son in Vietnam, but she never told me more than that. I don’t think she knew more than that.
If you didn’t know C.J., you might think he was just some no-good drunk. He did drink, mostly on the weekends, but he was a pleasant drunk, and he never got mouthy or hurtful. He’d get happy and hug on Mom while she cooked in the kitchen, and she’d laugh and smile like she was his sweetheart, and he seemed to forget his sadness for a while. We were almost like a family during those times.
C.J. started calling me Sonny, and it sort of freaked me out at first. “It’s my nickname for you,” he told me. “But if you don’t like it, I won’t call you that.” Since he put it like that, and asked permission in such a nice way, I said, “Sure, C.J., it’s okay. You can call me Sonny.” Later, I thought maybe the son he’d lost in the war was named Sonny, but even then I didn’t want to stop him from calling me that if it gave him some comfort. I’d be his Sonny, I sure would.
I made it through my junior year and passed all my classes, so I was going to find work for the summer. C.J. was a journeyman electrician, and he offered to get me on where he was working. “You’ll be a fetch-it, but you’ll make better than minimum wage,” he told me, “and you’ll have weekends off.” But I was already convinced. Hell, yes, I’d work with C.J.
The jobsite was at the university dental center, down in the middle of the medical district. The building had eight floors. The top floor, the eighth floor, was only a half-floor, though, and the job plan was to expand it to a full floor. But I soon learned that besides being just an oddball half-floor, the eighth floor was a weird, scary damn place; it was a hands-on teaching theater, where dental students learned how to work on teeth. They used human cadavers and live animals, and when I smelled those formaldehyde cadavers, I almost lost my guts. The first time I walked up on the scene there was some dead dude surgically hacked up, with muscle, sinew and bone showing, laid out on a stainless steel gurney with his mouth yawing open like something out of a horror movie. Nobody prepared me for that shit. I wanted to haul ass right then. But C.J. said we wouldn’t have to work around that stuff, so I calmed down and agreed to stay on.
I’d never done construction work, so C.J. taught me how to work on a jobsite. He was vouching for me; I had enough sense to realize that. “Hanley is the boss over the whole job, over everybody; so if he tells you to do something, you do it,” he told me. “If we run behind on completion, he won’t get his bonus, but he’ll get surly long before that happens. One, don’t come to work drunk. Two, don’t smoke pot on the job. Three, don’t be late from lunch. There’s all kind of people working on this jobsite—respect them all. Words like ‘spic’ or ‘nigger’ will get you an ass-kicking or an on-the-job accident, and if that happens, I won’t help you. So be nice. There’re a lot of people working here, and they don’t have time to watch out for you. So you watch out for yourself, pay attention, be careful, and you won’t get hurt. I don’t want to take you home to your mother any other way than how I brought you here.”
I understood the part about the ass-kicking, but C.J. also warned me beforehand about right-handed wrenches, left-handed screwdrivers, thrusterbangers, and all the other jobsite practical jokes. Apprentices can get jerked around and teased a lot, and C.J. gave me a heads-up because he knew I was a hothead. It only happened once, my first week on the job, when Stellis, a journeyman from North Carolina, sent me down to the truck to fetch a “left-handed, twelve-inch flathead screwdriver.” I didn’t say anything. I just went downstairs to the toolbox, found the screwdriver, and bent the shaft as close as I could to a ninety-degree angle, but it was more rounded than angled. I brought it to Stellis and handed it to him like there was nothing wrong in the world. “Do you think that will work?” I asked him. “You can use that one left- or right-handed.” C.J. and the other journeymen nearby saw what was happening and started laughing, and Stellis started to get mad; he was sort of a hothead himself. But then I gave him a screwdriver out of my own toolbag. “No hard feelings,” I told him. Stellis and I were fine after that, and nobody messed with me again.
I was supposed to stick hard by C.J. and Stellis. They’d teach me how to pull wire and tie off outlets. They said there’d be more than enough work to keep me busy and out of trouble, and that’s how it went at first. The outer walls were already up, except for a trash shoot leading out to a dumpster at ground level, and the whole floor had been roofed by the time we started on the job. As the individual operating theaters were walled in with ceramic masonry, we’d follow up and pull our wires, and then I’d tie up the wall boxes.
Later on, C.J. and Stellis did the more complicated, dangerous work without me, like pulling three-inch round cable eight floors and wiring it hot to the main in the basement. The dental college was on the same grid as a nearby hospital, so if they shut down the building’s power, they’d be shutting down the other building, too, which is why C.J. and Stellis had to work the line hot. I watched from a distance when they did the hot-wiring because C.J. didn’t want me involved. “There’s no way in hell you’re going to work on this,” he told me. “You stand in the hallway.” They wore long black insulated gloves that went up to the elbows. C.J. said if they did it wrong, the gloves wouldn’t help them. I was there mainly to call 911 if they got smoked.
In mid-July, when our part of the job was half finished, the terrazzo floor crew showed up. They were a bunch of black dudes, all covered in gray dust before they even started working. The dust looked like it was a part of them that never quite washed off. They didn’t wear work clothes, either, like the other tradesmen, but dressed like you might if you were kicking around the house on a Saturday. They didn’t seem to fit in, not because they were black but because there was something desperate about them that I couldn’t quite peg.
Each of the operating theaters had a drain in the center of the floor, which puzzled me at first, until I realized that was how the interns rinsed off the blood after they finished operating or maiming or whatever. If I thought about it too much, I got the willies. The eight-inch round brass drains stuck up about a half-inch above bare concrete. C.J. told me the terrazzo guys were going to come in and lay down terrazzo floors flush to the drains and solid terrazzo base boards. The interns could just get a hose and spray it down, blood, guts and all.
Ever since the job had started, I’d brownbag my lunch right there on the floor of the jobsite because we only got 30 minutes. At first I ate with C.J. and Stellis, but then I started making the rounds to meet the other crews. So one I day I’d eat with the plumbers, the next I might eat with the brick masons, the next with the HVAC installers, and so on. That was good for me, meeting people and learning what they did, and I was a kid, so just about everyone welcomed me and looked out for me in their own way.
On the day they arrived I went to pay a lunch visit to the terrazzo crew, but at first I couldn’t locate them. I finally found them way over in the original half of the floor, near Horror Hall, with the nauseating smell of formaldehyde floating out to where they sat eating. I introduced myself and they all shook hands with me and told me their names.
I couldn’t help but ask, “Y’all can smell that, can’t you?” I wanted to run out on the roof deck for a fresh breath of air.
“Can’t smell nothing,” one of them replied, and I noticed for the first time that his voice, as it rose up out of his lungs, sounded like a rumbling volcano.
“You sick or something?” I asked him.
He pointed at some 50-pound bags of asbestos nearby. I didn’t understand, and I finished eating and left, creeped out by the whole experience.
Later on, I talked to C.J. about the terrazzo crew, and he explained that soon, probably today, they would pour a slurry mix of terrazzo to form the floors and base boards in the operating theaters. Then they would come back after it had set and dried to grind the surface until the rocks in the mix showed through enough to be polished and buffed. The terrazzo workers sounded like they had rocks in their lungs because they worked unprotected, without ventilation or respirators. Because they weren’t union workers, C.J. said, they shouldn’t even be on the jobsite, and if they created a work hazard it was going to be interesting to see how it all turned out. If the city inspector came by, he should put a stop to it all, but he probably wouldn’t, C.J. said, because every damn one of those piss-ant inspectors had been bought off by the supe to turn a blind eye.
“If it gets really bad, Sonny, I’ll just send you home,” he told me.
“Hell, no, I’m here with you,” I said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
C.J. liked me saying that, but I think he was feeling bad for exposing me to an unsafe worksite.
The next day at lunch I went back to visit the terrazzo guys because I was kid stupid and didn’t have enough sense to leave something alone. I talked to them about how they worked, and they admitted it was dangerous. The conversation got personal really quick, but none of us shied from the subject.
“Why you do this? It’s killing you, man,” I said.
Oscar, the crew foreman, told me, “Got kids, wife, family to feed—that’s why.”
I saw the 50-pound bags of asbestos again, caution warnings clearly marked on them.
“What do you use that for?” I asked.
“Makes the floor dry quick and the base boards to stand up; otherwise they droop before they’re good and dry.”
Behind where the terrazzo crew sat for lunch was the elevator for the original part of the half-floor. The doors opened and a tall, stocky dude stepped off dressed in creased slacks, a starched white shirt, and a hard hat with a City of Houston insignia on it. On his shirt he wore a gold rectangle badge that read “Inspector Stewart Blodgett.”
I thought I’d ask him, since I didn’t give a hang what he thought.
“Hey, Mr. Inspector.” He looked at me like I was a bug. “Mr. Inspector,” I said again, pointing at the bags. “Is it legal for asbestos to be used like this?” C.J. had told me it was bad if you breathed the dust.
“Legal?” he said, and guffawed like a bull might snort, and looked away from me and up into the exposed rafters, like he was actually inspecting something, the worthless fuckstick. I made sure to remember the name off his badge. You and me, Blodgett, a dark alley and baseball bat. With the right hit to him, he’d fall like a big oak tree in a storm.
The terrazzo crew didn’t talk to me after that day because they thought I’d messed in their business, and I suppose I did. I guess I was supposed to let them kill themselves and us, too, and not do anything about it.
Later that week, those terrazzo dudes turned that jobsite into a hellhole. They started grinding the floors and made a cloud of dust so thick it hung in the air like a fog. Everybody was getting a snout full of dust and the idea that we were breathing asbestos made me madder than hell. I stood on the edge of our work area, needing to pass through the dust cloud so I could throw some trash off the roof deck. I took one last big gulp of air before I ran through the cloud. I held my breath and covered my mouth with a rag while I sprinted the fifty yards to the open-air deck. I gasped as I let my breath out. And it went on like that all morning long, breathing in a toxic cloud and running outside for air.
At lunch I didn’t really eat; I went around to all the crews and asked them what they thought about the dust. C.J. knew what I was doing. He just smiled, though.
I thought some of the workers might think I was a pussy, afraid of a little dust, but most of them were as pissed as I was. They were afraid, too, I could tell, but they didn’t want to talk too much. One of the plumbers, an older man C.J.’s age, finally spoke up. “Sonny, if we make a stink, we might get fired from our companies,” he told me. “Or we might get a bad reputation or blackballed from working under this supe again. It’s a small world out there. Everybody knows everybody, and we can’t afford to be labeled as troublemakers.”
“Oh, I understand,” I said, or at least I was beginning to understand. Lot of damn good a union was, I thought to myself.
The terrazzo guys kept grinding for another two weeks. By that time it was getting on toward August, and I’d be going back to school in a short while. I liked the idea of just laying off for a while before school started. Just quit the job early and kick back. Why not? I was riding with C.J. on the way to work when I told him. I had planned it out already, though, and I was going to do it no matter what he said.
“Why, sure, Sonny. That’s a good idea.” For two weeks now he’d wanted me off the job anyway, but I’d resisted. I didn’t tell him the other part of my plan because I wanted him to be able to deny me. I didn’t want him to get in trouble because of me.
When we arrived it was too early yet to start work, so C.J. went off to prep our schedule for the day. Superintendent Hanley had his site office on the newest part of the floor, away from all the work and noise. His office was a temporary plywood structure, shaped like a shoebox, and it sat right next to where I hauled trash out to the roof deck. For just a moment, through the break in the wall, I saw the sun rising through scudding clouds on the horizon. It was pretty, the world unfolding, floating beneath the eighth floor. As I walked up to Hanley’s door, I saw on the ground some loose pieces of one-inch round iron rebar, just the right two-foot length for knocking the dogshit out of somebody. I picked up a stick, thought it might be handy. I liked the heft of it in my hand.
I was surprised by how bad the lighting was when I stepped in. I waited until my eyes adjusted. Hanley was standing at a makeshift drafting table where he had site plans laid out. He was alone and he didn’t notice me. The back of his hair had that collar-length shape they give you at the barbershop, a nice mark right at the neckline: a place to aim at for the rebar. I could go high this time, whack him across that line and snap his fucking neck—and who’d know but me? Instead I just stood there watching him, trying to figure him out. What kind of man does this? What kind of pressures on a man make him do something like this? In that moment I felt the weight of something heavy on me, and I didn’t like it, watching Hanley labor there, slumped over his work table like a human question mark. No, I wouldn’t kill him. If I started trying to sort out who deserved what—well, shit, there might be no end to it.
I dropped the rebar to the floor with a heavy whang and a thud. Hanley jumped, startled, noticing me for the first time, and gave me a harsh look, surprised to see an apprentice in his space. He took a big gulp of coffee and grimaced as he swallowed it, just one more thing he used. He didn’t seem like a man who could enjoy or love much of anything.
“Hello, Mr. Hanley,” I said, all sweetness to the man I was, just the moment before, thinking of assaulting.
“Hello,” he replied, hesitant and unsure of the need to acknowledge me.
“Mr. Hanley, am I going to call them or are you going to call them?
He was instantly angry. “What are you talking about, you little fucking turd?” Hanley was used to using anger to intimidate people. I should have expected it, but it threw me for a second; then I reminded myself: You got nothing to lose.
“OSHA. Are you going to call them or am I?” I had seen the OSHA number listed on a poster near the time clock. It’s where you called when there were safety violations on a jobsite. Here was new territory: I wasn’t used to calling phone numbers to deal with people I didn’t like. I was used to ambushes, the kind where you physically beat some guy’s ass to a pulp. There was a smoothness required here, I knew, although I didn’t quite know how to pull it off.
There was always my rebar on the floor, if I changed my mind.
“What in the hell are you talking about?” he blustered. “You’re not calling anyone.”
I explained to him that I wasn’t stupid, that he and everyone on the jobsite, including Inspector Blodgett, knew there were OSHA violations out the wazoo. He ought to be ashamed for placing all these men in danger. “You should’ve halted the job yourself,” I shouted. I could see Hanley didn’t know what to think of me, a piddly-ass apprentice telling him how the rubber hits the road. Looking at me over the brim of his cup, he took another swig of coffee, and scrunched up his face like he was in pain when he swallowed, like he had something permanently stuck in his craw.
For a moment I hoped I hadn’t overplayed my hand; then I reminded myself I’d been ten feet away from waylaying him, and although I didn’t want to hit him now, I also didn’t give a pig’s ass what he thought about me. To my surprise, Hanley turned weepy, pants-pissing scared, which made me glad I hadn’t backed down. “Don’t call ‘em,” he whined to me. I wanted to laugh at him because I knew now what it meant to face down a coward, even when he had all the advantages and you knew you didn’t have jack shit to back up what you were about. No, I didn’t laugh at him, but I was real glad I hadn’t popped his skull, or else I wouldn’t have seen him squirm like this.
“Do you really think we have to call them?” he asked me.
We? I didn’t bother answering. Maybe he wanted to bribe me, too? I saw a phone book nearby and thumbed through it to the Federal Government section. Without speaking, I walked over to the plan desk where Hanley was standing, picked up his office phone, and dialed OSHA’s number. I made the report in just a few minutes, making sure to mention the jobsite contacts. “Yes, sir, Elmer Hanley, job superintendent, and Stewart Blodgett, city inspector.” Hanley didn’t try to stop me, either; in fact, he ignored me, pretending to work as I made the call, lost in denial.
“They’re sending air quality inspectors out this morning,” I told him, though he didn’t deserve the heads-up. “They tell me it’s pretty serious. They’re probably going to shut the job down.”
“You don’t understand,” he replied. “I got people I have to answer to.”
“Well, I’d say you got a few more to answer to now, son of a bitch.”
I didn’t tell anyone what I’d done. I stayed on the jobsite just to see if the OSHA inspectors would show up and sure enough, in a few hours, they did. They swooped in with air quality sampling instruments and made the terrazzo boys fire up their grinding equipment for show-and-tell. Two hard-hatted dudes with dress shirts and skinny red ties and shiny black dress shoes. With everybody on-site halted, nobody working, nobody leaving either. All the workers gathered in a wide half-circle around the OSHA inspectors, gawking at them with necks craning and bobbing, like they were watching men on the moon sampling an exotic rock, something rare and momentous; Hanley slinking around in the background, away from the circle, wondering if he should haul ass or get a lawyer or both. Then the local news crews got wind of it, and that’s when the university shut the site down completely and sent everybody home.
Except the part about the rebar, I told C.J. what I’d done. He was driving us home against morning traffic, since we were now out of work—and that would be my fault, I thought he’d point out—but he didn’t mention the shutdown; it didn’t seem to matter to him. Plus he didn’t insult me by doubting me either, when I told him what I’d done. He believed me, he gave me credit.
“Well, nobody else would’ve done it,” he said. “You know how it is; you went around and talked to everybody.” Neither of us thought I had a future in construction now, and we had a good laugh about that.
The next day C.J. wanted to go down to the jobsite to see what was happening. He wanted me to go with him, but I was done; I didn’t want to go back there again. I couldn’t tell him, but I just wanted to be, for once, a dumbass kid with nothing to worry about.
When he came back in a few hours he said the jobsite was still shut down. The university wouldn’t even let the workers back in to retrieve their tools, wouldn’t tell them anything either. That set the workers off something fierce, and they started picketing right there on the spot, a major clusterfuck for the university suits to explain to the public. Then the news media came back and reporters with cameras interviewed the workers and the suits for the evening news.
“See there,” C.J. said, pointing at the TV screen. “See what you did? I told the other guys you did it, too, Sonny. I just wish you could’ve been there. I’m proud of you, of what you did. Hanley can’t blame it on anyone but himself. And he certainly won’t blackball anybody after this. I just wish you could’ve been there, Sonny.”
C.J. got called back to work after two weeks. His company didn’t send him back to the eighth floor because OSHA condemned that jobsite for asbestos abatement. Instead, he went to work at another jobsite. Nobody ever knew that I was his friend. I was just some hothead, dumbass kid with an attitude, so C.J. never suffered much for what I did.
By that time, I’d gone back to school for my senior year. C.J. and I were sitting at the kitchen table on a Saturday morning. Mom walked to work early that morning, so she was off selling loafers and pumps and high heels, while we were on our own for breakfast. Somewhere C.J. had learned how to make migas, scrambled eggs mixed with jalapenos, cheese, chorizo, and salsa on top. We had good coffee, too. I wolfed it all down. While I was eating, I had a strange question pop in my head.
“What does C.J. stand for?”
He had a mouthful of food, but he nodded his head like he’d expected the question.
“If I tell you, it stays right here. Not even your mother knows.”
“What? She doesn’t know your first name?”
“She’s never asked me.”
“Okay, it stays with me. What is it?”
“It’s Clive. Clive Joseph Johnson.”
I could’ve made fun of him right then, something like “Clive rhymes with chive, hive and dive.” That would have been the kid thing to do, but I respected C.J.
“All right,” I said. “Clive. That’s cool, kind of different.”
“She wants me to leave, Sonny.”
“Who wants you to leave?” I asked, confused.
“Your mother wants me to leave the house.”
I could’ve asked why, but—damn it—I knew why. With her, it was one of two things: either she was bored and wanted to get out on the town again or, more likely, she was scared to marry C.J., scared to risk losing again. I liked C.J.—in fact, more than liked him. I trusted him, and I wanted Mom to marry him. That way, when I got out on my own in a year, I’d know that she was going to be all right. She’d be all right with him. Safe.
“I asked her to marry me,” he said. “A long time ago. She told me no.”
“Let me talk to her,” I said.
He shook his head. “I’m supposed to be gone before she gets back from work.”
C.J. was so decent he wasn’t even angry at her, just hurt. I’d never heard him even yell at her, much less hit her. A lot of guys would’ve pitched a fit, maybe even pitched her across the room. But not C.J. He was just going to do what she’d asked and he was trying to explain it all to me because he knew what we had come to mean to each other. That bothered him, I could tell.
“Look, Sonny, I’ll check on you from time to time, okay?” His eyes filled up with tears; then the tears started rolling down, with him looking right at me. Nobody ever cried over me. “I won’t forget what you did,” he said.
“What the hell did I do?” I asked. I had a big lump in my throat, right on the verge of an honest-to-God crying jag. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I took my fist and pounded on the kitchen table, gritted my teeth, sucked up my gut, made sure my feet were planted solid under the table.
“No, Sonny. What you did on that jobsite, I’ve never seen anything like it. People are still talking about it. Word got around, you know. The workers all know you did it. Nobody else would ever fess up. I told them it was you.”
None of that mattered to me now. I could’ve told C.J. how I’d meant to kill Hanley, but that would’ve changed his mind for the worse about me. I was better around C.J.—that’s all I knew. I was a better person when he was around and now he was leaving, and what would I be now?
“I don’t want you to leave. I’m going to talk to her.”
He didn’t shake his head again or say anything. He knew it would set me off. That’s how well he knew me. We just sat there, quiet. C.J. just sat with me until he thought I’d calmed down, then he packed up his truck and left.
Mom had to walk home from work that night.