Fiction by Willie Davis
I learned to steal cars when I was a teenager the way I learned to tell one color from another when I was a baby: through unquestioning repetition, I figured a way to see a shade that made the old world unrecognizable.
The summer before I started boosting cars, I was working at The Egan Rabbit, a downtown warehouse converted into a space for small shows and hard liquor. The boss, Egan Hopper, had me working as a mop-man. It wasn’t an official job as I wasn’t old enough to be a customer at The Rabbit, let alone an employee, but Egan paid me in booze to bus tables and empty cigarette butts from the ashtrays. After a month of that, he let me sling dimebags and scour the parking lot for unlocked doors with a purse in the passenger seat. That was my audition, and Egan and the boys at The Rabbit were my judges.
When I graduated to cars, Egan set Ollie Hallahan up to be my mentor. He pinched my cheeks when I did well and cracked my skull when I fumbled with the locks. Egan told me to follow Hallahan, ape his every move. If I made a mistake or showed up late, Hallahan treated my spine like a kid treats a sheet of bubble-wrap. Everything about him was enormous, even his dimples, and he tried to keep his face blank as a way of fooling you into thinking he wasn’t paying attention. If a doorframe became sentient, and turned out to be an asshole, you couldn’t tell it apart from Hallahan.
He pocketed my keychain. “Start with your own car,” he said. “Jump it or walk.”
“It’s Mom’s car,” I said. “Those are her keys.”
“And if she needs them, they’re right here.” He patted his front pocket. “Shit, if she needs them, tell her to give me a half-hour warning, so I can be the fuck off the road. I wouldn’t trust that bitch behind the wheel of a tricycle.”
“All right,” I said. My mom was sick to the point where her memories had the shelf life of an open carton of buttermilk. It was sad, but I heard sadder.
“Outside ambos and paddy wagons, she ain’t been in a car since she made you.”
“All right, already.” Technically, Mom didn’t drive and didn’t lock the front door. In fact, apart from her spells, she barely went outside. Still, it felt wrong that a man could take your keys and rob you of nothing. So I swung for Hallahan’s jaw, just below the ear. He leaned back fast, and I hit the wall. Before the pain could spread throughout my knuckles, he clamped down on my hand and bent it backward. He didn’t stop until I was on my knees.
“I ain’t your friend, and I ain’t your daddy,” he said. “You want to cry, I won’t stop you. Sounds fucking gorgeous to me.”
It taught me, I suppose. Hallahan believed in knowledge through desperation. The whole game was speed. After two weeks under Hallahan, my thinking became simple — what slowed me was wrong.
“Walk away,” Hallahan told me. “If it ain’t, it ain’t. Force it, you fuck yourself.”
Once I mastered my mom’s car, he moved me to my friends. I’d take their cars for a couple laps around the block, and then park on the other side of the street to see if they noticed. The idea was our friends wouldn’t rat us out. Hallahan liked to study people, to see if they paid attention. Most didn’t notice their cars were spun around or that the air freshener was missing. The thief’s biggest trump card was that the mark blamed himself.
The best thieves, like the best dancers, tune their tongues to the surrounding rhythms. They don’t so much taste the change as feel it sliding from gum to gum. It nestles in the back of the throat like the smell of an oil slick in the rain or the taste of a penny mixed in cinnamon and horseradish. Except while dancers use rhythm as a call and response, the thieves used rhythm as an endless harangue. A thief has the skill to dance, but uses his rhythm to bruise. These were the lessons first lectured to me, then screamed at me, then beaten into me. It occurred to me that I was learning from the most pretentious crook since John Wilkes Booth stole the headline from Our American Cousin.
He had me move Shea Stanford’s hatchback in front of her next-door neighbor’s house. He took a Coke bottle from the passenger side cupholder with the label half-peeled off. “This you, man?” I always peeled the labels. People said it was sexual frustration, and I had no counterargument. “What you doing in this car, man?”
“Drinking Coke, apparently.”
“You fucking Shea Stanford?” he said.
“Then I’m drinking a Coke right after, so I don’t get pregnant?”
“No,” he said. “I mean, you fuck a girl, and now you lift her car. That’s — not ironic, it’s, you know, it’s what?”
“It’s a Coke,” I said. “In my friend’s car, where I sometimes drink Coke.”
“She catches you, she call the cops?” He put his hand on the back of my neck. “Say ‘Officer, officer, arrest that evil man?’” He slammed my head against the steering wheel. “Buckle up for safety,” he said. “Police see no belt, they pull you over to say hi. This is a girl’s car, so they running your plates.”
“You’re the one drinking.” His breath smelled like a rancid combination of vodka, menthols, and Mott’s Apple Juice.
“Our thing is a house of cards.” He licked the underside of his mustache. “You think you’re just fucking yourself, but you fucking me, The Rabbit, the whole operation.”
“A minute ago, you said I was fucking Shea Stanford. This sounds like a demotion.”
That night, when I went home, I called for Mom, but she didn’t answer. She still had a pot of egg noodles boiling on the stove, but the water had evaporated. For the last month, she’d left the same supper out for me every night — noodles and a can of tuna for me to make my own casserole. Normally, she’d stop at one pot of noodles, but sometimes she’d forget or think she had company coming and cook two or three.
We had four rooms in our apartment, so it didn’t take long to search our house. I checked her room, and then my room, and then I spotted her out the window by the dumpsters by the side of our complex.
It was cold outside when I went to collect her, worse for her without her coat. She was circling the dumpsters, and I thought for a second, she was putting lye around them to keep the raccoons away.
I put a jacket around her shoulders, but she didn’t flinch. Even as she brought her hands up to her mouth to blow on them, she didn’t meet my eyes. “Fuck’s wrong with you?” I said. “If I stayed out tonight, you’d be green and frozen as a bag of peas?”
“Listen to the way you talk to me, like you’re somebody big.” She spat on her shoes. “If I’m late one more time, you know what they’ll do to me?”
“Late?” I said. “Do you know if I want — if I so much as take a small walk and forget my keys for an hour — you’d be dead as an alley rat, remembered by nobody?”
She put the fat of her arm around the back of my neck, close to where Hallahan had grabbed me, except her touch was soft and cold. “You used to love me,” she said.
She opened the jacket as if to invite me in. I put my hand on her shoulder, and we walked upstairs to the apartment. All the noodles had burnt because I’d forgotten to turn the stove off. This time, the house would’ve burned down, and it’d have been my fault. We ate cold tuna in front of the television.
The next night, I sat in Hallahan’s Grand-Am, eating fast-food burritos and staring at a line of cars at a wedding party. Weddings were low-hanging fruit for carjackers as about forty percent of cars get left behind like sinners after the rapture.
“It won’t hurt much. Not like you think.” We were talking about what it felt like to die. “Trust me, I’ve been as far as you can go.” He took a swig from his flask. “Mammoth Cave Massacre,” he said. “I was on the bus.”
He was referring to a bit of Central Kentucky lore. On a field trip to Mammoth Cave, the bus carrying Mrs. DiFresca’s fourth grade class suddenly jackknifed off the highway and flipped over. Fourteen kids were injured and two died. The bus driver was sober, and seemingly had perfect recall of what had happened. A flash of madness overtook him, and without reason, he turned the wheel all the way to the right, angling himself into national notoriety. He never claimed he blacked out, never claimed he couldn’t remember — he as stunned as everyone else. The story spread and they soon called it the “Mammoth Cave Massacre,” which seems slightly disrespectful of massacres. According to my uncle, they originally called it “Mammoth Cave Mania” but there were too many local sponsors of the news that had the word “mania” attached to their sales. Ollie Hallahan, five years older than me, was on the bus as it flipped over.
“I know what it’s like to be dead,” he said. “It’s peaceful, man, trust me. They say it’s like sleep, but that’s wrong. Don’t got to worry about bad dreams, the cat crawling over your chest, the alarm. All of that, all of you, you’re just somewhere else is all.”
“You were a nine-year old who got in a car wreck that 98% of the people survived,” I said. “Tell me, O Lazarus, about the mysteries of the deep.”
“Not just that,” he said. “I had pneumonia when I was four, almost drowned once in the Outer Banks. Everything leading up to death hurts like a motherfucker, but when you get close, it all has a purpose. It leads us to something.”
Two women with their arms around each other’s shoulders, holding one another up, made their way to a black Studebaker. The working hour was coming soon.
“Mom forgets everything an hour after it happens,” I said. “It doesn’t hurt her much.”
“That’s different,” he said. “She’s losing stuff. Losing doesn’t hurt. You lose your beard, your fingernails. That’s what memory is. Not like losing a toe. When that happens, you’re gaining pain. That’s what hurts.”
I suspected he was right. Every morning when I wake up, I try like the devil to remember last night’s dream. Even when it works, I know it isn’t honest. I’m lying, storytelling, but the dissolving memory doesn’t hurt. Maybe that’s what the Mammoth Cave Massacre bus driver thought as well. He saw another world, as realistic and painless as a dream, a world so close it would’ve been accessible by a sharp rightward turn. It only takes a second to lose your balance — less than that to question what’s kept us upright for so long in the first place.
“The Escalade,” Hallahan said, nodding to a car parked diagonally over one and a half spaces. “Only kids and drunks park like that. Either way, they won’t miss it until the morning.”
I took a swig from his flask. Moonlight was a starter’s pistol back then — it meant I had another night of risking my skull under Hallahan’s knuckles. My work made me fearful, and my fear made me learn.
Hallahan’s father worked as a wholesale supplier, and he ate brined fish for every lunch. In most ways, he was a meticulously clean man, but when the beatings took place between lunch and suppertime, you smelled a hint of the fish oil on his fingernails. His punches were sharp and precise, and he swung with the fervor of a Pentecostal elbow deep in snake. I was his practice canvas, though I suspected someone else would one day be his masterpiece. If he’d been born weak, we would have been friends.