My brother Paul was the neighborhood con. At six, he was pilfering Marlboro Lights from our dad and selling them to the neighborhood kids for a quarter. By eight, he’d found my parent’s baggie of pot in the safe deposit box under their bed, and was getting five bucks from desperate teenagers for a tiny, folded foil packet of skunk weed. By ten, he was cutting it with oregano from the pantry and charging fifteen.
Paul was not your average southern boy. He didn’t fish or hunt or listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd. He didn’t like football, or go to church, or feel any great allegiance to God or country or any force greater than himself. He was a devoted disciple of the
. Church of Paul
Paul had the great misfortune to be my younger brother. With that came the expectation of authority figures that he might bear some resemblance, if not in looks then in behavior, to his big sister. What they found instead was a smart but unmotivated kid, uninterested in anything except identifying the next scam.
He had a knack of picking out just the right person – a lonely new kid, a bullied boy, a girl with bad skin – and becoming their best friend. Paul was exceedingly charming when he chose to be. He became self deprecating, flirtatious, and slightly pitiable. He’d convince them of his good intentions, enforce the idea with a gift, lay out his troubles, and then sit back and wait.
Giving them a gift was the key. It said, “Here, I am your friend. You can trust me.” It was usually something he’d stolen. After he’d told them his sob story (usually, how he’d been wronged by The Man), they would start to give him things. A Walkman, tires for his bike, a watch, cash. It was amazing to see, really. One kid, a sad exchange student from
gave him front row tickets to see Poison. Paul didn’t even like Poison. He sold
the tickets, told the kid he’d had a great time and avoided any further
conversation about glam metal. Germany
By the seventh grade, Paul was living the life of Riley. My parents didn’t seem to notice the new clothes, or the cassette tapes, or the jewelry. They didn’t think it was strange that Paul always finished his homework at school, and never invited friends over. My dad had lost his job in the oilfield, and my mother had gone back to work, suddenly and unexpectedly becoming the primary breadwinner for the family. Most of their evenings were spent in sullen silence in front of the television, my father nursing a beer (or six) and my mother painting her nails.
“Goddamn! That J.R. Ewing is a crafty asshole!” my dad would yell at the screen.
After primetime, they’d head to their bedroom and lock the door, their low voices followed by silence and then my mother’s wavering wail.
“Jesus Christ,” Paul would say, “Don’t they know we can hear them?”
“It’s just sex, Paul. How do you think we got here?” I was sixteen by then and terribly, terribly mature.
“I know it’s just sex!” he hissed. “But they don’t have to go at it like a couple of monkeys with us sitting out here where we can hear them, like we’re watching some kind of goddamn porno!”
Paul had recently found my parent’s copy of On Golden Blonde, and was doing his best to wear out the VCR with it. “I’m just trying to figure out how much to charge per minute of viewing!” he protested. But he worked ‘goddamn porno!’ into most conversations and took longer than normal showers. I wasn’t stupid.
That week, a new kid joined the seventh grade at Thomas Jefferson Junior High. His name was Adam Locke, and by virtue of alphabetical seating, he ended up right in front of Paul in homeroom. Adam was from
. His face was tan, his hair was
blonde, and he wore slim, pegged jeans and a popped collar on his Izod shirt. California
“He looks like goddamn Don Johnson!” Paul remarked after the first day.
“Don Johnson doesn’t wear Izods, Paul.”
“Not true! Do you want me to give you an episode recap, Sissy?” Paul was an avid Miami Vice watcher. I knew not to press the issue.
“I’m sure he’s a nice kid,” I said.
That’s all Paul needed to hear. The next day at school, he made his move.
“Hey, new kid!” he whispered during homeroom. “Want to sit with me at lunch?” After that, Paul took Adam under his wing. He steered him away from the meatloaf in the cafeteria, told him which bathrooms to use if he had ‘business’ to attend to. He even got Adam on the right side of Coach Murphy, the notoriously bad natured gym teacher.
“Just volunteer to be equipment manager,” Paul suggested. “They never have to dress out.” The gym uniforms at Thomas Jefferson Junior High were among the worst in the state. The boys were required to wear the gray knit short shorts, a tank top with the letters TJJH screen printed on the front, and knee high athletic socks. The shorts were so short that most of the boys ran with their thighs touching, for fear of their junk slipping out. It’s how Bobby “Nutsack” Muchna got his nickname.
The girls fared even worse, with a polyester unitard, solid
blue on the bottom and blue and
white striped on the top. The unitard zipped from neck to crotch and there was
no prepubescent body on earth that didn’t look like ten pounds of sausage in a
five pound casing in that thing. I had suffered that particular indignity years
before and graduated to high school gym class, where the primary activity was
smoking behind the bleachers. No dressing out required. Carolina
Paul suspected that Adam might need a little extra push. He dug deep in his treasure box an unearthed the perfect gift for a transplanted
boy – a signed poster of the
world champion of surfing, Tom Curren. California
“Dude,” Adam said when Paul gave him the poster. “DUDE!” It was all he could say.
“Sissy, you should have seen his face. It was like Christmas, and I was Santa Claus!” Paul leaned across the dinner table and grinned like a wolf with a full belly. “Pass the biscuits.”
“Santy Claus!” my dad bellowed. “You got a boyfriend,
boy? Now you gonna tell us you’re one
of them homosexuals? What next, you’re gonna grow your hair out? Join a band?” nancy
“Jesus Christ, Daddy,” I rolled my eyes. “Not everyone in a band with long hair is gay.”
“First of all, Missy,” my mother interjected, “Do not take the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in vain. Secondly, those fellas are wearing makeup and where I come from, makeup makes a man a
Daddy sat back, crossed his arms and smiled. My mother was the only person in our family who regularly attended church, and this made her the authority on all things Jesus and homosexuals, and hair bands too, apparently.
“No, Dad. It’s just this new kid at school.”
“He play ball?” Daddy asked.
“Yeah, defensive end,” Paul said. I don’t think Adam actually played football, and I don’t think Paul even knew what a defensive end was, but anyone that played ball was okay in Daddy’s book. Football players could certainly not be homosexual.
But Adam did have a secret.
Before Paul had a chance to start the second phase of his scam, the part where he made Adam feel sorry for him and buy him things, Adam threw him a curveball.
“Hey man,” Adam said one day in homeroom. “I want you to come over after school. I have an idea.”
Paul had never been to Adam’s house. Frankly, he wasn’t the type of kid who got invited to other kids’ houses. Especially clean cut, popped collar kids like Adam. That day after school, Paul rode his bike to the newest neighborhood in our small town – the one where construction vehicles still zoomed in and out all day long, and men cut down magnolia trees and put in zero lot line houses. Paul’s house was bright and clean and smelled like fabric softener. There wasn’t even a dog on the porch. The Locke family had a cat.
A cat! Paul would tell me later. Who the hell has a cat, and keeps it inside their house?
Adam answered the door and he and Paul went to his bedroom. Adam’s mother, equally bright and clean and fabric softener smelling, came into the room with a tray of warm cookies and a pitcher of Sunny Delight.
“It’s so nice to meet you, Paul. I’ve heard such wonderful things about you!” she smiled, revealing small, white teeth. They were like goddamn baby teeth! Paul would tell me. “I’ll leave you boys alone to talk about girls and all those boy things!” Paul wasn’t sure what ‘all those boy things’ were, but was suddenly afraid Adam’s idea had something to do with
“Hey, you can leave to door open!” he called to Mrs. Locke as she pulled it shut.
“Hey, man, you worried I want to suck your dick?” Adam laughed. Paul jumped. He’d never heard Adam say ‘dick’, and the dirty word coming from that clean cut mouth was alarming. It made Paul nervous.
Adam cut right to the chase. “Look, I know what kind of kid you are. ‘Cause I’m the same kind of kid, I just dress better.” He smiled and gave his collar a pop. His smile, his voice, everything about him had changed with the closing of that door, and Paul felt a tingling in his belly.
That’s my Spidey-sense, Sissy, he told me. That’s when I knew the shit was going to hit the fan.
“What do you know about the Methodists, Paul?” Adam grinned.
Adam’s family was Methodist. In our town you were either Southern Baptist or Methodist, and if you were Methodist it was likely because you’d pissed the Baptists off. There was a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they went two towns over to go to service. It was suggested by some that they sacrificed cats and plotted to take over the world. Whatever they were doing, they weren’t Baptist, or even Methodist. They were just plain different. In our town different equals weird, and we don’t do weird.
“Uh, they’re not Baptist?” Paul answered, unsure of what the right answer might be.
“Ha!” Adam laughed, “Yeah, and they’re richer than the Baptists.”
From the looks of the house they were in, Paul could believe it.
“So,” Adam looked annoyed, “So, they’ve got all this money! Just sitting there!”
Paul wasn’t getting it.
“Look.” Adam pulled out the church bulletin from the previous Sunday. “It says right here that they collected $12,478.32 between two services the Sunday before. They put it all in a fireproof box in the secretary’s office until she comes in and deposits it on Monday.”
“Yeah?” Paul could see where this was going, and he didn’t like it.
“Yeah! So all we have to do is walk into the church Sunday night before the janitor locks it up, walk into the office, take the box, and count our money. 60/40 split of course.” Adam raised his eyebrows and waited for Paul’s response.
“Are you fucking crazy?”
“Okay, okay! Jeez, 50/50. Partners!”
“Not a chance. I ain’t stealing from no goddamn church.” Paul turned to leave.
“Yeah, you are,” Adam said, and stood nose to nose with Paul. “You are, or I’m going to go see your Daddy.”
There was absolutely nothing in this world that inspired fear in my brother like Our Father. Their relationship was tense, confrontational, volatile. Daddy was Paul’s opposite; a
veteran, Marine, American, Texan, Republican, a difficult man who had
difficulty relating to a son who wouldn’t even watch football. He didn’t notice Paul’s similarities – his
attention to detail, his gift with mechanics, his love of dogs and music. It
created a distance between them that stayed there until our father’s death,
twenty years later. Vietnam
But Daddy had superior weed. Paul had been tapping into his stash for awhile, selling to the neighborhood kids. Then he started getting greedy and cutting it, raising prices and taking more and more. Daddy had gotten suspicious, sniffing around our rooms. At sixteen, I was the logical culprit. But he’d hung around Paul’s room more, smelling his hair and clothes and checking his eyes.
Paul was afraid, but he was also a natural criminal and slightly stupid. He’d been careful around Daddy, but not as careful around his customers. So when Adam rolled into town, and became friends with Paul, everyone just assumed Adam knew the details of the operation, and they talked. They talked a lot. By the time Adam proposed the heist, he’d compiled a list of all Paul’s customers; who they were, when they bought, how much they bought, and how much they paid.
It was a list that, if taken to the police – or worse, to Daddy – would screw Paul seven ways to Sunday.
And Paul knew it.
“You’re not. You’re not stealing from any goddamn church.” I corrected.
“Whatever, teacher. Fix me some Kool-Aid.” Paul and I were sitting in the kitchen. Rather, I was sitting, and he was pacing wildly back and forth as he talked, throwing his hands and f-bombs through the air like knives. He sounded more like Daddy than he’d ever admit.
I poured the packet of cherry Kool-Aid, added sugar and water, and stirred. Cherry Kool-Aid was Paul’s favorite drink in the world and I was suddenly struck by the fact that he was, despite his behavior and vocabulary, still a little kid. As I poured him a glass, he sighed heavily and sat down.
“What am I going to do, Sissy?”
“You’re the criminal, Paul,” I said. “Act like it.” I licked some Kool-Aid powder off my finger, and looked at the bright red tip. “Damn! This shit stains.”
“Right,” Paul sat up straight and clenched his jaw. “Act like it.”