CHAPTER 4: MOTHER
Quetzalez was waiting for me when I arrived at the storage facility. I pulled the Bandwagon to a halt in front of the rolling door to my unit, nose-to-nose with the gleaming, black town car he drove for my folks.
“Damen!” Quetzalez opened his arms to me with a joviality that was both genuine and over-bright. He was somewhere in his mid-forties, but he still hadn’t outgrown slicking his hair into some kind of rockabilly pompadour. Tattoos ran the length of his arms from below his ears all the way to the second knuckles of each finger.
A movement caught my eye through the dim glass of the windshield of the town car and I could make out a crown of fair hair in the back seat: he hadn’t come alone. My stomach dropped.
“You gotta be fucking kidding me.”
“I told you I was driving your mom around,” Quetzalez said.
“Dude, you promised.”
Quetzalez held up his hands. “I said no one would hear it from me: but she was in the car when you called. She heard it for herself.”
“Fuck,” I grimaced, but let it go. “You know what? Fine. Whatever. Give me my keys.”
Quetzalez shook his head. “Sorry, buddy; boss wants a word with you first.”
“She’s your mom, kid.”
“Oh, well in that case: fuck no.”
Quetzalez fixed me with a look that suggested I was overreacting and failed to produce any keys. “C’mon, it’s not like you were going to be able to keep it a secret forever. Might as well get it over with. Rip off the band-aid.”
I glared at him. “I hate you for this.”
“Uh-huh,” Quetzalez produced a tobacco tin from one pocket and began to roll a cigarette, unconcerned. I sighed and opened the door to the car.
Mom sat in the expensive, upholstered silence of the back seat of the town car like a marble queen. Thin as a willow. Cold as frost. She nodded to the seat beside her.
“Close the door.”
A thick, snowy silence settled around me in the dim alcove of the town car. I couldn’t remember when I’d seen her last, but it didn’t really matter—she never changed. It was as if I’d put her away in my memory and she’d stayed there without moving or aging until I called her up again. Her gray eyes traced over my piercings, taking a deliberate mental inventory. I fidgeted under her scrutiny, feeling like something that had been scraped up off the side of the road.
“Say something, will you?”
“Something,” Mom said. She didn’t mean it as a joke. I was pretty sure.
She reached out to smooth my hair and I felt a needle-prick of pain at my temple.
“You’re going gray,” she held up a strand to me—blue at the tip, gray at the root. I stared at it with a sense of numb futility.
“Yeah, well, I’m thirty now.”
“I know. I was there when you were born.”
“Har har, Mom.”
Mom smiled but gave a weighty sigh. “No one warns you what it is like to look at your children and to see them as adults growing old. Not that thirty is old.” She tweaked my nose. Reaching out a hand to my cheek she brushed one of the studs on my lip.
“This one is new.” Her eyes flickered back and forth between one ear and the other. “And this—” a cuff through the cartilage of my left ear. “Who were you trying to forget?”
“Do you care?”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” She let the subject drop. “You’ve been on the road now for…eighteen months?” She asked it like a question she already knew the answer to. “Are you finished now?”
“Oh, I’m finished alright.” I hated the truth of it. “The record label dropped us. Our manager is MIA. Our agent won’t return my calls, and I’m unemployed and broke and homeless…” The more I spoke the more the words turned to acid in my mouth.
Mom remained unfazed.
“Yes, that’s the way it goes sometimes I’m afraid, but I’m pleased you’re back,” she smiled, but it only made it as far as her mouth. Her eyes were still and cool.
“You don’t have to pretend for my benefit.”
“I never do.”
Sometimes I wondered if Mom was on the spectrum.
“How long will you be in town? You’ll be staying with us I presume? We have plenty of room.” The thought of sharing a steel-and-chrome corporate condo down in the Loop with Mom and Michael sounded like a slice of hell.
Mom’s fingers caught my arm near the elbow and pinched a nerve until my hand went numb. I gasped at the pain and Mom caught my jaw in her other hand and forced me to meet her stare. “Don’t curse in front of me, you wretched child,” she growled between clenched teeth.
I swallowed hard and nodded. Mom released my arm and let her fingers trail down my jawline as if reluctant to let me go. She took a deep breath and sat back in her seat, once again as tranquil as deep water.
“Your father and I—”
Mom held up a hand to cut me off before I could get started.
“You’re always welcome. You know that.”
I bit my tongue until I could taste blood.
“Am I free to go?” I asked.
Mom sighed. “Yes, I suppose so.” She pressed her lips to my cheek leaving a stain of lipstick on my cheekbone: as much a declaration of territory as a gesture of affection. “I’m glad you’re back. Let me know where you land.”
I climbed out of the town car and glared at Quetzalez.
“Ambush me like that again and I will set you on fire,” I told him.
“That bad, huh?” Unconcerned, Quetzalez licked the paper of the cigarette and stuck the end between his lips without lighting it. Fishing around in his pocket, he extracted a set of keys on a threadbare rabbit’s foot keychain and held them out to me. I reached out to take them but Quetzalez didn’t let it go—not right away.
“Good to have you back. I mean it, kid.”
“Thanks. You’re the only one who thinks so.”
He brushed a finger against the side of his nose. “Cuz I’m smarter ‘n everybody.”
I smiled in spite of myself and he relinquished the keys into my hand. I flipped through the keys on the ring looking for the one that went to the padlock on the storage unit. A plain brass house key caught my eye. I held it up.
“My spare. In case you need a place to crash. You know the rules.”
No sex. No drugs. No rock and roll.
Ironic, since he had been the one to teach me about all of those things. I’d never dared to test him on it. Of everyone trapped in the orbit of my family, he was the only one willing to call me on my shit and still put up with me anyway.
“Jagoff.” The corners of Quetzalez’ eyes crinkled as he lit his cigarette and took a drag.
I unlocked the unit, hauling the rolling door open with a mighty rumble to reveal a ’67 Pontiac GTO, painstakingly restored to gleaming factory perfection: The Goat. Quetzalez gave a whistle.
“Ahh, so that’s where it’s at,” he said, recognizing it. “Does Edward know you got his GTO?”
“It’s my GTO,” I said. “I bought it.”
“Uh-huh.” Quetzalez was not fooled. “And it was your brother who busted his ass fixing it up.” This was true: my brother Edward found The Goat listed at a sheriff’s auction for a couple grand back when it was a wreck. Money had been no object at the time, so I’d bought it to spite him and told him he could restore it and then buy it from me when he had the money. Every improvement Edward made to it raised its value: the better he made it the farther it got from his reach, but he’d just kept working on it anyway. Working on it until it was perfect. Hell would freeze over before he had enough money to buy it from me.
“Yeah, well, I still got the title,” I said.
“Christ, you’re a dick.” Quetzalez shook his head. “One of these days, Edward’s gonna tell you to jump in the lake and you’re gonna deserve it.”
“Bitch please, Edward loves me,” I released the jack-stands until the Goat’s tires settled on the cement, then put it in neutral and rolled it out of the unit to make room for the gear.
“Edward loves everybody. Doesn’t mean you deserve it.”
“You wanna rub it in a little more or you gonna help me unload?” I bit back at him. Quetzalez just feigned innocence. “Who me? I just work here,” A knocking sound came from the direction of the town car and Quetzalez grinned. “Speaking of which: duty calls.” He licked his fingers to extinguish the cigarette, tucking it back into the tin for later before giving my shoulder a parting slap. “See you ‘round, kid. Try to stay out of trouble.”
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