CHAPTER 21: THE GRAY AREA


“What the hell’s all this?” I asked.

The front porch of the Cursèd Place was buried waist-deep in cases of beer and bales of toilet paper. Kilroy slouched indolently on a rickety lawn chair behind the smoldering chimney of his bong. His attention meandered back and forth between a delivery man wheeling another dolly full of beer toward the steps and a chubby brown kid carrying them one by one into the house.

“Gift from Judge.”

“Beer and toilet paper?”

“He asked if we needed anything, so I said we could use some beer and toilet paper. I figured we’d get a twenty-four pack of Keystone and a few rolls of whatever they use at the club, but…” He gestured toward the heaps of provisions.

“Ax and ye shall receive,” I said.

“I’ll say.”

The brown kid emerged from the house and picked up another case. His t-shirt was starting to soak through with sweat from the effort.

“Who’s the kid?” I asked.

“Dunno.” Kilroy took another hit off the bong and let the smoke seep out of his mouth and nose. “I found him in the pantry. I think he’s been living there.”

“The pantry?”

“That big closet off the kitchen—”

“I know what a pantry is.”

“I was looking for a place to stash all this shit, an’ he was just in there chillin.’ Had a little, you know, blanket fort. Not sure where he got the blankets from—they’re not ours. I felt bad I hadda kick him out—told him if he loaded in all these boxes he could crash on the couch.”

I wondered what trail of Faygo and Doritos had led this kid to our doorstep and decided it didn’t matter: he was here now and there was no getting rid of him.

We had a barnacle.

Our luck must’ve been changing; every band of a certain size developed an ecosystem of hangers-on around the edges: groupies and fanatics and cold-eyed opportunists who would happily eat shit just to get a piece of the action. We called ours The Legion. They tended, on the whole, to be long on mania and rather sparing of intellect. As far as I could tell, this kid was no exception.

“He got a name?”

“He told me, but I forgot.” Names had never been Kilroy’s strong suit.

The delivery guy climbed the steps and handed me a clipboard. “You sign this?” he asked. I expected to see a delivery slip, but instead it was a photograph of my face.

“You need a delivery slip signed too?” I asked.

The delivery guy shook his head. “This all’s fallin’ off the truck, ‘f you know what I’m sayin’.” He brushed a finger off the side of his nose. “Roads ‘round here are real bad.”

Chicago.

“It’s a goddamn travesty,” I agreed, signing the autograph and slapping the pen down on the clipboard. “Be a shame if a bus full of nubile college coeds broke down one of these days.”

“Wouldn’t it, though?” the delivery guy said with a grin. “You need anything else from the Golden Goose, just say the word.”

“Got it.”

 The delivery guy slapped me on the back then headed for his truck without a backward glance.

“Never a dull goddamn moment,” I muttered, prying open the cardboard of one of the boxes to pull out a bottle of beer: Goose Island. I laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Kilroy wanted to know.

I tossed him the bottle.

“Goose Island,” I said. “From Judge. The Golden Goose.”

Kilroy stared at the bottle in his hand, still trying to understand the joke. The pantry kid materialized at his side and levered off the cap with a bottle opener from his pocket.

“Ha! That’s service, dude,” Kilroy grinned.

I pulled a second bottle out of the crate and held it out to the kid. “Beer me, kid!”

The kid sprang forward to pop off the cap.

“I like this kid,” Kilroy said. “Let’s keep him.”

*          *          *          *

None of us could remember the pantry kid’s name, so we called him ‘Goose’. We didn’t have the heart to kick him out, so he lived in the odd corners of the house like a small, helpful poltergeist.

“Goose! Laundry!”

“Goose! Barf bucket!”

“Goose! Toilet plunger!”

Mostly, he followed me around like a worshipful shadow doing anything I asked him to and a lot of things I didn’t. He was one of those under-loved kids so desperately eager to please it made him a menace. Whenever I needed something, I would send Goose to fetch it, and sometimes I’d send him into the city to try to find a Major Seventh Diminisher or a can of Distortion just to get him out of the house.

“Quit staring at me, Goose, you’re creeping me out.” I didn’t have to look at him to know he was staring at me with unblinking adoration from the back seat of the GTO. Judge and I were canvassing the city for a rehearsal space and Goose had tagged along.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, tearing his eyes away from the back of my neck.

“This is it,” Judge said. “Pull over.”

I pulled the GTO to the curb alongside a building that looked like it might once have been a complex of warehouses. It stood on the corner of a six-point intersection like the prow of a tanker built out of brick and plywood. The entire, triangular block had been copiously painted the same uniform gray and then abandoned to crumble into flaking disrepair.

If ever there were a place that looked like it housed a nest of vampires, this was it.

I glanced at Goose in the mirror. He was staring at me again.

“Goose, wait in the car.”

*          *          *          *

“You can work here,” Judge said as he led the way down a long, jagged hallway into a cavernous space lit by an ancient string of incandescent bulbs. His voice echoed off the high vault of the ceiling where the light failed to reach the corners. “Usta be a packing house. Mostly gets used for storage now.”

I clapped my hands to listen to the acoustics. The knap echoed off the vault of a high ceiling lost somewhere in the gloom overhead. We would need to install some baffles to keep our sound from turning to mud. Carpets. Sound foam. I made a mental list.

“Neighbors gonna complain about the noise?” I asked.

“It’s zoned mixed-use.”

“It’ll do.” The wooden floorboards creaked under my weight and I looked down. Something gleamed between the planks and I kicked it with the toe of my boot until it skittered across the floor: the brass casing for a 9mm. Judge stooped with a piece of Kleenex to pick it up and tuck it in his pocket.

“Needs to be cleaned,” he said in a tone that said don’t ask questions. “I can get a crew in. But it’s secure—Your equipment’ll be safe here.”

“Yeah, are we going to be safe here?” I was beginning to think Judge might be tapped into the part of the Chicago machine that would find it useful to just-so-happen to have a mixed-use space where no one could hear you scream.

 “Just don’t go poking around behind locked doors and you’ll never have to lie in court.”

I did a circuit of the room, feeling out the dim shadows of the corners, not really certain I wanted to know what was in them. Sam hadn’t thrown any flags on the paperwork, but I still didn’t trust Judge any farther than I could spit into the wind. Even so, I had to admit he was doing a good job of taking care of us. Our cupboards were full. The house was clean. The lawn was mowed. None of us were sleeping on mattresses likely to give us lice or tetanus anymore. Kilroy was flush with weed and tofu. Jojo abounded in clothes and pills. I’d even come home one day to find the house full of the DePaul girls’ volleyball team and a Costco-sized carton of condoms with my name on it. Judge hadn’t attached a note, but he’d sure as hell sent a message: ax and ye shall receive.

“What’re the chances of getting a piano?” I axed.

“You want something specific?”

“Anything made of wood and wire. And pedals. I’m sick of playing a keyboard.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” He watched me explore the space for a moment in silence and then said: “You comin’ by the club this week? Melody’s been askin’ about you.”

My heart leaped at the sound of her name. Excitement flooded my body in a tidal wave. I did my best to play it cool.

“Yeah? What’d she say?”

“Said the two of you got real friendly after Lollapalooza.”

“Yeah, we hooked up.”

 “Said she hasn’t heard from you since.”

 “She didn’t give me her number—told me to come to the club,” I said. “She wasn’t working the night I went.”

Judge stared me down for a minute through squinted eyes. “You gonna see her again?” he asked. I realized this was something personal to him. Melody meant something to him. I wondered if he meant anything to her.

“I want to, but that’s kinda up to her.”

Judge nodded as if this met his approval. “Just don’t fuck with her,” he said. “We clear?” “We’re clear.”

“All good, then.” Judge’s phone buzzed and he glanced at the screen. “I gotta handle this, we done here?”

“Yeah, we’ll take it,” I said. “When can we move in?”

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 22: SUBURBIA will go live Monday, November 22nd , 2021

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