Forty.

Jane and Billy Boy.

The next night Sadie came to The Well with two people. One was a beautiful blonde, who had to be Amazon Jane. The other was a short guy with spikey blonde hair. If they were a couple, they were mismatched. Jane was a foot taller. The dude only came to her tits. They all grabbed a beer at the bar and joined us. Joe and I had been hanging all afternoon but hadn’t talked much. I pretended I was writing but really I had been sneaking glances at Joe and wondering what he was thinking.

Joe looked at Sadie when she got to the table, “I thought you’d be back last night.”

Sadie glanced at Jane, then Joe, “Not now,” she said flatly, then introduced us. “This is Jane, and her cousin, Billy Boy.” She pointed to spikey-hair, “He’s traveling with Jane. They wanna hang for a while, then go west.”

Joe turned to them, donning his circus barker smile, “Welcome, guys. Pull up a chair.” He waved his arm across the table toward empty chairs nearby.

“So, what brings y’all to these parts?” He said with a southern drawl. Sadie shot a look that must have stung. Joe glanced away, then continued in a normal tone. “Anyway,” he said, “glad you’re here.” He raised a toast, “Any friend of Sadie’s is a threat of mine.”

“Yeah,” Sadie said, “anyway, listen up, you might be interested.” She leaned forward on elbows and lowered her voice, “Jane and Billy Boy need money. Jane has a little,” Sadie glanced at me and continued. Apparently, Joe didn’t know about Sadie’s stash. “But she needs more. Billy Boy’s broke but willing to work. And of course they want as much as possible, as quick as possible, and easy as possible.” Joe’s face lit up. Whatever funk he was in faded that instant, like he remembered what he was created to do.

Sadie noticed. “Yeah, Joe. That’s right.” She leaned back and paused. What she was about to say came with some hesitation. “I told Jane about your convenience store caper.” She looked back and forth from Joe to me. “She said it sounded fun.” Jane nodded to confirm. Sadie checked the bar to see that Gina wasn’t listening, then turned back to the group. “I thought you guys should talk. They need money and maybe we can help, maybe do a little road trip to get ‘em going. Maybe make a little along the way.”

“Hmmm.” Joe said, rubbing his chin. He turned business, all business. “That’s conceivable.” He scanned Jane from head to toe. “Yeah, I think we can do something here.” He looked at me. I must have seemed interested because he looked back at Sadie and said, “Why not?”

He scanned Jane again, assessing potential. “Yeah, we can do something. So, Billy Boy,” he said without looking away from Jane, “tell us about yourself.”

“Well. Jane and me, we’re cousins. From Atlanta…in Atlanta.” He began, as he bounced around in his chair. “And we was both thinking ‘bout the west coast. Well, Jane said she had to come here first. So I says…I says, ‘why don’t we go traveling together.’ And Jane says, ‘I don’t know…don’t know.’” He spoke in echoes, which made it hard to listen. So I stopped. Also, he bounced around too much for me, kind of like a junkie. “But then Jane, she thought about it some more… some more. And I guess she said, ‘why not?’” He shrugged and held the shrug until Joe responded.

“Ok, Billy Boy,” Joe said, turning to look directly at him for the first time. “What I meant was, have you ever done any thieving. Have you done any time?”

“Oh. Yeah…Yeah. Yeah…Yeah.”

“Well?”

“Well what?” He looked around the table, then back at Joe. “Oh, yeah. Well, I was in for a while, got out a little while back. I was in for a year because of a mis…, mis…, misund…, trouble with some high school girls…high school girls. I got paroled.”

Jane interrupted, “Billy Boy likes ‘em young.” She smiled at Sadie.

“So,” Joe rubbed his chin again, “being outside Georgia puts you in violation of parole?”

“Yeah…Yeah. Yeah…Yeah. But I couldn’t stay there. That’s why I’m going west. Get far from Georgia.”

Jane interrupted, “Apparently, school girls have older brothers.”

I was trying to ignore him but he was too annoying. “Um. Baltimore’s not west of Atlanta.”

“No. No. I know…I know.” He looked at me, then around the table again, then back at me. He cocked his head like a parrot. “I know. I know. Like I says, Jane needed to come here first.” He checked each face, like a guilty man exposed. “So I says, ‘why not?’ That’s what I said.”

Joe chuckled, “Well, Billy Boy, welcome to Baltimore.” He raised his beer, “Where the men are men, and so are the women.” Joe was only half listening to Billy Boy. Most of his attention was on Sadie and Jane, who had just moved to the next table.

He looked at me, “…very conceivable.” He motioned toward them. I had been watching too. They were so sexy it was ridiculous, distractingly sexy.  Everyone in the bar was watching. I now understood Joe’s plan, the convenience store caper really made sense now. I thought I understood before, when we tried it with Gina, but with Sadie and Jane I was convinced it could work, so convinced I forgot for a moment that the last time we tried it we went to jail.

“You’re smiling, Mann,” Joe said. “It’s good, ain’t it?” He nodded. It felt good to see him happy. And I knew, in the back of his head, great adventures were being born.

I realized I hadn’t thought much about thieving since I got out. But I was starting to now. It’s what was missing. We had all been sitting around The Well, drinking and talking shit, or shooting pool and we were getting bored. That’s the problem. A good caper would take care of all that. A good team effort was what we needed. Some esprit de corps. Nothing like a good, old fashioned convenience store robbery to build morale…

I wasn’t really buying it, but I kept selling it until I accepted it. Joe seemed happy. Jane seemed excited by the idea. And Sadie didn’t call it stupid. That was enough for me.

Joe and I discussed what went wrong the last time. We chalked it up to bad timing, bad luck, and bad casting. Gina just wasn’t right for the part. She was hot, but she really wasn’t built for it. She was sexy, but not to the bone. And she was tough, but not fuck you up tough. While I was thinking this, I noticed I was staring at Sadie and Jane. Jane was just sitting there and I had half a boner…, well, “just sitting there” wasn’t very accurate. She never just sat there. She stretched and leaned when she talked, and arched her back, which made her tits stick out even more.

Jane was built for the part. She flirted when she wasn’t even looking. Her back could be to you and you still thought she wanted to fuck. At least, I did. And her smell. I don’t know what it was, but it made me hungry for ice cream. Whether perfume or just her scent, it made my balls tingle. Joe’s too, apparently.

“Yeah, Mann,” he said, lifting his beer, “…very conceivable.” He took a deep drink, glancing at them again, “We got planning to do.”

Sadie and Jane’s parts were obvious, but Billy Boy posed a challenge. According to Jane he had bad luck, worse than anyone she knew. But she said he only ever hurt himself, so we figured what the fuck. When I asked her to describe him in one word, she called him a character.

“I’ve known him my whole life,” she added.

“But do you like him?” I asked.

She smiled, “Like is such a strong word, Sweetie.” After a moment she added, “Let’s just say he makes me laugh.”

“Do you trust him,” Joe asked.

“I do. Sure.” She contemplated. “He’s goofy and all, but he knows how to keep his mouth shut.” She took a drink of beer and thought about it. “Yeah, he’s alright. I guess I do like him…a little.”

Joe liked him, too, and I understood why. Billy Boy was a playful puppy, something to fuck with, something to keep everyone amused, everyone except me. I thought he was annoying. I never fucked with him, but Joe did every day, and Billy Boy loved the attention.

When Joe needed a break from all of the planning, he called out, “Yo, B.B.,” and Billy Boy came running, knowing Joe was going to issue a challenge.

“What, Joe? What is it? I can do it. Come on, Joe. What is it?”

Joe strung him along, building anticipation and the likelihood of an accident. “I don’t know, Billy Boy. This one’s tricky.”

“Come on, Joe. You know I can.”

Billy Boy bounced like a puppy playing fetch. When Joe got bored of torturing him, or just before Billy Boy pissed his pants, Joe issued the challenge. “All right, Billy Boy. All right.” It was always something stupid, like balancing a beer mug on his forehead, while standing on one foot, singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

I was always impressed that Billy Boy could do the tricks, at first, but then some drunk bumped him, or a bug flew up his nose, or an earthquake struck, and it ended with a gash in his head and a bill for a broken glass. Yes, Nick charged for broken glasses. He started after the Great Shotput Competition of ’82.

With Billy Boy entertaining the Vagrants, and Sadie and Jane catching up in the corner, Joe and I had time to complete the details. We didn’t tell Gina, just said we were going west for weed. We still loved her, but no one wanted a lecture from “Mom.”

Joe and I spent whole afternoons at the table, drawing maps on napkins, making lists, factoring timing and safety, and sexy scenarios for Jane. I forgot how methodical Joe could be. He really enjoyed planning capers, as much as committing them. It was his creative expression.

Billy Boy expressed himself by being an idiot, as far as I could tell. He entertained other idiots at the bar, until someone got pissed and wanted to hit him. Usually, they remembered he was with us and that was enough to deter most. It had to be tempting, though. Billy Boy liked to ask why, and drunks hated that. Most of the shit he did was just dumb, and irritating as Hell if you didn’t find it funny. I didn’t, but I did like to watch dudes get pissed at him. It was like a comedy routine, a junkie version of “Who’s on First.”

“But why?”

“Why what?

“No, why who?”

“What?”

“No, who?”

“Huh?”

“Huh?”

Although we treated Billy Boy like shit, that didn’t mean others could. Joe was protective of him. He bitch-slapped a Vagrant in the parking lot for fucking with Billy Boy at the bar.

“What’s that for, Joe?”

“You pushed him.”

“He’s a fucking goof.” Joe slapped him again. “But he is, Joe.”

“Don’t touch him. Now get the fuck out of here.” Dude walked off rubbing his cheek. His friends were waiting at his truck. I stood watching from the entrance, just in case. Even small beefs like that, you had to cover each other’s back.

When we went inside, Billy Boy was dancing in the corner. Some urban cowboys were providing music, slapping jeans and chinking bottles. Everyone was laughing while Billy Boy boxed.

“Yo, B.B.” He stopped and looked at Joe. “Come.”

He wasn’t a total idiot, he just acted like one. There was a benefit to having him around, besides comic relief. Billy Boy loved to steal cars. He knew alarms, learned them in prison, got a certificate. According to Jane, he could steal anything without tripping the alarm. Joe and I did alright, but we usually got impatient and started ripping wires until the noise stopped. Used to just pop the hood and disconnect the horn, but it got more difficult. Billy Boy liked it, so that was his job.

“We need a car.” Joe told Billy Boy when he got to the table.

“I’ll be right back.” He jumped up and headed for the door.

“Wait. Wait. Come back,” Joe laughed, waving him to the table. “Not now. Tomorrow.”

“Right. Right.” Billy Boy was anxious, jumping around and trying to listen, but all he could think about was stealing a car. What kind? What color? Did Joe want a four-door? How about a van? I think he was drooling. Joe let him choose, whatever he wanted, so long as it fit all of us and some gear.

“Ok. Listen, B.B. Don’t steal it ‘til tomorrow. And make sure the tank’s full. We’re on the road soon as Sadie and Jane get back,” and under his breath, “…from wherever the Hell they went.”

“Yeah, Yeah. Yeah, Yeah. Cool, Cool. I hear you, Joe. I hear you.” If he had a tail it would have wagged.

For the rest of the night, Billy Boy was like a kid on Christmas Eve. Joe filled him in on details, but I had to get away. It was too crowded at the table with him humping Joe’s leg. I went to the bar for another beer, then hung at the pool table watching drunks try to shoot. They kept missing and laughing, and I wasn’t drunk, so I went outside.

The cool fall air brushed my face. I took a deep breath and exhaled. I felt my chest loosen. I took another breath, and another. It felt good. I stood under the neon beside the entrance, just breathing, it felt so good. I knew the air in The Well wasn’t good, but never realized the air outside was.

The night was crisp and clear. The moon was bright enough to light the parking lot. I sat on the brick wall next to the entrance and stared into the night, wondering where Sadie was. I looked for her Harley, but I knew it wasn’t there. She and Jane left earlier, said they’d be back tomorrow.

There wasn’t much to look at outside, but I did hear traffic on Perring Parkway. The waves of cars sounded like the ocean, and for a moment I was back on that jetty in Ocean City, smelling salt air and scanning the horizon for passing ships.

There were no ships tonight, only the flicker of lights in windows across the street, from people in apartments, preparing for bed, or doing homework, or pausing a video to go to the bathroom, or make popcorn, or get another beer, each in their own room, living stacked lives, oblivious of the others.

From The Well I saw their shadows cast on curtains, shadows flowing toward each other and the partitions that divided them, until only the partitions divided them. I never realized how close we could get, how close our lives could be, without touching. Hundreds of lives right here, people I didn’t know, people I would never know, people I might know one day and never know we were once this close.

Then I wondered, can friends be this close too, without touching? These people kept walls between them. Is it possible that friends do, too? Do I?

Then I saw my own wall, my many walls, my solitary cell where I hid, that place I went to when my parents asked what was wrong and I pretended not to hear, or when teachers said I could be much more if only I applied, or when the judge said it was for my own good, whenever someone said something I didn’t want to hear and I put on headphones to wash them away with Pink Floyd, or smoked weed, or drank beer in the dark corner of a bar until the noise stopped.

And I probably did it with friends too. Did Joe and I have walls between us? We shared a prison cell, but did we also have our own cells? And Sadie? And Gina? Yes, even Gina. That night in the basement years ago that we both enjoyed so much, then never mentioned again. And that night in the woods with Sadie, that we never mentioned again. All those thoughts and feelings never mentioned, only wrote about in journals stacked against the wall in my room, waiting to become poetry.

Was poetry a prison? Did my thoughts make it so? Was poetry just graffiti on that wall stacked high with journals and used books, stacked so high they blocked the window?

…And I’m inside, peeking out through tiny portal, pressing ear against those stacks, listening for sound from outside. Faint shadows flicker. No sound from outside. No sound. Or is there? A dull thud. A slight tapping, as if someone gently rapping. A slight tapping thud. A noise outside. Something against my wall, passing through the stacks. Thud. Thud. Thud. A sound like thunder far off. Rumbling. Rumbling. Louder, becoming clearer. It is someone rapping. Knock. Knock. Knock. And a voice, inaudible: Muh. Far. Muth. Fah. Ker. Mother. Fah. Ur. Mother Fucker.

I looked up from where I was sitting on the wall outside The Well. A drunk chick was banging on a car window, and the guy inside was laughing.

“Unlock the door, Mother Fucker. Unlock the fucking door. I need my cigarettes.”

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