Lil’ Bo Has The Last Laugh
Lil’ Bo lay outside the Texaco, a stream of better folks bustled past him––groceries, newspapers jostling. They sidestepped his prone figure, ignoring Bo with detached reverence. Occasionally, someone would stop for a second; give him a sideways glance, lips scrunched up as though they’d seen something terrible. Bo wouldn’t shudder, shift a shoulder nor arch an eyebrow, his body still as a stone in water, hair matted from hours cradled by dirty asphalt. A crowd of boys gathered, flopped pennies and peppermints off the stubbly underside of his chin. A thin smile spread across Bo’s face as if he’d won every lottery you could at the same time. His eyes, usually wide and blank, were cinched tight and cracked by happiness. It made me sick to look at him.
An old-timer, a ruined bum everyone called King, was tickled by the whole misfit scene.
I was taking a cigarette break from manning the register at the Texaco, flicking ash in time to the seconds until my shift was over.
“That boy’s a crazy little fucker ain’t he?” King said and grinned. More like mildly retarded, I thought. But I didn’t keep up the conversation; some things aren’t worth the time it takes to say out loud.
Lil’ Bo wasn’t little: he was tall as any respectable man, barrel-chested though slight. A solid jawbone framed a face that was all sunken cheekbones and serious, full lips. His hair, when combed and cut, complimented his general appearance in a way that was neat and earnest. It was a smallness of character that earned him that nickname; how he’d let himself be wise-cracked and bullied by the lesser among us, small-time cheats, druggies, old men who wore five-day-old underwear and stank like ass and distilled spirits, high-schoolers who cut class to shoplift off-brand cough syrup; how at Saturday game nights and county fairs he’d shun the better men and ladies of our town who gravitated toward him due to his good looks and honest demeanor. Bo was a handsome man or could be, proud as anyone when it suited him. But he was seldom proud. Instead he chose to hangdog around punks, anarchists, street poets, failed athletes, homosexuals, musicians and women of questionable taste, city people––ultimately the butt of their jokes and mean talk and gossip. Either that or he’d ignore everyone, everything for weeks on end, keeping to himself like a wounded dog. He’d hole up in his big house on one of our nicer streets; no one knew his business, how he earned his money––he didn’t have a job in town or out anywhere near as far we knew––or how he spent his time during his disappearances, just that he’d pop up every so often and do something odd, like laying down outside of a gas station, letting boys bounce change and small candies off the under part of his face, seemingly out of spite for the rest of us. That was the reason folks were so put off by him, that someone like him, like us, could sink that low. It wasn’t right. Lord knows that.
* * *
Gloria was a wisp of a woman, petite and nervous, hands and feet that couldn’t keep still as though she knew something that no one else could figure at the time. Her hair fell in soft curls over puffy, hooded eyes. We shared loose cigarettes on the grassy median in the center of the highway across from the Texaco for weeks before she took my hand in hers, before I felt her tongue, shy and dart-like, in the space between my teeth. She was friendly with the crew I hung around with, although we were as idiotic and annoying as any of the other young guys around, town boys who didn’t want to end up working at the gas stations or the grocery stores, searching for something that would define our lives. We were too proud or maybe too dumb to figure out it all, too dumb to do anything else but search. We hung around bars and run down houses in a communal funk, bumming whiskey and fighting strangers and talking about our pasts in an attempt to separate the truth of it from ourselves, to curse it and make it smaller than us, because we were frightened. That was all we really had, this fear that the past would repeat itself. Still Gloria flattered me, made me feel as though I was worth more than the worst parts of myself. We went out during the day. I started keeping my appointments; starching my shirts and making sure my bills were paid on time and in full. I remember I was an artist. Or I should say I masqueraded as one. I didn’t know a damn thing about art. I grew up launching rusted bicycles stolen from neighbor boys into ditches filled with streams of sepia-pitched water. The type of boy who spent hours in Bobby Jensen’s basement-den. He and I would watch endless spools from well-worn VHS tapes with XXX ratings and raunchy titles. Or we would spy through the jagged crack underneath a bedroom door as Bobby’s aunt undressed, trying to stifle our giggling as we took turns peering through the space, hoping for an eyeful of a thigh or breast. Later I grew into the type of man who knew about women’s bodies and about lying and about commiserating with Bobby, us getting high together on small mounds of cocaine, shit-talk bleeding into obfuscation. The type of man whose spine felt tingly and rigid in his mother’s home, whose blood went dumb at the sight of his enfeebled mother, she barely able to lift a cup or dishcloth without shaking like something scared out of its own skin, since all I could remember about growing up in that home were our screaming matches. How she shook until she cried because she knew I was a shitty person. How she’d tell me she was, somehow by default, a shitty person, because I was her blood, because someone like me was birthed and reared by her. The type of man who watched folks wringing hands and shaking heads whenever I walked through town, who listened with a blank expression as people trash-talked my father in hushed tones, how they could write novels about what a shit person my daddy was and how I was just like him; I was just excess shit. That never got me down though. Instead I got drunk until my face felt dry and loosely wound as tissue paper and my fingers so numb I had to run a blade across them to make sure they were still there. I knew about whining through your problems and feeling guilty for it. I knew about all that, but none of that was art and those things don’t have anything to do with the person I am now, or with Gloria. In those first few months of us being together, she opened up the sky, or maybe just moved the clouds around a bit.
Gloria visited me at work. Not that I wanted her to visit, or that we talked about it. Often I’d find a foil wrapped plate of collards or a slice of steak, still hot, when I came in for a double shift on the weekend. One day when the store was empty she lingered at the front counter, tapping her fingers against my palms in time to the radio until the sun hung low and fat in the sky and she was late for work. Gloria was fastening herself into the seatbelt of her car when she saw Bo and King. The bum was at a pump near the rear of the store, siphoning water into plastic jugs. Bo capped each jug as they were filled and handed King fresh ones. “What are y’all doing?” Gloria said. “Y’all get back from there.” They both stopped and stared. King spat and scratched a patch of dry skin on his elbow. I rushed out of the store as the men walked toward her car and Gloria shot a stream of curses at them. “Stop that screaming.” King said. Quick as anything, he’d opened one of the rear doors of the car, stuck a foot and his head inside. I was aiming to tackle him when Bo pushed me to the ground. I was on hands and knees as Gloria put the car in gear and reversed. Bo tried to free King from the car, but it was too late. He covered the bum and took the brunt of the impact from the car’s bumper and tire. Bo howled. His left leg was bloody near the ankle. The engine of Gloria’s car let out a terrible sound as she raced out the lot. All we could do was watch. King helped Bo to his feet. I offered to call an ambulance, though I didn’t want to. Bo refused. He hobbled out of the lot leaning on King’s shoulder for balance. Gloria called me for two weeks after that. I’d stare at the phone; I had a head full of things that I wanted to say to her, but I never answered or returned a call.
* * *
Lil’ Bo laughed at me. A gruesome smile crisscrossed his face. “You know everything, don’t you?” Lil Bo said. I’d worked his ire up, after I gave a long stare at the pennies and small change that towered around the room leaning out of corners like shadows. I shrugged. “I never said that now, Bo. All I’m saying is that––” Bo shook his head at me in consternation as if he knew what I were to say before I said it. He twisted a skillet in his hand above his stove, vegetable oil spitting, popping on the pan. Lil Bo had left the Texaco in a hurry like some inscrutable internal clock governed his actions. He’d ran off to his place and bolted himself inside. I’d followed and bunched myself between an old rocker chair and potted fern on his front porch because I suppose I needed to tell him something about his behavior, about how his actions affected him and affected other folks, folks who had to suffer it. I was bent on helping him, somehow. I couldn’t tell you why. I was pondering this when Bo flung open the front door and stuck his head out from behind it, said: “You might as well come in now.” Now, I sat in his living room. It was filled with threadbare furniture and other people’s clothing, and those people, his pack of friends. I did not catch their names nor care to. They were more of a mystery to us in town than Bo was and part of the problem as far as I was concerned. One guy smoked a wet hand-rolled cigarette, leering at the bare spindly legs of a woman who sat Indian style before him. Across the room a boy who looked no older than twelve vomited into a flowered vase. Bo’s other guests crowded around a laptop computer, watching a video of an ancient tribe with trained eagles hunting wolves. Bo’s friends spit bits of food and tobacco as they laughed, staring at the screen of the computer. Their hoots mixed in with the cruel din of the wolves and eagles tearing at each other. It made my stomach and head hurt. The only thing that seemed to belong in the room was a framed portrait of an older woman. I imagine she was Bo’s mother. I wondered when it was painted. It seemed to be from an earlier, more peaceful time.
“You eating with us tonight?” Bo said. He was handing plates out to everyone in the room. The girl with the skinny legs placed a lit cigarette in the center of hers. “Well, I appreciate that.” I replied “But Bo, I came to talk to you tonight about how you’ve been carrying around about town and all. It’s just.. It’s not right, Bo. Now I saw you gathering those pennies right before you ran away from the station. If it’s money you need I can probably fix you with a job at the Texaco. It wouldn’t pay much and most likely would be graveyard shift to start with but it would be something. It would sure as hell beat panhandling outside of the station, making a fool of yourself and all.”
“I don’t need money.” Bo said, pointing the skillet in my direction as he spoke. A few baby carrots slipped from the pan. They made a small squishing sound as they hit the floor. “I don’t need no one’s money. What kind of question is that?” He laughed. I didn’t think I’d had asked a question, but I didn’t fuss about it. I was focused on the small stacks of change and bills everywhere, carelessly stuffed in all corners of the room. If you stared long enough, you could make some type of pattern out of it. I was pondering this when Bo did the most inscrutable thing; he turned all the burners up on the stove and the stench of smoke and burnt vegetables filled the house. He pulled the kitchen window curtains into the flames; they smoldered into nothing and the fire began to grow. His friends didn’t try to put out the blaze, or attempt to leave. One boy closed the laptop and tucked it close to his chest. I stood, made toward the kitchen, but Bo stopped me with a look that made me feel as if I’d been doused in ice water then set on fire. So I just stood and walked out. Bo and his friends straggled behind. We stood shoulder to shoulder and watched the flames bloom and engulf the house. My ears rung with the sound of sirens and then, Bo’s laughter.