One night on the verge of freedom from school and summer vacation, my dad takes me to purchase my first car—a blue two-door Toyota Celica ST with flip-up headlights, sunroof, and 160,000 miles—all for just $1,200. I buy it from the short Italian guy with bottle-cap glasses who owns the dirty water hot dog stand across the street from the 12th Street Quick Chek on Broadway.
“I don’t know if I’ll fit,” I say, when the man suggests I take it for a spin.
“But don’t take it outta the lot,” he says. “The plates are no good.”
When I turn the key in the ignition it whirs nearly silently. I pull the gear shift into “Reverse” and pull out of the spot, driving five miles per hour, my father in the passenger seat.
“How’s it feel?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I mean, it drives and all.”
“Won’t have any trouble finding parking in this,” he says. “So what do you think? Do you want it?”
I’m not crazy about the car, but I’m not really crazy about the car, but I say okay.
“Here, let’s switch. Let me make sure everything works alright.”
When we switch he tries out the blinkers and looks at them through the reflection in the building behind us, he flips the headlights up and down, and he presses all the buttons and twists all the knobs in the console.
“All works,” he says, turning the grimy volume knob as “Welcome to the Jungle” plays louder and louder on the radio.
“Wanna see the trunk?” the man asks when we exit.
My dad pops the trunk from the inside and we get out. It’s a lot more spacious than I thought it was going to be.
“Could definitely hide a couple bodies in there,” I say.
My dad laughs. “Should be able to hold your amps and guitars, right?”
“Any leaks? Anything wrong with the engine?” he asks.
“No,” the man says. “It’s in great condition for its age.”
“What are you asking for it again? Nine hundred?”
“Sixteen hundred,” the man says.
“I’m looking at that mileage though. You know, this is gonna be my son’s first car and he works and goes to college. I want him to have a reliable ride, you know? How ‘bout you give it to us for a thousand?”
“I’ll let it go for twelve.”
“Let me talk to my son for a minute.”
My dad pulls me aside and says, “Looks like a good car, and for the price you can’t beat it. Might last you a good few years if you take care of it.”
I look at the car and think, I told myself I would never get a two-door because it’s such a hassle to get in and out of, and now I’m about to buy one. Then again, I’m not the one going in and out of the back seat, my friends will be. So what does it matter to me?
Barely 18 and I’m already a hypocrite.
“Yeah, looks good,” I say.
“Here,” my dad says, pulling out a wad of cash. “Let me chip in a little.” He gives me six $100 bills. I’d already saved up everything I needed, and I don’t really want to take it. He sees that on my face and says, “It’ll help with gas and insurance.”
“Alright,” I say.
My dad nods his head. “We’ll take it for twelve,” he says, and shakes the man’s hand.
“Got it now?” the man asks.
“Giv’im the money, Keith.”
I pull twelve hundred dollar bills out of my wallet and hand it to the man. He counts them, stuffs them in his pocket, and lights a cigarette.
“You got a good car here,” he says. “Come back tomorrow night. I’m gonna have my guy give it a tune up and oil change before you take it.”
My father and I walk back to the house. As we leave, my eyes are fixated on it. Is that really my car? I question myself.
Weeks later, the temperature is just comfortable enough to drive with the windows rolled down. I’m wearing a black Tiger Army t-shirt, black jeans, and black sneakers. I climb into my car, turn on the lights, turn the ignition, put my seatbelt on, prepare my iPod with Tom Waits’s album, Blood Money, and call Erik on my cell phone.
“Please wait while we locate the Nextel subscriber you are trying to contact,” a robotic woman’s voice says.
“I’m sorry, we are unable to locate the Nextel subscriber you are trying to contact.”
I put my phone down, turn my iPod on, pull out of my spot, turn off Sisson Court onto Avenue E southbound, cross Avenue C, pass St. Mary’s church, turn right onto the boulevard, turn right on 15th Street, and stop in front of Erik’s house, a small, one family brick construction surrounded by multi-family a-frames up and down the block.
Once I stop my car and put my hazards on, I try calling him again only to be greeted by the same voice as before that tells me, “I’m sorry, we are unable to locate the Nextel subscriber you are trying to contact.
God dammit, Erik.
It’s 10:00PM, and I know it would be rude to honk, but it’s the only choice I have other than getting out and ringing his bell, and I’m not about to do that. What, am I picking him up for a date? It’s 2007. Even delivery boys would rather sit in their cars with their phones in their hand waiting for the recipient to pick up. I turn my headlights and hazards off so cranky onlookers don’t see me, and honk. After a moment, the light in his hallway flickers on and his door opens to reveal his Siberian Husky, Rain, to inspect the outside before his owner steps out. When deemed the coast is clear, Erik gently moves her out of the way, opens the door, and starts down his steps.
We sit on his porch, ages 14 and 15, in the summer with our ripped denim shorts, talking about a recent wrestling episode, a movie we had seen, or girls that we liked. Amanda for him, Maryanne for me, even though he already made out with her once before, but I suppose she’s the best I could do at this time in my life. Despite having taken place a few years ago, I have to convince myself over and over that there are no longer any traces of his saliva in her mouth. After all, her teeth are clean and white, along with the rest of her. He teases me that he went out with her first, and that I had no right to go out with her.
“Erik,” I begin. “Did you even like her that much?”
“Well, no, but still. It’s just wrong!” he would insist.
“Well, I only asked her out because she’s hot. I don’t even like her that much. And besides, we never kissed. All we’ve done is hold hands.”
“Ha! I made out with her!”
“Good for you.”
A few weeks pass by and Maryanne breaks up with me, revealing that she had only said yes to my request because someone had offered her some laffy-taffy. I am not too bothered by this, however, because I could not be with a woman who enjoys the repugnant texture and taste of something called laffy-taffy.
Still in our ripped denim shorts, we ask each other what we want to do to pass the time.
“We could go see if Jonny wants to hang out.”
“He hasn’t been hanging out with us lately. He’s probably with John and Dan.”
A tall man wearing a black blazer walks by with a halfway eaten candy bar in his hand, suspect to have been eating it casually and slowly as he walked down the block. He stops directly in front of us, takes a bite of his chocolate bar, looks into the setting sun as if in deep thought, and finally utters the words, “Do you like chocolate?”
Suddenly all the years of education about not talking to strangers entered my mind. Little Red Riding Hood. If there’s a man that picks you up from school, claiming that your parents sent him to pick you up, don’t believe him, especially if he’s in a van. It is not true. Parents must check each and every candy bar received during Halloween before taking a single bite. If someone knocks on your door or rings the bell, don’t open before asking, “Who is it?” Don’t take candy from strangers.
Don’t take candy from strangers, the thought suddenly moved to the foreground of my consciousness.
We look at each other out of the corners of our eyes, agreeing silently that we could both take this guy if he tries anything fishy, and simultaneously say, “Yeah.”
He takes another bite, looks into the sky once more, and asks another question:
“Do you believe in God?”
I begin to say, “Well, not really,” but Erik’s affirmative, “Yeah,” cut me off.
The man repeats his act, and says, using his candy bar to direct us, “I’ll tell you what. Go down to that church tonight. There might be something there for you.”
Dumbfounded and confused, both of us say, “Okay,” and he walks down the rest of the block, disappearing around the corner.
“That was fuckin’ weird,” Erik says.
“That’s a Filipino church he was talking about,” he says. “They’re fuckin’ weird.”
A few moments pass, both of us still looking down the block.
“So are you gonna go?” I ask.
The night wakes with the falling of the sun and the rising of the moon. Erick and I begin to walk. We pass the church, its lights on, cars in the driveway, music emanating from the inside, and walk onward.
“Let’s go to Broadway,” Erick says. “There are people there.”
Nights like this are common. We always start at his house. To this day, he has only picked me up a couple of times. Often, another friend of ours joins us. We walk all the way up to the 32nd Street 7-Eleven on Broadway passing countless pizzerias, Chinese restaurants, nail salons, pharmacies, fast food restaurants, and bars. That’s what Bayonne is made of.
“Why do we always walk on Broadway?” I occasionally ask.
“‘Cause that’s where there’re people.”
We don’t see anyone we know, but we do see people we recognize–Crazy Joe the Fly, the bum with the long beard and pink striped shorts, McDonald’s lady, etcetera.
“You know where he got his name, right?” Erik says to me.
“Crazy Joe the Fly.”
“My dad told me when they were in high school, BHS used to have windows in the bridge. One day, Crazy Joe the Fly jumped out of the windows. After that they bricked them up.”
“Oh. I thought it was just because he looks like Jeff Goldblum in The Fly.”
“Well, that, too. Are you friends with him on Myspace?” he asks me.
“No. He has a Myspace?”
“Does he even have a computer?”
“He goes on at the library.”
“Ha. You know back in the day he dated John’s mom?”
He laughs and says, “No way.”
“Yeah,” I say. “It was pretty funny. Not too long ago. OH! And you know what else? No one believes me, but I swear to God this happened.”
“You’re not going to believe me.”
“Just tell me.”
“Okay. Well, when I worked in 7-Eleven, I swear to God, he walked in one day in a black suit and talking on a cell phone.”
His eyes get big and he says, “No way.”
“I don’t believe you. That didn’t happen.”
“I don’t know if I believe you.”
“I’m telling you…it happened.”
We continue walking until we find somewhere to eat, usually Burger King or a pizzeria.
Tonight he’s wearing a black shirt with torn off sleeves and “Bitchslicer” written across the chest in mangled letters, accompanied with muscled zombies and Ibanez guitars. Like the zombies on his shirt, Erik also has long, blond hair that cradles a blond goatee. His jeans are tight and faded black, almost grey, with rips on the knees and frays on the bottoms.
Erik makes his way to my car, opens the door, and squeezes himself in.
“Sup?” he says.
“Whatare you listening to?” he asks.
“Tom Waits,” I repeat.
He listens for a moment as “God’s Away on Business” plays.
“This is kinda scary,” he says.
I laugh. “No it’s not. It’s just…cinematic.”
“Whatever. What are we doing?”
“I don’t know. What do you wanna do?”
“I don’t know. Whatever.”
This is how most of our nights begin.
“Wanna go to the diner?” I ask.
“I’m not hungry really. My mom made me eat something before leaving. Why don’t you call someone?” he suggests.
“I don’t know anyone.”
“You know lots of people!”
I pull out my phone and scroll through the names.
“Ahmad’s busy, Alison is still at college, you don’t know Ana, Bob’s in Canada, Chris is working, Christian is lame, Cindy lives too far, Cosmo’s with his girlfriend, Cristina has a crush on me and I don’t wanna see her, Dave is lame, Diane is at college, you don’t know Ghazal, Helen’s at work, I haven’t spoken to Izabela in forever, James is probably at church,” not that I wouold want to hang out with him anyway, “Jenna is…I don’t hang out with Jenna, Joe’s busy, John’s an asshole, Jonny is with his girlfriend, I don’t talk to Krystyne anymore, I don’t talk to Laura, and Melissa is probably with Laura, Narciso lives too far, Natalia’s in New York, Nicole is probably with John, Rob is in Boston, Ron is with Kenny and you’re not speaking with Kenny, Steve is with Mike and Mike’s a dick, and you don’t know Stephanie. Who do you have?”
“I don’t know anyone!” he says.
“What are you talking about? You know more people than I do.”
“I don’t know anybody.”
“Check your phone.”
He takes his phone out of his pocket and scrolls through the numbers.
“How ‘bout Chance?” he says.
“Ugh, no. Definitely not.”
I can’t say I dislike Chance for any reason other than that I get the feeling that he is capable of murder. Chance is tall with long, greasy black hair. His clothes are at least two sizes too big, and his glasses make his lifeless, empty eyes appear two times larger as well. He has a gap between his two front teeth and an unkempt neck beard and mustache. He’s the kind of guy who quotes complete episodes of Family Guy, a show which I have come to hate immensely. I don’t mind his company, as he’s usually quiet, but the thought of going into his house, or his lair as it may be more appropriately called, makes my skin pock with goose bumps.
“I’m just gonna drive around,” I say.
“Fine, but you have to turn this music off. I can’t listen to this anymore.”
From Erik’s house, we turn left onto Avenue C, turn left again on 16th street, turn right on John F. Kennedy Boulevard, and after sixteen blocks we approach Hudson County Park on 32nd Street. I drive through the top part and then to the lower where there are baseball and soccer fields and basketball and track courts. We usualy drive down here to see if there’s anyone we know, but there never is. When we approach the top again, Erik’s phone rings. It’s Chance.
After getting off the phone, he says, “Let’s just go to Chance’s.”
I begin to drive on the boulevard until Erik says, “Let’s take Broadway.”
“Why?” I ask. “The boulevard’s quicker.”
“So we can see if anyone’s out,” he says.
“But we’re already going to Chance’s, so what does it matter if we see anyone?”
“I don’t know. Just go!”
I turn onto Broadway and continue driving downtown toward Chance’s house on 12th Street. As I pass 17th I notice a police vehicle sitting at the corner, who then begins to follow me. I think, “Oh no, was I speeding?” I look at the odometer and drop from 35 to 30mph.
He follows me until I pull up to Chance’s house across the street from the desolate downtown diner. Halfway through finishing my parallel parking job, the officer flashes his high beams at me.
“What do I do? Is he pulling me over? Do I finish parking?”
“Shit, I don’t know,” Erik says. “Turn off your music and roll down the window.”
I roll down my winder and continue to park until a policeman comes up to my window.
“Stop parking and put your hands on the wheel,” he says.
He’s tall and heavy, with a brown mustache like a character from an 80’s cop film.
“License and registration,” he says.
“Erik,” I say, “In the glove box.”
He opens the glove compartment and shuffles through the lose scraps of paper and eventually finds my registration. I pull my wallet out of my back right pocket of my jeans and take out my license. The officer brings the documents to his partner, still waiting in the vehicle. When he returns, he asks, “Where were you?”
“We just went to the park and came back down here,” I say.
He looks to his left, and then to his right, and asks again, “Where were you?”
I think, maybe he’s playing some kind of trick on me. I repeat slowly, “We were at the park…and now we’re here.”
He huffs. “You’re not telling me where you were.”
“Okay,” I say. “I live on 15th between Broadway and Avenue E. I got in my car, picked up my friend here on 15th Street between the boulevard and C, then we went to Hudson County Park, and now where here.”
“Get out of the car.”
I unbuckle my seatbelt and get out.
“Now, tell me where you were,” he says again.
I sigh. “We went to Hudson County Park and now we’re here. We didn’t go anywhere else.”
“You didn’t go to Jersey City?”
“You didn’t lend someone your car a while before you left?”
“And you’re sure you didn’t go to Jersey City?”
“Okay,” he says, “here’s the story. We have report of an armed robbery of a bank in Jersey City. Two young guys, small blue sports car with a license plate very similar to yours.”
I take a look at Erik, dressed in all black with “Bitchslicer” across his shirt, sporting mischievous frays on his jeans and menacing hair past his shoulders. Then, I take a look at myself, also wearing black jeans, black shirt, black sneakers, black beanie, my black hair touching my shoulders, and my scruffy beard. I suppose we do look like we just robbed a bank.
The other officer comes out of his vehicle and hands me back my license and registration. He shines his flashlight into the backseat of my car, looking for clues to our uncommitted crime.
“Have anything back there you shouldn’t have? Alcohol? Pot?” he asks.
“Can we look in your trunk?”
“Go ahead,” I say, about to reach into my car and pull the lever.
“That won’t be necessary,” the first officer says. “Let me write down your driver’s license number just in case.”
I hand it to him and pulls out a receipt from his breast pocket to write down my number. He looks at it and says, “Oh! Your father Tony?”
“Ah! How’s he doing? I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Tell him I said hey,” he says, writing down my number on the receipt. “What’s your phone number?”
I give him my number and ask him, “Just curious, what was the license plate number you were looking for?”
“VRD-79T. Usually if it’s close enough we check just to make sure. Someone could’ve seen it wrong.”
“Oh, wow. That is close.”
“Have a good night,” he says, dismissing me and signaling to his partner that their work is done. “And tell your dad to give me a call sometime!” he adds.
“Will do,” I say, with no intention of passing the message along.
I finish parking my car, turn off the headlights, and begin to unbuckle my seatbelt.
“Fuck it,” Erik says. “Let’s just go to the diner. I’m starvin’.”
Keith Chiappone was born in Bayonne, NJ and went to New Jersey City University where he studied secondary education and English. While there, Chiappone also studied memoir and poetry under Edi Giunta and Tan Lin, respectively. In 2010, Chiappone and artist, Narciso Espiritu Jr., started Instigatorzine, an art and literature magazine that ran until 2015. Chiappone currently teaches language arts in Piscataway, NJ.