Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Thief - third revision

            Cecil Coyle is digging for his car keys and thinking about eating more pills when the knife presses into his throat. The blade leans from side to side and causes his skin to sting. Hot breathing splashes against his ear and a heaving chest pushes against his back.
            "Sit the bag down slow, motherfucker."
            The man's slurring voice is hoarse and has a twang. Coyle kneels, lowers the bag to the parking lot pavement, and stands again. The man's jerky hands jab into his pockets and pat down his body. Coyle grimaces when he smells the man. The stink of urine spikes the harsh odor of sweat and vodka. Coyle grits his teeth, his stomach rumbling and twisting with swelling rage. There is a sick, broken junkie holding a knife to his throat, looking for anything he can take and if he makes twenty dollars, he will dash away grinning. Coyle clinches his fists. The man is not going to rob him.
            "Turn around, piece of shit. Slow," the man says.
            Coyle whips around and sends a hard kick into the man's crotch. He gasps for air, doubles over, and crumbles to the pavement. Coyle catches a glimpse of his face under the parking lot lights. He is a young white kid, tall, and narrow. His face is the color of chalk. Coyle blinks, bites his lips, and kicks him in the stomach.
            "Thought you had a good score? Wrong motherfucker to rob, junkie."
            Coyle glances around for watching eyes. The parking lot is empty and the distant street traffic will see nothing. He swings his leg back and sends another kick into the man's stomach. The man gasps again and twitches on the concrete. The screaming, shaking rivers of energy bubbling in his nerves merge into a single, boiling river of rage that drowns his brain. While the man writhes on the pavement, Coyle unzips the duffle bag and pulls out his gun.
            Grabbing the man by his clothes and hair, Coyle yanks him to his feet and carries the man towards the corner of the building. There is a deep drainage ditch behind the motel and a thick carpet of tall thistle covers a steep incline leading to an empty pizza parlor parking lot below. No one comes back here. Coyle knows it will be days, maybe weeks, before someone finds the body. He is grunting with every step and his hands are trembling. Piece of shit thinks he's gonna rip off a shipment? Fuck him! He lets go of the man and shoves him to the ground. They shift and move between thin, incandescent streams of fluorescent light. The man tries crawling off into the darkness, but covers his head with his hands and freezes when Coyle steps towards him and taps his gun against the man's leg.
            "Please, man, no! Please don't kill me! Help!"
            When the man lurches to his feet, Coyle raises the gun fast and shoots the man three times. The impact contorts him mid-aid before his chest slams into the ground with a thud. He rolls to the left and tumbles into the ditch.
            A shrill diesel horn screams nearby and Coyle stiffens. The horn is like an alarm sounding. The internal machinery sharpening his focus and deadening his emotions locks up and halts. The throttle snaps and he loses all remaining control. Fog falls over his brain and he cannot stop it. Fear and nausea sweep over him, riding on each other's backs. His weak knees cause him to teeter and he takes a step backwards before doubling over and vomiting.
            Coyle closes his eyes and takes long, shaking breaths, but his heartbeat will not slow. The ephedrine rush of rage spurring his energies inflames and swells his senses instead of clarifying and narrowing them. He grips the gun at his side and his tight clinch on the handle turns his fingers white. His hand aches, but Coyle cannot feel it.
            He steps towards the drainage ditch, holding his head high like someone craning away from a bad smell. He wants to turn, walk away, climb into his car, and make his delivery. However, when he opens his eyes, he is standing at the edge of the ditch. He lowers his head, looks down, and sees the body lying on the slope. The man is dead, on his back, three large bloodstains on his upper body, and his face stares at the sky. It is the first time that Coyle sees him. The man is no more than twenty-five and his eyes are open in the flickering, salty light. His mouth is open, but half-hidden in darkness. He looks like Alan, the fucker looks like Alan, he thinks. The thought rises to the surface and balloons into belief. He starts whimpering and shaking, tears rolling down his cheeks, and drops the gun to the ground. When the whimpering erupts into loud sobbing, he scampers down the hillside. He kneels next to the body, scoops his head into his arms, and brushes the long hair off his lifeless face.
            "I'm sorry, oh, I'm so sorry, son. I didn't know any better. I didn't know. I'm so sick."
            It is not his Alan. It is not his son. Cecil Coyle is behind a crumbling motel cradling the dead body of his tenth murder victim. He is forty-five years old and a thief, drug dealer, and killer for the last thirty. He is a two-time felon running drugs for local Italians and there are four twenty-five pound duffle bags bursting with high quality heroin in the trunk of his car. Despite thirty years of theft, drugs, and murder, he has never been here before. In this moment, behind the Economy Inn, Coyle cannot push his consciousness into a hole like before. The hole he shovels his regrets into for thirty years, a jagged chasm deep within, overflows and there is nowhere left to hide.
            He decides to keep the shipment for himself, sell it, and leave the city forever. He needs time. Before the sun rises, Coyle steals a car from a grocery store parking lot and leaves his old one behind. If he drives the same car, the wrong person will see him. Maybe a bored cop or some street guy grabbing a chance to score points with the Italians, but someone will spot him, follow him, and end his life with handcuffs or gun.
            He will sell the heroin cheap. It will take a call or two and they will flock to him, no one getting any lump in their throat over ripping off the Italians. After he unloads the drugs, he will go back to the room, gather up his things, and it will be over. He has to make a new start. His ex-wife is serving a twenty-year prison sentence for drug trafficking and conspiracy to commit murder. His only child, Alan, is a twenty-two year old cocaine addict prowling the streets and sleeping in empty buildings. There is no buried treasure, nest egg, or retirement plan in place for the day when he cannot steal, kill, or deal drugs. Coyle has to save himself and a trunk full of stolen heroin is the way.
            After stealing the car, Coyle drives back to the motel. He is awake for twenty-eight hours, making pickups and drops, passing messages along, and even keeping his eye for a time on a drug wholesaler who the supplier suspects is keeping too much money. He gulps ephedrine pills by the handful the entire time. He does not drink or smoke, but overdoses himself with amphetamines and over the counter supplements for three decades. He is six hours late for the drop-off, so he needs to be working, moving, unloading the heroin, and getting the money to go, but the inevitable crash has come and he needs to sleep more. However, he needs to makes one phone call when he gets back to the motel.
            A large neon sign towers over the single-level Economy Inn and the building's flaking beige paint forms a scattershot ring around the foundation. Long, warping strips of particleboard panel the walls and their brown stain is fading to spotty, sandy hue. The bed is small and the sheets are thin. There is a small bathroom in front of the room door and thick green curtains hang over the room's single bay window.
            He wants to talk to his mother so she can hear it from him that he is leaving and why. He cannot go see her. Someone might be watching her house by now and a hundred pounds of heroin is more than enough reason for someone to take her hostage or worse.
            "Mom, it's me."
            He hears the harsh clanging of pots and pans. She is doing dishes. "Cecil. How are you doing?" Twenty-five years older than her son, she is a former kitchen manager and there is still a sharp, insistent edge in her loud voice.
            "I'm breathing. You?"
            "Not much better, but better than you probably. You in trouble?"
            "Just wanted to talk."
            She coughs and clears her throat. "About?"
            "You remember Hughie Tyrone?"
            "The barber you used to go to as a kid? On the south side of the square?"
            "Yeah, that guy. Used to teach me chess when I was a kid, about seven or eight, but that doesn't matter. What matters is he tried to teach me something."
            "He liked you." Her voice softens and the words slow. "Your dad never liked him. I think the bastard was just jealous 'cause chess was beyond him." She laughs hard enough to start coughing.
            "Dad taught me how to bust out a lock, hotwire a car, and make a homemade silencer."
            She does not speak and Coyle hears what sounds like a wooden chair dragging across concrete. "Enough of this shit, Cecil. Come out and say what you have to say." Her voice is loud again and she spits the words out in an impatient burst.
            When Coyle's heart starts pounding, he lies back on the bed and starts at the drop ceiling above. He does not know how to say any of the things he wants to say. Hughie Tyrone is a means to an end, but he is groping for words. "Life is too fucking random. We're all dangling off a thin string and if you make one wrong turn, everything changes. You get one father instead of another, you didn't ask for either one of 'em, and you are still dealing with the bullshit from it at forty-five."
            "You get one life, Cecil. Some choices get made for you, but you've got some choices." She shorts. "You made bad ones," she says. She coughs and clears her throat again. "You aren't in trouble?"
            "I've made another choice, mom. I'm leaving. For good."
            "Why? Cops looking for you?"
            "No. I've just got to go. I'm done with it, done with it all."
            They are both silent. Coyle wants to say more. He wants to tell her about how the rotting man behind the motel looks like Alan. He wants to tell her about killing him and the nine other men along the way. He wants to unload the drugs and the past alike in one day, selling one while confessing the other.
            "I've got to go, mom. Need some sleep."
            "I talked to Alan a couple of days ago, Cecil."
            Coyle's heartbeat races and he leans up from the bed. "Really?"
            She pauses. "Yeah," she says. Coyle hears a long, wheezing sigh. "When did you see or talk to him last?"
            Coyle rubs his eyes and forehead. "Oh, I don't know, maybe two and a half years. I've heard shit though."
            "That he's living on the street, begging for drugs, and crashing in an abandoned building by St. Michael's."
            She snorts. "Guess that sums it up, huh?" she says. The frustration in her voice is sharp. "I was coming out of the Costco on 35th Street when he ran into me."
            "How'd he look? What'd he say?" The words tumble out of his mouth and his tongue trips over each syllable.
            "He was rail-thin and pale as a sheet. High out of his mind too. Asked me if I had any money."
            "You give him any?"
            His mother's harsh laughter chokes with phlegm. "As if. I didn't give him a dime. He told me where he's sleeping though."
            Coyle sucks in a lungful of air through his nose and sighs. "Where?"
            "In that old building next to St. Michael's. Used to be a bar I think."
            Pain lashes across the top of Coyle's head and the room spins for a few second. He needs to end the call and sleep before he falls off the bed and onto the floor.
            "Okay. I gotta go, mom. Gotta get some sleep."
            She pauses before answering and Coyle hears a low, tuneless humming in his ear. "Alright, Cecil. Call me when you can." Her voice cracks on the final two words.
            "I will."
            When he wakes, it is mid-afternoon and sweat covers his face. He spends ten minutes using the bathroom, washing his face, and dressing before leaving the room. He loads the duffle bags into the trunk and drives to a gas station on the corner. Even after sleeping for six hours, he is nodding out and needs more ephedrine pills.
            He swallows ten pills in the parking lot and decides to look for Alan. He wants him to know that he is getting out. In thirty years, Coyle never says he is sorry, but he wants to look Alan in the eyes and tell him that he regrets not being a better father. When he sees Alan a year and a half before, his son delivers pizzas and lives with a stripper and her three-year-old daughter, but now his son is homeless, huddling with junkies, and sick. Coyle looks into the rearview mirror but does not see his face. He sees, echoing in his own eyes, mouth, and chin, the face of the old man his son will never be. He drives to St. Michael's Church on the corner of Roosevelt and 85th Street.
            Crumbling brownstones, brick row buildings with plywood covering the windows, and buckling A-frames with small, bowing front porches dot the neighborhood. The sprawling church looms over the area like an immense, hollow skull. The short spire above the entrance and two taller spires flanking each side look like a trio of spikes stabbing the sky.
            Shuffling junkies wander the street and Coyle peers at each one as he passes. Dealers and junkies alike are slinking in and out of open doorways and the sound of laughter, chatter, and shouting wafts from open windows. Coyle does not see his son among them. All he sees are deep, black eyes staring at him as he drives by.
            He turns a corner and cranes his head to look again. There is a tall man wearing a dusty leather jacket slumping against a building. When the man lurches forward and slides his right shoulder against the wall, his face turns towards the sun and Coyle sees his face. It is Alan. Coyle slows the car and lunges across the seat towards the open passenger window.
            When Coyle sees Alan turn his head towards him, he swerves and parks his car alongside the curb. He jumps out of the car and rushes up to his son, but stops at about a foot away.
            "Alan, it's me, it's your dad."
            Alan tries to swing around, but his knees buckle and he crumples to the pavement. His head drops and a shiver wracks his body. Coyle kneels at his side.
            "You alright?"
            Alan nods. "Just got dizzy."
            "Let me help you up."
            Coyle moves behind him and wraps his arms around Alan's chest. He braces himself with his left foot and heaves Alan to his feet. Alan wavers for a second before his legs straighten. When he looks over his shoulder at Coyle, he jerks back.
            "Dad. huh? What do you want?" There is a thick slur in his voice, sores pit his cheeks, and golf-ball size knots choke his long blonde hair.
            Coyle frowns and extends his hand towards him. "I want to see you, Alan. Talk to you. That's all."
            Alan swats his hand away. "We don't have anything to talk about."
            Coyle sighs and stuffs his hands into his pockets. "I've got things I want to say. A lot of things."
            Alan leans towards him. "What then? Say it and get out of my face."
            Coyle looks up and down the street. A couple of middle-age homeless men shuffle by. He kicks the pavement and looks at his son. He does not want to talk here, but if this is it, he will say it here on the sidewalk. "I'm leaving the life. I'm getting out of town tomorrow and I'm not coming back."
            Alan is silent for a moment, his eyes narrowing, and his eyebrows twitching. He laughs. "You? Giving up the money, the scores, all of it? You're fucking joking. Get out of here." He tries to push past Coyle and walk away, but Coyle blocks him with his shoulder.
            "Not anymore, Alan."
            Alan glares at him. "You're full of shit," he says. His mouth puckers and he shoves Coyle in the shoulder. "Where you gonna go anyway? There's nowhere for you to go, motherfucker."
            Coyle steps back and shrugs. "Maybe there isn't. But I have to go." Coyle reaches out to place a hand on Alan's shoulder, but he leans away and when he does, he teeters backwards. Coyle grabs his jacket to keep him from falling.
            "Let me get you something to eat. We can sit down and talk."
            Alan smirks. "Like a father and son, huh?" He coughs and it causes his body to convulse. "I'm sick. Can't eat a fucking thing."
            He leans towards Coyle and his face contorts. "None of your fucking business, man!" The spit flies with his words and Coyle flinches before rubbing it off his forehead and cheeks.
            Alan looks down and his breathing is slow and deep. Coyle hears him wheezing. "Fucking fatherly concern," he says and snorts. "Okay, fine. I want to sit down somewhere so you can buy me some coffee."
            They climb into his car and drive off. The waves of anxiety pouring through Coyle's nervous system give him a weightless feeling. He expects the snarls, smirks, and defiant skepticism, but Alan's scalding contempt feels like a slow moving snake crushing his internal organs and twisting into his chest. Alan stares out the window and does not speak.
            "I saw a place down the street when I was driving over here. We'll go there," Coyle says. He bites his lower lips. "I talked to your grandma and she told me where to find you."
            Alan frowns and blinks a few times. "Yeah?" He looks out the window. "I saw her a while back. I was all fucked up."
            "Yeah, she said she was worried about you. How'd..."
            "Well, she should worry about herself. Just like you. You've got a lot of experience worrying about yourself." He does not turn away from the window, but his voice is loud and drowns out Coyle's own.
            A bolt of pain creases the underside of Coyle's arm. He winces and rubs a free hand over his head while he drives. "Alan, look at you. You're hooked to the gills. How long you been using?"
            Instead of snapping back at Coyle's frustration, Alan shrugs. "I don't know. A while."
            "How much?"
            Alan snorted. "What the fuck ever I can get or take." He turns away from the window and smiles at Coyle. It is thin and his eyes are narrow. "You know the deal. You've sold enough of the shit. Got some, dad?"
            Coyle sighs, grits his teeth, and turns into the parking lot of a small diner on the corner of 68th and Clark. The building is in poor condition. The guttering on the side of the building sags and jagged cracks slash across the once blue facade. Chips of limestone from the foundation litter the ground and splotches of grim spot the windows. One of the letters on the diner sign flickers and buzzes. Coyle peers through the window and sees one customer and one waitress. His son follows him inside. There is a row of booths against a wall, two tables, and a short breakfast bar. Everything has a faint yellow tint. They sit down at the bar and a skinny, middle-aged waitress wearing too much makeup walks over to them.
            "Can I get you something?"
            "Coffee. Black." Coyle says.
            "I'll have the same." Alan lowers his head and stares at the bar surface.
            The waitress nods and walks off. She pours two cups of coffee from a brown coffee mug and carries them back. "Anything else?"
            "Nah, that's it." Coyle says.
            The waitress walks off again and Coyle blows on his coffee to cool it down. He looks at his son from the side. His wide eyes are bulging out of his head and his skeletal face is gargoyle-like and frozen. They are quiet again. Alan raises his head to drink the coffee in brief sips. His hands are shaking and his coffee splashes over the rim. An old man in the booth behind them sways and mumbles obscenities. The wail of a nearby police siren swells before fading again.
            "I'm sorry, Alan."
            Alan does not raise his head, but turns it towards Coyle. He squints and shakes his head. "Sorry for what?"
            "Everything. I was a shitty ass father."
            Alan raises his head and snorts. "Little late for that. It doesn't mean anything to me."
            Coyle straightens his back, sighs, and smacks his palms down on the breakfast bar surface. "Won't you give an inch, Alan? I'm trying to set things right. Maybe it isn't much, but isn't more than I've ever tried to do before?" His voice is shrill and straining.
            Alan turns his body around to face him and looks him in the eyes. "You want me to give you an inch? I don't owe you shit, asshole," he says. He is whispering, but spitting when he speaks and jabbing his finger in the air. "Go ahead and take off. Maybe you'll find someone who will give a fuck, but it isn't gonna be me."
            Coyle twiddles his fingers and shifts in his stool. He wants his son to believe him and nothing has so far. He decides to tell him more without saying a word about the dead man from last night. "Alan, I've ripped off a big shipment I was supposed to deliver. I'm going to sell it today and get out of here by tomorrow at noon. Now do you believe me?"
            Alan arches his eyebrows and leans back. "You're fucking crazy. That's what I believe."
            Coyle sighs. "Yeah, that's what I'm thinking too."
            Alan sneers, snorts at him, and gulps down his coffee. He sits the cup down and pushes it to the side. "Well, I've gotta go. Got someone I have to go see."
            Coyle whips around and grips his son's arm, his fingers digging into the jacket sleeve. "Go? We just got here. Sit down, let me say what I need to say. It won't hurt you any."
            "Nah. Not interested. Thanks for the coffee." His voice is flat and his face expressionless. He yanks his arm out of Coyle's grasp and starts walking towards the door. Coyle spins on the stool and reaches out his hand.
            "Alan, come see me before noon tomorrow. I want to talk. I'm at the Economy Inn, just north of Empire Bridge. Room 20."
            Alan stops, turns, and looks at him. When his mouth curls into a thin smile, Coyle hopes he will walk back over and sit, but instead he turns again and walks out the door. Coyle watches him until he winds around the corner and disappears. He believes Alan will be dead within the year. Someone will find him rotting in a vacant building, a yellowing needle still dangling from his bony arm. Or maybe when he dies junkies will surround him in a humid, smoke-filled apartment. He will spike his vein with a needle, his head will roll like a chunk of lettuce circling a drain, and he will smile. The same smile Coyle sees when he leaves. The warm silken charge sweeping across his body will turn to ice and cause the smile to vanish. His body will stiffen and his eyes will spin into the back of his head. He will slump to the floor and the other junkies will watch the translucent stream of spit leaking from his mouth. They will watch the short, violent thrashing of his body and, when the thrashing stops and Alan is dead, they will say nothing, plunder his pockets, and leave his blue, bloating body alone. Coyle has seen it before. It is as real and as clear in his mind as the stool he is sitting on or the coffee cup in front of him.
            He wants to burst out the door and catch up to Alan just to say he loves him, but there is no use. Coyle stares at the door instead, his back leaning against the breakfast bar. His mind recalls everything he says to his son today and knows words can never be enough. His desire to lighten his load of guilt is his desire alone and Alan has no interest in absolution. Chasing him down the street will push him further away. However, he cannot give up. He will look for him again tomorrow before he leaves.
            Other concerns weigh on him. He has one hundred pounds of Mafia heroin in his trunk and needs to sell it. He pulls his cell phone from his shirt pocket and punches in a number. Someone answers by the second ring.
            "Need to talk to Malloy. Tell him it's Coyle and important."
            The man grunts and drops the phone. Eddie Malloy is a year younger than Coyle and knows him since kindergarten. Their families live within a block of each other and both boys hook up with the Italians in their late teens. They do everything together - sell stolen goods and drugs, pull robberies and burglaries alike, hijack trucks, and murder anyone the Italians trust them to kill. Now he runs out of the west side of the city and runs a group of Irish street guys who sell cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. Coyle knows the Italians are his supplier, but he believes that Malloy will savor the chance to fuck them over for the thrill. And the money.
            When Malloy tells him to come over, Coyle starts driving for the west side. Malloy spends his time at a bar called Player's Inn and Coyle plans to drive there, do the deal quick, and head back to the motel. It is early in the evening and he wants eight hours of sleep before leaving the city. Days of overdosing on ephedrine pills and sleeping a handful of hours at a stretch are wearing him thin. Once he reaches the Interstate, he will not be stopping for a long time.
            The Player's Inn is downstairs from a ground floor pawnshop. Irish families once blanket the neighborhood, but it is now a stew of third and fourth generation Irish living alongside black and Italian families. There are dozens of vacant houses and buildings in the area and the pawnshop door has bars blocking the entrance and steel shutters covering its lone window. Four concrete steps lead down to the bar's entrance.
            Coyle parks along the street, takes a duffle bag from the trunk, and walks inside. The bar is small and reeks of mold. The wooden floor creaks and a long bar starts near the door and spans the right side of the room. A pool table sits on the left side of the room and the sound of The Rolling Stones song "Jumpin' Jack Flash" pumps from jukebox with buzzing speakers. A kid with acne scars covering his face drops his stick on the pool table and walks towards Coyle.
            "Who the fuck are you?" He does not blink, smile, or frown.
            Coyle takes a step towards him. "Tell Malloy that Coyle is here."
            The kid lowers his shoulders and looks back at an older, redheaded man behind him. The redhead nods and the kid walks back to the pool table. The redhead walks up to Coyle.
            "Sit at the bar, Coyle. I'll let Eddie know you're here," he says.
            Coyle nods and sits on a bar stool. A minute passes before two men sit next to him. Coyle does not recognize them and they ignore him. They are downing shots of whiskey from a quart size bottle sitting on the bar and shouting at each other about the split on a cocaine deal. The kid and a thin, middle-aged man play pool while the older man cackles about a hooker infecting the kid with pubic lice.
            A door opens in the rear of the bar and Malloy steps out. He is once thin, blonde, and has a firm jaw line and long neck, but he packs on a hundred pounds in five years and loses the hair on the top of his head while the rest turns white. His firm jaw sags around the cheeks and age compresses his long neck. He waves at Coyle to come into his office.
            There is an oak bar on one side of the office, a large steel desk in the center of the room, and two long rows of fluorescent lights hanging from a drop ceiling above. There are a number of chair and a leather couch sitting against a wall. The redhead who Coyle talks to in the bar is sitting on the couch with another man. The second man has a black eye, black hair, and a wide scar running down one cheek. Malloy is propping his feet up on the desk.
            "Sit, man. Need a drink?" Malloy says.
            Coyle moves from foot to foot and shakes his head. "No, thanks. Just want to get this done and get some sleep."
            Malloy chuckles. "I'll bet you're in a hurry to unload it," he says. "Gotta say, it is a nice way to fuck those cocksuckers."
            Coyle smiles. "I figured you'd approve. I don't owe the Italians a thing. I'm getting out, this is it for me."
            Malloy swings his feet off the desk and leans forward. He slaps his palms down on the desk and throws his head back. "Go get the money, Mick," he says to the redhead. He looks at Coyle and smiles. "What's happened, Cecil? Tell your old buddy. Feeling unappreciated? You should come work for me." He arches an eyebrow and leans back in his chair.
            Coyle smirks, but Malloy's familiar bluster wears on him. There is a threadbare calm holding Coyle together allowing his haywire criminal instincts to flare to life again, but Malloy's babbling threatens to shred his focus on what he needs to do. "Not happening. Things change, Eddie, and people do too."
            Malloy glares at him. "I haven't changed and never will."
            Mick walks back into the room and sits down two thick envelopes in front of Malloy. Malloy nods at him and Mick sits down again on the couch. Malloy peers into each envelope and nods again.
            "It's all here. Hand me that duffle bag."
            Coyle passes the bag to him and Malloy unzips it. He pulls out two bundles, places them on the desk, then opens a drawer, and pulls out a digital scale. He places the bundles on the scale and looks at the display screen.
            "Twenty five pounds on the dot."
            Malloy shoves the envelopes across the desk towards Coyle. He scoops them up, stuffs them into his shirt pocket, stands, and steps towards the door. When he does, Mick springs up in front of him and blocks his path. The second man is standing next to Mick. When Coyle turns and looks at Malloy, his eyes are wide.
            "I've changed my mind. You aren't going anywhere and we'll just go get the rest of the heroin out of your car." He draws each word out, but there is no warmth in his voice.
            Malloy is going to kill him and take the heroin for himself. When the thought hits Coyle's mind, his heartbeat slows, but he feels a blast of energy cover his entire body, filling every limb, and he begins to shake. It is anger, white searing rage, and it will not let Malloy kill him, take the heroin, and profit from his death. They make one mistake when Coyle comes in. No one pats him down and finds his loaded gun.
            Coyle whips around and punches the man with black hair in the mouth. He slumps against the wall and sinks to the floor. When Coyle reaches into his waistband and pulls out the gun, everything slows down. Coyle sees Mick lunging towards him while reaching behind his back. He shoots Mick twice in the face, the impact knocking him back onto the couch, spins around, and shoots the man with black hair in the forehead as he struggles to his feet.
            After he pulls the trigger, Malloy tackles him and both men tumble onto Mick's dead body. Coyle loses his grip on the gun and, when he reaches for it, Malloy drives his elbow into the crook of Coyle's arm. Coyle winces and hears loud shouting from the other side of the door. The lock and dead man keep anyone from coming in. While Malloy is larger and stronger than Coyle, Coyle is quicker. He jumps to his feet and sees Malloy down on his knees. He kicks him in the head, sends him crashing into the desk, and keeps kicking him in the head until Malloy stops moving.
            The pounding on the door does not stop. The room is quiet. Coyle pauses for a second before he rushes around the other side of the desk. He plunges his hands into the drawers looking for another gun and finds a nine millimeter with a full clip. He walks over to Mick's dead body and takes a .38 revolver from his waistband. There is no choice but to shoot his way out.
            He stands in front of the door. He sees four men when he comes in the bar, two playing pool and the two sitting next to him, but that is no help. Coyle starts firing at where the knocks are loudest and the bullets leave wide holes in the door. Coyle hears grunting on the other side. Someone starts shooting back and Coyle dives over the desk. He uses the desk as cover and shoots back. Everything is quiet again and Coyle stands and creeps towards the door with both guns at his side. When he hears Malloy stirring, he stomps his foot hard on his head, unlocks the door, and steps out into the bar.
            The kid's body is lying on the floor with three bullet wounds in his chest. His pool-playing partner is a few feet to the right and the two men that sit next to Coyle at the bar are gone. He thinks about walking back into the office and killing Malloy. His hands are quaking with rage still and sweat covers his face. Instead, he leaves. He is done.
            He weeps while he drives back to the motel. He kills five men in the last two days, loses his son, and cannot sell the heroin he steals to make a new life for himself. It does not matter. He will steal another car in the morning and the two hundred and fifty dollars in his wallet will take him somewhere. Anywhere but this city and this life.
            He fumbles into the dark motel room and collapses onto the bed. His sore left arm stops him from laying on his left side or his stomach, so he lies on his back instead and stares at the city lights outside. The field of light spreading over his room in patches is as faint as a fingerprint and Coyle sees specks of dust floating in the glittering, narrow streams. Coyle thinks this is the best light, the manufactured light masking reality and sweetening the bitter taste of life as it is.
            He opens his eyes when he hears someone knocking at the door. They are hard knocks rattling the door and echoing through the room. He frowns and rubs his eyes. He cannot move his left arm, so he uses his right to roll over and sit on the side of the bed. The knocking continues when he stands up and walks to the door.
            "Yeah? Who is it? What do you want?"
            "It's Alan, dad. Can I come in?"
            Coyle hears nothing but his own heartbeat. "Really?"
            "Yeah, dad, it's really me. Just let me in."
            Coyle turns the deadbolt and flings the door open. When the morning sunlight blasts into the room, Coyle squints and steps back. He opens his eyes and sees Alan standing in the doorway. Two men appear on each side of him, shove him aside, and rush into the room. Coyle turns to go for his gun, but one of the men slams the butt of their pistol into his skull. He falls to the floor and one of the men pushes him over with their foot. When another man walks up and kicks him in the mouth, his head snaps back and his mouth fills with blood.
            He hears the motel room door close and raises his head. There are four people in the room. Two men built like bodybuilders and wearing tank top shirts with sweatpants. His son is standing in a corner and staring at him. His face is frozen. Coyle knows the fourth man. He is tall, thin, and a deep bleached scar in the shape of a comma covers one cheek. Vincent Mirra is a Mafia captain with twenty guys under his command. He is playing with his neck chain and pacing the floor. He looks at Coyle and smirks.
            "Always blows me away when an Irish cocksucker thinks he can get cute. You, though, are the motherfucking king of cute. You think you can rob us, huh?"
            Coyle looks away from Mirra and stares at his son. Alan stands in the corner of the room next to the door. He looks at his father, but does not smile or frown. Coyle hears Mirra laugh.
            "Sold you out for two hundred dollars." Mirra reaches down and slaps Coyle hard on the back of the head. "Hear that? Two hundred dollars. Nice job you did with this kid, Coyle. He's a real piece of work."
            Mirra's men laugh and Coyle coughs out a knot of blood. He wants to speak. He wants to tell his son he is sorry again. He wants to tell Mirra and his men to fuck off. He wants to say something, but his words are slurs and gasps. He looks at Mirra and drops his head. If this is how it has to be, okay.
            Mirra pulls out a nine-millimeter pistol and shoots Coyle twice in the head. Coyle's face snaps into the floor and his body jerks once. He is out.

Talk Dirty To Me - first draft

            The first time Alex sees another man's penis, a naked woman is sliding it into her mouth. Alex is sitting on the floor, crossing his legs, and leaning forward towards the television screen. His wide blue eyes are watching the woman's face as her head bobs up and down. Her long blonde hair has hundreds of tight curls, her smooth legs stretch across the bed, and her small pink nipples look like puckering lips. Alex looks at her face. She closes her eyes while the penis is in her mouth, but does not clinch them shut. He thinks she looks asleep.
            The man is smirking and biting his lower lip. The thick, wiry black crescent of his hair gleams in the lighting and deep furrows line his face. He has broad shoulders, a layer of black hair covers his body and forms a T on his chest, but he is short and a lip of stomach flab hangs over his waist. However, it is his penis, not his face or body, which is the star of the movie. Alex has no frame of reference for its shape and size. Some boys catch glimpses of their father's penis, but Alex never has. His eleven-year-old penis is long, but he never wonders about its size until today. In his mind, he thinks everyone has the same penis as him. The ugly man on the television screen buries that idea forever.
            His penis is a thick, glistening pink shaft as long as an infant's forearm. Bulging blue veins weave under the skin and the curving crown looks like a fist hidden in a coat sleeve. Alex feels his heart pounding whenever he looks at it. He asks himself how it can be so big. He wonders if there is something wrong with the man, or does he have a problem? When he grows up, will his penis look like that? He hopes it will. It is so big that Alex wonders how the woman fits it into her mouth without gagging.
            Alex unbuckles his pants, slides them down his thick hips, and looks at his penis. It is limp, dangling towards the floor like a drooping middle finger, and three tufts of black hair are growing from his sternum. When Alex runs his fingers through the hair, it feels like the bristles of a hairbrush. He takes his penis in hand and looks at the television screen. The woman is on all fours and the man is behind her. He is on his knees, his hands clutching her hips, and thrusting his crotch into her. The camera angle shifts and Alex sees the man's penis plunging deep into the woman's vagina. Alex looks down at his own penis. There is hair growing, he notices his penis growing thicker and longer in the last two months, but it is nothing like what he sees in the movie. The woman is moaning, rolling her head from side to side, and arching her back. Alex knows his penis cannot make a woman do any of those things. He thinks it never will. It will be too small like his stomach is too fat and his legs are too slow. Alex sighs, pulls his pants up, and turns off the video cassette player. He presses the rewind button and, when the tape finishes rewinding, ejects it, sticks it in its sleeve, and slides it back onto the shelf with the title on the tape spine facing out. The title, Talk Dirty To Me, is in small, jagged black letters.
            Of all the things Alex can be in this world, to be himself is the least appealing of all. He is tall for his age, but hovers between twenty and forty pounds overweight. The other kids never let him forget it. Complaining, sobbing, and stomping his feet does not stop a few hundred spitballs from smacking the back of his head or block a dozen dodge balls from hitting his stomach by his eleventh birthday.
            The attackers are boys; girls are another matter. He falls in love with every girl he meets. When they stand close to him, his eyes slide away, his head sags, and his stomach flutters. It feels like a small bird is stirring to life inside of him, swelling, shaking its wings faster until his entire body is trembling, weightless, and wavering. They laugh at his stuttering, stumbling, and fidgeting, burying their faces in friend's shoulders to stifle their snickers. They do not shoot spitballs at him, call him names, or sling dodge balls at his stomach, but every girl he loves stare at the boys who do.
            He thinks about the girls he loves late at night more than any other time. After he climbs into bed, the house quiet, Alex turns on a small radio and listens to love songs. He listens with a thumping heart to lyric after lyric about losing, finding, and renewing love. The girl he loves this year is Heidi and he wants to kiss her, wrap his arms around her, and hold her hand. He is swinging and watching her jumping rope at recess when one of her friends, a short girl with glasses and long red hair, walks over to him.
            "Hey, Alex, Heidi wants you to come over where we are."
            Alex puts his feet down and stops swinging. A slight, mocking lilt in her words raises his eyebrows. "How come? She never talks to me."
            She smiles and tosses her head back. "Hah! I'll tell you why! She knows you love her." Her eyes narrow and she wags her index finger at him. "She didn't say she wants to be your girlfriend or nothin', but she wants to you to hang out with us." The girl puts a hand on her hip and narrows her eyes. "So, are you comin', or what?"
            He looks at Heidi across the playground. Her thick nest of bright blonde hair extends past her sloping shoulders and she has the slender body, long arms, legs, and narrow hips of a dancer. Splashes of small brown freckles on her cheeks accentuate her eyes. Alex loves her eyes. He thinks they are the color of twilight and look like teardrops turning on their side. She is twirling one end of a jump rope, singing as another girl skips over the looping rope. She glances at him, smiles, and says something to a girl standing next to her. Both girls look at Alex and laugh, but their eyes are wide, their round cheeks rise, and their hands are waving free at their side. He is sure Heidi said something nice about him.
            "Sure, I'll come."
            "Alright then, let's go!"
            The girl turns and trots towards Heidi. Alex stands and walks away from the swing set and onto the basketball court. There are four goal posts and six boys are playing a loud basketball game, clanging shots, stopping and starting again, and screaming at each other. They glare at Alex as he walks across the other end of the court, but no one speaks. A freezing tingle shudders across his skin. Alex knows they are looking, but he does not look at them. All that matters are the quick, breathless steps across the concrete bringing him closer to Heidi. If they say something now, if they hurl their curses and insults at him, he will not face them, frozen or flinching, waiting for them to stop hurting him like so many times before. Instead, he will run to Heidi and hug her, kiss her, and ask her to make them go away. If she loves him, everything will be better.
            She gives her end of the jump rope to the girl with red hair and turns to face Alex. She takes two steps forward and smiles at him. When he walks up to her, she drops her head, shuffles her feet, and giggles.
            "Hi, Alex."
            "Hi, Heidi."
            She peers up at him and raises her eyebrows. "What are you doin'?"
            Alex notices his hands shaking and thrusts them into his pockets. His knees are twitching. "Oh, nothing. I was just swinging."
            She raises her head, flashes him a smile, and looks away. "You've got a funny look on your face. You surprised I wanted you to come over here?" she says. Her soft voice rises when she asks the question.
            Alex drops his head and kicks the dirt with his foot. His tongue is dry and his back itches. I don't know what to do, he thinks. I'm gonna say something wrong and she won't like me anymore.
            "Yeah, I didn't think you liked me," he says. He talks fast and stumbles over the words when his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth.
            She smiles and cranes her head downward to see his face. "Maybe I do like you. Maybe I always have and just couldn't say anything till now." When she straightens, Alex raises his head and looks at her. She smiles again. "I know you like me though."
            Alex feels heat spreading across his face and Heidi laughs. What do I say? I can't tell her I love her, she'll laugh at me. "I really like you a lot," he says, whispering, his eyes wide and unblinking.
            When Heidi laughs again, Alex looks away. The boys are still playing basketball. All six have their shirts off and the dull glistening of sweat covering their bodies looks like a thin coat of grease. When they are not playing, striding and stalking around the basketball goal, swinging their shoulders, and cocking their heads from side to side, the basketball court corrals them.
            "So what do you want to do?" Heidi says.
            She talks fast, sharpening the end of each word, and blinking in brief bursts when he looks at her. He licks his lips and shrugs. "I don't know, just hang out?"
            She crinkles her nose. "I want to be doing things, not just hangin' out!" Her eyes widen and she pauses. "You wanna jump rope with us?"
            Her voice softens, the words roll out slower, her eyes relax, and she smiles again. His eyes move from her to the girls jumping rope behind her. Fear swells up inside of him. He cannot do it. He reads books, watches movies, and listens to music. He never jumps rope or plays basketball before, but he wants to. People like basketball players and jumping rope more than books. He thinks he cannot do it because he reads books, because he is too fat, too slow, too ugly, too much Alex to jump over a swinging rope without falling on his face. However, he knows he cannot say no. If he says he does not like jumping rope, she will quit liking him. If he tells her he cannot do it, she will laugh at him. I don't have to do it long, he thinks. If I can jump it two or three times, I can stop and just hang out with her until recess is over.
            "Yeah, I'll jump rope with you." Alex hears his cracking voice falling into a hoarse whisper on the final two words. He clears his throat, rolls his slumping shoulders, and straightens his back.
            The redheaded girl hands the jump rope to Heidi. Alex stares at the long, white nylon spool with round knots at each end. Both girls on each side are smiling and the rope curls in the dirt like a sun-bleached snake. I can do it if I time my jump right. That's all it is, I can do that, I know I can. Alex looks at each girl and smiles. He steps in front of the rope and spaces his feet an inch apart.
            "Ready?" Heidi says.
            Alex turns his head, nods twice, and looks at the ground. "Yup, go ahead and do it."
            When Alex is bending his knees to jump, the rope swings over him and slaps his shins. He blinks and hears Heidi's friends laughing behind him. He looks at Heidi. She is pursing her lips together to hold in her laughter.
            "That... was too soon," Alex says. "Let's do it again."
            She lowers her head and widens her eyes. "The rope's comin', you gotta jump."
            Alex frowns and nods. "I know, I know." He stares at the ground, furrows his eyebrows, and waves her off with his right hand. "Come on, let's do it again."
            "Alright, get ready."
            He knows the rope is swinging when the hair on the back of his head flutters and jumps. I did it! His chest is heaving. The rope swings around again, but when he jumps, it is too late. The rope loops around his left foot and pulls him off balance. He falls into the dirt, catching himself with his hands.
            Laughter blasts him from every side. He hears the shrill giggling of the girls, Heidi cupping her hand across her face, her shoulders bouncing up and down, her head bopping from side to side. He hears raw laughter from the basketball court and turns his head to see the boys standing close together, their dark eyes glaring at him, slapping their hands against their legs and across each other's back, their chests swelling. Alex is on his hands and knees and staring into the dirt. The laughter does not stir his anger. Instead, his thundering heart is straining with panic. He cannot understand why they hate him for being fat. He cannot understand why they hate him for not playing their games or tripping over their jump ropes. He cannot grasp the reason why they are tearing him down with their giggling and laughter and the gnawing fear blossoming from that lack of understanding eats him alive. He is the problem. No one makes them change. Everyone wants him to change because there is something wrong with him as he is. If he stays fat and doesn't play their games, no one will ever like him. The laughter will keep coming, growing louder and louder.
            He says nothing to anyone. While they continue laughing at him, Alex stands, brushes off, and walks towards the school doors. He goes to the bathroom, looks in the mirror, and wipes a smudge of dirt off his cheek. The panic gripping his heart loosens and tears well up from deep within. He clutches the sink and throws his head back while he sobs. When he lowers his head, he looks down and sees his loose, dangling shoestrings.
            He watches professional basketball on television with his father. Jack, his dad, is a quiet man who seldom laughs or raises his voice. He tucks his shirt in, has a thick head of black hair that he combs often, a smooth, angular face. His father is a casual basketball fan who, if he cannot find something else to watch on television, watches a game. Alex likes basketball, but the time watching a game is two hours with his dad, and that makes it much more than a game.
            "What do you think someone's got to do to be a good ball player, dad?"
            His father has an open beer between his legs and is propping his feet up on a footstool. He turns his head and looks at Alex. "I don't know, son. Lots of things. Why?" He picks up the beer, takes a drink, and wedges it between his knees.
            Alex shrugs. "I don't know. I was thinking I might want to try playing basketball."
            Jack's eyes widen and an eyebrow arches. "Really? It's a lot of work." He frowns, lowers his head, and then looks at Alex again. "I'm not saying you can't do it. It's a commitment though."
            "I think I can do it. I'll do whatever I've gotta do, dad."
            When he sees Heidi later holding hands with a boy from the basketball court, Alex decides he will learn how to play. Heidi will love him then. He still hears her laughter, but she laughs at him because he is not good enough, not because there is something wrong with her. He knows he can be better. If he learns how to play basketball, he will be better. He will lose weight, the boys will stop picking on him, and she will hold his hand tight.
            His father promises to buy a basketball and a goal when he gets his next paycheck. Alex does not wait. He wads up pieces of notebook paper into small balls and practices his shooting skills on waste paper baskets. One player Alex loves watching on television uses the skyhook as his signature shot, so Alex shoots skyhook after skyhook, pretending to dribble the paper ball, taking three steps, and arcing his right arm high into the air before releasing the ball. When payday comes and he starts shooting the skyhooks for real, the ball clangs off the rim when it touches it at all, but Alex does not stop.
            When he walks off the school bus each day, he tosses his backpack down, snatches the ball up, and rushes outside to shoot baskets. After rolling out of bed on weekend mornings, he slips on his fraying sneakers and fills his hours practicing. Alex spends the evenings reading and watching television, but his thoughts sway back to Heidi. He thinks about her thick blonde hair, blue eyes, and the long curls of her pouting lips. Even if two weeks of shooting skyhook after skyhook fails to sharpen his basketball skills, he cannot shake the longing that causes his heart to race and his eyes to wander.
            He thinks about her when he watches Talk Dirty to Me for the second time. It does not start out that way. When his dad and mom go grocery shopping on a Saturday afternoon, he stays home and plays basketball. It is a humid day in late April and sweat soaks Alex's clothes. He stops playing basketball a half hour after they leave and decides to shower. As he walks through his small bedroom towards the bathroom, he presses the power button on his stereo and a local radio station flares to life.
            He yanks his wet shirt over his head and drops it to the floor, pulls his shorts and underwear down to his feet before stepping back, and kicks the pile of clothes against the wall. Sweat binds thick commas of his blonde hair together and his large stomach glistens under the bathroom lights.
            There is a pop song pulsing out of the floor speakers and its thundering bass rattles the bathroom mirror. Alex is naked, tapping his foot, sliding his hand across his slick chest and gliding it over his large belly. The crisp snaps of the snare drum and short splashes of cymbal echo in his ears, but the bass drum has his head humming. He keeps stroking his chest and stomach, turning his open hand at every third beat, his drooping eyes staring at his face in the mirror while rolling his head in a slow circle. His body is warm, tall pimples are popping up from his tingling skin, and his rigid penis is like a small arm straining to push away from his torso.
            He sees the woman in the movie, her bright red lips parting in the middle, the narrow tip of her tongue darting out and tapping the peak of her upper lip. His hand sweeps across his sternum when he pictures how she kisses a man, engulfing his mouth, twisting her head from side to side. Alex wonders if Heidi kisses like that. The bass drum thunders over his heartbeat as he thinks about Heidi's mouth lunging forward to meet his own, her thin pink lips parting at once. He closes his eyes and imagines pressing their moist lips together, the tinge of peppermint in her taste and the cool tangerine breeze wafting off her hair.
            His right hand slides down to this crotch and cups his scrotum. He wonders what she looks like naked. When he imagines seeing her small breasts, his hand creeps up, clutches his penis, and begins stroking. He clinches his eyes tight and his breathing quickens when thinks about touching and kissing her breasts. Like the girl in the movie, he sees her reclining head and hears her moaning like someone sinking into a warm bath.
            When the song ends and the volume drops, the radio announcer's rapid-fire voice shoots out of the speakers. A heavy throbbing reverberates through Alex's body and his panting hisses like short bursts of air squeezing from a balloon. He blinks and, when his eyes drift downward, he sees his right hand still gripping his swollen penis. He lets go, his hands drop to his sides, and he stares at himself in the mirror. His breathing slows and deepens, but the throbbing in his body does not stop.
            He wants to see the movie again. He sticks the video cassette into the machine, presses the play button, and stretches out in his dad's recliner. The movie starts in the same place as last time and the first thing Alex sees is the woman straddling the man. The camera tightens its focus and her body fills the frame. In this scene, the woman's eyes are open, but they have no aim or color. She is throwing her head back and forth as she bounces on the man's lap. The camera angle shifts and Alex sees the man's penis sliding in and out of her. Alex slides his shorts down and strokes his penis.
            The camera turns its focus back to the woman's face and, when Alex sees her lips moving, he raises the television volume. Between her short moans, she is whispering, asking for it harder, mumbling about how good it feels, and sputtering out monotone pleas for more. Alex gasps, his breathing growing faster, hearing the words alone and discarding their delivery. He wants Heidi to say things like that to him. He hears her voice saying them. He sees her on top of him, her squinting eyes staring into his own, and her blonde hair whipping around. He is stroking faster, his breathing becoming shallow, his back arching in the recliner, and the throbbing in his body echoes in his ears. When his head rolls to the side, he sees eyes peering through the front door window and hears the knock in the same moment. The pair of eyes sees him, moves down to his crotch, and turns away.
            Alex pushes the recliner down, springs to his feet, stops the movie, and pulls up his shorts. He walks towards the front door and tries to slow his breathing before opening it. When he turns the knob and pulls it open, there is a tall, muscular man in overalls standing on the other side. He is grinning.
            "Your dad home?"
            Alex looks down and sees the small bulge in his shorts. "Um, no. He'll be back later though." He talks fast and tries to avoid the man's squinting, laughing eyes.
            The man nods, looks away, and rubs his hand across his mouth. When he turns his head around, he is still smiling, but looking down and dodging Alex's eyes. "Okay, just tell him Roger stopped by. I'll come back tomorrow afternoon."
            The man nods and walks away from the door. Alex holds the door open, but when he hears him snickering as he steps off the porch, Alex slams the door shut. He stares at the door, his heart racing, and it is not until he hears the crunching gravel outside that he moves. He walks up to the window flanking the front door and looks outside. Even after hearing the truck driving across the gravel, his heartbeat does not slow until he sees the empty driveway.
            Alex wonders if the man will tell his parents. If his dad and mom come home and ask him about touching himself, what will he say? He wants to go to bed, pull covers over his head, close his eyes, and go to sleep. If they come home and he is in bed, they will not say anything until he wakes up. However, the man's smile looms larger than any question, stretching across the forefront of his mind, obscuring all other worries.
            He walks into the bathroom, pulls his shorts down to the ankles, and scans his naked reflection. His bulging stomach, flaccid penis dangling in its shadow, and his flabby arms are painful for him to see. When other kids laugh at him and see him wince, they laugh louder, harder, longer. When the man smiles and sees him looking away, red with shame, his smile turns into a harsh, cutting snicker. Alex turns to the toilet and urinates. He knows that the man is right. I am too fat, ugly, and slow. My dick is too small. Heidi will never love me. He pulls his shorts up, walks into his bedroom, and crawls into his bed. When he closes his eyes, he does not see the man's smile. He does not hear an echo of his snicker. Instead, his hand pushes through the thick cover, slips into his shorts, and strokes his shrunken penis until he falls asleep.
            Despite the gray despair often clouding his mind, Alex keeps shooting his basketball and, over the next two weeks, the constant practice sharpens his timing and pushes the limits of his skill enough that he is hitting every third to fourth shot. When a teacher hands out applications for basketball camp, his progress thins out the despair and emboldens him. If he signs up, everyone will see that he likes basketball and can play okay. He thinks the skyhook will make him look cool. Maybe Heidi will notice and give him another chance.
            Alex's mother works the second shift as a hospital nurse, so he spends the weeknights with his father. Sometimes Jack cooks dinner for the two of them, usually hamburgers or hot dogs, but often buys dinner when he is driving home from work. They are eating soft shell tacos and watching television when Alex starts speaking.
            "My teacher handed out some applications to our class today, dad."
            Jack turns his head sideways when he bites into the taco and his gaze bounces between Alex and the television. He swallows, wipes a piece of lettuce from his mouth, and nods. "Applications for what?"
            "The school's gonna have a basketball camp for people who wanna learn how to play better. The teacher said that we have a week to turn the application back in."
            Jack finishes his taco, dabs his mouth with a paper napkin, and brushes his shirt off. Despite working eight hours at a construction site on a humid spring day, Jack's dark hair is smooth and straight. His face has a dark tan and deep grooves accentuate his high, clean-shaven cheeks. He looks at Alex, arches an eyebrow, and smiles.
            "So you want to be in the camp, right?" he says.
            Alex nods. "Yup, I sure do. I've been practicing a lot, but I can be a lot better." He pauses and his eyes widen. "The camp will be so much fun!"
            Jack holds up a hand and puckers his lips. "Whoa, I know you've been really practicing, but wait a second, I didn't say you could be in the camp yet, Alex. I've got more questions. How much is it?"
            When Alex hears the strong edge of caution in his dad's voice, he feels his heart sinking and struggles to regain his breath. It is like two enormous hands sweeping in from each side, slamming into him, and pancaking him in the middle.
            "I don't know. It's on the application."
            Jack leans back in his chair. "Well, bring me the application and let me look at it." When Alex stands, Jack raises his hand and leans forward. "Wait a second. I want you to know that I'm not promising you anything, but if the money they want isn't too crazy, you can join the camp." He lowers his head and stares into Alex's eyes. "Okay?"
            Alex nods, goes to his school backpack, and brings the application back to his dad. Jack winces a little when he sees the cost, moaning a little about value for the dollar when high school kids are teaching in the camp, but it is okay. He fills out the application, seals a check up in an envelope, and Alex tucks both inside his backpack. He falls asleep that night beaming, clutching his pillow tight against his cheek, picturing his new future. Everyone will like him when he is a good basketball player. Shooting baskets in the driveway is fun, but he has to play with other people to get better. When the camp is over, he will shoot great skyhooks and the boys who hate him will let him take off his shirt and play with them.
            Alex knows it is a mistake on the first day. There are four kids in his basketball camp. One is black, overweight like Alex, and cannot dribble the basketball for more than ten seconds without it bouncing off across the gymnasium. He is smaller than Alex is and moves quicker, but does not talk except for calling himself stupid when he makes a mistake or giving short, flat answers to questions. The other two are thin white kids with basketball team logos on their clothes and new white sneakers. They are quick, accurate shooters who smile a lot and call Alex and the black kid fatties or losers anytime the teacher is out of hearing distance. When the teacher is nearby, they smile for him and talk about basketball, what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong, and what players they like. The teacher is a college senior from the local university and a backup on the team. Alex and the black kid spend their time on the basketball court shooting baskets alone while the teacher laughs, plays, and teaches the other kids. He does not teach Alex or the black kid much, preferring instead to smirk at them. The camp lasts six weeks and four pass before he remembers their names.
            At the end of the six weeks, the school stages a program where kids from the various camps play against one another and take part in shooting challenges in front of their families. The school hands out discount coupons from local pizzerias and new basketballs as prizes. He makes the decision to go when he overhears Heidi talking to her friends during recess about how she is going to watch her little brother play. If she sees him making shots, she will think better of him and give him a second chance. Even if he is still fat and slow, even though he cannot jump high, misses shots, and cannot dribble while moving after six weeks of basketball camp, he wants to go.
            It is Saturday and he is sitting in the backseat of the car while his dad drives him to school. His mother is sitting beside Jack. Paula is a short woman with broad shoulders and a head blooming with thick, curling brown hair extending to her shoulders. She is overweight, her stomach bulging against her blouses and sweaters, but she is never plodding. When Alex watches her walk through a room, she seems like she is gliding, never stepping. She wears makeup, even when she is home, but paints her dark eye shadow, dabs the rouge, and rolls the lipstick slowly, never straying outside the lines. Even when she talks and Alex hears her deep, warm voice, she speaks slowly, her brow furrowing as if she were weighing each word.
            She turns in her seat, looks back at Alex, and frowns. "You should have had your things ready, Alex. We're going to be a few minutes late. I hope they let you dress out and participate."
            Alex looks down at the car floorboard. "I'm sorry, mom."
            Her eyes widen and she smiles. "It's okay, I'm not mad at you. I just want you to be able to take part is all."
            Jack shrugs. "Don't worry so much, Paula. We won't be really late, just a few minutes," he says.
            "Yeah, but he has to sign in, then get dressed, before he can even get out there with the other kids. I'm just worried is all. I just want this to go right for Alex, that's all." Her voice strains on the final words, almost whining.
            Jack sighs, reaches across the seat, and pats Paula's leg twice. "It's going to be alright. Alex is gonna be okay," he says. He looks at Alex in the rearview mirror. "Is that right, Alex? You're okay, right?"
            Alex raises his head and sees his dad's narrow eyes. His stomach flutters and he rubs his legs. They will be at the school soon and it makes him nervous. He nods at Jack. "Yeah, dad, I'm okay."
            There are fifty kids in the school gym when Alex walks in with his parents. There are boys and girls alike, split up according to age, wearing red t-shirts promoting the sponsors and red shorts. The school pulls out rows of bleachers for the crowd, lowers each of the gym's six basketball goals where Alex sees groups of kids and adults gathering around each basket. Between the harsh clanging of balls bouncing off the steel basketball rims and the shouting, laughter, and voices rising and falling behind the steel rattling, the gym sounds like an industrial plant. After Alex signs in, Jack pats him on the shoulder. Paula stands smiling behind Jack, but the corners of her mouth are tight and her cheekbones are high.
            "Good luck, son," Jack says. "We'll be watching."
            Alex gazes around him and takes a deep breath. He looks at Jack and nods. "Thanks, dad."
            Alex changes clothes alone in the gym locker room. When he steps back out into the gym, he looks around for Heidi and sees her sitting on the front row of a bleacher section. There are four kids at the goal to the right of her bleacher section and an older man holding a clipboard. His pounding heart makes him a little dizzy, but he shakes his head and regains his balance. He sighs and walks over to the basketball goal.
            They are taking turns shooting the basketball, each shot they make worth one point and the first kid to reach twenty points wins. The older man looks in his early forties, but has the slim, muscular frame of a former athlete. When Alex asks if he can use his skyhook shot, the man smirks and says he can use any shot he wants as long as he stays inbounds. Alex scans the gym for his parents and sees them on the other side standing at a hot dog stand. When he turns his head and looks at Heidi, she is looking at him and smirking. Alex clinches his fists and looks away.
            His nerves cause him to shake and miss shots. He is not timing his steps right and the ball is rolling off the side of his hand instead of his fingers. When he looks at Heidi, she is giggling and whispering to the redheaded friend sitting next to her. The other kids are missing shots too, but for every basket Alex makes, they are making two or three more. He finishes last in game after game and when the older man suggests that he try a different shot, Alex shakes his head and says no. Kids come and go, moving from game to game, but Alex stays at the goal near Heidi. By the end of the fourth game, he is missing every shot and pushing down tears.
            A tall boy with small eyes, muscular arms, and large hands joins the fifth game. Alex knows him. Jerry rides the same school bus and shoots spitballs at the back of his head every morning and afternoon. He is the same age, but not in the same class, and tries to trip Alex anytime he spots him in the hallway or cafeteria. When Jerry sees Alex, he walks over to him, smiling when he sees Alex flinching at his approach.
            "Hey fat ass. Why don't you go home with your mommy and daddy? Ain't there something you should be eating right now, like a house?" he says. Jerry lowers his voice so the older man will not hear him.
            Alex frowns and closes his eyes. "Leave me alone," he says.
            When he turns and walks away, he hears Jerry chuckling behind him. He looks at Heidi and she is pointing at a group of boys playing a two-on-two basketball game across the gym. He looks for his parents and sees them sitting five rows behind Heidi. Jack waves and Alex waves back. Alex wants to go home, he wants to get away from Jerry, but he wants to make one last shot. He wants to plant his feet straight, feel the ball roll off his fingers, and watch it float through the air before swishing through the net. If he can do that, Heidi will see it, and he can go home. The misses and chuckling will no longer matter.
            It does not work. Alex cannot clear his head or stop shaking, and each time he looks at Heidi and Jerry alike, their wide smiles cut away at his dwindling self-confidence. As his confidence disappears, despair floods his thoughts. She will never love him. He will never have any friends. He will spend his whole life at home with mom and dad, reading books, watching basketball games, watching dirty movies, and being sad. He is fat, slow, and will never be cool.
            The older man walks up to his side. "The event's almost over, Alex. You want to take your last shot or are you done?" He closes his eyes halfway when he speaks and a faint smile creases his face.
            Alex looks at Heidi and their eyes meet. When she snorts and looks away, something snaps inside of him. A wave of heat sweeps across his skin and his despair turns into anger. Her snort and short flick of the head digs deep into his heart and unleashes a blast of rage that clears away his tension, steadies his hands, and sharpens his focus.
            He nods fast. "Yeah, I want to take my last shot."
            "Okay, go ahead then, it's your turn."
            The older man hands Alex the ball and moves out of the way. Alex dribbles the ball a few times. He keeps the ball at waist level while walking over to the left side of the baseline. He stares at the basketball goal and tries picturing the shot in his mind. Take two steps across the baseline, stop, and shoot. Alex sees Jerry standing on the other side of the baseline. He mouths the words "go home fatty" and smiles. Alex wants to throw the ball at his face, but puts his head down and dribbles the ball. He swings his left foot backwards and starts moving. He dribbles without looking at the ball and feels each step landing at the right time. He stops, arches his arm into the air, and feels the ball roll off his fingers. The net snaps when the ball passes through the basket. The ball bounces off the gym floor and rolls over to the older man. He scoops it up, walks over to Alex, pats him once on the back, and smiles.
            "Good shot, Alex. Nice job."
            Alex is smiling and staring at the basketball goal. "Thanks," he says. He looks over to his parents and sees them smiling. However, when he lowers his gaze to look at Heidi, she is no longer there and his swelling pride deflates. It is his best shot of the day and she never sees it. He hopes someone will tell her about it. When he looks up at his parents and sees them smiling, his pride swells again, smaller before, but spilling through his body and lightening his mind.
            When the program is over and the boys are walking back to the locker rooms to change, Jerry bumps into Alex and starts walking beside him. Alex tries to move away and Jerry follows him.
            "You got lucky, fat boy. You can't play basketball. You're a loser and everyone knows it," Jerry says. Some boys that Alex does not know snicker behind them.
            Once they are in the locker room, Alex tries to find a private corner, but Jerry still follows him and starts undressing next to him. Alex's heart races and his hands are shaking again. If anybody, especially Jerry, sees how small his penis is, his life is over. They will tease him even more, shoot more spitballs, and throw dodge balls at his crotch. They will tell every girl and no one will ever love him. Alex freezes while Jerry takes his shirt off. Jerry laughs.
            "Why aren't you taking your clothes off? Afraid everyone will find out you have a small dick? Huh? Or are you just watchin' me cause you're a homo?" he says.
            The words jolt him. He cannot win. He has to return the uniform he wears for the event, so he cannot keep his clothes on. If he does anyway, Jerry will tell everyone he is scared or that he is gay. Alex pushes back the urge to cry and pulls his shirt over his head.
            "Look at your stomach! You're huge!" Jerry says.
            His laughter makes Alex's head ache, but when Alex pulls his shorts down, Jerry abruptly stops laughing. Alex looks up and sees Jerry is naked. He is staring at Alex's crotch, his mouth hanging open a half-inch, and his head leaning forward. When Alex looks at Jerry's crouch, he gasps. Jerry has thin, random patches of pubic hair on his torso and his penis is the size and width of a small earthworm. Alex looks at his own penis and gasps again. The pubic hair spreading across his torso is darker and thicker. His penis is much larger. When he looks up, Jerry is staring at him. He opens his mouth to speak, but closes it and looks down. He shuffles his bare feet on the floor, turns, picks up his belongings, and walks away.
            Alex stares into space and does not move. The shock wears off after a few seconds and Alex smiles. One day he will have a penis like that guy in the movie. Things will not always be like this. One day no one will call him fat anymore, he will have friends, and some girl will love him. He laughs and finishes dressing.
            His parents are waiting for him outside the locker room. When Jack sees him, he spins around and gives Alex a short hug. Paula leans down and kisses the top of his head.
            "You did great, son. Ready to go?" Jack says.
            Alex smiles and nods. "Yeah, I want to go home."