The Golden Rule (Kids Eat Free W/Accompanying Adult)
by Bard Cole
Dressed in their one and only clean outfit, Rodge stares down at his feet, his ragged tennis shoes. He dreams his way along the striations in the concrete as Nax calls out to the passing strangers, a pair of stout women in flowered dresses like they'd just come from church, even though it's Monday. The lady with the grayer hair wears a gold necklace with a cross on it -- that was why they'd marked her. They'd seen them before. Rodge knows to listen carefully so that he can match every nut and bolt of Nax's story when he has to.
"Lady, can I bug you for a minute? Is there any way in the world you could take my little brother in and pretend he's with you? We been stuck at the Jiffy Lube all day with my mom, our car's busted."
"I prayed to Jesus that he would help me find a way to get my little brother a sandwich or something. I know you're not supposed to ask Jesus for stupid things like that, but I didn't know what else to do. But then I looked up from praying and I saw that sign."
"He won't be any trouble, he'll be quiet and all. It says kids eat free so I thought it wouldn't be a lot of trouble for you to do that. It wouldn't cost you nothing."
At night when the people are gone, Rodge crawls out of the pipe and looks across the parking lot toward the big red K, an ocean of sparkling black asphalt away.
The trucks never stop. All night long they barrel down those six lanes, making of it a river no child could ford, the glowing K always out of reach.
Rodge knows his mother must search there every day and night, if she misses him only half as much as he misses her. Rodge wants to run across the parking lot, run across those six lanes, but Nax says no, the trucks would kill him, the police would come for all of them and put them in homes where they would be beaten and burned with cigarettes and sexed in hurty ways. That's what the homes are like, Nax tells him. Gaf nods his head sadly in agreement so Rodge knows that it is true.
Nax says that probably he is dreaming and he never had a mother no-how. If she left you over there, Nax says, how did you get over here? You think you crossed that road by yourself? But Rodge's heart cranes toward the big red K. Yes he must have, somehow. He can feel her love still.
Gaf tells both of them to stop talking, to come back in the pipe. It's not smart for them to go into the parking lot at night. Remember what happened to Jin, he says. The floodlights. The people in the IHOP. They will call the police. You want that? The two boys shake their heads, no, and go back inside the pipe.
If you spit into your palms and rub them together until they are hot and dry, and then smell them, that smell is what the pipe is like -- too much of yourself at once. They try to keep the pipe as clean as they can because it is their home. Every couple days one of them brings in a handful of sandy dirt to scour the metal walls, to get rid of the smell of their hair grease, a smell which would make you sick if you let it build.
The ladies snuggle into an upholstered booth and Rodge timidly slides in next to the one with the gold cross necklace. In just a few short moments, she has taken to calling him "honey." In her fatness she seems as light and puffy as a marshmallow, and her brown eyes, buried in wrinkles, look down at him with pity and suspicion in equilibrium.
She tactfully points out the window, toward the Jiffy Lube. "Now, honey, is that where your momma is waiting for you?"
"Would you mind if when we're done eating I drive you back there and meet your momma?"
Rodge shakes his head. "No," he says. "I don't want you to do that."
The other woman purses her lips in a way that makes Rodge think she would have said no if Nax had asked her instead of the one who calls him "Honey."
Rodge says, "My ma says not to get into people's cars."
The land is a patch of skinned red flesh from which a scab is being constantly picked. Always something new going up. An increasingly complex network of parking lots and access roads, with the concrete-block bunkers decorated different for every different chain, plus the towering logos on their hydraulic extending poles. This island formed and isolated by huge ribbons of highways never stays the same. Nax is the brave one who forages for stuff --clothes, mostly, and the food they keep in the pipe: potato chips, jerky, or candy bars. Some nights Nax takes Rodge on his rounds as he checks out the Dumpsters behind the restaurants. This is how they got their plastic mayonnaise tubs. You can keep dry things in them but they don't keep things that spoil in the pipe anymore. Last time they did that they ended up with rats. So they only bring as much as they can eat in one sitting.
Nax steals, and the others don't, because they mustn't get their fingerprints on things. Nax steals from cars, as far away from the Golden Rule as he can go, all the way to Route 68, the cars parked in parking lots there, during the dinner rush. The Ryan's Steak House, because it is a family restaurant, is a good place to find clothes in children's sizes. This month Gaf has been wearing a powder-blue Gulf Shores tee shirt, and Rodge likes his red Power Rangers shirt that Nax got for him for what they called his birthday. That was after Nax said from now on Rodge's name would be Blik and they got into a bad fight because Rodge said his name is Roger Lee Head, he don't care if they forgot their names he still knows his.
There's only the three of them anyhow so what's the use of names? It's always only you, me, and him, deployed in whatever arrangement a situation requires. There's no ambiguity to it. Nax was sorry he pinched Rodge over it so he found him the tee shirt and called it his birthday.
Rodge is bolting down huge bites of his barbecue sandwich. The woman next to him is letting her hand rest on the small of his back. "What a skinny child," she says, partly to him and partly as a general exclamation.
"Andreda," the other woman says, "I have still got to go to the home after this and see how Peepaw is doing, you know that the lady who plays the organ comes today and they will have him in that activity room all afternoon if we don't get there."
"We have plenty of time, Carlene."
"We don't have time to change our plans though," Carlene says with an emphatic momentary bugging of her eyes.
Between the three of them they have the one clean short-sleeve button shirt and one clean pair of brown shorts. Gaf is a genius. It was his idea to hide the clothes in one of the plastic tubs so they don't get too dirty, even when it rains and the red mud oozes down into the pipe. Once Nax found an opened box of springtime fresh dryer sheets, and they keep them in the same tub so that the clothes smell nice. If their clothes smelled bad they would never get into Golden Rule, the adults would never have them. If they couldn't get into the Golden Rule they couldn't wash themselves. This vicious circle could only end in failure and starvation, discovery or death.
Gaf's "grandma" and "grandpa" drive a big white Chevrolet sedan and they come at about four o'clock every weekday; he always is dressed and ready by the time they come. Nax's "uncle" drives a red pickup truck and comes at about six-thirty. Rodge doesn't have regulars yet. Nax is working the parking lot for him. Gaf is good at spying in the parking lot and tracking who comes most every day but he is not bold enough to approach anybody. He doesn't have that sense that Nax claims to have, the sense that keeps them alive and free. But Nax is not fearless. He is afraid of getting old. "They will find me first," he says, when the darkness seeps into him. "I'll get too big and they find me and take me away. And what will you two do? You two will die, that's what." This starts Gaf crying, which only makes Nax more furious, and he climbs out of the pipe and sits up on the concrete block with the siamese connector, smoking cigarettes trying to stunt his growth, reckless of the visibility of the glowing tips.
The nice lady, Andreda, makes a warm buzzing sound deep in her fat. "Honey, have you had enough?" she says to Rodge. "Would you like some more?"
Rodge shakes his head, he's had enough. You don't want to overeat barbecue.
"Now, I really do want to drive you back to the Jiffy Lube and meet your mamma. I really do have to insist on that. It's not safe for a boy to walk alongside a road like this."
What was Nax thinking, Rodge wonders? This one was dangerous, Nax missed the dangerous in her. Rodge is going to have to pull an emergency -- sneak out the bathroom window so he can be long gone and hiding safely in the pipe before the ladies have time to make a fuss about the strange boy from the parking lot.
"I just gotta go to the bathroom and wash my hands," Rodge says.
He makes his way to the back of the restaurant where the restrooms are. First thing he does in there is to open the window so he can make his escape. Then he takes a big squirt of pink soap in his hands and rubs it into lather under the rushing water. He has to at least wipe himself down with some wet paper towels before he leaves. This is the only chance he gets to really get clean.
The other night, Rodge and Gaf were sleeping and Nax was gone, gone like he sometimes goes for days without saying where he's been. Rodge woke up yelling, realizing he could no longer remember his old address anymore, nothing more than the apartment number, which did him no good. He used to have all of it memorized but Nax and Gaf wouldn't let him say it, wouldn't let him try to remember. "You think your mother still lives there? You really think so? Come on, dummy. We are your family now. I'm like your mom and Nax is like your dad, he's just off at work. You are our baby and we will take care of you."
Rodge found this comforting and discomforting all at the same time.
Rodge appears at the table, his hair somewhat slicked back, as the women look at their bill and fuss with the money from their purses. "Are you ready to go, honey?" the nice lady, Andreda, asks him. In addition to having the gold cross around her neck, Rodge notices she's got a blue cross drawn on the her skin of her arm, just above her wristwatch, as she takes his hand.
"My mom isn't at the car place," he says, as they step out from the shady restaurant into the sun. He hopes that Nax is too far away to see him, too far to sense his betrayal.
"Oh, no?" says Andreda. "Where is she?"
"I told you," says Carlene, huffily. "Did I not tell you?"
Rodge points across the six-lane highway, across the sea of black sparkling asphalt. He points to the big red rooftop K that marks the low gray building on the hillside. That is where she left him, and he knows she will be there waiting.
About the author:
Bard Cole is the author of a collection of short stories, Briefly Told Lives (St. Martin's Press, 2000), and the forthcoming novel, This Is Where My Life Went Wrong (BLATT, Spring 2008). He also edits Six Little Things (www.sixbrickspress.com), a quarterly online journal of prose-poems and short-short fiction. He currently makes his home in Memphis, TN.