Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

To the Boy Who Took My Place


On a Tuesday afternoon in April I stood on a corner waiting on a bus with my friend Hernan, who that day would save my life, and maybe, in a way, cost you yours.
Hernan was a homely kid with an abnormally thin face. Picture a short Tom Petty with black hair and freckles and you wouldn’t be far off. I was better looking but immature at thirteen, as if the ghetto and long recession caromed off me and stuck instead to the grimy walls with their bubbly but colorless graffiti. Hernan and I travelled across our dirty city to a special program aimed toward helping smart kids in the academically failing public schools. But whereas I was admitted because I was the lone representative of Jersey City’s most troubled and embarrassing school, Hernan earned his spot by being a genius. He drew math problems on his hand the way other kids doodled the names of their favorite rock bands. He could tell you about baryon asymmetry or explain Hawking radiation a few years after Hawking explained it himself.
Hernan and I were friends of direction. Meaning: we lived in the same direction, and so we became friends. Having a buddy meant you weren’t forced to share a bus seat with some smelly obese bum. Other than being bus buddies, I don’t think Hernan cared for me. We rarely talked in school. My grades were poor, clothes messy, and I had no plans to go to Harvard or Columbia or even Rutgers. I was thinking Stockton State College. Maybe. If I got lucky. Not only was I not smart, I was poor. Unlike Hernan, I didn’t own a new Atari 5200. I was stuck playing Atari 2600 Pac-Man with its pathetic blinking ghosts and rectangular pellets. I couldn’t program in Basic, let alone Fortran or Pascal. I ate macaroni and cheese for dinner, not Kraft but a generic brand with a ridiculous cartoon raccoon on the box.
It’s like this happened an hour ago: waiting for our bus, sun a knuckle in the sky, strong swirling wind pushing wrappers and plastic bags from gutter to gutter, street crowded with tired people heading home from jobs they were lucky to have and hated anyway. Across the street, under apartments, was a small deli where each morning I bought a Chocodile for breakfast. Its dark windows made you think the deli closed years ago. Half as tall as those apartment buildings surrounding it, a local police station squatted like a beige box a few doors down. It was 1983 and spring’s first warm day. We’d missed our usual bus because we were released from school five minutes late.
This is how it happened for me, sun, deli, police station, people gazing at nothing, waiting to ride our bus home so I could plug in a game cartridge and destroy something pixelated. Maybe your day was different. Maybe it was winter. Maybe drizzling. Maybe to stay dry or get warm you entered his car and he locked you in and you pulled on the door handle and it wouldn’t work. Maybe a number of unlucky factors conspired to put you in that car. But I haven’t gotten to the car yet. First the guy needs to appear.
And that’s what he did. He showed up. He appeared. One minute he wasn’t there and the next he was. I forget what Hernan and I were talking about but we must have been talking because the man interrupted Hernan mid-sentence. An old white man, graying hair, jowly face. Stubble, also graying. Hair sticking up like he fell out of bed a few minutes ago. He’d tucked his white tee shirt into his jeans, covering his paunch, belly button indentation like a gunshot hole in his gut. His nipples poked against his tight tee shirt, thick as pencil erasers. What else? Blue eyes. The kind of blue that’s almost white. So blue they made you wonder about them, made you wonder about all eyes.
He patted my back. In the decades since this happened, I’ve lived in many places, Florida, Michigan, New Mexico, Washington. They’re always touching you, women who rub your shoulders, men who slap your arm, kids who climb on your lap. The South was this way, Florida, Alabama. In Michigan people wanted to shake your hand. In Seattle, they wanted to hug. But in Jersey City in 1983 people didn’t touch each other. Not unless you were married. And judging by my parents, not even then. So when this man touched my back it was odd. Rude. Creepy. And Hernan noticed it too.
The man said in a car horn voice, “You boys wanna make twenty bucks?”
Back then twenty dollars was real money. It was more money back then before all the inflation, but it was also more to me than other kids. I’m not saying it wasn’t okay money to Hernan also, but his parents bought him an Atari 5200 and his Pac-Man didn’t blink and mine did. Twenty dollars to Hernan was one extra game cartridge. Twenty dollars to me meant a real breakfast all week, Egg McMuffin and hash brown and orange juice at McDonald’s, instead of a Chocodile every morning. Twenty dollars meant a weeklong respite from my stomach growling through every class, embarrassing me.
What did twenty dollars mean to you? All these years I wondered what you thought you could buy with those twenty dollars. Or did he promise fifty? A hundred? How much did that creep sweeten his offer? How much would have made it worth the risk?
Hernan answered him first. “How?”
“All you gotta do is help carry stuff to my car.”
This was up my alley. I’d spent two summers at Pathmark carrying grocery bags for tips. A dime here, dollar there. It added up. By late August I made enough to buy an Atari 2600 and a new Pac-Man cartridge. Fifty dollars for that one cartridge, my dad chipping in ten bucks because he didn’t hate me, just wished I was a better son, one who wasn’t scatterbrained, so easily led astray.
I said, “Sure, we can do that.”
“Follow me.”
We walked. I forget how much, but it wasn’t far. I think we crossed the street. Then we came to stairs that led to a blue basement door. The man puffed like my heavyset grandmother walking through sand. At the time I thought it was exertion, his paunch too much weight to carry around, but I now think he was excited. Nervous. Aroused.
He said, “It’s right there.  Go on.”
I was set to start when Hernan put his hand out and stopped me.
“We’re not going,” Hernan said.
“Why not?”
“The door’s not open.”
“Open it.”
Hernan shook his head. “I’m not going.”
“What about you?”
I thought about it. Twenty dollars. I want to stress again how much I coveted that twenty dollars. If you descended those stairs, you know what I mean. You know what it was like to watch your mother pay family bills and see a small pile of Andrew Jacksons and wish you could snatch one, just one. Or were you greedy, acquisitive, a kid who wanted to grab as much as he could? If so, I will not judge you. I will not. Who’s to say I wouldn’t have been such a boy if I was born wealthy?
I shook my head.
Now, here’s something you must know. If Hernan wasn’t by my side, I would have hit those steps. Out of sight of people, in that stairwell’s dark hole, I would have put my hand on the doorknob, pushed on the door, then he would have…
Is this what happened to you? You who followed me, my surrogate who took my place, who waited for the bus alone? Did you descend those stairs? Did you push on that door? Did you think twenty dollars was a steal for a few minutes work?
Or did you squint into this abyss and shake your head only to find out he wasn’t ready to give up so easily. Nothing bad ever quits. Ever notice this? Good quits constantly, sheriff in High Noon throwing his badge in the dirt, but evil always finds a way, always keeps working, trying to find a right angle, to overcome, to win.
“Well, okay,” the old man said. “Don’t you boys worry. No big deal. I understand. You don’t want to go, fine. But there’s boxes in my car. You don’t need to carry them down. You can bring them here. What do you say?”
This seemed reasonable. Even to Hernan.
We started walking. The old man limped toward his car, his right knee bothering him. He led. Or perhaps Hernan held back. Hernan stared in the direction our bus would come, though he knew it wouldn’t arrive for another five or ten minutes.  In these years since, I’ve wondered if Hernan was considering running toward the police station. Hernan was playing chess, working out his moves. I was playing baseball, thinking I could steal a base. Hernan was Atari 5200 Pac-Man. I was Atari 2600 Pac-Man.
My recollection of the model is fuzzy. I remember the car being compact. A Ford Pinto, maybe. Or an AMC Gremlin. Either way, it was definitely white but rusted out and filthy. I remember thinking there can’t be many boxes in so small a car. The man limped to his trunk, a limp I now believe was fake, a way to make himself appear less dangerous than he was. Or an excuse for why he couldn’t carry a box himself. He was playing chess too. He opened his trunk. Hernan and I waited on the sidewalk.
“My boxes are in here.”
I moved, or flinched my torso in anticipation of moving, and Hernan lay his hand on my arm a second time. It wasn’t a grab, but it was firm. Now craning my neck, I saw no boxes in the trunk. The man told us, “Come on. Take a look.”
In a movie this guy would be licking his lips. In a movie he would be glancing around to see who was paying attention. I don’t remember him doing anything that cliché. It was as if he believed nobody mattered but us. No one was going to interrupt their day getting involved unless a struggle happened– and maybe not then. His attention was exclusively on me now, sensing I was weaker than Hernan. He was a jackal eyeing a young, plump rat, but, although I’m not Hernan-smart, I’m not stupid either. I stayed put.
“We’re going to miss our bus,” Hernan said.
The old guy was still trying, as if he always would, if not this way, then next, if not me, then you. He snapped shut his trunk and opened the passenger’s side door. We were on a busy road and I was with Hernan. If I was alone, if Hernan hadn’t been there to vouch this was not a father grabbing a recalcitrant son, I know now he would have snatched my arm, forced me kicking and screaming into his car. But I wasn’t alone. I was surrounded by people. I had a friend.
Maybe the man was new at this. Maybe he was just starting out. Maybe, because this was so brazen and badly planned. Later he would know better. Find them alone. Find them in secluded places. Get them to stand next to your trunk before you open it. Tell them those boxes are around the corner and you need to drive to collect them. Promise a boy more than twenty dollars. Promise him the world.
“Sit,” he said. “Sit in this seat and I’ll give you twenty dollars. Just for that. Twenty to sit.”
You would think at this point I would run. You would think I would know. And I did. I’m certain I knew. This man was evil and he meant to do me harm. But temptation held me. It’s crazy, but it did, it held me, the lifelong poverty, hurt of being poor, need for one turn to go right, to be lucky. All these years later, writing this in a house costing two million dollars, I cannot believe I paused, cannot believe I looked at the worn leather seat half-covered with a beach towel, foot-area full of newspapers, stick shift oily and rusty, ashtray stuffed with different colored butts. But I did pause. I stared inside his car and met the old man’s crazy blue eyes. Those eyes invited me. I paused another moment and Hernan tugged at my jacket.
“Let’s go,” he said, firmly, angrily. “Bus is here!”
I turned and broke into a sprint. No more than a minute after I turned away I was moving on wobbly legs down an already-moving bus aisle, taking my seat next to a window, Hernan spilling in next to me.
And it was done. That’s everything. Do I remember him slamming his car door in frustration? Maybe. Or is this something I invented, something that should have happened, something I concocted to complete my tale with a bang rather than the whimper it was? I don’t know. A lot of years have flown by. I don’t know.
On the bus Hernan and I talked about it, but not a lot. We went home. We continued our lives. We weren’t struck over our heads and taken to his house and raped. We weren’t stuffed inside a barrel and transported to a shack in the Pine Barrens, where our screams would be heard only by Atlantic white cedars, tree frogs, and the Jersey Devil. We weren’t strangled, sawed into pieces, wrapped in garbage bags, and thrown into a polluted Hudson River to float with beer cans and toxic scum. We weren’t put into a suitcase and chucked into a garbage landfill, buried under unwanted televisions and used condoms. Our parents didn’t weep mornings, vomit their dinners, drink the hard stuff again, or see a policeman walk to our front doors when our bodies were found. They wouldn’t need to spend their lives wondering about our final moments. We didn’t become a cold case file shoved in a cabinet or a photograph on a flyer still being circulated decades later.
Hernan played his Atari 5200 Pac-Man while I cursed my antiquated system with its clunky graphics. Hernan scored good grades, and I struggled but managed, and we remained friends of direction through graduation, when we parted. Then Hernan headed to public high school and, working at Burger King all summer to earn money for my tuition, I enrolled in St. Peter’s Preparatory High School where the wood and stone hallways always smelled of shoe polish and Latin conjugations and scholarships to Harvard.
Sometimes, playing softball with my daughter, in mid-pitch, my arm swinging toward home plate and thinking I need to toss this pitch outside because she has a propensity to reach, it occurs to me I should have screamed that afternoon. Throwing my daughter an outside curve, spinning that fat white orb into crisp autumn air, I think, Dammit, why didn’t I yell? I should have screamed my head off. All those people around, police station across the street, deli owner who thought I was a good polite kid and once, because he said I looked too thin, tossed me an extra Chocodile, why didn’t I make a scene? People will help. It’s not true nobody cares.
Maybe screaming wouldn’t have made any difference just then. Maybe he would have scrambled into his dirty car and drove off. Maybe he would have escaped, but he would have almost been caught. This would frighten anyone. This might make a creep stop. Maybe. It’s impossible to know, but maybe. Why didn’t I scream?
Or I’m standing in line at a Pathmark grocery store watching some absentminded kid drift toward nothing while his mother lays out her coupons, and I think I should have memorized his license plate. I was there. A police station was across the street. What if I told them a man in a car tried to push me into his trunk? I could have fingered through mugshots, pointed him out in a lineup. Hernan would have been a witness too. Despite all my flightiness, I was a good kid, honest, obedient, credible.
I could have saved you. Maybe.
But as I said all along I wasn’t very intelligent, I was thirteen, and I was playing baseball in a chess world. With Hernan’s help, I was smart enough to save myself, or at least allow myself to be saved, but not smart enough to save you. Hernan wasn’t smart enough to save you either. Brilliant Hernan. He couldn’t see that many chess moves ahead. Not as a kid. He didn’t scream. He didn’t take down a license. He just got us onto our bus driving toward Greenville, toward hobbies and homework and the rest of our lives.
What did the old man do to you? (He wasn’t old, now that I consider it, no older than I am now, forty-six, possibly a few years younger. But in my mind he will always be old, decrepit, hopeless.) What horrors did he do? I want to know and I don’t. I’m afraid of both. But I’ve lived without knowing decades. I understand that. It’s a steady, low-level hum of torment swimming under my skin’s surface. If I see a bag floating in a river, if I pass a woman opening a trunk, if I come upon a long dark flight of stairs, if I turn my head at an angle to peer down an empty side corridor at the mall, you’re there, a shadow, ghost, me who is not myself, an alternate who descended those stairs or jumped in that car.
I understand it should have been me. I understood it then. Is this why I studied so hard? Is this why I improved my grades and went to the best high school in the state, then Princeton, then medical school? Is this why I spent six years after my residency roaming the country, as if running from something? Is this why I worked so hard, married late, and prayed for a child? Was this child a replacement for you—as if I owed the world a human being? Is this why I named her Henna? Is this why we moved back to Jersey City when I had ample opportunity to practice medicine in other cities, places I preferred? Have I been living my life for us both? Did I grow rich to be certain my daughter never, like you, is tempted to look inside his trunk?
I don’t know. I don’t know.
It was maybe ten minutes on an ordinary Tuesday while waiting for public transportation. Nothing happened. A strange man offered two friends twenty dollars and did some creepy stuff. Then they stepped onto a crowded bus and the strange man drove away. Nothing happened.
Hernan saw it that way. Before eighth grade was finished, when I mentioned our would-be abductor, he needed to be reminded of the incident. I needed to tell him about the offer, stairs, car, our escape. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Weird.” Then he talked about his new video game cartridges.
In time Hernan went the way of many city kids. Before I left New Jersey and after I returned, I ran into him from time to time, though we never spoke, and I kept track of him from afar. Hernan became addicted to drugs, oxycodone and crack cocaine mostly, though at some point he was heavy into PCP. He married and hit his wife and spent time in jail. His wife was always leaving and returning. She had drug problems of her own. This went on over a decade. Tattoos broke out on his arms like blue blood blisters. He had a kid, a boy, but this child died from a Wilms tumor, which was anguishing because, with a 90% survival rate over five years, most patients don’t die from this cancer, though this means some unfortunate must draw the short stick. It happens. Like I didn’t sit in the old man’s car but you did.
After his son died, Hernan withdrew, became a recluse. He no longer frequented bars, but could be seen walking out of liquor stores with brown bottles. If not working, he watched television. Often I parked outside his small Greenville home, same house where we used to play his Atari 5200 games, and stared at those television lights coloring his windows. Sometimes, when I could, I wept. Then I mumbled a weak thank you and drove to my new house in Bayonne. One year I did this so often my wife suspected I was having an affair. I didn’t know why I felt the need to be by Hernan. I still don’t. Maybe it was because once he saved me.
You may be wondering why I’m writing this all these years after everything is done and nothing can be changed. Here’s why; here’s the impetus. I saw Hernan a couple of days ago in a supermarket and this time—I have no clue why– I approached him. His hair lay long and tangled on his dandruff-spotted collar. His eyes were thumbprints on glass, as if you could take a rag and wipe them off his face, a face forever thin as a Coke bottle. He hadn’t grown any taller than when I knew him. Charcoal or oil colored his fingernails. He wore his work uniform, janitorial patch emblazoned on his left arm, nametag that read “Hern,” as if time and hardship was eating away his name’s letters. He was pleased I remembered him, his full name, and boy he once was. He shook my hand gingerly, as if he was afraid he might shatter it, and pulled it back more quickly than necessary. He admitted he didn’t remember me and apologized. He was deferential like many low-pay workers are to someone wearing an expensive suit and a gold watch. Hernan was accompanied by a new woman, not the wife he used to hit after his son died, but a plump Hispanic lady who glared like I might be a bill collector or parole officer. He rubbed her back to allay her fears. He seemed happier, less vacant than from afar, more willing to smile his destroyed teeth. I asked him to come by my office for a checkup. I told him not to worry about insurance. It would be gratis, my pleasure, repaying him for—suddenly I chickened out and said, “Letting me play all those video games.” He said he would stop by one day soon. I smiled. We both knew he never would.
Hernan can do that. He saved his own life, so his life’s his own to waste. I cannot. I must live for us both. You and me. I didn’t scream, I didn’t go to the police, I didn’t tell my parents, not even years later, but I went to medical school and I married the most beautiful woman New Mexico ever produced and I fathered a child to make the angels sing. In my few free hours, I coach her in softball. Today we visited a small park and I pitched my best pitch, watched her again swing for the outside curve, and I took off my hat and said, mustering all my love, as if she were you, “Don’t swing unless you trust the pitch. Don’t you dare. If it doesn’t feel right, if you have any doubts, just let it go by.”

James Valvis has placed poems or stories in Ploughshares, River Styx, Arts & Letters, UCity Review, Southern Indiana Review, The Sun, and many others. His poetry was featured in Verse Daily. His fiction was chosen for Sundress Best of the Net. He is a recent finalist for the Asimov's Readers' awards. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle.