By Russell Richardson
“You really are reformed,” said Edward Getty with a twisted smirk.
Barry Barabbas sat bent over a small Formica table in his friend’s tiny kitchen and studied dirty scratches that marred the tabletop. Edward had been using the surface like a cutting board. The numbskull.
Barry didn’t look up when Edward slid a coffee mug toward him. “I’m going to be a normal person now,” Barry muttered at last. He scratched his broad, stubbly chin. “Getting out was lucky. Ain’t trying to go back in.”
Edward was coiled in the seat opposite Barry. “Normal? No. Lucky, yes,” he said. He plunked down his elbows and leaned forward to examine his guest. “My friend, you cashed in all your blessings at once. I’m still baffled. Evidence exonerates guys occasionally, sure, but they had you dead to rights, fingerprints, DNA. Yet here sits your fortunate ass. What’s your theory——why’d they pin your rap on that Mexican?”
Barry’s ragged thumbnail traced the knife marks. “They wanted him, is all,” he said at last. His focus turned to the amber liquor inside the mug. Whiskey. His dense eyebrows knitted together. He pushed the cup aside and mumbled, “A guy I knew died from poisoning ’cause his wife cut food on their Formica countertop.”
“A good trick to keep in mind,” said Edward, unable to comprehend the anecdote’s relevancy and eyeing sideways the refused cup. “She killed him on accident?”
“Who knows?” said Barry. He coughed softly and rubbed his hands together. “So, can I borrow the money?” he asked. “I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t stuck.”
Edward whistled through his teeth. He reclined in his chair, balanced his mug on his pooch belly, and set his boot on the table like a cowboy. Barry averted his gaze from the crud crusted tread. His heavily-bagged eyes fell to his lap and saw his own soiled clothes——grimy pants, and a frayed floral print shirt over a mottled tee. He wasn’t one to judge.
“I’ve got enough action to pay your rent and fill your fridge,” said Edward. “You should reconsider.” His painted-on tank top was discolored, smelled of acrid sweat, and was both business and casual attire. He earned his living in shadows, parking lots, and unlit apartments, and he accessorized with the odd crowbar or ski-mask. Style was a secondary concern.
Barry regarded him sluggishly. “Said no already.”
“Yes, you did,” said Edward. His fingers played triplets on his porcelain mug. “Unfortunately, the charity box is not so plentiful.” His free hand slid into his snug jeans pocket and tugged out a twenty-dollar bill. He flicked the money onto the table. “It’s a one-time donation. Don’t expect regular handouts. Work, however, is always available——I could use the muscle.”
Closing his giant paw over the bill, Barry said thank you and no. He pushed the chair backward, which sent a harsh scraping sound through the stuffy apartment. Edward frowned. “That’s it? Ain’t you gonna sit a spell? I’m dying to hear the latest big-house gossip.”
Barry’s wild, kinky hair brushed the ceiling when he stood. His dark mustache fidgeted while he towered over the table. “I’d better head home.”
“Won’t even drink with me,” Edward nagged. Rooting in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, he watched Barry walk toward the door. “How’s it feel to be a miracle?”
The word made Barry drop his head. He grumbled over his shoulder, “I dunno. But quit cutting food on the Formica.”
He wasn’t ready to go home. From Edward’s apartment, Barry trudged down the evening sidewalk, deeper into the steaming city. He crossed one crowded block, then another. He shielded his face and turned his shoulder to the passerby to avoid being recognized. If blindfolded, he could’ve navigated these streets that had raised him, and the landmarks on this memory lane were once scenes of his petty crimes. A glowing, window-lined grocery store appeared, a beacon splitting the gloom, toward which Barry directed his shambling gait.
The automatic doors separated for him. As he crossed the threshold, a woman clutched her purse against her body and steamrolled her shopping cart across the produce section. It wasn’t an isolated response. From one department to the next, Barry got the pariah treatment: he was a celebrity, but a fearsome one. All the traffic in the aisles cleared for him, the Red Sea to his profane Moses. The recoiling shoppers couldn’t scatter fast enough. A nosey security guard dawdled at a distance, monitoring Barry’s progress. Buncha assholes.
Barry didn’t buy anything, but, he noted, he also didn’t shoplift anything. That was an achievement. Passing the security guard on his way out, Barry locked eyes with him and said, “Didn’t even eat a grape.”
Bars were a bad idea. He always left bars in cop cars. Instead, Barry roamed to a discount movie theater he used to frequent. The clock outside flashed 9:30 and, while fondling the twenty-dollar bill in his pocket, he watched the numbers for a while, trying to make a decision. At last, he bought a ticket to the next film on the marquee and went inside. He tried to guess from the movie poster’s clues what kind of picture awaited him. A romantic comedy, something vapid to occupy his brain.
In the theater sat another person a few rows ahead: a woman. Before the lights fell, Barry glanced and glanced again at the door behind them and then back at her. No one else came.
She had sprayed up her hair and wore a collared blouse. She was put together for a date. Did a boyfriend stand her up? Barry wouldn’t do that. The lights dimmed, the opening titles rolled, and Barry missed the whole movie. He spent the duration composing her story. Once in a while, he glimpsed her profile, a pleasant facial coastline with soft beaches. By the closing credits, he sat on his hands.
He waited to follow her out. A better look at her confirmed his assessment: in fact, she exceeded conventional beauty. On her trail, he exited the theater and stepped into the lights of the city. The woman went left. He pursued her clacking shoes, which he somehow heard over the loud, surrounding city. He stalked at a stealthy distance to study her strut, her buttocks kneading beneath her skirt, her flashing white calves. ’Twas not the summer air but lust that had Barry feeling feverish.
A patrol car shrieked through the upcoming intersection. Barry blinked at its red lights, as though waking. He’d trailed the woman for three blocks already, and as they approached the next corner, the distance between them had closed to mere feet. His hand could wrap over her shoulder if he desired.
Barry pivoted, bumped into a man behind him, mumbled angrily, and hastened in the opposite direction, toward home.
Still a few streets from the boarding house where Barry kept a cot, he stopped at a small car dealership. A chainlink fence protected the weed-scraggled lot from the neighborhood’s criminal element. The element Barry used to be. The sign above the gate read “Chariots of Tire.” Barry had ignored the place innumerable times, but now a new detail caught his attention. A cardboard sheet tacked to the fence read, in shaky magic-marker, “Salesman Wanted.”
In his pocket, the fourteen dollars and change that remained after the movie felt like less. And his stomach felt hollow. Barry’s dark, bushy eyes read the cardboard sign for a long time before moving on.
The next morning, Barry returned to Chariots of Tire. The one-room office shack—a white clapboard shed elevated on cinderblocks—was accessible by three splintering steps. The activity in the lot roused the owner, Orenthal Bacardi Hobbes. Past retirement age and hampered by arthritis, he limped down the rickety steps. A breeze fluttered his white hair like stuffing teased from split upholstery. The approaching man’s appearance, however, froze old Hobbes on the bottom step, and his gnarled fist held the railing in a death-grip.
In his late thirties, Barry was still befuddled by social norms like how to dress, and how often to bathe and shave. He presented as a rumpled, grizzled man, a native to society’s slummiest outer ring. He walked like a man who didn’t wipe well in the bathroom, and occasionally, too, had the odor. Other inmates had called him B.O. Barabbas, adding insult to the injury of incarceration. Indeed, he’d suffered many injuries while locked up, and had inflicted many more. His life had always been fraught with hardships, including an abusive childhood home, systemic neglect, and being bullied in adolescence for smelling like poop.
Barry extended a hand not taken. He had devised a fake name but saw it was unnecessary. “Barry Barabbas. You know me?”
The old man fumbled under his loose shirttail and produced a faded, pink bandana. He began patting his drawn down brow. “Yeah,” he rasped. “Rings a bell.”
“Sign says you’re hiring. I need a job. Hence——” Barabbas held out his arms and dropped them to his sides. O.B.’s cloudy eyes met Barry’s and squirmed away. He said, “Just hired a fella.”
“Really? Who?” Barry surveyed the grounds. “Have him come to sell me a car.”
The old man’s gaze swept the lot and found cars their only companions. He glanced back at the office’s window, hoping a human had materialized in the frame. None had——no miracles today.
“He starts tomorrow,” said Hobbes, cagily.
“I’ll return then and meet him.”
O.B.’s face puckered. “Why you gotta meet him so bad?”
Barabbas crossed his thick arms over his black t-shirt. He lowered his chin to his neck, where long hairs curled up from his collar. “Why didn’t you remove the sign after filling the position?”
The owner grumbled through what teeth had survived after almost eighty years. “I can’t hire you. I know you.”
“No, you don’t,” said Barabbas.
“Who the hell’s gonna buy a car from Barry Barabbas?” the old man said, and yet paused. “Barry Barabbas,” he mused, first with disgust, but then he repeated the name with greater consideration. “Barry . . . Barabbas.” A sudden insight filled his mind. Straightening his twisted back as best he could, O.B. said, “Okay. Have any button-down shirts?”
Barry thought for a moment. He had his court clothes, folded in a cardboard box under his cot. “Yeah.”
O.B. grunted. “Then shower, shave, and come back in a shirt and a tie. I’ll try you out. No promises.”
“The Saab is the most melancholic car, don’t you agree?”
Beneath a blazing sun that baked his brain, Barry weighed this comment. Facing him stood an elderly gadfly in a checkered suit, the one customer who had not fled upon seeing Barry, and, evidently, the city’s lone resident who did not follow local news. This represented Barry’s one potential sale on his trial shift.
“Get it? Saab?” To illustrate, the man screwed his fists in his eyes like a crying baby. Barry considered crushing his nose.
“Nevermind,” said the man, soft-punching Barry’s upper arm. He pointed at the Swedish sedan under discussion. “You got three or four in stock? I always buy multiples in every color.”
He grinned wide, waiting for a light in Barry’s heavy eyes. Finally, the man gave up.
“Not many bats in the belfry, eh? What’s your name, killer?”
“. . . Barry.”
“You aren’t middle-eastern, are you?” asked the man, twiddling his bolo tie.
“Sure, but from where did your ancestors originate?”
Barry shrugged. “They were Jewish.”
Wrinkles creased the old man’s forehead. “Yes, but did they emigrate from Russia, Egypt? What’s your heritage? Actually, I’d say you look . . . Panamanian.”
Barabbas answered, only, “Jewish.” He cast around for an object with which to brain the guy. A brick or broom handle would do.
“There’s no country called Jew,” snapped the old man. Exasperated, his arms attacked the air. “You got a lot to learn about small talk and how to sell cars, pal.”
Behind them, O.B. Hobbes hurried forward and squeaked, “Jimmy! Leave him alone! Jimmy!”
Sunshine returned to Jimmy’s face. He reached to pump O.B.’s hand. Barry observed them, thinking how a casual tug could pop their raisin-withered arms from their torsos.
“Just busting the new guy’s balls,” said Jimmy, standing by Hobbes. “Fella’s slow on the joke. And a tad offensive. Gotta say I question your hiring decisions.”
O.B. led Jimmy by the elbow to the back lot, behind the office. A few uneventful minutes passed. A breeze blew trash like tumbleweeds along the dusty pavement and flapped Barry’s coarse tie and pressed his shirt against his belly. A damp spot appeared where sweat absorbed. Standing amongst over-priced clunkers wasn’t physically demanding, but he wondered when the screaming inside his head would become a howling from his lungs. Maybe he wasn’t cut out for a normal life, after all.
The ancient duo reappeared. Jimmy had become stiff and clumsy. He bid Hobbes farewell and stumbled as he bolted, giving Barry a wide berth while he exited.
O.B. came to Barry’s side.
“He’s an old friend,” wheezed Hobbes, whose spine was curved like a hook. His rigid fingers attempted to massage his lower back. “He didn’t mean to be rude. He didn’t know who you were. You can’t hold that against him.”
“Nope,” said Barry.
Hobbes cleared his throat and shifted his bony body from foot to foot. “So what do you know about cars, really? I mean, pretend I’m a customer.”
After a pause, Barry said, “I know their security flaws.”
Barry pointed at a dripping Honda. “Boosted plenty of them.” Next, he gestured at a Toyota, its price inflated by at least two grand. “Stole those, too.” He nodded toward a four-by-four with a dimpled bumper. “Brought them by the boatload to the chop shop.” He regarded his new boss tentatively. “I could go on. But that ain’t me anymore. I’m a normal person now.”
“I see,” mused Hobbes. He peered at Barry from sunken eye sockets. “You’re straight and narrow now, huh?”
A sweat-slimed Barry nodded in assent. O.B. huffed through his craterous nose. “Alright, then. How about just sticking to the features and gas mileage, eh?”
An hour later, a woman——a royal bitch, Barry could see from any distance——stood at the lot entrance. One hand on her hip, the other fanning her carved ivory throat, she wore a wide black hat, bug-eyed sunglasses, a dark dress cinched at the waist, and enough jewels upon her neck to trade for half their vehicle inventory. Clearly, she would not deign to enter the grounds. Barry began to walk toward her, but O.B. scooted past, saying, “This is me, she’s mine.”
The old man reached the woman, and Barry realized they were married. She lambasted Hobbes in a terrier’s yip, and pointed, jabbed, and wagged her index finger in the shrinking man’s face. By her tirade’s end, her pitiful husband had raised not a single protest and was so reduced she could have hoisted him by the collar, snapped him in her purse, and gone on her not-so-merry way.
The sycophantic O.B. strained to reach his lips to her cheek. She refused his kiss. Wordlessly, she spun on her high heel and strode to the car that waited curbside to whisk her away.
When O.B. returned, treading gingerly, he passed by Barry and growled. The old man’s cheeks bloomed pink. “What are you looking at? Huh? Tough guy? My marital woes amuse you?”
He dragged his feet to the office stairs and sat on the bottom step. His wheeze sounded like air being squeezed from a deflating balloon. Barry stepped toward him and said, “She’s upset about something.”
“You think?” O.B. slapped his knee. “When isn’t she? Ugh. The non-stop complaints, criticisms, and condescension. She magnifies my smallest defects and harps about them endlessly.” He studied the blue sky whose chalky clouds offered no counsel. “Do you have any ideas?” he asked Barry. His tone was suggestive.
But Barabbas simply grunted.
“Really? Nothing?” asked Hobbes. His left eye squinted, and his right eye swelled. A crazed pirate.
Barry watched him blankly. O.B. spat, dusted his pants, and climbed to the office. “Alright you ape, pretend as if you’re selling cars,” he said, slamming the flimsy door.
At closing time, O.B. summoned Barry to the office and said, as expected, “This won’t work. You scared away customers all afternoon. Not a single car did you sell.”
Barry was pocketing twenty dollars that Hobbes had placed on the desktop: his pay for a day spent broiling in the sun. It was a gyp. He sat across the untidy desk, with various junk and papers collected thereupon. The room was cramped, but confinement didn’t bother Barry. Compared to his childhood home, a prison cell had been spacious. He crossed his sore legs and asked, “How many do you normally sell in a day?”
O.B. Hobbes tented his skeletal fingers and leaned back in his complaining chair. “Beside the point. I’m saying, today was an inauspicious start to your career in auto sales. In fact, you have no career in auto sales. At least not here.”
Unfolding his legs and about to stand, Barry said, “Alright. Thank you for the opportunity.”
“Wait, wait,” said Hobbes, reaching into the air between them. He dropped his voice. “I could use your talents in another capacity, however. An extremely confidential one.”
Barabbas blinked at O.B. “You want me to kill your wife?”
“Whoa!” exclaimed Hobbes, jerking so hard his chair half-spun. “Who said that? Did I say that?” His eyes bulged, froglike.
Barry crossed his legs again and tilted his head. A silent moment passed.
“Alright, so yes, that is what I’m driving at,” said Hobbes, whispering, leaning over his desk. “You’re perceptive, you know? Must be an asset in . . . your other work.”
Inspecting a black crescent beneath his fingernail, Barry said, “Yeah, sorry. I won’t do that.”
Still whispering, Hobbes said, “Don’t be rash. I’ll pay more than you’d ever make in a year selling cars.”
Barry patted the shirt pocket with the twenty spot inside. “I’d hope so,” he said and shook his head. “But, no thanks.”
“But you’re Barry Barabbas,” said Hobbes, his voice now rising. He inched farther across the desk. “Everyone knows this is what you do. It’s your nature! Be who you are. Help me out. I can’t bear that woman——”
Coldly, Barry said, “Mr. Hobbes, I’ve served two prison terms and almost a third. I ain’t going back.”
The old man lowered his voice again. “You’re missing out on a lucrative deal. If you’d just hear my offer——”
Barry left the office. From behind, he could hear O.B. Hobbes cursing him.
Empty inside, Barry decided to eat. He went a few blocks to a McDonalds. He peered through its front window at the cartoonish wall-mounted menus inside. His eyes strained to read the prices. In his pocket, his hand jingled what little money it found. This, plus a few bucks back at the room and some broken things he could try to hock totaled all his earthly possessions.
Through the window, he noticed a woman eating at a table alone. He stared at her for too long. He could feel pedestrians walking around him. His daydreaming thoughts disturbed him, but he couldn’t draw himself from them, if not for a heavy thump against his shoulder.
Three young men were passing Barry. One had bumped him, hard enough to nearly topple him. The stink of weed and violence mushroomed around them as they trundled forth. Barry snarled, more forcefully than he intended, “Watch it.”
One by one they slowed, stopped and turned back in amazement. “Are you talking to me?” said the offender. “Excuse me?” asked another. They fell into assorted chesty poses. Barry knew the gang colors they wore from prison encounters. He didn’t care.
Sidewalk traffic continued to flow around Barry. He lowered his brow and repeated, “Watch it.”
The young men howled with derision and disbelief. The laughing brutes did not recognize him or know his reputation. They saw just a fat sap in a sweaty untucked shirt and loosely knotted tie; a hairy, soft ape; an inconsequential, slouching figure, enduring his own nasty and brutish slice, defenseless against three ragamuffin thugs. Reptiles. Watching them proceed, laughing down the sidewalk, Barry squeezed his fists and resolved to correct their mistake. He trembled with a crimson fire in his brain but stopped himself from committing an act most brutal. Because: What was the point? He could eradicate these three, but the rest of the world would remain.
Mercifully, life was short.
At a double-time clip, he returned to Chariots of Tire. A yellow light burned in the office. He leaped the stairs and ripped open the door. O.B. Hobbes, a glass and whiskey bottle on the desk before him, slid backward in his chair and cowered from the inhuman gale that roared into the tiny space. Growling, Barry snatched a pen from a cup and, looming over the desk, he began scrawling on a random envelope. When he straightened again, he threw the paper at the old man.
O.B. retrieved the envelope and tried to decipher the jagged script. “Eddie Getty?” he asked, looking at Barry.
“He’s the guy you want. Call that number. Have him make your wife a grease spot, I don’t care.”
He turned and gripped the doorknob in a fist. O.B. held his breath. Barry paused. His face was a furious red, but his eyes quivered with tears. He spoke quietly.
“You know what a guard said to me? He teased me the night before my release. He called the Mexican who took my rap a two-for-one deal. He said the guy’s a trouble-maker, political stuff, I don’t know what. Powerful people wanted him off the street. So they framed him, which meant letting me walk. That was acceptable, the guard said, because they knew I’d screw up again. I’d be back. Barry Barabbas will always end up in jail——it’s inevitable.”
He wiped his cheek on his shoulder and turned back to Hobbes. “Give me money,” he commanded. His eyes were whiteless and slit.
“But I paid you for the day,” chirped Hobbes.
Barry came over and punched his fist down on the table, hard enough to send its clutter flying. “Pay me,” he roared.
“Okay, okay,” said Hobbes. He opened a desk drawer and, hand trembling, extended a rubber-banded cylinder of cash to Barry.
The giant snatched the roll, peeled off a few twenties, and tossed the bundle onto the table. Hobbes, blinking, asked, “That’s all you want?”
Walking to the door, Barry said, “It’s all I need.”
For a few blocks, Barry marched, shoulders forward, head down, money still clenched in his fist. At last, he stopped in beside the dirtiest, loudest bar he could find and knew it was the necessary place. He carried the money and a dark determination inside and, with them, sealed his fate.