I remember when Charlie’s brother, Ned, robbed a bunch of Starter jackets from Caldor. It was Christmastime, and the stores on Bruckner Boulevard were mobbed. I’m not sure how he and Timmy wound up over there. Somebody must have driven them. It’s not like they had the car anymore.
I still can’t believe they got away with it. Eleven or twelve coats between the two of them. I wish I could have seen what that looked like. Just a couple of holiday shoppers trying clothes on in front of the mirror, zipping up layer over layer. Drifting toward the side exit near the Radio Shack and disappearing across the parking lot in the snow, wearing almost a thousand dollars worth of merchandise.
I remember how excited the boys were when they got back to the house. Ned draped two towels over the window in the front room and laid everything out on Mabel’s bed. We stood there for several minutes, marveling at this sudden windfall.
“Mare, you’re in charge of watching these coats,” he said. “Make sure nobody steals them.”
Within no time, people from the neighborhood began showing up to get in on the action. Everybody wanted one of those jackets. They arrived on foot and in borrowed vehicles. One guy rode over on a little girl’s bicycle, the kind with the wicker basket attached to the handlebars.
“It’s practically brand new,” he said. “Kylie don’t use it no more. She’s with her mother now, since January.”
Some folks actually had money, but most presented items to trade and invitations for future questionable opportunities. They rolled balding tires into the yard, carried boxes of purloined goods up the broken steps and into the kitchen.
“Check out these beautiful shower curtains, Ned. There’s at least two dozen here. All unopened, still in the package. Just take a look at the detail. They got all kinds of beads and shit along the bottom, very fancy. You could go down the subway and sell these for whatever.”
Jewelry, cartons of oranges and mangoes, cigarettes, cases of beer and bottles of homemade wine covered the table where Charlie’s mom sat, peeling and slicing vegetables.
Throughout the afternoon and well into the evening, they kept coming. If not to purchase, then simply to congratulate Ned and celebrate his accomplishment. It was nice to see him do so well for himself. It’s not like it happened all that often.
Charlie couldn’t see it that way. He was jealous of his brother’s good fortune and grew increasingly annoyed that he wasn’t the center of attention. He skulked around the perimeter of everyone’s good time like a big, stray dog you might cross the street to avoid. Clenching and unclenching his fists gave him something meaningful to do with his hands.
When he disappeared for a while, never a good sign, it was a clear indication that somewhere along the way, he’d found a bag of dope to bring some fairness back into his life. Mabel sent me looking for him when she realized he was missing.
“Will you find my son, honey?” she asked. Her voice was weary, as always. “He can’t be far.”
She was right. He sat brooding on top of a pile of garbage in the alleyway between the houses.
“Where you been, Charlie? You in there?”
I waved my hand slowly in front of his face and was careful not to touch him. It took a little while for my words to journey from his ears and burrow through the drug to reach his brain.
I proceeded with a degree of caution. “You need to get yourself a jacket before there’s none left.”
“I don’t want their fuckin’ stolen shit,” he mumbled. “And neither do you. Understand?”
“Just come inside.”
“Let me see if I can get this straight,” Charlie challenged from the doorway, gripping a coffee cup filled with freshly mashed potatoes in one hand and a spoon in the other. “You just walked out the fuckin’ door wearing seven coats. And nobody stopped you.”
“That’s right,” Ned agreed. “Nobody stopped me.”
“Not one fuckin’ motherfucker said nothin’ to you.”
“Nope. Wait. I mean, yup.” By now, Ned was quite drunk.
“So you want me and Mom and whoever else is here to believe they just let you have all them coats. You’re shittin’ me, right?”
“C’mon, man. It’s Christmas. Why would I shit you?”
“Why? Because you’re full of shit, Ned. You’ve always been full of shit since before I can’t even remember. Fuck, I could kill you right now if I wanted.”
You just knew that coffee cup wasn’t gonna make it out alive. He hurled it across the room with such force, it shattered against the wall over the couch where Ned and several other young men were sitting, flicking little bits of ceramic and potato everywhere.
Charlie’s other brother, Rob, made us leave.
“Get the fuck out, you fuckin’ animal.” That’s what he said.
I remember the whole ride home on the bus and train from the Bronx into Queens, I kept thinking about how much I would have loved to have one of those starter jackets. The only other warm coat I had was the green one they gave Charlie when he was locked up through the winter. It read CIFM in bold faced script across the shoulders.
“What does it mean?” I asked when we first met.
“You’ll find out.” He thought it was funny, how little I knew.
Charlie told me I couldn’t wear it unless I covered the letters with electric tape. I was so stupid back then. I thought it was like a varsity jacket, except for jail.
* Artwork: The Last Jacket by Szabolcs Szolnoki