Words We Don't Say
Disney Book Group
Copyright © 2018 K. J. ReillyISBN: 978-1-368-01633-9
All rights reserved.
SOMETIMES WE GAVE THEM NAMES.
We had to because they wouldn't tell us who they were.
Eli and I gave them made-up names just so we could identify them between ourselves. Besides, most were regulars who never missed a night, so we couldn't exactly not refer to them by one name or another.
They weren't mean names, either. And we never used the names we made up to their faces.
That wouldn't have been right, and we knew it.
This thing we did had rules.
Like dessert was only served twice a week.
And you had to eat a full meal to get it.
And the doors closed at 6:30 p.m. sharp.
And the new guys who didn't talk got fake names.CHAPTER 2
SOME OF THE GUYS WHO CAME IN
were real friendly.
Telling us their life stories and then what took them down. A lot of them, like the Colonel and Spindini, were veterans of wars that we hardly knew anything about. Some were addicts or alcoholics. Others were what Benj Kutchner, another eleventh grader who volunteered with us at the soup kitchen up on Hendricks Street on Wednesday nights, just called bat-shit crazy.
Which was ironic since pretty much our whole grade thought Benj Kutchner was bat-shit crazy on account of the fact that his mouth was unconnected to his brain. That, and the rumors floating around school that he poisoned his parents but the cops couldn't prove it and that's why he had to move here last summer to live with his aunt, who, if you listened to Alex B. Renner and his tribe of AP math geeks and wannabe tech titans, was apparently not looking too good herself these days.
But most of the guys who showed up at the soup kitchen weren't veterans or alcoholics or addicts or mentally ill. They were just normal guys who'd lost the cosmic luck lottery. As Spindini, one of the regulars and the resident philosopher, summed it up one night when some bad shit went down and the cops had to come and haul the Colonel out in handcuffs, "Fuck it man, sometimes life just ain't fair."
And goddamn, but he got that right.CHAPTER 3
A FEW OF THE GUYS WHO DID TALK,
offered us advice.
Heaps of it.
In between bites of mashed potatoes and green beans, those affirmative statements to "do this" and the warnings to "don't do that" poured out of them with such force it was like they were holding fire hoses and we were buildings about to go up in smoke. Hoping maybe they would say something that just might keep one of us from ending up homeless and hungry one day with demons so big and so bad that there'd be no way to get out from under them. It was as if they knew that the flames of life were licking at all of our combustible surfaces and if they could just say the right thing they could extinguish them before it was too late and we were nothing but the charred remains of someone who was something once.
Or could have been.
But it was like some of them, the ones who didn't speak, were scared quiet. Like if they said anything out loud, even their own names, the little bit they were holding together would split wide open. When it came to those guys, I didn't know what they were dealing with, or who they were, or how to approach them. So when they came through the line I just gave them a plate of food and a smile and a polite nod. But Eli always made like the soup kitchen was a real restaurant, and they were just regular customers, so she tried real hard and was extra nice like she was working toward a big tip or knew something the rest of us didn't. She was always acting like everything was really okay even when it really wasn't and was always saying sweet stuff like, "Hope you like the meat loaf." Or, "The pasta looks really good tonight." Or, "Here's an extra piece of cake."
She had to whisper real low about the cake too, because old Mrs. Torrington, the lady who ran the soup kitchen, had strict rules about handing out more than one serving per. That's just how Mrs. T said it, too, with her finger wagging and pointing right at Eli, 'cause she knew who had the soft heart, "Only one serving per." Sometimes even adding "Eli" to the end of that sentence just in case any of the volunteers didn't know who she was talking to or wagging her finger at.
Said that every time we gave out seconds it meant that someone else went hungry.
Mrs. Torrington had a point. Some nights we ran out of everything — not just cake — and then we had to turn people away. Believe me, none of us wanted to be the one to make the cutoff in that line of hungry people and lock the doors, or decide instead that maybe one or two more could slide through and we could scrape together just a couple of more meals. So Mrs. T had to pull the doors closed and bolt them tight herself while the rest of us looked at the floor or glanced up hoping not to make eye contact with anyone as we did some quick math on how many were being turned away on that particular night, knocked down yet another notch, cold and hungry.
It was mostly men in the soup kitchen line snaking toward Main. It would have been way worse if more of them were women — or kids. That's just a fact.
I don't know why that is. But I don't know much of anything, so you wouldn't want to come looking to me for answers to that or anything else. Unless you wanted to know how to repair a transmission or change the oil in your truck. Shit like that was clean and simple and I knew it cold.CHAPTER 4
ME AND ELI WERE AT THE SOUP KITCHEN
one night a week to fulfill a community service requirement at our school, Calf City High, just a few miles north of New York City and a few giant steps west of the Hudson River in Rockland County.
In eleventh grade, one full semester of community service was required if you wanted to graduate. No negotiating either. Believe me, kids tried.
Eli picked the soup kitchen because she liked feeding people. And I picked the soup kitchen because I liked watching Eli do just about anything at all.
Sometimes life could be that simple.
But in my book, not often enough.
The regulars lined up early. Started milling around the doors at about four o'clock, and back on our first night of volunteering, Eli had whispered to me, "That's what the cats always did at Shady Brook."
"I remember," I said, knowing that she didn't mean anything awful by it despite how it sounded 'cause Eli's never said anything bad about anyone or anything in her whole life. It's just that when we were in elementary school, the janitors and lunch ladies used to leave food for the stray cats by the back door of the cafeteria at 1:00 p.m. and those cats showed up early and hung around the door, too.
Those early birds at the soup kitchen would eventually form an orderly line that grew longer and longer as they waited for the doors to open at 5:00 p.m. sharp. A line that reached all the way to Mr. Easton's fix-it shop on the corner of Main and Hendricks on most nights, and probably stretched farther than that on more nights than any of us liked to think. But we couldn't see the end from inside where we were standing.
"It hurts your heart to see this," Eli said over and over again, referring to the number of people waiting to eat, or some new guy, or a regular, or the doors that were bolted shut when there were still faces peering in from the other side.
She was right about that.
And she was right about a whole bunch of other stuff, too.CHAPTER 5
I MET ROOSTER ON WEDNESDAY NIGHT,
first week in March.
That's not his real name, of course. It's one of those made-up names Eli and I came up with. He showed up real late that night, around 6:15 or so, then he hung around outside for a bit before he tamped down whatever it was that was holding him back and mustered up the courage to come in.
Eli saw him before me, said, "Here comes a straggler. Hope we still have cake."
I looked up and saw the guy just standing there outside the entrance. Then I looked at the clock 'cause we were gonna close soon and I started hoping he would hurry. Sort of willing him in through the door.
Rooster was big, real big, and wearing more layers of clothes than you'd think were possible — or necessary — even at the tail end of a New York winter. He finally got up the guts and pulled open the door and stepped inside. Just stood there with his red face and matted hair and those scared blue eyes that darted around the room real nervous-like, then he'd glance back outside every few seconds at the shopping cart he had parked on the sidewalk like he was afraid to leave it.
They were all afraid to leave their stuff. Mrs. Torrington told us that at orientation six weeks back. That they were all afraid someone would steal it. She said that even though it wasn't worth anything to anyone else, it was all they had.
"I vote that if he doesn't tell us his name, we call him Rooster," I said to Eli, leaning in close, not just because I liked to — and I liked to — but so no one else could hear.
"Rooster? Where'd you get that one?" Eli whispered back, her breath all warm and inviting on my cheek.
"After Rooster Cogburn in True Grit," I said. "Played by Jeff Bridges. This guy looks just like him."
"Which is how?" Eli asked.
"Like a big old unkempt grizzly bear."
"Well, I'll just have to take your word for that," Eli said, as she slapped some rice and beans onto a plate for the next guy through the line, "as I haven't seen that movie."
"But you see the bear, Eli. Tell me you see the bear," I teased, and that got her to laugh.
"Yes, Joel, I see the bear."
We always named the guys who didn't talk after characters we'd seen in movies. We had ourselves a Red from The Shawshank Redemption and a Gandalf from Lord of the Rings, and from the looks of it, we had a Rooster now, too.
I went right over to him and said, "Welcome, sir," and knew right off the bat that he wasn't going to talk.
He looked scared of me — and I'm not someone to be scared of. I'm all of five foot eight inches tall, hoping on five foot nine and praying for five foot ten like it was the difference between fixing flats and tuning up SUVs at my pop's gas station for the rest of my life or signing a contract to be a guard for the New York Knicks.
Like I could play for the Knicks even if I were seven feet tall.
I mean, I can't shoot hoops for shit or dribble a ball between my legs or drive toward the basket with some tall-ass, jacked-up ass-lete running me down, but the way I figured it in my head, those were two inches that had the power to change just about everything in my life. The thing of it was, by my calculation, those couple of inches wouldn't just keep me pumping gas and out of the NBA so to speak, they would keep me from Eli. I was struggling with the colossal problem that Eli was five foot ten and not likely to notice me outside of school and the soup kitchen as more than just some stupid kid she's gone to school with her whole life if I was way down here and she was way up there.
Now, you'd think seeing what I saw at Hendricks Street on Wednesday nights would make me think being short was a problem I could work around, but you'd be wrong. Even after slinging hash in a soup kitchen and seeing just about the worst the world could dish out, I still managed to feel sorry for myself because I fell just a couple of tragic inches short of my ideal height and a shot at a girl.
I'm guessing that if I were offered the choice, I would probably have left half the world to starve just for those two goddamned inches and a shot at Eli.
That doesn't say much about Joel Higgins, now, does it?
But if you saw Eli, you'd understand where I'm coming from. It's not that she was Victoria's Secret kind of pretty either, she was just my kind of pretty and she had this way about her. It was like she really believed that she could fix anything and everything would be okay if she just stuck with it and tried hard enough.
I'd known Eli since first grade, had a crush on her since fifth, and been flat out in love with her since seventh, but the sad truth is that in all that time I hadn't gotten up the courage to ask her out or tell her how I felt. Then, after the thing that happened last year, Eli walked right back to the lunch table near the emergency door and trash cans and the posters for the Heimlich maneuver and CPR that were taped to the wall in the way back of the cafeteria where me and my friend Andy always sat, and she set her tray down right across from me in the empty space.
She just asked, "Would it be okay if I sit here, Joel?" but not until after she sat down.
I said, "You don't have to —" But she interrupted me and said, "Of course I don't have to. I want to."
And I pretty much knew that that wasn't true, but I nodded my head anyway.
From that first day on, Eli sat with me at lunch in Andy's old spot. Never once said anything to make a big deal out of it or acted like she was doing me a favor either. That's just the kind of person she is. But we never talked much. I pretty much sat there thinking about everything wrong with the world and Eli worked on writing out lists of everything she was happy about and all the things she could fix.
That night at the soup kitchen, I reassured the new guy — who we decided to call Rooster — that I would watch his stuff. Then Eli came over and she was real sweet and looking pretty with a great big smile and her hair pulled way up on top of her head in a ponytail that was crisscrossed into a braid and she got him to follow right after her so she could plate him some food. He ate it real fast too. Cake and all. Kept checking the door though, and I'd wave back at him from outside where I was babysitting his cart to let him know that everything on my end was A-okay.
We weren't supposed to, but we did stuff like that — babysat their carts and shit so they could eat. Ten minutes in, Mrs. T popped her head outside and said, "Joel, you doing all right?"
And I wanted to say, "Fuck no. Things are not the least bit all right. There's bad shit going on everywhere and a room full of hungry people and most of them have nowhere to live and a whole bunch of them have shopping carts full of garbage they can't part with. So no. Things are not all right out here."
But I basically said, "Yes, Mrs. T. I've got this. Just getting some fresh air."
And she said, "Sure you are, Joel. Sure you are."
Most of the guys came into the soup kitchen early and ate real slow. It was a chance to sit down and warm up. But Rooster, he apparently had things to do and places to go. He was in late and out fast that night and every Wednesday night after that, too.
Things were just humming along until the third Saturday in March when I was walking along the old dirt road by the cemetery up in the hill section of town. I was headed down to the village for no particular reason other than I couldn't stand spending another second listening to my pop scream at the TV because the Yankees were losing in the fifth inning of a preseason game and not taking his advice to "pull the goddamned pitcher," when I saw Rooster with his shopping cart heading back into the woods behind the Richardsons' farm. Just caught a glimpse of him as he cut in on an old path we used to use as kids, then he disappeared into the trees and brush. Had a hell of a time maneuvering his shopping cart because of the uneven ground and busted wheel, but it was Rooster all right. I deduced that there was a good chance that he was living up in those woods. No other reason to go there. Even for someone who might well be, as Benj Kutchner would say, batshit crazy.
I decided to check it out for myself the next day.
Which was my first mistake.
My second mistake was way worse.
In fact, my mistakes were what Mr. Monty, my eleventh-grade math teacher, called progressing geometrically, which he explained by saying that if you started with a penny and doubled it every day, in one month you'd have $10.7 million. When he explained the penny thing, Benj Kutchner was sitting right behind me and he leaned forward and said, "Hey, Higgins? Can I borrow a penny?" Then he whispered, "That's what happens to problems too." And I figured that if he really did kill his parents, he would know. Mr. Monty called it a form of compounding, said it was a good thing, but later on Benj called it sequential worsening. I figured that Benj was right; things just started to get worse and worse once you made one mistake. And I imagined that you could go from one wrong to 10.7 million wrongs in thirty days just as if those problems were compounding pennies if you doubled your output each day. Something I learned wasn't too hard to do if you were Joel Higgins and you were sequentially screwing up.