“Jesus, Dorkshire, where the hell you been? I’ve been freezing my ass off out here!” Chuck Copiski ground out another cigarette with the toe of his shoe and blew on his fingers. The sidewalk at his feet was littered with butts smoked down to the filter.
“You said 7 o’clock, right? I just heard the church bells ring.” Doyle Dormeyer hobbled up to his friend, out of breath.
“That was 15 minutes ago, Dorkus.” Chuck hocked up a wad of phlegm and spit it onto the walk, just missing Doyle’s shriveled left foot in its built-up shoe.
“Sorry, sorry,” Doyle said. “My ma needed help with Petey. He ain’t feelin’ the best.”
Chuck knew better than to challenge anything to do with Petey. “Yeah, well, don’t let it happen again, Dorkmeister. Come on, we gotta meet The Wop over by the pool hall.”
The two set out, one reed-thin and limping, the other short and stocky, leading with his jutting chin.
“Why do you call him that?” Doyle said, struggling to keep up.
“Call who what?”
“The Wop. Doesn’t he get pissed off?”
Chuck stopped short and Doyle nearly plowed into his back.
“I don’t call him that, he calls himself that, Dorknut. Guy like that wants to be called The Wop, a guy like me does it. Capice?”
“I hear he carries,” Doyle said, with awe in his voice.
“Now you’re gettin’ it!” Chuck said, punching Doyle’s arm. “There’s hope for you yet, Dorkputz.”
Doyle wasn’t sure, exactly, what he was getting, but he nodded anyway and rubbed his arm.
“You got any money?” he asked as they plodded ahead.
“You know I have money,” Chuck growled. “I been saving it up for months to make this buy. A dollar here, a dollar there, the old man never misses it. Why?”
“Kinda hungry,” Doyle said, even as his stomach growled. “Petey didn’t get enough supper, so I gave him mine.”
Chuck groaned. Petey again. He stopped and considered. He had a wad of bills buried in his front pocket, $120 exactly. The stuff shouldn’t be more than $100. He looked over at Doyle who was clutching his stomach and looking longingly at the convenience store up ahead. Chuck was feeling expansive.
“Yeah, what the hell,” he said, “I gotta buy some butts anyhow. I smoked ‘em all up waiting for a certain someone. Com’n we gotta make it quick.”
A buzzer sounded as they pulled open the heavily barred door. A man wearing a turban stood behind the counter. He looked up and glowered at the teens, then took a quick look at the camera aimed at the door. Incense burned in a brass holder behind him.
“Phew!” Chuck said, waving his hand. “Some sorta stink in here!”
Doyle kept his head down and went straight to the display of Slim Jims. He grabbed a few, then plucked a couple of candy bars from a box on the counter. Coconut, his favorite.
“This okay?” he asked Chuck, who was looking over the rack of cigarettes.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Chuck said. “Gimme a pack of them red Marlboros,” he said to the man.
“You got ID?” the man asked. “I need ID.”
Chuck patted his pockets. “Well silly ol’ me,” he said, making his eyes go wide. “I must have left it in my suit.” Instead, he pulled out a twenty dollar bill, one of two in the wad of one dollar bills; he knew this guy’s game. As long as they had the money, no one ever needed an ID in this joint.
The man eyed the bill. Without taking his eyes off the duo, he reached to the cigarette rack behind him, pulled out the Marlboros and set them on the counter. Doyle dumped his loot next to them.
“That be $21.57.”
“What?” Chuck screeched. “For a lousy pack of cigarettes and some junk food? That’s highway robbery!” In the few months he had been smoking, Chuck was used to copping butts from his father; he’d never actually bought a pack.
“Maybe you tell story to tax man,” the man said, a slight smirk on his face. “Or maybe you find ID and go someplace else.”
Redfaced, but defeated, Chuck pulled two more bills from his pocket. His hands shook as he scooped up the change and the cigarettes. Doyle stuffed the candy and two Slim Jims into his coat pocket and started peeling open the other one.
“You eat outside!” the man bellowed, shooing them away.
“Don’t get your undies in a twist, Ragtop, we’re going,” Chuck said. He grabbed hold of Doyle’s sleeve and pulled him out the door while the man raged at them, his fist cutting the air.
“Fucking loser,” Chuck yelled as they scurried down the street. “This city’s full of fucking losers!”
Doyle was trying to open his Slim Jim with his teeth as he struggled to keep up. He’d heard this all before.
“Guy’s got some balls, I’ll tell you!” Chuck went on. “I could have him shut down like that!” He snapped his fingers. “Effin’ losers, I’m telling you. They’re all effin’ losers.”
Doyle had finished his first Slim Jim and was tearing into the second.
“Only two kinds of people in this world, Dorkstein: winners and losers. And, trust me, the losers outnumber the winners by a long shot.” Chuck took a deep breath. This was Doyle’s signal to cut in.
“Can losers become winners?” he asked.
“Ha! It happens, but it sure as hell ain’t because of no hard work. None of that ‘nose to the grindstone’ crap, that’s for sure. It’s all about having that winning gene. You either got it or you ain’t. Most ain’t.”
Doyle never asked the question he wanted to ask because he knew what Chuck’s answer would be – Doyle was a loser and Chuck was a winner. Instead he asked,“Well, then, can winners become losers?”
“Most of them can,” Chuck answered, as Doyle knew he would. “They’re losers-in-training from the get-go. Take Bob the Bum.” They were crossing an alley entrance and Copiski nodded down its black length. All Doyle could see was an overflowing Dumpster and stacks of flattened boxes along the brick buildings.
“There,” Chuck said, pointing to a large stack of boxes halfway down the alley. Doyle could make out a shape lying there; a square box where the head should be.
“Keeps the pigeon shit from your mouth,” Chuck said knowingly. “Thing is, Bob the Bum used to be Bob the Builder, one helluva big shot in this town.”
“Yeah?” Doyle knew the story, but tried to keep things flowing.
“He had it all! Or, it seemed that way. Big government contracts that he paid good money for, Cadillac convertible, big house, a sexy wife, a bimbo on the side.”
“What was supposed to happen to a loser-in-training. He got drunk, the bimbo talked him into flying out to Vegas and they got married.”
“Wasn’t he already married?”
“Riiiiiight, Dorkshit, that he was. He gets back here and the next thing he knows, the bimbo and the other wife are suing his ass off. The wife even goes to the press with all sorts of evidence of bribes and kickbacks. It was all downhill to loserville from there … lost his home, lost his license, lost both wives (cuz they were in cahoots all along). He didn’t do no time and he didn’t find Jesus, but he did find the bottle. Total loser. ‘Nuff said.”
“What about The Wop?” Doyle said, nodding toward a dark shape on the corner. “Is he a loser or a winner?”
Copiski stood straighter, frowning. “Cut the shit with the winner/loser stuff, Dorkdog,” he said. “We have business to conduct.” Chuck had never bought drugs in his life, but it was Doyle’s 16th birthday and Chuck has promised him this one present. So what if Doyle didn’t seem interested? A promise was a promise.
Chuck strutted toward the figure, his hand deep in his money pocket. “My man!” he said raising a fist to bump when they were abreast of him.
“Keep moving,” the Wop hissed, ignoring the gesture. “We’re just three buds out for a stroll.”
“That’s cool,” Chuck said, falling into step and leaving Doyle to catch up.
“Thought you were coming alone,” The Wop growled, though he kept a fake smile pasted on his face.
“Dork … uh, Dormeyer’s cool,” Chuck said. The two looked back at Doyle who was stuffing half a candy bar in his maw.
“Whatever,” The Wop said, obviously unhappy. “In here,” he said, nodding toward a seedy-looking theatre.
The ticket seller gave the group a small nod, but no money exchanged hands. Chuck was impressed. He and Doyle followed The Wop up some dark stairs, through a curtain and into a small balcony. Doyle wished they’d stopped for some popcorn first. Below them, three or four people seemed to be sleeping while a loud, old Western flickered on the screen.
“You got the money?” The Wop asked even before he sat down. Chuck dropped into the seat next to him, but Doyle made his way to the front row, eyes glued to the screen.
“Yeah, sure, sure I do,” Chuck said. “But that ragtop down at the C-store ripped me off so I’m a couple bucks short.”
The Wop started to rise. “The deal was a hundred on the nose, Copiski.”
“It’s a coupla bucks!” Chuck said, standing and reaching into his pocket. “I’m good for it.”
The Wop sat back down. “Let’s see it,” he said, holding out his hand.
Chuck hesitated. “So, yeah, that’s cool,” he said, keeping his hand in his pocket, “but do you, you know, have the stuff?”
“You gotta be shittin’ me, Copiski.” He held out his hand and sighed. “Let’s see it,” he repeated.
Chuck pulled out the wad and handed it to him.
“Fuckin’ A, man, you save up your weekly lunch money?” He started counting the bills.
Chuck blushed, glad it was so dark in the theatre.
“Is this some kinda joke, Copiski?” The Wop stood up and shoved the money against Chuck’s chest.
“Whaddya mean? It’s just two bucks short! You want the 43 cents in change, too?”
“Two bucks my ass, more like twenty.”
“Twenty … no way, it can’t be!”
“Count it yourself, loser. I’m outta here. I’ve wasted enough time on this shit.”
Chuck was frantically trying to count the bills before The Wop left. It was true. There was just $78 in the pile; the other twenty was missing.
“What the hell?” Chuck was getting suspicious. “You tryin’ to scam me, man?”
The Wop spun around. In seconds flat, he had Chuck’s right arm behind his back and a switchblade pressed against his throat.
“What was that you said, loser?” The Wop hissed in his ear.
“Nu … nu … nuthin’, dude. I musta messed up.”
“Yeah, you messed up all right.” The Wop released the shaken boy and pushed him away. “Don’t ever,” he said, “let me catch you in my part of town again. Capice?”
“I got it,” Chuck said, holding a hand to his throat. The dealer gave him one long, last look and sauntered up the aisle and through the curtain.
“Fuck!” Chuck swore, kneeling down to grope for the fallen bills. “Get over here and help me, Dorkshit!”
Doyle, who had been engrossed in the shoot-em-up movie, snapped to attention.
“You get the stuff?” he asked. “What’re you doin’ down there anyway?”
“I’m praying, what the hell do you think I’m doing? Help me find the rest of these bills.”
As usual, Doyle helped where he could, even if he didn’t know why.
Out on the street and walking as fast as they could from The Wop’s neighborhood, Chuck swore a blue streak even as he counted and recounted the money. Those who would look to steal a wad, even a wad of ones, stayed clear.
“He fuckin’ ripped me off, man! I can’t fuckin’ believe it! And he called me a loser. That’s a loser, Dorkman, if you ever saw one! I give him six months before they find him floating in the river.”
Dormeyer knew better than to say anything. He knew it was possible, just possible, that his friend had miscounted to begin with. Or given the store owner two twenties and not one. To say so, though, not a chance. He did wonder what they’d do next. After Chuck quieted down a bit he asked.
“We headin’ home now?” he asked.
Chuck gave him one of his looks. “No, we’re not going fuckin’ home!” he bellowed, more determined than ever. “We’re going to find Milo.”
Doyle stopped mid-stride. “Milo? The mysterious Milo Fassbender? That Milo?” He hoped he’d heard wrong. It had been known to happen.
“Yeah, that Milo, Dorknob. What other Milo do you know?”
Doyle screwed up his face and thought for a second.
“None,” he said, “unless you count old lady Morris’s dog, but he got run over by a garbage truck.”
“I swear, Dorkton ...”
“She buried him right in her front yard. There’s a little cross and everything.”
Copiski ignored him and started walking again.
“I thought you said you’d never deal with Milo,” Doyle said, hurrying to catch up. “Besides, you know what they say, ‘You don’t find Milo, Milo finds you.’ Know what else they say?” he asked. “They say that it feels like he’s walking around inside your head when he does find you. Gives me the creeps.”
“We got no choice now,” Chuck grumbled.
“We could, you know, just forget about it,” Doyle said softly.
Chuck knew that was true, but he also knew that backing down was the sign of a true loser. Chuck Copiski was no loser.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that, Dorkwood,” he said. “Besides, it looks like Milo found us.”
Up ahead, near Jerry’s Diner, they saw the large, hulking figure of Milo Fassbender, wearing his trademark polo shirt and Bermuda shorts, a rolled-up newspaper or magazine tucked under his arm. It was hard to tell, but it seemed like he was looking right at them. He gave a slight nod and pulled open the door to the diner.
“That place has been closed down forever,” Doyle whispered. “How’d he get in?”
Jerry’s Diner had one greasy window, cracked diagonally and held together with duct tape. Tattered and faded signs hung crookedly from yellowed tape, flanked by curtains that may or may not have been checkered at one point. The formerly red and black Closed sign was faded to a pale pink and gray.
A small bell rang overhead as Copiski pushed open the flimsy door. He gave time for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. A fine layer of dust covered every surface except the far booth where Fassbender sat facing the door.
Chuck slid into the bench opposite him, pulling Doyle down beside him. Milo didn’t look up from the comic book he had on the table before him. He had one giant hand wrapped around a grimy Coke glass while the other turned pages.
“Yo, Milo,” Chuck said, “how they hangin’?”
Fassbender continued to ignore the boys. He flipped another page and chuckled to himself. Doyle felt shivers going up his spine and nearly jumped out of his skin when a waitress appeared out of nowhere at his elbow.
“Gitcha sumpthin’?” she said.
“My friends here will each have a Jerry burger, large fries and Cokes,” Milo said, without looking up. “I’ll have the usual.”
“No, we just uh ...” Chuck began.
Milo held up one finger. “First we eat, then we conduct business,” he said more to the comic book than to Chuck and Doyle. “On the house, of course,” he added.
Doyle’s eyes went wide and he completely forgot his nervousness.
“Do you, like, own this place?” he asked, looking around with new eyes.
For the first time, Milo raised his head and fixed his thick-glassed stare on Doyle.
“In a manner of speaking,” he said. He coughed, or chuckled; the two boys weren’t sure which.
Chuck’s knee bounced up and down and he kept tapping the table with his thumbs as the trio waited for the waitress’s return. They heard no sounds of cooking or activity behind the swinging kitchen door.
“Ants in the pants, Chuckster?” Milo said, turning another page. “Got places to go, people to see?”
The booth stopped shaking and Chuck jammed his hands into his coat pockets.
“Just cold is all,” he said.
“Seriously?” Doyle said. “I was just thinking it was too hot in here.” Milo coughed or chuckled again.
Chuck swiveled his head slowly in Doyle’s direction and gave him one of his “shut the fuck up” stares. Doyle knew very well how to read them.
Finally, their meals arrived. Doyle was wolfing his down even before the others’ meals were on the table. Milo’s “usual,” Chuck saw, was some sort of mystery meat drowned in gray gravy over potatoes, not unlike their meals at school. There was a lot of it.
While Milo ate slowly, almost prissily in Chuck’s view, the other two downed their Jerry burgers and fries in record time. The waitress came to clear away their plates while Milo continued to eat, fork by slow-moving fork.
“So,” Chuck said, unable to sit still any longer, “we’re lookin’ for …”
“I know what you’re looking for, Chuckwagon,” Milo said, “but we haven’t even had dessert.”
Chuck slammed back on the booth and groaned while Doyle’s rubbed his hands expectantly.
“All good things in good time, Chuckles,” Milo said, poking another bit of meat into his mouth.
Chuck fumed as the waitress set down a slice of pie in front of Milo and banana splits in front of him and Doyle. Doyle wasted no time digging into its gooeyness; he was so happy, he actually hummed as he ate. Chuck would have growled, but knew it would just earn him another smart-assed comment – and nickname – from Milo.
At long last, the sticky plates were cleared away and the waitress disappeared; now they could get down to business.
Milo fixed his gaze on Doyle. “How’s Petey doing?” he asked with genuine concern on his face and in his voice.
Doyle gulped. How’d he know about Petey? “He’s ah, not doin’ so hot,” he said. “Ma’s real worried.”
“Sorry to hear that, Doyle,” Milo said. “Either of you familiar with the 1967 song ‘White Rabbit’?” he added.
Now he wants to discuss the oldies? Chuck thought. He was about to say no when Doyle, the freak, cut in.
“I am!” he said. “My ma listened to it a lot.” Then, surprising them all, he started singing in a clear, tuneful voice.
“One pill makes you larger. And one pill makes you small ...”
“Jesus, Dorkmouse, what is up with you?” Copiski snarled as Doyle blushed and Milo clapped. “Milo, look, we just want some stuff; I’ve got money ...”
“You already have your ‘stuff’, Chucknuts,” Milo said. He slipped off his Coke-bottle glasses and started polishing them with a grimy handkerchief. His eyes were shrunken and white-rimmed on his moon-shaped face.
“What the hell does that mean? We got no stuff. You’ve got Dorksmith singing pretty tunes ...what kind of game you playin’ here, Fassbender?”
Doyle elbowed him. “Chuck, Chuck,” he said, “look.”
Copiski looked down where Doyle, a look of awe and fear on his face, was staring. Right on the table in front of them sat two large, multi-colored pills.
“What’s this shit, after-dinner mints?” Chuck grumbled. He scooped up one of them, popped it into his mouth and swallowed.
Milo grinned broadly, nodding his head. “You shouldn’t ought have done that, Charliehorse,” he said.
“Why the fuck not?” Copiski snarled. He slid over the bench toward Doyle, pushing him out. “We’re outta here,” he said. For good measure he nabbed the pill that was in front of Doyle and swallowed that, too.
Milo shook his head, a look of pity on his face. “Now, that you really shouldn’t have done,” he said. “Sit down and I’ll tell you why.”
Already feeling a little strange, Copiski flopped back onto the seat, curious.
“Those ‘after-dinner mints’ might have looked the same,” Milo said, “but they were different from each other.”
“So, if you’re a winner, one of the pills will work a certain way. And if you’re a loser, the other pill will work a certain way. If you take the wrong one, well, there can be dire consequences. Frankly, I have no idea what happens when you take both. One pill was meant for you; the other was meant for Doyle.”
Doyle hung his head, feeling more like a loser than ever. Even Milo thought he was.
“That is such bullshit, Fassbender!” Chuck bellowed. “You into mind-fucking kids? Is that it?”
Milo just shook his head and slowly rose from the booth, his eyes on the window.
“Doyle,” he said, nodding toward it, “I think you’re needed.”
“What?” Doyle turned and saw through the greasy glass, a woman who looked a lot like his neighbor, Miss Sheridan, pacing in front of the building.
While Chuck still sat, trying to figure out why his hands and feet felt like lead, Doyle raced to the door, Milo close behind.
“Oh, Doyle!” the woman, who was indeed Miss Sheridan, cried, “we’ve been looking all over for you! Your ma has people all over town looking.”
“What is it, Miss Sheridan? Petey?”
The woman looked grave as she grabbed Doyle’s hand in her own. “He’s bad, son,” she said. “Your ma, she’s not sure he’ll ...”
“No!” Doyle shouted just as Chuck finally made his way out the door. Doyle started to bolt, but Milo stopped him with a meaty hand.
“Here,” he said, staring the frightened boy in the eye. He put something in Doyle’s hand. “The purple one is for you. The green one’s for Petey. You’ll know when to use them.” He pulled the boy closer and whispered something in his ear.
Doyle looked down at the tiny plastic bag in his hand; inside were two capsules. He looked back up at the big man, whose eyes told him what he needed to know. He took one last look at Chuck, who was pushing past Milo to get to him, and took off down the street, Miss Sheridan following as best she could.
“Dorkman, don’t leave me!” Chuck yelled, trying to make his feet work. “Doyle, come back!” He watched as his friend, moving faster than he’d ever seen him move, disappear around a corner.
“This is all your fault, Fassbender!” he cried, turning back to the restaurant. Fassbender was gone. Chuck pulled on the door, but it was locked, a metal grate he hadn’t noticed before firmly in place. He was alone.
Just two days after his brother’s funeral and one day after Chuck Copiski could have visitors, Doyle Dormeyer sat perched on a hard plastic chair next to his best friend’s hospital room bed. Chuck had yet to acknowledge his presence, but Doyle kept up a running monologue.
“So, he’s gone, but I know he’s okay, because I saw it, Chuck” he said, talking rapidly. “It was pretty awful when I got there, you know? He was just layin’ there, still as can be. It was like something sucked all the blood out of him. Ma left me alone with him and I crawled into bed with him and I just held his hand like he used to like me to. It was still warm, but barely.
“He opened his eyes once and just stared at me. Then I knew it was time, so I took out the two pills. I took the purple one and Petey opened his mouth for the green one, like he knew. I don’t know how he got it down, but he did. Then I just lay back down.
“It was awesome, Chuck! It was like a dream, but not, you know? And Petey was right there with me, I knew he was. There was everything there that he liked in the world: Sky-high roller coasters, fun houses, a gazillion kinds of ice cream and candy; cheeseburgers and pizza. There were even tame lions and bears he could pet and wrestle around with. And horses! Petey loved horses, even though he never, ever saw one before. But there was this black one with a little star on his forehead and he let Petey ride him like the wind all over the place. I never heard him laugh so much!
“There was a castle full of toys and stuff you could wear. Petey dressed up like a knight and fought a super cool dragon. I even think it was real.
“And then it was like I was just watching and Petey started changing, getting older. And there was this pretty girl with him and I was best man at their wedding, and godfather to their first little girl. They were so happy, but he kept getting farther and farther away from me, like he didn’t need me any more. But it was okay, it really was.
“There was this white fog that got thicker and thicker ‘til I could barely see him anymore. Then his hand came through the fog, clear as day, and grabbed mine. It was warm and healthy and he squeezed so tight.
“When I woke up, his hand was still squeezing, but pretty soon it let go and I knew he was gone. I cried like a girl when Ma came in, but really? It was like the best present I could have ever gotten.” Doyle fell silent, smiling at the memories. Next to him, Chuck stirred beneath his restraints.
“What did he say?” Chuck rasped.
“What was that? What did who say? Petey? He said a lot.” Doyle got up and looked down at his friend, whose eyes were wide open, but blank.
“No. What did Milo say? What’d he whisper?” Every word was a task to get out.
Doyle considered for a second, then shrugged.
“He said, ‘You’re not the loser.’ That’s what he said.”
Chuck nodded slowly, then shut his eyes.