issue nine

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(5100 words)
Michael Wolfe
I'll Pay You Back When I Get Home
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
When I turned thirteen, everyone in my life vanished. My father to his secretary's bedroom, my mother to church groups and the casino, my sister to a college dormitory, my brother to delivering pizzas and drugs, and my first boyfriend, red-headed Tommy Bachman, into thin air. This was 1984, we were both thirteen and paperboys for The Des Moines Register. I worked because Dad insisted I learn the value of a dollar, and I needed the exercise, but Tommy worked so he could spend more time with me.

I quit my route the day after Tommy disappeared. When I walked to the corner of Ashworth and 29th to pick up my bundle I saw a picture of Tommy smiling at me, folded on the lips, under the streetlamp. Beneath him sat 526 more. I lay down and held the stack and cried.

Every day after we finished our routes and before we went home, Tommy and I played Frogger across Ashworth Road, the busiest road in West Des Moines. He lived on the corner of Ashworth and 27th, and near the sidewalk stood a brick wall as tall as us. Sometimes we sat on the top of the wall and pointed to passing cars we planned to buy after saving enough from our routes. Other times we threw our extra papers at cars from behind the wall until one of us made contact, and when we saw brake lights we'd book as fast as we could up to Tommy's bedroom and lock the door and peek out the upstairs window before we fell asleep under his brown afghan. For Frogger, one of us hid behind the wall while the other stood across the street giving hand signals. You couldn't see the oncoming traffic from behind the wall, so you'd have to look across the street for a go signal, and once that arm shot in the air you had to run for your life before you got smashed. I was fatter and slower than Tommy so I always cheated and stood where I could see the traffic, and I'd make up excuses for not running when he told me to. He'd never talked about running away without me.

Later that morning, Dad took me to his office in the skywalk because I was too sad to go to school. I hated everyone. I sat in a leather chair and watched him call clients and memorized combinations of numbers and letters on the electronic stock ticker circling the office walls. Dad wasn't a real stock trader on the floors of Chicago or New York; he wore a suit and tie, and all he did was talk on the phone.

For lunch Dad took his secretary and me to Lombardo's, an Italian joint in the skywalk with a decent view of downtown Des Moines. Sheila laughed at everything Dad said, even if it wasn't funny, even when he asked the waiter for more water, even when he told her my best friend was missing. When she laughed, her tongue peeked out of her teeth, and every time she spoke she'd just trail off to nowhere or stop mid-sentence. Maybe I wasn't listening very well that day, but I don't remember much of what she said.

"Levinston Brothers is a solid firm," Dad said, stabbing his fork into a cherry tomato. "Good place to work."
"Bo-ring," I said.
"Think you'd like to take over my books when I retire?"
"Can I have a quarter?"

"Gotta earn it," Dad said. "Now what can we have you do for a quarter?" He looked at Sheila, who giggled into her straw.

"It's just a quarter," I said. "I'll pay you back when I get home." I'd only smothered my lasagna - it looked like spin-art. I touched the tip of my tongue to my nose.

Sheila blew iced tea through her straw, over the table and the arm of my father's blue shirt. Dad winged his elbow out to look at the stain. "Tell you what," he said, standing up. I could see the worried lines of his fingertip. He breathed hard and excused himself.

Sheila handed me a quarter. I walked to a pay phone in the skywalk. Mrs. Bachman answered. I covered my free ear to hear her because the lunch crowd had filled the skywalk.

"Tommy hunny, where are you?"

I held my hand over the receiver and listened to her cry. Before I hung up I lowered my voice to tell her he was okay.

Back at the table, Dad and Sheila fed each other pieces of tiramisu. I counted aloud the time it took each of them to fork a bite into the other's mouth, and then I started over when one of them swallowed. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four . . . 

Dad shut his office door and talked seriously.
He picked up the brass bull and bear bookends I had given him for Christmas. "Do you know what depreciation means?"
I shook my head.
He steadied the bookends in mid-air. "Let's say this bear here is your mom, and that I'm the bull."
"So there's a bull market and there's a bear market." He lifted the bull's horns into his chest, just below the knot of his red tie. "You either bull up," and then he put the bear in front of his fly, "or you bear down. And right now your old man's in a bear market." He faced the animals towards each other on the top of his desk. "And it's not your fault. I don't want you to think this has anything to do with you. The economy's a shit storm right now and Sheila's a good woman. You got that?"

The door opened behind me. Sheila leaned her head in. 

"Everyone's got a worth, son," Dad said. "Never forget that."

"What are you?" I asked Sheila.

She looked at me dumbly.

"Are you a bull or a bear?"

She half-laughed and threw her hands in the air. Then she finger gunned me.

"A big, fat bear."


       Even weirder and fatter without Tommy by my side, I returned to school two days later and the teacher, Mrs. Patton, left his desk next to mine and it still had all of his stuff in it - crumpled notes and rubber cement balls I'd given him - and during recess when all of my classmates were outside I opened Tommy's supply box, took out his compass, and then carved the number of days he'd been missing, 3, into his desktop.

My school counselor, skinny, faggy Mr. Tillman, asked me how bad I missed Tommy (on a scale of one to ten) and how mad I was at my parents (one to five). I didn't care about my parents because they didn't care about me. The last night Dad slept in our house I'd overheard them discussing my brother and sister and they had said, naturally, Cliff would go with my father and Kristin with my mother. They didn't say my name. All Mom said was that he'd better not bring Sheila to Mom's church. And that she'd hired the best. She wanted half.

Mr. Tillman made me show him my sketchbook.

"Are these pictures of you with your father?" he said, and flipped the pages quickly.

"No." I took a mint from his candy dish.

"It's very natural to miss your father in a time like this." He compared two of the pictures, and then looked up at me. He was so gross to me; I didn't want his fingers on my sketchbook. "Can you tell me why all of the men are different looking, but the boy is always the same?"

"They're perpetrators."

I'd been taping Unsolved Mysteries and watching the tapes late at night while Mom gambled or prayed, or gambled and prayed, and Cliff delivered drugs. I'd sit on the couch with a bag of Cheetos and Tommy's art supplies, which I'd lifted from school. I had taped over Kristin's choir concerts and Cliff's little league videos because it was one less thing my parents would fight over. I paused the tapes at each composite sketch and then copied the faces into my sketchbook. After I ate enough Cheetos I drew Tommy next to each perp, smearing my fingers on the page to give Tommy his red hair. Sometimes, I rubbed my fingers through my own hair.  

Mr. Tillman told me I wasn't worthless, but he couldn't tell me how much, exactly, I was worth. I wanted a dollar amount.

After school I walked down shady Vine Street, stopping at Casey's General Store for a newspaper and a pop and a bag of Cheetos, and took them to the metal picnic bench under the storm shelter at Fairmeadows Park, where high school kids smoked cigarettes and kicked hackie sacks in the parking lot and two soccer teams practiced on the field and a few mothers pushed their children on swings. I recognized some of the high schoolers as my brother's drug buddies, but I had never really talked to them. They were a combination of hippies and punks, and one of them, who everyone called Lizard, opened his car doors and turned up a scratchy Grateful Dead bootleg. He was skinny, bald and tattooed, and drove a wood-paneled station wagon covered in bumper stickers. And he talked the loudest. I wondered how much a tattoo of Tommy's name would cost.  

I unfolded the newspaper on the picnic table. It had only taken three days for Tommy's disappearance to be buried in the Metro section on page 5. The Des Moines Police Department was offering a fifty thousand-dollar reward for any information on Tommy's whereabouts. Anytime Mrs. Bachman was quoted, it made me hopeful that he hadn't simply vanished, but that he'd just taken a long bike ride without me. I checked the stocks page for Berkshire Hathaway's price, which Dad had said was one of a kind. One Tommy was worth more than twenty shares of Berkshire Hathaway.

I unzipped my backpack and pulled out my sketchbook and a pencil. I began adding the prices of everything I owned. I spent an hour calculating the prices of my baseball card collection, clothes and mostly third place trophies. Then I unzipped the front pouch of my backpack and counted the wad of savings from delivering papers. By the time everyone but Lizard and I had left the park, I was worth four hundred and thirty-three dollars and sixty-two cents, and I was bawling.

Lizard danced alone in the parking lot, his arms flailing in the air. He was older than my brother and most of his friends but still hung out with high school kids even though he had his own apartment and dropped out three years prior. Cliff told me he was looped - like really fucked up from all the acid. So fucked up that none of the chicks would date him. He was a runaway and a mooch. I threw my sketchbook in my backpack, washed my eyes with water from the drinking fountain, and walked towards the parking lot.

Up close, Lizard's skin was seriously scaly, peeling like silver crayon from a lottery ticket. Most of his arms were covered in black and blue tattoos, and the only one I could make out was the black goat on his neck with horns wrapping around his head. I just stood and stared at him.

He stopped dancing and leaned into the car to turn off the stereo.

"You're Cliff's little brother," he said, tapping a cigarette out of a soft pack.

"Not anymore," I said. "I'm nobody." I was about to cry again. I felt it in my teeth. "Listen, I'm friggin bust this week. Can you help me out? I'll get you back next time I see Cliff." He struck a match against a front tooth to light a cigarette. He held the pack out in front of me. "Smoke?"

Something about him made me want to try it, but I said no. I didn't want him to see me cough.

"All I have is $433.62."

Lizard held in a drag and looked up at the sky. He closed his eyes, exhaled and froze for a moment, like he was praying. I wanted to run. I thought maybe he'd seen me counting my money on the picnic bench and that he was considering whether or not to punch me and steal my backpack. I took a few steps away from him.

"Cliff thinks you're a pretty cool little bro. Not ratting and shit. Suppose you've been bummed since your friend disappeared."

"I don't want to talk about it."

"This old hippie once told me it was all porn rings. That these creeps take kids and change their identities and brainwash them and then make them do all this whack sex shit. I met him on tour with the Dead. Flipped my freak out. He gets me all stoned in his van and locks the doors and pulls the shades shut, and then starts telling me this shit and I'm like, Bro, this isn't cool. And I swear to God it's the never-ending joint. I can't get out of the van. Hands down, worst high of my life. Missed the first half of the show because of that fucker. And they opened with Jack Straw and went into this sick version of Loser. I've got the boot but it's never the same as being there. You know? And get this - they close with Tom Dooley. Can you fucking believe it? Sure, I see the second set, but that cat had already sincerely messed me up. I thought he'd murder me." 

I sat on the curb with my face pressed in my backpack.

"May the four winds blow him safely home," Lizard said, and put his bony hand on my fat back. 

I jerked away from his hand and stood up. "Don't touch me," I yelled, and ran away from him as fast as I could. He called after me apologetically but I kept running.

My shoes were untied and I had a cramp, so I stopped on Fairlawn Drive. It was getting dark. I was hungry and a few miles from Mom's. I didn't feel like being anywhere. I wanted to call Kristin at college and have her come pick me up. Or go to Tommy's house and sit in his bedroom while Mrs. Bachman made a grilled cheese sandwich. Or jump in the back of a garbage truck and be dumped at the landfill. I zigzagged the sidewalk and looked at the tops of elm trees and chimneys, talking to God like he was Tommy.

"Hey, kid," I heard from the street. Lizard had rolled down his window and turned his lights off. In the dark, he looked like Skeletor. "Hop in."

"Leave me alone," I said, and walked faster. Tommy, seriously, if you're there, please tell me where to go, Tomato Head. Give me a sign.

He coasted along beside me with his elbow propped out.

"Bro, I'm sorry," he said. "Just popped into my head. Happens when you're high. You think everything's worth saying out loud."

"Take back what you said about the sex stuff."

"I take back what I said about your friend. He's not in a porn ring. He's probably at his aunt's house. Now get in the car before someone sees us. I got a quarter ounce of dope in the glove and I can't be getting busted."

"You swear you're not a molester?"

"Jesus Christ," he said. "I don't have time for this shit."

I had nowhere else to go. I opened the passenger door and set my backpack on his floor. Lizard grabbed a handful of cassettes from the seat and threw them into the back. Then he pushed in the car lighter and flipped a cigarette between his lips.

"Don't take me home," I said, and we sped off.


Lizard's apartment walls were lined with tie-dyed tapestries and stolen street signs. I sat on a broken recliner while Lizard ordered Chinese delivery. Above my head hung a black tapestry of Jim Morrison holding a snake out in front of his bare chest with the words I am the Lizard King, I can do anything scrawled across the snake's body. On the coffee table sat empty baggies, hemp twine and a box full of beads. It looked exactly like my brother's room. Even though Cliff dealt drugs, Lizard's apartment was the first place I ever saw or smelled marijuana.

Lizard pulled a silver tray out from under the couch and dumped a bag of pot in the center. Some pieces he studied up close and other pieces he ripped apart. I didn't exist when the pot was in front of him. I asked how many tattoos he had.        

"Fifty-three," he said, and looked down at his right arm, as if checking to make sure none had fallen off. "I get fifty-four next time I have the dough."
"Crazy," I said. "My dad just turned fifty-four." Then Sheila's age crossed my mind. I guessed her at thirty, a twenty-four year difference. "How old are you?"
"Nineteen," he said, sprinkling pot into a thin patch of paper. 

"I'm a prime number, too," I said. "Unlucky thirteen."

"Trippy," Lizard said, bowing his head.

"It's the worst year ever," I said. "Did Cliff tell you my parents are getting divorced?"

"Gotta keep on keepin' on."

Lizard slowly licked the full length of the paper before twisting it shut. Then he stuck the entire joint in his mouth, pulled it out, and held a lighter a few inches beneath it. He set the tray on the coffee table and lit the joint. It sizzled and popped. Lizard looked at the lit end and then blew smoke at it. A piece of ash fell.

He put on The Smiths' Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now. He fell onto the futon opposite the broken recliner and closed his eyes. He inhaled every ten seconds, exhaled every fourteen, and ashed on the carpet. My stomach grumbled.

"Why do they call you Lizard?"

His eyes shot open. He leaned toward me and took a drag. "Because -" his voice was high and pained, like Mom's. He raised a finger and held the smoke in. It slowly crept out of his mouth and nostrils until he coughed the rest onto my face. He looked to the tapestry above my head and extended both arms, palms up. "I can do anything."

Lizard set up the Atari for me to play before he showered. I tried snooping in his bedroom but the door was locked, so I sat on the carpet up close to the TV and played Frogger. The blood splats on Lizard's television looked real. Tommy was a pro. When we played Frogger, he ran across Ashworth Road every single time.

After dinner, I asked Lizard to pay me back for the Chinese food that came while he was in the shower, but he claimed to be flat broke.

"How do you make money?"

"Creative endeavors," Lizard said. "And I have kind friends."

"This one's on me then," I said. "But you have to get the next one."

"How much money you say you had?" Now Lizard was playing with his pot again but not smoking it. He rearranged it endlessly on the tray like a Rubik's Cube.

"$418.10, after dinner."

"Think you can help a brother out? I'm dry as bones and rent's due soon."

"It's all I've got," I said. "You have to earn your own. Or else do something for me."

I thought I could live like this for a while without anyone noticing. I knew nobody would miss me tonight anyway. They were all in their own little worlds. I could drop out of school and devote my time to finding Tommy, and I could start delivering papers again or help Lizard with his creative endeavors, and once Tommy returned I'd have enough saved for my own place. Living with Lizard was the first step to disappearing completely.

"Let me stay here," I said.

"I don't know. Call your brother to see if it's cool."

"No way we're calling Cliff. He can't know I'm here. Ever."

"I will if you don't float me," he reached for the phone.

"Don't." I grabbed his skinny arm.

"Let go of my fucking arm," Lizard said. "And give me the fucking money."


Two days later I had thirty-six dollars left and Lizard's cupboards were empty. Tommy was five days gone. Lizard smoked pot all day and only left the house in the afternoons to go to the park. I mostly played Atari and listened to his bootlegs or watched TV. Lizard had sworn to me that he'd hold up his end of the deal and not say a word if he ran into Cliff. I wondered how long it would take for anyone to notice I was missing. Two days in, I didn't feel any different, but I had this weird feeling that Lizard had chained and gagged Tommy in his closet. I finally busted into Lizard's bedroom when he went the park. 
A waterbed with a green comforter divided Lizard's room. The rest sat spotless. There wasn't a poster on the wall, not even a wrapper on the floor. It's like we lived in two different worlds, me on the smoke-stained futon, and Lizard in the hotel down the hall. When I opened his closet doors, I found his shirts hung neatly and arranged by color. On the floor lay a stack of Playgirls and new tennis shoes. I checked the drawers under his bed and the tops of his closet shelves, looking for ransom notes or a clump of Tommy's hair or his seashell necklace or anything, but I found nothing.

I was sitting on his bedroom floor, looking through the stack of magazines when I heard music from Lizard's car die outside. I quickly zipped my pants and shut the closet. A car door slammed. The bedroom door was off hinge, so I propped it shut as best I could just as Lizard entered the main room.

He sat on the futon, reading the newspaper. No one had reported me missing yet. It had only taken Tommy's parents an hour after their dog, Bondo, showed up on the porch without Tommy. They went looking for him but only found his wagon on the corner of Orchard Drive, half-full of undelivered papers. I'm the last person they checked with before filing a missing person report. I knew we needed money. At least I did. If I didn't get out of Lizard's fast he'd molest me or turn me in. I estimated everything in his apartment: bootlegs, futon, waterbed, hemp necklaces, Playgirls, television, Atari, posters... Lizard's belongings equaled roughly two thousand dollars. I couldn't imagine what all of his tattoos had cost him, or pot. All I had was thirty-six dollars, a backpack, the dirty clothes on my back, and a nearly full sketchbook.

"I think I know of a creative endeavor," I said to Lizard, "that could make us a lot of money."

He grinned and said, "Lizzie likes creative endeavors." Then he scrunched his face. "What's your magic?"

"You hold me hostage and ask my parents for money."


"That's what I meant," I said. "I'm pretty sure my dad has more than my mom. And he invests other people's money in stocks. He's a moneyman."

"Oh hell yeah," Lizard said. His eyeballs were red. "I like this. I like where this is going." He pulled his pot out from beneath the couch and a pipe from his pocket. He pushed pot into the pipe with his thumb and then took a hit. "But we gotta think about this. How do we get the money without me getting busted?"

"You ever met my dad?" I said.

"Parents are Lizard's worst nightmare."

"Then you're the middle man," I said. "And the kidnapper. You call and demand the money and tell him to meet a guy with tattoos at the park. Tell him if he involves the police or the press that you'll kill me, and have him killed. Once he hands over the money, the guy with tattoos, you, will deliver the money and bring me back to the park. Only you and I will know there was never a real middle man."

It made perfect sense to me, but it took two more bowls for Lizard.

"Are we talking thousands or millions?" Lizard said.

"I don't know."

"Check this - they held Patty Hearst at six million. Probably before your time - she's the daughter of this super loaded newspaper guru. I met a guy who got her high one time. Crazy cat from Maine. So after Papa Hearst forks over the money the kidnappers still don't give her back. Doesn't reappear until she's caught robbing a bank with her kidnappers. You believe that shit? Six million and they try and rob a bank. Greedy fuckers, bro. Gotta know when to split."

I'd heard the story referred to on Unsolved Mysteries and knew the money hadn't gone to the kidnappers, but to the homeless in San Francisco. I thought about a life of crime with Lizard and how we'd get busted because of his tattoos or my slowness. I couldn't even finish the mile in gym class without walking. It made me happy knowing I'd never have to do that again.
"So William Hearst is loaded and his daughter's at six million, I figure we ask what, say a hundred grand for you?"

I knew Dad didn't have that much. "We have to start lower. Dad always says to buy low and sell high."

"How low?"

"Start at fifty dollars."

"Are you out of your mind?" Lizard said. "Then it's over. Fifty bucks ain't even a quarter ounce. We have to start out of reach and then bargain."

"You owe me," I said. "Trust me. He won't bite."        

The first day, Dad had thought Lizard was asking him to buy a single share of stock in my name, and he hung up the phone before Lizard could make a threat. So after that I wrote down exactly what he should say to Dad, and we spent the entire afternoon acting out different scenarios. I was always my dad.

I hadn't left the apartment in over three days. I wore Lizard's patched jeans and old concert t-shirts and I'd solved Frogger and Donkey Kong and Q-bert. I'd learned not to answer Lizard's phone because it only rang early in the morning or near dinnertime, and came from a bill collector.

We reached five grand by the end of the week, and Lizard was so stoked he splurged all weekend, charging new video games and toiletries and concert tickets. But when we hit ten grand the following Tuesday, I started thinking maybe Dad really loved me. Ten days divided by ten thousand dollars meant I was worth a thousand dollars a day. After watching Unsolved Mysteries I asked Lizard where his parents lived.        
"Haven't talked to them in years," he said, threading a purple bead onto a hemp necklace. "Could be dead for all I know."
"Do you miss them?"

"The grass ain't greener, the wine ain't sweeter, either side of the hill."

I'd heard so much of his music over the past few days that I knew half of what Lizard said came from song lyrics. Sometimes he made sense, but this time I wasn't sure what he meant - who the grass was and who the wine was and which side of the hill we were on.

"Ten thousand is a lot," I said. "Let's take the money and run."

But that night I couldn't sleep. I worried about Lizard going to jail and how much trouble I'd be in once my parents or Cliff put it together. I knew we could probably get more out of Dad, maybe even triple up, but I also knew stocks only rose so high so fast, and that sooner or later the novelty wore off - markets froze or crashed unexpectedly, companies got bought out, merged, went bankrupt - and so did people.

I turned on a light and flipped slowly through my sketchbook. On a fresh page, I drew a picture of myself with the number of days I'd been gone, 10, above my head, and then I drew Tommy beside me underneath a 13. I cracked Lizard's door just enough for the hall light to shine at the foot of his bed, where I sat cross-legged with the sketchbook on my lap. I drew the comforter's folds over his body from the feet up with a green Conte crayon. His pillow covered his head, but I could still hear him snoring little hisses. When I got to the base of his neck, I finished with the green oil and began with the black. I drew a goat head, and then the thick horns. I couldn't decide whether or not to sign my name or write a Grateful Dead lyric or thank you or what he should say to my dad the next day.

I pulled my pants down, sat on the edge of Lizard's bed and stroked myself with patchouli oil from the nightstand. Occasionally I whispered his name to make sure he wasn't awake. When I finished I tore out the page and wiped myself, folded and slid it under the pillow. I yanked Lizard's Steal Your Face t-shirt from the closet, gathered my things, and left.

I walked the streets until morning, dodging headlights and keeping an eye out for bundles of papers. I wanted to grab one before they were delivered, to check the market outlook and to see what my parents and siblings were saying about me. I was officially missing, but Tommy had been gone so long he even disappeared from the paper. I knew that soon Tommy would have a picture of me to cut out of the paper and keep in his pocket. Once I made it to Des Moines' city limits, I'd stick my thumb out on the side of the freeway, or find a small café to sit down in and rest. I could draw portraits for Unsolved Mysteries or write Letters to the Editor with secret messages for Tommy or get a job as a busboy. Or maybe I'd end up just like Lizard. I didn't need any money. I could do anything.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Michael Wolfe. All rights reserved.