Steven Huff

The Television Thieves: a novel excerpt

Bobo had met Latch three and a half years before in a bar on Memmer St. on the east side. It was called Little Cairo, and Bobo hung out there because it was just a neighborhood waterhole: no known crooks, no professional creeps, nobody with pictures hanging in the rogues gallery at the post office, so he couldn’t get profiled for walking through the door. But on this one particular night he squeezed onto a stool next to a wiry old Canuck who was sitting over a beer, smoking and watching women bowling on TV, the program punctuated with ads for hardon medicine and shaving cream. It was late. Something in the way the furry, bent little man snickered quietly at everything that flashed on the screen told Bobo that something was wrong with him. Must have some kind of nervous-system damage, like downed power lines, so the brain’s signals didn’t always get where they’re supposed to go. Plus, his hands trembled a little. Sure sign. Bobo was always sizing people up. He was wrong sometimes, but not very often. While the ladies bowled another frame, Bobo ordered a second beer, and pointed to the Canuck, “Give this dude here another one, too.”

The little Canuck looked at him suspiciously. But then he ignored Bobo, and turned back to the TV. He had the smashed nose cartilage and severed eyebrows of a fighter, but he was too small to fight in the ring. Did they make hockey players that small? Hell no, it didn’t make sense. Not in any usual way.

Bobo nodded at the TV and said, “Why the hell are we sitting here? We could drive over to Szymanski Lanes and check these dolls out in person. Get up sniffin’ distance.”

The Canuck looked at him like a cockroach in his beer. “This is a re-run, numb-nuts. These girls are bowling last Sunday afternoon.”

Bobo did feel a little stupid. Women didn’t bowl at one in the morning. Or probably not. He decided to press another question. “That your station wagon outside?”

Now the Canuck’s hands stopped shaking, and the grimy look he gave Bobo—so intense that the busted cartilage in his nose turned blue—told him that he’d guessed right.

“You keep your fuckin’ nose out of it,” the Canuck said.

But Bobo had already checked out the old junker of a station wagon with Quebec plates before he came in. Everything inside on the back seat and under the rear hatch was covered by a tarp. But he could make a good guess, tell-tale shapes. All he had to do was find a guy at the bar with Canuck smokes, and he saw this little man with a flat box of Players. Bobo said, “What if I was to tell you about a man named Moon Smiles? And even showed you how to get to his apartment? Make an introduction. Maybe I could get a cut?”

“I’ll give you a cut, right up your ass.”

“Fifteen percent? Better’n haulin’ whatever shit you got around for a week trying to figure out what to do with it. You damn sure won’t get it back over the border. Maybe I can also come up with some local plates for you.”

“Plates I got are just fine.”

“Well, sure, come to think of it, the plates were a good gag. Who’d ever suspect a Canuck of pulling two bit jobs down here? One of the women bowlers was a skinny blonde who could no more pick up a spare than lift the side of a house. Her form was way off, and the ball would practically carry her down the gutter. Her hair was always in her eyes. The more Bobo watched them the less he bought the Canuck’s claim that these women weren’t really at Szymanski’s right now. Right this goddamn minute. Who was the authority on what was live and what wasn’t? Not the Canuck, that was for damn sure. The only way to know if something was real was to go to the place yourself. Like those fake moon landings they’d gotten away with all these years, and people ate that right up like Chef Boyardee, because nobody that doubted it could go to the moon and check it out. Average idiot thinks we’ve been on the moon half a dozen times, landed a camera on Mars. Some people even thought Dick Clark was a teenie bop. That there was only one Lassie. Truth was always something else. But you had to be there to know it, and even then sometimes you couldn’t tell.

“What do you really do for a living?” the Canuck asked, looking away when he said it so that, for a moment, Bobo thought he was talking to someone else. But then the Canuck looked back at Bobo. “I asked you a question. What do you do for a living?”

His voice had drawn the bartender’s attention. Bobo noticed that, and tailored his answer accordingly. “I fix TVs.”

When the Canuck laughed, his busted nose whistled like he had a little mouse inside it, squeaking to get out. In fact, his nose whistled most of the time when he was just breathing, but it changed pitch like a tin whistle when he got his neck hair up. “Fix TVs,” the Canuck laughed deep in his smoky chest. “That’s a good boy.”

“Work out of my house. Parts and service. You know what I’m saying?”

“Sounds plain enough.”

“If I can’t fix it, I get you another one. Fast. I’ve always got a few around the house in good working order. Or in somebody else’s house.”

“Uh-huh. And sometimes, like most of the time, you got an overstock and you gotta find somebody to take the surplus off your hands.”

“Almost all the time.”

The Canuck shook his head, “Dangerous fuckin’ business.”

Bobo snorted, but he tried to keep his voice down. “Don’t say that. You’re scarin’ me.”

“Well ain’t it?”

Bobo nodded toward the window through which the rear end of the station wagon was visible. “You tell me.”

A big redhead who was bowling with the blonde had the game down to an art. Her form was perfect: her balls sailed and the pins leapt like ten piggies on a hot skillet. Bobo didn’t know which one he’d rather roll with in the back of his van, the clumsy skinny one or the big graceful one. Bobo had always heard that TV tends to make you look heavier than you really are. Or was it the other way around? What were they doing out bowling at one in the morning if they weren’t hoping to get tumbled afterward?

The Canuck said, “I figure you’re well paid. But it’s still risky.”

“More for you than me. I got it down to a system.”

“Scientist, huh?”

“Kinda. See, every TV I sell goes with a guarantee. I paste a little homing device underneath where nobody looks, so I always know where my stuff is.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“Look, poor people buy my stuff, people that can’t afford the new flat-screen jobs. Some of them are up to no good themselves. They got no security system, and an easy lock to pick. Or no lock at all. People bought a TV out of somebody’s back door ain’t gonna report it stolen if I take it back. So I just drive up and down the street at night with Clark Kent.”

“With who?” The Canuck exhaled a disgusted stream of smoke.

“Name of my little homing radio. You got one of my products, and I come down your street at two in the morning, Clark starts to have an orgasm. Get what I mean? I carry the same TVs over and over again. I’m almost getting to be friends with some of the folks.”

“They even leave hot cocoa out for you, right?”

“No. Something else sometimes, though. Few houses I don’t go near no more. I don’t stick my hand down no snake holes neither.”

“Must get kinda ponderous.”

“Yeah. But I keep adding new customers.”

Now the skinny blonde was bowling again. Her ball stayed out of the gutter this time, and whacked a few pins off the right corner. She was smiling like she’d just hit the Lotto. Now the big one was hugging her. These babes didn’t seem to have the competitive gene. Maybe Bobo could have them both. Maybe they’d take turns, like the way they took turns rolling the ball.

The Canuck lit another smoke, and waved the match and tossed it in an ashtray.  “You know why I think you’re giving me a line of bullshit? Cause I know for a fact poor people ain’t the only ones buying their TVs in the dark.”

“Right. Sometimes the best tubes start workin’ their way up town. But I usually turn ‘em over a few times before they’ve gone too far into the security system district. Besides, half the folks that got alarms forget to turn ‘em on before they drag their drunken asses to bed. By the time the cops get there, I’m already in somebody else’s house.”

“Whud you say this man’s name was?” the Canuck asked, squinting through his smoke.

“What man?”

“You was gonna take me to see.”

Bobo wrote Moon Smiles on a bar napkin and then wadded it up and put it in his pocket. The old Canuck introduced himself. His name was Latch.

They went outside and moved Latch’s stuff over to Bobo’s van. “If Moon Smiles ain’t around,” Bobo said, “we go to see Marble Mouth. If he ain’t around, we go and see Shark Hat, or maybe Belly Ball.”

Latch got into the van and darted a look at Bobo. “Don’t start gettin’ complex on me.” Latch sounded wary again.

“Moon’ll be around.”

“Whuddyou got, one of your homing devices up his ass?”

“Not a bad idea.”

But Latch was uneasy, and he rattled his keys in his hand as he rode. He was more cautious in his old age. The chances he’d taken when he was young had taught him hard. He knew things were usually not what you figured them to be. For sure things were never what they claimed to be, outside of a hog’s ass. You had to be on your guard, even in your sleep. So sometimes it was better not to sleep. Which is why God made coffee and cigarettes. The van banged over some rough, torn up pavement, and he heard the merchandise banging around in the back. A cop came up fast behind and whipped past them with a screech of the siren, and it rattled him. He was losing his confidence.

Latch said, “Tell me this guy’s name again.”

“Which?”

“Where the fuck we’re goin’.”

“I told you about fifteen times. Name’s Moon Smiles. But if he ain’t home, we go see Shark Hat. Or Belly Ball.”

Latch scratched his leg. “I thought Shark Hat was supposed to be third or fourth. There was some other fence in between. Marble something.”

As Bobo drove and talked he pointed as if everything he was describing was straight ahead and slightly uphill. “Yeah, but if we go out Shark Hat’s direction, we can swing by Szymanski Lanes and check out those dolls bowling.”

Aw, fuck Shark Hat, Latch thought. If Moon Smiles didn’t do it, he was backing out. But, now, how the hell could he pull out with all his stuff in the back of this dude’s van? And where did all his caution go? He sure didn’t want to waste his night screwing around the bowling alley, even if girls were really there. He hadn’t been laid in so long he couldn’t remember what to do first. A certain kind of babe (though he wasn’t sure he could describe the exact type) was attracted to him. Usually she liked his French Canadian accent, and thought his Player cigarettes exotic. But always before he got his hands inside her clothes he’d start breathing hard and his nose would start to whistle a higher pitch, and she’d get to laughing and that would be the end of the whole experience. Sometimes he wanted to cut his own goddamned head off.

 

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