Freedom Lane: Gary Coleman Disease

“Get over here!” Da’Quarius yelled as he chased his brown pitbull terrier, Dutchie, from the den into the kitchen. The playful dog was carrying a dead squirrel it had come across just off the sidewalk in front of his master’s home on Freedom Lane, and Da’Quarius was texting when the dog darted away from him, ripping the leash from his hand, jumping on the door to get it open. He ran inside, happily swinging his head with the squirrel in his mouth.
 
The dog knocked all sorts of things over in the kitchen as Da’Quarius finally got ahold of him to wrench his jaws open. “Drop it,” he grunted, finally getting the dead squirrel loose. 
 
Da’Quarius went into the backyard and threw the squirrel over the fence into their neighbor’s yard so Dutchie couldn’t get it back. He then returned to the kitchen to wash his hands with a lot of dish soap.
 
“Dammit, Dutchie,” Da’Quarius said, “makin’ me touch dead squirrels an’ shit.”
 
Da’Quarius dried his hands with the hand towel by the sink and saw something from the corner of his eye that turned his blood cold. Helen’s multi-day pill caddy had been overturned when he was wrestling with his dog, and the many pills were spilt haphazardly onto the counter.
 
“Shit,” Da’Quarius sighed. He knew how crazy Helen was about someone messing with her pills. If he told her what had happened, she’d flip out. He took the pile in one big handful and randomly placed them into the slots for their specific days, moving his hand over the caddy as the pills fell into the slots.
 
“Dis too many pills for one woman,” Da’Quarius said, moving some around  so they looked more spread out. “I bet half of ’em don’t even do anythin’.” He looked over his handiwork and nodded. “Looks ’bout right,” he said, closing the individual tabs. “If it’s not, Helen’s in fo’ one crazy-ass week.”
 
 
***
 
Freedom Lane 
 
Created, written, & directed by Budgerigar Orville Bigelow
Co-created by executive producer BluntSharpness
 
Season 9 Finale: Gary Coleman Disease
 
***
 
 
Da’Quarius righted everything Dutchie had overturned in his hyperactive jumping. He had placed the den lamp back on the table when Rose and Helen returned from their short walk. 
 
“I don’t understand why you have to do that,” Rose said, continuing her conversation from outside. “Those kids were already inconsolable as it was.”
 
“Dead squirrels don’t just fall from the sky,” Helen said. “A demon bird from the depths of hell could’ve been sending them an omen like I said. You never know.”
 
“It was more than likely a hawk,” Rose sighed. “They’ve been coming down from East Rock Park a lot lately.”
 
“Hi Rose,” Da’Quarius said, walking toward the door. “Hi Helen.”
 
“Why are you sweaty?” Helen asked, giving Da’Quarius the stink-eye.
 
“I just took Dutchie for a walk, an’ he turned it into a run,” Da’Quarius said quickly, “but I’m off to Paulie’s now. I’ll see you guys later.”
 
“Bye-bye,” Rose said as Da’Quarius grabbed his Vagabond Saints hat and darted out the door.
 
“Don’t stay and chat or anything, kid,” Helen said, walking into the kitchen. “How about a cup of tea, Rose?”
 
“Sounds lovely,” Rose said. She took the kettle and brought it to the sink to fill it. Her eye caught Helen’s pill caddy. “You forgot to take your pills again.” She handed Helen the caddy.
 
“I’m pretty sure I did,” Helen said, “but the caddy never lies.” She opened the last tab with the big “S” on it, and swallowed the pills dry with a wince. “Being old sucks.”
 
Rose put the kettle on the stove and picked something up from the ground. “Helen,” Rose said, placing a small, blue pill on the table. “You need to be more careful. I found this one on the floor. We don’t want Dutchie to eat it.”
 
Helen popped it in her mouth before Rose can tell her not to. “Down the hatch,” she said after she swallowed. “That dog will be fine. Sometimes I wonder if these damn pills even do anything at all.”
 
***
 
Da’Quarius sat in Paulie’s office. Paulie was working on some paperwork, and Da’Qaurius was keeping him company now that he had finished the chores he was given. Paulie let out a long sigh. “All this paperwork will be yours to do when you own this place someday, kid,” he said.
 
“I didn’t say nuttin’ ’bout it,” Da’Quarius said. “I’d just get a computer to do all da’ paper shit. Bring Paulie’s outta da’ Stone Age.”
 
“Computers break,” Paulie said.
 
“Paper burns,” Da’Quarius replied.
 
Paulie was about to retort when Tony came in. “Hey, boss,” he said. “I’m gonna run up to my apartment for my lunch break before the rush starts.”
 
“Good,” Paulie said, looking back toward his paper work.
 
Tony looked like he was about to say something else, but he turned and left.
 
“So dat’s still goin’ on?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“What’s still going on?” Paulie said, looking up again.
 
“We usually eat with Tony on Saturdays,” Da’Quarius replied, “but we haven’t for da’ last couple a’ weeks. I figured you guys woulda’ made up by now.”
 
“It’s not easy,” Paulie sighed, “dealing with him sometimes.”
 
“I know da’ fake memorial was a step too far,” Da’Quarius said, “but -“
 
“Come on,” Paulie said, getting up from his seat. “Let’s go make some lunch and get you home.” He left the office with Da’Quarius sitting in his seat.
 
“Damn,” Da’Quarius said, standing up and following Paulie.
 
***
 
Helen sat up on Saturday night, staring at the TV. “What the hell are we watching?” she asked.
 
“I don’t know,” Rose said, looking up from her book. “You put it on. I thought it was too raunchy, even for you.”
 
“I can’t seem to focus,” Helen said, “but that kid in this movie is vulgar as hell.”
 
Rose picked up the remote and clicked the info button. “It’s a movie called ‘Little Man‘,” she said. “It’s about a man who looks like a baby, and he’s conning this couple after he tricked them into adopting him. Sounds ridiculous.”
 
“That’s because it is ridiculous,” Helen said, getting up. “I’m getting a snack.”
 
“Nothing too salty and no cheese,” Rose said, opening her book again.
 
“Yes, Doctor Rose,” Helen said, walking into the kitchen. She went in to find Da’Quarius at the table with toaster turned on its side. “What in the frig are doing with my toaster?” she asked.
 
“I’m makin’ white trash grilled cheese,” Da’Quarius said. “Tony taught me dis. You turn da’ toaster sideways, put a piece of cheese on two pieces of bread, toast it up, and put it together. A grilled cheese an’ no mess. Great, right?”
 
“ARE YOU TRYING TO BURN DOWN THE FRIGGIN’ HOUSE?!” Helen shouted.
 
“No!” Da’Quarius said. “I’m just makin’ a sammich.”
 
“YOU’RE GOING TO DESTROY MY HOUSE, YOU LITTLE MONSTER!” Helen snapped.
 
“What on earth is going on in here?!” Rose asked, coming in from the den, arms crossed.
 
“I’m just makin’ a sammich!” Da’Quarius repeated.
 
“Making a fire more like it!” Helen snapped. “That is not the intended use for the toaster!”
 
“It’s toastin’,” Da’Quarius said. “What else do you use it for?”
 
“Go jump in the bathtub with it and find out!” Helen said.
 
“Helen!” Rose said.
 
“I’m outta here,” Da’Quarius said, putting his almost-toasted white trash grilled cheese on a paper plate. “I got some shit I gotta take care of anyway.”
 
“That was uncalled for,” Rose said, leaving the room as well.
 
“I’ve had that toaster longer than that kid’s been alive,” Helen muttered, putting the toaster back on the counter, upright, how it should’ve been all along. “How do we know his isn’t pulling the ‘Little Man’ con on us like in that movie?”
 
“Oh, Helen,” Rose said, shaking her head and walking back into the living room.
 
***
 
Da’Quarius left school on Monday afternoon. He walked toward his bus when he saw someone familiar watching him. The round, bald head, pointed nose, and bulbous gut could only belong to one man: Luca DiGenovese, his uncle’s bitter enemy and rival. Luca saw him and started to approach.
 
“Hello,” Luca said. “I thought I’d find you here.”
 
“Wha’chu doin’ here?” Da’Quarius asked. “Is dere a fat and bald kid here? I didn’t know you had a son.”
 
“Look,” Luca said, “I didn’t come here to start trouble.”
 
“Dat’s all you do,” Da’Quarius said. “You nuttin’ but trouble, and umma tell da’ security guard you tellin’ me you got candy if I come into yo’ car if you don’t get da’ fuck outta here.”
 
“It’s about your Uncle Paulie,” Luca said before Da’Quarius could run off. “He’s doing you wrong, you know.”
 
Da’Quarius turned around. “Your don’t know shit ’bout shit, mo’ fucker,” he said. “You lucky I cain’t bring a piece to school.”
 
“I know Paulie wants to give you his restaurant,” Luca said, “but it’s not why you think. It’s a money-pit, kid. He’s only giving it to you so he can retire without the debt. I’m just looking out for you.”
 
“Da’ fuck you talkin’ ’bout?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“I’ve been trying to help Paulie for years,” Luca said, “but he’s too stubborn to listen. He lets pride stop him from entering into a partnership with me that would turn his business into a gold mine. I was raised in the restaurant business. I know what I’m talking about.”
 
“So wha’chu want from me?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“I want to enter into a partnership of sorts with you instead,” Luca said.
 
***
 
It was Tuesday morning, and Helen had just taken the pills in the ‘T’ part of her pill caddy. Rose was outside gardening and Da’Quarius was at school, so Helen was watching a few talk shows.
 
“We’re back,” the host said in his probably-fake southern accent. Helen didn’t know his name. She always called him “Doctor Fatshit”. He had no hair on the top of his head and a fat belly. “We’re joined today by a young man named Nathan. Nathan suffers from congenital kidney failure, the same disease actor Gary Coleman suffered from, causing his aging to be stunted.”
 
“Hello,” Nathan said. He wore a bright red shirt. He looked to be around Da’Quarius’s age.
 
“How old are you Nathan?” Doctor Fatshit asked.
 
“Twenty-seven,” Nathan replied.
 
“Holy shit-balls,” Helen said, muting Doctor Fatshit and Nathan, the man-boy. “It’s that friggin’ Gary Coleman Disease.”
 
Helen watched her show on mute, thinking. “Didn’t Rose and I talk about this the other night?” she asked herself. “Something about a grown man posing as a child to be adopted and conning his foster parents.”
 
The muted Doctor Fatshit show continued as another man-boy joined the set. This one was bald, black, and wore yellow glasses. “Da’Quarius!” Helen exclaimed squinting at the TV. She turned it off quickly, as if he’d see her watching.
 
“I knew it,” Helen said. “That kid got the Gary Coleman Disease, and he’s trying to get the house from Rose and me. That’s why he tried to burn it down with the toaster the other night. He must have a huge insurance policy on this house and probably me. He might even be after my brother and his restaurant too.”
 
Helen sat back in her chair. She didn’t have all the answers yet, but she planned on getting them. She put her fingers together below her chin and contemplated her next move.
 
***
 
Da’Quarius visited Paulie on Tuesday after school, and the two sat in his office with the door closed while Tony worked the counter. It was warm in the room with the door closed and Paulie’s space heater running under the desk, but Da’Quarius didn’t want anyone overhearing; and he knew Paulie wouldn’t want Tony listening in to any conversation. He told Paulie everything Luca had suggested. “He wants me to sign an agreement with him,” he said, “sayin’ dat he’d own half of Paulie’s Pizza when da’ business is given to me. He said his lawyer can have the papers drawn up at any time.”
 
“Dammit,” Paulie said. “Now I know what he was haranguing Tony about on the night of my… Never mind. Tony must’ve let it slip that you’re the heir to the pizzeria. Friggin’ Tony!” He slammed his fist on his desk.
 
Da’Quarius looked away at this. He didn’t want to make Paulie any madder at Tony, but he had done so inadvertently.
 
“What did you do?” Paulie asked. “I hope your didn’t sign.”
 
“Fuck no I didn’t sign!” Da’Quarius said. “I know you ain’t tryin’ to fuck me over. I told him to shove his contract up his fat, cracka ass.”
 
“Calm down,” Paulie said. “I’m just busting your chops.”
 
“Good,” Da’Quarius said. “So what are we gonna do ’bout dis?”
 
“What do you mean?” Paulie asked. “You told him to fuck off, right?”
 
“I did,” Da’Quarius said, “but I can go in like I want to sign. Dat way you can see exactly what he’s up to. Maybe I can even run off with da’ contract, and you can use it against him or somethin’. Maybe we can even get Tony to help. You know how good he is at dis shit.”
 
“One,” Paulie said, “I don’t want any scamming when it comes to Luca DiGenovese.”
 
“What ’bout dat time you dressed like an’ old lady an’ -“
 
“Two,” Paulie interrupted, “if I were to agree to this, I want Tony having nothing to do with it.”
 
“But -“
 
“Nothing,” Paulie said, sternly. “Capeesh?”
 
“Got it,” Da’Quarius said. “But consider it. It’ll be good to know what he’s plottin’ behind yo’ back.”
 
“Fine,” Paulie said. “I’ll think about it.”
 
***
 
Tonya Williams, private investigator, walked toward the small house on Freedom Lane on Wednesday morning. She had spoken to a woman named Helen on the phone who wanted her to do some research into her adopted son. She wouldn’t say much on the phone and insisted they met in person. She walked up to the door and knocked twice.
 
“Come in,” Helen said, opening the door. “You must be from the private investigator’s office.”
 
“I am the private investigator,” Tonya replied.
 
“Oh,” Helen said. “I thought I was meeting William Tomlinson.”
 
Tonya sighed. “You must have an old phone book,” she said. “I used to be William Tomlinson until my operation.”
 
Helen stared at Tonya for a moment. “Oh,” she said. “I thought I was talking to your secretary.”
 
“Nope,” Tony said. “It was me. Do you have an issue with that?”
 
Helen shrugged. “Slap on a fake pair of tits and chop off your ding-dong,” she said, “just as long as you’re a competent investigator.”
 
“I am,” Tonya said. “What information are you looking for on your adopted son?”
 
“I’ll be brief,” Helen said. “My wife is napping, and I gave her enough crushed meds to knock her out until around one-thirty. I want you to find out everything you can about Da’Quarius Sherman Masters AKA Da’Quarius Lobsterclaw Sherman. Start with the orphanage he supposedly came from on Dwight Street.”
 
Tonya scribbled on her pad. “And what exactly am I looking for?” she asked.
 
“Anything incriminating,” Helen replied. “I need to make sure he’s not some con artist with Gary Coleman Disease.”
 
“Gary Coleman Disease,” Tonya repeated, writing it on her pad. “Got it.”
 
“And make sure there’s no insurance policies taken out either,” Helen continued, “including me, my wife, and this house. Might as well make sure he didn’t take one out on my brother and his business, Paulie’s Pizza either. Who knows what this little sociopath is going to do.”
 
“Do you have any proof that he’s been doing this?” Tonya asked.
 
“Why would I need you if I did?” Helen asked.
 
“Let me rephrase that,” Tonya said. “What made you suspicious that your adopted teenage son is actually an adult con artist?”
 
“I have my reasons,” Helen said, “and I’m almost never wrong.”
 
***
 
Da’Quarius set the tiny microphone and transmitter into his shirt while Paulie sat behind the wheel of his Cadillac around the block from Luca’s restaurant, Anthony Conegliano’s, just seven blocks from Paulie’s Pizza. Paulie watched as he clicked on the little electronic unit. “I still don’t like this, kid,” he said.
 
“I said it before,” Da’Quarius said, “it ain’t da’ first time we’ve had to spy on Luca. We need to know what his end game is.”
 
“Just get in and get out quick,” Paulie said. “I doubt he has anything too important to say that’s based in reality.”
 
“I’m going in,” Da’Quarius said. “Listen from here an’ take notes. I’ll be back soon.”
 
Da’Quarius left and walked around the block to the front door of Anthony Conegliano’s. He walked inside and found Luca, who was waving at him from one of his booths with another guy. “Hello, Da’Quarius,” Luca said, smiling widely. “This is my lawyer, Earl Greenbladt.”
 
“What up, Earl?” Da’Quarius said. “I didn’t bring my lawyer, doe.”
 
“There’s no need,” Earl said, smiling a toothy grin of yellowed teeth. He was close to seventy, and had a yamaka placed on the balding part of his head. The rest of it was covered in curly gray hair.
 
“Dat’s good,” Da’Quarius said. “So wha’chu want from me anyway?”
 
“I want to talk to you about Paulie,” Luca said. “He’s using you, kid.”
 
“You made dat clear when you came to my school,” Da’Quarius said. “What makes you think he’s usin’ me?”
 
“Look at what he’s up to,” Luca said. “His sister adopted you, and he seized the opportunity. He knew he’d eventually need a scapegoat, and you were right there. He told you he’d give you his pizzeria when he’d retire, and you were floored by the generosity. You had no idea about the debt he’s incurred over the years, and you’re going to get stuck with that as well.”
 
“An’ I’m sure you’re willin’ to look past dat,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“Not look past it,” Luca said, “help manage it. If we turn Paulie’s around, it’ll make enough of a profit to erase the debt. I know how to do that.”
 
“Paulie says dere’s no debt,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“He would say that,” Luca said. “Would a hooker tell you she has herpes after you’re already in the backseat of your car with her?”
 
“So my Unca Paulie is a hooker with herpes?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“In this case, yes,” Luca’s lawyer, Earl, said. “He’s using a classic bait and switch technique. You get the pizzeria when he’s ready to retire, and you’ll get the debt. I’ve worked up a contract that would promise Luca half of Paulie’s Pizza, when it becomes yours of course, in exchange for his help getting it into the black again.”
 
“OH!” Paulie said, coming into Luca’s restaurant, holding his belt.
 
“Unca Paulie?!” Da’Quarius exclaimed.
 
“Get outside before I strap you raw!” Paulie exclaimed. “And you’re next, Luca!”
 
“What are you gonna do?!” Luca said, standing up. “You really gonna strap me in my own place?!”
 
“I might,” Paulie replied. “You stay away from my business and my nephew.”
 
“What you’re doing to this kid is criminal!” Luca said. “I’m trying to save him from you!”
 
“Don’t say anything else,” Earl said quietly.
 
“Get in the car, kid,” Paulie said. “You little traitor.”
 
“OH!” Luca said, getting up. “Someone has to stop you from taking advantage of this little moulignon!”
 
“Da’ fuck you just call me?!” Da’Quarius said, turning around.
 
“I’m out,” Earl said, taking his briefcase and walking toward the door, giving Paulie a wide berth as he did.
 
“You’re lucky I don’t punch your lights out,” Paulie said, “but I’m sure that shyster lawyer of yours will have me sued for it.”
 
“Hey!” Earl said, turning around. “I’ll have you know my firm specializes in contract negotiations and -“
 
“Can it,” Paulie said. “Come near my place or my family again, and I will strap the ever-living shit out of the both of you. Ya dig?”
 
“Yeah,” Luca said, turning away. “Now get out before I get my gun.”
 
Paulie laughed. “Sure,” he said. “Wouldn’t want you trying to shoot me and blowing your own balls off now.”
 
***
 
“Why da’ fuck did you burst in like dat?!” Da’Quarius said, sitting in the passenger seat of Pauile’s car.
 
“Sorry,” Paulie said. “I’ve been on edge lately. I couldn’t take just sitting and listening to that fat bastard talk like that.”
 
“Because of Tony?” Da’Quarius asked. “You need to talk to him.”
 
Paulie didn’t reply. He just watched the road ahead of him as he turned onto Freedom Lane.
 
“I got da’ contract,” Da’Quarius said. He pulled the papers from his pocket and put them on Paulie’s dashboard as he pulled up to his house. “So you distractin’ e’ryone with yo’ belt wasn’t all bad.”
 
“Good job,” Paulie said. “That was some good acting.”
 
“Thanks,” Da’Quarius said. “You sure you’re not just usin’ me?”
 
Paulie looked at Da’Quarius for a moment, and the two started laughing uncontrollably. “Get outta here, you little mook!”
 
***
 
Helen sat at her dining room table, eating dinner with her wife and the man who was posing as her adopted teenage son. She glared at him as she forked some green bean casserole into her mouth and chewed. She contemplated ramming her fork into the man-boy’s hand as he reached for a roll. “Can you pass da’ butter?” he had the balls to ask.
 
“You’d like that,” Helen said, “wouldn’t you.”
 
“Yeah,” Da’Quarius replied. “Dat’s why I asked fo’ it.”
 
Helen reached over and passed the butter to “Da’Quarius”. What a stupid fake name. Couldn’t he have come up with something better?
 
“How was your day?” Rose asked, oblivious to the con this “Da’Quarius” was pulling. She was always so gullible, but the pretty ones always are.
 
“Good,” Da’Quarius replied. “Stopped by Paulie’s for a bit after school.”
 
Helen scoffed. “What did you want with Paulie?” she asked, knowing the answer she was about to receive was going to be a lie.
 
“Just helpin’ with some business stuff,” Da’Quarius lied. “Nuttin’ major.”
 
“Nothing major?” Helen said. “My baby brother is entrusting you with his business, and you think that’s ‘nothing major’?”
 
“We just went to find out what Luca wanted with us,” Da’Quarius said. His guilty conscience was pretty quick with an excuse. “Did you talk to Paulie?”
 
“I’m sure that’s what you wanted him to think,” Helen said. “You better be careful, ‘kid’. You think I don’t know what’s going on?”
 
“Seriously,” Da’Quaruis said. “How much did Paulie tell you? I’ll fill you in.”
 
“Tread lightly,” Helen said, dropping her fork and knife next to her plate and getting up. “That’s all I’ll say for now.”
 
Helen walked off, noticing Da’Quarius’s look toward Rose and her shrug. He was going to turn her own wife against her, but Helen would be ready with proof of the little conman and his lies before that ever happened.
 
***
 
Tonya walked into New Haven’s Child Welfare offices. She moved past the pictures on the walls of missing children and ads to adopt. She made her way over to her connection’s office, a woman by the name of Shelby Lynn.
 
“Good morning,” Tonya said, walking into Shelby’s office and sitting down without an invitation.
 
“Shit,” Shelby said, tossing her pen onto the piles of papers on her desk. “What are you doing here?”
 
“I’m following a lead on a boy who used to reside in an orphanage under your care,” Tonya replied. She flipped her notebook open. “He went by the name Da’Quarius Lobsterclaw Sherman when he was here.”
 
Shelby looked more serious than before. “Where did you get that name?” she asked.
 
“So there’s an interesting story here,” Tonya said, smiling. “I was sure it’d be a good one. I was curious as to why you guys let a woman who looks like she’s pushing eighty adopt a thirteen year old boy.”
 
Shelby walked toward her door and closed it quietly. She sat in the chair across from Tonya so they could talk quietly. “Leave well enough alone,” she said. “The Sherman boy is happy where he is. We tried to crack that nut when a crazy old guy came in here, screaming that he was being abused.”
 
“And was he abused?” Tonya asked.
 
“No,” Tonya said, “of course not. We would have pulled him if he was. The old guy was looking for some twisted revenge on one of the adoptive mothers. You should look into what he’s doing with his the adoption shenanigans he’s somehow pulling with the City of Bridgeport and this little hispanic girl.”
 
“Only if I’m paid,” Tonya said. “My client isn’t trying to get the kid kicked out of her home. She just wants to make sure he is who he says he is.”
 
“Who else would he be?” Shelby asked.
 
“An adult conman with Gary Coleman Disease,” Tonya said, watching Shelby’s face for a reaction.
 
Shelby laughed so hard she nearly fell out of her chair. “The Sherman boy?!” she roared. “No way. He’s been in the system since he was four.”
 
“Well I’m being paid to follow up on his past to find proof either way,” Tonya said. “I came to you so I didn’t have to go through any more nefarious means.”
 
“I’ll help as I always do,” Shelby said, “but just promise me you won’t judge anyone here too harshly.”
 
“Look who you’re talking to,” Tonya said.
 
“I just want to be sure,” Shelby said. “A ton of strings were pulled to get the Sherman boy where he is. Let me go get someone. She’ll be able to help shed some light on what’s going on and put your client’s mind at ease.”
 
“Who?” Tonya asked.
 
“The woman who placed the Sherman boy,” Shelby said, “Jolene Jolie.” 
 
***
 
Da’Quarius sat in Paulie’s office on Saturday morning before his shift started. He had come early to go over the contract he had stolen from Luca. It was laid out on the desk of Paulie’s office.
 
“You sure we cain’t open da’ door,” Da’Quarius said. “I know you older people get cold feet, but dat heater is fuckin’ killin’ me.”
 
“I don’t want wandering ears to hear this,” Paulie said, turning the page.
 
“Tony again,” Da’Quarius said, rolling his eyes. “Right. Is asking you to talk to him a lost cause today?”
 
“Yep,” Paulie said, flipping another page. “That Luca is a friggin’ snake. I don’t know much about legalese, but it looks like he put some stipulations in here that would surely fuck you out of this business if you signed.”
 
“He must think I’m a dumbass,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“He thinks you’re a kid who would be blinded by the money,” Paulie said. “Of all the lowlife fuckin’ scumbag… Fuckin’ Luca!” He finally flipped out, throwing the paper in the air. It fell to the floor behind him. He pushed the rest of his off his desk. “Fuck this!”
 
“Calm down,” Da’Quarius said. “I have one more plan. I think I should go back to Luca’s an’ surprise him. His lawyer won’t be dere if he ain’t expectin’ me.”
 
“Then what?” Paulie asked, still agitated. “What’s the end game?”
 
“We find out exactly what he’s up to,” Da’Quarius said. “Den I kick him in da’ nuts an’ run out.”
 
Paulie looked at Da’Quarius with a not-so-patient look in his face.
 
“But you gotta stay outta dere,” Da’Quarius said. “Umma tell him you blew up at me, an’ I’m startin’ to see his point. Dat way he’ll tell me everything.”
 
“Fine,” Paulie sighed, “if only to put this thing to bed.”
 
“We just gotta stop by my place before,” Da’Quarius said. “I wanna get my recorder.”
 
“We’ll go a little later,” Paulie said. “Come on. I gotta go work out on the floor there. I’ve spent too much time in this office lately.”
 
“What ’bout all dis paper on da’ floor?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“Leave it,” Paulie said. “The trash is too good for Luca’s garbage. I’ll pick it up and shred it later.”
 
***
 
Helen stood on the sidewalk in front of her house. A black Toyota Camry pulled up. “Right on time,” she muttered. A long-legged woman walked out of the car. She was wearing heels, a red dress, and dark glasses.
 
“As promised,” Tonya said, handing Helen a manilla folder full of paper.
 
“What did you find?” Helen asked, taking the folder.
 
“It’s all there in my report,” Tonya replied. “I talked to some of the employees at the orphanage and tracked down some former foster parents.”
 
“And?” Helen asked.
 
“I think you should read that,” Tonya said, removing her sunglasses to look Helen in the eyes. “It’s better if you do it yourself.”
 
“Fine,” Helen said. “You lose the nads and become as wishy-washy as an actual woman I guess.”
 
Tonya sighed. “I don’t know whether you’re complimenting me or not,” she said.
 
“You’re welcome,” Helen said, missing the sarcasm. She handed Tonya an envelope. “Your payment as agreed upon. Don’t count it out here in the open. I need to head back in before Rose figures out I snuck outside.”
 
“Read that,” Tonya repeated. “The sooner the better.”
 
“Right,” Helen said. “It must be good. I bet scumbag Da’Quarius, if that is his real name, did time up in Havenville like I did.”
 
“Just read it,” Tonya said, putting her dark glasses back on. Helen watched her as she got back into her car.
 
“I’d hit that if she didn’t used to have a dong,” Helen said, turning back toward her front door with a cackle.
 
***
 
Helen sat down in her recliner and placed the folder on her lap. She was about to open it when Rose came in the room, and she stashed it quickly under her bottom.
 
“What are you doing?” Rose asked, seeing Helen sitting there.
 
“Nothing,” Helen said. “I’m about to watch some TV.”
 
“Alright,” Rose said, “but we’re going out for our walk after I’ve done my gardening. You need your exercise.”
 
“Yes, Doctor Rose,” Helen said.
 
“Speaking of which,” Rose said, handing Helen a pill caddy.
 
“What’s this?” Helen asked.
 
“A new pill caddy,” Rose said. “I noticed your old one looked beat up. I also noticed you’ve been acting odd lately, so I’ve filled it for you. Maybe your dosages have been off.”
 
“Thank you,” Helen said, opening Saturday’s tab and taking the pills inside. Rose handed her a glass of water and she washed them down.
 
“I’ll be back in a bit,” Rose said, giving Helen a peck on the check and taking the pill caddy and glass. “Enjoy your show.”
 
“Oh, I will,” Helen said, pulling the file out as soon as Rose’s back was turned. “I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it.”
 
She opened the file and read.
 
***
 
Da’Quarius was four years old, staring at the gap-toothed face of his mother, Lotasha Sherman. “It’s OK,” Lotasha said, zipping up Da’Quarius’s jacket as he stood on the bathroom floor of a McDonald’s. “Someone will come an’ get’chu soon.”
 
“Who?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“I dunno,” Lotasha said, “but dey gonna take you away. Someplace better.”
 
“Don’t go, mommy,” Da’Quarius said.
 
Lotasha turned away. “I gotta go,” she said. “Sit tight, an’ someone will come soon. I promise.”
 
“Don’t…” Da’Quarius whimpered.
 
Lotasha paused at the door, holding the handle. “You’re better off without me, Daq,” she said. “You’ll realize dat when you’re older.”
 
Without any more words of comfort, Lotasha left the restroom, leaving her crying son inside.
 
Da’Quaruis arrived at the Dwight Street Orphanage not long after he was left in the MacDonald’s restroom. He was told by multiple people they were doing everything they could to find his mother, but he didn’t have much hope. He knew she wouldn’t take him back if she ever did turn up again anyway.
 
The social workers were nice, but the other kids were cold. Most of them were older than him, and they made fun of his malformed hand. He tried to hide it in his sleeve most times, but they still picked on him. He grew older, fighting both verbally and psychically almost constantly.
 
The orphanage had a hard time placing him because of his hand and attitude, but he was adopted when he was seven by the Hawkins family.
 
Da’Quarius stood in the living room the Hawkinses’ home. The fat woman who adopted him screamed at him as she stood next to her mother’s broken lamp and the nerf football. Da’Quarius’s eyes shifted to the boy who was supposed to be his new older brother, Jimmy, snickering in the corner as he wasn’t scolded in his part of the accident. Da’Quaruis glared at him, promising revenge.
 
Da’Quarius was returned to the orphanage the next day after he had beaten up Jimmy Hawkins pretty badly. His mother threatened to sue the orphanage.
 
The years passed as Da’Quarius spent most of his time in the orphanage. He was caught multiple times sneaking out and befriending some older kids in the neighborhood. The Child Welfare Department noted that these boys were likely dealing drugs, and they tried their best into talking Da’Quarius into staying inside and steering clear of those boys to little avail. Some had noted that Da’Quarius was bringing the drugs to some of the workers for a cut of the money. This was never proven to be true.
 
Da’Quarius was nine, almost ten, when he was adopted again. A family by the name of Spencer adopted him next, and Da’Quarius celebrated his tenth birthday with them, but it would be the only one. Da’Quarius was one of four adopted boys, and the family was caught months after the adoption with an illegal sweatshop in the basement. Da’Quarius, along with the other children, were brought back to their respective orphanages when Mr and Mrs Spencer were sentenced.
 
At twelve, Da’Quarius was sent to live with the Smith family, but he was back within a week’s time. The parents believed he was making sexual advances toward their thirteen-year-old daughter. He claimed he wasn’t, but they no longer wanted him in their home. Once again, Da’Quarius was living in the Dwight Street Orphanage.
 
When Da’Quarius was thirteen, his mother’s cousin, Jolene Jolie came up with a desperate plan to get Da’Quarius out of the orphanage. She went through files of people who were denied adoptions, and she found a twenty-five year old file in the back of a cabinet. She checked, and saw the lesbian couple was still on Freedom Lane, and they had no children. They were likely denied adoption because of their same-sex union. Jolene got Da’Quarius packed and drove him to his new home, praying it would be the last time she’d have to do it.
 
***
 
Helen turned over the last piece of paper and wiped a lone tear from her cheek. “Da’Quarius doesn’t have Gary Coleman Disease,” she said to the empty room. “His life was shit until he came here. Why did I ever think of something so silly?”
 
She looked at the folder in her hands, regretting ever calling Tonya. It was an invasion of Da’Quarius’s privacy. These were mostly things he hadn’t yet told her and Rose, and she had read through them looking for some thread of proof that he wasn’t who he said he was. Instead, she found more than she had bargained for.
 
She saw one sticky note on the inside of the folder. It must have a lead Tonya hadn’t followed. It read: “Jeremiah ‘Lobsterclaw’ Jones. Father?”
 
The front door opened, and Helen stashed the folder under her recliner’s cushion. Da’Quarius came in, and she was happy to see him, maybe as happy as Dutchie, who was now dancing around him. Some of her guilt had somehow lifted when he had come inside her home, their home.
 
“Hi, Helen,” he said. “I gotta grab somethin’ an’ meet Paulie back outside. I’ll only be a second.”
 
Da’Quarius ran upstairs and returned a moment later to find Helen waiting near the front door for him. “What’s up?” he asked. “You OK?”
 
Helen didn’t respond. She just pulled Da’Quarius in for a tight hug. “Run along,” she said after releasing him. “Don’t keep my baby brother waiting.”
 
“You sure you OK?” Da’Quarius asked. “You just take your ‘glaucoma medicine’ or somethin’?” He put his index finger and his thumb to his mouth to mime smoking.
 
“Yeah,” Helen said. “That must be it.”
 
“I gotta jet,” Da’Quarius said. “I’ll be back in a little bit.”
 
“OK,” Helen said as Da’Quarius left again. “You be a good boy.”
 
***
 
Paulie and Da’Quarius drove away from his house. “I was thinkin’,” Da’Quarius said. “We should prob’ly get dat old contract and bring it to Luca’s. I can rub it in his fat face.”
 
“That’s a good idea,” Paulie said, turning toward State Street.
 
Da’Quarius waited a moment. “We can get Tony too,” he said cautiously.
 
“Nope,” Paulie said. “Not happening.”
 
“Why not?” Da’Quarius asked. “You know he’s good at dis kinda stuff.”
 
“We’re leaving him out of this,” Paulie said. “End of story.”
 
“No,” Da’Quarius said. “It’s not da’ end of da’ story. If dis was anyone else, you’d be talkin’ ’bout doin’ da right thing an’ shit. You’d tell anyone else to go make up. You can at least talk to Tony. You at least owe him dat much.”
 
“And how am I supposed to do that?!” Paulie exclaimed. “How do I have that talk? How do I tell the man I’ve known since we were kids that he fucked up so bad that I don’t want him in my life anymore? Am I supposed to fire him from the only real job he ever had and evict him from his home to go live with his eighty-year-old mother?”
 
“He made a mistake,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“Yeah,” Paulie scoffed. “A mistake in a long line of mistakes, putting my business in jeopardy. You don’t have any idea about the fallout of his Paulie memorial. I had to call and apologize to everyone he invited, including Angie, the woman I was engaged to marry until the bitter breakup. Then he gets Luca all fired up, and it makes him come after you to get to me. Then he has this scuffle with Tom friggin’ Brady, and he tries to get my place involved too. The woman I loved died for this pizzeria, and I’m tired of him treating like a friggin’ toilet! I’ve had enough, kid. Him and I are over.
 
“You know what? To hell with Luca. I don’t need this spying shit. I’m not in the mood, and he’s just going to make me madder.”
 
Da’Quarius let Paulie breathe after his rant. “Is dat da’ first time you’ve admitted dat?” he asked. “‘Bout you an’ Tony, I mean.”
 
“It’s the first time I’ve said it out loud,” Paulie replied. “I guess I have to have that talk with him.”
 
“Guess so,” Da’Quarius said.
 
Paulie drove on in silence. He turned the corner onto State Street and saw the flashers from fire trucks. “What’s this?” he asked.
 
“I dunno,” Da’Quarius said, shifting to see what was going on. “Was dere a fire?”
 
Paulie hit the brakes. “No,” he said, thoughts of his true love, the one for whom he opened his pizzeria, swimming in his head. “No, no, no.” He got out of his car and ran toward Paulie’s Pizza, which was now engulfed in flames. A policeman noticed him and restrained him. It was Tony’s friend, Rocco Priolo.
 
“Get back, Paulie!” Rocco exclaimed. “You can’t go in there!”
 
“Let me go, Rocco!” Paulie shouted, trying to get past him. “Tony’s in there!”
 
“I can’t let you go!” Rocco shouted. “I’ll cuff you and throw you in the back of my cruiser if I have to!”
 
Paulie finally relented. “What happened?”  he asked.
 
“Tony called nine-one-one,” Rocco said. “He said a fire started from the office and spread quickly. I rushed over as soon as I heard about it.”
 
Paulie stepped, back, staring at the flames with horror in his eyes. Da’Quarius stood next to him an took his hand. “I’m sorry,” was all he could say.
 
“This is my fault,” Paulie said. “I threw the papers in my office with the heater on. I started this fire, and Tony… Tell me Tony got out!”
 
Rocco looked at Paulie, a sullen look on his face.
 
“Tell me Tony got out, Rocco,” Paulie pleaded.
 
“I can’t,” Rocco said. “If he got out, I haven’t seen him.”
 
Paulie turned to watch his pizzeria burn. “He can still be ok,” he said quietly. “He could’ve gotten out. He could be…”
 
The roof collapsed, sending embers and smoke into the late-afternoon sky. A gasping crowd watched from the distance as the firefighters sprayed the building down. Paulie looked on with his nephew by his side, both unmoving and silent.

 

 
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