Budgie’s Journal #34 – The Return of Freedom Lane

That’s right. Freedom Lane is making its long-awaited return to this site with its eleventh season.

Last time, we saw Paulie rebuild his legacy, Helen seek vengeance, Da’Quarius find acceptance, Rose come to terms with her past, and Tony search for answers.

What’s in store for the new season? I can’t tell you just yet, but I can give you the episode list:

Daq da’ Police
Brothers in Arms
The Red Unicorn Con
A League of Tony’s Own
A Day with D’Lo
The Ebonic Plague
Two Girls, One Mower

Don’t miss a single moment of the new season of Freedom Lane. It all leads up to the rekease of Freedom Lane da’ Movie 2 in Space, out this July from Budgie Bigelow publishing.

Look for the new season of Freedom Lane, premiering on June 13th, abd airing every Tuesday night. Reruns can be found at BudgieBigelow.com/freedom-lane .

-Budgie Bigelow
6/9/17

Budgie’s Journal #17 – Two Years of Freedom Lane!

I logged onto Facebook for the first time in a while today to hook up with a friend, and I saw through the memory function that today marks the two year anniversary of the pilot of Freedom Lane! 

Let me fill you in. I’ve gained a few followers here in the last month or so. 

Freedom Lane is a sitcom set in New Haven, focusing on the lives of elderly Rose and Helen Masters, their adopted teenage son Da’Quarius, and pizzeria owner Paulie, Helen’s baby brother. With a while cast of neighbors and characters, Freedom Lane shines as a sitcom written in short story form and posted on a blog site.

BluntSharpness and I started this project over two years ago, outlining and writing and clunking ideas off each other. I’ve never been more proud of anything, and Blunt is a pure comedic genius. The project wouldn’t have been half as good without him.

With ten seasons and a movie out there, it’s hard to miss. If you’ve never checked it out, I enjoy courage you to do so. Season even and a second movie are in the works, so there will be no shortage of Freedom Lane!

This is the baby I birthed with Blunt. Our big, obese baby. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as must as I’ve enjoyed making it.

You can find it on http://www.BudgieBigelow.com/Freedom-lane

Freedom Lane: Double Daq Attack

Da’Quarius sat in his homeroom, waiting for the day to start. Mr. Hessman was sitting at his desk, reading the paper after he took a quick attendance consisting of him asking if anyone was out that day. The door opened, and Hessman quickly stashed his newspaper as Principal Johnston appeared with a new student.
 
“Sorry to interrupt your morning ritual,” Johnston said. Hessman gave everyone a look that told them to shut the hell up about what he was actually doing.
 
“I’ve got a new student for your home group,” Principal Johnston continued, smiling. “I want you all to welcome Daquan Brown.”
 
The boy came in. He was tall, wore thick glasses, and was black. His eyes seemed drawn to Da’Quarius who had been the only black kid in his group, and one of the few in the school, up until a few seconds ago.
 
“Aw shit,” Da’Quarius said. “Dere goes da’ fuckin’ neighborhood.”
 
 
***
 
Freedom Lane 
 
Created, written, & directed by Budgerigar Orville Bigelow
Co-created by executive producer BluntSharpness
 
Season 10, Episode 4: Double Daq Attack
 
***
 
“I want that thing out of my house!” Helen snapped, following Rose from the kitchen to the den.
 
“You’re overreacting,” Rose said, carrying a small cage with a green parakeet inside. “Besides, I recall you trying to keep an alligator as a pet.”
 
“And you never shut up about it,” Helen said.
 
“There’s a huge difference,” Rose said. “This parakeet won’t kill and eat Da’Quarius’s dog.”
 
“You don’t know that,” Helen said.
 
Rose sighed. “This was my cousin’s pet bird,” she said. “She left it to me in her will, and I’ll take care of it per her wish.”
 
“I didn’t even know you had a dead cousin with a friggin’ flying booger,” Helen said.
 
“I haven’t heard from her in years,” Rose said, “but for some reason she left me Ronald in her will.”
 
“Ronald is a stupid name,” Helen said. “Let’s name him Ass-face.”
 
“We are not renaming him,” Rose said. “He already answers to Ronald.”
 
“ASS-FACE!” Helen shouted. Ronald leapt, flapping his wings. Feathers fell to the floor from between the bars. 
 
“Looks like he answers to that too now,” Helen said.
 
The doorbell rang, and Rose went to the door, still carrying the bird cage. She opened it to find Manny and Antonio Garcia, their neighbors from across the street, standing on their porch. “Hey, guys,” Rose said. “What’s up?”
 
“We’re here to see Helen,” Anotonio said. “We have a copy of the movie with the snowman and the-”
 
“Whoa,” Manny interrupted. “Nice parakeet.”
 
“You like him?” Rose said, holding the the cage. “This little guy is named Ronald. He’s a happy little bird.”
 
Helen scoffed from her spot on the couch.
 
“We’ve had a few of them,” Manny said, poking his finger through the cage bars, watching Ronald shuffle away along his perch.
 
“Yeah,” Antonio added. “We’ve never had one that wasn’t addicted to pot.”
 
The Garcia brothers tittered as Helen sighed loudly, rolling her eyes. “Even their pets are potheads.”
 
“Our last bird gained like five pounds,” Manny said. “He had the munchies all the time.”
 
“That’s impossible,” Rose said. 
 
Manny shrugged. “He liked his sweets,” he said. “Little bastard had no self control.”
 
Helen stood up. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat about your fat, drug-addict birds,” she said, “but I need to take a shit.” She left toward the downstairs bathroom.
 
“Bye Helen!” Manny called, waving.
 
“Hope everything comes out alright,” Antonio added.
 
The Garcia brothers turned back to Rose. “Does your parakeet know any tricks?” Manny asked.
 
***
 
Da’Quarius sat at lunch, the new kid, Daquan, was getting in the line, trying to decide what to get. “Dis some bullshit,” he said.
 
“What?” Flounder asked. “Are you talking about the new kid?”
 
“Yeah,” Da’Quarius said. “Mo’ fucker thinks he can come up in here and start shit.”
 
“Are you upset they got another black kid in class?” Flounder asked.
 
“No!” Da’Quarius said. “Dat’s racist. I’m mad cuz da’ only black kid dey can find wears glasses like me an’ his name sounds kinda like mine. Just imagine if another Korean came here, an’ his name was Cuttlefish.”
 
“But you guys are loads different,” Flounder said.
 
“You’ll see,” Da’Quarius said, scowling. “Shit ain’t gone down yet.”
 
Next period, Da’Quarius sat in Ms. Kotter’s math class. Daquan entered, showing her his schedule and explaining that he was new. “Oh,” Ms. Kotter, a woman who looked almost as old as Helen, said. “I’ll sit you right next to your twin brother.”
 
Da’Quarius slammed his book shut. “Da’ fuck?!” he exlcaimed. “Dis some racist-ass bullshit!”
 
***
 
Helen sat in her favorite chair, flipping through the TV Guide. The top of her head was itching, so she scratched it, returning her hand to turn the page a moment later. Seconds later, she felt the itch again. She returned her hand to her head to scratch, and it bumped into something.
 
“What the hell?” Helen said. She moved her hand around her head, and she knocked whatever was there off. It flew off, circling her.
 
“YOU GODDAMN BIRD!” Helen shouted, swatting at Ronald with her TV Guide. “I’LL KILL YOU!”
 
“What’s going on in here?!” Rose exclaimed, coming in from the kitchen, finding Helen swinging her arm at Ronald as he flew about the den, wings beating to keep himself away form Helen, chirping frantically. Dutchie started barking and jumping around in excitement.
 
“Eat that fucking’ bird, dog!”  Helen shouted at Dutchie.
 
“Don’t tell him that!” Rose shouted, trying to catch the elusive parakeet.
 
“He ate my damn canary that time!” Helen retorted. “This dog loves eating birds!”
 
“Eating birds isn’t good for his stomach!” Rose shouted.
 
“HE’S A KILLING MACHINE!” Helen screamed. “LET HIM KILL!”
 
Rose huffed, going into the kitchen. She returned with a dish towel, tossing it in the air at Ronald. She hit her mark, and Ronald fell onto the couch under its weight. Rose rushed over and picked him up before Helen could swat him or Dutchie eat him.
 
“Your leave that flying rat in its cage,” Helen said, panting.
 
“I don’t even know how he got out,” Rose said. “You leave him alone. He was just scared.” She left to put Ronald back.
 
“He better be scared,” Helen muttered. Dutchie whined next to her. “Don’t worry. We’ll get him.”
 
***
 
“Can you tell me why Miss Kotter has ejected you from her class?” Principal Johnston asked.
 
“She sent a referral,” Da’Quarius said. “You know why she sent me.”
 
“I’ve told you before that outburst and profanity are not permitted in my school,” Principal Johnston said, folding his hands.
 
“Yo’ teacher bein’ racist is okay, doe?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“That is a very heavy accusation,” Principal Johnston said. “Can you tell me exactly why you’d think that?”
 
“She insisted dat I’m twins with dat new kid,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“Which one?” Principal Johnston asked.
 
“You know damn well which one,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“Miss Kotter is very old,” Pricilla Johnston said. “She gets confused easily. She’s from a different time.”
 
“Can I go now?” Da’Quarius asked. “You’re a second away from tellin’ me her bein’ racist is cool cuz she old an’ white.”
 
Principal Johnston sighed. “Go,” he said, waving his hand toward the door. “Just try not to shout and swear like that again.”
 
“Maybe I’ll calm down after you euthanize Miss Kotter,” Da’Quarius mumbled.
 
Da’Quarius left, making his way up toward Mr. Hessman’s class. He was early for Social Studies, but waiting for Johnston to reprimand him had taken up most of Miss Kotter’s class. He opened the door, expecting Hessman to be alone. Instead, he found that Daquan was already there.
 
“I know it’s tough to be new,” Hessman said. “You don’t fit in with the others in the honors program, but I bet you’ll give them a run for their money if you apply yourself. Oh, hi Da’Quarius.”
 
Daquan turned around, noticing that Da’Quarius had entered. He didn’t offer a greeting.
 
“Look,” Mr. Hessman said. “Daquan was telling me about what had happened in Miss Kotter’s class earlier. I know you’re not twins or brothers or even related, but I think you two can be friends.”
 
“Yeah,” Da’Quarius scoffed. “You’d like dat I bet. Two black kids doin’ yo’ biddin’ instead of one.”
 
“There’s no need for this jealously,” Hessman said. “I’m giving the class a black history month paper to do. I want you two to work together.”
 
“But it’s March,” Daquan said. “Black history month was last month.”
 
“Sure,” Hessman said, “if you believe what our white government wants us to believe.”
 
Daquan gave Hessman an odd look and then turned to Da’Quarius.
 
“Don’t look at me,”. Da’Quarius said. “Hess does shit like dis all da’ time. I bet he just forgot to give us da’ report to do.”
 
“Regardless,” Hessman said, “consider the two of you paired up, and I’ll be looking forward to see how you work together.”
 
“Should we study at your house or mine?” Daquan asked.
 
“Shit” DaQuarius said. “Better be yo’ house unless you want to see an’ lady stranglin’ a little green bird?”
 
***
 
Rose sat at the kitchen table, holding Ronald in her left hand. She held a tiny pair of nail clippers in her right. A book she got from the library called “Caring for Your Budgie” stood open in front of her.
 
“Sorry about this,” Rose said, “but it looks like your previous owner didn’t do this much. Also, I don’t want Helen screaming how you’re ripping the skin from the top of her head if you land on her again.”
 
Ronald chirped, showing his disdain for the whole situation. Rose took one more look into the budgie book and clipped.
 
Ronald screeched, the tip of his toe dangling. “Oh no!” Rose said. “I’m so sorry.”
 
Ronald escaped Rose’s grasp, flying erratically through the kitchen, dipping tiny droplets of blood. He flew through the door, making his way into the den.
 
“That damn bird is loose again!” Helen shouted. “It’s on the rag now, dripping blood all over!”
 
Rose sighed, picking up the dish towel and heading into the den.
 
***
 
Da’Quarius and Daquan were at Daquan’s house, starting their report. Da’Quarius had ben adamant about switching partners, but Hessman wasn’t willing to let him team up with Flounder as usual. “Who should we do this report on?” Daquan asked, clicking through a list of prominent figures from black history on his computer. “How’s Rosa Parks?”
 
“Nah,” Da’Quarius replied. “All da’ white kids always pick her.”
 
“Then who?” Daquan asked.
 
Da’Quarius thought for a moment. “How ‘bout Zachary Boddy?”
 
Daquan typed the name into Google and scrolled through results. “Oh my God,” he said, reading. “I’d do my report on Malcom X before I chose this guy.”
 
“You don’t know Hess like I do,” Da’Quarius said. “Dis is da’ shit dat gets his nut.”
 
“This guy got arrested for poisoning whites-only water fountains,” Daquan said. “He pleaded guilty and was killed in prison after stabbing a guard.”
 
“All fo’ da’ cause,” Da’Quarius said. “He burned down a church in a white neighborhood too, but dey never pinned it on him. Dat was right here in old New Haven. I bet my moms was around fo’ dat. Helen might’ve roasted a marshmallow in it.”
 
“Alright,” Daquan said, going through the information. “If you think this is the best guy to do the report on.”
 
“Trust me,” Da’Quarius said. “Just make him look like a hero. White America tried to vilify him an’ shit.”
 
Daquan started to cut and paste information when something caught Da’Quarius’s eye. He opened a yellow folder on Daquan’s desk, finding white papers covered in drawings. “Shit,” Da’Quarius said. “You draw all dis?”
 
Daquan move quickly, closing the folder and moving it away. “Don’t look at that,” he said.
 
“Dat was good doe,” Da’Quarius said. “You a comic book artist or something?”
 
Daquan beamed. “It’s just a hobby,” he said, fixing his glasses. “My parents say that I should give it up and focus on choosing a career.”
 
“Don’t give it up,” Da’Quarius said. “Fuck wha’cho parents say. Draw yo’ ass off. Bring some to school. I know some mo’ fuckers dat can help write some dialogue an’ shit if you want. You guys can put an issue or two online and see if anyone likes it.”
 
“Really?” Daquan said. “You’d do that?”
 
“Fuck yeah,” Da’Quarius said. “Now lets get dis report written.”
 
Daquan smiled, and the two got busy preparing their oral report on the life of Zachary Boddy.
 
***
 
Rose was cleaning out Ronald’s cage. He had lost his toe due to the accident with the clippers. She had called the Garcias, and they told her to seal the wound with superglue. It had worked, but she still felt horrible. Ronald kept lifting his leg off his wooden perch.
 
“I know you’re hurting,” Rose said, putting a fresh piece of gravel paper on the base of the cage. “It’ll heal, and you’ll be yourself in no time at all.”
 
Ronald turned away from Rose and jumped onto a lower perch.
 
“I guess I deserve that,” Rose said.
 
“Rose!” Helen shouted from the den. “Don’t forget to take the meat out of the freezer!”
 
“Oh,” Rose said. She had forgotten. Helen wanted to make a lazy lasagna for dinner, and she needed a pound of ground beef. Rose went to the freezer and took it out. Once it was in the sink to thaw, she closed the freezer. She turned toward the cage and noticed that Ronald had gotten out again.
 
Rose listened, waiting for Helen to start screaming about the bird flying around the house again. When no scream came, she walked into the den. “Did Ronald fly in here?” she asked.
 
“Who?” Helen asked, flipping channels.
 
“Ronald,” Rose said. She sighed. “The flying booger.”
 
“OH!’ Helen said, feigning surprise. “That little shit hasn’t come in here. Is he loose again?”
 
“He got out of the cage,” Rose said. “Did Dutchie get him?”
 
Helen looked over at Dutchie, who looked at them lazily from his bed. “Nope,” Helen said. “That lazy mutt hasn’t moved in a while. It’s mongrel nap time.”
 
“Where could he have gone?” Rose said, looking around.
 
Helen sighed and got up. “Let’s go find him before he shits all over my pillow.”
 
***
 
“…and that’s why we should all be more like Rosa Parks,” the red-headed and freckled Cecilia said, finishing her report along side Todd, who was smiling handsomely.
 
Mr. Hessman sighed. “Alright,” he said, making an animated checkmark in his book. “That’s three Rosa Parks reports now. Raise your hand if you also did Rosa Parks, so I can give you a C plus and write down that you did make your report.”
 
Hessman marked his notebook of who was raising their hands. He gave two other students C pluses. “Anyone else?” he asked.
 
Flounder’s hand shot into the air. “Stop it!” his partner, a boy named Seamus, said. “We didn’t do Rosa Parks.”
 
“I know,” Flounder said. “I just hate talking in front of people.”
 
“You’re giving your report, Flounder,” Hessman said, “but I think we should hear from Da’Quarius and Daquan next.”
 
Da’Quarius got up and walked to the front of the class, followed by a nervous Daquan. They stood and faced the class.
 
“Who is your report on?” Hessman asked. 
 
“We did Zachary Boddy,” Da’Quarius said proudly.
 
“Zachary Boddy?” Hessman asked.
 
“Yeah,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“The guy who poisoned the water fountains and set fire to the churches in the name of civil rights?” Hessman asked.
 
“Dat’s da’ only Zachary Boddy I know of,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“You know some view him as a sociopath and a serial killer, right?” Hessman asked.
 
“Daquan and I disagree with dat statement,” Da’Quarius said. “We say he’s a New Haven civil rights hero, vilified by white America.”
 
“Excellent,” Hessman said, straightening up and looking intrigued for the first time that day. “By all means: let’s hear your report.” 
 
Da’Quarius cleared his throat and looked at the index card in his right hand. “Zachary Boddy was pivotal to da’ civil rights movement, right here in New Haven,” he said.
 
“Prior to his arrest,” Daquan continued, “Boddy was a key member in the New Haven Black Tigers, an organization he had started with a longtime friend, Richard ‘the red blade’ Freeman.”
 
“Boddy and Freeman led the Black Tigers through the streets of New Haven,” Da’Quarius said, “burnin’ an’ lootin’ in a time when it wasn’t part of every day life. Boddy was even said to have taken out -”
 
The door opened, distracting Da’Quarius and Daquan from giving their report. Principal Johnston stuck his head in. “I’m so sorry to interrupt,” he said. “I need to have Daquan.”
 
“He’s in the middle of giving a report on Zachary Boddy right now,” Hessman said. “It’s quite riveting too.”
 
“The lunatic?” Principal Johnston asked.
 
“Civil rights activist,” Hessman corrected. He scoffed. “You over-privileged whites will never understand what he did for his people.”
 
“Well I need Daquan nevertheless,” Johnston said. “Come with me, young man.”
 
“No,” Hessman interrupted. “I’m his assigned faculty advisor, and I demand to know what this is about.”
 
“Not in front of the others,” Principal Johnston said through his teeth.
 
A girl came in behind him. “That’s him!” she exclaimed, pointing at Daquan. “He’s the one who is drawing nude pictures of all the girls! He left his folder in the library.”
 
“Really, Daquan,” Hessman said, turning toward him. “Did you have to be that guy?”
 
“What happened to da’ comics?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
Daquan shrugged. “I like nudes better,” he said.
 
“Come along, Daquan,” Principal Johnston said. “Grab your bag and lets go. Your parents are waiting downstairs for you.”
 
“Not again,” Daquan said, grabbing his backpack and leaving. “This is how I got booted from my old school.”
 
“Damn,” Da’Quarius said as Daquan was escorted out of class. “I was startin’ to like dat guy.”
 
“What are you waiting for?” Hessman asked. “Let’s hear more about Zachary Boddy.”
 
***
 
“So your new friend was expelled?” Rose asked, sitting at the kitchen table during dinner.
 
“I don’t know if he was my new friend,” Da’Quarius said. “We just did da’ one report together. But yeah, he got kicked outta school.”
 
“Anything would be an improvement on that gook kid,” Helen said. “Did he get expelled from your school too?”
 
“No,” Da’Quarius replied.
 
“Damn,” Helen said, eating a piece of lazy lasagna, followed by a swallow of water.
 
“What happened to da’ parrot?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
”He was a parakeet,” Rose said. “I don’t know where he went. He may have somehow gotten out and flown away.”
 
“Good riddance,” Helen said. “That little shit was a handful and a half.”
 
“You barely did anything with him other than throw a fit,” Rose said.
 
“Can you get me some ice?” Helen said, handing Da’Quarius her glass.
 
“Sho’, biddy,” Da’Quarius said. He got up and opened the freezer. “Fuck!”
 
“What?” Rose asked, getting up.
 
Da’Quarius turned back toward the table and dropped an icy green chunk on it. “Yo’ bird was in da’ freezer, Rose.”
 
“He must have flown in when I was taking the meat out for dinner,” Rose said.
 
Helen poked it with her fork. “He’s dead alright.”
 
Rose shrugged. “At least he’s with his old master now,” she said.
 
“That’s the spirit,” Helen said, eating some ziti.
 
“You just poked da’ dead bird with dat fork, biddy,” Da’Quarius said.
 
 
The End
 
****
 
Coming this summer:
Rose, Helen, Paulie, and Da’Quarius will take you to new heights in Freedom Lane da’ Movie 2: In Space.

 

 

Freedom Lane: The Sharpest Tool in the Sink

Paulie watched his pizzeria burn, his nephew, Da’Quarius, standing by his side. The firefighters continued to spray it with water, controlling the blaze as best they could. Paulie and Da’Quarius were joined by Rose and Helen, who parked around the block. “We came as soon as we heard,” Rose said, putting a hand on Paulie’s shoulder.
 
“I’m so sorry,” Helen said, staring at the pizzeria, flames reflecting in her glasses.
 
“Where’s Tony?” Rose asked.
 
“I don’t know,” Paulie said, not taking his eyes off the fire. “Inside.”
 
“Paulie,” Helen said, an uncharacteristically sullen tone in her voice. She put her hand on Paulie’s other shoulder.
 
“We were fighting,” Paulie said. “That last few weeks, I’ve ignored and dismissed him almost constantly.”
 
“It’s OK,” Rose said. “You two were friends. That’s what matters.”
 
“Don’t talk like he’s gone!” Paulie snapped. “He can still be alright. He can still -”
 
Paulie’s voice broke, and tears started to stream down his cheeks. The weight of the fire and Tony being inside the inferno was finally too much for him. The others stood with him, supporting him with their silence. “He can’t be gone,” he said softly. “He just can’t!”
 
Then, a figure came from the alley. “Holy shit,” Da’Quarius said. “Is dat…”
 
Tony walked toward them, limping, carrying something in his hands, clutching it to his chest as if it would fly away if he let go. “Tony!” Paulie shouted, pulling him into a hug. “I can’t believe it. You’re okay. I need to tell you… about all that happened. I’m so -”
 
“Paulie,” Tony said, handing Paulie what he was carrying. He smiled as he did so, falling hard to the ground right after.
 
“Get the ambulance!” Rose shouted, falling to the ground at Tony’s side. She started giving him chest compressions as the paramedics rushed over, carrying over their equipment. They called to another to bring the stretcher.
 
Paulie watched, backing away when the paramedics relieved Rose. He finally looked at what Tony had handed him as they worked on him. It was the framed dollar bill, the first he had made. It was signed by his sister, Helen, his first paying customer. Under it was the framed picture of him and Shronda he had kept in his office.
 
Tony was taken into the ambulance, a respirator around his mouth. Paulie watched, aware that Rose was telling him to go with him but unable to move. He turned back to the blackened bricks, breams, and ash that used to be Pauile’s Pizza on State Street.
 
He looked at the wreckage that used to be his life’s work.
 
***
 
Freedom Lane 
 
Created, written, & directed by Budgerigar Orville Bigelow
Co-created by executive producer BluntSharpness
 
Season 10, Episode 1: The Sharpest Tool in the Sink
 
***
 
Part 1
 
Paulie looked through the windows of his pizzeria, named after him at the insistence of his late fiancée, Shronda. He had just opened the doors, a huge “Grand Opening” banner across the windows. He stood by his counter, the small kitchen staff waiting along with him.
 
“So this is your place?” Helen asked, coming inside.
 
“My name’s on the sign, isn’t it?” Paulie asked, smiling as his sister eyed the place up. “I’m waiting on my first customer.”
 
“She’s here,” Helen said, approaching the counter. “Give me a medium pie; pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, and peppers. Hurry up. I’m hungry.”
 
“You got it, sis,” Paulie sad. 
 
Helen reached in her pocket.
 
“Whoa!” Paulie said. “I’m not charging my own sister.”
 
Helen scoffed. “You’re already giving away the product,” she said. “That’s bad for business. You’ll be going in under in six months.”
 
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Paulie said. “But that’s Shronda’s idea: family eats free.” He put his hand on top of the framed picture of him and Shronda next to the register.
 
“I’m paying you something,” Helen said, digging in her pocket. “I’m not going to walk all the way down here to not be your first paying customer.” She slapped a one dollar bill on the counter. “Happy?”
 
“Not yet,” Paulie said. He took a pen from the mug by the register. “I want to frame that dollar. Sign it.”
 
Helen laughed. “You’re such a stunad,” she said, signing the dollar. She passed it back over to him. “Now are you happy?”
 
“Yeah,” Paulie said, looking at the drying ink on the dollar bill. “I’m happy.”
 
***
 
Two days after the fire, Paulie looked over the mess that used to be his pizzeria. Yale hospital was going to be his next stop. Tony was still laid up after his bout of smoke inhalation. He had to crawl through caution tape to get in, and he shouldn’t have even been stepping over the mess of his burnt pizzeria.
 
“Paulie?” A voice said from the front door.
 
“Da’Quarius?” Paulie asked. “What are you doing here?”
 
“I came after school,” Da’Quarius replied, climbing inside, stepping over some debris that fell from Tony’s apartment above the restaurant. “I still can’t believe dis place is gone.”
 
“Me neither,” Paulie said. “Every time I wake up, I think it was all a horrible dream.”
 
“Have you decided what you’re gonna do?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
Paulie sighed. “The insurance company will pay for the damages,” he said, “but I haven’t seen the amount yet. They may end up giving me enough to clean up the damage to the building only. I may have to deplete my own savings for everything. Friggin’ lawyer bullshit.”
 
“So that might be it for Paulie’s Pizza?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“I don’t know,” Paulie replied. “It may be time to retire after all.”
 
Da’Quarius nodded and looked around one more time. He turned and walked back outside, ducking under the caution tape. He was upset, but he wasn’t showing it; he rarely did. Paulie hung his head down, ashamed of himself. He had just told his nephew that his promised inheritance might be off the table.
 
***
 
Paulie walked into Tony’s hospital room, knocking lightly on the door. “You up?” he asked, entering. 
 
“Yeah,” Tony said. He was laying on his stomach, his ass sticking up, uncovered, beet-red, and covered in salve. The hair on his head was singed off on either side, giving him a makeshift mohawk. 
 
“Do you have to have your ass out?” Paulie asked.
 
“What?” Tony asked. “I burnt it running away when the ceiling came down. It needs air to heal.”
 
“You’re fine,” Paulie said. “Your just scorched your ass hair off.”
 
“But it was a lot of hair,” Tony said. “It’s gonna take forever to grow it all back.”
 
Paulie laughed along with Tony. It had been a long time since they did. “You got somewhere to stay?” he asked when the laughter subsided.
 
“I’m going to stay with my mother,” Tony replied.
 
“Oh,” Paulie said. “You can crash at my place if that doesn’t work out.”
 
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony said. “It’s only temporary. I’ll be back where I belong as soon as we rebuild Paulie’s.”
 
Paulie looked away. He didn’t have the heart to tell Tony that he was unsure whether or not he’d be rebuilding. If he took the insurance money and sold the lot where Pauile’s once stood, he’d have enough for a comfortable retirement.
 
“Speaking of which,” Tony said, leaning over, and grabbing some papers off his nightstand. “A friend of my mom came in here today. Turns out he owns the building and the lot next door to us.”
 
“Oh yeah?” Palulie asked. “He’s not looking for money from any fire damage, is he?”
 
“No,” Tony said, handing the paper to Paulie. “He’s sick of maintaining that lot for free parking when there’s meters on the street. He wants to sell it to you. Paulie, we can expand the pizzeria.”
 
Paulie looked at the paper. There was a name and number. He folded it up and put it in his pants pocket. “Look -” 
 
“Don’t do that,” Tony said.
 
“Do what?” Paulie asked.
 
“Apologize for what happened,” Tony replied. “Before the fire, I mean, when we weren’t talking.”
 
“I was being a jerk to you,” Paulie said, “and you nearly died.”
 
“Me dying’s got nothing to do with what happened,” Tony said. “I’m sorry I was such an idiot. I’m not always the sharpest tool in the sink.”
 
“What?” Paulie asked. “That’s not a saying.”
 
“You know what I mean,” Tony said. “I’m gonna try real hard not to do anything that stupid again.”
 
“Well you’re forgiven then,” Paulie said.
 
“Good,” Tony said. “All that took was almost dying.”
 
Paulie looked at Tony, and the two started laughing again.
 
***
 
Tony pulled his pizza from the oven with the large wooden peel. He swung it to the counter, dropping it onto the metal plate. It fit perfectly. “Wow,” Paulie said, looking over Tony’s shoulder. “That’s perfect, especially for your first try on your own. You’re a natural.”
 
“Thanks,” Tony said, hanging the peel from its hook on the wall. He looked at his creation: a large pie with pepperoni. He had been working and training for the last week, and Paulie felt it was time for him to try one without help. He was happy he did not disappoint his new boss.
 
“Now what?” Tony asked.
 
“Now we eat it,” Paulie said. “I’ll be the judge to see if your pie tastes as good as it looks.”
 
“It’s a pizza,” Tony said, cutting into eighths with the cutter as Paulie had shown him dozens of times. “It’s hard to fuck up a pizza.”
 
“You’d be shocked,” Paulie said. “You ever eat one of those greek abortions they call pizza? Stunads claim to have invented it.”
 
“Idiots,” Tony said. He put two plates in front of him and put a piece of pizza on each. He walked them out to a booth and put them down. Paulie sat across from him and picked up his piece, taking a bite.
 
“Holy shit!” Paulie said, taking a bite.
 
“What?” Tony said, still holding his own. “Is it bad?”
 
“No,” Paulie said. “This is amazing!”
 
“Better than you?” Tony asked.
 
“Don’t go too far,” Paulie said. “You got a gift for slinging dough. I’m glad you came in begging for work when you did.”
 
“Begging?!” Tony exclaimed, dropping his pizza on his plate. “You were the one who practically begged me to come work for you!”
 
“Yeah, yeah,” Paulie said, taking another bite. “I guess we both remember that day differently.”
 
“Well, the two of us working here together is good fit either way,” Tony said, finally taking his first bite. “Damn, I am good. You’re lucky to have me.”
 
***
 
Paulie sat in his makeshift office: the kitchen in his home. He had letters, papers, and plans strewn about his table. There was so much to do in order to reopen: demolition, rebuilding, electrical work, gas lines, plumbing kitchen appliances, restaffing, not even taking Tony’s apartment into consideration. The list of what needed to be done was growing, and it all required money.
 
There was a check in the letter holder on his right. It was from his insurance company. It was more than he had hoped for, but he wondered if it would be enough. There was also a matter of the lot next door. He had always wanted to expand, installing a table and seating area and a hiring a waitstaff, but that was more money than he’d be able to muster together. No matter how Paulie cut it, he’d have just enough between the insurance and his savings to just about get everything running again how it was.
 
The process was going to take months, and he’d be out the income he would have gotten. Bills and his cost of living would eat into a big chunk of that. Selling his lot sounded more and more viable by the moment.
 
“Madon,” Paulie said, putting his hands on his face and resting his elbows on the table. “What am i going to do?”
 
He was addressing his photo of Shronda, the one Tony had saved from being incinerated. She stared back, smiling happily as she always had, the one tooth missing from the top of her smile. The only problem was that she wasn’t answering.
 
Paulie sighed and stood up, stretching. He had a lot on his mind. Da’Quarius would understand eventually. Rebuilding was a huge ordeal, and Paulie was coming close to his mid-sixties. Most men his age were looking to hang it up. Tony would understand as well. He’d have to stay with his mother for a while, but he’d find a job and land on his feet. He always had that blind luck that got him out of the most dire of situations. He had just survived an inferno with only a reddened ass and a new hairstyle after all.
 
On the other hand, what if they didn’t understand at all?
 
***
 
“Hey, kid,” Paulie said, entering his sister’s house on Freedom Lane for Sunday night dinner. “How are you doing?”
 
“Good,” Da’Quarius replied. “How’s everything going with your place?”
 
Paulie shrugged. “I’m going over the papers and everything just about every day,” he said. “The numbers aren’t adding up to where I need them to be, and it’s driving me up the friggin’ wall.”
 
“Keep at it,” Da’Quarius said. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
 
“Yeah,” Paulie muttered as Da’Quarius ran off. “Thanks, kid.”
 
Rose greeted Paulie next, asking the same question and getting the same answer. Helen didn’t bring it up, but Paulie knew that ignoring sensitive subjects was her way of helping.
 
Dinner was served, and Paulie’s Pizza was once again the topic of conversation. It was tough to avoid it when everyone had it on their minds. “The guy next door reached out to Tony,” Paulie said. “He wants to sell his parking lot to me. I’d be able to expand as I rebuild if I do.”
 
Paulie watched Helen, Rose, and Da’Quarius. He wasn’t going to bring it up, but he found himself eager to get some feedback. “Can you afford that?” Rose asked. “I’m sure your insurance will just cover what you had.”
 
“This is true,” Paulie said. “I’d be on my own. I can always apply for a loan.”
 
“Bah!” Helen said, waving a hand. “Greedy bankers won’t give a man your age a loan. They’d figure you plan on dying before you can pay them back.”
 
“Well I guess that’s off the table,” Paulie said.
 
“What about retirement?” Da’Quarius asked. “You seemed to wanna hang it all up an’ shit when I saw you da’ other day.”
 
Paulie sighed. “I hate to admit it,” he said, “but that’s quickly becoming my best option right now.”
 
Helen scoffed, not bothering to hide it. 
 
“I gotta do some homework after dinner,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“That’s fine,” Rose said. “You can be excused after we eat.”
 
Paulie watched as Da’Quarius ate his meal in silence. He knew he felt betrayed, but he didn’t want to lie. Paulie felt awful about taking the pizzeria away from his future, but it seemed like less and less of an option the more he thought on it.
 
***
 
Helen walked into Paulie’s Pizza on a Friday evening, a redhead woman with her. She showed her to her favorite booth and approached the counter where Paulie was waiting to take her order. “Another one?” Paulie said quietly. “You don’t waste any time.”
 
“Shut your mouth,” Helen snapped.
 
“Whoa,” Paulie said. “What’s with you?”
 
“She’s different,” Helen said. “Her name’s Rose. She wrote and sent pictures to me when I was in the slammer, and we just ran into each other the other day.”
 
“So this chick’s crazy, huh?” Paulie said.
 
“No,” Helen said, shaking her head. “She’s a sweetheart, so treat her nice.”
 
“No problem,” Paulie said. “I’ll be on my best behavior.”
 
“Good,” Helen said. “I’ve been bragging about your place here, and I don’t want to be made out to be a liar on our second date, so you better make us a hell of a pie.”
 
“You know I will,” Paulie said. “I’ll make it myself.”
 
“Good,” Helen said. “Get me my usual, and your better be charming as hell when you bring it to us.”
 
“Helen,” Paulie said, smiling. “I’m always friggin’ charming!”
 
Helen laughed. “Thanks,” she said, walking back toward the table. Paulie was taken aback. His sister had thanked him. He knew his woman was imporatant to her.
 
Paulie watched as Helen sat across from her date. She told some joke, and Rose laughed. Paulie went in back and made Helen’s pizza himself as promised. He brought it out as soon as it was ready, carrying to the table on a metal tray. “Here’s your pie,” Paulie said, setting it on the table.
 
“Thank you,” Rose said, smiling awkwardly. Helen wasn’t there. She had to have excused herself to use the restroom.
 
“I’m Paulie,” Paulie said, smiling, “Helen’s brother.”
 
“I know,” Rose said. She laughed a little. “I’m Rose, I mean. Rose Masters.”
 
“Don’t be nervous,” Paulie said. “My sis can be intimidating, but she’s a big teddy bear inside.”
 
“I know,” Rose said, blushing a bit. “I know it meant a lot for her to bring me here to meet you. She talked a lot about you and your place. She’s very proud.”
 
It was Paulie’s turn to blush. He wanted to say more, but Helen returned. “Pizza’s up!” she exclaimed, resuming her date with Rose. “Wait ‘til you try this, Rose. There’s no better pizza in this city than the pizza my baby brother makes.”
 
“I’ll leave you two in peace,” Paulie said with a little bow. 
 
“It was nice meeting you,” Rose said.
 
“Likewise,” Paulie said, offering a smile.
 
“You two sure got chummy,” Helen said, passing a plate with a slice on it to Rose. Paulie smiled as he went back to the kitchen. He had a feeling Rose was going to be around for a long time.
 
***
 
Dinner ended, and the conversation about what Paulie was going to do with his pizzeria ended with it. Da’Quarius had gone to his room to do his homework, and Paulie was sitting in the living room with Helen and Rose. “I guess I should head home,” Paulie said, looking at the time. He stood up.
 
“Not yet,” Helen said. “I have to talk to you.”
 
“Madon,” Paualie said, stopping himself mid-stretch. “I thought I’d escape without a lecture.”
 
“I’m not going to lecture you,” Helen said. “Sit down. I need to get something. Rose, don’t be here when I get back.”
 
Helen walked toward the back of the house, and shuffled her way down the basement steps. “What’s she up to?” Paulie asked Rose.
 
“You know she doesn’t tell me anything when she wants to be secretive,” Rose said. She stood up. “I’m going to make a cup of tea.” She got up and walked into the kitchen where Paulie knew she’d be waiting and listening.
 
Helen came up a couple of minutes later, carrying a canvas bag that looked like it should be hanging from he back of a utility truck. She put it on the table in front of the couch and sat couple of feet away from Paulie. “You’re not retiring,” she said. “You owe Da’Quarius a pizzeria.”
 
Paulie sighed. He was expecting this conversation at some point. “Did he put you up to this?” he asked. “I know he’s upset with me and all, but he should understand my predicament.”
 
“He’s not upset at you, you stunad,” Helen said. “He’s smarter than that, and you know it. He’s worried about you, and he doesn’t know how to talk to you. He looks up to you like the father figure he never got to know. He told me he can see why you’d want to retire, but he doesn’t want to push you to do it.”
 
“Why not?” Helen said.
 
“Because you won’t let yourself,” Helen said, giving off a tone of someone who’s tired of explaining. “You’ve never broken a promise, Paulie, never. How would you feel relaxing in your retirement, knowing that your place is long gone, and it won’t be there for Da’Quarius when he’s old enough to inherit it.”
 
“I’d be miserable,” Paulie admitted.
 
“Retirement doesn’t suit you,” Helen said. “You and Tony and the kid have too much fun in that place.”
 
“You’re right,” Paulie sad. “But there’s the issue of the money, the dirty, friggin’ money. I don’t know if I can afford to rebuild it how it was, let alone buy the lot and expand.”
 
“You haven’t asked me what’s in the bag yet,” Helen said.
 
“I assumed it was some kind of torture device,” Paulie said. “You planned on using it on me if I decided to retire without a fight.”
 
“I know you won’t,” Helen said. “Sometimes you just need a slap in the face to get you to move in the right direction. So answer me now: will you fight to keep your place and make it better than it was?”
 
“Yes,” Paulie said. “Of course. I was an idiot for thinking otherwise.”
 
“Good,” Helen said. “Look in the bag.”
 
Paulie looked at his sister for a moment before leaning forward. He opened the clasp on the bag and opened it. He couldn’t believe what he was looking at. “Madon,” he said. “Where did you get this?”
 
“This,” Helen said, pulling the bag of hundred dollar bills toward them, “is your inheritance from our father.”
 
“What?!” Paulie said, standing up. “I knew he had left something, but all this?! How much is in there?!”
 
“Don’t know,” Helen said with a shrug. “I never bothered counting it.”
 
“And why am I finally seeing this now?!” Paulie demanded.
 
“I’m a woman of my word,” Helen said. “I was told not to even breathe a word about this money, which may or may not have been obtained through nefarious means from some unknown associates of our father, unless it was absolutely needed by either of us. I’ve used it sparingly in the past, but I’ve never really needed it. I was going to give it to you to open your restaurant, but you unfortunately got the money another away.”
 
Paulie didn’t asked Helen to elude, and she didn’t. He had gotten the money from a lawsuit when his fiancée was killed in a drunk driving accident. “With this…” Paulie said.
 
“You can rebuild and expand,” Helen finished. “Use this for cash payments only. Contractors usually work cheaper if you can pay in cash.”
 
“I know that,” Paulie said. “Sis… Helen.”
 
“Don’t get all sappy on me, Paulie,” Helen said. “I’m just doing what I promised to do. Just make sure whatever is left goes to the kid in some way. Rose will kill me if we don’t help him go to friggin’ college.”
 
“Alright,” Paulie sad. “You got it. Thank you.”
 
Helen smiled. “You’re a good man,” she said. “I’m proud to have you as a baby brother.”
 
“Give him a hug for god’s sake!” Da’Quarius yelled from the top of the stairs.
 
“And he’s your son!” Rose shouted from just outside the kitchen door. “You’re proud to have him as a son!’
 
Paulie laughed.
 
“Madon,” Helen groaned. “There’s never a moment of privacy in this place.”
 
***
 
Part 2
 
Paulie looked over the progress of his pizzeria. It had burned down a little over two months ago, and it looked like he’d be back in business soon. He had purchased the lot next door for a steal in what he can only describe as the deal of the century, and the reconstruction of his livelihood was in full swing.
 
“Hey!” Tony said, rushing in through the thick, plastic drapes that were acting as makeshift windows during construction. He still hadn’t cut his hair, so he still had the mohawk look despite it growing back. 
 
“You gotta come outside and see this!” Tony continued. “Your electrician is fighting with the power company!”
 
“What?!” Paulie exclaimed. “Why’s that stunad arguing with them now?!”
 
“He wants them to reimburse him from he wire that was stolen,” Tony said. “He’s ripping them a new one.”
 
“That wire got stolen?!” Paulie shouted. “Madon, I just bought that last week.”
 
Tony chuckled. “It didn’t get stolen,” he said. “It’s in the back of his truck. He thinks he can get them to pay for it since they blew off his meeting with them.”
 
“Not on my job!” Paulie said, marching outside. “I told these mooks I want no shenanigans here! I hired old family acquaintances and paid in cash. Respect should still mean something to these assholes.”
 
Nick, the electrician, stepped inside, turning off his phone. “No dice,” he said. “They’re assuming no responsibility, and they pushed my appointment to Tuesday.”
 
“Look,” Paulie said. “I know your pop from way back, but if you pull a stunt like that again, I’m kicking you off this job, capeesh?”
 
“But we could’ve gotten paid for -”
 
“I don’t care!” Paulie shouted. The other workers stopped to watch a Paulie reaming, an event that had happened once a week since construction began. “This is my place of business, and I will not have this kind of bullshit going on. I paid for the friggin’ wire, and I expect it to be installed with no hassling of those mooks from the power company. Are we clear?!”
 
“Yeah,” Nick said, looking away. “I told you it wouldn’t work anyway, Tony.”
 
“You put him up to this?” Paulie asked.
 
“Yeah,” Tony said, looking away. “I’m just trying to save you some dough.”
 
Paulie looked like he was going to yell again, but he stopped, taking a deep breath and exhaling slowly instead. “Don’t put ideas in people’s heads,” he said, keeping his cool. “I got an interview.”
 
“For what?” Tony said, following Paulie toward his office. “Are you replacing me?!”
 
“What?” Paulie said, opening the door to his office. It was furnished with a card table and two folding chairs. “I’m hiring a waitstaff, and I want to have my head waitperson here to help hire and train the others before we reopen.”
 
“Oh yeah?” Tony asked. “Any cute waitresses apply?”
 
“You,” Paulie said, pointing. “I do not want you coming anywhere near… Just be careful with these girls.”
 
Tony gave Paulie an odd look. “Sure, boss,” he said. He left, going around to see where he could help.
 
***
 
“So,” Paulie said, looking over his desk to Alice, who had applied to be head of Paulie’s waitstaff. “I see you’ve worked as a waitress for a long time now. Have you had anyone working under you before?”
 
“Yes,” Alice said, giving Paulie a bubbly smile. “I did the schedule at the State Street diner for the last four years, and I’ve trained all the waitresses who are currently there.”
 
“And why, may I ask, do you want to leave the State Street diner?” Paulie asked.
 
“Do you know the owner, Noli?” Alice asked.
 
“Yeah,” Paulie said. “Fat, hairy, Greek asshole. He kicked me out of there once for defending an old man he was harassing, and I haven’t been back.”
 
“He’s the reason I want to leave,” Alice said. “You seem like you’d be a much nicer boss.” She offered Paulie a smile and a wink.
 
“Well, you’re definitely qualified,” Paulie said. “Screw it, you’re hired.”
 
Paulie reached over the desk and shook Alice’s hand, sealing the deal. The door opened, and Tony burst in. “Don’t do it!” he exclaimed.
 
“It’s nice to see you too, Tony,” Alice said.
 
“Oh!” Paulie shouted. “I’m in the middle of an interview here!”
 
“It actually just ended,” Alice said, standing up. “Looks like we’re going to be working together. Exciting, isn’t it?”
 
“That’s not the word for it,” Tony said.
 
“Wait a second,” Paulie said. “Do you two know each other?”
 
“Yeah,” Tony said. “We used to date.”
 
“That’s not the word for it,” Alice said. She slapped Tony lightly on the cheek as she walked toward the exit of Paulie’s office door. “See you around, coworker. You might want to get that hair cut properly before we open.”
 
“Fire her!” Tony exclaimed as soon as she was gone.
 
Paulie sighed. “I’m guessing you two didn’t break up so well,” he said.
 
“Fuckin’ right we didn’t!” Tony shouted.
 
“But I’m not firing her,” Paulie said. “She’s the most qualified person who applied.”
 
“So torturing me is an added bonus?” Tony asked.
 
“Look,” Paulie said, putting his paperwork into a folder, “I can’t ask anyone who applies to be a waitress if they’ve dated you. It’s discrimination. You’re going to have to deal with it.”
 
“Fine,” Tony said. “We’ll just see how long she lasts with me in her face all day, oozing my machismo all over her.”
 
Paulie massaged his temples with his fingers. “Tony,” he said. 
 
“Yeah, boss?” Tony replied.
 
Paulie took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Please don’t,” he said.
 
Tony watched Paulie for a moment. “Sure,” he said. “But I can’t guarantee she’ll keep me civil. You know what I’m saying, boss?”
 
Paulie took another long breath. “Just try, OK?” he said. “that’s all I’m asking.”
 
“Sure,” Tony said. He left the office again, leaving Paulie to collect his thoughts.
 
***
 
Paulie walked with Da’Quarius on Saturday, going past the park with his dog, Dutchie. Some of the contractors were working, but Paulie needed a day off from all the construction. “How’s da’ place comin’ along?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“Great,” Paulie said. “You should see our new area. It’s beautiful.”
 
“I cain’t wait to see it,” Da’Quarius said. “How’s Tony doin’?”
 
Paulie sighed. “He’s being Tony,” he said. “He’s a gagootz, and he fits right in with these contractors I got around the place.”
 
“So he’s gettin’ on yo’ nerves?” Da’Quarius asked. “You screamin’ at him an’ shit.”
 
“No,” Paulie said. “I’ve been telling him calmly what I need him to do, and there’s no arguing.”
 
“What?” Da’Quarius asked, turning toward Paulie. “But you guys love arguin’.”
 
Paulie chuckled. “It’s not good for our health,” he said.
 
“Sure it is,” Da’Quarius said. “Aren’t’ you da’ one who said holdin’ in all yo’ anger is bad for you?”
 
“I did,” Paulie said. “But things are different now. I almost lost Tony, my oldest and best friend, and I was barely even talking to him when it happened. He almost died, and I would have always remembered that I spent his last weeks being pissed at him.”
 
”But dat ain’t you,” Da’Quarius said. “Go get pissed at him an’ shit. You’ll just going to flip yo’ lid if you hold all dat in.”
 
”You don’t understand, kid,” Paulie said. “Him and I aren’t ever fighting again, you dig?”
 
”Fine,” Da’Quarius said. “Just remembered I warned you when all da’ little arguments you’re ignorin’ turn into a full-blown attack on Tony.”
 
***
 
The following Monday, Paulie was back in his pizzeria, making sure all the renovations and rebuilds were moving forward, and he was pleased with the results. The permanent power was due to go on the following day, which meant the contractors could start the final phase, the commercial kitchen equipment can come in, and he’d be back in business before he knew it.
 
“Hey,” Geno Massaro, the general construction contractor, said, lightly knocking on Paulie’s office door. “Can I pull you out of here for a minute?”
 
“Yeah,” Paulie said, getting up. “What disaster are we narrowly averting today?”
 
“No disasters,” Geno said, putting on his hard hard. “I just think you need to see the living area upstairs.”
 
“Tony’s place?” Paulie asked. “Everything is alright?”
 
“Just follow me,” Geno said. Paulie followed, going up the stairs to Tony’s half-finished apartment. The floors were still bare wood, the windows plastic sheeting, and there were no furnishing. There was an air mattress in the center of the room with some blankets and a pillow.
 
“What’s going on up here?” Paulie asked.
 
“I don’t know,” Geno said. “We’re assuming a bum got in and is squatting. We looked all over, but haven’t found anyone. We need to make sure he doesn’t fuck anything up before our final inspection.”
 
“Madon,” Paulie said. “I would have called this a definite disaster.”
 
“We’ll just make sure a cop is around when we know he’s here,” Geno said. “They usually scare them away.”
 
“Hey, boss!” one of Geno’s workers said, running over from what will be Tony’s kitchen area. “You gotta come see this too?”
 
”What now?” Geno asked, going into the kitchen. Paulie followed and saw that the worker had wanted them to see: a sink full of soapy underwear.
 
”This is disgusting,” Geno said. “We don’t even have full plumbing.”
 
There was a bucket next to the sink. “The bum’s been hauling his own water up here,” Paulie said. “Where is it draining out to?”
 
”The basement,” Geno said, he was poking around the items in the sink with his pen. “We’ll have to get all that water cleaned up.” He pulled out a white tee-shirt, exactly like the ones Tony wears, calling them his “wife-beaters”.
 
“That dirty…” Paulie muttered. “When I find that son of a -”
 
“Good morning!” Tony shouted, coming in with a bag of donuts and a tray of coffees. “I figured it’s time to start talking about casa de -”
 
“You friggin’ stunad!” Paulie shouted. The construction guys all stopped working, waiting for the latest Paulie thrashing. They had been quite entertained by them, and they all looked forward to the next installment.
 
“What?” Tony said, shrugging. “What I do?”
 
“You’ve been squatting here?” Paulie asked.
 
“Oh,” Tony said. “Yeah. I was getting on my mom’s nerves, so I figured I’d give her a break. This place is just about done, so I got an air mattress and came back to my apartment early.”
 
“I told you you can stay with me,” Paulile said.
 
“I don’t want to intrude,” Tony said.
 
“WHAT THE HOLY FRIG DO YOU TIHNK YOU’RE DOING NOW?!” Paulie shouted. “You’ve got an air mattress in the middle of a construction site, you’ve been dumping your dirty underwear water into the basement, and you’ve been squatting in a building that hasn’t been approved for human habitation! Which part of that do you think isn’t you intruding?!”
 
“Why’s the water going into the basement?” Tony asked.
 
“THE FRIGGIN’ PLUMBING ISN’T HOOKED UP TO THE FRIGGIN’ STREET, YOU FRIGGIN’ ASSHOLE!” Paulie shouted.
 
“Is ‘friggin’ the word of the day or something?” Tony said with a chuckle.
 
Paulie lunged, grabbing Tony by the front of his jacket. He got within an inch of his face. “Listen,” he said. “Don’t put my electrician up to shenanigans, don’t mess with who I hire, don’t dump water into my basement, and DON’T SQUAT IN MY FRIGGIN’ PLACE UNTIL I SAY YOU CAN SQUAT HERE, YOU FRIGGIN’ FRIG!”
 
Paulie let go of Tony, giving him a little push. The two backed away from each other. “Feel better now?” Tony asked.
 
“Yeah,” Paulie said, breathing. “I actually do.”
 
The two looked at each other for a bit and then started laughing. “Get this shit cleaned up,” Paulie said. “Then you can stay on my couch. It’s probably warmer. At least I have heat, you stunad.”
 
“I’ll have my stuff cleared out of here by the afternoon,” Tony said.
 
“Good,” Paulie said. “I need to go stop at the port-o-let. I forgot how yelling at you can jar my bowels.”
 
The construction guys gave each other an uncomfortable look as Paulie went downstairs.
 
“Boss!” Tony called. Paulie turned to look at him. “Thanks.”
 
“Don’t mention it,” Paulie said.
 
***
 
Paulie returned to his home on Willow Street later than usual. He wanted to make sure everything was in order for the power hookup the following day, and he had gotten stuck in a loud and obnoxious conversation with Nick, his boisterous electrician.
 
“You here, Tony?” Paulie said.
 
“I’m here!” Tony called from the den. “I’m just making myself at home.”
 
“Good,” Paulie said. He went to his fridge and pulled a Miller Lite from the top shelf. He had earned one of them with the day he had just finished. He turned to go join Tony when he saw his sink, full of soapy water. He pulled a wooden spoon from a metal cup near the stove, dipped it in the water, and pulled out a pair of white boxer shorts with the Italian flag on them.
 
He walked toward the den with the boxers still on the spoon, held out in front of him. “Tony,” he said.
 
“Yeah?” Tony replied.
 
“You and I are gonna have a little chat right now,” Paulie said.
 
 
The End
 
*****
 

 

Coming this summer: an adventure so big it can only be Freedom Land da’ Movie 2 In Space!

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.

 

 

Freedom Lane: Tony vs Tom: Dawn of Suspension

“It all comes down to this,” Joe Buck, lousy sports commentator, said. “There’s only two seconds left of Super Bowl Fifty-One, the Giants have the ball on their own thirty yard line, and they’re burning their final time-out.”
 
“Eli Manning has a tough call to make,” Troy Aikman, sports commentator and former Dallas Cowboy said. “He has to go for the Hail Mary pass, but can he really throw the ball seventy-plus yards to the end-zone?”
 
“The Patriots are only up by two,” Buck said. “The Giants needed to get into field goal range, but they find themselves in trouble being at fourth and eleven after Eli was sacked twice.”
 
“Look at that!” Aikman said. “The kicker just pushed over the offensive coordinator, and he’s running onto the field.”
 
“That’s number one, kicker Tony Baloni,” Buck said. “Anyone following the drama knows he joined the Giants at fifty-five because his best friend and boss, Paulie of Paulie’s Pizza, was mad at him for profiting off his fake death.”
 
“You don’t profit off a friend’s fake death,” Aikman said. “Even a rookie knows that’ll upset your karma.”
 
“He’s running up to Eli,” Buck said. “I wish we had audio down there.”
 
Tony ran into the huddle where Eli Manning was instructing everyone to be in the end-zone for his pass. “Get the fuck on the bench, Manning,” Tony says. “I can kick this in.”
 
“It’ll be an eighty-something yard kick,” Manning said, astounded. “There’s no way, and you’re wasting our time.”
 
“I trust my foot over your wussy arm,” Tony said. “Sit on the bench and let a man handle this. Why don’t you call your wife and tell her I’ll kick her into orgasm later.”
 
The rest of the teemed ooed.
 
Eli bowed his head and left, kicking at the grass as he made his way to the sideline.
 
“Hey, Manning!” Tony shouted. 
 
Eli turned around.
 
“If I make this kick, I’m quarterback next year!” Tony shouted.
 
A single tear rolled down Eli’s cheek as he made his way to the bench to watch the end of the game.
 
Tony merely nodded to the rest of the team, and they knew what to do, because Tony is a born leader like that. They set up for the kick, and the Patriots scrambled to set up their defense. The ball was snapped and held. Tony got a running start and kicked.
 
The clock ticked down to zero as the ball curved in mid-air. Flying to the right and then the left, falling between the pylons as the crowd held its breath. A whistle blew, signaling the end of the game. The Giants won the Super Bowl by a single point.
 
“We Are The Champions” by Queen blared as the stands emptied to praise Tony and his golden foot. He caught a glimpse of Tom Brady drinking from a bottle of bleach as he, Tony, was lifted into the crowd, the MVP of Super Bowl fifty-one and new quarterback for the New York Giants.
 
***
 
Tony awoke, alone in his bed in his apartment above Paulie’s pizza, his dream still blazed in his mind. He saw he still had time to sleep, so he lowered his head back onto his pillow. “Kick her into orgasm?” he asked himself as he drifted back into sleep. “Whatever.”
 
 
***
 
Freedom Lane 
 
Created, written, & directed by Budgerigar Orville Bigelow
Co-created by executive producer BluntSharpness
 
Season 9, Episode 5: Tony vs Tom: Dawn of Suspension
 
***
 
Rocco Priolo, Tony’s cop buddy, drove up to Massachusetts with Tony in the passenger seat. He was in his street clothes, being that it was his night off and he was bringing a box of clothes up to his sister, Alison, just outside of Boston. “Thanks for coming with me,” Rocco said. “It’s a boring drive to make by myself.”
 
“Think nothing of it,” Tony said, watching the trees fly by his window. “I can use a bit of a change of scenery. Besides, Paulie had no issue giving me the night off. I think he’s happy to be rid of me for a while to be honest.”
 
“So he’s still mad about that death thing?” Rocco asked.
 
“Yeah,” Tony said. “I probably shouldn’t have done it, but how often does the news accidentally report your friend as dead? It seemed like a good idea at the time anyway.”
 
“He’ll come around,” Rocco said. “He always does, right?”
 
“Yeah,” Tony said, staring somberly out the window. “Usually doesn’t take this long though.”
 
Rocco watched the road in silence, knowing how much Paulie being short and serious with Tony was stressing him. “Hey,” Rocco said. “A friend of mine told me of this bar just within Boston. He said Tom Brady comes in every now and then.”
 
Tony scoffed. “Don’t bring him up,” he said. “The worst part about going to Boston is the Pats fans.”
 
“He’s a great quarterback with a great coach on a great team,” Rocco said, happy that Tony was talking about something other than Paulie. “You’ll swoon if he shows up.”
 
“Yeah right,” Tony said. “If Tom Brady shows up I’ll tell him to fuck himself. I know you love them, but I refuse to betray my G-Men.”
 
“Alright,” Rocco said. “Just remember we’re deep in New England territory. Be careful what you say.”
 
“Whatever,” Tony said. “Tom Brady won’t show up anyway. If I were him, I’d be home giving that supermodel tramp wife of mine a foot massage; a sensual foot massage.”
 
“What’s with you and feet?” Rocco asked.
 
“You don’t understand,” Tony replied. “Nobody ever does.” 
 
***
 
Rocco dropped off the box of clothes to his sister, spent some time there with Tony, and left, refusing the offer to spend the night on the couch. He wanted to hit the bar he heard Tom Brady frequented with Tony before heading back to Connecticut. It was a Tuesday night, so there weren’t many people there. 
 
“I gotta take a whiz,” Tony said.
 
Rocco took a swig of his beer. “One more beer when you come out and we’ll head home,” he said.
 
“You sure you’re OK to drive?” Tony asked.
 
“I’m a cop,” Rocco replied. “I know all about legal limits and shit like that.”
 
“Sure,” Tony said, wobbling a bit as he got stood up. He had had a few more beers than Rocco, bitching about Paulie being cold to him all the while. He stumbled over to the bathroom and saw a line of about four of five guys waiting to get in. “Nuts to this.”
 
Tony walked up to the bar, leaned against it as much as possible, and unzipped his fly. “Hey,” Tony said as the bartender came up to him. He had already started urinating under it. “What do you got on tap?”
 
“On tap?” the bartender asked. “What have you been drinking all night?”
 
“Sam Adams,” Tony said.
 
“That’s what we got on tap,” the bartender said.
 
“Good,” Tony said. “Get one for me and my friend over there. It’s on him.”
 
“Sure,” the bartender said, giving Tony an odd look. He turned to get the beers and brought them over to where Rocco was sitting. As soon as his back was turned, Tony zipped up his fly.
 
Tony sauntered back over to Rocco, but there was a small crowd near the door. Rocco was missing, so Tony concluded he was near the door with the rest. He picked up his beer and took a long pull. He turned to see Tom Brady walking past him as everyone in the bar followed, patting him on the shoulder and trying to ask for an autograph.
 
“Looks like this place is dead,” Tony said, putting his half-finished beer on the bar and walking past Brady without so much as acknowledging him. He pushed his shoulder into him as he passed.
 
“Someone’s a New York fan,” Brady said, eliciting laughter from the small crowd, including Rocco. “Have fun in the playoffs, bro.”
 
Tony had enough of Brady after their short exchange. “Hey, Tommy,” Tony said, turning around. “How about you deflate these balls.” He imitated masturbation and flung his hand toward Tom’s face when he was done. “Bitch.”
 
Brady attacked Tony, shoving him harshly before delivering a haymaker to the side of Tony’s head. Tony responded by throwing one of his own, hitting Brady in the eye. Brady stepped back, and Tony continued punching wildly as Brady tried to the do the same.
 
The brawl was so crazy that everyone backed off. Tom finally got a few steps back and picked up a barstool. He swung it at Tony’s head, but he ducked, letting the stool smash a framed poster Brady standing in front of a giant Super Bowl trophy.
 
Brady lost his balance when the stool hit the picture, and Tony took advantage, throwing his shoulder into Brady’s midsection and tackling him to the ground. Once there, he pummeled Brady’s face with his fists until Rocco was able to fight through the watching patrons to pull him off. 
 
“Lemme go!” Tony shouted. “That punk started it!”
 
“Come on, Tony,” Rocco said. “He’s not worth it.”
 
“Damn right he’s not,” Tony said, turning from Brady’s barely moving figure on the floor to leave.
 
***
 
Tony woke up the following morning with sore fists and a looming hangover. He got up and took three aspirin followed by two entire bottles of water. He looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and laughed. He through for a moment his fist fight with Tom Brady was a dream until he saw the swollen bruise on the side of his head. “That pretty boy can throw a punch,” Tony said, turning his head to look at it. “I’m lucky he didn’t knock me out with one shot.”
 
There was a banging at his door. “Who’s there?!” Tony yelled.
 
“It’s Da’Quarius!” the voice of his best friend’s nephew shouted. “Open up!”
 
Tony threw on an old pair of jeans and a white tee shirt he called his “wife beater”. He walked to his apartment door and opened it. “What are you doing here?” he asked as Da’Quarius strode. “Shouldn’t you be at school?”
 
“It’s four in the afternoon,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“Shit,” Tony said. “I thought it was the morning. Why didn’t Paulie call me to wake me up to come to work?”
 
Da’Quarius shrugged. Tony knew the answer to his own question, and he regretted asking it. 
 
“Anyway,” Tony said, “What are you doing here?”
 
“You’re all over da’ internet!” Da’Quarius said. “Dey lookin’ for you like crazy for beatin’ da’ shit outta dat punk-ass Brady.”
 
“I’m not going down for that fight!” Tony exclaimed. “He threw the first punch! I was just talking to him.”
 
“You shoulda gotten up earlier,” Da’Quarius said. “It’s all over. Someone took video of da’ whole thing. E’ryone saw him take da’ first shot after you pretended to jerk off in his face, den dey saw him swing da’ chair at’chu.”
 
“So what’s that mean?” Tony asked. “It’s a bar fright. There are no rules.”
 
“Da NFL suspended him again,” Da’Quarius said, his smile widening. “He’s out for da’ rest of da’ season. Bye-bye playoffs. Dis is so great!”
 
“Suspended,” Tony mused. “Serves him right.”
 
***
 
Two days later, Tony was working at Paulie’s for the Friday night rush when a man in a suit came in. He was short, chubby, and was mostly bald. “What can I get for you?” Paulie asked, smiling his usual smile.
 
“I need to speak with Mr. Tony Baloni,” the man in the suit said.
 
Paulie rolled his eyes. “I was wondering how long it would take you,” he said. He turned toward the kitchen. “Get out here, Tony! You have a visitor.”
 
Tony walked from the kitchen, wiping his hands with a towel. “What do you want?” he asked.
 
“My name is Mario Antucci,” the man in the suit said, “and I represent the New England Patriots.”
 
“No dice,” Tony said. “You ain’t serving me no papers. Get lost, you jerk.”
 
“You misunderstand,” Mario said. “I’m not here to try to sue you. We’ve been in constant talks with the NFL since your recent… event at the bar. They assured us if we found you and you accepted a public apology from Mr. Brady, he’d be reinstated for the rest of the season.”
 
Tony measured Mario. “What do you think, boss?” he asked, turning toward Paulie.
 
“Leave me out of this,” Paulie said. “And I don’t want you doing any of this in my restaurant. You’ve given me enough of a headache with bad publicity. I don’t need you inviting Tom Brady here for round two.”
 
“That’s not what I was going to suggest,” Tony said.
 
Paulie looked at Tony, his expression unchanging.
 
“Fine!” Tony said. “I was going to invite him here. Find another venue, and I’ll talk to Brady.”
 
“Good,” Mario said.
 
“Tell him to bring him a lawyer, a computer, and a printer,” Tony said. “He’s going to have to do something for me.”
 
“Madon,” Paulie said, retiring to his office. “I’m glad I’m not taking part in this nonsense.”
 
***
 
Tony tapped his fingers on the table of the five-star restaurant inside the high-end hotel called The Edgewood. He had waited for the better part of a half hour when Tom Brady came in wearing a gray suit. His face was still bruised and swollen from the fight, and he had a black eye. Tony had to fight himself to stop from laughing at the sight of it. His wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, was on his right arm, and Mario walked behind them, carrying his laptop.
 
“Hi,” Tom said, sitting down. “I just want to start by apologizing for the way I acted at the bar. I should’ve been the bigger man and walked away.”
 
“You’d like that wouldn’t you,” Tony said. “You always have to be the bigger man.”
 
Gisele crossed his arms across her chest, extremely aware that Tony was staring at it. “I must go to the ladies room,” she said.
 
Tom stood up a she left, watching her go. “So what do you want to do?” Brady asked. “I need my apology to be public, and I need you to accept it. There’s only a few games left to the season, and the playoffs are right around the corner, bro.”
 
“Don’t say anything else,” Mario added.
 
“The playoffs, bro!” Tom pleaded.
 
“What Mr. Brady is trying to say,” Mario said. “Is that he may be willing to give you something in return for accepting his apology; but it has to be public, and you have to forgive him.”
 
“Anything?” Tony asked, raising an eyebrow.
 
“Within reason,” Mario replied, a look of worry coming onto his face. 
 
“Fine,” Tony said. “I want to fuck Heidi.”
 
“Who?” Brady asked.
 
“Heidi Klum,” Tony said with a short laugh. “Your wife, numb-nuts.”
 
“You bastard,” Brady said, letting his chair fall behind him.
 
“Stop it,” Mario said, getting up and putting a hand on Brady’s chest. “Let’s talk.” The two walked away from the table as the waiter came by and put down a basket a bread.
 
“Give me the steak and lobster,” Tony said, grabbing the waiter’s arm. “Give me a second lobster to go with a side of steak. Bill it all to the generous Mr. Brady over there.”
 
***
 
After a few minutes, Mario returned with Brady, who looked surlier than ever. “Mr. Brady is willing to meet your demands,” he said, “providing you sign a confidentiality agreement of course.”
 
“What’s that?” Tony asked.
 
“It’s a contract you sign stating that you can’t tell anyone that you had sex with Gisele,” Mario said.
 
“Can I tell my dick?” Tony asked.
 
“Are you referring to your penis?” Mario asked, rolling his eyes.
 
“That’s the only dick I got,” Tony replied.
 
“Then I guess it would be perfectly OK to tell your penis,” Mario said, “provided nobody else is around while you’re talking to it.”
 
“Are you really putting that in the contract?” Brady asked.
 
“So I guess that’s it then,” Tony said. “I just have one question.”
 
“What?” Brady asked.
 
“Who the hell is Gisele, and why can’t I fuck Heidi?” Tony asked.
 
***
 
Tony entered the suite of The Edgewood Hotel less than an hour later. Gisele stood by the window looking out toward New Haven. “What’s up, babe?” Tony asked, walking toward her.
 
Gisele stood, a look of anxiety on her face. “Just know,” she said, “I do this only for Tom; not for you.”
 
“Relax,” Tony said, sitting on the bed. “I don’t care who you’re doing this for. I only care about who you’re doing this to.”
 
“You are a pig,” Gisele said.
 
“Yeah?” Tony said, kicking his shoes off. “Tell your husband I hope he has fun during the playoffs, thinking about what you did to get him there. Now come here and make good on his deal.”
 
***
 
Tony stood in the conference center of The Edgewood Hotel. Tom Brady stood in front of him, wearing the same suit he wore earlier. There was a camera from ESPN there, waiting to capture the moment.
 
“I want to apologize for my action,” Brady said. “I shouldn’t have hit you after your taunts.”
 
“It happens,” Tony said with a shrug. Mario stood behind the camera, motioning for Tony to elaborate. “I whole-heartedly accent your apology, being the bigger man and all. All is forgiven.”
 
Tom looked like he was going to get mad again, but he extended his hand anyway. Tony grasped it back and shook it, neither one breaking eye contact. Finally, after a short but tense moment, they broke apart.
 
“Good,” Mario said. “I’m glad all that nasty business is behind us.”
 
“Yeah,” Tony said, “just like I was behind…”
 
Brady and Mario were giving Tony a scathing look as the cameraman packed up his gear.
 
“Oh yeah,” Tony said. “That contract. Shouldn’t have signed that contract until after I told someone.” 
 
Brady and Mario left, leaving Tony behind. After looking around for anything he could take home from the hotel, he left. He found Gisele hanging back as well, just near the lobby. “Later, doll,” Tony said as he passed. “You weren’t half bad for a chick with no meat on her bones.”
 
“Look,” Gisele said, lightly grasping Tony’s arm. “Tom is away a lot during the football season. Can I call you if I get a little lonely? Nobody has ever made my feet feel so good.”
 
“Sure,” Tony said, pulling his arm out of Gisele’s grasp. “Just leave a message with my secretary, and I’ll call you back.”
 
He walked away from her, not bothering to give her a second glance. He passed the clerk at the lobby’s front desk as he made his way to the front door. He spun his finger in a circle near his head and motioned back to Gisele. The clerk gave him an extremely dirty look as Tony laughed and walked out into the bright, chilly New Haven afternoon.

 

 

Freedom Lane: Helen Jr

“Wait ’til you see it,” Flounder said, leading Da’Quarius toward his attic room above his father’s dry cleaning business. “I got it from my cousin. He has all sorts of weird animals.”

 
“Alright,” Da’Quarius said. “I’ve listened to you buildin’ dis up since we got off da’ bus. Just show me already.”
 
Flounder excitedly opened the door and let Da’Quarius into his bedroom. Across from the foot of his bed was a huge fish tank containing an octopus. Flounder watched in glee as it suckered its way across the glass. “Isn’t it cool?!” he exclaimed.
 
“Does it do anything?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“No,” Flounder said. “It’s an octopus. I guess he’s kinda boring. My cousin has lots of weird animals his parents are making him get rid of. My family took some to kill and eat. They’ve been talking about eating Scooby.”
 
“Who dat?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“My octopus,” Flounder replied. “His name is Scooby.”
 
Da’Quarius sighed. “What else your cousin got?” he asked.
 
“Pirañas,” Flounder replied. “He has a baby alligator too.”
 
Da’Quarius stared at Flounder. “Take me dere right now.”
 
 
***
 
Freedom Lane 
 
Created, written, & directed by Budgerigar Orville Bigelow
Co-created by executive producer BluntSharpness
 
Season 9, Episode 4: Helen Jr.
 
***
 
“He’s as cute as a button,” Helen said, looking down at the baby alligator Da’Quarius had brought home. He sat in a small inflatable pool in the living room by Helen’s favorite chair. “I’m going to name you Helen Jr.”
 
“I don’t like this at all,” Rose said with her arms crossed, looking at Helen and Helen Jr nervously.
 
“It’ll be fine,” Helen said. “You’re just upset that he scared that pansy dog.”
 
Rose turned to look at Dutchie, who was cowering in fear at the top of the stairs. “I don’t even know what possessed Da’Quarius to bring this home,” she said.
 
“His gook friend’s family was going to eat him,” Helen said. “We saved him from the horrors of the food chain.”
 
“The other day you said you thought koala meat would be delicious,” Rose said. “You said it was God’s plan for humans to eat every animal he put on  the planet.”
 
“Well not Helen Jr,” Helen said.
 
“We are not keeping him,” Rose said.
 
“Why not?” Helen asked. “You gave the kid a dog, and I didn’t complain at all.”
 
“One,” Rose said, “you’ve never stopped complaining about Dutchie.”
 
“So I guess we’re even then,” Helen said.
 
“Two,” Rose continued, “it’s not legal to keep an alligator as a pet.”
 
“But he’s so adorable!” Helen said, petting the alligator’s scaly head. “Fuck the law!”
 
“Three,” Rose said. “He’s bound to get bigger and eat Dutchie and probably us.”
 
“No he won’t,” Helen said. “Not if we raise him properly. The dog and Helen Jr are going to be the best of friends. Haven’t you even seen a Disney movie?”
 
“Don’t do that,” Rose said. “Don’t you dare bring Disney into this.”
 
“He’s hungry,” Helen said as Helen Jr nipped at her shoe. “Go get me some raw steak, and we’ll teach him how he should behave in the house.”
 
“I don’t even understand your fascination with alligators,” Rose sighed. 
 
“He reminds me of a pet we had in Havenville Pen,” Helen said. “An alligator somehow got smuggled inside, and he lived in the sewers under the place. His name was Meatfuck. Anyway, Meatfuck was tranqed and dragged out, and none of us ever knew what happened to him. They probably shot him dead, and I never got to say goodbye.”
 
Rose sniffed as the fought back tears. Then, without warning, Helen Jr tried to bite Helen’s breast, narrowly avoiding it. “Will you get him something to eat, dammit!” Helen snapped, holding Helen Jr away from her body. “He nearly got my right tit!”
 
***
 
“This is so cool,” Da’Quarius said, looking at the tank of piraña. He was letting Helen and Rose adjust to the alligator while he watched the fish swim around the large tank. “It’s cool dat yo’ family let you keep dem.”
 
“They’re definitely going to eat Scooby now,” Flounder said, watching the piraña sadly. “They’ll never let me keep both.”
 
“Speakin’ of which,” Da’Quarius said, “it’s feedin’ time!” He took the shoebox he was holding and opened in. He reached in and pulled out a plump rat by its tail. 
 
“Do I have to watch?” Flounder asked.
 
“Yes,” Da’Quarius replied. “Yo’ dad said we’re doin’ him a favor by killin’ da’ rats.”
 
Da’Quarius moved his hand over the tank, hanging the squealing rat over the water. He waited for the piraña to head toward the top and dropped the rat, laughing maniacally as the piraña had their lunch.
 
There was a frenzy of movement as the water became tinged with red bubbles. It was over shortly, and pieces of bone floated to the bottom of the tank. “Holy shit,” Da’Quarius said as Flounder vomited in a trash pail. “Dat was awesome. When do dey eat again?”
 
“My cousin said twice a day,” Flounder said, “so twelve Hours?” He offered a shrug.
 
“Damn,” Da’Quarius said as the piraña calmed down. “What do you want to do until then?”
 
“Want to see what Scooby is up to?” Flounder asked.
 
“Sure,” Da’Quarius said. “Let’s go.”
 
***
 
Helen walked around the backyard with Helen Jr on his leash. “You getting enough exercise?” she asked her little alligator. “I can’t believe Rose won’t let me walk you around the block.” She pulled a ziplock bag from her pocket full of raw, de-boned chicken and dumped it on the ground. Helen Jr gobbled it up greedily.
 
“I don’t understand why you brought that home,” Rose said, watching from the window. Da’Quarius was having his after school snack at the table.
 
“Look at how happy Helen is,” Da’Quarius said. “I’ve never seen her not hate an animal before.”
 
“You didn’t answer my question,” Rose said. “What possessed you to bring that home?”
 
“I dunno,” Da’Quarius said. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. I remember Helen siding with the alligators when dat kid got ate.”
 
“Don’t bring that up,” Rose said. “Helen was joking, and it was a pretty dark joke at that. Aren’t you worried about Dutchie? He’ll be the first one Helen Jr will try to eat.”
 
Da’Quarius sighed. Dutchie barely left his bedroom now that Helen Jr had moved in. “Alright,” Da’Quarius said. “I guess you’re right. I shouldn’t have brought it home. Sorry.”
 
“That’s right,” Rose said, turning away from the window with her arms crossed.
 
“But what are we gonna do now?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
“I can probably make some calls to some people who will help get Helen Jr into a zoo without calling the police,” Rose said. “He’s actually a really well-behaved animal.”
 
“Don’t let Helen hear you,” Da’Quarius said. “You’ll never get him outta here.”
 
***
 
Da’Quarius went with Flounder after school the following day to feed another rat to the piraña. “I cain’t wait to feed dis squirrel to dem,” Da’Quarius said. He was holding a cardboard box containing an injured squirrel they found by the side of the road. Flounder had a pair of tongs he took from his mother’s kitchen so they could drop it in the tank without getting bit.
 
“I still feel weird about dropping that squirrel in,” Flounder said.
 
“It’s hurt real bad,” Da’Quarius said. “We’re doing it a favor.”
 
They both entered the room to find the number of piraña had diminished. “What happened?” Da’Quarius asked. “Did you start givin’ dem away?”
 
“My cousin warned me about this,” Flounder said. “Sometimes they form gangs and start fighting with each other. They must have formed cliques and had a gang war, resulting in half their deaths.”
 
“Gangs?” Da’Quarius said. “I think yo’ cousin is fuckin’ wit’chu.”
 
“They must have been brought up in a bad neighborhood,” Flounder sighed.
 
“OK,” Da’Quarius said. “Now you definitely are fuckin’ with me.”
 
“Do you still want to feed them?” Flounder asked.
 
“Fuck yeah I do,” Da’Quarius said, getting the box ready. “Hold up. I wanna tape dis shit.”
 
“What?” Flounder asked. “How are you gonna tape it and feed them?”
 
“I’m just gonna tape it,” Da’Quarius said, getting the camera on his phone ready. “You gonna drop it in.”
 
“No,” Flounder said. “I can’t.”
 
“Come on,” Da’Quarius said. “What happened to da’ pair a’ nuts you grew over da’ summer. I might not always be around to feed yo’ fish. You gonna have to do it sometime.”
 
Flounder sighed. “Let me know when you’re ready,” he said, defeated.
 
“Go,” Da’Quarius said, smiling behind the other side of his phone.
 
Flounder opened the box and used the tongs to pull out the injured squirrel, struggling to breath. It looked into Flounder’s eyes, silently pleading with him. “I can’t,” Flounder said. “He’s so sad.”
 
“Just do it,” Da’Quarius said. “It wants to die. Put it out of its misery.”
 
Flounder lowered the squirrel into the tank, and a smaller frenzy than last time ensued. When it was over, the bottom half of the squirrel floated to the top of the tank.
 
“Damn,” Da’Quarius said. “Guess dey weren’t dat hungry.”
 
“What are we going to do with what’s left of the squirrel?” Flounder asked.
 
“I dunno,” Da’Quarius said, “but I ain’t touchin’ it.”
 
***
 
Helen got ready for bed. Rose was already there, reading, but Helen had to put Helen Jr to sleep. She put him him his little pool with some fresh meat, and she closed the round baby gate she bought at a garage sale along with a teddy bear. “Goodnight, sweetheart,” Helen said.
 
Helen Jr looked back at her, it’s teddy bear secured in its mouth. 
 
“Oh,” Helen said. “Don’t give me those eyes. You know you have to stay down here.”
 
Helen and Helen Jr continued to look into each other eyes until Helen opened the gate. “Come on, you,” Helen said. “I can’t leave you all by yourself. Be good in bed, or Rose will have a fit.”
 
Helen bent over and lifted Helen Jr with a heave, putting his head on her shoulder. “Don’t want to forget your teddy,” she said, turning and picking the the dropped teddy bear. She turned and carried Helen Jr like a green, scaly baby up the stairs toward her bedroom. She went inside her room quietly, not to disturbed Rose as she read.
 
“GET THAT THING OUT OF HERE!” Rose shouted.
 
Dutchie left Da’Quarius’s room to see what the commotion was about. Frightened by Rose’s shout, Helen Jr crawled out of their room at the same time. Dutchie took one look at Helen Jr and bolted back into Da’Quarius’s room, slamming the door behind him.
 
“I can’t believe you’d bring an alligator into our bed!” Rose exclaimed, following Helen into the hallway.
 
Helen picked up Helen Jr and cradled him. “Stop yelling,” she said. “You’re scaring the baby.”
 
“That is not a baby,” Rose said. “That is a wild animal, and he doesn’t belong in our home. Put him back in the pool, gate him off, and, first thing tomorrow, you’re going to help me find him somewhere else to stay.”
 
“Don’t be so mad because I’m giving Helen Jr all the attention,” Helen said. “If you want a little loving from me, you just have to ask, doll.”
 
Rose gave Helen he dirtiest look she could muster. “Put that alligator into its pen,” Rose said. “If you can’t stand to be away from it, then you can sleep in that little pool too.”
 
Rose closed the door.
 
Da’Quarius peeked out of his own room, watching Helen cradling Helen Jr in front of her closed bedroom door.
 
“What the hell do you want?” Helen asked.
 
“How’d Dutchie slam my door?” he asked.
 
***
 
Flounder and Da’Quarius went to his house after school once again to feed the pirañas. “I don’t know what PETA will do,” Da’Quarius said. “As far as I can tell, dey can just have da’ video of da’ squirrel gettin’ ate off da’ ‘net.”
 
“So they won’t come after us?” Flounder asked.
 
“Prob’ly not,” Da’Quarius said with a shrug. “What are dey gonna do anyway? Animals eat animals. It’s da’ circle of life. Ever see da’ Lion King?”
 
When they got to the piraña tank, there was only one left, swimming in filthy water containing the pieces of the others.
 
“He ain’t eatin’ dis whole rat,” Da’Quarius said. “Not after eatin’ all da’ others.”
 
“Why did he do that?” Flounder said, moving close to the tank. “He killed all of his brothers and sisters!”
 
The piraña slammed its face in the glass inches away from Flounder, and he jumped back and nearly fell over.
 
“Dis one is bad ass,” Da’Quarius said. “He got blood on his hands, and he don’t give a fuck.”
 
“But what are we going to do?” Flounder asked. “My parents won’t let me keep this huge tank for one fish.”
 
“Get a smaller tank,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“No,” Flounder said, watching the piraña, who seemed to be watching him back. “He scares me.”
 
“So what do you wanna do?” Da’Quarius asked.
 
***
 
Helen sat in the backyard in her lounge chair. Helen Jr was walking around on his leash. Helen held the hose in her hand, spraying Helen Jr despite the chill in the air. “You having fun?” she asked. “You’re such a good boy.”
 
Rose came outside, looked at the scene and debated going back in. “Look,” she said. “I can’t find anyone who will take Helen Jr without asking too many questions. We’re going to have to call the authorities.”
 
“No!” Helen said. “You can’t turn him over to the fuzz! They’ll euthanize him!”
 
“I don’t want that either,” Rose said, “but if you want to give him to a zoo, you’ll have to explain where you got him and why you have him.”
 
“That’s bullshit,” Helen said. “I don’t want Helen Jr at a zoo either. He’s a good boy.”
 
Rose walked over and saw the package of raw steak, still unopened. “Aren’t you going to feed him?” she asked. “He’s getting bigger. He needs to be well fed so he doesn’t -“
 
“He’s fine,” Helen said, interrupting Rose with a wave of her hand. “He filled up on cats earlier.”
 
“WHAT?!” Rose exclaimed. “What cats?”
 
“Harold and Lee had a couple in their yard, so I let Helen Jr in between the bushes,” Helen said. “You should have seen him. It was so cute watching him hunt.”
 
“That’s it,” Rose said, walking back toward the house. “He needs to go. I’m calling the zoo and telling them the truth.”
 
“You can’t turn snitch on me!” Helen snapped.
 
“I’m not turning snitch!” Rose shot back, turning around to face Helen again. “He’s killed for his meat now. He’ll be bigger than us when he’s fully grown. He needs to go for our safety.” She turned and went back into the house.
 
“I won’t win this one,” Helen said softly. She turned to look at Helen Jr, who was looking back at her with his alligator eyes. “I won’t let them have you, though.”
 
***
 
Da’Quarius and Flounder stood at the edge of the swamp near I-91. Da’Quarius held the fishbowl with their remaining piraña inside. “He should be alright here,” Da’Quarius said.
 
“Will he survive in the swamp?” Flounder asked.
 
“Sure he will,” Da’Quarius said. “He’s a tough mo’ fucker. He ate all da’ rest of ‘em. He’ll make it through da’ winter eatin’ rats an’ shit. There’s plenty of vermin around dis area.”
 
“Alright,” Flounder said. He poured the water from the bowl into the swamp, letting the last piraña fall in with a small plop. It swam off away from the two into the dark water.
 
“You did good,” Da’Quarius said, patting Flounder on the back. “You know what dey say. If you love somethin’, set it free or some shit.”
 
“Love?” Flounder said. “That thing scared the crap out of me!”
 
***
 
Helen walked up to the same swamp near I-91 only minutes after Da’Quarius and Flounder dumped their lone piraña. She held Helen Jr for the last time. She had to slip some drugs into Rose’s afternoon tea to put her to sleep, and she had hid the small gator in one of her larger purses. Now, she was ready to say goodbye.
 
Helen placed Helen Jr on the ground, and he looked around, curious about his new surroundings. He walked toward the water and looked at its own reflection. He then turned and looked at Helen.
 
“Go on,” Helen said, her voice cracking with sadness. “This is your home now.”
 
Helen Jr looked at his former master for another moment before easing itself in the cool water. Helen watched as it swam away. “Stay near the run off from the factory,” she said. “The water is warmer over there. You’ll be OK. You’re strong like me.”
 
Two eyes came above the water as Helen Jr watched her. He swam back toward the grassy edge of the swamp and started to climb back out.
 
“No!” Helen said, tears running down her cheeks. “You have to go! We don’t want you any more!”
 
But Helen Jr didn’t understand. He continued to close the distance, now fully out of the water.
 
“GO!” Helen shouted. She picked up a rock and threw it. It barely missed Helen Jr’s head, and he jumped back in the water, where he watched from afar.
 
“I told you,” Helen whispered. “We don’t want you.” She picked up another rock and threw it in the water. Helen Jr swam off in the direction of the factory and the pipe that dumped into the swamp.
 
“Go on,” Helen said, watching and wiping her face with her sleeve. “Get out of here.”
 
***
 
Flounder came back to the swamp hours later, sneaking his mother’s mixing bowl full of water and a large octopus named Scooby. Scooby was cramped in the bowl, but it was only his temporary home. Flounder walked up to the bank of the swamp and dumped it into the water.
 
“There you go, Scooby,” Flounder said as the octopus swam away. “You’re free now. My parents won’t eat you. I know the swamp isn’t much of a place for an octopus, but my cousin said some salt water comes in here from the beach, so you should be OK.”
 
The octopus gave no reaction as it sunk down into the swamp. Flounder shed a single tear and went off the way he came to return his mother’s mixing bowl and get his strapping for taking the octopus they were supposed to have for dinner.
 
There was some movement in the swamp as Helen Jr raised itself just high enough so his eyes broke the surface. Scooby did the same, looking at the small alligator in front of him. They glared angrily at each other for a moment, then they parted ways. Helen Jr went toward the warm water of the factory drainage, and Scooby went toward the saltwater that drifted in from the harbor. A piraña passed by, briefly observing them both.
 
The End