You can take the boy out of the Narrows…
That phrase, bandied around in reference to him for as long as he could remember. He could almost sense the speaker patting themselves on the back, congratulating themselves on their assumed cleverness. John only smiles in response, and when he can’t find the self-control to smile, he doesn’t do anything at all.
They don’t really bother him anymore, the knowing looks from friends and coworkers, tittering because he ritualistically checks the coin return slot of every vending machine he passes. Yes, he buys the ten cent ramen instead of the twelve cent ramen, because that’s two extra packages for every dollar. Yes, he’ll spend five minutes trying to guess the neighbors’ WiFi passwords if it means not having to pay for internet service. Yes, he knows exactly how long you can let the utility bill go before the city cuts it off. Utility Roulette, his father used to call it. No winners, just weeks of cold showers and heavy blankets.
He’s not as poor as he used to be—not that desperate, running in place, Goodwill-underwear-and-night-shifts-under-fluorescent-lighting sort of poverty that defined his first few years out of the system. No, he now has a respectable job, some semblance of an education, and a halfway decent apartment. So what if it’s furniture-less save a mattress, some folding chairs, and very creative uses of boards and cinder blocks? It’s his, and those three small rooms provide him with more security and independence than he’s felt in years.
Even though he’s never missed a payment, a part of him still feels like locking the door and turning off the lights every time the landlord knocks. Some old habits, and even older memories, still leave their mark.
He is six and watching his father take a lamp from a stranger’s trash. He is thirteen and going to the restroom before getting in the lunch line so his friends will be ahead of him and won’t hear him say “I get free lunch” when he reaches the cashier. He is nineteen and realizing that heating and eating will be mutually exclusive this month. He is twenty one and discovering that his landlady tied twenty dollars to the handlebars of his bike out of pity.
John’s first set of major arrests come in the form of a drug bust on a burned out building a stone’s throw from his childhood home. He’s little more than backup, someone to help cuff junkies while the Vice guys ransack the place for crack cocaine and whatever else they can find. A skinny woman—nothing but frizzy hair, wide eyes, and burned lips—spits at him as he goes through her Miranda rights. He fights the urge to retch.
Perhaps he has real estate on the brain, or maybe he’s just eager for a distraction, but thoughts of his newly-leased apartment come immediately to mind as he takes in his modest surroundings. The same folding chairs, the same cinder block creativity. It’s all a little danker, and everything is considerably seedier, but the similarities were striking. His eyes settle on the lone piece of respectable furniture: a leather sofa. Once upon a time, it may have even been a nice one. The thing was battered and faded—it looked as though a particularly spirited animal had gone after one of its corners—but it seemed serviceable; nothing that some soap, water, and a small ocean of disinfectant couldn’t fix. No matter what, it was better than folding chairs and bare floors.
His father is lugging a lamp under one arm, its power cord skittering on the sidewalk. “Opportunity makes a thief, Robbie.”
The junkies and dealers they picked up were repeat offenders according to the Vice Squad, each one looking at three to twelve at the state penitentiary. Anyone associated with the ring would have seen the squad cars surrounding the burned out building and bailed. The place would be abandoned for at least a day or so before the squatters and looters came. Chances were good the sofa was still sitting there, but not for long.
How, though? Wasn’t as if he could squeeze the thing into the back of a squad car.
“It’s not like they’ll be needing it,” John justifies; whether to himself or his partner, he couldn’t guess. Ross doesn’t say anything just then, even though that oft-repeated phrase is probably on the tip of his tongue. He just nods and tosses John the keys to the truck.
…but you can’t take the Narrows out of the boy.
(Yes, it was a small river, and yes, it only reached the line of my jaw before making a pathetic waterfall drop to my shirt, but it was a river nonetheless and I will not dishonor it by defying its name.)