Authors: David Lampson
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Boys & Men, #Mysteries & Detective Stories, #Social Issues, #Dating & Sex
THIS ONE TIME WITH JULIA
An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
This One Time with Julia
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © 2012 David Lampson
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Back when we were
just tiny little kids, Alvin used to make me switch names with him every few weeks. I can’t remember when we started doing it, so I might have been born as Alvin for all I know. We weren’t identical twins, but we both had light hair and green eyes, and I guess we looked close enough back then, because only our mother seemed to notice when we changed into each other. Around third grade our hair turned dark brown, but my eyes did too, and I started getting a lot bigger than Alvin was, and he told me he was bored of switching names. I happened to be Joe at the time, and so I’ve been Joe ever since.
The more I remember, the more I can remember. The year we stopped switching names was the same year our parents got kidnapped on a cruise in the Pacific, became political prisoners, and never came back. Once they were gone, we were supposed to get adopted by the government, but my brother Marcus figured out a way around it. Marcus was only thirteen at the time, just five years older than Alvin and me, but he was the one who tracked down Uncle Ruby and convinced him to become our guardian. Uncle Ruby was officially supposed to be living with us in Los Angeles, but he had a girlfriend and a job in New York, so he wasn’t around much at all—mostly just for a week in the summer. But he didn’t mind lying to Social Services, and Marcus knew how to forge his signature, so we got along okay without him.
Alvin and I were mostly on our own. Marcus would sometimes try to tell us what to do, but it never worked out well, and so it was usually just the two of us. We spent every day together: maybe at the park, or at the beach, or trying out some new idea Alvin had. Alvin was a pretty big inventor, so we spent a lot of time working on his new concepts or building complicated pranks that he’d thought up. We were seventeen when Alvin met a girl on the Santa Monica beach, fell in love, and ran away with her to Tennessee.
After Alvin left, my life got so boring that I can barely remember anything I did. I guess I just woke up every morning, got hungry and thirsty, hung out at McDonald’s, missed Alvin, played poker, missed Alvin, played ball. Every now and then I’d get the feeling that something else might eventually happen to me, but it never lasted very long, and I mostly wished time would pass faster until he came back. In December I turned eighteen without him—the first birthday that we didn’t celebrate together.
I was supposed to be taking this GED course so I wouldn’t have to start high school all over again. But the class seemed like it would be totally impossible to understand, and so I spent most of my time playing poker. I liked going to poker rooms because it was a chance to use my fake ID, and because poker is the main thing I remember about my father, how carefully he tried to teach it to me, even though I constantly forgot the rules.
This one time I saw an old man die at the poker table, right in the middle of the hand. He just leaned over and fell onto his cards, and when the dealer tried to wake him, we realized he was dead. While we waited for an ambulance, everyone crowded around to see what he had. It wasn’t much, but he caught a really lucky straight on the last card and ended up winning the whole pot. When the dealer said the money would be sent on to the old man’s family, this bald guy sitting next to me started getting really angry, because he’d had a pair of aces when the old man made his straight, and he thought you should have to be alive to win a pot. He wouldn’t let it go, and eventually they had to call the floor man over. I only remember this so well because it was the same day Alvin finally called—the day things started happening to me again.
I knew it was Alvin as soon as my cell phone rang, because he’d bought that phone for me the day he left, and nobody else knew the number. I’d been carrying it around for months, hoping he would call, but now that it was finally ringing I couldn’t seem to turn it on. I pushed all the buttons I could find, and it just kept ringing and ringing, and I started to get angry, and strangled the phone a little bit, until the bald guy next to me noticed what was happening. “Are you trying to answer your phone?”
“It’s not broken. You just don’t know how to answer it.”
He took my phone and messed with it for a while. The next thing I knew I was talking to Alvin.
“Joe,” he said. “First let me apologize for never calling you for half a year. I’ve been employed all this time, so my schedule has been very demanding.”
Right away I noticed that his voice was different. He sounded tired and sad and far away. I thought he might be calling from the bottom of a well.
“I miss you, Alvin.”
“You are also someone I miss,” he said. “What are you doing right now?”
“Good for you, Joe. I hoped you’d be doing the most irresponsible thing. Are you in shape for a trip?”
“We’d go extremely far away. For a very long time.”
“Would I have to work at all?”
“Hardly at all. And you won’t have to talk to anybody you don’t want to. It’ll be like it was before I left. Tonight I’ll tell you all about it.”
“I think I’m in New Mexico. I’ve been driving for fifteen hours straight. But I’ll be there by tonight. Where are you sleeping these days?”
“In Marcus’s apartment.”
“Dammit.” I could hear Alvin growling into the phone. “Tell me another place that you know how to get to.”
I told him about the McDonald’s near Marcus’s apartment. He said that he would find it. “Eight o’clock,” he said.
“I can’t believe it finally happened. You came back.”
“Of course I came back. Were you doubting me?”
“I talk to you sometimes, when you’re not here,” I said.
“It happens almost every week.”
He coughed into the phone. Now I remember that he sounded terrified. I didn’t think about it then. “Tonight I’m sure that you’ll explain this bizarre piece of news,” he said. “Remember, just the two of us.”
We said our good-byes and I turned off my phone. The bald man was tugging at my sleeve, and I realized that everyone at the table was staring at me. I took a second to remember where I was. This was the biggest card room in Los Angeles. There were probably a hundred poker tables in there, and a thousand players, and nobody ever left except to go outside and smoke, even when the fire alarms were going off.
“Come on, the action is to you,” said the bald man.
I looked down at my cards. I’m sure they weren’t very good, but now I was on this very happy and excited tilt. I bet, and raised, and re-raised, and then bet again. While someone else was scooping up the pot, the bald man pulled my sleeve again. “I shouldn’t tell you this because I’ve won so much money from you,” he said. “But you’re the worst poker player that I’ve ever seen. What are you doing here? Why can’t you lay down a hand?”
“I like it here.”
“No. You’re wasting all your time in here. Get out of here. Just get married and start having babies.”
I knew this was excellent advice, even if I’d forget it instantly, but when I tried to thank him he just made a face like he’d eaten something terrible. “Old man dies during the hand and still hits a straight on the river,” he said, disgusted. “Unbelievable. That should have been my pot. Come on, the action is to you.”
He pulled my sleeve, and again the whole table was staring at me. I looked down at my horrible cards. Alvin always taught me that two seconds was the right amount of time to think about anything. “Any shorter and you’re basically just living like an animal,” he’d say. “Any longer and you’re going to miss something else.” I looked down at my horrible cards.
Just play with them
, I thought.
They’re not so bad.
When I finished losing all my money for that day, I rode the bus home to Marcus’s house. Summer was starting, and so all this hot air was blowing through the bus. I always liked how the air in Los Angeles tasted, even though everyone said it was bad for you. Marcus rented an apartment right over the hill, in the valley. He was twenty-three years old and six foot eight, even taller than I was, and he was finishing college, where he went on a basketball scholarship. Marcus always accomplished everything he made a plan for, and he was full of important and practical advice.
Marcus always kept his apartment incredibly cold, to keep his metabolism operating more efficiently. The whole place was covered in thick carpet, and the vacuum cleaner lines were always fresh. You had to be careful in there because he had mousetraps all over the place. I found him in the kitchen, revving the blender and yelling at the business news on television. As soon as I walked in, he turned everything off and asked me, “Is Alvin coming into town?”
That was a pretty amazing thing for him to ask, because I knew Alvin would never have called him. But Marcus always seemed to know his whole life before it happened to him. Everything he did had been planned out for years. I put my book bag down. “Hi Marcus.”
“Don’t ignore me. Did he finally call you on that pathetic cell phone of yours?”
I was hoping that he’d forget about this subject and start talking about something else, but he just sat there waiting for me to answer while he poured himself a big yellow foamy glass from the blender. Marcus was always drinking something disgusting to make himself jump higher.
“Should I really tell you?”
“Alvin called my cell phone. We talked for a while, and then we hung up.”
“Did he say he was coming to town?”
“I think so.”
“Are you going to see him?”
“We’re having dinner in an hour.”
“Just the two of you?”
“I think so.”
“Is he planning to stop by?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know, or you don’t think so?”
“I don’t think he’s planning to stop by.”
“Did he ask how I was doing?”
Marcus nodded slowly and took an angry drink of foam. I can remember this one time, when we were all a bunch of little kids, when he had tried to throw Alvin out a window, and another time when Alvin had tried to kill Marcus with some poison he’d made. They’d hated each other for so long that I couldn’t even remember why.
“He probably knows I wouldn’t see him anyway,” said Marcus. “Not until he gives me about fifteen different apologies. For dumping you here, for example, just so he can chase some strange girl halfway across the country. Do you think I planned on housing my dropout younger brother while I took advantage of my college years? Do you think it was part of the plan that I made?”
“It probably wasn’t.”
I had no idea what plan Marcus had made, even though he told it to me all the time.
“Alvin is bad for you,” he said. “Why can’t you keep this in your head? You’re like a dog who bangs his head into the same mirror every morning.”
“I know, Marcus.”
“Alvin is bad for me.”
“Do I have to tattoo it on your chest, or can you keep that in your head for one night?”
“Of course I can.”
Marcus drank again until the outside of his mouth was totally covered in yellow foam. “Because he’ll try to uproot you again. I’m guessing his life has just fallen apart. Do you want a cookie, Joe?”
I nodded. Marcus keeps my cookies in the freezer, because he knows I like them all frozen and crunchy. He locks the freezer door so I won’t eat them all. He took one out and held it up in front of me.
“First promise you’ll try to resist him.”
I promised. While I ate the cookie, I’m pretty sure Marcus told me everything Alvin was going to say to me that night, and what he would ask me to do, and how exactly to say no to him, a lot of terrific information, but I was pretty focused on the cookie at the time. When I finished, I stood up and picked up my book bag.
“Aren’t you wondering how I guessed he was coming here?” asked Marcus.
“A girl called for Alvin this morning, and when I screened the call, she left a message.”
“What did it say?”
“Do you think I have time to spend all day listening to messages that aren’t even for me? All I heard before I deleted the message was that she was looking for him.”
“You deleted the message?”
“When you see him, please remind Alvin that I’m not his personal secretary and that any messages left here for him will be automatically deleted.”
“Okay. I’ll tell him.”
“Oh, and one more thing. Make it clear that I didn’t want to see him anyway. I wouldn’t have seen him even if he wanted to. Make sure he understands that it was my decision just as much as his.”
While I waited for eight o’clock, I took a shower and repacked my book bag. Then I watched some TV. There was a pretty good movie on about some astronauts trying to save the moon. It looked so fun that I decided to become an astronaut. I probably only remember this because it was the last TV I ever watched in that apartment.
While I was trying to leave the building without seeing him again, Marcus came running out with a basketball under his arm. He had all his gym clothes on, and his high-tops were all laced up. He threw the basketball at my stomach.