Monday, August 8, 2016

The Limits of Reason

“I want you to drive out to Rodney Thompson’s place and give him this envelope and tell him it’s from me,” Standart said and looked intensely into the boy’s grey eyes as if he was passing him a second more important message. Standart was in his mid-fifties, medium height, a paunch and looked slightly ridiculous standing on the sheltered driveway of his old two-story house in his sky-blue terrycloth bathrobe and pink shower flip-flops.

Richard was 20 years old but had a young face with only a trace of facial hair. He lowered his eyebrows as if to shade his mind from whatever transmission Standart was trying to push into it. He reached out with his left hand to take the bulky 9 x 12 inch yellow-brown envelope. He’d seen enough movies to wonder what was in it. He hoped it wasn’t drugs, but coming from Butch Standart, it might be anything.

“I don’t want you fucking around with this. Do you understand me?” Standart held onto his end of the package as Richard attempted to accept it. There was a brief tug-of-war during which Standart seemed to be waiting for some kind of acknowledgment of the hidden message from Richard.

Richard struggled to come up with what he was expected to understand about this. He kept looking directly at Standart, afraid to look away as long as Standart was looking at him. At this distance, he could see the whitish circles that surrounded the brown irises of his eyes and the way his nose was covered by big clogged pores and the strange look of the grey roots at the base of his jet-black receding hair. He tried very hard not to look at or think about the deep puckered scars around his mouth and cheeks. Standart’s breath smelled like bad teeth and coffee.

Richard decided the best thing was to repeat the instructions out loud. Maybe the secret meaning would reveal itself.

“You want me - to take this envelope - to Rodney Thompson’s house - and give it to him,” Richard said pausing between phrases and nodding his head as he said it. He’d heard someone talk this way in a movie, he couldn’t remember which one, but it sounded really good to him and he and his brother had practiced like that. But the message didn’t sound any different when he said it.

“And?” Standart said, pulling his eyebrows up and letting his mouth drop open showing his yellow lower teeth.

Richard felt a momentary panic. What had he missed? Why was this so hard? Then he remembered. “You don’t want me fucking around with this!” Whatever that meant?

“Good boy,” Standart said letting go of the package. Richard smiled like he’d won a prize. The package was heavier than it looked. It was a little over an inch thick and felt a bit like a phone book in weight. It probably wasn’t a phonebook.

“Now you go take care of this and then come back here and tell me what Thompson says, OK?” Butch Standart said raising his left eyebrow. He turned and a started to walk back into his house but then stopped and turned back around to look at Richard.

“Oh, and Richard?” Standart said, holding up a hand.

Richard, who hadn’t moved an inch, looked directly at Standart and raised his brow.

“Don’t be rude, but I don’t want you to take any shit off him. You understand?” Butch held his head at a slight incline toward Richard.

“You’re representing me, Butch Standart. I want to hear if he starts actin’ like King Shit in front of his guys. I mean, you know, within reason.” Standart finished quickly.

Richard nodded as if he understood, but this last statement just made his head spin. “Within reason?” What did that mean? “Within reason!” He decided that all this might become clear when he saw it. But it worried him when he’d heard Butch say in front of his guys. What guys? Was Thompson not going to be alone? There were going to be others? Were these guys dangerous?

“Mr, Standart?”


“Should I be worried? I mean, you know. I’m not, like – Is it safe? This thing I’m doing?” Richard asked hoping that Standart would yell at him for asking.

But Butch laughed out loud. As if the thought hadn’t occurred to him before.

“Well it’s as safe as most things can be, given the circumstances.”

“Nobody really knows what anybody else will do, you know? It’s a great mystery of life.” He laughed again.

“No, boy. You’ll be OK. Don’t worry about that. But you won’t be safe from me if you don’t do as I say or I catch you fucking around with this little assignment. You understand me?”

“Yes, Mr. Standart. I understand.” Richard said, and he felt that he did.

“Call me Butch, will ya? I don’t know if I like this Mr. Standart shit.”

“Yes, Mr. – Yes, Butch.”

“Good boy. Now get a move on.” Standart turned once again and walked back towards the back door of his house, his flip-flops flipping and flopping.

Richard got into his 10-year-old pickup truck and drove off. As he pulled out onto the road he looked down at the package next to him. How much money would fit in a package that size? If it was money, it was a lot. More than he’d ever seen before. It probably wasn’t money. Still, what if it was?


Richard had done a few things for Butch Standart once in a while ever since Richards’s friend, Justin had hooked him up with Butch the previous fall. Justin had been a kind of gopher for Standart for a couple years, even in high school and he always told big stories about stuff that he’d done for Butch. No one believed everything Justin said. He’d always been a liar. That was one of his endearing traits. Justin would lie about shit that didn’t even matter, weird, obvious lies. You just had to laugh.

Anyway, Justin had been arrested during a midnight burglary of an electronic store in which he’d jimmied a lock, bypassed a cheap internet-based alarm system, then tipped a big shelf of boxes over onto himself, knocking himself unconscious and pinning him to the floor. It almost killed him. He’d made a deal with the prosecutor to go into the army instead of jail. He tried to join the Marines, but he had too many tattoos on his neck, the Marines had more standards than the army.

Richard had sort of taken over for Justin while he served his country. Butch Standart was a local “businessman” with a small office and many different projects as far as Richard could tell. For instance, the first job Richard had done for him was pressure-washing an old warehouse on the edge of town. Butch had leased this warehouse that had been sitting empty for years for another project of some kind and it needed to be cleaned out. So he’d sent a crew out there, including Richard to haul away all the crap that had accumulated in it from squatters and failed businesses and take it out in the country and dump it into a gully, then to pressure wash the inside. It was a big place and it was like pressure washing a cave, the mud just poured down on Richard and the other guys for three days in a row. But they got it pretty clean by the end, and they’d each gotten $500 for the job. Each! Richard didn’t mind eating a little mud and Starling shit for that kind of money.

If anybody in the crews that Butch hired knew why they did things, they didn’t say and it didn’t take long for Richard to learn not to ask. At first, the jobs from Butch were only occasional, so Richard had to keep hustling other work to help pay the bills at home. But over the past month, Butch had thrown something to him each week that had kept him busy. Richard liked not having to scrounge for chump jobs. He lived with his mom and little brother, and they liked having regular money too.

Richard drove past the edge of the suburb of St. Louis where they lived and continued out for a few miles into the country. He looked out at the rows of crops and shook his head. How did the countryside get to be so close to the city? It was really something. One minute he’d been driving on regular streets and a few minutes later, he was on a gravel road with white dust trailing behind him in the rearview. Weird!

He enjoyed feeling the steering get loose as the truck drifted a little sideways on the rough gravel road. There were green fields on both sides of the narrow road. It was like some old movies he’d seen. He’d been to Thompson’s place a few times before, always with Butch or a crew, never alone. Earlier this summer he’d come along with Butch in the middle of the week and stood outside around the cars with two other guys while Butch went into the old farmhouse to talk business with Thompson. It was alright but kind of weird, there were other guys in T-shirts sitting around on Thompson’s back steps watching him and the crew. At first, he thought they must be Thompson’s relatives, but another guy in Butch’s crew named Ontario told him that they were like Thompson’s workers or something. Meaning they were his gang guys. Richard filed that little fact away and didn’t look at them anymore.

After crossing an old bridge in the middle of nowhere he slowed down and took the next left onto a long, overgrown narrow road that was Thompson’s driveway. This time in the summer, the weeds grew so much that they brushed against both sides of his pickup as he drove down the drive. He followed the little road until he suddenly came out of the dust-covered weeds and entered a big open area with the old farmhouse and a couple outbuildings on the edges. The space had new white rock covering it. It looked nice.

There were four cars and trucks parked in the open area near the house and as he slowed down to pull closer to the house, he saw a man in a black hoodie step out of the little pole barn to his left while another man came out the back door of the house and someone at a first floor window pulled the window blind closed.

Richard didn’t know what any of this meant but he’d begun to worry as he pulled up near where the other cars were and shut off his engine. He’d be glad when this was over.

He sat in the truck for a moment and took a deep breath and then opened the door and climbed out taking the stuffed envelope with him. Richard looked around as he walked to the back of the truck and stopped. He decided it would be a good idea to let these guys get a good look at him and then move slowly.

The two guys he’d seen when he drove up walked slowly toward him and his nervousness grew with every step they took. He tried to stay calm but he felt at a disadvantage. Why were they walking so slowly? Richard felt exposed as he saw that both of them were staring at his face as they moved toward him. They were both bigger than him and they both had little smiles on their faces. They were enjoying this.

Richard was tempted to look at the ground, but if he did that now it would be like lying down and rolling over, so he just stared back at them and tried to think of something else.

Both men kept walking until they were only two feet away from him and just before Richard broke and ran for the driver’s door of the truck, they both stopped.

He’d expected Thompson to come out of the house at some point but it was just him and these two.

“You got something for us?” The shorter of the two men, the one in the hoodie, said and glanced down at the envelope Richard was holding in his hand against his side.

He tried to think of what to do. What had Butch said? He’d said, don’t be rude. OK.

“I have something for Mr. Thompson.” He said without looking directly at the short one.

“We’ll take it,” the short guy instantly replied.

More than anything, Richard wanted to shove the package into the little fucker’s hands and jump back into the truck, but he remembered then that Butch had said that he was representing Butch in this deal. Richard tried to think of what Butch would say now. He had to say something and try not to be rude.

“Are you Mr. Thompson?” Richard said in his best Butch-like voice and he saw the short one’s eyebrows briefly pull together towards the center of his brow. Richard thought to himself, I think he just blinked.

“Mr. Thompson sent us to take the package.” This time, it was the bigger one speaking. Richard was surprised that the bigger one’s voice had a higher pitch than the little one. He also noticed that the tall streak of shit had said “take.”

Richard’s mouth was dry as dust but he knew he would look like Alfalfa on the Little Rascals if he tried to swallow right now. He felt as though he was balanced on an edge and that the next few moments would determine his future, and maybe whether he had one. He decided that it would be dangerous to try to back out, so he thought about what Butch had told him. Butch had said that nobody really knew what somebody else would do. It was a mystery, he said. That must be true for these guys too. They didn’t know what Richard would do. Richard was kind of a mystery.

He waited for a count of five so he wouldn’t look anxious, then he cocked his head slowly to the right and looked up at the tall guy and said very slowly, separated the phrases like he and his brother had practiced from the movies, “Mr. Thompson - sent you - to take the package, from me?” and then he waited, looking at the tall guy and thinking about how high this guy’s voice was. It was kind of like a game of tennis that he’d seen in a movie.

The tall guy tried to set his own face to look meaner, but it was so obvious, that it had the opposite effect. The tall guy looked over at the short guy with a sort of hurt look. It was enough for Richard.

“I’m leaving now to call Butch,” he paused to let it sink in that he used Butch’s first name, “and tell him - that Mr. Thompson - wasn’t available - to receive the package. That Mr. Thompson - had better things to do - than to get the package - that Butch sent him.” Richard slowly separated the phrases, he was surprised how well that worked.

Richard stopped and looked at each of the two men, one at a time. “I’ll tell Butch - you two send your regards. Have a nice day.” Richard thought to himself, you can’t be less rude than that. He turned around fully expecting to feel a blow to the back of his head from a hammer or a bullet but nothing happened as he moved back toward driver’s side door.

“Wait!” the little guy said and he heard the back screen door slap shut on the farmhouse, but he forced himself not to turn or look. Richard just stopped where he stood.

“Here comes Mr. Thompson now.” It was the little guy again. He said like it was a surprise to him.

As Richard heard the quick footsteps on the loose rock of the parking area, he turned around and walked briskly past the back of the truck forcing the two men to step out of his way to avoid colliding with him. Richard fixed a smile onto his face and walk directly at the approaching Thompson and then shifted the package to his left and held out his right hand. Thompson looked puzzled but he reached out and Richard shook hands and said, “Mr. Thompson, Butch asked me to give you this envelope,” and handed the package over to him. Thompson took it and still looking confused, said, “Thank you.”

“Do you need to check it?” Richard said, taking a step back, turning around as if to give him privacy. As he did this, Richard looking directly at the two men standing near the back of his truck and kept a neutral look on his face. They looked away from him at the nothing to their sides.

“No, no, no. Please tell Butch that I trust him completely and I’m sure it’s all there.” Richard turned back around to face Thompson and put the smile back on this face.

“Butch will be pleased to hear that. I let him know that we were lucky to find you home,” Richard said keeping the smile on his face.

“Tell Butch, I’m sorry about the mixup. My fault. I got my days wrong.”

Richard changed his smile to an earnest look he’d seen Robert DeNiro do in a movie, eyebrows pushed way down and lips pursed, and nodding his head, he said, “I will, Mr. Thompson. It could happen to anyone.”

“And please, call me Rod. Uh, uh --,” Thompson stopped with his mouth agape.

“Richard. Thank you, Rod. Have a nice day.” Richard got back into the truck, started it and backed up, turning the wheel to point it towards the exit. He then put it into forward gear and drove slowly out of the parking area without turning to look back. As he approached the outlet and the weed-choked driveway, he looked into the rearview and saw the angry Thompson walk quickly over and slap the taller guy across the face while the shorter guy with the hoodie backed away his hands held up defensively.

Richard drove up the little road with the weeds brushing along both sides of his truck, his hands began shaking and he thought to himself, “That was within reason.”


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