Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lame New World - Part 3

This is part three of our continuing story. Please check back next week for more.

William was nervous as he rolled his father’s wheelchair in through the rear door of the nearest Toys R Us. He knew they shouldn’t be there, but was excited at the same time.

I’m only twelve, he told himself. There’s no way anybody is going to be mad at me if we get caught.

William found himself thinking about how nervous he had been about getting reacquainted with his father. He thought there would be awkward moments and long silences. Instead, somehow, he had formed an immediate bond with the man he found himself pushing around in the wheelchair. The father who had disappeared for six years returned and had suddenly and unexpectedly become his best friend and hero.

It’s going to be a long walk to Kinko’s, John Huxley thought. We need to find our man fast.

“Where to now, dad?” William asked his father as they stood in the back room of the store. Aisle after aisle of boxed toys sat on their shelves around them.

“We need to find someone back here,” John answered. “First contact must be made here, not out in the main part of the store. Remember, you’re a confused kid who wants only one thing and your overbearing father is forcing you to do this.”

“Got it.”

William began pushing his father past the shelves as John called out, “Hello? Can anyone who works here help me?”

“Sir, how did you get back here?” asked a young man in a bright red polo shirt. John figured he couldn’t have been more than nineteen years old based on the acne and the retainer.

“I’m so sorry,” John said and glanced at William who started breathing heavily as if he’d just run several miles. “I made my son push me all the way here because he wants to know more about Lego. We were hoping to speak to your…um…”

“Assembly technician,” William gasped right on cue.

Just like we practiced, thought John. “Right. Assembly technician. My son is fascinated with Lego bricks you see and he was hoping to find out more about becoming one in a few years.”

The young man sighed an annoyed sigh. “Carl is on lunch right now, sir,” he said. “If you’d like to wait in the main part of the store, I could…”

The back door opened loudly from behind them and in strolled a man closer to John’s age, still eating half of a roast beef sandwich. He took his jacket off and dropped it on the chair near the door. He didn’t look at John, William or the other man.

“There’s Carl now. Carl, come over here, please!” called the teenager.

Carl stopped in his tracks and looked at the younger man. He continued chewing. At this point, John noticed the name tag on the acne faced man read MANAGER and underneath it PAUL. As Carl approached in silence, John noticed that his name tag simply read CARL.

Perfect, thought John.

“Carl, this gentleman and his son want to know more about becoming a Lego assembly technician.” It seemed as if speaking the last three words caused Paul pain. “Could you spend a few moments with them?”

Carl stared a hole in Paul’s forehead and took another bite of his sandwich before slurring through lunchmeat, “Sure.”

“Thank you so very much,” John gushed. “You have no idea how much this means to me. William, tell the nice men thank you.”

“Thank you,” wheezed William as John thought to himself the boy might be laying it on a little thick.

“Look, mister, I’ll let Carl talk to you for a few minutes, but you’re going to have to do it outside,” Paul said. Then he turned his attention back to Carl and said, “then he’s going to have to get back to work.”

“I completely understand, sir. Thank you ever so much,” John said and began to think he was laying it on a bit thick as well.

“Carl,” Paul said sternly, obviously reminding the man who was his senior that he was his superior. “Ten minutes. Then back to work.”

Carl shoved the final bite of his sandwich into his mouth, licked off his thumb and index finger and gave his boss the universal OK sign.

Paul looked at them all with disdain before turning to go. John smiled his best cheesy smile as William pushed him toward the back door with Carl in tow. Once outside, Carl closed the door behind them and turned to ask what they wanted to know. Before he could say a word, John spoke up.

“What year did you graduate high school?” he asked Carl.

“Ninety-Five,” he answered instinctively.

“Ninety-Three,” said John. “Saint Simon. How about you?”

“Kensington East.”

“Good school. Play any sports?” John fired back, not letting Carl think and pointed at the door which William instantly went and leaned up against.

“No,” Carl said and looked over at William, confused. “You?”

“We’re not here to talk about me. My son and I are here to help you.”

“Help me?” Carl asked. He was starting to look frightened.

John produced a one hundred dollar bill from his pocket and held it out to Carl. As Carl reached forward slowly to take it, John snatched it away.

“Do you even know why I’m giving that to you?” John asked.

“To help me?”

“Sure, right, to help you. But you have to help me first.”

Carl shook his head. “Mister, I…”

“Don’t Mister me. I’m only two years older than you. How much older are you than Paul back there?”

Carl sighed. “I think like thirteen years.”

“He doesn’t call you mister or sir does he?”

Carl narrowed his eyes at John and said simply, “No.”

“Now you and I remember what Lego bricks used to be like. We loved putting them together ourselves. That’s probably why you took this job and why you continue to do it despite having to take orders from some kid you’d have to buy liquor for. Am I right?”

Carl folded his arms in front of his chest and let them rest on his oversized belly. “I can’t give you the unassembled sets. They track them and everything. There’s no way I could get them out of here without logging in that they’ve been built. Should a single piece cause problems, I’d be out of a job. A job I do like, thank you very much. You’re not the first guy to try this and the answer is no.” Carl reached for the door and William continued to stand in front of it.

William felt himself tense his muscles instinctively. His plan was to keep Carl from going back inside at any cost. His father had told him they weren’t going to take no for an answer today and William was determined not to disappoint.

“I understand,” said John. “You can assemble the sets. I just want the manuals. Just copies, in fact.”

Carl stopped and looked at John suspiciously. “What good is that? How are you going to get unassembled sets?”

“None of your concern,” John answered. “I just want to borrow your manuals for an hour to make copies and return them back here to you without anyone knowing. What’s the harm in that?”

Carl played along. “I suppose a manual’s not dangerous without any pieces. Just want to see how they used to be built, right?”

“Exactly,” John smiled.

Carl looked around and then asked quietly, “How many manuals do you want for that hundred?”

“I want only one this time,” John said. “That one.”

John pointed at his son and Carl turned to look. William was holding up the cut out picture from the front of the box the yellow jet had come in. Carl found himself wondering where the kid had been keeping that piece of cardboard and how he had produced it so quickly, but his attention went back to the hundred that John still held in his hand.

“I’m paying you extra for good faith this time,” John continued. “It’s a little extra tip for helping out. The next time we come by, we can agree on a set price per manual. You’ll know which manual we’ll want because we’ll buy that set. Then we can meet at a location of your choosing and exchange cash for manual each time. Agreed?”

John held out the bill. Carl reached forward to take it slowly as if he expected John to pull it away again. After placing his fingers on it, he took it from John’s hand, shoved it quickly into the pocket of his overstretched khakis and said, “Agreed. I’ll be right back.”

And that was how John Huxley and his son William began their new hobby and how Carl Poglowski started to make side income.

John and William assembled the jet that same night and again the next night and again the night after that. They did this for a week straight. Every Wednesday, they went to the same Toys R Us and bought a new set. And every Wednesday, they met Carl at the rear of the store where they were handed the corresponding manual.

This went on for several weeks. The only change in this routine came when Carl decided it was too risky to keep letting John and William leave with the manuals. For a slightly higher fee, mostly to cover the costs, Carl explained, he could make color copies of the manuals for them.

John agreed that the trips to Kinko’s were too risky. Plus, he respected Carl for trying to streamline the process. If it put a few extra bucks in Carl’s pocket at the same time, he was willing to accept that.

So, once a week, John and William would have a new Lego set. Upon returning home each Wednesday, that set would soak overnight in a sealed bucket of acetone nail polish remover and Mountain Dew. Then it would be broken down and assembled for six consecutive nights until the next new set was acquired.

John and his son spent the days looking over the new Lego sets to come out. They planned which set would come next. Wednesdays couldn’t come often enough.

But one day, something happened. It was an accident. Completely unexpected. It placed the whole Huxley operation in jeopardy.

William’s friend, Greg Aldous, had been over to the house to play. When his father, Patrick, had arrived to pick Greg up, he and John struck up a conversation. They spoke frankly of how much things had changed over the last several years. John described what it was like to lose so much time. He got the distinct impression that Patrick felt the same way he did about recent safety regulations when he sighed and said, “I suppose we just have to accept that things will never be quite the same.”

“Amen,” said John.

The two men then heard William’s voice from behind the closed door of his bedroom where he and Greg were still at. “Dad!” William called. “Can you come in here?”

John rolled over to the bedroom door. William peeked his head out as he cracked the door open. “Sorry, Mr. Aldous, but I just wanted my dad to come in,” William said.

In hindsight, John knew he should have given what he did next more thought. He realized that his excitement over the normal conversation he had just had with a fellow adult and father left him with his guard down. Had John not been worried about being polite to Patrick Aldous, he wouldn’t have pushed the door open the rest of the way and told William, “It’s fine, just open the…” He also would have probably finished his sentence without being frozen in place by what he saw.

There, on the floor of William’s bedroom, lay the yellow jet, the subject of their first experiment, in pieces. William and Greg stood on either side of it, their eyes like saucers. And when John turned to look at Patrick, he discovered his eyes looked just as wide.

“Oh God,” John moaned as his mind scrambled to find words. “We talked about this,” he scolded William and then turned to Patrick. “That was a set we had built together before my, you know…accident. When the new regulations were passed, he hid it from his mother and just showed it to me recently. She still doesn’t even know he has it.”

Patrick nodded empathetically. “I understand,” he said. “But you boys know you’re not supposed to play with these anymore, right?”

“Yes, dad,” and, “Yes Mr. Aldous,” Greg and William said in unison.

“I don’t see any problem with this one little set,” Patrick said to John. “It’s not like anybody got hurt, and Lord knows we survived somehow.”

“Thank you,” John said sincerely.

“Now, Greg, come on, your mother has dinner waiting at home.”

Greg put his shoes on, said his thanks and went to the front door.

“You go wait by the car a second,” his father told him and then said, “It was nice talking with you, John.” Patrick then looked toward his car at Greg and quickly leaned in close to John before he could respond. “I want in,” he said.

John’s heart stopped. “I’m sorry?”

“We both know that Lego set was just released within the last year. There’s no way you and Billy built that together prior to your accident.”

John stared at him, motionless.

“I think all these safety regulations are bullshit. Our kids should be allowed to play with toys that they want to pay with. So, what I’m saying to you is: I…want…in.”

John Huxley swallowed and hoped that Patrick Aldous would prove to be as trustworthy as his first impression led him to believe.

To be continued...

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