Monday, January 24, 2011

Peeling potatoes and stealing cable

Hi, I'm Jay Farrell, main character of Jane Lebak's The Boys Upstairs. When Lea asked me to write a weblog entry, my first thought was "Sure! I'd love to do that--it's not like I'm already at the end of my rope running an impoverished parish, a soup kitchen, as well as dealing with permanent nerve damage from my time as a soldier. Oh, and the six homeless kids that have moved into the top floor of the rectory. 

It's not that I mind doing any of that. It's my job. But there's not much time left over for messing around online. Plus, my brother Kevin, who hasn't bothered talking to me for three years, just came by and dropped off three more kids. I was waiting for the day the cops showed up at the door to ask what on earth I thought I was doing by letting the kids sleep in a warm house rather than behind a dumpster. I just didn't expect it to be him.

I tried to make amends with Kevin. He's so angry at me, but he'll never talk about why. I'm not sure he even knows. But he used to be my "partner in crime" growing up, and I miss the way we used to be close.

I need to go peel potatoes for the soup kitchen now, so I'll live you with a three-page excerpt of chapter seven, which takes place right after Kevin and I had a nasty blow-out fight about why he won't talk to me any longer. Enjoy!

Chapter Seven

Good job, Jay.

Yep, that's why he'd gone to seminary and gotten ordained: in order to yell at his brother.  Wonderful that he could preach about loving your enemy and then lose his temper with Kevin.

Jay wished for once that he could still head to a gym to pummel a sandbag and then run on a treadmill until he outdistanced himself.  Instead he sat at a table in the upstairs kitchen, pounded out a Christmas homily, and ignored the telephone when it rang in the parish office.  

Your brother could always push your buttons. Why? Because Jay and Kevin had helped install one another's buttons. It only made sense.

Jay looked at the crucifix and said, "See, you're lucky. You didn't have a younger brother." 

Footsteps above Jay caught his attention. He often heard footsteps in the basement, but here he was at the top floor. Meaning the only place above him was the roof.  

After a moment, he heard them again, along with some of the boys calling to one another.  He went to the window and focused as hard as he could.  Three dark shapes moved about beneath the window, which he slid up to stick his head outside.

"Hey, Father Jay!"

That didn't come from the ground, nor from directly overhead.  Jay looked straight out at the telephone pole at the curb.  "Spider? What are you doing?"

"We're gonna have cable, Father! There's a ton of Christmas specials on this week."

Oh, for the love of little green apples.  His breath frothed out in the frigid air, and he felt the heat getting sucked from the building.  Jay said, "You can't do that."

Spider sounded cheerful.  "Sure I can.  My dad taught me how."

"Terrific.  My dad taught me how to change a tire."

"My dad did that too."

"Spider, get down from there."

Everyone stopped moving.  From above, Nick said, "Why?"

"I'm not having you guys steal cable."

"I bought the cable from my job at the hardware store.  They even gave me the employee discount."

Jay counted to three in his head.  "You know what I'm talking about."

"How can it be stealing? It's not like everyone else isn't going to have it because of this."

"Theft of services.  No."

"I'm not stealing anyone's service either.  I'm doing it myself."

Jay knew it was wrong; in the heat of the moment he couldn't figure out exactly why.  "I'm not debating moral theology while you're twenty feet in the air. Just get the heck down from there and get inside.  All of you."

"Aw, Father!"

Jay pulled his head into the kitchen and slammed the window.  He waited, braced for impact.  Footsteps scrambled over on the roof until they reached the fire-escape, and one of the bedroom windows slid up with a wooden hiss.  Downstairs, the front door opened, and a large number of feet trooped up the stairs.  Shortly five boys (well, four boys and Maria) assembled in the kitchen.

Jay knew better than to expect a warm-up from Nick. "What the hell is your problem?" Nick shouted. "Well? Nobody gives a shit if we're running a line from the street into the house!"

"I care."

"Nobody but you, then!"  Jay could feel Nick's breath, the boy was so close.  "Are you afraid we're all going to hell because we watch a few TV programs without paying a boatload of money to some fat cows in big offices who don't even care if we—"

"Nick, calm down."

"I don't have to calm down! What the hell could anyone possibly care about whether we watch TV or not?"

Jay folded his arms.  "I'm not having this discussion with you screaming."  

"Hey, chill." Spider pushed Nick back a step.  "Get a grip."

"What kind of stupid—"

"Sit down, man."  Spider thrust Nick toward one of the chairs.  "I'm serious.  Sit.  You're making an idiot out of yourself."

"Who does he think he is?"

"He owns the house." Spider upticked his voice so it sounded more like a question than a statement.  "That's who he is.  And unless they have cable piped into the cardboard boxes behind McDonalds, you better remember that."

Nick pulled out the chair.  "Fine.  You go kissing his ass."

Eddie came into the kitchen in response to all the noise.  Jay said, "I'll talk to you about it in a minute, Nick.  But first, Spider, you know I can't have you running an illegal cable line into the rectory."

Spider pointed to Jamie and Maria.  "It's for the kids.  They want to watch the Christmas specials."

"That's extraordinarily generous of you, willing to go to jail for the kids."  

"No one's going to jail over this, man.  You just run the line in and hook it up, and no one cares."  Spider slipped his hands in his pockets.  "The cable guys don't even care.  Geez, it was a cable guy who showed us how to do it in the first place."

Jay folded his arms and regarded Spider.

"You're not going to let us do it?"

Jay raised one eyebrow.

"You suck," Nick said.

"It's the law."  Jay sighed.  "Maybe it doesn't make sense, but stealing is stealing, and you are bunking in a Catholic church for now."

Spider said, "What about the kids?"

"What about them? When did TV become a daily requirement?"

An uncomfortable silence filled the kitchen until Eddie said, "But it's Christmas shows.  Like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer."

"And that movie about Santa Claus coming to Macy's."

"And that other one about the angel getting its wings when the bells ring."

Jay's heart caught, and he averted his gaze.  

What could be more normal than sitting in front of the TV at Christmas watching those silly Rankin and Bass shows? Or any movie with Santa Claus? No, it wasn't a mandatory requirement.  But hadn't they already lost so much just by being homeless and not having families who cared whether they died?

"Are you going to let us?"  said Spider.

"I'll think of something," Jay said, "but you can't hook up stolen cable TV."

"I hate you," Nick said.

"Maybe you've never heard of the invention of the VCR," Jay said, "or the DVD player.  I have.  Someone can loan us the shows, and you can have your TV the right way."  He looked at Spider and thought he could make out the boy's grin.  "Not only will you not be stealing, but then someone else gets to be generous."

Nick stalked away, and the other kids dispersed.  The boys' music went on at concentration-shattering volumes, so Jay gathered his books to head back downstairs.


Pat Dale said...

Very nice, Jane. A real problem for kids and their guardian in a real setting. And lots of personal issues from each of them. Very good writing. cheers,
Pat Dale

Jane Lebak said...

Thank you, Pat!