And on down the societal totem we go.
Despite having been tossed through a window and left for dead on Eva’s lawn, the soldier in me is determined to keep on keeping on. A little after nine o’clock, the bus deposits me on the corner of Main and La Veta. From there it’s a four or five block toddle to Jan’s apartment, which is in a lower-middle-class neighborhood comprised of single-story, well-kept houses sandwiched between a chain of fast food joints and the freeway. Ernie’s always ratting on Jan for being poor, but I’m thinking this actually doesn’t look at all like the crumbling, crime-infested poverty zone Theo had imagined—that is, until I reach the Kounicovas’ apartment complex, with its faded fudge exterior, three-quarters-dead lawn, and high-voltage power lines running directly overhead. The whole place looks like someone dropped a gigantic trailer into a muddy lot, and then it rained and the trailer took root and started growing more trailers over time. At some point, the cable company must have done a hurried splice job, because there’s a low-hanging cable running from the main line to the side of Jan’s building; it’s tied off on the end of an overhanging wood beam like a length of rope for a tire swing. If I was looking at a Highlights “What’s Wrong?” picture, this would totally be the item that doesn’t belong. The building’s owner must get routine death threats from neighboring homeowners furious over their plummeting property values. I mean, this is the physical manifestation of a real estate black hole.
I cross the event horizon, ascend and descend the waterlogged modesty mound in front of the Kounicovas’ door. There’s no doorbell, but as luck would have it, I don’t need one: momentarily, Jan, sporting his usual scruffy tank top and jeans combo, steps out, his bulging arms hefting a pair of swollen garbage bags. It looks like I’ve caught him in the middle of his chores.
“Hey!” I yell, dodging out of the way when he almost steps on me. “Watch where you’re going!”
Jan stops, looks left, right, up, and, finally, down.
I glare at him, continuing: “That’s right! I’ve been riding the bus all day and I have grass stains on my penis! I don’t need a split seam to add to the list, thank you very much!”
Jan raises an eyebrow; something in one of his garbage bags goes glop! “You’re that doll Theo brings with him to school, aren’t you?”
“You’ve heard of me?”
Jan shrugs. “Not many twelve-year-olds carry dolls with them wherever they go. Well, unless they’re girls. Possibly.”
Huh. Ernie was delirious with fever; Eva’s into dolls…but Jan, well, it seems he can see me just because. I guess I always assumed he doesn’t notice anything unless it’s female and made of rock hard muscle. Maybe it’s his foreign blood—maybe Czechs just see things differently.
“So…you’re not going to throw a disbelief tantrum?” I ask.
“I don’t think so.” Jan starts walking again, around the corner of the building and down a narrow alley, toward the dumpster.
“I mean, if UFOs are real,” he continues, “then I guess talking dolls can be real, too.”
“You believe in UFOs?”
“Of course not.”
“Funny,” Jan says, chuckling. “That’s like a ghost saying he doesn’t believe in other ghosts.” He reaches the dumpster, chucks the garbage bags inside, first one, then the other.
“Dude, just so you know,” I say, “Theo’s not effeminate or anything.”
“He’s not a what?”
“Never mind. It doesn’t matter. What’s important now is that you wash your hands—preferably with some sort of antibacterial soap—and come with me.”
“Come with you where?”
“Ernie’s dying. Eva’s gone all girlie. Theo wants to pound pelvises with her, but, ironically, he’s being too much of a dick.”
Jan looks horrified—about Ernie’s impending death, I think, and not the pounding pelvises thing. “Ernie’s dying?”
“Well, maybe not dying,” I reply. “But he’s in some kind of anti-spunk-induced funk—possibly caused by food and porn withdrawal. I tried talking to him, but he won’t listen to a doll. He needs a good friend, someone who can reach him.”
“Er, wouldn’t that be Theo, then?”
“In another age, on another world.”
“But I thought between the four of us, Theo and Ernie were the closest.”
I roll my eyes. “Yes and meh. The two of them are like brothers: stubborn, pig-headed, impossible to work with. They need some kind of intervention. You.”
Jan sighs, glances down the alleyway. “I don’t know how helpful I can be. Ever since my parents became addicted to SuperMegaNet—”
“Your parents are SuperMegaAddicts?”
“—I’ve had my hands full. I like the guys—and Eva—I really do. But times are thick. I have to manage my priorities. I have enough time for school, homework, cooking, cleaning, and a few reps with my weight set before bedtime. But that’s it.” He starts back toward his parents’ apartment. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to steal twenty dollars from my mom’s purse so that I can buy groceries for the week.”
I chase him down, tugging on an unintentional tear in his jeans. “You’re turning your back on your friends!”
Jan spreads his arms wide. “What am I supposed to do? Drop everything? Forget about my family and run off with you?”
“Your family forgot about you.”
Jan slows, bites his lip. “I know. But two lefts don’t make a right.”
“I think you mean ‘two wrongs don’t make a right.’ And before, when you mentioned that times were ‘thick’—”
“Můj bože, you sound like Theo now.”
I’m about to point out that duh, I’m part of Theo’s conscience and so, naturally, I share many of his annoying tendencies when a rumbling and rattling knocks me off my feet. For a brief instant I’m positive the Big One has finally hit southern California, and is now in the process of shuffling us sun-loving, latte-drinking, 24 Hour Fitness members into the Pacific once and for all. But then I spot the source of the mini-quake: a fleet of tow-trucks has pulled up in front of Jan’s apartment, bringing with it several dozen city public service goons wielding an assortment of hooks, chains, pulleys, and jacks—
—which they start fastening to the Kounicovas’ building.
I clear my throat (yes, figuratively). “Jan?”
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say those city workers are about to tow your apartment.”
“Naw, they’re just…that’s not…” He trails off, watching in bewilderment as several helmeted workers start jacking up the side of the building—at which point he sprints ahead of me, waving his arms in the air to get the city goons’ attention. “Pro Krista pána! What are you doing? Stop!”
The head goon glances over his shoulder. “Eh?”
“You can’t tow a building!” Jan shouts.
“We’re city public service,” the goon replies. “We can do whatever we want. Besides, you’re clearly parked in a red zone.” He points at the curb.
“But this is where I live!”
“I’m sure it’s where a lot of people live. Regardless, we have our instructions.”
Reaching where Jan and the goon are arguing, I bellow, “‘Instructions?’ Who in the world gives instructions to tow away an entire apartment building?”
The goon looks down at me, seeing me, not seeing me, mouthing “what the fuck?” before addressing Jan once again: “Look, it’s nothing personal. We’re just doing our job.”
“But my parents are still inside!” Jan says.
The goon shrugs, scribbles something on his clipboard, hands Jan a piece of paper. “Sorry, kid. If you want ’em, you’ll have to come down to the impound lot to get ’em.” Turning back to his cohorts: “All right, boys! Take it away!”
The trucks hoist their hooks, rev their engines, and start down the street, unearthing Jan’s building from its foundation and dragging it behind. Across the way, several neighbors have stepped outside to witness the spectacle, and are standing with mouths agape, cell phones extended, camera lenses twinkling.
Satisfied with the job, the head goon nods at Jan, gives me another dose of WTF, and climbs into his car. He speeds away, leaving us to literally bite his dust.
“I don’t believe it,” Jan mutters, watching him go.
Neither do I.
Jan looks down at the paper. “It’s the address for the impound lot.”
I mean…what just happened?
“My apartment building had been impounded.”
This is unreal.
“Aren’t you going to say something?”
Can plush dolls hallucinate? “I think I believe in UFOs.”
I shrug. “If someone’s entire apartment building can be towed for being parked in a red zone, then I’m convinced little green men from Epsilon Eridani can and do visit excitable farmers in the deep south. But there is a silver lining here.”
“What’s that?” Jan asks, unenthusiastic.
I smile up at him. “I know the perfect place for you to crash tonight.”