“Family emergency,” I explained.
“Right,” she said.
I emerged into the sticky-hot evening to find Ricky smoking on the hood of his battered car. Something about his mud-encrusted boots and the way he let smoke curl from his lips and how the sinking sun lit his green hair reminded me of a punk, redneck James Dean. He was all of those things, a bizarre cross-pollination of subcultures possible only in South Florida.
He saw me and leapt off the hood. “You fired yet?” he shouted across the parking lot.
“Shhhh!” I hissed, running toward him. “They don’t know my plan!”
Ricky punched my shoulder in a manner meant to be encouraging but that nearly snapped my rotator cuff. “Don’t worry, Special Ed. There’s always tomorrow.”
He called me Special Ed because I was in a few gifted classes, which were, technically speaking, part of our school’s special-education curriculum, a subtlety of nomenclature that Ricky found endlessly amusing. That was our friendship: equal parts irritation and cooperation. The cooperation part was an unofficial brains-for-brawn trade agreement we’d worked out in which I helped him not fail English and he helped me not get killed by the roided-out sociopaths who prowled the halls of our school. That he made my parents deeply uncomfortable was merely a bonus. He was, I suppose, my best friend, which is a less pathetic way of saying he was my only friend.
Ricky kicked the Crown Vic’s passenger door, which was how you opened it, and I climbed in. The Vic was amazing, a museum-worthy piece of unintentional folk art. Ricky bought it from the town dump with a jar of quarters—or so he claimed—a pedigree whose odor even the forest of air-freshener trees he’d hung from the mirror couldn’t mask. The seats were armored with duct tape so that errant upholstery springs wouldn’t find their way up your ass. Best of all was the exterior, a rusted moonscape of holes and dents, the result of a plan to earn extra gas money by allowing drunken partygoers to whack the car with a golf club for a buck a swing. The only rule, which had not been rigorously enforced, was that you couldn’t aim at anything made of glass.
The engine rattled to life in a cloud of blue smoke. As we left the parking lot and rolled past strip malls toward Grandpa Portman’s house, I began to worry about what we might find when we got there. Worst-case scenarios included my grandfather running naked in the street, wielding a hunting rifle, foaming at the mouth on the front lawn, or lying in wait with a blunt object in hand. Anything was possible, and that this would be Ricky’s first impression of a man I’d spoken about with reverence made me especially nervous.
The sky was turning the color of a fresh bruise as we pulled into my grandfather’s subdivision, a bewildering labyrinth of interlocking cul-de-sacs known collectively as Circle Village. We stopped at the guard gate to announce ourselves, but the old man in the booth was snoring and the gate was open, as was often the case, so we just drove in. My phone chirped with a text from my dad asking how things were going, and in the short time it took me to respond, Ricky managed to get us completely, stunningly lost. When I said I had no idea where we were, he cursed and pulled a succession of squealing U-turns, spitting arcs of tobacco juice from his window as I scanned the neighborhood for a familiar landmark. It wasn’t easy, even though I’d been to visit my grandfather countless times growing up, because each house looked like the next: squat and boxy with minor variations, trimmed with aluminum siding or dark seventies wood, or fronted by plaster colonnades that seemed almost delusionally aspirational. Street signs, half of which had turned a blank and blistered white from sun exposure, were little help. The only real landmarks were bizarre and colorful lawn ornaments, of which Circle Village was a veritable open-air museum.
Finally I recognized a mailbox held aloft by a metal butler that, despite his straight back and snooty expression, appeared to be crying tears of rust. I shouted at Ricky to turn left; the Vic’s tires screeched and I was flung against the passenger door. The impact must’ve jarred something loose in my brain, because suddenly the directions came rushing back to me. “Right at the flamingo orgy! Left at the multiethnic roof Santas! Straight past the pissing cherubs!”
When we turned at the cherubs, Ricky slowed to a crawl and peered doubtfully down my grandfather’s block. There was not a single porch light on, not a TV glowing behind a window, not a Town Car in a carport. All the neighbors had fled north to escape the punishing summer heat, leaving yard gnomes to drown in lawns gone wild and hurricane shutters shut tight, so that each house looked like a little pastel bomb shelter.
“Last one on the left,” I said. Ricky tapped the accelerator and we sputtered down the street. At the fourth or fifth house, we passed an old man watering his lawn. He was bald as an egg and stood in a bathrobe and slippers, spraying the ankle-high grass. The house was dark and shuttered like the rest. I turned to look and he seemed to stare back—though he couldn’t have, I realized with a small shock, because his eyes were a perfect milky white. That’s strange, I thought. Grandpa Portman never mentioned that one of his neighbors was blind.
The street ended at a wall of scrub pines and Ricky hung a sharp left into my grandfather’s driveway. He cut the engine, got out, and kicked my door open. Our shoes hushed through the dry grass to the porch.
I rang the bell and waited. A dog barked somewhere, a lonely sound in the muggy evening. When there was no answer I banged on the door, thinking maybe the bell had stopped working. Ricky swatted at the gnats that had begun to clothe us.
“Maybe he stepped out,” Ricky said, grinning. “Hot date.”
“Go ahead and laugh,” I said. “He’s got a better shot than we do any night of the week. This place is crawling with eligible widows.” I joked only to calm my nerves. The quiet made me anxious.
I fetched the extra key from its hiding place in the bushes. “Wait here.”
“Hell I am. Why?”
“Because you’re six-five and have green hair and my grandfather doesn’t know you and owns lots of guns.”
Ricky shrugged and stuck another wad of tobacco in his cheek. He went to stretch himself on a lawn chair as I unlocked the front door and stepped inside.
Even in the fading light I could tell the house was a disaster; it looked like it’d been ransacked by thieves. Bookshelves and cabinets had been emptied, the knicknacks and large-print Reader’s Digests that had filled them thrown across the floor. Couch cushions and chairs were overturned. The fridge and freezer doors hung open, their contents melting into sticky puddles on the linoleum.