A few years ago I took a comic book idea I’d developed with illustrator-extraordinaire Nathan Fox, ate it like a pure and good strawberry, and yielded upon the world (i.e. no one, really) a brand-spanking new and horrid novel. Nathan still bugs me that he wants to read it. But I’d rather he read my high school diary.
You see, it’s a Nanowrimo novel. Nanowrimo is a project that asks writers to fill the blank page with something resembling words throughout the month of November. If even 10% of the books written were as bad as mine then I assure you that the Doomsday Clock, out of spite, deducted a minute from our collective lives. In fact, with every Nanowrimo book written an angel loses its wings. That’s what I heard, at least. So I signed up.
I called it Repo! With an exclamation point. Because it’s not just Repo. It’s Repo! It ended up as a month’s worth of turned out excrement, with chunks of brilliance distributed unevenly throughout (for those who bother to dig for it — not advisable).
But the premise is cool. An Iraq War vet comes home to find that the country he fought for is in the middle of an orgy of buying crap. The lack of priorities slaps him on the back of the head like a condescending grandparent. It just so happens that the vet comes from a family of repo men. And he’s the best repo of all of them. He ran to the army to escape his asshole dad but now it’s time to rejoin the family business!
A little bit Die Hard, a little bit James Bond a little bit People vs Larry Flynt; it was a blast to write. And a hangover to read.
For this year’s Nanowrimo I’m considering a second draft. I’m not sure I have the stomach to lift the pile from the hole in the ground and feel for the good stuff with my nice, clean fingertips. We’ll see.
To begin, whiskey please!
Oh yeah, here’s the first chapter. For posterity. And for Nathan! Enjoy buddy. Or don’t. Either way, this is all you’ll ever see — of the first draft…
You can read the chapter in the widget below, or you can read it on the web page underneath.
Lots of friends die on you, but not many die together in front of you, arguing as if it would come to anything. There are lots of ways to measure a life, but friendship is the one metric that always makes sense. To Jack Manhattan, a kid from Manhattan, Kansas who hated his father so much he went to Iraq, well, friends meant a whole mess more than anything else.
Actually, Henry and Charlie were just about everything to him.
…had the hell beaten out of him regularly by a mother who also kicked his dad’s ass every alternating Tuesday. It was a tradition around the house. He’d come home from work, get out his beer, and just wait for the broomstick on the back of his head. He didn’t even fight it after 9 years. Actually he quit fighting once Charlie was born. Better to teach the kid how to behave around momma when it was his turn. Charlie was on an every-other-day routine through 16 years.
When he was 12, he met Jack at locker 73 in Manhattan High, on Spencer Hill overlooking nothing.
“Fuck you looking at?” Jack asked.
“Yer Charlie Cook, huh?”
“You know who I am?”
“Everyone knows who you are.”
Jack had the most famous father in town. Swede Manhattan, of the Manhattan clan, from which the town of Manhattan got its name and its soul, much to the citizens’ distress. Swede owned the local repo business. He’d repo’d from just about everyone in town by the time he was 21. That meant two things. One, everyone hated him. Two, he had everyone’s number – i.e. he owned them – barrette to wedding rock. Being the son of Swede in high school meant you didn’t have any friends, except the ones whose parent’s owed Swede much more than money.
“You almost died right?”
“ I heard yer momma almost killed you last year.”
“So she did almost kill you.”
“No. She did kill me.”
From that moment onward, Jack was on Charlie crack. Jack didn’t have much, so when he got something he could call his own, he held on. Having a friend who died, or at least thought he had died, was behind door number one, two and three for Jack. Dour, dark Jack with a fascination with death borne from his birth. But we’ll get to that later.
“You want to see fucking?”
So, over Hustler Oct 1987, a friendship started that only a war could end.
…came along the following month. Jack always thought it was fate that he met the only two friends he’d ever have in the same season. What else could it be? It wasn’t his charming personality, because he didn’t fucking have one, as his father reminded him every time he hinted he might not want to carry on the family business. No it was fate. Made doubly so, because it was Poppa Manhattan himself who brought them together.
Swede didn’t do his own jobs anymore, by the time Jack was 4. He’d choose from his plethora of flunkies and junkies and drunkards and send them out to dirty his hands by proxy. Jack watched the selection process every time. It was the best perspective on this whole humanity thing that he strove to understand, lest he go mad by the time he hit puberty. He’d heard the screams of anguish and the pleas for mercy coming from pop’s office for years before he decided to sneak a peek. To this day, he’s not sure why this plea for mercy is the one that made him want to go see the victim.
“Please Mr. Manhattan! Please don’t make me do this! It’s my own son, Mr. Manhattan!”
“Mumble, mumble, fuckin mumble cry.” (Jack could never hear his father when he was right in front of him, much less when he was behind a bullet-proof wall).
“How about I promise to pay back the whole thing, plus 40%.”
[broken chair across the back of the head was Jack’s guess – followed by 10 minutes of silence]
“Okay. OKAY! ROT IN HELL ASSHOLE!”
[broken chair across the back of the head was Jack’s guess – followed by 30 minutes of silence]
At this point, Jack was outside the door, poised on his toes and ready to run any second. He heard the man with the bleeding head stumble to the door so he had tons of time to run and hide. He could have been drunk, from the look of his gait. But Jack, at 12, knew better. Booze can make you swoon, but so could a chair or two to the noggin.
He followed the dark, slow figure out of the mobile home compound and down the steep slope of Burns Hill where Swede watched over his brood. A few times, the man looked ready to collapse and Jack made a move to help him. But he always stood back up straight, as if something was driving him to finish what he set out to do.
All streets look the same at 2am, especially in Manhattan, Kansas. Jack lost track of where he was after they passed the bus stop, with its puke green fluorescents and posters of better places. Finally, the man stopped at a small house with a picket fence and one of those little garden gnomes in the grass. He stumbled up the steps, opened the door and disappeared.
Jack wasn’t sure what he expected to see, but it wasn’t nothing. But that’s what happened. Nothing. Well, okay, a light went on in the back of the house. And then it went off several minutes later. The next thing Jack knew it was sunrise and he was drooling onto a broken down box he’d been sitting on.
“You broke my fort.”
Jack looked up and made out the silhouette of a boy his age against the sun. Squinting, “huh?”
“That was my fort. The box. It was a fridgerator box. Those are hard to come by.”
“Who are you?”
Silence for a moment. Jack wished the kid would get out of the sun so he could see him. He tried to move himself but his legs were asleep.
“You here to take me to yer dad?”
“Huh? No. I was just…” He had no idea what he was doing. He was wandering, was the best he could guess.
Henry stepped up onto some old plastic toy that had no other use anymore. Jack could see him now. Black kid, big hair, white tennis shoes that were blinding in that light, and, damn, he was smiling.
“What are you laughing at?”
“Not laughing at anything. Yer quiet at school.”
“What’s there to say there?”
“Not much I guess. You see Die Hard?”
“Great movie. I snuck in because it’s rated R. Why didn’t you see it?”
“Dad won’t let me see movies.”
“Oh yeah, he teaches you to steal.”
Jack felt the heat coming on again. He always did when people talked about his home life. People thought they knew him just because they knew his dad. They didn’t. And when they pretended they did, when they lumped him up with the filth, he felt like killing someone. Not just hypothetically either. He really felt it, and deep as hell too.
Apparently, Henry got his mistake because then there was, “Sorry. I didn’t mean steal.”
“Yes you did. But he calls it repo.”
“I hear yer good.”
“Can you teach me?”
“But my dad just said I gotta learn or yer dad will take it out of all our hides.”
Apparently, Henry was one of Swede’s Re-Poor Boys. Young ones who’s parents were on the owe so bad they had no choice but to lease their kids’ services (whatever those may be) or lose everything – which around Manhattan wasn’t much to begin with. Lucky for Henry he was black. And lucky for Henry, Swede was a fucking bigot, because he assumed Henry would make a good thief. The alternative payback for a black family in Manhattan’s town was bloodier and endlessly more permanent.
He still had that stupid grin on his face while he stood there, waiting for his fate to be sealed one way or the other. Because Jack was, indeed, good. In fact, he was the best Swede had ever seen. If Jack said he’d help Henry then Henry had a real good chance at getting his family out of their current predicament. But if he said he wouldn’t help Henry, then Henry had better hope he had thief genes after all.
Jack only had one friend who talked about being dead whenever Jack asked him to tell him about it. Maybe Henry had stories too. If nothing else, he could sing for him. Jack heard black people have nice singing voices.
The introduction of Henry and Charlie didn’t go so well. Apparently, they’d already been in a fist fight a couple of years prior when Charlie called Henry the n-i-g-g-e-r word. But Jack forced them to shake hands, and the two boys liked and respected Jack enough to follow his lead. The first joke they all laughed at together was about a girl, so that helped get things rolling.
They came down on cars together and settled in.