“Deacon Carter’s Last Dime” by Nathan Crowder
Deacon Carter smiled like not a day had gone by and asked if he could use my yard to build his rocket ship.
“Boy, you’re out of your goddamned mind!” The phrase had materialized on my lips. It seemed like yesterday, not the twenty years it had been, that I sold him a box of crap we had junked in the yard out back. Toaster break down? Most people, they’d toss it in the scrap down at ol’ Frank Coffey’s lot and buy a new one. Sure don’t cost much to replace. But Deacon had a way of fixing things that most other folks just didn’t get. I took over running the yard for my pops, and then it was James Coffey’s Junk Emporium. And Deacon, well, Deacon got his brown ass off Washington Avenue about the same time, headed to college, and made a life somewhere other than the ghetto.
He just smiled up at me, all shy like. He stood there in the shade of the busted-up robot I had hanging from the sign of my junkyard. Wasn’t much to look at, truth be told. All long and gangly, he was maybe a hundred-fifty pounds, soaking wet. Deke was wearing a t-shirt and a jacket that had a new kinda crispness to them, but weren’t anything fancy. “Maybe I’m out of my mind, Jimmy, but I have to try.”
I stared him up and down. Damned if he wasn’t serious. “Come on in and we’ll talk this over.” I left the door open and shuffled into the dimly lit space that doubled as my office and living room, trusting he would follow me.
Over the drone of the ancient box fan in the window, I heard the creak of the screen door as he opened it to step in. I hurriedly cleared some unopened mail off the chair and brushed down the blanket which served as a cover with my hand. “Go on and have a seat,” I offered. “You want a beer?”
Deacon slowed in his approach to the chair. “Beer? No man, that’s okay. It isn’t even ten yet.”
I sucked on my teeth for a second, watching him sit. “I think I have some wine…” I started. He looked comfortable enough, but this was a bit of a homecoming, and deserved some kind of celebration.
“Nothing to drink, thanks,” Deacon said. He leaned forward in his chair. “I just need to know if I can use your yard. I’ll pay you for the space rental, and buy any parts I need straight off of you, if you can find them.”
I thought I had heard something about him working for this company out around Denver that made rockets for rich people. I thought it was a rumor. There couldn’t be that many rich people needing rockets, could there? Kevin over at the liquor store told me there weren’t more than a few dozen rich people who owned everything as it was. No wonder Deacon was back on the Ave. Prolly worked himself out of a job. “Huh…parts for a rocket ship. What you need a rocket for anyway?”
He sighed and sank back into the chair, deflated. “I thought that moving off Washington Avenue was enough, you know? I worked my ass off, Jimmy. I jumped through every hoop I could find, got into a good school and graduated at the top of my class. That guaranteed me a good career, and moved me into big house in the suburbs. I had it made.”
I shifted uncomfortably on the sofa. I was feeling the cottonmouth, and longed for a beer. Should have grabbed one for myself when I had offered one to Deacon, but now I was stuck. I hadn’t been expecting his whole damn life story. “All that good living done made you hungry for more or something?”
“Did you know most of the rich people live in orbit in private satellites or on the moon?” Duncan said. I must have looked surprised, because he was quick to argue his case. “They own anything of real value on Earth, and they don’t even live here anymore. It’s true. I’ve seen it.”
“What do you know? Kevin was right about something for a change!”
“You think you know what rich looks like, Jimmy, but you don’t. Hell, I sure didn’t, and I’ve been a lot further than Washington Avenue.” Deacon clenched his fist and pounded his thigh hard a few times. “I just, I didn’t get far enough. The whole planet is a ghetto, Jimmy. And if I want out, I need to build a rocket.”
“Now, can I use your yard?”
What could I do? Me and Deke, we went way back. Some might even say we had been friends once, before he got too busy for things like that. I gave him the spare key to the rolling sheet-metal gate, and told him not to worry about the Dobermans – damn things needed new hips, so I only had the motion sensor and bark-box active. I knew Deke wouldn’t rip me off.
Everything back there in the yard was crap anyway, all ten acres of it. I kept it locked up more to keep bums from falling asleep in the discarded cars and fridges and then dying with the first frost. Bum stink was bad, but nothing compared to finding a ripe one two weeks after the spring thaw.
It wasn’t like I expected much out of this rocket ship of his. Not at first. Hell, for the first few days, all he did was put in this high scaffolding which he covered with tarps. Then he handed me an envelope full of cash for scrap metal. Sure as Sunday morning, there he was the next day, carving up junker cars with his two sons – twins named Arron and Abram. Each piece vanished beneath the folds of the tarp, with only the ghostly light of sparks through the canvas to show welding within.
Way I figured, I had a pocket full of cash and there weren’t no reason not to spend it. It was more than enough for a few nights on the town with some champagne down at Mr. Lucky’s for me and a few lovely ladies. It even bought me a shiny suit with matching hat, and I don’t got to tell you the ladies love that! Less than a week later, I was back to 40 oz cans of malt liquor from the corner store. My only entertainment was sitting on the sofa watching courtroom shows, and the only one touching my balls was me.
I started getting interested in what was going on out back – even took to locking up the shop during the day and watching the scaffolding from my back porch. It wasn’t as exciting as Mr. Lucky’s, but not much is. Not to mention that it was a hell of a lot cheaper.
The rocket began to turn into a family affair round about the third month. Deacon’s wife and daughter started to come along with the men. Mrs. Carter insisted on being called Elle. She was a plain-looking woman with tight cornrows and a fondness for workman jumpsuits. Their twelve year old daughter wore her hair up in two puffs on the top of her head and trailed her mother like her shadow. I didn’t catch the girl’s name, but I think it was something like Cree.
While the boys worked the metal, Elle and Cree wandered through the yard stripping wires – bales of the stuff. Then Cree would sit in the dirt and go through the wire inch by inch, taping up cracks in the casing while her mom tinkered with instrument panels they had either found or brought in with them.
Some days they would bring Deacon’s mother along. She shuffled through the gate like a little, black beetle. One of the boys brought in her folding aluminum rocking chair. She would sit in the shade in a rocking chair, alternating between reading and singing gospels, shifting every now and then to keep in the shade of the rocket as the sun moved through the sky.
I knew Deacon’s mother from way back, but hadn’t seen her outside for years. The crick in her walk made it look like something was wrong with her hip, like my Aunt Denise who lived somewhere in the Ohio sprawl. If Ma Carter still lived in the same sixth floor walk-up I remembered, her hip would explain why she rarely went out. I expected Deacon or his burly teen sons carried her out when she came to the yard.
When watching from a distance began to get a little dull, I wandered down to keep Ma Carter company. I had at least some history with her, and it wasn’t like she was doing much to contribute to the rocket building. At first, I’m not sure she recognized who I was, likely the Swiss cheese memory of old age making her distracted.
“I’ve got me a good boy there,” she said, her heavy-lidded eyes fixed on the rippling gray canvas of the tarp. She turned a silent eye to me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that she was judging me by her son’s measure and finding me coming up short.
“Deacon and I grew up together,” I reminded her. “We were in the same class.”
She stared, unblinking for a few moments, like a snake. Then a smile twitched up the corner of her wrinkled face and she patted the back of my hand with her dainty palm. When she spoke her voice had a vague sing-song quality, like she was going to break out into a hymn any moment. “That’s right! Frank Coffey’s boy. Don’t mess with Coffey or you’ll get creamed.”
I laughed awkwardly. It had been years since I had heard that phrase – probably not since the old man’s funeral. He was real proud of that. No one messed with Frank or he’d cuff them around, even if they were family. “That was a long time ago,” I said, anxious to change the subject away from my childhood. “Some wild idea your son has, building a rocket.”
She beamed a radiant smile at the mention of Deacon. “My son says there’s a place on the moon where everyone is finally free. No slaves and no masters, and the only glass ceiling is the one keeping the air in,” she said. “He’s going to take us there. He’s going to break the cycle.”
The smile faltered, and she got dead serious all of a sudden. Ma Carter stared at me for a long moment, her gaze unwavering. “Did you end up finishing school?” She finally asked.
“I finished seventh grade and dropped out during eighth.” I felt no shame over it. God only knows I wasn’t the only one. Most of the kids on Washington Avenue didn’t finish school.
She nodded, unsurprised. “Didn’t you want more than this? More than running your father’s scrap yard?”
I looked around and shrugged. “Dunno. Feels like I always been here. It’s what I know. I’m not like Deke. I never got the same breaks.”
“What kind of breaks did my son get?” Her eyebrows had been meticulously plucked then penciled thinly back. One now in arched in surprise.
The way she stared at me, I was reminded of when I was a kid and said a curse word around grandma. Like, I had done something wrong and only barely comprehended what it was. Sweat beaded at the back of my neck under the old woman’s scrutiny. My shoulders pulled up around my ears, my eyes shifted to find somewhere safe to land — anywhere but on Ma Carter. “Well, school and such – the teachers always liked him better. And then after school, getting handed a good job…”
“James Coffey, no one ever handed my boy anything! He earned everything that came to him, ten times over, by working himself to the bone. The teachers liked him better? Boy, they liked Deacon because he treated them with respect. He listened to them and he did the work.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw veins straining in Ma Carter’s neck. Her head thrust forward threateningly. Damn, I was going to get the old bird all riled up and it was anyone’s guess who was going to die first. I was afraid that she was going to shake apart with anger. Or maybe she’d just pop a blood vessel and die. I heard that’s what killed this ol’ man who lived down the street. But she might just take me out with those bony elbows before Jesus called her home.
I caught sight of Deacon’s shadow making his way across the yard. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see him as right then. “Ma, why don’t you go help Elle with the instrument panel?”
Her anger dissipated at the sight of her son. An easy smile appeared so quickly, it was hard for me to believe it hadn’t always been there. “Baby, I don’t know anything about instrument panels.”
Deke pointed off across the yard to where the girls had set up all the gauges and stuff they had been tinkering with. “She just wants someone to let her know when they light up. She needs Cree under the cabinet with her holding the soldering iron, so you’d be a big help. Elle will tell you what she needs.” He helped her up by her elbow. He stooped to put his head near hers, damn near folding himself in half to do it.
Ma Carter squeezed her son’s arm, and after a withering look over her shoulder at me, she shuffled off to help. “I can’t believe you want to bring that one along with us.”
Deacon looked slightly embarrassed. He watched her go, mopping at his glistening face with a folded up do-rag.
“What’s this about taking me along?” I asked once I was confident Ma Carter was out of earshot.
“About that,” Deacon said slowly, “There’s going to be room on the rocket. I have more than enough space for the family. Some of my friends want off this place just as bad as me, and they’re coming with us. I still have one more seat, if you want it.”
I felt, I don’t know, groundless, like I was fit to faint for a little bit. I never thought much beyond this scrap yard, let alone beyond Washington Avenue. Me? On the moon? I couldn’t even imagine it. “Oh Deke, that’s awful nice of you, but I don’t know what I would do up in space.”
“Jimmy, you can do whatever you want to do. You get to be your own man there, with no limits, and no one holding you back.”
Now here’s the thing – I know I should have been overwhelmed by the possibilities. I mean, the mother-fucking moon, right? My needs, my routine, it was too…earthy. I tried, I really did, to stretch my mind to bigger dreams. It had been so long ago that I really had any dreams at all. It was troubling that I couldn’t remember them. “The moon…” I said, drawing out the word to buy time. “Must be like a big party round the clock.”
I saw something in Deke’s eyes, a softening at the corners. His smile dimmed somewhat. “Well, yeah, Jimmy,” he said. “Except there isn’t any alcohol.”
“No drink? How about weed? I bet they grow some amazing skunk up there in space.” I didn’t need him to answer. His smile cracked and fell even as the words left my lips. “No, I guess not.”
Deacon stood there for a while, trying to find the right answer. I saw him start, the words rising up to the back of his throat to be stuffed back down. Two, three times he started to say something. It must have frustrated him something fierce, because I could swear I saw his eyes go shiny, like he was about to cry. “Jimmy, you don’t…we’ll be on the moon. You won’t have to escape anymore.”
I’m not proud, but I saw red at this, this talking down to me, this ‘Jimmy just gonna go hide from his problems’ bullshit. I been hearing it all my life. I was sick of it. The last person I wanted to hear it from was Deke. I thought we were beyond that. “You know what, Deacon? I don’t want a ride on your goddamned rocket. Thing probably won’t work anyway. You’re gonna blow up in my yard and I’m gonna have all kinds of explaining to do. The government gonna have to come in here with mops to clean you off my walls.”
I turned away and headed back to the house, thinking the conversation was over. Leave it to Deke to get in the last word. “We’re putting in the engine and propulsion drive in two days. We’ll run a few tests, and hopefully leave within another three days. You have until then to change your mind.”
I stood on my back porch and looked into the darkness of my home. I waited until I heard the sound of him walking back to the rocket before I turned around. Damn you Deacon Carter and damn your fool rocket.
I didn’t bother going out into the yard after that. True to his word, a big engine-looking piece of hardware showed up on the back of an antiquated flatbed truck two days later. The three coffee-colored fellas who delivered it stuck around and helped maneuver it under the tarps with my grav-jacks. I watched from behind the blinds in my bathroom. The truck didn’t move again, and I began to realize that the people who brought the engine probably had seats on the deathtrap hidden behind the tarp.
More people showed up on the fourth day, a dozen in all, trickling through the gate with bags and boxes. Some of them I knew from Washington Avenue. Most of them I had never seen before. They hauled out sawhorses and whatever flat scraps they could find to build improvised picnic tables. Food appeared, brought from home kitchens, or from restaurants around the Ave. It was a feast, a damned revival. There must have been thirty people down there. Everyone was carrying on like it was the last night of their lives.
As things were really getting going, I saw Deacon peel off from the group and step up to my porch. I watched him vanish beneath the porch roof from the second floor bathroom. He must have knocked and called out for a good five or ten minutes before he got the hint and went back to his party.
I watched them for a long time, aching to join them – knowing that I couldn’t. Oh, Deacon would have welcomed me, no matter how mad that made Ma Carter. But they had something that I just didn’t get. There was bounce in their step. There was celebration. There was…I don’t know what it was. It beamed from their faces, from their every motion. And it unsettled me horribly.
Sometime after they retired back under the tarp, I went downstairs. Deke had shoved a fat envelope through the mail slot. It sat there, propped against the door. He had been using a lot of metal, lots of wire, so maybe he was just paying me for it. Maybe it was him trying to buy my forgiveness. I didn’t know. I collected the envelope and hefted it in my hand for a few minutes. It felt heavy. I fished my penknife out and slit the envelope open along one side. That was a lot of green in there.
I was standing across from Kevin at the package liquor store fifteen minutes later. He gave me a nod of recognition. “Same thing as always, Jimmy?”
I patted the lump of envelope in my jacket. It felt wonderful and heavy. “Not today, Kevin. It’s top shelf from now on.”
“From now on? For reals?” Kevin narrowed his eyes. I had waved a few bills around the last time Deacon paid me for use of the lot. He must have known that was long gone. The idea I might have more money from Deacon was a very real possibility, and I know he was thinking it.
The shop was quiet this time of night. There were only a few stumblebums back near the rotgut, counting collected change and doing math. I pulled out the envelope and fanned the bills so that Kevin could see. It felt good to have that much money.
The size of the bankroll started to bother me a bit. I hadn’t counted it, but there were big bills there. I could work my entire life, sell the scrap yard and the land it stood on, and I would never see that much money again. Not that anyone would want to buy that dump anyway. With this kind of money, why should I stay on Washington Avenue? I could move somewhere nice; maybe get a quiet house in the suburbs. This kind of money…
…this was Deacon Carter’s last dime. He must have sold everything, cashed out his savings, and put every dollar in that envelope.
There was no reason for him to do that unless…unless.
A flash of white paper tucked among the green of bills caught my eye. I dug around in the envelope until I found it. It was a note, in Deke’s handwriting. He had scrawled it on the back of a bank receipt, confirming the closure of his accounts, which I had already suspected. I read and then re-read the two simple sentences. “Thank you for everything. I won’t need this where I’m going.”
My hand shook as I folded the note. I hurriedly stuffed it into the pocket of my jeans. I have one more seat, if you want it, Deke had told me. Hell, I still didn’t know what I would do if I were on the moon. A whole lot of nothing, I reckon. I turned from the counter so quick, I almost knocked over a display of cheap gin right behind me. I paused long enough to steady the teetering green bottles before I hustled out the door at something just short of a run.
Within a few blocks, I noticed people standing out in the street. There were the faint echoes of a distant roar, bouncing down the decaying brick buildings, and the residents were pointing to a brilliant new star in the sky, receding away from Washington Avenue. It didn’t take more than a few minutes before it was lost in the haze of light pollution. I knew what they were watching, even if none of my neighbors did. I stopped running and fell to my knees on the sidewalk, oblivious to the smells of urban decay and the sounds of wonderment.
Sure, I had the money to get off Washington Avenue. I could move away from the stumblebums, and the smell of urine in the doorways, and the trash blowing down the street. But money couldn’t buy my way out of the ghetto, and Deacon knew that. His words from that first day rattled around in my head. The whole planet is a ghetto, Jimmy. And if I want out, I need to build a rocket.
I stopped crying soon enough. Wasn’t anything I could do about it, anyway, and a grown man crying in public like that was foolish. I dried my eyes with the back of my hands and started back to the liquor store. On the way, I pulled out Deke’s note and read it one last time. A wind blew up Washington Avenue, and I let it pluck the note from my hand and whisk it away down the sidewalk. “To Deacon Carter,” I said as I watched his words cartwheel into the darkness. “Hope you get where you’re going.”
Nathan Crowder is a writer of fiction with southwest roots, currently living in the rainy Pacific Northwest. A certified coffee and micro-brew aficionado, he is a gregarious and happy guy who can see the silver lining in any cloud, though this is rarely reflected in his writing. His fiction can range across many genres, but he is generally happiest in the urban fantasy, mystery, or super-hero arena. He can be found online at http://www.nathancrowder.com.