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Home > Gone for Good(7)

Gone for Good(7)
Author: Harlan Coben

The city’s cleanup, in a sense, made our jobs harder. The Covenant House rescue van had known where to cruise. The runaways were out in the open, more obvious. Now our task wasn’t as clear-cut. And worse, the city itself wasn’t really cleaner—just cleaner to look at. The so-called decent folk, those commuters and tourists I mentioned before, were no longer subjected to blacked-out windows reading ADULTS ONLY or crumbling marquees announcing pun-porn titles like SHAVING RYAN’S PRIVATES or BONFIRE OF THE PANTIES. But sleaze like this never really dies. Sleaze is a cockroach. It survives. It burrows and it hides. I don’t think you can kill it.

And there are negatives to hiding the sleaze. When sleaze is obvious, you can scoff and feel superior. People need that. It’s an outlet for some. Another advantage to in-the-open sleaze: Which would you rather face—an obvious frontal assault or a snakelike danger gliding through the high grass? Finally—and maybe I’m looking at this too closely—you can’t have a front without a back, you can’t have an up without a down, and I’m not sure you can have light without dark, purity without sleaze, good without evil.

The first honk didn’t make me turn around. I live in New York City. Avoiding honks while strolling the avenues was tantamount to avoiding water while swimming. So it was not until I heard the familiar voice yell “Hey, asshole” that I turned around. The Covenant House van screeched alongside me. Squares was the driver and sole occupant. He lowered the window and whipped off his sunglasses.

“Get in,” he said.

I opened the door and hopped up. The outreach van smelled of cigarettes and sweat and faintly of bologna from the sandwiches we hand out every night. There were stains of every size and stripe on the carpeting. The glove compartment was just an empty cavern. The springs in the seats were shot.

Squares kept his eyes on the road. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Going to work.”

“Why?”

“Therapy,” I said.

Squares nodded. He’d been up all night driving the van—an avenging angel searching for kids to rescue. He didn’t look worse for wear, but then again, he hadn’t started out too sparkly anyway. His hair was eighties Aerosmith-long, parted in the middle and on the greasy side. I don’t think I’d ever seen him clean-shaven, but I’d never seen him with a full beard or even a nifty-neat Miami Vice growth either. The patches of skin that were visible were pockmarked. His work boots were scuffed to a near whiteness. His jeans looked like they’d been trampled in a prairie by buffalo, and the waist was too big, giving him that ever-desirable repairman-butt-plunge look. A pack of Camels was rolled up in his sleeve. His teeth were tobacco-stained the yellow of a Ticonderoga pencil.

“You look like shit,” he said.

“That means something,” I said, “coming from you.”

He liked that one. We called him Squares, short for Four Squares, because of the tattoo on his forehead. It was, well, four squares, two by two, so that it looked exactly like a four squares court you still see on playgrounds. Now that Squares was a big-time yoga instructor with videos and a chain of schools, most people assumed that the tattoo was some sort of significant Hindu symbol. Not so.

At one time, it had been a tattoo of a swastika. He’d just added four lines. Closed it up.

It was hard for me to imagine this. Squares is probably the least judgmental person I’ve ever known. He’s probably also my closest friend. When he first told me the origins of the squares, I was appalled and shocked. He never explained or apologized, and like Sheila, he never talked about his past. Others have filled in pieces. I understand better now.

“Thanks for sending the flowers,” I said.

Squares didn’t reply.

“And for showing up,” I added. He had brought a group of Covenant House friends in the van. They’d pretty much made up the entire nonfamily funeral brigade.

“Sunny was great people,” he said.

“Yeah.”

A moment of silence. Then Squares said, “But what a shitty turnout.”

“Thanks for pointing that out.”

“I mean, Jesus, how many people were there?”

“You’re quite the comfort, Squares. Thanks, man.”

“You want comfort? Know this: People are assholes.”

“Let me get out a pen and write that down.”

Silence. Squares stopped for a red light and sneaked a glance at me. His eyes were red. He unrolled the cigarette pack from his sleeve. “You want to tell me what’s wrong?”

“Uh, well, see, the other day? My mother died.”

“Fine,” he said, “don’t tell me.”

The light turned green. The van started up again. The image of my brother in that photograph flashed across my eyes. “Squares?”

“I’m listening.”

“I think,” I said, “that my brother is still alive.”

Squares didn’t say anything right away. He withdrew a cigarette from the pack and put it in his mouth.

“Quite the epiphany,” he said.

“Epiphany,” I repeated with a nod.

“Been taking night courses,” he said. “So why the sudden change of heart?”

He pulled into the small Covenant House lot. We used to park out on the street, but people would break in and sleep there. We did not call the cops, of course, but the expense of the broken windows and stripped locks became cumbersome. After a while, we kept the van doors unlocked so the inhabitants could just go inside. In the morning, whoever was first to arrive at the center would knock against the van. The night’s tenants would get the message and scurry away.

We had to stop that too, though. The van became—not to get too graphic here—too disgusting for use. The homeless are not always pretty. They vomit. They soil themselves. They often cannot find restroom facilities. Enough said.

Still sitting in the van, I wondered how to approach this. “Let me ask you a question.”

He waited.

“You’ve never given me your take on what happened to my brother,” I said.

“That a question?”

“More an observation. Here’s the question: How come?”

“How come I never gave you my take on your brother?”

“Yes.”

Squares shrugged. “You never asked.”

“We talked about it a lot.”

Squares shrugged again.

“Okay, I’m asking now,” I said. “Did you think he’s alive?”

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