Freddie Redlake fled the north and came south to the city. He had to. It was that or be beaten to death, or be starved for days on end. It was all to teach him a lesson, his foster father said. And there were worse things too that happened that Freddie didn’t like to think about.
He was an orphan. His mother was found out in the snow a long time ago. Seventeen years ago. That’s how old Freddie was when he came to the city. She died. But Freddie didn’t. No one knew who his mother was, although he had the story of how she was found from the people at the hospital. No one knew who his father was, either. He was given the name of the town he was born in, Red Lake. Freddie wasn’t sure who chose his first name. He liked it well enough. But he wanted a real name, not just some made up name. Maybe that’s why Freddie was so angry so much. That and the foster homes, and what happened in them.
One night he ran away. He and a friend Bill hitchhiked down to the city. They were going to get jobs there. They were going to maybe start a band or something, or get a DJ gig. There were lots of places to do that down south, they’d thought. But nothing really came of it. Bill took up with some girl and they moved to another neighborhood. Freddie partied as much as he could once he got a job in a convenience store that paid in cash. But, he didn’t have the job for long because once he got his money, he partied a little too much. His boss with the funny name, Mr. Klinkenbeard, caught him messing with the till one night. It was a moment of weakness. Mr. Klinkenbeard fired Freddie on the spot and that was that. Pretty soon, he lost his room at the Stanhope Hotel. Then he found The Squat. What choice did he have?
Dr. Ray told him not to go down to The Squat. Dr. Ray had been a professor at the University, Freddie’d heard. Freddie wasn’t sure which one. That was a long time ago when Dr. Ray was young. But Dr. Ray drank a lot, and pretty soon like Freddie he’d been fired, and his money ran out. So did his wife, and she took Dr. Ray’s kids with her and moved out of the province. Dr. Ray told Freddie about his wife and kids directly. He wasn’t sure where she’d gone. Maybe back east somewhere. Dr. Ray wasn’t too sure. His memory wasn’t too good. He has epilepsy too, and sometimes he hears voices. That’s OK. Freddie liked Dr. Ray.
“Fredward. Don’t go down to The Squat,” said Dr. Ray to Fred one night.
This happened while he caught Freddie, Gassy and Mags, and Fencepost all standing on the corner together. Gassy and Mags had been evicted. The hotel they were staying in on the edge of the neighborhood had been bought by some real estate company who wanted to turn it into condos, or something. Fencepost thought that they could stay with him, but didn’t have enough room for Freddie who found out about the extra space too late. Freddie didn’t have the rent to pay Fencepost anyway. That’s when Freddie shot off his mouth about going to The Squat, and Dr. Ray heard him.
“What else am I supposed to do? I can’t find nowhere else to live, Dr. Ray!” Freddie was mad when he said this. But he was sad, too.
Dr. Ray was tall white man, and had a big red nose. His hair was like a used-up wire brush, and he always wore his long brown overcoat, no matter what the weather was like. His eyes bugged out when he talked. But, Freddie still liked him OK, even when Dr. Ray sometimes yelled when he talked. That night, Dr. Ray was lucid. His mind had cleared like the way that the clouds pull away from the moon in the summer time. But, he was still drunk. Dr. Ray always found a way to be drunk. That made him yell when he talked.
“They’d love a little squirt like you down there. They love to initiate little kids like you.”
“I ain’t no little kid, Dr. Ray. And I hear I can get a courier job with Raph if I’m down at The Squat.”
“Courier job? No, no.”
Fencepost, Gassy, and Mags didn’t say anything. Freddie wished they would say something, something mean or dumb to make Dr. Ray keep walking. But they didn’t. They just smirked and looked away.
“What’s wrong with a courier job?”
“It’s what they’re courier-ing that’s what’s wrong with it. And that’s not all Raph deals in, Fredward.”
“So what? If it’s not Raph, it’ll be someone else doing business down here.”
“Raph is bad news. So are his bosses. You just stay away from The Squat, Fredward. That place is full ‘o victims.”
“Whose victims?” demanded Freddie.
“Society’s victims, that’s whose victims. You think this neighborhood got this way on its own?”
This made Fencepost snicker, and Dr. Ray turned his bug eyes on him. “What are you gigglin’ at, Drinkawater?”
“Nothin’, Dr. Ray,” Fencepost demurred, still smirking. This made Gassy and Mags do the same, and Fencepost cuffed Gassy on the sleeve playfully.
“I’m no victim.” Said Freddie defiantly.
“You are. You’re just too dumb to know it. We’re all victims. Victims of greed. That’s what makes this neighborhood what it is. The only thing good about it is the people. But the people don’t know they’re good. They’ve been told they’re so bad so much, they just don’t believe they’re good and deserve a chance. That’s the way it is. You get told you’re bad, and that you’re lazy, and that you don’t deserve shit. That’s how they victimize you. That’s how we’re all victims.”
Freddie stepped forward. “Who are they, Dr. Ray?”
“The who?” asked Gassy, cracking up, his babyfat cheeks jiggling. Fencepost and Mags followed him, cracking up themselves.
“Shut up, you gaggle of hyenas!” shouted Dr. Ray irritably. “I mean it. The haves.”
“Who are the haves?” asked Freddie, genuinely interested.
“They’re the ones who have, y’idiot.” answered Dr. Ray.
“So who are we?” asked Mags, adjusting his crooked glasses on his lopsided face.
“Guess.” said Dr. Ray petulantly.
“We’re the have-nots.” said Fencepost matter-of-factly.
Dr. Ray was taken aback by this. “Yeah. We’re the have-nots. That’s right, ace. You ain’t as dumb as you look.”
“What does this have to do with The Squat?” demanded Freddie.
“It’s got everything to do with it, Fredward. That place is like a hive of have-nots being taken by the haves. The haves make this world unbearable for the likes of you and me. They take all the money and they hoard it. They only give it out to their friends, including the government. And the government only do what the haves say, not what we say, the people. So the world is unbearable, right? So the have-nots take drugs to get away from it. Or they crawl into a bottle, like I do. I know I’ve got a problem, you know. I ain’t as dumb as I look.”
No one laughed at that. All the kids respected Dr. Ray, even if they kidded around sometimes. And they never really thought about how greed and drugs were related. That made a lot of sense. As much sense as it made, they knew they’d forget about it pretty soon. What was the use of knowing something if there wasn’t anything you could do about it?
“I don’t care. I need a place to live. Some place rent free for a while until I get another job. I want to work, and not be so bored all the time. So if I get a courier job while I’m there, what’s the big fuckin’ deal?”
“Don’t curse.” said Dr. Ray. “Cursing is for people who don’t have the vocabularly to express themselves. That’s another thing the haves take away from us. They take language. When you don’t have language, you can’t express yourself. You can’t convince no one about anything. That’s why things stay the same down here. No one can express what’s wrong with the world so they can’t do nothing to change it.”
“So, you think the haves get all the power, and we get none?” asked Freddie.
“That’s what I been sayin’!”
“Well, then maybe things are OK just as long as maybe someday we get to be one of the haves.” said Freddie.
Dr. Ray let out a guffaw of derision that sounded like a wet cough. Gassy covered his mouth reflexively, and Fencepost grimaced. Mags took off his glasses and cleaned the greasy lenses on his dirty shirt, shaking his head.
“I’m serious, Dr. Ray. You know how well Raph does. He’s got a place uptown, I hear.”
“Drug money. Drug. Money. That money is made from human flesh, Fredward. You don’t want to end up as a bunch of twenties in his back pocket. I don’t care what his place uptown looks like.”
“What do you care anyway?” said Freddie, frustrated at the older man’s intrusiveness.
At this, Dr. Ray’s bugged out eyes softened, the leathery skin around his eyes and cheeks slackened. When he did this, he looked like someone’s dad. “This is how I know I’m still alive, and that I still got a soul. Doesn’t matter what I was or what I lost. I care. I care for my people. You idjits are my people now.”
There was a long pause. The silence was too much for Mags.
“Let’s go to Fencepost’s and have a smoke. Freddie, we gotta go. See you later.” And with that the three boys shambled down the street and around the corner while Freddie and Dr. Ray continued to face off on the corner. Freddie didn’t even watch them go.
“Dr. Ray. I gotta do something. I can’t just stand here on the corner.” When he said it, it stirred something in him down below, a hollow place somewhere inside of himself. There was a door to that place which, if he opened it up, he might start crying like a baby, or maybe go completely crazy. So he kept it shut, knowing that the room in there was filling up fast, pushing against that door and threatening to burst it open.
“I have to go now, Fredward. I’ve said what I needed to say, and have told you what I know. The rest is up to you, boy.”
In eighteen months, Fred shared a floor with many at The Squat. Fencepost had left town by then. Gassy was dead after spending some time on the floor in The Squat himself. Freddie didn’t know what happened Mags. Freddie was kept in The Stuff as long as he worked for Raph when the time came. He worked for Raph because The Stuff that was all he cared about. The world was a bad place, especially for orphans, Freddie had realized. The only way to stay away from the world that hated him and people like him so much was to be on The Stuff as much as he could.
Freddie lifted himself to his feet. The rush was getting old and the world was beginning to seep in on him again in a slow but steady trickle. He looked out the window and saw the white car. It was a car from uptown. He wasn’t sure who’s car it was. He had never seen it before. But it was white like an angel’s wings. Yes. An angel’s wings. He thought of his mother. He hadn’t thought about her in a long, long time. She was looking down on him up in heaven. That’s what he always liked to believe. That night looking out that window, it was like she was down in that car waiting for him. It was like having a dream when you’re so sure that something is true that it just becomes true as you think about it.
“My ride. My ride’s here.” Freddie said sleepily. Or maybe he had just heard it said by someone else that sounded a lot like him. He wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
He found himself on the street just as the last rays of the sun were caressing the edges of the buildings, creating long finger-like shadows reaching out for him. He kept his eyes on the white car parked across the street. His mother. His mother was in the backseat. He was sure of it.
Freddie crossed the road. Another car beeped at him and rolled on.
It was a voice from the driver’s side of the white car. It was a man’s voice, gentle like a warm breeze. He was a white man; blonde, wearing a blue suit. His teeth were perfect. They made a smile like the edge of a knife. “Wanna take a ride with me?” The man in the angel’s wing car said.
“My mother. She’s in the back of your car. Will you take me home?” Freddie’s voice sounded far away from him. It was like someone else was speaking again. That was OK. Maybe a part of him had left to go home already.
“Yes. I’ll take you home. The door’s open, beautiful. Get in”
Freddie opened the door, and he could swear he could see his mother, lying in the snow, looking up at him. He couldn’t make out her face. He had never seen it. But, he knew it was her. There was snow inside of the white car where she lay. Maybe that’s why the car was so white, so clean, so cold. He was going north again. He was going home, an orphan no more.
Freddie got in and closed the door. The car drove off, its brake lights flaring in the gathering dark.