Belleville


by David Bedsole

Big Joe Davis, my best friend I suppose, is not big at all, but a short, wiry Negro with a brace on his left leg. Big Joe is an ironic name he was given years ago, but he has never complained. It�s not his way. Even yesterday, when I told Big Joe that I had traded my plum 1967 Corvair for a funeral plot in Belleville, he tightened the screw on his leg brace the way he does when he�s working out what to say. Silent, loaded.

I couldn�t read him, so I tried to smoke him out.

�An old man can only drive a sports car for so many years before he becomes absurd,� I said.

Big Joe shook his head but kept thinking. It was a hot summer day in Old North St. Louis, and we sat in lawn chairs on our front porch as the city went about its business.  The fan gently stirred the petals of paint coming loose from the porch ceiling, and across the street a man stood on scaffolding, two stories up, hammering something into the brick.  A stray dog trotted by, startling a bunch of pigeons. The air smelled of sulfur and river wash.

�You tell Bella?� Big Joe asked finally.

�Yes,� I admitted. �She said it was a stupid idea to trade that car, but she liked the symmetry of it.�

�She always talking like we�re in some story,� Big Joe chuckled. As was often the case, he was unsure exactly what my child, the college student, was talking about, but suspected it was bullshit.

I thought back on the previous day�s conversation. �She asked me where the plot was, and whether I got a deed.�

A sparkling green El Camino rolled past, the bass rattling the beer cans in the paper bag on the porch step. One of the teenagers waved at Big Joe, and he nodded gravely. I frowned at them, and the kid in the passenger seat laughed.

�Well?� asked Big Joe. �Did you?�

�Yes, of course I did,� I said. My friend studied me for a long time.

�There�s no reason to lie about it,� he said finally. �You don�t need a piece of paper to know you own something. You know where the plot is?�

�No,� I admitted. �I mean, I think I know. I could probably find it again.� Neither one of us said anything for a good five minutes. Big Joe lit a Swisher and closed his eyes.

�What kind of broke-down old fool,� he said without opening his eyes, �thinks that it�s better to be dead and buried in a paid-for grave than alive and driving a Corvair? They got to bury you somewhere no matter how poor you are. Who did you trade it to?�

�Said his name was Paul. He was a kid, twenty, twenty one. Inherited the plot from his family. Said he needed a car to go to college.�

�Well,� said Big Joe, �he sure got one. He sure did get one.�

�I�ve never bought land in my life,� I said. �How was I supposed to know how to do it?�

Big Joe harrumphed.

�I spent most of my good years on the inside,� I insisted. 

�I know where you spent most of your good years, but I thought when you read all those books that you might have learned something inside,� Big Joe told me. He eyed me. �Didn�t seem to. You sure got a lot of fine words to say, but when it comes to sense, I swear.�

I went inside and got a pencil and a piece of notebook paper. When I came back out, Big Joe had not moved. I looked for a hard surface to slam it down on, but there wasn�t one, so I shook the paper at him. It made a crackling sound, and he opened an eye.

�Since you�re so smart, Big Joe, we�re going to go through this together, step by step, and you�re going to tell me where I went wrong. Let�s go. From the start. We�ll write it down.�

�Fine,� said Big Joe. �But you write it down. I�m smoking.�

I smoothed the wrinkles in my pants and put the notebook paper on my knee, and carefully wrote Item One: I Saw the Ad.  I looked at Big Joe, still smoking with his eyes closed.

�I wrote, Item One: I Saw the Ad,� I told him. �That�s how it started. I was reading the classifieds in the paper Monday morning while you were asleep. I saw one that said something like�� and I realized I couldn�t remember how it was worded. It seemed important to know. �Where�s the recycling?�

�Where it always is, in the kitchen,� my roommate answered.

I got up and went into the kitchen and rooted through the brown paper bag stuffed full of the week�s papers. We go through beer and papers, but we�re good citizens. We recycle. I found Monday�s paper, but the ad had been torn out. Shit. I tromped down the hall into my bedroom and started picking up books from the brown sofa that was pushed against the wall. I have a bad habit of using pieces of paper I need as bookmarks.

After riffing through several books and tossing them on the floor, I found the ad sticking out of Notes from the Underground. I went back outside. Big Joe had wandered next door to talk to Annie Zanakis, so I had a minute to study the ad. It looked like this:

WANTED TO TRADE: FUNERAL PLOT FOR RUNNING CAR

Willing to trade spacious funeral plot in historic Belleville for working car.
      Call Paul: 314-546-7578 after 6 pm. No sales calls.

�I found it,� I shouted across the porch to the porch of the next house where Annie Zanakis and Big Joe were sitting. She frowned and turned back to their conversation. She likes Big Joe but not me. No matter. I had found the ad. Nothing was wrong with noticing the ad. After Item One: I Saw the Ad, I wrote no mistake made.

I looked with satisfaction at what I had just written, and then wrote: Item Two: I Called the Boy.

When I called the boy, Paul, he answered after a ring. His voice sounded far away, and we couldn�t get the conversational rhythm right. I would start, and he would start, then we would both stop, and there would be a long, awkward pause. He did not know what a Corvair was. I told him it was a classic sports car, and he seemed impressed. He agreed to meet me in the parking lot of the Shop & Save off the interstate.  I would show him the car, and he would drive me to the funeral plot.

I could find no fault with this line of reasoning. There was no harm in considering a trade, was there? As I wrote no mistake made next to item two, Big Joe limped back onto the porch and sat down heavily. He reached for the piece of notebook paper and I handed it to him. He read it, grunted, and handed it back.

�You never told me why you wanted a funeral plot in the first place. You planning on dying and leaving me here to pay the rent? You think you�re shoving off without me? You�re not shoving off without me.� He ground his Swisher out. �And I�m not shoving off. Not any time soon.�

�Lord willing,� I said automatically. Just because I�m an ex-con doesn�t mean I�m not a good Catholic. Big Joe, who is a Baptist atheist, had to smile.

�Look, Big Joe,� I began, �I didn�t buy the plot because I plan to die soon. I bought it because it might be my last chance to have something, to call it mine. You see?�

�No, I don�t see,� said Big Joe, �but there is no sense in sitting here going over and over what�s done. What we should do is go down to Belleville and find that boy, and get him to give you the deed.�

He got up and went into the house. I stared at the pigeons on the sidewalk.

�Hey,� I yelled after him, �I didn�t finish my list!�

Big Joe did not answer. I chewed on my pencil for a while, and then wrote Item Three: I Met the Boy. As I started to write no mistake made, Annie Zanakis yelled at me from her porch. I looked up irritably.

�I have a nephew that would have paid you six hundred dollars for that car, De Luca,� she scolded. �You should have told me you were selling it. I could have gotten you some money for it.�

�I didn�t sell it, I traded it. Leave me alone.�

She made a dismissive gesture and went inside, and I wrote no mistake made. I stared at the paper for a second, and then scratched it out. I called Big Joe, and he wandered back onto the porch, holding a Natural Light.

�I can�t remember what the boy looks like,� I told him.

Big Joe nodded and sipped his beer. He rocked lightly on his braced leg, back and forth like a buoy.

�I need you to help me remember what the boy looked like,� I said.

�I never saw him,� Big Joe protested.

�Doesn�t matter. Ask me about him.�

�Fine,� Big Joe sighed. �White kid, right? Right. Okay. Teenager. Tall?�

�Average. My height.�

Big Joe eyed me. �Ok, maybe five eight. Skinny? Ok, yeah, skinny. What color hair did he have?�

I squinted, trying to call his hair to mind. Potatoes. Tomatoes. Irish.

�Red, auburn,� I exclaimed. �He had a red goatee too.�

�There�s your problem, Alberto,� Big Joe said. �You sold your car to a�what do you call those things? Frosted lucky charms?�

�A leprechaun,� I muttered.

�You sold your car to a leprechaun!� He laughed like he always does, practically silently, wheezing and clutching his chest like he�s having a heart attack.

�Maybe the pot of gold is buried in your funeral plot that you can�t find,� added Annie Zanakis from the next porch, and she and Big Joe erupted into giggles.

As I scowled and doodled on the page, something came loose in my mind and I remembered his face: thin, pointed nose; small, narrow green eyes; freckles; bushy eyebrows; slightly yellowed teeth. The picture was so clear I could have painted it. He had stood there in the parking lot of the Shop & Save, hands in pockets, while I showed him the features of the Corvair.

�The spare tire is under the hood?� the boy asked.

�Yes, that is one of the many distinctive things about a Corvair,� I told him. �This was also one of the last sedans built.�

�Looks like you�ve taken good care of it,� he admitted.

�Good,� I said. �Then let�s see what you have to trade.�

Back on the porch, Big Joe shook his head. �You remember all that, and you don�t remember how you got to the funeral plot?�

�He was driving,� I said. �Trying the car out. I wasn�t paying attention to where I was going.�

�So you want me to believe that you traded your classic Corvair to a boy you barely remember for a funeral plot of land you can�t find. Somewhere out in Belleville you got a nice place to lay. All people got to do when you die is go looking for it. That shouldn�t be no trouble at all.�

Big Joe stomped back into the apartment.

I stared for a long time at the pigeons. The man hammered across the street.

I wrote no mistake made on the paper.




BIO: David Bedsole teaches writing and visual communication at King College in Bristol, TN. He has published poetry in journals such as Xavier Review, Relief, and Clemson Poetry Review. This is his first fiction publication.