‘What is it?’
‘I can see that,’ I said turning the small wooden box, little bigger than a matchbox, in my hands. ‘What’s in it?’
‘Yeah, its empty, you know.’
‘So, what’s it for then?’ I ask flipping the lid to reveal an empty cavity.
‘For putting stuff in. You know, like … things.’
I could tell this was going to be one of those conversations, you know, dumb and evasive. Jimmy was head of the pack in dumb. He was pretty good at evasive and shifty, but then he usually had good reason; he did dumb things. Let’s just say he wasn’t the highest wattage bulb. Still, he’s my brother and I’m a long way from florescence.
‘So, why are you giving it to me?’
‘So you can put stuff in it. To keep them safe, like. You know, in case … I made it.’
‘You made it?’
‘Well, you know, I …’
‘You stole it,’ I finished for him. Jimmy hadn’t made a single thing in his life. The idea that he’d managed to create something as finely crafted as this was laughable; he’d have difficulty making a potato head.
‘I borrowed it.’
‘What do you mean, you borrowed it? Does that mean I now have to give it back to them?’
‘No, no, its yours.’
‘So, you didn’t borrow it then?’
‘So, who did you steal it from?’
‘No-one? Jimmy stop fucking about and tell me where you got the box.’
‘What does it matter? I’m giving it to you. As a present.’
Little alarm bells are now starting to tinkle two inches above and behind my right ear; exactly where it states ‘caution’ on one of those phrenology busts – you know, those heads where they’ve written on what each bit of the mind relates to. If they did one for Jimmy half the spots would be blank, the other half downgraded.
‘It matters plenty, Jimmy. What if I take my new box out in the wrong place; like in front of its former owner?’
‘You won’t.’ He refuses to look me in the eye. ‘I promise.’
‘You’re lying, Jimmy, and you’re promises are worth shit.’
‘Look, I just found it, okay. It was lying there, you know, like out in the open, so I took it. They shouldn’t have … they should have hid it if they didn’t want anyone to take it.’
‘So, now its their fault that you broke into their house and took their box?’
‘I didn’t break in.’
‘So, you were a guest then, were you?’
‘Jimmy, just tell me where you got the fucking box.’
‘You can put precious things in it. Keep them safe. You know, like … stuff. Things, like.’
The alarm bells are now clanging like church bells, but once Jimmy’s decided he’s not going to tell you a specific thing he sticks to his guns. I could take a baseball bat to him and he wouldn’t offer up the truth. He’s like that. Stubborn. A convincing lie would be better than a bat, but then Jimmy’s lies are as transparent as a wedding night negligee.
‘What was in the box, Jimmy?’
‘It was nothing, like.’
‘What was nothing, like?’
He stays silent, scratching nervously at his chin.
He wants to tell me, I know he does. That’s why he’s giving me the box. It’s not a present; it’s his way of letting me know he’s fucked up and he needs help. He won’t tell me who he’s robbed, because he can’t bring himself to, but he’ll tell me what he’s robbed. He knows he’s been dumber than a sack of pheasants. I just need to tease it out of him; let him feel that he was hoodwinked into letting up his secret.
‘So, it wasn’t worth much?’
‘Pawn Stars thought it was basically worthless?’
‘I didn’t take it to them.’
‘You take everything to them.’
‘I didn’t go to them.’
‘You always to go them.’
‘I couldn’t, could I? What are they going to do with a …’ He trailed off.
‘Jesus, Jimmy! Just tell me what was in the fucking box! Do you want me to help you or not?’
* * *
‘Are you fucking nuts?’
Jimmy offered me the pinkie.
‘Get away from me with that fucking thing.’
‘It’s his finger.’
‘No shit. What the fuck are you doing with his finger?’
‘It was in the box.’
‘Jesus, Jimmy, have you got a death wish? Does he know its missing yet?’
My dumb ass brother has stolen Johnny K’s pinkie. Johnny lost it in a knife fight when he was a young hood and he’s kept it as a kind of sick trophy. The story is that the other guy lost a lot more, like his manhood. Just the thought of JK’s blood soaked hands wielding that knife across the poor bastard’s groin brings tears to my eyes. Johnny K is, if you hadn’t realised, a psychopath. He runs every racket in the neighbourhood with an iron fist.
‘I … I don’t know.’
‘What the fuck were you thinking? Don’t answer that; you weren’t fucking thinking. Shit!’
There’s dumb and then there’s suicidal. Stealing Johnny K’s pinkie was suicidal. Involving me was tantamount to aiding and abetting murder. We’re both dead men walking.
‘I … We …’
‘Just shut the fuck up, Jimmy. I’m trying to think here.’
This was my own fault, I shouldn’t have insisted on knowing what was in the box. I should have just taken the box, thrown it in the sock drawer and let Jimmy work out what he was going to do with the pinkie.
‘You better tell me how and why you stole Johnny K’s pinkie.’
‘I didn’t steal it, I …’
‘Yeah, yeah, I know, borrowed it. Save it for the jury or executioner. Just tell me what that fuck you’re doing with it.’
‘Well, me and Pete Stewart were …’
I can’t help but groan. If there’s anyone dumber than Jimmy, its Pete Stewart. He wasn’t last in the queue when they were giving out brains, he was a no show.
‘Look, Pete’s sound. Johnny K asked him to do a wee job for him, and Pete asked me to help, you know, for a bit of tab money. Just moving crates from his garage into a van.’
‘Yeah, these big boxes. Heavy as hell.’
‘And what was in them? Forget that; I don’t want to know. So, you moved these boxes, then what?’
‘Then Janey invited us into the house; give us a drink and pay us, like. She’s wearing this low cut …’
Janey is ten years younger than Johnny and is well aware of the kind of influence she can exert over men. She flirts like crazy, though you’d want a death wish to so much as glance at her.
‘The box, Jimmy.’
‘No need to be …’
‘Well, it just sitting there, you know, on the mantelpiece.’
‘You’re in Johnny K’s house, and you decide to help yourself?’
‘It was just a box.’
‘Yeah, that he keeps his fuckin’ pinkie in! It’s like his most prized possession. Everyone knows about his pinkie!’
‘I didn’t know it was in that box, did I? I thought it was jewellery or something. I just slipped in my pocket whilst she was doling out the cash.’
‘Oh, god.’ What did I do to deserve Jimmy as a brother?
‘Maybe we could throw it away?’
‘Yeah, that would work up until the moment he comes looking for it. It won’t take him two seconds to work out that either you or Pete took it. At least if you‘ve still got it we can put it back’
‘I never thought of that.’
‘You don’t think, period. We’re going to have to return it.’
‘Yeah. Do you have a better idea?’
* * *
‘Couldn’t we just post it back?’ Jimmy asks.
Now he starts to think of alternatives. It would be perfect except for the fact that we need to get it back before Johnny realises it’s missing. Fingers crossed.
We’ve cleared the wall and we’re making our way through the garden towards the house. Thankfully, Johnny doesn’t have dogs. He doesn’t need them. You’d have to be crazy to break into his house.
‘Well, how about just posting through the letter box?’ Jimmy hissed.
‘Will you shut the fuck up, Jimmy.’
‘I’m just trying to help.’
‘Well, don’t. Where’s the best place to break in?’
‘The front door. The lock’s a piece of shit.’
‘The front door?’
‘Jesus.’ What the fuck am I doing, creeping up to Johnny K’s house? Jimmy made this mess, he should sort it out. What is it with older brothers, always having to clean up after siblings?
‘And the place is empty?’
‘His car’s not here.’
‘Now what?’ I ask as we reach the door.
There’s no answer, but before I can turn on my heels, the door opens, Johnny K filling the frame, his shaved head glowing gold in the hall light.
‘I’ve been expecting you.’
‘You’ve been expecting me?’
‘You’ve got my finger?’
‘You better come in.’ He stands back and ushers me in. Jimmy’s nowhere in sight; no doubt a couple of hundred yards away and travelling fast.
‘Come-on. Stop fucking me about.’
Reluctantly I step over the threshold, following Johnny through to a large kitchen.
‘I … Well, you know …’
‘I’ll swap you. You give me your box, and I’ll give you this one.’ He produced a small, dark box from his pocket.
‘There’s no need for … I didn’t … It was …’
I pull his box from my jacket pocket and hold out my hand.
Johnny takes it and offers the other back.
‘I’m okay. I’m sorry about … well, you know … the box.’
‘Take it. You’ll need it.’
‘I’ll need it?’ I repeat, reluctantly taking my second unsolicited box in as many hours.
‘For your finger,’ Johnny says, taking a meat cleaver from a rack.
‘My … look Johnny, let’s not be hasty here. I didn’t take your finger, my …’
And that’s it; I’m in a corner in more ways than one. Do I grass on my brother, putting him in danger at the same time as I reveal my own disposition for giving people up, or do I let Johnny cleave my pinkie from my hand for a crime I didn’t commit?
Family and honour or self-preservation?
Yeah, I know, impossible choice, right?
But you have to pick one.
If he would only stop smiling maniacally I might be able to think straight.
‘You were saying?’ Johnny asks.
‘I think it’s a fair swap, don’t you? One box for another? An exchange of pinkies.’
How the hell had it come to this? Two hours ago the world was on an even keel. Well, as even as could be expected. Now this.
‘You can pick the hand. I can’t say fairer than that, can I?’
For the life of me, I can’t understand why I am proffering my left hand. What part of the brain controls self-sacrifice for dumb-ass brothers? I bet that’s not on one of those phrenology skulls.
Johnny has led me to a butcher’s block, placing my left pinkie on the edge of the board, my other fingers curled up out of the way.
‘This might sting a little,’ Johnny says, raising the cleaver above his head. He’s clearly enjoying himself, his eyes twinkling with glee. He’d dearly love me to make a break for it so he could use the cleaver indiscriminately.
My only thought as the steel flashes down is – I deserve this. The only reason I’m there, swapping mementos, is because I suggested we come.
And I thought Jimmy had an echo between his ears.