a literary review
Neck Bone and I spent Friday nights at his apartment above the repo garage. His boss let him stay rent-free in exchange for keeping an eye on the place, called it a studio apartment, but it was hardly that. We had to use the bathroom downstairs, the one his coworkers shared. It had a shower for the guys who got grubby on the job. Neck Bone’s apartment was oblong and narrow, like a hallway, with a single window overlooking a Wendy’s. Queen mattress on the floor, gunmetal desk, and a ratty sofa pulled from the street like the repossessed cars in the garage below, batteries depleting, unpaid traffic tickets in glove compartments. Bad decisions of the fiscally irresponsible kept me awake at night like the pea that bothered the princess, a lump of sadness against my back as I lay next to Neck Bone, who could fall asleep mid-sentence.
Neck Bone and I met at J.C. Pump’s, where I bar backed. Located at the edge of town next to a restaurant-supply store, J.C. Pump’s didn’t have disco lights or a dance floor, just a pool table and a jukebox that hadn’t been updated since ABBA’s last studio album. Julian—Mr. Pump, if you were straight or he just didn’t like you—could’ve made more money if he’d just taken down the rainbow flag outside. “But I don’t need the money, especially from breeders,” he said dismissively when I suggested he consider making the bar a little more inclusive. He simply enjoyed having a place for his friends to gather, mostly older gentlemen who’d somehow miraculously survived the era when AIDS was a death sentence. Tips were good, especially if I went shirtless, showed my abs and pecs—and J.C. Pump’s was close to the community college where I took classes part-time if only to keep my dad from breathing down my neck.
“When I was your age,” he was fond of saying, “I’d already joined Local 104. Had my own place and everything. Well, I guess so long as you’re still in school, it ain’t freeloading. Sure does feel like it sometimes though.” Then he’d finish with, “If your mom was still alive, she’d know what to do with you,” as if her pancreatic cancer, diagnosed less than a year after she left him, were the sole reason she was no longer around.
“Old enough to look after yourself,” she rationalized as she packed her things. “Already more of a man than your dad.” Her hand felt warm as she cupped my cheek and studied my face the way I’d studied my father’s, searching for validation. “Just don’t be like him, so mayabang that man,” she said. “If I wanted a philandering husband, I should have just stayed in the Philippines.”
I was at the tail end of high school then, when the whites of her eyes were still bright.
Neck Bone wasn’t a regular at J.C. Pump’s, came in once a month at most, before dropping off a job at the garage. I thought he was straight. Like Neck Bone, the straight guys who came into the bar were younger than the gay clientele, usually from the local restaurant supply, here for a quick drink before heading home to the wife. Safer than a titty bar. When Neck Bone did come in, he’d order a Maker’s neat and hunker down in the shadows behind the pool table. He was built like a high school athlete, a decade out from peak condition, still solid but not tapered in the right places like the gay guys who go wine-tasting upstate.
I was surprised when he finally introduced himself. “My name’s Marvin, but my friends call me Neck Bone on account I don’t move my head much. You wanna go out sometime?” Turns out that meant having sex. We did other things on occasion, like bowling or the movies, but mostly we went to his place above the garage.
I liked Neck Bone because he never asked, “So, what are you anyway?” A question always posed with suspicion or salaciousness. In either case, the intent is to pigeonhole, forcing me to prioritize white before Asian or Asian before white, father above mother or mother above father. It’s tiresome having to explain what hapa means every time I meet someone.
Sometimes Neck Bone would take me along to repossess cars early Saturday mornings, the best time to catch people off guard, while they were still blinking at the rising sun, coffee mug in hand. If the car was parked on the street, Neck Bone could jimmy the door as fast as using a key. If the car was parked on private property, he had to get the owner’s permission to take it. Otherwise, according to Neck Bone, it might be considered trespassing, even theft, which seemed like a vague distinction. But Neck Bone spoke in vagaries, said “maybe” and “sort of” a lot. Grew up sort of near Tempe. Maybe could have played college football but struggled academically in high school so the scholarships never came. Bounced around doing odd jobs until settling on repossessing cars. And that was pretty much all I knew about Neck Bone after three months of dating or whatever it was we were doing.
The repo office was full of thick files on people who’d defaulted on their loans: where they lived, where they worked, income, credit score. Things you’d expect. But there was also personal data that struck me as illegal to collect: schools their children attended, gyms they belonged to, grocery stores and strip clubs they frequented, routes to and from work. “If you wanna disappear, always pay in cash,” Neck Bone told me early on, as if I didn’t already keep a low enough profile.
A week before Christmas, Neck Bone knocked on the door of an electrician to tell him his livelihood was about to be repossessed. His truck was parked in the driveway, custom-made toolboxes bolted to the flatbed. Stan Dembrowski, his name according to the file, was belligerent at first, standing in the doorway with two children clinging to his legs. He swore, shook his fist in Neck Bone’s face. I hung back on the sidewalk, but I could see past Stan, into his living room, presents neatly arranged around a flocked tree. Like many Filipinos, my mother loved Christmas so much she’d start decorating right after Halloween. Since her death, my father’s idea of festive has been setting a tabletop tree on the kitchen counter, its chintzy wire branches misshapen from being stowed haphazardly in the hall closet. Stan changed his tactic to begging. He needed the truck to earn money, to make the car payments, to pay the mortgage, credit-card debt. “It’s Christmas, man. Give me a break, please!”
Neck Bone stood his ground. Eventually, Stan acquiesced, tears welling in his eyes as he signed the papers and emptied the truck, carefully laying drills, cables, and various pliers on the lawn.
Back at the garage, I searched Neck Bone’s face. Repossessing cars requires a facade that never shows sympathy or compassion; accordingly, his was always stoic. Heavy brow, broad nose, round-the-clock five-o’clock shadow, the kind of face that looks better on older men. I pictured him working at the repo garage for the next 30 years, one decade indistinguishable from the next, the make and model of the cars the only things that change.
Neck Bone fished through Stan Dembrowski’s glove compartment, discovered a Swiss Army knife, and handed it to me. “Merry Christmas,” he said.
I didn’t sleep over that night, made up an excuse about helping my dad with something. Neck Bone shrugged. He was easygoing, didn’t care much either way about anything, which was cool, until it started to feel cold. I rode the bus home but got off several stops early to take a detour on foot to Stan Dembrowski’s house. I left the Swiss Army knife on the front porch without ringing the doorbell. What would I have said? That I wasn’t a repo man, not even an aspiring one? That I was somehow better? The next day, I gave notice at J.C. Pump’s. Julian was disappointed, but he understood. “Having a college degree is more important these days,” he said. “Not like when I was your age.”
After leaving a poinsettia at my mother’s tombstone, my dad and I exchanged gifts at home. He got me a shaving kit from Walmart. I gave him a bottle of Jameson’s.
“Shave those pubes off your chin,” he said.
“Don’t drink the whole bottle in one day,” I said.
He laughed. “Fuck you, you little prick.”
We raked the backyard, filling the compost bin to the brim with wet leaves. When we were done, the yard looked nice, like when I was a kid.
Jay Ruben Dayrit’s short stories have appeared in Jellyfish Review, Minnesota Review, Santa Clara Review, Sycamore Review, WIRED, and The Yale Quarterly. He is a recipient of the Individual Artist Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission and an Artist-in-Residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts. He has taught creative writing at Kearny Street Workshop and San Quentin State Prison. Originally from the Federated States of Micronesia, he now lives in San Francisco.