Walking Into Clouds

by Rick Beck

Chapter 20

Drop Out

Cody working with me gave us a lot more time to be within easy reach of each other. Simply knowing he was in the building with me made me happy. I tried to remember what Teddy told me about being happy.

It wasn't what you want. It resulted from having what you want, and I had Cody.

Inevitably we came to a fork in the road, and we took it.

"It would be a lot easier on you if you didn't need to drive into town to pick me up before work in the morning," Cody said.

"I could stay at the motel with you," I said.

It was the first thing that came to mind.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable taking advantage of Mr. Bing's hospitality that way. I've never let anyone stay in my room," he said.

"Our biggest delivery days, the days I need you most, are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I could pick you up Monday after work and you could stay over during the week. You'd be at the house and you could work on your GED with mom when you aren't at work."

I proposed the plan as it came to me. I realized what the proposal added up to. Cody would be living at my house. If there was anything I was certain about Cody, he didn't want to be around my mom anymore than necessary, but the plan was already in the air.

"Fine?" Cody said.

I expected a list of reasons why it wouldn't be fine. I got none.

That day before dinner, with Cody sitting at the table in the kitchen studying for his GED, I tried my luck with mom.

"Cody's going to stay over tonight. That way I don't need to do so much driving around," I said, pouring milk in a glass as I spoke.

Mom was at the stove a few feet away attending to dinner.

"I'll need to change the sheets on the bed in the guest room. Those sheets have been on there since your Aunt Lulu left last fall," she said without hesitating.

"You don't need to worry about the guest room, mom. Cody is sleeping in my room."

"Don't be silly. That bed is too small for the two of you," she said, and that's when mom raised her eyebrow.

When my mother raised her left eyebrow, she was in processing mode. In the five seconds her eye brow remained elevated, I'm certain my entire childhood flashed through her brain.

I waited for the fallout.

Nothing else needed to be said and nothing else was said.

I glanced toward Cody for some sign someone knew we were sleeping together. Cody had a particularly wide grin as he peered into the GED test material. He looked like the cat that ate the canary, but I didn't check for bite marks.

Sometimes things just happen, which could be a sign they are meant to happen. I'm still thinking about what happened in the kitchen that afternoon.

If dad gave it a second thought, I didn't see it. Cody had been coming to the house for weeks by then. Cody worked with me and we were always together, but one evening the fifteen minute drive into town to pick up Cody was too far out of the way, and so Cody began staying over.

Cody didn't ask to stay over. The subject never came up before the day I brought it up. Life is weird that way.

At first Cody stayed the nights before he worked. Then there was a night or two in between the nights before he worked. Then he needed to be at the house to study for the GED.

Nothing was said but Cody was living with us by the end of the first month he worked at Hitchcock's. He was a good worker. He didn't mind doing the things I didn't like to do. Knowing that, he did them well and without complaint.

We spent our share of time out by the dock where we unloaded stock, even when there was no stock left to be put up. Mr. Hitchcock was finally pleased with the help that replaced Jacob as the head stocking clerk. Jacob was a full time cashier and gopher for his dad, but by August he needed a full-time cashier to replace Jacob who would soon be back at college.

There was an energy at my house that hadn't been there before. Cody played the piano each evening and we listened and at times mom and dad danced. Each new song Mr. Bing taught Cody came home to my house and my parents enjoyed the vibrancy that came home with it as Cody played and sang.

On Tuesday nights it was Mr. Bing and Floyd. From time to time Vanilla invited us to dinner. She put on her latest creation and she sang Aretha and Billie Holiday songs. It was like going to a night club, except for the dingy apartment, but once Vanilla was on, the location faded as we listened to her sing.

My parents had talked about having another child when I was real young. There hadn't been a good time for one. Dad worked for a start-up electronics company and his pay was hardly enough for the three of us. As time went on and the pay got better, the talk stopped and my parents were satisfied with the small family they had created.

It didn't matter to me if I had a little brother or not. I sometimes thought it wouldn't be as boring with another kid in the house. I thought my parents would have less time to focus on me if they had another child to keep them busy.

The years went on. I met the boys who would be my best buds until we were out of school. Life was fine and I didn't have time to worry about my parents and the possibility of another child who never made an appearance.

Cody became the second child they almost had. It was like he'd become a member of the family over night.

One afternoon while Cody and mom were sitting at the kitchen table with the GED material in front of them, I answered a knock at the door. When I opened it, I came face to face with a squared away marine. Sqeaky was home on leave before shipping out to Okinawa.

"Damn, Squeak," I said. "You're grown up. You're a man."

"That's what they tell me. The marines tried to kill me, but I wouldn't die. The only thing left to do was become a marine."

I laughed and he hugged me fondly, which was a surprise.

Sqeaky's skinny frame had been fortified with a layer of muscle. It was like he wasn't the same guy physically.

"No one is home but you," he said. "Barney's married and living in Boston. Fred's on a cruise to Europe and he'll be gone all summer. Jordy, well, you know Jordy, he's off doing something somewhere. I was halfway afraid you'd be gone, but I bet you're still working at Hitchcock's Market. You been working there since you got out of diapers, haven't you?"

We laughed.

I was nearly twenty and I couldn't remember not working at Hitchcock's Market.

I didn't know Sqeaky any longer. It was the same voice with a little less squeak. His body was bigger. He seemed more confident, but after a half hour, the conversation got strained. We didn't have anything to talk about. We'd known each other since we were ten and we'd grown apart in the past two years.

"Well, glad I found someone home, Thomas," he said. "I best be getting home for dinner. Wouldn't do to miss a meal. The marines insist on three good meals a day and I've been taking advantage of it. I used to live off of potato chips and Dr. Pepper. Not any more."

With that Sqeaky was gone. Where had the time gone.

I wondered how we'd stayed friends for all those years. It was part of growing up. We didn't decide to be friends. We simply became friends because we were together so much. I thought a reunion with my other best buds would be no less awkward.

I'd never been as close to them as they'd been to each other, but none of them was keeping his true nature a secret.

At least I didn't think any of them were.

We had Mr. Bing Tuesday evenings, and Floyd's on Tuesday night.

When Floyd took a turn, Cody stayed the night and I picked him up for work on Wednesday. He stayed Wednesday night and I picked him up after work on Thursday. Floyd seemed better and Cody went home with me that night.

I didn't say it but sleeping without him was a lonely affair.

Vanilla was in another universe by the time Floyd was feeling better. Her dress making, entertaining three nights a week, rehearsing, and her constant search for new material kept her away from her apartment. The dress shop was off limits for visits. Mrs. Doyle, the owner, didn't allow business and pleasure to mingle. At least she didn't let it mingle in her dress shop.

The Review being a bar meant steering clear. One glimpse of someone who might be under age sent Big Lil into palpitations. Vanilla had troubles enough with Big Lil. She didn't dare let Cody tag along with her to the Review if Big Lil was in town.

One Sunday we took Vanilla to the back door of the Review with three gowns for the performers who dressed up. We carried the gowns inside, leaving without seeing Vanilla in her newest creation. There was talk of our visiting one Sunday, before the bar opened, when a dress rehearsal was held on stage in the entertainment area that only opened during performances.

I'd never known contentment before. The only time I worried about Cody was when he was out of my sight for more than five minutes. He worked beside me and he carried his weight. I removed the stock from the truck in most cases and then we put some stock away for storing and we put other stock on the shelves.

Even stooping over or squatting, I had trouble keeping the bottom shelf neat and presentable. Cody could rearrange the bottom shelf, putting the new stock behind the old stock and doing it in no time. I let him know what a big help that was.

I worked with Andy for months. He couldn't stoop or manage a bottom shelf to save his life. He made a big enough mess for me to do most things myself. At minimum wage Andy was vastly over paid.

Cody went right to work on whatever needed doing. He didn't complain and the bottom shelves were kept neat as a pin. Cody knew that was my biggest gripe about Andy. The lout couldn't bend over.

"I've never had a regular job," Cody said. "I've always worked but it was never regular enough for me to depend on. Mr. Bing pays me enough to allow me to nearly live without doing anything else, because the room comes with the work. I'm sure that's on purpose."

Cody and mom worked on his GED on days Cody didn't come to Hitchcock's with me. I liked that they were getting along.

"Cody is smart," mom said. "He knows the basics. How the child has managed to retain as much as he has is a mystery to me."

Mom added some foundation in literature and history, while she reviewed English and math. Cody had the most trouble in English. He'd missed a lot of schooling. Math wasn't that much of a challenge. Straightforward math computation came right back to him. Algebra and geometry confused him. Mom said that Cody hadn't learned the abstract concepts in math. She wasn't as sure of herself when it came to more complicated mathematics but she was sure that between the two of them they'd figure it out.

I didn't see that as a big problem. I was good in geometry and algebra. I had to be. Dad was an electronics engineer. None of it bothered Cody. He was sure he could pass the test without my mother's tutoring, but he'd do a lot better after being tutored.

While Cody and I worked side by side three days a week, and our production exceeded anything I could accomplish with Andy, but our harmony didn't help Mr. Hitchcock's bottom line.

Costs began exceeding revenue.

Mr. Hitchcock's long face grew longer. The worry etched new lines into an already aging face.

I wondered what I'd do if I didn't work at Hitchcock's Market. I never knew another job. It wasn't hard and it was physical enough to satisfy my need for room to roam in any job I took. I didn't change my mind on school or on travel.

I was more than an employee at Hitchcock's. He'd made me part of his family. I'd grown up with Jacob working beside me. I felt safe there and I didn't need more than that.

Cody had no difficulty fitting into my life. He kept his closest friends and I took him to town any time he asked me to. This gave him what he needed to feel content. He expressed no interest in returning to the life he had before he met me. His days on the street were over. I'd never allow Cody to return to the streets. His life with me meant he would have no reason to return to the streets.

I loved Cody and he loved me and it was everything I imagined love would be and more. Being with someone, having someone, filled my life up in ways I didn't consider before. After Cody was living at my house for a few weeks, I could no longer find the spot where I stopped and he started.

My parents couldn't have been more pleased if Cody was my brother and he'd always been in the house. My father talked jazz with Cody and my mother talked education. Each found something that created a bond between them and Cody.

I couldn't see where dad gave so much as a thought to what Cody was doing sleeping in my bed. I knew my father pretty well. He was a focused man who was devoted to his work, his family, and the music he loved. When life required him to consider other things, he spent as much time on it as necessary. I didn't think it had been necessary for him to consider my relationship with Cody.

We were happy and my father was happy that we were happy. It was simple and it was good.

Once again Floyd became quite ill. I took Cody to town on Friday after work. I went upstairs but didn't stay. Floyd wasn't hungry. He was reclined in his chair and hardly followed us with his eyes. He did not look good to me.

"Look, I'll be here for the weekend. I don't work until Tuesday and hopefully by then I can get some food into him. If anything comes up, I'll let you know. Otherwise, pick me up Tuesday morning before you go to work," Cody said.

We kissed. He followed me into the hall and he stood with me until the elevator arrived. We kissed again and I kept my eyes on him, and he kept his eyes on me, until the doors closed.

I was sad for Floyd and for Cody. Floyd's thoughts had turned to the idea he wasn't going to live much longer. He'd lived a life in isolation for many years. He grieved for his lost friends and his one true love. He was ready to be with them.

I was nineteen. Thoughts of death never came to mind, except when I went to Floyd's with Cody. I hadn't stayed with Cody at Floyd's for some time. I felt as though I didn't belong there. What was between Floyd and Cody was personal and I wasn't part of it.

Tuesday, on my way to work, I stopped at Floyd's. Cody wasn't down stairs, where he usually waited. He knew what time and I'd kept busy with yard work and work I had been putting off on the Silverado to worry about how it was going with Floyd. He knew what time I'd be in front of Floyd's so we'd make it to work on time.

I took the elevator to the top floor and I knocked on Floyd's door. There was no answer. I drove to Vanilla's. I hadn't seen her in over a month, but if anyone knew where Cody was, it was Vanilla. There was no answer at Vanilla's. No one was in the hall for me to ask if they'd seen her or the young man who often visited her.

I went to work and contemplated Floyd becoming sicker. Cody would have gone to the hospital with him. Floyd went in the hospital a couple of times a year the last few years and that had to be where Cody was, but why hadn't he called?

Did I give him the number? We were always together. He'd never called the house. How could I be so stupid? Everything ran smoothly since Cody came to the house. I always knew where to be to pick him up if he went to town. He'd always been waiting.

He knew when I'd come for him and where he should wait. He knew I'd go looking if he wasn't waiting for me. Now I wished that I'd become more dependent on the smart phone like everyone else.

I didn't have anyone to call before. My life ran on a schedule and talking to people on the phone didn't appeal to me. I didn't have anything to say to most people when I saw them. It seemed crazy to think I would have something to say to them on the phone.

I was late for work but Tuesday mornings were slow. Mr. Hitchcock didn't ask me where Cody was. I didn't say. I unloaded two trucks in the afternoon and I called the house three times.

"No, Cody hasn't called? Where is he?" mom asked.

"I don't know," I said. "He was supposed to meet me this morning. He wasn't there."

At dinner my father asked, "Where do you think Cody is?"

I didn't know. He hadn't called. He wasn't at Floyd's or Vanilla's. Neither Floyd nor Vanilla was home. I'd drawn a perfect zero and I was worried sick. I picked at my food and wondered where Cody was. Had something happened to him? What could happen at Floyd's?

I knew where I'd go next.

"Mr. Bing is the only other place where he might be. We usually meet him Tuesday evening," I said.

"Do you want me to go with you?" Dad asked.

"No, I don't know how Mr. Bing will react if Cody isn't there at the time we usually meet him. I better go face him alone," I said. "He'll want to know that Cody is missing."

Mr. Bing came toward me in long even steps just before seven. He was a lone figure on the empty street. His trumpet case in his left hand made him immediately recognizable. He knew there was only one of us from a half a block away.

I paced as I waited for him to arrive.

"Where's Mr. C, Mr. C?" he asked.

"I was hoping you knew. I don't know, Mr. Bing. I've been everywhere I know he might be. He isn't any place I know," I said, a frantic sound in my voice.

"The motel?" Mr. Bing asked.

"No. He hasn't been there," I said, following him to the side door of Topsy's.

Mr. Bing turned the knob and put his shoulder to the door. He held it open for me to come inside and he shut the door behind me. He didn't lock it.

"In the office. I need to call someone," Mr. Bing said. "I'll get something to drink."

He handed me a can of root beer and he put the bottle of mineral water on his desk. He took off his hat and put it beside the mineral water. He hung his jacket on the back of the chair. He loosened his tie before he sat down.

He looked at me for a long time. I could not think of anything to say. I wanted him to say something. I wanted him to have some idea of where Cody might be. He took a drink of mineral water.

I waited with the hopes he'd have some idea of what to do.

"Start at the beginning and tell me everything up until you just now met me out front. Everything," Mr. Bing said in a firm no nonsense voice. "Leave out nothing. I don't care how stupid it might sound to you."

I started with Floyd. It's when we broke from our routine and it's where I last saw Cody. I told Mr. Bing the steps I took that morning. I described my work day and going home to dinner. Cody hadn't missed a day at work. There had been no calls and no messages since I left Floyd's Friday evening. I wasn't sure Cody had the phone number at my house. How stupid was I for not making sure he had the number?

Jerome Bing looked at my face while I spoke. Every few minutes he wrote something on a pad on his desk. Then he went back to listening to the story. He showed no emotion. Except for writing on the pad, he watched me the entire time I talked, until I ran out of things to tell him. I searched my brain for more but there wasn't anymore.

"You were the only spot I hadn't hit. I didn't know how to reach you, except be here at seven," I said, drained by retracing a bad day.

"You did the right thing. I've worried about this since... for a long time. I know you feel helpless, but you'll have plenty of help now. Seeing Cody with you, I stopped worrying as much. I hoped this day never came but I've always known it could. Now that it has arrived, I need to bring someone else in on it. He's a hunting dog. He's the man I would want if I was looking for someone," he said.

"Fine. I don't know what to do," I said, and the sob shook me.

Mr.. Bing's big hand patted my shoulder in a comforting way. It was surprisingly gentle.

"Luther," Mr. Bing said into the phone.

His stern look turned to a scowl.

"Young man, I want you to listen to me carefully. Tell Luther it's Bing. Tell Luther I need him right away. Do that and I'll forget about you being rude to me. Do you understand me? Good."

His words were soft and direct. He waited.

"Luther, Bing. I need you now. I won't explain over the phone. How long will you be? I have someone for you to talk to," Mr. Bing said. "OK. The side door is unlocked. See you in fifteen minutes."

"He's on his way," Mr. Bing told me.

We sat in silence.

The door advertised Luther's arrival. Mr. Bing didn't stand or attempt to greet him. After the door opened, it close. I didn't hear the man walking but in another minute he filled the door of the office. I mean he absolutely filled the doorway.

"Luther, Clete. Clete, this is Luther Small. He'll find Cody for us," Mr. Bing said with certainty in his voice.

I stood up to see where I came up to on Luther's chest while we shook hands. He was at least a head taller than I was, and he was a yard wide at the shoulders. He was wearing what I thought were workout clothes. By the size of him, he obviously worked out, but the sweats with the arms cut off the shirt weren't what I'd call roaming around clothes. After shaking his hand, I sat back down.

"The little man with the judge?" Luther asked.

"I forgot all about that, Luther. Why did you jump to that conclusion?" Mr. Bing asked.

"You had the same sound in your voice then as you did tonight. I thought it was about the boy."

"He's grown up since then, Luther. I took a few notes but you'll want to hear Clete's story yourself. I can't give you anything pertinent. He's missing from an apartment over on Colonial Drive. He went there Friday night and he was supposed to meet Clete this morning. He wasn't there. Clete came to me for help. I told him you'd find Cody for us."

"Here, you can sit here," I said, standing up.

"No, I'm faster on my feet. Start at the beginning, Clete, and don't leave anything out. Start with the last time you saw Cody," he said. "Tell me what the plan was."

Luther was leaning his back against the doorjamb when I finished the story.

"Floyd's last name?" Luther asked.

"I don't know. He's Cody's friend. I didn't think I needed to know his last name. He's an architect. He designed the building he lives in. He owns the top floor."

"Floyd Dollar is the guy? He designed my gym, Keep Fit. I'm still paying him because he gave me a sweetheart deal," Luther said.

"Floyd Dollar?" Mr. Bing said. "He's pretty well known."

"I have people I can call to find out about him. His firm is in town. Do you think he got sicker and went to the hospital?" Luther asked.

"It could be, but Cody would have called if that's all there was to it. He may well be in the hospital. He looked very sick to me, but where did Cody go. He wouldn't be staying at the hospital. He'd go to Vanilla's if it was before I was to pick him up. He'd want Vanilla to lift his spirits, but Vanilla wasn't home this morning either," I said.

"You don't have his last name?" Luther asked.

"I don't have a clue but he performs at the Review," I said.

"I can make a few calls and see if I can't locate this Vanilla," Luther said. "Someone will have a last name."

"Anyone you can think of that he might go to spend some time with?" Luther asked.

"Jack, and no, I don't know his last name. He used to go out with him. He could have run into Jack, but he'd have called. Where ever he is, he can't call, but I don't carry a phone and I'm not sure he has my home phone number."

"Could be a good reason he hasn't called," Luther said.

"He hasn't missed a Tuesday night in over a year," Mr. Bing said.

"Believe me when I say, I've looked for some dudes who didn't know to come in out of the rain. Some people have no concept of time passing. You can't rule anything out at this point. I can find Floyd Dollar. I can identify Vanilla with a little coaxing, but Jack worries me. He's a dead end," Luther said. "Jack is not exactly a unique name."

"Vanilla knows Jack but Jack has a family. He couldn't keep Cody against his will. They're friends," I said.

"Right now I don't know anything. Anything might lead me to the boy. We'll start with where he was and work our way through these other folks," Luther said.

"Vanilla can tell you the most about him. She's known him almost since he came to town. He tells her everything," I said.

"Luther, I want you to find Cody for me. Bring him back to us in good condition. If someone has hurt him, you know what to do. You don't need to tell me anything, except you've done the job I hired you to do. That boy is like one of my own. We clear on the arrangement?" Mr. Bing said.

"We are. You're the boss, Bing. I'll get right on it," Luther said.

"Keep me posted," Mr. Bing said.

"Give me a day to track down the players. By this time tomorrow I should have a report for you, OK, Bing, Luther is on it."

With that Luther Small left the office. The side door opened and then closed. I was left with more questions than answers. I was excited that someone who knew what he was doing was on the case.

I felt empty inside. Mr. Bing and I sat in his office for some time before Mr. Bing spoke.

"He's a good man. We'll know something by this time tomorrow. I want you to write your phone number on the pad if you don't mind me calling your house once I have something.

"Call any time. My father wanted to come with me, but I told him I needed to talk to you alone. I didn't know how you'd react to me losing Cody," I said. "Here's my home number and I work at Hitchcock's Market. I'll put that number down too. I won't be more than ten minutes from either number until we find Cody."

"None of your doing. Lighten up and let Luther do what he does best. Nothing left to do but wait, Clete. Don't play the blame game."

"I'll let myself out," I said. "Thank you, Mr. Bing. I feel better."

"I'll call when I have something," he said.

I was never alone until I fell in love.

Jerome Bing was a music man but he cared about Cody. I thought about his words to Luther and I realized that I wasn't the only one in pain. I saw Cody as a lone figure I had become connected to but there were other people connected to him in ways I didn't understand. He might have been a throwaway kid but he had backup.

Waiting, worrying while I waited, was hard time to do. I drove around to the places where Cody might go, but I knew I wouldn't find him. If he could, he'd have shown up by now.

My parents were waiting too. They watched me wait while I was at the house. There was nothing to be said.

My agreement with Mr. Bing was that I'd call him as soon as I heard from Cody. Mr. Bing would call me if he heard from Cody or if Luther found out anything concrete.

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