“Shit rolls downhill,” Pops said, the sun beaming down hard. This is the only thing he ever taught me. Moms would counter with sometimes bad things happen to good people, but that doesn’t mean you have to make everyone miserable. Pops liked the way he said it better. Pops just liked to cuss.
He loomed over our landlord Mr. Jorgensen, a soft J-ed Swedish man with hot alley-water stink. He held his unemployment check fresh from the mailbox, knuckles spotted with Swede blood. Work had dried up, very few people building new homes or renovating olds ones, and Jorgensen had complained about my bike again when we walked down to get the mail, how it cluttered the pathway to the lobby. That’s all it took for Pops to go white-hot. It was early evening, still steamy, and the heat made him crazy. He had spent the night again down the block at McGuire’s Pub and upstairs Moms was making a chicken pot-pie just because he hated it. The salty smell of broth sailed down from above and settled near Pop’s nose. He looked up, frowned as if holding something rotten inside. “Only sweets belong in pies!” he shouted. “But you can’t tell people anything.”
Jorgensen lay in the grass with a broken nose. Pops straddled him, bent down and plopped his ass on Jorgensen’s lower back and shoved the check under his nose. Jorgensen groaned. I swear I heard his back crack like a belt snapping against bare skin. I laughed. At least it wasn’t me.
“Just take it,” Pops said. “There’s your rent.”
He crammed it in Jorgensen’s shirt pocket. The man squirmed, grass stains smearing his chinos, and Pops dropped the tattered envelop onto his head and then shuffled back toward the apartment. The sun was setting, washing the facade of our building in an orange glow. I was close behind, much too carefree, trying to hump my shadow against his, both of them shrinking against the brick. There was too much shine coming down and I could only hear my sister call out “What happened?” from above, and when I glanced up to respond with my big mouth--Pops always said I had a big mouth--he knocked me onto my ass in a bare patch of earth near the front door where nothing would ever grow. My palms itched, my hands rubbed good with dirt. I let them go limp in my lap, folded over each other like I was praying. Pops was upon me then, hunched over, a leg on either side.
“What was that for?” I asked.
“Hush, big mouth,” he said.
He snapped his fingers at where Jorgensen had been, the grass holding his slimy outline like a footprint. By now Jorgensen had disappeared down the alleyway. He’d taken his check. Of course. “What’d I just say?” Pops asked.
“About the shit?”
He knocked me in the head. “Don’t cuss,” he said. The world went dizzy. He licked his fat lips. “But yeah, about that,” he said, “Don’t forget it.”
I nodded so hard I thought my head would roll off into the grass.
“I won’t,” I said. “Never.”