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Chris Lynch (b. 1962), a Boston native, is an award-winning author of several acclaimed young adult novels, including Freewill (2001), which won the Michael L. Printz Honor, and National Book Award finalist Inexcusable (2005). Lynch holds an MA from the writing program at Emerson College, and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Lesley University. He mentors aspiring writers and continues to work on new literary projects while splitting time between Boston and Scotland.
Caesar's father, Victor, has an impression of him. Caesar's got an impression of his father, too. Victor is a used-to-be-drunk but now he's a recovered, round-the-clock sober unbearable nervous twelve-step pain-in-the-hole who adds his own thirteenth step to the AA deal because these days nothing is intense enough for him. Victor's step thirteen is, for all the life you pissed away those many years in the bottle, you have to rededicate yourself to choking the hell out of the lives around you, probably with some kind of freak notion of getting back some of what you wasted. Caesar doesn't really appreciate Victor's occupation or his avocation, security guard and church deacon, which the kid says both amount to about the same thing. "Sobocop" is a thing Caesar called his dad sometimes. He isn't a for-real cop, but he is for-real sober and wears that part of himself like a sheriff's tin star. In reality he was a roving security guard, going where he was told by the outfit that supplied him with the badge and the flashlight but no, absolutely not, no gun. Victor has a big ol' heart that you can practically hear ticking, and never goes anywhere without his nitroglycerin pills.
All that, in Caesar del Negro's opinion, explains the absence of any mother in the house. She hung for all the boozing, which she had no problem with. It was the one year of bitchin' sobriety that blew her out.
He's a soft-spoken sober, Victor is. Like he's apologizing all the time, for being good. When he was bad he was loud, he was a force, he was a foghorn. People were drawn to the foghorn, they followed it. Nobody follows a whisper.
In Caesar's opinion, Victor's volume control was attached backward.
Victor's opinion of his son goes about like this:
"What are you gonna do, Caesar?"
Caesar is sitting on the edge of his bed, head hanging, long black hair falling like a curtain between them as the son ties his shoes. He finishes tying, dangles in that position anyway.
"Caesar. Look at me, Caesar."
Slowly the kid pulls himself back to upright position. His head is slushy and hot from the upside-down. He smiles at this, and drops down for more.
It's not like he's never heard it all before anyway.
"Pick your head up and look at your father," Victor says evenly.
Caesar does as he's told because, despite impressions, he is a good boy, and his every impulse is, as it has always been, to do what he is told to the best of his ability.
Victor looks at Caesar's face, peeking out between twin sheets of fine middle-parted hair. "You got so many pimples now, Caesar. You gotta cut your hair, or at least get it off your face somehow. You got such a great face in there, y'know? Thank god you come out like your mom that way. But don't spoil it."
Caesar blushes, feels the same blood rush as when he hung upside down, even though he knows his father is lying, about his great face, and telling the truth, about the acne. Caesar pushes the hair back, smoothing it out on both sides, then lets it go. The hair falls right back over forehead, eyes, cheekbones.
Victor sighs. "What are you gonna do, Caesar?"
Caesar knows what the man means. He asks the question a lot. He asks it in the morning before the two of them head out, he asks it once in a while in the dead of night, crouched beside Caesar's bed, sweating, red-eyed, and puffing out coffee breath like an insecticide fogger. And he asks it, like now, when the boy is on his way out into night. Caesar knows what he means.
"What do you mean, exactly, Victor?" Caesar groans.
"You know. Wit' your life? What are you gonna do? You're not even thinking about it, I can tell. And time, Son, time." Victor stops to look at the floor, to shake his head ruefully, to choke back whole bunches of things. "Time ain't helpful. It don't stand still, and it don't rewind, and it don't give you back nothin' you didn't take with you the first time around."
"Let me ask you this," Caesar says, standing and buttoning his shirt in front of the brown oval mirror that's attached to what used to be his mother's brown square vanity. So awfully brown, dark and dull lifeless brown, for a vanity, which Caesar believes should be white for a lady to be sitting in front of it. "Do you mean, what am I going to do, long-term, or what am I going to do in the future immediate?"
This is progress. They had never before gotten even this deep into the discussion, Caesar always stopping things with a quick and heartfelt I don't know. Victor is encouraged.
"I'll take whatever," he says with a shrug. "Anything you got on your mind, I'm happy to hear it out."
"Well, Victor, long-term, I still don't know. But for right now, Caesar's gonna go plow his ladygirl."
Sometimes those things just come out of Caesar's mouth, uncontrollably, like he has some kind of a condition. He doesn't really want to hurt his father, but his father is pressure, and pressure tends not to bring the best out of Caesar. Pressure corners Caesar, makes him squirm. It also makes him call himself by his name, Caesar. He'd heard athletes do it, with a hundred microphones stuck in their faces, and it seemed to make them happy and confident, proud and calm. All those unimaginable, superhero qualities that had to be faked. Caesar tried it on for himself then, and it played well in his head, stayed in there the way the first song you hear on the radio in the morning plays on and on whether it's a song you like or not. Caesar, when forced to discuss the subject of Caesar, likes the sound of it, Caesar, better than he likes the sound of I.
"You're gonna plow yourself, with that attitude, boy," Victor calls as Caesar descends the stairs.
"Whoever'll have me," Caesar says, shrugging.
Caesar still goes to church, though he does not know why. He goes to Mass on Sundays, but he doesn't take Communion. He does not go to confession. He sits in on special events like Stations of the Cross. He particularly enjoys Stations of the Cross.
Mostly he just goes and sits, though, in the massive aging basilica that is his ornate parish church. He likes all the gold and the flickering bits of life in the countless candles. He likes the small stories in the stained glass windows, and the big story in the gargantuan mahogany Christ behind the altar. He likes the painted ceiling and particularly the center, the rocket-cone center of the place where Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John sit piloting the whole show out to the stars.
He stops there, sits a while, doesn't pray, whenever he has time, whenever he is on his way to someplace, and he has time.
It's seven in the morning when Caesar leaves the house to go to church. It is eight when he leaves the church to go to a sub shop called the Pizza Face. When he saw it in the Sunday help-wanted listings, he knew he was looking at an honest-to-god omen right there. Much of Caesar's previously cloudy future immediate cleared up at that moment. Like when Son of Sam heard the dog talking to him, and he knew what he'd be doing the next day.
"The hell you wanna work here for?" Stavros asks. The question isn't nasty, but it isn't friendly either. It's more like a test, the exam for working at the Pizza Face.
"I wanna buy a car," Caesar says. "And, I like pizza."
"Well, that's for sure the truth. As a professional, lemme give you some advice: If you gotta O.D. on pizza, lay off the pepperoni and sausage or your face ain't never gonna recover." Stavros chops tomatoes and peppers and onions as he talks, whacking the vegetables with a weighted cleaver, then shoving them aside like he hates the sight of them.
Caesar figures the insulting advice is another part of the test.
"Thanks," he says.
Stavros stops chopping and looks directly at Caesar. "Don't you go to school?"
"I'm seventeen," Caesar offers.
"What, they don't have school for seventeen-year-olds no more?"
"Not if the seventeen-year-olds don't wanna go no more."
Stavros nods. "So then, this is what you wanna do with the rest of your life?" He waves the big chopper knife around at his own store as if he's looking for a good spot to throw it.
"It is," Caesar says, nodding at all the brown greasy walls. "This is exactly what I wanted to do, ever since I sucked my first hard sub roll as a kid."
Stavros laughs, annihilates a cucumber. "You start at noon. Beginning tomorrow."
"Great," Caesar says. "Noon till ...?"
"Noon till when I decide you ain't needed no more."
Caesar thinks, but not for too long. If he doesn't like it, he'll quit. That's life. Big-time life. Life in the fast lane. "See you tomorrow," he says.
He goes directly from the pizza joint to school, where Caesar del Negro brings an official close to his formal education.
The event is noted by the vice principal's secretary who does the paperwork, and by no one else.
"Don't I get a lecture?" he asks the tall tired woman.
She looks up from the form, looks Caesar in the eyes with a squint, like she's looking into smoked-glass windows. "What, you mean about what a terrible mistake you're making?"
"Ya," he says brightly, "that's the one."
She sighs, puts down her pen. "It's very hard times for a young man, no education, no skills, no job—"
"I have a job," Caesar cuts in.
She blinks. Pauses. "Well that's a horse of a different color. Welcome to the workaday world, Mister ..." she checks her paperwork, "... del Negro. Only forty-eight years till retirement."
Caesar tries to smirk, but he's too confused. He doesn't care what this woman thinks she knows. He's done what he came to do. He gave this a shot and now he's out, ready to take a flier on the devil he doesn't know.
"Bye, y'all," Caesar hollers into the empty gym, and then listens as it comes back just as he expected, a beautiful, empty echo.
"You what, Caesar?"
She never believes him, Sonja doesn't.
"I did," he says. "No foolin'. Right there in the square this morning, I saw her, my mother and all her new friends. Ya, she's riding in a cannibal biker gang now, and none of 'em wear any pants or nothing, and they drive right up on the sidewalk just to run over squirrels and rats and male babies and stuff."
"Jerk," she says, but then laughs.
"No lie, Sonja."
Sonja stares at him.
"Okay, lie," he says. He tells his tall tales to soften her up for the actual news he is bringing, which might not shock so much next to the first story. Problem is, then he sometimes forgets to get to the real story.
"Okay now get outta here, Caesar, I gotta work. I'm not a young high school punk like yourself with nothing but time on my hands." Sonja is nineteen years old, graduated high school two years ago. She's a receptionist at a clinic where the girls in the neighborhood—and maybe a guy now and then—go when they think they might have a baby or a disease they're not sure they want.
"Well there's another thing we got in common, soul mate," he says. "Because I ain't a high school punk like myself neither. I disenrolled today."
"Caesar, I have no time for this, really. Lies during working hours are annoying. Come by the house later and you can tell me the nighttime lies, like I like."
"No lie," Caesar says, smiling.
She looks further into him now, and she sees it. "Ohhh ... no. No, Caesar you didn't do that. We talked about this ..."
"Done. You're looking at a proud and shiny full-time grease monkey of the famed Pizza Face restaurant."
She stares at him. It is not a look of approval. The air runs out of Caesar, the lies and jokes along with it, because he cannot bear Sonja's disapproval, even if it is not unusual and not unexpected.
"I'm gonna get my GED," he says hopefully.
She waves him off, disgusted. "I'd rather go back to talking about your mother."
"To hell with her," Caesar snaps, backing away toward the door, backing away from Sonja's look. "She can just go to hell. She can just go to hell and, like, be in hell, is what."
Sonja shakes her head, Caesar slips out the door. He stands there outside, like a damn nutcase, framed in the glass door, looking in at Sonja as she stares back at him.
They had talked about this. Like she told him, they had talked about this.
She motions him back inside. He shakes his head petulantly. She nods her head, waves him in. As if he has no power, as if he's attached to a string that's tied to her beckoning hand, he comes back. But he holds the door open.
"I don't want you coming over tonight."
He hangs there in the doorway a few seconds. His face grows red, his eyes hooded.
"I knew it," Caesar growls. "I knew you was just gonna dump me all the time anyways. I just gave you a reason. You should just thank me, 'cause I just gave you a reason, but I always knew you was gonna dump me, leave me flat. But fine, you know. Fine, Sonja. I wasn't never gonna trust you anyway. So you can just go to hell, too."
She doesn't answer back. A pair of girls, teenagers, stand silently, nervously behind Caesar, waiting to get into the clinic. Caesar sees Sonja looking behind him, past him.
"Fine," he says, and rushes off.
Sometimes Victor Sobocop stood around nights at the Children's Museum, making sure nobody came in and made off with the giant telephone or the ant farm, sometimes he stood around days in the library branch making sure nobody wrote suck a duck inside their copy of Make Way for Ducklings.
Caesar enjoyed dropping by when he could to check out his father at work. Sometimes he would make jokes later to Sonja about how corny and serious the old man looked and sometimes, like when Victor had to stand in front of the primate pavilion at the zoo and the apes threw shit and melon rinds at him, Caesar couldn't even manage to get off the grounds before bursting into hysterical laughter.
One of those, Caesar figures when he hunts down his father on the job to tell him he's no longer in school. It will be easier in a public place, in his uniform, where he has a job to do and can't go nuts. It will be easier still, because with the old man looking like a toy soldier and patrons walking up and either not noticing Victor del Negro's existence as a man at all, or disrespecting him and ignoring him when he tells them don't smoke or please pick up that candy wrapper, then, Caesar can walk away feeling better. Better than the old man no matter how sober he is, no matter how righteous he is, no matter how religious and unnaturally good he is when he tells his son how stupid he is for throwing away his education and his life. An eighth-grade graduate in a flattop blue cap and a shiny badge, Victor is a rabid supporter of education. It's easy to admire what you never done, is what Caesar thinks, and to admire what you don't have. But that don't make it great and it don't make it worth nothin'.
When he comes up on his father—from behind like he does whenever possible so he can look him over good for a while without him knowing—Caesar finds him standing like a statue. He's in the first-floor lobby of an office building where an accounting firm takes up half the building and lawyers take up most of the rest. There's a directory on the wall that looks like a war memorial, the gold-lettered names spelled out over black onyx. The pillars that run down the middle of the corridor to the elevators are massive swirls of pink and green marble. Every word spoken here bounces around off of glass walls, mirrored ceilings, tiled floors, until that one word has come back to you five or ten times. And whispering only makes it worse because you can still hear every word and you realize you're hissing as well.
Victor allows himself a small tight smile at the arrival of his son. People stream in constantly through the revolving door, yet the place still seems somehow empty and somehow silent.
It has to be done quickly, Caesar knows now.
He walks directly up to Victor, stops a couple feet in front of him. He takes him in, like usual, head to toe. The hat, pulled exactly to the brow, the face, weathered, creased, shaved to the bone and scrubbed to a sheen. He wears just a splash of cologne, something nice. Victor pays a lot for good cologne, buys and uses it in the smallest possible quantities, because what he can afford to use in quantity is trashy and will not do. His shirt is starched and tucked into his pants without a ripple, as if they are all one stretch of cotton/poly blend. The tie is straight as a plumb line, the socks slightly exposed to show he has found almost the exact color to match the uniform even if the company would not provide them. The gummy shoes are smarting from the thrice-weekly polishing.
Dignity, Caesar sees here. There are no laughs in the old man today, and there are no laughs at him. He holds his head in such a way, his neck tilted back, like a sulky horse. Caesar has to do this quickly.
"Did you hear what I said, Dad? I quit. This morning. You know that, right? You get it?"
Caesar is worried at the lack of response. His father, when drunk, with the old foghorn on him, was huge and explosive in his reactions to everything. He left you shaken, or he left you exhilarated, but he never left you guessing.
"You're not gonna say nothin', Dad? You're not gonna tell me what you think? You're not gonna tell me to pack my bags and be gone before you get home?"
Caesar is by now almost begging for a reaction, to free him. He would pay in blood to hear the foghorn, but he'd be satisfied with soft-spoken disapproval. It's not coming. Not as he'd expected anyway. Like the queen's guards in their big hairy hats, Victor holds his ground. He stands tall, looks straight, beyond his son.
Excerpted from All the Old Haunts by Chris Lynch. Copyright © 2001 Chris Lynch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted November 2, 2013
Posted March 29, 2004
This book is truely art. I enjoyed every minute of it, I couldn't put it down. The characters were so real. Ceaser even reminded me of a friend's older brother in both described appearence and in attitude. It also shocked me that it didn't talk down to me in the manner most books for teenager's do.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.