On the Origins of Hector

(No spoilers below)

One of the characters in ‘The Last Nickel’, a story in the second part of The Beatin’ Path, happened also to be the central character in a story I’d written more than 20 years earlier. At that time, I produced audio books for a recording studio in Denver. One of my colleagues, Jon Pinnow, was an enterprising college student who published an underground newspaper on the side.

The notion of an underground newspaper seems quaint in this less thoughtful, less analog age. But like most underground papers in those days, this one was a noble, notable labor of love. I was one of a handful of frequent contributors. To create the impression that more people were writing for the paper, I used a few different pen names, including ‘Anderson Lane’.

The anonymity of the pen names, and Jon’s eagerness for content, had the effect of liberating me as a writer. I published all kinds of things in all kinds of styles, from poems to book reviews to political satire to, in this particular case, a short story called ‘What Hector Needs’, which appeared in the August & September, 1992 edition of Newshole. (Newshole was a follow-up to another underground paper Jon published, The Independent.)

In hindsight, these two papers helped me discover my voice as a writer, which turned out to be not a single voice or style, but many – though it took me another 20 years to realize that this was the way I had to write, in order to write The Beatin’ Path.

Anyway, there was a K-Mart on West Evans near Federal Boulevard, where I would sometimes find gold in the bargain bins. For example, I discovered a bootleg copy of the Beatles’ legendary Decca audition tapes, on cassette. This included their cover of Leiber and Stoller’s comedic ‘Three Cool Cats’, who at one point in the song encounter ‘…three cool chicks, a-walking down the street, swingin’ their hips, splittin’ up a bag of potato chips; and three cool cats did three big flips for three cool chicks…’

Another find was a Soviet-era science fiction novel, ‘World Soul’, which I managed to obtain permission from the author (pre-Glasnost!) to adapt as a screenplay. The screenplay made it as far as a reading by Showscan, a company owned by Douglas Trumbull, the special effects genius responsible for the effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Blade Runner, among other films.

For years I’d periodically drop by this K-Mart to see what rare treasure might be waiting for the cost of next to nothing. On this particular day, I swung by on a lunch break from the recording studio. I don’t recall whether I bought anything that day, but a moment that occurred on my way out of the store cut to the core of my soul. That moment is the denouement of ‘What Hector Needs’, reprinted below.

Although the end is as it happened, the story up to that point came from my imagination, and was written quickly a few days later, then published in Newshole. And there it remained for 20 years, until the day I wrote ‘The Last Nickel’. My process for all but a few of the pieces in The Beatin’ Path was to hop on any inspiration and ride it until the thought was completed.

Sometimes this meant that I was startled at where I ended up. In the case of ‘The Last Nickel’, for example, I had no idea that the story would lead me back to Hector and that K-Mart vestibule, though this time with a different twist. But it did.

The actual boy who inspired the character of Hector would now be in his 30s. He may or may not remember the few seconds we shared that day. Either way, I do, and I wish him well.

 - John B Lane

March, 2017

 

 What Hector Needs

Copyright 1992 by Anderson Lane (John B Lane)

Hector just wanted a bike of his own. You know how it is. You’re eight years old. You finally learned to ride. The summer’s half over, and your best friend Sergio is getting tired of lending you his. Or giving you rides. It’s like you’re standing on the bank of a river, watching the whole world float by, and you can’t swim.

Hector’s family didn’t have much money. He and his sister usually drank Kool Aid instead of Coke. He wore his cousin’s old clothes. Like “Joker” t-shirts from that other Batman movie.

He knew that bikes cost a lot. But he couldn’t do anything with his friends until he had one! One evening, when his dad got home from work, the words just came out of his mouth. Like a sneeze.

“Dad, can I have a bike?”

“Don’t bother your dad,” said his mom. It’s true, his dad looked old and tired. Like he did every day after work. By the time he got home on Friday, he looked more like Hector’s grandfather than his dad. Dust rose out of his jeans when he sat down at the kitchen table.

“Hector, get me a beer,” said his dad.

“I drank the last one,” said his mom. “You were supposed to get some on the way home.”

His dad looked up at his mom. Only his eyes moved. His neck was too tired.

“Want some Kool Aid?” asked Hector.

His dad smiled. “What flavor?”

“Fruit punch.”

His dad looked up at his mom again, but she looked away.

“OK. Kool Aid.”

Hector dropped some ice in a plastic cup and filled it up with Kool Aid. His dad drank three deep swallows and set the cup on the table.

“What’s this about a bike?”

“He don’t need a bike,” said his mom. She lit a cigarette and leaned against the sink.

“Yes I do!” insisted Hector. “Sergio and Richard and Tony ride their bikes to the swimming pool and the park and Circle K, and I never get to go unless mom takes me or I walk.”

His mom took a quick drag on her cigarette and crossed her thin arms. “Them kids are always in trouble.”

“No they’re not!” Hector would always stick up for his friends, but that isn’t what he was thinking about. For the first time, he’d just noticed strands of white streaking through his father’s thick black hair.

“I seen that Tony get thrown out of the Circle K.”

“He was playing ‘Street Fighter’ and he ran out of quarters. No lie, dad. They just have fun on their bikes.”

“You said we was gonna get a new washing machine,” said his mom. “You said that.”

His dad didn’t look up from the table.

Hector felt sick. A new washing machine! What good was a new washing machine?

His dad swallowed another gulp of Kool-Aid and wiped his mouth with a dirty wrist. It was time for a verdict.

“A boy needs a bike,” he said.

Hector wrapped his arms around the weary man.

“Thanks, dad!”

His mom threw her cigarette in the sink and shook her head all the way out of the kitchen.

“I gotta go tell Sergio!” shouted Hector.

The screen door slammed behind him.

On pay day, Hector’s dad came home with a twelve pack of Miller. He snapped one open and sat down at the kitchen table. Hector didn’t say a word. He was hoping his dad hadn’t forgotten about the new bike.

His mom didn’t turn around from the stove. She slid a fresh tortilla into a sizzling skillet of grease and then finished dicing a tomato.

Hector looked down at the floor, at his dad’s dusty boots.

“Where’s your sister?” asked his dad.

“At the Zaragozas, I think.”

His dad leaned to the left and tugged his wallet out of his right back pocket. He opened it and reached in, then hesitated. His eyes looked up at Hector.

“Will you teach your sister how to ride, when she gets old enough?”

He didn’t forget!

“Uh huh,” said Hector.

“And help your mother?”

“Uh huh.”

His dad licked his thumb and laid seven $20 bills on the table, like a hand of solitaire. He turned to Hector’s mom.

“Tomorrow, Lourdes.”

His mom still didn’t turn around.

Hector couldn’t sleep that night. How was he supposed to sleep? He was racing down the sidewalk on his new bike! All the way to school! That’s where he’d ride it first. No, to Sergio’s first. Then to school. Then to the swimming pool. But he wouldn’t go swimming. He’d ride his new bike all day!

But he must have fallen asleep. Before he knew it, the dark of the night was beginning to fade, and the smell of dew on the grass drifted into his room on a cool breeze. He smiled at the ceiling. Today he would have a bike of his own!

He decided to get up and eat breakfast with his dad. But just as his feet touched the rug beside his bed, he heard the engine of his dad’s truck turn over. It sounded tired, too. Just like his dad.

In the kitchen, he poured himself a bowl of cereal and opened the refrigerator. He reached in for the carton of milk. All of the beer was gone.

He carried his bowl into the family room and turned on cartoons. He wished time would move faster. K-Mart didn’t open till nine. And his mom wouldn’t be up for a while.

It was almost one o’clock by the time he picked out his bike and his mom paid the cashier. He walked his new red Huffy Z24 10-speed (with a black water bottle) toward the front of the store while his mom waited for the receipt.

He stopped by the door, next to the racks of vending machines. For a quarter, you could get jaw breakers, neon watches. New Crud, acrobatic clowns, Smelly Jelly Glob, rabbit’s feet, or Eyes of Terror. Eyes of Terror were gum balls painted like bloodshot eyes. He could picture himself taking that eyeball out of his pocket, looking at it, biting down on it, then stepping on the pedal of his new red bike and coasting down the sidewalk to Sergio’s. As soon as they got home. That would be perfect!

His mom walked up, carrying his sister. Hector didn’t notice her frown, and the words just came out of his mouth. Like a sneeze.

“Mom, can I have a quarter for an Eye of Terror?”

“You just got a $120 bike!” she shrieked, like he was thirty feet away instead of three. “You don’t need a fucking quarter!”

People turned and looked, but Hector didn’t see them. He lowered his eyes and held tight to the grips of his new bike.