My buddy Alan used to steal ten-speeds for a man named Gravy Boat. He was easily pushing four-hundred pounds, perpetually sunburned, and in possession of an endless supply of short-sleeved, all-over-print button-ups with Marvel Comics fight scenes depicted on them.
The two lived in the same apartment complex on Belden, met at a summertime tenants’ mixer and instantly bonded over alleyway volleyball and a shared fondness for old NES sports titles like Tecmo Bowl and Arch Rivals. An indeterminate number of Modelos into the party, Gravy Boat outlined for Alan his plan to fill a Logan Square niche market, insisted he could make a killing slinging Schwinns and Puegeots to the neighborhood’s influx of arteests, as he put it. When Gravy Boat offered him ground-level entry into the biz, proposing an initial sixty/forty split with the possibility of re-negotiation after three months of demonstrable revenue growth, Alan accepted without hesitation and called his manager at Portillo’s the following morning to tell him that it’d been real.
Alan found the process of procuring and delivering inventory simple. Every Saturday morning, he’d borrow his stepbrother’s Econoline and take it up the Edens so he could hit up every exit between Chicago and Highland Park. He’d scour towns like Wilmette and Northbrook for parks and public libraries and pull right up to their bike racks, taking hedge clippers to their chintzy combo locks and loading up his spoils in broad daylight. When he’d amassed a sufficient payload for the day, he’d meet Gravy Boat back at the complex and the two would wheel the merchandise down into the basement and inside Gravy Boat’s storage unit. There the bikes would remain until sold, a period rarely exceeding twenty-four hours given the high consumer demand. It was then on Monday morning that Alan could expect his cut, an envelope of twenties slid under his door when practicable, an in-hand delivery from Gravy Boat or his roommate, Todd, when the roll was too thick.
Life was good, uncomplicated. The operation prospered and Gravy Boat soon found himself expanding, not only in the form of the resultant pounds from numerous celebratory Five Guys runs but also with regard to the business, taking on two new employees and promoting Alan to middle management. Alan, in turn, used his new capital to put himself through night school, began working toward his Associate of Occupational Studies Degree in Heating, Air Conditioning, and Refrigeration Technology. He even started dating, treated the various Rachels and Tricias he met on Match.com to Putt-Putt and paint-by-numbers Rom-Coms, enjoyed sexual congress on beds that, for once, weren’t futons or air mattresses.
The bubble burst on Arbor Day Eve, however, when Gravy Boat met Alan at the Wendy’s at Western and Addison and told him to not punch in the next day, or the day after that. It seemed that one of the new associates, a hoarse, pineapple-skinned runner who referred to himself in the third-person as Madagascar, was detained by Lincolnwood police upon suspicion of a misdemeanor seatbelt violation and, during the course of his subsequent interrogation, offered to give up Gravy Boat in exchange for a lighter plea. The team needed to be dismantled immediately, permanently. Alan would receive a generous severance package, an amount nearly four times that of his last paycheck, as well as Gravy Boat’s assistance in lining up drywall and sheetrock work with his cousin, Randy. Once Gravy Boat finished his Spicy Chicken Sandwich, the two shook hands, avoided each other’s eyes like cholera as they traversed the parking lot in opposite directions.
Although Gravy Boat insisted that it was for the best, that somewhere in the Old Testament a guy tells King David that all good things must, like, come to an end and shit, Alan could hear the distinct tremor of loss in his voice. Alan himself swears that, to this day, he can’t bear to watch the lithe, highwater-pantsed couriers of Logan Boulevard roll by on their vintage Raleighs, the wound still not quite scabbed-over.
Gravy Boat is a different kind of merchant altogether these days, a dealer of good-ass times. Upon the dissolution of the business, he was bitten by the comedy bug and is now a regular at a handful of South Side clubs specializing in the brand of urban humor you’re likely to find on ComicView or Showtime at the Apollo. His set is a real Whitman’s Sampler, the jokes about his weight bleeding into critiques of vaginal hygiene and Caucasian motorists. Alan and I catch his sets whenever we can, if for no other reason but to see Gravy Boat in his trademark chartreuse suit, a three-piece marvel that makes him look like a giant Skittle on stage.
As for Alan, he’s just a few credits shy of graduation, can’t wait to cut his teeth on a Trane XB14 and talk BTUs with the boys at the shop, the ones that wear their missing fingertips like they’re dogtags. Yeah, he’s real focused, all right. Still, I can’t help but wonder what will be going through his mind, what sort of tempest will brew in his heart, when he makes his first field call and there in the garage, right along the wall and next to the back issues of Swank, is a pearlescent, sky-blue Concord touring bike, ripe for the picking.
My guess is that he’ll simply drag his finger along its frame, leaving a clean, unbroken line in the particulate, and thank Gravy Boat for the moxie to dream of better days.