Joe was a year older than me. We went to Loch Raven Elementary, but he was already in junior high when I saw him that day with Duke. I still had a year to go. I always knew who he was, though. He was a legend in my class, slightly older and a whole lot badder. He never spoke to any of us directly, never really looked at us either. We were a grade behind so we were less than human. If we were in a group with him it was only because he liked an audience. There were other kids he hung with, but mostly he was a loner. In sixth grade he was king of our elementary, and always in trouble. Every time we came in from recess I saw him sitting in the office.
I don’t think he ever made it past lunch without getting in trouble, usually for being loud and obnoxious or for grabbing Tater Tots from someone’s tray. Sometimes it was for arguing with the lunch lady. He’d pretend he couldn’t find his free lunch ticket and would yell that the system kept him down because she made him sign that he received lunch. Whenever Joe was in the cafeteria there was faculty nearby, ready to snatch him up and take him to the office. His mom was there so often I thought she worked there.
Joe’s parents were divorced. His mom, Meg, as he called her, was a cocktail waitress at Arlo’s, a dark paneled, smoke filled banquet hall in Parkville. They lived in Quiet Ridge Apartments, near the Well. It was famous for midnight raids by police and dealers alike. Living there sucked. Not only were they forced to live there by being poor, but they were treated like criminals for living there. It wasn’t uncommon for cops to kick in every door when looking for dealers. Nor was it uncommon for dealers to kick in every door when looking for junkies who owed money. So not only did the renters fear their neighbors, they also feared the cops looking for their neighbors, and the dealers looking for their neighbors, and the cops looking for the dealers looking for their neighbors. The joke was that the dealers kicked in the right doors more often than the cops.
The goal of living in Quiet Ridge was to get out, but if that wasn’t possible, then the goal was to get a townhouse on the north end. Rent was higher but was covered by Section 8, so it cost the same. Everyone wanted a townhouse because they didn’t get raided as much. But there was a long waiting list, so most just endured the apartments and played the lottery. When they did get a windfall, from taxes or a law suit, they got out quick, if only for a while.
Joe was an only child. Since Meg worked nights, Gina looked after him. They were cousins and she lived in a row house just up from Quiet Ridge. Joe hung there after school. Gina’s mom helped with homework on the table after dinner, clearing the vinyl placemats and plastic flowers.
This was fine for a while, but when Joe hit fifth grade Gina hit puberty and spent as little time at home as possible. At first she left Joe in the basement watching Scooby Doo, but then her mom demanded he go with her. Usually they hung at the bowling alley, downstairs with the duckpins, until Skateland opened in Towson. That’s where Gina met Duke. Not in Skateland, but behind it, where Duke lurked on the other side of the fence in Luskin’s parking lot, near the edge of the woods that caught fire during the fireworks show last year. Duke hung there because it was secluded, even with Skateland and a discount furniture store with a huge parking lot. He could see clearly in all directions. Cops couldn’t sneak up. It was perfect for dealing drugs. Besides, there was a nice view north of Cromwell Valley. The view south wasn’t too bad either: gaggles of girls at Skateland.
They gathered in groups out front, waiting for others before going in, sneaking aside to share Boone’s Farm and smokes. Duke and the guys would call to them through the fence, offering hits of weed and shots of whiskey. Most never climbed through the opening, though. They just stood and flirted, eager for attention from dangerous men. But enough crawled through to give Duke bragging rights for cherry popping. That spring he took twenty teen cherries, one of them Gina’s. While Joe was inside crashing and flailing and learning to skate, Gina was outside learning to fuck. By the end of summer they had gone so many times that Joe made the skate team. But he got kicked off after the first race for using a roller derby move.