Thirty Seven.



The Homecoming.

Gina loaned me her Pinto to pick up Joe from prison. I promised to bring him straight to The Well for his Homecoming. He was due for release at 10am and by noon I was worried. I knew well that the prison system worked on its own time, but just sitting there and waiting reminded me too much of when I was actually in that prison, just a few feet away. So many things could go wrong so quickly in there. I would’ve had a rougher time if Joe hadn’t been with me. I thought about our time together, just me and Joe in prison, no bullshit, no drama, not much of anything. But somehow, the thought still made me smile.

Joe finally appeared at the gate at 2:30pm. The guard knew me and pointed me out to Joe. I was across the street, crouched down in the Pinto with my hood pulled up. I knew they were watching. I heard stories inside about wanted dudes getting nabbed out front waiting for someone’s release. I wasn’t wanted, but I was in the system. And sometimes that was enough.

When the gate slammed shut, Joe cringed and glanced back. The indifferent guard disappeared into the shack.

Joe turned up his collar, crossed the street, and jumped in the car, “Get me the fuck out of here.”

“I hear that.” I started it up and hit the gas. A belch of smoke trailed us like a ghost down Eager St.

We got to The Well in late afternoon. Two Vagrants were playing Frisbee in a corner of the parking lot. One dove onto the hood of a car and rolled off the other side without making the catch. The Frisbee skidded to a halt in front of Sadie’s parked motorcycle.  The Vagrant stood, brushed himself off, and noticed Joe and me stopped right in front of him. He waved to Joe, took a bow, and ran off to get the Frisbee.

I was glad to see Sadie’s motorcycle. She was still here. There was more proof at the front door. Two guys stumbled out, one nursing a bloody nose and his buddy helping him and mumbling “bitch.” Joe chuckled as he held the door for them. He must have known it was Sadie, too. I wrote him about Sadie, telling him how cool she was, and how hot. I also talked about her on the drive from prison. And besides, Joe had a sixth sense about these things. He didn’t sniff after her like a dog, but he certainly picked up her scent.

And so, the true beginning of Sadie and Crazy Joe began here, when Joe banged the buddy with the door and sent him sprawling into the parking lot.

I smiled at Joe as I walked through the door, “Off and running, huh?”

He smiled, “I’m back.” He patted me on the shoulder and followed me into The Well.

Not only was Sadie there, but Gina and a whole gang of Vagrants, who started drinking early. Nick yelled “Hey” from the bar and said he would be over later. He looked busy, just keeping up with Joe’s party guests, and with no help from Gina. Everyone was crowded at our regular table. Gina was telling how Joe got sent to Cub Hill after his last release party. She wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. One of the Vagrants said, “Don’t worry Gina, he won’t go back to juvy this time. He’s too old.”

“Thanks,” Gina said, “That makes me feel better.”

“Anytime, Hon,” he smiled and nodded, missing her sarcasm.

When we got to the table, Sadie was just sitting down after getting another beer, her post-fight refresher. I’m sure the last one got crushed over that guy’s head, knowing Sadie. He probably commented about her pussy smelling good, or something suicidal like that.

By the time we walked in, most of the drama had ended. Everyone gave Joe a hug and said “Hey.” When Joe sat at the table, I introduced him to Sadie. He said “Hey,” and glanced at her. She just smiled, and nodded, then said Hi to me.

It didn’t take long for the enthusiasm to slow. There were only so many times a bunch of drunks could play Remember that time…, or say, “Good to see you, Joe.” And besides, Joe didn’t seem to want to talk. I remembered when I got out, I felt the same. I just wanted to chill and enjoy my first tastes of freedom. For me, that taste was beer.

I think Joe really liked Sadie. He was trying to talk to her, but every time he started someone butted in to toast him and welcome him back.

“So, where you from?” Joe asked, ignoring someone saying “Hey” and focusing his attention on Sadie.

“Ohio, originally. Just outside of Cleveland. You?”

“Right here.” Someone else tried to say hi but Joe waved him away.

When it was obvious he wasn’t going to talk to anyone except Sadie, most of the Vagrants drifted away to different circles. Gina and I went over to the bar at eleven, leaving Sadie and Joe at the table. I couldn’t hear their conversation, but I could watch as they talked. They both leaned their faces on their hands, resting elbows on the table. Their faces were close. When Sadie smiled, she leaned back, then forward again, her hair falling back around her face and across her shoulders. When Joe smiled he just lowered his forehead so he was looking at the table. When they made eye contact, I saw his eyes sparkle. I understood that feeling. That was Sadie.

They talked for an hour then shot some pool. I watched, thinking Joe just got out of prison after three years, and sex wasn’t even on his mind. He was just enjoying Sadie. When he ran away from juvy, sex was always the priority. Of course, with Sadie, shooting pool felt like sex. Anything with Sadie felt like sex. At least, that was how I felt. Apparently Joe felt the same. He wasn’t in a hurry. He was savoring every moment. His eyes didn’t leave Sadie all night. When she leaned over the table to shoot, Joe watched. When she sat on the bar stool and took a drink, Joe watched. When she chalked her cue, Joe watched. And Sadie was just being Sadie.

When they didn’t show at The Well the next night, I figured they were together. When they didn’t show the night after that, I knew. Gina didn’t know for sure, but assumed the same. Those were the loneliest two days of my life. Lonelier than jail. Lonelier than just after jail, before Sadie showed up. The Well was empty.

That first night I was agitated. I couldn’t relax. Every time the door opened I looked to see if it was them. I tried to write, tried to shoot pool, play darts. I even tried to flirt with a cute blond who came with a drunk. Nothing could distract me from wondering about Sadie and Joe: where they were, why they didn’t want to be with me.

I wasn’t jealous they were together. I was jealous they weren’t with me. I had been waiting almost a year to see Joe again, and I had been the perfect host to Sadie while we all waited, and I guess I felt slighted. Besides, I was the one who brought them together…And what did I get for it? One night of them ignoring me at his party, then another night of them ignoring me completely, by not showing up at all.

By the second night I was miserable. I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t even stay at The Well. When I saw they weren’t there, and Gina hadn’t seen them, I couldn’t stand to sit another night. I went out and kicked around the parking lot, trying to take my mind off them. But at the same time I liked to think about them. It was cool that they were together. I still didn’t mind that, at least I didn’t think so. But I wanted to be there too. I mean, without Joe I had nothing. When I got out of jail and he was still in, I felt like shit. Until Sadie came along. Now without either of them, I felt like shit again.

I was walking along the edge of the lot when I realized I was lonely. I sat down on the stone wall at the edge of the stream just inside the woods. The stream snaked out and crossed the field next to the parking lot, then back into the woods near The Shack.

I stared into the water until sunset. The more I tried not to think about Sadie and Joe, the more I thought about them. It caused a tightness in my chest. Mostly just a nagging prod, a constant squeeze with bouts of extra pressure, like a hug from a python. But the next moment it hurt like Hell, like the python’s teeth had dug into my skull, holding me in place while it squeezed me harder. Then it unhooked its teeth long enough to get a better grip and bite again.

The more I wanted it to stop, the more I realized I liked it. It hurt, but it somehow tasted sweet at the same time, not like the metallic taste from Duke hitting me in the face when I was little. It was nothing like the stinging pain when part of my ear was shot off, or the blinding flash when Joe cleaned it with alcohol. All that pain went away. I wanted this pain to stay. At least, that’s how it felt. As much as it hurt, and as much as I hated it, I couldn’t avoid poking at it and trying to make it hurt some more. I imagined what Sadie and Joe might be doing. I imagined how they felt together. I kept seeing Sadie’s face, looking at Joe and smiling. And Joe, leaning back in that cool way of his, and giving her one of those bad boy smiles that only truly bad boys can give.

The moon had risen over The Well and I couldn‘t see the stream anymore. But I sat a few minutes longer and listened to water trickle between the rocks. Then, just next to me, somewhere in the grass of that dark field, a cricket started to chirp. First one, then another, and soon a cacophony of chirping. And when I looked in the direction of the sound, I saw a hundred fireflies, and beyond them a thousand stars.

A couple days later, Joe called me to get a drink. He said he stopped by The Well but I wasn’t there. I told him I was just laying low. But really I borrowed my sister’s car and drove to the eastern shore to visit Duke in jail. It had been ten years since I saw him. I was just a kid then. I wasn’t sure if he would even remember me. But I found out where he was from Junky Jeff, who was the only one still around from Duke’s gang. He hung at The Well sometimes. He said he went to visit Duke once but mostly just stayed around the house and helped his dad, who was sick with cancer. He gave me Duke’s address and convict number and told me the routine for visiting.

The three-hour drive to the eastern shore was a straight shot down route 50, across the Bay Bridge and through the towns of Easton, Cambridge and Salisbury. In summertime, the road was usually jammed with vacationers headed to Ocean City.

In the late fall, though, traffic was lighter and most of the businesses were closed for the season. And even though it took less time because of lighter traffic, it seemed to take longer for the same reason. Also, somewhere between Easton and Cambridge was a dead zone for radios and my sister’s car didn’t have a tape deck, so I listened to her Datsun B210 with a hole in the muffler, and reminisced about family vacations.

Dad drove a red pickup with a white cap covered in pealing decals of large-mouth bass. Inside were long wooden bins to hold tools, but we called them coffins. Every summer I helped Dad clear the coffins and load the luggage. We laid in sleeping bags on top of the bins. My siblings slept, but I never could. I stared out the jalousie window watching corn, tomatoes and soy pass by. My brother said the corn would be knee high by the Fourth of July. We would be on the beach on the Fourth watching fireworks over the Amusement Pier. But first we had to get there.

Over the years, I learned to recognize the milestones as I stared out the window of that truck cap: Bay Bridge was 1/3 of the way. Cambridge was 2/3. Salisbury meant a half hour to go. We were almost to Salisbury when we passed the junkyard where the people were always pitching horseshoes.

Watching out the window from the driver’s seat years later didn’t change the scenery much. Still had to cross the bay, Kent Island, the Choptank River. Still had to pass the little church where we got a flat tire. Still had miles and miles of farms. Still nothing but corn, tomatoes, and soy bean. And, still the junkyard with the horseshoe pit. But this time, no one pitching shoes.

Near the center of Salisbury, Rt. 50 crossed Rt. 13, which went down the peninsula and past Eastern Correctional. But when I got to the turnoff, I didn’t turn off. Maybe there was just too much nostalgia along the way, maybe it was something else, but instead of going to see Duke, I went to Ocean City.

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