Thirty.

Final Exam

Instead of going to school, I went to The Well. In the morning I read Shakespeare. By noon Joe showed up and we shot pool and played darts or talked shit with the old guys who hung there during the day. By Happy Hour Joe usually had a plan for trouble. And by midnight we’d be back at The Well for a nightcap.

I was still interested in school, I just couldn’t go. Even after the guilt faded over Debbie, and I was pretty sure I could rejoin the class, I still couldn’t go. I just didn’t feel like I belonged there anymore. I could still see the looks on all their faces when I lost it. It felt like a wall was built behind me as I walked out of class or maybe the wall was already there and the door was shut behind me. Maybe I was the one who shut it. I knew when I walked out that I wouldn’t be back. I thought about it, though, every morning, at the end of my street. Instead of going right, to school, I went the other way, turning left to the dingy, dark, early morning solitude of the back corner table of The Well.

Whether from a sense of obligation, or just because I liked it so much, I continued to do my English assignments, at least as best I could with only the syllabus to guide me. I mailed them to Mrs. Dickerson, c/o Loch Raven High. I wasn’t sure if she received them, and I certainly had no hope of graduating, especially since I didn’t do anything about my other subjects. But with English, it was easy. The entire spring semester was concentrated on Shakespeare. I read Macbeth every morning until I had most of it memorized, not just the soliloquy for the final exam. I wasn’t sure what I expected to achieve, but I was so impressed with myself that I sent Mrs. Dickerson a note telling her how much I enjoyed reading it and that I had memorized most of the play.

Even more surprising than the night Debbie walked into The Well was the night I saw Mrs. Dickerson ordering a beer at the bar. She looked around the room until she saw me sitting in the corner reading. She sat down at my table, set her beer down and placed her bag on the next chair. She dug into the bag and pulled out a black notebook, spread it open in front of her and took out a pencil. She took a drink of beer, then looked at me, “So. You’ve memorized Macbeth? Please recite Act V. Scene V, with punctuation.”

After the initial surprise faded, I realized she was exactly the kind of woman who took this shit seriously, who would show up at The Well and call my bluff, and I wasn’t sure why but I really respected that. And that she found this so important, made it important to me. It felt so real. More real than anything I had felt yet. When I stood up in The Well to recite to Mrs. Dickerson, I was reminded of the last time I stood up in front of her and spoke out loud. I closed my eyes and thought about Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.

 

Out, Out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow

A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.

It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing.

I was surprised to discover when yearbooks came out that I had been voted Most Artistic in my class, especially since I wasn’t in my class. But I guess I made a strong enough impression while I was. I was even more surprised when Bang Bang showed up at The Well three days before the prom and asked me to be her date. We had a couple of drinks and talked about old times, and when I told her there was no way in Hell I was going to the prom, she bought me a few more drinks.

The next morning I woke up in the Shack, in the woods out back. I had a throbbing headache and no pants. When I rolled over I found my pants, rolled up under Bang Bang’s head. I wasn’t sure what had happened the night before, but I was pretty sure I was now obligated to take her to the prom. So I slipped her bag under her head and took my pants and headed to Tuxedo Wearhouse, where I was fitted for a powder blue tux with matching cummerbund, the only color they had left. I had too much of a hangover to argue so I ordered it and was told I could pick it up on Saturday morning. But I didn’t show up on Saturday morning because Joe and I were in jail. I was eighteen and four months when I got three years and nine months. Joe got ten years.

Here’s what happened. We robbed a convenience store in Western Maryland. I knew it was stupid, but it sounded fun at the time. Besides, we thought we could get away with it. Joe had an idea about how to do it so we wouldn’t get caught. He figured the easiest way to get away with it was to make the person getting robbed not want to report it. And the easiest way to do that was to make the person too embarrassed to report it.

“Humiliation. It can work, guys.” We were at The Well. Joe was standing in front of us leaning on the table. Gina and I listened while drinking a beer. “I got the idea when we pissed on that dude a few months back. Remember?” Joe smiled at me and nodded his head, “Remember? That was bad ass.” He leaned over and squeezed my shoulder. “We can do this.”

“Yeah,” I said, “we can do this. Why not?” The more I thought about it, the more interesting it became. I knew it was a bad idea, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea, too. We’d never robbed a store before. It sounded exciting, like when we used to rob houses together. Besides, Joe was into it and he needed me. All I’d been doing lately was writing and getting laid. I wasn’t complaining, but a little thrill might be good. Sometimes dudes just need to break the law. It was nothing personal against anyone, at least for me. It was just fun… “I’m in.”

Gina, however, was not so easily swayed. “And how do I fit into this?” In fact, she was downright skeptical. Joe just blew it off as typical chick shit. He believed that chicks were built to be cautious, even Gina. That was why he wanted to include her. He thought she would add a certain security measure that would keep us safe. Gina seemed to reason things better. While Joe and I worked out the details, Gina asked if an idea was safe or even necessary. She wasn’t a pussy or anything. She liked breaking the law as much as the next Vagrant.

I wouldn’t call her a Vagrant, though, but she had been hanging out with us ever since Joe got out of juvy. She wasn’t at The Well every day but she was there every weekend, and she did hook up with a few of the regulars, but only when she was really drunk. Usually she just dropped by to talk to Joe for a little while. I think she still felt a little superior to us. She was slightly older and so she thought a little wiser. Even though some of the Vagrants had labeled her “The Snob” I still thought she was cool. At least she was cool to me. I mean, we didn’t sleep together anymore. And she never acknowledged that we did, but other than that, she was cool. And all that was years ago anyway. Besides, I liked having a cute chick around. Otherwise, it was just a bunch of dudes.

I think Gina enjoyed the fact that she could get a couple of dudes fighting over her. She was flattered by dudes puffing their chests at each other and pushing each other around at a chance to sit by her and talk shit to her. But they still had to watch their step because she was Joe’s cousin and he would stomp anyone who disrespected her. I think Gina enjoyed that too. Even though she felt superior to us, she still understood the status attached to sitting at our table.

Everyone at The Well was a Vagrant. But not all Vagrants were allowed to sit at our table. Most Vagrants were losers, even by Vagrant standards: junkies, drunks, dropouts, most too stupid or burned out to spell their own names, let alone speak in complete sentences. And sometimes it wasn’t about intelligence or personality, sometimes it was just an issue of hygiene. I don’t care how cool you were, if we could smell you, you weren’t sitting at our table. I mean, think about it, if you were in a bar like The Well, full of stinking ass drunks and junkies, and you could smell one particular person, that person was ripe. No ripe people allowed. Actually, not many people at all were invited to our table. In fact, we didn’t have much to do with the other Vagrants, at least not outside The Well. Sometimes a dude might be included in our exploits, but only in a small, supporting role. Usually, it was just me and Joe. We didn’t want too many witnesses and we didn’t trust too many people. So it made sense that Joe would include Gina in the convenience store caper.

“Gina, you are the most important part,” Joe said as he leaned over and gave her a hug. Then he stepped back and said, “At least, your tits are.”

Gina looked down at her chest then squinted at Joe, “…Go on…” Her skepticism hadn’t faded.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, smiling. “We find a convenience store out in the country somewhere, one with some homely, married dude working alone at night. Gina goes in pretending she’s drunk, flirts with him, gets him all hot and bothered, then gets him into the back room. We walk in the front door, rob the joint and we’re gone before they’re back.

“I ain’t blowing no fat fucks.”

“Madonna would.”

“Huh?”

“Wouldn’t she?”

“What the fuck are you talking about? I said I ain’t blowing no fat fucks.”

“Ain’t got to. That’d make it easier,” Joe shrugged, “but if your heart ain’t in it… Just get him in the back and keep him distracted. We’ll get in and out quick. Just rub his dick for a minute. Then get out of there.”

“How is that going to embarrass him into not calling the cops?”

“Well, it might if you were dressed like a virgin.”

“What…are you talking about?”

“You know, Madonna, Like a Virgin, the slut in the wedding dress thing. The

dude will think you’ve been out partying or something. You act drunk and horny and let his dick do the rest. He’ll think he’s getting some drunk pussy, and Mann and me will be out front cleaning out the register.” Joe’s eyes were sparkling as he shared the plan.

“Are you fucking serious?” Gina’s eyes weren’t.

“Why not? It’ll work. Might not embarrass him, but it might keep him

quiet.”

“I don’t know.” Gina stared at the table. “This sounds dangerous, Joe.”

“Of course it’s dangerous,” He looked at me and raised an eyebrow, then looked back at Gina, “But we’ll make sure nothing happens.”

Gina looked at me. “What do you think?”

I shrugged, then glanced at Joe. “Why not?” I had to say something. I had already blurted out that I was in. I still thought it would be fun, but I didn’t like Gina being involved. Even though she wouldn’t actually break any laws, she would be face to face with the dude being robbed. And she would be in the back of some dark room rubbing a stranger’s dick. What if he turned out to be some psycho who chops her to little pieces with a butcher’s knife…Christ, now I was starting to sound like Gina. “Why not,” I repeated. Deep down inside, actually not that deep, I knew it was a really bad idea. It was dangerous and sketchy and probably wouldn’t pay off. I mean, how much money do they have at those convenience stores? Seems like they deposit the cash into that safe every ten minutes. But still, there was something exciting about it.

Joe reached across the table and touched Gina’s arm. “Just get him in the back, pull his pants down, then make an excuse and get the hell out of there. If it gets out of hand, just scream. We’ll be nearby. No guns, no alarms, no cops, no jail.”

“But then they got a picture of me on the security camera.”

“Nah. They got a picture of Madonna. Believe me, they won’t ID you from that grainy video. They’ll see two fuzzy blobs. One will be a blurry chick in a wedding dress and the other will be the married store clerk with his pants down.”

“What about you guys? You’ll be on video too.”

“No problem,” Joe reached into a bag next to him and pulled out two dead animals. He dropped the clumps of fur on the table.

“What the fuck?” Gina jumped from her chair. I jumped a little too.

Joe picked up one of the dead animals and unfolded it. It was a fake beard. He clipped it over his ears and smoothed the long grey whiskers down the front of his shirt. He reached into the bag again and pulled out a pair of sunglasses and put them on. He nodded his head and smiled, “ZZ Top.”