Twenty One.

Mary Beth.

That was also the summer I had sex with Mary Beth, sort of. She was a Catholic girl, with red hair, green eyes and tight corduroys that showed off her round ass. I knew Mary Beth most of my life. She was a year ahead of me in school and lived right behind me. We were always friends. Our parents were friends. I even think we bathed together as children. It was nothing for her to stop by and hang out.

“What are you up to?” She asked when I opened the basement door.

“Just working out,” I said, closing it behind her and wiping sweat from my forehead with my shirt. I threw it onto the chair. “I thought you were away at camp.”

“Got back yesterday. Want some company?” She sat down in the chair.

“Sure. But I want to finish working out.”

“Can I watch?” She always wanted to watch. It was kind of hot that a chick wanted to watch. So I never refused.

She crossed her legs over the arm of the chair and kicked one foot in the air. “Heard from Joe?” she asked as she picked up my shirt and discretely smelled it. I told her he was fine and that he came to visit.

“Oh, that’s nice.” She said, staring at my posters and kicking her foot. I could tell she was thinking about something else. Whenever she wanted to talk about herself, she always pretended she wanted to hear about me.

“What’s up, Mary Beth?”

“Huh? Oh, nothing.” She sniffed my shirt again and threw it on the sofa. I laid on the bench to do a set of presses. “Can I help?” She jumped from the chair and stood behind the bench.

“Sure. You want to spot?”

“Yeah.”

“Ok. But don’t touch the bar until I can’t lift it any higher. Ok?”

“I know. I know.”

I laid on the bench. She stood behind and leaned over to help lift the weight. I could see she wasn’t wearing a bra. I could see she had nice breasts. She caught me looking and smiled. On the next set she bent further so that her shirt dropped open and gave me an unobstructed view. Yeah, Mary Beth had nice tits.

“What are you looking at?” She asked.

“Nothing.”

“What do you mean nothing?” She looked down at her chest, then pulled her shoulders back. “I’ve been waiting my whole life for these.”

I smiled at her. “Me, too.”

“What, these? You’ve been waiting for these?” She leaned down on the bench and pressed her tits into my face. “Well here, have them.” I wiggled my head and bit her nipple. She flinched and grabbed my cock.

“Oh, excuse me. It was nothing.”

“Nothing? I’ll give you nothing.” I got up from the bench. She started to run. I dove across the room and tackled her onto the sofa. “I’ll give you nothing.” We wrestled around like we used to. We hadn’t wrestled in a while, but it was fun. I thrust my crotch in her face. She bit it gently.

“Uh oh,” she said, rolling out from under me. I realized it, too. I had an erection. I was actually embarrassed. I didn’t think of Mary Beth that way. We were kids together. We bathed together. Sure we teased each other, but it wasn’t sexual.

“Hmm.” She said and paused. She stared at the posters again. I waited for the joke. I wasn’t sure what she would say. “Hmm.” She tapped her lips with her finger then bit her lower lip. “Finally,” she said smiling. “I’ve been waiting for this a long time.”

“Oh,” I thought, “here it comes.” She’s going to humiliate me. We were lying on the sofa, side by side. I thought she would at least punch me to make light of it, but instead she leaned over and laid her hand on my stomach. I flinched, then I looked at her. She was looking at me. Her eyes were soft. She moved her hand across my stomach and ten thousand sensations rushed me, and in that instant I saw Mary Beth in a new light. No longer the little girl I used to bathe with, she was now a taste I craved.

She caressed my stomach with small circles that widened to my chest. She watched my body as she rubbed it, her eyes following her hand. I felt her breath on my ribs. With each circle she drifted further into some dream world. She closed her eyes and hummed as she kept caressing, inching her way closer to the bulge in my jeans. I wasn’t sure what was happening. I didn’t know what to think. I was still half waiting for the punchline of a joke. I didn’t completely trust her, but I sure as Hell wouldn’t stop her.

“I want to do something to you.”

“Ok.” I said without hesitation. Mary Beth slid her fingers under the top of my jeans and caressed me through my underwear. The trail of her fingers vibrated through me. She unbuttoned my jeans and spread them open, then rested her hand on the bulge and kneaded it gently. She leaned forward and kissed it through my underwear, never touching the head sticking out, just stroking and rubbing and humming to herself. I think she forgot I was even there. She was just enjoying herself, rolling my penis like it was a hard lump of clay. I was paralyzed with pleasure. I could feel a slow powerful rumble deep inside. And Mary Beth just kept rubbing and rolling. When her fingers brushed across my balls, I exploded like a fountain all over my chest and stomach. She barely seemed to notice, just smiled and kept caressing, and humming.

Mary Beth was my first girlfriend. It lasted the summer and was weird the whole time. It really just meant she came over to fool around. Since we were good friends for so long, nothing really changed except the sex. But that’s what was weird. Mary Beth was Catholic and had promised her parents and God that she wouldn’t have sex until married. Fortunately for me, sex to her didn’t mean blow jobs and sodomy. She figured, so long as she kept her cherry, she kept her promise.

My second “date” with Mary Beth was a couple of nights later. She called to say she’d be over in half an hour. I made sure we ended up on my bed, which wasn’t hard since that’s where she headed. As soon as we sat she started kissing me with a vengeance. I thought she was trying to gag me with her tongue. After ten minutes of that not only did I have another boner, but I also had her gum in my mouth. When she finally came up for air, I said “Hey” and ask her how she was doing. And for some reason I ask her how her mom was doing.

She pulled back and looked at me. “Are you uncomfortable with this?” She motioned with her head. I looked around the room then looked back at her. “I mean with us, stupid. Are you ok with this?” This time she looked at our bodies.

“Yeah…I mean, no. I mean, Yeah…Uhm,” I paused to get my pronoun references straight. “No, I’m not uncomfortable. And Yes, I am ok with this, with us. It’s just that I have to get used to it.”

“You like it, don’t you?”

“Yes, God Yes. Yes, I like it. It’s just different.”

“But it’s cool?”

“Yeah, cool.”

We crawled back and forth on each other for a while. Then Mary Beth laid back and propped her arm under her head and looked at the ceiling. “So, you want to hear about my summer retreat?”

“You mean Catholic Camp?”

“Yes, Catholic Camp.” She looked at me. “You want to hear?”

“I don’t know. Does it involve Catechism?”

“Depends on how you look at it. You want to hear this or not?”

“Ok. What did the penguins teach you?”

“No, not the nuns. The older girls. The camp counselors.”

“Oh,” suddenly I was interested. “Wait. Does this have anything to do with what you did to me the other day?”

“Depends on how you look at it. But it has more to do with what you are going to do to me.” I was a captive audience now.

“Anyway, I got up to go to the bathroom one night and noticed the lights on in the counselors’ cabin. The two girls in charge of our group were college freshmen, and they were pretty cool, so I went over to see what they were up to. I could hear them talking inside. I couldn’t hear everything, but I know they were talking about sex. So I stood outside their window and listened. But I couldn’t hear.” Mary Beth looked at me and bit her lip. “It was kind of driving me crazy, only being able to hear a few dirty words. So I crept onto their porch and listened at the door. Still nothing. So I said, ‘What the heck,’ and I knocked on their door. It got really quiet for a moment then one of them answered.”

“Hi, Mary Beth. What are you doing up so late?” Jennifer asked.

“I couldn’t sleep.”

“Is anything wrong? Do you need anything?”

“No. I just couldn’t sleep. What are you guys up to?”

“Nothing,” said Elizabeth. “We’re just talking.”

“Can I hang out a little while?”

Jennifer looked at Elizabeth, “I don’t know. Liz, what do you think?”

“I don’t know.” They smiled at each other. “Do you think we can trust her?” Elizabeth scanned Mary Beth’s body as if looking for a warning sign, “I guess we can trust her.” Then she turned to Mary Beth. “We can trust you, right?”

“Yes, definitely. You can trust me.”

“Ok. Come on in.” Elizabeth patted the bed next to her, offering Mary Beth a seat. When Jennifer closed the door and joined them on the bed, she had an open bottle of wine in her hand.

“Here, want a taste?”

Mary Beth looked at Jennifer, then at Elizabeth, then at the bottle of wine. “Sure,” she said reaching for the bottle. “Thanks.” Mary Beth took a drink and handed it back to Jennifer, who drank and handed it to Elizabeth.

They passed it around a few more times. After Mary Beth took another drink she asked, “So, this is what you were doing when I knocked?”

“Yeah,” Elizabeth said, “and talking. Do you want to know what we were talking about?” Elizabeth’s blue eyes were sparkling.

That made Mary Beth’s green eyes sparkle. “Yeah.”

“Well,” Elizabeth took another drink, spilling a little and wiping her chin with her sleeve. “We were talking about sex.” She whispered the word. “Have you ever had sex, Mary Beth?”

“No, of course not.” then to sound more mature, she added, “I thought Catholic girls didn’t do those sorts of things.” Elizabeth passed her the bottle and she took another drink.

“They don’t,” Jennifer answered, “at least not in that way.”

“Huh?” Mary Beth was intrigued. She looked at both girls who were smiling at her.

“Well, you know,” Jennifer glanced at Elizabeth, “there might be stuff that doesn’t count as sex.”

“Really? What?” Mary Beth asked out loud, but in her head she was compiling her own list. “Do you guys do stuff?”

Elizabeth laughed. “You mean with boys, or each other?” She laughed again then became very animated and sat up on her knees on the bed.

Mary Beth was dumbstruck. “Huh? Oh. Umm.” She just sat staring at the girls. “I don’t…know. I mean…”

“Both.” Jennifer looked at Elizabeth then back at Mary Beth. “We do both.”

“Oh. You guys kiss and stuff.”

Elizabeth looked at Mary Beth. “Have you ever kissed a girl before?”

“Not in the way you mean. I mean…” She paused for a moment. “Have you two ever kissed?”

“Oh sure,” Elizabeth said. “We do it all the time.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“Really?”

“Sure.”

“Then kiss her now.”

“Sure.” Elizabeth leaned over and kissed Jennifer on the lips then turned back to Mary Beth. “Want to try it?”

“Huh?” Mary Beth took another drink of wine.

“You don’t know what you’re missing.” Elizabeth moved in front of Mary Beth and faced her. “Want to try it?” She repeated. “Would you like to kiss me?”

“Uh…Oh.” She took another drink of wine. “Maybe.” The word started out as an answer then drifted into a question. Suddenly Mary Beth felt shy, a little intrigued, and a whole lot turned on. Elizabeth leaned forward and gave her a slow soft kiss on the lips. When she pulled back Mary Beth’s eyes were still closed. “How was that?”

“That was nice,” Mary Beth whispered.

“My turn.” Jennifer got to her knees facing the other girls. Mary Beth turned to face her, eyes still closed. She lifted her softly puckered lips and they kissed.

“Did you like that?” This time Jennifer was whispering.

“Yeah,” Mary Beth answered. “Can we do it again?”

“Sure,” Elizabeth said smiling. “But now let’s try something else.” Elizabeth leaned in and kissed Mary Beth again. This time she slid her tongue into Mary Beth’s mouth. Mary Beth flinched and pulled back a little, but when Elizabeth squeezed her shoulders she relaxed. Elizabeth pulled her face just far enough away to ask Mary Beth, “What did you think of that?”

“That was kind of neat.”

“That was French kissing.”

“Yeah. Can I do it to you?”

“Sure.” Mary Beth slid her tongue into Elizabeth’s mouth.

Jennifer moved closer. “Hey, don’t forget about me.”

“You know,” Elizabeth said after they had been kissing for a while, “there are other places you can put your tongue.”

Twenty Two.

The Master Plan

Joe showed up late one Friday night. When I heard knocking I felt a tingle in my balls. I thought it was Mary Beth. When I told Joe about her he just said, “Yeah, I knew it. You can see it in their eyes,” he said. “Even when they’re young.”

“Her mother said to be careful of me. Said I had bedroom eyes.”

“That’s how it goes,” he said. “You were the one needed the warning. Catholic girls.”

“Tell me about it.”

After we talked for a while about little things, we started planning our future.

“You know,” he said, “we got to get out of here. Out of this town. We got to travel. See the world.”

“Or at least the west coast,” I added.

“Yeah, that would be cool, huh? The west coast on motorcycles. Just you and me, like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper.”

“Only no Mardi Gras and a different ending,” I joked.

“Aw, that wouldn’t be so bad. If you had to go, that is.”

“Maybe we could join a motorcycle gang.”

“Fuck that. We’ll start our own.” Joe got up to get a beer from the mini-fridge. His shirt was off and I could see the muscles in his back. When he turned, I could see his chest was bigger, too.

“Been working out, huh?”

“Yeah, some thick brothers in there helping me out. Besides, nothing else to do, except school and counseling and shit.” He sat down and handed me a beer. “Hey, did you see this? I got a tattoo.” He held out his forearm. It was a black spiral pattern.

“That’s cool as shit.”

“Yeah. Some dude did it for a pack of cigarettes. Pretty good, huh?” He took a drink of beer then looked at it again. “Anyway, you’re looking buff, too.”

“I’m trying. No thick brothers to help.” We sat drinking for a moment. “So, what are you learning in juvy.”

“Mostly just how to be a better thief. That’s all we talk about. There’s some dudes in there, real crazy fuckers, got all kinds of schemes. They’ve done so much shit, you wouldn’t believe it. And, they got away with it all, until they got caught. They said they made one mistake. They bragged about it. They were at a party one night and everyone was telling stories. And some dude was there they didn’t know too good. Anyway, that dude got busted for something stupid and he wanted to look badass and so he confessed to all this shit he heard about. He said he done them all but when the cops squeezed him he started dropping names. He gave some names and they had some finger prints, and you know how that goes.” Joe raised his hands and shrugged.

“When they all got arrested, it didn’t take long to figure out who ratted. When they were out on bail they tracked him down. They only meant to scare him and fuck him up a little, but things got out of hand. And now, they ain’t never getting out. After juvy, jail.”

“They cellmates of yours?”

“No. They’re on a different block. But my work duty is over there so I get to hang with them sometimes.” Joe was nodding his head and thinking about them.

He continued, “They have it all worked out. They have this whole system. Real organized, you know, like the Mob. Everyone’s got a specialty and everybody gets rewarded for a good job.” I could tell he was thinking about it a lot. “Too bad they ain’t never getting out. We could run with dudes like that. We could make some serious money.” He sat thinking for a moment. “Yeah, that’s what we need. A gang. A gang that listens to us and does what we say. Imagine, everyone out doing their thing and we just sit back and get paid. That’s the way to do it.” He looked over at me. “That’s the way to do it. We win either way. We get a piece of their action, plus we get our own. That’s power. That’s respect.” Joe was high on the thought. “Think about it, Mann. Think about all the money and all the babes. Yeah, the women. Major babes just waiting in line to suck your dick.” Poor Joe, I could tell he wasn’t getting any.

I guess I didn’t help by telling him about Mary Beth, about how later that night, after she finished her Catholic camp story, she gave me a blow job and told me to stick it in her butt. I told him she had crazy orgasms from anal sex and kept begging me to do it harder. And when I was about to cum, she told me to put it in her mouth again.

“You mean after it was up her ass?”

“Yeah. I couldn’t believe it. I tried to stop her because she was acting all crazy and I thought she didn’t realize what she was doing. But she said, ‘It’s cool,’ and she just kept on sucking.”

“Man, I bet that was intense. That’s straight up porno.”

“It blew my mind, Joe. Then she said she couldn’t wait to do it again.”

“Oh man.” Joe pushed his hair back off his forehead. “Wow.”

“I know.” And that pretty much set the tone for our conversation the rest of the evening.

When we finally went to bed I had trouble sleeping. Between the Mary Beth story and Joe’s ideas about getting rich, I was wide awake, horny and excited. But I knew that Mary Beth would be back someday soon, so it wasn’t really the sex talk that was keeping me up. It was all the stuff that Joe said about having a gang. That sounded pretty cool, I had to admit. So long as it wasn’t a gang of losers. But Joe could take care of all that. He could plan it out and decide who to recruit. That’d give him something to think about in juvy. He seemed pretty focused already. I could tell he wasn’t sleeping either. I could feel the bed creaking next to me. He had plenty to think about. He had a sense of purpose. He found focus. It would help him get by in juvy. But it wouldn’t help him get to sleep tonight.

I thought of a couple of things to ask Joe. I started to roll over and talk to him when I realized that he was jerking off. Right there, in bed next to me. His shoulder was brushing my back. I could feel the steady rhythm of his arm pumping. After I realized what he was doing I noticed some other things. He was taking short breaths and I could feel him flex his feet. I laid still, listening. Sometimes a low, quiet grunt came out with his breathing.

I laid there, next to him, wondering what he was thinking about, which girl or girls he was picturing. I wondered if he was thinking about an old girlfriend. They were all pretty hot. Sometimes I thought about his girlfriends. Or maybe he was thinking about some actress he’d seen. Or maybe Mary Beth. When I told him we had anal sex, he just smiled and said he liked her plump little ass.

Joe’s grunts got louder and throatier, and the rhythm of the bed stretched long, before a few quick thrusts. Joe’s shoulder bumped my back a couple of times and then he relaxed. I heard him exhale, then he laid still for a moment. When he got up to go to the bathroom and I heard the door click shut, I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling. I reached under the covers and realized that I had a boner too.

 

Twenty Three.

High School

When Mary Beth broke up with me nothing really changed. We still fooled around, but we also dated other people. She wanted it that way. It was the fall of 1980 and I just started ninth at Loch Raven. Mary Beth was in tenth at Towson Catholic. For her that was too distant a relationship. It didn’t matter that she lived behind me. I think she knew what would happen when I saw high school girls and she was right.

The first day was the only day I got to class early. I sat in the far back corner so I could scan each chick entering. How well I liked the class was based entirely on how many hotties were in it. Maybe that’s why I failed Social Studies. Not enough cute chicks, and only one who sat near me. And she wore so many layers that I didn’t know what her body looked like until she showed me telescope pictures from Ocean City. But by then I had missed half the classes and it was too late to pass.

That first week of school I walked around in a drooling daze. The seniors, oh the seniors. The juniors, oh the juniors. Chicks everywhere. Shuffling their feet and flipping their hair. Smiling and giggling and wanting attention. Or aloof and frowning and pretending not to want it. They, of course, wanted it more than the others. All wanting attention. All wanting. The pressure was more than I could bear. Chicks. Chicks. Chicks. Thank God for drugs. Particularly Quaaludes. Thank you Gina for introducing me to ludes. Actually, maybe that was why I failed Social Studies.

Anyway, two things I learned that first semester of high school: (1) nothing can get you laid faster than ludes. And, (2) chicks love ludes. By Halloween, I was dealing. By Thanksgiving, I was addicted. By Christmas, everyone was. I would have made a lot of money too if I hadn’t eaten all the profits. And once I started eating more than the profits I knew it was time to quit. Thank God my supplier cut me off. I spent a couple of sleepless nights in a cold sweat with train whistles screaming in my head.

A week later I started dealing coke. I thought it best to leave the downers alone. So I went in the opposite direction and soon realized that coke will get you laid too. Chicks not only love ludes, but they love coke too. Even more. But a different clique of chicks. When I sold ludes it was usually to rock and roll chicks, chicks who wore long denim coats and dated dudes with long hair, who of course bought from me too.

But coke knew no clique. All chicks love coke: cheerleaders, wallflowers, honor students, dropouts, jocks. Coke offered delusions of grandeur. It made chicks beautiful and popular, the only things important to teenage chicks. And it made them horny, the only thing important to teenage dudes.

One morning in the hall, about a month before summer break, I saw some friends talking. There was a black chick with them who was damn cute, so I joined them. I turned to the chick. “What’s your name?”

She looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “You don’t remember?”

I looked at her for a moment. “We’ve met?”

“Wow,” she said shaking her head and laughing, then raised both eyebrows, “Are you serious?”

I kept looking at her, waiting for memory to speak. “Are you sure we know each other?” I was certain I wouldn’t forget a cute chick like this.

“Mann, I knew you were high, but not that high.” (Ok, for a while, I was mixing coke and ludes. Great high, but sometimes it caused blackouts and memory loss.)I just looked at her, thinking, ‘This is like a bad movie.’

“Friday night…,” she said, “The party…We talked for like four hours.” She found this pretty amusing. Evidently, I was living up to my reputation as a stoner. “I gave you a ride home.”

“Oh,” I said nodding my head, “that’s how I got home.” She was still smiling. “Sorry.”

Loni was a cheerleader, the cutest, coolest cheerleader I ever knew. And she liked to party. She did alright in school, but she loved to smoke weed. She was the first black chick I ever kissed. And the first that Joe slept with.

The party that Loni was referring to was really band rehearsal. Some dudes had a band and people from school hung out in their garage during practice. That meant I could sell a lot of weed. High schoolers in a garage listening to live music was an easy weed sale. Me, I never touched the stuff, anymore, stopped when they put Joe away. It burnt me out too much. All I wanted to do was eat and sleep.

“So anyway,” Loni said, handing out slips of paper, “the party is at my house this Friday. Directions are here.” I was the last to get one before everyone walked away. Loni stopped and looked back. She knew I was watching her ass. “Oh, by the way, don’t bring a date.” She turned and walked away. I saw “Brown Sugar” embroidered on the pocket of her tight jeans.

On Friday night I rode my motorcycle to the party. I had trouble finding the address. It was on Cub Hill Road, which dead ended at the juvy. It was a long road that meandered from Joppa through suburbs and apartments, open fields and farms.  I followed the addresses as the numbers ran higher. But they didn’t run high enough to match the address Loni gave. I circled back again, thinking maybe the numbers changed somewhere, or maybe I would see the party or maybe someone I knew would pass. But there was no one out this far. I was out by the corn fields next to the juvy. There were a few farm houses, but when I followed the addresses I ended up at the entrance to the juvy. Frustrated, I pulled up to the guardhouse and asked.

“Do you know where this is?” I yelled through my helmet over the sound of the motorcycle and through the guard’s window. He was inside with the A/C on, watching a portable TV. He slid the window open and stuck his hand out without looking up.

He glanced at the address, then back at the TV. He handed the paper back and raised the gate. Still without looking up, “Follow this around, second building on the right.”

I looked down the road at the group of buildings. I hesitated driving in there. “Are you sure?” I called to the guard, holding up the slip and pointing to the address. But it was too late. He had already closed the window. I drove down the road cautiously. It felt like a sting, like any minute cops would jump from the bushes. This is stupid. I spent my life trying to stay out of this place. Now I go in voluntarily. And for what, a chick. And not even a sure thing. Just a cute chick who told me to come to her party. This is stupid. This ain’t smart. I was about to turn around and get the fuck out of there when I saw Loni’s car parked in the lot where the guard told me to go. There was no mistaking her rusty B210. I pulled in next to it, parked in front of a small house with a long narrow building sticking out the back. When I took my helmet off and looked up, Loni was at the door.

“Originally, this was a one bedroom house. Each detention hall has a small guard house attached to it. Some guards live here, and some counselors. My mom is head of security. She told them she needed two bedrooms for her daughters.” Loni led me down the hall to her room. Then she pointed across the hall, “That’s my sister’s room. Check this out.” She turned to face the wall at the end of the hall. She opened a curtain to reveal a steel door with a small window. I looked inside. There was a long hall with half a dozen doors on each side. It was obvious they were the rooms for some of the inmates. At the far end was another door with a small window. I followed the path of the hall with my eyes, back to where it disappeared into my door. I stepped back and looked at the door. I looked down at the tile floor that continued into Loni’s hallway. The entrance to her hall had an empty doorjamb. I looked at Loni’s bedroom door, then at her sister’s. Then I looked again down the hall full of doors.

“You mean…”

“Yup. Our bedrooms are cells. Mom said we needed two more bedrooms and they chopped off the last two cells.”

“Cool,” I said, looking through the window as a guy crossed the hall inside.

“Yeah? You think that’s cool? Check this out.” Loni turned the deadbolt and opened the door.

“Whoa. Have you let anyone out?”

“Nah,” she said closing the door and bolting it. My mom would get fired.” She looked at me and smiled, “But, I did let someone in once. For about an hour.” She waited until I understood.

“Ah huh.”

We rejoined the party in the living room. Loni’s date was there. She didn’t think he was coming but his plans changed. I saw him around school some times, but I never talked to him.

“You know Harry, right?” Loni waved her hand toward him.

“No.”

“Oh. This is Harry Whiteman.”

He stood up, shook my hand. “How are you doing?” I didn’t like him.

“Hey.” I said, and walked away. I was suspicious of any black dude named Harry Whiteman.

He left soon after that. Loni and I went to her room to catch a buzz. She said it wasn’t serious with Harry and that she only dated him because she felt sorry for him. He was new at school, no friends. She thought he was kind of cute, so she asked him to a party. Then she couldn’t get rid of him. She said he was alright but asked too many questions. And she wasn’t sure he was all that cute anyway.

“What about you?” She waited for me to answer.

“I was with someone over the summer. But, she didn’t want to be tied down and neither did I.” I took this opportunity to lean forward and kiss Loni. We made out for a while, then Loni decided she should deal with Harry Whiteman before starting anything else.

When we went back to the living room there were more people. Someone asked about Joe and I said he was fine. But really I didn’t know. I hadn’t seen him for six months. Either he stopped coming to see me when he ran away, or he stopped running away altogether. I’m not sure. But I hadn’t heard from him. I hadn’t even really thought about him, until I looked at Loni’s address on that piece of paper.

“Actually, he’s right here somewhere, at Cub Hill.”

“Really?” Loni jumped up from her chair. “You have a friend here? What’s his name? Is he on this hall?”

“I don’t know.” I told her his name.

“Hang on a sec.” She went over to her mom’s desk and looked through a book. “Come here.” She walked down the hall to the steel door. “Watch this. About halfway down on the right.” She pushed a button on the wall next to the door. A moment later, Joe looked out into the hall from one of the rooms. He looked confused. He looked up and down the hall then disappeared. Loni rang the bell again. Joe looked out again. He looked one way then the other, then back again. He walked out into the hall and turned and looked at his door and the doorjamb. Then he looked along the ceiling, shrugged his shoulders and went back inside. I rang the bell this time. He didn’t come out. I rang it again. He didn’t come out. I held the button down until he came out. He looked up and down the hallway, then up and down the hallway again. Then he saw us looking through the window at him. I guess he couldn’t tell who it was because he gave us the finger and went back inside. I rang the bell again. He immediately came out and walked toward us, looking more confused than pissed.

Loni said, “They don’t use these buzzers anymore. He probably doesn’t know what’s up.”

When Joe neared the window, he recognized me and smiled. Loni opened the door slightly so we could talk.

“Hey, How’d you get in here?”

“Loni lives here.” I introduced Loni, standing next to me.

“Hey.”

“So, how’s it going?”

Joe realized we hadn’t talked in a while. “Oh, they got me on a demerit system, on account of how much I ran away. If I fuck up they take my free time, and they make me talk to the counselor and all kinds of grief ensues.” He said they even have a solitary confinement like real prison. But that’s mostly for really crazy fucks. Then he smiled. He said he would come and see me when he could, and he said goodbye and closed the door. Loni and I watched him walk back down the hall and disappear into his room.

 

Twenty Four.

Three Way

“I have to talk to you.” Loni was waiting outside Art class.

“What’s up?” I asked as we walked to lunch. She stopped and looked at me, then down at her hands hugging her notebook to her cheerleader sweater.

“Joe came in last night, for about an hour.” She glanced up, then back down at her hands.

“Cool,” I said. It wasn’t like we were dating. In fact, in the two weeks since her party we hadn’t really done anything except eat lunch together. I was waiting for her to say she dumped that guy. I guess Joe wasn’t. “So, what’d you guys do?” I asked as we made our way through the lunch line.

She seemed relieved that I was being cool about it. “Well, we talked for a while…and smoked some weed,” she whispered.

“Cool.” I looked at Loni. She wanted me to say more. “And you hooked up?”

“Yeah. Well…, sort of. Yes.”

“That’s cool.”

“Really? Really? You’re not pissed or hurt or anything?”

“Naw”, I said, grabbing a bag of fries from under the heat lamp. “I mean, unless you want me to be. No, really. I think you’re a babe. And Joe is my bud. It’s cool. So anyway, just out of curiosity, who initiated?” We paid for our lunch and sat down.

“He did.”

“Yeah, that was a dumb question. He probably tapped on that steel door until you answered, huh?”

“How’d you know? He scared the shit out of me. I was reading Lord of the Flies for English, and I live in this fucking reform school, and it was late at night and I was half asleep. And to top it off, my mom was out of town. When he knocked I nearly jumped out of my skin.”

“So?” I opened a packet of ketchup and squeezed it onto the tray. “So, did you have fun?”

Loni blushed. “Yeah, I did… He’s a wild one.”

“You don’t know the half of it. I could tell you some things.”’

“Oh yeah?” Her eyes lit up.

Loni called me the next Saturday to ask if I wanted to stop by. Her mom was out of town, something about family in DC. So I grabbed some beer from Taylor’s on the corner and rode my motorcycle out to Cub Hill. I had to go to the package goods because I lost my fake ID and Arlo’s wouldn’t serve without it. I had a good beard already but I guess I still looked young, plus that was the year the drinking age went to twenty-one. It was hard to get served anywhere without ID. But Taylor’s still did. An old dude worked there, a friend of my dad. He called me “Billy.” I think he was senile, but he knew my face and my dad so he never carded me.

“Hey-a Billy, how’s er going tonight?” He’d ask when I came in. “Tonight’s the night, Billy.” He waved a lottery ticket in the air, while smiling and chewing his unlit cigar. “I think this one’s a winner.” He did it every time. I always bought it too, because I was certain it was extortion: If you want beer you little puke, you’re gonna have to buy a lottery ticket.

“Yeah, I’ll take one. And give me a case of Natty Boh while you’re at it.”

“Sure thing, Billy.”

When I got to Loni’s there wasn’t a party. There were no cars in the lot except Loni’s. I parked next to her’s and unstrapped the beer. The door was open so I walked in. She and Joe were sitting on the sofa. The air was musky and sweet. Dark Side of the Moon was on the stereo.

“Hey,” Loni called to me. “I heard your motorcycle coming down the road.”

“Hey there. Beer?”

“Thanks.” Joe said, taking two and handing one to Loni. They both were glassy-eyed and stoned. “Wanna hit?” Joe reached for the bong.

“No, thanks.”

“Oh yeah, Loni said you don’t smoke no more. Hey, you got anything else?”

I sat next to them on the sofa and dug into my pocket. “Let’s see, I think I got a couple of ludes somewhere. Yeah, here we go.” I pulled the baggie out and held it up. “One, and some crumbs.”

“Let’s smoke ‘em.” Joe said, reaching for his bong again.

“I don’t know, Joe. I heard that’ll put blisters on your lungs.”

He looked at me, “Is that bad?”

“I don’t know. But it don’t sound good.”

“Awww,” he said with the wave of a hand, “you only live once.”

“Yeah,” I smiled, “why not get it over with.”

Joe and I laughed. It felt good to see him again. I felt something wake up inside of me as soon as I heard him laugh. Loni didn’t feel it though. She just looked at us like we were crazy. “I’m not smoking anything that might put blisters on my lungs.”

“Don’t worry,” Joe said. He reached into the baggie and pulled out the whole lude. “You eat this one. Mann and I will smoke the crumbs. Cool?” He looked at both of us.

“Cool.”

“Fine with me.” Loni took the lude from Joe and looked at it. “’714′. What does that mean?”

“That means it’s good. Eat it.” Joe pushed the lude toward her. She stopped him. “I can do it.” She looked at the lude again. “Why is it swirled?”

“Oh, you got one of those.”

“What do you mean ‘one of those’?”

“From that batch.”

What batch?” All of a sudden Loni looked really concerned.

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s not bad. It’s just swirled because the batch didn’t get mixed good. I call them ‘loony ludes.’ You don’t know what you’re going to get. You might not get off at all, or it might knock your boots off.” I looked at Joe. “Got a good deal on ‘em.”

“Whoa.” Loni handed it back. “I’ve only done ludes twice. I don’t want to o.d.”

“Relax. Relax. Here,” Joe bit the lude in half and handed part to Loni. He swallowed the other half.

“Ok,” she said, washing it down with Natty Boh.

I ate some crumbs and Joe packed the bong with the rest. We tapped beers, “To the land of pleasant living.”

“See you in Hell my friend.” Then we lit the bong and passed it back and forth. Ludes are harsh, harsher than hash oil. And they really weren’t meant to be smoked. I could feel my lungs burning and not in the good way. And they smelled terrible too. But it was effective. Pretty soon we were all mellow as meatloaf.

Loni was sitting between us with her head on Joe’s shoulder when she started rubbing both our legs. She looked at Joe and gave him a kiss, then she looked at me.

Call it performance anxiety. Call it too much beer and Quaalude. Call it whatever you want, but it didn’t happen for me. At first I was into it. I mean, Loni was hot as fuck. I mean hot, with dark shiny skin and that ass popping out. I certainly thought of her in that way. Often. And I thought about her and Joe together. But I never thought about the three of us together. And when it happened, it just didn’t do anything for me. Actually, it upset me that it didn’t do anything for me. I started thinking the worst, like maybe I was some kind of traditional guy. And that scared me and pissed me off so I tried even harder, but that of course didn’t work. You can’t force a boner. At least, I couldn’t.

Then I started worrying what they were wondering. Actually, not so much Loni as Joe. I felt bad for Loni because I wanted her to know how sexy she was. I didn’t want her to think she didn’t turn me on. She did, like crazy, just not with Joe around. Joe…, now Joe was a different story. I mean here it is we haven’t talked in months. I didn’t know how he is doing or what he’d been up to, or whether or not he missed me and all of the sudden we’re sharing a chick. Too weird for me. And too much pressure. Way too much pressure. I made a couple of excuses and got the Hell out of there. Joe shrugged and said, “Alright, Mann. Peace.” Loni said “Ok,” and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

Monday in school at lunch Loni apologized. “It was Joe’s idea. I’m not blaming him. I take responsibility too. But I just wanted you to know that.” Loni had the most sincere eyes. I’ve been a sucker for brown eyes ever since.

“It’s cool, really. It wasn’t a bad idea. I would have liked to and I’m flattered and all. But I guess it’s just not for me. At least not with you.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Hope so.”

Loni smiled. “Thanks. Anyway, I don’t want to do anything to mess up our friendship. Are we cool?”

“Cool. God yes.” I leaned forward and gave her a hug. I like hugging hot chicks.

We finished lunch and went outside to chill. It was a bright sunny spring day and my spring fever was burning up. “Hey, you want to get out of here? Ditch the afternoon and go to the reservoir?”

“Yeah,” Loni nodded. “I do.”

When the bell rang to end lunch we went in the front door and out the back to the student parking lot. We hopped in Loni’s rusty Datsun and took a left out of the lot.

Loch Raven Drive was full of kids ditching class. Bon Jovi and Def Leppard wafted from car windows. We found a quiet spot near the little dam and I sat down against a pine tree. Loni spread out her jacket and laid her head on my legs.

“So, by the way, did you have a good time Saturday night after I left?”

“Yeah. I felt bad for you and all, but I was too horny to stop. I’m not going to take ludes anymore. I was insatiable.”

“Like Marilyn Chambers?”

“I don’t know…”

“Porn star.”

“Oh. Yeah, probably. Insatiable.”

“Sounds beautiful.”

“No, it’s kind of crazy. And really frustrating. But I think Joe had it worse than me. He was really crazy. I thought he might pass out.”

“Really? Sounds like you guys had fun. Maybe I should have stayed.”

Loni reached up and rubbed my arm. “It’s cool.”

“Yeah. So Joe was pretty crazy, huh?”

“Crazy. Crazy Joe.” Loni was the first one to call him that. And it fit so well it stuck immediately. “…Crazy Joe. You guys have done some crazy shit. Haven’t you?”

“Yeah. Pretty much.”

“I bet you guys have done all kinds of things.”

“Pretty much.”

“I bet you’ve stolen cars and robbed convenience stores and…Hey, have you killed anyone?”

“No,” I smiled, “not yet.”

“Tell me some stuff. Have you ever robbed houses?”

“Yeah.”

“Tell me about it. Tell me a story, please.”

“Wouldn’t you rather smoke some weed instead?”

“Will you smoke with me?”

“I’ll take a hit or two…for you.”

“Ok. First we smoke. Then you talk.”

I took a hit, leaned my head back against the tree trunk and exhaled, looking out over the flickering silver coins of Loch Raven Reservoir.

Twenty Five.

Our First B&E

Joe and I started robbing houses in the summer prior to eighth grade. We were getting high in the tunnel under Perring Parkway, listening to ZZ Top on my boom box when he had an epiphany.

“Mann,” he jumped up and banged his head on the low ceiling, “there’s so much cool shit in other people’s houses. Think about it, anything we want, someone has it in their house. All we got to do is steal it.”

I said, “Cool. I’m in.”

So we went out looking for a house to rob. We stopped by my garage to grab some tools just in case, then walked around for hours smoking weed and looking for houses with no car in the drive. When we found one, we knocked on the door. If someone answered we just asked for Pete.

We thought it was going to be easier. We just needed an empty house, but we couldn’t find one. We walked around for hours. Joe got pissed after a while and said “Fuck it, the next house gets robbed. Fuck ‘em if they’re home.”

I knew he was joking. At least I thought he was joking. Regardless, just then I saw a house. “Joe. Look over there.” I pointed to a little semi-detached at the end of the court. No lights. No car. Trees and bushes in the yard.

Joe got excited. “That’s the one, Mann. That’s the one. Let’s go.” We walked up on the front porch and Joe rang the bell. No one answered. The mailbox was full. They weren’t home yet so we went around to the basement door. Joe pulled a pry bar from his belt loop and wedged it into the jamb to pop the lock. The bar slipped and smashed his finger.

“Fuck.” He tried again. Same result. “Fuck this,” he took off his shirt, wrapped it around his fist and punched the window, then reached in and unlocked the door. As soon as we got inside we realized we forgot flashlights. I tripped over something. Then Joe did. “Fuck it.” He turned on a light. The house was empty, except for some trash. There was a crumpled blanket on the floor and a torn poster on the wall. It was Alice Cooper so Joe rolled it and stuffed it in his jacket. Then he tripped over an ashtray and I tripped over a milk crate.

“Look around, Mann. There’s got to be something we can steal.”

“I don’t see anything.”

Joe was digging through a pile in the closet when I heard him start tapping the wall. I looked over and he was prying a crack in the wall. “What you got there?”

“Not sure,” he grunted as he pried. “but…” POP. A section of the wall cracked and came off. “Yup. Secret panel.” He looked down at the pieces of drywall on the floor, “Well, sort of.” He reached into the hole and fished around. “Bingo.” He pulled out a plastic baggie and held it up to the light. “Pills.”

“Pills? What kind?”

“Don’t know, but they look good.” He shook the baggie. “Must be good to be stashed.” He held it closer. “Must be a hundred here. Every color.” He smiled. “A rainbow.” He shook the baggie again and looked at me over the top of it. “What do you think, Mann. Wanna take a walk on the wild side?”

“Why not?”

“What color would you like?”

“Black, of course.”

“Of course,” Joe nodded, sorting through the pills. “Let’s start off slow.” He handed me one, then he took one, then put the baggie in his pocket. We looked around for more stashes, tore some holes in the walls and pulled some cabinets out of the kitchen. When there was nothing else to steal, Joe said, “Let’s get out of here.”

When I looked up I felt light headed. The drugs were kicking in already. “Yeah,” I said taking a deep breath, “we don’t want to be in here tripping when someone comes home.”

“To the woods.”

We crossed the street and went down to the stream that ran behind the houses and under the parkway. We came up at the bottom edge of the schoolyard. I was really starting to get off. We climbed through a hole in the fence and up to the football field. When we reached the top the drugs took over. My head started spinning, my heart started pounding and everything started melting.

“Whoa.” I said, balancing myself against the bleachers.

“You feel it, too?” Joe dropped to one knee and took a deep breath. He rested his head on his arm, propped on his knee. “It’s gonna be a long night.” He looked up at me panting. He smiled, “Enjoy the fight… I mean flight.” His words echoed through my head and got louder each time. flight. Flight. FLIght. FLIGHT. FLIGHTTTT.

“Come on,” Joe stood and started walking. I tried to follow. When I took a step my legs gave out, but I caught myself. I stood wavering, ready to collapse. My knees were rubber bands. I leaned against the bleachers to practice staying up. Joe called back, “What’s wrong?”

“No sea legs yet.”

“Lock your knees.”

“Huh?”

“Like this.” Joe demonstrated.

“You look like Frankenstein.”

He stuck his arms out and started growling, “I AM FRANKENSTEIN. I AM FRANKENSTEIN.”

“Stop. You’re freaking me out.” For a moment I forgot I took that pill and really thought he was a monster. I got anxious and looked for a rock to hit him with, but then I remembered that he was Joe and not a monster, and I was on drugs. So everything was cool.

Joe dropped his arms and stopped growling. “To the woods?”

“To the woods.” I let go of the bleacher and took a step. The ground got mushy and my foot sank into muck. I looked down but it looked fine. It was dark, but I saw my boot sitting firmly on the ground. I took another step and that foot sank too. I looked around. It felt like I was sinking. But I checked the ground and all seemed fine.

Joe was far away by now. He called, “Come on, quit lolly-gagging.”

“Grounds sinking.”

“So what.”

That’s true, I thought to myself. Yeah, so what. I took another step, sank again, but I could still walk. I took a few more steps. I imagined I was walking on the beach…, soft sand swallowing my feet. It was warm and sunny and there were lots of bodacious chicks in bikinis. And they smiled as they passed by, “Hey Mann.” “Hey Mann.” It felt good to be recognized by hot chicks. I waved to them and said “Hey.” And they responded, “Hey Mann…”

“Hey! Mann!” I snapped from my daydream. Joe was calling from across the field. “Mann, come on. Quit fucking around.”

“Huh? Oh yeah. Uh, bye girls. Gotta go.” I ignored the mushy ground and hurried to catch up to Joe. But after a few steps I realized it wasn’t the ground that was mushy. It was my feet. They turned into marshmallows. Big, giant marshmallows wearing big, giant marshmallow boots. Now I knew I was tripping.

“Come on,” Joe said walking back to me. “What’s wrong?”

“Marshmallows.”

“What?” He turned and started walking again. I tried to follow. This time when I took a step, my head floated away. I stepped back and it came back down to my shoulders. I stepped forward, it floated up. I stepped back, it came down. Forward, up. Back, down. Forward, up. Back, down. Forward, up. Back, down. I rocked back and forth a couple of times. It was kind of cool. When I tried to show Joe, I couldn’t find him, so I ran after him, ignoring my marshmallow feet and holding my head on by my ears.

Joe was waiting at the edge of the woods. Actually he was crouched, peering into the woods. “Shhh.”

“What? What’s up? What’s in there?” I peered into the darkness.

“Lions.”

“And tigers?”

“And bears.”

“Oh.” My first thought was to get the fuck out of there. But then I remembered I was tripping. And Joe, too. I mean, his feet weren’t marshmallows, but he did think he heard lions in the woods of Parkville.

So I told Joe he was tripping and he said, “Oh, yeah,” and stood up. “Come on.” He waved his arm overhead for me to follow. What I followed were the rainbow tracers that trailed his waving arm, arching across the sky in vibrant Juicy Fruit stripes. The ribbon of colors grew longer and more vivid until everything turned bright white.

I opened my eyes but it was dark. I wasn’t sure where I was. I could tell I was lying on my back. But when I looked up I couldn’t see the ceiling. I turned my head to both sides. I couldn’t see the walls either. It was too dark. And the bed was hard. And the pillow felt like a rock. And it was wet. I was wet. Where the Hell am I? Whose house is this? This isn’t my room. And this definitely isn’t my bed. And my pillow isn’t this hard. This thing feels like a rock. I reached my hand under my head and felt the pillow. It was a rock. What the fuck? I leaned up and looked at it. It was dark but I could make out the edges. It was square. A square rock. A square rock? It felt like concrete. I looked around. I’m not in bed. I’m not even inside. What the fuck? I reached down and felt grass beneath me. I rubbed my head. I couldn’t remember anything and my head was spinning.

I laid back down to stop the spinning and to figure out where I was. I knew I was in a field somewhere. But where? And I was wet. Why am I wet? My hair was soaked. My shirt was soaked. The grass around me was soaked. The square rock pillow was soaked. Everything was soaked. It was raining. It was raining hard. I just realized. Rain was pouring down. I was getting soaked. I tried to get out of the rain, but I couldn’t get up yet. I rolled to one side and pushed myself up. Sitting with my head between my knees, I realized I could almost lick my own balls. But that didn’t stop my head from spinning. It did slow it down though, and I was able to look up and look around. I still couldn’t move, though, to get out of the rain. It seemed to be sprinkling one minute and pouring the next. Sprinkling one minute, pouring the next. Sprinkling, pouring. Sprinkling… Hey, wait a minute. That’s not rain. What the fuck? I peered into the darkness. Lawn Sprinkler. Fuck, sprinkler. Fuck. I was soaked. I tried to stand. I got to one knee then leaned against a big rock and stood up. I held onto the rock with both hands. It felt like the rock was moving, and me with it. I held on until everything seemed to settle down. Slowly I stood and looked around. Cemetery. I was in a cemetery. The pieces fell into place. Pillow. Rock. Tombstone. Cemetery. I am in a cemetery. How do I get out of the cemetery? I looked around for a path or road or sign or something. Nothing. Just tombstones for as far as I could see, which wasn’t very far. Faint reflections of light on tombstones dipping and rising on a hillside. I turned in a circle. I was surrounded by tombstones. Tombstones everywhere. This is the biggest cemetery in the world. Where the fuck am I? I remembered Joe. We were looking for a house to rob. Slowly the details cleared in my head. Soon I could remember up to the point when we found that bag of pills. The rest I could guess. But what about Joe? I looked around again. I was alone. Just me and the tombstones. I tried calling his name but that took too much energy. I tried getting out of the line of fire of the sprinkler but that took way too much energy. When the sprinkler came back around it blasted me in the ear and gave me the burst I needed. I dropped to the ground and crawled in the opposite direction. I got about ten feet and passed out again.

I woke a while later feeling a little better. My head was still full of feathers and my clothes were still wet. But I was out of the line of fire, and I was able to stand up. I could see the outline of trees not far away. I walked toward them and found a path to the edge of the cemetery. I walked the perimeter until I found a hole in the fence and cut through into the woods. I followed the path deeper. I wasn’t sure where I was going but I was sure I would find my way.

I walked for awhile, feeling my way from tree to tree, unsure if I was still on the path. I squinted into the dark, hoping to see a couple of trees before walking into them. I missed a few, but the ones I hit did help clear my head. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was. I thought I would hear crickets or frogs or something, but the only sounds were the ones I was making and a Harley off in the distance. I smelled the early dew but still had no clue what time it was. My shirt was almost dry but my jeans were still wet, and I was cold. I saw a flicker of light ahead. So I headed toward it. Soon the Harley was louder and I heard voices too. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was definitely some dudes talking and laughing. When I got close I could tell it was a bunch of bikers drinking beer and talking shit.

They were sitting next to a wooden shack, a crooked box of scrap nailed to trees and draped with a southern flag over the door. It all felt vaguely familiar. I stumbled around to the front. There were five or six dudes sitting on logs around a fire, and a topless chick dancing to no music. Another chick was giving head. Some dudes were standing in the background. Everyone looked up when I turned the corner.

“Hey.”  Joe called from the side. I hadn’t seen him. There was a chick kneeling in front of him, too. “Come on over, pull up a log.” I sat next to him. “Where you been? I looked all over.”

“I don’t know. What happened?”

“You were following me, then you were gone.” The chick kept sucking his dick while he talked to me. “So, how was your trip?”

“I don’t know. I think I sort of passed out. My head is still whacked. How about yours?”

“Yeah, that was some intense shit, huh? Oh, by the way, this is Bang Bang.”

She stopped sucking and looked up, “Hey Mann.”

“Sherry?”

“Hey.” She smiled and went back down on Joe.

“You know her?”

“School.”

“Oh,” he said looking down at the back of her head, “I like Sherry.”

She looked up, “Here, it’s Bang Bang.” Then she turned and deep throated him.

“Yup.” Joe replied as he took a deep breath. He pointed to a cooler on the ground next to one of the bikers, “Grab a beer. You know everyone?”

I looked around the fire and nodded. Faces were familiar, The Pagans. Now I knew where I was: The Shack.

Billy Bear raised his beer, “Little Mad Mann.” I nodded. He was a crazy one, a friend of Duke’s, suburban redneck, a real cowboy, even wore a cowboy hat and chewed tobacco. I thought he was in jail. None of us younger guys knew him too well because he was always in jail or in hiding. Someone handed me a beer and gave me a pat on the back. I pulled the tab and upended it. It felt good going down, nice burn. I leaned back and looked at the stars. My head was clearing, but I still couldn’t remember much. It seemed like a good idea to just relax and stare at the fire.

I heard someone grunt. I looked over at the biker getting head. Apparently he was done. He grinned, lifted his ass to pull up his pants, then sat down and drank his beer.

“Next,” he said, nudging the dude on his right. The chick shuffled over and that dude stood and unbuckled his pants.

Then Joe made a noise. I looked down at Sherry. Her head was bobbling fast. Her blonde hair was bouncing and Joe was ready to cum, too. She buried her head on him to swallow it. That was the rule. He collapsed over her and pumped it into her mouth. When he finished he sat up. Then Bang Bang sat up and smiled. She wiped her watering eyes, then grabbed Joe’s beer and took a drink.

When she tried to hand it back, he smirked, “That’s all right. You keep it.”

“Thanks,” she said, then looked at me, “Next.”

 

 

Twenty Six.

He’s Got a Gun

To become good thieves we had to practice. So we did. Our goal was to rob one house a week for the whole school year. And though we were zealous converts, we still only managed to rob one house every month or so. But we did get better with each robbery, or just luckier, because we definitely got more careless.

If the driveway was empty and the lights weren’t on, we popped the basement door and went inside. We looked for cash, jewelry, stereos, and of course drugs. We knew some dudes who would buy anything. We skipped TVs because they were too big and bulky. Usually we took only what would fit in our bags and under our arms. We stashed it nearby in the woods or a dumpster and grabbed it later. If we got caught, we could say we just found it.

Someone came home once while we were in his house. I heard the front door open. I was in the hall near the steps, so I snuck to the basement and out the back door. Joe was upstairs. He climbed out the window and onto the porch roof. He crawled to the side and tried to scale the downspout. It pulled loose and ripped the gutter from the eave. His foot caught on the gutter and flipped him over head first into a bush. He was making so much noise I could hear him from out back. I thought that the dude had caught him or something, so I grabbed a stick and ran around.

Joe stumbled from the bushes when I got there. “Stupid fucking trees,” he said kicking at the bush and fighting back the branches. “Fuck,” he said as he cleared himself and looked over at me. There was a bright flash of light and a loud pop rang my ear. It felt like a bee inside my head.

“Shit,” he yelled. “Gun!” But I was already gone, before I even heard him, before I even realized what happened. I heard another shot before we got away. I looked over my shoulder as I was turning the corner. The dude was leaning out the window yelling and shooting his gun into the darkness.

We ran a while and ducked behind the bowling alley. We fell against the hill sweating and panting and laughing our asses off. Joe got up and walked to the corner to see if anyone had followed. He came back and dropped next to me.

“Here. I got you something.” He reached into the bag and pulled out a big rubber tube. He held it to the light.

“What the fuck is that?”

“It’s a pocket pussy.”

“A what?”

“A pocket pussy. You know, a marital aid.” He held it in front of his crotch to demonstrate, then tried to hand it to me. “You fuck it, Mann.”

“You fuck it?” I looked at it again. “You fuck it. I ain’t fucking it.” I nudged it away with my shoulder. “Jesus, no wonder that guy was pissed, you stole his girlfriend.”

“Hey…,” Joe looked over at me. I turned my head to look at him. “HOLY SHIT,” he said. His eyes got huge. “Holy shit.”

“What? What? What? What? What? What?” I looked around frantic, thinking someone was going to hit me in the head. “What?” I jumped up, ready to fight.

Joe grabbed my arm and pulled me down. “Come here. Turn your head again.” He looked at the side of my head. “You’re bleeding.”

“Huh?”

“You’re bleeding, a lot. Hold still a minute. There’s blood all over you. Where the fuck is it coming from?”

“Probably my ear.” I remembered the stinging after the flash of light outside that dudes house. I forgot about it until Joe mentioned the blood.

He kept looking at it. “Holy shit.”

“What?”

“Part of your ear is gone.”

“What?”

“What happened to your ear?”

“What?” All of the sudden I was deaf.

“What happened to your ear?”

“I think it got shot off.”

“Shit Mann, let’s go under the streetlight so I can see better.”

Joe inspected the wound. He kept touching it. “Ouch,” I said.

“Hold still. Not as bad as it looks. Nothing missing. It’s just ripped.”

We went back to my house to clean the wound. It really wasn’t that bad. All the pieces were there. It was just a big gash, but it bled a lot.

“Tonight was pretty cool, but we got to make a score,” Joe said, standing next to me at the utility tub in the basement. He was holding a first aid kit as I leaned under the faucet splashing water on my ear.

“Yeah,” I said, turning the water off and reaching for a paper towel. “We better put some peroxide on this. Do you see antiseptic in that kit?”

“Yeah, here’s something. Hold still.” He opened the bottle.

“Thanks…FUCCKKKKKK!!!!” Red flashes of light shot through my head. Burning sensations scorched the side of my face. “Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” I jumped around trying to catch my breath. “What the fuck?”

Joe looked at the bottle label. “Whoops. Rubbing alcohol.”

“Oh my god,” I held my ear and looked at the bottle in Joe’s hand. “Don’t ever do that again. Jesus Christ.”

Joe smiled, “It says on the directions that you should clean it twice.”

“Fuck you.”

“No, I’m serious.”

“Fuck you.”

“Pussy.” He put the lid on the bottle and set it on the washing machine. “But seriously. We got to score. That house tonight don’t count. We didn’t get nothing, except you got shot. But that don’t pay.”

“Yeah. We need a house with some good shit in it, like music equipment or something.” I pinched my ear with the paper towel, then reached up and pulled the string to turn on another light. Joe grabbed two beers from the mini-fridge and handed me one as I checked my ear in the mirror.

“Yeah,” he said. “Some place with music equipment.” He thought for a moment. “Music equipment…” Then his eyes lit up and he looked up at me in the mirror. “You mean like a nice guitar?”

I looked at him. “You know something?”

His eyes started to glow and he got that “Joe” smirk. “I know where there’s a Gibson Les Paul.”

I looked at my ear in the mirror, then I looked at Joe in the mirror. “Dude, do you mean…”

“Yeah, I hate that fucker anyway.” Joe was nodding his head and looking at himself.

“Let’s do it,” I said nodding my head.

“Listen,” he looked at me, “this will be easy. We know he’ll be in school tomorrow. And his mom’s dead and his old man will be working. No problem.”

“Easy money,” I said, looking at our reflections framed in the mirror.

Grossman looked like Angus Young. But not as cool. Grossman was a dick. He had a cool guitar but I don’t think he knew how to play. And he kind of smelled bad too. And he was greasy. And he was always a dick. He picked on me when I was little, back when I first started wandering the streets, before I was getting into trouble. He was older, and dumber, but thought that he was the coolest fucker in the world.

He served newspapers in the neighborhood. I used to see him knocking on doors and collecting money. I never saw him serving papers though. When I did see him collecting money, he would pull out a wad of bills and hold it up. “See this, half of this is for acid. Yeah!” Then he’d walk away. Every time he saw me he’d do that, pull money from his pocket and hold it up and say, “This is for acid.” I didn’t even know what acid was until I asked Duke. But Grossman sure was proud that he could buy it.

When Joe and I started hanging out, we partied with a lot of the older dudes, Gina’s friends. Grossman was among them. We weren’t friends, it’s just that some nights the party was at his house. He had a pool table in the basement, and that was reason enough.

I never really talked to him. I don’t think we even looked at each other. But he let me into his parties and pretended all was cool. I think he was afraid of Joe. Joe was crazy, really crazy. He even scared crazy people. I think crazy people can tell when someone is crazier and not only do they respect it, they fear it. It’s animal instinct. Grossman hadn’t dropped so much acid that he couldn’t see that. I also think that a lot of it was posturing. Although he had dropped a lot of acid, probably a couple hundred times, I think he was more of the dysfunctional type of crazy, whereas Joe was the dangerous, antisocial type. And all crazy people respect and fear that type.

It was a bright sunny spring day. Joe and I got up for school but we didn’t go. We did go and meet everyone behind the Giant to catch a buzz. Then we cut out through Loch Raven Village into Grossman’s neighborhood. It was quiet, like everyone was at school or work, which was probably the truth. It felt like we had all the time in the world as we snuck through his yard and down to the basement door. Joe pulled his pry bar and went to work, but it wasn’t working today. We both looked at the door. It was strong as hell and it wasn’t budging.

“Fuck this.” Joe ran up the steps to the back porch and put his elbow through the window. Glass flew into the kitchen and shattered across the tile floor. Joe reached in and unlocked the door. We went in, took only the guitar, and ran straight to Hamburgers’ house.

Hamburger was a bad ass brother with a deep booming voice. He was loud and proud and he thumped his chest for emphasis. He lived in the Ridge and was in and out of prison so many times we were never sure if he was home or not. But if he was, he had drugs. Hamburger was fun to talk to. Mostly he only talked about women. He liked big women. Big women. He went to KFC on Hillsway and talked shit to all the fat women who were eating whole buckets of chicken. He said his kind of woman liked gravy on her mashed potatoes, and lots of it. He’d talk about it for a little while and ole Hamburger would start thinking about it too much, and then he would have to go see if there were any fat chicks up there.

“Here’s the deal,” he said after inspecting the guitar. “Two hundred cash tomorrow, or hash oil today.” Hamburger pulled out a Mason jar filled about an inch with syrupy goo. He held it to the light and licked his lips. “Yo, this is good shit,” he said smiling at us. His gold tooth was the same color as the hash oil.

Joe and I both stared at the jar. This was back before I stopped smoking. “Weed drippin’s, huh?” Joe thought for a moment then said, “A cap of oil today and a hundred bucks tomorrow?”

Twenty Seven.

Why

So, Loni and I never really dated, but we did hang out in tenth grade. I told her stories about Joe and me, about how we stole cars and drove them off the cliff at Delta Quarry. And I told her how we raced stolen motorcycles through Golden Ring Mall. I cut Joe off and he ran into the Hummel kiosk, flipping himself into Santa’s Workshop, and the motorcycle into the fountain. I circled back to save him from a mall cop and some irate elves. He jumped on back of my motorcycle and we screamed out the main door leaving a confetti trail of fake snow and busted reindeer parts.

Loni and I sat together in English with Mr. Deluca. When class got boring I drew dicks and showed Loni. When Mr. Deluca caught us messing around, he volunteered us for improvisational dialogue. He sat us facing, toes and knees touching, holding hands and looking at each other.

“Now, just concentrate and let the conversation flow. Forget you’re in front of the class. Just talk to each other. Have a normal conversation.”

“Ha! If you think any conversation with this boy is normal…” Everyone laughed with Loni.

“Just pretend no one is here.” Mr. Deluca circled us like a Hollywood director. Loni and I just stared at each other. Neither could think of a thing to say. When we laughed from nervousness, everyone laughed.

“Forget where you are. Just talk.” He nodded, “Loni, you begin.”

We stared at each other until she giggled. Then I did, too. It was silly, but we did it. Then we stopped giggling and focused on each other. I blocked out the whole class circling us and Mr. Deluca grading us. We focused hard trying to be alone in the crowd. Gradually I couldn’t see anyone else, which was saying something since Chrystal was right behind Loni. I’d been obsessed with Chrystal’s breasts since fourth grade, when she grew them. And she’d been hiding them ever since, under layers of good girl fashion. But at that moment I was blocking everyone, even Chrystal. And it was working. Everything was quiet, almost peaceful. It seemed Loni felt it too, until she asked, “Why?”

The harshness of the word caught me. With no hard consonants it should sound softer. Instead it grated against the silence and fractured the shell we’d been building. “Why?” I asked looking around. “Why what?”

She repeated, “Why?” At first, I thought she was asking Mr. Deluca why he was making us stare at each other. But she was still looking at me. “Why?” Her expression was serious and I knew she was talking to me. She wasn’t smiling or giggling anymore. She even squinted a little, “Why?”

I scanned the room again, then back at her. “Why what?” I stopped smiling, too. In the back of my mind I knew what she meant. And just as easily as she exhaled “why,” I emitted a shell of armor. A gray haze quickly fogged me. My eyes went dead as I started slipping away. Loni sensed it and squeezed my hands to bring me back. But my stare had drifted to the Izod alligator on Chrystal’s yellow sweater.

“Mann,” she said, squeezing again. “Why did you do those things?”

“Huh?” I looked back at her. It took a moment to respond. I was a little shocked and a lot surprised. I didn’t know how to answer, didn’t even want to answer. And I couldn’t answer. It wasn’t that I was nervous of the class. I couldn’t have cared less about that. Fuck them. It wasn’t about what they might think of me. It was about Joe, about the fact that those “things” were illegal acts. She knew it. I knew it. Mr. Deluca probably knew it. And the whole fucking class suspected it. She wanted me to talk about that shit in front of a class full of witnesses. Are you crazy? I can’t do that. Where’s the honor in that? Fuck that. Fuck you, Loni. Fuck.

I stared at her, hoping she might forget what she asked or ask a different question, but she didn’t. She just waited for me to answer. I scanned the room. They wanted to know too. Even Chrystal was smiling. Stop smiling at me, Chrystal. It affects my ability to think. I looked at Mr. Deluca. He was sitting at his desk, waiting. I didn’t know whether I was a flower about to bloom, or an egg about to hatch, or a bomb about to explode. Mr. Deluca just smiled and waited. We all waited.

I considered how to answer without confessing, without specifics. But I couldn’t form a thought. All I could think about was Loni’s question: “Why did you do those things?” It kept repeating in my head: “Why?” And I couldn’t answer. I thought about the question while I stared into Loni’s eyes, and the only answer I could give was, “I don’t know.”

And as soon as the words came out they were wrong, didn’t feel right, didn’t sound right. They weren’t what I needed to say. I needed to say, “Why not?” I wanted to say, “Why not?” I meant to say, “Why not?” I meant to put Loni on the spot, answer her question with a question, shift the burden to her. I wanted to say that I was normal, that what I was doing was normal, and what they were doing was what needed explanation. And, I wanted to say that I was a rebel, or something cool like that, but all I could say was, “I don’t know.”

Loni dropped her eyes. “That’s such a lame answer,” she replied, “I don’t know.” She looked up again, ready to fight. “I don’t know? That’s what you tell teachers when they ask you why you didn’t do your homework. I don’t know.” Loni went off. “What I want to know is why you robbed houses and stole stuff. And your answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ Why did you steal cars and motorcycles and do drugs and loot and vandalize stores and get into so many fights? Why Mann? ‘I don’t know?’”

I couldn’t believe what she was saying in front of the whole class. I got scared and confused, then I got angry and wanted her to shut the hell up. Just shut up. But part of me couldn’t say that either. Part of me was enjoying it. Part of me wanted everyone to know. I glanced around the room while she was going off. Everyone was listening. No one was freaking out or looking disgusted. I looked at Mr. Deluca. He looked as comfortable as ever, just watching and listening. I looked at Chrystal. Man, she has great tits. I looked back at Loni. She had stopped talking and was looking at me, waiting for a reply. Everyone was looking at me, waiting. Loni squeezed my hands and smiled, then she winked. That small gesture created a breeze that pushed all fear and anger from my head, and I could see clearly. Loni just wanted another story. They all just wanted a story.

I checked their faces, even Mr. Deluca. They all just wanted a story, my story, to know what it was like to be me. They didn’t want “I don’t know,” they wanted to know. I glanced at Chrystal, then at the clock over Mr. Deluca’s head. I had done things they would never dare, and they wanted to know. As I watched the seconds tick on the clock, my breathing eased and my dry mouth moistened enough to say, “I do know.”

“Because I wanted to. I did all that stuff… because I wanted to.” I looked around the room. “It’s simple, I wanted to. Maybe I was bored and curious, maybe I wasn’t raised properly—whatever—the truth is I did it because I wanted to. Why not? I like being bad. I like breaking the law.” I looked at Chrystal, “Being good isn’t so bad either,” I shrugged. “It’s the middle I can’t stand. The middle makes me sick.” I glanced around the room again. Something had changed. I wasn’t scared anymore that they knew. I looked at Mr. Deluca. “The idea of being average…makes me numb. To be an average student, getting average grades, with average friends, all that shit makes me numb… And numb is not what I want.” I paused. I felt the urge to say more, but I’d already said so much. Ah, Fuck it. “Actually, that’s not true.” I smiled at Loni. I couldn’t bullshit her anyway, so I might as well own it, and in front of everyone. “I do want to be numb, sometimes.” I was certain they knew I was referring to drugs. “But that’s different.” I glanced at Chrystal again.

“Why?” Loni asked.

“Well,” I looked back at her, “that numbness, it has a kind of friction, you know, almost like being caressed. It doesn’t dull your senses, it just sort of dulls the noise, like the background noise. I don’t know, it’s like Pink Floyd to me. When all that noise is gone…, there’s a tingle.”

“What’s the noise?”

“I don’t know…, parents, teachers, society, maybe. I don’t know…, just all the shit that makes you be something you’re not. You know? It’s someone who squeezes you into a mold, tries to make you the same, average.” My thoughts and words seemed to flow. “I want extremes, good and bad. I want deep, intelligent conversation and I want crazy, wild sex. I want something deeper.” I looked at Chrystal again. Not only did she have the best rack in class, but she was the smartest chick, too, and the most wholesome, and I had captured her attention. I knew she and I would never hook up, but we connected. We had known each other since first grade, even couples-skated in fifth, but even that—with clammy palms and butterflies—couldn’t compare to how it felt at this moment. She understood, maybe she even accepted, if not today, then maybe eventually. And when I realized that, something clicked inside. It felt almost like a switch turning on, or a shell cracking open.

Twenty Eight.

Poetry

You know a teacher is cool if he accepts art as extra credit, especially when you’re too stoned to complete the regular English assignment. Mr. Deluca was strict, but fun. We kept journals and read Shakespeare. We also watched movies and listened to Bob Dylan.

When I botched an essay in Greek Mythology he let me build a clay sculpture of the Minotaur. I used a beer can as the base. And when my oral interpretation of a poem was “marred with technical difficulties,” he graded with compassion. The assignment was to record a poem at home to play in class. I got luded and slurred my way through “Invictus”.

Mr. Deluca encouraged me to write poetry. When I said I didn’t understand it, he said, “Don’t worry, write your own.” I said I didn’t want to write about nature and flowers. He said, “Fine. Write what you know.”

“All I know is high school and chicks and getting in trouble.”

“Good start.”

And the first thing I learned? Poetry will get you laid. Just like ludes and coke, poetry will get you laid. That’s not why I started writing it, but it might be why I continued.

I spent eleventh grade becoming a poet. With Joe still in juvy, it was easy to focus on reading and writing. I didn’t get in trouble and I made the honor roll. I had a poem published in the school journal, then helped edit it. When I wasn’t in school or working out, I was in the used bookstore downtown. It was called Normal’s, but nothing about it was, including the quirky guys who ran it.

Then I met Emma. She was unlike any chick in school. She didn’t care about fashion or hairstyle, or dating jocks. She liked going to clubs and dating musicians. I guess she did care about hairstyle some, though. Just before we became friends she cut her hair really short and hated it so much she vowed never to cut it again. And she didn’t. That ended her concern with hairstyle.

Emma was concerned with poetry, and we bonded immediately. We were in Creative Writing together. Our teacher, Mrs. Russo, was hot, Stevie Nicks hot, even her voice. When she spoke, all I heard was “Edge of Seventeen,” which apparently was about death, but not in my fantasy.

So when I got tired of jerking off to my writing teacher, I started dating girls who looked like her.

I told Emma about my crush and she thought it was cool, in a poetic way. We were learning not only the language of poetry, but the language of poets. It wasn’t hard. It all pretty much meant the same thing: let’s fuck. Or, let’s fight, then fuck. Or, let’s look at nature for a while, then fight, then fuck. But in the end it’s about fucking.

Emma and I didn’t fuck, but we talked about fucking. We shared what we did with whom and who we liked better, and wrote poetry about it all. We spent weekend mornings drinking coffee at Howard Johnson’s and afternoons at Normals, searching the musty shelves for poetry we hadn’t read.

We dedicated the summer to poetry, reading at open mics in coffee shops and bars around Baltimore. Reading aloud meant getting into a poem and pushing it out. It also meant standing in front of a bunch of strangers and baring our souls. For me it was a turn on, standing in front of a group of people and talking about sex. Other people had nightmares that they were naked in front of an audience. For me that was a fantasy. And reading poetry aloud felt very similar.

For Emma it was a panic attack, at first. Her hands shook and her voice cracked, all exaggerated by too much coffee. I felt it too, but I think I was better at hiding it. Soon, though, the words were flowing and the poems were flowing and we were flowing, and the audience was flowing with us.

Reading poetry aloud will get you laid. Faster than writing it. For about three minutes, you’re a rock star. Of course, there might only be ten people in the audience, but you own them for that time. I always looked for a cute chick to glance at when reading hot lines, hoping she’d think I wrote it for her. And if she was in the audience it probably meant she was a poet too, which of course backfired on me and gave me a crush on her, causing me to follow her all over town to open readings, until eventually I got up the nerve to compliment her poems. Then I brought in my wingman, or wingwoman, as the case may be, to invite her out for coffee so I could tag along and inspire her to write poems about me, or marry me, or fuck me.

Emma and I didn’t share class in twelfth grade, not even lunch. But we still hung at HoJo’s on the weekends.

I stared at the menu again. “What are you getting?”

“Clam strips.”

“Fried rubber bands? Yum.”

“It’s all about the tartar sauce.”

“Yeah, the proper aging in warm temperature.”

Emma smiled. The waitress took our order and disappeared into the kitchen. “So,” I asked, cracking the foil on a non-dairy creamer, “how’s drummer boy?”

“He’s fine. We came here yesterday for lunch. Spent all afternoon. Drank three pots. Then he bought a harmonica, and we went home to fuck like rabbits.”

“Sounds like a good afternoon,” I said, watching the cream swirl in my cup. “Three pots of coffee, huh? I bet that was intense.”

“A bit. You?”

“What? Intensity? Well, you know…A little here, a little there.” Which was pretty much the truth. A couple of fuck buddies, but no girlfriends. Actually they were girlfriends, just not mine. I didn’t steal them, I just borrowed them. Actually, they borrowed me, calling up every now and then to be bad.

They called when they needed me, when their jock boyfriends were too drunk to fuck, or just too inattentive, and they wanted a little supplement. I was the supplement. I developed a quiet reputation and before long, I was a very busy Mann.

Suddenly I was invited to parties like never before: jock parties, study parties, cheerleader parties. It was strange. The chicks would stand next to their boyfriends and be totally indifferent. But when they walked by I would feel a finger caress my back. Then they might nod toward the bathroom or the back door and expect me to wait while they ditched their dudes. Of course, I did.

Sometimes they just slipped a number in my pocket as they walked by, either for themselves or a girlfriend, or both. The secret alliance of high school chicks was a world unto itself, and I didn’t try to understand. And I didn’t complain either. What I did, was have sex with cute chicks who wanted nothing from me but to pretend it didn’t happen.

I was hooked. Cute chicks used me as a sex toy, then shared me with girlfriends. I couldn’t think about it. It seemed unbelievable and I didn’t want to jinx it. In public they barely knew me. In private, they eagerly blew me.

They were all high energy sex freaks, full of dirty talk. My God, the stuff they said. They weren’t afraid to tell what they wanted. Sometimes I had to stop and look at them just to make sure what I heard actually came from their perfect, Lip Glossed mouths. Mary Beth used to say what she wanted. But that was Mary Beth. She was like that about everything, especially sex. But these chicks, the only things they ever talked about were math and science and school elections, or so I thought. It was amazing. I was certain I found my calling in life. Oh, I didn’t abandon poetry, in fact, I was pretty sure I just discovered it.

After countless hours contemplating my effect on these chicks—and just to set the record straight, it wasn’t dozens of chicks. It was six—I concluded my poetry was doing it. Not just writing poetry, but living it. Poetry is about details– it’s about getting laid, too, but it achieves that through details. Nothing is overlooked or assumed. Everything is observed: every smell, touch, taste, sound, sight. Nothing is taken for granted. I mean, who else but a poet would write a poem on a chick’s clit with his tongue. And it doesn’t even have to be a good poem. Some chicks might need an epic poem, some only a Haiku, or in Dawn’s case, multiple Haiku, but regardless of the poem, it’s all about delivery. During cunnilingus I learned the power of caesura.

Eating pussy is all about details. And where did I learn the details? Where did I learn to listen to chicks? What questions to ask? How to ask them? Well, what can I say…some of us are just born with it.

And some of us ask Emma. Not just Emma but other chicks too. Chicks in general. I couldn’t believe how many dudes asked other dudes what chicks like. How the hell would they know? I asked chicks. Especially Emma. That’s what we talked about. What good is a chick for a friend if you’re not going to ask her about sex? But more important was listening to her answers. The more I talked to Emma, the more I could talk to other chicks. It was easy, just ask them what they wanted, then give it to them. If they didn’t know or were too shy to say, experiment a little. And listen. And watch. No big secret.

I never understood why more guys never caught on. Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe they had issues. Whatever. Regardless, it wasn’t happening. Maybe they just didn’t care about being good. I did. I was obsessed with it. I pretty much gave up drugs and replaced it with sex, or at least talk about sex. Even though I was only with six chicks, I talked to a dozen more, mostly on the phone. I wasn’t a phone person, but when a chick started talking sex, I didn’t hang up until her end clicked dead.

Annemarie had a crush on Brian and told me about it on the phone one night, sharing hot details of her fantasy. She had a Robert Plant thing and Brian had long, curly blond hair. I imagined her touching herself while telling me, breathily, about climbing on top of him and digging her nails into his chest. After a few minutes, I was touching myself, too. I mean, Annemarie was hot: long brown hair, big brown eyes, big tits and incredible ass. And using such dirty talk. I jerked off three times, with no lubrication. I was so raw I had trouble sleeping. And the next morning I was so hard from dreaming about her I jerked off again.

So anyway, these were the things that Emma and I shared over coffee at HoJo’s.

Twenty Nine.

 To Old Times

It was a week before winter break, early Wednesday night. I just finished working out and was making a roast beef sandwich when the phone rang.

“Meet me at The Well.”

“Ok.” I said before realizing who it was. But in the back of my head, I knew. It was December 17, and I heard Bad Company in the background. We hadn’t talked in a year, but his release date was etched in my mind.

When I got to The Well, Joe was at a corner table getting a handjob from some blonde. I grabbed a stool at the bar and ordered a Natty Boh. A couple of minutes later he walked over.

“Hey,” I said, spinning the stool to face him.

Joe had his hands in his jacket pockets. He looked thicker and his hair was short, but other than that he hadn’t changed. “Hey,” he nodded. “How the Hell you been.” We hugged and slapped each other on the back. “Good to see you, Mann.”

“Good to see you.” I paused. So much had changed since I saw him: over a year of school, poetry, Emma—all that. Joe didn’t know any of it. All the chicks I slept with. I decided not to tell him. “So, how’s it feel to be out?”

“Feels good, Mann. Feels good.”

I nodded toward the table where he was sitting, but the blonde was gone. “Got your priorities straight, huh?”

“Yeah, had to let off some steam. That should hold me over ‘til I get some real exercise.”

“Who was that?”

“That…was Bang Bang.”

“Sherry? Man, I didn’t recognize her.”

“Me neither. She saw me.”

“Wow. What’s she been up to? I haven’t seen her at school.”

“She quit. Moved to Glen Burnie with some biker that owns a tattoo parlor. Said they’re doing good.”

“Cool. But she was jerking you off…?”

“My idea.”

“Of course.”

“For old time’s sake.” Joe smiled.

I smiled too and raised my Natty Boh, “To old times.”

Joe emptied the bottle, set it on the bar, and turned to me, “Speaking of old times, I gotta go see someone. A little favor for the brothers in juvy. Wanna come?”

We went into the woods behind the bar and followed the stream along Perring Parkway. When we got to The Ridge we cut up through the complex and crossed the golf course to a row house, across from the woods where we used to ride dirt bikes. When we got to the basement door, I realized I had to piss. Natty Boh goes straight through me.

“This shouldn’t take long.” He knocked on the door. A dude our age answered. “Yeah?”

“You Tripp?” Joe asked.

“Yeah, who the fuck are…”

Joe grabbed the dude by the throat and pulled him out the door. “Got a message from Cub Hill. They clipped the wrong fuck ‘cause of you.”

“I don’t know…”

Joe tightened his grip. I watched his face. He had perfected his “crazy” look, the one he learned from Helter Skelter. He found a video and we watched it twenty times. Joe watched to learn Charlie’s style. I watched because I had a crush on Susan Atkins.

“You rat fink fuck.” Joe was still squeezing his throat. When he let go, the dude buckled forward to catch his breath. He came up swinging but missed by a mile. Then he tried to run away, but I clotheslined him. It was just a reaction on my part. I didn’t think about it or anything. I just stuck out my arm as he ran by. I still wasn’t sure what was up, but I really needed to piss and I wanted this to be over.

I could tell Joe was returning a favor. And that was all I needed to know. When the dude tried to run past me, I didn’t have to think twice before reacting. Joe needed me. Well, not really, but I could offer some help. So I clotheslined the dude, just to slow him down. And it worked pretty well. Felt good too. Swept him right off his feet. Dude landed flat on his back. Must have looked good too, because Joe laughed. It was a beautiful move, if I do say so myself. Even made me forget that my bladder was about to burst. The move was swift and graceful, then…thud. Joe looked at me and raised his eyebrows nodding, “Smooth.”

“Thanks,” I said. It was a poetic moment for me. Not an entire poem, not even half a line, just a glimpse, a little poetic thought, nothing more than an instant between an act and an inspiration. And when I looked down at the dude lying on his back, it was the same feeling I got when I wrote a good line of poetry or took a good piss, which I just remembered I still had to do.

When he got up, he looked at me a little dazed then turned around where Joe was waiting with a baseball bat. DONK. You could hear it a mile away. It spun the dude back around to me. I watched his forehead split open and blood began to flow. He stumbled, blinded by blood and pain. Joe swung again. This time right on the side of his knee. I heard a godawful “POP”, and then he dropped.

On his knees, he turned to Joe and pleaded, “Please. Please…” But that was as far as he got. Joe swung for the fences. I watched the dude’s head snap to the side when Joe hit it. It was gruesome, and beautiful. The dude just slapped onto the concrete.

“Our work here is done.”

I nudged the dude with my foot. He flinched a little. “Huh,” I said. I looked at Joe. He was standing with the bat on his shoulder looking down at the unconscious dude. It was like a scene from “The Warriors”. The yellow bug light on the back porch made his face glow bronze and for a moment I thought of Duke. Then I realized how much I missed Joe while he was away. Then I remembered that I still had to piss, NOW. I looked around for a nearby bush or something.

Joe noticed. “What’s up?”

“I got to piss.”

“Yeah,” he said, looking down at the dude. “Me, too.” Then he unzipped and pissed on the dude. As soon as I heard it sloshing, I couldn’t wait any longer. So I unzipped and joined him.

I skipped school that last week before winter break. We drank at The Well every night and in the morning I was hung over. A Natty Boh hangover is the worst kind. It gives you a piercing head ache at one end and Howlin’ Skitters at the other. The only way to end it was to drink more, and I was out of practice. While Joe was away I didn’t drink much, Emma didn’t drink and the poets at Normal’s could barely afford it. They were the only people I knew with less money than Vagrants, because they didn’t steal shit. But when they did drink, it was Natty Boh, as much as they could afford.

So I didn’t drink much, didn’t build up a tolerance, and got the Howlin’ Skitters. And you really don’t want to be in a classroom with that. So I didn’t go to school. Besides, the only way to end them was to drink more. So I went to The Well. Joe was feeling it too. That second day, we lived in the last two stalls of the bathroom. But like all good things that are bad for you, it didn’t take long before we were back on track.

I’d like to say we had deep conversations while shitting our brains out, but this was Crazy Joe, not Emma. When we weren’t sitting on the toilet, we were shooting pool, drinking beer, and playing Bad Company on the jukebox. Joe disappeared for an hour or so to meet chicks at the Shack. It was still in the woods out back. I usually had a book to read or wrote in my journal while he was gone. I didn’t tell him I was writing poetry but he caught on. He thought they were song lyrics and that was cool with him. He never asked to read any. He assumed they were about him and that was cool too.

Joe and I were sitting at the back of The Well on New Year’s Eve, trying to talk. It was hard because a chick was giving him head. And it was weird because it was Chrystal’s friend Debbie: wholesome, sweet, chaste Debbie, the Vestal Virgin of my class. She was always very quiet and a little mysterious. Most mysterious was what she was doing at The Well. Somehow, she just wandered in drunk.

“Hey Mann, isn’t that the goody goody from your class?” Joe said, motioning to the door when she walked in. “You know, the friend of Big Tits?”

“Who?”

“Yeah…,” he said nodding toward the door. “What’s her name…Debbie, right? Yeah, Debbie.” His stare was fixed on the door. “She’s the one who ratted on me?” Joe was still upset about that pop-gun-dirt-clod incident back in kindergarten. I squinted toward the door and the swaying figure next to it: cute drunk chick, prom queen in an overcoat, long brown hair, some sort of tiara. Before I could respond, Joe was on her like a vulture on road kill.

“Debbie, how you doing?”

She eyed him apprehensively. She knew who he was. She wasn’t that drunk. This was Crazy Joe. She avoided him her whole life, and was probably surprised he knew her name, or that he would talk to her, let alone be nice. They certainly never talked in school. Debbie decided long ago that Joe was one of the bad ones, the kind that neither she nor her parents would ever approve of, the kind who would be crude, impolite, and probably not get into his college of choice. She was right about that, he didn’t even finish high school. She leaned back a little to focus on his face. Yeah, she didn’t trust Crazy Joe, not since he shot her in kindergarten.

“Hey Mann, you know Debbie, right?”

I looked up from my beer, pretending to notice her for the first time.

“Hey Debbie. How are you? What are you doing here?”

“Slah. Brit. dun.” She dropped onto a chair at our table. Joe perched behind her in the dark corner, hands on the back of her chair, leaning over her slightly.

“It seems some friends took her out and they drank a little, and now she’s here.” Crazy Joe was gleaming like the Cheshire Cat. He bought her a beer, and she refused at first, but upended it when Joe toasted her. She started complaining about something I couldn’t understand, and Joe, more patient than me when he saw a prize ahead, kept talking to her and comforting her until they were making out. It was a traffic accident. I couldn’t look away. But I couldn’t stop it either. It made sense in the abstract: Joe, the ultimate bad boy, and Debbie, the Madonna. I knew she would regret it in the morning. I knew Joe wouldn’t. And before I knew much more, she was giving him head. And doing a pretty good job, too. Joe looked at me and winked, then back down at Debbie. He mumbled something that I couldn’t understand and she mumbled a reply. Joe looked at me again and shrugged, then leaned back and closed his eyes. I watched Debbie for a moment, then tuned them both out, until I felt her hand crawling up my leg and messing with my zipper. I brushed it away though. It felt weird to me, and anyway, I wasn’t into drunk chicks.

I’d known Debbie since kindergarten, but we weren’t friends. We talked sometimes, though, mostly in AP English. I think I was as bad as she knew. I was the safe sort of bad, doing the same as other delinquents, but also doing well in school, most of the time.

Maybe Debbie and friends believed I was different from other delinquents. Maybe their parents said I was just curious, that I would grow out of it. We certainly weren’t allowed to date, but at least we could talk. They couldn’t talk to Joe.

Debbie’s mom, Mrs. Claire, worked at the Board of Education and was VP of the PTA. She had Joe’s file and shared it with other parents. She tried several times to get him expelled, beginning back in fourth grade with the porno novel. When she heard Joe was reading it to other students, she felt it her Christian duty to burn him at the stake. She called his mom, Meg, and said she was interested in helping. Meg invited her over to talk.

It didn’t take long for Meg to figure out Mrs. Claire’s motives. When she told Meg to clean up her life and accept the Lord, it was all Meg could do not to hit her. When she told Meg to consider getting back with Joe’s dad, she did hit her. Well, it was only a slap, but it was a good one, knocked her horn-rimmed glasses clean off, according to Joe, who was listening from the stairs. Mrs. Claire ran from the house whimpering and mumbling that Joe should have been expelled after the shooting incident. I don’t know what Mrs. Claire told Debbie, but she seemed to avoid Joe for the rest of her life, until that night in The Well.

You’d think the chick giving you head would be your best friend in the world at that moment, but not if you’re Crazy Joe. Not if you remember her pointing at you in kindergarten crying, “He shot me. He shot me.” Or you remember her mom telling your mom that you both should burn in Hell. Maybe Joe blamed all that happened to him in school, all the troubles and hassles and his eventual expulsion on Debbie and her mom, because over a decade later, Joe shot her again. This time it wasn’t dirt from an air rifle. This time he pulled from her mouth and shot his load in her face. I could tell he enjoyed it because he came a lot. And I know he came a lot because I watched. And I watched because I couldn’t resist. I was repulsed, excited, confused, and satisfied all at once. I mean, I liked Debbie. She was all right. But also, I knew how Joe felt. I could see his vindication. I could hear his triumph as he grunted each spasm. It was beyond orgasmic. It was like a demon had been exorcised behind his dark eyes.

Debbie wasn’t sure what happened. She took that moment to pass out. We left her slouched at the table, forehead resting on folded arms, cum dripping from her chin.

I wasn’t sure what would happen when I saw Debbie in school, but I knew it would be awkward. And it was. Not awkward in the confrontational way, but awkward in the shameful way, for both of us: Debbie’s shame because she remembered, but only a little, and mine because that memory included me.

When I got to AP English, Debbie was in the first row as usual. She was talking to the girl beside her but glanced at me. In that instant I watched the shame flush across her face. I thought she might explode into tears but instead she dropped her eyes and stared at her folded hands.

I sat and stared at the back of her head, brown hair tied with white lace ribbon, but all I could see was her face. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there and away from her. And I couldn’t stop staring at the back of her head. She just sat there looking down at her folded hands. I felt like shit. I felt like, at any moment, I was going to puke. Every time I saw her face, it was covered with Joe’s cum.

A couple of minutes later, when class began, I was still staring at the back of her head. She never looked up. A half hour into class I was still staring. She never raised her hand to answer questions, never looked at or talked to her neighbor, just sat there. It was like she could feel me staring. And I couldn’t stop.

So many emotions pierced my skull I got exhausted and confused. I couldn’t grasp one feeling without another stabbing my chest. By the time I felt sorry for Debbie, I hated her for making me feel sorry, which made me glad that Joe did what he did, which made me sick to my stomach to think, which made me angry at myself, which made me feel sorry for myself because none of this was my fault, which made me angry again because somehow it was, which made me angry at both Debbie and Joe because it was really their faults, which made me feel sorry for Debbie again, because, well, just look at her—sweet and innocent, a good student, never said anything bad about anyone, and there she sat, humiliated with Joe’s cum dripping from her chin.

I went from hating Joe, to hating myself, to loving Debbie, to loving and hating all three of us, until finally the only thing I felt was apathy. I threw my hands in the air about the whole incident. Literally. I was sitting there in class mumbling and arguing with myself and waving my hands around until finally the apathy kicked in and I threw my hands up and mumbled, Fuck it. Fuck Debbie, little Miss Goody Goody. Fuck Joe. Fuck all of it. Fuck me. Fuck me. Who am I? I don’t have to deal with this bullshit. I didn’t do anything. Fuck her. We all make decisions and we all have to live with the consequences.

And the more I repeated it the worse I felt. But that didn’t stop my rant. I was on a roll. Debbie was just sitting there, feeling sorry for herself or whatever, feeling ashamed and uncomfortable, but what could I do about it? I didn’t do anything to her. Fuck her. Fuck me. It was more than I could stand, and it was all I could think about. I had no idea what Mrs. Dickerson was teaching, but it must have been Shakespeare or Sophocles or one of those assholes who would have me gouge out my eyes to appease my conscience. But I wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t a dagger floating before me. It was Joe’s penis, and it wasn’t dripping blood. Fuck it. Fuck ‘em all. I felt a rush of anger and my heart was thumping. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I jumped up and growled, “FUCK YOU, DEBBIE. FUCK YOU. FUCK. FUCK.”

Dead silence, and a synchronized jaw drop. Every head in the room turned to me, every head except Debbie’s, the wilted sunflower. The others turned, with wide gaping mouths, and stared at me, even Mrs. Dickerson. She then looked over at Debbie, still staring at her folded hands, and then looked back at me.

It felt like an hour. They just stared at me, standing next to my desk. I didn’t know what to do. I was still angry, but that was slowly sinking to embarrassment. What I felt earlier was nothing, compared to thirty people staring and wondering if I just went over the edge. At moments like this you see what friends really think. Apparently, they all thought me capable of mass murder. And for a brief moment I did, too. That seemed the easiest way to end this awkward situation, and with less humiliation.

It may be only because I lacked a weapon of mass destruction, or it may be only because I did still have a shred of respect for humanity, but I didn’t kill everyone that day. Instead, I kicked my chair, mumbled “Fuck this,” and walked out of the room. And I never went back.

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.”

Thirty One.

Prison Sucks

Dear Gina,

Sorry about the mess we got you into. It seemed like any easy plan, like easy money and a little excitement. I hope you are ok.

By the way, prison sucks. Our first day on the yard, this big motherfucker said he was going to come see me one night, but I kicked him in the nuts and head butted him across the nose. It was pretty cool, blood spurted out the gash and he fell back across a table where some dudes were playing cards. We thought all Hell was going to break loose.

            Joe and I stood back to back ready to fight. But no one made a move. They all jumped when it happened, and stood looking at us, but then they just rolled the dude out of the way and reset the table.

After that no one even talked to us, except some dudes from Aryan Nation who were talking about how the whites have to stick together if they want to survive. Joe said he didn’t have a beef with the blacks or Mexicans, and that the only color he hated was blue.

Other than that it’s really boring here. We pretty much just sit around talking all day. We work out a lot, because that’s all there is to do. I read a lot. Joe talks to the other inmates.

            Gina, sorry about all of this. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t know who could be reading, but I hope you are ok, wherever you are. Joe sends love, Mann.

I didn’t know where to send the letter, so I mailed it to The Well. I figured Nick would see her before I did.

I had plenty of time to think about what happened. I sat in that boring cavern of a gray cell and re-lived the night over and over. Joe and I talked about it a lot. We couldn’t figure out what went wrong and we decided that we never would. We just wrote it off as bad luck, or bad timing, or bad acting on Gina’s part. We were missing too many pieces to put the puzzle together. All we knew was that we found the perfect store. We watched it for a few nights to see how it operated. One dude, always alone– fat, homely looking fuck–, always half asleep or watching a portable TV. Seemed easy. We sent Gina in dressed like Madonna. She looked good, too. It didn’t take long for her to get him into the back room. Joe and I put on our ZZ Top disguises and went inside. We cleaned out the register, even found the money stashed in the lunch meat cooler. We were in and out in no time, but we didn’t even make it back to the car before…

“FREEZE!”

“FUCK!”  Joe said, as he raised his hands over his head and turned to face the cop pointing a gun at him. And just like that it was over.

“You, too.” Another cop had his gun on me. “Over there,” he motioned toward the side of the building. “Hands on the wall and spread your legs.”

I glanced at Joe while they were frisking us. His fake beard was askew and he was staring at the wall.

“Well. Well,” the cop said, chuckling as he pulled a .38 out of Joe’s jacket. “Don’t suppose you have a permit to use this while committing a felony.” He smiled at his partner.

Asshole, I thought. Joe didn’t respond. He just stared at the wall. When the other cop finished frisking me, they cuffed us and turned us toward the cruiser. I kept watching Joe. He kept staring at the wall. He didn’t looked scared or pissed or anything. He looked vacant, just stood there staring at the wall, just waiting. When we were walking toward the car, he looked at me. He didn’t say anything, or smile, or shrug, or anything. He just looked at me for a moment. He could tell I was scared and worried, and then right before they lowered him into the car, “Hey,” he called, then he smiled and winked. When I saw that, all the anxiety, anger, and fear drained from me, and I knew everything would be fine.

At the station they took our prints and mugshots, then they tried to interrogate us with that old “he said, he said” bullshit. At least they didn’t play “good cop, bad cop.” What really annoyed me, though, was that they were concentrating on me. They had Joe in the room for two minutes. They had me in there for two hours. They asked same things over and over again, “Tell us what happened.” “Tell us what you were doing.” “He made you do it, right?” “He said it was your gun.”

I didn’t speak at all. I wouldn’t even say my name. For two hours we sat there, and they acted like it was all just a matter of time. I was getting pissed that they thought they could read me like that. I could feel the rage brewing inside. Those fuckers. For a moment, I thought about Joe’s gun. I wanted to make a break for it and just run away. I wanted to be out of there, away from them. I wanted them to stop asking me questions. Leave me the fuck alone. I was getting pissed and I was ready to freak out. They just kept asking me about Joe. Two cops would come in and two would go out. They took turns every couple of minutes. They wanted me to say that Joe planned the whole thing, that he made me do it, that I always did what he said. All this bullshit. It was all about Joe. Joe. Joe. Joe. Like I was just a tag-along. Like he would have done it regardless of whether I was there. And what about Gina, she did all the work. Then I stopped myself. As soon as I realized I was thinking about Gina I knew it was time to quit before I slipped and said something out loud.

The good thing that came from the interrogation was that I was certain Gina got away. They didn’t ask anything about her, or a third person or anything like that. So I figured I better keep my cool, for Gina’s sake. And once I realized there was good reason to keep cool, a weight lifted from my chest and I could think clearly. Then, I remembered how calm Joe was. He just followed their lead, didn’t say a word. He didn’t resist them, or get angry, or anything. He just didn’t say a word.

So I ignored the cops and drifted into a daydream. I thought about when I cut my foot on some glass while drinking and swimming at Loch Raven Dam. I got twenty stitches in one toe and had to walk on crutches for two weeks. Some punk with an old beef took the opportunity to attack me. I was defenseless with all those stitches in my foot, so I curled up and protected my foot and accepted his punishment. I didn’t get angry or anything. I just saw it as a minor setback, and I believed that these little setbacks would occur from time to time. That was really what I was thinking. I thought it was pretty cool to be thinking something like that while some asshole was kicking me in the back. It didn’t really hurt, it was just annoying, like a bee sting. I just curled up and waited for him to get tired of kicking me. Just like I used to do when Duke was first teaching me to fight, before I learned to hit back. I knew I would survive. I knew that the fight wasn’t over.

During my interrogation, while sitting in that musty cinder block room with those cops, I felt like that defenseless victim again. So, I just curled up and accepted their punishment. They didn’t beat on me, but they did push me some, and tried all those mental tricks that any high school dropout could see through. They made promises. They told lies. They were relentless in their stupidity. I couldn’t believe that anyone was too blind or stupid to see through it. The cops knew it wasn’t about tricking confessions, but just getting dudes to turn on each other out of desperation or fear. There really wasn’t much honor among thieves, but there was between Joe and me. There was self-respect, too. I was proud of myself. I thought I was handling it well. They wanted something and I wouldn’t give it to them. It was all just a game to the cops. I thought about it, you really only lose when you admit defeat. They could try their bullshit all day long. I didn’t have to respond. I didn’t even have to be in the same room, mentally. They saw me change when I realized that. They saw my eyes glaze over, or my posture shift, or something, but they knew it happened. I wasn’t going to talk.

When they led me from the room, we passed Joe’s cell. I looked over as we passed. He looked up from staring at the wall. He saw it, too. I had changed. And he smiled and shook his head when I winked at him.

In prison, Gina, you wait. That’s all you do. If you’re a lifer, you wait to die. If you’re a short-timer, you wait to get out, counting the days or weeks or years. Time doesn’t stand still in prison, it sits on your head. And it chokes you like a boot against your throat. And all around outside, you are certain that people are laughing and playing and having sex. You are constantly reminded that life goes on outside the concrete and steel, outside the range of stun guns and real guns and police radios. You are constantly reminded that other people are happy and that they are moving on without you because you now live in a different world.

            All I do in here is think, Gina. And, honestly, mostly, it’s about sex. But I can feel it fading. Sometimes I think about old girlfriends, sometimes you (sorry), whichever I remember the clearest. But it’s all fading. And when I look around at these other dudes, who’ve been in here a lot longer, it’s even more apparent. The longer you’re in the fuzzier it gets. And it seems to fade in little pieces. The memory of a woman’s smell goes first. Unless someone’s sending scented letters, but that seems to stop soon enough. Then the sound of her voice goes, and you can’t hear her saying your name anymore. You can’t even remember if her voice is high or low. It’s just gone. You can still see her face, and you can see her lips moving, but there’s no sound. Some guys replace it with someone’s voice from the television. Then you forget the feel of her skin and finally the image of her face, until you can’t remember her at all.

             But Gina, what you do smell and see and hear in prison is the smell of men in too close quarters, and men showering together, and masturbating men listening at night to other men masturbating and craving human touch. And somewhere along the way you realize that you are part of a symphony of masturbation. Imagine how much cum is shot an hour after lights out. And before you know it, the memories of the women aren’t even important anymore. Over time they cease being women at all and become merely the excuse for why you participate in the symphony you share with your cellmates. And you’re all excited and craving human touch and it becomes less and less important who the touch comes from…

I crumpled the letter and threw it away.

Joe and I never really jerked off in front of each other in prison, but we were cellmates and it was obvious to each of us when the other was. Usually it was after lights out, when everyone was jerking off. We could hear each other, or feel the bed creaking, but we were sort of oblivious to it. We had to be. I mean, we shared a six by nine cell. You couldn’t take a piss without splashing your neighbor. The same could be said about jerking off. So we just pretended it wasn’t happening. Anyway, it wasn’t like we had much choice. No one in prison was getting pussy, including Joe and me. And there wasn’t much else to do, so we jerked off. Sometimes, we didn’t even wait for lights out.

One night, Joe was lying on his bunk looking at a titty mag, and I was sitting in a chair next to him reading Faust. I saw him grabbing his dick while looking at the pictures, but I thought nothing of it. Lots of dudes grab their dicks all day long. Some never let go. But when I heard Joe’s bunk squeaking I peeked over the top of my book.

It was late and kind of dark in the cell. The overheads were off and the only light came from my reading lamp. Joe was shirtless, his pants down to his knees, holding the magazine with one hand and stroking himself with the other. I shifted my book for a better view. He was fully erect and his hand and cock were glistening with Vaseline. I shifted in my chair to cast more light on his bunk. The light flashed off the pages as the magazine swayed with his arm movement. His leg muscles flexed each time he stroked. I couldn’t see his face clearly, but I could tell he just closed his eyes. He laid the magazine aside and started playing with his balls, pulling them, caressing them, rolling them between his fingers, while his other hand kept a slow, steady rhythm. He made little circular motions around the head with his fist before sliding it slowly down the shaft.

I watched for a couple of minutes over the top of my book, wondering who he was thinking of. The magazine beside him was spread open to a threesome, two chicks blowing a dude, one of those cheesy shots with the chicks kneeling in front of the dude and kissing each other with his cock between their mouths. The chicks were cute and all, but I didn’t see anything great about it. But I guess that was the thing with porn, it didn’t have to be great, it just had to be.

As I stared at the picture, and saw Joe out of the corner of my eye, I started to touch myself. I was hard as a rock in no time and needed to free it from my pants. When I lifted the band of my underwear, my cock sprang out like a Jack-in-the-Box. I couldn’t believe how hard it was. I quietly grabbed some Vaseline from the jar next to Joe and smoothed it down my cock. That first stroke was intense. It made me shiver and the pleasure shot through me. It was like I hadn’t touched myself in weeks. But I had. A lot. For some reason, I was hard as Hell and sensitive too. My balls felt like they were aching to explode and I didn’t understand why. The second stroke down my cock was as intense as the first. And the third. I knew it wouldn’t take long tonight. I hadn’t even fantasized yet, hadn’t even looked at the titty mag or anything. I was just sitting there watching Joe…sitting there watching Joe…sitting there watching Joe. I was sitting there watching Joe. Then I realized that I was sitting there watching Joe. I was staring at Joe’s cock while he stroked it. And it was making me hard. I immediately flashed back to that time when Joe stayed at my house and was jerking off next to me in bed and his shoulder kept bumping my back. I remembered that I was hard then too. I couldn’t look, but I could hear and I could feel his movement and it turned me on.

But now I could look. I shifted my chair a little more. The muscle in his forearm flexed with each stroke. It looked as pumped and solid as his cock. My balls were tingling and my cock ached it was so hard. As I stroked myself, I kept sliding down in my chair from the rhythm of my movement, so I braced my foot against Joe’s bunk for leverage. If he noticed, he didn’t object. This also gave me a better view of the rest of his body. His legs were flexing too, as he squeezed them together forcing more blood into his penis. I could see the head swell each time he did it. My foot was propped on the bedframe right next to his flexing leg. A pleasure spasm made me flinch and my foot brushed Joe’s thigh. When it did, he moaned and scared the shit out of me. I thought he was going to open his eyes and catch me staring at him. But he didn’t. In fact, he moved his leg over until it was touching my foot. At least that’s what it seemed like. He did shift his leg, and it did end up resting against my foot on the edge of the bed. Whether he intended it or not I didn’t know. But there I was with my foot resting on Joe’s thigh while he was jerking off. I wasn’t sure what to do after that. I sat frozen for a moment, cock in hand, waiting for some kind of reaction from Joe. He just kept stroking himself and moaning, and flexing his leg against my foot. Each time he flexed and moved my foot he moaned. He never opened his eyes, or acknowledged me, but I was certain he was doing it on purpose. And after he did it a few times on his own I started to help out. When he flexed, I slid my foot along his thigh. Each time he flexed, I slid my foot back and forth a little further. After a few repetitions of this I was fully stroking his thigh with my foot, from his hip to his knee. All the while, Joe was moaning.

I had to stop touching myself for a moment. I was so hard it hurt. I was ready to explode and I didn’t want to yet. I wanted to keep rubbing his leg. I wiped my hands off on a dirty T-shirt and gripped the seat of my chair for leverage. Then I lifted my body up a little for a better angle. Now I could reach my foot all the way over the top of his thigh in a circular motion. Joe moaned. I repeated. It was uncomfortable for me, so I paused. As soon as I stopped rubbing Joe stopped moaning. He still didn’t open his eyes, but I knew he wanted more.

I turned off the lamp and knelt beside his bunk. There was enough light coming from the hall that I could see his body. The angle of light accentuated the cuts in his muscles. I rested my hand on his thigh. I could feel him flexing. The muscles turned from soft and movable into pieces of steel. I’d never touched such hard muscles before, except my own. And that wasn’t the same. I laid my hand on Joe’s thigh just above the knee. When he didn’t object, I slowly started to caress his leg, each time rubbing a little more, a little further. Joe started moaning again. He switched from fondling his balls to pulling on them while stroking himself. With my other hand I reached over and caressed his far leg. I slid both of my hands up his thigh, then down again to his knees, up his thigh, then down again. Joe stopped fondling himself and folded that arm back under his head.

I could see his balls glistening with Vaseline. I was transfixed. I stared at them while I rubbed up and down his legs. He spread his legs some and I slid my hand up the inside of his thigh, circling down the outside, then up the inside again, almost to his balls, over and over, all the while staring at them, all the while creeping my hand closer to them, until I got close enough and brave enough to gently brush them with my thumb. Joe bucked and thrust his hips a little and I thought he was going to cum, but he didn’t. He just moaned and kept stroking. I did it again. This time the whole back of my hand brushed against the skin just under his balls. And the next time I gently wrapped my fingers around his balls while my hand was passing by. Each time I touched them he stroked a little faster. Each time I touched them was for a longer period until I was fully cupping his balls with one hand and rubbing his thigh with the other. It felt strange to touch another man’s balls. I reached down and cupped mine, too. I had Joe’s balls in one hand and mine in the other. They felt similar, but completely different. In one hand were my balls. I knew them well. I knew them my whole life. In my other hand were…another man’s balls. I felt like I had crossed some threshold, broken a taboo. It didn’t feel gross, or wrong, or even weird. It was just different, very, very different, and it felt…nice. I let go of mine and concentrated on Joe’s. I caressed them, rolled my hand over them, cupped and pulled them gently. At first it was hard to gauge how much pressure to use or where to rub, or how hard to squeeze, but I just thought about my balls and what I liked.

Joe was still stroking himself, but moved his hand up so he was only stroking the head. I rolled my hand across his balls and across the base of his cock. I could feel the swollen hardness of his cock under my hand. I slid my hand down the base and across his balls. The next time I wrapped my fingers around the base then stroked down to his balls and pulled them. Each time I moved my hand a little farther up his cock until I was stroking most of it. Joe kept his fist wrapped around the head and pulled and twisted while I stroked it.

After a few repetitions, he let go and folded both arms behind his head. He kept his eyes closed and kept moaning as I stroked the whole shaft with one hand and pulled on his balls with the other. His cock was swollen and slippery. I stopped playing with his balls and reached down to my own stiff cock and stroked us both at the same time. I tried Joe’s technique, circling the head, then pumping. We were both rock hard. It felt strange to jerk two cocks at once. Bringing Joe so much pleasure was really turning me on and I knew I wouldn’t be able to hold out too long, definitely not as long as Joe.

I resisted the urge to cum for as long as I could, but when I felt that tingle deep under my balls I knew I reached the point of no return. I don’t know what that point is, whether it is the cum being released and beginning to flow to the surface like an erupting volcano, or if it’s the muscles opening like a flood gate, but nothing else feels like it and I knew I only had about fifteen seconds left to make Joe cum. So I started pumping him as fast as I could. And since I was pumping myself too, and since I was never a drummer who could keep two separate rhythms with each hand, when I pumped Joe faster I also pumped myself faster, which meant that the countdown to my eruption was quickening, which meant that the countdown to Joe’s eruption needed to quicken too. And since I couldn’t tell whether Joe had passed the point of no return I tried in vain to delay my eruption for as long as I could. It was a vicious, intense, orgasmic Catch 22. I just wanted to hold out long enough to make Joe cum. But the thought of Joe cumming was making it impossible for me to hold out. I wasn’t sure if he was ever going to cum, but I was certain that I only had a few seconds left.

Then it happened. Joe’s legs tightened and his hips thrust upward into my hand. I felt his cock swell even harder. I looked up at his face. His eyes were still closed, but he had lifted his chin and chest up, arching his back off the bed. His arms were still folded behind his head but they were flexed and his biceps were bulging. He started grunting with each stroke and thrusting his hips, fucking my fist. When he exploded I felt it in my balls. His cum shot into the air and onto his chest, stomach, thighs, and my arm. Four long streams of cum poured from his cock as I stroked him. He groaned with each thrust into my fist, “Uhn. Uhn. Uhn. Uhhhhhhhn.” Cum shot everywhere. I kept stroking. He kept groaning and squeezing his legs, and cum kept dripping out, puddling on his stomach. His groans turned back to quiet moans, deep and throaty, as he pushed the rest out of his balls.

I stroked him a little more, milking what was left, until only a few drops dripped on his stomach. I watched the warm cum roll slowly down my hand and smelled that warm semen smell. Joe stopped thrusting and relaxed back. He continued moaning slightly as I caressed his spent balls. I was still stroking myself, but in all the excitement I forgot to cum. It didn’t seem necessary anymore.

Thirty Two.

Sadie’s Bitch

Joe and I didn’t talk about what happened in prison. It was like after I had sex with Gina, we just acted like it didn’t happen. But I did tell Sadie. I’m not sure why. I guess it just came out with the other stories we shared while hanging at The Well, after my release, while waiting for Joe’s. I told her about us while sitting on the bleachers one night at Loch Raven High. Sadie rode me there on her Harley.

We had been in the parking lot of The Well talking while she was adjusting her clutch cable. When she hopped on the seat and started it up, she told me to get on. I resisted at first but eventually got on. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her, it was just the idea of riding on back of someone’s Harley. The back seat is the “bitch” seat, and to ride there was political suicide on the street. I couldn’t even justify it by saying I needed a ride to get parts for my Harley. I didn’t own one, and to pretend I did would be worse than riding on the bitch seat. To wear the patches, the hat and vest, and not own a Harley, made you a “sidewalk commando.” You couldn’t promote a Harley unless you owned one. It didn’t have to run, but you had to own it. And I didn’t own one, so I didn’t wear any patches. And because I didn’t own one, I had to ride on the back of Sadie’s, which put me on the bitch seat, which made me a bitch, but it made me Sadie’s bitch and I could risk that.

It was late at night on the football field and we were watching the stars over Cromwell Valley, sharing a pint of Jack. We were spending a lot of time together at The Well since I got out and she got to town, and I felt like Sadie was the only person I could talk to. I missed Joe a lot, but it wasn’t like we really talked much. We didn’t need to. We talked with our actions. And as far as Gina goes, she and I never really got close. We were together a lot, and we had sex once, but we never really bonded. And of course, I wrote her letters from prison, but she never responded.

With Sadie it was different. She was easy to talk to. I felt like she was listening, and I felt like she understood. And because she was so cool, and so hot, and such a badass to everyone else, that made it even easier to tell her things.

“Joe and I hooked up in prison.” I said it right out of the blue, just threw it out into the night air. I guess it was ready to come out.

“Oh.” Sadie pulled back a little. I caught her by surprise. But she quickly settled back and looked down at the pint bottle. “Oh,” she said again and handed the bottle to me. She was quiet for a moment and I got nervous. She nodded her head a few times to herself and I could tell she was piecing together an idea. I got really nervous and I was certain that I just said something I shouldn’t have. While she was quietly contemplating what I said, I was trying to figure out a way to retract it, or at least water it down some.

“Uhm… It was just once.” I couldn’t think of anything to say. I took a drink from the bottle.

Sadie reached over and squeezed my forearm. “It’s cool. Believe me, it’s cool.”

“Uhm.” As easy as I found it to tell her other things, this thing was caught in my throat, and I wasn’t sure why. Well, I knew why, but I didn’t know why that mattered so much.

Sadie sensed my uneasiness. “So, you and Joe hooked up in prison.., once? Ok. So what?” She reached for the pint and took another drink. “So, tell me about it.”

When I told her about Joe and me, she just sat and listened. We weren’t looking at each other. If we were, I wouldn’t have been able to say it. I felt comfortable talking to her, but looking into those incredible brown eyes still melted me and left me speechless. I could say anything to her so long as I didn’t have to look at her while saying it. I glanced at her for brief moments between words. I had to. I mean, she was Sadie. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of her. I looked at her every chance I got. But when I started talking again, I had to look away, either stare at the ground or into the darkness beyond the end zone.

When I told her about Joe, I was staring at the North Star. “It’s just lonely in there. I mean there’s a lot of people around, too many people, but there’s no privacy and I guess there’s no intimacy. It’s like a bunch of animals trying to survive. And I guess it feels cool and all, to be able to survive, but you have to shut down parts of yourself.” I glanced at Sadie and reached for the pint. I didn’t drink though, I just held it. “I guess I wasn’t so good at shutting down that part. And I thought about Joe. He’d been inside longer than me. He had these parts shut down far longer than me. And I guess I thought maybe I could help him with it a little. And just that feeling, before I even touched him, that feeling felt good. It all seemed right to me at the time. I was craving intimacy and there was Joe, my best friend. And I thought that he must be craving it too, and maybe I could give it to him.”

“Look, you were lonely, and there was Joe. And if touching him made you feel less lonely, what the fuck’s the problem?” Sadie was sitting on the bleacher with her boots propped on the railing below. She was leaning her elbows on her legs and staring out toward the end zone. “You and me, we need open space. That’s why you couldn’t stand jail, and that’s why I take off on my motorcycle all the time. But we also need to connect. And there you were, with someone you liked and the opportunity to connect. Sounds good to me.”

“I know. I hear you, but between dudes it’s different. Two chicks can hook up and no one cares. People think it’s cool. But two dudes?”

“Exactly. It’s no one’s fucking business. What do you care what anyone thinks?”

Sadie was right. Every time I thought about what happened between Joe and me, I thought about how other people would view it. I thought about how I would be treated because of it. I was worried about everyone thinking I was gay. And what Sadie was saying was, “So what.” And I agreed. But I wasn’t ready to show it. So, to change the subject, or at least to shift the focus away from me, I asked her about Gina.

“Did you guys ever hook up?”

“Yeah, for a little while,” she said. “But it was more of a friendship. Gina was out of her element in Florida. I could tell as soon as I saw her. I really just wanted to help her. The sex was just something that happened. And it was only a bit of fooling around. It got us closer together, but I think we both feel more of a sisterly connection now. It’s still fun to tease though.”

“Well, was there anyone special?”

“Jane.” Sadie said without hesitation. She nodded her head, “I knew with Jane.”

“Jane? Tell me about Jane.”

“Jane is a beautiful blond Amazon.”

“Amazon?”

“Amazon. She’s named after Jane Mansfield.”

“Wow…, wait…, what…? How’d her parents know…?”

“It’s her stage name.”

“Huh?”

“You’ll see. Anyway…”

Sadie shared how they met down south at a boxing match in the back room of a country-western honky tonk, and before they knew it, they were the main event in a chick boxing line up that had the whole town excited. Both women had earned reputations. Jane had been fighting for money for a while and was now the star of the chick boxing circuit in the Southeast. She had the right mix of talent, toughness and tits. Sadie had never fought in the ring, but she had been in a couple of fights since getting into town recently. And since those fights coincided with the boxing matches they drew more attention than usual. Everyone thought Sadie’s fights were promotional stunts and when she wasn’t on the boxing lineup the first night, so many men asked about her that all the boxers went out the next night looking for her in the local bars.

Two boxers found her in a crowded dive on the edge of town. They knew it was her as soon as they walked in. She was shooting pool with a couple of old dudes and looked to be winning. The two women got drinks and sat at a table along the wall where they could watch. It didn’t take long to see her in action. After she won at pool she walked over to the bar to get a beer. As she approached the bar someone reached for her ass. He wasn’t even close before Sadie’s radar flashed. She swept his hand away with her right arm and followed through with a left hook to his nose. It didn’t knock him out, but it sure stunned him. He held his nose with one hand and picked up his beer with the other, then just walked away. Sadie ordered one and did the same.

She walked over to a table near the two women and sat down. They came over to her table.

“Mind if we join you?”

“Why not? You’ve been watching me long enough.” Sadie nodded to the chairs across from her.

“You a fighter?” One of the women asked.

“When I have to. Seems like I have to a lot this week.”

“They think you’re a fighter.”

“I don’t get it. What do you mean fighter?”

“A fighter, a chick boxer. There’s a bunch of us who fight. It’s a big event around here. We travel all over the south. It’s pretty good money.”

“I see. And they think I’m one of these chick boxers?”

“Yeah, they think it’s a promo. But listen, from what we hear, and what we just saw with that dude at the bar, you got the right moves. You could make some money if you want. You definitely got the looks.”

“What, fake fighting for a crowd of men? No thanks.”

“No. No. It ain’t like that,” the woman said. “It’s real. Granted the crowd is mostly men, but they want to see blood, not just tits.” She paused for a moment, “My name’s Celeste. This is Candy.”

“Sadie.”

“Listen, Sadie, don’t get me wrong, the better looking you are, and the better you can fight, the more money you’ll make.” Celeste scanned Sadie’s body. “And don’t take this the wrong way but you could make lots.” Candy nodded in agreement.

“I don’t know. I’ll think about it.” Sadie got up from the table with her beer in hand. “Thanks for the info.”

Celeste handed her a flyer, “Here. Just in case. There are some more fights this weekend. I’m fighting Friday night, if you can make it.”

“Thanks Girls.” Sadie knew she would go and check it out, but she didn’t tell them.

The venue was dark and musty, in the back room of a honky tonk south of Knoxville. The bar was noisy and smoke-filled by the time Sadie arrived. The smell of blood was in the air. It smelled like sweat, cigars, and stale beer. The room was dark except for a small makeshift boxing ring in the center. A few folding chairs surrounded the ring, but most had been pushed back to make room for standing and cheering. Sadie looked around at the people in the room. Almost all men. All rednecks, she thought. Then she corrected herself. No, all hard working men enjoying their well-earned time off. Yeah, right. Whatever.

Sadie crossed through the crowd toward the ring. The smoke got thicker the closer she got. All around her men exchanged bets and discussed odds, while commenting on the condition of the fighters. It sounded like they were discussing racehorses, until they commented on tit size and fuckability. She listened as bandied-legged men in overalls described the fighters, making hand gestures to suggest body curves or cupping their chests to indicate big tits, and commenting, “Yup, I’d like to mount that filly. Uh huh,” then smiling with big toothless smiles, while spitting tobacco juice into empty cups and expelling raspy horse laughs, all the while slapping their legs or their buddies’ backs. Then betting. A lot of money was going through a door in the back corner of the room. A couple of big dudes stood on either side, and a line was crowded between them waiting to place bets with the man inside. The House, Sadie figured. She turned back to face the ring, then moved up to ring side for a better view.

She missed the first bout, but evidently didn’t miss much. She overheard some talk nearby. It sounded like a mismatch, and it didn’t last long. According to them, some little Asian girl got a lesson in pain. They enjoyed describing how badly the girl was beaten. Sadie cringed at the thought of men getting joy from watching women get hurt. It sounded like the Asian girl was inexperienced, sounded like they should have matched her up better, Sadie thought. They were in such a rush to get the entertainment in the ring that there was no concern for safety, so long as the woman looked good.

Sadie sat listening and watching for a few minutes, as the noise increased and the crowd started pushing toward the ring. It was time for the next fight. The lights dimmed and a man stepped through the ropes into the ring. He was about forty and wore a red button down rodeo shirt with white trim. His tight jeans were pulled up high on his swollen stomach and clinched tightly by a belt with a silver bull head buckle. He chewed a cigar and looked out from under a wide black Stetson, which cast a shadow over his eyes. He had a notecard in one hand and a bullhorn in the other.

“All right. Who wants to see a fight?” He shouted into the bullhorn. The drunken men cheered and raised beer cans. “All right. All right,” he said turning in a circle to address the whole room. “These next two fighters are meeting for the first time, and I think there’s a little animosity between them. That means they’re pissed at each other. It seems that one of them stole the others’ boyfriend and now they’re gonna even the score.” The crowd cheered and shouted as the two women, a short buff blond and a tall black chick, entered through a door opposite Sadie and made their way down the aisle to the ring.

“Now I tried to talk to ‘em,” the announcer continued, “to straighten this whole thing out, but there was no reasoning with these ladies.” He leaned hard on the word ladies. Then he growled, “They want blood.” The boxers circled the ring and taunted the crowd and each other. Sadie laughed and mumbled, “Someone’s been watching pro wrestling.” Then the chicks turned to each other and made threats and pointed fingers. The announcer stepped between the fighters and shouted into the bullhorn, “Ok, ladies. Ok. Let’s wait for the bell.”

The announcer addressed the crowd, “What do you guys think? Gonna be a hot one, huh?” The chicks pushed and swung at each other around the announcer still standing between them. “Whoa, ladies.” Someone came from each fighters’ corner to bring them back to wait for the bell.

“All right gentlemen, you see what we got here. Looks like there might be a little racial tension in the room tonight.” Then he took a deep breath, wound up his voice and said in a loud, long, rehearsed draw, “Let’s git this thing a goin’.”

When the bell rang the two boxers bound to the center of the ring and swung at each other like cornered cats. They mixed good punches with bitch slaps. They hissed and sneered. Sadie was impressed with their intensity, but more so with their acting. She could tell it was mostly a show. Either they didn’t really want to hurt each other, or they lacked the confidence to do it right. When you’ve been in as many fights as Sadie, you learn to read a fighter. And Sadie was convinced they were holding back. The more she watched the more she saw that parts of the bout were rehearsed. By the end it didn’t matter who won because next week would be the other chick’s turn.

Sadie watched the remaining bouts, each one increasing in talent and energy, and amount of betting. There was more commotion between the bouts, especially at the back door, and especially prior to the final bout. After the men placed their bets, they crowded to the front of the ring. Someone pushed past Sadie and rubbed up against her. She clipped him with her boot behind his knee. He tripped and fell. When he got up looking for a fight two bouncers were waiting. He tried to push past but they each grabbed an arm and lifted him off the ground. They carried him to the door and threw him out like the town drunk in an old spaghetti western.

The bell rang and the announcer stepped into the ring. “Well, well, gentlemen. The time has come: The Main Event. We’ve been trying to match these two lovely ladies up for months. Some of you men have followed us all over the south just for a chance to see these ladies fight. And fight they can. You’ve watched them fight their way to the top. And look good doing it. And tonight’s the night. Tonight we see who is the toughest, the fastest, the craziest. Tonight it’s Mama Celeste v. Amazon Jane.”

The crowd roared. Sadie was intrigued. The energy in the room changed. It was more serious, intense, believable. Before the women even entered the ring, before she could even see them, she knew it would be a real fight.

The first boxer climbed into the ring and took off her robe. Sadie saw it was Celeste, the woman from earlier in the week. She was impressed with her muscularity. Sadie watched her move around the ring, studying her with a warrior’s eye. Celeste was the real thing. Whoever went up against her had their work cut out. No sooner did Sadie think that than Celeste’s opponent stepped into the ring. Sadie was immediately drawn to her. Everyone in the room was, and she still had her robe on. Amazon Jane was a big girl. Big, Sadie thought, in all the right places. When she took off her robe, Sadie’s pussy tingled. Her eyes were glued to the disrobing blond and her thoughts were not on boxing. She squeezed her thighs together and thought, Uh oh, here we go again.

The bell rang and the fighters moved to the center of the ring, slowly, calculating each other. They quickly exchanged a few blows, testing distance, reflexes. Their jabs were clean and quick. They knew how to throw punches. They knew how to block and cover up. And apparently, they knew how to take pain. They weren’t scared or intimidated or angry. They were fighters. They jabbed. They hooked. They got hit. They were light on their feet, but solid on the canvas. If they hadn’t been beautiful chicks with big tits, Sadie would have thought she was watching two men fight. This was not a chick fight. It was a boxing match. For two rounds the women circled each other, delivering punches, blocking and countering. Sadie was impressed. About a minute into the third round Amazon Jane delivered an upper cut to Mama Celeste that dropped her to the mat. It was the kind of punch that would end any fight. And in this case, that’s exactly what it did. Mama Celeste didn’t even try to get up. She just lay there exhausted, defeated, and ready to get paid.

After the bout, Sadie flowed with the crowd into the main room of the honky tonk. Two of the fighters were already at the bar, either drowning their pain or just waiting to get paid, probably both. Sadie sat next to them. They were talking about their fight. Sadie assumed they were the chicks from the first bout. She overheard their conversation.

“I know. But I wish I could’ve done better.”

“I told you, Mya. You done the best you could.”

“But you knocked me out so fast.”

“Look. Let’s not go through it again. You did ok.”

“I hope Travis thinks so. I really need the money.”

“Travis is an asshole. He’ll take advantage of you if you let him.”

The bar filled up as men continued to pour in from the back room, some counting money, some grumbling, some laughing and slapping their buddies on the backs.

“Did you see the tits on that last bitch?”

“I’d like to have her beat on me for a while.”

“Travis can probably set that up.”

“I liked that little colored girl. She was fast.”

The men walked by ogling, as the other boxers grabbed stools at the bar. Sadie recognized the women from the later bouts. Some looked beaten up. All looked tired. They were dressed in street clothes and had gym bags over their shoulders.

The fight announcer came out of the office and stood behind the bar.

“Here’s the asshole now,” said the woman talking to Mya. “Hey Travis, pay us.”

Travis held up some envelopes and started calling women’s names in a gravelly, deep voice, “Jane.” He handed an envelope to the big blond woman. “Celeste.” She reached over, took her envelope. She was holding an ice pack on her jaw and didn’t see Sadie sitting at the bar.

Travis continued calling names and handing out envelopes. Each woman opened hers and thumbed the money quickly. When he was done, he said, “Thanks, Ladies,” and tapped his Stetson. “See y’ all in two weeks.” He turned toward the door.

“Uh, Mr. Travis. Excuse me.” It was Mya, the Asian girl from the first bout. “Sir, you forgot me.”

Travis smirked at her. “You have to fight if you want to get paid, Missy.”

“I’m Mya, and I did fight.”

“Maybe next time, Toots.”

“But you promised. You promised that all the fighters would get at least two hundred dollars.”

“I also promised these men a fight. And what you did out there wasn’t fighting.”

“But I tried. At least I didn’t surrender.”

“You didn’t have time to. You were too busy hitting the mat. Come back when you toughen up, Sweetie.”

Mya bit back tears, “But I need that money.”

Travis turned toward the office door, “Fuck off.”

“Hey Asshole.” Sadie stood from the stool.

“Yeah.” Travis said, annoyed and turning back toward the bar.

“You owe her some money.”

“Yeah? Says who? Get the fuck out of my face, Bitch.”

Sadie threw a bottle at his face, just missing him, knocking off his Stetson and grazing his temple as it passed and smashed against the wall. She was halfway across the bar when two bouncers grabbed her, one on each arm, and pulled her back. She kicked one guy in the side of the knee and when he dropped, she punched the other guy in the throat. When she brought her arm back from the punch, she followed through and elbowed the dropped guy in the nose, then came forward with a knee to the chin of the kneeling guy holding his throat. Both men dropped to the floor. When Sadie turned back to Travis he had a shotgun pointed at her.

“You must be Sadie,” he said staring down the barrel.

Sadie glanced at Celeste, then back at Travis. “You owe Mya money,” She responded, rubbing her fist. Travis stared at her but didn’t respond. He kept the gun pointed at her but seemed to be thinking about something else.

“Come on, Travis, just give her the money.” It was Jane, the blond. She was sitting at the corner of the bar drinking tequila.

“Stay out of this, Jane,” he called over his shoulder, “or you won’t see any more money, either.”

“Yeah right. Whatever. You stop paying me. I stop fighting. Half the men in here stop coming.” Travis looked around the crowded bar. “All that,” she said, “over three hundred dollars?”

Two hundred,” Travis corrected.

Three,” Jane said in a threatening tone.

Travis contemplated for a moment. He scanned the room again. Everyone was watching him. He looked at Sadie, calm but ready to strike. He looked at Mya, then at Celeste, nodding toward Mya. “Jesus Christ,” he finally said, lowering the shotgun and opening the cash drawer. He tossed some money on the bar and muttered, “You girls are killing me.”

Sadie turned to leave.

“Hey,” called Travis, “Wanna make two grand?”

Thirty Three.

The Bout

The ref called the fighters to center ring. He checked their gloves, gave instructions and sent them to their corners. There was no pre-fight show, no bullshit like Sadie saw the last time. This was real boxing. She bit her mouth guard and faced her opponent. Jane looked back from the opposite corner. They sized each other, looking for weaknesses. When their eyes met, Sadie discovered her own: she liked Jane, something in her eyes. She didn’t really want to fight her…She quickly looked away. Fight. Fight. Fight, Sadie thought. “I need the fucking money,” she mumbled, then remembered she was about to fight and could get hurt, and that was all it took to gain focus.

When the bell rang, both fighters led with jabs. Both connected. Jane proved she could take a punch. She proved she could land one, too. Sadie would be impressed, later. Right now she was fighting. She was a warrior. She studied Jane, circling the stained canvas. Sadie didn’t watch arms, gloves, or head, and she didn’t watch Jane’s eyes. The eyes lie, send mixed messages. They can confuse a fighter. If you watch the eyes you get pulled off guard. You have to watch center mass. Don’t stare, just rest your focus there, so no movement is outside your peripheral vision. That’s where the fighting occurs, in the periphery. You respond instinctively, by blocking, or moving, or blocking and countering. Sadie responded by just countering hard. Her strongest asset as a fighter was that she wasn’t afraid to get hit. She could take a punch like a dude. Her second strongest asset was that she could throw one like a dude, too. If you threw a punch at Sadie that meant your arm was outstretched, which meant Sadie had an opening. That meant you were going to get hit and you were going to get hit hard.

Sadie’s defense wasn’t to block punches or dodge them. Her defense was to hurt. If Jane hit her with a hook, Sadie came underneath to her ribs. If Jane tried an uppercut, Sadie came down on her ear, then followed with an uppercut. But Jane kept throwing punches.

When the first round ended Sadie went to her corner but didn’t sit. She drank water and watched Jane. There was a commotion behind Jane. Two men were arguing with another, who was yelling at Jane. Sadie couldn’t hear them and she didn’t care. When the bell rang, the fighters went at it again. Neither looked fatigued. When Jane delivered, Sadie countered. By the end of the second round, neither had been knocked down.

Between rounds, the argument escalated. The two men were pushing the other, who Sadie saw was Travis. One of them pointed a finger in his face, then poked it into his chest. Travis pointed his finger at Jane, who avoided them all by staring at Sadie. The two women locked gazes. Sadie knew something was wrong. Just before the bell, she figured it out. Someone bet big, big enough to worry about the outcome, big enough to try to determine it.

When the bell rang, Sadie shuffled out, but was still watching the argument. Jane charged out and caught her on the chin with a hook. Sadie dropped to one knee, more surprised than hurt. Jane threw another punch, but Sadie came underneath with an uppercut. It caught Jane in the ribs and slowed her enough for Sadie to get up. When Jane flinched though, her elbow clipped Sadie’s left eye. Her brow split instantly.

Sadie rose before Jane, but couldn’t see to strike back. She wiped the blood from her eye and saw Jane’s corner erupt into chaos. Jane was yelling at Travis while holding her ribs and gasping for air. One of the men was hitting him and Travis’ bouncers were hitting the other. The energy quickly engulfed the crowd, and everyone on Sadie’s side started pushing toward Jane’s.

A few men climbed into the ring and pushed each other. When one pulled a gun, Sadie jumped from the ring and headed for the door, peeling her gloves as she wove through the crowd. The room was too crowded to reach the exit, so she ducked through the side door, into Travis’ office, and back out the front. On his desk was a bag of money. She snatched the bag and kept running through the bar and out the front door to the parking lot.

Sadie heard a gunshot just as she jumped on her bike. She was about to start it when someone yelled, “Hey.” Jane was standing with one bag over her shoulder and another in her hand. She held up the one in her hand. “This yours?”

“Yeah, it’s mine.”

“Oh.” Jane noticed Sadie’s other bag. She looked at the one in her hand, then back at Sadie, who made no move to retrieve it. Jane made no move to pass it. The noise from the bar swelled as the front door burst open and some men rolled out fighting. There was an eruption of gunfire inside the bar that startled Jane.

Sadie started the motorcycle and looked at Jane. “You coming?”

Thirty Four.

Several Hours Later

It was late when Sadie and Jane pulled into Bulls Gap, a truck stop town in Tennessee. Sadie had been driving her Harley for hours. Gas-Food-Lodging was all she needed to see. Cold and tired, she reached back and touched Jane’s leg, then pointed to the sign. Jane leaned forward and nodded. They merged onto Main Street, turned left at the light and parked under the yellow neon sign, next to a small palm tree.

The motel was new, generic, and clean. Sadie and Jane stretched while looking around: tractor trailers at the diner up the road, pickups and muscle cars too. The motel lot was full of cars with out-of-state plates. Unlike Sadie, most travelers chose motels, over pitching tents on the roadside. Jane, however, was a princess. She liked hot showers and clean sheets. Sadie sensed it. That’s why she stopped at the motel instead of camping along the interstate.

The lobby was dim. Sadie wasn’t sure of the time, but it was definitely late. The clock in the corner read twelve thirty. Jane rang the bell and a man appeared instantly, smoothing his paisley vest. They weren’t sure where he came from, but there he was, smiling and asking if he could be of service. His name tag said “Elvis: Assistant Manager.” He was skinny, dark-skinned, Middle Eastern, with black hair and pearl-white teeth. Sadie heard Duran Duran in the background. When she asked for a room, Elvis asked for how long, then, with a slight smirk, whether they wanted one bed or two. Sadie looked at Jane. They both felt like shit. After fighting, then driving for hours in the night air, stopping only once to pee and change clothes, they were tired, hungry, hurt, and grimy. The last thing on their minds was whether they needed separate beds. Sadie reached into her bag and pulled a handful of cash, “Here. We’ll take what you got.”

Jane put her hand over Sadie’s to cover the cash, then stepped up to the counter. “Elvis,” she said, squaring her shoulders and smiling, “We’d like to know what you can do for two tired girls who’ve been traveling so long.” She winked at Elvis.

“Let me see what I can do.” He looked down at his ledger, flipped the pages back and forth a few times. “Will you be staying a few nights?” he asked without looking up.

“Yes.”

“Would you like one bed or two?”

Jane looked at Sadie, then back at Elvis, “Just one…, Sweetie.”

Sadie thought about the ride they just took, with Jane’s arms wrapped around her. She noticed Jane caressing her stomach as they rode. She was too tired to do anything tonight, but there was always tomorrow.

Sadie had learned to trust instincts. When you live on the road and on the run, you need to. So she trusted her feelings for Jane. She didn’t quite understand them, but they felt good. So she wasn’t surprised they ended up in a motel in Tennessee in the middle of the night, deciding whether to sleep together.

“Do you have room service?” Jane asked.

“I’m sorry to say, we don’t.”

Jane smiled and squinted, “Then don’t, Sweetie.”

“Then don’t what?”

Jane sighed, took a deep breath, and pulled her shoulders back for emphasis. “Then don’t say it.”

“Then don’t say what?”

Jane looked at Sadie and rolled her eyes. She leaned over the counter so her breasts swelled from her tank top. She stared into Elvis’ eyes, pouted her lips, then slowly over-enunciated, “Then…, don’t say… you don’t have…room service.” She blew him a slight kiss.

“Huh?” Elvis glanced from Jane’s breasts to her mouth, then back again, “Um…, Oh. Uhm…, uhm…, OH!” He said, standing up straight and brushing a hand down his vest. “But of course.” And, as easy as that, they had room service. The assistant manager said with a proud Middle-Eastern accent, while slapping his scrawny chest for emphasis, that he, Elvis, would take care of it himself. He put them in the honeymoon suite, which in a chain motel in a truck stop town meant a jetted tub and a king sized bed with Magic Fingers.

“Not bad,” Sadie called from the bathroom after checking out the tub. When she walked back into the room, Jane was undressed and looking through her bag.

“Damn, girl. You got a hell of a bruise on your ribs.”

“I know,” Jane said. “I’m sure that jumping on a motorcycle and riding for hours didn’t help.” She walked over to the mirror and inspected her body. “It ain’t too bad.”

Sadie inspected her body, too. “Yeah, it ain’t too bad.” Jane smiled at Sadie through the mirror. Sadie got up and walked to the door, “I’m gonna get you some ice for that.”

“Oh great,” Jane laughed, “beat on me one minute, love me the next.” She rolled her eyes at Sadie. “Hey, I’m hungry. Are you? What did you do with those menus from Elvis?”

“In my bag,” Sadie answered as she walked out.

When Sadie returned, Jane had the stolen money spread over the bed. She looked up when Sadie walked in, “Sorry, wrong bag. Sorry, Sadie. I didn’t mean to…”

Sadie’s defenses shot up immediately like the hair on the haunch of a wild animal. Her heart pounded and her hands squeezed into fists. Her eyes turned cold and empty as she locked stares with Jane. Sadie quickly assessed the situation. She had dropped her guard. That was apparent. She relaxed and it could cost her. Emotions raced through her. She couldn’t believe that she had read Jane so wrong. Fuck. See? See? This is why you can’t let anyone in. Damn it. Damn it. Sadie was more pissed at herself than Jane. The two women stared at each other. Sadie’s anger was mixed with confusion and rejection. She thought she could read people better than that. She studied Jane’s eyes. The surprise hadn’t left them, nor the fear. Jane’s posture hadn’t changed. She hadn’t moved at all. Jane stood half-naked, half-leaning over the bed frozen watching Sadie. She didn’t make a move to defend herself or flee or anything, just stared at Sadie.

“I’m sorry, Sadie. I grabbed the wrong bag. The money spilled out. I didn’t mean to pry.” She stood and faced Sadie. “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.” Her apology was fast and full of emotion, but sounded sincere. If it was an attempt to warm Sadie, it worked. It melted her faster than the incident froze her. She wasn’t sure if it was something in Jane’s eyes, or the fact that Jane was in her underwear when she said it, but those few words shone straight through Sadie’s armor, straight to her cold warrior heart, clearing confusion and draining anger right out her feet.

Sadie studied Jane for a moment. She analyzed the scene, trying to decide which story to tell. She decided to tell the truth.

“Sit down, Sweetie” She told Jane about grabbing Travis’ bag of money.

“Cool,” Jane said. “I hate that prick.”

“But I thought you guys were scamming together?”

“Scamming? Oh, I don’t get involved in any of that. In fact, that’s what the commotion was about tonight. Travis said to throw the fight but I said I wouldn’t. I guess those guys didn’t like that. Travis told them they’d win or something, I don’t know. But I do know that as soon as Travis lined up our fight, he pushed me to lose.”

Sadie sat next to the pile of money. Jane continued, “He offered me five grand to dive and promised a re-match to fight for real. But I said no, and I kept saying no. That’s why you almost fought Celeste. She would’ve done it. But everyone knew that and they wouldn’t bet as heavy. Travis knew they’d bet on me. They always do. So he promoted it, you and me, I mean, and probably tried to scam those guys.”

Sadie and Jane stared at the pile of money on the bed. Then Sadie said, “Huh,” and looked back at Jane. “So, where’d you learn to fight like that?”

“Three older brothers,” Jane said sarcastically.

“Yeah? They teach you to mudwrestle, too?” She nudged Jane with her shoulder.

“Felt like it, sometimes.” Jane laughed, then hugged her ribs. She sucked in air and sat up straight, forcing a smile. They looked at each other, and short of the physical pain, the silence was comfortable. They laid back and stared at the ceiling fan until they fell asleep.

Thirty Five.

When Sadie Woke

When Sadie woke, Jane was kneeling by the bed stacking the stolen money back in the bag. “So,” Sadie rolled toward her, “how much do we have?” Jane leaned over and kissed her.

“Ok.” Sadie said, kissing her back. “Was it something I said?” The women smiled and kissed again. Sadie stood and pulled the blanket sending the money into the air and fluttering across the motel room. She and Jane fell back on the bed, Sadie on top of Jane.

“Uhn.” Jane said when they landed.

“Sorry. Forgot about your ribs.” She leaned down and kissed Jane’s bruises, then brushed her lips across Jane’s skin and her cheek across Jane’s stomach.

Jane’s grunts of pain turned to moans of pleasure. Sadie leaned forward and kissed her lips. Jane pulled off Sadie’s tank top and rolled over so she was on top. Jane kissed her way down Sadie’s body. When she reached her butterfly tattoo, she pulled off Sadie’s shorts and turned on MTV. They started to sixty-nine just as the Top Twenty Countdown started. Jane came twice before number eighteen and Sadie came hard during number fifteen. They slept through the rest of the countdown, then woke and had sex again. Then once more in the late afternoon.

“There’s so much here, I keep losing count.” Jane finished putting the money in the bag and slid it under the bed. “This should go far.”

Sadie smiled at her. “Yeah, we just have to decide where.”

“Where do you want to go?”

Sadie scanned the room. “I don’t know, but we can’t stay here.” She smiled at Jane. “Don’t get me wrong, I like laying around fucking you all day, but I need to mix it up some, too.”

“I hear you. We gotta make plans, find out what’s up, and get going somewhere. Rolling stones…”

“Huh?”

“Rolling stones…gather no moss. That’s what Daddy used to say.”

“Papa was a rolling stone?”

“Papa was a paratrooper.”

“Ahh. Death from Above and all that shit.”

“Exactly.”

“Ever been to Baltimore?”

“Baltimore? No.”

“I have a friend there: Gina. You’d like her. She’s cool. We met a few months ago, just before I headed this way.”

“Baltimore, huh? I like seafood. Speaking of food, you hungry?” Jane grabbed a menu from the nightstand.

“Sure, why not.”

“Should I call Elvis?”

“Oh God, Elvis? Is he still down there? Doesn’t he ever go home?”

“I know, pathetic. He left ten messages last night asking if we needed anything.” Jane got an idea. “We could fun him up a little, mess with him some.” She raised a mischievous eyebrow. “Maybe a little role reversal.”

“Hmm,” Sadie smiled. “That’s not really my thing.” When Sadie saw the disappointment in Jane’s expression she offered a compromise. “I guess we could scare him a little, make him think he’s going to get…”

“Yay,” Jane jumped up and down and clapped her hands a few times in excitement. Sadie felt like she just gave her a birthday present. Sadie shrugged, “It might be fun. He is pretty pathetic.”

“Yeah, and he thinks he’s all that.” Jane swaggered in front of the mirror. “I am Elvis. I will see to it myself.” She slapped her chest, then laughed.

Sadie laughed, too. “He could probably use a good ass fucking. But not today. Call him up though, I have a little shopping list for him.”

When Elvis knocked later Jane answered wearing a see-through teddy. Elvis stared at her tits, then squeaked that blue was his favorite color.

“Why thank yewww,” Jane said in an exaggerated southern drawl. “Did you get all the items?”

“Yes. Yes.” He said anxiously. “You know, there is only one adult shop in town and, um, supplies were very limited.”

“Well, let’s see how you did.” Jane took the bag and let him in. She bolted the door and walked to the bed. Sadie was lounging there, arms folded behind her head, watching a repeat of Top Twenty Countdown.

Jane pulled a big black dildo out of the bag. “Look what Elvis brought.”

“Perfect,” Sadie said, smiling at Jane.

“Pretty intimidating, huh?” Jane slapped the dildo against her hand.

“Yeah, I’m jealous it’s not for me.” She glanced at Elvis.

“Yeah,” Jane said, “Me too.” Then she glanced at Elvis. He was so excited that it took a moment for the implication to sink in. When it did, he froze like a deer in the headlights, staring at the dildo.

“Elvis?” Jane stroked the dildo. Elvis glanced at her, then at Sadie, then back at the dildo. He repeated this several times before licking his lips nervously and looking toward the door. When he turned back, Sadie and Jane were standing on either side of him.

Sadie reached into the bag. “What else you got here, Elvis?” He thought about the shopping list and stared at the bag. Sadie spread the items across the bed: hand cuffs, whip, ball gag. Elvis continued to stare at the bag. When Sadie pulled out the leather harness and cock ring big enough to hold the giant dildo, Elvis had an epiphany.

When Jane touched his shoulder he screamed like a little girl and ran out of the room.

Sadie laughed, “That was too easy.”

Jane giggled and tapped Sadie on the arm with the big black dildo. “See, I told you it would be fun.” She tapped her again with the dildo, “Want to have some more fun?”

Sadie and Jane sat on the love seat a few hours later and shared a beer, the dildo centered on the table like a trophy, still mounted in the harness. “So, you’re pretty good with that strap on.”

Jane smiled, “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

“Well, Honey,” Sadie lifted her beer, “here’s to practice.”

“Right back at you.” Jane took the beer and toasted Sadie, then tipped the can toward the big black dildo on the table. “And here’s to you,…my fine sir.”

Jane added, “Elvis doesn’t know what he missed. Can I call and tell him?”

“You know what? I’m sick of Elvis, and I’m sick of this room. I need some fresh air.”

Jane perked up. “Would you like to eat out tonight, Sadie?”

“Yeah. Let’s go to that diner next door. We can talk to the truckers, maybe find out what happened at the bar. We might be holed up here for nothing.”

“Yeah,” Jane nodded, “It would be nice to get out of here.”

“Well, pretty lady,” Sadie said, pulling on her jeans and boots and throwing her bag over her shoulder, “can I buy you dinner?”

The diner had hazy plastic windows and a painted plywood floor, with fake tropical plants in each corner covered in grease. The waitress was a cute blonde about ten months pregnant. Her name tag said “Cherry” and her southern drawl was long and slow. Her questions poured like honey. When she delivered the iced tea to Jane she asked, “Yoo wont a straawww witthaaat?”

“Yeah, thanks, Sweetie.”

“Wood yooo lack a straawww, tyoo?” She nodded to Sadie’s Coke.

“No. I’m cool.”

Sadie turned her attention to Jane. “So, tell me about yourself. Where you from?”

“Columbus, Georgia. Then Fayetteville. Then Germany. Tacoma. Back to Columbus.”

“Army brat. I forgot.”

“Yeah. Daddy was a paratrooper. And a Ranger. And a drill sergeant. And Momma was a good little Army wife.”

“And what were you?”

“I was a slut.” Jane smiled. “I was sick of moving around so much, making new friends all the time. So I turned it into a game.” She took a sip of iced tea. “I tried to find the biggest dick in school.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I know, it was dumb. But it was something to do.”

“Yeah? What’d you learn?”

“I like pussy.” They both laughed.

“You found out in high school, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Was it traumatic?”

“No. Not really.” Jane thought about it. “Actually, it was fun for a while. I mean for a little while there I was confused, but most of that was just denial.” Jane sipped her tea again. “What about you?”

“Oh, I’m still in denial.” They laughed.

“It must be nice not having to choose.”

“No, you still have to make a choice.”

“Yeah, well, I like the choice you made recently.” Jane batted her eyes.

“Yeah?” Sadie smiled, then nodded. “So anyway, what about the biggest dick in high school?”

“Well, I found out most of them are big dicks, but few actually have big dicks. Mostly they were just average and inexperienced. And, I learned, it’s better to make them all feel average. Otherwise, they’re unbearable.”

“Yeah, even after high school.”

“You have issues with men, too? Like I have to ask.”

“No issues with men, just boys.” Sadie stared at her Coke, stirred the ice cubes with her finger. “…Boys like Elvis, who think they’re men. No, no issues.” She took a sip of Coke. “In fact, I’d like to meet a real man.” She smiled at Jane, “You know, someone who can take a right hook.”

“Yeah, I hear you.” Jane rubbed her jaw.

“…Instead of these little boners sniffing my ass like a dog.”

“Speaking of sniffing dogs,” Jane said, “Do you think Elvis has called the room yet to see if we need anything?”

“Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Men have been crawling up my ass since I was twelve, even before that, with all the “Oh, what a pretty little girl” shit. A bunch of fucking dogs in heat.” Sadie combed her fingers through her hair and sighed. “Anyway, enough of that. Complaining don’t change it.” She raised her Coke, “Here’s to a world of pussy with an occasional breeder cock.” They tapped glasses and winked at each other.

After dinner, Cherry asked if they’d like some “oss Kereem” or “paah,” and she recommended the “pahcahn paah.”

“Yum,” Jane’s eyes lit up. “Pee-kan pie.”

Sadie shook her head. “Girl, you are insatiable.”

“I’ll show you ‘insatiable’.”

“Again?”

“…And again and again and again.” They looked at Cherry, still waiting to take their order. Cherry looked down at her swollen belly, then smiled as she wrote their order and waddled away to fill it.

“So,” Jane said to Sadie, “what’s your story?”

“Me? I sprang fully formed from Zeus’ head.”

Jane scanned Sadie’s body. “Must have been while he was jerking off.” She took a bite of pie.

Sadie smiled and looked at Jane’s pie. “Do I get a taste?”

Jane cut a piece with her fork and waved it at Sadie, teasing her. Sadie indulged for a moment, then grabbed the fork and ate the piece.

Cherry asked if they needed anything else. “No thanks, Sweetie,” Jane said, licking the fork. “Just the check.”

They left a hundred dollar tip and went out to the truck stop.

“You ladies are legends. No one ever seen a fight like that, yup.” The truck driver pushed his “Skoal” baseball cap up on his forehead then pulled it down again before spitting into a Styrofoam cup. When the cap was up, Jane saw the sweat stains on the underside of the bill.

“We wudn’t there,” the passenger added. “But I knowed somebody what was. Los’ five hunnerd and ain’t get his load in on time. But, Gaw Damn, he said, it wud worth it.”

Jane was standing on the running board on the driver’s side of the truck, the rumbling diesel was making her breasts jiggle. The passenger was enjoying the view illuminated by the dashboard lights. Jane leaned further into the cab to see his face. “Thank you, fellas. Say, could you do us a favor?”

“Anything you want, Ma’am.” The passenger blushed and looked away when she smiled at him.

“Could you get on the radio there and check around. See if anyone’s been asking about us.”

“Sure thing.” The trucker paused for a moment in thought, then nodded with complicity.

Jane looked down at Sadie, leaning against her Harley. They were surrounded by rigs parked, or idling, or creeping slowly along like prehistoric reptiles. Sadie felt all the eyes that were on them, smelled the cigars and diesel exhaust. She figured some truckers recognized them, but most were just enjoying the scenery.

“Well,” the driver said, replacing the handset, “there was some trouble after the fight. Some gun fire and such. Owner’s throat was cut. None’s sure if he’s dead or not, but a couple of ‘em was arrested and the bar been shut since.”

“Wow, you got all that?”

“You heard it, Ma’am. I ain’t lying.” He shifted his hat again and looked out the windshield.

“Aww. No, Sweetie, that’s not what I meant. I just meant that I couldn’t understand a thing they said. It was all garble to me. I’m just glad I had you to interpret.” Jane smiled again, easily regaining his confidence.

“Aw shucks, Ma’am.” The trucker laughed, exposing toothless gums. He blushed deep red, a blush that came from years of heavy drinking. “Tweren’t nuttin’, Ma’am.”

“Aw, so cute.” Jane pinched his cheek. “So anyway,” she said, looking at both men, “did they say anything else?”

“Only that they found some drugs and stuff.”

“Oh? But nothing about missing money?”

The trucker looked out the windshield again. “Naw,” he said, pausing between words, drawing each into its own sentence, “nothing… about no… missing money.” He sat silent, still looking forward.

“Hmm… Yeah…” Jane smiled back and forth to each man. “Anyway,” she said, shifting her stance on the running board and reaching two fingers down her tank top, “you boys have been so sweet.” As the men stared, she slowly drew out a small roll of hundred dollars bills. She slipped the money into the driver’s shirt pocket, then patted his chest and pinched his cheek. “Thanks again, boys.”

The driver blushed. “Anytime, Ma’am. Anytime.” Then he called down to Sadie, “Hey, you ladies need a lift? I’m heading north. We could throw your scooter in back. It’s empty.”

“No,” Sadie said flatly. Then added, ‘We’re going the other way.” Really, she was going up to scope out Baltimore. Jane had to stop in Florida to see her parents and promised to hook back up with Sadie as soon as possible. But that was none of their fucking business.

Thirty Six.

The Earthquake.

Sadie shifted her weight and stood straight, lifting the pool cue rested on her boot. She circled the table looking for her next shot. It was days after she told me about Jane, the female fight circuit, and how she got to Baltimore a few months prior. She found her next shot, lined it up and leaned over the table to shoot.

Her approach was the same each time: aligned the cue, practice twice, drop her lead shoulder slightly and shoot. She paused a moment while the balls rolled the table, then stood and rested the cue on her boot again, searching her next shot. I never tired of watching.

I wrote at our table while she shot pool. She was so good I thought it was her chief source of income, until she told me about the stolen money. I was writing a lot since Sadie got to town. I had plenty to write about: Sadie. I guess that was because I had plenty to think about: Sadie. And: Sadie: Sadie. Sadie…

Sadie was watching me from across the bar. She had been looking at me all night. Or maybe I was imagining it. I swear every time I looked up she was staring. I must have been imagining it, like when you want something so badly you trick yourself into believing it. Not that I thought I could ever have her as a girlfriend. I mean what would I do with her? No, I just wanted her to want me.

I looked over. She was lining up a bank shot, her back to me. She sank the shot then stood and watched the cue ball roll to a stop at the far end. She pulled her shoulders back and examined the table. I watched the subtle muscles flex on her triceps. She shifted slightly and leaned down to line up her next shot. I whispered, “I want you to want me.” Suddenly, my head exploded with Cheap Trick…I waaaant youuuuu to want meeee.

“Huh?”

“Hu…What?” I looked up. Gina was standing next to me with a tray of empty bottles.

“Did you say something?”

“When?”

“Just now. I was walking by. Did you say something?”

“Oh, uh…,” God I hope she didn’t hear me. I glanced at Sadie then back at Gina. “Uh, I guess I was just reading something out loud. Sorry.”

“Uh, ok.” She glanced at Sadie then back at me. I waited for her to say more but she didn’t. She just stared, then shrugged and walked away. I looked back at Sadie. She was staring again.

I didn’t usually hang in the parking lot after The Well closed, but Sadie did, so I did, too. She seemed a little distant, though. I mean, she stood with me, but we didn’t talk much. I could tell she was distracted. After a while, she walked off toward the woods, where everyone went to piss. When she got to the dark edge, she looked back and motioned for me to join her. She led me in, until we were out of sight, then told me to hug a tree.

“Don’t move,” she said in a voice I barely recognized. She stood behind me and pulled my T-shirt until it ripped from my back. Sadie rubbed my skin, massaged the muscles in my neck and shoulders. She leaned forward and said, “Fuck” while kissing my back, then stepped away and said “fuck” again and searched the ground beside us until she found a stick. She pulled a knife from her jacket and skinned the bark and twigs. She made two quick whips through the air, then landed the next two across my back.

I’d never been whipped before, and I don’t know if I liked it, but I let Sadie hurt me until she was done. Her sweet kisses on my back between the lashes were better than sex.

After several rounds she pushed me to the ground, whispered “Thank you,” and unbuttoned my jeans. The dirt stung my back and distracted me, and I missed Sadie undressing. Suddenly, she was straddling me, lowering onto my cock, slowly squatting and gyrating, easing me into her. When she hit bottom she sat up, arching her breasts forward in the moonlight, digging her nails into my chest. Her jaw glowed as she stretched her face toward the night sky and moaned. I was so hard I could feel my cock shifting back and forth with her rocking motion. Sadie rode me like a horse.

As her momentum increased, Sadie dug her nails deeper, as if for leverage. She rocked forward squeezing her knees, then rocked back until she hit bottom. The rhythm was steady but increasing. I didn’t know what would explode first, my head or my balls.

Sadie looked so hot I couldn’t stop watching her. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was afraid to look away for fear she’d disappear and I’d be alone, in the middle of another elaborate fantasy. Besides, the look on her face was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. Her brown eyes sparkled, then crinkled like she was in pain, but the more painful it looked, the harder she rode.

I was holding on for dear life and praying I wouldn’t cum yet. My whole body was tingling as Sadie used me like a toy. Just when I knew I couldn’t hold any longer, Sadie started to cum. It was a wave that overwhelmed her. It entered her low and flushed her body. I watched as the orgasm rolled up her to the top of her head, then rumbled back down thick and strong. It felt like an earthquake. Sadie trembled as it passed through her in wave after wave. She ground her hips against me and squeezed her powerful thighs, milking each spasm, drinking the pleasure, then she collapsed against my chest, panting and whispering “Thank you” again.

I could smell her hair against my face, feel her breath on my shoulder and neck. She released her grip on my chest and kissed the marks she’d left, gently caressing my arms with each sweet breath.

I almost forgot to cum, but when I did, it hurt. If Sadie’s orgasm was an earthquake, mine was the aftershock. When Sadie kissed my neck, I just erupted. She squeezed my shoulders and held her mouth close to mine, breathing in my groan as I flooded into her. Sadie’s words echoed in my head with my own spasms: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I woke the next morning confused. My balls were drained but my head was full. I just had sex with the most incredible woman in the world, or at least, she had sex with me. And it was better than I imagined. In fact, it was nothing like I imagined. I knew it would be unforgettable, but I didn’t know there would be physical reminders. Every time I shifted in bed or lifted my arm or breathed deeply, a sweet, sharp pang sent me back to that tree. I could smell the musky bark and see the bright moon through the trees casting Sadie’s shadow on the ground next to us.

We didn’t talk afterwards. We laid for a while, Sadie on top, me laying perfectly still…freaking out inside and completely high on the smell and touch of her. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Sadie didn’t speak either. After a while, she took a deep breath, got up, pulled on her jeans and walked into the darkness. I laid there for a while trying to decide whether or not it really happened, and if it did, why? Why me? Why now?

Why did she whip me? Why did she whip me? Why did she have sex with me? She had been here for months and hadn’t hooked up with anyone, so of course she was horny. But Joe would be home in a week and I was certain they would hit it off. And I thought she was excited to meet him. I was. Or at least I thought I was. Now I had weird feelings about it. One minute I couldn’t wait for him to get back, and the next, I didn’t want him back at all.

But that was next week. Today, I still had to deal with Sadie. I knew I would see her at The Well later, and I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I guess nothing much had changed, except everything. I couldn’t help thinking I had just become the member of an elite group. At the same time I felt like I had somehow snuck in the side door and would get kicked out as soon as they found me, like maybe a group of bouncers were going to grab me and drag me to the exit with me screaming: “Sadie. Sadie. Tell them you know me.” And Sadie would look up from signing autographs and squint a little like she was trying to recognize me. Then she’d nonchalantly shake her head and I’d go sailing out the side door…

So I decided to pretend nothing happened. Just like Gina did in junior high. Just like Joe in prison. If Sadie wanted anyone to know, she’d tell them. That decision didn’t clear any confusion but it did set the tone for the day.

At The Well everything seemed the same. Gina had the afternoon off and she and Sadie were just hanging and talking. If Sadie told her, Gina didn’t let on. Sadie smiled and said “Hey” when I walked up to the table, but there was no sign anything had changed for her, so I pretended nothing had changed for me. I said “Hey” and sat down next to her. When I leaned back a sharp sting shot across my back and I winced.

“You ok?” Gina asked.

“Yeah, fine.” I looked at Sadie. She was looking down at the table, but I saw her smile. That smile warmed me. Now Sadie and I had a secret. And a new tone was set. It was a beautiful day.

I went outside and kicked around in the parking lot for a while. But it was too bright and warm, so I went back in to write, comfortable for the moment in my new ambiguous role.

I was surprised by how normal a conversation could appear, even with an active volcano rumbling beneath. In public, Sadie showed no interest, and in my role, I tried not to stare at her tits. But whenever she leaned close I smelled her hair, and I still felt a slight sting every time I stretched. I was sad when that pain finally faded. Even sadder when I realized that nothing had changed between Sadie and me. It became obvious that I didn’t rocked her world the way she rocked mine. Or else she was just really fucking good at hiding it.

When all you do is sit around and drink and think, it’s easy to drive yourself crazy. That’s why I wrote in public. The noise of peripheral life kept me from imploding. As I looked around The Well I realized I missed Joe. And even though I was jealous of the inevitable relationship he and Sadie would have, I needed him here.

Until then, I just kept writing, mostly about Sadie, since she was my only other thought besides Joe. And sometimes, I could tell Sadie was thinking about me. Sometimes I caught her staring, watching me write, her brown eyes lost in thought, like maybe she was sharing some inner peace she thought I had, like maybe we were sharing something more than all of this. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking, again. Either way, that’s what I was writing about: poems about Sadie meditating, or doing yoga, or sitting on the beach reading Neruda in Spanish…her bare feet in sand, Sangria in hand, a Mediterranean breeze in her hair, now covering her Ray Bans. She brushes her hair behind one ear and reads more poetry, before seeing me approaching from down the beach. She looks up and smiles…

“Hey.” Sadie was standing at our table, smiling, pool cue still in hand. “What are you up to?” She glanced down at my journal. “What you writing about?”

“Uh…,” I glanced down, too. “Joe…Just Joe.”

“You excited?” She asked, sitting next to me. “Not much longer.” Sadie took a drink of my beer.

“Yeah, I think so.” I wasn’t sure what to say. “I know you’ll like him, too. He’s cool.” Sadie just nodded, then took another drink of my beer before getting up for her next round of pool.

By now, Sadie already knew a lot about Joe. Besides the stories I told, he was legend in The Well. Nothing happened there that wasn’t somehow connected to him, even though he was in jail most of the time. Also, with Gina bragging that she nurtured his craziness, no one had a chance in Hell of not knowing who he was.

Tales of Crazy Joe bounced around The Well like pinballs. But for some reason Sadie preferred hearing mine. I think everyone else was jealous of Joe. Maybe they resented that they weren’t as cool. Even Gina. Not me, though. I loved Joe. He was the coolest dude ever. And, for as quiet as I was, I could talk about him all day.

Sadie listened, which made me want to talk about him, which made me miss him even more. Good thing he would be home in a week. Those last few days dragged on, each felt longer than the last. I did nothing all week, just sat waiting.

Gina planned a party to celebrate Joe’s release. I joked that her parties were bad luck for Joe. Before I could stop I added, “And good luck for me.” Gina pretended not to hear, but she stopped mid-sentence and forgot what she was saying.

“…Oh yeah,…the party…for Joe.” She glanced at me then continued. “I figure, we can have it right here at The Well. That way we don’t need to invite anyone. We’ll all be here already. Easy enough.” She looked at me, Sadie, then Nick the manager, and a couple of old-timers.

“So basically,” Nick said, “Mann will go get Joe from prison and bring him here, and we will all be here already. Right?”

“That’s right, Hon.”

“Wow…, what a party.”

“Fuck you. It’ll be fun. He’ll know we were thinking about him.”

“Oh yeah, you were thinking about him…down in Florida.”

“Don’t you have a bathroom to clean?”

“All right. I’m leaving. I see my input is not appreciated here.” Nick walked away waving a bar rag over his head. “See you at the party.”

“Fuck you.”

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.

Thirty Eight.

Thinking About the Future.

After two days in Ocean City, sleeping on the beach and bathing in the ocean, I was ready go home. On the second morning, I had just enough money for one meal and gas back, so it felt like I hit the jackpot when the chick at Thrasher’s burned a whole batch of fries.

“Fuck. I did it again.” It was 10 a.m. and I was her first customer. “They’re fucking burned again. Brad is gonna fire me.” She shook the basket over the fryer and set it on the counter. “Fuck. He’s gonna make me pay for these.” Then she remembered I was there. “Sorry, I’ll start a new batch.” She was cute, really cute.

“No, it’s cool. I’ll take those.” I smiled at her.

She paused for a moment, looked at the burnt fries, then smiled, “No, it’s cool. I’ll toss these and make more.”

“No. No, really. It’s cool. I’ll take those. All of them.” It sounded chivalrous, but really I just liked burnt fries. Plus, she was really cute. And she only charged me for one order, so I still had gas money.

I sat at a bench on the boardwalk with two big buckets of fries. I ate as much as I could, fed some to the seagulls, and gave the rest to some beach bums outside the arcade. I hung for a while and watched the kids smoking beside the Haunted House and in line for the Round Up.

When I realized I was still lonely I passed by Thrasher’s and peeked in, but I didn’t see the cute chick so I just kept walking. I left the boardwalk and crossed to the bay on the west side of town. I sat for a while under Rt. 50 bridge and watched the fishing charters pass, while listening to the waves slap against the barnacle-covered pilings. I guess I was waiting for some sort of epiphany. When that didn’t happen, I walked back to my sister’s Datsun and drove home.

I met Joe at The Well the next night. He said he wanted to talk about Sadie, but when I got to The Well, he wasn’t inside. I found him out in the parking lot, laying back on the hood of his El Camino, staring at the sky. He had a six pack next to him, so I climbed on with him and leaned back against the windshield. He reached into the paper bag and pulled out a beer for me. We stared at the sky for a while without speaking.

Joe glanced down at his beer, up-ended and drained it. “I don’t know…, it’s like…it’s like this, Mann…,” he looked again at the empty bottle. “It’s…, I don’t know…, it’s just…cool.”  He took one last drink from the bottle, just to make sure it was empty, then threw it at the trash can, but it missed and shattered at the base of the light pole. He sat quiet again, speechless. I saw the thoughts circling his head, but he couldn’t voice them. I knew he wanted to talk. I think he even wanted some advice, but he couldn’t ask for it and I probably couldn’t give it. So we sat there, side by side, drinking beer and staring at the stars.

The next night, Gina and I met Sadie and Joe for dinner at Bel Loc Diner. It was next to Sadie’s motel. Since Joe had pretty much moved in with Sadie, they ate there at least once a day. I had been going there since I was little. My parents took us because it was the only place we could afford, and because they always served diner favorites like liver and onions and meatloaf. But the best thing on the menu was apple pie a la mode. Mom never let us get it because we all wanted different flavors of ice cream and she couldn’t afford to buy one for each of us. She just stopped at Mars on the way home and grabbed a carton of Neapolitan.

As soon as I was could go on my own, I got apple pie every time, and always a la mode. Sometimes that was all I had for dinner. I had to watch them when I ordered it, though, because they always tried to put whipped cream on top. They put whipped cream on everything, and cherries, always, whipped cream and cherries. I didn’t like any of that. With apple pie a la mode, I was a purist, just apple pie and vanilla ice cream. No whipped goo and no fucking cherries. Although it was cool watching Gina tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue.

Our waitress reminded me of Sgt. Schultz from “Hogan’s Heroes.” She was big and chunky, and had a thick German accent. She had worked there longer than I could remember. Nobody messed with her, not even Joe. She seemed nice, but we knew at any moment she could go berserk and start snapping necks. It would be like Godzilla at the soda fountain. Once I ordered a tuna melt and she brought me liver and onions by mistake. I ate it. I wasn’t sending it back. I wasn’t getting body slammed over a piece of meat. And actually, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was pretty good. It reminded me of Mom’s cooking. That was probably why Mom liked going there. She was German too. Always making sauerkraut. And Joe never missed dinner at my house when he knew there was sour beef and dumplings. But that was then. Now it was liver and onions at the Bel Loc Diner.

“Ummmm. Pass the ketchup.” Joe took the bottle from Sadie’s hand without looking up. He squirted it on his fries while chewing his Salisbury steak. “I’m starving,” he said.

“Yeah,” I added, “liver and onions.” My sarcasm was apparent.

“Yeah,” Sadie looked at my empty plate, “looks like you hated it.”

“That boy will eat anything,” Gina said, rolling her eyes.

It felt good to be the center of attention, if only for a minute. Of course, Joe didn’t look up at all. He was too busy devouring his fries. He loved fries. Always had. I remember back in seventh grade all he would have for lunch was three bags of fries. Every day. Three bags of fries. And the irony was that he had the clearest skin of anyone in school. Other kids brought lunches with carrot sticks, and they drank their milk like good little kids, and their faces looked like pepperoni pizzas. Not Joe’s.

“You eating those?” Joe reached toward Sadie’s plate. She stabbed her fork into the table, just next to his hand. Joe smiled, but slowly retracted his hand. Evidently Sadie loved fries, too.

Gina left before we finished, she was late for work. I walked to the motel with Sadie and Joe to catch a ride to The Well with them. Joe hurried ahead, saying he had to piss.

“Come on in.” Sadie held the door for me. The room was a mess. There was trash and clothes everywhere. “Joe,” Sadie called toward the bathroom, “Hurry up.”

“Hold on.” Joe walked out in his underwear. “Hold on. I’ll be ready in a minute.” He searched the pile of clothes on the floor. “You seen my black jeans?”

“Fuck Joe, you’re not wearing those again? They smell like ass.”

“Have you seen them?”

“No, they probably crawled out the door.”

“Come on, Sadie. Where are they?”

“I don’t know. Check the duffle.”

Joe disappeared into the bathroom. Sadie grabbed her jacket and the keys to the El Camino. “Come on, Joe, let’s go. I need a beer.”

“I’m coming.” Joe stumbled out of the bathroom buttoning his fly. “I’m ready…Where’s my shirt?”

“Fuck.” Sadie sat on the edge of the bed. Joe grabbed a shirt and pulled it over his head, grabbed his jacket and lockblade, and beat us to the door.

“Come on,” he said, smiling. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go.” He opened the door and led us out. We piled into the El Camino, with Joe driving and Sadie sitting on my lap.

I had a boner before we left the parking lot. By the time we were halfway to The Well, I was ready to explode. I think Joe was hitting every bump on purpose, just to fuck with me. And Sadie just kept bouncing up and down on me. She had to know how hard I was. I couldn’t move, couldn’t shift out from under her incredible ass. I think she enjoyed the pain she was causing me.

When we stopped at the red light at Oakleigh and Joppa, I looked over at Joe. “Who Are You” was screaming from the tape deck and he was hunched at the wheel, staring at the light, waiting to explode when it turned green. Sadie was staring ahead too. When it turned, Joe gunned it. Sadie slid back across my lap and buried my face with her hair. The smell got me high. I flashed back to that night in the woods when Sadie was on top of me and her hair was in my face. I laid there thinking I never needed to move again, my life would be complete so long as Sadie stayed right there straddling me.

I also remembered the first time I smelled her hair, when we were in line at The Who concert and we were pressed together by the crowd. I had a boner against her ass that day too.

The sense of smell is powerful. It can make a grown man shiver with excitement when a beautiful woman shifts her weight while sitting on his lap in an El Camino. It can make him think she was fully aware of what was happening. And, it can make him cum in his pants. When Joe exploded from the stop light, I exploded in my pants. I bet Sadie felt that.

By the time we got to the Well my legs were asleep and I had to piss like a racehorse. Plus, I could feel cum dripping down my leg. I went straight to the bathroom to clean up, while Sadie and Joe got beers at the bar.

When I returned Sadie was at our table talking to Gina. Joe was over shooting darts. I heard Gina whisper, “What a jerk.” I froze, thinking she was talking about me cumming in my pants. Then she added, “He said that. I can’t believe it.” When I realized it wasn’t about me I felt better. When I got to the table they both got quiet, then Sadie looked up and smiled, “Hey. I bought you a beer.” She slid me the bottle.

“Thanks,” I said, glancing quickly from her to Gina, trying to decide how embarrassed I should be.

“Well,” Gina said, “I gotta get back to work.” She stood, gave me a punch on the arm, “Hey, Mann,” and walked back to the bar. And there I was with Sadie, alone again and feeling strange, and not just because I had to throw away my underwear and wash my crotch with toilet paper.

When Joe came to the table he said he won fifty bucks and offered to buy a round of drinks. “Yo, Gina,” he called across the bar. When she looked up he made the sign for a round of drinks. She just waved and went back to mixing a drink. A couple of minutes later she came over with a pitcher of beer and set it on the table without saying anything. Joe noticed her silence, and silence made him uneasy. He poured everyone a glass of beer, then took a drink from his. He looked around the bar and nodded his head, “Maybe we should buy this bar.”

Gina paused from collecting dirty glasses. She looked at Joe, “Are you serious?”

“Sure. Why not?”

“Because all you do,” Gina paused and shook her head but didn’t look up, “is sit here and drink all night.” Then she looked straight at him. “What do you know about running a bar?”

“Well,” Joe was caught off guard by the question, but he smiled and nodded as if he might agree. He looked around the table for an answer. “Mann, here, he’s pretty smart. He could do the books.” He glanced at me for support, then back at Gina. “And you know bartending…Sadie and me could do security.”

“I don’t think so,” Gina said and walked away with the tray of dirty glasses.

“Me neither,” Sadie added as she got up to go to the bathroom.

“What the fuck?” Joe shrugged, looking at me. “I’m just thinking about the future.”

I looked at Joe like he was from Mars. It was the strangest thing I ever heard. If there was ever anyone who didn’t think about the future or wanting to own things, it was Joe. I mean, there was that time when he first got out of juvy and he had grand ideas about starting a gang and being a mafia boss, but that was more about power and threesomes then about setting and achieving long term goals. No, I was pretty sure that if Joe had spent any time contemplating the future, he wouldn’t have spent most of his adult life in correctional institutions.

When Joe noticed me staring at him, he just shrugged again, took another drink of beer, and repeated, “Just thinking about the future, Mann.”

Thirty Nine.

A Shot of Whiskey.

On Monday night, Joe came to The Well without Sadie. I hadn’t seen them for days.

“Hey Joe, where’s Sadie?” I looked toward the door.

“Went to meet some friend. They’ll be back later.” He took a drink of beer and sat with me at our table. I got there early and was trying to write. I closed my journal and looked into Joe’s eyes. He seemed tired. “You ok?”

“Yeah, Mann.” He smiled, then sat silent, staring at the table.

I shifted to get his attention. “What’s up, Joe?”

“Huh? Oh, nothing. I’m gonna shoot some pool. Wanna?”

“Sure.” I followed him to the table. He stopped at the bar for another beer, then ordered a shot from Nick. He knew better than to ask Gina. She refused to sell him whiskey. Nick was afraid not to. When Joe slammed the shot and tapped the glass on the bar for another, I knew something was wrong. Joe stopped whiskey years ago, made him too crazy and not in the “Joe” way.

We didn’t speak the whole game. Every time I looked at Joe he was staring at the table and mumbling. He was thinking so hard I had to keep reminding him to shoot. It wasn’t like the time we sat on the hood of his El Camino staring at the stars. That night he seemed content, almost happy. Now he seemed agitated and distracted. He twitched around and mumbled some more, like he was arguing with himself. I really knew something was wrong when I won. I dropped the eight ball and Joe dropped his stick and left.

I racked our sticks and went out after him, but he was gone. I heard the El Camino a block away. He got it when he moved in with Sadie, but still hadn’t fixed the muffler. Actually, he hadn’t swapped the tags, either. I wasn’t sure it was really his. He just showed driving it one night. It was that or ride on the back of Sadie’s bike, and that wasn’t going to happen.

I went back in The Well to talk to Gina. She came in a few minutes earlier and was just starting her shift. “Do you know what’s up with Joe?”

“No. But him and Sadie been fighting.”

“About what?”

“Everything, pretty much. He’s staying at his mom’s.”

“What? Why? What happened?” It felt like I just slept through part of a movie. “I don’t get it. What happened?”

Gina smiled and shook her head. “Mann, you live in a dream world. No offense, but, you only see what you wanna see.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know.” But I didn’t. It felt like she was talking to someone else. I checked the stool next to me, but there was no one there. When I looked back, she was still looking at me. “I’ve seen them together,” I said. “They’re happy.”

“Joe’s happy. Or at least he was.” Someone called for a beer. Gina served it and came back. She leaned onto the bar and whispered, “Have you talked to Joe lately, I mean, really talked to him?”

“Well…no, not really, not since he got out, at least…and hooked up with Sadie.”

“I hear ya. He doesn’t talk to no one. The only way I know anything is from Sadie. In fact,” she stared at me for a second, “the only way I know anything about anything around here is from Sadie.” She paused for a moment. “Anyway, Joe puts up a front, but he don’t say how he feels. I don’t even think he knows. I mean, think about it. Has he ever talked to you about his feelings?” She raised her eyebrows, “Or about women? Has he ever talked to you about a girlfriend?”

“We talk.” I was feeling a little defensive for Joe. “We’ve talked.” But that was all I could say. I wanted to tell Gina that Joe and I were just discussing feelings the other night on the hood of his El Camino, but I knew better. And I’m sure Gina would too. Of course, if I had told her we were staring at the stars together, contemplating life, she wouldn’t have believed that either. “No,” I answered, “I guess not. But none of his relationships were serious.”

“Oh really? Did he tell you he got my friend pregnant, back when he was running from juvy?” She watched me for a moment. “Why do you think he stopped running away?”

“I thought it was because he hooked up with Loni.”

“Loni? Who’s Loni?” She shrugged. “All I know is, soon as she told him she was pregnant, he disappeared.” She paused again, then added, “Don’t get me wrong. I love Joe, but sometimes…” She shook her fist, then grabbed a rag to wipe the bar.

Gina nodded to someone across the room and started mixing a drink. “I’ll be back. Creepy chick needs a gin and tonic.” I watched as Gina delivered the drink and returned. “That chick creeps me the fuck out. She’s like a vampire Stevie Nicks over there in that flowy, white dress. I don’t know why she comes here.” I glanced over. Creepy chick smiled and her sapphire eyes sparkled from the shadows. I didn’t tell Gina I thought she was sexy. But Gina was right, she was too fucking creepy to talk to.

I sat at the bar and considered what Gina said about Joe. I thought through all the stuff we’d been through. I thought I knew Joe better than anyone, even Gina, but now I started to wonder. Gina came back and said a few more things, but I couldn’t pay attention. I tried. I could hear her words but I couldn’t focus. Words like “liar,” made no sense at all. I mean, of course Joe was a liar. We all were. We were criminals. That’s what criminals do. But we didn’t lie to each other, or call each other liars.

When I repeated the word in my head, Liar, Liar, Liar, it sounded strange. It started to lose meaning. It softened up and sounded less insulting. After enough repetitions, the cadence put me adrift in a row boat, bobbing with the waves: Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Liar. Yeah, it wasn’t such a tough word. It was the kind of word that really needed to be barked to be effective, no matter how hard you leaned on the “L”. Not like “Fuck” or “Cunt.” Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck is like a machine gun. No matter how fast or slow. And, Cunt. Cunt. Cunt. Cunt. Cunt. is an idling Harley. Everyone thinks it’s Potato, but it’s really Cunt.

“Mann. Mann, are you listening to me?” Gina waved her hand in my face. “He’s a fuck-cunt liar.” And together they’re a combination punch from Mike Tyson. “He probably lied to you too,” she said before walking off. Gina was really pissed about something.

I went out to the parking lot and kicked rocks at the light post. I didn’t want to be someone Joe had to lie to. That made me feel like shit. I considered the people we lied to: cops, principals, parents, and I wondered if Joe grouped me there. Fuck that. Gina’s wrong. Joe wouldn’t lie to me. Gina’s the liar. But, in the back of my head I knew better. She loved Joe as much as I did. And she cared about Sadie, too. Then I thought about Sadie. She would tell the truth. She wouldn’t lie. Sadie wouldn’t lie to anyone. If she didn’t want you to know, she’d just tell you to fuck off. If she and Gina had been talking, Gina wouldn’t lie about it. Of course, I really knew that Gina wouldn’t lie to me anyway. But neither would Joe.

The more I thought about it, the more confused I got. It was a vicious circle. And even though I got information only from Gina, I didn’t know whose side to believe. But I guess, deep down, I did know.

I started to fog over with doubts about Joe and about myself. I wanted to talk to him, but fuck only knew where he was. I needed to talk to someone, and Gina wasn’t helping. I thought about Sadie again. Maybe she was back. Joe said she was meeting a friend. Maybe they were at the motel and I could hang a while. I really needed to get away from The Well. Besides, I was curious about Sadie’s friend.

I didn’t mind the hour walk to the motel. I had plenty to think about on the way. Maybe Gina was right. Maybe I did only see what I wanted. Maybe I did sometimes get lost in my own thoughts. Maybe I really was a million miles away, or maybe I was just headed that way. It reminded me of the fever dreams.

When I was little I got really high fevers. I dreamed that hot, wet concrete was flowing toward me like lava. I remember not fearing it, but thinking it was a river that would take me away, like Max in Where the Wild Things Are. I wanted to go. I wanted to sail some place new. I looked forward to the fever dreams, and I resisted Mom every time she pulled me back by submerging me in the bath tub to cool the convulsions.

When I was slightly older, the fevers stopped but the dreams didn’t. I was always sailing somewhere in my head, on a river of flowing lava. Mom worried I’d forget where I was going, just keep walking, and never come back. She believed I was destined for someplace else, and she sang songs of Valhalla. I thought it was in California.

The first time I walked to school alone was in first grade. Mom watched from the porch as I walked the half block to the crossing guard. But before I left the porch I was on a Viking ship, sailing the vast, deep sea. When I got to the cross walk, I forgot to cross, just kept walking. When I got to 7-Eleven, I knew I was too far. From the bow of the ship, I heard Mom calling, her voice, like a siren, penetrating the fog. When I looked back, she was running toward me, in a bathrobe, waving her hands and pleading, “Come back.”

Joe called it checking out. Gina called it slipping off the map. They teased me about it but I think they envied it, too. Joe needed drugs to escape. Otherwise he got anxious and couldn’t sit still. His mom even had him on Ritalin for a while, back before it was cool, until he mastered the art of self-medication.

Joe was the showman, the circus barker, and I envied that in him. He was fun and exciting, while I was the quiet observer, always thinking and writing. And because of that, everyone thought I was intense, until they got to know me.

And before I knew it, I was at the Shack. I walked past it every day, but this time I thought about our first B&E. Joe and I ended up here, with Billy Bear and his gang. They were gone now, but the Shack was still there. I looked in as I walked by. There was a blanket, empty beer cans, a candle, and a red milk crate.

When I crossed the stream at the end of the woods a crawfish skirted beneath a rock. When I was a kid I played here, collecting cattails and catching crawfish. There were hundreds then. Now there was one. And fewer cattails. And the stream was smaller, too.

By the time I neared the motel, the sun was starting to set. I stopped beside the Bel Loc and looked over at the parking lot. Sadie’s Harley wasn’t there. I decided to get apple pie and wait a while. When I got to the entrance I looked over again. From that angle, I could see the whole parking lot. Joe’s El Camino was sitting in the far corner, next to the dumpster. And Joe was in it.

I started to walk over, to find out what was wrong earlier. I needed to know what was bothering him. Joe was never one to walk away. He was a fighter. He didn’t let shit get to him. I needed to know. I let go of the diner door and turned to the parking lot. I took one step and got a weird feeling about the whole scene. I looked over at Joe again. He just sat there, slouched at the wheel, staring at Sadie’s door. It felt weird and I got self-conscious. I decided to skip pie and get the fuck out of there before he saw me.

A couple hours later he stopped by. I was lifting weights in my basement when he knocked. I could tell he needed to talk but I didn’t know how to start. “So, where’d you run off to? I thought something was wrong.”

He glanced down. “Naw,” then he looked directly at me and smiled. “I just had to meet some dudes.” He’s lying. At least, I think he’s lying. I saw him at the motel. Maybe he had time to meet someone. I don’t know. What the fuck. Is he lying? I couldn’t tell. If he was, that was a bullshit smile I’ve seen a million times before. I confused it for sincerity, but maybe it masked his lies. I wasn’t sure what to think so I just got angry, at myself, at Joe, but mostly at Gina. I wished she hadn’t told me. I wished I hadn’t gone to Sadie’s and seen Joe sitting there. I wished I didn’t know that Joe might have lied to me. I just wish I didn’t know.

And when I said it to myself, Joe lied to me, I felt something crack inside me. I wasn’t sure what it was, but something definitely cracked and peeled a little, and underneath was raw. It felt like a punch in the nose from Duke. It was cold, tingly, and warm, all at the same time. Joe must have felt it too, must have sensed that I was hurting, because something softened in him, just for an instant, something in his eyes. Maybe something cracked in him too. Then, just as quickly, his mask slid back into place.

I turned away, “I gotta finish my set.” Joe stepped back. He leaned over and turned up Iron Maiden. I picked up the bar and starting curling. I wondered what other lies he might have told. I wondered why he needed to lie to me. I wanted to believe that if he did, he had good reason. I glanced at him.

He nodded, “You got this.” He looked different from the Joe I saw brooding behind the wheel at the motel. He looked like the old Joe again, the Joe I knew, the Joe I grew up with.

It wasn’t a big lie, really…wasn’t much of a lie at all (Curl). I’m sure he had reasons. Maybe he did meet someone (Curl). Maybe I just need to give him slack. He just got out of jail, for Christ’s sake (Curl). You forget how to trust in there. The edges get blurred in there (Curl). Gina just had me pumped up, worrying about shit (Curl).

Joe stood by and encouraged me. “Good rep. Make it burn. Good job,” like nothing had changed between us. And maybe it hadn’t. I looked at him while I pumped the last rep. It stuck midpoint. I squeezed hard but couldn’t curl it. “You got this.” He put his hands near the bar to spot, but he didn’t touch it. “Come on,” he grunted. “Come on, my man, you got this.” He smiled that Crazy Joe smile. A wave of energy flowed into me, either from his words or through his hands. Wherever it came from, it worked. Whatever was causing that bar to stick just melted away and I finished the rep like it was nothing.

“Fuck yeah.” Joe took the bar from me and banged out fifteen reps. My biceps were solid and I was sweating. My arms were shaking but my anger was gone. I stood near Joe to offer a spot, but he didn’t need it. When he finished he dropped the bar and pulled off his shirt.

It felt like old times again, just the two of us, pumping weights in the basement, listening to Iron Maiden. Joe wiped his brow with his shirt and looked at me, “You know, Mann. I missed you when you got out of prison.” He grabbed the bar for another set.

“Yeah,” I said, watching him curl. “I know what you mean.”

Forty.

Jane and Billy Boy.

The next night Sadie came to The Well with two people. One was a beautiful blonde, who had to be Amazon Jane. The other was a short guy with spikey blonde hair. If they were a couple, they were mismatched. Jane was a foot taller. The dude only came to her tits. They all grabbed a beer at the bar and joined us. Joe and I had been hanging all afternoon but hadn’t talked much. I pretended I was writing but really I had been sneaking glances at Joe and wondering what he was thinking.

Joe looked at Sadie when she got to the table, “I thought you’d be back last night.”

Sadie glanced at Jane, then Joe, “Not now,” she said flatly, then introduced us. “This is Jane, and her cousin, Billy Boy.” She pointed to spikey-hair, “He’s traveling with Jane. They wanna hang for a while, then go west.”

Joe turned to them, donning his circus barker smile, “Welcome, guys. Pull up a chair.” He waved his arm across the table toward empty chairs nearby.

“So, what brings y’all to these parts?” He said with a southern drawl. Sadie shot a look that must have stung. Joe glanced away, then continued in a normal tone. “Anyway,” he said, “glad you’re here.” He raised a toast, “Any friend of Sadie’s is a threat of mine.”

“Yeah,” Sadie said, “anyway, listen up, you might be interested.” She leaned forward on elbows and lowered her voice, “Jane and Billy Boy need money. Jane has a little,” Sadie glanced at me and continued. Apparently, Joe didn’t know about Sadie’s stash. “But she needs more. Billy Boy’s broke but willing to work. And of course they want as much as possible, as quick as possible, and easy as possible.” Joe’s face lit up. Whatever funk he was in faded that instant, like he remembered what he was created to do.

Sadie noticed. “Yeah, Joe. That’s right.” She leaned back and paused. What she was about to say came with some hesitation. “I told Jane about your convenience store caper.” She looked back and forth from Joe to me. “She said it sounded fun.” Jane nodded to confirm. Sadie checked the bar to see that Gina wasn’t listening, then turned back to the group. “I thought you guys should talk. They need money and maybe we can help, maybe do a little road trip to get ‘em going. Maybe make a little along the way.”

“Hmmm.” Joe said, rubbing his chin. He turned business, all business. “That’s conceivable.” He scanned Jane from head to toe. “Yeah, I think we can do something here.” He looked at me. I must have seemed interested because he looked back at Sadie and said, “Why not?”

He scanned Jane again, assessing potential. “Yeah, we can do something. So, Billy Boy,” he said without looking away from Jane, “tell us about yourself.”

“Well. Jane and me, we’re cousins. From Atlanta…in Atlanta.” He began, as he bounced around in his chair. “And we was both thinking ‘bout the west coast. Well, Jane said she had to come here first. So I says…I says, ‘why don’t we go traveling together.’ And Jane says, ‘I don’t know…don’t know.’” He spoke in echoes, which made it hard to listen. So I stopped. Also, he bounced around too much for me, kind of like a junkie. “But then Jane, she thought about it some more… some more. And I guess she said, ‘why not?’” He shrugged and held the shrug until Joe responded.

“Ok, Billy Boy,” Joe said, turning to look directly at him for the first time. “What I meant was, have you ever done any thieving. Have you done any time?”

“Oh. Yeah…Yeah. Yeah…Yeah.”

“Well?”

“Well what?” He looked around the table, then back at Joe. “Oh, yeah. Well, I was in for a while, got out a little while back. I was in for a year because of a mis…, mis…, misund…, trouble with some high school girls…high school girls. I got paroled.”

Jane interrupted, “Billy Boy likes ‘em young.” She smiled at Sadie.

“So,” Joe rubbed his chin again, “being outside Georgia puts you in violation of parole?”

“Yeah…Yeah. Yeah…Yeah. But I couldn’t stay there. That’s why I’m going west. Get far from Georgia.”

Jane interrupted, “Apparently, school girls have older brothers.”

I was trying to ignore him but he was too annoying. “Um. Baltimore’s not west of Atlanta.”

“No. No. I know…I know.” He looked at me, then around the table again, then back at me. He cocked his head like a parrot. “I know. I know. Like I says, Jane needed to come here first.” He checked each face, like a guilty man exposed. “So I says, ‘why not?’ That’s what I said.”

Joe chuckled, “Well, Billy Boy, welcome to Baltimore.” He raised his beer, “Where the men are men, and so are the women.” Joe was only half listening to Billy Boy. Most of his attention was on Sadie and Jane, who had just moved to the next table.

He looked at me, “…very conceivable.” He motioned toward them. I had been watching too. They were so sexy it was ridiculous, distractingly sexy.  Everyone in the bar was watching. I now understood Joe’s plan, the convenience store caper really made sense now. I thought I understood before, when we tried it with Gina, but with Sadie and Jane I was convinced it could work, so convinced I forgot for a moment that the last time we tried it we went to jail.

“You’re smiling, Mann,” Joe said. “It’s good, ain’t it?” He nodded. It felt good to see him happy. And I knew, in the back of his head, great adventures were being born.

I realized I hadn’t thought much about thieving since I got out. But I was starting to now. It’s what was missing. We had all been sitting around The Well, drinking and talking shit, or shooting pool and we were getting bored. That’s the problem. A good caper would take care of all that. A good team effort was what we needed. Some esprit de corps. Nothing like a good, old fashioned convenience store robbery to build morale…

I wasn’t really buying it, but I kept selling it until I accepted it. Joe seemed happy. Jane seemed excited by the idea. And Sadie didn’t call it stupid. That was enough for me.

Joe and I discussed what went wrong the last time. We chalked it up to bad timing, bad luck, and bad casting. Gina just wasn’t right for the part. She was hot, but she really wasn’t built for it. She was sexy, but not to the bone. And she was tough, but not fuck you up tough. While I was thinking this, I noticed I was staring at Sadie and Jane. Jane was just sitting there and I had half a boner…, well, “just sitting there” wasn’t very accurate. She never just sat there. She stretched and leaned when she talked, and arched her back, which made her tits stick out even more.

Jane was built for the part. She flirted when she wasn’t even looking. Her back could be to you and you still thought she wanted to fuck. At least, I did. And her smell. I don’t know what it was, but it made me hungry for ice cream. Whether perfume or just her scent, it made my balls tingle. Joe’s too, apparently.

“Yeah, Mann,” he said, lifting his beer, “…very conceivable.” He took a deep drink, glancing at them again, “We got planning to do.”

Sadie and Jane’s parts were obvious, but Billy Boy posed a challenge. According to Jane he had bad luck, worse than anyone she knew. But she said he only ever hurt himself, so we figured what the fuck. When I asked her to describe him in one word, she called him a character.

“I’ve known him my whole life,” she added.

“But do you like him?” I asked.

She smiled, “Like is such a strong word, Sweetie.” After a moment she added, “Let’s just say he makes me laugh.”

“Do you trust him,” Joe asked.

“I do. Sure.” She contemplated. “He’s goofy and all, but he knows how to keep his mouth shut.” She took a drink of beer and thought about it. “Yeah, he’s alright. I guess I do like him…a little.”

Joe liked him, too, and I understood why. Billy Boy was a playful puppy, something to fuck with, something to keep everyone amused, everyone except me. I thought he was annoying. I never fucked with him, but Joe did every day, and Billy Boy loved the attention.

When Joe needed a break from all of the planning, he called out, “Yo, B.B.,” and Billy Boy came running, knowing Joe was going to issue a challenge.

“What, Joe? What is it? I can do it. Come on, Joe. What is it?”

Joe strung him along, building anticipation and the likelihood of an accident. “I don’t know, Billy Boy. This one’s tricky.”

“Come on, Joe. You know I can.”

Billy Boy bounced like a puppy playing fetch. When Joe got bored of torturing him, or just before Billy Boy pissed his pants, Joe issued the challenge. “All right, Billy Boy. All right.” It was always something stupid, like balancing a beer mug on his forehead, while standing on one foot, singing “The Star Spangled Banner.”

I was always impressed that Billy Boy could do the tricks, at first, but then some drunk bumped him, or a bug flew up his nose, or an earthquake struck, and it ended with a gash in his head and a bill for a broken glass. Yes, Nick charged for broken glasses. He started after the Great Shotput Competition of ’82.

With Billy Boy entertaining the Vagrants, and Sadie and Jane catching up in the corner, Joe and I had time to complete the details. We didn’t tell Gina, just said we were going west for weed. We still loved her, but no one wanted a lecture from “Mom.”

Joe and I spent whole afternoons at the table, drawing maps on napkins, making lists, factoring timing and safety, and sexy scenarios for Jane. I forgot how methodical Joe could be. He really enjoyed planning capers, as much as committing them. It was his creative expression.

Billy Boy expressed himself by being an idiot, as far as I could tell. He entertained other idiots at the bar, until someone got pissed and wanted to hit him. Usually, they remembered he was with us and that was enough to deter most. It had to be tempting, though. Billy Boy liked to ask why, and drunks hated that. Most of the shit he did was just dumb, and irritating as Hell if you didn’t find it funny. I didn’t, but I did like to watch dudes get pissed at him. It was like a comedy routine, a junkie version of “Who’s on First.”

“But why?”

“Why what?

“No, why who?”

“What?”

“No, who?”

“Huh?”

“Huh?”

Although we treated Billy Boy like shit, that didn’t mean others could. Joe was protective of him. He bitch-slapped a Vagrant in the parking lot for fucking with Billy Boy at the bar.

“What’s that for, Joe?”

“You pushed him.”

“He’s a fucking goof.” Joe slapped him again. “But he is, Joe.”

“Don’t touch him. Now get the fuck out of here.” Dude walked off rubbing his cheek. His friends were waiting at his truck. I stood watching from the entrance, just in case. Even small beefs like that, you had to cover each other’s back.

When we went inside, Billy Boy was dancing in the corner. Some urban cowboys were providing music, slapping jeans and chinking bottles. Everyone was laughing while Billy Boy boxed.

“Yo, B.B.” He stopped and looked at Joe. “Come.”

He wasn’t a total idiot, he just acted like one. There was a benefit to having him around, besides comic relief. Billy Boy loved to steal cars. He knew alarms, learned them in prison, got a certificate. According to Jane, he could steal anything without tripping the alarm. Joe and I did alright, but we usually got impatient and started ripping wires until the noise stopped. Used to just pop the hood and disconnect the horn, but it got more difficult. Billy Boy liked it, so that was his job.

“We need a car.” Joe told Billy Boy when he got to the table.

“I’ll be right back.” He jumped up and headed for the door.

“Wait. Wait. Come back,” Joe laughed, waving him to the table. “Not now. Tomorrow.”

“Right. Right.” Billy Boy was anxious, jumping around and trying to listen, but all he could think about was stealing a car. What kind? What color? Did Joe want a four-door? How about a van? I think he was drooling. Joe let him choose, whatever he wanted, so long as it fit all of us and some gear.

“Ok. Listen, B.B. Don’t steal it ‘til tomorrow. And make sure the tank’s full. We’re on the road soon as Sadie and Jane get back,” and under his breath, “…from wherever the Hell they went.”

“Yeah, Yeah. Yeah, Yeah. Cool, Cool. I hear you, Joe. I hear you.” If he had a tail it would have wagged.

For the rest of the night, Billy Boy was like a kid on Christmas Eve. Joe filled him in on details, but I had to get away. It was too crowded at the table with him humping Joe’s leg. I went to the bar for another beer, then hung at the pool table watching drunks try to shoot. They kept missing and laughing, and I wasn’t drunk, so I went outside.

The cool fall air brushed my face. I took a deep breath and exhaled. I felt my chest loosen. I took another breath, and another. It felt good. I stood under the neon beside the entrance, just breathing, it felt so good. I knew the air in The Well wasn’t good, but never realized the air outside was.

The night was crisp and clear. The moon was bright enough to light the parking lot. I sat on the brick wall next to the entrance and stared into the night, wondering where Sadie was. I looked for her Harley, but I knew it wasn’t there. She and Jane left earlier, said they’d be back tomorrow.

There wasn’t much to look at outside, but I did hear traffic on Perring Parkway. The waves of cars sounded like the ocean, and for a moment I was back on that jetty in Ocean City, smelling salt air and scanning the horizon for passing ships.

There were no ships tonight, only the flicker of lights in windows across the street, from people in apartments, preparing for bed, or doing homework, or pausing a video to go to the bathroom, or make popcorn, or get another beer, each in their own room, living stacked lives, oblivious of the others.

From The Well I saw their shadows cast on curtains, shadows flowing toward each other and the partitions that divided them, until only the partitions divided them. I never realized how close we could get, how close our lives could be, without touching. Hundreds of lives right here, people I didn’t know, people I would never know, people I might know one day and never know we were once this close.

Then I wondered, can friends be this close too, without touching? These people kept walls between them. Is it possible that friends do, too? Do I?

Then I saw my own wall, my many walls, my solitary cell where I hid, that place I went to when my parents asked what was wrong and I pretended not to hear, or when teachers said I could be much more if only I applied, or when the judge said it was for my own good, whenever someone said something I didn’t want to hear and I put on headphones to wash them away with Pink Floyd, or smoked weed, or drank beer in the dark corner of a bar until the noise stopped.

And I probably did it with friends too. Did Joe and I have walls between us? We shared a prison cell, but did we also have our own cells? And Sadie? And Gina? Yes, even Gina. That night in the basement years ago that we both enjoyed so much, then never mentioned again. And that night in the woods with Sadie, that we never mentioned again. All those thoughts and feelings never mentioned, only wrote about in journals stacked against the wall in my room, waiting to become poetry.

Was poetry a prison? Did my thoughts make it so? Was poetry just graffiti on that wall stacked high with journals and used books, stacked so high they blocked the window?

…And I’m inside, peeking out through tiny portal, pressing ear against those stacks, listening for sound from outside. Faint shadows flicker. No sound from outside. No sound. Or is there? A dull thud. A slight tapping, as if someone gently rapping. A slight tapping thud. A noise outside. Something against my wall, passing through the stacks. Thud. Thud. Thud. A sound like thunder far off. Rumbling. Rumbling. Louder, becoming clearer. It is someone rapping. Knock. Knock. Knock. And a voice, inaudible: Muh. Far. Muth. Fah. Ker. Mother. Fah. Ur. Mother Fucker.

I looked up from where I was sitting on the wall outside The Well. A drunk chick was banging on a car window, and the guy inside was laughing.

“Unlock the door, Mother Fucker. Unlock the fucking door. I need my cigarettes.”