One.

Sadie

Sadie was a thick woman, the kind who would smash a dude in the mouth just for staring at her tits. I think Crazy Joe was the only one who got away with it. It was hard not to stare, though. Sadie’s tits were awesome. Big, but not too big. And certainly not small. In fact, it wasn’t about size at all. Sadie’s tits were perfect. Voluptuous and natural and proportionate to her thick body, they were the kind that hung heavy without sagging, the kind that filled a T-shirt and refused to be hidden by a leather jacket.

When Sadie walked through the bar with her shoulders pulled back and her long brown hair bouncing, it was with such strength and confidence that her tits just accentuated the rhythm of her stride. And when she shot pool it was impossible not to stare. Her tits swayed gently as she leaned over the table aligning her shot, then shook when she jerked the pool stick forward, a movement punctuated by the expression of every man in the bar, and some women too.

But no scene could compare to how sexy Sadie was when she was fighting, standing toe to toe with some grimy biker dude, with her chin out and her shoulders back, throwing punch for punch with someone twice her size. That was sexy. That was hot as Hell. And the sexiest part was just after the fight, just after she kicked the dude’s ass, the whole bar watching her and everyone full of excitement and somewhat afraid of her, breathing heavily with her hair messed up and her brown eyes glazed, standing over her prey like a lioness.

That’s what made Sadie sexy. She was wild, untamable, dangerous. That’s also what made her an object of obsession. Dudes couldn’t stay away. They couldn’t help it. The way she walked, looked, talked, moved, smelled, brought out crazy desperation in men. So, in her own desperation she learned to fight. Then she got good at it. Then she got really good at it. I once watched her beat up three dudes in a bar just because one smacked her ass and they all laughed when she turned and asked who did it. Sadie’s the only woman I ever knew who looked sexy smashing a bottle over someone’s head.

Everything about Sadie was sexy, and most men would endure anything just to be noticed by her, even if that meant getting their asses kicked. And Sadie was willing to oblige. As far as she was concerned, men needed their asses kicked.

It seemed like the better she got at fighting, the more confident she became and, subsequently, the sexier. And the sexier she became the more obsessed the dudes became, until eventually it all got out of hand and Sadie would just leave town, often only a step or two ahead of the cops and a lynch mob of bikers with boners. Before long, Sadie got used to wandering, even began to anticipate leaving one town to discover another.

Two.

Welcome to Baltimore

Sadie smiled when she read the sign on I-295 north. As she screamed past it on her Harley, she thought of Gina. Gina was Baltimore to the bone. That’s what Sadie loved about her. Gina was real, down to earth, and cool. Sadie got warm thinking about seeing her again.

From the road she could see the Bromo Seltzer tower downtown. If its clock was right, she made it from Tennessee to Baltimore in eight hours. Sadie left Bulls Gap just after breakfast and rode into town on a balmy August afternoon. She needed to get out of her leather. It was great protection from the early morning air, but after hours in the summer sun Sadie could feel the moisture trapped inside.

She followed the signs to the Inner Harbor, past the city incinerator and the “Largest Trash Can in the World.” She turned right on Pratt and coasted past the harbor pavilions that blocked the view of Federal Hill, that blocked Fort McHenry, that blocked the British in 1812. She crossed Presidents Street and cruised the northern edge of Little Italy. On the left, looming over the restaurants and cafes were tall, plain buildings that Sadie could tell were the projects. Soon Little Italy ended and the projects grew.

Sadie didn’t know she missed her turn until she crossed Broadway, the street that Gina said meant she went too far. She turned around and followed Broadway north, past the adult theatre, featuring Marilyn Chambers, and the Baptist church next to it, featuring Jesus Christ. When Broadway ended, Sadie turned right and let her instincts guide her. Soon the houses were nicer and farther apart. She turned left and circled Lake Montebello, where men were parked waxing their cars to loud music.

Around the lake she headed north, past Morgan State where the suburbs took over. Two blocks later she turned right, then left into the parking lot of The Wishing Well Saloon. The lot was empty except for a Pinto station wagon and a couple of Harleys. She swerved to avoid a broken bottle and parked next to the Pinto.

It was dark inside the bar and it took a while for Sadie’s eyes to adjust. “Hey,” she heard Gina call from somewhere in the darkness. “I wasn’t expecting you for a few more hours.”

“Yeah, I know. I made good time.” Sadie answered, still unable to see clearly. She walked toward the voice. When she got to the bar she could see a little better. She sat her helmet down and Gina leaned over to hug her. “Sweaty leather,” Sadie warned as they hugged.

“Yum,” Gina teased.

Sadie leaned over far enough to smack Gina on the ass, then leaned back and smiled at her. “Good to see you, Girl. What’s up?”

“I missed you. I’m so glad you’re here…Here, have a beer. Grab a seat at that table and I’ll be right over.”

 

Three.

Gina

Sadie put the beer on a vacant table and peeled off her riding leather. Gina stopped to watch. So did the dudes in the bar, but Sadie’s cold look at them meant she was off limits, way off limits, even to look at. She hooked her leather jacket on the chair, sat down and scanned the room.

The Well was dark, plain, average, a typical biker bar, with a pool table, a dart board and a couple of pinball machines. But mostly, just a big dark bar. Some dudes huddled around a poker machine in the front corner. The player won credits and wanted Gina to pay out. It wasn’t legal, but it kept them playing and drinking. But Gina only paid out to people she knew. The guy she was hired to replace paid out to an undercover cop and got the bar shut down for a week.

Gina finished racking glasses and joined Sadie at the table. “So, what do you think of Baltimore so far? It’s a world unto itself, huh?”

Sadie looked around, “It seems alright here.”

“Yeah, it’s alright,” Gina nodded. “Baltimore is like the mutt of the world, a little bit of everything mixed with a whole lot of trailer park…Hon.” She smiled at Sadie. “So anyway,” Gina leaned over and gave her another hug, “how the hell are you?”

“Ok.” Sadie said, rubbing Gina’s arm. “Thanks for letting me stop by for a while. I know it was short notice, but I kind of needed to lay low, and I wanted a change of scenery anyway.”

“Cool. Well, if you need to lay low,” Gina swept her arm around the bar, “there’s no place lower than this.”

“Hey,” Nick yelled from behind the bar. “I got feelings, you know.”

“Sorry, Hon.” Gina mimicked his Baltimore accent, a hybrid New England nasal and southern twang, a little twangier than her own.

“This place is alright.” Sadie said looking up at the neon “Natty Boh” sign. “The land of pleasant living.”

“Thank you,” Nick said, glancing from his clipboard and bowing slightly. “Your next beer’s on the house. As soon as the bartender gets off her lazy ass.”

“Thanks,” Sadie nodded, then added, “…Hon.”

“Perfect.” Gina laughed. “You’ll fit right in. And as for you, Boss,” she pointed at Nick and did a neck movement she picked up from a talk show, “I’m on my break.”

Gina had been working at The Well since she got back from Florida, where she and Sadie met months before. They hooked up at a bus stop in Jacksonville and Sadie gave her a ride down the coast on her Harley. They spent six months together, traveling from beautiful sunny beach to beautiful sunny beach, all up and down the Florida coast. Gina only came back to Baltimore because she heard that I was getting out of prison sooner than expected. And Crazy Joe might too.

Gina looked back at Sadie. “So, you got a place to stay yet?”

“Well, I was hoping I could crash with you tonight. I’ll get a room tomorrow.”

“Are you sure? I got room if you want to stay with me for a while. I have a huge apartment over in Carney.”

“Nah, it’s cool. I got some money stashed. I might need my own space. I might stay a while.”

Gina understood the implication. “I’m glad you’re here, anyway, but I hope it ain’t too serious.”

Sadie smiled. “Nothing I can’t handle.”

“I believe that…Anyway, here’s my key. Go chill a while if you want. Come back tonight. We can hang and I’ll introduce you to some friends.”

Four.

Nick, the Manager

Nick was at The Well for years. Whenever new owners came, somehow Nick remained. Either because he was Mob or because of his OCD.

Nick was a clean freak, but a fixated clean freak. His fixation was the bathroom. It was spotless. The rest of the bar was never clean until Gina got hired. But the bathroom was cleaner than a hospital gurney. Nick spent more time there than behind the bar, which was cool with Gina. She told Nick she’d quit if he made her clean the bathroom.  Might not seem like a big deal, unless you’ve worked at a bar full of drunks and junkies. Puke and needles, piss and shit everywhere.

You’d think if it started clean, they’d try to keep it clean. Well, maybe they did, but they didn’t, especially on dollar draft night, or when a batch of heroin came through, which was often thanks to I-95. Drugs smuggled into Florida and destined for New York hit every city along the way. And when dope hit Baltimore it always hit The Well. And when dope hit The Well the Vagrants hit the bathroom.

There’s nothing more disturbing than a grimy, smelly, puke-covered Vagrant in a grimy leather jacket passed out against a shiny, clean, white tile wall. The contrast was stark. As soon as Nick bounced the Vagrant he would re-clean the bathroom. One summer he had it retiled: floor, walls, ceiling. And floor drains installed. Ever since, twice nightly he would douse the whole bathroom with bleach and hose it down. Crazy Joe suggested he leave the junkies in there when he cleaned it.

Nick was a strange guy, a potbellied Steve Buscemi with a better mustache and less hair, but greasier. He must have been forty years old. It seemed like he had been at The Well forever. Me and Joe knew him since junior high, when we started drinking there. We got high with him, even got him laid once by Flo, a nasty biker chick we knew. I don’t mean she was ugly. Actually she was kind of cute for her age. But she would have been cuter if she hadn’t drunk so much whiskey for so many years.

Flo was nasty because she was into golden showers. Not just into them, though. She couldn’t get off unless she had a dude to piss on. She liked to straddle a man and piss on his chest while masturbating. She could cum three or four times in a row, each louder than the last, at least that’s what I heard. So we thought Nick, with his bathroom fetish, might like Flo. We figured the two fetishes were somehow related.

And maybe they were. Nick and Flo dated for six months, even got engaged for a couple of days until Nick found out what Flo did for a living.

We knew Flo from Joe’s uncle, Gina’s dad. She drank with us sometimes. She was cool and always paid so we didn’t complain. One night we were shooting tequila and Nick joined us. It was late and the bar was dead so he did a few shots and flirted with Flo. That was before he tiled the bathroom. In fact, that was why he tiled the bathroom. Flo stayed past closing that first night and a week later Nick had the bathroom gutted. After that, whenever Flo showed up Nick kicked us out at closing. We thought that hooking them up would get us into the Mob, until Nick found out that Flo was a piss pro.

One night at The Well, Nick got a call. He slammed down the phone and ran out the door. Everyone knew that no one else was working. That was years before Gina. It took a minute for the Vagrants to realize the liquor was unguarded and another minute for the riot to start. Joe and I grabbed a bottle of Jack and hit the side door.

Flo told Nick she was nursing her sick mother. He found her down on the Block, in a backroom lounge, pissing on men for money. He walked in just as she was walking out. He freaked out and decked a dude. Then the bouncer beat the shit out of him and had him arrested for assault. He never told anyone about it, and we never told him that the anonymous caller was Gina’s jealous dad.

Five.

Mann

I got to The Well at eight. Gina was alone at our table. “Hey,” she said as I sat down.

“Off tonight, huh?”

“Yeah…Hey, I heard from Joe.”

“When? How’s he doing?”

“Ok. He needed info from his Mom but she wasn’t home so he called me. Still thinks he can get out soon.”

“ Cool.” I thought about going to see him, but couldn’t. The idea of going back, even to visit, churned my guts. Literally. The thought of prison food, that slop they served us, I could still taste it, and I’d been out for months. All tasted the same. Like snot. Smelled the same, too. Like snot. And it kept my gut in a knot for the two years I was in. Didn’t bother Joe none, but he had more practice eating it.

I took a drink of beer and scanned the bar. Crowded, but I knew most of the people. Vagrants. Dudes mostly. Couple of chicks. One or two cute. But mostly dudes. Then I looked over at the pool table. Brown hair. Shooting pool. Couldn’t see her clearly at first. But there was something. I didn’t know her. I could feel it. I watched the back of her head as she took a shot. Still couldn’t see her body though. Some dude was blocking my view.

She leaned over the table to line up her next shot. I watched her elbow draw back, push forward. Heard the ball drop. She stood and re-chalked her cue. “Daammmmnn,” I said when her hair fell from her face. I felt like I got slapped in the head. I was louder than I thought, but couldn’t help it. It just slipped out. She glanced over, smiled at Gina, then turned back to the table.

“Who’s that?” I glanced at Gina.

She laughed. “That’s Sadie.” We both looked back at her. “You know, the biker chick I met in Florida while I was hiding out.” I was still staring at Sadie. “Told you she was hot.”

“Hot, huh?” I shot a glare at Gina, then turned back to Sadie. She was running the table as a crowd of guys watched. She dropped three balls, then sank the eight ball and laid down the cue. A dude handed her money as she waved off his buddy asking her to shoot again, then she walked over to us. My body started to tingle. I’d never tingled before, didn’t even know what it meant until now.

My whole body was vibrating when she reached our table. I was worried she would notice. My balls were tingling. I couldn’t believe it. I reached under the table and made a cross with my fingers hoping to conger some protection. When she got close enough to smell, I almost blacked out.

“Sadie, this is Mann.”

“Hey,” Sadie turned her head from Gina to me. When our eyes met I thought I would piss my pants. I swear to God I saw the universe in those brown eyes. They were clear and powerful, and they scared the hell out of me.

I held my stare too long, then weakly replied, “Hey.” It sounded more like a question. I glanced at the table to break my stare, then slid my chair over to make room.

“Thanks,” she said touching my shoulder and lighting fireworks in my groin that I was certain would explode down my leg. “I’m going to grab a beer first. You guys want anything?”

“No. I’m cool.”

“No, thanks.” Again it sounded like a question.

I couldn’t look away. She was beautiful, but there was so much more, something fresh and real. Something I didn’t understand, but something I needed. As I watched, I started to daydream, as usual. But it was more than a daydream. It felt like a premonition: Sadie in a parking lot of a beach on the West Coast, sitting on her Harley and looking out at the setting sun. Her jacket unzipped and a pacific breeze blowing through her hair. It was like a shampoo commercial. She has just arrived after a long journey and feels like she is home. I can see her face from where I am standing, in the sand with my back to the ocean. She smiles and gets off of her Harley, starts walking to me, still smiling…

Gina interrupted, “Are you daydreaming again?” She saw me staring at Sadie’s ass. “Don’t let her catch you. She loves an excuse to kick a guy’s ass.” Gina pointed at me with her beer bottle before taking a drink.

“She’s a badass, huh?” I asked, trying to clear my head.

“Wait ‘til you see her in action. Knowing Sadie, shouldn’t take too long.”

I looked back at the bar. She was incredible. I felt small just looking at her. She was way out of my league. I wouldn’t know what to do with her. I couldn’t even think of what to say to her. I knew one thing for sure, I was definitely not her type. I knew when I saw her, she was Crazy Joe’s kind of woman: wild, untamable, and in need of the same. A regular guy wouldn’t have a chance. He’d get charred to a cinder near someone that hot. It would be like flying too close to the sun, then looking directly at it. “You couldn’t do it…”

“What?”

“Huh?” I said, looking at Gina looking at me.

“What were you saying?”

“Me? Nothing.” Gina just looked at me. She did that sometimes. I looked back at Sadie and finished my thought. When she crossed the bar all the dudes glanced at her then lowered their eyes. After she passed they looked up and stared, mostly at her tits. Who could blame them. They were awesome. Her ass was pretty incredible too. And her legs and her hair…

“What are you looking at?” Sadie growled. I froze. I thought she was talking to me. I thought she caught me staring at her ass. But when I looked up, she was looking at a biker standing by her at the bar. I relaxed when I saw she wasn’t talking to me, but tensed again when I saw who she was talking to. The dude was seven feet tall and four hundred pounds. His arms were bigger than my legs. I stood up, not sure what I could do, but willing to help.

I hated fighting these big fuckers. You have to hit them so hard just to get past all the fat. And while you’re trying to fight, they’re just trying to grab you and squash you. But I needed to do something. Maybe just talk to him. As I got up, Gina touched my arm and motioned to sit back down. I was confused, not sure what she meant. She didn’t believe that Sadie could handle this big fucker? And it didn’t appear that Sadie was trying to talk her way out of it.

“What the fuck are you looking at?” Sadie faced the drooling biker.

“Your tits.” He said without looking up. His teeth were rotten and his eyes bloodshot. He ran a greasy hand through his matted greasy hair, then took a shot of whiskey. He banged the glass on the bar and groaned from the burn. His face flushed as he looked back at Sadie’s tits. “Girlie,” he rasped as he leaned toward her, “you got great…”

Sadie punched him in his rotten teeth. He staggered back a step. Someone steadied him. He touched his mouth, felt the warmth as the bleeding started. He tasted the blood then smiled again. “I like ‘em rough.” Then he laughed and patted his grimy jeans as if calling a dog. “Bring those tits over here.”

Sadie sent a bottle instead, right upside his head. Then she kicked his knee and dropped him to the floor. He landed on both knees facing her. She followed with an upper cut to the nose that put him flat on his back.

“Jerk.” She said, rubbing her fist and stepping up to order another beer.

“This one’s on me,” Nick said as he slid the bottle across the bar.

“Thanks, Hon.” She nodded to Nick, then upended the bottle. Yup, Crazy Joe’s kind of woman.

Six.

Duke

I met Crazy Joe through Gina. She used to fuck Duke back in junior high. In fact, he took her cherry. Duke was twenty. He and Lenny, his older brother, were the coolest dudes in Parkville, and probably most of Baltimore. Real badasses. They rode bikes, did drugs and packed guns. They took shit from no one. When their parents died and they got the house the neighbors all vowed secretly to get them kicked out. Wasn’t much of a secret though, and it only antagonized them, which sucked for the neighbors. Duke was cool if you didn’t get on his bad side. But the neighbors were.

Duke drove a tow truck, had wild black hair, and a Harley that never ran. He was short and stocky and wore grimy jeans with old t-shirts. The only time he dressed up was for court. He’d pull his hair into a ponytail, trim his beard, and put on glasses to look less threatening. Duke went to court so often he started representing himself. Unable to afford the fines and the lawyers, he cut out the middleman. Often he went to jail for a while, but more often he was home the same day, owing a deeper debt to society.

Duke kept a Colt under his truck seat and dated loud, crazy women. He joked that the gun was for them, for when they got out of hand. He’d point his finger, squeeze the trigger, say “Click,” and then wink. Then he’d give you a real crazy look so you couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. And judging by the women he dated, you couldn’t be sure: the kind of women who got drunk and stood in front of his house screaming to him at three in the morning, looking for love after the bars closed. They vowed to scream until he answered but he never did. Sometimes Lenny would. And the women would be too drunk to notice or too drunk to care. If no one answered, they would curse and throw rocks at the house until the cops came.

We lived a couple of doors down from Duke. My parents were the only neighbors nice to him, so he told Mom he’d look after me. Whether that comforted her or not, when I was eight I started hanging out with bikers. Usually we just sat on the front hill. They drank whiskey, raced motorcycles up the street, and talked about their conditions of probation. They badmouthed the cops and the criminal justice system in general. But they weren’t the type who cried, “Innocent.” Hell no, they were guilty. “Guilty as Hell and proud of it.” They just hated the law, hated anything that blocked having fun. They shared stories about police brutality, about cops stealing their stash, about girlfriends blowing cops to get out of trouble.

Even at eight I knew most of it was bullshit. But it was true enough that they were always broke from paying court fees and bail, feeding a vicious cycle that frustrated the neighbors. Every time they got arrested, they came home broke. Since they couldn’t afford to go anywhere, everyone came to them. Sometimes there’d be eight or ten dudes on the hill drinking shots and talking shit.

Duke’s friend, Russell, had a wild black snake. He caught it at Loch Raven Dam and carried it in a cloth bag. Whenever he took it out it bit him and tried to get away. He would chase it around, trying to grab it by the head before it got into the bushes. Since he was always high on Angel Dust, his coordination sucked, and he would usually get bitten again before he caught it. The whole scene was pretty funny to watch. Once he grabbed it the snake chilled out. But until then, it was pretty intense.

The first time he brought the snake he was really stoned. He asked me to grab him a beer out of the bag. I reached in and got bit twice before I could get my hand out. At first I didn’t understand what happened. I thought I cut my hand on a beer tab. But when Russell started laughing and rolling around on the hill I realized it was some kind of joke. Then I really freaked out when I saw the bag moving.

Everyone laughed, but Duke got pissed. He thought it was funny, but he didn’t like anyone picking on me. “Dude,” he said, as he tried to cut his laughing short, “take it easy on him.” Russell stopped laughing and looked at me holding my hand and staring at the mysterious moving bag.

“Yeah, yeah. You’re right,” He punched me lightly on the shoulder and said, “Sorry kid.” I looked into his glazed eyes and he smiled at me. I was surprised at how white his teeth were, except for the one that was missing, which he said a cop knocked out but Lenny said it was his ex-girlfriend.

Russell and Lenny were always at each other. They bragged about who could fight better and who was a better lover, the winner decided by who dated the nastiest woman, which always led to a game of “Nastiest Date One-upmanship.” They went into graphic detail about how each woman sucked cock, or took it up the ass, or liked two guys at once. They were all lies, and the tales got taller until they got ridiculous. And then it just got obvious that they were quoting plots from pornos.

And once that got tired, they turned to Toni Hall, a Strawberry blond from Dundalk with green eyes and fake tits, a self-professed “Skank,” even had a halter top that said it in Day-Glo pink, with sparkles. She wore it to concerts, hoping to get backstage to a rock star. Usually, she just got to the roadies. One of which gave her crabs, which she gave to Russell and Lenny, which they had to shave their heads to get rid of. A week later, Duke had them too.  Every time they told the story they looked at each other, pointed their fingers and laughed about how funny they looked with freshly shaven heads.

When they were bald it was hard to tell Duke and Lenny apart, except that Lenny was taller and seemed mellower. Duke was emotional and hot blooded; Lenny, cold and calculating. Lenny also seemed more grounded. Though only two years older than Duke, he sometimes tried to play Dad. It was Lenny who paid the electric bill, when there was money to pay it. And Lenny was probably Mom too. I used to imagine him in the kitchen baking cookies, a checked apron covering his big biker gut. And he used to nag Duke about not missing court dates. I remember him once yelling out the door at Duke getting in his tow truck, not to forget to stop for milk on his way home. But don’t get me wrong, Lenny was crazy too. He started the shotgun contests.

Seven.

Shotgun Contest

The contest consisted of holding a sawed-off at arms-length and shooting into the air. Whoever didn’t drop it won. No one ever won, especially since they were drunk when they played. And, they never played long before the cops showed up. It started by one of them talking shit about how he could win the contest. Then someone would issue a challenge. Then someone would get the gun. Then the braggart would attempt the feat, drop the gun and the cops would come.

Sometimes someone else could get off a shot before the neighbors called, but it wouldn’t take long before the cops rolled through. But by the time they showed up everyone was gone. Junky Jeff had a scanner. He lived next door and was Duke’s friend. They always sat on my front hill so they could hear the scanner through his window. His invalid father was part deaf, so the scanner was always cranked loud. The only thing louder was their TV, so he could hear it over the scanner.

As nickname would indicate, Junky Jeff was a junky. Not the hard-core-down-and-out type, but the always-using-and-in-love-with-drugs type. He was tall and skinny with long stringy brown hair and a patchy thin beard. He had bad acne and pockmarks. His green eyes were bloodshot and heavy-lidded, and if he sat still too long he slipped into a catatonic stupor. But he was a nice guy, and he loved my parents. He would do anything for them. He cut our lawn. He ran to the store for Mom, helped Dad work on the station wagon. He found car parts cheaper than at the junkyard, sometimes so cheap Dad was afraid to ask. He helped Mom in the garden until she saw he was growing pot with her irises.

Mom and Dad knew Jeff wasn’t an angel, but they knew him since birth. They were friends with his dad and liked that Jeff didn’t leave when he got sick. He could have put him in a nursing home but instead let him die in the family house. He had cancer, got it from Bethlehem Steel. They didn’t admit it but gave him early retirement. He had twenty years in when he started spitting blood. Jeff’s mom left long ago. She couldn’t take it. Jeff quit school in twelfth grade to care for him. And since he couldn’t leave the house, he often sat in front of the house. Then Duke and Lenny started hanging with him. The neighbors called the cops, who came and harassed them, for music or drinking, but nothing major, until they brought out the shotgun.

I was in the kitchen when I heard a blast. I looked out the window just as Duke and the guys ran by. Jeff dove under our deck. Everyone else scattered. He crawled out a minute later and snuck through his back door. When the cops showed, Jeff was watching TV with his dad.

Later, Duke picked him up. I could hear his noisy tow truck out front. When they sped off I crawled under the deck and found the shotgun in our mulch pile, next to it a big bag of weed, really big, a giant Ziploc stuffed full. It looked like a pillow on Mom’s sofa. I opened the bag and held it to my nose. It smelled too good to make them cough the way it did. I closed the bag and stuffed it back in the mulch, picked up the shotgun and held it in the crook of my arms. It was heavy. It felt like a dead animal, not that I knew what a dead animal felt like. But I imagined that it felt like a sawed-off shotgun.

I lay back on the mulch pile and rested the gun on my chest. The barrel was hard, cold and smooth. The wood was smooth too. It felt good. It felt beautiful. I had no idea how to use it, but I felt safe hugging it, like no one could hurt me while I was hugging it. I had never seen anyone shoot a gun, except on TV. But I heard it when they were playing shotgun contest. It sounded powerful. BOOM. I could feel it in my chest. My mom would jump every time. She hated it but knew they were just shooting into the air. Of course she never let us out while they were doing it, but she never called the cops either. She was the type to leave people alone if they weren’t hurting her or the family. She didn’t want anyone telling her how to live, so she didn’t tell anyone else. Mom was cool that way.

I put the shotgun back and climbed out. When I stood, Duke was sitting on Jeff’s porch smoking a joint. “Hey Little Mann, what you doing down there?” He said nodding at the deck while holding in his hit, with smoke creeping through gritted teeth.

“Nothing,” I answered, not sure if he was pissed.

“Nothing, huh?” He exhaled. A cloud circled my head. He glanced at the deck again. Then he looked at me. “Come here.” I hesitated, then walked over. “So, you found our stash?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I didn’t take none, though.”

“I know. I know. Don’t worry, Little Mann. It’s cool.” He took another hit from the joint. “Come here.” He slid over and I sat next to him. He reached over and messed up my hair. I could smell his musky shirt. “You’re alright, Little Mann.” I tried not to smile. I didn’t want him to think I was a pussy or anything, but it felt good sitting there with him, better than hugging a shotgun. I started daydreaming: Duke and I were outlaw bank robbers, racing through the south in his old tow truck. Duke was driving and laughing and slapping the steering wheel, and I was next to him with the shotgun and a mean glare for anyone who looked at us.

The next night Duke and the guys were sitting on the hill. When Duke saw me watching, he waved me out. Mom was washing dishes and didn’t see me leave. And since she didn’t see me, she couldn’t say no.

Everyone was sitting around talking when Duke told Jeff to get the gun. When he got back, he handed it to Duke, who looked at me, “Wanna play?”

“Yeah,” I erupted, jumping up and running over to him.

“Ok, now. Take it easy,” he said holding out the gun. “You know how this thing works, right?”

“Yeah,” my mouth said. But my face said, “Hell no.” Evidently, Duke could read faces.

“Ok, it’s easy. Just point that end at what you want to kill, hold on tight and squeeze the trigger. Simple.” He hesitated, then added, “But for now, just shoot it into the air.”

“Won’t it come back down?”

“Yeah, but not here, so who cares.” He stepped back. The gun was heavy. I could barely hold it up. It swayed around as I waited for Duke’s approval. Everyone was watching and swaying with the swaying gun, trying not to get shot. I turned to Duke. He ducked under the barrel and came up next to me. “Here, Little Mann, let me help with that.” He pointed the gun straight up, then looked at me, “You got this?”

“Yeah.”

“The rest is easy,” He ducked down and stepped back. I stood for a while. The gun was getting really heavy. Everyone was watching. I didn’t know what to do. I was waiting for Duke to say go or something. The gun was getting heavier. I had second thoughts. I was about to put it down when Duke yelled, “SHOOT.” It scared the shit out of me. I flinched, dropped the barrel and pulled the trigger. The sound was deafening. The blast knocked me on my ass and the flash lit up the neighborhood. The shot whizzed past Junky Jeff and blew out the porch light of the mean old lady two doors down. It ripped through her gutter, which swung down and decapitated a lawn ornament, then creaked back and forth until it came to a stop.

Dead silence. Everyone sat staring at each other. Smoke floated into the night sky, but the smell of gunpowder lingered. A moment later, Jeff twitched nervously and grabbed at his ear to make sure it was still there. Then he jumped up and brushed himself off, frantically checking for bullet holes. Everyone started laughing at once. The sirens were immediate. Duke snatched the gun and they all ran off laughing into the night.

Eight.

Little Mad Mann

The contest was all they talked about for days. The stories grew so big that I became a full-fledged gangster madman shooting up houses just for kicks. They started calling me “Little Mad Mann,” everyone but Jeff, who didn’t talk to me at all. He was pissed that he looked bad in every version. All the stories had him either diving to the ground like a scared bitch, or marked as the intended target. Of course it was drunken bullshit but that’s when reputations were made…and destroyed. And a muddle-headed junky with a sketchy reputation didn’t need any bad publicity. Good reputations got you respect. And they got you laid. And Jeff needed all the help he could get with that.

The more he stewed over the shotgun incident, the more convinced he became I tried to kill him. It was paranoia of course, but probably not fully unfounded. Killing a person got you respect. Everyone knew that. If you were crazy enough to kill someone, then you were Crazy. And being Crazy was what it was all about. No one fucks with Crazy. And Jeff thought I was Crazy. He just didn’t know how crazy. So he never trusted me again. He was cool about it, but he kept an eye on me. I’m not joking. Every time I looked at him he was watching me. It was creepy, but it was cool: a grown man scared of an eight year old, even if he was just a paranoid junky.

On my tenth birthday, Duke asked Celeste to show me her tits. In a flash she lifted her shirt and said “Happy Birthday.”  She was sitting on Duke’s lap on his sofa and they were getting high. I was kneeling on the floor in front of them. I was staring at Celeste because she was the prettiest woman I ever saw. She had long red hair and freckles, and when she smiled the corners of her eyes crinkled and her green eyes sparkled. And she had thick red lips.

When I told Duke she was pretty, he said, “Oh yeah,” and lifted her shirt again, “what do you think of her now?” He reached around, cupped her breasts, and made them jiggle. When I looked at Celeste she was smiling at me. I couldn’t speak. I just sat there looking from her chest to her eyes to her mouth and back again.

“Come here,” she said. I moved closer, almost touching her knees. She took a huge hit from the joint and held it in her lungs, then leaned toward me. I thought she was going to kiss me. I wanted her to kiss me. Oh God, I wanted her to kiss me. I could taste her mouth getting close to mine. She kept smiling while slowly leaning forward. When she got an inch away I went into puberty. I felt a shudder in my balls. It traveled up my spine and burst out the top of my head. It was a feeling I would seek the rest of my life. And I think Celeste noticed, because a big smile lit her face, and her eyes started sparkling. She cupped my head in her hands and gently blew her sweet pot-filled breath into my eager mouth.

For a moment we were joined by the smoke, locked in a union of giving and receiving. When she finished, she sat up straight on Duke’s lap and they both looked at me and smiled. “That…, Little Mann,” he said, “is called a shotgun.” I exhaled what was left of the smoke, turned and sat on the floor, and melted against the sofa beside them. Suddenly, I could hear Led Zeppelin in the background. Celeste stroked my hair while she and Duke kept smoking weed. I stared at the ceiling and watched the clouds float overhead.

Nine.

Dead Dog Munchies

Junky Jeff blew shotguns too, but it wasn’t the same. He preferred Stumpy, my brother’s dog. He used to do his ferret, but it went insane, bit him, and ran out the front door. Then he did it to Russell’s snake but it just killed her. So he figured he needed something with a bigger brain, and that’s about the time Stumpy came sniffing by.

Stumpy was a mutt, and whether or not his brain was bigger than a ferret’s is debatable. But man did he like to get high. The first time he didn’t want anything to do with it. Jeff had to pin him to the floor while he blew the shotgun. After that he was all in. When he blew the smoke in Stumpy’s face, he would lick at it like ice cream. Jeff gave shotguns straight from the pipe, putting his mouth over the bowl and blowing a stream out the mouthpiece. It looked like the tailpipe of Duke’s tow truck. But it smelled sweet and Stumpy loved it.

Stumpy put his paws on the sofa and stuck his nose in Jeff’s face while he blew thick streams of smoke. Stumpy licked in as long as he could, until he got too stoned. Then he would slowly sink lower and lower until he was lying on the floor. And Jeff would follow him down with the pipe billowing. Stumpy would get so high that he would just lie comatose on the floor. Then, after a few minutes, he would jump up, shake his head and look around like he just saw a ghost. But he couldn’t run yet, so he just shook his head a few more times and slumbered home.

By the time he got to the kitchen door he was a ravenous wolf. Every time Jeff got him high, he would come home and attack his food dish in the kitchen. I could always tell when he was stoned. I could hear him eating from the living room. He would gnash at the food like he hadn’t eaten for years. Sometimes he would choke from eating too fast. It wasn’t a pretty sight either: food flying everywhere, saliva dripping on the Linoleum. And besides that, whenever he was stoned he stood crooked, like the legs on one side were longer than the others. I don’t know why but whenever he got high he always leaned a little to the left.

After a while Stumpy got really stupid. He wasn’t too smart to begin with. He got hit three times trying to cross the street. Once, while we were playing football, my mom drove by with Stumpy. Someone yelled, “Hey Stumpy” and he jumped out the window of the moving car. He didn’t get hurt, but he sure got confused when he hit the ground.

But after he started getting stoned he got really stupid, and pretty fat too. All that smoking and eating caught up to him quickly. Soon all he did was get high, eat, and sleep. Whenever he heard Jeff outside, he would wake up and go lay on Jeff’s feet until he got a hit. Then he would go comatose again. Then he would slumber home, eat all his food, and go back to sleep.

He died soon after that, suffocated eating Doritos. The bag got stuck on his head and either he was too stoned to pull it off, or just too lazy. We found him stiff on the floor the next morning, empty bag still on his head.

Ten.

Tow Truck Poetry

I was sitting on the front hill a few years later when Duke pulled up, still driving his old tow truck. “Hey,” he called.

I walked over to the passenger window. “Hey, Duke.”

“What you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“Come on. Get in.”

“Sure.” It was early evening and the sun was setting. Duke just got out of jail, after serving six months for parole violation. I climbed in and looked over at him. The sky was bronze behind his profile. He pulled away from the hill and turned left down the side street.

“Your parents are cool to me,” he said.

“Huh? Oh, I guess they’re alright.”

“Not like these fuckers.” He motioned toward the neighborhood.

“I guess.”

“Yeah, well…I told ‘em I’d look after you. So you let me know if anyone fucks with you.” He stopped at the corner.

“Ok, Duke.” He told me that a million times. But it still felt special. He punched the accelerator and threw me back against the seat. The tow truck roared from the stop in a cloud of blue smoke.

 

The truck was dirty and cluttered with fast food wrappers, empty beer cans, and tow receipts. The dashboard was gray and black from a fire a few years back, and the truck smelled like piss and burned clothing. But mostly it just smelled like Duke.

“What’s this?” I asked, grabbing a book from the dash.

“I don’t know. What is it?” He glanced over.

“It’s a book. Looks like poetry.”

“Huh?” He looked again at the book. “Huh. Wonder where that came from.”

“Huh,” I said, thumbing the pages.

“Well Little Mad Mann,” he never stopped calling me that, and it was a badge of honor, “read me a poem.”

“Huh?” I slapped the book shut and threw it on the dash. “I ain’t reading no sappy love poems.”

He looked at me and smiled, “Don’t be afraid of the unknown. You don’t know what you’re missing.” He always said shit like that when no one was around. “Besides,” he said nodding toward the poetry book, “they ain’t all sappy.”

I looked at him for a moment. He nodded toward the book again. “Go ahead,” he whispered, like he was sharing a secret. I picked up the book and flipped the pages until I found one that was folded. I unfolded the page. There was a penciled note at the top, “Thank you.”

“Someone wrote on this one.”

“Yeah? Read that one.”

“Ok. It’s called ‘Music Box Art’ or something, by someone named Auden:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

 

When I finished I looked at Duke. He had a strange glow on his face and was staring straight ahead. When he realized I was watching he snapped out of it and said, “Wow.”

“Yeah…, wow.” I closed the book and looked at the cover, flipped it over. “Is this yours?”

“Naw. Someone left it here. One of my tows.” He thought for a moment. “That teacher. Towed her last week. English teacher at the college. It was a AAA over in Ruxton. Dead battery. Turned out to be her alternator. I towed her to the shop. Then gave her a ride to Towson. Kept saying she liked tow trucks. Beautiful bitch. Great voice. Said she was going to be late for poetry class…Yeah,” he said nodding his head, “must have been her. Man was she hot. What was her name?” He tapped his forehead with his fist. “What the fuck was her name? Nice name. Melodic.”

“Melodic?” I looked at him and chuckled.

“Yeah, you know, it sings. Sounds good. Oh man, what was her name: Belinda, Miranda, something like that. Fuck it.”

 

Duke pulled into the lot at Hill’s Liquors. “I’ll be right back. I gotta make a call.” He got out and walked to the pay phone on the corner. I read another poem while I waited. A moment later he got back in the truck with a six pack of beer. “Here, want one?”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Duke pulled the tab off of his and raised it in a toast, “To dying useless.” He upended it, took a huge drink.

“Huh?”

“I said,” he raised the beer again for another toast, “to Dye and Ices.”

“Huh?”

He nodded at the poetry book still sitting in my lap, then held up the beer one more time, “To Dionysus.” I still didn’t understand, but I drank anyway. It burned my throat going down and it tasted bitter, but it sure felt cool. Duke finished his after the third guzzle. He crushed the can on his leg and tossed it out the window into the back of the truck. I looked back and saw a pile of empties.

 

“That’s what I was looking for.” I turned to see what Duke was talking about. We were passing the back side of the cemetery when he slowed the tow truck and pulled off the road behind two people on the shoulder. “I know that ass,” he said, squinting through the dirty windshield. He leaned out the window, “Hey Gina.” She looked back at the tow truck.

“Fuck you, Duke.” She flipped him the finger and snapped her head forward.

“I’m sorry, Baby,” he called. “I was drunk.” He crept along behind them. “I forgot I was picking you up last night,” he yelled out the window. “Come on, Baby,” and under his breath, “come blow me, bitch.” That made me laugh. He turned and winked at me.

“You’re a fucker, man.” I thought she was talking to me, since that’s my name. But she was looking and sneering at Duke.

“Come on, Baby. Come here.”

She stopped, dropped her shoulders and turned toward the truck. The guy with her followed.

 

Gina looked at her feet as she walked to Duke’s side of the truck. When she looked up she had a glare on her face. Then she smiled and punched him on his arm hanging out the window, “You’re a dick. Don’t you ever fucking leave me at work again. That place sucks. Fucking Pizza Hut.”

“I’m sorry, Baby. You know how it is,” he smiled at her, “my little pizza slut.”

“Fuck you. This is my cousin Joe.” He was younger than her, but a little older than me. He was wearing torn jeans and a leather jacket. His hair was long brown and messy, and his eyes were black and wild. He looked like a small version of Duke. I think Duke noticed, too, because he laughed a little when he looked over at Joe and said, “Hey.”

Joe said “Hey” and looked through the cab at me. “Don’t I know you?”

“Yeah, school. How’s it going?”

“Cool.” And we both nodded our heads. Then Joe put his hands in his jacket and started kicking the curb with his boot, and I sat flipping through the poetry book while Duke talked shit to Gina and grabbed at her ass out the window.

Eleven.

Crazy Joe

Joe was a year older than me. We went to Loch Raven Elementary, but he was already in junior high when I saw him that day with Duke. I still had a year to go. I always knew who he was, though. He was a legend in my class, slightly older and a whole lot badder. He never spoke to any of us directly, never really looked at us either. We were a grade behind so we were less than human. If we were in a group with him it was only because he liked an audience. There were other kids he hung with, but mostly he was a loner. In sixth grade he was king of our elementary, and always in trouble. Every time we came in from recess I saw him sitting in the office.

I don’t think he ever made it past lunch without getting in trouble, usually for being loud and obnoxious or for grabbing Tater Tots from someone’s tray. Sometimes it was for arguing with the lunch lady. He’d pretend he couldn’t find his free lunch ticket and would yell that the system kept him down because she made him sign that he received lunch. Whenever Joe was in the cafeteria there was faculty nearby, ready to snatch him up and take him to the office. His mom was there so often I thought she worked there.

Joe’s parents were divorced. His mom, Meg, as he called her, was a cocktail waitress at Arlo’s, a dark paneled, smoke filled banquet hall in Parkville. They lived in Quiet Ridge Apartments, near the Well. It was famous for midnight raids by police and dealers alike. Living there sucked. Not only were they forced to live there by being poor, but they were treated like criminals for living there. It wasn’t uncommon for cops to kick in every door when looking for dealers. Nor was it uncommon for dealers to kick in every door when looking for junkies who owed money. So not only did the renters fear their neighbors, they also feared the cops looking for their neighbors, and the dealers looking for their neighbors, and the cops looking for the dealers looking for their neighbors. The joke was that the dealers kicked in the right doors more often than the cops.

The goal of living in Quiet Ridge was to get out, but if that wasn’t possible, then the goal was to get a townhouse on the north end. Rent was higher but was covered by Section 8, so it cost the same. Everyone wanted a townhouse because they didn’t get raided as much. But there was a long waiting list, so most just endured the apartments and played the lottery. When they did get a windfall, from taxes or a law suit, they got out quick, if only for a while.

Joe was an only child. Since Meg worked nights, Gina looked after him. They were cousins and she lived in a row house just up from Quiet Ridge. Joe hung there after school. Gina’s mom helped with homework on the table after dinner, clearing the vinyl placemats and plastic flowers.

This was fine for a while, but when Joe hit fifth grade Gina hit puberty and spent as little time at home as possible. At first she left Joe in the basement watching Scooby Doo, but then her mom demanded he go with her. Usually they hung at the bowling alley, downstairs with the duckpins, until Skateland opened in Towson. That’s where Gina met Duke. Not in Skateland, but behind it, where Duke lurked on the other side of the fence in Luskin’s parking lot, near the edge of the woods that caught fire during the fireworks show last year. Duke hung there because it was secluded, even with Skateland and a discount furniture store with a huge parking lot. He could see clearly in all directions. Cops couldn’t sneak up. It was perfect for dealing drugs. Besides, there was a nice view north of Cromwell Valley. The view south wasn’t too bad either: gaggles of girls at Skateland.

They gathered in groups out front, waiting for others before going in, sneaking aside to share Boone’s Farm and smokes. Duke and the guys would call to them through the fence, offering hits of weed and shots of whiskey. Most never climbed through the opening, though. They just stood and flirted, eager for attention from dangerous men. But enough crawled through to give Duke bragging rights for cherry popping. That spring he took twenty teen cherries, one of them Gina’s. While Joe was inside crashing and flailing and learning to skate, Gina was outside learning to fuck. By the end of summer they had gone so many times that Joe made the skate team. But he got kicked off after the first race for using a roller derby move.

Twelve.

Suspension.

In the spring, sixth graders went camping in Catoctin Mountains, an annual trip started when Spiro Agnew was principal. It ended with Joe. The site was next to Camp David. With four kids per cabin, and one adult per two cabins, it was easy for Joe to get up a game of Truth or Dare. Not that he thought it was cool, just that he wanted to play with Christine.

Unfortunately, her dad was a chaperone and caught Joe frenching Christine. He was confined to his cabin and only allowed to go to the bathroom or to the lodge for meals. While in the bathroom, he squirted the fire extinguisher at other campers. On his way to the lodge, he wrote, “I’ll kill you” on a cabin window with soap he stole from the bathroom.

As a precaution, the kids bunked together in the main lodge, and some cops had to spend the night. Our school was banned forever, and although no one could prove it was Joe, he got suspended for the third time.

The second time was back in fourth grade. Joe read a porn novel aloud at recess. He found it in the dumpster behind Arlo’s with a deck of cards showing sex positions for each sign of the zodiac. We ogled the cards while he read the book.

Huddled under the Jungle Jim, we wondered what most of the words meant. When someone asked, Joe said it was penis or vagina. It seemed all the words meant penis or vagina. Soon every other word made us laugh because it probably meant penis or vagina. The only words we knew for sure were “Fuck Me. Fuck Me,” and Joe said them so loudly that Mr. Riga heard him.

Meg was called in and told Joe needed therapy. The counselor said his maturation might be thwarted by such early exposure to unhealthy depictions of sexuality. Meg said bullshit and she couldn’t afford it, and Joe was suspended for the second time.

His first suspension was in first grade. He brought an air rifle to class for Show and Tell, but it never got into the classroom. They took it away before school even opened. Joe was outside jamming dirt in the barrel and shooting at the kids in line. He was kneeling behind a trashcan resting the gun on the lid, dressed in Meg’s fringe jacket and a coon skin cap. The kids ran back and forth trying to get away, but were trapped behind the railing. It looked like a carnival shooting game with Joe pling-plinging them back and forth. When the teacher heard the screams, she looked out and got winged with collateral dirt.

The principal took the gun and made him sit in the corner of our room, facing the wall until Meg came. It seemed like hours. I glanced over . He was slouched in the chair, staring at the wall, coon skin cap pushed down over his eyes. He looked like he was sleeping.

But he woke up when Meg got there. We all did. She blew into the room like a hurricane, keys jingling, boot heels clicking, blonde hair flying as she rushed in. She had on jeans and a Kiss T-shirt, apologizing as she crossed the room. When she got to Joe she smacked him in the back of the head so hard it knocked off his coon skin cap. The thwack was so loud it made me cringe. Didn’t hurt Joe though. He just looked at her like she was crazy, so she smacked him again.

Then she snatched him by the arm and rushed him out the door to become the youngest kid ever suspended from our school. I watched her as they passed. She was so pretty. And she smelled so good, too. And I could tell she wasn’t wearing a bra.

 

Thirteen.

Back in Black

In junior high I started hanging with Joe. He failed seventh and ended up in my science class. The teacher was a smelly old pervert who picked cute girls to go the chalkboard, then leaned his crotch into the lab table while they worked out problems at the board. The teacher really liked Edie, who had hips before anyone else. Edie and I were friends since fourth grade. In fifth, she had a crush on Joe. In seventh, he was at our table.

Joe took Edie’s cherry and gave her a reputation. But I think she wanted one anyway. She was certainly built for it: all hips and attitude. Rumor was her dad was in jail, leaving mom to raise three girls. Edie was the youngest. Both her sisters dated Duke a few times. He also got high with her mom.

Edie got high with us behind the library before school. Even after she and Joe broke up. There wasn’t much choice. We were a group forced together by weed and Led Zeppelin. We didn’t like sports or school or kids who did. After school we sat on the hill by Giant’s playing tapes and smoking joints. Sometimes a high school kid would play guitar and we’d sing Janis or Jimi.

Joe threw a party when he bought “Back in Black.” We crowded his bedroom after school one day to hear Bon Scott’s replacement, after he drank himself to death outside Ozzie’s house.

We piled on the bed or floor or dresser, wherever there was room. Joe pulled a bong from the closet and weed from his pocket. The bong said “Aqualung” on it. He shook the bag of weed, “I got a little. Anyone else?” He dumped it on “Dirty Deeds” and laid the album cover on the floor. A couple others added to the pile, but not enough for twelve of us.

“Well,” Joe said, “Anyone got money?” No one answered.

“I got five,” I said, remembering that I bummed my brother’s allowance.

“Five bucks. That’ll work. Anybody else?” Joe scanned the room nodding his head. No one responded. He looked back at me, “Let’s go.”

Joe’s neighbor was a college student with two roommates, horticulture majors. Their basement was a grow room with rows of lights strung across the ceiling. It was warm and humid and felt like a jungle.

“How much you want, Joe?”

“We got five bucks.”

“Five, huh? I’ve got something. It’s a little green, might be harsh. But I’ll cut you a deal. Cool?”

“Cool.” Joe looked at me and held out his hand, “Cool?”

“Cool.” I handed him the five. He handed it to College, who grabbed an empty bread bag and walked to the trash can in the corner. He clawed a handful of weed and shoved it in the bag, nearly filling it.

He held it up, “Good?”

Joe smiled and nodded his head, “Yeah,… good.”

“You might need to dry it out before it’ll burn.”

Back at Joe’s house, he spread the weed on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven. “Ten minutes tops.”

“You think this will work?”

“Why not? Should dry it out. Right?”

Upstairs, everyone was semi-stoned. They finished the weed from before and were listening to “Physical Graffiti.” They sat up when we walked in with a few fat buds. Joe laid them on “Dirty Deeds.”

“Here. De-seed this and let’s try to smoke it while the rest is drying. I got some ice cubes for the Aqualung. Maybe that’ll cool the hits a little.”

The weed lit fine and burned fine and got us all ripped.

“All right,” Joe said as he exhaled a huge bong hit. “Let there be rock.”

“Yeahhhhh,” came a half-hearted growl from the clothes pile in the corner. Someone was so stoned and splayed out I couldn’t tell who it was.

“Damn, Cheech, you looking wasted over there.”

“Naw. Um a yight,” a hand waved in the air. It was Half Pint. He was small, but he did his best.

Joe set the needle down and turned the volume up. It crackled. Then like thunder: Hells Bells: Bong…Bong…Bong…Bong…Bong. Angus started playing. Half Pint climbed on the bed and started playing, too. Air guitar. He looked like a bug-eyed Billy Idol. Others flailed drumbeats with their arms and some followed with bass, but every head nodded and every other boot tapped the floor.

By “Shoot to Thrill” the bong was passing again and didn’t stop until “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.” I had no idea what the songs were about, but I liked them. What I could understand was sex and drugs and rock and roll. And that was good for me.

When the album ended we were so stoned we sat staring at each other, wondering who would lift the needle. Half Pint burned out and fell asleep in the clothes pile. Everyone else was just as mellow. Even AC/DC couldn’t keep them from floating off.

I was there too, in the periphery, wondering what happened to the music. I was squinting through the fog, toward the stereo, to see if anyone was putting on another album. But I couldn’t remember where the stereo was, and then I couldn’t remember where I was. I felt my way around on the carpet and realized I was in someone’s bedroom, but I couldn’t remember whose. And when I concentrated hard to remember, I forgot I was in a bedroom again. Then I remembered that I was with Joe, but I couldn’t seem to connect the two. And then, AC/DC, and then it was gone. As soon as I was certain I had figured it all out, I couldn’t remember what it was. Then I forgot why I was trying to figure it out at all. Then I remembered that the music had stopped.

“Hey,” someone called out. “What happened to the music?” Then I realized I was the one calling out.

“Huh?”

“Wuh?” A couple of people stirred. I looked around as best I could. It was still foggy. My head felt foggy, and the whole room was thick with smoke. We smoked a lot of weed, but the window was open and the fan was on because Meg’s man hated weed. Which of course meant Meg hated it too. I remembered Joe saying that, but then I forgot who Joe was. I knew he was there with us, though. Somewhere. I looked for him around the smoky room, staring from face to face trying to remember what he looked like. Edie was there, staring at the ceiling fan. A couple of dudes I didn’t know were on the floor in front of the bed. Another chick was in the chair by the stereo and Joe was sitting at her feet. He was leaning against the wall and fucking with his shoe lace. When I recognized him I said his name out loud to myself, “Joe.”

“Huh?” He thought I was calling him. He looked up. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot and barely opened. He looked around to see if anyone was calling, or if he just imagined it. When he saw me staring he tried to ask what I wanted. But he couldn’t focus and kept looking around confused, first at all the people in his room, then at the air in general. Then he looked at me again, “Wuh?”

When he said that, I snapped from my haze, “I didn’t say nothing,” which snapped Joe from his haze and got us both looking around trying to figure out what was going on. It felt like a dream that I couldn’t quite shake from my head. I still couldn’t move but I did figure out where I was. When my head cleared I could feel my heart pumping. The room was still foggy though. I looked around again, shook my head again. I could tell Joe was doing the same. He kept glancing around and I could tell that he was trying to remember something important. He called over to me, “What time is it?”

I looked for the clock. It was next to his head. “Five thirty.”

“Ah shit, Meg and Bob. We gotta get out of here.” He sounded serious but he didn’t get up. He just looked around again, as confused as before. “It’s smoky in here.”

“Yeah, I thought it was me.”

“You thought you were smoky?”

“Huh? Naw. I thought…I noticed…”

“Naw,” he repeated, “It’s smoky in here.” Then we both spaced again, watching the smoke, wondering why it was so smoky, looking at each other to confirm that yeah it was smoky, nodding our heads in agreement while scanning the room, about to nod our heads again when reality sliced the fog and screamed in our faces. The room was smoky. That meant smoke. That meant fire. That meant something was on fire.

Joe jumped up, “OH SHIT! THE OVEN! THE WEED!” He ran out the bedroom and fell down the stairs. I jumped up and followed him and fell down the stairs on top of him. Fucking stairs. The house was thick with smoke. Joe opened the oven door and a cloud billowed out. He grabbed the tray and threw it in the sink.

“Ouch. Ouch. Fuck, Ouch.” He turned the water on and then the garbage disposal. The weed wasn’t on fire, but it was smoking a lot. And it was all burned up. The whole pile turned to little dark ashes.

“Shit,” Joe said, washing the last of it down the drain. He looked up at the clock, “Shit. Shit. Meg’ll be here in ten minutes. I’ll never hear the end of it. Bob’s gonna freak. Fuck.” He looked around at the house full of smoke. “Fuck.” By now everyone was standing in the doorway. “We gotta get out of here. I can’t deal with that grief.”

We opened all the windows, grabbed our shit, and filed out the basement door and down the alley just as Meg and Bob pulled up out front.

Fourteen.

Learning to Fight

“What did you say?” I stepped in front of Ricky Harding. “What did you say?”

“I didn’t say anything.” He tried to step by but I blocked him.

“Fuck you. What did you say? I heard you say something. What did you say?” I kept moving in front of him so he couldn’t get by.

“I didn’t say anything.”

I bumped his shoulder with mine, “I said, ‘what did you say?’”

He looked at me, then at everyone standing behind me. Joe, Half Pint, Edie, a couple dudes who got high with us. We were standing at the back corner of the Giant, near the dumpster. Harding looked at me again. He was fidgeting. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Not so brave now, huh? You called me a dick, didn’t you?” I looked at the little dude with him. He was scared and looking to run. This was the last place he wanted to be: trapped behind the Giant.

“In fact,” I said, “I heard you been talking a lot of shit about me. What’s up?”

They were both looking around now. Both trapped. They couldn’t make it to the schoolyard, and Joe was blocking the sidewalk to the front of the store. They really didn’t want to fuck with Joe. They knew where they were: trapped.

Little dude was safe, if he didn’t butt in. No, this was between me and big mouth Harding, who bragged he could kick my ass. The rumor spread that he wanted to meet me after school, but then he took the bus or got picked up by his mom. When I confronted him, he challenged me to meet after school the next day. He thought the teachers would hear about it by then and stop it before it happened, or at least before it got out of control. But I tricked him. I caught him in the morning, before school.

“Look,” he was nervous. “I didn’t say anything. And we have to get to school.”

“Fine.” I stepped aside to let him pass. But I couldn’t just let him pass. It was springtime and the smell of blood was in the air. And besides, I spent all winter building my reputation as a badass. That was probably why Harding was talking shit. We used to be friends.

“Fine. You want to go to class? Go.” I stepped further aside. Little dude went first. When Harding walked by I clocked him on the jaw and his face exploded. Literally, his face burst open. He looked at me and blood just poured from his face. That was when I realized how bad his acne was. His whole face was cratered and mounded. When I hit him I burst a million pimples. Blood and puss poured from his cheek like a squeezed sponge.

My punch knocked him to one side but it didn’t knock him down. I still had to work on that. I saw it in a movie so I knew it could be done: hit a dude so hard you knock him off his feet. But even though he didn’t drop, I did punch him hard enough to make his face explode. So that was cool.

Then Harding got pissed. He straightened up and puffed his chest like he was going to do something. “You’re a dick.”

I hit him again. “That’s what you’ve been saying.”

He took a swing that missed by a mile and I hit him again. This time on his other cheek. Then he tackled me to the ground, but I kept hitting him while we wrestled. He got in a few punches, a couple in the face, but mostly body shots. They’re no good in school yard fights. Not enough visible damage. That’s what determines the loser: who looks more fucked up the next day.

Harding got in a couple of face shots, but no black eyes. And they didn’t really hurt. Actually, they felt kind of good, dull but good. Each time he hit me, it just didn’t hurt. Probably because of my huge jaw, wide and square and thick. The dentist had to use extra Novocain just to numb me enough to fill cavities. So hitting me was futile unless you used a baseball bat. And since Ricky Harding didn’t have a bat he had to keep trying with his fists.

We beat on each other some more. His face got bloodier and he got more upset. He wrestled me to the ground again but I threw him off, jumped up, and kicked him in the ribs. He rolled over, holding his side, then got up slowly. There was something satisfying about inflicting damage on a dude. But something sickening, too.

I knew the fight was over. It was pointless. I had won. Harding was humiliated and I was a badass. I dropped my fists to gesture he could leave. He took the opportunity to hit me. Right hook to the jaw. It felt like everything he had: anger, frustration, everything. And it just didn’t hurt. In fact, it tingled, and for some reason it reminded me that I wanted a cheesesteak for lunch later.

I shrugged my shoulders at Harding. He swung at me again. I didn’t move. I let him hit me. I didn’t raise my fists, didn’t move, didn’t say anything. I just looked at him. The fight was over. I already won. He turned to look for his friend who was waiting with his school books. Little dude bugged when he got a clear look at Harding’s face. Then he motioned Harding to come on. When they walked past I was looking straight ahead at Joe leaning against the building, smiling.

We picked a lot of fights that spring. Joe was a really good fighter, even then. He was fast and fearless. When a dude he beat brought back his big brother, Joe beat him too. He was bigger than Joe but not nearly as fast. Joe was fast.

I was a slugger. I learned to fight from Throttle, before he got busted for manslaughter. He put gloves on me in Duke’s backyard when I was ten and beat the shit out of me until I learned to hit back. He got pissed when I snuck in a good punch. But no matter how pissed he got, he couldn’t knock me down. Maybe I didn’t understand how badly he was beating me, so I just stayed up. Throttle got worn out and frustrated, and I just got sick of him hitting me. I got tired, too. It wore me out, even if it didn’t hurt.

My arms were too tired to hold up and I said, “I’ve had enough.” But Throttle said, “Bullshit,” and hit me again. “Keep your guard up. Like this.” He held his gloves up in front of his nose. “Keep your elbows in. Like this. So no one can slip in a punch.” He circled me, throwing easy jabs at my gloves. “Good. Now, don’t forget the hook.” And “POP”, he banged me in my ear. Didn’t hurt. Just made my ear warm. But mostly it was just annoying.

“Gotta block them hooks, Little Mann. They’ll kill ya.”

“I’m tired.”

“No. You can’t get tired.” He lunged his shoulder for emphasis. “You get tired, you get killed.”

“I’m still tired.”

He popped me again. “Keep your guard up. Come on.” He lunged and popped me again. My arms were just too tired. I couldn’t lift them. “Come on, Mann.” Lunge. Pop. I was getting annoyed. He was getting pissed.

“Quit hitting me. I’m done.”

“So fall down.”

I didn’t understand, so I kept saying, “Stop hitting me. I’m done.” But he got angrier and hit me again. Then he went off, just started beating me like crazy: full jabs, one after another. All of them connecting. I couldn’t get out of the way. It was getting on my nerves, like a swarm of bees.

Eventually he wore out and stopped hitting me. We both leaned on the fence to rest. Between gasps he called me “little mother fucker” and kept looking at me and shaking his head. I was just glad he stopped hitting me.

After a couple of minutes Throttle stood up and took a deep breath. I was sitting on the ground resting when he hit me on the shoulder. I looked up. He smiled and started walking away, gloves slung over his shoulder, “Next time I’m not holding back.”

Fifteen.

 Joe Plays Cop

One morning, we got high behind the Bingo Hall near the Giant. Edie pinched weed from her mom’s stash, and Half Pint rolled it into a joint. Joe wasn’t there yet, so we smoked a little more. Before long, we were too stoned to go to school. So we decided to go to Loch Raven Dam.

Mom called it “Spring Fever,” and I had it bad. Every spring, as soon as it got warm I couldn’t focus on anything but being outside. And smoking weed just made it worse. The last place I wanted to be in spring, while stoned, was in school. There was only one thing I thought about more than being outside in spring.

Thank God for girls. If they weren’t at school, I wouldn’t have been either. And the warmer it got, the less they wore. It was the sweetest torture. I called it lifting myself up by the boob strap: an invisible steel cable that locked my eyes, mind and boner on their bodies. The cable was just long enough to keep my thoughts captive at night and just strong enough to get me out of bed the next morning.

Some days I only went to school because of  Lisa’s Jordache jeans, or Jenny’s lacrosse skirt, or Crystal’s…ah, Crystal,…such a good girl,…so pure,…so sweet,…a church girl,…so kind to everyone, and gentle…She did well in school and was always nice to me…God she had great tits…

“Mann, pass the fucking joint.” Edie reached over and took it from my hand. “Quit spacing and pass it, Geez. Always daydreaming.” She hit it and passed it back.

“How the Hell are we going to get to the dam?”

“Fisher,” Edie said. “He has a car. He’s not in school anymore.”

“Cool.” I said, taking a hit and passing it to Half Pint.

Fisher lived in an old stone house across Goucher Blvd. It backed up to a golf course and Glenmount apartments. It was hidden on a tree-filled hill with a small stream along the bottom and a bridged driveway that kept it secluded from nearby stores.

We cut through the shopping center and up Goucher to Fisher’s. When we passed the bookstore Edie stopped. “Shh. I hear sirens.”

“I don’t hear anything. You’re just stoned.”

“Fuck you. Listen.”

I put my hand to my ear, mocking her. Then I did hear sirens. A bunch of sirens. Getting louder. Coming toward us. I looked at Edie. She looked at me. We both looked at Half Pint. His eyes bugged and he screamed “Holy shit” and took off down the street past Fisher’s house and into Glenmount apartments. We watched him splash through the stream, trip and fall, drop his books, snag his foot, climb the hill on the other side, rip his pants, drop his books again, and finally disappear behind the apartments. All the while screaming what sounded like “Holy shit” over and over.

Edie and I shrugged at each other, then looked back at Half Pint’s escape route, then shrugged at each other again.

We were completely straight now, victims of the buzz kill that came from police sirens. As soon as we saw the lights flashing off the wall, we knew we were busted. We leaned against the wall and waited for them to arrive. Seconds later they banked the bend and closed in on us, unmarked cop in front with four cruisers behind. We shrugged again. Edie raised an eyebrow. We were just getting high and ditching school. What was the big deal? We laughed as the cops approached. Then we watched bewildered as they sped by and we saw Joe hunched behind the wheel of the unmarked car in front. He blew the horn and waved to us. We waved back, dumbfounded. He was laughing and slapping the wheel and having a good ole time as they turned the corner at Taylor and disappeared.

Joe pled guilty to joyriding and got community service. The judge considered juvy but opted for PBJ: probation before judgment. He said that since Joe liked police cars so much he had the perfect service for him: washing cruisers every day after school.

It only took an hour for Joe to get sick of washing cars. And it only took a day to realize he couldn’t do it straight, another day to realize he shouldn’t bring weed to the police station. He was ripped and listening to Zeppelin on his boom box, polishing a cruiser when another pulled in next to him. He was so high he didn’t notice anything until he heard growling and barking nearby. He turned to find a K-9 just inches from his face, head stuck out the window of the cruiser, sniffing at him and barking like crazy. Joe jumped back and searched an escape. The only option was to jump the back fence and hope no one saw him, or maybe, at least, throw the weed over and grab it later.

Joe backed away slowly, but the further he got the more the dog barked. When Joe neared the fence, the dog jumped out the open window and gave chase. Joe picked up a stick and shook it. The dog lunged and Joe swung as hard as he could. He hit it in the head and the dog dropped dead, just slapped over dead.

Joe looked down at the dog blood on his boot and the cracked stick lying next to it. He looked over at the lump of dead dog, then at the empty cruiser: the realization unfolded quickly, the plan just as quickly.

Joe knew that there was only one thing to do. Get rid of the evidence. Killing a cop’s dog was like killing a cop. They didn’t like that shit. He had to get rid of it, get it out of there and bury it somewhere. But there was no way he could carry it past the front gate, and he couldn’t get it over the back fence by himself.

“Hello? Who is this? Who? I can’t hear you.” I was ready to hang up. I thought it was a prank call. “Who? Joe? Why are you whispering?”

By the time I got to the back corner of the police station, I was winded and I thought my chest would explode. I hate running. I walked the fence until I got to the dumpster. I didn’t see Joe anywhere. But I saw the pool of blood.

“Joe. Joe,” I called in a loud whisper from behind a nearby tree. “Joe.”

He peeked out from behind the dumpster. “Mann. Over here.” He looked around to make sure no one noticed.

“What’s up?” I looked around too but I didn’t see anything besides that pool of blood. Joe looked around again, then he backed out dragging something from behind the dumpster. It looked like a rolled up carpet. When he got clear of the dumpster I could see that it actually was a rolled up carpet and there was something in it.

“What’s that?” I pointed at something furry hanging from the roll. It looked like a wet mop leaving a bloody trail.

“Fucking tail.” Joe reached back and tucked it in. “It’s a dog. A dead dog. A dead fucking police dog.” He explained as he dragged the roll closer to the fence, “The fucking thing attacked me.” He stopped and looked up at me. “I need a hand. We gotta get this thing outta here.”

I scaled the fence and grabbed the other end of the roll. We dragged it to the base of the fence. “How we going to do this?”

“I’ll climb up first and pull the front part with me. You push from the bottom. I figure that’s the only way.”

“Sounds good,” I replied.

Joe grabbed the carpet and started to climb. I inched the bulk closer to the base as he climbed. When the roll cleared the ground I supported it in my hands. Joe was halfway up the fence. His plan was working. He kept climbing. I pushed the bulk higher until it was shoulder level. I balanced the end on my shoulder and started to climb. About half way up I shifted the roll for balance and it came unrolled. The dead dog spilled out the bottom, ass first onto my head, his bloody tail hanging in my face.

“Joe. Joe, help.”

He looked down and saw the dog on my head.

“Joe.” I could feel blood oozing down the back of my neck and into my shirt. Joe straddled the barbed wire and pulled frantically at the carpet. It just kept unrolling like an endless handkerchief from a clown’s pocket, making the matted carcass spin on my forehead. Joe kept pulling the carpet up to him. When he finally reached the end and realized the dead dog was not in it, he looked down to see the dog laying on me, laying on the ground.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” he said shaking his head and climbing halfway down the fence. He reached and grabbed the mangled carcass with one hand and heaved it up onto the top of the fence. It hung there, partially balanced and partially snared on the barbed wire.

Joe and I climbed back up and straddled the barbed wire, using the carpet as a saddle. “Now what?” I asked looking down the back side of the fence.

“How about this?” He flipped the dog over the top of the fence and it landed with a flop.

I looked down at the carcass wedged against the base of the fence. At first it made me queasy, but then I figured what the fuck, it was dead. “That’ll work.” Joe shrugged and we both climbed down.

We carried the dog into the woods nearby and dug a shallow grave with a trash can lid. I said a prayer as Joe threw the dog in the pit and covered it.

 

Sixteen.

Mann Becomes a Man

When Joe completed probation, Gina threw a party. It was her party, but we were invited. Gina was a senior; I was fourteen. The party people were Gina’s friends, all her age, but we knew most of them. They were older, mostly seniors and drop outs. Some bikers too that Gina knew through Duke. He was long gone though, in jail forever at this point. And I had grown up a lot. So had Gina. But I was still just her little cousin’s buddy.

Joe and I stood around looking tough, but really we were bored. Everyone was just hanging out and getting drunk. I missed Duke. He knew how to have fun. These guys just talked and drank and messed with chicks, which was cool but I wanted more.

“Joe, you bored?”

“Yeah,” He said, leaning in the corner drinking a beer. “I bet I could take that big fucker there.” He pointed his beer at a dude in leather talking to Gina in the kitchen doorway. When I looked over the dude looked at me. He saw Joe pointing and thought I was talking shit. He rolled out of the doorway and circled the room in an exaggerated gesture, then stepped in front of me. He was a foot taller and had fifty pounds on me.

“What up?” he asked, squaring in front of me.

“Nothing. What’s up with you?” I responded, switching to street posture. Duke taught me that attitude is half the fight. Duke said, “Mann, do you really think I’m as crazy as everyone thinks.” And I responded, “Yeah,” but I knew what he meant. It was easier to defeat someone if they were already scared. You’ve got to be crazier than they are.

So when this big fucker stepped to me, I pushed my attitude hard. I didn’t know what his deal was but I didn’t like him in my face.

“You looking for trouble, punk?” he said, stepping closer. I knew Joe was nearby and hungry to pounce, but this was my fight. He continued, “What’s your problem? Do you think you’re some sort of tough guy?”

“Nope. Just a guy,” I kept eye contact with him, not letting him know I was scared. Attitude is half the fight.

He stood glaring. Everyone else was staring. I blinked slowly and lifted my chin. He was trying to scare me, put me in my place as younger and weaker, but he would have to beat me into that position. Duke taught me that too. “Don’t give up your manhood for no fucker,” he said. “If he wants to treat you like a bitch, make him beat you like a bitch. And still don’t submit. You got that? Once a bitch, always a bitch.”

When I remembered those words, the fear died. Something clicked inside and everything settled down. For a moment I was invincible…Still don’t submit.

I glared back. He glared. Everyone stared. I felt Joe nearby, waiting. I saw Gina in the doorway, waiting. Everyone was waiting. The dude kept glaring. I waited a moment, took a breath, then said, “You’re boring me.”

He frowned like he didn’t understand. His eyebrows pinched. I watched the words sink in. “You’re boring me.” He replayed them in his head. “You’re boring me.” When he finally understood, he laughed and took a half step back. “Why you little motherfucker,” he said, then repeated the words, “You’re boring me.” He laughed again, stepped back again and took a drink of beer. “Little mother fucker,” he tipped his beer and nodded, turned and walked out of the room and out of the house.

I looked at Joe. He tipped his beer too, then took a drink, and in no time the party was alive and boring again. I looked over at Gina in the doorway. She was still looking at me. I think that dude was her date. I couldn’t tell if she was pissed. She shook her head a couple of times, looked at her beer, then looked at me again and smiled. I smiled back but I didn’t know why. Then I walked over to Joe and finished my beer. When he left to take a piss and I went over to the cooler for another.

“Hey, ever have a Quaalude?” Gina asked, as she came up to me at the cooler.

“No. How do they feel?”

“Beautiful. You want one?”

“I don’t know. How much do they cost?”

“It’s on me.” She held the pill to my mouth. I opened. She put it in. Her fingers touched my lips. I looked into her eyes. I’d never really looked at her before. Or maybe I felt like she had never really looked at me before. Her eyes were soft, green, and beautiful. She held her fingers there for a moment then dropped her arm slowly, trailing a finger down the front of me. She stopped at my stomach.

“You’re kind of cute.” She said, poking her finger playfully. She was obviously drunk. “I guess I never noticed. Well, I noticed, but, well…” I could tell she was feeling pretty good. But not as good as I was feeling. I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew all the mechanics involved in getting laid, but I’d never actually done it. And besides, this was Gina. She was going to see me for the young, inexperienced punk she always thought I was. I used to think of her when I masturbated. She used to ignore me.

“How old are you?”

“Fourteen.” I said. She cupped my crotch.

“You’re pretty big for fourteen.” I was pretty sure I knew what she meant, but I was always tall, and I had been working out a lot. And besides, this was Gina. I wasn’t even sure if this was real. But, the more she rubbed my crotch the more convinced I got. This shit was real. Gina was touching my dick.

She led me downstairs to the basement, into the back room, near the washer and dryer. She leaned me up against the washer and kissed me. I got lightheaded and a little dizzy. My stomach soared a few times. Gina was licking my mouth, feeding me her tongue, rubbing her body against me, grabbing at my chest, rubbing my arms, my stomach, my crotch. She kissed my neck, my shoulder, my chest. She unbutton my jeans. I heard the zipper peel away, felt her hand slide into my underwear. When she touched my cock, my knees gave slightly. I regained myself, but Gina noticed.

“Don’t worry, Mann, this won’t hurt.” She kissed me lightly on the lips, then knelt down and took me in her mouth. It was warm, soft, and velvety. She slid her hand back and forth with her mouth. I watched her head moving back and forth, saw myself disappear under her curly black hair, then reappear glistening. I was afraid to move. Afraid to touch her. Afraid to do anything that might interrupt, for fear she would stop. I stood watching her do to me what she must have done to Duke, what I only ever fantasized she’d do to me. I was so stiff I could feel it all the way down between my legs.

Gina was enjoying it as much as I was. She was moaning or humming slightly, sliding her hand back and forth, caressing my balls, lifting and massaging them. And my head was swimming. I was certain I was going to cum soon. But I didn’t. It felt so good, too good, but I still didn’t cum. Then I remembered the Quaalude. It must have relaxed me because Gina sucked on me for half an hour. I was so hard it ached. It felt so good I didn’t notice that Gina had started touching herself. She twitched a little and started jerking me faster. I had to reach back and hold onto the washer. Finally, she stopped sucking and looked up at me.

“I need you inside of me.” She stood next to me and let her jeans drop to her ankles. Then she turned around and leaned over the dryer. I stood behind her and fumbled with things. I was thinking too much about the fact that I was fucking her, and not focusing enough on actually getting inside, and subsequently, I kept missing. I felt Gina reach between her legs, take hold and guide it in. I pushed when she started to moan.

“Whoa. Gentle. Take it easy. We’ll get there.”

“Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“It’s ok. It’s cool. Just take it slow for a minute. That’s it. In and out. In and out. Uhn. That’s it.”

I felt the rhythm she was dictating with her hips. She rocked back and forth, pushing her ass against my stomach and slowly gyrating. Her moaning increased, and her rhythm began to increase, too. Her shoulder muscles tightened as she pushed against the basement wall for leverage, then pushed into me harder, banging her ass against me. Her moaning got louder and turned into “Oh God’s” and “Fuck Me’s.” Her back arched and she turned her head from side to side, throwing her long hair back and forth. I flashed back to fourth grade and Joe reading us the porno at recess. I thought about the girls in the videos Joe and I watched in his bedroom. We joked that they were faking it. But, Gina wasn’t. She was having an orgasm, and it was my fault. I was making Gina cum.

And of course, as soon as I realized that, I exploded inside of her, thrusting against her with each intense shot. It felt like gallons were going into her. I was swimming in the moment, head spinning, balls tingling. I kept pushing and moaning and I couldn’t believe how good it felt. And the whole time I was cumming, the only thing I could think about was Gina cumming. The arch of her back, her hair tossing, her body driving itself onto me. All I could think about was her hunger, her hunger for me. Like she must have been hungry for Duke.

I leaned against her for a moment, feeling spent. I felt myself go limp inside of her. When it finally slipped out, Gina stepped aside and pulled up her jeans. She said “thanks” and disappeared into the party upstairs.

Seventeen.

The After Party

We were walking home after the party when Joe noticed I was feeling good. “Man you’re jumpy. What’s up?”

“I don’t know, I just had fun tonight.” I never told Joe about me and Gina. I wanted to but wasn’t sure what he’d think. He was as protective of her as she had been of him. I was sure he wouldn’t mind, but I didn’t want to risk it. Besides, if Gina wanted him to know, she’d tell him.

“Yeah, you handled that big fucker. That was a cool mind trip.”

It was four thirty in the morning. We were walking down Taylor Avenue. It was dark, a little foggy. It felt like rain. It rained some earlier and the streets were still wet… I love the smell of wet morning streets. I love the feel too. It feels peaceful and quiet, with the road dirt gently rolling to the gutter and down the drain, leaving fresh, clean pavement. It all feels so new. The early morning makes me feel new, too, like I could conquer the world… At least that’s what I was thinking when Joe nudged my arm.

“Yo, Mann, check that out.” He motioned up the street. A cop was paused on the shoulder and checking us out. He pulled away and drove by slowly, checking descriptions as he passed. When he reached the top of the hill near the Bingo hall he stopped again, obviously looking for someone. When he U-turned and hit the lights, we took off. We ran up Hillsway and into the alley behind Dartmouth Road. The sirens started screaming from all directions. I heard cop cars enter the alley, saw the spotlight shining its way up the backyards. We cut between two houses, crossed the street into the next alley. I turned up the alley, and Joe crossed through another yard. He was headed for the woods by the cemetery.

The sirens were everywhere. The whole neighborhood was lit up with flashing lights. I dove into some bushes so I could stop and listen and think. I heard cops and radios, saw flashlights reflecting off houses and parked cars. I didn’t know what they wanted and I didn’t want to find out… Cops don’t care who they catch. All they care about is a conviction. It doesn’t matter if they got the wrong guys. And of course, with me and Joe, a couple of young guys walking the streets at four thirty in the morning, they probably figure that we were guilty of something.

Then again, it’s possible that they had the right guys. I tucked as deeply as I could into a thick pricker bush and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t find me. Then I heard the dogs, and I knew that it was serious. And I was trapped. I looked around for a better place to hide. My only hope was that they wouldn’t bring the K-9 into this yard. I searched frantically, looked to see if I could climb to the roof. Then I heard the helicopter. Then the barking got louder. Then the lights got brighter. Sweat was pouring down my forehead. They were sweeping the whole block from both ends. Dogs, flashlights, cops.

I heard the K-9 enter the yard next door. In a panic I pulled the lid off of a metal trash can and jumped inside. My heart was pounding and the sweat was gushing. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I was getting a headache. Besides all of that, something in the trash can really stunk. It was burning my eyes and I thought I was going to puke. I couldn’t stand the smell. It smelled like dog shit and oranges. I was about to climb out and look for another place to hide when I heard the gate open to the backyard. I froze.

I heard dog tags jingling. My hearing became acute. I could feel each step the cop took as he searched the yard. I heard his quiet commands to the dog. As they neared I tried to slow my breathing, quiet down, play dead. I felt them coming closer. They moved slowly, methodically. It felt like forever. The dog rustled the bushes next to me. They were inches away. I could hear the dog sniff the trash can. I squeezed my eyes shut and hugged my knees into my chest as hard as I could, and just froze. Sweat dripped down the back of my neck and I think I felt the dog’s breath there.

I didn’t realize I had stopped breathing until the sound of the cop’s radio startled me. I sucked in air like someone under water for too long. A cop was calling for assistance. I couldn’t hear much, but I did hear them retreat from the yard. They went out the gate and down the alley. I heard voices in the distance calling over the sounds of car doors slamming and engines starting, then I heard the four-barrels speeding up Hillsway with sirens screaming.

I waited a few minutes then jumped out of the trash can and took off through several yards and alleys. I crossed Taylor Avenue into my neighborhood, going in the opposite direction of the fading sirens.

“Joe got arrested.”

“Huh?” It was early Sunday and I was half asleep. I switched the phone to my other ear. “What?” It was Gina calling. I didn’t know she had my number.

“Joe got arrested after the party Friday night. They caught him in someone’s garage.” I was awake now. I wondered why I didn’t hear from him on Saturday. “They charged him with all these robberies and car thefts. When they ran his prints, they found all these matches. They also said they found his prints on a gun used in a bank robbery.”

“That’s crazy. Joe doesn’t have a gun,” I said, staring at a poster for “The Warriors.” I thought about all the shit we did lately and got nervous they would figure out I was with him. Thoughts rushed my head. If they found his prints, they found mine too. We didn’t wear gloves. And we did a lot of shit. We went out every night for almost a year breaking the law in some way or another. The images flashed in my head and made me confused and more nervous. I forgot I was talking to Gina.

“Jesus Christ,” Gina said. “He just got out of trouble.”

“Huh? Oh… yeah.” I said. “What’s going to happen to him?”

“They sent him to Cub Hill. His mom is freaking. It’s his second offense. The public defender said he’s fucked because this charge was so serious. He has to stay there until trial and, if guilty, ‘til he’s eighteen.”

“Oh, fuck.” I dropped the phone. Two years.

Eighteen.

Talking to Sadie

That first night Sadie was in The Well, that night she rode into town on her Harley, Gina finished her shift early and joined us at the table. They talked about Florida, mostly. I sat and listened while they reminisced. I couldn’t contribute since I was in jail when they were in Florida and it didn’t seem like a good comparison anyway. I could’ve told them what I’d done since I got out, but I hadn’t done anything. It had been over a month and I hadn’t done a damn thing except sit at The Well and drink and write. And I wasn’t planning on anything more. Not until Joe got out. But I did sit with Sadie and Gina and listen to how they hooked up.

“Well,” Gina said, “I was sitting in a bus terminal in Jacksonville. I went down after you and Joe got arrested. That same night, actually. I ran home, grabbed some shit and hitched over to the Greyhound behind Golden Ring Mall. I checked the schedule and took the next bus out. I wanted to go to California but that was too expensive and not leaving ‘til the morning. So I took the Red Eye to Miami. Turned out it was the Red Eye to Sadie.

“When the bus got to Jacksonville I got out to stretch. I couldn’t sleep on the bus and I was all stiff. I walked for a while then sat down at one of those chairs with a coin operated TV. I woke up two hours later. The bus was long gone with all my shit: luggage, money, my I.D. All on their way to Miami. I was so fucked. I lost it. I got pissed, then I just started crying. It was like all this shit was piled up inside. I thought about you and Joe and what was going to happen to me when I got caught, and I just lost it. I cried for an hour, like one of those scared little runaways on the public service announcements. I didn’t know what to do. When I finally stopped crying I just sat there staring at the blank TV, thinking about you and Joe up here going to court, going to jail, like maybe it was fate left me abandoned in that bus station. I started feeling guilty…”

I interrupted, “You did what we wanted you to do. We were just glad you got away.”

“I know. I know. It ain’t like I thought you guys were wishing me evil or anything. It just felt like weird fate shit. You know? I was sitting there thinking maybe we can’t escape punishment, maybe all this shit, our shit, is connected on some bigger level, some higher plain.”

Gina saw me raise an eyebrow. “I know,” she said, “sounds deep for me, huh?”

“Well, I haven’t known you to philosophize much.”

“Yeah, your turf, huh?”

“Don’t worry,” I took a drink for dramatic pause, “it’s a well-trodden path.”

“So anyway,” Gina said, “I was sitting there thinking, and I started feeling shitty for all of us. And I must have sat there for hours staring at that blank TV. And then I got sick of sitting there. And then I got hungry. And then I got pissed again because I remembered that I didn’t have any money or clothes or anything. And I just had to get out of that fucking bus station. So I paced around outside: hungry, pissed, and feeling shitty, and accidently walked right out into the street and almost got slammed by a hot chick on a Harley.” Gina smiled at Sadie.

Sadie smiled back and shook her head, “You came close to dying that day.”

“Oh believe me, I almost peed my pants when I saw you coming right for me. I don’t know how you got around me.”

“You just froze like a deer in the headlights. All I could see were those big green eyes of yours. I was thinking, ‘Man, those are some pretty eyes. Better not run her over. Too cute to kill.’ So I swerved and hit that fucking paper box instead.”

Gina laughed, thinking about it. “You really trashed that box. Fucking newspapers flying everywhere. That mangled box scraping across the intersection.”

“Didn’t hurt my Harley, though,” Sadie nodded, holding up her beer then taking a drink.

“Or you either, thank God. So anyway,” Gina looked at me, “the rest is history.”

“Wait, I feel like we’re just getting to the good stuff.”

“And so we are.” Gina leaned over and gave Sadie a kiss on the cheek.

The next night at The Well, Gina couldn’t spend time with us. She was so busy, in fact, that Sadie got our drinks. The rotten-toothed biker was sitting at the bar, but he looked away when she approached. When she came back she leaned over and handed me a beer. I could smell her hair as she leaned back.

“Thanks.”

“Sure.” Sadie sat down and it was just us and I didn’t know what to say. So I didn’t say anything. We both just watched all the fools get drunk. I knew almost everyone in the bar. And the people I didn’t, were there with people I did. There was always a new recruit, though, someone eager to be a Vagrant, and always someone lost or just slumming, maybe a chick with a taste for a bad boy, who’d soon realize she didn’t have what it took, or maybe too much of what it didn’t take: morals, common sense, whatever.

This life was cool to a Would-be Vagrant. We didn’t work or worry about rent or reason. We just enjoyed life. But we still needed money and we still defended honor, and both could consume the day. Some dudes just didn’t have what it took. They spoke when they shouldn’t, didn’t when they should, or just said the wrong things again and again. But it seemed like the ones who didn’t make it here were almost always the ones who didn’t understand “honor,” the basis of all gang life, even for a loose band of drunks like us. We had honor. And we defended it. That was the difference. That was what the Would-be’s were missing. That’s what was great about Sadie hitting that rotten-toothed biker. He crossed the line and she knocked him back. And I knew she was for real. I knew that each time someone crossed the line, she would knock him back. Joe was the same way. We all were. That’s why we were still at The Well.

Some of the Vagrants just couldn’t fight, though. Anyone could kick their asses. They’d fight. They just couldn’t win. I watched it happen. They just couldn’t fight. But that didn’t stop them. They’d jump you quicker than Joe would if they sensed an insult. It happened to me. They’re worse than guys who can fight because they’re quicker to anger and more defensive. They’re insecure because anyone can kick their asses, so they start more fights trying to prove otherwise. I beat on a fool for half an hour one night because he didn’t understand a term I used. Everyone at The Well thought I used big words, anyway, but most were too high to care. Not this fool, though. I don’t remember the term, but I do remember that I wasn’t even talking to him. I was talking to Pan Head who just got back from Sturgis. He was telling me about the bikes and chicks and stuff and I said something about something and this drunk little fucker clocked me on the jaw. It felt kind of good at first, woke me from the barroom stupor. Plus it opened my sinuses. But when I realized he hit me, I didn’t ask why. I beat on him until I got bored, then I rejoined Pan Head at the bar to finish our conversation.

Looking around the bar with Sadie, all I saw were stories like that. I wondered what she saw looking at all these strangers. I glanced over at her. She was looking at me. I smiled but I still didn’t know what to say. She smiled back, then stared for a moment, then said, “So, Gina says you have a big dick.”

I spat beer down the front of me.

Sadie laughed. “Got your attention.”

I blushed so badly my whole body got warm. I went into shock at the thought of Sadie and Gina discussing my dick. That was too much, just way too much. I didn’t even think Gina remembered. That was years ago, back before Joe went to juvy, back before he and I went to jail. Gina seemed so much older and cooler then. All I could remember was her long curly hair tossing back and forth when she came.

I looked over at Gina serving drinks at the bar. Her hair was still long. She was still really cute but I didn’t think about it much anymore. I guess she had become one of the guys. But…, if she’s been thinking about my dick…Huh? I looked up at Sadie. She was still staring at me. “Sorry. Sometimes I forget where I am.”

Sadie rested her elbows on the table, squinted her eyes and asked softly, “What are you thinking about, Mann?” When she said my name my balls tingled. I love when a hot woman says my name…Mann…Mann. It’s completely different than when a dude says it. When a hot woman says your name you feel it in your body. It starts at your ears, like sweet breath on the back of your neck and flushes around to your face, then past your throat, down past your chest and straight to your balls. It’s the best feeling there is, when a hot woman says your name…

“Yo, Mann. Yooooooooo,” she sang. “Are you in there?”

“Huh? Oh, sorry,” I said, swimming for a moment in her eyes. “Sorry. See what I mean? Sorry.”

“It’s cool. So, really, what were you thinking about?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Nothing, huh?” Sadie nodded and looked around the room.

When I remembered that the last thing Sadie said to me was about my penis, I tried to find a better answer. “I don’t know, usually I just think about little things. I blow them out of proportion. Not in a bad way. I mean, I don’t worry about them or anything. I just sort of exaggerate them for effect. It’s just that I like details. This poet once said, ‘No ideas but in things.’ I think about small things. Details are important to me.”

When I saw that Sadie was interested, I felt more comfortable talking to her. “Something triggers a thought for me, maybe a word or a sound, and I play with it and pick at it like a loose thread, trying to unravel the mystery of it. But usually I just pick at it until I unravel the whole sweater and I’m a million miles away with a big pile of yarn.”

“Daydreaming,” Sadie said.

“Daydreaming,” I repeated.

“I like that.” Sadie propped her boot on the chair and leaned on her knee. “It’s like my motorcycle. A lot of guys want all this shit on their bikes to dress them up. But I like my bike stripped down, just black and chrome. It’s clean, you know?”

“Yeah, kind of. But also, a little more. There’s something about that motorcycle, something that makes it yours. Like an experience, or a dent, something that bonds you to it, a detail, a small detail that makes it yours.”

“You mean like the gear shift lever?”

“Yeah, probably.” I said, smiling and nodding my head. “Tell me about the gear shift lever.”

“Well,” Sadie took a drink and collected her thoughts, “When I first got my bike, I went to the rally in Daytona. I was still pretty green but I really didn’t have any problems, except one. Someone knocked over my bike one night and broke the gear shift lever. I couldn’t drive it and I didn’t know how to fix it. I didn’t even have tools with me. I know, real dumb, but hey.

“Anyway, these two old biker dikes were staying at the motel, too. They came out of the restaurant after breakfast and saw me sitting on the curb staring at my bike. They came over to see if I needed help. I was pretty embarrassed, but I told them the score. And then Rose, the taller one, said, ‘It’s cool, honey. We all been there.’ She and Sheila helped fix my bike. They looked at it for two seconds and knew exactly what I needed and where to get it. Rose sat and talked to me while Sheila rode off for parts.

“Thank you, Rose.”

“It’s nothing. We girls got to stick together, you know.”

“Yeah, I guess. I’m not real good at asking for help. I want to be able to do it myself.”

“I know the feeling. It’s good to be in control. No one to answer to.”

“Yeah. No one telling you what to do.”

“I hear that, sister.” After a pause she said, “You owe it to yourself to learn to do for yourself. You have this scooter. It can take you anywhere. But you have to learn what you can about it. How it works. Why it doesn’t. How to fix it when it doesn’t. All that shit. And that ain’t just with scooters. That’s with everything. Sheila and me been together twenty-five years. We still do our own repairs, our own laundry, our own cooking. Everything. Sometimes we do for each other, but that’s special. We don’t take each other for granted, just take care of ourselves and just share the time and space.” Rose looked off into the distance, then said, “It’s better that way for some of us.”

When Sheila returned, she parked her bike and walked over. She was smiling and waving a bag. “I’ve got something special for you.” She pulled out the new gear shift lever. It was shaped like a penis. “Now, every time you downshift you can think of some dick who done you wrong.”

Nineteen.

Spooning Sadie

Sadie didn’t really hate men. She just hated idiots. So I guess she figured, who better? I don’t blame her, with all the shit guys said to her, thinking they were cool or cute or whatever, scrawny little fucks who thought they were special.

And it was the same every night, some idiot would say something stupid, Sadie would smack him and he’d whimper off. The next night the same thing would happen again. Or one of his stupid friends would try his stupid luck. They never learned. They did this shit again and again. It was like they enjoyed humiliation. And maybe they did. If that’s what Sadie was offering, that’s what they wanted.

I felt for Sadie. She couldn’t go anywhere without someone saying something stupid. When she stood up in the bar, every guy turned toward her. With pale faces and dark clothes they looked like sunflowers leaning toward the light, junky sunflowers, drunk and needing a bath. The ugliest bunch of sunflowers you ever saw. And the dumbest too. They couldn’t say the right thing if it came out backwards. But that didn’t stop them from trying, or stop Sadie from punching their throats afterwards.

“Do you like The Who?” I asked.

“The Who?” Sadie smiled. “You mean like Teenage Wasteland and Boris the Spider? Yeah,” Sadie shrugged, “I like The Who. Why?”

It was about a week later and we were still sitting at The Well. I figured Sadie was getting sick of the same thing, and Gina was working every night.

I got better at talking to Sadie but it still made me nervous. It helped that we didn’t talk about my dick. “I got tickets for a music festival this weekend in Philly, if you’d like to go. I mean, if you’d like to get out of this bar for a night or something.” As soon as I said it, I cringed inside. Fuck. That sounded like I was asking her out. Fuck. I just sounded like one of these drunk fuckers. Fuck. That’s not what I meant. Fuck. I was trying to be cool about this. Fuck. I know she’s out of my league. Fuck. Fuck. That’s not what I wanted. Fuck. I just want her to be comfortable. Fuck. She’s going to think I’m sniffing after her like all these other fucking dogs. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. I really fucked that up…

“Yeah, Mann. Sounds cool,” she said flatly.

“Cool,” I said. “Should be fun.”

“Cool.”

I got the tickets from some dudes who owed me money. I even scored a ride in the back of a pickup. It had a cap that helped keep out the wind, but it was still damn cold. We drove to Philly the night before to camp in the parking lot and party. And we wanted to get in line early to get a good place on the infield.

We expected a mad rush when the gates opened. But we weren’t sure because during the last Who tour, a bunch of kids got crushed in Cincinnati. So we thought they might do something different this time.

But they didn’t. We were up all night on acid and vodka, and at six in the morning we mobbed the gate, which didn’t open until ten. Every time someone walked by inside, we got excited and pushed forward. Since we were already packed together, it only caused us to push against each other. With nowhere to go, the mass just pushed back and a fight or two erupted each time, somewhere on the fringe where someone lost a bit of ground. This happened every time someone passed by the gate. It was like a magnet kept walking by and we were all metal shavings. This went on for hours.

What sucked for me was that Sadie was right in front of me and every time the crowd pushed forward I was pushed against her. About a second after the first time it happened I got a raging boner that didn’t relax until we rushed through the gate four hours later. Until then, every time the crowd pushed, my crotch thrust against Sadie’s ass.

At first I was embarrassed because I was certain she would feel it, but she didn’t respond. I was afraid she might say or do something in front of all these people, but she didn’t. In fact, she didn’t even try to move. Not like there was any place to go, but she stayed right there with my dick against her ass. And for the last hour we were pushed so tightly together that’s where it stayed.

I was pressed against Sadie’s back, oblivious to the world. All I could do was stand there and smell her hair, which was only making me harder. If Sadie had moved at all, shifted her weight or adjusted her body, or anything that made her ass move, I would have cum in my pants. But she didn’t. She just stood there, pressed against the chick in front of her. And when the doors opened at ten o’clock ninety thousand kids charged in to stake a claim on the infield.

By the time the mob settled we were twenty feet from the stage. We started drinking again and watched the crowd as the stadium filled. By the time the Hooters opened, the stadium was full. The hot summer sun beamed down and the smell of weed wafted. A couple of songs in, crowd control started pulling people to safety and setting them in the shade at the foot of the stage.

While Santana set up, crowd control squirted us with water cannons. They sprayed the water into the air and let it rain down. It felt so good. We were back far enough that we didn’t get crushed, but it was still pretty tight.

It loosened up a little when the Clash came on. Everyone danced and jumped around and made it impossible to stay bunched together. But it clinched right back up when The Who came on. We thought we had the best seats in the house, but soon as The Who appeared the stage disappeared. All I could see were the backs of chicks on their boyfriends’ shoulders. Everyone yelled, but no one could hear, so everyone pushed and the chicks fell like dominoes.

It was the loudest concert I ever heard, louder than AC/DC, louder than Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. It was incredible. It was so loud my ears hurt. I could feel the bass in my balls. The high notes raked my spine.

About half way into their set, I bonked. I started feeling sick. I was tired and hung over and still drunk and tripping, and I hadn’t eaten all day or gone to the bathroom. There was no place to sit down and no way to get out. It was too hot and too crowded, and when I looked back at the stadium all I could see were people, so many people. I felt like I couldn’t get air. It was hot and crowded, and everyone was sweating and falling into each other with only the music holding us up.

I looked at Sadie to see how she was doing. She seemed fine, though, just standing and watching the bands. She looked over when I looked. She smiled but we couldn’t talk. It was too loud. When the music stopped, the applause was even louder.

It was incredible. No matter how bad I felt, I didn’t want them to stop. No one did. They played three encores. By the time they finished the sun was below the western rim of the stadium.

When I got to The Well the next night, Sadie was already there, shooting pool, and there were a couple of guys drinking beer with Gina at our table. I grabbed a beer from Nick and joined them.

“How was the concert?” Gina asked.

“It was cool. Long day, though.”

“Yeah, Sadie had a good time. She said you guys only got in one fight.”

“Oh, she told you about that.” Two muscle heads were trying to get Sadie’s attention during the Clash. They kept jumping up and down and dancing around in front of her. When she looked at them, they asked what she was doing with someone like me. They asked if she wanted to hang with them. I heard it and just blew it off. But Sadie got pissed. She was in front of me and I saw her shoulders drop when they said it. She looked back and winked. When she turned around she punched one of them in the throat. I jumped on the other one. I couldn’t have Sadie fighting my fights. It was embarrassing enough that she threw the first punch. And equally embarrassing that she told Gina about the fight.

It only lasted a couple of minutes. Those dudes were big but they really couldn’t fight. They couldn’t take a punch either. The one Sadie hit in the throat tried to grab her throat but she hit him in the throat again. This time she found the spot she was looking for. The dude slumped over unable to breathe. The dude I was fighting was slow and didn’t seem to know how to avoid getting hit. And didn’t really seem to care. I expected him to be a better fighter. I guess his size was misleading. And if someone in the crowd hadn’t hit me in the back of the head with something, the dude would have never gotten me into that bear hug and Sadie wouldn’t have had to jump in and kick his ass. And…so what if Gina knows about it.

“Yeah,” Gina said regaining my attention, “Sadie said some dudes talked shit to her, and you defended her honor.”

“Oh yeah? Is that what she said?” I glanced over at Sadie shooting pool.

“Isn’t that what happened?” I think Gina knew the truth, but she was being cool about it.

“If that’s what Sadie said happened.”

“Check you out being all modest.”

“Whatever.” I took a huge drink of my beer, tipping the bottle back and my head with it. I kept my eyes on Gina to see if I could read her thoughts.

“Anyway,” she said smiling that pretty green-eyed smile of hers. “Thanks for taking Sadie to the concert. It meant a lot to her, and to me. Thanks.”

“No problem,” I said convinced of her sincerity. I took another big drink.

When the pool game ended, Sadie collected her winnings and came over to our table. “Hey,” she said to me, then took a drink from my beer. A couple of Vagrants saw that and went bug-eyed.

“Hey,” I replied.

She still made me nervous when she looked directly at me. Her eyes just swam through me, caressing every nerve in my body. When she looked at me, there was no one else in the world, nothing else in the room, just her and me. I couldn’t hear any sounds except her voice. And all the people standing nearby just disappeared. I could hear Gina mumbling a little, but I couldn’t understand what she was saying.

Sadie leaned over and took another drink of my beer. Her beautiful hair brushed my face. When I smelled it I travelled back to the morning before, in line at the concert, Sadie’s body pressed against mine. And I thought about the ride home from the concert, Sadie laying on her side next to me. I was laying on my side too, her hair in my face. I felt drawn to her. I tried to stay away. I didn’t want to upset her by doing anything stupid. But I had to do something. I waited until she was asleep, then in a moment of sheer terror and determination, I slowly, quietly wiggled my way in behind her until we were spooning.

We woke up that way two hours later. We hadn’t moved, hadn’t shifted at all, except that my arm was Sadie’s pillow. We woke up at the same time, as soon as we got off the highway and into the stop and go traffic of Baltimore City. Someone’s brakes squeaked as we pulled up to a red light. I heard Sadie’s breathing deepen, then I felt her eyes open. I could feel her eyelashes brushing my forearm. She reached up and felt my arm under her head, then turned and looked at me in the dark.

“Hey there,” she said in a breathy whisper.

“Hey.”

She snuggled back into me and we laid quietly for the rest of the ride.

Twenty.

A Visit from Juvy

Back in high school, soon after Joe went to juvy, after that night we ran from the cops and I hid in the trashcan, I fell into a routine of working out and watching old movies. I even started doing my homework. I saw Gina sometimes in the neighborhood and we said “Hey”, but we never hooked up or hung out.

I went out sometimes, hit a party on the football field and drank beer with dudes from school. Half Pint was always there acting like a fool. And Edie might be there catching a buzz before meeting up with her biker boyfriend. When it was just guys we’d crowd around a bonfire and talk shit about chicks.

After a while I saw it was no different than when I was little, hanging out with Duke, except that I wasn’t little anymore and this wasn’t Duke. This wasn’t even Junky Jeff. I couldn’t relate to these guys. It was different with Joe around. He’d talk shit and fuck with them. I wasn’t good at small talk. I thought they were idiots. Most of them had already dropped out of school. And the others were just waiting to turn sixteen so they could. They didn’t think about anything but getting laid and stealing shit.

Of course, that’s what I was about too. But I felt like I had a purpose, like I was learning shit, what I was capable of and what would make me stronger if it didn’t kill me, that sort of shit. When me and Joe said “why not?” it was for the adventure. These guys never asked “why not?” They never even asked “why?” They just did it. And it was dumb shit. They’d steal from each other and deny it. One of them stole his buddy’s radio, then sat at a party the next night listening to it.

And Half Pint was just as bad. I tried to be his friend, mostly because Joe liked him. But Half Pint was an ass. But since he was small I felt sorry for him and protective of him. He couldn’t depend on his brother Jack, who everyone called “Jackass.” Jack was a few years older and a million years dumber. He thought he was the baddest mother fucker on the face of the earth, but everyone else thought he was a joke. Joe smacked him once when he thought Jack was fucking with Half Pint.

But Joe was in juvy, and I didn’t like Half Pint. I couldn’t look past all the bullshit. Joe didn’t mind if people did stupid shit. I think he even enjoyed it. It was entertainment to him. To me it was just bullshit. Maybe I was a little too serious, but I figured it was just a matter of time before the shit got on me. And I was right. It was Half Pint. He stole weed from me, then tried to smoke it with me. I knew he didn’t have any the day before. And I knew he didn’t have any money. But that morning he had a thick bag. And it looked a lot like the bag of weed that got stolen from my jacket the night before at a party. It smelled the same too. But since it’s hard to tell one pile of weed from another, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. But I asked him a few questions anyway.”

“So, Half Pint, where’d you score the weed?”

“Oh, Mann. My brother left it in my room this morning.” He paused for a moment, looking at the weed. “He said I could try to sell some of it today, but he wanted the rest back tonight.” I wasn’t sure if he knew it was mine. The jackets were all piled in a chair at the party, and it’s possible he didn’t notice whose jacket he took it from. But the fact that he was lying to me, when the only other person standing with us was Edie, who wasn’t even at the party, that kind of pissed me off. He could have told me he snatched it from a jacket. He bragged about shit like that all the time. But the fact that he was lying to me, even after stealing from me, that was more than I could take.

“You know, someone stole my weed last night.”

He looked at Edie who was looking at him. She never really liked him either. She didn’t trust him.

Half Pint looked back at me. “That sucks, Mann.”

“I know.”

“Who you think done it?”

“I don’t know. I was wondering if you knew.”

“Nah,” he said, shuffling his feet.

“I mean, you were there. Did you see anybody near my jacket?”

“No. I didn’t see anything.”

“Oh. I thought maybe you might have seen something since you were sitting right next to the jackets.”

“Hmm. Let me think…” Half Pint was quiet for a moment, unraveling this mystery. He was trying to play it cool, but I could tell he was getting nervous. He was probably wishing Joe was around, because I don’t think he ever really liked or trusted me, either.

“You know,” he said, “that guy Allen, he came over and sat by me for a while. I think I might have seen him going through the jackets.” He paused again. “Yeah. Yeah, now that I think about it, he did go through the jackets. He said he was looking for his, but he was going through all the pockets.”

“Allen is your friend, right?”

“I wouldn’t call him a friend. I mean, I know him.”

After he said that, I hit him in the mouth. I had to. And I had good reasons. Three good reasons. Reason One: this whole line of questioning was starting to bore me. Reason Two: he punked on his friend Allen, who he came to the party with. And Reason Three: Edie was there. It’s not like she would have cared either way, but she would have said something to her friends and they would have said things and that’s how reputations begin and end. So I hit him in the mouth. And he knew he fucked up. He handed me the weed and walked away holding his busted lip. Then Edie and I got ripped and forgot to go to school.

So I didn’t go out much other than that. I stayed in my room in the basement, lifting weights and doing schoolwork. Some of the work was pretty cool. I hated Math, though. I hated anything with only one right answer. No fun in that. It sounded cool to search for “X.” But when we got there it was just a fucking number.

My subject was English, reading stories and talking about characters and traits and flaws and shit. And English teachers liked me. They thought I was creative and could be talented, if only I applied myself. They liked things I wrote for class and said I had mature thoughts. My English teachers were laid back. They knew how to make the shit interesting. Not like math teachers. My math teachers should have found a villain for their stories, maybe zero. Zero could be the anti-hero. Pi the hero. Pi Versus Zero: Monster Movie from Math Class. This is the kind of shit I would think about while I was working out and while I was doing my homework. And it was usually what I turned in as homework. It’s all about right and wrong, “Isn’t it, Mr. Math Teacher? One and one makes two. But what about in Chemistry, where one and one makes something else?

“Yeah,” I’d say, “Yeah,” while working out and counting pushups. “Yeah, (1) why don’t they make school more interesting. (2) They think this shit is juicy (3) in and of itself. (4) I’ll tell you what’s juicy (5). That French teacher (6), Mrs. Marceau (7). I’d take French (8) just to have her as a teacher (9). Yeah. (10).

Thinking about chicks is the best motivation for working out. Especially hot married teacher chicks who stand in the doorway between classes and smile at you when you walk by. I imagine them standing there trying to pick out which dudes will grow up to be dangerous. In my fantasy, older sexy French teachers are looking for dangerous men.

The juvy hall where Joe was held was just past Loch Raven dam and aptly named Cub Hill. The quarters consisted of long, narrow hallways with rooms on each side. The compound was enclosed by a barbed wire fence. I grew up with myths of boys who jumped the fence to escape, then lived for years in the woods nearby. Supposedly they survived by fishing the reservoir and stealing picnic baskets.

As I got older the truth emerged. They did escape, but they usually just went home, where the cops found them doing drugs or getting laid, or trying to borrow money to jump the Greyhound.

Eventually we knew some of them, friends of friends. So it was no surprise the night Joe showed up at my basement door.

“Yo, Mann. Yo.”

I was asleep when I heard my name and the sound of knocking.

“Mann. YO.”

I looked at the clock. It glowed red: 2:57 am. I knew I wasn’t dreaming. I heard the voice again, louder, more urgent but still a whisper. My bedroom was in the basement. Actually, it was the basement. There were no walls separating my room from the laundry room or the stairway or basement door. I put up a curtain of rock banners to block out the back of the basement where the furnace was, and the washer and dryer and sump pump. There was something creepy about that part of the basement. I used to lay at night and stare at the flame in the bottom of the furnace. It whooshed on every half hour or so in winter, lighting the basement in a flash of orange. Then the fan would chirp on and blow the heat around the house for a few minutes until it crackled and banged back to rest.

The night Joe knocked on the door I thought it was the furnace. “Yo.” I was half asleep, but I knew that it was summer and the furnace wasn’t on. I listened again. When I heard my name I knew it wasn’t the furnace.

“Yo, Mann. Let me in.”

“Joe? Joe, is that you?” I crawled from bed and searched for the lamp, tripped over a shoe and kicked something hard, probably a dumbbell. As I hopped around I fell over the chair and landed on the table where the lamp was. I crushed the table and the lamp. While laying on top of them on the floor I found the lamp switch. I tried it but it didn’t work.

Joe called from the window again, “Jesus Christ, what’re you doing in there? Come on.”

“Yeah. Yeah. Fuck…Wait a minute.” I was tangled in the lamp cord and I tripped again. This time I went head first into the mini-fridge in the corner. The door flew open and shed light on the freshly destroyed room. I heard Joe say “Finally” as I unlocked the basement door.

“Hey,” I said leaning against the door jamb and rubbing my forehead. “What’s up?”

He looked around at the room. “Question is, ‘What’s up with you?’ You ok?”

“Yeah, a few technical difficulties. Come on in.” I shut the door behind him. “Anyway, what are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be in jail?”

“You know the deal with that.”

I walked over and turned on the overhead light. Joe grabbed a beer from the mini-fridge and shut the door.

“So, how’d you get out?”

Joe sat down on the sofa and took a long drink of beer. “Ah Mann, it was so fucking easy. This dude showed me how. He’s been doing it for years. It’s so easy. All I did was wait for suppertime when everyone was going to the mess hall, and I slipped down the delivery ramp out back. I snatched a few aprons to throw over the wire and here I am.”

“Well, good to see you. How they treating you?” I pushed some of the debris off of the sofa and sat down next to Joe.

“I don’t know. It’s pretty laid back. But they make you go to school. It ain’t bad, but it’s slow. I met some dudes, though. We’ve been talking, sharing stories about thieving and shit. You can learn a lot in juvy.” He stood up and paced around the room.

“You alright? You seem jumpy.”

“Yeah. I just gotta move around. It’s tight in there. Anyway, I got a date with one of Gina’s friends later. I just wanted to stop by and say ‘hey,’… let you know I was out, least for now, ‘til they come and get me.”

“You going back?”

“Yeah. I figure I ain’t going to run. I’ll do the time and I’m free when I’m eighteen. No problems.”

“That’s a long way off.”

“Yeah,” he said, sitting back down. “It’s just time, though. I mean, I’d rather be out here running the streets and partying, but hey, at least I’m getting an education and besides,” he shrugged his shoulders, “Don’t do the crime if …”

“So, what’s it like in there?”

“Nothing special. They just hassle you all the time and make you go to classes. And the counselors try to figure out what’s wrong. They call your parents in for group therapy and all that shit.” He thought for a moment. “They try not to give you any down time, talk about spending your time constructively. At least that’s what they tell you. But once you’re in there it’s easy to stay off the radar. But if they catch you standing around they assign you work.”

“What do they make you do?”

“I don’t know, clean toilets, work in the kitchen. Shit like that. They say they’re teaching us job skills. Can you see me cleaning some fucker’s toilet. I’ll chop his ass up and flush him down it before I’ll clean it.”

“I hear that.”

“Learning to cook ain’t bad, though. But I ain’t washing dishes. And I ain’t peeling no fucking potatoes. That’s Gomer Pyle bullshit. But you got to do it or they take away privileges.”

“Privileges?” I handed Joe another beer from the mini-fridge. “What privileges?”

He popped the top of the can. “What they call a privilege is permission to smoke, or talk to other people, or work out. Shit like that.”

“That sucks.”

“Yeah, but…I don’t know. If you don’t fuck with them so much, it ain’t too bad.”

“I don’t know. That’s not for me.”

“Yeah, listen, I gotta get out of here. I gotta meet Gina’s friend. You wanna come?”

“Nah, it’s cool. Go have fun.”

“Yeah, I need to cum before the cops come. I’ll stop back and see you later.”

“Cool.”

Joe didn’t stop back that weekend, but he did several times that summer. Sometimes he had a car, sometimes we just hung out and talked. It felt good. Joe was the only person who really understood me. But each time we talked, I noticed a little more that Joe was changing.