Twenty Nine.

 To Old Times

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

“Meet me at The Well.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Feels good, Mann. Feels good.”

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

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

“Who was that?”

“That…was Bang Bang.”

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

“Me neither. She saw me.”

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

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

“Cool. But she was jerking you off…?”

“My idea.”

“Of course.”

“For old time’s sake.” Joe smiled.

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

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

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

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

“You Tripp?” Joe asked.

“Yeah, who the fuck are…”

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

“I don’t know…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our work here is done.”

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

Joe noticed. “What’s up?”

“I got to piss.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

“Debbie, how you doing?”

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

“Hey Mann, you know Debbie, right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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