In the summer of 1967, before any of us were eligible to be drafted and given the opportunity to die in Viet Nam, I convinced Clark Gregory to go to church with me. It wasn't like I was trying to save him from sin or keep him from roasting in Hell by dragging him with me to services on a Sunday morning, but it was more that there were bunches of girls going to the Southern Baptist church I grew up in right then and it seemed like I needed somebody to help me get in position to get my hands on a few of them. Now unlike me, Clark was a good-looking guy, a damn girl-magnet almost, and he had this flashy Plymouth Barracuda his parents had helped him buy because he was their only child and needed such a chariot to cruise around in, while I was at best average looking and mediocre in personality and talents and didn't have a car on top of that, so I deduced that Clark might be a good candidate to partner with me in my efforts to get laid that summer. I was thinking maybe I could be a scavenger and live off the friends of the girls he went after, sort of save them from their loneliness in an opportunistic hyena kind of way.
"Boy, there are a lot of girls here," he told me that first June Sunday. "How come you never told me about this before?"
"Because I wanted them all for myself," I said, watching three scrumptious representatives in their Sunday finest walk by us on their way into church. They were carrying bibles in their arms and had purses slung across their sleeveless shoulders. "Then I decided there were way too many of them for me to handle. I was outnumbered. That's where you come in." I motioned toward the trio of girls going down the walk past a car parked on the curb with two more morsels just like them getting out and flashing eye-pleasing legs as they did.
"I'll do my best to help you out," Clark said.
"I've got confidence in you," I said, patting him on the back like I was a coach and he was my star player.
We heard the sound of the organ cranking up through the open doors of the auditorium. I thought how keeping the doors open was allowing all the cold air inside to get out and how it would get hot up in the balcony, which was where all the girls sat. I thought of how when I got too warm my neck always started sweating and sooner or later I had to take off my tie. Clark said, "Let's go in now and maybe we can sit beside those two that just went in."
It did get hot. I fell asleep during the sermon while Clark surveyed a preponderance of legs on display around him in the balcony. When I woke up he was all in for our summer alliance, and I went home and took a nap in my room while my mother fixed Sunday dinner.
That night the two of us went back to church for evening services. Even though my folks were dyed-in-the-wool Baptists from way back it had been a long time since I'd gone to church on a Sunday night. Maybe three or four years. Maybe I'd been a regular at training union and church until the Beatles first appeared those years back on Ed Sullivan and then begged for so long and hard that my parents finally relented and let me stop going. Whatever the reason, it had been a while.
When Clark and I pulled into the lot, Sheila Grace was standing by her VW Bug looking at one of her tires that had gone flat. I didn't know Sheila much -- she was three years older than me -- and I only saw her on the weekends when she decided to come home from college. Her mother was the church secretary and she had a sister named Donna who was two years younger. For a couple of years I'd been trying to decide from afar which sister was the prettiest. Probably Sheila had the nicest face, but Donna had the better body. As far as I was concerned they were both okay in lots of ways.
Clark never asked me the first thing about her. He'd never set eyes on Sheila up till then, but that didn't seem to matter. He switched off the ignition and got out of the Barracuda without saying a word. Before I was able to get out on my side he was already standing by Sheila. She was smiling and pointing at her car. Looking at them together, side by side like they were, Sheila didn't seem so much older anymore.
"If you've got a spare I can fix it for you right now." I could hear Clark's voice as I got near them.
"Would you? That would be wonderful. I have to get home." Sheila laid her hand on Clark's wrist. "I've got a date coming to pick me up in about thirty minutes."
"Maybe I won't fix it for you then," Clark grinned at her, "if it's going to be that way. Maybe if I don't fix it you'll be stuck here and you'll have to go out with me instead."
Now this was the kind of thing I would have never had the nerve to say, but there Clark was saying it, and damned if it didn't seem like it was working.
"Oh, I couldn't do that," Sheila said. "I couldn't just stand somebody up. But maybe I will sometime. Just not tonight. I can't tonight."
"You'll have to promise," Clark said. "Otherwise I'm not going to get all dirty and greasy for nothing."
I felt like I was intruding or something just standing there, but Sheila looked over and saw me and smiled.
"Hi, David," she said. It was the first time I could remember her ever speaking to me.
"Hi, Sheila," I said.
The next thing I knew I was standing by the VW watching Clark remove lug nuts and hand them to me. We jacked up the bumper and I helped him pull the tire off and put the spare on, me not doing that much work to speak of but trying to at least look to Sheila like I was halfway adept at this business of being a male in shining armor and helping out a fair maiden in distress. I didn't really mind Clark being the one down on the asphalt straining and sweating and getting dirty because I wasn't sure I could get such a job accomplished if I was by myself, and it also left me free to stand beside Sheila and talk to her while I looked her over when I thought she wasn't paying attention.
The tire got changed in plenty of time for Sheila to get back home for her date, so she gave each of us a peck on the cheek and got in her VW and drove away. I wasn't so sure about Clark, but I could smell her perfume when she got up close and it still lingered after she was gone. I didn't want to mention this to Clark because I didn't want him thinking about it much. I wanted him to forget Sheila so I could have her to myself, or at least that's the way I was planning it out in the fantasy world up in my head.
Evening Worship had already started, which hardly mattered to us right then, so we leaned against the Barracuda's back bumper and smoked cigarettes waiting for the service to end and whatever girls were inside the auditorium to come out for us to look at. I guess we were like wild animals laying in wait on the savannah for some prey to come along or something. The sun was setting and the church courtyard had that kind of hovering glow like it is when the sky can't decide if it's night or day.
"Man, I love summer," said Clark. "I could drop out and never go to school again."
"You've got three months to enjoy it." I watched a couple of kids go by on bikes down the sidewalk, probably getting ready to turn the corner and go down to the Dairy Dip for an ice cream cone. It was that time of the summer day. I remembered how I used to pedal along behind my big brother and Ronnie Fussell and Henry Winters. They were four years older than me and it was hard to keep up. It wasn't like they wanted me along. They always pedaled as fast as they could, up hills and winding through alleys, just to leave me behind so they could go somewhere and smoke cigarettes and talk dirty. I didn't really want to be with them anyway, but there weren't any kids my age in the neighborhood. It was either try to catch them or end up alone.
In a few minutes the doors opened up and people came outside to go home. The pickings were pretty slim as far as prospects went, so after surveying the field a few minutes we got into the car and took off. We drove over to Main Street and cruised around a while until we saw a guy who looked like he could use a couple of bucks, so we pulled up beside him to see if he was willing to go inside the curb market and buy us some Colt 45 Malt Liquor. Neither one of us had ever had malt liquor before but the stuff was real popular at the moment; something about there being more percent of alcohol than regular beer and its being able to get a person drunk in a real jiffy probably had a lot to do with it.
"Yeah, I'll do it," he said, leaning his head in the passenger window like he'd never seen a hot car like this before. "It'll cost you two dollars and two cans of the Colt."
Two dollars and two cans of malt liquor seemed like a small price to pay for a Sunday summer night's entertainment, so we pulled over in the lot and waited while he went in. This wasn't the first time I'd had to use some scruffy street person to get illegal alcohol into my hands -- heck, I was getting to be an old hand at this procedure by this time -- but I was still always unnerved at giving some shady character my dough and being at his mercy until he came back with the goods. I always half-expected the guy to take off out a rear door with my money and leave me out both financially and without any balm for my soul. It hadn't happened to me yet, but I still longed for the day when I wouldn't have to do this anymore, when I'd be legal at last, or at least look old enough where I could go in with a fake ID and get what I wanted without any underground assistance.
Everything went fine. The guy came out with our two six packs (we'd decided to get two just to make sure we'd get good and drunk) minus two, and we thanked him and drove off as fast as we could, just in case the Vice Squad was staked out anywhere near. Once we got on a back street I opened a can and passed it over to Clark. He waited until he came to a four-way stop, then he turned the can up and drank like he'd just finished traipsing through the wilderness with Moses.
"Ah," he said.
"Looks to me as if you like this stuff," I said.
"Tell you what, I like that Sheila Grace even more," he told me. "I've been thinking about her. Damn, I haven't seen anything that fine in a long time."
"She's older than you," I cautioned. "She goes to Tennessee Tech."
"I don't give a shit if she goes to Harvard."
"She's got a sister," I said.
Clark had a job for the summer at the city park service, riding around in a truck with a bunch of other hung-over guys smoothing dirt on infield diamonds and cutting grass and picking up trash eight hours a day. I guess I could have gone downtown and put in an application too, but I didn't know anybody to put in a word for me, so I thought it would be a waste of time. For the past two summers I'd made some money helping this old alcoholic who lived down the street paint houses for a real estate company, and other than breathing fumes and sweating and listening to him sing Elvis songs all day long it wasn't that bad a way to make a little dough. It wasn't like I had to work for a legitimate company every day. I could show up or not and there would be no consequence. If I worked he paid me; if I stayed in bed from too much beer and stuff the night before it didn't matter. Old Elvis Jr. really didn't care if and when he finished a house. He was getting paid by the hour.
On the Monday morning after drinking too much Colt 45 with Clark the night before I decided not only not to go to work that day but to terminate my painting career forever. I didn't feel like smelling paint with a hangover all the way up until Labor Day.
I slept until noon and walked up the road to Lawson's Foodland, first to buy a loaf of bread and a package of bologna and second to see if they were hiring anybody this summer to stock or bag or push a mop around. I knew a guy who worked back in the meat department part-time and he took me to see Charlie Lawson. I got a job right off the bat, since some kid had just walked off the job Saturday afternoon, so I walked home with my meat and bread and an Orange Crush in a bag and an apron and a black string tie for my new job as a bagger.
The phone was ringing when I got in the door.
It was Clark, home already from his job, since he'd not felt so well in the June sun and had been moved to go over behind a porta-potty and throw up.
"I told them I had the flu," he said.
"I'm sure they believed you," I said. "I know I would have."
"I think we ought to go by Sheila Grace's house sometime real soon," he said, getting right to the reason he'd called. "Like maybe tonight. I got her number, you know. I could call her up. She sort of owes me, so I might as well jump in there while it's fresh in her memory."
"So go. What do you need me for?"
"I don't know her that well. She at least knows your name. With you around I wouldn't feel like such a mysterious stranger. We could talk about your church or something. Plus," and I could sense him grinning on his end of the line, "I don't know where she lives. You could show me her house."
In a way I wanted to tell him to go screw himself. All last night, from the minute we'd spotted Sheila with her tire and the two of them had stood by each other I'd started feeling jealous. I wanted it to be me who stood beside long and lean Sheila with her pixie-cut hair and green eyes. I wanted to be the only one who changed her tire and felt her fingers on my wrist and her kiss on my cheek. But I didn't. I just told him to come by about seven.
"So you've got one more year of high school and then you're off to college." Sheila was sitting on one of the chairs on her porch, looking over at me by my lonesome on a slightly rusted glider. A soft drizzle was falling on the tiny lawn and the sidewalk in front of her house. She was eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream and licking the spoon with her lips. She'd offered me a bowl too, but I'd turned her down. I figured with my talent I'd get ice cream stuck above my mouth and end up looking like an albino Adolf Hitler without knowing it.
"I guess," I said. "Unless we decide to escalate a little more and start drafting kids from high school to go get killed early." I listened to the sound of the Beatles coming from the living room console inside. It was the old stuff I'd skipped church for those years ago, Lennon and McCartney wanting to hold somebody's hand, seeing some girl standing across a room and wanting to kiss her while her eyes were closed. Clark was inside with Donna somewhere. We'd got lucky when we drove up to the house and seen Sheila sitting on the porch. We parked and walked up in her yard to talk and Donna had opened the door to see who it was. Clark had taken one look at Donna and decided he liked her better than Sheila. It was okay by me. At least he hadn't decided he wanted them both. He could have probably gotten away with it. Like I said, he was a good-looking guy.
"I know some boys who are over in Viet Nam right now," Sheila said. "A couple of them got drafted, but a few of them enlisted." She studied the contents of her bowl, like there might be something of interest buried beneath the frozen cream. Her legs were long like a model's. She was probably three inches taller than her sister. Donna was shorter and curvier. Her breasts were larger than Sheila's, so I knew one good reason why Clark had left me with Sheila.
I flicked at a gnat trying to land on my knee. "Do you like the Beatles?"
"Sometimes." She looked over at me like I'd asked her something she'd never really wanted to think about. In fact, instead of dying in Nam or if the war was ever going to end all I really wanted to think about was girls and music and getting out of my tree. It seemed like knowing everyone's favorite Beatle song was a lot more important than life and death and coming home crazy from too much Agent Orange. I heard Donna laugh through the screen door from something Clark had said, and I wished we'd go inside and join them and listen to an album or two.
"I don't like their new stuff as much," she said. "I think they talk about drugs too much." She laid down her bowl on a table and looked at me. "You don't do drugs or anything, do you?"
I shook my head. I didn't tell her how my head was still aching from too much malt liquor the night before.
The door swung open and Clark and Donna stepped out on the porch. The Beatles were still in the living room pledging all their loving. I was about eye-level with Donna's breasts. She wore some kind of little thin blouse with ship anchors above each breast, and I had to work to keep from staring too much. Of course I was sitting there all freaked out anyway, since there I was still in high school and there was this great-looking college girl who was out of my league sitting on a porch with me. I mean, I knew I didn't stand a chance with her when it came down to it in the end, but still, here I was right now. And there was Clark with Debbie, and that was hard to figure out too. A part of me thought what was going on was Clark and I were both of us just little momentary diversions for these girls from out of our wildest dreams and it would all come to an end pretty soon, yet the fact couldn't be disputed that at the moment the two of us were right where we never imagined we'd ever have the good fortune to be.
"It's stopped raining," Donna said.
We all turned and looked out at the street, long enough to see a black Chevy Nova cruise by slowly with its windows down and Mick Jagger singing about time being on his side. The volume was up high, and I could feel the metal arm of the glider vibrate against my elbow.
"Looks like Ron's checking up on you, Sis," Sheila said.
The car and the sound of Mick's voice drifted around the corner, and in a minute Donna started down the steps. "Come on, everybody," she said. "Let's go for a walk."
I guess I was the only one the least bit concerned about the soft rain and the black Chevy and whoever Ron was that was driving it, but I followed everyone anyway down the damp walk and out to the street. Clark's car was parked by a church two doors up on the opposite side facing us, so we walked that way, I supposed, to get in and take off somewhere. But every few steps Donna would stop and point at something on the rock wall that bordered the church, and Clark would walk with her and look at what she saw.
"Look at that slime," she said. "It looks like snot."
A battalion of slugs were inching their way toward some destination, all clinging to the wall in their sticky goo. Clark kept lighting them on fire with his Zippo, and for ten seconds at a time we all stood transfixed watching each slug wither up and turn black and fall off the wall from their safety mucus and tumble to the sidewalk all crumbled and charred and scorched. Sometimes the other slugs would inch up to where the burning took place, following the trail of slime like it beckoned them to draw near.
"Slugs are hermaphrodites," I said. "They can be male or female, either way. Sometimes they leave a trail behind so another slug can find them and they can mate. Then they both lay eggs and have little baby slugs." I don't know why I was bothering to let everyone in on this, but I did. I didn't even know I knew all this until right then, but I remembered reading it in a book before. I usually never remember anything but I remembered this and I didn't know why.
"I think they're gross," Sheila said.
For a while we sat on the rock wall and talked, but Donna and Sheila never acted like they wanted to go anywhere. Clark told a lot of stories I knew weren't true and I added in a few tall tales too, and everybody laughed for a while until Donna said she had to go in. She was working in the morning and had to go to bed. I watched her and Sheila go inside the house and then walked up to get in the Barracuda as fast as I could, trying to hurry Clark along too so we could get up the road and away. I wasn't in a hurry to be anywhere really, but I wanted not to be sitting by the church wall if that black car came around the block again. I didn't really know why I was thinking about it so much.
After about a week more into the summer I found out that Sheila had a boyfriend over in Viet Nam, how maybe they were serious and maybe they weren't, but that Sheila had it halfway in her mind that she was going to be somewhat true to him until he came back and they worked it out one way or the other. Donna, on the other hand, had a bevy of boys chasing her, both at school in Clarksville and here at home. It was like she exuded this scent like those slugs on the wall and none of them could help but follow her around.
So, yes, Clark and I were younger, and that seemed to signify we weren't supposed to be considered serious suitors. We both knew how that age factor thing worked, but there was something about the Grace Sisters that told us to stay in the running whichever way we could for as long as we could manage it. There were other girls around, but they weren't like Donna and Sheila Grace -- that was for sure. This was a time and a place and a set of circumstances we were probably never going to see again, so there was something that told us to enjoy it while we could.
"We'll take them to the lake," Clark told me. "We can do some kind of a cookout, grill some burgers or hot dogs." He was trying to come up with some kind of plan where he could get Donna off with him somewhere, ply her with alcohol or a joint maybe. He was absolutely convinced she was no different from any other girl he'd ever been around. She was just older, that was all. I held no such fantasies for myself, but I hadn't yet given up total hope that somehow some miracle might occur and I would be granted a miniscule trace of sexual access to Sheila Grace. I kept thinking how I should try and convince Clark that the two of us would have a much better chance getting that dirty prize we were after by going after girls closer to our own age, but the idea of possibly grabbing the gold ring on this last summer before our world turned adult was too tempting to simply pass up without giving it our best shot.
"It's your idea," I said. "You tell me what to do."
"Just make sure you're off on Wednesday. That's Donna's off day. Sheila hasn't found a job yet."
"What makes you think they'll go to the lake with us?"
"I just got a feeling. That's all. I think Donna likes me whether she wants to admit it or not. Get a little liquor in her and who knows?"
"It won't be that easy with Sheila. I'm not even sure she'll go, much less drink anything."
"That's why we've been going to church so regularly lately. We're trying to get close to God. Maybe if you pray hard enough he'll give you Sheila as a reward for all your holiness and good works. Miracles happen, you know."
"That's what it would be," I said. "A regular damn miracle. Moses parting the goddamned Red Sea."
"Could be," Clark grinned. "I always did think you looked a lot like Charlton Heston."
"Let it be written," I said. "Let it be done."
We picked Sheila and Donna up a little before lunch that Wednesday. Clark was happy and playing his 8-track as loud as it would go. I was totally astonished this cookout was really happening, that I was actually sitting in the back seat of the Barracuda with a female as pretty as Sheila Grace. I heard the Beatles singing "She Loves You" on the tape player and tried to convince myself how there was a chance that might be true, but I wasn't so far gone in my fantasy that I was able to go completely over to Never Never Land. We had ground beef for hamburgers and chips in the trunk. There was a cooler full of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Coca Colas and a bottle of Ancient Age bourbon in a paper sack, just in case anybody wanted to get totally exotic and out there. And I was sure old Clark had a joint stashed somewhere.
We got to the lake and parked by a makeshift beach. Clark and Donna immediately started peeling clothes and ran out into the water while Sheila and I sat on a blanket and watched them. I didn't want to swim because I was afraid Sheila would see how scrawny and measly I was in the muscle department without my shirt on, and I was pretty sure she didn't want me looking at her body much either. I decided to drink beer like I was a real he-man and chase it down with bourbon on the side.
"You ought not to drink too much out here in the sun," she said. "You shouldn't mix it. You'll end up getting sick." Then she got up and walked down toward the water, cupping her palm over her eyes so she could look out and see what Clark and Donna were doing.
"I'm used to it," I said. But I wasn't.
She walked on down a little and then started walking the beach by herself. There was nobody but us around anywhere, and I sat there and watched her for a minute. Then I thought I wasn't being much of a date and made myself get up to go join her. I figured I could tell her some funny stories or something and she'd have no choice but to fling herself on me and we could roll around in the white sand that had been dumped there to make the place look tropical.
When I caught up with her she was crying. She wasn't sobbing all-out in a frenzy like her heart was breaking in twain, but her eyes were wet.
"I've just been thinking about Jimmy," she said. "I wonder what he's doing right now, if he's getting shot at or something like that. Then I think of me out here on a picnic like it doesn't matter."
"It's not your fault he got drafted."
"Maybe not. But it still doesn't excuse me being out here having a party while he's gone."
"You act like maybe you're in love with him, like you're waiting on him to come back."
"Lately I don't know what in the heck I'm doing."
I don't know what it was that got into my head that afternoon, whether I was just plain and outright defeated by the thought of some soldier boy halfway across the globe being a hero while I was simply this stupid kid who didn't even have a car, or if it was there was something diabolical in me and I knew the only way I was going to get my paws on Sheila Grace at this stage of the game was by putting on an Oscar-caliber performance and making her think I was a whole lot more interesting than she thought I was.
I started drinking the Pabst in the cooler and the bourbon in the paper bag. I wasn't truly guzzling or imbibing any of it half as much as it appeared, but I was making it a point for Sheila to think I was. Actually I was spitting most of the bourbon out when she wasn't looking, I was taking a bottle of beer out into the shallow water and pouring some of it into the lake when I could. I was getting drunk, sure, but I was nowhere near as far along as anyone thought I was.
The thing was Clark and Donna didn't care what I was doing. After Clark had grilled some burgers and we'd all eaten he and Donna took off in the Barracuda and drove away, presumably, I thought, to find a place where they could make out without Sheila and me seeing them. It pissed me off them leaving, though, since it was becoming clear nothing was going to happen between Sheila and me, but in a way I was glad too. I was happy for them to be gone so I could step up my hard-drinking performance with Sheila some without having Clark around to start laughing at the pitiful lengths I was going to. I sat on the blanket and talked about my secret life that Sheila knew nothing about, how hard and tragic and lonely it had been for me as long as I could remember. I thought if she believed I was bound to drink myself to death to escape my sad existence she might forget our age difference and stop being true to Mr. Lonely Soldier Boy and decide how on this bright yellow summer day it might be wonderful to simply close her eyes and kiss me and let everything else in the world go.
My plan didn't work. Sheila never did succumb to my woeful tale. I'll give her credit for listening to me and being the slightest bit concerned for my welfare -- at one point she did scoot over and wipe the sweat off my brow with a paper towel -- but as far as something sexual being ignited in her by my wretched state it was no soap. To make it worse, after a while the sun and the warm bourbon and the Pabst Blue Ribbon began percolating the undigested burger in my stomach, and I had to get up off the blanket and go down the beach and throw up. I don't know if Sheila was watching me or not, but it was terrible any way I looked at it.
After my guts were emptied I walked out in the water and submerged myself in about five feet of muddy water, which was about as deep as the lake got. I stayed underwater a while holding my breath, hoping when my air ran out and I came back to the surface Clark and Donna would be back and we could all go home.
"Tell me if there's anything I can do for you." We were on the way home from the lake and Sheila and I were in the back seat. She had her window down so she could flick the ashes from her cigarette out into the air, which surprised me, since I didn't know she smoked and had never seen her do it before. I hadn't smelled it on her breath anytime, but maybe that was because I hadn't been able to get close enough to her for my nostrils to detect anything. That or I was just a dumbass and couldn't pick up on anything right in front of me. "Maybe if you'd lay your head back and close your eyes you'd feel better." She was real concerned-looking, like she was afraid I might die and she'd end up being held responsible.
I remembered how not even two weeks ago getting Sheila Grace off to myself seemed like the most important thing in the world. "You're a pretty strange guy," she had told me after I'd talked about how screwed up I thought the world was, and then she'd smiled and given me another quick peck on my cheek. I didn't know whether to try and grab her or not. We were sitting in her Bug at a Big Boy, drinking pink lemonades under a canopy. It was mid-afternoon and nobody was parked anywhere around and no cars were cruising the lot. I'd just got off work and Sheila had come into the store to get some things for her mother and had offered to give me a ride home. I'd felt a big surge of self-satisfaction when I walked out with her, knowing all the guys working at the time were watching and wondering what I'd done to get such a good-looking girlfriend.
In the Barracuda's back seat right that moment Sheila didn't look half as good to me as before. I don't know if she was simply not as pretty as I'd thought she was, or if it was I considered myself so goddamned ugly and stupid at the moment I couldn't stand being around her anymore. I was either ashamed of myself or just didn't want to be around anyone or anything for a while.
"Don't worry about me," I told her. "I'll be all right. I might just have the flu or something."
"You could try not drinking up all the beer in the cooler and half of the bourbon the next time we do this," Clark said, looking at me in the rearview mirror. I could see him grinning. "That might help, you know." He shook his head and kept on driving.
I spent the next week in hiding. For a while I thought about doing it the rest of the summer, but I still had to show up for work, although why I needed money when all I was going to do was hide in my room was a mystery to me. I walked to the store every day hoping nobody would drive by and see me, but one night I saw Clark pull into the parking lot while I was loading groceries in a car. He parked and met up with me as I was rounding up some bascarts from a corral. It was one of the prime rules at Lawson's Foodland -- every time you went out in the lot with one buggy you always had to bring another one in with it.
"Thought maybe you'd died or something," he said.
"I was hoping I would," I said. "I figured since I'd fucked up my entire life there was no use living anymore. I was waiting around to drop dead of shame."
"You fucked it up pretty good," he agreed. "I was just glad you didn't puke inside my car. Glad you had the decency to do it out on the beach."
"It wasn't much of a beach," I said. "It was mostly dirt."
We were okay with it after that. Clark waited around until I got off and we drove down to Main Street and found another friendly vagrant to buy us some beer. This time we got Schlitz. We were making it a point to try out every brand that summer, not to discriminate against any of our brewing friends up in Milwaukee.
We drove by Sheila's house against my wishes, but that black Nova we'd seen a few weeks back was parked out front, and we knew old Ron was paying Donna a formal visit. Right then I didn't think it bothered Clark too much, since he didn't go into a shit-fit about it, and he drove on by and stopped at the sign at the end of the street. "I hate it when I get lied to," he said finally. "I talked to her this afternoon and asked her what she was doing tonight. Nothing, is what she told me." He turned around and looked back down the street. "Sure looks like nothing to me. Looks to me like she's got a date with that damn Ron."
"Maybe he just showed up on his own."
"Fuck him and her. Damned if I'll put up with it."
I never had seen Clark get upset over a girl before, mainly because, like I said, he was a good-looking guy and too damned smart to let any one girl mess with him, and also because I'd never really been around him that much until the last couple of weeks. We'd been friends for a while but never that close. We had some classes together. We knew the same people. But we didn't spend the night together at each other's houses talking until dawn and sharing our innermost secrets. He didn't have to go to church all the time like I always had to, where I'd get kicked out of the family if I didn't tithe two dollars a week to the offering plate and show up for Sunday School unless there was two feet of snow on the ground. Clark got to keep his money for gas and beer and sleep in on Sunday mornings. The only time he went to church was to look for a girl.
We drove around for a few minutes past the school and through the neighborhood and passed through the park. Every time we'd come to a stop Clark would sit a minute, then reach over and turn the volume down on the radio or the eight-track and gun the accelerator and see how much rubber he and the Barracuda could peel. I prepared myself to get arrested, but we never did see a cop.
Clark called me two days later, early as hell in the morning, about as pissed off as he could get.
"When I came out to go to work this morning all my goddamn tires were slashed," he said. "Somebody came by after I got home last night and took a knife to them. I don't know if they used a box-cutter or what, but they sure as hell made a fucking mess of them. There wasn't anything I could do. Sure as shit couldn't go anywhere. Had to call work and tell them I couldn't get in."
"Who do you think did it?"
"I don't know. Far as I know, I haven't done anything to anybody for something like this to happen."
"That's fucked up," I said. I was trying to console him a little. I knew how much he loved his car. I tried to imagine how I'd feel if something like this had happened to me, but it was hard, considering I didn't have a car or tires for anybody to slash. I guessed it was almost a case of Clark being popular or notable or something, which made him into a target. Maybe it was like it was when kids got together and rolled somebody's yard with toilet paper. Maybe it was like somebody was envious or jealous and just wanted to somehow get even.
My parents were already gone to work when I went downstairs. I had a choice of eating a bowl of Kellogg's Corn Flakes with skim milk or starving, so I decided to clean up and go in to work early. I could buy a fried pie and drink a Pepsi sitting out on the curb until it was time to clock in.
A couple of dogs barked at me as I walked up the road, but they stayed in their yard and didn't come out and try to bite me. An old man was cutting his yard and lifted his hand as I passed by. I waved back.
"You're bright and early this morning," Miss Nola, the old lady morning checker said when she rung up my pie and Pepsi.
"Wasn't nothing at home to eat," I said.
"Well, that's not much of a breakfast."
I wanted to tell her it was better than what I usually had, but I didn't. I walked outside and sat down at the end of the walk. There wasn't but one car parked in the lot and whoever was in it was inside shopping. I watched a guy in a Bunny Bread truck take off some trays and load them on a four-wheeler. The sun was already beating down and I thought about going inside to get out of it, but then I imagined how I'd only have to talk to Miss Nola again if I did, and there was plenty of time left to do that today, and if I had to talk to anybody I might as well get paid for it, so I kept on sitting there.
I saw the Nova pull into the lot and just sort of creep along the blacktop a little. There were two guys in it. Ron, I assumed, was the driver, and the other guy was some greasy fucker I didn't know.
The car came my way, jumping and lurching a little as Ron let out the clutch and gave it gas, like he was priming it to fly up into the air and come down and land on me. He turned the ignition off when the car was right up on me and the doors opened and he got out on his side and his buddy got out on the other.
"I've been looking for you," he said. "I'm gonna kick your ass."
All that time I'd been sitting there trying to figure out what was happening, and when Ron was walking toward me the only conclusion I'd come to for certain was that I was getting ready to get the shit pummeled out of me. I was correct. I took a couple of punches from Ron and got socked in the head by his friend and never did get the chance to ask why I got tabbed for this honor so early in the morning.
"You keep your scrawny ass away from Donna Grace," Ron told me between blows. "Next time I come around you'll end up looking like your goddamn car."
I wanted to say how I didn't have a goddamned car and I never had even been close to Donna Grace and how this was all a case of mistaken identity and I was the wrong guy, but by this time my lip was puffy and my eyes were closing up and there was blood coming from my nose and probably a few more places I didn't know about. The Nova drove away and I sat against the side of the building huffing and trying to catch my breath and thinking how nobody had seen what happened just now and how I could have died over something I didn't even do and how Clark's dad would probably buy him new tires real soon and he'd find somebody other than Donna to screw and how Donna would end up with Ron or somebody from college and Sheila would welcome back her Soldier Boy from Viet Nam and marry him and have kids and get fat as hell, and in the meantime I here I was leaning against a goddamned grocery store building bleeding with no car and no girl and probably fixing to get fired when I left to walk home and didn't show up for work, and it was June and there were still two months left in the summer and I didn't care about girls or getting drunk every night or going back to school after Labor Day or anything. I just thought it was all a lot of crap and I didn't know how I was ever going to get out of it or through it without dying first.
I wish that was the end of it, but it wasn't.
It was maybe seven years later and the Viet Nam was over and I'd gotten myself through school on my student deferment and a high lottery number. I'd married a girl from school and worked at a Sears outlet selling chipped and scarred appliances for a couple of years and then finally went to work with my wife's brother selling and installing backyard swimming pools and spas and hot tubs and such. One day I tripped and slipped on a hose and fell on some concrete and broke my arm, and my brother-in-law had to run me to the emergency room. He was real disgusted, not just with how clumsy I was but also with himself for ever being stupid enough to hire a dumbass like me.
I was sitting on a table in the emergency room, waiting for somebody to come in and give me a prescription and tell me what to do with my arm the next two months. They gave me a shot and set the cast and made me wait for the plaster to get hard, and I was just sitting feeling drugged when Donna Grace walked in wearing a pink dress and a nurse's cap with a clipboard in her hand.
"Is that really you?" she asked.
I told her it was.
"The last I heard of you," she said, "was you'd gone and graduated early. You went out of state to school."
"Not that far. Appalachian State. Boone, North Carolina. I just never came back home much."
"I never saw Clark again much after that either."
"You can blame your old boyfriend for that. He couldn't tell either of us from the other. Clark disappeared before he was the next one to lose his teeth."
"That jerk. I don't know what ever happened to him."
"Clark went to Nam. He's dead now."
"I heard. That was terrible." She fiddled with my arm a little. "You better wait a few minutes and let this cast settle some more."
"Married. Lives in Houston. Two kids. I hardly ever see her."
I wanted to ask if Sheila's husband was the soldier, Jimmy, but the truth was I didn't want to know one way or the other. I looked at her and she was still quite pretty, this Donna, this woman I had taken a beating for no reason for, but she was still older than me when it came down to it. She was the little sister and I was younger than her and Sheila was older than both of us. It had been years ago and I was sitting on a hospital table still feeling like I was some kind of a goddamned kid. I knew I wasn't, but it felt that way.
"Sit here and rest a minute," she said. "Then we'll see about letting you go home."
I laid my head on a pillow and closed my eyes for maybe ten minutes. Whatever I tried to remember about Clark and the Grace Sisters was all foggy and murky in my head along with the shot they gave me for pain, and in a few minutes another nurse came in and told me I could go.
I walked out into the lobby and didn't see Donna anywhere. My brother-in-law was reading a Sports Illustrated, and he saw me and got up. We walked out and got into his pickup. On the radio "Hey Jude" was playing, and I reached over with my good arm and turned it off.
Article © Ralph Bland. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-07-17
Image(s) are public domain.