It was my last night home before returning to college for another year, and I wanted to get drunk. I wasn’t supposed to see friends that night as a courtesy to my parents, since they bought the plane ticket, but the house was silent by ten and I became anxious. I had spent two weeks with the family, holed up in what had become my younger brother’s room reading about the glory that was this or that while two parents yelled across the house over two blaring televisions from separate bedrooms. I was packing the shirts that my mom had folded, fixing the collars (she always creased them the wrong way). I had reached the end of my leash-I needed some air. I tossed a neatly folded shirt toward my bed, which deployed in midair like a parachute and fell to the floor. Unzipping the inner bag on my suitcase, I fished for the pack of cigarettes that was purchased for the trip back. As I turned the light off I looked at the pile of clothes next to the unpacked suitcase and figured that chore could be delayed until the early morning. I went out for a walk, and by a walk I mean a cigarette, because my parents didn’t know I smoked. My dad was asleep in his office, which consisted of a bed, a TV, and a bloated immobile man, with a rerun of Cheers blaring a laugh track in response to Sam Malone’s wit. As I quietly latched the front door behind me, the porch light destroyed the darkness outside his door to the carport. “Where you goin’?” called the sleepless bourbon voice. “For a walk,” and I stepped off the porch, trying to avoid further conversation. If your daddy’s rich, take a ride for a mile, but if your daddy’s poor, you just do what you feel, or so the song goes. Our driveway was pretty long (my dad’s not rich, he’s a farmer) and it got pretty cold at night, even in the summer, and I always forgot to take a jacket. A cool breeze hit me from the east. A pack of stray neighborhood dogs were sniffing each other’s asses on the other side of the ditch that runs parallel to my parents’ driveway. I could see my dog running to join them, in turn getting his ass sniffed. Nights like this, where there wasn’t much moonlight, made me wish that the dog was with me. I was certain that there were skunks lurking in the weeds ahead, and like small gang members or an unknowable fear, they wouldn’t hesitate to fuck with a guy if you gave them a chance. I had never been sprayed (knock on wood) but I wished the damn dog would’ve come along. It was dark enough that I wanted to put some distance between me and the house before I thought about lighting my cig. I turned out of the driveway onto the road the County had been threatening to pave for several years. My shirt clung to my side from the night breeze, forcing me to walk with my hands buried in my pants pockets, arms stiff against my sides, and shoulders shrugged to stave off the late summer night. Walking along the dirt road, I could see the glow of headlights approaching from behind, so I stepped onto the shoulder and clung to the fence-line with the weeds. An El Camino blaring Mexican radio out of open windows rolled by and slid around the corner. I took to the road once again, and the rustling caused the neighbor’s Rottweiler to run toward me as far as his chain would allow. He howled and growled, causing the nearby pack of strays to join in chorus. They probably made fun of his chained ass, I thought. The stars were pretty bright that night. Matriculating in the Midwest might have made me forget that there were more than three stars in the sky. The way I saw it, the cosmic blueprints looked different out West, and maybe that’s what brought a certain breed out here. The outline of the mesa was visible on the western horizon where the waxing moon was about to set. (But it’s hard to talk about the way the mesa looked when the word means little more to most people than a vocabulary word on a junior high vocabulary list. I’m sure you’ve come across it before, in a short story about coyotes that can talk, written by a woman who adopted a word like Ru¡z as her first or last name, and as the result of some personal trauma, ascribed to the tenants of Magic Realism.) Looking due south, past a twenty-acre stretch of farmland, I could see our other neighbor’s house. The place was lit so bright that it looked like a minor league baseball game was being played in his front yard. Something told me that there would be beer awaiting me if I walked over there and caught the seventh-inning stretch. This was more than a hunch because this neighbor, Carlo, lived alone (aside from the occasional live-in girlfriend) and was an amazing alcoholic. I say he was amazing because he was very devout to a few things: Schlitz beer, Kool cigarettes, and golf. The latter was more of a medium for the former; granted, he was a sub-par golfer while drunk, he was just sub-par while sober. Moreover, a coyote told me he’d seen Carlo at the liquor store earlier that day. There was another ditch parallel to the one mentioned earlier, and this one led straight to his house. I turned off the road and gained the ditch bank, stopping to light a cigarette. Covering my habit made me feel like a deviant teen, yet I felt older than I was, for I was a smoker everywhere except the nave space between these two ditches. I fished in my pocket for a lighter and started at a flickering potential skunk/shadow ahead. Lighting the cigarette gave me the courage to press on toward Carlo’s house. As I approached Carlo’s property, I gathered that he had installed several large fluorescent lights around his driveway to turn night into day. I crossed the bridge spanning the ditch, taking care not to fall through the hole where one of Carlo’s misfired bottle rockets had landed and caught fire several Independence Days ago, burning a potential pitfall in the path of unfamiliar strangers lurking at night. The County had threatened to fix that as well. I approached his gate feeling like a soldier that had returned from war, not sure if our side had won. I thought of the questions people ask a college student and the permutations of their responses to my indecision: how were things going, what my major was (“That’s good!”), how many years I had left, if I had found a job yet (“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll find one soon.”). Standing outside the gate, the smell of meat cooking gave hope for the beer. Upon touching the latch, his two mutt German Shepherds growled viciously at the stranger behind the gate, pushing their noses through the tall weeds and chain link. Carlo’s voice grew louder as he approached the fence. He reprimanded the dogs with unheeded commands, “Gaucho, Gaucho heel! Heel!” One dog let out a yelp after he landed a kick in the dog’s midsection. A red-faced Carlo peered out from the opening gate. His dark complexion transformed, realizing that the stranger in front of him was his neighbor’s boy in college, a year or so older than the last time he’d seen the kid. “Hey, Jack! What are you doing here, buddy?” “Back from college to visit the folks, how’ve you been?” “You know, same old.” “Everything alright here?” “Yeah, alright. You?” “Good, real good.” “Well come on in- Gaucho, get down!” The dog was trying to make amends by humping my leg. “Look, Jack, I’m sorry. he still thinks he’s a puppy. Just kick the shit out of him if he bothers you.” I nonchalantly nudged the gyrating canine off my calf. “Don’t worry about it.” He gave up on the leg and started sniffing at my ass, reminding me of the greeting my dog received earlier. I gave him a few pats on the head and declared him a good boy. The barbecue suspicion was confirmed. Carlo had erected an adobe stove in the middle of his driveway since my last visit. Smoke was billowing out of the side, and there appeared to be a large metal compartment in the center that contained something edible. This didn’t surprise me- Carlo loved to build shit like that. What complicated
my recollection of Carlo’s yard was the kid squatting beside the fire, poking at the embers with a short stick. Had Carlo given up on fat chicks and moved on to little boys? “Jack, you remember Ric?” “I can’t say that I do.” “Really? Weren’t you here for Christmas?” “No, that was last Christmas when I saw you. Didn’t have the cash for a ticket this year.” I remember because my mom always made me take a plate of green tree-shaped cookies to him. “Well anyway, this is Ric J cquez Carlov le,” Carlo said with theatrical ethnicity. The boy looked up from under a sweat-stained little league cap with the brim pulled down to his eyes. His feet and teeth were still too big for the rest of his body. He didn’t even say hi, he just flashed a quick grin and shook his head like a little monkey. Carlo and I joined him near the stove, forming a semicircle around the fire, all three a testimony to man’s fascination with fire. Carlo opened the beer that was near his feet. Jackpot. “So how’s school?” “Good.” “What’s your major again?” Quizzically, Carlo raised the pitch of his voice a bit. “English.” “That’s good!” He nodded approvingly, “You finishing up soon?” “Two more years.” “Any luck finding a job?” “Not yet. Well, I haven’t been searching actively, but I don’t think that will be much of a problem.” “Yeah, don’t worry about it yet. I’m sure you’ll find something.” I liked the way he phrased this. I had already mastered the latter, I must be halfway home. However, at the time, I wasn’t ready to settle for just something. Carlo sat there sipping his beer, wearing the torn blue nursing scrubs from his job at the hospital. He claimed that he was a male nurse in some capacity, and he would allude to the hospital at large, but never at length. I always figured him for a janitor. He said the orderlies were going to throw out the old scrubs, but he rescued them from the dumpster for `work clothes’ and he always wore them around the house. In mind and spirits, he would tell vague stories that seemed to be pieced together from television hospital drama. The guy was dressed like an R.N. during most of his waking hours, nursing either beers or patients. He exhibited grace under fire while attending to flat-line patients or flat cans of Schlitz. I began to loathe him, especially since he hadn’t offered me a beer. The boy, Ric, looked at me as I pulled out a cigarette. “Hey,” Carlo said with an empathetic grin, “I didn’t know you smoked!” He automatically reached for the pack of Kool 100s on the picnic table behind him. Well, shit, then I should’ve offered you a beer! Ric, go get Jack a beer.” The boy ran to the garage. Carlo stared into the darkness before him, and something out of the darkness stared him in the face, something less substantial than the beer in his hand or the smudges of soot where he had invariably run his fingers across his forehead. “Shit, drinking a beer with Mark’s boy. Did you know I remember you since you were this big?” He held up his arms to indicate the length of a large fish. This kind of talk made me feel like I was in a pretty small pond, but I could indulge the nostalgia with a beer in hand. The boy returned, opening the bottle in front of me. It wasn’t the least bit shaken. I was in a much better mood. “Carlo, you’re moving up in the world! MGD in bottles?” “Yeah, well I had to get bottles because cans won’t go fit in my new toy. Remember that feed store down the road that went out of business?” “Yeah, it’s out of business?” “Yeah, well, one day I saw this old Pepsi machine outside by the dumpster, you know, the old kind with the glass door that took a quarter for a twenty ounce glass bottle?” “Yeah, my dad used to buy me pop out of that machine.” “Well, it just so happened that I was in my truck, so I stopped in and asked what they were gonna do with it. They said they were just gonna to haul it to the dump, so I offered them ten bucks to take it.” You had to wonder where this was going. “So what did you do with it?” “I drilled out the lock and now I have a beer cooler in my garage!” “Wow,” I laughed, “that’s impressive.” “That’s not all I have in my garage.” I didn’t really want to see what else was in his garage, but I took comfort in the cold bottle in my hand. I was sure glad that it wasn’t Schlitz- that shit’s poison. But I was also pleased that I could retain my romantic notion of Carlo smoking Kools. “So how about you, how’ve you been?” I asked again, poking my stick at the embers. “Oh, not much is new. Still at the hospital.” “And that girl you were with?” “Laura?” “The blonde?” The fat one? “Yeah, she left me a couple of months ago,” Carlo paused for effect. “She was a city girl, Jack. We were so good together, but she just couldn’t get used to living out here. Said it was too quiet. She was visiting her mother every day, crying all the time, then one day she just packed up and left.” “Well, you know my mom’s the same way,” I offered. “She’s threatened to leave my dad since I can remember. Never could get used to the way things work out here. Always wanted to go home to her parents, but you know that can never happen.” Well, Garrison Keillor made some money saying it, so this seemed like a sound thesis. “Yeah, fuck `em,” Carlo said, not referring to any woman in particular. He reached for two more beers on the ground behind him. “I’m sure you’ve got something cooking at school.” The boy slipped into the garage with the empties and returned with four more bottles in hand. “No, I’m laying low right now, I mean, I screwed around with a few girls since I’ve been back, but nothing permanent.” “When do you go back? “Tomorrow morning, early.” I remembered that I still had to pack. “That’s too bad, I mean, we should’ve hit the little white ball around.” “Yeah, but I don’t even have my clubs with me.” “I could have found a set for you.” I never wanted to play golf when I didn’t have my clubs with me. I only felt comfortable with my set. Carlo continued, “Remember that time you hit that hole in one?” I did. That was a great day. I had just finished a round with my dad, Carlo, and my best friend. We were all pretty tired, but Carlo kept pushing us to play another couple holes so he could finish the six-pack he smuggled into his bag for the back nine. We settled on a few holes on the short nine-hole course. I hit the first shot and it dropped softly on the green. I could see that the trajectory was perfect, I even got that perfect feeling, but I figured that I had hit it too hard and that it must have gone over. The other three shots were either close to the green or on, which made us look like a respectable foursome. We couldn’t find my ball anywhere, but I was determined to cut swaths in the rough with my wedge until I found my original balWhy don’t you look in the hole, someone said. “Yeah, I remember how you said that I should look in the hole. I still can’t believe that I nailed that shot.” I remembered handshakes and laughter all around and a while later coming home, walking into the house, and seeing my dad emphatically telling my mom what his boy had done. All made possible by Carlo’s six-pack. Ric listened to this story with great interest, but he took up his stick and tended to the fire once I noticed he was listening. The embers were dying down, so Carlo put another piece of wood on the fire. “We’re going to have to go get a piece of wood that will last all night. There’s this stump I’ve been meaning to pick up, but I can’t get it by myself because of my knee. Maybe you wouldn’t mind helping me with it.” The problem with Carlo’s knee stemmed from a golfing accident. It happened as the sun rose on the downward slope of a hill that was still damp with dew. He rolled a golf cart going over the hill too fast, and he tore up some ligaments in his knee. This nagging injury was aggravated by double bogeys and ma
nual labor. He was a goddamn maniac with those carts- you’d think that you couldn’t roll something propelled by a sewing machine motor. But I felt like a good sport with a few beers in me. “Sure, I’d be glad to help you,” I obliged. “Well we might as well go before it gets too late. Ric, you should get home before your dad yells at me again.” That brought back memories. I wondered if my dad would yell at me for being out so long. I thought it was funny that my parents didn’t know where I was for a year at a time, yet, when I was home for a week, I couldn’t leave the house for an hour without worrying that my picture was already plastered on milk cartons. Ric pleaded his case, “Aw, Carlo, you promised that I could drive your truck today.” There’s no way this kid was going home without protest. “Well, you can drive my truck tomorrow. It’s past ten and you have school tomorrow.” Carlo was emulating a dad, but the kid could see right through it. “I don’t even have any homework. School is so easy. C’mon, let me drive the truck.” A moment of deliberation. “Alright, let’s go,” Carlo conceded. Ric ran to the driver’s side door, pulled it open with all of his weight, and fired up the old Ford, giving it too much throttle. He couldn’t have been that old, maybe two years younger than I was when I learned to drive an old half-ton similar to this guy’s pickup. I wondered where this tree stump was, and how far this kid would drive. Maybe he would just take us down the dirt road in second gear, then let Carlo take over. Then again, I didn’t feel so good with Carlo driving either. Carlo and I exited stage left, toward the passenger door. I downed the dregs of my Miller and followed jaunty Carlo into the truck. He handed me one of three bottles resting on the bench seat. The truck lurched forward as I opened my beer, and I sucked the rising foam from the top. Ric stalled while searching for second. “Shoot. Carlo?” “Ha, haugh! Grind it `till you find it!” Carlo was amused with himself. A dad would’ve yelled at a kid for the stalling and the throttle. “Why don’t you get the clutch fixed on this.” “Why don’t you learn how to drive! Heh!” “I’m trying,” Ric sulked. “Just put it in neutral and give it another shot.” “I know,” Ric said, although, in his flustered state, he had motioned toward the ignition with the truck still in gear. Carlo and I were thoroughly enjoying this mishap. Moments later, a firing of pistons preceded a spinning of tires, and the truck roared out of the driveway, asserting the teen’s driving prowess. Carlo and I bounced around on the bench seat, holding our beers steady, making sure that our passengers were secure. I checked for a seatbelt, but I could only find beer cans behind the seat cushion. “No seatbelts, Jack. Sorry. Besides, seatbelts won’t do a bit of good in a rollover. In fact, I had an uncle that survived a crash because he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.” Hadn’t I heard about this guy in Driver’s Ed.? Looking in the side mirror, I could see a roiling cloud of dirt behind us. The truck’s front tires crept onto the two-lane highway where it intersected the rural road. Ric leaned on the break and stood in his seat, peering over the dash, checking for cars. A couple of lurches later, we were on the road, gaining momentum. A small hatchback with a bumper sticker that read “SUBVERT THE DOMINANT PARADIGM” passed us on the right, spraying rocks from the shoulder. Here we were, approaching sixty on a state highway with open beers, no seatbelts, with a kid who couldn’t even see over the steering wheel driving. We sat in silence drinking our beers. Ric tried to turn on the radio and Carlo told him to pay attention to the road. A state cop might have received a medal for stopping a troupe like ours. “Right up here, turn left,” Carlo gestured toward a dirt road to our left. Ric turned the wheel sharply, which sent some tools rattling across the truck bed. We continued down the straight and narrow road in silence until Carlo pointed down through the window on my side, “Hey, stop. I think it’s back there.” Carlo and I jumped out of the truck and surveyed the stump situation. I couldn’t see what he was talking about. “I think you’re seeing things, Carlo.” “No, it’s here, I know it.” “Where?” “Down there.” He pointed down a twenty-foot slope, into the darkness beyond the reach of the headlights. “There?” “Yeah.” “How big?” “Pretty big, but small enough to fit in my stove.” “Let’s go take a look.” We walked down the slope with our bottles held high, slipping on loose dirt all the way down. Weeds pulled at my ankles, leaving those seeds in my shoelaces that were impossible to pick out. The ground leveled out abruptly, and I realized we were standing on the bank of an irrigation ditch. Sure enough, there was a gnarled root of a cottonwood tree sitting in front of us. It wasn’t that big, but it looked heavy as hell. I kicked a chunk of dirt off one of the roots. “How the hell are we going to get it back to the truck?” “Here, you take one end.” “No, I don’t want you to fuck up your knee.” It was time to be a hero. I downed the beer and tossed the bottle, which flew end over end, into the ditch below, hitting the water with a satisfying plunk. “Don’t hurt yourself, now.” “Don’t worry.” I was worried though. The stump resisted upheaval, but I probably could’ve picked it up a couple of years ago when I was in better shape. I was going to say something about the stump’s teleological state but figured that might go over Carlo’s head. I didn’t want to be presumptuous. “Need some help?” “Sure.” With some difficulty, we managed to awkwardly carry the object of our journey back up the slope and drop it on the tailgate. Carlo huffed and puffed all the way; I thought he was going to have a heart attack. He immediately lit a cigarette after he caught his breath. “I remember why I went to school now,” I said, delivering one of my dad’s favorite jokes about my distaste for manual labor. He laughed. “Yeah, I don’t blame you. I would’ve done the same thing.” “Do you think this is too green to put on the fire?” “I think if I can get it to catch, I can go to sleep and wake up for a nice piece of roast for breakfast.” “What is that, by the way?” “Oh, a friend of mine was hunting down south of here and he stopped by on his way home to show me the deer he got up in the Manzano Mountains.” “So he hooked you up?” “Yeah, I helped him slaughter it in my driveway. He gave me a rump roast for helping him.” “Nice.” “We’d better get back. Ric’s dad is a real bastard and he’ll have a fit if the kid isn’t home soon. If his dad’s even home.” My dad would’ve never let me stay out as Carlo or Ric’s absent father had, I thought. He wouldn’t even let me go to Carlo’s alone. Maybe there was something about Carlo that my dad knew and Ric learned that I was just beginning to figure out. We got back in the truck and Carlo took the wheel without much protest, since Ric was preoccupied with the prospect of going home to an angry father. Carlo was taking a series of backroads that led back to his place. I used to know them all fairly well. Most of the guys in high school knew the prime fishing spots back here, and it wasn’t bad practice to know a few ways off the main road to avoid the occasional speeding ticket or DWI. It reminded me of Carlo’s fidelity to Kools. Being home was different from college; it seemed like a different life, I thought. I was sure most people felt that way about the places they call home, but this would be one of the last times I would see it like this. The visits were already infrequent, and there weren’t a lot of things I could count on to stay the same. In a week I would be back in classes, and I feared the prospect of returning home, packing my clothes, and getting on a plane, almost as much as that house and that bloated man. I wondered
what my dog was doing as I stared into the space that the beams of crooked headlights portend. My speculation was jarred when Carlo slammed on the brakes and yelled, “Fuck!” “Skunk!” Ric observed. Sure enough, in the cones of dust-filled high beams, there it was, crossing the road at an angle, unhurried by the speeding vehicle that nearly turned him into a foul smell spanning a mile radius. Grace under fire in black and white. “Goddamn skunks,” Carlo’s mumbling rant came to a crescendo on skunks. “I’ve always been scared as shit over those little fuckers,” I added. “Ever been sprayed?” “Nope, but I came damn close one time when I was digging a ditch with my dad. I was cleaning out culverts and one popped out on the other side of the ditch. I tried to scare it away, but it challenged me, puffing up and raising its tail. My dad went home for the shotgun and I watched it hide in one of the culverts.” Ric asked, “Did he shoot it?” “Well,” pausing for effect now that the kid’s familiar enough to speak, “he told me to take my shovel and slide it in at one end to scare it out at his end, then run like hell.” Carlo chuckled, “Sounds like something Elmer Fudd would do.” “I was scared as shit, right, so I snuck up on the side, tossed the shovel in, and took off. As soon as I turned to run, bam! I looked over my shoulder, and there were little tufts of black hair shooting out!” Carlo was laughing uncontrollably, so I kept it rolling, “My dad said when the skunk popped out at his end, he blew it right back into the hole. When I pulled the shovel out of the other end, the skunk was plastered up against it. Smelled so bad I got the dry heaves.” We pulled into the driveway and spilled out of the truck with the laughter. Carlo composed himself, “Alright, Ric, get home. This time I mean it. I don’t want to see you getting in trouble with your dad.” “Okay,” he conceded, “can I drive your truck again tomorrow?” “We’ll see.” “Look Carlo,” I said, “I’d better be getting home too. I told my dad I was going for a walk two hours ago.” “Why don’t you stick around for a while?” “I’ve got to get up at five, man.” “Sleep on the plane. Here, I’ll get you a beer.” He was already walking away. It seemed useless to protest. Ric had been waiting for a good time to leave. “So what did you do with it?” “With what?” “The skunk.” “Oh,” I’d forgotten about that. “Just threw it in the ditch.” “Did it float?” “Yeah, but it got stuck on a tree branch in the water, and I couldn’t reach it with my shovel to push it downstream.” “Okay,” he said, satisfied with the epilogue, “I guess I’ll see you later.” He turned to leave, stopped, turned back, and asked, “Did you used to live here?” “Yeah. I used to live right over there.” I pointed in the direction of my house. “Okay.” he said, turning to leave. He didn’t have a valediction that would span a lifetime. I felt like I’d only lived there vicariously through him as I watched him dissolve into the darkness off of the stage of bright lights that Carlo had provided for us. I looked at the backdrop of stars, lighting a cigarette. “Hey, you ready for another?” I hadn’t noticed Carlo approaching. He held an open bottle in my direction. “Always.” “Hey, I’m going to turn these lights off for the night if you don’t mind.” “Go right ahead, they were getting too bright for me anyway.” Carlo crossed the yard and flipped a switch in the breaker box. “When did you install all of this?” “Oh, summer project. I wanted to be able to work around the yard at night, you know, in case I have to work on the car or have a barbecue or something.” “They’re pretty bright.” I tried to make this sound like a compliment. “Four 200 watt bulbs on each pole.” It was taking a while for my eyes to adjust to the relative darkness of the wood fire. Carlo was standing around his truck, sizing up the stump, so I got up to help him. We pulled it off the tailgate and dragged it near the fire. I used it as a chair, rocking back and forth on the unstable base. Carlo was seated on a nearby picnic table, which was one of several pieces of unconventional lawn furniture that cluttered his driveway, serving as souvenirs from local dumpsters. His eyes looked a little watery and glazed over. It didn’t take much to get one of these guys trashed, which reminded me of the buzz spreading through my body, acutely focused on my bladder. “Can I use your john?” “My what?” “Gotta piss, man.” “Oh, just go somewhere over there, away from my garden.” He pointed into the vague space away from the house. I walked into the darkness, tripping on a few pieces of wire and trash that would most likely be picked up the wind. I fumbled for my zipper, admiring the clear night. I exposed myself to the heavens, and the dogs gravitated toward the pool of urine soaking into the cracks in the soil. I turned around to see Carlo pissing a few feet away, arching his back, enjoying his relief. I never knew if he was some sort of pervert; my parents never let me come here alone, but I wondered why that kid Ric seemed so comfortable here. I returned to the fire. “So what’d you do for New Year’s, Jack?” said Carlo, still buttoning his pants as he returned. He must have forgotten that I wasn’t here for the holidays last year, so I thought I’d just tell him about the year before. “Not much, I went to this party in Albuquerque with a bunch of friends, got crazy drunk, jumped out of a tree. We went down to the plaza to see the fireworks at midnight and I took a bottle of champagne and hid it in my pants. At midnight I pulled it out and we shared the bottle with this guy and his two kids. There were cops everywhere in case of a riot, but they didn’t do a thing. Standard shit.” “Sounds like a good time.” “How was yours?” “Not as exciting, I had to work.” “That sucks.” “You’re tellin’ me. What I wouldn’t give to be your age again.” “Shit Carlo, don’t talk like that. I’m sorry I mentioned it.” “No, let’s hear a little more about it.” “Well, my friend Myles and I figured we’d be better off if we spent the day before the party drinking and sleeping. We were staying at this one girl’s house downtown. So we just chilled, played Scrabble, smoked bowls, drank screwdrivers on the roof, and watched the parades. She was setting up for the party while we watched parades in the living room, and she got pissed because we wouldn’t help or get out of the house. So she gave us some speed, she had pretty severe A.D.D., so we crushed it up, snorted it, and went to Taco Bell.” “A young guy like you,” I knew I’d said too much and here came the lecture, “your arteries are like this.” He held his hand to indicate a rigid circle. “Mine are like this,” now the hands expanded the circle, “they can expand. Imagine half of your body like this.” He pushed the skin on his cheek down, imitating a stroke victim. “I see two or three young kids a night when I work up front, always having seizures because their arteries can’t take it. There was a guy who came in a few nights ago, just shaking all over. He was sitting with his girlfriend in non-emergency, rocking back and forth. His eyes were dilated. I asked him, `What’s wrong, you do a little coke?’ He says, `Ye ye hye a little coke.’ Turns out, his girlfriend tells me, he’d done somewhere around seven lines over the span of a couple hours.” “You see a lot of that?” “Some of that, some on heroin looking for laxatives because they can’t shit.” “You ever try speed?” “No, I like mushrooms.” “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to trip. I ate some wild ones when we were camping once. My girlfriend told me they were the real thing. I thought I was going to have a heart attack.” “Definitely what you need to try, is acid.” “Acid?” “Yeah, a couple of months ago a friend of mine had some; I popped a tab under my tongue and we went down to the river on bike
s. Great time. In fact, you should definitely let me know if you find some acid.” “You don’t have any weed by any chance?” “No, I had to get rid of it all before my trip tomorrow. I don’t like to fly with bags on me,” I said. Carlo looked drunk as hell. The left side of his face was red and sinister from the glow of the fire, and the deep grooves worn in his face were darkened by shadow. He looked like an old sweaty Indian, grave and worn down. “Why don’t you come and take a look in my garage, I have something to show you.” Carlo stood and walked heavily into the darkness next to his trailer. This is why my dad never let me come over here. I’d gone twenty years without being ravished, and that was all about to end. I was fucked up-maybe there was something in those last few beers. “I don’t know, Carlo. I’d better head back, I mean, I haven’t even packed my shit yet.” “Just come take a look at this, your dad won’t mind.” “What is it?” “It’s a surprise.” “But I’ve got to get home. I don’t even know what time it is.” “Just relax, come over here for a second.” “Alright.” I walked slowly toward the void. “Why don’t you turn on a light, I can’t see a goddamn thing.” “Here, is that better?” I jumped when I noticed he was a few feet from me. He shed light on my worries and the old wooden pool table with faded green felt that sat in the middle of his garage. I felt silly-this wasn’t the portrait of a pederast I’d painted all night. The connection felt obvious now that I could trace the dotted lines into the future, from my lot to his. He seemed more like an old friend from college now. This man, my dad’s best friend. “Damn Carlo, you should have told me about this earlier!” “How do you like it?” “This is great!” “Do you play?” “A little this summer, but you’re better than I am, I’m sure.” “A game of eight ball?” “Sure, but why don’t we get another beer first?” “Get them yourself.” Carlo pointed to the old Pepsi machine sitting in the corner, humming away next to a dartboard. This guy had turned his garage into a saloon de refuse. There were old signs pinned to the walls like the ones you see in old bars and in bars that want to look old-fashioned. Carlo dusted off the table, and the felt was in surprisingly good condition. I opened the glass door that I hadn’t seen in over a decade; this time I pulled out two beers instead of a bottle of Pepsi. It was built during a time where glass was just enough to keep people from breaking in, when you were trusted to pull out just one pop. “How did you take care of the lock?” “Drilled it out. Your break.” “Why don’t you, I’m terrible at it.” “You’re my guest, you go right ahead.” I picked a thin cue and had a decent break, sinking the thirteen. My next shot was off the mark. Carlo stepped forward to survey the terrain, nailed the twelve, and rolled the fourteen within inches of a corner pocket. He continued like this until a striped ball stymied my every shot, then he finished me off. Carlo looked up from the table. “Another game?” “No, you kicked my ass. I should go home.” “One more beer?” “I shouldn’t.” “Come on!” “Alright!” “Then rack `em up.” We played two more games, and I lost both. I had (or was given) the chance to win the second, but I was getting too drunk to stay competitive. The third felt like it would never end. I slumped into a chair next to a low end table with an old Easter basket on top. Despite the novelty of the signs on the wall, the place was still a garage, and it was so cluttered that I couldn’t find a decent place to set my beer. I left an unopened beer in the wicker basket. I loved Easter as a kid-it was the only holiday where you could eat candy for breakfast and deviled eggs for lunch. We weren’t a churchgoing family, I could remember going once and hating it, but my dad was fairly religious in his own way. He claimed that God talked to him. Easter without church, for a kid, is the next best thing to Christmas. I remember coloring eggs a day or so in advance and leaving them on the kitchen table for the Easter bunny, who would hide them around the yard during the night. Every year, he would leave baskets filled with candy for me and my two siblings. I coveted Cadbury eggs, but above all I anticipated those little sugar-coated marshmallow birds called Peeps. I remembered looking forward to Peeps as one of the first signs of spring, when rows of yellow and pink bunnies and chicks line the impulsive purchase aisle in grocery stores. I recalled a glorious Easter Sunday when I was very young. The first rays of sunrise streamed into my bedroom and woke me up. I padded down the hallway in my Superman pajamas and saw the sun shining down upon a basket full of candy on the kitchen table. The Easter bunny must have forgot that chocolate shouldn’t sit in the sun-the chocolate bunnys’ ears were already melting, so I moved the baskets into the shade. I dug through green plastic grass and lesser candy and found the box of Peeps. I tore it open and stuffed one in my mouth, noticing that the basket of colored eggs wasn’t on the table. I turned and looked out the kitchen window, searching for potential hiding places. In the middle of the yard stood my dad, naked, with a glass of whiskey in one hand and the basket of eggs in the other. I sat at the kitchen table eating Peeps, watching him scatter the eggs across the front lawn. “You look like you’re ready to go home,” Carlo said, jarring me from what appeared to be sleep. “Yeah, I’d better get back to the folks before they call the cops,” I said, grabbing the beer in the basket for the road, hoping that final bottle would help me get some sleep. “It’s been a great night, Carlo.” “You sure you’ll be alright? I can call your parents and tell them you were with me, if you want.” “Be better if you didn’t, but thanks anyway.” “Want me to walk you home?” “That’s alright, Carlo. I mean, my dad might be suspicious if he saw me with you. I mean, I know you guys are friends, but.” “I know Mark.” “Yeah, he doesn’t even know I drink.” I wondered if that was true. “Alright, well, I should get back.” “Here, I’ll walk with you as far as your gate.” “Well, alright. I’d hate to be alone and drunk and get sprayed by a skunk.” Carlo laughed. “Alright, I’ll bring the dogs, then.” We walked in silence for most of the way, making one turn off Carlo’s ditchbank onto the road, stopping at the gate leading into the driveway to my parents’ house. I turned to Carlo and shook his outstretched hand. “Well, take it easy Carlo. Thanks for the great time.” “Anytime, Jack. We should play golf next time you’re in town.” “We’ll do that. Well, good seeing you again.” “Good seeing you again,” Carlo said, and turned back. Our paths diverged as I began walking down the driveway. I looked over my shoulder and gave Carlo a wave like a salute and took strides toward my parents’ house, my home. Halfway down the driveway, I could hear panting and the sound of metal on metal of a dog’s collar. It was my Black Lab, but he didn’t recognize me. He growled and started barking at the intruder. I called him by his name and told him it was okay, come here, it’s okay. The growling stopped, and he loped down the driveway to meet the familiar voice, my voice. Funny how a dog will remember something years removed from its transitory mind. Trying to forget where I was from hadn’t made that dog forget my voice. It struck me that that was the thing itself. I scratched him behind the ear and called him a good boy. He trotted beside me as I walked around the house and searched for the hidden key to the kitchen door. It took a drunken while to locate the key, but I found it as the carport light was turned on from within, illuminating the way home. I turned the handle, quietly shut the door behind me, and hurried down the hall to my room, where the heap of clothes had been
folded and placed on my bed. Not in the suitcase, but on my bed.