The Third Good Thing
I was pedaling like crazy to get home. I had a lot to do and had too hard a time leaving Lisa, even though I knew she was coming to my party. Ally had promised me a driving lesson in her Audi, and I was pretty sure it would be a lot more fun than Hector’s lessons in the Jeep. Hector was teaching me the rules of the road and all about responsible driving, and was preparing me for the written part of the test. Ally had been teaching me about vehicle dynamics: things like under-steer, over-steer and road-holding capacity. She was also showing me how to keep the rubber on the road when I’m racing a freight train to the crossing. I was learning some of the nuances of good driving, like being smooth enough to drive really fast without even making your passengers aware of your speed.
The next day, Sunday, was my birthday, but my party was a Saturday night thing. My birthday was close to Dana’s, but we weren’t able to figure out a way to have a combined party without inconveniencing all our friends, so we were having two parties. Mine was in a rented hall in Brattleboro and Dana’s would be the following week at a cross-country ski area that had a pavilion they rented out for occasions in the off-season.
I had been really psyched up since I came home from Boston, and I hadn’t been to Stockton once since we got Russ home. Dad had been to Brattleboro a couple of times, but just to do some business, not stay.
It didn’t really matter to me. I had a few days to myself when I first got home, but Mom was there by Wednesday so I didn’t have to clean the house or anything. I hadn’t been alone except when I was sleeping, really. I spent lots of time with Lisa; all the time I could, but I saw my friends too, and was a bit surprised by how many people I considered friends by then. Tom had figured out his iPhone and he’d given me lessons. I wasn’t the technoid that Tom was, but the phone was useful for a lot more than talking. I had it pretty well figured out and used it a lot.
I skidded into our driveway, which was filled with cars I didn’t recognize. Well, a few of them I’d seen before, and I think the people we knew might give us a bad reputation with their fancy wheels all in one place. Bernie’s Lincoln, Grandpa’s Cadillac, Ally’s Audi, somebody’s Mercedes, a couple of BMWs … It looked like a parking lot for a high-end store except for Rhod’s beat up Volvo and Elenora’s muddy Subaru, which lent some down-home balance.
I hurried inside, kind of excited to see everyone, even though I didn’t know exactly who was there. The party was going to be at a hall downtown, so it was family and family friends at the house. I went in, and the first person I saw was Katie, which stopped me in my tracks.
“Katie! I didn’t expect to see you here.”
She came close and gave me a quick hug. “I came with Russ. I don’t think you expected him, either.” She kissed my cheek, “Happy Birthday.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Russ came? I can’t believe it. How is he?”
Katie took my hand and said, “You’ll see.”
I knew I would see, but Dana’s grandfather Rory hooked my shoulder, and we had a happy little talk, which was repeated many times with others before I even reached the stairs. I knew my driving lesson was a lost cause, so as soon as I could I went up to my room to get cleaned up and changed. Even that wasn’t very private. I never thought to lock the bathroom door, and quite a few people came in while I was in the shower. Thankfully, one of them was Dana, who handed me a towel and waited for me to dry off, and I locked the door behind him. He came back a minute later with my bathrobe and we both laughed.
Dana said, “You need a bigger house, or an outhouse or something. God, my grandmother came in here to piss when you were in the shower.”
”Really?” I asked, and shook my head.
Dana looked horrified. “You don’t care? I’d be totally embarrassed.”
I said, “Don’t be. I went to private school. You know what that means?”
Dana just stared at me, so I said, “It means that nothing, absolutely nothing is private. You can wait until you’re sure each and every person on your floor is dead, but go to the bathroom and in ten seconds someone will sit in the next stall and make noises that would scare cattle into the slaughterhouse. And stink? Never mind, you don’t want to know.”
I went to the sink and tried to comb my hair. I did a quick shave after Dana left, and brushed my teeth.
When I made my way back downstairs it seemed like there were even more people there, if that was possible. I finally found Russ Glover in the dining room, and he looked pretty good. He still had some type of mini-cast on his elbow, but that was the only real outward sign of his injuries. He held that hand out to shake, though, and he shook my hand using his whole arm.
“Man,” I said. “You look good. Where’d you get the tan?”
Russ said, “Well, there’s a whole lot I can’t do, but I can sit in the sun and the weather’s been good for that.”
When he talked I noticed some puffiness on his cheek where his jaw had been broken. I pointed at it and said, “You’re still swollen?”
He frowned, “I’ve been to the dentist six times in two weeks. He stretched his lip so I could see that he had a mouthful of teeth, and he said, “Those are only temporary to cover up the posts. I have to wait a couple of months for everything to heal up so I can get real fake teeth.”
I cringed, “Posts? No offense, but right now I’m glad I’m not you.”
Russ smiled, “Everyone’s glad they’re not me, at least for the last seven weeks. I’m okay, though.” He felt his cast with his left hand and said, “This comes off Friday. I think I’ll have an Ace bandage for a while, and I’ll have exercises to do. I can’t hurry up the dental work, but the only pill I’m taking is from the dentist … just an antibiotic. Mostly I have to be careful not to bang my head on anything. I feel pretty good, and Dad’s taking us to Cape Cod for a couple of weeks at the end of the month.”
“Didn’t he just start a new job?”
I think my question surprised Russ. “Yeah, well … the boss insisted.” He chuckled, “Our employee handbook changes almost every day. Now everybody has this health plan like Congress has. I guess we already had some sick days, but they added paid vacation time, a bonus plan, and there’s some kind of retirement thing in the works.” Russ looked at me kind of sheepishly, “All the time I’ve been out they’re still paying me. It’s kind of unreal.”
I shrugged at that because Russ sounded as good as he looked, which prompted me to ask hesitantly, “You’re okay with what happened? Scratch that: dumb question. Dad said you’re seeing a counselor. Does that help?”
“It’s not really a problem,” Russ said convincingly. “I mean, it’s obvious that Mr. Schiffer is screwed up somehow. He’s not exactly my friend anymore, but he used to be. What he did to me was kick me around and do damage to my body, but he didn’t twist my mind up. I can look at what happened to me for what it is. He went off his nut and I got in his way. I guess I was lucky on a couple counts, too. We were right in town, and if he shot me somebody would look out a window and see who he was. He knocked me out pretty quick, too, so I don’t remember a lot of the beating I took.” Russ closed his eyes and kind of rocked forward from the waist up.
“You okay?” I asked.
He looked at me and said, “Yeah, I’m fine. The thing I don’t know is if he thought he killed me, or if he decided not to.”
I winced, “That’s kind of heavy.”
Russ said softly, “I know.” Then he brightened and said, “Happy Birthday. They said no gifts, just funny cards, and I guess mine ended up with the rest of them so you’ll get it tonight. Mine’s not really funny. It’s more like a thank-you note from my whole family.” He looked right at me, and his eyes kind of watered up. “You gave up a lot for us, Paul, and my parents won’t forget it. You’re Ian’s idol, too: you, Tom and Hector. He thinks you’re like a super-hero and Tom and Hector are your sidekicks.”
I thought that was cute and grinned, but I wanted to bow out of the hero thing. “Thanks, Russ. I only did what my father said, which was to make it as easy as possible for your parents. Give your own family most of the credit. We could only do what they’d accept. They didn’t build a wall of pride between our offers and your well-being, and that’s the real reason you’re so much better already.”
“That’s unusual?” Russ asked.
I stared at him while I thought, then admitted, “I don’t know. I thought it was.” I grinned, “Hey, it’s my birthday. You’re okay; I’m okay, so let’s have some fun.”
I watched Russ as his face crinkled into a smile much like his dad’s. “You’re right,” he said. “This crap should be a bad memory.” His eyes narrowed, “Did you, um, happen to notice where I left Katie?”
I didn’t have to reply, because Katie was right behind him and pinched both of his ears before she put her chin on his head and her arms over his shoulders.
Russ made a little, “Ooh,” sound just before I disappeared to look for the higher-ups, meaning my father and Elenora, Ally and my mother.
Ally was right there when I walked into the kitchen and I said, “Boo!”
She didn’t turn around from what she was doing, which was arranging cut up vegetables, crackers, grapes and cheese on a wooden board. I asked where everyone was and she said, “Your father took off hours ago with Ralph Timek. Your Mom’s in the garden boasting to Elenora. Bernard has been entertaining the troops. Anything else?”
I said, trying to sound as lost and innocent as possible, “No hug?”
Ally sighed and turned to me. “Paul, when you turned thirteen it was all feed me, give me money, stay the hell out of my room, and don’t bug me about my friends! Why do I find it difficult to believe you need a hug in order to become sixteen?”
I said, “That was then and this is now. It’s possible that I underestimated the value of hugs back when I was just a little punk.”
“A snotty little punk as I recall,” Ally said as she held her arms out. We hugged and she added, “I’ll admit that you’ve improved in the snot department enough that I don’t even remember your last tantrum.” She kissed my forehead and added softly, “The next ten or fifteen years should be your best – the ones you’ll remember most fondly. Be careful of your health and well-being, but don’t let reticence get in your way when it’s time to experience new things and visit new places. It’s your time to find who and what you love most; explore cultures, societies, and religions.
See the mountains, the oceans, the midlands and the deserts. Try it all on for size and adopt whatever feels best to you.”
“I should change?” I asked feeling confused.
Ally put her forehead against mine and said, “No, Paul. You will change; that’s a natural thing. You’ll grow into a man and become your own person, and family will be people you visit on occasions. You use these next years to open up your world; learn the workings of it, and use it all to your own advantage.” She pulled me tighter, “Listen, kiddo. Youngsters with nothing close to the privileges you enjoy have been making their own way since the dawn of humanity. You’ll learn more and become more confident if you leave the credit card at home and do things your way.”
“Like the song?” I whispered.
Ally patted my back, “Yes, like the song. Toss a sack on your back and head for the horizon.”
“What do I put in the sack?”
Ally pushed me away and turned back to her snack tray. “For starters maybe ten thousand in cash and five times that in negotiable securities.” She scooped some dip into a glass bowl while I fumed.
“You … that was all bullshit? I thought I was getting a life lesson or something.”
Ally turned, smiling sweetly. “That’s how I intended it. If you were a poor boy I’d give the same advice, but add suggestions about how to pay your way. The simple fact is that you’re not poor, and I don’t see how pretending you are would enhance your experience. You can live a minimalist lifestyle with or without money in your pocket. The idea is to get out there; go to the museums to see the art and history. Wander the swamps, the savannah, the mountains. Walk when you can, take the bus when it’s too far, the ferry when it’s over water.” She raised an eyebrow to see if I was following her, and went on. “Get involved, Paul, any way you can. Stay in hostels where you’ll meet other roamers. Look for bed and breakfast places, rooms for rent in private homes, farm stays, campgrounds.”
“No resorts?” I teased.
“Don’t you dare! If you so much as hear about an all-inclusive resort go directly to the next country, because the one you’re in has already given up on their heritage.”
I grinned. If there is one thing Ally detests it’s a conglomeration of all-inclusive resorts, each so much like its neighbors that they’re hard to tell apart without referring to your wristband. It’s not really the resorts that she dislikes; it’s the fact that they absolutely murder the local economy. Those places don’t want you to ever leave their property, and there’s little chance for genuine local restaurants or shops to survive in the area, which quickly becomes a zone of nothing but resorts. Where there was once a community of little beachfront hotels, motels, and bungalows with maybe three hundred rooms between them, and a dozen palapa restaurants, there are now three thousand rooms in single, gigantic, sterile buildings. They have their own restaurants that lie about their ‘authentic’ food and serve you crap instead, and the entertainment is there too, in the form of Fiesta Night, Italian Night, Get Down Night, and whatever else they can dream up.
I know, because we’ve been at those places. Sometimes there are no options, but that doesn’t make idiot places like that any more appealing. They make you wear these wristbands like you’re in a hospital, and more than one band depending on which ‘plan’ you’re in and which options you’ve paid for. At one place we stayed, I had four wristbands on, all different colors. One said I was a guest, another said I was on the premium package or some such. The third said I was enrolled in the kid’s program, whatever that was, and the last allowed me to use the motor sports equipment like jet skis. I was nine though, and too young for the motors by their rules, and that was one time my father got pissed enough to get his money back.
“Ally,” I said. “I don’t know what religion I am, but whatever it is, the faith is that Satan invented all-inclusives when time-shares didn’t work out. Don’t worry about me ever staying in one. I’m on your side here.”
Ally smirked, “Good! If that’s the truth then clear out. I want to feed the nice people in the other room. You should go outside to see your mother, and suggest wings and a halo for the statue of Gary.”
I didn’t even ask.
I went out back and found Mom and Elenora both pulling weeds in the garden. Neither of them noticed my approach, and I startled them both when I said, “This looks nice.”
It did look nice. Everything looked good. When Gary finished the patio along the side of the house, he still had a pile of stones left. He made some rounded steps down to ground level and a little s-shaped path to the garden. The fieldstone he’d chosen gave everything an organic appearance that made his work seem as if it had been there all along. He’d done well to rescue Mom’s garden, too. We’d dug up radishes first, and picked peas for the Fourth of July. Now everything was producing, and we’d be eating ripe tomatoes and peppers in a few weeks. My mother had a little basket of yellow and green squash beside her, and I could see eggplants and peppers that would be ready before long. There were patches of carrots, parsnips and turnips that we’d pull out in the fall and, unfortunately, some very healthy looking Brussels sprouts at the far end.
Elenora got to her feet and gave me a handless hug, only because her hands were covered in mulch and I’d already changed. My mother just waved and went back to her weeding. Elenora smiled and asked, “Ready for your big night? Believe it or not, this is my first sixteen party and I can’t wait.”
I thought she was kidding, but she had an eager look on her face. I said, “It’s only my second. Tommy had one but it was just little because he didn’t want anything else.” I grinned, “I’ll be mostly dancing with Lisa I hope, but feel free to join in.”
Elenora smiled and kissed the tip of my nose. “Count on it.”
I turned to go back inside when my mother asked, “Paul, do you have anything like a final count?”
I shrugged, “It’s hard. About forty people were invited, but they can bring dates. There are five guys in the band and they’ll probably have dates and helpers. That could be almost a hundred right there, and all the people in the house. I don’t expect any surprises. You’re worried about food, aren’t you?”
My mother can blush, and she did right then. “I just want to be sure there’s enough.”
“Mom,” I said. “All we need is snack food. You’ve got chicken wings, nachos, chili, and fried mozzarella. For cold things you have shrimps and sauce, every kind of chip and dip combination, vegetables with even more dips, a sundae bar and a cake. That’s just what I know, so give it a rest, okay? If we actually run out of something, the Elks might have it. If they don’t, there’s a convenience store just down the road, and a Dunkin Donuts almost across the street.” I grinned, “If you really want something to worry about, think of the cleanup bill.”
Mom glared at me. “You’re such a smarty-pants, aren’t you?” Then she smiled and said, “Well, you’re my smarty-pants, and I’m half to blame. If you’re not worried, then I won’t. I just don’t want anyone to starve.” Her smile left her and she said, “You’re probably right.” She looked behind me, “Your father is here, and I think he has something for you.”
I turned to see Dad walking from behind Mr. Timek’s Buick. He looked tired, but he had a key dangling in his hand and I ran over to him. I said hello to Tom’s father on the way, and when I was half past the Buick I saw a little car behind it. I knew the color, and called it robin’s egg blue, but the car was far too tiny. I remembered my first impression from the Internet, and I hadn’t been far off. It might have been a little bigger than a red wagon, but a bathtub would give it competition.
I looked at Dad and asked, “For me?”
Dad dropped the key in my hand and said, “It’s yours. I just drove it for an hour and came up with a lot of adjectives.” He gave me an odd look and said, “Here, take the key and let’s go downtown and back. I want to know what you think.”
I looked at him, looked at the key, looked at the car, and asked, “I have to double-clutch?”
Dad said, as if he’d had a recent reminder, “Yes. Absolutely. Yes.”
The door was funky. It opened from the front, and when I saw the back seat I knew immediately that it was an Italian joke of some kind. Ian might fit back there if he brought a pillow and sat sideways, yet there were seatbelts for two.
That wasn’t a big concern. When I sat in the driver’s seat I was confronted with a gauge. It was a speedometer that went to one-twenty, most likely kilometers per hour. There were toggle switches to the right, and they weren’t labeled. There was a red fire extinguisher attached to the windshield post on the passenger side, and the newer radio was mounted under the dashboard.
Okay, I thought, and had to move the seat forward to get comfortable with the pedals. I knew the car had a four speed transmission, but the shift knob gave me no clue to the pattern. When I asked, Dad pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. Reverse was push-down, pull left and back. I’m glad I asked, because that was dead opposite of Hector’s Jeep.
I looked up to open the sunroof, but couldn’t determine how, and I learned that was done from the outside. Cool enough. I was already feeling an attachment to the little car. When Dad got in and told me to take him to town, I got out of the driveway pretty smoothly. I lost some time at first with double-clutching, and that was after I heard the noise when I forgot I had to do it, but I figured it out soon enough. Newer cars do a lot for you, but the driver is totally in charge with a car like that old Fiat, and I loved it from the get-go.
I backed up to turn around, and yelled going down the driveway. The car was small, even tiny; it was much smaller than that girl’s Mini Tom told me about. I knew it was a hoot before I got to the bottom of the driveway. In a little car like that, everything was immediate. Turn the wheel? No waiting. Hit the brakes? Ditto. It felt quick when I pulled out on the road to town, but it really wasn’t. I had an audience behind me soon enough. I was going the speed limit and the people behind me clearly didn’t want to. I sped up, which took awhile. I felt like I was flying low, but the Ford behind me didn’t subscribe to the same religion. I could tell the driver was pissed, but it was his tough luck, and I was going fast enough that I had to keep my attention on my own driving.
I said out loud, “My lord, Mr. Ford, you’re gonna get gored,” about a half second after I realized the Ford was passing me with its horn blaring. It was on a curve that was blind to him, and a van showed up in his path. The last I saw, he was spinning around in a field that was at least twenty feet below the road, and he’d be paying for near an acre of ruined corn. In Vermont, where a lot of people call onions unjuns, the guy was an idjit, but people gave me space after he left the scene.
I took Dad into town, and the Fiat was a lot of fun on the side streets of Brattleboro. I think Heinrich’s lawnmower had more horsepower, but the Fiat was nimble and quick, and if Jack had presented a candlestick I think I could have jumped over it, or at least deftly avoided it.
After a singularly sharp turn, which the car and I handled well, my father asked, “What do you think?”
I didn’t have an answer, and couldn’t come up with words until we were back in the driveway. I had both my hands on the steering wheel and kept them there after I turned the engine off. I said, “I think I love it!” I hadn’t even tried the radio
I had driven go-karts, and the Fiat was like a street-legal go-kart. Dad’s Grand Cherokee was as boring as a taxi. Ally’s Audi was plush and fast, and Hector’s Jeep looked good and would go anywhere. The little Fiat could barely get out of its own way, but it seemed more fun than a litter of kittens in a room filled with canaries. And a garage full of Grand Cherokees, Audis and Wranglers.
* * * * * * * *
This wasn’t a surprise party for me, but I was surprised just the same when I got there. The invitations were for seven PM and I got there with Lisa at about quarter after, not expecting a lot of people to be there on time. The little hall was pretty full, and the band was set up but recorded music was playing through their equipment. The kids I saw right off were who I expected to see. My mother had hired a caterer to provide the food, and the surprise was the presentation and the people serving it
There was an alcove to the right, and it was set up with little booths made of rustic-looking wood, with signs that said Tacos and Nachos and Fresh Fruit, and whatever else they had. The servers were a lot of the adults in my life, dressed in something like Eighteen-Nineties costumes: Red and White striped shirts for the men, their pants held up with wide suspenders, and straw hats on their heads. The women were wearing the same dress in different colors. They fit snugly down to their waists and then flared out almost down to their feet, with ruffles on the bottoms. There had to be hoops sewn in there because the bottoms stayed perfectly round.
The only thing not on the right was the bar on the left, and I had to grin when I saw the bartenders were Bernard Sutton and Lisa’s father. The place had the atmosphere of an indoor country fair, and I liked it. Lisa kissed my cheek and said, “Happy Birthday.”
In a few seconds I was greeting people in all directions and the band, who played mostly old rock, started things with Sweet Home Alabama. That song starts with one of the most instantly recognizable hooks ever, and I was dancing with Lisa by the second measure. That made the party spread out. Other people danced along, while some went to check out the food and drinks, and others formed little groups to talk.
The band played five straight fast songs, so Lisa and I were just going to cut out for a break when they slowed things down with a song about wild horses. We had turned to check out the goodies, but I stopped Lisa and pulled her into a hug, and we danced to the song. The slow song brought a lot of people to the dance floor, and it was tricky for us to escape, but we managed. When we broke through the crowd my jaw dropped. Hector had driven Lisa and me to the party and it was business as usual. He dropped us off saying, “Have a good time, amigo and amiga.”
Now he was right in front of me with his arm around Arizona – the girl, not the state. I had described Arizona to Hector hoping to lure him to Brattleboro. What I had described were some of what might be called her amenities: big boobs in simple language. After I introduced them, Hector claimed to be more interested in cerebral things, and may have legitimately thought that Zoner had room for three cerebrums, but I didn’t believe that for a minute. He couldn’t keep his tongue in his mouth, but until right then I honestly had no idea that they’d gotten together, and they made an impressive couple.
I had Lisa’s hand in my right, and just high-fived Hector with my left hand as we passed them. When we were safely out of earshot, I leaned to Lisa and whispered in her ear, “Did you see that? What do you think?” I sang in a whisper, “Hector and Zoner up in a tree…”
Lisa giggled, “Breaking branches.”
I snickered as we approached the bar for something to drink. Lisa’s father smiled and said, “Name your poison.”
I asked, “What kind of juices do you have?”
He rattled off about nine different ones, and I looked at Lisa. She said, “Apple, please.”
I asked, “Can you mix strawberry and banana?”
Lisa said, “Ooh, change mine to that.”
“Ice?” her father asked, and we walked off with a couple of fancy looking drinks in clear plastic glasses.
A lot of people were dancing, which made it easier to talk to the ones who weren’t, and that included Dana. I asked him, “Why are you not dancing?”
He frowned and said, “Everyone is with somebody.”
I looked at him and asked, “When did you get shy?” I glanced around at the people who weren’t dancing and said, “There are about fifteen girls available right now. Just start asking.”
Dana looked around and cocked his head to me. “You’re right.” He smiled at Lisa and said, “Excuse me,” before he approached a dark-haired girl who seemed happy to be asked.
There weren’t a lot of places to sit down, but we found a couple of chairs to cool off in. Lisa looked at me and said, “You look nice tonight. I like those pants.”
I did, too. I’d gone to the store to get something to wear to the party, and went with Dan Mc Naughton, who seemed to have pretty good clothes sense. We’d been wandering around the men’s clothes, and I hadn’t seen anything I liked much when Dan spotted a rack of three-quarter length cargo pants. I never saw the point of cargo pants, especially for me. I don’t use a wallet, so I keep my cash in my left front pocket and my comb in the right. That’s it. I have no use for the rear pockets on the pants I have, and absolutely no use for all the extra pockets on cargos.
Dan talked me in to trying on a pair, and they really did fit well. They looked good in the mirror, too, because they came below my knee and had straps to close the bottoms on any of three buttons. Before we bought them, we looked around for a shirt that would work, and Dan found a pullover with broad blue and white stripes. It didn’t have a collar, but a heavy rib around the neck, and a three-button opening at the front.
I tried it on with a pair of the cargo pants in white and said, “I feel like an ice cream man or something.”
Dan said, “You look like one, too … kind of a scary one at that. Try the light gray pants.”
That worked, and I picked up an oversized navy-blue shirt to wear unbuttoned on top of everything. I liked the way it all looked together, but I felt kind of foolish at the same time. It was my first attempt at consciously choosing clothes that were anything but plain and ordinary.
When we got back to the house I didn’t let Dan leave until I had Mom’s and Ally’s approval. Ally said I looked very nice, and Mom said that, since I wouldn’t let her dress me, I should consult Dan when I need something.
That was good enough, and now I had Lisa’s unsolicited opinion. I probably looked like the poster boy for the prep school punk I didn’t want to be, but if Lisa liked the pants on me she might also like to try the buttons and zipper some night, just to see if she might like how they work.
The party was good. Lisa didn’t seem to mind when other girls asked me to dance, and I danced a lot. Tom and Shea danced all night, and both seemed to be having a blast with the Fournier sisters.
The first time I’d heard the band was at the memorial dance for Jamie. They sounded pretty good, but their presentation was kind of tentative and nervous. The next time was at Shea’s party, and they seemed to have as much fun as everyone else. They still sounded good there, considering the outdoor venue.
My party was their first paying job, and I told Dad that a DJ would get seven hundred bucks for it, so a real band should get at least that. Dad, of course, asked around. He told me that he’d give them the job for four hundred so they didn’t go around asking for too much money to ever get hired again, and give them a big tip at the end. When I asked how big, he just winked.
They were earning whatever they got. In the close quarters of the hall, they kept the volume just right, and I could hear how good they really were. They were a guitar band born in the wrong decade, but they had plenty of material and it was good stuff.
Mom had done well with whoever catered the food, and there was plenty of it. I gravitated to the canoe full of shaved ice, big shrimps, stone crab claws, oysters and clams. I hadn’t even seen it at first, but when I went for some nachos to share with Lisa the canoe was there, tipped at an angle to offer up the goodies it held. I brought the nachos to Lisa and went back for some shellfish. There was a wood mallet on what looked like a tree stump, and I busted up some stone crabs there, and put them on a plate with six of everything else. I filled a plastic dish with cocktail sauce, tossed on a couple of lemon wedges, and went to join Lisa.
Dana was sitting with her, and saw what I had. “Where’d you get that?” he asked.
I pointed, “Behind everything. It’s in a canoe by the wall.”
“Yeah, it’s loaded. I don’t think anybody touched it yet.”
Dana grinned, “I’m gonna touch. Save my seat.”
Lisa looked at my plate and asked, “What are those things? I know shrimp, but …” She pointed kind of randomly at everything else, “What?”
I said, “These are stone crabs, these long things are oysters, and these are clams.” I picked up an oyster and said, “Try one. Put some of this sauce on, a little lemon …”
“Paul! What is it? It doesn’t look like food to me.”
I stuck my plastic fork in a hunk of stone crab meat and held it out. “Try this. It’s been cooked and chilled.”
Her eyes opened wide in horror. “Cooked? Then those … those things in the shells are raw?”
“Mm hmm,” I said as I dipped the stone crab into the cocktail sauce and chomped down on it. I put some sauce on an oyster, gave it a squirt of lemon and let it slide into my mouth. Lisa squeezed her eyes shut.
I said, “At least have a shrimp. Everyone likes shrimp.”
“That’s the truth, brother,” Dana said as he sat down. “How do I open these claws?”
I said, “Dana, there was a hammer there to open them. I don’t think there’s any other way.”
Dana slurped down a clam with a dreamy expression, and said, “Oh yeah, good. Want a clam, Lisa?”
Perfect! Lisa made a face and reached for a shrimp on my plate. She dipped it in the sauce and ate it down. She took another one, and I said, “Try some lemon on it,” and squeezed some juice after she dipped it in the sauce.
She took a bite and chewed it. A smile formed and she licked her lips. “I like it like that.”
I put the same sauce and a squirt of lemon on a chunk of crab and held it out to Lisa. She hesitated, but took it and ate it whole, and she started talking before she swallowed it. “Ohm got, iss...” She gulped it down and said, “That’s out of this world.”
I said, “I like clams better,” and slurped one into my mouth.
Lisa gave me a pained look and said, “Okay, I’ll try one. Stand back in case I spit it out.”
Lisa closed her eyes while I put sauce and lemon juice on a clam, and I held it up to her lips. I whispered, “It’s best if you chew it, but you don’t have to.”
I tipped the shell, and the littleneck slid into her mouth. A couple of flashes went off and I wanted one of those pictures. Lisa’s expression was priceless, like she was instantly in love with something that she found totally revolting. I fully expected to see that clam shoot across the room, but Lisa bit down on the thing and her expression instantly mellowed into a smile before she swallowed it.
Her eyes were closed for a moment, and she looked right at me when they opened. “You say oysters are even better? How is that possible?”
I couldn’t believe it. “It’s possible because oysters are sweeter. Try one?”
“Just don’t show it to me.”
That was funny, and I was laughing while I fixed an oyster the same way as everything else. Lisa hesitated again, and I handed it to her to eat herself, or not. I hadn’t shown it to her, but she did look at it. She backed away, turned her head to the side, and inhaled a great intake of air. Then she slurped the sweet oyster into her mouth and her expression was the best yet, probably more like she’d found Nirvana was better than Heaven. Lisa didn’t just give that oyster a chomp and swallow it; she chewed it with a wondrous look on her face before she finally gulped it down.
My experience with Brattleboro kids was that they weren’t adventurous eaters, and took for granted that the places that advertised on TV were the best places to eat. They thought that pizza came with a ton of cheese and not a lot else, that a hamburger was either big or small, but had all the stuff that McDonald’s or Burger King put on it.
When one liked something new they were a willing crowd, though, and my mother had successfully introduced the raw bar to a new generation in town.
When we got back to dancing, Gary and Joan were beside us and they wanted to switch partners for the song. Lisa went with Gary and I danced with Joan. That happened on a fast song that was just ending, and I ended up slow-dancing with Joan Novitzke when the next song started. Aside from Lisa, I couldn’t think of a better place to be. Joan is a beautiful girl, and I’d always thought of her as aloof and off-limits. I wasn’t alone, I’d learned. The jockiest, horniest guys in school were afraid of Joan, and her high school years had been lonely until she got to know Gary Andrews.
Gary is a big kid, physically, probably close to six feet tall in his sophomore year. He’s built, too: not in a gym way but a farm kid way. He has big shoulders and strong looking muscles, but no real shape to him. We were right in front of the band, so it wasn’t possible to make small talk. Though Joan was dancing with me, she kept giving admiring glances to Gary, and he was returning them when he looked our way.
I was doing the same with Lisa, and with the advent of summer weather I was seeing a lot more of her than I was used to. The short distance between us gave me a perfect view and I enjoyed it immensely.
Katie was getting some interest from the local boys, too. Russ was only dancing to slow songs, and not even to all of them. When Russ had someone else to talk to, Dana danced with Katie during the fast songs. Most of the people in Brattleboro didn’t know Dana, but after Roger danced once with Katie he was suddenly surrounded by local guys. I couldn’t hear anything, but it was pretty obvious they wanted to know who the new girl was. Russ wasn’t neglected by the local girls, either, especially after word got around that he was somehow connected with the Killer Principal, which was a term that a lot of news outlets used for Schiffer.
When the band took breaks, the food booths were swamped. Everything I had was pretty good, but I generally gravitated to the canoe full of shellfish. I was surprised by how fast it was disappearing. I didn’t think Brattleboro kids would have much of a taste for seafood, but I was definitely wrong about that.
I had a great time, and when I worried that I wasn’t paying enough attention to Lisa she encouraged me to spend a little time with everyone who came. I did that, and it was fun. Everyone was having a good time. I joked around with guys, danced with a lot of girls, and ate my share of the goodies. I got friendly with the guys in the band, and complimented them on their music. I like a lot of music, but most of what they played was old sixties and seventies rock that I hadn’t heard before, and I was developing a liking for it.
Two of the guys had met on some Internet newsgroup. When they realized they both lived in Brattleboro they got together ‘in search of a sound’ as one of them said. That was the guitar player and the lead singer, and they knew the other guys in the band. As they say, the rest is history, and they sounded better live than some famous people I’ve heard. They played every time someone asked them to, and before that night the best they’d gotten for pay was gas money and food. They didn’t mind. They were playing for themselves, and they still were. They were going to stash the money to pay for things like strings, picks, drumsticks and heads, and maybe a better microphone.
After their third and last break the adults started dancing, and left the rest of the food to whoever wanted it. I danced with my mother, of course, and Ally, and Lisa’s mother insisted. Tom danced with his own mother, and Shea danced with his.
That went on for about ten minutes, and after another slow thing the singer yelled, “Enough! Let’s rock!” and they dug into a Rolling Stones song. I knew some of the music, but wished they said something before they started something so I might hear the group or the title.
That didn’t matter. We rocked for the next hour, and just before the last song the band led everyone in singing Happy Birthday, and I got a surprising number of kisses from the girls there. The last song was fast and long, mostly bass, drums and guitar, but the singer sang at the beginning and end. It went over my head for the most part, because I was dizzy from such a happy night.
There was no cake and ice cream, no opening of presents because there weren’t any. I got a sack of cards to look at the next day, and I appreciated that it was kind of heavy, but I didn’t want or need these friends to spend money on me. Lord knows I had enough of that.
I did get a send-off, Vermont style. Somebody had planned it, probably Tom or Jim, but suddenly this cheer went up: “Hooray for Paulie, Hooray at last. Hooray for Paulie, he’s a horse’s ass!”
When everyone was done laughing, they started in on, “Be kind to your web-footed friends, ‘cause a duck may be some body’s mother.”
That’s when I tried to disappear, but they went on with “Great green globs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,” and I was hiding in a dark corner when they got to ‘Gee, I wish I had a spoon’, and I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes.
Tom and Jim grabbed me, and paraded me out to see everyone off. A lot of people had foil-wrapped leftovers, and my mother was absolutely beaming. The band had started packing their equipment when the singer asked if anyone didn’t have a ride, and several hands went up. Other kids obliged them with offers, so my parents didn’t have to worry about anyone walking home so late at night.
I was by the door thanking people for coming as they left, and they thanked me in return for the good time. I saw my father talking with the band guys, and money changed hands. Judging by their awed expressions, he must have given them a great bonus, and that made me smile. They were good, and shouldn’t have to play for nothing even if they didn’t care. Their instruments and sound equipment cost money, and from the looks of their things it was serious money.
When Lisa’s father and Bernie went to help them lug their amps and things out, I helped too, and when everything was in their van I stopped to thank them.
“Guys, you were great tonight. I don’t know all that music, but I really like it. You made the party.”
Al, the singer, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t say that. We’ve played a lot of places, but the best parties always have your name on them somehow.” He grinned and smacked my arm, “You know how to do it, man. We’re out of here.”
When I went back inside, the caterers were picking up their things and the cleanup crew the club recommended were getting started. There wasn’t all that much to clean up, just some dropped food and napkins, with the odd plastic cup rolling around on the floor. It wasn’t a bad mess at all considering the number of people there, and the food they’d consumed. I decided I had pretty tidy friends.
When we broke up to leave, Lisa and I went in the Jeep with Hector and Arizona. Sleeping arrangements were kind of crazy, so cars left in every direction. Dana was spending the night with his grandparents in Newfane, where my grandparents were staying, and Katie was going to stay with them. The grandparents hadn’t been at the party for a lot of reasons, but mostly because they wanted to get to know each other. Russ was staying in my room, and Rhod had a motel room in town, right next to Bernie Sutton’s.
Hector surprised me. He drove about a block and parked the car. “I’m going for a walk with Ari. We’ll be back in twenty minutes.”
Ari: that was new. It was obviously short for Arizona, but suggested something more than a casual friendship. They left and I turned to Lisa. “Did you hear that?”
“Yes,” she said, and undid her seatbelt and went for mine, but she missed. “Oops. What’s this?”
“That’s me,” I squeaked while I disconnected my own belt and leaned into the hottest make out session ever. When Hector and Arizona came back we sat up straight, and I complained, “You said twenty minutes! What was that – twenty seconds?”
Hector and Zoner both snickered, and Hector said, “Amigo, we just walked down to the river and back. It’s ten minutes each way, we spent twenty minutes there, and got coffee on the way back.”
Lisa and I said, “Oh,” in unison.
God, I’d been dreaming about an hour alone with Lisa, and I just had it. I really needed two, or ten, or a hundred, or forever.
I pulled Lisa close for the ride home, and in the driveway Hector had the good sense to say, “I’ll turn the car around. You see Lisa to the door.”
I did for sure, and I was a happy pup when I got back in the Jeep. Something in the back of my head was telling me to tease Hector and Zoner, but I was too tired, and my goodbye was pretty weak when they dropped me off at home.
Nobody was up, so I went to the bathroom, washed my face and brushed my teeth, and went to my room. Russ was dead in my bed, and I didn’t mind. The pull-out was made up and waiting for me. I fell on it face-first and I was asleep almost immediately.
+ + + + + + + +
Sometime during the night I became sixteen years old, but I didn’t wake up because of that. I woke up because Russ was making noise, and when I came to I realized he was crying.
He was right beside me, and I only had to get on my knees to see him in the dim light.
I shook his shoulder, and whispered, “Russ! Come on Russ, what is it?”
He was in a bad dream, and I could guess what it was about. I went into Barent’s mode and said junk. “Russ, the pizza’s getting cold. The ship is leaving in ten minutes, and you should finish your milk. You have to brush your teeth before you do this crap. You really should wake up now.”
It’s pathetic, but that’s the best lesson I ever had at Barent’s Academy. Russ blinked and opened his eyes. He looked around wildly for a moment before he focused on me. “What? Paul? Why are you here?”
I put my hand on his forehead and said, “I live here, Russ. You were somewhere else … a bad dream, just a dream. Can you sleep now?”
Russ looked at me, his eyes wide. “I don’t think so. I can’t sleep. Can I talk to you?”
I was bone tired, but I said, “Okay.”
“What were you just saying?”
“Nothing. It was just nonsense to wake you up. Do you remember your dream?”
He stared at me blankly for a long moment, and said, “There was this giant flash, like a bomb went off. It didn’t make any noise like it should, and there were toothpicks everywhere. It was raining toothpicks. I was in church and … and I think it was the gold cloth behind the altar that exploded. I … I looked around and I was alone. I shouldn’t have been alone, and the toothpicks were still falling everywhere.” His eyes locked on mine, and he looked afraid.
“What else? Why were you crying?”
A tear started in his eye, and he stopped it with his finger. After a long silence he finally said, “Nobody was there. Nothing was there. I was outside and all I could see was the sky, like it was all around me. No people, no buildings or trees, no sounds, but there was like a ringing in my ears. I was so afraid … I never felt so alone.”
Russ stopped and didn’t go on. I said, “Dreams get crazy sometimes, but that’s all it was. Do you want anything? I can make a cup of tea or some hot chocolate.”
Russ said, “No, I’m okay. Thanks anyhow. I just have to go to the bathroom. You can go back to sleep.”
Not likely. I did snuggle back into bed, but only to wait for Russ to get back so I could go to the bathroom myself.
+ + + + + + + +
Russ woke before me, and his movements woke me up. I’d pretty much forgotten about the dream thing and asked, “What time is it?”
“A little after eight. I’m taking a shower. Want me to wake you up when I’m done?”
I thought about it and said, “Not really. Does this mean you’re done with my bed?”
Russ sounded defensive, “I could have slept on the cot.”
“It’s not that. It’s just that … somehow I’m aware of the floor, and every time I stretch out I feel shoes or pants or something.”
Russ snickered and said, “I’ll try to be quiet when I’m done.”
I heard the door close behind him, and the next thing I knew it was ten o’clock and I was awake for no good reason. I sat up rubbing my eyes, and when I opened them there was a good reason that I was awake. Tommy was sitting on the bed, straddling my ankles and staring at me.
When I was awake enough, he said, “There’s a little blue car in your driveway. I shouldn’t have to wake you up to ask this, but where is the key?”
I was pretty groggy. “It’s not in the car? I would have left it in the car.”
Tom said, “You would, wouldn’t you? Have you ever heard of car thieves?”
I closed my eyes, thinking about how nice another hour of sleep would feel. “This is Vermont, Tom. Yes, I have heard about cars being stolen, but not here. They get stolen in places like Brooklyn and … I don’t know … Kalamazoo, New Orleans probably. Not in Vermont.”
Tom stood and said, “Okay, listen to this. If there is a key in the ignition of that Fiat, it’s gonna be stolen in about five minutes.”
“Fine,” I said. “Ask my father how to start it after you turn that key on.”
“There’s a procedure?” Tom asked.
I smiled and said, “Hey, it’s Italian.” Then I said, “Never mind, I’ll get up. Give me time for a shower.”
Tom was in the kitchen with my father, Russ, and Ally when I came down. I asked, “Where is everyone?” while I fixed a coffee.
“In the yard, mostly,” Ally said. The people in Newfane are likely just luxuriating at their wonderful brunch. You’ve had it. Would you leave?”
I sat down with my coffee. “Well, I’m here. I must have left.”
“You left when they closed the door, Paul,” Dad said. “Nobody leaves voluntarily.”
I sipped my coffee and pretty much ignored everyone until it cooled enough for me to drink it down. I looked at Tom and asked, “Did you find the car key?”
He looked at the ceiling, “Where you said.”
“Did you go for a ride?”
“Not yet. I think the battery’s dead. I’ll get some jumpers when you’re ready.”
Dad asked, “It won’t turn over?”
“Not even a click.” Then something clicked with Tom and he leaned to me glaring. “There is a trick! You told me there was, and I thought that was your trick. Some beach!”
My father, Ally and Russ had all turned away, but I knew they were laughing. My father kept going, saying something about seeing a man about a horse.
I said, “Why are you yelling at me? I told you to ask my father. It doesn’t start like a normal car. It was made in Italy; what do you expect? They’re the same people who invented banks and espresso, and … and … Zambonis, for God’s sake. You can’t go around expecting normal from Italians! You’ll make yourself crazy if you try.”
Tom walked out of the room, but I could hear him wheezing. When he came back he said, levelly, “You are really the master, meester Paul.” He laughed, “I can’t believe you brought up Zambonis. Where did that come from?”
I laughed, too, “Where does anything come from? It sounded Italian, so I said it.”
Tom said, “You’re better than me.”
“Not until I come up with something better than the Lesbian Leap.”
“That’s it!” Ally shouted. “If you’re going for a ride, go now, and take this one with you.” She pulled Russ up by his shoulder, and he smiled meekly. Be back by two. You have a date.”
I did have a date for a birthday lunch with Lisa. That was later, though, and anything I did in the car with Tom and Russ would be completely illegal anyhow. I only had a learners permit, and the new law said I couldn’t even take my test for a year after I got it, and that I had to be eighteen to drive without an adult sitting beside me.
I thought let’s see about that, and we headed out to the Fiat. The only secret to starting the car was that I had to push a start button. It was right there, and red, but the letters had faded off. I saw Tom fuming, but he didn’t say anything. I headed toward town, and when I got to where the Ford had gone off the road the day before I followed his path down the hill.
“Are you crazy?” Tom yelled.
Russ cried, “What the Hell?”
I said, “Relax,” as we disappeared into the rows of corn, pretty much following in the tracks of Mr. Ford. We were bouncing around a lot, and I asked Russ, “How’s your head?”
He said, “Now you ask? You might slow down so I only get concussed once or twice a second. I can live with that.”
I did slow down, but only because a very angry looking man was running my way. I turned around and drove away from him, hoping he wasn’t some Olympian, and he wasn’t. I got back up onto the road and headed for home while Russ and Tom laughed. I laughed too, after I hid the car behind a forsythia bush.
We were all laughing when we got out of the car, and both Tom and Russ helped me pull off bits of cornstalk that had caught here and there. When we turned to go inside, the hilarity screeched to a halt. My father was standing there, flanked by Ally and Hector, and they were all glaring at me with their arms crossed. My father demanded, “Paul, what exactly in Hell did you think you were doing? You can’t drive this car without an adult, never mind take passengers on a joy ride. And Jesus, what were you doing in that poor guy’s field? Didn’t that idiot yesterday cause enough damage?”
I started to say, “Dad, I’m sorry …” but he interrupted me.
“Don’t apologize to me, Paul. You apologize to your friends here for putting their lives at risk. Damn it all! We just got Russ back, and you know perfectly well that he has to be careful.”
He looked at Russ and Tom and said, “You boys can go on inside.”
They walked off contritely, and Dad turned back to me. His shoulders sagged and he took a deep breath. His voice went soft, “You’re a pile of contradictions, Paul, but I guess that’s normal. Listen to me, though. I know the Fiat’s a little car, but even a small car is dangerous. You cut across the highway on a blind curve to go down that bank, and your car could have rolled over if you hit just a little rock. You just think of the implications of that. You’d be sliding down that hill upside down with nothing but a piece of canvas for a roof. Think of what that might mean for you, for your friends. Especially Russ! God, he’s recovering from one concussion. Do you think he’d live through another one?”
I was chastised, but Dad wasn’t finished. “Put the car back in the driveway and give the key to Ally. From now on, you don’t drive it unless Ally, Hector, your mother, or me is in the seat beside you. You owe Ally an apology too, for not telling her the laws you’re operating under.”
Ally interrupted, “I would never, not in a million years, have let you take that car on the road if I knew you had to be accompanied. I feel compromised, kid, because I practically forced Russell to go with you. I hope you realize just how far up the creek you could be right now.”
“I do,” I mumbled.
Dad focused on me. “I won’t punish you now, Paul, but only because it would hurt too many other people. You have your date with Lisa today, and your ski trip with Tom and Dana coming up, so let me do this.” He looked away for a moment, and back at me. “Punish yourself. You decide what it is, and you do it. Don’t start by thinking this is something minor. It’s not; it’s a big deal, so make the punishment fit the crime.”
His face softened a little, “You don’t have to tell me what you decide on. Just do whatever it is until you’re positive it’s enough, and tell me when you’re done.” He smiled a little. “I’ve come to trust you Paul, at least most of the time. I know you don’t lie to me, so don’t start now.” His eyebrows went up, “Okay?”
I looked at him for a long time, wondering what I could do, so I gave up Dad was waiting on an answer, not specifics, so I nodded my head.
He smiled a little, patted my shoulder and said “Put the car away,” while he walked off. Hector and Ally left, too, and I was standing there by myself, a birthday boy gone wrong.
I knew my father was exactly right, and questioned my own reasons for doing that with the car. It was totally stupid and moronic, yet I was used to acting stupid and moronic, but never so recklessly. I was a stupid moron, but I never thought of myself as being reckless.
Barent’s Academy takes students from grade six to twelve, and the younger kids are always teased by the older ones, and in my first few years I was teased as much as anyone. Most of it was perfectly harmless in the form of jokes and wisecracks, but a couple of older kids could be counted on to take it to the point of bullying. My roommate’s name was Percy, which didn’t really fit him. He was intelligent and athletic, but the name was his downfall, and I was guilty by association.
One Sunday afternoon in autumn, there was an excursion to a roadside orchard not far from school. It was a beautiful day, and a neat place. We got to see people picking apples, and people making cider and other products, one of which was apple butter.
After the farm tour, we got to sample the cider, and they also served crackers with apple butter, which I thought was the best stuff I ever tasted. Percy always had money on him, and my parents had been to visit the week before, so I still had some cash. Together we bought four quarts of apple butter and boxes of crackers. Our intent was to have a lot of yummy snacks in our room. Food in the rooms wasn’t allowed, but the people in charge more or less winked at snacks.
On the way back to school, the bus stopped at an ice cream stand where we ate more junk. People got cones, sundaes, and milkshakes. I got a milkshake, and it was too big to guzzle. Other kids had milkshakes, too, and the teacher in charge had Percy collect up the empty cups.
When we got back to our room, he still had them, and Percy was determined that they would be good for something, so we washed them out and dried them on a towel in the bathroom. Then we forgot them in a cabinet.
Over time, even something as good as apple butter becomes boring, but not too boring. We’d only finished one jar. One day, waiting for the town bus, a couple of older kids depantsed Percy right by the sidewalk, and just when a busload of town kids went by. I was in our room reading for an assignment when he came in, crying his eyes out from humiliation. When he calmed down enough to make sense, I was pissed off, too. Getting teased was one thing, but being humiliated in public was something else, and we had revenge in our hearts. Still, we were eleven years old and those guys were sixteen or seventeen.
Percy had the idea. We had the milkshake cups and we had the apple butter, and our first thought was to drop apple butter on their heads from somewhere, but we couldn’t think how. Then I thought about just blasting it in their faces. We could wait at the top of the stairs with cups of apple butter on the top step and stomp on the cups when they showed their faces. That would have been funny, but we’d get caught for sure.
Percy was a thinker, and he said, “Let’s try something.”
I was game, and he filled a milkshake cup about half full of water and took it outside. He squished the open end and folded it over, and put it on the ground and stomped on it. The water squirted out like it was from a high pressure hose. We looked at each other and grinned hard enough to give ourselves premature wrinkles. We hurried back upstairs and prepared a couple of cups, squishing the open ends until they were soft, and then filled the rest with apple butter. We flattened over the tops and folded them.
Percy said, “We can’t trust our feet to get this right. We need something flat. Then we can go goosh and get out of there.”
“Flat,” I said. “Books? No, wait! Never mind, I was going to say tennis rackets, but how about boards?”
“Where do we get boards?” Percy asked.
“The bookcases. Take the books off and the shelves just slide out.”
That’s what we did. We prepared our cups of apple butter carefully, waited until we were sure nobody would be in the halls, and then went into action. Old Barent’s had been built to exacting standards, so the cups of apple butter, at least the leading, folded, edges slipped right under the doors. Our targets didn’t room together, so we had to do two rooms.
With the flat ends of the cups under the doors, the boards over them outside the rooms, we just needed to stomp, and when I did, Percy did. We picked up our boards and ran back to our room, saving the laughter until we were safe inside. We did hear loud reactions, but the guys in the rooms didn’t know what the goop on them was, and were too stupid to realize where it came from before we were long gone.
That was my idea of wild fun. Why I thought to take the car into the cornfield was beyond me. It was stupid.
I was contrite for sure, and thankful that the only bad part was the trouble I was in. Dad was oh so right. I had just endangered my best friend, Tom, and my new friend, Russ. It was for no reason, either, but to show off. I could have hurt them, or even killed them, and for what?
I put the car back where it was the day before and went inside to a cool reception. I went upstairs to clean up for my date with Lisa, and decided that I was being selfish again. A lot of people had traveled for my party the night before, and a lot of them were still here. I was going to take off for South America in a few weeks, and didn’t know when I’d see anyone again.
I went downstairs and found my father, who followed me into the kitchen. “Dad, this has nothing to do with anything else. Can you call that restaurant and see if they have room for everybody? I don’t want people to think I’m shutting them off.”
Dad gave me a weak smile and said, “Done. It’s already done.”
“Really?” I asked, surprised.
Dad said, “Paul, I really am angry with you. I’m serious. You have to grow up, but that’s your duty alone. These people are here, and we have to feed them.” Dad looked at me and stroked my shoulder. “I’m glad you thought of it, even if it is the eleventh hour.”
I asked if he knew where Tom and Russ had gone, and he didn’t. They weren’t in the house, and I didn’t find them in the yard, either. I didn’t think Tom would have led Russ down to the river because the going was pretty treacherous. Tom and I both had lots of dents to attest to that.
My search ended almost before it started, because my grandparents came back with Katie, and Dana was in the car with his own grandparents.
After hugs from my own grandparents, and greetings from Dana’s, I was in the yard with Dana and Katie. I asked Katie, “Did you have fun last night?”
She smiled and said, “It was really a nice party.” She looked around and asked, “Is Russ here?”
“I’m not sure where he is. I, um … I kind of got in trouble and he took off with Tom somewhere. They’re probably at Tom’s house.” Before anyone could say anything, I asked, “How was the place last night? Did you have their brunch this morning?”
Katie said, “Oh, I had the prettiest room. They’re all different you know. I don’t know if I’d want to live there, but it was nice for a night. It was cozy and the bed was wonderful. The bathroom was kind of strange, but there were little signs that said how things worked. I would have never figured out the toilet.” She blushed, “I mean there was no handle to flush it. I had to pull this knob on the top of the tank up to do that.”
I looked at Dana and he said, “My room was kind of girly, but Katie’s right. The bed was like a giant pillow and I slept really good. Breakfast was super … way better than that place in Florida.”
I grinned, “No plumbing problems?”
Dana said, “I didn’t see the notes until after, but I figured it out. What kind of trouble?”
“You said you got in trouble. What happened?”
I said, “Later, okay? I did something stupid and Dad is really pissed at me. Hector is, too, and Ally.”
“Wow!” Dana said. “I never saw them mad at anything.”
I looked up at the sky and said, “I have a special talent for it.” I looked back at Dana. “I have to punish myself. Give me some ideas.”
Dana stared blankly at me. “Your own punishment? How hard is that? Force yourself to get new skis. Torment yourself with a new stereo; ruin your eyes with a giant TV set. There are so many ways. What did you do, anyhow? How do I get to punish myself?”
I laughed and gave Dana a shove. “You idiot, I’m serious. I attempted murder on a cornfield, but a Ford beat me to it. I threatened life and limb of Tommy and Russ in the process, and I guess me. I need something more severe than a new television.”
Dana seemed to have no ideas, and just when one occurred to him Katie said from behind, “You could volunteer for something, like working at a nursing home or hospital, or maybe tutoring or something.”
I looked at her and she smiled. I asked, “How do I find out about those things? I don’t know about a nursing home or hospital; they’d be pretty gloomy. I could tutor, though, if there’s a kid dumber than me around.”
Katie put one hand across her tummy, her other on her chin and looked at me. “Good point. Is there something like a homeless shelter or soup kitchen in town?”
Her face was red, and I’m sure mine was too, and we laughed at the same time. She hugged me and said, “I’m sorry, but you left yourself wide open.”
I grumbled, “Yeah, I’m getting better and better at that. Maybe I will volunteer for something, though. They might need help at the sewage plant or something.”
Dana tapped my shoulder, so I let go of Katie and turned to him. “There’s a sewage plant? They what … manufacture the stuff? Gross!”
I said, “No, Dana. They collect it up and … well I don’t know after that. They do something with it, maybe fertilizer.”
Dana took a step back and said, “No way! If that’s true, how do you ever eat anything in this town?” He bent over saying, “That’s so sick! Oh, man. I ate here yesterday. I’m gonna be sick.”
I patted Dana’s shoulder and said, “I was just kidding. I don’t know what they do with it. For all I know they turn it into school books, or parking meters, or paint or something. It’s not like they feed it to us.”
Katie opened her mouth to say something, but Russ came running up. “Hey, Kate. When did you get here?”
She smiled at him and said, “Just now. We were having this lively discussion about Paul’s penance, and it somehow turned to sewage.” She batted her eyes at him, damn her, and asked, “Won’t you join us?”
Russ put his hands up and took two steps back. “Sewage? I … um, I don’t think I’m ready for this one.” He looked me in the eyes and said, “My brain is pretty rattled right now.” He smiled back at Katie and said, “Maybe we can talk about fishing.” On her frown he said, “I mean gardening … flowers, humming birds and butterflies, that kind of thing.”
Katie gave him a smile that I read as ‘You’re learning’”
I had barely paid attention, but Tom and Shea were with Russ when he came, and they seemed as amused as I was.
Tom asked cheerfully, “What’s your punishment?”
“You’ll have to help me with that. I have to decide on one myself.”
That stopped Tom for a moment, but a very brief one. “Masochism: that’s it. Flagellate yourself. I’ll help if you want. We can use forsythia switches, or find somebody with a whip. If you come in with a striped up back for … say ten days in a row, that should do it.”
I looked at Tom glumly before I turned to Shea. “Do you have a better idea? Maybe something less painful.”
Before Shea could say anything, Russ said, “You might give that iPhone to your intended victim.”
I glared at him, and he said meekly, “Everyone got a cell phone out of this deal except me.”
That caught me up short, but Russ was right. He took the beating, spent weeks in the hospital in pain and discomfort, yet his brother and parents all got phones, and Tommy and I got super upgrades. I said, “Okay.” I took the phone out of my pocket and said, “You can have it. That’s fair. Just let Tom save my stuff on the computer, and he can show you how it works.” I smiled at him, “Good deal. Thanks.”
Russ gave me a look and asked, “You’re serious?”
I said, “Yeah, weren’t you?”
Russ looked a bit confused. “Not really. I can’t take this from you. I was just joking around.”
I said, “Take it.” I gave a quick glance to Tommy and asked, “It worked in Stockton didn’t it?”
He nodded, so I said, “Take it, Russ. I can live without a phone. I don’t really use it much anyhow.”
Tom said, “That’s because you always leave it somewhere.”
“Shut up, Tom. I don’t need a phone in my pocket, and I’ve had this for almost a month without breaking it.” I held it back out to Russ and said, “I’ll get by. You take it.”
Russ was still hesitant. “You’re sure?”
“Take it, Russ. It’s yours.” I put it in his hand and wrapped both of my hands around his so he couldn’t give it back. “When you see Hector, ask him to have his company get you a new number. I can get a cheapo phone downtown.
I looked at Tom and asked, “Can you put my phone book on my own computer?”
Tom smiled, “You can email it to yourself. It’s the quickest way.”
“I haven’t tried email from the phone yet. Maybe you should show Russ how. It’s his phone now, so he should know.”
Tom went to Russ, and I turned to Shea and grinned, “You must feel left out.”
He said, “Sometimes that’s a good thing. If you’re in trouble I might be better off if you ignore me.”
I said, “I’m not ignoring you. Did you have fun last night?”
“Did you see me sit down except when the band took breaks? I think I broke Cheri’s foot. She didn’t say anything, but I could hear the crunch over the band.”
I grinned, “I don’t know. You can’t really tell if someone’s limping during a dance. Did you ask her?”
“She said she’s fine. I hope that’s true.”
“Did you ask Tom to ask Bridgette to ask Cheri? If you hurt her foot, she’ll tell her sister.”
Shea looked doubtful. “She never complains about anything.”
I snickered, “Nothing? Not ever? How’d you get so lucky?”
“I don’t know,” Shea shrugged. “She’s just really easy going. I used to be really uptight around her, but she never gossips, never gets upset if I’m late, or about anything I do.”
I laughed, “Have you checked? You’re sure she’s not a boy in disguise?”
Shea laughed like I hadn’t heard before, a real belly laugh. “I’m sure. I’m positive she’s not a guy. She is … um, never mind. Cheri is a girl. All girl.”
I turned around to see who else heard that, and I was alone with Shea. Russ and Katie had either gone with Tom for iPhone lessons, or given the iPhone to Tom and wandered off by themselves.
+ + + + + + + +
It wasn’t another birthday party, but it was like one. Lisa and I had a table off by ourselves, but Dad had most of the restaurant filled with friends, relatives, friends of friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, and whoever.
Lisa and I had a small table in a dark corner, a little windowed candle holder giving off a nice, soft light between us. As the wine flowed beside us, raising the volume and hilarity of the adults, we could be quiet.
Gary Andrews came late with Joan, and they stopped at our table. Gary had met Mr. Jenks at our house after we left to show him the stonework he’d done.
I asked, “How’d he like it?”
Gary grinned, “I start tomorrow. He has enough to keep me on full-time through the summer and part-time until the snow flies.”
I said, “That’s great.”
Gary said, “It’s a lot easier too, when you can buy the rocks already cut. I’m used to bustin’ them up myself, and that takes a lot of time.”
That struck me as funny for some reason. “I load sixteen tons, and what do I get? Another day older and deeper in debt.”
Gary just looked at me, and Joan elbowed him gently, “It’s a song, Gary. I think it’s about miners.”
We talked a bit about the party the night before, and they found some seats near Dan McNaughton and Gary’s sister.
I turned back to Lisa and said, “I got in big trouble today,” and told her about my crazy little ride and the incident with my father.
Lisa’s pretty face registered surprise ten times in two minutes, and I ended up giggling, “You’re funny. You never get in trouble?”
She sat up straight and said, “Never.” And then she laughed, “Of course I do, but not for trying to commit homicide on my friends.”
I asked, for sake of argument, “How would you get rid of them?”
Lisa said, “You’re awful!” while she looked for something she could throw at me, and ended up kicking my leg.
She was wearing sneakers, so it didn’t hurt. I said, “Okay, that’s it! When we get out of here, I’m taking you up to my room and we’re gonna wrassle until you cry uncle.”
“I’m a girl. Girls say aunt, not uncle.”
I held my laugh back. “That’s fine. When I have the upper hand you can cry aunt, or even mommy. If an accident happens and you get the upper hand, I’ll still say uncle.”
Lisa kicked my shin again. Oh? I can cry while you just say? Where did you find that rule?”
“It’s in the handbook, Lisa. Don’t you read the material they hand out on the first day?”
“Don’t tell me you do. Nobody reads that …” She glared at me, “Okay, we’ll wrassle, as you call it. Just so you know, my father taught me some moves, and you’ll be weeping uncle when I get the upper knee on you.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, and after a long moment Lisa started giggling, “You look like a fish with a hook in its mouth, wearing out its little fish brain wondering what went wrong.”
I said, “Fine. Let me get the check.”
“We haven’t even ordered yet.”
I looked at her and said, “I think you’re right. Which one’s our waiter?”
Lisa groaned, “He’s the one with boobs and a skirt.” She picked up her menu and added, “I don’t even know what they have yet.”
I didn’t either, so we both looked at our menus, which had a lot of offerings. A lot of things sounded good, and I said, “Mmm, they have avgolemono soup. You ever have that?”
Lisa scanned her menu and said, “No, but it sounds good.”
“It is good, and the only person who ever screwed it up was my father. The only ingredient we had was an egg, so he faked everything else and it was awful.”
Lisa laughed and went back to her menu. We were ready when the waitress came: ready with questions, anyhow.
Lisa asked, “How spicy is the ‘Zingy Fried Chicken’?”
“It’s hot, girl. Twenty year old guys drinking beer with their buddies order that. It’s to die from if you ask me.”
“How is the regular fried chicken, then?”
The waitress smiled, “It’s fried. Try the moussaka; it’s one of the best things they do.”
Lisa looked quickly at the menu to see what moussaka is made of and said, “Oh, that sounds good. I’ll have the, um, avgolemono soup, the salad with olives and feta cheese, and moussaka.”
The waitress smiled, “That’s a very nice Greek meal.” She looked at me, “And for you?”
“I have a question. What kind of crab is in the crabmeat stuffing?”
“They use snow crabs. It’s a wonderful stuffing.”
I said, “Okay. I’ll have the avgolemono soup, too, no salad, and baked stuffed shrimp.”
She said, “Oh, you’ll like that. I’ll bring the rolls and butter with your soup.”
We talked until the food came, and everything was wonderful, starting with the soup. Lisa loved everything she had, and ate with gusto. That was her family’s style, and none of them were remotely overweight. I’m a slow eater, but shrimp don’t hold heat well so I ate quickly too, and finished just after Lisa. I sat back and rubbed my stomach. “That was good.”
Everyone was making satisfied sounds. Some people ordered desserts, but I settled for a coffee, and Lisa and I pulled our chairs over by the others. Most people were heading directly home from the restaurant, so it was good-byes from a lot of people, but not for long. Dana’s party was the following weekend, and most of the adults would be back for that. My grandparents on my father’s side were going to stay the week at our house. Mom’s parents hadn’t come because they were on a long-planned train vacation in Europe.
Everyone else had to get back to work: Rhod in New York, Bernie in Boston, Rhod’s father in Albany; most people had to be somewhere else in the morning, and we said our farewells on the sidewalk out front.
Lisa and I rode once again with Hector and Arizona. From the back seat, in the daylight, it was easy to see that they were getting pretty close. For some reason, the whole thing amused me. Hector the giant, Zoner with the giant knobs … they were an odd couple for sure, but it was already hard to picture either of them with someone else. Lisa whispered that they were cute, but there was more than cute at work in the front seat.
They left us at Lisa’s house, and I told Hector I’d call if I needed a ride. We went inside to say hello. Lisa put sneakers on and we went for a walk in the woods. It was kind of buggy, but they didn’t bother us at fist. After a while, though, the no-see-ums got to us and we slipped into her father’s tile shop, where the heat drove us out. That place felt good in the winter, but with the outside air already warm and humid it was hard to take, even with the kiln banked down as low as it would go.
We went out to the main road and crossed to where there was a grassy area in the sun and away from the trees. There were cars going by, but we found a decent boulder to sit on and ignored the cars. We were in plain view, but they were driving by at fifty miles an hour. I pulled Lisa close and gave her a quick kiss.
“You know what?” I asked.
“Probably,” she said, “but tell me anyhow.”
God, I was falling into Rodney Dangerfield territory, and had to step up. “There’s something we don’t say often enough, at least not in person.”
She leaned into me and said, “I know, and I shouldn’t be so shy with you.”
I kissed her forehead and asked, “Will you say it now?”
“Now?” Lisa had a tentative expression, “You want me to tell you?”
I nodded eagerly and she said, very pleasantly, “You might lay off the garlic a bit.”
I stared at Lisa, speechless for a moment, and then asked, “Garlic? That’s it?” I looked around, “Lisa, we just had a nice meal in a nice place with a bunch of friends and relatives, and now we’re alone in this … place, with traffic zooming by, and you want to talk about garlic?”
She cuddled up to me and said, “No, silly. It’s your breath.”
That stopped me for a second, and I suddenly knew what the term ‘umbrage’ meant. I was offended, but I knew Tommy was behind it somehow. I swallowed a few swear words and leaned against Lisa. “I was going to say I love you, like up front and in person. Should I just go now?”
Lisa grabbed my arm and said, “Oh, no! I was just making a joke. Say that again?”
“I asked if I should leave. Did you already forget?”
I couldn’t be mean to Lisa, not in a million years. I smiled and said, “I love you. No parentheses, no looking somewhere else. I love you, Lisa.”
Her eyes were wide when she kissed me, and they were closed when she breathed, “Oh, I love you too. So much.”
I slumped back, thinking there was something behind me, but there wasn’t and I hit my head on another rock. Lisa looked concerned, and I said, “I’m okay. Whey don’t you lie down here, too?”
She started to, and I said, “Watch your head!” and helped her back.
She said, “Well, this is nice and uncomfortable.”
“I know, but there’s no moose crap.”
“That’s important,” she said.
“Just random bird droppings.”
Lisa said, “Oh, this is so romantic. Maybe we should lie down in the road to see who has the best brakes.”
I leaned to her and we put our mouths to better use than making silly comments. The bugs found us soon enough, and the rocks were no place for that kind of activity anyhow, so we went for a walk back into Lisa’s neighborhood. There are only a handful of short streets there, and not many houses. We were mostly quiet, too. I was happy just having her hand in mine because it was such a nice fit. I enjoyed our solitary walks. Sometimes we talked all the way, but this was one of the times when we just walked in silence, enjoying the same day in the same place.
That was until Lisa’s little brother, Lou, and his pal Tony came by on their bikes. I heard them coming, Lou saying, “Hey, there’s my sister and her boyfriend. Don’t go too close, you’ll get cooties!” They went by us too close for comfort, one on either side, and they were giggling like it was too funny for words.
I knew they’d be back, and looked around for a handy piece of pipe or a tire iron. Failing that, I pulled Lisa off the pavement and we walked on lawns, and through the brush between lawns. I didn’t think they’d dare the first stunt a second time given the lack of access, but they came on us just as we were crossing a driveway. Even though I pulled Lisa back, Tony couldn’t get back to the street on time. He hit a decorative rock on the far edge of the driveway and went head-over-handlebars into the rough brush.
I ran over to him, and he was face-down in a bunch of brambles crying. I put my hand on his back and asked, “Does it hurt?” Dumb question, “Do you think you can move?”
“I don’t know.”
I said, “Here, let me take you on a test drive.” I turned to Lisa and asked, “Do you know his phone number?”
She shook her head, so I said, “Tell Lisa your phone number nice and slow so she can call your parents.”
He sobbed, “They’re not home.”
“Do you know where they went?”
I turned to Lisa and she looked exasperated, “That would be our house. Let me call.”
I said, “Okay, Tony. I’m going to put my hand in different places and you see if you can move where I touch. I don’t mean a little wiggle, I mean move it. Can you do that?”
I put my hand on his right ankle and his foot almost reached my chin. I backed off a bit and said, “That one works. How about this one?”
His left leg worked fine, too, and I did his arms and had him wiggle his fingers. I was leery of asking him to move his head or to roll over, and told him to cool it when he asked if he could. He was definitely cut up from prickers and I wanted to see how badly. I asked, “Do you think you’re bleeding?”
He’d stopped crying. “I’m bleeding. It’s getting in my eye and I can taste it in my mouth.”
I rubbed his shoulder and said, “It’s still best if you don’t move your head until someone can check you out.” I heard a car pulling up and said, “This must be your family now.”
I turned to look, and Lisa’s father and another man were getting out of the front, her mother and another woman from the back. The man knelt beside me and asked, “What happened?”
Tony whimpered, “I hit a rock, Daddy. I went flying, and it’s all holly in here.”
I said, “I checked his arms and legs. They’re okay, but I didn’t want to risk moving his head. He says he’s bleeding on the side we can’t see.”
He looked at me with an angry face and said, “He’s bleeding and you didn’t even look at it? Come on, Tony, I’ll turn you over.”
Lisa’s father pulled the guy away and said, “Don’t, Nick. Paul did the right thing. Look where the bike is; this kid flew a good ten feet. Look at me.”
Tony’s father looked at Mr. Mongillo with bewilderment. Mr. Mongillo looked at the women and said, “Call 9-1-1. Tell them what you know.” Then he said, “Stand up, Paul. Turn your back to me.”
I did, and he told the other man, “In a fall like this, you can get,” and I felt the edge of his hand whap gently into my neck, “or you can get this,” and he hit my spine that way. He turned me around roughly and said, “If you do that, you could end up with this,” and he sliced a finger across my throat while making a zzzt sound.
Tony’s father knelt down and said, “I should know that. I do know that.” He went over to Tony on his knees and started rubbing his shoulder while he spoke softly to him.
The ambulance and a police car were there in just a few minutes, and they did some basic tests before trying to move him. They managed to get him on a body board with a child-size neck brace duct taped to it while he was still on his face, and the two EMTs and the cop flipped him and strapped him to the board.
His front looked a mess, but I think a lot of it was from prickers. There was blood that had run down into one eye from somewhere above his hairline, and he had a bloody nose. The blood looked pretty well dried up. Everything else seemed like scrapes and scratches. Tony’s father went with him in the ambulance and his mother went home to get clean clothes that she’d bring to the hospital.
Lisa’s parents got in their car and asked us if we wanted to ride with them. I’d just picked up Tony’s bike and the front wheel was seriously bent. I said, “I’ll carry this back. It’s not far and it doesn’t weigh anything.”
The car started to move, and it stopped almost immediately while the passenger-side window retracted. Lisa’s mother asked, “Where’s Lou? Wasn’t he with Tony?”