So we decided to go to Mike’s that night—me and Teddy and Little Pat—because we hadn’t seen Mike’s house yet, it was out in the middle of the middle of nowhere—where nowhere goes when it wants to get away from it all—and because Mike had seen that movie before, said it scared shite right out of him, shite being a Mike word because his mom won’t let him swear, even those sort of barnyard terms that aren’t exactly taking an oath or the Lord’s name in vain or anything, and Mark thought shite, which he’d picked up from some Irish novel—and god only knows where he got an Irish novel—he thought shite much preferable to getting his mouth washed out with Irish Spring (“manly, yes, but I like it too”), which he’d ingested plenty of over the years, thank you very much, and never developed a taste for. It’s kind of caught on, though, shite. Makes us feel worldly.
That and plus maybe we’re thinking that going out to Mike’s would cheer him and his mom up a little. It’d only been a few months since Mike’s dad ran off with this lady from the Baptist church that Mike’s dad was the janitor for, and that’s why Mike and his mom had to rent this old farm house about five miles out, it being $100 cheaper than living in town. About the only thing Mike’d said about it was that the lady his dad ran off with looked pretty young and pretty much like a horse. Then he changed the subject and he wouldn’t look at me anymore so we didn’t talk about it after that.
That was the Saturday before Halloween and they were showing this scary movie on TV, something about Nazi zombies in South America attacking the people and taking over the world, and CBS dared anyone to sit through it. I wasn’t a big fan of The CBS Late Movie, which has like way too many commercial interruptions and those dopey public service announcements, so many of them about venereal disease you’d think there was an epidemic. I remember this one where a bunch of people sang “VD is for everybody,” and I had to ask my mom what VD was. “Well, dear, you get this, um, VD when you have, um, marital relations with someone you shouldn’t,” and she’s suddenly fascinated by her fingernails. “Someone who isn’t nice,” and I’m suddenly sorry I asked.
“Makes your wiener fall off,” dad says, and my mom drops her mop and does not by any stretch of the imagination appreciate that, George, have some sense. I couldn’t figure out why it was for everybody, then, but didn’t ask any more questions. I kinda stopped watching The CBS Late Movie with my parents after that.
“Well, I know you guys do it,” Little Pat’s saying from the backseat, “so, like, don’t even.” We had time to kill before Mike got off work at Madsen’s, this big new grocery store out on highway 16 with a parking lot the size of New Hampshire, and we’d already shot baskets, eaten, even played pinball on that ancient 1950s-era machine in Jake’s Pizza, the one with the Superman theme that I suck eggs at because, gads, I’m distracted by Lois Lane’s low-cut business suit. We’re just driving around now in Teddy’s old Mustang, which his dad’d fixed up for him and which’d be pretty cool if the two doors weren’t different colors and it didn’t burn as much oil as gas and smelled like it, and if Teddy hadn’t installed a cassette deck without knowing how and left about a mile of speaker wire all over the floor. Plus Teddy’s blaring Styx, which he taped from his brother’s album and which he’s played exclusively for like going on a year. Teddy’s like that—he’ll get obsessed with some band and listen to it over and over and over until your ears bleed, and you can tell he just recorded it by putting that crap microphone from his boom box up to his record player, rather than, like you’re supposed to, running it through an equalizer and stuff, and you can hear Teddy breathing every once in a while on the recording and the music gets louder and softer in places when Teddy’s moved the microphone. You can’t say anything about it, though, or Teddy’ll go ape-shite. Could be worse. If Little Pat had the controls we’d be listening to Captain and Tennille or Neil Sedaka or something.
“Different conversation, Lip,” says Teddy. Pat had gone from “Pat” in elementary school to “Little Pat” in middle school—not because his dad’s name’s Pat, but because he was what my mom called a “late developer,” the last kid in our class to do so, a fact that was, to Pat, excruciatingly obvious every gym class group shower, itself (the shower) a kind of ritual torture that has not once in the history of gym classes ever managed to do what it was designed to do—like, oh I don’t know, maybe make a kid stop sweating for the next class? About the best you can hope for is to have phy ed in 8th period. Anyway, early high school and “Little Pat” becomes “Little P,” Pat’s least favorite of his name evolution, and now just “Lip,” which looks like will get him through graduation, after which Lip no doubt hopes to attend a distant college where no one’s ever seen him in the middle school shower. “I’m saying change the subject,” Teddy says, turning up the volume. Styx says “laaaaaaay-aaaay-dee.”
But of course Lip won’t. He’s not totally annoying, but a good 70%, and he grabs a hold of things like my neighbor Mrs. Pratt’s rat terrier, which she named Gus, after her first dead husband, and which forget about it if the humping thing ever gets your baseball, and which, when you think about it, Little Pat more than kind of resembles—wiry, short hair, thin face, ears that stick up too far. “Elfin,” I think, like he belongs in Middle Earth. But he built a Ham radio out of old television parts, and memorized the periodic table, and his parents are real nice and all, and he and I make up the whole 11th grade Sunday school class at The West Faribault Church of Christ (“No creed but Christ; No book but the Bible.”), so we’ve grown up together and are kind of stuck with each other. Everybody else in this town is either Lutheran or Catholic. Well, and a smattering of Baptists. Lip says something that I don’t catch because I’m, like, grooving here, marching lock-step along with Styx—“…Of. The. Morn. Ing…”—and when I ask him what, he says, “Chris, man, how often do you Onan? Are you,” he yells above a hell of a guitar riff, “are you a master debater?”
“I swear, Lip,” says Teddy, “I will Billy Jack you if I hear one more word,” and he sounds like he means it. Teddy’s not really the violent type, though he looks it. He’s cut to the max from working landscape with his dad all summer and from football, which we’re in the middle of and not setting any records, and he’s got these really wide shoulders and a square head that make it look like he’s wearing his football uniform even when he’s not, even the helmet. If Lip was the last kid, Teddy was the first to grow a man’s body, one of those kids that’s been shaving since about third grade, and the memory of that early development, how he not only towered over kids but did so with troll-hairy chest and legs while the rest of us looked like plucked chickens, the haunting memory of that more than the rumor he made out with Lisa Thorstenson (and she’s a year older, for shite’s sake) when she was babysitting, makes him intimidating. Plus, Billy Jack’s his favorite movie. We’d had to listen to “One Tin Soldier” for about a year after Teddy saw it.
I’d been telling Teddy about the time in 7th grade when Mr. (“The Law”) Lawler picked up Greg Peterson in his desk, but my story keeps getting interrupted by Styx and Lip, who’s sitting forward now on the hump in the backseat, his face between our two seats like a toddler’s. “The Law” Lawler—crew cut, square jaw, posture like a telephone pole—teaches social studies and terrifies both kids and other teachers, word on the street being that he’d served three tours in Vietnam and returned home with two purple hearts, a metal plate in his head, and a steely resolve to bring the kind of order and discipline to his classroom that had so eluded the U.S. military in godless places like Southeast Asia and San Francisco. One time in class, he used some kinda kung fu, bringing Teddy to his knees with just his right pinky finger. No one knows where the guy actually lives. “So, yeah, The Law’s lecturing on something—you know, those transparencies that no one can read the writing on –“
“I remember, I remember,” says Lip, “The Nina, The Pinta, The Santa Maria.”
“And we’re all taking notes and sitting up straight and stuff, nobody’s making a sound, and Law’s prolly going, ‘dig in your heels’ and ‘it was gut-check time,’ that kinda crap he always says –“
“Executive, Legislative, Judicial.”
“And Mike—this is right before lunch, you understand—Mike turns around in his desk and whispers, ‘hey, can I borrow a lunch ticket?’ Pretty tame, right?”
“Treaty of Ghent, Versailles, Paris.”
“And bam! Lawler goes big time off. You’d have thought Mike had stood on his desk naked and waved a Soviet flag. You know how Law does, pacing the front, pulling his pants up higher every time he pivots, his face turning red as a Coke can.”
“Whiskey Ring, Teapot Dome, Watergate.”
“And then The Law marches down the aisle, and I’m about to wet my pants because I think maybe he’s coming for me—that I’m a dead man—and I know Mike’s thinking this too because he’s facing forward now, real straight like in his chair, neck rigid, and I can see his back kind of quivering because The Law is right there, looking down at him, puffing even, and then he grabs Mike’s desk and picks it right up, desk and books and Mike, who’s looking straight ahead, he won’t look at Lawler, but he’s in the air, man, Lawler-height—though sitting down, you understand, in his desk –“
“Munroe Doctrine, Roosevelt Corollary, Truman Doctrine.”
“And Lawler leans in and says something in Mike’s ear, and it’s dead quiet in the room, everyone looking at their notes like they’re suddenly fascinated by the Federalist Papers or some shite, even turning pages, and Lawler, he simply spreads his arms, like he’s going “waa-laa” or something after a magic trick, it’s almost graceful, and he lets go and drops the desk with Mike right in it. Bam! When it hits the floor. Like you never seen, man. Like way too much.”
“And Mike breaks his leg, right?” says Lip.
“No, he’s fine,” I say. “You were there, Lip. Just scared. Said later he almost cried.”
“Bummer,” says Teddy.
“But Mike reports Lawler to the principal and he’s fired, right? Teacher’s union abandons him?”
“No, Lip, nothing happens. You know Lawler’s still there. The end.”
Pause. Pause. Pause.
“Shite story, Chris,” and Lip’s head disappears from between our seats.
Styx says, “Silk and satin make me wonder.”
Lip, from the back, says, “Spank the monkey, choke the chicken, whack the mole.”
Lip wants to drive by Lisa Miller’s house one more time, which Teddy reminds him we’ve already done a gazillion times already, but he drives over there anyway, slowing down as we pass the tan split level, Lip looking up at what he thinks is her upstairs bedroom window and he looks like there’s a hard boiled egg lodged in his throat. Lisa’s this girl a grade below us that Lip had seen in elementary school doing a cartwheel on the playground and his heart went pitter-pat, and it’s been pittering and pattering ever since. He’s what you might call smitten. And Lisa is what I’d call hair-ribbonned cute, got this Olivia Newton-John thing going on—bell-bottomed, blond, with a Pepsodent smile and skin so clean and clear it looks polished, an infinite and absolute absence of edges. Like she’s always in soft focus. Lip, though, has no chance. She doesn’t even know who he is. When he asked her out, after great encouragement and shaming from Teddy, for last year’s Snow Dance, which you have to dress up for, for shite’s sake—like, no jeans or t-shirts allowed, and you have to buy a corsage that matches your tie, and the only advantage is that you get to try to pin it on the girl’s chest, and how cool is that?—she said thank you very much but she already had a date. Then she called him Tim. And then she found a date. He was so excited and scared he almost threw up. Said she smelled like Jergens Lotion just like his mom, who (whom?) I’d always thought (Lip’s mother) smelled like Lemon Pledge—which yes, honestly, and having read Oedipus in 9th grade English class with the recipe-for-wet-dream and sexiest-hands-I’ve-ever-seen English-slash-goddess-Ms. O’Connel—and don’t even start me on that—I found (Lip’s description of smell, now) more than a little creepy. So far the only overall strategy Lip’s come up with for sweeping the fair Lisa off her go-go boots and into knowing at least his name, not to mention acknowledging her undying hots for him, is to drive by her house ten times a night and stare at it as we pass.
“Well shite, Lip,” Teddy says when we’re back on Albion Avenue and headed for Madsen’s Grocery, “I really thought you had her that time. Thought she’d come running out the door naked.”
“Oh, Tim,” I sing on cue, and grab my imaginary titties.
Mike’s the only one of us who’s had what you might call a steady girlfriend, the kind you have to take to every dance and athletic event in the tri-county area, and god forbid she’s in the school play or choir, because then you’re sitting through every showing of I Remember Momma and telling her she was amazing and those choir concerts include not only the concert choir and all-school choir and show choir and girl’s choir and freshman choir, but even the middle school and elementary school my-voice-is-changing choir-so-please-ignore-the-squeaks that make your molars and nether regions ache so you have to pee. Mike’s devoted, that’s his problem. He’s loyal, a genuine what my grandmother calls gentleman, which is what makes him kind of cool in my book, but it also makes him … I don’t know, kind of vulnerable. There’s a sweetness about Mike that I’ve never told anyone about, like your little toddler brother who you just know is going to crack his skull open on the corner of that wooden coffee table. Those things are dangerous.
Mike’s had two “steady” girlfriends, Georgia and Jen, each lasting about a year, and they were both nice and fabulously, 10-car-pileup gorgeous, but they both broke his heart, shattered it, like Skywalker on the Death Star, and now he’s on his own, stuck in the country with his mom, who still kisses him goodbye on the lips, and with us, me and Teddy and Little Pat, who none of us smell like Jergens or Noxzema, or most of the time even remotely pleasing. Teddy and I have had dates, you understand, and I once even fumbled unsuccessfully with the tan, complicated bra of Teri Kramer—yeah, with an “i”—until she said “Chris” in this parent-like, bored voice, turning what I thought was a magical moment worthy of a Barry Manilow song (“Oh, Teri, you came and you gave without ceasing…”) into a humiliating one and which I still think about on a regular, as in daily, basis and which I hope more than ever to do again, soon and successfully. The closest Lip’s got is asking out Olivia Newton-John.
“I have decided I want to touch a boob this year,” Lip announces, sitting up again, face through the front seats like the death mask of an elf, and it’s all I can do not to put an elbow through his nose. “That is really something I would like to do.”
“Set your goals high,” I say, knowing the closest he’s going to get to even seeing a boob is the underwear section of the Sears catalog, which he is—not alone, mind you—deeply devoted to.
Styx tells us all that we need love, and that seems true enough. And then Teddy accuses Lip of farting—“nuh-uh, no way, man, not me,” Lip squirms, and I hear that all we need is love. Yeah, but how is that done?
There’s only a few cars left in the lot when we pull into Madsen’s, and they’re in the last row, farthest from the store, so we know it’s just employees left in there. We know Mike has to clean the place before clocking out, he mops the floor with this kind of Zamboni machine for linoleum, a squat thing that squirts water from the front and squeegies it up in the back and which it’d be cool to drive anyplace but Madsen’s, and we have no idea how much longer he’s going to be in there, and we’re getting anxious because the movie starts at 11:30 and we have to follow him out to his house in fricken Canada. I don’t remember whose idea it is, but I get out of Teddy’s car and check Mike’s car doors—he’s got this little two-door AMC Gremlin, two-tone purple, that looks like it’s too high for its width and will tip over when you take a corner and that in the winter we have to push backwards to pop the clutch and get the frozen thing started—and I don’t even know why we checked, but the passenger side door is unlocked, and it’s maybe my idea to have Teddy park up the block while I hide in Mike’s car with Mike’s tire iron in my hands, and crouch down in the back, like a thief, like a crazed killer, like one of those escaped-from-the-insane-asylum homicidal maniacs with a hook for a hand that you hear about late at night when you are camping and which prevent anyone under the age of like 45 to spend most of the night listening closely to the unidentifiable but obviously ominous and otherworldly noises just outside your tent—or, it turns out, just like an Argentinean Nazi zombie would do.
I’ve got about ten minutes to rethink our plan, which of course I’m not doing because I’m thinking what a cool trick this is, how it’ll make me famous in the high school and, who knows, beyond, it’ll get a rise out of Mike and maybe make me a celebrity, like on Allen Funt, get me a spot on the Battle of the Network Stars or something, like that’s the kind of famous I’d be, and that yeah, I’d like to touch a boob too this year, I’m due, I’m a nice guy and all, and I bet those actors on The Network Stars touch boobs all the time—Farrah Fawcett’s, Suzanne Somer’s, it’s like a boob buffet when you’re celebrity. Like Chachi. I don’t really believe it, of course, about being famous, I’m just fantasizing, when I hear Mike’s footsteps running across the parking lot. I don’t know it’s Mike’s footsteps, I’m crouched down in the back of his car gripping that tire iron, and I can’t see anything but the fabric on the car ceiling, which seems to be sagging more than it should, but then I hear him talking to himself—“Shite, I’m late” and “f-ing job, like I gotta do everything” and “hurry up already, get the keys”—things you don’t even know you’re saying out loud because you usually say them just to yourself. Then I hear his key in the lock, and the door swings open, and he hops in—I can feel the car’s weight kind of bounce a little—and he puts the keys in the ignition. And then everything is quiet.
“Goddamn it,” he says.
“Dad,” he says. And even the air feels sad.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says to himself, and to tell you the truth neither do I.
So I start coming over the back of the seat. I’m moving slowly, drawing it out, and the only light is from the parking lot floodlights, which sort of glow in an umbrella pattern on the asphalt, and I’m just going to touch Mike’s shoulder when I see his eyes in the rearview mirror, and they look moist and sad, and I see them get big, and then wince. “Dad,” he’d said.
I expect fight or flight, that he’d scramble out the door and run like H-E-Double-Toothpicks on like speed, and I’d feared that he’d take a swing at me, defending his territory, his territory being that dumb two-door purple car that isn’t worth defending even against me, and that maybe he’d take out a few of my adult teeth, which are darn hard to replace as I understand it, but what I really think is that he’ll just give one of those quick jumpy screams that you do when your little brother leaps out from a corner or a closet you thought was empty and that’d pretty much be it. But Mike doesn’t do any of that. What he does is lean back away from me, kind of curls up into himself—he would have assumed full fetal if the steering wheel wasn’t in the way. His elbows bend in close to his sides, his fists to his chin, and he trembles and gives what surely is the definition of a whimper, a high, pathetic, un-rhythmic kind of cry—AH, AH, AH—like he’s five-years-old, convinced the ghost is lurking just outside his bedroom window, and he’s utterly alone.
I laugh then, because I don’t know what else to do—“Dad,” he’d said—because I’m kind of scared now too, and I try not to look at him, try to give him some space, and after a few seconds color returns to his face and his breathing slows to what I think is within acceptable range, and he sits back in the car seat as limp as if he’d just played the game of his life and, as our football coach coaches, left it all on the field. “Oh, man,’ he whispers. “I’m going to kill you.” He takes a couple of deep breaths. “I got sweat right through my shirt.”
“Scared shite right out of you, huh?” I say, trying not to think of the way he said “dad.” Trying to laugh, sound upbeat. It comes out like I’m choking.
“God, I am shite-less. Totally without shite.”
There’s a pause.
“You ok? Mike?” His eyes are closed.
He’s just breathing.
“What you see before you is a Mike sans shite,” he says softly.
“I’m sorry, man,” I say, because I am, about everything, though I don’t know how to say that, and because what I see before me doesn’t look like fear or anger or fatigue or anything. What I see before me looks like sadness. “I’m really sorry,” I say. “Here, let me drive,” I say. “Dad” is what I’m hearing. “I can drive,” I say. “That is something that I can do for you.”
So I drove out to his new house, Teddy’s headlights in my rearview mirror. I felt lost. It seemed to take an hour.
And that movie—the one about the Nazi zombies in Argentina that The CBS Late Movie dared you to sit through because it was so scary?
Didn’t live up to the hype.