How was I supposed to know? I hear footsteps in the room above me and the old man’s already at work. Right? His car is gone and when I leave my pad I see a shadow moving inside his place. So I walk down the street to the Howling Dog Saloon and call the cops. Then I chill out in the backyard of the shitty apartment complex my dad owns and knock back a can of Coke to wake up. Still got a bit of a hangover from last night. The local 5-0 shows with their rollers spewing red and blue, but no siren. They get out and I tell ’em about the prowler. These crackers get a wicked gleam in their eyes, whip their guns out and creep up the stairs.
The cops pound on the door, but there’s no response. Luckily, it’s unlatched. A lot of these country fucks leave their doors unlocked, although dad says hooligans like me are changing that. Anyway, the pigs check out the place until the only room left is the old man’s bedroom. The pudgy cop, barely older ‘n me, puts a finger up to his mouth and pulls a coat hanger outta the front closet. The son’bitch hands me his piece and starts to pick the shabby lock. My hand shakes…with excitement! Maybe these crackers aren’t so bad after all.
The guy’s ancient partner frowns at me and whispers, “It ain’t loaded. Only loaded pistol we allow in this town is mine.” He looks at me all serious, like I’m gonna mess with him.
The lock clicks and the fat cop almost tumbles face first into the room. I look around the corner and see my old man throwing a blanket over someone. Dad looks none too pleased about the older cop’s handgun aimed at his face. “Could you please point that somewhere else,” he says coolly, although he’s got to be scared. Shitless. He looks at me peeking around the corner and he gestures with his eyes toward the cops like I’m supposed to do something, so I say, “Oh, no, that’s not a thief, that’s my dad. He lives here.”
Both cops look disappointed and apologize. My dad mutters something about having left his car at a bar and calling in sick to work. I blurt out, “Whoops,” and backpedal away. The lump under his bedding doesn’t say nothing.
“I’ll talk to you later,” dad promises, shutting the door. I wonder who he’s got stashed under his sheets—if it’s a married woman or jailbait. The rumor around town is he’s got an appetite for both. Last week when I snuck into his apartment to snag a few beers, I looked in his bedroom closet and found a neck brace on a shelf next to a bullwhip. “A real ladies man,” that’s how everyone in Belson describes dad. When they aren’t giving him shit, that is.
Struggling not to laugh, I get the hell out of dad’s love nest. The cops trail behind me and almost get back in their squad car before chubby-wubby remembers he gave me his gun. Damn shame. It’d be nice to have a piece. They wave as they back out of the driveway and tell me not to get into any more trouble. I wave back and start heading toward the bar even though I’m only nineteen.
******* ******* *******
Just what I need, more bullshit I’m gonna get blamed for. As if my problems with my mom’s husband Bert ain’t already enough. I didn’t mean to hit him, just scare him a little. Besides, it wasn’t entirely my fault—I was provoked—although talking to mom you’d think I was Satan himself. So until things cool down, I decided to come see my dad in bum-fuck, Georgia.
Howling Dog’s already half-full, even though it’s barely past noon. I order a tequila and OJ, and Mike the bartender says, “‘Kay, Joe.” My dad, although a Republican dickhead who works as a real estate broker or some such bullshit, set me up good here. He told the owner I was twenty-two and just outta school. The last part is true, but he made it seem like I graduated instead of dropping out of Boise State University near where my mom lives.
Man, I sure don’t wanna go back to the apartment complex, not with the old man spitting vinegar, so I look around to see if there’s anyone to raise hell with. Only guy I recognize is Vegas (I don’t think that’s the name his momma gave him) and he grunts in my general direction. I grunt back. I don’t like Vegas all that much, although the women sure seem to dig blondilocks. In fact, I think I would have scored here a couple of times if it wasn’t for that “between-assignments” construction worker. Still, I try to be nice to him because he’s my only pot connection, and since I’m staying the summer with the old man, I have unusually high marijuana needs.
Matter-of-fact, I’m getting kinda short. I supplied one of the deadbeats (as dad calls his renters) with a few joints yesterday so she could go see a movie at the miniplex in town. Her name’s Jill and she’s kinda cute in a twice-divorced kind of way. I walk over to Vegas who’s swirling the cue ball from the pool table in his tanned fingers. He grins at me like the shit-eater he is. “Hey Joey.”
“Name’s Joe,” I say unconvincing-like, knowing it won’t do any good, but it’s better not to let the dickhead think he can push me around.
“OK, GI fucking Joe. What’s shaking, beside yourself?”
“I’m steady as a rock now that I got a drink.”
“Probably a virgin.”
“I was talking about the drink.”
“It’s a double,” I say, although it isn’t. Vegas looks at me with a ripsaw grin that makes the people around us probably think we’re best buddies giving each other hell. Truth is, we’re enemies. Had been from the moment we met. He knows it. I know it. It happens to guys quite often. Making enemies. And you can’t always explain why. Maybe it’s because he’s head rooster around here, although I think it’s lame that we’re after the same chicks with him being thirty-five and all. As if my dad isn’t competition enough.
He sizes me up. “So you’re dry, huh?”
“Let’s go get stroked by magic Wanda.”
Lame pun. Wanda’s the name of his pot connection and, although I’ve never met her, she’s by far my favorite person in Belson.
“Why not. Let’s book.”
******* ******* *******
Neil Salmon, a.k.a. Slobber. That’s who Vegas reminds me of. Slobber was my Junior High School nemesis, especially in gym class. At the time, he was thirteen but looked twenty. I was thirteen and would hit puberty two years later than most of the other guys. There was nowhere to hide that fact in the vicious world of mandatory gym.
I swear to God they should just cage boys from eleven to fifteen.
At first, Slobber seemed content to terrorize me ONLY in the locker room. That was before I made THE mistake. See, one week we were given second-rate weight machines and told to pump iron. While watching one of his pals using the over-the-head-lift apparatus or the jerk machine (as we less muscular types called it), Slobber got his nuts crushed between two twenty pound weights. He toppled over and the whole gym was silent. Silent except for me. I laughed my ass off and the other boys followed my example. All the while Slobber held his nuts and stared at me with a look of pure rage.
That afternoon, after school, he kicked my ass. The first of many ass-kickings to follow.
******* ******* *******
Vegas and I take my dad’s car, mostly because I wanna get it out the parking lot before he gets up and starts yelling at me. We drive along Jackson Street to the south side of town, just past the Quickie Mart. We pass over the 8th Street Bridge where a dozen or so old geezers are out in hip boots and waders in Devil’s River. No one’s been able to tell me why they’d want to catch fish in that nasty-smelling brown stream. Dad took me fishing out there a couple of times for catfish in his pontoon, but we ended up fighting. As usual. I think he hates me.
We turn at Elmo’s Bait and Tackle, and swerve so as not to run over a golden retriever lying dead in the street, tongue hanging out, blood tattooing the asphalt.
“Why’d you bother?” I ask.
“No one deserves to die like that,” Vegas says, staring straight ahead, like he’s seen a ghost.
I don’t have nothing to say to bullshit like that.
Finally, we make our way to the front of a white two-story house—it seems like practically every house in this god-damn town’s white—and get out of the car. There’s a tickle in the front of my head telling me I’m gonna get a headache soon unless I start drinking again. It’s a pain-in-the-ass to start swilling ’em down this early in the day. Oh well. I lean against the hood and hand Vegas three Andrew Jacksons. I’m surprised when he motions for me to follow him. Maybe he figures it’s less conspicuous for me to come in than hang out in the yard.
He taps on a ratty screen door and tucks in his shirt like he’s going to visit the minister’s wife. No answer though. He rips open the screen and his eyes sweep the neighboring yard like a cat. He rears back and gives the front door a hell of a kick. I look down and see filthy white paint flaking off a foot up from the brown welcome mat. The door swings open, followed by a woman’s surly voice, “God-damn asshole, you scared the shit out of me.”
“Woke you up, you mean.” Vegas slips into the house with me at his heels. I see some mean-looking red fingernails clutching the door as it swings shut behind me. Attached to those claws is a five-foot blonde, a little overweight with nice curves. She looks close to forty and with a little makeup could probably pass for thirty. She waves us toward a couch that is covered in dirty clothes, candy wrappers and old issues of TV Guide. She digs into her purse, pulls out an empty pack of cigarettes, crushes it and lights a long butt out of a ceramic Virgin Mary ash tray. “Who’s the kid, Vegas?”
“Joe—good to meet ya’.”
“At least you didn’t call me ma’am, there’s one in your favor.”
“Yes ma’am.” I expect a laugh and get nothing in return but the static from a black-and-white TV getting shitty reception.
“You packing?” Vegas asks.
Wanda shakes her head. “I wish. Should get hooked up tomorrow morning though. Carl’s down in Savannah…at the mother lode.”
Vegas chuckles and I look around the living room. There’s a wooden Pabst Blue Ribbon on Tap sign above the doorway to the kitchen, half-chewed dog toys littering the floor, and several pictures on the wall of a guy I know from The Howling Dog. Carl something or another. He’s Vegas’ best friend and, apparently, Wanda’s guy.
“What you up to today?”
“Baby-sitting.” Vegas nudges his elbow into my ribs and smirks.
Wanda smiles and I think about getting the hell outta there. Only the fear of being rude and fucking up my pot connection keeps me sitting in that smoke-filled pigsty. Hanging out with Vegas is always more trouble than it’s worth. Last time I saw him, he invited his pal Carl (a dead ringer for Mick Jagger) over to my pad. They ended up drinking all my beer and walking off with Python, my four-foot water pipe. I knew they’d deny taking it if I mentioned it, so I had to start poking holes in beer cans to get high. The next day I wrote a couple postcards telling the guys back home that Mick Jagger stole my bong.
“Well, the air conditioner’s on the fritz and I’m bored.”
“Yep, gonna be a scorcher.”
“Yep,” I add, dreading the options: TV, a matinee repeat, pontooning, the bar.
“Nice day for a swim,” Vegas says.
“Sorry my pool’s being repaired.”
I look around the corner to the backyard but Vegas’s snort clues me in that she’s just kidding.
“What about the quarry?” Vegas asks.
“Not a bad idea. I haven’t been out there yet this summer.” Wanda stretches her arms above her head and I make out a tiny sun tattoo on her left breast next to unshaven underarm hair. “The quarry sounds pretty damn good.”
They laugh like they’re in on some private joke.
Vegas looks at me like I’m a cool drink and he’s the straw. “Yeah, you up for it, Joey?”
“Sure, why the hell not.”
******* ******* *******
We’re halfway through one of our three twelve packs before we even get to the swimming hole. I’m sweating in the passenger seat from the heat and sucking air out of the rolled-down window of dad’s Plymouth. Vegas is driving (he insisted on it) and cranking The Allman Brothers on the only rock station for a hundred miles. The signal’s at least half static and I almost scream at the asshole to turn it off. He’s already gotten us lost on dirt roads twice and had to wake up Wanda in the back for directions. She slit her eyes and mumbled something that sounded like Vulcan, and Vegas swore like the drunken good ol’ boy he is and jacked the car in reverse. Even now, asleep, Wanda looks pretty ragged out, like she hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since Jim Morrison died.
I’m about to pop the top on my fourth beer when we finally ease to a stop next to a chain-link fence behind an Oldsmobile Cutlass. Vegas hoots, “Fucking here,” and scratches his belly. We wake up Wanda, haul the beer out of the back seat and stagger through a hole in the fence toward a swimming hole no bigger than Black Bear Pond back home. The water’s clear as hell, the rocks white as bone.
“Used to be a marble quarry, but they hit water from an underground cave. It was the damnedest thing.” Vegas tromps through knee-high grass toward an inlet to the water.
Wanda nods. “My dad worked there awhile. The marble they got out of there, they used for tombstones.”
“Ain’t that a hoot?” Vegas shotguns a beer and starts peeling off his shirt, revealing a broad white chest and biceps striped with farmer’s tan.
“The Fish and Wildlife service filled it with perch, but the locals drained the place dry years ago.” Wanda lies back on a smooth marble boulder and shields her eyes from the sun. “I ain’t up to swimming, but you boys knock yourself out.”
******* ******* *******
My folks met years back in the post office here in Belson. My old man just got promoted to Postmaster General, the youngest one ever, he’s fond of telling me. At the time, my mom was married to another postal worker, Paul Lyons, who she left for my dad. Local legend has it that my old man stole Paul’s woman, fired him AND kicked his ass to boot. The golden hours of a relationship from hell.
The shit my parents accuse each other of gets wilder by the year. Mom says dad whipped her and my older sister who was fathered by the other postal worker. Sis says mom was a party girl while my dad worked late hours, even when she was pregnant with me. Dad says mom cheated on him and he kicked her ass out of the house. Mom says she fled for her life after dad pulled a knife on her one night when she was late making dinner.
Hell, probably all of it is true. Like I care. Unfortunately, everyone wants me to pick sides: sis, mom, dad. They want me to agree with them when they call the others assholes. Mom likes to show me scars inflicted by dad. Dad’s always hot to play me some cassette where mom is apologizing and begging for him to take her back. And sis? She dropped out of school and none of us has heard from her since she turned eighteen and took off to San Francisco with her bassist boyfriend George.
Some days I can’t help playing both sides against the middle. Neither of my folks can see that some battles are fought forever like the cowboys and Indians at each other’s throats in the westerns on Sunday afternoon. They don’t understand you can never truly win a fight, even when the other guy’s dead.
******* ******* *******
Vegas strips down to nothing and dives in. He’s already on his second lap of the quarry as I fold and refold my T-shirt, wishing I had a swimsuit or at least a pair of boxers that aren’t light colored. Showoff. I know what has to be done if I don’t want blondilocks to get the better of me. I look down at the dozing Wanda and damned if her eyes don’t open a crack to check me out. I strip off my shorts and underwear and jump in. Feels great. I take a couple of unsteady strokes and find myself in the middle of the swimming hole with a view of both ends and the opposite bank. Three teenage girls at the far end of the quarry turn from Vegas’ graceful strokes and point at me, two of them giggling and one looking as though she wants to hightail it out of there.
******* ******* *******
Slobber kept kicking my ass (when he could find me) all through junior high. When high school started though, I swore it’d be different. It was the first day of 10th Grade and I’d been fixing up my stepdad Bert’s ’77 El Dorado all summer so I wouldn’t have to deal with Slobber and his army of sniveling psychopaths on the bus. Bert’s a nice enough guy when he wasn’t kicking my ass himself, good with cars and my mom.
Anyway, I drove in to school, a tad on the late side since I had to change a flat, and noticed most of the kids had already gone in for the first bell. All except Slobber sleeping on a bench on the edge of the parking lot, a shit-eating grin on his face. I looked down at my passenger seat and saw the chipped lug wrench still out from the change. I’m not sure if it was a revelation or what, but I imagined myself as a knight with the lug wrench as my lance. I placed a sweat sock over the end of the steel rod, tucked it in my jacket and hurried off to class.
******* ******* *******
On the car ride home from the quarry, Vegas takes a short cut. By this time we’re blitzed and no one seems to mind. I’ve got a wicked burn from lying out and a cut on my knee from diving off the top lip of the quarry to impress the girls who ended up leaving before I could ask them what they thought about my cannonball. Vegas must have scared them off, I guess.
Wanda tries to direct us back to Belson, but Vegas keeps switching dirt roads through the national forest until we’re totally lost. I don’t care much, one way or another. The old man isn’t going to chew me out tonight, not if I can help it. The hell with his bullshit, anyway. I reach my hand into the back and start caressing the inside of Wanda’s leg. I don’t know why I think it’s a good idea, I just do. I start at her knee and slowly work my way up to her thigh. Then her pussy. I play with it as dust and bits of clay shoot out in a long arc behind the churning tires.
Vegas hums tunelessly, having given up on the radio. His voice sounds faraway, echoing into the bottom of the last beer he’s been clutching for dear life. For a second I think I recognize the tune—the Rocky theme song—but I’m not entirely sure until my hand touches his stiff fingers between Wanda’s thighs. I look back and see her straddling the head rests of both our seats, her shorts hanging down over her left ankle. Vegas brakes to a stop and looks at me, then looks at the two of us stroking her legs and the lazy drunken grin on her face, then looks at me again.
“Come on.” Vegas motions to the road and staggers outside. I follow. We circle around and sit on the hood, sharing the last warm beer.
“OK.” He tips the bottom of the can up to the darkening sky and crushes it. “Paper, scissors, rock.”
“For who goes first.”
At this point, the flies start getting pretty bad, swarming around our heads, but I try to concentrate. I’d bet my last one hundred and thirty-five dollars that he isn’t any smarter than me.
“We’ll go on three…ready?”
Now he’d never allow himself to be cut in half. “One.” So that leaves scissors or rock. “Two.” So then, does he want to smash me or castrate me? “Three.”
We flick our wrists. He has scissors. I have rock. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles. I swat at the flies and climb into the back seat through the passenger door. I struggle to get into position and Wanda shifts so that she’s lying across the seat. I pull down my pants and push myself into her, closing my eyes. The few times I’ve had sex were all like this, drunken couplings with me feeling like an alien. She moans a little and I thrust harder, but worry about losing my erection. I feel nothing, like on the day I smashed Slobber twice on the face before going into school, breaking his eye socket and jaw. He was never the same after that. His eyes were closed and he never saw who did him dirty. Afterwards, I found myself wanting to tell him, “Don’t blame yourself, you couldn’t have known what I’d do.” But the bully in him never came back.
The car engine rumbles to life. It lurches forward and accelerates down the dirt road. I pull myself off Wanda who looks as though she’s woken from a bad dream. I pull up my pants, she grabs her shorts.
“God-damn flies!” Vegas screams as he accelerates. The car slides from side to side in the heavy dirt. “Fucking kid, doesn’t even know how to have a gang bang.”
The car skids around a tight turn and I find myself yelling, “Hey, it’s my dad’s car, I’ll drive.”
“I’ll fucking drive.”
“I should fucking kill you.”
The Plymouth slams to a stop, but not before the front grill cracks into an elm just off the road. Vegas slumps over the driver’s seat, banging his tired fists, streaked white from the quarry, on the steering column. He tumbles face first out of the car and I circle around to the driver’s seat. I find myself saying, “I’m not such a bad guy, you know. I’ll get you guys home.”
I put my mind into piloting mode. Go straight, I tell myself, and you’ll find a road you know. I slam the door shut and slap the car in reverse. It takes some doing, but the bumper finally untangles itself from the tree. I slap it into first, swoop off the shoulder and run over a log. Or something big. Hope the tires are OK. I keep my eyes peeled ahead of me, focusing on not falling asleep and getting home in one piece. By sheer force of will I steer us through the woods to County Road 543 and then take 72 West into town. I cross the 8th Street Bridge, pass the week-night crowd at The Howling Dog and pull into my parking spot at the apartment complex.
“Told you I’d get us there,” I say to the empty passenger seat. I stumble out the door and keep it open in case they want to follow. I shake Wanda awake and she looks around, confused. I think about asking her to my room, but before I can, she slips out of the back and stumbles toward the bar.
Where in the hell’s blondilocks? Probably passed out in back, sleeping like a log. I check the floor and cushions, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Impossible, unless he’s fucking Houdini. I walk around the car and notice splotches of road kill on the tires and lug nuts, but no Vegas. He must have gotten out. Somehow. The car’s empty now, anyway. Fuck him.
The bumper looks pretty bad, but I’ll deal with it in the morning.
******* ******* *******
I wake to a hand nudging my back and poking my kidneys. I roll over, still dressed in last night’s clothes, and look up square into the only loaded handgun in Belson. My apartment spins into focus.
My dad stands behind the officers, shaking his head. I figure the old man’s just getting back at me for making his life hell. It’s only fair, since I pulled this same stunt on him yesterday. “Don’t blame yourself, you couldn’t have known what I’d do,” I tell him. My head throbs and the room swirls as I lean forward. The cops stare at me like I’m insane.
“Could you please point that somewhere else,” dad says. “Accidents happen, you know. Maybe it wasn’t his fault.”
For some reason I find myself thinking about Vegas, the log I ran over and the blood on the bumper.
“You have a lot of explaining to do, young man.” The older officer grimaces. Chubby-wubby snorts derisively. My old man has a look of pain on his face. He’s worried about me. He’s actually worried. “I’ll stand behind you, no matter what happens. Even jail,” dad says. His face is bone white, as though he’s seen a ghost.
I look around the room and almost feel sorry for the dread on my father’s face and pity in the older cop’s eyes. But the young cop’s face surprises me—he’s in shock, his mouth frozen in a grimace like the dead setter on the side of the road. Maybe these guys aren’t so bad. Maybe they’re not enemies after all.
“Christ, I didn’t hurt him, did I?”
They don’t answer, but they don’t need to. Something tells me I’ll be seeing Vegas everywhere I go.