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I WAS ANGRY. We were all at Fred Billings's house. He lived in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Carmen. His father raised chickens. The whole place stank of chickens. He let them run around in this corral that he surrounded with a mesh-wire fence. I liked that about Fred's father. He could have made a lot more money if he'd kept those chickens in cages and fed them that low-grade steroid shit, but instead he let them run free.
Mr. Billings had gone into Las Vegas with his wife to see Dorothy Hamill in Enter the Night, so Fred decided to have a party. It was mostly the football team. They were all downstairs getting wasted or outside sitting by the fire. We always ended up at Fred's house. It wasn't the most convenient place to get to, it wasn't even all that nice, but Fred's folks never hassled us so that's where we ended up. Fred played center. He was big and wide, his forehead was this beefy ridge of flesh, and he had an irreparable underbite. I don't know anything about genetics, but judging by his folks Fred was not going to age well. It was hard to believe that this was as good-looking as he was going to get.
His girlfriend was Amy, small and thin with large breasts, a little girl in a woman's body. She only had one eye. When she was six her father was setting off firecrackers in a coffee can and the whole mess blew up in her eye. The doctors replaced it with a blue glass iris that didn't quite match, but she was still pretty cute, and Fred was crazy about her. I was up in Fred's parents' bedroom with my girlfriend, Lenore. I had her shirt off and my mouth wrapped around one of her big brown nipples. I wastrying to get my hands down her shorts, but she kept grabbing them and putting them back on her tits. This had been going on for a while, I mean like over a year, and that's why I was starting to get angry.
"I can't," she said.
I had my jeans around my ankles and my dick straining to Jupiter. She touched it for a second, her long, soft fingers running up the base while I held my breath. And then she stopped. My mind was racing, searching for the right words to make her continue, but the best I could come up with was More.
I got off the bed and started to pull on my jeans.
"I can't do this anymore," I said.
"Not have sex, that's what."
And then she started to cry. I never knew what to do when she cried, I just stood there feeling guilty and out of control. She kept telling me that it wasn't personal, like if I'd been someone else she still wouldn't have wanted to have sex with me. I didn't know why she was talking about not having sex with someone else. I wanted it to be personal. My head was spinning and so I went into the bathroom. I was staring at myself in the mirror and thinking about jerking off when I heard a knock at the door.
"What do you want?"
"What's the matter with Lenore?" It was Reed, my best friend.
"I don't know."
"She's crying, man" I wanted him to go away. "What are you doing in there?"
I opened the door. Reed was drunk; he had two beers in his hands, and he handed me one. He was looking at me with this wide-eyed expression.
"This is our year, man. This is it. We're going ...we're fuckin' going ...fuckin' all the way!"
He was hugging me. I still had some of my erection left so I stuck my butt out in case he noticed. He was practically sobbing. He got very emotional when he talked about football. I almost felt like crying too, but I couldn't, it wasn't something that my father encouraged. He took it personally. I didn't understand that before, but now I do. It was just too much for him.
Reed's family had moved to Carmen from Bakersfield when he was eight. He'd walked into the classroom in the middle of the school year looking tough and scared. He sat at the back of the class while all of the kids watched him, gawking. Except for me. I kept my eyes on the board, pretending to pay attention, and then at recess I followed him out to the far end of the field.
"Where the hell's Bakersfield?"
"How come you moved here?"
"My daddy's a mechanic, he took a job here with his brother-in-law." Reed didn't talk like the rest of us; his speech was slow, and when he spoke his eyes wandered all over your face like they were searching for a place to land. I felt this pounding inside of me, but I was scared and so I asked him if he wanted to fight. He said that he would if I wanted to but he'd rather race me back to the school. And so we raced. He led all the way. I kept running, hoping that he would tire, but he didn't. He beat me by twenty yards. Between gasps he told me, "I was ...the fastest ...runner at ...my last ...school."
As we walked back into the school I noticed that our strides matched perfectly. With most people you're either a little ahead or a little behind, until eventually you're not even on the same street anymore but walking with Reed was effortless, it was one of those things that I just never even had to think about.
We finished our beers and went downstairs. Lenore was standing by the kitchen door talking to Amy. When she saw me she turned away. Amy took her hand and pulled her into the kitchen. It drove me crazy when I knew that somebody was talking about me behind my back, especially a girl. Girls could make anything that a guy did sound bad. Once Paula Bell told us about some guy who liked her and one time while he was laughing snot came out his nose and landed on her dress. It was an accident, but the way she told it made him sound so pathetic that we all started calling him Snot.
I can't even remember his name, I just remember Snot. I always wanted to apologize to him, explain to him that I didn't mean it, but I never did. Sometimes I think that if I'd had the guts to apologize to him then maybe this whole thing would never have happened. I don't know, maybe it was inevitable maybe what happened had nothing to do with guts.
There was a lot of noise coming from the living room. D. J. Farby was lying on his back on the floor while Craig Nutt and Benny Jericho funneled beer into his mouth from a plastic boot. When they saw me they all screamed, "Garvin!"
I kept my throat open and let the beer flow right into my stomach without taking a breath. If you took a breath you could drown. I lay there and felt the alcohol hit me; the whole back of my head went warm, and for a few seconds I didn't feel angry anymore. My eyes felt as if they were floating around in their sockets, about to come loose. I just lay there on my back listening to Nirvana blaring from the stereo.
"You sick fuck!" hollered the Penguin, our stumpy halfback. His name was Craig Nutt, but he had a long torso with tiny arms and legs so we called him the Penguin. I stood up and the room started spinning. Benny and the Penguin steadied me and I think I told them I loved them. I prowled the room, screaming along with Kurt Cobain, making up my own lyrics:
I'm a screamer, you're a bleeder,
You're a squealer, I'm your dealer!
Nothing mattered. Everybody was drunk, the music was blasting, and we all felt invincible. I passed the front window and that was when I saw these two skinny freshmen walking up Fred Billings's driveway toward the house. One was blond and the other had black hair. I don't even remember how it happened, I just remember being outside and having the blond one in a headlock while Blackie, his knees knocking together, watched from a safe distance.
Blackie was skin and bone, probably tipped the scale at ninety pounds. I remembered seeing him in the cafeteria. All the jocks sat together, laughing loud and shoving each other, and Blackie sat with his friends, looking over at us with this dark, frightened look like he was missing something special.
Somebody always smashed a plate at lunchtime. It was a daily tradition at our table. Whoever did it would act horrified, and if it was the Penguin he'd pretend he was crying as the teacher rushed over, prepared to give us hell. They'd make rules like the next person who dropped a plate would get detentions for a week, but it never happened. Everybody would be clapping and laughing and we were the center of attention.
One day Blackie dropped his plate. He was walking past our table and suddenly we all heard this crash. Everyone started whooping and screaming, except for us. Blackie was grinning. He'd done it on purpose. The rest of the school turned to us for their cue and when they saw that we weren't applauding they stopped almost instantly. It got very quiet Blackie was standing there all alone picking up his broken plate while his grin turned to panic. And then somebody yelled out, "He wet his pants!" I don't think he actually did, it was probably his apple juice that spilled, but it made a perfect stain down his leg and everybody started chanting, PISS, PISS, PISS, PISS, PISS! He picked up the rest of his lunch, put it on his tray, and threw it into the garbage. We kept chanting until he was well out of the cafeteria and far out of earshot, but after something like that you're never out of earshot.
I was holding Blondie's face in the dirt and making him say, "I want my mommy." He had to say it twenty times before I let him go, but after he said it seventeen times, I kept repeating, "Seventeen."
"That was twenty," he said.
I asked him, "Whose face is in the dirt?"
"Mine," he said. And that was when I felt the beer leave me. I didn't feel drunk anymore. I was just watching myself holding this kid's face on the ground and all I could think about was my father.
That night I'd asked my father if I could borrow his car. He drove a mint-condition '67 Eldorado; it was a color that I'd never seen in the desert before, a color that for the longest time I couldn't place. It was the color of rust. He looked up at me from his chair, spun the cubes of ice in his glass, and said, "What are you going to do for me?" His eyes were blurry and he had this curled-up half-smile.
"What do you mean?"
"What do I mean." He stared at the television. "I mean what are you going to do for me?"
"What do you want?"
There was a sleeping-pill commercial on the television that had the pill singing about how it would knock you out cold and you'd wake up refreshed. "I want you to sing." I stared at the floor. I didn't feel like singing, I just wanted to get out of the house. "I thought you meant like a chore or something."
"No. I want you to sing that commercial."
I felt my throat go dry; I tried to say that I didn't know the words but all that came out was air. All I said was, ". . . words"
"I don't know the words."
And then he roared with laughter. "Make 'em up." I sang for a minute. He just sat there and stared at the television with his finger on the mute button. He didn't laugh. He didn't make a sound. I stopped for a second but he said, "Minute's not up yet." And so I kept singing. For a full minute I sang, making up words, hating him, hating myself, but singing because I knew that he would give me the keys to his car.
I'd traded places with the Penguin. Now he was holding Blondie by the ankles and swinging him around in circles in the Billingses' front yard while I gave Blackie a wedgie. He was begging me to stop. Most of the girls rolled their eyes and went inside but a few of them watched and chatted with some of the other guys. Blackie was whimpering, pleading for me to stop, but I couldn't. The more he whimpered, the more I just wanted to continue; it was only after the Penguin got tired of spinning Blondie that I knew I was going to have to stop, and I felt despair.
I remember them running down Fred's driveway, their skinny legs flying over the gravel, Blackie's underwear halfway up his back and trying to pull it back down while Blondie screamed at him to "Run!" I threw a beer bottle in their direction just to hear it smash. I wanted to drown out the noise of my father's laughter as he handed me the keys and told me to get the hell out of his house.
I remember trying to push Ernie Gates into the fire. Everybody was laughing but I wasn't fooling around; I had him in a bear hug and I was dragging him toward the flames. He jabbed his elbow into my ribs. It was the kind of jab I knew was really going to hurt the next day, but that night I couldn't feel a thing, I was spinning out of control. Like Reed said, this was our year, I was the first-string quarterback for Carmen High, I had the best arm in Nevada, and this year we were going all the way. I remember punching Ernie in the face with my fist and his nose starting to bleed.
I remember telling Fred that he should mind his own business and to go fuck his Cyclops.
I remember them holding me down and telling me to cool off.
I remember Reed yelling at them not to hurt my arm.
I remember vomiting and Reed rubbing my back and telling me to "Chill. Just chill, buddy. Everything's cool." I remember telling them all to go fuck themselves. "Just leave me alone. I want to be alone!" But I didn't, really. I didn't want to be alone.
I was three when she walked out on us. Just threw everything into a bag and split, and all that was left was a photograph. She had jet-black hair, clear green eyes, long, muscular legs, and a dazzling smile. She danced the midnight show at the Sands. That's where my father met her swept her off her feet, I'm sure. But that was a long time ago.
In the photograph my mother is smiling; her hands are under my arms and she's holding me up. My father has his arm around her and a goofy grin on his face. The picture made no sense to me. He was not that man, I was not that boy, and that woman would never have left her son. I used to stare at the picture with my thumb covering my father and wait for her to come home and save me. I knew why she'd left; I just didn't understand why she hadn't taken me with her, I didn't understand how she could have left me with him.
The only memory I had of my mother was her pantyhose. We were in the laundry room and I was watching her fold her pantyhose and she was looking right at me, but her face was a blur. No matter how hard I tried, I could never see her face. And I remembered her perfume. I remembered the day that Lenore wore it to school. I told her that she shouldn't wear it, that it smelled awful and it didn't suit her body chemistry. That's what I said. And then I avoided her for the rest of the day. After practice she waited for me outside the dressing room, so I climbed out the window and hitched a ride home.
When I was five, for my birthday, my mother sent me a card and a calendar with horses. I never took it out of the plastic. I remember my father getting angry with me because I wouldn't open it. I wanted to keep it clean, show it to her when she came home, show her that I was a good boy and that I kept things clean. That was the only thing she ever sent me.
The next year, my father gave me a football. When he threw the ball with me he was a different person, he was kind and patient. When I dropped the ball he never yelled he just chuckled and we'd try it again. We'd throw the ball around for hours and then he'd put his hand on my shoulder and we'd walk back to the house. His hands were huge, like bear claws, the fingers thick and muscular a flick from his fingers would sting my head for days. I was terrified of my father's hands. I have my mother's hands: they're narrow, my fingers thin and bony. I remember staggering out into the field behind Fred's house. Even then I knew I had a secret. I didn't know what it was but I knew it was awful and I just wanted to get away away from the fire and the noise, away from everybody who seemed to be OK. I knew that I didn't belong, and that was all I wanted to be safe, to know for just a moment what it was like to not be afraid. And so I staggered out into the field; my shirt was ripped, my hands were cut, my ribs were starting to ache, and all I could think about was how much I wanted my mother to come and take me away.