The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas Stories
By Davy Rothbart
Touchstone Copyright © 2005 Davy Rothbart
All right reserved. ISBN: 0743263057
One time Mitey-Mike tripped a silent alarm in a jewelry store. It was three-thirty in the morning. The cops came.
He told me about this the next day.
Mitey-Mike saw the cops at the front window. He didn't try to run or hide. He walked right up to them. "Hey!" he shouted through the glass. "You have to go around back. Through the alley. The back door. I don't have the key to this one." He met them at the back door -- the door he'd jimmied -- and invited them in. "I'll get some coffee going," he said. "Caf or decaf?"
The cops wanted to know who he was. There were four of them. They said they were responding to an alarm.
"I'm Jerry's nephew," Mitey-Mike told them. "Come on in. Give yourselves a break. We've got chairs in here. There's coffee if you want. I'm going to have coffee. Actually, I'm going to have a beer. You know what I mean? A late-night beer. There's beer in the basement. Here, let me get some lights on."
He roamed around the store looking for the light switches. Three of the cops sat down in chairs; the fourth remained standing and watched him. Mitey-Mike found the lights. He turned them on. He walked back over to the cops. "Listen here," he said to the cop who was standing, "have a seat. Mi casa, su casa." He brought a chair over. These were the chairs customers sat in to peer into the jewelry cases and try on rings and bracelets and talk to the jewelers. It was that kind of store. The cop finally sat down. "Now what can I get for you guys?" said Mitey-Mike. "How 'bout a beer?"
One of the cops said, "We'd like to see some ID, please."
Mitey-Mike stared at him, then stared at each of them, and laughed. "You mean Jerry didn't tell you about the boat?" He paused. He looked them in the eyes. "The boat. You know about the boat, right?" He laughed again. "You guys don't know about the boat. You probably have no idea why I'm here."
He pulled a chair up for himself. "This was the big weekend," he said. "Jerry decided it was time. Well, goddamn, he's been dating the girl the better part of three years. It was more than time. You know her? Nika? The surgeon? No? Okay. Anyway, he took her up to Drummond Island for the weekend. He's got the place there. The beach house. Comfy, but there's spiders. He got me to come along. Anne, too. He wanted us to videotape it when he popped the question. The idea was, we'll have the camera out and be messing with it. On the beach. Filming the sunset. Then he'll get down on one knee."
The cops looked on with a mixture of bafflement, boredom, and lingering suspicion.
"The ring," Mitey-Mike continued. "Now Jerry's got some nice rings right here in the shop. In fact, if you'd like, you're welcome to try some on. Look around. Let me know what catches your eye. But the point is, Nika used to work here. Before med school. She knows the goddamn inventory. Jerry's not going to just pluck something out of the case. It's got to be special. It was special. Listen.
"They went to Morocco in February. Sure, just leave me here alone, Jerry, leave me here all alone to run things during Valentine's Day rush. Thanks a lot, Jerry. So. They're in Marrakech. The marketplace. Crazy narrow streets. Thousands of twists and turns. I saw pictures. Well, what happens is, they get separated from each other in there. Jerry's not worried -- Nika's a big girl, she can take care of herself, she can find her way back to the hotel. This is perfect, though. Jerry can look for a ring in secret. He finds this old-man jeweler, a nomad -- they call them Blue Men -- they're tribal peoples, desert folk. This old guy makes these rings, okay? You know what a quarter-cusp is?" Mitey-Mike leaned in toward the cop nearest him. "Here, let me see your hand."
"We can't stay long," said the cop. His walkie-talkie buzzed with radio traffic.
"Okay. Fast forward, fast forward. Listen," said Mitey-Mike, "Jerry's all ready to give her the ring. This was the big weekend. But this morning we go out in the boat, me and Jerry, and yeah, you guessed it. The boat fucking flips. Now this is the weird part. We'd hit something underwater. That's what flipped us. But guess what it was. I'll tell you. It was a car, an automobile -- for example, what you'd drive to the market in or pile full of kids for their Saturday morning soccer game. We hit a car with his boat. Jerry had the ring in his coat pocket. Well, that's gone. My wallet's gone, too, but that stuff's easy to replace."
The cop who was last to sit down now stood. "What'd he do," the cop chuckled, "send you all the way back down here to get another ring?"
"Yes, sir. And his scuba gear."
The cop looked at him. "I thought the guy who owned this place was named Maynard."
"Maynard?" said Mitey-Mike. "Maynard's just the manager. He's a moron. No, he's a nice guy. But he's terrible with the books. You know what, though. He saved Jerry's life once." He raised his eyebrows. "Australia. Sharks."
At this point, in recounting the story to me, Mitey-Mike fell silent. We were shooting baskets at Wheeler Park, down by the old train station. "Well, what happened?" I asked him.
"What do you mean?"
"What do you mean, 'what do you mean?' What happened next?"
"Nothing. They left. I told them I'd close up. I told them to stop by during business hours and take a look at our fine selection." Mitey-Mike reached into his jeans with both hands and pulled a long gold chain from each pocket. "Here," he said. "Take your pick."
I looked at him.
"There's a lesson in this," he said.
He bounced the basketball and shot from thirty feet, an airball that rolled all the way to the grass. "Swish!" he said. He grinned at me. "Lie big."
Mitey-Mike Always lied big. He told marvelous lies, outlandish lies, terrible and astounding lies, sad and dangerous lies, silly lies, beautiful, exquisite and thunderous lies. He lied, mostly, to get out of trouble, but often he lied for no reason at all. Times when truth would have sufficed, when a small lie would have done the job, he still lied big. Preposterous lies, he said, had more style. He lied to teachers and cops, to employers, to girlfriends, and even to me, his best friend. Once, twenty minutes late to pick me up from Bell's Pizza, where we both worked, he arrived with a story of taking his cousin's ferret on an emergency trip to the vet.
"Look, don't worry about it," I said.
"I am worried," he said. "I'm worried about little Smokey. I don't know if the poor rascal's gonna make it through the night. They think he was poisoned. What kind of creep would poison a little kid's ferret?"
Nothing was too sacred to use for material. In high school, I'd heard him explain to a math teacher after class why he hadn't brought his homework in. His brother in Rhode Island, Mitey-Mike said, had called him the night before, suicidal. Mitey-Mike spoke very softly and slowly and stared at his hands. "I could hear that his voice was funny," he said. "Not funny like upset, just weird-sounding, and I asked him why, and he told me, well, the gun was in his mouth."
Mitey-Mike sometimes said that as an authority on lying it was important to pass his knowledge on to others, and by others he meant me. He said that the best lies didn't have to make sense and didn't have to relate directly to what you were lying about -- if something disastrous had really just happened to you, it's unlikely you'd be able to explain yourself clearly. One of his favorite strategies was to appear badly shaken and cry out in deep, inexpressible sorrow, "The dogs. They were shitting everywhere. They just kept shitting and shitting!" He believed there were other can't-miss lines, like any that involved spilling a steaming-hot drink into your own lap and burning your penis. No one in history had ever been asked to supply a doctor's note for a burnt penis.
Mitey-Mike always cautioned me not to say too much, not to overexplain. People who are telling the truth, he said, never feel the need to go into too much detail, though there were also times, he acknowledged, when an incredible story was necessary, like when he'd been caught inside the jewelry store.
Never back down from a lie, Mitey-Mike instructed me. Whenever someone challenged him, he'd respond with wounded ferocity, with such blazing and forceful conviction that people either believed him or gave in to the lie rather than continue the argument. He was a bully in that way. On the basketball court, if his team scored the first point of the game, he'd call out the score, "Four-nothing."
Someone on the other team would protest. "Four? That's the first bucket."
Mitey-Mike's eyes would go wide and he'd howl, "No fucking way! I scored twice myself," -- he'd point at me -- "and my man right here scored one. That's three-nothing. Check it up."
Sometimes the lies turned ugly. Mitey-Mike lied to his girlfriends. He usually had two or three girlfriends at the same time. I saw the hurt in their faces when he lied to them -- they knew he was lying but pretended to themselves and to him that they didn't. Mitey-Mike found ways to make me complicit in his lies. He'd leave one girl's house and pick me up at my grandma's, and together we'd drive over to another one of his girlfriends' houses. She'd be upset that he was an hour and a half late, and he'd explain that we'd been giving my grandma a bath. The girl would look at me and I'd nod gravely and explain, "She gets sores if we don't get her out of bed and into the tub every few days." Then Mitey-Mike would drop me off back at my house and speed away with the girl.
You might think I'd get tired of all the lies but I never did. Each sad and damaging lie he told was followed by thirty wild, joyous, sprawling, magical lies. It was a glorious feeling to be in cahoots with him, to be backstage, behind the curtain, on the side of knowing, and watch him weave his brilliant tapestries. People delighted in him and his power over them was mesmerizing.
From fifth grade on, Mitey-Mike was my best friend and really my only friend -- when I hung out with other people he got jealous and brooded around town until I abandoned my new friends and came back to him. In me he had a sidekick, someone to witness all of his impossible feats; in turn, he provided me with adventure and a way to meet girls. We were a pretty good team for about fourteen years. But you know how it is. Things fall apart.
First, Katy appeared. She came into Bell's Pizza one night after we'd already closed, a shy, beautiful, pale-skinned girl with green hair, wearing big jeans and a Joe Dumars jersey. I was up front counting out the register; Mitey-Mike was in back mopping out the walk-in cooler -- if we'd been reversed, things might have unfolded differently. I gave Katy two free slices of pizza and asked for her phone number; within a couple of weeks we were a couple.
My love for Katy was sharp and aching. When she wasn't right next to me I was miserable. Even when we were lying close together or, you know, making with the love, I still couldn't seem to get close enough. I'd always imagined that Mitey-Mike would disapprove when I finally found a girl to be with because I'd be less available to him, but he was cool about Katy. He said it made him feel good to see me so wrapped up in someone. He seemed genuinely happy for me. A couple of weekends in a row he covered my shifts so Katy and I could go camping up north.
One night in August I got off work early, before midnight, and went looking for Mitey-Mike to see if he wanted to play some basketball. Through the front window of his house, in the glow from the TV, I saw him making out with a girl on the living room floor. I'd actually happened upon this type of scene at his house a couple of times before and had jetted, but this time I stayed for a moment because the Tigers game was on the TV and I could see that Detroit had runners at second and third with nobody out. I must have gotten caught up in the game because a couple of minutes later I realized all of a sudden that Mitey-Mike and the girl were sitting up and staring at me. You know how you can look at something and not really see it for what it is, and then there's this tremor and things flip into place? For about a second and, oh, maybe another third of a second, it was just Mitey-Mike and a girl -- then things popped into focus, and it was Mitey-Mike and Katy.
A great, deafening roaring sound filled my ears; blood banged its way through my neck and my arms; my entire body buzzed like I'd grabbed hold of a downed power line. The world came to me in a series of fade-ins and fade-outs. I remember running as hard as I could, chased by Mitey-Mike. The next thing I knew I was sitting on the front porch of a house somewhere, Mitey-Mike standing over me, his face a foot away. I was yelling at him and he was yelling back. At some point the porch light turned on and an old man appeared in the doorway. "The fuck you looking at!" Mitey-Mike screamed at the guy. Next we were running again, all the way through downtown, and then we were standing on the basketball court at Wheeler Park, heaving for breath and drenched in sweat.
Mitey-Mike shook me by the shoulders. "Look at me," he said. "Look at me! You think you know what you saw -- but you don't! You don't!"
I pushed him away from me and screeched for him to fuck off.
He shook me again. "You need to chill the fuck out! I was giving her a back rub! Do you understand? A silly fucking back rub!"
Maybe I was crying, I don't know. I sagged away. "Can you tell me the truth," I said. My head pounded. "It's me, okay? Come on, now. It's me. Just tell me what's happening. I just want to know what's happening."
"Nothing's happening," he said. "We're here at the park. We're talking. Katy's probably wondering where the hell we are."
I tore at my forehead and my cheeks. "Mike, I saw, okay? I saw is all. You don't have to make anything up. I saw what I saw. I saw you guys."
Mitey-Mike was quiet for a bit. The night pulsed. Finally he said, "Okay, listen. You want to hear everything, I'll tell you. I asked Katy to come over for a reason. I asked her to bring me something specific over, some medicine, some hydrocortisone cream. Listen to me! She was helping me put it on. Earlier today -- listen to me! Earlier today, I spilled bleach on myself. Listen! I burnt my penis."
Memory is strange. I don't remember punching him, I just remember him saying that last thing, then looking up at me with his face covered in blood. "You're bleeding," I said, surprised by it. Then I turned and ran.
For about six months my dad had been in my ear, asking me to come out to Sacramento and help him with his business. He sold trampolines to rich people. A week later I was out there learning the ropes.
In late December, two days before the new year, Mitey-Mike was killed in an accident. It was the kind of spectacular tale he might have come up with himself after missing a week of work. What happened was he was walking his neighbor's dog in a field near his house and he got hit by an airplane. A little two-man Cessna. Both pilots died and so did Mitey-Mike, but the dog lived. Hassan, my old boss at Bell's Pizza, explained everything. I'd never heard him so upset. "Will you come back for the funeral?" he asked me. I told him I didn't know.
Katy called the next day, New Year's Eve. She was crying. We talked for a long time. She told me she'd loved Mitey-Mike; I told her I'd loved him, too. She said they'd found an apartment together in Ypsilanti and they were supposed to move in on the first of February. They'd bought some furnishings already -- drapes and a furry toilet-seat cover.
"What are you gonna do?" I asked her.
"I don't know," she said. "I was thinking of moving out there to California."
"Well, to L.A. You remember Jenna? She lives there."
"It'd be nice to have you out here. L.A.'s not too far from here."
"Yeah. That would be nice." She began to cry again.
"You know what I'm wearing," I said, "I'm wearing that gold necklace he gave me. Remember the long gold chain he gave me? From when he broke into that jewelry store? He had one that matched it. Remember?"
Katy said, "I know which necklace you're talking about."
"Yeah, I wear it every day. I guess I have since he gave it to me." I wrapped the long end of it around my fingers and through them. "Katy, you know the jewelry store story, right? How he broke in and there was a silent alarm and the cops came?"
"I know that story," she said. "That's your favorite Mitey-Mike story. You love that story. You always tell that story. You told me that story before I even met him."
"Yeah. It's a good story."
"Well, he made it up. Last week he told me. No, two weeks ago. He got that necklace at Bunky's on Michigan Avenue. His necklace, too, the one that matched. He traded his old Nintendo for them. And a bunch of games." She took a long, staggered breath. Someone else was saying something to her in the background. "Listen," she said, "I got to go. Let's talk later. Can we talk some more? Can we talk tomorrow? I think we should keep talking."
My head and my hands felt light. "Call me tomorrow," I said.
"Okay. 'Bye then. Happy New Year's."
"Okay," I said. "Okay. Okay. Happy New Year."
Copyright © 2005 by Davy Rothbart
Excerpted from The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas by Davy Rothbart Copyright © 2005 by Davy Rothbart. Excerpted by permission.
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