Never Fired a Shot
Tyrell and I weren't really friends. I mean, our dads were friends and we went to the same school, so we were always around each other. Benny was a real friend, though. He forged a doctor's note to get me out of gym until my jock itch cleared up. Mrs. Schramm had nearly held me back in second grade for poor handwriting, but Benny's was perfect, always squared up on the lines with straight, boxy pen strokes like a father's. He also got his mom to pretend she was mine when I got picked up for minor in possession. He listened, too, when I just wanted to bitch. Plus, he had a car.
We never really intended to go down to Columbia Park, we just blew in on the night's current. Some of the cities' leading lights had been down there earlier, dedicating a veterans' monument, but Veterans' Day didn't mean much to me except that it was both a school holiday and a bank holiday. I snuck out while Ma napped. She never gave up asking where I was going.
Benny pulled over half in the verge right outside the triangle-pipe gate the city put up to deter after-hours cruisers. I looked at the long bar that ran from post to point, a hypotenuse. I felt pretty proud I'd remembered—I hadn't been to geometry much that semester. The E-brake cranked and I slid out into the ditch. We hopped the low gate and headed off the road into the long strip of dormant grass. It cracked and gave underfoot as we trudged. We were the last dropping leaves of autumn caught on the breeze.
"My dad's an asshole," Tyrell muttered.
Neither Benny nor I said anything.
"My dad's an asshole," Tyrell repeated, louder now.
"Wha'd he do?" I was slurring, the robo coming on strong. I wondered if I should have waved off Tyrell's vodka. Oh, well. Too late now.
"Fucken azzhole," Tyrell slurred too.
We walked without more talking. Benny's dad had died when he was four years old and I didn't want to compare mine with Tyrell's. I got caught up pissing on the back fence of the driving range while the boys headed down the riverside to pick through the riprap the city had used to build up the bank. They kept on, didn't look to see where I was. Down by the water they were harder to spot if a cop patrolled the drive, but I could give a good goddamn so I stayed up on the grass and closed the gap. I could smell the lousy joint they were smoking. Their ditch weed gave off an animal musk that mixed with the riverbank mud and made me choke back nausea.
"My brother grew this. A farm in Humboldt." Tyrell was lying—he didn't have a brother, just two sisters. I spat and the wind carried it further than you'd think. They turned.
"You want some?" Benny held out his hand, fingers crabbed, lit by the ember at the tip of the joint. He was choking something back too. Probably just his toke.
"Nah, I'm fucked up."
"Yer a pussy," Tyrell snorted, but I was looking out across the Columbia. The black mirror of river chopped at the surface. The Blue Bridge lights cast long, dancing reflections down toward us. The wind was so cold it cut through my jeans, but I wasn't going to ask to move on.
Instead, I started off toward the basketball court. Tyrell and Benny overtook me, billows of smoke or breath, maybe even spirits, looming over their heads. There was a stray ball behind the net. I picked it up and dribbled. The ball rang, a bell striking every time it hit the pavement. The wind rushed these peals away, farther into the park.
"Let's play," I said.
"There's three of us," Benny shrugged, "how does that work?"
"We could play HORSE."
We took turns shooting at the rim but we were too high to make a single shot. I got tired of shagging the ball and kicked it away, down the river bank. I saw it slip into the water, start to make its lazy way in the current. We sat and I angled my head to look at the gaping sky. I wondered how it could be both clear and impenetrably black all at the same time.
We tore ourselves from the pavement and stumbled through the grass where we found a stand of trees and leaned against the trunks. The bare branches didn't cut the wind. I pulled out my cough syrup, sucking at the bottle though I'd pretty much drunk it all. Cherry was the worst flavor, didn't cover the medicinal tang. Only grape did. Benny wouldn't drink it because he got hallucinations, bad trips. Never happened for me. There was some kind of imperceptible halo around the trees, the boys, the bridge in the distance. Not a glow, no light—more a feeling that everything was wrapped in cotton wadding. Alcohol ups the effect, so when Tyrell passed the pint of vodka around I took a long pull before passing it. I got a sideways look from the boys but they let it slide. I handed the bottle to Benny. He took the same long drink as me but coughed after.
We kept on until the Veterans' Memorial and then we were almost out of park. I'd read about the new monument somewhere, maybe the paper? I never read it, though. I'd probably seen the headline as I walked past Ma's breakfast plate and smoldering Marlboro on my way out of the house this morning. The memorial was a low, concrete slab with insignias and big block letters dedicated to the memory of those who'd died in our wars. I didn't know anybody like that.
"My dad was a marine," Tyrell said. Another lie, but I let it drop.
Benny was shifting from foot to foot.
"We should get out of here," he said. "Cops are gonna patrol this tonight."
Could have been the mention of cops. Could have been we'd played out the string, socially, but after one more slug of liquor we broke up for the night. Benny went back to his car, Tyrell and I were on foot. Tyrell said his sister was going to meet him up on Edison and he was going to show her where to get some of that weed. Benny started to chew his cheek, turning that over. I decided to head into town.
I had no route or destination, let the night sweep me over onto Canal Drive, where downtown was coming alive under 2:00 A.M. pressure. The drunks filed out of the Eagles Aerie with heads low like a prayer. I stopped worrying about cops, figured they'd be watching the drivers as they left the lot, bigger fish. I kept my head down as I walked anyway. I stopped when I heard a soft, familiar cursing. I recognized the tone and cadence.
"Haven't seen you in a couple months," I called.
He dropped his keys as he turned. He had his wool Stetson pushed way back on his head, an impossible perch, but it did not fall. You could see the fingers of his combover. The Aqua Net glistened in the street light.
"You aren't better'n me."
That was fair. He slid down the car door and had a seat right there on the pavement, patted a patch beside him. He gave me a look that contained a command. A father's prerogative. Sit. I sat.
"You got a snoose?" He held his hand up, thumb and pinkie extended with the other fingers curled into his palm. He tipped the whole thing up, a pantomime bottle.
"Nah, it was Tyrell's." I messed with my hands in my lap. The pavement was stinging cold but I didn't fuss.
He pulled a pack of Camel straights from his shirt pocket, under his sheepskin denim coat. He tapped the pack against his palm. Little pieces of gravel embedded in the callus broke loose and sounded off as they fell. Two cigarettes poked out of the opening—he pulled them out and held them between his first two fingers. He put them in his mouth and lit them with a disposable lighter. He handed me one without looking over.
We took long drags. I thought it was a contest, held my breath in every time until he exhaled. Smoke and vapor passed in bursts under the streetlight in the corner of the lot.
"It's Veterans' Day," he said. His hat rocked back against the door and this time it fell. I picked it up, dusted it off and handed it back to him. He laid it on his lap, patted it like a pet.
"Godfuggindamn Vietnam shets wouldn't buy me a round. I bought them a round and they told me to pound sand. Said I never really saw any combat. I told those little punks to go drink at the VFW if they want to talk that shit." The talk died on a breeze that stirred up some receipts and a long paper bag. The garbage twirled in a tight whirlwind. He looked me straight in the face. A frown tugged at the corners of his mouth and his eyes were so rheumy I thought he was going to cry. Probably just the liquor.
"I used to be a tank gunner." he said. "I trained in Texas, but we deployed to Israel. Never fired a shot, except into those Jewish girls."
The streetlight flickered and quit. The breeze stilled and I felt hot. I couldn't feel the ground.
"Listen," I said, "why don't you call sometimes?" Foam licked at the corner of my mouth, broke loose and landed on the leg of my jeans. I rubbed it in hard.
"Shit," he said, "you got a nickel for the pay phone same as me, don't ya?"
The ground heaved then. I swear I was as sober as I was born. I reached down and grabbed his keys, picked myself up, dusted off my jeans, went around to the driver's door, unlocked it and climbed in like I owned the thing. I reached across and pulled the lock open on his side.
"Come on, hop in," I said. "I'll give you a ride home."
I gave him a look—the right mix of care and command—and patted the seat. He palmed his hat and pushed it down over the top of his head. At the same time, the street lamp blinked on. The shadow of the brim obscured his face.