To read Part I, please click here

Jeremiah balanced himself against the doorframe, his head loose on his neck, swinging from side to side like a pendulum. He motioned for me with his hand. I staggered his way inadvertently colliding with him at the front door.

Gary approached, intervening. He bucked for us to stay put, to crash at his place for the night citing how much alcohol the two of us had consumed over the preceding six hours.

“There’s more than enough room,” he said.

“I’m fine,” Jeremiah replied, exhaling smoke through his nostrils. “I’ve only had two beers.”

“And how many shots, how much wine?” Gary rejoined, “You smell like a damn orchard.”

“Do you mean vineyard?” Jeremiah countered with a wry smile. It was the same smile he gave when he was kicking your ass in Madden. It was the oh-how-do-you-like-that-shit? smile.

Jeremiah reeked of booze. Fumes of beer, liquor, and wine mixed with the nicotine from his breath produced a yeasty, acerbic combination. The inherent problem in Jeremiah taking to the wheel intoxicated—other than the obvious: he was intoxicated—was not so much the absorption of beer and liquor into his veins. The problem was the wine. Jeremiah simply could not handle wine. Never could. It made him off-kilter, a bit askew in his perception of reality and his ability to function in said reality. It was sort of a running joke within our circle that Jeremiah left zigzagging from Sunday services after communion was given just from the sheer tart quality of the grape juice on his palette.

I was a cheap drunk and hence stuck with my preferred Friday night beverage of choice, Hurricane. Hurricane is a malt liquor with 8.10% ABV and part of the Anheuser-Busch family of beers. BeerAdvocate.com gives Hurricane a resounding grade of D+ with a further comment for beer drinkers the world over to “avoid.”

I find this rating a bit unfair, particularly from the perspective of a teenager in the 1990’s with limited income save for the greenbacks earned by way of cutting grass in the summer time and chopping wood in winter.

The Three Pros of Hurricane:

  1. Extremely economical: Spend less. Drink less. Get drunk quicker. Have leftovers for next week’s shindig.
  2. Extremely potent compared to popular American lagers: Once again, drink less, get drunk quicker. I didn’t drink for the taste. Not to mention, easily the biggest con of Hurricane was that, like OE800, it smells like bottled and capped skunk piss. Pop it open, turn it up, don’t think twice, it’s alright.
  3. Never lifted at parties: The fact of the matter is people do not see a black, orange, and green case of Hurricane in the refrigerator and rogue one. They think, “Who in God’s name brought that?” move the case to the side so as to retrieve a can from someone else’s stash thus leaving my alcohol to keep cold and ready when the time was right to crack open another.

The latter was ultimately the deciding factor from my teenage perspective. Hurricane, Black Label, and King Cobra were my Big Three in those days. The lineup rotated as to which one I drank on a designated weekend. Unlike most, if not all of my friends, I never found myself in one of those “where the fuck is my beer?” moments at parties. My beer was always on the bottom shelf, untouched, except by me.

The only time anyone ever even touched one of my malts was when Brandon Shepherd grabbed one, held it up to his mouth like a microphone, and began singing, “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by Scorpions. Then, in the same motion, he passed out on the couch.

On days when the income was feeling a bit expendable and I was feeling grandiose and luxurious, I would step my game up and purchase a Mickey’s but those days were rare and few and far between. Not to mention, I loathed Natural Light for its redneck-specific designation on the drinking scene and avoided it at all costs, buying malt liquor instead. But I digress.

Other than Hurricane and a single can of Budweiser—whose slogan I unremittingly recited throughout the course of the night much to the protest of my cousin Gary—I downed a single mixed drink Gary had concocted.

Bleeding Liver

100 mL Vodka
15 oz. Fruit Punch Gatorade

Mix together. Shake very well. Add ice. Serve.



Gary in the middle, me on the right

Character Profile
Gary was my first cousin (standing in the middle in the picture to your left. That’s me on the right. My cousin Robbie on the left) and Jeremiah’s fellow classmate at Randolph-Henry High School in Charlotte Court House, Virginia—Graduating class: 1997.

As a young child, the third Hyde of the family, Garland Hyde Hamlett III, to be exact, had this intense fascination with WWF and WCW action figures and collectibles. Each year when Christmas rolled around and Santa Claus slid his morbidly obese, cherry red ass down the clay brick chimney, he would place under Gary’s Christmas tree some new wrestling action figurine.

By the time my aunt Julie, uncle Butch, and cousin Tiffany arrived at our home in Phenix for breakfast on Christmas morning, Gary was itching like a dog with mange to pull out his plastic men and toss them into the roped ring he had been given the prior Christmas. In turn, the Steiner Brothers—Rick and Scott—would gang up on an aging yet still shirtless Rick Flair or involve themselves in an illusory confrontation with the tag team duo of the Road Warriors.

This background is important for at times this imaginary play world of wrestling was implemented in the real world and my skinny self doomed from the start no matter how much milk I drank or Spinach I ate. (Yes, I arduously bought into the Popeye philosophy that a helping of spinacia oleracea would sprout Sherman tanks on my biceps and in turn help me bring down my own real life Bluto, Gary.)

Gary was my elder by two years, might as well have been ten, and was much bigger than I was then and still so even today. He does not recall putting me through the torture I am about to describe to you the reader. When you are on the giving end (as Gary was), I imagine it is but a faint memory pushed to the back of your mind with no resounding quality—just an ordinary day in an ordinary week. On the receiving end (as I was), however, it becomes burnt into one’s memory as if a fiery orange cigarette cherry snubbed out on the backside of one’s hand.

When I visited my Granny and Papa Hamlett in Drakes Branch, Gary, as sneaky and vengeful as ever, somehow found a constant lure and always managed to trap me in our grandpa’s bedroom. My cries for help were quickly silenced by the threat of pain I was soon to endure being even more painful if I called out for aid. He was also pompous to the fact that unlike other kids his age he already had underarm hair—and a jungle of it at that. As consequence, he jerked me immediately and without delay into a headlock and buried my pre-pubescent face in his armpits.

“Smell it,” he would cry out, squeezing my neck tighter as if to pop my head off like a grape. “Smell it!”

I refused to smell it.

He squeezed my neck tighter.

There was sweat on my nose and cheekbones from his pits. Thick white chunks of deodorant on my lips tasted bitter. Underarm hair tickled my nose.

“I want you to smell it. I want to hear you sniff,” he growled.

Then my nostrils would flare in and out.

* Sniff, sniff *

Enduring these moments of agony, I knew that nothing could be done but appeal to the Lord above for strength in a prayer that one day all those gallons of milk I had poured into my belly since weaning from the teat would jumpstart a growth spurt in my body and all that spinach I consumed would swell my biceps like it had done Popeye before he liberated Olive Oil from the masculine and obstinate grips of Bluto’s hands.

Then I would have my revenge.

Unfortunately, this petition to the Big Man in the Sky has yet to be answered and unless I dial up BALCO or Mark McGwire and get my hands on some Human Growth Hormone, my thirst for retribution may never be quenched.

Or will it?

In a metonymic adage originating in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play, Richelieu, Cardinal Richelieu says and I quote, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

And so with this axiom clearly portraying wit over might, the power of the written word over the physical headlock, I will thus write with my pen a very significant and hopefully embarrassing little known fact about my Blutonian cousin Gary’s musical tastes.

Gary owned and purposely bought and listened to albums by Shaq Diesel, also known as Shaquille O’Neal, The Big Aristotle, and/or Shaq Fu. If my memory serves me correctly, his favorite song was “(I Know I Got) Skillz.”

Quiz him on this.

From the actual song, begin rapping these lyrics:

Yo Jef, why don’t you give me a hoopa beat or something,
Something I can go to the park to.
Yeah, there you go, alright, I like that, I like that,
It sound dope.

Just give him a minute for the full effect to take hold, to possess his body. Then like an uncontrollable instinct or an Episcopalian speaking in tongues, Gary will begin tapping his right foot and spitting the rhyme with prepositions incorrectly ending the sentence and all:

Knick-knack Shaq-attack, give a dog a bone,
Rhymin is like hoopin’, I’m already a legend,
Back in the days in the Fush-camp section,
Used to kick rhymes like baby, baby, baby,
Every once, every twice, three times a lady,
Is what I listened to, riding with my moms,
How you like me now? I drop bombs,
When you see me, please tap my hands,
I know I got skills man, I know I got skills man…

If that does not work, if he refuses to acknowledge this reality in regards to his music selection, simply ask to see his record collection. Inside a dusty cardboard box, you are sure to find a copy of Shaq Diesel’s debut album, and to top it off, nearly every cassette ever put out by the Fat Boys. True, there is nothing really to laugh about here. The Fat Boys had rhymes so sweet they would knock anyone into a diabetic coma.

Back in the day, I liked the Fat Boys too, used to beat box with my mouth at Gary’s on Saturday mornings while my uncle Butch sucked down a raw egg for breakfast. The two of us would venture out underneath the attached garage and toss lyrical heat into the fire. I would morph into Kool Rock Ski and him into Prince Markie D:

(Prince Markie D): $3.99 for all you can eat?
Well, I’m-a stuff my face to a funky beat!
(Kool Rock Ski): We’re gonna walk inside, and guess what’s up:
Put some food in my plate and some Coke in my cup
(Prince Markie D): Give me some chicken, franks, and fries
And you can pass me a lettuce. I’m-a pass it by.

And then Gary would pause for a moment, do the Robot, position his feet on his Max Headroom skateboard, pop an Ollie, and run his fingers through his hair like a 1988 James Dean. Peanut would call from the neighboring yard, “Yes, t-t-t-t-tune into Network 23! The network is a *real* mind-blower!”

Or at least this is how I like to remember the past.

And that was Gary.



Now he stood before Jeremiah and me, interrogating the man with the keys in his hand. Jeremiah opened the screen door, flicked his cigarette, and reached into his oh so smooth black leather jacket to retrieve a fresh smoke.

“Just a glass or two,” Jeremiah said of how much wine he’d had.

Gary hmphed. “More than that.”

“I’m fine man. I’ll drive slow. We’ll hit the back roads to be on the safe side. I pay more attention after I’ve had a few in me anyway.”

“Well if you don’t think you can drive, feel free to turn back around. Like I said, you can crash here for the night. It’s fine by me. Plenty of blankets and places to sleep.”

“Let me take one last leak before we hit the road,” I said to Jeremiah, knowing he would appreciate my common decency. I tend to urinate frequently, a result of what I suppose relates back to my recurrent bouts with kidney stones as a child. Jeremiah knew this.



Once on a short road trip the two of us took, Jeremiah was forced to stop every twenty minutes in order for me to empty my beans. I marked my territory more than a stray dog that evening.

Behind dumpsters.

On trees.

At a laundry mat.

In a 32-ounce Gatorade bottle.

In a 20-ounce Coca-Cola bottle.



Years later, I would earn the nickname “PP” by Jay Taylor, a co-worker of mine in construction. We used to carpool together. He drove. I sat in the passenger seat and read Noam Chomsky books.

In the late 1980’s/early 90’s, Jay used to play drums in a heavy metal band named Uncle Screwtape and had long, stringy hair down to his ass and was skinny as a toothpick. In promotional photos of the band, Jay wears black leather pants secured tightly by white laces running up the leg. Presently, he sports a reluctant comb-over and carries a few doughnuts in the mid-section.

Uncle Screwtape opened for Ugly Kid Joe in Texas back when Ugly Kid Joe was cool which took place during a window between June and November of 1992. They were on their America’s Least Wanted tour. The bass player for Uncle Screwtape named the band. As Uncle Screwtape’s star was on the rise, the bass player quit to enroll in college. He wanted to be an English teacher. Uncle Screwtape is a reference to a C.S. Lewis novel in which the demon uncle, Screwtape, writes a series of letters to his nephew in efforts to convince his nephew to help bring damnation to a man known as “The Patient.”

Jay used to get annoyed by how much I made him stop so that I could take a leak. We stopped at nearly every store we came upon on our way home from Buggs Island to Phenix.

I hated using a store’s bathroom without buying anything. I felt it was rude so I made a point to always buy an item. I loved Peppermint Patties so I bought one at each of my stops. I didn’t think anything of it, the abbreviation and all. The irony. Jay picked up on it.

“PP,” Jay said. “I think I’m going to call you ‘PP’ from here on out.”

“I hope the gods curse you with kidney stones one day so you’ll see what it feels like. Or an enlarged prostate.”

They never did. But they did curse him with the most awful foot fungus I have ever seen in my life during the summer of 2003. He had to change socks once every hour while at work. Doctor recommended. His feet looked gangrenous. Seriously. And they stunk like a rotting carcass.



It was cold that day and rainy, the evening Jeremiah and I were returning from our road trip down I-81.

“I’m not stopping again,” he said to me as I got back into the car. I had just pissed on a yellow brick wall at a laundry mat on the outskirts of Radford.

Twenty minutes later.

“Hey man, I know you said you weren’t stopping again but I really have to go. I might very well piss myself. I’ve been holding it for ten minutes now and my bladder is about to rupture. I’m pretty sure this isn’t healthy.”

“You’ve been holding it for ten minutes?” he questioned. “We just stopped ten minutes ago. Didn’t you piss?”

“I did. It was wonderful.”

“Then why do you have to go again?”

“I don’t know but I swear I do. I think it has something to do with the rain. Rain. Urine. Both are liquids. And your car idles rather fast. I think it is shaking my kidneys. I know Josh Holt had a similar problem once riding in my mom’s Corolla. It idled badly.”

“You’re not going to piss yourself,” Jeremiah responded matter-of-factly.

“I’m not so sure about that. This may be genetic. My mom gets the dribbles.”

“The dribbles?”

“The dribbles. She can’t do jumping jacks.”



I walked down the narrow hallway and into Gary’s bathroom. A Playboy magazine lay open in a wicker basket to the left of the toilet. An exposed woman stared back at me. She was on all fours stark nude. The sheets were red. Satin sheets I suppose. Rose petals were strewn across the sheets. You know, the way most naked women wait for you.

On all fours.

Stark nude.

Ass in the air.

On red, satin sheets with roses strewn across.

“You are not getting laid tonight,” she reminded me. I thanked her for her kindness and honesty. I wondered what her dad thought. I thought about how I was a hypocrite for enjoying seeing her looking this way, naked, and how I’d never in a million years let my daughter shed clothes for money whenever I had a daughter one day.

I thought about how it wouldn’t be up to me to “let” her do anything. I would have to hope I raised her properly so that she wouldn’t strip nude for money. Then I thought about how I had paid someone to strip nude for money before. She was a friend of mine. She said she’d get naked for gas money. I had gas money.

I was 16. She was 20.

I thought about how I was thinking too much. I thought about how drinking a lot always made me think too much when I already thought too much as it was.

I focused my attention away from the girl in the magazine.

The tank lid was open, pushed off to the side. The ballcock and float were visible. The water was running and the sound sensitive to my ears. I jiggled the handle.

“Don’t be the phantom shitter,” Gary called from the front.

I pissed the most glorious piss I had ever pissed in my existence all the while my stomach flipped, sat upright, turned. Through the pangs, I determined my stomach was essentially eating itself.

Hunger had taken over and the Wu Tang album wasn’t helping the cause. The martial arts samples dubbed into the mix began to remind me of sweet & sour chicken and orange chicken and fried rice with little chunks of egg and…

When I entered back into the kitchen, I grabbed a slice of white bread in my fist and crammed it down my gullet in a matter of seconds. I proceeded to the front door.

Jeremiah turned the handle and we made our exit.

Curtains for the night.

We each walked out with a beer in our hands. Gary stood at the door shaking his head as we made our way down the front steps.

“This is the famous Budweiser beer—” I began.

“Jeez,” Gary interrupted, “Drive safe. And make that moron shut up.”

I opened the passenger’s side door of Jeremiah’s black Thunderbird and slid in. Jeremiah buckled his seatbelt, as did I.

“We are really going down the back roads, right?” I asked Jeremiah.

“Definitely. Not trying to roll into a road check this time of night. Lawson can. Kiss. My. Ass.”

“Country Road?”

“Country Road.”

“I’d say that’s a good call, our safest route.”

“And I would second that notion. You ready? Buckled up?”

“Yep. Ready to roll.”

I had ridden with Jeremiah numerous times when neither he nor I were sober so I trusted him behind the wheel. (Trusted him with my life you could say) The reasoning on my behalf had more to do with the fact that when you are wasted beyond belief anyone’s driving looks pretty good as long as you get to your destination in one piece. It was a youthful decision on both our accounts. Not very wise no matter how you slice it. “Young and dumb” isn’t a popular phrase without reason, and when you are that age, you believe yourself as well as your friends are invincible.

We knew no krypton, could not be taken down with an arrow in our Achilles heel. To boot, hardly anyone traveled down Country Road, particularly at this time of the night.

I pulled out my pack of Marlboros and lit one. Jeremiah followed, asking for a light. I lit it while he edged his way from Gary’s driveway. The outside light on Gary’s front porch turned off.

“And you’re sure you’re okay to drive?” I asked just to double-check.

I was beginning to wonder if this time maybe Jeremiah had had a little too much to drink. His body swayed as if he was without a spine or bones. Under the surface, a sense of worry had presented itself to me.

“Oh yeah, I’m good,” he answered matter-of-factly.

About a mile up the road, Jeremiah hit his left turn signal.

“We’re turning right,” I told him.

Jeremiah hit his right turn signal. “I knew that.”

Country Road was now in sight. The car inched its way closer to the turn. The two of us were laughing it up, babbling about what the night had done to us.

“I’ll tell you, that wine did a number on me this time,” Jeremiah said, his beady eyes glassy.

“That wine does a number on you every time. Did you drink one of those Bleeding Livers Gary mixed up? I think it sent me overboard into the deep. Not a good mix with Hurricane. I feel sick as shit.”

“Nah. Only some shots, some wine, and a few baa-rewskies. If I added anything else, I’d be spewing for sure and you’d be driving.”

“We wouldn’t be driving. We’d be sitting. I’m definitely not in the shape to drive.”

“True. I don’t see how you drink that malt liquor week in and week out. Shit.”

“Cheap buzz.”

Snoop Dogg interjected on the stereo, singing. Jeremiah turned up the volume and veered toward the turn.

The only problem with this was that we had not actually made it to the turn quite yet. We still had a ways to go, roughly one-hundred yards or so; and granted, though we were not flying down the highway by any means, we also were not giving the turtle a run for his money on who was the slowest specimen on the roadside this time of night.

Jeremiah looked in my direction still talking, a grin etched on his face. The cigarette hung out of his mouth and the smoke danced off the end toward the ceiling of the car.

We were driving through the gravel parking lot of a closed convenience store.

And I was fully aware we were driving through the gravel parking lot of a closed convenience store.

For some reason, what reason I couldn’t tell you then, couldn’t tell you now, I thought maybe Jeremiah had decided to stop and get a drink, get a little sugar in his system to caffeinate him properly for the thirty minute drive we were making toward home in Phenix.

That’s what I told myself at least.

As a hypoglycemic in my own right, I tend to keep a stash of foods pertinent to the glycemic index close by to hold me over when my blood sugar begins to plummet.

In an article by Charles Q. Choi, “Why Time Seems to Slow Down in Emergencies,” researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, discovered that an individual’s memory plays a certain kind of mind game and tricks us in emergency situations. The amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter, one in each hemisphere of the brain, is associated with feelings of fear and aggression and is important for visual learning and memory. When one’s nerves tense up and the sense of danger near, the amygdala lays down an additional deposit of memories that go along with the memories typically taken care of by other parts of the brain.

Therefore, individuals tend to remember emergencies much more keenly than normal circumstances. Our senses become, in a way, pronounced and our attention level expands and takes in the scenery and sounds and smells of the moment, among other things. I bring this up because when Jeremiah hit the turn signal and began trekking through the gravel parking lot of the store, reality is this: it happened instantaneously and within a matter of seconds.

I was fully conscious of the situation. It was as if time stood still, the pendulum paused in mid-air, and everything was taking place in slow motion; that Jeremiah had a beer still in between his legs just as I did should have hinted something out to me that perhaps, just perhaps, Jeremiah was not thirsty and not stopping for a Coca-Cola.

Having sensed what I sensed, I created a reasonable explanation to make sense of those senses and did not say anything to Jeremiah at first.

Jeremiah was laughing and so was I. I figured, screw it. He was in control. He has done this a million times before and I have been the passenger of those million times myself and we had always been okay, always gotten where we were going in one piece.

False alarm, I told my amygdala.

You’re totally overreacting Amy so calm the hell down.

Now I know, just as any resident of Charlotte County knows, that our African shaped county in south-central Virginia is pretty dag gone country. Some kids across the United States like to claim that their hometown or home county is small.

“All we have is a Wal-Mart and a KFC,” they say.

Well, that’s nothing.

There is not a single stoplight—not one—in all of Charlotte County.

And Wal-Mart?

Well, if you want to hit up Wally World and support sweatshop labor and American jobs being sent overseas by the thousands all for the sake of a low price, Wal-Mart is a good 45-minute-to-an-hour drive away depending on where you live in the county.

The truth of the matter is that the road we were supposed to take, even if it is called Country Road (quite literally), is paved; and the path we were currently traveling down was nothing but gray dust and rocks.

It wasn’t even a road.

It was the near half-acre parking lot of a store that closed at 8:00 PM Eastern Standard Time (EST).

Like I said, this all happened in a matter of seconds; and ten years ago the Baylor College of Medicine did not even exist to me nor did their study of “Why Time Seems to Slow Down in Emergencies.”

I could have given them that answer and saved some taxpayers’ money.

Conclusion: Time appears to slow down because your senses freak and your adrenaline begins to pump and you’re alert to the belief that you’re going to die and that you never accomplished anything in life and when my mom cleans out my room and starts to cry because I’m no longer here, she’s going to discover my porn stash and she’s going to think I’m a pervert but I’m not going to be able to explain to her that it’s completely natural for someone my age to be looking at porn; at least I’m not a Trekky I would say to her, at least I didn’t waste my life collecting stamps though I did collect matchbooks once and I’m really sorry about almost catching the house on fire. I could have told Baylor College that much.

But right now God had his finger on the pause button and I got to thinking, got to convincing myself that Jeremiah had taken a mini shortcut and was simply going to cut back through on to Country Road when we got to the end of the store parking lot.

We’ll get home one-hundred yards quicker, I told Amy Amygdala, so quit your stinking pestering. I got this. Jeremiah’s got this.

Then Ms. Amy Amygdala wagged her invisible index finger at me.

Should have listened to me, she said. I was trying to tell you something, trying to warn you. Now it’s too late.

Jeremiah wasn’t slowing down. It became very apparent to me and Amy Amygdala who kept saying, I told you so, I told you so, that Jeremiah had made a rather grave error. He thought we had already made it to the right turn on to Country Road and had no idea that this was not a road but a gravel parking lot.

Fuck. I’m going to die.

Stones bounced underneath the black Thunderbird, clanging against the oil pan. A cloud of dust trailed behind our car like the last scene in Thelma and Louise when the helicopter zooms overhead and the car jolts airily into the pit of the Grand Canyon, a photograph of the two friends turning and turning and falling like a feather from the sky.

Click to view Thelma and Louise – Ending Scene

[with a ditch line in front of them and cops behind them]
Thelma Dickerson: OK, then listen; let’s not get caught.
Louise Sawyer: What’re you talkin’ about?
Thelma Dickerson: Let’s keep goin’!
Louise Sawyer: What d’you mean?
Thelma Dickerson: …Go.
Thelma Dickerson: [Thelma nods ahead of them]
Louise Sawyer: You sure?
Thelma Dickerson: Yeah.

I reached for my seatbelt to double check it was securely fastened. The radio was blaring, the cigarette smoke dancing, and Jeremiah was singing:

Hey, now ya’ know
Inhale, exhale with my flow
One for the money, two for the…

And then I noticed a huge ditch line at the back of the parking lot that casually adjoined an embankment. I thought to myself, Oh shit!

I looked at Jeremiah and to let him know that we were about to go jetting through a ditch line at fifty-miles-per-hour, I said, “Jeremiah.”

Yes, I know. Something more immediate should have spilt from my lips. It probably was not the best first thing to say in order to aware someone that you are about to be involved in a car accident, but God had pressed the play button and we were no longer on pause. Time was moving at its normal pace. And then in fast forward. And “Jeremiah” was about all I had time to blurt out.

Jeremiah looked at me and said, “Wh—” and at that very moment before he got the “-at” out to end his reply, I think he honest-to-goodness realized he had put the turn signal on prematurely.

SLAM!

WHOP!

CRASH!

Just like the colorful callouts in the original Batman episodes with Adam West.

We collided with the ditch. The airbags deployed. We smashed into the hill that adjoined the stacked mound of grass and dirt. Hubcaps retreated. Our car crippled, we flung our metal carriage through the last ditch and then managed to land back on the road, Country Road, the same road we were supposed to be driving down in the first place.

“Are you okay, man? Are you okay,” I said to Jeremiah in panic.

A cloud of powder from the airbags circulated throughout the car. On the driver’s side floorboard a cigarette glowed orange.

My left arm had slammed against the windshield and slightly cut open my left elbow and scraped my forearm. My scar from the Gilliam shed window I had broken out as a kid began to bleed and a small amount of blood trickled down toward my wrist. The car was the scene of what looked to be a baby powder fight. The powder from the airbags was suffocating.

I was coughing.

Jeremiah was coughing.

And Snoop Dogg was singing, “It Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None).”

The airbags had chalked up both of our faces. If I had to throw out a combination of words as to what Jeremiah and I looked like when Jeremiah hit the interior light then I would have to say—and this is because of the airbag powder on our faces I may add—that we looked like drag queen circus clowns with a bad coke habit and a bad aim at putting the coke up our nostrils.

I felt like I should be panning for change outside of a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus act come to town. I felt like Jeremiah ought to be right beside me juggling with a monkey resting atop his shoulder—a white-fronted Capuchin monkey named Larry with an asparagus stalk dangling from his bottom lip. I’m sure some animal rights protester would object; but Jeremiah and I would tell them that Larry loves our traveling circus act; and then, without notice, Larry would poo in his hand and throw it at the protester and giggle…

The two of us stepped out of Jeremiah’s black Thunderbird, dazed. Jeremiah looked at me and said, apparently gazing in the direction of an imaginary car and not the one that stood before us, “You think we can make it home alright still?”

I thought airbag powder must have been clogging my ears.

The black Thunderbird, once a fierce machine on the Charlotte County highway, its-terrifying-to-spectators pink racing stripe down the side, though it had now been in a wreck, still had a believer in its capabilities. His name was Jeremiah and he had lost his damn mind.

Or at least banged his head against the steering wheel when we hit the ditch to jar his intellectual capabilities.

I cannot remember my exact words but I believe they were somewhere along the line of, “I think we should probably go back to Gary’s and call someone,” which was immediately followed by a sense of panic that the cops were going to come, tow Jeremiah’s car, and arrest Jeremiah for drinking and driving, reckless endangerment, and me for underage drinking.

The wreck had miraculously sobered me—at least mentally. I could have passed an Algebra II test at that moment and it took me three years in high school to pass an Algebra II test.

Then Jeremiah replies with something else I will never forget: “Nah, I’m good. I can make it home if we just go slow.”

It was a common reply on a trashy talk show like Ricki Lake or Jerry Springer for a guest to come back with, “Oh no you didn’t” and that is exactly what went through my head as if on cue from the producer of one of these trashy talk shows.

Jeremiah tried to plead his case. He tried to tell me that he was okay to drive and his car fine but my mind was made up. Driving back home was no longer a good idea, not an option for this passenger.

Jeremiah looked at the car, looked at me, breathed in the last of his cigarette, exhaled the smoke, and then flicked the butt into the road.

“You’re right. Maybe it isn’t such a good idea. Let’s go back to Gary’s.”

So, the two of us got back into the Thunderbird, buckled our seatbelts, and putted and bounced and hopped our way back to my cousin Gary’s house. It was like riding in a horse and carriage on a road made of seashells. My window was down and I could hear the hubcap on the passenger side attempting to fall off into the road and roll away into the tree line.

Please don’t let a cop pass us. Please don’t let a cop pass us.

My dad is going to kick my ass. My dad is going to kick my ass.

When we arrived at Gary’s minutes later, I called my sister, Jennifer, at my parent’s house. She was in from college for the weekend and most likely asleep and in bed. It was 2:45 AM, after all.

Naturally, since I prayed with all my heart for my sister to pick up the telephone and not my mom, my mom indeed answered the phone.

My mom sounded alert as ever.

She has a freakish ability to do this, no matter the time. Honestly, it is weird. She never sounds groggy and she was definitely asleep when the phone rang and probably had been since 8:00 PM.

I asked my mom to give my sister the phone because I needed to talk to her. I didn’t tell my sister what had happened—the wreck and all. I just made it clear that Jeremiah and I needed a ride home. My sister came and picked both of us up. The next day, Jeremiah had his car towed from Gary’s place. Granted, it isn’t until now that I ever considered what Gary must have thought when he woke up and looked out of his window, only to see Jeremiah’s car busted to pieces and us nowhere in sight.

I believe Jeremiah’s dad, Johnnie, was onto our “someone ran us out of the road” story, as was my dad; but I am not sure still to this day that Jeremiah’s mom, Maryann, or my mom, have the faintest idea of what happened that night. I would like to think Maryann figured it out eventually, but my mom has not a clue of the truth, nor will she ever because even if I let her read this one day, this part will be edited from her copy.

Censored.

Absentis.



A few days passed. Jeremiah’s car sat in the shop being looked over by a local grease monkey in Charlotte Court House. Upon final inspection, the garage gave Jeremiah’s residence a ring on the telephone to give the full report of the damage done. (Let us keep in mind again that night Jeremiah still wanted to drive home after the wreck)

What was the damage?

Two broken axles and the car was completely totaled.

The mechanic told Johnnie the car was caput and he would haul it to the junkyard for him. Johnnie asked to have the car towed back to their house first.

When the wrecker brought Jeremiah’s car back to his house a few days later, I met Jeremiah in his front yard. We inspected the black Thunderbird and attempted to take in fully all of what we saw: our invincibility tested, our lives salvaged.

The rims on the wheels were busted. Two wheels were sunken. Because of the broken axles and two flat tires, the car drooped to one side, slouched as if an elderly man with bad posture or scoliosis. That or somebody born with a short leg. I knew a kid like that once. The front windshield was a spider web of cracks (which is why, when driving back to Gary’s, Jeremiah navigated the road by poking his head out of the driver’s side window).

The two of us peered inside the car for a closer look. The black seats were covered in a haze of white powder from the airbags, which lay deflated over the steering wheel and in the passenger’s seat. The furious Ford appeared as if it had been used in the Battle of Kursk, July 1943.

The Red Army victorious!

In the distance of Belgorod smoked a faithful battering ram with a badge of honor now headed to an aluminum and alloy grave.

“I’m glad you told me not to drive home,” Jeremiah said, his eyes still fixed on the black Thunderbird.

“Yeah, me too. Say, why did your dad have the car towed back here?”

“I think he wants me to take it all in. My piss poor decision. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t buy the story.”

“My dad either.”



In northern Westchester County, New York, not long ago, a man I know tried to end his life in a most horrible way.  It happened in the town of Bedford, famous for its tree-lined roads, for the millionaires who live along them, and, incongruously, for its maximum security prison.

The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility — named for one of the town’s three hamlets — sits hard by the highway, just over a mile from the train station, surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire.  Woods encircle the compound.  From the ground, it reveals itself by a single approach.

Since it’s the only maximum security women’s prison in the state, all women convicted of murder in New York end up there eventually.  Once inside they don’t tend to bother anyone in the free world, and town residents are quick to note that most violent inmates came to this terminus as the result of domestic disputes, not premeditated crimes.

The penitentiary is in the town, but not of it.  Visitors and guards sometimes arrive via the local Metro North station, riding cabs the last mile and a quarter to their destination.  Occasionally one sees them trudging up the hill on foot, parallel the railroad tracks, past the post office and the stone supply and the small warehouses of Adams Road, one of a few areas zoned for light industry.

When Anthony Agostino (not his real name) looked out his office window, he might have seen these visitors passing.  Tony used a tiny building by the tracks as his office, a mile from the prison and no farther than that from the house in which he grew up.

Though as an adult he moved to a neighboring town, the prison offers a convenient geographic center for an examination of Tony’s life.  If you pinned it on a map, I suspect you’d discover that Tony conducted the majority of his business and personal affairs within a radius of less then ten miles.

He attended the local elementary school and the local high school, married a local girl and — after college at Syracuse — settled locally.  The business he founded was named after the street on which he and his partner grew up.

Tony rented that office near the prison for a long time, and when he descended into crisis he returned there, alone, to attempt suicide a few years ago.  He died of pneumonia this week at 49.  But the pneumonia isn’t what really killed him.

I came to know Tony by accident, a chance call off a Yellow Pages advertisement more than twenty years ago.  My wife and I had purchased a big old house on ten acres overgrown with vines and giant forsythia, with rhododendrons and lilacs that had bolted so high they covered the tops of the windows.

The prior owner asked one favor at the closing that I couldn’t abide.  Years ago, she said, when they’d lost a son, she and her husband planted an apple tree beside the house in his memory.  “I know it’s not in a great spot,” she said, “but please be gentle with it.”  My wife and I agreed too readily, eager to get on with things.

Besides the Nineteenth Century stucco house, the property had an old dairy barn warped to awkward angles by gravity and neglect.  There was an equally rundown cottage, a crumbling tennis court and an old pool.  Natural attributes included rock outcroppings, lawns, fields, woods and a pond so green that, on a still summer day, you might be tempted to ask where the groundskeeper had placed the flag pin.

We’d owned the keys two weekends when I went out back one Saturday with my new chain saw.  The apple tree we’d half promised to protect was diseased and bug-infested — and it blocked our view of the pond.  With my wife biting her lip in the dining room window, I made quick work of it.  When I carted away the last branches and we admired the view from inside, the place began to feel like ours for the first time.

With some help from a caretaker, who lived with his young family in the cottage, almost every weekend for three seasons I was serenaded by the whirr of the chainsaw and hedge trimmer and the sturdy clomp of a pair of loppers.  We cleared great stands of weed-choked wild raspberry, gnarled forsythia and maple saplings.  We hacked and dragged away bittersweet and wild grape.

Some multiflora rose vines were as big as tree trunks.  Their thorns pierced leather gloves, and their tendrils boomeranged ferociously when we tried to direct them, whipping us bloody.

But we persisted, opening up vistas that hadn’t been seen in a generation, saving some great old trees from strangulation by parasitic flora, and exposing stone walls that once marked cow pastures, before refrigeration and rising land prices conspired to put the local farmers out of business.

It was a satisfying year, offering more instant rewards than my job as a book editor.  When I brought a manuscript home and trimmed it with a pencil, the final product might still be a year off.  But in the yard, at the end of a day with the tools, you stood back and marveled at all the good you’d done.

Clearing had natural limits, however.  Soon we had to start adding.  We needed guidance, needed a plan.  That’s when I called Tony.

He had a woman who did his scheduling (later I’d learn this was his wife), and we made an appointment for that week.  He tried calling me Mr. Fishman, but I wouldn’t hear of it.  He was close to my age — late twenties, at the time — and that surprised me when I first saw him.  Most of our contemporaries then worked at big companies, as I did, not managing their own businesses.

But that was scarcely a note of dissonance.  I admired it, in fact, perhaps even envied it.  Tan and fit, dark-haired, handsome, Tony had an easy familiarity.  He dressed like a preppy in well-worn turtleneck and khakis, and while I hadn’t attended prep school, I could relate to the desire to look that way.  Anyone with certain ambitions could.

We walked around the property slowly, discussing immediate needs and grand plans.  I casually tested his knowledge, pointing to trees and bushes we’d saved and asking their names, some of which I already knew.  I never managed to stump him, and he responded with a degree of enthusiasm that suggested genuine love for his subject.

As he departed, I told him we’d be interviewing several firms, but I suspected he knew that we had hit it off right away.  Soon he was back with blueprints and plant lists.  My wife liked him.  Our relationship — dare I say — blossomed.

For more than a decade we used Tony’s services.  In that time, there were long periods when I worked from home, and when he pulled up with his crew I’d jump from my desk, greet him, chat over the job he was doing for us and over other things — neighbors, nature, town happenings, our lives.  His business was thriving, but he never seemed rushed.

We watched him grow, not quite our friend, but a warm acquaintance, someone to root for.  He bragged about his daughter and told me his wife was sad that a second child never came.  He revealed that his grandfather had maintained the grounds for many years at an old estate down the road, since divided by the construction of a highway.  He called me when he split with his business partner.  He spoke of peaceful moments fishing alone on the lake by his house.

A few times, when I was driving by and saw his car, I dropped into his office unannounced.  It was a glorified shack, really — maybe not so glorified.  Barely heated, two rooms, up and down — the downstairs where his crew knocked around and the upstairs where he sat drafting.  They had three or four trucks that they squeezed onto the dirt lot every night, parking them within inches of one another.  People walking to the prison might have brushed right by one of those bumpers on occasion.

When I joined the board of the local Nature Conservancy chapter, I talked Tony into donating his services on a project near a river two hours away.  We worked together beside his crew that day, landscaping around a preserve lodge.

He didn’t need the business I’d bring him.  Over the years, he acquired many clients who were millionaires, living on big estates, proffering big projects and big maintenance contracts.  It was largely Wall Street money, fresh and easy.

Somewhere along the line, it dawned on me that Tony had a foot in each of two worlds: the world of his grandfather, close by, where he’d dig a hole alongside his crew; and the world where he spent Saturday afternoons shooting the breeze with wealthy clients on their patios.  The world of the big shiny Land Cruiser that he drove, and the world of the soiled landscape trucks parked on his lot.  The world of the house on the quiet lake, and the world of the shack by the railroad tracks.

When I moved a few towns away, he continued to do some work for me, but that wasn’t the core of his territory.  We drifted apart as our business relationship faded.

Then, maybe five years ago, I was standing in line at a Dunkin’ Donuts when someone tapped me on the shoulder.  It was one of Tony’s subcontractors, a stone mason who, like Tony, had grown with the economy from managing tools to managing jobs and men.  He still had the big hands and forearms of  a mason, though.  His name was Carmello.  He asked if I remembered him, mentioning the connection to Tony, and I said of course.

“Did you hear what happened?”

“No.”

“A few months ago, Tony tried to kill himself.”

I craned forward, as if I hadn’t heard right.  We exchanged awkward half-smiles, the kind that cross people’s faces when they know they’re in the midst of a heavy moment.  Then Carmello told me the story as he knew it.

It involved a personal transgression that doesn’t require detailing here.  Suffice to say it was something secret but not illegal, revealed suddenly to his loved ones.  It was something millions of people have done and then worked through, gone on with their lives.  The revelation needn’t have led to other irrevocable actions.

When Tony learned his secret was out, though, he went to his office and drank a container of acid.

It nearly killed him on the spot.  It did kill him later.

I ran into him a couple of years after it happened.  His face was sunken but his eyes still had vigor.  We were in the vicinity of my office and I insisted he come up and tell me everything.

He didn’t, I now realize, and probably never had.  But he told me a lot.

He told me what it felt like when the revelation hit, when he knew the facade had been shattered — “shattered” is my word, not his, but it’s the right one.  The word he used to describe his state before the revelation was “invincible.”  That originated with his therapist, the one who tried to help put him back together.

Tony had constructed a world for himself, a world where the boy who grew up in a little house a mile from the prison could interact in one moment with a dirt-encrusted crew and in the next moment with Wall Street titans who lived behind automated gates.  And if he could do that, he convinced himself, he could do anything.  But, of course, he couldn’t.  Tony had entrapped himself.

When she heard the story the first time, my wife, a trained social worker, observed that a person who drinks acid doesn’t merely intend to kill himself.  He intends to punish himself.

Tony didn’t fully articulate to me what he felt at that moment when he went into his office and poured the poison down his throat.  It was a blur to him, I think, like they do it in movies sometimes with the music screeching urgently and the camera swinging from focus.  In addition, the subsequent therapy had clearly distanced him from it, as had, perhaps, the pure act of surviving.

Nevertheless, it happened like this.  He went to his office and he gulped the acid and then he thought of his wife and his daughter.  When he related it, I don’t think he recalled the physical pain of that moment.  He remembered dialing 911 and passing out.

And when I asked him what he’d been thinking, all he could say was, “I was invincible.  I had been invincible.”

“And then?”

“And then I wasn’t.”

As Tony lay comatose in a hospital afterward, one wealthy client rushed to the hospital with a check for $100,000 and tried to force it on Tony’s wife as a gift.  She wouldn’t accept it.

Acid down the gullet is a nasty business.  It took them months to give Tony the semblance of physical normalcy.  He looked like a shadow of himself when I last saw him, skin and bones, the face and body of a man who has crawled out of the desert.

But I asked him how he felt and he said, “I feel free.”