I spent my teenage years getting thrown out of a few different schools. Authority stuck in my craw. By sixteen, I’d made it to public school, but I skipped as much as I showed up.
That was the year I ditched finals and rode around with another delinquent visiting a couple of private girl schools during lunch breaks. One school had blue skirts, the other, green. I liked the green skirts best, but Doug told me not to over specify.
You don’t want to miss anything, he explained. Blue is just as good as green.
He had a point.
Doug also had this German car, and drove so fast our hair blew back like that old Maxell ad with a guy in a leather jacket and sunglasses sits in a chair, the music blows hurricane force down upon him. We’d crank up Cure songs, too stoned to remember our names. One time driving out to the country, where yet another girls school was located, Doug lost control and we ran off into a field of immature corn. The engine mounts broke on the one side. On our way back into town, every bump sent the engine slamming into the hood. It didn’t matter much to me. I was happy to regally lose myself in juvenilia, blowing smoke to the brit pop beat as Doug screamed through red lights and did donuts in half empty grocery store parking lots.
Johnny Unitas had a restaurant in Towson, and we’d sometimes sit in the lot across from it drinking beer. Other times we’d land down the hill from the Country Club, where the last of the town’s grass tennis courts sat. I’d watch girls with perfectly brushed hair chew gum and memorialize summers spent in Nag’s Head, or Gibson island. They smoked Marlboro lights, and drank diet Coke, and that was the smell of victory.
What I hadn’t recognized was a need for discretion. My parents had split, and I had managed to manipulate them when bad news came. If only life hadn’t been so tumultuous. If only I wasn’t the product of a broken home. But, I got in a LOT of trouble. Car crashing kind of trouble. You won’t manipulate a grown up out of pains in their wallets as easy as you do the ones in their chest, or their mind.
So I rode bitch, and rarely had money of my own. I skipped back and forth between my old man’s apartment and my mom’s house. Not by choice.
Somewhere in there, I started dating a nice girl. She’d been a debutante, or could have been. Anyway, her dad was my step-dad’s business attorney, and that meant she was a good girl. No one thought I was a good kid. More than one expulsion, and you lose that sobriquet.
Things headed further south the day I came home to see my mom waving my report card like a cleaver.
They say you’ve stopped showing up to school.
I turned around and walked out. The old man wasn’t any happier to see me.
Since the divorce, they had devised a simple plan of communication.
Tell you father you need new clothes, mom would direct me.
In response, my father would grimace.
You tell your mother I work hard for my money.
But this time, they’d each actually gotten the nerve to phone each other. And they hatched the plan of plans: send me to Texas for the summer. Not to lounge on the Gulf of Mexico, but to work on the ranch of a family friend.
I was oblivious to the idea. Doug and I hung out at his house most of the time. I’d ride my bike over, and lock it to a bus stop sign, walk the last few blocks. Coming by bike seemed uncool. Wandering over nonchalantly, my mode of passage unexplained was much cooler. Of course, every night I’d have to wobble that bike back home, up one vicious hill and down another, which lead to feverish acts of cowardice in the face of near death collisions, sometimes with cars, but usually with shrubs, and street signs. I was drunk all the time, and not yet seventeen. Life was one giant dare I sometimes took, and other times crumbled in the face of.
Just as summer started to gear up, mom broke the bad news. But not until after she’d broiled a steak and made the red roasted potatoes she knew I loved, a Caesar salad on the side. This was the meal I’d have asked for if I was ever convicted for a heinous crime. I didn’t even see the bad news coming. To me, a meal like that, well it seemed like she was finally back to her senses. We were going to get along just fine. She said it as calm as you’d tell someone their horoscope.
Your father and I have decided to send you to work on a ranch in Texas this summer.
I remember desperately trying to handle the information like an adult. But I couldn’t finish eating. I couldn’t look her in the face. I mean, didn’t she understand, this was a popular girl I was seeing. She even said so herself. The girl wasn’t going to wait around while I worked on some fucking ranch in Texas. That kind of thing dazzles only adults, not teenaged bathing beauties. But I managed to scramble out of the house before I said anything terrible.
The upside of it all was that my parents immediately relented on the string of curfews and punishments that had been issued in the past few months. To spite them, I ran as wild as I could, rifled every purse and pocketbook and wallet attached to either of them. I interacted with them as little as possible, eating microwave dinners, skipping out before they came home from work. I spent as much time at Doug’s as I could.
There was a convenience store in between their houses, where Lake avenue met Falls road. A grassy area behind it. I’d hang out there, waiting for friends to arrive, buy their cigarettes and mixers, and plot the night. Laying in the grass watching the clouds blow across the sky as night descended, I hoped to have the same chance to do this again, with her, or someone like her, after school was over, and college finished, before any children came. Just lollygag in the green grass, our imaginary fingers clutched each other the way only a teenager can envision his future self doing.
And in those last moments of summer and freedom, drunk on cheap beer on the outskirts of the city my parents grew up in, I could scrounge up a bit of respect and grudging admiration for the two of them stranded permanently from their monumental love by disagreements that took the form of untruths and rabid tempers. I couldn’t acknowledge any pride in being their offspring, but I did drunkenly embrace the memories of trips to the Chesapeake where they would sail my brother and me out with them into places I’ve come to remember and cherish just the way you memorialize a beautiful youth. That is, just the way they intended me to remember them.
But the next morning, devoid of that drunken emotion, I’d see them as the broken people they appeared to me to be, with no future to bank on whatsoever. And as Texas loomed in the forefront of my horizon, as each second wound down to an unknowable summer of endless hard work, I raided every medicine chest south of Ruxton hoping to blot out the revolting future in store for me. Because I wanted to lay in the grass, I wanted to smoke cigarettes, I wanted to read French symbolist poetry -Life is the farce which everyone has to perform!- I wanted to go to the independent movie theater and drink and snicker at witty subtitled films from around the globe. What I did not want to do was ride around on horses till my ass chapped, hang barbed wire fence line till my fingers and my palms blistered and bled.
Had I behaved with some modicum of restraint, and humility, had I exhibited even a bare minimum of respect, it’s clear my parent might well have relented, and cancelled that trip to Texas. My older brother was patching up his transcript in summer school. The focus that usually lay directly on my misbehavior had been eased. But I knew no restraint, or humility, and certainly didn’t operate on a level of trust. So I blew through those last few days the way an unrepentant sinner scours the earth in the time leading up to Judgment Day. But what was Judgment Day anyway? Nothing but a flimsy set of punishments fancified by power mad religious zealots.
Suddenly, it was two weeks till my departure. Then a week. Then three days.
I was a virgin, too. Yeah. I’d planned on doing something about that this summer of summers, along with the stolen radar detector ring Doug was masterminding, throw in some druggy self exploration for good measure. The radar detectors would keep us in money, the money would get us drugs. And the drugs would provide the kind of entertainment aimless youth is prone to seek. I had never committed an actual felony up to that point. When I told Doug, he skipped past the philosophical leap, and went right into the actualities.
It’s easy, he, said, snugging the barrel of a BB pistol into the lower left hand corner of the windshield of a new Saab.
One, two, three, he counted, and pulled the trigger.
The window splintered into spidery veins.
Hit it with your shoe, Doug said.
I took off my sneaker and slugged the windshield with it, and like that, it came away and Doug reached right in, and grabbed the radar detector.
That was my introduction to anonymous crime.
Some days we’d follow five or six cars home, note their address, their parking spot, and return around midnight grab every last one of their radar detectors. Doug would sell them back to a Jeep dealership in Timonium. He didn’t mind sharing that secret with me. He knew I was headed out of town. Hell, he wouldn’t have minded either way. I didn’t have a car, I didn’t have a BB gun.
At least I’d gotten some criminal action, in lieu of all the kissing what’s her name and I’d gotten into, we’d been separated from anything more by my beer drinking. There had been one session in the basement of her parent’s house, but she stopped me, not because anyone was home, but because they were going to be home, any minute now, or so she said. Who cares? She did.
So with three days left, after a day of reckless driving with Doug, I sipped on a can of Natty Boh a couple of blocks away from my old man’s apartment. Within an hour fifteen of us were frolicking in the endless pool at Darcy’s parents house. An hour after that me and my virginity parted ways while I stared at what’s her name’s ass bobbing up and down in the mirror on the ceiling. I thought that kind of thing was make believe, fodder of over stimulated minds of the writers for Penthouse forum, but no, there was a mirror up on the ceiling, and I couldn’t hold back. Two minutes in, and that was all she wrote. I love you, I love you, I love you, I said, but whatever she said in response is lost.
Then, I was in Texas.
Texas differed so totally from back east I wilted. Not just from the heat. I wilted in the face of all the expectation, of the loss of my sure thing. Had I been able to focus clearly, maybe I would have known this wasn’t anything but lust, amped up teenage lust rioting through my system. But I knew nothing of nuance, and when a strong emotion hit me, it had two places to go, love or hate. Having not yet learned the delicacy of the grudge fuck, lust was still filed under love.
Then, everything started happening in Spanish, and I charged back into the interior of my head to resurrect my high school Spanish classes. So for the first few days I can’t tell you much of what happened.
But once memory returned, I spent my days furiously trying to fight off blisters on hand and foot. I wore gloves, a hat and button fly jeans because I knew it was important to look the part. Every couple of days another rig arrived, and they’d pull me off of whatever cleaning job to help load the cattle. To do this, they utilized axe handles, baseball bats, tire thumpers, and cattle prods- real electronic prods that zapped a current into the steer when you touched it to the animal and pulled a trigger. ZAP! The cattle were so scared, so full of strange antibiotics, pain and electricity they shat all over you. They’d rip your leg out from under you if you weren’t sanding in the chute right, so I learned right quick how to position myself. The other hands were all Mexicans. And those Mexicans laughed a lot. The work was hard, too hard sometimes, but they kept smiling. I fucked up a lot, and they would laugh at me, even while they fixed whatever mess I’d made. They were constantly moving, laterally, up and down, however you moved, they did it, too, only faster, and with a better economy of flow.
At night I ate with the family in charge of the operation. Ranching Baptists. The prayer before the meal, something I’d long given up, took a while. We thanked God for his son, Jesus, the bounty of the world, for Mexico, our neighbor of the south, for the ice in the iced tea, fuck we thanked him for the leather in the boots on all of our feet.
They gave me a car for my own use. The man of the house pressed the keys into my hand in such a way, staring down the great beak of his nose, he wanted me to know he trusted me more than I did myself. I knew that was bullshit. I didn’t trust anyone more than me. But I took that Ford LTD out for a ride soon as the meal was cleared. Don’t stay out late, he said, but I couldn’t have if I wanted. After eight p.m., my eyes were half slits, by nine, my brain shut off, whether I wanted it to or not.
I found a dirt road beer store that would sell to me. Then I found the spot on the ranch where I could sit and watch the mute indian train the horses occluded from sight of the main house, so I could suck down beer after beer. I’d buy a six pack each night and drink every last one of them, whether I wanted to or not. Some nights the only other American cowhand would come and watch with me.
Right when it got good, right when my personality began to leak out between jobs, after hibernating behind the blisters and the sore ass, and the absolute exhaustion, they told me they were sending me south to Zapata, a border town. Each night I had written a letter to the girl. She had one of those Presbyterian whitewashed names, and I’d say it in my head over and over as I scribbled off another mash note to her. She even wrote back once or twice. I hung on the idea of her letters. Moving south just about crushed me. The real stinger of it all came when I asked the Baptist Rancher to forward my mail. Oh, you ain’t got to worry about mail there, he laughed. There’s no post office. The border runs right through the place. But we will send any of your mail back to your folks.
If I’d tried to argue with him it would have been useless. Who cares about teenage self indulgence? Only self indulgent teenagers.
The ranch was filled with tumbleweeds. A few shacks with weathered wooden slats stuck in place with rusted nails. My bed was a mattress roll on sagging springs. It creaked when you looked at it.
A cowhand named Les was in charge. He pointed to a scoprion nest under the porch of where we’d be staying.
Check your boots in the morning.
Got a couple of ponies over that way, he said, by way of explanation. My heart sank even further, until I realized he was kidding. The two horses were full grown, adult sized animals.
Those aren’t ponies.
It’s a euphemism, he said. I shook my head.
No it isn’t.
His head tilted at my challenge.
You God damn right it is.
Nope, I said, and smiled when I pushed the hat back to let him see me grinning at him.
Ok, college boy, what is it, if it ain’t a euphemism?
It’s just plain wrong, I said.
That won Les over. That and the admittance that I’d only recently lost my virginity.
We’re gonna have to do sumpin’ about that.
About what, I told you I already lost it.
That’s true, you can’t unring a bell. But listen, there ain’t nothing sadder than a kid who knows what it’s like and ain’t got the chance to perfect it. See what I mean?
Ten days later we had fenced and posted and blasted the scrub out of that place so it resembled and honest to God workable cattle ranch.
We’re gonna paint the town, Les said.
It was a Friday. He drove his truck and I followed in the LTD. Outside a run down dance hall, a friend of Les’s appeared. He had curly hair and the hinky personality I’d later come to associate with coke heads.
Les tells me you ain’t got much ex-purr-ience.
I slugged Les the same spot where my brother used to ding me with dead arms. He didn’t even flinch. I pulled back to punch him again. He grabbed my fist in mid air. Then dropped it with a laugh.
Now hold on, kid. I’m doing you a solid.
He held out his other palm to reveal a handful of different colored pills. Take these. He handed me a beer. I scooped ‘em into my hand, and started to take them.
Wait. What the fuck is this?
The hinky guy spoke up.
We ain’t aiming to do nothing to you. They just make it so you get your money’s worth.
I didn’t know what he was talking about but I swallowed the pills and downed the beer. I was old hat at taking drugs I didn’t know the effects of. For years I’d spent the better part of houseparties going from bathroom to bathroom in search of that particular pill bottle bliss known as rubber legs. I remember holding up a bottle to my friend Chip. What’s tetracycline do? What the hell is Estrogen? He always answered the same way.
I don’t know, take a handful, see what happens.
My whole life up to that point could be described as such. Take a handful, see what happens.
I headed for the LTD. If the pills came on too strong, I wanted to at least be near a bed I was familiar with.
Where you going, Les said grabbing my collar.
We got someone we want you to meet.
His friend giggled like a little boy. Out of nowhere came this leather skinned woman all of five feet tall. Shaped like a beer keg.
We got you a hooker.
My heart plummeted.
No, I told you guys I already lost my virginity. There’s a girl back home. I got a girl.
Mr. Hinky spoke up once again.
She ain’t got to know word one.
I walked away got in the car and tried to get away, but the keg shaped hooker hopped in before I could lock the doors.
Listen honey, she said, her voice thickly accented, they already pay, it’s cool.
All I could think of was that this was as far away from cool as you could get. Before I had the chance to say anything she went to work on my pants. I tried to push her away, but she was a real pro. Hands, then lips, suction and all.
I don’t know if it was shame or her skill, but I got carried away and arrived at the destination she charted before you could say my whole name. She sat upright in her seat, and smiled at me.
Out you go, I said ever the gentleman, opening the door, and she looked at me bewilderedly, that same God damned head tilt. She got out, though, and I hit the gas and let the force of acceleration shut the door.
She smelled like stale sweat, menthol cigarettes and vinegary tequila. The whole car smelled like that. And it wouldn’t go away.
A few days later, Les and I had finished up on the ranch. The damn car smelled the same but I was ready to go.
You’re gonna go home a real man, I tell you what.
Because you got yourself some ex-purr-ience.
I tossed my bag in the back of the LTD’s trunk, next to the full sized spare, a jack, and a miniature fire extinguisher. Les wished me well and raised a can of Pearl. About a mile out of town I pulled over. I had a deodorant stick of Mennen and started rubbing it all over everything, the roof, the passenger door, the floor mat, but mostly, on the seat where the hooker had nested. Over and over and over again till the bar of Mennen was a nub.
I lit a cigarette, and accidentally dropped the match on the seat. The deodorant on the seat caught fire in an instant and flamed up into my face.
I leapt out of the car, instantly remembering the extinguisher in the trunk. I grabbed it, and sprayed the fire which, luckily, went out. The windows were down the whole time. Most of the smoke had blown free of the car. A family drove by in a station wagon. A little tow headed kid watched me put the fire out. Burnt a whole clear through the seat the size of two basketballs.
The car was drivable. Hell it was salvageable. Only the passenger seat was ruined. I drove most of the way back to Lytle clutching the extinguisher, one eye watching the seat to make sure it didn’t catch fire again.
Once I got to town, I dawdled at the dirt road beer storedowning a tall boy for courage, then hit the ranch where I dropped the keys off with the maid. While I packed my bags, the Ranching Baptist appeared in the doorway.
Got a good report from Les, he said, pleased this little experiment the adults had cooked up worked out well. I looked up, and realized I shared nothing in common with him. Any fear I’d had about the hole in the LTD’s seat evaporated then and there.
I had a little trouble with the car.
Happens to the best of us, son.