The next two stories are ones that you may have read before in their first or second drafts but I took ’em to the butcher, then the car-wash, then the jeweler, then sent them out in an envelope across the country. As I signed the mail receipt, I felt like a parent dropping her kid off at college. Going over again and again, all the mistakes I may have made, what I could have done differently. I almost shouted “call me when you get there… don’t eat with your elbows on the table…play nice with the other manuscripts!”
Settle in, it’s a long one.
That Time We Accidentally Killed Louise
We came rattling down the mountains, in borrowed cars. Steel sleds packed shoulder-to-shoulder with vibrating young bodies, happy to be squeezed together, skin lighting up.
They knew who we were; they had heard how we put Howie Barnes in the hospital with a cracked spine after he jumped me in the parking lot of a 7-11.We shut down the school with smoke bombs and spray painted giant cocks all over the inside walls of the gym, the lockers, the windows of the coach’s office. We got suspended, but we didn’t really go to school anyway… we had to help the janitor clean up the cocks, or else be fined. We didn’t have any money; we didn’t have anything but each other. We grew up on bologna, mayonnaise, and soda. We tattooed each other with sewing needles and pen ink. We shaved our heads, and paid the homeless schizophrenic guy to buy us booze. We stole our mother’s cigarettes. We liked the bare thinness of snowy air, and the pale silence of unheated mornings in abandoned trailers, sick and foggy from the malt liquor and speed. We had loyal dogs, mutts, who would run a hundred miles if we told them too.
They knew we were coming down for the show; one of our guys, Daren, had slept with one of their girls, a pudgy blonde named Louise, and her boyfriend Kelly wanted to kick Daren’s ass, so he had to come up against all of us. We played cassette tapes on the way down, mostly Slayer. Lauren was my girl at the time; she was just a freshman, her hair long and brick red. She brought bottle of schnapps stolen from her parents. She wore my ‘Youth of Today’ shirt, cut off the stomach, her egg-colored belly glowing against her back denim shorts.
We drank 40’s of beer in the parking lot of the show and passed around a couple bottles of cheep vodka, seeing who could take the longest pull, I got up to 5 seconds before I gagged. The sky down here in the city was a blank navy blue with a few yellow spots. We were used to the mountain sky: a sugared wet blanket, a lid on the ridges, like incisors. Down there in the flats, never dipping below 50, the asphalt was warm beneath us, but we hunched over anyway, sucking on Pall Malls, with our hands in our pockets like it was cold; we didn’t know how else to act. Our girls gathered around pocket mirrors taking hits off the schnapps bottle, rubbing black pencil around their eyes and speaking to each other in hushed song, like a distant carousel. They were growing more and more into a mysterious tribe; painted and secretive. But sometimes, late at night in the back of cars, or laughing they were still the girls we used to know in school. Jessica was Pete’s. girl, he was our biggest man, so she was the queen of them. Short with big tits, heavily made-up. Her blond hair dyed black and cut against her scalp, except for the long trail of bangs framing her face. Our moms used to live in the same apartment complex. But when we were in 7th grade her mom married a motor-home salesman and they moved to his big house on the North end of the Lake.
We crushed the beer cans and threw them around; Moving through the place was like swimming in a pool of wet t-shirts. Everyone stared at us right in the eyes, but we didn’t look away. They knew who we were, in our starched collard shirts and close-shaved heads. Lauren pressed against my shoulder, gripped the pocket of my jeans, her breath quivering, I thought she might run.
We were fables, like giants, traveling around the room on breath. Macho Kelly came out of the crowd towards us, he asked who Daren was, and we all stared strait ahead at him. He asked again, and our biggest man, Peter came forward,
‘We’re all Daren,’ he said.
‘Then I’ll have to kill all of you.’ Kelly said. He rolled his shoulders back, his evenly shaved head coming up to Pete’s nose.
‘Good,’ Pete said, ‘ Because we can’t live with ourselves after fucking that fat fucking pet pig of yours…’ a little bead of sweat jiggled down his chin and onto the clean chest of macho Kelly’s white t-shirt. Kelly grabbed Peter’s throat with his left hand, his veins popping out the side of his head, his grip barely made it around Pete’s jugular. Peter just smiled and laughed, pushing his throat into Kelly’s struggling grip. Fat Louise stood behind Kelly, her arms folded, her face was red like she was holding her breath, cheeks wet. No one knew what to do. Kelly finally reached up his right hand, attempting to cover Pete’s wild mouth, but Pete bit down hard, and blood spurted out, and like a dog he started shaking his head and locking his jaw down on Kelly’s hand. Kelly went white, his mouth dropped open and his eyes rolled back as Pete kept shaking his hand around in his mouth, and blood was, all over his face. Louise screamed and launched herself at Pete, which prompted drunken Jessica to launch herself toward Louise. Both sides folded in around the girls kicking and screaming. I just started flinging bodies out of the way looking for the girls. I could hear wheezing and growling and screaming, and the shuffling of bodies all swollen with adrenaline. In a moment sirens flashed outside, and we made for the fire exits, toward the back parking lot. Our eyes swimming, our skin raw, throats scraped open with gasping.
We all met at the cars, squatted and leaned, breathing, checking for blood or busted bones. Coming down after a fight, everything sounded sharp, my limbs begging me to run. Lauren, sat on the bumper of my car, arms folded, looking down at her shoes. I called to her but she wouldn’t answer. ‘I want to go home,’ She said. One of the girls, Dee, had some hair pulled out and was bleeding pretty bad; it poured down her face and blended with her dripping make-up.
‘ Oh fuck you little girl!’ Dee said, ‘I wanna go home…’ she fake sniveled, ‘ where the fuck were you?’ pretending to rub her eyes with her fists, giving the effect of a zombie clown, ‘ while I was getting scalped by a valley whore?!’ But she was laughing and leaning on her friend who stuck a bar napkin in the seeping gash, and laid her down on the back seat of my car, an ’86 Cutlass, my grandfather’s hand-me-down, I could have it, he said, as long as I did all my grandmother’s grocery shopping, and took her to her doctor’s appointments.
‘Shut up Dee,’ I said, ‘ Don’t get blood on my car.’ Lauren put her finger up to the corner of her eye, and stood walking around so her back was to me, her red hair falling in a neat orange column around her.
Our big man, Peter, came back minutes later, with asphalt ground into his shoulder and a blood pouring out of his nose, mixing with Kelly’s blood that circled his mouth. He hovered for a second on the outside of the circle; he put his hand on Daren’s back. ‘Louise is dead,’ He said and his voice cracked open, ‘And we need to get the fuck out of here.’ His words clogged with blood and spit. We all looked at Daren, the one who’d fucked her in the first place. He put his head down sort of nodding and scuffing the ground, his mouth opening in a silent cry. Lauren gasped and lifted her head, I reached out to her but she turned her shoulders, ‘Just an accident,’ I said, ‘ she was just stupid to get in the middle of the fight.’ My face was turned to Lauren, but I said it for all of us. For Daren, who was now squatting with his head between his knees, rocking back and forth. Pete turned his face up, rinsing his mouth with a warm beer.
There was a gag and a cough from in between the cars where Jessica, the big man’s girl, sat leaning against the rear wheel, nursing a busted-up knee. She leaned up on her palms, clearing her throat. There were little black tears coming off the corners of her eyes, towards her hairline, she looked like an Egyptian painting. She held her arm out with her palm up and one of the other girls silently passed her the bottle. She didn’t say anything, but she swallowed the last half-inch of vodka, and leaned back against the car, her breath catching unevenly in her throat, like a toddler too upset to speak.
‘It’s not our fault,’ I said whipping around, I pointed at Peter ‘ But they’re going to blame you for this.’ Peter was picking gravel out of his arm, ‘Let’s get the fuck out of here,’ He said ‘Before this gets really shitty.’
The cops shut down the main drag coming out of the venue, no doubt, looking for two packed cars full of busted up teenagers with addresses in the Sierras. So we backed the cars out of the delivery entrance, no headlights, and took the long way around the outside of town, behind the Costo and joined up with the 99 until we hit the pass.
Jason kept saying that he probably had some broken ribs, ‘No man, I definitely broke some ribs or something.’ I thought about what other kids our age where doing tonight. Thursday, maybe the preps and the sporty kids were having a party after a basketball game, down on the lakeshore, with a fire, and some beer. Every year there was always a girl or two that got drunk for the first time ever and drowned in a foot of water a few yards away from her friends on the beach. She was always a nice girl, from a good family, with good grades, and a soccer scholarship to USD. You never saw some greasy skinhead drowning in a foot of water or puke.
That week with the janitor, painting over the graffiti cocks we made on the walls of the gym, was the most fun I ever had in school. Jason and I were assigned to repainting the mural of the school mascot, the steelhead trout, which didn’t need much help looking like a cock anyway. It took the better part of the week; first the primer, then the base coat, then we stenciled in the design with charcoal and butcher paper, then the colors for the fish, layered lightest to darkest. The Janitor, Will, was a nice looking Mexican dude in his 30s, he must of thought we were such spoiled punks. He taught us how to get perfectly strait lines for the lettering using tape and sponges. He didn’t even get mad when he found us in the paint closet, huffing the thinner. He just told us to ‘get the fuck out of there and get to work. I am not a god damn babysitter.’
We crawled back up the mountains silently that night, except for the radio. Pete, and Jessica in the back with Jason who braced against the passenger side door, a cold can of coke pressed up against his puffed face, wincing every time we hit a pothole. Jason’s girlfriend Dee crumpled on the floor of the car, with her head in between Jason’s thighs, the saturated napkin still stuffed in the clotted hole just above her left temple. She drifted to sleep, humming. Chugging slowly up the two-lane pass draped along the slate shoulders of the familiar ridges, I smoked my last cigarette and thought of what we learned in physical science in the 8th grade. How it took a billion years to make these mountains – earthquakes and lava, and rain and snow and glaciers the size of cities cutting the lake into existence. And now I am driving an ’86 Cutlass against their ancient belly pausing only a few times so Jessica can vomit at a turnout. Lauren sat silently in the passenger seat, responding to nothing, face pressed to the glass, her breath making a little cloud. As soon as I pulled up to her house she opened the large steel door letting in the sharp pine-clogged air. Took off at a jog, arms strait, hands balled into fists, hair wild. Her parents were on the porch, arms folded. Her dad made a few steps towards us.
‘Fucking prep! Stupid poser pussy!’ Jason yelled out the back window, and hurdled the coke can into the glowing bay window of their house. A satisfying shatter followed us and I peeled out of their long, smooth driveway. In the rearview mirror I saw her dad taking off after us, in a sort of sloppy gallop, I laughed and beeped my horn twice.
‘Didn’t fucking need that bitch anyway,’ Jessica said, ‘ fucking pussy ass prep whore.’
I had expected Lauren and her parents to go running to the Police within minutes, but no cars waited for me at home, nobody ever heard about it again, and I still saw her around. She would give me a smile but at the same time a headshake. Her red hair waving around, nose crinkled up like a cat bearing its teeth. She looked more like a kid than before. She never gave back that shirt.
Later that spring, Louise’s brother and Macho Kelly put our big man Peter in the hospital. They ran him down one night in a big Ford pick-up just as he was leaving his job at the garage. His skull nearly crushed, and his intestines scrambled. They had to remove some of his organs from his body cavity and place them in what looked like a medium sized fishbowl next to his bed while he healed. He was in the hospital for four months; a new landlord hauled his trailer off the abandoned lot in early summer. No one knew what became of his two rottweilers; we guessed the police just hauled them away too. About a month after that, Jessica took up with me. She needed a place to live and I had an old fishing tackle shack on the south end of the lake. I didn’t blame her, Pete wouldn’t be able to even shit right for years. She was devastated by the loss of her boyfriend and her dogs, one of which was a Christmas present from Pete the previous year.
I worked at the convenience store down the road the “Beer ‘n Bait,” did a good business in the summer. My boss owned the shack, and let me live there if I took three dollars an hour, instead of five, and I promised to fix up the dock, which was rotted almost all the way through. I felt bad for Pete, but nobody harbored any sense of injustice about it. We spent that summer by the water, or inside in bed. She grew her hair out, the black dye fading into a pale grey, then a white blond in the high hot sun. She waited tables at a Mexican restaurant in town, saving her tips so she could go to beauty school. Scotty, and Jason were sent away to troubled youth training camp by their parents. Daren and his brother went down to the valley to work for their dad’s construction company. Most of the girls hung around taking summer school and waitressing. Dee got pregnant and moved in with Jason’s parents; they had a baby shower for her. When he came home from camp later that summer, he was sold on the Army, and enlisted in October right after his 18th birthday. Dee’s hair never quite grew in on that one patch; it remained a rumpled little divot in the skin. For years, every time I saw her, in the market or at a party I would peer at it, and think about her crumpled in the back of my old Cutlass laughing with a bloody bar napkin stuck to her head.
Jess would visit Big Pete in the hospital almost everyday, out of guilt really. Daren, Jason and I only went to see him once. We stood back against the walls of the little white room, banging into rolling equipment, searching the drawers of the cabinets for anything valuable. We ended up with a lot of medical tape, and stitching needles. He rambled, half lucid, about getting everyone together, going down there and taking Kelly down, ending it, finishing off that retard family for good. But no one really cared enough, I think we were all tired of it, or maybe it was just the summer that made us want to forget. He could have died, and it would have been easier for everyone. When Pete could finally walk again he moved in with his grandmother. She had a two-bedroom condo in a well-groomed community where the median age was 75. His skin took on a funny gray tinge, his chest had narrowed and become concave. A large pink scar crept from the crown of his head, behind his left ear, down to the outer edge of his collarbone. People just never get right after a head injury like that. I would dream about his guts, all scrambled in a jar, like a pink and gray pasta salad, I would wake up sweating and chewing my lip. Jess would drive Pete to physical therapy, always going over there for lunch first. I hated this, I would protest, and threaten, ‘ We both know he can’t fuck me,’ she would just say ‘I’m going, and you can decide while I’m gone if you’ll let me in later.’ I always would, and sometimes I would sit like a pouting kid in the back seat of her car as she would chauffer Pete around, the two of them always talking or switching the radio.
We were very drunk one late afternoon in September, before Pete was out of the Hospital. We drank ‘Nickel Creek Red’ which cost two dollars a bottle with my employee discount. We tried to fish off the sinking, rotting dock with some old poles, but ended up just throwing smooth rocks against the darkening surface.
‘This whole valley used to be a glacier’ I said.
‘I heard there is still ice at the bottom.’ She turned her round face towards mine; there were purple stains on the edges of her lip. The gold in her hair like fiber optics. I kissed her.
‘I wish I had paid attention in science class,’
‘ You didn’t go to science class.’ She teased and pushed my chin away.
I thought of that last day of painting with Will, the Janitor. We were so high from huffing paint thinner when he caught us. We finished the last two letters in ‘heads’ for the mural then started taking the blue tape off, one long strip at a time. We all stood back at center court when it was done, looking at the giant fish with the gapping jaws and spiney fins with the words ‘ GO STEAL HEADS’ across It’s speckled flank. Jason was the first one to start laughing.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Yeah… what’s so funny? You fucking stoner…’ Will clipped him up the side of his head. Jason backed away laughing stopped for a moment, stood up and screamed ‘GO! STEAL! HEADS!’ pumping his fist up towards the ceiling. That’s when we all lost it; I never laughed that hard in my life – cheeks burning. Will sat down with his hands on his knees and his fingers pinching his nose, his shoulders jumping up and down. If you didn’t know he was laughing, you’d think he was weeping. GO. STEAL. HEADS.
Sitting on the edge of the dock my feet dipped in the water, the skin white with green veins. Jess’ legs dangle just above the surface, she points her toes and makes little rippling circles.
‘I think I’m gonna be a janitor when I grow up.’ I said.
‘Don’t be an idiot.’ She said.
‘Nah, I’m serious…’ I threw a rock strait down into the water; it splashed up onto us, momentarily halting her breath with cold.
‘Why not just work for your dad?’ She took a pull from the wine bottle and wiped her face.
‘Because I’m not really cut out for selling ski’s and tennis rackets.’ I motioned to my shaved head and the three-inch scar across my nose. The air was cooling now as the tiny bright sun hit the serrated ridge of the bowl. The first stars came out behind our heads, the gray blanket of insects shook out around us.
‘You sell beer…’
She shook her head and pulled her feet up beneath her.
‘What are you cut out for then?’ She asked, ‘Just getting drunk and beating people up and living in a shack your whole life?’ She was trying to sound light, but I knew she was getting at something, that I didn’t want to get at just yet.
‘Uh, I don’t know. Sure. Is that job available?’ I still found joy in frustrating people. She shook her head breathing out, and studied me in a way that made me feel like a retarded mouse. Her eyes narrowed, jaw clenched.
‘I just never want to get into a fight again,’ she said, ‘not after Louise.’
‘That was just a bad night.’ I saw the goose bumps on her legs and arms, and threw my leather jacket around her shoulders, scooted close to her, so our thighs touched.
‘Have you ever stepped on a snail?’ she asked.
‘Sure, tons of times, mostly on purpose.’
‘That feeling when you crunch through the shell and the gooey part kind of springs you back up…’ she put her lips to the bottle again, and with her other hand gripped my knee, ‘ that’s what it felt like to kill Louise.’ She swallowed and coughed a few times; her voice had this plain tone, like she was reading a letter aloud. ‘ It was crazy, and we were all in this big pile, I just wanted to get out, someone was yanking my arm. Louise was on the ground, wrapped around my right foot. I just screamed for her to let go, and I brought my left foot down as hard as I could on her face and it crunched like a snail but it was soft too… someone launched me off her and I was on the ground again, that’s when the police came and I took off… I just remember all the colors of the stuff coming out of her head…’
I took the bottle away from her and threw it into the lake, it was just something to do, something to watch. I couldn’t stand to talk about stupid Louise that fat whore, at the bottom of the pile, holding on to Jess’ leg like a baby.
‘It’s not your fault,’ I said, ‘ stupid Louise… fucked stupid Daren….’
‘Now Pete’s pretty much dead…’ she shrugged.
‘Yeah, he should have really died, he doesn’t really care though.’ I could see it in her, the cogs and cranks of a tragic life, carrying around this thing, like rotting from the inside out. Pete and Louise.
‘We are all just jars of guts, I guess…’ I said this, thinking it would somehow trivialize things, make her laugh. But she looked up at me with long red trails of tears on her plump cheeks, her eyeballs dark and clouded over.
‘I guess…’ she said but didn’t finish, she turned her head and leaned over her knees, for a moment I thought she was going to shout at the water then she emptied her stomach full of wine into the lake with a horrible wretch like a guttural burp. I held her shoulders to keep her from slipping off the dock. She barfed, again, and again, until there was just a little bit of pink bile coming out of her nose. I couldn’t help but laugh about how embarrassed she was, crying and hiding her face. ‘We are all just jars of guts…’ She said, sobbing, and I was giggling, pulling her up by the armpits, carrying her inside. The dry air sharpened our voices; the lavender sky hurdled down around us.