Installment #16 / But I Didn’t Die / a fictional memoir

Then something occurred that put a slight crimp in my plans. We had classes called “modules,” a new educational method of some sort they were experimenting with at the time. What that meant specifically I didn’t know or care, but what it meant in my case was I had almost all of my Fridays free to do what I wanted as long as I didn’t leave school.

Usually what I wanted to do was play basketball in the gym all day and every so often John would play also. On this particular day we had made plans to play that afternoon but then John realized he had left his sneakers at home. Why don’t we leave school and go get them? he suggested. I’ve got my car and we can stop up at Bihr’s (a nearby deli) and get a sandwich, my treat. You think it’s ok? I asked. Of course Barnesy, he replied, would I steer you wrong? So I agreed to go. Looking back on it I suppose just the fact that he offered (he and his father were notorious skin-fliints) to buy was a bad omen

We weren’t gone a half hour and everything seemed cool until we were called to the Assistant Principal’s Office not long afterwards. He was a real dick, much like Lumpy’s father in “Leave it to Beaver,” someone who enjoyed handing out demerits and suspensions. He seemed to relish the fact that he’d nailed John Chambers and, although I was merely collateral damage, I was worried about what Mrs. Barnes would say, while John shrugged it off defiantly, directing a few wait until I tell my father and f-yous toward Mr. Hoak for good measure. I was both embarrassed and gratified by his reaction, but mainly just wanting to get the hell out of there.

On top of that, a few days later I found out that there was a rarely enforced clause in the suspension rules that said if the student was participating in a sport that semester, the student would be prevented from playing said sport for the duration of the suspension retroactive to when the sport began, or, in my case the suspension wouldn’t begin until the beginning of track season.

The reason I heard about it was that they had decided to enforce the clause this time, which didn’t hurt John a bit as he wasn’t even playing a sport, but would hurt me a great deal, as track season would begin in a month or so, and it looked like I would miss the first three meets.

When I had my “hearing” with the Principal I pointed out that I was counting on getting a scholarship to run at a local college (while technically that wasn’t true but Big Ed said he was working on it) and missing three meets would jeopardize that. The suspension was upheld and I would have to serve it in a month.

Mrs. Barnes wasn’t too happy about it needless to say, and I couldn’t help noticing that while she was making a big deal out of this, my superior academic achievement of the prior semester had gone totally unnoticed. Making things infinitely worse was the fact that, as she was doing more and more lately, Mrs. Barnes waited for Friday night immediately after Mr. Barnes got home from his business trip to tell him about my suspension.

He didn’t take it very well, bounding up the stairs as he always did and confronting me. Then he suddenly stopped and sat down on the bed, sweating and breathing very heavily. It was then that Mrs. Barnes arrived in the doorway and said, Well, aren’t you going to punish him Jack? I’m tired Mr. Barnes replied, can’t you see that?

Still Mrs. Barnes kept on badgering him and he kept refusing as I sat there waiting for whatever came next. Suddenly Mr. Barnes exploded and practically smothered me when jumped on top of me, pummeling me all the while. I heard Mrs. Barnes screaming in the background and could smell Mr. Barnes’s Kreml hair tonic mingled with his sweat, and when it was over and Mrs. Barnes had left the room he sat on my bed sweating and breathing very heavily and apologized, though by then it was too late.

I hadn’t even known until Rory told me afterwards that something even worse had worse had happened to him the week before: Mr. Barnes had grabbed him by the hair in the basement and literally coldcocked him, knocking him briefly unconsciousness as Mrs. Barnes stood on the cellar stairs and goaded him on. He hadn’t told me because he was ashamed, both for being caught drinking bottles of Mr. Barnes’s  Ballantine Ale down there, and because he’d been knocked out. I could just sense somehow that things were coming to a head.

—-o—-

That next Friday was Valentine’s Day and it was as bitterly cold as only a mid-winter day in Buffalo could be. As usual I had spent most of the day playing basketball. The cafeteria was abuzz, with seemingly everyone in the cafeteria talking about what they were doing that night. As I had no plans I said nothing, although I wish I did have as anything I could do to get out of that house was a blessing, especially lately.

A kid I knew from church, Ron McKenna, was giving me the business about not having any plans. He was pretty obnoxious, reminding me of Ackley in Catcher in the Rye (minus the zits), a real prince of a guy, and the victim of many pranks in the boy’s locker room. In fact if you looked up the word “obnoxious” in the dictionary his picture would be there, but, as in most cases concerning people of this type, he just didn’t get it, had no self-awareness, but I still felt a vestige of loyalty to him I suppose because he went to my church. Or more likely, because I was a sucker, and those kind of guys can spot one right away.

What he didn’t know (because I would never tell him such a thing) was there was a girl named Linda  I was thinking of asking out. I’d heard she liked me but wasn’t sure what we could do, as I didn’t have any wheels, and it was probably too late to ask her now anyway.

Ron kept needling me, saying he had big plans for his date, but when I asked them what they might be he said it was a surprise so he couldn’t tell me, but I could double with him and find out. That is, if you have a date, he continued, smiling as though he doubted it. Before I knew it I was agreeing to go with him, knowing at once it was a mistake, but being desperate and not having a car I had few options. At least this way I could finally ask Linda out, which I did when I saw her in the hallway after lunch and she blushingly said she’d love to.

The next hurdle was asking the Barnes’s for permission which lately hadn’t been a big deal except for the 11 o’clock curfew I had to be home by or the doors would be locked, which I knew they wouldn’t budge on. This curfew was going to be an even bigger pain than usual, as Ron had no curfew at all. In addition he had his own car (a brand new Cutlass, courtesy of his parents) and I would have no say at all about when I got home, I was completely at the mercy of someone who had none. For now I wouldn’t mention the curfew and deal with it when the time came.

Then something happened that put the whole plan in jeopardy. I sprained my ankle very badly after coming down on some clod’s foot during my Friday basketball session, writhing on the gym floor in pain, feeling as though I was going to pass out. With the help of some friends I was able to hobble to the Nurse’s Office, where she assured me it wasn’t broken but still a very bad sprain. She wrapped it in a bandage, gave me some crutches, and warned me to stay off it as much as I could. It’s going to get very swollen and painful, she said, sending me off with some aspirin for the pain.

After I got used to the crutches I was feeling pretty good and decided I was still going out and ditched them in the basement as soon as I got home. Mrs. Barnes noticed my limp and asked me what had happened. I told her it was nothing, even though it was very painful, it seemed to loosen up the more I walked on it. When I asked her later about going out she said maybe I shouldn’t, but I said I’d be fine and surprisingly enough that seemed to satisfy her.

Ron was in his glory that night, showing he was going all out by picking me up in his parent’s burgundy Imperial instead of his Cutlass, his arm around his date who I recognized as a new girl in school, Diana Lewis, plain but very personable. Being new and a sophomore she was probably unaware of Ron’s reputation but I had a feeling she’d be totally clued in before the evening was over.

As soon as I got in the car Ron patched out on the street before I could even say hello, showing off as usual, the car fishtailing when it hit some ice. He straightened it out as though nothing had happened and barreled up the street. He was a good driver, I had to admit, but way too cocky (undeservedly so) in everything he did.

He was very materialistic, judging people and things by how much they were worth, and what he wanted that night was Diana, who was having none of it. She fended him off while he drove, gradually moving so far away from him she was almost right up against the passenger door. I got the distinct feeling it was going to be a long night.

We arrived at Linda’s house and as I crunched gingerly up the walkway to her front door I was very nervous as I hardly even knew her. She went to my friend Greg’s church and I’d met her there once and had seen her several times in the hallway at school. She was a blushingly shy beautiful blonde, tall and slim with big blue eyes and hair like Danny Kirwan’s, almost wraith-like surprisingly well-endowed for a girl so slight, reputed to have a boyfriend at another school.

I rang the doorbell, which chimed richly in the quiet clear frigid night. The front door opened immediately and Lindanette emerged, slammed the door shut behind her and said, Let’s go, it’s cold, slipping her arm through mine as we headed to the car. She noticed I was limping and asked what happened, then suggested I put some snow on it because it was really starting to hurt. Ron wasn’t too happy when he saw what I was doing, didn’t want to get his old man’s rug wet, but it made it feel a lot better and I didn’t care.

I introduced Linda to Diana and then Ron, who, barely acknowledging her, asked what we wanted to do, which turned out to be a rhetorical question as, not waiting for an answer, he suggested we go to the airport to see if any flights were coming in. He chuckled when he said that and now we all knew what he had in mind for the evening as the airport was the biggest makeout spot in town.

I was fairly certain Diana didn’t know this and felt I should say something to alert her but all I could do for the time being was stall by saying, Not now, we can do that later. Lindanette nudged me and spoke right up saying she was cold and could we go to the Double Dip for some hot chocolate.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Everyone seemed relieved by this suggestion, everyone but Ron that is. He popped in his tired old “Grassroots Greatest Hits” tape and proceeded in the opposite direction of the Double Dip, announcing, I know a better spot. Smiling and looking over at Diana he added, and it’s closer to the airport.

I knew part of the reason Ron was doing this: the Double Dip was a popular hangout and he was likely to run into plenty of people who could potentially embarrass him in front of Diana. He couldn’t risk it. I understood and felt kind of sorry for him even though his unpopularity was mostly his own fault as far as I could see, but at the same time could tell Diana was disappointed and surmised she probably wanted to go to the “in” place and meet people and feel like she was finally fitting in.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Meanwhile, I was attempting to talk to Linda, trying to get better acquainted, but she seemed preoccupied with where Ron was going and implored me to please stop him. I acquiesced and asked Ron if we could turn around and go to the Double Dip, which is where everyone else wanted to go, that he’d been outvoted, but there was no stopping Ron now, it was his car by god and he was going where he wanted come hell or high water, and I could see by then that where he wanted to go was Charley Brown’s.

Charley Brown’s, the most uncool spot in town, barely even in town, on the very edge, a large chain greasy spoon where mall shoppers and truckers congregated for burgers and fries, and where Roy went for interminable coffee refills and cigarettes with the one or two friends he had (people he wouldn’t even admit to knowing in school), impressing his captive audience with the money-making schemes he’d hatched up and would implement the moment he graduated high school.

Aside from the fact that we all felt very out of place except, of course, for Ron, who knew the waitresses, cashier, hostess, even some of the regulars, and was playing big shot for Diana, smoking furiously and drinking cup after cup of coffee, it was obvious to everyone this place was square as hell and that we were missing out by not having gone to the Double Dip, and were hoping not to stay one minute longer than we had to.

It wasn’t too bad, I rationalized, the hot fudge sundae Lindanette and I shared was more than ample, and Diana got her rich warming hot chocolate, but just as it seemed we were making the best of it, Diana blurted out finally, after Ron’s umpteenth cup of coffee, If you can’t take me someplace where everyone our age is hanging out, then take me home.

Ron got noticeably flustered, his face more red than usual, for once not knowing what to say. I could literally the wheels spinning in his head, and if there wasn’t already a Plan B, knew he would come up with something, however lame. He made a big show of paying the check and leaving a generous tip, saying goodbye to everyone he knew as we left, but you could tell by the time we were out in the cold silent car the evening was unsalvageable.

At last, out of desperation Ron asked us again what we wanted to do. None of us could come up with anything other than the Double Dip, which seemed pointless now that we’d already done what we had intended to do there. It was now 10 o’clock and no one even said a word when Ron set out toward the airport.

I was frustrated with the way the evening had turned out. Why couldn’t I stand up to Ron and say what needed to be said? I’m sure Linda must have been wondering the same thing if the looks and nudges she began giving me were any indication.

The thing that really got me was Ron could have gotten the same result by himself, he didn’t need us along, but realized that Diana had probably insisted they double with someone, for which I couldn’t blame her. And now we were headed for a make out competition, which was what Ron would make it, the object being to see who got the furthest. But even then I said nothing and when we got to the airport Linda moved way over to the other side of the car, so I made do with watching the planes land and take off, something I hadn’t done since I was a kid. Not a good first date and not looking too promising for a second.                                                                                                                                         As it turned out, even though it was dark in the car, it was obvious that Ron was getting nowhere when suddenly we heard a loud snap followed by an even louder slap, and Diana was out the car door, slamming it behind her and, cold as it was, stomping across through the expansive concrete parking lot. Ron went after her and was soon following behind, pleading his case. They were gone for a little while but then they returned and, unbelievably, he went back at it in the front seat, this time not taking no for an answer.

While they were gone I had apologized to Linda and pretty soon we were kissing too, oblivious of everyone and everything it was so cozy in the car and she smelled so good. Not for long, though, as I suddenly realized it was 11 o’clock and blurted out, Ron, I have to go home right now, I was supposed to be home by 11.

Ron did come up for air, however briefly, I’ll give him that. As his head popped up over the front seat I saw he was annoyed and couldn’t really blame him. Now’s a great time to tell me that! he said, and paused for a moment. Don’t worry about it. We’ll leave in a minute, he finished. Then he went back down for more while Linda and I just sat there but then I finally had to interrupt him again and say, Ron you know how my parents are.

He didn’t say anything this time but in a few minutes started the car and I was very relieved, thinking maybe it wouldn’t be too bad, I was only a little late so far, but, though I couldn’t be certain, it seemed he wasn’t driving nearly as fast as when he was showing off.

When we got to Linda’s house I walked her as quickly as I could with a messed-up ankle to her door and kissed her one more time. I remember her distinctly saying that night in the clear silent air not to worry, that everything would turn all right, and I had a bad feeling right as she said it that it wouldn’t.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      And sure enough by the time we finally reached my street it was pushing midnight and I knew it was all over. Beyond disgusted I had Ron drop me off at the top of the street and got out. Sensing I was upset he said, You should have told me about your curfew, I would have gotten you home on time.

Right, I thought, beginning to walk away when I heard Diana’s voice trailing off, I hope everything turns out okay Wes. I looked back and said goodnight, embarrassed at her knowing about my curfew, but feeling even worse because I had to admit a part of me had wanted to come home late, but who could blame me? I felt sick as I went down my street, not daring to think what could happen when I arrived there or I couldn’t have kept going.

I had just reached the driveway when I noticed a light on in the den and someone sitting in the chair by the window. My heart went into my mouth as I inched closer to see who it was, not daring to make a sound. I assumed it was Mrs. Barnes but it was Mr. Barnes.

He must be waiting up for me I thought, which meant the door was locked. There was no way I was going to ring the doorbell and ask to be let in. I stood there for a moment wondering what to do and headed back up the street, looking back over my shoulder to make sure he hadn’t noticed, cursing Ron as I did so.

A feeling of total helplessness overcame me as I stood there in the clear frigid night. I’d felt somewhat that way the time I’d run away just the year before, on another freezing winter night, sleeping in a car parked in the custard stand parking lot overnight, and returning the next morning, where it seemed my absence hadn’t even been noticed, Rory covering for me until I snuck in a cellar window and was in bed before anyone was the wiser.

But I could tell this was different, that this time I was never going back again. While that determination made me resolute, where would I go?  I knew I shouldn’t be walking on my bad ankle and didn’t dare look at it. The cold actually helped and it felt better if I kept going so I did, walking the route I had walked every day on the way to middle school straight to Ron McKenna’s house, my ankle killing me, still cursing him each step, not knowing what I would do when I got there, becoming painfully of the true meaning of the cold, cruel world, and the dark night of the soul I’d heard so much about.

When I arrived, as I expected there were no lights on and I didn’t know which upstairs room was his bedroom, so I decided to throw snowballs at the corner room to start with, throwing loosely packed snow as softly as I could against the window to see if I could rouse whoever was in there, hopefully Ron or one of his brothers.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            I was pretty cold by then and growing more desperate the colder I got. Suddenly I saw a light come on in the room and damn if Ron didn’t poke his head out the window like the little gopher he was. What the hell are you doing? he said. I got locked out of my house, I responded, and need a place to stay. That’s not my problem, he said, and made as if to close the window. Incensed, I said that indeed it was and if he didn’t let me in I was going to wake everybody in the house up. After a brief pause he said, All right, I’ll be down in a minute.

It seemed as though Ron took his sweet time getting there but finally he opened the door and stood there as though waiting for something. I told him what had happened after he dropped me off as he stood in the doorway with a blank look on his face, and when I finished he shrugged his shoulders and said once more, And this is my problem how?

I was taken aback a bit but managed to splutter, If you hadn’t ruined all our evenings in the first place by begging me to go with you none of this would have happened, and if you don’t let me in I’ll make it a big problem

Shhhh, you’ll wake everyone up, he said, still not budging.

I wanted nothing more than to head butt him in his soft gut right then but managed to say, Don’t you care what happened to me? Again he shrugged his shoulders which further flummoxed me, leaving me speechless that someone could be so obtuse and egomaniacal, but that was Ron in spades.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Knowing I was utterly defeated, that I didn’t have a leg (and barely an ankle) to stand on, I abased myself even further, desperate to get through those next few hours until daylight, saying, I have nowhere else to go. Please let me stay until morning. That must have been what Ron wanted because he immediately stepped out of the doorway and ushered me in, again cautioning me in a hoarse voice to be quiet.

We crept upstairs to his room where he pulled a sleeping bag and pillow out of the closet and handed them to me. I spread it out on his floor and fell into a deep sleep in the unfamiliar room.

When I awoke a few hours later Ron was still asleep. I was thinking about trying to sneak out of the house before anyone else knew I was there until I saw my ankle, which was almost black by then, and doubted I’d be able to pull it off.

Waiting until I couldn’t any longer I woke him up and asked him how I could get out of there. Still half asleep, he looked at me in surprise, as if he’d forgotten what had happened the night before and reluctantly got up to regroup.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                He left the room, telling me to stay right where I was, and when he came back he said the coast was clear but to follow him and not make a sound. We got to the front door without incident and, sensing I was about to thank him, Ron shooed me out the door.                                                                                                                                                                                    It was just getting light out and still frigid but I was glad to be outdoors. Feeling like I was hung over and trying not to think about the night before, I instead concentrated on what my next move would be. Our old middle school was just down the road and I remembered there were always pickup games there on Saturday mornings.  It was still too early for that but I thought I’d kill time at the deli next door.

Although it was very difficult to walk, my ankle having stiffened noticeably overnight, I gradually made it there. Once inside I looked around a bit, planning my purchase carefully as I had to make what little money I had last, taking my time looking at the magazines and the morning paper.

No one seemed to be around, but I couldn’t resist the smell of coffee brewing on the front counter and the tray of fresh donuts arranged right next to it. The owner came out and I bought a jelly and a cream donut, and a Styrofoam cup of hot black coffee then headed toward the middle school.

It was broad daylight by then but I still had to hang around a bit, nibbling the donuts and sipping the coffee, feeling like I was really roughing it, wanting to make them last until someone arrived. It was the loneliest feeling in the world having to kill time like that, having no real place to go.

Gradually a few cars began to arrive. I was standing too far away to recognize anyone but when someone unlocked the door I forged ahead if only to get in out of the cold. Being in a public place as opposed to a strange house made me feel much better for some reason, and the familiar gym smells were more than welcome.

There were a few guys shooting around already, one a short guy with a brush cut I recognized as Mr. Ronker (nicknamed “hacker” because of the brutal karate chops he employed when guarding you), who owned that clothing store in the village I stole my DayGlo pants from.

I felt out of place as I didn’t have my gym clothes but at least had my ankle as an excuse if they asked me to play. No one did and I made myself as inconspicuous as possible to watch the proceedings. I gingerly settled in on the sideline, my back against the well and found myself getting relaxed, even comfortable, and, most of all, warm.

People were arriving at a steady pace by then and soon there were enough to play a five-on-five game. I knew a few more of the players though none really well and expected even more to show up soon. I tried to avoid thinking about the night before as the import of what I’d done was finally beginning to hit me.

Just then John Chambers strolled into the gym, escorted by his usual entourage of underclassmen and Stell, his massive cousin/unofficial body guard, an immovable anchor on the offensive line of the varsity football team when John wasn’t ordering him around like a whipped puppy.

When John spotted me he came right over, Stell, who didn’t know me that well, following in his wake, eying me suspiciously as he did so. Come on Barnsey, John said, lace ‘em up, let’s get with the program.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             I replied that I didn’t have my stuff with me so was just there to watch, which surprised John who then asked me why I didn’t want to play. When I explained about my ankle he shrugged his shoulders and said, OK Barnsey, watch and learn. Keep an eye on my gym bag will you?

Where we at? he called out to the players on the court, I’ve got next game, loser’s side. He went over to center court to watch for a moment, then did a few jumping jacks, deep knee bends, and toe touches, then took off for a few laps around the gym. By the time he finished, having worked up a good sweat, the game was ending and everyone was taking a blow.

John trotted back over to me, smiling as he bent down to open his enormous tooled leather gym bag to retrieve a brand new basketball. He bounced it resoundingly on the floor several times and said under his breath, I’m feeling it today Barnsey, watch me school these guys.

He wheeled around, palming the basketball, and said, Guys, this needs breaking in, all right if we use it? Knowing full well it was a rhetorical question he looked back and winked at me before he ran out on the court to join in the game.

He dominated right from the outset, hitting shots from everywhere on the court, rebounding, passing, setting up plays, picks, blanketing his man on defense, seemingly effortless against the inferior competition. He worked up a terrific sweat, playing five games over the next couple of hours because his team kept winning until they finally called it quits for the day.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 John flopped down on the gym floor next to me afterwards. There’s no better feeling than a good honest sweat Barnsey, he said. Get my water bottle and a towel out of my bag, would you? How’d I look? he asked, taking a long pull from the squeeze bottle and toweling himself off, obviously fishing for a compliment, which I immediately provided.

Terrific, I said, you were unstoppable.

What’re you doing today, he asked, want to hang out? Come home for lunch. I have to shower then me and Stell and a bunch of people are going over to Transit Lanes.                                                                                                                                                                                                 I was mildly surprised at the invitation (which couldn’t have come at a better time), never having been to his house before, but before I could even answer John yelled out to his cousin, who was shooting around with John’s acolytes at the other end of the court, Stell! Come on! Let’s go? Barnsey are you coming or not?

You bet I’m coming, I thought, not quite believing my good fortune and my growing sense of freedom. As we began to pile in John commanded Stell to get in the back. When I said that wasn’t necessary, that I would sit in the back he reiterated once more, Stell! In the back!

That afternoon was a whirlwind of activity. I’ll say one thing, John sure was enthusiastic in everything he did, a natural ringleader. Besides him, Stell, and me, a couple guys from the football frat I knew of but not well were coming, and once again I was on the fringes, observing but trying not to be singled out.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                I wasn’t much of a kegler either, so that left me out, using my bum ankle as an excuse. The first order of business was ordering several pitchers of beer. I’d be legal in two weeks, but I didn’t want to drink, I was saving myself for the upcoming track season, figuring I’d be behind enough as it was, missing those early meets.

Although all these guys were decent athletes, they looked like fish out of water on the lanes, except for John, who had no problem rolling consistently in the 200s, with a great approach, stroke, and follow through.

I couldn’t help noticing that between games, even as often as between turns, one or more of them would disappear for a while and eventually return with smirks and red faces. It was obvious they’d been outside but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I was soon to find out when, after the disappearing stopped, John said to me, Barnesy, it’s your turn.

My turn for what, I said quickly, already flustered, thinking he meant my turn to bowl. Several of the guys laughed at that and John smiled and said, your turn to get your nose wet. This only served to confuse me even more and I turned beseeching eyes on John for some clue as to what he meant.

It’s time you met Lorna Doone and Candy Kane, he said, at which point all the guys burst out laughing, my face growing redder and redder. John finally put me out of my misery by revealing that they were two loose girls they’d picked up there so many times it became a regular thing.

You go out to the car and do whatever you want with them, John continued, as long as you don’t mess up the car. I’ll pass, I said, without hesitation, repulsed by the idea.

Come on Barnesy John said, a couple of the other guys piping in, you have to, it’s part of the deal. I could see I wasn’t going to get out of it, not wanting to embarrass myself any further. John sensed I was hesitating about what to do next and whispered to me, Just go out to the car, they’re waiting for you, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to, no one will know.

I went very reluctantly if only to get out of there, taking as much time as I could and wondering what the hell I would do when I got there. The windows of John’s car were not only steamed up but already frosting over, making it difficult to see inside. Still, I tried to, not wanting to startle anyone, and gradually made out the outline of the two unfortunate girls, who, were seemingly unaware of their plight, rather quite the opposite, I heard them giggling as they appeared to be beckoning me inside.

When I opened the car door the overpowering odor of sex and cheap perfume hit me in the face. You must be Barnesy, the girls said in unison, giggling again. They looked to be my age if not younger, which was very disconcerting, not that I would have participated even if they had been legal age.

At first I didn’t say anything but before they got the wrong idea I blurted out, Sorry girls, I can’t do this. While you’re obviously nice enough and all-right looking, I just can’t do it, I said. I could see they were startled and hurried to reassure them it wasn’t them it was me and couldn’t we just talk?

It’s your half hour, they replied, so yeah, we can talk. What do you want to talk about? The first thing that came out of my mouth was why are you doing this? They both looked indignant and I thought I’d make them angry, but then noticed there appeared to be tears in their eyes, which made me feel like a real horse’s ass.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         There was dead silence after that so I began telling them all about myself, how I was a twin, about my home life, things I wouldn’t normally tell anyone and they seemed enrapt, hanging on every word I said.

When I thought enough time had elapsed I told them I’d be going and not to tell anyone and they assured me they wouldn’t. As I was getting out of the car they each gave me a peck on the cheek, wished me luck and I them. As nice as they were and even though we had done nothing wrong, I’m ashamed to say that by that point I was repulsed and couldn’t wait to distance myself from the whole sordid situation.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            When I got back to the lanes naturally they all wanted to know what had happened. I merely shrugged my shoulders and said a gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell and neither do I, making a point to thank John, and that seemed to satisfy them. We left soon after, several of the guys stumbling drunk.

Before we got to John’s car I wondered briefly if the girls would still be there but they weren’t, in fact, to my relief that, save for vestiges of the aforementioned scents, there was little sign they even been there.

John dropped Stell off and asked me if he should take me home. I told him what had happened the night before and he replied, That’s a bummer, Barnsey. That would never happen with my parents. You can stay at my house for as long as you want, they won’t care.

Incredulous, imagining how the Barnes’s would react if I had made a far less preposterous invitation, I asked him if he shouldn’t ask his parents first, but he merely waved my suggestion away, instantly erasing my remaining doubts, and I never gave it a second thought. Despite the circumstances I couldn’t help but this a pyrrhic victory: I was finally going to get to stay over at someone’s house and there wasn’t anything Mrs. Barnes could do about it.

—–o—–

I’d known John Chambers since our Little League football days and my first impression was not a good one. One Saturday a bunch of us were about to pile into his father’s Coupe de Ville to go to an away game when John opened the front passenger door and, sounding like a car salesman, said, Look at this car, it’s got power windows, seats, locks, and mirrors, air-conditioning- everything- I bet your father doesn’t have a car like this.

No one knew what to say as we hardly knew the kid, but I for one wasn’t impressed, it certainly wasn’t a Rolls Royce or one of the Jaguars we saw at Wilcox Motors when Rory and I passed by there on our way to church and hoped to own one day.                                                                                                                                                                                                             Besides, Mr. Barnes being a traveling salesman and all traded in his top of the line Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan (except for the lone Starfire the year it came out) every other year for a brand new one after having put 80,000 miles on the old one, so we were quite familiar with luxury automobiles thank you very much.

I held my tongue but thought him to be a crass spoiled brat whom I took an instant dislike to. As kids we rated our peers by how good they were in sports and to this point he wasn’t that good in anything as far as I could see. Oh, he had the best equipment all right, and his father was one of the coaches so he started at right end (the same position I had tried out for), and, although he had better moves, I was twice as fast and could catch the ball as well as he could, but wouldn’t be given a chance to compete as he was given the starting spot not having earned it and what could I do but accept it. We were undefeated three straight years and you couldn’t argue with success but I was damn sure I wasn’t going to be impressed just because his father drove a Cadillac I can tell you that.

As we didn’t go to the same school or live near each other nor were ever in the same social circles, our paths never crossed after that so I completely forgot about him until we were reacquainted in high school, again through sports, this time basketball.

It was common knowledge they were one of the oldest and wealthiest families in Williamsville, his father owning several large tracts of prime real estate strategically located throughout the village, which was on the cusp of becoming a burgeoning suburb, and thus highly coveted by local developers.

Mr. Chambers was living the life of the landed gentry his Scottish forebears had sweated blood to make possible with (as was often the case with inherited wealth) more money than brains. Leave it to Mrs. Barnes (as she often did) to put the picture in a frame, referring to him as a skinflint Scotsman, a lumbering fool who didn’t have the sense God gave him and was running the family fortune and name into the ground.

From that time on I noticed that Mr. Chambers had a vacant look about him and never seemed to do much of anything. Unlike the other fathers who worked regular jobs and thus couldn’t make it to our practices until they were almost over he and John were always the first ones there. I later found out that not only was he a coach but owned the very land we practiced on.

As we neared John’s house I got nervous about meeting his family and what they would think about my staying there. I needn’t have worried because after we arrived we went through the garage and straight up to his room without seeing anyone. So far so good, I thought, it was as though John could read my mind and saved me from all the social niceties I hated and suspected he did too.

The minute we got in his room he went over to the other side of the bed and pulled a plastic garbage bag out from under it. Holding it aloft he said, Guess what’s in here Barnesy. I thought laundry at first, wondering why he’d show me that, but when he dumped it out on the floor I saw it was large amount of marijuana wrapped in tight bundles.

Attempting not to appear dumbfounded (which I was), I asked, Why so much? Some for me and the rest to sell, he replied. I couldn’t believe that a kid as wealthy as he needed to do that and when I asked him about it he backtracked a bit, saying, Well actually I don’t sell it, I’m a middle man and front it to local dealers. I immediately thought so that’s the reason those younger kids hang around him and wasn’t sure if I believed him, the middleman part that is.                                                                                                                                   Suddenly he called out, Ma! What’s for dinner? startling me. There was a pause then a woman’s voice replying, Chicken. I didn’t even know you were home, John. A friend of mine’s here, John said, and asked if I could stay for dinner.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Embarrassed that he was being so casual about it all I began gesticulating wildly for him to stop but John was waving me off and shushing me, smiling the whole while. He’s going to stay here for a couple of days while his parents are out of town, he continued.

Why don’t you come down and introduce him? she asked. When’s dinner going to be ready? he replied. In a half hour or so, she responded. We’ll be down then, he said.

I sat in a chair and began devouring his back issues of Sports Illustrated while John talked on the phone, lighting up a joint as he did so, opening the bedroom window, letting the frigid air in. When Mrs. Chambers called up that it was time for dinner John took one last hit, offered me some (which I declined), then roached the joint, put his fingers to his lips, fanned the air, and closed the bedroom window.

Out of habit I was thinking of changing my clothes for dinner, as I was did every night at the Barnes’s, as one never wore play or school clothes to dinner, no, one “dressed” for dinner, when I realized I didn’t even have one change of clothing, never mind dinner clothes. When I mentioned this to John as we went downstairs he said he’d find some for me later and not to worry about it.

I was extremely nervous, entering the Chambers’ kitchen with much trepidation, expecting the whole family to be at the table, but when I saw it was only John’s parents I relaxed somewhat. Still, I realized it was going to be an ordeal as I’d never done this before, eaten dinner or stayed over at anyone’s house. I looked to John for an introduction, and sure enough he provided one.

Barnsey, you know my parents don’t you (his father a little I’d just seen his mother from a distance maybe once), Bloody and Lurch? I almost choked and was immediately embarrassed for both of them, but when I looked at Mr. Chambers he was wide-eyed and smirking as if to see how I’d react.

Mrs. Chambers had ash-blonde hair, and must have once been a stunning beauty. She nodded peremptorily at me, took a drag on her cigarette, a sip of her drink, then got up and went over to the stove to serve dinner.

Thank you for having me for dinner, I quickly murmured, which sort of trailed off into nothing when I saw that neither of John’s parents were paying the slightest attention to me.

By that time I had recovered from my initial shock at how John had referred to his parents, and had even parsed it: Mr. Chambers was Lurch because he resembled and walked like the Addams’ family butler, and Mrs. Chambers Bloody because her first name was Mary and she was known to have a drinking problem.                                                                                                                                                                                                                       It boggled my mind that they allowed it and couldn’t help but see it as an ominous beginning. There was seemingly nothing to worry about, however, because not much was said at dinner, the Chambers’ carried on as if nothing had happened, just as I imagined they would have if I wasn’t there.

There was some cursory talk about sports between John and his father, and he asked his mother where his brother Charley, and his sisters Roberta and Jill were, about which both his parents seemed rather vague.

I marveled at the difference between our families but mostly looked down at my plate throughout the whole ordeal, trying to avoid Mr. Chambers’ bemused stare, as if he was trying to see if I was taking it all in. When I ventured to mention how delicious the chicken was I was mortified to hear John snicker and say to his mother, Barnsey’s just saying that because he’s going to be here for a while, right Barnsey?

No John, it really is good and my name is Wesley, I protested, looking to his parents for support, but they left me hanging, which made me feel even more stupid about saying it in the first place. By then I couldn’t wait to get away from the table, but just before I did I asked in all sincerity (and partially to spite John I have to admit) if I could do the dishes. Mrs. Chambers seemed quite surprised but quickly replied, Oh, no, that’s not necessary, we have a dishwasher, but thanks for the offer.

The rest of the evening was ours, I quickly learned, with seemingly no limitations, not the least of which was no 11 o’clock curfew. That was huge. It was unbelievably exhilarating for me to be able to, for the first time in my life, call a girl without asking permission, say who was calling, talk for as long as I wanted without having to worry who was listening in, and not be grilled about what plans I had made when I hung up. I could get used to this, I thought.

This particular conversation was brief, even though I hadn’t even told Linda what had happened yet, despite her noticing something was up and asking me about it, as I couldn’t wait to get over to her house after she informed me her parents had gone out for the evening and she was babysitting her little brother so we would be alone.

John was in a hurry too, having plans which he didn’t divulge and obviously didn’t include me, and dropped me off at her house shortly after, telling me I was on my own for a ride home.                                                                                                                                                                Linda seemed very happy to see me which I took for a sign she was eager to get things started, but she quickly cooled my ardor by explaining that while her parents did not know I was coming over her little brother Stephen did, and he was using said knowledge to wangle an extra half hour of television for himself.

I had to admire his resourcefulness as we sat in the den watching Bonanza, which Stephen was seeing for the first time in its entirety, as he never tired of mentioning at every commercial break. I understood how he felt, though, as I, too, hoped to be exploring new territory shortly, if those meaningful glances Linda kept sending my were any indication.

Before long (although it seemed forever at the time) it was Stephen’s bedtime. I said goodnight and pretended to watch television while Linda got him ready for bed, but I was trembling with anticipation. I could hear them down the hall, laughing and whispering, then her reading to him.

Soon the Jackie Gleason Show came on, which made me think about Mr. Barnes and Rory because we usually watched it together most Saturdays. I wondered if they were worried by now, wondering where I was. I’d never been away from Rory this long either.

I knew then Mrs. Barnes would be livid at what I’d done (how dare you do this to us you little ingrate she’d say), more for how it would look if the neighbors found out than the fact that I’d run away. I began to be worried for the first time that they’d called the police and they might be looking for me, and planned to take the back roads to the Chambers’ when I left. Then the old resentment returned and I no longer cared.

After a bit I noticed it had gotten quiet and just then Linda came back in the den and turned off the TV before she settled down next to me on the couch. Stephen is usually pretty good, Linda said, and she figured we had the rest of the evening to ourselves.                                                                                                                                                                                     So, Linda said playfully, where were we, little knowing that at that very moment I was agonizing over whether to tell her what had happened at home or begin fooling around, and then suddenly I was telling her everything, pouring my heart out to her, which I had never done with anyone before.

She was incredulous, had no inkling I’d been through all I had since she last saw me, and very sympathetic, so sympathetic in fact that before I knew it we were all over each other.

Things were getting pretty hot and heavy, with me getting further than I ever had before without really trying, uncertain what to do next but enjoying the hell out of finding out. I already had my hand down her jeans and was stroking her incredibly smooth buttocks, wondering if I should go around front to the forbidden cove and what I would do once I got there, her smelling so good (certain perfumes just knocked me out and would ever after remind me of the women who wore them), our tongues down each other’s throat, me hesitant even in the throes of going too far and ruining everything, when suddenly Linda fulfilled my wildest fantasies, unbuttoning her top, undraping and tossing it away like so much gossamer, giving me a full frontal view of her white breasts with their milk chocolate nipples, their amplitude amazing for a girl with her body type.

I cupped one of her breasts and was just about to zero in on the oh so desirable target of her nipple when I saw car headlights sweep past the window into the driveway. Linda scrambled up to find her top, putting it on as she rushed to the kitchen wailing, It’s my parents! Not far behind her, I whispered, Which way should I go? Linda thought a minute and told me to go out the front way and stay on her street so that way her parents wouldn’t see me.                                                                                                                             What a rude awakening it was after so nearly reaching the promised land to slip out of the door into the cold clear night that felt exactly like the night before when I left home as I knew it for the last time. In addition to the cold, a physical and spiritual ache gnawed at me, impelling me to walk as quickly as possible to John’s house just a little over a mile away.

When I was finally inside, knowing what I’d just missed made me ache so badly I wanted to bang my head against the nearest wall, but even then, when it came down to it, I was really glad the Chambers’ doors hadn’t been locked when I got there, that I at least had someplace to go.

The Chambers’ house had looked pretty dark from the outside, as if no one was home, but as I went to the front I saw the kitchen light was on and as I passed through the kitchen saw there was also a desk lamp lit in the den, although no one seemed to be in there. Not quite sure what to do next I stood at the foot of the stairs leading up to the second floor a while, then trod on the first step to see if it made a noise which it didn’t.

Is that you Barnsey, I heard a voice say, and recognized it to be Charley (or Chucky as he was better known), John’s younger brother. Come on up, he continued. Relieved, I went upstairs to his room, which was adjacent to John’s, and asked him where everyone was. He said his mom and sisters were asleep but his dad and John were out who knows where. I liked Charley from what I knew of him, he was more laid back, more approachable than his brother, who must have been a tough act to follow.

I told him a little about my night and he immediately said, Want a beer? I’m having one, and you look like you could use one. I wasn’t so sure about that, but when he came back with a couple of cold ones I gratefully accepted one and it hit the spot, relaxing and refreshing me all at once. Charley appeared to have a world of experience for one under legal age, chugging his beer, burping, and asking me if I wanted another. I declined but when he came back with the rest of the six-pack anyway, I wavered from my usual one beer. Why not live it up a  little (as Mr. Barnes would say) I figured, but drank the second one more slowly as I didn’t want to be smashed on top of everything else.

Charley was a couple of years younger than John and the one thing I knew about him (besides the fact that he wasn’t at all like John) was he was a huge Who fan. I was certain he had all their albums and when I saw him perusing his record collection and he asked if there was anything I wanted to hear I requested Happy Jack or My Generation, my two favorites. He put on Happy Jack and as we sat back against his bed on the floor of his bedroom I couldn’t help but think that drinking beer and listening to music sure beat not having to go to bed at my set time, polishing my shoes for church, generally laying low so as to avoid Mrs. Barnes’ wrath, and turning into bed early, my regular Saturday night routine.

Then I remembered Rory was probably doing that at this very moment, which put a damper on my enjoyment. I wondered what he thought about what was going on, he must b

e wondering where I was and what had happened and I would have loved to have told him but knew I couldn’t. As it was, I still expected to hear the police knocking on the front door at any moment, looking for me.

Just then the phone rang (yes he even had a phone in his bedroom, something else I could never fathom), startling me. Charley answered it, handed it to me, and stepped out to give me some privacy. I was shocked that anybody would even know I was here much less call me here, and I was hesitant to take it as it flashed through my mind that it could be anybody- the cops, even worse Mr. or Mrs. Barnes.

But it was Linda and my heart lifted when I heard her voice then sank when she said she couldn’t talk long. Her parents, it turned out, hadn’t suspected a thing, and she wanted to keep it that way. Stephen had slept through all the commotion so she figured he wouldn’t say anything. I asked her why they’d come home so early and she told me her mom felt sick just as they were starting to eat so they had to leave.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       That’s too bad, I said, by then feeling pleasantly buzzed, Is she okay now? She seems fine now, Linda said, she went to bed right away. I told her what a good time I’d had and artfully (or so I thought) asked when they would be going out again. Oh, she said, they go out almost every Saturday night, but, catching my drift, said, I still have my brother to contend with. But it’s worth it isn’t it? I asked, it was nice wasn’t it? Oh Wes, she said, I’m so glad you feel that way too, I had such a nice time, and hope to have an even better time next week, if you know what I mean.

There was a long pause after that until Linda broke it, saying with a sigh, I’d better say goodnight now, I hear my father coming up the stairs. Good night Wes, she said again, and gave me what was undeniably a kiss, I wish you were here with me. Me too, I said, and snuck in a belated kiss, which I’m not sure even registered before she hung up.

Well I was hung up for certain after that, a real goner. I went on and on about her for the longest time to Charley, who, if you remember, I hardly knew. I could tell he was tired but he was a good sport about it, interjecting a perfunctory “That’s great Barnsey,” every now and then throughout until he finally fell asleep.  As I made my way to John’s room I even thought it might be love, what little I knew about that, and imagined I was experiencing all the highs and lows it brings.

Yet it was all to end before I even knew it. The two weeks at the Chambers’ would fly by. Who knew I would never make it over to Linda’s house again much less ever meet her parents, that she really did have a boyfriend from another school (our archrival to boot) and he’d make it known he was coming to our school cafeteria to kick my ass? Not to worry though, when the football frat boys heard this they told me to punch him once and they’d take it from there but I couldn’t do it I told him what would happen if we fought and that it was over between us now that I knew she had a boyfriend and he left with no further trouble.

I would pass my 18th birthday there, mostly unobserved, my first one (as far as I knew) apart from Rory, which meant I was legal now, could vote and drink but was also eligible for the draft. I would witness John throwing a whole plate of food against the kitchen wall one night at dinner, shouting I want steak every night! I watched in stunned amazement as he hefted the garbage bag with the kilo of dope in it and lug it downstairs to brandish it in Mr. Chambers’ dumfounded face and ask, What do you think’s in here Lurch? What are you gonna do about it? I had gotten a little drunk a few times, which I wasn’t proud of, smoked my share of dope, and through it all managed to live a semblance of normal life going to school every day though I no longer bothered keeping up with my homework. I avoided Rory for the most part, which I’m not proud of. He pleaded with me to come home every day in the school hallways, reiterating that Mr. Barnes was sick, that he hadn’t been waiting up for me, he’d just been up because he couldn’t sleep, that he wouldn’t punish me, he just wanted me to come home. Rory was really torn up, I could hear it in his voice, but I’d hardened my heart, as I had to if I was going to keep my resolve never to go back there.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       I was playing basketball at the middle school gym late on a Wednesday afternoon three days after my 18th birthday when I suddenly saw Mr. Chambers enter and I knew right away he was coming for me. When he spotted me he waved me over to the sidelines and my heart went into my mouth because I knew he had come about Mr. Barnes and that it was bad. You have to go home now he said, more emphatically than I’d ever heard him speak, something has happened to your father. What, I asked, even then still trying to buy time or find out it wasn’t that bad and I wouldn’t need to go home, but Mr. Chambers didn’t answer, wouldn’t even look at me. On the drive there I tried not to think anything as my life flashed before me, all the while hoping we’d never get to the Barnes’s and I’d never have to get out of the car.

But we got there and when I got out of the car everything seemed surreal: the blasted roots of the huge elm tree near the end of the driveway looked as though they were going to erupt through the tundra-like ground, with an eerie silence prevailing and the night sky cobalt blue in the streetlight. I arrived just in time to see them carry Mr. Barnes down the front steps of the flagstone porch he was so proud of strapped to a gurney, his lifeless body wrapped in a white sheet, as Mrs. Barnes stood at the front door and screamed at me into the frigid still air Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!

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