Best place to start this story is in the bush. I don’t mean the fucking outback or wilderness or anything like that. I mean, I
was standing between the brick wall of the school and this big Pfitzer juniper bush. Scooter was over in a crowd of people
yukking it up, ribbing our classmate, Amy, like it was her goddamn Friars Club Roast. She was doing her damnedest to laugh
along and not burst into fucking tears.
Reason I was in the bush is because I was having a smoke. Wasn’t a big deal if you got caught. In fact, students who were 18 were allowed to smoke outside during lunch. But if you were under 18—and I was 15—they made you put it out. I wasn’t looking to waste a Camel, so I was trying to keep myself hidden. Between drags, I kept the cigarette cupped in my hand so I could feel the warmth of the burning cherry in my palm, feel the smoke snaking up my wrist, into my sleeve.
So anyway, there I was, taking real deep drags of my cigarette, trying to finish the thing as fast as I could. That’s when I heard Scooter’s voice real loud and clear.
“Look out, men! Charlie’s in the trees!” He kinda crouched down a bit and signaled for the others to do the same. He edged toward me. “That the man in the black pajamas in there?” he asked, pretending to be scared.
Now, I can’t say with one-hundred percent certainty if he was making a Vietnam joke because of my old man, or if it was just coincidence. I mean, it’s not like he knew my father personally. But everyone knew the stories. Like how he came back with a back full of shrapnel and a head full of paranoia. How he punched out my grandma his first night back, fractured her skull. It ain’t like he did it to be mean. She’d just startled him. He was jumpy as hell. Maybe that’s why he started drinking so much. Got so drunk one night, he ate up all the gel air fresheners in the house, thinking they were jelly. Wound up in the hospital for that one. Told the doctor my mother had tried to poison him by leaving them out like that. She knew I’d eat ’em, he’d said. They got divorced after that, and my old man moved back in with my grandma who, you better believe, was more careful about checking in on him when he had his night terrors.
I just stood there, kinda hoping Scooter would go look for a more willing participant in his bullshit.
“THERE HE IS! THERE’S CHARLIE!” Scooter yelled and charged at the bush, pretending like he was armed with a rifle.
Everyone cracked the hell up, of course. But even worse, it blew my cover. “Timothy Radford!” a teacher called. “Put out that cigarette!”
I glanced in the direction of the voice, and took a deep drag. “This instant!” the teacher said.
I was pretty much done with it anyway. I dropped the butt, and crushed it under my work
“What the hell do you want, Scooter?” I asked, hoping it didn’t sound as if he’d gotten under my skin.
“Holy shit,” he said to his friends. “He speaks.”
They laughed, but I didn’t say nothing. Just glared at him.
“Christ, Radford, lighten up, wouldja? Just wanted to ask you something is all,” he said.
His friends looked a little puzzled. He took a couple steps toward me. “I wanted to see if you wanted to come over and hang out this weekend. My old man left about twenty cases of Grain Belt in the basement, and he’s on a business trip. Everyone I hang out with is too much of a wuss to drink. But I bet them,” and here he kind of cocked his chin in the direction of his friends, “you weren’t afraid of a few beers. So, what do you say? You want to come over?”
I was surprised, but I tried not to show it. I’m telling you, it had been a good three or four years since anyone ever asked me to come over to their house.
“I like beer,” I shrugged. I wasn’t lying.
“So come over this weekend. My mom won’t be around. We’ll drink some beers and do some fishing in the pond behind my house. You like fishing?”
“Yeah,” I said, more excited than I meant to let on. But, damn, did I like fishing. Fucking loved it.
“Saturday. Say, three o’clock. Bring a sleeping bag.” “Yeah, okay,” I agreed.
“Fifty Goose Creek Drive,” he said. Then he turned and walked back into the school. Without even thinking about it, I put another smoke between my lips.
“Radford!” a teacher called out.
I put it back in the pack before they took it away.
That Saturday, I was helping my dad break down pallets, and cut different lengths of wood for his birdhouses. Building birdhouses wasn’t so much a hobby of his, but an obsession. I could never figure why he made them. He didn’t even like birds. And judging by how strange the things looked, with their proportions all wrong and sides all canted, he wasn’t too good at it either. But it’s what he did. All the time. Made fucking birdhouses.
Anyways, I was helping him out with that, not saying much as usual, but then finally, he asked me, “What’s with the sleeping bag? You spending the night? Your momma didn’t say nothing ‘bout you spending the night. You can’t just spend the night without permission. We got an agreement, and I don’t want her---”
“No, I ain’t spending the night,” I interrupted him. “I was gonna go spend the night at this kid’s house.”
“Friend of yours?”
I thought about it. On one hand, no. I didn’t even know him, and what I did know of him, I didn’t like. On the other, he asked me to come over, drink some beers, do some fishing, even spend the night. “Yeah,” I said. “He’s a buddy of mine.”
“Didn’t know you had friends,” he said, but not in a mean way. “That’s good. A man should have friends.”
I marked my next cut with a pencil.
Then his whole tone changed. “But you watch who you hangin’ around with. Pick friends who ain’t gonna run when the going gets tough. Nothin’ worse than a friend who don’t got your back.” He pounded some nails, and then he grumbled, “My fuckin’ friends don’t even talk to me anymore. You believe that shit?”
“That’s too bad, Pop,” I said.
"Damn right it is. Don’t make the same friends I did.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Only real friends I ever made never even made it back,” he muttered, pounding some more nails.
After it was clear he wasn’t gonna say anything else on the subject, I cleared my throat a bit and said, “So, can I get a ride from you? To his house I mean?”
“Well, when?” he asked, kind of put out. “We’re right in the middle of a job.”
“Whenever,” I said, worried I was gonna make him mad. “But, like, around three o’clock’d be good.”
“Around three? Or at three? Don’t piss around it. Be a man!” “At three,” I said.
“Three o’clock,” he said. “Fine.”
Driving over there took a little longer than expected because my old man said he didn’t know the rich part of town. He was in a foul mood and kept saying shit under his breath about fair-weather friends and fuckin’ rich assholes. Then he asked me, “What kind of a man goes by the name Scooter?”
“I don’t know. He ain’t bad, though,” I said.
He looked at me like I was the dumbest kid on Earth. Well, shit, I never said I wasn’t.
The houses in Scooter’s neighborhood were all on these huge plots of land, and they had long, winding driveways. Scooter’s house was light blue, like the color of a robin’s egg. It had freshly painted black shutters and there were bright white flowers along the entire length of the driveway.
“Look at this fuckin’ place,” my old man said, and I couldn’t tell if he was in awe, or if he was disgusted by it. “The queen live here?”
“No,” I said, “Scooter does.” It was supposed to be funny in a wise-ass kind of way.
My old man didn’t reply. He drove about three-quarters of the way down the driveway and stopped the pickup just a little before the front walk.
“What’re you gonna call me to come pick you up?”
“I’ll call Mom,” I said. There was no way I was gonna ask him to do me any more favors that day.
“Good,” he said.
"All right then,” I said, kinda awkwardly. “See ya.”
“I’ll wait to make sure someone’s home,” he told me.
“You don’t have to.”
“I wasn’t askin’ for approval on it,” he snapped. “If they ain’t home, some neighbors gonna see you hangin’ around and they’re gonna think you’re trying to rob the fuckin’ place. I’ll wait here, make sure you get in.”
I got out and started gathering my sleeping bag and fishing gear from the bed of the pickup. I heard a metallic tink, like someone had tossed a pebble or something into the back, but didn’t think much of it. Figured maybe a split shot had fallen out of my tackle box. Once I had everything, I made my way up past the truck, and then I heard another of that same sound, only this time, it sounded like a pebble bouncing off the quarter panel of the truck.
“Watch your rod,” my old man groused. “You’ll scratch the damn paint.”
I was about to say I hadn’t hit his truck with my rod, but then I figured it was best not to argue. “Sorry,” I said. And then I gave him a nod. “Later, Pop.”
I was getting near the front walk, when I felt the nastiest fucking sting on the side of my neck. I dropped my shit, and put my hand up to it, sure I was gonna smash a wasp right into my skin, but there was nothing.
“What happened?” my old asked, almost concerned. “Stung by a wasp or something,” I said.
“Mmmm. Walk it off.” I could tell he was disappointed in my low pain tolerance.
I picked up my stuff, and then I felt another sting on my thigh, only this time it didn’t hurt nearly as bad because I was wearing pants. I realized it wasn’t a case of angry wasps. They were BBs. I’d seen the little brass-colored thing bounce right the fuck off my leg.
I looked up and saw Scooter holding a rifle, the barrel peeking out of a window that was cracked open. He was laughing this quiet, menacing laugh and taking aim again.
My first thought wasn’t that I was gonna get shot another time. My first thought was that my old man was gonna see him up there, sniping me from a window, and he was going to…Well, I didn’t know what he would do. Only I knew it wouldn’t be good.
I picked up my pace and pretended like I didn’t see him. He shot at me again. Got me right underneath the fucking eye, and that hurt like a bastard, but I did my best to not so much as flinch. Shot again, got me in the chest. He was laughing harder now.
I got to the door, which was set into a covered front porch. So at least I was protected. I pounded on the door. No one came. I looked back, and sure enough, my old man was still waiting there, just looking at me, waiting for me to be let in, unaware of what was going on. I gave him a smile and a wave, trying to prompt him to just get going.
Tears spilled from the one Scooter had just missed. I turned back around and pounded on the door some more. No one answered, but I could see a shape moving on the other side of the frosted glass.
“Let me in, Scooter,” I said.
“Ammo! Ammo,” he yelled, like he was calling out to his platoon mates. “Come on, man, my old man is waiting for me to come inside.” “Reload! Reload!” He laughed maniacally.
“This ain’t funny,” I said, starting to sound like I was pleading a little bit. “Come on, he’s just sitting there in his truck, waiting.”
“You mean that enemy tank?!” he yelled. “Come on, men,” he called out to what was either an empty house or, worse, a house with other kids from school in it. “Let’s take up a high position and get that tank!”
“Goddamnit, Scooter! Please!”
He ignored me, and I saw the shape slip away. I knew it was only a matter of moments now before Scooter was going to start shooting at my old man’s truck.
Real loud, so my old man could hear me, I yelled out, “All right, I’ll go ’round and meet you in the back!” And then I ran off the front porch, like I was excited to hang out with my very good buddy. I called out to my old man, “He says for me to meet him around back! So long, Pops!”
I ran around to the back of the house, where Scooter had taken up a new position and was shooting at me. It hurt like a son of a bitch when he got me, but at least I was out of sight from my old man.
After a minute, I finally heard that big, lousy Chevy V8 groan and roar as my father pulled away. I relished the relief till Scooter tagged me on the back of the neck, right where the skin covers those bumps on your spine. It stung like a bitch and burned like fucking fire.
“Come on, stop shooting!” I called up to Scooter. I still had a little hope that after he was done with his little joke, he was going to open up the door, and then we’d go fishing and drink those Grain Belts. “Scooter!” I called. “Come on, man. Come on!”
He opened the window even more, and he leaned way out of it so we could see each other. I was expecting more laughter, but none came.
“Shit,” I said. “That hurt, ya know.”
He looked down at me. “Jesus, Radford, how many times do I have to shoot you before you get off my fucking property already?”
I sort of stood there, stunned, then finally sputtered, “Seriously, Scooter, let’s go fishing already.”
He shook his head like he was looking at someone’s dog that had just been run over by a station wagon. “Jesus, Radford, are you fuckin’ crying?”
“No, it’s cause you almost shot me in the fucking eye!” I yelled, the tears flowing from both eyes now.
Scooter shut the window.
I walked east till I hit the train tracks, and then I followed them south for five miles till I came to the part of town where my mom lived. When I got to the house, I saw that there was a Lincoln Continental parked in the driveway, which meant she had one of her boyfriends over. I wasn’t in the mood to see whoever this one happened to be or disappoint my mother by breaking up her party. So I snuck into the garage, grabbed one of my mom’s six packs, then headed out to the river with my fishing gear and sleeping bag.
I caught four catfish and drank just as many beers before I crawled into my sleeping bag and passed the hell out. It was a good way to end what had been a bad day. Though, I guess it could have been worse. My old man, he could have seen Scooter up there in the window, and he could have had one of his episodes. Hell, I wouldn’t have been surprised if he drove his fucking truck through Scooter’s door, thinking he was back in action.
As I fell asleep that night, I guess what I felt most relieved about was that my old man never saw the whole damn thing at all.
Next day, I was back there at my grandma’s house, helping my dad with his birdhouses.
“How many fish you catch?” he asked me.
“Four,” I said, truthfully.
“How ‘bout those stings. Feelin’ any better today?”
“Little bit,” I said. “Little bit.” And I guess I didn’t lie about that, either.