So here we were about to jump on I-90, me and Jack, side by side in this old beat-up Oldsmobile. Jack had gotten a call that morning about some concert in a kid’s basement in Albany, and it seemed like a better waste of time than anything we could manage here in Springfield, so we’d turned it west for the New York border. We’d been on the road about five minutes, a good hour and a half left in our excursion to see some band of fifteen-year-olds who were convinced they were the second coming of Operation Ivy like Jerry Falwell thinks he’s practically the second coming of Jesus Christ himself, when Jack—bored as usual—leaned across the car, popped the glove box, and whipped out the gun.
“Check it out, Gimp,” he said, waving the thing in front of my face.
“Jesus Christ. Please tell me that’s not a pistol,” I said, thinking how this was pure Jack, pure fucking Jack. “I mean a real fucking pistol, with bullets that actually detonate.”
“I’d guess so.” Jack shrugged. “I ain’t shot any of them yet to see.”
“Where’d you get that shit?”
“It was in the glove box when I got the car. Score, huh?”
“What do you mean when you got the car? I thought this was your uncle’s car.”
“Nah,” Jack said. He lifted the gun to sight down the gold shimmer of an oncoming Corolla, and I just shook my head. “That’s just what I’ve been telling people. I jacked it up by the Harmony Projects, over on Sanderson.”
“Like an ace.”
“That’s swell, Jack.” More head shaking on my part. “You fucking moron.”
Jack was that type. Full of fucking surprises and convinced extreme actions in general could radically shift a moment’s tone. I mean, sure, Jack wasn’t a bad kid. But neither one of us were very well guided. Jack was sold on sporadic drug use, and had a father who’d been slowly drinking his liver into scar tissue for years. Jack’s mom had died in a car accident when he was just a baby, and I guess his dad never dealt with the loss. To boot, the old guy’d developed a righteous streak. He’d get drunk and toss Jack out of the house, after which the poor kid would end up sleeping in the little cardboard cities the winos erected behind the PriceRite, or on the floor in my room. Then his dad would sober up, beg him to come back. In a sick way they needed each other, I suppose. They were the cause and the solution to each other’s instability.
The big orange dome of the basketball hall of fame was coming up in the headlights, and for relief from Jack’s antics I got thinking about Dr. J and how he used to be such a hot shit on the parquet.
“You ever see that movie where Pacino wastes everyone at the end while he’s all coked the fuck up?” Jack asked.
I look over. See Jack’s driving with one hand on the wheel. With the other hand he’s spinning the pistol around his trigger finger, missing the grip each time it pinwheels around and he tries to catch it. He looks like an outcast from a bad Tarantino movie. And I’m ready for the muzzle to flash at any moment and for his plastered face to splatter-paint itself on the windshield.
“Scarface,” I said.
“Yeah.” Jack nodded. “Scarface. You think he really could have shot that well all fucking coked up?”
“He had a machine gun.”
“Yeah, but still. He shot a lot of shit.”
“And he got axed at the end.”
Jack seemed to think about that for a second. Then he nodded and said, “Okay, but no one remembers that. They just remember old Tony. Bigger than life with the world in the palm of his hand.”
By now Jack had started dangling the pistol out the window, holding it at strange angles like some gangster and pretending to cap passing cars. It smelled like cold and steel inside the car, and I sat there feeling the wind rattle around in my teeth while Jack closed one eye like he was taking aim and waved the pistol around as if all the dreary lights of Springfield were some target he’d never miss.
“You ever see that one where they do the guy in the bathtub with a chainsaw?” he asked.
Jack and I have two loves: basketball and movies. I guess those aren’t that uncommon among a couple of kids, but we kick it up every now and then with old Kurosawa flicks and early Hitchcock, and all our favorite ballers retired years ago—Dr. J, George Gervin, Casey Jones. “That’s the same movie, numbshit,” I said. “Now put the fucking gun away.”
Jack shrugged. “Fuck it,” he said. “I didn’t even check to see if it was loaded or not. I bet she’s empty.”
So here I am expecting Jack to reach across the car and cram the thing back in the glove box; I even draw my knees to the side to make room. Stash the gun, get to the concert, con a couple of girls into coming back to Springfield with us—I can see the arc of things taking shape pretty well. Of course I should’ve known better, considering Jack’s never been that fond of the expected. Before I can stop him, he thrusts both his hand and the gun out the open window and sends the thing flinging through the night. I watched the pistol curve over the road, bounce once behind us, clatter off the pavement, and ricochet down into the ditch.
“What the fuck, Jack,” I yelled. “What the absolute fuck. Pull over.”
“You just threw a stolen nine millimeter out the window.”
“Say some kid picks that up and shoots his sister while he’s messing around with it. Whose fingerprints do you think they’re gonna find?”
“Who made you Colombo all of a fucking sudden?”
I put my hands over my eyes and squeezed as hard as I could. I thought about Dr. J blasting off from the foul line in the ’76 ABA dunk contest. Dr. J: up there, soaring above it all, making a walkway out of the air. I hadn’t wanted any of this. I’d just wanted to hear some shitty punk music in a moldy basement and watch the girls dance around against each other.
“No stopping, Gimp,” Jack said. “I wanna see the show.”
“Say you take the car back. You think the owner might notice his fucking Beretta’s missing? Say he’s a dirty cop. Say he fingerprints the glove box. Then where do you think he’s heading?”
Jack started rubbing his face with one hand. “There’s a lot of hypothermals in there,” he said.
“Nothing. Just stop the goddamn car.”
“Maybe I won’t take it back.”
“You always do. You’re really a pussy at heart.”
“Well maybe not this time. Maybe I like this one.”
“It’s a brown eighty-three cutlass.”
“So?” Jack was lovingly stroking his hand along the dash. “That just means she’s low-key.”
“No, Jack. It means she’s a piece of shit. Now pull over.”
“Tony Montana wouldn’t pull over.”
“Tony Montana is dead. Pull the fucking car over.”
We pulled off the highway and parked on the shoulder and got out. I got looking up in the sky and could see the moon mottled behind the haze of factory smog. Bits of snow were churning down like sifted ash, and I got to thinking about the sky in general. Jack was taking a piss on the road. “Check it out,” he said, swinging his hips around. “I’m streaming my name.” After he’d zipped up, he went down the bank and started lumbering about in the ditch among the broken bottles and the needles and the used rubbers kids like us shot out the windows as we flew by.
Back roadside, Jack’s urine loops were steaming like a fumarole. I thought that was a pretty solid image. I used to write poetry on Denny’s napkins and put them places I couldn’t find later, but I still felt pretty good about writing. Sometimes Jack would find one under a cushion or something and unwedge it and spin it around in front of his face for a few minutes as if he were scrutinizing a map of some alien world. Then he’d look up and say something like, “What the fuck’s an albatross?”
Once I had a girl I wrote a few things for, but her mother was an absolute atrocity, and I knew how it went with mothers and daughters—tubes into tubes, DNA dividing, and the history-repeating calamity of genetics—so I quit talking to her in general. Jack said she was a waste anyways because she dragged her teeth like a road grader when she gave head. I wanted to kill him when he said that, even though I never really liked the girl that much. It just came over me like a fury—like she was this small wounded bird and Jack was about to crush her with his heel and it was up to me to catch his foot. But Jack had a habit of treating women like trash, probably out of some anger at losing his mom, and it was hard to even think about him and girls, considering the minimal success he’d had, including the occasional after-school handy and the awkward bouts of sliding and lunging at wet in cars parked behind the Cheeky’s Liquor Store, and maybe a couple other encounters he’d been too proud or too ashamed of to ever share with me. I mean I have my suspicions about him and some old women in his building, but I don’t see much need to get into all that.
But the poetry—who was I kidding? Who was I going to be? Laurence Ferlin-fucking-ghetti? Not likely. There’s this thing with sixteen-year-olds about desperately wanting to create, to single out or elevate their own personal angst, and I guess with most people it just dies as they get older and start plowing towards the grave. So here’s Springfield, filled with disgruntled sixteen-year-olds fertilizing shitty poetry and thinking they’re closet William Carlos Williamses. The next summer I stopped writing and got a job at an animal shelter playing with the stray dogs before the vet techs Kevorkianed them. I hung dry wall on the side with my uncle and was pretty happy. From what I could tell there wasn’t another sixteen-year-old in the city helping dogs die and hanging up houses. There might not have been another one in the world—but that’s vanity for you.
“Shit, look at this, Gimp.” Jack was squatted on his heels down among the frozen reeds. The moon was on his back, all blue and cold against the arch of his spine.
“You got the gun?” I asked.
“No. Dude, it’s a dead cat. Jesus, look at its head. It looks like Andre the Giant sat on it.”
I looked down. Jack was toeing a small black shape. I couldn’t see any evidence that it was a cat, but I could see where it’s eyes had been, and there was something haunting about that; these two little sockets, empty now and smashed as flat as the wind, and I couldn’t stop staring at them. “Just find the fucking gun, Jack,” I said, trying hard to hide what I was really feeling.
If you went out on the side of I-90 at night, like we were doing now, but on your own time and dollar and stood watching the cars blow by Springfield, you could convince yourself that if enough of them passed someone might notice you, standing there, your friend’s piss steaming beside you, your friend himself toeing a dead cat, you shaking your head and staring out at a road that ran somewhere else as fast as it could. A tall tractor trailer might whine by, obliterating the skyline for an instant. And after it passed you might expect the whole city to be gone—Springfield, erased by the passing rig like chalk being wiped from a blackboard, blown down into sudden rubble, or worse. Jack and I hadn’t seen much of America. But it seemed like it was full of cities just waiting to be torn down and trucked off. A countrywide crypt of busted, blue collar corpses. Eat that William Carlos Williams.
Now this is about the time I start wishing I had a girlfriend to hang out with instead of Jack. Here we are on the side of the road, already twenty minutes late to see these kids play in some dirty basement where the keg’s probably already kicked, and here comes the snow. A few flakes. Just enough to make life miserable. When the snow gets going across the reams of smog above the old abandoned factories, you can feel the cold incubating down at your core, and you can get to thinking about dying if you’re not careful. I guess the closest Jack and I came to being ended was this one time we got it in our heads to hitch to Syracuse to see the Celtics play an exhibition game at the Carrier Dome.
An aspiring molester picked us up outside of Schenectady. He said he’d rent a hotel room and pay us two hundred bucks a piece to get in bed with each other. He was this old guy, sweating like a Coke bottle left in the sun, with thick glasses and a white button-up low-level tax preparer shirt.
Jack said sure, but he had to be drunk first, and I didn’t know what to think because I couldn’t talk to Jack or signal him since he was in the front seat and I was jammed in the back.
Jack got the guy to pull off at a liquor store in Amsterdam. When the guy took his hands off the wheel, sweat stains were streaked across the rubber. We could tell he was a real amateur at this. He’d probably been falling out of work at IBM for thirty years and driving home to a pre-fab condo, dreaming the whole way of finding his favorite boy alongside the highway.
It was winter and about twelve-below out so IBM left the car running for us trying to act like one of those courteous child molesters. Through the big plate-glass window we could see him inside the liquor store. He was leaning into the counter, almost whispering to the clerk. His face was all greasy in the light and he kept glancing back at us. So what’s he do? He slides a credit card across the counter, and Jack just looks at me and shakes his head. “Fucking moron,” he says. “Using a credit card on a molester run.”
We can see the molester’s just finishing up; the clerk has the bottle tucked in a paper bag and all. Jack starts climbing over the emergency brake. He gets himself wedged behind the steering wheel. Then he knocks the car into drive and stomps the gas. And here we go bucking and sliding on the ice as we roar out of the parking lot feeling like Robert Mitchum hitting that old Tennessee dirt top in Thunder Road.
That was when the oncoming Blazer tee-boned us. Kicked the side of the car in like a tin can. It happened pretty fast. I don’t remember any screaming or pain. Or even being scared. It was just this fact: a piece of moving steel was striking us, and light, lots of light, which I was never dumb enough to think of as the other side or whatever, but have since determined were probably the blazer’s headlights as they busted through the passenger side of Old Molester’s jalopy.
Eventually the cops came screaming up, and IBM got questioned pretty hard. We never did get to see the Celtics—though Jack came pretty close to getting this one cop to drive us the rest of the way over to Syracuse. But he probably would have tried to dart us together in a hotel room, too. Adults are like that: always looking to get their kicks through kids.
But, hell, you do stuff when you’re young. You learn. Or you don’t. And then you do stuff when you’re old, until you get thrown out of town. No joke: that does actually happen in real life–you can be thrown out of a town. That’s the way it went for my old man. My mom said he used to be a newspaper reporter in Hartford, but then it got to the point that the only thing he could accurately cover was a glass of Johnny Walker Red. This is all according to her, my mom, who I like well enough, mostly because she bought us a little house to live in on Vine Street. It has its own porch. And during the summer you can lie on the planks at night and smoke and blow the smoke up at the stars. But I think she puts a little too much effort into jackpotting a new husband. If she was just screwing the guys she brings home it would be one thing, but she’s trying to screw them into marrying her, and that just doesn’t work. You can’t fuck your way to a diamond ring. I wish I could tell her that sometimes. But she’s just trying to make it though the days, and I love her too much to hurt her like that.
“Score,” Jack called up from the ditch.
“You got it?”
Jack, caked in mud and slush, came lumbering up the embankment. He was shivering and hefting the pistol in his hands. He drew back the slide and looked down at the chamber. “Shit,” he said. “There’s a bullet in there.”
I wouldn’t have expected anything less. Not from Jack.
“Check it out,” he said, leveling the gun. “I’m gonna cap the basketball hall of fame.”
Before I had a chance to much think about interceding, let alone intercede, the hard pop of the Beretta rang out. Neither one of us moved. We didn’t speak. We just stood there among the dark and the snow and the random cars that came screaming up behind us and then roared on through the night. Waiting, listening, watching—both of us scared to stone I suppose that the slug would at any moment strike the hall of fame and the great rusty egg would roll off of its brackets and come tumbling right at us.
When nothing happened, Jack lifted the gun up and said, “Wonder how many this puppy holds.”
I mumbled, “Let’s not.” But my heart wasn’t really in it. Like I said: I’d only wanted to hear some shitty punk music. Now we were out on the side of I-90, firing a stolen Beretta at nothing, the city of Springfield spread before us like a tapestry of a thousand smoky lights slowly spiraling towards extinction.
Jack fired the gun again, and though I knew I should stop him, I didn’t. I could have lunged, reached, grabbed. But what was motion going to change? What was intervention going to do at the end of the day? Where would it take us that was different from where we were, from the here and the now?
Jack kept popping rounds off through the dark, across the road, between the speeding cars, aiming at the skyline of the city which every day dragged us down a little further. Jack, the all-American, apathetic bad ass, likely destined to be in jail or dead by twenty-four, pulling the trigger like the nine was a cap gun, the passing cars made of air, the drivers figments in a dream, and the city just waiting to be brought down. Then the pistol clicked and Jack shrugged. We looked down the road. One of the cars had drifted through the snow and stopped on the shoulder.
I could see there was a woman inside the car, and when the door creaked open I started breathing again. Up until then I’d been pretty sure, considering Jack’s way with things, that he’d shot right through the windshield and cold deaded her.
“You think she’s scared of us?” Jack asked.
I looked at the gun hanging at his side, all the muck and shit dripping from his clothes. It seemed reasonable. I was waiting for the door to slam closed, for the car to peel back out into the night. I was waiting for this woman to get one look at us in the rearview and burn a screeching trail far, far away. But it didn’t happen. This woman—about the age of my mom, with frizzy brown hair and big librarian glasses—she steps out onto the pavement and starts walking towards us. Now this I can’t believe. She’s actually going to speak to us.
I figure Jack would have something smart to say. But when I looked over at him he was holding the gun out in his palms. His mouth was open and he was hanging his head. He was just holding the gun out here in his hands like he thought she could take something away, like he thought this woman had perhaps come along on this night to help us. And I remember thinking, Well how about that. How about that.
I don’t know much about what happened to Jack after that night—in the years after, I kept on living with my mom over on Vine Street, while he kind of faded away from Springfield—but that’s how I remember him most: standing there in the cold with his head down, waiting for help to come, waiting for anything to come. Not the moment after, when the woman stopped halfway to us, screamed something into the wind, and stormed back to her car. Not Jack and myself, abandoned on the side of I-90, standing at the edge of Springfield’s distant glow—no help, no consequences, no question we were heading for something that would eventually be impossible to come back from. And I wonder now, would you have gotten out of the car? Or would you have kept driving?