Chapter Twelve: The Barker and the Bars
That’s all I could think as I drove on my own for the first time on Monday, the first day of spring break. I was sixteen, with eight bucks in my pocket and the ink still wet on my license, there was no school that day, and I was behind the wheel of a station wagon that resembled a mix between a boat and a slightly bigger, more awkward boat. In short, I felt like royalty.
We had gotten the station wagon for free when some of our neighbors moved away – they decided that, for what it would cost to fix it up and take it with them, they were better off just buying a new car and leaving this one here. They’d given it to us, since it still ran, and it would be a shame to see it abandoned in the woods somewhere, just a target for kids to hit with rocks. Dad sometimes used it to haul stuff to work, but that’s about it. Mark had driven it for a while, too, before he saved up for his own car. Now it was my turn. It was a slow, ugly, wood-paneled gas-guzzler that lacked power locks, power windows, power mirrors, automatic transmission, heat, air conditioning and a radio, but to me, it meant freedom. It meant being able to go anywhere, visit anyone. Granted, it also meant picking up more hours scrubbing dishes to keep the tank filled, but that was worth it.
The question was, how would I use this newfound freedom? I wanted to stick to somewhere nearby, since it had started snowing. Our spring breaks always seemed to be synchronized with a heavy snowstorm, for some reason. Knowing that it could get heavy, I didn’t want to be stranded out on some side street in the middle of nowhere. I knew a few major roads and where they met, but not what was on any of them. There were only two places I knew exactly how to reach – the cemetery, since most of my driving instruction happened there, and the library, because…well, that was the first place that I looked up directions for.
I was debating whether or not to go to the library on the first day of spring break when my phone rang. I turned into the nearest parking lot and parked before answering – the wagon wasn’t an easy car to control with only one hand, what with the standard transmission, and if I got into an accident on the first trip I ever took, Mom and Dad wouldn’t let me drive again until I moved out.
Luckily, the caller was patient, and my phone was still ringing by the time I had fished it out of my pocket.
“Corey? Hey.” This was a surprise. I hadn’t talked to Corey since the thing between he and Alex had started.
“What’s up? You doing anything?” He asked.
“Actually, I’m driving around, trying to think of something to do.”
“Driving? Aw, damn, I missed your birthday, didn’t I? Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it.” A few pangs of guilt about not inviting him wove their way through my chest.
“You want to hang out?”
“How about my place?”
“Okay. Can you give me directions?”
It took about fifteen minutes for me to find my way to Corey’s apartment building. I climbed the stairs to his floor and knocked. His door opened by a crack and he peered out. When he saw me, he undid the chain lock and motioned me in.
“Hey. My Dad’s at work, so I’ve got the place to myself. Figured I’d invite my wildest, craziest friends over and smash things up a bit.” He said. “You want to set fire to something first? You’re the guest, after all.”
“Not really my scene.”
“Yeah, figured.” Corey shrugged. “Personally, I can’t picture ever not wanting to set something on fire. Different strokes, I guess.”
“Hey…you’re not planning on setting me on fire, are you? Is that why you called? Because, I’ll have to worn you, this coat’s pretty old, and I think it’s made of asbestos.”
“Nah. I can’t torch a person. Wouldn’t be vegan.” He said. “But…I did want to ask you something.”
“He’s not homeless. Did you know that?”
“So, when I told you that he was, why didn’t you stop me?”
“I didn’t know, then. I only found that out afterwards. Believe me, it shocked the hell out of me.”
“Oh. But, he told you first?”
“He didn’t tell me.” I said. “I kind of…caught him.”
“How do you catch someone being not homeless?”
“I ran into him at Weldon-Taft. I was there for this writing competition…” I shook my head. “Anyway, I ran into him in the bathroom and kind of…hit him.”
Corey sat down across from me, his eyes wide. “You hit him?”
I knew he wasn’t going to let me off with just a summary, so I told him the whole story. When I finished, his mouth was twitching, like he couldn’t decide whether to let his jaw drop or to grin.
“You actually beat up a rich kid in his own private school’s restroom because he was a poseur. That’s…I think you’re officially a punk, now.”
“Well, I didn’t really beat him up…and I apologized afterwards.”
“Dude, that’s the best part!” He stood up and started pacing. “Not only did you kick his ass, but you apologized for it! And, by doing it, you made him decide, right there, sitting all bruised up on the bathroom floor, that he was going to change his ways. Usually it’s drugs or alcohol that makes people change their ways while they’re curled up in a public restroom, but you did it with your bare hands!”
“I didn’t kick his ass.” I repeated. “It was hardly a fight at all.”
“Stop downplaying it, man. You delivered a punk epiphany, and that’s that.” He folded his arms and nodded. “And to think, you’re my student.”
“Hell yes. I’m the one who introduced you to punk in the first place. You’re my punk protégé. My… punktégé.” He got a faraway look in his eyes. “Next think you know, you’ll be fighting the fascists and smashing the state and all kinds of alliterative things.”
“Yeah, what is it with you guys and alliteration?” I shook my head. “Actually, no, forget that. What I want to know is, what’s up with you and Alex?”
He stayed quiet for a moment, thinking before he answered. “It’s not so much that he lied to me as it is that he thought he had to. I mean, do I look like that big of an asshole? Like I’d just flat out reject him because of who his parents were?”
“No. And he knew that, once he got to know you.”
“Yeah, but…it’s like, he went in expecting the worst. Like he thought ‘Oh, here’s a skinhead who plays in a punk band. Can’t let him know my parents have money.’ He didn’t even give me a chance.” Corey started circling the room.
“He told me that he didn’t think you would give him a chance.” I said. “Not you, personally, but the whole band.”
“Yeah. Well, he had that wrong. I don’t care what subculture somebody’s in – if you want to be friends with them, you’ve got to give them the benefit of the doubt. If not, then…what the hell do we have? Judging someone based on what kind of music they listen to is every bit as stupid as judging them based on how rich their parents are.”
“Look, you’re preaching to the choir. I know that.” I said, interrupting his tirade. “And Alex knows that, too. I guess what it comes down to is whether or not you can accept that he made a mistake. Because you can’t go around talking about solidarity and reformation if you don’t believe in getting over your past.”
Corey stopped pacing. He smiled. “Dude. When did you learn to stand up for stuff?”
“Actually…not too long ago.” I thought back to that night in the basement with Alex, when he had tried to put the moves on me. When I thought about it, that was where I took a stand for the first meaningful time.
“Told you that you were my punktégé.”
“Actually, I’ve got to give Alex the credit for that.”
“Well, whatever. So long as you keep that indignation alive. And, preferably, clueless.” Corey shrugged. “I guess I’m over it. Been stretching this thing on for too long, anyway. Tell you what – I’m going to call him up, punch him in the back of the head, and tell him all’s forgiven.”
“Punch him in the back of the head?”
“If I try to punch him in the face, he’ll see it coming and duck.”
“Why do you want to punch him at all?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking.” He cocked his head to one side.
Corey dug his phone out of his pocket and dialed Alex’s number. I heard one side of the conversation.
“Yo. Yeah. Uh-huh. Come over? Nah. Oh yeah. See ya.” He hung up, and I couldn’t help wondering how different the silent treatment he had been giving Alex could possibly be from conversations like that.
Alex came by a few minutes later. Corey let him in.
“Ow.” Alex muttered, rubbing the back of his head as he joined me on the couch, kicking his feet up.
Corey walked in behind him, rubbing his knuckles. “Anyone ever tell you you’ve got a really hard skull? Like, exceptionally hard?”
“Yeah. I was born with it. How else was I supposed to break out of that shell?”
“Ah hah! I knew it! I knew rich kids came from eggs!” Corey jumped into a nearby chair.
“Rich kids?” Alex cocked his head. “No, you’ve got it all wrong. Gay guys come from eggs. Rich and poor alike. Right, Brandon?”
“Of course. We’ve all got those extra-hard, egg-breaking skulls, too.” I said, fighting to stay completely deadpan. “That’s actually the origin of the term ‘gay-bashing’. They used to walk down the street, bashing everybody in the side of the head with a stick. If it didn’t hurt, or if it made the wrong sound, it meant you were gay.”
“Oohhh…” Corey nodded. “So it is genetic. Gotcha.” He slowly lifted his hand, made it into a fist, and rapped on the side of his head.
“Hey, that sounded kind of off to me.” Alex said, looking over at me.
“Yeah.” I said. “That’s supposed to make a more hollow, thumping kind of sound.”
“I see I’m outnumbered.” Corey said, shaking his head. “If this keeps up, I’ll have to bring out my bashin’ stick. I’m essentially non-violent, but-”
“You punched me in the back of the head! Like, three minutes ago!” Alex interrupted.
“Well, yeah, but…that doesn’t count. I’m sure it hurt my hand more than it hurt your head.”
“So, under your definition, it’s doesn’t count as violence if both people involved get hurt?” I asked.
“Uh…yeah.” He nodded. “Oh, speaking of which,” He turned to Alex. “I just heard about that bit of violence between you and Bran in the bathroom of a certain rich-ass private school. Dude, what happened? I know bassists are naturally wusses and everything, but when even the lyricist is kicking your ass…”
“What? No way, man! I was the one doing the ass-kicking!” Alex said.
I laughed, and decided to play along. “Aw, don’t feel too bad, Alex. It’s obvious there’s no way you could handle me, so…”
“Yeah, he’s right.” Corey said. “Just from looking at you, you can tell who would win.”
“I see I’m going to have to take action.” Alex removed his shoes and threw one at each of us.
“Oh, smart.” Corey said, catching it. “Now we’ve got your shoes. And we’re on the third floor. And there’s a window right there. You really didn’t think this through, did you?”
“Okay, so I’m not good at thinking. I’ll admit that.” He shrugged. “And this won’t be the first time it’s cost me a pair of shoes.”
We never did end up throwing his shoes out the window, but we did talk for a while. To me, it felt just like before, but they did seem a little more reserved, like they were holding something back. I wondered if they were just trying to be extra-civil because I was there, acting as a buffer, but that didn’t seem like them. No, they were definitely the type to speak their minds.
By the time I was ready to go, it had snowed nearly three inches, but had finally stopped. The three of us worked together to excavate the wagon as well as Alex’s van. When we were sufficiently dug out, Corey went back inside. Alex turned to me, brushing some of the snow from his coat. His face was red and his voice was gravely from the cold air.
“No problem. You helped me dig out the wagon, so, hey.” I shrugged.
“I meant thanks for talking to Cor.”
“Didn’t take much talking on my part. He’d pretty much decided before I got there. I think he just wanted to hear the story from my side. Make sure he knew everything, you know?”
“Yeah. Makes sense. Still, thanks. If you ever need help with anything…well, you know.” He said, climbing into his van.
I nodded and said goodbye before getting into the wagon and driving off. The plows had already been through, so the roads weren’t bad. I could see people shoveling their driveways as I drove by, trying to get them clear before more snow fell and made it even worse. I looked at the clock – it was after six, which meant that Dad had probably come home and sent Mark out to shovel out our driveway. Knowing that, I decided to take a longer way home, so that he would have the whole thing shoveled before I got back. Yeah, I admit it, I’m no saint when it comes to shoveling. Still sticking to main roads, so I wouldn’t get lost, I drove around, taking note of where things were.
Curson was laid out fairly easily – if you stayed out of the residential parts, it was basically a grid, with numbered streets going one way and named streets intersecting them. I ended up on 127th Street, which sounded familiar.
When it intersected with Garret Street, I remembered why. There, at the corner, was First Baptist Church. And, in the parking lot, shovel over one shoulder, was Nick. I was too far off to see his face, of course, but I recognized the coat and the hat. On impulse, I pulled over and parked on the side of the road. Luckily, there weren’t many other cars there, because parallel parking in the wagon was like trying to parallel park three shopping carts tied together, and there was no way I could do it without a lot of space.
I got out, pulling on my gloves and hat, and walked over to where Nick was slowly, systematically carving a clearing in the snow. He didn’t notice me until I was right next to him.
“Hey!” I called.
He lowered the shovel, leaning on it, and looked over at me.
“Oh, hi!” He said, his breath coming out in puffs.
“You shoveling this whole thing?”
“Yeah. There’s a meeting here tomorrow.” He said. “Got to make sure everybody can get in.”
“The whole thing, by yourself?” I asked. He nodded. I looked around at the lot, which wasn’t as big as some parking lots, but still huge when compared to a driveway. It would take one person at least an hour. “You got another shovel?”
He shook his head. “It’s getting dark, and it’s cold, and this’ll take a while.”
“Won’t take nearly as long if you let me help.” I said. “You know that in some cultures, turning down a man’s shovel-arm is an insult worthy of death.”
“Well, I guess if it’s a choice between assistance and death…” He held out the handle of his shovel to me, smiling.
“Now you’re talking.” I grabbed it, and he went off to find another. And so, I ended up avoiding the job of shoveling my own driveway, but in the process ended up volunteering to shovel a parking lot.
Nick returned with a second shovel, and we got to work. He kept stopping me, telling me to slow down, not to tire myself out. Admittedly, I was pushing myself a bit. I couldn’t help it – since Curson was founded, guys from our city have always tried to impress others with their snow-shoveling prowess. Nick, in pacing himself, was going against everything we’d been taught growing up, and I told him so. He laughed.
“Hey, who do I have to impress? You’re the only one here.”
“Wow.” I said. “I’ve been rebuffed.”
“You and the rest of the town. So, you’re in good company.”
“I guess you’re right. And I can totally impress them all by telling them that I got rebuffed first.” I grinned.
“I’d hit you with a snowball, but I’m too cold.”
“That’s all right, because I’m too cold to hit you back.”
“Good, because then I’d have to hit you back.”
“But by then, I would’ve thought of hitting you with a whole shovel full of snow.”
“And I would easily dodge that, and hit you twice while you were recovering.”
Our verbal snowball fight went on as we continued to clear the parking lot. It got more and more elaborate as we went, eventually involving zeppelins, receiving bribes from corrupt congressmen, and the rise and fall of a Canadian empire. By the time we finished, we were traveling through time and space, hopping between dimensions and forming complex military alliances just for the sake of hitting each other with snowballs. Then, completely exhausted, we collapsed against a freshly built pile of snow, sucking in the freezing air under the glow of the light poles.
“Hey,” Nick said, “Is it supposed to snow any more tonight?”
“I don’t know. Didn’t catch the weather.”
“Man, I hope not. Now that I’ve had your help, it’s going to feel like it takes forever to do this alone.”
“So call me next time.” I said. “Oh, wait. No phone. Um…well, you know, when it snows, I’ll probably be able to notice. So, I’ll come over.”
He laughed. “Really, you don’t have to-”
“I know I don’t have to, but can I? This was fun.”
“You had fun shoveling snow?”
“Yeah. Didn’t you?” I looked over at him. His eyes were half-closed, and he had his arms crossed behind his head, his lips curling into a gentle smile. He looked peaceful, like he could fall asleep out there.
“Yeah.” He said. “But…”
“Nothing.” He pushed himself up. “You want to come inside? Melt off some of the frost?”
“Sure.” I climbed up and followed him to the doors of the church. “All right, this might be a stupid question, but…do you live in the church?”
“Pretty much. Technically, we live in the parsonage, over there,” He pointed to a small building just next to the church, “But I only really go there for meals. More space in here, and my parents don’t mind, as long as I keep it clean.”
He pulled open the thick wooden doors and I followed him in. The lobby had hard, brown carpet and thick strips of red cloth draped along the ceiling. He lead me through a second set of wooden doors into a large, open room with hard floors, and from there, into a small kitchen, where some chairs were set up around a re-painted card table.
He put a kettle on the stove and pulled a small space heater from one of the cupboards. He plugged that in, set it on the counter, and cranked it up to full power.
“You can toss your coat anywhere.” He said, peeling off his own coat, along with his hat and gloves and draping them over one of the chairs. I did the same, then stood with him in front of the heater.
We were standing shoulder to shoulder, both of us shivering as the hot air washed over us. I thought about taking a step to the side, so that we weren’t so close, but if he didn’t have a problem with it, I didn’t feel like I had to.
“Hey, did I thank you yet?” Nick asked.
“Probably.” I said.
“Oh. Well, thanks again, then. That was such a cool thing to do. Every Sunday, I listen to my Dad telling everyone to be generous and help each other out, but…” He shrugged. “You’re the only person I know who would do this.”
And you’re the only person I’d do it for. “Don’t give me too much credit.” I said.
“Hey, water’s boiling.” I said, nodding to the stove.
Nick turned himself away from the heater, turned off the stove, and took two mugs from a drawer.
“All we’ve got is this awful decaf tea from a couple years ago.” He said, pouring. “Tastes like tree bark, but it’s hot. Up for it?”
“Sure. Never tried tree bark before.”
He handed me a mug and took the other for himself, raising it to his lips and immediately sucking in air.
“Drink it fast.” He said. “That way, it’s hot enough to melt your tongue, and you don’t have to taste it.”
I took a sip. It was awful. My tongue felt like it was on fire, except I’d imagine that fire would taste better. Still, after the initial shock, it felt good. “Thanks.” I said. “You said you’re in here most of the day?”
“So, what do you do?”
“I’ve got a stash of hard liquor and soft porn hidden in the nursery.”
I nearly choked on a mouthful of scalding tea.
“Just kidding. It’s actually soft liquor and hard porn.” He shrugged. “I get those mixed up sometimes.”
I laughed. “No, really.”
“Well…there’s the home-schooling, which I told you about. That takes up most of the day. I watch the day-care kids after school, until their parents come pick them up. And I keep the place clean, like I said. Building’s pretty big, so I clean a couple rooms every day, so that it’s all set for Sundays. In exchange for that, I get a room to myself in the basement.”
“Yeah. There’s only one bedroom in the parsonage, and my parents sleep there. I used to sleep on the sofa-bed in the living room, but I made a deal with them last year. This way, I get a room, and they don’t have to hire a janitor.”
“Oh.” I looked down to my feet, where the snow had melted from my shoes, causing a big puddle to form. “Sorry I’m messing up your floor, then.”
“It’s okay. I’m dripping, too.” He motioned to his own feet, also leaving a pool of water on the tile.
“So, what do you do for fun? When you’re not cleaning or learning stuff?”
“I don’t know.” He looked away.
“You don’t know?”
“It’s just…” He sighed. “It’s kind of embarrassing, telling you all this.”
“Because…you’re cool, and popular, and you’re a lot more interesting than I am, so everything I say just sounds boring in comparison.”
“Are you kidding?” I wanted to laugh, but the look on his face was so serious. “Me? I’m nothing special.”
“Sure.” He said. “When I saw you on Valentine’s day, you were hanging out with this whole gang of people…older than you, too. College age, some of them. How often do college guys hang out with high school underclassmen?”
“I barely hang out with them. The only ones I really know well are our age, and I only know them because I work for them.”
“Work for them?”
“Yeah. I write lyrics for their band.”
He groaned. “You write lyrics for a band? And you don’t think that’s, like, the coolest thing ever?” He shook his head. “And, what about at school? You’re friends with the guy who started the beach ball riots. You lectured the Cursives’ coach about creativity – I wasn’t there, but the story’s still going around. There’s even a rule named after you in the art wing! Something about hot glue guns.”
“Actually, that’s named after my brother.”
“Yeah, and your brother! You and your brother skipped school to drive to a place you’d never been to pick up a person you’d never met. You don’t think that’s cool? Because that was the most excitement I’d had in…” He paused. “I don’t know. So, yeah. That’s why it’s tough to go through all the boring stuff that I do.”
“You’re not boring.”
“I’m serious.” I said. “Every time I hang out with you, I have fun. I had fun riding in the backseat of a car for hours with you. I had fun shoveling an entire parking lot with you. Those are some of the most boring things I could imagine doing, but when you were there, they were fun. If either of us is boring, it’s me. Most of that stuff you just pointed out – the trip to pick you up, the band, the beach balls – that wasn’t stuff that I had planned. I ended up involved, but not because I actively tried to be.”
“What do you mean?”
“Stuff happens to me. I react. If I get in my brother’s car, and he decides to drive to Columbus instead of school, what am I going to do? It’s not me that’s anything special, it’s everybody else. I’m just thrown into it.” I said. “And with you, I think it’s the same way. You’re not boring, but you’ve got responsibilities. You have to do all this work, with the home schooling and the cleaning and the day care, so what time does that leave you for going off and getting into trouble? Yeah, you don’t like it, but what can you do? What’s the difference between being locked in a church basement and being locked in a speeding car? Either way, you’ve got no say in where you’re going. It’s like…Laika, the dog in the spaceship. You’re flying around at high speeds, but you’re not the one at the controls.”
“No.” He whispered. “I don’t think so.”
“If you wanted to change things bad enough, you could. If you didn’t like the adventure, at least a little bit, you’d cut yourself off from everyone that’s been getting you into it. Your brother, your friends…if you hated it enough, you’d leave them. And me…if I wasn’t so afraid, I’d leave. I could leave right now, if I really wanted to. But I’m just not brave enough to do it.”
“That’s because that’s a drastic thing to do.” I said. “There’s got to be something in between loving your surroundings and running from them. Between all and nothing. There has to be.”
“What, then? Holding out? Saying ‘I’ll do it later, when it’s safe’? If you have to say that, then you don’t really want it enough.”
“There’s more to consider than your own desires, though. There’s how acting on them affects everybody around you. You’re connected to so many other people that a major change in yourself will change them, too.”
“Not everybody’s connected! What about…prison inmates in solitary confinement? What about the space dog you were talking about? What connection do they have?”
“The inmates have their guards. The dog has the scientists.”
“The guards kill the inmates. Strap them down and shoot them full of poison.” He said. “The scientists killed the space dog. You know that? They didn’t know how to bring her back safe, so they just cut off her life support. How much of a connection could they possibly have? The guards, the scientists…they keep the others isolated, and then they kill them to make whatever point they were trying to make. ‘Be good, or else.’ ‘We can get to space first.’ You know, they could have waited. They could have waited until they knew how to bring her back alive.” He blinked hard. His voice sounded rough, and he was visibly upset. It was the first time I’d seen him like this.
“They’re still connected to someone. The inmate has a family. The dog…well, we know her name, don’t we? Isn’t that a pretty big connection?” I asked. “Two kids, born decades after she died and living on the other side of the world know who she was.”
“But why? Not because of what she did. You said it yourself, the dog wasn’t at the controls. You think she had any interest in space flight? No, we only know who she is because of the scientists. It wasn’t Laika that was connected, it was the people around her. If it hadn’t been her, it would have been a different dog. There was nothing special about Laika, herself.”
“But that’s my point! What’s special about the dog? Nothing! What’s special about the inmate? Nothing! But one gets famous, one doesn’t. It doesn’t mean the inmate is any less important than the dog. You think either of them had a way out? That they just didn’t want it enough to take it?”
“There’s always a way out. Always. If you want out bad enough, and you’re brave enough to take it. Even if it does seem drastic.” He wasn’t meeting my eyes. He seemed to be studying the mug in his hands.
“…What if the guard has kids?” I asked.
“What’s that have to do with anything?”
“What if the prisoner takes drastic action and escapes? The guard assigned to him loses his job, can’t feed his kids. They end up picking pockets to survive. Then they get caught, thrown in jail with more guards. Then they escape, and those guards lose their jobs, and their kids go hungry. There’s your connection. The inmate decides that, for the sake of those kids, he’ll stay put. Is that because he’s not brave enough?”
“But who says the guard has kids?”
“The guard always has kids.” I said. “You just have to assume that. The whole reason anything works is that most people will assume that the guard has kids.”
“What if the inmate doesn’t care about the kids any more? Says ‘it’s not my problem’ and…escapes, anyway?”
“Then he’s not half as brave as the inmate who stays put.”
“What if the inmate doesn’t want to be brave? What if he just wants to be free, no matter what that costs?” His lip was trembling. He had a hard time getting that last sentence out.
“What if escape doesn’t really mean freedom?” I countered. “He spends the rest of his life running from the police, moving around, never happy, never free. But if he had stayed for two, maybe three more years, then he would have been up for parole? Out clean, real freedom. Wouldn’t that escape attempt just be a huge waste?”
“What if…what if he don’t know if he can last that long? What if I just…” His big eyes locked with mine. “He…just snaps one day?”
I swallowed hard. Half a year ago, in this situation, I don’t know what I would have done. But, like I had noticed earlier that day, somewhere along the line, I had learned to stand up. I’m glad I did, because this was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.
“I don’t think you will.”
“Snap, and…escape yourself.” I said. “That’s what we’re talking about, right? Suicide?”
I saw a tremble work its way across his shoulders, but he didn’t say anything. He wasn’t denying it.
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think you would.”
“Why not?” He glared at me. “You think you have me so figured out? You don’t. There’s a lot about me that you don’t know.”
“You’re right. But, see, the way you’re getting mad at me right now – that’s how I know. You care too much.”
“But that doesn’t matter! It’s not up to just me!”
“What? How is it not up to you? Who else could possibly have a say in this?”
“What about God?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “I always thought suicide was supposed to be a sin, but you know more than I do.”
“It is, but…if I’m going to hell anyway, what’s the difference?” He said. “And if God wants me dead, maybe…maybe doing it will get me on his good side, you know?”
I felt a sudden, sickening lurch of pure rage rolling around in my guts. I didn’t know who it was directed at, but it was the angriest I could ever remember being.
“God’s omnipotent! If he wants you dead, he can do his own fucking dirty work!” I shouted. It echoed through the empty room next to the kitchen where we were standing. “And if he tries, he’s gonna have to go through me, first, because I’ll wrestle him right here in front of him and everybody before I let him!”
Silence for a few seconds. I swiped a hand across my eyes, and wasn’t surprised when it came away slightly damp.
“Um…sorry.” I muttered. “Didn’t mean to swear in your church. And I guess it’s probably blasphemous to challenge god to a wrestling match, huh?”
“Just a little.” He took two steps away from me and looked up and the ceiling, then back at me, as if he was expecting me to be struck down by a bolt of lightning. He grinned, slightly, which made me smile back, and pretty soon we were both laughing. Not because it was all that funny, but because there was just so much emotional energy surging through both of us that we had to get rid of it somehow. It was either going to be laugher or tears, and I think both of us were the type to choose laugher.
By the time we were done, I noticed that my mug was now cold in my hands.
“I think my tree bark tea’s cold.” I said.
“Mine, too. Good. Gives us an excuse to not drink it.” He dumped his into the sink, and I did the same. He turned back to me, leaning with his back against the counter. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to lay that all on you like that. I just…never really talked like that with anybody, before. Once I got started…”
“Yeah, I know how that goes.” I said. “I guess I never realized that you could get depressed. Stupid, I know, but…every time I’ve seen you, you’ve been smiling and laughing and joking around. I guess I kind of figured that that was your default setting, or something.”
He let out a single laugh. “That’s because every time you’ve seen me…” He trailed off and looked away.
There was a pause before he continued. “Every time you’ve seen me, I’ve been away from here, and I’ve been around you. So, yeah, of course I’m always in a good mood when you see me. You…make it hard not to be.”
“Wait…really?” I could only imagine the shocked look that must have crossed my face. “But, I’m a pretty big pessimist, and kind of a downer most of the time.”
“You? The guy who says that the guard always has kids, and that the prisoners realize it? That’s the most optimistic thing…”
“Every time you’ve seen me being optimistic, I’ve been around you.”
“Well, I think it suits you.” He said, nodding once for emphasis. His lips twitched, and I saw the hint of a shy smile before he turned his head. “I think…you should be optimistic more often.”
I stepped around to where he was now looking. “Tell you what. I’ll start looking on the bright side of things more often if you’ll start smiling more often. Deal?” I held out my hand.
He grinned. “Deal.” He took my hand and shook it. “But…what do I get if I win?”
“Win? This isn’t a contest, man, it’s self-improvement.”
“Yeah, but competition’s a good motivator.”
“Okay. If you win - which I guess means if you can smile for longer than I can think happy thoughts – I’ll…uh…I’ll buy you a root beer. And if I win, it’s the other way around.”
He laughed. “Okay, then, it’s a bet. How’re we going to do this, then? Honor system?”
“Don’t see any other way. Most of my pessimistic remarks stay in my head.”
“Yeah, and I guess it’d cost too much to hire someone to follow me around to make sure I’m smiling all the time.”
“I could probably get Mark to do it for free, if I told him that you were a Soviet spy or something and that he should keep you under surveillance.”
“Me, a Soviet spy? You were the one comparing yourself to a Russian cosmonaut a few minutes ago.”
“A Russian cosmonaut dog. I’m pretty sure she never read Marx.”
“Yeah, whatever you say, comrade.”
My phone went off in my pocket, and as I reached for it with my left hand, I realized that my right hand had never let go of Nick’s. It wasn’t really shaking it any more, though. Just…holding it. Quite frankly, the realization scared the hell out of me. I was about to pull it away like I would from a hot stove, when I remembered our bet. Assuming that he would have a problem with it was a pretty pessimistic thought, considering that he was still holding on, too.
Thinking nothing but positive thoughts, since I didn’t want to lose this early in the game, I shook his hand one last time. He looked just as surprised as I had felt. We let go at the same time, and I answered my phone. The caller ID showed that it was Mark.
“Hey, what’s up?” I asked.
“Dude, where are you?”
“I’m at a friend’s place. Why?”
“Have you looked at a clock, lately?”
“Obviously. It’s quarter ‘til nine.”
“What? Really?” I was supposed to be home at nine. Not good. No, wait…had to stay optimistic. Well, it wasn’t too bad – at least it wasn’t after nine, at least.
“How far off are you? Can you get home in time?”
“Maybe, if I leave now. But it’ll be a stretch.”
“All right, then. You get going, I’ll set all the clocks back ten minutes.”
“Dude, you know that doesn’t work. We tried it before, remember? They’ve got watches.”
“This guy at school taught me how to steal watches when you shake somebody’s hand. I think I can pull it off.”
“Don’t steal anybody’s watch!” I looked over at Nick, who was snickering. Optimism. “I mean…uh…it’s a really smart plan, and it would probably work, but I think we should be honest. Because if we’re honest, they’ll…respect us more for it?”
“What? Who the hell is this? ‘Cause I know my brother would never call one of my plans smart or expect our parents to make sense.”
I sighed. “No time to explain, I’ve got to get moving. Later.”
“Yeah, later. Too bad, though. I really wanted to try swiping their watches.”
I hung up and turned to Nick. “I’ve got to go. I mean…I get to go spend time with my family, now.” I flashed a thumbs-up.
He laughed. “I figured. Um…see you tomorrow, maybe?”
“Yeah. Should I knock here, or what?”
“There’s a bell by the door. I’ll hear it.”
“Okay, cool. See you tomorrow, then.”
I picked up my coat and put it back on. Half of it was still soaked, which, in sticking with my current bet, meant that I needed to see it as half-dry. Nick walked with me to the door, where we said goodbye again before I left.
My parents were waiting for me when I got home at five past nine. I told them that I had been shoveling the parking lot at First Baptist Church, and they laughed so hard that they decided to cut me a break on those five minutes, in honor of the least plausible excuse they’d ever heard.