When Ma starts in on me again, she’s splashing gas station cabernet into an old, cracked coffee mug, flipping the bottle top-down and filling it to the lip. The springs from the pullout couch dig into my ass, and I can’t get comfortable. Ma grabs the remote and hits mute. A guy on the tube sobs silently, his head in his hands. He lost someone he loves, I guess, but who hasn’t?
I listen to noise claw all about the trailer—dishwasher whooshing, dryer thumping, strays scraping at the back door. Nothing’s out of the ordinary, not really, but it’s one of those nights when you feel like someone snuck in and adjusted all your furniture just a couple centimeters.
“If you don’t want to be here, I don’t want you here,” Ma says. She doesn’t mean it. She just gets all pushy after her third glass, starts mouthing off with stuff she doesn’t mean. Inside, she’s feeling lonesome. I know this because she’s been playing Roy Orbison all night back in her bedroom, the same tired, old tunes she listened to when my old man ran out on us.
Three months stand between me and graduation. I’m already plotting to take the open highway, imagining my pickup topping a hundred and blasting past billboards advertising hot showers and truck stop kolaches. My buddy John keeps saying we ought to ditch town together. He won’t stop going on about New York because he thinks no one there has ever heard of Plano, Texas. I’m not so sure. I have my eyes set on California. I’ve seen the photos, big, blue waves surging up like mountains and hitting the shore, and can practically feel the cold water numbing my bones.
“I don’t know, Ma,” I tell her.
“You think you and Suzie can make it work, huh. When your dad went off to school, you think I didn’t know he was dickin’ down other girls?” Ma says. She won’t just come out and say it, that she doesn’t have anyone left but me.
“I don’t even know if we’ll stay together,” I say. Ma cocks an eyebrow. I throw my hands up.
She downs half her glass in one swig and refills. She tends bar at the VFW and knows better. She has a history of heartache, most of which she drums up all on her own nowadays.
I stand up, pace around the living room for a minute. Plastic wrappers and empty Hungry-Man boxes cover the coffee table. I chew the words slowly in my head before I speak. Anything can set her off crying nowadays. Sometimes she comes home from the bar in tears. Her customers all love her, she says, but they’re a rough crowd. They grab her ass and holler all night. They hurl bottles at her if she takes her time with their Bud Lights.
The phone saves me. I snatch it from its cradle before the second ring. I haven’t even said hello yet and John blurts out, “You ever see whatever’s inside someone’s head split wide open?” He likes to talk like this, a real tough guy.
“Just pick me up. Bring those baseball bats. They still in the bed of your pickup?”
“Yeah,” I say, slamming the phone down and stuffing my feet into my sneakers. I make for the front door.
“Where are you—” Ma says, but I’m gone before she can spit out the words.
I pull up and find John pacing around in his driveway. His family isn’t well off, but he lives in a real house, one with a concrete foundation. He slides into the passenger seat and rubs his eyes until they’re pink. He’s sweating beer. I asked what happened, but it’s the same as always. His dad laid into him again, something about sneaking Coors Light from the garage fridge. His old man is a real hard-ass, a marine.
John riffles around in my glove box and finds the pill stash I store there for emergencies. I cribbed them from Ma; she’s got all types of anxiety meds, stuff that hits your head like a hammer. He hands me a tramadol and I swallow it dry. He can’t keep anything at home because his mom searches everywhere: his backpack, underwear drawer, the air-conditioning vents. She’s as bad as his old man, always trying to catch him in the deed. One time she splattered ketchup all over her white shirt and said she had been attacked while taking out the trash, all just to see if John was sloshed enough to believe her.
It doesn’t matter where you are in this town; the glow from the football stadium burns the night sky purple. Must be nine, maybe ten o’clock, but I can never know for sure because my radio doesn’t work. The pickup rattles like an earthquake over a pothole. It’s an old truck, a ’94 Ford I inherited from my big brother Hank, but I can’t bring myself to replace it. I can’t even move into his old room, the way Ma sits in there half the day fingering his photos and sniffing his shirts. Grief can be strange like that.
I floor it and slam through every red light between John’s house and Bowman Middle School. “I used to take these same ones,” John says. He pops a pill in his mouth and starts chewing on it.
“Oh, yeah?” I say, but I’ve already heard it all. The guy gets sentimental every time he starts tipping them back. He’s all sob stories tonight. He blames it all on one misstep, all the troubles in his life.
“If I had only juked right instead of left, he would’ve missed me altogether. My ACL would work fine. Worst moment of my life,” he says. Once he gets going, you can’t shut him up. He means six seconds of a football game that happened in the eighth grade. A linebacker knocked him on his back and bent his leg crooked. Poor John has gone wild for pills ever since. I feel bad and all, but you can’t trust someone like that, a guy who thinks the world singled him out.
Over in the passenger seat, he is still gnawing on the pill. It takes all I have not to stomp on his knee. “Can you not just swallow that fucking thing?” I snap.
In the parking lot outside Bowman Middle School, John and I are treading in circles between the pools of lamppost light that puddle on the pavement. He says four or five boys from across the highway are on the way. Someone wants to scrap him. John stole the guy’s girlfriend way back when, or the guy stole John’s girlfriend the other day. It’s hard to follow.
Somewhere nearby cicadas click and click. I stop listening to John. Kids in Plano are always brawling in parking lots, always busting each other up with empty beer bottles or tiny garden shovels, and no single reason why is better than the next. I can’t get into a good school, I think, but California has plenty of two-years.
John swings the bat over and over like he is nailing one over the back fence in left field. He throws his hands up and trots around all celebratory. Now he makes like he is bashing someone on the pavement. He does a real number on his own shadow. I prop mine, a Louisville Slugger I snagged from Hank’s room, on my shoulder. It’s not like he’ll need it anymore.
Some big shot magazine reporter flew down from New York or Washington D.C. and took photos of Ma and me on the front porch. Kids were dying all over town. Hank was sixteen when we found him. The reporter took off his glasses and kept scribbling in a yellow legal pad and said, “But why did Hank choose to do heroin?”
“Choose?” Ma said. I put a soft hand on her shoulder, but she sputtered like a broken radio. “Choose? Choose.” The reporter drove off in his rental. I bet he flew first class back to wherever he came from. I wondered how he made sense of us, if he’d ever met anyone like us before. The story was published a month later with the headline Texas Heroin Massacre.
A lamppost burns out and all the shadows make Bowman look like a prison. I turn to John and say, “You didn’t go to school here, did you?”
“We went to Armstrong together,” he tells me, all huffy and offended. He likes to play mean, but he’s always getting hurt when I forget the history we share. “You have known me since sixth grade, man.”
“Yeah, that’s good,” I say. He looks at me like I killed his dog, and I did, but it was a long time ago, maybe a year or two now, an accident backing out of his driveway, drunk. “You know, Bowman is a real shit school.”
We are waiting in the parking lot. Everything feels sideways. All of a sudden, headlights stripe our chests. The first pickup growls its way into the parking lot. It’s a muscular dodge, sits high up on mudders. A Chevy crawls in behind it, a new one with an extended cab. There’s a grill guard on its face. The tramadol I swallowed up hits me. For a moment, the truck looks like an armored vehicle, the kind of thing John’s old man rode around in over in Fallujah.
A crowd of boys are crouched down in the truck beds. John heaves the baseball bat from his shoulder and it clunks on the bed of my pickup. A tall boy jumps down. He is blond and lean, smiles with what I admit are real nice teeth, but he stalks around like Mike Tyson. I remember his face from some place I cannot remember. His boots stamp on the pavement. He balls and un-balls his fists, over and over. “What y’all planning with those bats?”
I have no clue, but mine is still in my hands, and my hands are trembling.
Last Friday, I picked up my girlfriend, Suzie, from her place off 18th. We made a few laps around the eastside and parked down at Bob Woodruff Park, not far from the pond. She flicked a soft pack of Parliament Lights until one fell out in her hand. We sprawled out on the bed of my truck. The ducks wouldn’t let up. We tried to tally the clouds but kept losing count. She laid her head on my chest, and I pulled her in close. “What’re you thinking?” she said.
I asked her to make off to California with me. She sat up and pressed her palms hard on both my cheeks, stared at me. “You’re batshit, aren’t you?” she said.
I nodded. We eased onto our backs again, but the clouds had snarled together. There was no hope. “Well, why not?”
“Okay, well if you mean it, I will give it a think,” she said, but she made her mind up before I drove her home.
“You have no job there,” she said, and I told her, “I have no job here.”
“We’ll be real poor there,” Suzie said. She’s a sledgehammer. She never just comes down on you easy.
I yanked my empty pockets inside out. “We aren’t exactly rolling in it here.”
I parked in this same lot just the other day. Ma and I went into the Walgreens across the street. She shoved a few wadded bills across the counter. “Sorry,” she said to the pharmacist and damn near ran out of the place with a sackful of anxiety pills the doctor keeps her on.
Right now, a guy in a blue polo is locking the pharmacy up. I can see him as he pulls the metal shutters down in front of the sliding glass doors. He walks over to the 7-Eleven, its orange-and-green lights smoldering like a roadside casino.
“Four or five boys?” I ask John, but he just shrugs. Actually, there are fifteen, maybe twenty of them cracking their knuckles. “It’s a goddamn cavalry.”
The Louisville Slugger won’t do me any good, so I toss it in the truck bed. The boys move our way. A few of them smile. A police cruiser speeds right by and never slows down.
I remember what Hank told me about boys from across the highway. He used to say those boys eat steak and potatoes every night and whoop our asses in football, but they have too many rules and fight without heart.
A junkie wails on the payphone outside the 7-Eleven and falls on his knees, clutching his knuckles.
I make knots of my hands. I tense my body. Ma would flip if she knew where I am. I can already see her face, bent everywhere, puffy in places, and damp with tears. “You better stay put,” I tell John, but he is already inching away. The boys from across the highway form a halfcircle around me. “John,” I say, but it’s no use.
The boys swarm me, and I land one good punch, maybe two, but they tumble down on top of me like something chucked from the sky. A boot bashes my skull, knuckles knock something loose in my eye socket, and a body crashes down on my back. I cough ragged into the pile.
When I look up through a tangle of arms and legs, the junkie across the street is rolling around on the ground, bawling. A 7-Eleven clerk snatches him by the shirt collar. The clerk tries to drag him to his feet, but the guy is all lead.
John is tearing ass right into the shadows of the scrimmage field next to the middle school. I wonder how he runs so fast with a bum knee.
The police cruiser circles back and slides into the parking lot. Its blue-and-red lights glaze the school walls. The pile lifts off me, the boys from across town scatter, and I dive behind a bush. My skull throbs like something is trying to break out of it. The cop can’t find me, gives up, and swings a hard right on Park Avenue. The cruiser gets smaller the farther he goes. I almost step on a syringe, andthink of all the ailments I almost contracted.
I drive across the road and find John behind 7-Eleven. The junkie waves our way, but I tell him to eat it. His face crumbles, a real sad sight. I feel bad immediately and wonder if he has a family somewhere, maybe a wife and kids all hungry and sad, but John jumps in and rolls down the window. I stomp on the gas and the pickup shrieks out of the parking lot. He lifts a fist, clenching his wadded-up boxers and confesses he shit himself while some of the boys gave him chase.
Before we hit his street, he pitches the soiled briefs at someone’s azaleas. “When did you even take those off?” I say.
“How could I explain that to my old man?” he says, half his forearm in my glove box, digging around for the pill bottle.
I feel a shiner welling up beneath my right eye. Blood is drying on my palms. I laugh, but I feel lonesome thinking of what to tell Ma when I appear in the drive all banged up. What will she say when I load up the pickup and leave for good?
I tell John, “I don’t know.”
I grip his shoulder, clamp down hard. “John, I do not know.” I squeeze tighter and he winces. I could crush him, but he’s been through enough already. “I have no idea, John. I do not know.”
Patrick Strickland is a writer and journalist from Texas. He has an MFA from University of Nebraska Omaha. His short stories have appeared in The Coachella Review, This Great Society, and Monkeybicycle.