Andy's a pulp guy. Likes creamsicle Mustangs, Charleston Chews and superhero movies that don't suck. He's the author of The Devil in Snakeskins,...read more a sci-fi western from Beat to a Pulp Books, and more than 100 short stories, mostly crime/noir. Published in Word Riot, Hobart, Shotgun Honey, Plots with Guns and elsewhere. Husband, father, Tigers fan. Blogs at andywritesstuff.blogspot.com
IN THE SUMMER OF 1985 my best friend Wayland and I spent the better part of an afternoon bicycling from house to house plucking cans of New Coke from the mailboxes and stuffing them in our backpacks. It was an uncommonly sticky day in northern Michigan and sweat stained the bill of my Tigers cap and striped the ass crack of Way’s XL cargo shorts. Just about every time he would twist his arm back I remember the damn can would slip from his kielbasa fingers and clatter to the asphalt, so after a bit we stopped in the post office parking lot and devised an assembly line system where I would grab the cans and put them in his pack. But then my front tire kept hitting his rear tire and Way told me to watch the fuck out, pencil dick, and I responded that maybe you should speed the fuck up, fat ass. He threatened to pull over and stomp my scrawny ass into the ground, which we both knew he could do but not without consequences like the time I snuck up behind him in the locker room and buried a math compass in his hamstring. But then a car zoomed by blaring its horn and Wayland and I postponed our quarrel and flipped the driver simultaneous birds and spent the next several minutes repeating his license plate number under the apparent theory that we could somehow track him down.
We had yet to taste New Coke. As the whole world knows by now, nearly thirty years later, the stuff was a marketing catastrophe. But at the time, and to a couple thirteen-year-olds from the trailer park, free Coke was free Coke.
The plan was to collect fifty cans each, empty the backpacks at our respective trailers and repeat the process across town. The whole thing was Way’s idea. He wanted to fill his fridge with Coke, any Coke, to score points with a short-tempered stepfather who drank cheap whiskey and cola like water. The old man would take him hunting on occasion but invariably get drunk and violent. I didn’t have the heart to tell him our mission was useless, that the bastard would continue his brutish ways even if Way were to magically produce a hundred cases of Jack Daniels and Christie Brinkley to serve it.
Packs half full, we encountered a pair of sunbathers face down along the river. These were well-built girls in colorful bikinis, clearly tourists, listening to AC/DC on a silver boombox. Their asses were nothing short of glorious, their thighs thick and shiny with sweat.
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I knew what Way was going to do before he did it. “Let’s chat ’em up,” he said, veering off the road. I shook my head but followed along, cans clanking, heart suddenly hammering in my throat. We pulled up in front of the girls and Way asked how they were doing. They looked up in unison, shielding their eyes from the sun, and I was surprised to find that one had a horsey face and the other’s cheeks were severely pitted from acne, their looks definitely not matching their bodies and I remember being disappointed but then I got a little surge thinking maybe this increased our chances, that even though these girls were in high school or even college they probably didn’t get much action so maybe they’d go for a couple of northern Michigan kids who everybody knows are tougher than those pretty boys from downstate.
Neither girl responded although Horsey reached out and silenced the cassette player, which I took as a good sign.
“You ladies wanna party?” said Way.
“What’s in the backpack?” said Horsey. I winced at her nasally tone, another strike in our favor.
“New Coke and rum,” said Way. This was a brilliant strategy on account girls loved rum, but not so brilliant considering we had none.
“New Coke sucks,” said Horsey. “Tastes like sugar piss.”
“I can get all the rum I want,” added Acne. Her voice wasn’t bad but when she talked the pits in her cheeks opened like raw little mouths.
“We want to expand our minds,” said Horsey.
Way nodded as if he had this conversation all the time. “I can hook you up,” he said. “Best shit in town.” He nodded toward the big log cabin behind the girls where a black convertible sat in the driveway. “You ladies gonna be home tonight? Any parents to worry about?”
Horsey looked to her friend and laughed. Then she rested her head on her arms and told us to move along and called us kiddies. Acne stared a moment longer with a smirk that said they would never take a couple hicks like us seriously, that this was all a game, and I opened my mouth to let her have it but Way waved me off and started off on his ten-speed.
After a bit he said, “My cousin can get us some acid, we just need money.”
I said, “You’re kidding me, right? They’re dogs.”
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Not to mention we had never done acid. We had smoked some sheeb, occasionally hit my mother’s vodka bottle when she was too hammered to notice, but that’s about it.
“Don’t be a chickenshit,” said Wayland. He stopped at a mailbox and pulled out a New Coke.
“Then don’t be a dumbass. You’re a joke to those girls, you know.”
Way turned and glared for a few beats before shaking his head and riding on. Without looking back he said, “Tell me again why I hang out with you? Fuckin’ mama’s boy.”
“Good one, Wayland.” This was in reference to Way’s mother naming him after her favorite singer, Waylon Jennings, but spelling his damn name wrong, a huge sore point for Way.
At the next mailbox he got off his bike, removed the backpack and stuffed another can inside. Then he let the pack fall to the ground and turned, sneering.
“I shoulda told on your ass when I had the chance. Fuckin’ psycho.”
After I stabbed him (retribution for a split lip), Wayland had refused to give me up to the assistant principal, claiming he had sat on the compass, which no one believed, of course, but Way stood his ground. The problem was he never let me forget it, forevermore painting me as some kind of nutjob.
I dismounted and faced him. Way and I had been together since the second grade despite our many differences. I was Bob Seger and baseball; he was Hank Williams Jr. and hunting and fishing. I got decent grades and dreamed of going to State and becoming a magazine writer; Way had shitty grades and dreamed of, well, hunting and fishing. None of this had been a factor in the beginning, of course, when our chief concerns were playing ninja and pushing toy trucks through the trailer park sand. But the reality was our so-called friendship had been born out of simple proximity, and nothing more.
“You’ll never get out of this fuckin’ town,” I say. Even though Wayland lacked the desire to leave he liked to think that he, like me, had that option.
“Yeah? Who’s your daddy again?” He said this because I didn’t know.
He stepped forward, ready to roll, and my eyes widened to the scene behind him.
There were three of them, downstate pretty boys in Izods and plaid shorts hustling through the maple trees with sly little smiles. They were in high school, at least, and athletes by the looks of it. The tallest snatched the back of Way’s collar and tried to lift.
One was wearing badass sunglasses like the Terminator. He said, “Gentlemen, stealing mail is a federal offense.”
“It’s just Coke,” said Way. Predictably, he had gone limp in Tall’s grasp. Wayland was the very definition of a bully, brave only when he could intimidate.
“It’s New Coke,” said one with grotesquely bulging muscles in his neck and shoulders. He had maneuvered behind me and dug into my backpack. I twirled around to break his hold but he simply laughed and spun me to the ground with some type of wrestling move.
“New Coke blows,” said Tall.
“No shit,” said Way.
“You never even tried it,” I said, standing. “You’re such an ass.”
Way called my mother a whore. I called his a fat cow. The pretty boys laughed.
“These young men want to go at it,” said Sunglasses.
“White trash rumble,” said Tall.
He released his hold on Wayland who promptly bunched his fists and came at me with extra pep in his big-boy waddle. This really flipped my switch seeing as how he should have been standing up to these pretty boys instead of putting on a show like some damn puppet. I pulled off my backpack as if preparing to fight but instead swung it two-handed at his moon face. He threw up an arm and we were both thrown off balance, ending up in a heap as the pretty boys hooted and red and silver cans skittered into the gutter.
I scrambled to my feet cocking a can, but Wayland was still sitting on the street holding his forearm and crying. There was a funny little bulge there like a second elbow. “Oh god oh god oh god,” he sobbed, mustard-yellow snot running from his nostrils. The pretty boys looked down with smart-ass surprise and then one of them, the tall one, the one who had called us white trash, said “No crying in the ring, doughboy,” and I turned and whipped the can as hard as I could, catching him square. Tall swore and I reached down for another can but Muscles grabbed my arms and locked them behind me.
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“Hold him still,” said Tall, advancing. He was rubbing his shoulder and looking me up and down. “This will only hurt a lot,” he said, and reached out with thumb and forefinger and twisted the skin on my Adam’s apple. I bucked and howled. Tall ordered Muscles to hold me still, for Christ sakes, and then twisted each of my nipples, then my biceps, working his way down, taking his damn time, fingers a vice. Then he got down there and his eyebrows flicked up and down and I swung my knees and nearly got him but Muscles tightened his hold and suddenly I heard myself begging as Tall felt for my nut sack through my gym shorts.
“Here they are,” he said, jiggling me like a pair of dice.
“Please no,” I said.
He pinched a testicle. The sun turned black. My mother was not a whore, just lonely. Opened my mouth to scream but nothing came. What type of man grabs another’s scrotum? Spat. He squeezed harder. Caught a glimpse of Way watching the whole damn thing with horror show eyes. Pissed a bit in my shorts. Tall smelled of sickly-sweet cologne, reminding me of Uncle Sal and his too-tight leather pants, a la Tom Jones, good old Uncle Sal and his platinum-blonde girlfriend with breasts like overinflated party balloons, I believe her name was Brenda, or maybe Barbara, although at this point I think I was passed out and dreaming because an oldster was helping me up and saying something I couldn’t comprehend and the pretty boys were gone and my groin hurt like hell and my throat was on fire so I bent down and grabbed a New Coke, popped the can and took a warm, fizzy drink. And grimaced. Nasty shit.
“In the car,” he was saying, shouting really, and I looked over to see Way sitting in the backseat of a rusty four-door. “Friend needs a hospital.”
The oldster was one of us, a local, stick-skinny with grubby hearing aids in both ears. He lived in a shack across the street from the tourist houses. As he pulled our bikes into his weedy yard, I limped ahead to hide the piss stain (though he had already seen it, I’m sure) and got in the backseat across from Way, sweeping aside a mess of lottery cards and empty snuff tins.
Without a word the old man backed the vehicle up and headed toward the hospital. Wayland was slouched against the door holding his arm. His eyes were half shut and snot had crusted in the fat fold above his lip. He didn’t look like an oversized bully at this point, just a pale, trembling kid.
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“Them goddamn fudgies,” said the oldster. This was our standard term for tourists on account of their fondness for Mackinac fudge. “I saw what them little sumnabitches did.”
The old man was nearly yelling due to his hearing problems, I guess. Wayland cried out every time we hit a bump, though I don’t believe the oldster was registering. I looked close. A tiny piece of bone was peeking out of Way’s forearm.
“Tell you somethin’,” said the oldster. “You boys need to stick together, not go at each other like a couple badgers.”
“Slow down!” cried Wayland.
“Badgers, yuh!” said the oldster.
“Hearing aid?” I offered.
“First aid, yuh!” he said. “Mile up.”
He turned onto the main road, and this was smoother. We rode without speaking, and I stared at the tip of white on Way’s arm and listened to his moans and thought of the time we found a hundred and forty dollars in a wallet at the entrance to the trailer park and spent the entire day living it up at the county fair. An old woman slipped in goat shit and shattered her ankle that day, the fairgoers popping their eyes and covering their mouths at the way her foot stayed sideways, bones askew, Way and I going Aw shit and No fuckin’ way and giggling at our own audacity while eating our chili cheese nachos and ice cream with no parents around to cuff us.
“Listen,” I said, “sorry about your arm and all. I wasn’t—”
“Fuck off and die,” he said.
I simply shook my head. It felt strangely invigorating to have reduced Wayland to the damaged heap before me. This is what it was like, I guess, playing the bully.
I turned fully to face him. “What did you say?”
“Pissed your shorts like a bitch. I can smell it.”
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I drove an elbow into his forearm. Like the time with the compass, I didn’t think, just brought it down with all my weight, the broken bones clicking upon impact. Wayland slumped forward and his face hit the seatback and a stream of vomit splashed against the leather and back into his lap. I tried scooting away but he was coming at me, his dense torso in a freefall, passed out from the pain, I guess, and I remember fearing that I would never get away from him, that we would be forever trapped in this town together, bound by our hatred, and so I just kept going, opening the door and propelling myself out, the road coming on way too fast. I expected to hit the ground running and keep on going, crazy as it sounds now, nearly thirty years later. Sitting in this damn wheelchair.