Inside the wallpaper (Part 9)

August 28, 2013 § 23 Comments

At dinner that night, Turner was the last one to be seated. He was usually the first. Cason, who was always last, was first, eager to crow about the day. Turner stared at his little bowl of sliced cucumbers and swirled the oil and vinegar and black pepper around in circles, trying to make the oil and the vinegar mix.

The house was one of the few that had survived the Great Storm of 1900. Its floors were made out of longleaf pine from trees that were already over a hundred years old when they had been milled into boards, so that now they were so hard you couldn’t penetrate them with a nail and a five-pound hammer.

The house had degenerated into a dilapidated rental, with the original heavy cloth wallpaper still tacked to the walls. It was a floral pattern of light green prints that had faded into brown on a once-white background which had itself become a faint, uneven yellow. The curlicues of the flowers were so intricate that Turner could stare at them and lose himself in their folds and twists and turns, forever if need be.

He could tell that tonight was going to be a wallpaper night.

“Did you boys have fun on your bikes today?” Mom asked.

“I rode over some roots and a big crack and down to the end of the street and jumped off a curb!” Cason bragged. “And I rode around the garden five times and rode over some more roots and out in the alley!”

“Did you have fun, too, Turner?” she asked.

Turner vaguely heard something as the cucumbers winked back at him and he tried to spear an oil bubble with his fork. “Huh?” he said.

“Turner didn’t have no fun!” Cason said with glee. “He was a grandpa chickensissy!”

“A what?” asked Pops.

“A grandpa chickensissy!” Cason was so happy with this new word, he had already made up a little jingle that went “I’m so prissy like a grandpa chickensissy.” He had put it to a little tune and had been humming it all afternoon. Even though it was directed at him, Turner loved everything Cason did and had started humming it too, against his will.

“What in the world is that?” asked Mom.

“A grandpa chickensissy is a sissy who’s too chicken to take off his training wheels and so he keeps falling like a crybaby and he does it for a hundred years ’til he’s a old man and then he’s a grandpa chickensissy!” Cason was so pleased with the definition he looked like he would bust open from pride.

“Don’t call your brother names,” Pops said.

“Turner don’t care,” said Cason defiantly. “You’re a grandpa chickensissy, aintcha?”

Turner had climbed up into the wallpaper with his bowl of sliced cucumbers. He’d been given an important mission: Find the secret curlicue passageway that had the magic pepper grinder that would make the oil mix perfectly with the vinegar so there wouldn’t be any more oil bubbles. He’d gone way deep into the wallpaper now, and there was no turning back.

Inside his head there were three worlds. The first and the best world was Cason’s World, a place full of excitement and fun and madcap antics and hilarity and danger and adventure, but a place that always ended with him getting humiliated or getting a nasty pummeling or worse, like the time Cason shoved an entire unshelled pecan up his nose, or the time he shot him out of a tree with an arrow that had had its rubber tip removed, or the time he’d made Turner drink half a bottle of ammonia and then told Pops and he’d had to get his stomach pumped..

The second and worst world was Turner’s World, a terrifying place filled with angry adults and bad consequences and lots of places to do the wrong thing and people trying to make you eat anything besides cucumbers with oil and vinegar and black pepper for lunch and dinner, and scowling at him for always wanting Kaboom cereal for breakfast. The third and middle-best place was Pretend, where Turner could wander off and do whatever he wanted. The only down side to Pretend was that after a while he always got yanked back down into Turner’s World, and the longer he was in Pretend the rougher the landing in Turner’s World ended up being, although if you hung out very long in Cason’s world you were certain to get a whipping, no exceptions, ever.

“Aincha?” Cason said again.

“Ain’t I what?”

“Aincha a grandpa chickensissy?”

Turner took a moment to assess where he was. It looked like Cason’s World, because he was getting namecalled, but it might also be Turner’s World, because if he caused a ruckus he’d get yelled at by Mom or Pops. He thought for a second.

“Nope, you dope,” he said to Cason, using a phrase that was guaranteed to earn him a kidney punch at bedtime. “I ain’t one of those.”

“What are ya, then?” Cason taunted him.

Out of nowhere it came, or maybe it came from the magic-est curlicue in the wallpaper, or maybe it came from out in the dirt-and-weeds front yard, where his bike was laying on its side, or maybe it was simpler than all that and it was just fate, Turner’s fate. “I’m a bike rider.” he said.

Cason laughed, but now he was angry. “No you ain’t! You can’t even pedal without falling like a crybaby chickensissy! You ain’t no bike rider! You ain’t! You’re a bike faller chickensissy, that’s what you are!”

“Am too,” Turner retorted, stabbing a cuke and popping it into his mouth. “Am too!” he said again.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” said Mom.

“If you do any more namecalling at the dinner table I’ll tan your hide, Cason,” said Pops.

Cason’s euphoria bubble had popped and he sank down in one of the deep, black troughs that would characterize his life until, many years later, he ended it. Cason scrunched up his eyebrows and stared angrily at his dinner. “You ain’t no bike rider, you ain’t, ’cause you can’t ride a bike.”

“Am too,” Turner hummed. “Am too.”

The Hercules (Part 8)

August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

There is a time in your life when you become you. It happens when you remember back as far back as you can, and voila, there’s a memory, a real one, not a memory conjured up by looking at a photograph, but a real memory, a “this is what I remember doing when I was three” type memory.

Because you can’t exist until you know you exist, and you can’t know you exist until you remember existing. This, of course, is your real birthday, not the fake day with cakes and candles and disappointment, but the earliest day that you remember being. That’s the real day you were born.

Turner was born on a bicycle, on Pops’s big black Hercules with the white grips and the Sturmey-Archer three-speed gear shifter and the hand brakes and most of all the handlebar seat, yes, the handlebar seat, an invention so dangerous as is scarcely to be believed in this day and age of product liability and helmets and helicopter parents who fear jungle gyms, yes, that’s where he was born and it was terrifying and dangerous because it didn’t even have a safety belt it was just a seat with two holes for the legs to dangle and Pops’s warning “Don’t let your feet get caught in the spokes!” and two little steel handles that Turner would grip onto with the deathgrip as Pops would stand up on the pedals and the already gigantic bike propelled by a giant would sway from side to crazy side and accelerate and the giant that Pops was would make big, heavy breathing noises and the bike would go faster and faster until it was going so fast that it stopped swaying from side to side and Pops would now be sucking in huge rhythmic breaths in synch with the thrusting of his giant legs and Turner would hunker down in that little steel seat and grip the handles and his heart would be in his mouth and the wind would be pressing  tears  from  his eyes and somehow he knew that this was all a very bad idea but the safety of Pops overwhelmed everything because Pops was a giant and knew what he was doing and there was a red light and the Hercules would groan under the brakes and slow and stop and Pops would put a foot down and the bike would tilt a bit so that Turner thought they would tump over but they never did and then the light would turn green and off  they’d careen again in frightened freedom.

Now Turner looked at his new bicycle and its amputated training wheels and grimly realized that he would have to ride it, not because he wanted to, but because Cason was gaily scooting over the dirt and hollering out, “Chickensissy, chickensissy!” and, much as he didn’t want to admit it, it sure did look fun.

Pops  righted the bike and gave Turner a push. He coasted helplessly. “Pedal, Turner!” Pops shouted.

Turner closed his eyes and fell over on his side. It hurt and he cried.

“Chickensissy dummy!” cackled Cason as he rode in circles around his brother.

“Can it, Cason,” Pops said, and lifted up the rider and the bike. “You have to pedal, Turner,” he said, and gave the crying boy another hard push, which ended in another hard fall and more crying.

After half an hour Pops gave up. Once he’d gone in, Cason rode up. “You’re never gonna learn to ride it until you’re a hundred. You’ll be a old man training wheels grandpa chickensissy! Grandpa chickensissy! Grandpa chickensissy!”

Cason had never been happier,  and maybe, you know, he never would be.

When the wheels came off (Part 7)

August 23, 2013 § 6 Comments

Even after he’d gotten old and cranky, and had lived and loved through regime changes and the melting Planet Earth and survived his wife’s menopause and come to the conclusion that happiness as a prolonged state was a myth, Turner still remembered with perfect clarity the three happiest days of his life.

They were December 25, 26, and 27, in the year 1965.

The moment he got on his new bicycle and pedaled it across the grass he forgot completely and forever about plumbing supplies, and he experienced nothing short of perfect joy. He remembered until his death the feeling of the tires bounding across the grass and patches of dirt, mostly dirt, and the whacking of the training wheels as they spun, first one side and then the other, gripping the ground to keep him upright as he sailed across the universe.

Turner’s universe those three days was the small front yard, the small back yard, and the narrow strip of cracked and uneven concrete that made up the sidewalk, which then turned into a narrower, more cracked walkway to the front of their rental house at 1512 Rosenberg. For three days Turner pedaled and smiled and whee-ed and yelled in little yips of happiness until, felled by hunger, we would go inside and eat another big bowlful of sliced cucumbers doused with oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper.

“Turner,” Mom would sigh. “Why don’t you eat something else?”

“‘Cause I don’t wanna!” he’d chirp before vigorously stabbing each slice and sticking it in his mouth, the tang of the vinegar mixing with the salt and the spice of the pepper but still somehow ameliorated by the oil.

Mom’s garden out back was like Mom, it was wild and untamed and fecund and it overflowed with cucumbers and tomatoes and eggplant and watermelons and squash and green beans, and it was wild like Mom’s cooking, a dynamic explosion of tastes and flavors evoked from fresh things and always leaving behind a kitchen that looked like a war zone.

Mom’s weak point was cleaning, just like her green thumb in the garden was in perfect musical counterpoint to her brown thumb for children, especially boys, who she saw as a shocking reaffirmation of the unfairness and dirtiness of life, the mark of the devil on what should have been a life blessed with daughters instead of sons.

Turner remembered the moment that his three perfect days of perfect happiness came to an end. It was on December 28, 1965.

“Hey, Pops!” said Cason. Pops was in his study working on his book.

“What?” he said, with that classic Pops-is-annoyed-but-resigned-to-fatherhood tone that he’d perfected over the last few years.

“Come take off our training wheels!”

“Already?” Pops said, reluctantly, not wanting to leave the keys of the big, the giant, the outsized, the massive steel Remington on which he daily pounded out the tattoo of his life.

“Yeah!” said Cason.

“I don’t want mine off,” said Turner.

Pops turned around in the wooden swivel chair. “If I take off one, I’m taking off both. So work it out between yourselves and let me know.” Then he spun back to the Remington and resumed his pounding.

Turner scampered down the hall, but Cason tackled him. “We’re taking off the training wheels, you big chicken sissy!” Cason emphasized it with a punch to the kidney.

Turner moaned. “I don’t want them off. I don’t want them off!”

“You big chicken sissy!” Cason punched him again and ran back to Pops’s study. “Okay!” he said. “Come take ‘em off!”

Pops and Cason and Turner went out to the back yard. Pops got his crescent wrench and pulled the training wheels off of Cason’s bike. Turner watched the scene unfold with horror. Next, Pops amputated the wheels off of Turner’s bike, his beautiful gold and white and silver bike, his perfect sailing boat for the universe, the training wheels, still almost brand new, now laying in a pile with Cason’s, dead, inert, useless, and the only thing that remained was his beautiful bike, which was now so crippled it could only lie on its side, and Turner felt alone and wretched and sad and most of all convulsed by a feeling of profound and infinite dread.

Plumbing supplies (Part 6)

August 22, 2013 § 17 Comments

Christmas morning arrived, and the two boys tore downstairs to see what Santa had brought. Cason began wailing, and Turner chimed in with a muffled sob. “See?” said Cason. “Santa didn’t come! I’m sorry Santa!”

He threw himself down on the ground and began crying so loudly that it woke up Pops, who came grumpily down the stairs with Mom in tow. “What are you crying for?”

“Santa didn’t come!” Cason wailed. “I’m sorry, Santa! I’m sorry! Please come back, Santa!” He ran over to Pops and grabbed his leg. “Tell Santa to come back, Pops, tell him, please!”

Turner wasn’t crying as loudly, but he was equally inconsolable. Santa had skipped them all because of that firecracker. “Oh, Santa!” he cried. “We’re sorry, Santa! Cason won’t throw no firecrackers on Pops no more! I’m sorry, Santa!”

“Calm down for a minute,” Pops ordered. The two boys were so distraught that in their hour of need the only voice they could hear was Pops. They looked at him in hopeless misery. “Santa came last night,” he said.

Cason looked in disbelief, stunned. “He did?”

“Sure he did,” said Pops. “But he was none too happy after that firecracker stunt.”

“But he didn’t bring us anything, did he?” Cason softly moaned.

“Of course he did.”

“He did?” Turner hardly dared believe it.

“What did he bring us?” asked Cason.

“Plumbing supplies,” said Pops somberly.

Cason immediately broke out into a second round of wailing more piteous than the first. “I don’t want plumbing supplies!” he cried.

Turner had no idea what plumbing supplies were, and he figured that Cason didn’t either, but it sounded mysterious and actually kind of fun. “Maybe it’s like fishing supplies,” he thought. “I love plumbing supplies, Pops!” he said.

“I hate plumbing supplies!” Cason sobbed. “I hate you, Santa!”

“Now looky here,” said Pops sternly. “I won’t have anyone hating on Santa Claus in my house. He was pretty tired from his trip and was in a pretty bad mood when he dropped off the plumbing supplies. I put them in the shed out back. Before you decide you don’t want ‘em, you owe it to Santa to at least have a look-see.”

“I’m not gonna!” Cason wailed. “I hate plumbing supplies!”

“I don’t hate ‘em!” said Turner. “I love plumbing supplies, Pops!”

Cason turned on him. “You stupid dummy idiot!” he said. “You don’t even know what they are! You’re gonna hate ‘em! I hate plumbing supplies!” Now he was hysterical.

Turner started to get worried. What if plumbing supplies were as awful as Cason was making them out to be? This could be a disaster of a Christmas. He started to sniffle again.

“Cason,” Pops admonished. “You don’t know if you hate plumbing supplies. You don’t even know what they are. You might like them. I took a look at them and they’re some of the nicest plumbing supplies I’ve ever seen.”

“I hate them!” Cason moaned. “I hate them plumbing supplies!”

They had reached the shed and Pops fiddled with the combination lock. By the time the shackle fell away, Turner had made up his mind: He liked plumbing supplies, he was glad Santa had brought ‘em, and he was going to play with his plumbing supplies like nobody’s business. He would catch the biggest old plumbing anyone had ever seen, and mount it on the wall like Freddy Tatum’s dad with deer and moose and big fish. He was so excited when Pops pulled open the creaky door that he could barely contain himself.

The morning sunshine flooded in. There in the middle of the tiny storage shed were two brand new bicycles, replete with training wheels.

It took the boys’ breath away. “Bicycles!” yelled Cason. “Santa brought us bicycles!” His despair was transformed into a kind of heavenly, radiant, overwhelming joy. He pushed Turner aside and grabbed the larger bicycle, which was naturally his, and yanked it forward.

It was gold with white trim, the most beautiful bicycle ever made in the history of the world. Cason began doing a little dance around it. “Pops! Santa brought us bikes! Santa brought us bikes! I love Santa, Pops!”

Pops turned to Turner, who was standing there bewildered. “What’s wrong, Turner? Look! Santa brought you a bike!”

Turner put his face up against Pops’s leg and softly started to cry.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mom.

“I wanted plumbing supplies,” he said, crying. Then he looked up at Pops. “Pops?” he said.

“What?”

“What are plumbing supplies?”

Firecrackers (Part 5)

August 21, 2013 § 5 Comments

Christmas, with its depression, rage, disappointment, alcoholism, family feuds, marital discord, and longing for the years before his family became “broken” was always made worse for Turner because it was his birthday. In all of his nineteen birthdays there had only been one that was happy, his fifth. He remembered it with the fond, warm, nostalgic clarity that a kitten recalls being licked by its mother.

Christmas Eve, 1965, had begun like any other. Grandpa Jake had arrived in the rusted out Ford, tired by the long drive from East Texas down to Galveston. “Jake,” Granny Gro had scolded as he grinned at his grandsons through his one good eye, “don’t start drinking before dinner!”

“Why, ‘course not!” he said, then leered at the boys, handed them each a five-dollar bill, and as soon as granny turned away he whipped out his hip flask and took a long pull of his favorite bourbon, Old Forester.

Turner and Cason got a quarter allowance a week from Pops, which was enough to buy Now ‘n Laters, a Slurpee, and four comic books at Delasso’s Mart just around the corner, so the five-dollar bill from Grandpa Jake was like a winning lottery ticket.

By nine o’clock, after the dishes had been washed and everyone was seated in the living room by the fake gas logs, Grandpa Jake was profoundly drunk. Turner’s dad was drunk too, and so was Turner’s mom. Pops stretched out on the throw rug in front of the fake logs, and Grandpa Jake motioned to Cason. “C’mere, sonny,” he said with a grin.

Cason ran over. “How you like them apples?” Grandpa Jake said, opening his massive, wrinkled, liver-spotted hand and revealing a handful of firecrackers.

Cason greedily scooped them up and ran over to Turner, who was sitting on the staircase. They carefully examined the treasure, turning over each Black Cat between their fingers, smelling the gunpowder and twirling the paper fuses with delight.

“We can set ‘em off in the alley tomorrow!” Turner cackled.

Cason shook his head. Pops had nodded off and Mom was happily chatting with Granny Gro at the dining room table. “Watch this!” said Cason, and he casually walked over to the fireplace. He reached the firecracker into the flame, then, amazed at what he’d done, stood there for a split second looking stupid while the fuse caught fire.

It sizzled, showering sparks. In a panic, Cason tossed it in the air. So far, everyone had been too drunk to notice. The firecracker landed next to Pops’s ear and exploded with a bang.

Turner watched in amazement as Pops flew into the air, then flew into a rage. He’d never seen a grown-up jump so high. “Goddamn you, you little sonofabitch!” Pops roared, grabbing Cason by the arm and stripping off his big leather belt in the same motion.

“Clyde!” Mom screamed, and Cason, knowing the next step in the dance, set up a preparatory wailing to match the beating he was about to receive.

Seated safely on the fifth step of the staircase and partially protected by the banister railing, Turner watched the pandemonium with glee as Pops beat the shit out of Cason, as Mom pleaded with him to stop, as Cason screamed like he was being murdered, and as Granny Gro looked on, horrified more at the breach in etiquette and the cursing than the actual physical abuse.

Grandpa Jake looked on, his deeply drunken expression never varying a whit. Pops finally tired from the whipping, and as he stopped to catch his breath he shouted at Cason, “Where the hell did you get that goddamn firecracker?”

Cason blubbered and sobbed, and pointed at Grandpa Jake, which let the air out of the whole drama balloon. Pops was now in the awkward position of having to be angry at Grandpa Jake, which wasn’t permissible on so many levels.

“Well why’d you put the goddamn thing in the fireplace?” he shouted at Cason. “That could have blown out my goddamn ear!”

Turner was enjoying every second of it. He loved his big brother and the crazy stuff he did and the awesome whippings he got. “Get your ass up to your bedroom!” Pops yelled, half-throwing Cason up the first few steps. “And you too, Turner!”

The two boys dashed up the stairs and ran into bed. Cason kept sobbing. “Are you okay?” Turner asked.

“No,” Cason wailed, punching him in the side.

“Hurts pretty bad, huh?”

Cason whacked him in the head, still sobbing. “‘Course it hurts, dummy. But what about Santa? What if Santa saw us? We won’t get any presents!”

Turner’s mind went blank, then he broke out wailing along with his brother. Five years old was a hard age to be.

The anesthetic (Part 4)

August 20, 2013 § 13 Comments

The first thing Turner had done before going to sleep was to set his alarm for six o’clock. The alarm sounded and he went into the living room and flicked on the TV, but there was no news about a woman being killed out by Lake Travis. He went out the front door and stole a neighbor’s newspaper, unfurling it on the living room table. “Nothing here, either,” he said to himself. “But maybe it was too late for the news deadline.”

He re-wrapped the newspaper and put it back on the neighbor’s stoop.

His stomach was growling, and he realized he now had money for food. The thought made him sick. In staggered Will.

“Hey, man! What are doing up this early? It’s Saturday.” Will was still drunk.

“I’ve been checking the news,” he said.

“For what? That’s the first time I’ve ever seen you even watch the TV.”

“Your frat brother threw the woman out of his truck last night and stole all her money.”

“Galen did that to the whore? Really?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“He did. And he gave me a hundred bucks to shut up about it.”

“Oh,” Will said. “That sounds more like Galen. He’s a pretty generous guy. You gotta be pretty happy, huh? You’ll get to eat breakfast and dinner!”

“You guys are fucked up,” said Turner.

Will had gone into the kitchen, popped open a beer, and flopped down on the couch. “How’s that?”

“You brought that woman to the party, then robbed her and probably hurt her and maybe killed her for all I know.”

Will grinned. “Dude,” he said. “She is a whore. Do you know what a whore is? A whore is a woman with a drug habit who sells her body for money. Whores get beaten, robbed, pushed out of pickups, and smeared with every venereal disease known to man. That’s why we don’t let our daughters be whores. We let other people’s daughters be whores. Whoring is not healthy for children and other living things.”

“She’s not a whore. She’s a person.”

“Really? Sure looked like one to me.” Will swigged the beer. “You know your problem, Turner?”

“Which one?”

“The one that’s eating you up right now.”

“No, actually I don’t.”

“Let me tell you. You’re one of those people who likes the hard road.”

“What does that mean?”

“There are two roads in life, the easy one and the hard one. The frat life is the easy road, buddy. You kiss a little ass. You dress right. You talk about the right stuff. You pay your monthly dues. You drink the beer and whiskey and you puke a little bit and you screw the hookers and you cheat on the accounting test and you major in business. Then you graduate and one of your brothers gets you a job and you marry a nice girl and get a house in Houston or Dallas and make money and live a good life. That’s the easy road. It’s open to everybody who’s white, male, reasonably smart, and who knows how to play along to get along.”

“And what’s the hard road?”

“Shit, you know better than I do. It’s the road for the guy who won’t be a team player.”

“Like not raping the stripper and robbing the prostitute?”

“We didn’t rape the stripper. And even if we did, so what? She’s a fucking stripper. She takes off her clothes so that men can look at her pussy. She’s a moron and a drug addict.”

“So that makes it right?”

“No, but the fact that it bothers you means you like the hard road. You’d rather wonder about the inner workings of the whores and strippers than stick five bucks in her crack and pile on for sloppy seconds with your buddies. Piling on is easy. Understanding the inner workings of strippers and whores? No harder road, Turner.” Will finished the beer, neatly flipped it into the trash can, and went into his bedroom.

Turner took a t-shirt out of his drawer and wiped down his Nishiki. It was a beautiful, lustrous, pearly gray-and-tan. He pulled the cloth around the spokes and carefully polished the few flecks of dirt and grit from the day before. With twenty of the stolen dollars in his pocket, he pushed the bike out the door. It was barely seven o’clock, and the student ghetto was absolutely still.

The air had a touch of fall in it. He swung his leg over his bike and let gravity start to accelerate the wheels. His mind was so full of anger and confusion and guilt that he thought he would explode. This time the bike felt more natural. Its smoothness wasn’t quite as surprising as it glided through the turn at Woodland, and his feet hadn’t fumbled as much trying to slip them into the toeclips.

Turner couldn’t believe he’d taken the money from Galen, but the twenty was in his pocket and he was hungry. He was no better than the guy who’d robbed her. He felt his face turn red from shame. Then his legs were turning as he hit the first roller. Up and over, he pedaled more, and pedaled harder. When he came to the big one, the roller that had stopped him and knocked him over the day before, he jumped out of the saddle unencumbered by the backpack, his chain already sitting neatly on just the right gear.

His legs jammed down hard and the bike shot forward. There was nothing in his head any more except the sound of the tires, the wind in his ears, and the slight labor of his breath.

Get your money up front (Part 3)

August 17, 2013 § 16 Comments

That evening Turner got back to the apartment. He was ravenous. The ride back home had been brutal, uphill most of the way, and choked with traffic.

Will was getting ready to leave. “Hey, man,” he said. “What are you doing for dinner?”

“No plans,” Turner said.

Will knew that Turner was broke and that he’d refuse to take his money back. “Why don’t you come to this party with me? There’ll be food, a little, and a shit-ton of beer and liquor.”

“I’ll pass, but thanks.”

“C’mon. It’s just a rush party. We’re not psycho killers, Turner. It’ll just be a bunch of guys hanging out and having a good time. The frat rented a house for the weekend out on Lake Travis. I’ll wait for you to get cleaned up.”

Turner was so hungry that the thought of food overcame his aversion to frats. Plus, he’d never been to a frat party, and he’d be with Will, who was a junior. They didn’t have a lot in common. Will’s father worked with Turner’s dad, and Will had needed a replacement for a roommate who had backed out at the last minute.  “Okay.”

It feels like the first time

Will had to pick up a couple of frat brothers, and by the time they got to the lake house, which was a solid hour’s drive from Austin, it was past nine o’clock and the party was in full swing. A drunken kid at the door was manning the keg and stuffing a full cup of beer into everyone’s hand as they entered.

“No, thanks,” Turner said.

“You can’t party sober,” Will laughed.

The music was so loud that it hurt Turner’s ears, and the main room was jammed full of guys. The only woman in the room was a stripper. Turner was transfixed. He’d never seen one before.

She stood on a low table and gyrated as the guys stuck money into her g-string. Her breasts were bare and her pelvis was inches away from the faces of the drunken children.

Will grinned. “She’s hot, huh?”

Turner’s eyes went to her face. She was smiling as she gyrated, but her eyes were completely empty. His initial surge of excitement drained as quickly as it had come, as if he was looking at someone who had been put in a zoo. It was horrific.

He turned away and saw a friend from high school who, like him, was at his first frat party, but unlike Turner, he was actually rushing the frat. And unlike Turner, he was completely drunk. “Hey, Joey,” Turner said.

This kid had already learned the uniform. In May he’d been the same schlumpy kid as Turner, wearing old t-shirts and scuffed up tennis shoes and three-year-old jeans. Now he was crisp with the ironed Levi’s, although some of the snap, crackle, and pop seemed to have taken a beating from his nervousness and from the beer.

Joey looked at Turner, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Joey had on the uniform and drunken mask. Turner was the same old dork he used to be, right down to the scuffed up tennis shoes. Turner held his gaze for a few seconds, just long enough for the mask to crack, and he saw it, the thing that drew all these kids together: The fear of what was inside them, and the fear that they were the only ones who were afraid.

Chips, salsa, and the fire down below

Turner went outside by the pool, where the food consisted of five giant bowls filled with tortilla chips and several gallon-jugs of salsa. He quickly ate until he was completely full. He watched through the plate glass window as the stripper unhooked the final curtain and flung it into the crowd.

“What in the hell is she going to do now?” he wondered. “There’s nothing left to hide.”

He made up his mind to go back out to the curb and sit next to Will’s car until the party ended. As he pushed his way through the crowd, Will grabbed his shoulder. He was now just as hammered as everyone else. “Hey, man, come over here. Got something for you.”

He guided Turner down a hallway. In front of the bedroom door stood a big fraternity brother, clutching a beer in one hand and a fistful of dollars in the other. Four or five rushes stood drunkenly in line. They were all sweating and nervous despite the deadening effect of the whiskey and beer.

Will pushed past them. “Hey,” he said to the guy with the money. “Let my buddy in.”

“No pay, no play.”

“Fuck that,” said Will. “I’ll pay for him. But let him go see if he wants it first.”

“It’s pretty good shit,” said the big guy. “Or at least it was when I tried it, but that was twenty or thirty guys ago.”

The burly brother opened the door and pushed Turner in. When the door shut behind him the music from the main room muffled almost totally. The room was dark except for a dim lamp on a small table next to the bed. He stood there for a few seconds waiting for his eyes to adjust. “What the hell is going on?” he wondered.

He took a step towards the nightstand, then stopped. A woman was lying on the bed with her head propped up by several pillows. Her skirt was pulled up around her stomach as the guy on top of her pushed and grunted. A cigarette was burning in the ashtray.

Turner watched the naked ass of the guy rise and fall. He couldn’t believe he was watching two people have sex. It was all just as brutally casual as if he were watching them play a game of cards.

“C’mon, babycakes,” the woman said. “Shoot your squirt gun, I ain’t got all night. You ain’t drilling for oil at the bottom of the fucking North Sea. And quit fucking slobbering all over me.”

At the moment Turner realized that the guy atop the woman was Joey, the woman saw him standing there. “What the fuck are you doing here? Wait your goddamn turn.”

Joey turned his head and looked at Turner, but he was so drunk he didn’t recognize him. Joey was sobbing.

Turner spun around and went back into the hallway. The gatekeeper and Will were laughing. “That get your motor running?” the big guy said.

Turner ignored him and went back to the big room. The drunks had taken the stripper and thrown her into the pool. She was cursing them as they laughed and poured beer on her as she tried to get out of the pool. Each time she reached the edge, they’d push her back in and dump more beer on her. Finally one of the frat brothers stripped naked and jumped in the pool, too.

“He’s going to rape her,” Turner said to himself as the poolside drunks screamed and yelled encouragement.

He stumbled back through the house and went out to the curb. He felt sick. A few minutes later Joey came out. He didn’t see Turner. He was sobbing and choking. He leaned against one of the parked cars and vomited, over and over. Then he walked over onto the grass and passed out.

An hour or so later Will came out with the gatekeeper and the woman. He saw Turner. “I been looking for you, man. I’m spending the night here, this party’s gonna be going on for a long time. You want to ride back to Austin with Galen and the whore? He has to take her back.”

“Okay,” Turner said.

They climbed into Galen’s pickup, with Turner in the middle of the bench seat. No one said anything. After about fifteen minutes Galen pulled over onto the side of the road. They were out in the hill country along Lake Travis. There were no houses or cars on the isolated two-lane blacktop.

“Get the fuck out of my truck,” he said to the woman.

“What?” she said.

“You heard me, you fucking whore. Get the fuck out of my truck or I’ll throw you out.”

“We’re thirty miles from Austin.”

“That’s your problem, you stupid cunt. You want me to pull you out myself? I’ll beat your fucking face in if I do.”

Terrified, she opened the door and swung out a leg. Galen reached over and grabbed her purse, yanking it from her with one hand and shoving her out of the truck with the other. She hit the asphalt with her shoulder. It made a dull thud. “Close the fucking door!” he roared to Turner as he gassed the pickup.

“Fucking stupid whores are all the same,” he laughed. He flicked on the cab light and dumped the contents of her purse onto his lap. “There’s a couple thousand dollars here, buddy. Not bad for a night’s work, huh?” He took five twenties and shoved them into Turner’s hand. “Don’t fucking tell anybody, okay? And just so you know, you’re a complete fucking dork. We wouldn’t let you into our frat on a bet, and if you ever pledged we’d literally kill you. If you weren’t Will’s buddy I’d probably kick your skinny ass just for the fun of it, you know?” He looked at Turner and laughed, expecting him to enjoy the joke.

“Yeah,” Turner said. “I know.”

Let the sweat rain down on me (Part 2)

August 16, 2013 § 24 Comments

The moment his head cleared, Turner realized that he still had a long way to go; he was halfway to school at best. Pushing as hard as he could, his legs got weaker the more he willed them to pedal. “I can’t lose this stupid race,” he said, and the mere thought of it made him desperate and angry and hungry all at once.

He hit Congress Avenue, steered right, and began the long descent to the river. The speed he’d reached flying down Burton was nothing compared to the velocity he was hitting now, and the sound of the tires spinning over the asphalt moved him from thrilled to surreal to terrified. The first two lights were green and he wondered how he would have stopped for them if they hadn’t been.

Turner held the bars with a sweaty death grip as he went faster and faster. Finally a light turned yellow. “I can make it,” he told himself, and jumped out of the saddle. His overweighted backpack shifted up on his shoulders and caused the bike to wobble. In a panic he sat back down, barely bringing the flying machine under control just as he hit the stoplight, which was now red, red, red.

Cross traffic honked but he barely heard it. He’d committed to either death or making the light or both, and the fury of a fool in a pick-up meant nothing. On he raced to the river. Once he crossed it, the road began to go gradually up again, and the confluence of exhaustion, the slight grade, and intersections barred by completely red lights and cross traffic slowed him to a crawl. Turner thought about the school bus and tried to estimate where it was. He couldn’t be too far ahead or too far behind, even with the mishaps. It would be down to the wire.

Speeding by the capitol building he hit Lavaca, then MLK, then Guadalupe, and then he was on campus, still giving it everything he had but feeling the listlessness of the bike beneath him as he mashed the pedals with spongy legs. He’d given it everything he had, and somehow, from somewhere deep inside, he’d given it something that he didn’t even know was there. A more drained and empty feeling he’d never had in his life, until, that is, the moment he reached the bus stop and saw Will standing nonchalantly by the fountains, chatting with a frat brother.

“There he is!” said Will.

The other guy was just as neatly dressed as Will, down to the blue jeans with a sharp crease in the leg. Their polo shirts were dry and looked as crisp as their neatly combed hair. Both had the look of the happy, relaxed college man who was on the cusp of success and in control of a wonderful life.

Turner pulled his feet out of the pedals, his bedraggled hair flat against the sides of his head, and sweat pouring off his face, arms and legs. “How long you been waiting?” he asked.

Will grinned. “Oh, I’d say we’ve been waiting about five dollars.” His frat brother laughed. “But don’t worry, man. You don’t owe me. You almost beat me here, anyway. We hit all the stoplights on green once we got off 1-35. I couldn’t believe it. That never happens.”

Turner had already fished out his five-dollar bill. “Bet’s a bet.” His face flushed from the humiliation.

Will shrugged and took it. “Okay.”

The friend started laughing. “You gotta take a look at yourself in the mirror. If that won’t convince you to ride the bus, nothing will.” They walked off.

Turner got back on his bike and rode over to Waggoner Hall, where he locked his bike. He still had a few minutes before class, so he went to the men’s room. Staring back at him in the mirror was a mess. His shirt was sopped with sweat. His hair looked like it had been washed with vegetable oil. His shorts had a big smear from the chain oil, and his sock was stained with a large, ragged blot of blood. Now that he’d stopped moving, his legs ached and he was light-headed.

Turner got his face up to the mirror so closely that his nose was almost touching it. He could see the pores in his skin and the rivulets of sweat that were already starting to dry up in the air conditioned men’s room. He looked at his eyes, and blinked from the sting of the salt. He wasn’t burning from embarrassment any more, and he wasn’t even concerned about the dinner he wouldn’t be getting to eat.

Instead, a heavy satisfaction started in his gut and radiated outward until it filled him, reaching the tips of his fingers, the ends of each strand of hair. “So that’s it,” he mused, surprised and pleased at what he’d found.

Then he lifted up the backpack and went off to class.

You take the bus (Part 1)

August 15, 2013 § 20 Comments

Before carbon, before brake-lever shifting, before clipless pedals, before  speedometers even, there was just the bike and the wheels and the pedals and the legs.

“I wouldn’t ride my bike if I were you,” said Will.

“Why not?” Turner wasn’t paying much attention as he slung his backpack over his shoulder.

“The bus is faster, for one.  And you’re going to be duking it out with cars, for another. And when you get to school you’ll be sopping with sweat. It’s eighty degrees outside and it’s not even nine o’clock. By the time your eleven o’clock class starts, you’ll stink like an old tennis shoe. Or worse.”

“The bus isn’t faster.”

“Five bucks says it is,” Will grinned.

Turner didn’t have five bucks to lose on a bet, he had five bucks to cover food for the next two days. The $375 he’d dropped on this new Nishiki International was money he didn’t have. “You’re on.”

“But you can’t run the red lights,” Will said.

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t intend to come home from classes this afternoon and see you on the evening news, then spend the rest of my life feeling guilty about having killed my friend over a five-dollar bet over whether his bike was faster than the UT shuttle bus.”

Now they were standing outside the apartment. “Okay,” said Turner. “But we start now.” He jumped on his bike. Unused to the toe clips, he fumbled with his tennis shoe, rolled off the pavement and headed straight for a large oak tree. He swerved at the last second, came back to the pavement, hit the edge of the cement hard, and flipped over the bars.

Will stood over him. “You okay? Bet’s off if you want.”

Turner stumbled to his feet. “Don’t miss your bus,” he snarled.

“I won’t.” Will sauntered off.

Turner jerked at his backpack, which was laying in the grass. He’d forgotten to close the top, and all the books had spilled out. Cursing, he stuffed them back in. Then he checked the front wheel, which had taken a pretty solid whack. It looked fine. He froze as he heard the diesel rumble of the bus, then jumped back on the bike and pedaled down the walkway to the street.

The bus roared down Burton, heading for the next stop. Turner mashed on the pedals. The bike accelerated downhill and in a moment he had forgotten all about the race. This wasn’t a bike, it was a flying machine. What had seemed smooth and fast in the Freewheeling parking lot was like a beast uncaged on the actual road.

As he approached Woodland Drive, he grabbed the brake levers. Accustomed to the sluggish stop of the old, rusty Murray he’d ridden every day to school for three years in junior high school, he almost threw himself over the bars as the racing Dia-Compe brakes gripped the rims with a fury. “Didn’t say I’d stop for the stop signs,” he muttered as he blew through the intersection.

The bike raced along Woodland and under I-35. Turner had found this route on the map. He’d only been in Austin a couple of months and knew that if he was going to commute from way out in the student ghetto on Riverside he’d have to find a different route from the bus, which took the Interstate. The bike leaped with each surge on the pedals. The chain hopped up and down the cogs with the slightest push or pull on the levers.

The bike picked up speed and Turner hit the first small roller. He couldn’t believe how quickly the bike raced over the bump. The second roller was harder, but he pushed harder, too. The bike responded. Now his legs had started to burn. It was a new feeling, and it hurt, but before he could think about it his breath caught up with him. He was panting with the exertion from the first two rollers, and then he saw the third.

It was impossibly steep — he didn’t know it was a 12 percent grade, he just knew there were no hills like that in Houston, where he’d grown up. It was unthinkably long — a solid two or three hundred yards. And Turner was impossibly gassed.

The bike hit the bottom of the roller and he reached to the down tube and madly shifted off of the big ring. The derailleur worked with surprising speed, so much speed that it threw the chain off the ring entirely. Turner came to a halt, legs spinning wildly. He tipped over and banged his ankle. The asphalt tore through his sock and blood poured into the white fabric.

This was the bike’s first full day outside the shop, so the chain wasn’t filthy yet, but Uncle Joe, who had sold him the bike, had lightly oiled the chain. By the time he got the chain back on the small ring his hand was covered in oil. Turner absentmindedly wiped it on his khaki shorts, and thinking only of the bus, remounted his bike.

But since he had stopped in the middle of the small hill, he couldn’t get started, so he turned around, coasted to the bottom, got his feet back into the toe clips, and charged at the hill again. He almost made it to the top before his legs and lungs gave out. Panting and gasping he felt the entire crushing weight of the backpack filled with philosophy and German books and a giant cable with a lock. “I can’t do this,” he realized. “I’m going to fall over again.”

The pain in his bony legs crescendoed. “Ahhh, fuggit. I can’t lose that five bucks,” he panted to himself. Turner drove his spindly thighs once more as hard as they would go and the bike stabilized, then topped the hill. He stopped pedaling. The spots in his eyes receded. His breathing relaxed. The blood in his legs poured through the muscles, carrying away the acid and replacing it with oxygen. A brief second of clarity hit him, so pure and beautiful that it transcended, or rather obliterated, everything that had happened up to that point.

Turner didn’t know it yet, but cresting the top of that hill on his shiny new bike had caused something to happen that would change him forever.

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