Jack claimed to know karate, but I doubted it. I’d heard he got in a fight with Roger, a black belt who had to register his hands as lethal weapons at the police station, and Roger nearly killed him. Jack would give you the evil eye and make some chops through the air, but I never believed he was any good at it.
Still, he could be intimidating. He was the best-looking guy in town, that was for sure. Better looking than a lot of movie stars, but Jack wasn’t an actor. That wasn’t the kind of thing he’d go in for. He was only an actor in real life, putting people on all the time. He went out to California one summer but was probably too stoned to try to get on as an extra at a studio. He coulda done it if he’d tried, but Jack never worked hard at anything except chasing women.
The woman he ended up with much to everybody’s surprise was Cynthia, a real nice girl. Jack would do that some times, get tired of the girls from his side of the tracks and try to score with a daughter of the country club set. If the parents were too naïve to know about Jack they were usually set straight as soon as one of their friends who was in the know clued them in.
I think Cynthia’s parents knew something about Jack from the start, since she had an older sister, but maybe not. Jack could make himself very presentable—he always looked good in a tie, and his hair was always combed—and he could probably shoot the breeze with the old man of the family. Anybody who took the trouble to read the police blotter regularly would know that he was in and out of trouble for one thing or another all the time. Maybe Cynthia’s dad was too busy with golf and his insurance business.
Anyway, if you wanted to be where the action was, you hung around Jack. He was always the life of the party, but then he was 21 or 22 and still in town, unlike other guys his age who’d gone off to school or had regular jobs so they had to get some sleep at night. Jack would buy the booze, we’d go out to the quarry or a country road with a low-water bridge and that would be the entertainment for the night.
Eventually he moved out of his mom’s house because she wanted the place for herself and her various boyfriends, and he rented a place on the southeast side of town. It was one of the tract houses going up out there that the owner would rent until he could sell. It had two bedrooms for Jack and Chuck, who was gone a lot. There was a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom. The living room had a couch—I don’t know where they got it. The living room always smelled like beer but when you were drinking you didn’t notice it because you were tasting it at the same time.
One night we were at the drive-in and Jack started making a spectacle of himself, playing “auto-skeet” with Roger, who he was friendly with again. They’d sit in Jack’s black Barracuda or Roger’s yellow GTO and, as cars came in the driveway, they’d pop the clutch and lunge out at them. They never hit anybody, but they made a lot of people mad. Nobody ever complained to the owner, though, because Roger had that black belt.
Everybody was sitting in their cars including Cynthia, who was in the Barracuda drinking a soda and eating French fries while Jack worked the lot, going from car to car, yukking it up. Cynthia was sitting on the passenger side of her car, right next to me, and she said hi. We knew each other from the country club but just barely; she was a year behind me and I’d never paid any attention to her. Her big sister was taller and had been homecoming queen, but Cynthia was short and cute like her mom. I didn’t see why Jack would be attracted to her except that she was forbidden fruit.
“How’re you doing?” she asked with a big smile on her face. I could tell that Jack had bought her something to put in that soda—Jack Daniels green label or rum—because her eyes didn’t focus too well and her speech was kinda slurred.
“Pretty good, how’re you?”
“I’m fine—every night’s an adventure with Jack,” she said, then sucked on her straw. I couldn’t tell whether she was being facetious or not; compared to what she’d be doing sitting at home with her parents I’m sure it was exciting, even if tonight she was just by herself watching cars go by and getting drunk.
“Who’s that with you?” she said, leaning forward to see around me.
“It’s me,” said Bill. He was about as low-key as you could get; he’d usually just come along for the laughs, not drink anything, then have me drop him off at home before we headed out of town for the party. “I’ve got to go pay a call on old lady hand and her five daughters,” he’d say. “Much more pleasant than leaning against a car on a country road drinking beer.”
Jack headed back to his car, laughing, and got in. “We’re going over to my place,” he said looking over at me. I don’t know why I was in his good graces, sometimes he’d be real condescending to me, but it was all right with me since he had the booze.
“Mind if we come over?” I asked, trying not to be presumptuous. Jack would get really mad at you if you just assumed you were invited to come along all the time.
“Mind if we come over?” Jack repeated in a sarcastic tone. “It ain’t a ladies’ luncheon at the country club.”
“Okay, we’ll head on over,” I said.
I waited for Jack to pull out—you never knew if he was going to pop his clutch and make his car lunge at you.
“You can take me home,” Bill said as he emptied his cup in one gulp. “I don’t want to dilute the excitement for everybody else.”
“Suit yourself,” I said.
I dropped Bill off on 18th street, then headed east on 24th. By the time I got to Jack’s there were two cars in the driveway, Jack’s and Chuck’s, and Roger’s in the street. I thought maybe there’d be more people, but it was a Sunday night.
I went inside where there was music playing on a stereo on the floor and Chuck sitting on the couch. They’d rigged up some kind of light with a revolving color wheel that shined red, blue, green and yellow in turns against the wall over the couch.
“Hey,” Chuck said. I knew his younger brother better than him. “What are you doin’ out on a school night?” he asked.
“It’s spring—I’m just coasting ‘til graduation.”
He snorted and smiled and shook his head. “That high school must be going to pot if the Student Council-types are partyin’ on Sundays.”
“Yeah, well, we learned from you guys,” I said, trying to butter him up a bit.
“Everybody’s in the kitchen. I think Jack got some beer.”
I went in and nodded to Jack and Roger, who were involved in some kind of intense discussion. It was about the atom bomb. Jack said we should take the Russians out first, Roger said they had the ability to destroy America if we attacked them so it would be suicide if we did.
“It’d be like Russian roulette,” Roger said, “except there’d be a bullet in every chamber.”
“Then what the hell do we have NORAD for?” Jack said. He liked to argue with Roger, get him riled up, then walk away right at the point where Roger looked like he was about to hit him. Then he’d switch to lover from fighter, make the rounds of a party and flirt with the ladies, which Roger wasn’t as good at. He was good looking, he just didn’t have Jack’s charm.
I took a beer out of the refrigerator and went back into the living room. It wasn’t going to be much of a party from the looks of it—just Chuck on the couch smoking a joint. He didn’t offer me any and I didn’t ask. Later he’d want to play chess, and would try to goad me into a game. I had to go to school the next day, and playing chess with somebody who’s high takes forever.
Cynthia came inside smoking a cigarette. She’d been out talking to some of her friends in a car at the curb, but they took off.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Lisa and Theresa,” she said.
“Oh.” Lisa and I were always breaking up, and last time I thought would be the one that finally stuck.
“Kind of a sore subject?” she said, looking at me with a grin.
“Nope, we’re friends,” I said shaking my head and trying to keep any feeling out of my face, one way or the other.
The record changed, and Cynthia started to swing back and forth, dancing with her eyes closed.
“You wanna dance?” she said with a big smile.
I glanced over at Chuck, who wasn’t paying attention, then took a look towards the kitchen.
“Jack never wants to dance,” she said, still swinging. “He thinks he’s too cool.”
“Oh yeah?” I said. I could feel that I was sweating.
“Yeah—I suppose if you can get girls without dancing, you look down on guys who do.”
She was moving her arms now, and she put them on my shoulders. “C’mon,” she said.
I couldn’t just move away, so I sorta moved back and forth with her. She closed her eyes like it was the goddamn junior prom or something. I could hear Jack and Roger arguing louder in the kitchen.
“Put your beer down and dance,” she said. It was pretty much empty and I felt stupid with one hand out in the air, so I put the can down on an end table with a lamp on it.
“Hey!” Chuck yelled, and I jumped.
“What?” Cynthia said.
“That’s an antique—use a goddamn coaster, would you?”
I looked at the table—it didn’t look like an antique unless you considered K-Mart ancient history.
“Sorry,” I said, and put the can on the floor.
“My mom gave that to me,” Chuck said, and went back to reading a magazine.
Cynthia rearranged herself with her arms on me from where she’d jumped when Chuck yelled, and we started swaying again. Jack and Roger came around the corner, still talking heatedly, and walked right past without looking at us. I guess Jack didn’t care that we were dancing together.
“The longer we wait, the messier it’s gonna be,” Jack was saying. “We got the bombs, we might as well use them.”
“If we fire ‘em off, this little piece of shit town’s gonna be one of the first places they attack because of the missiles we got in the silos.”
It was about at the point where Jack would shrug his shoulders as if to say there was no point in arguing with a lunk like Roger, which always made Roger mad. Jack looked at me for support.
“Whatta you say, Mr. Honor Roll?” he said.
“I don’t know. I think maybe we should use spies to bring ‘em down from within.”
Jack looked at me like I was crazy. “Spies? Shit, the Russians have more spies in Washington than we have in the whole world.” I couldn’t argue with him when he got that way. He had no problem making stuff up, and if whatever he said was true he never said where he read it.
I shrugged my shoulders, hoping this would put me on his good side again, like I was siding with him over Roger.
“Do you have any food in the house, Jack?” Cynthia said. She acted like she was tired and hungry, and leaned her head on my shoulder.
I didn’t know how Jack would take that, so I stepped back thinking maybe we’d go to the kitchen.
“Don’t stop dancin’ ‘cause of me,” Jack said, as if he was the host with the most or something. “You all looked like you were having a real good time.”
Roger had sat down next to Chuck on the couch. “Yeah—I like to watch people dance while I sit on my ass,” he said.
“I’m tired and hungry, Jack. If there’s nothing to eat here let’s go back to the drive-in, or else take me home.”
Jack looked at me with an expression of defeat. “I can’t win, I tell ya. I take a girl out for a nice night on the town, and she wants to go home to mommy.”
“There’s nothing to do here. Let’s go back to the drive-in,” Cynthia said.
“I think we all want to watch you two dance,” Nick said. He had that look on his face he’d get when he put you in check. Sometimes he knew it was checkmate, but he’d make you sit there trying to find out for awhile before you conceded.
“I’m kinda hungry too. I think I’m going to go home,” I said as I took a step back and knocked over my can.
“Shit,” Nick said. I figured he was the one who kept the place as clean as it was, which wasn’t very.
“It’s all right, it was empty,” I said. “Thanks for the beer, Jack. I’ll be seeing you guys.”
“Pussy,” Jack said. “What kind of pussy leaves a party at ten o’clock?”
“What can I say—I’m not a free man like you guys.” I smiled my best smile and started towards the kitchen to throw my beer can away.
“Are you going to take me to get something to eat?” Cynthia said when I was in the kitchen.
“I want to smoke some weed,” Jack said. When I came around the corner he was sitting on the couch, one arm thrown over the back, Nick passing him the joint.
“Great,” Cynthia said. “In ten minutes you’ll be so stoned it would take a tow truck to get you off that couch.”
“A man’s home is his castle,” Jack said as he inhaled.
I went straight to the door and turned to say good-bye. “See you guys around,” I said.
“If you’re not going to take me to the drive-in I’m going with him,” Cynthia said to Jack. “Is that all right with you?” she asked me.
“Sure,” I said, screwing up my mouth to show it didn’t matter to me.
Cynthia looked down at Jack, who looked straight ahead and said nothing. I stood there for a minute, waiting. “Going off with a high school boy, huh?” Jack said.
“I’m just going home because I’m hungry,” Cynthia said.
She looked down at Jack. It was his turn for a hit, and he inhaled and held it, exhaled, then handed the joint back to Chuck. He looked up at her in silence as if there was a question in his mind he was sending to her by telepathy.
“What?” she said after a moment.
He continued to stare at her, she stared back, her arms crossed in front. I stood there with the door half open, where I’d been frozen for a while. I didn’t want to leave Cynthia there, but I sure as hell didn’t want to interfere.
Cynthia looked up at the ceiling and began to tap her foot impatiently. Jack figured he’d won I guess, because he turned and took the joint that was Chuck was holding out.
“Go on, I don’t care,” Jack said. “Get the hell out of here, both of you.”
Cynthia looked down at him and cocked her head. “There’s no need to be that way, Jack.”
Nick continued to flip through his magazine when he wasn’t smoking, while Roger was taking it all in, comfortable in his chair, as if he was watching a TV show.
I started out and Cynthia turned and stepped outside as I held the door.
We walked down the sidewalk to where my car was parked and got in.
“You okay?” I asked before I started the car.
“Yes,” she said. I figured she’d be crying but she wasn’t.
I started the engine and put the car in gear, then eased it around Roger’s car parked in front of us. As we pulled into the street Jack stepped out on the porch and yelled “Fucking CUNT!”—loud enough so that a man came to his screen door down the block, and watched us drive away.