It Takes One
The drunk guy was only in town for a weekend. I didn’t ask Jake how he met him. They picked me up in the drunk guy’s sports car, and we went out to an old farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. We called the abandoned house the Blue Goose; no one lived there. It was just a place Jake and I would go to hustle. The house had been gutted, but the fireplace still worked. Jake got one going. The drunk guy pulled on the whiskey bottle. I had a guitar in my hand, doing finger exercises. I only know finger exercises and some chords, enough for a punk rock song, but I don’t know how to make music. There was no convincing the drunk guy of that. He kept telling me I was a musician.
That’s music, he slurred his words. You’re making music now.
I smiled at the floor like I was flattered but got annoyed after a while. Jake kept passing him the bottle.
Jake and I were the same age. He was a little broader in the shoulder. When Jake was a kid, a state truck had run him over. Turned out the driver had been drinking. The doctors determined Jake suffered brain damage from the accident. The actual condition of his mind was elusive, especially when we were drinking, but the lawyers got his family a regular check from the state. We had plans for when Jake turned eighteen and would get the check directly. It was going to be like winning the lottery.
The drunk guy tilted back the whiskey bottle with one hand and gulped. He pointed with his other hand for me to keep playing the guitar. I smiled and moved my fingers along the neck.
Jake leaned over and whispered in my ear, get his keys.
I shook my head.
He’s going to pass out soon. Get his keys.
I stopped playing and grabbed the whiskey bottle.
Why are you stopping, the drunk guy asked. That’s music you’re making.
I tilted the bottle back and swallowed. The drunk guy gave me another compliment. I shook my head at both of them. I know what music sounds like; I don’t make music. The drunk guy wouldn’t listen to me, so when Jake asked me for a cigarette I said, my smokes are in the car. I held out my hand, and the drunk guy gave me his keys. Cool. I handed him the guitar. Here, you make some music. I walked out to the car, opened it and got my jacket. Everything was dark except the stars. I let myself settle into the quiet. The emptiness was comforting.
Jake followed a few minutes later, running across the yard. I threw him the keys and climbed in the passenger seat. Jake’s face lit up green from the dashboard.
Where we going, I asked.
Sheena’s, he said. She’s cool. She’s got a place in Addison.
But is she cool, I asked and searched my pockets for another cigarette.
Yeah, she’s cool, Jake said. She’s got a place to party when her old man ain’t around.
No, Jake said. He’s up in Big Muddy on possession.
Addison was a thirty-minute drive from the Blue Goose. We rolled the windows down and let the wind hit our faces.
Sheena had an apartment above a sewing shop just off the main road through the small town. We parked in front of the building. Before we got out of the car, Jake handed me the fifth, still about a third full. Here, he said. Give this to Sheena when we get upstairs.
We knocked on her door. Sheena answered. Hey there brother, she kissed Jake on the cheek. She looked past me at the drunk guy’s car. Is that your ride?
Yep, Jake smiled. We got it for tonight.
We followed her up a narrow staircase. Her apartment was crowded with people wanting to have a good time. Jake went into the other room where most of the noise was coming from. I followed Sheena into the kitchen.
Pleased to meet me, she said and offered me her hand.
Here you go. I gave her the whiskey.
She took it and said, thanks. There’s beer in the fridge.
I got one for myself and one for Jake. In the corner of the other room was a mattress, no sheet but a blanket crumpled into a ball that someone was using as a backrest against the wall. An alarm clock radio played music while a few people stood around with beers in their hands talking and laughing. Along the other wall, under the window, three people sat on a couch, a woman and two men. Jake was standing next to the couch talking to them.
I walked over and handed Jake his beer. He took it without looking at me. His eyes fixed on the woman. She had long brown hair and big brown eyes. Only a few wrinkles showed when she talked. She was pretty.
Son of a bitch needs to learn a lesson, she said.
One of the men sitting next to her said, I’d do it if we could get there.
The other man said, if we could get there I wouldn’t even think about it.
What did he do, Jake asked and popped open his beer.
The woman didn’t look at Jake, but she did start the story over again. Let him move in with me. Let him live with me. Took him into my home.
The two men shook their heads.
And he makes a move for my daughter. She turned her jaded eyes up at me. My little girl, just turned twelve.
Jake shook his head. Son of a bitch needs to learn a lesson.
I’d do it, one of the men said. If we had a car to get us there.
Jake said, we got a car.
The son of a bitch had left Addison and gone to Granite City were he had a brother. The woman said she knew where he was. She put gas in the car and bought another case of beer. The two men agreed to go. We all piled into the little sports car. Jake drove. I sat in the front. The woman and the two men squeezed into the back. One of the men slid a baseball bat between the driver’s seat and the door.
Granite City was fifty-three miles from Addison. Jake stayed on the road until the exit. He forgot to slow down and ran us up on the median. We blew a tire and had to turn into a cul-de-sac lined with front yards and brick homes.
Damn good driving. One of the men slapped him on the back as we climbed out.
We stood around dazed for a few minutes, making sure no cops had seen. We were in a nice neighborhood with big sleepy houses and well kept yards. Jake and the two men popped the trunk and found a spare.
I walked off a ways to get rid of the beers I’d drunk on the way. I found a bush in someone’s yard, unzipped and pulled my pants down on my hips. The woman followed me. She was just a few feet away. I smiled for her and said, what is your name?
Nancy, she said. She squatted with her skirt hitched up around her waist and feet spread apart. I could see her smooth thighs in the dim light.
We walked back to the car. Jake and the two men had fixed the tire. Nancy said that the son of a bitch’s brother lived on 3rd Avenue, only a few blocks from where we were. Jake drove. Nancy asked to sit in the front seat so she could give directions. I climbed in the back with the two men. I sat on the hump in the middle, my legs bent sideways with my knees to my chest.
We pulled into a large apartment complex, made a left, then a right. That’s it, Nancy shouted. That’s his car right there.
Jake parked, and the five of us got out. Nancy pointed to where she thought the son of a bitch lived. The two men started hollering and throwing rocks at the window. Lights turned on across the apartment complex. Some guy yelled out the window for us to be quiet.
Nancy took the baseball bat from the car. She screamed and busted the headlights on the son of a bitch’s car, first the left then the right. She walked around the back to get the taillights. Jake popped the trunk and got out the crow bar. He jumped up on the hood and started swinging the crowbar down into the windshield. It took him a few good swings to break through.
More lights turned on in the complex. People were coming out to see what was going on. After busting the taillights, Nancy hurled the bat into the grass away from the car. She walked over to me. Come on, she said. The pigs are coming.
I heard the sirens. Jake was still swinging the crowbar. He jumped off the car and began smashing in the side windows. The two men yelled for the son of a bitch to come out. Nancy put her hand on my shoulder, and I followed her. Jake would figure out what to do about the cops.
She and I walked out of the apartment complex fast, but when we hit the avenue, we slowed down. She took my arm in hers and whispered in my ear, act like we’re lovers.
I put my arm over her shoulder. She felt soft and small next to me. The street was bright with big yellow streetlights. The sirens grew louder. In a few minutes, about four cop cars turned onto the street. Nancy put her head on my shoulder. The cops sped right on by and turned to go into the apartment complex.
She and I turned off onto darker side streets. We stopped pretending to be lovers. It was late and all the bars had closed. Nancy made a call from a corner pay phone but got nothing.
We’ll walk, she said. Maybe we can catch a ride.
The gravel on the edge of the highway crunched under our shoes. I stumbled a couple of times from the whiskey and the beer. The city lights behind us stretched our shadows out along the road.
She told me about her old man. Her real old man, not the son of a bitch back in Granite City. She told me he had been good to her. He was in a motorcycle club.
He’d take care of that son of a bitch, she said and pointed her finger like a gun.
I pictured her on the back of some guy’s motorcycle, riding in a pack of bikers, her hair blowing in the wind.
He’s gone to Kansas, she said. Too bad. He’d take care of that son of a bitch.
We walked until we could no longer see the city behind us. Everything was black and gray. The highway narrowed into barely two lanes. At an overpass between two cornfields, she stopped walking and grabbed me hard. She was shaking. I’m scared of bridges, she said.
I’ll tell you why tomorrow, she said.
I put my arm around her.
Bad things happen under bridges, she said.
We’re just going over this one, not under, I said.
Hold me tight as we cross, okay? She took my hand and pulled my arm around her tighter. Don’t let go.
I held on. We crossed the bridge. I squeezed her and put my hand on her neck, under her hair so that our skin touched. It’s okay, I whispered. It’s okay.
We kept walking with my arm around her. When a car passed us, she put her thumb out. After we’d been passed a few times she said, no one’s stopping.
Nope, I said. She felt good next to me.
They pick up every loser but won’t stop for us two, she said. Maybe…
I knew she was going to tell me to hide or jump in a ditch on the side of the road while she flagged down a ride. I pulled her close to me and put my lips on hers. We kissed for a few minutes, our tongues getting to know one another, seducing our glands. My hands found under her shirt, along her back, around and under her bra. She liked how I did it, so we kept walking together. She stopped putting out her thumb.
We talked. She told me more about her old man with the motorcycle. He comes around in the winter months. She told me about her daughters, the twelve-year-old and a twenty-year-old. The twenty-year-old went off to St. Louis, just floated away. We stopped ever so often and kissed. Then we saw some lights up ahead at the top of a hill.
It’s a truck stop, she said. I can get us a ride home and some cash.
I liked the way she said us and squeezed her arm.
Do you know what I’m talking about, she asked.
I already knew but wanted her to tell me.
That’s heaven hill up there with truckers lined up behind their rigs with twenties, she said. She stopped walking and faced me. It’s not sex. Blow-jobs only. She put her fist to her mouth and poked her cheek out with her tongue a few of times.
You got to stay and watch out. You understand? You can’t leave, she said.
Okay, I said. I understand. I won’t leave for nothing.
She put her hand on my face and held it there. This is important. If it goes down, you can’t get emotional.
I won’t fall in love today, I said and kissed her again.
We walked up the hill and into the truck stop. It was bright with big tables and wide booths. Men in flannel shirts leaned over the counter drinking coffee. I wondered what she would have me say to them. My hand was in the small of her back, a piece of her shirt pinched between my fingers. I followed her to a booth in the back near the restrooms. The waitress came over with two glasses of ice water and some silverware wrapped in a napkin.
Nancy stood up. Wait here, she said. And don’t look any of those men in the eye. Not yet. Wait until I come back from the ladies room.
I kept my back to the men at the counter. It’s not sex. I thought about the first time I’d been paid, just a couple of years before, in a brand new Oldsmobile, cream colored with smooth leather seats. I didn’t want to take his money. He told me to. The man had insisted, so I did.
Nancy swayed her hips as she walked back to the table. She’d fixed her clothes and done something different with her hair. I took a drink of ice water from the glass in front of me.
The waitress came back over. Are you two ready?