This is a work of fiction. Any names or characters, businesses or places, events or incidents, are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the author.


All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©2023 by Jarrod Tyler

Chapter 1: The Park

It was the 1990s and I was 17 and riding back to my inner-city sector on a transit bus at 3 in the morning…good old number 7, headed for Truman Park—the roughest part of town infamous nationally for having achieved perhaps the highest crime rate in the country. Clock Magazine had dubbed it as so and the moniker had stuck, forever cloaking Truman Park in dark infamy. To some of us living in Truman however…there was no infamy about it—there was only the absurd reality of living in a disaster zone rife with imbecilic douchery and the criminally insane.

At 3 in the morning, you never knew who you’d find riding Truman Park Number 7. Dopers, dealers, serial rapists, serial vandals, hookers, bums, armed felons with a mile-long rap sheet—it took all kinds in Truman Park. I was sitting in a graffiti-covered seat listening to Never Mind the Bullocks on my yellow sports Walkman and staring out the window at the passing shop fronts. Of the shops that had closed in recent years, many were boarded over, vacant, or up for lease. Mainly they were gang-tagged with spray paint; an alternate language. It often made me wonder how it was that these vandals—many of whom I’d shared classrooms with throughout my academic life—could flunk out of school so hopelessly yet had come to master the arcane nuances of gang-tag hieroglyphs.

The darkened shop fronts went by my window; an old paint store, a flower shop, a card shop, a mechanic, an X-rated video store…a gas station. Further on, the prostitutes went by my window. They stood out on the muggy street corners with miniskirts, unbalanced in stiletto heels looking stoned and seductive and lost. It was my stop.

I got off the bus and walked through the gangs of vagrants, prostitutes and pimps toward Jim’s Confectionery store. I felt like a pop and was debating between Coke and Pepsi when I recognized a kid rolling up to Jim’s on a sleek chrome BMX. I knew the face…I’d never forget such an ugly face, and certainly I’d not forgotten the shit-kicking I’d endured the afternoon he and his brother had chased me down on their stolen Kuwahara Chromes.

What can I say about the attack? It was something that happened in Truman Park…another beatdown divorced entirely from reason and logic. What’s worse, most didn’t realize how ridiculous they appeared when willingly participating in such acts of douchery. The Michaels brothers were no exception. The day they finally got me, they cornered me in an old shipping yard I’d ducked into, having been certain it had an alleyway exit. However, I was wrong, and the chase abruptly came to an end…worse off was the fact that it was a Sunday and there had been nobody in the shipping yard…it was just the Michaels brothers and I.

They were older and bigger than I was and I knew how it was going to end. Evidently, it was payback for pushing their brother Tommy to the asphalt…Tommy who’d been douching-out on random people outside of Jim’s Confectionery one evening when he’d swilled too much of his father’s home-brewed moonshine and smoked too much of his mother’s hash stash. He’d swung at me drunkenly and I’d pushed him away. He’d fallen flat on his ass and he’d fallen bad…in a way that hurt his back. I’d left him sitting on the sidewalk and the incident hadn’t seemed like much more than the usual Truman Park antics.

Though Tommy and I had made our peace after the brief altercation; his albino brothers obviously hadn’t gotten the memo. They wasted no time jumping from their stolen Kuwaharas and rushing me. I swung a few times pretty good, catching the brother with the fatter face in the jaw, but the other brother whom everyone referred to as ‘The Menace’, caught me harder. When I was thrown to the gravel, the brothers went to work, punching me up and subsequently stomping me with the treads of their sneakers. Indeed Harvey and Dennis the Menace Michaels left me lying there on the shipping yard gravel with a dire warning; next time they wouldn’t go so easy on me.

The recollection of our run-in flashed back at me just then as I stood there watching Dennis the Menace Michaels carefully turn his bike over and stand it on the handlebars and seat—as if that might make it harder to steal. It came to me through a series of slides, each depicting the tread marks their sneakers had left on my t-shirt—a bloody design stained into my shirt and one I wouldn’t soon forget.

“Michaels.” I said.

The Menace turned casually with his head tilted back to one side—his signature posture that most people assumed was arrogance. I however always felt he was genetically compromised, and his tilted head was part of the larger issue of inbreeding.

“Who’s that?” he asked under the sound of the cars rolling by.

“Don’t you recognize me?” I said taking off my screaming-hand ballcap and replacing it on my head backward.

“Drawing a blank.” said Michaels, shrugging and turning back toward the entrance of the store.

“You don’t remember me? Shit, I’m offended.” I grinned, “You and your brother beat the shit out of me a few years back…for no apparent reason, I might add…I guess it meant more to me than it did to you guys.”

“Listen asshole, my house is just around the corner and my dad has a Bren Ten. You better just get the fuck lost if you don’t want a cap in your ass.” Michaels said over his shoulder.

Though he deserved a soccer kick to the curve of his jawline, I wasn’t going to be the one to give it to him—certainly though, by way of karma, someone else in Truman Park would, in time. It was a club I didn’t wish to be part of—it was an action I didn’t care to own. You see dear reader, if I did so—certainly it would be an act of douchery. Beyond that, the act of douchery would be caught on the camera fixed just outside the entrance of the store. Indeed, Dennis the Menace Michaels wasn’t worth it. Instead, I resorted to informative dialogue.

“You know something Michaels…you’re a weird-looking fucker…there’s something definitely nuclear test site about you and your brothers…and I’m pretty sure it’s because your parents are siblings.” I said.

“Whatever man.” he said before turning and entering the store.

I stood there for a moment, watching his thin, stringy blonde mane disappear behind a shade-drawn entrance of the store. I then looked at his stolen Kuwahara Chrome. It was widely known that the Michaels brothers made a mint stealing luxury bikes from the suburbs and selling them in Truman Park at a slashed price. I stepped over to the stolen bike and flipped it right side up easily and pedaled down the incline of the parking lot. As God Save the Queen blasted on my headphones, I pedaled north, toward the downtown skyscrapers. Indeed, Michael’s stolen Kuwahara was a comfortable ride—so comfortable I rode it all the way to the baseball stadium and stopped for a smoke break on a bench outside the sprawling promenade.

It was only then that I noticed a small, zippered bag fastened snugly beneath the back seat of the bike. I tore away the Velcro straps and removed the bag from the seat. Inside the bag was a roll of twenty-dollar bills and what looked like oregano wrapped in a zip-lock freezer bag. So that’s what Michaels was up to in Truman Park—I wasn’t surprised he was selling dirt weed. It wasn’t his style to sell the good-grade shit.

When I was halfway through my cigarette, I walked the bike over to a group of homeless men drinking window cleaner directly from the bottle. I tossed them the bag of dirt weed and walked on, fitting the roll of twenties into my hip pocket—finders keepers. There was a towering parking garage across the street and I rode it to the top. As I pedaled higher and higher, each level became dirtier and dirtier and seemed to be populated with more and more homeless tents. When I reached the top level, I found that the view was spectacular. The sunset had left a faint residue of itself, coloring the sky a dim shade of violet. Scanning a panoramic view of the LA skyline, I admired the twinkling Glendale hills in the far distance and the high-reaching palm trees that ran along with the grids of city lights all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

I leaned over the ledge and found a perfectly barren parking lot ten floors below. I let the butt of my cigarette fall and watched it tumble down to the parking lot below. I next lifted the Kuwahara and balanced it on the ledge for a moment before letting it free fall. I watched it descend as if in slow motion, the chrome catching the passing fluorescent lights of each floor. When it hit the cement the forks broke, sending the front tire bouncing off toward the foundation wall. I looked at the broken form of the bike before taking another panoramic scan of the city.

I knew it wasn’t an existence of normality, but that was Truman Park life—or at least that’s what it had become. Certainly it hadn’t begun as grim—it had once been a booming sector full of good hard-working family values and lemonade verandas but indeed had become systematically worse and worse over the decades; it was a district known simply as The Park.

It was one of the oldest sectors in the city and I was fascinated by the old broken-down Victorians which, aside from housing feral families, gangbangers and drug dealers, also housed historical relevance that dated back through the generations to the pioneers; pioneers who’d carved the city out of the desert and who—aside from their haunting names hidden beneath the spray-painted street signs—were now largely forgotten. The abandoned buildings along Centurion Avenue, which had once been booming factories and were now used as storage units or warehouse space, had witnessed a succession of eras and now sat empty, darkened and forgotten. If I stared at those old buildings long enough, I could nearly conceive the consciousness of their time—I could nearly hear the whispers of those old ghosts coming to me through the rustling trees, ‘Live the extraordinary.’ they always seemed to say.

Like the old pioneers, Truman Park was for the most part forgotten by city council and therefore the rest of the city—except for nightly blurbs on the evening news that acted more as side-show updates…dinner time entertainment for the wealthy West side folks. Truman Park was a train wreck they somehow enjoyed looking at—perhaps as viable incentive not to take their cushy existences for granted. How bad could it get in Truman Park? The question kept them from turning the channel which was a great ratings boost for most local news stations. And it was a common occurrence in Truman Park to see news crews with lights, cameras and pretty blinking female reporters, frequently congregated on corners, in alleyways, parking lots, and in front of houses—covering the latest double homicide, drug bust or home invasion.

Though it was on some level fascinating for the rest of the city to tune into the latest sensationalist broadcast; residents of Truman Park had become so desensitized to the crime that it became an accepted and routine occurrence to spot blood stains on the sidewalks, to pass by knife fights and acts of vandalism in progress during a casual stroll to the corner store, or to see paramedics removing covered bodies from houses or firemen extinguishing cars engulfed in flames—then just leaving the melted remnants there next to the curb—for weeks or months; it seemed nobody cared to clean up around Truman Park.

It was quite educational. Among other things, one learned quite quickly in Truman Park that no matter how tough and crazy you thought you were—there was always someone tougher and crazier and they were usually around the next corner. We’d seen it happen on a regular basis; rich-kid wannabe gangsters from the suburbs who felt driving through Truman Park on a Friday night with old-school Public Enemy booming through their 5 grand stereos afforded them some modicum of street cred…however, it only ever got their custom windows smashed. Indeed, Truman Park wasn’t a syndicated crime drama on channel 4…the danger was real in The Park and the black and white police helicopters constantly circling high above the palms with their spotlights illuminated was a constant reminder.

One morning while walking to Truman Park High, I came across a vast red pool of blood, soaked into the sidewalk…it had run down into the gutter and coagulated into the leaves and rubble around a sewer cover—it was a lot of blood. I studied it as the cars went by. It was hard to believe someone had bled out that much and survived—there is only so much blood in a body after all. I had a bad feeling about standing on the site of a fresh homicide. It was like standing on someone’s grave.

That night on the evening news, I learned what had happened. An unnamed prostitute had been ‘slain’ on that sidewalk. Slain indeed…a word used intentionally to communicate to the viewers in the suburbs that the murder had indeed been grizzly; perhaps to keep them tuned in—perhaps to sell buttered popcorn and jujubes. But the viewers in the burbs could never really contemplate it beyond a moment of thought, turning the word ‘slain’ over in their minds a few times before returning to their late-night glass of Shiraz. To them and pretty much everyone else in the country, Truman Park was a wasteland…a lost cause…an unfortunate story of a neighborhood that had become a dumping ground for the destitute and a quagmire of gangland activity.

There was no misconception about it. Yet surprisingly we’d encounter misconceptions about the potential of real change in Truman Park and it was usually perpetuated by a dutiful sense of moral charity on the part of outsiders who believed they understood the underlying issues. One afternoon the vice principal of Truman Park high called an assembly, during which he and his wife, a child psychologist, spoke to us all about a peer counseling group they were starting…a lifeline for victims of domestic abuse, substance abuse, and unplanned parenthood. They also explained the importance of extracurricular activities such as the student representative council and the newly launched chess club. They reiterated the importance of peer counseling and the benefits of reasoning a way through disagreements and heated altercations.

It was sound council and made me think that perhaps my brother and I should have tried to reason with the kid who’d robbed us at knifepoint a few years before. Perhaps we could have diligently reasoned our way around him taking our money at knifepoint…perhaps we could have offered a few tips on etiquette and perhaps the number of a good social worker and certainly a barber that might have erased the mullet from his scalp.

Though he perpetually failed to conjure a modicum of school spirit, at least vice principal Schooner tried. Strangely, though vice principal Schooner tried to make Truman High more like the suburban schools he’d been fired from over the years; there was still a very weak music program at Truman High…and dear reader, nobody needed music as I did. The official trajectory was a scholarship, but unofficially it was a love affair with melody that kept me in the Truman High music room after hours sitting at the only piano in the school, working on my own compositions, until the janitor eventually kicked me out.

The piano was always readily available because the music room wasn’t on anyone’s radar…there were never any Truman Park students lined up to book time in the music room after class. It was that easy for me to simply walk in, close the door and let the piano fill the room as I voyaged through soundscapes of melody. The piano seemed even more of a sanctuary being that during a regular school day at Truman, the hallways were wrought with beefs and vendettas, hallway fights, and weapons that had made it somehow through the entrance metal detectors. There were frequent expulsions and sometimes the ambulance or a black and white squad car would be pulled up out front. Parent-teacher interview nights were non-existent. Pep rallies were only sparsely attended (it didn’t help that our basketball team’s games usually ended in bench-clearing brawls). School spirit was at an all-time low and though it wasn’t quite his fault, Schooner was powerless to resuscitate it. Principal Nelson on the other hand, didn’t even bother trying. A veteran of Truman High; he’d long made up his mind about The Park.

He saw the majority of parents in The Park as alcoholics, drug addicts or general sad-sack absentees. If they weren’t any of the above, they were too busy working three jobs to care much about their children’s base-level curriculum or their blatant mistreatment. Whatever the case, there were many rebellious delinquents enrolled at Truman Park, and to counter this trend, traditional discipline was often abandoned; rather the faculty would use any means possible to gain control of the unruly mobs of students.

It didn’t help that the teachers who were sent to Truman Park High were usually degenerate outcasts of the school board who’d failed in some way at every other school in town and had been sent to Truman High as either a punishment or a last chance—where old teachers were sent to die. They weren’t happy about it either and their resentments were often taken out on students for trivial matters—such as being late.

Case in point; I’d been at the arcade with Huntington and Beatty on our lunch break one afternoon. The two were degenerate classmates of mine and indeed, the type of kids who’d fight anybody at any time for basically no reason at all; douching-out was the way they’d learned to exist in Truman Park. They were lone wolves with a pack mentality and on this afternoon, I’d wound up with them—mainly because Huntington’s old man grew plants in his basement and Huntington always managed to palm enough to roll a few up.

We’d been walking back to Truman High passing one back and forth as Beatty amused himself by throwing cherry bombs at passing cars. Each time one would explode he’d stare back at us with his insane green eyes while laughing psychotically. At some point, Beatty and a passing kid on the opposite side of the street had some words. Evidently, Beatty knew the kid, with whom he’d had a past issue. I’d never seen the kid before. He was big and red. That is to say that he was obese and aside from being covered in red freckles, his head was topped with a wildly curled mop of red hair. He wore an Iron Maiden shirt with white sleeves that was too small on his chubby frame and accentuated his flabby tits. From what I could gather from their debate, the kid went to Carter High, in a neighboring district—one not quite as bad as Truman but bad all the same. I reached over and took hold of Beatty’s arm, trying to lead him away from imminent douchery and perhaps another escort home from the police—he wasn’t budging however.

They squared off, hurling insults, Beatty getting the better of the exchanges by shifting the focus of his tirade onto the kid’s exceptional weight problem. Soon enough a small crowd had gathered. It went on back and forth for a while until Beatty brought the fat kid’s mother into it, speculating random items one might find in her womb…such as a can opener, an old shoe, and a telephone—a moment later the two were exchanging blows. Evidently, the telephone comment had been the last straw. Beatty was a tough kid…we all knew that…what none of us could quite gauge however was his level of insanity, which was certainly off the charts.

He got in a few good shots, but the kid from Carter high was just too big and he easily hauled Beatty to the cement. The fat kid mounted Beatty and straddled his chest before raining down haymakers from above, busting Beatty up pretty good and opening old scar tissue. There was a crowd gathering now and it was understood—unless you wanted an all-out riot; nobody interfered…another guideline in the douchery code.

In the midst of the commotion and hollering of the crowd I could make out Huntington hollering at Beatty.

“He’s got tits man…you’re not gonna let a guy with tits beat you?! Sweep him!” Huntington hollered at Beatty who kept his guard tight, absorbing many of the fat kid’s haymakers with his forearms.

With a sudden explosion of inbred strength and perhaps perfect timing, Beatty somehow swept the fat kid, gaining top position. His bloody nose dripped down onto the fat kid’s face and t-shirt as he hammered down his own haymakers on the kid from Carter High. It was turning into a bloody mess.

“Alright Beatty…you proved your point—we’re going to be fucking late man.” I told him, checking my watch and realizing that we were already late. However, Beatty kept raining fists down onto the kid’s face, each making a wet-sounding thud…as if he was punching a thickly marinated side of beef.

Soon a cut opened on the kid’s eyebrow, which gushed red like a small fountain and pooled in the concave of his eye. It seemed the sight of blood turned Beatty even more crazy. Leaning forward, he opened his mouth and his lips peeled away from his teeth, as if he were a rabid junk-yard dog. Mildly awestruck, I stood there and watched as Beatty sunk his teeth into the fat kid’s nose, drawing from the boy a blood-curdling shriek as well as a gasp of horror from the hardened crowd that had gathered around in the street to spectate.

I thought Beatty might kill the kid from Carter high. Eventually however, the blood-soaked entanglement was broken up rather suddenly by two employees from the drugstore across the street who’d rushed over in a display of theatrical heroism. They’d called the police, in response to which, Beatty broke free and bid them a blood-dripping ‘go fuck yourselves’ grin before, hurdling over a brown picket fence, darting through a yard and bolting down an alleyway. Though he was a moron, Beatty knew better than to stick around.

When I finally made it back to Truman High, I was thinking of Beatty and Huntington and what a disaster the two were and how they always managed to ruin a great time. It became clear to me that the best solution was to stop spending lunch breaks with the two of them, in spite of Huntington’s dad’s stash. I was coming to this realization as I entered Mr. Grant’s English class. Grant, being an unconscionable ball breaker and pontificating cunt, didn’t deviate from his usual lecture on Fuckology 101. Rather he stood there, savoring the opportunity to shred me up before the entire class of misfits and degenerates I’d come to despise in two short years.

“Mr. Holden—I can’t imagine why you’d bother to waste your time showing up. We’re halfway through the class and I’m not going to backtrack for you. What’s more, I’m not going to tolerate interruptions from poo-poo heads who don’t care to learn.” Spat Mr. Grant from his perch against the front of his boxy desk.

“Poo-poo heads?” I said with a wry drawl, tilting my head at him as if he were a small, mean garden gnome.

“You see these students? They’re here to learn—you are not. So please leave poo-poo head.” he said with his usually prickish grin, drawing a few chuckles from his captive audience.

“Learn?” I laughed, “Learn what? Vanilla literary taste?”

“Pardon me?” he asked, turning to face me now…his usual rage building.

“You know damn well that we should be reading Norman Mailer, John Updike…Louis Ferdinand Celine…how about throwing a Bukowski novel at us? If these students have come here to learn, why don’t you expose them to something extraordinary rather than the same old shit? I mean where did you get your education degree–a fuckin’ box of cracker jacks?”

“Why you little bastard! Where do you get your nerve to come in here and tell me how to operate my class? Get the hell out of here now before I throw you out!” Grant hollered, causing Melinda Buckley to jump in her front row desk.

“All you’re showing me is that you can’t take criticism—which is a sign of arrogance—what’s worse; unwarranted arrogance.” I said.

Storming toward me suddenly, Grant wrapped his stubby fingers around my bicep and slung me out into the hallway so my binder fell to the floor and exploded in a heap of loose papers.

“Touch me again…I dare you.” I said, meeting him face to face when he stepped out into the hallway.

Over Grant’s shoulder, I noticed a few students who’d left their desks, trying to get a better look. I clicked my eyes back to Grant’s eyes that stared back at me with beady, blood-shot rage, “Your move asshole.” I told him, squinting slightly.

“My move? As of now, I’m banning you from my class. How’s that for a move?”

“I wonder what bothers you more—that I never show up to your class or that I ace every test and essay you throw at me.” I laughed, “Your class is a joke.”

After issuing me a disgusted head-to-toe once-over and a sneer, Grant strode back into his classroom, slamming the door behind him hard, so the crack echoed down the long and polished corridors. As if it was a perfect menacing coincidence; Principal Nelson rounded the corner exactly then, as I was down on one knee, gathering my scattered papers and fitting them back into the binder that was heavily stickered with skateboard brands. He stopped abruptly, pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose, and cast an intense glare of loathing directly at me…it was too perfect and I had to laugh.

“What are the odds?” I chuckled to myself.

“Holden! What in the hell are you doing out here?” he snapped, storming toward me and hovering in proximity as I collected the last scraps of useless notes and fit them into my binder. I braced for a soccer kick, but none came.

“Well, if you must know…Mr. Asshole threw me out of his class…literally—beyond that, it’s just another day in paradise.” I told him as I rose to my feet. Nelson was my height; 6ft. His age and gauntness made him look shorter and smaller though.


“It’s the first time sir.” I assured.

“You’re a liar too Holden! Just last month you were kicked out of Mr. Grant’s class.” snarled Nelson.

“That was Mrs. Weaton’s class actually—get with the program sir.” I said, shaking my head and offering him an expression of preposterousness.

“You’re nothing but a thorn in the side of this school Holden.” Nelson informed.

“I’ve got straight A’s.” I said.

“I’m sure you cheat to make those A’s. You’re nothing but a thorn in the side of this school!” he hollered.

“I beg to differ. Your derelict and incompetent faculty is the only thorn in the side of this school sir. It’s plain to see.” I said.

“Well,” said Nelson, looking at me eye to eye now. His eyes were deep blue and the whites were slightly yellowed and his bushy salt and pepper brows were furrowed and hanging slightly over his droopy lids as he spoke, “what’s plain to see is what a piece of dog-shit you really are…I know it, you know it, and everyone here knows it.” he snarled before storming off down the hallway.

He wasn’t wearing his usual blazer and I noticed that aside from possessing child-bearing hips…principal Nelson also possessed, for lack of a more articulate description—male booty; the man had a booty. Perhaps more disconcerting is that he wore extra tight dress pants that rode up said booty, creating a thoroughly macabre and grotesque sight…the likes of which no Truman High kid, no matter how derelict, should have needed to witness.

“Yeah, well, at least I don’t wear booty pants you creepy fuck!” I chuckled, pitching with all my might, the binder into the air, so it opened and came apart again, the pages flying where they may. I didn’t need a binder anyway…I had every nuance of every lesson and then some, stored away in my hungry mind. Nelson only walked on…wagging his macabre booty with each stride. Piss on these fuckwits, I thought.

It became my mantra during the last semester I spent at Truman High; piss on these fuckwits. The school itself wasn’t the issue. The school itself was magnificently old, full of character and the ghosts of school spirit past one could find in the trophies and medals our predecessors had won in the name of Truman High and now sat behind Plexiglas in a display case beside the main office.  Certainly, the old photos told a different story and one had to wonder exactly when it had all gone wrong.

There were many last straws at Truman High. There was Nelson and Grant and there were teachers like Mrs. Hunter who’d slapped me across the face one day when I’d demanded to know why she’d given me a B on a paper, rather than an A—which I clearly deserved. She’d stormed away down the deserted hallway, leaving a sting in my cheek and a question in my mind…one I dismissed a few moments later with a chuckle. I’d come to expect the worst from them and so their douchery never quite surprised me.

However, perhaps the real last straw and beginning of the end of my time at Truman High came later that month when the theater group insisted the upright piano in the music room, the only one in the school, be permanently moved to the auditorium, for the purpose of their rehearsals…rehearsals which evidently didn’t do their botched and limited theater troop a damn of good. This meant, among other things, dear reader, that I wouldn’t have access to the piano—which at that point, was my secret salvation. To make matters worse, the auditorium was off limits outside of theater events or assemblies and no amount of inquiring I did ended in me being granted permission to access the piano after hours. Not having an actual piano at home put a major kink in my flourishing piano rock compositions and was the first time in years that I’d not had readily available access to a piano. Not surprisingly I began to suffer a type of spiritual withdrawal and eventually I surrendered to the fact that whether I liked it or not—piano wasn’t going to be part of my life for a foreseeable future.

It was an odd feeling. A piano had always been around when I needed one. As a child, I’d studied music at the conservatory…I’d played in the children’s orchestra and chamber groups and by the age of 12, after becoming thoroughly bored of studying and playing other people’s music, I was inclined to throw away the textbook and pick up an electric guitar. However, by my grade 12 year, I was locked in a love affair with piano composition. Nobody needed piano compositions as I did in those days. I’d been making excellent progress on my compositions after hours in the secluded Truman High music room, exploring the deep underwater worlds of piano melody and taking cues from the likes of Billy Joel and Paul McCartney albums. Losing track of time, I’d sit perched on the piano stool, totally lost in composition until Ethan the night janitor would eventually kick me out when he was done sweeping up and emptying the waste baskets.

Losing the piano changed everything and I’d not previously realized exactly how much—until it happened. I explained to my mom how impossible it was going to be for me to exist at Truman High without access to a piano. My mom had given me a bewildered expression in return. She hadn’t grown up in Truman Park as I had…rather she was a philosophical eccentric with a dark sense of comedy, who’d fled the confines of an upper-class suburban family to live a life of her absolute choosing. She’d moved us to Truman Park to be closer to her government job after a scorched-earth divorce from my father—a man who’d brought his demons back home with him after two tours in the war—on the front lines with his platoon as he’d put it.

Though my mom understood how losing access to the school piano could unravel my world, there was little she could do about it—there were bigger issues at hand. To her, motherhood was the priority, and raising two kids on her own was much easier to do in Truman Park, which had initially been a quaint neighborhood and hadn’t yet blossomed into the quagmire of gangland activity it eventually became. When she’d bought the house at a reasonable price years before, there was little infamy surrounding the neighborhood. However, the 1980s had ushered in a devastating crime wave, the likes of which Los Angeles had never seen, and by the 1990s, the stick-up men, whores, dealers, pimps, junkies, gangs and thieves had taken over.

Of course, my mom realized what Truman Park had become, but she saw the situation from the perspective of a homeowner rather than a renter. A paid-off house is a hard thing to forfeit. Certainly, anyone who had a modicum of logic could easily surmise that Truman Park wasn’t the ideal place to raise kids…but that didn’t mean my mom was going to let ‘The Park’ win. Indeed not. This meant calligraphy and photography courses, while my friends were at the arcade pinching chick’s asses, smoking grass, and getting high scores. This meant creative writing classes and a formal introduction to our local library branch which my mom explained to me was a universal wealth of knowledge; give a kid a library card and you’ll tell a lot about him by the authors toward whom he gravitates. And of course, this meant piano lessons at the conservatory while my friends were hopping the fence to the fairgrounds and meeting up with easy Truman High girls like Melanie Townsend, Clara Fisher, Sarah Chatsworth and Celia Selkirk—damsels who’d undress.

The conservatory had offered some real promise for me. However, when I’d gotten into a very heated dispute with organizers at the conservatory, suggesting that they were a scam and wasting our parent’s money by forcing us to play other people’s music rather than encouraging us to write our own—my mom decided to halt my conservatory enrollment fees. After that little fiasco, it was all about the Truman Park high piano. Having little to no access to the piano at school was going to change everything and I knew it immediately.

After that, it didn’t take long for things to become increasingly unbearable at Truman Park High. I started to notice more the grade of teachers the school board sent to our school in order to technically uphold their flimsy ‘help the inner-city kids’ mandate. Here I might cite Martha Sedgwick—the school nutritionist. Ms. Sedgwick perhaps meant well, but indeed exuded the appearance of a George A. Romero film extra. Chain smoking, substance abuse, and I’m assuming a perpetual diet of pork rinds and Red Ribbon beer seemed to have taken its toll on Ms. Sedgwick, who skulked around the hallways in a zombie-like trance, clad in her purple wig, white smock, and stiletto heels in between cafeteria feedings, peering off into the distance with a doomed and quite ominous gaze—a lit cigarette dangling from her cracked lips.

However, Sedgwick was an innocent—an ironic figure yes, but an innocent all the same…mainly because she was only in charge of the cafeteria food. If I am to illustrate with perfect accuracy the sort of teachers that were actually entrusted with the responsibility of molding the minds of impressionable Truman Park adolescents; I would cite dear Mr. Phillips for instance, who’d wear a perpetual rodent-like grin as he explained exactly why no Truman Park students would likely get out of Truman Park, citing that if a few managed to; then it was only the law of averages. He’d not fail to cite poor genetics and the lack of parental support as contributing factors. Though he’d apologetically insist that it was okay for us to accept our grim destinies, he took pleasure in stating the supporting points of his argument.

Certainly, Mrs. Hunter hated me for obvious reasons…but she loathed most students that passed through her class—I wasn’t special in this regard. Beyond perpetually reminding us that we were underprivileged and unimportant, she’d also provide commentary on likely careers Truman High students might choose. Rather than shooting for doctors or lawyers or scientists…it was her opinion that Truman Park kids would do better to choose more realistic careers, as not to be disappointed when they failed to achieve their sky-high goals.

I’d once seen her throw a lime slush in the face of a student as she hollered rules about outside beverages in the halls. She’d stormed off with her face reddened by rage and her hair a tight frizzy ball worn bunched on top of her aerodynamic head. The student meanwhile had stood there in utter shock, the slush dripping down onto his shirt and to the floor as another passing teacher commanded him to clean up the mess.

There was also Mr. Gillespie who’d once caught me in a second-floor washroom rolling one up on the flat surface of the sink. I’d planned to spend my spare class on the sunny lawn, sitting with Natasha Gucci whom I’d been spending time with. We had an hour to kill and the deal was that I’d roll one up and we’d find a place. I acted casual when Gillespie sauntered in. He checked the stalls one by one before stepping over to the urinal into which he splashed a heavy piss. After shaking off, he walked over to the sink, rinsed his chubby, hairy-knuckled hands with cold water, and ran them through his thin, greying hair. He then turned and looked at me for a moment, furrowing his brows at me standing there with a pinner dangling from my mouth.

He walked over to me, wound up his arm, and slapped my face, sending the pinner to the floor where it rolled forth, losing momentum just below the urinals, where the tiles were sticky with jellified piss drippings. He’d dared me to take a swing at him, and I nearly had. It had taken everything I had to refrain from clocking his skinny jaw and sending him to the tiles and into the jellified piss drippings, just like the pinner. I didn’t take the bait however; I only shrugged and told him maybe we’d see each other around—off school property.

Certainly, this all sounds quite ominous…however, there was an upside to all of this. That is to say that there seemed to be a complete lack of superficiality around Truman Park. There were words—that was for certain—words without gauge, strong or other. Words were words and words were always had in a direct sort of fashion. If you hated someone, you’d let them know it—usually with words…and if someone hated you, you’d be made aware of it one way or another, and I was made aware of it a lot. It seemed I was perhaps one of the most hated kids at a school full of shitheads, douchebags and fuckwits; no small feat. But at least I knew where I stood with most everyone, especially among fellow students.

One in particular—Jenson Henley—had become a hater after I’d taken his already graduated sister to the Pier one evening. It had been her idea and so I couldn’t understand her brother’s animosity. Indeed, he started chiseling away at my patience. Over the course of a semester, I watched the chisel become larger and sharper; or at least as sharp as Henley could ever get.

You see dear reader, Henley had a disadvantage in life; he’d been descended from a family of albino hillbillies who, I was most positive, were inbred. With the exception of his adopted sister; the gene pool was shallow as a tea spoon in Henley’s family. The first time Henley had shoulder-checked me on passing in the hallway, I’d taken him for a botched c-section. Indeed, because Henley was of course, and without any shadow of doubt, a load that his mother should have swallowed; I’d not wanted to get involved. I assumed going through life with heavy metal half-shirts and rotting buck teeth was punishment enough for him. I told him this nonchalantly one afternoon during a candid conversation outside the library…however, the chiseling continued and I continued ignoring it.

It all came to a head a few weeks later during gym class when the red shirts played the yellow shirts. I was a red shirt that afternoon and tending goal during an exceptionally rough game of floor hockey. Playing goalie was something I did well—I liked that it was 30% foresight and 70% reflex; it allowed me to get into a certain zone…to be the ball—or orange plastic puck in our case.

Henley, the acting captain of the yellow shirts was, by the middle of the first period, already barking grave orders at his lackluster team and losing his cool rapidly. A giveaway goal for the red shirts at the halfway mark prompted Henley to lumberjack his stick down onto the gymnasium floor as if it was an axe, breaking it into a number of plastic shards. His face turned a deep shade of red, which was quite a sight in contrast to his white albino hair and reptilian eyes.

From the center-gymnasium face-off, Henley was passed the small orange puck and he maneuvered his way into a dangerous breakaway. Handling the puck with too much zeal though, he faltered and made it all too easy for me to poke-check the puck away from him. In the process however, I managed to get my goal stick in between his runners, causing him to bail hard and skid across the glossy varnished gymnasium hardwood with a series of skin-burning squeaks and toppling thuds.

Of course, one can easily see the outcome—what transpired immediately after he’d struggled back to his feet. He accused me of tripping him up deliberately and my chuckling denial only enraged him further.

“You’re a fucking liar Holden!” he’d screamed.

“You’re a fucking inbred…but we all accept you for what you are Henley.” I chuckled.

Without missing a beat, Henley wound up and swung his plastic hockey stick at me…attempting to break it over me as he’d broken his previous stick against the floor. Seeing him raise the stick high above his head with a glint of sheer madness in his eyes, I lunged forth and tackled him so he toppled against the floor, again with a series of skin-burning squeaks and toppling thuds; after which I felt the weight of a dozen kids piling on us perhaps for no other reason than that they’d seen it happen on TV.

Really, one couldn’t move at the bottom of such a scrum; in fact one could barely breathe and it seemed like forever before everyone was finally untangled and pulled loose of the pile and I was being yanked up by the back of my shirt by Falco, our PE teacher who bared striking resemblance to a 1980’s Frank Stallone.

When we were finally standing and facing each other once again, with Falco between us; Henley glared at me with a bloody nose and his yellow mesh shirt torn at the neck…he pointed at me, issuing an icy promise. “I’m going to fucking get you Holden—when you least expect it man…I’m going to be there. You better be looking over your shoulder shit-head.” he said, pointing a crooked-looking club-finger at me. Indeed, I’d always found his club fingers peculiar and I had eventually decided that his club fingers were a symptom of calcium deficiency.

“Here,” I said, reaching into my pocket and producing a five-dollar bill, “Go down to the grocery store and get yourself a couple cartons of goat milk.” I said before walking back to my net that had been knocked over in all the commotion, realizing how close I’d come to getting head-chopped by Henley’s stick.

I’m not sure what it was about the exchange that was different from any of the other exchanges that I’d experienced in Truman Park. Certainly there had been worse; however, Henley had succeeded in displaying a certain level of douchery I couldn’t readily explain, though I’d pondered it afterward. As well I pondered his discolored fingernails, crooked calcium-deficient club fingers and his neglected and rotten teeth. I concluded that Henley was a creep and had fallen for his adopted sister. Because of this he reserved a war cry for any man who became the object of her affection as I had. It seemed Sally Henley should have come with a warning label.

The run-in with Henley only reinforced my desire to leave Truman Park High for a school with perhaps a better music program and less inbreds. However, exactly which school that might be was beyond my scope of understanding. It seemed like an issue that might warrant a certain degree of investigation and what personal time I had, I spent searching for access to a new piano.

Of course, though there were pianos in every hotel lobby downtown; I needed a secluded piano upon which I could continue my compositions—which I’d hoped would eventually become an album of original songs. However, I could find no secluded piano anywhere in town, aside from the music store, which wasn’t an ideal place for composition. Certainly, the music store wasn’t an ideal place for serious songwriters either. For the music store was wrought with nerdery, geekery, unwarranted elitism, and disconcerting feathered mullets; egg heads that preferred tech over talent.

I considered the prospect of renting a keyboard…however, there was no keyboard on the market that could imitate with exact texture and shade, the perfectly mystical resonance of an actual piano. After some time, I gave up and I inquired, perhaps unconsciously, why the universe had taken my piano away. Perhaps it was time to get out of the writing room and into the rehearsal room. Perhaps losing the piano was a sign that I was meant to be doing something else and perhaps without a piano—which could only leave electric guitar, which I’d been playing for years by that point but hadn’t done much composing with.

And so, I got very intimate with my Fender Strat—one I’d worked long hours at a local video store to pay for and one that sounded miraculous when blasting through an old beat-up Marshall Stack. I spent hours in my attic bedroom napalming the jungles of contemporary rock composition. To my surprise, in the space of a month, I’d built an impressive collection of high-octane songs that demanded to be filled in with pounding drums, sprinting bass, and perhaps a gritty Hammond organ. It was definitely time to get into the rehearsal room with some likeminded fellows. However, there were no such fellows at Truman High. In fact, there was said to be only one band at Truman High—a satan spawned death metal outfit who excelled at crimping their hair, wearing black nail-polish and commandeering lunch money, sandwiches and cans of soda from unlucky Truman students who crossed their paths. If I learned one thing that semester, it was that I needed to get out of Truman High before time ran out. However, without a target school in mind, a transfer seemed an impossibility.

Perhaps we really do exist to the universe, as inconsequential as we all are—perhaps there are reasons beyond our scope of understanding, perhaps there is ESP, as my mom’s books on the subject suggested. Perhaps the Law of Attraction was a perfectly viable concept. Perhaps the poets were right and science only understood .1% of all things. Or perhaps only the metaphysical held the seeds to answers our descendants would eventually uncover—for better or for worse. I can’t explain how or why, but I can tell you dear reader, the much larger answer I’d been looking for occurred to me—or rather was handed to me a few weeks later during a chance car ride.

If I’m to explain the great epiphany, I should start by mentioning that I wasn’t the greatest skateboarder in town—mainly because I didn’t aspire to be the greatest skateboarder in town. However, I relished the momentum of cruising downhill on my board, hopping a few stairs, or doing a board slide down a handrail when I was feeling fearless and invincible. I just loved to skate. I also adored the girls—the Betties as we called them. Girls who were exceptionally pretty, who didn’t often skate, but loved the Descendents and Vision Street Wear and showing off their colorful Vans and their colorful eyes…they loved to hang out at the Backyard—the biggest skate park in the city which just happened to be located on the edge of Truman Park.

There were many great things about the Backyard, but the live bands were what drew me to the place. Most nights there was a bill of 5 or 6 punk bands who, though usually sucking profusely, managed to evoke the raw energy we all craved to help placate our teenage angst. Some of us needed it more than others. I’d originally started frequenting the Backyard as an innocent escape from the jagged reality of Truman Park, which I should specify was surprisingly a subject of curiosity and near fascination for some of the west-side kids who drove their parents Porsches and Jags to the Backyard and parked them haphazardly, with the windows open and their father’s golf clubs in the back seat; I never understood what those west-side kids were so angsty about.

The idea was to skate the half-pipes and to buy a dime bag, catch some bands, absorb some collective chaos, and maybe crowd surf a few times. The idea was to forget about Truman Park for a few hours. However, once the word got around that I resided in ‘The Park’, I was often bombarded by questions about it, to which I’d offer elusive answers to their fascinated need for confirmation; confirmation of whether or not the district was really that much of a horror show. Their perceptions and projected curiosities about Truman Park were based solely on news reports. They liked the idea of uptown slumming as long as they could return to the safety of their picturesque slice of suburban bliss.

One night, after a great lineup of bands, I was offered a ride home by Wes Milton the third. He was actually the third male in his family to carry the name Wes Milton, thus the III and thus his accompanying introduction which I’d found amusing. We’d become friends over the course of a few short months and it was mainly due to the fact that Wes, in spite of his traditional family crest, was a delinquent at heart. In fact, in many ways he was more delinquent than many of the kids in my sector and perhaps Wes loved hearing it when I’d tell him so; perhaps the observation offered Wes something he could finally call his own.

On one particular night, after the last band had played, and we were all clearing out of the Backyard in droves; Wes and I lit one up and passed it back and forth. As we approached his father’s Audi, I noticed his girl April leaning up against the driver’s side door. She was chatting with a girlfriend and the two were sharing a cigarette. As Wes rambled on, I walked along with him, haphazardly listening—he was complaining about the new policy at his school, Crestwater High, which discouraged skateboarding on school property. April, Wes’ girl, turned to us when we were finally upon them and she smiled before taking a deep drag of the cigarette.

“Lacy, you’ve met Jack?” Wes asked April’s friend.

“I’ve seen him around.” said Lacy, as if not addressing me directly.

“We’re going to drop him off first, he lives here in Truman Park—so it’s on the way back.” said Wes after which the girls shrugged in agreement and slid down into the back seat, leaving Wes and I up front.

When an epiphany is handed to one by the universe at large—there is usually no prelude…at least it’s been my experience that such strokes of brilliant realization happen when you least expect them to. I might add that it wasn’t Lacy’s intention to offer me an epiphany—she was only offering a simple suggestion; to perhaps prove her worldly experience. We were cruising up Remington Avenue and Wes and I were talking about the bands; which ones we liked best and which one had the best drummer, which one had the best singer or guitar player…which one had the best songs—which one we hoped played again soon at the Backyard.

The conversation was inevitably open to my usual complaint; that I had a catalog of songs I’d written and it caused me great frustration that I could not, in my current situation, find adequate bandmates who were a) interested in playing original songs and b) could dedicate themselves to a project long enough to gain enough momentum to land a gig at the Backyard; or anywhere at all. Out of the gate—I knew what I wanted…knowing wasn’t the issue; acquiring it seemed to be.

Inevitably I started to complain about Truman High and its lack of a viable music program. I pondered what came first—the lack of a viable music program, or the lack of aspiring musicians in Truman Park. I went into it further, citing losing access to the piano as a major problem for me and one that created a sense of incompleteness and I pondered aloud whether madness was worse than incompleteness. Of course, I felt I was onto something—some grand realization that would shed some light. I sighed, shaking my head, wondering aloud how I would stand another year at Truman High when really, I couldn’t stand another day.

“Why do you have to stand it there for another year?” Lacy had asked from her place in the shadowy back seat.

“It’s in my district.” I said, glancing back at her pretty little nut of a face bouncing slightly with the dips and bumps in the road.

“You could easily transfer to another school—with a way better music program.”

“She speaks the truth.” Wes piped in, nodding in agreement.

“It’s more than sense.” assured Lacy, “You have to go after your dreams—you have to…otherwise, what’s life?”

I nodded, not wanting to break her stride, “Continue…I need to hear this.” I told her.

“I mean, it sounds like you’re really wasting talent on a school like Truman and it sounds like the school isn’t really behind their students on a creative level.” said Lacy, “Someone like you needs to be at Crestwater High.”

“Crestwater?” I asked. I knew Crestwater High was far out of my district. Probably too far.

It was a west-side school for the privileged and beautiful. I was neither, though I did have a certain charm. With the exception of Wes, I assumed the guys from Crestwater High who once in a while played against the Truman high basketball team, were a group of persnickety, whiny, bedwetting princesses; it was the general opinion around Truman Park.

“Well yeah…Crestwater is like the hub for garage bands in town. Everyone in that school is in a band and if they’re not in a band—they’re trying to get into one.” added April, perhaps feeling out-shined by her clever friend, “It’s like a mini-Seattle.”

“So many bands come out of Crestwater High. You know The Bren Tens? The band last week that covered the Smiths?” offered Lacy, “They all go to Crestwater. It’s like this big scene going on over there where everyone plays in everyone else’s band—really if you’re looking for a band, Crestwater is the place.”

“Yeah, they did a great version of The Boy with the Thorn in His Side.” I said, slightly stunned, for I’d not realized that most of the bands who played the Backyard all went to Crestwater High.

As the realization formed in my mind like an ever-brightening dawn, I knew I needed to hear more. As we bounced along the pot-holed road, I grilled Lacy and April for more info and found that in fact, the city-wide annual battle of the bands that was hosted by the Backyard each year had been won by Crestwater High bands four years in a row. The prize money was eight thousand dollars on top of free studio time to record a broadcast-level EP with producer Malcolm Kincaid. The previous year the prize had been won by the Fux Capacitors—another Crestwater High band. They’d gone on to open for Precinct 18 at the Whisky. It was hard to believe…and slightly stunned by a dawning wonder, I turned back to face the potholed street that led back to my mom’s place.

Once into central Truman Park, the potholes only got worse…the streets were littered with garbage…abandoned cars sat on crates, without wheels, and in some cases without windows. The streets became darker and the branches of trees hung hauntingly overgrown only a few feet above the passing car tops. In one grassless front yard, a couch burned haphazardly. In another, a toilet sat on its side near the front steps. Down the street a number of black and white squad cars had congregated, one pulled up onto the curb in haste. The silent flicker of lights strobed against the interior of Wes’ father’s Audi as we slowly passed a parked ambulance. Beyond a sagging line of yellow police tape was a body lying on the lawn under the cover of a white sheet—the real deal—not some 6 o’clock news report narrated by a dumbly blinking blonde with a microphone. We drove on in silence for a while, with the Cure’s Disintegration cassette playing on the stereo. After a while Wes speculated about the body, wondering if we’d hear about it on the news.

“It was probably a drive-by shooting.” I said, “News crews don’t care about a drive-by unless the body count is higher than one person.”

“That’s terrible.” said April from the back seat.

“It’s the reality of sensationalism in our news media.” said Lacy.

“I don’t know if I agree with that Lace,” said Wes, “If the news was called out to every drive-by in Truman Park, they’d run out of reporters. There’s just not enough of them to go around.” he laughed.

The conversation was abruptly interrupted when something broke through the calm enclosed silence with a popping smash that shattered the rear windshield. As the brick bounced down onto the back seat, April screamed, covering her head with her forearms, while Lacy squinted through the shattered rear window, scanning the street for a fleeing assailant. Wes immediately hit the brakes so the car screeched to a halt in the middle of the intersection. On instinct, he jumped out of the car dramatically and scanned the street corners and cracked sidewalks for the vandal responsible. When he found no one beyond some kids lingering in the shadows out in front of a darkened and boarded-up shopfront down the street, Wes took closer inventory of the shattered window. As he inspected the damage, I noticed a few figures approaching from across the intersection. They were hooded and had a certain walk…one I’d come to recognize in Truman Park.

“Wes, we better get the fuck out of here. Douchebags at 4 pm.” I told him and didn’t have to tell him twice. Within a few seconds, he was back in the driver’s seat, shifting into drive and peeling away, leaving the intersection in a squeal of rubber, extending one raised middle finger to the approaching gang of kids who in response hurled a beer bottle high and wide, the sound of its shatter buried by the roar of the car’s accelerating engine.

“What the fuck was that?” April exclaimed; her words flooded with adrenaline.

“Seems like a warning.” concluded Lacy.

“My dad’s not going to be happy about this shit—he’s been a real cunt about me driving his car lately and this might be the last straw.”

“Fuck your dad…what if that rock would have hit one of us? What kind of savages would throw a rock through a passing car window?” demanded Lacy.

“It wasn’t a rock, it was this.” said April, picking up the brick and holding it between Wes and me so we could see what had broken the window.

We were in Truman Park now and the rules were different—in fact there were no rules…only instinct void of consequence. I sat in silence, staring ahead at the oncoming road. I assumed they all regretted venturing across the train tracks into the roughest section of Truman Park. Oh well, I thought—they’ll have something to tell their parents at the dinner table tomorrow—a real live anecdote from The Park.

I was resigning to this notion when suddenly an explosion of laughter volleyed from the back seat, shrill in its hilarity and begging to speak suddenly. “Oh my god…I nearly peed.” chuckled April.

“That got my heart going. I thought it was a bird at first.” Lacy chuckled back.

“A bird?!” gasped April, breaking out in a fit of laughter, “How the hell does a bird break out a rear windshield?!”

As the two lost themselves in laughter, Wes glanced at me with a wry grin, “They don’t get out much. Meanwhile what if it started to rain?” Wes chuckled over his shoulder, “Guess you ladies would be tits out of luck.”

“Hey, don’t talk about my tits in front of your girlfriend.” laughed Lacy.

What tits?!” April exclaimed, falling into another wave of laughter.

“Fuck you…my tits are just fine…a pert handful.” she laughed.

Then Wes was laughing uncontrollably, “A pert handful…that’s rich.”

I sat there, puzzled, unsure of how to gauge this reaction—it was as if they were high from the thrill of being brushed so closely by a random act of crime. Perhaps they were adrenaline-junkie thrill-seekers or perhaps Wes wasn’t speaking with sarcasm; perhaps none of them really got out all that much. I just stared forward into the oncoming street that was riddled with potholes and litter as my thoughts returned to the notion of Crestwater High and that city-wide battle of the bands competition at the Backyard; for the first time, I saw that it was attainable—if I risked it all.

The school year was nearly through. Summer was approaching and with it, the usual angst in Truman Park. Summer meant the streets would be crawling even more so with murder and crime and vandalism. Summer brought out the crazies. It all made the prospect of transferring to Crestwater High even more tantalizing. However, there was my mother’s iron resolve to contend with and on first mention of possibly transferring to Crestwater, she’d looked at me curiously, seeing something in me she’d never quite seen before…something curious and perhaps an indication of the early onset of mental illness.

Indeed, she’d thought the notion preposterous at first and the more I brought the subject up, the more preposterous she found the idea to be. I maintained straight A’s at Truman without even really trying…so there was perhaps some concern that the A’s might decline when considering the challenges of transferring to a new school. There was also the commute to consider, which meant a succession of bus connections. The catch you see was that I needed her signature of approval on the Crestwater High application form. There was no way around the fact that she’d have to sign on the dotted line if I was going to transfer to Crestwater and it seemed there was no way she was going to approve of me leaving our district every day to attend a school on the other side of town. It seemed that, for lack of better words, I was flat-out fucked.

That is until one evening after getting home from the skate park I found my mother sitting in her chair, smoking a cigarette and watching the nightly news with two women from her Tai Chi class. They were sipping chardonnay and gasping at the grizzly details of the double homicide on South Bundy drive as they were revealed by Marcia Clarke in the dismal fluorescently lit courtroom.

“Mom…we need to talk.” I said.

“So talk.” she said as her friends turned to listen.

“You seem a bit preoccupied.” I said.

“We’re watching the trial of the century.” she grinned, drawing a chuckle from her cohorts.

She and her two guests sat in anticipation, waiting for the reason I’d interrupted the nightly OJ Simpson trial highlights. I walked to the fridge and cracked open a can of Cherry soda. I sat down in the only chair available, sighed a deep sigh…then delved into why I couldn’t spend another year at Truman High. With utter sincerity, I explained how I loathed the fact that there was no music program…no bands, no art, no creative outlet at Truman High. In an ominous tone, I confessed that though Truman High was an architectural feat, the faculty and student body were intellectually and culturally bankrupt.

I broadened my explanation, citing the vibrant music scene at Crestwater High…the excess of musicians…the strong music program…the arts and culture, the creative encouragement. I topped it finally with the prospect of winning the Backyard battle of the bands—the eight-thousand-dollar prize and the studio time with Malcolm Kincaid. I explained to her my belief that it was my destiny to play the Backyard one day and that I’d never been more certain about anything in my entire life. I also managed to imply that remaining at Truman Park high would never allow me to reach my full potential as an artist—and there is nothing more disappointing than wasted potential.

My mom took a drag of her cigarette and gazed out the window. After a few moments she looked at me and spoke in a tone I didn’t recognize…there was some finality to her tone, “And you’ll make it there every day on time?”

“Of course.” I said.

“You realize that means waking up probably two hours early every morning.” she warned, “And we know how much you love waking up early.” she added with a sarcastic grin, that drew a laugh from her friends.

“Whatever it takes—I’ll do it.” I nodded.

“And you’ll maintain the A’s?” she asked.

“A’s are easy.” I said.

Perhaps she realized that my persistence wouldn’t relent and that if I was begging for her ‘ok’ to attend school—perhaps it was a good idea to grant me the go-ahead to follow through on my promise of straight A’s, which I knew I could easily maintain as school, for the most part, is only the regurgitation of common sense and a fair amount of sharply articulated bullshitting. I must have said something right however—two days later my mom signed the application form for Crestwater High and appropriately left it sitting on my guitar case. I didn’t bother mailing it. Rather I delivered it in person; in the event that it might get lost in the mail and derail my destiny.

Now, I should add here that outside of Wes, April and her friend Lacy and of course my mom; I hadn’t told anyone about my plans to transfer out of Truman Park. In fact, after delivering the transfer, I’d kept it all very quiet, especially around Truman Park high. For it was known to me that there were a lot of people at Truman High who were burning to take a shot at me and I didn’t want them suddenly lining up once they realized they might miss their last chance. Somehow though, the word did circulate; which I assumed meant that the information had been leaked somehow by a member of the faculty—most likely Mr. Grant, who hated me with enough white-hot ferocity to sink so low.

The reality was that nobody ever transferred out of Truman High, especially to a school like Crestwater. It simply wasn’t done. Teachers, substitutes, maintenance men, cafeteria staff—many had tried to transfer out, but weren’t granted their wish by the school board. Truman High was a dead end for them—a place where faculty went to die. A student transferring out of Truman High on grounds of his own personal whimsy was indeed a rarity and doubtlessly there was bound to be resentment toward me.

In spite of trying to keep a tight lid on my impending transfer; interrogations started making it back to me through cohorts and enemies alike…none of whom could understand my desire to attend school at some other school. I believe overall, the douchebags had the audacity to take it personally; insulted by the notion that I didn’t wish to suffer through another year with them. This didn’t come as a surprise to me. After all, I’d never been even slightly understood at Truman High. To my classmates, Truman Park High was as good as it could possibly get for hood rats like us. They’d surrendered to the grim reality and were determined to make the best of it.

What did surprise me to a disconcerting degree was the reaction of principal Nelson, who’d always been a cruel and perpetually no-fun figurehead who despised me to the fullest extent of his capacities—and then some. One afternoon during my spare class, he approached me in a sunlit hallway and told me to follow him back to his office, where I sat across from him in a hard wooden chair; the hot seat. He closed the door and took off his blazer revealing dark wet rings of perspiration in the underarms of his pinstriped shirt. He walked over to the small window and peered out of it for a few moments, as if looking for someone. He then abruptly turned and peered at me for a few moments, biting on the end of his pencil before leaning forward and speaking thoughtfully.

“You know Jack, I think you’ve got the wrong idea of us here at Truman High. I think you have the wrong idea about a lot of things. You can run from your school, your friends, and your neighborhood. But you can’t run from yourself. Whatever issues you have with us here at Truman High are certainly a projection of issues you have with yourself. You following me?” he asked, his red, hypertensive face, peering back at me with a swollen fake smile that exposed his yellow, capped teeth.

“I thought you’d be happy I’m leaving.” I shrugged.

“I can’t imagine why…” he said.

“Well for one I’m a piece of dog shit—remember?” I said.

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” Said Nelson and I wondered if perhaps he’d been drunk the afternoon he’d said it.

“Right. And anyway, you wouldn’t understand my issues with this place.” I said.

“Why wouldn’t I? I spend every day here. 60 hours a week sometimes.” said Nelson.

“You don’t live here.”

“What’s your point Holden?” he demanded.

“You have kids?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact, I have two wonderful daughters just about your age.” he admitted.

“Yeah? So why don’t they go here? In fact, why don’t ya’ll move here and be our neighbors if you love Truman Park so much? Why don’t you let your daughters date a shit-weed like Jensen Henley?” I asked, pulling the rug from beneath his patience.

Nelson was red suddenly–or redder, storming around from behind his desk, kicking a metal wastebasket over and sending the contents flying across the office floor. He stepped up to me and loomed above me with his face very close. His breath was rancid with hatred, black coffee and stale tuna fish. His face turned an even deeper shade of red and his eyes were glassy and dead beyond the anger blazing within him. He grabbed the neckline of my t-shirt so it bunched in his fist and he pulled me forward to meet his glare.

“You don’t mention my kids again how about?!” he roared, “You smart ass little turd…how dare you! How dare you sit in my office and pass judgment on the way I raise my family—when I’m trying to talk some sense into you. Do you think you’re going to have a better life over at Crestwater? Do you think they’ll ever really accept a slum rat like you over there? A demon-seed troublemaker like you? Fat chance—you’ll always be a fuckup Holden…the fuckups are fuckups coming out of the gate. We specialize in fuckups here at Truman…and you ought to know your place. Crestwater would never have a little piece of dog shit like you skittering around their halls! In fact, I happen to know principal Jeffries over at Crestwater High and I’m going to place an informative phone call to him today…and I’m going to tell him all about you…” he grinned widely now, loosening his grip on my shirt as the hatred and rage caused his eyes to gleam with diabolical pride.

“Well, principal Nelson,” I said, to remind him of who and where he was, “Do what you gotta.” I said getting up out of the chair so we were eye to eye, “And by the way, you ever touch me again—and it’s going to go really badly for you—if you think I’m bluffing grab my shirt again.” I said, offering my shirt and waiting for him to make a move, “Yeah, just what I thought.” I said when he didn’t seize the opportunity. He glared back at me and the icy calm in my eyes cooled his inferno; he backed away giving me a once-over.

“Get the hell out of my sight.” he said with a disgusted twist on his lips.

I said nothing and left. I told nobody afterward. I think I felt the situation was valuable on some level and so better left unsaid; as if in some sick sense it was a blessing—a declaration of hatred from one of my so-called educators—the smoking gun. I’d hoped it would be the last instance of backlash before the school year ended. However, somehow I knew my classmates weren’t going to let me leave them that easily.

Indeed, there were a few more instances of shitheadery and the same old line of discouragement; a general assurance from classmates that I would be kicked out of Crestwater in under a month and that I’d be back at Truman High by the end of fall. There were some suggestions that I should keep my locker at Truman assigned. There were those things that rolled off me easily and then there were more serious beefs and resentments that I’d stoked by one day deciding I’d rather not spend another year with my classmates.

As I suspected—there were those who wanted to take a shot at me before they missed their last chance to do so and I walked head long into one the following weekend. It was a beautiful day in The Park. High 80’s…not a cloud in the sky…there was a game at the stadium, which was located in our district and so the streets were crawling with hometown fans, vagrants, ticket scalpers, and pretty women in short skirts. As the game roared on a few blocks away, Beatty, Huntington, and I sat on the lawn at Angus Pool; an outdoor pool in Angus Park that we hung around at each summer, drinking booze that Huntington had stolen from his old man, smoking the good grade shit and doing splashy dives. It was only a dollar to get in, but Beatty and Huntington preferred to hop the fence.

We were stretched out on the lawn with Sarah Chatsworth (whom we all called Sarah Mascara), Rita Cook, and Kate Wallace, who were shooting the shit and drinking spiked cherry slush from waxy cups. Indeed, Beatty was as usual causing a spectacle by whistling at girls walking by in bikinis.

“That’s really juvenile.” said Rita.

“Duh, I’m a juvenile.” said Beatty.

“So, it doesn’t mean you have to act like a jerk—you’re going to be in the twelfth grade in a couple months.” insisted Rita.

“Maybe you’re just jealous.” said Beatty, noticing Selena Mills wagging by. Blowing an ear-deafening whistle her way, Beatty hollered over some heads, “Looking good Selena!” to which Selena only grinned and kept wagging on by.

“It’s also very rude to whistle at other girls when you’re out with me.” said Rita, “You dumb fuck.”

“Yeah, well, wear a bikini next time instead of those granny trunks.” scoffed Beatty, conjuring a gasp of offense from Rita’s cohorts and a chuckle from Huntington.

“Granny trunks.” Huntington dumbly repeated.

“Don’t even get on his train you son of a bitch or you’ll be hugging your pillow for the rest of the summer.” sneered Kate, squinting across the expanse at Selena Mills who was climbing the diving board very sensually.

“Look at that silly bitch—she’s climbing that ladder like it’s a fucking beauty pageant.” said Kate, drawing a laugh from her friends.

“She could win one.” said Beatty.

“Trust me, you ain’t got nothing she’s looking for…god you’re a dope.” said Rita dismissively.

“I’m not a dope.” said Beatty, offended somehow.

“Yes you are.” assured Rita, “And half the time I’m worried I’m going to get a visit from the police telling me you’re dead.”

“Trust me…heaven ain’t going to take me and I’m too badass for hell…guess that means I’m going to live forever.” laughed Beatty.

“Exactly my point—only a dope would say something like that.” said Rita, shaking her head.

“Hey Jack…what do you think—am I a dope or what?” he said, directing his question at me.

“Yeah…you’re a total dumbass.” I laughed.

“No, seriously man.” he said, dragging deep on his cigarette. I couldn’t understand why my opinion on the subject meant anything at all to Beatty.

“I don’t know…but you’re very reckless and that’s a dangerous thing around here.” I told him.

“Reckless how?” he asked.

“If I have to point out how—then it’s worse than I thought.” I laughed.

As Rita explained to Beatty what I’d meant, I looked around the pool. The water was sparkling and the smell of chlorine and coconut suntan lotion wafted in the air. The vodka had left a nice burn in my chest and I thought about Crestwater High. I thought about what it was going to be like to recruit some band mates, to rehearse, to put together a set of grievous skate-punk gems and to eventually play the Backyard. It all seemed a bit too surreal to believe.

However, I’d been sent a letter to inform me that Crestwater High had received my transfer request and was processing it. Along with the letter, they sent me a glossy brochure which detailed the school’s brightest points and best photographic angles. It had all come in a manila envelope baring official Crestwater High letter head and an anxiousness was setting in—the feeling one got before attempting a board-slide down a handrail, only the feeling was cut with more elation.

“What’s up with you Jack?” asked Sarah Mascara, my apparent date on this afternoon, “You’ve been acting lost all day. Are you fucking high or something?”

“I’m just enjoying the great weather Sarah.” I said, leaning back against the trunk of a tree with my hands behind my head, grinning back at her puzzled expression.

I wasn’t sure if Sarah believed me; she was the suspicious sort and as she studied my expression for an inkling, I noticed over her shoulder, Jensen Henley approaching our group. He was clad in Bermuda shorts and his usual heavy metal half-shirt. His mullet was as always immaculately feathered, and his strut was comical in its deliberateness. He was flanked by a couple of his goons—rejects from metal shop class who believed Henley’s hype…so much so Henley had begun to believe it too. There was a certain blind arrogance among his crew, which only accentuated their satirical presence.

“Well, well…if it isn’t the shittiest goalie in Truman Park.” said Jensen, stepping up and lighting a cigarette.

“Funny how you haven’t scored on me yet asshole.” I said.

“Hey Kate.” Henley nodded, “If you and your girlfriends want to hang out with some real men—let me know.”

“You mean you can introduce us to some? Because all I see is shwag.” Kate retorted without missing a beat; Kate hated Henley perhaps more than any of us did and she had her reasons.

“Funny…” winced Henley, turning his attention back to me, “We still have unfinished business shithead.”

“Henley,” I said, sitting up and looking him squarely, “do you really think there’s unfinished business between us? The only one perpetuating anything is you. Do you really think you’re on my radar when you’re not in my face with your heavy-metal half-shirt and your rotting buck teeth? Do you really fucking think you matter at all to me?” I inquired before putting a cigarette in my mouth and lighting it.

Henley stood there…not knowing what to say. I knew he was a moron but I had no idea he was so easily stymied. Had I known that before, I’d have employed the same tactical aversion during our previous run-ins and perhaps saved myself the effort of mocking him.

“Why don’t you take your sidekicks and go get yourselves some fucking milk and cookies?” grinned Beatty—his crazy eyes ready for anything. Even Henley knew better than to fuck with Beatty.

“I’ll be seeing you fuck-o.” said Henley, pointing a finger of conviction my way, to which I offered a two-finger salute.

I spent perhaps another hour at the pool, smoking blunts and cigarettes, sipping on vodka and bobbing around in the shallow end with Sarah Mascara, the old ladies and tots. I did the backstroke and watched a plane high above move nearly motionless through the deep blue abyss, leaving behind it an expanding jet trail. I was half drunk and it felt like my farewell party was coming to a close.

There were no more tests…no more lessons…no more essays—no more vodka shots. The last week of school was rather anticlimactic and like everything else, it would pass and open a new chapter—the great unknown. I thought about time and its relentless and perfectly steady pace; we are pressed between infinity—endless time behind us as well as ahead of us…yet we don’t implode under the pressure. We carry on, oblivious to the fact that we gaze upon the same moon Caesar did, Moses did…the same moon Neil Armstrong had walked upon…the same moon that had tirelessly hung there in the lonely sky during the ice age…the bronze age…the dark age. Though there was still a bit of afternoon left in the sky, the moon hung there in the endless blue like a faint watermark—completely oblivious. Who was I but another ant? Indeed, it was time to go, and go I did, leaving my cohorts sitting on the lawn with their constant banter and careless vices.

I got changed and didn’t bother to rinse the chlorine from my hair. I was tired, bogged down by cheap vodka and feeling introspective enough to make sense of something if I really tried hard enough. What I needed was an epic bike ride to some far-off point in the city where I’d never been—some change of perspective to think things through, to comprehend what it was we all thought we were doing here.

I decided it would be a novel plan to spend the evening in the gothic old graveyard in northeast Truman Park, listening to the Twin Peaks soundtrack on my Walkman and writing lyrics for my new guitar compositions—immersed in darkness and low creeping mist rolling in from the dank bog. I felt it would be a good idea to visit the WWII monument for a bit of perspective and to venerate our grandfathers who’d changed the course of history at Normandy all those decades ago—indeed, though the future was bright…I felt immersed in a certain darkness that evening—darkness that is darkest before dawn.

Once I left the pool, I dumped some change into the vending machine and selected a bottle of pop. I used the built-in opener to crack the cap and relished the ice-cold bite of the carbonation as I sipped casually. I was heading across the parking lot toward the communal bike racks where my mountain bike awaited when I heard a voice calling to me from behind.

When I turned to see who it was, I wasn’t quite surprised to find half-shirt Henley with his two minions in tow. He had what appeared to be a sock wrapped around the knuckles of his right hand and he’d removed his heavy metal half-shirt. He had a few DIY tattoos and what appeared to be laceration scars on his chest and arms; a real charmer.

“Said I’d be seeing you around fuck-o.” said Henley.

“This looks fair.” I said.

“You know something Holden—you’ve had this coming all year.” said Henley.

“Why are you so obsessed with me man? It’s fucking creepy.” I chuckled, putting the bottle to my mouth and tipping it back so I could swill down the rest of the pop.

“Obsessed with kicking your ass.” scoffed Henley, blubbering out a pathetic forced chuckle.

I backed away as they approached, peering toward the eastern horizon that was turning a bludgeoned orange from the sinking sun. Looking back to Henley’s twisted and ugly face, I thought about my options.

“You guys are really going to do this?” I asked.

“Seems like a good day for it.” nodded Henley.

“I really don’t want to get emotionally involved in this conversation.” I said.

“My fist is about to get emotionally involved with your face, asshole.” spat Henley, squaring off along with his minions.

“Fine.” I said, bringing the bottle down hard against the blue bar of the metal bicycle rack. However, the bottle didn’t break on the first attempt—a simple twist of comedy. I swung it again, this time breaking the bottle so it was all sharp jagged edges. The green glass of the bottle glimmered nicely in the bludgeoned orange rays of sunset bursting through a cumulonimbus moving across the horizon. I focused intensely on the jagged edges…then I focused on Henley.

“What, you gonna cut us all?” Henley asked; his voice higher pitched now. He’d stopped approaching, as did his minions. They weren’t quite sure how far I’d go and perhaps I wasn’t either.

“Nobody has to get cut here…you can just walk away.” I said, closing one eye for aim and making a gouging movement with the jagged green glass.

“I ain’t afraid of getting cut.” he assured.

“Yeah, I know…you’re an inbred, but those scars on your chest are nothing compared to what I’ll do to you.” I said, still sizing up a nice cut of Henley’s face.

“What the fuck did you call me?” Henley demanded.

“An inbred.” I said noticing over Henley’s left shoulder, Beatty and Huntington walking across the expanse of parking lot. They weren’t high tailing it, rather they walked casually. Meanwhile—I was about to get a triple-decker shit kicking; great friends—of whose though, I was at a loss. Following my line of sight, Henley peered over his shoulder and back at me with a small grin.

“The cavalry.” he said, shaking his head.

When Beatty and Huntington finally caught up with our unfolding suspense, they appeared to be confused. Suddenly, they were all looking at me funny—the entire group as well as a few passersby.

“What’s up rodent boy?” asked Beatty.

“Check it out…your boy is losing it man.” Henley told him.

“Sarah saw it from the pool.” Huntington told me.

“Yeah.” Beatty grinned, shaking his head and pointing a finger at Henley, “I knew you were a douchebag Henley, but I didn’t think you were a douchebag who would gang up on a motherfucker.”

“Gang up? He’s the one looking to carve us up!” Henley exclaimed, “He was about to attack us!”

“Three against one.” Huntington shrugged.

I tossed the broken bottle over my shoulder so it smashed against the asphalt behind me before I stepped up to Henley. Eye to eye I realized he was shorter than I and there was something in his albino eyes I hadn’t quite seen before…it was something like fear, but fear of life in general; somebody had hurt Henley…and perhaps the scars on his chest and arms were put there by his father…word was that the old man frequently abused Henley.

“How about we end this shit right now?” I said.

There was a long moment of silence as Henley stared back at me. I could sense the wheels moving in his brain; turning it over and over, unsure of how to proceed. He then seemed to snap out of his circular contemplation and began looking me up and down with disdain.

“Nice shirt loser…Anarchy in the UK? We’re not in the UK you fucking dick.” spat Henley, getting it all out—sharing his feelings as if we were in group therapy.

“Sorry, I guess I lack your array of heavy metal half-shirts.” I laughed.

“Know what—get the fuck out of my face.” said Henley, “And take your fellow freaks with you.”

“Not until this shit is settled.” I said.


“Yeah settled.” I said, “This shit has to end man—this obsession you have with me is getting creepier and creepier dude.”

“We’ll settle it next time.” Henley said, backing away now, pulling his shirt back on. It was a snug-fitting half-shirt with long white sleeves. It was a Poison t-shirt upon the front of which the band was framed in four headshots, primped and hair sprayed, posing with feminine allure. I spat a small sad chuckle, shaking my head, imagining Henley sitting on his veranda, dueling on the banjo with another of his albino clan, his Poison t-shirt and crimped mullet flowing in the breeze. The hilarity struck me.

“There won’t be a next-time jerk-off.” I told him with a chuckle.

“Oh, right…you still actually think that you’re transferring to Crestwater.” said Henley with a strange grin.

“The fuck you know about it?” I asked.

“Me? Oh, just what everyone else knows…that Nelson talked to the principal over at Crestwater and told him what a fuck-up you are…now you’re never going to get into Crestwater, you dumb ass.” Henley chuckled.

I peered at Beatty and Huntington who only stared back at me blankly.

“Is that the word?” I asked them.

“I heard something like that but, you can’t believe everything you hear…you can’t even believe most of what you hear.” shrugged Huntington.

“It’s true.” assured Henley. “You ain’t going nowhere.”

“Uh Henley, listen old chap…take this and please—I implore you; get some goat milk from the store. Clearly you’re calcium deficient.” I said, handing him a five. This time he didn’t offer a quick reply as was his wont. He merely offered me a sour expression and jerked his head; the signal for his minions to fall into tow, which they did, looking confused as they walked away slowly, glancing back at Beatty, Huntington and me.

So, dear reader, you could say that I was all for not having one last confrontation with Henley. I didn’t have to deal with Henley’s bullshit that day, and perhaps I had my broken bottle of pop to thank. Or perhaps it was Beatty and Huntington I should have thanked. Something told me however that Henley hadn’t really wanted to fight. What he’d wanted more than anything was to get in my head, and he’d learned that he’d never be able to penetrate my fortified resolve. However, since Nelson did threaten to do so, I realized that it was entirely possible that he had made that phone call to principal Jeffries over at Crestwater High. It was exactly the type of petty cuntery Nelson was prone to.

Because transferring to Crestwater meant so much to me, I began to ponder the situation in a series of worst-case scenarios…each time recalling the ominous oath Nelson had made in his office that ill-fated afternoon; the oath that he would call principal Jeffries and shit-talk me. It added up. After all, it was highly possible that Nelson knew principal Jefferies and there was a code of cuntery between principals. The more I thought about it, the more evident it became that Nelson had most probably acted in bad faith…for he excelled at acting in bad faith…and as my concerns elevated, so did the likelihood that I’d be spending another year at Truman Park High.

It seemed every day the disappointment became worse when I would find no acceptance letter from Crestwater High in the mail. Their initial letter had stated that an official acceptance letter would be forwarded, and when none came, my curiosity systematically built, until I was awoken one night by a dream that I’d returned to Truman Park High and was sentenced to a full year of detention in principal Nelson’s office for attempting to transfer out. The dream had been so vivid that I could make out the floral alcohol scent of the cleaner they used on the floors at Truman High…I could make out the swirling shapes in Nelson’s mahogany desk as the caged clock in the hallway ticked by with Ingmar Bergmanesque melodrama…counting the year out in seconds.

The next morning, I woke up under-slept and overwrought, and I subsequently surrendered easily to the notion that I needed to know either way what my fate would be in the fall. The school year had ended the previous Friday but I was certain administration would still be on the job at Crestwater. It was a Monday and I rode the bus to the west side with some weed in my head and some Replacements on my Walkman. Through the window that was smudged with graffiti, I watched the houses go by to the soundtrack of Tim.

Eventually the hard and broken streets and dilapidated housing projects turned to sprawling lawns and rustic Victorian houses, complete with stained glass wind chimes and model windmills in the front yards. The hedges became meticulously trimmed and the gutters became impeccably clean. As the bus drew closer to Crestwater High, the houses got larger, the lawns got wider and somehow greener, the foliage became more pristine. Vines climbed trellises, rock fountains and circular driveways became more prevalent. Flags in front yards billowed in the ocean breeze and fancy cars dotted the streets and driveways with sparkling chrome lines. I was officially in Emerald Heights—home of Crestwater High…which to me looked like a movie set version of quintessential suburbia.

There was a bus stop directly out in front of the school and I stepped out onto the sunbaked sidewalk and looked up at Crestwater High. It was just a school…perhaps not even as large as Truman High and definitely not as old. It was silent and stoic, backdropped by the morning blue of the sky which was floating with several cumulonimbus clouds that looked like fluffy tufts of cotton. I stood at the bus stop puffing on a blunt for some time. I contemplated simply leaving. However, I’d come too far to back out…and I’d only keep wondering about whether or not I’d been officially enrolled if I didn’t get to the bottom of it once and for all. After a few more puffs, I made my way across the lawn and trudged up the stone steps toward the large glass entrance doors which I found with a pull, were still open for business.

Mainly the halls were completely barren, except for a few teachers who were removing banners from the hallway walls. Following the signs that labeled the way to the office, I found it on the second floor. Pushing through the heavy wooden door with frosted glass windows, I emerged on the other side under a wash of fluorescent light that brilliantly illuminated the surfaces.

“Can I help you?” asked the secretary whose spectacles hung low on the bridge of her nose as she looked up at me with a smile from some papers she was reading.

“Yes, is principal Jeffries in?” I asked.

“He certainly is…what’s this regarding?” asked the secretary, now sitting up straight and pushing her spectacles back up with her middle finger…a curious gesture—a single middle finger pushing up her wire spectacles as if she were flipping me an inadvertent bird.

“It’s sort of a sensitive matter.” I admitted.

“We’re all sensitive here.” she chuckled, “I don’t recognize you…are you a student here?” she asked.

“I applied to be.” I said.

“You’re a new transfer?”

“Not sure…I haven’t received an official acceptance letter.” I said.

“Let me have a look.” said the secretary rising from her chair and striding over to a large filing cabinet in the far corner of the office. She rolled out a drawer and asked for my name as she fingered her way through the various folders.

“I don’t see it here.” she confessed, turning back to me with an apologetic expression.

“So does that mean I’m not enrolled?” I asked.

“Have you filled out the transfer paperwork?” she asked.

“I did.”

“Well…then there should be at least some record of it here.” said the secretary, wagging her way back to her desk upon which sat a large phone with many colored buttons. She pressed one and spoke into the receiver in a low confiding tone after which she smiled back up at me and gestured with a palm toward a frosted glass door in the opposite corner of the office labeled in vintage font only the word Principal.

“Go right in…the principal will see you now.” said the secretary with a smile.

Inside the office, Jeffries sat behind his large desk scanning through the contents of a folder. He acknowledged me absently as he scanned some fine print at the bottom of one page. I took a seat in one of two comfortable-looking loungers on the opposite side of his desk and waited for him to finish reading. When he did, Jeffries closed the folder and looked up at me.

“I’m Principal Jeffries.” he said, not bothering to extend his hand for a shake.

“I’m Jack Holden…I applied for enrollment but haven’t yet received an official acceptance letter.” I informed, “They said I’d receive an official acceptance letter.”

“Yet strangely we don’t have your records on file.” he smiled awkwardly.

“Strangely.” I nodded.

“It’s not so strange actually…or much of a mystery I’m afraid. What’s happened is Irving hasn’t sent over your records.” said Jeffries leaning back now in his chair resting his elbows on the armrests and touching the tips of his fingers together.

“Irving?” I asked.

“I believe you know him as principal Nelson.”

“He hasn’t sent my records yet?” I asked.

“Not as of yet.” he said, looking back at me with some intensity.

“But wasn’t he supposed to?” I asked.

“Well yes, if your application for enrollment is approved.”

“That’s what I’m here to find out—whether it’s been approved or not.” I specified.

“Well, aside from my lengthy conversation with principal Nelson, I’m not sure Crestwater High is the best place for you. It’s quite a commute from Truman Park.” said Jeffries.

“I’m good with the commute.” I said.

“There’s also the fact that we’re nearly at capacity attendance here. I’m not sure we’d have room for another student and if we did it would likely be a student from here in Emerald Heights.” he said.

“I get it.” I said with a nod.

“I hope this makes sense to you.”

“Yeah, fully. You don’t want a Truman Park kid at this school. That’s crystal clear.” I said.

“It’s not that.”

“Then it’s because of what nonsense Nelson told you about me—I’m sure it was juicy…but let me ask you this…do you realize what sort of man Nelson is? Maybe you think you know him…but you don’t know him like I do.” I assured.

“This has nothing to do with my conversation with principal Nelson…I can attest to that.” he said, flashing a grin of absurdity.

“Sure…” I said, rising from my chair. Jeffries rose as well and escorted me out into the reception area.

“We’re just at enrollment capacity I’m afraid.” he shrugged apologetically.

I glanced from him to the women organizing paperwork behind their desks.

“You know something—I thought Crestwater High would be able to offer me an academic challenge. I thought this school would offer me a chance to really succeed at something. But—I guess we’ll never know because you don’t want a kid from Truman Park at your school.”

“It’s not that.” Jeffries smiled uneasily, glancing at his secretaries who were quiet and severe looking suddenly—as if Jeffries and I were having a major confrontation. Clearly they’d never witnessed a major confrontation.

“Save it man…we both know what happened, your little buddy Nelson shit-talked me and you bought his line of crap. For the record though…I’ve got a better grade-point average than 95 percent of your students.” Not wishing to say something I’d perhaps regret, I stormed out of the office and down the hallway, where the teachers were still removing banners from the walls…their expressions were also severe.

“Have a nice day.” said one of them.

When I got back to Truman Park, I felt the disappointment setting in. The sky had clouded over and for the first time, I wondered if I’d ever form a band. Perhaps it wasn’t in the cards. Perhaps I was shooting for the stars in asking the universe to grant me a simple wish. I thought of the kids at Crestwater High and how ironic it was that they probably saw absolutely no value or opportunity in being enrolled. I then thought about Truman High and the grimness of returning in the fall…most disconcerting was the notion that I may never get an opportunity to play my songs in a live setting—that I might be forever doomed to play guitar in the confines of my room…serenading shadows on the walls.

I called Wes and told him what had transpired in Jeffries office.

“What a clown,” he said, “that guy has only been principal at Crestwater for one year…and he’s been a disaster. He insulted one student for being overweight and he expelled another because she missed a bunch of classes when her dad got sick. Guy’s a fucking tool.”

“Well, he just fucked me over…but really it was Nelson who fucked me over.” I said.

“Who’s Nelson?”

“Principal at Truman.”

“We ought to lynch that bastard.” suggested Wes.

“He actually went through with it—he actually called Jeffries up and shit-talked me. He said he was going to…but I thought he was bluffing.” I said, the astonishment setting in. I could hear Wes reiterating the development to April, who then made a suggestion.

“April’s right, there’s got to be a law against that. You should write a letter to the school board—see if this guy has the right to reject your application based on what another principal said.” said Wes.

“It’s going to be too hard to prove—he’s saying that Crestwater is at full capacity for enrollment. Today…I got fucked over by Nelson…really it’s Nelson.” I said.

“He’s got to pay.” said Wes.

“He pays every day when he looks in the fucking mirror.” I chuckled.

Indeed, I was slightly crushed and the feeling was profound…and I wondered what was worse; coming so close to transferring, or transferring and then being subsequently expelled from Crestwater High only to return to Truman after a number of months living the Crestwater dream. Perhaps it was better this way. And so dear reader, I went back to my Truman Park routine and after two weeks sitting around at Angus Pool with Beatty and Huntington, sipping vodka and smoking it up, things started to take on the hazy shade of complacency. The vivid dreamscape that had almost opened for me now seemed like exactly that…a fleeting image seen during REM sleep.

We’d stayed late at the pool one Friday evening. Beatty had been working on Sharon Keller; a tough nut to crack, and I’d been drunk diving off the second tower. I had chlorine in my eyes and in my nose and in my ears and I just didn’t give a fuck. I cannonballed deep and made it nearly to the pool floor. After floating on my back for what seemed like an hour, staring up at the sky, a splash told me it was time to go. Snapping out of my trance, I noticed Beatty a few feet away, using a float board to splash water my way. “We’re gonna go to Sharon’s place with a few of her friends. Her dad is out of town. You game?” he said.

“Yeah, sure.” I said.

As usual, we didn’t bother showering the chlorine off. Indeed, though I was aware of the fact that the chlorine was there to disinfect the pool waters in which people frequently pissed…there was a sense of eagerness to leave once out of the water. It was Huntington, Beatty, and I…along with Sharon Keller and her two friends whose names I’d forgotten. As the six of us were walking down Falcon Avenue having a few of the good old puffs, a sleek black car pulled up and rolled slowly beside our group as we walked. I didn’t recognize the people in the car but I saw they were older…perhaps men in their twenties. Before I could get a more detailed look, the car was peeling away from the curb. I realized they were pursuing Beatty who’d broken into a sudden sprint down a darkened alleyway.

Huntington and I glanced at each other before sprinting after the taillights of the sleek black car that made it to the end of the block before screeching its brakes when Beatty’s dark form scaled a tall fence. The car abruptly reversed and stopped…a door opened and a figure got out and scaled the same fence Beatty had. Huntington and I kept running, trying to catch up to Beatty who was propelled by sheer adrenaline.

The car peeled away and hung a hard right, leaving Huntington and I in the darkened alley. We heard the tires of the car squealing down the street on the opposite side of the darkened row of houses. There was some hollering, then more squealing rubber. Finding a passage between two of the houses, Huntington and I bolted toward the front street…toward the sound of the squealing tires that seemed to be always moving away from us. By the time we emerged in the darkened front yard of a seemingly vacant house, the car had circled the corner and we could hear the squealing tires a block over. As we jumped a small fence, Huntington’s pant leg got caught and he drunkenly toppled face-first into the lawn. The bottom roll of his pant leg had somehow been skewered by one of the sharp pickets and like a snared animal, he squirmed on the lawn in the darkness trying to free himself. I backtracked and yanked hard on his jeans, tearing them free of the picket. As he rose to his feet, we heard three loud cracks…echoing from the next block, the sound ricocheting against the facades of the old houses.

Directly after, a loud squeal of the car tires and the roar of a V6 engine echoed from the neighboring street. Huntington and I stood there looking at each other under the dim glow cast by the archaic streetlamp above, listening to the roaring engine that dissipated eventually until it faded into the distance.

“Were those backfires?” asked Huntington.

“Didn’t sound like backfires.” I said as we moved cautiously through a dark passageway between two tenement buildings.

When we reached the street, we found that a small crowd had gathered near the end of the block. Perhaps a gang we wanted to avoid. Through the wind that was picking up, we heard a statement carried on the rustle of leaves, “Call 911 fast.”

As Huntington and I drew closer, moving cautiously down the sidewalk, we realized what the commotion was about. Lying in a large oil stain beside the curb was Beatty. He didn’t move though his eyes were open. He wasn’t breathing and I noticed his black shirt was glistening wet…and it occurred to me only then that the oil stain wasn’t oil, rather it was his blood and I could see the fingers of the dark puddle creeping toward the curb with gravity.

As a police helicopter obliviously chopped through the skies high above the surrounding palm trees, there was some discussion of what to do…did anyone know CPR? Did anyone have any medical training? Had anyone ever dealt with a gunshot wound? A resounding no prevailed and we all stood there watching Beatty’s corpse, hoping that he’d reanimate, blink his eyes, sit up and crack another terrible joke with his signature psychotic grin and lead the way to Sharon Keller’s old man’s place. However, the body stayed perfectly still staring off lifelessly at a fixed point in the distance; Beatty was gone.

Eventually, responders from the civilization outside of Truman Park arrived. An ambulance first, then three police cruisers, then a fire truck that pulled up momentarily before heading back to the station—no fire, just another call for the homicide squad. The paramedics checked Beatty for vitals and attempted resuscitation for some time before finally surrendering. They packed up their boxes and left, pulling away from the scene quietly, with their lights still flickering. The cops lingered—it was now a police matter. They were preoccupied with one resident…an old lady who’d not only seen the assailants at close range and the shooting itself—she’d also remembered the license plate number of the car they’d been driving. She kept repeating it as if it were a mantra—even after the cop had written it down in his pad.

That night I walked home carefully, looking over my shoulder with each passing car, ready to sprint off into the darkness if the black car re-emerged. At that point, the who and the why were question marks. There was of course an assumption that it was a targeted shooting…after all Beatty was known not just to police. However, the specifics were unknown.

It seemed our entire neighborhood was on edge after the incident. Though it certainly wasn’t the first incident of its kind in Truman Park, the shooting sparked controversy, especially once the details emerged that the shooter had been the older brother of a kid Beatty had fought and hospitalized the previous month. The older brother was a gang member for whom there were a number of arrest warrants; a felon who had remained at large. There was talk among parents of vigilante justice and a house-to-house search for the kid. However, no search ever occurred, and it seemed Beatty’s murder was passed off as yet another senseless shooting in The Park the news didn’t even care enough about to report.

Later that week the family held a funeral for Beatty at Golden Meadows Funeral home in Truman Park. I didn’t go. As far as I was concerned, the last thing I needed to see was a waxy replica of Beatty’s form lying cold and stone-still in a wooden box. However, I also didn’t wish my last memory of Beatty to be the mental snapshot I’d inevitably taken of him lying on his back with his eyes open, staring off at a fixed point in the distance as his blood drained away into a dirty sewer grating.

Eventually, I opted to ride my bike to the graveyard where Beatty was scheduled to be buried. After conferring with a caretaker, I found the open grave and waited nearby, smoking a blunt and sipping on a cold beer. Eventually, after I’d finished three cans, the procession arrived and everyone got out of their cars. Mostly dressed formally or in black, the funeral attendees gathered around the grave for the traditional burial ceremony. I wondered about Beatty and what he’d have thought of the ceremony. Perhaps he’d have teared up seeing his mother in such a broken state or the surprising number of people who’d shown up for such an asshole’s funeral.

However, I had a suspicion that Beatty would have shook his head, claimed the entire thing was a drag, and blown off a few cherry bombs. Beatty after all lived by an utterly dangerous and foolish code of douchery and being suddenly dead didn’t exemplify the facts.

Chapter 2: The Getaway

The following week I was invited to meet Wes and April at a restaurant in Truman Park. Though they were kids from Emerald Heights, they enjoyed hanging around in Truman Park and they particularly liked frequenting greasy, off-the-grid restaurants and had chosen Triple Happiness Bowl on this occasion. I ordered a cup of black tea and none of the food—after all, what could go wrong with black tea? As I reiterated the night we’d lost Beatty to the streets of Truman Park, April listened with a knot of concern between her perfectly plucked brows while Wes perused the menu.

Seemingly oblivious to Beatty’s tragic account, Wes interjected, “Listen, forget about all of that gloomy shit…today I have some extra great news for you pal.” he said, “Remember principal Jeffries?”

“How could I forget that cunt?” I shrugged.

“Well. I wanted to tell you this in person…as soon as I heard about it, I told April that we had to tell you about it in person.” said Wes as April nodded enthusiastically.

“Right.” I said.

“You’re not going to believe this, but your friend and mine, principal Jeffries has been issued his walking papers over at Crestwater High.” Wes said with a wide grin.

“Say what?” I asked.

“He’s been fired…he’s no longer the principal there…in fact, given the circumstances—I’m guessing he’s going to be standing on the unemployment line for some time to come.” said Wes.

“What?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“My father plays golf with Mr. Barlow, whose wife is the physics teacher at Crestwater—and the word is that Jeffries was having an affair with one of the other teachers…they’re keeping it pretty hush-hush, but they think it’s the typing teacher Mrs. Wallace. They’re both married and so it’s like this big boring scandal…and it doesn’t help that Wallace’s husband is a big shot with the school board…it’s like this ongoing inbred swinger’s party with these teachers. There are so many affairs going on it’s hard to keep track of them all.”

“Come on Wes.” I grinned, “It sounds like a cheesy daytime soap.”

“It’s the facts Jack.” said Wes.

“He’s not kidding…it is like an inbred swinger’s party…and it’s true—Jeffries is gone from Crestwater High. He and Wallace weren’t very careful…everyone knew about them…it was so fucking obvious.” said April, her tone becoming suddenly ominous.

“I can’t believe it.” I said, the realization of what it might mean forming in my head, “but even so—the asshole rejected my application—it’s a done deal wouldn’t you say?”

“Do you really think there’s any official record of that?” said Wes, “He just didn’t file it. I say you give them another call and inquire—say you’re still waiting for the official acceptance letter…the new principal doesn’t know any different. She’s not going to care either—she just moved here from Portland or Seattle or someplace up north…she’s going to be too busy getting settled to give a shit about sabotaging you Holden. What have you got to lose?”

“Not much, I guess.” I said.

The following day I’d planned to wake up early and ride the bus down to Crestwater High and pay them a second in-person visit. However, it seemed a long way to go to be given an answer I felt I already knew. You see dear reader; it was my impression that, though Jeffries was a cunt, he wasn’t quite the issue—the issue was Emerald Heights itself and the secret agendas that were kept well-hidden behind shuttered French windows.

I believed there existed an unofficial and clandestine campaign among parents and faculty alike to protect their neighborhood from riff-raff like me who might infiltrate their utopian bliss. Perhaps the first line of defense was high school faculties. I believed that no matter who the principal was at Crestwater—there was just no way the school was going to accept a kid from Truman Park—especially one who’d come with a doubtlessly searing condemnation from Nelson.

Taking all of this into consideration, I dialed the Crestwater office and sat on hold for perhaps ten minutes before the new principal, Mrs. Gavin took the call.

“Principal Gavin here.” she answered suddenly, interrupting the elevator music.

“Hi,” I said, “I’m calling about an application for enrollment I submitted before the summer break. I haven’t received an official acceptance letter yet…being that the school year begins in a few days, I figured I’d double check.”

“Oh…that’s curious. What’s your name?”

“Jack Holden.”

“Hmmm…I was just browsing our new students earlier this week and that name doesn’t ring a bell.” she said, “Did you speak with the previous principal?”

“I heard he got canned.” I said.

“Yes…he’s no longer with us. Where are you transferring in from?”

“Truman Park High.” I said.

“Truman…” she said rolling the name off her tongue curiously as if she’d never heard it before, “You’ll have to forgive me—I’ve recently moved here from Oregon. Truman High is in the Valley?” she asked.

“No, it’s downtown.” I said.

“I see. If you don’t mind my asking; why do you want to attend a school so far from your district?” asked Gavin.

“That seems to be the question. The simple answer is that there are metal detectors at Truman High for a reason. Plus, there are basically no arts programs at Truman High. Crestwater has great arts programs—a few friends of mine who attend Crestwater have told me all about it.”

“It’s true, Crestwater has some of the best arts programs in the city.” said Gavin, sighing deeply and pausing for a long moment, “Well Jack, I appreciate your sincerity. However, I don’t recall seeing your name in the registry. I will double check though.” said Gavin.

“I filled out the enrollment application…my mom signed it…I submitted it weeks ago.” I said.

“Well, then it seems to have been lost somehow. I would request that you resubmit your application pronto. If you do it within the next few days, I can’t see why we couldn’t get you settled here at Crestwater High. I will have one of the ladies check for it and contact you either way.”

“You’re not at enrollment capacity?” I asked.

“Uh…no. We’re well below capacity actually—there’s plenty of room.” said Gavin, “Why do you ask?”

“I was told by Jefferies that there was no room for me…that Crestwater is at maximum capacity.” I said.

“Listen, I’m new here too…and so organizing my predecessor’s scatter-brained system has been challenging—we’ll make room for you though…I promise. Expect a call later this afternoon.” she said.

“You promise?” I asked.

“Yes,” Gavin chuckled, “I promise. But you have to get me that application pronto.”

“I will…” I said, in disbelief.

So it was true, I thought once I hung up; Jeffries had buried my application—on advice from Nelson, who’d sunk to a shameful and surprising depth to sabotage my transfer. Now Jeffries had been fired and Nelson was surely still a booty-pants-wearing creep-a-thon. It seemed like an unbelievable stroke of luck dear reader…one which seemed too precisely cut to be just sheer luck.

Did my dream of attending Crestwater actually matter somehow in the grand scheme of things? With all the atrocities in the world, was it possible that God had heard the wish of a hood rat kid from Truman Park? The possibility was more than I could wrap my mind around just then. Certainly, something about the entire chain of events seemed curious—as if the hand of destiny had reached in and made some maneuvers. I wasn’t sure how it had happened; I just knew that for once it had lined up that I’d gotten what I wanted as well as what I needed—a rarity in life.

Sure enough, later that afternoon I did receive a call from a secretary at Crestwater verifying that indeed, my application was nowhere to be found. As the secretary spoke, explaining the information I needed to re-submit, I imagined Jeffries sitting behind his boxy desk, holding the flame of a zippo lighter to one corner of my application before dropping it into his wastebasket and watching it burn…cackling with demonic glee as the flames rose toward the ceiling fan.

“…so, if you can deliver that to us as soon as possible we can process your new application.” said the secretary.

“I will indeed.” I said.

So, in the end, it turned out that transferring to Crestwater High wasn’t the summer’s largest challenge after all. Transferring had been made suddenly possible by a twist of remarkable fate; divine intervention. Indeed, resubmitting my enrollment application was easy enough. What arose as a challenge was getting out of Truman Park unscathed. I’d hoped the transition would be smooth, but The Park had other plans.

The night before my first day as a Crestwater High student, an unfortunate encounter occurred while I was walking home from Sarah Mascara’s house in east Truman Park. It was late and I’d been having a few of the good old puffs, walking home down State St. The summer was winding down and it could be felt in the night breeze that cooled my face as I made my way home, passing under the dim pools of light cast by streetlamps. I was thinking of Crestwater High and what it was going to be like when I was surrounded by endless creative possibilities, higher learning, and beautiful skate-Betties. I wondered if the universe would actually allow it to happen or if a crack would open in the earth and suck me down, into the depths of tarry hell, to decompose forever, soaking in the oil of fossil fuels. Like a mirage on a murky desolate horizon; I expected it to evaporate when I drew upon it…like a fleeting dream.

I was lost in this thought when the screech of tires pulled me from my contemplation and back into the hard reality of Truman Park. I spun around to find a pickup truck idling at the curb, the headlights blazing and the squeal of a heavy-metal guitar solo coming from inside. It was the Michaels brothers out for a cruise in their beat-up, rusted-out pick-up, complete with fog lights and tractor tires.

“Where’s our bike you little fuck wad?” Harvey demanded, hanging out of the window, clutching a bottle of beer. Dennis the Menace Michaels leaned over and screamed at me with blood-curdling rage, “You fucking steal my money and my fucking weed?” he’d evidently been holding his rage for quite some time and it exploded all at once, turning his face red and his eyes demonic, “You’re fucking dead! I’m going to fucking kill you fucker!”

Usually, the correct protocol for a drive-up was to casually turn around and keep walking, plan an escape route, and size up fences that would make an easy vault; be ready to bolt or throw down. However, my instincts told me I was outnumbered by inbred albinos surging with steroid rage…indeed, just then, my instincts suggested that I skip the former and cut to the bolting.

I offered the Michaels brothers a simple middle-finger salute before ducking down a pitch-dark alleyway, careful not to catch my foot in a pothole. The pickup screeched around the corner behind me a moment later and the blazing headlights cast my sprinting form in a long shadow that reached halfway down the alley. I hung a hard left into a backyard and found myself running through a freshly watered garden, ankle-deep with mud. My foot dug in deep on a down-step, tripping me up and causing me to roll into a raspberry bush, sending a thousand and one small needles through my shirt and into my back, arms and shoulders.

The fall winded me slightly and as I sat there calculating my options, the pick-up pulled up, stopping in a screeching halt at the mouth of the backyard. It pulled forward onto the lawn so the headlights flooded the yard and everything in it. I made out a slender silhouette charging at me through the glare of the headlights, then I felt some punches rain down. They were badly aimed haymakers and mostly caught my forearms. One however caught me in the orbital, and I vaulted forth immediately, wrapping my arms around Michaels’ knees and hauling forward so he stumbled backward and fell into the mud. Seeing my opportunity, I seized it by hammering my fist down onto his groin. Through the roar of the engine, I heard Michaels squeal in agony and curl up onto his side. I used the moment to spring back to my feet and hurdle a fence before sprinting my way down a passage between two tenement buildings.

Once I was clear and two blocks over, slipping through another darkened passage, I realized that I wasn’t concussed; I wasn’t broken in any capacity. In fact, by the time I made it home, I felt virtually fine—except for the thorns that had wedged through my mud-soaked shirt and into my skin. The problem I noticed once in the bathroom mirror under the lights however was an ugly bruise swelling around my left eye…lending me a brutish appearance—something that would ruin any chance of a great first impression at Crestwater the following morning.

I did what I could. I placed an ice pack on the contusion and even slept on my opposite side so as not to irritate it. However, the next morning, I saw that the bruise had gotten much worse. It had spread into the eyelid, turning it purple, to match the purple swelling in my brow and cheekbone. Inbred Michaels really clocked me good; I thought as I applied in vain, a coating of my mom’s concealer which slightly covered the discoloration, but failed to conceal the swelling, which was more than obvious. It was hopeless—I was going to attend my first day at Crestwater with an ugly, mean-looking shiner; courtesy of the inbred Michaels brothers.

Indeed, if you’re imagining my first day at Crestwater as a scene akin to 80’s era teen angst dramas, complete with an ascending shot of a typical American high school on day one of a new school year—bustling with book-toting teens moving around the grounds in schools of cliques and coteries; you’ll have to strike that image from your mind. My first day at Crestwater was plagued by a series of ill-fated events. Firstly, my alarm clock had failed to go off…and I’d woken up late. This was followed by my bus out of Truman Park being delayed by fifteen minutes due to an onboard assault, in turn causing me to miss the connecting bus to Crestwater—one which I missed by only seconds. The driver had seen me running and had decided to pull away from the curb when I was nearly at the door.

It wasn’t as if I was a master of punctuality by any stretch of the imagination, however on this day, I’d planned to be early—and early I was definitely not. As I approached Crestwater High, I found the grounds were empty, as if it were a ghost school. Only the sound of a metal bolt fastened to the flag rope clinking against its pole greeted me as I put on my sunglasses and made my way up the abandoned sidewalk; I was perhaps 45 minutes late. Not a great first impression.

Inside, classes were already in session. The halls were empty and remarkably clean. Pressed-looking banners lined the walls with school spirit and strangely the lockers weren’t dented or covered in graffiti like they were at Truman High. I went directly to the office to pick up my itinerary. I stated my name and purpose and didn’t bother to elaborate on my lack of punctuality. Rather than handing over my itinerary, the secretary informed me that Mrs. Gavin wanted to speak with me about something before I started classes. Oh shit.

The secretary who wore a sheep-dog perm led me into principal Gavin’s office. The office looked different and was now filled with plants, plants, and more plants and many portraits of nature and horses hung on the walls. Gavin was a short woman with spiky blonde hair, a perpetual grin in her eyes, and a very sarcastic air about her. Gesturing grandly, she offered me a chair across the desk from her.

“So, you’re our new student from…” she said, thumbing through my folder, “Truman Park…wow, you’ve come a long way today.” she tilted her head, looking at me thoughtfully, taking inventory of my attire.

“Listen, I think I ought to mention that I was at the bus stop on time today…but the bus was late…evidently there was an assault on the bus…because of that I missed the connecting bus by seconds. Trial and error…but it won’t be a habit.” I assured.

Gavin tilted her head even further now peering at me with an almost fascinated intensity, before shaking out of her trance of contemplation a moment later, “Oh, I didn’t even realize you were late.” Gavin chuckled, “It appears however that your records from Truman High didn’t make it to us yet. In fact, I did speak with a Mr. Nelson…I believe he’s the principal over at Truman—and he assured me that he’d sent your records…yet somehow they’ve mysteriously disappeared.” said Gavin, raising her brows with a mockingly ominous expression, “He also basically told me that you’re a demon seed.” she chuckled.

“Does that mean I can’t start class today?” I asked, ready for the punch line.

“Heavens no; it just means that your records haven’t been physically transferred…I may have to get a copy directly from head office—it also means that your ex-principal Nelson is probably going to get a lump of coal in his stocking next Christmas. We’ll work it out though. Deal?”

“Deal.” I said.

“Just one thing before we get into that.” said Gavin.

“Sure.” I said.

“You’ll need to remove your sunglasses…and either turn that t-shirt inside out or change it if you have a spare. Although it seems the Dead Kennedys are a cult favorite around here; we’re not supposed to condone that sort of language and imagery here at Crestwater High—we’re all very prim and proper folk here.” Principal Gavin said offering a coy grin.

Indeed, the t-shirt I was wearing was one of my most comfortable. It had turned from black to dark grey from wear. I’d worn the shirt at Truman High for an entire year and had never been reprimanded for it.

“No problemo.” I nodded, “I can put my jean jacket back on.”

“What happened to your eye by the way?” she asked.

“I got jumped by these guys last night as I was walking home.” I said.

“Why did they do that?” she asked.

“They’re inbreds.” I shrugged.

“I see,” she sighed deeply, switching gear back into drive, “ok…you’ll go downstairs and see Nurse Holloway first. She should be in her office by now. After which, you can report back to Janice, the lady just outside, and she will give you an itinerary as well as a locker number. Did you happen to bring a lock?”

“Yep.” I said, lifting my backpack slightly.

“Ok then…welcome to Crestwater High.” she shrugged, looking utterly unenthused and overworked in her office that was cluttered with stacks of papers, folders, binders, and large manila envelopes…indeed, it seemed Jeffries had left her nothing but a mess.

And that dear reader was my induction into the most musically illustrious school in the city. As I recall it, that first week at Crestwater was like a surreal, soft-focus dream, complete with slow-motion sequences and grainy, abstract footage left over from the 1960s…it seemed the school had been overhauled during that decade and had been well-preserved ever since—freezing the era in all of its mysterious 1960’s decor which offered an ever-present ambiance…as if the Zombies Time of the Season was looping on hi-fi vinyl.

Above all it was culture shock at Crestwater…and it wasn’t just the funky vintage décor; it was the collective energy the faculty and student body projected. There was an air of over-politeness I wasn’t accustomed to, and it was a different language altogether. They seemed comically indifferent. They wore expensive runners and custom t-shirts through which they embraced counterculture icons and prolific underground bands. They traveled in friendly schools in the hallways, laughing, snickering, joking, playfully bantering, and debating politics, religion, and philosophy as they congregated in small groups—a far cry from Truman High, where altercations were the norm and expulsions for paraphernalia and weapons were commonplace.

What I noticed most however was the over-abundance of musicians that were swarming the halls of Crestwater, many of whom stored guitar cases in their lockers for after-school rehearsals. I found myself intrigued and wondering where they rehearsed and what they were working on…and with whom exactly. There was a definite sense that there was something swelling underground in Emerald Heights—that there was history not in the making but rather happening all around me then and there. The time was definitely now.

The community billboard in the center of the school courtyard was plastered with pulpy gig posters hung by Crestwater bands promoting upcoming performances. There were ads posted by bands looking for singers or drummers or guitarists or bass players or keyboardists. There were also ads posted by lone musicians looking for people to start a band with. I recognized many of the bands from gigs at the Backyard and it was hard to believe that it was all happening at Crestwater…and had been happening there all along. It had all seemed a million miles away only a month earlier, and now I was in the middle of it, waiting for the right moment to make my move.

Aside from Crestwater being a hotbed for indie bands—it seemed to also be a hotbed for babes. It seemed the most mysterious girls in the city all went to Crestwater High and they loved nothing more than good weed, vintage attire, taking me up to their rooms while their parents were still at work, and perhaps above all, they loved entertaining discussions…they could talk about anything and everything and they particularly liked to talk existentialism, in the morning…before class even started—as if they hadn’t just woken up.

Existentialism was a hot topic for them…dead authors, dead actors, dead directors, dead poets, dead painters…it seemed as long as someone was dead, they were considered brilliant and morosely hip—as if they’d immortalized themselves by ceasing to exist. I was all for the existentialism, particularly Celine, but I took my existentialism mostly with the majesty of moonlight and with a few hard beers and a strong blunt. Indeed, I felt nearly subhuman at least until after second period.

During those first weeks, I’d stand there, puffing on a blunt and nodding as Crestwater girls chirped with each other, wondering to myself how it was that these girls could be so chatty so early in the day. Each sunny morning at Crestwater, an onslaught of socializing preceded the first bell that would start each day of classes. The subsequent classes entailed above all, long group discussions and the communication of opinions. Indeed, at Crestwater, it seemed the thoughts and opinions of students were not only encouraged but nurtured and given room to grow and refine. In stark contrast to Truman High dregs who were usually told to shut the fuck up, Crestwater High kids were being primed to run the world…and they acted like it.

Still in Truman High mode, I was usually smoked out by 8 am, and by 8:30 am I was ready to absorb a lecture on the emergence of Europe or the phylum of earthworms or a fine chapter from J.D. Salinger. I was slightly surprised to find that academically, the teachers of Crestwater weren’t all that much different from Truman High teachers. They conveyed information in much the same monotone fashion as Truman High faculty, however, they taught for perhaps one-third of the class and for the remainder, sat perched on their boxy desks bullshitting with students who all seemed to be bucking for class prez.

Indeed the students of Crestwater were for the most part well-behaved and adhered to a natural state of order as well as a well-defined social hierarchy. Though they were friendly enough and their quirks had perhaps been encouraged by their parents from an early age—Crestwater kids seemed to exist without any real grasp on reality; they’d been coddled into a perpetual state of narcissism and were accordingly entitled. As a spider naturally knows to spin a web…the Crestwater kids seemed innately attuned to the nuances of passive-aggressive social politics and the charade of diplomacy that went along with it. It was a training ground for the aristocracy they’d all eventually join once they got their Ivy League educations.

Many students were the offspring of prominent city leaders or business moguls or studio heads and weren’t used to being told no. However, it seemed that the stakes for them were high, mainly because parental expectations were high and accordingly—many took their public image, grades, and social stature far too seriously. Because of this, gossip, rumor-spreading, and the forming of secret alliances were the currency at Crestwater High.

Gossip was key and relayed in tabloid fashion during lunch breaks and spares. It was a commodity for most to be up to date with the latest bulletins: who was throwing the best weekend parties, who was now dating whom, who broke up with whom, who’d gotten a car for their birthday, who was in therapy, who’d been suspended for cheating, who was prescribed anti-depressants. It all flooded in blow-by-blow as if Crestwater High was one giant gossip column. To me, it was a hell of a lot of bullshit and loose talk, and it amused me to hear about it all on a daily basis…to absorb random and pointless tidbits about other people’s personal business. It was what the Crestwater kids were preoccupied with. Mostly it amazed me that any of them possessed the diligence and attention span to give a flying fuck about what so many other people were doing…however, the students of Crestwater kept very close tabs on their friends and even closer tabs on their enemies and perhaps in some cases they didn’t quite know the difference between the two—in their protected privacy; there were no secrets among them and nothing but passive aggressive cut-throat competition.

Because of this, it was easy to attain immediate and rather personal information about virtually anyone at Crestwater as most students had attended elementary school together; everyone’s parents knew everyone else’s parents and everyone knew everyone else’s life story and scandalous family tidbits and if they didn’t know, they made it their primary goal to find out. This would have all been interesting to me if the gossip didn’t bore the shit out of me; I simply had no use for it. I was at Crestwater for one reason and one reason only—to start a band and bring my compositions to fiery, vibrant life. I was consciously aware that distraction was something to avoid at Crestwater. As my focus had been crystalline up until that point, I’d not foreseen the possibility of distraction. I’d not seen it as a viable and perhaps rather likely possibility. There had been no way I could have foreseen it either and therefore was struck dumb…or dumber as it were when I’d first laid eyes on Eleanor Price.

She was exiting the front doors of the school one afternoon during lunch break, looking lost and inquisitive, placing a long thin cigarette between her thick red lips. From across the crowded front lawn of the school, I followed her with my gaze, admiring her stunning face…and the way her round ass pressed against the fabric of her snug skirt with each step. I admired her black knee-high socks, her Oxford shoes, her vest bearing a Southridge Academy school crest, and her vintage bouffant hairstyle. There was something else to her…way else; something I recognized perhaps from a former life yet couldn’t readily explain. It wasn’t anything semantic; more mahogany surfaces, classic novels, velvet wingback chairs, summer love, emerald lanes…a promise, and perhaps a suicide.

Perhaps it was that Eleanor embodied the time and place perfectly—the mid-90s. I knew this all immediately as I watched her walk to the edge of the property and light the long thin cigarette. Though there were a thousand other girls at Crestwater and by that point, I’d been with perhaps a half dozen of them—Eleanor was the one who hypnotized me at first sight. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced…and something I didn’t quite understand.

“Who the hell is that girl?” I asked Wes.

“A bird? Where?” he asked, scanning the grounds that were swarming with Crestwater girls.

“Audrey Horne over there on the sidewalk…schoolgirl outfit…European cigarette, blue eyes, fresh lipstick.” I said, squinting in her direction.

“She’s basically new…she started halfway through last semester…sort of bizarre personality…” said April, as Wes raised his brows, at a loss to place the new girl.

“Bizarre personality? Ha! More like she’s a total freak.” giggled Lacy.

“She’s stunning.” I said absently.

“I wouldn’t say she’s stunning…not really at all. She’s another Southridge Academy discard that wound up enrolled here.” said April.

“What’s Southridge Academy?” I asked.

“It’s a private Catholic school in the Palisades…it’s co-ed…but they all wear uniforms like some kind of cult. God, they’re all going to start going here now that it’s closed.” sighed April’s friend Lacy, as if it bothered her somehow.

“Her name is Eleanor.” said April, “I have chem class with her.”

“And is Eleanor, as Lacy here so eloquently put it—freaky?” asked Wes.

“I called her a freak…that’s not the same as being freaky.” said Lacy.

“She seems a bit quiet…and you know what they say; it’s the quiet ones who are the craziest in bed.” Wes assured, “That uniform says it all, doesn’t it?”

“I like the crest on her vest.” I said.

“Perhaps she’s just mental. Mental problems are everywhere. I saw a documentary once about seemingly normal people who eat drywall and rocks and drink their own piss.” laughed Wes.

“That’s gross Wes.” Winced April with a grin, “Anyway, I don’t know how ‘quiet’ she is. Mrs. Fletcher asked her to remove her vest, the one she’s wearing, the one with the Southridge Academy crest—the chick wouldn’t do it though. She said because Crestwater is a public school, there is no rule against wearing emblems from other schools; I guess she had a point.” April said before taking another drag of her cigarette.

“Like I said.” grinned Lacy, “She’s a huge freak.”

“Interesting—they told me I couldn’t wear my Dead Kennedys shirt in the halls here.” I said as I rose from my spot on the lawn and brushed off the dry blades of grass.

“Where you going?” asked Wes, offering me a slanted grin of comical uncertainty.

“I gotta find out more.” I said, taking a last drag and flicking the cigarette butt into a nearby bush.

Eleanor was even more stunning up close; she’d been graced with an allure beyond her years and though the steady gaze in her eyes appeared mature—her youth was too strong and kept a wrinkle from forming between her brows. I got the idea that she knew who she was, where she was, and what she wanted.

“Hey.” I said to her.

“Hi.” she said, squinting the sun from her eyes. One arm was crossed beneath her pert breasts and propped up the elbow of her other arm; at the end of which her fingers held her long thin cigarette, so it hovered beside her face.

“I heard Fletcher gave you a hard time about your vest.” I said.

“I don’t know if she gave me a hard time. She just asked me to remove it.” shrugged Eleanor.

“And you didn’t.” I said, with intrigue.


“Why not?”

“Why do you want to know?” she asked.

“Curious.” I shrugged.

“No big elaborate reason…Crestwater is a public school—I can wear whatever I want…and I think Fletcher is out of line asking me to remove my vest—I think our lady Fletcher may have an unsatisfying home situation.” she said, looking away with a coy grin.

“I mean the real reason.” I said.

“That is the real reason.”

“I doubt that.” I said, looking at her a bit deeper. She had a large scar on the side of her forehead which only added to her mystery, “I’m guessing nothing about you is that simple.”

“Oh,” she smiled, “well, do tell—you seem to have a better understanding of the situation than I.”

“Maybe you loved it at Southridge Academy so much…more than words can readily articulate…maybe you kind of hate it here at Crestwater and maybe you wonder why things ever had to change…and maybe that crest on your tit is the only bit of Southridge Academy you have left.” I said.

She looked at me very intensely for a moment…a faint expression of surprise on her face that a moment later faded into a wry grin before she dragged again on her cigarette, “Bravo…maybe you should charge.”

“Low-tar?” I asked of the cigarette.

“They’re French.”

I stood for a moment looking at her. After a few moments of silently staring at each other, I realized Eleanor was grinning, so her teeth showed slightly through her sexy freshly coated lips. She was poised and ready for more, offering me a raise of one brow that stated what else you got?

“Southridge has a real cool crest.” I said, taking note of the crest patched to her vest, “What was it like at Southridge?”

“It’s privatized—so the curriculum is higher grade—smarter people. It’s Catholic so there’s a lot of lessons about spiritualism and morality. I’m not sure what to make of this place yet…these kids all seem like space cadets…maybe I’m just out of touch.” said Eleanor.

“No, you’re pretty much accurate…they sort of are space cadets…but at least there aren’t metal detectors here like at my previous school.” I shrugged.

“Where did you go previously?” she asked.

“I transferred in from Truman High.” I said.

“Really? But why? That’s a hell of a commute.” she asked.

“I’m here to start a band—there was no hope starting a band at Truman…so I transferred here—and you can’t imagine the shit I went through to get into this school.” I said.

“Really? Well, if you’re willing to travel so far each day to be close to your dream—I think you’ll do it.” said Eleanor, looking at me and squinting the sun out of her eyes.

My extrasensory powers told me that Eleanor wasn’t a freak as Lacy had made her out to be—she was however the type of girl who may have had hyper-vision and monsters in her closet, and perhaps angels in her dresser drawer as well. Perhaps it was an intensity of perception she possessed, one instilled by luxurious surroundings that were haunted in just the right way. It intrigued me, mainly because I’d never understand it and in essence would never understand Eleanor—a beautiful mystery that wasn’t meant to be solved.

“I like your style.” I said, “You’ve got this whole Audrey Horne thing going on.”

“At my old school, people thought I reminded them of Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds.” said Eleanor.

“You sold me.” I said, taking the cigarette from her hand and dragging on it deeply.

“Smooth.” I said and handed it back to her. She squinted her eyes at me and tilted her head slightly before dragging on the cigarette.

“So, you gonna stay with us long Truman Park? Or you gonna mosey off to some other school?” she asked.

“You’d really never guess what I went through to get enrolled here.” I grinned.


“Oh.” I assured with a nod just as we were all summoned to our next class by the loud abrasive sounding of the bell.

Indeed, for a few weeks at Crestwater, everything seemed quite tranquil and marinated in a soft warmth that complimented the lush surroundings perfectly. I’d been smoking so much of the good-grade shit, the hazy cosmic atmosphere at Crestwater filled my head with 35mm pans in soft focus—as if the Carpenters’ Close to You was playing on a loop in my head. Even the readings, sermons and lessons the teachers repeated for the thousandth time in their lives, acted as lulling and angelic historical illustrations as the sun rays flooded the mid-afternoon classrooms, promising a big vibrant world full of deep pastel colors and adventurous possibilities, where vintage paperback covers came to life and there were no bad days.

Indeed, Crestwater life relaxed me enough to fall into a deep, warm blanket of contentedness. So, this is west side life, I thought, This is what it is to exist on the other side of town. All those years I’d been toiling away at Truman Park, this paradisiacal reality had been going on without me. Indeed, it was nearly too relaxing, too soft, too slow-mo. I marinated in this new normal like a leopard relaxing in a spot of warm shade. In the silver haze of autumn slack, I hadn’t realized that all wasn’t what it seemed at Crestwater…that the paradisiacal shades hid beneath them very real channels of complexity, envy, and manipulation. I was about to learn my first lesson in Emerald Heights…the first of many and one an outsider could be unwittingly pulled into quite easily.

It started in my history class, which was perhaps my favorite. The teacher, Mr. Holland, wasn’t quite removed, however, he was eccentric enough to exist nearly entirely in his own mind, the dimensions of which spilled out into his immediate vicinity, such as his desk, upon which stood a plaster bust of John F. Kennedy. On the white plaster head of the JFK bust, Holland had drawn in red dotted marker the entry and exit wound of the fatal bullet, which he insisted had been fired from the grassy knoll rather than the book depository. In fact, Holland would on a regular basis, include evidence of which in the curriculum, as he felt a keen sense of civic and professional obligation to teach us what he believed had transpired in Dealey Plaza.

He’d frequently cite large segments of the Warren Report, blowing them up on the overhead projector and sifting through fine nuances that he’d underlined, circled and labeled for the purpose of pointing out holes and discrepancies. One day, while Holland was debunking the magic bullet theory, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Abigail Wax and she was handing me a paper folded into an origami swan. I looked at the swan for a moment before she shook it slightly, raising her brows, insisting I take it.

“Unfold it.” she said as Holland continued.

Though I found Holland’s various theories nearly fascinating; I took the swan in hand and unfolded it. When the swan, which was rather well done, was fully unfolded back into the small square of lined loose leaf it had started as, I made out Abigail’s loopy handwriting. It read simply, “He needs to accept it.”

I set the paper on my desk and wrote a reply, “Accept what?” I handed the paper back and a moment later she tapped my arm, handing back another message, this one read, “That nobody will ever really know about JFK.”

I’d never spoken with Abigail Wax—however the origami note and its statement resonated with me—she’d done the right thing if she was trying to intrigue me. I’d seen her in the halls with members of the football team and other like-minded girls who wore tight jeans, halter tops and wonderfully heavy lipstick. They weren’t skate-Betties. They weren’t that specific. Abigail however had stuck out slightly, possessing an uncanny resemblance to a mid-90s Suzanne Vega. I often saw Abigail leaving school in a Jeep with Brandon Silver, a nondescript pretty boy who was always clad in his football jacket—as if he was a cartoon character that never changed attire.

Word was he was living his senior year for the second time, having been held back a year on account of either having too much fun or having taken one too many hits to his head on the football field. I’d heard his family was one of the richest in Emerald Heights and evidently his family fortune outweighed his lack of interest in academic pursuits. Abigail didn’t seem to mind though.

Though I had no money, aside from what I earned working part-time at the video store. Each afternoon, Abigail would pass me a note in the form of an origami animal, and each afternoon, I’d unfold it…hoping she’d write something lewd and filthy—however, her notes were always sparsely worded and framed with multi-angled allusions. After asking Wes and April about Abigail, I was told that she was a major player with the soap star crew…which, as April had explained, was compiled mainly from Crestwater’s contingency of aspiring actors and models who aspired mainly to emulate the dramatics and incidental fashion sense of Beverly Hills 90210 cast members.

Still, Abigail was extremely easy on the eyes and possessed the most perfect rear I’d probably ever encountered. This coupled with her dreamy 1990s Suzanne Vega gaze seemed to penetrate my casual indifference and draw me to her with some magnetism. It wasn’t nearly the level of magnetism that drew me to Eleanor. However, perhaps Abigail Wax possessed enough magnetism to distract me from Eleanor—a girl that for some reason seemed to take up way too much of my mind.

After a couple weeks of the origami notes, Abigail finally approached me at my locker before our only shared class—our first face-to-face conversation. When I cited her uncanny resemblance to Vega, Abigail nodded and stated that people were always telling her that—as if it was an annoyance. She held her books close to her chest as she explained how she’d just dry heaved in Mrs. Mancini’s class after partially dissecting a frog.

“Barbaric.” I nodded.

As we walked to Holland’s classroom on the third floor, I listened as Abigail told me about the teachers she hated and the ones that she believed still gave a fuck about teaching. She explained the entire Crestwater aristocracy to me in great detail as we made our way through the hordes of students bustling to their next class. When we were finally at Holland’s room, Abigail asked me if I wanted to go for an ice cream sandwich with her after class. I said sure and wondered as I sat in my desk during another of Holland’s commentaries on the significance of Jack Ruby if ice cream sandwich was indeed code for something else; the possibilities intrigued me. Certainly if analyzed deeply enough, anything and everything could be construed as code for something—a pondering of futility.

Though there was no possible way Abigail could intrigue me as Eleanor did; Eleanor seemed to have a fortified wall built around her, which made her seem somewhat elusive. No matter how I tried; I couldn’t seem to breach her wall and it caused me a spot of frustration. Because of this, I decided to join Abigail for an ice cream sandwich after class at a nearby diner that served ice cream sandwiches in a bowl and with any three of their various toppings. I took mine plain while Abigail took hers with strawberries, crushed walnuts, and whipped cream. I watched her spoon it into her pretty mouth as she told me about her recent split from Brandon Silver, claiming that she’d broken it off with him because he wanted to spend too much time with his friends and too much time playing video games in his bedroom. I asked her what the real reason was, and she finally admitted that it had been his extensive collection of bizarre mags that had tipped the scales. Sighing deeply, she specified that the mags were not normal.

“Not normal? What are we talking about here?” I asked with an amused grin.

Abigail had ominously explained an evening in which she’d caught Brandon smelling her sweaty, musty jogging socks and she’d subsequently linked the incident to several of her unclean socks having gone missing from her bedroom hamper. I laughed. However, Abigail only pushed her half-eaten ice cream sandwich away, citing that the discovery of Brandon’s dirty little secret had soiled her glimmering image of him. As she explained the entire, drawn out and seemingly made-for-TV drama that was her relationship with Brandon Silver, I assumed Abigail would get back together with Silver eventually and so I took it all with a grain of salt. As she shred him to pieces, Abigail would backtrack, citing his swashbuckling heroism and how Silver had quarterbacked the Crestwater Coyotes to a number of golden trophies. She also explained to me how their parents had pushed for their pairing, perhaps feeling hardline breeding was key to successful grandchildren. It seemed like a match made on bad daytime TV.

After many lengthy late-night phone calls during which Abigail repeatedly asked me to explain my room, my mother’s house, and the immediate neighborhood; she eventually clued me into a notion I hadn’t quite realized. She confided with a shy giggle that she’d been waiting for me to invite her to Truman Park, where we could cuddle in my room. I assumed cuddle had to be code for something. Certainly, this prompted me to invite her over the following week. However, she didn’t immediately accept. Rather she countered my offer by inviting me to her parent’s home in Emerald Lagoon—a sprawling gated compound on the water. I accepted and rode the bus over one Saturday afternoon.

Abigail had greeted me in the foyer of her parent’s marble mansion and gave me the grand tour, which wasn’t unlike touring a museum with a sexy guide. She led me into an upstairs bathroom at one point and closed the door behind us. She wrapped herself around me, enveloping me in a warm hug. She held onto me for a few minutes, squeezing me close and I held her back, imagining she was Eleanor.

Later, as I sat with her on her back patio which overlooked the Pacific Ocean that crashed against the sandy beach with immeasurable might, it felt more like we were sitting on a country club patio, waiting for our waiter to arrive. However, in the place of a waiter appeared her father, a tall and lanky man in his forties who was entirely grey and perpetually smiling in a childlike way…muttering to himself unheard anecdotes. He joined us at the glass patio table eating chocolate chip cookies with milk and giggling to himself. I assumed he was stoned as fuck.

He didn’t say anything while he ate his cookies, he only chewed and smiled at us. When he was through, Abigail introduced me, and he jumped up with a laugh and wrapped Abigail in a deep warm hug. To me, he’d offered his hand in a serious manner, and when I extended mine, he lit up, laughed, and playfully batted my hand away, pulling me in for a hug as well, creating an awkward moment that he weathered well, rubbing his hands together and asking if we wanted some milk and cookies.

Without waiting for a response, he disappeared through the sliding glass doors and emerged a few moments later with a plate of cookies and two wine glasses filled with milk. He set the cookies and milk down before us and sat on the opposite side of the table, telling us an anecdote about his ill-fated visit to a Brentwood shoe store. He held up his foot so we could take note of his shoe…which was a sparkly women’s slipper he’d insisted on buying as it was the most comfortable and best fitting in their entire stock.

Soon after, a squirrel appeared on the deck, one which Abigail’s father had named Sonny…it moved over to Abigail’s father’s feet and stood up, clicking its teeth, flicking its tail, and looking up at the old man expectantly. After clucking his tongue at the squirrel, Abigail’s father leaned forward, reaching his hand into his breast pocket from which he produced a few seeds which he then held to the squirrel’s mouth. Surprisingly it nibbled from his palm as the old man took hold of the squirrel and set it on his lap, petting its back as it continued to eat out of his palm. He muttered to the squirrel, or perhaps himself unintelligibly, looking up at us periodically with a strange glee in his eyes, chuckling and attempting to rub foreheads with the squirrel who wasn’t quite willing to cross that line for mere seeds. As I ate a cookie, I surmised that the old man was either high or he’d been mildly touched by mental illness.

After Abigail’s father went back into the house Abigail asked what I thought of him. I nodded, citing that I wanted to try whatever he’d been smoking. She laughed and explained that her father had been driven slightly mad from consistently having to weather the whirlwind of estrogen that came along with living among a half dozen hyperactive women who, Abigail had admitted to me with a chuckle—were all in psychoanalysis. Residing in the gated compound on the beach were not only Abigail’s stepmother and her two daughters from a previous marriage, but also her aunt on her father’s side and her two daughters, who were Abigail’s age.

The women residing at Abigail’s house, though a friendly bunch, were indeed a spastic cast of anxious energy and attention deficit disorder, fluttering around the dining room and kitchen before dinner like a pack of whinnying hyenas. It was entirely possible for all six women to carry on various conversations with each other simultaneously, sifting through arcane points, referring to inside jokes and vague insinuations, all while maintaining an ever-present passive-aggressive competitiveness which they’d curb now and then by collectively descending on a moment of hilarity in which they’d burst out in explosions of laughter that could last for several minutes at a time. They sang, they chirped, they whooped, they cackled…and Chip, Abigail’s old man, sat at the head of the table with a flowing white head of hair, gently loving every moment of it from behind his mad, psychotic giggles, chuckling to me occasionally, “Don’t ask, just agree.” I wasn’t sure if the scene had been a curious portrait of acceptance or simply dark comedic genius, but all in all, they were nice folk and didn’t pretend to understand me…I was simply another guest in their house of mirrors.

Later, when dinner and the drawn-out conversations subsided, Abigail offered to give me a ride back to Truman Park in her mother’s car. She played a Belinda Carlisle album as we drove, asking if I didn’t think it was utterly the most romantic music I’d ever heard. I asked her if she’d ever heard The Cure’s Disintegration album to which she only shrugged and smiled back at me…blinking in her contentedness. We sat in front of my mother’s house chatting, or rather I listened to her explain why she’d quit the cheerleading squad the previous year—I had no idea cheerleading could be so scandalous. As she went on my mind started to wander…mainly it was wandering up her thigh, and with a long sigh I asked her if she was coming up to my room.

My mother was out at one class or another, or out with friends and the house was darkened and empty. I poured us each a gin and tonic. We sipped at our drinks, basking in the youth, promise and 1990s colorfast that was all around us. After some time went by, I led Abigail upstairs to my room which she explored with some wonder, running her fingers over the strings of my guitars that were set against one wall in stands.

“This is where you sleep…this is where you dream your wonderful dreams.” she said, running her painted fingernails over the massive and glossy Psychocandy poster on the wall after which she walked to the dresser and opened a drawer, playfully rummaging through it. It was clear to me how she’d found Silver’s sweaty foot mags—she was a curious kitty.

When she joined me on the bed she asked me a question, “Have you ever just held a girl?”

“None of the girls I’ve been with have ever asked me to do that.” I admitted.

“I’m asking you.” she smiled.

Though I assumed she was taking the piss, she wasn’t, and we spent the next hour lying on my bed, Abigail wrapped up in my arms as The Cure’s Disintegration rolled on the cassette player and the coconut incense smoked on the windowsill and the black light lit up the planets stickered to the ceiling tiles.

“What are you thinking about?” Abigail asked me after a while.

“How great this album is.” I said, and the album was great. However, I was really thinking of Eleanor Price…wondering where she was and who she was with and what it was about her that devoured me.

“I find that sound so relaxing.” said Abigail, snuggling in a bit closer.

“The music?” I asked.

“No, the police helicopters outside.” she said lazily, “I never hear them in Emerald Lagoon.”

“I like them too.” I said as we both dozed off.

We woke up much later, when the cassette clicked off, leaving a dark silence all around us that was filled with the distant sounds of police helicopters, sirens and the freeway coursing with endless traffic a block away.

When it was time for her to go, I walked Abigail to her car and she wrapped herself around me before getting in. She slithered her tongue into my mouth for a deep kiss—something to keep me thinking about her after she’d gone, I assumed. After a moment she pulled away with a sensual gaze and ran her painted nails down the front of my t-shirt. “I gotta go sexy boy.” she cooed.

“Drive safe.” I said.

I stood curbside watching her get buckled in. She reset the volume level of her Belinda Carlisle album and fixed her lipstick in the rearview before starting the engine and pulling away…blowing me a smiling kiss through the windshield. I lit one up and stood there, staring up at the moon that was veiled slightly by a thin sheet of air pollution.

Though the experience with Abigail had been interesting; I was still consumed by thoughts of Eleanor. The fact that mysteriously pretty Abigail Wax couldn’t stray my mind from wandering back to Eleanor, struck me as curious indeed. I was contemplating this deeply when a white Jeep pulled up to the curb, stopping so the passenger window was exactly aligned with me. The guy inside wore a ball cap and Letterman’s jacket bearing two large C’s on the chest; Crestwater Coyotes. Looking closer I realized that I recognized the face looking back at me from under the ball cap visor. It was Brandon Silver and he put it in park as he rolled the electric windows down.

“Really?” I asked.

“Hey…I’m just looking out for Abigail.” he said.

“You just missed her, stalker-boy.” I said, turning and making my way back up the walk of my mother’s house.

“Hey, I’m not done.” he said.

“I am.” I told him over my shoulder.

“Well I’m not.” he said, unbuckling and getting out of the Jeep which he left running with the fog lights ablaze. He strode up my mother’s walk and met me at the bottom of the stairs.

“Did you do her?” he demanded.

“You should really get the fuck out of here Silver…they eat your kind around here.” I told him.

“Did you do her?” he asked, this time his tone less angry and more desperate…the poor bastard was in pieces over Abigail and perhaps Abigail had wanted it that way. As he continued to interrogate me, I wondered if Abigail knew that we’d been followed. Had she come up to my room just to spite the bastard?

“Pull yourself together.” I said.

“Pull myself together?” he demanded, “I love her, man.”

“I get it. But whatever you think happened—didn’t…not that it’s any of your fucking business anymore, but I wouldn’t want you to break down and cry on my front fucking lawn. Now, why don’t you get back in your little clown car and get the fuck out of here before I put my boot in your ass.” I said.

“We can play this game—but you know who is going to win.” he said, “I always win.”

“You’re in this fight alone dude. You should really go.” I said, noticing a group passing by under the streetlights. I knew the type…like most in Truman Park who wandered the streets after dark, they were looking for some trouble to get into.

I’d tried to warn him, however by the time Brandon Silver realized them, the street kids were congregating around his Jeep that was still running. They toyed with Brandon a bit, gauging his reaction. One kid opened the door of the Jeep and looked inside, running his hand over the upholstery. For a moment Brandon just stood there watching the guys admire his Jeep, running their hands along its sleek lines.

“If you scratch my car it’s going to be a police matter. My father is close friends with the police chief.” informed Brandon, nervously moving back to his Jeep. He got inside and immediately rolled up the windows and locked the doors. He jerked the Jeep into drive a second later and squealed away, leaving the kids standing on the street laughing and blowing hoots at his taillights. One of the kids threw a pop bottle that missed Brandon’s Jeep and landed on the asphalt, exploding outward in a V of shards some unfortunate Truman resident would inevitably puncture their tires on; assholes, I thought heading back into the house.

Indeed, I’d found that night that there was a lot more to the paradisiacal tranquility of Emerald Heights and it was simmering just below the surface. The entire situation had been uninvited, and I wondered how it had come to pass that I’d been pulled into such a simplistic drama; one I should have never been involved with in the first place. After all, I’d been minding my own business listening to Holland and his conspiracy theories. I hadn’t asked for trouble…however trouble had followed me back to Truman Park somehow.

More than anything, I realized I was only an inner-city escape for Abigail who wanted to be someone else and perhaps somewhere else…but indeed, I felt there was some cosmic reasoning behind it all and I wondered what the significance of Abigail’s rather sudden appearance in my existence was. I’d gone out with Abigail in hopes of distracting myself from a building fascination with Eleanor Price—which failed to achieve the results I desired. The contemplation always led back to Eleanor…and though Abigail could partially eclipse thoughts of Eleanor. If I am to explain it, I would say that Eleanor had become in a few short months, the 8th wonder of the world.

What aided in this fascination were the stories of Eleanor that came to me on the laughter of colleagues who’d heard or witnessed her incidents which, in spite of her low profile, seemed to be numerous and highly publicized. On one hand, Eleanor’s composure was refined, and to hear her speak one would easily surmise that she had a great appreciation for the finer elements of existence. She’d penned an impassioned open letter in the Crestwater Gazette, which lobbied for students to band together and implore their influential parents to block the planned redesigning of the school auditorium, which, in her view would forever desecrate the spirit of theater at Crestwater.

She cited theater events from decades past as well as a colorful tradition of performance which was indeed synonymous with the old rows of padded French theater seats, the red velvety stage curtains, and the Proscenium stage—all of which had been part of the original 1902 design. She’d gone as far as designing flyers and handing them out to students in the hallways, lobbying for the preservation she deemed the most important decision the students could make for their school. It seemed odd for a girl who still wore her Southridge Academy crest and what’s more wore it religiously.

However, for all of her refined taste and collected composure; there was more inside of her than she could readily contain. She’d had a few emotional breakdowns during school hours that had been widely reported yet narrowly explained. She’d simply get up and leave a class and not return—or not show up for class at all. She’d then sit on a student council board partaking in debates regarding which extracurricular body would be funded and which would be dismantled. Eleanor had made it her primary goal to get involved in her new school.

I’d been told that during pizza day, a cultural phenomenon around Crestwater, Eleanor had frisbeed a slice of all-dressed pizza onto the roof of the gymnasium and encouraged others to do the same in protest of the faculty, whom she insisted were trying to buy the trust of students and placate their school-policy concerns with greasy dough.

She’d emerged later the same week to read a poem about the forgotten plight of the American Indians at an auditorium assembly and subsequently banged a small drum while she recited a self-written chant of shame for an audience of students and faculty who sat in the darkened auditorium in uncomfortable silence. Indeed, it seemed Eleanor was a book with too many pages—either that or a wreck of possibilities. Either way, I needed to find out.

As we got deeper into the school year and autumn was beginning to drain into winter, I learned more about Eleanor through random conversations that were always held with her in passing, as she was always on the move—on her way to one meeting or another. One afternoon I saw she was wearing a poppy and when I’d inquired if her grandfather had served, she explained that he had stormed the beaches at Normandy, won a chest full of medals and now sat sadly in a care home whispering to shadows on the wall—succumbing systematically to dementia. She explained that it was tough to look at him, especially because she was mostly alone when she visited Sunnycrest care home. I’d offered to accompany her to the care home during her next visit. I wrote my phone number on a piece of lined loose leaf and handed it to her. She’d stared at it with a concerned expression for a moment before turning and walking away. She was a curious study indeed.

Her story, though spotty, was nonetheless full of intriguing tidbits. Her mother, a Brentwood socialite, had left her father for a string of much younger men. Eleanor lived with her father, an airline pilot, and his new trophy ex-stewardess wife in East Emerald Heights who was said to be an evil stepmother. It was widely reported among students of Crestwater High that Eleanor had been spotted sitting in the passenger seat of her stepmother’s car one morning, staring stoically forward as her father’s new wife hysterically scolded her over something or other. As it was told to me, Eleanor had gotten out of the car and lit a cigarette. She’d stood there smoking for some time before approaching a homeless man across the street who was digging through a nearby trash can for recyclable bottles. She’d handed the homeless man a twenty dollar bill before stepping onto a bus and riding away…only moments before first bell.

It was a curious occurrence and I wondered about that morning—what her stepmother had been hollering at her about and exactly why she’d decided to slip the homeless man a twenty as if he were a five diamond maître d’. I wondered why she’d decided at the last minute to board a bus and cut class. Mostly, I wondered where she’d gone on the bus…she fascinated me.

As for Abigail Wax…I never mentioned Silver showing up at my house. I figured he’d get home and pull himself together and perhaps feel some modicum of shame about having followed his ex-girlfriend and me back to Truman Park. I’d heard in the following weeks that Abigail had gotten back together with Silver. And as if she’d never been in my room and never made a small confession to me—the origami notes stopped and as if we’d never met, Abigail Wax and I became total strangers. Though I didn’t quite care…I did find it slightly bizarre—and I was glad I hadn’t made any intimate confessions to her…as usual, I’d played it cool, and I’d been right to do so.

The larger lesson however was about distractions…and I made a conscious decision to expel all distractions and focus solely on getting my band started, which was after all the reason I’d shown up at Crestwater to begin with; the mission is what mattered most. I’d spent enough time adapting to my new environment—it was time to get down to business. It was time to get a band together.

This wouldn’t be so difficult to do, being that Crestwater High was a world of rich kids who all had nothing better to do than get into bands. Along with receiving cars and scooters and skiing trips in Aspen as birthday gifts—Crestwater kids also received musical instruments and accompanying high-end accessories. Though many were still learning their instruments; they’d started with top-line gear. Many kids were starting bands or were in multiple bands or were forming side-projects with other musicians from alternate genres. It seemed every kid had been granted the go ahead to turn their garage or one of the spare rooms in their parent’s house, into a sound proofed rehearsal space fully equipped with a full sound system and in some cases recording equipment. The challenge it seemed wasn’t finding kids with instruments and rehearsal rooms—the challenge seemed to be finding talented musicians to play with.

There were kids who looked the part, talked the part, had the best instruments and an immaculate rehearsal space…yet couldn’t play worth a damn. For a number of weeks I sifted through the pool of readily available musicians at Crestwater only to find that a large percentage were simply posing the part, which beyond being disappointing was also impeding my mission and immensely slowing the progress. That is until I pinned my own ad to the Crestwater billboard one afternoon. It simply read: Seeking killer bassist and drummer to get deadly with and make Crestwater history.

The ad worked and in one week I received over 60 voice messages from Crestwater musicians asking for a callback. It took some weeding out, but I eventually chose the Decker brothers—a bass and drums duo who’d backed many Crestwater bands over the years. Having grown up playing music together they’d developed an uncanny ability to lock into each other’s rhythm—which I believed would make for a bulletproof rhythm section. I believed correctly and indeed, after only two rehearsals, we’d put together one of my songs in a rough likeness of its abstract state. We’d taken the imagined and birthed it into the tangible—through heavy guitar chords, addictive vocal melodies, a driving beat, and a sprinting bass line. We achieved the desired effect—a 1990s colorfast of sound, mind and body.

In the coming weeks, we would build 8 more of my songs, creating a high-energy set that traveled at super-sonic speeds and could just as suddenly stop on a dime and then leap into space the next second. We had a secret weapon and we kept it mainly secret—however, the kids that did sit in at our rehearsals started spreading the word. We rehearsed in a sound-proof room in the Decker Brothers’ basement and for some reason there always seemed to be Crestwater kids coming and going…dropping by to see what we were up to…some were in other bands, some were just curious…some were music addicts who loved nothing more…some were just hangers-on.

We’d lose track of hours and emerge very late from the rehearsal room, finding the afternoon had drained into night. I would listen to the 4-track recordings on my headphones as I rode the bus back to Truman Park, mesmerized by what we were creating in the Decker brothers’ basement. As I listened and felt the bus taking the dips and potholes in the Truman Park roads, I was gripped by a macabre notion that perhaps it was only a glimpse of what might have been and what could never actually be…that I might get myself expelled from Crestwater High before this labor of love could come to fruition. It was a chilling notion and one I’d willed away with a solemn pledge to go all the way if given the chance…to become the very best songwriter I could be; no matter where it led me. With art, it’s important to go all the way, no matter what the cost.

One such night when getting off the bus in Truman Park, I noticed the blue and red flicker of police lights against a row of tenement facades at a nearby intersection. With the volume of my Walkman maxed, I strolled toward the lights, feeling slightly invincible with my new band blaring through my headphones. As I rounded the corner, Luther Street came into view from behind a tall wooden fence.

Amidst a sea of spectators were haphazardly parked perhaps a half dozen squad cars, a few of which were still alive with flashing lights. A few feet away an ambulance idled loudly, pulled halfway up onto the curb, its rear doors wide open and it’s interior full of emergency apparatus illuminated by the florescent glow of the interior lights. I wondered distantly how many people had died in that ambulance; the long panels of fluorescent lights being the last thing they’d ever seen. Beatty hadn’t died in an ambulance…he’d died on the street, staring at a far-off point. Perhaps it was better that way.

Milling around the front yard of a familiar-looking house were police, paramedics, and a few men in plain clothes. They mingled and compared notes as if discussing an algebra equation. A few minutes later a giant fire truck rounded the corner, its lights adding to the red flashing. Firemen soon joined the commotion, making their way into the front yard…however, after it was explained that there was indeed no fire to be put out and rather it was yet another case for the homicide squad—the firemen eased up, removed their helmets and watched the Friday night movie unfold in real-time.

As I craned my neck to see around the emergency responders crowding the front yard, I made out a body lying lifelessly on the floor just inside the front door, which at that point was fully ajar. The house itself was illuminated as if every light in every room had been turned on. The snap of a camera flashed against the interior curtains which were beige and drawn casually.

I knew the house because I used to deliver papers to the address years before. On collection nights I would stand impatiently waiting for the geriatric resident to make the proper change. The place where I’d stood waiting for the collection money was now occupied by a lifeless body. I wondered if it was the same old man whom I’d delivered the paper to. And what of his wife? Had one killed the other? Was it instead a home invasion—which you heard about happening now and then in Truman Park? Gang-related activity? Drug overdose? Suicide? As the possibilities swirled in my head, a sudden hand clasping down on my shoulder spooked me enough to spin around swiftly, ready to swing or bolt.

“Hey asshole…you don’t call…you don’t write.” grinned Sarah Chatsworth or as I called her Sarah Mascara; an old classmate who I’d not seen since my grand exit from Truman High.

“Sarah Mascara how the hell are ya?” I asked.

“How the hell am I? How the hell are you? It’s been a total rumor mill around Truman. Some people said you got shot with Beatty. Then we heard that you transferred to some rich school in Emerald Heights. Then it was going around that you and Nelson got into a fistfight in his office and he wound up expelling you for good…the talk is crazy.” said Sarah with wide eyes, the lids caked with mascara—her trademark style.

“Wow…and I thought Crestwater High was gossip central. Shit…is that what Nelson is telling everyone? That he expelled me?” I asked, shaking my head, “Don’t believe the hype Sarah.”

“Well, what really happened? Where have you been?” she asked.

“I’ve been at Crestwater–getting business done. You can let everyone know that Nelson tried to sabotage my transfer to Crestwater. He shit-talked me to the principal over at Crestwater…he almost succeeded too…but the universe had other plans.” I told her.

“He actually did that?” asked Sarah.

“Is that a surprise? The guy wears booty pants—enough said. By the way, what the hell happened in that house?” I asked Sarah who looked prettier than I remembered. She’d put on a bit of weight in the right spots and had started wearing much more lipstick to match her usual thick coating of mascara. Her hair was short and wild and died peroxide blonde. Her tan was a nice contrast and she stood there looking at me as if I was insane.

“It’s been a notorious drug house for years. Where the hell you been Holden?” said Sarah.

“I used to deliver papers there—years and years ago. I used to stand right there where that body is now—I used to stand there waiting for this old guy to make the right change and he always took forever.” I told her.

“I remember that old guy. Mr. Schwartz.”

“Yeah, that’s the guy.”

“He sold the house years ago and it’s been a drug pad ever since—welcome to Truman Park.” said Sarah with a small sad smile—it was understood.

We stood there for a while taking inventory of the taped-off crime scene until eventually a body on a gurney, covered in a grey sheet was carted out into the street. We heard a nearby news anchor tell her one-man camera crew, in her syndicated television news voice, that there had been a drug-related homicide in the house—the third one at the address in a year—and that aside from seizing a cache of weapons and drugs, the authorities were searching for the assailants who’d fled the scene in a grey, four-door sedan. She repeated the last bit with an ominous tone, “a grey, four-door sedan…back to you Walter.”

Eventually, the crowd of bystanders thinned. The paramedic’s resuscitation efforts had failed and the show was over. The home team had lost. Another murder had gone down in Truman Park and again, city council would do nothing to clean up the neighborhood. As if having seen what they’d been waiting for, the crowd dispersed as the ambulance silently pulled away…carrying the body of a Truman Park resident who might warrant dishonorable mentioned in the local paper, but would be otherwise anonymous and unmentioned; another statistic.

The crowd seemed reluctant to disperse and lingered around for a while chatting with each other. There weren’t barbecues or block parties or street festivals in Truman Park; we had crime scenes and arson-based infernos. Other than that, there weren’t many social events. Despite her parent’s house being in the opposite direction of mine, I walked Sarah Mascara home. As we passed the darkened, mostly vacant houses of Luther Street, Sarah told me about the most recent happenings at Truman High—none of which I cared much to hear about but listened anyway. As we walked, we smoked a blunt she’d rolled and by the time we were at her house, I realized that I was too high to go in, though she’d invited me for another quick roll in the hay. It had been a while since I’d been alone with Sarah Mascara.

Instead, we stood outside of her house talking about the decade we were living in…our decade. It was the 90s and it belonged to us. We were perhaps the last of the keen kids and perhaps we knew it in some way. We didn’t intend to be an impossible generation to follow—we never set out to be unfollowable; we were just wired a certain way…we knew we were at the center of something new…something big and something that would only happen once. We were the last of the big-time senders—telepathy was huge with 90’s teens—we manifested bizarre coincidences and uncanny feats of intuition, and it was because our brains weren’t dependent on tablets linked through satellite transmissions—rather we were the exclamation point of a sentence our great-grandparents had started decades before—we were the culmination of psychic phenomena.

We’d mastered the craft and our telepathic transmissions were clear, and there was a smirk of absurdity to our sunny disposition—a devil-may-care nonchalance regarding the rose-colored future we knew we’d be eventually left in alone, as everyone always is. We turned to the underground, the misfit writers, the tragic poets, the edgy film-noir directors, existential escapism, garage rock, the abstract alternative—it was us who demanded to spotlight it all. The Smiths had asked for it in the 80s, but it was us 90’s kids who’d hung the DJ and replaced him with original indie rock.

At the time we didn’t know when, why, or exactly how, but we knew the 90s would end and that things would change forever; there was a collective intuition in the 90s and it told us a general fog was on its way, and perhaps that’s what made it all so important—the last age of enlightenment.

We stood out in front of Sarah’s parent’s house for a while chatting and after perhaps 20 minutes, Sarah noticed someone approaching in the distance. I followed her line of sight and recognized the heavy metal half-shirt…the long stringy hair, the Metroid walk. As he approached up the sidewalk, Sarah explained the tragedy Henley had suffered the previous month. His father had been killed in a hit-and-run as he was crossing an intersection at the end of their street. Evidently, eye-witness accounts specified that Henley’s father had been drunk and hadn’t bothered to check for cars before stumbling out into the intersection. He’d gone onto the hood and over the roof of the car before landing on the asphalt where it’s said he died on impact. The car had subsequently peeled off, fleeing the scene and no bystanders had the presence of mind to remember the license plate number.

As Henley came into clear view and into the pool of glow cast from an overhead streetlamp, I recognized his rotten buck teeth and perpetual sneer—a sneer that tightened even further when he took note of me.

“What the fuck are you doing here? No pussies allowed in Truman Park…or haven’t you heard, shithead?” he snarled.

“You’re the one who pussied out last time if I recall correctly.” I grinned.

“Yeah well, cowards run…and you ran…all the way to Emerald Heights…didn’t you Holden?” he asked, crossing his arms as if interrogating me, “Guess Truman Park was too much for a pussy like you huh? You fucking ran…like a little punk ass bitch.”

“I didn’t run…I left.” I said.

“Cowards run…and as I recall, we have some unfinished business don’t we?” he said, squaring up on me.

“Really? You’re still on about that shit? You need to get some new material man. But if you insist…I don’t mind kicking your inbred ass here and now.” I said running my hands through my hair.

“Guys…really? You’re going to do this in front of my parent’s house?” asked Sarah with a frustrated sigh.

“Jack Holden with Sarah Mascara…why am I not surprised…guess douchebags attract each other.” said Henley.

“Go fuck yourself Henley…nobody else would.” snarled Sarah.

“I wouldn’t fuck a chubby bitch like you anyway.” said Henley, turning his nose up at her.

“Feelings mutual.” said Sarah.

“Well? You still feel tough? You still wanna dance?” asked Henley turning his attention back to me.

“Listen Henley, I think the bulk of your problem is a calcium deficiency brought on by being inbred.” I told him which caused Sarah to break out laughing, “By the way, sorry to hear about your dad man…that’s a hard situation.”

“What? Are you fucking with me?” demanded Henley.

“Look, I’m saying it’s a tough break…Sarah just told me about it now…a hit and run—that’s some fucked up shit.” I said.

“What’s your fucking angle Holden?” demanded Henley staring at me with a twisted penetrating scowl.

“What angle?”

“What the fuck is wrong with this guy?” Henley asked, turning to Sarah, “What did you guys take?”

“I’m not getting involved in this.” Said Sarah, raising her palms.

“Are you really that retarded Henley? I’m just offering some fucking condolences—that’s what people do. Have you gotten even more retarded since we last spoke?” I asked.

“You’re offering me condolences? Well, you can shove your condolences up your ass Holden. I don’t need your fucking condolences!” hollered Henley.

“Your call.” I shrugged.

“What the fuck is up with you man? You’ve lost your edge.” he said, nodding slowly, his eyes widening intensely as the realization formed in his calcium-deficient brain, “That’s it–you’ve lost your fucking edge. That piss-lemonade school you’ve been going to has taken away your edge.”

“Goat milk dude.” I said, unable to suppress a chuckle.

“I think I see what happened here. That cushy Crestwater School has turned you into a pussy—that’s what’s happened to you—I can smell it on you.” said Henley, leaning in and taking a deep creepy whiff.

“Well, you’re still the same creep you ever were. But your teeth seem a little greener now.” I noted with a chuckle.

“The Holden I knew would have never shown such weakness. Fuck, I at least had a bit of respect for the old you who was a hard-line prick. I don’t know who you are now man…you’re lost.” said Henley punctuating his statement with a chuckle of absurdity, “Your ass ain’t even worth wiping the floor with.”

“You’re a fucking genius Henley.” I said with a wry grin.

“Maybe,” he replied, nodding at me with a slight squint of victory, “but at least I didn’t sell my ass out to some bitch-ass high school…like you did.” he lifted a fist and pounded his chest a few times, “Bullets bounce off of this motherfucker.” he said.

Henley walked on, shaking his head, leaving Sarah and me standing there in front of her house under the dim glow of the streetlamp in awkward silence. Rather the silence was hers and I was only observing it. We both watched Henley disappear into the shadows and round the corner of the next block. When he was gone, I turned back to Sarah.

“What a dick.” I said.

“You know he hated his old man—you realize that right? His father burned him with cigarettes and beat him with a two by four.” said Sarah, “Probably he really doesn’t care.”

“Well, aside from a two-by-four, it would seem his dad also beat him with an ugly stick.” I said, causing a wide grin to form across Sarah’s lips that were thick and shiny with horror show red lipstick.

It took a month and a half of hard rehearsing four nights a week to perfect the nuances of the set…however, once we were ready to play—it only took three days to land a gig. Indeed, my band with the Decker brothers called Don’t Ask John Fante had been offered a gig at Harlequin City on short notice when the opening band had cancelled. Harlequin City was a run-down, piss-stained all ages venue downtown that hosted epic seven band bills 3 nights a week. During the day it operated as a Chinese food restaurant but at night—it was all about the rock n’ roll. We’d managed to snag a Thursday night by sheer chance—Harlequin’s hottest showcase night—it had been our bass player’s sister’s boyfriend’s cousin’s girlfriend who’d happened to hear our Wildfire demo and she just happened to know the headlining band.

Though the show was slated to be our first and we were the first band on, which meant that our allotted set-time was only 5 songs; we didn’t take it lightly. Rather we saw it as a sign—the first stroke of paint on a flickering cave wall. As we saw it—we were going to make history. It was during that week that I paid attention to very little outside the scope of our upcoming set at Harlequin City. Throughout the duration of my classes at Crestwater High, I would, instead of absorbing the monotone relayed academia, replay the songs in my head, hearing them as if on a hi-fi stereo in my mind…meditating on them, noting adjustments that needed to be made, no matter how small. And there were many. When it comes down to it, an artist must eventually abandon a great work…he’ll never finish it…for to finish it, an artist might take a lifetime, or two. One can always improve on a work…one can always make it better…for art is infinite. Eventually, an artist must abandon his work when he feels he’s put as much of his soul as he can into a particular project.

Though I felt we could have refined the songs quite a bit more than they were, by the day of the show, I knew we had achieved magic in the same way an animal can sense an earthquake approaching. I knew the large crowd at Harlequin City wouldn’t know what hit them and once they heard us—they’d become addicted—like I.V. drug users. We were about to unveil what we’d kept under a shroud of secrecy for months.

Though our immediate friends had heard us live—there weren’t many who hadn’t heard our Wildfire demo cassette, which was a compilation of 4 songs, recorded on the Crestwater music room 16 track recorder that was conveniently available to any students who booked the time with Mr. Bradshaw—Crestwater High’s enigmatic music teacher.

The demo, our first and last, would have us facing for our first show, a dedicated regime of friends and supporters, front row and center; all waiting to be impressed. However, there was the case of Eleanor Price, whom I’d invited to the show for the purpose of spellbinding her and who had shown up with Gregory Locksmith; Crestwater’s star debater who was always clad in a cardigan, a colorful tie, and a wind-tunnel tested pompadour.

Not that Locksmith would matter at all in this story, outside of the fact that Eleanor Price had shown up with him. But I should state here that Locksmith was infamous at Crestwater…for aside from having led the debating team to three consecutive regional debating championships, he’d been the survivor of a boating accident that had killed his best friend the previous summer—after which he’d given up boating.

The folklore was that he’d been at the wheel and had hit a reef which had, at such high velocity, shredded the hull of the boat, ejecting both Locksmith and his friend. Locksmith had landed in the water, and it had been the only thing that had saved his life. His friend on the other hand hadn’t turned up as lucky. He had landed on the reef and was killed upon impact. There had been questions, such as whether Locksmith had been drinking or not. Though the scandal had gone away, whispers still remained, and it was told to me that few ever challenged the Locksmith family.

The infamy that subsequently surrounded Locksmith gained a certain tragic appeal among several lovely Crestwater vixens from all cliques and coteries. The special treatment from faculty had been there all along evidently being that Locksmith’s father was a well-known politician…an alderman; a man delegated by the people to lead, to make the hard decisions they didn’t want to shoulder and to tell witty anecdotes at charity dinners and press events. It seemed, despite my success of landing a slot at Harlequin City—I was outclassed by a kid who’d never been told ‘no’ in his entire life and was now used to it. I wondered if he’d have offered to accompany Eleanor next time she visited her war hero grandfather with dementia; I doubted it. Still Eleanor had decided to show up with the goofy bastard.

I’d sat in a booth beside the stage with the Decker brothers, Wes, April, and a couple of April’s friends, watching Eleanor stand close beside Locksmith, holding his hand and smiling at his attempts at prep-school wit. I sighed, feeling a deep irony invade my elation. I’d finally gotten a chance to play my songs in front of an audience and the moment was ruined by a girl. I wondered how that had occurred and I immediately regretted inviting her. Perhaps Henley and Sarah had been right—perhaps Crestwater had robbed me of some killer instinct. The old me would have shrugged it off and found some other squeeze to squeeze. However, it wasn’t like that with Eleanor.

“I can’t believe Eleanor showed up with that punk ass bitch.” I said.

“Locksmith? I guess he is something of a punk ass bitch.” nodded Wes, squeezing April in tight, “Right baby?”

“I can’t believe the audacity of that bastard to show up here tonight with Eleanor…especially when Lacy was supposed to be here.” said April looking genuinely disgusted.

“Say what?” I asked April.

“Never mind, I shouldn’t say.” said April.

Wes answered for her, “Locksmith has been secretly seeing Lacy Silver for weeks and for weeks has told her that he’s broken up with Eleanor—yet he’s still with Eleanor clearly. It’s classic Locksmith.”

“It’s sick.” corrected April, “He’s really fucked with Lacy’s head. She’s in love with him and he treats her like dirt. The worst part is that she’s not the only girl Locksmith is messing with.”

“Is that a fact?” I said, squinting across the room toward Locksmith. It figured—he seemed the douchebag type.

Before we went on, I decided it would be a good time to piss. As I made my way to the bathroom, Eleanor smiled and waved at me as I walked by—perhaps a gesture of thanks for putting her, plus one, on the Harlequin City guest list. I stopped and gave her a long look that laser-focused the disappointment I felt and didn’t know what to do with. It was a different kind of hurt I’d never quite felt before. Feeling my telepathic laser, she tilted her head and returned to me a look of her own, which suggested something…what exactly I wasn’t quite sure, but it seemed to reside in the realm of none of it being her doing, as if she were a cork floating in a sea of whateverness. I nodded and walked on, leaving her standing on the fringes of a group of Locksmith’s followers.

As we took the stage and I plugged my guitar in, setting my volume controls higher than the sound man had originally allowed, I realized that Eleanor was sending a simple message to me; she’d shown up at Harlequin City to illustrate how off the mark I was—how presumptuous I’d been to invite her. I assumed she wanted me to know without any shadow of a doubt that though I might make for a random roll in the hay; I was no marrying man. So be it then, I thought, turning to the crowd which was eclipsed by the bright spotlights now pointed at us. The room was silent and there was some anticipation; I was expected to say something.

“We’re Don’t Ask John Fante…buckle up.” was all I said before we powered into our first song; a six-lane pile up of heavy riffs, harmonics, smashing crashes, and summer of love melodies. My ode to the 90s in which we were immaculately existing.

We played through the set, dodging stage divers and keeping on point with all our clever accents and stops. I felt the passion deep and let it flow into my guitar and out through my voice; it was as if anything could happen. Well, almost anything.

After our last song, I noticed Eleanor holding hands with Locksmith as he led her to a booth on the other side of the room. Unsnapping my guitar and setting it down atop my amp, I left the volume turned to ten so harsh feedback rang out under the applause that begged us back for an encore. I stood there watching Eleanor with Locksmith, shaking my head with a small grin of disbelief…my finest moment yet had been marred by a girl—how the fuck had I let that happen?

As the calls for an encore grew louder the sound man dimmed the stage lights and the house music came on. Our five songs were up and it was changeover time. I turned off my amp, killing the feedback, and hopped off the stage, and made my way to the band room, from which the next band up was exiting. They left the room empty and humid and smelling like cologne, beer, and weed. I stretched out on the band room couch, experiencing the monumental moment, breathing it in…knowing I’d done it and knowing that nobody could take it away from me…knowing also that there might be an infestation of bed bugs in the ratty and dank couch, but not quite caring. In such moments a man becomes invincible.

“That was intense.” said a voice, shaking me from my deep state of basking.

I looked toward the doorway and found a head leaning in through the ajar door.

“Glad you liked it.” I nodded.

The guy stepped into the band room, closing the door behind him. He wore tinted, John Lennon spectacles and was clad in a Mother’s Milk t-shirt and black torn jeans which he wore tucked into his combat boots. A studded band rounded his wrist, and he held a silver flask in his hand.

“You guys fucking slayed.” he said, “I mean you could have it all…but the question is—how bad do you want it?”

“Have all what?” I inquired, sitting up now and lighting one up.

“Your wildest fucking dreams.” he said removing his sunglasses and revealing his crazy eyes.

“I just want to rock out man.” I sighed in a long smoky exhale.

“I can see that…but destiny wants so much more for you.”

“Destiny?” I asked, the word piquing my interest.

“I’ve had a vision and I know things. I’ve always known things—and guess what?” he said.

“What?” I shrugged.

“We’re going to turn the music scene in this town on its head.” he said, volleying into a psychotic chuckle.

“Who is?” I asked, assuming he was talking about a project he was already in.

“You and me, and of course my drummer the Phantom. I’m Walt by the way.”

“Is that so?” I asked, squinting back at him through another exhale of smoke.

“I wasn’t even going to come here tonight…but something told me to.” he said, clicking his finger at me as if it were a small revolver.

“I spend a lot of time with the Deckers.” I told him.

“Dude…fuck your band…the Decker brothers are weekend guys…they don’t live it…not like you and I do.”

“How do I know that you live it?” I asked him.

“Come meet me and the Phantom for a rehearsal next week and you’ll see.” he grinned, “Give us one hour…I guarantee—you’ll drop those creepy Decker twins in a fucking instant.”

“Why would I drop what we’ve spent weeks and weeks perfecting?” I asked, “Come on man, it doesn’t even make sense.”

“Look out there man,” said Walt with a surge of passion, “Look out there…you got these Crestwater bands weeping all over the fucking stage because they’re too rich and too pretty—oh their lives are so fucking hard aren’t they? Where’s the party? Where’s the fun in that? Where’s the all-out, over-the-top freak show? Where’s the controversy? Where’s the napalm, man? Where’s the explosions and machine gun fire?” demanded Walt, pausing to drag deeply on his cigarette.

“A lot of these bands are great.” I said.

“Sure, but are you going to remember seeing any of them in thirty years?” Walt asked.

“There might be no real music left in thirty years.” I laughed.

“Listen, you, me and the Phantom are going to turn this scene upside down…and we’re going to get that eight thousand dollars at the Backyard’s battle of the bands. I saw it in a premonition as you fuckers were playing. We’re going to get that studio time and with that studio time, we’re going to record a landmark album that’s going to put us in the motherfucking history books. I saw it all unfold in my mind already. All you gotta do is say yes—I’ll take care of the details.” Walt grinned and took a couple of steps forward, panning his palms to either side as he spoke the word details, presenting it with mystical diction.

I was compelled to share his grin, for his demeanor suggested more than his words and presentation could. They suggested that he was slightly psychotic and willing to do whatever it took to turn the Emerald Heights music scene on its head—he was willing to take it to the wall.

“Think about it.” he said, handing me his card, which read, Walter Mayer – bassist extraordinaire.

He left me there in the room by myself as the band on stage banged away at their weepy post-punk power-pop. I’d have thrown the card away had he not been half-mad and had he not mentioned the grand prize at the Backyard’s annual battle of the bands. Also, there was something exciting about the notion of turning the music scene on its head. I knew what Walt meant somehow and it wasn’t a bad thing…or a cynical thing. Perhaps Walt was half insane…perhaps; but he had a fire beneath him.

As I was contemplating this alone in the band room, a knock appeared on the door, one which I ignored being as comfortable as I was on the backstage couch, warmly wrapped in the afterglow of perhaps my greatest night on earth up to that point. The knock came again a moment later and was followed by a creak of the door. It was Eleanor and I looked up at her from my place on the leather couch.

“Hey.” I said, remembering my resentment.

Perhaps sensing it, Eleanor’s smile faded, and she played nervously with a bottle cap between her candy apple red fingernails. She was dressed as usual in women’s 1960’s corporate apparel, which drove me half mad and made resenting her just a little easier for showing up at my show with Locksmith. She’d cut her hair short since I’d seen her the previous week and it looked ultra-sexy; she’d taken on the dimensions of a broader allure and I wondered why she’d bothered to visit me backstage looking like Suzanne Pleshette in The Birds…was it just to torture me?

“I’m leaving now—but I just wanted to congratulate you on the show. It was so good. I had no idea. Striking really. Thanks for putting me on the guest list.” said Eleanor, nervous now for some reason, her usual biting sarcasm nowhere in sight.

“Yeah? You’re leaving with cardigan-boy are you?” I asked rising from the couch.

“You mean Gregory? Well yeah, I sort of came here with him.” said Eleanor.

“Aw, how romantic.” I grinned.

“Sorry?” she asked.

“You should be.” I said.

“Why?” she asked, twisting her face into an expression of absurdity.

“This was my greatest night on earth…and I just wanted to share it with you…and you showed up with that jackass and ruined it all.” I said.

“I’ve been dating Gregory for four months now—I didn’t even know you four months ago.” she said, twisting her face up as if I was insane.

“And you showed up here to what, rub that in my face?”

“Not at all.”

“Right.” I told her.

“I thought you were being friendly by inviting me.” said Eleanor, placing a hand against her chest; a play at sincerity.

“Friendly.” I laughed, “We’ll never be friends Eleanor.”

“Why?” she asked, looking hurt.

“Because we have only two options; strangers or lovers.” I told her.

“Since when?” she demanded.

“Since the first moment I saw you.” I said.

“Why are you being so intense suddenly? You’ve never mentioned this before to me.”

“Aren’t you supposed to have like, women’s intuition or something?” I asked.

“Don’t look at me like that—it makes me feel bad.” she said.

“If you think that jackass is going to rock your world—you’re senseless, out of it, gone down the road, wacko.” I confessed.

“What?” she asked.

I said nothing; I merely looked at her, having stated the truth. There wasn’t much more I could say. To these west side kids it seemed bluntness was taboo, something one shouldn’t entertain, as if fanning my cards out across the table was somehow less honest than acting out a charade—I didn’t play charades, I was for real. For my declaration, I was willing to pay a certain price; I was willing to lose Eleanor completely…but in my heart, I knew that if I couldn’t have Eleanor the way I needed to—I’d rather not have her at all, in any capacity—the rest was incidental meanderings. Strangers or lovers…those were the only two options for Eleanor and I.

“So, I guess I should go.” said Eleanor, hugging herself and squinting at me, as if she didn’t recognize who I was…

“It’s your call…it’s the wrong call, but it’s yours to make.” I shrugged.

“What do you mean the wrong call? You drop this shit on me all of a sudden. What do you want me to say? I need time to process it all.” demanded Eleanor stamping the heel of her shoe against the floor in frustration.

“What does your fucking heart tell you?” I asked.

“I don’t listen to my fucking heart…I listen to my fucking head…my common sense.” said Eleanor, placing a hand over her forehead dramatically.

“You don’t understand.” I said.

“Maybe I do understand all too well. Maybe Abigail Wax broke off your affair and now you’re lonely.”

“An affair with Abigail? Where did you hear that jive?” I asked.

“Gregory told me.” said Eleanor.

“Yeah—and where did he hear it?”

“Brandon Silver told him.” said Eleanor, as if the words were ammunition.

“Brandon Silver is unstable—the guy follows Abigail around in his Jeep.” I said.

“I know that…everyone knows that. It’s nothing new. And he told Gregory and I that he followed you and Abigail to your house one evening and that you two were in there for an awfully long time.” said Eleanor in a tsk-tsk tone.

“Nothing happened–we chilled out in my room listening to the Cure.” I said.

“Right…you had a very single and very pretty Abigail Wax in your room and nothing happened.” grinned Eleanor, rolling her eyes.

“I wanted something to happen, but she only wanted to be held.” I said.

“Held?” laughed Eleanor, “Wow…it’s worse than I thought.”

“She’s an emotional girl.” I shrugged.

“So you held her tight did you Jack?” asked Eleanor, a shade of jealousy in her words, “How romantic—and to the Cure…sounds pretty serious.”

“Yeah, I held her,” I said, rising from my place on the couch, I stepped up to her and peered deeply into her eyes…so there could be no confusion, “…and I imagined she was you the whole fucking time…that’s my sick reality since I met you.” I said, my expression saying it all.

Eleanor fell still suddenly, her smile fading and her gaze becoming intense. Her eyes searched mine, perhaps looking for a lie. Finding no lie, Eleanor bit the inside of her lip, as if she were contemplating her words.

“I should go.” she said a moment later before leaving me alone in the room.

I stood there for a few moments listening to Barb Zanus power through another of their weepy songs. I realized then that in following Eleanor, I risked making a total fool out of myself. I realized a moment later that Eleanor was entirely worth making a fool out of myself for. I pushed through the door and made my way across the crowded dance floor, nearly taking a waitress down in the process—a lucky miss. When I got outside Eleanor was getting into Locksmith’s car.

“Eleanor.” I called after her.

Eleanor paused for a moment before straightening up and stepping toward me, leaving the passenger door open through which I could see Locksmith buckling his seat belt.

“You shouldn’t go.” I told her.

“What do you expect me to do?” she asked nearly in protest.

“Leave with me.” I said.

Eleanor sighed in frustration. I didn’t see the reason for frustration; to me it was a simple decision.

“I need some time to absorb this all. It’s all very intense.” she said.

“If you leave with that clown, you’ll never know—but you’ll always wonder.” I assured, “For the rest of your life.”

“Excuse me but what the bloody hell is this all about?” demanded Locksmith from the car.

I leaned slightly to look around Eleanor’s shoulder toward Locksmith who was sitting comically in his car, one wrist draped over the steering wheel, a twist of disbelief in his face.

“You wouldn’t understand cardigan boy.” I told him.

“No?” he said, unbuckling and rising from the car. He sauntered over in his cardigan, tie and shiny pompadour and I noticed his tapered jeans were rolled up slightly above his shoes, exposing argyle socks. He looked like a 1950s frat brother who’d definitely sipped the shit-head Kool-Aid.

“You wanna say that again to my face?” he said.

“Sure,” I shrugged, “I said, you wouldn’t understand, cardigan-boy.” I told him, “But perhaps that was too eloquent for you…I guess I should have just told you to go fuck yourself you punk-ass bitch.”

“And you are?” he asked, as if genuinely perplexed.

“None of this is any of your business…just get back in the car before you hurt someone with that pompadour” I told him.

“This most definitely is my business.” he assured.

“Really? I thought being a low-life two-timing douchebag was your business.” I said.

“I’m not sure who you are, or who you think you are, but if you were smart, you’d walk away—now.” said Locksmith. I noticed to my left, two of his friends approaching. Within seconds they were shouldering Locksmith, looking me over suspiciously. It made me laugh.

“You guys are terrifying.” I said.

“Maybe you’re psychologically cracked?” asked Locksmith, enveloping me in an intense contemplative stare of analysis.

“Maybe.” I laughed, looking from him to his henchmen, who furrowed their brows, contemplating the implication, “How far are you willing to go to find out?”

“I’ll ask again—what’s this all about? Why are you harassing my girlfriend?” asked Locksmith.

“Listen…hairdo.” I said, “Why don’t you do yourself a huge favor and take your posse for some jello shots or whatever it is you princesses do? I’m trying to talk to Eleanor.”

“And with such a choice vocabulary I might add.” said Locksmith, crossing an arm over his chest and propping up his other arm so that he could stroke his chin, “I mean, I can see you’re a very articulate individual. But a good debater never resorts to being a potty-mouth.”

“Oh…you prefer to debate?” I asked.

“Trust me…you don’t want to debate with me.” he said.

“I think I might.” I said.

“You really don’t.” grinned Locksmith.

“Maybe we can debate Lacy Silver and what you’ve been doing with her in the back of your car.” I suggested, gesturing toward his idling car, “Or how about some of the other broads you been cheating on Eleanor with? How about we debate about them?”

Locksmith’s grin didn’t fade, rather it stuck there, awkwardly, as his brain grappled for a way out. I lit a cigarette and blew a puff of blue smoke into his face, “The way I heard it,” I said, blowing another plume his way, “you’ve been stringing Lacy along for months…evidently she’s pretty broken up over you and maybe you’re the kind of bastard who likes it that way.”

“You’ve been misinformed,” he finally said, waving the smoke away with one hand, “and I’m not giving you any more of my time.” he winced, his synthetic smile fading. Shaking his head, he took Eleanor by the hand and led her back to the car.

“You’ll always wonder Eleanor…for the rest of your life.” I called after Eleanor who didn’t look back over her shoulder…even after I’d played dirty and broken the guy-code like emergency glass…even though I sold out her star debater; it seemed she’d made her decision and was going to stick with it.

As Locksmith’s car pulled away, I stood on the sidewalk in my torn jeans, worn leather jacket, and scuffed checkerboard Vans knowing that for the rest of my time at Crestwater High, other girls would be mainly a distraction from Eleanor’s haunting presence. I took a drag of my cigarette as I watched the taillights drive away, getting smaller and smaller as the car accelerated down the bumpy street. Indeed, I searched for a sense of closure and surprisingly felt one growing slowly, like a bubble of magma that would eventually burst and turn to rock, forging a small concave that would always be the shape and form of the mysterious Eleanor Price.

Oh well…fuck it, I told myself as I dragged deeply on the cigarette watching the car fade away, taking Eleanor into the night and far away from me. She’d go home with Locksmith and probably listen to him re-live his debating championship heroics, surrounded by perhaps the trophies on his mantle. She’d sleep beside him and wake up the next morning and have breakfast with his alderman father and trophy-wife mother. The maid would make them blueberry pancakes and orange juice and they’d discuss NAFTA, the ACLU, bi-partisan politics and perhaps even the fall of apartheid; another day in boring paradise. But all in all—it was her loss I realized—for Locksmith could never rock her world like I could. Some birds just didn’t get it, I thought to myself.

It was the 90’s and strangely I knew at the time that we’d never again see such extraordinary times. Though watching Eleanor drive away with Locksmith stung hard, I felt that warm 90’s assurance that always hung in the air around us…an assurance that anything was possible and everything would most definitely be all right. I took a last drag and flicked the cigarette into the gutter. I was about to turn and walk back into Harlequin City when something strange happened. The universe again illustrated that it had other plans.

The brake lights of Locksmith’s car illuminated suddenly, and the car stopped perhaps a block and a half away. It idled there in the middle of the street for a few moments before the passenger door opened and I saw Eleanor’s form step out, a long coat slung over her forearm. It seemed there was some debate between her and Locksmith who was going to lose this time. When she finally slammed the door and the car pulled away rapidly with a screech of the tires, Eleanor turned and started walking back toward me. I looked up at the sky that was a dome of stars; a million points of light twinkled back at me. I didn’t bother contemplating it, rather I stepped off the sidewalk and started walking toward her, to meet Eleanor halfway. We met in the middle of the street with the old buildings all around us and she wrapped me in a deep, hard hug and didn’t let go.

“You ok?” I asked.

“I’m fine.” said Eleanor, “But I don’t want to go back in there—everyone is watching.” she said looking at the crowds of kids gathered around the entrance of Harlequin City who were completely oblivious to the drama that had just unfolded.

“Ok, what do you feel like doing?” I asked.

“I feel like just walking…walking all night.” she said.


“Will you walk me home?” she asked.

“Of course.” I said, knowing it was a hell of a long walk back to Emerald Heights from downtown but also knowing I would go anywhere and do anything with Eleanor.

“You came back…I can’t fucking believe it.” I whispered to her, taken completely off guard and unable to conceive how I’d gotten so lucky.

“Gregory couldn’t either.” laughed Eleanor.

It was the 90s, such were the notions, such were the times.

Chapter 3: Don’t Ask John Fante

At first, I thought the universe had made a mistake, that a ray of good luck had missed someone else and hit me by accident, that there had been a minor glitch among the inner workings of the universe that had allowed Eleanor Price to demonstrate to me the meaning of true romance. I’d tried to make sense of how a guy like me ended up with a knock-out like Eleanor Price, but I eventually gave up on trying to understand such a perfect mystery and I decided to accept my good fortune for what it was—whatever it was.

Of course, there were various theories circulating on the subject of Eleanor and I. Some presumed that I’d used ancient love potions to lure Eleanor into my complex existence. Others postulated that Eleanor had perhaps gone temporarily insane and the bad concoction of brain chemicals had somehow cast me in a certain shimmer. Certainly, there were far-out theories that made the rounds, but generally speaking, almost everyone assumed that Eleanor had a thing for rock singers. Either that or they believed that Eleanor was simply a social climber who saw me as a potential ticket to imminent popularity, perhaps because it seemed I was well on my way to local stardom after Don’t Ask John Fante wound up being the talk of Emerald Heights after our debut show at Harlequin City.

Of course, Crestwater kids, who were so avidly preoccupied with popularity, social politics, and personal scandals—couldn’t quite grasp the simple truth; nobody had ever needed Eleanor as I did. She’d never come across a man as mad for her as I, and she knew it. I assumed her quest for the real thing stemmed from her being frequently lied to as a child.

Though she’d grown up under an umbrella of privilege in the lap of specifically refined luxury her mother’s old money provided; it seemed that Eleanor’s perception of life penetrated far deeper than exotically designed surfaces and the accompanying culture. She often balked at her parent’s separated existence, claiming that they lived in a bubble of unawareness and employed a plethora of props to safeguard their fortress of oblivion. She saw herself as another prop in their fortress…or perhaps a playing piece her parents used to get back at each other from time to time when resentments ran high.

Though Eleanor had a genius IQ and a matching vocabulary, and though she belonged to various extracurricular clubs, coteries, and causes—she in fact always carried with her a proverbial can of spray paint with which she’d graffiti the walls of said institutions…for there was a delinquent in Eleanor, one which hid deeply and cleverly and perhaps she liked that I didn’t mind delinquency.

When I say that she was demonstrating to me the meaning of true romance, it seemed the truest blue. Case in point: one evening Eleanor picked me up in her mother’s Porsche and declared that she had a surprise for me. We drove around for a while, smoking it up and listening to Burt Bacharach. Eleanor wore mirrored heart-shaped sunglasses and a polka dot head scarf tied below her chin. She was smoking thin European cigarettes as the palm trees and streetlamps went by. The moon was full…it was the 90s and we knew we owned the night.

“I really do have a surprise planned for you baby.” She told me, “But let’s drive for a while.”

“I like the sound of that.” I said as we made our way up the PCH and the moon sparkled across the ocean.

Eleanor turned off onto a road that carried us high above the shoreline and toward the sky as we cruised a long ascending bend that took us into Pacific Palisades.

As the Bacharach played and we smoked more and went higher and higher, Eleanor wound the sleek Porsche around the smooth bends in the smooth road as the gated estates went by. We snaked through residential labyrinths, moving through Santa Monica, and Beverly Hills, and eventually wound up in Westwood. After winding the streets for a while longer, Eleanor slowed the car once we reached a darkened expanse where there were very few streetlamps. She turned the stereo down and squinted across the dashboard at the darkened passing yards. When she found the house she was looking for, Eleanor pulled the car into a dark concave beside a partition of hedges, after which she killed the engine. In the near pitch dark that enveloped the car’s close interior, Eleanor spoke quietly, as if someone might hear.

“Ok…we need to be very stealthy.” she said, leaning very close to me and moving her lips over my cheek.

“Right here?” I asked as Eleanor opened the glove box from which she produced a compact flashlight. She clicked it on momentarily as a test.

“You ready to go?”

“Go? Where?” I asked.

“You see that yellow house?” said Eleanor, pointing a finger toward a yellow Dutch colonial with a perfectly barbered lawn decorated meticulously with figurines, windmills, and other types of lawn ornaments.

“Yeah, what about it?” I said, peering at the house which aside from the lawn ornaments, looked virtually the same as any other on the block.

“Well baby…that’s Irving Nelson’s house. Your ex-principal from Truman High…I found out where he lives.” said Eleanor, her grin widening.

“What?” I chuckled, “Nelson lives here?”

“He’s listed in the phone book…imagine that.” Eleanor grinned.

“Well I hope you’re not planning on pulling off some Manson clan type shit here because I just ain’t that sort of chap…I don’t care how beautiful you are.” I said.

“But we have to kill him tonight and write swear words on the walls with his blood.” said Eleanor very seriously before clicking on the flashlight a moment later which she held directly below her chin as she made a witchy face, “Just kidding, listen, I’m only proposing that we kidnap his garden gnomes…that’s all…a little friendly tomfoolery.”

“Somehow it makes sense that he’s got creepy fucking gnomes and little windmills and shit all over his lawn.” I laughed.

“The man is evil.” Eleanor whispered, placing the flashlight under her chin again and turning it on so her face was illuminated like a ghostly apparition, “Are you coming or are you going to pussy out?” she asked.

“Are you kidding me? My entire life has been leading up to this moment.” I grinned.

“I’ll lead the way.” she said before clicking open her door and giving me one last look of caution.

Eleanor moved swiftly, like a stealth operative, issuing me hand gestures to stop, proceed, and eventually follow her around the hedges up the walk and into the yard which was populated by a small community of creepy garden gnomes and decorative lawn ornaments. The decorations had been meticulously placed; a miniature windmill, miniature horse-drawn buggies, a miniature well, a red and white barn complete with miniature hogs, horses, and sheep, as well as leprechauns peeking out from behind the small shrubs that decoratively populated the yard. Near the steps of the house stood a crooked wooden sign that read The Nelsons, who were evidently touched by a mild bit of insanity.

I stood there peering up at the darkened bay window of the house feeling the deep and sudden need to pick up one of the stones surrounding the flower bed and hurl it through Nelson’s window. It was the old Truman Park instincts kicking in. I leaned down and picked up one of the stones, which was large and heavy and would easily shatter the large bay window. I wound up, as if about to fire a fastball back to home plate, when Eleanor whispered at me.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“I was going to light this shit up.” I said.

“That’s not part of the plan babe.” She said and asked me to grab the large windmill.

I let the stone fall to the lawn and stepped over to the windmill. I uprooted it with a hard yank and walked back to the car. Once it was sitting safely in the trunk of Eleanor’s mother’s Porsche, I headed back and found that Eleanor had built a small pile of garden gnomes and other ornaments near the mouth of the yard, and I proceeded to move them into the trunk of the car. This took two trips. As I walked, clutching the cool plastic gnomes, on my second trip, Eleanor bolted out from around a hedgerow, her arms filled with various lawn ornaments. Not bothering to conceal her voice this time she chuckled, “Let’s jet…they’re coming!”

Peering around the hedges, I saw the exterior light had illuminated the front yard and the large bay window was lit up as well, displaying through it, Nelson’s robed figure, squinting with grogginess through the window. I noted the creepy confines of Nelson’s living room; an American Gothic print hung on the wall over his shoulder and over his other shoulder hung a mounted deer’s head. It was an eerie glimpse into Nelson’s personal world, and I felt a surge of elation wash over me as I kicked it into high gear, helping Eleanor dump the remaining ornaments into the trunk.

We jumped back into the car and Eleanor sparked the engine with a heavy rev. She didn’t wait for the engine to level before flooring the gas and sending us down the darkened street with a loud squeal of the tires. Once we were at a safe distance and in the clear, Eleanor slowed to the speed limit and merged onto the 405 freeway, joining the anonymity of never ceasing traffic. We sailed along in the mighty river of automobiles for a while, the California breeze rustling our hair and Bacharach on the stereo.

“That was the best thing any girl ever did for me.” I said.

“Nobody messes with my man.” she said, running her fingers through my hair. That’s how it was with Eleanor and I—true romance, and that was inspiring in ways I could have never previously imagined.

Of course, this dynamic with Eleanor, coupled with the dreaminess of emerald Heights and the excitement of attending Crestwater, only elevated my musical compositions with the Decker brothers. Don’t Ask John Fante was gaining a substantial following at each gig we played and with each live performance, something was added to the songs…a certain vintage. The gigs, though exciting in an extreme sort of way, were mainly at house parties or all-ages DIY venues, which meant the promoters who organized the shows would host them wherever they could wedge a foot in the door. For the Decker brothers and I however, it didn’t matter where we played; we would have played at the city morgue if there was a stage and a sound system.

Our approach was rogue and beyond that our live performance was tightening up to a degree where I was starting to feel a certain connection with the Decker brothers, as if I was slowly but surely becoming an honorary member of their brotherhood telepathy—it was as if we could anticipate each other’s moves during collective improvisation.

With the help of Bruce Decker’s girlfriend Penny Alto, who seemed to have a knack for persuasiveness, we’d managed to get booked at a late-night café downtown near skid row, a library auditorium, a bonfire at Malibu Lagoon that had gotten raided by the cops, a beer keg barn party in Calabasas, a magic-mushroom tea house party in Venice, a sweltering street festival for the arts in Pasadena. We even played a show at Remington Pool—a public pool in Emerald Heights that hosted bands on Friday nights. We played an art sale at Barnsdall Park in East Hollywood, which was perhaps our greatest sounding show up until that point.

I’d been doing my thing, as they say, minding my own business and fulfilling my destiny, oblivious to the goings on just outside the perimeter of my camp. I hadn’t at that point realized that I was on anybody’s radar. I hadn’t yet recognized that as my band’s popularity gained momentum, enemies with envy would start emerging from the woodwork. I didn’t realize that one particular show would kick off an ugly little war with a sect of students at Crestwater High who’d penned my name at the top of their shit list.

The show was at The Boiler Room—an illegally operated indoor DIY skate park in a defunct underground carpark downtown. It was fully equipped with ramps and half-pipes, as well as a bar and sound system. The club had been put together by a brigade of angst-ridden skaters under the supervision of Jasper Gold, a college-age kid who was well known for his drunken savage antics, random acts of indecent exposure, happy-go-lucky street brawling and dozens of failed business ventures.

Somehow, Gold had managed to build a network of support around the Emerald Heights skateboard scene and had furnished his illegitimate club through donations, loans, and flat-out theft. Leather couches, mismatched cocktail tables, velvet curtains, a sound system, which from what I could tell was a Frankenstein of odds and ends thrown together from a dozen different systems. The stage, like the half pipe, had been constructed by volunteer Emerald Heights kids who firmly believed in the cause of having their very own, unsupervised and thoroughly unlicensed venue where they could skate to the rhythm of their favorite local bands, without being hassled by security guards, nit-picky parents or the fuzz.

Nobody bothered to wonder if the owners of the property knew or cared what Gold was hosting on any given evening. Indeed, Gold excelled at fly-by-night operations and had been doing so for nearly a decade. Nobody bothered to ask questions, perhaps because they felt he was a harmless and rather hapless entrepreneur—a minor threat.

As fate would have it, the night the Decker brothers and I played the Boiler Room, it was the official grand opening. The club had been operating for weeks before our show, but mainly under the radar and promoted through word of mouth only. Our show was the first for which posters were put up and ads were taken out in pulpy local skate fanzines.

Needless to say, the police raided the club halfway through our set. When we’d stopped playing, something of a protest had ensued with several kids refusing to leave and others refusing to stop moshing. The officers began to chase kids, most of whom were on skateboards, which made for an arduous task. Finally however, the house lights came up and an officer stepped up to the side of the stage giving us the cut signal with her gloved hand, citing that if we didn’t leave the stage and vacate the premises immediately we’d be booked for an unlawful assembly.

I’d shrugged, unstrapped my guitar, and proceeded to collect my gear. To me, it hadn’t really seemed like a big deal. Certainly, compared to the chaos that regularly unfolded in Truman Park, the Boiler Room being raided, in my view, was quite anti-climactic…a disappointment really, mainly because we hadn’t gotten the chance to play a few new compositions we’d been working so hard on.

Though it was clearly time to leave, the patrons lingered, hurling insults at the cops and demanding that we play another song. As we moved our gear out of the club, we had to duck plastic cups and wet wads of napkins the protesters threw at the line of officers guarding the entrance doors.

I noticed a few kids being hauled into the back of police cruisers as well as a few cops having to duck hurled plastic cups filled with rum and coke. Mostly however, there was a lot of chanting and hollering and insults. Though it seemed merely like an ill-fated gig, the students of Crestwater somehow managed to turn the incident into headline news…and as fate would have it, Don’t Ask John Fante had been at the forefront, providing the soundtrack for an evening perhaps none of them would ever forget.

The students of Crestwater saw it as a claim of rebellion…and if nothing else, something that was finally their own, something they could own with cries of rebellion and fists raised high, which I assumed most of them needed so very badly after a lifetime of cordially buttoning down under the tutelage of their elders. I understood the significance, I just couldn’t participate in the victory laps that went on for perhaps two weeks after.

Indeed, the victory laps attracted some attention from one Crestwater based student who just happened to write a weekly column in the official Crestwater High publication—the Crestwater Gazette. The student was none other than Gregory Locksmith and for obvious reasons, he took it upon himself to pen a notably vindictive article, slamming not only Jasper Gold and his entourage of charlatans—but myself as well, citing Don’t Ask John Fante as ringmasters of chaos. Though the moniker wasn’t half-bad and fit quite good around my jagged Truman Park persona, his statement couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The Decker brothers and I hadn’t intended to incite a near riot. We’d simply played a gig at an illegally operated venue and had been so consumed by our performance that we’d not noticed the police for three songs. However, Locksmith was spinning it a certain way, claiming that we’d kept playing after being asked to stop, in effect, inciting a near riot that evening.

The column, though inaccurate and an obvious strike of revenge against me from a man whose woman I’d stolen, had garnered the desired effect. The column became the talk of Crestwater and spotlighted Locksmith. Certainly this created some controversy—controversy I ignored. I was too busy with the Decker brothers in their rehearsal room, constructing two new songs we were determined to have ready for our next show, which was at a mid-sized skate-park in Woodland Hills called Chinchilla. Chinchilla wasn’t as big as the Backyard, which I saw as the holy chalice of skate park shows. However, Chinchilla was the only park in its district and so it was always overcrowded with head boppers and stage divers.

For the Chinchilla show, we were slated to play third on a bill of five bands, which was a massive jump up being that we were, up to that point, usually the first or second band up on a bill of six or seven bands. To play just before the co-headliner was something new and something I saw as an achievement. Friends of ours had attributed our new found infamy to the sheer chance of being in the wrong place at the right time the night of the Boiler Room debacle. Having provided the soundtrack for the most scandalous night in recent Crestwater High memory; we’d solidified our relevance not only at Crestwater, but other west side schools which, though weren’t as vibrantly musical as Crestwater, housed scads of live music fans.

Though it hadn’t seemed like much to me at the time, the Boiler Room incident had become a thing of instantaneous folklore. Meanwhile, I’d hoped to be part of a different sort of folklore—the folklore attributed to legendary Crestwater bands who’d earned it through talent, craftsmanship, and melodic innovation. Instead, my first mark was being on stage during an underground skate-park raid.

Once you’re marked, you’re marked…you never get a second chance to make your mark—especially if that mark is publicized in a popular school rag. However, you can always aim for a bigger mark that will eclipse the initial mark, if the initial mark is in fact as lackluster as an underground skate-park raid. I set my focus on the battle of the bands at the Backyard as a viable infamy eclipser and acting accordingly I submitted our demo to the board of judges and critics who were made up mainly of a squad of pretentious community dilettantes who didn’t play music at all but loved the idea of very publicly offering support to the arts—by inciting some very cutthroat competition among otherwise very friendly bands.  The battle was organized by a group of sponsors and boards and an arts council panel made up of more dilettantes, indeed, where there is funding, there are boards of scavengers. One could only hope the pecking order of ass-kissers allowed for at least a few of the judges to be somewhat music savvy.

To prepare, in case we were selected as finalists, I met with the Deckers after class each day in their rehearsal room for very involved jams, during which we spent hours perfecting the slightest nuances of the songs; we didn’t just want to be great—we wanted to be mind-blowing. We were gaining great momentum toward that trajectory as well when the Christmas break suddenly arrived and put a hold on everything. The Decker brothers informed me that they were flying to Arizona to spend the holidays with their in-laws…however, they didn’t seem quite thrilled about having to attend a monster truck jam on boxing day. They broke the news to me after our last rehearsal before their reluctant decampment. It seemed the two twins didn’t wish to spend the holidays in Arizona any less than I wanted them to—for we were making tremendous progress on the two new songs we were hell-bent on playing at Chinchilla the following month.

I’d left Emerald Heights that evening feeling as if something bad had either just happened or was just about to happen. It seemed the holidays were going to put the brakes on everything, and I felt if we stopped moving…there was a real danger of losing the momentum. I’d run into Sarah Mascara on the number 7 heading back into Truman Park that evening. She’d been sitting sideways in her graffiti-covered seat, listening to her Walkman and bopping her head. I took a seat near the front and looked back at her…waiting for her to notice me. When she did, her face lit up and she rose from her seat, pointing at me and speaking very loud because of the music blasting in her ears.

“Hey asshole! You don’t call you don’t write.” she laughed as she approached, causing an old lady in a nearby seat to clutch her bag closer and uneasily slide further toward the window.

“Sarah Mascara.” I said.

Sarah removed her headphones and slid down into the seat behind me.

“Man, your hair is getting so long.” she said, “Don’t you have to keep primped up for that prissy west side school?”

“You can take the boy out of Truman Park…” I said.

“You travel an awful long way each day.” she smiled with her big red lips and stark white teeth.

“I went there to start a band.” I said.

“So have you?” she inquired.

I slipped the Wildfire demo out of my Walkman and handed it to her. She looked at it curiously, reading the title that had been written in red marker before slipping the cassette into her Walkman. Sarah listened closely, with her hands over the foamy headphones, raising her eyes up at me a few moments later with a wide smile. Again she spoke too loudly.

“Wow–this is really you? It’s fucking good man…who are the guys playing with you?”

“It’s me and these crazy twins from Crestwater—the Decker brothers.” I said.

“I’m impressed Holden…and to think Principal Nelson said that you were a bag of dog shit.”

“He said that?” I grinned, seeing the bloated redness of his face in my mind and imagining my fist colliding with his jaw in slow motion—like a TV boxing replay where the sweat and Vaseline spray out in all directions when the glove connects. Recalling Eleanor sprinting out of Nelson’s yard with her arms full of gnomes and lawn decorations, I had to chuckle to myself.

“What’s so funny?” asked Sarah.

“He’s just pissed that his sabotage failed.” I said, at which Sarah leaned back and laughed…however, as if remembering something important, she stopped abruptly and touched my arm that was slung across the back of the seat.

“Did you hear that they’re going to close Truman at the end of the school year?” she asked.


“I mean, ‘close’ as in wrecking balls and bulldozers.”


“The school is super old…it was built in the 1890s. So it’s in pretty bad shape after a hundred years. Plus the city ain’t doing shit to renovate it. The pipes keep exploding and the foundation is cracked pretty bad after that last earthquake too.”

“What last earthquake?” I asked, trying to recall.

“The one last month.”

“There was an earthquake last month? That’s ridiculous…that school should be made a historic landmark—not torn down.” I said.

“I thought you hated Truman High.” Sarah said, shooting me a curious glance.

“I couldn’t stand most of the students, the faculty, the subpar curriculum or the lack of an arts program. But the school itself is a monumental part of this neighborhood…one of the last remnants of a greater era—when Truman Park stood for better things…I can’t believe those fuckwits are going to tear it down.” I said, floored slightly by the ignorance of demolishing iconic heritage landmarks just because they hadn’t been voted legendary by some board of cheese-eaters. The school board didn’t share my sentiment and certainly didn’t see Truman High as a historical landmark.

To them, it was a money pit, a hundred-year-old inner-city school with rotten entrails, rotten teachers and rotten students. They felt it was perhaps more humane to put Truman out of its misery. As most things usually are—disappointingly, the demolishing of Truman High was about money and nothing else.

When it was my stop, Sarah and I bid each other farewell and a merry Christmas. As I walked along State Street, I contemplated the closure of Truman High, which led to a deeper contemplation about Truman Park itself. Residents were used to their parks being neglected and eventually turned into parking lots or more housing projects while the oldest houses in Truman were condemned and eventually demolished. The empty lots grew over with brush and weeds and would remain empty, like missing teeth in the spotty rows of houses which all seemed doomed to a similar fate. Truman High would become another statistic as well as a symbolic gesture, marking the end of an era.

When I came to my street, I decided to detour and stroll by my old high school. It was perhaps 11:30 pm when I came upon the old structure which was swathed in darkness except for the florescent lights in the second-floor hallway which cast a glow through the intricately designed iron window grills which spread out across the expanse of lawn in front of the school. I lit one up and sat on the front steps, looking up at the old red brick façade, trying to conceive the volume of its age…and exactly how long a hundred years actually was—what one hundred years felt like. Being only 17, it was a difficult figure to conceive.

Under the dim glaze of moonlight, a black and white photo surfaced—a postcard from a long-dead generation. They’d built Truman Park with horses and buggies…they’d carved it out of the desert…they’d paved the streets and sculpted the sidewalks…they’d built a church and a school and a community around the two. The very slab of rock I was sitting on, the topmost step had been placed on a particular day in the 1890s and hadn’t moved since. The men that laid it were now dead…long dead; an exhale of smoke in the wind. I puffed one last time and snuffed it out with the tread of my runner as I rose from the steps and made my way toward the sidewalk that would lead me back to my mom’s house where I could call Eleanor and tell her the news about Truman High—which was now to suffer the same fate Southridge Academy had faced.

The next day I woke to the sounds of Eleanor moving around the bedroom. The black curtains were still drawn, and she’d opened them suddenly, flooding the room in brilliant sunlight. It was afternoon and I’d slept the morning away while she’d been out with my mom. They’d attended a yoga class my mom frequented and had afterward gone for lunch with some women from the class, who also belonged to a book club my mom was part of. It was Saturday and Eleanor stood there in my room, illuminated by the afternoon sun and clad in athletic wear. I’d never seen her in yoga pants and a tank top, or with a frumpy ball cap on.

“Who the hell are you? What did you do with Eleanor?” I asked taking note again of the athletic wear.

“You slept the morning away, sleepy head.” she said.

“I was working on a song until late.” I said, “I’ve got an A-bomb in my pocket baby…and we’re going to unleash that shit at our next show.”

“That’s great…so it worked out?” she asked sitting on the bed beside me.

“In ways I never imagined.” I smiled, pulling her in close and rolling on top of her.

“I should shower.” she said.

“I don’t want to wait.” I said.

It was about 2 pm by the time we made it out to my van, the interior of which was like a blast furnace sitting under the SoCal sun all morning and most of the afternoon. I punched the air conditioner button that was labeled with an icy snowflake as we cruised down Hollywood Blvd at Eleanor’s request. I wasn’t sure where we were going or what she was looking for…I didn’t much care either. I had the Replacements ‘Tim’ on the speakers and my woman beside me and Hollywood all around me. It was the 1990’s and we felt the youth coursing through us like blue electric sonic waves. It was a world of possibilities, and we were on the forefront—the cutting edge…the future was ours.

Eventually, Eleanor pointed out the shop she’d been looking for and I pulled up beside one of the dented and spray-painted parking meters. We stepped out of the air-conditioned interior into the dry desert heat. The palm trees glistened and rustled as the traffic went by and the tourists went by in brightly-clad droves. I plugged the meter with some quarters and we made our way up the sidewalk which bared the names of dead stars beneath the clutter of litter and spilled fluids.

After stopping at a corner store for a slush, Eleanor led me into an air-conditioned print shop that smelled like cigarette smoke, paper products, and gasoline. She spoke with the man behind the counter whose reptilian eyes clicked from Eleanor to me suspiciously after which Eleanor paid the man and collected a large manilla envelope from him.

“What’s in the envelope?” I asked when we were back in the van.

“You really want to know?” smiled Eleanor.

“Yeah, sure.” I shrugged.

Eleanor opened the envelope and retrieved from it a stack of posters. I was slightly awestruck by her keen design, which matched a recent photo of Truman Park High with one taken in the late 1890s when the school was first built. Below the photos was an eloquent plea for action, along with the phone numbers of school board trustees and members of city council.

“Wow…that’s fucking great. You did all of that today?” I asked.

“I designed it last night after you told me what they’re doing to Truman. It’s a template of the sign I made to save Southridge Academy from closing.” Said Eleanor as she fit the stack of posters neatly back into the folder.

“Well, fuck them…fuck them all. It’s our time now and we’re going to be the last great generation…mainly because we’re an impossible act to follow—it’s our responsibility to always shoot for greatness…and baby, the pursuit of greatness is not a sin.”

“How do you know? And what if we’re the worst generation? What if we steer it all into the ditch?” asked Eleanor.

“Well…at least we’ll do it with some style.” I said.

Our first stop was of course Truman high school; ground zero of our poster campaign. It had always seemed to me that Eleanor was on some level deeply intrigued with Truman Park. It was evident in the keen observations she would make as we drove the streets or she sat at my attic window staring out on the neighborhood noticing the tiny details I’d walked by a thousand and one times and never quite noticed. Indeed, she had a keen eye for details and didn’t usually miss a thing.

On this afternoon, Eleanor peered up at the old school with a certain wonder I’d seen in her eyes before, when she discussed the law of attraction, ancient Egypt, or Raymond Carver. On this afternoon, Eleanor was moving her eyes over the preserved architecture, the 19th-century gargoyles jutting from the top corners of the building, the large half-moon entrance steps, and the black and badly chipped iron railings and intricately designed window grills.

“Wow…you weren’t kidding—this place really should be a heritage building. It’s like a time capsule.” said Eleanor, peering up at Truman’s rustic façade as I wrapped a poster around the pole of a streetlamp with a roll of clear packing tape.

“She’s majestic for sure.” I sighed, looking over the old building, now somehow through Eleanor’s colorful kaleidoscope, “Too bad it’s wasted on such dick-weed teachers and a generally vacant student body.”

“I want to see what it’s like inside.” she said, “Shall we go in?”

“It’s Saturday…probably nobody is in there.” I said.

“The janitor must be.” said Eleanor, interlocking her fingers in mine, leading me away from the lamp post and up the cobblestone walkway toward Truman High, a place to which I hadn’t planned to ever return.

The day was extra hot and as we approached the entrance doors the heat emanating from the brick façade of Truman High seemed to scorch my face, as if 100 dry desert summers faced me all at once, bearing witness to a century worth of classes, graduations, nervous freshmen, cocky seniors, and jaded teachers. As if we were moving across the landscape of history itself, I wondered about Eleanor and me. I wondered where we would go in life and what the world held in store. Certainly the dead, who existed only in black-and-white historic photos had wondered the same. It was our time, the 1990s; an era of creative magic and wondrous mysticism…it too however would fade into the black-and-white past—softened with grain and the childlike innocence of assumed immortality. Time laughs.

Both Eleanor and I were surprised to find the front door of the school unlocked. I pulled it with the uncommitted expectation that it would be locked and therefore swung it open so it brought with it a billow of cool air-conditioning, the familiar smell of old wood, polished tiles and cynical school spirit.

We stepped in and Eleanor scanned the sun-drenched foyer with a certain look of wonder, taking note of the concave ceiling and the spiral staircase,

“Wow…this place is gorgeous.” said Eleanor.

“I think it started as a municipal building.” I said.

“My god, look at the vintage drinking fountain.” gasped Eleanor, moving across the floor to the brick wall against which was fastened the same old drinking fountain that had always been there. It looked like an antique ashtray-stand, only thicker, and it was cast in intricately designed bronze. Eleanor pressed the button and bent forward, placing her luscious red lips in the arching stream of water that splashed down into the wide and shallow basin.

“The antiquity of this place is extraordinary.” she said, wiping a drip of water from her bottom lip as we made our way up the steps and into the main hallway that was empty and silent and lined with dented, paint-chipped lockers.

As we passed them, Eleanor took note of the names, initials, and designs that had been carved into them by students past. She had a look of wonder in her eyes and it occurred to me that this was all an adventure for Eleanor…me, Truman Park…the decampment from her space cadet father and absentee millionaire mother. It made me wonder how empty her life had seemed after her private school sanctuary had announced its closing and she’d been transferred to Crestwater under the command of her wicked stepmother. It seemed the suburban silence had driven her half mad, and the rough character of the inner city intrigued her into a great, contemplative distraction—a puzzle requiring a solve.

We made our way up the stairs to the main floor where the community bulletin board was situated. It wasn’t quite cluttered; it was populated mainly by pointless school notices nobody would take the time to read. I read a few as Eleanor used colored tacks to pin our poster to the corkboard. The bulletins were simple, to the point, and lacking real personality; smoking at the east entrance was now prohibited…there were new cafeteria hours…graffiti was a crime and punishable by expulsion…outside runners were no longer allowed on the gymnasium floor. Weapons picked up by the metal detectors would not only be confiscated; parents and perhaps the police would now be notified. The notices read like the droning disinterest of a discount store customer service representative who was only stating the protocols for the millionth time.

Using a few of the colored thumbtacks, Eleanor pinned the poster to the board. It looked out of place and caught the eye nicely—Eleanor’s design was perfect, and we admired it for a few moments in the sun-drenched hall. It was then that the fire glass door behind us clicked open and through it emerged the man himself; the feared, the loathed, the bootied; Principal Nelson.

The old chap gazed upon me with shock and awe, his jaw nearly dropping and his jowls wobbling in dismay. He was clad in his usual creepily snug-fitting booty slacks and his Barney Miller shirt and tie. After a great degree of disconcerted stuttering, Nelson finally spit out his statement, “What the Goddamn hell are you doing in here Holden?”

“What are you doing here?” I counter asked, “Shouldn’t you be browsing a women’s wear section for booty pants on such a leisurely Saturday afternoon?”

“You’re still as crazy as a shithouse rat I can see.” he snapped, wrinkling his bushy greying brows in utter loathing, “I want you the hell out of here and take your little tramp with you.”

“Tramp? Do I look like a tramp?” demanded Eleanor suddenly, perhaps slightly alarmed that she might have adopted the appearance of a tramp.

“Leave!” spat Nelson.

“Calm down…I get it, you’re just pissed because your attempts at sabotaging my transfer to Crestwater failed.” I shrugged, “Yep, it’s really too bad for you that principal Jefferies was such a douche and got himself fired over at Crestwater—you almost had me. However, the new principal had no problem accepting my application—in fact, she said you were probably going to get a lump of coal in your stocking this year for talking such shit about me.” I told him, phrasing my words like salt in an unhealed wound.

“I’m sure I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about and I’m sure I don’t care.” Nelson said.

“I know what you did last summer.” I said.

“Yeah well, good luck proving it.” said Nelson with an insatiably vindictive grin.

“I don’t have to prove shit…I got into Crestwater anyway.” I said.

“I will call the police if you don’t get the hell out of my school now!” Nelson hollered, whipping a pointing arm toward the east exit doors.

“You really are a cretin, aren’t you?” said Eleanor, “That’s a horrible tie by the way…it looks like a vomit stain running down your shirt.”

“Leave! Now!” hollered Nelson, “Godamit Holden…you have absolutely no right to even be in here right now.”

“No prob Irving, we were just putting up a poster to save this school…which I’m sure is more than you’ve ever done for it…by the way, where are you going to work now? I thought Truman was the only school that would take a shit-wit like you.” I said, gesturing toward the poster which Nelson suddenly turned to. He stepped up to the corkboard and read the poster for a moment before tearing it from the board and crumpling it in his palm. He then crossed one arm over his chest and propped his other elbow upon his wrist, making a fist and placing it to his mouth, as if he were about to eat the crumpled poster. He clenched his fist against his lips trying desperately to suppress his rage. Closing his eyes, he grumbled, in a quietly enraged voice, “Get…out.”

I felt an explosion was about to erupt and I took Eleanor by the hand, trying to lead her toward the east exit doors. Her hesitancy however told me she wasn’t ready to budge, “Let’s get out of here before he breaks down in tears.” I said.

“You know something Irving…you should be ashamed of how you just talked to us.” said Eleanor, “As an educator, you should be ashamed. Aren’t you? Even just a bit?”

“I’m not sure why you’re still standing here when I’ve clearly asked you to leave.” said Nelson, skirting the edge of his rage by a hair.

“Firstly, it’s a public building…it’s not a private school—I know because I attended Southridge Academy. Also…this bulletin board is here for the precise reason we’ve hung our poster—to create awareness about an important issue that will inevitably have some impact on the residents of this neighborhood and more specifically the students who attend this school, which by the way is far too historically relevant to be turned into a pile of rubble—not that you care. We’ve come here today to do something positive for this school and you’ve treated us like assholes…it’s extremely uncool Irv.” said Eleanor, crossing her arms below her pert breasts and cocking her hip, shifting her weight onto one leg in a sexy way.

“I’m not sure where Holden found you…or why it is you would even want to spend your time delinquenting around Truman Park with such a bad apple. He’s rotten to the core and he’ll only lead you into trouble young lady.” scolded Nelson.

“Well Irving,” said Eleanor with a devilish grin, “that’s where you’re wrong. You see, it was entirely my idea to remove the lawn ornaments from your yard in Westwood. Jack had nothing to do with that decision—that was all my loopy shit.” Said Eleanor with a psychotic grin, pointing to her temple.

I was dumbfounded, perhaps my own jaw dropped, perhaps I’d stood there with an amused grin, perhaps I’d merely closed my eyes and chuckled to myself. I recall no reaction, however as my focus was drawn upon Nelson’s reaction which surfaced upon his face as first surprise, then a few moments of hard contemplation, followed by outrage, which he nearly whispered, the hatred and rage constricting his throat, “I should have known that it was you Holden, you Goddamn little savage!”

I just laughed. His insult was voiced with such passion it struck me as comical. It seemed I had a talent when it came to making Nelson crazy. “Whatever dickwad.” I said…feeling an articulate retort was only wasted on Nelson.

“I’ll be filing my report with the police as soon as you’re off the property…those lawn ornaments were arranged by my wife…and she was quite distraught when they disappeared. I should have guessed it was you Holden…you sinister shithead.”

“Hey…” Eleanor interjected, snapping her fingers in Nelson’s face, drawing his rage back upon her, “Do you kiss your wife with that filthy mouth of yours? I already told you it was my idea…Jack had nothing to do with it…and if you think that was something; fuck with my man again and you’ll see how creative I can be.” Eleanor said, staring into Nelson’s eyes. Nelson only stood still, silently transfixed on Eleanor who wore an expression I didn’t recognize but found intriguing all the same.

“Look, I don’t want any trouble here with crazy people…just leave. Just get out of here will you, and don’t come back; you’re not welcome. Do you understand that?” Nelson insisted, his rage drained and his sensibilities kicking in—perhaps he didn’t know how far Eleanor would go. After giving him a once over Eleanor turned and casually strolled toward the exit doors.

Our minor altercation with Nelson wasn’t surprising by any stretch of the imagination and I’d known the risks of entering Truman High which had officially and quite evidently become enemy territory. Though the experience had slid off me easily, it seemed to stick in Eleanor’s craw, and she asked me many questions regarding Nelson and eventually regarding the entire Truman High cast, as we spent the rest of the afternoon taping our posters to Truman Park lamp posts and telephone poles around the neighborhood.

Eleanor listened, attentively as I answered her various questions, all the while assessing the facts and eventually drawing an articulate conclusion to the Truman High puzzle; Principal Nelson was a shame to his profession and beyond that a well-refined pig fucker who wasn’t worth the effort of any further contemplation. However, something told me that it wouldn’t be the last I’d see of the mean old buzzard.

In total Eleanor and I posted all 100 posters around Truman Park and we’d used up three rolls of clear packing tape to do so. What’s more, I felt I’d done my part for old Truman Park High and could only sit back and watch the wrecking ball swing if our small poster campaign yielded no results. Though I knew deep down that our 100 posters were really no match for the city council wrecking ball and though I knew the monetary worth of the school property as several housing project units was much greater than it was as a high school; I held out some hope—which is all any of us really have in the end.

After the Christmas break, which I’d spent mainly with Eleanor in my room watching classic videos from Blockbuster and taking late-night drives up the Pacific Coast highway—the Decker brothers informed me of their return, citing that it might be a novel plan to arrange a jam being that the show at Chinchilla was just around the corner.

However, as it had transpired—I’d been pulling overtime at the video store, which made me unavailable for rehearsal for all 5 of the days we had left before the Chinchilla show. Because the Decker brothers were unavailable the following Saturday, it seemed that we would have to play the show cold—that is to say after three weeks without a rehearsal.

I wasn’t too concerned however as the Deckers were well-versed enough to play the songs in their sleep, we were that locked in, and we were only getting better with each show. Certainly, I was curious to know how it would all go at Chinchilla being that our last show had been at the Boiler Room and since then, word had spread of the incident, etching us into the historical annals of the west side skate rock scene.

There was an air about the show—a tangible controversy-spiked anticipation and not just because of Don’t Ask John Fante. I’d been told that all of the bands on the bill had been stirring things up on some level…and perhaps it’s why we’d been booked—to perpetuate the mythology of the controversy. I had no idea then that the Chinchilla show would be my last with Don’t Ask John Fante.

To come to that point, I should offer this short and simple set-up to explain the evening of the Chinchilla show: large crowd, warm night, 5 bands, me heavily smoked out—sitting with my infamous rhythm section—the Decker brothers—beside the concession stand. As I was wondering when Eleanor and her friend Samantha would arrive; the second band was halfway through their set and we were next up.

Peering up from my watch, I saw a familiar form wheeling a massive bass cabinet through the gate, across the asphalt and toward the stage. It was Walter Mayer—bassist extraordinaire.

“I know that silly-ass fool.” I said to Bruce Decker.

“Cool cab.” he said, taking note of the massive bass cabinet.

Indeed, it took Walter and two of his bandmates to hoist the amp onto the three-foot-high stage. I checked the itinerary sheet for the two remaining bands that would take the stage after the Decker brothers and I. The itinerary listed two names in chronological order; Titty-Funk…and the Shipwrecks. Titty-Funk? I wondered. Of course…Walter was a funk man as was the Phantom, a towering mammoth of a kid—perhaps 6’4, full of muscles with his hair hanging over his face. The others in his band were jazzy looking kids with sharp cone-like beards, berets and John Lennon spectacles; the horn section. Their singer arrived last. I’d seen her before, but I couldn’t figure out where. She was mysterious though, with short hair, thick lips, curvy hips, and a Drew Barrymore cuteness she definitely knew she possessed. She was no Eleanor Price, but she had something to her. One of her cheeks was swollen with a lollipop and she had spiked her red hair in such a way that it stuck out in all directions as if she were holding an electricity ball.

As she tuned her guitar Walter sipped from a flask and puffed away at a cigar, calling out directions to his bandmates who were placing something massive in the center of the stage. The something was tall, perhaps ten feet and it was covered completely by a white billowing sheet. Indeed, it looked like a ghost hovering there in the middle of the stage as Walter gave the thumbs up, “Perfect.” he chuckled devilishly.

When they’d moved their gear into a far corner behind the stage Walter emerged with the Phantom and what appeared to be their girlfriends. He saw me a moment later and started pointing a scolding finger at me.

“You never called me.” he said. He extended his hand and I shook it. His hand was very dry and calloused from slapping at the bass.

“I lost your card man.” I said, realizing it was true.

“Look, we’re going to be sitting right over there at that table.” said Walter, pointing with his smoking cigar toward one of the nearby plastic tables, “I’m going to be watching you Holden…I don’t want you to impress us—I want you to blow our fucking minds!” he exclaimed, “Show me what we’re going to be getting when you join forces with the Phantom and me…when you finally drop these creepy twins—no offense boys…” Walter added toward the Decker twins who only furrowed their brows in a misconstrued way, “…and realize that it’s our destiny to turn this music scene on its head.”

“Hey…I give a hundred and fifty percent at each show I play—no matter who’s in the audience man.” I assured.

It was about then that the band on stage finished, and the sound man was beckoning the Decker twins and I to the stage. I bid Walter farewell and went to work setting up our gear with the twins. When we were through setting up and I turned around, I saw the floor in front of the stage was swarming with kids, hungry for a good hard mosh and some ass-kicking skate rock and perhaps another public spectacle. I was more than happy to give them what they wanted.

The house lights went down, the stage lights warmed my face and I looked out into a deafening racket of whistles, cheers, and applause as the MC introduced us…the infamous Crestwater band who’d been playing the night the Boiler Room was raided.

Thanks to gossip circles as well as Locksmith’s column on the subject, the word had gotten around and though it was hard for me to wrap my mind around how it was that this had all worked out the way it had; the reality of the moment washed over me in an awesome wave of elation, knowing at that moment that I’d set out to do exactly what I’d intended and had not weathered an ounce of boredom in the process.

We did our best and within two songs we were locked into a tight, heavy groove, keeping our eyes on the prize with tunnel vision and the perfect momentum of the music. In between songs, the crowd erupted with cheers, each break more enthusiastic than the last. We’d planned the set this way, to work toward the strongest songs and it worked nicely, building everything up to the last song; the hit from our cassette demo Wildfire that had circulated through Crestwater High, and was addictive as hard drugs.

The song, which I called Anais wasn’t lost on my fellow 1990s brat back. As we played it…I noticed many kids mouthing the words—kids I’d never seen before…kids who’d gotten a hold of our Wildfire demo and deemed it part of their high school soundtrack. As the crowd pogoed and kids climbed up on stage to dive back off again onto a lake of bouncing heads; I chuckled…unable to contain the elation of actually fucking doing it—it was every bit as awesome as I thought it would be—playing the new songs at Chinchilla.

I chuckled to myself, feeling a wash of pure satisfaction move over me. I looked over to the Decker brothers at that point—the only other assholes on the face of the earth at that moment who could relate…who were sharing the moment with me. However, the Decker brothers I found were quite uninvolved, looking bored, irritated and persnickety. Bored, irritated—I would be at a loss to find no empathetic understanding of, however, persnickety; that was a whole other dimension dear reader, one I had zero understanding of—perhaps one I couldn’t; Truman Park kids couldn’t afford such a luxury.

The type of persnickety to which I’m referring was I found, systemic among many of the Crestwater kids that I’d become friends with. It was a passive-aggressive, pouty, bitchiness that would rear its head at the most inopportune times—killing the joy and usually poisoning the atmosphere of devil-may-care fun. I wasn’t sure what spawned it, but it seemed it was in some way related to getting too much of what one wanted in life; perhaps it was just being spoiled rotten. It was hard for me to directly pinpoint the cause and futile as well, given the fact that whether or not I understood what caused such spontaneous spells of persnicketiness; they were bound to occur and usually when I was having fun.

In this case, my bandmates were lethargic and disappointed looking and when we’d exited the stage to chants of ‘one more song’, the Decker brothers, who’d been on point with their shared telepathy in the jam room—were now on point with a persnickety pout, looking at me dryly back stage when I inquired why in the mother fuck they’d been acting as if their dog had died when we should have been shooting off a canon of spitfire into the full moon sky.

After all, we balanced a set of china on our heads as we pedaled backward on a unicycle—atop a tight rope—without a safety net; such was performing the intricacies of our songs. Likewise, the brothers had mastered their own parts so their rhythm was like a skin-tight glove over an iron fist. However, after only a half dozen official shows, it seemed the Decker brothers were in a tumult.

“Seriously…it was like your dog just died…” I said, peering at them both—casting my penetrating gaze between their nearly identical and disapproving faces.

“Did you expect us to jump up and down and freak out on stage like cokeheads?” Bruce asked.

“Well…pretty much.” I said, “At least seem like you’re into it…but you guys were there making faces and shaking your heads and looking like you were miserable.”

“Can you blame us?” demanded Bruce Decker, “I think this is all moving a bit too fast.” he said glancing at his brother who usually remained a silent partner.

“Say what?” I asked.

“Well, we got into this for fun…just to play some music in our rehearsal room…play some cool songs—just for fun.”

“And it’s fun, is it not?” I asked.

“It’s getting too crazy. Shows every weekend, a lot of late nights…people are starting to recognize me on the bus and at the 7-11 when I’m playing video games.” said Bruce’s brother, “I just wanted to play bass in a garage band…not be a rock star.”

“Rock star? Are you on fucking acid? We’re not rock stars dude…we’re a killer band with the rawest energy Crestwater has ever seen.” I pointed out.

“It’s getting too serious.” sighed Bruce.

“That’s preposterous.” I said.

“Well, we were thinking, and we talked about this over Christmas in Arizona…we figured we’d do this last show with you because playing the Chinchilla was always our goal.”

“I thought the Backyard battle of the bands was the goal?” I asked.

“We’ll never get into the Backyard battle of the bands. It’s a rigged game man.” Said Bruce Decker.

“That’s crazy talk.” I chuckled, dumbfounded by what I was hearing.

There was no shortage of bands in Emerald Heights—indeed not. In fact, there were scads of bands…bands with cool hooks, cool looks, and invocation appeal. There were many bands that could set sail into a bludgeoned orange sunset and somehow capture that snapshot with chord structures and cleverly placed melodies. There were bands that could evoke private school rebellion, textbook burning, and car tipping with heavy drumbeats and crunchy I-don’t-give-a-fuck chords of riotous melancholy.

However, not all got to play at Chinchilla, or Harlequin City, or the Backyard. In fact, most stuck to playing in their garages or house parties at best—either that or they mutated into DJs. Not every band got to take it to the wall like we were doing…and I was dumbfounded by the Decker brothers’ sudden disenchantment with the project.

“So what?” I asked them, “I mean so what if people recognize you at the 7-11? Maybe you’ll get a free Slush out of it or you’ll finally get some ass.”

“We’re not late-night people—we get up very early.” said Bruce, “We’re private folk.”

“Private folk…we get up early?” I said, uttering his words so that we might all examine them with sensibility, “What are you guys—Quakers? Come on, you guys are party animals, but you just don’t recognize it yet. Plus—we put weeks into getting these songs just perfect and now you want to turn that time invested into time wasted?”

“It was fun…but this is getting crazy.” said Bruce, “Especially after that interview you did in Beacon Beat Magazine. What were you thinking man?”

“What interview?” I asked, drawing a blank, “I never did an interview with anyone. The fuck you talking about?”

“The night of the Boiler Room show you spoke with a guy who writes for the Beacon…I mean you did that without even consulting us first.” said Bruce.

I paused and thought back, sifting through my memory for the moment in question. I’d smoked a lot, and drank some mushroom tea as well as a few cans of strong beer, so it was hazy—but through the curtains of fog eventually emerged a bloated face that was attached to a bloated throaty voice, which was indeed attached to a blubbery neck and below it a Pearl Jam t-shirt concealing flabby man tits.

Indeed, my memory beckoned me with a jolt as a reverberation sounded back at me through the catacombs of recollection; he’d introduced himself as Ezra Collins, music journalist. However, there had been no officially staged interview…rather we’d shot the shit for a few moments in between bands as we smoked our cigarettes in the alleyway, surrounded by perhaps a dozen other people who were also smoking in the alley during the band changeover.

Because the night had spawned a raid and a subsequent protest—our casual conversation had become lost in the shuffle. However—in Collins’ retrospect, the controversy had come as a handy coincidence and reason enough for him to transcribe our conversation in the rag he wrote for.

“We chatted for a few minutes in passing…he never said it was an interview. The only reason he published our conversation…or embellished it I should say, is because the show got raided and he’s riding the controversy.” I said.

“Yet you just thought you’d incriminate us?” asked Bruce.

“I don’t remember what I said exactly.” I told the Deckers who sat there looking back at me with perturbed expressions.

“I was high and fucking with him…just having fun.” I said.

“Yeah, well…he quoted everything you said, directly.”

I thought back, trying to remember the conversation—trying to recall anything I’d said that might be taken the wrong way—anything misconstruing, scandalous or self-implicating. I drew a blank though.

“So you’re leaving the band?” I asked, “Because of what some dude with flabby man-tits wrote?”

“We wish we could keep going with this…but the truth is our parents don’t want us playing music with you after they read that interview.” said Bruce, with an apologetic tone.

“And you guys are going to listen to them?” I asked, a bit blown away that any self-respecting rock musicians would actually heed such stodgy parental discretion, “And anyway, we’re a rock band—we’re supposed to be badass.”

“Here…” said Bruce, reaching into his DK backpack. From it he fished a rolled-up copy of the Beacon—the fourth-rate entertainment rag in question, that was run by university nerds who did more watching than doing.

“Read it…” he said handing me the paper.

As I unfolded it, I saw that dark chocolate bars were 50% off at Rite Aid, that Radio Hut had a Walkman sale, that there was a new installment from the Halloween franchise in the theatres, and indeed more coverage of the ongoing OJ Simpson trial. On the last page, I saw the blurb…the short article in the bottom right-hand corner entitled, Local Band Don’t Ask John Fante,‘kills’ It At Raided Boiler Room Show.

As the Shipwrecks powered through their Swervedriver influenced set; I read through the so-called interview. It read as follows:

Ezra: So Jack, what’s the secret ingredient to the band’s music?

Me: Well Ezra, it’s the Deckers…you see, though the Decker brothers look like serial killers—they f****** shred.

Ezra: What is it like playing in a band with two serial killers like the Decker brothers?

Me: They’re total killers…they show up ready to kill it every show.

Ezra: Are they killers actually?

Me: They may have heads in their freezers—you know, I don’t f****** know…I can only speculate at this juncture old boy, but they pack a wallop…they’re the most dangerous rhythm section in the Heights, baby…watch the f*** out.

I was stunned, for it had been a side note comment…something he’d asked at the end of our conversation I assumed as a joke—and I’d answered accordingly.

“Come on guys, these things are taken out of context. When I said you guys are killers, I meant it in the very best way.” I said in my defense, as the Decker brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, sharing a slightly apologetic expression.

“Kidding or not—in two weeks that article has become a major issue around Emerald Heights.” Bruce said, “Where have you been—on Mars?”

“I don’t read these shitty rags. Anyway, like who has it become a major issue with?” I asked.

“Teachers, neighbors, family, friends…Jack—they’re all telling us that you’re crazy to say something like that in the local newspaper. It’s incriminating to us when you say things like that—you called us serial killers. I mean, aren’t you feeling the backlash yet? Hasn’t anyone mentioned anything about this to you?” said Bruce, swerving dangerously close to sounding sanctimonious.

“I don’t have a network of handlers like you guys do. Plus you guys do look like serial killers with the horn rim glasses and buzz cuts…I think it’s great for our look…fuck everyone else.” I said, realizing it was futile…I was going to lose the Decker brothers and might not have an easy time finding replacements.

Indeed, the brothers had cleared out shortly after that. Bidding me farewell as Titty-Funk was taking the stage. It was around then that Eleanor appeared, looking luscious as usual. I immediately explained what had happened with the Decker brothers and Eleanor suggested we go for pie and tea at Canters on Fairfax where we could talk more about it in a quieter setting. I concurred but first wanted to check out Titty-Funk’s first two songs. Walter Mayer – bassist extraordinaire talked the talk—but did he walk the walk? That was my question.

I stood there with Eleanor watching Walter’s band take the stage in the dark, amidst a sea of angst-ridden skaters, all looking for some anarchy. When they’d finished their line check, the lights went on, illuminating Titty-Funk. They still hadn’t removed the white sheet from the figure in the center of the stage and I wondered again what the hell was underneath it.

I took in their first song, focusing on the Phantom and Walter and their rhythm section chemistry. The band was a mishmash of genres as if Blondie, Bad Brains, and Fishbone had been musically infused into a blender with wheat germ and amphetamines. Immediately I saw the possibilities; for the Phantom was a drummer of technical prowess, incorporating jazz, funk and hardcore beats—tying them all together with an impressive array of hard-hitting fills and cunning backbeats and accents.

Walter was as technical, slapping the hell out of his bass in complex runs and rhythms reminiscent of Les Claypool, Muzz Skillings, and Flea. He was also a showman who did indeed jump around on stage like a lunatic on speed, at one point actually turning and falling backward into the crowd of kids that passed him around on their hands for half a song as he slapped away at his five-string bass.

The next song they opened with a ridiculously technical bass and drum solo…one which seemed to defy all theory sensibility. There was no way they hadn’t been formally trained; I could spot it a mile away and it was no wonder Walt had been so cocky—his talent earned him some cockiness. Being well-schooled was one thing; participating in utter lunacy on stage was something entirely different—and something that couldn’t be faked. They weren’t actors—they were the real thing and before I realized it, I’d stuck around for the entire duration of their set.

For their last song, Walt and his sexy singer finally unveiled what was concealed underneath the towering white sheet. Indeed, when the sheet was pulled away, I was perplexed to find a giant cardboard effigy of a guy I didn’t recognize. The guy was lanky and frail looking, making a disconcertingly ridiculous cum-face as he stood in a girlish pose, twanging at a vintage electric guitar. His hair was long and a large cowlick hung over one of his eyes. Whomever he was; he certainly looked like a cunt.

“Who’s that jack-ass supposed to be?” I asked Eleanor, as a wave of laughter and cheers moved through the crowd around us.

“That’s Trent Humbucker…he sings for The Black Magnolias.” said Eleanor, “He’s Cartwright High’s star shoe gazer turned socialite.”

“Cartwright High?” I said, having heard the name but nothing more about it.

“I think that’s where this band is from.” said Eleanor.

Recognizing The Black Magnolias t-shirt I nodded…having seen the band before. As I recalled they were a pack of anorexic bed-wetters who wore women’s capri pants and were more about choreographed moves and poses than shredding shit up. Though The Black Magnolias were lame as fuck—it seemed too minor a reason to unveil a rather large cardboard cut-out effigy of their lead glamor boy—there must have been some bad blood over at Cartwright High.

Grabbing the microphone, Walt rested a foot on one of the monitors and leaned forward, staring out into the sea of sweaty, mosh-drunk skaters as if he was looking for someone. As he scanned the crowd the Phantom started in with a punchy beat, “Are you out there tonight Humfucker?” Walt growled with a devilish, psychotic grin, “Well if you are out there, shaking in your skinny jeans…I just got one thing to say to you…real boys don’t play pussy rock!” hollered Walt into the microphone so loud it distorted and came out in a fiery roar which sent the crowd into hysterics—the guy really knew how to rile up a mob.

Handing the mic back to the singer with the spiky red hair, Walter fell into step with the Phantom who’d been banging out a particularly heavy beat…what ensued was utter chaos. As soon as the rest of the band kicked in, they volleyed into a half-time groove to which they all banged their heads deeply and in psychotic rhythm. As they did this, their sassy girl-singer volleyed herself in the air off the kick drum and started stomping around the stage as she spat colorful lyrics of pure unbridled mockery…directed at Trent Humbucker.

During an organ solo, she pulled a plastic bottle of lighter fluid from her back pocket and held it up for the crowd to see…she raised her brows and spread her lips wide apart with a wide and utterly psychotic smile, after which she turned and crept slowly toward the effigy of Trent Humbucker, as if she were the big bad wolf trying to be stealthy. When she was standing at the base of the effigy, she held the bottle of lighter fluid out in front of her and squeezed, so a thin stream of the clear liquid splashed over the cardboard likeness, and this garnered another massive roar from the crowd.

As the effigy dripped with lighter fluid, Titty-Funk’s sassy singer produced a book of matches innocently from her hip pocket and held them up to the crowd as she placed a naughty palm over her mouth, causing the crowd to roar even louder…they wanted a riot…they wanted anarchy…they wanted Armageddon…mostly though—they wanted to see a giant cardboard effigy of Humbucker go up in flames. To be quite frank…so did I.

As I stood there with my arm slung around Eleanor’s shoulders, I watched with an amused grin as Walt’s singer folded one of the matches over the top of the book with one hand before using just her thumb to strike it against the flint so it ignited with a small orange flare. Indeed, at this point, the crowd was roaring so ferociously I felt we’d all spontaneously combust—however, only the effigy went up in flames and it did so with a sudden burst of fire that engulfed it within seconds. As the yellow flames danced high into the night like a ceremonial bonfire, the band broke into a sprinting hardcore beat which set off an enormous mosh pit and I looked to Walt who stood at the edge of the stage with his foot upon a monitor, slapping his bass and staring out at us all with a sinister chuckle and madness in his eyes as the effigy burned to an extraordinary height behind him.

When the song was over and the stage lights dimmed, Walt and the Phantom produced two small red fire extinguishers and smothered the flames which dissipated into a billowing cloud of smoke that rose toward the tops of the palm trees and blew over the roof tops of houses across the street. As Eleanor and I made our way through the dispersing crowd of rabid live music lovers; I knew that Walt, the Phantom, and I were bound by perhaps destiny to shake it all up and turn it on its head which instilled within me some quiet exhilaration.

It had been a strange night and I felt that the entire week, or perhaps month, had been culminating toward the events that had unfolded, prompting the sudden disbanding of Don’t Ask John Fante and the subsequent realization that Walt, the Phantom, and I were perhaps destined to assault the pristine virtue of all competitors and win the grand prize at the Backyard’s notorious battle of the bands.

The moon sat gigantic in the sky. Perhaps it was full and perhaps it pulled at me, calling on me to howl at it with 1990s blood lust and the insatiable hunger of wild youth. When we got back to Eleanor’s car, I realized Principal Nelson’s lawn ornaments were still haphazardly packed in the trunk.

“You still have this shit in here?” I chuckled toward Eleanor who lit up a cigarette and nodded.

“I planned to put it back on their lawn at some point—I’m not evil…I just wanted some payback.” she admitted in a long exhale of European smoke.

“Well, maybe we can give these away.” I said, handing one of the chubby belted gnomes to a passing girl who took it in her arms and cradled it as if it was an infant.

“Hold on…I have a better idea.” grinned Eleanor.

We got in the car and Eleanor fired it up, turning up the stereo. We took a scenic route, merging up onto Mulholland Drive which boasted a sparkling view of the valley that sprawled out toward the northern mountains in colorful grids. We took the bends in the road nicely and the breeze blew through our hair as Dinosaur Jr.’s Green Mind piped over the speakers.

“Sorry I missed your set. Samantha had some boy trouble…she needed someone to talk to.” said Eleanor.

“Come to any conclusions?” I asked.

“Not really—he cheated on her. What else can you really say about that?”

“Not a whole lot.” I said.

“You wouldn’t ever cheat on me, would you?” she asked.

“Babe—there’s no other woman in this fucking world that’s going to drive me as mad as you do.”

“How about Abigail Wax?”

“You’re still on about Abigail Wax huh?”

“How about Sandra Lawrence?” she asked, bringing my mind around suddenly to Sandra.

“Lawrence? Ancient history.” I said.

“All the boys think she’s super pretty.”

“They can have her.” I said.

“How about Jane Westcott?” asked Eleanor.


“Cheryl Johnson?”

“Please…that was only once.” I laughed.

“What about Wendy Ronstadt?”

“They were all before I met you. I was new at Crestwater and running wild…I was lonely.” I laughed.

“Don’t give me that ‘lonely’ shit.” Eleanor grinned, squinting at me out of the corner of her eyes.

As we headed back into Truman Park, Eleanor detoured off Sunset and followed it to Truman Blvd, where she turned right and followed it to State Street down which we rolled, bouncing over the potholes. As we drove, I took note of the streets on such a Sunday night. There were gangs of thugs littered around street corners and storefronts. They gawked at us as we coasted by, some commenting that maybe we were lost…some just giving us thousand-yard stares—assuming we were suburban kids on the quest for inner-city thrills. Perhaps Eleanor was, for she rolled up to the curb in front of Truman High and cut the engine and grinned at me. It was perhaps midnight and the moon high above, stoically glazed over us in a soft blue glow.

“What’s going on?” I asked her.

“Now, don’t you just think that lawn looks awfully bare?” sighed Eleanor, unbuckling her seatbelt and getting out of the car. I got out as well and met her at the trunk, which she clicked open.

She leaned in and picked up two of the gnomes. Holding each under an arm she walked across the sidewalk and onto the Truman High lawn. I stood there at the open trunk watching as Eleanor placed the gnomes a few feet apart, “Bring the rest.” Eleanor called out to me, beckoning me with a waving hand.

After placing two more of the gnomes under an arm, I grabbed the windmill and set it down between the gnomes Eleanor had placed. I then took the other two gnomes and handed them to Eleanor who seemed to have a better idea of where to place them. When she was through placing them, she moved on to the other ornaments we’d managed to commandeer from Nelson’s front lawn. To top off her work of lawn décor mastery; Eleanor set two of the gnomes in a sexual position—a malicious touch.

“Nelson is going to shit when he sees this tomorrow morning.” I noted as we both stood back for a moment admiring Eleanor’s lawn decorating skills.

“Well…he shouldn’t have messed with you. Had he succeeded in sabotaging your transfer—we’d never have met…none of this would be happening…we’d have gone on existing without ever realizing the other existed.” she said as we made our way back to the car, “He tried to get in the way of destiny.”

When we got back to my place it was late…the house was darkened…my brother was out alley-catting with his college buddies and my mom was in bed early, resting up for her Monday at the government facility where she worked. In the dark, we quietly crept up to my room—our private sanctuary in the attic of my mom’s house. Eleanor frequently spent the night with me in my room, falling asleep to dreamy Manchester guitar rock, particularly the Stone Roses…She’s a Waterfall always sent Eleanor sailing out onto a tranquil river of slumber.

As we lay on my bed, with the black light blazing up the planets stickered to the ceiling and the incense smoking on the windowsill, and the helicopters outside circling high above the palm trees, I dozed off with Eleanor wrapped around me and the Stone Roses in my head. I was nearly beyond the threshold of consciousness when the phone sounded like a fire drill bell, shattering the tranquility of my darkened room. Not wanting the phone to wake anyone, I rolled to it immediately and answered in a croaky half-asleep voice. There was silence, but the silence was suspended in the static of a live call; someone was on the other end but not speaking. As Eleanor stirred momentarily, rolled onto her side, and drifted off back into slumber, I heard a voice on the other end, but didn’t recognize it…because I was trying to place it, the words were of secondary importance.

“You think you’re pretty fucking cool huh?” slurred the drunken voice with eerie intent before breaking out into a theatrically evil cackle. I recognized the voice immediately as Locksmith.

“Sure…why not.”

“You’re nothing but a fucking Truman Park skid Holden….you’re nothing but a hood rat…your band sucks as well…sure you might play at some shitty skate parks…but people are only nice to you because they feel bad for you…because you’re just a hood rat…and just so you know,” the voice slurred on, drunk and angry, “Eleanor is only hanging around with you to get back at me for Lacy Silver. Enjoy it while it lasts because it’s all going to come crashing down on you very soon…I can assure you of that.”

“What’s a matter princess—you drink too many jello-shots tonight? Sober the fuck up jackass—and don’t fucking call here again.” I said and hung up. I turned the ringer off just to be sure.

“Who was that?” asked Eleanor, half asleep.

“Wrong number.” I said, but Eleanor was floating off toward deep dreams on a tranquil river of slumber. I rolled over and pulled her in close…I closed my eyes and floated off with her toward my own deep dreams.

Chapter 4: The Quote

I may have understood if Locksmith needed Eleanor the way I did…if he saw in her the grainy 1960s 8mm film noir, the abstract feminine designs, the violet LA sunsets that made me wonder how there was that much color in the world and how it all seemed to make sense when I was with her. Certainly, in that case, a man might be entitled to at least a few disgustingly shameless exhibits of late-night drunken despair. However, Locksmith wasn’t equipped to recognize her subtle shades and textures; for that took a madman—a madman such as I…an endangered species. Instead, Locksmith was too obsessively invested in his political reputation and social standing among gossip circles, cliques and coteries which, at the end of the day, meant jack shit to me.

The way I saw it—Locksmith hated losing Eleanor because he’d lost her to me, someone he viewed as a lesser person, though ironically this view was fueled by a certain inferiority I unwittingly instilled within him. He hadn’t lost Eleanor to me; he’d lost her to himself. She’d have found out about Lacy Silver eventually. With gossip the way it was around Crestwater, she’d have found out everything about him; it was only a matter of time. There were no secrets at Crestwater, yet it seemed that Locksmith blamed me for his only social loss.

I knew how it was going to go now. I would eventually run into Locksmith and his minions outside of our well-disciplined Crestwater High setting. Perhaps at the mall, or a donut shop, on Melrose, or Fairfax, the 3rd street Farmer’s Market, or Beverly Center on a Saturday afternoon. Eventually, I’d run into Locksmith at some point, and he’d feel obligated to back up his phone call, in which case, I’d try to do the smart thing—but might not. However, around Crestwater, we were both obligated to behave ourselves.

The following week I’d seen Locksmith a few times around the hallways of Crestwater, moving through the schools of students with his crew of debaters and student representative council nerds. As usual, Locksmith had been clad in a colorful tie, a pompadour and his rolled up pants which displayed his ongoing collection of argyle socks that always disappeared down into black and white oxfords. There was a softness about him, and what’s more curious; he’d averted his eyes when he passed by me in the hallway. I wondered if he’d been so wasted that he’d forgotten all about his drunken phone call and the threat he’d made.

Though he had, in a drunken bout of desperation, dialed my landline and attempted to slice and dice me with razor words; around the hallways of Crestwater, he appeared aloof. Perhaps that was that…and I’d have no further issues with Locksmith. Though he was a despicable cunt—I was fine with him moving past his insecurity-based resentments.

And so, after some days went by, I assumed Locksmith had gotten it out of his system…that he’d gotten a grip on himself and moved on. However, perhaps a week later, I was approached in a third-floor hallway one morning by April. I took in hand a roll of paper she handed me and noticed she was biting her bottom lip and looking flustered.

“What’s this?” I asked as I unrolled the papers, which I saw were pages from a copy of the Crestwater Gazette, the school news rag that I was convinced nobody ever read.

“It’s fucking bullshit is what it is.” She said.

The papers April handed me were only a portion of the Gazette and I unrolled them to find an article written by Gregory Locksmith, detailing the night we’d played with Titty-Funk at Chinchilla. Though I hadn’t seen his medicine ball head floating around the crowd…evidently the bastard had been there that night. Of course, I’d not been looking for him. In fact, he’d ceased to exist on my radar until his drunken phone call had come in.

I scanned the article, which was in essence, a review of the show. However, the review portion was only perhaps twenty percent of the entire article. The remaining eighty percent was a scathing attack on the counterculture of Emerald Heights bands and the dangerous and violent ideals they inspired.

‘…Which brings me to the subject of Crestwater band Don’t Ask John Fante—a band fronted by ex-Truman Park High discard, Jack Holden. We shouldn’t be surprised that this sort of band is fronted by a Truman High student. We also shouldn’t be surprised that the band is involved with illegally operated music venues, like the Boiler Room; a venue that was recently raided by police as Don’t Ask John Fante was on stage. All too eager to capitalize on the raid, Jack Holden took it upon himself to incite a near riot, which has seemed to win his band some infamy.

Noting the incident at the Boiler Room, we shouldn’t be surprised that Holden’s band was involved in an unlawful assembly at Chinchilla skate park last weekend during which an effigy of cartwright musician Trent Humbucker was set aflame. There has been some speculation among parents that such dangerous and violent displays are in league with demonic medieval rituals. Furthermore, there is some concern among parents that such a display will condone members of this effigy-burning cult to physically harm Cartwright student Trent Humbucker.

We need to ask how far these bands are willing to go to create their own self-propelled notoriety…how far they’re willing to go to advance their demonic agendas and megalomania. It’s been reported that the flames of the burning effigy at the Chinchilla skate park reached such heights, residents a block away had called the fire department. Assemblies like the one at Chinchilla skate park last weekend are not only an obvious hazard to public safety but an obscene misallocation of our emergency responders—not to mention a most blatant promotion of demonology. When will city council recognize that these gatherings are harmful to the youth of Emerald Heights?’

“Total fucking shit-bird.” said April, shaking her head…her nurturing warmth ever-present, “Please promise me you’re not going to bitch-slap him. He’s not worth getting suspended over.”

“This guy doesn’t even know what he’s talking about. He’s accusing me of participating in demonic rituals. I was raised United for fuck sake. I don’t roll with demonology—talk about sensationalism.” I laughed.

“Everyone is going to read this too.” nodded April.

“Do you think Everyone reads this shit?” I laughed.

“Only like, everyone.” shrugged April.

“It’s not like he’s a columnist for Rolling Stone…” I said.

“No, but his father has a lot of pull in this town.” said April, “He’s an alderman.”

“And?” I grinned.

“And I’m worried about you.” April said, pouting her lips.

“Don’t be, nobody is even going to read this drivel. The guy is pissed because he’s got fetal alcohol syndrome. Have you seen the size of his head? I mean, something happened to him.” I assured as I walked her to her next class.

Though Locksmith didn’t interest me, I did wonder how far he would go to smear my name now that it was evident Eleanor wasn’t going to return to him. It seemed the article he’d penned was far too much effort to expend on a woman he didn’t quite care about. His motivation was solely revenge on me for tarnishing his rep—a rep that was already tarnished, and he was just too arrogant to notice.

Indeed, I had broken the guy-code like emergency glass to sell Locksmith up the river and I’d done so because I had no other choice; I couldn’t imagine spending another day without being with Eleanor and though it had been a long shot, I’d taken my chances and aimed accordingly. Though I felt zero shame about breaking the guy-code to be with Eleanor, I was prepared to shoulder at least some amount of revenge from Locksmith—after all, he’d lost harder than he’d ever lost before; what’s worse he hadn’t lost to me—he’d lost to himself.  The article was a middle finger…a scathing revenge attack on my character, talent and hard work-ethic, of which I had absolute confidence in…so in essence, Locksmith’s article only reassured me that I was doing something right.

Later, as I sat with Eleanor on the Crestwater lawn during our spare class, listening to her implore me not to do anything silly to Locksmith, whom she warned was only trying to bait me into a knucklehead reaction—Wes was suddenly upon us, shaking his head and looking at me intensely.

“This is crazy buddy…the whole school is on about Locksmith’s article.” He said, sprawling out on the lawn and lighting a blunt, “Evidently there was a 20-minute debate about it in Miss Spellman’s class—I mean the guy waged war on every skateboarder in Emerald Heights—this shit is front page news.”

“Really?” I laughed, “This has to be a joke—why does anyone care about this guy’s article?”

“No joke buddy, these school magazines can be very vicious…clearly Locksmith is out for blood…and when Locksmith is out for blood, he sinks the fangs in deep.” assured Wes.

“The guy has a medicine-ball head, he wears flood pants and he also runs like a pregnant lady…enough said.” I grinned, shrugging it off.

“I can’t help but feel like this is all my fault.” said Eleanor with some concern wrinkling between her brows.

Wrapping my arm around Eleanor, I pulled her close and whispered in her ear, “I carved your name in my bedroom wall baby.”

“I know…” she said dreamily, resting a warm palm against my cheek.

“Locksmith’s article is misleading…and therefore it’s not real journalism…it’s propaganda.” I shrugged.

“Misleading…that’s a good word to describe it.” Nodded Wes.

“I’ve heard he shaves his legs.” Said Wes, “What sort of a man shaves his legs?”

“He said he shaves them for water polo.” Laughed Eleanor.

“The most bizarre thing is that he called you a Truman High student…I mean what the fuck does that have to do with anything?” asked Wes.

“But I am a Truman Park kid. That much is true.” I grinned.

“Yes, but Locksmith meant it in a very condescending way.” Said Wes.

April joined us on the lawn just then and her expression told me that she had more news.

“So…the word is that Locksmith is lobbying to have Principal Gavin put you and the Decker brothers on ‘probation’ for burning a life-sized effigy of Trent Humbucker.” said April, her eyes wide with disbelief and being caught up in a controversial wave of Crestwater drama which, though somehow included me, I felt strangely detached from.

“What’s Locksmith’s deal with this Humbucker clown? Are they special friends or something? I didn’t even realize they knew each other.” I laughed finding the entire issue rife with absurdity.

“Humbucker’s father is Alderman Locksmith’s attorney.” said Eleanor, “Gregory and Trent are in the same youth action group…that’s all I really know.”

“Anyway, Gavin can’t put anyone on probation based on anything that happened off school property.” April assured, “It’s ludicrous that Gregory thinks that’s even a possibility.”

“He knows it’s not a possibility…it’s all part of a smear campaign…he’s been watching his old man do it for so many years, he probably can’t help himself—monkey see, monkey do. What he’s done by going to Gavin is put you on her radar Jacko—so just be mindful of that.” said Wes.

I grinned and looked back at them—these Crestwater kids that had taken an interest in my well-being. They had no idea how much I appreciated them. I dragged on my blunt and smiled at them, “Medicine ball head, flood pants…pregnant-lady run.” was all I had to say to get them all smiling again.

So there it was dear reader, your diligent narrator in the throes of a smear campaign, which if I’m to be perfectly honest seemed systemically lame and limited in it’s effectiveness. I didn’t ever assume my reputation was worth protecting. I was a Truman Park kid…and I’d always be from the other side of town. However, it really seemed I’d developed a pesky habit of wandering into controversy at Crestwater—a school I’d jumped hurdles to attend for the purpose of making a musical contribution.

It seemed once again I was on the map for an occurrence that had absolutely nothing to do with me. For it was a fact—Walt’s girl-singer had lit up the effigy, not I—and Locksmith having been in attendance knew it as well as I did. This all might have mattered to me had I cared at all about what Locksmith or any of his student council minions thought or wrote about me; I only cared about contributing the best music I could to the legendary musical lineage that had arisen from Crestwater High.

However, to the Crestwater kids it certainly seemed Locksmith’s article was a grand topic of discussion and indeed, players from each side of the discussion started to come out of the woodwork, suddenly appearing though they’d been there all along…kids I’d taken for basket cases or mutes or psychotics…they suddenly stepped forward and spoke their piece, either in support or in opposition of Locksmith’s campaign against Crestwater’s skater culture.

Finding that his article had created a stir, Locksmith doubled down the following week by writing a public recommendation that school administrators crack down on the skateboarding that went on in the parking lot, and the back lot beside the football field, and the metal bike racks outside the school entrance, and in the gymnasium, through hallways, and down hand railings—wherever skateboarding happened…Locksmith wanted it eradicated, to the degree of printing alongside his articles, photos of the damage that skateboards were causing to stair structures, railings, walls, floor tiles, bike racks, etc., citing it as recreational vandalism.

When the induction of photos turned out to be such a hit and earned the Gazette perhaps its most read, or at least browsed edition, Locksmith and company followed it up in the next issue with photos of actual Crestwater students skating the property, the piece was called ‘Caught in the Act’ and was, as one can imagine even more popular with Locksmith’s base of followers.

When Locksmith had set out on a vendetta to offend me, he’d failed obviously…however, he did manage to offend an opposing group of Crestwater students—a sect of kids I had no idea existed. They were fringe, but still had a great deal of backing and fanfare. The unofficial publication they circulated was called the Right World Times—a publication that promoted free speech and worked to fact-check every nuance of Gazette articles. It was no coincidence that the Right World Times was the brainchild of Wit Pullman—an arch nemesis and long-time debating rival of Locksmith. I’d learned that RWT had started issuing their own home-grown responses to the Gazette’s ‘Killjoyism’ as they so eloquently titled one such article.

I’d never met anyone from the Right World Times or the Crestwater Gazette, aside from Locksmith. I felt staying cool was the best policy. One could say that I was happy to fly under the radar when it came to school politics. That is to say that I didn’t quite give a flying fuck if they asked me not to skateboard on school property…there are certain things every self-respecting skateboarder is entitled to disregard—and anti-skateboarding regulations were usually one of them. It could be said that I chose to fly under the radar when it came to school politics. However, that all changed the day I’d been approached one afternoon by Malcolm Curtis.

Malcolm Curtis was with the Right World Times…in fact, he was their star reporter and it made sense as his father was Winston Curtis; the popular local news anchor on the Hollywood 5 News channel. I knew nothing about Malcolm Curtis aside from what people told me about him and what people told me about him didn’t quite interest me. And so I’d found it odd that he’d sought me out one afternoon and had tracked me down in the library.

I’d been sitting with Eleanor during our spare class and she’d been sketching lewd depictions of certain members of the faculty engaged in certain acts of lewdness. We’d been laughing about the sketches when we were approached by Malcolm Curtis. He took a seat across the table from Eleanor and I, smiling and offering his hand for a shake, which I shook and Eleanor didn’t. After a long awkward pause, he ventured into a lengthy explanation of his next article in the Right World Times which, from what I could read between the lines, was yet another retaliatory piece in response to a recent article in the Gazette in which Locksmith had published a number of new photos in his ‘Caught in the Act’ section.

Evidently, I was one of the many students featured in the photo collage, rolling on my skateboard up the Crestwater sidewalk, an iced tea bottle spiked with whiskey in one hand, while a blunt dangled from my lips. However, the real stunner was the shirt I’d worn that day, across the front of which read in boxy black letters, ‘Skateboarding is not a crime’. With my other hand, I was flipping the photographer the bird, which editors at the Gazette had blurred just barely, enough that one could still plainly identify my hand gesture. I recalled the moment the photo had been taken.

“Ha, radness.” I laughed.

“Listen, I’ve been talking with many of the other students that were pictured in that photo-shaming, I’ve collected statements from many of them. I want to know how you all feel about this bullshit witch-hunt that Gregory Locksmith has kicked off. How does it make you feel that your freedom as well as your privacy was infringed upon by certain factions of school media?” he finally asked, “How does it make you feel to be chastised for merely arriving at school?”

“I didn’t feel like my freedom or privacy was infringed upon.” I said, “I just felt like giving the photographer the finger—you know…for the yearbook.”

“But do you feel that this sort of ‘media policing’ is a form of bullying?” asked Malcolm, tilting his head as if he were conducting a primetime interview.

“I think Locksmith is just jealous because he can’t skate, and he probably can’t skate because his medicine ball head is too large and it throws him off balance.” I laughed.

“So you’d say the correlation between Locksmith and this form of bullying is obvious?” asked Malcolm, again perplexed and holding his head on a tilt.

“Seems more like an obsession…the guy has been so adamant about compiling a list of our shortcomings—meanwhile I’m basically indifferent to his existence…he’s just not that interesting.” I shrugged.

“The word ‘our’ meaning…” he prodded.

“The skateboarders and the punks and the bands and the freaks and pretty much anyone else who frequents the skate parks and band nights—he’s got a real issue with us for some reason.” I said.

“I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but he’s been heard calling you a ‘hood-rat-charity-case’. Do you feel that’s a statement of socio-economical prejudice?”

“I’ve been called worse by greater people. And anyway, that’s nothing man…I won’t even bother getting into what he said when he called me drunk on jello-shots at 3am.” I laughed.

“Really? What did he say?” exclaimed Malcolm, as if thrilled to hear about it.

“His usual schtick.”

“Why do you think he did that?”

“Well old chaperoony…I’d say it’s because he’s a bit touched…ya know? The guy has an abnormally large head…that head—it’s like a fucking medicine ball. I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps Locksmith’s mother was drinking too many strawberry mango daiquiris and swallowing a cocktail of pharmaceuticals during the crucial trimesters of her pregnancy…of course I can only speculate though.” I capped it with a chuckle that sounded psychotic, even to me.

Malcolm only looked back at me, his eyes beaming with gratitude that I’d just given him the best quote he was ever going to get around Crestwater High, “Can I quote you on any of that?” he asked.

“I don’t give a fuck.” I shrugged.

I read neither the Crestwater Gazette nor the Right World Times. I read dead existential authors. So, of course I was surprised to find that this type of publicized mud-slinging existed at Crestwater. I’d been so immersed in my project with the Decker brothers that I’d not noticed a great divide in plain sight before me among the Crestwater students I’d taken for mostly spoiled-silly space cadets. Certainly, I’d not realized that these students were building at Crestwater, their future reputations with resume lists of overachievements they’d one day take to Ivy League institutions.

I’d tossed the words to Malcolm with nonchalance, knowing my quote would wind up in Right World print, but somehow I lacked concern enough to care about the inevitable repercussions. Say what you mean and let the chips fall where they may…that was my motto and I lived by it easily. If you call it as it is, you can never be wrong and calling it as it is requires true objectivity, which requires a certain humility or existential disposition. Mainly, because I wasn’t building a mysterious identity I would one day sell to Ivy League institutions—I had little to lose. In the end, no matter what I did, no matter if I moved a million units, I’d always be the boy from the other side of town, and kids like Locksmith would always be kids like Locksmith.

I called Walt the following week, having been eager to get back into the rehearsal room for some long and involved sessions of melodic alchemy. The Decker brothers had buttoned down and fled the life, but I lived the life and had dedicated myself fully to it. For the true artist, there is no leaving artistic endeavor. It had chosen me…for better or for worse, for richer or poorer. I wondered if Walt actually ‘lived it’ as he’d claimed, the night he’d introduced himself to me in the band room at Harlequin City; it was time to find out.

Walt hadn’t been surprised to hear from me when I dialed him at his parent’s house which he specified during our lengthy conversation was located on the far eastern outskirts of Emerald Heights. As Eleanor had suspected, Walt and the Phantom went to Cartwright high. Home of the burning man himself–Trent Humbucker. Walt and the Phantom rehearsed at the Phantom’s parent’s compound. The Phantom by the way had been given an actual name at birth, which, though it lacked a certain wilderness, was, all the same, the one he was stuck with; Nestor Sullivan. Phantom had come about, I learned, after Nestor had played a Halloween gig dressed as a Phantom and had gone the entire set with his Phantom head mask on…the nickname had stuck hard.

I drove my mom’s plush interior Grand Cherokee to the first rehearsal with Walt and the Phantom and it was nice to cruise the potholed streets in such a smooth ride. On the phone Walt had asked me to bring some ‘killer songs’ and certainly I had at least five ready to go. The notion was that if I showed up with a song in hand, Walt and the Phantom would lay down a locomotive rhythm section.

When I pulled up in my mom’s Grand Cherokee, I was met out on the street by Walt who’d been lying sprawled out on the hood of his car, the windows of which were rolled down and from them blared a Sugarcubes cassette.

“What’s up man?” I said.

“I just love lying on my car, playing the music so loud that the vibrations tickle the hairs of my balls.” Said Walt with a coy grin from behind his sunglasses, dragging hard on his cigarette.

“Evidently.” I laughed.

The Phantom lived in what appeared to be a castle, surrounded halfway by a shallow, leaf-speckled moat, over which one crossed by way of a small arching footbridge. The front yard was a green, landscaped expanse boasting a gazebo, flower gardens, and a blue marble bird bath that sat empty and waterless. The house itself was massive, boasting sprawling marble floors and an imperial staircase that led up to a second level that was furnished lavishly with many velvet and mahogany surfaces and plenty of crystal and gold appeal amidst a theme of rustic ancestral tapestries.

The Phantom’s mother, who was a tussle of French curls, manicured nails and sassy makeup, called to the Phantom and asked us if we wanted anything…lemonade perhaps? I declined, while Walter asked Mrs. Sullivan if she might pour him a scotch and soda. Her grin was tsk-tsk and her half pirouette a fine exit from an inappropriate question—one she seemed to expect from the Phantom’s friends. She left us there in the foyer for a few moments as the Phantom made his way across the house to meet us.

“I hear the Deckers quit because of an interview you did in some shit magazine.” said Walt.

“They’re pussies.” I said.

“I read that interview.”

“I guess I’m the only one who hasn’t.” I chuckled.

“What’s the big? They do look like fucking serial killers…the twin thing with the matching horn-rim glasses, with the 1950s brush cuts and shirts buttoned up all the way to the neck…fuck man…we’re talking double homicide bro.” said Walt.

“Maybe that’ll be their next band name.” I chuckled.

“See…that’s what I’m talking about,” said Walter, “It’s like every band in town is trying so hard to be so proper…like upright citizens…how fucking boring…how contrived. I mean when people go to a rock show they want explosions, flames…blood, guts and fireworks man!”

“Well…that stunt you guys pulled torching the effigy still has people at Crestwater talking. In fact it inspired a huge war between the ruling classes at my school.” I laughed.

“Ha!” chuckled Walter toward the chandelier hanging above us.

It was then that the Phantom was upon us with his 1970’s mop top haircut and Cramps t-shirt which he’d cut into a muscle shirt. We followed him out to the garage, where he’d set up his Phantom’s lair. There were amps, drums, a sound system, and a 16-track recorder. As I peered around the garage turned bedroom, I noticed that the windows were painted black and in the far corner of the room was arranged according to necessity, the Phantom’s living quarters; a bed, a sofa, a nightstand littered with half-smoked joints and empty beer cans, a large screen TV, a mini fridge, lava lamps, a stereo…a weight set.

Sitting on the sofa watching a snowboarding video were two girls, whom I didn’t recognize. They glanced at me and kept smoking the pinner they were sharing. The walls I realized were covered in spreads and ads cut from magazines. The faces of models advertising perfume and clothing and the promise of extraordinary romance looked back at me as I scanned the room. Mädchen Amick, Drew Barrymore, Winona Ryder…and the likes of. 90s chicks; they had something else—way else.

“Hey, that’s a crazy poster.” I said, pointing at the Sherilyn Fenn poster above the Phantom’s bed.

“My prize obsession.” grinned the Phantom.

When I looked back to Walt, I noticed that the entire grill of his cabinet was covered in photos of bikini asses which he’d cut out of sports illustrated mags. It was perhaps the collage to end all collages—and indeed a versatile one at that. He opened his bass case and produced a half bottle of amber rum. He popped the cork with one hand and swilled down a long haul, sighing with satisfaction.

“Jacko m’boy, welcome to the Phantom’s lair!” he declared,

“Girls…get your beautiful asses over here and say hello to the guy who’s helping the Phantom and I set this town on fire.”

The girls, who I still didn’t recognize, didn’t get up…they only waved from the couch where they puffed away at the pinner—mesmerized by the snowboarding video.

“They’re leaving soon.” Walt assured under his breath.

“Who’s leaving?” asked one of the girls.

“You guys.” he said.

“Why?” they both demanded.

“Listen, ladies, this is a very important jam…it’s our first…and what we’re going to do here is make history…so, we have to be a circle…an unbreakable circle…ceremonial type stuff.”

“So…” said Walter’s girl, “you’re saying we have to go?”

“Baby, I love ya—but you gotta go.” Walter said very seriously before breaking out a moment later in hysterical laughter, “Come on baby, I know it sounds bad, but the force field must not be broken.”

“What force field? The force field of your man club?” asked the Phantom’s blonde who was determined to have an attitude about it, “Sounds like you’re talking shit to me. Where are we supposed to go anyway?”

“Take my car and go get yourselves some wine coolers.” suggested Walter, handing her his keys.

“Wine coolers? What are we from Truman Park or something? We don’t drink wine coolers.” said Walt’s girl and they all started laughing.

“Get whatever you want,” he said, setting a crisp 50-dollar bill into her small, manicured hand, “…but you’re going to have to get the fuck out of here.” chuckled Walter, leaning down and wrapping a hand around her waist before slinging her over his shoulder. He twirled around a bit as his girl laughed and squealed and spanked at his ass.

“You’re such a fucking dick sometimes.” she whined playfully when he set her back down on the floor.

“I know.” said Walter, grabbing her and pulling her close again, “You can give me a proper spanking later.”

“I just might.” she said, hooking his keys up with her finger.

When the girls were gone Walter sauntered over to the TV and turned it off. It was talk time.

“Ok boys…this is it…this is what we’ve been working toward our entire lives. This moment now…mark it on your calendars—tattoo it on your chest…because it’s the day everything starts.” said Walt, “We are going to make a little pledge here…to venture out into the furthest reaches of sanity…we might even slip beyond the vortex…into the nether regions.”

“Let me ask you something.” I said, “What’s happening with Titty-Funk? I mean, you guys were wild the other night…that shit was a spectacle…even if the music was a bit too Ska for my liking…the stage show was amazing.”

“Well, firstly, Ska is what our singer writes for the most part.” Said Walt, “That’s Charlotte, and if you can believe it, she’s moving back to Texas to live with her mother and go to college. Four years of living with her drill sergeant dad has made her a bit bonkers. Beyond that, our horn section has signed on to accompany a party band on a cruise ship and they’re going to be gone for probably two years—great pay for monkey work. Titty-Funk was great—that’s true…and could have been greater…but we just didn’t have the songs…with you I think we’ll have the songs.”

“Well…let’s see what happens.” I said, strapping on my guitar.

I showed Walt and the Phantom some songs I’d been working on. They listened for quite a while as I played the song over and over. Eventually, they started filling in the sections with bass and drums and soon enough, we’d fallen into the right groove…and it was heavy as fuck, fast as lightening and all melodic riffs, slap bass and technical pounding on the drums…there was an intense groove to it, and I got the feeling that these blokes had been circling each other rhythmically for years; one got that feeling. This wasn’t a case of a secluded songwriter toiling away by himself in a darkened candle-lit room…constructing meditative melody; this was a case of jumping aboard a runaway bulldozer, aiming for roadside attractions to plow through; I could see we were going to be a wrecking ball.

We spent perhaps three hours coordinating accents, pushes, shots, stops, intertwining scales and figuring out where best to punk it up. Indeed, there was something timeless about throwing in a hardcore riff in the midst of a slap-funk jungle…what we were edging the corner on was monumental as far as we were concerned, and the concoction was marvelously infectious.

I had the lead vocal worked out—minus lyrics of course. Trying the melodies through the heavily reverberated microphone it was apparent to me that the groove fit the melodies like a glove; it was nearly effortless, save for the hours of effort.

“What are the words?” asked Walter.

“I don’t know…I’m just singing gibberish at this point.” I admitted.

“I have some lyrics.” said Walter, producing a small, tattered notebook from his case.

As I flipped through the pages, scanning the lyrics for phrases that might fit the measures; Walter swilled a beer and the Phantom hauled on the bong again. They discussed where the girls might be joyriding in Walter’s parent’s Beemer and then how they planned to organize a performance on Venice Beach. As they pondered aloud, I landed on a page of lyrics that seemed to fit the phrases almost perfectly.

“Hey, this one works well.” I said.

The song was about Walt’s homeroom teacher’s pussycat; it was called, Mrs. Moffat’s Pussycat, of course. Indeed, dear reader, the words fit swimmingly, and I began to sing them along with the music…and what had already been an amazing blend of chest-thumping drums, heavy slapping bass and heavily distorted guitar became a wash of vividly infectious melody…what I saw as the point of any great song…indeed, it was poetry in motion once the lyrics about Walt’s homeroom teacher’s pussycat were added. When we came to the chorus, I held the word pussycat, accenting the prefix in baritone which Walter instinctively joined in on in tenor…when we ran it again; the Phantom sang the third harmony and the harmonies struck gold, immediately adding a shade of XTC to our little garage gem—an instant hit and we knew what it meant.

We stood there afterward, strapped with our instruments and chuckling with what I can only describe as sheer elation, realizing that whether any of the campus radio stations played the song—it would be a live hit; indeed, a prelude to magic to come.

“Are we really going to use these lyrics though? We might clean them up a bit.” I suggested, “Or do you care if your homeroom teacher finds out that you wrote a song about her pussycat?”

“Fuck that!” Walter spat with amazement, “No fucking way dude…listen man…you don’t quite understand the situation—the woman wears leather miniskirts with fishnets and high heels…she spikes her pixie haircut and wears makeup that could kill—one day she wore a studded wrist band…and the last straw was when she wore a Sex Pistols belt buckle to school…there’s no way I’m not calling her out…and she will be mine before grad—or after.” he promised with his signature psychotic grin, “I’m hot for teacher!” he rasped in his best David Lee Roth and the Phantom kicked out the legendary intro fills on the toms…then Walter did a few Karate kicks and judo chops before falling back into pace with the Phantom. I jumped in with a very simplified grunge version of the ‘Hot For Teacher’ guitar intro and a moment later we were kicking it in full, realizing suddenly that because both Hot For Teacher and Mrs. Moffat’s Pussycat were in similar time signatures—we could indeed, open Mrs. Moffat’s Pussycat with a few heavy bars of the 1980’s anthem—it seemed we’d scratched the surface of brilliance and there was no stopping us.

“Ok, fine,” I said, killing the volume, “but I’ll only sing this if at our first show, you personally dedicate the song, from the bottom of your demented heart, to dear Mrs. Moffat and her pussycat.” I dared Walt, who took the dare with a wide-eyed grin.

“Deal.” said Walter without hesitation, stepping up and offering his hand which I shook. Little did he know that I had a royal flush up inside my shirt sleeve—and there’s nothing like a landslide victory.

The next morning, I woke up late and smoked a heavy session in my room before heading out with my mom. She had something planned and I sat complacently in the passenger seat of the plush Grand Cherokee as she drove, singing along to a Beach Boys cassette. We drove through the sunbaked streets casually as the palm trees passed by and the helicopters chopped through the sky high above. We followed Hollywood Blvd. for a while and I watched the tourists go by my window in droves to the tune of Wouldn’t it be Nice?

We merged onto the 101 and we followed it for a while, the Grand Cherokee taking the bumps and dips smoothly as if we were riding on a plush luxurious couch. We merged off the freeway on the Burbank Blvd. exit and coasted down the grade into North Hollywood, which was mostly a run-down sector with an emphasis on industrial buildings, warehouse space, and used car lots. As we drove east, the residential blocks became towering brick warehouses and fenced-off shipping yards that housed industrial machinery. The road became cracked and potholed, more than the usual Hollywood streets. Eventually, the cracked and bumpy road led us to a dead end; a yellow and black checkerboard sign bolted to a telephone pole marked the end of the street. My mom pulled to the side and cut the engine, “Let me do the talking.” she said as we both got out of the car.

“Sure.” I shrugged, still entirely unsure of where we were and what we were doing there.

However, once through a large gate covered with aluminum siding, I realized where we were; it was a government vehicle auction site and the lot was filled with cars…but not just cars…there were cargo trucks, vans, Jeeps and even a few scooters. Mostly there were unmarked cars of a nondescript design however and as we slowly browsed the vehicles, I noticed the men wandering the lot checking out my mom, who was always a sharp dresser. Men were frequently hitting on her and it seemed to often irritate her. On this day her main objective was to find me a spaciously sized van for my musical ventures, citing that I would need a van to carry band equipment—after all, what kind of asshole took the bus with a Marshall Stack and two guitars and a bag of tricks? I was a bit dumbfounded…after all, I’d been fully resigned to the dismal prospect of having to spend two more years working odd jobs in order to save enough to buy a used vehicle. However, as simple as a Saturday afternoon car ride; owning my very own mystery machine was a sudden reality.

As we took a closer study of a jet-black minivan with tinted windows and no hubcaps, a lot employee approached us carrying a clipboard. He wore a faded Lakers jersey and his arms and shoulders were grotesquely hairy. His name tag read “Troy” and he wore a gold watch as well as a golden medallion, both of which gleamed in the sun. He stood nearby smacking his gum as we inspected the van. As my mom gave the tires a light kick with her shoe, Troy stepped over to her.

“She’s got some good rubber on her.” he said.

“How many miles?” asked my mom.

“About 100k…but these ones can last for 300k if they’re maintained properly.” he said.

“Original transmission?” she asked.

“I’m not sure…but I can find out.”

“I think I want this van.” she said.

“It’s a good little van.”

“It’s for my son…he needs it to move his musical equipment. He’s in a band.” she said.

“You don’t say. Well this is the perfect vehicle for that.” said Troy.

“Can you pull some strings for us?” my mom asked, half seriously.

“Well…it’s supposed to be an auction.” said Troy, making quotations with his fingers over the word auction, “But if you give me your phone number, I might be able to pull some strings.” Troy smiled.

“Keep dreaming.” said my mom, rolling her eyes slightly as she inspected a small crack in the windshield.

There were several vans on the lot and some were in better shape than others. Some were rusted, some were chipped, and some were dented. Some of the driver’s seats had worn through to the foam. I thought of the sheer number of dirty and possibly leaking asses that had sat in each driver’s seat over the years and found the notion disconcerting. Perhaps people had died in a few of the vehicles. Still, because they were government-owned, all the vehicles had been maintained to a certain degree. It seemed no matter which one was bid for, the vehicles were all in basically the same condition and mileage range. My mom bid on four vans to hedge her bets, all of which I felt great about—I’d have felt great about a van with no windshield or headlights at that point.

Though my top pick had been a white utility van with closet space and cupboards, I wound up with my third pick, the black nondescript minivan with tinted windows and no hubcaps…it looked like an undercover cop van and I liked it right away. And so it was dear reader, that by the end of the day, I was the proud and rather disbelief-stricken owner of a used and stealthy black minivan that was said to have a loose gasket and accompanying oil leak.

“How the hell am I supposed to pay you back for this van?” I chuckled to my mom.

“Keep your money. I’m sure it’s going to need repairs at some point…you can pay for those.” She said.

Certainly, by the time Monday morning rolled around and Eleanor and I were rolling down Sunset Blvd. toward Crestwater High, listening to PIL’s Happy cassette and smoking it up as the rising sun glazed the oil-slicked streets in a wondrous shimmer; I’d all but forgotten about Locksmith and his publicized crackdown on the skate culture at Crestwater. However, I was reminded quite immediately once I parked my van and Eleanor and I made our way across the student parking lot toward the entrance doors around which was congregated a mass of students, smoking, chattering, and guffawing.

I was side-stepping them all when Wes was upon me…throwing his arm over my shoulder and falling into step with me, “Some big news today dude. I heard some rumblings this morning about an article in the Right World Times. Evidently, Malcolm Curtis skewered Locksmith in his new article. He interviewed a bunch of students who all basically said that they thought Locksmith’s photo-shaming campaign is bogus…apparently, you said some pretty funny stuff and it’s got Locksmith in a tumult.” said Wes.

“A tumult? The poor old medicine ball head is in a tumult is he?” I asked as we strolled through the entrance doors—I’d still not quite adapted to there being no metal detector checkpoints to pass through as there had been at Truman High.

“It’s brilliant, the part where you say his mom was drinking daiquiris and popping pills during the crucial trimesters…simply brilliant. An act of war—but a brilliant one.” chuckled Wes, stopping at his locker.

“Act of war?” I laughed as Eleanor, looking quite drawn, hugged me goodbye and left Wes and I standing in the anonymity of hordes of passing kids.

“Yeah man…I heard Locksmith shit when he read it…he’s definitely going to hit back at everyone who commented in that article…especially you—just a heads up.” said Wes, reaching deep into the highest level of his locker, eventually producing a folded piece of tin foil. He carefully unfolded it and pressed his finger down into the center…lifting his finger, I saw a small white square attached to his fingertip and a moment later he placed it on the center of his tongue, “It’s called Napalm Dreams.”

“It’s fucking 8 am.” I laughed.

“Best time to strobe baby.” said Wes, retrieving his binder and a couple textbooks from his locker, “So, what are you going to do about Locksmith if he comes at you today?” Wes asked as we walked on, toward our only shared class of the day.

“Laugh.” I shrugged.

“I’m just saying, be prepared for some pay-back…Locksmith can be a real tenacious cunt.” Wes warned.

“Locksmith is a load that his mother should have swallowed.” I said as we stepped into Mr. Forrester’s class.

We sat at the back of the class as usual—a sound strategy for getting picked last during Q&A. We settled in as Forrester started in on another bland lecture. Indeed, Mr. Forrester gave some of the most bland lectures at Crestwater High and it wasn’t his monotone as much as it was his plodding exploration of off-topic philosophical meanderings that were boring to begin with. We all sat rapt in our desks as Forrester read a rather lengthy excerpt from To Kill a Mockingbird and it could be said that Forrester read like old people fuck.

When he was finally through, he closed the book and walked to the chalkboard. He took a piece of chalk in hand and wrote Atticus Finch in huge block lettering, punctuating it with a stab of the chalk which created a small chalk explosion.

“Who is Atticus Finch?” he asked, turning back to us all with his hands behind his back and his spectacles fogged or just smudged badly with dandruff and grease.

Of course, there were the obligatory try-hards who shot their hands up, all too eager to please. Try-hards like Vanessa Schultz, Amy Brendan and Thomas Bell one by one offered their critique of Finch’s cultural significance, citing not only lines from Mockingbird, but analogies as well. Meanwhile Forrester listened intently; standing firm with his chin held high as he tongue-probed his dentures with ravenous zeal. When Thomas Bell was through spewing his utterly contrived and textbook-recited explanation, Forrester closed his eyes and nodded…then, strangely said my name.

“Jack…who was Atticus Finch?” he asked.

Forrester had always seemed utterly oblivious to my presence and so it took me rather off guard when he’d suddenly reached out to me over the sea of heads belonging to students who could have easily given him a satisfactory answer.

“Well sir…he’s a lawyer.” I said.

“Of course…any half-wit with a quarter of a brain could tell me that…but who was he really?” asked Forrester.

His words were swallowed up by a deep, penetrating silence under which only the florescent buzz of the overhead lights could be heard. My classmates sat facing forward, waiting for me to stammer over a clinically phrased, textbook-recited definition. I sighed deeply…knowing where this was now going to go. I could recite what he wanted to hear; the expected answer that would make its way into the percentage of my overall grade in his class and my overall favor in his mind—or I could tell him the truth.

“You really wanna know what I think?” I asked.

“I’d have not asked you otherwise Mr. Holden.” said Forrester in what I assumed he saw as his signature brand of drollness.

“I have no idea.” I said, drawing a collective guffaw from my classmates who stifled it quickly once they realized Forrester didn’t share their amused sentiment.

“And why not? I assume, such an avid reader like you has read the work. Certainly you must have read the work—after all, you come here day after day reading every other author than the one I’ve assigned you. Certainly you’re not coming to my class only to catch up on your reading.”

“What does it matter what I read in here? You’re not showing me anything I don’t already know. Besides, I don’t know why you’re busting my chops. I’m an A in this class.” I told him.

“And literature is about a single letter to you? An A? One can’t pen a great novel with only one letter Mr. Holden.” Said Forrester.

“Look dude…I don’t want to get emotionally involved in this conversation.” I shrugged.

“The theater of life is all about emotional involvement Mr. Holden…one might argue that Atticus Finch walks a fine line, on one side of which lies real emotional involvement…and now that I’d given you a rather large hint—I expect you can now articulate the answer to the question I’ve asked.”

“It’s the wrong question though.” I said.

“Pardon me?” demanded Forrester.

“It’s the wrong question.”

“Then what is the question Mr. Holden…please enlighten us.” he said, offering me a grin of absurdity.

“You have what…18 of us in here today? Young impressionable minds…fresh canvases on which to paint grand existential portraits in prose…and you’ve got us all reading To Kill a Mockingbird?”

Having read the book in great detail the previous semester at Truman High, I read through the book again when Forrester had cited it as part of his class at the beginning of the semester. I’d read through it searching for something in it that might interest me on a spiritual level—something I could relate to. Though it was brilliantly written—it simply evaded my interest. On a historical level I respected the work as a classic, however, I just couldn’t get into the groove.

“I’ve already read this book twice. I’m just not feeling it dude.” I admitted.

Not…feeling…it…dude.” said Forrester, leaning back against his boxy wooden desk and hugging himself against the sunlight cascading in through the enormous French windows as my classmates broke into riotous laughter.

Sitting forward Forrester came to life a little…stirring somewhere on the inside—where I’d thought there had only been a monotonous drone of boredom and a dark sucking void, “You’re not moved at all by Pulitzer Prize winning literature?”

“I loved Rabbit is Rich.” I shrugged.

Forrester paused a moment and matched the title with the author.

“Well, I guess the have to give the Pulitzer Prize to someone…why not Updike?” said Forrester.

“It’s an amazing work.” I said.

“Is that what you propose we all read in this class?” asked Forrester.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Well, what do you propose Mr. Holden. The clock is ticking down.”


“Specificity would be encouraged.” Nodded Forrester.

“Ok…why don’t we read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn?”

“Capricornus? So you propose that we read plagiarized porn?” inquired Forrester.

“Are we talking about the same book?” I laughed.

“If smut is what you desire—you won’t find it here, in my class.” Said Forrester.

“I suppose you think Celine is also smut.” I said.

“Ah, Celine—the dark genius…more like the dark narcissist.” Scoffed Forrester, “I’m not interested in involving my students in somber, depressing semantics penned by one of the most cynical narcissists the literary world has had to endure—Miller isn’t much better.”

“But they’ve both got something—the words are sharper somehow…there’s a jaggedness.” I said.

“Don’t you mean to say vulgarity? But one doesn’t have to be vulgar to jump off the page…there are many better ways to make use of letters.” Said Forrester.

“But some authors use vulgarity for effect.” I said, “Like Norman Mailer for instance…I can’t imagine Tough Guys Don’t Dance without all the tough talk…the narrator has to have his own voice don’t you think—whether it’s grammatically correct or not…whether it’s vulgar or not.”

“Perhaps the issue is that your young mind has been corrupted by the likes of Mailer, Celine and Miller…and now you can’t ‘feel it’—as you say—unless the writing you’re reading is wrought with vulgarity.” Suggested Forrester, raising his bushy grey brows.

“There are plenty of great authors I read who aren’t vulgar.” I assured, “I’m just saying that I find it interesting when authors color way outside the lines of contemporary prose. It doesn’t have to be vulgar for me to dig it.”

“Oh, do tell Mr. Holden…do tell.”

“I just read the Bell Jar last month…rad novel—basically no vulgarity.” I shrugged.

“If you mean to tell me that perpetually obsessing about suicide and insanity isn’t vulgar—you’re quite mistaken. You only prove my point Mr. Holden—you are obviously attracted to vulgarity and darkness…not to mention lack of discipline. You might do yourself well to embrace an upstanding author such as Harper Lee, who teaches us things about life, ourselves, and the world around us.”

“And you’re saying Charles Bukowski doesn’t have anything to say about the world around us?” I asked Forrester who grinned.

“Why is it not surprising that you also read the ever-vulgar Bukowski?” chuckled Forrester.

“So you’re canceling Bukowski?” I asked.

“I’m not canceling anyone.” Shrugged Forrester.

“You’re writing those authors off, when you should really be exposing them to your students. We have to keep reading fun…if it gets stuffy, people are going to lose interest, and thirty years from now, kids my age are going to be unoriginal, uncreative half-wits, with no clue of what great writing is—and then the world is going to have a real problem.” I shrugged, knowing that the decay of contemporary prose was most likely an inevitability.

“Well, be my guest, stand up here and read us all an excerpt from that book in your hand…show us all what we’ve been missing—show us all how fun reading can be.” suggested Forrester, raising his brows and shrugging as my classmates chuckled.

I knew what Forrester was doing…I assumed everyone knew. And as tongue in cheek as he could be—he was about to get his ass whooped by some good old Chinaski.

“You’re sure about this? You really want me to read Bukowski in your class? Once you read Bukowski, things are never quite the same again.” I chuckled, flashing my classmates an ominous grin.

“Young man, when you criticize Harper Lee you better damn well be ready to back it up.” Said Forrester.

“Nobody is criticizing Harper Lee man, I’m just saying it’s not going to really work on 1990s kids…we’re not like other generations—we’re the last great stand and far beyond our years.” I told him.

“And that means?” he inquired.

“It means that after us—it’s all going to be schwag.” I shrugged.

“The floor is yours Mr. Holden.” Said Forrester, gesturing to the floor beside his desk.

I rose from my desk and stood beside Forrester’s desk. There were 18 of my peers staring back at me, mostly grinning and on the verge of laughter. This wasn’t a literary class—it had become a satire. And perhaps expecting me to share their grins, I didn’t. I merely peered back at them all and asked a question, “You guys ready? Because what I’m about to read to you all is going to change the way you see shit. It’s going to plant an existential seed.”

A few of my classmates glanced at each other, not sure what to make of my statement. When nobody objected, I started reading from a random spot. The words came like magma, slowly and simply, burning through everything in their path, burning to the ugly and beautiful truth of the matter, the heart of darkness that exists in every man, the pitch-black hilarity, the side-splitting irony, the leather and scarred words of a drunken, bar brawling degenerate poet who’d died doing it…not trying it.

When I’d read a few pages and felt it was enough, I noticed my classmates were now wearing different expressions, wondering if perhaps I had been right all along.

“I kind of want you to keep reading.” said Christie Shields—a member of the student representative council whom I’d always thought possessed a certain vacancy, all smiles and social fluttering, glazed with a blank Stepford Wife stare. Who’d have thought she’d dig Chinaski.

“Well, as, uhm, interesting as his writing is…it’s not something appropriate for grade twelve students to be studying…perhaps it might not be a great idea for anyone to read such novels…you can’t unread what you’ve read and perhaps some ideas are better left unread.” said Forrester who released his self-hug and sighed a very long sigh.

It was too late however—the class was abuzz with an open discussion about good old Henry Chinaski. Everything 90s kids could learn was hard-won…nothing was instantaneously searchable—if you really wanted to know about something, you’d have to do research in a library…and that process always brought more meaning to whatever it was you were searching for.

“How did you find this writer?” asked Christie.

“The novel called out to me from a library shelf.” I shrugged; there was no more mystery to it.

As Forrester attempted pointlessly to corral our curiosity, and we for the most part ignored him, our discussion was disrupted suddenly by all hell breaking loose in the corner of the classroom. It was then that Wes started laughing uncontrollably, pounding on the top of his desk…completely overcome with hilarity and unable to stop. His face was red, his eyes watering, his lungs gasping for air between chuckles…and dear reader, it failed to stop. I tilted my head, studying the veins bulging in his forehead and his face that was covered in a sheen of perspiration.

“What’s up dude?” I asked him; however, my words only heightened his laughter which had now drawn all eyes, including Forrester’s. Indeed, the tab of Napalm Dreams had kicked in quicker and harder than he’d anticipated.

I’d hoped the laughter might subside and that Wes would pull it together enough to pass the outburst off as a simple and passing bout of hilarity—brought on by the Bukowski reading. However, his laughter became so severe that he gyrated out of his desk and to the floor where he landed on his ass, the impact of which only made him laugh harder; the old boy had lost it completely.

As Forrester approached Wes with a look of absurdity etched into his face, a secretary’s voice crackled through the intercom speaker, “Mr. Forrester?”

“Yes Penny.” Forrester called back without missing a beat.

“Can you send Jack Holden to Principal Gavin’s office please?” the voice crackled.

“I shall.” Forrester said absently, scratching his head and peering down at Wes who was still possessed with mad laughter.

Upon hearing the intercom message, Wes widened his eyes at me and made a scary face before volleying into another bout of uncontrollable laughter. “That’s what I call an immediate reprimand! Forrester must have a button under his desk!” he cried with laughter. The rest of the students sat in silence, amusement brightening their faces as they glanced at one another in disbelief.

“What the hell is wrong with him?” asked Forrester.

I just shrugged, collected my books from my desk and gave Wes a last look before heading to the office. As I made my way down the main hallway that was lit up with bright orange rays of morning sunlight cascading in through the many French windows; the purgatory ebbed into a foreboding sensation. I wondered if it would be my last trip down that hallway.

In the office, I found Gavin perched behind her desk, her short hair spiked and her designer frames balancing on the end of her nose as she squinted at a dossier. Her chest was red from sunburn and coarse with middle age…I wondered if she tanned topless as she looked up at me and pleasantly offered me a seat. I sat and waited for her to finish scanning the dossier. When she was through reading it, she tossed it on a stack of others scattered across her desk.

“Hi Jack…how ya doing?” she asked, removing her glasses and massaging her eyes.

“You tell me…” I said.

“Well, I’m a little concerned…it’s been brought to my attention that you had a conversation with Malcolm Curtis. Unlike the Crestwater Gazette, that’s printed and distributed here at Crestwater—the publication Malcolm Curtis writes for is not an official publication of this school. That may be a grey area, but what is definitely not a grey area is our code of conduct here at Crestwater High. We’re expected to treat our fellow classmates and their families with the same respect we expect to be treated with.” Gavin said, letting her words settle in the air like thick black smoke.

“I try to be cool to everyone.” I said.

“Look, I’m an empath…I know you have a good heart…and that’s why I was quite surprised when I was made aware of your comments about Gregory Locksmith’s mother.” Said Gavin, squinting at me—as if I was missing a grandiose point.

I thought back, sifting again for the exact words, however, they were a wash of vagueness being that I hadn’t been paying much attention, “What did I say exactly?” I inquired.

“You don’t remember?” Gavin asked, her expression amused and surprised all at once. She knocked her head back and let out a loud guffaw toward the ceiling before replacing her designer frames back on the bridge of her nose and looking at me intensely, “I like you…you’re a funny kid…but really, you’ve put me in a difficult position here and I have no real choice but to suspend you…I don’t want to do it…I’m not some uptight puritan who can’t take a joke; I see what you were going for with your statement…but I can tell you—Alderman Locksmith didn’t quite see the humor in you suggesting that his wife had been drinking daiquiris and swallowing a cocktail of pharmaceuticals during her pregnancy…and their son now suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome! I mean, come on Jack…what did you think was going to happen when that got printed?”

“These things are taken out of context.” I sighed.

“I’ve spoken with Malcolm about that possibility but he assures me that he’d recorded it all on a handheld he uses to record class lectures. He’s offered to show me the tape. I mean, we can review the tape if you request…but if I was you, I’d just take the suspension and avoid a shit storm with the Locksmith family…it’s only 5 days.” said Gavin.

“The Locksmith family…” I said, “I should have known that guy wouldn’t fight his own battles.”

“That may be true, but you should pick your battles more carefully.” suggested Gavin.

“He picked it with me.” I said.

“And you fell for it…take my advice…ignore kids like Locksmith.” Warned Gavin, raising her brows.

“So, you’re suspending me because Locksmith’s dad put pressure on you to do so?” I asked.

“Incorrect…initially, when Alderman Locksmith called me and demanded that I expel you from this school, I’d decided to offer you a week in detention hall instead. However, I’m suspending you because it’s what the school board has asked me to do after Alderman Locksmith contacted them and made a big deal out of this.

In my view, what you did doesn’t warrant expulsion and secondly, I have an idea of what you went through to transfer here and I think you deserve a second chance. Thirdly, I’m running this school…not Alderman Locksmith. Do you understand what I’m saying here?”

“So basically, take the suspension and shut the hell up.” I said with a nod.

“Pretty much.” Gavin said returning the nod, “Take the days off…do your homework and we’ll see you next week.”

I sat there looking at her shaking my head, in slight disbelief…knowing there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Evidently Locksmith and his old man had some influence and I was merely some punk-ass kid from Truman Park who’d gotten enrolled at Crestwater by the seat of my pants. So be it.

After thanking Gavin for not expelling me, I strolled down the hallway, admiring the orange rays of morning sun flooding the hallways through the tall French windows, relieved that it wouldn’t be my last walk down the hall…I’d be back after what seemed more like a public shaming than a suspension. I’d been suspended before at Truman High; the sensation wasn’t new. However, this time being suspended seemed more severe…as if I was being reminded of some simple facts, by a community that didn’t quite want me and certainly didn’t need me.

I stopped at my locker and collected the textbooks I needed to study, as well as my stash of Supernova Champagne that I kept in a film canister on the top shelf of my locker. I dumped everything into my backpack, slung it over my shoulder, grabbed my skateboard and headed toward the north exit. I stopped at a window overlooking the front grounds, where students on spares sat in groups, smoking it up. A surge of dread washed over me just then, knowing that by the end of the day, my suspension would be the talk of Crestwater now that Malcolm and Locksmith had made their feud so public. I wasn’t collateral damage however…I was the reason Locksmith had penned his column in the first place. His sites were set on me, and he’d had his old man pull the trigger.

When I rounded the corner into the stairwell, I noticed Locksmith ascending the stairs…it was too perfect…and in no way a coincidence. The universe was offering me an opportunity or perhaps a test. I wouldn’t know which until the smoke cleared. I stopped and looked at him, climbing the stairs with his medicine ball head, as if it was filled with helium and floating him upward. When he noticed me, his lips curled into a vicious little grin—his true nature and one he showed nobody.

“Leaving us so soon?” he smiled.

“It ain’t an expulsion jerk-off. It’s only a week-long suspension. Evidently Gavin didn’t bow down to the demands of your dad—who’s obviously as much of a bitch as you are.” I laughed, “I didn’t realize you’re such a daddy’s girl.”

“At least I have a father. Have fun in Truman Park for the next week…maybe you can bide your time stealing car stereos with the rest of the degenerate kids from broken homes.” said Locksmith.

“Is that supposed to insult me, daddy’s girl?” I asked.

“Is calling me a daddy’s girl supposed to insult me?” demanded Locksmith, “And by the way, my father is a respected leader of the community.”

“But Locksmith, you don’t really believe he’s your real father do you?” I laughed, “I mean, your mom is probably such a gold-digging slut, your daddy could really be any Emerald-Heights aristocrat.”

Locksmith’s face started to twitch and it turned a deep shade of red and when his lips tightened to form a gob of spit, I held my skateboard up at the last second, so the spittle landed against the screaming hand sticker across the bottom. I was glad that I’d been holding the board for otherwise, Locksmith would have spit in my face.

When I turned my head back, I saw he was gone…as if he’d vanished into thin air. Stepping from the stairwell back into the hallway, I saw him awkwardly sprinting down the hallway, with his arched back, knocked-knees, and child-bearing hips…looking like a pregnant woman jogging; his flood pants and argyle socks cutting through the air and his oxfords clacking against the tiles with his rapid strides, perhaps thinking I was giving chase.

After stopping in the bathroom to wash, with a soapy paper towel, Locksmith’s spittle from my best board, I made my way to my van. The sun had disappeared behind a mixture of heavy smog and in-moving cloud, causing the streets to lose their luster and the palm trees to lose their sparkle. As I pulled out of the parking lot the wind picked up, blowing leaves across the asphalt. I lit one up and turned the volume nearly to full—it was Eleanor’s PIL cassette and I let it roll.

What in the world? Indeed. Eleanor was the first girl I’d met who liked the same things I did, and I dug her like fireworks…as I drove I wondered what she’d think once the news traveled back to her—perhaps through Locksmith himself; he seemed like the sort of bastard who’d love telling her face-to-face that he’d gotten me suspended so that he might gauge her reaction and in turn gauge his chances of slithering his way back into her heart. I saw it all unfold before me as I drove east on Hollywood Blvd. which at that hour was gridlocked and sweltering. I lit up some Supernova Champagne and moved along in traffic at a snail’s pace, wishing the sun would come back out.

At home the house was empty…my mom was still at work and my brother was in one of his college classes. I had a few more puffs of the Champagne and kicked back on the couch in my room, strumming the guitar to some vocal melodies that had been swimming through my mind. The waves of melody were lulling and meditative yet full of fire and brimstone…a lighting crash exploding out into the atmosphere and rumbling off far into the distance. Hearing the simplicity of the vocal melody over top of the complex guitar riff, I felt I achieved real magic in making it all sound like love at first sight, as if one’s heart might spontaneously combust if they’d only let it.

As I began working on a bridge—the cordless phone rang, shattering my contemplation with a nudge back into the immediate reality.

“Yeah.” I answered.

“Jacky boy!” sang Walt through a bad connection.

“Walter Mayer—bass player extraordinaire.” I said.

“You know it man…hey, you live in Truman Park right?” he asked.

“I sure do.” I said.

“Where abouts? The Phantom and I are at a payphone on Flamingo and 2nd Ave. Is your place close by?” he asked.

“I’m actually only a few minutes from that intersection.” I said.

“This place is crazy—it’s like a movie. What’s your address…we’re going to drop by and see you—I got some news and I want to tell it to you in person.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be in class over at Cartwright?” I asked.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in class at Crestwater?” chuckled Walt.

“I got suspended today.” I told him.

“What? Why?” he demanded.

“Locksmith’s old man flexed his influence.” I said.

“Who the hell is Locksmith?” asked Walt.

“Humbucker’s father is Locksmith’s dad’s attorney.”

“Sounds par for the course. But never mind all that…I’ve got news that’s going to put the fire back in your balls. What’s your address…we’re going to get shot if we stand here much longer.”

I gave Walt the address and clicked off, returning to the silent contemplation my bedroom offered. I sat there for a few minutes, blowing some smoke rings wondering if in my case, all work and no play made Jack a dull boy. After a few more minutes, I headed downstairs and waited on the front steps, taking the cordless phone with me in case Eleanor called me from the Crestwater pay phone for details.

As I waited for Walt and the Phantom, I watched the dregs of Truman Park wander and stagger up and down the sidewalks. Gangbangers drove by many of them packed into the same car…perhaps looking for a drive-by opportunity or a lemonade stand. The prostitutes stood out on the corner in plain view, the bottom of their diseased infested asses hanging out of their miniskirts…a group of city workers stood around in high visibility vests, chewing gum and cat-calling passing women…a police helicopter circled the palms in the distance…a fire truck rushed through the intersection with its lights ablaze and it’s siren screaming. The engine turned hard in the intersection, looking as if the momentum might roll it over…however, the wheels remained planted and it moved on, slowing gradually until it came to a stop before a house mid-way down the next block.

As always, sirens beget sirens and soon enough a squad car and an ambulance pulled up outside the house on the next block. I watched from my place on the front steps as people started wandering their way out of their houses and congregating on the street in hopes of spectating a mishap of social order…a drug bust…or perhaps a body covered in a sheet. I had no interest in seeing another covered body wheeled from another Truman Park residence.

It was then that Walt and the Phantom pulled up into an oil-blotted spot directly in front of my mom’s house. As they strolled casually across the street, they peered down the lane at the gathering spectacle on the next block.

“Wonder what’s going on down there?” said Walt, lighting one up and peering down the street.

“I don’t.” I said, “What’s up? Lay this news on me.”

As the Phantom remained entranced by all the flickering responder lights, a smile spread across Walt’s face as he swigged from his flask before offering me a haul.

“I’m good.” I said.

“Well, well, well…if it ain’t your lucky day today Jack Holden.” said Walt.

“You have no idea what my fucking day has been like.” I laughed.

“Well…whatever the case…it’s about to get a whole lot better. I was talking to Carson Brier today…”

“Who’s Carson Brier?” I asked.

“Carson Brier is the man behind the man behind the fucking man…he’s part owner of the Backyard and he also happens to be overseeing the board that makes the decision on which bands get picked to play at the Backyard’s battle of the bands—the show we’ve all been aiming for!”

“And?” I shrugged.

“And he’s heard our demo recording.” said Walt.

“What demo recording? We don’t have one.”

“Oh but we do…the Phantom and I record every rehearsal…the song we put together last time, Mrs. Moffat’s Pussycat went down on tape…several times in fact—we made it sound real nice on the 16 track. Out of the 19 takes we did, the 14th was the best; flawless.

We did a bit of mixing, isolated it, converted it to cassette and the Phantom’s sister showed it to Brier…last night. She’s known the guy for years.” laughed Walt.

The two broke out laughing and I scratched my head, trying to understand better the magnitude of what I was hearing, “Hold on, you’re telling me what exactly?”

“Well Jack—it’s like this,” said Walt, joining me on the front steps and swinging an arm over my shoulders, “I’m saying that all we have to do is fill out an application form and we’re in at the Backyard…it’s that simple…its fate man…pure fate—that and talent.” said Walt.

“What did he say about the song?” I asked.

“Who cares?” exclaimed Walt.

“I do…I want to be chosen based on talent…not based on a favor Brier owes the Phantom’s sister.” I said.

“The entire industry is based on favors man…and besides, he said he’s had the song on repeat in his car stereo for days—it’s good news.” said Walt.

“He said that?” I asked.

“He said he’s had that song on repeat in his car for days.” Assured Walt as another fire engine passed by, raving with sirens. It was followed by an ambulance that didn’t bother to avoid any of the debris strewn about the street.

“Wow…then we gotta get some more songs in the bag…” I said, the clouds clearing in my heart, giving way to a cracking dawn of brilliant vermillion rays.

“You ain’t shitting man…we gotta get after it tonight!” exclaimed Walt, “We figured we’d pick you up and talk about all of this on the way over to the Phantom’s den. I say we lock ourselves in the jam room for the entire weekend…no exceptions…and get a new batch of songs in the bag. We’re going to jam all night, then crash out, wake up in that jam room the next day and get right back at it—don’t rinse but definitely repeat!”

“I’ve got nothing else to do. By the way, I’ve got a van now—I’ll follow you out there. Let me grab my sleeping bag though—I’ll camp out in the alley behind the Phantom’s garage.” I said, gesturing to my van sitting pretty and sleek and black against the curb.

“That’s a sweet ride.” said Walt, shaking his head and taking another puff.

“You’re telling me.” I said.

“Alright, we’ll give you a punkadelic escort across town.” said Walt.

I was rising from my place on the front steps and taking a last swill from the can when a familiar car pulled up behind Walt’s car. I recognized the car as Wes’ father’s Audi. I could tell it a mile away because of the plastic sheeting that was still taped to the back window after a brick had been thrown through it. Sure enough, April was behind the wheel. Behind her in the back seat was Wes and he was gazing out the open window with childlike wonder…a lollipop in his cheek and a grin on his face…he clearly had no idea where he was, or perhaps who he was…the Napalm Dream that had absorbed into his tongue had taken him far off, into an extrasensory land of chemical dreams and Penrose staircases. Beside April in the passenger seat sat Eleanor who was trying to hand Wes a bottle of water, to which he was totally oblivious.

I strolled across the lawn and into the street, soccer-kicking my empty pop can high and into the gutter on the other side of the street. Walt and the Phantom followed suit, strolling across the cracked asphalt nearly in step with each other. Once at the Audi, I realized Wes was in worse shape than I’d originally thought…he was muttering to himself as he rose from the back seat, looking very intensely at his hand as he ran his other hand over the palm. He looked up at me suddenly, “Is my hand wet?”

I looked at his hand, which was bone dry and shook my head, “No man.” I said and offered him a smoke. Believing his hands were wet, Wes leaned in carefully and took the smoke from my fingers with his teeth, as if he were an animal accepting an offered snack.

“What the fuck happened to him? What did he do?” demanded April.

“He called it Napalm Dreams.” I told her.

“What a fucktard.” April snapped, pushing her palms surprisingly hard against his chest so he stumbled back slightly, still wearing his wondrous smile.

“And you just let him do it?” demanded Eleanor.

“He kind of just did it. What was I supposed to do?” I shrugged.

“It’s really bad…they sent him to the nurse who sent him home. I think she knows what’s up.” said April, slightly panicked, “I should take him home…but I don’t want his parents to see him like this. His father will shit bricks…they’re already fighting a lot because of the rear windshield.”

“I’m Walter Mayer, bass player extraordinaire.” Walt said to April, extending a hand which she shook absently before steadying Wes who was following an imaginary butterfly.

“I heard about the suspension.” said Eleanor, moving in for a hug, “I was so mad at Gregory today…I don’t think I’ve ever been that mad at anyone.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked.

“She clocked him good.” said April.

“Clocked him?” I asked Eleanor.

“I bitch slapped him in front of everyone…Mr. Grady then sent me to Gavin’s office, and she suspended me too.” said Eleanor, “I don’t regret it though…”

“Shit Eleanor…you shouldn’t have done that…I don’t want you getting suspended because of me.” I said.

“I got suspended because of Gregory—not you.” Said Eleanor.

As Eleanor explained to me her discussion with principal Gavin and Walt chatted up April who leaned against the car hugging herself, and the Phantom obliviously tore away at a large stick of beef jerky with his teeth; the fire truck down the street started up and moved back toward us.

Finding no fire, the truck headed back to the old fire station—leaving the crime scene for the homicide squad most likely. As the massive red truck carefully rounded its way onto Truman Park Blvd…careful not to mow down any of the congregated spectators milling around; Wes darted off down the street suddenly, sprinting with surprising speed. We all stood there watching Wes sprint down the street toward the intersection…indeed, I wasn’t certain at that point why Wes hadn’t joined the track team…for his velocity was impressive and he didn’t seem to tire easily.

In a suspended state of disbelief, April set a palm over her mouth when Wes made it to the intersection and grabbed hold of a bar on the rear of the fire truck and hoisted himself up onto the back of the rig, climbing to the top, where the base of the extendable ladder was fastened to the truck itself. As the truck revved and pulled away from the intersection, taking Wes with it—April frantically got back into Wes’ father’s Audi and sparked the engine. Surprisingly Walt and the Phantom joined her in the car. The Phantom buckled in, however, Walt hung himself halfway out of the car and balanced on the sill of the unrolled window declaring with a pointing finger, “Follow that motherfucking fire truck!”

The three pulled away from the curb with a loud squeal which burned black treads into the cracked asphalt, leaving Eleanor and I in a small cloud of burned rubber and exhaust. When the cloud cleared, I wrapped an arm around Eleanor’s waist and we made our way toward my front steps.

“Your stepmom is going to shit.” I said.

“I know…I think my dad is going to join her; but know what—I don’t really care—not this time. Gregory really had that coming. He’s been such a shit about this whole thing…I can’t even. So the wicked stepmom can do her worst…I stand by my actions.”

“Well…if it gets too intense over there…you’re welcome to stay here with me as long as you want. You know my mom is cool with that.” I said.

“Your mom is one cool lady.” nodded Eleanor, “Wish my stepmom could be cool like that.”

“What about your actual mom?” I asked.

“She’ll lecture me—then advise me to go on a shopping spree with her credit card.” Eleanor laughed.

It was understood and we walked back across the street to my front steps where we would wait for April, Walt, and the Phantom to return, presumably with a very discombobulated Wes. It was the mid-1990s and it all belonged to us.

Chapter 5: Lusty Lacy Laura

Though my plan had been to request that Eleanor stay with us for a while, I didn’t have to mention it, as my mom offered the option to Eleanor on her own accord; citing that she was always welcome to stay in our home as long as she needed to. So I was at least able to have Eleanor with me during my exile from Crestwater—the first three days of which I spent camped in the alley outside the Phantom’s garage. He ran an extension cord to my van, from which Eleanor and I had extracted the rear seats to make some camping space. Each night in the Phantom’s alleyway, after a marathon rehearsal; I made myself comfortable beside Eleanor in the back of my van, with the blackout curtains on the windows, snuggling in my sleeping bag while watching videos on the TV/VHS machine I’d commandeered from my bedroom and balanced on a piece of plywood rested across the armrests of the two front seats. I’d also brought in a Styrofoam cooler, in which I kept beer, cold cuts, and Eleanor’s various fruit juices icy cold; urban camping at its very best.

During that weekend Walt, the Phantom, and I turned down the static frequencies so we could make out the electromagnetic currents of inspiration—gifts whispered to us on the breath of long-lost Hollywood ghosts. We became so deeply immersed in the work that the outside world seemed to fall away in thin layers until there was only left a platform hovering in frozen space-time—a life raft upon which we floated, with our instruments and amplifiers, exploring the unchartered seas of cosmic, punkadelic composition.

That was until several complaints prompted the Phantom’s father to walk in on us one night and meekly and apologetically explain to us that though a couple of hours a night in the jam room was perfectly tolerable to the neighbors—the constant boom of our marathon rehearsals was driving some neighbors insane…quite literally. Luckily by late Sunday night, we’d gotten done most of what we’d set out to get done. Though I wished we could have stayed locked in the rehearsal room for another week; I was grateful for the time we’d been allowed by the patience of neighbors.

When Eleanor and I returned to my mom’s house in Truman Park, things didn’t seem right. Finding myself with a week off from classes at Crestwater was strangely disconcerting to me. Though my columns were all straight capital A’s…I wasn’t a grade point clocker or a brown-nosing blowhard or even an extracurricular scenester. Rather I missed the commute, the early morning sativa haze, the class lectures, the after-school specials, the lulling calm of the 1960’s décor and the sedative effect of sunny suburban bliss…it had acted as a drug and by that Wednesday I found myself going through withdrawal. This is to say that I’d become wonderstruck by the walls of the Crestwater sanctuary I’d gone to such great lengths to attend and being suddenly banished from those walls left me with the feeling that I’d somehow made a mistake. Certainly, I’d fucked up…but making a mistake seemed worse than a simple fuckup. Perhaps a defining element of this cloudy disposition was the knowledge that it was all going on without me…as if I hadn’t even existed at Crestwater…as if Locksmith and his alderman father had successfully erased me from the annals of Crestwater High history with a stroke of their privilege. In short—I felt like I’d been sent home from summer camp and had to now spend a fortnight banished from the kingdom.

Still, it seemed everyone had their problems and I learned one evening exactly how much of a shambles Eleanor’s home life was, mainly because of her wicked stepmother and her father’s ongoing mid-life crisis. I sat quietly one evening, sipping a can of pop as Eleanor explained to my mom, nearly nonchalantly, the psychological abuse her stepmother constantly imposed on her. Perhaps the pinnacle of this bizarre campaign of cruelty was perfectly defined when the wicked stepmother had taken Eleanor’s father’s gold card from his wallet, charged alcohol on it, and subsequently planted it in Eleanor’s room only to miraculously discover it one afternoon while cleaning Eleanor’s bedroom. Her stepmother had subsequently reported the ominous find to Eleanor’s father—who had chosen immediately to side with his diabolically insane ex-stewardess trophy wife. Eleanor laughed about it as my mom and I listened in disbelief.

Though he shared joint custody of Eleanor with her filthy rich socialite mother who was frequently jet-setting with her new and substantially younger husband to far-off and exotic locations in the world; Eleanor’s father, who was frequently away on pilot business, insisted Eleanor stay mostly with him, so she could be supervised by her wicked stepmother. This meant Eleanor’s domestic hell was basically full-time. Eleanor eventually came around to explain our afternoon at Crestwater and how she’d wound up and slapped Locksmith across the face in the school cafeteria in front of an audience of students and teachers…she’d explained in detail the wobble of Locksmith’s cheek and the way his spectacles had shaken loose and fallen to the floor and how, as he squatted to pick them up, he’d let out a gargantuan and painful sounding flatulent. My mom had been seized by laughter that was so sudden and intense it drew her tears which she dabbed at afterward with a tissue, apologizing for laughing but citing the visual as one of pure hilarity. She next warned me to stay out of Locksmith’s way…explaining to me in a frank tone that such a kid wasn’t worth being expelled from Crestwater over, and subsequently reminded me of the trouble I’d gone through to enroll. It seemed things at Crestwater had at least come to a head and perhaps moving forward, we could all coexist in at least indifference if not peace.

Every night that week, I took solace in working on the compositions that would eventually make up a full set of amphetamine-charged songs that were specifically designed to blow minds and incite suburban rebellion and the dawning of a new improved consciousness. Walt on the other hand subscribed to the belief that if our shows didn’t end in fiery destruction and spontaneously combustible anarchy—we weren’t doing our job correctly. Indeed, Walt was full of ideas…stage props, spotlight antics, and George A. Romero gore that would collectively spellbind an audience of rabid teens. He wanted to hypnotize them with a colorfast of chaos and teen angst…he wanted to incite a proverbial textbook burning…one which he hoped would spread and catch fire to the establishment of social grace and upright tradition they’d all been raised on in Emerald Heights…turning it on its head with Gen X revolution. I wasn’t sure if Walt was a demon seed or just a great gimmick man—indeed there seemed to be a fine line.

In response to Walt’s general goal, the Phantom usually shrugged, took a bong hit, and said ‘radness dude’. I on the other hand felt that though it was entirely possible to roll in like a punkadelic hurricane with fire and brimstone—the truth remained that without great songs, we were only a sideshow. Great songs were the key as far as I was concerned and indeed, I stayed up late into the wee hours each night composing on the guitar as Eleanor slept curled up on my bed and the helicopters circled overhead. I’d grin to myself after completing a great composition…each of which I felt I’d never surpass in terms of creative prowess, but each time seemed to do so—I’d found the ancient emptiness that lined the streets with innocence, and it was magical.

Eventually however, our banishment from Crestwater was over and when Eleanor and I returned to Crestwater the following week, we learned quite quickly that Locksmith and company had managed to successfully implement skateboarding restrictions on school property; they’d officially made it a crime. We stood for a few moments gazing at the new metal sign bolted to the wall beside the entrance doors which read in bold black lettering: Skateboarding is strictly prohibited on school property. Violators will be prosecuted. Comically, someone had changed prosecuted to persecuted, with the help of some white-out and a clever marker.

“What a joke.” I laughed, giving Eleanor a squeeze.

“This is only going to further inflate Gregory’s sense of self-importance and entitlement—not to mention the size of his head.” sighed Eleanor.

“Well his head is already like a medicine ball.” I laughed, causing Eleanor to smile a smile she felt she shouldn’t have been smiling and she tried to conceal it to no avail.

Indeed, it seemed utterly absurd to me that Locksmith and his team of Crestwater Gazette minions had all simultaneously taken such a hardline stance against the skateboarding, live music-loving, counterculture at Crestwater. It seemed the idea of a kid standing atop a board with four small wheels and coasting from here to there, was indeed a menace they certainly couldn’t live with. It occurred to me that Locksmith and his camp were picking carefully selected campaign strategies not only to justify their position as the official Crestwater publication but also to create new mandates, which to them equaled power.

Power: the definition was elusive and certainly relative to one’s own priorities. I saw a great river as power…I saw a thunderstorm as power. More immediately, I saw writing a great song as a form of power, whereas Locksmith saw power as his parent’s money, his social standing or a sign prohibiting skateboarding. In the same way, I saw his flood pants, enlarged cranium, and his girlishly flailing way of running as evidence of a botched pregnancy—where I suppose he saw it as prep school pantomime.

We were from different worlds and for reasons unknown to me, Eleanor preferred my world to the privileged world of Locksmith. It had surprised the shit out of me and probably most everyone else at Crestwater. After all, they perceived me as a stray dog from the hard hood…a brooding street urchin with some bad-boy luster. Some argued that our coupling said more about Eleanor than it did about me. Whatever the case, I realized I’d never completely understand Eleanor…it seemed I could contemplate the mysteries of the cosmos before I could contemplate Eleanor Price. Still, I had to wonder why she preferred a Truman Park kid to such an Ivy League prince like Locksmith. Perhaps it was because among my lands, she was entirely free to roam in any shape she chose to take. Perhaps Locksmith expected Eleanor to live up to too many expectations. Perhaps Eleanor was tired of expectations.

Indeed, regarding Locksmith’s sign and the new mandate it enforced; I rolled up on my skateboard each day and at the end of each day I rolled back to the school parking lot in the same fashion—all as Carter Bell, Crestwater Gazette’s primary photographer snapped photos of me doing so and each time he did, I offered a new and creative way to flip him and his camera the bird and on some occasions, the double bird.

Indeed he also snapped photos of many other Crestwater skaters doing the same, but it was my photo that always seemed to get published in the Gazette—never failing to be captioned by dull wit that was intended to slice and dice but came out in print as a dull plastic butter knife. On top of this, we’d heard that Locksmith had forwarded all our photos to Principal Gavin as weekly reports, however, none of us who continued to ride our boards on school property were summoned to Gavin’s office for that reason. And so it went; a photographic smear campaign that was greatly ignored by the majority of Crestwater skaters as well as principal Gavin who seemed to have bigger fish to fry.

Unfortunately, Locksmith didn’t have bigger fish to fry, and I’d one day been brought a copy of the weekly Gazette depicting Wes and I standing on the sidewalk, officially off school property passing a blunt back and forth and giving the finger to our favorite Crestwater Gazette photographer. Our photo set had been lumped into a particularly thorough, reputation-smearing, photo collage consisting of many other students partaking in the same daily ritual. The collage had been titled ‘Dazed and Confused at Crestwater’ and the accompanying article lambasted the skateboarders of Crestwater once again…this time ostracizing us for smoking blunts on school property.

Indeed, when asked about this alleged photographic evidence, I’d shrug and usually utter with a weary sigh that we’d been on city property…not school property. Looking for a retort, the folks at the Right World Times sent several of their most prestigious journalists out into the halls of Crestwater High in order to document some feedback from students that had been included in the collage. I’d not bothered dodging the Right World people as I assumed without hesitation that the Right World crew had heard of my suspension over my previous Locksmith comments published in their publication and knew much better than to ask me for a repeat performance. I’d been so certain they’d never approach me again for comment that I was slightly baffled when I was approached in a second-floor washroom by Chet Stokely—Right World’s rising star wolverine journalist. As I let a stream of piss splash into one of the urinals, he called out from behind me.

“Hi Jack. Can I ask you a few questions about the recent Op-Ed piece in the Crestwater Gazette?” Chet asked. I wondered why he felt initiating the conversation at a public pisser was indeed the best setting.

“Can’t you see I’m taking a piss?” I asked him over my shoulder.

“Certainly…continue.” he said and ridiculously waited nearby in silence.

When I finished pissing, I walked over to the sink where I lathered up my hands. I looked up at Stokely through the water-stained mirror. Over my shoulder I found him standing impatiently and rigid, his pen poised over the small pad he held in his other hand.

“How does it make you feel that the Gazette is infringing on the privacy of Crestwater students by following them around with cameras?” he asked with a wrinkle of concern forming between his brows.

“Are you for fucking cereal dude?” I laughed, “You just followed me into the pisser with a fucking notepad!”

“I’m very serious…photos of you breaking school mandates have been repeatedly published in the Gazette.” He said.

“You guys really think I’m going to fall for that shit again?” I laughed.

“What shit?” he inquired, pushing up his bulky frames with a finger.

“Dude, you guys sold me up the river and got me suspended last time I talked to you…” I said.

“We didn’t get anyone suspended. The fascist Locksmith family got you suspended my friend…which is exactly why you should comment and illustrate to everyone that fascists can’t block our basic freedoms by way of coercion, influence, or intimidation.”

“Whatever…Malcolm Curtis could have printed my comment anonymously—he wanted to name names though…and that’s because he didn’t want to take the heat for it. He wanted me to take the heat.” I said, drying my hands on a napkin, “To me that makes him a pussy ass bitch…what’s worse it makes him a fraud.”

“You’re mistaken Jack…your comment was published because you gave Malcolm permission to publish it.” said Stokely.

“I didn’t think he’d name names. I thought it was…understood.” I said.

“Personal opinions are important, even if they are insulting.” nodded Stokely as he scribbled down what I’d just said.

“You’re not really going to publish what I just said are you?” I laughed.

“That’s for our editor to decide. And by the way, Locksmith is the one you should be blaming…he’s pretty much trying to get you kicked out of Crestwater—that’s the word off the record. Do you have any comment on that?” he prodded, waiting with his pen poised.

“Yeah, why don’t y’all go do some real reporting?” I asked.

“Like what?” asked Stokely, pushing up his thick frames.

“You’re the so-called journalist…you figure it out.” Said I as I walked away, balling up the paper towel and volleying it as if it were a basketball into the wastebasket beside the doorway.

It seemed that I’d had another close brush with controversy—which I was indeed trying to avoid. Still, it seemed as though controversy was looking for me that week, and find me it did, on a Friday afternoon, as I sat in the library, completing an essay on the JFK assassination for Holland’s class—an essay which detailed arguments that supported his theory of a grassy knoll shooter. I simply could not dismiss the Zapruder film evidence—back and to the left.

It had been Lucille Hearst who’d approached me at my quiet library table, wedging herself down into the chair across from me, sipping from a can of pop and handing me a copy of the Right World Times, opened to the page in question.

“Have you seen this shit?” she asked.

“What are these fucking geeks on about now?” I said, not bothering to glance over it.

Lucille Hearst and I shared two classes and occasionally chatted about assignments and lectures over a blunt. I’d allowed her to copy my notes a few times and for it she was ever grateful. You see Lucille was a self-proclaimed sufferer of attention deficit disorder…a condition which she self-medicated with copious amounts of grass, black market Ritalin and special brownies.

She started reading the text slowly as I tried to finish writing my closing argument. Slightly frustrated that Lucille was distracting me from perhaps my finest essay yet, I sighed and set my pencil down…listening haphazardly to her recite the pertinent section of the Right World article.

“…not all Crestwater students care to exist in a just and fair academic environment. A prime example of this indifference is Crestwater High student Jack Holden, who—when asked how he felt about being berated in another scathing, privacy-infringing photo collage featured in the hard-left Crestwater Gazette—surprisingly took issue with the Right World Times, calling our editor in chief a ‘Pussy-ass-bitch’, adding that he believes the Right World Times doesn’t report on any topics that really matter. We respectfully disagree Mr. Holden and remind out-of-district students that just because they have nothing invested in our school; Crestwater issues still matter.”

“Jack ass.” I sighed.

“Just thought you’d want to know.” said Lucille.

Indeed, it was true, I’d been shamed again, even if it was only in the eyes of a small group of students who’d expected me to side with them solely because of my distaste for our common enemy and resident medicine ball head. So it seemed dear reader that I’d managed to make enemies on both sides of the political spectrum at Crestwater High and I’d done it with surprising ease.

Truman Park kids were neither on one side nor the other…they were usually too busy weathering poverty and avoiding violence to care much about who was bucking for top dog. I suppose I wasn’t surprised when two days after the Right World publication was released, I was again summoned to Gavin’s office through a classroom intercom. As I sat across from Gavin who was reading through some paperwork, I wondered silently if this was all part of a very proper and passive-aggressive campaign of elaborateness that was aimed toward expelling the unwanted dregs from their thin slice of suburban bliss.

“Mr. Holden…” sighed Mrs. Gavin, finally looking up at me and taking note of my solemn expression she added, “…do you never smile?”

I offered a forced grin, letting it fade into my perpetual thousand-yard stare. There is a lot to be said for an expressionless gaze…for it alludes to nothing and represents nothing and leaves the other person with absolutely no idea what you’re feeling or thinking or about to do.

“Alrighty…so, Jack…we’ve talked about being careful when chatting with anyone involved in school publications…and I’ve been contacted this time by Mrs. Webster…she’s a bit furious about something she’d read in the East World paper or whatever they call it these days…it was something you said—again.” said Gavin with a comically ominous raise of her brow.

“I’m impressed.” I said.

“How’s that?”

“Well…I’m impressed that anyone actually even reads those boring publications…they seem like just a bunch of tight asses exchanging political barbs.”

“Did you call Malcolm Curtis—and I quote—a pussy-ass-bitch?” asked Gavin from behind her boxy desk.

“Look, Stokely approached me in the washroom as I was taking a leak…and he stood by asking me questions. Essentially, I told him that I wasn’t going to go on record after the last time.” I told Gavin as I noticed a box of Kleenex on one corner of the desk and I could only assume it was for students who broke down in tears while being scolded.

“What’s the Kleenex for?” I asked, “You get a lot of students in here crying on your desk?”

“Some do. I’m not just the principal here at Crestwater; I’m a friend, a cheerleader, a guidance counselor, and den mother all wrapped into one. Students sometimes come in here to tell me their problems…talk about the issues they’re facing. It’s okay to get emotional. A lot of the time I’m just here to listen. If you ever need to talk to me about anything…my door is always open. We could start now by you telling me what’s caused all of that damage inside of you.”

“What damage?” I asked.

“Look Jack, you can cut the crap. I’m an empath with a psychology degree. I felt your damage the very first time I spoke with you. I know damage…so, are you going to tell me what’s going on in there?” said Gavin sitting back in her swivel chair with a creak so a sun ray cascading in through the window illuminated half of her face.

“I wouldn’t even know where to start Mrs. Gavin…it’s hard to tell where the mess ends and the disaster begins…and besides…I’m from Truman Park…” I said.

“What does being from Truman Park have to do with anything?” she asked, tilting her head curiously.

“People in Truman Park don’t seek psychoanalysis…they get drunk or they get high or they shoot up a corner store.” I laughed.

“Certainly it can’t be that coarse.” she said thoughtfully.

“You wouldn’t understand.” I assured.

“You just might be surprised by the challenges Crestwater students face–the competition is stiff around these hallways…there’s a lot of pressure put on students here by parents and teachers…there are very high expectations in many cases and ever higher stakes…you might be surprised if you asked some of your fellow classmates.”

“You mean all the pampered dilettantes I have classes with?” I laughed.

“Is that what you think?” asked Gavin.

“You really want to know what I think?” I asked.

“I do.” nodded Gavin.

“All these Emerald Heights kids have it made coming out of the gate. Even if they decide to be losers and aspire to nothing, they’ll still inherit the family fortunes when their parents kick-off. They got it made coming out of the gate and they know it.”

“Much of that is true. What’s also true is that if you don’t deal with emotional traumas when they happen…they might come calling later in life and when you least expect them to.”

I absorbed this possibility as I stared back at Gavin with a stony expression, “Great…something to look forward to.” I said, offering her the grin she’d been looking for.

Gavin looked at me biting her lip very seriously. After a moment she snapped out of her trance and sighed deeply, “Well, in any case, I need you to read this over and sign it.” said Gavin, handing me a piece of paper.

I scanned the paper and realized it was a contractual agreement. The agreement was simple, I would agree to the various conditions which amounted to an oath of never coloring outside of the lines or rocking the boat, or chewing gum in class…and in turn, Gavin wouldn’t have to suspend me or expel me. Looking up at her once I’d read over the stipulations, I grinned and set the agreement down on her desk, “It’s come to this?” I asked.

“It’s a formality…really. Vice principal Ellis insisted on having you sign this. I think it’s not a bad idea. Perhaps you need the conditions spelled out to you—and what better way? I took a chance on you Jack because I believe you’re an intelligent kid from an unfortunate neighborhood…don’t prove me wrong.”

“I guess I feel that a man should never apologize for his nature. So I won’t offer you some bullshit apology. I’ll sign your agreement—but if I follow these regulations, it’s not because I signed…it’s because I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for you accepting me at this school—just saying.” I assured her as I signed the agreement.

“It’s probably not the best policy to provide Gregory Locksmith or anyone else with any more social artillery—ignore them. This is basically your last chance Jack. It’s high time to leave Truman Park behind and be the Crestwater student that you now are—whether you want to admit that or not.” suggested Gavin, raising her brows.

“Deal.” I nodded.

Indeed, the conversation had been enlightening on some level and I’d made a point of keeping an even lower profile than I already was around Crestwater, which in essence meant complying with any obvious regulations and school protocols, particularly the ones posted in plain sight. Certainly, this meant refraining from smoking and skateboarding on school property…this also meant being punctual to all of my classes. It wasn’t enough to maintain straight A’s—which I found to be an easy task. It wasn’t enough to go above and beyond the call of curriculum by turning in finely tuned assignments that superseded compulsory boundaries for the sake of creating a truly inspired work. Indeed dear reader, this certainly wasn’t enough at Crestwater…on top of this, one was expected to stand on point and diligently mimic the favored qualities of a conscientious Crestwater student; a love child of the academic institution, which was in essence only a practice drill for an Ivy League education—one which I could never afford and so would never have. Whatever the case, Gavin had laid down the law and it was clear to me that I would have to behave if I wanted to stick around at Crestwater.

So, I walked the minefield, careful where I stepped, which took a bit of work. I dotted my i’s and crossed my t’s and made it to all my classes on time. I didn’t hang around on the lawn smoking blunts…rather I retreated to my van and smoked blunts behind a drawn curtain during my breaks. I stopped storing my skateboard in my locker—as to avoid being tempted to slide down a handrail with it. I flat-out ignored anyone I felt would draw me into controversy—which I found seemed to eliminate a great many students at Crestwater. I put my nose to the grindstone and really concentrated on fulfilling my assurance to Gavin that I’d behave…out of gratitude for being adopted in such a last-minute fashion, as I had been. However, all work and no play definitely made Jack a dull boy. It wasn’t quite the life I’d dreamed of living, and I realized that I was missing some good old-fashion chaos and six-string rebellion.

Perhaps it was the law of attraction that caused the topic to surface when it did. At dinner, Wes and April spoke of a week-long party that had, in recent years, become a tradition among Emerald Heights teens. At the time it sounded innocent enough and exactly the type of chaos I’d been craving after being on my best behavior for what seemed far too long. I’d not expected that this annual tradition would change the course of things—no matter how I played it. I sat, unwittingly, listening to Wes and April explain the yearly ritual to me as we ate our dinner at Prime Ribs—a local hangout for the west side social brigade.

Certainly there was some back-story and a fair amount of setting up Wes felt was necessary in order to deliver the full impact of the legendary week-long house party at Laura Caldwell’s mansion. Evidently, the party happened every year while Caldwell’s parents, who were both college professors, were vacationing in one exotic destination or another during spring break. It had been a long-running party and an annual ritual since Laura’s grade nine year and as long as there was a spring break, there seemed to be no reason why the party couldn’t continue running each year.

With adoring recollection, Wes cited a myriad of highlights as he relived past Laura Caldwell parties with a bedazzled air of recollection, citing the magnitude and the social and historical significance of the parties. According to April, many prolific romantic hook-ups had been formed at Caldwell’s parties, as well as many crucial social alliances. Of course, as was the case with most Emerald Heights parties; gossip was always a focal point and it was said that several reputations were made and destroyed at Laura Caldwell’s parties. Though this all may have been a fact—it seemed mainly that copious substance abuse fueled the festivities that would last for days on end.

As Wes and April explained the more lascivious elements of the party which took place in any of the upstairs rooms, it came to light just then that there was an underlying issue of bad blood between Caldwell and Eleanor, stemming from an incident that had played out with Locksmith months before…which explained in short was quite basic; the goofy bastard had cheated on Eleanor with Laura Caldwell at one of her more low-key parties. Though Eleanor reminded us that she’d never gained proof of said infidelity and so it remained an ‘alleged’ infidelity, it was rightly assumed. Though Wes and April had previously heard about Locksmith’s fling with Laura Caldwell, I learned of it then and there at Prime Ribs as the conversations went on at neighboring tables and the Smith’s ‘Louder Than Bombs’ piped through the unseen speakers.

“She’s into stealing boyfriends…and not just mine.” said Eleanor with a tone of distaste.

“I know that she stole Todd Meatpacker from a girl he’d been dating for like three years.” said April.

“Who the hell is Todd Meatpacker?” I laughed.

“Todd was expelled for threatening to kick Forrester’s ass…he got out of his desk and started doing karate kicks at him in class, like DeNiro in Taxi Driver. Guy’s a total sped.” laughed Wes, earning himself a smack in the arm from April who took a more empathetic approach.

“Todd isn’t that bad of a guy—he’s just dumb. Like he once stage-dived into a thin crowd at Harlequin City and nobody caught him…he was bleeding from his head all down the back of his shirt. Most people would have called an ambulance for themselves…but Todd wound up picking a fight with security when they tried to get him help.”

“Like I said…total sped.” laughed Wes, placing a fry in his mouth.

“She probably only went with this Chad character to hurt his girlfriend…she’s something of a cunt.” said Eleanor.

“Either way…Laura’s parties have all gone down as historical events—she has bands on the last night you know…stage, lights, a huge PA system and everything…many a band has gained notoriety by playing at Laura Caldwell’s Saturday night finale.” Wes insisted, taking a bite of a french-fry, and giving Eleanor and I a knowing wink.

Some nights seem to be written in stone before they occur, as if their course is already predisposed by destiny, to which you are merely a co-pilot. Perhaps some coincidences are too profoundly arranged and therefore they elude explanation. That evening, when we’d finished with dinner and were filing out of Prime Ribs slowly but surely and Wes bid farewells to nearly everyone in attendance—I noticed Walt and his girlfriend Kristen strolling through the lobby that was perpetually blooming with plastic outback foliage held in large post-modern pots. His arm was slung over Kristen’s shoulder and she was looking heavily sedated as usual behind her thick makeup veil. Surprised to see me, Walt halted and greeted me with a fist bump…I took his fist in hand and shook it.

“Well if it isn’t Mr. Jack Holden, songwriter extraordinaire…dude, I called your house tonight twenty times trying to reach you—you gotta get a pager man.” said Walt, letting go of his girl and clapping his hands together, placing them at his chin as if he were about to pray or confess.

“What’s up?” I asked him.

After taking a look around the lobby area that was crowded with Emerald Heights social climbers and hangers-on, Walt took hold of my arm and led me back over the carpeted floor toward the entrance doors, turning and informing Eleanor over his shoulder that the information he was about to relay was top secret. After apologetically suggesting Kristen find them a table, he walked me outside where we stood before one of the tall windows through which dozens of west side kids could be seen honing the networking skills they’d one day employ in the halls of Ivy League schools and European brothels.

“What’s with the clandestine?” I asked Walt who lit up a cigarette and scanned the parking lot which was zooming with skateboarders and populated by shiny new cars, some of which were idling and filled with smoking kids and booming with loud music. Indeed, Prime Ribs was the spot in those days and no matter who they were, or who they were with—most everyone would stop in at Prime Ribs at some point in their night.

“Listen man, this is big news…big with a capital B.” Walt said proudly, “I’m here to tell you that I just landed us our first gig brother, and it’s a fucking doozy…a huge motherfucking punkadelic doozy!”

“Nice man…where at…Harlequin City?” I asked.

“Screw Harlequin City man…I got us something much better than that. Check this out—you ready? You ready?” He asked with a grin.

“I’m waiting.” I chuckled.

“Check this out…Saturday night…Laura Caldwell’s party…a few hundred crazed kids in attendance…and us warming up the stage for the Vermilion Trees.” said Walt.

“What?” I asked.

“Caldwell’s party…Saturday…it’s the biggest bash in town…and she’s asked us to jump on the bill…are you in—or are you in?”

“That’s eerie man…we were just talking about Laura’s party a few minutes before you got here. This might be more than just a coincidence.” I said.

“Trust me…this is all destiny man. Don’t deny it. Everyone’s talking about Laura’s party man, at every school on the west side…it’s the Oscars of house parties…and we’re going to provide the soundtrack to this year’s installment.” said Walt, rubbing his hands together, “This is probably bigger than any other show we could land.”

“It’s not bigger than the battle of the bands at the Backyard…no way.” I assured.

“Okay, so it’s the second biggest show we could land and all the more reason why we’ve got to destroy their brains…we gotta melt their faces, like the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is the hand of destiny, rising from the soot and the dirt and mud…and it’s just grabbed us by the nuts man! To debut at one of Caldwell’s infamous parties, is like Playing the Snake Pit.” Walt sang brimming with intensity.

“I’d love to play the Snake Pit one day.” I said.

“You will man, I know it.” Said Walt, “But for now, Laura’s party is really the closest thing—everyone in town is going to be there. Getting this gig will kick us off in the best direction possible.”

“That’s crazy shit.” I said, “How many bands?”

“So far she’s got the Trees and us. She’s looking for an opener. Either way, we’re smack dab in the middle. 10 pm start time…give or take…and we’re opening for the Vermillion Trees…they’re probably the most popular band in Emerald Heights. And when we blow those fuckers away…this town is going to be ours.” assured Walt.

“That’s great.” I smiled, cupping the bastard a hard cool shake.

“Trent Humfucker is already trying to get us canceled from that bill…but he has no pull with Laura. She can’t stand the guy…and she thinks The Black Magnolias are pussy rock.” Laughed Walt.

“I’ve found a name for us too…it came to me while I was drinking cactus juice and scorpion blood in the desert last week, tripping out on the dunes.” he said.

“Yeah, what’s the name?” I grinned.

“Seriously check this out,” he said, opening his palms and fanning the words out as he spoke the name majestically, “Lusty Lacy Laura.”

I waited for more…however more didn’t come…there was only the residue of madness and wonder in Walt’s eyes as he stared back at me.

“I’ve already got a whole intro thing worked out—you’ll see what I’m talking about man…” he said.

“So how did you wangle this show? You know Laura well?” I asked.

“I spent the night with her a few times last summer—nothing major…but we got close.” Said Walt.

“You were with Caldwell? How does your girl feel about that?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you about it another time.” Said Walt.

“Ok.” I said, noticing Wes, April, and Eleanor finally exiting Prime Ribs.

“We’ve got some great ideas for this show…I’ve been discussing it with the Phantom…you’re going to love it.” he assured as Eleanor slid her arm around my waist.

“Love what?” she asked.

“How we’re going to blow everyone’s mind when we play Laura Caldwell’s grand finale.” Said Walt proudly.

Eleanor looked at me for a moment, offering a hurt expression. I remembered suddenly her disdain for Laura Caldwell, which I realized indeed was going to create a conflict of interest. She didn’t mention anything about it once we were all in the Audi and rolling down Sunset…she only held my hand in the back seat of the car as she silently looked out the window at the passing houses. We dropped Eleanor at her mother’s place in Brentwood first, where she was staying the night. Her mother was scheduled to fly in early the next morning from Cuba for a few days and evidently had the time to spare.

I’d walked Eleanor up to the gates and given her an extra-long hug before she’d punched a code into the pad beside the iron gates, prompting them to open with a slow creak before she disappeared behind them, promising to call me the next day. Then it was just Wes, April and I cruising Hollywood Blvd in old man Milton’s Audi, passing one around and blowing smoke out the windows as Government Issue’s Joy Ride rolled on the cassette player.

We were en route to Winchell’s Donuts to meet Cat Foley, who occupied a window table at their Vine Street location between the hours of 11 pm and 1 am. He claimed to be a psychedelic guru and the expeditor of one’s whims…however, as far as I could tell he was only some douchebag dealer who’d sold Wes the Napalm Dreams that had driven him to the furthest reaches of his sanity the day Eleanor and I had been suspended.

Cat Foley was a tall skinny kid with dopey eyes, a thick gristly beard, and a large round troll-like nose. He was like a creature out of a surreal and twisted dream, where cats talk, and old ladies fly away with their umbrellas. I’d been told Foley was this way mainly because he’d suffered a complete and total mental break when upon receiving several pager calls one evening the previous year, he’d decided to put on his Walkman and jog to the nearby Winchell’s and for some reason he’d decided to stash the blotter sheet in his sock without wrapping it in foil—a jerkoff move. As he jogged, the blotter sheet mixed with his sweat and absorbed into his ankle.

It was said that Cat Foley had gone down the rabbit hole and subsequently suffered such a shattering psychotic break, he’d spent the rest of the semester locked in a padded room, whispering to shadows on the walls. He’d emerged eventually, but those who’d been closest to him said he’d never quite been the same. The acid had left him with permanent brain damage.

April reiterated the story about Cat and his extended stay at the county mental ward as Wes and I chuckled…April knew how to tell a story innocently enough for her mockery to go nearly unnoticed. Though the complete mental break of a classmate shouldn’t necessarily be seen as amusing—April added an arcane twist of comedy to Cat Foley’s seemingly permanent condition by citing that, he’d been basically Special Ed before the blotter incident, so it was hardly much of a difference or much of a waste.

I’d smoked so much Supernova Champagne that by the time we were pulling up at Winchell’s, I was hopelessly adaptable. I didn’t realize or quite care that our night would soon fly so easily and suddenly off the rails. It was indeed another guiding push from the hand of destiny, leading me to some far-off point in the evening that would prove pivotal or profound on some level. And it’s a strange thing when hell breaks loose, because it doesn’t usually quite break loose with a bang or a crack or an explosion of chaos…often it breaks loose with a simple decision to turn right or left or to decide to ride with Wes. I’d been a passenger in the Audi many times before, but on this night, perhaps the moon was fuller than it normally was…perhaps a great werewolf-howling was echoing out to us from the moorland.

Cat Foley wasn’t sitting at his usual window seat at Winchell’s…rather he was waiting outside in the parking lot. When he noticed Wes, he approached the car, opened the door, and slid down into the seat beside me. He looked at me with his troll features and issued with his eyes nearly all the way shut, a smooth greeting, “What’s up party people?”

I didn’t say anything, nor did April…who hated Foley for selling hard chemicals to the love of her young life. Wes on the other hand was chipper and cheery as usual and turned in the driver’s seat to slap Foley some skin.

“What’s up my brother?” he said to Foley who only nodded.

“Hey, I’m actually late, I’m supposed to be meeting my girlfriend at El Capitan…we’re going to drop and go see a cartoon.”

“Wow, sounds like an experience.” said Wes with an enthused grin, “You want to do this here or should I drive?” asked Wes of the transaction.

“Just drive…I’m almost late.” chuckled Foley, digging into his leather hip sack.

He dug through it intently, looking for the blotter I presumed. He produced many items from his hip sack, including a hacky sack, a sandstone pipe, a jar of multicolored pills, a large bag of grass, a roll of twenty-dollar bills…his pager…a set of jingling keys…however, no blotter.

“Fuck, I can’t find the blotter man.” he groaned with a chuckle.

“Perhaps it’s in your sock, genius.” grinned April, who was immediately checked by Wes who touched her arm and shook his head disapprovingly.

“Maybe you dropped it.” Wes said.

“Hells no man…I would be totally fried if I dropped all of that.” chuckled Foley.

Would be?” asked April, again earning herself a glance from Wes.

“I mean like maybe you dropped it on the ground somewhere.” clarified Wes.

“Oh….yeah…no man…I…that wouldn’t be the case…” said Foley absently, still digging into the hip sack, the contents of which were splayed out between him and me on the back seat. I was looking down at the other knick knacks trying to decipher what they were when flickering red and blue lights illuminated the interior of the car. Foley seemed oblivious, Wes checked the rearview and April spun in her seat to look and her face was a moment later illuminated by a bright spotlight she squinted against. The squad car behind us revved its siren for a second, prompting Wes to pull over to the curb.

“Okay, let me do the talking and no sudden movements.” cautioned Wes as the officer approached the driver-side window.

“This your car?” the cop asked once the window was rolled down.

“It’s my dad’s.” nodded Wes.

“Ok, I’m going to need you to kill the ignition and for everyone to step out of the vehicle.” said the lady cop.

“Can I ask why?” said Wes.

“This car has been reported stolen.” Said the lady cop.

“That’s ludicrous.” said Wes, “It’s my dad’s car…he knows I’m driving it.”

“Please step out of the vehicle.” the lady cop said again…I got the feeling she wasn’t going to repeat herself a third time.

I opened my door and stepped out onto the muggy Hollywood Blvd. sidewalk as the droves of tourists went by…many stopping to watch the unfolding drama the likes of which they’d only seen in movies or on the 6 o’clock news. Through the open windows, I could hear Wes arguing with the cop, explaining to her that the issue was between him and his father and that furthermore he and his father had an initial agreement about the car which his father had reneged on after a father/son spat about colleges. It seemed old man Milton had taken away all car privileges when Wes had told him that he was an adult now and could decide for himself where, when and if he wanted to attend college.

This all however was incidental to the lady cop, who happened to be extremely easy on the eyes. She also happened to be short on patience and after hearing enough of Wes Milton’s tirade against his domineering father, she opened the door and removed Wes from the driver’s seat physically, taking him by the arm and standing him up against the car and checking him over for contraband and paraphernalia. It was about then that I realized another cop was standing behind me. I turned and looked him over…I’d seen his type before in Truman Park, driving slowly down residential streets, spotlight searching the dark nooks and crannies for camouflaged assailants. I knew better than to make a wrong move.

Wes however didn’t seem to understand what it all meant and had now resorted to publicly insulting the cops…likening them to the Gestapo, which only turned things into a public spectacle. The male officer walked around the car and took hold of Wes. He led him by the arm back to the squad car and sat him in the back seat then returned to the Audi, where the lady cop had discovered with her flashlight, the goodies from Foley’s hip sack that were still scattered across the back seat.

The male officer took hold of Foley’s pale and skinny arm and led him back to the squad car. He sat Foley in the back seat beside Wes and this time got into the front seat and started on the initial paperwork under the warm yellow glow of the interior light. Meanwhile, his female counterpart came around to the passenger side of the car for a closer look at April and I. Up close the lady cop was perhaps 30, with dark skin, full lips, shapely hips, and large brown eyes—heavy on the makeup…she looked more like a Playboy version of a lady cop than an actual lady cop. Her badge glinted in the oncoming headlights of passing cars as she turned to me and gave me a once-over. She carried a gun and had been issued a license to kill by the powers that be, and I wondered how many men she’d shot in cold blood.

“Have you had any drugs or alcohol tonight?” she asked me, focusing on me intensely.

“I’ve been a good boy tonight.” I said.

“You’ve been riding in a car with a sordid cast of characters though. Do I need to search you?” asked the lady cop.

“I wouldn’t mind.” I grinned.

“Are you sassing me sir?” she asked very seriously, “Because I don’t put up with sass from cocky kids.”

“No sass officer.” I said.

“ID.” she said holding out her hand.

I produced my drivers license and watched her expression remain stoic as she scanned it. “How do you all know each other?” she asked.

“We’re classmates.” I said.

“Classmates where?”

“Crestwater High.” I said.

“Crestwater is a long way from Truman Park.” she said, handing my license back to me.

“It’s all relative.” I said.

“Are there no schools in Truman Park?” she asked.

“Don’t answer that Jack. That’s none of her business.” Said April.

“I’m just asking.” Said the lady cop, flashing April a glare.

“My mother is an attorney…don’t think I don’t know my rights.” April told her, “Jack can go to any school he wants,” said April, then added, turning to me, “You don’t have to answer anything about Crestwater Jack…that’s a bullshit question.”

I looked at the lady cop, “You ought to know about Truman Park.” I said.

“Well, if your plan was to make a better life for yourself—you’re not off to the greatest start.” said officer Flores. She looked at April next, “ID.”

April handed over the only photo ID she carried…her aquatic center membership.

“Is he your boyfriend?” asked officer Flores, motioning toward me with her head.

“No, I’m with Wes…and I can assure you that his dad is just being a mega-dick. This car wasn’t stolen.”

“Not interested.” said Flores, “Where were you going with Mr. Foley?”

“We were dropping him at El Capitan to meet his girlfriend…that’s all.” said April, “I haven’t done anything wrong…” she suddenly pleaded, her face etched with distress, “Cat is my boyfriend’s friend…not mine. I hate his stupid beard and his dumb laugh.” she swore with a squint of malice.

“Is he a friend of yours?” asked Flores, turning back to me.

“I could give a fuck if he goes and kills himself.” I said.

“Why would you say that? Is he suicidal?” asked Flores.

“It’s a figure of speech.” I insisted.

“Wishing suicide on someone isn’t a figure of speech—it’s a disturbing thing to say.”

“I didn’t wish it on him…I’m merely saying I wouldn’t care if he did.” I confessed. “He’s a creepy bastard and I also don’t appreciate his beard.”

“You two have a problem with beards?” asked Flores, very seriously.

“Why is it that these guys with the beards always seem to eat the messiest and creamiest stuff—it’s like they want it to get all in their beards—what’s more, they want us all to see it.” I said.

“Yeah, I bet Foley eats mushroom soup and then wipes his beard off with a napkin…but he’s not really wiping off the soup…he’s just rubbing it into his sick beard.” said April with a shudder of disgust.

“I see…” said Flores, flashing me a look of absurdity, “Empty your belongings on the trunk of the car…both of you.”

April and I emptied our pockets on the trunk of the car as instructed. I had a set of keys, a pack of winter-mint chewing gum, thirty-seven dollars, a tube of lip balm, several guitar picks, my driver’s license, a pack of Marlboro Lights, and a stripper zippo lighter; I’d ditched my film canister of grass on the floor of Wes’ father’s car when the cops spotlighted us—feeling the grass would easily be attributed to Foley’s stash of narcotics. April was wearing a skirt and so carried everything in her miniature backpack purse. On the trunk of the car she placed the following items: a hairbrush with a thick handle, a partially used package of birth control pills, a small pocketbook containing her bank cards, a few loose tampons, a squashed PB&J sandwich, a ring of keys, a small transparent bag full of make-up and a can of pepper spray.

After examining our things, Flores told us not to move and a moment later headed back to the squad car. As April and I waited, I leaned up against the car and lit up one of the Marlboro lights…April meanwhile stood solemnly on the curb, hugging herself and staring down at her vision street wear high tops as if measuring them to see if they were the same size. I glanced around at the faces of bystanders who were taking inventory of the situation, seemingly mesmerized by the red and blue flicker of the police lights. They wanted to see a Hollywood showing…a real live crime in progress…an explosion or at least a great car chase. It was Hollywood Boulevard after all—the city of angels…some of which were still kicking around—if you looked for them.

After what seemed like ten minutes, Flores returned. She’d been chatting with Wes and when she was upon us again, she instructed us to gather up our belongings from the trunk of the car. As we did so, she let us know that we were free to go but that Wes and Cat Foley were being detained.

“Wes hasn’t done anything wrong…his father is a huge man-child and is constantly power tripping him. His father only reported the car stolen because Wes doesn’t want to attend the school his father demands he attend—please can’t you just let him go with a warning.” pled April.

“You’re free to leave, I suggest you do so quietly…go straight home.” said Flores, “And you…” she said turning to me, “make sure she gets home safely.”

“Why do I have to go home? You can’t tell me to go straight home…I’m not going straight home—you’re not my mother—you’re a civil servant.” spat April, perhaps putting on a show now for the audience of tourists who certainly found the scene more interesting than the face painters, celebrity look-alikes and magicians lining Hollywood square all hours of the day and night.

“I’ll get her home.” I told Flores as I led April away.

Though I’d suggested we take a bus back to Emerald Heights, April wanted to walk, claiming she needed to blow off some steam. As we started in on the exceptionally long walk back to Emerald Heights, where my van was parked safely at Crestwater High, April became unhinged…volleying into a ten-block rant about Wes and his pesky business relationship with Cat Foley. Indeed, April spared no insult while raking Foley over hot coals. Though she was fuming, I couldn’t help being amused by her colorful insults…she’d seemingly pulled some brilliantly cutting ones out of a magic hat; instead of producing a rabbit, April produced a proverbial switchblade, with which she slashed Foley into a thousand and one blood dripping cubes, which seemed to make her feel better.

As we walked, the conversation shifted to Wes and what their relationship had become over the last year. Perhaps because I was the only other person Wes spent a fair amount of his time with, April unloaded her entire inventory of criticisms about Wes, citing his psychosis as the underlying factor that contributed to his present disposition which was, she assured me—a flaming spiral of revenge based rebellion…revenge against his old man as well as his mother whom she claimed was too docile and aloof during the frequent spats Wes and his father were having more regularly than ever…the most recent time having come to blows over colleges. April had witnessed the entire debacle which had started at the family dinner table and spilled out into the living room where the scuffling father/son duo broke some décor before ending on the kitchen floor with the old man choking Wes from the rear until Wes nearly passed out.

Indeed, it was a tidbit of information I’d not been aware of and perhaps should have been. Perhaps I’d failed to read his addiction to Napalm Dreams as a symptom of a volatile relationship with his parents and perhaps I’d failed to read this undercurrent because I’d been under the assumption that everything was picture-perfect in Emerald Heights where bad days weren’t supposed to exist. Perhaps I’d been lulled into indifference by the lush splendor of sunny suburban bliss. After all, how could such problems exist amidst such luxurious surroundings? Certainly, the situation suggested there was a certain darkness that lurked beneath the sunny lanes and Victorian mansions of Emerald Heights like a low-grade fever that conjured eerie dreams.

I’d never known April as being particularly chatty…in fact, though a regular cast member in my new life; she was mainly a silent spectator. Her illustrative chatter on this night had kept me distracted from the long walk and it seemed like we’d covered a substantial amount of distance in a short period of time. Looking at my watch I found we’d been walking for nearly two and a half hours and were finally nearing the border of Emerald Heights.

“Should we bus the rest of the way?” I asked, gesturing to a Plexiglas bus shelter. The illuminated bus stop advertisement was an Angelica’s Mystery model clad in the latest line of sexy lingerie.

“The male fantasy embodied.” scoffed April as we sat on the cool metal bench.

It was late, perhaps 1:30 am and the buses were running in fewer numbers and the neighborhood streets had gone from business to residential. A great silence enveloped us, so the crickets hidden in the dark shadows of sleepy suburban yards could be heard all around us, “Does Eleanor wear things like that for you?” she asked.

“Sometimes…but not always.” I admitted.

“I think Eleanor is so beautiful.” said April, “If I was a guy, I’d definitely make out with her.”

“I’m sure she’d be flattered.” I grinned.

“Lately Wes is always too angry or too high to get romantic.” pouted April, hugging herself against the breeze.

“He’ll come around…sometimes people self-destruct—they’re entitled to self-destruct sometimes—and it sounds like his dad is a real dick.” I shrugged and as I lit up another cigarette, wishing it was a blunt, I spotted a badly rusted-out pickup truck passing us on the opposite side of the grassy median. I recognized the truck from the night I’d been jumped in Truman Park. It belonged to Dennis the Menace Michaels, one which he spent hours fixing in the front lot of the Michaels’ house, yet it always seemed to wind up breaking down again.

As the truck moved beneath the streetlights, I recognized Dennis Michaels at the helm and his botched twin brother sitting in the passenger seat—between them sat Thomas Michaels, the youngest of the three. It was hard to believe that I’d randomly crossed paths with the Michaels brothers so far from Truman Park. The odds were astronomical to run into them in Westwood. They’d been patrolling the streets looking for me—to settle the score of a stolen Kuwahara Chrome, a bag of dirt weed and an accompanying roll of bills.

Though I was quite disappointed to see them, there was something comical to me about the three of them sitting shoulder to shoulder in the cab of the beat-up pickup truck…all clad in white sleeve glam metal shirts and all donning blonde mullets with signature feathered bangs. I was contemplating my next move when Dennis noticed me and immediately squinted across the street—as if in disbelief. He immediately hurled a deathly scream from his window, pointing and squealing at me like a body snatcher.

“Who the shit is that?” asked April flashing me a stare of bizarrity.

“Trouble.” I said, pulling her by the arm up off the bus shelter bench, “Let’s bolt!” I told her with urgency, pulling her into gear, as if having to push start her engine. However, once started, April ran well…her lithe and light form scaled a nearby fence with ease and I went over it after her, rolling to the lawn on the opposite side and scraping my shoulder on something sharp in the dark.

We didn’t waste any time milling around the darkened yard…we sprinted across it and as we scaled the fence of a neighboring yard April demanded an answer, “Who the fuck are those guys?”

“They’re inbreds from Truman Park and they mean business—we gotta move.” I said, tugging her wrist and changing her trajectory into the alleyway which we crossed just in time to avoid being caught in the glare of Dennis Michaels’ headlights as the rusted-out pickup truck spun the corner into the alleyway and accelerated with a roar which caused April to scream. As if her scream had tripped a motion sensor light, the backyard we were running across illuminated, spotlighting us in a beam of light…dogs started barking next…and it was followed by some hollering from one of the Michaels brothers who’d followed on foot.

The engine roared again, this time I assumed in reverse, causing a loud, rubber-burning screech that echoed off the garages. Certainly, the brothers didn’t care whom they woke up or what sort of attention they drew…they were on Truman Park time and this was par for the course…and so my rusty reflexes kicked in as I heard one of the brothers hollering over a fence behind us, “You’re fucking dead Holden…we’re going to fucking kill you tonight boy!”

Noticing a rake leaned up against the fence I guesstimated the proper trajectory and volleyed it high over the fence, where a moment later I heard it land with a piercing shudder of pain squealed by the pursuing Michaels brother. Though I was slightly amazed by my precise aim executed under such duress—I realized that it would only infuriate the brothers to a scalding degree. As we hopped fences and crossed backyards, every one seemed to light up with sensor bulbs and dogs in neighboring yards would start to bark and it seemed we were either going to be eaten by a hungry Rottweiler or be pummeled by a pack of inbred brothers who’d evidently been searching for me around Emerald Heights—obviously having nothing better to do.

I led April into an alleyway, and we sprinted hard for perhaps half a block before hopping a fence into a darkened yard where a dog didn’t seem to be lurking. By sheer luck, the yard wasn’t equipped with a sensor light either. We jogged quickly across the yard and moved between the houses carefully. When we emerged in the front yard, the pickup truck rounded the corner with a fierce roar of the engine, illuminating the yard in fog lights. April and I doubled back and instead of crossing the yard again into the alleyway, we hopped a fence and were suddenly illuminated by another sensor light. A dog in a neighboring yard started ravenously barking and scratching at the pickets of the fence and we were forced back into the alleyway which seemed clear in both directions. It was a split-second decision, and there were only four real directions to move in. That is until I realized there were actually five directions to move in.

Pulling April by the arm I led her into a darkened passage and stopped at a corner of one of the garages, where a fence met its wall. Having no time to explain my plan, I simply squatted down and gripped April around her slender waist and hoisted her up and onto the fence, “Climb onto the roof.” I instructed and as she did so with shaky balance, I too scaled the fence and climbed up onto the roof of the garage, hoping the Michaels brothers were inbred enough to not think of looking up on a garage rooftop when we’d suddenly vanished into thin air.

We stretched out with our backs against the coarseness of the shingles and waited…staring up at the moon which was seemingly full and smudged slightly by a thin veil of air pollution.

“Nice moon tonight.” I said, turning to April. She didn’t answer, she only stared back at me for a moment with a look of sheer terror in her eyes, “Don’t worry…they won’t think of looking up here for us.” I said.

“How do you know?” she asked.

“Their parents are most likely siblings.” I chuckled, drawing a baffled expression from April who only peered back up at the sky, covering her ears as the roar of the engine came barreling down the alley.

The truck stopped just behind the garage and for a moment I was certain we’d been made. April sat up, ready to bolt again, but I held her arm, motioning with my hand to lie back down. Reluctantly she did so, and we stayed perfectly still as one of the brothers got out of the truck. Through the open door was emitted the sound of incidental metal, which perfectly complimented their obligatory heavy-metal half-shirts. Any searching footsteps were masked by the engine and the metal and so I wasn’t precisely sure if anyone was circling the perimeter of the garage…however, I was certain the brothers had no way of knowing April and I were hiding on the roof and were too thick to put the possibility together. In my mind, I pictured and prepared…deciding that if one of the brothers was smart enough to climb to the roof the same way we had, I’d slide over and kick him backward from the top of the fence and back down to the walkway below; I readied myself…however, no one emerged at the corner of the garage and after another few minutes of the truck idling and the incidental heavy metal blaring from the open door…the door suddenly closed with a slam and the pickup peeled away down the alley.

“My heart is racing so hard.” said April, placing a hand on her chest when we climbed down from the garage perhaps 15 minutes later.

“I can’t believe nobody has called the five O on these fools…they’re waking up the neighborhood with that shitty engine of theirs.” I said.

We stepped out into the alleyway and cautiously made our way west. After a few blocks we emerged onto a well-lit street and we decided to follow it to Sunset Blvd. As we rounded the bend, we could hear the pickup truck circling in the distance…perhaps three blocks away. We’d felt that we were moving away from the sound…but it was hard to tell with the wind that was picking up. To be safe, April and I ducked down another dark alleyway and walked close to the garages. We were halfway down the alley when a sudden roar sounded, flooding us with high beams…it was the Michaels brothers again and I was slightly impressed by their diligence. Again, April and I hopped a fence, then another fence, then another. We could hear one of the brothers hollering after us perhaps only a yard behind us and I snatched up a small gardening shovel from a poolside tabletop, just in case shit came down to the wire.

“What are you going to do with that?” demanded April, panting hard and holding her side.

“What’s wrong with your side?” I asked her.

“I’ve got a stitch.” she whined as we emerged in the driveway of a large, towering house. The house was darkened, and the driveway was bare except for a detachable camper balanced on a trailer jack-block.

I approached the vintage camper and pulled at the door. Though it was flimsy, it didn’t open readily. I used the small garden shovel to pry it loose and the small flimsy door popped open with a snapping crack. Not bothering to check who or what was inside, I guided April into the camper and climbed into it myself, pulling the door closed and feeling for the latch. Indeed, the latch had snapped but there was enough of it left to keep the door closed and perhaps enough to resist a good hard pull in case one of the inbred Michaels brothers discovered us. It was do or die…our backs were against the wall and we sat quietly, inhaling the mothball odor of the musty camper that probably hadn’t been used in years.

“I bet there are spiders in here.” April whispered.

“Shhhh.” I commanded, raising a finger. Through an opening in the curtains, I made out a creeping figure making its way up the driveway. It was Dennis the Menace Michaels and he crept quietly over to some hedges…he peered into the hedges as his brothers pulled up in the noisy pickup. Like déjà vu, the truck idled loudly with incidental heavy-metal blaring from the open windows, only this time I could see Michaels scoping out the front yard of the house. When he noticed the camper he looked at it for a long time before approaching with embellished heel-to-toe stealth. When he was close enough, I moved from the curtain and gestured for April to do the same.

In the darkness we waited, hearing Michaels shoes grit against the sandy asphalt of the driveway as he moved around the camper. He peered in the windows a few times before trying the door, which I held tightly in case what was left of the latch didn’t suffice. After yanking on the door a few times, he abandoned it and strolled back toward his brothers who were waiting for him in the idling truck. He offered a shrug to them and I could make out his words, “Slippery little fucker just vanished.” he said before climbing up into the truck which peeled away a moment later with a loud screech.

“What a pack of inbreds.” I grinned to April, “they have to wake-up everyone on the block with that shitty engine.”

“What the hell did you do to those guys?” April demanded.

“It’s a long story.” I said.

“Why were they chasing you…us…you?” asked April.

“Who knows.” I said.

“What a fucked up night.” sighed April.

“You’re telling me.” I said, “I saw some bikes in the backyard of this place…we could grab them and bike back to Crestwater…we could cover ground much quicker on bikes.”

“And if they appear again?” asked April.

“How long can they really keep circling?” I asked.

“I think the best plan is to ride it out in here…at least until we’re sure they’re gone…they’re probably parked somewhere with the engine and lights off—just waiting for us to come out. We got it good in here.” said April.

I wasn’t sure if holing ourselves up in someone’s camper was technically trespassing. After all, the camper was old and musty and permeated with a dry emptiness that suggested it hadn’t been used in quite some time…the owners had perhaps planned on using it at some point but hadn’t gotten around to it…perhaps Lake Tahoe became too far of a drive. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness the Lake Tahoe Calendar for the year 1990 hanging just above the sink came into focus. I moved to the cupboards to elaborate on my hunch and found that the canned goods had an expiry date of 1992. Certainly, the camper had sat vacant since then.

“What is that?” asked April.

“Canned stew.” I said.


“The picture looks tasty.” I said, holding the can to a crack in the curtains through which a beam of streetlight illuminated the picture slightly.

“That stuff is mostly salt and sugar…it’s not even real food.” informed April.

“How the hell do you know?” I asked.

“I’m a vegetarian.” said April, seeming to relax now into the seat that ran along the back wall of the camper.

“Well…it’s great camping food. I’d eat a can of this stuff…maybe with a biscuit.” I told her.

“A biscuit sounds nice.”

“A buttermilk biscuit.” I laughed, picturing it in my mind.

“I can’t believe Wes got busted tonight…that’s going to change everything.” April said, hugging her arms around herself.

“I can’t believe I ran into the Michaels brothers way the hell out here. They had to have been looking for me.” I mused.

“Probably a coincidence…a very scary coincidence.” April said as I made myself comfortable on another booth-like seat on the opposite side of the small retractable dinner table from her.

“Why not come sit over here?” she asked, her words coming out strange and pointed…the echo of which was eaten up by the immediate silence that followed which she shattered a few moments later with an add-on, “It’s chilly tonight and I’m a bit afraid those cretins will return.”

I joined April on her long hard-cushioned seat, resting an arm across the Formica counter. As I settled in beside her, I scanned the windows for any sign of passing headlights or lurking shadows and wondered what I’d do if the Michaels brothers returned and suddenly pried the door open with a tire iron. I gripped the small gardening shovel tightly for a moment, imagining the damage it could do if needed. As I imagined the scenario unfolding, the in-camper close-quartered scuffle with one brother or perhaps two and how deeply the sharp end of the shovel could slash them, April leaned in and kissed me, slithering her tongue in deep.

“Hey, hey…” I said after a few moments, raising my palms and smiling, “What are we doing?” I asked with a small, surprised chuckle—my best Ray Liotta impression.

“You have to ask?” said April, leaning in again.

She kissed well…as if her lips cast a spell…one which I snapped out of a moment later. “Listen, I can’t do this…I’m with Eleanor—you know the situation.” I told April.

“Not at the moment you’re not.” April said, with a measure of snoot.

“You’re with Wes.” I pointed out.

Thinking about her intentions a second time, perhaps with deeper insight, April simply leaned back and collapsed against the cushion, “You just had to bring him up, didn’t you?” she sighed, leaning her head back against the rest of the seat, “You really do love her don’t you? Eleanor.”

“I went off the deep end for her.” I confessed.

“I know…I see the way you look at her…I want that.” April admitted.

“I thought you had that.”

“Not for a long time.”

“Fooled me.” I shrugged.

April moved the curtain to one side and gazed out the murky window…the lamplight cast a blue glow over her features as a tear ran down one cheek.

“Shit…” I sighed, “don’t do that…come on. I’m sorry I can’t make out with you, but I’m with Eleanor.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not crying because you won’t make out with me—give me a break—god, guys are so narcissistic! I’m crying because Wes is having an affair, you dumbass.”

“How do you know Wes is having an affair?”

“It’s common knowledge…where the hell have you been?” she sniffled.

“I don’t subscribe to gossip…who’s the broad he’s cheating with?” I asked.

“You know her…it’s Lacy Silver…Brandon’s slutty little sister.”

“Wow…that girl gets around that crew huh? First Locksmith, now Brandon the stalker.” I said.

“My friend Sheila saw Lacy and Wes holding hands at Beverly Center one afternoon. They were walking along with ice cream cones and holding hands. I mean, I can understand if he’s cheating on me with her…Lacy is beautiful—hell, I’d cheat on Wes with her too…but to hold her hand…that hurts.”

“I thought she was your friend.” I said.

“No such thing in love and war.” Said April, “Have you noticed that Lacy Silver magically went missing?”

“I figured it was because I spilled the beans on her affair with Locksmith.” I said.

“She likes taken men…it makes her feel special. I fucking know her too well. Yes, we were best friends…and now she’s hooked up with Wes—probably just to spite me for telling you about her little affair with Gregory.” April sneered.

She leaned her head against the curtain and we sat there in silence for a few minutes, until her breathing became heavy and a small snore started to build in the back of her throat. I sat there, listening to her breathe for a while until the sound blended into a wash of static that separated consciousness from slumber, and I too sunk into the deep murk of sleep.

I awoke much later to April shaking my arm…the camper was illuminated by sunlight that was warming brightly against the curtains which I now saw were stained with humidity and bleached with SoCal sunshine. The camper had heated up substantially under the early morning sun and I realized my sudden thirst. I moved to the door and pulled the curtain aside slightly…the coast was clear; only morning songbirds and sprinklers catching the fresh sunrays in an iridescent prism of color. I turned to April who was yawning and sitting upright with her eyes closed.

“My god…my neck is so stiff now.” She said.

“You ready?” I asked.

“Give me a few minutes.” she said.

“What time is it?” I asked her to which she checked her slinky feminine designer watch.

“7:10.” she said, slightly surprised that we’d slept for so long—it had been perhaps 5 hours since we’d both fallen asleep. More pressing were classes at Crestwater which started at 8 am. We had under an hour to make it to Crestwater High.

I turned the latch and pushed the camper door open, giving way to a blast of hot air…it was going to be a scorcher; one which I was going to thankfully spend in air-conditioned Crestwater classes. First however, April and I needed to get there on time and after leaving the camper behind in much the same way we’d found it, we made our way beneath cathedrals of leaves through which the sun bled in brilliant rays, creating a sparkling reality of Tudor houses, separated from the streets by vast sprawling lawns, most of which were alive with sprinklers.

When we reached Sunset Blvd., April and I hopped a strangely uncrowded bus which whisked us through a succession of winding suburban lanes and dropped us off in front of Crestwater High which was swarming with students, none of which, I was certain, spent their Sunday night in a stranger’s camper hiding from a pack of inbred brothers from Truman Park.

After bidding April goodbye, I made a stop at my van which was sitting where I’d left her the day before…in the shade that the gymnasium cast over a far corner of the parking lot. I got in, drank down a bottle of Gatorade and ate a few cereal bars I kept in an earthquake supply box behind the driver’s seat; they kept telling me the big one was yet to come—and it was well overdue. When I felt the sugar absorbing into my bloodstream, I lit one up and reclined in the seat…I had twenty minutes before first bell and felt the narrow expanse of time was wide enough to at least rest my eyes for a few minutes.

I was pulled from my solitude by a voice at my window. When the deep fog ebbed and I gained back my faculties, I realized the sun was in an entirely different spot in the sky and had moved from behind the red brick wall of the student parking lot. The Stone Roses cassette had stopped playing and the digital clock set into the dashboard was blank. Though the windows were down, the van was sweltering in the golden LA sunshine.

It was Wes at the window and he was holding me in a contemplative gaze. “I was just resting my eyes man.” I said.

“It’s lunch break dude.” he chuckled, “Have you been out here sleeping the whole morning you madman?”

“Shit…” I sighed, knowing I’d missed the quiz in Holland’s class, “I fucked it up.”

“Fucked what up?” asked Wes, pulling April in close, who’d been lingering awkwardly.

“Ah, this test in Holland’s class. I’ll have to make up some excuse.” I yawned.

“So what happened with the cops last night?” I asked.

“Car was towed…my old man had to come down to the precinct and pick me up in my mom’s car…which he hates driving…he gave me a largely sanctimonious lecture on the virtues of obedience, which he punctuated by telling me he understood the angst of my youth—for he’d been my age once—what a dick.”

“So you got it sorted then?” I asked.

“Hell no…he’s grounded me from the car for two months…the old fucking twat.” spat Wes with a chuckle laced with lunacy, “Thanks for taking care of April last night by the way.” he said, extending his fist for a bump. I took his fist in hand and shook it, taking note of April. She was staring at the parking lot asphalt in an awkward way.

“What’s the matter with her?” I asked.

“I don’t know…what the hell is the matter with you?” asked Wes, squeezing April close, causing her to smile just a bit.

“Nothing…I’m just…feeling a bit out of sorts…last night was really traumatic.” she said, finally looking up at me.

“Nobody is going to hold last night against anyone.” I told her, “It was fucked up.”

“I just want a waffle cone and that guy who usually drives the ice cream truck hasn’t been around all morning. You guys wanna go get a waffle cone?” she asked.

“A waffle cone you shall have.” said Wes, taking April by the hand and leading her to the passenger side of my van. They got in and I pulled out of the parking lot as I lit up a blunt and got the Stone Roses rolling again on the stereo. We headed in the direction of Wally’s Waffle Cones on Palm Villa Road. No harm—no foul.

The shake-up hadn’t ended with our ill-fated Sunday evening. Indeed it seemed the misalignment of the planets lasted well into the next evening and I realized this once I got in touch with Eleanor. Initially, the plan had been that Eleanor would take the day off and get a sick note from her mother, who was good that way. They’d planned to spend the afternoon driving up the Pacific Coast to Oxnard where they planned to ride the equestrian trails and catch up on some long-awaited mother/daughter bonding.

However, Eleanor’s mother hadn’t flown in at all. In fact, Eleanor had caught a standby flight to Havana Cuba where her mother had been hospitalized. I sat transfixed on the edge of my bed as Eleanor calmly explained it all through waves of long-distance static from the hospital pay phone. Her stepfather had called her the night before, and as April and I had sat huddled in a musty camper—Eleanor had been weathering the storm of information which consisted mainly of vagueness and assumptions about her mother’s sudden hospitalization. Though several tests had been conducted, it seemed the doctors hadn’t been able to find any cause for Eleanor’s mother’s sudden collapse and subsequent fever, neither of which seemed to warrant as much concern as the head laceration she’d attained when she’d fallen to the sidewalk outside a Havana café. Evidently seeing where Ernest Hemingway drank, wrote prose, and scuffled with other drunken men had been all too much for the old lass.

It seemed surreal to me that Eleanor had been plucked by a 747 from the safety and freedom of our 1990s SoCal pool party and had been dumped in some far-off country I’d only read about.

“Be careful over there.” I warned, trying not to harbor an ominous tone.

“Why baby?”

“What about the Bay of Pigs?” I chuckled.

“That was like 30 years ago.” said Eleanor with an audible grin.

“Damn, you’re so far away.” I mused.

“I know…I know baby…I wish you were here with me.” she said.

“How is she now?” I asked.

“She’s lucid…she’s talking…having a drink of tea…but the bump on her head is nasty…she’s not happy that they shaved her head around the contusion…it’s bandaged and there’s a blood stain…I told her the hair will grow back, but I’m worried about the reason why she fell…they can’t seem to find out why she fainted—she’s been fainting lately.” said Eleanor, shifting back up into anxiousness.

“Too many aperitifs probably. Besides people hit their heads all the time and they’re mostly ok.” I assured her, “What did your dad say? Your biological dad.”

“He said to keep him posted.” offered Eleanor with a sad chuckle, “He was married to her for 15 years, had a child with her…shared a godam life…and that’s all he’s got to say in the end—to keep him posted. I don’t think we’re going to be back until next week or the following week. They extended their reservation at the Villa Conquistador for another week at least and got us a room to share.”


“Me and the wicked step-sister.”

“Shit…” I sighed, recognizing the insult that accompanied the injury, “that’s a tough break.”

“Only three of us might be coming back.” Eleanor offered with the same sad little chuckle.

“Well…if you bump her off, make it look like an accident.” I laughed.

“Will do. I’ll call you when I get back to the Villa. Love you.” said Eleanor before hanging up.

The sudden silence felt like a deep black void stretching out around me. I sat there on the side of my bed, feeling the void settling into the corners of the room. Eleanor’s sudden absence had a surprising effect on me…and I was suddenly aware of the haunting realization that I needed her. The intricacy of human existence dawned upon me like the blood-red glow of an apocalyptic sun, rising across a vast expanse of nuclear wasteland. Perhaps art was the greatest antidote against the harsh reality of being mortal—a passing shape in a vast and wonderous universe…but perhaps there were other antidotes…like Eleanor. I closed my eyes and envisioned her…intensely I envisioned my arm slipping around her waist and my lips finding that spot on her neck behind her earlobe. I sent it to her through the darkness…hoping she’d feel it.

It was getting late…creeping into those hours when most people were slipping into a deep state of slumber. I rolled over into the covers and turned out the light. I breathed deeply and tried to fall into a pocket of sleep…however, the cogs kept turning too quickly and I couldn’t synchronize the trajectory.

Finally, I turned onto my back and stared at the ceiling as the police helicopters chopped high above in the blackened sky. Perhaps it was better to drive aimlessly through darkened Hollywood side streets. The house was dark and quiet…it was late, and I quietly made my way out the front door, locking it behind me with a reassuring pull. I crossed the street and got into my van. I lit one up and pulled away from the curb. As I cruised at a steady speed through the projects, listening to National Velvet’s first album, I took note of the prostitutes striking sexy poses as I drove by, hoping for some break lights. I drove on, passing the neighborhood pool…the old fire hall…Truman Park high, St. Andrews church…the old confectionary store that had been owned and operated by the same family since I could remember…a broken fire hydrant spraying water across the sidewalk, a gang of kids standing nearby, hooded and lurking under a neighboring awning. As I was passing the local library branch, admiring its turn-of-the-century design, I noticed bright headlights in my rear view.

I was driving slowly in order to admire the ancient architecture of the library and so it wasn’t quite surprising to me when a loud honk emanated from the vehicle behind me. I veered to the side slightly to let the vehicle pass…and it did with a familiar sounding rev of the engine…as it passed me, I recognized the truck—it belonged to the Michaels brothers. The horn sounded again as it went by, dangerously close and with a hand extended from the passenger window flipping an unflinching bird; they didn’t recognize my van because they’d never seen it and so didn’t recognize me.

I hung back as they accelerated up 2nd Avenue. They made a left turn onto Mango Road and I followed suit, staying perhaps a block behind. With my window open, it wasn’t hard to gauge the direction of their broken muffler which made a hideous racket each time they accelerated. As I tailed them, I wondered if they were in the midst of another late-night chase…or perhaps they were looking for yours truly.

I followed their taillights for what seemed a half hour and realized the extent of their inbred tendencies which seemed to defy all greater logic—they didn’t actually go anywhere…they only circled the neighborhood in a grid pattern, extending a block or two wider each time which led me to believe that they were most certainly searching the neighborhood for someone or something.

I was starting to wonder if they’d keep circling all night when they finally stopped in the middle of the street and idled. Clicking off my headlights, I pulled behind a Chevrolet parked perhaps a half block behind the idling pickup truck. I watched from the dark confines of my van as one of the brothers hopped out of the truck and down onto the asphalt…he sauntered casually to the curb where a perfectly white fence bordered its edge. He next removed a can of spray paint from his jacket pocket and shook it up violently. After shaking the spray paint like this for a while, he carefully stepped up and sprayed a design against the fence after which he stepped back for a moment to admire his work…as if he was a finely regarded painter…and perhaps in another life he might have been, in this life however, he was an albino inbred douchebag with a can of spray paint and a knucklehead disposition.

When he was through, he sauntered back to the truck and hopped back up into it. Sounding a heavy victory cry Dennis the Menace Michaels threw a beer bottle against the sidewalk as the truck squealed away. When they pulled around the corner, I ignited the headlights and pulled out from behind the Chevrolet. As I drove by the fence I slowed to make out the design, which was a cartoon dick with disproportioned balls. Cartoon droplets arched onto a round nondescript head of a stick figure with cartoon boobs. I laughed; inbreds.

I followed about a block behind the Michaels brothers as they revved loudly through the darkened Truman Park streets. When they got to the stretch of prostitutes their brake lights illuminated and they slowed, hollering propositions and garnering a middle finger from one of the whores who’d taken the worst Truman Park could throw at her and lived to tell the tale.

In retaliation a bottle was ejected from the pickup truck and the small explosion of shards spread outward across the sidewalk at the feet of the unflinching hooker who jumped back, shielding her face as the Michaels brothers squealed off, leaving her in a cloud of exhaust.

They drove a few more blocks west before turning right on Belmont Ave which I knew was their street. As they parked the truck on the street in front of their house, I pulled into a spot half a block down and killed the engine. Indeed, I was surprised to find not two, not three, but four people emerge from the truck. It looked like two of the Michaels brothers and their girlfriends. So, this is how inbreds spent a date night in Truman Park, I thought—a wry grin curling the edges of my lips as I carefully got out of my van and made my way up the block, crouching behind the parked cars lining one side of the darkened street.

When I reached the truck I squatted beside it. Rising slowly, I peered over the hood, finding the Michaels house shrouded in darkness. I lit a cigarette and leaned against the truck for a while as I smoked. Some cars drove by…a police helicopter circled overhead somewhere in the distance…the nearby freeway swooshed with a never-ending stream of cars and the sound of gunshots rang out in the distance; it was almost peaceful…between the gunshots that is.

When I was through with my cigarette, I dropped it to the sidewalk and stepped on it; showtime. The passenger side window of the truck was slightly open and interlocking my fingers into the opening, I dropped my weight, using gravity to force the window down enough to wedge my arm in. To do this I had to stand on the running board and a moment later, the door was unlocked. After reaching across the long seat to kill the interior light, I scanned the interior.

The truck was a tangled mess of wires, articles of clothing, Big Gulp cups, and beer bottles. The ashtray was heaped with butts and the smell of burned tobacco permeated the tattered upholstery. On the floor directly beneath the ashtray was the can of spray paint Michaels had used to depict the cartoon dick with the disproportioned balls. Perfect I thought, scooping up the can, which, judging by the heaviness, was still nearly full.

I quietly clicked the door closed and shook up the can of spray paint, looking over my shoulders to make sure I wasn’t being watched. The windows in the houses behind me were darkened and eerily black. The men who’d built the old houses were all dead now…as were the early residents. Though time relentlessly moves toward the future, I was frequently taken by nostalgic contemplation which could entrance me with the intoxication of a reminiscence that wasn’t quite mine…as if the whispers of the old Truman Park ghosts were telling me how it all had been when life was young and lemonade verandas were occupied by happier times. I listened for their whispers and they eventually came to me on the warm desert breeze. They suggested a strategy of semantics…some effective slogans.

Placing the can close to the white, rusty finish of the truck I pressed the nozzle down and the hiss was almost gratifying. In proportioned box lettering I spelled a phrase in capitals across the passenger side of the truck, “ball savvy by nature”, the phrase struck me with a tickle of hilarity and when another slogan surfaced on the whispering breeze I painted that across the tailgate, fittingly it read, “Inbreds on board” and across the driver’s side I wanted to go big…to pack some punch with what would inevitably be the first words the Michaels brothers would read when they emerged from their house the next morning: Sons of sibling parents.

I walked back to my van and tossed the paint can into a nearby yard before getting in. Dawn would start to dye the eastern skies in a few hours and I had a last-minute rehearsal in the afternoon with Walt and the Phantom, at which we planned to tighten up our set for our first show as a band. I didn’t know it then but the show at Laura Caldwell’s legendary spring break party would go down as a historical event and etch our names into the annals of Emerald Heights history—for a second time—for better or worse.

Later, lying in my bed, lulled slightly by the helicopters chopping through the sky, I thought of Eleanor having to spend at least a week in Cuba with her loathed stepsister, her gigolo stepfather, and her absentee millionaire mother. I wondered if she was awake and thinking of me…I closed my eyes and sent her a telepathic message, telling her all about my handy work with the can of spray paint, in which she’d certainly recognize the innovative hilarity. Out here in the middle of infinity, life was but a dream.

Chapter 6: The Party

The night before the Caldwell show, I headed over to meet Walt and the Phantom so we could put the finishing touches on our anarchy-inspiring, punkadelic set-list. It was a big deal because the Caldwell show was technically our first show…and to debut at such a high-profile event left us no room for error. If we wanted to explode onto the scene, we had to put on a stellar performance—it was that simple.

It helped that word spread like a Bel-Air wildfire about the week-long bash, and it wasn’t only a focal subject at Crestwater and Cartwright. Laura’s party had become the talk of the entire west side, as if it was more than a party, which in fact it technically wasn’t. At the end of the day, it wasn’t the social event of the year, it was only a party, and I had a hard time seeing it as anything other than that. I wasn’t a social event of the year sort of chap. I was more prone to spending quality time with some good friends, star-shooting, carving our initials in the midnight sky and bending our minds on the big questions. Still, if Caldwell’s party did turn out to be the social event of the year—I wanted Lusty Lacy Laura to be there, as the soundtrack to such a historical night. One could say that I majored in history.

I realized just how widespread word about Caldwell’s party was while I stood in line at the Venus Arcade, where I’d stopped for a pre-rehearsal root beer, a few puffs of the good-grade shit and a game of Battlezone. I overheard some Cartwright kids at a neighboring Pac-Man game discussing Caldwell’s party. There was some speculation between them, regarding the bands; they were certain that the Vermilion Trees were headlining the evening and that a new Cartwright band was opening for them, citing that they’d heard the new band was in fact not the regular whiny, skinny-jeaned, shoe-gazing Dark Wavers like so many other Cartwright bands aimed to be. Whatever they imagined we’d be like, they’d never guess…for nobody in Emerald Heights had seen the likes of Lusty Lacy Laura.

I hadn’t seen the likes of Lusty Lacy Laura either…I’d only heard of it during passionate and fiery sermons Walt would give after rehearsals, explaining in animated gestures and dire tones the smoke, mirrors and arson-based anarchy that would most definitely prevail at all our future shows. It wasn’t only props that Walt stayed up into the wee hours scheming about—he’d also given a great deal of thought to his stage wardrobe…and certainly when he’d shown up to rehearsal later that evening, the Phantom and I were perplexed and most definitely amused by his attire, which consisted of a torn and well-worn Iggy Pop t-shirt, burgundy combat boots laced to the top and alas, tight-fitting centipede shorts. It was hard to believe, for the shorts looked like tin-foil underwear, with a demonic and sharply fanged centipede protruding from the groin.

“I’m not wearing one of those…” said the Phantom, “No fucking way.”

“Come on man,” said Walt, “it will be great for shock value and we all have to wear them or it will be ineffective.”

“Ineffective.” I laughed, turning back to him and observing the shorts. “Where did you find those things anyway?”

“Echo Park dude.” he sighed, “A man can find anything he needs in Echo Park.”

“That’s hilarious shit.” I said, shaking my head and taking a drag from a freshly lit blunt.

“I’m not wearing a pair of those shorts. I thought we were going with the body paint and the black light anyway.” mused the Phantom from behind his kit.

“Know what…that fucking black light idea is way overdone man—I saw the Fux Capacitors doing it last weekend.” said Walt, reaching into the bag he was carrying. From it he produced a wobbly rubber arm that had a strangely realistic presence to it—except for the rubbery wobble, “This my friends is going to go down halfway through the set.”

“Go down how?” Inquired the Phantom.

“Listen, I’m going to hollow this bitch out…I’m going to fill it with horror show blood and reseal it…then in between songs, around halfway through the set, I’m going to very discreetly insert it into the sleeve of my jacket…then I’m going to lay it across my amp and I’m going to hack it off with a meat cleaver and the blood is going to spatter all over the Amp and the stage and the crowd…it’s going to be bloody mayhem. They want a horror show…and I’m just sick enough to give it to them—of course this is all leading up to the very ritualistic burning of another, new improved Trent Humbucker effigy—compliments of Kristen.”

“You’re going to do that again?” I inquired.

“Kristen is making a life-sized paper-mâché voodoo doll…it’s going to be a perfect effigy of Humbucker—the pointy nose, the gaunt body…the little fried egg tits he’s got on him…I’ve seen it…it’s amazing! I have an entire speech prepared up here man…I’m laying out the terms as we speak brother…as we speak.” said Walt pointing to the madness churning on the inner side of his temple, “I’m going to say my piece I’m going to name my price…then I’m going to take my lethal Samurai sword in hand, and I’m going to pierce the effigy through the chest. Then I’m going to hack off the head and light that head up with gasoline and then soccer-kick the head into the crowd so during our next song they can volley it around…brilliant huh?”

“Sounds like a party to me.” I laughed.

“It’s probably just going to be a bit of lighter fluid. The big flames are going to happen on stage when I light up the effigy with gasoline. Also, Kristen and I got some fireworks on Hollywood Blvd. and we’re going to have those go off during our last song. Guys, if it were up to me, I’d stage a mass textbook burning at the show…imagine burning all the textbooks in the world…so we’re all forced to play it by ear and learn it all over again for ourselves.” said Walt dreamily, gazing off into the distance as if following a cumulonimbus moving across a blood red horizon.

“Listen, Walt…I like the idea of setting fire to Trent Humbucker’s paper-mâché effigy—he sounds like a subscriber of the worst sort of cuntery…but fireworks are a real shit idea—for obvious reasons.” I suggested.

“Look, don’t worry about the fireworks…the fireworks are going to be during our last song or if we get an encore—and you know we fucking will…we’re going to set them up behind the stage and Kristen is going to fire them off…they’re rapid-fire so it’s going to be a barrage to cap it all off. Imagine what that’s going to be like man…it’s going to be like a locomotive crashing through Laura’s parent’s house…right into her backyard…it’s going to be anarchy…complete and total mayhem…and the crowd is going to go ape shit for it.” said Walt, clenching his fist with passion, as he stood there in his centipede shorts; the Phantom and I had to laugh.

“If you say so dude.” I said, glancing at the Phantom who only shook his head and leaned in for another bong hit.

Now dear reader, it’s important that I’m not misunderstood on this point. After all, it had been my initial goal to make a viable and perhaps important contribution to the Emerald Heights music scene. However, I’d hoped to do so through the power of composition and infectious melodies. I’d hoped to achieve this goal through means of hard work and refined talent. I’d not planned on being catapulted into local notoriety by way of arson and centipede shorts.

Walt, though an extremely talented and well-schooled bassist, saw a fast track to Cartwright domination and was in fact crazy enough to do almost anything to achieve it. What was more perplexing was the fact that Walt actually cared very little for social popularity. It seemed he was entirely motivated to attain Cartwright domination by his disdain for Trent Humbucker and his minions—a particularly entitled clique of dilettantes who, though they claimed to be artists, produced essentially zero works of art; however, what they lacked in talent, they made up for in narcissism.

They’d appointed Trent Humbucker their spiritual guru; their pose-striking ringmaster who had come to despise Walt, the Phantom and their crew of misfit Cartwright artists who easily saw through Humbucker’s special brand of try-hard social campaigning. In short, it wasn’t Humbucker who’d blacklisted Walt…it was Walt who’d volunteered to be blacklisted. Going to war with Humbucker was too delicious for Walt to pass up and when I’d inherited Walt, I’d inherited his war with Humbucker…who I personally felt wasn’t worth going to war with. In any case, it seemed the burning of Humbucker effigies was a crowd favorite and something Walt was intent on continuing with Lusty Lacy Laura, and perhaps I didn’t mind because too much peace and quiet can tend to get boring.

That night, after rehearsal, I sat at my attic window looking over Truman Park while chatting on the phone with Eleanor who was still in Cuba and giving me daily updates on her living situation with the family who’d ostracized her, as if she were an adopted child. I looked down onto the street, where a group of stoop drinkers had crossed over to the other side to meet another group of stoop drinkers…there were words…shoving…then all-out haymakers…smashing bottles…a riot…a phenomenon of mindless violence which moved down the street until the group was scuffling in the intersection to a chorus of passing car horns. I snapped a polaroid for my scrapbook. A police helicopter hung obliviously in the distance just above a row of palm trees, searching for a separate group of assailants…I snapped a polaroid of the helicopter as well.

“You guys ready for the show tomorrow night?” asked Eleanor.

“As ready as we really can be.” I sighed, wishing Eleanor was sitting in my lap, running her perfect little hands through my hair, “When are you coming back? I’m going crazy without you.”

“Not sure…my mother still can’t fly…she’s got a hemorrhage in the lining of her brain.” said Eleanor, “She took a pretty nasty spill.”

“Terrible.” I said.

“This place is boring as shit, baby.”

“So how do you kill the time?” I asked.

“We spend a lot of time in fancy restaurants watching my step-father spend my mom’s money.” said Eleanor, “He drinks lavishly and flirts with waitresses and flamenco dancers—right in front of me. I’d tell my mom, but she probably wouldn’t care—she’d do anything to keep a younger man. I think age is much harder for women who were once beautiful…it must be like watching yourself die a little each day.” sighed Eleanor, “I don’t want to get old.”

“I’ll still think you’re hot even when you’re old and your shit is falling apart.” I assured.

“For real?”

“Of course.” I assured.

“I think my worst fear is that I’ll wind up turning out like my mother…but it’s happening already…slowly but surely. I ordered a drink that matched my blouse yesterday at the restaurant.” Eleanor said solemnly.

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.

“The fact that I didn’t realize it until afterward.” said Eleanor in an ominous tone, “I wish you all things great for your show tomorrow, my brilliant artist…and make sure you call me when you get home.”

The next day was Saturday, and it marked the last night of Laura Caldwell’s week-long party; a party that had gained planetary momentum with each passing evening—the details of which became headlines around Emerald Heights gossip circles, to none of which I belonged.

I’d never met Caldwell, though through the various stories that had been relayed to me on the enthusiastic tongues of my cohorts—I started to develop an idea of her in my mind. Though she was so highly publicized in certain circles, there was something of the mystery to Laura Caldwell and it was perpetuated mainly by the spectacle of her existence…which for the most part was an enigma of contradictions.

It was said that her family was staunchly Catholic, and though Laura herself sat each Sunday through church service, Laura had developed a drinking problem as well as a pesky drug habit and every weekend she entertained short-lived affairs with a revolving door of chiseled, underwear model-type, Cartwright ponces.

Part of the mystery was why she’d been carrying on with Walt. He wasn’t quite a ponce…he wasn’t an armpiece that might bolster social-club credibility among the 90210 set or quell a deep need for personal validation. Walt was a person of sincere lunacy, and the lunacy somehow complimented his manic charisma…which often crossed over into psychotic soliloquies—which was what afforded him the bulk of his charm. Indeed, Walt was a disaster of his own creation, and he didn’t apologize for it and that had earned him some notoriety at Cartwright…as well as the attention, however fleeting, of Laura Caldwell—who it was said was a man-eater. Many a Cartwright man had fallen prey to Laura’s charms, and they bared the scars across their hearts to prove it. It seemed Walt was another addition to her man-eating resume.

Walt all but admitted this when he filled us in on the behind-the-scenes details of the show as we made our way in my packed van, from the Phantom’s rehearsal room to Laura’s parent’s estate, which wasn’t much of a drive, but certainly an informative trek. Walt explained mainly how Laura had snubbed Trent Humbucker, who’d opted to suggest that his band headline the Saturday night grand finale instead of the Vermillion Trees—citing that The Black Magnolias was the perfect band to cap off Laura’s spring break bash.

Walt wasn’t surprised by this as according to him, Trent Humbucker was the type of politician who felt that popularity was more important than creating great art and he’d kissed so many asses to establish his position at Cartwright that his lips were perpetually brown and speckled. When there wasn’t a slot to wangle away from another band, or a girl to wangle away from her lover, or a spotlight to throw himself into—Humbucker would situate himself beside the stereo at any given party and appoint himself resident DJ—after all, to Humbucker; a spotlight was a spotlight…and he was a moth-man—a fluttering moth-man in women’s jeans.

So of course, when Laura Caldwell had assured Humbucker that she wanted the Vermillion Trees to headline her party and that there was nothing anyone could do or say to sway her resolve, Humbucker had then tried to convince her to bump Lusty Lacy Laura from the line up I assumed to one-up Walt. However, Laura Caldwell had derailed that ploy as well…pledging allegiance not to Walt or the Vermillion Trees, but rather to a long-standing grudge she held for Humbucker over a triangular dating disaster that had transpired the previous year…one which Walt summed up as ‘scandalous’; whatever that meant. The picture dear reader was crystal clear—Humbucker had tried every trick in his bag and had failed to bump Lusty Lacy Laura from the bill, which to Walt was no small victory.

When we pulled up in the circular driveway of the estate, we were met by Laura Caldwell herself who’d walked out to greet us with a drink in her hand. She was dressed casually in jean cut-offs that crept up her rather voluptuous ass cheeks as well as a black snug-fitting Dinosaur Jr. Green Mind t-shirt which was low cut, revealing an equally voluptuous display of tanned cleavage, between which hung a gold crucifix to which a tiny golden Jesus was nailed. She wore cork platforms that laced halfway up her caramel calves and in the mirrored lenses of her sunglasses, I took note of my face, looking comically distorted by the convex curvature.

She tipped the rims down to flash me her eyes which were deep coral blue…the long lashes of which fluttered as she grinned, extending her tanned little hand for me to shake. As she intermittently sipped from her frosted glass, she conversed with Walt for a while before instructing us to carry our gear around the side of the house and into the backyard, where a makeshift stage was situated. The backyard was a massive stretch of SoCal property, complete with palm trees and a view of the mighty Pacific Ocean—the sort of picturesque scene you might find splashed across the glossy pages of a home worship magazine; a setting of whimsical non-reality.

An actual stage had been constructed and it was situated directly beside a gazebo that was to be used as a backstage area for the bands. As Walt and the Phantom went to work setting up their gear, I scanned the backyard curiously. It seemed hard to conceive the amount of money and effort that must have gone into maintaining such a massive, sprawling property, which looked more like a country club resort than a backyard and it seemed hard to believe that in a number of hours, it would be crawling with ravenous Emerald Heights partygoers.

Across the vast expanse of perfectly mowed and perfectly green grass was a grand oval-shaped pool equipped with a two-tier diving board. Beside the pool was a hot tub and further out, across an expanse of blue tile surround was situated a wooden deck upon which a cushioned half-moon sectional wrapped itself around a fire-pit that was already snapping with flames, though the heat of the day was nearly unbearable. The mild breeze carried the acrid aroma of burning wood and I watched two girls I didn’t recognize poke at the logs as they sipped colored drinks from tall narrow glasses. The distant backdrop of beach-front houses far below and the Pacific Coast Highway winding around the rust-colored cliff drop-offs were tinted orange by the sinking sun and it made me feel like a wayward visitor.

On the south side of the property was a colorful botanical garden with retaining walls made of stone…in the center of which was another seating area, this one centered by a massive circular knee-high glass table around which sat a few more kids I didn’t recognize. They were Cartwrighters and they glanced at me sideways, thinking perhaps they recognized me but perhaps not. To my left stood a greenhouse and an old wooden shed and just beyond it was a rock fountain trickling into a sunken pond in which colorful fish swam calmly. I stepped over to the pond and locked eyes with one of the fish who floated there, looking at me, mouthing a word…but a word I couldn’t read.

“Iced tea?” came a voice from behind.

Turning, I found it was Laura and she was holding in her manicured little hand, a frosted glass of iced tea. She played the gracious hostess well and had even placed the lemon wedges into the glass first before pouring in the ice so they would make their way to the top of the glass slowly as the ice melted.

“You read my mind.” I said taking the glass from her, “I like that you put the lemon wedges in before the ice…nice touch.” I said before swilling the iced tea down in a few seconds and handing the glass back to her. The ice-cold liquid went down nicely and the whisky left a burn.

“I’m a perfectionist. Wow…you’re thirsty.” she cooed, placing her tongue lasciviously between her perfectly white and perfectly set teeth that were open just enough.

“It’s sweltering today and that did the trick.” I said.

“I aim to please.” smiled Laura, sipping at her own glass.

I looked over her shoulder to the Phantom who was sipping his iced tea with one hand as he tightened the bolts of his drums with the other. Walt was intimately chatting up one of Laura’s friends who also sipped a tall narrow glass of her own.

“You ever get lost around here?” I asked Laura, “Looks like you might need a map to find your way to the washroom.”

“I grew up here so I kind of know my way around.” she smiled, cocking her head slightly and looking at me as if from a distance, “I’ve heard a lot about you from Walt. I also heard the demo you guys recorded…your songs are really special. What made you want to pick up a guitar and write songs? Why does someone choose to write a song I wonder. I wouldn’t know where to even start.” said Laura, peering into my eyes. Her eyes were nearly a spectacle…deep blue and clear as tropical waters…her eye shadow was meticulously applied and created a fade from light blue to a darker blue toward the edges of her eyelids, “Did you just sit down one day and start writing a song?”

“Songwriting chose me.” I said.

“I see what you’re saying.” she nodded thoughtfully.

“When something chooses you…there’s no other option though…you have no real choice…it can lead you to the peak of a mountain…or it can lead you into ruin—you’re just along for the ride.” I shrugged.

“Sounds romantic.” cooed Laura, sipping again from her thick red straw.

“Probably it’s a form of madness—some men never go mad in such a way—how bored they must be.” I told her.

“Walt tells me you’re from Truman Park.” she said, changing gear suddenly.

“Yeah…but worry not baby—I’m not armed…at the moment.”

“Oh, I wasn’t meaning that.” said Laura apologetically, “I didn’t mean that at all…I was only saying because Walt had mentioned it…and…it’s just—Truman Park is a bit curious.”

“Curious how?” I asked.

“I think it’s a curious neighborhood…so much old character—I don’t know…I buy jeans at a store in Truman Park…Danica’s Denim—you know the place?” she asked.

“Yeah, chick clothing store just off Sunset.” I said with a nod, “My girlfriend goes in there sometimes.”

“I don’t blame her…they have quite the girly selection there.” she grinned, “And I’m all girl.”

“Evidently.” I said, unable to help myself from glancing the twin mounds of caramel cleavage held snugly in her low-cut Green Mind t-shirt and immediately after, realized I’d fallen into a trap.

“You like what you see?” she grinned, lightly running her nail-polished fingers over the crack of her deep, tanned cleavage. I noticed a small tattoo on her thumb; the Piscean symbol.

“Say what now?” I asked.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell your girlfriend…whoever she is.” said Laura with unwavering confidence, without missing a beat. She’d done this before and was used to getting what she wanted. Though she oozed fertility from every pore, I could see her coming a mile away.

She wasn’t the most complicated study…she was a perfectly put together Palisades girl who’d grown up in paradisiacal luxury and had wanted for nothing; she’d always been the center of her parent’s universe and had gotten used to it. There was something in her that demanded the rest of the world concur with that dynamic and I assumed she sought this through personal validation; this meant her flirtations were loaded—she only wanted a confirming reaction…a gesture of recognition.

“I think you know my girlfriend actually…Eleanor Price.” I said.

“I know of Eleanor…I don’t know her though…” said Laura, “How did you meet her?”

“I met her at Crestwater…I was infatuated at first glance.” I said.

“Are you saying that for my sake or yours?” asked Laura.

“I guess I’m just saying.” I shrugged with a grin.

“Oh god…you’re not a Clarence Worley boy are you?” she asked.

“A Clarence Worley boy?” I grinned, “Is that a trick question?”

“Really? You’re saying you don’t work that angle? You can’t fool me—I can see you coming a mile away Jack.”

“Angle?” I laughed.

“Yeah, it’s a very unfair angle too…Clarence Worley boys like you always work a very unfair angle on us ladies…it’s the dreamy psychotic lover with apocalyptic devotion angle.” chuckled Laura, surprising me with her articulation but disappointing me with her inaccurate assessment of my character, “You’re really quite a simple study.” she added, crossing one arm under the other and holding her glass propped beside her coyly grinning face.

“Thanks, how much do I owe you for the palm reading?” I asked.

“You can’t fool me—I have a sixth sense—I’m psychic; just like you.” she smiled, squinting her eyes at me playfully.

When I laughed Laura asked me why I was laughing.

“I find it funny when chicks think they know everything about me at first glance.” I said, lifting the glass of iced tea from her hand and sipping from it. After downing the remainder of it in a few large gulps I handed it back to her and she took it uneasily, staring back at me in a suddenly very uncomfortable way, her coy collected grin fading into an alarmed expression…as if she’d uncovered an ominous secret beneath a cosmic mystery.

“You fucking are a Clarence Worley boy—I just knew it.” she said, “I just fucking knew it—I’ve known guys like you…you always seem to turn up don’t you?”

“Baby, there ain’t no other guys like me.” I assured and the words seemed to run a chill through Laura.

She backed away, looking as if she’d seen a ghostly apparition…her face turned pale and her expression was theatrical…as if she was auditioning for a last-girl role in a horror show. I grinned at the absurdity of it. Even with all the beauty and luxury around her and the high fences and the money protecting her…Laura too had ghosts and perhaps I reminded her of one or two.

As she backed away from me, I tried to place her expression. It was partly disconcerted and partly perplexed, also partly vulnerable and partly afraid of what she might allow herself to do if she allowed herself to get lost in a moment. However, there was something more to it…a deep hurt—that was it; someone had hurt her and hurt her badly. Someone had torn her little pink heart out of her chest and bitten a big bloody chunk out of it…then chewed it down before howling up at a silver moon, and it dawned on me then that the same sensitivities such sheltered luxury had instilled in Laura, also made her terribly susceptible to grievous heartbreak and the big bad wolves that lurked in the forest just beyond the gates of her custom-designed world.

“Hey,” I said, raising my palms, “take it easy…it wasn’t me who bit that chunk out of your pretty little heart—I’m not that guy. I’m Jack.” I said and in response, Laura stopped in her backward tracks and twisted her face up.

“Get out of my head Clarence Worley boy.” she demanded, drawing Walt’s attention, prompting him to stroll over as he casually sipped his iced tea, “Just stay out of my head Clarence Worely boy—I’m rolling up the drawbridge and shuttering the windows now.” said Laura and indeed, her brimming psychological instability was somewhat intriguing…she wore psychotic quite well and I tilted my head at her with a grin.

“Are you for fucking cereal?” I asked, amazed at her sudden and ominous seriousness amidst the sunny rays and oceanic views, “Maybe you need some therapy.”

“You need to stay out of my head.” demanded Laura.

“Earth to Laura.” Laughed Walt.

“You’re an asshole.” she told Walt, to which Walt only grinned and shrugged and asked why that surprised her now.

“What else did you tell him about my deeply personal business?” demanded Laura.

“I’ve never told him anything about your personal business.” said Walt, his smile fading as he shot me a confused glance.

“What I tell you is between you and I.” Laura snapped in a hushed tone.

“What the hell is this all about?” he asked me as I admired the curves of Laura’s form as she stood there staring at us both with quiet alarm.

“She’s haunted by ghosts and werewolves.” I said with a shrug, lighting up a blunt, “Isn’t that crystal clear?”

“You’re such a fucking head case Holden.” chuckled Walt, “You ready for a sound check or what?” he added, shifting back to the task at hand.

As we ran through a sound check that consisted of our best three songs, I noticed Walt’s girl rolling a cart up the walk. The cart was heaping with boxes that varied in shapes and sizes and on the lower shelf of the cart were designer shopping bags bulging with what I assumed were more props. Indeed, Walt had been busy doing some prepping.

A moment later, the Phantom’s girl Jen-Jen appeared, and she carefully carried the life-sized paper-mâché effigy of Trent Humbucker in her arms which were wrapped gently around the torso, her fingers interlocked for grip and her head bent back in a chuckle when she glanced to the stage and locked eyes with the Phantom who shared her smile. He knew what this meant…we all did; something historical was approaching through the vibration of tectonic plates…vibrations only the animals and Lusty Lacy Laura could sense.

“Looks just like the fucker doesn’t it?” asked Walt.

He stepped over to the cart the girls had wheeled in and took inventory of the props. Indeed, he’d thought of everything…a severed arm, a squeeze bottle of horror show blood that seemed to have the consistency and texture of raspberry pancake syrup. He unfolded a general’s uniform, complete with a chest full of metals and a matching hat. A machine gun came next…a replica of a Mac Ten, complete with a detachable clip…one which Walt planned to fill with straight vodka.

The bottles of vodka came out of the boxes next. Walt had ordered five 40-ounce bottles for the occasion, all of which he planned to machine gun into the mouths and drinks of his adoring front-row fans during our show. He’d really thought of everything…and had even remembered to bring with him his razor-sharp samurai sword—with which he’d spear through the effigy in hopes Humbucker—wherever he was—would feel the burn.

From the other boxes, Walt and the Phantom produced a line of merchandise; bumper stickers, hood ornament flags, t-shirts, hoodies, skate shorts and toques…all bearing the three ‘L’ design Walt had evidently patented and printed. I stepped over and took one of the shirts in hand. They were attractive but made of starchy cotton. The emblem was simple, three large letter L’s, burning with orange flames that created a black silhouette; the sleek and sexy form of a naked woman, bent forward slightly with a hand on her hip and the other reaching into the air…it wasn’t a bad design.

“When did you get these done?” I asked Walt.

“Hot off the presses yesterday from Kristen’s dad’s shop—it was a real crunch and I thought for sure we’d never have them for this show—the old man really came through.”

“How much are you selling them for?” I asked.

“Selling? Why the hell would I sell these? What you’re looking at Jacko my boy is pure, un-cut promotion. Just when we’ve melted their faces and blown their minds and they think the show can’t become more monumental; I’m going to start throwing these out into the crowd…by the end of next week…every kid in Emerald Heights is going to know our name…if they don’t—they’re going to learn it.”

“Crazy.” I said, picking up a bumper sticker that bared the same design only smaller and seemingly clearer under its glossy sheen. I stuck it on my shirt in place of a name tag.

By 9 pm, Laura Caldwell’s estate had indeed become the quintessential house party setting that so many films had been based on for good reason; such parties existed and were never meant to be anything other than a total spectacle of angst…coming of age rebellion—a fist raised high. The house itself was packed beyond capacity with kids…many of whom I recognized. The partygoers were made up mainly of students from Cartwright, Westfield, Buckley, and Crestwater—the main schools in Emerald Heights. The crowd had spilled out into the backyard which was crawling with mad partiers bent on consuming as many substances as they could—hoping for a psychedelic epiphany…hoping for the ground to shake…for the earth to move…for the moon to turn to blood and drip down into the sparkling pool, from which they might all draw a glass…and wolf-howl the unbridled invincibility of youth. By 9:30 pm there was madness afoot and I watched it from my spot sitting on the ledge of the fishpond with Wes and April.

A ghetto blaster turned to full volume roared the Beastie Boys as dozens of kids frolicked in the pool and danced around it, as if the world was coming to an end and it was of no consequence. Dives, cannonballs, belly flops, tidal waves of pool water…a fat kid ran across the tiles aiming to flip into the pool but slipped and fell flat on his ass…a roar of laughter pulled him from his ass and he danced to his feet like a chubby snake charmed by a magic flute…he climbed the diving board ladder and sprinted to the end, vaulting himself up and into a half somersault—face-planting into the pool with a loud painful sounding slap…another roar of cheers and whistles.

“Moron.” Wes chuckled, offering a loud whistle of approval in any case.

“What time are you guys on at?” asked April.

“The first band, Six Gun Stereo was supposed to open the night…but they didn’t show up. I guess we’re sticking to our ten o’clock start time.” I said.

“It’s going to be monumental my friend.” said Wes, “Most of these kids are from Cartwright…and they want a revolution…and it’s probably high time for a changing of the guard.”

It was then that Walt emerged from the mass of kids crowded around the sectional area…he was flanked by the Phantom and Wilson James. We all knew who Wilson James was…being chief editor of In-fringe magazine we’d all read his articles on Emerald Heights bands. He hosted a half-hour show at UCLA which featured many great bands old and new, famous and unknown, pretty and ugly alike. He’d been summoned to the closing night of Laura Caldwell’s week-long bash to see the Vermillion Trees—the band slated to headline the evening and the band voted most likely to succeed on a national level and of course, the Vermillion Trees had come to believe their own hype.

Indeed, Walt, an ever-persistent purveyor of self-promotion had struck up a poolside conversation with James who decided that it might be a novel idea to interview us—just in case we became local heroes…in which case he could say he knew us first and he knew us well.

I sipped at a shallow gin and lime as Wilson interviewed us. I chose to answer no questions, having been burned by previous interviews conducted by amateurs. Rather I sat and listened to Walt and the Phantom explain exactly why the music scene in Emerald Heights needed a changing of the guard. I wondered why there had to be a guard in the first place and why there couldn’t just be an exhibition of musical radness divorced from narcissism, cut-throat competition, and shit-talking.

I was shaken from this contemplation by the loud pop of a microphone and a subsequent squeal of feedback, “Is this thing on?” a familiar voice chuckled.

Looking toward the stage, I saw Laura Caldwell standing in the center of it, her curvy form illuminated by the rented stage lights. She held the microphone loosely and addressed the droves of partiers who all at once congregated around the stage…which slightly fascinated me—for I’d never seen such order even at school assemblies or pep rallies…however, on this evening, they were all ears, spellbound by the moon, the stage lights and luscious Laura Caldwell, playing the MC on the last night of her week-long spring break bash. We all listened as Laura said her piece.

“Thank you all for making this year’s party another historical event—you guys are fuckin’ rulin’…I wanted to do something special tonight, I wanted this year’s party to go out with some fireworks.” she cheered, drawing a collective reply from the crowd that sounded high into the night, is if these were Friday night lights and the home team had just scored a game-winning touchdown.

I stood there with Walt and the Phantom on the fringes of a sea of heads that all faced Laura who seemed to be made for the stage lights. She cocked a grin and tipped her head back, “So whatcha want?” she sang, causing the crowd to roar again. “You want some rock and roll?” Another collective cheer roared high into the night, “Well Mama Laura’s got just the thing for y’all. I wanna introduce to you one of the best-kept secrets of Cartwright high…a band that is going to blow your fucking minds all the way to Mars baby!” sang Laura, revving the crowd some more and it was then that Walt tapped my arm and motioned with his head for us to take the stage.

The Phantom was well ahead, climbing the rear steps of the stage, emerging into the bright lights with one fist raised high. Walt was next, clad in his general’s uniform, taking a bow and blowing a few kisses theatrically as he stepped up to his amp. I stepped out onto the stage and squinted against the bright lights into the crowd that stretched all the way to the pool. There were hundreds of them…pampered Emerald Heights offspring, jacked up on substances and firewater…waiting for the thunderous explosion—one which Walt was determined to offer them.

I strummed a fat heavy chord that resonated from my amp and it was made gigantic by the mains, which were two towers of stacked cabinets on either side of the stage…it was then dear reader that I realized something—we were going to be a wrecking ball. Walt strapped on his bass guitar and gave the Phantom a nod…then they both looked at me. I turned to the sea of rapt heads, silent with anticipation…all that could be heard was the slight buzz of my pickups. I grabbed the microphone with one hand and tipped it down slightly.

“Looks like the first band pussied out…” my voice echoed above the sea of heads that to my surprise threw back a resounding boo, “…but we ain’t ever pussied out…we’re here to melt your faces tonight!” I hollered, drawing a sudden roar from the crowd…they were amped and combustible and waiting for us to punch the ignition and fire the engines. I turned the key and hit the gas, counting in our opening number which was a punkadelic rollercoaster of smashing crashes, pounding bass, and razor-sharp guitar riffs.

A mosh pit erupted, and the place went mad, literally. Projectiles flew into the sky, kids hammered into each other in an uncoordinated pogo, some jumped on the stage and dived back into the crowd, surfing it to the fringes…Walt at one point also took a running jump into the crowd, landing on his back and as he slapped away at his cordless bass, he was passed around over the heads and deposited back on the stage where he rolled into a ninja stance and nearly perfectly in time to dive into a bass solo.

I pressed my guitar against my amp to create an orgasmic scream of feedback while Walt ran up and down the neck of his bass, slapping out a death-defying bass solo that perfectly matched the accents and shots of the Phantom’s savagely technical drumbeats. We ended the song in a wash of noise…during which Walt rolled to his back and lay flat on the stage, thrusting upward with his hips as if he was trying to fuck the night sky itself. I turned my volume to full and ran the neck along the microphone stand haphazardly and the Phantom ripped through a succession of searing drum fills. We managed to end at the same time on a deep low chord colored with asylum chatter that dissipated into feedback, which was inevitably drowned out by the roar of perhaps three hundred drunken, barn-burning kids, who’d never been told no in their lives.

The set went on in this fashion, and as intended, Walt incorporated his variety of props into the performance, at one point hacking off the rubber arm and whipping it into the crowd who tossed it around for a while before tossing it back onto the stage where it sat, hacked up and still oozing horror show blood; a perfect album cover.

Also, there was the Mac Ten vodka shooter which Walt sprayed into the cups of kids in the front row…he threw blunts into the audience and a few severed heads decorated to represent certain Cartwright elitists Walt and the Phantom had been waiting to burn down. This got the crowd roaring with ferocious hilarity and the papier-mâché heads were torn to shreds and what was left was tossed back on the stage. After our fifth song, Walt and I threw some band merchandise into the crowd, and it was like throwing food into a piranha tank…there were many tug-o-wars for the shirts which were probably ripped in the process. Then dear reader…it was time…

Walt unclipped his microphone and stepped up to the Trent Humbucker effigy. He removed the sheet drawing a massive roar from the crowd which turned to booing and an organized chant, Light him up, light him up. Walt produced a bottle of lighter fluid from the inside pocket of his general’s uniform and displayed it to the crowd who emitted another cheer.

“I think burning the cunt is too easy though.” Walt said into the microphone, “Don’t you think Jacko?”

“Perhaps.” I said into my own mic, admiring Kristen’s work. The effigy was a near-perfect replica…she’d even gone thrift store shopping for Humbucker style clothing…skinny jeans, converse runners, an ironic t-shirt and all. The effigy also wore red shades—another Humbucker attribute.

Walt stepped over to his amp and took hold of the Samurai sword laid across the top. He wielded it and swung it through the air a few times, and the vision of the wonderfully polished sword catching the colored glint of the stage lights sent a murmur of wonder through the crowd.

“Humbucker and his clan of dilettantes have fucked this music scene up beyond recognition!” hollered Walt, drawing another deep groan from the crowd, “But the good news is…the light at the end of the tunnel is this—we’ve been sent here to take the shit back…and put Cartwright back on the motherfucking map baby!” screamed Walt, swinging the sword again, drawing another cheer from his adoring Cartwright public. Suddenly Walt spun around and plunged it through the chest of the Humbucker effigy, piercing the silkscreened face of the Rick Asley t-shirt in the process.

“What do ya think Jacko—did X mark the spot?” Walt asked me.

“I think our good man Humbucker is going to have a bad case of heartburn tomorrow.” I said drawing a laugh from the crowd.

“Oh, he’s going to feel the fucking burn for sure.” Walt specified as he doused the effigy with a large bottle of lighter fluid. He pulled the sword out of the effigy’s chest and handed it to me. With a shrug, I swung my Stratocaster around to my back and took the heavy sword in hand and as if winding up for a home run bat cracker, I swung the sword at the effigy’s neck, popping the head off easily and perfectly so it fell off and rolled across the stage.

As the crowd cheered with fanaticism and graduating year angst, Walt lit a match. We were suddenly warmed by a surge of heat as the headless effigy went up in a massive puff of flames that reached high into the sky…we all watched it burn for a few seconds as the Phantom brought in the Hot for Teacher beat which opened the next song…Mrs. Moffatt’s Pussycat. As we broke into the heavy intro, the mosh pit exploded again and the flames burned high. Walt, as planned, picked up the decapitated effigy head, set it aflame and soccer kicked it into the crowd after which he turned to me and chuckled a deeply psychotic chuckle as the flames illuminated his face in an orange flicker of madness—and for just a second I could have sworn his eyes glowed red.

“This one is for my favorite homeroom teacher…it’s called Mrs. Moffatt’s Pussycat!” Hollered Walt, tearing off his general’s pants that were evidently fastened to his legs by snap buttons. A massive cheer went up at the sight of Walt’s centipede shorts and he pogoed around in circles, up and down like a madman, slapping against his bass as the Phantom and I shifted into drive and let Mrs. Moffatt’s Pussycat loose on the rabid audience.

We didn’t bother pausing between songs…rather we rolled directly into the next and the next and the next, until finally we were at our grand finale…the farewell blast of anarchy that was meant to be backdropped by fireworks. Indeed, Kristen and Walt had worked it all out previously and I’d assumed, as we all did, that they’d worked out any kinks—as one might expect.

When Walt turned and gave Kristen a hand signal…the Phantom and I started in on the last song, which was essentially a locomotive collision…a train wreck of heavy chords, pounding double kick drums and perhaps the most dashing bass line Walt had ever mustered. I was caught up in a whammy-diving, pick-raking guitar solo when the fireworks started exploding in loud pops and cracks. Their falling light illuminated the expanse of the crowd which seemed to stretch all the way back to the fences by that point. Directly before us, the mosh pit bounced with youthful rage at the colorful explosions falling around us from the sky above…indeed, it seemed we’d achieved the anarchy and chaos Walt had so meticulously and carefully planned. That is, until something went wrong—terribly wrong.

It was then that it happened…the pivotal point…where the evening changed course and with the suddenness of funnel clouds emerging from the underbelly of a blackened super-cell. The fireworks took on a mind of their own suddenly and started exploding all at once and shooting off in all directions, except for upward. One collided against the back of Walt’s amp in a colossal explosion…another missed my leg by an inch or two and ricocheted across the stage and into the crowd of moshing kids where it exploded with a loud pop which sent everyone scurrying for cover. The sound was like machine gun fire and the projectiles were like a napalm attack.

It didn’t subside and somehow only seemed to intensify. The fireworks exploded in all directions, ricocheting against the house, and the surrounding trees…one even took out the stage light directly behind Walt. I stopped strumming and ducked for cover…taking shelter behind my Marshall stack as the machine gun tattering and fiery explosions whizzed by, narrowly missing Walt and I.

The Phantom jumped from behind his drums and crawled beneath the stage and Walt squatted behind his amp and shielded his face with a forearm. I felt a few fireworks collide with the back of my cabinet and smelled  the chemical burn as the smoke wafted over the stage in a thick cloud. Screams rang out from the crowd of kids who had all ducked for cover as the fireworks ran their course, cracking and popping…whistling over our heads and forming tracers across the night sky.

Glancing at Walt, who was still squatting behind his bass cabinet, I shook my head with a grin that reiterated what I had initially told him; the fireworks were a shit idea indeed.  Walt concurred with a dry nod, returning my grin. Soon enough however the deep hissing of a fire extinguisher sounded…the spray went on until the canister was empty and when it was…it was only then that I realized how silent it had gotten all at once…how quickly the runaway fireworks had stifled our mighty wall of sound and the ravenous energy of a crowd of moshing kids.

Through the clearing smoke, I saw people now rising cautiously from the lawn, to which they’d dropped moments earlier—as if they’d been caught in the crosshairs of a drive-by shooting. Walt and I got to our feet as well and the murmuring of conversation spread across the crowded backyard. Standing at my Marshall Stack, I observed the Phantom and Kristen crawling out from beneath the stage. Indeed, I’d assumed it had been Kristen who’d extinguished the fire but I was mistaken…rather it was Laura Caldwell herself who’d doused the wayward fireworks with extinguisher foam…a heroic gesture, being that she could have been lit up in the process. She held the extinguisher in one hand as she helped Kristen up with the other. The Phantom meanwhile dusted off the lap of his jeans and hopped back up onto the stage with his signature expressionless gaze—as if nothing had transpired.

It was then that I heard a patter…and the patter soon grew to a downpour and when I turned back to the crowd, I was met with a few hundred kids I didn’t know showering us in thunderous applause, whistles and cheers, and a chant arose in three distinct syllables, One more song, one more song, one more song! Though I realized we’d slayed it in ways I wouldn’t quite comprehend for weeks; just then it all made sense. There was a surreal sheen to the experience as if it was a scene from a REM dream.

I glanced at Walt, who was standing proudly behind his bass guitar in his general’s jacket and centipede shorts, his hands wrapped around the five-string neck, cocking his head to one side with a ‘told you so’ grin. Indeed, how would the Vermillion Trees follow the fabulous disaster we’d created? As the chant for one more song grew louder and more demanding, I shrugged toward Walt and glanced back at the Phantom. I turned back to the crowd, grabbed the microphone in my palm, and pulled the entire stand on a tilt as I spoke into it, addressing their call for another song.

“One more? But that’s all we got.” I said, drawing a disappointed groan.

“Well…we do have one more…but it’s not ours…it’s one we play well however…I guess we could play that one—if you really want us to.” I said, drawing this time a roar from the crowd that wanted more than anything at that moment an atomic explosion of chaos.

Indeed, it was a rhetorical statement and perfectly punctuating it, Walt started in with a familiar bass line…it was a song we’d figured out one afternoon in case we needed it for an encore. As Walt repeated the descending intro bass line for Holiday in Cambodia, the Phantom joined in after a few bars, eventually rolling off a ripping snare fill that kicked it all into high gear…I hit the Eastbay guitar line and within seconds, it was back on…the mosh pit exploded and the kids pressed up tightly against the stage banged their fists with such ferociousness, I could feel the vibration through my Vans as I stepped over to the mic to sing the first line. Once we got to the chorus, I was so thrilled, I turned to the Phantom and locked in hard with his pounding beat that was getting downright lethal, but suddenly…abruptly… stopped…along with the bass guitar and the moshing. Like a jump-started locomotive that was suddenly derailed; again. It was the cops and they arrived in numbers, raiding Laura’s backyard with flashlights.

Immediately they started issuing orders to vacate the premises, sauntering with their hands on their night-sticks, waiting for an excuse. Though some kids protested slightly, any resistance was short-lived, and within a matter of minutes, the crowd started to disperse from the hazy backyard, heading for the nearest exits, all too eager to avoid being busted. As I switched my amp off, knowing the party was now over, one of Laura’s friends emerged from the crowd with Laura’s instant polaroid and started snapping photos of Laura, Walt, the Phantom and I, as well as the cops walking the beat around the spacious backyard…photos that would make it into a scrapbook somewhere and remain as photographic proof of Laura Caldwell’s historic backyard soiree that set fire to the night in question and was in the end shut down by the fuzz. Appropriately, Laura grabbed hold of the polaroid and pointed it up at the full moon…as if the ethereal beige sphere was close enough to be scorched by the symbolic inferno of our Gen X rebellion.

By the time the sirens arrived and abruptly stopped in front of Laura’s house, the backyard was nearly clear, except for a few dozen kids lingering in the far corners of the yard who had nowhere else to go. When a few firefighters clad in heavy gear appeared and trudged across the lawn toward the smoking effigy of Trent Humbucker, the flames and fireworks had all been spent. I sat on the stage, smoking a cigarette as I listened to Laura explain her version of it to the fire chief who listened with a suspicious glare in his beady eyes. He nodded and suggested she refrain from using fireworks in the future unless supervised by professionals.

When the firemen and the police finally left, Walt, the Phantom and I went to work tearing down our gear as well as the stage itself which came in attachable segments. Walt’s girl Kristen and the Phantom’s girl Jen-Jen helped us dismantle it all; there wasn’t going to be a headliner…the Vermillion Trees had missed their chance to send off Laura’s spring break bash. Indeed, we’d been the send-off and we’d sent them off in a barrage of explosions, fire, and emergency sirens.

After a couple more cans of beer, I ventured into the house, looking for a toilet or a sink into which I could piss. Inside there were a few people in the dining room, seated around the large glass table, playing with Uno cards. In the sunken living room, 10,000 Maniacs live on MTV played on a large screen. I stood in the sunken living room for a moment watching Natalie Merchant croon Hey Jack Kerouac. Their performances were perfect…studio takes all around…and the revelation chilled me to the bone…witnessing the real thing often had that effect on me; real 1990s magic. I stood there mesmerized, watching the performance unfold, sipping a fresh can of beer and wishing I’d been there to see the Maniacs in concert.

A hand smoothed softly over my shoulder and shook me from my trance and when I calmly turned, I found it was Laura Caldwell at my side. She was carrying a frosted glass in one hand and a long thin cigarette in the other. There were flowers placed in her hair and she’d lost her platform shoes…she was now barefoot and looking sandy somehow, as if she’d walked up from a sun-washed beach.

“Hey, come with me…I want to show you something.” she said and motioned for me to follow her upstairs.

“Show me what?” I asked before moving from my spot.

“I have a great photo album upstairs.” she said, “You just have to see it.”

Reluctant to leave the warm soundscape of the recorded 10,000 Maniacs performance, I followed Laura up winding hardwood stairs that led to the second floor of the house. I then followed her luscious behind down a long hallway and into the master bedroom which was equipped with a walk-in closet and full bathroom. I gathered it was her parent’s quarters.

The bed was made impeccably with perfectly placed throw pillows and a velvety bedspread. There were many tropical plants and smooth ivory ornaments scattered around the room, as well as what looked like ancient artifacts that had been dug out of the ancient desert sands. I flopped down onto the bed and found the ceiling was mirrored. I stretched out on the bed and stared up at my reflection in the mirrored ceiling tiles, inevitably imagining the atrocities the mirrors had had to reflect; parent sex…a creepy notion. I sat up, discovering another mirror, this one massive and post-modernly cut, situated on a vanity just beyond the foot of the bed; indeed, Laura’s parents were kinky old buggers it seemed.

“This one…” said Laura, sitting on the bed beside me, placing a large photo album in her lap and opening it slowly to the first page.

I propped myself up on one elbow and she explained the context of the photos to the best of her recollection. Many were old but perfectly maintained behind the clear plastic sleeve. The second page consisted mostly of Laura’s childhood photos…a birthday party, a trip to the Los Angeles Zoo…little Laura standing on a sandy section of Malibu beach squinting against the sun as her dog, certainly now deceased looked up at her loyally. In the photo, she was smiling, making a funny face. The photo was a postcard—in which Laura had grown up. She’d never known financial uncertainty and probably never would…no matter how terribly Laura failed in life…no matter how miserably she might fall from grace…no matter how far she strayed; she was set for life–her parent’s fortune would see to that.

She flipped on, showing me more…a Hawaii trip, Laura holding a sand dollar…her mother fawning from above. We then came across various Halloween snapshots of Laura, in which she was dressed up in elaborate costumes…posing for photos in the backyard. Flipping on, we came across a section of ballet performances—action shots of Laura contorted into various ballet poses.

“You did ballet…” I said.

“I did…and it destroyed my feet…look.” she said, raising both her pedicured feet and placing them together.

“They look ok to me.” I shrugged.

“They’re bent up. Probably I’ll have problems when I’m older.” she said.

“Maybe.” I said, “But they may not be the ones you’re expecting.”

“Look at me…” she said and I looked, “What do you see when you look at me?”

I moved my eyes over her lips, they were thick and coated in gloss…her nose was petite, slightly upturned and across her cheeks ran faint freckles, above which her eyes nearly vibrated with the stunning shade of deep coral blue.

My eyes moved down to her ear which dangled with a large vintage earring beneath which hid her neck like a warm caramel plain. I could feel her spell trying to breach my walls and I sat calmly, experiencing the sensation and wondering about it, but not letting it in.

“Will you kiss me just once?”

“I shouldn’t.” I said.

“Shouldn’t or won’t?” she asked.

“Both I guess.” I shrugged.

“You want to…I can feel it.” she whispered.

“Right because you’re such a psychic.” I laughed.

“So are you…” she said.

“Sometimes.” I said.

“Shut up and kiss me.” she said, her coral blue eyes moving from my lips to my eyes and back as she moved in. Her lips pressed against mine suddenly in the close silence of her parent’s room…with our reflections all around us. Her lips were warm and soft and tasted of gin and lip gloss.

“Hey…I just said I shouldn’t.” I said, turning my face away apologetically.

“Don’t be silly…this is a once in a lifetime opportunity—come on…don’t ruin a perfect moment.” she said, her eyes locking in on mine with the intent of hypnosis.

“I really shouldn’t.” I said.

“Why? Because of Eleanor?” asked Laura.

“Well, yeah.” I said.

“Listen, she can have your heart—I just want your body.” she smiled, revealing her perfectly white and perfectly placed rows of teeth.

“Just my body huh?” I told her, “Seems like more than that.”

“No strings attached.” said Laura playfully.

“Right.” I said.

“What’s the matter—don’t you like me?” she finally asked me.

“Look…thing is…I’m not going to be part of this vendetta you have for Eleanor.” I said.

“What vendetta for Eleanor?” demanded Laura.

“You may be a great actress…but you’re a terrible liar.” I assured.

“More riddles…”

“That thing with Locksmith…yeah…I heard about that. The way you stole him from Eleanor…I heard all about it.” I said, “I’m not going to do that to her…no matter what you can offer.”

“Locksmith pursued me. Not the other way around. Funny how it’s been spun the other way. And anyway, what do you care? I did you a favor.” she said, tilting her head, “She might still be with him otherwise—you should be thanking me. Do you really think she’d have left him for you? No offense but Gregory is a Disney prince. You’re a Clarence Worley boy.”

“I wasn’t aware Disney princes had medicine-ball heads.” I chuckled.

“If you look at Eleanor’s track record; her exes are all Disney princes…and like I say, a Disney prince—you are not.” shrugged Laura.

“I wouldn’t want to be a Disney prince. And I’m not a fucking Clarence Worley boy either.” I laughed, “But I do have to wonder…”

“Wonder what?” asked Laura.

“Well for starters, I wonder why you hate Eleanor so much.”

“Eleanor wasn’t even on my radar…she was collateral damage…that’s all.” said Laura.

“Collateral damage…” I said, fanning out the words before us so that we might examine them closer.

“Look, I date who I want, when I want to…I take no prisoners.” Laura shrugged.

“Yeah? And I wonder what number I’d be for you.” I said, stroking my chin and wandering the ceiling with my eyes for a number.

A look of disdain suddenly washed over Laura’s face and she widened her eyes, “Hey fuck you…you’re not my boyfriend or my husband…you’re not my dad and you’re certainly not my priest…so you can fuck off.”

“Calm down.” I said.

“Don’t tell me to calm down you sonofabitch.” said Laura, “It’s not my fault guys chase me the way they do…it’s not my fault that every single guy makes a pass at me. Blame the guys—you’re all so desperate for something beautiful. And anyway…are you really that serious about Eleanor Price? You’re really going to spend the rest of your life with Eleanor? I mean, in twenty years is any of what we do now really going to matter?”

“Well, I could see myself spending the next twenty years with Eleanor sooner than I could see myself spending one night with you.” I admitted.

“Get out…” she said.

“How is that an insult?” I asked, amazed at the sheer speed in Laura’s escalation from seductive to vindictive.

“Just fucking leave, you ginormous dick…just go.” snapped Laura, sliding off the bed and standing robustly, whipping her pointing finger toward the doorway, “Get!”

“Get? What am I—a stray dog?” I asked…when Laura didn’t answer I turned and left her there in her parent’s room surrounded by reflections of herself in the sex mirrors.

“Fine…Laura Caldwell; I don’t want to be in your house.” I said with a charming bow and left her standing there.

I made my way down the hallway, lighting up a blunt in the process. When I was halfway down the hall I heard Laura’s voice call out to me from behind. I turned and found her hanging halfway out of her parent’s bedroom doorway, “Take your godam beer with you too!” she hollered, whipping the near-full can at me like she was pitching a fastball.

Though I covered up, the can flew toward my knee, where it exploded into a spray of foam, falling to the ground a second later with an aluminum crash that resonated loudly in the long empty hallway. As I felt the cool of the beer seep through the fabric of my jeans a voice came from behind.

“Nice shot.” said Locksmith, appearing out of thin air like a vampire.

“Well, well, well…if it isn’t Crestwater’s resident medicine ball head.” I said.

“What are you doing up here Holden?” asked Locksmith, “You’re not supposed to be up here.”

“Hey, I have a novel idea—why don’t you go get some pants that fit.” I said.

“Looks like maybe you were trying to get with Laura…and looks like she sent you packing.” speculated Locksmith.

“Locksmith…you’re a genius.”

I looked at him for a moment standing there in his white blazer and matching flood pants, his pompadour, and his ironic Madonna t-shirt which he’d chosen to tuck into his pants. I wondered what sort of man tucked his t-shirt into his pants…perhaps it took a sick mind. As I tried to step by him in the hallway, Locksmith got in the way. Stepping in front of me he placed a hand against my chest, “Not so fast, I’ve got a bone to pick with you holden.” he drunkenly slurred, “Especially if it involves Laura.”

“Let’s not do this shit man.” I said, batting his hand away…he just looked back at me, his drunk gaze trying desperately to fix on me.

“You’re not going anywhere until I know what went on in that bedroom.” slurred Locksmith, intoxicated beyond his own rational comprehension.

“Sober up.” I said trying to step by him again…and again Locksmith pressed his hand against my chest, nearly leaning against me for balance.

Indeed dear reader, I could have reasoned with Locksmith…I could have stood there and explained the entire debacle to him. I could have cited the many reasons why we should conduct ourselves like viable and upright members of society and perhaps not drink so much if we can’t handle the buzz. Perhaps I could have lectured the old chap on the virtues of moderation. However, just then Locksmith lunged, wrapping his skinny arms around my torso and vaulting forward, trying to take me to the floor.

“What the fuck are you doing Locksmith?” I asked him as he drunkenly struggled to topple me to the floor.

“I’m gonna kick your fucking ass! You’ve had this coming Holden–you’ve had this shit coming.” he gritted as he struggled against my sprawling resistance.

I’d gotten the leverage right and shifted my weight to one side, hurling Locksmith around me. He flew, like a flailing ragdoll and tumbled over his drunken pigeon-toed feet, landing against a small seemingly purposeless table that was topped by a powder blue vase. Grabbing at the table for balance, Locksmith pulled it down onto himself as he fell to the floor, so the vase shattered against the hardwood in a thousand and one small shards.

It was hard to believe the medicine ball head attacked me…the same bastard who’d gotten me suspended for giving a statement about him in a low-end publication. I turned and left him lying there on the floor and as I walked away, his shriek of drunken rage ricocheted after me down the long museum-like hallway. Strangely I didn’t hear a clattering of footsteps giving sudden chase…I’d expected the footsteps, but none came…there was only the 10,000 Maniacs chiming from the living room as I descended the winding hardwood staircase.

Certainly, it was time to leave and leave I did—on the double, stopping in the backyard to grab my guitar and stack which I loaded into my van before pulling away in a hurry…leaving Walt, the Phantom, and their girlfriends to dismantle the rest of the stage. I headed down the PCH on the long drive back to Truman Park. The moon was full and hovered above the eastern horizon like a brilliant hole punched in the ceiling of night. It reflected across the mighty pacific in a sparkling sheen and ducked periodically behind peninsulas of shoreline trees. I lit up a blunt and puffed it slowly. Replaying the scene repeatedly in my mind, I finally decided that I’d reacted poorly and would have been much better off playing it cool with Locksmith—as I had been advised to do.

However, I’d surrendered to my instincts and allowed a primal impulse to take over…in effect, undoing the months of previous restraint. Though I’d recognized my reaction was in bad taste, I’d allowed myself the gratification of sending Locksmith careening into a decorative hallway table. However, I didn’t quite see it as being the wrong reaction. There was only one thing I felt inherently wrong about, and that was following Laura up to her parent’s room. However, it was widely known that Laura knew how to play a certain game…so in fact my falling into her snare wasn’t a rarity or a mystery. Perhaps the only mystery was that I hadn’t fallen into Laura completely and taken advantage of the mirrors in her parent’s bedroom. I decided to see my sabotaging her advances as heroic, though I was certain Eleanor wouldn’t see it that way—especially if Locksmith injected the art of embellishment into the equation.

Certainly, Eleanor would hear about it all…if not from me…from Locksmith or Laura herself…or worse, through the Emerald Heights grapevine which tended to distort the actual facts. All was fair in love and war to these westside kids—they played a dangerous game and they played it well because none of them, I was convinced, cared about much beyond their own desires—they lived a well-rehearsed façade but were secretly sociopathic; theatrically adoring, but blissfully removed. To them, it was all about perpetual pleasures—a concept almost foreign to a Truman kid like me. Around Truman Park, you mostly survived, and if you happened to stumble upon pleasures; it was a good day. When I got back home, I climbed up onto the roof of the house. The night was clear and the lights of the downtown skyline were crisp. The palm trees swayed slightly in the Santa Ana winds that were picking up and a police chopper circled the skies a few blocks south, its spotlight casting a beam down onto the street grids, searching for assailants. I had the cordless phone with me out on the roof—in case I stayed up and watched the dawn break across the eastern horizon and wanted to catch Eleanor when she woke up, being the early riser she was. As I looked up at the moon, trying in vain to contemplate its presence; the phone started ringing. It was too early to be Eleanor and it was too late to be anyone else I knew.

“Yeah…” I said.

“You’re fucking finished Holden.” Locksmith slurred into the phone.

“What the fuck do you want from me man?” I asked.

“I’m going to destroy you now…you realize I’m going to obliterate you right. You should have just stayed in Truman Park—where hood rats like you belong.” Locksmith gritted.

“Too many jello-shots huh? Again.” I laughed.

Locksmith didn’t respond…rather he hung up. I sat there on the roof, looking over Truman Park…admiring the full moon sinking behind the hills and the glowing haze of Hollywood in the distance washing out the stars, some of which were dead but still sending their light to us…they weren’t unlike the stars lining the sidewalk tiles of Hollywood Blvd. A gunshot cracked in the distance…or maybe it was a backfire…I decided it was a backfire as I trailed off to sleep—for another night of rooftop dreams.

Chapter 7: The Lie

The next day I woke up late and found there were a dozen messages flooding the answering machine. I listened to them as I ate a bowl of Graham Nuggets with the half and half my mom diluted her coffee with—Golden Nuggets were great that way. Many of the messages were from friends and acquaintances, congratulating me on the previous night’s performance. There was a message from Walt, who called a band meeting for later that day, another from Wes who wanted me to meet him for lunch at a nearby restaurant, there was a message from Clare Foster—a Crestwater High girl who had borrowed an old skate board of mine and wished to meet me to return it…there was a message from the manager at the video store that employed me part-time requesting that I drop by for a conversation…and the last message was from Eleanor, who was livid, having heard, all the way in Cuba, about my little mishap with Laura and Locksmith.

As I wondered from whom she’d heard the certainly embellished or perhaps entirely fabricated tale—her tone changed from what sounded like sarcasm to pure, uncut resentment.

When I dialed her hotel room in Cuba, there was no answer—any of the four times I’d redialed. I gave up finally; deciding Eleanor was either purposely not answering or simply not in the room. I examined the latter possibility…deciding it was the more likely of the two. I listened to Eleanor’s message again, to hear her voice. A wave of dread washed over me as I redialed her room, to no avail. Certainly, I’d expected it all to reach Eleanor at some point, but I imagined that it would reach her when she got back to LA and she could then look in my eyes and know the truth—that I hadn’t fallen into Caldwell’s trap. There was also the possibility that Laura Caldwell and Gregory Locksmith had synchronized their stories, in hopes of matching their concoctions for maximum collateral damage. After all—it seemed all was fair to Laura and Locksmith.

I decided to stop off at the video store first. It was payday and I wanted to collect my slave wages. I was running low on my stash of Supernova Champagne and I was due for another shipment. I found Chuck, the manager, in his dank office that always carried the slight reek of fried foods, mothballs, and body odor. As usual, he was clad in a yellow tracksuit, and a referee whistle dangled from a shoestring that was tied around his slender neck. Though at first glance, one might have surmised that Chuck was a soccer coach or some form of athletic official—he used the whistle to punctuate his commands with an exclamation point. Needless to say, he was down to his last employee—which was yours truly. I detested his yellow tracksuit nearly as much as I detested his whistle…but I detested being broke even more.

When Chuck noticed me appear in the doorway of his office, he stuffed a deep-fried chicken ball into his greasy mouth with a pair of ivory chopsticks and chewed it ravenously, pointing at me with the chopsticks. When he finally gulped it down, he let his words loose.

“You left the other night at what time?” He demanded.

“Like, eleven.” I shrugged.

“Ah, we close at ten…why were you here until eleven?” He demanded.

“You asked me to unbox the new releases and display them on the fucking shelves.” I said.

“That should have taken a half hour. What did you do for the other half hour?” he asked.

“Dude, you also asked me to sort out the returns and put them back on the fucking shelves.” I said.

“Only if you had time, I told you.” Said Chuck.

“I did have time.” I shrugged.

“I think you owe me a half hour.” He said, popping another deep-fried chicken ball into his greasy mouth. He stared back at me from behind his desk, breathing heavily and chewing ravenously.

“Look man…I did the shit you asked me to do…and now you don’t want to pay me?” I asked.

Chuck bolted up out of his chair and grappled at the whistle, finally grabbing a hold of it and blowing into it so hard his face went slightly red with rage and exertion. “I will pay you…but not the extra half an hour! Not the extra half hour.”

“Man, you’re a real cheap cunt aren’t you?” I chuckled, “Well, let’s put it this way, if you don’t pay me for that half hour, you can run the store yourself from now on.” I shrugged. To me it was a simple solve to a disaster of absurd complexity.

“You don’t think I can run this store on my own? My wife and I were doing it for years before you came along, shithead.” Said Chuck.

“Look man, you hired me to whip this place into shape. I cataloged your entire fucking selection of videos…I arranged them alphabetically, I organized the system, and made it work with that shitty computer you commandeered from the mid 1980s. I turned this shit around…and now you’re going to bust my balls about it?” I asked.

Just then a loud smash carried from the parking lot into the Want-it Videos showroom. It was an ugly fender-bending crash and it prompted a car horn that droned on like a flatline. Chuck and I made our way out of the store and into the parking lot where we found a fresh collision, complete with a smashed grill and leaking coolant that ran across the sloping asphalt toward the sidewalk. One of the cars involved belonged to Chuck and behind the deployed airbag sat his wife, suspended in shock and blinking dumbly at us through the cracked windshield.

Stepping around the other driver’s fender, Chuck rushed to his car and assessed the damage, as his wife stared forward, seemingly oblivious. Clutching his head, he groaned in despair for a moment before helping his clearly shaken wife Lilly from the driver’s seat. Noticing a crowd starting to gather around the fringes of the parking lot, Chuck bolted into action, handing Lilly off to me before ducking his head into the car to retrieve her purse and a shopping bag from the passenger seat.

“Move quicker.” he told us as I helped his hobbling wife across the parking lot.

“What the fuck are you doing man? You can’t just leave the scene.” I said.

When we were back in the sweltering mugginess of Want-It Videos; Chuck peered through the window, biting at the inside of his lip and clutching the whistle hanging around his neck. Looking panicked, he turned to his wife and took inventory of her condition as she leaned against the rental counter rubbing the back of her neck and moaning as if she was taking it from behind. Suddenly Chuck turned to me and his dopey eyes focused intensely.

“Go sit in the car and tell the police you were driving.” Chuck said, this time not using the whistle.

“Come on man… there are a dozen people out there including the driver of the other car who saw that I wasn’t driving.” I laughed.

“My wife doesn’t have a license.” Said Chuck, “You go and sit in the car and say you were driving.”

“Fuck that shit man.” I said, “Just give me my money so I can get the hell out of here. I have a life outside of this joint you know.”

“No way…not until you get into the car and say you were driving.” Said Chuck, “You’re my employee…you do what I say.”

“Do you know how illegal that is?” I asked him.

“Nobody knows…nobody cares…it’s just for insurance purposes.” Assured Chuck.

“Look, I’m leaving now…don’t make me go to the labor board to get my money from you.” I sighed.

“I’m in deep shit here and you’re going to talk to me about the labor board?” he demanded, “Get out of here. You’re fired!”

“Give me my money asshole.” I said.

“Go now…get out of here!” spat Chuck, grabbing his whistle and blowing it, causing his wife to wince and squeeze her temples, “You get out of here now.” He said, his voice lower this time, so as not to upset his wife, who may have been concussed.

“Not leaving until I get my cash dickwad.” I said.

It was then that a squad car pulled into the parking lot. The cop got out of his cruiser and approached the driver of the other car who was still sitting in the driver’s seat with his head tilted back, trying to stop the bleeding from his nose that had soiled the front of his yellow alligator shirt.

As the cop peered across the parking lot toward the store, Chuck etched the fakest of smiles into his taught face and pushed through the door, jingling the bells that hung from the top of the door-jam. He strolled across the sun-soaked parking lot to meet the cop and as he stood there, explaining why he’d removed his wife from the vehicle, I stepped behind the counter and booted up the old computer.

I accessed the catalog spreadsheet and highlighted all the titles, which were organized alphabetically. I deleted them all. I then accessed the rented spreadsheet, which included the names of each title and who they’d been rented to and when they were due for return. I deleted that list as well…then headed for the door, knowing I wouldn’t be back.

By the time I showed up to meet Wes, he was already at the restaurant. He was sitting alone in a corner booth made of worn and torn red leather. His pallor was alarming, and his hands slightly shook as he dumped a number of sugar packets into his steaming cup of coffee. He looked up at me with an expression of concern.

“April is cheating on me.” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked before taking a sip of my ice water.

“Dude…I’m sure.” he said, seemingly ready to explode into a vindictive tirade.

“With who?” I asked.

“You ready to wretch? You ready to fucking wretch? She’s been cheating with Emerson Tillman.” said Wes, nearly coming apart at the seams.

“Who the fuck is Emerson Tillman?” I asked.

“You don’t know who Emerson Tillman is?”

“No.” I shrugged.

“Emerson Tillman is probably the biggest low-life follower at Crestwater. He’s part of Locksmith’s entourage…you’ve seen him…he’s always wearing yellow shirts or pink pants, following Locksmith around like a fucking shadow…when he’s not wearing brightly colored cardigans, he wears sweaters draped around his shoulders—as if he’s on a yacht cruise. He’s a real precious sort of prince and I want to put my fist through his fucking face. I’m going to fuck that guy up man.” demanded Wes, banging his fist down on the table.

“I don’t know him—but get the facts before you do something stupid.” I said.

“Oh…Jacko…I have the facts. The facts are that he’s a real piece of baby-boy-shit. He stands around with this cutesy little grin on his face all the time—all the ladies think he’s such a sweet guy…that’s what they all say, ‘Emerson is the sweetest…’, but they don’t know what a fucking douchebag Tillman is.”

“What kind of douchebag is he?” I asked.

“The take advantage of a chick when she’s drunk kind of douchebag.” said Wes.

“That’s actually called a scumbag—it’s a few shades worse than a douchebag.” I said, “How did you find out about this?”

“Lacy Silver told me.”

“Lacy Silver?” I chuckled, the hilarity not lost on me, “The girl you’ve been cheating on April with? Okay…gotcha.”

“Who told you that? Who told you about Lacy Silver?” he asked…shock widening his bloodshot eyes.

“April told me that you’re cheating on her…that you’ve been carrying on a clandestine affair with Lacy Silver.” I said, watching his expression turn to protest, but his words didn’t come so fast…rather he looked out the window and gazed across the cracked asphalt at a strip of boarded-up shop fronts across the street.

“Who told her that bullshit?” he asked.

“Some chick she knows saw you and Lacy holding hands in Beverly Center.” I laughed, “Sounds pretty steamy.”

“I see.” he finally said, then a moment later turned back to me. “And you believed it?”

“I didn’t believe it and I didn’t not believe it. I simply absorbed it and carried on.” I admitted.

“Why didn’t you fucking mention this to me directly after it happened?” demanded Wes.

“It’s really none of my business what you do and who you do it with—you’re a big boy.” I shrugged.

“Of course it’s your business…I’m your friend.” he said.

“Exactly my point.” I said.

“Well, it didn’t happen—I’m a lot of things man…but not a cheater.”

“If you say it never happened then I believe you.” I shrugged.

“Ok good…and for the record, I don’t believe that you got with Laura Caldwell last night—even though that’s the word.” said Wes, glancing seriously at me before turning to gaze across the street again.

“Fuck…so that shit is front page news today?” I sighed, “These Emerald Heights people really have nothing better to talk about do they?”

“Pretty much.” said Wes.

“It’s an extraordinary fabrication.” I assured.

“I know you’d never cheat on Eleanor…but that’s the word—already.” said Wes, “What really happened?”

“Really nothing.” I sighed.

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.” I said.

“Man oh man…that’s really not the word.”

“What’s the word?” I inquired.

“Word is that you and Laura spent a couple of steamy hours in her parent’s room, with all the mirrors on the ceiling.” grinned Wes.

“Well…maybe it would have happened like that if I wasn’t with Eleanor.” I shrugged.

“Have you told Eleanor?”

“She already heard about it from someone else.” I said.

“She’s in fucking Cuba!” exclaimed Wes.

“I know, but somehow she heard about it.” I said.

“So what did she say?”

“She called me a bastard on my answering machine.” I said.

“She doesn’t believe you?”

“She hasn’t heard my side yet…I gotta talk to her soon.” I said, realizing it was imperative.

By the time I left the diner, it was gorgeously sunny…I had Down by Law on the stereo, and I decided to drive out to the Phantom’s a bit early. I opted not to take the freeway and instead drove Sunset the entire way, smoking one up and feeling fantastically adaptable as the shops and people and cars passed by under the mighty palm trees. Still however, there was the issue with Eleanor I felt I could clear up easily once I had her on the phone and she could clearly hear the truth in my voice.

When I arrived at the Phantom’s I was greeted by questions.

“Hey man, how was it with Laura Caldwell up in her parent’s room? Do they really have mirrors all over the ceilings?” laughed the Phantom.

He was situated in a lawn chair on the deck beside the pool, sipping a long thin glass of red juice. A cigar smoked in an ashtray on an umbrella-shaded table beside him as he smiled wide and raised his glass, “Congratulations man…she’s a lookah.”

I straightened up, taking note of Jen-Jen in a bikini approaching from the patio with a drink of her own, “She’s a hoebag.” Jen said, offering a momentary and very malicious grin my way.

“Listen…I want to make one thing clear right now—I didn’t do shit with Laura Caldwell. Where the hell is Walt?”

“He’ll be here. Have a drink…chill back.” said the Phantom, leaning back in his chair and taking a puff of his cigar as if he was T. Boon Pickens.

“Where are your parents?” I asked.

“They’re in Vegas for the weekend.” said the Phantom.

I wasn’t a big drinker…but decided an ice-cold beer might be a novel idea and so after retrieving one from the double-door refrigerator I stripped down to my plaid boxers and strolled back out into the backyard. I stood there under the sun for a while, sipping the cold beer, thinking of the rumor…and contemplating it. When I was through with the beer, which had, in a few short minutes, soaked through my empty stomach into my bloodstream, giving me a nicely weighted buzz; I jogged toward the pool and cannonballed into it, creating a large lofty splash.

I opened my eyes under the water and noticed a faint outline in the corner of the pool. It was a white anomaly that was perfectly camouflaged against the white pool floor. I swam down to it and realized when I was upon it that the anomaly bared a number pad…indeed, it was a cordless phone and I took it in hand before returning to the sparkling surface of the water, through which I could make out the clouds and the palm trees contorting through the disturbed water.

When I emerged from the water, I handed the dripping phone to the Phantom, “It’s for you…it’s Jon Stamos and he wants his hairdo back.”

Jen-Jen sneezed out a little laugh, covering her mouth, realizing the truism of my jest. The Phantom took the phone in hand with a perplexed expression on his face and placed the dripping phone to his ear, hearing nothing he looked back at me, “My mom has been looking for this phone for weeks.” he said before tossing the phone back into the pool; it was classic Phantom.

I’d been floating on my back in the pool, staring up at the clouds, searching for shapes and signs of divine intervention. I’d been deeply contemplating the notion that the world had certainly been a boring place before us humans had arrived with our drama and tragedy and infomercials—for millions of years it had only been spores, bubbling up through the muck. No art, no music, no literature…no industry, no rockets to the moon—just bubbling spores. I was curled up in these thoughts when Walt arrived, with Kristen in tow. On this occasion, Walt was clad in a tuxedo and had his hair immaculately slicked back. He looked focused and formal.

“Why are you dressed like a butler?” I asked.

“I was at a funeral.” Walt said with a grumble in his voice.

“You dressed like a butler to go to a funeral?” I asked.

“It was a formal affair.” he nodded.

“Whose funeral?” I asked.

“One of our neighbors—guy was like 96 years old…anyway, Jacko…we need to chat.” he said. He was carrying his bass case and immediately after setting it down, he started in on me. He lifted the remainder of the Phantom’s red drink from the tabletop and tossed it into the pool so the ice cubes cooled against my chest.

“I thought you never wasted a drink.” I said.

“What the hell did you do last night?” he demanded.

“Hey,” said the Phantom, “you just threw a fucking red drink into the pool man…it’s going to discolor the water.” he protested, to which Walt placated him by assuring him that the stain of juice would dilute easily, just like his piss.

After realizing that not only the Phantom but everyone else who used his pool may have pissed in the water; I backstroked to the side of the pool and climbed the steps onto the warm concrete surround. Dripping wet I took a seat in a sun chair on the opposite side of the pool from Walt. I lit one up and looked back at him as he glared at me…

“Well? Are you going to say something?” I asked.

“Laura Caldwell? There were a hundred chicks there last night and you had to choose Laura Caldwell?” demanded Walt.

“Are you on acid? I didn’t do shit with Caldwell.” I said.

“Maybe you went upstairs with her just to piss me off.” he said, causing Kristen, who’d been listening quietly, to turn and storm back into the house, her rapidly retreating strides causing her bikini ass to jiggle alluringly. The Phantom and I admired it for a moment as Walt burned a glare into me. Jen-Jen, after sneering at Walt, offered a single word ‘Asshole’ and rose from her chair and followed Kristen, leaving Walt, the Phantom, and I alone around the pool that sparkled with the early afternoon sun.

“I’m really disappointed in you.” said Walt.

“Nothing happened with Laura Caldwell.” I said, “And if you love her so much why the hell are you with Kristen?”

“You’re implying that it’s all a fabrication?”

“I’m not implying it…I’m telling you—it’s a fucking lie. Nothing happened. We got in an argument in fact…she threw a can of beer at me as well…but I guess that’s not the version she’s been telling everyone. And why the fuck do you care? You’re with Kristen…and Kristen is really beautiful, she doesn’t tell you what to do and she’s got a great ass—what more can a guy ask for?”

“You’re right man…you’re one hundred percent right.” said Walt, sitting down in Jen-Jen’s chair and opening his bass case from which he produced a bottle of scotch. He opened it, tipped it back, and swilled deeply on it.

“And because of this gigantic lie Laura’s camp is publicizing, Eleanor is pissed as fuck. Okay? So I don’t need any bullshit from you on top of that.” I said.

“No, you’re right man…I was wrong to attack like that. Laura has me by the balls though man…I fell for her spell—like so many other guys…how smart am I really?” said Walt with a sad chuckle.

“Do you really want me to answer that?” I said, accepting the peace treaty.

“Know what? I’m a real asshole for storming in here like this and chastising you. Maybe I should just drown myself in this pool.” said Walt, standing up in his pressed tuxedo.

He took a large haul from the bottle after which he stepped up to the edge of the pool for a moment, looking down into the sparkling water for a moment, as if entranced. A moment later he capped the bottle, spread his arms apart as if he might fly, and fell forward, tuxedo and all, face first into the water, causing a splash that enveloped him entirely, so he sunk to the bottom and stayed there.

The Phantom and I exchanged an amused glance and waited for Walt to resurface. However, he remained at the bottom of the shallow end of the pool, emitting bubbles, like a prehistoric spore. After what seemed a few minutes, Walt suddenly emerged with another splash. He flopped onto the deck, soaked and dripping, his bottle still in hand. Rolling onto his back he opened his eyes and stared up into the sky as his chest heaved in oxygen deprivation, “I just had a conversation with God.”

“I thought you were talking to Jon Stamos on the cordless.” chuckled the Phantom, flashing me a grin.

“Gentlemen…I have some news for you.” said Walt, uncapping the bottle again and swilling from it, “Yep, I wanted to let you guys know that Wilson loved the show last night…and he’s going to mention us on his show and play a song from our demo—and that’s huge.”

“Wow.” I said, raising my brows, “That is kind of huge.”

“I told you we were going to turn this scene upside down…that we were going to tear it up from the inside. You don’t turn a scene upside down by being nice, corn-fed, clean-cut baby boys like the Vermilion Trees or The Black Magnolias…you gotta light shit up if you want to make a statement…and we’re the perfect band to do it…and you know why?” he asked, sitting up now on the soaked deck, “Because we don’t give a flying fuck.”

Indeed dear reader, for Walt and the Phantom this was a convenient turn of events…one pivotal in leading us toward our goal of shaking up the Emerald Heights indie band scene. For me however, a kid from The Park, who—if I’d been playing by the rules—should have been spending another dreary spring avoiding street violence and drive-by shootings and weathering another mundane year at Truman High. Indeed, news of Wilson’s show brought about a sense of purpose…of having thrown a wrench into the gears in order to recalibrate my destiny. What Walt and the Phantom didn’t realize was that many kids from Truman Park didn’t make it beyond the borders of Truman Park—if they lived beyond the age of twenty at all. Some wound up like Beatty; bleeding out in a gutter.

I’d fled Truman Park with nothing to lose…on a wing and a prayer as they say—evidently someone upstairs had been listening. Still, though our show at Laura Caldwell’s party would go down in Emerald Heights history as monumental…I realized it was fleeting and we’d never get to do it again—though we might want to later in life when regrets surfaced like buoys in the tranquil waters of middle-aged complacency. For me…the time was now—and I had nowhere else to be.

“That’s great man.” I said, looking up at the Phantom and Walt who were sipping their booze calmly, “Can I use your phone?” I asked the Phantom.

“Who you calling?” he asked.

“Eleanor…she’s in Cuba—that okay?” I said.

“It’s on the counter in the kitchen.” he said, “Don’t stay on for two hours though—my mom will have my balls.”

Once inside I found a bathroom and pissed into the sink as I looked at my face in the mirror…I was full of youth and fire and endless possibilities…I got comfortable in the empty tub and dialed Eleanor’s room in Cuba. This time she answered.

“It’s me.” I said, “Eleanor, you there?”

“I’m here.” she finally responded.

“Listen, I don’t know who you’ve been talking to but whatever they told you, it’s bullshit.” I said.

“Don’t lie to me Jack.” said Eleanor, and there was something in her tone I hadn’t heard before.

“I don’t lie to you.” I assured.

“I hoped you wouldn’t.” she said.

“I didn’t. Nothing happened with Caldwell…I’m not sure why you find that hard to believe.”

“I knew I wouldn’t ever be enough for you.” said Eleanor, quieter now, as if she might sob, “Maybe I’m just some silly girl from the ugly new houses to you.”

“That’s preposterous…you’re the only one I want to be with.” I said.

“Then why were you with Laura last night in her parent’s bedroom?”

“I was looking for the pisser and she ran into me…she wanted to show me a photo album I guess.” I said.

“And you didn’t know what that meant?”

“I thought it meant she wanted to show me a fucking photo album.” I said.

“If you wanted to hurt me—you succeeded…high marks…anyway, I have to go.” said Eleanor.

“Go where?” I asked.

“Down to the restaurant to meet my pathetic stepfather and his creepy daughter.” Eleanor sighed, “I’m going to need some time to sort this all out.”

“Sort what out? There’s nothing to sort out. Nothing happened with Caldwell for fuck sake.”

“Right…guys don’t exactly turn down Laura Caldwell.”

“I did…and I did it because of you.” I said.

“So you would have done something if I wasn’t in the picture. Real nice. I need some time to sort out what I’m feeling.” said Eleanor, “Okay?”

“I guess if you want to agonize over nothing…over a ridiculous lie…it’s your call.” I shrugged.

When she clicked off, I sat there in the empty tub, staring at the shower nozzle. I contemplated the situation with Laura Caldwell and couldn’t quite wrap my mind around her extraordinary allegation or the motives behind it. I assumed I’d never really know and abandoned the contemplation.

The next day back at Crestwater, there were the usual arm taps and finger guns, shooting me a cordial ‘what’s up dude?’…there were congratulations on the show…citing the fire as the high point of the evening…there were congrats for finally losing my cool with Locksmith…there were the usual whinnying schools of kids chartering an oblivious course to nowhere…there was the chatter and the sounds of lockers locking and laughter…and then there was the sound of first bell, which within seconds, cleared the hallway like a pistol crack.

I found my first class, which was Mrs. Wall’s typing class, which I’d only taken for credit, mainly because by that point I’d been dabbling with the short story and was well on my way to a novella…I felt becoming a better typist would aid me in my quest to write the next great American novel. I arrived in Wallace’s class prepared for some deep dedication to the keys and their accompanying exercises. I took a typewriter near the back of the room and slung my backpack over my chair.

“Mr. Holden…” called Mrs. Wall from her desk, at which she sat sifting through notes.

“Yeah?” I said.

“You’re wanted in the office.”

“I just got here…I haven’t even had time to do anything wrong yet.” I said, prompting some chuckles from my classmates, “Why does she want to see me?”

“You’ll have to ask Principal Gavin.” she said, looking back down at her notes.

Amidst a murmur from my Crestwater classmates, I unslung my bag from the back of the chair and hung it over one shoulder and made my way back out into the hallway which was barren and silent enough to hear a pin drop. The floor was impeccably clean and polished and the morning sun burst through the French windows in brilliant rays, illuminating posters and murals on the opposite wall; I had a bad feeling about the call to the office so early.

When I made it to the office I was directed by the secretary to Gavin’s open door. Gavin was dressed as usual in earth-tone office wear and this time was conversing with her vice Principal, Mr. Ellis…a man few of us ever saw but had heard existed.

Gavin, looking stoic, gestured with her hand for me to sit in the hot seat. As I did, I noticed a fresh box of Kleenex sitting on the corner of her desk beside which her rustic wood name plate sat, it read Principal Natalie Gavin.

The nameplate was new and I’d not known Gavin’s first name until just then. It cast her in a less formal shade and for the first time I realized that Natalie Gavin was only human after all…she was a wife, a mother, a principal and a city resident who paid her taxes, did her laundry and perhaps dressed up in sexy lingerie for her husband, who smiled back at me from a photo hanging on the wall behind her. The photo also featured Gavin in a sundress, her daughter beside her, smiling under her square graduation cap with the family Yorkie held snugly in her arms; another story—but one that wouldn’t be told.

When Gavin was through discussing the deeply personal details of an unnamed student’s mid-term scores; Gavin turned to me and offered a professional smile of greeting. I’d expected the vice to leave; however, he remained standing there, leaning against the water heater with his skinny hairy arms crossed against his chest, peering back at me through his cloudy spectacles.

“Jack, you’ve met Vice Principal Ellis I presume.” said Gavin, gesturing to the man who didn’t offer his hand.

“I haven’t, but I can’t see it making much of a difference at this juncture.” I said, my own words uttered on instinct, cluing me into the fact that this wasn’t a social call.

“How was your weekend?” she asked me, ignoring my comment about Ellis, who hovered like a vulture beside her desk.

“The usual.” I said.


“How was yours?” I asked.

“As usual, I took the job home with me.” said Gavin, flashing a small grin toward Ellis who didn’t return it on account of his trance-like stare that sought to burn a hole into my forehead.

“You don’t say…” I said, staring back at Ellis, wondering where a man like him was hatched.

“Well, Jack…I won’t take up too much of your time or ours…I really regret having to do this…” she said.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Jack…I have to expel you this morning.” she sighed.

“Have to?”

“I have to.”

“On what grounds?” I asked.

“Well, we can choose from a long list I suppose.”

“What list? I’m a straight-A student.”

“That you are…but I heard that you assaulted Gregory Locksmith over the weekend and left him with bruised ribs. That’s not the sort of thing we’re about here at Crestwater. I must say I’m surprised…I didn’t expect that from you.” said Gavin, returning to her serious tone.

“But I didn’t assault him…he’d drank far more than he could handle and he attacked me…I merely vaulted his drunk ass into a table so I could leave the party—which by then had become a real drag. Besides, that didn’t happen on school property Mrs. Gavin—your office has no jurisdiction beyond school property—does it?” I said.

“No, it didn’t happen on school property, but it certainly doesn’t lend you any credibility. Now let’s just say we exclude the assault…there’s still the issue of smoking dope on school property and we do have photographic proof of that Jack. The Crestwater Gazette has forwarded several photos of you and Wes Milton smoking dope on school property—do you think this is a movie about the 1960s and everyone should walk around smoking dope? I lived through the 60s and there was a lot more to it—it wasn’t all about smoking dope. In any case, the dope-smoking is worthy of expulsion. And also, spending so much time with a delinquent like Wes Milton hasn’t earned you many allies here.”

“Look, I assure you—Locksmith attacked me…really I’m a victim of circumstance here.” I said.

“The reality is that Gregory Locksmith was too afraid to come to school today—because of you.”

“Aw…poor little Gregory. What a crock…this is such a crock!” I laughed, “He’s playing all of you and you’re falling for it.”

“Nobody is playing anybody here.” piped in Ellis, his voice grave and his aerodynamic head slightly tilted.

“Dude, I just said…I didn’t assault Locksmith…he was drunk and he attacked me, I vaulted him—it’s obviously a smear campaign by Locksmith and his band of Rick Asley fans.” I assured, “And you guys fell for it.”

“As Natalie just said, Gregory Locksmith didn’t come today because he was afraid you’d assault him again. We take that very seriously here.” said Ellis.

I laughed, “He certainly wasn’t afraid on Saturday night when he attacked me in a second-floor hallway. I tossed him aside…that’s it. It was nothing—a bit of horseplay.”

“Maybe that’s the type of ‘horse play’ students in Truman Park subscribe to…but here at Crestwater, there’s no room for that sort of vile behavior.” said Vice Principal Ellis.

“What do you know about Truman Park man? I’m sure you live in some cushy suburb in some bungalow with 2.5 kids and a dog and a white picket fence and an astronaut-wife who loyally accompanies you to PTA socials. You know nothing about Truman Park—you’d get eaten alive in Truman Park, Ellis. So stick to what you know…save the jive for a sucker who’ll buy it. We both know that Locksmith is full of it and we both know that you’re terrified of his old man.” I told him, and Ellis only shrugged slightly and looked back to Gavin, who sat patiently, studying me intensely with the eraser end of her pencil pressed into the divot of her chin.

“I like you Jack, but you really have the wrong idea about a few things. Regardless, the point remains; when a student makes a mistake—we offer a warning…when a student makes repeated mistakes—we offer a suspension…which you’ve already had. When a student becomes a liability, we offer an expulsion. I see no reason to suspend you again. I think we’ve given this a try and it’s evident that it’s not going to work out.” Gavin shrugged.

“So, in other words, Locksmith can throw his weight around…and when someone throws back…his old man gets on the phone and demands that I be expelled.” I stated, “Real fair.”

“You’ve put me in a very difficult situation.” said Gavin, “But despite that, I really do wish you luck in all that you do. I truly mean that—it appears you’re going to need it.”

I sat there for a moment, staring back at her, hoping this time there would be some other option offered. However, Gavin only buckled her lip apologetically; it was done and wouldn’t be undone.

“Well, I’m sorry you believe that Locksmith is such an angel…but I can assure you; he attacked me. Maybe one day you’ll see who and what the Locksmiths really are.” I assured Gavin, “But then again…maybe not.”

“And if I do, I’ll be the first to apologize to you Jack. But at this point, my hands are tied. I warned you to stay away from Gregory…I tried to warn you…but you didn’t listen.” she shrugged, “And it seems we’re out of time.”

I nodded and rose from my chair giving her a long last look before I stormed out, slamming the door behind me and hoping the glass would break. However, the loud slam only caused the secretary to jump in her seat, after which she wished me an apologetic nice day. Don’t you mean nice life? I corrected her in my mind as I stormed out into the barren hallway.

For the first time, the place felt like Locksmith’s school…a public institution that in essence belonged to him and his father, and those like them. Indeed, there was a separate set of rules out here in the middle of utopia; they didn’t stick the knife in your chest with a snarl…they stuck it in your back with a pleasant smile. There was a game at Crestwater, and I’d opted not to play it—it was that simple.

I didn’t bother cleaning out my locker. Rather I headed straight for my van. I fired her up, hit the stereo, and squealed out of the parking lot, nearly colliding with an antique ice cream truck stopped in the middle of the road. I slammed the brakes, stopping just in time. I noticed the ice cream truck had a flat tire and the elderly driver stood nearby, clearly shaken by the near collision.

“That was a close one.” He said.

“How’d that happen?” I asked of the flat tire which seemed to tilt the bulky truck to the front driver’s side—where the flat was located.

“I may have run over some glass…but these tires are old. Should have changed them ten years ago.” the old man said, looking at me as he replaced the cap over his sweat-beaded baldness.

“You have a spare?” I asked.

“I do…but it’s fastened under the truck in the back…I can’t really remember how to remove it. It’s been so long.” he said.

“How long ago?” I asked.

“Why I’ve had this truck since before you were born.” he said, squinting back at me.

“Yeah?” I said.

“I was rounding these streets selling ice cream with my wife in the late 1960s.” he said, squinting now a warm smile down the street, perhaps recollecting the scenes and faces that had now evaporated into the nooks of his fading memory.

“Really?” I said.

“That we were…that we were…but I lost Hilda in 83’…boating accident out near Catalina.” he said.

“That sucks.” I said.

I raised a finger and pulled over to the curb to let an approaching car pass. I killed the engine and got out of the van and strode across the street wanting to get a better look at the vintage ice cream truck. It was a Commer ice cream van from the 1960s—it had patrolled the streets of Emerald Heights for 30 years and now sat stalled in the middle of the road with one of its illustrious whitewalls flattened to the rim.

“She’s a beautiful machine.” I said.

“Ah, she’s a pain in the neck!” said the old man, “I had to rebuild the engine, the freezer conked out on me a few years ago—had to redo that…transmission blew last January…sure she’s beautiful but a pain in the neck…as most beautiful women are.” he added with a chuckle.

“How do we get the spare out from underneath?” I asked.

“Well, if I remembered that—I’d be selling ice cream right now.” he said, his chuckle trailing off.

“How did you get at it before?” I asked.

“Last flat the truck had, one of my employees fixed it…and I believe the time before that it was Hilda—that woman could fix anything. You know Queen Elizabeth could fix an engine…now that’s a woman. I haven’t changed a tire on this thing since the 70s. But I have no choice now—I drive this truck myself now that all my employees have quit.”

“Why did they quit? You don’t wear a whistle around your neck do you?” I asked.

“A whistle? No. Thing is…business isn’t what it used to be…I don’t make a lot of money with this anymore. People would rather get their ice cream from the supermarket or the Dairy Queen—the big thing now is ‘frozen yogurt’…I keep the truck going because this here truck is the last of a dying breed—it’s a historic part of this neighborhood…but these young people now…they don’t care jack diddly about history.”

“That’s why they all quit—no money?” I inquired.

“Not necessarily—I paid them a fair wage…but I think some of the guys I had working for me quit also because of the music.”

“The music?” I inquired, puffing on the blunt.

“The tunes the truck plays…some of the guys said they were hearing the ice cream jingles in their nightmares.” chuckled the old man.

“You could change the music…I mean, ice cream truck music is kind of creepy, isn’t it? Why not play some other music?” I said.

“Is it really that important?” he asked scratching his head again.

“Sure…music is important. I’ll bet if you played Never Mind the Bullocks—your business would turn around.” I speculated, “Especially around these parts.”

After some discussion, it was decided that I would fit myself under the back of the van and investigate the spare tire which, though suffering from sidewall cracking, was there and filled with air. Using a wrench, I unscrewed the fastening bolt and removed the tire. It wasn’t a whitewall however and once we swapped the flat for the spare, the truck looked strange somehow…as if it had acquired a black eye. Still, there was a charm to the old machine—a relic from a long-lost era.

Feeling I’d done my good deed for the month, I was about to head back to my van when the old man invited me to choose an ice cream, citing that it was the least he could do to repay me for my help. I shrugged and followed him around the side of the truck. On the other side was a menu with small photos and I looked it over, finally deciding on two scoops of maple walnut in a waffle cone.

As I stood there eating it and admiring the smooth vintage lines of the truck, the old man joined me on the hot asphalt and lit up a smoke. The name patch sewn into his uniform read Clark, “Is that your name?”

“No…I’m Bob—this is just a uniform I had kicking around.” he said, offering me his hand which was like mine, covered in soot and grease from the filthy tire iron.

“Jack.” I said, giving his hand a quick shake, “Listen, you could probably spray paint that tire to get the white wall back.”

“That’s true.” nodded Bob.

“And…if you’re looking for staff, I’m thoroughly employable at this point. I just got expelled from Crestwater High school and I guess I’ll have some time on my hands.”

“Expelled for what?” he asked.

“I was having too much fun I guess.” I said holding up the blunt.

“Principal Jeffries still there?” asked the old man.

“No…they fired his ass.” I said.

“Good…he was a real asshole to my granddaughter during her grade 12 year.”

“Not surprising.” I said.

“You ever have a job before?”

“I used to work at a video store.”

“Did you ever have a paper route?” he asked.

“Sure…” I said.

“This job is sort of like a paper route. You can follow a route if you like…a route is the best way…gets to be that people know when to expect you.” he said.

“Automatic transmission?” I asked.

“Yes sir.”

“What kind of hours are we talking?” I asked.

“I’m usually not out this early; I was on my way to hose her down at the wand wash. Eleven in the morning until four in the afternoon is what I usually drive…if business is slow though, you might pack it in around three—if business is booming—like in the summer months, you can theoretically sell until dusk…summer’s just around the corner too.”

“When can I start?” I asked.

He grinned and pulled a pad of paper from the chest pocket of his uniform and wrote down an address, “Here’s the pickup address…stop by at around noon in a few days and we’ll get you started—fair enough?”

“I’ll do that.” I said, shaking the hand he offered again as a verbal contract.

Later, I drove along the PCH, puffing one deep as the sun sparkled across the mighty expanse of Pacific Ocean. The beaches were already full, and it wasn’t even 10 am yet. It was going to be a scorcher. As I passed the Malibu bluffs and the camper van dwellers, I wondered what I’d tell my mom about my expulsion from Crestwater. Certainly, there was an elaborate explanation to it all, but the cold hard summary bared no deniability; I’d not only not participated in their elaborate game of chess—I’d upended the board and all of its pieces, upending myself in the process as well. Certainly I was smarter than that—and I knew it would be that particular fact that would irk my mom mostly…that I knew better…but did it anyway.

I’d never been expelled before and wondered if my mom might be so upset she would evict me from her home…in which case, I might join the contingency of camper van dwellers parked for miles along the PCH—at least until I got myself enrolled at another school. I wondered also about that as the true gravity of my situation surfaced through the foggy haze of dread. I would not only have to enroll at another school in the fall; I would also have to redo an entire semester being that I was going to miss finals at Crestwater.

After some contemplation, I opted not to divulge the specifics to my mom…in fact I avoided the subject altogether. There were only three months left in the semester and I decided I’d spend the time driving the ice cream truck. Instead of going to Crestwater, I’d round the lanes of Emerald Heights in the old Commer van selling ice cream to the heat-stricken suburbanites. It was always cooler near the ocean…and if it was 110 degrees downtown, it was bound to be 95 in Malibu.

Later that evening, when I’d returned home after a day of not being in school—though pretending I had; my mom sent my brother to pick up some Chinese, from some joint downtown and we sat around in the living room watching TV and eating with forks from the small oyster pails. KZLA was airing Nightmare on Elm Street and I was in the mood for some campy 80s gore. As I lay dormant, sprawled on the couch, feeling the Chinese trying to give me heartburn, I surrendered to the film and the Supernova Champagne and the sound of the central air conditioning blowing through the vents. As I watched a body bag pull itself down a school hallway leaving a trail of blood behind it; there came a knock on the front door.

It was Walt, the Phantom, and their girlfriends and I invited them in. They sprawled out on the living room rug in front of the TV, and I tossed them some cushions from the couch. We all smoked cigarettes and sipped pop and finished watching the movie as the light drained from the sky. When the movie was over, Walt sat up on the rug and didn’t bother waking Kristen who’d fallen asleep beside him. As she snored lightly, we all chuckled at the whistling sound.

“Imagine how hard it is to sleep beside her.” said Walt with a devilish grin, tickling her rib cage suddenly. She slurred, looking around the room, disoriented for a moment before realizing she was on my living room floor…after which she snuggled back into the cushion—content to fall back to sleep.

“She’s like a cat.” said Walt and we all chuckled.

“We have some news.” said the Phantom who sat up against the wall with Jen-Jen’s sleepy head in his lap.

“What news?” I asked, bracing for more of the bad, but hoping for it to be good.

Walt lit up a cigarette and waved out the match with a slight wince having burned his finger, “I got a call from Carson Brier today…”

“Yeah…who the fuck is Carson Brier?” I asked.

“He’s the owner of the Backyard. Initially, he’d told me that we were a shoo-in…but evidently one of the sponsors is threatening to pull out if we’re selected to play.”

I peered out the bay window at the silhouettes of the palm trees distantly lining Glendale Blvd against a vermilion sky.

“Why?” I asked, humoring the old chap.

“Because the last band on is Trent Humbucker’s band…The Black Magnolias…and his mother’s company is a major sponsor for that event…so you can see now what a crock of bullshit this all is.”

“Humfucker.” I sighed, recalling the cow licked hair, the women’s jeans and the gaze of slight retardation in his beady eyes, “Jagoff.”

“Humbucker is saying that he’s afraid for his life because we decapitated and burned an effigy of him. He’s hiding behind his mom on this one and she’s going to war for him. She’s using what happened with you and Locksmith as leverage.” Said Walt.

“What’s with these dudes? They get their parents to fight all their battles for them.” I said, shaking my head and lighting one up, “I mean, Locksmith attacked me.”

“I told that to Brier…and he believes it…Brier knows who and what people like Locksmith and Humbucker are. But we’re talking about a major sponsor backing out. That could fuck everything for Carson.” Said Walt.

Though it came as a huge disappointment—I wasn’t surprised. In fact, it all seemed to finally make sense that the powers that be in Emerald Heights had set out on a passive aggressive campaign to cancel Lusty Lacy Laura. It seemed only another chapter of the cancel campaign that had prevailed against me personally; first the issue with Locksmith, then the expulsion from Crestwater High, and now a chickenshit checkmate meant to coerce Carson Brier into complying with their cancel agenda. Fuck them all, I sighed, in the catacombs of my inner solace—fuck all of them.

A few days later a knock appeared at my bedroom door and by the positioning of the sunray leaking through the curtains and lighting up a narrow sliver of light on my wall; I gathered it was all too early for anyone to be wrapping at my bedroom door, which clearly stated in the form of a sign I’d bought in a shop on Hollywood Blvd., ‘Do Not Disturb’. My mom argued however that I was already disturbed and that waking up early was the key to a prosperous day. I however felt that when it was possible—one should sleep until noon, as to keep a youthful appearance.

As the wrapping continued, I glanced at my bedside clock, which told me it was 9:30 am, “What!” I called out.

“It’s Clare…your bro let me in.” said a quiet voice through the wooden door that I always kept latched when I slept—in case of burglars. By the time they kicked in my door—I’d be ready to knock a hometown homerun with a nail-spiked baseball bat.

“Clare who?” I asked from my pillow.

“Clare Foster you silly.” said the voice, “You never called back.”

Indeed, I’d nearly forgotten I’d loaned her one of my old skateboards to practice on.

“Just a sec…” I said, rolling out of bed and pulling on a pair of jeans…my dog tags jangled from my neck as I pulled the jeans on and a moment later, I unlatched the door, letting a blast of light and fresh oxygen into the room.

“Sorry to wake you…I was in the hood and figured I’d just drop the board with you.” she said, holding it up. Her nails were short and the red nail polish was chipped and worn…her makeup was punk style…green eye shadow and dark purple lipstick…her dyed purple hair was spiked and she wore a shirt bearing Charles Manson’s comically psychotic face.

“What are you doing up so early?” I demanded, dumbfounded by her diligence.

“Sorry…” she repeated.

“No worries…have a seat.” I said as I opened the curtain which flooded the room with brilliant sunshine. I slipped into my checkerboard Vans and took a seat on the edge of the bed as Clare sat in the chair at my boxy computer. The skateboard looked more weather-beaten than I remembered…it was heavily stickered but the stickers had been worn over with scrapes and chips and runner scuffs. Clare held the board between her knees as she looked around my bedroom, scanning the posters covering the walls.

“That Psychocandy poster is radness…how much you want for it?” she asked, smacking her bubble gum. I realized for the first time that underneath her spiked purple hair and her punk makeup and her rough-and-tumble attire; Clare was actually pretty and I wondered why she wanted to hide it behind face piercings, horror show makeup and a Charles Manson t-shirt; there must have been reasons.

“Come on Foster…you don’t really think I’m going to part with that poster—especially when it ties the room together so well.” I told her.

“Yeah…” she said, thoughtfully staring at the poster in regard to the rest of the room, “I guess it does really tie the room together. But it would tie my room together much better.”

“Maybe we can trade for something…what you got?” I asked.

“Comparable to that one? I have a huge PIL poster with Lydon’s face on it…he’s wearing a blazer and has crazy hair.”

“Is the photo black and white?” I asked.

“Photo is black and white.”

“I’ve seen that one…in fact.” I said, reaching down into a pile of clothing beside my bed. I sifted through the pile of shirts I pulled off every night and dropped beside my bed and rarely bothered to fold up and set neatly in my dresser which was mainly empty. After a few moments of searching, I produced a t-shirt bearing the exact description of Clare’s prize PIL poster, “That the one?” I asked, holding up the shirt.

“What? There’s a fucking shirt of that poster? Where’d you get it?” she gasped.

“Record store on Melrose.” I said.

“If we’re talking t-shirts, I would trade you a limited edition Psychedelic Furs t-shirt for that one.” said Clare.

“But…I’m not even really into the Furs.” I laughed.

“I have a yellow Bad Brains t-shirt.” she said.

“I already have that one.” I said.

“I have an old Billy Bragg t-shirt that used to belong to my older sister. It’s the ‘I would rather be listening to Billy Bragg’ one.” Clare suggested.

“What else you got?” I asked with a grin.

“I mean I have dozens…what are you looking for?”

“You got 10,000 Maniacs?” I asked.

“I have a Natalie Merchant Tiger Lilly shirt—got it on a weekend trip to San Fran with my mom…I never really wear it—it’s a larger size…it’s black and has the album cover with the orange and green on the front.”

“That’s brilliant. I’ll take it.” I said.

“Really…for the Psychocandy poster?”

“Of course not…I’ll give you the skateboard for it.”

“Get the fuck out of here Holden…you’re kidding me.” Laughed Clare.

“Is it not a fair trade?” I asked.

“Not for you I don’t think—this board is the shit.” she said.

“Going once…” I said.

“I mean, are you cereal? I feel like I’m taking advantage.”

“Going twice…”

“Ok…if you’re cereal…I’ll trade you the shirt for the board.” said Clare.

“Yeah, but there’s one condition.” I said.

“You want me to do something perverted with you?” she laughed.

“Not this time. The condition is that you cut up that Manson shirt.” I said.

“Cut it up?” she asked with a confused expression.

“Cut it up…with a pair of scissors.” I nodded.

“You’re mental.” she laughed.

“You think it’s cool what happened up on Cielo Drive?” I asked her.

“It’s just a shirt.”

“There’s a pair of scissors on my desk.” I said, gesturing to my desk, which sat in the corner of the room, atop which my boxy computer sat, bouncing a screen saver around the sleeping monitor.

“You’re for fucking cereal?”

“Dead fucking cereal Foster…you want the board or some silly ass Manson?” I said, “It’s a decision that will change your life.” I grinned.

“You’re such a fucking head case Holden.” she laughed, “Fucking psycho really…but ok…I’ll play along.” said Clare, moving over to the desk. She took the large scissors in hand and snipped them at me a few times like Anna Karina.

“I knew you’d do that…” I laughed.

“Karina is my alter-ego.” Clare Foster said as she pulled off her Manson t-shirt, “You’re really going to make me cut up this t-shirt?”

“That’s the deal.” I said.

“Ok…” said Clare with a small shake of her head as she went to work on the Manson shirt, snipping through it roughly so it was eventually a small heap of fabric sitting at her runners.

“Cool?” she asked when she was through.

“Cool.” I said, moving to the window and lighting up a blunt.

“What the hell am I going to wear home?” she asked, standing there in her bra.

“Here.” I said, reaching down into the pile of shirts and pulling up a Black Flag which I tossed to her.

“Hey…can I ask you for a favor?” said Clare as she pulled the shirt on.

“What’s up?” I asked, leaving my contemplation and peering back at her.

“Can I have a package sent here to your house?” she asked.

“A package?”

“A parcel.” said Clare.

“What’s in the package? Anthrax?” I chuckled.

“Yeah, their complete discography.” Clare replied, rolling her eyes, “It’s from my dad in San Diego. I’m not supposed to be in contact with him…but he wants to send me a parcel for my birthday and my mom will shit if she sees me getting a parcel from him. You’d be doing me a solid.”

“All right…I guess you can send it here.” I shrugged, looking back to the street where the parking patrol was writing a ticket for a red Datsun.

“You drive a red Datsun?” I asked.

“Shit man…that’s my mom’s car.” Clare said, grabbing her new skateboard before bolting out of my bedroom, “I’ll call you.”

When Clare was gone, I checked my messages for something from Eleanor. I called her room in Cuba again to no avail. She had it in her head that I’d done something wrong—and when a woman has that idea; it’s hard to convince her out of it. I showered and shaved and drove across town to Marina Del Rey, where my new employer lived. By the time I pulled up in front of his condo, it was 10:45 am and the sun was brilliantly high, edging toward noon and throwing a gleam over anything reflective. The sky was the same shade as the ocean and a fine mist hanging over the surface of the horizon blurred the definition between the sea and sky…the air smelled of ocean and the breeze played tunes on wind chimes hanging from sunlit balconies; a sea-side paradise—except for the annoying wind chimes.

I found Bob on the street lathering up the windows of the ice cream truck with a mop and a bucket of suds. He nodded and offered me a smile—perhaps expecting that I wouldn’t show up. I had shown up though and I’d shown up early—I needed a job and fast. As Bob lathered the windows, I took note of the truck; it cleaned up quite well.

“Looks ten years younger already.” I said of the truck, “We just gotta fix that black eye.” I said, taking note of the regular tire among the whitewalls, “I think we could use white paint to bring back the white wall effect.”

“It’s not the mileage kid, it’s the make.” laughed Bob, “There’s a uniform on the passenger seat for you. My girlfriend washed it for you last night.”

“That’s nice of her.”

I shrugged and retrieved the uniform. It wasn’t like the one Bob had been wearing the day I’d helped him change the flat. Mine was a black and grey bowling shirt made of polyester. The name patch was oval and embroidered with the name ‘Carlito’ in swirly lettering. The shirt went on smoothly over my Exploited T-shirt and as I buttoned it up in the reflection of the window, Bob stopped to size me up.

“Looks sharp on you kid. I’ll get you a proper name patch if you decide you want to stay on.” He said, crossing his arms and grinning a satisfied grin.

When Bob was through rinsing down the rear side of the truck, he took me aboard. There were two freezers in the back—one containing popsicles, fudgsicles, creamsicles, drumsticks, ice cream sandwiches, and any other individually packaged items—and in the other freezer were the buckets of ice cream…8 in total which varied in color and spanned an array of flavors. He showed me cake cones, waffle cones, sugar cones and waffle bowls, spoons, and refill for the toppings; strawberry sauce, chocolate sauce, candy sprinkles, chocolate chips, gummy bears…you name it; Bob had it. He even had a small refrigerator that contained iced-down pop cans, juice boxes, iced tea, chocolate bars, brownies, cookies as well as bags of caramel popcorn.

“This is quite the setup man.” I said.

“Oh I don’t do anything halfway—they know Bob Baskerville’s ice cream truck from Santa Clarita to Long Beach.”

“Well dude, I’m stoked to keep the legend alive.” I nodded.

“Ok…then I’ll leave you to it. Take a few hours today as a practice run and I’ll see you back here around 3.” said Bob.

When Bob disappeared back into his condo, I drove the truck up Lincoln wondering where to start. Finding I could easily weave in and out of traffic, I stayed in the slow lane, deciding to enjoy the ocean breeze blowing in through the open windows. I lit one up and synched into pace with the slow-moving traffic. By the time I was in Emerald Heights, I was flying high on a puffy cumulonimbus. I decided I would wait until next time to plot a course; the day had become sweltering and I realized there wasn’t an air conditioner in the truck—perhaps another reason Bob Baskerville had lost so many staff. I rounded the lush green lanes randomly, admiring the tall palms that lined the streets and the Spanish villa-style houses tucked away behind tall hedgerows and gated fences. Movie stars, rock stars, and studio heads lived in some of them…oblivious to the droves of homeless withering away in gutters and makeshift shanties only a matter of blocks away.

After pulling over for a few minutes to arrange the cash float and to reorient myself with the set-up, I returned to the driver’s seat and flipped the music switch…the music was obligatory—as Bob had doubtlessly wanted it…and indeed it did inspire an air of killer-clown creepiness. Beyond that, the volume at which the music was to be set, a level marked on the dial by a strip of black tape cut into the shape of an arrow, seemed unconscionably loud, making an eerie ruckus of the suburban calm.

I drove on, relighting the blunt, waiting for patrons to make themselves known. After a few blocks, I noticed a family in the large side mirror fastened to the door, waving me down. The parents stood between two cars parked along the curb, shading their eyes from the sun with one hand and waving with the other. I slowed the large truck to an eventual stop and waved them over through the driver-side window. I was perhaps a half block away and indeed, though the parents seemed apprehensive about walking the distance to the truck—their children bolted into a sprint.

Leaving the truck idling, I went to the service window and waited. The kids arrived first—a boy and a girl and they were dressed smartly and talked even smarter; future studio heads. The girl wore a small plastic tiara and tongued at her braces as she scanned the menu posted on the side of the truck. The boy knew what he wanted without a glance, “I’ll get two scoops of vanilla chocolate chip in a waffle bowl…I want chocolate sauce and strawberry sauce on it too…can you put gummies on it? And cookie crumbs as well?” he asked.

“No prob little dude.” I said setting a waffle cone down on the counter. As I scooped out the vanilla chocolate chip, the parents arrived.

“What did we say about running in the street?” asked the mother who at one point had obviously been a trophy…she was now half plastic and her lips puffed up like pillows when she spoke. Her silicone breasts were hard round spheres held snug in her black short-sleeve blouse.

“Hey…you’re new.” said the man who was short and bald, yet ironically hairy as a beast in his yellow Lakers jersey, “What happened to Bob? He finally retire and move to Costa Rica?”

“Bob’s adding some new blood to the team.” I informed.

“I see…well, glad someone is manning the truck today—it’s a scorcher.” he said, making a face.

“Anything above 70 is too hot for him.” said his trophy wife from behind her sunglasses with a wide grin that showed off her perfectly tended teeth.

“We got you covered.” I told them.

“I want one scoop of double chocolate and another scoop of strawberry cheesecake…I’d really like strawberry sauce—but not too much and can you sprinkle almonds on it?” said the girl.

“You got it.” I said, preparing her order and wondering how it was possible that such an easy work detail could actually pay.

The parents both ordered fudgsicles bringing their entire bill to $12.50. The father paid with three five-dollar bills and as I handed back his change, he waved it off, “Put it in your jar.” he said, pointing to a jar on the counter sitting in a cup holder. In the jar were a few paper clips and without removing them, I dropped the $2.50 into the jar where it landed with a clink.

I was about to sit back down and pull the truck away from the curb when suddenly droves of patrons were upon me…they trickled in slowly at first, a few pairs, then a handful, then scads—as if I’d formally invited them to a block party I’d thrown without a city permit. As the lineup grew, I peered out the window and down the street in the direction they were all coming from. Indeed, on the opposite side of the street a half block down was the mouth of a park, which was crawling with humans.

“What’s the occasion in the park?” I asked a sexy mother of three who was re-coating her lipstick in a small gold compact mirror.

“It’s a farmer’s market…with some arts & crafts.” she smiled, her sweet demeanor not matching her harlot lipstick, halter-neck blouse, and miniskirt. These Emerald Heights mothers certainly kept the paint wet.

I served her and her kids some maple walnut cones, realizing that indeed I could conserve gas by remaining parked in one spot and letting the patrons come to me. I’d gotten lucky in finding a community event. After an hour however, the sales tapered off and I needed to find a urinal. I drove up the PCH taking in the sprawling coastline foaming at the sandy shores and the people, spread like ants across it, wading into the surf and scattered in bunches on the hot sand; there was no place on earth like Malibu.

When I got back to Bob’s place, he balanced the float, paid me my wage for the day plus the tips, and asked me if I could return in two days for a second shift. I said I could, and I left him standing in his kitchen staring out the window blankly. I took the uniform with me. It smelled of cooking and musty storage and I wanted to wash it and spray it down with some men’s cologne Eleanor had bought for me at Beverly Center one afternoon when I’d tried it and liked it.

Two days later I was scheduled for another shift in the ice cream truck. It was a marvelously sunny day and the LA skyline seemed to sparkle as if the downtown sprawl of skyscrapers were crystal obelisks reaching toward the sky, continuing where the Roman leagues had left off and promising another thousand years. It was our place in time…we could have been born in any era and never known any better. We could have been born into a 1700s nightmare of candlelit reading, collective body odor, bucket shitting and zero electricity. However, it was the 90s and things seemed as advanced as they possibly could be. After the 90s—what else could be new? I contemplated this as I made my way out of the house in my bowler-shirt uniform that bared the name Carlito. It seemed Bob didn’t mind me being Carlito and to me, a name tag was incidental at best…offering, if anything, a shade of incognito which helped perpetuate the air of mystery I liked to think prevailed when I drove the ice cream truck. Nobody ever wonders about the dude who drives the ice cream truck—for the ice cream truck eclipses any curiosity about the driver…for he in essence becomes part of the ice cream truck…as if he were a door, or a tire or the steering wheel; another working part of an elaborate machine.

Opening the front door of my mom’s house I noticed the mailman approaching up the walk.

“Perfect timing.” he said.

“I’d say.”

“Sign.” he said, holding out a clipboard to which was fastened a form of receipt. I glanced it quickly and signed it, noting that though it had been sent from San Diego, there was no return address. Stranger still, the parcel was addressed to me, beside which small marker scratch lettering specified ‘for Clare Bear’, below which my address was properly intact, down to the nuance of my zip code—which I suddenly recalled jotting down for Clare the previous week when she’d asked to have a package delivered to my mom’s house.

Knowing that I was going to be patrolling Emerald Heights in the ice cream truck for the greater part of the afternoon, I decided to take the parcel with me. Perhaps it wasn’t a bad idea to roll by Crestwater High and pay my ex-classmates a visit. Certainly Clare Foster would be in attendance and perhaps she’d have the Natalie Merchant t-shirt we’d agreed on trading for the skateboard…in which case I could also unload her parcel which was strangely lightweight for a birthday gift.

As I made my way down the 405 toward Marina Del Rey, I wondered about the parcel and why Clare’s father had not included a return address. Was it that he didn’t wish me to know where he lived? In which case, what would become of the package if he’d not gotten the mailing address correct? I wondered where wayward parcels went as I glanced at the box wrapped in brown paper sitting on the passenger seat of my van.

After I picked up the ice cream truck from Bob, I stopped at 7-11 to pick up a pack of cigarettes and a can of pop. When I was back in the sweltering truck, I was intrigued by the scent that had settled in the closed confines. It was curious indeed because I carried my personal stash in an air-tight film canister in order to avoid being enveloped in the tell-tale scent. After a quick check of my stash which I kept in the front pocket of my backpack, I found it sealed and again wondered about the origin of the scent. Perhaps I’d driven over the remnants of a skunk that had been flattened over the asphalt by a morning’s worth of commuting tires. Or perhaps Bob had left a stash somewhere in the truck and had forgotten about it—in which case—finders keepers.

In the parking lot of the 7-11, I went through the truck, searching under the seats, behind the seats, in the seats, and in the many compartments, cupboards and drawers. However, I came up empty-handed…yet the strong scent was still present. There could only be one other source I realized.

I picked up the parcel Clare’s father had sent for her and shook it, but it produced no sound. It did however seem hollow when I squeezed it. Smelling the package my suspicions were confirmed; the grassy scent was emanating from the parcel. Fucking Clare—where did she get the tits to have a stash sent to my house? I wondered, shaking my head with amazement.

Before I got moving again, I dug through my backpack and fished out a cassette at random. It was The Pogues’ If I should Fall from Grace with God, and I walked it back to the console. Feeling a freeze of elation tickle my core, I removed the cassette with the creepy killer-clown ice cream truck music on it and replaced it with the Pogues cassette. With a grin, I turned the volume dial nearly all the way up so Bottle of Smoke blasted across the parking lot.

It was a moving spectacle and not necessarily just because of the Pogues blasting through the rooftop speakers…indeed, something so out of the ordinary seemed to strike a chord of slight awe in the faces I passed which stared back at me with a certain shade of curiosity—as if I’d somehow colored outside of the lines and nobody was sure if it could be called a great work of art or a sinister manifesto—suggesting perhaps there was a fine line between the two.

It was in this fashion I rolled up to Crestwater High. The lunch break hadn’t started yet and the front lawn was sparsely populated. I lit up a smoke and waited for the lunch bell to ring. As I waited, I noticed April sitting nearby on the lawn. I tapped the horn at her, which came out sounding like the honk of a clown’s nose. When she didn’t peer my way, I honked again, this time drawing April’s glance which landed, once, twice, and a third time with an amazed tilt of her head. After pushing herself up off the lawn, April came to the window wearing a wide smile.

“What the fuck Jack? Is this yours?” she asked of the truck.

“No, I’m just driving it for this old dude.” I said.

“That’s cool as fuck.” She said.

“Hey, can you do me a favor?” I asked.

“Depends…” she said, opening the door, climbing up into the cab and bouncing down into the passenger seat.

“Listen, can you deliver this parcel to Clare Foster?” I asked, holding up the parcel.

“Do I look like I work for the express?”

“I can’t go in there…I’ve been banished. Remember?” I said.

“I know…” she said in a pouty tone, “I’ve missed you—we’ve all missed you. What’s in the box?”

“Clare asked me if she could have a package delivered to my mom’s place…she said her dad wanted to send her something for her birthday.” I shrugged, “Guess he’s in San Diego.”

“Why didn’t he just send it to her mother’s house?” asked April.

“I guess the mom has cut him off.” I shrugged.

“I wonder what’s in it?” said April, looking at the box curiously.

“I think it’s weed.” I said.

“Get the fuck out of here!” said Clare, grabbing the box out of my hands and smelling at one of the corners. She tore at the packing tape with her teeth, opening a small tear. She then squeezed the box, inhaling deeply before breaking out in laughter, “Oh my god! It is fucking weed. I can’t believe she had this shit delivered to your place.”

April removed her keys from her purse and began using a sharp key to cut away the tape.

“Hey, you can’t do that.” I said.

“Why not?” asked April.

“It’s illegal.” I shrugged.

“And having weed sent to your mom’s place isn’t?” Demanded April, raising a valid point, “Imagine what could have happened if this shit got intercepted with your mailing address on it.”

“Shit.” I said, imagining the events that could have unfolded.

“I can’t believe that berserker.” Laughed April.

“Can you go in and find her and tell her I have her package?” I said.

“Are you thick or something Holden? Think. She put all the risk on you…I’d say this is your shit now.” Said April.

“My shit?” I said.

“Yeah.” Said April finally having peeled away enough of the packing tape.

April opened the top of the box and a pungent waft of grass filled the truck as I watched her remove the contents: two, one-gallon Ziplocs holding within them perhaps the largest quantity of weed I’d ever laid eyes on. The sheer quantity evaded my scope of comprehension as both April and I sat dumbfounded, staring back at the bursting Ziplocs.

“What the hell am I going to do with all of that shit?” I asked.

“Smoke it.” Said April, “Or better yet, smoke some and sell some.”

“I’m not Cat fucking Foley.” I chuckled, “I’m not looking to get busted for some dumbass shit like that.”

“Dude…hear me out.” Said April, “We don’t do it out in the open and so obviously. We stealth it.”

“Stealth it how?”

“We make a few batches of ice cream with this shit…we add it to the menu—unofficially of course. I mean we’d only be taking home the proceeds from our flavor…so we’re technically not ripping off your boss. He’ll still get his revenue.

I mean think of it Jack, we can hit at least Cartwright, Crestwater and Buckley during a lunch break. The word will get around and I’m telling you…it’ll sell like hotcakes.” April assured.

In the end, I surrendered the two Ziplock bags (minus a handful) to April, who promised me that she’d have a few batches of ice cream in a couple of days. The prospect, though asinine, was just crazy enough an idea to work and April seemed an industrious enough girl to get it done. There was that, and there was also something about sitting on that much green that made me edgy. A handful was fine, for a handful could be explained, tossed out the window…smoked in a short period of time…but the amount Clare’s father had sent her was a quantity even the likes of Cat Foley hadn’t ever seen.

I finished my improvised route in the ice cream truck and then drove over to the Phantom’s place for a Lusty Lacy Laura rehearsal. However, Walt was MIA and even Kristen had no idea where he’d disappeared to. As I pondered the circumstance and the Phantom hauled on the water bong, Jen-Jen offered her postulation; that Walt hadn’t been the same since hearing news of Lusty Lacy Laura being cancelled from the Backyard Battle of the Bands show that was rapidly approaching.

I nodded and shrugged, acknowledging that perhaps this was the case with Walt. Nobody really knew though when it came to Walt, and it wasn’t that he was a mystery. Rather he was driven by demons—ones I felt none of us would ever quite understand. A man driven by demons is usually an unpredictable one and probably best left unsolved. I didn’t question Walt’s reality or his home life—which I knew very little about. However, it seemed many others did, and Jen-Jen left me with an ominous hint, citing that Walt’s parents had created a house of mirrors, in which they’d decided to raise Walt.

The situation with Walt prompted thoughts and hypothetical ponderings that led me to a certain conclusion—that I should indeed pay Carson Brier a visit. And so I did, a couple of days later, before my ice cream truck shift. I stopped in at the Backyard and on instruction from the gate girl, I found Brier down a long hall, painting a doorway. On a nearby footstool, I noted his paraphernalia; a sandstone pipe, a dime bag, a tall can of beer, and an ashtray holding a lit cigarette. There was music playing on a ghetto blaster plugged into the wall.

“Carson?” I asked.

“Yeah man…what can I do ya for?” he asked, his eyes squinted and heavily glazed over.

“I’m Jack Holden…I play with Lusty Lacy Laura.” I told him.

We didn’t shake hands…he only nodded and set the paintbrush down on some newspaper spread across the floor. He stood up and moved over to the stool, picking up his cigarette and dragging deeply on it before stepping over to the ghetto blaster and turning it down slightly.

“Man, this band…you ever hear them?” he asked me, grooving to the music and moving his jaw side to side, “Walt Mink…it’s a Nick Drake cover—Pink Moon…so rad.”

“Listen man, I don’t want to take up a lot of your time. I just stopped by to say that if you let them dictate the terms…then we all lose out.”

Carson looked at me for a moment before taking a deep breath and speaking, “I don’t know what you did to get this major sponsor so bugged man…but she is…and I can’t afford to be an idealist. You know what it costs to keep this place running every month? I’m not making money here…I’m breaking even mostly and sometimes not even that.”

“They’re well aware of that.” I said causing Carson to peer at me very intensely for a moment before walking to the window and taking a few more puffs of his cigarette.

“Sorry guys. I truly am sorry. My hands are tied.” He said, with his back turned to me.

I stood there for a while longer, waiting for something else, waiting for him to have an epiphany perhaps. However, no epiphany came…there was only a moment of silence before the next song played.

“Walt Mink huh?” I said with a nod…making a note to get their cassette, “Glad you told me about them today…it’s great when someone turns me onto a new band—that’s the important thing isn’t it—showcasing real talent? At least it should be.” I left Carson with that, standing at his window with his back turned, too ashamed of himself to face me—some kid from The Park who’d made the wrong enemies.

It had been a wasted pit stop and I got back into my van and headed out to Marina Del Rey where I picked up the truck and the cash float from Bob. The plan was to pick up April from her parent’s house during her spare class, which landed just before lunch break at Crestwater. Indeed, April was waiting for me on her front steps, smoking a cigarette and looking at her watch when I pulled up.

“You’re late.” She said, hoisting the large pail of purple ice cream into the freezer of the truck.

“I had to make a pit stop.” I said, “Why is that shit purple?”

“It’s supposed to be blue…I thought we’d call it Blue Hawaii. But I guess we can call it Purple Haze?” she said.

“Has a better ring for some reason.” I said.

As we rounded the winding suburban lanes that led to Crestwater High, April explained the situation. She’d spent the previous two days informing everyone she knew at Crestwater that we’d be stopping by at noon with some magical ice cream. She’d not insisted anyone spread the word…she didn’t have to. It was Crestwater students’ nature to do so on their own accord. She’d merely planted a seed, and rather cleverly, as it left a buffer between her and any accusation of solicitation.

We made it to Crestwater with twenty minutes to spare. Once we parked, I got in the back with April and set up the cash register as she prepped the waffle cones, cardboard cups, and wooden spoons. She scooped a blob of her Purple Haze into a cup and handed it to me.

“You’d better try this first.” She said.

I took a spoonful. It was a bit chalky, but it tasted like frozen fruity yogurt.

“Not bad McLean…” I nodded.

“The blue berries really add something don’t they?”

“I think Clare’s stash really adds the most to it though.” I laughed.

It was then that the lunch bell rang and April shot me a giddy glance, clapping her hands together quickly and quietly, “Showtime…hit the tunes.”

I pulled a cassette from my backpack and slipped it into the cassette player. With a grin, I turned the dial up nearly all the way…and after a few seconds the sound of marching boots led their way into the opening guitar strike of Holiday in the Sun; this was going to be epic. A moment later students started pouring through the glass doors and flooding the grounds, making themselves comfortable on the lawn, or making their way to the parking lot, or simply standing around the doors smoking. Many others approached the ice cream truck curiously. Glancing at  the menu and whispering amongst their small groups.

“Nice setup…you open for business Holden?” asked one kid whose name I couldn’t remember.

“Locked and loaded.” I said.

“What’s on special today?” he asked.

“Why Purple Haze of course.” Grinned April.

When the kid was through ordering double scoops of Purple Haze for him and his friends, I noticed a crowd had gathered around the truck. They stood around in sunglasses, bopping to the Pistols and waiting their turn to sample April’s Purple Haze. And as the orders rolled in, April and I kicked it into high gear, me scooping out the Purple Haze as fast as I could and April handling the money. The orders came in one after another as if we were working a production line that was moving too fast.

Every time I looked up through the window, I saw a longer line of students, chatting and chuckling, bopping their heads to Bullocks and getting generally rowdy. Over and over again, the tip jar clanked and jingled and clanked some more…someone left a one-dollar bill, and not to be outdone, someone else left a five-dollar bill.  There was a collective energy of rebellion among us all that seemed to venerate a certain long-lost era. The small crowd of ice cream enthusiasts had become an afternoon soiree—a sing-along fueled by double-scooped waffle cones, sugary toppings, and British punk rock from the 1970s. It was a spontaneously combusting social event suddenly and between the volume of the music and the volume of the patrons hollering, laughing, singing along, and blowing whistles—it was no wonder nobody heard Ellis hollering at the top of his lungs. Or perhaps they had heard him but decided they hadn’t. Either way, after a while of free-form oblivion, vice Principal Ellis emerged at the service window.

“Exactly what do you think you’re doing Holden?” he demanded. His face was lobster-red and his eyes beady and intense just beneath his bushy furrowed brows. His statement was reinforced by the demand in his eyes which expected an actual answer—though I’d initially assumed the question had been rhetorical.

“Selling ice cream sir.” I said.

“You turn that music off at once! If you can call it music!” he demanded.

Reluctantly I switched the music off and the sudden vacuum of silence was filled with a collective groan of disappointment voiced by my ex-classmates who remained congregated around the truck, enjoying the jolt of surrealism and certainly wanting to see where Ellis was going to now take things.

“Looks like the fun police just crashed this party folks…shop is closed.” I told everyone through the intercom, my words blaring out of the rooftop speakers.

“It’s one in the afternoon on a school day—not party time.” snapped Ellis, “Now you get this bucket of bolts out of here or I’ll call the authorities and have you removed at once…and you,” he added toward April, “Get your butt out of there little missy, or it’s going to be a write up for you.”

“You can’t tell me what to do—this is my time…this is my lunch break man!” Hollered April, drawing a roar from her classmates.

“You don’t want to test me.” Said Ellis.

As Ellis and April argued I spied Eleanor standing under a tree, smoking a cigarette in the shade, peering at us from afar with a coy grin. So, she was back from Cuba and hadn’t called me. The realization washed over me in a wave of disappointment and I left my post, dropping my hand rag on the counter and hopping out of the truck, pushing past Ellis and the rest of them until I was heading straight for Eleanor who just peered back at me, smoking her cigarette.

“You’re back.” I said.

“I got in last night.”

“How’s your mom?”

“She’s better…she’s recuperating at home. I see you and April have gone into business together.”

“It’s a long story.” I said, amazed by the color of her eyes and longing to press my lips against hers.

“Look at my eyes…” I told her, “I didn’t do anything with Caldwell.”

“Jack,” She sighed, “so many people have told me otherwise.”

“And you’re going to believe them over me?” I demanded.

“I don’t know what to believe at this point.” She said.

“So that’s that then.” I said.

Eleanor only shrugged and looked at her cigarette, her eyes welling with tears. Caldwell’s lie had been meant to hurt Eleanor and I’d let it happen. I’d not thought ahead. In fact, I wasn’t well versed in Caldwell’s diabolical ways and so had no way of knowing how far she was willing to go in order to hurt Eleanor.

“I’m going to set this shit straight once and for all.” I said, nodding and backing away from Eleanor, my blood boiling at the fact that these Emerald Heights kids I had nothing invested in or even knew that well were trying so diligently to sabotage Eleanor and me. They hated a love story and I finally realized why.

“Don’t do anything foolish Jack…please.” Pleaded Eleanor.

“No…she did something foolish.” I said and strode back to the ice cream truck.

When I made it back to the truck, I saw that Wes had joined April inside and the two were debating with Ellis whether the curb was actually Crestwater High property or city property. Uninterested, I powered past Ellis who grabbed my arm as I climbed into the truck. I pulled my arm away and spun around to meet him face-to-face. It hadn’t exactly occurred to me at that moment that there were perhaps fifty Crestwater kids spectating the confrontation, however—I was made aware of it by the sudden silence that prevailed.

“Grab my arm again lobster man.” I said, the old Truman Park reflexes kicking in.

“I want you off this property now.” Said Ellis, his red face beaded in sweat under the scorching sun.

“Grab my arm again.” I said, offering Ellis my forearm, “Go ahead…I dare you.”

His face softened from rage into concern and he stood up straight, raising his chin and looking down his nose at me, “Well, I guess a leopard doesn’t change its spots.”

“Right…you’ve been kissing old man Locksmith’s asshole rim so much that your lips are brown and spotted.” I said.

“Charming.” Said Ellis, crossing his arms now.

I didn’t wait for April and Wes to exit the truck or even steady themselves for that matter. I merely climbed back into the truck, sat behind the wheel, and fired up the engine. I pulled away from the curb rapidly and heard a number of cups and plastic spoons topple to the floor.

“Jack…what the fuck?” April protested.

Wes however joined me up front, evidently deciding not to return to Crestwater for his next class. April seemed completely content to balance the cash float on her lap as I rounded the winding lanes that led to one place and one place only: Cartwright High.

By the time we pulled up out in front of Cartwright, lunch hour was over and the school looked deserted. Every academic over-achiever was in class, sitting rapt, absorbing science, algebra, and geo-trig. I entered the school, clad in my torn jeans, checkerboard Vans, and bowling shirt labeled with the ‘Carlito’ name patch. I didn’t bother putting out my blunt…I puffed it ravenously before throwing it against a row of lockers where it exploded in a puff of orange sparks.

I made my way through the mazes of museum-like hallways, peering through the open doors of classrooms as I passed, conjuring frozen and blank-looking stares from sullen-looking students as I went by. I rounded the entire floor, becoming more agitated with each passing doorway. I sprinted up a stairwell and made my way down a second-floor hallway, again peering through the open doors of passing classrooms. The hallway was full of windows and flooded with brilliant sunlight. It seemed an impossible task, like finding a needle in a haystack, that is until I finally spotted Laura Caldwell, sitting rather uninterested, doodling on the front of her binder as her teacher droned on about one incidental lesson or another. Indeed, Laura was about to learn a much more valuable lesson.

“You!” I said, storming into her class and throwing a burning glare into her surprised-looking face that blinked back at me, speechless and embarrassed by the sudden spectacle.

“Jack.” She said.

“Excuse me…but who are you?” asked her teacher.

“Not someone you want to fuck with today,” I told him and added, turning back to Laura, “I need a word with Laura.”

“I’m in the middle of a lesson.” Said the teacher, stroking his beard.

“Now.” I said to Laura before turning and storming back out into the long and deserted hallway. Reluctantly and with an air of sheer embarrassment, Laura followed me out of the classroom, apologizing to her teacher as she strode out into the deserted hallway.

“Oh my god…I can’t believe you just came into my fucking class like that…you’re a maniac…I knew you were a Clarence Worley boy…I just knew it.” Laura hissed under her breath, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m here because I want to know something.” I said.

“What do you want to know? I hope you’re not going stalker-boy on me.” She said, glancing at me sideways before taking a step back.

“Do you get off on fucking with people’s lives? You think you’re the puppet master?” I inquired.

“What are you talking about, what puppet master?” she gasped.

“You can try to hurt me all you want…you can slander me…you can talk shit about me…you can invent grandiose tales of fiction about me. I personally don’t give a flying fuck about what anyone thinks. I’m a big boy. But when you start trying to hurt Eleanor…that’s when this shit is going to get real loopy.” I said, feeling the glare in my eyes turning psychotic.

“Oh my god…what are you talking about? How did I hurt Eleanor? How?” demanded Laura, “The Gregory thing is like so last year.”

Just then, Laura’s teacher stepped into the doorway and stared at us for a moment before closing the door with a quiet click. Looking back at me, Laura’s expression demanded an answer. Indeed, it seemed she was at a loss and didn’t quite know what I was referring to.

“Not your affair with Locksmith genius…I’m talking about that little number you and Locksmith played…singing to everyone in Emerald Heights about how I cheated on Eleanor with you the night of your party. As if that would ever fucking happen!”

“What?! Why would I do that?” demanded Laura.

“I don’t know—maybe because you hate her—maybe because you’re jealous of her.” I said coldly.

“In your eyes maybe!” hollered Laura, clearly hurt.

It was then that students and teachers alike started trickling out into the hallway to see about the commotion. Indeed, though Cartwright was a completely different school, the appetite for some steamy gossip was the same. However, I didn’t much care about anything at that moment dear reader outside of getting straight to the heart of the matter.

“So that’s what you wanted to come here for…to hurt my feelings?” she said, tears welling in the bottom of her eyes.

“You hurt Eleanor with that vile fucking lie.”

“Look Jack…I didn’t perpetuate any lie.” Said Laura, “I have no idea what the hell you’re on about. Whatever lie was told, wasn’t told by me.”

“Then who the fuck did?”

“Duh…who hates you more than anyone?” said Laura, now crossing her arms.

“You’re so full of shit.” I said.

“I’m not a bad person you know.” She said, her tears welling again and for a moment I could have sworn I heard tiny violins playing.

“Yeah? Well you could have fooled me.”

“Why are you being so mean?” demanded Laura.

“Do you have any idea what Eleanor means to me?” I inquired.

“I think I do, now.” Said Laura, offering a small shrug, “But what do you want me to tell you?”

“You can start by telling me how that crucifix around your neck doesn’t burn your skin when you put it on!” I spat, watching her face crumble into an expression I didn’t quite recognize and one I hadn’t expected. It seemed I’d gone too far perhaps. For whatever reason, my words skewered her heart like flaming arrows and she began to cry.

There were several spectators now lingering outside their classrooms and it was time to go. I turned and ducked back into the stairwell, in case school security had been called, if there actually was school security, and made my way back out onto the Cartwright lawn. I walked across it easily with the sun warming my shoulders, feeling that I’d done all I could…that I’d taken it to the wall and now, the chips would fall where they would.

Back in the ice cream truck, April had finished balancing the float and was spooning rocky road into her mouth from a small waffle cup as Wes ate away at some Purple Haze. April pointed to a stack of bills on the counter beside a pile of change and offered me a wide smile.

“Guess how much we made.” She said.

“I’m not in the mood for guessing games April.” I said, leaning against the counter and counting the bills.

“Four hundred and fifty-three dollars.” Said April, letting loose a chuckle.

“On the Purple Haze alone?” I asked.

“Yep! I’ve got two more batches too. The last batch is in a larger pail…judging by that, we should be able to make at least 1400 from it all.” Said April.

“That’s my girl.” Said Wes, squeezing her in tight and kissing the side of her head with his purple lips.

I hit the Bullocks cassette, fired up the truck, and pulled away from the curb, in case any teachers had called the fuzz about my intrusion during official business hours. We were stopped at a red light and I was gazing beyond the intersection toward an abandoned baseball diamond across which a dog ran, chasing a Frisbee. I was lost in contemplation about my little conversation with Caldwell, when I noticed in my peripheral, a hand waving at me from a neighboring vehicle in which two men sat, one older than the other, but both sharing a resemblance. When I turned, I realized that the vehicle beside us was another ice cream truck, only this one was brand new—chrome mags and a flashy paint job. Along the side of the truck was a collage of fruits scattered around a professionally photographed depiction of their wares; a cup of frozen yogurt, three transparent plastic cups heaping smoothies of varying color, beside which was a girl who looked like a turtle taking a bite of a fruit bar. Murphy’s Refreshments was stenciled across the top of the fruity portrait and along the bottom in italic lettering read their slogan, tantalizing your tastebuds since 1986.

“We must have entered a time warp.” Said the older man, “That truck should have been retired thirty years ago…along with its owner.”

“Your truck is new,” I said, “but the girl taking a bite of the fruit bar looks like a turtle.”

“That’s my niece, you dick.” said the man.

“Makes sense—you look like a fucking turtle too.” I said.

“I get plenty of dates, asshole.” he said.

“Well—guess turtles need love too.” I offered with a shrug.

“What happened to old man Baskerville…he finally overdose? He’s a morphine addict you know.” asked the man in the passenger seat. He wore mutton chops and a painter’s cap and he wore his long sleeve shirt rolled up just enough so that we all might be awestruck by his Swatch.

“Business has been booming—he had to hire more staff.” I shrugged.

“Booming…right.” laughed the younger man, “Do the ozone layer a favor…retire that beater to the wrecking yard.” he laughed as they peeled away.

The light had turned green and as I noticed this, a car behind me started impatiently honking…I stepped on the gas and after a stutter; the engine picked up and moved us along through the intersection. The Murphy’s Refreshment truck roared suddenly, blowing by us at surprising speed, a middle finger extended to us from the passenger window.

“Who the fuck was that dick?” asked April.

“The competition evidently.” I mused, watching their giant truck glimmer under the afternoon sunshine half a block ahead of us. When we were upon them at the next red light, I rolled up easily and looked over at them.

“Nice music.” Said the younger man, rolling his eyes, “Sounds like a cat stuck in a fence.”

“What you got?” I asked, “Rick Asley?”

“Hardly. Hit it pop.” said the man to his father.

The old man with a grin of arrogance leaned over and hit the music that was wired in with the lights which started to flash in sync with a house music beat layered by a synthesizer. As if they were in a cheese-infused dance club, both men fell into the chorus, bobbing their heads in unison and fluttering out a triumphant hula dance with their arms and shoulders as they pulled away again, this time turning left on a blinking green arrow, again offering us a pudgy middle finger as they rounded the turn. This tickled April and Wes, who laughed uncontrollably.

“I can’t even…” gasped April.

“Tell me about it.” I said, grinning as I lit one up.

“What a pair of fucking spazzes…” Wes chuckled.

“Yeah, well…those spazzes are trying to put this truck out of business.” I said, “And they’re doing a great job of it.”

“But this truck is super cool…the old ice cream cone on the top…it’s like a time capsule.” said April, “What’s cooler than that? I say we try to hit Barkley, Cartwright and Crestwater next lunch break we do this.”

“I know people at all of those schools…I can totally get the word around about the Purple Haze.” Offered Wes.

“And I’ll bring the bigger batch next time.” Said April, “You down?”

“I guess.” I shrugged.

Though I knew that April’s Purple Haze was designed for monetary purposes, I felt it was best to lay low for a while. My outburst at Crestwater as well as Cartwright during the same lunch break would certainly make the gossip circle’s top ten and it wasn’t my goal to dig myself into a deeper hole.

I continued to pick up the keys for the truck every morning from Bob and make the rounds in Emerald Heights…after which I’d hit the beaches, starting at Manhattan and working my way up to Malibu. I did this while my ex-colleagues at Crestwater were contentedly nestled in their classes, listening to droning lectures and daydreaming about their approaching graduation and the many booze-soaked weekends that would follow once they hit college and the world changed for good. Though I’d never been a social strategist or a weekend booze hound or particularly fascinated by monotone, pre-scripted lectures…I was a bit envious of my classmates for retaining their right to attend Crestwater.

I was now part of the workforce, flowing along in traffic with the rest of the grown-up world that was pushing through it all with the instinctual determination of ants…pushing in front of them life…death…the world itself. Where the ocean meets the earth in the beautifully violent crashing of tides, errands become existential and the sea an all-consuming entity.

Though I could gaze at long winding stretches of the coastline from the slow-moving PCH and grasp the glittery notion of impending college life and all of its hidden treasures…though I could imagine a brave world filled with skyscrapers, late-night possibilities, and the mystery of adult education…the fact remained; this life, no matter how long-lived, only offered us a glimpse…and I wanted to see it all.

I wanted to see the sun supernova…I wanted to see the oceans dry up…the moon orbit into the earth…I wanted understanding beyond the shallow reach of quantum physics—I wanted to bend space-time with the power of my mind and unravel the extraordinary riddle of the cosmos itself. Then…a moment later, I relaxed into the acceptance of an existential truth; the creation of art was the closest to it any of us could ever really get…and so it was realized—the trajectory I’d always been on, for better or for worse, from the start; I had to find Walt and get us back in the Phantom’s rehearsal room. There were other shows to play—the Backyard wasn’t the only venue in town. It was a timely epiphany.

One afternoon, when I returned home from a particularly scorching tour of Santa Monica in the ice cream truck. I sprawled out on the couch in the cool air-conditioning. I listened to the messages on my machine, hoping to hear from Eleanor who’d been strangely silent. I wondered about her as the incidental messages played. The messages were mostly from friends checking in and offering weekend invites. As I lit one up and blew a few smoke rings toward the ceiling, a distant-sounding voice crackled through the small speaker of the message machine. It was Carson Brier.

“Hey Jack. It’s Carson Brier from the Backyard. I got your number from our band directory. I appreciate you coming by the other week. My head was in a strange space. But after giving your demo another listen…I think we will have to put you back on the battle of the bands bill—if you so desire to be put back on it. Your songs really have something man…hard to explain…but I believe we’re about showcasing the very best indie bands out there. At the Backyard we’re about the music…and our battle of the bands show isn’t one that can be bought or influenced…not by bands or sponsors. It’s about letting the fans decide. May the best band win. Let me know if you guys are cool with jumping back on the bill and we’ll re-add you. But we need to know by this coming Friday as our posters are being printed on Saturday.”

After blowing a few more smoke rings and letting the messages play to the end, I rolled off the couch and grabbed the cordless out of its cradle, and dialed Brier. I reached his voicemail and left him a message, confirming our desire to be re-added to the battle of the bands show. I next dialed the Phantom, who had evidently already learned the news.

Though the Phantom was ecstatic, or at least as ecstatic as the Phantom ever got; he insisted that Walt was still MIA and that he hadn’t spoken with or seen Walt for two weeks since the news of our cancellation broke. He offered me Kristen’s number and suggested I call her for more details. I did so and she answered immediately.

“Walt?” she asked.

“No, Jack.”

“Oh…hey Jack. I was just on the phone with Walt but the connection was real bad.” She said.

“Where the hell is he?” I asked.

“He’s at some rat-bag motel down on Sepulveda—the Sundial. It’s a long story. Probably he better tell you.” Said Kristen.

Kristen relayed to me the information, including the address and phone number of the motel Walt was holed up in. After I got off the phone with Kristen, I dialed the motel and requested the room number she had given me. However, there was no answer. Wasting no time, I hopped back into my van and headed back out into the sweltering streets with the a/c on high and the Replacements blasting.

The Sundial Motel was about as vintage as it got…that is to say that the owners hadn’t bothered to renovate the place—rather their approach was one of maintenance. The doors were still numbered with antique brass numbers, some of which had turned upside down having lost their top screw. I found number 5 and knocked on the door. The TV was up loud and I had to eventually pound on the door, to which Walt eventually came, clad in a monogrammed robe, Doc Martins, checkered boxers and a Sugarcubes t-shirt. There was a cigarette hanging from his lips and he was wearing sunglasses through which he peered back at me, his drawn suspiciousness softening into a grin, “So, you found me.”

“Kristen told me you were here…what the fuck man…everyone has been trying to get a hold of you for weeks.” I said as Walt stepped aside and gestured for me to enter, scanning the sweltering parking lot for any undesirables who may have tailed me to the hotel.

The room was covered in surfaces that were once plush…styles from a long-dead era where Jay Rockford reigned supreme and polyester dreams presided. Aside from the shag carpet and stately wood-grain wall paneling, the bedside lamps were rustically detailed and a ship’s-wheel chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling. It may have been an attractive room in its day, however, decades of wear and tear, hooker sex and illicit drug orgies had tarnished the room, permeating it with the smell of stale cigarette smoke, cheap wine, and the dried stains of bodily fluids past.

“Nice room.” I said.

“It gets the job done.” said Walt.

“What happened?” I asked, kicking back on one of the beds, resting my head against the headboard and lighting a blunt…trying not to think of the fluids that had dried into the bedspread over the years.

“Dude…I needed a break from society or I was going to snap.” said Walt with a grin, sitting on the edge of the other bed, the one he’d slept in and was still unmade and tussled with lumpy pillows and sheets discolored with stains of human seepage, “I just walked the fuck out…in the middle of class—I told them they weren’t the boss of me…I just walked out.”

“Shit man…what did your dad say?” I inquired.

“Who gives a fuck?” said Walt, shrugging it off and shaking his head with a half grin as he cracked open a can of beer.

I recognized the movie playing on the small grey TV in the corner that was still turned up nearly full so the sound was slightly distorted. The movie was Shampoo with Warren Beatty and full of old Technicolor LA locations and I wondered how many of the places still existed; life presses on, despite what falls away.

“Well…at least you got a vintage room…the ashtrays here are pretty cool.” I said, ashing the blunt in a triangular-shaped amber glass ashtray.

“I think I’ll take the ashtrays when I go.” said Walt.

“Why go? Aside from the dried cum and cockroaches it seems like you got it pretty good here.” I said.

“My mom has been bribing me to come back…she’s been by with some groceries—cigarettes…even a bottle of gin…you want a shot? I got it in the fridge.” said Walt gesturing to the kitchenette side of the room, “We were all set man…we were all set to take this town by storm…and because of Trent Humfucker and his bitch ass parents, we were robbed of the show at the Backyard…I mean it’s obvious what happened. Humfucker is scared of the competition man…he knows if he shares a stage with us, he’s going to be ruined once and for all—he knows that and so he played the scared victim…so everyone would feel bad for him…so we’d get canceled.”

“I got some news for you man.” I nodded.

“What sort of news?” asked Walt, and I was about to explain the message I received from Carson Brier when screams of pain sounded through the thin motel wall, overriding the volume of the TV.

“You see? I can hear those fuckers over the TV and I’ve got the TV up all the way.” said Walt with a touch of amazement. He slid off the edge of his bed and walked over to the TV, turning it down but not off. The vacuum of sudden silence was filled with the groans of pain coming through the wall. It was a woman’s voice and though her words were indecipherable, her tone suggested she was crying out in agony…or perhaps pleasure—it was hard to tell the difference in her tone.

“What the fuck is that?” I asked Walt who turned to me and shook his head with frustrated disapproval.

“I’m not sure what the dynamic is, but I think he’s torturing her…last night she was screaming and crying out all night. I could hear him whipping her across the back. I thought someone would call the police but nobody did. She went on moaning in agony until four in the morning.”

“You sure it’s agony?” I asked.

“Well, you tell me.” said Walt, crossing his arms. We both listened carefully and a moment later the moaning started again.

“Sounds like trouble to me.” I shrugged.

“That or she’s in labor for the last three days and nights, I can’t live like this. You see this?” said Walt, walking over to his suitcase and producing his samurai sword.

“What’s that for?” I laughed.

“Protection man…if someone busts in here in the middle of the night…I’m going to be ready to cut off their fucking nose.”

“Why don’t you just balance a chair beneath the doorknob?” I asked.

“I’m not going to barricade myself in here.” said Walt, swinging the sword around in a chopping motion…taking swipes at an imaginary intruder, “You know something…I could hack through this thin wall into their room right now if I wanted to…and it would take only seconds…I could really hack through this fucking wall right now.” chuckled Walt, a gleam of madness in his eyes. I’d seen the look before and could never decide if it was for real or done in jest…perhaps it was a bit of both.

As I sat back on the spare bed with my head leaning against a headboard that had doubtlessly been sprayed with any number of bodily fluids over the decades, I watched Walt turn and swing the samurai sword at the wall in a sudden burst of action. He’d reached his limit and indeed, he was correct—the sword stuck deep into the wall causing a large gouge to form in the wood paneling. He turned back to me and pulled his sunglasses off, widening his eyes and raising his brows a few times, “Holy fuck!” he chuckled with amazement, “Did you see that?!”

“Sitting right here.” I laughed.

“Wow! I really could chop through this fucking wall.” chuckled Walt. After tossing his sunglasses onto his bed, he held the sword’s handle with two hands…taking a moment to firm his grip. After a moment of concentration, Walt took another swing from the opposite angle, which left an equally deep gouge in the paneling, “This sword is epic!”

“Yeah, I’m sure the bill for damages will be epic as well.” I laughed.

“Whatever, to rent the room I used the joint credit card my mom gave me…so really, they’re paying for it all.”

Before I could respond, a barrage of pounding sounded from the other side of the wall, with such force it knocked loose a gaudy portrait which slid down the wall and behind the old rustic dresser upon which the TV sat silently yet still running Shampoo in soft-focus Technicolor. Accompanying the pounding was the sound of a man’s hollering voice…his exact words were also indecipherable and muffled through the thin wall.

“We’re going to kill you tonight motherfucker!” Walt hollered back, taking another chop against the wall, which in turn overlapped the previous two gouges, which created an A symbol in the old wood paneling; an anarchist by nature was Walt. When the pounding didn’t subside and only became heavier against the wall, Walt grinned, set the sword down on top of the TV, and made an ornery start toward the door. He flung it open and walked out into the sunshine which he squinted against before turning and gesturing for me to follow.

“Give me some backup…I’m going in.” he said from the doorway.

“Don’t go in…” I laughed.

“Come on man…I might need backup…the shit is on now.” he said with a slight shrug that suggested things had progressed beyond the point of no return.

Reluctantly I pushed myself up off the neatly made bedspread that was tattered and worn with cigarette burns and dried secretions. I didn’t rush, rather I moseyed…hauling on my blunt as I made my way across the orange shag carpet. Once the piercing afternoon sun was warming against the back of my neck Walt used the hammer of his fist to pound against his neighbor’s door. The neighbors had, over the course of time, placed personal effects on the window sill which suggested they’d been staying in the motel for an extended period of time; a flower pot, a small array of African tribesman candle holders lined up perfectly beside a dormant red lava lamp…a neatly placed pyramid of oyster pails from Sum Yum Guy restaurant…a succession of empty beer bottles, aligned perfectly and angled so the labels faced the parking lot as a display.

The curtain pulled aside suddenly and a pale, badly aged face with steely eyes emerged, taking inventory of Walt and me for a moment before the sound of the chain and safety latch sounded. A few seconds later, the door flung open and from behind it emerged a shirtless old man whose most instantly notable feature was a protruding beer belly well-formed enough to deflect a bullet. His navel protruded even further, as if an alien creature was trying to burrow its head through the translucent flesh. His arms and shoulders were scrawny and sagging with tanned wrinkled skin and faded jail-house tattoos. There was a cigarette dangling from his mouth and running from the top of his belly up to the bottom of his neck was a waxy heart surgery scar which was smooth and nearly glistening under the high noon sun.

“Want some fucko?” the old man growled striding toward Walt who backed away slowly and with some caution, anticipating a lunging attack.

The man wore shorts and a pair of sandals and the nails of his toes were long, discolored and rounded. I noticed his fingernails were the same…and as he squared off with Walt in the empty parking stalls I peered into the room from which he’d emerged. Indeed, sprawled across the bed was a woman roughly the same mid-60s age as the man. She was tied to the bed at her ankles and wrists and her thick mascara had run down her cheeks.

“Shit man…” I said to Walt, “You were right…he was torturing a broad in here.”

“Untie her and call the cops—I’m going to deal with this cretin.” Walt said, looking back at the man now who was approaching from the side, cutting off the angle and holding up a boxing guard.

“You fucked with the wrong one today shitter…the wrong one.” said the man through the whistling gate of two missing front teeth. His hair was long and silver and was held back in a tight ponytail. As he threw a few weak feints, Walt assumed the stance of a ninja, lowering his center of gravity and waving the man on with a psychotic smile.

“It will be the last move you ever make old man.” said Walt.

I ducked into the darkened room and was wafted by the odor of geriatric sex, stale cigarette smoke, and cat shit. On their TV was satellite porn and the baffling instance of a number of soaking wet towels laid out across the stained shag carpet in perfect alignment. They hadn’t been tossed there or dropped haphazardly—the towels had been spread out neatly and the wrinkles smoothed out and they’d been aligned perfectly, edge to edge, so they created one strip about 8 feet long. Stepping over them, I got to work on the rope knotted around the woman’s ankle.

“Don’t worry lady; we’ll get you out of here.” I assured the woman who appeared to be terrified. When I took hold of the rope the woman started flailing and kicking her legs and squealing like a barnyard piglet stuck in the thick mud. I stepped back, looking at her intensely.

“What the fuck lady?” I demanded.

“Help! Mitchell…help! He’s trying to fuck me!” she hollered toward the door before turning back to me, “Stay away from me! I’ll bite your chin off if you touch me again you masher!”

“Masher? I’m trying to untie you dumbass.” I said, baffled suddenly.

“You’re trying to get up in me…I just know it!” she spat.

“Are you on crack?” I said, backing away.

Her shrieks were piercing and shrill and drew her man back into the room, leaving me only a second to react as he lunged low and hard, wrapping his arms around my torso trying to steamroll me toward the wall. I sprawled hard and wide, but the old man possessed an impressive degree of old-man toughness and we both toppled to the rug so the wet towels soaked through the back of my Strange Ways Here We Come t-shirt.

He squirmed hard, aiming to mount my torso in order to rain down a barrage of fists and perhaps some teeth. Wedging a knee in between us, I pushed back hard, creating some space through which I could escape. However, a second later Walt was wrapping his forearm around the man’s neck. He pulled the old man off of me and flung him back, so the man landed with a thud of his head against the hardwood paneling. As if a pistol crack had sounded, everyone went silent…the shrieking stopped and the man held the back of his head with his palms, sliding down the wall to the shag carpet.

“They’re trying to kill me—call 911.” he muttered through the guard of his forearms.

“You bastards!” hollered the woman suddenly, “You didn’t have to do that…he’s 65 years old! We’re going to fucking kill you in your sleep tonight you little bastard!” she snarled at Walt.

“I’ll be waiting for you…with a silver sword at my side.” invited Walt.

“Get the fuck out of here right now you little bastard!” she shrieked again, this time at a nearly more piercing volume.

I pushed myself up off the floor and climbed to my feet. I stepped back outside, into the sunshine.

“Should we call someone? An ambulance?” I asked Walt.

“Fuck these weirdos.” chuckled Walt lifting a pack of Camels from the top of the TV and tapping one out. He placed it between his lips and used his own lighter to ignite it. In an exhale of blue smoke, he looked at the woman tied to the bed who had by then stopped shrieking and now only looked toward her fallen torturer with a pained expression of distress.

“Those are my smokes you cunt.” Rumbled Mitch, bolting again to his feet…ready for another round. Walt only blew an exhale of smoke at the old man before tossing the Camels onto the bed. Indeed, the two had probably tried everything else and finally settled on torture and who knew what else to keep the home fires stoked; perhaps things got very clear-cut toward the end of time.

“Listen lady,” said Walt, turning to her and pointing with his cigarette, “you do whatever the fuck you want in here—I don’t judge…you wanna play Stockholm Syndrome—be my guest…but if you assholes keep me awake all night again…I’ll be back.” promised Walt before backing out of the room.

Once we were both back out under the sun, Walt clicked the door closed with a suppressed chuckle, I realized I’d lost my blunt somewhere during the man’s tackle…I thought of it burning a hole into their shag rug, knowing I wouldn’t be going back in to retrieve it.

“You okay?” Walt asked me, finally breaking into a chuckle.

“That old man was a tough son of a bitch.” I said.

“Yeah, he was a tough old bastard…for sure.” agreed Walt as we stepped back into his room which was now finally silent. No groans of agony emanating through the wall…no pounding—nothing…only the sound of a police helicopter chopping somewhere in the distance. Walt sat down in one of the unpadded wooden chairs and I flopped back down on the spare bed, reminding myself again of the filthiness of the bedspread and headboard. We sat like this for a while smoking cigarettes and watching Shampoo with no volume before, I turned to Walt and spoke.

“By the way, Carson Brier called me today…he says we’re back in the battle of the bands if we want it.” I said.

“What?” Walt said, throwing me an astonished glare through the smoke, “How the fuck did that happen?”

“Guess he had a moment of clarity.” I shrugged.

“We will do that…” said Walt, “we were meant to do that.”

“Yeah well, to do that…we need to get into the rehearsal room…this hiding out shit you’ve been doing has cost us valuable jam time.”

Walt just looked at me and eventually nodded, “Know what…you’re right. I’m going to move into a better hotel on Monday—where I can get some sleep.”

A few days later I received an early morning call from April, who was in between classes at Crestwater. She was chipper and articulate as usual and I imagined her standing there in the Crestwater hallway, holding the beige receiver to her ear as the students moved around her like a current of river water moving around a sticking trunk of driftwood. I missed the flow of it all and again felt as if I’d missed the bus to summer camp and was in turn subject to a long, solitary summer worth of melancholic slacking.

“April May June…what’s the story morning glory?” I asked.

“April may snap her cap soon…I have an English essay due tomorrow and I haven’t even started.” said April in a long sigh, “Hey, are we doing the truck thing today?”

“Well,” I said, looking at my watch and realizing it was nearly 9 am, “We could.”

“So are you coming or what?” she demanded.

“I guess.” I said.

“Okay, I’ll head home on my spare and get the large batch of Purple Haze…pick me up there at around 11:30. We can high-tail it to Cartwright…Wes and I have been getting the word around.” said April, having thought this all through.

“Fine…see ya then.” I said.

“You better, I’ve been spreading the word for a few days now.” said April with a mischievous wink in her tone.

I’d come to miss the Crestwater vibe in the weeks since my wrongful expulsion. In regard to Locksmith, who’d singlehandedly succeeded in getting me voted out of Crestwater, I felt no urgency to exact a debt of revenge…for it seemed like a pointless endeavor to challenge the Locksmith name on their own turf—Emerald Heights belonged to the Locksmith family and families just like them—no matter how despicable. Locksmith’s alderman father had doubtlessly spent decades forging personal relationships, building alliances, and kissing speckled asshole rims in Emerald Heights so much so the citizens had elected him to a certain level of office—a position that afforded Gregory Locksmith a certain degree of privilege, immunity, and influence—as long as he kept his nose clean and didn’t tarnish the family name. He’d flexed that influence and Gavin and Ellis had adhered to the unspoken protocols of Emerald Heights social policy.

It was all of that…and perhaps a bit more—specifically a drawing of divisions between municipalities and exactly why a kid from Truman Park should never cease to behave as anything more than a guest when in Emerald Heights. I’d been taken on as an honorary member of their tight-knit academic community with the expectation that I’d inherently recognize my place in their social hierarchy; the fact that I hadn’t subscribed perhaps struck them as an entitled sense of belonging on my part—an arrogant assumption. Though in reality, I’d never seen myself as anything other than an outsider, a misfit…and though gifted, I was still a dreg in their midst…so I behaved accordingly. They’d sought to complicate the simple truth with staged social benevolence, and I’d merely offered them a moment of clarity in the fog of their well-rehearsed cordiality; perhaps to remind them that I had boundaries of my own.

I made my way out on the 10, under the brilliant SoCal sunshine and took Lincoln down to Marina Del Rey. After picking up the truck from Bob’s, I headed over to April’s place. She was waiting for me on the curb with the extra-large pail of Purple Haze. I was still groggy from a long deep sleep and was at that moment marinating in a soft-focus wake and bake that lulled me like a softly sung nursery rhyme. April wore a brown corduroy skirt, brown leather boots, and beige leggings with a matching beige turtleneck sweater and a large opal locket that dangled between her pert breasts as she moved around the back of the truck…her hair was done in a retro bouffant and her makeup was thick and rich and also retro, like old photos of Priscilla Presley; April’s definite muse.

Indeed I wasn’t one to let a great opportunity or at least a great possibility slide by without a good college try. With Mother’s Milk piping through the speakers, I shifted the truck into gear and we pulled away from the curb. As we rounded the lanes of Emerald Heights toward Cartwright a few pedestrians tried waving the truck down…it was sweltering and the sun had heated the top of the steering wheel to a near-scalding temperature so I had to grip it around the bottom.

“Listen, we’re missing a ton of sales here…I should stop.” I told April through the rear-view, in which I saw her sitting prettily, with a leg crossed over her knee, a boot swinging casually as she counted and organized the float.

“Stop if you like, but it’s only going to cut into the time we can be selling at Cartwright.” Said April.

When we pulled up outside of Cartwright, the grounds were scattered with students milling around, spread out across the lawn, smoking in the parking lot; high schools were the same all over. I pulled up to the curb as Mother’s Milk pulsated from the old speakers. After killing the engine, I got in the back with April and opened the service window and was greeted by dozens of curious glances from Cartwright students.

“Why don’t you go out there and work your magic?” I asked April after a few minutes.

“It would help, wouldn’t it?” she said, looking up at me.

“It might.” I said.

Without waiting for an answer, April applied a fresh coat of lipstick and stepped down out of the truck and onto the hot asphalt. She strode toward the school grounds in her knee-high leather boots and bouffant hairstyle, drawing a few glances from some of the Cartwright guys who rarely saw a girl dressed like Pricilla Presley. Noticing their gaze, April approached them, adding a ditzy innocence to her gait and a wide-eyed vacancy to her gaze; she knew how to work the crowd it seemed.

She spoke enthusiastically, gesturing with her hands and flashing a smile back to me at one point; it was working. As she made her way around the grounds, stopping at various cliques and coteries, students started making their way to the truck and though sparse at first, the orders started rolling in.

Peering across the street I noticed Walt and Kristen approaching the truck with April…Walt grinning behind his sunglasses with his arm slung around Kristen’s shoulders and April looking poised and collected and ready to take a big bite out of the world; she would make a great businesswoman when she entered the workforce that holds up the infrastructure—the world needed people like her…hustlers who could get the job done. I grinned as the three hopped up into the truck.

“Looks like this is turning out to be quite the cottage industry.” said Walt, slapping a hand down firmly on my shoulder.

As I scooped out the Purple Haze, April dealt with the money. We weren’t quite inundated by patrons as we had been during our first time out at Crestwater. but the word was definitely catching on and for those in the know, there seemed to be no better deal than April’s Purple Haze.

We weathered a steady stream of patrons for the bulk of the lunch hour and once the orders tapered off, April began closing the float and tallying the tip jar. “Okay, all in we sold $268 worth of ice cream today…and we have $58 in the tip jar.” April finally said, fluttering her long Priscilla Presley lashes with a mischievous grin—as if she were a cat who’d just swallowed a canary.

“Crazy.” I said, taking my half in hand. As I folded it and slipped it into my back pocket, I noticed a familiar-looking group approaching the truck. It was Trent Humbucker and he was flanked by his usual group of minions; shoe gazers from gated communities.

Strangely, though I’d taken part in a theatrical burning of his effigy during the performance at Caldwell’s palace; I’d never met or spoken with Humbucker…it had never occurred to me to seek an introduction as he’d always registered to me as an unremarkable turdling who played pretend and posed for camera flashes. As he ordered, I took note of his bag of bones physique, his androgynous jeans, his ironic Culture Club t-shirt, and the black and white scarf tied around his neck, as if he were an apocalyptic, dark-wave version of Fred Jones, only instead of chasing capers with his dark-wave crew; he was chasing spotlights and popularity. Music was only a vehicle for him…not an art form, and for this reason, I could never take him seriously.

I took note of his crew…they were as always styled with dark-wave trimmings—as if they were caricatures in a dark-wave comic strip. Though to me they were merely costumed dilettantes; as Walt had explained it—they were the worst type of try-hards and had in essence, appointed themselves royalty within the small creative coterie at Cartwright. Though I found them slightly comic; their entitlement drove Walt nearly ill with disgust.

“Do you have hazelnut fudge sauce?” asked a short, baby-faced girl with meth-mouth, tired eyes, and a mussed pixie haircut.

“I have the basic chocolate sauce.” I nodded cordially.

“But not hazelnut fudge? I simply have to have hazelnut fudge with my ice cream.” she whined.

“But the question is if he has pineapple sauce…” interjected Humbucker from behind his jet-black shades with a snooty grin, “Pineapple sauce…is everything.”

“Sorry…no pineapple sauce.” I told Humbucker who stared back at me so I could see my reflection in his shades.

“Well, you might want to pass that on to the proprietor of this fine mobile ice cream parlor…pineapple sauce as previously stated—is everything.” said Humbucker, this time drawing an arcane chuckle from his arcane crew.

“I’ll pass it on.” I shrugged, “Can I get you something?”

“Yeah, four waffle bowls of cherry cheesecake—one topped with whipped cream—you do have whipped cream right?” asked Humbucker.

“I have a spray bottle of whip cream.” I nodded.

“I guess it will have to do then. By the way, I’ve been told that you guys got into the battle of the bands at the Backyard after being kicked off the bill.” said Humbucker, noticing Walt on the bench with his forearm slung over a freezer.

“That’s right…it was quite a surprise.” I said as I prepared their order.

“Yeah, I also hear that you burned my effigy at Laura Caldwell’s place…what’s up with that, guys?” asked Humbucker with a grin his cohorts collectively shared.

“I didn’t burn it actually—I just chopped off its head with a samurai sword…it was Walt who actually lit the shit up.” I said glancing at Humbucker as I sprayed canned whipped cream over the double scoop so it became a towering monster.

“I’m wondering…is that normal in your world?” chuckled Humbucker.

“Well shithead,” Walt piped in, feeling it was his battle, “we all know that your mom’s company is one of the sponsors and that she demanded that we be taken off the bill…she actually threatened to pull her company’s funding if we were allowed to play. Looks like mommy knows you’d never beat us out. Maybe mommy was trying to eliminate the competition. However, Carson Brier can’t be bought. Regarding your effigy, we burn it because the crowd goes wild for it…they really do. A bigger question might be why they go so wild seeing your likeness go up in flames.”

“People eventually tire of gimmicks—just as they’ll eventually tire of you.” Humbucker shrugged.

“I don’t think anyone is going to get bored of that anytime soon…it’s sort of becoming a ritual at our shows—people expect it.” said Walt with a psychotic grin.

“Well, congrats…I heard you nearly took a few heads off at the Caldwell show with some wayward fireworks.” said Humbucker, laying down his money and taking his bowl in hand. As he ate at it with a small red plastic spoon, April made his change which he took in hand and dropped into the pocket of his obligatorily tattered jean jacket that was covered in pins and patches bearing hints of his assumed personality.

“You know you guys don’t stand a chance at the Backyard right? I mean you guys realize that the judges will never award you first prize right? That money and studio time will never be yours.” said Humbucker.

“Money or no money…we’re going to destroy you guys at the Backyard…your set is going to seem like Sunday afternoon at the retirement home. So, my advice to you Humfucker, is to stick to what you do best—wearing women’s jeans, writing shit songs, and chasing spotlights. We good?” said Walt from his place on the bench.

“You’re hilarious Meyer. Even if your fantasy became a reality and you really did tear up the stage…the fact is that the judges aren’t going to give that prize to a band with a chip on their shoulder…especially not a band fronted by a pathetic drunkard from a broken home and a garbage pail kid from Truman Park…they’re going to give it to a band with some promise…a band that has been laying the right groundwork…has a game plan…a business strategy…one that has strong industry contacts and hard breeding. They’re not going to piss that prize away on a band of psychotics who like to rile up a mob.” Humbucker said, shaking his head with his crooked grin and matching crooked nose, “Wake up.”

“Business plan? Strong industry contacts? Listen to you.” I laughed, “You’re no artist—you’re a businessman…hanging from mommy’s apron strings.”

“Guess you’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel huh Walter…nobody else will play in a band with you aside from an ex-football playing burn-out and a psychotic skid from downtown.” Laughed Humbucker.

“We’ll see what happens on show night.” I said with a grin.

There was a long moment of silence in which Humbucker looked back at me through his black sunglasses. I assumed he was contemplating a retort…or perhaps wondering how far he wanted to take it.

“Well, the Backyard is in shitsville Truman Park after all—so I guess you’ll have home-advantage.” Said Humbucker.

“I never thought of that—but you’re damn right.” I laughed.

Walt calmly and collectedly rose from his bench, lifting the canned whipped cream from the service counter. I foresaw his trajectory and didn’t bother to stop him or talk some sense into him. Rather, I watched with a half grin as Walt hopped out onto the asphalt and stepped up to Humbucker. I knew the plan, which from my perspective was obvious—however, to the droves of students congregated around the old ice cream truck, spooning away at their Purple Haze waffle bowls; the possibility of an actual punch-up perked them with attentiveness, ending their conversations so all that could be heard was the Good Time Boys booming from the speakers.

“Let me get you some more whipped cream fella.” Said Walt pointing the can and firing.

For some reason Humbucker didn’t retreat, back away, or even flinch; he merely stood there with his brows wrinkled in contemplation, his spoon held suspended midway between his ice cream and his mouth. He remained this way until Walt opened the can with a hiss, sending fluffy jet-propelled globs of canned whipped cream spraying out all over Humbucker’s face, jacket and skinny jeans.

From the truck, I watched through the service window as April put a hand over her mouth and emitted a gasp of hilarity that trailed off into chuckles Kristen didn’t quite share. Rather Kristen called to Walt from the window, encouraging him to abandon the antics. There was a tone of warning in her voice as Walt proceeded to empty the entire can of whipped cream over Humbucker who tried to lean away from the projectile awkwardly and instead tumbled to the lawn where he sat with his hands and arms raised defensively. Walt aimed easily through the openings and for good measure pulled the back collar of Humbucker’s jacket open, spraying the last of the can down the back of his Culture Club t-shirt, causing Humbucker to pull away violently.

“Get lost you fucking psycho!” snapped Humbucker, pushing up to his knees now and looking down at himself, taking inventory of the whipped cream mess impossibly spattered over his dark-wave attire.

“That’s great man…real nice…you’re such a fucking child.” said Humbucker, wiping a palm full of the whipped cream from his chin and shaking his head.

A moment later a couple of Humbucker’s dark-wave minions were helping him up from his knees, aid which for the sake of the crowd he embellished as if being sprayed down by aerosol whipped cream had made him uneasy on his feet; a real dramatist.

Walt meanwhile stood by, lighting a cigarette and squinting smoke out of one eye as he flashed a grin their way. Certainly, his grin garnered the obligatory chatter; a lecture from the short-stop girl with the meth mouth and baggy face. With a pretentious vocabulary, she cut into Walt with a sharp-edged review of his lackluster character that among other things, would fail to earn him any friends in the real world.

The real world, I mused…she’d cited it as if it was some distantly approaching entity on the horizon that bared sharp teeth and the ravenous hunger of a rabid wolf; a time when they’d take down the posters from their walls and trade their record players for color TVs playing the evening news. Among other things, she assured Walt that he was in for a real surprise…and perhaps he was…perhaps we all were. However, one thing was certain, none of us knew what that surprise was—nobody had a working crystal ball.

“Yeah? Thanks for the fortune telling.” chuckled Walt.

“You’re an asshole.” sneered the girl.

“Honey, I’m sure any man who disagrees with you is.” Walt smiled, blowing a few smoke rings that were quickly torn apart in the breeze.

Humbucker whipped his arm toward Walt, pointing an accusatory finger at him, “This isn’t over…not by a long shot!”

“But it will be soon.” Winked Walt.

Chapter 8: The Backyard

So there it was dear reader, the perfect conditions for an all-out war of words between Humbucker and Walt, which would only become more volatile the closer we came to the show at the Backyard. At first, I hadn’t realized the severity of it. For I’d been banished from the Crestwater kingdom and was focused mainly on refining the new songs and seeing other girls—trying to fill the void left when Eleanor had believed the lies and taken her space. Also, I wasn’t necessarily akin to monitoring the seismic readings of our ever-metamorphosing social circuit. I’d heard some whispers through the grapevine, which over the weeks turned to murmurs and outright declarations which stated with a fair bit of certainty that Humbucker and company weren’t wasting any time in slandering the good name of Lusty Lacy Laura.

In fact, Humbucker had gone as far as trashing us in an interview he did with In-Fringe magazine. A magazine that had at one point sung our praises. In retaliation, Walt had Kristen design a wanted poster in the classic old-west style. The poster cited that Humbucker was wanted for writing terrible songs and wearing male camel-toe-inducing jeans. The photo of Humbucker Kristen used was a bright-eyed bushy tailed yearbook picture of Humbucker during his grade 9 freshman year at Cartwright—before he’d lost his braces, feathered hairstyle and Tiffany t-shirt.

Wes went one further, surprising us all one evening when he arrived for a meet-up at Prime Ribs with a folded copy of In-fringe Magazine under his arm. Flipping to the back page, he beamed with pride as he displayed Humbucker’s wanted poster, shrunk down to a 3×3 advertisement in the want ads section. He’d paid good money for the ad. It was a brilliant stroke of vitality and even if Humbucker was to lobby for the removal of it before its expiry date—thousands of copies had already been printed and distributed; the word was most definitely out on the street and it occurred to me that perhaps turning the show into a spectacle wasn’t a purely bad idea. If they wanted fire and brimstone, perhaps that’s what we should give them—it certainly seemed to be what everyone wanted. Lines were being drawn and alliances were being formed…and I could have cared less.

To me the Backyard wasn’t about getting even with anyone, obliterating any bands or shattering the reputation of any local hero with a power daddy—or mommy for that matter. Indeed, for me—the Backyard was all about fulfilling a dream that I’d discovered the previous year and had held in my mind like a chalice, burning from its brim like a clear blue flame—it was sacred and though I understood Walt’s ravenous hunger for revenge, I felt it would in one way or another, tarnish such a sacred achievement.

To me, a Truman Park dreg, having made my way out of the hood and onto the stage at the Backyard had been a journey indeed and one I’d never forget. I’d challenged the astronomical odds and won. It was perhaps my one and only shot at greatness…the pursuit of which I didn’t believe to be a sin; every man who’d done something monumental had pursued greatness after all. It was a state of mind more than the promise of a prize or recognition. As long as Lusty Lacy Laura got to get up on stage at the Backyard and kick it out for a few hundred of our rabid peers; I’d take it to the grave as a glorious experience—one nobody could take away from me…no matter how badly they might want to. There’s nothing in life we can take with us when we go—except for all our glorious experiences…they are the only things that are truly our own.

So, you see dear reader, the Backyard gig meant more to me than a vendetta…however, the irony of life stipulated, for one reason or another, that I’d get to the Backyard gig flanked by a Phantom and a samurai sword-wielding pyromaniac. After some philosophical contemplation, it occurred to me that perhaps this was the only way I could have made it to the Backyard battle of the bands…perhaps there was more to the condition of destiny; perhaps for whatever reason, part of my destiny entailed, like the fine-print nuance of a corporation contract, the burning down of Trent Humbucker once and for all. Perhaps the universe didn’t see it as effective to send one of Humbucker’s Emerald Heights peers to do the job. Perhaps it was a job meant to be done by a Truman Park kid; perhaps I was the best hood rat for the job.

Whatever the case, the truth remained—our growing fan base adored the stage show as much as our demo tape, which sold like hotcakes at live shows and it seemed we’d achieved the perfect balance, which seemed to work and I’d come to decide that every great band at one point possesses an inexplicable chi…a magical flow…a defining symbiosis of abstract and non-abstract entities. Some bands maintain it for years…others for months. For me, it seemed the planets had finally aligned, for this project anyway, and I felt it wasn’t my place to augment the formula…I decided it was best to sit back, enjoy the ride and let the chips fall where they may.

I bounced this off April the following week as we made our lunch hour rounds in the ice cream truck, to unload the last of the Purple Haze. It was a great system to which April was imperative…for she had a knack for people and knew exactly what to say and how to act in order to stroke them the correct way. It freed me up to assume the role of silent partner and ice cream scooper.

That afternoon we crossed east over the 405 and parked the truck down the street from the UCLA campus with the Stone Roses blasting through the speakers. I’d been explaining in all sincerity my thoughts about Walt’s plans for the Backyard show, which was rapidly approaching. April had asked and April rarely asked about the band…she wasn’t quite invested in my existence as Wes seemed to be. More so she was a reoccurring cast member—an attractive young woman who, though not particularly pivotal, had been present for most of the pivotal moments—a cast member given very few lines to remember but imperative all the same.

One could say that April, though present, existed at an arm’s length and so her line of questioning regarding my feelings on the Backyard show, if looked at closely enough, revealed a certain anxiousness that she displayed involuntarily through the incessant rolling together of her lips…as if she was smoothing out a fresh coat of lipstick…she frequently rolled her lips and after spending an excess of one on one time with her, I’d come to realize that it was one of April’s ticks…something she did to curb an ever-present anxiousness I hadn’t quite noticed before.

“I think you should tell Walt that you want your shows to showcase the music more than the stage theatrics…I think you should tell him if you feel that way.” she said before rolling her lips together so her dimples creased and her jaw dipped.

“Listen, April May June…sometimes it’s best to just let the chips fall where they may…sometimes you don’t want to mess with a formula…know what I mean?” I shrugged, not knowing if I fully believed it, but felt if she in fact was genuinely interested, she’d spot the placating and insist on a real answer.

Our conversation was interrupted rather suddenly by a flock of passing UCLA students…hipster surfers with Sonic Youth haircuts and cardigans. As they scanned the menu, April collected herself and smiled at them, “Would you like to know about our special offer?”

“Any offer coming from you is welcome.” said one of the guys, leaning in against the counter and casting an allured gaze over April, who, as I say, had a certain effect on men.

“We got something called Purple Haze…it’s guaranteed to make your day.” April said.

“How so?” asked the guy, cocking one brow curiously.

“Secret recipe.” winked April.

“What secret recipe?” inquired one of the other UCLA kids.

“It’s a recipe my friend Mary Jane gave me.” Grinned April.

“Oh Mary…well, why didn’t you say so. I know her well.” Said one of the other guys who seemed smitten with the offer, so much so he retrieved his wallet and set a twenty-dollar bill flat against the service counter. He ordered three cones for he and his friends and left April with the change.

Having noticed the truck a few more groups of frat house brats took their place in line. It took perhaps 15 minutes for the word to spread back to the crowded campus grounds, however, as if all at once, the truck was surrounded by ravenous college kids socializing with good cheer as the line slowly moved along and the orders went out and the tip jar clinked. Indeed, it seemed the college students tipped better—perhaps to uphold their college-born cool-cred or perhaps because they were all channeling unlimited streams of parental funds extorted from the guilt of their parents for sending them all away to live on campus.

As the tips grew in the plastic jar labeled jujubes, April and I worked away at the lineup which, now that the word was out, reached down the sidewalk several car lengths. Adjusting our pace, April and I moved them through quicker—me breaking a sweat and April handling the cash, making the change and showering our patrons with flattery and gratitude—she was a great bullshit artist…she loved their hair, their t-shirts, their eye makeup, their earrings, their watches, their Oakley shades, their Vision Street Wear…April’s compliments didn’t stop coming and nor did the sound of the tips clinking down into the jar. Clink, clink, clink…sounded the tip jar with each sale and with each sale went another scoop of Purple Haze.

Amidst the grassy knolls and sparkling car tops, large droves of students who’d congregated to socialize and philosophize, ate away at their double scoops. A sensation of disappointment washed over me when I reached the bottom of the pail. It was all the Purple Haze we had and all we would have. Unless another stash dropped from the sky. I was about to announce that we’d run out of the Purple Haze when a man pushed his way through the crowd to the service window. I recognized him after a moment as the man from the Murphy Refreshments truck—our greatest competition.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you guys are up to…don’t think for a minute I don’t know!” he snarled.

“Can I help you with something?” asked April, not recognizing the man.

“Don’t give me no lip little missy…what we got here is a serious infraction. My dad and I were wondering how you were pulling it off…drawing such a large crowd to such an old clunky truck…but now it’s crystal clear. Does Baskerville know about this? Cause I’m fixing to tell him…you better believe it.” said the man.

“You’re mistaken.” I said.

“You’re also a total spaz.” said April.

“You think you can get away with something like this on my watch?” said the man, sneering at me in disbelief.

“You need therapy man…you’re delusional.” I insisted, “Go seek help.”

“I’m not budging…but I’ll tell ya what.” said the man, tilting his mutton chops to one side and offering a warm and psychotic smile to April, “My dad is talking to campus security about this here operation as we speak. See, we’re a legit family-run operation…we’re respected around Emerald Heights…I’m a real businessman making a real living.”

“Then go to it and leave us alone dickwad.” I shrugged.

Peering through the rear windows I caught glimpse of a large-sized security guard trudging rapidly up the sidewalk, speaking into his radio, perhaps calling for backup. Without so much as a shrug, I got into the driver’s seat and turned the key…the engine stuttered, as always—and as I listened to it trying to turn over, I heard the security guard hollering at me from the service window, demanding that we go nowhere. I kept pumping the gas and turning the key, trying to make the engine ignite but at the same time not flood it—there was a delicate starting procedure, which usually took some time. As I felt the engine finally catch and roar to life, the large-sized campus security guard appeared at the passenger door, which I always kept locked during service. After trying the handle, he knocked on the window and motioned for me to unlock the door. I squinted at him with a grin that asked him if he was indeed kidding, flipped him a calm collected bird and shifted the truck into drive.

The machine gave a jerk forward and I pulled away from the curb. When the Murphy truck man’s voice didn’t dissipate into the distance, I turned and glanced over my shoulder and was utterly perplexed to find him holding fast to the service counter as the rest of his body dangled down the outside of the truck. Checking the passenger side mirror, I made out his husk hanging against the truck as his legs kicked for leverage. Stubbornly he kept hollering, demanding that we stop and turn ourselves in to campus security.

We drove on like this for a couple of blocks and with each passing block I’d expected the man to let go; however, he didn’t let go and I wondered where he mustered the will to hang onto the counter for so long. It seemed he was being driven by greed and fury alone…the idea that we were cutting into his business was bad enough…but the idea that we’d concocted such a superior marketing strategy seemed to enrage him on a carnal level.

As I drove at a casual speed, the man dangled and flailed and hollered through the window, completely oblivious to April’s reasoning which was voiced in a pleading tone and citing the potential safety hazards. As we made our way down the street we garnered several stares, most of which were from amused students pointing at the passing spectacle. Eventually, we came to a red light and finally, the man let go of the service counter and stormed around the front of the truck, blocking my way and pounding on the hood, hollering so furiously that his face turned a deep shade of red.

He cited a citizen’s arrest as he stormed around to the driver’s side door. He reached out and yanked on the handle trying to pull it open; finding it was locked, he resorted to pounding on the window and bolstering the volume of his hollering. Spittle flew from his mouth, veins bulged in his forehead and his lips curled downward so his bottom teeth showed.

“What the fuck is with this guy?” asked April, sliding down into the passenger seat with a baffled, slightly disturbed expression.

“He and his old man own Murphy’s refreshments.” I shrugged, pulling away when the light turned green, leaving him standing in the intersection, still ravenously hollering and flipping me two infuriated birds.

I glanced at him shrinking away in the mirror until he was eventually a small angry dot in the shoulder of the road. When we were in the clear I slowed the truck to a steady cruise and lit one up. April handed me a twenty and two fives—my cut of the jar. We headed for the beaches and drove in silence for a long time, smoking and admiring the sparkling palm trees and the misty blue pacific coast…LA, there weren’t any other cities like her in the world…and there we were, balancing on the shoulders of giants—our place in time.

With an extra 750 in my hip pocket, I was feeling slightly invincible. Of course, I didn’t keep the hard-earned cash in my pocket. Rather I deposited most of it in my bank, on the corner of Vermont and Hollywood. There was a bit of poetry in knowing that we’d unloaded all of Clare Foster’s stash and had left no paper trail, or any trail for that matter. We never did hear from the Murphy camp on that matter—and it was more likely because they could prove nothing; the remainder of the evidence had all been eaten by ravenous UCLA students.

The following week Wes stopped by to show me the automotive ropes. It seemed a high enough time to change the oil in my beloved matte black minivan. It was a sweltering day in The Park, and I was lying on my back, amidst the oil blots and the cockroaches skittering intermittently across the asphalt as Wes explained the technique of draining the oil and the importance of the new filter I’d purchased. It was all starting to make perfect sense to me when a car pulled up behind my van and a few minutes later a voice was calling my name. A female voice I’d never forget in a thousand years.

I slid myself out from beneath the van, scraping my elbow in the process and knocking the oil pan, so it splashed on my shirt. Indeed, a freeze washed through my stomach when I saw Eleanor standing there, warmed by the brilliantly hot sun. She stood there in her Clash t-shirt and pleated skirt, wearing red knee-high socks to match her red leather purse. From behind her lightly tinted shades, she blinked back at me with a certain severity. In lieu of the proper statement that would sum up the purpose of her visit, she chewed a stick of gum and raised her brows.

“Eleanor.” I said, moving toward her and taking her in my arms, right there on the street in front of the stoop drinkers, prostitutes, and homicidal maniacs. She squeezed back and relief washed over me in an awesome, crashing tidal wave. Holding her at an arm’s length so I could peer upon her again and know that it wasn’t some fantastical dream, I saw a tear running down her cheek.

“What the hell is wrong?” I asked.

“Nothing…I’m just happy to see you.” She said.

Wes had slipped out from beneath the van as well and after observing the scene with Eleanor and I, he grinned, offered Eleanor a salute, and slipped back under the van…as if he was happy to see us together again.

“Can we talk?” asked Eleanor.

“Of course.” I said, following her back to her mother’s Porsche which sat sleek and red beside the curb in front of my mom’s house.

Once in the car with the A/C blowing and Mazzy Star’s Fade into You piping through the stereo, Eleanor removed her shades and spoke.

“Firstly I apologize for doubting you Jack. You must understand that after being cheated on by all three of the guys I’ve dated in my short life; I felt cursed when I heard about you and Laura.” Eleanor said, lighting a thin European cigarette.

“I wasn’t with Laura for chrissake.” I sighed.

“I know.” Said Eleanor.

“You believe me finally?”

“I wanted to believe you…but Laura is gorgeous and popular and every guy on earth wants her. I see how they chase her. She’s a girl that can get whatever she wants.” Said Eleanor.

“Except for me.” I corrected.

“She’s been calling me for about two weeks…and I’ve been ignoring her calls.” Said Eleanor, “This morning she stopped by my dad’s place and we had quite a long chat. She explained to me what really happened the night of her party and that seemed to be the incidental part. She mainly wanted to get things straight about Gregory…evidently he’d pursued her for months, the whole time he was supposed to be with me.”

“Baby, I don’t know what you ever saw in that medicine ball head.” I sighed, shaking my head.

“I thought he was…different than he is.” Said Eleanor.

“So Laura set the record straight?” I asked.

“She did…about everything. She told me how you stormed into her class and gave her shit in front of everyone. She said as you were yelling at her, it made her sad because she’s never known a guy that would do that for her…because no guy ever stormed into someone’s class for her the way you did for me. So in the end it seems the lie was Gregory’s—not Laura’s. Every time I glance at him in the hallways around Crestwater, he can’t look me in the eyes. He disgusts me.”

“Fucking Locksmith…” I sighed, “Well, you won’t have to worry about seeing his medicine ball head around for much longer. Year’s almost done…then it’s all about the rest of our lives.”

“I feel like it’s my fault you’re not going to graduate with us.” Eleanor added.

“What? That’s preposterous.”

“It seems like my fault you and Gregory can’t get along. If it wasn’t for me…you’d still be graduating with us all. It’s not fucking fair.” she said.

“We don’t know that…I think there’s a relatively good chance I’d have been expelled over something else.” I laughed.

I suppose dear reader one could say that I’d become comfortably resigned to the notion of not graduating with my peers and having to pick up the credits at summer school or repeat a semester the following school year, which wouldn’t have struck me as disappointing had I been able to make up the semester at Crestwater…however, Crestwater was off the table which left me with only a few possibilities, one of which was Cartwright, but after having stormed into Laura’s class with a sharp reprimand in front of her peers, I felt the place wasn’t a viable option.

Certainly, I’d become resigned to the notion that the universe, for whatever reasons, felt I shouldn’t graduate from Crestwater. I wondered if perhaps this was because listing Crestwater on a future resume might lead future employers to draw assumptions about my background and therefore expectations—expectations that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to live up to or want to live up to. Perhaps there was a bigger picture involved and perhaps it was easier to have faith in the grand design. Resigning to my defeat at Crestwater was easy once I took into consideration the many roads I’d travel in life. In comparison to the sunny future on the horizon, full of promise and opportunities for artistic greatness; my mishap at Crestwater seemed to shrink in projected retrospect.

I assumed it was the way the world always had been and always would be; steeped in the sunny disposition of 1990s creative vitality, which I saw as the embodiment of an ancient power…and as long as that light was allowed to shine—through works of art and daily prophetic examples…it could live on forever…for it only took a spark to ignite it and I’d carry that spark in the core of my being until the end of time; that much I was certain of. However, there are moments in life when you are certain you’ve failed miserably but then, miraculously it turns out not to be the case and in fact your perception had been entirely wrong.

Indeed dear reader, the situation at Crestwater, though seemingly decided, wasn’t quite decided as I’d assumed it to be. In fact, yet again—God had something else in mind for me.

Eleanor handed me a manila envelope sealed and addressed to me in sharpie lettering, “For Jack”.

“What’s this?” I asked of the envelope.

“Laura left it for you. Feels like a videotape.” She said, “I assume it’s a recording of the show you played at her house.”

I felt through the envelope the unmistakable form of a video cassette and wondered what Caldwell was up to. With Eleanor at my side, I took the envelope up to my bedroom and opened it. It contained a video cassette. Included was a note, written by Laura. It read:


It’s only fair that this videotape reaches you. Pay close attention to the third segment, shot at my kitchen table.

God bless.


I fed the cassette into the VCR and waited. The tape started with a bad bit of fuzz which the auto-tracking evened out, giving way to a shaky shot that focused in and out on a crackling fire. There was music playing in the background and I didn’t recognize the nasal voice of the guy narrating, “Caveman discovers fire…caveman makes fire…caveman impresses cave woman…” the guy said, pointing the camera at Laura next…even on bad grainy video, she looked great; she’d go far in life, I thought as I watched her snicker back at the lens as it zoomed out so a half dozen other people came into frame, sitting in chairs around the fire with beers in their hands. I recognized it as the fire pit in Laura’s backyard and as the camera panned around at Laura’s guests, I recognized Locksmith as one of them.

“I give you Gregory Locksmith ladies and gentlemen—Crestwater’s star debater…win hard, baby.” said the guy behind the camera, in response to which Locksmith gave a smug grin and polished his knuckles against the breast of his polo shirt.

“Winners are winners—from the start.” he winked and beyond him being intoxicated, there was an air about him that I’d never seen and perhaps it was an air of sincerity being that he was seemingly alone with friends…among which the secrets of his private persona would be kept.

“Is that what you’re going to have them write about you in the yearbook?” asked one of the guests, at whom Locksmith looked suddenly, his eyes glazed over with an intoxicated expression of disdain bordering on rage.

“Selma Smithers is too dumb a cunt to think up something as brilliant as that…and that’s lesson number 23.” said Locksmith, his voice whiny and his teeth gritting with gleeful malice.

“Who’s Selma Smithers.” Laura asked off-screen.

“She’s heading the yearbook at Crestwater this year…it’s another in a myriad of blunders student council has made this year…but really the place has been falling apart really since they replaced Jeffries with that Saint Bernard Gavin…I just bet if I threw a Frisbee she couldn’t resist—she’d have to chase it down.” grinned Locksmith, sparking a guffaw from his audience, “So glad I’m out of there this year.”

The video went on, with a few other Caldwell guests making faces and cutting comments for the camera before it cut to a second scene around the pool as the same voice sarcastically narrated a diving competition between two girls I didn’t recognize. When the footage hard cut to the third segment; I turned the volume up a bit, in accordance with Laura’s note.

Indeed, as Laura’s note had stipulated, the third segment was shot at Laura’s kitchen table, around which only a few people sat. The time code had jumped from the pool which was 9:15 pm to her kitchen table which was shot at 1:05 am. As the counter rolled off the seconds and minutes, I watched intently as the camera operator slowly zoomed in on Laura’s cleavage as she spoke with Locksmith.

Locksmith: He’s a hood rat…I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again…he’s a fucking hood rat. And his band is a farce. I can’t even believe you had them playing here the night of your biggest party ever…that’s on you Caldwell…that will haunt you well into college.

Laura: You morons broke my mother’s vase. Broke it to shit.

Locksmith: Excuse me? Morons? Obviously, you missed the point of that whole thing. Everything I do has a larger plan.

Laura: What plan?

Locksmith: That was a strategic play…a successful game plan…what can I tell you? I dangled some bait that night and he took it easily—sealing his own fate. What else would you expect from a Truman Park hood rat…a leopard doesn’t change its spots.

Laura: Yeah, I’m so sure getting vaulted into my mother’s priceless vase was your big strategy…you’re so full of it Gregory.

Locksmith: I knew if I got physical with him and threw the first punch so to speak; he’d take the bait and go hood rat on me…that’s what hood rats like Holden do. It’s in his nature.

Laura: But you got your ass kicked.

Locksmith: Erroneous…I was the puppet master in that situation.

Laura: Ooooh, the puppet master.

Locksmith: Look, I’m a fucking professional…and it was a beautiful play. I played it up to principal Gavin flawlessly…I told her that Holden attacked me unprovoked and that I was afraid to return to school in fear of him. I played the victim card super-hard and it worked like a fucking charm. I had Gavin eating out of my palm…ok? Eating out of my fucking palm—like the Saint Bernard she is. Sure enough, Holden was expelled by Monday afternoon. Lesson number 25—never fuck with a Locksmith.

Laura: She probably expelled him for other shit…I hear he’s a real mess.

Locksmith: Come on…she’s gullible as hell…that whole empath thing she plays…she should have a fucking crystal ball in her office—give me a break. My dad called her and put her in her place…and I think at that moment she realized that she was a long way from Oregon.

Laura: I don’t know why you guys are so threatened by Jack. He’s a Clarence Worley boy…and you’re a Disney prince…I just don’t understand why you care so much.

Locksmith: Look, I wouldn’t feel too bad for Holden…he had no business transferring to Crestwater in the first place…he should have just stayed in the ghetto where he belongs.

It was then that the narrator spoke, having been holding a tight focus on Laura’s perfect cleavage, “Godamn Laura, you’ve got a nice rack.”

“Fuck you Emmerson…” Laura snapped, jumping up out of her seat and wrestling the camera away from Tillman who drunkenly giggled as the camera shook and a second later went off.

It was four minutes of tape…a candid glimpse behind the curtain into a late-night hangout at Laura Caldwell’s house—a fly on the wall. More importantly, it was telling evidence of Locksmith’s true character, which was no surprise to me. Laura had had a month to think over the social ramifications and had eventually decided to do the right thing…for a hood rat who could offer her nothing in return other than gratitude; the Catholic girl in her had saved her grace at the last moment.

Anyway, it was sliced and diced—the videotape was a game-changer.

I’d gotten so used to getting the short end of the stick that I’d not seen myself as a victim…or really let the unfairness of it all register to a degree that I’d be willing to go too far out of my way to exact revenge—for I saw them unworthy of my revenge—for my revenge would be doubtlessly and brilliantly diabolical if I dedicated myself to it. Rather, I’d taken my expulsion with an unsurprised shrug, dismissing the douchery of the Locksmiths and certain governing bodies at Crestwater as par for the course.

Now that I held in my possession a tape that could exonerate me, the playing field seemed to change. I hadn’t asked to go to war with Locksmith. I hadn’t wanted it to become personal. And though I hadn’t planned to ambush him in a desert canyon at high noon, cut out his heart, take a bite out of it and leave him for the eagles and wolves to feed on; I now had no choice.

Though Eleanor hadn’t previously viewed the videotape, she wasn’t at all surprised. She hadn’t seemed shocked or even angry. She’d simply sighed and nodded her head. That afternoon, Eleanor forged a game plan on my behalf and made four copies of the videotape and composed a detailed letter, explaining the situation surrounding my expulsion at Crestwater in satirical semantics. She packed four envelopes, each with a copy of the videotape and the letter.

We dropped one of the envelopes off at school board headquarters downtown, after which we made the long trek out to Emerald Heights on the 10 freeway…absorbing the hot sun and the SoCal sprawl as we rode the earth’s edge. Floating up the PCH in heavy traffic I admired the crisp blue of the ocean, upon which vessels floated like corks and people strolled like ants along the sandy banks.

“Hey…” I said to Eleanor.

“Yeah?” she said, looking back at me, her tanned little foot propped up and resting against the passenger door mirror, her arm slung out the window and her long dark hair blown across her lips dramatically.

“After this bit at Crestwater, I want to drive down to Anaheim.” I told her.

“Anaheim? Why?”

“I figured we’d smoke it up and go walk around at Disneyland…stay till late—see the fireworks. I’ve got a few hundred bucks burning a hole in my hip pocket.” I said.

“Oh, I love that idea.” Eleanor cooed.

“It wasn’t your fault.” I said.

“It wasn’t not my fault though.” Eleanor said, looking at me seriously, squinting against the sun as her hair blew in the wind.

When we got to Crestwater, I pulled up out front and parked in the student lot. Because Eleanor didn’t feel like being in class while dealing with what she deemed ‘menstrual cramps from hell’, she’d called in sick and so for obvious reasons waited in my van. I’d left her sipping a soda and flipping through a magazine with Strange Ways Here We Come on the cassette player.

The halls were barren, except for a few students sitting on the floor against their lockers, reading contentedly—oblivious to my passing footsteps. Plastered to nearly every wall were promos for the upcoming prom that was slated to be held at the Four Seasons Downtown. There were titles to be awarded, prizes to be won, and scores to settle. I imagined who the prom king and queen might be…I drew a blank, having no concept of such absurdity and so no fair assumption of who might or might not qualify. I’d never heard of a prom king and queen at Truman High…it was widely known that at Truman, prom consisted of a buffet dinner in the gymnasium followed by a dance which usually ended in multiple fist fights and turf wars.

I found Malcolm Curtis first and he was where he usually was, at his usual table in the school cafeteria surrounded by his handlers. I stepped up to the table and he peered back at me with astonishment.

“Holden, what the devil are you doing here? You’ve been suspended.” He said.

“No shit Sherlock.” I said, tossing one of the envelopes down on the table so it landed with a slap, “Don’t say I never gave you anything.” I said before venturing back out into the hallway.

My next pit-stop was the library, where it was widely known all suggested comments, questions and potential articles regarding the Gazette should be submitted. I found Mrs. Durham, the librarian, perched behind her desk, organizing a pile of returned books. She peered up at me over her bifocals that sat on the tip of her nose.

“Why Mr. Holden…it’s quite a surprise to see you here.” She said.

“You want a surprise? Wait until you see this videotape. Please have it forwarded to the editor of the Crestwater Gazette.” I said, tossing the envelope down onto her desk so it landed with a slap.

I headed for Gavin’s office next, with only one of the envelopes left to deliver. When I pushed through the frosted glass door, I noticed Ellis first. He was leaning against the wall, listening to the conversation the secretary was having with her assistant. His hands were in his pockets, as was his habit of standing around listening to conversations and jingling the change in his pockets like a whistling creep. Indeed, on this day there was no exception and Ellis’ beady eyes focused on me, widening slightly at the sudden sight of me standing there in his domain. Without missing a beat, he pushed off from the wall and stepped over to me, extending his arm at the end of which pointed his finger toward the frosted glass door from which I’d just emerged.

“You’re not supposed to be here.” said Ellis, stepping up closer and pointing again when I didn’t move, “Go…”

“Take a cigarette break Ellis.” I said.

“Pardon me?”

“I need to speak to Gavin.” I said.

“I can’t imagine what you have to discuss with Principal Gavin.” said Ellis, stepping closer now.

“I can go around you or I can go through you.” I told him.

“Pardon me!” he asked, flabbergasted.

“You heard me.” I shrugged, waiting for him to make his move, however no move came…he only deflated back into his usual lizardly demeanor and repeated himself.

“Intimidation tactics…and you wonder why you were expelled.” said Ellis in a high-handed tone.

“You have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about…but this videotape will confirm how gullible you really are Ellis. I’ve already dropped one off at school board HQ along with a detailed letter, explaining how eager y’all were to vote me out on the sole word of the Locksmiths.” I said, holding up the manila envelope which Ellis focused on with his reptilian eyes and I could nearly hear the wheel turning in his lizardly head, “You want me to leave…ok—fine, but I’ll make sure Gavin finds out one way or another that you knew all about this videotape and sent me away anyway.”

“Now hang on just a sec…” said Ellis, placating me and holding up two palms, “This is the first I’m hearing about a videotape…I don’t even know what’s on that videotape. But if it’s something that casts us or the decision we’ve made in a bad light—I’d like to see it.”

“You can watch it all you want—when Gavin is done with it—Mister Vice Principal.” I said.

After a long moment of contemplation, Ellis broke out of his intense gaze and raised his brows, stepping off entirely and ushering me into Gavin’s office, where she sat propped up obtusely in her chair with her spectacles hanging on the edge of her nose as she filled out forms of some sort. With her pen poised, she looked up at Ellis and I who entered her office without knocking.

“Good morning?” she asked, a curious grin edging the corners of her lips.

“Depends who you bet on.” I said, stepping up to her desk and tossing the envelope onto it.

“Do I want to know what’s in this envelope?” she asked, glancing at Ellis who only shrugged and nodded in a solemn sort of way.

“Please Jack, if you’re going to barge in on me, at least take a chair.” she said gesturing to the chair across from her, into which I sank casually.

Ellis and I watched in silence as Gavin carefully opened the manilla envelope with a gold letter opener. Setting the videotape aside, she adjusted her spectacles and began reading the note. As I watched her eyes move side to side over the sentences of my letter, her expression pursed and her brows tightened as she realized the magnitude of this development; she’d bet on the wrong horse and she suddenly realized it.

“Whatever is on this videotape, Jack has given a copy of it to school board headquarters.” Ellis informed.

“I also gave a copy to the Gazette and the Times…I’m considering forwarding this to Alderman Locksmith’s boss as well.” I said.

“Mr. Ellis, will you please ask Mrs. Glazer if we might borrow her TV and Video player for a short while?” Gavin asked and Ellis took her bidding with a humble nod, scurrying out of the office and leaving Gavin and I alone.

“You’ve given a copy of this to school board HQ?” asked Gavin.

“Sure did.” I nodded.

“Now why would you go and do that?” smiled Gavin, “Well, my first reaction after reading your note is surprise at how you perceive your expulsion. I’d thought Mr. Ellis and I had been quite understanding of the situation. What’s on this videotape?” she asked me point blank.

“I’d rather you hear it from Locksmith himself.” I shrugged.

“Well…it certainly sounds ominous enough. I’m going to get a coffee…would you like something? Juice, pop…Perrier?” she asked.

“I’m good.” I said.

Then I was entirely alone in Gavin’s office with the silence and the portraits of her family looking back at me. The walls of the office had been painted emerald green and the warmth and the quietness lulled me to the point of dozing off when all at once, Gavin, Ellis as well as two other teachers filed into the office. Indeed, Mr. Hatcher and Mrs. Furlong had for some reason joined us in the office. I assumed Gavin had invited them from the staff room when she’d gone to refill her mug of coffee. Perhaps this was the most entertainment any of them had seen and would see all semester.

The TV and VCR were fastened to a skirted cart and Ellis rolled it into the corner of the office. Using the remote control he turned on the TV, the blue screen of which glowed to life. As Gavin got comfortable behind her desk Ellis lifted the videotape from Gavin’s hand and placed it neatly in the slot, queuing a mechanism that sucked the video inside the VCR.

We all watched in silence as the video played and I occasionally turned to Gavin to take note of her expression which didn’t change…rather it remained stoic and drawn in concentration. Indeed, her reaction to even the worst of it simply wasn’t there. Looking around the room I saw that Ellis and Hatcher as well as Mrs. Furlong all wore equally stoic expressions and in the silence that followed, I voiced my thoughts.

“So, Ellis, I guess your comment about my M.O. wasn’t as accurate as you’d thought.” I said over my shoulder to Ellis.

After glancing uncomfortably at the other adults in the room Gavin spoke nonchalantly, “Do you really think we can’t admit when we’ve been mistaken?” she asked, a grin creasing the corners of her eyes, “I can only do my best with the information I’ve been given. I told you I’d be the first to apologize if I was wrong and so I’m apologizing to you now. I’m happy to apologize. I’m happy I was wrong in this case.”

“Yeah, that’s easy for you to say now…but when it counted…you took Locksmith’s word automatically. What about the weeks of class I’ve missed? What about that?” I demanded.

“I’m sorry that you had to miss class. Though I heard you were doing quite well with the ice cream truck operation during the downtime.” Gavin grinned.

“Weeks of missed class…that means I’ll have to do summer school…or enroll somewhere else in the fall. You let Locksmith screw the next year of my life.” I said.

“Why does it mean summer school or enrolling somewhere else? Where are you getting that from?” asked Gavin.

“I’ve missed so much.” I said.

“Let’s not be a pessimist here Mr. Holden…I don’t for one second believe that you couldn’t walk into final exams and ace them all…you’ve so far managed to maintain straight A’s with an impressive amount of absences. World beware if you cleaned up your act and got with the program.” said Gavin leaning back in her chair with a creak and sipping from her mug of coffee, “You’re squandering some real potential.”

“What are you saying to me? I can take my exams?” I asked.

“I guess I’m saying—considering this new information—if you can pass your finals…I don’t see a reason why you wouldn’t graduate this year from Crestwater. I can’t change the past…and if you want to turn this into a scandal through the school board, which will take up a lot of time and resources and complicate everything—you’re free to take that route. Also being that it’s this late in the school year, they won’t even start dealing with it until next fall. On the other hand, we could wipe the slate clean here and now—you come back next week…pedal to the metal and you make up what you’ve missed, and you get those finals aced…and you make it to the finish line a winner.”

“So that’s it? I can come back? Just like that? No questions asked?” I asked, unable to fully wrap my mind around the reality which sat like a mirage before me—though it wasn’t a mirage at all.

“Provided you don’t get into any altercations with Gregory Locksmith.” Said Ellis from his leaning spot against the water heater.

“Wait…you’re going to allow Locksmith to still attend class here? After seeing that tape?” I laughed, “We saw the same tape, right?”

“Trust me,” assured Gavin, “you being re-admitted to Crestwater will burn him and his father more than just a little. Also, Vice Principal Ellis and I will have a little one on one with Gregory and this little educational videotape. I think there won’t be much of a problem after that.”

“Do we have a deal?” asked Ellis after a few moments of silence, “It’s a good one—I’d take it.”

I rose from my seat and looked at Ellis…he looked different now…meek somehow, the dictator in him on a lunch break, “A good deal? You guys ostracized me on the word of some spoiled rotten daddy’s girl…and you’re telling me that being allowed to come back here is a good deal?”

“It’s the only deal we can offer you.” said Gavin, “The best deal we can offer you.”

“Well…I’ll take it. See you tomorrow.” I said before leaving them all to what would doubtlessly be an interesting discussion.

I made my way back down the sunny hallway which was still barren. The floor tiles were impeccably varnished and brilliantly reflected the towering French windows at the end of the hall. Through the windows, the sky was remarkably blue and I felt like diving into it, as if it were a massive crested wave…it would be a crazy summer and I’d make it to the finish line a winner. Perhaps Gavin had some great points. Mostly however, I’d get to suck the marrow out of the remainder of the school year. Perhaps the trick in life is to find a headspace you love and stick with it—come hell or high water. Stopping at my locker I took my Screaming Hand Santa Cruz ball cap from my head and hung it in good old number 44; it was mine again and reclaiming it felt exhilarating.

I explained the entire scene from Gavin’s office to Eleanor later, as we moved down the freeway, heading for Anaheim. It was a sun-soaked day I’d never forget…and though to the truck drivers, sport racers, and business commuters rolling along with us down the freeway, my victory at Crestwater would have doubtlessly meant nothing at all. However, to Eleanor and I it was a magical elixir and it meshed nicely with the boat rides and 1960s spirit that resided in the pastel nooks and crannies of Disneyland…as if we were existing in a teacup dreamscape where animals talked and magic wands conjured spectacular flights of imagination…as if we were balancing on the edge of wonder, beyond which was the great unknown—the milky way. When it got late and we were on our way to find some chicken tenders and fries…we ducked behind a maintenance shed and smoked one up. The fireworks started popping and we stood there smoking and watching the fireworks exploding high above the castle. Certainly, there were endless other places to be just then…but I wouldn’t have traded any of them for being with Eleanor under the fireworks and the sparkle of SoCal stars. It was the 90s and the cosmos was ours. The day had been like a Technicolor dream, complete with a Hollywood ending and I’d fallen into my bed that night after the long drive back, feeling Eleanor’s rib cage rising and falling beside me with a day worth of sun-soaked adventure. As I drifted off, I felt a small wave of alarm wash over me as I imagined waking up the next day and realizing it had all been a wonderful warm dream.

It hadn’t been a dream though; it was the real thing. I returned to Crestwater the following day much to the chagrin of Locksmith who seemed to make himself surprisingly scarce. I didn’t see him floundering around the hallways with his minions, copping clout and theatrical guffaws as he usually did. In fact, I saw him only once, leaving the library with a stack of books under his arms and looking disheveled. He’d glanced at me once before nodding and averting his eyes but said nothing; a stark contrast to his videotape monologue. Without question my unexpected return seemed to raise several questions among my fellow students…questions which after a week had taken on the shape of fantastical conspiracy theories about what exactly was on the ‘mystery tape’.

I was asked and even interrogated on the subject but said nothing. Rather I chose to let the Gazette and the Times air out Locksmith’s dirty laundry with the copies I’d given to them. I chose instead to concentrate on studying for finals—something I never usually did.

As I’d suspected, the final exams all seemed to be devised for seventh graders. It seemed the tests only required the bare minimum. They asked for blanket answers, and stock responses and in doing so promoted subtle textbook plagiarism and unimaginative pontification. Perhaps more out of boredom than anything, I requested extra foolscap to accommodate my elaborated answers and points. I wanted to hand in literary masterpieces…and brilliantly cutting commentary, the likes of which they’d never been submitted in their entire careers. While my classmates bounced their knees and bit their nails and wrote with disconcerted unease, I fixed my sites on the heart of an elaborate subject and pulled the trigger; bullseye…a novella each time—and it drove my teachers quietly mad when I’d place the stack of papers on their desks.

Though to me they were works of art, certainly none of my teachers were quite enthused about having to read my exceptionally detailed essays and exam papers. Such Papers only took up more of the valuable time they spent drinking wine, or gambling, or getting some hand at their local massage parlor. I’d done my part though and I’d done it with some style. It seemed like I was putting the finishing touches on a great work—a chapter of life that I’d never get a second chance to do over.

The battle of the bands at the Backyard was rapidly approaching and once final exams were finished, it seemed an air of excitement emerged…it was perhaps a collective excitement among the graduating class…for it was our last year in a secondary institution—one of many milestones in life we’d all now go through together…friend or foe. One day we’d perhaps hash it all out in an old age home somewhere in the distant future when the world was perhaps a planet of peace or an apocalyptic ember of plague and violence. Either way; they were my peers and we’d inherit the earth together—whether we wanted it or not.

It was as if in many ways, the show at the Backyard was shaping up to be a gigantic exclamation point that would punctuate the end of an era. Though in the future there would be more shows, more parties, more lovers, bigger creative projects, more road trips, more sunsets, and more glorious experiences…there would never again be another Backyard battle of the bands quite like ours.

Perhaps it meant nothing in the end—to fade out into the great beyond without the knowledge that you’d done something extraordinary with your life…perhaps in that moment nothing mattered—not even a life of extraordinary accomplishments. Perhaps it all added up to nothing in the very end. But then there was also the chance that it added up to everything in the very end. Perhaps the mission is what matters until it doesn’t matter anymore. And though Eleanor joked that I should save such contemplations for my third year of college; she understood what drove me to achieve the extraordinary—it was simply my nature.

Walt and the Phantom on the other hand seemed a bit anxious in the days leading up to the battle at the Backyard. They were distracted at rehearsal and seemed more interested in discussing stage antics, which I was told were going to be otherworldly. However, to me, we’d managed to earn a milestone achievement and I felt it shouldn’t be squandered on smoke and mirrors. However, if they insisted on dragging some horror show theater into our performance—at least it should be done with some spectacle beyond the obvious…if we were taking no prisoners…we needed maximum firepower—so no shred of Humbucker’s legacy was left standing. You could say I jumped on board the napalm campaign for the sake of jagged performance art.

It took some planning and some enlistment of friends and enablers to put it all together, but we’d managed to acquire all the props and volunteers we needed to stage a spectacular spectacle. Then, we put it on ice…as revenge was said to be best served cold. I wasn’t quite sure what we were revenging for however…there was Walt’s crystalline hatred for Humbucker and his alleged stranglehold on the Cartwright scene…which didn’t quite apply to me being that I didn’t attend Cartwright.

Still, Walt and the Phantom and a growing number of their Cartwright colleagues were out for Humbucker’s blood as if they were a rabid pack of lynch mobbers with torches, pitchforks, and shotguns. Indeed, the tension generated by the impending face-off with Humbucker’s Black Magnolias was largely perpetuated by the people around us…fans of the band…fans of the Backyard, and fans of the drama. On the other side, there was the Humbucker camp and all of their followers who also perpetuated the tension, which by the night of the show, was palpable. I’d felt it when I arrived at the Backyard with Eleanor on the big night. For one reason or another, each band was instructed to show up shortly before their allotted start time. Rather than doing a full sound check before the lights went up, we were expected to settle for a quick line check—which was fine with Lusty Lacy Laura—by that point we were a steam roller, bounding down the interstate, into the great unknown with a defiant ravenous sneer.

As Eleanor carried my guitar case, I wheeled my Marshall Stack around the perimeter of the crowd that was moshing to the groove of Vertical Zoomers, a Douglas high band that had recently made the grade. When we arrived at the backstage area gate, a man dressed in black approached us. He introduced himself as simply skate park security and asked what band I was with. When I told him he nodded, as if expecting my reply, after which he instructed me, pointing with an unlit flashlight toward the opposite side of the stage, “You need to check in your gear over on that side of the stage.”

“Can we go around the back of the stage?” I asked.

“No sir…your side is stage right.” he informed.

“You mean walk around the outside around the crowd to the other side?” I grinned, noticing a clutter of band gear beyond his shoulder, “Why not just cut through the back?”

“It’s been requested. I’ve given a detailed explanation already to your bandmates…they’re on the other side now and can relay it all to you.” said the rent-a-cop with a formal tone.

“Ok…” I shrugged and flashed Eleanor an ominous grin.

As instructed, we made our way around the crowd and to the opposite gate, where we found the Phantom assembling his drums and Walt adjusting the dials of his amp. Kristen and Jen-Jen were nearby, chatting with another girl whom I didn’t know. Everyone seemed casual and so I rolled my stack in and lit one up, watching Vertical Zoomers from the side of the stage, taking note of the massive sea of heads bouncing in unison to the Zoomersbest-knownn song which had a hip-hop feel. The Zoomers mostly talked and they used electronic drums and sounded about as ghetto as kids from the suburbs could really sound. I wasn’t sure if they’d stolen their entire gimmick from the Beastie Boys—but it seemed mostly plagiarized. Still, the crowd ate it up and replied with cheers when the number was finished.

“How many songs have these guys got left?” I asked Walt when he approached me, grinning and slapping at his bass.

“They’ve got a few more…then it’s all about the funeral pyre.” he grinned.

“What’s with that rent-a-cop making us walk around the outside to get to this side of the stage?” I asked Walt.

“Oh…” he grinned, giving his eyes a roll, “…the organizers caught wind of what’s been brewing between us and Humbucker’s band—they didn’t want an all out turf war breaking out on their watch.”

“What turf war? We’re downtown baby—this is my shit.” I laughed.

“Everyone is gonna realize that in roughly 20 minutes.” laughed Walt, “This is it man…didn’t I fucking tell you we were going to do this?”

“You did man…” I nodded, “Why does Humbucker get to enter at that side and we have to come all the way over here?” I asked.

“Because Humfucker thinks he’s running things…but not after tonight.” Walt said.

Eleanor and I took a seat on a monitor case at the side of the stage, just behind the band-shell wall. From there we watched the Vertical Zoomers run the rest of their set as the crowd rapidly grew and the sun drained from the sky. The last few of the Zoomers songs, though still hip-hop, were far more ethereal and ambient than the first half of their set and the music had an entrancing effect on me…to the point where I felt I was nearly floating…though it was probably the blunt I was puffing on.

When they bid farewell to the crowd who cheered them with a roar, I rose from the monitor case and headed backstage. It was there I found Walt, surrounded by perhaps a dozen people, all clad in costumes. I hadn’t quite expected them to show up…however, they had and among them were the girls from The Diaphragms…an all-girl punk band from Cartwright who could have been cheer girls for the football team had they not been skate betty stoners. They were dressed in snug-fitting go-go dancer outfits from the 1960s…complete with gold frill layered skirts, sparkly tops and white knee-high fuck-me boots. Pleasantly surprised I raised my brows.

“They scrub up not bad huh?” said Walt.

“Not bad at all.” I concurred.

“Ok guys,” he said, pulling the Phantom in so it became a huddle, “everything we’ve planned for is happening tonight…and nothing will be the same after tonight…this is what we’ve been waiting for…and it’s finally ours!” hollered Walt.

“Let’s fuck this shit up!” the Phantom hollered back.

“Let’s remember that new change before the chorus in Mona Lisa Shat in a Bucket.” I said, wanting to be absolutely sure we nailed everything perfectly—shoot for perfect, land on wicked-deadly; that was the motto.

Usually, between bands the crowd dispersed and regrouped once the next band started…however, on this night, the crowd didn’t disperse…rather they stood and watched in anticipation as we set up our gear, ran our cords and started with a quick line check. I took note of the sea of faces looking up at my guitar as I hit a few chords for the sound man, who spoke to us through the monitors. The faces in the audience were ready for a revolt and they expected us to offer it to them. After the Phantom banged around his kit for a moment to set his levels, Walt slapped out some bass, banging his head like a madman and riling up the crowd who threw him some whistles.

Then it was time…and the place went quiet…the angst was ready to spring forth…and you could have cut the electrically charged atmosphere with a straight razor. Walt and I glanced at each other, then we both looked at the Phantom who nodded and started in with an intro drum beat. I was under the impression that we were going to start the first song without any banter…run three in a row and then break for some antics…however, as the Phantom beat out a heavy groove, Walt grabbed his microphone and started in.

“What the fuck is uuuup my people?” he drawled over the drums prompting the crowd to explode with a roar, “Yeah, we’re back…and we know you’ve been waiting for something amazing…it’s been too long…toooooo long!” he shouted, propping a foot up on the monitor, “But it’s finally here…the liberation army has arrived to liberate y’all from motherfuckers who think they’re running the shit…but that shit ain’t—no—more! You know what I’m talking about!” Walt hollered, drawing another roar from the audience that he’d managed to rile up without us even playing one note.

After resetting the microphone in the clip, Walt jumped onto the Phantom’s drum beat with a heavy slap bass groove. I waited for a few bars until jumping in with my Fender Strat that chomped away at some heavy chords. The song was new and groovy and called Pussy Galore. Because we’d rehearsed so much in the previous weeks, we were dialed in and the music fit us like a glove.

When the first song was through and we were left in a hail of cheers and whistles, I stepped up to the microphone.

“Glad y’all could make it. Welcome to Truman Park.” I said, inviting another hail of cheers and whistles, “So, probably some of you may have heard that a certain someone tried to have us thrown off this show.” This time a booming groan of disapproval rumbled across the crowd, “Yep…sad but true…sad but true. But fortunately, the folks running this skate park can’t be bribed, or coerced or bullied. The Backyard is for fucking reals.” I said, drawing another roar.

We played two more songs in a row, giving the audience something to mosh about. It was between the third and fourth song that I noticed Trent Humbucker and crew arriving through the north gate with their gear and entourage. As soon as Walt noticed them, he stepped up to the mic and cued the sound man with a thumbs up and a moment later the sound of a funeral march pattered through the mains…drawing tenacious grins from the kids in the front row and some curious glances from the people congregated around the north gate.

As the march played, Walt played the eulogist, “Dearly beloved…we are gathered here tonight…to pay no respect to one of Cartwright’s most unprolific specimens of douchery—you know him as the singer for The Black Magnolias—tonight’s headliner…however, we just got word that they won’t be headlining tonight—in fact they won’t be playing at all…on account of Trent Humfucker dying of pretentiousness…yes, yes…sad indeed, I know…but it had been eating away at the poor guy for years…and it finally got him. Poor fucker.” said Walt, drawing a chuckle from the crowd.

I grinned, taking note of Humbucker who started gesturing toward the stage and ranting theatrically to what appeared to be a group of organizers huddled with security at the gate.

“Please join us as we eulogize the biggest try-hard Cartwright has ever produced.” Walt said in a morbid tone, gesturing to the right side of the stage. From behind the curtain marched six guys dressed in suits and ties…they wore Friday the 13th goalie masks and were carrying between them a life-sized Victorian coffin bearing intricate gothic woodwork designs. From behind the curtain billowed smoke, which moved in close to the floor before curling up in wisps near center stage, where the Jason Voorhees pallbearers set the coffin down on a skirted platform.

Raising a foot and stomping it down on the coffin, Walt turned back to the crowd and spoke as the synthetic smoke enveloped the stage, “Here lies Trent Humfucker…the falsest prophet and biggest poser Cartwright High has ever seen.”

The crowd roared at the spectacle and Walt took a bow. A moment later he continued, “But you know, we can’t just bury him like this…we all know you can’t bury a blood-sucking vampire like this…he’ll only rise again…to suck your blood,” he said, pulling a large wooden stake from his jacket, “really you gotta drive a stake through the fucker’s heart…”

This was nearly too much for the crowd who shouted out a collective roar again…this time raising their fists and chanting, “Dust him! Dust him! Dust him!” Walt, obliging them crept over to the coffin and opened it slowly…the funeral march faded out just then and the place fell silent as we all took note of a pale and gaunt figure lying in the coffin…somehow Walt had found a kid who looked nearly identical to Humbucker and had dressed him up in matching attire; women’s skinny jeans, a patched and pinned jean jacket and coiffed cowlick hairstyle. The body in the coffin suddenly jolted to life with twilight red vampire contact lenses and long frothy fangs, bringing the crowd to life again, with roaring cheers and whistles that didn’t subside even after Walt had driven in the retractable stake. The kid playing the vampire gripped one hand around the retractable stake as his other hand sprayed fake blood from a squeeze bottle so it splattered Walt’s face horror show red.

Indeed, as Walt slammed the lid of the coffin down, I saw from my angle the back side of the coffin click open and the skinny Humbucker doppelganger slithering out of it. In the camouflage of the fog that billowed from the smoke machine, the kid scampered off unseen behind the six goalie-masked pallbearers standing attentively as ushers. When he was sure the doppelganger had vacated the coffin, Walt produced a tin of kerosene from behind his amp. The crowd, knowing what was to come next, changed their chant from ‘Dust him! Dust him! Dust him!’ to ‘Light it up! Light it up! Light it up!’ and light it up Walt certainly did, dousing the coffin in kerosene before flipping open a zippo lighter and tossing it atop the coffin which went up in a massive puff of flame which reached high into the night sky where the moon sat, stoically, having seen it all—but never something quite like this.

The Phantom counted in our next song, which was a new little ditty simply titled, Twelve Gauge Witch Hunter. Amidst a stage full of flames, smoke and six Jason Voorhees doppelgangers dancing in unison like Motown backup singers…the stage divers took over the show…one of them kicking over the flaming coffin so it collided with the floor in an explosion of embers…and just when it seemed things could get no better…out from behind the curtain danced our makeshift go-go girls in their fuck me boots, glittery makeup and frilly skirts.

They stood center stage in front of the burning coffin and swung their assets around to the beat of the music, tossing their hair and flailing their arms out.

At some point, a couple of organizers took the stage with a fire extinguisher, the hiss of which I heard as I ripped through a guitar solo…when I turned I found a short bald man with gurgling lips and a thin mustache, standing behind me on the stage holding a fire extinguisher in one hand and gesturing to the sound man in a cutthroat motion with his other; they were shutting us down four songs in.

Though the Phantom, Walt and I kept playing, a second later, we lost the mains, which took the vocals with them. We were only a few bars away from ending the song, so we did it instrumentally and with only stage sound…crunching up the last chord with a flurry of feedback, drum fills and guitar rakes…then a loud sonic boom from the Phantom’s kick and floor tom; the end.

Knowing it was our last song of the evening, the crowd showered us with screams and whistles. It had been short, but definitely sweet and the stage in our aftermath was left in smoking embers, the haze of anarchy and the smell of burned kerosene…when the lights went down and the house music went on, the scolding started.

Indeed, the short bald man who’d extinguished the fire chastised us on a personal level and threatened legal action if the stage was irrevocably damaged by the fire. He stipulated that we hadn’t asked permission to start a fire and cited city-wide fire codes that had been breached and nearly threatened to shut the entire show down. The man was livid and his face lobster red…his beady eyes demanded answers as his cronies stood behind him, their beady eyes demanding answers as well. Though Walt could have probably smoothed it all over by claiming ignorance—which youth of our age were prone to be forgiven for…Walt instead chose to push back against the organizers, demanding that we be allowed to complete our set. As he stood there center stage, covered in splatters of fake blood, Walt argued with the organizers who weren’t budging—our set was over they assured, and that dear reader was the end of the discussion as well as our illustrious performance at the Backyard Battle of the Bands.

I walked over and took Walt by the arm and led him off stage. As far as I was concerned we’d taken names and left no prisoners…we’d napalmed the entire place and the clearing smoke only proved it further when from the opposite side of the backstage area we spied Humbucker flanked by his minions, arms crossed and shaking his head as he expressed disappointment to the organizers for having let it go as far as it did. As he gestured toward the stage, shaking his head erratically, the organizers seemed to be placating Humbucker with raised palms.

“What do you suppose they’re saying?” asked Walt.

“I’m guessing Humbucker is giving them shit for not shutting us down sooner.” Laughed the Phantom.

“Too late bitches.” I laughed.

“So long motherfucker!” Walt hollered as Kristen slid under his arm.

“That was fucking legendary.” she purred, squeezing Walt close.

Then the go-go girls from Roctopussy were upon us, high-fiving in congratulations for burning the place down and getting cut short and if that wasn’t enough, Humbucker’s vampire doppelganger came around the corner—an uncanny spitting image—sipping a root beer with his fangs still intact.

“Party at Jen-Jen’s.” called the Phantom from behind us all, “Let’s blow this popsicle stand!”

I felt Eleanor beside me and felt her small hand smooth around my waist and her head rest against my shoulder, I squeezed her in close and looked down at her, “You want to head over to Jen-Jen’s? Evidently she’s inviting everyone here.”

“Evidently.” Eleanor chuckled as Jen-Jen and the Phantom hit the dispersing crowd, announcing a blanket invitation.

“Looks like it’s going to be a big one.” said Eleanor.

“I hope so. Jen-Jen’s parents are in the Poconos until next Tuesday.” Walt said, “Could be the last real party of the year before prom.”

Prom I thought…it was already upon us…the end of an era. We’d nearly packed up all of our gear and were about to wheel it out to my van when The Black Magnolias took the stage. As I lifted my Marshall Stack onto the roller, I was surprised to hear a low rumble of boos move through the crowd like rolling thunder. I was even more surprised to spot a distraught expression concealed by a nervous grin twisted into Humbucker’s face as he stepped up to the microphone.

“Well, in spite of the previous band’s asinine theatrics; there’s only one real Trent Humbucker…as you can see—and I’m alive and kicking.” he said, prompting some fanfare cheers that tried to drown out the booing…however, the booing continued and was peppered with hollered insults mostly intelligible but all the same, hurled with intent. Hurled also with intent from the crowd was an empty plastic water bottle which Humbucker just barely ducked, rising back up to the microphone a moment later, “Come on guys…this show isn’t about sore sports…it’s about our music scene!” he boomed, but could not quell the booing that loomed beneath the cheering of his adoring fans. Perhaps Humbucker had been right—perhaps Lusty Lacy Laura had drawn some divisions in the Emerald Heights scene…but perhaps it wasn’t a bad thing…perhaps it was time for a change.

Shaking my head with an amazed grin I found Walt at the merch table with Kristen…Kristen usually handled the merch table and on this night she was busy taking cash in exchange for Lusty Lacy Laura t-shirts and the two cassettes we’d recorded. As The Black Magnolias kicked into their first shoe-gazing number, I peered up at the moon that was smudged slightly behind a thin veil of air pollution. I’d done it…I’d done what I’d set out to do and it had been spectacular. And though it would go down in the annals of Emerald Heights history and would be passed along through word of mouth like an ancient legend, I felt no different beneath the ecstatic glow…the expedition in me hadn’t been quenched…rather it had been stoked…and the realization came to me like the sudden warmth of the sun moving from behind a thick fluffy cover of cloud…I’d known it before, but knew it indefinitely at that moment—exploring the deep jungles of contemporary composition was a lifetime commitment…not about one work, or one season or even one era.

It took a few days for the reality of the Backyard show to sink in. I realized that we’d done the show and that it had been monumental on many levels, particularly among Cartwright kids who’d loved to see Trent Humbucker staked and dusted once and for all. It was a great symbolic send-off for him…especially being that The Black Magnolias didn’t win first prize. We didn’t win first prize either. In fact, it was the Vertical Zoomers who’d won the money, the studio time, and accolades. I assumed the judges didn’t want to get into the middle of any vendettas and appear to have taken sides…for them, the battle of the bands wasn’t about who played or who won—as a funded organization for the arts that was made up of board members and council meetings; they’d simply played it as safe as they could.

I’d never expected to win the prize money or the studio time. Perhaps Walt and the Phantom had reserved some hope to—however in the end; the actual first prize was having pulled off staging such a historical event and solidifying our place in Emerald Heights musical history—and so we’d won that prize. In twenty years, few might remember the Backyard and the nuances of the evening…they might only remember that we’d gotten shut down after lighting a coffin on fire—if they remembered at all.

However, in the days that followed, the aftershocks remained…and they were felt through the final days leading up to graduation, particularly at Cartwright where, according to Walt and Kristen, Humbucker had been officially dethroned—which wasn’t fully Walt’s doing…more so Walt had merely torn the curtain back, exposing Humbucker for what he was and had always been; a narcissistic baby-boy and Walt had done it only a matter of days before the final semester let out…in essence ruining the momentum Humbucker’s Black Magnolias had hoped to enter UCLA with in the fall…which in essence, prompted the beginning of the end of Humbucker.

When graduation day finally came around, I was awoken in the morning by my phone, which never rang that early. It was Sarah Mascara and there was a tone of severity in her voice. Good old Sarah Mascara…the only one of my ex-Truman High alumni who didn’t hold it against me when I’d vacated so suddenly.

“Jack…you sound like you’re still sleeping.” She said.

“I was…I am.” I said.

“Listen, I won’t keep you, I just wanted to let you know that there’s going to be a town hall meeting at Truman High auditorium tonight. There’s going to be a panel there—delegates from the school board, the city, and the developer who is going to demolish Truman. A bunch of us are going down there tonight and we’re going to give them hell. Can you make it?”

“Me? Nobody wants me there.” I said.

“Truman High wants you there.” Said Sarah.

“Really?” I asked, still too groggy to fully comprehend the gravity of the situation, “I’m sure everyone would be so happy to see me.”

“This is bigger than all of that. Nobody is going to mind you being there Jack. We need all the voices we can get. Hope to see you there.”

Sarah was gone a moment later and I fell back into a deep warm pocket of slumber.

Later that afternoon when Eleanor arrived at my place wearing her prom outfit—a pleated argyle skirt, knee-high socks, and the crested vest that venerated her beloved private school—I was still lying in bed, in my underwear and Smith’s t-shirt. She flashed me a curious look and an accompanying grin.

“Wow…you look great.” I told her.

“Are you under the weather?” she asked.

“No.” I told her, “But I don’t think I can do this.”

“Do what?” she asked.

“Go to the prom.” I said.

“But why?” she grinned, “I thought you wanted to go.”

“I only wanted to because you wanted to.” I admitted.

“So you don’t want to go? Why not?” she implored.

“Listen…the truth is—I want to remember it the way it was the last day of classes…the way it really was at Crestwater. The reason I loved being there so much. The reason I carved my feelings in that door in the basement. It meant so much to me to be there…it’s something I did naturally well. I don’t want to ruin that memory seeing them all duded up in tuxedoes and elaborate gowns…like mini versions of their parents.”

Eleanor stood there in my bedroom staring at me intensely. Indeed, she was a product of Southridge Academy—a private Catholic school in the Palisades that had closed. Like me, she’d spent only her last year at Crestwater and felt like somewhat of an outsider.

“Do you really want to go?” I asked her, “If you do, we can go…I’ll do it for you.”

“I’m not the girl who’s going to make you do things you don’t want to do.” she said.

“How do you remember Southridge?” I asked her, lighting one up and propping myself up on one elbow.

“I remember it exactly the way it was the last day of class…I remember it being sort of sad but sort of beautiful all the same.”

“Are you glad you remember it that way?” I asked.

“I guess I am. But I had no choice…Southridge closed—we didn’t have a prom.” Eleanor said, “To me, Crestwater was a lackluster substitute for a school that I really loved. If going to prom is going to ruin the Crestwater experience for you—then I think you shouldn’t go. Personally, I don’t really care if we go or not…you’re the one who’s so obsessed with Crestwater”

“You really don’t mind?” I asked.

“I honestly don’t care either way really. But we ought to do something fancy—I’m all dressed up. Did you have some other plan in mind?”

“Well…there is somewhere I should be tonight.” I said.

“Where?” asked Eleanor, tilting her head a bit.

“They’ve got a town hall at Truman High tonight…city council and some people from the education board are going to be there as well the developers that are knocking the building down. Probably it’s hopeless but I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least show up and say my piece.” I said.

“Wait a minute…you’re going to forego prom at a school you loved to attend a town hall at a school you hated?” asked Eleanor.

“Pretty much.” I said, realizing it as she said it.

“You’re such a head case.” she smiled, stepping up to me and wrapping me in her arms.

With Eleanor looking amazing and I looking as I normally did…we drove the few blocks to Truman High and found the parking lot full. As the violet sunset sky cast itself across the roofs of cars, we circled for a spot until we finally found one close to the entrance—as if it was meant to be.

“VIP.” smiled Eleanor.

It was a strange feeling strolling up to the east entrance doors again, after so much time had passed…especially with Eleanor at my side. As if she was an apparition I looked at her, wondering for a moment where she’d come from, strolling beside me in her vintage Attire.

“Where the hell did you come from?” I asked her…stopping and sliding my hand around her waist…I pulled her close and kissed her deep…to make sure she wasn’t a figment of some mystical dream. She was flesh and bone…eyes and hair…lips and tongue and fingers running through my hair.

“Brentwood originally.” she smiled smoothing her hand down my cheek.

“Maybe you’re an angel.” I told her.

“Or as angel as any earth girl can be.” she said.

“Hey asshole!” a voice suddenly sounded from behind me.

When I turned I found Henley standing there in his skin-tight acid wash jeans and heavy metal half-shirt. He was puffing on a cigarette and squinting hard at Eleanor.

“Henley…I thought I smelled sulfur.” I said.

“Where’d you find your girlfriend…the 1950s?” he asked, taking note of Eleanor’s vintage attire…causing his cohorts to grin.

“Who’s this guy?” asked Eleanor under her breath.

“I guess you can call him half-shirt Henley.” I said, “But I’ve always called him dick-wad.”

“Yeah, real funny. What are you doing here anyway? I thought you hated this place?” he asked me.

“I’m going to remind those assholes that this school should be a heritage building—even if inbreds like yourself are enrolled.” I said, “Why the hell are you here?”

Henley didn’t say anything…he only shrugged and took a drag of his cigarette. It was odd…usually Henley had a comeback…something told me he was nervous about something and I looked at him for a moment before Eleanor tugged my wrist, leading me away and toward the entrance.

It was strange being back at Truman High, but even more strange being there in the evening…I was used to the sun lighting it a certain way. With the sun almost gone, the hallways appeared dim beneath the fluorescent fixtures. Indeed, Sarah hadn’t exaggerated…as Eleanor and I moved down the main hallway toward the auditorium, I noticed the bare walls and the stripped-down office, and the vacant library…the atmosphere seemed bleakly similar to newsreels I’d seen of the US Embassy in Saigon during the final days of Vietnam.

Though the wrecking ball was coming, and everyone was preparing to jump ship…there were still some who held out hope…at least enough to warrant a town hall meeting. When Eleanor and I rounded the last corner, we were greeted by Sarah Mascara, who stood outside the auditorium doors with her younger sister and her father…whom I’d never met before. They were part of the solution…a contingency of old guard Truman Park families who still cared…who refused to turn their neighborhood over to the gangs and the thugs and the dealers and the stealers…to the pimps and the hookers and the junkies and the poverty that had seeped in like tar through deep cracks. They’d seen too much go away and weren’t giving up on Truman High without a fight.

“You came…I actually can’t believe it.” said Sarah, offering me a half hug.

“I was in the neighborhood.” I grinned.

As we stood there chatting, a squeal of microphone feedback signaled the beginning of the meeting. We all followed Sarah’s father and sister into the darkened auditorium and down the sloping aisle toward the front row where a number of seats were reserved for residents that wished to speak.

As we settled into our seats, the stage lights gleamed against the pasty white faces of a formally dressed panel who sat behind a skirted table on the stage.

At the end of the table was the moderator’s podium. In the orchestra pit was another podium, set sideways so it faced both the audience and the stage. The audience murmured in anticipation and after a few minutes, principal Nelson emerged from behind the stage curtain, clad in his usual Barney Miller shirt and tie as well as his plaid booty pants. He took his place behind the podium on the stage and tapped the microphone, which rang slightly with a surge of feedback after which he gazed out into the audience with an amused looking squint.

“Well, I see our little town hall has drawn a turnout that rivals theater group productions.” he said nervously to a silent room that remained silent, “I, um…I would like to introduce you to our, uh…esteemed panel…” he said, droning off into a monotone string of introductions that were met with more silence from the audience that had come for one thing only.

The panel was made up of school board members, members of a developing company, as well as a woman from city council, there were others but their titles were arcane.

When the introductions were over and the darkened auditorium hung in silence that lurked like a void threatening to swallow Nelson and the panel members into an endless abyss; a woman approached the orchestra pit podium. A rustling carried through the PA system as she took the mic in hand and moved it down to match her height. Her voice carried through with an initial nervous crack before latching back onto the question she wished to express.

“With all due respect Principal Nelson, let’s cut to it…my daughter is a student here…I was a student here and so was my father. Three generations…and now you guys say you’re going to tear down this school…and the nearest option is so far away? I’d like to know why it’s so important to knock this school down.”

Her question opened a slit in the silence, through which some applause and murmuring trickled through.

“I’ll take that question.” said one of the school board members. He took a sip of his water and leaned down to speak into the microphone, “It’s true, the school has had quite an illustrious past and many great contributors to our city have graduated from Truman High…Tom Buckley for instance—and Jennifer Chandler…just to name a couple. The choice to tear down this school wasn’t one necessarily made out of urgency. It’s been in the works for quite some time. I’m afraid this school is just too darn old and damaged…there are foundation problems from absorbing a hundred-plus years of southern California tremors…the pipes are going…the electrical is in a constant state of disarray. The roof is starting to cave to the point where we might have to start installing support beams in certain areas…it’s not ideal.”

“So why not fix it?” asked the woman, “I mean, don’t you get your share of our tax dollars?”

“I’ve met with engineers as well as our accountants who have looked at it and it’s already quite expensive to maintain the school…to give it an overhaul could reach astronomical numbers and even then, the atrophy won’t stop…it’s too far gone by now.”

“Astronomical…” scoffed the woman with a shake of her head, “…so it would match what we pay in taxes then…it should add up.” she said, turning and walking back into the darkness as the board member answered.

“It’s probably worth more to this community, in the long run, to construct housing on this property.”

As the woman walked away into the shadows, another woman approached the podium, this one was taller and instead of moving the microphone to match her height, she leaned down to speak into it.

“…but…but, the community isn’t getting the money from that property sale…that’s going somewhere else. What we’re losing is a school and what we’re gaining is the headache of having our children transfer out of the district.”

“Might I interject?” asked one of the developers, “On the contrary, the plan we have in place isn’t a mere housing project,” he said, rising from his chair.

He walked across the stage to the other side of the podium where a black sheet hung over something propped on an easel. He pulled the sheet away and unveiled a massive architectural drawing. The drawing illustrated a sprawling complex of townhouses in the center of which was a park equipped with benches, picnic tables, trees, and a jungle gym.

“…it’s high-quality community living…we’ve opted to turn part of the property into a park, that can be used by the entire neighborhood…which we feel will promote a sense of community…also, we’re in talks with property owners across the street to build a strip mall. This project isn’t just about building affordable housing…it’s about adding to an already eclectic community. Because Truman Park is so close to the downtown core, it’s only natural that businesses, such as boutiques, restaurants, shops, and other amenities are eventually going to move in. Rezoning is progress…and can only be good for your neighborhood. Just four blocks from here they are going to start construction on a new grocery store…attached to the grocery store will be a bank, a café, and Laundromat. There are many similar projects in the works right now…and they could potentially turn Truman Park into a very important contender in the small business sector.”

“Who do you think you’re fooling!” a man called out from the darkness.

“Please sir, approach the podium.” urged Nelson.

“I don’t need to…” said the man, “…it’s a fraud and that’s all I have to say about it.”

“I can assure you sir,” said the member of the developer team, “none of this is a fraud in the slightest. The downtown core is expanding and with that new foot traffic comes businesses…it’s that simple.”

There was a man standing at the orchestra pit podium suddenly, pulling everyone’s attention from the developer. He was a tall man and wore a cowboy hat and a tight white t-shirt. He held a sleeping baby against his chest and he spoke softly.

“I would say a neighborhood that doesn’t have its own high school isn’t going to be much of a neighborhood for long…if what you say is true and Truman Park is going to be swallowed up by the business sector…I mean, isn’t there anyone up there on the stage who is interested in preserving this old neighborhood? Now, I don’t claim to know much…but I’m a firefighter…and I work out of that old firehouse just yonder. Last week I was told by Kenneth Schultz that they’re fixing to tear that old building down as well…to make way for an aquatic center. Now, I’m all for water sports…but why the heck they wanna tear down a heritage building to build an indoor pool when we already got an outdoor pool a few blocks away?”

“I can’t comment on that…my company has limited knowledge of other projects in the area.” said the developer.

Over a rumble of murmuring that spread through the attendees, the woman from city council cleared her throat and spoke, “You might take into consideration that the more businesses that move into Truman Park, the better it’s going to be for the neighborhood…I can’t stress that enough. We’ve seen a rather noticeable drop in crime in other neighborhoods where similar rezoning situations have occurred.”

Just then Eleanor put her hand on my thigh and gave it a slight squeeze…she motioned with her head as the man in the cowboy hat walked away from the podium with the baby that was still sleeping against his chest. Realizing it was my turn, I felt a small freeze of adrenaline wash through my stomach. I’d chopped the head off an effigy of Trent Humbucker in front of a few hundred rabid skaters and had felt only elation…now however, peering out into the darkened auditorium, the question of why I’d decided to attend trickled in.

Perhaps it was Nelson or perhaps it was the eyes of my ex-classmates lurking in the judging darkness. Perhaps I felt that they could all go fuck themselves; it wasn’t about them however and it wasn’t about me. I rose from my seat and stepped up to the podium. I’d expected to be greeted by a wash of boos and jeers…however, the auditorium remained silent and the look on Nelson’s face was pricelessly shocked under his collected demeanor.

“Hey Nelson old bean…happy to see me again so soon?” I asked and this surprisingly drew a flurry of chuckles from the masses shrouded in darkness; my ex-classmates who perhaps hated Nelson just a little bit more than they hated me.

“This is a community meeting Mr. Holden…everyone is welcome.” he said, wincing out a phony half-second grin.

“Coolidge.” I said, “Well, I’m Jack…and I want to address the panel members—I’d like to let you all know that you’re nothing but a bunch of money-grubbing, capitalist, chicken-fuckers who have no sense of cultural responsibility—you ought to be ashamed of yourselves for even considering tearing down this heritage building. Just so you know—you don’t have our permission to tear this building down!” my voice echoed through the sound system into a moment of feedback, “Not their permission and not my permission!” I hollered gesturing to the audience in attendance, and began to chant, “Not my permission, not my permission, not my permission!”

Perhaps because of the catchy ring, the chant spread through the auditorium like wildfire, fueled by anger, sadness, rage, and disappointment…they all shouted it loud and proud…and the chant grew in volume as it reached the upper balconies. It wasn’t hard to believe.

I stood there feeling the collective chant coursing through me as I hollered it, amplified by the microphone and punching my fist in the air—backed by the volume of an auditorium full of Truman Park believers—I delivered our collective message to the board once and for all and as the chant gained strength the board members sat uncomfortably, with no other choice but to sit there and listen to it.

Eventually, Eleanor approached me with a warm wide grin and interlocked her arm in mine and together we made our way up the aisle toward the old wooden doors each centered by a small square frosted glass window. It would be the last time any of us would be in the old auditorium…I knew it, they knew it and it seemed as good a way as any to say goodbye.

Once outside and walking across the lawn toward my van which sat like a beacon in the darkened parking lot, I felt a great ease wash over me. Eleanor and I walked hand in hand over the dry spotty grass and paused to watch a low-flying police helicopter circling a number of blocks away, its spotlight fixed on a stationary point. The nearby freeway roared with racing cars and the palm trees stood tall and on angles, their tops slightly silhouetted by the dim residue of vermilion dusk glowing just above the horizon.

“So, what do you feel like doing?” I asked Eleanor, “We still have time to make it to prom if you want…the Four Seasons is only about a ten-minute drive. We can still make it if you want.”

“I don’t know. Kinda hard to top what just happened in there. How about we drive out to Malibu and watch the tide crash in?” asked Eleanor.

“Sounds amazing.” I sighed, squeezing her close.

Wrapping herself around me, she pressed her cheek against mine and held up her disposable Polaroid, pointing it toward us. The flash went, leaving an after-burn and I looked up. There were a million points of light sparkling above the twilight and a million possibilities on the sunny road ahead—it was the 90s and it belonged to us.