In the end they all turned on me. Or I walked away. Or the money ran out. Or it all just got to be too much. The Writers Club crowd that had somehow morphed into the Degenerates died. We came apart as if tossed by a cold wind.
We got a place together as the final die was being cast. Harvard had failed out of college. He came back home and still had access to the fund his parents set for him. With about a thousand of it spent on his one semester of college, he had another 29 thousand to go.
I didn’t know what I was talking about but I told him to invest it. I told him to buy a house or go back to school. None of that was going to happen. Harvard was a nihilist. He didn’t foresee a future at all and decided we would all burn out eventually anyway. Why not burn his future with it. He rented an apartment and Walleye and I moved in.
Harvard got a room to himself. He tossed all his clothes in a big pile and slept on it. His gaming books stood in shifting piles on the other side of the room. It was the biggest room in the house. Harvard had talked for a while about giving it to me, but I refused.
Walleye and I shared the other room. We had a policy about girlfriends. One weekend he and his girl got the room, one weekend Mary and I. I didn’t have a bed. I had a couch. I wrapped the cushions in a queen-sized sheet and that was it for me.
It became the only place to go. It was right up the road from Jammy’s and we went there to eat well. Her mother loved every one of us and didn’t mind us dropping in for a bite of good home-cooked food.
At our house we had pizza and burritos and chicken pot pie. We lived on candy and soda, we lived on trash. Every week Harvard would load whoever wanted to go into his car and take us all shopping for our trash.
It was a last gasp and I knew it. Heart was gone. Her husband Bruise had come home from the Air Force and tossed all of us out. He was stationed in North Dakota and they disappeared from our lives. Katty hardly came around anymore. Jammy had gotten mean when we started with the stick fighting. All of us had.
We all started biting at each other. Started breaking each other down. We got to where we couldn’t stand the look of each other.
Or maybe it was just me. Maybe I had just had enough. The group started out one great and happy nourishing thing, but we had grown as filth-ridden as a lagoon. We were choking on our own bullshit. Caught up in the dying gasp. I saw the end times coming. I knew what we were turning into.
Signs were everywhere. I broke Jammy’s thumb. Walleye broke my hand. Harvard had slept with my sister as pay back for Careful. Chanel hardly talked to me anymore. She saw where I was taking all of us with my stick, and she grew bitter about it. We were getting tied up in sex one with another. Nothing was sacred anymore.
Basic brought over a bong, and he, Harvard, and Walleye started smoking. It was all shaking apart. It was burning to the ground in a slow burn that would have us all choking and charred by the end.
January I got an apartment to myself and I just left. I remember coming back a few weeks later to get one last thing I had forgotten and I walked into a nearly dark house.
Harvard was the only one left. He was sitting in the kitchen drinking a Mountain Dew under the table light with the rest of the house dark.
“I forgot one of my bags,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s the last of it,” he said. “The last of the show.”
I could see everyone had moved out. Everyone had found another place to be.
“Where is everyone?” I asked.
“Yeah well, Jammy and me broke up. That was never going to work. I’m too fucked up and she is too perfect. Chanel went home for a few days until she can get out of there. Walleye is back at his parents’ house. Basic is gone.”
“Where did he go?”
“Back to Denver.” Harvard took a long swig of his Dew and finished it. He tossed it behind him and it rattled to the floor. There must have been fifteen cans back there. “Jesse, the money ran out.”
“I’ll pay you back what I owe you,” I said. I knew it was a lie when I said it. I reached into my pocket and could feel a few bills, but I needed food at my house. I needed gas. I needed not to be tied up in his little hell.
“No brother, you keep your money.” He had a sad lilt to the way he said it. “I’m going back.”
“Going back where?”
“To my parents. My dad is sending me a plane ticket. They are in Panama City, Panama, now in a military hospital. Dad has a few things he wants to say to me, then we are going to make a plan.”
Reality had come in hard for Harvard. His life would be a nightmare for a while.
“Want a Mountain Dew?” He motioned to a case torn in two stacked on another one unopened. Neither was in the fridge.
“No, man. I don’t touch the stuff,” I said.
“One.” He looked up at me with a scowl.
I took it.
“I gotta finish them before I get on the plane tomorrow. Seems a waste to throw them away.” He sat a few cans before me and grinned. “You gotta help me.”
I took a drink and winced. “These are sewage.”
He smiled. And laughed.
“Do you remember Christmas?” he said.
“Yeah, it was cool.”
“Not this year.” He shook his greasy hair and belched. “This year was a nightmare.”
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“Have you ever seen one of those jalopies that you shut off the car and walk away but it still keeps hiccuping? It keeps coughing and burping shuttering and shaking for a few minutes before it finally dies?”
“That was us this Christmas. This is it all finally dying. But a few weeks ago, that was the shaking.” He sobbed, his shoulders bunched before he fought it back and took another deep drink. He tossed the can behind him then opened the next. “The first Christmas. Do you remember the first Christmas?”
And I did. Then I started crying, too.
It was Christmas Day. We all did the presents thing with our parents. We had sang, even eaten snacks. We had partied until the day ebbed. Dinner was uneventful. Then I looked at my mother and she nodded. “Go call him,” she said with a chuckle.
I called Harvard. “Yo, you ready?” I said.
“I’m on my way. Took you long enough. Fuck.”
I called Chanel. “You ready, girl?”
“Been a long day. Thought I would die of waiting,” she said. “How are we set? Is it at your house?”
“God no, I think we are going to Jammy’s this year,” I said.
“Yeah, Chanel, I think we are going to do this for the rest of our lives,” I said to her. “This is only the beginning.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I think so, too. I’ll try to grab Katty. It is Christmas though, she might be tied up at home.”
“Do your best. See you there.”
Harvard picked me up. On the way out, we grabbed Walleye and went to Jammy’s.
We were greeted at the door by Jammy and she was wearing all red. Where she had gotten the red pants from, I had no idea, but she looked ridiculous. Chanel shoved her way to me and wrapped me in an amazing hug.
“Merry Christmas, Jesse,” she murmured in my neck. She smelled of perfume.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” I said. She pulled back and smiled. She slapped me on the arm and I went to Jammy.
She was all smiles and hugged me awkwardly. I kissed her cheek and she touched my nose with her pinky finger.
I turned to Katty. I was in love with her by then and wanted to be alone with her. She smiled at me in that apologetic way she did, and I grabbed her, wrapping my arms around her waist. I lifted her into the air and she giggled.
“Help, help, a madman’s got me!” she yelled. I knew she was uncomfortable and set her down.
We all turned as one to Jammy’s mother and she grinned at us. We took turns hugging her and I whispered to her that I wished she was my mother. She was almost deaf, so I don’t think she heard me. In some sad way that was the entire story of the group right there in that moment, but we didn’t dwell.
We went back to Jammy’s room.
We said over and over again no presents, but no one listened except me.
Harvard bought me a hardback copy of Le Morte d’Arthur. He bought Walleye a guitar. He got everyone something, and we all complained about it. But we knew he would do it. He had that kind of heart and the only thing that made him happy was giving things to us.
Walleye brought us all artifacts from his room. He gave me a wooden mask he called Tiki Bob that had hung over his bed most of his life. From this chair in this office I sit in now, I can see it hanging in the hall.
Chanel bought me a White Zombie tape. Katty got me an ornament. Jammy wrote me a poem with an illustration. Most of these gifts are gone now except the book. It has as its inscription the words, “If you’re going to be a king, learn how to rule.”
Walleye didn’t know how to play the guitar, but he played us a song, with no cord and no amplifier. It sounded like he was playing with a dead fish. Jammy pulled out a guitar when Walleye begged her to and she jammed out to Melissa Etheridge.
Katty sat in the corner batting at the curtain with her hand and grinning.
When everyone was quiet, right before we left for home, I sat everyone down and told them all a Christmas story.
It was about a man who woke up with a pickax in his ass and barely noticed. He went about his whole day buying presents and wrapping them, putting them under the tree and sitting down to dinner with his family. Right before they opened their presents, his son pulled the pick out and dropped it on the floor.
“There you go, Daddy. Merry Christmas,” the boy said.
Harvard and I drank Mountain Dew for hours. We talked about what it was, we talked about where it all went wrong, and we said we would keep in touch. As far as I can remember, that was the last I ever saw of him.
It’s been over two decades now. I had pizza with Chanel and her family a few days ago. We are rebuilding. So much has gone on between us that I wish I had done differently. So much I wish I said that is just too late now.
Jammy is off being brilliant half a state away. I will never see her again on purpose. I had a brief friendship with Walleye for a while in college, but he got tired of me. Too much had happened. I hit them both too many times with a stick for them to ever forgive me.
Katty is a happy place for me. She lives in that town. She works and loves there and I watch her across social media. There have been times when I was down, thinking about what the world would be like without me and gripping with white knuckles to the night, just trying to survive the horrors of my past until my wife can wake up. On those nights I pull up pictures of Katty and laugh at the faces she makes at the camera.
Cry is still out there. I talk to her every once in a while. She is a big supporter and gives me hope when I need it.
Gypsy is a memory, nothing more.
Brett sells cars. I don’t know if they are used, but they should be.
Heart will always have a secure place in my heart. She does tattoos.
Glare is still out there. We worked it all out and he is not, as I sit here, trying to kill me. To my knowledge.
They were the best thing about my teenage years. A family at a time when I needed them. I love them all dearly. Will always.
For me, they will always be a last bit of warmth from a very cold time in my life.