Climbing the cedar was the worst part of the morning. Cedar trees are not strong. Not this kind. They are whips of things, and bendy. The leaves, if you want to call them that, are more quills than leaves at all, small, sharp, and tough enough to slice like blades. I got gloves for Christmas, so I could handle it, but still, the occasional branch would swipe my face. Never hard enough to draw blood, but hard enough to hate life.
Then, the lock on the door to the balcony. Open slow. Open quiet. I had oiled the squeak with a bit of WD40 from the garage. Made a mess of it and myself because they had yet to invent the spray. This was still the little red spout and the tiny squeeze can that came out too fast, or not fast enough. Once in, you take one large step to get around the creaking board. You lock the door and head for your bedroom.
Grasp would peek at me from under his covers, knowing I had been out for much of the night but unable to say anything about it. This was when he was sweet. Before the horror he would make of himself and the worst of his character would emerge.
Undress fast. Shower. Dress, then Jacket. Put it on slow. Savor the feel of the weight of it settling on your shoulders. Walkman in the right pocket. Fist full of tapes in the left. Clap the door on the Walkman shut. Crank it as high as the headphones could handle without getting scratchy. Brush teeth.
Out the door and into the morning, where the wind seemed colder and the morning weather was angry. Then, the bus stop. Less was with me, of course. She was talking about The Lost Boys and how great a movie it was. This was on loop in her head and coming out of her mouth practically all the time. I was so sick of that movie and would have it memorized by the time she was kicked out of the house.
“You need to roll down those sleeves,” Blondie Grr said when we got to the bus stop. My sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, thick rolls like Olsen. I was not rolling them down. My bare arms would face Wisconsin weather. I was not rolling them down. To do so was a mark against Olsen. I was not rolling them down. To do so was a defeat.
We kept our heads down until we got to the corner, then lifted them again after we had turned for the street. We knew better than to look back to the porch behind us. That was where the high schoolers stood in the comfort of the wind-blocking porch of the bar on the corner. The middle schoolers were not allowed to look back there, not allowed to see what they were doing. But we all knew.
See, coke was huge in Allenton. And when you stole little glances behind you, you could usually see the flash of a mirror carried by one of the girls as the high schoolers got ready for the day.
Aspirin was one of the prettiest girls I ever knew. She was pale and blonde, with frantic eyes and a pill bottle. My guess was she desperately wanted to get on that porch, but she still had another year of middle school. So, if she couldn’t do coke, she would pop aspirin. She called herself an aspirin addict. She carried a bottle everywhere she went, and every day Blondie Grr would ask her how many she had taken the day before as Aspirin tipped the bottle in her hand, tossed a few in her mouth and chewed. Around a mouthful of aspirin dust, she would usually say 35, or 50.
When we got on the bus, I would sink into a seat and listen to my music. Stare out the window and try not to be seen. X would be in the seat beside me talking, but we had been out all night. I was not ready to be with him again, and he knew I was largely ignoring him. If he was saying something important, he would hit me, but most of the time he just rambled to himself about breaking things and who he was going to steal from at school.
Rock stopped at my seat on his way to the back and leaned over and waved his hands in my face. Rock was huge, a senior in high school, and he liked me. All the high schoolers like me. I looked up and he smiled at me.
“Hey, Junior, what are you listening to today?” he asked. They were bunched around me, staring down at me from their staggering height with mirth in their eyes. I pulled down my headphones and smiled up at them.
I handed my headphones to Rock, who threw them on long enough to hear Guns N’ Roses blaring.
“Welcome to the Jungle,” he said, and the high schoolers laughed. “One day you will graduate to Metallica, Junior. But not yet.”
Pormore looked at me with that gorgeous face and her wild coked out eyes and she shook her head. “We will tell you when, Junior. Not yet.”
Okay, I can see by your face that you are confused about the Junior thing. Let me explain.
Rock’s parents bought the old post office that had been abandoned, then became a bar, then abandoned again, and was now being used as an arcade. It was more of a pool hall, having two pool tables and three arcade games, but we called it an arcade because sending your kids to a pool hall was a bit controversial. They opened the place with a great pool championship that every high school kid played at, and every middle schooler in the area watched.
When you hung out with the high schoolers, you received a kind of mild contempt. They disliked being surrounded by the younger kids. We were their plague, and they hit us with slight abuse all the time.
Days after the championship, when the high schoolers were just playing pool and hanging out, I showed up. I leaned against the wall and listened to the music radiating from the jukebox. Rock had been given permission to fill the jukebox by his parents and it was all metal, but his parents had insisted on some music the high schoolers thought was terrible. His parents added a few country hits, and a bit of pop. Rock, and all the high schoolers, loved metal, and they dreaded the wrong person playing a song.
After a few minutes of being ignored or snarled at, I walked toward the jukebox and Bland stepped in my way. “Where you going, kid?”
I couldn’t even look at him. “Jukebox.”
Bland shoved me. “We are not listening to your bullshit. No way. Go home.”
Shadow. He looked up at Bland with a snarl, and Bland threw his cue on the table, unsetting the balls.
“You want an ass whooping, little boy?” Bland said.
Shadow reached for his knife but Rock’s dad stopped him.
“Let the boy play his song. This is still my arcade. These are still my rules,” the man snarled.
Bland stepped away and the high schoolers collectively groaned.
I dropped four quarters. It would get you twelve songs. And I picked them.
Guns N’ Roses.
More Guns N’ Roses.
And one more Guns N’ Roses.
The music started and I walked back to my spot along the wall. They all turned to me when “Night Train” by Guns N’ Roses started, and by the first big pop and the grind of the guitar, they were laughing.
“Look at this fucking kid,” Bland said. “Stared me down. Played metal. Look at that coat. Look at those boots.”
“Little badass, I think,” Rock said.
“Run him off,” a girl said. I won’t even name her. She didn’t stick around long after refusing to give Rock a blow job in the back of the arcade.
“No, we are going to see what else he played. Might be fun,” Trigger said.
Rock turned to me and pointed a thick finger. “You play one shitty song and you’re out.”
By the time we got to my second Ratt song, a new release called “Way Cool Junior,” I had my nickname. The high schoolers put up with me, and every now and then, they gave me a nod. Had I stayed in that town as long as I wanted to, I would have been pulled onto that porch. My coke habit would have started, and I would be a completely different man right now. But I was ripped away from this town I loved, the place I belonged, and I was saved of the worst of the horrors of it.
I never did pick up a habit any worse than alcohol. I got trapped in it a bit in college during Guardian’s War and I am quick to be extra careful with it now, only getting drunk in celebration of an accomplishment, or as a break. I can say that when I was ripped away from this city I was growing to love, I was saved from the grip of cocaine.
When we got to school, I stepped off the bus and saw a clot of girls standing in the cold, waiting. When they saw me, they came at me. X vanished. Girls made him nervous. I tried to get around them, but within a breath they were on me. I tried to keep my head down, and when I did finally look up, I was looking at her.
She had black hair, trying to be curly but not taking it seriously. It was long, almost to her belt, and gleamed like a waxed Camaro. Her skin was pale. Shit, everyone’s skin was pale back then. Winter was well into her abusive cycle and no one had stepped out in front of the sun for what seemed like years. A smattering of shy freckles played themselves out across her cheeks like a constellation, and she had startling blue eyes. I can’t remember her eyes very well. They were blue. They made an impression, but they were either dark blue or crystal. I can’t remember. I remember the smile.
“Joe?” she said. And the other girls giggled. “You over Ruffle yet?”
I wasn’t, but I nodded. Ruffle still plagued my mind. She had been my first girlfriend. The boys still tortured me about losing her, and I was sure that I was never going to have another girlfriend as long as I lived. I had dated the prettiest girl in school, and I had fucked it up.
“Good. You’re over her,” this girl said. Her name was Jazz. She was the kindest, sweetest girl in the entire school and everyone loved her too much to harass. “When can we get started?” she asked. The other girls giggled again. I heard Grr’s name whispered a few times and I looked at Jazz, shocked.
“What?” I stammered.
“Us. The two of us. When can we get started?” she said.
I stammered again and suddenly had to go to the bathroom. Had to regroup. I thumbed at the play button on my Walkman and I stared at her.
“Think about it.” She stroked my face with her fingers and she grinned. As quickly as they surrounded me, they were gone.
I stared after her with my mind whirling out of control. I watched her walk, confident. She was so damn confident. And she disappeared into the school. Before she was gone, she winked at me, and smiled. But it was a different kind of smile than I had ever seen before. This was a victory smile. A cocky smile. A “gotcha” smile that stopped my heart.
I was scared. Scared of Grr. There were rules and this girl had trampled them. Would Grr attack her? Would this cause a war of some kind? I wanted to go straight to Grr. Wanted to ask her what was going on. There had been a breach in protocol. Who was to blame? How could we get around it? Because this was maybe a good thing. Maybe. I had no idea. I was not ready for Jazz.
I walked into the school and saw the gaggle of girls that laughed and chirped enough to tell me Grr was in there. I wanted to talk to her, but there was no way to pull her away and no way to join her.
See, this was a vital time of the day for Grr. She would hold court now. At the big double doors before we were let to our lockers, she would check up on everything, make sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to do. She would lash out. She would build up. She would keep order. And in that group, at the double doors, stood the girls who had been with Jazz.
Grr was being told about the breaking of the rules. Grr was being told about Jazz’s attack on everything Grr had built, and I had no idea what the consequences would be.
Guardian felt danger to a girl, and he rose up, letting us know that if Jazz was attacked, he would protect her, no matter if Grr had done great things for him in the past. Guardian would allow no harm to come to this girl who was suddenly the most important person in the world to him. He was a knight. Now he had a maiden.
But Jazz was a piss poor damsel in distress. She was great at everything else. But terrible at being a victim.
When the doors opened, I made it to my locker as quickly as possible. I switched out my books, dropped off my Walkman, and turned to find Island standing in front of me.
“Jazz, huh?” she said with a snap of her gum. I have never understood how that was done. I can blow a bubble. I can pop a bubble, but Island snapped her gum like Sassy used to in Milwaukee.
“What do you think about her?” I asked, looking around.
“She is too good for you, but yeah, she is great,” Island said.
“Fuck you,” Shadow said, but he believed it, too. “You two friends?”
“She is friends with everybody. Probably the maybe third most popular girl in school. I don’t know. I don’t keep up with trends,” Island said. “Too busy.”
“Busy doing what? What do you do?” I said.
“I keep up with you, Mr. Brown. You’re a full-time job.”
I walked away. I had to find Grr. She was walking the halls, her eyes sweeping, looking for anything out of place. Anyone who needed her help. She was the law. Maybe not. Maybe the overlord. That sounds wrong, too. Let’s say she was the Godfather of the heart. The enforcer of the sixth grade. She was the one everyone looked to, the girl everyone knew to ask if things got weird. That was what I was doing right then.
“Trying it out,” I said.
“Doesn’t work. Don’t say it again. Stick to saying mystical, magical things about girls and yelling at teachers.”
I grinned. “You heard about that?”
“I told everyone. Fuck them. They were shitty to you.” She smiled. “Only I can fuck with you.”
“We have a problem.”
She laughed. “Yeah, I heard. You okay?”
“What do you think of her?”
“She is too good for you. You break her heart, I’m going to cut your nuts off,” Grr said spinning to look at me. “You over Ruffle?”
“Kinda,” I said. “But I don’t know what to do. Do I send X to tell Jazz that I want to send her a letter? Or do I ask her to go with me through you? I am kinda lost here. I don’t want to—”
“Listen, this is Jazz. She does what she wants. She doesn’t play by the rules because she is too sweet to get mad at, and she is too cool to control. Everyone loves her. She can do things how she wants.”
Grr threw her head back and laughed. “Clyde finally found his Bonnie. You two are going to break all the rules, aren’t you?” Grr grabbed my jacket. She curled it in her fist and laughed. “You break her heart like you broke Ruffle’s, and every girl in this school is going to burn you alive. Get it right this time.”
I didn’t. I fucked it up royally. But Jazz knew what to do. She was, after all, the coolest girl in school. And the most loved.