The air was crisp when I walked across the empty lot towards Lincoln’s store. The 11th grade. Boy, was I glad today was over. Friday trig was a ball-buster. My trig teacher, hawk-faced Sully, got pissed at me in trig class, just ’cause I questioned him about his solution to a homework problem. He christened me “Bronco Almon,” more interested in fighting than understanding. School’s a bitch. Life’s a bitch this year.
Ace gave me a nod as I neared the corner store we hung out at. He wore his camel hair v-neck sweater atop his bare skin. His bronze flesh shone the brighter when he smiled, revealing even, straight white teeth.
“A cig.” He extended a hand.
I took the Marlboro pack from my shirt pocket. Gave him one. Put another between my lips. “What’s up, man?”
“Not fucking much. Nobody’s been here all day. Later, my main squeeze. Get some. You?”
“Cooling after school. Old Sully is giving me grief in trig. At home, the old man’s already home. Let something good happen.”
“Don’t plan. Don’t expect. You’ll only be disappointed. Just do.” He admired a long plume of exhaled smoke. “Trig. That’s math shit you’ll never use. Another reason I don’t waste my time at school. I got a deal cooking. That pharmacy a block south of the new parkway. I’ll make more from that than you’ll make through Christmas.”
I shook my head. “I like the math stuff. Sure, I figure out the number of roof tiles Josh needs when he asks me, but that’s not interest. I like to figure out how things are tied together. How they all link up.”
Ace blew a smoke ring at me. “Figure in how you’re going to convert smoke into money, then I’ll call you smart, otherwise you are just wasting time. You should be thinking money.”
No use getting mad about his grief. Money wasn’t a measure for me. “Hey, you heard the new Beatles, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’?”
“Yeah,” he smiled wickedly, “my night’s going to be hard while yours is soft.”
“Maybe something will come up.” I hoped.
Ace laughed. He pulled a cellophane envelope from his front pocket. “Here’s something to make things sweeter. Two for two bucks.”
“No, not me. I don’t want to mess up my mind.”
Ace shrugged. “This is a drag. I’ll be back.” He wandered to the alley behind the corner store.
I was trapped, frozen with my indecision. Half of me wanted to go home to relax, the other half knew my father would rope me into chores and my mother would pester me about school.
It wasn’t long until Joey walked out of Lincoln’s with a pack of chocolate Tastykakes. He offered me one. I handed him my soda.
“You know,” Joey said, “orange Nehi don’t go with chocolate.”
“Then don’t drink it.” I grabbed my soda back.
He let my anger slide off. Such an easy-going likeable guy. “What you doing tonight?” he asked.
Ace wandered back from the alley, his eyes heavy-lidded.
I looked over his shoulders to the person walking up the side street. “Oh.”
Joey whipped his head around. Ace turned slowly. BarbAnn, Rusty’s sister, hurried up the street toward the grocery store. Smooth, graceful motions. Hard to believe such grace in Rusty’s family.
She waved and said, “Hello, fellows” as she reached the door.
“Stop and talk a while,” Ace suggested.
“Sorry, but I can’t.” She pulled a sheet of paper from the back pocket of her tight jeans. “Got a list.”
“Then later?” I asked.
“No.” Her thick brown hair shimmered in the late October sun. “Blaine. You know him, don’t you, Joey?”
“That good-looking rich kid that sits next to you in home room?”
“Yes, he’s taking me to see Goldfinger at the Peak Theatre, out Riser Road, miles from here.”
Ace flipped his cigarette into the street. “Aren’t you fancy. Too cool to be seen with these scruffy guys.” He nodded his head towards Joey and me. The bastard, trying to make himself separate.
BarbAnn smiled and went into the store, leaving me to puzzle out the truth of what was said and thought.
A cherry red Chevy Impala squealed to a stop at the curb in front of us. A 409, indicated above crossed flags in the metallic V. I recognized Paul at the wheel, but the car was new to me.
Rusty hung his head out the shotgun window. “Hey, fuckers. What’s up?”
Ace shot Rusty a ferocious look.”Not much,” he said. “Just some sleazy bastards bothering me from a car they wish gave them class.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, Ace,” Rusty said quickly. “Honest. Just the high school drips, next to you.”
Ace humphed and threw a dismissal wave at the car.
Rusty turned, said something to Paul, then turned back to us. “We’re gonna have a wild time. Wanna come, Ace?” Rusty curried favor with Ace.
“Not a chance in hell.” Ace undulated his hands from high to low, in a exaggerated form of a shapely woman. “I got a real happening tonight.”
“How about you, Joey? Up for a wild time?”
Without hesitation, he jumped in the backseat of the hot car behind the driver.
“Chet? You can come unless you’re too afraid.”
I had to decide quickly. Two weeks ago we’d barely escaped when the cops raided the party out Riser Road. Since then, I stayed in, most nights, studying. But my old man telling me what to do and the old lady telling me what not to do put me in a straitjacket.
“Yeah, I’m coming.” I walked around to the other side. “Where the hell are we going, guys?”
Paul wasn’t a talker. He was intent on driving. Rusty took a husky pull from a green pony bottle, draining it. He forced a belch, then laughed. “How much money you guys got?”
Joey pulled out five bucks. Rusty grabbed it. “A start. And you,” he glared at me.
I leaned forward, slipped two bucks from my front pocket.
Joey grabbed two beers from the large bag between Rusty and Paul and handed me one.
Rusty tried to grab my arm, but missed. “One dollar. One beer. Better hope we come across some more money.”
“I ain’t never seen this car before, Paul.”
Paul gave me a hard stare. “Don’t worry about it, Chet.”
“Yeah,” Rusty said. “It’s his cousin’s.”
We turned onto Greenwood Parkway, the new four-lane highway that made the drive from city streets to country roads, a quick trip. I nursed my beer, listening to “Can’t Buy Me Love”, trying to ignore Rusty and Joey’s aimless chatter about easy wealth with no effort. I wonder if it was true that drinking a beer through a straw would get you high. ‘Cause two beers wasn’t going to do it for me.
Paul gunned the engine, when he turned into the suburban neighborhood, squealing tires. Although we wandered the streets for a half-an-hour, we didn’t see any parties to crash.
“Bet I can hit that sign,” Joey called. He chucked his empty at a stop sign. It crashed onto the concrete driveway beyond, but he hooted like he’d hit the target.
Soon we were heading back to Patapsco with the rest of traffic on Greenwood Parkway, out of beer.
“It’s fucking unfair.” Rusty got on his knees and half-stood, poking out the window. “Looky at all the rich bastards in other cars. They ain’t no better than us. They don’t deserve more than us.”
Joey pushed me towards Rusty. “Pull him in, before we get pulled over.”
I tugged Rusty’s shirt. “Come on in, guy.”
“Get the fuck off me or I’ll throw you out.” Despite his words, he plopped back into his seat. “Let’s get a couple more six packs.”
“How?” Joey asked. “You got money hidden?”
“Just never you mind, backseat. Paul, speed up so I can see in that car.”
Paul pulled alongside at the next light.
There were two high school couples dressed up in a fancy black sedan. “Wasn’t that the guy who sat in the front lunch table?” Joey asked.
Rusty ignored Joey. The light changed. “Get next to them at the next light,” he told Paul.
Another Beatles song came on. “Tell Me Why.” Rusty added the phrase, “I’m Rich and You’re Not” as his eyes bore at the other car.
The traffic stopped at the next red light. Rusty jumped out of the car. He ran to the black sedan, yanked the back door open, and yelled something into the car.
The guy shook his head, no. Then Rusty screamed at the girl next to the boy loud enough that I heard it. “That’s the kind of gutless bastard you go out with.”
He grabbed the boy by his jacket lapels.
Out the window, I screamed, “What are you doing? You crazy?”
He turned his head and said fiercely to me, “Give me any shit and you’re next.”
I shut up.
Rusty pulled the guy out, who fell prone on the ground. He kicked him in the stomach a few times, flipped him over, and ripped the fellow’s wallet from his pants pocket.
The sedan driver opened his door but Rusty kicked it shut. The traffic light turned green. There were screams in the air.
Joey started to get out, maybe to help Rusty, but Paul yelled, “I’m going. Get in or get left behind.”
Rusty jumped back in. Paul squealed tires around the turn.
Joey hung on to the door until the car straightened out and then slammed it shut.
“What the fuck!” I said.
“Chicken shit.” He opened the wallet and extracted some bills. “I told you I was getting more beer. Now we got money.”
I looked back through the rear window. No cars chasing us. On the radio, the Beatles sang “I Should Have Known Better.” Although it was about a love going wrong, the catch phrase pervaded my view of life. What did my gutless reaction to Rusty’s violence tell me about myself?
Lincoln’s corner was as far as I wandered from the house for a good long time after that Friday wilding. I had to stop there after school, else I wouldn’t have anyone to talk with except those in my head. Ace was always there, since he had quit school totally. I gave Rusty a wide berth when he was there. He wouldn’t do anything in front of Ace, who kept him down as a matter of habit.
BarbAnn told us that “Goldfinger” wasn’t all that great, which made it easy to learn what her date wanted and what she was willing to give.
I wanted to have something like that with a nice girl, but with no car, nothing to offer, that would have to wait. I would have to work to make my prospects.
Hanging with my new best friend, Balancing Chemical Equations, a large, green text that comforted me with the self-knowledge that in the 8th grade it was Greek to me and now it was second nature. But I was lonesome. Under my father’s rules and my mother’s no-nos, I didn’t get excitement, though I didn’t loathe myself either.
Finally WCAO played the song I’d be waiting for, “A Hard Day’s Night.”
No way I would associate with Rusty after that night.
I learned two things from the Wilding. The bad was that I froze when confronted with bad. I just let it happen. The good was I started making plans rather than just waiting for whatever occurred.
I’d rather be lonely studying on the weekend than stealing my excitement from others.
Image in low resolution of A Hard Day’s Night album cover under fair use clause of copyright law