GRANTED I WAS still only wading in the shallows of sobriety, just barely acceding to lucidity, there were probably weightier, more penitent, certainly more obvious things I should have been contemplating than my shoes as I spent the first morning of junior-year summer staring down at the inherently tarnished looking, pale-yellow tiles of a North Portland police precinct.
Dodgy was a lenient description of the place. Beneath the overpoweringly floral cleaning solution that had apparently just been used, wafted the humid staleness of urine and human desperation. Jail smelled like remorse and anger, and the body odor of whomever occupied the cell before me. I felt dirty even though I wasn’t—spoiled simply by the purpose and past of the place I was in. I should have felt guilty and stupid, but didn’t.
Drunk driving—if you could call rolling five feet into a hotel room’s brick exterior that—was above and beyond any trouble I’d yet been in. Poor grades, caught smoking, found with empty beer cans, the list of petty infractions was long and dishonorable. D.U.I. was going to be the superlative of corruption crowning it. I was ready for big suffering, heaps upon heaps of admonition and attrition.
These were the things that should have been ricocheting around in my slightly inebriated skull—regret, recompense, probably some terror. But none of that surfaced. The environment made me nervous. Thank goodness I was alone, without the company of a hardened criminal to petrify me. Dehydrated, throbbing all over from a debauched night of celebration, harshly judgmental florescent lights searing me with indictment, the most serious thing that crossed my mind was the damage done to my immaculate truck. Even that, only in brief.
I was so far separated from any sense of maturity and responsibility that I never even left the party that I was physically removed from by the police. I just hung my head and thought about the previous hours as if they were still occurring, wrapped up in myself. And since I was more or less forced by the nature of things to hang my head—because I was, after all, in jail, and I knew how and when to act appropriately for those in positions of authority (my greatest teenage weapon, and the most frequent cause of self-inflicted hardship)—and the deceptively clean floor was so uninteresting, I thought for several hours, while awaiting my parent’s arrival, about whether or not I should lace my shoes properly.
YOU SEE, around the turn of the century, it was becoming increasingly acceptable for white kids to dress in more urban fashions—to dress like black guys. But we had a tendency to over-exaggerate the trends. Big shirts, usually expensive and nearly washed in cologne; really, very baggy pants, always riding as low as functionally possible, preferably khaki, if not denim; and Timbos—leather Timberland oxfords—comprised the uniform of popular white boys in the early 2000s. The shoes were perhaps the most important constituent of the entire fashion puzzle. Boots and walking shoes worked, too. But, regardless of the style, they had to be Timberlands. No substitutes.
The problem with Timbos—especially the oxfords—was that they sometimes looked awkward in the summer, when wearing shorts was routine. Dress shoes, and shorts is kind of like wearing a tie and short-sleeves. Either shit or get off the pot. But the real problem came from the laces.
Revealing those bows with a pair of khaki cargo shorts effected the look of an early nineteenth century newsy. Anyway, that’s how I saw it when I looked in the mirror. No matter what I really looked like, what I saw was adolescent with his shorts pulled high around a button-up white shirt, browning slightly with dust and sweat, and held by leather accented suspenders. A derby hat perched atop a freckled face with an old-timey mischievous air, and denuded kneecaps which were red and knobby. Supporting this archetype of bygone boyhood was a set of leather oxfords, laced up neatly, a few inches of white sock laying the perfect background for two loopy and supple bows. In reality, I was a six-foot three inch, two hundred and ten pound white guy with sloppy shorts, too-long hair, and a black hoody. But those damned shoelaces really skewed my self-esteem. If there were just some way to solve the problem of those assertive laces.
Fortunately, some ingenious fashion guru somewhere had come up with a solution that was slowly bowling its way over the shorts and Timbos wearing community. What you did was loosen the laces to such a degree that there was nothing left to tie. Just enough lace was left at that point to make a tiny knot in the end, right at the plastic tip. Taking that last precautionary measure was, in fact, the real fashion genius of it all. No doubt it started as lazy solution for tying and untying the shoes—so that they could be effortlessly stepped in and out of, literally. But it eliminated the chief flaw of the Timbos-shorts combination. It was always those damn bows that nested on top of the shoes like mocking Mickey Mouse ears, emasculating even the hardest of thugs with their stiff, looping curls. The shoes would just barely stay on when tied this way, but the laces were virtually invisible.
AS I PREPARED for the festivities of the last day of school, the triumphal rites of becoming a senior, I deliberated over the vestments that all would see me donning. It was best to look well put together, but not troublingly so—like you just happened to throw on what was nearby and comfortable, and it just happened to culminate in the most recently trending fad. The look had to be perfect but effortless, like someone who is really funny without trying. So I found the most worn-in pair of khaki cargo shorts—but not the threadbare ones. Worn at my waist, they would have covered about half my kneecap, but that’s not where I put them. I wore them about halfway between my waist and the beginning of my legs. That way, they fell about three inches below my knees. My mom said wearing them that way made me look shorter. I didn’t think so.
My shirt was less important, cloaked by the hoodie, but nevertheless, care had to be taken to ensure its cohesion. It was all white, Polo brand, too big, and too expensive. It was also the canvas onto which I painted the cologne. Again, there was a method at work here. I didn’t want to reek of the stuff. That is a telltale sign of poor hygiene. But, when people were close, I wanted to be noticeably pleasant smelling. Dousing the Polo shirt in Polo cologne, then flapping it vigorously, like an old housewife beating the crud from a carpet, brought about the subdued prominence of scent that I needed. But the shirt alone would have still been too strong if not under the hoodie. If I were to have gone hoodieless, I would’ve seasoned my undershirt with cologne and allowed the t-shirt to run barrier. But the black hoodie was my trademark, so even though it was July, and hot, the importance of the occasion required it.
Last came the baseball cap. This wasn’t a particularly urban feature of the overall garb, but it was my touch, and it was going well. The efficacy hinged entirely on the stratagem of hat choice. In my thinking, it could bear no logos, no messages, nothing at all to distinguish itself from the rest of the duds. It had merely to be an accent—a lid, if you will, on the entire package. I had a black one, totally black, and also a khaki one. I liked khaki, and I chose that hat for the day.
Given I was so hopelessly pale and white, I can safely assume, now, that my manner seemed affected. But no one ever told me at the time, so I figured that I was a success. In hindsight, as heartless as we know high-school kids to be—that they would say and do virtually anything to position themselves above one another, no matter how cruel, dishonest, or disparaging—coupled with the fact that no one ever said I looked ridiculous, maybe meant that I didn’t. But still I’m doubtful.
I walked into the Timbos and was finished. But only for an instant before a seed of self-doubt germinated and began to bloom. As I conducted a merciless audit of the person in the mirror, scanning from the top down, the glaring insufficiency was immediately clear. No matter where on my body I looked, the laces of those Timbos, the convoluted knots stretching out into dramatically arching curlicues, hung from the sides of my feet like floppy ears that had outgrown the dogs from which they emerged—clumsy and dopey.
Just a tiny grain of vacillation, less than a second’s thought, wicked its way so rapidly through me that the confident man I’d constructed fractured instantly under nothing more than a needle-prick of regard for my shoelaces. I would come to learn over many years that obsessive-compulsive disorder was the sower of these seeds, and that they were inearthed in very fertile soil. But it was too early then, when the grip of anxiety was something thought to be normal in the teenage male species, ever concerned with self, ever vain and desirous of recognition. It would be years still before such swift, intense, and seemingly unaccountable manifestations of worry and self-consciousness would become abnormal. That’s normal, I heard, all part of growing up.
I sat back on the futon which was my bed and couch. Its wooden frame suffered my weight with little splitting creaks and groans. My room was still a boy’s room. There were old football trophies from childhood on prominent display. Remote control monster trucks and Hotwheel cars parked atop my light pine dresser. They hadn’t been played with in years, but hadn’t been put away yet, either. Not on the bed, but near it, was a large, spherical cow, stuffed with hard foam, which I’d won from Circus Circus Reno while vacationing with my grandparents years ago. We had gone to Disneyland as well.
By the time I had loosened the laces of my shoes enough to leave only the plastic tips jutting from the top holes, they were so roomy that I had to curl my toes upward when I walked just to keep them on. I made a few passes around the room, watching myself closely in the full-length mirror to ensure it didn’t leave me with a funny gait. Squaring up with my reflection again, I felt better. But the trifling mote of insecurity never quite dislodged. All I could do was pile up reassurance enough to cover bury for a while. It was an easy thing to do in high school. No one was too real.
THE LAST DAY of school was glorious. It was a day of planning, corresponding. Whose house is empty? Who can get liquor? Who has weed? I have a twelve pack in my trunk. I have a bong in mine. The sun was effulgent and amicable in the tropical-blue sky. Clouds ambling periodically through it cast little patches of shade that travelled across the school’s warm, concrete courtyard.
Ben, one of my current consorts, made mention of a clandestine hotel room, procured on the sly with false identification. At the time it was merely rumor, but an exceedingly attractive prospect nonetheless, and worthy of investigation. Ben was rail thin, extremely polite, almost always stoned. He had reddish hair and freckles that girls and parents liked for different reasons. I liked Ben because he enabled my delinquency without appearing to be a bad influence. Teachers, parents, really any authorities, never suspected slight, smiling Ben Wiltgen of wrongdoing. He also had a way with the opposite sex that I sorely lacked. I was uncomfortable and nervous; he had new girlfriends all the time. Knowing from experience that his talents would not rub off on me, I hoped that hanging out with him would at least help keep up the appearance that I wasn’t a total sexual incompetent.
But Ben wasn’t always the most trustworthy, so when he spoke of the alleged hotel party, I had to put out the feelers for myself. There were a select few with fake I.D.s, me being one of them, and we’d built a small and exclusive network—something like a supply chain for desperate classmates in need of adult commodities. We kept our names on the low, so as not to be hounded at all times, but we communicated with each other freely. I’d heard through this coterie nothing of a hotel reservation. It seemed impossible, even dubious, that outside of our co-op the acquisition of a room could take place. But it seemed wonderful also, brilliant even if unlikely. So hope and uncertainty worked well to sustain the excitement as well as propel the word.
In the hall, I ran across Hasani, who affirmed the rumor independent of the sources I had. Hasini, unlike Ben, would not lie. His mother was a grade-school teacher at Saint Ignacious. She was stern and reverent. Hasani’s father was a hard-nosed minister who’d retired from the Canadian pro football league. Old enough to be Hasani’s grandfather, and the darkest black man I’d ever known, he smelled always of pipe tobacco and commanded the utmost respect. His name was Fred. Fred was also the defensive coach of our football team.
Hasani was thus the most honest and respectful friend I had. Despite his natural teenage explorations, he was probably the most innocent among us. His corroboration of the story was indeed a promising sign.
Darrin, my gigantic, boisterous cohort (together we were known as the Twin Towers), had no knowledge whatsoever of the supposed accommodations. He did, however, give the inside scoop on a certain cooler of Jungle Juice he’d been preparing. Jungle Juice, for those in the dark, is a concoction of various hard liquors, Bacardi 151 however being always imperative. Mixed in a cooler with a selection of cut fruit and any generic fruit punch, it is left for a minimum of forty-eight hours to “cure.” But longer than that was better. When the fruit itself began to ferment, you were on to something good. Darrin’s disclosure was exciting news. Also encouraging was that Darrin had not place as of yet to house his brew. Even if the hotel rumor disintegrated, the fact was that Darrin’s supply was essentially up for grabs. It could now be tracked and hunted down, wherever he took it.
Darrin was an immense, fearless, and fiercely loyal friend. We conducted ourselves like brothers more often than not, and there was no lack of competitive tension driving us. We sparred with humor, endearing insults, and alcohol, so together we were the lifeblood of any party. Darrin lit something in me that was otherwise quelled, a roaring lust for attention and acceptance that only smoldered without his presence.
His tremendous size was evenly matched by his wit. Because I prided myself on these very things, there was an endlessly working engine of competitiveness that drove our relationship. Amazingly, it never got out of hand. It never even became unhealthy. Darrin and I kept each other in the moment, always. We propelled each other to the top of our games, so that in tacitly striving to outdo one another, we seemed perpetually on point to the larger community of friends we occupied.
I held my liquor pretty well, so Darrin made every effort to keep up and surpass my abilities. And he was no slacker. I think we drank together so often because we were afraid that if we did so separate from each other the one would achieve renown for some alcoholic feat the other was fully capable of also. Darrin was a great and brutal football player. Though I played for many years more than him, his natural talent surpassed my own, and I was threatened a bit by his ability. I tried always to hit a little harder than him, to run a little faster.
Our coaches sensed the rivalry like animals do fear. They sprang on it and exploited for everything it was worth, playing it in the most cogitated and conspicuous ways. Neither of us fell into the ruse. We never let our chummy combativeness get the better of us, though we never tried not to either. High school boys are utterly defenseless to the evils of jealousy and machoism, we were ever tearing up and down the hormonal alpha chain. But, somehow, by the grace of god-knows-who, Darrin and I never sunk into that bog. He was the only friend who was never, at some point, an enemy.
He had a pair of jet-black suede Timberland boots, whose dark luster mimicked his obsidian hair. They were a size twelve, the same as mine. They weren’t as comfortable as my oxfords, but their thick, heavy soles were empowering, stomping the old, hardwood boards of the early century houses our friends lived in, commanding respect. I liked wearing them. Darrin thought the oxfords were suave, regal. He’d tell me that when he wore them he felt like the captain of a yacht. I’d suggest that he put the bong down for a while.
MY CURRENT CIRCLE of friends quickly converged on that last day, generally renouncing our schedules to make sure we weren’t separated. This added a disorderly layer of opulence to the close of our year. The sheer novelty of being in completely different classes during completely different times, not to mention that the classes were populated by no one but friends, accentuated the careless rebellion that smoked through the halls already. Ben, the prophet of the fabled hotel, had weight training during second period. Darrin, Hasani, Sean, and I chose this as our rendezvous. The instructor, Mr. Scott, was also the “sports trainer” (the one who wrapped athletic tape around our ankles so they wouldn’t snap on the turf).
Justin Scott wrestled for the Portland Professional Wrestling League under the name “The Greek.” He wasn’t much different than a student himself, and he obviously enjoyed our distracting presence in his class. He prodded us about our plans, rough-housed and played instead of ejecting us from his class. Our experience was, after all, not so distant in his past, and Mr. Scott watched us with a smile of fresh nostalgia.
Weight training class was cultish. The weight room was a small, oublietteish box below the girls’ locker room. All the weights were donated and old. There were ancient bodybuilding contraptions that seemed quite dangerous. One of them, a helmet and mask of leather straps and buckles, was designed to strengthen neck muscles. A wearer would cinch it tightly, attach the appropriate plate to the chain hanging from its top, and slowly rotate there head in a circular fashion, repeatedly. I used it once, only once, and my neck has never been the same. I saw kids leave behind that torture device unable to move certain parts of their body, far from their neck, for days on end.
For a time, I wandered around the poorly-lit room draped in the leather gadget, trying to act creepy. No one seemed to care much as I crept up and ogled them. No doubt they saw me coming. Every wall in the weight room was mirrored, floor to ceiling. It was impossible not to be narcissistic. As I marauded around, I checked myself out almost continually. I noticed everyone’s gym shoes, and then my Timbos. They looked odd in the athletic milieu, contextually awkward. I had no other shoes, and no one else cared, but it made me very mindful of my shoes. It was hard to put them out of focus, and I became aware that my ankle-sock were slipping down my heels ever-so slowly. I felt the tiny ridges at the socks’ cuffs interrupting the smooth bottoms of the shoes, as if a little twig had worked into them. Without removing the Timbos, I dug down and pulled the socks up again, a bit too high to compensate.
SCHOLASTICS WERE NOWHERE to be found. Books were in lockers or at home, some were in the trashcans at the intersection of the halls. Kids could be seen at those trashcans joyously—fiendishly, some—opening their three-ring binders and letting free the past year’s labors into the dark and rotten abyss below the half spherical, swinging lids. They were voiceless, brown plastic gobblers of stress, connoisseurs of useless arithmetic and misinterpreted social studies, bon vivants of academic drudgery and travail. I saw students heave entire backpacks into their hungry jaws, their lips swinging round and round, as the freemen ran, laughing madly down the hall.
After Ben’s weight training class, we joined Darrin for stained glass. Perfect quiet, contemplative solitude. The teacher, Mr. Lorenze, was rarely to be found in the room, which had been relocated the previous year to the school’s dark and claustrophobic basement. It was churchlike in its subjugation of sound and light. Because the room was so small, the teacher so consistently absent, the class was limited to only a few students. Now, instead of six, there were eleven students crammed in the catacomb. And, aside from Darrin, they were all surprisingly serious about their work, which I though they should have finished long before the last day. Darrin had just recently finished his, an oddly orange-brown football, shaped more like an egg and far too large.
Beth Plass, honor-student athlete, was putting the final patina on a superbly done bust of the Virgin Mary. Her golden halo emanated lambently from the perfectly chosen auburn waves of opaque glass that made her hair. Her shoulders were heavy slopes of profound, oceanic cobalt that cooled and scattered the incoming light like a spring breeze cutting through a patch of sun. Beth was clearly shaken by our raucous presence and tasteless conversation. She packed herself, and her work, into the farthest corner of the tomblike basement and diligently painted and rinsed, painted and rinsed. Her work was gorgeous, radiant. I remember feeling unworthy of its presence, but that may be only in hindsight.
I took stained glass the year before. My father was a glazier, and I had been exposed to the trade and its nuances early on. I was so proficient with a glass cutter by high school, that Mr. Lorenze seemed at times resentful. He used to tell me that he didn’t care if my way was the right way, he was the teacher, so his way the rule. I never did it his way. Although my project lacked all of the gravity and beauty of Beth Plass’s, it was a technical masterpiece, for which I received a B. The design was simple: the logo from Lowrider Magazine, a sort of smiley face, white, with stereotypical (probably considered racist now) characteristics of Latino culture. Large, black, blocky sunglasses below a tilted golden fedora with a black trim-ribbon and black stitching. Below these, a downturned, long mustache, almost a fu-manchu. Behind the figure waved the edges of the Mexican flag.
It’s a mystery why I chose the subject, but the work was, and is, impeccable. Sixteen years later, I see it every day break the afternoon sun into red, green, and yellow patches across my kitchen. Part of the lower red flag panel has cracked from a few moves, but I choose not to fix it. Let it weather as it may.
FIFTH PERIOD WAS a brief but failed survey of the Spanish language, taught my Mrs. Rosa Plachta, a woman much too liberal and eccentric to command any shred of initiative on my part. Whenever I smell patchouli, I see her oversize, garish glasses, her tawny hemp vest and worn out salmon bell-bottoms. Mrs. Plachta spoke from deep within her chest, every word falling heavily, like a thick, breathy blanket over my ears. Without seeing or smelling her, one would find her sultry. But she was just too careless herself to ignite any motivation from her students. We were there, in her class, and for that she commended us. But she wasn’t opposed to giving Fs.
Spanish was a class I miscarried from the outset, and so never once exerted in. That, along with being the last period of the day—the block of time most well-suited to planning extracurriculars—meant that Spanish was my unfettered social hour.
By the time I was in high school, I was no stranger to scholastic failure. Because my marks were so poor, the admissions staff at Central Catholic subjected me to a special round of standardized testing just to get in. I suppose they wanted to make sure I wasn’t developmentally disabled, thus wasting their time and my parents’ money. Apparently the results were very much to the contrary. They said I had an extremely “broad cognitive learning base.” I was one of those kids who was so smart that I failed because I was bored. I wasn’t bored; I was having a blast aborting my education so utterly.
Mrs. Plachta didn’t notice the extra student in her class that day. She didn’t growl like the other teachers as we huddled in the back of the room hashing over the final details of our soon-to-commence evening. I was talking about going to the Laurelhurst Market to get a few cases of beer (the clerk there new my ID was fake, but didn’t care, or ever ask to see it), when Ben Hass, a Ben not within our circle, turned and asked where we planned to take our supply of beer.
Ben Hass was far removed from our society. A good student, not great; played baseball, not too well; and never—ever—at any of our parties, or anyone’s for that matter, Hass was like a stock character in our immense drama, one of the people on the crowded sidewalk in the panoramic shot of the big city. Filler. So when he turned his chair full round to ask us of our accommodations, we cold-shouldered him. I told him, rather tersely, that we had a few places in mind. I lied.
None of us, not Darrin, Hasani, Ben Wiltgen, or myself, caught the scent of intrigue and deviousness that Hass imbued into his meager voice. But he didn’t allow us to miss his hint.
“I might have a place,” he said through a shyly slanted grin.
Then it was revealed, the whole rumored plot, in the corner of Mrs. Plachta’s fifth period Spanish class. I sat and listened to it all, so excited that I began picking and peeling thick strips of paint from the old radiator grill behind me, almost without realizing it, leaving a pile of leaden confetti on the floor below. Hasani shifted around in his chair like a kid waiting for the bathroom.
Hass’s brother, on vacation from Oregon State University, had absconded his father’s credit card for a night. Since he was his father’s namesake, the hotel staff never suspected a thing. In another wave of brilliance, he used the card only to satisfy the security deposit requirement. That way, Hass’s dad would never see a single charge, unless something went awry and the rooms were damaged, which was inconceivable.
Rooms. Plural. Hass’s brother rented four, two upper, two lower. He even told the staff—his confidence bewildered me—that he planned on throwing a small party, but nothing would be amiss. The Red Lion was apparently fine with it. And so Ben Hass was quickly and shamelessly adopted into our syndicate like he’d always been a part.
Why Hass’s brother decided to bestow this wonderful thing to his younger, obviously unpopular sibling remains a mystery. It wasn’t my place to figure that out. My place was in that hotel, with a bottle, a can, a cup, whatever held alcohol in enough quantity to sate my thirst, wrapped up lovingly in my hand—maybe both hands.
NO BELLS MARKED the end of my day. Or at least I wasn’t around to hear them. Hasani—ever innocent, yet ever instigating—supplanted the idea early on that the last period of the day was for chumps. Not to mention, once we figured out that the hotel allegation was indeed concordant with fact, no thickness of brick, no captivating final lecture on antebellum American literature, no hardened gaze of a discontented teacher could bridle our fervid need to plan the mayhem.
Hasani’s house was close to campus, and neither of his parent were expected until well into the evening, so it was decided that we’d reconvene there. Both Bens were sitting on the trunk lid of a red Honda CRX in Hasani’s driveway when we arrived. It took us a bit longer than we’d thought to hunt down enough marijuana to last through the night. And of course we had to sample it on the way. When we opened the doors of my restored burgundy pick-up, the smoke rolled from it like a velvety carpet, settling weightily to Hasani’s gravel driveway and dematerializing below our feet.
In 1976 the truck was nothing special. In 1999 it was coolest vehicle at Central Catholic High. My father and I doctored it from rusted juggernaut to sinister, low-riding tire burner. We overhauled the 350ci engine all the way to the crank, then capped it with as much chrome and polished steal as possible. I spent months sanding its smooth body finely, and days coating it with layer over layer of red so deep and dark that I used to get lost in it. You could plunge into that paint as if it were a lake of viscous, crimson syrup. It flowed like blood from the hood to the tailgate, liquid and succulent.
And it was loud. Two twelve inch woofers compressed the air inside the cab, capable of serious auditory damage. Two three inch chrome tips expelled wasted air from under the rear bumper, snarling gutturally as the oversized camshaft churned and hurled within its heart. It was so low to the ground that it was inconvenient, causing me to enter driveways and mount speedbumps at obnoxious angles. Under a heavy load, the front cross-member would knock the plastic reflectors from the concrete on the freeway. Its windows were tinted nearly black, but they were rarely up.
By the time we were climbing the stoop to Hasani’s door, two more cars rolled into the driveway, crumbling the tiny rocks below their tires. It was well before three o’clock, and I could already smell beer and liquor on a few of my friends. I thought nothing less of them. Perhaps, more. In those days, for me anyhow, alcohol was something of a merit badge. The more you could drink, the more often you drank, the harder the stuff you imbibed, the bigger you were in my eyes. Naturally, I strove for greatness. And I wasn’t alone in this thinking. We all took pride in this particular brand of delinquency. Unless I misunderstand terribly, a strong lust for things alcoholic is a general endowment of the high school mind.
WE WERE WELL-INTENTIONED enough, at least, to designate a driver or two for the night. But we missed the mark completely in the choices we made. Those with the most respectable transportation were nominated. Of course I was first to be mentioned. As I would rather have been seen in my truck than anyone else’s insufficient ride, I put up no contest. Pledging sobriety in what was, at the time, the utmost sincerity, I acquiesced only because I knew I could smoke as much weed as I wanted—even if it meant depleting someone else’s share. After all, they had to pay for my sacrifice somehow, and that day called for holiday fares.
So I sat, completely stoned, in Hasani’s basement, the shards of summer light slicing from a few windows through the uncirculated air and illuminating whole galaxies of particulates, and watched half-jealously as my friends began priming for the night. Darrin grabbed a pool cue and rolled it across the mangy, unkempt felt table, checking its plumb like it mattered. Then he racked the balls out of order, and lifted the triangle carefully. The formation of balls loosened instantly and one rolled and inch or two from it place at the tip. I slid it back in place, pressing it into the giving fabric so that it might sit still.
Darrin hauled his gigantic frame backward, and in one smooth and rapid motion sent the cue driving violently toward the expectant rank of colored balls. With a crack they scattered like shrapnel, careening wildly and banking off one another. Not one found a pocket. He then circled the table, sinking ball after ball with similar zeal until none were left and let the cue drop carelessly on the table. A little explosion of blue chalk alighted from its tip and left a perfect check-mark in the green. Ben Hass challenged Darrin to a real game; he declined, laughing as if the proposition were ridiculous.
Sean, who’d been silently nursing a tall can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, invited me out for a smoke, and I obliged. It was dry and warm. Hasani’s grass was already brittle, and as we walked across the lawn our feet kicked up clouds of dust. Much of the time, Sean went sockless in cheap flip-flops. Around the beginning of summer, when the weather became a bit more stable, they would pop up on spinning wire racks at dollar stores and supermarkets, their soles nothing but Styrofoam pads cut with foot-shaped dies. Those were the ones he liked most. He’d wear them until the ground all but completely chewed the heels, then he’d throw them out and buy another pair for a few dollars.
In the bright sun, I could see Sean’s feet were weathered and dingy. Not that he was unclean, just that the balls of his feet and his heels had been exposed to the elements for longer than most. They looked tough and calloused. Sean silently rejected Timbos, had no use for Polo shirts and cologne. He often looked, excepting his footwear, as though he’d just left a basketball game. Something of a non-conformist, Sean never swung with the drift of the rest. He was driven by his own propensities. And I admired that, even envied it. How much nicer it must have been, steering through those pitching years—swerving and over-correcting, disconcertedly slapping the throttle and jarring the brakes—without always chasing the favor of others. Holding only one’s own lines, because that is exhausting enough.
By junior year, Sean’s northern Italian heritage had bloomed into a dark, full beard. Because he could, he cultivated it into a mass that was entirely asynchronous with early teendom. His vast, barren forehead gave the impression of a receding hairline. All of this meant Sean could easily pass for a man of thirty years. Beer was often easy for him to acquire without a fake I.D., but he had one anyway, just for the fun of it, I suppose. Casper Blackman was his alias, and his own address was used for easy recall if he were put on the spot.
As we walked through the dry, prickly yard, tiny blades of dead grass snapped and burst into the air around my feet. Some of them landed in the gaping cavities surrounding my ankles. After a few steps, they had clawed their way to my soles, piercing my cotton socks, stabbing at my bare skin. Finding the nearest chair, I pulled off the Timbos one at a time and shook them, vigorously beating the leather against the hot aluminum chair leg. A few barely visible motes fell to the ground—the tiny spears in my socks were more stubborn. Resting my bare feet on the tops of my shoes, I turned the socks inside out, ran my fingers over the soft cotton until I felt the sharp slivers, and carefully pulled them from the weave. This gave me a chance also to readjust the socks, which had long since left my ankles, and seemed to have rotated around my foot as I travelled in the loosely fitting shoes. Tying them up would have solved this problem, but I was willing to deal with it. Finally sitting back into the chair, I pulled the Parliament Lights from my cargo pocket and offered one to Sean. He’d already gotten his own.
The plastic webbing of the lawn chair had been warming in the generous sun, and it gave luxuriously under my weight. Gentle and amicable warmth soaked into my legs and face, while delicate screws of smoke ascended from the smoldering tip of my cigarette, garnishing the pleasantness of the moment. Sean and I sat momentarily in silence. Every sip of Pabst that he enjoyed cruised its way audibly to me, amplifying my thirst for alcohol just as it sated his. My fingers unconsciously fondled the Zig-Zag rolling papers through the thin veil of khaki that hid them. Unable to allay the temptation—unwilling even to try—I began rolling a sizable joint. Piecing the sticky green buds into manageable bits. Packing them just so into the crisp valley of paper—glue-side farthest from me—tediously distributing the herb so that, when realized, the joint would be moderately conical, pirouetting the entire operation between the thumb and forefinger of both hands, rocking it back and forth gently like a patient mother swaying her cradled child. Masterful, indeed.
Then Darrin burst through the screen door, obliterating my serenity with an enthusiastic slap to the back of my neck. Coming from behind, he hadn’t seen that I was involved in an important and sensitive enterprise. Half a gram of shorn and crumbled pot detonated into the air before me, and I watched as the little bits of precious material bounded and hurtled through space. Something beautiful and devastating unfolded before me in slow motion. All those tiny pieces—exquisite, hand-picked goodness on full display—cascading to the ground like a lush, nourishing rain, disappearing into the Saharan turf at my feet. Darrin apologized, but the damage was done. I wasn’t agry; there was more than enough weed. I was disappointed. The event was jarring enough to alter the mood. A change of scenery perhaps, some distance from the carnage. A waiting hotel.
EVENING WAS CLOSING in as we made our way downtown in a motorcade of intoxication—intoxication of the senses, of the blood, intoxicated by our youth. We bombed the streets with pealing hip-hop, smoke unfolding from the windows of each vehicle, not much of it tobacco. There were four cars in all, but they seemed like more, like a parade of noise and adventure akin to Carnival.
Hass rode with me, and we headed the convoy, taking the scenic route to the Rose Garden Red Lion. Through downtown, rich with kids on similar voyages, yelling, laughing, unhinging every adult eye with careless disregard. Through the West Hills as the last spears of the setting sun catapulted haphazardly through the abundant old canopies of foliage crowning the early-century estates. Down Broadway twice. It was a landmark day to put to bed, a landmark night to rouse.
By the time we pulled into the parking lot, the hotel was bathed in shafts of colored light that came across the dark Willamette from the cityscape. The river slid through the landscape effortlessly, a violet blackness of iron-gall rippling silently and seeping into our commotion, imbuing us with that reverence for night held only in our youngest days.
Word spreads fast, even in large circles. Waiting in the farthest end of the lot, under an awning of green maples that squelched almost completely the streetlights above them, creating a large semi-circle that could be hidden in by many, another four cars of kids loitered. They’d grown impatient and started drinking early. Because Hass had been under our care, they couldn’t have known it was the right hotel—or even that there really was a hotel party. No one cared. Until they got dislodged, it was as good a place as any. Fortunately, apparently, word had spread with uncharacteristic accuracy.
Attending the evening shift for the Red Lion was a young man not much older than us, twenty, twenty-two, maybe. He watched from the doorway, smoking, lax against its jam. “Jeremy,” his nametag said. It never occurred to me then, but I wondered much later whether Jeremy was in on Hass’s plot. Not even his youth could explain the complicity with which he received our cavalcade.
“All you guys in one room?” He asked as Hass, Darrin, and I walked into the office.
“I’ve got four rooms reserved,” Ben said. “Under James Hass.”
“Yep. We have your card on file. You want me to charge it for the rooms?”
“No, that’s okay. I have the cash.” Hass’s savvy was impressive.
“Alright, rooms twenty-two, twenty-three, four, and five,” Jeremy fanned out the keys like a poker hand.
LUCK WAS AT our heels that night. Our rooms were at the farthest end of the U-shaped building, butted against the grouping of maples under which our guests were assembled. That meant direct access to the ecliptic blackness offered by the trees. And the two rooms directly next us were seemingly vacant. Jeremy sat seventy yards adjacent, at the other extreme of the U, in a lower-level room lit so brightly that I could nearly read the travel brochures and Portland themed literature flanking him on the desk. A large sign read “FOR EMERGENCY DIAL 911” above and behind him. Its alarming red letters cracked loudly between large panoramic photos of Mt. Hood and the Portland skyline. Jeremy was fastened to a handheld video game. He was playing Mortal Kombat. When I looked his way, I saw so much detail that I felt I was peeping. Perhaps I was paranoid.
We left all four doors open, treating the arrangement like one venue broken into sections defined by purpose. Darrin’s jungle juice was in the upper-leftmost room, along with three unstable towers of plastic cups. The juice smelled of over-ripe fruit and cloyingly sweet punch. It had the saccharine smack of Kool-Aid mixed with twice the sugar, followed by the lingering stroke of fermentation. If I held it at my lips for long, my eyes would begin watering.
In the next room we housed the beer. We supplied two twenty-four packs, and our party guests brought much of their own. Maybe we were over-excited, or perhaps just not too wise yet, but we’d neglected coolers and ice for the beer. It went down easy still.
None of our rooms were smoke friendly, but that was no inconvenience. The weather was so cooperative that it was preferable out-of-doors. Night settled in with mild, embracing warmth. Not too hot. Perfect with shorts and a hoodie. I spent what I remember of that evening below the protective darkness of trees in full bloom, alternately squandering cigarettes and joints.
Things never really got out of hand. We’d taken care not to spread word too widely, and the only kids there were those of us present at check-in. Some of our parties were outrageous—unruly, crowded, ending with police lights and running. But on the last day of junior year we, for some unintentional reason, were compelled to practice restraint, and it payed off in spades.
Because we had four rooms for all sixteen kids, there was never any of the pressing claustrophobia that I used to feel when heavily intoxicated in large groups. There were times in my youth when, completely glazed with alcohol, the world around me seemed to wind and orbit inward, closing in on me slow but forceful, causing me to panic. It always happened in a crowd. It always happened late, and gradually. But by the time I noticed the anxiety, in my intoxicated states, it was too late, and the stress would set in firmly. All the voices within earshot would cluster into oscillating swells of noise, surging over me then ebbing into abysmal and overwhelming silence. The motion of all those bodies, packed together and grating against one another, sent a friction through the air that abraded my confidence. Perhaps these were the first inklings of social anxiety. I thought it was because I was too drunk. In any case, they left me alone that night.
SLOWLY THE WARM blanket descended onto me. As I drank, I grew amicable, sentimental. With every sip I grew closer to all my friends, so that Darrin, Ben, Hasani and Sean were family. All the others, whose names probably failed me even the following day, were the best and most valuable people who’d ever graced my presence. I loved them all so much, I told them, and they returned the affection. We’d always be there for each other, no matter what.
Jungle juice shadowed beer. Weed accentuated every gulp. Before long, it seemed as if I were swimming through tepid, clear, jelly-like water, my eyes watching the world through panes of antique glass, wavering and flowing. Once any thread of judgment had unraveled and left me, I was introduced to the fruit. Try this. Someone handed me a pie-ish wedge of dripping pineapple. It was flavorless, completely void. But the texture was remarkable. Little fibers of the fruit separated easily in my teeth, fanning out like the bristles of a soft, pulpy brush. Each tiny sinew was an oblong sack of liquid—there must have been a thousand in a single bite—and upon breaking them, blasts of liquid divvied across the roof of my mouth. As the liquid passed down my throat, its heat was surprising, but not unwelcome.
Sitting on the concrete steps between the second and first floors, riding the trajectory of the earth as it rotated, swept in with the current of the nearby river and its undulating communication, chawing a watermelon wedge like an irriguous sponge and losing my face within my arms, I discerned the inchoate, brown masses at my feet. Whether my shoes were tied or not didn’t occur to me at all, only the pleasant oval shapes they made against the grey, pebbly stone, the tapering columns of peachy white that started near my knees and disappeared into the fuzzy, brown leather.
THEN I WAS moving. I was much less comfortable, surrounded by things cold and hard, and going much too fast through unfamiliar areas. My posture hadn’t changed much at all, as if I’d been picked up and supplanted in a new space, but my arms no longer held my head. They were behind me. I looked down at my shoes and they were much clearer than before. Also clear were the gleaming silver anklets just on top of them. These were shackles.
A plastic screen, pierced though with tiny holes, separated the driver and I, and a large and much too bright computer screen perched between his and the passenger’s seat. I rolled reluctantly back to life, asking what had happened. A little accident, the officer explained, had occurred, involving my truck, myself, and some bricks. Where might we have been going? Well, we were going to hang out at the station for a bit, and wait for our parents. Okay.
I was polite, cordial, even jovial, I was told. Only the most acute bits of experience register in my memory—the shackles (because I was so inebriated I had to be carried), the radiating computer screen interrogating me silently, the unfamiliar streets and buildings flashing by.
The particulars of the narrative at this point are mere conjecture, deductions of the rational mind that scraped its way from the ruble of that night. Evidently, as the party tired, I’d felt compelled to go for a drive. We were cognizant enough to put all the keys in a central location, away from the hands and pockets of drivers, but we’d neglected to but a sober person in charge of them. In fact, we’d neglected to invite a sober person. So, as I can only guess, I stumbled my way to the upstairs room where the keys were stored. Probably I stumbled over lumps of people and crushed garbage. If any of those friends, those people with whom I’d just felt the strongest sense of kinship—we’ve got each others’ backs, always—were awake or aware, they never stopped me.
Perhaps they tried, but I fought them off. I’d heard stories of myself fighting even good friends after losing control. As far as I recall, Darrin would have been the only one capable of restraining me on his own. At any rate, I found the keys and made it somehow to the truck.
It’s amazing that a person so absent could yet so deliberately interact with the world—find the right set of keys in a dark and unfamiliar room, negotiate the flight of stairs that doubled back on itself in the middle, find the correct vehicle in a lot of several. After surmounting all those obstacles, how could a person conceivably locate the exact key on the keyring and place it in the slot, so tiny in the vast expanse of the door. Again, the key would have to find the ignition.
These are intricate and precise decisions and movements. Calculated, carried out. But when it came time for the purpose, if there was one, of that whole delicate journey, I failed completely. I started the truck and probably hoped to back out, but missed reverse, put the truck into drive, and rolled gently into the red brick exterior of the hotel. The bumper chipped the brick just a bit. There was a scratch or two in the truck—no big deal, I’d sell it in a few months. And then, allegedly, I passed out. I still think fell asleep is more charitable a phrase. Jeremy called the police, I assume.
WAITING IN JAIL for my parents to pick me up, I sat silently. I didn’t feel guilty, I couldn’t. As far as I was concerned, I hadn’t done a thing, other than some underage drinking, and perhaps the weed, too. But drunk driving? I didn’t do that, that was someone else.
Our minds are funny, mysterious creatures. They create our emotions and concerns from the experiences we give them. I had taken away from my mind many of the experiences of that night. The things still happened, some of them I remember fondly, but the important stuff? I shut off my brain for that.
The result is a day I remember endearingly, a night of youthful celebration and a milestone of growth. Objectively, though, what a terrible night that was. I could have killed, been killed. All those friends, and not one cared enough to stop me from driving. In reality, they remember as much as I do, or less.
And so, as I sat in anticipation of my parents’ arrival, which would prove the real start of punishment and remorse, I ran through all I remembered from the night before. It was all great. Except I noticed something about my shoes, or, more accurately, my socks. Having the Timberlands untied as I did, to allay the faux pas created by the goofy laces, my ankle socks had slipped down and worked their way into a bunch at my toes. As I gained sobriety, it became increasingly bothersome, and no matter how many times I took off my shoes and pulled up my socks, they slipped down again with every move. I couldn’t tie the shoes, that was decided, but, untied, they lacked control and support.
I left the precinct, dogged, with my socks in hand and the rough inside of the oxfords clawing my bare feet. I’m sure the parental approbation was intense. Even silence would have been an unbearable but deserved lecture. But I remember more strongly thinking that I’d put the Timbos in the closet for a while. Basketball shoes went with shorts, and there was no shame in lacing them up tight.