Reclining in an old Broyhill armchair, I browsed through a copy of Popular Mechanics that had been sitting on top of the nearby coffee table. In my right hand, I held a tarnished tin cup Rob had taken out of the glass cupboard in the next room to hold the booze I’d carried in with me from the car. I could hear him back in the kitchen crushing ice; Poppy was upstairs using the facilities. The living room looked pretty much the same as I’d remembered, aside from the expected debris any man living on his own might leave strewn about. To my left was a shabby, puke green, corduroy couch, stacked with magazines. And in the far corner of the room, sat a prehistoric Magnavox gathering dust. How many afternoons had we laid in front of that thing playing on the Atari 2600, and then later as teenagers, watching porn with our friends while his parents, chaste as lambs, slept upstairs in separate beds? Peeking down at my phone, it was 12:34am. I had the car ‘til noon the next day, so I knew I was okay there. Still, I wasn’t prepared for a lengthy visit; I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep in my own apartment.
“Here’s yer ice,” Rob grunted, placing a ‘50s style bucket and a sixer of beer on the coffee table as he took a seat on the couch beneath the light of an old standing lamp. For the first time, I could see what the ravages of time had done to him. He’d never been much of a looker to begin with, and now middle age had made him downright unattractive. Deep creases ran across either side of his greasy nose – which appeared fleshier and more bulbous than in his youth – and his crispy hair hung in a blunt bang across his forehead, butchered by his own shaky hand, no doubt. His bloodshot eyes – set too far apart – had become distant and cold.
I fished out a couple of cubes, plopped them in the cup, and poured myself a sizable drink.
“Hittin’ the hard stuff now, I see,” he remarked with interest, popping open a Rolling Rock. “In all ‘a time we knew each other, I don’t think I ever saw ya take a sip.”
“I took a sip, what are you talking about?” I snapped. “Remember New Year’s Eve 1991, when I got alcohol poisoning?”
“I almost died!”
“You just had yerself a little hangover.”
In the distance I heard a running faucet, and a few seconds later Poppy was heading down the stairs, the planks creaking like dry bones beneath her feet.
“Okay, gentlemen, I’m back. Just had to touch my face up.”
Heaving the magazines to the floor with a resounding thwack, Rob propped himself up on the couch.
“Come sit beside me,” he said to Poppy.
She stepped around him, taking a seat on the farthest edge of the cushion. Shifting his gaping leer away from her ass, he turned to me with a dubious look.
“So, what’s going on with you guys, anyway?”
“We’re together if that’s what you’re asking,” I answered, adding in a less confident tone, “…it’s a recent thing.”
“Shee-it, boy howdy. Mel, you crazy bastard! How old are you, girl?”
“I’m 23. Is there some reason you find that particularly amusing?”
“My word no, not particularly amusing in the slightest,” Rob teased. “23…shee-it.”
“Alright already,” I said.
I took a gulp of scotch and sighed. I’d been there ten minutes, and he’d already managed to annoy me. Truth is, I never liked him all that much; he was one of those irritating muldoons that hung around the periphery, the kind you’re forced to put up with in any group of friends, a lesser addition, the one you’d talk shit about when he left the room.
“Girl, your man ever tell you what he was like back in school?” he turned to Poppy, grabbing her knee.
“Hey, Rob, you’re being a goddamned pain in the ass.”
“He was one fat bastard I tell ya.” He laughed, puffing out his cheeks. “Talk about strappin’ on the feed bag – son could eat! He was a funny bastard though, I’ll say ‘at much.”
“Rob, now you’re just sounding ridiculous,” I muttered; still, I couldn’t help but let out a small chuckle.
“You were fat, sweetheart? I can’t picture you overweight at all.”
“He was as fat as a blue ribbon hog,” he continued. “But funny! He was always crackin’ us up. ‘Ere was this one time in tenth grade when we all were prankin’ this little Indian girl from Biology class, all night we were callin’ up, God we hated ‘er. I ferget why. Anyways, we all took turns botherin’ this girl, stupid stuff, like: ‘Is your ‘frigerator runnin’? Well why dontcha go on and catch it then.’ Mel was the funniest though, he even got her ol’ man on the phone and started talkin’ to him. Pretendin’ he was…”
“Seriously, that’s enough, Rob. You’re not telling this goddamned story.”
“Go on,” said Poppy. “He was pretending that he was, what?”
“He was pretendin’ ta be a doctor from an abortion clinic, callin’ her father about her bein’ pregnant and all,” he cackled, doubling over on the couch. “Jeebus, I never laughed so hard in my life. I’m telling ya, one hilarious bastard. He told her ol’ man she needed t’come down for an appointment, ‘cause she was already in the second trimester. The father was out of his mind, yellin’ and screamin’. The funniest part was how he believed Mel. ‘Yes doctor, of course doctor,’ he’d be sayin’. That fugly dumplin’ never even come near ta kissin’ a boy, let alone sleepin’ with one. Still, her daddy believed the story. Shee-hit, we could hear him beatin’ on her over the line.”
“Mel, I don’t know what to say. That’s an awful story, I’m surprised…what a miserable thing to do.”
“Oh boy, now yer in trouble!” Jesus, he was having a good time.
“It’s not something I’m proud of. You have to put it in context, though. I was picked on myself, tortured in fact, so I guess I was lashing out. Hanging out with a bunch of stupid morons didn’t help any either.”
“Stop makin’ excuses Mel,” Rob shouted.
“I wasn’t tortured?” I asked, raising my voice to meet his.
“I ain’t sayin’ that – far from it. Your boy was the most unpopular kid in the whole school! ‘Fact, I remember ‘round the time of those Columbine shootins, the first person I thought of was ol’ Mel. That’s the God’s honest truth.”
“There you go!”
“That’s no reason to do what you did,” she said. “So, what happened with the girl?”
“Ah, we all got called down t’the Vice Principal’s office, and he gave us one hell of a reamin’.”
“Well deserved I’d say,” Poppy snorted.
“And on that note, I’d like to thank you for this scintillating discussion, but now it’s getting late and we must take our leave,” I announced, getting up from the chair.
“Sit yer ass back down, Melvin. You ain’t gonna leave when you see what I got fer ya.”
Thrusting his pelvis in the air from his seated position, he dug through the pockets of his filthy blue jeans, and pulled out a baggie full of marijuana.
“Yeah…fuck no,” I said.
“Is that pot?” Poppy asked with goggly eyes.
“Is this pot? Girl, this is the best mary-ja-wanna you’ll ever have the pleasure of inhalin’ inta them sweet little lungs of yours.”
“Oh, come on, Mel, let’s have some.”
“C’mon, Mel-VINE,” he taunted. “Ya don’t wanna let yer lady down, do ya?”
If it were under any other circumstances, the idea of smoking his shit would be laughable. There’d be no possible way. Still, after Rob had made me look like a heartless scumbag, I figured there was no getting out of it. Either way, I would limit myself to a puff or two, no more.
“Jesus, go ahead,” I relented.
Stretching my legs, I watched him roll out an enormous joint over the table; it appeared as if he’d had a lot of practice over the years. Sealing the paper with his slimy tongue, he took great care not to waste a single flake.
“That’s how you do it, son,” he said with a triumphant smile.
“You know, I’m finding this whole good ol’ boy persona of yours hard to swallow. You grew up 15 minutes outside of Manhattan for god’s sake. Three seconds down south and you come back sounding like George fucking Bush. How is that even possible?”
“Now don’t tell me you don’t miss that sonavabitch,” he said, still futzing with the doobie.
“Jesus, who the hell are you?” I hissed.
“Let’s dispense with the politics, shall we gentlemen?” Poppy interjected. “I believe we have some business at hand.”
“Sure thing, down to brass tacks, I like yer style,” Rob said.
Lighting his masterpiece, he drew in an impressive toke. Hacking and spluttering like Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy, he passed the roach to Poppy.
“Take a good pull offa there and hold it in nice and slow,” he instructed, bleary-eyed.
Cringing, I bit down hard on my tongue as I watched her lips caress the same paper that dipshit had just slobbered over. I was exhausted, and making matters worse, the black cat in the back alley of my brain was beginning to stir; piss-yellow orbs reflected through a blanket of dark, as his claws scampered on damp garbage. Letting out a dainty cough, Poppy handed it over to me. I took a shallow puff; it didn’t even register in my chest.
“C’mon son, you can do better’n that!” Rob goaded.
Taking a deeper drag, my lungs reacted, spasming like they’d just been poked with a porcupine quill.
“Satisfied?” I choked.
We sat for the next several minutes, passing it around. After my fourth toke, it hit me; everything became foggy, like I was gazing through a jagged piece of Coke bottle.
“So, Robert, tell me, you knew Mel’s friend Tommy Gallucci?”
“Sure I did,” he replied, clearing his throat. “Tommy, yeah, I knew him.”
“You two were actually really close, weren’t you?” I mumbled. “God knows what he saw in you.”
“Yeah, we were close, like brothers.”
“He became a Ma-RINE,” Poppy said, giggling. “Good old Tommy. I’ll bet he looked devoon in his uniform.”
“He did, sugar.” Rob chuckled under his breath. “…he became a Marine.”
“I think the last time we hung out was at his wedding,” I said.
“Shee-it that’s right…you’er with ‘at girl, what was her name? Layla? She was one fine lookin’ woman. Now yer here all these years later with another…fine look-in woman.”
“Lyla,” I corrected. “It wasn’t too much longer after that we broke up for good.”
“You guys were always bustin’ up.”
“No we weren’t, what the hell are you talking about?”
“Ooooh! And out pops a mystery woman from the past, now it’s getting juicy!” Poppy screamed.
“It was a long, long time ago,” I said.
I poured myself another scotch and downed half in one swig.
“Do you still keep in touch with Tommy?” I asked, switching the topic. “I lost contact with him right after the wedding.”
“I did, sure.”
“But not anymore?”
“Tommy was on his second tour of duty over in Iraq when he bought it. He was in charge of a convoy transportin’ supplies, fuckin’ roadside bomb. Left behind two kids and another on the way.”
“How could that be?” I asked, my mind reeling. “I would have heard. My parents would have told me.”
“You would have heard? Not likely. We haven’t seen hide nor hair from you in over 20 years. Even when we was hangin’ out you were always off in your own world. Always writin’ in some little book, crazy bastard.”
“My parents would have told me.”
“Well, I ain’t lyin’ about the goddamned thing, the boy’s deader than dirt!” he shouted. “Jeebus, I’m stoned. How are you doin’ over there, sugar?”
A dazed look had come across Poppy’s face; she didn’t look in distress exactly, just very still, like a wax statue in a stone garden.
“You okay?” I asked her, concerned.
“Robert,” she said, placing her hand on his cheek. “You’re a sad little man aren’t you…tell me, why are you so sad? Is it Mel? Did he break your little heart all those years ago?”
“Alright, Poppy, we’re getting out of here now!” I’d had enough, but my body wouldn’t cooperate as I tried to lift myself off the chair. The twinkle of the lamp crackled in my irises and my head felt heavy as a fire hydrant. All of a sudden, I could feel my heart racing like a thoroughbred. Hot foam on straining horse flesh. Black cat, screeching at the amber moon. I jumped up, as if the soles in my shoes had springs in them. Clamoring up the stairs, I found my way to the bathroom and turned on the faucet. Glancing at the dirty, cracked mirror, I saw my face, drawn…elongated – my head an oblong gourd. I collapsed to the floor, and leaned up against the bathtub. The porcelain pressed cool against my cheek. “Tommy, Jesus Christ…Tommy!” I whined. “…I’m so sorry…I never knew!” Raising the seat of the nearby toilet, I got to my knees and prepared myself. My stomach was roiling; primed and ready to unleash its poisonous contempt. Leaning over the rim, I spotted a solitary black nugget floating at the bottom of the bowl, no bigger than a hazelnut. Poor constipated bastard, I thought, explained why he was such a pain in the ass. He just needed more fiber in his diet. Bathed in sweat, I hovered there for a good long while, my watery eyes glued to that sad excuse for a turd. When the acids began to recede from my esophagus, I laid back down against the bathtub; another close call. I don’t know how long I was in there for, when an urgent knock at the door roused me from my dolor. It was Poppy.
“Mel, are you alright?” she asked, her voice shaking. “Mel, we need to go…right now.”
“Give me another second,” I groaned.
Somehow I made it to my feet, knocking my head on a towel rack with a loud thud. Shutting the door behind me, I met Poppy at the landing. She was agitated as hell.
“Your friend is out of control.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, doing all I could to focus. “What is he doing?”
“For starters, he tried to stick his tongue down my throat,” she said taking in a sharp breath. “Then he was rambling on about locking me in the basement or some such nonsense. I don’t know, it just seems an opportune time to leave.”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Where is he now?”
“Let’s just go, please. It doesn’t matter.”
“Like hell it doesn’t!”
Charging down the steps, I swept into the room mad for blood, but he was nowhere to be found.
“Where are you, you pig-fucking hick?” I roared, stumbling around the house, managing to collide with every single obstacle in my goddamned path.
“I’m right here, you silly sonavabitch,” he called from out on the porch. “Now don’t get yer balls all in an uproar. Yer lady’s been after me all night, you seen it for yourself. I don’t know what kinda freaky deal you two are into, but she was all over me the second you left the room.”
Taking a running start, I bolted towards him like a linebacker, tearing right through the flimsy screen door separating us. His eyes widened in horror as I fell upon him, our limbs twisting and combining in every direction. We rolled around on the porch in pitched battle for several minutes, then somehow wound up in the front yard, where I was able to get a solid hold of him. My blood pumped like diesel as I kept pounding his greasy face into the bars of an old shopping cart, which lay half submerged in the icy sludge covering the hard ground. When his body began to slacken, I let him go, laying on top of him as I fought for air.
“Mel! What are you doing?” Poppy yelped, dragging me off of him. “He’s just some ridiculous simpleton, you don’t even know him anymore!”
I stood up on rubber legs, my head on a swivel.
“Hey, fuckface, how you like me now?” I spat in the snow. “You slimy, irrelevant, dumb cunt!”
Rob shifted his body in pain, propping his head up on the cart. A small gash had opened up on the bridge of his nose.
“You crazy bastard.” He laughed, half-smiling. “You always were…a crazy bastard.”
Grabbing Poppy’s wrist, we hustled back to our rented car and sat there for a moment while I gathered my thoughts.
“What now?” Poppy whispered.
I started the car and slammed it in reverse, smacking a plastic trashcan with enough impact to send it flying off into the night. Driving blind, I kept pinching my face to try and clear the cobwebs, but it was no use.
“I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to make it to the city.”
“What are we going to do?”
“My parents live nearby, we’ve got to stop there.”
“Do we have to? Are you sure you just can’t…”
“I’m not going to make it, Poppy.”
My brain slopped and sploshed in my skull like a wet casserole. Street lamps whizzed by, leaving trails. Sign up ahead looked familiar, I couldn’t be sure. I turned right, then left, down a steep hill. The house was dark, I could see it now in the headlights. Then at once, we’d stopped moving. I swung open the car door, bending over in agony. Two seconds later the porch light flipped on, followed by my father’s boom of a voice cannonading the sleepy village…familiar, comforting, fearsome.
“Mel, is that you?! What the hell…”
There was no stopping it – my luck had run out. The fast rush of steaming vomit shot from my mouth, brown and thin as varnish, spilling forth like freedom, like hot ash, all over the freshly shoveled driveway.