Expected reading time: 15 minutes
Steve awakens from his stupor. “Sorry, bro, I was spacing,” he says with an embarrassed grin. He holds out the pipe to me.
“What, I gotta go over there and get it?!” I ask in mock insult.
“You think I’m getting up and going over there? Bro, I am way too stoned to move!”
“What if I’m too stoned to get it?”
“Then I guess you ain’t getting any…”, he trails off, as he pulls the pipe back towards himself.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” I drag my butt out of my chair, snatching the pipe out of his hand. I look at him for a moment while shaking my head. “F**king stoner.” We both laugh uproariously.
As I put the flame to the pipe, Steve nods towards me. “We should probably lay off. We’re almost out.”
I snap the lighter closed and pull my lips away from the mouthpiece. “Dude, don’t worry,” I croak while holding my breath. “Jack’s coming with more.” I blow a plume of smoke into the room before handing the pipe back back to Steve.
“SMOKE UP JOHNNY!” I exclaim, quoting a favorite movie of mine while giving him a playful punch in the arm.
“You touch me with that hand again and I’ll break it off.”
I laugh as I plop back into my chair. There is no question Steve could rip my hand off if he chose too. He’s a walking wall of muscle, a linebacker in his high school years. But he doesn’t scare me: his fierce appearance is matched by an intense loyalty and a good heart. I am honored he calls me a friend.
“So, bro,” he says as he reaches into our dwindling supply to re-stuff the pipe, “did you make a decision?”
“No, not yet. I guess I could go back to school. I’ve always been good at academics. But my heart isn’t in it, ya know? And you know what? I really don’t care. All my life, I’ve been trying to figure out this big cosmic question of,” as I pause to summon my baritone voice, “WHAT IS DON GOING TO DO WITH HIS LIFE?!”
Steve snorts smoke as he chokes with laughter. I grin and allow him a few moments of choking, reveling in my new-found ability to make others laugh, even if it is weed-induced. “I’m done with it,” I finally continue, as his coughing subsides, this time with seriousness. “I’m working, paying my bills, and enjoying myself. What else is there?”
“Smoking weed?” Steve intones, while taking another hit.
“Oh yea, that too” We both laugh again.
“Hey, are you still talking to your girl back home?” I ask, as he inhales another hit.
“Yup,” he croaks. “She misses me, but I can’t leave school.” Another plume follows. “Not that I’m actually going to class,” he says with a chuckle. “You?”
“Yea,” I say with a sigh, lamenting the on-again, off-again nature of a former high school relationship now wandering aimlessly. “I don’t know what I’m going to do about her.”
“Hey, is Billy still talking to that girl?” Steve asks. I nod, referring to my bestie from high school who was now crashing on our couch.
“Dude, that’s so crazy! How old is she?”
“Fourteen,” I say, shaking my head.
“Bro, that’s jail-bait! What does he see in her?!”
I shake my head slowly again. “I dunno. I don’t think it’s attraction; I think it’s addiction: he can’t stop talking to her. Do you know he talks to her for hours every night?”
“Yea, I’ve seen it,” Steve replies.
“I’m not worried about him getting arrested,” I continue. “Her parents don’t care about her at all. They were happy somebody wanted her. I’m just worried about what it’s doing to him. He’s like a crack-head. She’s bad news.”
At that moment, Jack comes in.
“JACK!” I cry, mimicking the call of “Norm!” from the sitcom Cheers. “So did you…” but my question dies on my lips. I’ve never seen Jack so pissed.
Jack holds up a small sheaf of papers, shaking them at Steve and I. “Do you know what this is?!” he demands, glaring at the both of us. Steve and I look at each other blankly before turning back at Jack. “It’s our phone bill. Guess how much it is?!”
My mind starts racing, tabulating the hours I’ve spent talking to my girlfriend long distance in an age before cell phones. I gulp. “How much?”
“Sixteen. Hundred. Dollars,” Jack says, biting off each word with contempt.
“It’s gotta be a mistake,” I say weakly, before swallowing again.
“Oh no,” Jack says, “it’s no mistake! YOU TWO,” he shouts while pointing at each of us with the bill, “have been talking WAY too much to your girlfriends. And now we’re screwed! I don’t have that kind of money!!”
Steve holds up his hands in defense. “Hey,” he begins, “I know you’re mad bro, but I haven’t been talking to her that much.”
“Me neither,” I say, with less conviction than my tone implies. “All of us have talked to our girls too much,” I continue, before pausing to look Jack squarely in the eye, letting him know that he’s guilty too, “but I can’t believe that it was sixteen-hundred.”
My reasoning does little to calm Jack down. “Look,” I begin again, regaining my composure, “let’s just go through it, line by line. I’m sure we’ll see where the error is, and then we can call the phone company and have it adjusted.”
Jack settles down and nods in agreement. We gather around the kitchen table, using an assortment of highlighters and pens to separate the charges by responsibility. Before long, two patterns emerge. First, the bill is not a mistake – there would be no adjustments from the phone company.
Second, over half the bill belongs to Billy. In just two weeks, Billy has racked up over $800 in long-distance charges.
“I want him out!” Jack seethes as we come to the end of the bill. He glares at me while sticking a finger in my chest. “He’s YOUR friend. When you see him, you tell him I want my money!”
“Alright,” I say meekly as I look at my shoes, “I’ll tell him.”
Jack yanks his keys off the table and motions to Steve. “I gotta take Steve to the bank,” he concludes, shooting him a look indicating he’ll be making a bigger withdrawal than planned. “I mean it Don; he’s gone.” Jack and Steve leave the apartment.
I’m numb. I recognize the moment for what it is: the likely end of my friendship with Billy. Jack didn’t like Billy to begin with, and the phone bill sealed it. Even if Jack felt differently, Billy had lost his mind over this girl. He was already in trouble with his own dad over this girl, and his dad was funding his education. This hadn’t stopped him, which was saying something considering that Billy’s dad was an ex-Green Beret. Billy was apparently willing to do anything to be with this girl, including screwing over his friends.
“I’ve got the munchies,” I mutter as I stir out of my contemplative stupor. Locking the door behind me in case Billy comes back (Jack’s instructions are clear), I walk to the local McDonalds. With my belly full and my head clearing, I come back an hour later to find Jack and Steve standing in front of the door, smoking cigarettes furiously.
“Don!” Steve exclaims when he sees me. “Did you lock the door when you left?”
“Sure,” I reply. “I heard you loud and clear.”
“Well, guess what?!” Steve declares, while pointing at the door. “YOUR BOY broke in.” Sure enough, the wood is splintered, with the knob bent at an odd angle.
Jack throws his cigarette butt down with rage. “F**k this s**t!”, he roars, “I’m dealing with this!”
“Jack…” I begin, trying in vain to stop what I see coming.
“Shut-up Don,” he growls in return. I do what he says.
Jack picks up the phone and looks back at me. “He’s at his dad’s, isn’t he?”
“Probably,” I say flatly, trying to keep a neutral tone. “He was visiting for the holiday.”
Jack looks up the number before pounding the keys in frustration. “BILLY!” Jack yells into the phone. “You need to shut the f**k up and listen to me.” As Jack barks at Billy over the phone, I walk outside, lighting up a cigarette and trying not to worry about the coming storm.
“Oh, you are going to take care of it,” I hear from inside as I puff away nervously. “Because, if you don’t, I’m going to come over there and BEAT THE S**T OUT OF YOU!” He then slams the phone down before stepping outside to light another cigarette.
“He got the point,” he says as he exhales. He looks at me slyly out of the corner of his eye. “He’ll take care of it. Trust me. You watch.”
We load up a movie as the sun sets, none of us saying much. Midway through the movie, the phone rings. Jack waves us off as he picks up the phone. After a few brief words, he hangs up, turns around, and smiles knowingly.
“What’d I tell you?” he asks, while cracking his knuckles. “He’s coming over to pay up.”
Fifteen minutes later, there’s a knock at the door. I hurriedly get up and answer the door before Jack and Steve can move, hoping to avert a fight. Billy is standing in front of me. The look on his face tells me that this will not be a simple matter of transacting some cash.
“My dad’s here,” he says simply, his eyes wide in fear. “He wants to talk to Steve and Jack.”
Billy always had a fear of his dad, one he never explained to me. That fear went far beyond any normal fear a child has of his father. Although his dad was always pleasant whenever I was around, there were times, when faced with the typical trouble teenage boys often get into, that Billy would simply mutter “my dad’s going to kill me.” The look in his eyes told me this wasn’t a euphemism, a statement often followed by Billy disappearing for a few days. A mutual friend of ours once muttered something about “Nam” and “alcohol”, but refused to go into detail.
It was this same fear that I now saw in his eyes, only bigger than ever before. Before I can address the situation further, Steve and Jack are on their feet.
“Well then,” says Jack, cracking his knuckles again while moving towards the door, “if the old man wants a fight, he’ll get it!”
Jack pushes me aside before pushing Billy violently backwards, almost causing him to fall over in spite of his six-foot-four wiry frame. “Out of my way a**hole!” he snarls while heading off down the stairs with Steve in tow.
Billy and I follow at a short distance, down the stairs and across the walk-way before rounding the corner into the parking lot. I see Billy’s dad, a man of similar size but not nearly as wiry, a tree-trunk in comparison to Billy’s rail-like frame. Jack suddenly realizes that he is giving up six inches and seventy-five pounds to this behemoth of a man, causing him to pause in his stride. Jack turns slightly to Steve. “You back me up,” he says. Steve nods.
Jack steps forward towards Billy’s dad, who is standing at parade-rest with his hands behind his back. “What’s up?!” Jack exclaims, throwing his arms up in a gesture often recognized among those itching for a fight. “Watcha want?!”
As the sodium-arc lights cast their pale, yellow glow on the parking lot below, I see dad’s face contort into a crooked grin that makes my heart go cold. Slowly, he pulls his hands from behind his back to show a twelve-inch, serrated hunting knife, gleaming in the glow of the lights. He carelessly twirls the knife around in one hand, with a skill informing everyone that this is not a toy.
I feel a creeping horror when I look into his eyes. The man I once knew, who always invited me to dinner, never minded if I stayed the weekend, and was always pleased to see his son hanging out with someone who was (once) a good influence, was gone. In his place is a man who lost his sanity long ago on a foreign shore. Those eyes are no longer seeing a group of college kids; they are looking at his sworn enemies. I swear I can see a touch of delight in those eyes, at the prospect of gutting his enemies like so much swine.
He leans forwards slightly as he steps forward, lightly bouncing the knife back and forth from one hand to another. “Who wants to get it first?” he asks, his crooked smile breaking into a grin of madness.
I had never been good with confrontation. No matter how much I would try to stay calm, my voice would always crack and my hands would shake. My pacifist stance towards life was more a result of cowardice than any sort of philosophical underpinnings.
Yet, this time is different. A strange calm comes over me. I am not shaking, nor am I frightened. Sliding in-between the paralyzed Jack and Steve, I step forward, serenely holding my hands out with palms open.
“Nobody wants to fight, Mr. Johnson,” I say quietly and calmly, with no hesitancy to my voice.
Mr. Johnson turns his demented glare towards me. “I guess you’ll be first…”, he hisses as he takes a step in my direction.
He doesn’t recognize me, but I stand my ground without flinching or breaking my gaze. The knife is now just a few feet away from me; one sudden lunge, and that blade will be in my throat. I don’t pretend to imagine that I could move out of the way quick enough. Yet, I don’t move a muscle, acting on an irrational faith that my calm will penetrate the thick shell of a warrior intent on killing.
“Mr. Johnson, I’m your son’s best friend,” I say calmly. “It’s me. Don.”
His footsteps pause. Maybe it’s my lack of fear. Maybe it’s my unflinching resolve. Maybe it was just hearing my name, or hearing his. Whatever it is, as I look directly into his eyes, something else appears: recognition, struggling to climb to the surface above the insanity. For the first time, he no longer sees an ancient foe; he sees his son’s friend, a post-adolescent boy, barely a man, and hardly a worthy adversary for his skills.
Recognition is quickly followed by shame, and the fever breaks. Mr. Johnson straightens his stance and glares at my other friends for a moment before turning back to his car, throwing his knife onto the dashboard in disgust. Reaching into the car, he produces a checkbook, throwing it flat on the hood in anger.
“How much?” he grumbles to me.
I tell him the amount as he starts to fill out the check. “I can get the bill, if you want to see it…” I begin to say.
“No, I’m sure you’re telling me the truth,” he replies, throwing a scowl at Billy. He tears the check out of the book and slaps it down on the trunk of the car. Turning to get into the car, he looks at his son again. “We’ll talk when we get home,” he snarls. “Get in the car.” The look on Billy’s face tells me he’s going to be gone for longer than a few days. Billy meekly gets into the car, his shoulders slumped. Mr. Johnson pulls out and drives away. It would be my last image of Billy.
“Wow!” Steve exclaims after Billy and his dad are gone. Visibly shaken, he turns to look at Jack. “I thought we were done for. That guy’s a beast! I’m not sure the two of us could have taken him down.”
Jack just shrugs as he reaches out and takes the check from my hand. “Who cares? At least we got the money.” With that simple statement, Jack heads upstairs. If he’s bothered by what just happened, he isn’t letting it show.
Steve and I stand silently in the parking lot for a moment, each of us reflecting on what just happened. Steve is the first to break the silence.
“He was going to kill you bro,” Steve says softly.
“Maybe,” I reply softly, as I look down at my steady hands.
“Weren’t you scared?” he asks.
“No?” Steve replies, a little incredulous. “You didn’t think he was going to kill you?”
“The thought crossed my mind,” I say, as I struggle for words. “Somehow, I just knew that he wasn’t going to do it…I don’t know why I believed that…I just did…” I stuff my hands into my pockets.
“You got balls, bro,” Steve says, while looking at me with a slight amazement. He claps me on the back. “I don’t know about you, but I need another bowl!” He turns to head inside.
“Yea…” I trail off as I feel power fading away. “Another bowl…”