We were sprawled on the dank beds in Room 219 of the Torrid Palms Motel, waiting for the drugs to kick in. The room was a standard-brand cheap motel room, with two double beds, a couple of beat-up chairs and faded flower-print paper peeling off the damp walls.
Every Easter weekend, the Pi Alpha Nu house took a trip down to the South Carolina coast. We rented a block of rooms in North Palmetto Beach at whatever cheap place would have us. This year, Easter had fallen in late March, and the weather was dismal, cold and rainy.
I was with my roommate Matt Poe. It was too nasty to go out on the beach, so we moped around the motel all day, drinking Milwaukee’s Best and watching basketball on TV. Now it was getting towards evening. We had just polished off the bag of psilocybin mushrooms that Matt had brought back from his last visit home.
“You feeling anything?” I asked.
“Naw,” Matt replied.
“Me neither. Where did you get these things, anyway?”
“My man Elwood back in Circle City.”
“You got burned,” I said. “You should know better than to buy drugs from someone named Elwood.”
“Shee-it, don’t you talk like that. Me and ‘Wood’s tight. I’ve knowed him since second grade. Besides, he said this was the shit. He just had a couple, and said it was fuckin’ transfigurative.”
“Your man Elwood’s got a hell of a vocabulary,” I said.
Transfigurative. The word put me in mind of a recent Sociology 101 class about rites of passage. Normally, soash was a snoozer, but for some reason this topic made me sit up and pay attention. The professor spent most of the class bemoaning the lack of coming-of-age rituals in modern American society. For once, I agreed with the old coot.
Even after going off to college and becoming a member of a fraternity, I still felt stuck, incomplete. All of the adolescent angst and confusion that had dogged me through junior high and high school was still there, undiminished. I wondered if it was just a normal part of adulthood, if it ever went away.
Back when I was in sixth grade, I went to the bar mitzvah of a kid named Andy Weinstein. I remember being jealous of him at the time, because he had gotten three hundred bucks just for memorizing a few passages of Hebrew. Now I was jealous that Andy had had a real coming-of-age rite of passage. I needed some sort of rite that would lift me out of the late stages of tortured adolescence and into full-blown adulthood, whatever the hell that was.
“Aw, fuck it,” I said. ” Let’s smoke a joint. Maybe that will help the shit to kick in.”
“What if Melvin and the Furb come back?” asked Matt.
“Who cares if they come back? What are they gonna do, call the cops?”
“He wouldn’t rat out his pledge brothers.”
“Well, what the hay-ull,” said Matt. He pulled out a baggie and began rolling a doobie. “The only thang I’m worried about is if they come in and find us burnin’ one, the Furb might want some. Remember what happened during that snowstorm?”
“Yeah, that was a drag,” I admitted.
Last semester, Melvin, the Furb, Matt and I had all been part of the same pledge class. Towards the end of the semester, there was a surprise snowstorm that had closed down Old North State University for two days. This kicked off a 48-hour bacchanalia at the PAN house, starting with a run on the kegs in the bar.
A bunch of us were having a bong session in Salmon Dave’s room when the Furb wandered in, shitfaced drunk. He had a pointed, weasel-like face, with close-set eyes. His dirty blond hair stuck out in irregular clumps, like it had been cut with a steak knife. As usual, he was wearing a black tank-top with the Pi Alpha Nu letters across the front. He wore it almost every day.
The Furb had demanded to take a hit from the bong that was passing around. Salmon Dave, his judgment addled by a solid day of drinking and smoking, nodded and passed it over. The Furb jammed the entire end of the bong into his mouth and took a tremendous hit, which launched him into a huge coughing fit. He staggered out into the hallway, where he spilled the bong down the front of his pants and then barfed.
He had further compounded this fuckup by attempting to clean up the mess with the house vacuum cleaner, causing it to forevermore reek of puke and bongwater. After that, he stripped off his soaked pants and underpants, and ran around the house screeching the lyrics to “Freebird.”
There were a number of girlfriends there enjoying the snowstorm party, and they were understandably distressed by the sight of the Furb’s junk. The PAN brothers had been more or less obligated to tie him – still half-naked – to the crabapple tree out back. As his pledge brothers, we were required to go out and help him, but our hearts weren’t really in it.
Melvin Burpee was our other roommate for the trip. He was a countrified goober from a small town near Charlotte. His accent wasn’t as thick as Matt’s, but in every other way he was a major bumpkin. He’d have looked right at home in a pair of overalls and an unraveled straw hat. He was awkward and lanky, with a huge Adam’s apple that bobbed up and down like a monkey on a stick whenever he got excited.
The thing that excited Melvin the most was sex. There was no way he had ever had any, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t prepared. His daddy had sent him to the big university with a titanic box of condoms, which he was unlikely to use anytime soon. On weekends, Melvin went door to door in the PAN house selling rubbers to get extra spending money, most of which he spent on porn.
Now, there was a rap on the door, and Bobby Lumbee, the social chairman, burst in. “Hey, Mert,” he said to me, “you got the rest of the money for the room?”
I reluctantly dug out my wallet and handed over forty bucks, which severely depleted my funds for the rest of the trip. I’d have to rely on the generosity of my fraternity brothers to be able to eat and – more importantly – drink as the occasion called for.
“Thanks, man,” said Bobby. He made a small tick on the back of the envelope he was carrying. “Where are Burpee and Furbitzky? They both still owe, too.”
“Don’t know and don’t care,” said Matt. “I’m just glad they’s out of the room for a bit. Why’d you stick us with them, anyway?”
“Mert said it was okay. Besides, I figured that you were the only two guys in the house that wouldn’t kill them.”
“Yeah, thanks a pantload,” said Matt. “We oughtta get a discount for havin’ to bunk with the dipshit twins.”
Bobby couldn’t care less. “That’s a hell of a thing to say about your pledge brothers. Tell ’em both to pay up when you see ’em.” He breezed through the door and slammed it behind him.
Matt rolled over and gave me a dark look. “We wouldn’t hafta be roomin’ with Frick and Frack if you woulda stuck up for yourself for once.”
“Hey, you heard what he said,” I countered. “He would have stuck us with them anyway.”
“Gawd, you’re such a pussy. Sometimes I dunno how you Yankees ever won the war.”
I’ve always considered myself to be a pacifist. My grandfather was a lapsed Quaker, but he still adhered to the principals of nonviolence. He had passed these down to my mother, my brother and me. I believed that any conflict should be resolved with words, and that violence never accomplished anything.
This had gotten me a reputation at the PAN house as being a wuss. This was primarily because I refused to get involved in the fights with the Alpha Lambda Tau house next door. The PANs and the ALTs had a long-standing rivalry which erupted into a house-clearing brawl every three weeks or so. I usually just stayed in my room during these fights, which did not endear me to the more militant good ol’ boys in the fraternity.
Another thing that the old-school Southern boys in the house didn’t like was my penchant for getting high. They had no problem getting shit-faced drunk on a regular basis, but generally had no use for stoners, particularly those from north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Fortunately, my grades were as high as I typically was. This was not insignificant in a house like Pi Alpha Nu, which was consistently teetering on the edge of academic probation. Consequently, the good ol’ boys really couldn’t give me too much grief about my drug use, at least not to my face.
“Well, now what?” I asked. “I’m still not feeling anything from this shit. How about you?”
“I dunno,” said Matt, running a hand over his ROTC buzz-cut. “Maybe a little. Ain’t sure.” He lifted the corner of a mildewed curtain and peered outside. “It’s stopped rainin’, at least. Looks like it might be clearin’ up, too.”
“Great,” I said. “Now if Melvin and the Furb just stay away, we might actually have some fun.”
It was not to be. Just as Matt was getting ready to spark the joint, we could hear Melvin’s high-pitched voice approaching on the walkway. “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah! Didja see the bikini on that one chick down at the Hardee’s? Holy moly!”
Matt shoved the doobie into his pocket just as Melvin and the Furb came into the room. They were toting bags from a nearby fast food joint.
“What’s up, guys?” I asked, not really caring.
“Oh, hey man,” said the Furb. “We just went down to get a bite. You wanna hamburger?”
“Yeah, wow, that would be great,” I said. I had skipped lunch, knowing that we were going to get into the mushrooms later on. I’d found it best to eat them on an empty stomach for maximum effect. Still, a little snack couldn’t hurt, especially since we had already eaten the ‘shrooms. I took the proffered burger and gave it a hearty chomp.
“That’ll be two bucks,” said the Furb.
“Say what?” I said around a mouthful of lukewarm burger.
“Two bucks,” the Furb repeated. “The hamburger cost two dollars. You owe me two dollars.”
“Gaw-damn, man!” spat Matt. “You’re such a fuckin’ cheapskate! You shoulda tole him you was gonna charge him for it, ‘fore he started eatin’ on it. It’s two goddamn dollars, you sorry sumbitch. Just let it slide.”
“Yeah, okay,” said the Furb reluctantly. “That’s cool. Yeah, sure, the burger’s yours for free.”
“Yeah, thanks, man,” I said, trying to sound grateful and coming up short. The Furb was a notorious tightwad. Last semester, he’d caught his roommate, Grateful Ed, filching a Snickers bar from a box that he kept on his desk. The Furb had thrown a tantrum that had since become legend in the PAN house. In the end, Grateful Ed had replaced the candy, but he had run it through the microwave first.
“So what have you guys been doing?” asked Melvin. “We’ve been checking out all the fine women on the strip.”
“Yeah, you get any phone numbers?” Matt asked.
“Oh, um, no.”
“That’s okay,” said the Furb. “We’re gonna go down to Palmetto Beach in a bit. That’s where all the real action is, anyway.”
North Palmetto Beach was a cluster of low-slung motels, fast-food joints and cheap souvenir shops. It was the sorry sister to Palmetto Beach proper, which was located fifteen miles to the south. Palmetto Beach was much larger, with high-rise hotels and condos, a much wider variety of bars and restaurants, and a large, action-packed boardwalk. Unfortunately, the Pi Alpha Nu house had been blacklisted from all of the hotels in Palmetto Beach years ago. Since then we’d had to settle for less-glamorous North Palmetto lodgings.
“Yeah, we’re gonna take the Mustang and cruise Palmetto,” continued the Furb. “We’re sure to meet up with some hot chicks down there.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” enthused Melvin. “The Mustang! Hot chicks can’t resist a ride like that!”
The Furb’s pride and joy was a cherry-red ’66 Mustang convertible. It was a sweet ride, and he kept it in immaculate condition. He was always eager to talk about it – how much it had cost, how hard he had to work to afford it, and how he had managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA while he was doing it.
“Well, hell, what are we waiting for?” asked the Furb. “Let’s put down the top and go cruisin’!”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!”
“You guys wanna come?” the Furb asked.
In retrospect, I have no idea what made me agree to go cruising with Melvin and the Furb. Maybe it was the gallon or so of cheap beer I had consumed since breakfast. Maybe the magic mushrooms were starting to kick in. Maybe there was a part of me that figured that there really was a chance of hooking up with some women, even if Melvin and the Furb were involved. For whatever reason, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
“Yeah, sure.” I turned to Matt and asked, “You coming?”
He looked at me disgustedly. “Hay-ull no!” he said.
“Your loss,” said the Furb. “Let’s roll.”
We went down to the parking lot. The Furb put Melvin to work giving the fenders a quick buff while he put down the convertible top. Not surprisingly, he hit us up for gas money. The sonofabitch was going to get my two bucks one way or the other, it seemed. He pocketed the money and started the Mustang with a roar, giving the tires a good screech as we left the parking lot. A group of PANs had gathered on the upstairs walkway to see us off, and our departure was met with a barrage of hoots and empty beer cans.
In short order, we were cruising down the coastal highway. The Furb was behind the wheel, Melvin riding shotgun, and I was stretched out in the back seat. “Don’t put your feet on the seats,” said the Furb. “That’s genuine Italian leather. Cost me nearly five hundred bucks to reupholster.”
I ignored him, lying back and watching the sky. A fresh sea breeze had driven off the cloud cover than had been making the weather so miserable. Off to the west, the sun was setting, painting the twilight sky in majestic purples and golds. All around us, a colorful dusk was settling over the palm groves that swayed in the mellow breeze.
The mushrooms, I concluded, were finally kicking in.
“Hey, man, how about some music?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” agreed Melvin. “Turn on some tunage!”
The Furb punched a cassette into the tape deck, and Bob Seger began warbling about going to Katmandu. I’ve never been a big fan of ol’ Bob, but it seemed to fit the occasion. I relaxed, letting the warm evening breeze wash over me. In the front seat, Melvin and the Furb were hatching some sort of plan to attract women. I tuned them out, listening to the mix of wind-noise and Bob Seger. I watched, captivated, as the sky progressed through pinks and purples to a dark, mysterious indigo. Up ahead, a lambent glow on the horizon indicated that exciting Palmetto Beach was not too far ahead.
Too bad Matt didn’t want to come, I thought. Sure, Melvin and the Furb could be a little high-strung, but they were my pledge brothers. We had gone through a lot together. The night was young and gorgeous, and we were in a sleek convertible, heading for fun and adventure at the big beach resort. I grinned up at the sky, soaking it all in.
“Hey man, you haven’t fallen asleep back there, huh?” asked the Furb. “We’re almost there.”
I sat up. Neon-lit fireworks shops were zipping past us on either side of the highway. Up ahead, shell-white high-rises were silhouetted against the last deep purples of the sunset. A colorfully-lit Ferris wheel twirled over the boardwalk beyond. We passed a large sign reading, “Welcome to Palmetto Beach. Enjoy our White Beaches and Hospitality.”
A left turn off the highway and a right at the next light put us on Palmetto Beach’s main drag – and into the biggest traffic jam I had ever seen.
Traffic in both lanes of Ocean Boulevard was bumper-to-bumper. The sidewalks, too, were jammed with people, mostly teenagers who were bopping along hollering at people in the cars and generally raising hell.
I slumped down in the back seat. This was definitely not what I had envisioned. I’d thought we’d take a quick cruise along the main drag, check out the women, maybe hit a few bars. Instead, I felt hemmed in by a crush of drunken, soulless humanity. The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of people on the sidewalk looked like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The mushroom trip, which had been mellow and enjoyable on the ride down, was becoming dark and oppressive. I slid further down into the seat.
In the front, Melvin and the Furb were having no such existential difficulties. Melvin was nearly out of his mind with excitement, gawking at the passersby and commenting in his excited country-boy yodel. The Furb was playing it cool. He leaned back in the seat, arm casually dangling over the door. He had a badass ride, and he clearly enjoyed the compliments he was getting.
“Hey, cool ‘Stang!” hollered a beefy guy in a muscle shirt. “Is that a ’65? What’s it got under the hood?”
“It’s a ’66!” the Furb yelled back. “It’s got a 289 HiPo, with a big ol’ Holley double-pumper and an Edelbrock intake. Put ’em in myself!”
The muscle guy was going to ask another question, but someone in the crowd shoved him, causing him to spill his drink. He turned around and threw a punch. From out of nowhere, three cops appeared to break up the melee.
“Oh, holy shit!” squealed Melvin. “Check out those hot chicks over there! They must be cheerleaders or models or something! They’re giving me the eye!” I lifted my head to check out the pimply teen girls that Melvin was pointing out. They were paying him no attention whatsoever.
By now, the traffic had come to a standstill. The Furb cut off the engine.
“Jesus, what are you doing?” I asked.
“No point in wasting gas,” said the Furb.
I slumped back down. For the next thirty minutes, traffic barely moved. Whenever the Nova in front of us moved up a few feet, the Furb started the car, gunned the engine a few times, and pulled up until we were right behind the Nova’s bumper again.
I could see an intersection up ahead – an escape route! We could get the hell out of this miserable crush of teenyboppers and muscleheads, and cruise back to hang with the rest of the PANs. Even being stuck in a moldy motel room would be a treat compared to this nightmare.
I sat up and tapped the Furb on the shoulder. “Hey, man, let’s take that turn when we get to it, and blow this popsicle stand. This really sucks.” “Are you crazy? We just got here! The fun’s just starting!”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” Melvin chimed in. “We haven’t met any chicks yet. We gotta get some chicks!”
I doubted that Melvin was going to get a chick unless we happened to run across one who had a Gomer Pyle fetish. I watched with dismay as we slid past the intersection. I could see the next one about a hundred yards ahead, but at the rate we were going it would be at least an hour before we got there.
I felt a wave of despair wash over me. The trip had turned into a major bummer – an ugly tableau of regrets and unpleasant introspection. I’d spotted a girl in the crowd who reminded me of a psych major I’d dated back in the fall. I’d been totally ape over her, but she dumped me after our second date. All of the bad feelings came rushing back. I’d never find love, my life was a joke and existence itself was a cruel exercise in futility. I didn’t know why I’d come down to this stupid beach town, gone to college, or even been born. Reality, in general, sucked.
The Nova in front of us crept up another two feet. The Furb started the engine, pulled up, shut off the ignition. “Screw this,” he said. “I’m wasting more gas cranking the engine than I would by driving. I’m gonna get out and push. Melvin, you wanna steer?”
“What? Me? Steer the Mustang? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah yeah, yeah!”
The Furb hopped out, and strolled around to lean on the back of the car. Melvin slid over into the driver’s seat. He gripped the wheel tightly with both hands and stared intently out the windshield, as if awaiting the green flag at Daytona.
Eventually, the Nova moved up another few feet. Melvin craned his head around and hollered “PUSH!” The Furb bent over and gave the car a shove. When it was inches away from the Nova’s bumper, Melvin tromped on the brakes, causing the Furb to double over the trunk and fall. It would have been comical if I hadn’t been in such a terrible mood.
Every ten minutes or so, the Nova crept up a few feet, Melvin hollered “PUSH!” and the Furb shoved the car forward. He was starting to attract attention from the crowd on the sidewalk.
“Hey, buddy, whatsamatter? Car broke down?”
“Naw, man, just tryin’ to save gas.” The Furb was oblivious to the ridicule this attracted. In his mind, he was cool and prudent, saving a few nickels while he enjoyed the party atmosphere of Palmetto Beach.
In the back seat, I was getting desperate. The Furb’s gas-saving stratagem was drawing attention that I didn’t want, especially in my psychically fragile state. I needed something to take the edge off, but I hadn’t even thought to bring along any beer. There were plenty of bars along Ocean Boulevard, but there was no way I was going to brave the crowd to get to one.
I considered just jumping out of the car and making a run for it. The problem was that fifteen miles of empty beach highway lay between us and the motel in North Palmetto. It would probably take five hours for me to hike that far, provided I didn’t get creamed by some drunk driver on the way. There were undoubtedly cabs in the area, but I didn’t have enough money to go more than a few miles.
“PUSH!” hollered Melvin. There was an extended delay and he yelled again, “PUSH!!!”
I looked around. The Furb had left his station by the trunk and was leaning in the driver’s window of the 280Z that was behind us. Inside, I could see two blonde girls, their towering hairsprayed ‘dos brushing the ceiling of the car.
The Furb sauntered back with a cheesy smirk on his face. “Hey, I’m hooking up with these chicks back here. I’m gonna ride with them for a while. Someone else is gonna have to push.”
“Don’t look at me,” I said. “I’m not pushing or steering.”
The Furb shrugged. “Whatever. Melvin, you can just start ‘er up and pull forward when the cars move up. Think you can manage that?”
“What? Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” He was ecstatic. He would actually be driving the Mustang. This was an unheard act of Furbian largess. Undoubtedly, it would have never happened if the Furb hadn’t been on the make. After giving Melvin a refresher on the how to use the clutch, and offering a dire warning about what would happen if he screwed up the car, the Furb sauntered back to the 280Z with a wide grin on his face.
Suddenly, I had a glimmer of hope. If the Furb could hook up with the girls in the 280Z, there was a chance for all of us. There was at least two of them, maybe three. The odds were definitely in our favor. For the first time since arriving in Palmetto Beach, it seemed like things might actually work out for the best.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. A few minutes later, the Furb came skulking back to the car. “What happened?” asked Melvin. “I thought you were totally gonna score!”
“Damn stuck up Carolina bitches,” muttered the Furb. “They were all ready to go, but when they saw my letters, they wouldn’t let me in the car.”
Apparently, the rotten reputation of the Pi Alpha Nu house had spread to UNC. My sense of optimism deflated, and my mood once again turned dark and dismal. I could feel the bad trip coming back, hard. I just wanted to free myself from this quagmire.
“C’mon, man, let’s get the hell out of here,” I said. “Those Carolina chicks can kiss our asses. Let’s head back to North Palmetto. There were some hot chicks at that Howard Johnson’s down by the Taco Bell. I’m sure we can hook up there.”
“Hell, no!” said the Furb. He had a stubborn look on his face, and I knew he was not going to be reasonable. “I’m gonna show those snotty bitches. We’re gonna score with the hottest women in town!”
“Yeah!” said Melvin. “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!”
“Hey you!” came a voice from the sidewalk. “What’s wrong with your car?” It was a short guy with a ratlike face. He was really drunk, weaving back and forth and dribbling beer from the bottle of Budweiser he was carrying.
“Nothing,” said the Furb. “Just trying to save gas.”
“Hey, I know what’s wrong with it,” said Rat Boy. “It’s a fuckin’ Ford! Fix Or Repair Daily! Found On Road Dead! Hahahahaha!”
“Hey, screw you!” replied the Furb. “This thing will blow any other car off the road!”
“Yeah, I bet you know all about blowin’, dontcha?” He squinted as he regarded the Furb. “Hey, what’s that on your shirt? You in some sorta frat or somethin’?”
“Hell, yeah! I’m a Pi Alpha Nu from Old North State! You got a problem with that?”
Uh-oh, I thought. I was amazed at how this evening kept getting worse and worse. The Furb was already in a bad mood, and having this asshole rag on the fraternity was not going to help.
“Yeah, I gotta problem with that!” shouted Rat Boy. “Fuck you, you big frat faggot! Fuck you and your piece of shit Mush-stang!” He overhanded the beer bottle, and it bounced off the trunk with a loud TUNK!
Immediately, the Furb rushed at Rat Boy in a headlong charge. Unfortunately, the bastard had three big friends with him, and they quickly overwhelmed the Furb.
“Oh shit!” cried Melvin. “What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do!”
The trip was now coming on in waves. I sensed all of the likely scenarios of the situation as simultaneous overlapping possibilities. I saw myself jumping from the car and running away. I saw the sneering face of Matt Poe, calling me a coward. I saw the Furb going down hard and getting stomped badly. I saw ambulances and blood. I saw everything, and none of it was good.
Something in me snapped. “Uh-uh,” I said to myself. “No. No more bullshit.” I was still steamed at the Furb for hauling me into this mess and refusing to leave when we had the chance. But now he was getting pounded by four guys. This was not only my fraternity brother, but my pledge brother, and I couldn’t just leave him to get beat up.
“Wait here!” I yelled to Melvin. “Stay with the car!” The trip shifted gears. I was no longer a weak-kneed pacifist, afraid of confrontation. I was an angry, primal force, hell-bent on helping my brother. I lowered my head and charged onto the sidewalk, catching Rat Boy square in the stomach with the top of my head. He went down like a wet dishcloth.
I looked around for someone else to hit, seized by a mixture of adrenaline, psilocybin, and blood lust. A big dude in a Ron-Jon t-shirt had the Furb by the neck. I curled up my fist and swung at him. I had never thrown a punch before, but I must have seen it done on TV a million times. I caught Ron-Jon square in the left eye and he reeled backwards. The Furb kneed another one of Rat Boy’s friends in the crotch, who curled up and began mewing like a sick kitten.
The Furb and I turned on the remaining assailant. I drew back my fist, meaning to jab him on the snotlocker, then suddenly the sidewalk rushed up and smacked me in the face. There were loud whistles and yelling all around us. My hands were jerked behind my back, and something cold and hard snapped around my wrists.
Before I knew it, I was hauled up and hustled to the open door of a black van that was pulled off to the side of the street. The Furb, similarly handcuffed, was also being hustled off by a pissed-looking cop. I could see Melvin’s white face, his mouth a perfect “O” of surprise, receding through the crowd as we were hauled away. Rat Boy and his friends had somehow scrambled away without getting caught.
Jesus, we’re going to jail! I was terrified! I had never been in any trouble with the law, and now I was in the back of a police van in handcuffs. The adrenaline subsided, leaving a deep, black fear.
“Holy shit, what’s gonna happen to us?” I asked the Furb.
“I dunno. We’re going to jail, I guess.”
“Oh shit! Oh shit! Have you ever been to jail?”
“No, have you?”
“No,” I shook my head. “I just hope that Melvin can figure out a way to get us out.”
“I just hope he doesn’t let anything happen to my car.”
“Hey, keep it down back there!” shouted one of the cops in the front. He banged on the mesh grill between the front and back with a heavy fist.
I tried to push away thoughts of every prison movie or TV show I’d ever seen. It was no use. The psychedelics in my system were dredging up horrible visions of beatings, rapes and shankings. I started to hyperventilate, and had to bite down on my tongue to keep from sobbing out loud.
Soon enough, the van came to a halt, and we were unloaded at the Palmetto Beach City Jail. The booking process was a fuzzy nightmare of barked commands, harsh fluorescent lights and evil-looking cops.
We were booked for disorderly conduct, had our handcuffs removed, and were escorted down to a holding cell. It was full of shouting, weeping, babbling guys. The cop swung the door open and gave us a shove inside. “Have fun, college boys,” he said.
The cell was about twenty by forty feet, barred on three sides, with steel benches along the cinder block wall on the back. We stood in the middle of the room, uncertain of what to do. Fortunately, no one else was paying any attention to us. I looked nervously around the cell. There was something odd here, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I glanced over at the Furb. He was also looking around in nervous puzzlement.
“Hey, Mert, what the hell’s up with this place?” asked the Furb. “Does something seem weird to you?”
“I dunno…” I started. I looked at the guy next to us. He was small and red-eyed, and there was a puke stain down the front of his Pink Floyd t-shirt. He looked about fourteen years old. Then it hit me. “Holy shit, the Furb – we’re, like, the oldest guys in here!” It was true. Except for two gray-haired drunks that were snoring in the corner, every other person in the cell was at least a couple of years younger than us. Over the Easter weekend Palmetto Beach was a huge magnet for high-school kids, and we were the only college students in the cell.
“Well, what do we do now?” asked the Furb. “Let’s grab a seat and wait. What else?” The benches along the back of the cell were full, but I didn’t care. I marched up to a weedy kid with long hair. “Take a hike, junior!” I snarled.
“Yeah, you too!” the Furb said to the kid sitting next to him. The two got up and slunk to the other side of the cell, casting mistrustful glances over their shoulders.
“And don’t fuckin’ look at me!” I shouted after them.
We waited. I leaned back against the cold cinderblock wall, trying to get some perspective on the situation. It wasn’t easy. Even though the worst of the crisis seemed to have passed, I was still contending with waves of paranoia from the drugs. Here I was, trapped in a cage with a bunch of drunks. There was no telling how long I would be in here. There was a clock in the hallway outside the cell, but it seemed to be broken.
There were a couple of guys in the cell smoking cigarettes. The smell of the smoke seemed exceptionally intense and rich. All of a sudden, I was craving a smoke more than anything I had ever wanted in my life.
The kid in the Pink Floyd shirt drifted into my field of view. “Hey, you! Pinky!” I hollered.
“Who? Me?” the kid squeaked.
“Yeah, you. Gimme a cigarette. Better yet, gimme two or three.”
“But I don’t have any cigarettes,” he protested.
“Then you’d better go find some!” I snapped. He scurried off.
I replayed the fight in my mind. I had actually come through it okay. I felt vindicated, as if I’d proved my physical courage to myself. It was something that I had never really been certain about before. It felt good.
Then a vision of my grandfather materialized before me. “Does that make you feel like a big man, Merton?” he asked. “Hurting a fellow human being like that? That makes you feel good?”
The bottom dropped out of my stomach. I could feel another dark wave curling over me, ready to crash down on my psyche. Then the shrimp in the Pink Floyd shirt scuttled up, and thrust out a battered pack of Camels.
“Here’s your cigarettes, uh, sir.”
I took them absently and said, “Yeah, thanks, kid.” He shrank back with a mistrusting look on his face. I peered into the pack – there were three cigarettes in there. Pinky had done all right. I fished one out, and offered another to the Furb.
“Huh,” he said. “Normally I don’t, but tonight I’ll make an exception.” I pulled out my battered Bic lighter and lit us up. The Furb held his cigarette like a tyro, pinching it carefully between his thumb and forefinger. He started coughing immediately. I took a huge drag and blew a plume of smoke up towards the ceiling.
The cigarette was terrific, just what I needed. I had been smoking cigarettes since I was thirteen, and pot since I was fourteen. After that, I had tried pretty much anything that would get me off. I never developed any taste for the hard stuff, but really went in for the hippie drugs. I could put away weed like Cheech and Chong. Booze, too. When it came to partying, I could pretty much match anybody on fraternity row.
One time during pledging, Gray-Beard Tom, the chapter president, pulled me aside and quietly asked if I had everything under control with the drugs. At 24, Tom was the elder statesman of PAN – ancient, kind and wise. I had replied indignantly that of course I had everything under control. He just gave me a sad smile, and said that if I ever needed to talk about anything, I knew where to find him.
This incident had rattled me pretty badly. I launched into a two-week bender that caused me to blow two of my mid-terms. However, I managed to dig out my grades by the end of the semester, and the whole incident had been largely forgotten by the time Christmas rolled around.
Until now. I looked over at Pinky, who was sitting by the bars of the cell, his knees drawn up to his chin. Suddenly, I felt guilty as hell about pushing him around. It wasn’t that long ago that I was just like him – a red-eyed runt who was just starting out on a run of bad decisions. Hell, I’d even owned the same Pink Floyd shirt at one point.
One of the drunks in the corner came to. He began babbling some nonsense about the Freemasons poisoning the water supply. Everyone edged away from him. He cut off in mid-rant and began dry heaving. Everyone moved even further away.
I kept looking between Pinky and the drunk. Here we all were, in the same damn holding cell. The same thing had brought us here. I couldn’t help but think that there was a linear progression between Pinky and the crazy drunk. And I was right in the middle. Pinky, me, wasted drunk. It seemed pretty plain where I was heading.
I pulled out my Bic lighter and began flicking it, staring into the dark center of the flame. Flick. Flame. Release. I could see faces in there: Grandpa, the Furb, Rat Boy, Melvin, Gray-Beard Tom.
Flick. Flame. Release.
I saw my own face in the flame. What the hell was I doing in this cell? What was to keep me from ending up like the babbling drunk in the corner?
Abruptly, the Furb said, “Hey, Mert, I just wanna say thanks. If you hadn’t jumped in, those guys woulda stomped me for sure. I really appreciate it, brother.”
The Furb was not the most gracious of people, but he sounded genuinely sincere. I looked over at him. He was almost in tears. “My stepdad always used to get drunk and beat on me,” he said. “I always wished I’d had a big brother or someone who would help me out when that happened. I…I dunno. Just…thanks, man.”
I felt a lump rise in my throat. I didn’t know what to say. I clapped him on the shoulder and choked out, “You bet, bro.”
I took another drag on the cigarette. When I’d lit it up, it had been great. Now it tasted like shredded shit. I dropped it to the floor and crushed it out.
The kid in the Floyd t-shirt was still curled up by the front of the cell. “Yo, Pinky!” I called out. He cringed. “What? What do you want now?” “Nothing. You want this last smoke?”
“Uh, yeah, okay. Sure.”
I shoved my lighter into the pack and tossed it over to him. He lit up like a pro and blew out a train of smoke rings.
I leaned back against the wall and closed my eyes. It felt like the drugs had pretty much run their course. I had that husked-out feeling that always comes at the end of an intense trip. But I felt good, all things considered. It was like I had run the gauntlet and come through the other side.
I must have dozed off, because the next thing I knew a cop was at the cell door. He bellowed, “Merton Murphy, Eric Furbitzky! You’re outta here!”
Out in the processing area, Melvin was waiting with Gray-Beard Tom. We gathered our belongings and went outside, where I was amazed to see the sun coming up.
“Well, boys,” said Gray-Beard Tom, “now you know why the PANs don’t go down to Palmetto Beach. Someone always winds up in jail. Fortunately, I had the number of a good bail bondsman.”
“How much trouble are we in?” I asked.
“Ah, not much. You’ll have to come back down here for the court date, probably be a couple hundred dollars’ fine. That’s on top of the hundred-fifty you each owe the house for throwing your bail.”
“Phew, Jesus Christ,” I said. “I’m glad that’s over.” Now that we were in the clear, I felt very, very hungry. “Hey, is there a place around here where we can eat?”
“There’s a Shoney’s up the street,” said Gray-Beard Tom. “Sign out front says they’ve got an Easter breakfast buffet. Let’s go get us some pancakes!”
“Hallelujah!” I said.
A year later, Easter weekend in North Palmetto Beach. The sun was shining down on the broad expanse of beach in front of the Hoegenbloeven Motor Court. The PANs were relaxing on the sand, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather.
“Hey, man,” said the Furb. “You wanna cruise up to North Conroy? There’s a beach volleyball tournament there today.”
“Count me in,” I said. “I’ve always been an athletic supporter. You gonna let me drive the ‘Stang?”
“C’mon, bro. At least let me drive it back.”
“Yeah, okay, sure thing.”
“Right on,” I said. “You coming, Poe-Boy?”
“You bet,” said Matt. “Sorry I missed all the fun last year.”
“That shit was not fun. No fun getting locked up, even in kiddie jail.”
“Well, I know you can handle yourself, Mister President,” he said. “Especially after you straightened out those Alpha Lambda Taus.”
The vicious fights between our house and the ALTs were a thing of the past. I had been able to make a peace between the two houses, but only after I had given their chapter president a belt to the head to get his respect.
“Iron fist in a velvet glove, my brother,” I told Matt.
“Hey, Mert,” he whispered. “Think I’ll burn one before we head out. You wanna toke?”
“No thanks, man,” I said. “I’ve pretty much used up all my fun tickets on that ride.”
“Thought so,” Matt said. “Just askin’ to be polite. I’ll meet y’all in the parking lot.”
The Furb pulled on his letter tank top and began gathering up his beach gear. “Y’know, it’s too bad that Melvin couldn’t be here this year,” he said. Melvin had gotten a cheerleader pregnant and dropped out of school right before Christmas. It had been quite the scandal.
“You ready?” the Furb asked.
“Hell, yeah,” I said. “Let’s cruise.”