I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The next day was the day we had arranged to go to the races in Loudon, New Hampshire. So Fred called me about quarter to eight in the morning, just to make sure I was up, and said they’d be right over. It was Saturday, and I was all set to go, eating a bowl of cereal in the kitchen while Alphonse Daudet lay on the floor near my feet. He had a real liking for the little cubes of spoon-sized shredded wheat after they got soggy. He was like me in this respect because every day I had a bowl of spoon-sized shredded wheat which I soaked in milk until it got soggy. Like some people like their cereal to remain crispy, well Alphonse and me liked it chewy. “I’m going to New Hampshire today,” I told Alphonse. You could always talk to Alphonse, and it certainly seemed like he always followed the conversation. At least he was listening, which was more than you could say for most people. “I’ll be gone all day, so you’ll be on your own. Leave that cat next door alone.” I knew that Neil and Fred and me were going, and figured that probably Les and Donald and Blaine would show up too, if there was room or something.
After a while I heard Neil’s car pull into the driveway, and I ran to grab my denim jacket. It was always chilly in Barton in the mornings, even in the summer, because it was so near the mountains. I guess the fact that there were so many trees kept it cool, too.
Anyway I was the sort of person who felt cold a lot, because of my French blood or something, so I had on a sweatshirt and blue jeans and I put the jacket on too. I always forgot that even though it was cold in the mornings it heated up later on.
Fred opened the kitchen door and came in. Alphonse stood up and gave him a big yawn. I ran over to him and twisted his arm around behind his back and then jumped up and kissed him. See, I liked to get a grab on his arms before I kissed him, otherwise Fred might all of a sudden pick me up and swing me around, or jab me in the ribs or something. You really kind of had to know self-defense around Fred, even though he was just being affectionate.
“What’s that?” Fred said. “Shredded wheat? Man, I’m starving.” He got out a bowl and the milk.
“Didn’t you eat any breakfast?” I said.
“Yeah, I had some eggs and stuff. Neil’s out in the car. We have to go pick up Les. Blaine’s supposed to be waiting for us in the center of town.” He fluffed Alphonse on the top of his topknot and sat down to eat his cereal. It always made me feel really good to sit at a table while Fred was eating. He was so big and he ate everything with such relish. I don’t mean literally, but he did have a taste for strange combinations, like peanut butter and M&M’s on ice cream. So while I watched him, he just grinned at me. ‘’Got a banana?’’ he said.
“Nope,” I said.
“Any malted milk balls?”
“Fred!” I said. I said it like it was two words, “Fre-ed!” After a couple of minutes I saw Neil was standing by the kitchen door, looking in.
“What are you doing,” he said. “Where’s Fred?”
“I told you to wait in the car,” Fred said.
“Come on in, Neil,” I said.
“You told me to wait in the car so you could come in and have breakfast?” Neil said, opening the screen door. His eyes were all squinty behind his glasses.
“I never saw you this early in the morning, Neil,” I said. “Boy, do you look ridiculous.”
His face was all white and puffed up, like a big baby. “Thanks a lot,” he said. “I was up till two last night watching Bus Riley’s Back In Town, and then I had to break my tail running around to come and get you guys by eight. Then you make me wait in the goddamn car while you eat breakfast?” He was only a little bit mad at Fred, that was their relationship, consisting of neither one of them being able to stand being together or apart.
“Want some cereal?” I said.
“I need a cup of coffee.”
“Come on,” Fred said, putting his bowl in the sink. “Let’s get going. It’ll take too long to make coffee, we’ll stop on the road. We have to get there by eleven if we want to get a good location.”
Alphonse looked out the screen door at us as we walked around the yard to the driveway. He was always anxious when I went somewhere without him. So we got in Neil’s mother’s car, which was just an old Plymouth that wasn’t too old, I mean it was in good shape, maroon with a grey interior. A grey complexion, was what Neil called it. Fred and I got in the back, that way we wouldn’t have to move around when Les and Blaine came. Neil had brought his BB gun, and when we got out of town toward Les’s house Fred leaned out the window and shot it out at the trees. “How’s your father doing,” I said to Neil. I didn’t want Neil to feel he was just the chauffeur or something, driving up there while Fred and I sat luxuriously in the back.
“Don’t ask,” Neil said. “That old geezer makes me sick.” His father had like this kidney condition but I only heard Neil talk about him one time late at night when he was too tired to be so sarcastic.
When we got to Les’s house Neil honked the horn and Les came out. “Would you try and be civilized,” he said. “My mother’s still asleep. It’s fucking 8:30 in the morning, let’s go buy some beer.”
“I need a cup of coffee,” Neil said.
“Wait until we get to New Hampshire, we’ll buy a case at the State Packie,” Fred said.
Les got in the front seat. “Did you see old Bus Riley last night?” he said. I was always shy around Les, he looked so much like a really handsome movie star playing Jesus Christ or something, with those eyes. Anyway he was so sarcastic I didn’t like to open my mouth when he was around because I knew he would be thinking that I sounded like a moron. “Good morning,” he said, turning around toward the back to say hello. “How are you today, little chicken-lips?”
“Fine,” I said.
God it was a great day. Just me and the guys. It was so clear and fresh, I’m not exaggerating or anything, it was just totally perfect. We picked Blaine up in the center of town and he got in the back with us, I was sitting in the middle, and Neil ran into O’Donnell’s and picked up a cup of coffee with milk and sugar to go for him, and a black coffee for Les. Blaine was groaning about having to get up so early in the morning. Finally he calmed down some, though, and he gave my thigh a real squeeze and said, “Well well well, good morning my little chickadee, how are we feeling this morning?” You could tell that if he kept that up in a couple of years he really was going to turn into W. C. Fields. He hated children, small animals, and women, but he was still quite likeable.
We just drove along, and Les told Neil he should drive faster or we’d never get there, but Neil said it was his mother’s car and to shut up. Everyone got quiet after 20 minutes. It was early in the morning and it was just like we were all in a daze, driving along with the sun and the little dappled patterns that the sun made as it came through the leaves on the road out of town.
Fred put the BB gun down on the floor and put his head on my shoulder and fell asleep in a squinched-up position. After a while it got kind of windy, with the front windows open, and I rolled up the back window on Fred’s side and leaned over so that my head was on Blaine’s shoulder and even though I was so excited after a while I dozed off too.
When I woke up I guess it was about 40 minutes later and Les was smoking a joint with Neil. “Have a nice nap?” Les said, offering me the joint. So I pushed Fred into an upright sleeping position and smoked some of the joint with them. When I sat back I woke up Fred, by moving around I guess, and Fred shook himself awake and he reached over to the floor and he picked up the BB gun and he put it to the window and pulled the trigger.
The window gave this big thump and then all of a sudden began to crackle. And like the way you smash a piece of ice it crinkled up into these little diamond shapes that spread all across the glass. And then the window just fell out into a million pieces.
A lot of the pieces fell onto my lap and all across the back seat and out onto the road. “What the fuck,” Fred said. “Jesus Christ.” He was still holding the gun across his lap, and stupidly I couldn’t help myself, but started to laugh.
“What the fuck was that?” Neil said.
“Did I just shoot out the window?” Fred said.
“You just shot the window out?” Neil said in a high voice. “What the fuck did you do that for, you asshole.”
My lap was covered with glass. “Pull over,” Fred said.
Neil pulled the car over to the shoulder. Fred sat up and opened the door. A lot more shards fell over the seat. “What a jerk,” Blaine said. “What an unbelievable jerk, Brackelhorn.”
“I didn’t know the window was rolled up,” Fred said. “I didn’t know it was rolled up, I thought it was open.”
Neil was in a state of shock, that Fred had shot out the window of his mother’s car. His face was bright red, as if he was embarrassed. “You know how much a window costs?” he said.
It was going to cost 60 dollars at least to replace it. I mean Fred said he would pay if Neil’s parents didn’t have insurance for it. There was glass on Les’s shoulder in front, and I tried to pick the pieces off him while Fred swept off the back seat. Neil just stood there shaking his head. It kind of put a damper on the morning. The bottom part of the window was still there, upright, but crackled into little diamond bits. Fred had to pull the last part off. We just left all that glass in a pile on the side of the road. There was nothing to do but sweep the glass out and get going again.
Anyway we passed a state package store and we got out and I followed Fred inside. He looked pretty morose. The drinking age in New Hampshire was 18, so it was legal for him to buy. I wandered up and down the aisles looking at all the bottles, quarts of vodka and Grand Marnier and stuff, a million things I had never tried, let alone heard of. All those liqueurs, almond flavor and melon, chocolate stuff from Holland and Mexico, creamy Irish melds and fogs and brandies in flavors like ginger and peach and blackberry. It sure was tempting. Like it was grown-up candy or something. I figured I’d like to try everything, when I got a chance, at least once.
The man who was like the security guard came over to me and asked if I needed any help, except I knew what he meant was, was I in here with someone who was legal. So I just said I was with Fred and pointed to him. He was paying for a case of Genessee at the cashier. He picked up some pretzels and beer nuts and pistachios, which we were all addicted to. Especially Neil, he always had a handful of them, or else pink fingertips from eating them.
Neil and Les and Blaine were sitting in the car in the sun with the radio turned loud. Joe Cocker was singing, “Give me a ticket for an airplane, ain’t got time for a fast train, Lonely days are gone, I’m going home, My baby, she wrote me a letter.” It was really getting hot by now, and I took off my denim jacket.
It was going on 10:30. Finally we were getting near to Loudon. I drank a beer, which was a mistake, because any time I had a beer I had to pee almost immediately. I whispered to Fred that I had to go to the bathroom and he got Neil to stop at a gas station. So Les and me went to the restrooms. It’s funny how I was becoming aware of some of the major differences between men and women. Because normally women have to go to the bathroom a lot more frequently than men. And another thing was, when Les got back into the car he had bought this condom in the men’s room. I don’t know why. It was a little square packet with a picture of a woman’s head with an open mouth and these fat arms back behind her ears. It looked like she was about to swallow a fly. “You jerk. Les,” Fred said. And he whispered in my ear, “Are you offended or anything?” So I said that I wasn’t, though it did seem pretty stupid or show-offy of Les to run into a men’s room and buy one of those things. But the thing that interested me, and what I said was, “You mean they sell those things in men’s rooms?”
“You can’t go into a men’s room without seeing a machine that sells condoms,” Blaine said.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “Do you realize how weird that is? No wonder men are so strange and always have to be thinking about sex. They don’t have any escape from it. They go into a bathroom to pee and then they have to be inflicted with a condom machine, as if they’re going to race back into the car and have sex.”
“Men think about sex most of the time anyway,” Neil said. “I would say on the average I think about sex for about 10 seconds every minute and a half.”
“Did you time yourself?” Blaine said.
“That’s all you think about it?” Les said. “How often do you think about sex, Jenny.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Ever since I turned 14, last week.” Which made them all laugh, except maybe Fred. But the truth was I didn’t think I thought about sex at all. I mean, at least not in terms of seeing a man lying naked on a bed with his mouth open or something.
“Don’t they sell sex aids in women’s rooms?” Les said.
“No!” I said. “So meanwhile women are going into bathrooms just to pee, or to put on make-up or something, while men are going into bathrooms and getting ideas about running to the women’s room to rape and pillage or something.”
We all agreed it was pretty strange. By now we were in Loudon. All along the road to the racetrack was a long line of traffic in both directions. The racetrack was blocked with giant billboards, but you could see where the stock cars were coming down a hill at the top of the curve, and even at this distance the noise was really loud.
Our car got on line to buy admission to the parking lot. The other alternative would have been to leave the car and walk in to buy tickets, but the plan was that half of us were going to get in the trunk and when we were in the parking lot we’d get out of the trunk. Otherwise we’d have to pay per person.
See, this is just to show you how we couldn’t do something unless we kind of spiced it up by doing something we shouldn’t have been doing and seeing if we could get away with it. But I mean, none of the stuff we did was so terrible, and I would have been embarrassed not to just go along with everything. I didn’t have a moral stance or anything. So Fred said to Neil, “Listen, you better drive down the road so Jenny and Les and Blaine can get in the trunk and then we’ll come back and just the two of us will have to pay admission, plus the parking fee.”
Admission was about eight dollars per person, and that was going to be an awful lot of money. I mean, Fred usually paid for me, but this time my mother gave me half the money because Fred was pretty broke. And Les was pretty broke. And between all of us we didn’t have 45 dollars plus gas money home.
So we drove down the road and Les got out and Blaine got out and Fred and all of a sudden I just started to panic. I was covered in sweat, not just because it was a hot day and there weren’t any trees in the vicinity. I just thought, If I have to get in the trunk with Blaine and Les and it gets to be 110 degrees in there and it’s dark I’m just going to die.
I grabbed Fred by the arm. “I can’t do it,” I said. “I’m afraid to get in there.”
“We won’t lock the trunk,” Fred said. “If that’s what you’re afraid of, we’ll just close it but not all the way. I’d get in there instead of you, but I’m six-two, and it’s Neil’s car, so he should drive.”
“I can’t do it, Fred,” I said.
Neil came over to us. “You don’t have to get in there,” he said, “If she doesn’t want to get in the trunk, she shouldn’t have to.”
I really felt grateful to Neil for saying that. “No. I’ll do it,” I said. “I’m the smallest.” But I grabbed Fred’s arm again and I said very quietly to him, “I don’t want to get in there with Les.” I don’t know why I said that, it was just all of a sudden that’s what came out of my mouth. Maybe I just wanted to feel I had some control over the situation. It wasn’t like Les was a dangerous person or anything.
Anyway Neil overheard me and said that he’d get in the trunk with me and Blaine. Fred kept saying I didn’t have to if I didn’t want to, but as it turned out Les didn’t even have any money at all, so three people really had to sneak in for us to cover the admission.
Fred took the spare tire out of the trunk and put it in the back seat. See, the last time we did this, when we went to the drive-in movie, I hadn’t gotten in the trunk, I had refused, and Neil and Les and Blaine had to go in the trunk of Blaine’s convertible, which later broke down totally, and on that occasion we tried to remove the back seat and there were some difficulties. So this time I felt like I was really obligated to be one of the ones.
I waited for Neil and Blaine to arrange themselves and I got in last, nearest the opening, and then Fred shut the trunk. Fred was going to drive the car.
This is what made me know what it’s like to die. None of us talked, there just wasn’t anything to say. It was pitch black and it was like they dug a mass grave and threw the bodies in there. After the bright sun it was pitch black and smelled like gasoline and there was no air, it was just dark and I couldn’t move. There was a sneaker in my face and half of me was on top of Neil’s legs and the car drove a little bit and then just didn’t move and didn’t move and it could have been the worst place in my life.
I was just drenched in sweat in the pitch darkness. I knew outside the sun was beating down and that I would never see it again. Even though the trunk wasn’t locked it was closed all the way and I didn’t know for sure that Fred hadn’t changed his mind and decided to lock us in. All I wanted to do was to sit up and throw open the top, but supposing Fred had already gotten up to the ticket gate and I burst out, blowing everything?
I bit my lip and dug my hands into whatever leg was alongside. There was a jack or crowbar or something digging into my shoulder. I had to readjust myself and I kicked something who said in a muffled voice, “Jesus Christ.”
“Sorry,” I said. Let me out of here, let me out, I thought. The car started to go over a lot of bumps and I knew I was never going to get out of there. Everything stank of gasoline and there was no air and my lungs just felt like two seared baggies on top of a fire. You know the way plastic starts to shrivel up instantly and then gets all black and gluey.
Then the car stopped and I could hear Fred and he opened the trunk and said, “Don’t all get out at once, come out one at a time.” But Blaine and Neil just threw themselves out of the trunk. Neil was bright red and Blaine just doubled over like he was going to throw up, but he didn’t. We didn’t look at each other. As if we saw something terrible together, something we knew we were never going to speak of.
In some way, even though it wasn’t Fred’s fault, my feelings toward him had to change a little bit after this. Like I say, it wasn’t Fred’s fault. He told me I didn’t have to do it.
It’s funny how life always takes place from your own point of view. Like somebody else might have seen the day as like watching these fantastic cars racing, and sitting in the sun drinking beer and eating barbecued chicken wings with a bunch of friends.
But to me it was waiting on line to use a Porta-Jon with no toilet paper and these weird biker types with tattoos wandering around, and wondering whether all of Fred’s friends actually liked me or were just tolerating me. And being too hot in a sweatshirt. Like the cars, racing around and around over the same hills and speedway, with no mufflers and stinking of gasoline—well, what was the point? But that was my own point of view, I guess.
I guess I could never be just one of the guys. There was already too much girl in me.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee