Monday, February 14, 2005

A (second) peek into Steve's skeleton closet

Friday, February 4, 8:30am.

Steph and I are at a local muffler shop. Since her car sounds like a motorboat, I figure it's time to get it checked.

I know the manager, Pat. His eyes perk up as soon as he sees me; he comes out from behind the counter to shake my hand and pat my back.

"Heyy, Steeeve!" he says, warmly. "How's your family? How's mom and dad?"

"Mom died last September."

His face sags; suddenly he looks like a Bassett Hound. "Oh no. No! What HAPPENED?"

"She had a stroke."

"Oh, Steve. I'm so sorry."

"Thanks. Listen, the reason I'm here is I think my girlfriend's car needs a muffler."

"OK, sure."

"On the phone they told me they're gonna be backed up for an hour and a half or two hours this morning-"

"Oh, no. No, no. They didn't know you were one of my guys. I'll take care of you. Gimme a half hour."

"Pat, it's ok. I was gonna let her drive me to work and use my car-"

"Nope! No way! Give me the keys, I'll get 'em started on it right now. Can she wait a half hour?"


He holds out his hand. "Key."

I drop it in his palm. He winks at me. "I got you covered, my friend."

What is so strange about this, you ask? Why the ominous-sounding title? Simple: Because Pat is the last person in the world I would expect to be so friendly towards me after what happened about 18 years ago.....

I'm halfway through my sophomore year in high school. I'm basically a ghost at this point; a big, fat ghost, but a ghost nonetheless. I haven't yet developed into the loudmouth son of a bitch you know and love today; I just sort of float aimlessly from class to class, hoping everyone leaves me alone.

History class, third period. We're in the middle of an exam on the American revolution, for which I have been cramming for a week. I'm acing the hell out of the test. There's a knock at the door: Mr. Roberts, our teacher, gets up, opens the door, and begins speaking to whomever is there.

I turn to my left and there is Pat, future muffler-store-manager Pat, with a folded-up 8 1/2 X 11 sheet of notebook paper on his lap, surreptitiously copying answers into his blue book. A girl to his left scoffs and shakes her head as she watches him.

"Did you bring enough notes for everybody?" I say. A few kids laugh out loud. Pat doesn't look up.

Class ends, and I'm headed for the stairwell. I'm about to take the first step when I feel a shove from behind. I turn around; Pat is standing there. What's his fucking problem?, I think, not making the connection. I turn around and take a step. There's another shove; I almost fall down the stairs.

"WHAT?!" I say, wheeling around.

"You almost got me busted for cheating!" he spits.

"So study next time, asshole!"

"Shut up, lard ass!" The stairwell fills with laughter.

I seriously don't want any trouble at this point. I just want to be left alone. I speed up a bit and manage to lose Pat in a group of kids at the bottom of the stairs.

Later that day, I speak to my shop teacher and tell him what happened. He makes a phone call. "Principal Barnett wants to see you," he says.

I report to the vice principal's office, and he goes over the story with me. "If we confirm this story, this student is going to be severely dealt with," he says. "We don't tolerate cheaters here. And I want to commend you for not sinking to his level."

Barnett is a prick. He's the guy who, two years after this conversation, almost expelled me from that very school. But that is quite another story.

Well, he must have confirmed it, because for the next five days, there was no Pat.

The sixth day was a day I won't soon forget.

Pat is back in history class, but he doesn't say or do anything to me. I know he must be pissed, and I wonder if he'll try anything, but when he doesn't even look at me, I figure it might be all over.


I am walking home, backpack over my shoulder, when Pat and an older-looking kid get out of a car parked in a neighbor's driveway and walk menacingly towards me.

The older guy swings a fist fiercely at my head. I try to move, but he connects squarely with my ear, filling my head with a deafening, high-pitched whine.

I don't fall. I don't even drop my backpack. I just stand there, shocked, my ear stinging like a fresh burn.

Pat slaps me across the cheek with an open hand. His face is red with anger, his teeth clenched, his jaw square.

The other kid gets me in a headlock and squeezes until I can hardly breathe. Pat spits in my face and punches me square in the gut. The air rushes from my lungs; my legs collapse from under me, so that the only thing holding me up is the older kid's headlock.

Pat swings at my face and catches just the tip of my nose. It stings a bit, but I'm not bleeding and I don't think it's broken.

It strikes me that neither one of these guys has said one word to me since they got out of the car.

"Come on! Someone's coming!" The older one says. They hop in the car and come about three feet away from hitting me as they back out.

Dad's not home when I get home, of course. I ice my bruises and think about my problem, but I don't tell one single soul about it.

What do I do? Go back to Barnett? Rat Pat out again, and get my ass kicked again? Call the cops? For a spit in the face and a punch in the stomach? He'll get a slap on the wrist, and then he'll be back after me.

Yeah, I was being an idiot. But I was 16 fucking years old, and I wasn't asking any adults for help. It's no wonder I chose poorly. And choose poorly I did.

It's a Tuesday, and I have fifth period phys ed today. I happen to know that Pat always comes into the locker room through a little-used side entrance, right near a utility closet. Directly across the hall from the closet is an empty office marked "training room".

I get to the locker room early, open the door to the closet, and prop it open with a five-gallon drum of paint. And wait.

The door squeaks open. It's Pat.

I wait until he's next to the doorway and I lunge at him, pushing him into the training room and tackling him violently against the brick wall inside. "UGHH!" I hear him say, and I can almost feel the air leaving his lungs, just like it left mine.

He falls to the ground, and raises his forearms defensively. I swing viciously and connect squarely with his nose; blood spurts everywhere. And I do mean SPURTS. This kid looks like a lawn sprinkler!

He stares at me, shocked, for a long moment, then covers his face with his forearms. I swing again and connect with his right cheek; it sounds like a lump of clay hitting a tiled floor.

Seeing him bleed, seeing him in pain, seeing him vulnerable, doesn't placate me; it makes me angrier.

I want to hurt him.

No, I want to maim him.

No, I want to kill him.

No, I want to destroy him. I want to tear his body into bloody, unrecognizable shreds and leave them to rot and be picked at by birds of prey (why do I suddenly feel like Susan Hawk?)

Anger rises inside of me, anger I have never felt before, boiling up and spilling over like hot, molten magma from a volcano. I am very close to totally losing control.

Pat has squeezed himself into a tiny ball, his knees pulled tightly to his chest, his hands covering his face. I flail one meaty fist after another at Pat, but mostly all I'm doing is pounding the hell out of his arms.

I get up slowly, gasping for breath myself, return to my locker, change into a t-shirt and shorts, and head out to the gym for volleyball.

Teams are being chosen, and after a very routine two or three minutes, I actually entertain thoughts that I might get away with it.

Just then, Mr. Murphy, the football coach, rushes from the locker room and charges at me. He grabs me violently by the back of the shirt. "OFFICE! NOW!!" he shouts.

An hour later, I had my very first school suspension, this one for five days. There would be many more.

Pat was suspended too, for two weeks, after they found out what he and the older boy did when I was walking home that day. About a month after he came back, his parents shipped him off to some prep school and no one heard from him again for a long time.

A few years ago, I was getting my muffler fixed, and there he was, running the muffler shop, just like he is today. He acted like I was his best friend in the world that day, and he has ever since. There was no discussion, no reconciliation, no air-clearing, nothing; nothing to explain how he went from wanting to kill me to being my best buddy.

Maybe that is why I look at his friendliness so suspiciously; because I can't explain it. I sometimes think that he's biding his time, waiting for me to turn my back so he can clang me in the head with a tire iron. But mostly I figure he's grown up, and possibly gotten sober or found religion, and is trying to make up for what he's done wrong in the past.

Maybe someday I'll ask. But not today.