Tuesday, March 25, 2008

At 16


I’ve never had a real job before, but I’m sixteen years old now and I think it’s time I earned some cash. Time that I was able to afford school clothes and not rely on hand-me-downs and whatever’s on sale at K-Mart. I’m getting a little too old for Garanimals. It’s time I tossed my green pants with the stitched-on frog. My brown pants with the bear. Adults don’t usually have cutesy animals on their clothing. I was a paperboy for years, and I spent a few summers working for the Summer Youth Program, but now I’m ready for the next step. The type of job that makes me feel like a grown-up. A job where adults work side-by-side with pimply-faced teens. Where girls wear tight pants and suggestively unbuttoned tops. Fast food. Pizza Tent, to be exact. A friend of mine said I should come by and fill out an application. He told me they’ll hire anybody, and I could be that anybody. I’m ready for responsibility. I’m ready for a real job. Ready for anything.

I’m at the local Pizza Tent in South Jersey, sitting in a booth across from Vito, my best friend, slowly filling out my first job application. I’ve never done this before, so I’m not sure what I’m supposed to write. References, experience, education. It’s only fucking pizza. Vito tells me to write down his father’s name as a reference. He’s stuffing garlic bread into his mouth and staring at our waitress’ shapely ass.

"You should fill one of these out too, Vito," I say. "Wouldn’t it be cool for us to work together?"

"Nah, I don’t work. Working would just take away from all the fun I plan on having until I graduate from high school. I’ll work when I’m, like, twenty-five or something. But not until I’ve had my fun."

"Well, I need some money, so’s I gotta work."

"Money’s overrated," he says, as our pleasantly plump, thirty-something waitress comes by and drops off a large pepperoni pizza. Her shirt is unbuttoned just enough to show off the beginnings of her ample cleavage. Her breasts are large and unable to stay still. Her boobs are all over the place. Vito looks pleased.

"Anything else I can get you guys?" she says sweetly. Her name-tag say "Tricia" and she’s more than twice my age. She has short dark hair (cut in the slightly out of fashion Dorothy Hamill bob), peppered with a few strands of gray, a gorgeous, dimpled smile, her scent like a drop of honey on the tip of my nose. She’s a big girl, but not big enough to deter any reasonable teenager from wanting to have sex with her. I’m charmed by the way she smiles at me, the way she looks into my eyes.

"I’ll take your phone number," Vito says, with a slickness I could never muster. Vito is a smooth operator. An Italian stud of the first order. Girls like him. We’ve been best friends for three years now, and I’ve assumed the role of Sidekick. In any friendship, the guy who’s getting the least pussy automatically becomes the sidekick. I don’t mind. It’s a learning experience. Vito is teaching me all he knows about woman. Sometimes, he lets me sit in the front seat of his Trans Am while he has sex in the back with whatever girl he happens to be bludgeoning with his massive tool that week. I have to admit, though, it’s mostly just depressing to be that guy in the front seat listening to his best friend make some random girl, laugh, moan, scream, beg, and cry, in that order. Vito gets laid constantly. I get laid never. But he’s very encouraging. Vito is convinced that I’ll get laid before I turn seventeen. I’m not so sure. He recently said, "Erv, even retards get laid. So I’m sure you can, too." I’m sure he meant it in a positive way, but it just made me feel sad. Like a real loser.

Tricia laughs, blushes mildly. "My phone number? How old are you guys?"

Simultaneously, I say "Sixteen" and Vito says "Twenty-one."

She shakes her head, smiling her big pretty smile, and says, "Nice try." Tricia turns to me and says, "Give me a call when you’re eighteen."

"I may be young, but I’m all man, baby," Vito says.

"I’m old enough to be your very young mother."

"I’ve had sex with people’s mothers before," Vito says proudly. "I can barely fight the moms off of me."

She turns to me and rolls her eyes, as if we’re in on a joke together, and I shrug. Without words, she says What’s up with your friend? and I say Damned if I know. She then notices that I’m filling out an application. Tricia says, "I wouldn’t worry too much about that application. It’s a sure thing. Consider yourself hired. We’ve got a major cook shortage, and unless you’re completely stupid, I guarantee you that Ben will hire you. Are you stupid...um, what’s your name?"

"Ervin. My name’s Ervin, and I’m not stupid. Not that I know of, anyway. I’m, you know, just...average. Not too smart, not too dumb, I guess." I’ve always seen myself as a normal kid. Decent-looking but not gorgeous. Smart but far from a genius. Funny but not humorous enough to take my act on the road. Caring but a little selfish. I am Every Kid. Mostly shy, mostly nice, mostly cute.

Tricia runs her fingers through my spiky blond hair, flattening a few of my well-sprayed spikes, and I blush. She says, "I can’t wait to work with you. You’re a cutie pie. Your blue eyes are beautiful. And those dimples. Yum. If you were eighteen, I would so make you my new boyfriend." She winks at me and walks away.

"Wow, she so wants you, dude," Vito says, clearly shocked, as he shoves a gooey slice into his mouth. I can tell by the slight hint of bitterness in his voice that he’s jealous. This is the first time a girl has shown more interest in me than him. This never happens. Vito is always the good-looking one. Tanned and muscled. Maybe my time is coming. He adds, "She’s not my type anyway. I like ‘em skinny, but with big, giant tits. She’s good for you, though. I mean, you need to get laid, and maybe it’d be best to start with a big girl. I hear big girls are freaks. And who are you to be picky, right?"

"Right. Who am I?"

I have little experience with women, so I tend to believe everything Vito tells me. But deep inside I feel a spark. A bit of pride. A feeling that maybe I am someone special. Someone a girl would like. Maybe even love. I know my awkward early teenage years are ending and I’m growing into my looks. My body is finally big enough to match my super large head, which has always been super large, even when I was young and small. I’m sixteen, and all of my pieces are finally starting to fit together properly.

We’re halfway through our pizza when a tall, big, smiling Pizza Tent assistant manager walks over to our table. His name is Ben, and he looks like he should be playing linebacker in the NFL. Ben has sandy blond hair and a matching retro 70's porn star mustache. He picks up my application and takes a quick glance, then folds it up and puts it in his pocket.

"You’re hired, kid."

"Wow, I am?"

"Yeah, that’s what I just said. I thought Tricia said you weren’t a dumb-ass."

"I’m not. I’m just surprised is all. I thought it would be harder to get a job. This is the first time I’ve even tried."

"Yeah, some places it’s hard. Not here." He shakes his head. "These idiots hired me, so how hard could it be? Don’t tell anyone, but I’m a complete fuck-up."

Ben smacks the back of the my head and laughs robustly. "Anyway, come on back and we’ll get you started."

"You mean, like, right now?" I ask.

"What the fuck? Yeah right now, you big dummy." Ben looks at Vito as if Vito’s my father and I’ve just tried to shove a breadstick up my nose. "What’s with this guy?" he says to Vito.

Vito says, "He’s fallen on his head a few times."

I wave goodbye to Vito and follow Ben into the back of the store.

Tricia walks past us and smiles sweetly.

"That girl is madly in love with me. She’s always trying to get in my polyesters. Too bad my wife works here, too. If you work hard, I’ll let you have some of my leftovers. How would you like that?"

"Um, that would be fine."

"You like girls, right?"

I nod.

"It’s okay if you like boys, just don’t be looking at my crotch. I don’t play that. All right, you can look, but don’t make it obvious." He laughs, smacks me again.

He leads me into the dishroom, and I see what looks like a small disaster area. Pots, pans, cups, plates and silverware are piled high. The wet floor is covered with bits of old food. The trash is overflowing. The ceiling is stained yellow. Ben smacks my back hard enough for it to sting, and says, "Well, what are you waiting for? Get to work!"

"Is there a uniform I need to wear or something?"

"God dammit, kid! I’ll get you a uniform later. Just fucking get working, all right? These dishes aren’t going to do themselves."

"Sure. Um, one other thing. What’s my starting pay?"

"It’s all about money with you kids. Minimum wage. $3.35 an hour. Be happy you’re getting that. But there are perks. Lots of hot girls around all the time, wearing their tight, shit-brown polyester pants, and all the leftover pizza you can eat."

"Sounds good to me."

He smiles deviously. That seems to be his only way of smiling. "I’ll see if I can get one of the girls to blow you after your shift. All the new cooks get blow jobs. Do you want one of the younger girls, or one of the older ones. Fat or skinny? Let me guess. You like Tricia, right? Girl with a little meat on her bones. Then it’s settled. I’ll have Tricia suck your little dick right after we close. It’s a sort of, you know, welcome aboard kind of thing."

"What?" I feel my face grow hot.

"Just kidding. I don’t have that kind of power. Not yet, anyway. If you want a blow job, you’re going to have to pay for it like everyone else." He laughs, then squeezes my cheeks. "I’m messing with you. Relax. You’re turning purple for fuck’s sake. Take a breath, chill out, and then get the fuck to work. Lighten up, kid. We’re all friends here."

I roll up my sleeves and start piling dishes into the dishwasher. Almost immediately I begin to sweat. Tricia drops off a tray of dirty dishes. I bend over and she takes a long look at my ass.

"Welcome to Pizza Tent, Ervin," she says.

"Nice to be here, Tricia," I say.

I think I’m going to like it here.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

At 28


I wake to the sound of weeping, sniffling little girls, and even after I’m awake I still think I’m dreaming. My eyes are open. A waking nightmare of a monster that eats children. Then Prometheus licks my face and meows for food. I shake my head and soon realize that, no, it’s not a horror film. It’s just my life, my reality, and currently I’m trapped in a house with sad children whose parents are fighting. Trapped in the house with my older brother, who sometimes resembles a monster.

Dave has moved his family into Mom’s house. Dave’s girlfriend and five daughters. He’s averaged nearly a girl a year for the past six years. A perfect storm of mighty-powerful sperm, drunken abandon, a lax condom policy, and a failure of the public schools’ sex education curriculum. Dave’s stance on birth control has always been: "That’s her problem." Now it’s my problem. Now I live in a modest house with five little girls whose names I can’t keep straight. My mother felt like she had no choice but to take the kids in. We’re all stressed. I show my displeasure by sulking and making the occasional snide comment. "It’s either them or me," I’m fond of saying, and Mom is fond of saying, "What do you want me to do, Ervin, put them out on the street?" If Dave doesn’t move his family out of here soon, I’m going to have to finally get my own place. It might be time, anyway. I am in my late-twenties, after all. I don’t want to end up as some middle-aged man rubbing his mother’s bunions and endlessly wondering about what could have been. But something has to give. I’m miserable every day.

I’m a community college drop-out. I was taking photography classes for a couple of years, but it turns out that I’m not very good at taking pictures. I’m really bad at it, to be honest, so choosing another career seemed necessary. I work at a liquor store, but that’s not really a career. I dabble in writing. Mostly, I just write long, unfocused paragraphs that might eventually become a story; also, I make lists of women I want to have sex with. Molly Ringwald is always at the top of the list. I enjoy writing. Not sure if I’m good enough. Not sure if I have the patience to stick with it. But I’ve got to do something. I can’t go on like this. Mom cries herself to sleep every night. My stomach hurts every day. Dave and his family eat all the food. Dave can’t hold down a job. The only thing Dave can hold is a can of beer. Dave’s old lady screams at him every morning, which he surely deserves. Our home is a place without happiness, without smiles.

I bury my head beneath a pillow, wrap myself in a blanket. The shouting grows louder. As always, my stomach ignites. The burning, the stinging, the spasms. This is my life. Mom crying. Dave screaming. Me hiding in my room. Not wanting to come out. I feel like I’m ten years old again. Most days, I’d rather stay at work and hang out with the alcoholics than come home and have to deal with Dave and his family.

Dave used to laugh a lot. Used to be nice once in a while. But then his best friend, Phil, died of a drug overdose. Dave’s been a mess ever since. Dave was with Phil when he died. They were doing the same drugs. Shooting up. Dave was never into needles, he was always more of a smoker and snorter, but for some reason that day he stuck the needle in his arm. So did Phil. They were shooting up and Phil was quickly unconscious. Dave thought that his friend was just sleeping, so he went out for burgers. When he came back, the house was surrounded by police cars, so Dave ran home. I’ve never seen Dave so scared as he was on the day Phil died. Shaking his head, sitting on the couch, disbelief in his wide, wet eyes, Dave said, "I fucking knew there was something wrong as soon as I put the needle in my arm. But I wouldn’t let the drugs get me. I’m strong. I fought off the poison. But Phil couldn’t. Aw, man, I thought he was asleep." I thought Phil’s death might have scared Dave straight. But it only made him worse. With his friend gone, Dave just doesn’t give a fuck anymore. About himself. About anyone. Once Phil died, nothing mattered to Dave.

I climb out of bed and walk into the living room. I see five pretty little girls staring at their angry parents. Five girls sharing the same horrified face. They look like orphans. Dressed in hand-me-downs. Damp doe eyes wide with confusion and fear. Dolls and stuffed animals held close to their chests. Their mouths hanging open. Bits of their breakfast clinging to their faces and clothing. They watch mommy and daddy shout and push and blame and hate. "Get a job, Dave! I need money, Dave! The kids need clothes, Dave!" I shake my head. These girls don’t have a chance. Their father is Dave, my brother, the worst person I know.

"Shut the fuck up," Dave says. "I just woke up. Can’t I have a cup of coffee before you tell me what a loser I am?"

"What are ya gonna do today, Dave? Drugs? Ya gonna smoke some crack? Drink some beers? How about buying your daughters some clothes for school? Huh? How ‘bout that? No, you don’t care! You just wanna get high."

He quietly says, "I’m serious. Shut your fucking mouth. You’re giving me a headache."

The little girls watch their parents as if watching a play. They are captivated and horrified. Looking at Dave’s pretty girls, I realized that I should’ve been nicer. I should’ve been a better uncle. But I couldn’t look into their eyes without seeing Dave’s face. I couldn’t separate him from his daughters. I thought, "Well, he made them so they must be bad, too." But I was wrong. They are innocent. They are not their father. I know this now because they’re staring at their father as if he’s a stranger. As if they don’t know that man at all.

We have a nice house in a decent neighborhood, not a terrific house, but far better than any other place we’ve ever called home. No cockroaches, a major victory for us. I was sure the cockroaches would eat me someday, but now maybe they won’t have a chance. We’ve finally outrun them, straight into suburbia. Mom bought this house with lawsuit money awarded to her as compensation for an auto accident that damaged her shoulder. The accident was technically the other driver’s fault, but I do remember arguing with Mom just before the other car plowed into us. I was pissed off because I’d had a bad day at school, Mom was pissed off because she had to pick me up from school after working all night. Mom was distracted as she drove. In the end, Mom had shoulder surgery and was awarded a bit of money. Not enough to retire off of, but enough to put a large down payment on a house. And here we are. Movin’ on up. Still, we’re not fooling anyone. The old couple next door see right through us. They see the oft-summoned police cars, hear the nightly shouting; they see Dave stumble across the lawn, high and drunk, stomping over the poorly-maintained lawn. I’m sure they sense our inherent white-trashiness. They’re friendly to us, offering big smiles, but they know we don’t belong. They know. My family’s not fooling anyone. We are what we are.

"You need to give me money, Dave!"

She won’t let up. Every time she says his name my blood runs cold. She says "Dave" with a spitting fury, with her lazy New Jersey accent. Says it repeatedly. A mantra. Every sentence she speaks ends with his name. "Where ya goin’, Dave? Take the kids to school, Dave! Look at me, Dave! Why’s Ervin not being nice to the girls, Dave?"

Dave turns and walks away from her. She grabs his shoulder. Calls him a fucking asshole. He turns and calmly, quickly pops her in the mouth. Closed fist. She falls to the ground. The children scream, shout, "Mommy!" Blood pours from her rapidly-swelling nose. For a second, we’re all frozen, even Dave. Time stops.

"Look what you made me do," he says, rubbing his bloody hand. "You should’ve just kept your mouth shut."

I’m stunned. My mother is stunned. The children weep. The oldest girl says, "Don’t hurt my mommy anymore!" Dave sits down on the couch and lights a cigarette as his battered girlfriend calls the police and bleeds all over the phone.

He turns to me and says, "Looks like I’ll be going away for awhile. You finally got what you wanted, huh?"

"I just wanted to be left alone," I say.

Mom is crying, devastated, and can barely speak. "Why did you do that, Dave?" she asks, panicked. "You shouldn’t have done that. Oh, God!"

"She pissed me off."

The girlfriend hangs up the phone and turns to Dave. "I’m taking the kids away. I got family in Delaware. You’ll never see them again, Dave!"

"Good!" he says. "Fuck it. Take ‘em. Get the fuck outta my face."

I see the children holding their mother tight. Five girls and a mom clinging to each other, not wanting to let go. I see my mother with her head buried in her hands. I see Dave puffing on a cigarette, blowing smoke rings, looking not exactly pleased, but strangely at peace while everyone else falls apart. Like a man who knows he’s crossed a line. A man who can’t go back. Who probably doesn’t want to go back. Who saw no other way to change a bad situation. Now the law will do it for him. They will take him away. Keep him far away from his children. Lock him up.

"What are you thinking about?" I ask him.

A loud knock on the front door. A few police cars in front of the house. Nosy neighbors on their steps, craning their necks, peeking in. In a few minutes, Dave will be led away in handcuffs. He’ll go peacefully. He’s all out of fight. I see it in his eyes. He’s done raging. He just wants to lay down somewhere and take a long nap. Sleep without interruption. Without the girlfriend or the kids waking him up.

He puts out his cigarette and says, "Remember that girl I dated a few years back? Marissa? She was really pretty, and fucking cool as hell. That was the only girl I ever loved. I fucked it up. I thought I’d always be able to score hot chicks. Figured I could do whatever I wanted. Look what I ended up with. It’s fucked up, man. I’m a stupid motherfucker, Erv. I made some bad mistakes. I wonder what Marissa’s doing right now? She was a good girl. I should’ve done right by her. Shouldn’t have cheated on her. If I was still with Marissa, I wouldn’t be this screwed up. She kept me in line. Kept me from being a total asshole. She was good for me. She could’ve made me good."

A few police officers are inside the house. The bloody girlfriend points at Dave.

Dave, faintly smiling, says, "Erv, what do you think Marissa’s doing right now?"

"Probably not bleeding from the face," I say.

He nods, laughs, takes a long drag from his cigarette.

"David," a bulldog cop says.

Dave stands and raises his hands. "You got me, coppers."

Four police officers surround him.

It’s over quickly.

Just like that, he’s gone.

I know I won’t see Dave for awhile. Maybe a few months, maybe a few years. But someday he’ll come back. Someday he’ll be banging on my door begging for twenty dollars. You can always count on Dave coming back. I will cherish the peace while it lasts.

Sometimes I don’t like myself. Sometimes I don’t know myself. I’ll look at myself in the mirror and wonder who that person is staring back. It’s a scary feeling to not even recognize yourself. On my knees in the living room, cleaning up spots of red from the hardwood floor, I’m overtaken with happiness and that is truly frightening. I watched my brother punch a woman in the face, and I can’t say that I’m unhappy with the end result. I’ll have my peace and quiet. Dave will be gone. This makes me a bad person. I know it does. Still, it worked out nicely for me. I just have to remember not to look into any mirrors for the rest of day.