Looking for a Place to Happen
I don't pick up the phone, even though at this time of night it's probably for me. This'll make my parents crazy, but I figure it's their name in the phone book. Until they get me my own line, they can answer it.
A few seconds later, there's a knock on the door. My mom swings it open before I can say anything. Part of me wishes I was doing something really messed up, like performing Satanic rituals, or jerking off to The Golden Girls--something that would really burn her retinas.
I turn down the chipmunky sound of high-speed dubbing.
"Jesse's on the phone for you."
After she shuts the door, I pick up the receiver from the nightstand. "Got it," I say into the mouthpiece. A moment passes and I can still hear the ambient laughter of a live studio audience from the living room. "I've got it!" I shout. There's a rattle and click as someone finally hangs up.
"You coming out tonight?"
Soda's not the most talkative guy to begin with, but when he calls, you'd think he was getting charged for long distance or something.
"Uh, sure. Where do you want to meet?"
"Up top. Twenty minutes."
I get a cold flash of adrenalin.
"Sounds good," I lie. "See you there."
"Oh, hey," Soda says, "one more thing."
Fucker. I hate it when he does that. I grin in spite of myself, but then I hear the mechanical kachunk of my stereo amputating a song halfway through, and I realize I've got a situation on my hands.
When faced with this kind of mixed tape timing crisis, most people opt for one of two strategies. The first is to let the song die when the tape runs out. It's the simplest solution, but I get kind of anxious waiting for that shitty, abrupt ending to come down like an axe. Alternatively, some people go back and record over the half-finished song with a blanket of magnetic silence. I'm not really into that either. As far as I'm concerned, two minutes of tape hiss can feel like an eternity in limbo.
Thankfully, there's a third option: you bring in a closer. Love Tara, the first full length from Eric's Trip, has no fewer than four songs that clock in under two minutes, not including 'Allergic to Love,' which is pretty much two minutes on the dot. So, to finish out the side, I pick 'June,' this weird, menacing little number that basically sounds like your stereo is going to come to life and murder you. It's perfect.
I rewind the tape a bit, then cue up my closer with a screechy fast-forward. I listen as the previous song dies out, wait a second or two for that crucial dead air, then start pushing buttons. Pause. Play. Play and Record. A minute and a half later, the song ends just before the reels groan and stop. In tiny black letters, I make a few final notes on the sleeve, then slide the paper back into the plastic case. I pop the tape out of the stereo and snug it into the sleeve. I can always finish the flip side later.
I grab my jacket and then walk through the house toward the cackling of Roseanne. My dad is stretched out on the couch, and my mom has her feet up in the recliner. There's a bowl of Bugles on a TV table between them.
"I'm going to stay at Soda's tonight," I tell them.
They look up at me then at each other, their faces changing shape in the television light.
"I don't remember you asking us," Dad says.
"Okay," I sigh. Sometimes you've got to play ball. "Can I stay at Soda's tonight?"
My dad looks at my mom, eyebrows raised. My mom nods in the affirmative. "Just call us if you go somewhere else."
"I wi-ill," I sing as I walk away. But I won't.
My parents aren't bad people as far as parents go, but I wish they'd had another kid after me. At least that way they would've spread their parenting a little thinner. People think I've got it made because I'm an only child, but the truth is, it sucks being constantly outnumbered by adults. I don't have older siblings to pave the way, or any younger ones to take the blame. Plus, I'm always outvoted. If I want to go Harvey's, we inevitably go to Swiss Chalet. If I want to watch The X-Files, I have to settle for Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. As a result, I've been suspicious of democracy since I was six and lying my ass off since I was seven.
By the time I get up on the roof, Soda's already polished off two bottles of Crystal and he's working on his third. I don't actually need to see him to know this. While I worked my way from the dumpster lid to the first floor addition to the terrifying second-floor lintel, I could hear the empties completing their journey to the teachers' parking lot. Mortality Reminders, Soda calls them.
He doesn't turn around when I find him. Instead, he slides another bottle out of the case, twists off the cap, and sets it beside him. It stands at attention while Soda dangles his feet over the edge and tries to light a smoke behind the shield of his jeans jacket. I get a wave of vertigo just watching. I keep a safe distance and reach down for the beer.
"Sodapop," I say.
"Ponyboy," he mumbles, cigarette bouncing up and down.
Up this high, there's a sting in the air and it doesn't feel like summer anymore. I guess in about a week it won't be. I tuck my hair behind my ears but a few mutinous strands escape and flap in my face. For a minute or so, we drink in silence and survey the view. Down and to the east I can make out the aging chain-link fence that circles the student parking lot across the street. It's empty except for Trevor Shewchuck's Fiesta, which rotted there all summer because he's too cheap to have it towed, and because there's no one left at school to care. Beyond that, the city becomes a dotting of streetlights, the red-brown roofs of bungalows and wartime houses, and the unfathomable blackness of the lake.
You know that song Neil Young sings about a town in North Ontario and how all his changes happened there? I always wanted that song to be about Thunder Bay, but it's not. Thunder Bay isn't the kind of place you write a song about.
"I can't wait to get out of here," I say.
I know it sounds a little rehearsed, like the kind of thing people say standing on rooftops in movies, but it's the truth. Soda nods. He doesn't say anything.
Sometimes, when he gets all stoic like this, I think he's trying to remind everyone that he's an Indian. His mom was part Ojibwe, and she was only nineteen or twenty when she hooked up with Mauri. He was this older guy, straight out of Finland. They had Soda about a year later, and sometime after that, she died of ovarian cancer.
"So that makes me a Findian," he said when we met in grade four. It was my second week at Balsam Street Elementary, and in some spirit of new-kid hazing, Brad McLaren had just spontaneously announced to the class that I'd tried to "bum him" in the cloakroom. I had trouble finding friends for a while after that.
Soda and I worked together for a group science project. We made one of those papier-mâché volcanoes that you fill with red dye, vinegar, and baking soda. He was just Jesse back then. He had failed a grade and the other kids were leery of him, partly because he was older and partly because of the whole Indian thing. In the beginning, we were just kind of friends by default.
That first day, when we walked home from school, I realized we didn't even live that far apart--just on either side of Hillcrest Park. His eyes got all saucered when my mom invited him in for some ants on a log. He told me my house was "really nice." Later, I'd learn that Soda's house wasn't really nice. On the other side of the park there were broken fences, uncut lawns, and dogs chained up in backyards.
"How's Mauri doing tonight?" I ask.
He raises his elbow in the air and flicks a beer cap into outer space. "He's fine."
Soda's dad is kind of an asshole when he drinks, which is pretty much always. On the upside, Mauri has been buying our beer since I was thir-teen. Not that he knows or anything. He just assumes he drank any beer that disappears. I scratch at the gummy Crystal label with my fingernail, then brace myself for the bitter bottom. How does Soda scramble up here with a six pack in one hand, anyhow? I read that Mohawk Indians aren't afraid of heights. It's genetic, or something. Maybe it's true for the Ojibwe too.
I'm not so great with heights, so I get on my stomach and crawl toward the edge, the way you'd crawl over thin ice to pull someone out of the water. I learned how to do that in First Aid, along with performing CPR and treating minor burns. I did not learn how to treat falling two storeys down onto concrete steps. Still, I poke my head over so that my chin rests on the cold metal trim of the roof. I can feel the wind on my face, and my arms seem heavy. I reach back for the beer bottle and hold it in front of my face before I let it go. For about a second, it looks like it's just hanging in the air between the roof and the ground. Then the neck breaks on the concrete below and whatever's left inside spills out white and foamy. Watching it gives me this electric feeling between my shoulder blades, like I'm somehow going to follow the bottle down. I shimmy backward and push myself up into a sitting position.
"Catching up?" Soda offers me another beer.
I put the bottle to my lips and start to make a pretty impressive show of chugging it back, when I hear the voice from behind us.
It's more like a dog bark than a word.
"What are you kids doing up here?"
I start coughing and sputtering and spilling down my front. Suds ejaculate from the neck, so I stand up and hold the bottle away from me at an arm's length. I wipe my hand on my jeans and listen to half my beer splatter on the ground. Soda shakes his head at me.
"Fucking amateur." Deacon laughs and slaps me on the back. He collapses in a heap on the other side of Soda and grabs a beer.
The first time we really noticed Deacon, Soda and I were forced to sit through this excruciating school concert assembly, featuring such teen favourites as 'The Girl from Ipanema' and 'In The Mood.' As we watched the grade nine band wobble though a fairly soulless rendition of 'I Want To Hold Your Hand,' it became immediately clear that--regardless of the music teacher's enthusiastic baton waving--it was really the short kid on bass that was keeping it all from falling apart.
"Nice haircut," I say, still coughing a little.
"Thanks. Just set the ol' razor on Number Two."
"Your mom's Number Two," I mutter. He ignores me and twists the cap off his beer. The front of my jacket is damp.
"So," Deacon says after he winces down a mouthful, "I finally figured out how to do Johnny Cage's finishing move. He rips people right in half. It's pretty crazy."
Soda gives me a look.
"Sub-Zero still has the best Fatalities, though. Like in the first one? Where he pulls the guy's head off and you can see the spine? So awesome."
"Hey, did your mom let you have the Sabre tonight?" Soda asks, changing the subject.
"Are people still going to Wild Goose?"
I finish what's left of my second beer. This time, I throw a hook shot over the road. It falls short of Shewchuck's hatchback and bounces off the chain-link fence.
"Shit. That sucked," I say.
"Your mom sucks," Deacon says.
"Jesus Christ, let's go!" Soda shouts. Somehow he's already waiting for us down in the parking lot. Indian blood. Has to be.
The Sabre is Deacon's mom's 1989 Buick LeSabre station wagon, a wood-paneled beast that is both hideous and frequently available. By the time I get down off the roof, Soda's already called shotgun, so I'm stuck in the back. I don't mind so much. There's something comforting about the back seat of that car. It's all beige and plushy and I can put my legs up across the bench. It's only after we've eased onto Van Norman Street and we're driving away that I look back to see all the dark windows of Mackenzie King staring at me like empty eye sockets. One more year of high school, I tell myself. One more year of the Pussies, of Fat Fuck, and one more year of Thunder Bay. Then I'm out for good.
"Anybody bring anything to listen to?" Deacon polls the car.
I can see Soda's arm reach into the front of his jacket, and at first I think he's fishing for smokes but instead he pulls out a tape. He pushes it into the player and hits rewind. The dashboard hums.
I'm barely buzzed and feel unprepared for what is supposed to be the last bush party of the season. Maybe I'll be able to swipe a few beers once I get there.
"I put something in the back for us," Soda says, his head half-turned toward me.
On the floor behind the passenger seat there's something covered with an old grey-and-red blanket. When I lift up a corner, twelve beer cans gleam like a miracle in the passing streetlight.
I dig one out of the carton and pass it to Soda over his shoulder. I hand the next one to Deacon, then get one for myself. Hollow cracks and wet slurps echo in the car. In the satisfied quiet that follows, the tape deck whines and the cassette crashes into the beginning. As Deacon turns onto Lakeshore Drive, Soda presses play and the first hopeful notes fill up the night.