Teenage boys taking a day off from school that they will never forget.
|"Nice one, Chuck! Now why would you go and do something like that?” I ask.
“It was in my way.” Chuck says, while scraping the remains from the bottom of his sneaker.
“How on earth could a caterpillar be in your way? It didn’t appear to be restricting your progress.”
“Shut up, Charlie! What do you care anyway? It's just a stupid caterpillar.”
That's Chuck for you. Always coming back with the big philosophical argument in his defense. My philosophy is simple: humanity can be divided into two basic groups; those that will avoid stepping on caterpillars and those that won't. Little things like these can tell you a lot about a person, provided you pay attention. Of course no one ever does.
“It may just be a stupid caterpillar but it certainly didn’t deserve that,” I respond.
“Just for that the next one gets smushed even more. And it’ll have you to thank for it, Charlie. Feel better then, will you?”
The avoiders and the smushers can be further subdivided into more definitive categories. Myself, I never step on caterpillars. Not so much from any concerted effort to avoid them but as the result of some unacknowledged force of nature that always provides me with a stride destined to miss the determined little creatures.
Chuck, on the other hand, goes out of his way to ensure the caterpillar's violent demise. For emphasis he’ll forcefully twist the ball of his foot, grinding the previously content creature into the sidewalk, as if his 220-pound frame isn’t sufficient to accomplish the deed. These caterpillar pancake producers invariably do one of two things; destroy or self-destruct. On certain occasions they do both.
“I'm not sure it's possible to smush one any more than you just did.”
“Just shut up about it already!”
Like I was saying, Chuck is always ready to debate an issue. Love to watch him in a political debate - it would be priceless!
By now it should be obvious why his nickname is Chuck and mine ended up Charlie. Personality was the decisive factor. Besides Chuck informed me he wasn’t about to be a “Charlie”. I suppose I should have taken that as an insult but accepted the title “Charlie” with satisfaction.
“You gonna ditch today?” Chuck asks.
“School, you friggin' idiot! What else is there to ditch?”
“Nah, I don't need the heat from my Ma.”
“You are such a puss, Charlie. Why I hang out with you, I’ll never know?”
I'm tempted to say – “that makes two of us” - but Chuck's already in one of those moods I'd rather defuse than inflame. I always get the same question - Why would a nice polite kid like me hang out with a cretin like Chuck? There is no defense for my sticking it out this long. We’ve just hung out for as long as I can remember. In a word - complacency. I know what to expect from Chuck and it's way too late in my high school life to try making new friends. I’ll save the new friends for college in a year and a half. No fear of Chuck joining me at college.
“We’re gonna be seniors after we make it through these last two weeks. It's time we start acting like it.”
That is as close as you get to Chuck pleading for your approval.
“Senior year is supposed to be the hell raisin' year isn’t it?”
“What did you have in mind?” I concede, the sun warm on my face, the breeze cool along my forearms. It is, after all, too nice a day to be sitting at a desk listening to a boring interpretation of Hamlet. And who can blame me for not wanting to endure Mr. Hammond's lame attempts at an English accent?
“Let's go boarding over at the old factory,” he suggests.
“That would require going back to my house for my board. We do that and it will be the shortest day of boarding on record. My Ma never leaves the house, remember?” Never mind that Chuck is an embarrassment to ride with. The guy is worthless on a board.
“Oh yeah, I forgot. What is wrong with her anyway?”
“She's got agoraphobia. But her shrink says she's improving.”
“Hell, there ain’t that many spiders around here. Nothing to be afraid of.”
“That's arachnophobia, you dumbass!” That I can call Chuck “dumbass” and live to tell about it is the most telling aspect of our relationship. Anyone else would be gnawing on Chuck's knuckles before the “ass” fully left their mouth.
“Tell her, just follow me, and I’ll squish everyone of the bastards before they can even think about scaring her.”
“She's not scared of spiders,” I try and direct the conversation back into the realm of intellect.
“I thought you just said she was?”
“No. I said she has agoraphobia. It's when someone is scared of open spaces or places with lots of people around.”
“Oh. Can't help her with that one.”
No shit, Chuck.
“I know, how about we go fishing at The Rocks? I got poles at my house. My parents are never home and even if they were, they really don't pay attention to what I am doing anyway.”
“The Rocks it is,” I respond, somewhat less than energetically. The Rocks scare me. The force with which waves can come from seemingly nowhere and the rapid tide changes combine to freak me out. Let's just say I'm not the world's strongest swimmer.
“Chuck don't we need our bikes to get there? I'm not walking that far,” I protest.
“Don't worry. I got it all covered.”
“That's what worries me, Chuck.” That's what worries me.
Chuck vanishes into his house and before I can muster a plea for sanity he flies out the front door wearing a grin that would make Freddy Krueger think twice. Swinging from his right index finger are the keys to his father's beloved jet black '68 Camaro, the scent of a butt whoopin’ wafting behind him.
“Oh, no! Ain’t no way I'm getting in your dad's car with you.”
“Oh, yes you are!” He laughs. “We're in this together.”
“In what together? I wanted to go to school, remember?”
“Stop being a cry baby and get in before I throw you in.”
At The Rocks, the ocean looks hungry. Standing just beyond the reach of the ocean's lapping tongue, I feel like a five foot nine inch appetizer - a Charlie Cocktail. Chuck, on the other hand, leaps upon a protruding rock, challenging the ocean to feast upon him.
I hear the thin "crack" but don't see the cause. Suddenly Chuck is stumbling on the rock. I rush to try and grab him but it's too late and he drops off the edge while trying to grab for anything that will slow his impact with the beach. The combination thud and splash is muffled by the pounding waves.
“Real graceful Chuckie!”
A wall of demented laughter follows the goading insult. Let me just say here that if someone wants to get under Chuck's skin then calling him Chuckie is an excellent starting point.
A few of the senior elite have also decided today is a prime candidate for skipping. They stand upon the ledge looking down at us, some with tears of laughter rolling down their faces, others lying back upon the hoods of their cars, holding their stomachs as if in pain. Everyone knows this is the senior's spot when they choose to be here.
Chuck manages to get to his feet with clumsy efforts that only succeed in bringing more laughter from the gang on the ledge. He pushes me into the rock he was standing on.
“Thanks for your help Charlie.”
“How was I supposed to know they were up there?”
Chuck looks frantically for a stone to throw in response to the attack he has just suffered. But it takes too long to come as a surprise and the effort is well short of his intended targets.
“Nice throw Chuckie! Did your Mommy teach you how to throw?”
“Blow me Scott!”
“If you can find the shriveled little thing I’ll be more than glad to, Chuckie.”
Scott knows he's got Chuck hooked good and he isn’t about to give him any slack.
“Come on down and get some then.”
At the invitation Scott and his gang of four snap to attention and start down the path to give us a proper greeting.
“Let's just get out of here Chuck,” I say.
“Screw you Charlie. I got as much right as anyone to be here. Besides I got backup.”
“If you're talking about me, I don’t think I am going to be much help against those steroid poppin’ jocks.”
Chuck smiles in a way that once again makes me uneasy. I have an overwhelming desire to leave but for some reason I can't force myself to leave without first witnessing the outcome? Like being unable to turn away during the grossest parts of a slasher film.
Chuck produces a pistol from somewhere inside of his oversized pants. I'd like to be able to give a better description but I know nothing about weapons of any kind. I find myself wishing that I did. It might just help me decide how far and how fast I should get away from it.
Two questions form simultaneously in my mind: (1) Where in the hell did Chuck get that from? (2) What in the hell is he doing? What comes out of me though is unfortunately neither of those options.
“Chuck are you crazy?” I screech.
“Take it easy Charlie.”
Why do I always have to be the one to take it easy?
“Nobody's going to get hurt because Scotty and the boys were just leaving. Weren’t you?”
“You ain’t got it in you Chuckie,” Scott manages in a voice not fully able to disguise his fear.
“Oh, I got it in me Scotty. Maybe I’ll just plug one of your buddies first just to prove it to you.”
Chuck raises the gun so it's pointing at Jock #4, the one furthest to the right. All 4 of Scott’s soon to be less loyal friends take a step or two back in unison. Scott on the other hand decides to call Chuck’s bluff and takes a determined stride toward him.
“Bet you forgot to load it, didn’t you, Chuckie? Bet you don’t even know how to load it?”
He takes another step towards Chuck.
“And even if you did load it, I bet you couldn’t hit that cliff behind me, let alone Joe over there.”
Jock #4 does have a name after all. Names never seemed necessary for their type.
That’s all Chuck can handle and he swings the gun back in the direction of Scott’s head. They’re maybe ten feet apart now but it looks like ten inches from where I’m frozen in place.
“Well then maybe I’ll just start with you?” Chuck snarls.
“Just leave Scott and it’ll all be over,” I shout. This has become more than I am willing to witness.
“Shut up Charlie, nobody’s talking to you!” Scott shouts.
“No, the one that is about to get a hole put in them is the one that needs to shut up!” Chuck yells back at Scott.
He’s visibly shaking now and I’m losing nerve that I thought I no longer possessed.
“You ain’t gonna do shit, Chuck!”
Why can’t certain people just back down? Why do they always have to win the pissing match?
I’m done with this and take a couple steps to place myself between Chuck and...and in an instant I’m deaf. I can’t hear what is expelled from Chuck’s mouth but I can see that it hurts. I can no longer hear the waves beating the rocks though I can see the resultant spray reach for the sky before falling gracefully to the beach. Then I am joining the ocean droplets on their journey to the sand but gravity seems to act stronger on me than the water. I don’t feel my impact with the sand. All my attention is now directed at the burning and tearing in my chest. Struggling to focus, I see Scott and the jocks running away from me.
Hands on my face. I feel hands on my face. Already it’s nice to feel anything other than the new burning in my chest. I cough violently and see Chuck looking down at me, his face dripping with blood.
“Are you all right Chuck? You’re bleeding pretty bad.”
“You're the one who's bleeding, you dumb son-of-a-bitch! Why did you jump in front of me? Why would you do that? Why?”
He's hysterical, not making any sense. He must be hurt pretty bad.
“But you have blood all over your face.”
“It's your blood Charlie.”
It is slow in coming but eventually I see what happened in Chuck's watering blue eyes and the unmerciful burning in my chest renews itself.
“Don't die on me Charlie! I swear I won't ever smush another caterpillar again!”
It's the first time I’ve ever seen Chuck cry. Even during elementary school he didn't cry. When his Dad beats him, he doesn't cry.
“Just go get some help already. I’ll be fine right here.”
“I’ll be back before you know it.”
I see his legs and feel sand against my arm and face. Then the legs are gone.
I'm cold despite the glaring sun. Lying here I'm still scared of The Rocks. I close my eyes to rest for a moment, content in knowing that Chuck won't smush any more caterpillars. For all his faults he's never broken a promise to me.