When I was a kid there was nothing quite like hanging out at a pizza parlor with your pals. My friends and I called it “P’in” to the third power” so obviously we weren’t very popular. Back then my best friends were Michelle and her older brother, Peter. We’d spend most of our time playing pong video games at Peter and Michelle’s but on Fridays after soccer practice Mr. Johansen would take the three of us out for pizza at our favorite little mom and pop restaurant; Pizza Hut. We always got the pepperoni and we always had a blast. We thought Mr. Johansen was the coolest back then. He had a sick mullet, a dope Bowie poster and a sweet truck to hang it in (it wasn’t really a truck, we just called it that because the back window was busted out and he kept an alarming amount of bungie cords and what we thought at the time were popsicle-shaped tools back there). What really got us, though, was the size of his pizza budget. Being 11, 12 and 14 at the time and jobless, our own pizza budgets were pretty lacking. We didn’t mind that before Mr. Johansen brought us home he would take us back to his toolshed to help him make his movies. We liked movies.
In retrospect I think we always knew there was something weird about what was happening in that toolshed. It wasn’t necessarily the nudity or the stuff with the balloons and whipped cream, it was the atmosphere of the whole thing. Not to mention that the toolshed was dark, cramped and really not very conducent to a lot of coverage shots. At the time we just thought it was fun to make movies. We had no idea what was really going on. Sure, I didn’t remember there being nearly that many sex scenes in Star Wars, but what did I know about directing? I was just happy to get to pretend to be Harrison Ford. When else was I going to get to play Han Solo? Ol’ Georgie Lucas wasn’t going to make that happen for me. If I was ever going to get my day in the sun, hunting Womp Rats with Chewy, it would have to be in that toolshed and I was going to have to wear nothing but what appeared to be a pot holder hooked to a very complicated series of bungie cords.
This went on for a few months until my parents asked about what we were doing after school. I didn’t know it was wrong so I didn’t think it was a big deal. Obviously, things really blew up from there. They searched Mr. Johansen’s home and found the videos, along with some sort of illegal special underwear he got off the internet. When it got to trial, I was the only one that had to testify. I told them everything. This may sound strange, but it felt wrong doing it at the time. Maybe I’m crazy, but even to this day I don’t hate Mr. Johansen. What he did was unforgivable, but he was a sick man that suffered about as extreme a fate for what he did as he could. First he had to endure the trial with the whole town watching, then when the verdict came in it took him less than five minutes to make his first and only suicide attempt. He had climbed up onto his bed and done a swan dive into the ground, cracking his skull and spilling his brains out all over the concrete floor.
He survived. Sort of. For years they kept what’s left of him naked and chained to a pipe in the MPD basement. They hazed new recruits by making them strip nude, oil up and wrestle him before they went out on their first beat. He never fought back but almost always became aroused. If he ejaculated before you pinned him you had to buy everyone in the department a Mars Bar. When I joined the force I snuck into the basement the night before it would be my turn to wrestle him with my newly issued pistol, held three pillows over his face and fired until it clicked empty. It was a mercy killing, I certainly didn’t get any closure from it. His power over me had long since faded. If anyone else at the department knew it was me they didn’t say a word about it. We started hazing the new guys by putting their hand in water while they were asleep, making them pee their pants, but there would be no more Mars Bars. I could live with that.
After the trial, Peter, Michelle and I decided to celebrate the end of the whole ordeal by treating ourselves to a pepperoni pizza from the very Pizza Hut we went to with Mr. Johansen. I know that probably sounds crazy to you, given what had happened, but at the end of the day if we had to change ourselves then we hadn’t really won. It wasn’t the pizza’s fault. No, that pizza did just about every damn thing right. From the perfect amount of tomato-paste to some of the greasiest pepperonis you’ve ever wiped off your lips, chin, face, pants and shirt. It was a hell of a pie and we deserved it. Our parents felt so guilty about not knowing what was going on for so long they quadrupled our allowances. For awhile we were going every day after school, until we started feeling fat and getting sick all the time so we switched it back to just Fridays, but those Fridays were some of the best Fridays of my life. Even when Michelle and Peter’s parents moved to the other side of the city and we didn’t go to the same High School anymore, we still met up every Friday to chow down on some p-pie. Now it was just a wholesome, old-fashioned pizza party with our pals (P³), just like we thought it used to be. At least it was until Peter started hanging out with a bad crowd his senior year. Michelle and I were two years younger than him, impressionable, with a couple of identity crisis’ since everything that happened. As horrible as it was, it was still the most defining, and public, moment of our lives and as strange as it may seem, nothing seemed quite as meaningful since. It had fucked us up, and badly, but we still didn’t know it yet. We didn’t understand the repercussions it would have in our future relationships, particularly every sexual encounter to come.
For instance, at the age of fourteen, I found myself tearing a hole in a couch and trying to fuck it for absolutely no reason that I could understand at the time, and sure as hell can’t figure out now, but after a spring lodged itself into my urethra and tore away most of a dick I’d barely even gotten to use myself, let alone with anyone else, I was looking for any kind of escape. My penis looked like a dried out riverbed, if dried out riverbeds randomly oozed pus and stung like battery acid was being poured into it every time that riverbed entered a woman, usually from behind and in the dark, for reasons that should be obvious. I told no one about what happened, I suffered that one in private, except for Michelle, nobody else knew. Then I found out about what Peter was doing, and I threatened to tell his parents if he didn’t let me in on it.
The first time I did heroin with Peter it was a real hoot, but it really got out of hand from there. We kept it from Michelle. It was Peter’s idea and I wasn’t about to fight it. In the March of his senior year, Peter’s band, Jimmy Slims and the Slim Jims, decided to go on tour. Since everyone else in the band was a year older than Peter and weren’t in school anymore, they decided to hit the road in April, meaning Peter had to make a decision; either go on tour with his band or stay home and continue to not have nearly enough credits to graduate high school. He decided to go on tour. The night before he left, after Michelle went to sleep, we snuck out and shot up at the old playground we’d met at back in third grade. I’d like to say we talked about the good times, before everything that had happened, when we were still young and innocent, but mostly we just did more heroin, zoned out, drooled a little and fell asleep. We woke up when they flipped the sprinklers on and we went our separate ways. We would never see each other again.
We did speak once more, though. He called Michelle two days later to say hi from the road while I was over at her place. That was the day she finally told him about us. We’d been secretly seeing each other for a few months now. He took it a lot better than I thought. I don’t know why I was worried. He’d never said it would be a problem before, but it still seemed wrong somehow. With Peter being my sole H connection, knowing some guy who he’d told me called himself “Bo”, I had made some promises to myself that I would clean up, but that was two days ago. A lot can happen in two days. Like a heroin addict caving and wanting to buy more heroin. I asked Peter for his guy’s number. He gave it to me but made me promise again that I wouldn’t let Michelle get into it. I promised. Six hours later he was stabbed in the left lung just outside of a Quiznos. They told us he died crying in the street, begging for help. Nobody even looked at him, just sat there eating their damn oven-toasted sandwiches. I still refuse to eat Quiznos to this day, the fucking animals. He finally choked on his own blood after thirty-five minutes. It took just fifteen minutes after we heard the news for me to break my promise.
I was never very good at keeping things from Michelle. While Peter was doing all the supplying it was easy for me to keep her out of the mix. I couldn’t have added her to it if I’d wanted to, but now that it was just me I cracked like an egg on some sort of popular egg-cracking holiday. We didn’t just ease into it, either. We were doing it all day, every day from the beginning. We stopped going to school, stopped keeping up with popular music videos at a time when it was all the rage, neither of us bothered showering more than once a week and if we had to go outside we only went out at night and only to the gas station with the low lighting. After we’d run out of stuff to sell we needed to come up with a plan to get more. We did, and, let me tell ya, it was a hell of a plan.
It was Michelle’s idea; we’d call our dealer, tell him we needed a grand’s worth, then put a bullet in his face with my dad’s hunting rifle. The perfect crime. As long as we didn’t get caught carrying a large hunting rifle on a public bus, it would be as easy as eating a pretzel or checking the mail, or so I thought. When push came to shove, when we had him on his knees, bawling for his life, I wasn’t able to pull the trigger. I just didn’t have it in me. Not because I was a good person, far from it. I could talk myself into this philosophically, I mean, he was a heroin dealer who watched Scarface like three times a week. By all accounts, we were doing the world a favor, but when the moment came? When I really thought about what could happen to me and, more importantly, Michelle, if we were caught? It wasn’t worth the risk of a neighbor seeing or some sort of Minority Report-type situation. I told Michelle that I couldn’t do it. Without a word, she took the gun from my hands, put it under his jaw and it was over before I even fully comprehended what was happening. When we opened his bag all we found was a gun. He was going to do the same damn thing to us, we just got to him first. He thought we were weak, stupid. Just like Mr. Johansen. We showed Mr. Johansen and we showed that piece of shit Bo. We went through his apartment tearing it apart, looking for any H we could find. We found a little, but it was practically nothing. Not even enough to get us through the rest of the night. Then, for no reason at all, we started his apartment on fire.
We watched the fire spread from across the street, pretending we’d just happened by to gawk like the rest of the neighbors. First from his apartment to the rest of the complex, then onto an adjacent house, then it just spread from house to house until most of the neighborhood was burning. It was a wonderful feeling. All of these families leaving their homes, watching everything they’d worked so hard for their whole lives burn in just a few minutes. We were strangely proud of it, or at least I know I was. I didn’t ask but I knew Michelle felt it, too. I held her then, putting my arms around her from behind, she leaned back into me, wrapped her hands around my arms and we laughed. We noticed people were looking at us, and we started laughing harder. We knew it was rude, vile even. We couldn’t help it. No, that’s a lie. We could help it, we just didn’t care. The world had taken so much from us, it was our turn. We were the ones doing the taking now. We had the power now, we had the power because we stepped up and we fuckingtook it. Mr. Johansen took it away from us and we finally had it back, at least some of it. We were on our way to being whole again, felt it in the air, saw it in the flames rolling across a lime-green patio set. See that disgusting, weather worn chair you’d bought on clearance from Target? Did you like it? Well, we’re taking it. It’s ours now. We’ve decided to burn it.
That feeling of pride ended abruptly when we heard about what happened to the Thompson boy the next day.
We watched on the local news as Brandon Thompson’s mother, tears pouring down her face, with just the faintest hint of mascara that had all but completely washed away, leaving nothing but a rumor that it may have once been there, an awful little reminder that today had started out just like any other day. The reporter asked her where she was when the fire had started, why wouldn’t she have been at home with her 5-year-old son? She told her that she wasn’t home because she’d run to the corner store to get paint for the model airplane Brandon had been making. He needed to finish it tonight because he wanted to show his father when he got home from his business trip to Japan. He’d been gone a week and Brandon was sure that he’d be able to finish it in that time. In fact, she told the cameraman, the space between each word getting longer and longer between sobs, that he’d bet his father that if he could finish it before he got home he’d buy him a new model. If he couldn’t? He’d take the garbage out for two weeks without having to be asked, but Brandon never had to be asked. Brandon was a good boy, she told them matter-of-factly. Told them that her husband went on these trips a lot for work and they always made these little bets with each other. He had hoped to finish the plane before today, he was cutting it closer than usual, his father was due home any minute. He’d finished everything but the paint job when he realized that he’d accidentally picked up the wrong color of blue. The plane was a B-24D Liberator, she told them, without anyone asking, it was an American heavy bomber used in World War II, stammering through a fit of hiccups, choking on the words but getting them out like she had to, like it was important, like it might somehow save him. She remembered every detail, not because she gave two shits about model airplanes, but because Brandon had told her about it so many times. She cared about what he cared about because he was her little man, her first son, her only child. She told them that it was introduced in 1941, that it was designed by Consolidated Aircraft based in San Francisco. She couldn’t stop talking about the plane, she just kept going on about it, about how it’d come in gray but he’d wanted to paint it blue, his favorite color, and they’d gotten the wrong blue. Billy didn’t complain, she told them. It was as if she believed that if she could make those last normal moments with him real enough, she could somehow take all of it back. This was the thing that wasn’t real. She could barely even manage to get a single syllable out at a time at this point, but she continued telling the cameraman that Brandon had picked up his tiny glass jar and had only let out a barely audible, “oh”, she’d asked him if something was wrong, he said he’d accidentally chosen navy blue instead of sapphire, she said she’d run to the store, get the correct color, it’d only take five minutes and he said no, it was fine, blue was blue. He was such a good boy, never wanting people to be bothered on account of him. He was so proud of that plane, his mother would tell everyone for days, weeks, years, but today was the first time she told it, sobbing in a hospital waiting room. The sharp sudden intakes of air between each word, making a thick, wet sound like pudding getting sucked down a garbage disposal. She just wanted everyone to know how proud of her son she was, she wouldn’t even take a break from gushing about him while they were trying to put his face back together in the next room. Or maybe it was that she thought this might be her last chance to talk about her little boy while he was alive. It was a B-24D Liberator, it’d come in gray but he painted it blue, his favorite color, she repeated, realizing she was repeating herself, she broke down, actually falling to the floor. The broadcast cut back to the studio, where they ran a story about an adorable baby duck that just couldn’t stop farting.
They said it was a miracle that the boy survived. I think a miracle would have probably left him with a lot more of his face, or at the very least one of his eyelids, but hey, the fuck do I know about miracles?
I learned something very important about power that night, about what it really meant to be someone with control. It meant you were responsible. Meant that you were probably going to end up letting some people down, hurting people. Maybe even killing people. We were only thinking for ourselves, but who was thinking for that little boy? The mother, sure, but she couldn’t do everything. You can’t protect everyone, just like nobody was able to protect us back in that toolshed. It was an important moment in my life, the first defining moment since everything that happened with Mr. Johansen, I’d never realized it before that night, but I’d been blaming the world for what happened back then, not just him. We were kids, the world was supposed to be safe for us. We learned too young that the only people we could trust to look out for us was ourselves. That night was the first time I was given the opportunity to show what kind of man I was going to be, for Michelle to show what kind of woman she was quickly becoming, but would ultimately never get the opportunity. I didn’t like that man and woman. We’d never speak of that night again. When I woke up in the morning, though? Things felt different.
I felt invincible, like I could get away with any goddam thing I wanted.
I’m not saying our night of juvenile destruction was worth seeing that little boy’s life ruined. Of course not, of course we’d take it back if we could, but we both had to pretend it had never happened, both because it was still wildly unpopular to burn children but mostly so we could stay sane. We were still just kids ourselves. We had our whole lives ahead of us to make up for what we’d done. Become better people. At least, I thought we did.
A night not long after that we broke into Valley Fair and climbed to the top of the Excalibur. I’d just scored another bindle (what junkies called a “batch” or a “skrimble” of heroin). Turns out when you want something as bad as anyone wants heroin, you’ll find it. We climbed to the top without saying a word to each other. We didn’t really talk much anymore. Partly because of what had happened to the Thompson boy but mostly because we were just so burnt out all the damn time. She didn’t have the energy to ask questions and I didn’t have the patience to answer them. We climbed to the top of the Excalibur in silence. I didn’t know why I wanted to go up there at the time, I just knew I wanted to. Needed to. The ride had just opened up two summers ago when Michelle and I were spending a lot of time at Valley Fair to avoid running into Peter when we wanted to be alone (she knew a guy that ran a Dippin’ Dots stand that could get us in for free). Considering what I wanted to talk about, it felt like the right thing to do.
As I got the skrimble ready I told Michelle that this was going to be it. That we needed to clean up and straighten out or we were never going to get anywhere in this life. It wasn’t enough to just eat at Pizza Hut once a week, we had to do something with our lives. Sure, something bad had happened to us, but that wasn’t an excuse to just lay down and die, or worse, hurt other people. Then I told her that when we were clean we should get married, because I was a dumb kid and I thought that was the sort of thing you were supposed to say. She laughed at that but agreed to everything else. This would be it. I went first.
It was good stuff. Better than the stuff we’d gotten from Peter’s friend for sure. Too good. It took me a few seconds to realize how hard it was hitting me and before I could say anything Michelle had already shot up. I watched in slow motion as a lazy smile crawled across her face. Watched every muscle in her relax as she leaned her head back into the guard rail. Saw her miss the guard rail by more than a foot. Listened in silence for the horrible but inevitable sound of a body hitting pavement but still wholly unprepared when it happened. It was a wet sound. Something that you wouldn’t think twice about if you’d heard it under any other context.
The Excalibur, at it’s tallest, was 105 feet. It was one hell of a ride, and it was one hell of a fall.
I sat there for a long time, thinking about how losing a life shouldn’t sound that way, it should sound important, not like raw hamburger hitting a cold pan. The sound haunted me either way, as underwhelming as it was. I still hear it sometimes. In dreams and when things got too quiet for too long. I hate the quiet, I hate the dreams, but I deserve them. I deserve all of it. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t want things to go back to the way they were, to back when I was a person. I sat on top of that roller coaster all night, praying to no one in particular for things to be different. I wasn’t religious. I wasn’t anything. When the faithless pray is it even praying, or just whining? Or wishing, I suppose. I wished that I’d never have let Michelle get mixed up in this stuff with me, then thought better of it. She was a big girl, could make her own decisions. We were both irresponsible, both could have made better choices. Could have been either one of us that fell off that roller coaster. At the time, I thought I’d gotten a second lease on life. Now? Now I know that she’s the one that got off easy.
I didn’t move until the cops found me. They had to get a helicopter and lift me out of there. Nobody was particularly happy about that. They say if the ring toss guy hadn’t have come up there to drink before work they would have turned the ride on and it would have ripped me apart. Maybe that would have been for the best. When they asked what had happened I told them everything. I went to court. They went easy on me since it was a first time offense and because of my history. They put me on probation. Random drug tests. I hated it. Not because I couldn’t do drugs anymore, I wasn’t going to anyway, but because they were taking the credit for me cleaning up. If I never did drugs again then I become living proof that the system works. Fuck that. I cleaned up for me. I cleaned up because I deserved better. I cleaned up because I owed it to Michelle. Owed it to Peter. Owed it to the Thompson boy. Hell, I even owed it to Mr. Johansen.
I’m the last one still alive from that toolshed. I still go to Pizza Hut every Friday, still get a large pepperoni and I eat the whole damn thing myself. For the gang. For me. For America. For Pizza Hut.
And they still make one hell of a pie. Five stars.