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Butterfly Pit Crew

By shawnmichaelbitz All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Humor

Chapter 1

He would have been an unstoppable poker player had he not detested cards, board games and such. I knew him better than anyone and he could consistently bluff me. All those years spent worshipping him without an inkling my cards could ever better his. Hell, I folded so many times early in our friendship I had abandoned any notion I could ever defeat him. You know something? I don’t even play cards.

He was my gang. My pack. My only best friend, Diresk. I carry pieces of him, tucked away in soul-crevices or stacked somewhere on shelves in my mind, though he has been away these many years. I sometimes hear his laughter in places we frequented or even while driving alone in my pickup. I swear I catch glimpses of him in my bathroom window. A little something to sneak up behind me and pinch my heart to start it bouncing around inside my sternum like a basketball.

Not his ghost, I assure you. Diresk would never consider returning after having ascended to greater adventure. Even as much as he loved me. He will continue to explore the cosmic reaches and those like him will conquer new frontiers for each of us to visit.

A modern knight who grew tired of timid dragons, predictable pastures, and a world without sorcerers and stolen maidens tucked away in fortresses of blackened stone?

Pleasing conjecture, but I rather doubt its validity. His truth was buried beneath layer upon layer of pristine gauze and I am not certain if I ever wished to go there. Had you asked I would have readily pledged my life for his and would have offered to align and hold the blade myself…but at the last second, pulled away when you began your plunge.

That, is the truth., I would not have or could not have died for anyone. I doubt I could today. As I walked beside him, yet always behind somehow, my focus was invariably pointed on me. Always, and that has been so very hard to swallow. So very hard to forgive.

My best friend was my first taste of pure passion I had ever known. How could I have misjudged him for so many years? Why did I need for him to be so invincible and vibrant? If you could have seen us then, growing together like stubborn weeds in a garden of colored petals and incense. We fancied ourselves rebels and harmless thieves, benefactors of the unaccepted and impoverished. We pretended to love everyone. We pretended to love ourselves. How strange and ironic it all seems now.

How sad and typical. Somehow, the “young and foolish” alibi piece no longer fits my puzzle. I crave more understanding. More knowledge and insight. But really, none of it means anything anymore. I just miss my friend and the days we rode side by side upon furious stallions snorting smoking ashes into the flying dirt clods, cut by their sharpened hooves.

The mighty Diresk and his faithful servant who simply wished for valor to win in the end. I wanted nothing more than to be close to him from the day we first crisscrossed paths. As the memories stir and flash through my thoughts I know this sketch must be done. If just for me, the tales must be told.

He was my teacher and I was so very blessed to have shared my life with his. There is a pain in my heart as I write of him and I find it puzzling to have not experienced it in such passage of time. Not long ago, I believed this pain would never diminish, let alone disappear on occasion. Time has its way with all of us, and only so many bags may be carried on this voyage.

Diresk ran ravenous with the blood in my veins like a wolf. He found me hiding in tall grass and absolutely insisted I learn to fly with the angels he swore hovered in our midst. He was my essential oil and I affixed myself to him as a drowning man would grasp a floating timber.

I find myself wondering if he was proud of me. I shall always insist he was to further honor him in my memories. My hope is I will learn to love myself with the intensity and passion I so eagerly offered him. That would have pleased him. To have heard me say that.

I first met Diresk on a playground in Custer, South Dakota. We had been fifth-graders. I had moved to town the previous June and had managed to establish little rapport with any children in my neighborhood or class. My mother had recently remarried and accepted a position with an insurance company in the majestic logging community. My new step-father assumed the helm of the junior high mathematics department and I abhorred him for disrupting the balanced control I held over Mother, and for distancing me from my grandfather’s attentions. My maternal grandfather had been the only father figure I had ever known and though his affections had been noble, I now believe them to have been intrusive enmeshment.

Oh, the wonders of psychotherapy!

My grandfather attempted to protect me from any harm and managed, with mother’s assistance, to insulate me from several truths I would be forced to painfully address in later years. My palace had been overrun by a step-father and my kingdom thrown into alarming chaos and dishevelment. Spoiled blood had been spilled and I was not a happy prince! I begged my mother to move back to Rapid City where I had some friends and was a mere forty minute drive from Grandpa’s protective embrace.

My very happiest childhood memories are drives I took with my grandfather in his elongated blue Buick Ceturion on the dusty backroads that framed Spearfish, hunting for wild bears, escaped criminals, and Indian arrowheads. I wore out a spot on the car seat from hours of standing next to him as he took me from adventure to adventure. We would walk the streets of Spearfish on Spring and Summer mornings as my grandfather made his extended social visits to the business community, finding without fail, lost dollar bills that would find their way into my eager fingers. I could never understand my failure to locate such treasures on my own.

Everyone in town knew Clifford Hanson, the man who owned and operated the Holiday Motel. He was the first flickering light that had shown itself in my tunnel. To this day, I am struck with childlike enamor by any motel or hotel stay. I truly wish I could live in one, and drink all the Orange Crush I could stand.

I hated Custer! I missed my grandfather desperately. I was a frightened child and my precarious esteem left me wandering aimlessly through life like a mouse tiptoeing through a den of sleeping rattlesnakes. The endless bickering and jaded bantering between my parents did nothing to diminish my fears and merely perpetuated the storm already crashing upon my inner shores. I shall never forget their argument regarding my mother’s wish to purchase a wedding gown immediately following their engagement.

“You are not going to spend a ton of money on that dress and that is final!” my step-father had screamed. “I wouldn’t spend five hundred bucks on a gun I was only going to shoot once!”

It would be the beginning of an endless battle between my parents, and would open within me a tremendous wound that festers to this day. Memories of hiding in my room, a pillow thrown over my head to muffle their raging voices, are forever etched into my mind’s window.

I can trace them with my finger.

Yes, as far back as I am able to remember, fear ruled my life with a tyrannical fist from deep within my stomach. It was a terrible burden for a child (or anyone) to carry. I began to adopt measures designed to distract me from the impending doom churning inside. Quite possibly the mechanics which precede nearly every addictive tendency. Suffice it to say I created a secret place for myself where none were granted visitation and where I made all rules and decisions. A fantasy land where I reigned exaltedly.

Simply put, I became a highly skilled control freak.

Diresk knew and spoke openly of my inner sanctum and constantly alluded to its dangers. He was forever coaxing me away from this place with his charm and undeniable quest for overcoming life. Diresk believed a life taken seriously was a life given away, and after years of self-tortuous travels I am finally forced to concur. With all of his courage and stamina I find it so difficult to accept he could have simply just disappeared so many years ago.

Why?

I whisper that word to myself whenever his memory washes through me like hot liquid electricity. Why, Diresk? And for God’s sake, why haven’t you called?

I received my first close look at Diresk while being pinned to the frozen dirt of my new school playground by a bully. It had been September and snow had found its way into my winter coat, chilling neck and spine as I fought helplessly against my attacker’s weight and the humiliating chants of the gathered crowd. Diresk’s form had appeared out of nowhere and through frosted tears I watched his hazy facial features stop no more than six inches from my own.

“You look like you might need some assistance here, son,” the face had told me. I remember refusing to nod as I did not trust anyone at my new school and was still invested in some type of saving of my frosted face.

“Get away, Diresk!” the bully barked. “This ain’t none of your business. This is ’tween the cry-baby and me. Ain’t it…Cry Baby?”

“Now Larry, this ain’t no way to act towards a new kid in our school,” the face continued. “Why don’t you let him up and we can talk about this some. Shit, it’s cold down there and it don’t look much to me like he wants to fight you anyways.”

“I tole him to get the fuck off my property, man. He was sittin’ next to the field and that’s my turf. I ain’t gonna hurt him none…jes gonna scare him a bit and let him know what’s what ’round here. Leave it be. I ain’t got no beef with you!”

“Tell you what. You let him up……..and I won’t embarrass you in front of your disciples. We’ll just let things slide and pretend this ain’t even happened. This is my new buddy…and I can’t have him cryin’ all over himself the first week of school. It won’t look good for the girlies. Be a pal and let the kid up before we all get busted by Fiala and shit. I’m serious, Larry….get offa him before I kicks you fat ass all over your friggin’ turf!”

Larry, the school bully who was at least six inches taller than all of us in his class (including Diresk who could nearly look him in the eye), silently pondered this proposition, spit in my face, and removed his body from mine. I immediately sat up to hide my tears from the scrutiny of the hungry crowd. The face pulled me to a standing position from under my arms and tossed me my stocking cap that had been dislodged during the scuffle.

It was his eyes I will recall most vividly about that crisp morning. They appeared to reach directly into mine as if they could absorb all of my scorn and debasement. Rich, dusty eyes of deepest brown, framed by wisps of dark hair escaping from his own winter cap. One of them winked at me as he deftly spun around to deliver a crushing dick to the bully’s genitals.

All of us standing there had jumped to attention and nervously scanned the perimeter for adult witnesses. One had been spotted, jogging towards the battlefield, causing many to slowly disperse towards ground cover of any kind. I scraped away frozen saliva with my mitten and nervously waited for the man about to converge upon myself, the vanquished villain, and my new hero and savior who flashed me an animated grin before issuing a warning to his fallen foe.

“That wasn’t part of the deal, dipstick. You spit in his face again and I’ll kick your friggin’ jaw through the top of your head! What are you lookin’ at Serfoss? (Serfoss was a lieutenant in Larry’s gang and quickly averted his attentions from the face’s threatening stance). That’s what I thought. Well…Mr. Dorton is gonna pay us a visit if looks like. Nice’a him takin’ time from his cigarettes to drop in, ain’t it Larry?”

the face leaned over to whisper instructions in Larry’s exposed ear and I was unable to make them out with my eyes still tracking the concerned looking faculty member who by now had broken into gallop. The face stood up and offered me a bare hand.

“Name’s Diresk, pal.”

I blinked through frosted tears and continued to assess the trouble we were about to be in. I grabbed his hand with both of mine and pumped it feverishly.

“thanks,” I managed. “I’m Christopher. I didn’t do anything and when I tried to talk to him he threw me to the ground. I don’t know how to fight very well at all. I don’t know what I did to him to make him so mad at…”

“You didn’t do nuthin’…Larry just thinks he’s gotta prove to everybuddy he ain’t retarded. Let me do the talkin’ here, Slick. Mr. Dorton really likes me a lot.”

This provoked some nervous laughter from the remaining members of the shifting mob who had decided to brave the elements.

“god dammit, Diresk!” Why’d you kick him like that? Jesus Christ…you could kill someone kicking them there! I want to know just what happened here and I want the truth, mister!” the agitated math teacher and man who would later coach us in basketball, exclaimed.

“Larry and I had a misunderstanding is all, coach. I feel really bad about what I did, Not as bad as Larry, though,” Diresk stated as he winked at his fans and was rewarded with covered laughter.

“You get your ass up to Fiala’s office RIGHT NOW! I’ll be there in five minutes. Eggers? Go get the nurse and tell her to hurry up! The rest of you get inside and go to your next period. NOW! Why are you crying, kid? What did Diresk do to you?”

“He did nothing to me,” I replied. I had considered enlightening Mr. Dorton on Larry’s blatant disregard for my safety and disposition, as well as my new best friend’s harrowing rescue from the bully’s diabolical clutches, but caught the movement in Diresk’s eyes and knew I was to remain silent.

I Did.

“See ya later,” Diresk threw over his shoulder to me as he started for the school. He stopped, spun around, and smiled at our fetal-positioned, fellow alumni. “Larry? I meant what I said, man, and I know you heard me.”

“DIRESK!…Get your butt in that building and up to Fiala’s office before I kick it all the way up the stairs! Jesus!”

I watched him saunter towards the building and found myself following with the crowd, leaving Larry to his painful reflections. Mr. Dorton hustled ahead of us and entered the building just behind my new best friend – on his way to get the belt from Mr. Fiala, our principal. It had not been Diresk’s first visit as such.

I looked for Diresk after school but could not find him. I later learned he had been expelled for the day and picked up by his father. I spotted him the very next morning and he was smiling like he had just thought up the funniest joke ever. I had been sitting near the bicycle rack, alone, waiting for the school bell to signal the beginning of another day at my new, scary school.

He approached wearing the grin that would attain legendary status in our small town. His jet-black hair, never combed (to the best of my knowledge), lounged atop a thick skull resting on a powerful neck and matching shoulders. Though slender, his was a sculpted physique wound tightly with strong, fibrous chords of powerful muscles. Muscles that had been stretched and fed by hours of cutting pine trees with his father in the ample forests surrounding Custer. He wore a neon orange winter jacket and sweat pants tucked into imitation lizard cowboy boots. I thought he walked like a gunfighter, or maybe like Robert Blake from Baretta. Twinkling eyes that would suddenly burn through you like a laser straddled an errant nose, broken twice as a child, that hung slightly to his left.

The impressive work, I would later learn, of Diresk’s father who once struck his only son with a back hand for using questionable sentence structure and tone during a family meal.

Diresk’s ears clung tightly to his head which served to maximize his aerodynamic appearance. Unlike my own receptors that appeared to perpetually strain forward like catcher’s mitts in order to capture optimal resonance. Diresk once told me my head looked like a car driving with its doors open. He would spend the next hour or so attempting to set me back on my wheels following my perilous plunge through an emotional guardrail.

I rolled several times and barely managed to escape with only a few inner scratches. As a child, my ears bothered me to the point of never jumping into public pool as my hair would no longer somewhat cover them. It was Diresk who would finally drag me through the mud and murk of that irrational fear by cutting most of my hair off with a hunting knife in the fort we built behind their home.

I was not a happy camper, but by God, I learned to swim.

He constantly licked the chapped lips that never ran out of reason to tease or enlighten. He looked and acted exactly as I would have wanted to. The way I looked and acted when adrift upon my imaginary raft, alone in my room. He looked like a movie star and acted like some banished warrior, sentenced to roam the Earth fighting for the justice of those unable to attain it for themselves.

He had been, you can certainly surmise, a most welcomed addition to my meager intimate circle.

Unable to maintain my composure, I had immediately pulled myself up and yelled his name as I spotted him near the opposite end of the school building. He had acknowledged me with a slight nod of his head and as he strutted towards me I could not avert my eyes from the burning cigarette pinched between his cold fingers.

(He smokes! Holy Jesus, he smokes!)

Real cigarettes with real tobacco and everything! I silently prayed he would speak to me.

“Hey, Topher. One of these yours?” he asked, pointing towards the bikes. (Topher? He must have forgotten my name. That’s okay…he’s talking to me!)

“What? Um…no,” I answered. “My step-dad won’t allow me to ride to school on account it’s so far. I only live right over that hill there.”

“Gotta have wheels, Jerry. Gotta be mobile, man. Never know when you gotta get up and split to some place quick!”

(Jerry? Who’s Jerry? Should I tell him what my name is? No…don’t be weird. Be cool. Just be very cool and don’t upset him.)

“You ride to school?” I asked, engrossed by his presence and still somewhat curious regarding this Jerry person.

“Green one down at the end there,” he pointed out. “Five speed with the banana seat and oversized tires. Use’ta have this speedometer and light on it but I tore ’em off. I live behind them trees over there. We oughta ride to school together, man. I could swing around and pick you up on my way.”

“My dad won’t let me…”

(Shit! Don’t tell him that you idiot. Stall and change the topic!)

“I mean…he gets real worried for no reason but I’ll talk him into letting me…you think that guy is okay after yesterday?”

“Just ride it and what’s he gonna do, Slick? He ain’t gonna kill ya is he…’cause I’d hafta really fuck him up for that.”

(Slick? Why’s he calling me Slick? Let him call you whatever he wants for Christ’s sake! Stay cool and don’t say anything stupid! Let him know you are cool, too.)

“What did you call me when you first came over here?” I asked.

“Dumbshit?” Diresk responded, lips pursed and brows stretching towards his flickering bangs. “Whatd’ya mean? I prob’ly called ya a couple things by now, man.”

“Toe-something. Something like that…but it was cool.”

“Topher? Your new name, man. Christopher sounds like somethin’ outta Winnie the Pooh. Topher’s the best part of Christopher. Topher. I think I dig it.”

I had been nicknamed for the first time in my young life and felt utterly blissful! Mutated into something resembling a cool person.

Things were certainly looking up. The kid who had saved my life the previous day – quite possibly the most relevant and revered fifth grader of my generation – had just coined my new name, thusly proving he had devoted at least some of his time considering me! This gave birth to a possible friendship! My mind began to feed me a string of scenarios when I was snapped back to reality like an inner tube tied between saplings by his gilded vocal chords.

“Anyway, you can take her for a spin sometime, man. It’s fast. Ain’t nobody can touch me on the flats.”

“Thanks, man,” I replied, using the phrase “man” proudly for the first time in my young life. We sat there in silence for awhile. He smoked his cigarette, and I simply basked in my enjoyment of being close to him.

“Smoke?” he asked, offering me his pack.

“I better not,” I blurted out. “I’m still trying to defeat this cold I have had for more than a week now.”

He nodded at me and replaced his pack inside of his coat pocket. Suddenly, he placed his hand on my shoulder and my throat slammed shut as he turned me to face his words.

“Let’s get something straight right now, son,” he began. “You and I both know you ain’t smoked no cigarette before in your life. I don’t give a shit ’bout the other day when Larry kicked your ass or if you can’t fight or if you are cool or not.” Diresk stepped back and his brows met in deep concern. I am certain I had begun to pucker up like a grape in a desert. He continued.

“You gotta relax, man. You look like I’m gonna hit you or somethin’. I’m just gonna say this one thing to you…so don’t go whacko on me, okay?”

I feebly nodded.

“All I ask is you tell me the truth. You don’t have to be anythin’ but yourself ’round me, Topher. I mean it, man. I don’t five two shits about what anybody thinks about you…or me! If you and I are gonna be friends you gotta just be yourself and that’s it. Easy, ain’t it?”

I feebly nodded.

“I ain’t gonna pretend to be somethin’ I’m not…so you don’t either, man. All we gotta do is just…Oh my God I love her! Check it out, man! Billie Lee Sager. Sixth grader...but somethin’ musta’ gone haywire in her hormones and she ends up bein’ built like that. That’s what you can get me for Christmas, Jethro!”

(Jethro? Make up your mind for…..)

I looked in the direction of Diresk’s point and felt my eyes about to be sucked from my skull as they fixed on the coordinates of one of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. I then returned to why he had addressed me as Jethro. Then, back to Billie Lee Sager and the physical aroma that preceded and followed her like mist. I tried to remember what we had been discussing and what Diresk had been saying before his thought train jumped tracks suddenly. Attempting to silently draft a succinct, yet momentous overview of our previous discussion that I could not, for the life of me, recall, I decided to give up and just watch Billie Lee Sager saunter into the large brick school building.

I can still see her. God , she looked like a woman. Diresk and I joined our eyes in silent vigil, returned to see her disappear into the doorway, concurrently shook heads, then leaned back against the iron back rack.

Overwhelmed by the moment, I was forced to emit a rather dispassionate soliloquy under my recently restored breath.

“Please let him like me. Help me not to be a nerd.”

“I would eat mud just to be able to spend some time in her underwear drawer, man!” Diresk exclaimed, bringing me out of my brooding self-doubt. “Jesus Christ, she is finely made!” he continued. “Where was I? Oh, yeah, you gotta learn to lighten up, man. I can tell by lookin’ at ya you are gonna die at forty from your heart explodin’. I got my work cut out for me, Slim, but that’s the way I like it to be. I’m gonna teach you how to coast through life and you are gonna reach me whatever it is you’re supposed to teach me. We’ll be a great team. I need someone to hang with…and you look like you could use some company real fast! How’s all this settin’ with you, Cowboy? You look like you need a smoke or somethin’.”

“ I know I’m not very good at relaxing, but Ill try harder,” I replied. After the lunacy of my words set in we both began to chuckle and as Diresk slapped me on my back I realized I was no longer alone in Custer.

The two of us stood there at the bike rack and I could not help but notice that Diresk know nearly everyone in that school. They all waved to him and in many ways appeared to pay homage as they strolled past. I was so proud to be next to hem. Safe. Secure. What I could never have on my own.

We were nearly inseparable from that day on. I remain baffled regarding his inclination to befriend me the way he did. He would always dismiss such interrogations with sarcasm or silence, but would somehow let me know how much he appreciated my presence in his life as well. Never directly, but always deeply received and felt.

I never did learn how to fight or defend myself; physically, anyway. I never had to as long as Diresk was around to attend to this. He must have known I was not cut out for hand-to-hand combat, though I do not doubt he secretly believed a couple of bouts would have enhanced my self-confidence. I always silently cursed myself whenever I would voice a fear in his presence as this would invariably lead to being nudged upon trembling legs to the edge of said precipice to peer down into its molten belly as my Diresk quietly, yet sternly, urged me to jump. To this day it is as if I can feel his hot breath on the back of my neck as I continue to face the myriad of lies fear tells me with its shiny tongue. I can hear him whisper, “Jump, Toph. Come on, man…jump right down that fucker’s throat and tear its heart out!”

I have heard that voice whenever needed since the morning after the night he chose to take his life to another place. In death, as in life, he has only been but a breath away.

There were times I was more angry with him than I have ever been at another human being. It was all part of his plan to “equip Topher for a comeback.” I spent so much time concentrating on the pain I felt inside I looked right past his own.

He was, after all, Diresk. Bullet-proof and immortal!

How in God’s sweet name could I have missed something so profoundly blatant? I failed to look away from myself long enough to notice he was dying. My anger has long since slipped through some crack, I imagine. God how I hated me for letting him make that choice. Still, I somehow understood there was no rational path save forgiveness and understanding; for myself as much as him.

I believe the question I have wrestled with more than all is “Why not me?” You see, I was always the weak one. I was the psychiatric patient and “Mr. Panic Attack”. I always thought I was the elephant in the front room, until it took a shit right on my head. I ignored his most deliberate lesson. Jesus, he must have only mentioned it in one form or another a couple hundred times.

“You gotta learn how to get past yourself, man,” he would say. “Once you get past yourself you got nothin’ but open field ahead of you. You get to run anywhere you want…go anyplace you wanna go. And most importantly…you get free to help those who can’t help themselves. And that’s a hell of a lot of folks, Jerry. People are freakin’ and dyin’ on the side of the road and if ya can’t stop seein’ you…you can’t start seein’ them.”

Jerry. Cecil. Partner. Jethro. It took me a few weeks to pick up on Diresk’s idiosyncratic salutations. It has taken me many years to understand what he was so desperately trying to tell me about me. It’s all about giving to others. Helping others because you simply want to. Oldest spiritual truth on the books, I imagine. Diresk lived it. Everyday of his life. I watched him. Giving to others filled him like helium in a balloon, and he could soar like no one I have ever seen. I just never know he had not plugged all his holes, and he finally bled out. My teacher. My best friend. God, I miss him so much right now. He was the first person I ever fell in love with.

Diresk left me a message on my machine the night be murdered his pain. The night he swallowed a bottle full of bullets. He drifted away with ancient wind like a kite that finally snapped its line. The same wind that would burn and blind my eyes with dust as I helped carry his coffin to the hole someone’s best friend had dug for mine.

I last saw and spoke with Diresk the day before he died. I had found him in his parent’s tire swing, intoxicated. Imagine that. His dog had made a dispassionate attempt at biting me, but even she had given up. I had just screamed in her face and she retreated to some bushes. Diresk had raised his head and waved me over, smiling through crusted lips. His face looked as if it had shattered and he did not speak as I approached him with the folder I had brought to him. He reminded me of a ghost town.

I had stopped to return some of his poetry he had wanted me to read and finish for him. He had pushed off in the swing with his legs and dropped a near-empty bottle of wine as his hands shot to the rope to regain his severed balance. I knelt to retrieve it but was halted by his graveled voice.

“Leave it! ’bout got her drained anyways”.

I lit two cigarettes and handed him one as his eyes fought for focus and finally settled on the folder in my left hand.

“whatd’ja think of ’em? Pretty goofy, huh?” he asked as his fingers found and inserted the cigarette into his cracked lips and his eyes failed to join mine.

“They’re good, D.,” I lied, having never read them. “I can’t finish these, though…they are yours, man. Maybe they are finished. These are your words and I can’t….do not feel right about trampling over them. You just have to spend some time with them,” I added.

“Like you did?” he asked with a strange look. After I failed to respond, he took another deep drag of his cigarette and tossed it into the bushes near his dog.

I felt guilty I had not read any of his work. Diresk had eagerly read every word I had ever lined up with another. He read every short story I wrote in grade school. Hell, he was responsible for my ever attempting to write anything! My very first poem was written about Diresk and his dog, Grover. I still have it somewhere. God, I can’t remember where, though.

Diresk read the first draft of my first novel three months before he died. He told me it was some of the best “stuff” he had ever read, though I know he must have forced his way through it. Maybe if I had “spent some time” with his writings, I would have heard some of his cries. After his father gave them back to me a year or so after Diresk died, I heard them all the time.

He looked at me silently for the longest time and finally took the folder from my hand and dropped it beside him in the sand. I waited for him to say something. Anything. I looked down at the papers that had fallen from the folder upon impact and felt immediately sick to my stomach. He looked past me and into the woods near the site of our childhood fort.

I continued to wait for him to speak.

There was nothing left. I had looked right past it. I never even got close. I merely saw in front of me my alcoholic best friend who was above concern and pity. I now understand it was always my own sense of inadequacy that distanced myself from him, The truth. Diresk as he really was, inside.

Diresk had told me this on many occasions, but I could never grasp the simple truth set before me. All he ever wished for me was to see myself at his level. Eye-to-eye. Man-to-man. He desired a peer.

I wanted a parent.

I miss his anger more than anything. His passionate plight to redeem everything and everyone he came in contact with. He fought to free himself by liberating other prisoners. His war was against fear. Yours and mine. Inevitably, I guess, it was all about his own. I never pondered its existence as he rarely spoke of it. Unheard of behavior for an emotional exhibitionist such as myself.

I now believe he wanted us all to shine with the brilliance he so desperately sought for himself. I believe I am only beginning to see some of the colors he described to me. The dimensions of our life together on this planet, so covered by our own admissions and admonishments. But I am beginning to see them and this has made all the difference. A time-released gift from my Diresk. You see, he just loved and embraced me. Period! Too pure to touch with a hand. Too simple to grasp with the mind. So powerful and present I had no alternative but to avert my gaze from its blinding fission.

I used to believe he was the lover I could never find in a woman, and God only knows how I searched. I am now inclined to believe the lover I have combed this land to find…..is God. I do feel, however, more data must be gathered and assessed.

The last thing I said to my Diresk was, “I’ll call you soon and we should get together and talk.”

“I don’t wanna talk, Toph,” he said. “I’m tired and I wanna sleep.”

The Pickup

“I ain’t drivin’ in no fuckin’ coffee can, Topher,” Diresk had yelled as he dashed inside his house to grab his cigarettes and some beers he had hidden in his room. His parents were away from the house leaving the coast clear to remove our contraband.

I turned to yell something back at him but he was already inside.. He always got inside before I could reach him. The “coffee can” he had so rudely referred to was my 1974 AMC Pacer. It wasn’t pretty, but at least it was very slow. We would be taking the Ford again. Diresk’s 1972 Ford F-100 pickup. Just about every important aspect of life I ever learned was honed and polished while riding around in that beat up truck. It was a place I could let my guard down. Jerry Jeff Walker tapes turned up to ten as we slid sideways around nearly every curve we ever took. Grover accompanied us wherever we went and no matter how much time I spent around that hound she always tried to bite me when Diresk was not looking. I must have given that dog half of everything I ever ate. I still hate basset hounds.

This particular summer night we had planned to drive to Stockade Lake for a bit of campground thievery. Coolers. Park rangers were getting very upset as countless tourists had been hit by roaming bandits in the many local campgrounds surrounding Custer. This practice was frowned upon by local law enforcement due to the fact Custer thrived mainly on tourism, and the last thing the area merchants wanted to see was a bunch of disgruntled visitors who would pass their complaints to prospective consumers.

Raiding campgrounds was our absolute favorite summer pastime in our teen years. You would not believe some of the stuff we got away with during these capers. All we ever hoped for was beer and snack food, but occasionally we would stumble across something exciting. One night we happened upon a cooler full of thousands of dollars of camera equipment.

“You ain’t gonna friggin’ believe this, D.,” I said with a cooler opened at my feet, flashlight held in my teeth as we sped away with the truck lights turned off. “It’s Nikon City! Bunch of film….lenses….car keys…Hey! There’s three cameras in here, man! Nice ones, too. Check it out, D.”

“I can’t drink no cameras, Slim. We gotta go back and get us some brewchonskies,” Diresk quietly announced, slapping my back. “ I believe I might just roll me one of them funny cigarettes. Join me?”

“I ain’t going back there, D. If we get busted with this shit we –“

All at once we found ourselves in a power slide as Diresk had slammed on the brakes and I was thrown to the dashboard. It had not been our first meeting.

“Give me that shit, Larry!” Diresk had ordered as he reached over and grabbed the cooler before we had stopped moving. The truck slid to a stop and Diresk tossed the cooler and camera equipment into the ditch. Before I could submit comment or protest, tires were throwing gravel and the big Ford’s engine was roaring like a foghorn.

We rode in silence and just as I was about to ask him why he had thrown out the loot he quietly spoke to me without taking his eyes off of the black road passing beneath us.

“Don’t get attached to nothing, Zeke. As long as you can leave it all behind you without looking back at a moment’s notice…you can’t throw yourself in no jails. We don’t need no camera. We need beer. You gotta figure out what you need …first…then the rest will just fall into your hands. Roll us a number and I can’t barely hear that song.”

I obediently turned up the stereo and began to roll a joint as Diresk lit himself a cigarette and leaned out the window to view the starry night. A few hours later we would drink beer lifted from a campground at Bismark Lake.

All I could think about for the rest of the night was going back to get those cameras.

I have yet to master the art of not getting attached to stuff.

“She’s done just about everybody in the school and I say you’re next.”

Diresk had been leaning out of the truck’s window to get a better rear view of Rhonda. Rhonda was the school temptress. Actually, Rhonda would reportedly have sex with just about any male who asked as long as he was either a basketball player or in possession of illegal drugs. I closed my eyes as Diresk spun the big truck around in pursuit of Custer High School’s porno queen, lost in her own carnal stroll.

The girl could walk. Dancing flesh. Mae West with a ginseng overdose.

“I’m not going to screw her, D.! I mean it! I’m not going to catch some dick rot and end up pissing green urine the rest of my life!”

“It is my sworn duty as your guru to rid you of this virginity curse once and for all. Topher, you gotta get started with fucking, man. It is truly the best thing God ever gave to us…and in this life we gotta make the best happen as much as possible.

“What if I can’t get it up? If that shit went around school I would have to move to France. I’m nervous, man. I’m serious, D….I can’t perform under these circumstances. Why don’t we just…”

“Rhonda will such the nervousness right out of your little weenie, Cecil. Practice makes professionals and this lady has put in her hours. I’ve done the deed a dozen times with her and she knows how to treat us poor guys. Discussion is done and gone! Let me do the talkin’ and save your freakin’ out for your wedding.”

We pulled along side Rhonda, on her way home from her summer job at Dairy Queen. To me, she looked like a dangerous proposition. When she smiled at us I nearly knocked myself out on the rear window as I swung back to hide.

“Easy on the glass, Slim!” Diresk announced. “Jesus Christ…she’s a girl, man. Cool out and lay back for the ride. Rhonda? My buddy Topher is comin’ up on his sweet sixteenth and hasn’t had any proper female instruction. I was wonderin’ if I could trouble you to assist in the deflowering of this danglin’ angel? If he don’t get laid pretty soon, his brains are gonna start pushin’ outta his ears.”

Rhonda leaned over to get a better look at me as I cowered in the corner.

“I happen to have some purple dope I got from Frankenstein that’ll make ya think your’a Martian…and some Colt 45’s chilled to the friggin’ boner. What say you, fair damsel in dis dress?’

“You’re really an asshole, Diresk.” Rhonda noted. Her eyes looked like they were going to explode and they scared the shit out of me. But at that moment, everything scared the shit out of me.

“Darlin’….if I were less of a man that might’ve cut me deeply. Get in the truck before we have to smoke all this reefer by ourselves,” Diresk ordered as he reached across my shaking legs and opened the door. He knew I could never have opened it.

Rhonda just flipped us off, ran around the truck, and I barely avoided a collision as I managed to slide over just before she jumped in. She smelled like ice cream. I felt like I was going to shit my pants. Or hers.

“Hey, Christopher,” she offered.

“Hey Rhonda,” I managed, wishing I could have a massive coronary on the spot.

Just when I thought my heart was going to fall out of my chest I felt her painted lips on my neck. She whispered, “You’ll be fine. I’ll take real good care of you. I haven’t lost a patient yet. What’s your dog’s name again, Diresk?”

“Topher is a little nervous, darlin’. He’s been poisoned by biblical dogma to the point he’s convinced he’s gotta have some kinda relationship with the first woman he bumps uglies with,” Diresk stated as he winked at the both of us and inserted a joint into his chapped lips.

“Don’t underestimate the bite of this shit now, fellas. Frank got Slime and I so fuckin’ stoned on this shit the other day we ’bout shit our pants. Looks like Slime’s gonna hafta relearn the English language all over again, man. My beautiful baby’s name is Grover. She don’t approve of drugs or premarital sex so keep your pinkies to yourself.”

(Slime should be footnoted here. His real name was Gary and he was renowned throughout our school as having the worst breath on record. No matter what he did, or how many times he brushed his teeth or how much gum he chewed, his breath always smelled like he had just swallowed a bucket of maggots.,)

Diresk flashed us his grin and passed the smoking joint to me, pointing out the chilled malt liquor to Rhonda. Grover licked Rhonda’s hand as she opened the sliding rear window and removed a Colt 45 from the cooler in the truck’s box. Thirty minutes prior to this the dog had offered to relieve me of my right hand during a similar maneuver.

I took my turn and passed the dope to Rhonda who put the lit end into her mouth and inserted the other into mine, blowing a tremendous flume of smoke into my lungs. I soon found myself in a struggle to keep the elephant in my lungs from jumping out of my nose and clenched mouth. I made it without coughing which must have impressed her because she winked and nodded at Diresk before taking her own delicious pull.

We drove out of town and the next thing I remember is being absolutely enthralled by the colors on a Pink Floyd tape case to the point of forgetting, entirely, my angst over the impending sex deed. My trance was soon shattered as the rear view mirror all but chipped my teeth. Diresk never rolled to a stop as long as I knew him. It was always a barely controlled skid whenever we arrived someplace. Both had left the cab before I could utter a single plea to my captors. I sat there alone, caressing my tender teeth and gums. Terrified and stoned beyond comprehension. Not a boner in sight. I swear to my God I wished for the end.

I finally managed to exit the vehicle and looked around but could not locate either of them, I called out to them and heard nothing. I remember my eyes felt like the sun was barely six feet from Earth. I nearly Fainted at the sound of Grover’s bark. Paranoia kicked in and I somehow became convinced the dog was going to attack me. I began to run back towards where I believed the main road to be, when I sped down an embankment, circled around some pine trees and ran smack into Diresk, leaning back against a tree with Rhonda’s head affixed to his crotch. He had been struggling to light another joint with an impotent lighter.

I stood there, watching them. This surreal scene from a movie I was somehow in. I could not believe the three of us were doing what we were doing. Rhonda’s head was bobbing back and forth as her bottomless eyes fixed on me with a blank stare I could not bear to return. Diresk, still intent of igniting the dope but having no luck. Standing there as if his shoes were being shined.

It was all too much for me and I slowly wandered back to the truck to wait for them as Grover barked and snarled at me through the window as I leaned forward in the cab and held my chemically confused brain in my hands. They returned to the truck a few minutes later, wearing painted smiles.

We rode back to town in utter silence.

Diresk and I took these girls we knew from Hill City to the mall and a movie in Rapid City. They worked at Mount Rushmore that summer and I believe Diresk and I had just completed out junior year. They were college girls and we felt as if we’d hit the jackpot. Older women

We had the usual going: smoking pot, drinking Colt 45’s and pushing the stereo as far as it would go. I remember the girl I was with wore these golden sandals and I could not take my eyes off of her tanned feet. It was the first time I really noticed having an affinity for women’s feet. I stared at them the entire night and was certain she would mention my eccentricity if I continued, but I was powerless to stop. We left Rapid City around midnight following a late supper and somehow made it safely to their apartment in Hill City despite having chemically assaulted all of our senses beyond measure.

The girls invited us inside and Diresk and his date quickly disappeared into her bedroom. After a heated petting session, I bravely asked my date if I could lick her feet. She laughed and informed me I could lick whatever I wanted. I awkwardly told her that her feet would do just fine. I think her name was Mona. She was nearly as tall as I was and I found her somewhat attractive. She had long blonde hair and the tan of a lifeguard. Other than that, all I can remember about her is she had red, polished toes and she watched with bemused amusement as I lapped at them like a child with a melting ice cream cone as she reclined on their living room couch.

Anyway, I could hear Diresk and his girl going at it in one of the two bedrooms, making noises like tortured animals. I remember thinking ”This must be so strange to this girl; I’m licking her feet while her roommate is having sex in the next room.” It was the first time I ever felt dirty with a girl. It was also the first time I ever climaxed without being touched or touching myself. I do not know who was more surprised. Probably her, because she quickly withdrew her feet from my face and made some excuse about having to get up early for work.

She excused herself to her bedroom and soon returned, a protective afterthought, to retrieve her golden sandals. She thanked me for the movie and meal and vanished behind her closed door. I knocked on her roommate’s bedroom door and announced to Diresk I would wait for him in his truck.

“come on in, Toph…it’s okay,” he answered breathlessly.

I hesitantly opened the door slightly and was shocked to see my best friend receiving oral sex from his date on her bed. Her panicked face spun around to confront me and I quickly slammed the door and stepped back as if she had shot daggers from her blazing eyes.

“SHIT OH SHIT!” she exclaimed through the door. “Get the hell out of here, you asshole. I mean it! RIGHT NOW!”

“Come on, (I forget her name), “ Diresk pleaded as his laughter cracked through his voice. “I didn’t think he’s open the friggin’ door. Come here. I’m sorry…he didn’t see nuthin’ anyways.”

She began to cry and I bolted for the front door of the apartment, closing it softly behind me as a gesture of respect. Grover’s head raised above the box and she eyed me suspiciously as I approached the truck, pleading for her silence in a shaken whisper. My heart slammed against my ribs as she began to announce her territorial rights to neighbors and canine peers, eager to throw their support or protestations to the sleepy night’s wind.

Ignored requests to silence the ballistic hound fell back down into my throat, and I opened the passenger door to wait out the ruckus within the muffled sounds of the cab. The night’s events rolled before my closed eyes and I became vibrantly aware of the semen in my underwear and my still-tingling penis. I smiled to myself as I felt the wet stain in my jeans and rolled the sticky residue between my thumb and forefinger.

It was then I noticed the endless spray of stars through the windshield. Absolutely charmed by their numbers, I leaned forward to rest my chin on the dashboard. Unbelievable. Billions of stars and planets in this universe and I suddenly felt like some invisible speck of atomic dust. Alone in the pickup that night I was overcome by such a rush and dance of electric emotions I thought I would burst. Magic I could not define or attribute to any sort of chemical boost. I simply felt like someone had crashed silent cymbals in front of my eyes. I leaned further against the glass to seek the source of such mirth, and gazed awestruck into the countless eyes of the universe.

The barking chorus of the neighborhood soon brought me back to the truck and the cigarettes lying beside me on the seat. I lit one and I recall thinking how strange it was that my seeds of life lay dying in the cotton fabric of my jeans. The power to give life.

I saluted my penis and sat back to enjoy my cigarette and review the night’s activities in my mind again. I could taste her toes on my lips. I tried to remember the smell of her feet and the rolling lines of her brown legs as I has sighted them in from behind her soles. Like she was a long rifle. I smiled and blew smoke into the windshield, drunk on my awakened fetish.

I let my mind wander back to the fellatio I had just seen. The girl between Diresk’s legs, praying on her knees to his pleasure. So sexy from behind, and why? The curve of their buttocks as their long hair spread its fingers like a hand across their shoulders and backs. God I loved to look at women from behind! I reached down to touch my erection as it shifted in its dreamy sleep by the flick of a switch in my mind.

Did I have time to masturbate? No, he would have to shut the dog up and soon. I would wait for my bed. It was a date.

Something powerful happened to me in that pickup and I am still unable to grasp it. I had been absolutely floored by the feelings that bounced around off each other and finally rested to join hands in my heightened brain. The event can only be diminished in the tapping of these lettered keys so many years past. That night, in the old pickup, I passed aimlessly through a curtain and into a corridor I had never before reached. A corridor lit by the billion points of light that had captivated and drawn me near. It had sent a hurricane through its winding walls and halls into my squinted vision.

What I shall remember most of that evening was the manner in which my shame and embarrassment shook hands with elation, hungry for exit. I was struck famished for erotic delights from that night forth. I would spend years trying to replicate the explosion I had felt that night. Pornography and restless sexual encounters would throw water on my flames, but they would soon ignite again, demanding fuel. It was as if I had done the drug of sex.

Although it would be another two years before I would have intercourse with a girl, I had lost some type of virginity in Hill City that night. Women’s feet would be my muse, and my eyes follow them to this day like twin stalkers. So strange to bear this buried file. It is as if I can feel something or someone glaring at me for releasing it.

Diresk finally returned to the truck and after the usual locker room procedures we headed for home. I never told him about my experience that night or shared with him my affinity for feet, but I think he knew. His main concern had been my failure, again, to consummate “the deed”. He surprised me by requesting I drive home, and I listened to him recount his evening’s escapades as I watched the road and Mona’s toes repeatedly meet my mouth.

I got a speeding ticket that night on the way back to Custer. It seems as if my mind had drifted from the task at hand.

We only wrecked the truck once. It had been my fault, really. I had not been driving but I had felt responsible as I had distracted him. I can still see the woman’s eyes as she braced for our blow. She had a red coat on and I believe she had been driving a Ford Fiesta. She came out okay but did end up suing Diresk’s father’s insurance company for injuries to her neck and spine. We totaled her car. Crushed it like a paper cup. The most amazing aspect of the tale is we had not been drinking alcohol that day. When I think back on our high school and college days together, that just did not happen more than a couple of times. Also, we had left Grover with Diresk’s parents and he had managed to miss the festivities. Another rare, yet timely, happening.

Diresk had been delighted to jump through the subsequent sobriety hoops for the first officer on “our scene”. He did, however, get a trifle out of hand during the dexterity section when he mimicked ballet and gymnastics moves.

The investigating officer had not been impressed, but could do nothing more than cite Diresk for failing to observe potentially hazardous driving conditions. Technically, he was inclined to point part of his finger towards the woman we hit, due to icy conditions and her own failure to observe proper precaution.

This all could have been avoided had I not dropped a burning roach into Diresk’s lap before his fingers could properly receive the pass. Basic drug culture infringement on my part. Anyway, had I not forced him into his impromptu disco dance while maneuvering through a precarious situation I am certain he would have won the day.

The second most amazing aspect of the tale is that we would later run into this woman, figuratively, further down the proverbial road. They say God works in mysterious ways? Check this out.

This accident had happened in the Winter of 1981. Diresk and I were attending separate universities and had returned to Custer for the Christmas vacation. We had driven to Rapid City to Christmas shop and catch up on collegiate gossip and such when we had inadvertently trashed this poor woman’s car. Nothing like a car wreck to ruin a good buzz. Or, give you a great excuse to pursue another.

The woman had been terribly upset by the accident and had demanded the officer arrest us for something. Diresk had vehemently apologized for his actions, yet held firm to his stance of equal blame on the matter. She had sworn vengeance after exchanging the necessary data and details, and had continued to scream at us until being whisked away by ambulance. We wished her well, retrieved Diresk’s license and paperwork, and found a body shop to obtain an estimate of the damages.

We had considered phoning to the hospital to check on her progress, but had decided against it just before the final number had been dialed. The pesky lawsuit ensued and was settled out of court and I have no recollection of further details of that particular matter. I do, however, recall Diresk’s father had been brutal with my best friend in retaliation. Diresk returned for his Spring semester with a new bumper and front quarter panel, and the remnants of a black eye.

One year later, almost to the day, we had again returned to Custer for the holidays and had been out gallivanting in, you guessed it, Rapid City. Neither of us had given any thought to the previous year’s mishap and had tucked any signs of trepidations of any kind in bed with potent doses of marijuana, methamphetamines, an assorted alcoholic bouillabaisse, and, if my shell-shocked memory serves me correctly, a smattering of chocolate mescaline. The Formula 44 bottle we had also been nursing from had been, I assure you, legitimately self-prescribed for cold symptoms.

Merry Christmas, man!

We had stopped at an apartment belonging to a girl Diresk knew from his university to, as Diresk put it, “spread some holiday cheer along with some holiday legs”. I waited in the living room while Diresk did just that, continuing to assault my senses with our arsenal as I watched cartoons with the girl’s four year old daughter. I do not recall us hitting it off and I can not imagine why.

All at once, there arose such a clatter (the door) and I sprang from my stupor to see what or who could possibly be the matter. My investigative hunch absolutely precluded the opening of the door after spotting an enraged man pounding on the door and screaming the little girl’s name.

“Daddy!” the little girl cried from behind me and was soon between my parted thighs attempting to open the door.

“Princess? Let Daddy in, honey!” a heavy voice slipped through the door.

I removed the little girl’s hand from the lock mechanism and hoisted her away and into the hallway leading to her mother’s bedroom. A series of animated, kicking, scratching, screaming and biting soon followed as I nervously rapped on the love nest to enlist reinforcements.

The angry man’s voice and pounding picked up steam and volume, as did his daughter’s, and I tried the knob but found it locked. By this time, I had sustained a number of painful blows to several crucial body areas and was rapidly losing my chemical calm.

Also, the prospect of facing a gun wielding, jilted husband had not been on my list of things to do for the afternoon and I began to loudly beseech Diresk’s immediate and unconditional appearance.

“So you mind getting your ass out here before Paul Bunyan comes through that door and fucking kills me?” I squeaked.

“I know, I know…I’m comin’, man!” Diresk announced as I backed into the hall, my eyes still glued to the front door.

Seconds later the bedroom door swung open and I was side-by-side with my half dressed compadre. He was smoking the shit out of a cigarette and carrying a bowling pin in his right hand.

“It’s her husband, man…and he don’t like me much,” Diresk hissed and reached out for the little girl with his free hand.

I was delighted to comply!

“Come here, baby,” Diresk chanted to the child as he plucked her from my aching arms and disappeared with her into the bedroom. A hushed conversation drifted from within a Diresk again emerged, followed by one panic-stricken mother.

“He’ll kill us all!” she shouted, and I was pushed aside by her words.

“He ain’t gonna kill nobody,” the mighty Diresk inserted. “Get on the horn and call the cops. Toph…come with me, man. We’re gonna see what we can do ’bout all this noise.”

I wish I could have matched my friend’s courageous demeanor with my own, but I had been much too busy quelling a panic attack. There was nothing else I could do but follow my hero into battle. As I desperately searched the living room for suitable weaponry, my heart had been stopped by the sound of the opening of the front door. I prayed she had called the police.

“Get the fuck out of my way, Diresk!” a very large, hairy person ordered and stepped into the living room. “You better put that away before I jam it up your ass!” He gestured to the bowling pin with his blazing eyes.

“Slow down and talk to me, man!” Diresk barked, stepping in front of the man’s path leading to his cowering wife.

“Talk to you? Talk to you about what? Get out of the way or I’ll fuckin’ break you in half! I mean it…I ain’t in the mood to play here!”

“She don’t wanna see you no more, Jeff!” Diresk held his ground. “You left her, remember? Jeff? Remember, man?”

A pause rang out through the room. Diresk and Jeff stood not more than six inches from each other, breathing like two bulls in a pen. Diresk took a step back and set the pin beside him, maintaining eye contact. He tossed his cigarette out the opened front door.

It happened so fast I don’t even remember who hit who first. Before I knew what had happened, several punches had been thrown and they were on the carpet upending furniture and flailing away like each had four arms and legs. My first reaction was to freeze. I soon tired of this and quickly approached the battling bodies, circling them like a wresting referee.

Before long, Diresk was able to gain the upper hand and had Jeff pinned beneath him, face down, with an arm twisted painfully behind Jeff’s back. Diresk was bleeding from his nose and a cut on his forehead. His shirt was nearly torn off and a red trail led from the bottom of his chin down to the middle of his chest. They struggled in this position, without noise or comment.

I had no idea what to do, so I asked.

“What do you want me to do, D.?”

“Just go out and wait for the cops and thanks for all the help, Fuzzy!”

I did what I was told, stepping over the bodies and feeling entirely worthless as a friend and fellow man. “What should I have done?” “Should I have clobbered the guy with the bowling pin?” “What if I would have hit Diresk instead?” “Then what would I have done?” I continued to quiz and berate myself in the parking lot of the complex. I was fairly certain I would have done something had Diresk failed to subdue his opponent.

More than likely I would have ended up jumping on Jeff’s back, recreating some scene in a Jerry Lewis movie. I was very happy Diresk had prevailed and it had not been necessary for me to display my nonexistent fighting prowess. I thanked my God for large favors.

By the time the police pulled into the lot and I had led them to the apartment, Diresk had released his hold on Jeff and was comforting his defeated opponent as they sat facing each other on the floor, both bleeding from various lesions.

Not exactly the picture I had painted and presented law enforcement with during our hurried approach. I just shrugged when the officers looked at me and proceeded to make myself as scarce as possible. There had been no sign of mother or daughter at this point in the saga.

“What’s going on here, guys?” one of the officers asked the resting warriors.

“Not much. Just beatin’ the shit outta each other,” Diresk quipped. “What you guys got goin’ on today?”

“Who’s apartment is this?” the other officer inquired.

“Used to be mine, Jeff stammered. “I’m separated from my wife right now and I ain’t supposed to be here so go ahead and bust me.”

“Restraining order?” the first officer asked. Jeff nodded his head.

The officers tracked down mother and daughter, spoke to each of them briefly, and started to escort Jeff to their patrol unit when Diresk felt the need to disrupt the balance of the room.

“You ain’t gotta bust him…do ya? He’s just freaked out and needs to blow off some steam.” Diresk gestured with his hands as if he was signaling a base runner “safe”.

“Thank you for your psychiatric assessment, but he broke the law, Sir. He is not to approach the premises, his wife..or his daughter…within two hundred yards…without permission from the court. What are you….his best friend all of a sudden? Maybe you oughta check your face in the mirror. It doesn’t appear you two get along very well.”

“That ain’t none of yer business, is it?” Diresk shot back. “I try not to look at myself in the mirror much because it takes me so damned long to peel myself away. Look at his profile, man. Friggin’ Al Pacino.”

“If you would like to continue with you current attitude and end up riding beside your buddy to the station…we can arrange it. Your call Mr. Comedian.” The officer was not kidding as he stood glaring at Diresk, holding Jeff by his elbow at the front doorway.

Diresk lit a cigarette and glanced at me with smiling eyes. I discreetly shook my head and raised my eyebrows as if bracing for a cold splash of water. We had been mere seconds away from emerging unscathed from a very heavy incident. I sat down at the kitchen table to await the inevitable.

“Do you know why the pervert crossed the road?” my friend asked the uniformed men, one of which had already started for him. “….’cause he had his dick stuck in a chicken.”

Suffice it to say it had not been a happy ending to our afternoon. Diresk put up a spirited fight, but pepper spray had located and severed his Achilles heel. He departed, cuffed and temporarily blinded, with our devoted boys in blue, barking, “Do not blame these gentlemen for upholding the law! They know not what they do! Besides…it was my friggin’ idea to call them in the first place. Don’t blame yourselves, lads…but if you can swing bail I would dig you for eternity!”

I followed the police cruiser to the Pennington County Courthouse in Diresk’s truck, chemically flabbergasted and paranoid beyond gauge. The roads were sheer ice. I doubt I took more than eight breaths during my five minute glacial traverse, four of which due only to my lit cigarette.

Just when our story brightened again, we suffered a cathartic relapse.

Upon my hesitant entrance to police headquarters, I had been delighted to learn Diresk would not in fact be arrested and held, and was to be released following a perfunctory slap on the wrist.

The demons had once again smiled upon us!

I spasmodically thanked a gracious host for his department’s benevolence and holiday gesture, promising to dig deep into my pockets to support any and all Policeman’s Balls henceforth.

My unbridled zeal was slam-dunked by his obvious failure to accept my joyous tidings as well as his ensuing reply.

“On behalf of all Pennington County servants…I would like to thank you for your support…and also invite you to immediately sit you Academy Award-skinny ass down in that chair over there before I find out what you’ve been smoking! Zorro will be joining you shortly…and if either one of you punks thinks you are driving away from here in you current conditions…well…, let’s just say you’re going to need to arrange alternate transportation.”

The smug grin fell off my face and shattered on the concrete floor like a water pipe. I quietly limped to my quarantined area to await my fellow hoodlum who soon appeared, handcuffed and minus his smug grin, escorted by an unusually large, fire-spewing deputy. Diresk’s face appeared to be smeared with catsup.

I elected to forgo attempts to engage the armed giant in converse and instead began to commit to memory every detail of my tennis shoes.

“You tell this one he ain’t drivin’?” the giant asked the officer I had failed to bond with.

“Yep. Told him he better find another way home,” he replied without glancing up from his paperwork.

“Could we please use a phone to call a cab?” Diresk inquired with startling humility.

“Pay phone next door in the lobby,” the giant offered, releasing the cuffed hands of my broken hero. “If I catch either of you drivin’ today I’ll personally drag you back here behind my car! Clear?”

We both felt it had been a reasonable request under said circumstances and nodded, like boot camp recruits, to our three hundred pound captor.

“Get the hell outta here,” the big man added, “before you make me sick!”

We both felt this, too, had been a reasonable request and darted like mice out of the lobby doors. We continued, without comment, out of the building and to Diresk’s truck.

“How in God’s sweet name did you get out of that?” I asked, handing him the truck keys. “And why in God’s name did you get into that?”

“Dunno. Guess one of them cops just thought I learned my lesson. Maybe they ain’t got no room. Hell…I don’t care why. I don’t know why I had to fuck with them cops. I guess I felt kinda sorry for Jeff and for whippin’ his butt like that on his old turf. Let’s get the hell outta here and get some groceries.”

It finally registered as he was about to start the truck.

“Wait!” I blurted. “What are we doing? We can’t drive this truck…they will kill us!”

“You think they’re watchin’, man?” Diresk asked, raising his eye lids.

“Of course they are watching. They are watching out a window right now and are going to bust us if we even move an inch.”

“Shit! What do we do? I ain’t walkin’ in this cold, Jimmy. Let’s call a cab and head to the mall. We’ll run inta someone we know and can come back for the truck tomorrow. How much dough we got?”

We wandered back into the building, located a pay phone, and I called the only taxi company in Rapid City. Diresk located a restroom and washed the blood from his face, then borrowed some supplies and scotch-tapes his shirt together.

We bought sodas from a machine and sat down in theatre chairs to await the arrival of our coach. Neither of us had touched out beverage when a red cab appeared near the back lot.

“That’s us,” Diresk stated and punched my shoulder. “I’m gonna miss this place, man. Maybe when I get better I can come back and it won’t be so darn painful to see it.”

I ignored his comments, thrilled to escape the halls and grip of justice, and bee-lined for the taxi. We asked the woman to drive us to the mall, and had barely exited the parking lot when her voice slammed us back into our seats.

“Do you know I will have pain in my neck and shoulders for the rest of my life?”

I had been cold packing my forehead against the icy window and was stung and spun around by her words. Diresk’s brow furrowed and his ears popped up like toast as his searching eyes met mine, drifted to the back of the woman’s head, squinted, and returned, pie-eyed to mine. He remembered before I did.

“You’re the lady we hit last year?” Diresk exclaimed more than asked.

“One year and two days ago,” our driver answered and spoke into her handset, turning east on St. Joseph Street.

We both said “Holy Shit!” to each other with our eyes as we quickly buckled our belts and readied for the worst.

“Your wonderful insurance company still hasn’t paid me what we settled on…which was about ten thousand dollars less than what I’m going to need to pay for therapy. I had to quit my job because of the pain. Can you believe I’m driving a taxi cab so I can buy my daughter Christmas presents? I am actually driving a taxi cab. And ten…as these wonders never cease…I get a call to pick up the two guys who helped destroy my life as I knew it….and I get to drive them to the mall so they don’t get cold,” she baby talked.

“That road was slicker than…” Diresk attempted as the car pulled quickly to the right and stopped on the curb.

“I won’t hear it! I won’t hear it…do you hear me? I have seen it happen a thousand times in my mind. It all happened so slow…like I could have somehow…it was like watching it all happen from above myself.”

The woman turned to face us with her tears. Her face was soft. I had expected bitter rage to shoot with spit from her mouth and had braced myself for such an attack. But her face was absolutely soft. She looked like a woman who had driven way too far down the road less traveled.

She had something in her eyes that snagged me like a melody hook. At the time I thought it may have been precarious sanity.

We sat in the back seat and watched her tears slowly pour and spill down her face, dragging a black mascara tail. I felt, more than saw, her anguish turn colors and settle on a pastel as she spoke her last words of the ride.

“This one’s on me gentlemen. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and a blissful year. From this day on, if either of you visits me in thought or physical presence I shall bless you and wish only what I would wish for myself. I forgive you both and will carry this no longer.”

She dropped us off at the mall with not even a glance in the side or rear mirror, delivering us like a couple of packages in the biting wind. Diresk stuffed his head into a stocking cap and leaned back on his heels with his eyes closed to the conversation only he could hear. I waited, breathing spinning clouds, for him to speak.

“This all happened for a reason today…didn’t it? I mean…every damn thing that happened. Every little detail. All part of some message or plan.”

“Yeah, I think so,” I nodded. “But I think it’s like that everyday of our lives…it’s just that most days we aren’t paying enough attention to connect the dots.”

“Shit! You think she’s really fucked up like she says?”

“Doesn’t matter,” I replied and donned my own cap and gloves.

“Whatd’ya mean, ‘It doesn’t matter.’? You and I were screwin’ around and popped this chick and she may be in pain for the rest of her life. Jesus Christ, Topher…she’s drivin’ a friggin’ cab and you know she’s got smarts spillin’ outta her ears! Shit…She could probably be…”

“Doesn’t matter, D.”

“Fuck it don’t! It matters a hell of a lot, man! What if Dad’s insurance company didn’t pay her? Fuck! What do I do, man? How do I make this shit right with her? I ain’t got any money to give her and she don’t need nothin’…”

“It’s over and she’s gotta do what she’s gotta do. People make mistakes and we made one. Period.”

“What a friggin’ day. I feel like I just got an arrow shot through my ears. Fuckin’ electrocuted. I can’t even think. I gotta get some medicine in me before I start turnin’ into you, man! Let’s go in and see if we can bump into someone for a ride home. We got any of them pills left?”

“Two. Want one?”

“Shit no! I love feelin’ like this, Cecil. Builds character and opens up the bowels. Give me one before I knock you head through you asshole ya friggin’ rocket scientist.”

We dropped the last of our stash, lit cigarettes, and calmly strolled into the mall like a couple of gunfighters into a saloon.

It did not take us long to find a ride back to Custer, and we would hardly speak of the cab driver again. Christmas came and went and we both returned to our schools to wait for Spring to wake up and relieve the previous shift. I have never forgotten that woman or the gift she gave to me that day. I won’t even try to explain it.

I tried to track her down a couple years ago but she had moved out of state and after making a few calls I accepted I had done all I could to try to reach her and decided to turn it over to the Playmaker.

One never knows what interesting bank shots that character will pull off!

This has nothing to do with the pickup but I remembered it while writing the previous section and I want to briefly touch on it before switching tracks.

Diresk shared an upstairs apartments with a cousin of mine during a Fall Semester in Spearfish. They lived above this elderly woman who constantly called the police to complain about the “Racket” upstairs.

One night during one of my frequent Spearfish visits, Diresk, cousin Mike, and yours truly decided to even up the score a bit.

This particular afternoon we had purchased a couple ounces of pot and were busy bagging up “quarters” to sell and pay for our own supply when we heard loud music coming up through the floors from the old woman’s apartment.

“Shhhh. Listen to that, man.” Diresk alerted

“Is that Grama rockin’ down there?” Mike asked, his mouth a perfect circle.

“She’s got a stereo, man! I’ll be dipped in goose shit,” Diresk chanted in his best southern dialect. “We can’t have loud music like that in this neighborhood, Toph. Next thing you know we’ll have senior citizens thinkin’ they can just move in wherever they want. You ever been hit by a golf cart? It ain’t a party, Reggie. Those people have loud card parties and shit and they can’t hear a damn thing so they gotta yell at each other. We’ll never sleep!”

“Rash action is called for,” I half-heartedly inserted.

“I must thwart this diabolical pimple before it bursts and we are paddlin’ around in pus. Topher…the phone, lad. Law enforcement is our only hope.”

I shook my stoned head, handed Diresk the Donald Duck phone and continued to weigh and sort buds into Ziplock baggies. (The official contraband container for the United Drug Addicts of America.)

“Yes, thank you…you can. I would like to report a disturbance,” Diresk announced into the receiver. “Yes ….my neighbor is playing a stereo a bit too loud and has repeatedly ignored my requests to turn it down.”

Diresk gave the dispatcher the address of the house, thanked her for her time and cooperation, and hung the phone up.

That would teach her. We slapped palms and loaded a water bong for a celebratory toast before finishing the crucial task at hand. Not a cloud in the sky, hundreds of buds to smoke and sell, chilled beer in the fridge, and a zinger on the way for our geriatric nemesis. Life was indeed grand!

We finished bagging the dope and Diresk stashed most of it in his special hiding place. Then, the three of us bellied up to the dinner table for a smoke-feast. Only God knew how many times the water bong circled that table before a knock was heard at the front door.

“It’s open!” Diresk yelled to whichever lucky friend was about to be treated to a cerebral festival. He lit and inhaled ferociously.

I remember sensing it was not a good thing that two police officers had entered the apartment. As nerve charges slowly began to pass like maple syrup from one reaction unit cell to another, I began to gather enough appropriate data to determine we were very, very fucked!

My compatriots silently concurred as faces whitened and sphincters slammed shut with almost perceptible velocities.

“Oh…wow!” Diresk managed, holding the bong as traitorous smoke escaped from his nose.

“You better dunk your head in the sink because it appears your brain’s on fire,” the tallest police officer joked from behind pale blue eyes. “Who called about the noise?”

“We did,” Diresk mumbled as the smoke continued to dance around his troubled expression. Overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the moment, he gave up his struggle and blew a large cloud of smoke into the air above his shaking head. “Guess I wasn’t specific about which apartment, huh?”

“I guess not,” the other officer replied. This guy looked very nice and I desperately searched myself for an appropriate greeting to sway his affections.

“We called the cops on ourselves, man,” Diresk matter-of-factly stated to himself. “I … can’t believe I did this.”

I looked at Mike who had begun to make a strange gurgling sound from his throat. I considered my options of escape. There were none. My mind kicked into overdrive as I waited for the officer’s next move.

Diresk continued his private conference.

“We called the cops…on ourselves. I …called the police…and invited them into the apartment. Boy…I really got the old bag, didn’t I? Put her right in her place. Jesus! Do you guys understand what I just did? I mean ... I know you do … but … do you really dig the fact I just called the cops to my own apartment?”

I did. Mike did. The cops did. The only one in the building who was not hip to our misstep was the old woman who was listening to her stereo.

“Looks like you boys have got quite a pile of marijuana,” the tall officer pointed out.

“Is that what this is?” Diresk asked with a horrified expression. “Marijuana? That guy brought drugs…into our home? No wonder I’m flunkin’ algebra, guys….this is dope!”

Diresk was giving it the old college try, but I could tell he was as freaked out as I was. He was simply better at holding his beasts at bay in combat situations. I, on the other hand, was going to jail for the rest of my life where I would be placed in a tiny cell with a Hell’s Angel who would daily sodomize and beat me. I would become a sex toy to be tossed from gorilla to gorilla as barter for cigarettes, cocaine, and potato chips.

My mother was going to kill me!

My digression from the law would be in all local papers, thereby destroying any chance of obtaining gainful employment should I ever be released from whatever federal penitentiary the judge would throw me in. It would be soup kitchens and army cots for the rest of my life. Convicted felon. I would be forced to buy fake leather jackets (with Salvation Army vouchers) to encase my hypothermic limbs as I curled up in a cardboard cabin and sucked cheap wine through my bleeding, toothless gums.

Psychosis would soon follow, and I would be forced to end my days begging for spare pennies during brief reprieves from hallucinations and hypovolemic shock, brought on by the inevitable bleeding ulcers one would expect from a catastrophe such as this. Snapped back to the harsh reality of the apartment and the several bats of pot before me on the table, I gathered all available courage and lifted my head to face the officers.

I pled for clemency with murky pupils and desperate posturing. My efforts were met by uncontrollable laughter from the officers, which I interpreted to be a good omen with the three percent of my essence not about to piss all over myself.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone call the police on themselves before,” the taller officer beamed. “You, Phil?”

“This breaks my cherry,” Phil replied, shaking his head. “Looks like we got…almost an ounce. Bong…pipes…scale? Looks like these boys take their dope pretty seriously, Ron. What’s the scale for boys?”

“We were splitting it up even between us,” Diresk offered, holding his breath.

It might have been mere imagination, but I could have sworn the woman’s music got louder from downstairs. The noise in Mike’s throat had descended into his stomach and I feared he might vomit on the evidence.

Officer Phil continued his interrogations.

“If I didn’t know better…I’d say you guys had intent to distribute. That’s a whole different bag of apples, boys. You boys are lookin’ two felonies right in the eyes here. This ain’t no game.”

“You boys are sitting in some serious shit,” Officer Ron chimed in. “Don’t smell too good, does it?”

We sat in abundant silence as the jury deliberated, sneaking glances at each other as if one of us would save the day. I considered grabbing the pot and making a mad dash for the toilet, but Officer Phil looked pretty fast and one could not forget they had guns.

Finally, Officer Ron, the obvious leader of the dastardly duo, approached the table and hovered over us like a thunderhead. Mike’s face looked like a raisin dipped in chalk as his eyes rose to meet the towering lawman. It looked as if he would speak, but no sound escaped from his moving lips.

Officer Phil began further search of the premises as Officer Ron’s deep voice filled the crime scene.

“Tell you what we’re gonna do. I’m gonna flush this shit down the toilet and confiscate these toys. I’m gonna take your licenses and you can come down and get them on Monday. By then I’ll have thought something up for you to do to serve your community. I’m giving you a break and…”

“THANK YOU!” Mike exploded all over the table. “We promise we won’t…”

“Keep your mouth closed, young man!” Officer Ron ordered. “As I was saying…I don’t know why I’m giving you this break…but I guess I’m going to. Must be in a good mood today, Phil.”

Officer Phil failed to reply as he had disappeared into the back bedrooms.

“I don’t want to see your lives go into the shitter because of one stupid mistake like this. Felony charges don’t just go away, boys. Understand?”

Boy, did we ever!

“Cough up them licenses and if they’re clean…which I am certain they will be considering what fine, upstanding young men you are…we’ll be on our way and I’ll expect to see your asses down at the court house early Monday morning.”

I am positive our collective sighs were heard by the old woman when that front door finally closed behind the exiting officers. It took us awhile, but we managed to drum up quite a chuckle about the whole mess. We had gratefully watched them flush our pot down the toilet and confiscate our pipes, scale, and bong. We, of course, had been tickled Diresk had hidden most of our stash before calling the police to our kitchen of iniquity.

We stopped at the station the following Monday to sever our sentences. It never went through the courts, never appeared on paper or our records. A simple agreement between gentlemen that we would each dedicate one hundred hours of community service to an organization of our choice.

Diresk and I chose the local fish hatchery. Mike picked up trash in Spearfish Park and along interstate 90. We had agreed to remain chemically celibate during penance as a gesture of respect for the non-arresting officers.

Diresk and I made it three hours. To my knowledge, Mike never smoked pot again. I could never understand how some people could just stop like that. Just say to themselves, “Hey…this is causing me a lot of trouble in my life. I think I had better quit.”

For me, the wake up calls would continue to ring ignored until finally they would lose all patience, join together to trigger an enormous explosion in my brain that would resonate for several months until I would hear nothing else, and finally take turns slapping me awake in a treatment center.

Diresk must have had some really good ear plugs.

FISHING

“You can’t reel so fast, Junior, … ya gotta let ’em get a good look at the goods,” Diresk whispered and blew cigarette smoke into my ear.

This particular morning we had been at our favorite spot near Blue Bell Lodge, using spinners for Speckled Brown Trout. It was the summer following high school graduation and we went fishing every chance we could. The lakes surrounding Custer had been our churches. I can still smell the mossy water and pine sap. I can see Diresk, cigarette pinched between creviced lips and bouncing to the beat of his words. One eye driven closed by wisps of tobacco smoke as e coached and seduced his prey with cold calculation. To Diresk, fishing was the ultimate male sport.

“fishing is like fucking, Bobby …. You gotta know when to take it real slow and when to REEL LIKE A MOTHER FUCKER,” he added, gyrating his hips for emphasis.

“Problem is, you don’t believe you are gonna catch anything. Life…is nothin’ but picturing shit happenin’ and then puttin’ yourself in the right places. You gotta believe you can do everything you try to do. It pains me to see you struggle through like you do, son.” Diresk tossed his cigarette at my feet and set his pole beside him in the sweating weeds.

“Remember that day I hooked that big bastard that nearly broke my pole? I knew I was gonna catch that fish on the way up to the dam. I knew it!”

“you always think you are going to catch some gigantic trout every time we…”

“People are psychic, man, but the moment you even doubt what you feel inside, it runs away and it don’t come back. I win ’cause I know when to play. You always just jump in the middle of shit and hope for the best. You can’t win like that, Toph!”

“Just because we do things differently doesn’t make my way wrong! I don’t have the confidence in myself that you do. Okay? Announce it to the fucking world if you have to ... but it isn’t going to change anything until I learn to look at it all differently.”

“That’s just the thing I’m talkin’ ’bout here. It ain’t gonna change until you change it! You gotta want all the aces and just know … beyond a fucking shadow of a doubt, you’re gonna get ’em. I’m not saying I can teach that to you…”

“Thank you, oh great one of the lake. So where do I go to learn this mystical new way of life then? Huh? Is there some class I can take or book I can read? Like I haven’t read a million friggin’ books already?”

“I didn’t mean to piss you off, man. There’s only one place that has these answers and it’s inside you. It’s the only place this shit comes together and makes sense. I been hearin’ this from my old man since I was born, man. I know he’s right .. but I can’t prove it with words. I gotta…”

“You gotta let me just live my life and take my shots, man! I’m not exactly dying here. I do some things right, you know. Lots of things I do right.”

“I know you do. But we gotta figure out a way you get inside and redecorate and shit. I see you every day, Toph. I see how you get are up inside and freak out about everythin’ in sight. Man… you think I like watchin’ that shit? Don’t you think friends are supposed to try to help friends when they see ‘em fallin’ over the same shit over and over again? Toss me them matches.”

“Why is it every time we get together you automatically think my life stinks and it is you job to fix it?” I asked. “Just because I don’t get laid every night and run around thinking I’m some big shot doesn’t mean that I lead a miserable existence.” I was angry and as usual, he had caught all the fish that day. I tossed him my matches. The defense was not ready to rest.

“You don’t know what it’s like to feel what I do. You don’t get scared and freak out and wonder if you are ever going to feel okay. You have no concept of what I deal with all the time, D! You don’t, man.”

“Maybe not.” Diresk paused and looked down at his tennis shoes, then into the sky as he released a deep breath. “I don’t know what your shit feels like… but my pain hurts like a mother fucker, okay? It does. I don’t get scared like you do and I don’t know why that is. I’ll be honest with you though …. I fuckin’ glad I don’t! Really fuckin’ glad!”

“You should be!” I was getting angrier and wanted to somehow find a way to shut it down or make it better. I decided to quit trying and sat down in the weeds.

Diresk lit a cigarette and shook his head, sat down and rested on his heels. “I don’t run around acting like some big shot, maggot brain. I run around sucking the juice out of life and I spit out the poison. You live in fear and I live in Technicolor. I live there ’cause I won’t have it any other way.

“You know you’re the only human I can talk to on a regular basis. I ain’t tryin’ to drive you down here. I’m wearin’ the same uniform you are and we’re in the same friggin’ game. I just want you to get in and score some points, too. Mostly ’cause you always got matches and you think I’m the coolest dude around.”

“Shit.” I smiled and slowly shook my head.

“You know you do, so don’t even fucking try to say you don’t! I know what you think of me. I appreciate it…. I really do. You don’t know how much you help me by bein’ around, man. I ain’t gonna ever be too good at tellin’ ya either so you gotta just know it. I also know what’s true and what ain’t about me … and you got everythin’ I got inside you. You just gotta take some shots, man. You’re always gonna miss a bunch of ‘em. Some asshole is always gonna come over and throw one down your throat once in a while. Btu it’s better to jump in the game and screw up once in a while than to sit on the bench and do nothin’ perfectly.”

Diresk lit a cigarette for me and handed it to me without meeting my eyes. We smoked in silence, watching trout rise for early morning insects.

Grover soon returned from an excursion and cooled off in the translucent water, emerging with an invigorating shake that sprayed Diresk’s back and sent him diving forward with a yell. He spun and picked up his hound and tossed her into the lake. As usual, he never lost an ash.

His words had penetrated my hurt and continued to tunnel through my thoughts like moles. We sat and watched the lake water, and the reflections of the birds that hovered and dove for breakfast before returning to the swaying trees. I watched him from the corner of my eye and wondered if we would be together forever.

Partners forever. I saw no other way for me back then. No other options but to stick close to him and hope he could guide me through the thorns and mine fields.

I pushed any thought away that might hint otherwise. Diresk removed his shorts and tennis shoes and dove into the lake, surfacing supine with an extinguished cigarette pinched between clenched teeth that shined from beneath his dark tan. Grover soon joined the swim and I ignored his demands to join them. I watched as he kicked and lazily backstroked around with Grover trailing obediently behind like a hairy ball. He soon emerged like a greased warrior, his muscles shining and underlined by sunlit shadows and the chilled skin stretched taught across his heaving chest.

He was stunning and I shook my head as I tossed him a blanket to dry in. His body shook and his jaw vibrated and chattered as he drew deep, heavy breaths of the sweet and refreshing forest air. He turned towards me and his gaze burned through all foreboding thoughts of fear and doubt, and as his skin dried in the blanket and sun, so did whatever had spilled in me earlier.

After a time, I could take it no longer and leaned over to hug my very best friend.

We used to drive out to this rancher’s stock dam and fish for bass every so often. Diresk knew the guy because he had worked for him a few times; tossing hay or something like that. We would throw this old wooden boat in the truck with the dog and drive up there before the sun came up. I could never understand why it never bothered Diresk to get up so early in the morning. It almost killed me. It still does.

Grover would always chew on the boat during the drive and had teeth marks all over the damn thing. I remember the afternoon we purchased the rotting travesty for eight dollars at a rummage sale. Diresk had talked the woman down two bucks and was thrilled when we took it to his home to begin repairs. Extensive repairs.

It looked like it had been used in the Civil War. First time we took it out to Legion Lake it sprung only a couple leaks and we managed to fix these as well and we had ourselves a vessel. We always took Grover with us in the boat and even taught her not to bark while we were fishing. Well, Diresk did, anyway.

We went up to the stock dam on Diresk’s birthday and stayed there the entire day. July 27, 1979. The summer before our senior year. Diresk’s mom had planned a party for him and had not been pleased after we failed to show.

“My mom is going to kill me,” Diresk had casually mentioned as he finessed his lure near some shadowed reeds.

“How come?” I asked, monitoring him peripherally for any fishing tactics I could possibly benefit from/

“She’s having this friggin’ party for me and my aunt and uncle are drivin’ up from Wyoming for it.”

“What time does it start?”

“A couple hours ago. Do you think they know we ain’t there?” He laughed and tossed his cigarette with a flick of his finger. It spun helplessly and fell into formation with the many tossed before it. He reeled in the last of his line and expertly sent it out to the exact same place he had previously tried.

“Shit, D. … we better get in there!” I placed my pole in the boat and went to pull up our anchor which was a cinder block tied to a logging chain.

“Keep it down, Fuzz Face!” Diresk ordered me. “I ain’t goin’ to no friggin’ party to sit there and field a million questions about what I’m gonna do with the rest of my life. ‘Where you going to college/ What are you going to major in? You should go to law school, young man. How about being a dentist?’

“I would rather roll around in your shit that put up with that bunch tonight. I am doin’ what I love to do on my birthday and I ain’t gonna blow it on a bunch of wet brains!” His tongue rolled over his lips and left a wax-like sheen before being sucked back into its cave.

“But, D., they are your family, and your mom, she gets so excited about…”

“DROP IT TOPHER! I mean it, man. I unpacked my guilt trip bags a long time ago and I ain’t gonna feel bad about not going, and that’s the end of it! I wanna get stoned and drunk and fish. It’s my party and I’ll fish if I wanna! Besides… I gotta surprise for us, Billy. We’re goin’ space truckin’ tonight… and I don’t think mommy would approve of her offspring crashing his party in such a state.

Diresk set down his pole and reached inside of his sock. He always hid contraband inside of his sock like some spy. It was also where he kept his condoms and money. He removed a wrapped piece of tinfoil and waved his tongue at me like a serpent.

“ALL ABOARD!” he yelled at the top of his lungs and began to unwrap the foil with the precision of a neurosurgeon, periodically glancing up to wink at me. I felt my bowels tense and knew I was about to try some new drug that would probably leave me intellectually impotent for the rest of my adult life. Diresk was fearless when it came to drugs. Hell, when it came to anything.

I was always crossing my fingers and holding my breath and thoughts during our many adventures together.

“What is it, D.? I want to know exactly what it is, what it will do to me, and if there are harmful side effects. I mean it, man. I’m not sticking no needle in my vein and I’m not gonna spend the next fifteen hours fighting for my sanity. What is it and don’t lie to me! Birthday or no birthday! I’m supposed to be your friend, remember?”

Diresk stopped unwrapping and just gave me this strange look like he was watching something that disgusted him. He closed his eyes and raised them to the darkening sky, shaking his head slowly like a fish tail in a slow current.

“when are you gonna stop livin’ life like it’s some kind of friggin’ hassle for you? Jesus Christ, Topher … what do you think I’m gonna give to you? It’s cocaine, okay? I just thought we could try it tonight. Shit, we have only talked about wanting to do it a hundred million times. I got it from Max for my birthday. I’ll do it myself and you can just walk home to the party if you are so damned concerned about my family and their feelings!”

Again, we sat there in one of our reflective standoffs. Periods of agony for me because I always feared the severing of our friendship. No matter how many times we argued, I thought the next one would finish us as friends. I did not know what I would do without Diresk in my life. The thought terrified me. I can still sense that foreboding stranger pacing my insides, strumming the muscles of my stomach like a banjo.

After an average length of silence for us passed, I broke down and tried to mend things up.

“I’m sorry, D. We can do whatever you want on your birthday. I just always hate it when people get mad or get their feelings hurt. I know your mom will get excited about throwing you a party and she’s going to be disappointed if we don’t show up. I also know this is none of my friggin’ business.”

“No, it ain’t.”

“You’re right. I don’t know how to relax. You think I like being this way, man? I drive myself nuts over tiny details that nobody else gives two shits about! I sit and watch you let things roll off you like you some kind of metal man or something and it pisses me off! I don’t exactly enjoy worrying about every damn thing in the world. It ain’t my fault I’m like this, D. I’m trying to learn to be more like you, but it’s not as easy as you might think. Shit … I hate being me, man! I would give anything to be like you but I can’t just snap my fingers and be something I don’t know how to be! You should try being me for a couple days and then let’s see how calm and confident you are. You might just find out…..HEY! YOU GOT ONE!”

We both stared blankly at his pole as it danced and jerked around on the bottom of the boat. Diresk shrugged his brown shoulders and flashed me the grin I could never say no to. He looked down at the foil still resting in his palm and beckoned me with his waving eyebrows. I slowly nodded and forced the trepidation from my face with a labored smile.

:Give me some green,” Diresk ordered as he began to open the foil.

I leaned sideways and fished a ten dollar bill from my tight shorts. He snatched it from my hands, rolled it into a tight straw, and soon we were snorting our first lines of cocaine off the top of a tackle box.

The fish stayed on the line and it turned out to only be a midget bass. Grover played with it in the bottom of the boat until it eventually died. We finished the cocaine by flashlight and as our hearts raced and our brains began to peel open like the pedals of a spring flower, I was suddenly drunk on a delicious rush of tepid adrenaline that blew gale force through my very soul. I braced myself against the rowing hooks of the boat and felt myself cum, over and over inside my head.

“Can you get sperm inside of your brain?” I asked, attempting to slow my breathing as I monitored my carotid pulse and felt my blood pound like a hammer.

“I dunno. Why don’t you suck my dick and let’s see,” Diresk answered with blazing eyes and almost palpable omniscience.

We shared ignited laughter and lit cigarettes under a million blinking planets. Diresk closed his eyes and leaned back in the boat. I tried to see what was flashing across the inside of his eyelids. I imagined it to be the two of us. Together forever! We listened to the frog and cricket orchestra playing that night. Maybe an hour went by before he finally spoke.

“Topher?” Diresk asked as he spread the last of the powder across his teeth and gums.

“What?” I smiled, drifting with my thoughts down blood red rapids.

“You want the good news or the bad news?”

“Good.”

“I think I may have found my direct line to God, Fuzzy!”

“I feel like I’m having a cerebral orgasm .. but I’m not sure if it’s God or Satan here right now, man. What’s the bad news?”

“You owe me fifteen bucks for the blow, man.” Diresk licked my ten dollar bill and put it in his pocket.

I can’t see him… where is he? There! Don’t let him .. get tangled in those weeds … Pull him up … shit!…there you go, don’t let him under the boat … Topher! .. just .. get him over here and I’ll net him. Come to papa you big son of a bitch. Oh, shit, he’s a biggie … keep him…”

“He’s gonna snap the line, man!” I elatedly screamed. I had finally hooked a monster!

“Let me get the line … there .. I can’t friggin’ believe you caught this, man … Jesus Christ! Another foot over towards me and I got him! There he is! Hold him up…”

“I caught a trophy … I caught a trophy,” I sang and steadied myself in the swaying boat.

“Watch it, man … yeah, just like that … keep his head up or he’ll snap it!”

“ I am! I am! Use the net man. It’s easiest.”

“Just hold him … I got him! Man! That is one big fish, Jethro! Get him closer … over here … up … no, over to this side. Closer. Just a little closer … come here you big fucker! He’s the biggest we’ve seen all summer, Toph! You caught the biggest fish of the…”

“And I’m gonna lose the biggest fish if you don’t friggin’ net him!”

“I can’t friggin’ believe you got him and I didn’t. Unbelievable! Jesus H. Christ, laddie! He’s the one we’ve been searching for our whole bloody lives! The shark that’s been eatin’ up the tourists, lad. We got ’im and we’re gonna cut ’im up good and proper,” Diresk chanted in his always horrible Scottish accent he would only attempt while fishing.

“Come on, D. Don’t fuck around, man. Please just get the net and I’ll bring him up to you.” I was really beginning to wonder if the line was going to hold. The fish kept going under the boat and there were tons of weeds for it to get snagged on. I could not lose this fish. My entire existence depended on landing it at this point.

“Fear not, my young angler a’ Scotland …eye’ll be bringin’ this’un in and don’t’ya wurry, lad!”

:DIRESK! GET THE FUCKING NET …..NOW!”

“Okay, settle down, man. Keep tension on him. Don’t jerk him like that, Toph … let me do the lifting. I’ll grab his gills if you can get him up and over. Do it now, man. On three….”

“No! Don’t count. It’ll be too fast and he may not come up if I jerk it! JUST FRIGGIN’ GRAB HIM! JESUS, D.! I put him right up there a couple times and all you have to do is grab his gills and if you’d just use the net we wouldn’t have to…”

“Couple more inches is all I need, Jerry! If I can … just…. Get my finger … under his …”

“Use the net, man!” I begged through excitement I rarely let myself experience. I was laughing by this point and having an incredibly wonderful time underneath my anguished concern for my partner’s proficiency.

“Don’t need it. I got him… you just keep that line tight and don’t try to lift him. Let him come up and see what we look like. He’ll get tired. There! He’s on his way up … keep with him … oh, man … I got you, you … FUCK!--”

I sat there in the boat with my heart pumping through my chest, blinking helplessly at the snapped line as it waved to me with the rhythm of the breeze. I dropped my pole and closed my eyes to the sound of Diresk’s hearty laughter. It was the biggest bass we had seen that summer and I had it right up to the boat and it was gone.

I tore open my eyes and searched for some way to make it all better or to make the fish come back. Diresk was bent over backwards, hysterically laughing and pounding his muscled chest. Suddenly, I wished I could hurt him. A rage welled inside of me and I was swollen with a hateful pressure I could do nothing to repress. I dove at him with my fists flailing at his face, neck, and chest.

“YOU LOST HIM ON PURPOSE, YOU SON OF A BITCH! I’M GONNA FICKING KILL YOU! YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO WIN! DON’T YOU? YOU CAN’T LET ME WIN JUST THIS ONCE!”

Diresk was bleeding from his nose and lip as I had struck him with glancing blows before he could position himself to protect or retaliate. Within seconds, the boat was overturned and both of us, the dog, and our fishing gear were tossed around in a splashing fit of swinging arms and legs.

Immediately, Diresk got the upper hand and I found myself under the surface of the water with his hands pushing down on my shoulders. I desperately searched for the bottom with my kicking legs and took a large amount of water into my lungs. I felt a panic overtake me like nothing I had ever experienced since. I could sense a darkness overtaking my mind and I could not tell if my eyes were open or closed as my body quit fighting and my bladder released a warm stream of urine into my jeans.

Suddenly I felt my body tugged towards the surface and my mind seemed to snap to attention as I felt my head break the surface of the water and I could no longer feel Diresk’s presence on my body. I felt my stomach contract and expel a rush of water out of my mouth. I spit and coughed as I blindly sought a hand hold.

I felt his hand grasp the back of my T-shirt and begin to pull me toward the shore not more than fifty feet away. We swam in silence and I allowed myself to drift with his guidance. My mind, a blank canvas.

My legs felt the bottom skim underneath them and I gathered my footing and felt his grasp release. I stood there, panting as the air scraped my inner-flesh as it entered and exited my mouth. I held my face in my hands as tears began to sting my eyes and my body expelled another wave from my stomach.

I watched through my fingered mask as Diresk pushed his legs through the water and onto the short, towards his truck parked nearby. My next thought concerned the dog and I turned towards the floating debris and spotted her spraying water from her coat on the opposite short.

The dog. Why would I think of that dog? I was puzzled by my sudden concern for an animal that had given me no truck. The thoughts of my anger returned to me as if they pushed aside all others on their way from the back of some room in my mind. The entire scene was played again as I made my way to the grassy sand. I would sit for an eternity there, softly crying and digging with a stick in wet earth as Diresk retrieved the boat and nearly all our gear.

“I’m leaving,” he yelled at me from the truck after he had loaded everything by himself.

I wanted to stay there forever. I remember picturing myself seated at a table under a slow ceiling fan. Shadows concealed much of my face as I drank from a dusty bottle. A cigarette turned to ashes in dried catsup on a dirty plate in front of me. Sinatra crooned in the background as hungry flies lit on my lined face to feed on the salt of sweat and tears. I wore a white silk suit with a porkpie hat pulled low over glistening brows. A wicker chair supported my melancholy bliss as the ocean lapped the sanded edges of my hidden cove. I would drink and await the end of my life in the humid breath of my tiny, infected room, mourning the big one that got away.

Self pity at it’s very finest.

I heard the truck start and pull away from the lake. Sylvan Lake. I listened as the parking gravel was crushed beneath the tires and the stereo suddenly filled the silence surrounding the beautiful water, painted with trees and clouds and wind-rippled webs. I listened as Diresk shifted all gears and his sound drifted away. I was finally smiling.

The last time we fished together, I nearly had to carry him back to his truck. I could still keep up with him smoking cigarettes, but I had given up booze and drugs by then and sipped on Diet Cokes while I watched my friend inebriate himself. I do not recall if we even caught a fish. We took the boat out on Iron Creek Lake near Spearfish one Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and I do remember harboring a crushing sadness the entire time.

My sobriety drove a wedge between us, and though Diresk supported me as best as he was able, I could always sense his frustration lingering in our midst. At the time, I thought he must have viewed my divergence as an act of treason. I ached for our “old days”, but not as much as for my Diresk. It took me a very long time to realize that looking back for those seemingly magical times would only provide me with a sore neck.

As our boat sliced through the clear waters and hushed reflections filled conversation spaces once savored like treasure, our eyes refused to meet and instead danced like fireflies in and around the lake. We circled and smelled each other like hounds meeting on a path. It hurt me desperately and I so longed for the intimacy buried beneath our fears and gorged smiles.

I loved him with my entire heart. I had signed in blood back in grade school and he was as much a part of me as my own pride. Pride that kept me from him that day. Pride that keeps me from myself today.

“Ain’t it wild how they built all them cabins around this puddle?” Diresk asked, breaking uncomfortable ground like a shovel.

“I wonder if this will all be covered in concrete someday,” I nodded. “I can’t even drive by those surface mines in Lead anymore without wanting to drive into a tree. Then, of course, what do I do? Throw cigarette butts in the friggin’ lake. Nothing worse than a sanctimonious smoker, man. Except maybe a surface miner.”

“Speaking of smoking … I believe I’ll have one a’ them illegal non-filters. Hand me that pack under that net.”

I tossed him his backpack and our eyes met for an instant, then darted away like startled trout. Diresk began to lick his lips as if he could taste his impending anxiousness. I saved him the trouble.

“It doesn’t bother me if you smoke in front of me, D.”

“If it does, you can fuckin’ swim back to Spearfish,” he chided. His words poked me in the stomach, though he had tried to cover their strike with a good natured grin. He must have sensed my reaction because it stopped him like the unplugging of a radio.

“I’m sorry, Toph. Look … I ain’t gonna lie ta you about any of this shit. I hate it that you don’t smoke or drink anymore, man. I know you got your reasons and you got real sick and everything. I’m smart enough to know that. I just …”

Our eyes coupled like train cars. The sadness in my chest inflated and the words I so wanted to speak could not gain momentum and rise through my pinched throat. I wanted to tell him, “I love you and I miss you, too! I have to do this and I know it’s changing my life and our friendship, but if I didn’t quit I was going to die! Please just stay with me and we can work this out. I want you to be sober, too! I want you to smell what I am beginning to smell. Taste what is resting on my tongue. Hear what is spoken in the deepest chambers of my heart and soul. I want you to fly with me. I want to scream across dimensions like rockets … throw ourselves at the feet of God and await the very command of the One who lit the sun! You are my most treasured friend and I will walk through fire and I well crawl through blood or snow to be with you on any other side!”

My lips parted as unspoken words began to ricochet somewhere in the back of my mind. I could no longer lift his glance and dropped my eyes like sand-filled buckets to the patched bottom of the boat. “Still not leaking,” I thought to myself with a detached pride. Diresk’s stare combed through my hair and I spoke to his feet.

“This is really weird, isn’t it? I feel like a stranger or something right now. Has so much changed that we don’t ……… oh, God, I don’t understand this life at all, man. Never fuckin’ did!”

“I ain’t gonna do this, Toph. I ain’t gonna dig into this shit today … right now. I’m gonna get stoned and catch some fish. I wish you could get fried right along side ’a me but you ain’t and that’s fine by me.”

“don’t you feel what I feel inside though, D.? Do we have to tip-toe around the truth like this? Jesus … this is big stuff, man! Look what has happened in my life the past couple months. I can’t pretend it never happened and ….”

“I can, okay? I can pretend nothin’ happened ‘cause I’m the same guy and you’re the one who changed! I don’t gotta do nothin’ different or look at nothin’ that ain’t mine!”

“But I’m new inside, D.! Brand new inside and I don’t know what to make of any of it yet. You are still living your life and going down the same trail you …”

“You don’t know nothin’ about my trail, Slick! All you ever see is what you want to see! While you been socked away in your little treatment centers and psych wards, I been diggin’ friggin’ trenches and ducking bombs and bullets like I ain’t ever seen before. You know I’m getting’ older, too, and it ain’t exactly been a birthday party for my brain, either!”

“I know,” I whispered.

“So you’re sober now. Yippety-fuckin’-do to you … but all the dope and booze in the world don’t make me who or what I am, Slick! I drink ‘cause I fuckin’ love it! Okay? I smoke dope ‘cause it makes everything quiet inside for awhile and I get to laugh at all the goofy fuckers and things all around me that make everybody else cry! I love drugs … and I ain’t seen one reason yet why we can’t live happily ever after. It’s all part of my mix, man. I got doors openin’ to rooms inside me that you can’t even dream of!”

“Tell me about them! That’s what I’m talking about here. You don’t tell me about…”

“I tell you all the time but I don’t use your words! You think I’m still on the same trail? Don’t go tryin’ to corner no market on life’s a bitch, Slim! I do what I do and you do the same and that’s all there is to all this. But remember on thing, man. I ain’t been the one crawlin’ around on all fours beggin’ the shrinks to fix my brain.”

He went right for my buttons. He had meant to put me down so I couldn’t come back at him. I heard him. I listened to every word and I knew he was telling me some kind of truth. I also knew we were never going to have what we both wanted and this awareness drove its tip into me like a spear.

I cursed God under my breath. Why? Was it not enough I had to give up nearly everything I had come to know as mine? I was not going to give him up, too! Non-negotiable! Shoot and throw whatever you will but he’s my best friend and I need him! I really need him.

Diresk rolled a joint like he was going to drive it right into my heart. I watched him inhale that sweet incense. Watched his eyes and face start to shift gears as the butterflies took flight from that place in the brain where all chemical interactions find their wings.

I began to shake with stuttered movements and thoughts. I wanted it so bad. I inhaled with him. Clutched the humid soot deep within my breast and held on for the ride. Expelled the naked smoke, having left its magic crystals hanging on my lungs like ornaments.

I opened my eyes to the strange expression Diresk had opened for me.

“You were getting’ high with me. Takin’ it in and holdin’ it and shit. Man … that was weird watchin’ you like that. (pause) I’m sorry, Toph. I said some shitty stuff and I don’t mean none of it and you know it.”

I nodded self-consciously as if caught in some lie.

“Look … let’s just fish and forget all this shit for now. We can talk about what happened later. I know this is hard for ya and I ain’t makin’ it no easier by wavin’ this shit in front of ya. It’s just what I do, man. You know that. You know me … and you know I’m gonna get high. I gotta!

His words stunned him.

“I gotta!”

He licked them off his lips and reached for a cigarette in his shirt pocket, petting Grover, asleep at his feet. I reached for his hand and then covered my move by grabbing my pole. He missed it. It was all getting too big for either of us and we no longer acted as a team.

I shall remember that day when two best friends sat miles apart from each other in a tiny wooden boat, still holding each other’s hand with their hearts.

BASKETBALL

There’s nothing quite like being part of a team. I feel sorry for kids who never play sports. Kids who never know how it feels to sweat yourself out with teammates to the point you can taste and smell each other the entire season. Kids who never insert their hand with those of their team into the pre-game shake and victory chant. Who never get to taste cool water following a practice drill you swore would kill you.

Nothing tastes like that.

I played in my first organized basketball game in the fifth grade. I scored four baskets and made five foul shots. I counted the points like coins in my head from that day forward. No matter what anyone ever tells you, they want the ball so they can drop it through those strings and hear the crowd. Feel the rush inside of seeing a play develop in your head, in a split second, then be able to make it happen with a deft move off of a planted foot and a barely controlled flick of a wrist.

The first time you steal a pass and end it with a lay-up. The first come-from-behind win. The hush of the crowd that follows a whistle. The first time you touch the net. The cheerleaders drone on like a sound track as your father’s comments pierce the muffled orchestra of buzzers, heated voices, and shoe squeaks echoing together off bannered walls. Showing off in warm-ups for some talent scout for the Lakers who just might be in town. Practicing moves in front of a mirror until you think you can fake your shadow.

The last thing a basketball player ever sees before drifting off to play in sleep is a poster of a professional hero thumbtacked to the wall. My goodnight ritual starred a life-sized Julius Erving. Diresk held shrine with Pete Maravich. Oscar Robertson was always our close second.

Diresk and I started every game from fifth grade through senior high. I was the point guard, he was the power forward or center. We won a lot more than we lost in all those years and miles of sprinting down tile and wood floors, but losing one would overshadow winning ten, and losing gracefully was an admirable concept as long as it was the other guys who shuffled like senior citizens back to their locker room carrying the final buzzer on their slouching shoulders.

Revenge! It was all a guy had to hold on to.

We lost a big game to Mother Butler School of Rapid City in sixth grade. We had managed to botch a fifteen point lead with careless turnovers and poor fourth quarter shooting. Diresk had squared off with some mindless giant early in the second half and been ejected from the game. The giant, however, had been allowed to remain in the game and burn us for over twenty points and God only knew how many rebounds. Without Diresk in the middle to muscle their big man, we had been forced to rely on outside shooting and a zone defense we knew next to nothing about.

Nothing like trying to get a bunch of kids to implement and hold together a 2-3-1 zone when they can barely remember to pee before the game.

We lost by three or four points and I had no power to stop the tears that would humiliate me almost as much as losing. Diresk chose to emote in his own creative manner.

He grabbed the giant by his ears from behind and pulled him to the floor like he was shaking a large rug. Soon after, my tears were benched by dumbfounded amusement as I watched my best friend grapple with Mr. Pituitary as coaches and officials pried them apart like a bear trap.

In my estimable opinion, Diresk won in a split-decision, and had the fight not been stopped when it was, would surely have knocked the long lad out no later than the second round. Diresk was the kind of power forward/center who took the coaching phrase “Now go out there and kick some butt!” a tad too literally.

I would find myself restraining my best friend on a regular basis as we progressed through years of Custer Wildcat Basketball. I used to tease him about having a chin rest installed on his shoulder for me during lengthy skirmishes. Anyway, back to humiliation and the resulting character canker sore present in every losing team’s locker room.

We got chewed out after the game for losing our composure (as if you have anything resembling composure in sixth grade), losing the game, and for losing “our” tempers and embarrassing the school. Locker rooms are great for coaches who can not quite cut it in theatre or evangelism.

One brave player raised his hand in question and waved it like a parade queen until it was finally acknowledged by a very disgruntled and disappointed Coach Dorton.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, what now, Diresk?”

“On behalf of the team … we’re real sorry about losing the game like that and we did play like a bunch of sissies. I lost my temper again and these guys didn’t have nothin’ to do with it , so if anyone’s gotta run extra jayhawks it’s gonna be me.”

Jayhawks. That word could strike terror in a basketball player’s heart more than any other, possibly excluding “pregnant”. Every coach I ever played for used this universally accepted penalty to purge his players of any number of ethical, technical, behavioral, or spiritual transgressions, and Diresk ran more of them than any human, I believe, on record. His cross to bear for serving as both team mascot and Inspirational/Motivational Chief Executive Officer.

He was our leader, fearless and full of free-floating bravado.

“If you are so concerned about jayhawks, …Why don’t you go out and run some right now?”

“On their court? In front of the enemy?” Diresk hissed.

“Yes. In fact, why don’t we all go our there and do about ten for the winning team?”

Shocked, we begged for a last second stay that never arrived. One by wearied one, we retied sneakers and donned sweaty uniforms for another lesson in basketball dogma. As we filed into the gymnasium like a police lineup, I could not help but glare at my best friend, gloating like a gorilla for our cheerleaders waiting for us to shower and dress for the ride back home.

“You’re an asshole, man,” I whispered to Diresk as we waited for the appearance of our coach and held the attention of every person in the gym.

“He ain’t gonna do it, man,” Diresk boldly announced to his teammates. “He’s just bluffin’ to teach me a lesson. Don’t think for a second he’d embarrass us like this. School board would freak out if any parents got pissed. Anybody wanna lay some cash on it?”

None of us had the wherewithal to discuss, let alone wager on, the tremulous situation befalling us. Diresk leaned against the wall, whistling and rolling his eyes up and around his sockets with impressive abandon. As he snapped to attention, our collective stares swung from him to our approaching coach, clipboard and ever-present coffee in hands.

“You girls gonna get showered and dressed or are you going to move to Rapid City? Better get moving ladies … bus is leaving in fifteen minutes,” Coach Dorton spouted from the back of his head as he continued out towards the lobby and trophy area.

“Any questions or other problems I can help you with?” Diresk jubilantly offered to his stunned teammates. “You guys gotta start learnin’ to trust ol’ Diresk. It’s a cold, cruel world, lads … listen, watch …and learn.”

We only won a couple games in ninth grade. I think we bear Edgemont and Holy Rosary. Maybe Hill City. We got destroyed by Hot Springs all four games we played them that year. Hot Springs was our most hated rival school and we would have done anything to beat them. We played our final game against them that year in a tournament on our home floor. I remember my mother drove me to the gym early that Saturday morning and we had barely made it through the snow. It had been so cold the butterflies in my stomach had frozen like lumps of coal as I held my purple Converse tennis shoes tightly to my chest and my mother cursed and fought to control our Buick in the winter storm. I remember hoping Hot Springs would not make the thirty mile drive.

We won our first game against Edgemont and we were bound and determined to get those Hot Springs Bison. A couple of them had hit me so hard during the previous football season I had been unable to close or focus my eyes as I staggered off the field. My replacement at quarterback finished the game because I refused to re-enter battle, pretending to have blurred vision. Everyone must have believed me because nothing was ever mentioned and I never told another soul until now. Diresk would have killed me.

Hot Springs, as expected, handily defeated Hill City and was matched against us in the tournament final to be played that evening. I silently had prayed for the game to be cancelled due to the snow that had continued to paint layer upon layer the entire day. Alas, as tip-off time approached it was decided the game would continue as scheduled and I was once again forced to weather another bout of fears.

I could never understand why my teammates would never react the way I would. Every game I would be followed and surrounded by the same pack of fears that haunted me throughout nearly three decades of existence. My nerves tortured me like movie demons and I was utterly powerless against their arrival or departure. Every speech, test, athletic contest, date, important event or change of any kind was preceded by often paralyzing, gut-seizing terror. No matter what I did or did not do, I would be overtaken and held hostage by my own mind.

Diresk used to tell me I was more than likely dropped on my head at birth, or was quite possibly raped and murdered in a previous life. He could never understand my fears either. To him, fear was just another one of life’s bummers he had no time for. The worst thing anyone can say to a person having anxiety attacks is … “Hey … the only thing we have to fear is fear itself … and it’s only in your head!”

It’s only in my head?

“Gee … is that the same head that can cure cancer or cause it? You are right, what am I thinking? It is silly of me to throw up before every game like this … and rather childish the way I have not slept in two days or been able to hold any food down. Mind over matter. I’ll simply change the mind that wants to kill me with the mind that wants to kill me!”

Great idea! Why didn’t my mind think of that?

Before we were to play Hot Springs, our coach launched into a moving soliloquy, eulogizing and laying to rest our previous losses to the mighty Bison. He delivered a tidy analysis of their offense and bravely outlined our strategy to shut down their titan in the middle. Williams was his last name and I have misplaced his first. Six feet, six inches tall and he could dunk the basketball.

To a ninth-grader in 1977, that was some scary shit!

Coach Dorton summed up his sermon and released us to opening warm-ups where my fears would finally evaporate and leave me with a sense of ravenous relief. All of my teammates’ eyes found their grinning giant as we jogged onto the court, forced to accept the gripping reality he had not, in fact, died in sleep the previous night.

Diresk told me in the team huddle just before the opening tip that he had plans for “Mr. Jumping Jacks”.

“Topher … come here. We have a little problem. Those guys are really good and they know that we are really shitty. Our parents know we are really shitty. (Be quiet, man!) Our coach knows we’re really shitty. Our deceased relatives know we… (Jesus, Diresk … shut up before …)

“DIRESK? Would you like to sit this game out so you can have more time to develop your communication skills?” Coach Dorton hated Diresk but he was our tallest player and without him we would have been humiliated, as opposed to significantly disappointed.

Diresk feigned deep consideration before responding. “I believe I can help the team better in a playing capacity, sir.”

“Then shut your mouth and listen to what I am saying because these guys are going to tear your cute little smiles off of your cute little faces unless you came to play. I don’t want to see Williams camping out in the paint, okay? Keep him off the boards and deny him the basketball. Diresk … if he goes to the bathroom, I want you to go with him! Understand?”

Yes, sir!”, Diresk responded with a salute to his breast. “I’ll stick myself to him like a piece a’ tape, boss … uh, sir.”

Coach Dorton, I believe, had considered benching Diresk at this point. After a considerable glare down and strategic silence, Dorton reconsidered and offered his hand for the usual team handshake and chant of “DEFENSE!”

As our starters proceeded into battle and most certain demise, Diresk pulled me aside to whisper into my ear.

“How many basketball players does it take to really piss off a Hot Springs crowd?”

“don’t do anything stupid, D.”, I begged, grabbing him below his elbow.

“Moi? Answer my riddle, Topher. How many?”

I was afraid to. Who knew what Diresk would do. Not even Diresk.

We lined up and shook the hands of our worthy opponents. They seemed like Amazons to me. Williams and Diresk squared off to jump center. I was our point guard and lined up back in their court, near the top of the key. We all chewed gum and pulled our socks as high as they would go. It was also customary to untuck the back of your jersey as the game wore on for cosmetic purposes. We all wore out hair the same way, feathered back with spray.

I could feel Diresk’s smiling eyes beckoning me for a final diabolical gesture as the officials assumed their positions and prepared to start the contest.

The referee tossed up the ball and every player crouched and readied himself to shift to a necessary position for quick movement to the ball.

I never saw it happen.

I was watching the ball and getting ready to retrieve or defend when I saw #Williams glide effortlessly above the ground and tap the ball back towards his teammate and then quickly disappear from vision as both whistles stopped us all in our canvassed tracks.

A crowd hush quickly sucked the sounds out of the gymnasium and a crushing silence surrounded Williams, the fallen titan, who lay crunched in a fetal position at center court, clutching his privates. I remember hearing the referee call a “flagrant” foul on “number 10, white!”, Diresk’s number.

Diresk had already wandered over to the Hot Springs’ bench to incite further reaction as the disapproving shouts overtook the gymnasium like a flock of sparrows. I watched with dropped jaw as our coach made his way to retrieve Diresk from enemy territory.

An opposing player suddenly exploded from the bench and threw a roundhouse punch at our starting center, who was performing some peculiar dance for the Hot Springs crowd I had never seen before. Diresk’’ nose appeared to detonate as darkened blood sprayed from the right side of his face as both team benches emptied and poured into each other like spilled beverages. Within seconds, brawling players were joined on the court by enraged spectators for a good, old-fashioned free-for-all!

Though I was terrified at the outset, I believe it was the most fun I ever had during a sanctioned sporting event. Swinging blindly at anyone wearing a blue jersey as blows glanced off of my back and shoulders, and bodies fell together on the tile like passionate lovers.

Passionate, bleeding lovers.

Even the cheerleaders squared off, I was later informed. It was a good fight. Although we later lost the game after control was finally restored by police officers and frantic school officials, I know in my heart of hearts, Custer defeated Hot Springs in the wildest town fight in South Dakota High School Athletic Activities Association history.

Diresk was ejected from the game, as was the Hot Springs player who fired the first punch, and Williams managed to regain his composure and score thirty points against our wounded defense. The final score was 78-69. The closest we had come all season to beating them. By far our best game of the year.

In the dressing room after the game, the banished Diresk sauntered up to me grinning from ear to ear and holding a single digit in my face.

“One,” he stated. “Only one player, Larry!”

We were playing Little Wound Kyle for the District 30 Basketball Championship in Rapid City in 1978; sophomore year. Little Wound had this guy named Austin Richards and he was one of the most magical high school basketball players I ever watched or played against. He was built and moved like a deer. Long brown hair flowed and framed him like a headdress as he drifted effortlessly up and down the court like an air hockey puck. He took my breath away and I think of him still. Reservation swallowed him whole and he never played college basketball, though he received many gracious offers. Defending him had been like trying to harness smoke.

We had a very physical team that year and what we lacked in height across our front line was effectively remedied by quickness and heart. We ran the ball down most team’s throats. It also helped to have Doug Herrmann, who later would win national football championships at Nebraska and be drafted by the Washington Redskins. Not a bad guy to have around when we needed a couple rebounds and inside offensive muscle.

It was a fantastic and exciting game and very near the end I found myself standing on the foul line with two free throws to make to tie the game and possibly send it into overtime. Seven clicks remained on the clock. We were down by two points: 79-77. I had just been fouled in the act of shooting and after both teams called time-outs, my very nervous body found itself with the entire season resting on my shaking shoulders.

Diresk, as usual, took his sweet time to get from the huddle to line up for foul shots. He sauntered towards me, picking his teeth and got right in my face as the referee waited to hand me the ball.

(Don’t mess with me, Diresk. I need to make this really badly!)

“Look at it this way, Zeke. If you miss one shot, we lose and the season is over. (Go away!) All that friggin’ work to get to state and it’ll all go down the tubes like a turd. (Ignore him! Just concentrate. You can do this. No problem, man.) Just relax and do your best, Larry. We’re all behind you and we’ll still love you if you screw it up.”

“Let’s go,” the referee barked. “Line up, number ten!”

Diresk gave me his famous wink, turned, and assumed his position on the lane. As an afterthought, he turned to me and inserted one final blow just prior to my beginning the crucial foul shot regimen.

“Oh, one more thing. I got fifty bucks bet with Hathaway you’re cannin’ both these meatballs, so don’t let me down. Do not leave me hangin’, son.”

(Thanks, D. Thanks a fucking lot!)

Anyone who has played basketball is aware of the importance of the afore-mentioned foul shot regimen. It is a player’s means of preparation to shoot a foul shot with precise regularity. While providing comfort and familiarity for the shooter, it also is a means of discharging stress from the shooter’s body as well as providing a meditative focus which serves to bypass the mind and go directly into muscle memory.

I still remember mine:

My first step was always to take a deep breath, holding the ball firmly with both hands just above the knees, and measure the basket with my eyes and senses. Next, I would bend to deliver five rapid two-handed bounces of the ball, pause, and rise up while taking another deep breath, measuring again the basket. At his point, I could go one of two ways: I could either spin-bounce the ball to myself two times by placing backspin on it; or, hold the ball with my left hand to execute a one-handed practice shot with my right. The next step was to gain proper alignment and seam placement within my fingertips until the optimal grip was achieved. Finally, the drawing of two measured breaths while bending the knees slightly as the ball rested softly against my tensed stomach muscles, then up and through with the ball using a deft flick of my right wrist; my eyes guiding the leather orb towards its whisk through braided white strings.

When completed, the right arm resembled an embarrassed swan as the crowd’s roar erupted and the score board added your point to your team’s total. Then, the entire cycle is precisely recreated in the event of another shot.

I don’t know if he did it to freak me out or to relax me, but it relaxed me. I made them both, tied the game and sent it into overtime. We won the game after Doug Herrmann was fouled while sinking a shot with ten seconds left in overtime. He made both free throws and the final score was 88-84. We won our regional championship and went to the state tournament in Sioux Falls, placing fourth out of eight teams.

Diresk mad the All-Conference team that year and was honorable mention for the All-State Tournament Team. I also made the All-conference squad and led the team in assists, steals, and free throw percentage. Doug Herrmann won just about every award one could win in three sports.

Our biggest mistake that year was to smoke pot before the semi-final game of the State tournament. After upsetting Eureka the night before, we were set to challenge Eureka for the chance to play for the state championship.

Well, we got stoned and we missed it. Coach Luitjens banished the both of us to the bench for the entire first half after we were overtaken by a laughing fit during pregame warm-up. Diresk had taped a banana inside of his trunks and the sight of him running around the court like that with most of the state watching on television was too much for either of us to stand up to.

A befitting end that still triggers laughter when it crosses my mind, and I miss being part of a team.

During our senior year of basketball, we were picked to win the conference championship and to seriously contend for the state title as well. At the Christmas break we had lost only one game, had won twelve, and were ranked third in our state class. The only game we had lost was to Newell and I had been forced to play with a severely sprained ankle and could not run our offense with the precision I was accustomed to.

We traveled east to Desmet after Christmas to play the team ranked second in the state on their home floor. We were excited to have an opportunity to test our potency against such a powerhouse team.

I had been having an incredible year up to this point, leading the team in scoring, assists, free throw percentage, and was team captain. I was quite capable of leading our balanced team to the state finals. All we had to do was get past Desmet and ride the winning wave through the rest of the season and into the season ending tournaments

The game was closely fought and the lead changed hands several times. I remember playing the game and feeling apart from it in some way. I played well, not missing a single shot the entire game while managing to shut down their leading scorer; but something felt wrong inside. Almost as if an engine had been turned off.

I felt myself pull back and pass up shots I would normally take without question. I desperately wanted to win the game and the crowd was feverish with excitement, but some part of me simply quit playing and I was powerless to do anything about it.

Coach Luitjens sensed it and called me out of the game down the stretch to ask me what was going on.

“What in the hell are you doing? You had three shots to take and you passed them all up. I gotta have you in there leading this team, Chris. We are running out of time. Are you feeling okay?”

“Yeah, Coach, I feel fine,” I responded. “Let me get back in there and let’s get these guys.”

He gave me this strange look, then sent me to the scorer’s table to check back into the game. I perfectly recall wondering to myself what was wrong with me and why I was pulling back. I had no answer. Diresk gave me a hint during the next dead ball when I was called back into the game.

“Topher … you are pissing me off, man. What the fuck are you doing?”

“What do you mean? I guiltily replied.

“You know exactly what I’m talkin’ ’bout! You can beat that asshole fifty times in a row if you want to!”

I nodded and knew he was right.

“I can’t get open with three friggin’ monkeys on my back, Jack! You gotta be the man here, Topher! We need you, man!”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m holding back like …”

“I know exactly what’s happenin’ here. You can’t handle us winnin’! You can’t handle bein’ so good, can you? Well, you are, so start playin’ like it, dammit! Keep your friggin’ head outta the game and play with your guts, man. Do it, Topher. We need YOU in this game NOW!”

We were down by two baskets when I went back in the game with just under two minutes left. I proceeded to make two lay-ups, receive two offensive fouls, and tie up the game. I had four personal fouls by this time and Desmet had the ball. We stopped them, and Rick Woods grabbed their missed shot off the rim, threw it to me as I was breaking down the left side of the court and we were off! I never even looked at Diresk or Chip Hathaway who were both streaking down the court on either side of me as I drove the ball down the center of the court.

I was going to the hole and was not about to be stopped. I pump-faked to Diresk, took a long step with my right foot and sailed past a confused defender, planted my left foot and launched myself towards the hoop and laid the ball in effortlessly as my right hand brushed the upper edge of the rim.

It was a great faking move, and I never even saw the Desmet defender slide underneath me until I fell on him, spraining my ankle. The referee blew the whistle and I knew I was out of the game. I limped to the bench, replaced by Doug Knutson. We were two points ahead with less than one minute left on the game clock. Plenty of time for anything to happen.

To this day, I know it was a terrible call. The Desmet guy was not even close to set when he slid under me. I knew it. Coach Luitjens knew it. Hell, even the other official talked to me after the game and told me his partner had blown a couple calls and I should never have received as many offensive fouls. It probably would not have mattered, but it still makes me sick to my stomach when I think about that game and how something in me kept us from winning. Kept me from winning.

My next foolish move continues to haunt me to this day as well. Just before I reached my team’s bench, I felt the necessity to provide the referee with some constructive feedback.

“How long you been refereeing basketball … three days?”

“Sit down, son. He had plenty of time to get position on you and I was right there to make that call,” the official replied, pointing me to a seat next to my disappointed and red-faced coach.

“You better read up on the rules a little more before you put that uniform on again,” I heatedly issued and sat down.

His patience thinned , he blew the whistle and issued a technical foul.

I was stunned. Mortified at what I had done. Coach Luitjens glared at me, and all I could do was shake my head, wordlessly. The pain in my ankle was no longer apparent as the opposing crowd issued its taunts to me. And to my teammates who stood helplessly on the court.

The Desmet player sunk the shot and they got the ball back. I held my head between my hands and knees and prayed for a miracle. But the tide had turned and Desmet’s momentum was too much for us as we allowed them to score again, them turned the ball over against their pressing defense.

I don’t remember anything else about that game other than we lost. We lost and we kept on losing the rest of the year. My game all but disappeared on me, and we were upset in our district tournament and didn’t make it to state. We did manage to tie with Spearfish for the conference title, but it meant nothing to us. I finished the year averaging ten points a game. I had been averaging twenty before the Desmet game. I fell apart. I simply fell apart.

One day after the season was over, Diresk and I were hanging around down town and a local business owner came out of his store to talk to us. He greeted us both and asked us if we were going to college and the usual jazz. Then, he looked down at his feet and said something I will never forget.

“Chris? I been watchin’ basketball in this town for over twenty years and you were the most exciting player I ever saw in a Custer uniform. I never saw anyone handle the ball like you could. Too bad you could never see it. You break my heart, son.”

He excused himself and went back into his store, leaving me with a pain in my stomach and a taste in my mouth I get from time to time. After a time, Diresk spoke.

“I knew the minute you quit playing that game at Desmet. I saw it happen and I couldn’t do a fuckin’ thing to stop it or get you going again. You are going to break a lot of hearts, Topher. You ain’t gonna change none though … until you break your own bad enough. Let’s go, man. I need some medicine.”

I was rummaging through a cardboard box a few days ago and was struck breathless by the sight of our basketball. I had not seen it in four of five years and I was surprised to find it fully inflated. Our basketball.

We used the same Wilson Jet leather basketball whenever we shot hoops. I had received it as a Christmas gift from my step-father in 1977 and Diresk kept it at his house because he knew it drove me crazy. It was beautiful when it was brand new. I used to smell it and lick the dirty spots off. I managed to keep it in pristine order until Diresk finally talked me into playing outdoors with it on the asphalt courts at Custer’s grade school.

Consecrated ground for a roundballer in Custer. I shall never forget the games we played there on steamy summer afternoons. When everyone got a chance to play like a professional. The rims, you see, were only eight feet above the jagged ground that tore layers upon layers of skin from our knees and elbows. Nearly every player could dunk, and attempted to, every time the ball was touched. We customized the rims with red, white and blue nets and on some afternoons we actually had cheerleader. It quite simply was the place to be if the sun was shining and the fish were not biting.

Diresk and I always played on the same team. I do not recall losing many games but you know how far pride can fly unchecked. Three unquestionable facts regarding “mini-rim” basketball may be shared:

Passing was not part of the game. Defense would be played only to prevent one’s opponent from executing a dunk. Rebounding was crucial because God only knew when you would get to touch the ball again.

Another interesting aspect of playground pickup games was the “defense calls their own fouls” rule. “Honor among thieves” kind of set up that resulted in a tremendous number of fistfights and injurious misunderstandings among fierce competitors, all pretentiously vying for the attentions and affections of a handful of aloof, dreamy-eyed maidens.

As I write this, I am still able to recall specific games and joyous moments, one decade in passing. My favorite will always be the day Diresk signed my ball. Sophomore summer.

We had just conquered a spirited bunch of upperclassmen who had sauntered onto our turf to treat us to a nasty thwarting, and were basking in their demise with a round of Dr. Peppers and cigarettes, when our humbled foes demanded a rematch.

Diresk thanked them for their offer but failed to acquiesce following an emergency team meeting.

“No way, man!” Kenna Venekamp spoke first in our huddle. “We beat the seniors and they’re gonna be out for blood this time. We won … now let’s split.”

“We can take these assholes again … no problemo,” Diresk countered.

“We got lucky, man!” I interjected while nursing a scraped knee with a chilled soda. The “referees” had been unkind to us in the contest and all of us were battle-scarred to some extent. “I do not exactly feel the need to subject myself to torture, you guys. Look at them. They are pissed! This nest game is not going to be a picnic, I can …”

“Fuck ’em!” Diresk announced bravely.

“I’m not sure you are aware of the full extent of this situation,” I attempted. “These guys can make our lives hell if they want to, D. They are not going to practice good basketball fundamentals to beat us this time. They are going to hurt us and hurt us bad. And … if we manage to somehow win again .. they will kill us. Violently!”

“Vote!” Diresk piped into the mix.

Four hands went up to retire healthy and fight another day. Diresk shook his head, crushed his cigarette beneath a Converse, and strolled over to deliver the poll results.

“Chickenshitassholes”, he shot back to us.

Our decision had not been received graciously to say the least. Before any of us knew what had happened, Diresk abruptly switched to boxing and squared off against a horizontally and vertically gifted senior behemoth answering to the name of Don Burdeen.

“Oh shit … They’re gonna kill us,” I whispered to Kenna Venekamp, who was nervously eyeing the exit like a rabbit who had just spotted a charging coyote.

Diresk fought valiantly, but was no match for Burdeen, who outweighed him by at least a thousand pounds. Diresk most definitely landed more punches early in the fight, exciting and terrifying his teammates simultaneously, but was finally caught by a staggering right hook that snapped his head back like a rebounding crash dummy and brought him to his scraped knees.

Always a trooper, Diresk gave himself an eight count and staggered to his feet for rebuttal. Just as Burdeen was to deliver the “lights out” blow, a miracle happened in the sound of an automobile horn.

All heads turned to locate the source of the metallic howl and unconsciously shifted positions as Highway Patrolman Dean Fix ascended from his decorated cruiser and glared towards the ring with flexing nostrils that often appeared to smoke like a recently fired double barreled shotgun.

In short, we were collectively chastised by tongue lash and ordered to evacuate the premises. The seniors swore further revenge as they drifted through the chain link gate, taunting our bloodied Diresk, who by this time had managed to recoup his faculties, poise, and equilibrium and was barking counteroffensive like a Rottweiler. Our team had been asked to stay after game by our gun-toting savior.

The cheerleaders and fans had long since vanished.

Patrolman Fix was a voracious basketball fan and would occasionally take a break from his highway duties to catch a game or two at the playground. He never missed a high school basketball game and received an honorary seat in the gym’s front row next to Rudy Grunwald, another insatiable Custer fan. His timing had reached beyond impeccable that afternoon, as had his closing remarks.

“you guys play them horses?” Patrolman Fix asked from behind his ever-present toothpick.

We nodded in unison like five kittens watching a yo-yo.

“Beat ’em?” His eyebrows and toothpick pointed up towards the cloudless sky.

We nodded in unison like five kittens watching a yo-yo.

“Let’s see the nose,” he snorted and Diresk approached, head bent back.

“Ain’t broke,” Diresk proudly announced as Fix palmed his head with both hands, concurring.

“Git the hell outta here,” Fix ordered, tucking his thumbs in his gun belt and stretching his back and shoulders.

We all filed towards the gate eyeing each other nervously, wearing our bittersweet grins.

“Diresk!” Fix shouted, halting hearts and steps. We turned to face him as the sun reflected off no less than ten parts of his body.

“Yeah?” Diresk answered.

“You were doin’ good, but next time … don’t forget to duck.”

Diresk broke into a smile that infected the four of us for the rest of the day. He was our hero and we told him as much. That was when he signed my ball after absorbing our adulation.

“To Topher,” he wrote in permanent black marker. “Don’t forget to duck! Love, D.”

I believe I will sleep with the ball tonight.

THE GAS STATION

I got my first real job working for my next door neighbor at his service station. I temporarily worked as a bus boy at the Trade Winds Restaurant when I was twelve, but only lasted a few weeks because I was too nervous to work. Here again, fear kicked my ass and all I could do was lie there and bleed inside.

I ran away from that restaurant one day and I never went back. It was the first time I ever seriously considered killing myself. I sat up on this hill behind my house after running away from my shift and begged God to take my life. I wanted so desperately to be brave. Strong. Peaceful. Diresk.

I began working at the gas station a couple years later for a friend of our family. Dar Heuer. For some reason, I did not freak out and later fell in love with my job. Gasoline was something like fifty cents a gallon.

I was good at fixing tires! The best. I could work that tire machine faster than you would believe. Fixing flats became somewhat of a meditative experience for me. One move flowed into the next and customers would actually enjoy watching me. I could locate a leak, patch it, and slam it back on a vehicle before a song would end on the radio that blared constantly in the shop.

My mother would tell me how handsome I looked in my uniform and I would believe her. I never wore a dirty one. That from a kid who could conceivably don the same pair of jeans for weeks at a time.

I also excelled at making side money from pop machines and neglecting to ring up cash sales. Of course, I treated myself to a free tank of gas now and then, and my car burned the best that money did not have to buy. Premium. I have not used it since.

Diresk would always talk me through my periodic guilt episodes, insisting my actions were nothing more that “creative financing with a hint of rascal”. I worked hard. I deserved a little fringe with my salary. This was also the source of our booze and drug money. My paycheck, at Mother’s urging, went straight into the old college fund. You would not see me pilfering my savings account to secure illicit recreational substances.

I was a good son.

I became so dependable and efficient, my boss would leave for hours at a time and let me run the place. I was proud of his trust in me and gained much confidence. I loved conversing with tourists and went out of my way to charm tips and chuckles from them.

Custer was and is a tourist town, crammed full with travelers the summer long. I enjoyed the customer rushes and when I worked alone, I worked like a paramedic. That is, when I was not assaulted by Diresk who rarely, if ever, worked.

One hot day I was running the station alone and Diresk brought me some lunch and a much-needed joint to alter my weary senses. He had an idea. He said it was a really good one.

“I do not know why I waste my precious summer time to hang around with your sorry ass,” Diresk reported with his cigarette bouncing around his chapped lips. “You work too much, Larry. You got the rest of your life to do this shit. Do you have any idea how many bikinis are probably out at the lake today? Do you want me to tell you how many I think are out at the lake today?”

I did not wish for him to tell me, as I wolfed down the sandwiches he had brought me. I was a working man and could not be bothered nor tempted by such slothful nonsense. I chewed as Diresk rambled on.

“ I shall tell you how many beautiful bikini-clad maidens I think are scorching their finely tuned chassis at the lake today. More than both of us could shake a dick at!”

“Wonderful. So go out there then.”

“Got a better idea, Slim. Why don’t you call Darwin and tell him you been puking your guts out and you gotta split before it goes terminal?”

“I can’t, man. He’s …”

“Can’t is just a word you can’t afford to use, Virgil. We don’t get days like this too much ’round here … and you gotta get some sun on your skin ‘cause yer startin’ ta look like a friggin’ oyster.”

“Dar went to Rapid today and he won’t be back until late tonight,” I informed him. “I’m stuck here, so why don’t you take your complaining ass out of here and go to the lake yourself. Leave me some smoke. I gotta work till close because Wayne can’t come in tonight. His back is all messed up again and he can’t even …”

“Hold it! I getting something! Yes! A thought has just arrived to save the day, Ivory Face. (Oh, God.) Where’d it go? It was just here and it felt like a great idea … hmmm. (Oh, man.) Yes! I have it! What say we do a bit of adjusting to the power supply and … shit! … no power … no work?”

“no! Absolutely not. I mean it … I am not going to let you …”

“Where’s the box for this fucker, Slim? Got me some work ta do. We’ll be up to our eyeballs in babes in … one hour.” Diresk always checked his arm for a watch when discussing time. I never saw him wear one.

Before I could begin to cross-examine him, he dashed out of the office and grabbed his cigarettes from his truck. Grover was in the cab and wearing the swimming trunks Diresk designed for her. She could never jump down from the truck by herself and would always just assume whenever Diresk opened the door it was time for her to get out and she would rush to the edge of the seat to be plucked from the vehicle. I always flinched whenever Diresk would slam the door behind him.

I helplessly watched as my best friend slammed Grover’s face in the door for the millionth time and jogged into the office to make his way into the back of the station. I boldly stepped in front of him, shifting the mass in my mouth to my cheek for verbal protest.

“NO! I mean it, D. You are NOT going near the box and you are NOT going to screw up the power here. Jesus Christ, do you want to get me fired or killed? I need this job. I don’’ get money from my mamma like some of us do and I need to have an income! Do you understand what I am saying to you? Wipe that smile off your face because I am not listening to you> I mean it, D! Let me spell it for you. I WILL NOT DO IT AND NEITHER WILL YOU! I have next Saturday off and we can go to the …”

“FUCK Saturday! We ain’t even going to be alive that long, Topher. Where’s the box and wipe you face off … you look like you been eatin’ outta Grover’s dish. Come on … where’s the box? Give, give, give. Screw it … I’ll find it in back.”

Distracted by the mustard streak on the back of my hand, I was unable to stop Diresk from dashing past me into the service area to locate the breaker box. My terrified self trailed behind him.

“Don’t go in there, D.! Dar will know we did something to mess it up and I am not going down again because of another one of your great ideas. Just go to the lake and chase your girls and party your brains out. Maybe I can get another day off and we can ...”Hello there, Mr. Fuse Box,” Diresk proudly announced. “I am going to need some tools, Larry. What the fuck am I sayin’? … We’re in a friggin gas station. I need a screwdriver and some electric tape … and maybe a hammer. Oh … get me one of them wire cutters and a soldering iron. Toph? You gonna just stand there shittin’ your pants or you gonna help me? Get movin’!”

“Oh, Jesus Christ! I’m dead. I’m fired and going to prison. Diresk, I will fucking kill you if you do anything to that box. I mean it! I will …”

“How much power you think this thing’s got runnin’ through it? If I’m wearin’ rubber soles it can’t fry me, right?” Diresk was sizing up the fuse box with his hands on his hips. I needed about ten cigarettes.

“I’ll kill you if you do anything, D.! I swear I will kill you and call the police if you …”

“Better not call the cops if you kill me, Jerry. I’d just take my truck and get the hell gone. You know … I think if I just short this wire out with this part right here it’ll knock the whole shebang outta business.”

“Diresk! Dammit … I’m not kidding, man. This is my job and this is serious. You screw up the power and it’ll cost Dar a fortune to …”

Diresk spun on me mid-sentence and pinned my shoulders against the wall of the shop. He had a smile on his face and I knew he wasn’t going to hurt me. I knew he was going to change my mind.

“Most young men would be honored to have a guardian angel the likes of me … and you just bitch, bitch, bitch.” Diresk kissed me on the cheek and I knew I was rapidly losing ground.

“Topher? How long are you going to act like some black guy in Mississippi? This is our town. We rule this fucking place and there ain’t nothin’ or nobody gonna stop us! What’s Dar gonna do? Fire you?”

“Yes. He will most certainly fire me!”

“Oh … GOD DAMN! Your friggin’ life would be over! Who cares if you lose your job …. And you ain’t gonna lose your job ’cause nobody’s gonna question the fact the fuse box is old and just messed up. It happens, Larry. Shit breaks down and that’s why everybody’s got jobs. It’s Sunday and he ain’t gonna be able to get it worked on anyway, so he’s got no choice but to close down for the day. No big deal. Just one day.”

He let this soak in before continuing, and I was getting very wet.

“Dar trusts you with his business and he ain’t gonna think you have the balls or brains to do somethin’ like this. That’s where I come in, Pal. I got them both! Plenty to go around for all us misguided and troubled souls. We have gotten along pretty well up to this point and we have pulled more shit in this town than anyone ever thought of tryin’. Right? Am I lyin’? Topher? Am I?”

I looked down at my shoes and dejectedly shook my head. He had me. Nothing short of divine intervention could have helped me at this point. I hated that feeling. He could always just waltz through my boundaries like they were tissue paper. I always felt like a prisoner helping my executioner weave his rope for my afternoon hanging.

“If I’m lyin’ I’m cryin’. You and I both know I ain’t gonna do that. You gotta have faith in your best buddy, Buford,” he continued with a better than usual grin. “What are you going to do?” I asked him, completely defeated. There was nothing left for me to do but stand back and watch my life be destroyed. My best friend had already selected a few tools from the work bench and lit a fresh cigarette to prepare for his hostile takeover of my life.

The station bell rang and I nearly shit my Mobile uniform. A car had pulled into the full service island and I was forced to leave Diresk to his dirty deed while I attended to the business about to be sabotaged. I meekly approached the car and could not, for the life of me, recall how I usually greeted a customer.

I filled the car with gas, washed the windows and checked the oil. My heart was slamming against my chest and I somehow managed to give the man his change and send him off. I dashed back inside the garage to check on my friend’s diabolical progress. I had barely reached the lobby when I felt and heard the power go. Everything was dead. I made my deliberate trek to the utility room, dark by now, and peered through the doorway.

“Diresk? What did you do? I can’t BELIEVE you really did this to me! Diresk? Don’t play games with me, you asshole! I’m really going to kill you now, you ….”

My throat slammed shut with my breath as my foot touched his body on the ground. I immediately fell to my knees and, gripped with fear, ordered Diresk to cease his sick little game.

“I know you are okay and I’m not falling for any of this shit. Diresk? I shook him. I tickled him. I hit him in the stomach. Nothing. DIRESK? You son of a bitch! Oh God … what do I do now? Diresk… if you are messing with me this ain’t funny anymore. I’m calling an ambulance and you are in deep shit when they get here!”

Nothing. I felt for a pulse. I was positive I felt one, but was not certain if it was his or mine in my disoriented state. I gave him one more chance.

“I’m calling them now! If you are messing with me you better come clean because I am calling them right-fucking-now!”

I ran to the garage phone and dialed 911 as loudly as I could, quietly disconnected the call, and pretended to firmly speak to the dispatcher.

“I’m at Dar’s Mobil station and I need an ambulance right away. My friend just got electrocuted or something and I think he may be dead. Please hurry!” I slammed down the receiver and loudly announced “I called them, Diresk! They are on their way! You better come clean in a hurry because I am telling them the truth when they get here!”

Nothing. I freaked! I ran to the doorway, then back to the phone.

“Oh, Jesus! I’m sorry. I’ll call them! Don’t die, D.! I can’t make it without you in this world! Shit!”

I frantically dialed 911, heard the first ring, then felt a hand on my shoulder. I have no idea why my heart did not blow in half.

“Got ya!” Diresk announced and fell to his knees in laughter.

I must have stood there blinking until I heard a far away voice on the phone. I quickly hung it up and stared at the phone and could not figure out what in God’s name had just happened to me. Had I talked to the dispatcher? Were they on their way? Was my boss going to still fire me and kill me? I was very confused, pissed off, and scared beyond belief.

“You son of a bitch!” I said as I kicked him as he continued to laugh hysterically on the garage floor. “I thought you were fucking dead! That is really funny, man! You are really cool! Jesus Christ, Diresk!”

I stood there with my eyes closed as I listened to his hysterics. I could not disappear off the face of the Earth. I really wanted to.

“I suppose you ruined the box, too,” I muttered. “Not only did you make a fool out of me … I’m still going to get fired. Nice friend. My best buddy. Fucker!”

I considered kicking him in the face as hard as I could, decided against it, and shuffled around the corner and into the office. I sat down behind the cash register to think. I had to clear my head before I made my next frantic move.

Suddenly, electric devices sprang to life as power surged through the station, startling me. I dejectedly waited for his next assault.

“Just hit the main,” Diresk proudly announced as he turned the corner from the garage. “You ain’t gonna hold this against for the rest of our lives … are you? I still get to be your son’s godfather and everything? Topher? Come on, man. You gotta admit that was fucking great. One of my greatest moments. One of your worst. Hey, I’m sorry. Look at me, man.”

“Get out!” The sound that escaped from my mouth surprised me.

“You have just received an important lesson ….free of charge … from the universe. Well, don’t thank me or anything. You just burn in anger over there and I’ll do the talkin’, okay? Cool.”

“Get out!”

“The lesson is that you can’t take yourself or life so friggin’ seriously, Jack. Laugh at yourself and who cares if the world laughs with you or not? Not me, man. Hey … you got a customer and I better split if I’m gonna nab me a babe. Give me a …”

“GET OUT!”

“I’m goin’, Jerry … tome down before you get hemorrhoids. I gotta get my finely tuned chassis to the lake anyway, man. Call me tonight.”

Diresk started for the door, turned, grabbed a stick of beef jerky from the counter, said, “For Grover,” and shoved his way out the lobby door.

He paused again just as the door was about to close, raised his brows for a final pearl of petulance.

“Toph? The fake ambulance call was a nice shot … really. You’re getting’ better at this stuff, man. One thing, man … you shoulda seen your face when I snuck up on ya. Jesus…”

With that he was gone. I watched him back out of the lot and disappear around the corner of the block before I could bring myself to forgive him and share laughter about it. The one thing I couldn’t figure out was why he didn’t get up when I pretended to call 911 the first time. I thought he must have had balls of ice for that one. Did he know I would fake it once just to see if he would react? Did he know me that well?

For the longest time, he would insist he knew what I was going to do and had planned the whole thing to go exactly as it had. I was so amazed by his ability to read me like that. Although he made a fool out of me, I looked up to him even more because he could pull something like that off. It would be a couple months before he could take it no longer and had to ’fess up.

“I listened on the phone … in the back, you dipstick!”

I remember the time Diresk talked me into dropping acid before going in to work. I told him there was no way I was going to go to work tripping, but Diresk had a way of putting things so they didn’t sound that overwhelming. We had met for breakfast that morning. He was on his way to Bismarck Lake to go fishing and I, of course, was on my way to fill gas tanks and fix flats.

“My main man, I have a little something special for you to help make your employment an adventure today. I believe all you must do is suck on this tiny piece of paper and fairly soon you will find yourself starring in your own Disney movie. Purple microdot or some shit like that. Jimmy Hendrix shit. Vietnam and Woodstock.”

“Yeah, right. I’m going to drop acid and go work and have to deal with tourists and my boss all day with purple people flying at me all day. Good idea! While I am at it, why don’t I just try to take an engine apart and see if I can get it back together again. I don’t think work is an appropriate environment to experiment with hallucinogenics, D.”

“Work is the perfect place to experiment with acid, Jerry. Where else can you get paid to do drugs? I ain’t gonna give you too much … you’ll just get a little goofy and have a ton of energy. Just like them mushrooms we took last summer. I’m droppin’ one too and we can meet back tonight and share our adventures. Come on, Topher, you can live a little.”

“What if I wig out and have to leave or something ? Dar would friggin’ kill me if I screwed something up really bad.”

“What in the hell are you going to screw up, Topher? Put a tire on inside out? You ain’t exactly the main man around there. ‘Oh, I’m sorry, sir … I put gasoline in your radiator. What in God’s name was I thinkin’. Must be the acid.’ Come now and partake of this cerebral feast.”

Diresk handed me a tiny piece of paper across our breakfast table, placing another on his tongue and wagging it at me like a dog’s tail. I obediently inserted mine and silently cursed myself for being such a dolt.

“Atta boy … just a little tab’ll do ya. I gotta splitsville. I’ll come by the station later if I haven’t completely lost my mind by then. Good luck trying to make change today, Virgil. Grab the check and we’ll call it even on the dope. Later days.”

Diresk grabbed some toast off the table, tipped his hat to an older, tourist couple next to us, and left the restaurant, leaving me to my impending sense of doom and flickering paranoia. I had fifteen minutes to get to work, and by the time I arrived to open the station for the day, I had convinced myself I would be okay and it might actually be a fun day. As I mentioned, I did not know what to expect, but I assumed it would be something like taking mushrooms. It would prove to be a serious miscalculation.

I was alone that morning as I worked with Dar, who would usually show up around lunch, unless I got really busy and called him in. A giddy feeling had begun to overtake me as I performed my opening duties and prepared for the morning traffic. It was kind of like the feeling you get when you haven’t slept for a long time and everything starts to seem really funny or something. My first customer pulled into the full service island and I strutted out to make the first sale of the day.

I remember engaging this gentleman in small talk about the weather and how beautiful the area was. Everything was going smoothly until he followed me to the lobby to pay for his gasoline. I think I told him a joke. Maybe he told me one. Anyway, I started to laugh. I would not stop for several hours. The customer had this strange look on his face when he left the lobby to return to his car. I am sure he did not fully appreciate the humor of the moment the way I had. His eyes told me of his deep concern for my sanity and his well-being as he backed out of the station and jogged to his car.

If you have never laughed for six hours straight, you probably have no conception of what I endured on that day. It sounds better than it was. I was laughing, but I was not happy or full of glee. I was freaked out of my mind and things were happening around me that only I could see.

Thank God business was slow that morning and I managed to wake through a couple tire repairs and the gasoline trade. Dar came in around lunch time and immediately knew something 3was wrong with me.

“Topher, what the hell is wrong with your eyes? You look like you just seen a ghost.”

Actually, I had probably just witnessed colors shooting from Dar’s head or traces of his words as they bolted from his mouth. Falling into hysterical guffaws had not helped my situation any and proved to be an untimely maneuver as my boss circled me like I was some kind of live grenade. I fought desperately for control of my cascading emotions and visual mirages, but to no avail. I completely lost it!

I escaped to the restroom as his questions struck my back like bullets, laughing and terrified as I slammed the door and locked it behind me. Slowly, I forced myself to the mirror to have a serious talk with myself about turning things around. Distracted by the image of the left side of my face melting, I closed one eye and gave myself a much inspired, yet doleful pep talk that bounced uselessly off the reflective glass and fell into an ignored heap to the floor, next to my facial features.

It is difficult to change tires amidst a fit of hysterics and while one’s face is dripping like wax off of one’s skull. Still, I held tightly to the hope I could regain my composure with ancient deep breathing techniques such as those used by fakirs who could stop their hearts and exist without oxygen. I collapsed on the toilet to implement my meditative blueprint when suddenly Dar began to pound furiously on the metal door, jolting me into a giggling, terror-induced hiccuping frenzy.

Nothing like spasmodic inhalations and the closing of vocal chords, laced with intermittent laughing gasps to send a hallucinating gas jockey on a dry-heaving, puking jag. A trilogy of terror one should miss if at all possible.

As some of you know, this merely serves to tighten and heighten both awareness and potency of such a drug experience. It is somewhat like consuming twelve cups of coffee then injecting any amphetamine derivative directly into your brain. Diresk called it, “The Ultimate Blow Job”.

I could not imagine what Dar was thinking. I hoped he thought I was drunk. I entertained the notion of making a break for my car, but my keys were in Dar’s office and I was in no shape for another confrontation with my employer. I was forced to wait it out, hoping for a lapse in the drug’s hold on me and a vomit reprieve. I slid to the floor and closed my eyes which was like watching Star Wars inside my head. Throughout this entire debacle, I had continued to laugh like a tickled hyena.

Diresk, I would later learn, did not go fishing that morning, and in fact had parked across the street to monitor said fiasco from a Laundromat window with some pals of ours. Smoking cigarettes and joints as thick as pencils, they fought over a pair of binoculars and mirthfully watched my scenario unfold like a diseased blanket.

I do not know how long I stayed in the bathroom, but I knew I had to eventually leave, so I gathered myself up, took a deep breath, and reentered the work force. I was a bit surprised, to say the very least, to see my mother waiting for me in the office with Dar who was waiting on a customer.

At first, I thought maybe I was hallucinating and she was not really there. When she grabbed my arm and ushered me to the back room, I understood this was not to be the case

“Christopher, what have you done to yourself?” Mother cried. Mother had been operating under a current prevarication her little angel was drug-free. I would later be briefed Diresk had requested a moment of prayer for me when my mother was seen pulling into the station lot – immediately followed by a high-fiving, hand slapping session heard blocks away. My buddies!

“MOM! Hi. Um … I haven’t done anything to myself. I’m not feeling well today and I think I must have eaten something bad at the Skyway this morning. I feel really weird and dizzy and stuff.”

My delivery would have been greatly enhanced had I been able to complete even a fragment of my recitation without chortling myself to tears. My mother looked as if she would collapse if even a bumblebee burped on her. I hurt for her concern and her abashment, deeply. You just could not tell it from my seemingly jovial demeanor.

At this point, Dar entered the office. He was not a happy boss.

“Dar, do you want me to take my lunch now? I can hurry back if you get busy,” I offered.

“I think you better go home for the day and we can talk about this tonight when I get home. I’m going to call Wayne in to finish you shift. You can’t be around here like this, Topher. What is wrong with you, for Christ’s sake? Mrs. Thomas called me at home this morning and was worried about you after she came in for gas. She said you were dancing around while you were filling up her car and you kissed her forehead when she paid. Who else did you offend this morning? What am I supposed to tell my customers when my employee does shit like that? You can’t go around kissing Mrs. Thomas on the forehead. Jesus H. Christ!”

I froze up. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I honestly could not remember kissing Mrs. Thomas or dancing around the pumps. All I could do was turn around and walk to my car, leaving my mother in tears and my boss glaring at me. I couldn’t stop laughing and to make things worse, I had to go back inside to get my car keys after trying to start my car without them.

I drove out of town and I guess the adrenaline had kicked the acid into another gear because I was totally fried and I couldn’t make heads or tails out of anything. I pulled into the golf course parking lot and laid down to die, giggling like some panic-struck firing squad target. I was afraid to open my eyes for fear of what they would show me next. My heart raced like a thoroughbred shoving blood throughout my cavities like a fire hydrant.

I could not slow down. I had to move. Had to get out of the car and walk. Somewhere. It was then Diresk’s truck slid to a halt beside me, followed by a cloud of dust that stung my eyes like tiny bullwhips. He ordered me to shut off my engine and get in with him. I was ecstatic to see him and quickly complied. Then, I remembered whose goading had led me to my current status. Fighting through my concrete smile, I threw open the door, jumped out of the truck, took an awkward swing at a barking Grover, and launched into my chastising.

I told him I would never talk to him again and our friendship was over. I meant it, until he flew out and around the truck and tackled me. We laughed so hard we threw up together. Nearly in each other’s arms.

Those were good times.

We drove his truck up Needles Highway and sat by the tunnel to watch our brains make things up for our eyes. We stayed there until the kaleidoscopic sun nodded and disappeared under rubber rocks and trees and I still felt I could run a hundred miles if I had needed to. We must have smoked about five packs of cigarettes and drunk at least a case of beer. Neither of us felt remotely intoxicated. Just omniscient. I think we split a Seconal or something and that helped us slow down some. I know we smoked a ton of dope after the darkness surrounded us like curtains, providing respite from the non-stop visual circus. I remember loving smells and tasted like never before. My mother tucking me in at night as a child and holding my puppy in my arms as I tried to make it better with my prayers. Hating God for allowing it to be hit by a car as its blood spilled into my lap. Ever believing I could still bring it back to life if I just believed. If I just believed, I remembered Christmas and my grandfather’s voice singing carols into my ear as we watched cars drive past the picture window, making bets on what color the next would be. Hours of tape rolled past my eyes and the sights and senses and sounds of my life returned to me, all within seconds. Then the fear. Sneaking up from behind the truck to pounce upon my chest and stomach.

I remember crying. Like some artery in my soul was bleeding and it would never stop. I will never forget asking Diresk a question that shook my very foundation.

“D.? I don’t think I’m supposed to do drugs. I think … do you think you can lose your soul?”

“Oh, Topher. Don’t go wacky on my now, man. Let’s just sit back and buzz out.”

“Be my friend … please? Just tell me … do you think you can lose your soul?”

“No. I don’t think you can lose or sell your soul. I think God’s got all the angles covered and he ain’t gonna let us go down like that no matter what. Drugs ain’t your problem, Slim. You … are your problem and the only problem you’ll ever have. Same as me…”

“You don’t even know what…”

“Same as me! I’m just better at not listening to the wrong voices. This is all part of life, man. It ain’t no friggin’ miracle you’re havin’ problems and doubting’ yourself. Everybody’s got a place inside ‘em they have to get to sometime in their lives. It’s gotta be way down deep and you probably don’t ever know you are goin’ there until you just get there. People can go to shrinks their whole life and it ain’t gonna do ‘em a friggin’ bit a good until they get down to this place and .. just face what’s there.”

“How the hell am I supposed to do that? Huh Face some fuckin’ thing I can’t even see or don’t even know where it is? Jesus Christ, D. I’m dying, man! I feel like I’m getting sucked out from the inside and I’m scared!”

“And you’re gonna be scared till you go down there and beat it. My place is like a cave. Black and cold … like puttin’ you hand in mud just about froze up. Whole point of life is to get down to that place and kick some ass, man! You just gotta go down there and fuckin’ kick some ass.”

“I’m scared, D.! I’m tired of feeling scared all the time and sometimes when I get high too much I feel like I’m leaving some part of me farther and farther behind. I’m not like you. You don’t…”

“Who gives a shit about that? You ain’t me … you ain’t like me … and you ain’t ever gonna be. Don’t you see that? You don’t gotta be like anyone, man. Who gives a fuck about what the rest of the world’s like?”

“What I’m trying to say is you don’t feel like I do so you are not going to understand. I just feel like something horrible is going to happen to me if I don’t change something. It’s like I can’t even tell where I am anymore and I don’t recognize feelings inside or …”

“You’re trippin’, Toph. Cool out and relax a little … don’t get wigged on me ‘cause I don’t feel like babysittin’ insanity right now. Paranoia is in there … it’s where it comes from. That place … that’s where all the fear comes from and you can call it demons or the devil or whatever in the fuck you want to … but all it is, is some friggin’ test we all have to pass before we get to move on, man. There ain’t nothin’ real about it! You gotta get to where you can see that, Toph.”

“It feels so real and so big, though. I try to bear it everyday but it keeps coming back and no matter how many times I face it ….. I can’t fuckin’ take it anymore. It’s too strong.”

“It’s all just dust and feathers, man. Ain’t nothin’ to fear. Fuck fear! Fuck it right down to the deepest part of your guts and piss all over it! Fuck it! Kill it! I don’t give a shit what you gotta do or how you gotta get it done … just don’t quit and don’t surrender. Just keep walkin’ through it and don’t ever give up. It can’t kill you so what can it really do? Huh? What, man?”

“I … can’t explain it to you. It’s just bigger than me is all. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s just got me down and I can’t get it off my chest. If there is some magical place inside of me where I can go to beat it … then God is going to have to show me where it is because I don’t ..”

“You can go there anytime you want to, man. All you gotta do is decide to call it out and then just get as mad as you can get with it. That’s how I beat mine, man. I get so pissed off I could snap steel with my bare hands and I tell the fucker to leave me alone! You gotta fight it with everything you got and one day it’s gonna know you ain’t quittin’ and it’s gonna start to let up and then it’ll just leave. I gotta fight mine, too. Okay? You ain’t alone here, okay? Just relax, man. It’s all gonna be okay. I ain’t gonna let nothin’ happen to ya … ever. Okay?

I wanted to tell him I understood. That I was going to rise up to defeat this monster and send it cowering away into my darkest places. All I could do was feel the physical humming of the drugs in my body and hear the doubt, rising like flames within my chest. I did not know how to be that angry.

Diresk opened beers for both of us, handed me mine, and urinated on the iron guardrail next to the truck, howling and calling his demons out for a fight.

“Toph? I feel like I could fuck for about three hours straight right now! I feel like a caveman. You wanna quit drugs? Quit ‘em. Not me, man. I ain’t tradin’ in feelin’ like this for nothin’. Drugs are the only…”

Diresk stopped his words in the back of his throat. He pierced my eyes with his won for a split second, then turned his back to me. He opened the truck’s door and all at once the stereo went dead and I could hear the wind rolling over and through the trees as if swept by a gigantic broom. It seemed as if I was chewing pine needles, and for a moment, I was no longer afraid.

But moments are designed that way. They change and point us somewhere else. I shall remember, my entire life, the momentum of the fear that struck me like five tones of an iron train, sitting alone on the hood of that truck. That beautiful summer night with rubber trees and a breeze that was our very own. A sky so crisp I could not look at it without closing my eyes and inhaling deeply. Sweet smells colored green. Luminous rocks wearing jagged crowns glared down upon us like giant shadowed gods as my heart hammered and pounded me further and further away from myself. From Diresk.

And then, such sadness and doubt of everything.

I gasped as if something had reached up from inside my body and pulled an alarm in my brain. A bad trip? Pretentious slang tossed around drug culture like a whip. For me? It was the beginning of a crucial shattering that would echo and reverberate for years to come. My soul had begun to scream, and though I would ignore its pleas with all the vigor I could muster, I had heard it. It had finally gotten through. And it would be back.

I reached a point during this horrid vacation when I understood I was to make a decision. To either go crazy and never come back, or to somehow fight my way back to reality. It was so strange and clear. I knew that I could lose my mind if I didn’t fight for it. If I would have given up, I really believe I would have gone insane. Diresk, who invariably tolerated dope better than I, talked and walked me through it. I wandered through my mend’s maze, pounding on corridor w3alls as my feet continued to sink deeper into the endless trails before me.

I laughed and cried and threw up, to but repeat the cycle again in Diresk’s arms. I thought I was going to die. Knew I was going to die. I was a prophet. Not a Christ, but with sufficient training and care? I smelled and tasted the blistering breath of demons and monsters as their mouths opened inches from my face and dripped their pungent and boiling sputum on my hands and feet. Slaw-like skinned reptiles crawled upon my back and I could never quite brush them off. Never quite catch them, as they scurried to safety through an opening of my spine.

I understood the seasons and the changes of darkness to light. As I wrapped myself in a blanket and raced through the carved tunnel, removing my clothes to anoint myself with the true night, I lost my footing and fell headlong into the graveled asphalt, my hands still attached to my tennis shoe. I laughed as blood filled my mouth like a glass and I felt Diresk’s hands dislodge me from my fall.

Tears again. To mix with blood at my chin, as the planets spun and danced around us. I lived years in that night. Screamed and dreamed my mind to sleep though my eyes refused to rest or trust. Maybe Diresk was right after all. Maybe we all have such a place inside and everything is about going there and returning with its treasures. But what of those who never return? What then?

I made it. By the time Diresk and I ended up at a party at a friend’s house after driving back from the Needles, I had begun to sense a light at the end of the strange tunnel I had spent hours wandering.

I know Diresk had been concerned about me, but he covered it with jokes and anecdotes as he stayed with me through my hours of torment. He literally talked me through the field of land mines I had made for myself. I do not know what would have happened had he not been there to keep my consciousness pointing back to the trail I had left that morning. God only knows where I may have wandered off to.

I didn’t go home that night and just sat in Diresk’s truck until the sun came up. I didn’t sleep at all and spent the whole night considering either suicide or quitting dope for good. Diresk gave me a ride to my car in the morning and when he dropped me off, I didn’t even look at him when I closed the door. Grover growled at me and it sounded like an airplane was taking off between my ears. I felt like I had lost twenty pounds.

“I didn’t mean to harm you any yesterday, man,” Diresk offered. “I just wanted you to have some fun. I hope everything is cool with your mom and if you need a place to crash you can come over. Don’t worry about Dar. All you gotta do is work you ass off for a few days and he’ll forgive and forget everything. Dar is cool. He knows what it is like trying to be young.”

I remember looking at Diresk and somehow he looked haggard. I felt sorry for him, even though it was me who was in trouble. I got in my car without saying anything to him and he just pulled away, spraying gravel all over the side of my car. It was to be at least a half an hour before I could bring myself to start the car and drive home to face my mother. I knew my step-father was at work, or I wouldn’t have even considered going home to face that explosion. I knew I should have never taken the acid. I should have went home and talked to Dar the previous night. I should have called my mom to tell her I was okay.

I started my car and listened to the engine purr for several minutes before I caught my eye in my mirror. I wanted out. I wanted something I was not sure even existed and had no idea how to find. So much of me had leaked from my pores. I tried to pray. I could not get a word to form in my mouth. What would I say to a God? I’m sorry?

I looked back into my eyes and something worked its way past the fog and my anxiousness, pushing to the front as if to catch me before I looked away. I can not name it. Ego? Evil? Addiction? Simply words to paint below pictures we can never understand or label. It was an old friend who had stopped over to console me. With a wink of my own eye, I forged a slight smile with the corners of my lips.

“You will never take acid again you dumb son of a bitch! You knew better that to try that shit. You and I are going to stick with what we know and what we trust. You’re going to have to quit someday … just not today. Just not today.”

I prepared and smoked a pinch-hit of dope, turned up Jerry Jeff as loud as he could sing, and somehow found the courage to return home.

I can’t recall a time when I felt closer to Diresk than the afternoon he showed up at the station crying one afternoon. I was absolutely floored by his overt display of emotion. Something I had never directly experienced before.

I had just finished a service job and was ringing up the bill for a gentleman from out of town when I saw his truck pull beside the station and park. I always got a little light-headed when I would see him. Always felt excited tingles from someplace deep inside. He was pure adventure, coupled with a stability I knew so well. Diresk waited in his truck until the gentleman had left, and I knew something was wrong.

He entered the lobby, wearing dark glasses, and I could sense he had been crying. I could not force the words forming in my mind to escape from my clenched jaws. It was like Napoleon coming to ask a foot soldier for support and guidance. Diresk broke the silence for both of us.

“I need some smokes, man. (pause.) I’m losing it, Turtle. I can’t fuckin’ believe my fuckin’ dad! He hit my mom in the face this mornin’ and I want to kill him! I swear if I had a gun I’d shoot his….FUCK!”

“Oh, man … I’m sorry, D. Is she okay?”

“All she did was ask him about some checks he forgot to write down or somethin’. He ain’t like this, man. I mean … he gets drunk and pissed off at me sometimes … but you know him. Right?

“I guess so.”

“He slaps me once in a while when I get smart with him …. He don’t ever hit Mom. Jesus Christ, man … I got right in his face and told him if he wanted to hit somebody he could hit me! I never seen him like that, man. He just freaked out and Mom was lyin’ on the floor and everything went black.”

“Jesus. I don’t know what to say, man. Jesus.”

“He had tears in his eyes and he just shoved me down on the couch and he took off. Mom was bleedin’ from her nose and I had to get outta there. I couldn’t even fucking help her, Toph. I couldn’t even say nothin’ to her! I just did what he did. I gotta sit down, man. Got them smokes?”

I reached behind the counter and tossed him his favorites. Lucky Strikes. I found some matches and handed them to him. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder or something but I was too afraid. All I could manage to do was stand there. Waiting for him to guide me to my next move.

“Oh, man, I got a headache. Got nay aspirin? he asked.

I dashed back to find Dar’s in his office. I looked around for something else to help him. Anything. It was my chance to be there for him and I wanted to do it right. I couldn’t concentrate. I glanced around the office again for anything that would make him feel better. The safe was locked or I would have given him a bunch of money. I hurried back to the lobby with the aspirin.

I turned the corner to say something to him and saw him staring into his shaking hands. I felt like I was trespassing on sacred ground. I quickly slipped back around the corner and just stood with my back against the wall. Listening. Waiting. Hoping nobody would show up. I felt so helpless. My heart was racing inside my chest. My best friend needed my help and I was impotent. I pounded my head against the wall, gathered myself, spun around, and walked into the lobby.

I removed a couple of Cokes from the cooler, opened his and handed it to him with the bottle of aspirin. I opened mine and pulled a chair from behind the counter and placed it directly in front of his, our kneed nearly touching.

“You ain’t got whiskey?” Diresk joked through tears. “Thanks.” He swallowed a handful of pills, set his Coke down between his boots and rested his face in his hands.

We sat in silence and a customer pulled into the full service island.

“Shit!” I said to the top of his head. “I gotta take care of this. If you want you can go back into Dar’s office and relax on the couch. I’ll get rid of this guy as soon as I can.”

Well, this guy turned into about five or six others, and it was nearly a half hour before I could get back to the office to check on my best friend. I found him smoking a cigarette on the couch, watching cartoons on the office television.

“Sorry about that, D. Got kind of busy there for awhile. You need anything … I mean, I know you are okay and everything—“

“No … I am not okay and everything! Jesus, Topher … why do you always think I can handle everything? Don’t you think I get all fucked up, too?”

“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just I’m not used to seeing you upset like –“

“I get upset all the fucking time! Do you think you are the only human being who had a tough time at all this? I hurt all the friggin’ time! I feel like I am going to lose my mind just about every day! EVERY FUCKING DAY, Topher! I just don’t run around wearing it like a friggin’ badge like you and everybody else does.”

“I’m sorry … I didn’t mean to make you mad or anything, D.”

“ I can’t let this shit beat me down! I just keep swingin’ and wingin’ … and the shit just keeps comin’ at me like a bunch of birds. It comes at me and I swing as hard as I fuckin’ can. Over and over, man. They keep coming and I keep swingin! I’m gonna hit ‘em all so .. fuckin’ hard I’m … gonna break their skulls! Jesus Christ … I’m losin’ my mind, man. I can’t do this shit. I can’t feel like this!”

Diresk began to cry harder and pounded his fists against the leather cushions.

“You think I am so much stronger than you because I am bigger than this shit! I know … it ain’t gonna beat me down like everyone else! I ain’t fucking goin’ down, man! DO YOU HEAR ME? GOD? I AIN’T GONNA QUIT SO YOU CAN THROW WHATEVER YOU WANT AT ME … GOD DAMMIT!” Diresk screamed at the office ceiling then threw his cigarette through the door into the shop and stood up blazing.

I held my breath and waited for him to continue as his words seemed to continue to bounce of the office walls. What did he mean by asking God like that? He was always telling me how God was nothing but love and everything. I wanted to ask him what he meant. Did God really do that? Did God want us to cave in under His pressure? I started to ask him when he lashed out again.

“That’s the difference between you and me, Toph,” Diresk continued. His eyes seemed to struggle against the office’s fluorescent lights. “I keep swingin’ and you keep duckin’!”

I dropped my head and stared at the polished tiles, fighting back my own tears. I had not meant to upset him. I wanted to help him in any way I could. I didn’t know what he was talking about until later. I felt I had blown it and I wasn’t sure why.

“Topher?” Diresk finally spoke and I fought to raise my head to meet his piercing eyes. “Look. Man … I don’t wanna lay any trip on you, okay? I’m just pissed and upset and I hate doing this shit. I can’t remember the last time I cried. I know I ain’t cried like this since I was a kid. I’m okay, Toph. Guess I had to just clean some shit out of me. If you tell anyone I blubbered I’ll cut your friggin’ tongue out.”

He smiled at me and removed another cigarette from the pack I gave him. I smiled too, but I was the one who felt about to cry.

“All I’m tryin’ to tell you is you gotta see yourself like I see you. I know what you are capable of. I seen how strong and brave you can be, man.”

“Shit. I wish.”

“See? That’s what I mean, man. Until you see this yourself .. you and me are gonna have this thing between us. You’ll put me up above you and you won’t meet me eye to eye. That’s where I need you. I need you right here. (Pointing to his eyes) With me. You can’t see me ’cause you won’t let me show you ‘cause maybe you need me to be some superman or somethin’. I’m just like you, Toph. I just got a different way ‘a lookin’ at stuff and actin’.”

Diresk stood up and tossed his Coke can in the trash. He messed up my hair as he walked past Dar’s desk and out the door. I couldn’t let him get away this time. I had to get something out of my stomach. I hurried to catch him before he left the lobby.

“D.? Wait up.” I caught the lobby door as it was closing and rushed out behind him. The sun bit into my eyes and I saw him turn like a shadow boxer. Grover barked and jumped around in the back of the truck. Diresk silenced him with a wave of his smoking hand.

“I love you. I’ll try to be better at that stuff. I don’t want to be like this forever … I just don’t know how to change yet. I’m sorry about your mom.”

“ I know … thanks. It’s okay … all this shit I’m sayin’. It’s all gonna be okay, man.”

“If you want to hang out after I get off, call me later. Okay? I love you. I really, really do. You mean the world to me and I don’t care what you think about me saying this. I just … want to be there for you like you are there for me.”

“All you gotta do is get rid of the shit that ain’t you, brother. You ain’t gotta build nothin’ fancy or anything. You gotta let go of the shit that is keepin’ you small. Call me tonight when you get off and maybe we can chase some girlies. I gotta get home and see how Ma’s doin’.”

I watched him get into his truck and flinched as the big engine took off like a gun shot and eased to an idle as Diresk lit another cigarette and dropped into reverse. He pulled away from the parking area and I heard Jimmy Buffet begin to sing about Florida. I started back for the lobby and heard the brakes lock up and music die quickly.

The same anticipatory jitters shot through my body as I turned to face him, squinting into the burning sun.

“Thanks for the smoke and the soda, Slick.” Diresk yelled with a faint wave of his head. He sat there and looked at the steering wheel. I waited for more of him. He rocked forward in his seat and spoke softly.

“You know what we are, man? You and I?”

I shook my head, walking closer to the truck and into his gentle words.

“We’re mechanics of some weird kind. Like them guys who work in the pits at race tracks. We’re supposed to help people get back on the road. Like givin’ ’em back their wings.”

“I don’t quite know what you mean, D.”

“It’s like we’re all butterflies inside … but sometimes all’s ya see is the cocoon or whatever. Like you. All you ever see is your cocoon … and all I see is the butterfly. But you’re like me and we’re different that a lot of people. We got a gift to help ‘em see who they are and not what this friggin’ world wants ’em to see. Our job is to get people outta their cocoons so they can be butterflies.”

“Cocoon mechanics or something like that?”
“Yeah. We work on butterflies, man. The Butterfly pit crew.”

He glanced back at me, turned the stereo up, and nodded at me with eyes connected to something deeper than I may have ever seen in him.

The big truck spun out of the lot and disappeared around the corner towards the grade school. I walked back into the lobby and grabbed another Coke from the cooler, sat down and lit a cigarette.

“Van Halen was at the station and we fucking missed it?” Diresk had nearly bitten his cigarette in half after hearing my exciting news. He and Grover had stopped to visit me at work on their way home. We had hung out at the lake the previous day and camped out that night. I had left the campsite early in the morning to report for work. Diresk and the dog got to sleep in.

“Wayne told me they were all driving around the Hills in this white van and they were just kicking back and seeing the sights,” I answered. “I can’t believe they were here on my day off. Man!”

Wayne had worked my shift and had written the name of their band on a piece of paper for me. He had never heard of Van Halen, but he had an idea I would be interested because of all the attention they got from some local kids who had spotted them from Dairy Queen and rushed over to meet them. Wayne also had told me one of the band members put a hundred dollar bill in a jar we had on the counter to raise money for this friend of mine who was real sick. Diresk and I played basketball with him and he was in Denver with what they thought was an inoperable brain tumor. It later turned out to be only an abscess and he is doing fine.

That is a story in itself:

Diresk and I had gone to visit Doug in Denver at the hospital where he was staying later that same summer and I didn’t think he was going to make it. I’ll never forget that day. We were in the room with Doug and his parents. His mom and dad were both crying and I could tell Doug didn’t have much hope left. Diresk was trying to get everyone to laugh. I felt terrible and wanted to leave immediately after we had arrived.

All of a sudden, this guy walked in the room and introduced himself to everyone –Doug first. I can’t remember this guy’s name but I will never forget what he looked like. He came in that room like God. He took my breath away. He looked like the most confident and together person I had ever seen.

Even Diresk told me later he wished he could be like this guy. Anyway, this guy asks Doug if it would be okay if he looked at Doug’s chart and x-rays. Turns out he was this world-renowned neurosurgeon who happened to be in Denver to present some paper at a conference or something like that. He had discussed Doug’s case with Doug’s surgeon, who had requested a consultation.

Doug and his family just nodded together and this guy fingers through Doug’s chart for a few minutes while we held our breaths in stunned silence. Then, this guy puts Doug’s chart back and politely excuses himself from the hospital room.

We all just waited and nobody said a word. A few minutes later, he returns with Doug’s doctor and a nurse on his heels. This new guy holds some x-rays up to a light beside Doug’s bed and points out some discrepancies to Doug’s doctor who nods accordingly and saws through his lips with a finger.

What happened next was one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed!

This guy just turns to Doug and says, “Why don’t we go in and fix you up, Doug? This is not tumoral and I am positive we are dealing with what we refer to as abscess growth. Pus surrounded by inflamed tissue. I can go in with a laser and drain this in no time. You will be fine, son. I promise that!”

We all dropped our jaws like anchors and Doug began to cry, asking if the surgeon was serious.

“Entirely!” the new guy answered. “Can we get a room to do this quickly because I have to get on a plane this afternoon?” he asked Doug’s doctor who quickly nodded and disappeared with the nurse.

The new guy shook Doug’s hand, hugged his parents, shook my hand and Diresk’s, and disappeared out of the room. Five minutes later, this guy had delivered exactly what he said he would.

Unbelievable! Still gives me goose bumps when I think of it. We never saw the surgeon after the procedure. He simply flew away to perform another miracle.

I’ll bet it was Eddie,” Diresk said. “Eddie would be the one to give money to a stranger, man. Van-Fucking-Halen was here and we were at the lake. Makes me want to get a friggin’ job, Slick. I will kill myself if I ever hear Farrah Fawcett Majors is in Custer and I miss her! Van Halen. In Custer. I believe we should blow a number in their honor, Gerald.”

And we did just that. Several, to be precise.

Hospitals

I was hospitalized for depression the first time in the Spring of 1982. I was in for a month. When something such as this happens, you question most everything you have ever done or believed in. Nervous breakdown. Funny phrase. Unless you have had one. The worst part, for me, had always been the unreachable anger and crushing fear that “it” is never going away. I know why people take their lives. Part of me still wonders why I have not.

You wake up and you are in a psychiatric hospital and still unable to grasp the powerlessness and lack of control you have in your life. Locked up. Paper slippers and a striped blue robe. I recall being glad I was tan. I am sure I looked absolutely smashing and dashing to those able to forgive the fact I had lost thirty-five pounds and had spent the previous three weeks curled up in fetal position chain smoking cigarettes and sipping vodka.

Diresk later told me I looked like Iggy Pop, which had been somehow comforting. The rock star was still alive in me. He just could not leave the building without a doctor’s order.

Diresk had learned of what my mother referred to as my “problems” and had driven across the state to check on me and spring me if necessary. I had been attending college at Vermillion’s University of South Dakota Business School, while Diresk was pursuing studies in Creative Pharmacology and minoring in Coed Debauchery.

I still cannot believe we attended separate institutions. I followed a girl straight into hell. Believe me, nothing short of a desperate addiction to a girl would have pried me from Diresk back then. God, I went back there just then. I could nearly smell it. Sioux Falls, McKenna Hospital’s Psychiatric Unit.

“Give me Librium or give me Meth!” Diresk had entered the lobby as I was playing cards with my roommate, David. His voice caused an eruption of both panic and hope deep inside. I could tell he was somewhat nervous.

“I … didn’t know you were coming, D.” I managed. “This is David and this is my friend, Diresk.” They shook hands and David excused himself to wash his hands for the thousandth time that day.

“Dave looks a bit frazzled, Bubba,” Diresk stated. After we stared at each other for a few minutes, he continued. “Your mom called me yesterday and told me you were … here. You know what I think about shrinks and all this … shit and everything (pointing around us). This ain’t easy for me to say, but I gotta tell you the truth.”

He took a deep breath and paused.

“I love you like a brother, Topher, but you are the most self-centered son of a bitch I have ever met in my life! You got here ‘cause you can’t get out of yourself long enough to see any light on the friggin’ road! You think the whole world revolves around you, man. Topher’s world.

“Look, I know you’re a great human and all that happy horse shit, but you gotta learn to quit sinkin’ your own ship.”

Anger welled up inside me and I gathered myself to stand him down.

“Do you know how much fucking pain I have been in for the past –“

“WE ALL HAVE FUCKING PAIN!” Diresk looked around the room at the many faces staring at him. “I can tell you are beat to shit, man. I know it ain’t easy getting past these demons. I love you. You know that. Right? Don’t ya?”

I nodded, tears had begun to trickle down my face. Diresk sunk to his knees and I could smell the cigarettes on his tongue as his face met mine.

“Can I smoke here?” he asked. I nodded and he said, “Thank God!”

He handed me one and we lit up together. He patted my knees, stood up, and took David’s chair.

“Just don’t fuckin’ die, Topher. We got a whole lifetime to figure this shit out, okay? Don’t cash in your chips because you can’t see past this. I didn’t come down here to beat up on you. I came here because my best friend is in trouble and there ain’t nothin’ more important to me in this world than my Topher.”

I broke down and melted into his awkward embrace. I could feel his muscles tighten in his strong arms, but he let me hold on to him like a rope. By this time, David had returned from our room and was pacing in a circle and moaning like the wounded warrior he was. Dave could not stand the sight or sound of another human crying. Or, the thought of germs on his body or possessions. Seeing me cry with Diresk nonchalantly fingering the playing cards was too much for young Dave to take.

“Christopher is getting better today because I am helping him. You are in my place today. I am helping Topher today and we are getting out of this hospital before too long, huh? Diresk is in my place today, but he’s going to leave again. Diresk is Christopher’s friend, huh? He can sit in my place for a little while, huh, Christopher? It won’t bother me today, will it? Not today. Are you going to help Christopher get better today, Diresk?” Dave asked, shifting heel to toe and back again and wringing pain from his fingers.

Diresk nervously glanced at me and I nodded that it would be okay. I wiped my tears on my sleeve and attempted a smile for David.

“I got a good doctor and so does Christopher, huh?” David continued. His voice picked up volume and speed with every sentence.

“Christopher is getting better today because we are going to help him, huh, Diresk? Crying is okay, right Christopher? Right. I can cry later because my mother wants me to get better and I’m going to so I can help her with the dishes and the plants and the puppy at home. I’m not going to stay here forever .. am I, Christopher? Nope, I’m not. I need to wash these cups again because I need to wash them before visiting hours are over then we go to recreation after visiting hours are over, huh, Christopher? Yep. Mother is coming Tuesday, Diresk, and she’s bringing more pictures for our room .. huh, Christopher? Yep, and Christopher’s going to help me put them on the wall again with my pictures of the puppy. We can always play cards … can’t we, Christopher? We can finish our have some other time and I don’t have to worry about finishing this game because there will be a bunch of games we will play, huh? Yes and everything is okay and we aren’t going to worry about it any more!”

“David….settle down. It’s okay … I’m right here and we don’t have to get excited today about anything because we’re safe right where we are. We don’t have to get scared … no way, Jose,” I attempted with as calm a voice as I could muster.

“No way, Jose. I’m going to need some help today because I’m feeling it again and I’m going to need some HELP TODAY! You can hear me fine because you are right in front of me, so I don’t have to yell like that anymore … I feel it again … I don’t want it here! I DON’T WANT IT HERE TODAY! I need some HELP TODAY! HELP TODAAAAAAAAY!”

“Hey, David, it’s okay, man. You can sit in your chair and I can get another chair,” Diresk said as he stood up and backed away.

“I NEED SOME HELP NOW …NOW! I CAN’T SEE … I CAN’T SEE NO MORE OF IT! I NEED STAFF TODAY. TIME OUT! I NEED TIME OUT TODAY! I NEED—“

Dave was surrounded by three male staff members who escorted him to a quiet room where he would remain until someone or something would reach him and he could settle down. Diresk had started to speak to Dave as he was drug away, but no words escaped from his opened mouth. I wiped my eyes and stood up as if there was some place I could go, sat back down and took a drag from my cigarette.

Diresk nervously checked his watch and parted his hair. I waited for his nest words.

“Jesus Christ, Topher,” Diresk muttered. “I can’t stay here much longer, man. I’ll come back tonight for a while. Need anything from a store or something?”

“I don’t need anything, D.,” I answered. “Just please come back tonight. It’s so great to see you! I need to know I’m not crazy, D. I don’t think I am, but I’m not sure how much room I have left. These last couple months almost killed me, man. I lost it. I just fucking lost it and I couldn’t climb out no matter what I did.” I took another drag from my cigarette and waited for him to meet my eyes. “When do you have to get back?”

“I’m goin’ back tomorrow. I gotta get a paper done for Tuesday. Dave’s mom is comin’ on Tuesday.” We both smiled. “What’s wrong with Dave, man?”

“Dave is actually a brilliant guy,” I answered. “He was going to go to medical school or something, but something happened to him a couple years ago and he just lost it. He’s usually not like that and pretty calm … but he worried about everything. He goes around washing everything about a million times a day. We both have the same shrink.”

“His brain probably don’t got nothin’ better to do than to try to kill him if he’s that smart. He’s got some of the same shit you got, man. Ingrown self. They don’t do that lobotomy shit in here do they?”

I smiled. He did not.

“Tell Dave to hang on, man … and I’ll be back tonight to see if we can figure some of his shit out. I gotta get some dope into my system before I crawl in here beside you.”

We slapped hands and he tossed me a half-filled pack of Kool Filter Kings. He took a few steps towards the doorway before turning and taking the entire room a final time.

“I know you think I’m stronger than you. I ain’t. I just know to let the air out of my balloon before it’s gonna pop. If you’re all freaked about what people are gonna think and everything … that’s your problem, Slim. Life ain’t meant to be taken seriously, Jerry. If it was … God wouldn’t have given us hallucinogenics and porno movies. You let me worry about what all the friggin’ people in the world think about you. You just help Dave get those cups washed and see if you can find somebody in here to give some hope to. Man, you look like Iggy Pop. You better get some groceries in you.”

I watched as he made his way to the elevator and flirted with a nurse as he waited for the doors to open. I wondered to myself how he always kept so strong. So full of life and hope.

I went to look for Kathy to see how her visit went with her husband.

My next stint in a hospital was a chemical dependency unit in Rapid City. December of 1986. I had crawled back from California after nearly killing myself with drugs and alcohol. I had begun to suffer from anxiety attacks and they got so bad, I could barely leave my grandfather’s apartment in Spearfish. My grandparents were wintering in Arizona at the time and I just moved in to basically die. One thing led to another and a couple friends intervened and got me into the treatment center.

The saved my life. What was left of it.

It had never before occurred to me my chemical use may have accelerated my depressive tendencies. In fact, during my first hospitalization in Sioux Falls, my therapist – Dr. Richey – spent a great deal of time expounding on the virtues of casual pot smoking and basically blamed my “nervous breakthrough” on the horrific job my parents had done while raising me.

I could dig that, man.

It wasn’t until two weeks into treatment that I began to see a connection between the problems I was having and my self medication regime. I had no idea that sobriety would only be the beginning of an arduous adventure. If I had known what I was in for, I do not know if I would have been able to stop using my pain killers.

The first week of treatment we were not allowed visitation or phone contact with friends of family members under any circumstances. Any such contact was handled by facility staff and would be passed on to patients should such contact be deemed appropriate by the treatment team. The only visitor I was allowed to receive during that first week was from a priest. Clergy were allowed to visit patients as the spiritual foundation or treatment was considered a vital asset for success. I had been reading in my room when a staff member had softly knocked on my door and asked my if I felt up to receiving a visitor.

“I didn’t think we got to have visitors,” I responded in my best victim dictum.

“Your priest from Custer would like to visit with you in the greeting room. I told him you could have one hour if you felt up to it.”

“My priest from Custer?” I asked. “Pastor Chuck?”

“No. This gentleman said his name was Father Diresk. You are not Catholic?”

I nearly bit my tongue, somehow avoiding a smile. “Father Diresk is here? Of course I’ll see him. He’s my age and he’s really a cool guy. He’s real active with youth groups around Custer and I can really relate to him.”

I quickly swung out of bed and followed the staff member down the hallway towards the greeting room. The only place we were allowed to smoke and play cards. My heart was beating wildly through my chest and I could not imagine what was going to happen to me if we got busted. What was I to do? I ran out of time for decision as we turned the corner and I was greeted with a hug from the dashing young priest from Custer, decked out with white collar and slicked back hair.

I can not believe, to this day, neither of us cracked a smile and how we held it together the way we did.

“Christopher, my friend. It is so good to see you here. I have prayed for this day to come for you,” Diresk stated as his lips brushed my cheek like a feather.

“Thank you very kindly, Robert. We shouldn’t require the entire hour. I must return to Custer to meet with a young couple who desires to wed.”

Robert shrugged his shoulders and told us we had an hour anyway, and turned and closed the door.

“Don’t smile or laugh,” Diresk ordered with clenched jaw. “Let’s wander back to those tables and see if we can’t strike us up some ole’ time religious magic. How they hangin’, Larry?”

I can’t fucking believe you did this,” I whispered, fighting back a smile with every ounce of energy at my disposal. “I could get kicked out of here for this.”

“And that would be a … bad thing?” Diresk whispered back.

We sat at a table near the ping pong/pool table area. I casually glanced at the staff viewing window at Robert, who had lost himself in a magazine. The coast looked unbelievably clear, though my pulse increased with every passing second.

I lit a cigarette, begging him with my eyes not to follow suit.

“Didn’t they ask you for some identification or something?” I asked. “I can’t believe you just waltzed in here like this. You would think this place is a CIA installation, the way they talk around here. Where did you get that collar?” The unavoidable laugh had arrived in my voice.

“Ask and the Lord shall provide, dear brother. I got it from Hal. He swiped it from the church. Hal is a good Christian boy, Topher … but he has this problem with not being able to say no to drugs and we cut a deal. If I am not mistaken … Hal could probably use a stay in a place like this … but I ain’t one to gossip.”

“Keep your voice down, man,” I begged him. Begging is what I was always reduced to in Diresk’s presence. “You couldn’t wait until next weekend to come and see me?”

“And let my best student go through the entire week without his medicine? Do you consider me a fuddy duddy? I thought I might just stop in and lay some happy pills in your sweaty palms. Give you something to help you relax so you can absorb all of this important and necessary information. Must be like being in school again. I admire you folks who can jump on the wagon, man. Me … I just am thankful if I can make it a couple hours without my medicine. But hey, I’m a seriously disturbed camper, Sidney. Shall we get on our knees and pray for the locals?”

Before I could insert an objection Diresk was kneeling beside me and all I could do was join him. Words can not tell you the complete humiliation and confusion I was enduring at that moment. I knew I was about to receive drugs from my best friend, posing as a Catholic priest, in the chemical dependency treatment center I had begged my way into due to the fact my life had gone way past falling to pieces.

I closed my eyes and did, in fact, begin to pray in silent desperation. My reflections were derailed by the sound of Father Diresk’s voice, beaming in prayer.

“Father? We come before you … sinners in the worst way, shape, and forms. We ask that you bless Topher and prevent him from being tossed out of this holy place because of my little fib here … Or the bounty he is about to humbly receive. I ask you, Lord … to keep Topher in your –“

“Jesus Christ, D. This ain’t funny anymore. I believe in God and I don’t think we should kneel and make fun of Him just so you can get off on one of your sick little schemes. I need God, okay? Maybe you don’t but I most certainly do. The last thing I need is God getting pissed at me and—“

My words were interrupted – no – pinned to the ground, by Diresk’s grip on my left hand. He immediately released the pressure when he sensed I had been silenced. I turned to look at him and his eyes were still closed as if in prayer.

“You just don’t get it do you, Topher? You fear God like he’s some kind of screwed up teenager. God made the entire universe, man. The whole, entire bucket of chicken! Think about it. God made everythin’ in the universe and … we don’t even know how friggin’ big it is. Flowers, trees, love, books, drugs, sex, guns, sunsets, music, eyeballs, vaginas, hurricanes….”

“Shhhhh. Keep it down” I attempted.

“….colors, apples, snow, air, ice cream, magic tricks, blow jobs, frisbees, rock music …. The whole thing! God’s bigger than you or I can ever imagine, man … so don’t you think He gets a big kick outta all of this? All of us humans runnin’ ‘round the planet like rats … pretendin’ to know where we’re goin’ and what we’re doin’ … and there ain’t a’ one of us has a friggin’ clue ’bout the big picture. He just wants us to have fun and help each other, man. God invented humor just like everything else.”

“I know … I know…. But this is a treatment center and it’s a sacred place for us … trying to get well. I know you hate me to say that but it’s my life and what I must do. You can’t just waltz in here carrying dope and …”

“I didn’t bring any dope in here, man. Just wanted to brighten your day a bit. If you wanna get sober … then I’m behind you all the way. I don’t gotta like it and I ain’t gonna. But it ain’t my call to make. Don’t think for a second I don’t believe in God!”

“Do you pray?”

“Talk to Him all the time. He’s the only one that’ll listen to all my shit, man. I don’t need to talk about Him ‘cause we got a deal worked out between us and that’s all you or I’s gotta know. I know you been dyin’. Shit, I can’t stand watchin’ it. I don’t ever know what to do for you. Do you know what it’s like? Watchin’ your brother go down in flames again and again and you can’t do nothin’ to stop it?”

“I know … I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be! I just wish I could trade places with you and take my shots at the fucker for a while. Whatever it is you been fightin’. Least I’d have somethin’ to work on ‘stead of just stand around with my dick in my hands like I been doin’.

“You have no idea how you help me, man. I can’t begin to tell you how much you mean to me and how much hope I get just knowing you are out there somewhere.” I squeezed his hand and he pretended to wipe the germs off, smiling at me with crystals in his eyes.

“I ain’t no genius … like you… but I think you better get yourself a new God. Mine’s like Mark Twain. Yours always sounds to me like you old man or somethin’. God’s gonna take care of you whether you know about it or not. I know that for a fact, Jack. You better decide what kind of God you want to believe can save your ass ‘cause we’re all down here swimmin’ in the same pickle barrel and I think the key is to take things as easy as possible. A bad God ain’t gonna do you much good as hard as you are on yourself.

“Life don’t hit you as hard as you think it does. You do. You best be learnin’ how to start swingin’ back and start kissin’ yourself. Here … let me show ya what it feels like.”

Diresk kissed me on the forehead and for a split second I knew it was for real. I felt it go down inside me and I guess it was just love.

We knelt in silence and another patient wandered in to smoke. Diresk greeted him and we both got to our feet. I introduced them to each other. I actually called him Father Diresk. The patient was an older man named Roger. He had drunk up several businesses and had also ruined a couple of marriages. He had been a millionaire several times over in his late thirties. When I met him in the treatment center, he had been sleeping in a car his brother had given to him. He was seventy-two years old.

“Nice to meet you, Father Diresk,” Roger had stated as he lit his cigarette and watched as Diresk made his way to the door to leave. “If you are a Catholic priest … I’m a fucking astronaut. Topher, tell that damn nurse to get her ass in here and get me some aspirin … would you, son?

I celebrated my twenty-sixth birthday locked up in a state hospital. I had been free from chemicals for nearly two years, but I couldn’t keep the wheels on the road and I crashed again – due in part to my sudden dive into fire and brimstone religiosity and another ill-fated romance with a woman I honestly believed could save me. I had been looking for God as if there were only three seconds left on the clock.

Pain does that to a person.

I had spent the previous two weeks sparring with overwhelming anxiety and was left prostrate on my bedroom carpet, full bottle of Stelazine in hand. I had uncapped and dumped a handful into my mouth when the phone rang and forced me to spit them back into the bottle like some child caught stealing. Why my Narcotics Anonymous sponsor Steve E. let it ring for several minutes continues to escape me, but after finally relenting and spilling my current state, I agreed to wait for him to drive to my basement apartment and not to harm myself. Together, we called my psychiatrist and he ordered me to check into a psychiatric unit in Rapid City immediately. I could still taste the red pills in my mouth as I packed a simple bag for still yet another humiliating admission. I grabbed some school books, nearly shook the smirk from my face, and tossed them into a closet.

I had been attending college (again) in Spearfish with Diresk at the time and had not attended a class in weeks. Diresk had not stopped over to check on my for a few days. His way of coping with his best friend’s disintegration.

My roommate Paul showed up and began to cry when I told him where I was going. I begged him to not divulge my whereabouts to anyone, especially Diresk. Paul assured me of confidentiality and hugged me like I always wanted my father to. Three weeks later, he would advertently move my belongings into my van and move one of his friends into my apartment. My girlfriend would rekindle a previous relationship and I would learn of this the same day I became hip to the fact I was also homeless while on a temporary pass from the hospital. I shall never forget standing outside my girlfriend’s place of employment with green wrapped roses as she delivered “her news”.

My psychiatrist would tell me the next morning it was time to get in touch with my anger as I homicidally related the disturbing details of my day pass.

I told him I had no fucking problem with that at all!

Steve and I smoked in silence as we drove to the unit. I could not believe I had lost control again after laboring so diligently on my recovery program. I felt utterly betrayed by this God I believed I had bet all my marbles on. For the next few months, my prayers would usually begin with something such as: “If this is what you have in store for me, you can kiss my fucking ass!”

Not exactly your run-of-the-mill Savior salutation, but I was still praying because I absolutely had nothing left but ragged faith peeking from beneath the anger and fear that literally kills in its wake.

We arrived at the unit and I pushed the intercom to announce my arrival, somewhat relieved and anxious to be alone in a safe place.

I had been admitted to a posh little facility, but due to lack of funds/insurance, was shipped away to the state holding tank in Yankton. I don’t remember the van ride thanks to the Xanax and Ativan, but I do remember the sores I had on my wrists from the handcuffs we all wore during the nine hour trip. We stopped in Sioux Falls on the way to deposit prisoners in the penitentiary like dirty, greasy envelopes. Envelopes with no stamps or return addresses.

We arrived and I was checked for lice, showered by hose like an animal, clothed in a thin gown, and escorted to a locked unit filled to the brim by persistently mentally ill patients, psychotic down the line. My psychiatrist was a tiny Vietnamese woman who spoke broken English at best and displayed a strange facial tic when struggling for proper enunciation. She promptly started me on a medication regime that would have floored a rhinoceros.

I had not complained.

I remember a tiny woman with blood red eyes who sat crouched on a bench and hissed at whoever approached her the entire six days I was a guest. A few hours after arriving and tiring of endless pacing and problem solving, I risked conversation with her.

“Do you want a cigarette?” I asked her, nervously approaching as if she would leap from her perch and affix herself to my throat at any second. The other patients, I had noted, gave her a wide berth.

She looked through me with those eyes, and I waited for maybe ten seconds for a response that would not arrive. I silently offered her a cigarette and nearly soiled myself as she quickly snatched it from my hand, hissing like an air hose. I turned and approached a table full of peers and the thick haze of cigarette smoke surrounding them like a lazy cloud. Playing some card game, each immersed in deep converse with unseen specters hiding in subconscious alleys.

Akin to listening to seven albums simultaneously.

I remember being struck with a sudden awareness I could never take my own life. I could not go crazy, and I could not kill myself. I was stuck with life on life’s terms. I had no choice but to continue smoking and wandering, waiting for someone or something to take the pain away.

I walked to my room and sat on the bed, completely defeated and more alone that I had ever been in my life. I could not imagine my life ever emerging from the rotted cauldron it had fallen into. Where was my hope and faith. My girlfriend? My God?

I wanted to pray; but to whom or what? I needed help and I needed it STAT! The feelings of anxious panic and disorientation bubbled within me as my tiny room closed in on me like a vise. For the first time in my life I decided to give Satan a shot. God had received my very best of efforts and had abandoned me. I hated Him! Fuck Him! I hated me. I was ready for another remedy. Fast-acting, thank you very friggin’ much!

I leaned back to rest my pounding head against the cool concrete wall and closed my eyes to the cognitive chill of echoes, tangled in my brain. I stepped through foreboding feelings of what I was about to do and began to speak from some place behind myself.

“I don’t know what I am doing … but I have done everything I was told to do. I have prayed and gone to meetings. I have worked the fucking steps to the best of my ability. I have stayed away from drugs and alcohol and I have read the books. If this is God’s world … then he can kiss my ass! I mean it! If you have a better deal, then let me see it. Do you hear me? I said let me see it! I can’t take this shit any longer. I can’t walk around with this pain in my soul another fucking day! I want out and I want out right now! I can’t face anyone like this any more. I can’t fail any more! I can’t kill myself … I know this … or I would have a long time ago. If you are real, then let me see you and what you have to offer. I’m fucking done, man! I’m fucking DONE!

A strange feeling pulsed through me like some supernatural breeze. A fearful, yet enticing sense I had breached a forbidden plane. I felt terrified and elated. Horrified and released. Possibly the sense of relief claimed by those who finally commit to killing themselves. Finally, it is at an end. Finally!

I remember with razored clarity my very next thought. I was not playing some game. I understood I had a choice to make. The most crucial choice I had ever, possibly would ever, make. Who was I? What was I? Was I going to quit, or believe against the gale? Period. There was no middle ground in that room. No place on a fence to test my feet on both sides as I kicked the planks and viewed the accompanying terrain. There simply was no fence. Just a line drawn in the blood that pumps within all sentience. I was to give up and quite possibly murder my soul, or I could keep walking, breathing, and wishing like a forsaken child. No matter the degree of pain and suffering. Would I trust this God and do whatever was placed before me? Would I accept the velvet hand of a demon to fly effortlessly into a darkened abyss?

I knew it was up to me. For the first time in my life, I knew it was finally up to me. Always. It was during this instant in a state hospital I embraced the concept we are all alone on this planet, yet never alone in our hearts. It was simply a matter of which side to listen to. I did not doubt the existence of evil on that day. Neither did I, the existence of a vast God beyond any understanding or limit. I felt them both. Tasted them both. I would swallow only one.

I immediately sprang from the bed to my knees in prayer.

“Please forgive me for what I just did, Father. I can’t carry this any longer by myself. I have been hating you and trying to do this by myself. I can’t! I won’t! You better be there or I’m not going to make it. I’m going to choose to believe in you. I’m going to trust you no matter how I feel inside or how much pain I get hit with. There is nothing left for me … to do. Please show me you are listening and I’m gonna be okay. Amen.”

I knelt on the floor for what must have been fifteen minutes. I had made my decision. I started to do push-ups. I was going to believe. I was going to eat and exercise again, I was going to pray and tell this God the truth. My truth, no matter how sparse or conflicting. God must be big enough to scream at. To cry to and demand to be held. I would turn away from any biblical or religious precepts and begin to search for this God on my terms. Terms that walked hand in hand with my inner voice. Terms resonating with consoling covenant. Pleasing entrees of a splendid meal.

I was going to trust my process and try not to think or figure things out. Not an easy proposition for an obsessively compulsive addict harboring a dependency character disorder. But I was on my way.

I had been startled from solace by a voice and greeted it with a gaze fraught with hopeful tears. A staff person. A woman. She looked like an angel and I had considered embracing her leg.

“Chris? Are you okay? You have a phone call in the social area from a friend of yours. A Diresk or something like that. Do you want to take it? You know you don’t have to talk to anyone until you fell ready?”

“Yeah,” I managed. “Where?”

“come with me and you can use the staff phone,” she answered. “You are going to make it, you know. I can tell. I can feel it in you. You can’t see yourself like I can, Chris. I was a patient here five years ago. I didn’t think I had any hope left. I made it … and so can you. If you want to talk after supper I probably will have some time…okay? My name is Marcia.”

“Thanks, Marcia. I would really like that. I better find that phone,” I added.

Marcia led me to the nurse’s station and handed me the phone from behind the fenced counter.

“Hello?” I was amazed he had found me.

“I hate it when you go schizo and don’t fuckin’ can me … you know that?”

“Diresk! Oh, God it’s good to hear your voice. How did you find out I was here?”

“I found out from Paul. That dude can keep a secret, man. I had to nearly grab him by the throat! How’s the food and the nurses?”

“I haven’t eaten anything for a couple days and I don’t even know what a girl looks like anymore. I have been dying, man. This one is ten times worse than anything I have ever went through. Don’t drive down here, D> It’s too far and I don’t even know where I am or when I would get to see you. It’s just so good to talk to you, man … I can’t believe…”

“I’m comin’ out for the weekend, you asshole, and don’t tell me what I can and can’t do. Just ‘cause you don’t think you are worth drivin’ that far for don’t mean I don’t know the friggin’ score. I’d come and see you if you were in friggin’ India, you dipstick. I’m worried about you. Steve said you almost took a bottle of pills this time. What happened, man .. you and the little woman experiencing technical difficulties?”

“She doesn’t know I’m here and don’t tell her. It isn’t her, man … I mean it is and it isn’t. She’s probably back with that guy from Colorado by now anyway. She told me she couldn’t love someone who had nervous breakdowns and could cost her a ton of her money.”

“Her daddy’s money, Slim,” Diresk corrected.

“Yeah, really. It ain’t her. It’s just the same demons again, different volume. She just freaked me out when she disappeared last week when I needed her most. Man … I can’t believe you found me. I was too embarrassed to call you. Here I am again in a friggin’ nut ward. Fucked up again as usual, huh?”

“HEY!” Diresk yelled into the receiver. “Drop the fucking ball, Topher! I understand, okay? I haven’t hung out with you all this time without picking up on a few of you details. Yeah … I’m pissed at you and I hate it when you check into those places. Yeah … I want your shit to get together so you can be happy. You ain’t ever been happy, Toph. Never, man!”

“You don’t think so? Not ever?”

“I can’t friggin’ believe you, man. We’ve had some good times and shit but you’ve always been draggin’ you feet. I just wanna smoke dope and chase girls like before. I want you to live, man! Like you were born to. We got people to help and mouths to feed, Jerry. Bottom line … is that I love you and I’m scared for you. I don’t give a fuck what you do or where you end up as long as you stay alive, dig? Don’t fucking die, Topher. Me feelin’s ain’t ever gonna change for you … no matter what shit you get yourself into. And I expect return coverage on that play, Bubba!”

“You got it,” I whispered through rushing emotion.

“Just don’t give up the faith, brother. All you gotta do is make it another day, right? Don’t do nothin’ stupid until I get down there and we’ll do plenty of stupid shit together? Okay? Toph? Where you at, man?”

I was crying again. He made me feel like I could do anything. He always did. Diresk was on the case. I knew I could hold on until he came to visit me.

“I better get off the phone … so you don’t have a huge phone bill. Diresk? Thanks for calling! You don’t know how much it meant and the timing and everything was ……………..really amazing. I think I just … no, I KNOW I just got this memo from the universe and you were the second. I can’t believe you are going to drive all the way out here but I can’t wait to see you if you do! Hey, how’d you do on that Biology test you were freakin’ about?”

“Pretty damn fair since I got the answers from Tricia the night before. Believe I aced that one, Jerry. Want me to talk to your teachers for ya? I bet some of ‘em have noticed you ain’t been there for awhile and you gotta do somethin’ or they’re gonna flunk your schizo-ass.”

“Yeah … I suppose that would be good. Just tell Dr. Durgin where I am and he can do whatever needs to be done until I get back and can figure out what I want to do. Just tell him I’m still sober, okay? Just let him know I didn’t screw that up.”

“I’ll see you Saturday morning or maybe Friday night if I can cut classes. What the fuck am I saying? I’ll see you Friday night. Be cool and save me some happy pills, Junior. Hey. Seriously. You let me worry about how much it costs to talk to my best friend. You can’t buy this shit with money, Topher. When are you gonna get a clue about how important we humans are? Shit, I’d almost give away my last bag of dope for you, man. I gotta split, too. I love you man and keep the faith.”

I closed my eyes and heard him cut the connection. The pain was still there, but I had a deeper feeling rumbling around. I had faith. I thanked Marcia and handed her the receiver. I decided I would try to eat something. It really had been days since I had kept anything down. My eyes burned from tears and the cigarette fog in the unit. I noticed that it was business as usual for the other patients.

I glanced toward “red eyes” and she was smiling at me. I quickly looked away but forced myself to return to her piercing eyes. I felt myself walking towards her and before I knew it I was standing not more than two feet from the bench. She kept smiling at me as if she was right there with me, inside my thoughts.

She terrified me, yet I was drawn to her. She accepted a cigarette and tenderly placed it between her tattered shoes, hissing at me. My heart was jumping against my ribs but I was unable to walk away or speak. Fear shot up from my stomach and the waves of a panic attack began their explosive assault throughout my body’s nerves. My breath caught in my chest and I stepped back and scanned the room for help in the event I collapsed on the floor.

I felt the tender touch of a hand on my right shoulder and I found myself attempting to fight my way back to reach the safety of her brown eyes: Marcia’s eyes.

“Chris? Can I help you with something? The blood is out of your face. You better sit down over here. How about some juice or something?”

I silently nodded and felt myself snapped back to the sounds and smells of the unit. I knew I must breathe and took in slow, deep breaths as Marcia led me to a chair. I could not help myself and again turned to seek out Red Eyes, hunched over and quietly laughing at me. She leaned slightly forward and I could read the words from her barely parted lips.

“Where’s your God now?” she asked.

“What did you say? Excuse me?” I asked. Marcia turned to look at Red Eyes and then back to me when no response was offered. Marcia gave me this concerned look that faded into compassion. She touched my hand and excused herself to get me some juice.

I sat with my back facing the toxic woman who’s silent words had stung me like a hornet. She never spoke to me, or to my knowledge, to another staff or patient during my stay there. She would never again accept a cigarette from me and would avert her burning gaze whenever I approached her perch.

I did a great deal of thinking about what she said to me that night. Was it some kind of test? I knew I had not imagined it. It happened. It will be forever encoded in my memory.

Marcia and I had our discussion following our evening meal. She gave me a great deal of hope and shared her God with me. I do not remember what she looked like. I won’t forget what she said.

Diresk showed up the following Friday and we spoke for a few hours and then again on Saturday and Sunday. I told him what had happened with “Red Eyes” and after listening intently, he spoke.

“Don’t fuck around with the dark side, man. It ain’t no game. I don’t know if there is or isn’t a Satan … but I know there is a God and I’m gonna give him my attention. I recommend you do the same, pardner.

I have spent a great deal of time in churches, Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings, therapist’s offices, and hiking around the beautiful Black Hills. I would never have expected to learn where God hangs out while locked up in a dingy state hospital with a bunch of psychotics.

God hangs out everywhere.

One final thought about psychiatric institutions and Diresk. Diresk and I visited a mutual acquaintance one afternoon who had been committed to the psychiatric unit in Rapid City. She had, the previous evening, piped exhaust fumes into her car via garden hose and would have killed herself had she not lost consciousness and slumped against the car horn, alerting a neighbor to the suicide scene. It had been her seventh unsuccessful effort. She was twenty-five years old.

She had used the same hose Diresk had bought for her to fill up a water bed months before. This all happened a couple years after my last stay in the state hospital and my life was rather smooth by this time.

Diresk, however, had been in the process of drinking and drugging himself into stuperous indifference and intolerance of just about everything and everyone he came into contact with. He had been surprisingly affected by the hose incident and felt somehow culpable. He had phoned and asked me to accompany him to the “Schizo Palace”. I drove his truck as he was much too intoxicated and overcome by melancholy molasses to be trusted on the road.

We arrived at the hospital, parked in the visitor lot, and as I moved to open my door and exit, he grabbed my hand and held me in my seat. I turned to face his eyes. They ran away and he released his grip.

“What’s up, D.?” I began, concerned, yet apprehensive in the face of a return to a building where I had excruciatingly pondered away the seemingly crippled hours that limped past me.

“If I ever lose it … I ain’t gonna go in one of them places, man. I mean it! Fuck that! I’ll blow my brains out before I waddle into a joint like this, Toph. I mean it, man! I ain’t goin’ down like that. I don’t even know why I’m sayin’ this shit to ya now … but you see me. You know where I am right now. It’s really fuckin’ dark where I am these days, Toph. Feels like it’s getting’ blacker every day and I can’t find the lights. I can’t find the friggin’ lights and I could always find the lights, man. Always ….before…”

“Jesus, D. I didn’t know you were hurting so bad. All you had …”

“It ain’t that…”

“Don’t get mad at me! I can see you face getting red and everything. Look … I know you haven’t been feeling good for a long time now. Shit … I asked you if you wanted to talk about it a week ago and you blew me off like you always do. You know, sometime I really do want to be there for you, but you won’t let me. I’m not always so stuck on myself that I can’t see when you are hurting for God’s sake.”

“Oh …. Just stop this shit, man. I hat talkin’ ‘bout all this depressin’ bullshit. Let’s just go in.”

“No! I want to tell you this and you are going to listen. You know how much you mean to me and I would do anything in my power to help you if you asked me. I promise I would, D. I promise I would!”

“I know that, bird brain. Jesus Christ … I didn’t mean to open my friggin’ mouth. It’s just bein’ here again and havin’ to go see Kate like I used to come see you.”

I nodded and looked down at my knees, pulling at nonexistent threads.

“Why’d she have to use the fuckin’ hose, Toph? Jesus. I feel real weird ‘bout that for some reason, man. Like I bought her the hose … and somebody somewhere knew she was gonna use it to try to die with or somethin’.”

“You know that’s bullshit, D. You bought her a hose to help her out once and…”

“Do you know that for sure? We don’t know nothin’ ‘bout how this world works, man. Nothin’ at all. I can feel it, man. There’s somethin’ fuckin’ weird about me gettin’ her that hose and her almost usin’ it to kill herself.”

“No way! No friggin’ way, man.” I shook my head and pushed myself back from the steering wheel, stretching the muscles in my arms and neck. Diresk stared into his hands.

“She’s just in a lot of pain and it doesn’t have anything to do with you. She’s just fighting her demons and they are winning. Big time! She’s tried to do this before, D. You didn’t even know her then.”
“I know how I feel, okay? Don’t tell me how to feel about this, Topher! Somethin’s goin’ on inside me … it’s big, okay? I can’t explain it to ya but it’s real and it feels like it’s gonna take me down!”

“I’m sorry, D. It just seems pretty far out to me that you would be connected to what is going on inside her right now. I think maybe you are …”

I stopped myself before risking an explosion from him.

“What? You think maybe I’m what?”

“Nothing. You are right … I don’t know how you are feeling and …”

“Say what you were gonna say, Topher.” I felt myself shiver at the sound of his voice. He was on the edge and I would go over and down with him should he have jumped. I cautiously continued, feeling my way along the trail as my feet kicked rocks down the endless drop in my mind.

“I just think … that you are maybe tired and depressed and not thinking right.”

I drew a breath and awaited the impending fist that would soon shatter my jaw on its way up and through my forehead. His body deflated and sunk into itself. Maybe a minute hovered and passed between us.

“What’s it feel like, Toph?” His eyes bulged forward like two spoons full of fear.

“What does what feel like?”

“Goin’ Schizo? What’s it feel like when you start to lose it, man?”

“You aren’t losing it, D. If you are … you are taking it a hell of a lot better than I ever did. You saw me, man. Remember how I looked and sounded all the time? You have never been like that no matter what you have been through. You must have a different foundation than I have. Built from better stock. Or at least sturdier, anyway.”

“Yeah … I’m a friggin’ mental health giant, man.”

“I’m not saying you aren’t messed up some like the rest of us … but you have to admit you always have had this inner strength I never used to have. I don’t know where you got yours … probably your old man. Your old man’s got concrete in his veins and your mom is solid rock, too.”

“You really think I’m stronger than you? What rock have you been hiding your fucking head under? Jesus, Topher .. I’m a fuckin’ drug addicted alcoholic! I know what I am. I can’t put my medicine down for more than a couple hours … and you put yours away. If my old man is so freakin’ strong, then why’s he gotta suck down a pint so he can sleep at night?”

“It’s just his way, D. He’s never checked into a mental hospital and I’ll guarantee you he never will. You are the same way, man … you can somehow keep your shit together enough not to have it spill all over you.”

“It ain’t about strength, man. It’s about doin’ what you gotta do and that’s all there is to it. I got the same demons chasin’ ‘round inside me that you got. I just keep knockin’ ‘em down is all … but someday maybe they ain’t gonna stay down. If I go down crazy … then I go down crazy. Fuck … I don’t even know what we’re talkin’ about, Topher. What are we talkin’ ’bout?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe we’re just being friends and bouncing ideas off each other. Why do we have to understand any of …”

“Why don’t you tell me the truth? Why won’t you tell me what you think about how I live my life. What you REALLY think? Huh? Why not?”

“What do you mean? What do you want me to say? That I wish you would get sober like I did? I worry about you and I think you are wasting away with the rest of the fucking world who don’t give a shit about anything and gave up somewhere along the line? Yeah! Fuck it! Yeah, I do. I wish we could go to meetings and talk about God and learn about all the magic that’s around us everywhere and … and grow together and be close again like we used to be and all that shit! Yes. Yes, I do. I want you to be happy and healthy and I don’t think we’re close anymore because we have too much shit standing between us. It’s not all you … I now that. But it doesn’t help when you’re fucked up all the time every day. It isn’t easy for me either. I miss you, man.”

Diresk eyed me with what I first interpreted to be disgusted frustration, and as I watched him soften and settle back into the cushioned seat, the lump caught in my throat was able to pass downward and we listened to each other’s imagined thoughts.

“Let’s go see Katie,” Diresk finally inserted into the tight air in the car.

“You want to talk about this some more first? We got all afternoon to go in there.”

“Nothin’ left to say, man. You’re goin’ down your road and I’m goin’ down mine. Neither one’s on a map.”

I nodded, not agreeing with his words, but copping out due to my own personal agenda of finishing our visit and getting the hell away from the building. I again opened my door.

“Hey! I miss you too, Toph. I really do. I ain’t got nobody in my life like you and I don’t even know if I got you anymore. I don’t understand how this shit can get so fucked up when you get older. What happened to them days on an inner tube and them days we used to play guns behind the rocks? I don’t know nothin’ anymore except I gotta keep on keepin’ on. Shit … shouldn’t be this hard. Oh, fuck … let’s get this over with, man. I bet Katie could use a little smile.”

“She’ll be glad to see you, man. I know that from experience. Maybe it will help to see me, too. She won’t be the only schizo in the group.”

“That bother you? When I call you schizo?”

“Nope. Because I’m beginning to learn just how messed up you are, too. You’ve just kept it a secret all these years. You just might be crazier than you think.”

“Not possible, Jerry. You’d freak if you sat in on one of my little meetings in my brain. It ain’t pretty and there ain’t much air to breathe when it gets goin’. Got them smokes for Katie?”

“In my pocket. You’re a good person, D. You treat people really good and you always think of others before yourself.”

“It’s all I got to keep the shivers down. That … and my medicine … but even that ain’t workin’ like it used to. Everything’s gotta change and get fucked up, don’t it?”

“No. Sometimes things change and we get to see where we should have been the whole time.”

“Fuck you, Topher! Hey … How’s my breath in case I gotta kiss her?”

I saw Kate recently in a small club in Rapid City. Still drinking like a fish. Still hoping some man will lead her to her pot of gold. She’s on her second marriage and just enough antidepressants to keep the lava from scorching her patent leather shoes. She still laughs with the same Bette Davis grow. We dance and could still manage to jitterbug like college sweethearts.

God damn, Katie could dance.

ROSE

Rose was the only woman Diresk ever really fell for. I do not know why this was such a surprise to me. To all of us. We all fell hard for Rose. She would leave a string of open-mouthed men behind her like a tail as she would ooze through a room. Beautiful beyond script. Standing next to her was somehow like taking the first drug of the day.

I remember the night he met Rose. We were drunker than most contestants at Screamin’ Elrod’s in Spearfish, a favorite watering hole for the college crowd, to which we haphazardly belonged. Diresk had cornered me in the men’s room to brief me on a girl he had been introduced to by a couple of our friends. He was rather animated.

“Topher, you gotta help me, son,” Diresk had begun, slapping my back and causing me to urinate all over my Chuck Taylors. He danced around like a boxer and attempted to coax even a hint of obedience form his tangled mane. I cleaned off my shoes and watched in bemused horror as my best friend lost his mind.

“I think you favorite buddy is fallin’ for a princess. Man, I can’t get over the rush I got goin’ inside right now.”

“Was it necessary to make me piss all over myself though?”

“Fuck off … it’s just beer, man. Check it out. I just met this goddess that knows Gary and Angie. She lives over in Harvard Estates where they do and I think she kinda likes me. Rose. I wanna hose Rose. REALLY bad, man. She’s dialin’ my numbers, Toph. I’m not kiddin’ here. There’s somethin’ ‘bout her. I don’t know what it is about her, man … I mean she’s so fuckin’ beautiful when I try to talk to her I’m like a gorilla with a concussion or somethin’”

“And this is somehow different in what manner from the seven hundred times I have seen you act like this?”

“I don’t know.” His reply stopped us both. “I don’t fuckin’ know, Toph. She’s like some movie star of somethin’, man. She’s got this power … or energy or somethin’. You gotta see her! Tell me if I’m seein’ what I think I’m seein’ … but I know I am. Man … tight when we first met there was somethin’ goin’ on and it like lit up the whole room. Listen to me, man. See what I mean? Sound like I been snortin’ stupid powder!”

“Get out there and assume your position on the perimeter, Jack! We’re sittin’ over by the dance floor. She’s got long, black hair and she’s wearin’ some kinda Japanese shit or something. Hurry up and I’ll catch ya later for the judge’s scores. Hey, nice shirt, Fuzzy!” he tossed back at me before disappearing back into the loud music and bumping bodies.

“Thanks,” I managed as I zipped up my fly and wandered to the mirror to see if he was kidding about the shirt or if he really liked it. He had most likely been kidding. I remember looking at myself and wondering if I would ever find my Rose. What kind of woman could conjure such an allergic reaction in the ultimate bachelor? I slipped into a stall to smoke some grass.

I planned to be sharp for my appraisal.

I tried to stay back in the crowd to look at her. I remember catching my breath when I saw them together; laughing, fingertips brushing casually as Diresk’s eyes danced and drank from hers. Actually, it was more like a guzzle. It was as if she know where to tickle his soul. I stepped further back into the gyrating bodies and began to memorize her every detail.

I had never seen him look so happy before. So content and tailored by effervescence. It was as if I could taste the two of them huddled together if such a thing were possible. That two people could meet and the resulting polarity could season an entire room?

I was immediately jealous. Only the beginnings of a battle I would wage with myself during their rapacious courtship. I longed to be the one.

For him as well as for her.

I stood there and tried to take as much of her in as possible to prepare for the inevitable and brutal interrogation, but I could barely concentrate. All I could see was him. He looked like he was in a movie. He looked like an adult, with everything going his way. His entire life spread before him like some glamorous dinner party. I snuck away to an empty front row stool to resume the assault on my senses. Leroy, the owner and bartender, kept me flush with free beer and cigarettes for the next hour or so. My plan was to drink and smoke myself invisible, never to return to the throbbing complexities of real life.

(What the fuck is she wearing a kimono for? Who does she think she is, man? Some foreign language freak? She probably thinks she’s in some friggin’ Bogart movie. What kind of name is Rose? It’s a hooker’s name is what it is. Fuck them both. I’ll go away and never come back before I watch him destroy his life over some she-demon like that! I’ll go live on the beach under some … blue tarp tethered to a bunch of rocks in a cove and I’ll never come back to this fucked up place again! I’ll grow my hair down to my ass and get the best tan on the beach and drink wine from a sack. I ain’t selling out for some dame, man. No fucking way!)

They would miss me. Oh, yes they would. I would silently hover over the two of them as they made love, listening and watching as Diresk would call out my name as his sperm sprayed into her. I would smile and slowly caress my chin as he collapsed onto her sweat-beaded breasts, coughing his tearful lamentations into her lathered hair as he agonized the disappearance of his most trusted and loved companion. She would attempt comfort, but his tears would not be assuaged. She would grasp the full measure of his impending sorrow and his inability to calm the pounding waves that tossed themselves against his inner soul like…

“TOPHER!” I spun around to face the sound of Diresk’s voice, violently plucked from my self-pity swamp. The bar was closing down and I was finally able to locate his cloudy facial features amidst the layers of intoxicated collegiates filing towards the exit. Diresk waved at me with the hand not holding hers as she leaned against his shoulder, smiling at me.

They swam through the river of bodies and soon stood before my stool. Leroy handed Diresk a cigarette and lit it, never taking his hungry eyes from the statuesque woman. I reached out to shake her hand and was quickly drawn to her painted toes. She had flawless feet. Of course!

“This is the Toph Master. The one I told you all those lies about,” Diresk giddily announced. “Topher … this is Rose, and she has my heart in her little black bag here.”

“Nice to meet you, Toph Master. Angie showed me some of your poetry and I really love it. She constantly raves about what a great writer you are. I live in her building. I would love to read anything you have written, if you wouldn’t mind. I won’t lie to you. I’m a rough critic, but I really enjoyed what I have read so far. You really should try to get published,” she added.

“Naw,” I replied. “That would be success and I can’t have any of that. Right, D.?”

“On the money, Virgil,” Diresk winked. “Topher has this problem with doing well with stuff. He calls it timing. I call it a human tragedy. We’re going to Country Kitchen to plug our arteries and you have to come along because someone has to pay for all of this shit. Rose is drivin’ ‘cause you and I ain’t fit for operation of a motorized nothin’. She’s got a muscle car, man. Can you believe it?”

(Wow! She’s the most amazing woman I have ever met! A muscle car? Why don’t you go show her your muscles in the back seat and leave me the hell alone!)

“I’m going back to your place, man,” I stammered, feeling panicked and not knowing why. “I’m really tired and messed up. You go ahead and I’ll see you in the morning. I’m gonna crash downstairs because Glen told me I could sleep in his bed this weekend.”

Glen was Diresk’s roommate and the only guy I knew who possibly knew more girls than Diresk. He also had a king-size water bed and outrageously garish entertainment system in his bedroom which I borrowed whenever I could.

“Wrong again, Septic Tank Breath,” Diresk insisted. “The night is young and there are still a few hundred people who haven’t seen that shirt yet. I will not take a no on this one. Finish that brewchonskie and we gotta git gone. You got the rest of your life to sleep, man. I’ll even buy. Did I just say what I thought I just said? Jesus Christ, I must be happy tonight!”

Rose laughed and touched me on the shoulder. Every negative feeling went immediately away. She squeezed her fingers and my neck felt a shock.

“We would really like you to come along, Topher,” she stated, drawing back her hand. “If I have to listen only to Diresk for the next few hours, I may have to do something drastic like cut his tongue out. We can come back for your car after you sober up and eat. Come on. I won’t even ask you to recite your poetry.”

I smiled at Diresk, who was obviously deep in the throes of Rose’s spell. I liked her tremendously from that moment on. I had never seen anyone disarm him like that before. I swallowed what was left in my bottle and we made our way to Rose’s car. A beautiful green Camaro. I remembered laughing to myself when I thought of her in a muscle car. She had already started to get inside of me and we had barely spoken.

She turned the ignition and the engine came alive as if it had been impatiently waiting for hours. The sound of it made me feel safe, and I spread my arms and leaned into the back seat like a king. Power purred from beneath me and I closed my eyes and let the chemicals dance in my head.

“Buckle up, boys,” Rose ordered. “You ride with me and you better get your affairs in order.”

We had both fumbled obediently for the straps and managed to secure ourselves in like a couple of children going to the zoo. I wanted to ride with her in that car for the rest of my life. Diresk could not take his eyes off of her and laughed at everything she said. But it was funny. She was dazzling, and we were powerless to deny her anything. We pulled out of the parking lot and the Camaro shoved off like a sprinter onto the ;highway. I sensed something to be wrong in our direction of travel, opened my eyes and sat up to view the road as it dipped beneath their shoulders.

We had turned right and were heading up Spearfish Canyon. The Country Kitchen was in the other direction, and I sat back smiling. I would not have cared had we driven to the ocean. Diresk decided to comment on the change in itinerary.

“Hey, fuck breakfast. Let’s go for a drive instead. Rose? Let’s go for a drive up the canyon instead, huh? Topher? Got any of my medicine on ya?”

I arched my back and attempted to remove my pinch-hitter from my back pocket, succeeded, and handed it over the seat with my lighter.

“This is the kind of sugar that poppa likes,” Diresk chanted. “Wouldst thou be offended if I doest dope in you chariot … fair maiden?” He held the pot up and wiggled it for her like it was wet.

“ IS THAT DRUGS?” Rose exclaimed, stomping on the brakes and throwing our internal organs towards the dashboard. “Get the fuck out! Now! Both of you!”

Diresk’s eyes looked as if they would pop out of their sockets as he lamely turned to me for guidance and/or support.

An extremely infrequent occurrence, let me assure you!

I was absolutely helpless, and deftly reached for the buckle to free myself in the event she was serious and we would soon find ourselves walking back to the bar with our illegal contraband.

“Hey, I’m sorry, man,” Diresk warbled. “We won’t smoke it around you and you won’t have to see it. We don’t smoke it that much anyway.”

In the unbearable silence that followed I could sense Diresk regaining some of his composed posturing. He gathered himself and began our defense.

“Look, we get high, okay? We are going to keep getting high until we are sixty years old. I am anyway, and Topher don’t have any brains left anyway, so what does it matter? I like you and I want to hang around you, but I ain’t gonna pretend I’m somebody I’m not just so you won’t wig out and spend time around me. Rose? Come on, Rose … let’s drive the canyon and like each other again …okay?”

Rose bit her lip and withdrew into serious contemplation, leaving the both of us hanging in space – hands affixed to our seat belt buckles. Finally the prosecution continued.

“I am a liberal woman and I consider myself educated in the ways of this society and the world we live in. I am a lot of fun to be with and I know how to let my hair down. I will not, however, tolerate the use of illegal chemicals in my presence. I don’t care how handsome or charming you both are. You have drugs on you and I will have to ask you both to remove yourselves from my car and find your own way back to your cars. I mean it!”

The both of us sat there stunned, and I can’t speak for Diresk, but I believe we felt like Scarlett must have felt when Rhett Butler told her to “screw off” in so many words. People just didn’t say or do things like that to us in those days.

We were the coolest guys around! At least Diresk was, and I was his lieutenant. It had been new ground for both of us.

I followed Diresk’s lead and drunkenly removed my carcass from the back seat of her Camaro. Diresk held the seat for me and as I exited the vehicle, I could see the utter astonishment in his eyes. He slammed the door for effect and mumbled something like it was a wonderful night to be drunk and out walking home. I knew his feelings had been trodden upon, but he smiled without waiver to me and lit a cigarette like James Dean would have – in a similar debasement.

Suddenly, the Camaro’s tires clawed at the pavement and the car lurched forward and sideways, straightened, and pulled over just ahead of us on the shoulder of the canyon highway. The lights and engine were cut and we stood smoking our cigarettes, watching the shadowed car. The metallic sound of her door opening was amplified throughout the base of the dark, canyon walls.

“She’s gonna fuckin’ apologize,” Diresk whispered as if she was inches away. “What’s she doin’? She’s fuckin’ with us, man … ain’t she? She’s gonna ask us to come over and then peel out.”

I was not so confident in his assessment. The whole thing had a strange feel to it, and I was ready for anything to happen at that point. Of course, I was unbelievably wasted and judgement was highly impaired.

“BOYS? OH, BOYS?” Rose’s scream echoed through the night. We watched as she emerged from the Camaro and closed her door. She slowly approached us as the moon and stars dimly lit her image. We stood there and waited for her to arrive at the spot she had dropped us off. She took her time getting there and the three of us stood there silently posed on the graveled shoulder.

Diresk spoke first.

“Are you trying to risk you life by being stranded our in the middle of nowhere with a couple of drug addicts like us? My God, woman, you could be in danger beyond your wildest imagination. You come out here with us and you better get your affairs in order. Topher? You got the meat cleaver and the shovel? You cut her up this time ‘cause I ain’t ruinin’ another shirt and I friggin’ mean it! Speakin’ of shirts … I hope you didn’t rip that one offa’ some square dancer, ’cause they’re awful expensive!”

Diresk’s humorous approach was offered as a diversion from the ambiguity we were both experiencing. We had our pride to protect, but neither of us wanted this new flower to turn and walk away from us. We both impatiently awaited her next words.

“I can be such a naughty girl sometimes,” Rose inserted. “I can’t help myself. My father says it’s my mother’s side. What’s a girl to do with an affliction such as this? Do you think smoking pot would help? I really want to get better. I’ve tried therapy and not eating red meat. Do you think you can help me? I have money. I can pay. I have something here and maybe you can tell me what it is. I think it’s supposed to be bad for you, but who can you believe these days?”

rose reached into her back pocket and withdrew a folded piece of paper. The three of us smiled and began to laugh at the same time like characters at the end of a movie. Diresk plucked the folded package from her painted fingers and pretended to throw it into the tree as Rose gasped.

It was not the best cocaine I had ever sampled, but it was certainly the most interesting. I believe Diresk fell in love with Rose that night. I think Rose fell in love with him a few weeks later when he borrowed a horse from this guy we new on the college rodeo team and galloped across the campus lawns dressed in full cavalry attire to pick her up after class.

He got a standing ovation from hundreds of students and even a few faculty before being escorted off grounds by security. They would share the kind of love that sells books in grocery stores like apples.

As usual, I got to ride shotgun on the deal.

1984 was probably one of the most wonderful years of my life, but unfortunately I can’t remember much of it. Due partially, I imagine, to the inordinate quantities of drugs and alcohol I ingested like a fiend on an hourly basis. I doubt I drew more than fifty sober breaths the entire year, though as before mentioned, it would be difficult to recall.

Rose, Diresk, and I were inseparable, basically. I dated a few girls on occasion, but it was usually the four of us, Grover holding court in the truck’s box. We lashed out at normalcy with all the fervor of youthful splendor available to us. We absolutely insisted on having a grand time, every second, every day! There were to be no exceptions.

Man, I miss those times. It seemed the days would never end. Looking back, they rushed by faster than I could have ever imagined possible. How do years slip by so effortlessly? I was twenty-three years old and the proud owner of not one concept of my life’s direction , nor substance. I was a professional pot smoker who dabbled in tranquilizers and unmitigated sensual debauchery.

God only knows how I made it out of the bottom of that bag. I look at pictures of us during those times and I could almost swear I never met those people before.

I remember going to this Bryan Adams/Kim Mitchell concert at the Civic Center in Rapid City one summer day. We had dropped a bunch of mushrooms and drank tons of booze before embarking on the fifty mile drive from Spearfish. It was Saturday. The three of us were enrolled at the University and were to attend the concert in order to earn extra credit for a Music Appreciation class we all took together. It was our kind of class. No tests, and the instructor got high with us after class.

Like Diresk used to say regarding our educational experience at Black Hills State University:

“Hey … it ain’t law school … but at least it ain’t law school.”

Diresk and Rose were to graduate in the Spring. I would take another six years before finishing with a bachelor’s in Psychology after sobering up. All in all, it took me eleven years to complete a four year degree. Not bad, considering all the fast food I ate.

The concert. Diresk’s truck had the best stereo money did not have to buy. The two of us had meticulously stolen specific car stereo equipment over a three year period and our patience had really paid off. His automobile entertainment system was regionally famous in those days. Had we found it necessary, I sincerely believe we could have made extraterrestrial contact using an AC/DC tape.

Another crucial attribute of Diresk’s truck was its ability to remain on the highway during feverish wrestling bouts between the three of us.

Tremendous alignment. Good tires. Possible spiritual intervention.

We had one hell of a match on the way to the concert that day. By the time it was over we had spilled every beer and bottle, dumped an ounce of pot on the floorboards, and had ruined our favorite John Prine tape.

We had also managed to grab the attention of a state trooper who pulled us over and, in one of the truly great humanitarian efforts known to man and womankind, let us off with a warning without ever having searched our cab of iniquity. By the time he had turned around in the ditch and pulled in beside us we had hid the bottles and cans, scooped up most of the grass, and painted upstanding Christian expressions on our faces. We could do nothing about the beating hearts about to evacuate our bodies through chest cavities.

We turned and watched him get out of his car and attempted to make a quick assessment of his character and our chances at redemption. Rose thought he looked like a grandfather and we all thought this was a good thing.

Thankfully, the mushrooms had failed to kick in, but we were by no means to be considered legally sane. The unfortunate interruption had served to sober us up some. Nothing like a highway patrolman pulling you over to compromise a really good high and initiate a bummer.

Diresk attempted a casual greeting as the patrolman arrived at his open window and I do not believe I took a single breath until our captor had finished speaking.

“do me a favor and cease with the hanky panky while you are operating a vehicle, okay? I know you are all just having fun but I get tired of looking at dead bodies who weren’t paying attention to their driving. I have this sneaking suspicion I could find a few things you would not want me to find in your truck here … if I looked around a bit. Let me peek at your license and registration, sir.”

“Got it right here, officer,” Diresk politely announced as he handed over the documents. “I’m sorry about screwin’ around like that … we’re just havin’ a little too much fun today.”

“How much alcohol have you consumed today, Mr. Webster?” the patrolman asked behind dark sunglasses.

“Well … more than you have … but less than I normally do,” Diresk offered as my stomach seized and I exhaled much too loudly in front of the jury.

The patrolman sized us up, strolled back to his car and spoke to his radio, leaning against the door. Not more than a few minutes passed before he was at the window again, handing back Diresk’s license and registration.

“Tell you what, Mr. Webster. I know you’ve been drinking today … and for some reason I’m going to trust you to get where you’re going … safely … and then stay the hell off the road until you get to thinking a bit clearer. Do I make myself clear?”

we all nodded in unison like three startled teenagers who just realized they had been saved by God or the Devil. Diresk even put on his blinker when we pulled back on to the interstate. He never used his blinker.

By the time we had traveled five miles or so, we celebrated our good fortune with some more mushrooms and wine. We were unstoppable. Untouchable. The universe was most certainly on our side and we would be young and strong until we were tired of being young and strong. Then and only then, would we give permission to an aging process.

I wish I could have bottled those times from my early twenties though I am positive I would drink too much of it. I would not wish to return there, but would certainly enjoy an occasional glass with lunch.

The mushrooms began to kick in for all of us just outside of Sturgis, and a supernatural ecstasy was ours for the taking. It was beginning to look like a world record day when all at once Rose turned down the stereo and exclaimed,

“FUCK! Shit, shit, shit! You are not going to believe this. I can’t believe how stupid I am. I really can’t believe how unbelievably stupid I can be!”

“What?” Diresk and I uttered in stereo.

“I forgot the goddam tickets in my other pants. You know … the ones I absolutely had to change before we could leave. I took out my money and the mushrooms and I forgot the friggin’ tickets in the pocket. Unbelievable! Shit! What do we do? We gotta go back and get them, don’t we? Shit!”

Diresk eased the truck to the shoulder and we sat there in silence and waited for divine inspiration to overtake us back down the pleasure trail

I always wish I could simply use a coupon for times such as that one. To erase that one pesky detail about to destroy an otherwise perfectly executed day. Just fix the one mistake and make everything wonderful again. In control. Where I always try to live, even now. My brain runs solutions to whatever ails me.

Our trio knuckled down to do just that.

Turning around and driving an extra thirty miles or so is no big deal for the normal person. When you are hallucinating, stoned, and drunk beyond reason, thirty miles is an eternity. Who has that kind of time when you are immersed in absolute cerebral overload?

“Do we have enough money to buy new tickets?” I asked. “I have about eight bucks”

“I don’t even know if we can get tickets because the radio said it’s sold out,” Rose answered as she attempted to fix the John Prine tape with the precision of a plastic surgeon. I imagine her attempt at repairing the broken tape was a gesture to somehow cancel out the ticket thing.

“We can always get tickets, man,” Diresk inserted. “people will be selling tones of them before the show. I have five fucking dollars and I forgot my credit cards. Either you got some green, Rosie, or we are on our way back to Speardog. What do we need? Thirty-six minus … thirteen is….”

“We’re on our way back to Spearfish. I only got fifteen bucks,” Rose offered. “We still got plenty of time so we don’t have to break any speed records getting there. All we need is to get nailed by that trooper again. I’m sorry about this you guys. I can’t believe I did this. We gotta go back … that’s all there is to it. I’m going too fast. I don’t know if I can handle this kind of distraction. What? I’m serious you guys! I’m speeding like crazy and I wanna get there now! When we go back I wanna change into a skirt anyway.”

This broke us up and we fell into an uncontrollable fit of mushroom delirium. Tears were flowing down all our cheeks by the time Diresk managed to drive the truck through the ditch and Jump on the interstate heading west towards Rose’s other pants. I can not tell you the effort that had been required to perform that simple act. When you are tripping like that, cars could be coming from any direction. Even from above.

To wrap this up, we got to her apartment and got the tickets, stopped for more beer, grabbed Diresk’s credit cards to ward off further tribulation, and jumped back on the interstate, laughing and chain smoking the entire time. We arrived at the Civic Center parking lot approximately an hour later, twenty minutes ahead of the dimming of the lights ritual. The lot was completely full and we were forced to park at a nearby high school.

There had been just one tiny problem as we finished the tremendous hike from our parked truck to the facility.

“Son of a bitch!” Rose shouted. “I don’t really believe what I just did again! I …(laughing) … forgot the tick…tickets in the truck. (laughing uncontrollably) What is wrong … with me? I can’t …. Oh, Jesus … I gotta ….gotta sit down.”

“You forgot the tickets in my truck? Way over there in Montana?” Diresk responded amidst his own building laughter. “You mean to tell me you forgot the tickets you forgot in Spearfish … over in my friggin’ truck that is across the fucking world over there? Over where eagles nest and cougars feast on speckled trout? Way over that mountain range? Rose … you left the tickets in the truck that’s parked across this ocean of cars. Honey .. that ain’t the smartest thing you have ever done.”

Diresk broke into his own hysterics at this point and could not continue comment. He fell into a pernicious pile – with Rose – as they both scraped skin onto the concrete walkway leading to the entrance doors. The two attempted to light cigarettes as I donned the coupon process again, fully aware it would be me hiking to once again procure the evasive tickets.

It could go no other way. I stood in helpless silence as Diresk touched fire to his cigarette, waiting for the inescapable command.

“Whooey! Topher? Son, you gotta wade over there and get those tickets. I’m sorry to do this to you … but I can’t … I can’t make it, man. I’m gonna puke.” Diresk’s face was a bright shade of red and Rose looked as if she would seizure, hemorrhaging with laughter.

“Why do I always have to go get the tickets? I always get the dirty jobs, man! Why doesn’t Rose get the friggin’ tickets? I’m so fucked up I don’t know if I can make it, D. I’m serious, man! Yeah … it’s really fucking funny. Twice, man. You forgot them twice in the same hour!”

It was a feeble gesture to avoid my inevitable quest. I was the only one not laughing. Penance for always taking life so seriously.

I remember being so messed up that I started to walk towards the truck and was called by Diresk who, observantly, threw me his keys which I did not even come close to catching. This provided a garnish for their uproar. I flipped them off and left them collapsed in each other’s arms on the concrete path, surrounded by intrigued concert-goers on their way to the show.

By the time I finally reached the truck and located the tickets where I had seen Rose place them so we would not forget them, my bladder was screaming at me to release the gallon or so of alcohol I had poured into it. It had been a long trek. Must have been a couple hundred degrees out that day.

There was no way I would make it back to a Civic Center restroom. I had the wherewithal to place the tickets in my pocket before I too spaced them out again, and proudly locked the truck, keys still in my hand. I was winning, and if I could just relieve my bladder without being spotted, life would again be grand and there would be no stopping us this night!

It was not to be.

Why is it when you are stoned to the point of possible terminal paranoia and taking a piss in broad daylight that three girls you went to high school with casually stroll up to you and want to catch up on old times as they stare at your penis and fire questions like Uzi?

I had not seen even one of these girls in five years. It was a rather odd way to bump into each other again. I even broke into convivial greeting and converse until it occurred to me my genitalia was exposed to the elements as well as their judgmental appraisals.

Why is it that when you really must show someone your penis that it shrinks and shrivels like some embarrassed fungus? It is for this reason I will hate Jerry Serfoss for the rest of my breathing days. I shall never forget him strutting nonchalantly around our high school dressing room with a cobra hanging between his legs. Jerry Serfoss made most porno stars look like me.

By the time I was able to turn from them and attempt to place myself back in my jeans, I had deftly managed to soil my hands, jeans, boots, and Diresk’s passenger door in an impressive display of incoherent incontinence. To add to this debacle, I had not yet finished peeing after garaging my shrunken member and sent a golden shower into my underwear and down my pant leg. It had been a stellar performance.

I do not remember a single word said by any of us on the walk back to the facility. I blacked out from the pure severity of the ordeal. I did, however, receive some support from one of my ex-classmates who had offered my tissue from her purse.

Of course, I declined so as to not betray my utter powerlessness.

I found Diresk and Rose where I had left them, animatedly chatting with some people we vaguely knew from school. Diresk rose to hug our classmates and for a round of introductions. Then he noticed my boo-boo.

“Topher … what did you do to your pants, son?” Diresk asked before he could take it back.

Under normal circumstances he would never have subjected my to such a crowded debasement in front of Rose.

“Well … let’s see,” I began demoralized. “ I showed these girls my dick and then pissed all over myself and all over my jeans. Here’s the goddam tickets and your keys!”

that quieted the crowd. For only a few seconds, before the laughter exploded and shot at me like bullets. I rushed inside of the building, stopped, came back for my ticket as I had given them all to Diresk, and dashed back towards a restroom to possibly remedy my dilemma. I would have gladly traded all my special circumstances coupons for a quick rewind at this point, I assure you.

An electric dryer proved most helpful, and if anyone asked, I told them I had spilled beer all over myself. It took all of five minutes to dry my jeans and I had destroyed the chemical wave I had been riding prior to my disaster.

I made my way toward the entrance areas and saw them waiting for me with serious faces and burning cigarettes. I approached them like a dog who knows it had done something very wrong.

“Oh, Topher,” Rose said as she hugged me and kissed my nose. “Let’s go have a wonderful concert and let’s forget about all of the bad stuff that happened. It has still been a wonderful day. We just took some mushrooms and I got some for you when we get in there. You don’t have your dope on you, right? They are checking pretty good. I got a couple joints hidden and they aren’t gonna check there I’m sure.” She winked at me and tugged a smile from my brooding face.

“Hey, don’t sweat the small stuff, Tyrone. And it really is all small stuff,” Diresk added. “Let’s rock and roll, boys and girls.”

The three of us filed into line with the throngs and Diresk shoved me in front of him behind Rose. He whispered in my ear and I will never forget what he said, although I can’t remember much else of what happened that night.

“Remember that night when I disappeared in Hill City and I told you I had to go make a call? That night we went to that party with those crazy fuckers that worked at that cave or somethin’?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t have to make a call. I left for another reason, man. I can’t believe I’m gonna tell you this shit. Jesus … I … drove up to a gas station to clean myself up ’cause I had shit my pants. I shit my pants, man.”

“You? Shit your pants? No way. No friggin’ way, man.”

I was stunned by the sudden mortality of my hero and quickly spun around to see if I had broken the ancient creed of confidentiality between best friends when one of them has just told the other something of such gravity.

“You shit your pants,” I whispered cautiously.

Diresk pursed his lips and slowly nodded like an oil drill rig as his eyes flapped like wings of a fly.

“You don’t have to lie to make me feel better, D. It isn’t such a big deal and I’m over it now. So I showed my little dick to some girls from our school and then pissed all over myself like a circus freak. Shit … at least I didn’t forget the tickets.”

I had tried to force a smile.

“I don’t lie to my best friend, Topher. If you ever tell anyone I did that, I will kill you, chop you into pieces, and feed them to Grover. They won’t never find your body, Do … you…dig? I mean it, man … this one’s classi-fucking-fied, Gerald! CIA shit.”

“Tell anyone what?” Rose asked.

“Nothing,” Diresk replied. “I was just tryin’ to cheer up Urine Boy a bit and was tellin’ him I’d fuckin’ kill him if he ever tells anyone ‘bout the time I shit my pants in Hill City and hadta throw my undies away in a gas station. Got another cancer stick, there ……Darlin’?”

My best friends and I.

There was lonely one time when Rose and I almost crossed the fine line we balanced on. I still feel a twinge of guilt and excitement as I write this. I always wanted to kiss her. No! Wanted her to kiss me. Making love was always entirely out of the question. I thought too much of her and Diresk to have pulled something like that off. Sex was always a precarious endeavor for me.

Hell, it still is.

I remember the night we danced together as our lips touched for one sweetened second. Denver. Just to go back there and remember is sending high voltage through me still. After so many years. I feel like I used to before taking a big test or playing a big game. Like when I was in love with my very best friend’s girl. Searching for my Rose with her tanned toes and hushed voice that grabbed attentions like an explosion.

Still searching for Rose.

“You are the prettiest girl in here tonight, Rose,” I humbly offered.” Sometimes I like to pretend you are with me when D. isn’t around. That’s silly, isn’t it?”

“If I had never met Diresk you would have been the first guy I would have kidnapped,” Rose whispered in my ear as we waved our bodies slowly to the music at an inner-city club.

We were both very intoxicated as the three of us had spent the entire day assaulting the smog-soaked streets of Denver, smoking grass and drinking wine and pretending to be science fiction philosophers. Pretending to be adults as the iron and concrete jaws of the city swallowed us whole and we didn’t care.

We were together and nothing was in our way. Diresk bought me a beret and I wore it around the city all day and night. Rose painted Diresk’s toes on a park bench and we thought we were the coolest people we had ever met. We gave a wino a five dollar bill and he drew us a picture of some building as his pencil shook like a caged nightmare between mangled fingers that fir perfectly and steadily around his bottle of gin. Rose kissed his cheek and it took all the thinned blood he had left to raise a blush from the dead.

We later landed at a dance club to close down the night and Diresk passed out in a booth holding the picture and wearing my beret, leaving us to sway in the anonymity of the city’s expanse. I danced with the most beautiful girl in the club that night, and for three songs she was all mine.

“I am very drunk, Mr. Topher … you?” Rose asked.

“I am semi-permeably incandescent, my dear,” I proudly replied. He eyes made me want to cry and lick them. Her smell held me close to her shoulder.

“Wine makes me naughty. I’m having naughty thoughts right now. I wish we could go somewhere … to another place in time and make love and come back and we would never remember it. Only deep inside with our dreams. I could love you in my dreams, Topher. I could dance and make love to you and sleep beside the man I love. God … I am really messed up,” she breathlessly sighed.

“Don’t even say shit like that to me, because I have enough trouble with all of this as it is. If I thought you were attracted to me in any way, I wouldn’t be able to …”

“Shhhh. I know … I’m sorry. I just want one kiss. I have always just wanted to kiss you once to see how it would feel. I know how much you love him. It is only natural, Topher. All the time we spend together and all we have shared. There is nothing wrong with our feelings for each other. I am not ashamed that I love you .. I mean…. I love you like you love me. Is this making any sense?”

I found myself undeniably captured by her eyes, her skin – her smell. I did not even try to hide the fact I could not take my eyes off of her feet. They wore a summer tan and purple nail polish. She was barefoot. The way I will always remember her.

“I know what you mean,” I replied.

One more time I was the one who was forced to compose myself and watch the friends I loved more than anything in the world – distance themselves from me in their own sacred bubble. A bubbly I could see into, but never enter.

“don’t kiss me, man. I don’t want to go through the rest of my life thinking about it. Okay? Not that you can’t help yourself or anything or were even going to really –“

Then her lips brushed mine and lingered there, waiting for mine to join them. I closed my eyes and touched my forehead to hers, removing my lips from where I dreamed they could somehow rest forever. Her faced pulled away and startled me.

I opened my eyes and expected to see anger on her face. She was smiling. I will always treasure both the moment and that smile. It was the instant we crossed into most special friends. I wanted her tem times more than any drink or drug that night. I could feel her heart beat against my chest as if we had been separated only by cellophane. We danced to the music inside the music that only souls can hear. I saw her face for the very first time and I had known her forever. I had known her since the beginning of time.

We would never again breach that line or our understanding of the way things were certain to remain between the three of us. As I led her hand to the table where Diresk slept, I could not hold down the feeling I would lose them both someday. It took the two of us to carry Diresk to the truck and I drove back to our motel with her head on my shoulder as we sang along with the radio and the crushing sadness beat within me.

Diresk slept the entire drive and would not remember either leaving the club or arriving at the motel. I know he sensed something between Rose and I the next morning at breakfast. He had asked us why we were looking at each other the way we were and I could not help but feel I had somehow betrayed his trust. Rose told him to mind his own business and kissed the syrup from his pouting lips.

We never brought any of it up again. I wonder if all close friends share like connections? Probably. But to us, we were picked specially to share in a magical friendship such as the world had never seen. We felt sorry for those unable to experience what we shared.

Looking back, I wonder how in touch we really were with each other. How in touch we could have been with anything. Maybe we just desperately sought to believe in the strength of three. Three against the world.

The world …. Never had a chance.

She loved to wear purple. It made her skin look delicious. Like a caramel apple. She always reminded me of Arizona and its painted deserts. She wore purple like some people can wear a hair style.

Rose took us shopping. She had threatened (for months) to “do something” about our blasé wardrobes. Diresk and I found combinations that worked for us and stuck with them until intervening factors prompted change. I recall wearing the same pair of jeans for weeks at a time, and Diresk could usually be found in some neon bowling shirt bearing various advertisements. Eddie’s High Grade or some Dar’s Mobil Station. Shirts usually picked up at a garage sale during our Saturday morning thrift period.

His absolute treasured bowling shirt was a neon green and yellow number bearing the words:

The Pin Seeking Missiles

I’ll bet he wore that shirt maybe five out of seven days. He would be so happy when it was clean and he could initiate the cycle again – fresh. Rose attempted to destroy or lose that shirt on a number of occasions. Diresk protected that shirt like it was me.

She led us through the mall one day like a couple of pouting ten year olds. Store to store she yanked us along with her, barking orders at salespersons. It was her personal mission to clothe us like adults and she approached it with calculated focus. Diresk almost killed my after I had succumbed to hysterics when he had emerged from a dressing room – sporting another of Rose’s elaborate concoctions. He had silenced and disarmed me with a mere glance. He never had to even consider a spoken word.

“You look wonderful! You look like one of those rock stars … David Bowie,” Rose reported to Diresk, shifting painfully around in multiple mirrors and hoping against hope he would not be spotted by an acquaintance.

He looked like a cat when you drop it in a tub of water. If you remove the wet part.

“Topher? Tell him how good he looks! I dream of the day he loses that ridiculous bowling shirt and starts wearing clothes like this.”

I knew I must choose my words carefully at this point. I did not want to provoke Diresk nor devalue Rose’s efforts. Honestly, he looked like a disco freak. Something out of Saturday Night Fever. That stuff was cool and everything, but Diresk and I prided ourselves with our ability to skate around the borders of convention and hipness. We always believed we transcended such practices by never changing our styles. We would wait for the world to settle on our particular modus operandi. We did not have time to shift with the winds of “in-ness”. Our plates were much too full as it was to dabble in such precarious nonsense.

“I really like this style of clothes on some people,” I cowardly offered. “Diresk would look good in anything, so I guess it just matters what he thinks.”

“thanks a fucking lot, senator!” Rose snapped back like a trap.

“I’ll tell you what he thinks,” Diresk sputtered. “He thinks I look like a friggin’ cross between a professional golfer and a pimp! I ain’t wearing this shit, darlin’. You can wave those pretty lashes at me all you want, but I ain’t walkin’ around any place in this getup! I f you laugh at me Topher, I will beat you until you are out of blood!”

“don’t get mad at me, man,” I attempted. “This ain’t my idea of a good time either, okay? If you hate the clothes … don’t wear the clothes. Rose had good taste and everything. I think you look … well … if you start dressing like that, you can always take up golf and teach disco lessons. Maybe you could be the world’s first used car salesman/bull fighter.”

I was running before I finished the sentence. As I emerged from the store, I realized he was not in hot pursuit.

That would prove to be worse. He would allow his wounds to fester and gather infectious momentum as he devised a diabolical scheme with which to traumatize me for, at the very minimum, my next two lifetimes. Not to mention the physical trauma. His strike would be timely and devoid of conscience.

Especially since Rose had been involved. I was a dead man. If I ever had children, they would certainly walk with a limp and gather rain in a fist-shaped crater on top of their skulls.

I considered trying to thumb a ride back to Spearfish in hopes he would never find me again. He would not let it slide. Diresk could take a joke and everything, just as long as he was comfortable and in control of the situation. If anyone gave him shit when he was embarrassed about something….Well, suffice it to say this was something one just did not do.

I had done the unthinkable! The unfathomable! The most serious infraction possible! I had insulted them right-fucking-then!

There was nothing I could do but head for the food court and have my last Orange Julius before the slaughter. Hell, I believe I even splurged and ordered the Raspberry Supreme. I was on red alert and constant surveillance, but there was no sign of him as I finished what was to be the last snack of my young adult life. I could feel the impending doom approaching like marching elephants, each with a precious second resting atop its tremendous shoulders.

I was convinced Rose had run some type of interference for me which explained why I was still able to light and inhale a cigarette without a nurse’s assistance. It would only be a matter of time until Diresk found a hole in Rose’s web. My number was up!

I must have smoked five or six cigarettes as I contemplated my demise, but I could not stop laughing to myself as the smoke tickled my nose and face like a tiny fingered veil.

I got him good. God knows he had it coming! He had humiliated me more times than could ever be remembered. Thousands of times. I had always taken what he dealt to me with a composed reverence. Finally, I had sprung from my self-imposed cell to fire back into the darkness of the waiting enemy.

It was truly a good day to die.

I sat there amidst fellow shoppers who had stopped for a snack before returning to the retail front, secretly afloat on my perilous conquest. It was one of those events you desperately wish to discuss with someone; to process and explore all possible consequences and avenues of escape. Someone to share the broth with.

I was alone, and the only friend I would dare invite into my coven of self worship – Rose – was somewhere with my foe. I felt like a spy waiting for a dissolving message as Nazi soldiers canvassed the area for my location. If successful in my mission, I would save the free world from Hitler’s bloody reign. Failure could only end in tortuous testimony and assassination.

You must understand how very stoned I was and my prevalent leanings toward dramatic flair. I waited with serio-comic annoyance for the plot to unfold.

Minutes later I spotted Rose hurriedly approaching the Food Court area, alone. I could not help smile as I watched the male heads turn in unison as she flowed by in her shot purple skirt, carrying her sandals as her bronzed bare feet padded along the polished tile. He dark hair, teased and reckless, trailed behind her like a cape and framed her olive face with flowing chocolate.

She always reminded me of a magnificent stallion. Unbreakable.

I felt my body tense as my tainted senses simultaneously leaned forward to assess the data at hand. Was she a decoy? Sent to allow her villainous lover a blind-sided attack?

I quickly spun around in my chair to arduously scan the perimeter for a lurking Diresk. My eyes combed through the crowd like a Secret Service agent struck suddenly alert by a gunshot, but he simply was not to be found. I returned my attentions to Rose who by this time had spotted me and was approaching with an indiscernible expression.

A grin inadvertently escaped from my clenched jaws and I felt myself calm as Rose responded in kind. I gestured her to a chair and she pulled up to face me, reaching for my cigarettes.

“Where is he?” I asked.

“He took off from the store and … we got in kind of a fight,” she quietly answered. “You didn’t exactly help me any back there. He was starting to cave in about his clothes and now he’ll never listen to me. He’s really pissed, Topher. You embarrassed him pretty good.”

“It isn’t my fault or responsibility for any of this, man. He’s gonna wear whatever he decides to wear and you are the one making a big deal out of changing us, Rose. I have been dressing like this my whole life and I don’t intend to amend it because of your or anyone else’s opinion. I like jeans and T-shirts. I don’t feel right in anything else,” I stated.

I paused before continuing with, “How mad is he?”

“He’s about a nine, I think,” Rose offered. “I told him to cool his jets and that really pissed him off. I thought he was just kidding but he’s really ticked off this time. He wouldn’t even look at me when he came out of the dressing room. You better watch what you say to hem and observe caution when he shows.”

A strange smile and accompanying look overtook Rose’s face and I realized I had let my guard down during our brief converse. I had failed to continue my perimeter check and was hit with a panic and feeling of disorientation. I caught a barely discernable shift in her eyes and before I could form my next thought, found the top of my head and face covered in ice cream.

Chocolate Marble Fudge, to be precise.

Rose 3as immediately betrayed by her expression as an accomplice to my attacker’s freezing assault. Through the chocolate haze impairing my blinking eyes I understood she had been dispersed to weaken my defenses by compromising my blind spot, thereby allowing Diresk a surprising attack with said frozen weaponry.

Oldest tick in the book. You send a dame to blink her lashes at the guard and then sneak into the enemy encampment to lower your boom.

Needless to say, his plan reached fruition and I was struck extremely uncomfortable. Physically as well as mentally. All I could do was sit there and bear the misery of the surrounding laughter and the sticky, cold bomb I had been hit with. I never even broke stride with my next comment.

“So, do you think he will beat the shit out of me or just do something ridiculous like smear ice cream all over my head and face?”

Rose tried to extinguish the laughter brewing inside her, but was unable to maintain composure and fell in with the surrounding tables. The moment was immediately sobered by the appearance and shrilling of a disgruntled female custodial worker who stood no more that five feet tall, but had a voice that could crack drywall.

“I will have to ask you all to leave this facility, NOW! I will not tolerate a food fight during my shift and I will call security if you fail to accommodate my demand to vacate this area immediately!”

“That will not be necessary, ma’am,” I angrily replied. “If you will just allow me to use your restroom facilities to tidy myself up a bit, we will be on our way.”

I had not been thrilled by her implication I was somehow remotely at fault for said event. She, in turn, had not been thrilled by the sardonic tone I chose to address her with or the fact I was dripping a sticky dairy product all over her waxed floor.

“You will leave RIGHT NOW … or deal with security! Do I make myself clear?” she punctuated.

I was promptly struck by a cornucopia of possible assaultive comments to toss, like a grenade, back at this apathetic, minimum waged devotee, but was timely overcome in my malevolence by a sudden wave of rationality:

I was not going to worsen my dilemma and increase the potency of Diresk’s strike! I swallowed what was left of my pride (and some chocolate fudge marble), untucked my shirt to wipe as much of my face and hair off as possible, grabbed my cigarettes from the table, and politely excused myself towards the exits. I briefly caught a glance at the curious look pervading Diresk’s face as I departed from the battle scene.

I had nearly reached the exits when his booming voice rang out like a church bell and halted me in my tracks like a referee’s whistle.

“JUST ’CAUSE I WANNA SEE SOME OTHER GUYS NOW AND THEN DON’T MEAN IT’S OVER ‘TWEEN US! I’M SORRY I THREW THAT ICE CREAM AT YOU, BUT THE THOUGHT OF LOSING YOU MAKES ME LOSE MY MIND, BABY! PLEASE … COME BACK TO ME AND WE CAN GO HOME TA TALK ABOUT THIS LATER. Christopher! Please … don’t leave me like this! I’m beggin’ ya! Don’t do this to us!”

A voice inside told me if I could simply leave the mall without having acknowledged his words, I could possible cut some of my quickly accumulating losses. Before I could stop myself, I had spun around to view the wake of his assaultive measures.

Yep. Every person in the food court area was either staring wide-eyed at me, or at my jilted lover. Rose was face down on the table covering her vibrating head, a victim of still yet another laughing seizure.

The custodial staff person stood dumbfounded with her hand on her radio, but her lips were pursed in silence as she waded through the details at hand. Diresk was on his knees, pleading, and had I found myself in possession of a firearm, would have fired with impunity into his bleeding carcass.

There are moments in one’s life (such as this one) when a clarity looms just beneath the surface of calamity, and if one is able to pause and allow the humiliation and momentum to wash through and pass, it can be readily accessed. I stood there like granite allowing the demons (real and perceived) to surround and terrorize me. And then, as if my senses were drawn together and focused like a beam of light, I saw and sensed only Diresk. All other sights and sounds of the Food Court vanished like a dream at the sound of a clock’s alarm. I steadied myself and opened fire. It was not necessary for my voice to reach the volume his had.

“Diresk … I shall always love you, but our time together has passed. I have been able to live with your temper, your emotional inconsistencies, and your unmitigated infidelity … but I can no longer tolerate your impotence. I need a man who can physically satisfy my passionate needs and desires. It saddens me that our relationship has reduced itself to such a public display of lunacy. You can send for your things, my sweet Diresk. I can only hope you are blessed with a medical remedy for your affliction. Good bye and God bless you!”

I actually heard a smattering of applause as I exited stage left, grinning from a place I had never accessed before. I lit a cigarette and strolled to Diresk’s truck to await the arrival and next move of my competent foe and the lovely Rose. My wait was to be a short one, and I was more than pleasantly surprised by the gesture of competitive respect offered to me by Diresk as he approached me as I smoked on the tailgate of the big truck, ignoring the obnoxious drone of the hound.

“Man, I can’t believe you just came up with that!” he said, laughing. “I am gonna hafta be careful in the future not to underestimate you when cornered, son. Come here and give us a grab you son of a bitch!”

I scooted off my perch and wandered into his embrace as my eyes found Rose and her obvious delight at the summation of our little event. Soon, the three of us were locked in each other’s arms and laughter, Diresk’s eyes twinkled like tinsel on a lighted tree.

Even Grover amended her usual stance towards me and rode home comfortably perched upon my lap, licking the delicious dried syrup from my face and soiled T-shirt.

Diresk used to say Rose could move in and furnish any brain she chose. I guess that would be true of mine. I still hear from her in my dreams from time to time, this after a concerted effort to rid myself of her haunting mist I could literally smell in the days I hovered beside her. I dreamed of her often, but could never consider sharing this with either of them. I would wait for her until sleep slowly covered me like a blanket. Sultry sheets, draped and covered my pulsing heart as I sipped from this night theatre in the dim of my upstairs bedroom. Always to awaken and masturbate to the flavor she would leave just behind my sleepy eyes. Dreams always taking place in or near water. Dreams that would take my breath away and leave me ignited.

Rose also turned me on to the color purple because it made her skin a luxury. I had simply failed to notice purple before Rose. Diresk detested the color, but would never mention a word to her. I always wondered why he would leave this part of her alone. But then, he was always so careful around her. There rested below his usual brow-beating forays a most diligent restraint regarding his Rose.

I think he just wanted her to fall in love with him over and over.

He would sometimes touch her as if she was make from snowflakes, and he would kiss her as if drawing wine from her throat. God, how I envied his lips. Their secret times together. The way in which he tried so very hard. He was entirely reclusive in these matters, and would sidestep any and all conversation pointing towards his poorly-concealed vulnerability.

Anyway, I fell in love with purple, and the way in which it embellished her olive skin and seemed to backlight her eyes and teeth. Hell, I still remember some of the outfits she used to wear. I will never forget her favorite swimsuit nor the effect it always had on me. On everyone.

Rose, you see, had been ahead of her time and was the first, to my knowledge, to display the European styled “Thong” bikini in the Spearfish area. I actually witnesses the repercussions and reverberations during its unveiling in Spearfish’s city park while sharing beers and Colombian marijuana with some pals as we browned our skin and numbed our senses to loud music.

We usually hung out in our favorite spot in the park; a small plateau of plush, green grass nestled up against Spearfish Creek and directly opposite the local fish hatchery. We would drown ourselves in tanning oils and arrange ourselves accordingly on lawn chairs in the middle of the cool creek. We had developed an elaborate system consisting of coolers and a table we would carry out into the water with us to partake of our Earthly pleasures without having to ever move more than one muscle.

It was our place and people grazed there by invitation only. Grover patrolled the area like some starving sentry, tethered to a twenty foot rope, allowing her free reign of land and water. Every male who ventured into our private resort had to first obtain clearance from Grover in order to remain, usually preceded by Diresk’s command, “COOL IT, GIRL DOG!” Grover never restricted females from entering. In that sense, Grover was a very good dog.

On this particularly beautiful afternoon, I had been entertaining guests in the absence of my three co-owners. A time-share agreement we adhered to cooperatively. I had been surprised to see Diresk’s truck pull into the parking area not twenty yards from our spot. I had incorrectly assumed my best friends would spend the afternoon chasing a tiny white ball around the Spearfish Canyon Country Club.

I absolutely abhorred the game of golf and still manage to successfully avoid any and all invites to partake of this grim torture. Diresk hated it as well, but joined in because Rose loved it. He would often say, “I hate the friggin’ game, but I love the way her shorts sneak up her butt when she swings.”

Rose would always then counter with, “He just digs any sport where he can smoke, drink, and get a tan.”

I must admit, I was inclined to concede to such manner of thought.

“Well would you look at this,” I mumbled to Tom Tolo, one of the greatest pot smokers of his generation. “Mr. And Mrs. Arnold Palmer must be taking time off from the links to join us for cocktails.”

“I hope she doesn’t wear that one suit again,” Tom whispered. “I can’t fucking take that shit, man.”

Curtis Pummel, basking beside us, concurred with a slight nod and tousle of his long blonde curls. Curtis was a very good pot smoker as well. He was also rather adept at helping himself to the hearts of fair maidens in our lovely little hamlet.

The particular suit Tom had mentioned was a rather slinky number sporting vertical black strips upon a thin purple canvas. Tantalizing, yet pathetically pale placed beside the incommunicable delight we were about to be exposed to, or should I say with?

I waved at Rose as she jumped out of the truck to liberate Grover from the box of the truck. She was clothed in Levi cutoffs and one of Diresk’s bowling shirts. Of course, she was bare of feet. Diresk was moving around in the cab and accidentally honked the horn with his elbow, sending Grover on a barking spree and into the brown arms of our Rose. Diresk, having located whatever he had been searching diligently for, emerged from the truck wearing cut off football pants, cowboy boots, and his amorous smile nearly always present in Rose’s company.

“Topher, your legs got skinnier overnight, son!” Diresk yelled as he fell into step and hand with Rose, still carrying Grover with her free arm.

“I love a man with thin legs, Topher,” Rose countered. “You are a sexy man and don’t listen to a word this barbarian feeds you. Hey, Tom. Hey, Curtis.

Tome and Curtis said, “Hi.”

“It’s hard not to listen when his mouth never stops puking words, man,” I responded as they reached the edge of the creek.

Rose released Grover who finally ceased barking and began to vacuum the grass with her finely tuned snout. Seconds later, our guard dog dove in, causing Tom, Curtis, and I to reflexively remove all appendages from the water.

You just never knew. Grover paddled towards us, growling deeply.

“Tell me you have beer in abundance, my lads,” Diresk stated, ignoring my comment entirely. “GIRL DOG! Cool it now.”

“We have beer in abundance, my liege,” I answered. “And … to make matters worse … or better … depending upon the particular school of moral thought you attend … Thomas has blessed us this day with a golden spiked herb with which to deter our minds from the blatantly obvious detail of this … how should I say? … Lingering melanoma of reality.”

“You have made me a very happy man, Jethro! What does a man have to do to get a drink and his dick sucked around here?” Diresk inquired, bouncing his brows for emphasis.

“That sounds like a job for Tom,” Curtis injected with the smile that rendered many maidens helpless and without hope of recrimination when wronged by this virile knight.

“Right,” Tom snapped back, splashing water in Curt’s direction.

“What am I sayin’? All I gotta do is lean down and I can do it myself!” Diresk exclaimed as he feigned the dirty deed.

“Why do boys constantly need to discuss penis size? Don’t you guys know that we don’t care about the size of you organs?”

“I was wondering why you still hand around with Diresk,” Curt chirped. Curtis was not afraid to go head-to-head with the mighty Diresk and there was always a stretched tension between most remarks to each other.

“If you’re lookin’ to be seriously fucked up today …. I’m your man, Blondie!” Diresk answered, a slight smile betraying his comments which we all read to be a good sign that the two of them would not be at each other’s throats all afternoon.

“If you can brave the dangerous rapids of Spearfish Creek and reach this spot, unscathed, you can help yourself to whatever medicine you desire,” I offered to Diresk and Rose.

“I want you guys’ opinion on something and I want you to be honest with me,” Rose suddenly inserted. “I bought something in Denver last weekend and I think it’s really cool but it may be a bit much for the right-wingers around here.”

“Jesus Christ, Rose,” Diresk announced. “It’s only a swim suit for God’s sake. She’s been yackin’ about this all mornin’ and she wouldn’t even show it to me ‘cause I got her pissed at me. She makes it sound like she’s gonna get arrested or somethin’!”

“It’s a European cut and it is rather risqué … I mean for around here and everything. I absolutely love it but I don’t know if I should wear it here.”

“does it have a top and a bottom?” Curtis asked innocently as he took a long pull from the joint Tom had ignited and passed.

“OF COURSE!” Rose smiled.

“Bummer. Well, let us see it anyway,” Curtis said as a fiendish grin began to overtake his smoking lips.

“Do I have to get up for this?” Tom inserted.

“I don’t think you are going to have a choice,” Curtis whispered as he again pulled from the joint and passed it to me with a wide-eyed expression.

“Show us the friggin’ suit so we can go on with our lives for Christ’s sake!” Diresk nearly shouted.

Diresk was not happy about the unfolding of this event. It was in his tone and the cutting use of his words. He always pretended it never bothered him when other guys would look at Rose, but there were times, as with anyone I imagine, he was threatened by Rose’s imposing presence. I think he must have sensed we were all in for something he believed he alone should have witnessed first.

I passed the joint to Tom and opened another beer, throwing another to Diresk as a gesture of support. He caught it and waded out to Tom’s chair and took his turn with the dope. I could sense his trepidation and could find no words of comfort to offer. Actually, validating his discomfort would have been a serious breach of diplomatic etiquette, and my silence more than likely saved us all from much turmoil.

“Okay, here goes,” Rose nervously stated.

She removed Diresk’s bowling shirt and displayed a purple bikini top. Nothing out of the ordinary, but smashing just the same. Tom, Curtis, and I nervously glanced at each other and then towards Diresk, who was pretending not to watch and cleaning a fingernail. Rose took a deep breath, flashed her eyes toward her brooding boyfriend, back to us, then gracefully shook her shorts to the grass and stepped out of them.

Had someone been watching the four of us young men, they would have thought we were watching a bomb squad defuse an exploding devise. I know we had all been holding our breaths, though I can only vouch for myself. I’ll bet we all looked like a bunch of idiots on Hee Haw.

As I watched Rose remove her shorts, I was puzzled, as were my compadres, by the stunningly beautiful woman standing before us in what we all must have considered to be a sexy, yet fairly harmless bikini.

Curtis shattered our feverish silence.

“What the hell’s the matter with that, Rose? I’ve seen you wear stuff like that before. Ain’t no different than what a bunch of girls are wearing right over there,” he said, pointing to a group playing beach volleyball on the sand court.

“You haven’t seen the back yet,” Rose added, dropping her head slightly.

“What about it?” Diresk shot back testily.

“there isn’t one,” Rose muttered under her breath.

Her comment was followed by a hushed silence, followed by anticipatory jitters I could have cut with my tongue had I been able to remove it from the back of my mouth. We all looked to Diresk for guidance, who simply lit a cigarette and shook his head like some Sunday school teacher.

“It’s called a thong, you guys. It just has this string that goes up your butt and everything. Like that poster of those three girls in the back of that pickup out at Screamin’ Elrod’s, you know?”

We knew!

I couldn’t take it any longer, and though aware I would distress our usually fearless leader, I spoke the words we all secretly longer to hear.

“Turn around. Go ahead, Rose.”

She took my cue and spun around on those purple painted toes of hers, announcing, “TA DA!”

“Oh, my friggin’ God,” escaped from Diresk’s pursed lips.

Tom, Curtis, and I spoke to each other only with our eyes, then immediately returned to the vision at hand. I could not bear to meet Diresk’s eyes, and though I attempted to preserve his pride by not staring at his girlfriend’s wonderfully sculpted behind, I failed miserably.

We all did. The next words I recall hearing inadvertently escaped form the mustached mouth of Curtis.

“Sweet Jesus and son of a bitch.”

I admit I was inclined to concur once again, but I did so with a wordless nod of my pulsing head. Arterial explosion is what I now believe had struck me that afternoon. At the time, I had fully expected and braced for an aneurysm.

Rose could take no more of our scrutiny and again spun around to meet our helpless gazes. We were simply powerless to participate in the moment other than to drink from our beers and light cigarettes with a perfunctory deliberation. Anything to focus on aside from the raving beauty standing on shore with a string running up her buttocks.

A purple string. Of marvelous design and strategic placement.

Yes, it was merely a thin piece of colored cotton that sunny summer afternoon. It is undeniably sad that a group of moderately intelligent young men could be moved and touched to such deep extent by something such as this, but we were utterly bombarded by beauty and sexually stung. An allergic reaction was had by all.

I remember Rose blushed as she was serenaded by several whistles coming from somewhere nearby. She self-consciously stooped to retrieve her shorts and was stunned by Diresk’s surprisingly tender words. It is probably what I remember most about that day, and there was serious competition.

“Don’t … Rose. You look beautiful in that suit. I’m acting like a shit-head over this. Don’t put those shorts on Honey. If people can’t handle it … joke ’em if they can’t take a fuck!”

Rose waded out to where Diresk was standing, sipping from his beer, and he jokingly covered her behind as they embraced in front of us. Diresk shrugged his shoulders at me and I was proud to be his friend – again. Rose kissed him and removed his hand from its protective positioning as she leaned back as if in a dance dip to retrieve a newly lit joint form Tom’s thumb and forefinger; crystal droplets of water leaked from the bare foot she had pointed to the cotton ball sky and I caught them in my mind’s mouth.

“I love you, Diresk Nathan Webster, “ Rose whispered into his eye as her lips painted it with lipstick. “ And I think you boys ought to buy yourselves some thongs and we can make a fashion impact on this dreadful place.”

“If any of you ever see me walking around with a string up my ass … um, no offense, Rose, ’cause you look fucking outstanding! … but seriously … if you ever see me wearing something like that, I want you to shoot me in the head … repeatedly. Are we crystal-fucking-clear on this, gentlemen?”

If I ever see you walking around with a string up you ass I may have to shoot myself in the head,” Diresk added, laughing and coughing pot smoke out of his nose.

That was that, and our introduction to the “Thong” or “String Bikini”. Rose wore hers with pride for the rest of the summer, only receiving a few mild citations of reproach from concerned citizens of Spearfish. Personally, I loved the suit.

But I always loved her in purple.

Rose would never talk about her parents. I know they basically dropped her off with grandparents when she was a child.. She carried a picture of her mother with her in her purse and whenever on of us would ask about her father she would say, “If he ever decides to come around … he can tell you himself.”

She told me something during on of our last visits before she moved to Arizona to be “closer to the sun and farther from the snow shovels”, regarding her split with Diresk. She blamed it on her father. That is all she would say and no matter how much I questioned and baited her, she never bit. She made me promise never to tell Diresk what she had told me. I never told a soul until now.

How could we have fallen apart? The three of us? If you could have but seen us then, it would have appeared impossible to happen. But it did. It happened like clouds suddenly blowing in on the brightest summer day, carrying gigantic canisters of rain with which to ruin your one day off. How could you? Fucking rain on my day off.

I still feel guilty I was powerless to stop it. Guilty because I have never attempted to track her down. Guilty for things that never even happened, but only flickered in my mind and the tip of my tongue. For the things I would give anything to be able to say to them right now. For loving her so much in the shadow of their love.

I still feel guilty for hoping she would come back for me.

I think they were together for a bit more than two years. To this day, I have no clear sense of what drove them apart. Actually, I do not believe anything did. I think they just somehow flew away in different directions because staying together meant always having to fly too close to someone. Maybe Rose got scared off by Diresk’s drinking and self-destruction. Maybe Diresk got scared off by Rose’s light. I wish I knew. Selfish for me to wonder, really. The answer never did belong to me.

Whenever Diresk would talk about Rose after she moved to Phoenix without him, he would get this look in his eye that reminded me of the James Taylor song the three of us used to sing. Every time I hear that song I know I lose a couple more tears from my heart.

The morning after he died, I played that song over and over upstairs in my parent’s house in Custer. Upstairs on the bed Diresk and I shared during sleepovers, and where he practiced kissing pillows and hovered eagerly over hoarded pornographic magazines stolen from my step-father’s den. The bed I sleep in when I return home to visit my family. It still makes the same noise when I get in and out. Like the screeching of hot air against the vocal chords of the demon who hid beneath my bed. The demon Diresk drove away because I asked him to.

I played the song and could not hear the words. All I could hear was the memories attached to the melody and movement of Taylor’s often tortured past and I wondered if he had written the song in an institution. I cried so hard I reared my stomach would bleed. I wretched as bile stung my throat and gums as I curled up fetal against the cool plastered wall. There were not enough blankets in the house to hold me.

I could have begged some far away God to tell it to me straight, but why bother. Really? Would God tell me? Why he couldn’t quit using drugs? Why everything has to end up hurting so fucking bad and how the answers get buried so deeply in our tissues? Why Diresk could not sense what I had begun to find and not wish to at least request a sample?

Why could Rose’s love not save him? Save all three of us? How could I have missed so much? Why was I so fucking blind and so fucking selfish that I couldn’t see him drowning? Would I see him again?

Would I see him again? I remember praying for God to be real. Funny, looking back on it. Please let there be a God so there can be a place to go when we die and I can see him again. Please.

I miss you, Rosemarie. I miss you more, and less, with every passing of a night and day. Just a matter of angles. You told me that once. I miss the way you always saw colors in everything and the way you could make me laugh when it was so much easier to prune my anger and fears. I wish you would have told me of your father. What you knew of him. Do you have a child of your own? You would have a daughter, of that I am nearly certain.

I’ll bet she’s as beautiful as the wild flowers you used to hang upside down in your tiny apartment. Was it their blood, rushing to their petaled faces that made them so?

One final ditty about Rose, but it is so difficult to edit her memories. How to edit any of this, so etched in the mineral matter of my mind? Fresh soil from this shovel I dig with these long nights, alone with the three of us. The hole is much deeper that I had intended.

If I could make a movie of our past together, I would certainly focus on the angels that must have followed and studied us with bemused glee. I would give Rose much more than her cameo. It feels like it would be black and white, but that would merely be a morose misdirection. Something about the absence of color that always speaks to me like I do.

I will remain forever in deepest debt to our Rose for the enormity and scope of her love, and for the alignment she provided for her boys. Rose taught me how to express love by throwing fuel upon embers and making it impossible for me to ignore my flame. Simple as that. She set me on fire with her own, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to extinguish it.

Maybe God sends people like her, bearing the ancient gifts, to remind us how alive we can be. I wish I could explain it better, and I hope I do not need to. Maybe we all are sent a Rose.

It became a Wednesday night custom for the three of us during our college days in Spearfish to attend the Hank and Christy shows at the B&B Saloon and Back Porch Bar. Hank on guitar and Christy on bass with the duo sharing vocals and humorous quips to smooth out the middle of the week for us overwhelmed collegians. I hear they are still playing together after all these years and fears have gone past. More than likely playing the same songs upon the same stools.

Another Wednesday night custom we adhered to was to attempt to coax Rose on stage to belt out a tune with “the band”. We endured her private concerts every time we rode together in a vehicle, but we could never seem to convince her to share her vocal prowess with the hometown crowd. After weeks of cajoling, we wore her down and she relented.

No small thanks to the nearly lethal doses of hallucinogenics and wine consumed prior to her performance, provided by her talent agents. I was so delighted as she strolled confidently to the microphone that Wednesday eve to share her rendition of “Gold Dust Woman” by Fleetwood Mac. It was a song she could actually rise to on occasion, given her range limitations and abrasive vocal chords, sanded by years of a cigarette and coffee quest. That night she had fallen short of our expectations.

Diresk and I writhed and grimaced into our seats during the performance as if we could somehow manipulate her voice into proper key. She was very close to nailing it, and had delivered both song and accompanying no-verbals with true compassion and heartfelt vigor, but as you may already know, to hyper-perfectionists such as myself; close only counts in horseshoes and breathalyzers.

If you have a good attorney.

The bar crowd had been more that gratuitous in their response to her misguided, yet spirited crucifying of the Stevie Nicks tune and demanded an encore, which to my utter horror, she excitedly agreed to deliver.

One of my more lethal character defects has always been the inability to see the benefits of doing something just because it is fun, even though you may look less than perfect to prospective critics. Diresk was concerned with protecting Rose’s feelings. Feelings insulated and befuddled by chemical assault, and in no danger whatever of harm.

She absolutely had a ball!

Diresk and I quickly assembled for emergency conference as Rose huddled with her accompanists in contemplation of her next selection.

“I gotta tell her to relax so she can show these assholes what she can really do!” Diresk demanded. “She ain’t singin’ from her guts, man. She sounds like she’s got a sore throat or somethin’.”

“Tell her she needs to sing from her diaphragm!” I shouted in his ear.

The natives were quickly approaching restless and had begun to demand action from the guest vocalist.

“What ?” he yelled back in my offered ear.

“Tell her she’s singing from her throat and she had to use her diaphragm! Tell her she’ll get much better range and be able to hold the key!”

“Jesus, you always gotta complicate shit, don’t ya!”

“Just tell her!”

Diresk nodded and approached the stage like a grizzly bear at a buffet, pushing and shoving his way through the dancers gathered on the dusty barroom floor. Rose spotted him and assumed he was going to join her in song and announced his name in the microphone perched in front of her purple lips.

Lest I forget to mention a crucial detail of probable significance regarding the crowd’s passionate embrace of our diva, Rose had been wearing a crotch-defying skirt topped by a skin-tight body suit. I believe she had been wearing red pumps – and I can only speak for myself – but such dressings on women’s feet seem to initiate a biological reaction in most males, often temporarily disengaging them from reality.

Diresk waved off his girlfriend’s beckoning to join the show and gestured for her to present an ear for consultation, standing centerstage beneath her. She eagerly complied and bent down to receive his message. She appeared to digest his comments, offered her own in his ear, and kissed him firmly on the lips before assuming her upright position at the microphone.

Diresk swung around to face me with a slightly opened mouth and a look of utter disorientation. Then, as if suddenly struck by a truck full of awareness, he exhaled, flashed me his grin, and began to slap his knee and laugh hysterically. He sat down on the edge of the stage, shaking the emotions from his ears, and began to vigorously clap his hands before leaning over to kiss Rose’s exposed right knee. It was always my favorite knee, too.

He continued to sit there, shaking his head and smiling at me as I beckoned him over to share the latest, greatest, Rose. He soon ambled over and slid into his chair, eyes appearing to have glassed over with something I had not seen in him before.

He spoke in near whisper and held my head in his hands.

“I love that woman, Toph! God damn, I love her so fuckin’ much, man!”

“What did you tell her and what did she tell you?” I eagerly requested.

“I told her she sounded great but she needed to sing from her diaphragm,”

“Yeah, and what did she say?”

“She told me she wasn’t wearing her diaphragm,” Diresk replied and fell back into barely controlled hysterics.

In my current state of chemical imbalance, it took me more time than I would have likes to admit to catch on to the gist of the moment, but I got it. But more importantly, I laughed myself into total abandon of fear of judgement. I was able to witness the clarity and the magic of not taking one’s life – or your best friend’s for that matter – so God damned seriously!

It is a night I often return to when faced with the proposition of performing some unfamiliar act I am not at all comfortable with; when suddenly struck gullible by the mind-bred fear of not looking good.]

Thankfully, Rose and my noble Diresk, I am frequently apt to defuse such distortions by conjuring and coaching myself with your teachings.

“Sing from the diaphragm, Toph! Let her fly and don’t worry ‘bout what the cheap seats are thinkin’! It don’t friggin matter anyway, man. It only matters how much fun you have doin’ it!”

Diresk, where were you when you were handing out all of this free advice?

FATHERS

I have never met my father. My biological father. All I really know about him is he left my mother two weeks before I was born and hightailed it to Florida to dive for treasure ships or something ludicrous. He called me one day when I was sixteen and I haven’t felt the need to speak to him since. He has also opted for passive avoidance. It’s not that we actually reached any mutual agreement to not converse, but our one and only phone call sunk to a depth neither of us wished to return to, buried treasure or not.

“Christopher?” I could hear the panic in my mother’s voice as she rapidly ascended the stairs leading to my room. “Open up, I need to speak to you right now!”

I obediently sprang from my bed and opened the dead bolt to my private fortress. I saw the panic spilling from my mother’s face as soon as I had opened my door.

“What’s up, Mom?” I asked, stepping aside while she entered my room and sat down on my bed like a woman who had just spoken with the father of her child for the first time in sixteen years.

Her face was as ashen as the wedding dress she never got to wear in college. “Daddy” had been unable to cope with “the scene” and had split to become a pirate, promising to drop precious stones and bullion bars at her feet upon return. She held her breath for nearly seven years.

“I can’t believe this!” she gasped. “It’s Hank. I mean it’s your father … on the phone … he’s down there on the phone and he wants to speak with you, Honey. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. He just asked me all these questions like he had just left last week or something and I just froze up and couldn’t answer any of them and … I don’t think I can talk to him again … Oh, my God, Christopher! It’s your father! On the phone … he … calling from Florida because I guess he still lives there or something and …”

My mother continued with her digressions, deteriorating further with every spoken word, and I began to realize she seemed dangerously close to a nervous breakdown and could not be counted on for rational input or support. As the blank look in her eyes clouded and her wringing hands picked up speed in their attempt to smother some invisible flame, I began to question and fear for the sanity of mother and child.

It terrified me to no end to see her in such straights, yet not nearly as much as the dangling downstairs phone with my estranged father attached to the other end.

My next thought had been”:

“Geez, I better hurry up. It’s long distance.”

The one following that was:

“Long distance? Fuck him! I’ve been waiting for sixteen years for him to call me … so he can wait sixteen minutes to talk to him!”

I believe my next conscious awareness had been one of concern for my hysterical mother, still babbling (incoherently, by now) supine atop my Dallas Cowboy comforter. I attempted to gain her attention but was greeted by only occasional glances and psychotically induced smiles before she would return to her oral dissertations regarding the dangers of relationships (of any type), the absolute futility of trusting anyone; ever, and an assortment of topics too numerous and perplexing to address.

The best I could manage at this point was to hold her hand as I deftly considered my next move:

Do you talk to your “deadbeat dad”, even though there is a better than average chance your heart may soon be in your mouth and your breath had been cut off to a two inch area just below your tongue? Or, do you stay with your mother who appears dangerously close to a psychotic break and thereby ignore you father who you have never seen or spoken to and who had suddenly reappeared on “the scene” and wants to chew the fat before boarding his next vessel to go tickle the high seas to see if it will laugh up some gold?

As luck (or Satan) would have it, I was struck hopeful by the voice of Diresk who had just waltzed in my home following a spirited debate with a local police officer, entitled:

“What exactly constitutes coming to a full stop?”

The officer, obviously assuming he had won said disagreement, promptly issued my client a traffic citation/court summons. Diresk had stopped over to air his concerns regarding the current system and to discuss and prepare our strategy for his impending court date and possible appeal.

(He actually disputed the ticket in court and the judge was forced to throw the case out, as the officer in question failed to show up to testify on behalf of Custer County due to a rather nasty circumstance I am not at liberty to discuss.)

“WHO’S ON THE HORN?” Diresk yelled up the stairs to my room “IT’S MY DAD IN FLORIDA!” I responded in kind.

“No shit?” he added, having reached my doorway in seconds. “Have you talked to him?”

“Mom did.”

“He want to talk to you?”

“Yep.”

“You gonna talk to him?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Run away.”

“We sound like we’re on Dragnet, man.” Diresk noted. “Mamma Topher don’t look too hot, man. Should we get her a drink or something?”

“She’s just in shock. So am I, man! I don’t know what to do, D. He’s waiting down there on the phone and I don’t fuckin’ know … sorry, Mom!”

At this point, I knew my mother was in serious distress. Her not reacting to my saying the “F-word” was about as likely an occurrence as a Baptist minister with a mohawk.

“I don’t know if I can face him. Feels like my heart is going to explode through my chest any minute now. I can’t breathe very well, D. I always dreamed of this happening … but now I wish he would just go away and call back after I have a chance to think this all out.”

“There’s your answer, Slick. Tell him you can’t talk to him now … that you need time to think this over and he can call back in a few days or somethin’. You ain’t got to do anythin’, man He’ll hang up eventually anyway, but if you don’t wanna lose him again you best pop down there and at least say somethin’ before he disappears again. Want me to talk to him?”

“Yeah. No! Shit, I don’t know! What would you do?” I asked, paralyzed by emotions as I continued to sink further into my mental quicksand.

“Ain’t no way I can answer that one, Jerry. I’d probably talk to the son of a bitch, but you know me .. all guts and no brains. Look … I know this has gotta be Bummer City for you … for both of you, and it may feel like it’s gonna bust you heart … but it ain’t gonna. This is just another monster … just like all the others, man. Feedin’ on your bein’ afraid of it. (pause) Man, I can’t friggin’ believe he called!”

“Me neither, man. Where is this coming from? Out of the blue like this?” I wanted to sit on someone’s lap, but I could not afford to freak Diresk out with a sudden barrage of intimacy, and my mother had regressed to the age of approximately five.

“Maybe you oughta just go down there and see what he’s gotta say for himself, Toph. You ain’t gotta be nice to him and you ain’t gotta tell him nothin’ you ain’t ready to say. Tell him the friggin’ truth, man.”

“That I’m about to shit my pants and if I talk to him I definitely will?”

“When the bowels gotta move … the bowels gotta move, Jerry. Naw … just tell him this is freakin’ your wig … and you need some time to chew on it for a while. Tell him he can call back later … or you can maybe get a number you can call him at when you’re ready. Maybe you oughta just sit here and panic and make him feel worse than he already does. Tell him to fuck off … sorry, Ma’am … tell him to come visit ya. Any of these ringin’ a bell?”

“I’m gonna talk to him,” I bravely reported, handing my mother’s hand to Diresk, who slid into my vacated position on the comforter with the traffic citation now dangling from his mouth as he searched for something in his pocket with his free hand.

“Here. Take one of these,” he whispered, blocking my mother’s view and auditory acuity with his body. “If she gets any worse, maybe we ought give her one, too.”

I dutifully removed a single tablet of Valium from Diresk’s palm and began my arduous trek downstairs to speak with my father for the first time in my young adult life. I swallowed the tab on my way down the stairs as a precautionary measure. Someone had to keep this family afloat for crying out loud!

Just before finishing my descent, Diresk’s voice issued a final instruction.

“Hey, Toph? It’s your game on your turf, man. You tell him what you want and then tell him that’s the play. Relax and let him do the heavy thinkin’!”

I reached the bottom floor kitchen and was seized by an overwhelming fear at the sight of the phone receiver, dangling ominously like a treed serpent. I must have reached for it four of five times, my hand recoiling each aborted time as it from a flame. Finally, I succumbed to conscience and palmed the receiver carefully as my body instinctively drew a deep breath and closed its eyes.

“Hello?” I hoarsely inquired to the obnoxious droning of a dial tone.

I quickly hung up the receiver to prevent an inadvertent re-connection, feeling not just a tad relieved and remiss, simultaneously. I stood there tasting the bitter tablet, my hand still affixed to the phone on the wall as if I could somehow feel what my father’s voice would have sounded like. I began to sketch a mental picture of his features and was overcome by an enormous sadness that flooded my stomach and chest.

I had nearly fainted when my artwork had been violently interrupted and erased by the metallic ring of the phone still resting within my tensed fingers. It would beckon twice again before I would swallow hard and rip it from its catch.

“Hello?” I answered in a near whisper.

“Christopher? Is that you, boy?” a deep voice yelled into my right ear.

“Yeah … it’s me. (pause) Hank?” I asked speaking over my pounding heart.

“What took you so fucking long to come to the phone, boy?” the voice barked at me. “I ain’t got a million dollars in quarters, here!”

My chest felt as if a razor had sliced down my sternum. Soon to follow was a rage that welled and crested liked a hurricane; an electric explosion of white heat that started in my head and deluged my senses like flood waters. For the first time in my life, I spoke the words of a man.

“What took you so fucking long to call me?” I shot back. “If you are so worried about the money … why didn’t you just call collect?”

“Okay … listen to me, Chris,” my father quickly inserted. “I don’t want our first discussion to turn into a bummer. Okay? Look, I know I should have tried to get in touch with you sooner, but I was worried how you would react and shit. I didn’t want to screw up you life any more than I already had, you know? Chris? Come on, man … let’s start this again.”

“My name is Christopher and I don’t know how to react to this. You have never … haven’t you ever wondered about Mom and me? You don’t know what this is like! Mom is upstairs freaking out like she just saw a friggin’ ghost and I feel like a car is parked on my chest. (pause) Why now? Why today?”

“It was just time, man. Like I woke up the other day and I was thirty-six years old and I looked up … and I ain’t got no family, no home, and I want to get … I need to get some of that in my life. I want to …hand on a minute, man … Jesus Christ … two and a half bucks? …”

A distant, robotic voice had instructed my father to “Please deposit … two… dollars and … twenty-five cents … for three additional minutes”, and as I listened to the clicks on the line as he inserted coins, I was brushed by a gentle breeze of contentment and clarity. I smiled to myself and waited for my father to continue. I no longer felt cornered. I suddenly felt an elated pulse throughout my entire being.

“Hey, man,” my father continued. “Why don’t you call me back at this number ’cause it’s gonna bleed my ass dry if I gotta keep feeding this hungry animal quarters. Whadda ya say, kid? Everything copacetic?”

“No,” I inserted with a new-found peace and direction. “Everything is not copacetic. Why don’t you give me a number I can reach you at sometime? I need to think about this some more. I’ll call you when and if I feel ready. That’s the play, here, Hank … take it or leave it.”

I took a deep breath as if waiting for a bomb to explode in my ear.

“There ain’t a number I can give you, Chris … Christopher! I’m always moving around and out on the water all the time, man. Speakin’ of … you gotta come out to Florida and I can show you ‘round the sights. It’s a God damn paradise down here and you can’t believe the babes. Shit … I’m lookin’ at two of ‘em right now that would melt your retinas, man. Look, the number I am at is … you got somethin’ to jot this down with, man? (pause) Don’t leave me hangin’ out here, man … I’m about tapped on the coinage until I can get another divin’ gig. You got a pen? I’m in Lauderdale and it’s 3-0-5- … 5-5-5 … 2-7-6-6. See? It’s gonna cut me off and I gotta keep what I have so can party hearty, dig?”

The metallic voice had again barged in to trade coins for time.

“Come on, man. You got that number ’cause it’s gonna cut me off pronto?” my father begged as the second round recording issued a more assertive plea.

“I told you what I was gonna do,” I firmly managed. “If you want to talk to me, you can somehow get a number or address to me and I can …”

“Forget it, man!” my father erupted. “I don’t know why you gotta bust my balls, kid! All I wanted to do was see how you were doin’ and see if you needed anything. Jesus! If you can’t forgive me for …”

“Thank you …your call has been disconnected,” the metallic voice droned, immediately followed by a loud click and dial tone.

I stood there holding the phone, oblivious to the bothersome noise in my right ear. My silent reflection was invaded by Diresk’s voice directly behind me. I felt his hand on my shoulder and I slowly turned to face him.

“What’d he say, Toph?” he softly inquired.

“He wanted me to call him back, and I told him I wasn’t going to and we got cut off. Said he didn’t have enough money to keep the call going,” I apathetically stated. “Did I blow it, D.?”

“Hell, no!” he answered as he removed the humming phone from my hand and replaced it on the wall.

He patted my shoulder and wandered to the refrigerator to remove two of my step-father’s Coors beers, bounding his brows in invite as he opened and handed one to me before delving into his own frosted can.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked with mild paranoia.

I looked up the stairwell for signs of possible maternal intrusion. I was not allowed to drink alcohol during family holiday meals, let alone in my own house for the hell of it.

“she’s crashed like a wino on your bed, Junior. Don’t sweat the small stuff and please … do tell your best buddy D. the skinny on Pops.”

Hesitantly, I drank from my beer as he flashed his patented grin at me like some neon sign. I had, however, remained in good standing with my encompassing calm, and could not wait to share my good fortune of inordinate demeanor with Diresk, who had already drained his first beer and was en route to his second.

“I can’t believe it, man.” I began. “When I first started talking to him, I thought I was going to blow in half because I was so pissed at him. I hadn’t felt anger like that in years. Anyway, we started to kind of argue and I was starting to get that panicky feeling. I was expecting some panic freak out to overtake me and I would pass out or just go blank and have a stroke...”

“Get to the meat, Jerry ... before I turn fifty!”

“Sorry, but this was kind of heavy for me ... Jesus Christ, D. I’’ just trying to tell you I think I’m getting better with managing my feelings. You are always talking about how I can’t keep a handle on my feelings and when I go to tell you about how I’m beginning to do just that, you jump all over me and don’t let me tell you about it! Maybe I’m getting stronger is all I’m trying to say here, if you’ll just cut me some slack.”

“Yeah … maybe,” Diresk nodded. “Or maybe you got a little boost from the medicine I gave ya. What do you think that was, man … a friggin’ lifesaver?”

suddenly, I felt rather vexed and foolish. The Valium had entirely slipped my mind. (Or had my mind slipped on the Valium?) Blinded by my arrogant assumption I had somehow temporarily vanquished my pesky nemesis, I had conveniently overlooked my ingesting of a potent tranquilizer prior to conversing with dear old Dad. Dang!

I immediately launched into sedated self pity and was soon ready for my second mood altering beverage.

I replayed my conversation with my father as best as I could as Diresk listened intently, inserting timely perceptions and insight with dramatic waves of his burning cigarette. We had checked on my mother, and after pooling our collective wisdom regarding medicine, psychiatry (emphasis on post-traumatic stress syndrome and assorted character disorders), sociology, and religion (minor references to L. Ron Hubbard’s scientology), we were able to determine an immediate transport to a health care facility was not warranted, and merely covered her in a blanket and escaped to the quiet confidentiality and comfort of Diresk’s truck.

Grover tried to bite me and I spit in his hairy face. I was in no mood to take canine shit, and though Diresk was not pleased, let it slide.

As we drove away, I could not help but wonder why I was not in tears. It seemed the appropriate reaction to such a situation, but I could barely get a feeling to rise towards my bait.

“Look,” Diresk stated after crossing the city limits. “You can’t sweat this ‘cause you’re the kid and it ain’t your responsibility to figure this shit out anyway. He’s the parent. Him and your mom are supposed to be adults and deal with all the necessary details. Problem is, Slick, most adults don’t know what in the hell to do when they get themselves in these situations anyway. Shit, my mom and dad act like twelve-year-olds whenever something goes wrong at my pad. Your dad probably ain’t that bad of a guy .. but let’s face it, man … he’s a burned out hippie who thinks he’s gonna get rich findin’ some buried treasure for Christ’s sakes. That should tell you one thing and one thing only, Larry!:

“It’s high time for Topher to let the grown-ups fend for themselves and find a father figure he can depend on.”

He let that comment just hang in the smoky cab as we both watched the Custer State Park Highway roll under the truck as if the Earth was spun by it’s tires.

“How in hell am I supposed to find someone like that?” I asked, turning down the stereo to maximize Direskian philosophical absorption.

“You ain’t gotta find him, man,” Diresk replied, turning to burn his next words into me with his cutting eyes. “He ain’t the one that’s lost, pal.”

That said, he turned up the stereo signaling, at least for the time being, the discussion was to move into quiet reflection on my part. He would just smoke and drive his truck like some redneck shaman, rocking to the best of the music and nibbling the skin off of his chapped lips.

It would be several years before I would catch the gist of his comments spoken on that day. Just in time to save my life and be able to stick around to witness the end of his.

Somehow, I must learn to accept the injustice of this. I’m just grateful I finally found a “Dad” who calls me all the time. If I will just listen.

“do you remember the first time you ever saw a picture of a naked woman and what you were doing?” I asked Diresk, eyeing him peripherally.

“Um … let’s see … I think I was wonderin’ who shot Kennedy. Shit .. I musta been about four or five, somethin’ like that. My old man’s Playboy was under the sink in the bathroom and I brought it out to show him. My mom freaked out and they got in a big fight, man.”

“How can you remember that far back? I can’t remember anything that far back, man. I can’t believe how people can … OUCH! Shit!”

“What happened?”

“I sat down on my balls wrong. God, I hate doing that. Son of a bitch! Does that happen to you when they caught inside your leg once in a while and it feels like you’re gonna puke or something?”

“Oh, yeah,” Diresk laughed. “sometimes I stand up from my desk at school and catch a ball like that … that fuckin’ hurts, man. Girls don’t know what that pain is like, man. Kick us in the balls and think it’s cute when we about friggin’ die.”

“Yeah. Though I’ll bet having a baby doesn’t feel real good,” I said, carefully rearranging my scrotal belongings and wincing with every touch.

“Not as bad as getting kicked in the balls, man. I don’t care what any woman says…l. that’s the worst pain in the world. Worse than getting’ kicked in the shin or anythin’! I got kicked in the balls by Greg McDonald once … before you moved here … and I saw red for a friggin’ hour and my dick even started to bleed.”

“He did it on purpose?”

“He said it was an accident, but I know he meant to do it ‘cause we were playin’ football and creamin’ his team. That fucker his from me for about a month that summer, man. But I caught him behind the pool one day and made him eat a piece of dog shit I found. I told him I was gonna kick his balls if he didn’t swallow all of it and he did it.”

“Dog shit? Oh, God. That’s evil, man.”

“No … evil was kickin’ him in the balls even after he ate the shit,” Diresk replied, winking and grinning.

We laughed together in our flannel pajamas and wrestled on his bed. We were in the eighth grade and I had been granted temporary leave from my home for a sleep over at Diresk’s house. I would never have dared have him over for the night at my house. I was too embarrassed by the tight reign of my step-father. Chains tied to my very soul.

“Didn’t your old man prefer blondes, man?” Diresk quizzed me.

“What?” I lazily replied as my fingers attacked on of my step-father’s pornographic magazines I had brought with me. My step-father had hundreds of such magazines in the bedroom he no longer shared with my mother. Under the bed mattress, tucked away in the closet, in boxes under the bed and hidden in a crawl-space in the walls. I knew them all.

“Blondes, you dimwit! Your mom told ya your old man like blondes and every time you see one in a magazine, your friggin’ eyes ’bout fall outta your skull.”

“Do they really?” I answered with minute interest.

“I been doin’ a little research with you and you don’t hardly ever look too long at redheads or brunettes. Always blondes. Your whole body gets all lit up and shit when you see one. Bet its cause you old man likes ’em so much, huh?”

“You are out of your mind,” I shot back defensively, marking my page and closing the magazine. “I like brunettes and redheads just as much as blondes, man! You’re the one who is always talking about how girls with brown hair and brown eyes drive you crazy. I think you may be …”

“I ain’t blind and I ain’t dumb, Gomer. You got the blonde fever and you got it bad!”

“So what if I do? What’s your point, Dr. Freud?”

“All’s I’m sayin’ is what I been noticin’. Don’t get all spasmodic and shit. I’m makin’ a simple point and you can listen or throw it out … it don’t make no difference to me.”

“I’ve never even met my father … you know that. How could I be just like him if I’ve never met him? Huh? Just because I like blonde hair doesn’t necessarily mean anything other than…”

“Whatever you say, Jerry. You believe whatever you gotta believe … but I know I’m right so it don’t matter what you say. Just tryin’ to point our something may help you down the road. I think you better thing about it and see if I ain’t right.”

“Whatever!” I shot back and rolled over and away from him

“Know somethin’?” Diresk softly asked.

“I know lots of things!”

“Every time we talk about your old man, this always happens. You always get pissed and I always want to get you more pissed. Sometimes I think you should just go find him and have it out with him once and for all. Ain’t good carryon’ this shit around like you do.”

“Diresk … why can’t you just leave me alone right now? I don’t want to talk about it and I don’t agree with what you are saying so just knock it off!”

“Ice cream.”

“What?” I answered, turning to again face my interrogator.

“Ice cream. We need some ice cream to cool off, man.”

“What kind you got?” I asked, quickly losing ground on my brave stance.

“Butterbrickle, Slim. Fudge sauce ready to pour.”

“Cool.”

“Topher?” Diresk asked as he swung his legs over the bed and stood up.

“What now?”

“You think blondes taste different than redheads?”
“Go straight to hell and don’t collect two hundred dollars.

What angered me most about what he had told me was I had to admit he was right. I had the blonde fever. Chronic case that was traceable back to my first grade school crush over Sue Tennyson, a platinum blonde. I’ve been blonde-crazy ever since.

Just like my father.

My blonde fever was cyclical as I glance back over the love trysts of my life. Every two years (or so), a peroxide-tipped sheet seeking missile would blow through my life like a hurricane with a hangover and toss my delicately balanced sanity around like a sandwich bag full of nitroglycerine. I would always hear the storm coming, the warning siren and the ominous shift in surroundings, but would invariably exit my protective walls to naively strut directly into her jaws in a state of mystical absorption to be emotionally filleted like some moronic trout that keeps striking at the same rusted lure.

I knew better. Deep down inside. Always time to abort the mission before going down with the boat, but I was powerless to resist the addictive, melancholy melodies slowly escaping from these women’s pores. Always blonde. Always anorexic or bulimic.

Always a disaster.

We continued the discussion, well into our twenties, and it would always follow the same invisible trails leading into the same old canyon.

“All blondes can’t be bad, D. Just because a girl has a specific hair color does not necessarily denote disaster. Some people only like to drive red cars. Some people only wear blue jeans. What’s the harm in a color?”

“It ain’t the color of these girl’s hair that’s got ya up a tree, Slim. You keep pickin’ the same kind of girl under the hair and….”

“There you go again. Lumping all my relationships under one handy little …”

“Like I was tryin’ to say …. You keep pickin’ them princess types who are supposed to be perfect and you can’t live up to it. I ain’t got all the details worked out here … but we been Talkin’ ‘bout this for years and you keep getting’ bent outta shape every friggin’ time. Christ, Toph .. it’s just a detail of your life and it don’t mean you’re hopeless or bad or nothin’ like that. Hell, you don’t need to …”

“Don’t need to what? Jesus Christ, D…… it’s real easy for you to sit back and pick apart my life. You don’t exactly have the girl thing worked out yourself, do you? You don’t have a perfect …”

“Never said I did, Slick. Alls I’m sayin’ is you gotta admit you get fucked up over chicks like nobody I ever seen. You almost get killed every time you bread up with one, man. Thrown’ up and layin’ in bed for weeks and shit … endin’ up in nuthuts for weeks until you can get your brain workin’ again.”

“Always has to come back to the hospitals, doesn’t it? You just can’t live with the fact that I’ve had emotional problems, can you? Why not, Diresk? Why is that so fucking hard for you to swallow? Shy?”
“I don’t give a shit if you have to check into a million of ‘em, so fuck you! I’m just your best friend and tryin’ to show you shit that keeps knockin’ you down, man. If you don’t wanna listen … don’t mean I ain’t gonna keep puttin’ it in front of your face. It ain’t about no hospitals or any of that shit, man. It’s about you and havin’ to watch you go down in flames every time you fall for some chick who pulls your trigger!”

“I still don’t see the connection with my father who I have never met and know virtually nothing about, and the girls I have been in relationships with. You seen to think I’m stuck in some paternal mud or something, but I just don’t get it.”

“Ain’t you ever listened to what your mom says about …”

“All my mother ever said about him was he chased women and cheated on her all the time…”

“With blondes, man”

“Yes … blondes! My mom is a blonde, Asswipe! So he likes blondes … and so do I. Most men do, for crying out loud. It’s a known fact. Look at all the advertising and movies and shit. Tall …. Thin … blondes. “

“With big titties and ….”

“You’re a sick person, D. And you’re giving me advice about women? You think most of the men in America have the same hang up my old man has? Just because most of them like blondes? Do you? Do you think everyone but you had this Freudian paternal noose around their necks and are hanging themselves by falling in love with blonde women?”

“You are losing your marbles, Chuckie .. and one of these days you ain’t gonna be able to get ’em back in the bag. I’m tired of this shit anyway.”

“Then let’s drop it!” I wanted to keep going.

“Find by me, man. Fine by me. Didn’t mean to step on your toes again, Toph. Consider it dead and gone.”

“Good. I’m tired of talking about it and we never get anywhere with it anyway.”

“No use beatin’ a dead blonde to death. Let’s talk about somethin’ we both agree on. Smokin’ dope!”

“I don’t want to get stoned now. Go ahead.”

“Roll me a fat-boy and I’ll grab us a couple brewchonskies from the cooler.”

I smiled as Diresk went to retrieve some beers and began my appointed task. I had rolled a cigar-sized joint by the time he had returned to the canvas tent.

“Toph?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think ‘cause your dad left ya like he did that you keep tryin’ to grab some piece of him by ….”

My ears were plugged, and I was loudly singing nonsense.

He was known around Custer as a man not to be messed with. Decades spent hefting chainsaws and large brush through the pine forests surrounding our majestic community had chiseled and sculpted the upper muscles of his long torso. It was said he could cut more trees in a day than any two area loggers. Diresk had once seen his father carve his won name in a large pine using a thirty-six inch chain say blade and only one arm.

Jake “Thunder Fist” Webster was and is a powerful and domineering man, prone to violent tantrums, frequent alcoholic binges, militant leftist reform, and impromptu displays of gregariousness and fetching theological philosophies.

Although the man often terrified me, I was drawn by his meticulous pursuit of and adherence to the convictions and principles by which he lived his life. His periodic expressions of such tenderness and love served to distract one from his often brutal behavior towards his family or anyone who crossed him the wrong way. Diresk loved his father desperately and was burdened by such mixed emotions.

On one hand, Jake Webster was the father all boys could look up to. His scarred and callused hands could demonstrate amazing feats of strength, yet appeared to constantly shake with a confused sense of tenderness and compassion.

I had seen these hands hold Diresk’s frightened face like some fractured egg shell, caressing his son’s crimson skin as if to transfer all his love through the tips of his fingers. I had also seen these hand lift Diresk off his feet and toss him into a wall with such force as to shatter glass from picture frames, ten feet away.

Diresk carried with him many scars from such events. It was almost as if he wore them as badges. Medals of a secret honor society he shared with his father. I always more or less envied him for these scars. My step-father and I had never battled physically, and my scars were hidden deep beneath the surface of my skin like the pornographic magazines beneath my mattress I had stolen from him.

Jake Webster had been a golden gloves boxing champion in his twenties and had passed on much of his pugilistic tendencies to his only son. Diresk had swung boxing gloves at various targets as soon as he was able to lift them. Throughout the years, father and son would spar countless hours away in the basement den and weight room. Celia Webster had hoped her only son would pursue her musical interests.

Jake Webster simply would not hear of it.

“The last thing the kid needs to learn is the friggin’ piano, Cele!” Jake would lecture his portly redheaded wife. “He’ll end up tryin’ to become some rock star and throw away any chance he’d have at a future. He ain’t gonna end up like me and spend the resta his life ruinin’ his body! He ain’t gonna! He’s gonna use his brains in some college and get a good job! If he wants to play the damn piana after he gets settled inta some career … fine by me. Until then, he ain’t gonna waste his time or yours sittin’ on some damn bench tryin’ to teach his fingers ta sing. Period!”

“Honey,” Delia Webster would plead with her sad smile. “I just want Diresk to have a hobby he can enjoy for the rest of his life. He has a wonderful ear for music. Have you heard him sing? Have you?”

“Just because I don’t go to them choir shows don’t mean I don’t love or support my boy, dammit! I always see his football and basketball games … don’t I? I always …”

“You always just support him when you think it’s a good idea for you. Honey … Diresk is a gifted and intelligent boy. He is so creative and it won’t hurt him to take music lessons …”

“NOT IF HE’S IN MY GOD DAMN HOUSE! Why don’t you listen to me? I said he ain’t gonna do it and he ain’t gonna do it! I know how smart my boy is. I know how everyone thinks he’s the funniest damn kid in school. That ain’t gonna get him down the road to where he needs to be. What about all this trouble from the school this year? Clowning ‘round and playin’ jokes and shit. That’s where creative will get you …”

“Oh, Honey …. He’s just having a good time and he’s got a wonderful sense of humor. He’s still just a boy and he’ll grow our of this …”

“It’s just an excuse to get outta hard work is what it is. World don’t need….more comedians and jesters and geetar pickers, Cele. World needs great minds and men with courage and smarts to get us outta these dark times. World’s losin’ touch real fast, Cele. It needs heroes … not love songs. Got enough friggin’ love songs to blast on the radio to last us for eternity and where’s it getting’ us?”

The room fell silent. I heard something crash against the wall.

“I ain’t havin’ my son throw ‘way his life chasin’ no music dream ta go growin’ his hair downta his ass and takin’ drugs! Now if you think I’m wrong ‘bout it … I’m sorry but it’s the way I see it and it ain’t gonna change! All God’s got is us humans to get His work done and He ain’t got time for us to be fiddle-fuckin’ around! We gotta get this world turned around in a hurry, Cele … or it’s gonna throw us all off it’s back.”

We were both thirteen at the time. I had been listening to the above heated conversation in Diresk’s bedroom. Diresk and his parents had been discussing this situation in the family room. I remember having all of these rebuttals come to mind and wishing I could somehow telepathically transfer them to my best friend’s brain and rescue. Diresk had wanted to learn to play the piano; his mother’s instrument. He had come home from school requesting parental permission to sign up for band.

I listened as Diresk made his brave attempt to sway his determined father.

“Dad … I just want to play like Mom. It ain’t like I’m gonna ruin my life because I want to play music. Besides … can you imagine how much the girls will like me after they know that the coolest and toughest kid in school can play Mozart? I’ll have to hire a bodyguard. I’ll have to beat them off with –“

“You got my final word on this, Diresk,” his father hissed in a lowered voice that brought to mind a cornered animal. “You ain’t playin’ in no band and you won’t say another damn word about it again! You understand me? Answer me, son!”

“Yeah, I heard you,” Diresk meekly answered. I heard something crash to the floor, followed by an immediate scuffle.

“YOU WON’T ACT LIKE SOME SPOILED BRAT IN THIS HOUSE GOD DAMMIT! PICK IT UP! PICK IT UP NOW!”

“JAKE, DON’T BREAK HIS ARM, HONEY!” his mother yelled above the sounds of bodies struggling and Diresk’s cries of pain.

“I’ll pick it up, Jesus!” Diresk cried. “Let go and I’ll pick it up! It was an accident anyway. You don’t have to twist my arm off. I know you can beat the hell out of me, okay? I know how tough you are, okay? You are the big man! Throw your son around the room some more, why don’t ya?”

Silence invaded my heightened nerves as if the family room had suddenly fallen into a chasm. I had only known the family for a short time and had no idea what to expect next. The sound of my name made me jump off of Diresk’s bed and scan the room for available exit or concealment possibilities.

“Is Christopher her?” his father asked in a deliberate and measured tone.

“He’s in Diresk’s room, honey,” Mrs. Webster chimed as if to tame the monster precariously perched for attack in her husband’s being.

“CHRISTOPHER?” Jake Webster’s booming voice announced.

“IN HERE,” escaped through my lips on instinct.

I would have hidden in that room for the rest of my life had I the choice, and as I heard his heavy steps approach Diresk’s bedroom door I backed into the farthest wall away to shake and quiver like a puppy just caught pissing on the prized Persian rug.

The door opened slowly to the blood-reddened face and intimidating chassis of Jake “Thunder Fists” Webster, wearing a stern brow and clasping meaty hands together near his groin as if to prevent them from injurious measures.

“Um … Christopher …we’re havin’ a little family talk here and I think it’s best you go on home now. If you need a ride I can give ya one right now, son.”

“That’s okay, Mr. Webster,” I choked out of my dry, burning throat. “It only takes me fifteen minutes to walk home and it’s real nice out and everything. I’ll just get my things from the kitchen and go on home.”

It took all the courage I had to address him again.

“Um …Mr. Webster? Would you ask Diresk to call me later tonight if he can. I mean … I don’t want to get in your business or nothing but he sounds kind of ….upset and….”

“I’ll tell him to call you after supper, son.” He firmly reported.

“Thanks for givin’ us some privacy for this. I’m sure you know … well, what this is like. I hope we didn’t scare you, son. Everything will be okay. I just lost my temper a bit and we need to talk this thing out some.”

I nodded my head and snuck past him, closing my eyes as my body brushed his. I quickly made my way through the family room, catching a glimpse of Diresk’s sunken and defeated form on the couch, and sped into the kitchen to retrieve my jacket and backpack. I was aware of a presence behind me as I hurried to zip my coat and start my walk home.

Mrs. Webster’s soft voice startled me, but I was physically relieved. “I’m sorry if we seem … like a strange family, Christopher.” she nearly whispered, tugging back at emotions that were fighting for escape. “You are welcome here any time, honey … and Diresk will call you later tonight. Are you sure you don’t want a ride? Jake can run you home.”

“No, thanks,” I replied, offering my back to her, pretending to struggle with the zipper.

Finally, I turned to face her, though I fought to meet her eyes. They were Diresk’s eyes.

“It’s okay, Mrs. Webster,” I began with a forged smile. “Every family has fights now and then. I think my family fights more than we do anything, actually. Thanks for the cookies and juice and tell Diresk he can call me any time tonight before nine. Bye now.”

I tugged open the oak door and walked out into the bright, snow covered front yard, illuminated by a tired sun on its way down for the night. Mrs. Webster closed the door behind me and I took the first of steps that would lead me home. I remember felling angered and sorrow-laden as I crossed Montgomery Street and a field where I would play countless games of football and baseball in the following years.

Life just wasn’t like television. Well, not like the television I was allowed to watch.

Diresk called me later that night. I had been reading in bed and had been called to the phone by my own unpredictable step-father who lectured me on having friends call late at night and informed me he would be timing my discourse. I dejectedly swallowed my medicine and picked up the kitchen phone with my constant companion churning in my stomach.

Why could I not be like Diresk? Why could I not stand up to my father’s insolence and fight my own battles? Mother always fought them for me. I was the tenuous child who could not be bothered by such stressful notions. It would be many, many years before I would begin to learn to set the boundaries that would safeguard my emotional stability.

“Hey, man!” I announced to my waiting friend. “I can’t talk too long because my Dad’s on the prowl tonight. Said he’s timing this call”

“I don’t feel much like talkin’ anyway,” Diresk muttered. His voice sounded like his entire head was full of something very sad. “Sorry ‘bout today, Larry. The huzband and missus were in fine form, huh? Don’t look like I’m gonna be the next Elton John. Gonna let it lay down, man. Somethin’ really freaked the old man out … and … you know somethin’? I don’t even think it’s about band or anythin’ like that. Somethin’ deeper. Really deep! Shoulda seen him after you split. He was like …. One minute he was gonna rip me and Mom in half with his hands … then the next he was … (whispering) just a minute.”

There was a pause and I heard Mrs. Webster’s faint voice say something to Diresk and then he continued.

“Mom came downstairs for a sec,” he reported. “Anyway, I should go, but somethin’ strange happened today. To Dad. He took off and went somewhere a couple hours ago. He was drinkin’ pretty heavy after you left. All he told me was he loved me and he was sorry for grabbin’ me like that and shit … and then he bit his lip real hard and kissed me man. Kissed me for like fifteen seconds or somethin’.”

“On the lips?” I asked, horrified.

“Naw, man. On the forehead. He ain’t no friggin’ pervert so stop your detective brain in its tracks. It’s just weird is all … man … like he was gonna never see me again or somethin’. I’m kinda worried about him, Toph. I also wish I was big enough ta knock his friggin’ head down inside his neck! My neck still feels like I got grabbed by King Kong. (pause) Know somethin’?”

“I love that son of a bitch more every time this shit happens. One minute I want to blow his brains out with a shotgun and the next I want to sit in his lap and be five years old again. He ain’t that bad of a guy, man. He just can’t let go of nothin’. Wish I knew more about head shrinkin’ so I could figure this shit out. I think he musta had somethin’ really bad happen to him when he was a kid. I ever tell you about Grandpa Webster?”

“I don’t think so.”

“If you had met him, you would understand why Dad took up fightin’. Gramps hated everybody. Equally. Nigs, Jews, Spicks, Injuns, mice, Japs, dogs, cats …. Insurance companies. Shit, he used to bitch about insurance companies for hours, man. I would be like four or somethin’ and he would be tellin’ me to never pay for insurance. Hell, I probably won’t,” he said, laughing and coughing.

I imagined he was probably smoking. Talk about fearless!

“Why don’t we just run away and get the hell out of our fathers’ lives?” I somewhat jokingly inquired.

“Can’t run from nothin’, Zeke,” my guru inserted. “Anyways, I love my old man, man. Man, man. Man …what do you think of my old man, man? Man ….does your old man grab you like a vise, man? Shit.”

I joined the laughter regarding his careless nomenclature. I loved the way Diresk talked. Man.

“Know what my dad said to me when I got in my first fight at school?” Diresk asked, coughing away his laughter. “He said, ‘If you are gonna fight for somethin’ …. Fight for somethin’ you believe it. Don’t fight someone just to beat THEM because you want to or can. I been fightin’ people my whole life and all it’s really got me is big knuckles. I taught you how to use your fists so you could defend yourself and the ones you love from filth! I don’t want you to ever use it to hurt someone that’s afraid. If they’re scared …. They don’t believe what they’re doin’ is right. They’re just fightin’ cause ’a what people might think about ‘em. That boy you whipped today mighta had it comin’ … but was he afraid?’

“This kid …. You know Danny Wiles … he was the one he was talkin’ about. Anyways, he called me a name and I kicked the shit outa him. I told my dad Danny was cryin’ before I even fought him and he said:

‘You wanna fight someone to prove you’re some kinda big man, you can fight me! I want ya ta stick up for others who can’t do it for themselves. I seen you lookin’ at my boxin’ trophies and maybe you think I want ya to be some great fighter so I’ll be proud of ya. You’ll make me the proudest if ya just use what God give ya to make the world a better place. I love you ‘cause you’re my son and that ain’t ever gonna change. Don’t fight with your fists, son. Gotta fight with your mind. Get an education and you can be lots better than me. Be a lawyer or a doctor or somethin’ like that. That’s where the real power comes from … and not from fightin’ your whole life and cuttin’ down trees like I done. Use your brain, son. I hate myself for not doin’ all the things I shoulda done. I ain’t nothin’ but a broken down logger who run outta time to change. You’re gonna go places and it’s my job to make sure you do.’”

I listened and the parallels of my own life came into view. I didn’t understand it then, but we were faced with the same dilemma coming from opposite approaches. Diresk was the imposing oak that pounded and drove his roots through his doubts and fears. Hard, durable wood used for shipbuilding and furniture. I was the brittle aspen sapling, whose leaves quivered in the slightest breeze, begging for someone to rescue me from the cold wind.

Neither one of us had a clue of how to wrestle of finesse true contentment from the intrepid tentacles of the monster our fathers had conversely painted for us. Of life. The pursuit of happiness. I would finally develop an inkling (which would grow into the fruition of a rather handsome tree) as decades passed like blurred daydreams, that happiness was not, in fact, to be attained through pursuit; it is a necessary and inevitable response to the act of slowing down enough to allow appraisal and cherish of our innate treasure maps leading to bliss. In short, you find the place where your energy fits.

“I gotta go, Toph,” my best friend added as if to cross the T he had just dropped in my lap to ponder.

“Wait!” I blurted. “What in the hell are you trying to tell me? I’m not following your point. What does that have to do with what your dad did today … I mean, the story about fighting and becoming a doctor or scientist or whatever?”

“I got so much work ahead of me with you,” Diresk sarcastically sneered into the ear attached near my befuddled expression. “Don’t ask me to explain it to ya, Jerry. It just makes sense to me and that’s what’s important to this ole’ cowboy right now. I’m too tired to dig inta this anymore. Hey … don’t wear your purple shirt to school tomorrow, ’cause I’m gonna wear mine.”

The phone died in my hand, mere inches from the smile that had begun to crack my lips. He had done it to me again. Delivered some crucial message in code when, if deciphered, could have saved me from thankless hours of emotional carpentry.

Stricken by insomnolence, I measure, sawed, and pounded throughout the night, working on my newest existential structure. (Apologies to Mr. Kierkegaard.)

The first time my lips tasted alcohol and the fiery brew poured down into my skittish belly, I had felt as if God had reached down to touch my nose.

The first time I smoked marijuana, I felt as if I could reach up to touch God’s.

Booze prevailed over many of my assorted tools of indifference and reality distraction, and though it proved to be a most pleasant ally, I was often able to gaze upon and engage it with rather disciplined nonchalance.

Pot was an entirely different noun, and I fully intended for it to finally fill the pesky hole in my being. For a time, I believe it may have, at the very least, provided a makeshift dressing.

Smoking pot was like putting a pair of sunglasses on my brain. Such a delightful rush of numbness to be soon followed by such soothing mitigation. Absolute wonder and sense of propriety with my world. It was as if I had inhaled tiny tendrils of tranquility that coiled and climbed throughout my body. It was almost my first thought upon awakening. To kiss my lover’s lips and inhale her sweet breath. Then, to sink back into my pillow and allow her to work her magic as the vine filled me like a quiet ocean. I would do nothing, could do nothing; without first getting high.

I stayed high for nearly ten years. A decade’s dance with a demon. She left me at the altar and I would have married her forever had she not turned and bit me with such vengeance and stealth. My world shattered when dope quit working. It was like waking up in a coffin, buried alive. Bare inches to move within, and noone to hear the screams.

My step-father was a drinker of beer. Not a connoisseur, mind you, he drank only Coors. Strictly Coors in the can. He would nightly sip himself into oblivion in front of the television, submerged in recliner in our family room.

He was not a hard man to locate.

He has since sobered, and we now enjoy an understanding that is rapidly approaching a friendship. He has replaced beer with Pepsi, and now flips through the Internet as opposed to cable channels. He walks five miles a day and has lost nearly thirty pounds. He no longer takes blood pressure medicine, nor finds it necessary to coat food with a thick layer of salt.

I love him. He’s my Dad.

Growing up, I cannot recall having spoken more than twenty times with Richard Hammerquist, my step-dad. Our repertoire of chat consisted mainly of him screaming at me which nearly always led my mother, Sandra, to my cowering and rescue. This, of course, predicated the countless parental battles that echoed off the walls of our small, stucco home. Richard would invariably retreat to his chilled Coors. Sandra, tearful and victimized, would again vow to leave her “alcoholic” husband, then disappear on another of her marathon walks. Such was their marriage. Separate lives lived under the same dark cloud. The same tar roof. Our house seemed so much smaller then. Today, I find it rather spacious and it feels like a place I will once again call home.

And mean it.

In the old days, Christopher would simply retreat to his room and private kingdom to disassociate from the family woes. On October 31, 1974, Halloween night, he would stroll through a corridor and enter new and improved chambers.

“GET IN!” Diresk ordered as he pulled into my driveway and spotted me, in costume, impatiently waiting for him beside our towering wood pile. He had picked me up in his truck for an evening of debauchery. Dressed as transvestites, we spun out of our driveway and into the ripe night.

“I can’t walk in these heels, man!” I giddily informed the well-muscled blonde sitting next to me. Diresk was wearing a black leather miniskirt, curly blonde wig, a flowered blouse, full makeup, and his basketball shoes.

He had insisted I wear the pumps we had borrowed from some friends of ours and had pledged to respond in kind. We were five blocks away from my house before I discovered his violation of discretion.

“You promised me you would wear the high heels,” I pouted. “If you aren’t going to wear yours then take me home so I can change. I am not going to sprain my ankle in these friggin’ things if you get to wear tennis shoes!”

“What time ya gotta be home?” he asked, ignoring my protestations.

“Diresk! Damn you … take me home! I mean it! I am not going to the school dance with these on and that is final! You lied to me, man. (pause) What am I saying? Like that should surprise me. If you would just….”

“What time do you have to be home, Henry? I’m cut loose till two bells. Ma got me an extra hour,” he proudly announced and held up two fingers, which dropped the burning cigarette that had been perched between them onto the vinyl seat cover. It rolled under the edge of my mother’s dress and I nearly knocked myself unconscious in my feverish attempt to avoid scorching the borrowed garment.

Thank God for thick wigs, and I managed to save my bodice and skirt.

“Jesus Christ, D.!” I scolded.

“Didn’t get ya did I?” he calmly shot back.

“Here … and watch the friggin’ road,” I stated as I handed his cigarette back to him and witnessed a near miss with the curb of the Piggly Wiggly Store parking lot.

“What time do you have to be home, Little Topher?” Diresk sang to me.

“Midnight,” I dejectedly replied.

“MIDNIGHT? That’s when shit starts ta hit the fan, Leroy! I ain’t takin’ you home one minute before one-and-a-half.”

“He’ll kill me if I’m late tonight,” I begged. “Mom had to pull off some wicked bank shots just to get my ass out of there tonight. He’s still pissed about what you said to him.”

“Fuck him! Let him be pissed. He ain’t gonna treat my best friend like some kindergartner,” Diresk barked and shot me a stern glance. “I mean it, man. You can’t keep takin’ that shit from him like you do. It’s gonna mess up your wirin’ inside and you’re gonna go schizo or somethin’ some day.”

Neither of us had any concept of the accuracy and clairvoyance of this statement. Well, I didn’t anyway.

“I’m not like you, man!” I cried. “I can’t help it. He scares the shit our of me. He could break me into tiny pieces if he wanted to. I would give anything to be able to tell him off like you did the other day.”

Diresk smiled at me and handed me a cigarette which I in turn lit with his. He shook his head, blowing smoke from his nostrils and pounded on the steering wheel with both of his painted hands.

“I don’t wanna talk about this shit no more tonight, Topher. Let’s just have us the best time we can and we’ll get home when we get home. Okay?”

I gave him the best nod I could, but I’m sure my eyes looked as if they would leak at any moment.

“Besides,” he inserted. “I got us a special treat for tonight’s festivities.”

I could take no more of his knee driving and took the helm as he rummaged beneath his seat for his surprise. He glanced at me and shook his wigged head as if to say, “Have I ever wrecked before?” He winked as his hand found its mark and produced a black film canister from beneath his legs. My heart sped up and it suddenly became hot in the cab.

“What is it?” I asked with hesitant mirth.

“Maree-jew-wanna, Jethro. Cambodian gold or some shit like that. I got it from Frankenstein and he says it’s the real deal. I know we were gonna wait till after basketball was done, but this was too good to pass on.”

Frankenstein was the nickname of a casual acquaintance of ours who was known regionally to have smoked so much pot that his first born would be stoned for a year. He was Custer’s number one drug dealer and he always passed out candy bars like business cards at our school.

I never trusted him. He was a drug dealer, for Christ’s sake.

For all I knew, he had given us heroin or an even more dangerous narcotic. I was not ready to lie in alleys with hypodermic syringes protruding from my shriveled veins, jaundiced by the fever and disease carried in my blood, passed out in vomit-soaked Salvation Army rags. I was not prepared to spend the rest of my life in a prison going steady with some rabid sodomite who would force me at knife point to fellate with him in front of his buddies. I was going to law school. I was going to win the Pulitzer Prize and lecture intellectuals well into my nineties, for Christ’s sake.

My step-dad was going to kill me!

“I’m not sure I want to do this, D.,” I impotently countered. “Let’s just get some beer or wine tonight and think on this some more.”

“Think on this some more,” he mimicked. “If I had to wait for you to think on shit before I would do anything, I would kill myself from boredom and embarrassment! The game is going now, Toph! We ain’t just warming up for it. You GOTTA grab shit while time still lets you see the handle! It’s only reefer, man. It ain’t even addictive. We’ll just smoke a tiny bit and see what it does to our brain waves. By the way … you look hot in them shoes!”

“Yeah …. Right. What if it’s laced with PCP or somethin’? Remember that girl from Spearfish who smoked PCP and locked herself in the closet and by the time they got her out she had chewed off and swallowed three of her fingers? She thought she was smoking just pot, man. Just pot … and she nearly ate her friggin’ hand!”

“Without mustard?”

I held off as long as I could, but soon joined him in laughter and my first joint. Diresk rolled it and really messed it up, but I knew I couldn’t have done any better. We had pulled into our favorite spot behind the football field to become drug addicts. I remember we played a Doobie Brother’s tape in his eight track stereo, strapped to the bottom of his dashboard with baling wire. We had to usually stick a matchbook cover beneath the tape or it would refuse to play. We had borrowed it from the local Gambles Store.

For about five years.

I must have swallowed fifty times as I watched him labor with the rolling papers and green and red buds, panicking at the sight of every set of headlights that approached on the dirt road below us. All I needed was for the FBI to nail us with dope and haul us off to Alcatraz.

My step-dad would kill me!

“Just take it in like a cigarette, but don’t take too much. Ya gotta hold it in your lungs as long as you can,” Diresk instructed and then took a very long drag from our haggard looking joint.

Within seconds, he launched into a convulsive coughing spell and by the time he had regained control of his lungs, his eyes were blood-soaked and my nostrils were treated to their first whiff of the sweet and pungent breath of Cannabis sativa.

“That looks like a real blast,” I sardonically quipped. “Cough your feet up through your mouth and then throw up all over yourself. I like it. Let me at it!”

The look I received from Diresk was one of mild amusement, but I also understood I was not going to escape my turn at the hemp helm. I removed the burning member from his pinched fingers and maneuvered it to my pursed lips. I was careful not to repeat the fiasco endured by my partner and took in short, deliberate puffs. My lungs were soon filled to capacity and I hurriedly handed the drug back to Diresk, who was making faces at me in an attempt to sever my emotional control. He failed, and I held my breath as long as I was able.

I released the smoke from my itching lungs and waited for the first signs and symptoms of insanity to overtake me like a police car. Diresk took a conservative pull, grinned, and passed the torch back to me. I was not at all convinced a second round, before careful documentation and discussion of the first, was such a great idea, but I found my lips inhaling again before the rational intervention could be proposed and implemented.

To make a long joint finally end, we finished it, lit some cigarettes, and sat back to see what happened next. What happened next could be construed as my very first spiritual awakening.

Actually, it had been more like a spiritual falling out of bed!

Although Diresk’s report had been favorable, I do not recall him reacting in a like manner as I had. I do not remember him having nothing but smoking pot on his mind for the next eight years.

I had been absolutely transformed! I had finally arrived, or had been found. Marijuana gave me a feeling I can only describe as one of omniscience and ascendancy. Indisputable mastery of the human condition. Of fear. Of everything and so much more. In smoking pot, I was finally given equitable opportunity to not only join the human race, but I would finally be able to show everyone how special I was. That night, I had been able to kick off my pumps (so to speak) and feel the freedom of spirit I always assumed burned inside of Diresk. Pot was to become my new religion. I stepped forward to accept my discipleship with an uncanny stroke of certainty!

I liked it a lot.

Diresk and I had smoked another joint and never made the school dance. We were so high, we somehow must have understood that mingling with other humans would have been a grave error in judgement. We did manage to flag down some friends who provided us with alcoholic beverage to take some of the edge off of our new and exciting discovery. By the time I finally snuck bare-stockinged into my house at 2:20 am, my central nervous system had been in such disarray that when my step-father found me making faces in the bathroom mirror, I had screamed at the top of my soot-stained lungs and fell laughing to the floor. I was in direct violation of curfew, drunk, and stoned out of my mind, and my father figure did not appear in the mood for a pardon.

“I’ve been waiting for you for two fucking hours! You think you can just slide away from this, don’t you? You think your mommy is going to save you and jump on my ass for grounding you for the next month? Well, here’s the scoop:

“Your ass is grounded and belongs to me for the next thirty days! I should wake your mother and let her see her little angel like this. ‘I don’t drink or get in any trouble, so why’s he so hard on me?’ I smelled the booze from my room, young man. What else have you done tonight? God dammit, Chris ….ANSWER ME!”

His last statement had been accented with a kick to my shins and it got my attention. He rarely struck me. His assaults were predominantly verbal. I was terrified he might really flip out and kill me! I somehow found my voice and began to beg for my safety.

“I’m sorry, Dad…..I wanted to get home earlier, but Diresk was driving and he wouldn’t take me home. We did drink some beer and stuff at the dance but….”

He entered the bathroom, closing the door behind him, and whispered to me with a voice brimming with rage and vengeance.

“I know what dope smells like. You are high as a kite. Aren’t you? Answer me Christopher or so help me, I’ll beat you!”

“Some of the kids I was with were smoking it but I didn’t!” I attempted. “I drank some beer and that’s it. I don’t care if you don’t believe me. You never believe me anyway, so why would you now? I don’t know why you hate me so much. What did I ever do to you that was so bad? I was just a kid when you married mom and you treated me like I was the worst kid on the planet! I’m not that bad of a kid, Dad. If you knew what some of my friends did, you …”

My words were extinguished as his large hands encircled my face and pressed together hard. I met his eyes for the first time and they had tears in them. I tried to look away, but could not. He held me there by the grip of his hands and the pain in his eyes. All the pot I have ever smoked could not have insulated me from his next words.

“I love you more than anything I have ever loved in my life. I wanted to be your father more than anything I have ever wanted before. Your grandfather would never let me be your father. Your mother would never let me be your father. I …. I wanted…..I meant to…..”

His tears had begun to overtake his speech and I helplessly watched as he sunk to the floor and rested his back against the porcelain tub and hid his face and tears behind his trembling hands. I slid against the opposite wall and watched him cry. I had never seen him cry before. I had only seen his rage. My mind had been so cloudy that night and I was having such difficulty just trying to take in everything that was going on before my bloodshot eyes. He was crumbling. All that he carried inside of him everyday was leaking out of the pasted cracks of his being. Cracks he had tried to mend. Cracks just like mine.

“I’m sorry, Dad,” I whispered, not sure if he could hear me or if I wished him to. “Dad?” I asked, louder.

He looked through his fingers and shook his head at me. I wanted to bolt from the room, but was held to the wall and floor by the adhesive voltage of my step-father’s suffering. I believe it may have been the first time I had allowed myself to participate in my feelings of love for him. I know it was the first time I had ever ached for him.

I wiped my face with my forearm and noticed the smear of makeup and lipstick, tattooed just above my wrist. I looked down at my mother’s dress and torn stockings.

We sat there like that, in silence, backed up against the wall and the tub. Words were not necessary. Only breathing.

“BOYS! Come over here and give me a hand…will ya?” the booming voice of Jake Webster reached us in the scattered pines behind their home.

“Shit!” Diresk mumbled under his cigarette stained breath. “He wants us to help him lift that new gas tank he bought. ‘Gonna save us a fortune on gas!’ He ain’t even gonna give me a key to it unless I ask him. Can you believe it? Says I’m irresponsible and would use it all up too fast. Where’s he getting’ this stuff from?” Diresk asked as he fired his grin at me and his cigarette into the rock outcrop near our fort/hideout.

“A purely uninformed and hateful admonishment, Oh-Responsible-One!” I cracked out of the side of my mouth. “How heavy is this thing and who will pay for my hernia surgery upon completion of this deed?”

“It’s really friggin’ heavy, man…I can tell you that! If Dad needs help liftin’ it, you ain’t got any business helpin’ us. You’ll prob’ly get a hernia or somethin’ and sue us. Hey! If you do get a hernia…you can have that nurse shave your crotch. Remember that babe who took care of Knutson and we nearly creamed our jeans when we saw her? What the fuck was her name? Judith? No…June or somethin’ like that. When I saw her, I was ready to knock Knutson outta bed and jump in there myself.”

We had reached the back of the house and were on our way to the shed when Celia Webster’s musical voice escaped through her bedroom window, instructing us to, “Be careful you guys and make him do most of the work! When you guys get tired and can’t manage….just call me and I’ll put that darn thing up for you.”

Diresk received his sense of humor from his mother. She was amazing and I loved the times the three of us were in the house alone together. Diresk and Celia Webster were like a comedy team from Hollywood.

“That’s okay, Mom. Just see if you can’t slide that retainin’ wall over a couple inches to the right,” Diresk countered, straight faced. “You slid it too far the last time and ’bout cracked the foundation. Hey…the Broncos call back yet?”

“They said I want too much money to play nose guard,” she whined. “I told them they could keep their damn money and I was going to sign with the Cowboys. Right, Topher?”
“Best team in football, Mrs. Webster!” I proudly chimed in Diresk’s face, who hated the Dallas Cowboys almost as much as wearing a tie and chemistry class.

“Bunch of whinin’ pussies is what they…”

“If you don’t ge