Todd tossed his Penthouse magazine to the floor and grunted.
I looked up from my copy of Hustler. There sat my friend, Buddha-like on a pallet of Sesame Street cushions, face crumpled in a frown, watery blue eyes focused on the middle distance between us.
It was well past midnight on a Saturday, June 1978. The previous spring, Todd and I had found a couple dozen porn magazines neatly bound with twine and deposited beside the Winn Dixie dumpster. This treasure resided now in my family home, hidden haphazardly in a dank, 40-watt-lit basement room we called The Bachelor Pad. Since school had let out for the summer, Todd and I had pored over the sleek photos and raw erotica, me on a bare mattress, Todd cross-legged in his nest. We spoke little.
“It’s pretty rank in here,” Todd said. “Let’s take a walk.”
He lumbered out the door to the driveway. I followed him into the buzzy dark. Mimosa leaves, closed against the night, grazed my bare arms. Prior to the porn, wee-hours walks had been common, especially when my mom stayed at her boyfriend’s, like tonight.
We meandered to the streetlight. A Camaro raced by, Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” screeching over the V-8 engine.
“Y’all faggots!” a voice screamed. I gasped, recovered, and rolled my eyes. Rednecks often yelled at us from passing cars, and we always laughed it off. But Todd moaned as if in pain.
“I hope those fuckers die,” he said. “I hope they crash and, like, that guy’s arm gets torn off, and he’s yelling ‘Oh my God, no!’ bleeding to death on the street, like, bleeding out, waiting for an ambulance that gets there too fucking late.”
“Whoa,” I said.
“I’m just kidding!” Todd laughed. But he wasn’t kidding.
My friend’s moods were darker than usual of late, a shift accompanied by pimples dotting his chubby face, a nimbus of B.O. lingering in every room he exited. Puberty had bequeathed us both strange new bodies, still in flux. I’d recently awakened two inches taller, with huge feet.
While our individual physical manifestations of adolescence were different, we shared newly testosterone-spiked minds. No doubt stoked by our porn stash, Todd and I thought almost constantly about sex. Our nerdy, bespectacled appearances may have belied our smutty inner lives, but we were, in fact, horny 24/7.
We walked our neighborhood in silence, streetlight to streetlight. Just as we listened without commentary to music, nodding over spinning LPs of Wings, Led Zeppelin, and Kiss, we absorbed the polyrhythm of crickets, air conditioner compressors, and our clumsy steps. After a few minutes, Todd broke the spell with a gasp, the gummed sole of his Wallaby squeaking on the pavement.
“Shit, shit, shit!” he hissed as he ducked behind a tarry telephone pole. He flailed for me to join him in the shadows. We crouched together like fugitives, breathing heavy. Todd nudged me and pointed up the street.
About fifty yards ahead, two figures danced in and out of a buggy street light beam, singing “Stayin’ Alive.”
“It’s that jock girl, Tracy!” Todd said. Tracy was in our class. Neither of us had ever spoken to her at length. She was a tennis fanatic who’d bloomed early and could outrun all but one boy in the seventh grade.
“Who’s that with her?” I said.
Tracy was taking long sips from a bottle. Her companion, a dark-haired, skinny girl, also had a bottle; she was bent over, laughing.
“If those rednecks see them,” Todd said, “they’re gonna get totally raped. Like, in the butt.”
I agreed. We decided to warn them.
“Hey!” I said. “Tracy?”
Tracy stopped singing and stared down the street, her mouth agape. Her friend squinted in my direction, swaying as if on the deck of a ship.
“It’s Robert,” I said.
Tracy’s face broke into a huge smile. She ran toward us, smashing into me and hugging me hard, toned arms on my back, breasts against my ribs. I inhaled her sweat, shampoo, and alcohol-laced breath.
“Hey you!” she said. Narrowing her eyes at Todd, she whispered, “Who’s that?”
“Todd,” I said. He waved from the edge of the streetlight halo.
“Hey, Todd!” Tracy said. “I forgot we were neighbors!”
Todd nodded and gnawed his lip.
“This is my cousin Darva, from Macon,” she said.
Darva sported short cutoffs, a halter-top, and flip-flops. She looked about sixteen. Tracy wore gym shorts and a snug purple T-shirt. At thirteen, she could easily pass for a varsity athlete.
“We snuck out,” Darva said, grinning, her voice rough and deeply country. She took a swig of her bottle and held it to me. “Want some?”
“It’s really good champagne, y’all,” Tracy said. “My uncle got married, and Darva’s staying over. Everyone’s passed out, so we slipped away. We’re bad!”
I’d never drunk champagne. I held Darva’s bottle to my lips, tasting her saliva. The foil-wrapped bottleneck was warm from her hand. Bubbles rose in my nose as blood rushed below my waist. I drank the tepid Moet, and gagged.
“There ya go,” Darva said.
Tracy held her bottle out to Todd. He shook his head. She shrugged and swigged.
“You guys,” Todd said, his voice thin. “You guys should, you know, be careful. ‘Cause there’s rednecks out.”
Darva looked at Todd like he was an animal behind glass. When I introduced Todd to someone these days, I often saw him, for a few disorienting moments, through their eyes: a fat, awkward kid with dirty red hair, smeared glasses, not much to say. All of my memories with him, assembled over six years, would vanish.
I suddenly wanted him to go to his house, a couple blocks away. I feared he’d ruin whatever was blooming before me, and/or one of these girls would say something hurtful to him. The burden of worry irritated me.
Darva spoke up. “Whaddaya think them rednecks’ll do, Toddy?”
“I’m just saying you guys should be careful,” Todd said. “’Cause, you know, the rednecks… well, we saw some a little while ago.”
“You’ll protect us!” Darva said. “From the rednecks!”
A nearby porch light flicked on. We ran down the street and around a corner, where kudzu climbed the guy wires of the telephone poles, and massive pin oaks offered deeper cover. Adrenaline lit up my bloodstream. Todd and I were panting, particularly Todd. The girls were not.
“I hope… someone…doesn’t call the cops!” I gasped.
Tracy buried her face in my T-shirt, simultaneously nuzzling me and wiping her nose on my shoulder.
“I don’t fuckin’ care, they can’t catch me,” Darva said, plopping down on the curb next to a sewer opening. She drained the last of her champagne and threw the bottle into the sewer, where it smashed in the darkness. “I’m fuckin’ State in the 100-yard dash, y’all. Fuckin’ State. Number two in the State.”
“Keep it down, Darva,” Tracy said, her head lolling against my shoulder.
“Hey, Todd,” Darva said. “What’s yer deal? Tracy, gimmie a swig.”
As Tracy gave Darva her bottle, she said, “Todd’s a great artist, he’s like the best.”
“Thanks,” Todd said from the shadows, surprise and disbelief in his voice.
“Oh thas cool,” Darva said, and lay back in the grass. “What you like to draw…?”
“I don’t know.”
I could feel him biting back the word superheroes.
Darva bolted up from the ground. “Less take a walk, ya’ll. I’m gettin’ the spins.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s check out The Bachelor Pad. My mom’s away.”
“Whassat?” Darva asked. “What fuck’s a bashlor pad?”
“It’s not really a bachelor pad,” Todd said. “It’s our hangout. It’s…where we plot to overthrow the world.”
The girls looked at each other like they were listening to a faraway voice they couldn’t quite decipher. Darva frowned it off and looked at me.
“Sounds great,” she said. “Less go.”
We set off in the direction of my house. Tracy hung on my arm, Darva swayed as Todd walked behind her like a spotter.
Tracy suddenly said, “Are we gonna fuck now?” and burst out laughing, squeezing my arm hard. Darva also thought this was hilarious. Todd looked at me with saucer eyes.
“No, no, no,” I said, before I’d even thought it through. “We’re just hanging out.”
In that moment, I realized I did not, in fact, want to go all the way, for the first time, with one or both of these girls. I acutely felt where I was in time; the ghost of my future self rising, showing me four figures standing in the dark.
You are thirteen.
Todd backed off in the direction of his house.
“Where you going?” I said, betraying my excitement that he was deserting us.
“I don’t feel so good, I gotta go home…”
“You sure?” I said. Again: way too happy.
“Wait, artiss man,” Darva said, stumbling toward him. She gave him the now empty bottle and kissed him on the cheek. “Take this. And stay badass…”
He nodded and was off, holding the bottle with both hands. Had he read my mind? Would he know I felt guilty, even in my happiness? These thoughts flickered across the old wiring of my brain for a nanosecond, until Tracy’s hand dropped to the small of my back, and her fingers telegraphed appreciation.
In minutes, the girls and I were at my house, making our way to The Bachelor Pad door. As my companions squinted against the light, I kicked several porn magazines to a corner.
Darva admired the Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith posters on the walls. She raised her hand to touch Robert Plant’s slim blue-jeaned waist, while Tracy lay on the bed and pulled my old Boy Scout sleeping bag over her.
Darva collapsed on the Sesame Street cushions. In the light of the 40-watt bulb she was beautiful, high cheekbones, eyes a strange slate blue, her hair a thick and glossy black, athletic body thrumming under a thin layer of sweat.
Tracy reached out to me. “I’m cold,” she said.
Darva found a ragged comforter and covered herself. A Playboy magazine tumbled out of the folds. She grabbed it and frowned. “Ya’ll got dirty mags. I’m tellin’.”
I nestled next to Tracy, a girl’s body in a bed beside mine for the first time. Her smells exploded in my brain. She grabbed my hand and put it on her left breast. “Feel my heartbeat,” she said. It pumped strong and steady against my palm. Beneath the fabric of her bra, her nipple hardened to my touch. My jeans tightened.
“Won’t y’all get in trouble in the morning?” I asked.
“Naw,” Tracy laughed. “My mom’s gone and my dad was so fucked up at the wedding…if he wakes up and we’re not there, I’ll just tell him we got up and went for a run. He won’t ask any questions. He never does.”
Darva pulled the string on the light. The after-image of her body glowed against my retina, the room lit by creeping dawn at the window. She lay back on the cushions, humming and muttering.
Tracy’s body jerked against mine, then softened into sleep. Her warm, acrid breath coming in a languorous rhythm, ribs rising and falling steadily under my fingertips. My respiration slowed, my body relaxing against her at last, extremities drained of blood sent back, at last, to my brain.
I was drifting off when another car of rednecks drove by outside, all whoops and screams and Black Sabbath. They skidded around the hairpin curve down my street, and faded into the daybreak.
“That’s them,” Darva said in the darkness, at the edge of my consciousness. “They woulda got us, if not for y’all.”
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Volker Kannacher