Memoir

34. Little John the Conqueroo

Hal and I walked over to Time Out after school and waited for his mother.  I was a school bus kid, so this was my first time in the legendary junior high hangout.  Well, legendary to me at least since June Bug overdosed on yellow jackets and freaked out, or so the story went.  I didn’t know what yellow jackets were and I didn’t know June Bug and I didn’t know Time Out, so the whole incident was truly mythic in my mind — sort of Outsiders meets Arnold’s Diner from Happy Days.  Stay gold, June Bug!

Arnold’s wasn’t too far off as analogies go.  No stainless steel and formica, no red vinyl booths, but Time Out had a jukebox and was packed with kids:  Chuck the Magnificent and his buddy David; The Untouchables with their Calvins and their Gloria Vanderbilts; the junior high football team.  Not in attendance?  The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam.

I ran to the jukebox.  Hal said, “Don’t bother.  It’s all Commodores and shit like that.”  I looked anyway.  He was right — the box was loaded with top forty dreck.  It made The Untouchables shake their Calvins so it wasn’t completely without merit,  but wriggling butts aside a man can only take so much “Funky Town.”  I dropped in four quarters and selected four times the only song on the jukebox with a pair of big hairy balls.

“Let’s get something to drink,” I said.

“Sure, give me a quarter.”

“What can you get for a quarter?”

“Tea.”

“It says fifty cents.”

Hal gave me the sad stare of a veteran of the long con who has to explain the simplest of grifts to the rube.  “They give you a free refill.  I drink the first cup, then you get the refill.”

Getting one over on the man.  Best day ever.

We sat and watched The Untouchables, talked about Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson, drank our iced tea.  Chuck the Magnificent sat down next to Hal.

“What’s up, Chuck?”  Hal said.  Chuck stared straight ahead.

“Damn, look at Lindsey Smith.  I bet her pussy smells like roses,” Chuck said.  Lindsey moved out of his sight line and he relocated to another table.

“A sparkling conversationalist,” Hal said.  My song came up in the jukebox rotation.  The opening riff was greeted by various hoots and raised fists.

Here come the jesters 1-2-3

It’s all part of my fantasy…

“Oh, Christ, not again,”  Hal said.  “Let’s go wait outside.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Bad Company.  They were the first band Zeppelin signed to Swan Song.  But every asshole in a pink Izod plays that song over and over.   Besides, I liked Paul Rogers better in Free.”

His mother arrived and we piled into the car.  “Hey Jim, how’s your mama?” she asked.  I’m not sure if she knew my mother or if it was just a Southern nicety.

There were only two traffic lights on Highway Nine as it cut through Boiling Springs — one on either end of town.  Hal’s house was near the light on the Spartanburg end of town, a nice little red brick tract home of the type that was common in the Upstate at that time.  We walked through his garage.

“Are those your drums?”

“Yeah.”

My next question hung in the air unspoken.  I guess every kid who visited Hal asked it and he learned to avoid it by not making eye contact with  his drums or his guest, and keeping a steady pace toward the door.  He wasn’t precious about his drums by any means, but it was clear he didn’t want some out of control monkey thrashing them to pieces.

“Come on, you can check out my room.”  My feet followed him but my eyes stayed on his drums.  I had never been so close to a real instrument.

The house seemed full of stuff.  Nothing in particular, just stuff that collects in a house that has been lived in for some time:  photographs of people I didn’t know,  little mementos adding depth to the guy I knew only as Harold the Drummer.   This was always my favorite part of visiting a friend’s house — seeing the animals in their native habitats.  The food was always strange, the smell was always strange, and I always learned about how other families functioned.  For example,  Lee G’s father tacked up in the dining room a ridiculously long ingredient list from a box of doughnuts.  They all thought the list was hysterical.  I admired that.

“Check it out, Fraggle Rock.  You watch this?”

“No, we don’t have cable.”  Cable and a television in his room.  That was cooler than finding a doughnut label funny.

“Oh man, you have to watch it.  It’s like an acid trip.”  We sat and watch the exceedingly weird world of puppets teaching about friendship or radishes or some such.  “No shit, you don’t have cable?”

“Nah.”

“I thought you lived in Timberlake.”

“We do.”

“Check this out.”  He flipped the channels.  A black and white blur of static and squiggles filled the screen.  “It’s scrambled but sometimes you can see a tit.”

“Cool.”

Hal’s mother knocked on the door.  “Harold, we’re fixing to head out.  Y’all behave.”

“Okay,” Hal said.  “You play poker?” he asked me.

“Yeah.”  I hoped that Atari Casino qualified as poker.

“We should get some stogies and play poker.  Come on.”

We walked to the convenience store nearby.  Hal tossed a pack of Swisher Sweets on the counter as if it was the most natural thing in the world for a thirteen year old to buy cigars.  I tried not to shiver in the background as the transaction went off without a hitch.  The old dude probably just didn’t care, but I thought Hal had the magic touch.  I copied his nonchalant move until adulthood for everything from porn to liquor, bars and “R” movie tickets.

“What do you want to listen to?” He asked when we got back to his room.

“I don’t know.”

“Pick something out.”

I flipped through his vinyl.  The mighty Zeppelin were well represented, ZZ Top’s Fandango!, Bowie’s Changes, Journey Evolution, Frampton Comes Alive!

“Frampton rocks,” I said.

“Can’t believe he almost died.”

“Seriously?”

“Car wreck.  Now he looks like a freak, like that guy from Star Wars.”

I kept flipping.  “Gerry Rafferty?”

“Don’t knock it just because it is top forty.  That album kicks ass.”

I settled on Humble Pie Performance Rockin’ the Fillmore for no other reason than I knew that Frampton was once a member.  We fired up our cheap stogies, settled into the bluesy groove, and played pseudo-poker to the flickering light of scrambled nipples.

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