Ricky Brent was my first friend in South Carolina. My behind the house neighbor, a short path through the kudzu and dense loblolly pines, our friendship was inevitable. He was a big boy, tall and heavy, with a drinker for a father and an Irish mother. Once while trying on a gentleman persona I knocked on their door and asked permission to take a bicycle shortcut through the woods and down their driveway. “Just don’t hit me roses,” she said.
Rick’s parents bought cigarettes by the carton, his mother stocking the cabinet above the refrigerator to keep them away from the boy who towered over her tiny Irish frame. His father was a Penthouse man. Rick would sneak across the hall to his folks’ room and get a stack of skin magazines for us to thumb through while we rocked his 8-track player. I’d sit on the floor, jamming to The Nuge, terrified that at any moment his lion of a father would burst in wearing nothing but boxers and an unbuttoned dress shirt to reclaim his porn and crack our skulls. Granted, I wasn’t disturbed enough to avoid the fruits of Rick’s — and Bob Guccione’s — labor.
Rick loved big time wrestling, too. This was in the days of the regional shows, when the Southeast sported the likes of Rick Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Dusty Rhodes, and Black Jack Mulligan. When he wasn’t ogling the greased up women in his dad’s dirty mags he was reading wrestling magazines. And when he wasn’t reading either he was screaming “Pile Driver!” and hurling his mass at me. My saving grace was that it took Rick a long time to fall — imagine a giant redwood — so I usually had time to wriggle out of his way, jump on his back and choke him for a three count.
I wasn’t a fan of big time wrestling but I was a fan of Rick, so I went with him once to Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium to see Black Jack Mulligan in action. A gray-haired grandmother sat behind us in the bleachers, knitting while we all waited for the show. She remained quiet through the undercard, too, but she caught fire when Black Jack stepped into the ring wearing his leather vest, cowboy hat and boots. “Beat the hell out of him, Black Jack! Kill that son of a bitch!” Black Jack did not beat the hell out of him, and while doctors attended to his body-slammed back we shuffled out of the auditorium and over to the Krispy Kreme to wait for rides or discuss whether the referee was crooked.
Without question, though, Rick’s and my common ground was music. He was my KISS air guitar buddy, after all. When they rolled through Greenville on the Dynasty tour he was allowed to go while I wasn’t. He was thoughtful enough to bring me a ticket stub that someone dropped. I hung it on my wall and evaded any questions about my attendance.
We spent hours in my basement rocking to KISS, his Gene to my Ace flicking his tongue and throwing up the devil horns from atop my father’s aluminum ladder. On Friday nights we’d head upstairs and watch Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Until that Friday.
My sisters were off with their boyfriends and my parents were out for the evening. This meant that we could crank the KISS as loud as we wanted, have a light switch light show, whatever. We rocked the air guitars to KISS Alive II. Is was hard work. Rick ducked behind the basement’s bar and cracked the fridge, looking for a Coke.
I must pause here for three pieces of overlooked but vital information:
(1) My father worked for Miller for a short time
(2) Unlimited free beer was a perk of the job
(3) My father did not drink.
The refrigerator was a solid brick of Miller, Miller Lite, and the ever classy Lowenbrau.
“Can I have one of your dad’s beers?”
“Why not? I take my dad’s all the time.”
“Because he’ll know.”
“How would he know?”
“Look at it. It’s completely full.”
“Check it out.” Rick pulled out a six-pack, broke a beer off the sixer behind it and replaced the one in front. I had to admit it was genius. He downed a couple of gulps and extended the can toward me.
“No way,” I said.
“I knew you were lying about getting drunk at Mike’s party.” He took another pull.
“I was not.”
“Then why don’t you want a beer?”
“I do, just not yours.” I walked over to the refrigerator and copied Rick’s sneak-a-beer trick. Beer was delicious, much better than strawberry daiquiris. No burning, just ice-cold goodness. And KISS was better after a beer, too. We switched from Alive II to Alive! so that we could jam to “Cold Gin,” which seemed fitting.
“Hey, you have any more drinking songs?” I made a show of flipping through my stack with an “I know it’s in here somewhere” eyebrow, finally landing on Van Halen II. I queued up track four, side one:
I’ve been sitting here ’bout half the night
I’m gonna fill my cup up —
Van Halen’s original rhythm section was tight, a fact obscured by Eddie’s and Dave’s pyrotechnics. “Bottoms Up!” chugs along like a freight train full of moonshine, a boogie worthy of any of the Southern Rockers of the era. We’d drink every time Diamond Dave howled “bottoms up!” We shredded along with Eddie’s solo, and then we grabbed a couple more beers and restarted the record. Soon the purloined six-pack was a pile of empty cans.
“We’re dead. How are we going to hide these?” I asked.
“Let’s throw them in the lake.” I gathered up the empties and Rick grabbed another sixer. We staggered toward the pond where we spent the summer swimming.
“Hey. Hey. Hey. You know who lives there?” I pointed in the general direction of a house. “Tracy.”
“She’s a fox.”
We managed to find the only nearby body of water. We also managed not to fall into it. Sitting together on the muddy bank we polished off another three beers each while we shared deep, drunken thoughts. “You’re KISS’s biggest fan,” Rick said. “You’re going to meet them someday. I know it.” The beer cans floated on the pond’s surface. We sat in the moonlight, waiting for them to sink.
On the way home Rick stopped in front of Tracy’s house. “Do you know where her room is?”
“That one, to the left of the front door.”
Rick bolted across the yard while I ran behind him, scream-whispering: “Where are you going?”
“Give me a boost!”
“You give me a boost.”
“You weigh more than me.”
“Come on! Be a bud!” I conceded. He hoisted himself onto my back and squinted through her blinds. “Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!” I let him down, ready to run. “She was changing clothes! I saw her tits!”
“Let me up!” We switched places. I was at the window just long enough to note that the blinds were impenetrable, then Rick collapsed. We managed to stagger maybe fifty feet before we passed out on Tracy’s lawn. How we got back to the basement before my parents got home remains a mystery.
By the end of junior high school the bar refrigerator was empty. My parents never said a word.