Fiction By Paul Corman-Roberts
Dad pulls up in front of Currier’s house, an ancient, ramshackle building just off Petersen’s dairy on the old Copenhagen Road. Its windows are dark, and I can’t tell if they’re covered or open. This is the site of my first big high-school party, perched on the edge of the Eel River Valley floodplain, overlooking the river’s mouth. It doesn’t look as though anything has happened here in the past 10 years. It doesn’t look as if anything is happening in the next 10 years.
The old man looks at me puzzled, seemingly thinking (like me) that there has to be some kind of mistake, or that I’m even pulling a fast one on him somehow, as if I could. Surely he’s looking for any excuse to keep me from hanging out with my friends.
That would be just my luck. At the age of 16, I finally convinced the old man to let me attend an event sure to be a full-on kegger. At least, that’s how Rob and Currier were selling it earlier in the week. And if there’s a kegger, then surely some of the saucier daughters of the local township’s tightly sealed gentry will come on out for a little unrestrained hedonism … right?
“Come on, let’s see what’s shakin’,” I tell Rob.
He shuffles out of the backseat of our ’77 Impala station wagon. We hike up creaky wooden steps to the front door and pound on its eroding frame. I’m getting nervous standing there with my father looking on. Rob knocks again, and suddenly, a shaggy mop of blond, unkempt hair with bleary eyes appears.
“Hey guys,” Currier croaks, his whipcord torso exposed. “Sorry. Catchin’ some shuteye.” He pokes his head out the door and sees my dad in the car, who waits to make sure everything is “legit.” “Hey, Mike. How’s it going?” Currier barks.
“Not too bad, James. You guys try not to scare too many cows tonight.”
“Oh, yeah, they’re scared,” Currier laughs in his gravelly voice. It’s so odd to hear this guy, a schoolmate — hell, a buddy who’s only one year older than I — being more familiar with my dad than I feel I have any right to be. Nobody I know calls this guy James. But Currier and my dad have worked together on more than a few of the Eel River dairy farms for more than five years, after all. They see each other on the job throughout the week, working the fields and swapping out mechanic repair deals. See, Currier is a senior at Fortuna High during weekdays, and works on the farm to help support his family the rest of the time, more or less. This is a life he’s probably going to inherit. The same life my own father, an aging hippie, has chosen. The life my father insists he won’t see his own son taking on. I’m supposed to be a full-time junior at Fortuna High, full-time running down that college scholarship — in his eyes, anyway.
“So, who else is comin’?” Rob asks.
“Dunno,” Currier mumbles, still not awake. “Lemme think … I told Sparling, Gallagher, Penrod, and Mills. And I told them to tell their girlfriends and their friends that we were havin’ a party. You guys got any money?”
Rob has six bucks. I have three dollars and 32 cents, but none of us is old enough to buy booze. Neither are any of the other guys who have been invited. How did we suppose this was actually going to happen? If Joe Penrod shows up, maybe his older brother, Jason, can hook us up with some beer.
Currier heads off to his parents’ room to see if he can find a joint. Rob and I take our spots on a dingy, puke-orange couch barely clinging to what upholstery is left. I can see the crease forming in Rob’s forehead. There’s still an hour of daylight out, sure, but it’s already seven at night, and generally a real high-school party out here in the boonies is supposed to be kicking in by this point … right?
Currier comes back chuckling. “They took everything with them out to the lake this weekend. I don’t think their room’s been that clean since they moved in.”
He tells us all he’s got are cigarettes. Rob and I each take one, even though we don’t smoke cigs. What else are we supposed to do? The problem is we don’t have much in common with this guy whose hospitality is sincere, even if it’s not exactly what we imagine for our first unsupervised high-school party.
The truth is we’re all losers here. Rob and I dream of mastering guitars and drums and escaping Humboldt County via our heavy metal band into a universe of drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll. Currier could give a shit, and not much else. He wants to play Waylon Jennings on a boombox nearly one-third encrusted with cow shit. Rob and I push for Van Halen, in vain.
By the time Waylon is done playing through the cassette twice, and the cigarette pack is nearly done, it is still just the three of us sitting around bullshitting. It is becoming plain that the party scene in this sleepy dairy town suffers from weak publicity. Jennifer Murrish and proof of her legendary backstage exploits last year at the Greg Kihn / Night Ranger concerts are not coming to a beer-less party. It is plain that Wendy Kirtley’s easy virtue won’t attend a party that sports no Bud or cocaine. No, they are likely out at a South 12th Street kegger with the football team in unincorporated Fortuna — outside the jurisdiction of that hellhole’s finest. Really, what could a bunch of us dairy farm boys expect?
Rob and I start to feel an itch for some kind of plan, but Currier doesn’t sweat it. He lets out a big sigh and says, “Well, the old man’s probably gonna kick my ass good for this, but somethin’s gotta give.”
He disappears back into the kitchen for a good five to 10 minutes, and then returns with three plastic cups. He passes one to Rob, one to me, and keeps the last for himself. Inside each is three-quarters of an inch of a light-brown fluid.
“My dad’s SoCo,” Currier explains. “Hasn’t kept up with the measuring lines, so there’s a chance he won’t notice … just gotta fudge it a little bit.”
Being lightweights, the SoCo express-buzzes into our brains, getting our chatter levels up. Rob and I manage to get Van Halen’s 1984 in the crap-encrusted boombox. It’s starting to feel like the night just might get rolling, when a commotion starts up from in front of the house. Someone is yelling Currier’s name.
“That’s Penrod!” Jamie shouts, and suddenly he’s tearing by us, out the front door, Rob and I following and starting to believe we have found new party life.
Stepping out on the porch I see, with some disappointment, that it’s the older Penrod brother, Jason. If it had been the younger one, there would definitely have been girls and booze, but that is not to say that this isn’t a solid turn of events. The girls still might be coming, if we can play our cards right.
But this looks like the least of Jason’s priorities. He’s screaming his ass off, and I can only make out the last of it.
“That fucker’s back, Jamie! I saw him! I saw his ass out by the barn!”
With a sudden and violent howl, Currier launches himself off the porch and is out across the old Copenhagen Road before Rob and I can get it together. Jason just gives us a motioning wave.
“C’mon, man! It’s the fucker that killed Jamie’s dog!”
“Wha … ?” But then Rob is off with Jason, and I’m suddenly pulling up lame behind this strange new rush of motivation, which was nowhere to be seen even a minute ago.
Our savage caravan rushes down a dirt driveway across Copenhagen, past a milk barn, and another 25 yards into a heifer’s pen beyond. Currier, Jason, and Rob have formed a semicircle around the far retaining wall. I don’t quite join them, as my eyes are straining forward in the twilight to see what the commotion is. I can see a dark mass, the size of a large stone, wobbling along the wall, but suddenly, Currier is firing a rock at it, making sure any side-escape is impossible.
“C’mon, Jeff, get up here and make sure it can’t get away!”
Rob is my really good friend, but all at once, I can’t stand his voice. Something in it sounds ugly. Coming up to join their formation, I can see the porcupine has stopped its wobbling and is now hunkered up and still. Now, it simply watches us and is visibly shuddering.
“Careful, Jamie! Those things will shoot out at ya!” Jason yells in a tone that might otherwise sound shrill and feminine.
There is another still moment. I look to my right, at Currier one more time, who can only glare at the porcupine. A snarl smothers his face.
“Hell with that shit! Nail him!”
Jason and Rob react as though they had been rehearsing this. All three of their bodies are picking up heavy, sharp rocks and hurling them against the quaking bundle of quills before I can even process it. I stand numb, as the tempest breaks around me. One projectile hurls the small mammal up against the wall, leaving a huge, dark smear against the wooden boards. The porcupine tries to run away, but another rock breaks against his fragile body.
I can’t tell who says this. The voices of my friends are mixed in with the moaning of the porcupine, which absorbs another four or five devastating blows. I can’t quite believe the stoning of a helpless creature is going to be the highlight of my first high-school party. Yet still, I weakly reach down to pick up what I think might be a rock, out of some insincere loyalty to these goons. I can’t look weak after all, right? Not if I want to get invited to future parties, right? Not if I want to get with the local ladies, right?
Sure enough, they’ve all stopped pelting the wailing porcupine and are looking at me.
“Hurry up, or you won’t get any decent shots in!” Jason goads me.
“Yeah, c’mon, ya pussy!” Rob bellows. Currier doesn’t say anything. In fact, he’s the only one not looking at me, instead just glaring and snorting at the small creature. Finally, he gives me a courtesy glance, as if to say he’ll wait for me.
Peer pressure somehow drives my feet a little closer to the doomed animal. I pull my arm back, prepared to slip a little further down the ladder of my own self-esteem so I can say, “Yeah, you shoulda been there, man; it sure was great.”
Before I can launch, I take painful stock of the wheezing creature in front of me. Its wheezing is through a thick layer of dark fluid oozing near its nostrils and mouth. Then, I see its eyes, somehow still regarding; eyes that still tremble at the sight of me aiming, meaning to do harm. He, or she, looks like a little man, plainly expecting me to throw the rock, but also wondering why I don’t, as if perhaps this little person might hold out a bit of hope for rescue, for a chance to get back to its nest.
“Throw it, wuss!”
So I do. I even see the porcupine wince as my dirt clod explodes just above it on the retaining wall.
“Damn, I missed!” I say too loud, too put-on. “I just need to find another rock!” But I really am the wuss boy, running away now, desperately trying to clear the baby tears out of my eyes before the rest of the guys, especially Rob, notice. I can hear the slaughter finishing out behind me, unabated. I had my shot, they’ll say. Jeff had his shot, and he fucked it up. Too bad he didn’t enjoy it as much as the rest of us.
“That fucker’s dead as a doornail!” Rob screeches, eventually.
Jason is coming up behind me now. “You okay, man?” he asks.
“Yeah, yeah, just got some of that dirt clod in my eye.”
“Oh, man, that must suck.”
“Yeah, it sure as shit does,” I keep blustering, trying to fake it.
“What are we gonna do with the body?” Rob asks Currier.
“Barn-hands will get it in the morning.” He picks up one more rock and goes over to make sure the killing is finished, caving in the porcupine’s head.
The party resumes back at Currier’s house, and now with Jason Penrod on board, we soon have beer, and Spar, Gallagher, Mills, and a couple girls even manage to show up.
I never really come back to the party, though, yet still find a way to drink more than I should. I can’t put on a real tough guy act, after all; I can only pretend that I’m crazier than I am. It’s easier to beat up on myself than on a helpless animal. I guess that’s what makes me different.
At some point in the stupor of it all, lying in the recliner, sucking up the night’s twelfth rendition of “Panama,” Currier approaches me with something in his hand. I prod myself up to look, and it is a Polaroid of his purebred Lab.
“His name was Rocko. He was born out on the back porch, and Dad gave him to me the minute he squeezed outta his mom. Shit, for everyone around here, it was just me and him for the last 10 years.”
The shot of Rocko is precious, his gentle muzzle looking sweetly into the camera. “What an awesome dog,” I say in a numbed mumble.
“You ain’t kiddin’. He was a smart boy, a good boy … best friend I coulda had out here.”
Looking deep into the photo, I can see he was a good dog, just by looking at his eyes. Rocko had “good dog eyes,” like so many pure Labs do.
“It wasn’t like he hadn’t caught quills before. He couldn’t leave the fuckers alone. When I got back home from school last week, and I saw what happened to him …” and Currier doesn’t finish the thought. Where his voice was brutal a couple of hours ago, it’s cracked again, like when we first showed up. And now, he can’t even speak. I look up at him and see the barest of tears leaking out of his demeanor. He looks back at me, takes a quick pass over his eyes, smiles, and hands me the last of his dad’s SoCo and the Polaroid.
“Dad’s gonna kick my ass real good for this, but that’s okay. This party’s been worth it!” Currier laughs and goes back to the boys bellowing in the kitchen. I look back at Rocko’s photo, wondering why the look in the dog’s eyes seems so familiar.