Chapter 4

Homecoming Torture and The Lady in Red

 

I

            On my way to school, I couldnít help but notice how well the Pinto was running.  The usual roar from the engine was replaced by a smooth even purr.  It never drove this well in the two years I had owned it.  Whatever book Roman read on fixing cars must have been a good one.  I could never do anything like thatóread a book about something so complex and then go out and actually do it.  Just when I thought Roman was done with the surprises, it seemed another was always on the horizon.  I meant to thank him again for the work on the Pinto.

            Heather pulled up in the parking spot next to me, and we walked up to the school together.

            "So weíre doubling Saturday right?" I asked.

            "Yep.  Reservations at Santangiloís, seven oíclock."

            Heather didnít sound too excited about it and I could feel her pain.  She was stuck with Johnny, but I was stuck with Johnny and a girl that I had about a ninety percent chance of not screwing afterwards.

            "We going in the Pinto?" I said jokingly.

            Heather smiled.  "My dadís letting Johnny drive the Escalade.  So I hear Sally and you got caught doing it by her father."

            "Correction, we got caught almost doing it.  Itís always almost.  I would have gladly run away from Sallyís dad wielding a shotgun if I actually got to do it."

            Heather laughed.  "Sheíll do it when sheís ready.  Itís different for girls."

            "So Iíve heard about six thousand times.  It must be nice being female.  All you have to do is drop a line like Ďitís different for girlsí and that gives you immunity from every conflict that ever comes up."

            Heather laughed again

            About that time Pick Bryant ran up.  "Have you guys seen this yet?"  He handed me a piece of paper with a picture on it.  Heather looked as well.

            "Thatís disgusting," Heather said.

            "No, thatís just not right," I said.  "Who elseís got one of these?"

            "Everybody," Pick said.

            "Whatta ya mean everybody?" I asked.

            "Look around," Pick said back.

            Every student I saw walking in that day had the same picture in their hand.  Some laughed hysterically, others threw it in the trash out of disgust.  A few looked at it as if it were art.

            In the main hallway of the school not only did everyone have the paper in hand, but the floor was covered with them, as well as the walls and the lockers.  There must have been thousands.  The prison guards were already busy ripping them out of the studentsí hands and cleaning them off the floor.  In first hour, the announcement came over the intercom that anyone possessing the lewd photograph would be suspended indefinitely.  By second hour they were all gone or at least I didnít see anymore.  But the damage to Roman was done.

            A couple of minutes of someoneís life were all it took to ruin them.  Iíd seen it a thousand times.  A false rumor.  A lie.  In Romanís case, a picture of him on the receiving end of a gay sex act.  Someone downloaded gay porn off of the Internet and superimposed Romanís head on one of the participants.  It was obviously fake, but the sad truth of the matter was that those that knew better would still make a big deal out of it and go along with the lie just to hurt Roman, and the others that werenít smart enough to see it for what it was would follow right along.  There was no question that this was the work of Johnny the Killer.  Although he wasnít smart enough to do it on his own, Johnny got someone to do the dirty work as usual.  Roman was on the bad end of pointing fingers, jeers, and laughter that day.  More than anyone should have to go through in a lifetime I suppose.

            I still sat at our table that day at lunch.  I got my share of looks and laughter as well.  Pick went back to Johnnyís table.  What a fucking coward.  At first I thought Heather was going to sit there too and then noticed she was only talking to Johnny.

            Johnny and the boys were gleaming like pigs in shit, happier than Iíd ever seen my old table

            "I swear on my own life Johnny that if you had anything to do with that picture we are through," Heather said.

            Johnny put his hand on Heatherís backside.  "Baby, I promise you that I would never have been present at the janitorís little encounter."

            The entire table broke out in laughter.

            Heather fumed.  "That picture is fake and you know it."

            "Well if it is fake, you know Iím no good with computers."  Johnny pulled out the chair next to him patting the seat with his hand.

            "In your dreams," Heather said as she walked to our table.

            Ooos and ahs swelled from the guys at the table, until they were cut down with a glance from the Killer.

            Back at our table someone passing by dropped a tube of hemorrhoid medicine next to Romanís plate.  "Looks like you could use this," the guy said.

            I sprung up from my chair and grabbed the tube, but before I could throw it at the bastard Roman grabbed my arm.

            "Itís not worth it," Roman said.

            "Go fuck yourself!" I yelled, as I sat back down in my seat. "How much more of this shit are you going to take?  Itís got to bother you."

            Roman ate a mouthful of salad and said nothing.

            "Say something. Is it impossible for you to get mad?"

            Roman finished chewing.  "I think Johnnyís upset that his dog likes me better than him."

            "Youíve lost me," I said.

            "Last night Johnny, Jack, and Brunno tried to jump me, and Johnny brought Apollo along."

            "When?"

            Roman told me the entire story, never seeming angry or happy.  His usual monotone voice spoke the tale.

            "No way," I said when he finished.  "Apollo?  That dog bit the finger off a neighbor girl when we younger and besides that Johnnyís dad had him professionally trained.  Iíve never seen that dog disobey Johnny.  That is one ugly dog though isnít he?"

            Roman smiled finally and said, "That he is."

            "I can see you fighting off Jack and Brunno but Apollo?  Whatta ya got, some kind of mind control over animals?"

            "Animals have always liked me, no mind control," Roman said taking in a spoon full of applesauce.

            Heather sat down next to Roman.  Heather who was immune to the jokes and jabs.  Heather who could give a damn about what people thought about her.  Heather who through her entire school life was on a pedestal so high that no one could touch her, because of her looks, because of her smarts, and because of her kindness.

            "Iím sorry," she said shaking her head.

            "Thereís nothing to be sorry about.  Itís not your fault," Roman said.

            "I think you should kick the son of a bitchís ass, "I said, regretting it as soon as the words left my mouth.

            "You were just telling me a week ago that Johnny would kick the snot out of me."  Roman shook his head.  "If I retaliate, it will just make things worse. There would just be a thousand more pictures in the school tomorrow."

            "A week ago I didnít know you were Bruce Leeís second cousin.  Sometimes you just gotta stand and fight, win or lose.  Johnny doesnít understand all this peaceful shit.  Heís just going to keep cominí until he thinks heís broken you," I said.

            "Johnny wonít be doing anything else," Heather said.

            "Excuse my French, Heather, but I call bullshit.  The act he puts on for you while youíre snuggled up on the couch eating popcorn and watching When a Man Loves a Woman isnít how he is in real life.  Thatís obviously not how he is with Roman."

            "He does have a human side.  Maybe the side you see is the act, Tony," Heather replied.

            "Fuck that," I almost yelled at her.  "I canít believe as smart as you are you canít see it."

            "Tony," Roman almost shouted back at me.  This time it wasnít with the soft monotone voice.  This time it was low and threatening, with some emotion behind it.

            "Look, Iím sorry thatís just how I feel," I said.

            Heather said nothing.  I think I hurt her feelings but I really wasnít sorry.  Both of them needed to wake up.  The bell rang.

 

II

            As bad as things were for Roman that day they got even worse as Homecoming week progressed.  More pictures were distributed every day and in more volume.  The prison guards were even ordered by Principal Hartman to show up early and try to catch the person handing out the flyers.  The only problem was that people got them before school and off school property.  By the time the students started pouring in, the pictures were already dispersed for the most part.  I wonít go into great detail about the contents of the pictures but one had to do with Roman in his janitorís get up.

            It didnít stop there.  Someone was clogging up the toilets in the third floor boyís bathroom and in some cases wasnít using the toilets at all.  On Thursday of that week someone actually shit all over the place, on the walls, the floors, in the sink, and even the mirrors.  They made a janitor go in there from time to time during the day to stand guard, but it didnít work.  The thing that sucked the worst maybe was that the daytime janitors would just shut down the bathroom and not clean it up.  They left that to the night shift.  They left it for Roman.

            Roman even had to take an alternate route home from school, a route that was a mile out of the way so people wouldnít throw things at him from their cars.  I begged for him to let me give him a ride home, but of course, he refused.

            For the first time in our conversations at lunch it was me that was right, and my stomach hurt because of it.  Romanís turn-the-other-cheek tactics werenít working.  He never threw a punch, and yet the pictures were still coming, more and more, and the shit was still flying.  It began to wear on him.  He wasnít saying much at lunch.  He just ate.  There were no smiles.  No stories about how nice the weather was or factoids like how a bolt of lightning is six times hotter than the surface of the sun or if you were traveling to Mars faster than the speed of light you would actually pass yourself on the way back to earth.  Roman was hurting although he never complained.  I was hurting watching my friend go through it.

 

 

III

            All the things that led up to Homecoming were just dust in the wind compared to what happened at the Homecoming dance itself.  We ate at Santangiloís, a high class Italian restaurant.  Heather booked the reservations a month in advance.  You had to wear a suit to get in which was not a problem for me, on Homecoming anyway.  I wore the same tan colored suit I always wore for occasions like weddings or funerals.  My shirt was emerald to match Sallyís dress and my tie was a mixture of black and emerald.  Sally was as beautiful as I had ever seen her.  Her hair done up and more make up than I was used to, but very pretty.  It looked as though she got a boob job for the occasion, with those heaping mounds almost busting out of the top of her dress, but I remembered that girls had tricks like push-up bras.  Her lips were painted with the lipstick.  Johnny wore a gray Armani suitóprobably one that Heatherís parents had paid forówith a black shirt and red tie.

            And then there was Heather.

            A red dress that fit tightly against the curves of her body, as soft as the skin underneath it.  It seemed to be forged in a seamstressís workshop only for Heather.  The slit in the dress went on forever up her right leg and eventually her lower thigh.  It was strapless stopping just above her chest.  Heather needed no help from the wonder bra.  Around her neck was a thick string of diamonds and her earrings matched the necklace.  Her lips the exact same shade of red as the dress.  Her long golden hair pulled up and styled in twists and turns that I canít even describe.  Little swirls of hair came down and stopped on both sides just before her shoulders.  Heather was truly a vision.

            We were seated a couple of tables away from the piano in the main room.  Soft music played as we ate in the candlelight.  For anybody else this would have been as good as it gets, but for the four of us it was not.  Sally, who was having nothing to do with Johnny, talked to Heather the entire time.  I donít recall a spoken word between Johnny and Heather the entire meal, or even in the Escalade to and from.  That left me to hear Johnny babble on about meaningless shit.  He had already been drinking; I could smell it from across the table.  I put my best fake smile on and made the most of it.  We all ordered huge meals, because that was the only way Santangiloís did it.  At the end of the meal the ladiesí plates looked as if there were only a few bites taken.  Me and Johnny on the other hand had no problem joining the clean-plate club.  In fact, Johnnyís plate looked as if it had already been washed, and he even finished a little of Heatherís dinner.  I got some white sauce on my shirt on several occasions, and each time Sally would pat a thick linen napkin with club soda to the spot.  As much as she assured me the stain would come out I could still see dark patches on my emerald shirt.  Johnny thought this was the funniest thing of all time and reminded me constantly throughout the night that I had dropped sauce on my shirt.  I gave my best smile every time, wishing that I could kick him in the balls underneath the table.  I paid with the money Pops had given me.  Heather took care of her and Johnnyís bill of course.

            We arrived at the dance an hour after it started, fashionably late, Sally called it.  The fieldhouse was transformed into a sea of draping cloth, soft lights, and music.  You would never have known that this was the place of sweat and tears, running and jumping.  The DJ was set up next to an enormous stage at the far end.  In front of that stage the masses danced and laughed and talked.  There were around five hundred people attending I guessed.  Homecoming was always packed because unlike Prom, the underclassmen were allowed to attend.  Most of the attendees were dressed to perfection, the guys reluctantly in their suits and ties, and the chicks in their Ďyou think youíre getting some later but this is just to tease youí dresses.  There were a few dirt legs that wore their everyday jeans and such, but Sally reminded me that maybe they couldnít help it.

            Fifteen minutes after we arrived the court was announced.  Johnny and Heather were crowned king and queen.  Heather gave Johnny the fakest kiss Iíd ever seen to seal the deal.  The dancing for the court began with only Heather and Johnny and then the rest of the court.  "Total Eclipse of the Heart" played like Iím sure it did at a million Homecomings before this and would at a million after it.  Heather danced with Johnny but stayed as far away as she could without breaking contact with him.

            I danced close with Sally, her pushed up breasts against my chest (I think we were identical in height with her high heels on), and her head laying on my shoulder in contentment.  She smelled great.  I scanned the area as we danced.  Jack was distracting the prison guard overseeing the punch bowls as Brunno emptied a liter of vodka into them, giggling the entire time.  They both came stag.

            Off in the corner, far from the dance floor was Roman, standing next to his mop and bucket waiting to be called on to clean up spilled punch or dropped cake.  Another janitor stood on the opposite end waiting to do the same.  Romanís eyes were fixed on Heather the entire song.  He said it didnít bother him to be working during the dance, but Iím not sure I bought that.  I wondered if the endless torture would ever stop.  At least tonight he was off in the distance away from the crowd, away from the spotlight.

            A couple hours into the dance ties were loosened, high heels were discarded, and the majority was half blitzed thanks to Brunnoís punch.  I danced so hard and long that I was a sweaty mess.  Heather stood off talking to her cheerleading friends.  Johnny stayed near the punch.

            Sheila, Jackís sister, who was waxed out of her mind, went over to Roman and pulled him to the edge of the dance floor.  She put her arms around his waist and started kissing him.  Roman stood there in shock.  Johnny and Jack snuck up behind Roman.  Jack had a pitcher of the punch in his hand. I stopped dancing and started to run, yelling Romanís name as I did.  The speakers drowned his name out.  Sheila had managed to undo Romanís belt in the confusion.  A second later Jack poured the punch on Romanís head as Johnny pulled Romanís pants and underwear down.  Jack let out a piercing shriek of laughter, loud enough to be heard over the music.  The dancing stopped and heads turned toward the laughter.

            Roman stood with eyes shut and punch dripping down his face, soaking into his gray janitor shirt.  He stood there pantless, naked from the waist down.  Laughter erupted throughout the fieldhouse.  Everyone was pointing.  A few girls covered their mouths in either laughter or awe.  Brunno started hopping around in laughter eventually lying on the floor and convulsing in happiness.  The laughter continued for an eternity.  Roman finally bent down and pulled his pants up and re-buckled his belt.

            Mr. Buttworst and another prison guard escorted Johnny and Jack out of the fieldhouse.  They didnít fight it; their night was already made.

            Instead of leaving or trying to hide, Roman turned and got his mop and bucket.  He walked over to the mess on the floor and began to clean it.  The laughing stopped.  The mass of people just stood and watched as Roman did his work.  The DJ got on the mic and announced there were only three songs left.  The music began to play and people went back to their dancing.  Roman finished mopping and returned to his corner, unmoving, like the guard at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

            I started to walk over.  I had no words for him this time.  My mind was shocked and blank.  Heather grabbed my arm.

            "Let me talk to him," she said as she passed me by.

            Heather stopped in front of Roman giving him a towel she had grabbed off the table.  Roman took the towel and wiped his face and hair.

            "Thanks, but Iím really not looking for your pity," Roman said.

            "I donít pity you Roman, I admire you," Heather said back.

            "I think that is difficult to believe considering the current circumstances," Roman said.

            "I admire what you just did.  Any other person would have run for the door after something like that and probably never come back."

            "Stupidity is often confused with genius," Roman said wiping the last of the red vodka punch from his face.

            "Well, we both know youíre not stupid.  So that only leaves genius."  Heather took Romanís hand in hers.  "I want you to dance with me.  The last song is "The Lady in Red", and tonight Iím the lady in red if you havenít noticed."

            "Iíve noticed."

            "And I noticed you watching me dance with Johnny during the Homecoming court song."

            Roman put his head down.

            Heather said," I need someone to dance with and as you can see my date is no longer around."

            "Iím not a good dancer.  Iíll get this punch all over you.  I...."

            Heather stopped him in mid-sentence.  "All excuses that in the long run donít add up to much."

            Roman shook his head.  "Iíve got to man my station in case of an accident."

            Mr. Buttworst walked over as though he had heard the entire conversation.  "Iíll take care of it, Roman.  Go dance would you?"

            As the DJ announced that this would be the last song of the night, Heather led a reluctant Roman out to the center of the dance floor.  The masses parted in astonishment.  People again pointed and nudged each other.  Heather and Roman began to dance.  She pulled herself close to him.  The two moved in unison flowing with the music.  Roman led and just like everything else he did it was close to perfection.  For at least half the song the crowd just stood and watched.  There were even a few claps and cheers.  I led Sally out on the floor next to them.

            "Good to have ya," I said.

            "Good to be here." Roman smiled.

            One by one the couples began to file onto the floor and soon the entire crowd was dancing to "Lady in Red".

            The song was right about one thing.  She was amazing. 

IV

            Me and Sally rode with Heather from the high school.  Johnny found another way, probably with Jack and Brunno.  The post-Homecoming party was at Scott Jakowskiís, of course.  This time there werenít as many people.  It was too cold to be outside, and Scott made it clear that he wanted no more than twenty people over.  There were at least forty, but Scott was too nice of a guy to tell anyone to leave.  Everyone had changed into more casual apparel except for Heather.  She walked into the kitchen in her red dress with high heels in hand and went directly over to the liquor counter.  She placed her shoes on it and grabbed a glass and a bottle of champagne.  She looked at the glass briefly and then discarded it.  Her lips pressed against the champagne bottle and several large gulps went down.  When she finished, Heather took the back of her free hand and wiped the corners of her mouth in a long swipe, like a cowboy finishing his canteen after a long day in the sun.  Johnny and the boys were already shit-faced, since they got a head start on everybody.  They looked on in surprise.  I had never seen Heather drunk, not even a little tipsy for that matter.  I could probably count on two hands the number of times Iíd even seen her take a drink, much less chug right out of a bottle of champagne.  She was definitely stressed or pissed or both.  Johnny walked over and tried to put an arm around her but she stopped him.  She poured about half the champagne bottle over his head.  Everybody in the kitchen and a few people that could see from the living room, including myself, burst into laughter.  Johnny grabbed Heatherís wrist.  The laughter stopped.  A second later Johnnyís head was snapped to the left by a smack from Heather.  In his stupor Johnny just smiled.  Heather whispered something in his ear and then grabbed her shoes and came into the living room.

            Me and Sally mingled in the living room with the majority of the guests.  She held my hand the entire time as we drank and small-talked.  Music played soft at first, but the drunker the crowd became the louder the music bumped from the speakers.  An hour or so into the party you had to yell in the ear of the person you were talking to.  Heather was now on her second bottle and was head banging to the bass of the speakers.  I was feeling pretty good myself and after several attempts of begging Sally to go to the basement, she finally accepted.  She had two beers in the time we were there and was already getting loopy.

            In the basement there were already several couples making out on the couches and floor.  Sally pulled on me as if she wanted to go back upstairs.  I motioned my head toward the laundry room, and she followed me there.  This was the same spot my chances ended the last time, I thought to myself.  The room was very well kept for a laundry room and spacious.  There was more than enough room on the floor.  We began to kiss and undress, but she wasnít hot like at her parentsí house.  Her lips were cold, and her touch seemed to be miles away.  I continued, of course.

            "Look we donít have to do this if youíre not ready."  That sentence came out of pure hope that in hearing it she would continue, not out of respect or anything else.  It sounded sincere though.

            "I want to," she said back.  But her eyes told a different story.

            Soon we were on the floor and all the rituals that came before actually doing it were followed.  The kissing, and petting, and rubbing, and sucking, and licking all took place.  All of this seemed to melt away the idea in her mind that she wasnít ready.  At this point I could take a condom out of its wrapper and put it on quicker than anybody in the world.  I had more practice than anybody, of that I was sure.

            "Let me get on top, it doesnít hurt that way."

            I always hated how she associated the word hurt with sex.  It was a real mood killer.  But I was in no position to bitch.  I rolled over on my back.  She rolled over as well and lay on top of me.  Her boobs hung on my chest.  She kissed me.  I stroked two fingertips down her back.  Another meaningless ritual.  Just as we were about to hot dock, the door flung open.

            Heather stumbled into the washer as she entered the room, still with her shoes in hand, no bottle this time.  Sally jumped off of me and covered herself with a towel.  I just lay there, with my best soldier saluting the ceiling.  Heather didnít seem to be moved or embarrassed by the scene.  It was as if we were meeting in the hallway at school.  She braced herself up against the washer.

            "Iím just letting you guys know Iím leaving," she said and burped immediately after.

            "Do you want me to go with you?" Sally said.

            "I just donít feel good, having a shitty time here," Heather slurred back.

            I stood up and held a towel over my crotch.

            Heather wobbled out of the doorway into the darkness of the basement.

            Sally turned to me grabbing her clothes off the floor.  "I should go with her.  Sheís too drunk to drive."

            I canít believe this is happening again.

            "Youíre too drunk to drive," I said back.

            "Iím fine."  She said starting to put on her clothes. "Weíll pick up with this some other time.  I promise."

            She finished dressing and kissed me.

      Dťjŗ vu hit me as I stood in the dark laundry room.  The itchy/wet feeling returned to my nether region and I pulled the agitator off in frustration.  I swear the bottle of Tide on the washer was laughing at me.  After several minutes of wallowing in self-pity, somebody switched the light on.  It was Johnny, Jack, and Brunno.

            Jack was drinking some high-priced scotch.  Everything was always high-priced with Jack.  He thought it made him look more sophisticated I suppose, but someone forgot to tell him that you sip scotch, you donít guzzle it.  Brunno was double-fisted with two twenty-four ounce cans of Schlitz.  Johnny had a Natural Light in hand.

            "Shot down huh?"  Johnny asked.  "Lifeís a bitch especially if youíre dating one.  Weíre getting ready to play the Century Club.  You in?"

            Johnny in his drunkenness must have forgotten he was pissed at me for befriending the guy he called the faggot janitor.  I was so furious with my own situation that my anger toward him seemed minuscule.

            I had nothing else to do.  No one else would be more appropriate.

            "Whoís timing?" I asked.

            "Iím f-f-f-funkiní timing," Brunno responded smiling big with his few missing teeth.

            "When the hell did you learn how to tell time Brunno?" I asked.

            Jack and Johnny laughed.

            "F-f-f-fuck you, Tony."

            I put on my clothes and went upstairs.

 

V

            By the time we all got to the kitchen table, everybody was either passed out, making out, or leaving.  It was just the four of us.  The way it had been so many times in the past.  As much as I hated the guys and what they were doing to Roman, a part of me would always be their friend.  I did grow up with them.  We had so many events that intertwined our lives it would be hard to unravel them all.  They werenít evil.  They werenít even bad guys all of the time.  They were just misdirected or immature.  Maybe this was a chance to talk some sense to them.

            "If Brunno is timing, Iím keeping count of the shots," I said, pulling a pen and paper in front of me.

            Everybody agreed and Johnny began to pour the four one-ounce shot glasses full of beer.  Brunno immediately threw his down.  The rest of us looked at him.

            "You didnít start timing yet shithead," Jack said.

            Brunno looked down at his watch. "G-g-g-go ahead."

            The rest of us drank.  I scratched a mark on my paper.  On the fifth one I put a slash through the previous four, making it easier to keep track of.  On shot eighteen Brunno ripped the loudest, wettest fart Iíve ever heard.  It smelled like rotten eggs and sulfur.  I could actually see tears in Johnnyís eyes because of it.  I grabbed a couple of napkins and made a facemask, but for several shots, the beer tasted like Brunnoís ass.

            "Iíve g-g-g-otta shit," he said.

            "Leave your watch," Johnny said.

            With that, Brunno left.

            He did not return.

            On shot 48, four beers apiece into it, I noticed Jack had his eyes closed.  He was sitting straight up in his chair, but he was definitely hurting.  Johnnyís eyes had a glazed looked about them, and I could never tell if he was looking at or behind me.

            Johnny looked down at the watch in front of him with his head swaying like a bobblehead dollís.  "Drink."

            Me and Johnny slugged back our forty-eighth shot and slammed the empty glasses on the table simultaneously.  Johnny looked over at Jack who still had a full shot in front of him.  Johnny nudged him and told him to drink.  Jack giggled like a little girl but never opened his eyes.  Johnny nudged him again. "Drink, I said."

            No response from Jack.

            Johnny gave a nudge with his shoulder this time, and Jack fell off his chair and hit the kitchen floor.  Johnny looked down at Jack who was face down and lifeless.  "Fuck him."

            We both broke into laughter that went on until the next shot.

            On shot 67, the beer went down the wrong pipe and came directly out my nose.  After I stopped coughing and regrouped myself, Johnny informed me that it didnít count because it came out my nose.  I immediately did another.

            The time in between shots was now flying by at an impossible pace.  Every time I set the glass down, Johnny was telling me to do another.  I could barely get the shot glass filled with beer in time.  Johnny was slouched so far down in his chair he could barely reach the table, and by the way his eyes looked it was a miracle he could see the watch.  Everyone at the party had either left or passed out by now.  It was just me and the Killer.

            Between shots 80 and 81, I decided to say something about Roman.  We were both drunk off of our asses and Johnny was calmer than I had seen him in years.  There wouldnít be a better time to bring it up.

            "You think youíre about done fuckiní with Roman yet?"

            Johnny smiled.  "Faggot janitor boy?  Why in the fuck should I?"  Johnny was trying to balance himself in his chair like it was moving.  "The little bastard was hittiní on Heather again tonight after I left.  No, Iím not quite done fucking with him yet."  Johnny looked at the watch again. "Drink."

            I drank and put my glass down again.  "Youíve embarrassed the guy more than anyone in the history of Collingston High, more than humanly imaginable most people would say.  Whatís left?"

            Johnny seemed to sober up at that comment, raising up in his seat and pulling it up to the table, trying to get closer to me.  He poured his shot glass full.  The happy go lucky face he was wearing was now gone.

            "Iím going to break him in two."  Johnny began to raise his glass and stopped short of his lips.  "And anybody else that stands with him."

            I shot my beer knowing full well that comment was for me.  I didnít respond.

            I marked shot 95 down on my sheet and noticed that the neat little marks and rows had steadily gotten bigger and sloppier.  "Frive left," I slurred out.

            Johnnyís eyes were now just little slits, and heíd apparently lost the powers of speech.  But he did continue to drink every minute.

            I remember thinking to myself after shot 99 there was no way in hell I could do the last one.  My throat was sore.  My stomach was bloated and on the verge of exploding.  The sheet of paper looked like it was moving around on the table.  I thought about the straw that broke the camelís back.  Johnny motioned to drink.  We both sat there.  Finally I began to lift the glass.  It felt like I was curling seventy pounds.  Slowly it went up.  I opened my mouth and bent my head back, pouring the beer in.  I ordered my throat to swallow, but it refused.  I bent my head back down and looked at Johnny who was snoring.  The beer began to get warm and thicken in my mouth.  I tried to swallow again and this time the beer went down in one violent gulp.  I let out a loud belch that seemed to relieve the bloating in my stomach.

            I had to piss, but there was no way I could make it to the bathroom.  I grabbed a half-full Tropicana container off the table.  I unzipped and filled it to the top. There was a moment of panic because I thought I was going to overfill it, but I didnít.  I lay my head down on the table in front of me, even though it was covered in a pool of beer that either splashed from our shot glasses or never made it in them.  It was warm and wet, but I didnít care. If Iíd been sober and could see the future I wouldíve known that sleeping in a pool of beer was a bad idea, that as the fermented liquid dried it would mimic the attributes of super glue and that I would in end up having to rip my cheek from the table.

But all was well with the world.   I finished the Century Club and Johnny the Killer didnít.  I remember being quite happy about that.  Johnny slept in the chair across from me.  Jack slept on the floor.

 

VI

            Around one thirty that night, while me and Johnny were getting soused, Roman got off work.  He left the high school an hour and a half later than usual because of the mess from the dance.  Roman had changed into a clean janitorsí outfit although it was the same gray combination and the same red letters that stitched his name.

            He threw on his red and black-checkered flannel.  The hot nights of July and August had been replaced by the cold and black nights of late September.  It would dip into the low forties.  Roman began to walk, nonetheless.  It was a cloudless night and Roman seemed to count the stars as he walked.  The sky reminded him of Heather and how they had watched the meteor shower down on Scottyís dock.

            About halfway home a black Escalade slowed up next to him, swerving back and forth from the curb to the middle line.  It was Heather. Her window was down and she was smoking a cigarette.

            "Need a ride, stranger?"  The SUV came closer to the curb as she talked.

            Roman stopped, hoping that Heather would follow his lead before she came completely over the curb and ran him over.

            "I think the question should be, do you need a driver?" Roman said back.

            The ash on Heatherís cigarette was about halfway to the butt.  "Whatta ya sayiní, that I shouldnít be driviní?  Iím a better driver than anybody.  What, you think you can do better Mr. Swivel?"

            "Iím positive I canít do better.  But I might be able to do almost as good."

            "Get in and show me then."  Heather threw the cigarette to the ground and crawled over the console to the passenger seat.  The vehicle began to roll because she had failed to put it in park.  Roman took a few quick steps and jumped into the driverís seat.

            "Where are we going anyway?" Roman asked.

            "To your house silly, I told you Iíd give ya a ride."  Heather punched Roman lightly in the arm and then lit another cigarette.

            "I didnít know you smoked."

            "Oh, how rude of me, ya want one?"  Heather stretched the open pack right in front of Romanís face.

            "No thanks, Iím trying to quit since I found out those things are laced with the same chemicals they put into rat poison and one of them can paralyze the cilia in your lungs for ten to twelve hours."

            Heather coughed on her inhale and then held the cigarette vertical in front of her face, like she was trying to see the rat poison.  After several seconds, she pulled out the ashtray and put it out.

            Roman pulled up in front of his house and shut off the engine.  "Weíre here."

            "Will your parents be mad if I come in?"

            "My parents are dead," Roman responded as he got out of the Escalade.

            Heather got out and tried to walk in her high heels but after a couple steps started to fall sideways.  Roman caught her and stood her back upright.

            "Do you mind carrying my shoes?" Heather asked.

            Roman put her hand on his shoulder trying to balance her, and took her shoes off one at a time.

            "I canít never walk right in these damn things."

            "Me neither," Roman said back.

            It took a couple of seconds, but Heather finally got it and began to laugh like it was the funniest joke of all time.

            Roman opened the door and the two went inside.  Heather stumbled to the couch and fell more than sat.

            "Can I get you something to drink?"

            "You got champagne?"

            "Sorry, how about a glass of milk?"

            "Ooo no, water will be fine."

            "Water it is."

            While Roman was in the kitchen, Heatherís eyes wandered across the room trying to decipher the images she was seeing.

            "You really like baseball players, huh?"

            Roman put the glass of water in her hand and looked at Stan Musial directly over his couch.  "I like baseball.  I know itís not exactly how a lady wouldíve decorated, but it suits me."

            As if her brain had just registered Roman saying his parents were dead, Heather set the water down on the table and tried to act as sober as she could.

            "Iím sorry about your parents Roman, how rude of me."

            Roman looked the other way.  "Thatís a story for another time I think."

            Even in her stupor, Heather didnít press the issue.

            "Do you need to call your parents?"  Roman asked.

            "They think Iím at Sallyís.  No need to wake them," Heather said as she yawned.  "Excuse me, Iím so tired all of the sudden."

            "Youíre welcome to stay here if you want. You can have the bed, Iíll sleep on the couch."

            "I canít take your bed."

            "Itís not a big deal, I donít sleep well anyway.  Iíll take the couch."

            "Are you sure?"

            "Positive."

            Heather got up and walked over to the bed.  Roman lay down on the couch facing away from her.  She managed to get her hose off and then tried to unzip her dress.

            "Can you help me with this, I canít get this zipper."

            Romanís heart jumped but he covered it up with a quick, "Sure."

            Heather stood with her back to him.  She pulled up hair, lifting the spirals to expose her neck.  Her smell filled him immediately. He stared through the diamonds to her neck.  His hands were shaking slightly, but still he unzipped her with finesse.  The dress fell and Heather turned around with calmness as if she were in the girlsí locker room, as if Sally was the one helping her.  There was no shame in her eyes.  Her bra and panties were the same color red as her dress, only a very thin lace.  Roman could have seen every inch of herólike he did in his dreams. Instead he turned away.

            "Do you have a hanger for this?" she asked.

            Roman opened the only closet in his house and retrieved one.  As hard as he tried he couldnít help but take a quick peek at her.  He handed her the hanger.  Heather began to put the dress on it but tripped over one of her high heels lying next to the bed.  Roman caught her around the waist, and she grabbed Roman around the neck.

            Heather laughed, "Those damn thingsíll be the end of me."

            Roman just looked into her eyes and then realized what he was doing and took his arm away from her waist, scratching the top of his head.  "If youíre cold, Iíve got more blankets."

            "Iíll be fine, thanks."

            With that she slipped into bed and pulled the covers up to her neck.  Roman shut the light out and lay down on the couch.

            "Roman?"

            "Yes."

            "I feel bad kicking you out of your own bed.  We can share it if you want.  I trust you."

"That bedís really not the biggest.  Iíll be fine over here.  You need a good nightís rest."

            "Okay," Heather said.

            "Goodnight," Roman said back.

            Minutes later Heather was asleep.  Roman could hear her soft snores and smiled.  He lay with his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. Sleep was far off.

  

VII

            Roman was still on the couch reading when Heather awoke.  Either he was up already, or he never went bed.  It was probably the latter Heather thought.  She rubbed her head and let out a quiet moan.  Roman went into the kitchen and retrieved a steaming cup.

            Roman walked over and handed her the drink.  "Did you sleep all right?"

            "I slept so well I donít even remember.  What time is it?"

            "Seven AM," Roman responded.

            Heather took a sip of the smoldering liquid, blowing on it first and then closing her eyes as she swallowed.

            "Thatís awful," she said, wiping the corner of her mouth and making a sour face.

            "I know," Roman began, "I borrowed it from my neighbor.  He brought it back with him from Russia.  The Russians swear by it I guess.  If anybody knows how to cure a hangover, it would be the Russians."

            Heather pulled the covers to her neck with her free hand as she sat up in the bed, seeming to finally realize that she was wearing next to nothing.

            "It tastes like black licorice," she said still doubting the power of the drink.  Reluctantly she took another sip and watched Roman walk back to his book.  The more she drank, the better it started to taste, or maybe her taste buds just adjusted and tricked her into thinking it was better.  She finished, laid the cup next to the bed, and put her head back on the pillow.  She was still too physically hurting to attempt getting out of bed.  Instead she looked at the many uniformed players on the wall, some hitting, some pitching, some just smiling for the picture.

            Half an hour later Heather felt recharged.  She sat up quickly in surprise.  Her head wasnít pounding anymore and her stomach felt as if the champagne had never reached it.  She turned toward Roman keeping the comforter over her.

            "You know what?  I think your friendís tea really works.  I feel great."

            Roman put down the book and turned around.  He noticed her hair was messed up and most of her make up was rubbed off.  At first it caught him off guard.  The model he had been used to seeing, with the perfect hair and face, was after all humanófancy wrapping paper.  Roman smiled.

            "Carlís got some crazy ideas sometimes, but it seems the more unlikely the idea, the better it works."  Roman walked over to the dresser next to his bed and conjured up

a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt.  "You probably donít want to wear your dress home.  They might be a little big, but they should do for a ride across town."

            Heather took the clothes and sat them next to her on the bed.  "Look, Roman, I want to apologize for last night.  I can only imagine what a mess I must have been and you really took care of me.  Thanks."

            "It was no trouble at all.  I want to thank you for giving a lowly janitor one great moment on the dance floor.  Iíll never forget it."

            Heather blushed a little at that and the two just looked at each other for several seconds, not speaking.

            "Do you mind if I use your shower?  I just feel so blah."

            "Please," Roman said. "Help yourself."

            Later in the day Roman would shower himself.  He could feel her presence as the beads of water splashed on his body.  He wondered what the droplets would feel like if his skin was next to hers.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

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