by Michael P. McManus
Near midnight it was raining and everyone had left Brian’s going-away party. Brian was gone too, and no one ever knew how long he had been missing in his neighborhood of million-dollar homes. A few friends had gone searching for him, only to return with nothing but reassurances that I would find him. Later, I found him sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, his gaze directed at the wet concrete as if he was seeing his reflection.
Maybe he believed it, he was that drunk. I started to believe the universe was spinning out of control, we were falling from its graces, and it was necessary to find him shelter from the storm responsible for the flash flood alerts on my iPhone. Then there was the lightning: frightening apocalyptic flashes, like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, followed by the near-simultaneous thunder, which convinced me that someone or something was zeroing in on our location.
Brian was so sopping wet it was almost sexy. The black curls of his hair were flat against his head and his Portugal. The Man tee shirt fit his muscular upper torso like a second skin. Pathway lights along the sidewalk leading from the street to the front porch made everything look surreal as if we had landed in a strange new country. Then a 7-series Beamer approached in the street and slowed to almost a crawl. The soft glow inside it showed a woman’s ghost-like face looking out the passenger window. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips as if she believed that she was witnessing the moral decline in her neighborhood.
I gave her the double-barrel treatment: both middle fingers and my best Lindsay Lohan scowl that followed like a sniper’s scope until they were gone.
“Brian, you’re drunk. Come on, we need to get you inside,” I said, knowing damn well I couldn’t lift him. With the added weight of my rain-soaked sneakers, Levis, and Old Navy V-neck, I weighed one-hundred and ten pounds.
“Lenny, Lenster, the Len-A-Reno,” he slurred in his old-school Saturday Night Live imitation, whose reruns we had watched the previous night.
My real name’s Lisa, but Brian named me Lenny on the night I refused to fuck him. That never changed, but his juvenile attitude did, and our friendship regained its equilibrium. Sometimes there were other guys who, because of hyperactive imaginations and testosterone levels, became jealous when I only allowed Brian to call me that. When they wanted to know the reason, I’d smile and say it was my middle name and he was paying for the permission to use it. That sounded absurd enough to make it true, which was probably why they never asked again.
Many other girls would and did have sex with Brian. His family was super rich and as the only child, one day he was going to become rich the old-fashioned way—through inheritance. One night after drinking a few beers, well, maybe more than a few, my dad called Brian’s parents shoeshine republicans. This meant they expected everyone to shine their shoes just because they were rich, all because Brian’s dad, who spent his days watching stock market shows on the cable news, had inherited a vault full of cash and blue chip stocks from his parents.
Brian drove a powder blue, white pinstriped Mustang convertible GT. It had an aftermarket Alpine stereo with Bose speakers. He lived with his parents in a Tudor-style three-story, complete with conservatory, wine cellar, and inground saltwater pool. They had more Mexicans at their disposal than the Tijuana police and kept them busy doing lawn work, cleaning the pool, and the never-ending marathon of vacuuming and dusting the house.
It was never fair to compare my family to Brian’s, but his other snobby friends sometimes did, even though we would never be mistaken for characters from the The Grapes of Wrath. My father, a Liberal Arts graduate from Penn State, was content in corporate America, working for UPS as a supervisor, a job that afforded us to vacation each summer at the Outer Banks, and provided me with a comfortable childhood growing up in a remodeled Foursquare.
Brian’s parents had the money and the influential connections and the three-story beach house at Myrtle Beach. It seemed logical then that Brian, who was all-everything in high school—both in academics and athletics—would matriculate to the Ivy League to study business so he could return home to claim his rightful place in the mahogany-walled den, watching the stock symbols move across the big screen, and calculating how much his fortune was increasing by the hour. However, two months before our high school graduation, aside from a mix of jingoism and patriotism—two dichotomies that Brian confessed to—his parents never learned why he walked into the local Marine recruiter’s office and told the King-Kong sized Gunnery Sergeant that he wanted to enlist.
One week later, he became government property. A sweltering summer followed. It convinced most of us that climate change was real. Too soon it was the final week of August and the night before the morning Brian was scheduled to leave for boot camp at Parris Island. His departure seemed less likely to happen if I didn’t get him into his bedroom at the end of the hall on the second floor.
The house was empty because his parents had decided to forego the going-away party by first giving the Mexican staff a week off so Brian would have to cook and clean for himself, and then jetting to the Hamptons for a stay in a sprawling Greek Revival inn overlooking a pond. It was, in many ways, a puerile way of disagreeing with Brian’s decision, or, as my father framed it—old money talking and turning a deaf ear to the world’s reply. After his enlistment, Brian told me his mother subsisted for two weeks on Scotch and valium, leaving the room each time CNN broadcast news about another dead service member. Once, when I mentioned my full scholarship to UC, Berkeley, she excoriated me with her chestnut-colored eyes until Goosebumps rolled across my arms, as if my only right in life was to make assistant manager at Hobby Lobby, marry a forklift driver, and spit out five kids like watermelon seeds.
I almost told her about my grandfather, a World War II Veteran who, as a paratrooper with the U.S. 82nd Marine, had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, and fought the Germans from the coast to Rambouillet. There, in the bomb-damaged lobby of the Hotel du Grand Veneur, he met an overweight, middle-aged Hemingway who was on assignment as a war correspondent. After exchanging war stories, Hemingway invited him to his room on the second floor where late into the night they drank enormous amounts of wine and whiskey until the number of Germans they claimed to have killed became too great for either man to believe.
As a child it was difficult to imagine my grandfather as a man who was capable of such exploits. His body had failed him many years ago; his arms and legs had become nearly muscleless and covered in scaly lesions that necessitated daily applications of ammonium lactate lotion. One morning, however, after my persistent naïve badgering, he made me bring him a shoebox from the bottom of his closet. Inside it, among other things, were his Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and crinkled, faded picture of Hemingway with my grandfather. Between them stood a blindfolded German Prisoner, a fair-skinned, blonde-haired boy who appeared to be no older than Brian was. When I asked what had happened to the prisoner, my grandfather’s jaw clenched and his breathing quickened in a way that first frightened me, only to soon realize that he was angry with me as if I had knowingly breached some unspoken etiquette that brave men shared. Moments later, when his anger subsided, in a soft voice, he asked if I would return the shoe box to his closet.
He never talked about that war again, only Iraq, about which he could be heard mumbling a string of expletives about American Imperialism. After offering such opinions, he displayed a strange tic that saw him slide his hand across his wrinkled head. I imagined him believing that he could brush away his liver spots, with his uncut fingernails sometimes flicking at the skin in one habit. After that, he would always spit a bullet of Skoal into a paper cup and go to cussing again.
My grandfather’s interest in Brian changed after he learned of his enlistment. When Brian came to visit, Paps would struggle up from his recliner and plant his cane into the carpet and inch forward to embrace Brian long enough it made me jealous. Then there was always Pap’s soldierly suggestion that involved them sipping a wee bit of Scotch. Mom knew Paps would sanctify many occasions in order to have a drink, so those times when it happened with Brian, because of the obvious age issue, which included Pap’s failing judgments, she assumed the role of a pleasant mediator who, for Brian’s sake, always replied, “Paps, why don’t we wait until Brian comes back from the Marines.”
“Damn it, Brian. You’re a moose,” I said, grunting from my Sumo crouch, forearms under his armpits for leverage. Brian had been working out for the past six months and weighed almost two-hundred pounds, and my repeated attempts to lift him were futile. The rain showed no signs of ending and when lightning struck nearby that was it for my GI Jane impersonation.
“Bury me with my boots on. Bury me with my boots on. Bury me with my boots on, so I can keep on kicking ass.” Brian could never hold a tune and his drunkenness made it worse. Another car drove past. I couldn’t tell if anyone saw us because the S-Class cruiser had tinted windows and since I couldn’t see inside, it provided a false sense of comfort.
“Brian, get your ass up!”
His head rolled. He turned to see who or what was standing there. “Lenster, is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me. Now come on. Please, come on.”
“Lenster, I love you.”
“I love you too, now come on.”
“No. I’m staying here.”
“Oh, come on. Get up.”
“No. I said no and I mean no.”
My hair was dripping wet across my face, my bangs in my mouth as I began to speak. “Why are you acting this way?” I asked, tired of arguing with a drunk.
“Because you don’t love me. Because you don’t, you don’t, you don’t!”
“Of course I do, Brian. I love you.”
“No you don’t. You won’t sleep with me and in the morning I’m going off to die.”
“You’re going to boot camp.”
“But that could be the first step towards dying.”
He had a point and I knew it was no use engaging in some type of philosophical rhetoric. “Okay. So what now?”
“I’m going to stay right here unless you sleep with me. That’s the least you could do for a dying man.” He rolled over on his side, assuming the fetal position with a big, childish grin on his face. I debated leaving him there, but respect for his family and my own personal responsibility prevented me from doing it.
“Okay, I’ll sleep with you.” My answer woke him like a hit of speed and he groped towards my face for a kiss. “No, not out here. Inside. Let’s go inside.”
I thought I was going to strain my lower back. He kept swaying back and forth and it was everything I could do to keep him from knocking over his mother’s ubiquitous Tiffany Lamps once we were inside. “You’re so hot, Lisa.”
“Thank you, but let’s get you upstairs.”
I might as well have been climbing Everest without any oxygen. It seemed like fifteen minutes before we reached the second floor where he lurched towards the hall bathroom. I heard puking in the toilet until he was dry heaving. I almost left then, but he stumbled out without his shirt on, grinning after brushing his teeth and gargling with mouthwash as the time had come to consummate our relationship.
“Come on,” he said. “You’re so hot, Lisa.” I guided him into his bedroom.
“God, you’re so hot. I can’t wait to tell all my buddies in boot camp about you. I always knew there was a little slut in you.”
He started slid down his shorts and before they were off his ankles, I rushed forward and slapped his cheek as hard as I can. He laughed and tossed his shorts.
“I like that. I like that a lot.” He fell on his back in bed, looking through me with his blue eyes glazed over, as all the pictures he would see that day were going away. I had begun to cry. I wanted him to say he was sorry, but then, with the quickness of one who receives the anesthesia, he feel asleep. I stood watching him, wiping my face with my forearm, before turning his head to one side in case he vomited. His loud snoring comforted me, but when he started to piss the bed, I stepped back, covering my mouth.
I came back with clean towels and positioned them around his body. I wondered how anyone could work in a nursing home, cleaning bedpans and pissy sheets.
In the morning, I returned to wake him up. I could feel his hangover as he moaned and rolled from bed, which I stripped the sheets from and along with the towels carried to the washer at arm’s length. Once he was in the shower, I scrubbed my arms and hands for five minutes with the tenacity of a surgeon prepping for surgery, and went to cook scrambled eggs and bacon. He drank water and orange juice. Afterwards we drove in my Prius to the airport. Inside, at the TSA security screening area, he turned and we hugged.
Soon I was sobbing on his shoulder. In spite of his money and the life it afforded, I believed the world had abandoned him. His hands slid down my back to cup my ass through my shorts. People were watching but I never made him move. We stayed that way for a long time. It was the patriotic thing for me to do.