Learning

Short fiction by Ralph Pullins

“The thing about Billy is, he never learned a fucking thing.”  Roach leans over the glass top of his coffee table with the hollow half of ball point pen.  He rips up a massive bump of coke, throws his head back and grunts, “Yeah, ya fucker,” then he leans forward, sniffling at me sitting across from him in a filthy broken armchair.  What the fuck am I even doing here?  Maybe it’s better than being alone, but just barely, and I’m not sure of that at all. 

Roach offers me the straw, and I find myself reaching for it before I remember myself and wave it off.  As terrible as this scene is, it would not be made any better with a head full of blow, sniffing and rapping in that shitty accelerated talk, riffing off ideas and swallowing the leak down the back of my throat numbing it, making me fear that I won’t be able to breathe, all the while listening to Roach blast me with bullshit half thought out philosophy and fucking nonsense, and lies and stories of our newly dead friend, no fucking way.  Let him do his thing, then get the fuck out.  Find a dark quiet bar, find a stool or a booth in the back, quietly drink until this hollow, desperate, guilty feeling is numbed to the point you can go to sleep.  Blow is the opposite of that; it’s not an escape, it’s a fucking magnifying glass.

Roach shrugs.  “Suit yourself, brother,” he says, and then it’s off to the races, this almost prepared-sounding speech.  He’s been thinking this shit for a while, I can tell.  “Motherfucker never learned a thing.  Remember that time he fucked that chick in the bathroom at the party, we weren’t even supposed to be there, that wasn’t our scene at all remember, and we went and drank all their wine coolers, remember, those fucking amateurs, the rich assholes, we went there, remember?”  And he seems so desperate for me to remember that I nod just to let him off the hook, but I did remember, I’ve still got the scars. 

I think I should probably leave.  I don’t need this, but fuck, maybe Roach does, and fuck it, honesty, maybe I do too.  I just fall into memory, let Roach’s manic retelling wash over me and relive it in my own head too.

We went there because we had run out of beers.  I had brought a few in my backpack, warm and flat from where I hid them in the woods, and Roach had a few shots left in a pint of cheapo whiskey that he found in his dad’s garage.  Billy had half a joint that we all shared, standing in the trees at the park, because in our town, there wasn’t anyplace to go, so we just went to the park, sat in the dugouts at the baseball fields, sat on the top of the slides. We would go and smoke and talk during the summers, talk about how we were going places, were gonna do things, important things, but fuck man, in the end none of us did shit.  We smoked the joint, holding the smoke in forever in the hopes it could get us stoned, but it barely touched me, we drank my meager beers, one each and one left that we all shared to wash down the bitter taste of the whiskey.  It moved me, I remember, I felt like I often did after drinking just enough to touch me, I felt like we should be doing something, should not let this go to waste. 

“There’s a party,” I blurted.  “Up my street.  Julie Klausner, you know her?”

Billy nodded.  “Yeah.  I used to go out with her one or twice in sophomore year.”

“Fucking stuck up bitch,” opined Roach.  And I couldn’t argue with that.  I had lived down the street from her for years, I even mowed their yard a few times back when I was younger and felt more like doing shit.  All those years and nothing, she didn’t say a goddamn thing to me.

“She’s OK,” Billy said.  And that was all fine for Billy to say, the guy was from the same place as her, nice big house, the kind that lit up the front at night, floodlights or whatever, white and tall.  Imposing.  Billy, when he was a kid, he let his parents put him in sweater vests and had a side part, and went to ice cream socials and stuff, while Roach and me fought with sticks in the woods, built forts, collected cans for shit we thought we needed.  So yeah, Billy might think she was OK, but even though he was there in the park with us, even though he hung with us almost all the time, he was from a different world.  Fucker had never went can collecting in his whole life until he started hanging with us, in junior high. 

Fuck them, he said one time when we were maybe fourteen.  Fuck them, he said, meaning his parents, I think, or maybe the whole scene and everyone in it, but I was never sure and never asked.  One day he wasn’t one of us, then one day he was.  Guy could do that, just fit in places, like I never could, and Roach, well Roach was Roach, and would always be Roach, would always be the guy sitting across from me blabbing his stupid face off about that stupid party while I relived it, wasn’t much different from when we were all fresh out of high school and standing in the park half buzzed and wanting to be blottoed.

Never learned anything… this coming from a guy living in this single wide shithole snorting stepped-on blow off his filthy coffee table through half a Bic pen. Nice.

“Let’s go,” Billy said in my memory.  “I know her, maybe she will give us a couple beers or something.”

“Ah man, fuck all that,” said Roach, and even though it was my idea in the first place, I too was feeling a little sketchy about the idea becoming real.

“It’s gonna be fine,” Billy said, and because he was Billy, we believed him.  Billy could do that, he would say something that you knew wasn’t true and you would believe it, just for a second, just long enough for you to find yourself doing whatever he wanted you to do and by then it was too late to back out. 

So we went, and even on the walk over there I remember thinking what were we thinking, it wouldn’t be OK, and it wasn’t. 

This was the thing then, we were too fresh out of high school, just the summer after, where everyone still remembers where they stand in the pecking order, and any social climbers had better have steel fingers because those above didn’t like their place challenged, and would step on any reaching hands on the rung below. 

As we got closer we could hear them out back, a few kids sitting around a fire and, as always in these situations, some asshole had brought an acoustic guitar and a few pop ballads under his mastery.  Unbefuckingleivable.  So the thing Billy does is just walk around the house, just strolls right up like he belonged there, which he did in a way because even though he had been slumming it with us for most of high school, those people can tell one of their own, it’s something in the way they hold themselves.  A guy like Billy, born into it, could walk stark naked into a BMW dealership and it would be all hello sir, can we get you anything?  A coffee, a robe?  Me, I did that?  I’d be arrested before stepping off the sidewalk into the parking lot.  Dunno really it’s like they can smell their own maybe.  Or maybe it was the way he just assumed that he was welcome, that his presence was wanted.  Roach and I slunk in behind him, knowing that ours wasn’t, we stayed close and kept our heads down. 

Got any more of those, Billy said to a kid standing there with a green something in a feminine bottle, kiwi maybe?  Didn’t matter, cause the kid just reached in the cooler and tossed Billy one like he had meant to all along, and then seeing Roach and me held one up like a question.  I nodded, and caught it and mumbled thanks, and Roach did the same.  We found chairs and then it was all small talk and we settled in like we had been invited.  A couple girls came out and sat on the grass and told Guitar Guy that they loved how he played, and it was clear that Guitar Guy had brought the thing along for just this reaction.  I drank my sickly sweet green thing, pounded it really, because when you were short on booze, the best thing to do was just throw them down quick and hope to catch a buzz.  So we sat and we chatted, and I don’t know when, but Billy stood up, he walked through the slider into the warm light of the house, where there were a bunch more people, most of them hadn’t come out, didn’t even know we were there, and through the screen I could see Billy slap hands and do the old one-hand-shake-one-hand-back-pat bro-hug that dudes sometimes did, this with a guy that I fucking despised, and even now sitting in this disgusting chair listening to my old friend Roach just blabbing away like I was listening, I still harbor a bitter fucking hate for that guy that had got the bro-hug from Billy, dude was a wrestler, big and aggro and restless as hell, always got the impression off of him that he was going to do something, take a swing at you to make you flinch or some big man bullshit, Bryce, his name was, motherfucker Bryce Gergich. Don’t know what happened to that guy but I swear, I hope he choked to death on cock while getting raped by Nazis in prison.  Fucking dickhead, and I remember it chafing my ass a bit seeing Billy so familiar with this massive asshole, made me jealous a bit, seeing my friend so comfortable, so chummy with a dude I so clearly loathed, made me feel angry and betrayed, and set me on a bad path, maybe, and that stupid nonsense feeling plus the syrupy green alcohol in the girly bottles might have led to my getting my lips all smashed in that night, and more.

I snap back to the present, realize Roach has stopped talking, was waiting for me to answer him and I have no fucking clue what he had said, I was lost in the past, thinking of our dead friend Billy, and that fucking ogre Bryce.

“What?” I say to Roach, who is just sitting there in the one button up shirt he owned, a bit too small, and unbuttoned one button too many.

“What was her name, remember?  That girl, the one he fucked in the bathroom?  Chick was hot as fuck.” 

“Cameron,” I say. “Her name was Cameron Bifano.”

Roach smiles a glassy coke-smile at me.  “Jesus, how the hell do you remember this shit?” 

On impulse, and wanting to escape my own head, I take the half a pen from his hand.  “Clean living,” I say, and lean over the modest pile of powder.  I’m flattered, almost, that he was going to share his stash because there was really not a lot there.  But it made sense really: who wants to be blasted alone?  I take a rip of that shit and immediately feel the rush, I throw my head back and blink furiously a few times.  Christ, where did he get this shit?  Wasn’t cut as much as I had thought, and my throat fills with the beating of my heart and my head with white noise.  I suddenly remember why I passed on the shit in the first place, I didn’t want the crystalline clarity, the sharpness, the annoying empowerment.  Suddenly, I remember that he called me.  Billy, he called me, and that I was the last one to speak with him before he-

“Cameron,” Roach blurts.  “I saw her at the funeral, you know? Still a fucking wet dream even with the kids and all.”

I had seen her too, and Roach was right she was still beautiful, still had some remnants of her high school youth somewhere around the eyes, still seemed ready to break out in a cheer, even right there in the funeral home: Gimmie a D!  Gimmie a E, Gimmie an A and a D!  What’s that spell?  DEAD!  Your amazing dynamic friend that you haven’t spoken to in forever is dead, and you’re not, and you haven’t done anything with your life, but get divorced and hold down a shitty job for too many years.  D-E-A-D and he was the good one, remember, the one of you that had potential?  Gimmie an S! Gimmie a U, Gimmie a I-C-I-D-E!  Your best childhood friend is dead, and you talked to him that night, the first time in forever, you weren’t even sure how he got the new number, maybe he called the old one and got it from the from the ex, she still had the house, sagging around the eaves, just like the ex, aha, he called and you answered, and you chatted about old times and you got a warm wash of nostalgia, and you promised to come back out to visit, it’s just so hard to schedule, you know, with the job and stuff?  And he agreed, it was hard to make time for people. Remember, you asked about his parents and found out they had both died, and you didn’t even know about it, and that made you feel like a dick,  but what the hell, he hated them anyway, and so you don’t feel too bad about not knowing.  Remember any of this?  And then you got off the phone and went back to bed, and then the phone rang again that morning as you were getting back up for work, still feeling good, hell, better than you had in a long time since the ex left, there is really nothing like an unexpected call from an old friend to put you in a good mood, but this time it was Roach, a different old friend, and he told you that sometime in the night your other old friend had shot himself, and that you don’t have to, but the funeral is this Wednesday.

And now its Wednesday night, and I can already feel that awful numbness start in the back of my throat, post nasal drip, that makes it hard to swallow or to stop obsessively swallowing, what the hell was I thinking, this is the worst possible scenario for this kind of shit, feeling worn and shitty here in the broken trailer of my old wasted friend, mourning and remembering and everything is now amplified, all these feelings of anger and guilt and sadness and regret, all piled on top of one another and still my broken wasted shell of a friend Roach still wants to talk about that stupid party, like it was a great night of conquest for Billy, a fitting reminder of his greatness, when really what it was, was the scene of one of those times, that are filled with everything that could have gone right, but instead went so wrong. 

We sat there around the fire, and I’m not sure how it happened, but I started talking to this girl, pretty, maybe a couple years younger than us, looked familiar, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t in our class, and the sticky green things kept arriving, and suddenly, even without the guidance and support of our Ambassador to the Stars Billy, I felt OK, and felt like I was beginning to fit in.  The girl, Maisey, I remember her name was Maisey, even though I only spoke to her for a little while that night and never again after that, she said something that made me laugh, and I looked down at my shoes, and there were two other shoes there and I looked up and it was Bryce, that fucking walking cock, and then he bent over, and grabbed the bottom of the lawn chair that I was sitting on and tipped me over, and then he stood over me and I was on my back in the grass.

Roach said, “Hey man, what’s your problem?”

Dickhead Bryce said, “He’s my problem. You’re going to be my problem if you don’t shut your fucking mouth,” and Roach did, and hell, I could hardly fault him for that: he was, he still is, a scrawny, wiry dude, tall and always reminded me of Ichabod Crane from the old Disney cartoon. 

“The fuck did I do?” I said, still on my back.

“That’s my sister,” he said, then, “Who the fuck are you anyway?  You’re fucking nobody, you don’t belong here. Get the fuck out of here you fucking little bitch, nobody invited you, nobody wants you here.  Hit the fucking bricks you pussy ass cocksucker,” and he made this little sweeping gesture with his hands, a diminutive little fuck-off kind of gesture.

And that was the thing, for me.  I could handle the asshole name calling, the bullshit macho fucking posturing, but that little gesture, that dismissive sweeping thing he did with his fingers, I couldn’t handle it, I couldn’t handle the feeling like I was nothing to him, like I meant nothing to any of them, and maybe that was true, maybe I really meant nothing, and sitting here in this sagging musty trailer with a head full of blow and my only friend that hadn’t written me off completely or hadn’t put a bullet in his own head a few days ago, it occurs to me that maybe he was right, that even now all these years later, all this time has passed, and still here I am, still a nothing, just a wasted withered shell, just another nothing, taking up space until I die, and I briefly wonder if Billy got it right after all, even now if he wasn’t just showing me the way again, like he always seemed to when we were kids, maybe he saw it as clearly as I see it now, that this life is a hollow empty joke, and those fucking clowns out there, chasing after more shit, chasing after something that will make them feel whole, they just weren’t in on the joke, they hadn’t seen the grim and final punchline, that we are all wormfood in the end, and that there is nothing to hope for but that it ends quickly and painlessly, like Billy went. 

I got up off of my back in the grass, stood up, and I told that fucking ape Bryce to go fuck himself, told him that I already fucked his sister right after I fucked his mom, told him that he was nothing more than a fucking waste of his dads jizz, that the best part of him dried on his mom’s thigh, that he didn’t know shit about me, or about anything other than jerking off his wrestling buddies in the showers after practice, and then he was on me, threw me to the grass and my head filled with sparks and white noise, and I felt my mouth burst open and blood filled my throat and I coughed and choked on it and still it was smashing impact, one after another and my nose cracked and my head rung, and then he stood up and kicked me in the stomach, and I wrapped myself around that bright knot of pain that had set fire to my insides, and I rolled over pressed my hot smashed face on the cool grass, and then he shoved me with his foot, and I fell forward, and I cried, goddamn, I hate myself even now for it, and even now with Roach’s blabbing words washing over me, my face feels stretched and too small and an ember of shame still burns there.  I cried, there on the perfectly mown lawn that I cut a couple times before they got a service, and then I heard Billy shouting and pushing Bryce, telling him that he was a fucking asshole, that they were all fucking assholes that they would always be assholes, and he was near me and asking me if I could stand, and I thought I might be able to and I tried to say so, but my mouth didn’t want to move right and I slurred a mix of snot and blood into the grass, and he said it’s OK man, I’ve got you, and he helped me to my feet, and Roach got under my other arm, and Billy said I’ve got you, and he did, he helped me, helped half-carry me out of there, took me to my house, snuck me in the slider at the back that led to the basement, sat me on the toilet, and cleaned the blood off of my face. 

“Easy,” he said to me, the pounded piece of meat, as I cried.  “Easy,” he said, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you.”  And he did, he had me then, and when he called the other night and talked to me and we had a nice little chat, I didn’t notice that he was calling for help, didn’t notice that maybe he needed me to say to him, I’ve got you, to tell him easy, it’s OK, I’ve got you.  No, I just talked for a bit, only thinking of myself and my divorce, and my pathetic life, and I never listened, never heard anything in his voice, I just said, OK Billy, it was nice talking to you and I’m glad you called, and I hung up, and now I’m thinking he must have had the gun right in front of him even as we talked, must have been looking at it, touching it even when he was talking to me, even as I said goodnight Billy.  Maybe he was calling to hear a reason to not use it, but he called the wrong guy, he called me and all I said was thanks for calling, I never said it’s OK, I’ve got you, I never said I wish I was there for you the way you were for me, I never said don’t do it. 

But how could I?  I didn’t listen, didn’t learn anything.  I have never learned a thing, not from Billy, not from anybody.  I have never learned a thing, and there’s nothing for it but to endure, to carry on and carry this shit with me forever.

Roach keeps talking, keeps coke-blabbing his half baked bullshit, and I just let it wash over me, and he never notices the tears on my face, the hitching in my chest, never notices that I have stopped listening to him.  I just sit there in this shitty single wide in this shitty stained and broken chair, and wish for something different, wish I hadn’t fucked everything up, wish that maybe I wasn’t me.

It was me that never learned anything.


 

Ralph Pullins, international man of mystery, master swordsman and exceedingly tall dwarf, knows more about Pokemon than any grown man should feel comfortable with.  He is much happier and more well-adjusted than his writing suggests. He lives and works in suburban Michigan with his brilliant wife and two sons.  His first novel, Antiartists, will be published by Pen Name Publishing in the spring of 2016, and he is currently cursing at/editing his second, working title Flagg.   You can read more of his scribblings about writing and art and life at dissentwithin.blogspot.com.