I maneuvre my Schwinn Ten-Speed Racer around all the established potholes, black ice and rotted roadkill that lay in my path. A mass of gray stony sky looms above, mirroring the stretch of road that lies before me. I have become too familiar with these two miles or so of bleak service road that connects North Edison to South, and more importantly, connects me to Durham Road and The Galaxy Diner. As I make my descent down the sloping asphalt, my bike begins to pick up startling speed, making the twenty-something air temperature feel more like forty-fucking below. I sit rigid and hyper-alert, letting the winds pound against me. Tears run down my cheeks and solidify into a salty paste that sting like hot wax on my skin. I tighten the drawstring of my hoodie and button the top button of my fleece-lined Lee corduroy jacket, momentarily navigating the bike with my knees. As I cruise through the turnpike underpass, I let out a strategically timed scream to hear the sound of my voice echo into the abyss, as if convincing myself and anything else with ears that I am, for the moment, still very much alive.
I push open the second set of glass doors and ask Cashier Lady with the maroon hair and orange lips for change. I make my way back out to the vestibule and pump three dollars and twenty-five cents worth of quarters into the machine for a pack of Parliament Lights. I spark one up with the new Zippo I got for Christmas and inhale a glorious mix of butane and nicotine deep into my lungs. I stand there, half expecting someone to come along and slap me out the hypnotic, zombie-like spell that winter has cast upon me, but for the time being, I am deep in its grasp. The radiant blue light from the Asteroids video game console beckons to me from the vestibule. I insert a quarter and am instantly transfixed, becoming one with a tiny lone jet fighter at the center of an electric universe. I fire furiously at the impinging rocky masses in a futile attempt to prolong what will be my eventual and total annihilation.
Two cold hands reach from behind me and cover my eyes. “Guess who,” a velvety voice whispers.
“Shit!” I cry out as my ship is obliterated.
I turn to see Sue Martell and Tina Walsh standing there, grinning with eyelids half-mast. They were definitely high. Sue was sporting her usual mix of hippy, post-punk androgyny; Plasmatics tee shirt torn at the neck, flannel shirt, tight black leather bomber, worn Levi’s and suede fringe moccasin boots. She had her hair cut Chrissie Hynde-style, with heavy bangs that frame the pale, translucent skin of her face, sweeping over wide-set gray eyes. A Merit Menthol 100, which she probably swiped from her Mom’s purse, dangles from her lips. She is lean and boyish, never wears make-up, and is not the type of girl that most guys consider pretty. I would often hear the jocks at school refer to her as Skanky Sue or Scumbag Sue, nicknames that no mother or father could ever imagine for their daughter. Her trademark feather earring brushes against my face as she leans in to kiss my cheek. She has a studied, too-cool-to-care attitude. As she lights her cigarette, I study the angles of her face amidst the unearthly glow of the video screen. In one fluid motion, she blows the bangs out of her eyes with a smoky breath while simultaneously shooting me a piercing glance. At that very moment, I convince myself that she just might be the coolest girl alive.
Tina Walsh looks like the hot chick in “Carrie” who pulls the rope that spills the bucket of blood all over Sissy Spacek. She wears her hair in the same style with a short blue leather jacket, tight Chic Jeans, and black high heel boots that made her seem a lot taller than her curvaceous, 5’2” frame will allow. She always seems to go out of her way to ignore me, which only leads me to believe that she is totally smitten. She’s pretty enough though, that’s for sure –though she wears a little too much blue eyeshadow. Whatever the case, we’re all still getting to know each other since we met as sophomores at Edison High back in September.
Cashier Lady with the maroon hair and orange lips walks into the vestibule and lights up. She stares straight at me as if she might say something but doesn’t. I stare back, cocking my head, letting my hair fall over my face, nearly covering it from view. I turn to rest my chin on the back of Sue’s shoulder, watching as she obliterates rock after alien rock with the grace of a seasoned jet fighter. “Those games will melt your brain,” Cashier Lady finally bellows in a voice perfectly suited to her looks. With that, she casually tosses her half-smoked cigarette onto the linoleum and makes her way back inside to her station.
“Freak of the week!” Tina shouts, loud enough to penetrate the glass doors that had just closed shut.
“I think she’s an alien,” I add.
“I think she’s hot”, Sue says poker-faced.
Tommy’s royal blue Chevy Impala pulls into the diner parking lot, AC/DC’s BACK IN BLACK blaring from the car’s custom sound system. Tommy Martin is my best friend since grade school and is a junior, making him a year older than me. He is tall and lanky with long brown hair and rock-star swagger. He could charm the pants off a snake –my mom once said famously –and most would agree. His mom is divorced and is a total fox. I often fantasize about her during my morning jerk off sessions, which have become pretty routine as of late. I like to amuse myself with the idea that one day I would marry her and become Tommy’s stepdad –the three of us together forever –our own happy little fucked-up family. I’m convinced that Tommy is aware of my shameless obsession –he seems to derive some sick pleasure from it –encouraging it to some degree. His father Frank is a real character who takes us out for fancy dinners every other weekend and likes to impress us by throwing his money around and telling tales of his business travels. I don’t mind since my dad’s idea of a fancy dinner is when he lets us to order the Kung Pao Shrimp at The Jade Pagoda, a local Chinese restaurant that serves big flaming cocktails and has hanging lanterns fashioned from dead blowfish.
I pry Sue from the Asteroids machine and drag her out into the parking lot. I check the lock on my bike by giving the chain a good tug. As we walk, the flickering light from the diner’s neon sign creates a strobe effect to our movements. I think Sue notices as well because she begins to dance in a surreal, slow-motion manner that makes me feel like I’m tripping. I dance along with her, laughing out loud until the car horn squeals and breaks the spell. I can see Tommy smiling through the car’s frosted windows, his face bathed in pinks and blues. Tina is already sitting shotgun as I playfully toss Sue into the back seat. I slide in close for warmth as she wraps her leg over the top of my thigh and immediately sparks up a perfectly rolled joint. “Happy freakin’ Friday night muthafuckas!” she shares with considerable enthusiasm.
Tonight, we’re just cruising around aimlessly since Tommy is the only one with a driver’s license and there’s not much else to do in this God-forsaken town –especially in the dead of winter. There’s a party at Jeff Troxelle’s house tomorrow night, which is slated to be the main event of the weekend. Jeff’s parents are out of town and his house parties are legendary. Last year, this girl Lisa Pinella dropped some acid, stripped naked and ran outside and jumped into the pool headfirst. I should mention it was the middle of winter and there was no water in the pool. She was in a coma for over a month and now has problems with her speech. I wasn’t sad for her though. Lisa was a sadistic loudmouth with a giant ass and a gray front tooth who took great pleasure in finding ways to make my life miserable. She had the hots for Tommy at some point but when he told her that it was never going to happen, she spread a rumor around the school that Tommy and I were secret homos. Now she’s semi-retarded and has a speech impediment. Karma –she’s a petty bitch.
Tommy tosses a couple of bottles of Michelob into my lap and burns rubber out of the parking lot. He pops a KISS cassette into the deck and turns up the volume nearly full blast. “Baby, baby, baby I want you, I want you!” –I sing along with Paul Stanley as Tina passes me the doobie. I take a long hard pull remembering the time Tommy, Nick Carbone and I dressed up as KISS and performed a concert in Tommy’s back yard when we were in the fifth grade. We charged a dollar for entry and had about twenty kids from the neighborhood show up while we lip-synched and strummed fake guitars that we fashioned from poster board and old crutches from when Tommy broke his leg on a skiing trip to Hunter. I was Paul Stanley, Tommy was Gene Simmons, and Nick was Ace Frehley. I don’t think we had a Peter Criss and it didn’t seem to matter. Ha –what total dweebs we were, I think to myself.
“Hey, let’s take ‘em to Witches Tree!” I shout over the booming music. Tina expresses immediate disapproval but as usual, Sue and Tommy are up for anything. The Witches Tree is an actual tree that sits alone in a field at the top of Old Mountain Road near my friend Jeanine Scarola’s house way up north off Route 287. The tree cuts an imposing figure especially at night when the moon is right. A bunch of the older kids like to go there to build bonfires and party. The story goes that one Halloween night in the mid-seventies a group of five seniors from Saint Joseph’s went up to party there. Only four of them returned. To this day the girl’s body was never discovered. She just vanished –disappeared. As you could imagine, everyone has their own crazy theory on what happened that night. It’s practically urban legend, or ‘suburban legend’ to be more specific. The unfortunate girl was Roxanne Prewitt. She was a gorgeous blonde with Farah-Fawcett hair, a perfect smile and the body of a Playboy Playmate. I remember my brother showing me her photos in an old high school yearbook. Her image has haunted me ever since.
I’ve been to the tree once this past summer with Tommy. We got stoned on hash brownies and drove up. We were totally zonked. As we rode past the tree the car became enveloped in a dense fog that came out of nowhere and we freaked. Tommy was so panicked, he made a wrong turn into an overgrown grass field and nearly got us stuck in the mud. I was laughing hysterically the entire time. Tommy usually plays it so cool, so it was fun to see him finally lose his shit. There’s an old abandoned building nearby that they say used to be an insane asylum, adding to the overall creep factor. We haven’t been back since.
As we ascend to the top of Old Mountain Road the dense trees give way to open sky. The menacing silhouette of the Witches Tree in the distance takes us by surprise –backlit by the glow of the waxing moon. Its bare branches extend curiously in one direction like tendrils attempting to grasp some invisible prey. “Let’s turn around, I have a bad feeling about this!” Tina squeals. I laugh out loud and tell her she sounds like that girl in just about every slasher flick ever made.
Tommy stops the car on the side of the gravel road about a football field’s distance from the tree. He swings the door open and grabs two beers from the duffle bag near Tina’s feet.
“Please don’t get too close Tommy. And whatever you do, don’t dare touch it!” she shouts with authority.
I kiss Sue passionately on the mouth, surprised by how soft and feminine she feels. Her mouth tastes milky sweet and her hair smells like it was freshly washed with Herbal Essences shampoo. I vaguely remember Tina muttering something about the tree turning your hands black and that you can never wash it off. I tell the girls to stay put as I pull my hoodie up over my head and run out after Tommy.
“Are you scared yet?” Tommy asks, handing me a beer. He wraps his arm around my neck and pulls me in closer, whispering into my ear, “This is where we face our fears, my friend.” Tommy has this special way of talking when he’s been drinking. He gets you in a one-armed chokehold and presses his lips directly to your ear. If you try to pull away, you can’t –you’re locked in. I call it ‘The Claw’. I don’t know if it was intimacy he was after, or just a captive audience. In either case, I really didn’t mind.
“You know, chicks will come and go, but you and me, we’re friends ‘till the end. We’re brothers. You know that, right?” he continues, his warm beer breath spilling into my ear hole.
“Yeah sure, of course,” I add, surprised by the lack of certainty in my voice.
Just then, a strong gust of wind makes the already frigid air almost intolerable. I think of Sue and how soft and warm she felt earlier and picture myself running back to the car to be with her. We are now standing just a few feet from the tree. It’s actually scarier up close with deep crevices running up its trunk and huge spherical lumps that remind me of a strange skin disease I once saw in a medical book. Before I could say anything, Tommy is running his hand over the bumpy textures of the trunk. “It’s really warm,” he says calmly.
“I don’t think we should touch it, Tommy,” I insist, my voice sounding like a child’s. Looking up at Tommy’s face, my stomach fills with a dull, unfamiliar type of dread. Lit by the cool blue light of the moon, I can see tears streaming down his cheeks, his eyelids shut tight, his skin a pale grayish-white. I go to pull his hand away but stop short in my tracks.
“Nooo!” his voice is strained and muffled as if he were yelling from behind a wall. I know it sounds lame, but I just turn and run in the direction of the car, barely making out the headlights beaming into the blackness.
Sue was there, waiting, all warm and soft…her lips…
I half imagine someone, or something, running right behind me but I can’t be sure. “Joeeeeeey!” a strained voice yells out from the distance. It was at that moment that I realize I had never been truly terrified of anything before. I think of that girl Roxanne with the Farah Fawcett hair, and Sue and Tina in the car. With my stomach twisted in knots, I come to a sudden stop and crouch down to the ground –my hands gripping hard, frozen grass. All I hear is the sound of my own breath and my heart pounding inside my chest –and footsteps.
Tommy grabs me by the collar with some force, yanking me up from the ground. He wipes his face with the back of his jacket sleeve, “Why’d you run off, pussy?”
We don’t speak on the drive back. Me with my head in Sue’s lap, I must have drifted off for a while. I dream of the missing girl with the Farah Fawcett hair and the Hollywood smile. She’s running through a grassy field; hair bouncing; smiling, laughing – I think. But then her face changes and she appears older –her smile giving way to a look of sheer terror. I wake, staring up at Sue’s face in the half-light. I imagine the girl’s bones buried in the cold ground somewhere, beckoning me from the ether to be discovered. I tell Tommy to take me back to the diner to retrieve my bike. I promised my mom I’d be back home before eight to babysit my kid sister. They were going out to dinner with The Maylanders tonight and I couldn’t be late.
“Perfect, that means I have these sexy ladies all to myself,” Tommy gloats. “Unless you want us to swing by later. Partaaay!”
“Um, yeah. I dunno…call me in an hour.” Maybe it was the marijuana, but I’m feeling like time slows down and the car ride back to the diner takes a lot longer than usual. When we finally arrive, I kiss Sue passionately for some time.
“Get a goddamn room already!” Tommy blurts, honking the horn.
I extract myself from Sue’s tender grasp and jump out of the car. The frigid air greets me with a slap as I find my footing on the slippery asphalt. Tommy stares menacingly through the driver’s side window. He presses his middle finger up against the frosted glass, flicks his tongue Gene Simmons-style. He looks odd to me, hollow-faced and sad –different somehow. The window fogs as he pulls away with a screech. I wave like a geek, looking for Sue in the back seat, not sure if anyone waves back though –just my own distorted reflection in the chrome. The flicker of the neon animates the mounds of blackened snow as I mount my Schwinn and brace myself for the brutal drive home.
As I zip through the turnpike underpass, I let out a guttural scream, but there is no echo, no voice clapping back from the void. Just me –a lonely jet fighter troubled in thought –the violent winds whispering at my back, propelling me through a dark and icy abyss.