Appalachian Hope: Chapter 20

“What’s up you old fuck?” Steven bailed out of the Trans-Am and raced toward Daniel’s Uncle Jason. “How’s my woman and my kids?”

Jason held his hand above his eyes to shield his vision against the low-hanging sun. “Is that little Stevie? I wouldn’t recognize him if I couldn’t smell his pussy from way over here.”

The two hugged as they came together. “It’s been too long since we partied boys,” Jason smiled. Daniel introduced him to Del, Gray, and Kenny. He shook their hands. When it came my turn to greet him, he grabbed me by my shoulders and held me at arms length. He looked me up and down. “Little Mikey. Ain’t so little no more.”

I started lifting weights in high school. They offered it as a class, and I really enjoyed it. I loved the idea of pushing my physical limits. And my hand-eye coordination was so terrible that I was never worth anything athletically. That entire world was closed to me. But I excelled at power lifting. I was genetically predisposed to it. I’m bulky and barrel chested. I have to wear my shirts a size larger to fit in the shoulders. And weight lifting at my high school was informally competitive. The coach kept record of one rep maxes and there was a running ranking. My bench press was the highest in the school and had been for an entire year. No one was even close.

“I’ve been lifting weights,” I replied.

“Yeah,” Jason laughed, “no shit.” He turned to Del, Gray, and Kenny, “who’re these three numb nuts?” He stepped to them and shook each of their hands, saying after each hand shake, “I’m Jason Blevins, glad to meet ya.” Kenny, Del, and Gray each reciprocated the sentiment.

“Now all of you come on, I got something to show you.” Jason shuffled toward the house.

I heard Del whisper to his brother, “he’s some sort of ring master ain’t he?”

And Jason was the ringmaster. Everything was curated to be a country teenager’s fantasy. There was a huge fire pit, filled with dry wood and doused in kerosene. Inside, Jason had liquor bottles and soda lined up on the counter. There was a bag of weed in the freezer. Monica and the kids waved as we walked through the living room, but they stayed largely out of site for the night. Monica would put the kids to bed early and she locked herself in the bedroom.

“Where you taking us here old timer?” I asked. We were parading through the house, a half dozen of us and Jason.

“Well, I had to do something special for my nephew’s birthday. Here we are.” Jason put his hand on the bathroom doorknob. “Are you boys ready to see?”

“Christ Jason, you didn’t make some toilet wine from your time in prison did you?” Steven winked at Daniel. “That’d be a real shitty present. Am I right, Daniel?”

Daniel sighed, “uh huh.”

“You get it? I said toilet wine would be a shitty present.”

“You ready to shut the fuck there twinkle tits?” Jason growled, “I’d like to show my guests their entertainment for the night.”

With flair and flourish, Jason threw back the hollow core, pine veneered bathroom door. It thudded dully against the wall.

“What the hell is this mess?” I asked with surprise. There was a clear plastic sheet, like those used by painters to protect furniture, draped over the entire bathtub. The tub itself was filled with gallons of red, watery, liquid. The whole mess looked like an oversize crock-pot fitted with one of those protective plastic bags that make clean-up faster and easier.

Next to the tub, there were two empty gallons of Everclear brand pure grain alcohol, an empty five pound bag of sugar and the remnants of red Falvor-Aid Packets.

“What’re we lookin’ at here old timer?” Stevie clapped Jason on the back.

“Well, my skinny prepubescent friend,” Jason stepped back, put his hands on his hips and ushered us into the bathroom. “This is a bathtub full of jungle juice.”

Del picked up one of the empty liquor bottles and whistled, “You all know what this is?” Del handed me the bottle. The label had Everclear sprawled across it in huge white letters; there was an ear of corn in the center. The fine print at the bottom said 190 proof.

“Jesus,” I passed the bottle to Daniel and pointed to the bottom of the label, “190 proof.”

“How is this stuff even legal?” There was a little liquid still in the bottom of the bottle. Daniel held it up to the light and swirled it around. The liquor was clear as water, but the knowledge of what it was gave the innocuous clear fluid a menacing presence. Everclear was trouble in a bottle.

“Let me see it,” Steven grabbed the bottle from Daniel’s hand. He held the bottle up and swirled it the same way Daniel did. “Hmmm,” Steven slipped the cap off the bottle and inhaled the vapors. His eyes went wide, and he shook his head violently. “Whew, that shit’ll put hair on your chest and on your back and on your shoulders.”

“Try some Stevie,” Gray suggested.

Steven handed the bottle over to him and nodded, “you first.”

Grey held the bottle away as if it were somehow dirty. Del smiled, but there was a hint of worry there. “Just a drop, Grey,” Del warned.

“Ain’t much more than a drop in it,” Grey replied and put the bottle to his lips. He took a deep breath and slowly turned the bottle up. We stood around in anticipation, watching the clear liquid move its way inevitably to the bottle opening. Grey behaved as if the bottle in his hand was filled to the brim with nitroglycerin. He made no sudden movement. After what felt like minutes, Grey managed to wet his lips. He lowered the bottle and then licked around his mouth. His face scrunched and his head shook back and forth. “Oh.” He shook his head again. “Oh that’s something there. It burns. Not even in my chest, but my lips and in my mouth. Like drinkin’ fuckin turpentine.” Grey passed the bottle to Stevie. “Well, I showed you mine. Now show me yours.”

“Now that you’ve made it look so appealing.” Steven held the bottle with two fingers like it were an open faced dirty diaper. I guess I have to keep my word. Steven shuffled his feet nervously, moving a little closer to the Moon Juice filled bathtub. “Oh I gotta be careful, I don’t wanna.” Steven turned the bottle upside down over the tub, “oops. I spilled.”

“You’re a fuckin’ asshole Stevie.” Grey reached through the crowd and grabbed Steven by his collar. “I oughta dump your dumb ass in that tub.” Grey pushed Steven toward the tub, and Steven stumbled but caught himself by grabbing both the towel rack and the curtain rod.

“Hey, hey, now.” Jason helped Steven regain his balance. “We don’t want to contaminate the moon juice with Steven’s pussy stink.”

Steven stood tall and flattened his shirt. He bent down and picked up one of the empty paper packets from the floor, “Flavor-Aid, huh.” He turned the packet toward us. There was an anthropomorphic straw on the front of the package. “I knew money was tight there Jason. I haven’t been payin’ my child support, but you couldn’t even spring for Kool-Aid?”

Jason smacked the empty packet out of Steven’s hand, “I shoulda let your dumb ass fall in the vat. Go get the ice out of the freezer. There’s a ladle on the counter. Grab the plastic cups too.”

“So what’s the plastic sheet for?” I asked.

“Well, Mikey, I didn’t wanna dye my bathtub red. And I wouldn’t guess you’d wanna drink down my dick cheese residue neither.”

“Ha,” I laughed, “you’ve always been so conscientious.”

Jason handed out cupfuls of ice to everyone, but when it came time to fill our glasses, Del and Grey exchanged nervous glances, but ultimately decided to join the group. The brothers exchanged some unspoken communication. Kenny eye balled the pair intently. The three of them were hiding something from the rest of us.

We clinked our cups together and took turns toasting to Daniel’s special day. The moon juice burned as it went down, but the sweetness of the Flavor-Aid and the coolness of the ice balanced out the harshness of the whiskey. It was bearable, cheap, and strong. Jason proposed the final toast, “here’s to new beginnings.”

By the final toast, I’d emptied my glass. I knew I’d pay for drinking so much later, but oblivion and good times were calling. I handed my glass over to Jason for a refill. Kenny, Steven, and Daniel did the same, and Jason happily obliged.

“What’s wrong with these two?” Jason pointed the ladle at Del and Gray. “Don’t like my moon juice?”

Del and Gray’s glasses were still full. “No, it’s good. Just pacing myself,” Del took another tiny sip. “We ain’t real men. Not like you.” Del winked at Jason. Gray nodded in agreement, smiling.

“Don’t get no funny ideas now.” Jason seemed satisfied with Del’s explanation. He turned to Daniel, “better watch passing out around this one,” he pointed to Gray. “He looks like he’d wait until you were asleep and get ya in the back. I don’t think he’d be stabbin’ you with a knife neither.” Jason walked to the bathroom door and pointed toward the front of the house like a commander ordering a calvary charge, “let’s go get us a fire goin’.”

The six of us gathered up dry wood, grass clippings, brown leaves, and cardboard into a pile in the center of a shale fire pit in Jason’s front yard. Jason disappeared around the back of the house and returned with a wheel barrow stacked to the brim with split firewood. He dumped the wheelbarrow near the fire pit. “Don’t light it yet. I got one more surprise.” He scurried back around behind the house, pushing the wheelbarrow so quickly it bounced over the unevenness of the yard.

Kenny, Daniel, Steven, Del, Grey, and I positioned the old and brittle plastic lawn chairs in a circle around the fire. Jason’s house was situated on the top of steep hill. The driveway walked right up to the front of the house, and there was a small yard to the right of it. A majority of the property was a steep hill leading down to a flood control pond. Jason had built a ramshackle dock, and a flat bottom row boat sat in the still water. The pond was barely big enough for the boat to turn around without running into the bank. The house was small, all three of the children shared a bedroom. But the front room of the house looked out over a mountain range. The view featured the kind of natural beauty that those of us who live in West Virginia are so prone to take for granted.

“Get the kerosene ready boys,” Jason screamed and the wheelbarrow rattled. Jason turned the wheelbarrow up and dumped a mattress on the burn pile.

“That thing is gonna make some smoke.” Del said under his breath.

“Yep, not sure I wanna be breathing too much of that,” I leaned in and whispered back.

Jason put the wheelbarrow back on its wheels and stood back from the pile of debris, satisfied with his creation. He scanned our faces, “I thought you all’d be more excited than this.”

“Well, sure we’re excited buddy.” Steven always seemed willing to say what the rest of us were unwilling to, “it’s just. Well, that thing is gonna make a lot of black toxic smoke. And we were already planning on wrecking out bodies pretty good. My lungs are gonna be sore tomorrow without all this.” Steven took a drag from a cigarette. “It’s gonna be all full of your skin cells, and my spunk from my adventures with Monica.” Steven pointed to a stain, “see, that one there is me.”

Jason shoved Steven, “I used to like you, you little shit.” Jason lifted the can of kerosene and splashed the fuel on both the mattress and the kindling below. Fast as lightning, he snatched the cigarette from Steven’s lips. He took two deep drags, and the cherry glowed red and fiery hot. He tossed the cigarette into a puddle of kerosene near his feet. The cigarette hissed, extinguished.

Jason lifted his ball cap and used the bill to scratch his head. “Well, damn.”

“Did that go differently in your head?” Steven tried to stifle a chuckle.

“Shut the fuck up and give me your lighter.” Jason put his hand out.

A small explosion shifted the mattress when the vapors ignited. The fire caught quickly. The mattress seemed to steam without burning. But after a few minutes, the cloth and fibers began melting. The black smoke rolled heavily into the air. It was the type of smoke that you only see in footage of oil wells that caught fire. Before long, the flesh of the mattress was consumed and only the springs were left.

The moon juice continued flowing. Everyone, including Jason, was completely trashed by the time the sun fell behind the mountains. We sat around, just catching up. Now that Daniel lived with Del and Gray, Steven and I didn’t see him nearly as much during the week, and a schism of distance had formed between us. I never got the impression that Del and Grey were trying to keep Daniel from us in order to manipulate him. But I did notice a change in Daniel’s behavior and appearance since the move. I suspected Daniel was on the same shit as Del and Grey now. Daniel’s personality loved excess, whether or not it was earned. In Daniel’s mind whatever felt good was right. He bought things on impulse. He put things in his body on impulse. He went where he could satisfy his impulses. He was losing weight. He was still heavy, but he was as thin as I’d ever seen him. I looked at him sitting in the chair near me, across the mattress fire. The flesh hung from his hips over the waistband of his pants. He had the same milky pallor as Del and Grey.

Steven was making changes as well. Steven was desperate to graduate during the final months of senior year. The principal pulled Steven into his office in March. He told Steven that his abundance of absences meant that he could be taken to court for truancy. The state had just passed a new law, allowing school districts to suspend or revoke drivers licenses for chronically truant high schoolers. The principal gave Steven two options, the first was do nothing to correct his course and lose his drivers license until he was 21, or complete the school’s new credit recovery program. Basically, Steven had to retake the classes he failed online in the evenings after school. Steven was unwilling to lose his license, but he was also excited to learn that he could still graduate on time.

He asked me to tutor him in the evenings after school. I agreed. As a consequence, Steven and I started spending much more time together. We called Daniel and asked him if he wanted to join us the first couple times, but Daniel always refused. Eventually, we stopped inviting him. Steven and I eventually got bored of hanging out with just one another, so I started calling Robert. He lived right down the road, so he started coming over. And every once in a while Kenny or Jeb would join us, and we would get shit faced playing beer pong in Steven’s garage. Liz was still working as a real estate agent, and she didn’t stay home in the evenings a lot. She kept telling Steven that she was going to conferences. It never really occurred to him that Liz was probably out hunting for pecker.

Robert, Steven and I each played an instrument. So we started playing music one night a week. Robert played the drums, Steven played bass, and I played guitar. We sounded terrible, but it was a lot of fun to just play bastardized versions of Simple Man and Smells Like Teen Spirit. Robert and Steven smoked a lot of weed and Robert hit on Steven’s sister. A fracture started deepening and our group of friends gradually became two groups: Steven, Robert, and I in one, and Daniel, Del, and Gray in the other. Kenny and Jeb stopped coming around as much. Kenny had a job and was working a lot of over time. This party at Jason’s was the first time I’d seen Kenny in a month. Jeb always worked like a demon was chasing after him. I passed him sitting at the Shop and Save every once in a while and stopped to say hello.

The two sides in this division weren’t hostile to each other. And the division wasn’t even purposeful. The reality that we all knew but were unable to articulate was that we had divided ourselves into camps based on what intoxicants we were willing to put in our bodies. I stopped at booze. Steven and Robert stopped at weed. Daniel, Del, and Gray were alright with whatever they could get their hands on. Probably pills, though I’d never seen them snort any myself. I’d been to Del and Grey’s trailer a few times, but always during the day. They didn’t host parties there very often like we had at Kenny’s trailer, even though Daniel kept insisting that he would host one soon. I was the only person who actively maintained relationships with everyone, but there was a sense that the “good old days” were over, and that adulthood, and adult problems would soon be knocking at our doorstep. Somewhere we all knew, but didn’t want to consciously admit, that this late spring party, and the coming summer after high school graduation would bring change, college, work, and responsibility.

Though we were unwilling to speak this reality aloud, we each felt an urgency to make the most of the last few months of irresponsibility.

“You doin’ alright over there young Mikey?” Jason stared at me across the fire. From where I sat the flames seemed to lick the bottom of his chin.

“He gets like this when he’s had a lot to drink.” Steven explained, “We call this stage “the philosopher.” Mikey gets all thoughtful. He sits there just thinking to himself. Not saying anything.”

“Ha. I always knew he was simple.” Jason laughed.

I ignored them and raised my cup to take another drink. Empty. “I’m gonna hit the bath tub, anyone else want a refill?” It took some effort to stand, but I balanced myself on the arms of my chair. No one answered. I reached up and rubbed my face. It was fuzzy to the touch. “Hey,” I shouted, “anyone want more?”

“We said no,” Grey yelled sharply.

“Well excuse me, Grey. Just offered to get ya’ a fuckin’ drink.” I walked over and put my hand on Grey’s shoulder.”You feeling down buddy? Wanna talk about it.”

Grey smirked, and then laughed.

I smiled at him, “You know, a soft word turns away wrath. You remember that now.”

He swatted my hand, “get the fuck outta here. Go get your drink.”

I stood back. Del was watching us intently. “Hey Del, I’ll give you” I pulled my wallet from my back pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. “Twenty-three dollars if you throw Grey’s hat in the fire.”

Without a word, and faster than I thought he could move, Del snatched Grey’s hat and tossed it into the fire. I handed him the money. Everyone around the fire cackled with laughter.

“What the fuck Del?” Grey jumped out of his seat and reached into the fire. The hat was now charred black and had holes where the synthetic fabric melted. “I really liked this hat.”

“You got a million of em.” Del said simply and sat down.

“Give me the money.” Grey stood with his hand out.

“It ain’t your money.”

“It was my fuckin’ hat now wadn’t it?” Grey kept his hand out. “Last chance Del.”

“Or what Grey?”

“You’re right. Guess there ain’t nothing I can do.” Grey walked back toward his seat, but before he sat down, he pivoted on his foot and kicked the back leg of Del’s cheap, white plastic chair. The leg shattered out from under Del, and the remaining three legs buckled. Del was laying on his side now, somewhat trapped in the chair. “You tossed my hat in the fire,” Grey stood tall over his brother and pointed to the pond at the bottom of the hill. “I’m gonna throw your dumb ass in that pond.”

Grey grabbed his brother by the back of his shirt and hoisted him to his feet. Del flailed helplessly. Del was tall and razor thin. Grey was shorter, but barrel chested, and thick through the shoulders. His hands and back were strong from endless hours of carrying, cutting, and laying tile. Grey used his other hand to grab the back of Del’s blue jean waistband. The whole scene looked like something out of an old Popeye the Sailor cartoon. Del kicked and screamed, but Grey had him, and Grey carried Del without showing much effort down the steep incline to the pond. The pair disappeared into the dark. The rest of us didn’t follow. We were a mixture of too drunk and too busy laughing to make our feet navigate the darkened yard. But we heard the splash when Grey tossed his brother into the pond from the dock. Del screamed, “ho-oly shi-it it’s cold. Get me out of here you idiot.”

“When you give me my money.”

“Here, take my whole damn wallet, just let me out of here.”

“Alright, come on.”

The brothers walked back into the dying light from the fire. Del’s shoes squished under his feet as he walked. He looked like a wet rat. His clothes hung tightly on his skinny frame. Grey grinned from ear to ear, walking slightly behind his brother, thumbing his twenty-three dollars.

“It’s hard to get a dollar out here these days.” Jason laughed and we all agreed. “You boys see that van over there?” He pointed to their blue van that sat in the grass at the end of the driveway. “Bought that damn thing last year. Got laid off from work. Had to take a job with a temp agency. I don’t get paid shit now. On top of that, transmission is starting to go.”

“Shit, Jason. I mean, is there anything we can do to fix the van?” Daniel asked.

“No. There ain’t no fixin’ it. I mean, shit man, I’m underwater on the house too. Now that the bottom’s fallen out of the housing market. Both the van, and the house were worth more when I bought them. Ain’t that a pisser.” Jason took a gulp from his beer. The rest of us did the same with our Moon Juice. Del stood close to the fire. Steam was starting to rise from his sopping shirt.

“You could burn the whole fucking thing to the ground.” Jason laughed and pointed to the van. That’d fix it.

We all laughed our drunken laughter. Kenny stood and staggered to Jason. “Let’s do it. Let’s burn the fucker. Then the insurance company would have to pay it off.”

“The master thief here graduates from stealing video games from a children’s hospital to ripping off insurance companies.” Del stood shivering. “What’re you gonna do when they catch you there old boy? Don’t drop the soap.”

“Look ya’ll. We have two people go into town. I’ll drive the van, someone else can drive their car. I’ll pretend the van ran out of gas, and the guy in the car picks me up. I buy a gas can and a couple gallons of gas. I keep my hat on and my hood up the whole time, make a big deal to the woman behind the counter that I ran out of gas on the road and had to hitch hike to the gas station. We take the van down into the abandoned apple orchard, dump the gas on it, leave the gas can and the whole thing in the car. Before I torch the van, I’ll do some donuts down along the river, toss the shit in the glove box all over the place. Make it look like someone stole it. We’ll have witnesses say that someone in the van ran out of gas and had to hike into town. That way we let them know the van was in town.”

“Kenny,” I finally broke my silence, “that is the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard in my life.”

“Makes sense to me Mike,” Steven took another drink and moved closer to the fire.

“You gonna drive into town with Kenny?”

Steven dumped the rest of his drink into the fire, “yeah.”

“Are you all fuckin’ serious.” I looked around the circle at my friends. “You goin’ along with this Dan?”

Daniel shrugged his shoulders, “I’m not setting a van on fire. Not my problem if these idiots want to do something stupid.”

“We gotta help out Jason. He’s got those little kids to take car of. He can’t pay his bills. We all understand how that is.” Grey reclined in his chair, his eyes barely open.

“Are you all listening to yourselves?” I stood up, the ground seemed to move under my feet. “This is a step above your all’s usual dumbass ideas.”

“This is the Mikey the angry drunk stage. Comes after philosopher Mike in the stages of drunk Mike.” Steven explained to Jason. Everyone laughed.

“Am I the crazy one here? You all can’t burn the van down. And where’d you get your balls all of a sudden there Stevie? It wasn’t too long ago I had to punch you in the mouth to keep you from panicking when we got pulled over.”

Jason glared daggers at me through the fire. “Go to bed Mike. You’re drunk.”

Everyone around the fire nodded in agreement. I took my glasses and hat off and rubbed my face. “Fine. If you all wanna fuck up your lives, count me out. I’m gonna go pass out in my car.”

I reclined the seat of the Camaro, regretting that I was far too drunk to drive home. The world spun under my seat. I breathed deeply and pulled my jacket tightly around my shoulders.

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