The tragedy and heartbreak that follows is something that happened to me when I was young. Ish. Relatively young-ish, anyway. I was 16 going on 30 and thought the world was my oyster. Okay, maybe not my oyster. I probably hadn’t ever heard of oysters when I was 16. I certainly know I’d never seen one or known anybody who had, except for maybe Barrett. But if there was some equivalent to oysters in a white trash trailer park, then that’s what the world was to me.
I was only a couple years away from graduating high school and leaving the trailer park behind forever. I fully planned on never looking back the day I received that diploma. Whatever crappy car I had at the time would already be packed with all my worldly possessions and not one person in this God-forsaken town would see my ass ever again. You could count on it.
But at the time I was just 16, six feet tall, and in relatively good shape. My sandy brown hair was cut fairly short so that I could do just about anything I want with it. Get up in the morning and just go? Check. Gel it up and make some wicked spikes? Check. I was in pretty good shape for a non-athletically inclined person. My parents didn’t acknowledge my birthday beforehand, didn’t say one word to me that day when I got up, and certainly didn’t say anything to me that night. They completely ignored me and the day all together. It wasn’t like on “Sixteen Candles” where it was all cutesy and wonderful and everything worked itself out. And I was more than happy that that’s the way it went. The last thing I needed was drunk mom and dad acknowledging my presence. That was the absolute last thing I wanted, believe me.
The day started out just like any other day. It was a Friday, so it was a school day. I scooted out the door without breakfast. It’d be a cold day in hell before breakfast was served in my house. Mom never got up before noon and we were lucky to even see Dad in the trailer before two. He worked nights but for some reason was never able to stumble home after the end of his shift. My grades were the only thing saving me at this point (how else was I going to get the scholarship to Harvard?) so I always tried to get to school a little early. Sports had never been my thing even though I was a wiry little bastard. There was too much of the trailer park in me.
“Duke Johnson!” The screech of a 14 year old girl’s voice grated on my ears like a set of fingernails down a chalkboard. Just for effect she said it again, “Duke Johnson! How are you this morning? Happy birthday!”
Fannie Mae Jennsen bounced to a stop before me, her blond braids slashing through the air. A huge grin was on her face. It was the same grin she always had when she saw me. At the time I suppose I’d have said that she was cute, if you held a gun to my head. Blue eyes to go along with her blond hair and a small smattering of freckles on her nose. About 5’5” and bustling with energy every time she saw me. My friend Barrett told me that she had a crush on me but I always told him to shove it when he started that crap. Fannie Mae lived three trailers down from me and she’d hung around me for as far back as I could remember. She was like the little sister I’d never had and I’d be damned if I let anyone sully that for me.
“Hi, Fannie Mae,” I said, taking my books out of my locker, trying to maintain my coolness. “I’m fine this morning. How about you?”
She punched me in the arm and laughed at my formality. “I’m fine. You know that. I’m always fine! But it’s your birthday, Duke. You’re 16 now. You can get your license, get a car, do anything you want. Doesn’t it feel amazing?”
I sighed and shut my locker. “Yeah, Fannie Mae, it feels amazing. Mom and dad woke me up this morning with the keys to my very own car: a Corvette. Can you believe it? Then they said they’d pay for all four years of college plus medical school. Then they said I’d never have to come back to Litchville my whole life. Can you believe it?”
It was obvious from the tilt of her head that she didn’t find me that funny. “I don’t find that funny, Duke,” said Fannie Mae. “You have to come back here so I can see you. You know I’m never getting out of here. I’m third-generation trailer trash and that’s all I’ll ever be.”
I put my arm around her shoulders. “Hey, Fannie Mae, that’s not true. You’ll get out of here just like me.”
She wiped tears from her eyes. “No, I won’t. Don’t bother lying to me. You know what it’s like around here. No one ever leaves. We all live and die here and our kids will live and die here and our parents live and die here. The cycle will just happen forever and ever.”
I really didn’t have anything to say to that. I knew as well as she did that she was probably right. There was a greater than even chance that she’d be pregnant by the time she was my age and that I’d be working in a factory like dear old dad about the same time. But I’d be damned if I allowed that to happen to me. I didn’t care if I had to hitch my way out of here. I’d be gone before the ink on my diploma was dry. It was just a matter of making it the two more years.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the love birds,” said a new voice. Barrett Inman, my sometime best friend, and all around pain in my ass. A couple inches shorter than me and hair so dark it was almost black. The color of his eyes shifted with the clothes he wore but most of the time they were green. Or blue. I didn’t really go around checking out my best male friends eyes, okay?
“Shut up, Barrett,” I said. Fannie Mae pulled away from me, wiping at her eyes. She grumbled a quick goodbye to me, glaring at Barrett as she walked away. I gestured to her as I glared at Barrett.
He read the expression on my face but didn’t care. Grinning at me, he said, “Hey, Duke, happy birthday. Mom get you booze or cigs this year?”
He was one of those guys you just couldn’t stay mad at. It wasn’t worth the effort. “Booze, actually. The smokes cost too much these days.”
Barrett nodded sagely at me. “Of course. Good plan. Cause then when your dry ass doesn’t drink it she can just go into your bedroom and use it as backup. Nice. Didn’t know she was that smart.”
That surprised a laugh out of me. My first of the day. “She’s not that smart. You know that.”
He nodded at the departing backside of Fannie Mae, “What’s going on there? You profess your love or something?”
I shook my head. “No, just commiserating on life in the trailer park. You know how it goes.”
He nodded his head at me, “No, not really. Thank God.”
I smiled again. Barrett was always good for a laugh. It was one of the few reasons he was my best friend and that I allowed him to hang around. That and the fact that he didn’t live in the trailer park and never had. He actually lived in a house that didn’t roll or sway in high winds. Lucky bastard.
“Let’s go to class, smart ass,” I said.
Barrett and I only had a couple classes together. Fortunately they were the best ones: English in first period and Physical Education – Gym – last period. Our schedules were fairly well opposite each other so that we didn’t get to see each other much during the day. Which on some days was kind of nice because there was only so much of him I could take at any given time. He was a small doser kind of person, if you know what I mean.
The only other time we saw each other during the day was at lunch. Fannie Mae, unfortunately, ate lunch in the same period as us and sometimes her and Barrett had issues. Like today.
“I just don’t see why you’re such an ass, Barrett,” she said, picking at her lunch. It was a cornucopia of wonderful flavors today: runny mac and cheese, clumpy mashed potatoes and some meat-flavored solid stuff. Yum.
Barrett shrugged. “What do you mean? I’m not an ass.” He was shoveling the food in his mouth without any regard for taste or consistency. Or decency, for that matter. Half the food was on his chin.
Fannie Mae threw down her fork. “You’re kidding me, right? Today’s his birthday and all you can do is give him shit about Tamara Rogers. Can’t you leave it alone?”
I sat between the two of them. Fannie Mae on my left and Barrett on my right. I tried to ignore the conversation as I stared across the lunchroom at the girl in question. Tamara Rogers, never Tammy. Not even to her friends. She was just that formal kind of girl. And you had to say it with just the right inflection or she’d get pissed off. It wasn’t “Ta-Mar-Ah”, like my mom would say “tomorrow”. You had to call her “Ta-Mare-Ah”. Anyway, Tamara Rogers was sitting right in my line of sight, hence why I chose this particular table. There must be a game that night as her and everyone else at the table was wearing their white and green cheerleader’s outfit. Miniskirts and tight sweatshirts. A smorgasbord of flesh greeted the eyes and awaited all comers. Well, not really all comers. Mainly just the football team.
Tamara and I hadn’t really been in the same circle since grade school, but we did both live in the Rosie Acres Trailer Park so we knew each other. Once upon a time we’d even been friends, before she realized what hanging out with me would do to her reputation and that smiling prettily and batting her eyes would get her more than I could ever give her. She held onto her place on the cheerleading squad by the skin of her teeth and was known to be a total bitch if anyone tried to get in her way. Most of the other girls on the squad were the daughters of the rich men in town – those guys who owned the businesses and made their money off the sweat, tears, and blood of men like my father.
On the few times when my mom was coherent enough to string two sentences together she liked to say that the Roger’s girl was getting ready to be the town slut. I really hoped not but it did appear that she was applying for the position.
“What?” Barrett didn’t even have the decency to look offended. “I just said that he should go over there and say ‘hi’. All he does every day is sit here and not eat lunch while he stares at her. He’s lucky she’s too into herself to notice or she might get upset at him.” I could sense his sidelong gaze, “Lord knows that Mason has.”
“Give it a rest, Barrett,” I said. I picked up my fork and swirled it around in the cold lump of mashed potatoes. “See, I’m eating,” I said.
“You have to actually put it in your mouth to qualify as eating,” he said.
“Fine,” I sighed. I choked down one mouthful and put the fork back on the tray. “See. There you go.”
Fannie Mae giggled as my face turned several shades of red. The potatoes really were pretty bad. Ever eaten cold paste with a hint of garlic? Well, that’s better than what I had just shoved in my mouth.
“What do you want to do for your birthday?” She asked. “We can do whatever you want. It’s Friday and we have the whole weekend to celebrate.”
She missed Barrett looking at her over my head. I could see him out of the corner of my eye with a smirk on his face and raising his eyebrows. His mouth opened to say something that I’m sure would have been extremely witty (and thus funny) and extremely hurtful to her. I kicked his foot and he quickly shut his mouth with a shrug. I didn’t take my eyes off Tamara while all this was going on.
I shook my head at Fannie Mae. “I don’t want to do anything for my birthday. I’m fine, Fannie Mae, really. I don’t want to celebrate.”
Her face fell. “Really? Please, can’t we do something? You never want to go out anymore.”
“I’m saving my money, Fannie Mae. You know that. Every penny counts.”
“I wasn’t suggesting we go somewhere and you pay, Duke. You could come over and watch a movie. My mom’s not going to be home so I’ll be by myself anyway. I can make you a cake for your birthday. I already got the mix.”
“That’s okay, Fannie Mae,” I said. “You don’t need to do that for me. Thank you, though.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Barrett said conspiratorially.
We both looked at him. I knew that tone of voice. “It’s never a good thing when you have a good idea of something to do,” I said.
He grinned winningly. That’s usually when he says something that gets me in trouble.
He reached into his pocket and pulled a key ring out, twirling it on his finger. His grin got wider as he placed them on the table in front of me, shoving my tray out of the way. He flicked them toward me with his finger.
I looked at them and then looked back at him, raising my eyebrow. He raised his in return to me, his grin getting so wide that I was surprised his face didn’t split in two.
He leaned closer to me and Fannie Mae. She pressed in on my back, sliding her arm around my side. I sighed and chose to ignore it. “Well,” he said, licking his lips, “my parents are out of town, too. And my dad didn’t take his car. He still thinks I don’t know where he keeps the spare keys.”
“The convertible?” I whispered, my throat suddenly dry.
“Yep,” he nodded. “I was thinking,” he said, “that maybe we could take it out for a spin and then maybe take it out somewhere I could teach you how to drive a stick and then you could drive us around a little bit if you want.”
Silence reigned at our table. “Really? You’d let me do that?” I asked.
“Sure,” he shrugged, leaning back. “You are my best bud, after all. Someone’s got to teach you how to drive.”
“Can I come, too?” Fannie Mae said excitedly. “I’ve always wanted to go in your dad’s car.”
He looked at me, a smile twitching across his lips. “That’s up to Duke.”
My eyes were riveted to his. I couldn’t believe he was doing this. He knew how much I loved his dad’s car. I waved my hand in her direction. “Sure. Sure. That’s cool.” My hand hovered over the keys, not wanting to believe my luck. “Where can we go?”
“I was thinking we could go back behind the old Pleasant Rest Cemetery. There’s a good dirt field back there that’d be perfect for it. Should be pretty quiet back there, too. Once you get the hang of it maybe you could drive us back home.”
My hand twitched possessively over the car keys as my eyes swiveled back to look at Tamara. The keys felt a little bit like freedom.
“Thanks, Barrett,” I said. “You’re almost not half bad.” I pulled Fannie Mae’s hand off my side as Barrett snorted and went back to eating.
This was going to be the best birthday ever.