Eric or Never Ending War Part I — short story

(this fiction is still in rough draft form, but I couldn't keep going over it so I posted it)

Eric or Never Ending War Part I

I had dedicated my summer to drinking margaritas and playing video games. I was 26, so this was still a socially acceptable decision. Less socially acceptable was the fact that I was unemployed and living with my parents, but the sweet margaritas alleviated most of my anxiety. I was taking classes and seriously dedicating myself to improving at frisbee golf. My parents were no longer disappointed in me. They were just happy I wasn’t asking them for money… yet.

I took the margaritas seriously. Only lime green would do. I would drive to the next town over if the local shop only had the strawberry mix. Tons of ice was required, along with Jose Cuervo tequila, which I thought was top shelf but now know is not. I also now know that it wasn’t the tequila, or the ice, or the lime-green flavor that made the drink delicious. It was the five pounds of corn syrup that goes into the margarita mix. Other drinks like a Jack and Coke or Tom Collins can not compete with that kind of fire power. People wonder how a Long Island iced tea can work with the wild concoction of liquors, and the answer is sugar. It will make any drink work. Try this on your own. You will be in for a wonderful evening or day depending on how serious you are about having a good time. I was very serious.

On this particular afternoon, I was slumped on the couch watching television. It was a typical hot summer day in Ohio, and our century old home was sweltering, absent the convenience of a modern central heating and cooling system. It was too hot to take my drinking seriously, but I had started, just not seriously. That would wait for sundown and the Cincinnati Reds pregame show. All of the doors and windows were wide open. In front of nearly every screen door and window sat box fans buzzing and vibrating. The house hummed like a warehouse filled with the industrial fans that never cooled the workers but moved air as if the only purpose was to feed employees oxygen so they could produce more widgets and thingamadoos. These fans were as old as the house itself. The centers of the fan blades each had its own rainbow design from bored children with crayons decades prior.

When I was young, I thought this was how everyone lived, but now in my mid-twenties, I realized that only poor people lived this way. We weren’t poor, but we lived like poor people — which is worse. We had enough money to behave differently, but we still chose to act poor. Our masquerade was insulting to the poor, and uncomfortable for the comfortable. I chose not to live that way. I drank Jose Cuervo with only lime-green flavor.

Outside the screen door, across the alley and down the street, I could see my brother turning the corner. Countless times, I had been languishing on the couch, slowly being eaten by its cushions, and noticed my brother lurching toward the house to visit, but this time felt different. I panicked and ran upstairs to my bedroom, but it was a controlled escape so as not to spill the plastic margarita cup filled to the brim. If I hid upstairs, then I would not have to answer the door and face my brother.

My brother had relapsed again, and was heavy into heroin and pills. I couldn’t face him. I couldn’t face him in the shape he was in or the shape I was I was in. Maybe I could do it, I thought. I wasn’t that drunk yet, but did I want to risk ruining this buzz? The sight of my future would likely halt this mid-week, midday buzz in its tracks.

My brother was my half-brother, but now that he’s dead, I just call him brother. Growing up, he was in and out of trouble like everyone in my family. If I could have called them all halfs, I would have. Eric was a half when convenient, when half was good for me. This wasn’t a great deception. It was the act of an insecure kid that lacked courage. More importantly, I lacked a girlfriend and a spot on the basketball team, so my dropout, junkie brother was a half. Years later when I procured drugs for cheerleaders and basketball players, using my brother’s name opened doors.

I didn’t get DUIs, arrests or murder anyone like the rest of my hall of fame family, but I was a dirtbag, too. I just never got caught when I went too far, and when I got caught I didn’t go far enough.

The specifics of Erik’s struggles weren’t widely known. Everyone was on pills in southern Ohio. Heroin was around. There were routine overdoses, but the full understanding of the opioid epidemic was not known in the early 2000s. Pearce didn’t think his brother would soon be dead. He expected his halfbrother to creep on like all of the other addicts in town. The people that died weren’t addicts. Since the 90s, Pearce had watched the same people smash pills on videocassette rental containers, chop cheap pre-cut cocaine on the back of a no limit records compilation compact discs, and drunkenly piss their pants on backroads. These people never died, though many wished they would have. The deaths were always kids or first timers, not the veterans. There wasn’t a drug strong enough to kill the legends, and his brother was among that rare air. In a town of less than 5000, he was in the 99th percentile in drug abuse.

2.

There were many things that Pearce didn’t know. The extent of the opioid epidemic and which backroad he abandoned his expensive jeans covered in piss and vomit. He didn’t know how much of a heroin user his brother was, but he was right to assume that his brother was a hoss and if there were a drug that could take him out, then he would have departed this world long ago. What Pearce did not know was that a man thought he could end the heroin epidemic by inventing a more potent and lethal form of heroin–Fentanyl. Fentanyl killed the hoss.

At the visitation, Jim Baxter swore up and down that it wasn’t a suicide and that Erik had been given bad stuff. Baxter was seething. When Baxter said he was going to hunt down the dealers and kill them, he meant it. The cult of honor was strong in southern Ohio. While geographically, most assume this area is the North or Midwest, it’s closer culturally to Kentucky or the Appalachian mountains. It’s more South than North. Anyone that lives in Ohio knows this. Southern Ohio was settled by southerners, whereas Northern Ohio was settled by New Englanders and hard working Germans. Not only was it settled by southerners, but they kept coming. Hillbillies that got tired of blood feuds and coal mines moved to the promised land of southern Ohio. And they brought with them their culture of blood feuds and other bad habits. Speaking of, Pearce wasn’t really listening to Baxter. No, Pearce thought Baxter was crazy and was counting down the minutes until the visitation was over, and he would get drunk with his living brother. If he stuck to beer, then he should be fine to read the eulogy the next evening, but he would need to be careful with the heavy beers. His Dad, Don, probably wouldn’t have any, he was a damn wreck.

Don blamed himself. It was all his fault. From the long view, he did share some of the blame. We’re all responsible for the deaths around us with the mistakes we make. Some more than others. Don didn’t buy his son the drugs or stick the needle in his arm, but he missed a lot of little league games. He was never there. A lot of people cannot listen to the song “Cats in the Cradle” because it’s a terrible song, but others can’t listen to it because it reminds them of their sins. Pearce and Erik’s dad nearly had a nervous breakdown in the mid 90s when the song was covered by Ugly Kid Joe and suddenly was being played everywhere.

3.

Most people do not like having small bedrooms, but they make a lot of sense if they’re just a bedroom or a room with a bed. Add a little more space for a desk and a dresser and you have my dream room. My bed wasn’t even a bed. Just a twin mattress on the floor. I lived that way for a decade. The small bedroom that I was hiding in was once Eric’s small bedroom. It likely heated and cooled just as quickly then as it did now. The loud rumbling window AC drowned out any sounds coming from downstairs. Like the sound of a knock at the front door.

There used to be Guns N’ Roses posters on these walls. Axle Rose scared me as a kid, but the songs were great. I was scared to enter Erik’s room. I’m not sure why. He was a teenager and I was 6 or 7.

The Guns N’ Roses posters we’re gone now. The walls were blank. Eric now had the Grateful Dead bears tattooed on his arm. That should have been an obvious sign about his drug abuse, but I didn’t know anything about the Grateful Dead until my 30s – just completely missed that one. I thought since they had “dead” in their name it was another one of the metal bands my brother liked. It wasn't until my friend played that cocaine song at a dive bar in Columbus that I learned anything about the band. I lost a lot of money on keno that night. Not something I would do sober.

It is something he would do sober.

Pearce’s sister had a Pink Floyd tattoo. He did not have a tattoo nor did his living brother. If his brother had one, he guessed it would be Eminem or Kid Rock, something regrettable for sure. The thought of getting a tattoo crossed Pearce’s mind once. His favorite band as a teenager was Weezer. He did not get a Weezer tattoo, and as a grown man, he thanked god for it everyday.

The small bedroom Pearce was hiding in was not very inviting for friends because of its size. There was a bathroom connected to the bedroom which was quite a luxury. The bathroom was remodeled a couple years after a house fire, but it was barely functioning anymore. The fire was blamed on Pearce because he had played with matches in the room where the fire occurred two years earlier. His mother was not Sherlock Holmes, and it was later revealed the fire was an electrical fire, which is common in 100-year-old houses, but this would not be known until after the fire. While the fire raged, and Pearce was busy delivering newspapers, his mother was busy making arrangements for the military academy and procuring the finest of switches from the bushes in front of the house. Burning down your house is pretty serious. His mother took this punishment seriously, and the firefighters would simply have to work around her because the best switch wasn’t going to pick itself and there was no time to waste. The switch must be ready and waiting for Pearce when he got home, or what was left of the home.

5.

No one appreciates paper boys. Most people today don’t even realize this was a job. Even during the boom times, only paper boys really knew what it was like. It was one of the worst jobs in America and it was given to children. For some reason, child labor laws did not apply to paper boys. It defies physics and the laws of the universe that these kids didn’t all go missing.

Pearce realized what real poverty was when he was given Andrew’s route. Andrew got promoted to the Spring Street route and Pearce took over the entry level route which was the worst in town. He had to deliver to the trailer park and Olive Avenue, near the train tracks. Pearce always called it Baltimore Avenue as in the cheap purple spots on the Monopoly board but worse. This reference was too clever for the other sixth graders, but they knew the area. They knew it was a bad neighborhood. That’s where Brad Richmond lived. His family didn’t even have box fans.

Although Pearce never considered the threat of abduction or worse, he did constantly deal with abusive adults. Sometimes it was deserved, other times not. There was one house that was out of the way and added five minutes to the route. Pearce accidentally skipped this house occasionally and when he got really cavalier, he did it two days in a row. That’s 10 minutes shaved off. The problem was that the guy knew his house was out of the way, and he confronted 12-year-old Pearce about his transgressions. In a purely psychopathic move, Pearce listened to the adult’s threat, and proceeded to coldly lie through his teeth without flinching. “Nope. I must have missed you. There’s a lot of houses on this route. Got a science fair project I’m working on. Everyone bought trifolds, but I forget, so now I am the only student in the entire sixth grade with posters.”

The man didn’t buy it, but it didn’t matter. The bigger message was Pearce didn’t care about his threat. Pearce wasn’t intimidated. Delivering papers hardens kids. It’s not the delivery, but the collections. Every Friday, Pearce had to collect $1.25, and plenty of deadbeats didn’t pay or made promises. He was a 12-year-old debt collector with no authority other than withholding worthless pieces of paper covered in text about meaningless local goings ons.

The paper always got their cut first. At the end of the Friday route, the paper got paid and Pearce got what was left over. After enough of these poor pay days, paper boys get wise and get hard. It’s dog eat dog. The paper will get their cut when they get their cut. Pearce is buying a cylinder of cheese balls and a pack of NBA Hoops at the card shop. He would like to get Fleer Ultra but he couldn’t afford those packs on a paper boys’ wages. He would like to afford better chips, or even chips, but the cheese ball cylinder was practical for delivering papers. A bag of chips while more expensive and delicious, preferably Herr’s Sour Cream and Onion, could not sustain the rigors of a delivery route. The cheese ball canister could be squeezed into Pearce’s satchel without damaging the precious cargo inside. The drawback was that the cheese balls were extra cheesy, and the blend of fresh paper ink and fake cheese was disgusting for the cheese ball consumer and the news consumer. Pearce often wondered what did planters’ Mr. Peanut really cover the cheese balls in. It wasn’t cheese. It was a blend of spices that would melt the mind of the Colonel.

6.

Addiction is dangerous to describe. No one is ever out of its grasp. Pearce hesitates to discuss his or anyone else’s demons. It’s part superstition. It’s part not wanting to admit the problem. But it’s a lot of the former. Almost as if talking about it too much would conjure spirits. In his more paranoid moments, he worried that the actual spirits of his dead addict brother and alcoholic grandfather would rise from the dead and shame him. The thought of ghosts scolding him was more than he could take. He was never out of the woods nor would he ever be, but at least he was alive wandering in the woods.

Addiction would be their secret. Eric was good at secrets. In the late 90s, their small town had a handful of fast food chains. Before the combination KFC-Taco bell did mortal battle with McDonalds, dominos and Burger King, there was just KFC in the late 80s. And teenage Eric was one of their first employees. Years later Pearce would work for the rival and affluent McDonald’s (he competed in the local McDonald’s Olympics as Food Prep #2, but his stage was during a very inactive shift. He was unable to showcase his tomato placing and ketchup squirting expertise).

KFC was hot in the late 80s. Everyone had to know the Colonel's secret recipe. And how did they make the mashed potatoes? Were they real potatoes? Spoiler alert: nothing is real in fast food. Eric was good with secrets, so he passed the rigorous KFC interview process with flying colors. His extraordinary clandestineness destined Eric for a future in the CIA, a membership in Bohemian Grove, or a debilitating addiction to narcotics. No matter how many times Pearce asked, Eric would not reveal the truth. Eric had taken an oath, he refused to “spill the beans.” People who work in the food industry regularly use food puns. Pearce didn’t even like fried chicken or mashed potatoes, but he was a purveyor of commercials and he knew it was something important because he had seen it in commercials many times. Alf and KFC secrets had to mean something, they were on TV, so he had to know. Even if the knowledge would mean nothing to him, and surely, the original recipe, the blend of 11 herbs and spices would mean absolutely nothing to a six year old because even to this day he is confused by tablespoons and teaspoons, and what is marjoram even? Pearce’s knowledge of culinary accoutrement did not extend beyond salt, pepper and ketchup. Yet, he had to know because everyone had to know. His grandmother would have been satisfied if he could just remember the Lord’s Prayer, but Pearce’s seven-year-old brain was busy cracking The Colonel's DaVinci Code.

7.

“Just give me the money, Dad,” Eric pleaded. Eric knew he would get the money. Don knew he would give his oldest son the money, but the fatherly thing to do seemed to be make his addict son squirm. This was the best thing for a son, but the worst thing for an addict.

From his Bedroom window, Pearce poked his eye out from behind the curtain. He could see Eric talking to Don in the backyard. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he knew it was about money. Everyone knows that look. Besides that’s about the only reason to ever have a conversation with a parent. That’s part of the reason why Pearce’s parents didn’t mind him being around. He left them alone… for now.

“Just give me the money, Abe,” Pearce pleaded. Pearce knew Abe had it. Abe knew Pearce knew Abe had it, but he thought maybe, just maybe, he could convince Pearce that he lacked liquidity. This line of financial argumentation fell on deaf ears because Pearce could not understand the concept of liquidity. He struggled with abstract concepts outside of goblins and poltergeists.Even the idea of a halfling was too much for him. He was a tangible and concrete thinker. Liquid meant liquid. Abe didn’t really understand the concept either. He just knew that when you didn’t have cash but owned assets, you lacked liquidity. Abe didn't really have assets either, but he did own a flying V guitar and a beginners amp by Fender (but it was really by Squier but it did have a Fender logo, but it sounded like Squier).

“I don’t got it,” Abe answered. Pearce could hear his mother saying, “I don’t have it,” in his head. The young paperboy could see the fresh bucket of KFC on the coffee table. Although fast food was cheap, it wasn’t really all that cheap. Anyone tight on cash could stretch a paycheck much further at the grocery than by eating out. Even Pearce knew that and he was 12-years-old, but he did have the advantage, or disadvantage, of being taught financial lessons by his grandfather Jim, who lived through the Great Depression and was now a dry drunk that spent most of the day as an unpleasant miser, unless he was eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Then, he was only rather unpleasant. Jim could stretch a paycheck, but so could Abe— he did use the word liquidity. Abe just liked KFC. Foreigners love KFC. It’s a remarkably adaptive fast food chain across the world.

Abe was from Iraq. He fled the country during the Gulf War. He was lucky enough and unlucky enough to have learned English as a child. He worked with the US military for a week and then got the hell out of the country. One of the privates let Abe in on a secret: when the military leaves the translators are always the first people executed. Abe left that night with nothing but the ability to speak English. That got him to America, but to Baltimore Avenue. Abe didn’t mind. He loved America. He had a cool guitar and easy access to KFC. Sure, he gained thirty pounds in his first year in the states, but that was fitting right in.

“It’s just a Buck twenty-five, Abe.” Pearce was not leaving without the money. Technically, Abe owed for the previous week too, but Abe was never caught up. Pearce and Abe never expected for him to be caught up, but Pearce didn’t want to fall in the trap of two weeks turning into three and so on. That happened with the Swansons. Eventually Pearce stopped delivering and had to swallow the losses, all of which came out of his pocket like he was a sole proprietor, but that’s what he was. A teenage freelancer. A newsy without the prestige. When he broke his foot and had to deliver papers on crutches, he had to deliver papers on crutches. After a week Pearce ditched the crutches and began walking on the cast because the route was taking too long. There was no long term damage to his foot, but his pride took a hit. By the end of cast’s life, it was in poor shape. One day, Jimmy Connors publically accused Pearce of reusing his brother's cast. This was preposterous but it stuck. Pearce tried to rationally explain this wasn’t the same cast but to no avail. The debate devolved, like all prepubescent debates, into a series of Nuh-Uhhs. This still angers Pearce today. Jimmy didn’t even have a box fan. This was a terrible job.

After a prolonged and uneasy stare down, Abe caved. He respected the little kid. None of this was natural to Pearce, but after the first time he built up the courage to demand back payment, every subsequent assertion became easier. Sometimes Pearce liked the game, but other times he loathed it. The back and forth could get ugly, but winning could be even uglier.

When Abe conceded. He did not dig into his wallet. He did not grab his checkbook. He went over to the couch and began fishing out one dirty coin after another. Sure enough, he was able to collect $1.25 in stinky, sticky, slimy nickels, pennies, and dimes — no quarters of course. There was likely another week's worth of dues in the subcutaneous layers of the cushions, but Pearce waved Abe off.

“It’s for dues, dad”

“Don’t lie to me”

“I’m not lying this time,” This time was the key phrase, but Eric was being honest. He honestly planned on spending the money on his league bowling dues. And he would try very hard to avoid a drug detour on the way to the bowling alley. But the more Don grilled Eric, the more he just wanted to be an addict and do what everyone expected him to do.

Sometimes Eric didn’t think he was an addict. He admitted it long ago because those are the rules. But he never really felt honest admitting it. He said he was addict because that was what everyone wanted to hear and it made them feel better. Not much of what he did made people feel better, so that seemed like a good thing to do. Unfortunately, once you admit it, you can’t take it back. People hang it over you like the sword of Damocles. They no longer see you as you. They see you as the addict. Every action you take is seen through the lens of addict. When Eric was bowling the best bowling he ever bowled, it was understood as the best bowling he ever bowled as an addict.

“How’s your family?” Don asked. It was a legitimate question, but Don also wanted to change the subject.

“They’re great. It’s just a hundred fifty bucks”

“That’s a lot.”

“Come on Dad. Not for you.”

“Money is tight. No one is buying cars. They don’t need parts. They cut my hours”

“What? They cut you back to 60?”

Don was perceived as a workaholic. A man that would work 80 hours a week to support his family. He had just enough time to eat a bologna sandwich and fall asleep for several hours before doing it all over again. That was partly true. Don also enjoyed not being trapped in the house with his crazy family.

“Why do you think I am home right now?”

“Because you like spending time with your family.”

Don chose his next move carefully. He had walked into this one. Instinctually his motor functions were admitting defeat. He had to stop his right hand from reaching into his back pocket for his bulging bill fold. There were plenty of crisp 100s in there. Fresh from the bank. Along with hundreds of business cards that he would remove, read, and then reinsert when he was bored or waiting somewhere. There were also photos. Decade old pictures of his kids. Pictures of his daughter in her rap dancing costume. In her gymnastics costume. In her basketball uniform. In her volleyball uniform. In her cheerleader uniform. In her valedictorian gown. When he bought her car. Insurance photos from when she wrecked the car the first time and the second time. There was just one picture of the boys from the late 80s entertaining themselves with the Nintendo. Their faces could only be partially seen because they would not pose for a photo. Their gaze was fixed onto the downstairs TV. The Nintendo was hooked up to downstairs TV. Every time Don looked at the photo he remembered telling the boys not to hook the Nintendo up to the big tv. He lamented the countless hours of tv that he missed out on because his sons were playing some stupid game killing goblins in a labyrinth. He wished they would do something more productive like read the Tolkien books he bought them. But all the boys ever did was look at the cover and stare at the sword the dwarf had. Don gave up on trying to explain to them that it was a hobbit. They were a lost cause. Were they a lost cause because he was always working and failed them? There was no point in going through that again. Best to just go to work and let them have their Nintendo cartridges. He wished he could watch TV in peace while he enjoyed his bologna sandwich.

Don’s approach shifted. Instead of arguing with Eric, he was now fighting with himself in a fight that he was glad to lose. As long as it was a fair fight. He didn’t mind giving his son money, as long as it was for the right thing. He needed to convince himself because Eric was doing a terrible job of persuasion, he was a junkie after all. If only he could persuade as good as he bowled. If only he could live half as good as he bowled. It was the damndest thing. The kid couldn’t do much right, and mostly that was Don’s fault, but he could bowl like an idiot savant of bowling. Don was never around to show Eric how to do anything. So Eric spent most of his time with Don’s ex-wife. She was a drunk that spent most of her time at the bowling alley which was the best bar environment in their small town in the early 90s. Her alcoholic drinking partner was Jim Hatch. A former pro bowler that washed out because of his drinking problem, but he still put on a good show in the local bowling alley and would occasionally stumble into a 300 game. Eric learned the ropes from Hatch, but not just how to bowl. He learned the dirty, underhanded Psy-Ops necessary to obliterate your opponents. Bowling was war, something the tall and lean Vietnam Vet Hatch knew something about.

7.

Jim Hatch leaned his back against the bar as he drank from a frothy mug. He looked out towards the lanes. A cascade of bowlers would line up, roll, and return to the back of the lane where the red and black checkered tile met the wood. It was all about the return. Some enthusiastic, some dejected, and others anxious.

“You see, everyone thinks it’s about the approach. The games are won and lost in that moment between the first and second roll.”

Greg Jennings listened attentively. Greg knew everything about bowling. He owned the damned place as he would often say, but there was one person he deferred to when it came to bowling, and that was local legend Jim Hatch. Greg stood behind the bar with his hands on his waist, ignoring his customers, listening to Jim opine.

“That negative energy compounds. When you roll a 300. There’s never a second roll until the end. Never any negative energy. All positive vibes.”

Greg can see about a 100 holes in Jim’s logic, but he always deferred to Jim. And Jim was drunk. He was always drunk. He’d been drunk since he got off the plane from Nam. His hands vibrated all hours of the day. Most shake, but Jim had coolness about his alcoholism. He vibrated like a tuning fork. The only time his hands were still was when they were holding a 16-pound bowling ball.

Like everybody else his age, the war had ruined any prospect of a normal life. Hatch was a Huey pilot in Vietnam. It required precision and nerves of steel. It’s probably how he became a pro bowler and also how he became an alcoholic. He’d always been an alcoholic, but by the late 80s his nerves gave out. He became a bad alcoholic. Forget holding a 16-pound ball and spinning it professionally. Hatch could barely hold a mug of beer at times. The fact that he was able to coherently speak while having enough concentration to not spill beer on his shirt amazed Greg. He wasn’t going to interrupt Hatch and ruin this moment.

“10 frames. Even if the majority go well, we’re still talking about 30-40% negativity. That’s why bowlers drink. They subconsciously understand the need to bury this negative energy. That’s why these damn kids never top 150. That and they’re all desperate to get laid. They’re wound too tight”

Jim Hatch was anything but tight. Greg would say he was loose as a goose, and he would know it because he fed him drinks on the house all night. Hatch was the wrong guy to let drink for free because he was a fish. His blood was alcohol, but he was a draw and god forbid Hatch ever get sober. That was when the demons came out.

Many Huey pilots viewed themselves as saviors. They would swoop in and save soldiers. It was risky and mentally taxing, but they saved soldiers and never had to kill anybody. It sure beat sitting on watch all night in the shit in the middle of a monsoon.

Hatch didn’t see it that way. He was glad to have saved some lives, but in his eyes he saved fewer than he killed. Sure, he scooped some out of certain death, but delivered many more to their doom. By his calculation, for every one he saved, he escorted 10 more to their demise either through death, casualty or drug addiction.

The flight into the jungle should have been awkward, but it’s so challenging that he never had time to think about what he was actually doing. It was so loud you couldn’t speak in the air other than commands. A philosophical discussion on the pilot as Charon ferrying soldiers across a figurative river of Styx was out of the question. Besides, most of the kids were scared shitless. They were afraid of that moment when their feet touched the ground. If they had any sense they would be afraid in the air. They were practically sitting ducks in the sky. If they knew how many soldiers had been sniped or just fallen out of the chopper, they would have behaved differently.

These kids thought the Huey was base in a game of tag. A safe space to relax and let your guard down, but it was anything but. One time, Hatch and his crew picked up a kid just in the Nick of time. Hatch remembers looking over his shoulder and the look of pure joy on the kid’s face. Then the motor choked, and the Huey jerked and down the dumb son of a bitch went. He fell like a rock. He didn’t even move his arms as he dropped. He was in disbelief. The fall should have killed him but it didn’t because the ground was so soft from the rainy season. As Hatch circled around to try to pick him back up, he saw the VCs pop out of the jungle and frugally fire one shot into his head. As hatch flew away he hoped the one shot finished him off, and that the kid did not have to suffer.

Greg was not looking forward to driving Hatch home at the end of the night. He was already past the point of no return. Even if he wanted to slow down or sober up a bit - he didn’t - he would not be able to drive. He wouldn’t even be able to get the car in gear. Greg dreamed of the day he could sell this damn bowling alley.

His favorite joke to tell and he told it often was that the two happiest days for a bowling alley owner are when they buy a bowling alley and when they sell it. If only he could find some poor sucker, some desperate fool to take this misery away. Greg said a little, but real, prayer to god requesting that hatch didn’t vomit on Greg’s car again, and if he had to vomit, he implored that God bend space and time so that all of the vomit lands perfectly on Hatch’s slacks. Of course that would mean ditching the pants on the side of the road and then going back the next morning because those were Hatch’s lucky bowling slacks from his historic 1988 Semi-Finals run.

8.

Abe’s crusty coins were now comingling in Pearce’s collection cache. The whole bag was bogarted. It didn’t matter. Most of the coins would go to the newspaper. The rest of the haul would be gone minutes later after Pearce walked 30 yards down the alley to the Card shop. His week’s worth of labor blown on several packs of hoops or upper deck, whatever he could afford.

Pearce typically chose bottom shelf packs. The probability of pulling a rare was very unlikely. He was flushing the money down the drain, but there was always hope. Every time he ripped open a pack it was a dopamine rush. He could buy one pack of Flare Ultra and get one hit of dopamine, or buy three cheap packs and make the three hits last over the course of a half hour.

Matt would meet Pearce at the shop every Friday. His card buying habits were much different than Pearce’s. He had a very comfortable grandmother. She was not a dry drunk. Her generosity and self discipline manifested in Matt buying several Fleer Ultra packs from the top shelf. Matt was very serious about sports card collecting.

Before Abe handed over the money, he couldn’t help himself. He clenched his fist filled with crusty coins and pulled it back from Pearce. The way Clint Eastwood hesitated to pay Tuco his fair share of a dishonest bounty.

“You’re gonna blow it. On kid stuff.Why don’t I Hold on to it for you?” He said in his middle eastern accent with a squint in his eye.

Pearce could have said the same thing about the guy eating buckets of chicken and a flying V guitar leaning against a Fender amp that was actually a Squier amp, but Pearce wasn’t that quick. His brain immediately agreed with Abe.

“When I was boy in Baghdad. I saved the dinar and paid for English lessons.” Abe explained the story of fleeing Iraq during the gulf war because he was fluent in English and translators are often the first to have their heads cut off when the country falls apart. Anyone that knows the language of the invader is assumed to have worked with the enemy at some point or some point in the future, otherwise why do they know the language? Abe explained the story with absolute certainty to the paper boy patiently waiting to be paid at his front door and listening to the “Iraq Translator Decapitation” story for the fourth time. Pearce didn’t mind. He liked war stories. His dad wouldn’t talk about Vietnam and his grandfather would lose his shit if anyone asked him about World War II. There was a real fear that the next time someone asked his grandpa about a B-52, he would fall off the wagon and thus would begin one of the greatest benders of all time. The problem with Abe’s story is that each time it became even more exaggerated. First of all, in the latest version Abe was fluent, but anyone speaking to him knew he had a minimal command of the English language. Second, what was originally a random soldier telling to get out of the country, had become the widely accepted practice of translatorcide.

Abe completely regretted choosing English, but its the world’s lingua franca. Possibly if he saved more Dinera, he could have bought better English lessons. He was glad to be alive and in America, but not alive in a small midwestern city living in a plywood shack next to the railroad tracks. This is the part of story where Pearce grows impatient. Each time he expects to hear about someone getting their head chopped off, but it never happens.

Abe could tell the story did not work, again. He had failed to negotiate with a 12-year-old. Abe respected Pearce, but he was resentful of Pearce’s keen business acumen.He refused to pay with actual cash, only couch cushion coins.

And like that his anger passed. When this unpleasant encounter ended, and the paperboy left his threshold, he could return to thrashing on his flying V, and then listen to his Metallica “Kill em all” cassette on his walkman while drinking cheap, cold american beers that were in endless supply in this glorious country. Things were definitely not so bad. However, he did wish that this country had more varieties of fried chicken, something with cumin or marjoram.

9.

As soon as Abe shut the door and the unpleasant experience ended, Pearce immediately wanted Abe to open the door and for negotiations to continue. Across the street, Jimmy Spaulding and Jacob Rose were sitting on their bikes. The bikes likely were not their bikes but stolen bikes. The two had a history of bike thievery, but the fact that jimmy’s bike was clearly a girls bike was the give away. It was pink and not cool in the pink vapor wave style of the late 80s era. It was pink in the style of Barbie. Only training wheels would be a bigger red flag. They were staring at Pearce, sizing him up. Pearce knew not to make eye contact. He looked down, and turned towards Abe’s door and knocked robotically. The sounds of a flying V shredding into hit the lights, the opening number of Kill Em All, could be heard through the door. There was no bother in knocking again. Abe would never hear him. Pearce put his head down and pressed on continuing his route.

Jacob and Jimmy followed Pearce’s path on the opposite side walk. Pearce ran through the scenarios in his head. Did they want to rob him or were they bullies just being bullies? It didn’t matter. It was two versus one and in both scenario’s Pearce would get hurt or embarrassed. These kids were lunatic retards. Their fists communicated more eloquently than their lips, and their fists said MAHHHH.

The two crossed the street and were trailing right behind. Pearce could hear them breathing like animals, they were animals. While Pearce was busy thinking of a plan, the brutes grabbed Pearce and threw him to the ground. With their knees they pressed all of the weight of their bodies, which wasn’t much; they were gangly poor kids. They needed to use all of their weight because the US government had dialed back welfare, and these boys were simply learning how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and not be dependents or wards of the state. Everything was going just as planned in the eyes of the reformers, then Jacob Rose started to undo the button on his pants.

These psychopaths were not thieves or bullies, they were monsters. Pearce was in shock. He struggled but couldn’t move and his mouth was being covered by Jimmy. He couldn’t believe that they were not saying anything. No bullying or teasing. Just animalistic breathing that was now quieter — they could control it. They knew what they were about to do was bad, so they were keeping quiet.

Suddenly a door flung open at the nearby drug house, all of the houses were dives of one sort or another. Live and let die, the guns and roses version, echoed from the hall of the dilapidated den. Pearce preferred the McCartney version but this time he appreciated Axle’s theatrical version of an already dramatic over the top song. Eric slowly appeared in the threshold and slowly made his way down the crumbling stoop. He moved slowly for dramatic effect, and the effect of a three day bender.

He approached the boys with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 in the other.

“Boys.” Eric said as he gave a nod. He took a puff of his cigarette and smashed the bottle of Mad Dog on Rose’s head. The flask shaped glass shattered upon impact. Eric’s hand ripped open, but he didn’t notice because of adrenaline and drugs, probably the drugs. With his other hand Eric grabbed jimmy and pulled him into punch after punch with his wounded hand. Bright red blood splattered everywhere. Eric, Jimmy and Rose looked like they emerged from a slasher film, meanwhile Pearce was spotless.

Once Jimmy’s body went limp, Eric started to feel the cuts in his hand, so he chose to kick Rose several times to make sure the lesson was learned.

A 13-year-old being pummeled by an adult in the middle of the street was not unusual for Olive Avenue. This type of entertainment hardly turned the dial for the addicts. And the last thing they were going to do was call for the police. The addicts didn’t want the authorities in the neighborhood, and the authorities were happy to pretend the area by the tracks did not exist.

With his clean hand, Eric lifted Pearce up.

“Hey, Eric.” Peace had never been so happy to see his brother.

“You probably ought to get home. The house is on fire.”

Pearce looked over his shoulder. A cloud of smoke was rising into the sky across town.