He is almost 20 now, he realizes, sitting in his beat-up Volkswagen and waiting for Richie to come out the back door of Pepe’s Mexican Restaurant. He’s been thinking about that for awhile, actually, in vague indistinct moments of his daily life. The old man has taken to calling him again, renewed in his threats about coming home before he totally fucked up his future. His mother would burst into tears at least once in the background. The only one who still seems acclimated to Jason’s lifestyle is his little sister, Penelope, who treats her sparse phone calls with her brother with zest and vigor, as though she’d just seen him, as though he was right down the block. Jason can never let the little girl know how much he misses her. He is afraid she’d tell his parents and then their strained grip on hell would break completely loose.
A slam of the iron door jolts Jason into the present. Through the grime on his windshield, he can see Richie ambling towards him, smirking as though he ruled the fucking world. Jason doesn’t know how he does it. His clothes are stained, his whole savings stashed in his back pocket, but Richie Behrens acts as though he’s a king. Which concerned Jason, because every time his friend sticks his head into the clouds, they are bound to get into trouble.
“Como estas, hombrito?” Richie laughs as he slammed the car door behind him.
“What took you so long? Your shift was done 20 minutes ago.”
“You know… odds and ends.” Richie snickers as though he’s said something outlandishly funny. “Let’s leave this dump, man. Hell, let’s leave this whole fucking town.”
“Why would we want to do something like that?” Jason asks warily eyes on the road as he twisted his keys in the ignition. “We got good jobs. I’m gonna see Mr. Johnson this weekend; he’s giving me a discount on the car.”
“Relax, hombre, relax,” Richie groans, thumping his head against the headrest. “I didn’t mean tomorrow.”
Jason nods tersely but to himself, he can’t be so sure.
“What do you mean, ‘stay like this?’” Jason had asked him a few minutes later.
Richie groaned, thumping his head against the floor. “Damn, man, can’t you just let the magic work you?” he fluttered his hands over his head, his eyes dilating. “Stop thinking so fucking much. This ain’t school.”
Jason nodded, thinking about how much he didn’t like dragging his ass out of bed every morning. Just to sit in some chair all day and have stuffy old men and spinster hags drone on and on about things, which weren’t important to his life. Blowing smoke out from under his nostrils, he realized that Richie was the first person to make him feel alive in a long time. Well, him and his sister, Penny.
Speaking of, when was she due home? Frantically, Jason checked his watch. Richie and he had skipped school again, and he couldn’t have his little sister ratting out to his parents, no matter how precious she was to him.
“Fuck, what time is it?” he asked Richie, his heart thumping loudly.
“How the fuck should I know?” came the response.
Jason snapped his head around. “Shit—my little sister could come in any moment.”
“What does that matter?” Richie laughed hollowly. “You think you can’t keep her quiet?”
Jason paused, suddenly breathing heavy. He couldn’t bring himself to say that for once in his life, he wanted to play up the illusion of “the high ground.” For his sister’s sake.
The next day, both Richie and Jason are scheduled to work the dishwashers at Pepe’s. Jason barely ties the knot in his apron when Pepe comes storming in, his 14 year old daughter in tow. “You!” the rapidly swelling man roars, storming towards Richie. “You—you touch my daughter!”
Oh no, Jason groans inwardly. He is too used to his behavior to stand frozen by it; instead, he begins untying his apron, preparing for when Pepe would run them out.
Richie, however, has such an angelic look on his face that anyone could tell it was fake. “Me?” he asks innocently. “Just what are you accusing me of, sir?”
Pepe’s face reddens even more and Jason felt sure that he would soon pop like a balloon. “She say you—touch her down there, and make her touch you!” his rumbling voice wavers and the girl, sobbing in the corner, cowers under one of the counters. “You híbrido!”
Richie glared; he didn’t need to speak Spanish to know what that meant. “You better watch it, hombre,” he leers. “I could have your illegal asses deported back to Mexico!”
Pepe shakes violently, and Jason has to blink to clear his vision. “I—am—legal!” he rasps, coughing. “You the one who—immoral—sleep with girls—I take you to court—“
“You’d never win!” Richie shouts triumphantly, clearly enjoying himself. “My parents have big-shot gringo lawyer—he’d nail your asses to the ground!”
Jason folds up his apron and turns to the counter, ignoring the tableau. Richie hasn’t spoken to his parents since the spring of their sophomore year. But Pepe doesn’t know that; to him, Richie Behrens is a cocky American teen with blonde hair and blue eyes. Of course, he might be wondering what such a cocky American teen would be doing, traveling from town to town and taking temp jobs, that is, if the two of them had offered up such information when they were hired.
It takes Pepe awhile to speak, as he breathes hard and throbs like a vein in place. “Go,” he finally says, deflated and quieter. “Go. You fired.”
Jason moves hastily towards the exit, trying to egg Richie into a quick retreat.
But Richie Behrens would have none of that. Moving towards the door with a gleam in his eye, he makes sure he is all the way out of the restaurant before turning back. “It’s not like I fucked her!” he sneers, crowing as Pepe’s cry of rage is followed by his daughter’s shrieks and a heavy pan being hurled in their direction. Hastily, Richie shuts the door before turning towards his friend. “Holy fucking G-d!” he wheezes, trying to catch his breath. “That was fuckin funny.”
Jason stared at him, white faced. “What the fuck were you thinking?” he demands. “Do you want to go to jail as a fucking pedophile?” Galvanized by his own words, Jason takes off for his car as though Pepe would storm out of the kitchen with a machete.
Richie rolls his eyes, ambling towards the car at a much more leisurely pace. “As if that híbrido could throw us into jail,” he drawls.
“Why not?” Jason spits, yanking his car door open. “We’re just a couple of lazy no-good drifters in this town. And dammit, I was gonna get my car fixed!” Angrily, Jason slams the door behind him.
Richie simply rolls his eyes again, not bothering to buckle his seatbelt as Jason revs the engine. “There are other towns,” he says easily. “There are always other towns.”
Jason shakes his head, his hands spastic on the wheel. “Why the hell do I always feel I’m on the run with you,” he mutters.
Richie chuckles. “Cuz only the losers stand still,” he says. “Come on, man, would you really want to be back on the east coast? Living with your mommy and daddy? Or in some fancy shmancy college they paid for, getting bored out of your mind?”
Jason doesn’t answer, training his eyes straight ahead. He is almost 20 years old, he’s realized, and wondered what things would be like if they were different.
When Penelope had been cajoled into believing that her brother and his friend simply needed some time alone, and was sent off with promises of Disney marathons in the future, Richie cajoled Jason to share another joint, and then devised their plan.
It’s not like he was a good student, Jason reasoned to himself. He spent the majority of his time smoking pot under the bleachers with some other boys in his grade who didn’t belong anywhere else. Richie only lasted until sophomore year before he disappeared without a trace. When he had resurfaced a year later, he told Jason about all the fun he’d had, traveling from town to town doing odd jobs and generally getting into trouble. Jason thought it sounded like a neat idea—sure as hell beat trying to stay awake in Mr. Blake’s physics class—but he put off joining him on this great adventure. Wanted to get out from under the old man’s thumb—figured a diploma ought to do that. Richie for his part agreed. Figured they might get better jobs when they were no longer minors.
“Oh, fuck, I’ll have to tell my old man,” Jason suddenly groaned, snapping out of relaxed daydreams of living it easy with his best friend far away from here.
“Why would you have to do a thing like that for?” Richie scoffed. “You’ll be free of the bastard.”
“No, it’s not about that,” Jason argued, feeling it suddenly important to explain. “It’s about standing up to him.”
“The fuck?” Richie said. “There you go again, thinking about things too much. I say—just leave ‘em in the dust, like I did. He has no power over you anymore.”
Jason stared out the window again, stretching his legs across the window seat. In the corner of the yard, he could see Penny’s bright pink bicycle.
They drive for about four hours as Richie got a “feel” of the land. As they pause at a rest stop for burgers and fries, Jason lights up a cigarette feeling the nicotine burn down his throat. It is the fifth time this month he’s tried to quit—the fifth time he failed. He figures he had an oral fixation, cigarettes, joints, he watches the smoke expel from his body. Wonders what tonight would be like.
Things did not go as well as expected when Jason confronted his family. The old man hit the roof when Jason told him of his plan. Started shouting about him ruining his future. His mother was bawling and printing out applications to community colleges. Penelope, however, broke his heart. She was only nine, and waded towards him with big brown eyes.
“Are you leaving forever?” she asked tearfully.
Stricken, Jason knelt down, taking his sister’s shoulders between his hands. “No Penny,” he said softly. “I just gotta do this for awhile.”
“Awhile my ass!” the old man roared. “You’re not going anywhere with that punk-ass freeloader!”
“Richie’s not a freeloader!” Jason retorted, standing as his face grew hot. “You don’t know nothing of our plans!”
“I know he’s only using you for your beat-up Volkswagen!” the old man sneered, jamming a finger into Jason’s face. “Tell me, how do you plan to fix that bucket of crap without any money?”
Jason crossed his arms defiantly. “We’ll manage.”
“Oh, you’ll manage,” his father mocked, turning away. “Mark my words—give it a week and you’ll come crawling back.”
But it had been almost two years whether by luck or stubbornness or just plain having a good time Jason didn’t know. His parents had even calmed down until recently. But now Jason was turning 20, and the Volkswagen needed repairs and Richie had just shot another good town to hell.
Richie has him pull up to a bar at the side of the road, and the two of them make it through the smoky interior as dusk settles outside. His eyes are like a hawk’s, quickly spotting out the single chicks with appraising looks in their eyes.
“Hi,” Richie says, calm and collected, dragging Jason to sit by two blondes at the counter. “Can we buy you ladies a drink?”
The two girls share a look and laughed like tinkling bells. “Are you old enough, sweetie?” one asks.
“I can be as old as you like,” Richie responds, and Jason rolls his eyes.
The two girls seem more amused by it, at least. “You’re cute,” the other one says. “What’s your name?”
“Well I’m Richie,” Richie says, puffing out his chest. “And this here’s Jason.”
“Veronica, Tiffany,” the second girl replies, pointing to herself and her friend in turn. “You boys new in town?”
“Just arrived,” Richie says, beaming.
Veronica looks them up and down, a gleam of something in her eye. “How about we show you a good time?”
“I’d be most obliged,” Richie says, grinning at Jason.
“Princess Penny,” Jason once wrote on a stack of paper napkins he snagged from a fast food joint. “I wish I could tell you why I was doing this. It’s not you. Hell (scratched out) it’s not even the old man and his demands. It’s… well, I don’t know. A couple of crazy kids who got high and decided to go on a special long road trip. A chance to find myself. Ah, shucks, that sounds corny, even without Richie looking over my shoulder.
“I just wanted to let you know that you’re my one and only. I miss you, and I miss our Disney movie-thons, and greeting you after school, and all that other fun stuff. It’s strange how you don’t know what you’re gonna miss until it’s really gone. And when I find out—whatever the hell all this means, I promise you’ll be the first to know. Forever love, your brother.”
Of course, Jason balled it up and chucked it into the trash, like all of the others.
Tiffany and Veronica lead the boys back to their apartment, and the night then passes in a haze. Richie seems to broker sex and drugs like a businessman, the four of them sharing a joint together before Richie leads Veronica into one of the bedrooms. Jason sighs, flopping onto the couch in the sitting area, once again used to this type of situation.
“So… what are you doing here anyway?” Tiffany purrs, arching into his prone body as he brings the joint to his lips.
Jason exhales slowly, holding onto the substance for as long as he can. “Just passing through,” he mumbles thickly. “Lookin for work.”
Tiffany giggles, toying with the earring in his left ear. “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?” she asks. “How old are you anyway?”
Jason’s eyes snap open as he struggles to right himself. “20,” he says almost desperately, as Tiffany grunts, surprised to be bucked off him. “I’m almost 20.”
Somehow, this seems important.
“You don’t look 20,” Tiffany huffs, a little put out by his outburst. “You sure you’re not 16?”
Jason closes his eyes, remembering again when he was 16. It was the year of his first sexual experience, with a girl under the bleachers, both of them so high they could barely see straight. Jason relaxes, sinking into the couch and watching his vision slowly fade.
“Hey you!” Tiffany frowns and shoves him hard. “I’m asking you a question!”
But Jason cannot hear her. His fists loosen and his body slumps as he looses consciousness.
Penny and he used to have a game when they were younger. If she happened to fall asleep as he was reading her fairy tales in bed at night, he would leave a shiny, new penny under her pillow. Jason didn’t know just what his sister did with all of those pennies, but she seemed to love the game, trying desperately to get herself to relax into slumber, even when she wasn’t overly tired. “I am sleepy,” she’d pout, and try desperately to be bored by whatever fairy tales her big brother read or made up, even when he tried hard to make them interesting or fun.
When he told Richie about this, his friend scoffed at him. “Man, that’s so elementary,” he said.
“Well, Penny’s in elementary school.”
“Yeah, but you’re not,” Richie persisted, rolling his eyes. “Seriously, when are you gonna grow up and start acting your age?”
The comment made Jason laugh aloud. Richie Behrens, talking indirectly about responsibility.
As Jason opens his eyes, he can hear Richie crowing in the background. “Man, that Tiffany chick is pissed,” he snickers once Jason’s eyes are more or less focused on him. “She says you have to go, though Veronica says I can stay.” Richie waggles his eyebrows suggestively. “Told you that you should just fuck them and not think so damn much.”
Jason blinks, slowly re-orienting himself to reality. They are still in the girls’ apartment, but neither of them is in sight.
Leveling himself up on his elbows, Jason considers the wispy remnants of his dreams. Something having to do with Penelope. Something having to do with that 20th birthday. He sighs, and dares to say something he’s never uttered before.
“What would you say if we went back home?”
The smile vanishes from Richie’s face. “You can’t be fucking serious.”
“I’m tired of this.” Jason tries desperately not to sound like a whiny little girl. “Everything is always the same. New town, new job, old trouble. What else is there?”
“There’s fucking this, for example,” Richie spits, his eyes sweeping around the room in a glare.
Jason sighs. “I’m tired of getting stoked and fucking random women. I’m tired of this, Richie.”
Jason looks up to Richie pacing, his nostrils flaring. “So are you gonna abandon me? Take your car and leave me here?”
“I—shit—I want you to come with!”
“And what about what I want?” Richie demands, spinning to face him. “Ever stop to think about that, you fucker?”
“Every damn day,” Jason scoffs, unwilling, for once, to back down. They stand in someone else’s darkened living room, Richie’s quivering finger pointing at his chest. “Why do you think I haven’t told you til now? I’m almost 20 fucking years old.”
Richie expels air from his nose in angry burst, his eyes bloodshot. “So now what?” he leers. “Living at home with mommy and daddy? Yeah, that’ll make you feel fucking 20, won’t it?”
“Sure as hell beats this!” Jason retorts, shaking in sudden anger. “Living off of scraps, having to pick up and move every time you feel like screwing something over.”
Richie just stares at him, wide-eyed. Time ticks slowly by, amplified by a clacking clock shaped like a cat in the corner. Jason holds his breath and waits.
“I thought you were cool,” Richie finally whispers. “I thought you were cool, so that’s why I didn’t tell Robby or Tim about my plan. That’s why I chose you.”
Jason can’t help it; he bursts out laughing, remembering the old man’s words. “Don’t be a moron, Richie!” he gasps, his chest constricting in amusement. “You chose me cuz of my fucking car!”
For a moment, Richie just stares at him, glaring daggers. Then abruptly, he turns on his heel and stomps back into the bedroom, turning in the doorway. “You’d better be here at 10 am to pick me up, fucker,” he spits. The walls shake with the impact of the door’s slam.
Jason immediately stops laughing. He stares at the door for awhile, feeling his usual apathy fill him like gasoline. He grabs his keys from the floor and stalks to the door.
“Princess Penny,” he tries to compose in his head. “I think I’ve finally reached that point. I think I’m finally ready to come home to you. I think…”
The roads of this town kick up dust, so he has to keep his windows up. Less than 15 minutes later, he pulls to the side in order to get out for a smoke. He watches the stars recede behind the fumes and shivers due to more than cold.
Back in high school, some English teacher spoke of “two roads in a wood” but Jason had never paid much attention. Now, shrouded alone in one of a dozen towns he’d seen in a year, he wonders which road was better or worse. There is the one where he travels back to the east coast and puts himself under the old man’s smug doctrine, even though it had never worked all the way through grade school. There is the one where he stays with Richie, always begging for scraps.
There is the one where he went home and gets to see Penelope again, her wide innocent smiles and twinkling eyes. There is the one where he stays here and gets to live by his own rules, in his own time. Or is that Richie’s time?
Sighing, Jason flicks the butt onto the road, watching the embers die out. He gets into his car and starts to drive but halfway down the road, he doesn’t know where he’s going. Jason laughs, staring into the darkness. Maybe it is better this way.