RITE OF PASSAGE
Charleston, South Carolina – 1995:
If the frigid, stifling December air inside the car could somehow allow me to move my hand, the anxiety alone would surely object. I attempt to take just one tiny peek at the three-inch scar running diagonally across my palm, the one that forever connects me to Ryno, Dax, Yaya and Eddie. My best friends in the world, the ones who choreographed me through my most significant rite of passage.
I’m frozen inside the narrow limitations I’ve previously set for myself, half an inch away from touching Eddie’s hollow body beside me and breaching the contract signed in pre-adolescent blood. The rusty blade, the bond that spawned the vow of five impulsive, masochistic turned nihilistic children all those years ago has successfully stood the test of time and caused one catastrophic landslide after another. None seems to be more devastating than the one that’s been compiled and molded and shaped into the single greatest organized criminal act that the quiet, law-abiding city of Charleston has ever seen.
The wind nearly cuts Ryno’s Oldsmobile in half, rocking it side to side like a Turkish cannon battering the city walls of Constantinople. And the cruel analogy only reminds me that I have a huge test tomorrow, Floore’s second period World History. But instead of peering over notes on the fall of Byzantium and committing to memory all of Napoleon’s mishaps at Waterloo, I’m out late on a school night with my loser friends, preparing to hijack a truckload of booze to re-sell and turn a profit.
As I wait for Ryno’s decrepit heater to reach me, Eddie, and Dax in the backseat, I take a deep breath and blow it into my hands with the kind of controlled vigor that shouldn’t give the guys a chance to notice that they’re trembling uncontrollably. My scar, my birthmark, my rite of passage, it winks at me with its centimeter wide seedy stare and its multitude of stitch marks that line the wound like lulling, batting eyelashes. Mom and Dad wigged out when I came home with a gaping gash in my hand. After they rushed me to the emergency room, after they simmered down enough to hear how that gash got there in the first place, they grounded me for two weeks. No TV, no Nintendo, no stereo, and no friends, especially not my closest ones.
The ones I ill advisedly decided to play pin the tail on the blood brother with.
If Mom and Dad knew what I was up to tonight, I could go ahead and call my being grounded for two weeks when I was ten a fond memory. If they knew I was out tonight with these guys, they’d never let me see the sun again. Bread and water in a room with no windows if I was lucky, and that’s only after they marched me down to Berkeley County Jail themselves and made sure my fingerprints were run ragged through the system, that my name and my stats and samples of my DNA were delivered to the cops by hand. Dad still busts my chops, has for years now because I can’t seem to break away from the neighborhood friends I came up with, Eddie and Yaya, Dax and Ryno. And this two hundred pounds of perfectly good wasted space in front of me, Jimmy Cochran, the Cockroach as I like to call him, who finds himself in a constant struggle to win one hundred percent of Ryno’s attention from Yaya.
Yaya and I grew up together, two peas in a pod all through grade school and junior high. But in ninth grade, she started hanging with the smokers and the metalheads who sort of ruled the school. Eddie and I have always been pretty good friends, but when Yaya started lowering her standards in the company she decided to keep, that’s when Eddie and I started getting closer. I guess that kind of made us best friends and it’s been that way ever since. In high school, Yaya’s friends and Ryno’s friends started hanging out together and that’s when Yaya and Ryno started dating. They’re still together now.
The corner of S. Market and Church Street, stewing here in Ryno’s beat up schooner of a car with the well weathered, heavily blemished roof and the heater on the very brink of falling completely to nothing. I glance up at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company Restaurant, over at Black Market Minerals, the French Quarter Inn, Bacci’s Italian Bistro, the Charleston Market behind us, and Tommy Condon’s Irish Pub just ahead of us, where this Bushmills whiskey truck will apparently make its weekly delivery. And what makes this particular truck so special is that usually, it makes its deliveries on Thursday morning. In broad daylight. This time, this week, Tommy’s opens a little later because of the new holiday schedule implemented by the new management. Which means that this particular delivery will fall on a Thursday night instead.
And as I fix my eyes on the freezing rain that pelts the flapping, adjacent Irish flags outside the east entrance of the pub, Ryno catches my preoccupation in the rearview and speaks up.
“You straight back there, Bill?”
“Ryno, this homo ain’t been straight a day in his life. You didn’t know? He and Eddie like to…y’know…swap a little spit and give each other succulent rubdowns and shit on the weekends and holidays,” taunts Cockroach, twisting his curly, nappy head around from the front seat to eye me crookedly.
He’s a garbage-spewing degenerate, a major league asshole who moved here from Charlotte the summer before we all went into seventh grade at College Park. He sits in the passenger seat with Yaya in the middle and Ryno behind the wheel.
The way Ryno talks would probably be considered strange to most Charlestonians, with his deep and droning tone and his thick Boston accent, which he refuses to let go of even though he’s lived in South Carolina for most of his life. It’s even a bit strange to me, since he doesn’t sound like any other dude from Boston I’ve ever seen on TV. His real name is Ryan Mulraney, but we’ve been calling him Ryno for as long as we all can remember. The guy’s built like a Homeric hero. He’s always been a pretty muscular kid, seemed to hit puberty, to start shaving before any of the rest of us.
“Yeah, I’m cool, Ryno. Just a little…anxious, I guess, I dunno,” I answer timidly.
He chuckles, grins with one side of his mouth as he drags on his Newport and passes it to Yaya.
“Anxious? Is it about the job or what? It’s like I told ya, ya don’t even gotta to do nothin’ hardly. All ya gotta do is kick back, drive a friggin’ car, stay under the speed limit and maybe change the diaper ‘round Eddie’s twig ‘n’ berries when the bottom falls out. Other than that, you’re roses, bro. Ya got nothin’ to worry about.”
“Whatever, Ryan, I’m not even scared,” shoots Eddie with a gust that rivals the wind outside.
Ryno guffaws his foghorn laugh and jabs a blunted elbow into Yaya left arm. She gives him a sympathy grin, rolls her eyes, then takes a long drag from the cigarette.
“But seriously, dude, there’s nothin’ to even be anxious about either. We got the shit on lockdown. Honestly, whatta you really gotta do in this whole thing anyway? You and Fast Eddie back there winded up with the easy job.”
“Yeah, Billy’s on bitch detail,” jests Cockroach with a crap-eating grin that makes it extremely easy to clench my jaws in a subtle facsimile of my hands wrapped around his stubbly throat.
Yaya pries her head around and grins at me, shifting her eyebrows as if urging me to retaliate against Cockroach.
Before I get a chance, he develops a pretty bad case of diarrhea mouth.
“By the way, Eddie…how’s the sunrise over Yokohama? Did you know Chinese people don’t have very much in the way of eyebrows and that’s why ya’ll have to squint your eyes so much? To keep the sun out of ‘em. True story,” says Cockroach as sarcastically as possible, trying his best to sound like one of those Mister Rogers-types who always host those obscure PBS educational programs.
Eddie’s not Chinese. He’s not Japanese. He’s not Asian, but he does have almond eyes that do tend to come off as squinty and shifty. He doesn’t look like a juvenile delinquent either, despite his small role in tonight’s events. He’s a senior, like the rest of us, but he looks more like the post-adolescent, pre-puberty eighth grader you want to watch out for because he’s such a genuinely nice kid. Nobody in their right mind should want to mess with him because he’s got a 24-karat heart.
Clearly, Cockroach isn’t in his right mind.
Eddie’s hair is slightly spiky in the front but with one serious cowlick in the back. Square jaw, not a trace of stubble lining it. Whole face about as unblemished and smooth as a baby’s caboose. Voice still a little high, like he hasn’t hit puberty yet. He assures us he has, but that he was born with a shortage of testosterone. He has just started taking shots for it in his rear end, but nobody knows about that except for me. He’s actually German-Irish, with dirty blond hair and blue eyes, but Cockroach has been ridiculing the poor guy for years about his Asian appearance. Constant jokes about Yokohama and the false reasons behind squinting eyes and wearing Kimonos to bed and bowing 24/7 and catching flies with chopsticks and other highly unnecessary Asian-themed semantics. But Eddie’s always been the nice guy of the gang and the rest of us love him for it.
He sits rigid, practiced, staring straight ahead, now boasting a big pair of headphones on his ears and exhaling a fresh cloud of icy breath from his thin lips. The wire to the headphones disappears down into his brown corduroy jacket.
“Whatcha jammin’ to Ed? Is it that Radiohead mix I made you last week?” I ask him, trying to stir a bit of morale throughout the rest of the car.
Slowly, unsure that I’m actually talking to him, he turns to me.
Regrettably, so does Cockroach.
“Radiohead blows, Billy. Buncha squealin’ and whinin’ and moanin.’ Sounds like a buncha castrated pigs cryin’ about how much their life sucks,” he spits, full of animosity towards me, and anything I take even the slightest enjoyment in.
Both Eddie and I and everyone else in the car continue to deny Cockroach’s painful existence.
“What?” questions Eddie with eyes that tend to squint even more in discernment.
“I said what’re you jammin’ to, on the headphones?”
He shakes his head, purses his lips.
“Oh, nothing. Yeah, I just decided to start using these babies to keep my ears warm. They actually work pretty good so far,” she says with a smile.
I give him a little grin and shake my head, while Cockroach continues to find discrepancy in every conversation I’m part of.
“Seriously, Eddie? Seriously? Hear this tool? This fucking guy can’t even afford a hoodie or a skullcap to keep his ears warm. Ever heard of a skullcap, Eddie? Yeah, they’re actually made for keepin’ your ears warm. Mind blowing concept, I know. Yo check it…Eddie’s family’s so poor they had to put their cardboard box up for a second mortgage. Damn special ed case.”
“Really, Cockroach? Really? Weren’t you the one who used to ride the short bus to school? Had a special seat in back that was all your own? Went to the classes in the back building with all the other behavior cases? Everybody in school called the back building ‘Dysfunction Junction,’ right?” Eddie fires back, and it forces everyone else in the car to giggle a little, even Cockroach’s role model, Ryno.
“I told you if you called me Cockroach again, your ass was grass, didn’t I? You friggin’ ten year-old foreign exchange student. I told all you guys before, alright? They were overcrowded on the big buses and had to send some kids from my neighborhood on the short ones.”
“But…Ryno lives next door to you. Always has. He rode the big bus. He always rode the big bus. You always rode the big bus, didn’t you, Ryno,” Eddie asks facetiously, a grin slowly fading into the corners of his mouth.
Ryno chuckles and blows a mouthful of smoke.
“Dude, seriously, Eddie, I swear to sweet Jehovah, if we weren’t in the middle of a job and if you weren’t a five year-old toddler I would jam you up so bad.”
“Jam you up? What the hell is that, Cochran? Jam you up?” says Dax with a face like he’s just licked something sour.
Cockroach turns and flips him the finger, then spreads it around the entire backseat to Eddie and I to cross us with it, to christen us all with his divine cynicism.
“Just sit on it and twirl, all you homos, man. Damn buncha damn tards, man. Seriously. Lucifer lifted his leg and out shot you three chodes,” fires Cockroach from the front seat, now furiously raking his fingernails through his curly locks and his blotchy rat’s nest excuse for a stubble beard.
“Yes, ladies and gents, you heard it here first. Coming straight from the mouth of this prestigious, four-time award-winning MVP of the short bus,” announces Eddie triumphantly with a twisted sneer.
I give him another grin, then almost immediately turn and stare out the window. I deliberately disrupt my thoughts on the pointless squabbling and divert all my attention to Carrie. How much I want to marry her one day, how bad she wants me to quit wasting my time with these bozos, and how if she knew I was downtown right now with my delinquent friends about to steal a truck full of hard liquor, she’d surely side up with my Gestapo parents. She can stomach Eddie because he’s like my brother. But the rest of them, she steers clear, holds them in nothing but contempt. She sees any of them treading down the hallway at school and she deliberately walks the other way. She knows that they are all juvenile criminals in the greater Charleston area and that Ryan “Ryno” Mulraney is the thug life pack leader at a high school full of spoiled rich kids from corrupt rich families.
Yeah, Carrie’s smarter than me, because this foolishness, what we’re doing tonight with the truck…it’s going put me in the jail one of these days. Maybe even sooner than I think.
Though Cockroach still tries to egg me on, I ignore him, as I come to the conclusion that now isn’t really the best time to take action. Not with Ryno back to wearing his game face in the driver’s seat, zoning us out completely. Yaya continues to glance from me to Cockroach, a big anticipatory grin on those perfect lips of hers. Her greasy, shoulder-length raven black hair blows in my direction with the force of the struggling heater, the split ends dancing off of her broad shoulders like marionettes. She looks almost post-Goth, pale skin contrasting her black hair and eyebrows and eyeliner. She looks like the punk rock badgirl who every other girl can’t stand but secretly wants to be more like. Her bangs are cut straight across her forehead like Betty Page, the black eyeliner surrounding her eyes heavily-caked and guaranteed to keep them shadowed from the sun that’s been next to non-existent this month. Like Ryno and Cockroach, she has a massive amount of tattoos, stemming from the tops of her shoulders to her elbows on both arms. They’re now covered by her denim jacket and a puffy black vest that makes her look like a female rapper.
Around her neck, she wears a black bandana, and under her jacket, a black hoodie.
All of them abide by the same dress code. Bandana and dark hoodies. All except Eddie and me.
The plan is they pull their hoods over their heads and fasten those bandanas over their noses and mouths before swooping in and stealing the truck. Ryno says that he’s going to commandeer the vehicle while Yaya rides shotgun. Cockroach and Dax are supposed to head around to the back of the truck, throw the driver in and jump in with him. Then they’ll drive and wait until they’re in the middle of nowhere and toss the guy out on the side of the road. Ryno says they will drive the truck halfway down Rivers Avenue and stash it at the old abandoned Naval Base until they can unload it tomorrow. Eddie and I are simply supposed to drive Ryno’s Oldsmobile back to his house in Summerville. Then we’re free to walk just a little over a mile home to get at least a little shuteye before school in the morning.
I’ve already told them that I was doing nothing more than driving the car back, and that I was reluctant to even do that. My whole life, I’ve never really done a whole lot wrong. One night last summer, the whole gang stayed the night at my house and we all snuck out after midnight to wreak havoc on the neighborhood, to spray-paint hubcaps and throw eggs at houses and boost a car phone or CD player or two. We were all supposed to split up and each steal a bike to get around from one surrounding neighborhood to another. Everybody stole their own except for me because I simply refused to do it. Eddie had to boost one for me just so I could keep up with the rest of them. My reasoning was that I was cursed with a conscience, that I was raised with a little more morality than them. Then, when Carrie came along, well, that only added salt to their wounds, as it stifled my levels of criminal involvement with them even more. My friends have been petty crooks for years now. At school, they run their own racket, selling stolen car phones and mobile phones, portable and car CD players, and pagers. Sometimes Ryno fronts one or two in good faith, but if customers don’t pay up, they’re introduced to Cockroach’s pocketknife in the boy’s bathroom. Eddie and I have no part in any of that.
Problem is, we don’t do anything to prevent it either.
Ryno’s cigarette smoke is thick, toxic, so I roll down the window to get some fresh air. The December wind just about takes my head clean off as it stings my cheeks and transforms the night into something a little more dismal and unsettling than it should be. We’re just a few weeks before Christmas, but Charleston’s greater downtown area already has its lights up. They stretch from one street corner to another, hang from street lamps and twist like neglected, overgrown vines around looming palms and dormant oaks. They twinkle and beam and try their best to outlast the freezing, dismal conditions in all its nebulous tendencies. And I’m still a little apprehensive, especially since Ryno has decided to bring along his .45 Glock and store it in his jacket pocket. That, and because Cockroach feels the need to play copycat with his Ruger .22 revolver. I don’t think anyone else is packing a gun. Hope not anyway.
Everybody seems a little shaky tonight, all except for the badgirl, and the two cowboys holding the pistols.
Dax dully taps his calloused knuckles on the backseat window to the rhythm of the piercing rain. He has this sort of quiet cool that has always creeped me out. He used to be a pretty good athlete, made the varsity basketball team as an eighth grader back when he was his own person, before he came under the influence of Ryno and Cockroach and then he just turned into a minion of their petty criminal underworld. His spiky hair goes flat against the cold window of the car door when he leans his head onto it, a look of sheer boredom now twinkling in the oceanic blue eyes he rolls up towards the moonless night sky. He’s tall, a good 6’4” at least, and his long legs jab uncomfortably into the back of the passenger seat, which Cockroach refuses to shift forward for him. I personally think it’s because Cockroach still harbors some resentment from the time they fought each other in Dax’s front yard and the rest of us tried to root the home team to victory.
Yaya takes out a hair tie, holds it between her pale pink lips before pushing her stringy sea of black locks into a short ponytail and wrapping the tie around them. Her real name is Angela De Rossi, born to the Italian-Irish parentage of Tony and Mary Monaghan De Rossi. But we’ve been calling her Yaya for as long we can remember. When we were all kids, we would ask Yaya something and every single one of her yeses would come in the form of “ya, ya, ya, ya.” She never could answer with just a yeah or a yes, never just one simple answer either. Always the multiple variation. She quickly morphed into the name Yaya and even though she says “ya” a little less these days, the name stuck.
I notice Cockroach as he runs an anxious hand through his tiny curls, as he reaches for his .22. He flips the safety on and off like a ticking time bomb, like this is all a game. It only proves to add to the tension.
That, and the fact that he does it right around the time we see the Bushmills truck pull up and come to a stop in front of Tommy Condon’s.
Now’s the time. I’m still not ready, even though I don’t even have to do much.
Ryno turns, speaks to us in droning foghorn.
“Alright, here we go, fellas. We give ‘em a little razzle dazzle, then get out while the gettins good, got it?”
He decides to single me out, because I guess he considers me a little more competent than Eddie.
“Don’t fuck this up, Billy. Wicked trouble if we get pinched. Remember, wait ‘til I turn onto Cumberland and then beat it. Make the u-ey back to Market, then onto Meeting Street towards home. Don’t speed, act natural. Got me?”
“Yeah, I got it,” I reassure him.
Ryno lives around the duck pond in Indian Woods, just next door to Cockroach in the neighborhood across the parkway from mine. Eddie and I will park Ryno’s car at his house, take a relatively short walk home, then head to our respective beds for the night. When we get on that road, that’s when I’ll sure enough tell my best friend that there will be no more of this truck boosting business for me. Seriously. I’m done.
The three amigos in the front seat waste no more time in pulling on their hoods, their gloves, and fastening their masks into place before making their hasty exit. Dax is quick to follow while Eddie and I make it out into the 40-degree night for only a split second. Then we’re quick to nestle ourselves into the front seats, already warmed up for us.
I watch Ryno, Cockroach, Yaya and Dax make their way across the street and onto the sidewalk as inconspicuously as possible.
As unnoticed as four young deviant-looking numbskulls can be when the two out in front play towards the bulging inner pockets of their leather jackets.
And Cockroach’s body language tells me that tonight, he’s the one most likely to use that little warm gun of his.
I catch the sheer terror pulsating from my wide eyes in the rearview, a hazel brown, almost black to match my shaggy hair and to match the night and everything devious transpiring within it. Yaya says I look like a young Johnny Depp, especially with the faint mustache and chin fuzz. Dax calls me a pretty boy. Eddie calls me his best friend and Cockroach calls me a homo and Ryno calls me a competent thief even though I still can’t seem to keep my stiff, nearly frostbitten hands from trembling when I go for the gearshift.
I manage to switch the car into drive, to take the emergency brake off, and to wiggle one of my Doc Martens into place on the brake at my feet. Then we watch this ragtag crew of demon seeds shoot across Linguard Street and run up on the Bushmills truck. Not sure how Ryno found out about this shipment being delivered here in the evening instead of the morning, and I don’t care. Didn’t ask, didn’t want to. I’ll just be sure to make it clear that this is my last go around. Then I’ll concentrate on being a normal everyday senior. Girlfriends and scholarships, pep rallies and prom committees, all that other regular high school stuff.
I don’t pray nearly as much as I should but I send up a hopeless petition anyhow, just a meager request for the sake of this truck driver, to see to it that Cockroach doesn’t go trigger-happy Jack and blast him. A roaring gust of wind shakes and rattles the car again and maybe it’s an answer from the Almighty or maybe it’s just warning sign for Eddie and me to split the scene now before something bad happens.
Before I become an accessory to murder.
The hard rain has now morphed into a carnivorous beast as it tries its best to tear through the roof with pelts like pickaxe blows. It proves to be the prelude to what I’m forced to bear witness to through the bladed pendulum wipers.
My friends bum-rushing the middle-aged driver when he parks the truck and scampers around to slide the back open.
It all seems just a bad dream when we watch Cockroach shove the skinny barrel of his .22 into the driver’s face. Catatonic, we watch as Yaya snatches the pager from the guy’s hip and drops it onto the pavement, smashing it under her heel of her Chuck Taylor. We watch as Ryno heads straight for the driver’s seat while Cockroach and Dax grab the guy and go for the back to pile in. But before they do, I watch Cockroach take the driver by the hair, manipulate the movement of his head back and forth painfully, and bark at him cryptically.
For a second, I think maybe he’ll shoot the guy just for fun of it.
They’re not professionals, far from it. They’re just juveniles, but they’re delinquents the same. And when everybody is securely in the truck, they pull away from the curb and take Linguard to State to Cumberland Street. I wait until I can’t see them anymore, then Eddie and I u-turn, go the opposite direction on Church, turn onto Market then Meeting and drive towards the interstate like a couple of bats flying blindly out of the deepest and darkest pits of hell. I drive frantically until I hit I-26 and that’s when I finally come off of auto-pilot and remember where I am and what I’ve actually just done, what I have to do in order to survive the night and what I never want do again as long as I live.