Dirtbags | Fiction | Chicago Reader

Dirtbags 

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After the first party in ninth grade when my best friend Debbie took on three guys in a woodshed behind Joe Mililo's house, it got around that all you had to do was slip some speed in her beer and she'd do just about anything.

Debbie and I'd sleep out in her backyard when it was warm enough, setting up a battery-operated alarm clock to wake us for school. We'd lie on top of our sleeping bags in the heat, talking about how beautiful Bruce Springsteen was with his sad and skinny dirtbag face and his ripped jeans and flannel shirt.

Late at night with the breeze going across us, Debbie would moan and groan over how lucky I was to lie chest down--something she hadn't been able to do since the fourth grade, when her breasts first appeared.

She told me stories of dirtbags she'd rolled with in dead leaves out behind the mall. She liked to tell me the secret things boys cried out the moment they came.

Our favorite thing at school was standing in the outfield during gym class, watching dirtbags sneak across the field to the woods to do bong hits or whippits. Those boys walked fast with a bounce designed to fling hair over their eyes with each step, but they'd always freeze for a moment at the edge of the woods, checking to see if the coach had spotted them. Standing there, work boots unlaced, key chain hooked from belt loop to back pocket of ripped Levis and a beaten bomber jacket slung over a shoulder, they sent us trembling in our gym shorts, swaying with lust out on the softball field.

On Saturday nights Debbie and I got stoned and went to the planetarium's laser light show or we'd steal one of her father's sixpacks from the garage and drink, sitting on the curb of a dead-end street, running into the bushes at the first flicker of headlights.

During the week, if it was too cold to sleep outside, we'd hang out in her bedroom with the door locked, pigging out on microwaved fish sticks and jelly doughnuts. Then, with Zeppelin II cranking on the stereo, we'd scrawl devil poems on the walls with chewed-up number-two pencils. Her father said pen would ruin the resale value of the house.

With Robert Plant wailing, we'd reach heights of soaring inspiration--"Bloody hemophiliac orgasm! Oh, Satan you are my lover..." or "Whip me, whip me, Lucifer kisses my secret place." When the record clicked off at the end of a side, I would come back to myself, heart pounding, and slide to the floor for another fish stick.

That spring, Debbie convinced her parents to let me spend Passover with them at her grandparents' cabin in Connecticut.

It was a long ride, stuffed in the back of a Gremlin hatchback between boxes of sesame sticks and pretzels and bags of peanut butter sandwiches.

Finally, we turned off the highway and bounced along a dirt road to a log cabin with a Star of David wind chime hanging from the sagging front porch.

The grandparents kept kosher and that was not an easy thing out in the middle of the woods.

They had a walk-in pantry where they stored crates of wholesale Manischewitz products, and once every three months they rented a truck and drove into Brooklyn for supplies.

Debbie and I camped out in that pantry. They had everything back there you could imagine Manischewitz might make--huge loaves of raisin bread, potato pancake mix, jars of meat and beet borscht, even "lo-cal" borscht with saccharin in it and Manischewitz fake bacon made with soymeal and smoke flavoring. All of it bursting out of those bright orange Manischewitz packages.

We sat on crates of canned mushroom-barley soup, stuffing our faces under a swinging lightbulb and chain. The only Manischewitz product missing was wine. The grandparents stuck to grape juice even on the high holidays.

"Shit," I said, finally giving up the search for booze and settling in on a box of rum-raisin rugallah.

"Rosalie," Debbie mumbled, her mouth full of garlic bagel chips. "We've got to find a way to get drunk."

After the seder, Debbie's grandfather got his car keys, saying he was going into town for Alka-Seltzer. Debbie begged him to take us along and he finally agreed, dropping us off at a pizza place to play video games while he went shopping. We didn't really want to play video games. It was just a lie to get ourselves the chance to try and buy some beer. But we didn't get anywhere. The old lady behind the counter immediately ID'd us then told us to leave.

We went outside and kicked pebbles around in the parking lot, waiting for Debbie's grandfather to come back for us.

Two totally cool things happened then out in that parking lot with the sun going down across the length of the strip mall and the buzzing of a plane overhead.

First, I kicked a rock under a parked car and bent down after it. I bent down on the warm pavement and peered under the back wheel of a green Datsun hatchback and there, hidden in the darkness behind the tire, was an almost full liter of vodka.

Debbie screamed as I pulled the bottle out into the light. Quickly, I stuffed it up inside my sweatshirt, the vodka sloshing cold against my skin.

I prayed, as her grandfather pulled up and I tried to stand straight, that his eyesight was poor enough that he wouldn't notice the big lump I'd grown under my shirt. That's when the second cool thing happened--he didn't.

The next morning, Debbie told her mother we were going on a picnic. We filled a thermos full of orange juice and made a few cheese sandwiches to cover the bottle at the bottom of our picnic basket.

We walked far into the woods, following a stream until we could hear nothing but birds and wind and trickling water. Finally we found a grassy spot and sat down. It was a perfect day, the sun warming my shoulders and face, the air thick with the smell of pine trees and soil. I pulled out the bottle.

"What if somebody put PCP in it, or rat poison?" Debbie said. "People do that. Like putting razor blades in candy apples."

"We could go crazy," I said. "Or die." We stared at each other. I thought about what it would feel like if my life ended right here in the woods, if the last thing I saw was Debbie's face, her red hair flickering with light, her turquoise earrings and tight jeans. Her green sandals and the pink nail polish on her toes. I thought about how they would find us here--sprawled on the grass dead or insane--and I decided that whatever happened it would be with Debbie and that made it OK.

I poured some vodka into the thermos cup and passed her the bottle. We took the first sip together, staring into each other's eyes. The vodka was sharp and cold, numbing my tongue almost immediately. By the third sip I knew I wasn't going insane or dying, just getting drunk.

Within an hour the bottle was two-thirds gone and we were giggling and rolling around in the tall weeds. We fell back onto the hard ground finally, exhausted, staring up between waving pine trees at a startling blue sky, giggling up at the heat and the silence and the slow-drifting clouds.

Then, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, Debbie rolled over to me and we kissed. I will never forget the shock, the thick warmth of her breasts pressing into me, the baby powder smell of her deodorant and the brief moment when my hand touched her soft shoulder--thin and smooth as glass.

Of course we pulled away again almost immediately. I looked down, afraid to meet Debbie's eyes. After a moment, she flipped her hair back and I re-rolled the cuffs on my shorts and we ran home in silence. We sat on the porch with a box of chocolate macaroons, chewing fast as the sun went down.

By tenth grade we were full-fledged bad girls. I was one of those scrawny drug chicks with purple eye shadow and black nail polish hanging around convenience store parking lots, trying to attract the attention of stoned boys cruising by in their fathers' cars.

Debbie had big breasts and so she left me behind. She had so many boyfriends she didn't really have time for much else. She took to calling me every few weeks when she wanted to confess her latest--how she'd gone to a party in a graveyard and some boy had burned his initials on her arm with a cigarette or how she'd gotten a ride home from one of the math teachers and he'd made a grab for her as she climbed out of his car.

Then one day she disappeared. Didn't come to school for a week and when I called her house her parents said she'd run away. I figured she'd finally moved in with one of the older boyfriends she was always boasting about. There was one, Howard Zinsky, who worked at an auto body shop and Debbie had sworn they'd smoked a joint dipped in formaldehyde and then made love for 13 hours straight. I never even doubted her, still having nothing to compare with our one brief kiss.

It was over a year before Debbie showed up again. Just appeared one day in the parking lot as school let out.

I was leaning against a car with some girls, passing around a lipstick-smeared joint. We were waiting for our boyfriends to show up and take us down to the beach to drink and light bonfires and have sex in the dunes.

I looked up with my head spinning and there was Debbie, leaning against a fence at the far end of the parking lot. I was stoned, but I knew her. She'd gotten fat so her breasts didn't stand out anymore and her hair was cut ragged and too short as if she'd done it herself.

"Debbie, where you been?"

"Locked up."

"What? Your parents said you ran away."

"Rosalie, they locked me up." She pulled out a cigarette. "I don't mind telling you 'cause I'm pretty tranqed up right now." Smoke circled her teeth as she talked. "You can have a Valium if you want. I got tons." I shook my head, keeping an eye out for my boyfriend. He was the kind of guy who didn't like to see his girlfriend hanging around with people he didn't know. Debbie stared straight ahead, blowing smoke out of her nose in two long trails.

"My parents got pissed I was sleeping around so much. They said I was going in for a checkup, but when we got to the state hospital they just signed me in. Had me locked up. Anyway, now that I turned 17 they can't sign for me anymore so I'm out and I'm getting married." Debbie's fiance was someone she'd met in the hospital--an older guy who'd turned her on to speedballs and a biker gang called the Pagans, who were responsible for raping a female hitchhiker a few years back. Debbie and her boyfriend were living together now in a basement apartment below a used-boat dealership and she had a part-time job as cashier and bagger in a vitamin shop at the mall.

Then, out of nowhere, maybe her tranquilizer was wearing off, she just said, "Later," and walked away. I was too shocked and stoned to call her back and I knew that if I ran after her my boyfriend would head to the beach with another girl. So I just stood there, leaning against a car, watching her walk away, feeling this stoned, vacant smile creep across my face.

Two years later, I was home from college when she called.

"Hey," she said. "You'll never guess who..." She'd gotten married and she had a new baby and then she told me in this strange, slow voice, "I've even given up using curse words, you know, because that's a sin against our lord Jesus Christ."

"Great," I said, my voice flat with disgust. "Debbie, what's this crap? You're a Jew like me."

"Rosalie," she whispered. "You don't understand. Jesus forgave me." I broke out laughing. My parents were out of town and my friend Daniel, who everyone called Snarl, was staying over with me though my parents didn't have the faintest idea either of us were there.

I was supposed to be in my dorm room studying to make up for all the classes I'd earned incompletes in, but instead Snarl and I had hitched a ride to my parents' house to drink their booze and maybe see if we could find any loose cash lying around or one of my father's old leather-bound books to pawn.

Snarl wasn't my boyfriend. Nothing like that. He was just someone to have sex with and take drugs with and show off to when I shoplifted things. He was older than me and in the process of getting kicked out of school, but he wore combat boots and had his lip pierced and when we were together I found myself capable of things I never would have had the courage for alone--throwing beer bottles at car windshields, threatening old ladies in parking lots, lighting fires in the bushes behind strip malls.

"Rosalie," Debbie said. "Would you consider meeting with my church group on Sunday?"

Snarl was sitting at the kitchen table carefully picking the seeds out of a bag of pot. We'd just taken hits of some good, clean windowpane acid and I was beginning to get that metal taste in my mouth, see colors forming at the corners of my eyes. The plan was to wander around the woods of my neighborhood for the long hours of the trip, sneaking into people's backyards, looking in their windows and breaking stuff left out on lawns or in open garages.

"Sure, Debbie," I said. I rolled my eyes up at Snarl, cupping my hand over the phone. "God, you won't believe this, it's an old friend of mine who's gone born-again or something."

Snarl was intent on sprinkling pot along the fold of a sheet of rolling paper and didn't look up. His face was pale and dead in the kitchen light.

Debbie went on and on, ignoring me--as if she'd been having this same conversation over and over again with all the names in her address book. Maybe someone was even standing behind her coaching her through the call.

"And my husband and I have a booth out at the flea market on weekends and I've also got a great job at this insurance company. I'm pretty much the office manager and I do filing and answer calls and of course it's a Christian company..."

I was hardly listening to her. The acid was kicking in, surging up my spine, making me feel frightened and lost. I could see flashes of my skeleton under the skin of my arms.

Debbie kept talking, but I stopped listening to the words. Instead, I focused on the still-familiar sound of her sweet, throaty voice.

Snarl passed me the joint and I took a long drag. And then, on impulse, I just hung up the phone. We sat a moment in silence, Snarl and I, staring at each other, then we burst out laughing and laughing as the phone began to ring again--laughing so hard and long into the silence after the ringing finally stopped that I could feel snot coming out of my nose and tears pouring from my eyes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mark S. Fisher.

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