He walked past the old house next to the hospital where his other cousins used to live. The boarded windows and run-down condition gave the two-story structure a forlorn appearance. The overgrown patch of weeds was once the scene of some exciting times. They had great fun with illegal fireworks on the Fourth of July. He and Jack had learned to box there with huge, over-stuffed brown gloves. They used to watch wrestling on TV with their uncle. That was the good life. They could really get caught up in the excitement of the championship matches. He missed that society and the enthusiasm of watching professional wrestling. He'd have to find out what time it played on TV.
The scene had changed. Those times had vanished like a dream. The hospital had bought the land and house for an expansion to the emergency room and parking lot. The hospital was an obese, brick building in desperate need of landscaping and a new coat of paint. Just being near it sent a chill through his back worse than he experienced from a graveyard. It changed his whole mood back to his original depression.
He crossed the confused intersection of May Street and 12th Street. The uphill road shifted and didn't connect directly, creating a constant traffic hazard. "Good thing the hospital is located here." he observed.
As he entered The Heights, he passed one of those recruiting posters for the Army and saluted with mock respect. This reminded him of signing-up as soon as he turned seventeen, the one thought that intrigued him. Not that he was particularly patriotic, it just looked like a ticket out. He had to remember to register for a GED exam.
He remembered his early life as a child in that shack of a house in the country on Eufalla Heights, outside Longview, Washington. The house had tar paper siding when they moved in, with an outdoor toilet, and remained unfinished. Although they did get indoor plumbing, most of the tar paper had weathered away by the time he moved out. Those were the only significant changes. His dad was not much of a carpenter even when he was sober. That was the only place to which he felt any attachment. In his mind it was still home.
Jack had visited several weeks during the summers. Together they had explored the surrounding natural wonders. Those summers were Lucky's fondest memories, though he hadn't admitted it to Jack. Maybe Jack knew? Maybe it was the same for him?
Lucky focused on one incident when he was nine and Jack ten. One of his sisters had discovered a vast clay pit with mountainous ant hills. They agreed to investigate, pretending to be a military scouting party.
They rode bikes up the gradual incline in front of Lucky's house. Jack reluctantly borrowed Sandra's bike, a girl's bike, taking the chance that no one would see him. They peddled forever up the grade before they stopped for a rest. The going was made difficult by a new cover of loose gravel.
After another grueling half-mile they paused at the entrance to the woods. An old logging road made a trail that was barely discernable. Lucky had to look twice to be sure. The roadway was camouflaged by Scotch broom and salal. Wild huckleberry bushes grew in the old rotting stumps and tall fescue, hairy chess and other bunch grasses grew in the unused ruts. No one had used this road for more than ten years. They pushed their bikes through the vegetation for a few hundred feet and crouched in hiding for several minutes to regain their breath. When they were sure they weren't being followed they descended until they found a thick growth of blackberry vines. They parked their vehicles well out of sight.
"How far is this place anyway?" Jack complained in a hushed voice.
"Just down here a ways and off to the left. There's a secret trail I know by heart. It leads right to the pit. Nobody else ever goes there. I've never seen any footprints around."
"Hey, this is great, I'm glad none of your sisters came."
"I never go anywhere with those bitches, unless I have to."
Jack was at first startled by such strong language. "I like Kathy alright." Jack mildly pleaded the case for the second oldest who was closest to his own age.
"That's just because she kisses you."
"Is that the trail?" Jack ran up the bank with arms outstretched making the sound of an airplane firing at Lucky. He dodged a stump and Lucky's remark with the same effort. A bulldozer had traced deep scars through a magnificent forest to extract every possible log. The cut-over wasteland was now a playground of old snags, thick underbrush of willows, maples and brambles.
"Not yet. But not much further." He squeezed the words between his teeth as he spun like a helicopter. He was trying to make himself dizzy without quite falling over and still move forward down the old road.
"Where is that damn trail anyway!" Jack exclaimed with mock seriousness.
"Hell if I know!" Lucky laughed and squealed loudly in retort.
"Hell, you're going to get us lost!"
Each boy began to use profanity, something strictly forbidden at home. It wasn't that they consciously planned to cuss and scandalize each other, they just reverted to some savage instinct. They were breaking a social taboo. Being intoxicated with freedom, the excitement of the moment removed all their inhibitions.
"Fuck the trail!" Jack tried to swear more forcefully using the "F" word for the first time.
"Here it is anyway, the fuckin' trail." Lucky mimicked Jack, throwing off some of that same repressed anxiety over using forbidden words. Lucky ran to keep ahead of Jack to be the first to arrive at the pit.
"Fuck the trail!" Jack yelled as loudly as possible, knowing no one could hear his fowl language. He ran to catch Lucky who had taken a sharp right turn not far ahead. They had now completely abandoned their previous subterfuge.
"Follow the fuckin' trail." Lucky instructed coarsely and yelled back over his shoulder: "Come this way."
"God damn you Lucky, you're trying to get me lost. Here's the fuckin' trail!" Jack ran after Lucky and yelled again to no one in particular. He was using every expletive he could think of as soon as it came to mind.
"Hell o'mighty, here we are!" Lucky had arrived at the edge of the large crater-like area and called back urgently, "Over here!"
By the time Jack caught him, he was sitting on the edge of a stump in front of a vast, open area consisting of red clay. The edges turned up on the sides like a gigantic bowl. The plain was broken in several places by mounds of granulated earth in peaks made by ants. Each mound had a small black hole in the center at the top. Lucky was taking his shoes off so he wouldn't get his sneakers all red. He had already gotten in trouble for that once. He was struggling with a knot in his laces.
"Fuck these shoes."
Jack stumbled over the edge and landed beside Lucky and took his shoes off too. Then he proceeded to take off his shirt. Lucky followed suit and before either noticed, and without planning, they had taken off all their clothes, down to buck naked.
"Fuck the ants." Lucky yelled this slogan repeatedly as he ran out into the open area stomping on the helpless, innocent creatures.
Jack followed right behind. "You cocksuckers!" He screamed as he kicked a soft mound with his bare foot. It exploded like a small bomb into a cloud of red dust.
"Cock suck the ants!" Lucky chimed in with this new condemnation as he ran up one side of the bowl and glided down with his arms extended.
The risk of getting bitten by the ants made their effort more exciting. They were ignorant of the environmental terrorism they perpetrated. They were just having delirious fun. Or maybe the source of their destructive energy was a crass bigotry against little creatures.
The ants were industrious and could eventually repair their ecosystem. Nothing they had done made them deserve this punishment. The clay mounds protected their most important members hidden well below the earth's surface from birds and other predators. They didn't have a very aggressive nature. They weren't the kind that bite. They had no mythology to prepare them for this untoward invasion of humanity. The ants could not fight such gigantic enemies. They were helpless.
The ant hills gave only a subtle contrast to the flat clay and were difficult to see from a distance. The mounds were of the exact same color and material and the sun was nearly overhead and projected no shadow. As the boys circled, they found many hills, initially there seemed to be fewer. They flattened them all with great kicks and ruthless abandon. The negation of the ant hills was crucial to their very existence as they found each one and destroyed it, poof.
The boys ran and jumped and cursed everything in sight, they were masters of this minor world. They used all the profanity they knew and a few words they invented just for this occasion. Their narrow range of experience limited their vocabularies, so there was a good deal of repetition. Sounding these words out-loud took the mystery out of their use of the language. The cursing was a contradiction of their religious taboo. This morality lost it's power in the privacy of the forest, poof it disappeared into thin air with each great kick. No one was there to enforce the taboo.
The two gained a certain confidence from this private display of nudity and profanity. They learned they were larger than their own restraints when they needed to be. They could be masters of their own wills. They would go back to their families without being so intimidated by the edicts of their superiors. As they grew older their eyes grew steady and strong in the face of adversity reflecting the strength they gained that day. Bad things didn't always happen to bad boys who used bad words.
Before Lucky finished his second cigarette, he was in sight of the Game Room and noticed he was smiling when that reminiscence faded. "Fuck the ants!" He repeated this slogan under his breath. He suddenly gave a stiff kick to an empty, round, chewing tobacco container lying on the edge of the sidewalk. He was walking a little faster but restrained his excitement. The thought of joining his new female friends posed a strong attraction.
As he entered the dimly lit hallway there was a cigarette machine, a gum ball machine on a one legged stand and then a vandalized pay phone. The cord was hanging down without any earpiece. Lucky smiled again wondering whose head had caught the blow from the earpiece.
He entered the smoke filled room anonymously, blinking to adjust to the dark. To the left were three guys standing in front of a pin ball machine. All three dressed just like Lucky in white t-shirts and blue jeans. The tallest wore suede cowboy boots known locally as shit-kickers. The other two cheered for the tall one as he hit the corners of the colorful glass covered box with the heel of his hand. His long black hair was greased back except a few stray clumps that fell forward and bounced as he jerked against the box. He flicked the spring to release a steel ball and the lights would flash and the machine would ring and ping and he hit the corners to knock the ball. All this happened to the cheers of his two side-kicks.
Lucky finally noticed the two girls in the far corner and moved in that direction. He recognized Alice while the other woman must be her sister. Pam was a mature woman but was probably 22 compared to Alice who had just turned 16 last month, going on 21 as they say. Lucky waived and shouted, "Hi girls! How's it goin'?"
As Alice waived her recognition, Lucky was suddenly startled by a loud voice from behind to his left.
"Shut up! Dick head!" The tall dude barked coarsely. He wasn't doing so well and apparently had to release his frustration somehow. He chose Lucky who looked vulnerable because he was alone and short. "Can't you see I'm trying to concentrate! You dumb fuck..." He continued to yell as if he was the center of everyone's attention and therefore everyone should care.
Lucky turned and stopped for a second and returned a mean, cold stare evenly. He raised his left hand and tipped his forehead in a mock salute like Elvis Presley, his idol, might do if confronted by a similar circumstance. He continued walking, somewhat daunted, toward the girls without saying anything more. The tall dude returned his salute with a single erect middle finger in a popular, vulgar gesture.
That incident stirred some adrenalin and raised the hair on the back of Lucky's neck. He felt the flutter of butterflies in his stomach at the thought of getting into a fight. Lucky wasn't much of a fighter although he often took the posture of acting tough. He wrestled with Jack but his meager experience and lack of agility was never a match for Jack's superior height and strength. This tall dude looked like he could take Jack without too much trouble.
Alice greeted Lucky with her out-stretched hand and a bashful smile. She gestured toward the other woman and said, "This is my sister Pam."
"Hi Lucky." Pam looked preoccupied and barely smiled. She was looking back over Lucky's shoulder. "Alice has told me all about you. Now you're really in trouble." She managed a weak joke. Her message was a double entendre referring to the immediate situation as well as to his biography.
"That mean lookin' jerk is real trouble." Pam motioned in the direction of the pin ball machine with a move of her head and eyes. "He was bothering us earlier and we told him to leave us alone because we had our guys comin'. Now that he's seen you, he'll make the connection and probably try again. He's nothing but trouble because I noticed he carries a knife in the top of his left boot."
Lucky turned and looked around the room. To the left was the pool room and beyond the tables was the back door marked "Exit Only."
"That fucker doesn't frighten me." Lucky growled in as low a base voice as his recent change into puberty would accommodate. Lucky said with understated sarcasm, "But somethin's wrong with this picture." He had noticed for the first time that the room that held the pin ball machine was vacant except for the three thugs. Everybody else was keeping their distance too.
"Let's just go out the back door. What doya say?" He tried to keep a calm, confident expression as he enjoined the girls.
"You guys are just chicken." Alice had been flattered by the earlier attention but they ignored her.
"You're right Lucky. Let's leave now, quietly." Pam echoed his sentiment softly.
The two girls got up and took their half-smoked cigarettes with them.
As all three moved casually and unobtrusively along the back room toward the exit Lucky remembered the description he had heard from Jack: "Have you ever considered that life might be just a series of scenery changes prepared for just one person, yourself?" He was still struggling to understand this theoretical concept of Reality Solipsism, since it had never occurred to him.
Lucky instinctively understood the practical ramification. Outside the door was a safe haven ready for his little group. If you don't like the scene or play you're in, you can just walk out and go into another scene. There will always be another scene just around the corner.
His philosophical confusion was disrupted as he reached for the door handle. "Hey you jerk!" boomed the tall dude from across the room. "Where you goin' with my women?"
Lucky turned to acknowledge the comment with his free hand but Pam took his arm in mid swing and gave him a strong tug through the door. He followed nearly stumbling. He wished he could protect their virtue, if need be. But he was reluctant to shed blood, especially since it might be his own.
Once outside the door the three looked quickly at each other and began running and laughing toward Pam's car. It was nearly dark in the back alley as they ran toward the open street. Lucky followed close behind since he didn't know which car was her's. Besides, running in engineer boots wasn't convenient even when you knew where you were going.
Once around the corner, Alice and Lucky jumped into the back seat of the beat-up green Chevy while Pam started the engine as quickly as possible. They left in a flash with no sign of anybody in pursuit. Lucky felt the blood surging through the veins in his neck. They were laughing hard and gasping for breath and choking on the smoke from their own cigarettes.
Once the group settled, Pam broke the silence. "You guys have some fun back there if you want. There should be a couple of beers in that bag. I have to stop at the grocery store to get some diapers so I can pick up some more. I'll wait until we get into the country before I have any." She turned on the radio with a practiced motion.
She steered the car south taking the quickest route out of town just for safety sake. This was the longest way to Alice's home but they had no particular deadlines or schedule. They had all evening to celebrate their rescue.
They stopped in the parking lot of the Brookside Market where Jack worked and Pam went in to do her shopping.
Alice gave Lucky a quick kiss that surprised him since they hadn't kissed before. He hadn't shifted gears from defender to lover, although the transition came easy. She reached over his legs toward the bag and pressed her firm, young breasts against his legs.
With that added stimulation he quickly adjusted and was ready for whatever might happen.
She came out with two cans of Blitz beer.
He put his arm around her back and rubbed softly on her active arm.
She opened the beers with fingernails that had been eaten to the quick by nervous energy. Alice's stout hands were nearly as strong as Lucky's and she pulled the rings with an efficient tug and put the tabs inside the cans. In spite of being warm, the beers tasted good.
As Lucky and Alice cuddled in front of the grocery store, Lucky inquired about Pam. "Does Pam live 'round here?" he muttered between swallows and kisses.
"No, she's from The Dalles on a visit, at least for now." The conversation lapsed as Lucky and Alice kissed between each sip of beer.
It seemed like no time before Pam came back with one large bag. Lucky straightened up but Alice continued kissing and rubbed her hand through his hair with a more ostentatious show of affection, not that Lucky minded.
"You kids look like you're havin' fun." Pam teased as she passed the bag to the back seat. She put the car in gear with a rude noise and moved south again toward their destination.
"Grind a pound for me." Lucky made a rude comment referring to the grinding of the gears. An awkward silence followed until Lucky inserted: "You're from The Dalles, I hear?"
"Ya. I'm from The Dalles, Dallesport to be exact. I brought little Joey to visit their grandparents. My ex is long gone and I work in The Dalles at Rancho Restaurant. They gave me a week off." Pam was well built and had recovered from her pregnancy exceptionally well in the last year and a half. She was a mature, well worn woman compared to Alice who was quite thin. Alice was making up for any deficit of experience with her enthusiasm. She was getting well acquainted with Lucky, making up for lost time.
Pam continued driving without needing any directions. She was an easy talker and eagerly told her rather sad story. Since she lived alone and everyone else she knew had already heard the details or had been part of it, she talked a steady stream. She had lost her first baby because she had been abused or so she presumed. The second child came after her husband had abandoned her for some tramp and left the country. So here she was alone in the world telling her all too common tale.
After navigating the maze of back roads, corners and bridges that make up the central part of the Hood River Valley she pulled through the gates of Panorama Point, moving close to the right to avoid a blue and white Ford leaving the narrow road.
Pam stopped the car at the top of the hill and turned off the engine. As she reached back for a beer, she fumbled in the dark with Lucky's knee by mistake. She pinched him sharply to break the tension.
Alice was too busy to notice but Lucky enjoyed the contact.
"Sorry 'bout that, don't let me disturb you guys." She moved her hand over to the sack and took one of the new, cold beers.
Alice was like a cat at a milk bowl. All by herself she probably wasn't thirsty for affection but when another cat was there, she over-indulged to make sure she got her share. Lucky was the beneficiary of this exaggerated attention. He hadn't said more than ten words during the whole drive between sips of beer and being kissed and fondled eagerly by Alice.
Pam fumbled in her purse for cigarettes and pushed the lighter. She offered the long, white sticks to Alice and Lucky who stopped giggling and slurping long enough to reach forward and accept the gift. She smoked Winston filter-tips but Lucky didn't complain since it was free. Pam's attractive face shinned a bright rose color in the glow of the lighter. She held the lighter in place for the others in turn.
Lucky would be haunted by the memory of that raw beauty several years later.
He rolled down the rear windows and leaned back and relaxed next to Alice. Their legs were interlaced and Lucky fairly glowed in the spark of his cigarette from both stimulation and alcohol. The alcohol went directly into his blood and to his head because of his empty stomach.
"Hey this is great Pam." Alice slurred. "Thanks for rescuing me and Lucky from that mean gang at the Game Room." Alice coughed and sputtered as they all laughed again.
"Oh, think nothin' of it kid sister." Pam waved her hand and cigarette casually, dropping some ashes. She reached back and took a package of white doughnuts--the kind covered with white powdered sugar--out of the sack. She opened it clumsily and passed it around. Both Lucky and Alice took one. She urged another beer onto the pair, noticing they had both finished drinking.
"I thought I was the one who rescued you both." Lucky complained at the same time he opened his second beer with a pop-fizz. It leaked foam over his hand and he licked his fingers.
"Oh ya!" Pam belted in a mocking argumentative tone followed by a polite burp. "Hell, you can't even open beer without making a mess. But, okay, if you want to be our hero you can. Even if it was you who just about got us into deep trouble just by showing up!"
"Excuse me for livin'. I may not be a hero yet but I am planning on joining the Army in just a few months." Lucky exaggerated the facts because he wouldn't be old enough for nearly a year. Lucky's voice sounded needlessly argumentative and a moment of silence followed.
"I think that makes you a hero twice." Alice inserted this to make the peace.
Lucky was perfect material for the Army. He had been uprooted from his hometown, his father had left just before that, he couldn't get along with his mother because he blamed her for not being able to keep his father around. He couldn't get interested in school, he was alone with Jack, at best a temporary situation. He knew he was a burden because they just barely made it as it was. A kid without any connections is like a person without a country, a loose canyon on the deck of a rolling ship in a rough sea. The Army wanted him as it had wanted his father twenty-two years earlier. That was something. "I want to get training in mechanics." he added defensively.
"I'll drink to that." Pam broke the uncomfortable silence and saluted Lucky with her can. She was gracious enough to drink to anything. After several donuts and another beer, Pam returned her attention to the journey.
"I'd better keep driving while I can, before one of you turns into a pumpkin." She drove in a quick U-turn, spinning in the gravel and throwing Alice purposely on top of Lucky. No one in the back seat resisted. They were more concerned about adjusting without spilling their beers. That wasn't so easy since they were drinking, smoking and eating, all at the same time they were kissing and hugging. It wasn't long before the two in the back were covered with a sticky mixture of powdered sugar, ashes and beer.
Pam finished her beer as she drove the last two miles to Alice's house along the dark country road. She went slower than necessary exaggerating each corner and it wasn't long before Alice was completely on top of Lucky. He was lying flat on his back stretched full length in the back seat when the car paused at the three way intersection. The car lights flashed onto a solitary auto parked inside the trees but Pam didn't recognize the car so she drove on.
"I like this scene..." Lucky murmured between kisses gasping for a quick breath "...Jack was right." He was still confused about the philosophical concept but this new reality was much better.
It was sometime during this experience that Lucky's outlook on life began to change from cynical with a chip on his shoulder, to modest optimism. He had been depressed and lonely as he walked up the hill to the Game Room. In the arms of Alice he savored the best that life had to offer. He was no longer alone. This sincere affection was a joyful, carefree experience that changed the balance of his life in favor of survival.
He hadn't realized it was possible to feel so comfortable and just enjoy being alive. This new life which required the presence of other people was terrific. Without knowing, he was a case study for how opposing theories of life came together and struggled for dominance. This theory could all be ignored in the arms of a friend.
With the aid of these new memories, Lucky looked forward to more such excursions. These moments of high pleasure would give him hope for renewal and gradually suppressed the old sadness and disillusionment. This physical gratification became a sufficient purpose for living. It was much better than any stuffy religion and even better than playing in the band.