One peaceful light summer afternoon, we opened the window of his mom's little garage apartment and put on flamenco guitar music. There were some kids down on the street, and I sat in the window sill with an old classical guitar; my back to the unsuspecting audience. I hunched over the stringless instrument and attempted to appear lost in a trance, my hands moving madly, as Paco de Lucía wailed away on the stereo. It was the perfect image for everything Rusty and I attempted during the time we spent together. Air guitar, long before the term was coined, with a strong dose of chicanery.
He was a year (or two) ahead of me in that high school, but he had grown his hair out longer than the norm. This made him dangerous. I was looking for danger. He began to ride home with us from school in that old Army jeep. A very skinny kid; his parents obviously didn't feed him in the manner to which I'd been accustomed my whole life. And then I found out why.
The first night I was invited to his house, he was living with his dad. His parents were separated but not divorced, and had been in this situation for a long, long time. His dad's house was a small thing in a lower middle class neighborhood. The owner sat in the tiny kitchen, nursing a Budweiser and a flank steak, while his kid and I went to the kid's room to toss down some cheaper beer and listen to Buffy Sainte-Marie whine about her pretend heritage. I asked Rusty if the volume was going to bother his dad, just a flimsy door or two away. He said, "Nah. The fucker's practically deaf." And then he told me a few things about his dad; most of which I would have rather not have heard on our first date.
When his dad threw the bedroom door open and yelled some choice words about his second and last son, I realized that his deafness (like that of so many of our senior citizens) was selective. I'm not sure what Rusty's motive was at the time, since I'd but barely met him, but he picked up a Bowie knife from his nightstand and threw it with an uncanny accuracy at the door where his dad stood. It missed his dad's left ear by the width of a playing card. As the knife twanged there in the door, some loud arrangements were made for a change of address for my new friend.
This is how he wound up living with his mom, in the little garage apartment. I tried to apologize, thinking it somehow my fault. But he told me it had been building up for a while between him and his dad, and that it had nothing to do with me. I somehow doubt that, in retrospect.
Where do they come from, these wild children?
From painted women.
When I first met Rusty's mom, I think it was my first exposure to a whore, as it had been defined by my ignorant tagalongs growing up. She was fat; she was perfumed, and she was painted like a clown in heat. However, she was a motherly one.
I will never forget waking up one morning after what I considered one of the most debaucherous nights of my young life, staggering into the kitchen where she overflowed her chair, drinking her coffee. They had moved into a ground level duplex by this time. She looked at me over the rim of her coffee cup. "You don't look so good, dannye."
"No, ma'am. I don't feel so good, either."
"Let me make you some ham and eggs and let's see if we can get you back on track."
At my house, I would have been getting Bible lectures and guilt trips. Here, I was getting ham and eggs with fresh orange juice.
All of this comes with a price, of course. Rusty didn't mince words when he told me of listening to his mom and her "special friends" banging like wildebeests just a couple of doors away from his otherwise peaceful dreams. Nothing like listening to your mom screaming, "OH GOD YES," into the empty air over the shoulder of a guy she just met that night at the bar, when you're a strapping young teen, eh?
So, the young turk and his madame mom and I sorta settled in to this routine over at her place. She took the back part of the duplex and left the front part to us. She didn’t ask us many questions and we repaid the favor. Rusty’s bedroom was the first thing you’d see when you walked in the front door, and that was just fine with us, as it sent a sort of signal to the young ladies we'd bring home. There was a fireplace and a black light and plenty of room and psychedelic posters and a state-of-the-art stereo. Because Rusty was an audiophile with good taste, and it was on this stereo that I first heard Blonde on Blonde. I tell you this just to establish a time frame reference for you.
One night we were drinking wine, red wine, burgundy wine, Taylor Burgundy Wine, and a friend of Rusty’s whom I barely knew showed up on a Triumph bike. He asked Rusty if he wanted to take a ride, and Rusty said, “Sure.”
Did I ever tell you that I sometimes know things that I’m not supposed to know? It’s true. I knew that Rusty shouldn’t have gone that night, and I told him so. But the red, red wine was full and firmly kicked in at that point, and he barely paid me any attention as he walked out the front door of his bedroom and his duplex.
After everyone else had gone home, I stayed up a while waiting for my friend to come home. I finally dozed off on the big couch, which had become like a second bed to me. In the morning, he still wasn’t home. I went in the kitchen and told his mom that he didn’t come home last night. It didn’t take long to find out why.
Two cop cars showed up about that time and they told us the story. They’d gone down where there was some construction near a railroad track. Rusty had gotten up on a bulldozer and found the keys were in it. He had started that thing up, somehow, and wound up plowing up about a hundred yards of track. The Hummingbird passenger train was on its way from Birmingham and, if they hadn’t gotten that train stopped, it would have killed a whole bunch of folks that night.
You didn’t get away with shit like that back then. Not even if it was your first major offense. The judge gave Rusty two choices: Five years in prison or two years in the Army.
He spent the next two years of his life in Korea, primarily. A couple of years later and it would have been Vietnam. When he got back home, he was free and clear. But I had moved on to college, and many of his other friends had moved on as well. He became the townie guy.
One night changes everything. Sure, he didn’t come from the most promising of circumstances, but he had a damn good shot at doing something in his life that would have made him happy. That choice he made that one night altered the course of his life in so many ways that it would have been hard to chart it at the time.