[Holy shit, I’m over 10,000 words into this. I haven’t gotten that far into any fiction in a long time. I know these excerpts don’t make any sense, by the way. And they’re not in direct linear order. There’s lots of stuff in between. Also, can anybody name the Okkervil River reference in this one?]
[Oh, yeah: this one’s for Jeremy Snyder, wherever you are, bro.]
The first day I ever saw Val Sutton was the first day of freshman year. She’d gone to Kenwood Christian School before that, but Kenwood only went as high as eighth grade. And so, probably to the horror of Kurt and Meredith Sutton, she’d been cast down amongst the unclean hordes of Forreston High.
And she looked it too, man. That first day, she was wearing a denim overall dress that went down to her ankles, a lacy frock kind of thing with a neckline higher than my t-shirt, and a pair of those two-tone saddle shoes that Catholic girls wear, even though Kenwood was Episcopalian or Lutheran or Hutterite or some goddamn Protestant thing. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail so tight you could almost hear her scalp screaming. She wore no makeup and no earrings. (Not that I had any room for fashion critique; I think I showed up that day in a Vanilla Ice “To The Extreme” t-shirt and a pair of neon MC Hammer harem pants.)
I don’t know why I noticed her that day, except maybe that she had this rabbit look in her eyes like she was going to bolt at any second. I think I probably felt sorry for her.
The next time I saw her was two months later. I was hanging out in Bradbury Park by myself, sitting on a picnic table in the shade near the bottom of the hill and working my way through a half-pack of my dad’s Camels that I’d filched off the dining room table when he wasn’t looking.
“Can I have one of those?” I turned and there was Val, dressed a little less like a door-to-door missionary this time, in a black t-shirt and tight pegged jeans with little bows at the ankles. She still had the saddle shoes, though.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, and handed her one. She lit it with my matches and sucked the smoke into her mouth, but didn’t inhale.
“Thanks,” she said. “Can I sit here?”
“Yeah,” I said. She climbed onto the table next to me.
“You’re Valerie, right?”
“Yeah,” she said. “But I don’t like being called that.”
“It’s okay. You didn’t know. Val.”
We talked a little bit about school, about the teachers we both hated — Mr. Olafsen, the history teacher, being a widely-known and particular asshole. Finally, she put her cigarette out carefully on the ground.
“I gotta go,” she said. “Thanks for the cigarette. I’ll see you around.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll see ya.” I watched her walk away. It just seemed so weird — some preppie Christian chick bumming a smoke off of me.
A couple of days later, I was walking home down Cherry Street. A couple of older kids were parked a block away from the school. They were all wearing clothes that looked, to my freshman eyes, like something a crazy homeless person might put together out of stuff they found on the street. They wore oddly-shaped sunglasses.
And they were listening to this music, like I’d never heard on MTV or the radio, this strange, dreamy rock and roll with guitars that sounded like chainsaws in a cave. “Listen to the girl, as she takes on half the world, moving up and so alive, in her honey-dripping beehive…” some guy sang. He didn’t have a high voice like Vince Neil or Janey Lane from Warrant or any of the other rock bands I knew. His voice was low and almost conversational.
I walked past them nervously. They looked like druggies.
And, horror of horrors, as I passed the car, the guy in the passenger seat rolled down the window. He had a ponytail and a bunch of earrings in his ear, and one in his nose.
“Hey, dude,” he said, “you got a smoke?” Laughter from inside the car.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, just like when Val had asked me, and I pulled one out. I handed it to him. He nodded and lit it with a big wooden match from a box.
“Thanks, man. What’s your name?”
I told him. I didn’t walk away. I didn’t know why. I just stood there.
“Nice to meetcha. I’m Mike. You a freshman?”
“Yeah. Are you seniors?”
“I am,” he said. He jerked his thumb at the girl behind him at the wheel, who I couldn’t see very well. “She’s a junior.”
“I like your music,” I said, and I did, though I didn’t know why I liked it. It was weird. But it was cool, and kind of beautiful.
“Right on,” he said. “It’s the Jesus and Mary Chain.”
“I’ve never heard of ’em,” I said. He laughed. “They’re from England or Ireland or something. They’re not real famous, but I fuckin’ dig em, man.”
“That’s cool,” I said, completely meaninglessly.
“Hey,” said the girl behind the wheel. She kind of looked like a prettier version of the guy, Mike. “You wanna hang out with us? We’re going over to Granny’s for coffee.”
“Cool,” I said. “Hop in,” said Mike the ponytail guy, and I jumped in the back seat.
And that was how I met Mike Webster and his sister.
About six weeks later, I walked up to Alicia’s car after my last class. I had the Jane’s Addiction tape she’d loaned me the day before, which I’d carefully dubbed onto one side of a Maxell 90 minute tape with my shitty little K-Mart boombox. My dubbed tape collection was rapidly filling up, thanks to the Websters — The Pixies, the Sex Pistols, David Bowie, The Cure, Primus. I was a ready and willing student. My Vanilla Ice shirt had gone into the dumpster behind the house, replaced with ripped black jeans (to my mother’s horror) and a Ramones t-shirt I’d bought at the record store in Worthington when I’d gone over there with my dad for a dentist’s appointment.
When I got to the car, I saw Mike and Alicia…and there was Val Sutton. Gone was the clenched-fist ponytail and the pegged jeans with the bows. Now her hair was dyed a deep shade of red and she wore a sun dress with a leather jacket over it and knee-high combat boots. She had a sort of crushed velvet old lady hat on that hung loosely around her face.
“Hey,” Alicia said. “You know Val?”
“Yeah,” I said. I gave her a little wave. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she replied. I saw Mike give his sister a wink, but I didn’t get it, not then.
“Hey,” Alicia said. “Have you got that Jane’s tape? I was gonna let Val borrow it after you’re done with it.”
“Yeah, I got it right here.” I reached into my backpack and produced the tape. Ritual De Lo Habitual. I handed it to Val.
“You’ll fucking love that, sweetie,” Alicia said. “It’s so fucking good.”
“Let’s go get coffee,” Mike said. He howled for no apparent reason and flung himself over the hood of his sister’s car.
“Cunt!” she shouted. “Don’t break my fucking car!”
“Car!” he shouted back at her. “Don’t break my fucking cunt!” He rolled his Rs theatrically.
Val and I looked at each other, bemused. I could tell she had as little idea of what to make of all of this as I did. But we got in the car anyway, and Alicia hit the gas and roared off, some Ministry song blasting at full volume.
And that was pretty much that.