Van Halen's 1984

We grew up in a hushed little town with a speed trap running down the middle. Warped porches, sidewalks swallowed by grass, and boarded up stores lined the highway. Ghosts whispered of good old days no one remembered with integrity. We walked those streets hoping to see something, anything that might represent a change of pace. Early we learned carloads of pretty girls didn’t drive by in our bedrooms. There was little excitement in our Atari games passed level gazillion.
And no matter what we were told; nothing good came to those who waited.

Downtown was two blocks of not-so-much with Town Hall towards the east and a Funeral Parlor to the west. In one of the old buildings, a black man opened up an arcade filled with quarter games, pool tables, and a few of the town’s more flavorful street movers.

One of these street movers was Chief Charles. I never knew if it was his real name and never had the guts to ask. He looked to be Mexican with long straight black hair and bronze skin. His black shiny locks were tight against his head because of the red bandanna he always wore. He walked with a farm worker’s gait; a near limp from heavy lifting. His eyes, as brown as mud, centered a ring of constant redness. He smelled of sweat and smoke; store-bought & home-grown. Chief stood over six feet and probably hovered 165 on a scale. His smile came out rarely but crooked when Chief Charles bothered to take notice of us kids. Most of the time I saw him he was walking. Even as a kid I thought he looked like a man From a place but not going To a place.

At the arcade late one  summer afternoon, it was decided that we, two mid-teens with more gumption than intuition, wanted to get drunk. We walked down the alley towards 7-11 discussing our plans.
“Your mama home?”
“Naw,” I said. “She’s at a dance or something.”
“We can go there?”
“Sure. I got that Van Halen tape.” I said.
“Cool. What should we get? I hate wine coolers.”
“I don’t know. Beer is beer.”
“Right. How much money you got?”
I checked my pockets, using the sun’s fading light to count.
“About six.”
“I got ten. That’s enough.”
“Who we gonna get to buy it?”
“There’s Chief Charles over there.”

Chief was sitting behind the 7-11. His eyes were closing like dusk on a long day. My friend yelled.

Old Swill.

“Hey man! Yeah.” We approached the nodding Chief.
“It’s me. Timmy. What’s happening?”
Chief looked up.
“Hey.”
“Would you buy us some beer?”
“What you two gonna do with it?” Chief asked. His smile seemed friendly but I felt some irritation in his voice.
“Gonna get drunk over at Johnny’s house and listen to the new Van Halen tape.”
“Party animals. Big time.”
“Well,” Timmy said, “We might call some girls over…never know.” With this he tapped my shoulder. Maybe he never knew, but I did. It was gonna be us and Van Halen. All night. But the excitement was there. The boundless belief in the impossible so ingrained in youth floated around Timmy and I.
“Sure. I guess.”
“Cool. Look, we got 16 bucks.” Timmy handed over our money.
“What do you want?”
“A six-pack.” I said. Chief Charles cut his eyes at me.
“A six-pack?” Timmy said loudly. “I could drink a case or two by myself.”
Chief smiled wide.
“You two got enough for a 12 pack of something cheap. Then I get the change for whatever I want.”
Suddenly I wanted to run away. As if I smelled a firecracker that was about to go off.
“Good deal.” Timmy said. “We’re gonna walk over to Perk’s.  When you come out we’ll meet right here.”
Chief nodded his agreement.

We walked to the parking lot of the store next door. I had worked there before, bagging beer, scrubbing the floor, killing the minnows in the bait tank…the last bit taught me what ‘fired’ meant.

“Which album is it?” Timmy asked.
“You think we’re gonna get in trouble?” I said.
“For what? If somebody says something to us we’ll act like we don’t know Chief. Everything’s cool man.”

I was explaining why I liked the song “I’ll Wait” when we saw blue lights pull into the 7-11 parking lot. We ran behind the dumpster and peeked around the corner. Two cops went into the 7-11, leaving their car running and the lights advertising trouble for all to see. They came out minutes later with Chief Charles in tow. He glanced over at the dumpster behind Perk’s just in time to see the dust boiling up behind our sprinting feet.

We ran back to Timmy’s house and realized we’d probably be fingered quick and that sitting there like dumb ducks was bad. We left out of the back of his house and looked around. What we expected to see, I’m not sure.

Ninjas have no boundaries.

Cops.
FBI Agents.
Ninjas.
Who knows?
We took off through the alley. We ran for two more blocks before stopping. The night was quiet except for our breathing and the sound of trains connecting in the distance.
“Shit” Timmy said.
“Double shit.” I said. “You think he’s gonna tell ’em our names?”
“He don’t know our names.”
“He knows yours and you said mine.”
“How many damn Johnnys you think there are in Crewe?”
“Like…two.”
“Shit”
“Double shit”

We walked towards my Grandma’s house. Not for any familiar protection but because she lived about as far from downtown as one could get. Plus, we both knew the woods around her house from our childhood war games. If we had to duck out in the woods, it’d be a while before anyone would find us.

We devised all sorts of lies in case the cops stopped us.
“He pulled a knife on us.”
“He said we had to give him money for beer or he’d kill our families.”
“I just wanted a comic book, officer.”
Timmy laughed.
“A comic book?”
“GI Combat.”
“Oh, that’s better. Dumbass.”
“This was your idea man.”

We argued a bit about whose idea was what and when. Then we moved on to something else. Just a rambling conversation as we walked through the humid night wondering what might happen. Somewhere we changed our minds about my Grandma’s neighborhood and headed back to downtown. On the way the same two cops passed us, honked and waved. Nothing.

The arcade was closing by the time we arrived.
Aubrey, the man who owned it smiled.
“You two give Chief money to buy beer?”
We froze.
“What?” Timmy said.
“Cops came by and said they picked up Chief up at 7-11 for a failure to appear. He was yelling about them using two kids to trap him. Said two white kids set him up to get arrested.”
I felt a swarm of bees in my stomach. Timmy laughed nervously.
“It won’t us.”
“Johnny, you still got that birthday money on you?” Aubrey asked.
“No.”
Aubrey smiled. “Chief will be out tomorrow probably. I’ll tell him you two were looking for your money back.”
“Don’t tell him that!” I blurted.
“Just let it go Aubrey.” Timmy said.
Aubrey laughed and then spoke.
“Never get a criminal to help you break the law.”

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