We were idiots.
Little fish in a minuscule pond, in some backwater Bible belt (the end part of the belt that dangles after you buckle it), but the smallness of the pond made us feel large. But we weren’t.
I’ll name names. Dean, Smokey (as he was known then), and me: we saw ourselves as “ladies’ men,” and we had that 70s hair to prove it. But we weren’t. We were just three scared guys facing adulthood and meeting it with a swagger that hid all the gnawing uncertainties we only brought out at night to examine.
I was never sure, and I never asked, but it was pretty clear that Dean and maybe Smokey were using. Dean had a “friend” named… I can’t remember, but let’s call him Art. But that friend appeared to own a jet (or at least a plane), committed vague acts of violence, and, I always assumed, was a dealer.
I never used drugs, and that is the truth. I could not stand to think about the consequences that would inevitably follow if I ever tried. So I did not ask about Art–ever. I did not want to know, and I did not want to go in that plane, though Dean seemed to offer a trip to Florida if I wanted to go.
We sat around dissing each other most of the time–friendly banter, listened to Blue Oyster Cult and Dan Fogelberg, and talked about the young women we had or wished we had in our lives.
Dean had dated, on and off, a beautiful local co-ed who I adored from a distance but dared not approach. I was happy to leave him to it but knew it was always a precarious situation. The relationship was a mystery, but Dean held her like a trophy, and we felt he was pretty lucky but brazen to aim so high. As we used to say, “out of his league.”
And he did aim too high because all at once she told him it was over (short-lived as it was) and I was not surprised. But he was angry and nursed that anger for some time, making strange threats about her “regretting” it but never getting specific about why. He had a long planning horizon and knew he would be rich one day, so I always thought he meant she would miss out on all the celebrity that was flowing his way.
Time went on until that Saturday afternoon in Smokey’s room. Dean was there with the two of us, and a newish friend named Clark stopped by to hang out, eat peanuts and pepperoni, and listen to Jon Klemer (as I recall).
Clark was new and a bit more religious than us, so we held back on the vulgarity and had that typical conversation for that time, which included cars, and sports, and music, and whatever was happening on campus, which was never much.
We got around to girls eventually. We all updated one another on our latest ideas about whom to date, who was available, and who to stay away from to avoid entanglements with larger, older, or stronger boyfriends.
It was then that Clark told us about his new girlfriend and I knew trouble was coming. Yes, it was Dean’s “she’ll regret it” main squeeze (as we used to call girlfriends), and Clark had no clue. There were choices to be made–all by Dean–and I predicted an adverse outcome to his new relationship with Clark.
Dean turned red (color matters here), which meant anger, and he just kept getting brighter. Smokey and I eyed each other. Clark just got quiet. He didn’t know, but he did. Nothing was said for a pretty long time, and I wanted out of there.
Then Dean jumped up. This was it. Clark was not a small guy, and I think he could have taken Dean had he tried anything. But he didn’t. He just said, “I gotta get out of here. I am going to Art’s.”
And he stormed out, and we heard his glass-packed Camaro for a long time as it careened away from the dorm.
We sat in an even longer silence and then started parsing his parting words: going to Art’s. What did that mean? Was he going to Art’s to get stoned? Was he going to Art’s to bring Art back to bust Clark’s head? Anything was possible. We were anxious. Going to Art’s was never going to be a good thing for Dean, and possibly for Clark, and maybe for all of us.
Klemer played on. We sat.
Then the door opened quietly, and Dean re-entered. No Art (not that I would have known what he looked like). He was alone. And he was shaking, and he was white–as white as the white painter pants he was wearing that day.
He sat down, still shaking, and put his head in his hands. He sat for a long while. We said nothing.
“What just happened,” he asked.
“Heading down Eden Road, a hitchhiker” (common back then).
Silence for a moment.
“I mean, I stopped. I always stop. I mean, he needed a ride, right? you always stop.”
More silence–the silence probed Dean.
“And he opened the door and looked in, and I said ‘where you headed man,’ and he said ‘where you heading man'”? And I said ‘I’m headed to Art’s'”
Like the guy knew who Art was???
“And then he said, ‘well then, you better go back to Smokey’s room,’ and he closed the door and walked off into the cornfield by the road.”
And Dean got up, went over and hugged Clark, and sat down. And we all listened to Klemer and stayed quiet for a long time.
That happened one Saturday afternoon.