by David Armand
It was 1995. My friend Matt had just gotten his drivers license that past summer and his mom’s old car, a gray Honda Civic with a hatchback and a stickshift in the center console. It had a tape deck, and he would drive to our house listening to Metallica and Megadeth and Pantera and AC/DC, the speakers in the door vibrating the tinted windows in their metal frames as he drove up our gravel driveway.
My mom didn’t want my brother and me riding in the car with anyone, but she had known Matt for years and he had spent many weekends at our trailer in Folsom, so sometimes she would let him pick us up on his way to school. There was something thrilling about riding to school in your friend’s car like that, pulling up in the grass lot where the older kids parked their trucks and hung out smoking cigarettes before class.
We were in tenth grade that year, and I hadn’t gotten my own license yet. Usually we’d ride the bus to school or my mom would take us if we woke up late. In fact, she had dropped us off that morning when we decided, just after second period, to skip the rest of the day.
My brother and Matt and I all met in the commons area next to one of the Coke machines and told a couple of our friends we were leaving, probably just to see what their reaction would be, but more likely to elevate our status to that of people who actually did things like skip school in the first place. We didn’t have anywhere to go, anything really to do, but it felt important that we were leaving that morning.
After the bell rang and a few students were still left in the hallways, running toward their classrooms so they wouldn’t be marked tardy, Matt and my brother and I walked out the side entrance and to the parking lot. We moved quickly, but also as though we were supposed to be doing that, trying to avoid suspicion by seeming confident and in control, like we knew where we were going and why we were going there.
No one saw us as we climbed into the little car, and Matt turned on the radio and rolled down the windows. We pulled out of the school and headed down Highway 21 toward Covington.
“What do y’all wanna do?” Matt asked, yelling over the windrush and the music. My brother was riding up front and I was sitting in the cramped seat in the back so I had to lean up for them to hear me.
“Jenn skipped school today, too,” I said. “We could always go to her house and see what she’s up to.”
Jenn was a girl whom I was somewhat dating, though we hadn’t actually gone on any dates. I was really more infatuated with her than anything else, and I think she probably just liked me out of boredom. She had come over to my trailer in Folsom a couple of times when my parents weren’t home, staying at my neighbor Stacey’s house and then they’d both sneak through the woods when it was dark so we could hang out.
But I was so young and nervous I didn’t know what to do once she was there. We would sit on the sofa and make out for a while, and when she got up and pulled me into my bedroom, easing into my tiny bunkbed and then reaching up for me to get on top of her, I would think of a reason to leave the room or otherwise just climb in next to her and keep making out. I could never go any further than that.
Jenn wasn’t older than me, just more experienced, and I was intimidated by her. Once she had sat on the trampoline in my back yard and asked me to bite her neck. Stacey was there with us, and Jenn had asked her to bite her neck too. So we both sat there with Jenn between us as we bit her flesh and she sighed with what I guess was some kind of pleasure. At fifteen everything feels so confusing and weird, it’s hard to say what is going on at any given time. I was simply overwhelmed by my feelings for Jenn and I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t attracted to her, but I also didn’t want her to think I was scared—which I was.
Even though she had tried to get me to sleep with her, and even though God knows I wanted to, I was afraid—not of disease or pregnancy or any of the things they warn you against in school. I had no moral objections to it. I was a fifteen-year-old boy. All I thought about was sex. But when it came down to it, I was terrified. Scared I wouldn’t know what to do, how to do it. That I would be no good at it, and would thus be humiliated.
I remember one time being at my grandmother’s house of all places, sitting on the sofa next to Jenn underneath a blanket while we feigned watching a movie on TV. Stacey was there too, sitting on the other side of Jenn as Jenn reached her hand over to my leg and started rubbing my jeans. I was immediately turned on, and I knew Jenn could tell. She moved her fingers over me slowly, feeling me with her palm lightly brushing over my jeans, but never taking her eyes from the movie on TV. I tried to lean back into the sofa, to let myself ease into what was happening without anyone noticing.
Jenn moved her fingers up and down, slowly, but she kept her hand on the outside of my jeans. The movie kept playing, and Stacey pretended not to notice what was going on. I was sweating now. My stomach felt tight, clenched in on itself. Something was on the verge of happening. And then Jenn just stopped. She looked at me for a moment before turning back to the movie. And that was it. I knew what it could be like with her but I wouldn’t know for sure, she seemed to be saying, unless I made the next move. But I never did.
And now here I was trying to convince Matt to drive to her house.
Matt said, “Man, I don’t wanna go over there. I can’t stand her.”
“What do you care?” I said. “We don’t have anything better to do.”
“Shit, dude,” he said. “I guess we can pick her up. I don’t know, but I don’t want to hang out at her house all day.”
“Yeah, that’s fine, man. I doubt she’ll want to either,” I said. I had thought maybe Matt could drop me off over there, and Jenn and I could be alone. Her mom was at work and who knew what could have happened? But I also knew it would be a betrayal to Matt and my brother to just ditch them like that. Besides, they could have just left me there, and I’d be stuck. It wasn’t worth the risk.
When we got to her house, Jenn was sitting outside on the front porch smoking a cigarette; it was as if she had known we were coming. I watched her as she stood up and walked out to the driveway where we were waiting in Matt’s car.
“Hey,” she said. “What are y’all doing here?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Just driving around, I guess.”
Jenn dropped the cigarette on the gravel driveway and rubbed it out with her tennis shoe. Then she bent down and picked it up and stuffed it in the pack. She put it in her back pocket, making a square against her tight jeans. I looked away, but could still see the reflection of her long legs in the car’s sideview mirror. I was hoping she’d come with us, wherever it was we were headed.
“Do you wanna come with us?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “That’d be cool. Just let me go get my purse real quick.”
I could sense Matt tensing up; he had probably been hoping she wouldn’t come. Then I watched Jenn through the sideview mirror as she walked back up the driveway and then onto the screened-in porch. A little dog barked from inside the house.
“Shit,” Matt was saying now, more to my brother than to me. “I wish she wasn’t coming.”
My brother didn’t say anything, just sat there looking out the window. I don’t think he liked Jenn either.
Anyway, Jenn got in the small car and Matt had to lift his seat forward and nearly press his cheek to the steering wheel so she could climb in to where I was sitting. Once she was in, Matt put his seat back, closed the door, then slipped Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon into the cassette player and turned it up loud. He had two big speakers stuffed into the trunk, just under the hatchback window behind Jenn and me. I could feel the bass vibrating against my neck and back and shoulders.
Then he pulled out of the driveway and turned onto Tyler Street, heading toward downtown Covington.
“Can you please turn that down?” Jenn said, tapping Matt on the shoulder.
“Can you turn it down?” she said again.
Matt didn’t answer her, just dialed the knob a bit to the left so the music wasn’t as loud. I could see him through the rearview mirror rolling his eyes. Then Jenn scooted closer to me. Nobody said anything.
We kept driving.
Finally my brother said something about the new Super Wal-Mart that had just opened. Until recently the only Wal-Mart was down the road, closer to the interstate, and it was a pretty small store as far as Wal-Marts go. You couldn’t get groceries there or anything like that.
But this new Wal-Mart was supposed to be gigantic, and none of us had been to it yet.
“Y’all wanna go?” Matt said, looking at Jenn and me through the rearview mirror.
I looked at Jenn, who just shrugged. “Yeah,” I said. “That’s cool with me.”
So we drove up Highway 190 and turned in to the sprawling asphalt parking lot, climbed out the car, and walked inside. The whole time I kept looking around to make sure we didn’t see anyone we knew. I kept feeling on edge since we were supposed to be in school. I didn’t know if cops could bust you for that or not, but I didn’t want to take any chances.
I was also worried that Jenn might try to take something from the store without paying for it. She often bragged about the clothes and tapes and movies and makeup she would steal from the mall in Slidell when she went there with her other friends. It was just something else to do out of boredom, I guess, but I didn’t want to get in that kind of trouble if I could avoid it.
Matt and my brother went to look at the tapes in the music section, and Jenn and I walked around somewhat aimlessly. I remember being amazed that there was a McDonald’s in the back of the store. An actual place where you could sit down and eat food. I had never seen anything like it. It seemed phenomenal at the time.
After a while, though, we got bored and I could tell Jenn was starting to get restless. Fidgety. She kept sighing and rolling her eyes, looking pouty. Then she said she wanted to go back home before her mom got there; and anyway we needed to start driving to Folsom to meet my own mom at the bus stop. Our plan was to tell her that we missed the bus and that Matt just gave us a ride home. We were feeling pretty good about the whole idea, like we actually might pull it off.
But after we dropped Jenn off at her house, then drove up Highway 25 back to Folsom and got to the bus stop, my mom’s car wasn’t there like it should’ve been. I knew the bus hadn’t come yet so maybe she was running late, I thought.
“I guess we can just wait,” I told Matt. “She’ll probably be here in a minute.”
“Yeah,” he said, then just turned the radio back up and looked out the window. He still seemed irritated with me for having to hang around Jenn all day.
A minute passed. Then ten. Then twenty. We had already watched our bus come and go, depositing its load of kids to walk the rest of the way home or otherwise get in the car with their parents, like we were supposed to have done, but our mom just wasn’t there.
After a while, we decided to drive back to our trailer to see if anyone was home, thinking that maybe some line of communication had gotten crossed earlier. I was starting to feel nervous though. And this feeling was only intensified when we pulled up the long gravel driveway and saw that my mom’s car wasn’t parked where it was supposed to be. In fact, no one appeared to be home at all.
“Shit, man,” Matt said. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know,” my brother said.
“Let’s go back to the bus stop again,” I said. “Maybe she’s there and we just missed her or something.”
“Yeah,” Matt said. None of us knew what else to do.
So we drove back to the bus stop, and this time we saw my mom’s car right away. She was already rolling down her window and staring at us. She didn’t look happy.
“Hey, Ms. Gretchen,” Matt said as he pulled up alongside the idling car, smiling, trying to play everything off as best he could.
“Get y’all’s asses back home,” my mom said.
“What?” my brother asked, looking over Matt and through the rolled-down window.
“You heard me, son. Get your asses home. Now.”
I sort of slouched down in the back seat, not saying anything. There was nothing to say. Somehow it seemed she had figured out what we had done.
Then she pulled away and turned onto Highway 25, heading north toward our trailer, driving fast. Matt followed her.
“Man, we’re fucked,” I said. “She looked pissed. I wonder how she found out.”
“I don’t know,” Matt said. “But y’all are gonna be in some shit now, dude.”
We pulled up in the driveway behind my mom’s van, which was still running. I could see her sitting inside still. Then we got out of Matt’s car and started walking toward the porch. My mom got out and followed us and just as we got to the first step going up, she slapped Matt across his cheek. Not hard but enough to scare us. She never hit my brother or me and now she was hitting our friend.
“Where in the hell were y’all?” she said.
“What?” my brother said.
“Don’t ‘what’ me, Bryan. I went to y’all’s school and y’all weren’t there. You made me look like a complete moron.”
“We got a ride home with Matt,” I said, still trying to hold on to the lie of the original story we had planned to tell. “We missed the bus.”
“David, don’t lie to me. Y’all didn’t even stay at school today. I went to check y’all out because your grandfather had a heart attack this morning.”
“God, which one?” I said.
“Your dad’s dad.”
“Is he okay?”
“They don’t know. He’s in the hospital. All I know is that I get to y’all’s school this morning and the lady at the desk calls your classrooms, and y’all aren’t there. ‘Sure they’re here,’ I told her. ‘I just dropped them off a little while ago.’
“‘Well, ma’am, they’re not in class. I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe they skipped?’
“‘Skipped?’ I told her. ‘My sons don’t skip school.’ The lady just laughed at me. Do you know how embarrassing that was?”
“Sorry, Ms. Gretchen,” Matt said.
“Just get your ass home, Matt. I don’t want to hear anything from you right now at all.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Matt said, looking down at his shoes. His cheek was still red from where my mom had slapped him. You could see the marks from her fingers on his face. “Later, y’all,” he said to me and my brother.
“Later,” we said.
Then we watched him as he walked back to his car and drove away. My mom’s van was still running, and my younger sister was sitting in her car seat in the back.
“Y’all don’t have time to go inside,” my mom was saying now. “Everyone’s still waiting at the hospital.”
“Is he okay?” Bryan said.
“I told y’all I don’t know, son.”
“Is Dad there?” he said.
“Of course he is.”
“Does he know we skipped school?” I said.
“Yeah, David, he knows. I had to call him to tell him why we couldn’t be at the hospital until later. That y’all’s asses weren’t where you were supposed to be when I came to get you.”
I didn’t say anything. There was nothing else to say. And so the hour-long drive to the hospital was quiet and tense. Plenty of time to reflect on what we had done and where we were going and what might be about to happen.
My grandfather managed to hang on for a little while after that, and my dad was too distracted to say anything to us about skipping school. It felt horrible though. It probably would have been better to just get in trouble instead of quietly feeling selfish and immature and irresponsible like that. And to know that everyone in our family knew it, too.
But no one else said anything about us skipping, and we eventually decided to leave when the doctors said there was not much more they could do. My dad stayed though, and when he came back home later that evening and I asked him how our grandfather was doing, all he said as he stood in the doorway was, “He’s gone, babe.”
Then he looked away, still holding the screen door open with his arm, but I could tell he was sobbing. His eyes were red, and his mouth quivered slightly. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry like that. And it didn’t seem to matter anymore that my brother and I had skipped school that day, had gotten caught, and had embarrassed our family.
This was something important, and I still remember how my dad put his head in his hands that night. The sound of his crying, how it echoed and bled through the thin walls of our trailer. Like something that was trying to get away, to escape from the place where it had been trapped for too long. Even if leaving meant it could never come back. Or if it did, nothing would ever be the same again anyway.
David Armand was born and raised in Louisiana. He has worked as a drywall hanger, a draftsman, and as a press operator in a flag printing factory. From 2017 – 2019, he served as Writer-in-Residence at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he is currently assistant professor of creative writing. In 2010, he won the George Garrett Fiction Prize for his first novel The Pugilist’s Wife, which was published by Texas Review Press. He has since published three more novels, two collections of poetry, and a memoir. His latest book Mirrors is forthcoming from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press.