Friday, March 4, 2005, 11:28 a.m.
Knowing that he’d have complete freedom for a few hours, Jude had gotten one of the bloated Rudolph-nosed drunks from the trailer park near his middle school to buy him two packs of Kools the night before. That morning, he stuck one in each pocket of his cargo shorts, banking on his mother parting ways before he had to empty them out for the airport metal detector. His heart thumped like bass notes right up until she kissed his cheek and ruffled his hair just outside the ticket gate.
Once he collected the two packs and lighter from the dull blue bin birthed out of dangling plastic strips on the other side of the conveyor belt, he shuddered a bit, his skin goosebumpung with joy. Outside of the red sticker they made him wear to indicate that he was a minor flying alone, Jude felt like an adult for the first time in his life. Having been dropped off with a little over an hour before takeoff, he pulled up a stool at the bar opposite his gate, pointing to the sticker on his chest and ordering a soda.
‘Sweetie, I don’t think you’re allowed to do that,’ the woman behind the bar with bulbous cleavage and pungent perfume says in a Southern drawl. He had de-veined the strip from the cellophane and lit up a Kool the second she laid his Sprite on the napkin.
‘It’s OK,’ he says, taking a drag and blowing it through his nose, which burns his nostrils, but is worth it for how cool he feels it makes him look. ‘My Dad lets me.’
She gives him a skeptical look for a few hanging seconds, but he doesn’t crack from the grin of a guilty man in an interrogation room who knows his rights. After she walks back to the limes she had been slicing, a rat-nosed tan guy with slicked receding hair and a Hawaiian shirt sitting next to him shakes his head with a smile. He gives Jude a covert thumbs up before going back to his newspaper and scratching around the gold rope necklace nestled in a thatch of chest hair.
Jude knew the bartender would back down if he didn’t waver. He had picked that up from Patrick North, a tenth grader from the trailer park who had a fake I.D. and could already grow facial hair. Pat was kind of dumb, but he always acted confident, so everyone listened on Friday nights in the bleachers when he said made-up stuff, like that Rod Stewart had to get his stomach pumped because he swallowed too much sperm, or whatever. And then they’d all parrot it at lunch on Monday, as if the bullshit he spewed was well-known gospel. Which always inched the legend of Patrick North, wise alpha not to be fucked with, just a little bit taller.
North could even make teachers back down. Last year in History class, Mr. Elston made a crack about Patrick asking ‘do you want fries with that?’, after North tried to wing it through a presentation he obviously didn’t prepare for.
‘At least I’m not a bald bitch, you bald bitch,’ Pat said, folding his arms over a laundry-faded Penny Hardaway jersey and grinning. The whole class started laughing, and Mr. Elston’s cheeks got real red. He sent Pat to the principal, but the scorecards were unanimous. Elston postponed the last two presentations and made the class read from the textbook until the end of the period while he fidgeted at his desk, running a hand over his head every thirty seconds or so.
Jude hadn’t been all that excited to fly out to Ohio for his Papa Jerry’s retirement. He loved his grandfather, but wasn’t looking forward to staying at his house. It smelled like mothballs and creaked a lot and he got yelled at if the T.V. was on after ten p.m. He was also somewhat hesitant to see his father, who had seemed a little too overenthusiastic ever since Jude had moved to Texas with his mom – like their weekends together were supposed to be the solution to all of his dad’s problems or something. That was a lot to live up to, and Jude had his own problems to worry about.
Outside of the freedom to smoke like an adult in public, Jude had mostly been looking forward to the trip as a breather from the specter of Patrick North. Despite serving as a model template for his attempts at cool, Jude had somehow managed to get on Pat’s bad side, which filled him with a dread powerful enough to fear every corner he turned. It had gotten to the point where he found himself breathing a sigh of relief when Patrick wasn’t implausibly waiting for him in the Rite-Aid greeting card aisle, or the airport bathroom, like a horror movie villain.
Jude had tried to keep his head down and his mouth shut as The New Kid when his mom moved them to Dallas after the divorce. This was a strategic effort to avoid the wrath of bullies like North. But for some reason, Pat ended up liking him. Jude had no idea why.
On his way home one day, a group of kids walking behind Jude had started calling him ‘dork’, their voices amplifying as he pretended not to hear them. ‘Answer us, dork, what’s with that stupid shirt?’, ‘Did your Mommy pick it out for you?’, stuff like that. They threw rocks at him and stepped on the back of his shoe so his heel would slip out, making him stumble.
Jude was scared, so he just kept trying to pick up his pace, but then next thing you know Pat North appeared out of nowhere and yelled ‘Lagerstadt’s alright, leave him alone!’ Jude’s tormentors scattered like cockroaches confronted with the flip of a light switch, and North slung an arm around his shoulder, the stench of his unwashed armpit permeating the air.
”You’re cool, Lagerstadt’, Pat said, swaying their bodies and rubbing a fist into his head playfully, but a little too hard.
Jude’s social life picked up after that. No one messed with him anymore, and Pat introduced him to weed, and taught him about all sorts of things he was oblivious to – good rap songs, and what to do to make girls like you, and the fact that if you ask a cop if they’re a cop, they legally have to tell you.
‘What have we fow-how-how-hound!,’ a sweaty Patrick sang in an off-key wail with closed eyes and gritted teeth one night while they all drank Natural Light outside his mom’s trailer. ‘BABY I WISH YOU WERE HERE!’ he screamed, an air uppercut punctuating every drum note, unaware that he had skipped a lyric and was singing over the ‘same old fear’ part.
Jude had never heard the song before, but two beers deep with pretty girls around and a joint burning, it sounded like poetry that first time. Later, he would learn that Patrick wasn’t insightful, and Pink Floyd is vapid. He also ended up having sex for the first time, with the girl seated to his left that night. Her name was Becca, and unbeknownst to Jude, she was an unrequited object of Pat’s affection.
At first Pat would ask him about her, trying to sound like an easygoing hound dog friend casually wanting the details. But the questions became more hostile over time, and eventually when Jude started spending all his time with Becca, who he really liked, Patrick’s older brother-like affectionate warmth went cold.
He started hearing whispers that North was vowing to fuck him up the next time they crossed paths, and Pat stopped answering the phone or returning messages Jude left with his mother. They had made eye contact the weekend before his flight to Ohio, at the Saint Gabriel Fair. Holding a sagging paper plate weighed down by snowcapped fried dough, Pat gave him a rapper album cover glare while dragging an index finger across his throat, the lights of a low-rent carny ride flickering in a whirling circle behind him.
As pathetic as Jude suspected Patrick’s mugging was, all it takes is a pathetic guy with a grudge and nothing to lose, then next thing you know, you have a bloody nose and a ruined day, your reputation drowned in the mud. Maybe not the Freddy Kruger of his nightmares, but nonetheless a danger you had to keep a constant eye out for.
Jude could finally relax, because Patrick North wasn’t on this flight. Nor would he be in Ohio when the plane landed. He really liked Becca, and was pretty sure she liked him, too. They had little inside jokes that only the two of them knew about. She had woken up early that morning to call him and wish him a good flight. Without the boogeyman of Patrick around to make his nerves fizz, Jude was able to bask in that. He smiled so wide his cheeks bunched, dragging on the medicine-tasting menthol of his Kool until the ash hung with a droop.
‘The hell with this North kid,’ his grandfather had told him over the phone the night before. Jude had blurted out a brief rundown of the situation in response to Papa Jerry asking if he had a girlfriend. Normally, their conversations were a chore for Jude – an obligation to plow through with canned answers he peppered with feigned excitement over the next holiday visit. But the Becca/North thing had been weighing on him, and his Aunt June – normally his go-to confidant for these sorts of things- hadn’t returned his calls. So without thinking, he just let it all out.
‘The hell with the girl, too. They’ll all come and go. Look out for number one, my friend. Don’t trust anyone for anything in this world, they’ll only let you down. Just worry about yourself.’
The advice sounded like it made sense, but it didn’t provide Jude any insight or relief. He thanked his Papa Jerry, and told him he’d see him the next day before putting the phone on its cradle and heading upstairs to pack his suitcase.
Jude took a final puff from the Kool before stubbing it out, wincing a bit as the Sprite he sucked from the straw burned the back of his throat a bit.