from Chapter One...Lanpher’s Rexall is our local ‘watering-hole,’ the after-school ‘saloon’ for the Academy and junior high kids. After the long day’s ride in the classroom saddle, a kid can belly up to the bar and while away his hour or so till supper time here nursing a lemon-, cherry-, or vanilla-Coke while studying himself in the bar mirror. And there’s the juke box ready to fill in as his personal soundtrack, whenever someone’s lucky enough to have a quarter to spare.
The soda jerks are the bevy of housewives and moms who, for some reason, seem to take a motherly interest in our tiny soap opera lives, plus (the biggest reason we guys hang out here) a couple of hot, part-time ‘teen angels’ from the high school. Being God’s gift to an otherwise bored world, we good ol’ boys must ‘entertain’ our hosts with the witticisms picked up from older brothers.
“So …” she continues, “will you be wanting some dessert, after all this?”
I look left and right, surveying my potential audience. The high-schoolers have pretty much cleared out. They get uncontested first counter rights after school lets out (us half pints, lest we want to get ‘de-pantsed’ or something worse, know better than to try to grab a stool in that rowdy crowd). OK, so there are a couple of dumb girls down at the far end who look like they could stand to be impressed, so I call, “Make it a zombie, Beryl.”
This elicits a delightful “Eee-YUCK!” and “Gross!” from my intended targets. Cool!
Beryl obediently retreats to the long row of spigots with a clean glass in hand.
“Make that two,” says my little shadow.
Actually, I’ve been known to gag on a zombie or two in my time, a concoction fine-tuned by generations of boys requesting random ingredients in the quest for the ultimate girl-gross-out beverage. A phosphate conglomeration of malted milk and every flavored syrup known to man (orange, strawberry, lemon, lime, vanilla, Coke, root beer, cherry, ginger ale, and sarsaparilla), it is secretly believed, in the underground urban legend kind of way, that something tasting this bad almost definitely hasto get you at least a little drunk.
My real drink of choice is the ever-popular root beer fuzzy. Fuzzies come in the frosted, crystal-clear steins, and sport huge heads of foam like real beer. It’s velvet ambrosia of root beer, vanilla, and phosphate—a delight on my taste buds. But when you’re out on the town with the boys and having the what’s-your-poison discussion, ‘fuzzy’ doesn’t really have a manly ring. My regular, though, is the lemon-Coke when I’m with the guys. Girls invariably drink cherry-Cokes.
“Sorry,” Beryl apologizes, nudging a frosted tumbler of khaki murk toward me, “but only the pine tree floats are on the house this afternoon.”
“Not a problem!” My hand gropes down into my pocket to ferret out the thin dime I’m praying hasn’t bailed through the little hole down there that Mom never gets around to darning. “Plenty more where that came from,” I lie, slapping it on the counter as my cuz spills his load of pennies and pocket-lint all over the Formica.
As Beryl mixes his, I leer straight down the counter at the girls. Glass hoisted in a mock toast, I cry, “Bottoms up!” Then, tilting my head back, I perform the ritual chugging.
A difficult balancing act… appearing ‘debonair’ (got that word from the movies) while guzzling something that makes Pepto-Bismol appealing. But I manage seven or eight controlled swallows before my autonomic nervous system sets off the inner alarm that threatens to drop-kick me right into Regurgitation Mode. Slamming the glass down hard on the counter, I convulse with a couple of involuntary lurches like the python trying to disgorge the half-digested rabbit. This, followed by a series of desperate swallowings while my nostrils flame with the volcanic backlash of carbonated lava. A twin discharge trickles over my upper lip while a violent shudder wracks my body once… twice… nearly dislodging me from the barstool…
“Ya got post-nasal drip,” titters my cousin.
I just sit there, motionless and dazed… taking an internal inventory. The climax arrives in the form of a four-second-long, mirror-rattling, bullfrog belch!
“Eeee-YEW!” and “Ohmygod… you are so… disgusting!” comes from the other end of the counter.
Beryl places my sidekick’s drink in front of him, sweeps his damp, sprayed pennies into her palm, does the cash register thing, and washes her hands in the sink. Thoroughly. Bringing a wet dishrag back with her, she mops up the rest of the toxic spill along with any flotsam it might contain, and even dabs the chrome surface of the napkin dispenser. “Napkins are right here, Tommy,” she says in her patient, motherly voice. “Would you like me to wipe your nose, or would you prefer to do that?”
I glower, and pluck out a hank. She returns to the sink to re-wash her hands, while I buff my upper lip dry and, once again, shoot a leer down toward the girls… but they’re hunched with heads together, sharing some gossip or other and already oblivious to me, if you can believe that.
My cousin struggles to get down a sip or two of the poison du jour. The odds are pretty good he’ll give up on it before long. It’s hard to believe the kid’s even related to me.
To kill time, I launch into a spin on my rotatable counter stool… Oops!
Apparently some tall kid I’d failed to notice come in (probably a high schooler) has claimed the seat to my left, and my knees just bumped him in the hip! “Sorry,” I apologize, braking myself to an abrupt standstill by clutching the counter edge…
“Watch it, squirt,” he warns.
“Sor-reee…” I repeat in a whisper. I don’t want to make any waves.
He snorts at my limp apology, and sneers down upon my half-full glass. “What… lose your appetite, didja?”
“No, I… Uhmmm… I’m…just waitin’ for my friend here to catch up, is all…”
“Sure you are, shrimp boy, sure you are.”
I resent this implication that I don’t have the ‘stuff’ to down the drink in a single gulp. So I bring the glass to my mouth and… stare down into the sickening sludge. I’m thinking about going for it. I really am. It’s just that I don’t quite have the stomach for it, not yet.
So I install my lips onto the cold rim, tip the glass back, and take a pretty good pretend swig. Even mere lip-contact, however, rocks another involuntary shudder through my frame. Sporting a fresh zombie moustache, I drop the glass back onto the countertop and produce a long, satisfied, Hollywood “Ahhhh!”
“You could really use some acting lessons, know why?” says my new acquaintance. “‘Cause you stink at it.”
I glare into my drink, not wanting to catch sight of my suddenly pathetic reflection in the bar mirror… or especially the other end of the counter because, oh yeah… now, no doubt, you just know the girls’ll be eyeballing me! Time grinds down to a halt, like it always does when you’re humiliated. Suddenly, though, I’m startled by a rock-hard click click click on the counter top. I glance up.
My new nemesis here is tapping a quarter on the Formica… as if sending an urgent Morse code message, or something. Then again… click click click! “Beryl!” he calls. She looks up from the dishtowel in her hand. “Whattaya say? Hit me with a Hot Shot!”
Sudddenly, I’m thinking, whoa… a ‘Hot Shot’…? What the heck’s a ‘Hot Shot’?
Patiently appraising him with her saintly smile, Beryl dries her hands. “Oh no,” she clucks, the mother hen who knows what best for her chick and must gently dissuade him from a rash and irresponsible choice, “You don’t want one of those…”
He holds the quarter up like a playing card. “But I do though.”
OK now, see, here’s the thing. I practically live at Lanpher’s. So I know all the ins and outs … know even the unwritten menu backwards and forwards. This conversation is making no sense at all because there is no ‘Hot Shot.’ If there were, then I could tell you all about it.
Not only has he asked for an unknown entity… but she seems to know what he was talking about. So naturally, my ears have pricked right up.
“No,” she says, shaking her head in a kindly, agreeable fashion. “You don’t.”
What is going on here?
Here he does something really cool. He lays the quarter down on the counter, and just stares at it for a moment. Then he places the tip of his index finger on it, dead center, and looks up at her, silent, like he’s James Dean or something. Then he begins inching it forward like a poker chip…
“Like I said, one Hot Shot.”
Oh man,see, that’s how I should’ve paid for my zombie. My index finger twitches as I imagine sliding that imaginary dime…
“Please don’t ask me to do that, Jimmy. I don’t think you …”
“C’mon, Beryl. I got things to do… places to go…”
“But after a Hot Shot, you won’t be able to remember what those are.”
She’s smiling, but with an uncomfortable worry. He’s looking at her. She’s looking back at him. It’s a standoff. What the blazes…? Finally, though, she blinks. “I’m against this,” she says.
“Save it, Beryl.” He picks up his quarter and holds it out to her at arm’s length. “Customer wants ta buy a drink…”
“Well… all right then.” Resigned, she takes his money. “I wish we’d never started this, though…” She rings it up at the register.
In spite of my recent put-down, I’m intrigued. Guys like me are always on the lookout for tips on being cool. Learning the moves is everything. We get a lot of it from the Cary Grants and Clark Gables on the silver screen. Once in a lifetime do we get a real live model.
Suddenly I’m an apprentice in training.
She steps over to the high shelves to the right of the big mirror, looks up, selects an object, returns, and clunks a little glass-stoppered vial down onto the counter. An inch of a perfectly clear liquid languishes in the bottom. What the…? Could be water. Could be white vinegar.
It clinks when she uncorks it. “It’s not too late,” she advises. He just shrugs that off. So with a sigh and a shake of her head, she produces a long-handled ice-cream-soda spoon from under the counter and just stands there, head tilted in a silent, questioning pose.
He nods: proceed. Man, am I glad I’d decided to come in here this afternoon!
Carefully then, lest she spill any, she collects a few droplets in the spoon. Hah, I laugh to myself, looking at the glass of swill that was filled to the brim for my gagging performance. I mean, come on… less than a teaspoonful? This guy’s not so tough.
But I’m flummoxed. What is it…? What’s it taste like…? I’m getting thirsty…
“Last chance…” she offers with empathy.
“Down the hatch,” he giggles. “But oh, wait a minute!” Here, he looks her in the eye, draws in one long, deep breath, and then holds it for about ten seconds. This guy’s really something. He blows it out hard and says, “Now!”
I’ve never seen a kid his age get spoon-fed like he’s some big, bibbed baby in a highchair. Hunched forward on his stool, eyes all closed and mouth parted like someone receiving a Communion wafer and me, taking notes in my head, and chewing on just how long it’s going to take me to dig up my own twenty-five cents… and what the best day might be for me to do this, someday when I could drum up a suitable audience…
But boy, will my twerpy little pals drop dead with envy, or what!
The spoon’s scoop trundles in between his teeth, and his lips close upon the handle. He swallows. The spoon withdraws, empty. I lean back away from him, the better to frame his reaction. Still, he and Beryl are locked in eye contact, when…
Wham! A violent spasm snaps him like a wet towel in the locker room! He goes rigid! Then his head starts cranking around, machine-like, back and forth, left, right, left… slowly at first, then faster and faster, and a rising, low-pitched siren is moaning out of his open-mouthed skull, growing louder by the second, approaching air-raid warning proportions—I picture fighter pilots scrambling their jets on the tarmac. But at the same time my Hollywood brain is also thinking, Look out… here comes Mr. Hyde!
Beryl shoves a clinking water-and-ice-cubes glass toward him. “Here!” she says, and he tears it right out of her mitts, cracks the rim of it off his front teeth, upends it ice and all down his funneled mouth. The siren extinguished, he freezes once again for a moment, seeming to stare off at some ‘vision’ over Beryl’s shoulder…
…and then he’s back to thrashing his head back and forth, his jowls rattling with ice. It’s incredible! And I have a ringside seat! “More ice!” he commands, the surgeon demanding a scalpel. Beryl, ever the obedient nurse, wheels away at once to retrieve. But then his head jerks around and his wild eyes settle upon… me…
“The hell you lookin’ at?” he snaps.
“Errr…” I don’t know what to say. Hey, I’m just the innocent spectator here…
“WHOA!” He spasms, nearly jumping me off my stool.
He’s staring wide-eyed now, as if he’s just experienced some unbelievable, world-philosophy-shattering epiphany, and then his gaze goes flitting up and down the counter as if searching out a pencil to scribble it all down before he forgets it and oh, he’s blowing rhythmically now. His eyes lock on my zombie all of a sudden and “WHOA!” he cries with another jolt, as if his previous unbelievable epiphany has just been replaced by an even more incredible one! He swipes the glass out from under my nose, dramatically throws his head back, and chugs like a sump pump!
Time to move down a few stools, I think to myself.
Nurse Beryl is here again, offering the refill of ice and water but, with a vehement head shake, he declines. He seems to be meditating on the last remaining swallow, which he is now squishing around the inside of his mouth like mouthwash. “This… works… better,” he growls in a lower octave, wildly scanning the counter once again.
Then suddenly, he’s digging down deep into his pants’ pockets… he slams comb, book of matches, small jackknife, and a handful of change onto the counter. Rifling through the coins, he plucks out a couple of dimes—one he plants on the counter before me, the other he pushes over in front of my cousin. Then, with a shudder, he swallows, cocks his head as if in deep thought… clenches some decision apparently, snatches up my cousin’s glass, knocks it back, and slams it back on the counter, half-empty… “Jeez! Taste like crap! But they work!”
Then, glaring down into my cousin’s sheep eyes, he growls, “Doin’ you a favor, kid.” He takes a cautious sip then, and sluices it around inside his mouth. “But man, this is makin’ me sick.”
“I tried to tell you,” Beryl offers.
“Listen, Beryl,” he says, yanking a pack of Kools out of his shirt pocket. Hmm... He smokes… “You’re the official witness. All right?” His breathing is labored. “You saw me do it. So you tell ‘em… OK?”
“Of course I will, Jimmy. Oh, you needn’t worry about that. I’m sure they’ll…”
“I’ve got a little something riding on this, if you know what I mean.” He plugs a cigarette in between his lips. “But they’ll believe you, Beryl. You’re honest, and everybody knows it.” He folds the cover-flap back on the matchbook, rips off a match, and brushes it across the abrasive strip. It flares. “I mean, you say I did it…? Then OK! I did it!” He lights the Kool, takes a deep drag, and chases that down with another swallow of zombie.
“Oh, you did it all right.” Beryl pushes the nearest counter ashtray over in front of him. “Despite my misgivings.”
“Yich!” he says, and takes another hit off the smoke. “Man! That ol’ Hot Shot!” He’s grinning a very grim grin. “It just… keeps right on a-burning, don’t it! Thank God for menthols! By God! Whew! OK, then…”
He taps off a fleck of ash from the tip of his cancer stick, downs most of the rest of my cousin’s grog, and shivers hard. “Gotta get me some fresh air…” he says, and with that breaks for the door, puffing up a storm.
Leaving me with much to think about…
OK, I already have ten cents in hand. Somehow I need to scrape up the other fifteen… but hey, that’s what returnable bottles are lying in ditches for, isn’t it? But I’ll need to get it by Thursday night, won’t I. ‘Cause I just remembered Thursday night is Boy Scout night over at The Hall, just across the street from here, and there’ll be plenty of my buddies comin’ in to wait for their moms to pick them up and take them home, like me.
The perfect audience. It’ll be great!
~ ~ ~ Thursday (at last!) ~ ~ ~