Memories and Paths
by Ryan Stahl
Roger had a lifelong friend named Kevin who would sing a song about motorcycles to the tune of “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain” when they were kids:
She’ll be coming around the mountain doing 98,
When the chain on her motorcycle broke.
Then she crashed into the grass
And a spark went up her ass
And her tits were playing dixie on the spokes.
30 years later, Kevin died in a motorcycle accident. The chain flew off his bike and he crashed into a telephone pole doing over 90 mph. Whether sparks went up his ass or his tits played dixie on the spokes was known only to God.
Roger raised a shot of whiskey and fifty other shots raised in staggered unison.
“Today,” he said with an even tone, “Kevin closes his final tab. Sláinte!”
“Sláinte!” The room echoed.
While everyone else knocked back their shots, Roger took a moment to smell the whiskey, then sat his drink in front of the picture of his friend. Two lit candles stood guard on either side of the framed picture of the young, smiling lost soul.
Roger sat on his barstool thinking about his childhood with Kevin and reflecting on the culpability of the phrase ‘lifelong friends.’ Did ‘lifelong’ imply a long life or just however long a life lasted? And whose life?
“Thick as thieves they were,” someone boasted over the pockets of chatter as they wobbled next to Roger and throttled his shoulder. “Roger and Kevin. If you couldn’t find one of ‘em, ya just went and looked for the other because you couldn’t find one without the other! Thick as thieves! A couple ‘a troublemakers too.”
A few chuckles bounced around the crowd. Roger forced a smile despite the roiling riptide of bile fighting to be expelled from his stomach. He swallowed hard and patted the old man’s hand on his shoulder. The touch of the man’s hand and the sight of all the drunken, frumpy grievers tightened the bolt of resentment in Roger’s chest.
They have no fucking idea for whom they’re grieving, Roger thought as he smiled at a staggering threesome of mourners who offered their condolences. These people cling to the past like a bad habit and forget the world moves on. Look at them! They want so bad to believe a truth that never was. They WANT to believe a lie for the sake of their own misguided need for nostalgia. And here I am, pretending.
Roger did not shed a tear at any of the funerary services. He had remained as stoic as a statue of Marcus Aurelius. Giving the occasional ‘sorry for your loss’ and sympathetic smile, he realized his sympathy was a form of sycophancy to keep the peace with the mourners. He could’ve given two shits about any of it. Roger wasn’t a complete asshole though, so he played the charade.
It was true enough Roger and Kevin were friends when they were kids. Although, in the rural, one-stop-sign town of Crescent, Ohio—a satellite of the city of Belfield—two kids being friends was usually a byproduct of their parents going to high school together, working together, or being raging alcoholics together. For Roger’s and Kevin’s parents, it was a trifecta of small town-foolery.
As a result, Roger would get pawned off onto Kevin on a near daily basis. They were told to go play while the grownups ‘discussed grownup things’ which was code for drinking a beer or twelve. Or, if it was a special occasion—which seemed to be every day that ended with a Y— they would ‘sit back and sip back some good ole Tennessee Jack’ as Kevin’s dad used to say. Even as kids, Roger and Kevin knew that was code for getting blackout drunk on whiskey which was usually followed up by a healthy dose of domestic violence between Kevin’s parents.
Kevin’s dad was a wife beater right down to his booze stained A-shirt. Roger’s dad never crossed that line. Roger suspected it was half out of respect and half because his dad knew his mom would kick his testicles up into his throat then set the house on fire with him in it if he ever laid a hand on her. Roger had heard her disclaim as much one night on the way back from Kevin’s house.
Kevin never really liked Roger. Everyone except the adults seemed to know that. If they were at a public event, Kevin always found other people from the middle school to hang out with and would actively try to dodge or ditch Roger. If they were sequestered to one of the basements while their parents blasted off into drunken space with Bud or Jack, Kevin made every effort to find something solitary to do and ignore Roger.
It wasn’t like that every time. There were the rare occasions where Kevin would bring Roger into the fold. They’d play hide and go seek or play with GI-Joes or watch a movie. But even those activities were not without consequences.
Put simply, Roger and Kevin were not compatible friends. Kevin was a bad boy. He listened to AC/DC, Alice Cooper, Metallica, Megadeth, Guns N’ Roses, all while wearing ripped jeans and having a wicked cool haircut. Roger was a dork. That’s what everyone at school called him. He read books, watched shows like The X-Files and Star Wars, and still enjoyed playing with his GI-Joes instead of shooting them with a BB gun or blowing them up with an M80.
When Kevin taught Roger the motorcycle song, they both laughed until their stomachs cramped from reciting it. The words ‘ass’ and ‘tits’ were their favorites and inevitably sparked them into riotous laugher. They would walk to school and sing it at the top of their lungs once they were out of earshot of their parents.
There weren’t many people with kids that lived around Kevin’s and Roger’s houses, so it was by default they walked to school together. Most of the walk was on a sidewalk or in the edges of yards, but, not too far from the school, two paths diverged. One path continued along the sidewalk, while the other fed into a tree-covered, dirt trail that ran adjacent to a frog-filled creek.
The sidewalk led straight to the front of the school while the dirt trail led around to the back of the school. Kids occasionally took the dirt trail for the thrill of it. It was dark, damp, and creepy especially around Halloween time. Most kids, however, just went on the straight and narrow.
Kevin and Roger always took the dirt path. They didn’t have much in common, but they both agreed the road less travelled was cool as hell. The croaking of the frogs, the fart smell of the musty creek bed, the skeletal fingers of intertwined tree limbs were all things that sent the two boys’ imaginations into a frenzy.
One night, they watched a movie at the theater based on a Stephen King novel with Kevin’s older sister. On the way back, she ditched the two young boys for her much older boyfriend with the warning that they better go straight home and not tell anyone where she went under penalty of having a Doc Marten boot shoved up their asses.
“You want to go through the dirt path?” Kevin asked.
“It’s dark,” Roger replied.
“So what? You scared?”
“No,” Roger lied. “I just don’t want to trip and fall in the creek or something.”
“You’re scared. Scaredy cat, scaredy cat, Roger is a—”
“Shut up! I am not!”
“Then let’s go!”
Roger was sure he saw a crouched gorilla on the edge of the dirt path waiting to pounce on them and beat their brains in. He hesitated and Kevin started chanting again about what a scaredy cat he was which prompted Roger to race full steam ahead into the darkness. There was no crouched gorilla, serial killer, or monster waiting for them as Roger surmised there would be. It was the dirt path it’d always been, just darker.
The turning point in Kevin and Roger’s friendship, such as it was, came one day when they were walking to school. Roger was rattling off something that Kevin cared nothing about and started down the dirt path as usual. Before long, Roger realized Kevin wasn’t walking with him anymore and turned around. Kevin stood on the threshold of the road less traveled.
“You forget something?” Roger asked.
“No. I’m not going that way anymore.”
“Are you a scaredy cat?” Roger mocked.
“No. I just don’t want to go that way anymore. You can, but I won’t.”
Roger shrugged and said, “Ok, then. Let’s go the other way.”
“You should probably just go that way and I’ll take the other way from now on,” Kevin replied. “I don’t like dorks.”
Kevin struck off down the sidewalk and left Roger at the mouth of the trail. Later that day, a chanting circle of five kids, led by Kevin, surrounded Roger and exclaimed: Roger plays with dolls! Roger plays with dolls! Roger is a dork! Roger is a dork!
Roger didn’t know how to respond. He was angry, embarrassed, afraid, and confused. Finally, the levees broke, and Roger started crying as he screamed, “THEY’RE NOT DOLLS! THEY’RE GI JOES!”
This only spurred the chanters into laughing and adding to their chant, Look the baby’s crying! Look the baby’s crying! Get the baby a bottle! Get the baby a bottle!
It wasn’t so bad that Kevin was the instigator. Roger expected as much out of Kevin, but to that degree was unthinkable. What pushed Roger over the edge was that Kevin had brought Mary and convinced her to join in the circle. Even at that young age, Roger knew it was his own fault for telling Kevin that he had a crush on Mary. But that’s what friends are supposed to do, right? Tell each other their secrets to be guarded behind the unspoken covenant of trust? In that moment, the covenant had been broken and the sorrow Roger felt was akin to what he imagined God felt for man.
Roger threw the first and only punch. He chipped Kevin’s front tooth with that uppercut and got detention for a week. The only reason he wasn’t suspended for the fight was because a teacher caught the tail end of altercation and recognized Roger’s outburst was not without cause.
That day set the stage for the rest of Kevin and Roger’s life. Their parents thought it was just boys being boys but Roger and Kevin both knew it was something much more. It was an ultimatum. The line drawn in the sand. The all hope abandon, ye who enter here over the gateway of adolescence.
So, it went. Roger would take the dirt path and Kevin would take the sidewalk. They remained on occasional speaking terms all through high school, but never friends. That was the line that would not be crossed.
They graduated and life happened. Roger went to college. Kevin worked as a motorcycle mechanic in the city after being recruited by a shop out of technical school. They never really stayed in touch. Then, social media rolled around and somehow Kevin ended up on Roger’s friends list. And the great cosmic joke played out.
“Sorry for your loss,” someone said to Roger. “I know you guys were good friends.”
“Thank you,” Roger replied with a consoling smile.
Roger walked over to the shot of whiskey in front of Kevin’s picture and knocked it back, then sat the empty glass back in its place.
“And her tits were playing dixie on the spokes,” Roger murmured, then laughed to himself and left the bar.