A month had passed since that fateful evening in and around the Tower Theater, and it seemed as though Jack was becoming an operator of unlikely reunions in my life, my car his switchboard. It wasn’t his intention; he was unaware that I had once known the kid he wanted to bring to another concert on the night of April the Twentieth, 2007. And he was unaware that I had once lamentably known the kid he reintroduced into my life a few weeks prior — a boy who would come to be known as Mixtape.
As was much less common then, Mixtape and I had first met by way of the internet — a specific locus of the internet dedicated to celebrating maybe the only videogame worth remembering, and conning, under the guise of “donations,” tens of thousands of dollar from dumb kids too young to understand the real-world value of their stockpiled allowances. Mixtape was more or less just that kind of kid in his barely teenage years, as was I, and we eventually discovered through this website’s forums that I would be visiting his middle school some imminent Friday. When that day came, we converged in the very physical realm of a busy cafeteria, and his gaze met mine with undisguised horror. Conversation followed in brief, awkward clips, and after a few moments he vanished back into the undulating mass of warm spaghetti, frozen gel-packs, and friends. I left that school a few hours later feeling sick and disoriented, choked on a scalding dumpling for four and a half terrible seconds in an empty restaurant, then logged online to find that Mixtape had cut class the rest of the day to disseminate libel about me across the worldwide web. He called me ugly, I called him a jerk, and I wound up attending his school that same fall. Between those first two events and the third, he had been sent to a psychotherapy compound somewhere between Texas and Utah, and was never heard from again in the real world. He continued to post on that message board during rare servings of computer time, swindling a bunch of kids to send him care packages before getting banned for the kinds of things he liked to say. Around the same time I lost interest in videogames and videogame forums,, and once it was clear I’d never have to see him on campus he faded into one of my then strangest memories.
He wound up proving himself not such an asshole anymore, when he limped — on crutches — out of the depths of my memory and into the backseat of my car. He reintroduced himself with profuse apologies and evasive explanations, and later that night the three of us attended a satisfying three-band bill in the balmy basement of a downtown church, where I inexplicably tanned four and a half skintones darker over the course of the evening.1 In a touching offer of amends, Mixtape presented me with a bottle of water he’d dredged up from a massive icebox by the bathrooms. He was high and he was friendly: my forgiveness was bought for a dollar, and the several gulps of spring water it afforded me. Months later, he would be the unwitting inspiration for the one time I nearly got arrested; seasons later, he would be similarly responsible for my consumption of a filthily delicious hamburger that gave me a violent bout of food poisoning at least a long weekend in length. He didn’t mean for either of those things to happen, and still probably doesn’t know that they did — I don’t hold it for or against him.
That night was not April the Twentieth. On April the Twentieth, the third man on our journey to see TV on the Radio was not to be Mixtape, but rather a scrappy mop-top surnamed Green. Coincidentally, I had known him the previous year as the most thoroughly shag-haired freshman on the school crew — perhaps the very smallest and worst freshman crew in the team’s seven-decade history. When Jack revealed his full name to me in the car that day, I remembered him: he was, ironically, the freshman who had once told me the story about how Jack had been expelled from school for reasons pertaining to arson, giant grey trash cans melting like Dali clocks, and the anonymity of the night sky. Jack spent a season in exile at Radnor High — a place he would later describe to me, after I had met him, in a word, as “unreasonable” — before being readmitted to Haverford on the grounds of an emphatic and maybe not sincere apology (he had merely played witness to the destruction; the matchsticks and decisions were someone else’s). Green, on the other hand, shaved his head and fled Haverford upon the eve of Jack’s return, moving to an institution so concerned with the making of Friends as to include them in its name. He seldom resurfaced in conversation, by the boathouse or elsewhere.
Green had been a peripheral figure in my life, then, beyond that foreshadowing of my first encounter with Jack. But on that April the Twentieth to come, he wound up asserting his significance in two wholly separate ways. One would shape the course of a very eventful month of my summer, which would in turn shape the probable rest of my life. The other was precipitated by the simple fact that he had a mother batshit beyond any reasonable expectation.
After a brief reminiscence during the drive over, we landed at the venue’s adjunct parking lot, deep in the fiery gullet of a refluxive Chinatown. Green met up with a friend that he had aforementioned, a blazer-wearing boy named Lupin. A detached loneliness all but emanated from his blank expression, betraying a Bright Eyes obsession long before he spoke a word. In fact, he spoke almost none: he seemed too depressed to manage much beyond hello, so Green did all the talking. He mentioned that Lupin had an excellent voice — Jack and I had a band in need of a lead vocalist, he had heard, which we conceded to be true — and that we should try him out sometime. Lupin nodded sadly, and the two went inside to listen to the opening band while Jack and I investigated a Vietnamese restaurant across the street. Jack ordered himself some beef fried rice and spring rolls, and shortly after they arrived he declared them the greatest meal of his life.
“I’m dead serious;” he was dead serious.
We soon made our way back to the venue, where inside a band struggled to justify the volume of their amps. Lupin stood quietly by the side of the stage with Green, freshly purchased TV on the Radio tees pluming out of their back pockets like housepainter’s rags. The band seemed to give up, giving way to the customary half-hour delay headliners like to impose. I was only vaguely familiar with TV on the Radio’s music beyond the one song of theirs I thought was worth keeping, and their eventual set passed with few remarkable moments to recall. One of them, unfortunately, involved the frontman imploring the audience to get high, it being April the Twentieth after all. Another was the encore, during which they kicked the shit out of that one standout song — “Staring at the Sun” — then meaningful for me in a way it was for no one else in that room. For the first time that night, I opened my mouth, opened my ears, and felt it.
Having grown sick with the fever heat of a thousand-bodied sweat, the venue regurgitated its contents onto city streets now lit by headlight, streetlamp, and moon. The communal runoff on our arms and cheeks grew cool beneath the springtime breeze, leaving us altogether by the time we reached my car once more. Rumbling back to life, the stereo blasting like we’d left it, we embarked west to the shaded glen that sheltered Jack’s abode.
Green’s binary importance to the night had already expressed itself in one of its ways: he had introduced us to Lupin, who would at some point become more integral to our lives than he was letting on. The other way was cutting across the airwaves at that very moment, arriving with nominal fanfare in the form of a call to his cellphone.
It was his mother, and within seconds he was prostrate shameless before her every scream and shout. After a long massacre he hung up, explaining that he had forgotten her instruction to call her the very moment the concert ended (the band’s last note having died no more than seven minutes prior), and that there was a consequent hell to be paid come morning. Meanwhile, we continued to Jack’s house, where Green would be spending his Friday night and the dawn before reckoning.
But within minutes his cellphone revived, alive once more with the angst of a mother unprovoked. The car stereo, which had been lowered to an awkward volume — half respect, half eavesdrop — was now off altogether. The silent tempo of the passing lane dividers was interrupted only by the static stab of the mother’s savage accusations, and, occasionally, her son’s feeble protest.
Finally, he hung up the phone, and leaned forward with purpose. “Get off at the Gladwynne exit.”
The exit bore a hex – the number 337 – though I couldn’t recognize it yet. All I knew then was that I was being hijacked, for opaque motivations. Jack’s house was off the Radnor exit just a few miles beyond, and I actually knew how to get there — besides, if this crazed hag wanted to re-abduct her son, the location made no difference. Now she was involving Jack and me, and I didn’t fancy playing part in this poor kid’s pointless emasculation. I considered vetoing the demand, but when the Gladwynne exit came I hedged, opting to avoid confrontation for some small measure of time, pride and gasoline. I had made a mistake.
Once in Gladwynne, the sadsack son guided me with hesitant directions. Soon we were alone on what appeared to be an abandoned road, with now only the moon to light our ambiguous way. While Green pondered our next turn like life had challenged him to chess, I took note of the omens around us: to our left, a thick and cave-dark woods; to our right, a riverside hick community, populated by various trailer folk burning their garbage in the dead of night, staring at us with eyes illumined by their trashbag barbecues. My fleeting concerns settled into steadier fear.
Instinct drove me to take an opposite turn beneath a shambled bridge, and soon we were delving deep beyond the forest’s treelined veil, along an ascending plane of asphalt. As we reached a bamboo creek by the side of the road, a vehicle barrelled past us in the other direction at a new land speed record for a mini-van.
“That was her,” Green whispered.
I stopped my car and waited for a few perplexed moments, until she came surging back up the mountain, now swinging into our lane and stopping a few dozen yards ahead. Green apologized for the bizarre incident, then left my car to walk over to his mother’s. But as he had almost reached the dormant six-seater, it sprung to life once again, roaring farther up the road and swerving round the bend, gone from sight and sound. Green watched it fade and let the silence surround him, shoulders stooped and lips parted.
“I don’t know what she’s thinking,” he said as he returned to the backseat, composure blown. I sat confused for a moment, then cursed loudly and started speeding as fast as my car could manage. After keeping the pedal to the floor for five endless minutes, I returned the rogue mini-van to view. This time, however, its pilot refused to even feign a stop, and I was coaxed to follow farther along the winding ascent. There could be no question that Green would have been in her possession twenty minutes prior had we simply met at Jack’s house, a destination she knew well.
At last we emerged from the wilderness, and she cut a left off the road and into a residential area. I was surprised, then not, to hear Green croak that this was his neighborhood. Coursing through a quiet network of driveways like blood resuming vacant veins, we finally reached the central node where the mini-van had at last lodged itself. As I pulled to a standstill, the mother emerged, waltzed over, and tapped on my window. Curious, I rolled it down.
“I’m not crazy. I swear.”
She grinned sadly, then forcefully offered to drive Jack forcibly home, trying to convince herself that she was now doing me some favor proportional to the upheaval of the past almost-hour. I declined as politely as I could muster, further incensed by the clear implication that there was truly no reason she couldn’t have met our cohort at Jack’s house, and as I would have appreciated some company of my own for some of the ride back.
But she was determined to wrest whatever redemption she could, and in the end I could only her have it. Lost and alone in the wooded expanse, I coasted gently back down the mountain, looking for hot garbage to guide me home.
- Perhaps the last time this ever happened, at a concert or elsewhere. [↩]