The day I first talked to Adam Gozmen was the same day that my mother killed someone and said good-bye to the nursing job she'd been working for the past ten years.
Let's just say it was a day of bad decisions.
Mine took place Friday afternoon, once we'd been shuttled from school to the local Unitarian church where we—the members of Community Service Club—were paving the front walkway. In case you are picturing Adam and me as do-gooder types who got our kicks serving our greater community, you should know that Community Service Club was only sort of voluntary. Courtyard Preparatory School required a certain number of service hours from all its students.
There were other ways to rack up your volunteer time if you were willing to strike out on your own and find some awful middle-schoolers to tutor or maybe a nepotistic connection to city hall to set you up licking envelopes. But if, for example, you found making that kind of effort cut into the time you’d prefer to spend watching TV and avoiding meaningful human contact, Community Service Club was the better option. You only had to sign up and they would take care of the rest, put you on a bus and ship you out to work on whatever civic grunt project could best benefit from some good old-fashioned child labor.
And yeah, I'm talking a certain amount of shit about it, but truthfully I liked that kind of work. It seemed honest, you know? It was such hard work, it had to be honest. You felt a real sense of accomplishment when you got up from the dirt and your knees creaked, your neck ached. Oh yeah. This was the stuff TV-dads would tell you was character-building.
That was what I said to Adam Gozmen. We were pounding a brick in place together, taking turns while the dust billowed up, burning our eyes and nostrils. Adam started laughing when I said character-building, then he started coughing.
"Fuck character-building.” Then he asked, "Are you hungry?"
My stomach clenched on the word hungry, like it had just then remembered it was empty, holding only air and a little bit of Gatorade.
"You want to get something from the snack table?" I asked.
Adam screwed up his face. "Not really."
I got it. The snacks they bought for us were pretty sad: bags of store-brand chips made with low-fat oil, baby carrots with tepid ranch dip, kid-size water bottles I could down in one gulp.
"My truck's over there," Adam said. He pointed with his chin to a beat-up Toyota. "I think we passed a Taco Bell on the way here. Wanna go?"
I frowned. "You weren't on the bus?"
"No, I drove myself. I've got that provisional license." Adam bit one of his fingernails, then made a face and spit on our newly laid brick. "So I'm not supposed to drive anyone else, but… You care?"
My first instinct was that yes, I did care. Or more aptly, I knew my mom would. But I was trying to play it cool.
"Nah," I said. "It's fine." It did seem ridiculous that we'd get in trouble. No one would know without having his license in front of their face.
Adam stood up. When he brushed off his knees, dust pooled from the dark denim of his jeans. "Ready to go then, Lagowski?"
"It's..." It wasn't worth it to correct his pronunciation. "Just call me Dillon."
He shrugged. "Whatever. Let's get out of here."
One nice thing about Community Service Club was that the faculty advisors couldn’t watch you that closely. They were right there with you, digging in the dirt, and you'd have to make a scene to catch their attention. I didn't see either of our chaperones as Adam and I made the dash for his truck. I tried to convince myself, hey, they wouldn't care anyway; it was just a quick trip to get some food. It's not like we wouldn't be back.
Adam came around to the passenger side of the truck and unlocked my door.
"It sticks, so give it a shove," he told me. I shoved. Inside Adam's truck CDs littered the floor, some in their cases, some not. I almost felt bad riding in there and putting my feet on them.
"Don't worry about it," Adam said, making a show of kicking a couple aside. He jammed the key in the ignition and started the truck; it was a stick shift, and we pulled out from the street with a clutch-pop that made me grab onto my seat. That was how Richard, my mom's boyfriend, always drove. Jerky. Mom and I liked to give him shit for it. Watch it! we'd yell. Mom was afraid of cars and driving; she didn't have a drivers license—she'd never had one. But cars didn't bother me; I just liked the excuse to yell at Richard.
"I like your truck," I told Adam, as he pulled out into the street.
"Me too," Adam said. It was his sister's originally, he told me, and she'd been amazed it lasted her until graduation. It was a relic of the eighties, so decrepit it had to be cool. How great was it to have a pick-up, especially one that was that was such an unapologetic piece of shit?
"You let anyone ride in the back?" I asked.
"A couple of times.” Adam told me a story about Mike Hanley—this freshman best known for being big and sort of dumb—begging him for a ride to the Smoothie Shack when he already had two girls in the front cab. Adam said, Fine, hop in the back and Hanley climbed in. Once he was in, Adam took off up the street. And once they'd picked up enough speed, Adam slammed on the brakes. He slammed on the brakes, and Hanley smashed his face against the truck's rear window. The girls thought it was the funniest thing ever. I wasn't sure whether to laugh or not. The story made me want to cringe.
“Did he get hurt?” I asked, before I could consider how lame that probably sounded.
Adam just laughed. "Oh, he was fine. I wasn't going that fast. And he never asked for a ride again."
It was easy to see why people thought Adam was an asshole. But it was just as easy for me to shrug it off.
I was on this high ever since we left the church yard, the kind you get when you're doing something that can get you in trouble, but you don't care because you're having so much more fun than if you'd stuck around pounding bricks. But that feeling had faded by the time we pulled into the parking lot and as we were walking through the glass doors, I fished a hand in my pocket and came up with a grand total of eighty cents.
My stomach opened up like a wind tunnel. That gloriously greasy fast-food smell was torture. But this was the first time I'd hung out with Adam—it didn't feel right to ask to borrow money.
The purple, plastic menu floated above my head, the value meal hanging there, devoid of the fakely delicious-looking pictures that illustrated the combos, the Chalupas, the Gordita special. The cheapest item came into focus—cinnamon twists, sixty-nine cents. There was nothing to those things, they were all air and mystery. My friend Teek had tried to convince me they were pork rinds or something equally disgusting, sprinkled with spicy sweetness to hide their true horror. Fortunately, it took a lot more to gross me out.
Adam leaned on the rail they use to separate the line. We were the only ones there.
"Go ahead," he said. "I'm still thinking."
So I went up to order my greasy bag of cinnamon twists. The girl at the counter whose name tag said Chloe looked out at me from under her purple visor like she just could not make herself care.
"No thanks," I said. A tumbleweed rolled by inside my stomach.
"Seventy four cents."
With sales tax. I handed over the last of my linty change, all except for one nickel. What can you do with five cents? Nothing. A clear plastic box sat on the counter, collecting money for some children's charity. I didn't look at its name, just the picture of a kid riding on some guy's shoulders. His dad's, maybe. I flipped my last nickel into the slot.
Adam ordered a soda and a burrito. He pulled a big wad of cash from his pocket and made Chloe straighten out the bills when he handed them across the counter. When he'd finished paying and we were walking past the cart with the sporks and hot sauce, Adam dove forward, grabbed a huge handful of the Fire sauce packets, and stuffed them into his pants pockets.
I had no idea why. He didn't use one of them.
I convinced Adam that we should go back to the church, even though there were only ten minutes of Community Service Club left. Ironically, I was trying to be responsible.
No sooner had we pulled up to the site than Mrs. Harold was running over to the truck, red-faced and furious. She knew about the provisional license.
She called us irresponsible.
She called us a liability.
Adam called her bitch and threw the truck into reverse. Then we were barreling out of the parking lot while I gaped at him like I'd forgotten how to close my mouth.
"Where do you live?" Adam asked, like nothing had even happened. "I'll take you home."
I might have looked horrified. But some part of me—some very small part—couldn’t help but feel impressed.
Up next Thursday, Chapter Two: Mom Killed a Guy??