Mitchell came out of juvie like has was going to cut his four months into one fat line and snort it. I wrote him I could pick him up after I got out of school, but his mom met him instead. By the time I caught up with him at Gerry’s Pizza it was already after five, and his eyes were glowing. “Hey, Kyle,” he grinned. “Let’s get fucked up.”
I had Mother’s Lexus that day since my Cherokee was in the shop. I drove us to the state store out by 309, found a wino hanging by the corner, and gave him twenty-five dollars to get us a pint of Cutty. Then we parked out past the river, walked down under the trestle, and downed it. I had a hit or two, but Mitchell really drained it.
“I missed you, buddy,” I told him.
“Bullshit,” he said. “You missed being on fire.”
“No, I missed you too. Really.”
“Oh, yeah. Tell me one crazy thing you did while I was away. Even one, and I might believe you.”
“How about I got stoned before I re-took my SATs? That work as crazy for you?”
“Not hardly,” he said. “Bet you remembered to put in eye drops before you came down stairs. And bet you still got a five thousand or whatever.”
After that he made me drive him around the square ’til he spotted Brenda working her corner. I gave him the seventy-five dollars he asked for and waited in the parking lot behind the furniture store. It didn’t take long. When he threw open the passenger door, a goofy grin on his face, I razzed him. “What? Getting locked up make you a thirty second man?”
“Respect,” he said. “That chick used to be my babysitter.”
I must have looked confused. It could have been true for all I knew.
“She told me back then not to tell anyone what we did together.” And he laughed with such exaggerated self-satisfaction that he bounced his legs like he was running in place.
We hit the Chinese place after that. I couldn’t believe he was still hungry, but he downed his General Tso’s and then asked for my leftovers.
Next we went to the deli where Rodney, working as a busboy, sold me two six-packs out the back door for fifteen dollars each. Then we spent a few hours at the park, killing the sixes, throwing rocks at the ducks, and sitting on a couple of the benches like we owned them.
I got home at one-thirty, and Mother was waiting up. I didn’t see the Chardonnay, but I guessed it had to be somewhere.
“You remember you have school tomorrow, right?” she said.
“You know it,” I said, pretending to more drunkenness than I really had. “Eight-fifteen on the dot.”
“That’s good, Honey,” she said. “Because those college applications are due in just a couple of weeks.”
Mitchell was supposed to get eight months, but they cut it in half when the judge who sentenced him got caught taking kickbacks. The county let out all the kids he’d sent away, figuring they’d be looking at a hundred separate lawsuits if they didn’t do something fast.
Truth is, he’d been lucky to get off that light. He was seventen, so they could have tried him as an adult. Roy had pull, though. He kept my name out of it and persuaded the prosecutor to charge Mitchell as a juvenile. Roy even showed up at the hearing, which was probably the most affection he’d shown me since he moved out.
Roy’s lawyer friend, Walter Egan, spun it just the right way: father gone, mother with a history of substance abuse, a kid who scored high on intelligence tests but probably needed Ritalin for ADHD. Egan even referred to me, though not by name, when he insisted Mitchell had made friends with “some of our young people of high caliber who come from comfortable and established homes.” Lots of kids looked to the “easy money” of the drug trade when they were young. With a little mercy, with time in juvie rather than prison and a record that would kill his chance to get a real job, Mitchell was a kid who could still turn it around.
It was a good story, but it was mostly just spin. Mitchell wasn’t anybody’s victim, unless it was mine. I’d wanted out of my old school so I could live on my own terms – really, if I admit it, so I could say “fuck you” to my parents after their marriage fell apart – and he and I were partners as soon as I hit my new one. He helped me graduate from pot to coke, but I’d asked him. It’d been his idea to move the dope, my idea to tap my parents for the money. He may have been the rocket, but I was the rocket fuel.
He told me in shop class that he knew a guy looking to sell an ounce of pot for just two hundred fifty dollars. I asked him if that was low. “Like a blowjob for a buck-fifty,” he laughed, and I laughed too. I remember because Mr. Reynolds told us both to shut up and get back to drawing blueprints.
Mother gave me a hundred dollars that night just for my asking. Roy took a little more finagling. I had to play the you-left-me-alone-with-the-depressed-mother card his whole custody weekend, but he slipped me another two hundred right before he drove me back home.
Mitchell ran most of the risk. He kept the shit hidden, but I helped measure it into what he called dime bags, though he said he was planning to charge twenty-four dollars a pop. It was going to be his job to move most of it, but I brokered joints to the kids in calculus.
A week later he showed me a stack of twenties an inch thick, the five hundred dollars we’d netted. We agreed to roll the original two fifty into another ounce, and we fist-bumped on it. He gave me my one twenty-five like he was passing me the last hit off a roach we’d sparked together.
That one twenty-five felt like mine, really mine, in ways my parents’ cash never did. I was an operator. I had a different sense of myself. I walked taller in the high school halls and looked down on all the “pussies” too afraid to do what I was doing. This was the freedom I’d been looking for.
Mitchell had moved almost ten ounces and I’d started selling direct to the kids in the AP classes when someone narced on him. We never found out who. The cops just came up to him in the parking lot. Nothing dramatic, no perp walk, no lights or siren. I asked Logan, who was there when it happened, and he said it wasn’t even clear they were arresting anyone. They patted Mitchell down, but they didn’t spread him over the hood of a car or anything. Then they drove him off.
I told Roy one of my buddies was in some serious shit, and he got the picture without my having to tell him I was somehow connected. “You son of a bitch, Kyle,” he complained.
“You married her,” I said, and he shook his head and made his phone calls.
After he got sprung, Mitchell wanted to dive right back into the pot business, but I persuaded him that was blown. “They can have dogs on your locker, Buddy. With your history, they’ve got probable cause.”
“Well, what then?” he asked. “I need something. Unlike some people, my Mommy and Daddy don’t bid against each other for my affection.”
“Adderall,” I said. “And other prescription meds.” Then I explained to him what I’d read while he was away. Half the kids our age were prescribed shit they didn’t need. Half of those would sell us their extra.
By Thanksgiving break we were bringing in twice what the pot had. I was moving a bigger slice of the product this time. The AP kids were some of our best buyers because we were staring at the last grades before college admissions. It was going so well I told Roy I didn’t want the hundred dollars he offered me at the end of his custody weekend.
“Take it,” he said. “When she forgets to make dinner, buy yourself some pizza.”
I didn’t say anything to Mother, but she picked up on my confidence. “You’re going to make someone a very good husband, Honey. I just know it.” I knew she meant it. I couldn’t even smell the booze on her.
I told Mother after freshman year at Academy that I wanted to go to the public school. She didn’t like the idea, but she realized it would drive Roy crazy. I cemented her go-ahead with my imitation of him. “No son of mine is going to walk into that hell hole.”
The place was even more of a jungle than I’d guessed. Word got out that I came from money, and I had half the basketball team on my ass, shoving me into lockers and calling me “rich boy.” One time a power forward put his forearm to my throat, took out my wallet, fanned my money, and dropped it all on the floor. “You ain’t shit,” he said. And I don’t think he even knew my name.
I found Mitchell soon after. He appointed himself my protector and, at first, it had nothing to do with money. He thought he was tough enough for any two people in the school, and I was the vulnerable second self he took on to test that theory.
Two weeks after we started sitting together at lunch, one of my tormentors swatted my tray to the floor on my way to the table. Later that afternoon, I saw the kid again, and he had a bandage across his forehead. I asked Mitchell if he knew what happened. He grinned, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Accidents happen, Bro’.”
Before long, it became clear Mitchell considered every slight against me as one against him. Shove Kyle when he’s walking down the hall, went the word, and crazy fucking Mitchell will ram your head into a locker. Not right away, he won’t. Maybe not even that same week. But he’d get you.
By the time we were moving all that pot, I could handle myself. Shove me and I’d shove you back myself. That’s what those profits bought me. I couldn’t have purchased my standing in that place with money my parents had given me, but the money we made was different. I earned my status one ballsy transaction at a time. Even with the stigma of a four point GPA, I could walk where I wanted.
After he got out of Juvie, Mitchell started spending time at my house. Mother worried over him, “The poor boy. Maybe we can be a good influence on him. You know, help him get into college.” It also meant we could keep our stash in an old safe Roy had left behind. I was the only one who still had the combination.
Roy was on me to look at Dartmouth. “You’re a legacy, Kyle. That’s halfway through the door before you even apply.” Then he added, “And coming out of that DMZ of a high school you insist on attending, you’re going to look like gold to admissions committees.”
Mother wrote me notes to get excused absences for college visitations any time I asked, and I worked that loophole so hard I didn’t have a full week of classes from late September until Thanksgiving. Mitchell wanted in, so the two of us often went together. We’d get stoned on the way, and half the time we never made it to campus. Our guidance counselor tried talking with me about my college choices, but I told her my father had it covered. Roy’s name backed her off.
The guidance counselor tried talking with Mitchell, too, but I doubt she had much hope. His grades were solid. They should have been since I did most of his papers for him. And his record was sealed, so he looked clean to anyone who didn’t know him. But it was still hard to believe in him. The way he walked, that mixture of aimlessness and aggression, spelled out “no future.”
He knew that as well as anyone. He’d look around the campuses we visited and shake his head like he was watching a girl out of his league. At Franklin & Marshall, he wouldn’t even take off his sunglasses. He sat in front of the union working his way through a pack of Marlboros while I went on tours and talked to admissions officers.
I helped him apply to a couple state schools, but we both took it as unspoken he’d be stuck at the community college. Even if he got in somewhere, he wouldn’t be able to afford any place other than thirteenth grade.
I got my first fat envelope in early December. It was from St. Joe’s in Philadelphia. Mother cooed. “I bet those Jesuit priests would be really good for you, Honey.”
By early March, I was eight-for-ten. Stanford and Duke said no, but I was in at Wesleyan, Penn, Vermont, Bucknell, Penn State, Albany, and North Carolina. It was an impressive enough haul that Roy took me to lunch at the club and made sure to brag about it. He even ordered a glass of wine for me, daring the waitstaff to question his right to let his own son drink once he decided it was okay.
At school the next week, Mitchell handed me his letter from Kutztown. I had to read it twice to take in everything. He’d gotten in, and he’d gotten money. A lot of it. Between the scholarships, the work study contract, and the guaranteed loans, it was enough to make it work.
“Sweet, Dude,” I told him and I made to fist bump him.
Instead, he took me in for a long bro’ hug. That was a lot for the middle of the hallway, a definite breach of school etiquette. But he pulled me in close, so close I could feel his heart pounding at the possibilities this meant for him.
Roy had leaned on me to “craft” the personal statement for my applications. I told him I had it covered, but he insisted on reading every draft, and he even hired an English major from the college to work with me. The result was as much him as it was me, but it could have been worse. He could have written the whole fucking thing himself.
I’ve looked at crowds from both sides now. I know Joni Mitchell said that about “clouds,” but I’m talking about what it was like to switch from preppy Hillside Academy to my local public high school. I went from being surrounded by people a lot like me, people who have stable families and comfortable homes, to sitting in class next to kids who needed free lunches or had alcoholic parents. After my parents’ divorce, I went from a place where everyone goes to college to a place where half the kids don’t even go to class.
That isn’t a complaint. I’m here at this high school because I asked to come. I knew I needed a new experience, and I have learned here to accept people who don’t have the same privilege I do, to work with kids who have different stories from me. I know what it’s like to be one more face in the crowd, and I know the other side: what it’s like to feel like I don’t fit in with the crowd around me.
I have had great opportunities here. As part of the debate team, I went to the state championships with kids who’d never stayed in a hotel before. When I cheered on our football and basketball teams, I sat next to kids from my honors classes and kids who’d spent time in foster homes and juvenile detention centers. I have learned how important it is to understand that everyone in every crowd has a story you may not know. I have learned to be patient when I meet new people, learned that trusting others – and letting them trust me – can open new worlds. I have made a home here in a place that once felt crowded and strange.
My favorite class so far has been advanced government. That’s not because I imagine a career in politics or even a major in political science. It’s because I am intrigued by the study of how we can get different people to work together for a common goal. We spent a lot of time studying political machines, looking at them as coalitions of different backgrounds who worked together to take power. I didn’t always love what those machines did, but I admired the theory behind them: when you can find a goal that puts different people in step with each other, you can do things nobody can do alone.
Now I am looking forward to college as a chance to discover what it feels like to be part of yet another kind of “crowd.” I have almost no idea what I want to major in, but I hope that’s a good thing. I’ve learned that however well I think I know myself, I discover new things about who I am when I get the chance to see how the world looks to others. I think I will always be myself, will always do the things I feel called to do, but I know I will be more of myself the more I can experience the diversity of a new community.
The guidance counselor loved it. She asked if she could share it with some of the teachers and even suggested she might email it to people she knew at other schools. I wanted to tell her no, but part of me felt like, once I’d written it, it had become my story. I was proud of it, a little at least. So I just gave her a “whatever.”
The acceptance letter from Bucknell had a handwritten “We really admired your personal statement” at the bottom right of the page. And when Roy called Penn to find out where my application stood (of course he had to call), the counselor there mentioned how much their committee had been impressed by it. I had to hear that story five times in front of five of his different friends.
I decided on Wesleyan after my second visit. The first time it seemed like just another elite place that would fit Roy’s ego, small and familiar like the Academy. The second time, something clicked. The kids there had everything handed to them, but they weren’t bored by it. They argued with each other and played at being burnouts, but they were going somewhere. They understood they’d have to take on the responsibilities of their privilege in a few years, but there was time first to get a little stoned.
The weekend I was there, I started to think it would be nice to go back to the upper middle class on my own terms. Roy had always made it clear the business could be mine someday, and that suddenly didn’t seem like such a disappointing reality. It didn’t hurt either that one of the kids on the hall where I stayed sparked up a joint like it was a cigarette. I felt all at once that I was where I belonged.
Driving back from Middleton, where everything had been so quiet and clean, I sat behind the wheel of my Cherokee listening to my own thoughts. I hadn’t earned the car, but it was mine all the same. I felt like I could drive it anywhere I wanted to go. And I wasn’t sure I really wanted to go home again.
Two weeks later, the cops busted us. Luckily, I was light that morning. I had only four Dexedrine tablets since I’d just moved four to a kid in AP English. Mitchell had twice that, plus a dozen Adderalls I was supposed to pick up from him that morning.
Roy got to the station only a little after I did, and Egan showed within the half hour. Roy paced around the little briefing room they’d let us have, bringing his hands together like he was trying to keep himself from swinging at something. It was Egan who asked the obvious question. “So what’s the story, Kyle? Is there anything to this?”
I didn’t have the heart to bullshit him. I was scared, and I couldn’t think up any story that sounded plausible. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. I’m in this.”
Roy finally sputtered. “Did that piece of shit, that Mitchell, put you up to it?”
The answer should have been, “no.” I should have told him it’d been my idea, that I’d been the one who got the whole thing started. I was too scared to say anything. I just shrugged my shoulders and let him answer the question the way he wanted.
Clout buys you things, and Roy used his to buy back my future. I’d just turned eighteen, but he and Egan worked a deal to get me tried in juvenile court.
From there, Egan challenged the evidence. He insisted the four pills they found on me were for personal use, and he asked for proof I’d been fully informed of my rights when they searched me. He argued I was a good kid corrupted by the influences of a bad crowd, that I had an alcoholic mother who, despite meaning well, couldn’t give me the oversight I needed. And he claimed I had too much access to easy money and its temptations.
The kid whose mother had made the complaint against me was loud, but Egan had an answer for her. She’d found pills under her son’s mattress, but how, Egan asked, was that a link to me? Could the word of a kid caught with drugs, a kid frustrated that he couldn’t match my academic success, be enough to throw me in jail? In the end, all they were left with was that they’d found a couple pills on me in school.
The judge had to find me guilty of possession. She read me the riot act in front of Roy, Egan and the arresting officers. I got a lot of “young man, you have shown very poor judgement” and “you risk disgracing a name that ought to be a source of pride.” I could feel my face redden, but I put up with it and said my “I’m sorrys” and “I won’t make the same mistake agains” just the way Egan coached me. I trusted my father, and he got me out trouble.
I wanted to keep Mitchell out of my story, but Egan insisted and Roy kicked my ass over it. Blaming Mitchell was the heart of my defense: I was the good kid who’d fallen in with an irresponsible loser. He got tried as an adult, and his court appointed lawyer couldn’t explain away my deposition where I’d claimed it was all his idea. He got two years down state.
There was an awkward moment in the courthouse when I bumped into Mitchell’s mother. I thought she might yell at me right there in front of everyone, but instead she moved in for a hug. “I know you’ve been a good friend to Mitchell,” she said between her tears. “God bless you.”
I got house arrest for the summer at Roy’s. I didn’t get to march at graduation, but I was allowed to finish the semester and take my final exams. Since juvenile records are sealed, Wesleyan never found out about it. I wasn’t allowed out for anything other than school or, after graduation, work at Roy’s firm and visitations with Mother. But the maid did all the cleaning, and I could order whatever I wanted for dinner. I had TV and the internet. And I had the prospect of college.
I didn’t roll over on Mitchell right away. Egan laid it all out in front of me, but I shook my head.
“He’s my friend,” I said. “When I got to this school, he was the only one who really stood up for me. Do you have any idea how many times I’d have been beaten up if he didn’t have my back?”
Egan ran a hand through his hair, but it was Roy who answered. “Fuck friends,” he said. “Either you both go down or just one of you goes down. And he’s going down either way.”
I tried holding out even after that. When I had time alone with Egan, I told him the whole thing was my idea. I told him I’d put up the original money and lined up most of the kids who sold us their stash. Yeah, Mitchell had expanded it, had found dealers who could sell to us in bulk, but we were partners.
Egan listened, but he was just as adamant as Roy. “Look, Kyle. This is real. We can paint you as a kid who got in over his head, but you’re already eighteen. It’s almost too late for you, and it is too late for your friend. Everyone gets one chance to fuck up, and this is twice for him. His record may be sealed, but he wears it every time he walks into a court room.” He kept pushing. “Your case depends on saying you’re sorry, Kyle. You have to show the judge you’ve learned from your mistakes. If you refuse to testify against your friend, you’re telling her the opposite. You’re saying you haven’t learned anything.”
But it was Roy who sold it. “Do you mind, Walt?” he said. “I’d like a word alone with my son.” He said it like he was tired, but I heard an edge behind it.
When it was just the two of us in the room, he looked down at his feet and spoke through his clenched jaw. “Let me make it absolutely clear, Kyle. You are going to give that deposition. You are going to give it this afternoon. Then you are going to forget any of this ever happened. And then you are going to go off to college. If you fuck up after that, it’s on you. But I will not let my son throw away his future while he’s still too young to know what he’s doing.”
I stood and looked him in the eye. I’d grown taller than he was, and I liked looking down on him. I didn’t say anything, but I could feel a smile curl on my lips.
The next moment was a blur. He grabbed the front of my shirt and twisted me down. With the one hand, he threw me up against the wall, and I gasped as the wind shoved out of my lungs. He held me, staring at me. He took his free hand and slapped me across the face. Then he paused a moment, made sure I was looking at him, and slapped me again.
My face stung and I felt tears running down my cheek, but, more than anything, I remember the thrill of it. That was my dad, angrier and stronger than I’d thought possible.
When he let me go, I shook out my shoulders and wiped my face dry. I wasn’t going to let him see me cry, but I wasn’t going to let him pull away again either.
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have to, then or later. I told Egan what he wanted to hear, and then I signed the paper.
Roy says, “In the end, you fuck or you get fucked. Fucking up is a step on the road to getting fucked.” He says it’s the only worthwhile thing he ever learned in business school, and I’m starting to buy it myself. I’ve learned in my first semester at college that I have to look after myself. It’s all right to blend in with the crowd, to get caught up in what other people are dreaming, but I have to remember to keep the big picture in line. So long as I don’t fuck up, I have a really good future in front of me.
Sometimes here in Middleton, I think about Mitchell. He’s looking at another seventeen months until he’s eligible for release, and then it’s another year of probation. I know he’s busting to get out. He’s got so much energy that walls like those must be choking him. I have all this space to explore, and he’s got nothing.
For a while I imagined trying to meet him when he gets out, driving to those prison gates and showing him a time to make up for what he’s been missing. But I don’t think so any more. I have my road to walk, and he has his. A lot of times when I’m stoned, I think of him. I once tried to tell my roommate our story, but I realized I didn’t know where to start. So I changed the subject.
I tell myself maybe I’ll offer him a job someday, but that’s so far down the road I realize it isn’t real. For now, I hold onto the big picture: Things have worked out for me, and I’m sure he’s going to be fine once he gets everything straightened out.