The Buddy System
BY Z.Z. BOONE
It was that summer when the rain just wouldn’t stop. It had started as a drizzle sometime in May, continued almost nonstop through June, and now lingered into July. Together with the heat, it had helped create a mosquito problem that Staten Islanders, not content people by nature, swatted at and bitched about even more than politics.
We were teenagers, first generation suburbanites whose parents had fled Brooklyn and Hempstead and the Bronx to settle here. We lived with the acrid smell of the Jersey chemical plants at night, and the stink on the Fresh Kills landfill by day. We listened to Cousin Brucie on the radio, shot pool and played Nok-Hokey in each other’s finished basements, jogged behind the Mosquito Control trucks and tried to lose ourselves in clouds of white pesticide. We thought we were cool, simply because we avoided anyone who might tell us differently.
Both George Rosales and I had graduated from high school the month before, leaving us free to do what ever we wanted. The problem was, that “want” was still undefined. Neither of us had any interest in college. I’d asked my dad about the possibility of us working construction with him, but he told me, rather accurately, that we were “a couple of royal fuck-ups who wouldn’t last the summer.” George’s stepfather offered us work washing dishes at his diner, The Jolly Time, but the man was emotionally unstable and we were both currently familiar with that kind of dead-end job.
So we continued working nights for minimum wage, tending the snack bar at Weissglass Stadium where—even in the rain—stock cars raced around a track, wrestlers grunted in a prefabricated ring, and semi-famous bands played on a rickety, poorly lit stage.
It was at Weissglass that George picked up most of the girls. He was exotic and smooth skinned, with a toothpaste commercial smile. He spoke with a slight foreign accent, and when people asked where he was from, George would simply say, “Away.” Five years in high school, rather than make him insecure, had instilled confidence. At the snack bar, when a young woman would approach and I’d hit her with the inevitable, “May I help you?” I was almost always met by the response, “That’s all right. I’ll wait for George.” He’d almost always leave early, climbing behind the wheel of some girl’s car, a guy who hadn’t yet managed to pass the road test for his driver’s license.
In the morning he’d come over to my house and, even though both my parents were at work, tap on my bedroom window to wake me up. Once inside, he’d give me details of his sex-filled evenings, and ask me if I wanted to smell his fingers, which I almost always did.
“Next time, I’ll fix you up,” he’d promise.
My mother, a bank teller, told me that George was nothing but a user. “He likes you for your car,” she said. “Without that, he walks.”
During the day, when George wasn’t sleeping, we either drank malt liquor on my backyard patio (if it wasn’t raining,) or rode around in my Chevy Biscayne (if it was). George would fill me in on his sex life, and I’d lie about mine. I’d invented a girl named “Dixie,” who I said lived in Brooklyn on the same block as my grandmother, who we visited religiously every Sunday. Dixie’s invented history included coming to Brooklyn from Alabama (hence her name,) and working as a receptionist at Con Ed. I was careful not to make her too good looking, but imaginative enough to make her a quasi-nymphomaniac. I’d based Dixie at least partially on Marie Vessio, my grandmother’s neighbor, a mentally retarded woman in her mid-fifties who still had the mind of a ten-year old, but who liked me.
“When you bringing her around?” George would ask.
“Are you kidding?” I’d say as I lit up a Marlboro. “With her father, she’s lucky to sneak me into the house.”
I’m not sure where he got the information, but George convinced me that we could make money selling dead muskrats to some guy he knew. The island was crawling with them and this guy, according to George, was starting a taxidermy school and would pay a dollar a pelt.
“We can put them in my old man’s walk-in freezer,” George offered. “We don’t even need to skin the son-of-a-bitches.”
What we did have to do, though, was buy rifles. Traps, George explained, damaged the fur and often caused an animal to chew its own leg off in order to escape. It took a bullet between the eyes to insure quality. So early one Saturday morning we drove to Majors Discount, laid down a week’s salary, and left with identical Ruger 10/22s.
It took less than two hours on an unseasonably chilly morning in the swamps around Mariners Harbor for us to decide that hunting muskrats wasn’t our strong suit. We never even saw a muskrat, but did manage to find a discarded florescent light tube that we stuck upright in the mud and fired at until one of us finally shattered it. After that, the rifles went into the trunk of my car next to the jumper cables and on top of a broken plastic beach chair.
Not long after our muskrat misadventure, George left work and picked up a waitress at Deppe’s, a late-night hot dog place. At around midnight, he arrived outside my bedroom window and rapped on the open glass.
“I got girls, man,” he semi-whispered through the screen.
I got up and looked out my other window toward the street. The moon was full and I could see a light colored VW bug idled just a ways down the block.
“It’s the middle of the night,” I said.
“C’mon, man,” he told me. “They’re hot.”
George filled me in on the circumstances as we followed the VW into Pleasant Plains. Two girls, one car. My “date,” the driver, was also a waitress at Deppe’s. The car belonged to her mom, and if it was much past midnight when it returned, something ungodly was certain to happen, like the world bursting into flames.
We parked a few doors down from a white stucco house where the VW was left in the driveway and both girls quickly duck walked back to join us. George had gotten a bottle of crème de menthe from somewhere, but waited until now to twist off the cap.
“You got any money?” George asked just before he jumped into the backseat.
“Keep it on the cheap, then.”
One of the girls, a chesty blond, jumped into the back seat. The other girl took the passenger seat next to me. She was a brunette, cute, just a bit chubby. Both girls wore their uniforms: white tennis sneakers and black pants under shapeless maroon smocks with Food and Fun Since ’21 written in gold script across on their backs.
Introductions were made. The girl next to me was Dana, but I never caught the name of her friend. Within seconds, George and the blond were entwined like snakes while Dana, whom I was already starting to crush on for no real reason, stared straight ahead.
“Anybody feel like going to a party?” she finally asked.
The party was at the house of some guy she knew who lived in Clifton, about ten miles away. I worried that Dana’s feelings for this guy were a bit more than casual, and I envisioned myself sitting alone of some couch while everyone else paired off and vanished into other rooms.
“Hey, I know,” the blond from the backseat said, finally sitting upright and passing the bottle which was already a third gone, “we can do ‘the Challenge.’”
In high school biology class, Mr. Antonelli told us that the ventricular septum divides the human heart the same way Hyland Boulevard divides Staten Island. It was an analogy we all understood. The claim at the time was that “the boulevard,” as we called it, held more traffic lights per square mile than any other main thoroughfare in the New York City area. It was constantly under construction, although actual workmen were seldom seen, and one-lane bottlenecks varied from week-to-week.
“The Challenge” involved driving the entire thirteen-mile stretch of road without hitting a red light. The signals were “staggered,” so the belief was that a car, once it found the correct but unknown rate of speed, could make it from the south shore to the north shore without stopping. There were claims, but no one we actually knew had accomplished the entire run. Tonight, though, the streets were relatively clear and I had a girl to impress.
“Go for it,” George said.
We made it the first three or four miles without a problem. Every light green. Advice was being offered. “Thirty-eight miles per hour. That’s the key,” and “Don’t slow down for yellow.” Then, approaching Great Kills, where Hyland Boulevard turned into one lane, it happened. In front of us, a Pontiac LeMans with Jersey plates cruising at about twenty-five.
“You gotta pass that mother-diddler!” George commanded.
“Yeah,” Dana agreed. “Blow his freaking doors off.”
Simply passing probably wouldn’t have caused the trouble. But as we sped by on the Pontiac’s left, Dana reached across and leaned on the horn and George flipped the guy off out the back window. Within seconds the guy was inches from my back bumper, his own horn blasting, his brights flashing.
“Oh, shit,” I said.
“Lose him!” George said, now leaning forward across the middle of the two front seats.
‘Beach Road’ was our name for Buffalo Street, a narrow strip of blacktop that hairpinned through Great Kills Park and ended up by the water. It was bordered on either side by acres of sand, and any car straying from the road’s surface was a sure candidate for a tow truck. Without giving a signal, I turned sharply right. The car behind shot by, but we could see his break lights flashing on, and his backup lights illuminating the area behind him as he threw his car into reverse.
“Block the road!” George said. “I got an idea!”
“What is it?”
We managed it in a couple of seconds. I parked the Chevy so that it straddled the road, and George and I quickly opened the trunk and retrieved the .22s. We told the girls to lie on the floor of the car, while we crouched hidden from sight, outside. Dana was giggly and excited, he friend silent and less animated. We saw the headlights approaching, and when George said, “NOW!” we stood up and pointed our rifles across the hood of the car.
I could see the silhouette of the other driver as he lowered his head. Suddenly, his car swerved, and seeming to go airborne as it shot off the left side of the road. Other cars had done this, gotten stuck in the sand, and been rendered immobile. But they weren’t traveling at this rate of speed. The LeMans twisted in midair, came down hard on its driver’s side, then slowly flopped onto its roof. For a moment, everything stopped except the spinning of the other car’s tires.
“Let’s get out of here,” George said.
“That was a pisser!” Dana said happily as we reversed direction and headed back toward Hyland Boulevard.
“I want to go home,” the blond said, just before she vomited in the backseat.
We dropped the girls off quickly, getting their phone numbers and promising to call them real soon and take them out someplace super nice to eat. Dana, whom I liked a lot less at this point, was disappointed that the night was ending so quickly, but she acted the martyr in escorting her bedraggled friend up the flagstone walkway to her house.
“You think we should go back to the beach?” I asked George.
“No way,” he said.
On the ride home, we laid out a plan. I’d swear I was home in bed the entire time. My parents would back me up on that. George would claim he’d spent the entire night partying with the two girls, and was confident he could get them to go along with it. If we held to our stories, the summer would pass and things would blow over.
George stayed at my house that night in the twin bed next to mine. Neither of us slept. Occasionally, as we lie there in the dark, one of us would speculate. Hey, I’m pretty sure the guy was all right. Probably walked away with a few bumps and bruises. Plus it was his fault just like it was ours. But the image wouldn’t leave us alone: the car veering out of control, the endless time it spent suspended, the way it eventually rolled onto its back like a dog playing dead.
“Suppose it caught on fire,” I said at one point.
“We should go to Mexico,” George said.
“And do what?”
“It almost never rains down there, man.”
We stayed in bed until we heard my parents leave for work, then got up. George phoned his mother. We ate corn flakes and watched TV until Midday Live came on. There was no mention of the accident, which we took as a good sign. If something really bad had happened, it probably would have made network news.
Finally, after a halfhearted game of “Risk,” the Staten Island Advance was delivered. It was around four, two hours before we were supposed to show up for work at Weissglass. That’s when we saw it:
Motorist Found Dead Police responding to a call from an area resident late this morning discovered the body of a man identified as Martin Rosen, 29, of Bellville, NJ, inside his overturned car on Buffalo Street. A coroner on the scene reported that the man’s neck appeared to have been broken. Also found within the car was an undisclosed amount of marijuana along with other drug-related paraphernalia. Police ask that anyone with information relating to the case…
George was more optimistic that I was. “The guy was a druggie,” he said. “Nobody gives a shit about a druggie.”
“We killed somebody,” I said.
“Don’t you get it?” he said. “They’ll figure the guy was stoned.”
At work that night, we hardly spoke to one another. I felt everyone looking at me suspiciously, every customer a cop in disguise.
The next day the sky cleared and the air was crisp and sun baked. I decided to drive over to Tomkinsville where there was a public swimming pool, but for some reason I wound up at the Army recruiting station on Bay Street, took a four-part written test, and was given an appointment for a physical examination two weeks later. Before I left, the recruiter, a tall, short-haired guy with a comforting southern accent, told me about something called “The Buddy System.” Enlist with a friend, and you’ll stay together throughout basic training.
I never mentioned a word of anything to George.
George apparently forgot about the blond, but he did start seeing Dana on a regular basis and by October—a month before I left for Fort Benning—they were married. George’s cousin flew up from Texas and served as his best man. I was one of the ushers.
We wrote to one another a couple of times for the first year or so, then George became the father of twins and moved the family to California. I got orders for Vietnam, where I wound up losing the big toe on my left foot during a firefight near a delta outside Da Nang. We never communicated after that, not a Christmas card, not an email, not anything.
I still think about him, though, and I wonder if, like me, he still thinks about the man we killed. Sometimes I’ll think I see him walking along one of the winding northern Ontario roads where we now live. Often I’ll imagine him driving, just inches behind my car, and I’ll be tempted to stop and try to wave him down, offer to buy him coffee, explain things. But I never do. Instead, I simply slow down, move slightly onto the shoulder of the road, and let him pass.