It’s the only time in my life I ever stole. I swear.
I stole to buy two bottles of Coca Cola. I played drums with those two green eight-ounce bottles, banged the hokey-pokey out of Mom’s tropical sunset Formica counter with them, hit close to the flashing on the white enameled sink for the cast iron reverb, pretended my kit was a Ludwig, my band was Cream, my hair matched the orange Formica, and I was drummer Mister Ginger Baker.
Mom pinched my ear, bent me over forwards halfway to the floor every time she forbade me to drink Coca Cola or listen to rock and roll. But my fourteen year old boy’s heart craved rock and roll the way my fourteen year old hand itched for my private parts. So, after months on a psychological starvation diet of Mom’s hymns and gallons of astronaut-endorsed orange-flavored Tang, I succumbed to what Mom called my sordid instincts and subtracted a dollar from the butt-shaped wallet Dad placed every night with his Ford Fairlane keys on Mom’s coffee table.
One dollar didn’t seem like a terrible lot of money when I took it. But that was 1964. And forty years later, when you live on the street, like I do now, paper money is something to be considered.
Two dollars is what the Mission Lady pays Jack every week to help set up Sunday Breakfast. Jack tried to open a savings account, but she was told she would need two hundred dollars for that. We’ll never have that much. So Jack spends the two dollars on the Monday Madness Coffee ‘n Cake Buck Special at City Doughnuts. One special for each of us.
I pretended a sore throat and was left at home with Mom’s standing admonition to stay-in-bed-and-do-not-for-any-reason-whatsoever-open-the-front-door-and-you-better-not-be-planning-any-funny-business-young-man-because-I’ll-know-and-you’ll-pay.
But my dungarees were zipped and my black-and-white high-top Keds were already laced under the blanket and my shirt was a reach away when she and Dad did what they’d done for as long as I had consciousness. They locked the front door behind them, took the six steps down one at a time, walked across the lawn―Dad running to open the shotgun side door of the Ford for Mom―and drove off to Sunday morning church.
I crouched on the sofa, and from the front window in the living room watched the car glide back into the street, Mom already yelling something at Dad. Dad shifted from his usual neutral gear into drive and off they rolled.
Minister Waverly’s Four Square Church was three miles away, but Ben’s Shop was half a block down at the corner. I ran out the front door, leaving it unlocked behind me, took the steps three at a time, and sprinted down the sidewalk, a single dollar in my pocket.
Ben eyed me at the counter. He looked behind me, probably for the Fairlane. “On Sunday morning?”
“They cancelled church.” Like he would believe me. Stealing and lying. “It’s okay. Really.” I looked Ben right in the eye and lied. “My Dad knows.” I asked God to forgive me and Ben for a paper bag in case mom had the neighbors on alert.
I should have kept an eye out, but an adolescent boy isn’t clear-headed most of the time―about much of anything. My Sunday morning jam session was loud and jumping. I had put Cream’s just-released first long play album on the turntable in the living room, played it full volume, and I didn’t hear the rattle of the glass panes in the kitchen door or the Fairlane’s ignition hiccup as Mom and Dad pulled into the driveway. Eric Clapton sang “I’m so glad, I’m so glad, I’m glaaad, I’m glaaad, I’m glaaad…” Ginger and I readied our sticks for a snare riff.
I heard her before I saw her. “What did I tell you?” Mom burst through the kitchen door. “Oh heavens.” She surveyed her counter tops. “My kitchen! Always in my kitchen.” She inspected her blue pinecone Melmac dishes in the drainer. “I don’t ask for much around here, do I?”
I hadn’t broken anything. I don’t think.
She focused her gaze on my Coca Cola bottles. “What did I say about funny business?” She held my ear. Bent me backwards and forwards. “You know darned well that sugar fizz garbage will rot your teeth and, Jesus help me, I’ll be lashed to tarnation if I’ll underwrite Coca Cola and drop a bundle on some charlatan dentist who’ll fill your mouth with silver and poison you with fluoride.”
I’m not a hundred percent sure that’s what she said. It’s just how I remember. I never intended to open the bottles. In my skinny adolescent arms, heavy bottles just made the best sticks.
“What would Minister Waverly say?” She stared at me.
Minister Waverly’s Arcadia Four Square Church marquee read, “CH - - CH: What’s Missing Here?”
Mom’s grip loosened. I leapt away and ran down the hall to my room.
She hollered, “How about if I cooked dinner in your bedroom?”
My brain was poised to pull a Krakatoa. With one smooth move, aimed at Mom’s gut, I whacked a Coke bottle against Janis Joplin’s nose, the poster pinned to the drumhead of my closet door. With the easy gun-slinger precision of the Man with No Name in A Fist Full of Dollars, I flipped the bottle into the air. The bottle lifted in slo-mo. It spun and hung just shy of the ceiling, then came down end over end―a pistol headed for its holster―but the pistol missed my hand and hit the floor at my feet. Pressure from the carbonation was too much and off shot the cap. Straight up into my left eye.
They say we don’t remember pain. And I didn’t feel it at first. Then my head exploded, and the volcanic pressure I thought I’d felt only seconds before was nothing compared to the billion-synapse-blast ignited in my skull.
Blood exploded out of my left eye, squirting the dresser and my bed. My hands at my face were thick in sticky warm red. I shrieked and shrieked, seeing only blur through my right eye, then my air gave way and there was a loud buzz in my ears and I balanced on the edge of the visible universe, about to pass out.
Dad couldn’t have known what had happened, but, from outside in the hallway he yelled “OhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGod” and pounded on my door, which I’d wedged a chair up against so mom couldn’t follow me in.
Mom bellowed, “That boy’s going to be the death of me.” What ever it was behind the door she knew we were in for more bills.
“I’m coming in,” said Dad. “Stand back.”
I was balled up on the floor of my closet, blinded and moaning, “I’m sorry, Mom, I’m sorry.”
Dad’s footsteps creaked back and away, then sprang and crashed through my door. The chair collapsed and the door, with Dad on top of it, went sprawling flat. Dad got to his knees. He looked around and said, “Oh Lord, help us.”
Blood had sprayed the walls and Coca Cola covered the floor of my room. Dad pushed himself up to his feet.
“What have you done?” She was looking at the blood. She was calculating the cost. She said, “No ambulance!”
“But―” Dad protested.
“No!” said Mom.
They wrapped me in a blanket and dumped me on the back seat of the Fairlane.
Mom got behind the wheel. “I’m driving.”
Dad turned in his seat and stared over his headrest and talked at me as I slipped in and out of trying to understand.
The next thing I remember is a halo of bright lights surrounding a green mask covering a face that hovered over mine. The mask said “Count backwards from ten,” and an arm lowered over my nose and mouth what looked like a piece of Mom’s plastic Tupperware with a hose attached to a machine that beeped.
“Heck of a shred job,” the anesthesiologist said to the surgeon. “I can see metal.”
The surgeon said, “Let’s rock.” Then he lowered the needle onto the 33 RPM vinyl and I went under, eight Tupperware containers, seven Tupperware containers, my heart beating to the rhythm of Strange Brew.