The Big Mistake

IMG_0259
(Monte Dutton sketch)

Beuerlein was an upscale town of about three thousand, perched on the New Jersey Shore. Unlike many such towns, Beuerlein’s residents mostly lived there year around, and most who didn’t were writers, artists, and craftsmen, and craftswomen, of other ilks. Lots of intelligent, good-natured people lived there, and most didn’t get too out of shape when their kids strayed a bit off the beaten path. If Beuerlein citizens had been inclined toward promotion, they would have made more of the high ratings of the public schools, but they were more inclined to quiet pride and mild snobbery.

A small college, Pinelands State, was in town. Each summer an arts and crafts festival brought poets, playwrights, painters, novelists, sculptors and Native American artisans to town. Parents thought it was a good place to raise kids and keep them shielded from the tawdry affairs in Philadelphia and New York, while at the same time maintaining their own discreet affairs in those cities.

mug Dutton Monte 2_WEB
By Monte Dutton

What shed Beuerlein’s outward calm began at the end of football season, when the local high school’s Whalers lost in the second round of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and, in the aftermath, Kirt Craine broke up with the Homecoming queen, Beverly Linzy, who did not take it well because it had been her eventual aim to marry Kirt and have his baby, perhaps even in that order.

Jon McGiver was not a fan of jocks, though he kept it a secret because he found them enthusiastic clients for the marijuana he enjoyed selling. He was an intelligent kid who was in love with broadcasting and little else besides Beverly Linzy, who got her weed from him for free. Jon was tired of being the character in every other teen movie, the long-suffering pal who’s in love with the girl who never notices it. Beverly noticed it, but she didn’t take Jon seriously as a lover. She just took him seriously as a source of weed, which meant she was only too happy for them to be friends famously.

So distraught was Beverly at the dreamy Kirt’s rejection that she succumbed to Jon’s offer for them to get away to a spot he knew in the nearby marshes where they could “medicate” in reliable secrecy. Jon, to his credit, didn’t advertise his hideaways, and he’d never seen any sign of human life at the dilapidated barn, hidden from the highway by a pine forest that was divided by a dirt road barely wide enough for Jon’s Kia to squeeze through.

 (Monte Dutton sketch)
(Monte Dutton sketch)

“How did you find this place?” Beverly asked, coughing and stoned.

“I had a flat tire,” he said. “Me and this other guy were coming back from Newark, I think. It was a full-moon night. Me and him — it was Ronnie Braeton — we walked down the path and found nothing but this old barn, and we said, you know, shit, ain’t nobody out here, and then I said, well, man, we might as well smoke a joint, and we did, and I been coming back here ever since. It’s kind of peaceful — and haunted.”

“So what happened?” Apparently, Beverly thought the story was going to include goblins, or zombies, or, at least, galloping unicorns.

“We just talked a while and staggered back to the car to change the tire,” Jon said. “It, was, like, two in the morning.”

They smoked some more in silence. Then Beverly said, “I’d like to fucking kill Kirt.”

Jon’s first thought was, Fuck him to death. You go, girl. Then he saw an opportunity.

“Seriously?”

“What?”

“You seriously want to kill him?”

“Well, yeah, but I’m not saying I’m gonna. I’m just saying I’d like to. ‘Like’ is one thing. ‘Doing’ is another.”

“So you don’t want to kill his shit-for-brains ass,” Jon said. “You just want to fuck him up.”

“Exactly.”

“Never you mind, my little chickadee.” Occasionally, Jon would try to imitate someone like W.C. Fields because he was fond of watching old movies stoned. “I know just the way to fix his ass. Leave it all up to me.”

“What are you going to do? Jon?”

“You don’t need to know, Beverly, my sweet. I’ll take care of everything.”

 

One of the lingering obligations of Kirt Craine’s football career was that he had agreed, back in October sometime, to appear on the school’s online talk show, which was produced and directed by another outstanding senior, Jon McGiver, whose father was an honest-to-God filmmaker who had semi-retired at age forty-seven and moved to the Shore to repair a marriage and keep his only child out of trouble.

The idea of the show was similar to late-night talk shows, though it only lasted a half hour and was co-hosted in the name of gender equity by Gerald Mebane, the editor of the school’s annual, The Harpoon, and Erica Dickel, who managed the literary magazine, Melville’s Folly. Kirt was supposed to review the season and talk about the heroic virtues of football. The two other guests were Nelson Roony, the town mayor’s son and head of the Young Republicans, and Ada LoCasale, the dark-complexioned firebrand of the Young Democrats.

 (Monte Dutton sketch)
(Monte Dutton sketch)

Jon was in no hurry. He said they’d do what it took to get the show right. First, he said, they would each do a mock session on the set, alone, just to get the hang of being comfortable in front of a camera.

“Erica always does some riff that’s kind of SNL-like, you know, just does it off the top of her head,” Jon said. “Laugh. It’s not for real, just for practice. After you breeze through that, the show will be easy. Just get the feel of it. Erica and Gerald know the deal. Erica, you go first.”

Kirt motioned for Jon to step over.

“Do we really have to do this shit?” he asked.

“It’ll be fun,” he said. “Tell you what, Kirt, my brother. Wanna step outside and burn one?”

“Nobody around?”

“Not on Saturday. It’s cold outside, dude. Ain’t nobody doing no nature walking, know what I’m saying?”

“Shit, yeah,” Kirt said. “I’ll blaze with you.”

 

“Okay, the camera’s not on, right?” Kirt asked.

“No,” Jon said. “This is just for you to get accustomed to being on camera. I’m not actually taping, man.”

“Why’s that red light on?”

“That just means the power’s on,” Jon lied. “When it’s taping, a green light comes on.”

“Okay. I got an idea.”

“We’ll do it just like it’s live. Give me a countdown — three, two, one — and then pause about a second and start talking. This is just to get the hang of it, Kirt. If you screw up, just keep on going.”

“All right.” Kirt turned his Yankees cap around backwards and retrieved a pair of shades from his Penn State hoodie. He opened the top drawer behind the desk. Great. An ashtray. “Check this out.

“Hey, I’m Kirt Craine and …”

“Countdown, Kirt, countdown.”

“Oh, yeah.

“Three, two, one.” Pause. “What’s up? I’m Kirtland Mahaffey Craine — call me Kirt — and I played flanker for the Beuerlein Whalers, Region Two champions for the third consecutive year. I caught thirty-seven passes and scored seven touchdowns, but that’s not important. That’s, like, so over now.”

He reached into the hoodie’s pouch again and pulled out a Bic lighter and a pack of Marlboro Lights.

“When I was playing ball, you know, there was so much pressure, man. Somebody watching you all the time. Go to school, go to practice, watch film, go home, eat dinner, do homework, go to bed, over and over and over, and the only time nobody was watching me was when I was driving to school and back.”

He tapped a cigarette out of the pack, fished it with his lips, and lit up. He could hear a commotion in the wings. He could hear Erica Dickel breathing “oh, my God!” and Gerald Mebane braying like a donkey.

Kirt took a draw that was obviously not his first, leaned back and exhaled.

“I had to do something bad, man, so I got in the habit of having a smoke. All that exercise … It didn’t do no harm.”

He hit the cigarette again, drew it back into his throat, inhaled deeply, and blew smoke rings.

“See, I know smoking is bad,” he said. “But, you know, football is harsh, man. You work all week long at being mean and tough and ruthless, and just cruel, and then you go out there and kick ass, like we at Beuerlein High School almost always do, and you’re spent, man. You’re angry, and you’re triumphant, and, man, I’m serious, I just had to wind down.”

Another hit. Nose exhale. Kirt was doing tricks.

“So here’s what I did. You know, I was a football player all week, so, the way I looked at it, when the weekend came around, you know, I wasn’t a football player no more. I was, like, a guitar player.”

Another draw. Exhale out of the side of his mouth.

“So, on Saturday, man, I had the house to myself, and I fixed myself a cup of coffee, and I put ice on my knee, and heat on my back, and I played my guitar, and I watched the ballgame my parents went to on TV, and — smoked.”

Kirt took another deep draw and said, “Even cigarettes,” as he exhaled.

By now, the others were applauding.

“They told me I had to talk till I finished this cigarette,” he said, puffing it one more time, “and I just want to say that, you know, it’s easy to criticize, but, as far as I’m concerned, the way I did things made me a better football player. I used to worry too much, man, I used to try so hard not to screw up that I couldn’t do nothing right, you know, and it helped, man. It helped. I went out there, practice field, ballgame, don’t matter, I went out there and tried to make a play. I was bold. I was fearless. I didn’t give a damn. Now, I just got one more thing to say.

“Live, from Beuerlein, it’s Saturday Night!”

Within five minutes, Erica Dickel, Gerald Mebane, Nelson Roony and Ada LoCasale had all texted several of friends that they were “OMG” and “LMFAO” at Kirt Craine, who was funny “af” and quite possibly “turnt” and/or “faded” at AVC, which, of course, was Audio-Visual Center.

Then they taped the real show, which went fine, and Kirt managed to appear as genial and witty as a young man could be while wearing sunglasses, hoodie, and a backward ballcap.

Unfortunately, Jon McGiver made a “mistake,” and what got posted that night on the Beuerlein School District website was a video of Kirt Craine, the Whalers’ erstwhile wide receiver, extolling the virtues of smoking on the side. By the time it had been pulled from the website, it was expanding exponentially across the quicksilver expanse of the Internet via YouTube.

Jon sent a text to Beverly: have no fear, my dear. kirt crane might as well be a dead man.

He was confident he was going to get laid.

 

Kirt Craine learned of his betrayal via an infestation of text messages on his phone. Since most the messages were indirect – omg, man, look on the school website, wtf? – it took him a while to get his bearings straight. This was, in part, because his parents were in East Brunswick, or New Brunswick, or some Brunswick, and thusly was Kirt stoned, which was part of the reason he had let Jon McGiver hoodwink him in the first place. Naturally, once he watched the video, his first thought was to kill his heretofore reliable weed dealer. He was not of a mindset to commit violent acts, though, and a calmer head considered the matter. In fact, the calmer head reacted to what was clearly a crisis of epic proportions by getting even calmer. For several hours, Kirt just watched his phone.

Dude, they took it off the website. Whew.

Wus wrong widja, kirt? Musta been faded, am uh rite?

Uh shit. Its on youtube, mon. u wanna b a hero r u wanna be famus. Famus…chek.

You b so bad. Most effed thang evuh!

Kirt… call immediately. I’m serious. Mom.

He thought of that old song that his dad played sometime. I’m not gonna let it bother me tonight. Yeah. How bad could it be?

Unfortunately, he didn’t make it to night. The phone rang. Kirt didn’t dare answer. That phone usually brought only bad news or his grandmother, who had little use for “those silly space phones.” The message clicked on. He heard the voice.

            I know you’re there, Craine. Apparently, son, you’ve lost your damned mind. I didn’t think you were capable of screwing things up this bad. You’ve screwed it up so bad that I’m about to go meet with Adenweiss and Cheshire to decide what to do with your ass. If World War III broke out, they wouldn’t think it necessary to meet on a Saturday. Thanks to you and your smart-ass, dope-smoking video, I’m going over to the school at 3:30. If you want to have a school to go to, and graduate from, your ass better be there, in Adenweiss’s office, because my expectation is that they are going to expel you.

IMG_0232
(Monte Dutton sketch)

It was Alf O’Shea, his coach, a man he couldn’t ignore. A man he didn’t want to know about this and one he didn’t want to face in his current condition. He looked at his phone. He had ninety minutes. Thirty of them he needed just to get his shaking and fretting done. No telling how agitated he would have been had he not been high. That was one good thing, though. If he’d been drunk, things would have been hopeless. Drinking killed days. Smoke wore off. Kirt went to the bathroom and shaved. Fortunately, he didn’t have the type of razor that would have made cutting his throat easy. At least, Kirt would know by sundown whether or not it was necessary to beat Jon McGiver to death or just senseless.

            He swore the camera wasn’t on. There were witnesses. I wish I hadn’t done it, but, goddamn it, it’s not my fucking fault!

Kirt got there about five minutes late, which was because he took too much time trying to determine what he would wear. His long black hair was wet, and there wasn’t time to do anything but towel-dry it. He wore khakis, and a button-up flannel shirt, but then he defeated that wholesome purpose by putting on a hoodie. He drove with the window down, the better to dry his hair, but what he mainly did was freeze it instead. He instantly felt faint when drove up to Beuerlein High School and found the dreaded TV cruisers waiting. Instead, he drove into the parking lot that was full of idle schoolbuses. Now to find an unlocked door – or an unlocked window. The first door he tried opened. He glanced at the lock. It was taped open. He wondered if anyone was trying to steal a Spanish test from a file cabinet. He had a few teammates who’d bragged about performing such heists. If they’d done it today, they were in for a surprise. Kirt was tempted to run, but he didn’t want to arrive in the principal’s office out of breath.

Unlike school days, there was no Mrs. Williston in the reception area. For once, he could walk right in. As usual, he didn’t particularly care to.

It wasn’t a congenial affair. All three – Coach Alf O’Shea, principal Phyllis Adenweiss, and superintendent Roland Cheshire – were angry. None offered as much as a handshake. Cheshire told Kirt to sit down and might as well have told him to shut up. Cheshire started lecturing him loudly, face reddening, and told him he was expelled and, quite likely, going to prison. O’Shea laid the guilt trip on him, going off on the role-model subject, which, even in the best of times, was one of his favorites. Principal Adenweiss, whom Kirt liked and had heretofore liked him, didn’t raise her voice as much, and after a representative effort at browbeating, finally suggested that perhaps Kirt might want to defend himself.

“Thanks, Mrs. Adenweiss,” Kirt said. “Look, first of all, I apologize, but – I didn’t do anything wrong. It was a joke.”

“Lighting up a cigarette, and smoking it while giving advice to young people,” O’Shea said. “Is that your idea of a joke, Kirt?”

Cheshire, apparently perceiving no irony, promptly lit a cigarette while anxiously awaiting Kirt’s reply. Apparently, the high school wasn’t “a smoke-free facility” on weekends. Kirt was in no position to complain.

“Yes,” Kirt said. “Yes. First of all, Jon McGiver was in charge. He told all five of us – it was me, Erica Dickel, Gerald Mebane, Nelson Roony, and Ada LoCasale – that we should try to get used to sitting in front of the camera and looking at it while we talked, and he said we could do it any way we wanted, but he said maybe we could imagine it was ‘Weekend Update’ on Saturday Night Live, and we could do a little monologue, off the top of our heads, and try to be funny. So that’s what we all tried to do. All five of us did it.”

“All five of you aren’t all over the Internet,” Cheshire said. “Why just you?”

“I don’t know,”Kirt said. “Maybe mine was the funniest, but, see, that’s not the point. Jon told us he didn’t even have the camera on. I even asked about it right before I started. Right then, he said, no, the camera wasn’t on. He said something about the red light being the power switch, and there being a green light when the camera went on.”

“Did a green light come on?” Adenweiss asked.

“I don’t know,” Kirt said. “Maybe it did. I didn’t notice, once I got started. He could have been lying. There might not be a green light. I mean, at the time, I was trying to concentrate on what I was saying. I was just trying to be funny. See? It was like a comedy routine.”

“You smoked a cigarette,” O’Shea said, and, by now, Adenweiss was, too.

“I turned eighteen five days ago,” Kirt said. “It’s legal for me to smoke.”

“Pretty good at it,” O’Shea interjected.

“It made me nauseated. Coach, I don’t smoke.”

“Where you’d get ‘em?”

“I borrowed the pack from one of the others. Like I said, it was comedy. It wasn’t supposed to be taped.”

“Which one?” Cheshire asked.

“Which one what?”

“Which one gave you the cigarettes?”

“None of your business,” Kirt said. “I’m not going to rat on nobody.”

“Were you high, son?” O’Shea asked.

“No.”

“Why’d you recommend the use of marijuana?”

“I didn’t. I looked at the video before I left the house.”

“You made that comment,” Adenweiss said. “’Even cigarettes,’ you said.”

“Mrs. Adenweiss, I was trying to be funny.”

“Why were you wearing sunglasses?” O’Shea asked.

“I was playing a role.”

“What? The role of a drug addict.”

“A stoner. Something like that.”

“You’re still expelled,” Cheshire said, crushing out his cigarette.

“This is my whole future,” Kirt said. “And, again, I have to say this. I made a mistake. I used poor judgment. But I did not – I did not – do anything wrong.”

“Shit,” Cheshire said. “Next thing this punk’s gonna tell us is that he’s hired a lawyer.”

“Well,” Kirt said. “My father is one.”

That remark raised the heat in the room. O’Shea, Adenweiss, and Cheshire exchanged glances at one another, as if waiting for one of the others to speak.

Adenweiss said, “I have a proposal,” and crushed out her own cigarette. “I must reluctantly agree that Mr. Craine has a point. If what he says is true, and a greater responsibility in this catastrophe belongs to Mr. McGiver, then we must concede that his share of the blame is at least as great. Mr. Craine, why do you think Mr. McGiver chose to engage in what you allege to be – entrapment?”

“I haven’t a clue.”

“Do you owe him money?” she asked.

“No.”

“Is there anyone out there with a grudge against you?” Coach O’Shea was coming around. His ire had been raised by the notion that one of his players was being targeted by some flimsy, jealous punk who’d never even gone out for junior high football. He didn’t like the McGiver kid. Never had.

“Well, I just broke up with my girlfriend,” Kirt said.

“Beverly Linzy! Why in God’s name did you break up with her?” O’Shea asked, sounding as if only now did he think Kirt had lost his mind.

“She’s into drugs,” he said, knowing immediately he shouldn’t have said that. “No. I’m kidding. I just thought, since you were accusing me – never mind. Beverly’s not into drugs. She’s not even into sugar.

“I broke up with her because she’s just naturally nuts. She’s suspicious. Jealous. Ever since she got crowned homecoming queen, she’s just changed, that’s all.”

“Be that as it may,” Adenweis said, “getting back to my proposal, Mr. Craine, no matter what you did or what you didn’t, no matter whether you intended or not, your actions have brought great shame on yourself and on your school. Some measure of discipline is in order.

“For now, we have a great image problem on our hands. A crush of media is waiting outside. My suggestion is that either Mr. Cheshire or myself read and distribute a statement explaining that the student in the video was allegedly tricked into taping it, and, while that does not absolve him from blame, it does merit more lenient treatment and a full investigation into what happened and why.”

“You do it,” Cheshire said, looking as if he could use a drink more than another cigarette.

“As you wish, Mr. Cheshire. Do you want to be involved, Coach O’Shea?”

“Not unless you think it’s necessary, Phyllis,” he said.

“Very well,” Adenweiss said. “If everyone is in agreement, I suggest that either you, Coach O’Shea, or you, Mr. Cheshire, go outside and inform the media that Mr. Craine and I will arrive shortly to make an announcement regarding the matter.”

O’Shea looked at Cheshire. “I’ll do it, Phyllis. Let the superintendent get back to whatever it was he was doing before he found out about this mess.”

Cheshire didn’t dissent. His expression was grateful.

“All right,” Adenweiss said. “Mr. Craine and I have a writing exercise to complete.”

After O’Shea and Cheshire left, the principal said, “Jesus, Kirt, how in hell did you get yourself in this mess?”

“Just stupid. Should’ve never trusted that weasel Jon McGiver. I don’t know of a thing he’s got against me. I guess he just doesn’t like my looks.”

“Well, here, take this pen and legal pad. Write what you want to say. Legibly. I’ll do the same. Then we’ll compare and make changes. Cool?”

“Cool,” he said, “and thanks.”

Adenweiss slid her pack of cigarettes in his direction. “You can have one if you want it,” she said.

“No, thanks.” Kirt didn’t want to tarnish himself further, whether it was okay or not.

 

Adenweiss and Kirt had to push their way through the crush of humanity. Some of the kids flashed Kirt their thumb’s ups. He imagined a few of them holding up placards with marijuana leaves and the like, and then thought of them crumbling under O’Shea’s gaze, wadding up the signs and leaving them at their feet. He was smiling as he scanned the crowd. The parking lot sloped downhill from the school, ending above the baseball field. He saw Beverly Linzy and Jon McGiver, sitting on the hood of her Subaru, holding hands.

(Monte Dutton sketch)
(Monte Dutton sketch)

Kirt touched Adenweiss on the shoulder, and when she turned, he whispered, “Look. Beverly and Jon, second row, sitting on her car. Holding hands.”

He put his left arm around the principal’s back, leaned toward her right ear, and pointed energetically with his right arm. He wanted them to see it. They did. And stopped holding hands.

Adenweiss looked at Kirt. She liked him. He was no angel. He was smart, though, and resourceful. He was the type of kid who made it through the rites of passage. Learned from them. She smiled.

“Should I ask what form of torture you plan to use on those two?” Adenweiss asked. “Should I worry about that?”

“Nope,” Kirt said. “Word will get around, what they did.”

“Jon McGiver won’t get away scot free,” she said.

“I’m staying away from the both of them,” Kirt said. “Still, the witness protection program might not be a bad idea.”

“This won’t go away, you know,” the principal said.

“I don’t know,” Kirt said. “Maybe I’ll still be able to get in the Colorado School of Mines, something like that.”

It must have seemed odd to the gathered media that the principal of Beuerlein High School was smiling, maybe even chuckling.

“Well,” she said, “if it comes to that, let me know, and I’ll see what I can do to help.”

(Graphic by Meredith Pritchard; cover by Jennifer Skutelsky)
(Graphic by Meredith Pritchard; cover by Jennifer Skutelsky)
(Joe Font cover design)
(Joe Font cover design)

              If you’re interested in my sportswriting, and other nonfiction writing, please take a look at www.montedutton.com from time to time.

(Jennifer Skutelsky cover design)
(Jennifer Skutelsky cover design)

              Most of my books – the novels Crazy of Natural Causes, The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope, and the books about sports and music before them – are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

              Soon my fourth novel, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, will be released by Kindle Publishing.

              Follow me on Twitter @montedutton, @wastedpilgrim (more irreverently), and/or @hmdutton (more literarily). I’m on Facebook at Monte.Dutton, Instagram at Tug50, and Google+. I’m grateful for your support and patronage.

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