Like entirely too many other times in my life, it had seemed like a good idea right up to the second the cops showed up. As soon as they did, it immediately became obvious how insane it was to be on the grounds of the Lakewood Country Club after midnight on a Saturday, looking to vandalize one of the exclusive homes inside its gated walls with impunity.
But impunity was my middle name back then, and the girl that lived there had had the temerity to find me nerdy and uninteresting on our one and only arranged, quasi-blind lunch date. She’d been dressed like a Gothic court jester, talked about the power of crystals and how she could use them to levitate things, but somehow I was still the loser in that match-up. Which is why we were there, caught out in the open with 96 rolls of toilet paper and no earthly reason to be breathing the same air as Brenda Jezak and her affluent clan.
This fact was sharply underscored when Mike Burke—our de facto wheel-man—hissed, "Cops!" from across the street and then dove across the front seat of his Volkswagen Beetle. Then he pulled the door behind himself, thus killing the dome light and rendering himself invisible in the relative safety of his cherried-out antique vehicle. Meanwhile, Christian and I were in the middle of the broad circular driveway, mid-throw on a couple of rolls of single-ply Vons house-brand TP, completely exposed as the cop's cruiser came around the corner. I grabbed Christian by the shoulder and yanked him down into a squat beside the gleaming black BMW sitting askew in the driveway, just as the wash from the cop's headlights swept across the house in an arc.
|Christian, who is not a girl|
I was nineteen and he was seventeen, so probably only one of us was actually going to jail that night for whatever charge they could level. Criminal trespass and vandalism, probably. Maybe vagrancy, since we were both technically unemployed and had spent all our cash on toilet paper. But for some reason Christian seemed far more nervous about the prospect than I was. Although to be fair, this wasn’t my first time playing hide and seek with the boys in blue.
The first of the handful of times I’d found myself in the searchlight of the cops had been two years previous, with Phillip as always. We’d gone up to Shell Hill, the highest point in Long Beach and our local lovers’ lane, looking for his girlfriend Claire, whom Phillip suspected of cheating on him with a jock douchebag who’d been making time with her at school. Turns out he was right. Which we discovered by roaming around the Barrens—the industrial wasteland smack-dab in the middle of the hilltop where all the illicit fornicators parked—on foot, peeking into the vehicles randomly scattered around the giant water tower and oil derricks to see if she was in one. We’d split up to search separately, but were communicating regularly via the walkie-talkies we carried. So to reiterate, two teen boys were running around lovers’ lane, peaking into parked cars with fogged-up windows and jabbering into walkie-talkies, just suave as hell. No idea what took the cops so long to show up.
By the time they did, we’d found the unfaithful Claire steaming up Billy’s Celica windows, made a little scene about it, and were headed back to Phillip’s Impala without her. We’d jumped a low fence and were cutting across the area beneath the water tower, passing through a wide gravel lot randomly dotted with trundling oil derricks, tirelessly slaving away with their ghostly, yawning squeals, when we saw the cop car prowling around the lane. Phillip had a semi-feral way about him, and could always spot trouble in our road from miles out, so he knew instantly that they were there for us. As their spotlight clicked on and stabbed out toward us in the darkness of the Barrens, I felt totally exposed.
|Phillip, the Conman|
Even so, out there in the open industrial wastes, fifty yards from anything, a thorny skein of dried vines felt a lot like trying to hide behind a kleenex. The light seemed like the solar pinpoint of a magnifying glass would to an ant as it searched for us, so when the million-candlepower light finally made its way to our tumbleweed, I fully expected it to go up in flames. It inched across us in agonizing slowness, and only Phillip’s hand on my shoulder kept me from running the second the glare touched my skin. It was so unbelievably bright, it felt like we were inside the sun itself. There was simply no way they could’ve missed seeing us, two ghostly white kids, hidden as we were by something essentially made of holes. But Phillip remained stock still, hand on my shoulder, steady as an Easter Island Totem, willing me to do the same.
“The ones that run right now, are the ones that get caught,” he whispered.
When I heard the cruiser’s door open and shut briskly in front of the driveway, I knew Christian and I were out of time. In a few brief strides the cop would be around the BMW and the jig would be up. I motioned to the underside of the Beemer and then belly-crawled like a grunt in Basic, seeking the flimsiest shelter imaginable. Short of a tumbleweed, that is. Christian joined me under the chassis just in time as the cop walked up the drive, his Maglite snapping on and probing all around.
His footfalls were slow and deliberate, the localized halogen pool of light swung in careful scrutiny across every surface, pausing when he found the abandoned pyramid of TP stockpiled in the driveway. The muted chatter of his radio seemed too quiet to mask the sound of our breathing, which felt like a cacophony under the Beemer. I could tell he was a cop from an affluent city by the mirror polish of his Florsheims, and knew then that he wouldn’t let us off with a warning in mock disapproval at our youthful shenanigans. We were inside the walls of the palace that paid his salary, so we were going down, no two ways about it.
He stalked around the car like the killer in a horror movie while we, the idiot teens, hid under the bed waiting to die as we watched his feet plod in painful slow motion, inches from our faces. Each time he stopped I expected to see his face fill the narrow rectangle between the concrete and running board, smiling in sinister fashion at the nitwits face down on the gritty driveway. But after a minute of circling the car and shining his light all over the front of the house, he made his way to the side to look over the fence into the back yard. Just as he left our sight, Christian made to bolt from our position, an instinct I understood only too well. But I grabbed him by the shoulder and held him steady.
“The ones that run right now, are the ones that get caught,” I whispered.
We stayed where we were in defiance of every urge from the lizards living deep in our unevolved brains, watching the officer make his rounds, hunting for us impudent vandals behind the garbage cans and in the arbor vitae. He came back toward us, stopping at the TP pyramid to mutter something into his radio, before taking a final look around and getting back into his prowler and creeping away slowly.
Not yet lulled, I held Christian fast until the cop car came back past the house on his way out of the gated community. Once he was out of sight, Christian and I clambered out from under the Beemer, dusted ourselves off and looked at each other, finally daring to breathe a sigh of relief.
“Hell yeah, it was. Can you imagine if we’d gone to jail tonight and had to tell our cell mates we were in for toilet papering a house? Might as well be wearing a dress.”
He laughed in nervous release, looking around to see if anyone had stirred from the activity, but we were alone in the dark again. “I don’t think I’d do well in prison,” he said. “With these looks, I’d be traded for cigarettes on day one. Probably fetch at least a carton, maybe two.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, buddy. I’d pay three for you, any day,” I said.
“Thanks, man. You’re all heart.”
“I guess we should give Mike the all clear, huh?” I said.
“Nah, let him stew for a few more minutes. Serves him right for only saving himself.”
I looked around at the sad tableau before us. A couple of lame streamers over one corner of the house and a lonely white garland up in the crown of their tree. Compared to some of the epic mummifications I’d doled out over the years, it was hardly worth mentioning. In fact, suddenly it seemed kind of childish. I walked over to the stockpile in the driveway and gave it a little kick, toppling a few rolls from the peak.
“We should really get going,” Christian said.
|Ms. Bahaus, Brenda|
“You’re nuts,” he responded, but then picked up a roll, too. “Bella Lugosi’s dead… Bella Lugosi’s dead,” he chanted under his breath.
“Bam-bam-bam, b-b-b-bam-bam-ba-bam, I wanna be levitated…” I chimed in sing-song.
I lobbed one up and onto the roof, just shy of the ridgeline, it rebounded and rolled back down, laying a trail of single-ply ass-wipe all the way. Christian pitched his and it sailed high up into the diffused halo of light from the streetlamp and over the ridge, unspooling squares furiously as it tumbled. It went out of sight into the back yard, never even touching the house, the long tail fluttering down onto the roof.
“Perfect shot, man. That really had some mustard on it.”
“Thanks. It felt good as it left, I could tell it was gonna be a goner.”
“Well, you may sound like a girl on the phone, but you sure don’t throw like one,” I said.
“That’s funny, because you don’t sound like a dick on the phone at all…” he replied.
I tossed him another roll from the crumbling pyramid. Then turned to pitch some up into the tree, knowing that I couldn’t hope to match Christian’s throwing arm in clearing the house.
“You know, if Mike had been out here, instead of squirreled away in his Bug, we probably would’ve gotten caught,” I said. “I mean, if one guy goes down, he takes everybody with him.”
“I guess so,” he replied dubiously, cocking his arm back for another throw. He paused and said, “I suppose we’re lucky he didn’t bail entirely.”
I thought about that for a minute, wanting to believe Mike wasn’t that kind of guy, but realizing he was. “We’d have been screwed for sure, then,” I answered.
“Nah, you’d have thought of something,” he said as he pitched his roll. The white streamer laced out like the tracer behind a shooting star as the roll disappeared into darkness. “You always do.”
“I think we just did, didn’t we? ‘Cause I’d definitely have made a run for it when the cop went around the corner of the house. I thought you were out of your mind to double down on that bluff. He was six inches from our faces.”
I thought of Phillip’s steady hand on my shoulder as he’d brazened us both through the narrow margin between escape and certain doom. The ultimate conman—where almost every grift in my bag of tricks had come from, and the reason I never sat with my back to the door—forever hanging on by his fingernails, but somehow always coming up smelling like a rose. For the second time that night, I heard Phillip’s words to me in the Barrens tumble from my mouth.
“Hold steady. Deny till you die.”
After a few more rolls we decided to stop pushing our luck and went back to the car, leaving the ersatz TP pyramid as a cryptic calling card for them in the morning. Christian rapped sharply on the VW window with his knuckles. Mike’s head popped up like a whack-a-mole, wearing a look of purest guilt, obviously thinking we were the cops. Christian and I both chuckled as we wedged ourselves into the tiny Beetle, teasing Mike incessantly about being such a pansy as we drove off. It wouldn’t be long before he showed his true colors and we stopped hanging out with him altogether, but since we never TP’ed anyone again after that, he wasn’t missed much.
I was laid out in the back seat, letting my steady breathing quell the adrenaline storm I’d been disguising the whole time, watching as the Jezak job receded from view. The paltry streamers faded away like the fluttering remains of a tepid parade whose celebrants had forgotten why they came.
When we cleared the gates of the Country Club Mike asked, “Where to, boys?”
I said, “Home, James, and don’t spare the horses.”
He turned out onto Paramount Blvd, where the commoners’ territory began, and turned his amazing stereo way up. With my head between the rear speakers it was like being inside music itself, as Depeche Mode sang:
“As years go by
All the feelings inside
Twist and they turn
As they ride with the tide
The cleanest I've been
An end to the tears
And the in between years
And the troubles I've seen
Now that I'm clean
You know what I mean
I've broken my fall
Put an end to it all
I've changed my routine
Now that I’m clean”
And it was like I’d never heard it before.