Do either of you remember what the intersection at 19th Street and Campus Avenue was like when we were children?
One half remains more or less unchanged since then, since the summer you, Wuck, left Upland for Pittsburgh: a family nursery on the southwestern corner and ten or so acres of wilderness to the northwest. The other half, by comparison, is unrecognizable. Where that same wilderness used to extend endlessly east—a rugged one-lane highway through its middle—there now sits The Colonies Crossroads, the sprawling “commercial and social center of Upland,” according to its official website.
The only crossroads, twenty years ago, was a four-way stop and a western-facing sign announcing the number of miles to San Bernardino.
I traveled that rugged highway—an undulating stretch of pavement between Campus and Sapphire—often in my youth: to daycare as a toddler, to Bob’s Big Boy or Thrifty Drug and Discount as a grade-schooler, toward Casino Morongo or CSUSB as a teenager. One of the inclines was so steep that with enough speed you could feel your stomach drop.
We set out east along that highway—Pat and Scott Aldworth and Chris Gualtieri and I—the night you left for college, Wuck. This was still years before The Foothill Freeway spanned the gap between La Verne and Fontana, so we had to make do with surface streets all the way to Interstate 15. We stopped at the Circle K, I remember, to tide us over until the planned breakfast bacchanalia at the Rio buffet. That was the idea, anyway: trail Wuck and his folks to Vegas for a fitting send-off, see him safe and fed and loved into the great unknowns of Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, and beyond—a gesture worthy of our friendship, a pilgrimage.
We traveled in lockstep for a while, I know—at times pulling even with the Webbers for shared laughter over, I’m guessing, a naked rear end—but it wasn’t long until the vagaries of the road separated us: Mrs. Webber’s wee bladder? Cheap gas in Yermo? A strawberry milkshake from <quote-01>The Mad Greek<quote-01>? I don’t know. We may have stopped a time or two more than you did, Wuck, but I find it difficult to believe that the Webber contingent beat us. Because—while I don’t remember much from the evening’s outgoing trip—I do vividly recall hitting 120 on that eight-mile downhill stretch between Nipton Road and Primm, Pat’s Connecticut Blue Mazda 626 shaking like a jetliner through turbulent skies, Gualt egging him on from the backseat, Cooter and I similarly sheepish, scared, and disbelieving.
It was still dark out when we landed in Vegas. I know this because our first stop was The Excalibur’s auxiliary parking lot lit a vibrant orange by the streetlights of our youth. There we eventually found <quote-02>Chris Gualtieri’s father<quote-02> dozing in the back of a pick-up truck, his slender form wrapped in a thin fleece blanket, rising and falling with sleep. In my memory this bald man smiles dreamily at us, not at all upset that we’ve just roused him by pounding in unison on his rusted camper shell. From there—minus Gualt—it was on to the Rio.
It was likely this detour that put your arrival at the Rio, Wuck, ahead of ours. Still, your family could not have waited long for us after discovering the buffet was closed. This fact alone—exacerbated perhaps by your many excuses over the years—accounted for our eventual and prolonged grudge. I can remember the three of us loitering beside the Rio in the first dull light of morning, leafing through the pages of assorted escort rags, waiting for the Webber caravan to pull up so that we could breakfast elsewhere.
With each minute our confusion grew—then animosity. I searched the horizon for a glimpse of you. Scott hunched into his pockets and found his feet; he kicked at a patch of grass. Pat’s childlike optimism began its descent into outrage.
These were the days before cell phones, of course. Thinking back on it all, I wonder why you weren’t with us for that first leg of your journey into adulthood (or was it the last leg of your journey through adolescence?), there with us in Koontz’s hand-me-down four-banger, sandwiched between Cooter and Gualt, zooming through the pitch-black desert night at a hundred miles per hour. Maybe the answer’s in the question; still, having you as collateral would have ensured our communion. At any rate, we were one roaming cell phone away from a promised land of syrup and butter.
And speaking of “roaming,” I don’t think I had any conception of it back then, probably not until two years later when, crossing into Arizona on Interstate 10, the pixelated “AT&T” vanished from the screen of my Nokia 3300. The next time I glanced to it: “VoiceStream.” This particular ignorance is probably why, in between scanning the Las Vegas Strip and a pulpy catalog of its most affordable prostitutes, I never thought to find a payphone and check my voicemail.
My pager, after all, had been silent all night. And why wouldn’t it have been? We’d traveled through the wee hours of the night. Conch knew where I was. Kristen’s <quote-03>“6000 171647” and “823”<quote-03> had arrived hours before the plan even came to fruition. There was simply no expectation of that thrilling buzz at my hip—and certainly no fear of being “out of range.” Even so, again and again I checked it. No buzz. No beep.
The sky turned tangerine, the air warmer. We grew incensed, unable to wrap our brains around being so summarily discarded after such a grand gesture.
“This guy’s fucking dead to me,” I can hear Pat saying, nearly an hour now in the growing shadow of the Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino megaplex.
“Should we even eat?” I can imagine responding.
I see him shrug.
“Let’s just go home,” Cooter might offer. I remember him acting as if he’d never been that tired in his entire life, as if he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
Pat looked to me. I was plenty angry.
“Yeah. Let’s get the fuck outta here,” I said.
And we were off.
Cooter fell dead-asleep almost immediately, not even stirring when we pulled off at the state line for gas. Because of this we later tried to convince him that we’d twice ridden the roller coaster at Buffalo Bill’s. He did, in truth, miss a thrilling ride home, Pat entering a dangerously loopy state somewhere between Baker and Barstow, three or four times shooting gaps between big rigs that had me clutching the dashboard and literally shouting at him.
“No! Fuck you!” I’d bawl again at each hint of acceleration, simultaneously bracing for impact and gauging the angle of our approach, our chances of survival. “Fuck you, man! No! C’mon!”
And this fucker to my left would just giggle and go for it, gripping the wheel at ten and two as we careened back into the fast lane, narrowly missing another lumbering bumper on my passenger side. Mind you, he’d totaled three cars already at that point in his life en route to a total of seven. <quote-04>Like I said, thrilling<quote-04>.
The real main event of the journey home, however, was far less dramatic. Just outside of Victorville, my pager buzzed—“909-932-9739”—my own number, a voicemail.
“Let’s get a soda at the next exit,” I announced. “I need to check my voicemail too.”
I still remember the routine: quarters into the slot, seven numbers, the a cappellaKnight Rider theme recorded in the Webber kitchen, the pound sign, four more numbers: “You have one new message.”
“Hey. This is Nick,” you began. You didn’t see us when you got there, you said. You waited a few minutes, you said, but your dad wanted to get back on the road sooner rather than later. You said you were now at the Carrows up the street and that we should meet you there. You said that you hoped we got the message. You didn’t say that you felt bad or frustrated or that you were upset with your parents, but I could hear all of that in your voice. Then you hung up.
Utterly clueless about the ranges of early millennium cell-phone towers, I wondered why I hadn’t received the page until now. It was hot out. I needed a shower.
“Nick’s dad wouldn’t wait for us,” I told Pat when I got back to the car. “They went to a fucking Carrows.”
<quote-05>“That asshole’s never getting his shovel back,” Pat resolved.<quote-05>
The more I try and remember the trip, the angrier I remember being in the moment. I think I actually may have been the one to spearhead our immediate and huffy return to Upland. I’m pretty sure, also, that I’d paid for gas by myself and might have said something along the lines of, “I own that tank. We’re going home.” I am not, however, overstating Pat’s resentment or Cooter’s tragic exhaustion. But—in fairness to you—I should have thought to check my messages.
Here goes: my bad.
Of course, in a perfect world, you stand up to your folks long enough for us to arrive. But you did leave a message, and I should have checked for one. What’s more, I should have told Pat how sorry you sounded. <quote-06>It is what it is<quote-06>. That hole’s been dug. As for the legendary spade, you can’t expect Pat to just hand over that psychological big two without a bigger play at hand.
Maybe one day.
While I’m admitting things, I should maybe also admit that much of the Carrows’ grief I’ve given you since has been perfunctory, purely dutiful. Pat and I remind you because <quote-07>you deserve to be reminded<quote-07>. After all, by the time we rolled through the four-way stop at 19th and Campus, past the now demolished Weeks Roses building, and through the morning traffic that no longer gathers there, I was happy to be home. Yeah, I’d been robbed of a decadent breakfast and a bittersweet farewell with one of my best friends, but, really, what did it matter? We’d held up our end of the oath. I could sleep the sleep of the blameless into the late afternoon if I wanted. Hell, I was in love.
It was not yet ten, I remember. My cousin had left her first-born son with Conch for the week, and—when I got in—he was sitting in my old chestnut high-chair, eating perfectly scrambled eggs with his fingers and watching Blue’s Clues. Later that night—Conch obviously elsewhere—I will change my first diaper and, more memorably, <quote-08>round second base<quote-08> with the girl who—seventeen years later—will bear my own first-born son. And he will sit in that chestnut high-chair, eating those perfectly scrambled eggs, watching—yes, at times—Blue’s Clues, but more often Sesame Street or Peppa Pig. His will be the next diaper I change. It will be a doozy, thrilling even.