Brian Cortez died five days shy of his twenty-second birthday, jetskiing in the canal behind Stweeb's house. Stweeb's real name was Steve. Brian nicknamed him this on account of Stweeb's undiagnosed retardation. On Stweeb's twenty-first birthday, Stweeb's dad made his one-and-only Vice President of the bank he owned, even though his pride and joy was known to crash his BMW while pulling into the garage from time to time.
Brian nailed a protruding tree branch, broke both arms and his neck, and drowned. The same day, Mrs. Cortez asked me to clean out his closet, pick out his burial suit, and fell into my arms when I chose his Sears Point racing jacket. Since Brian was the engine of our Boyz with a Z firm, we soon slipped gears and took off in our own directions.
Jeff Cotler's direction was joining the Navy Sea Bees and becoming a crane operator. Jeff was Brian's best bud. I was too. Jeff and I were now best buds by default, even though we rode together more or less every day before Brian's departure. Jeff's decision began marinating after getting his chain yanked in Negril a year before by a Jamaican beach bum named Roger. Jeff stood and let it happen. I chased Roger down the beach, watched him disappear into the woods, then collided with a foursome of more homeless guys, who weren't homeless at all: They were undercover cops. They rounded up Roger in less than a minute, drove us to the station, rubber-hosed him pretty good in the next room and took our report. The investigating officer told us to appear in court at nine am. The investigating officer gave us a quarter ounce of Jamaica's finest and drove us back to our motel. We came blitzed to court the next morning, where the investigating officer was also the chief prosecutor. After a brief debate with Roger in which Jeff screamed and I mostly giggled, it took the Jamaican judges in the colonial wigs three minutes to sentence Roger to twelve months. Jeff wasn't satisfied. The chain thing ate him alive until Brian's death spit him out.
Most of us reacted by drinking too much, hugging too much and pretending Brian hadn't been a world-class prick too much of the time. Jeff lurched from all the momentum and when over Irish Car Bombs he asked me to road trip with him out to Port Ueneme, California, his new base, I spoke in Brian's voice and said, "You payin', bitch?"
"That's your old girl," he said. Then he took his Car Bomb to the other side of the bar and pouted.
Anytime someone raised his voice to Jeff, or mildly insulted him, he countered with the same response: That's your old girl. Meaning your mother.
While we changed the oil in his T-Bird in my garage, I imagined his drill instructor laying into a recently buzz-cut Jeff's Jewishness and insignificant height:
" . . . and what's your excuse, you pock-marked half-pint stack of dradle shit?"
"That's your old girl."
No, that's a court martial.
But the deal was done. The man was bent on salving his wounded pride by carving himself into a stone cold . . . well, in this case, a sailor. I just hoped they didn't drain the soul out of my friend down the scupper in the process.
The next morning we hightailed it up the Florida Turnpike, hung a left on I-10, and a hundred thousand yellow lines later found ourselves in Alabama, where we encountered a unique species at a Wendy's drive-thru, an acne-scar of a guy about Jeff's size, kind of Down Syndrome, but not, who peered at us open-mouthed and offered us a catfish milkshake. While we were eating our double burgers in the parking lot I told Jeff we'd just encountered his southern double and how according to British legend, this meant he'd be dead in a year.
"That's your old girl," he said with a mouthful of meat and threw his balled-up wrapper at me.
We hit New Orleans at midnight and found a Best Western in the French Quarter. Nawlins is Mardi Gras year-round so we bought a hundred bucks in beads and lapped Bourbon Street east and west and ass to elbow. By three a.m. I'd made out with seventeen girls, more than the sum total of my life. After the first rejection, Jeff couldn't jumpstart himself out of the pit he'd stalled out in. The ladies smelled the failure fumes.
"The fuck" he'd shout and throw up his arms, like they'd spilled coffee on him without apologizing. Jeff was the only guy I knew who'd been laid less than me, a real feat. That night he might as well have had "Got Mono" written on his forehead in black Sharpie. We walked past all the bars into a darker region of Bourbon until some Arcadian came at us with a moustache and a knife. We ran back to the Best Western where Jeff sat on the curb, hyperventilated, and wept. The next morning we slurped Gumbo at a diner called The Crawlin' Crab and Jeff said the sobbing thing was a Brian moment.
About noon we were back on I-10 and at this point I should mention the quarter pound of the purplest, skankiest herb in existence stashed in the pockets of my jeans in my suitcase. The plan was to drop it at my cousin's apartment in Silver Lake for Jeff to dip into after boot camp. It's worth mentioning, because a few miles east of the Texas/Louisiana border, we got pulled over by the Sulphur Country police department.
Jeff couldn't grasp it.
"Was I speeding?"
"Nope," I told him.
He checked his seatbelt.
"Is my tag expired?"
"Is your tag expired?" I answered.
An Officer Hoey came to Jeff's window and asked him to step out of the car. An Officer Littel approached mine, a car salesman in a former life, with a pasted-on smile and Chicklet-teeth.
"Hello there," Littel said, his palms on the windowsill.
"Hey," I answered.
"Do you know why we stopped you fellas?"
"Nope," I lied. I knew, and our last names weren't going to help either.
"See, thing is, we don't get a lot of Dade County plates (I.E. Miami Jews) up in these parts. When we do, nine times out of ten it's some folks doing some trafficking of illegal substances. May I ask you to see some photo ID?"
Brian and I had taken two semesters of law at the community college. This was a load of horseshit. I could hear Brian citing Illinois vs. Gates in my mind. I noted three more Sulphur County police cars pulling up behind Littel's from the rearview.
"Are you carrying any drugs or weapons, Mr. Shapiro?" Littel asked as he read my driver's license.
"None whatsoever. I respect the law, officer. We're on our way to California. My friend's joining the Navy, because he loves this land of ours."
"Then how would you feel if I asked you if you'd mind if we conducted a search of the entire vehicle?" Littel asked, smiling like his picture was being taken.
"Not up to me. Not my vehicle."
"Well, sure, but how about just your stuff? Can we search through it?"
"I'd rather you didn't," I said, more as a question.
"All right. Okay. That's your right. But seeing as we don't get a lot of refusals to search in Sulphur County, we're gonna go ahead and call out the K-9 unit just to be thorough. It's for your own protection, Mr. Shapiro."
Gorgeous. Meanwhile, they were bringing out the whole force. Two undercover Mustangs had joined us, with plainclothes cops standing outside sipping from Wendy's cups. When they found the herb, as memory served me, Louisiana would offer us anywhere from five to life.
Enter the German Shepard, along with five more undercover cars, including a Porsche. A cop wearing sunglasses and a blue jumpsuit jogged over, holding the leash. It led the cop in a circle around Jeff's car, then another. Then the dog ran onto the highway and almost got squished by an eighteen-wheeler. Then it dove into the bushes and found a broken Frisbee.
I was the only one who found this funny. Jeff had already broken out in hives. Jumpsuit took the dog back to the K-9 van. Littel came over and all but whispered in my ear, like I was another cop, "The animal gave us an indication that he might have picked up on a scent that could possibly be construed as something of a narcotic or contra band in nature."
I didn't say he was crazy, or thank God "the animal" was nasally congested this afternoon. I watched him turn around and order up the search as three more Mustangs pulled onto the side of the highway.
Little, Hoey and six others began scouring the interior of the Thunderbird. When they found something questionable, such as an empty Pepsi can, my CD booklet, or Jeff's asthma inhaler, they would confer in a small circle, then continue their investigation, which proceeded to the trunk of the car, and into my suitcase.
Maybe Brian was so recently departed he was allowed one last act of intervention. Maybe they were overzealous in their belief that all South Florida natives were Cartel members to the point that it compromised the diligence of their search, or maybe they were all fuckin retarded, but in any case, when they zipped my suitcase up I watched Jeff's complexion de-saturate like a sponge. I had a near-life experience, that is, my future, void of specific details other than remaining unincarcerated, flashed before my eyes.
The Sulphur County Police Department brought out machinery that enabled them to search the engine, the ducts of the air conditioning, the undercarriage, and the wheels. I had no idea where such a po-dunk town might scare up the funds for this technology until a few years later I was watching a special on corrupt cops, featuring guess who as one of the top-ten most dirty departments in the country. For years they'd been seizing anything they could. If you were black and carrying more than five hundred dollars, for example, they'd say they didn't believe you were carrying said currency for legal purposes and snag it. It would cost triple the seized amount to follow up in court, being that you lived anywhere near Sulphur County.
Officer Hoey wrote Jeff a ticket for not wearing his seat belt. Jeff argued that he had been wearing his seat belt.
"Son," Hoey said, "You can contest this in court if you so desire."
"That's your old girl," Jeff mumbled.
"Excuse me, Mr. Cotler, what was that?"
Hoey handed over the citation and sent us on our way.
We pulled over at the next rest stop, popped the trunk, and rolled up a fuckin monster.
Four days later, it was like hand-delivering Jeff over to those who would prefer to incriminate him. When he dropped me off at the airport for my flight back to Miami, I hugged him and the same tight-throat sensation I'd felt when pallbearing Brian to his grave was back. Eight weeks later, Jeff was sending me letters with phrases like "Pain is temporary, pride is forever," scrolled in the margins. Eight weeks after that, what was in the margins was all the letters said. When his reserve duty ended, he went and joined the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department. Word has it he even writes himself tickets if he goes too far over the speed limit.
If Roger is anywhere out there, that's your old girl for murdering my second best friend.