Dancer in the Water

My flight arrived in Detroit at ten after four.  It was raining.  I was so nervous to see everyone that I threw up in the bathroom next to the gate.  The only person I had seen since my release was my mom, and the awkwardness of that reunion was enough to make me believe the next four days would be unbearable.  But, I couldn’t say no.  Brian had bought my ticket and told me he couldn’t see himself taking the plunge without me standing there next to him, Paul, and Ward.  I wasn’t sure if his bride felt the same.

Brian was there to pick me up.  I hadn’t been back to Michigan in fifteen years, not since my eighteenth birthday when Brian and I loaded up my 1991 Honda Accord with every piece of clothing I owned and took off on the three-week cross-country trek to move me to LA.

Brian asked if I recognized the area as we exited 696.  Everything was different. New neighborhoods, stores, roads, lakes, everything had changed.  The woods we used to ride our bikes through on the way to school had been turned into a golf course that Brian said had a hell of a back nine.  The open field behind what had been my parent’s house was now a strip mall.  The roads were smoother and cleaner.  The lake seemed smaller than I remembered it being.  Swimming across it no longer seemed such a herculean feat.

Brian didn’t stop talking the entire ride.  He seemed as nervous as I was.  I can’t blame him.  Not everyday you have a guy convicted of killing a fifth grade teacher in your passenger seat.  He told me all about his future bride, his parents, Paul, Ward, he gave me updates on our high school, on his job, and, when he ran out of updates, he simply pointed out all of our old spots – Anthony’s Pizza, the cinema, The Shutter Shop, the railroad tracks where we had had our own “Stand by Me” moment, the baseball fields where we had won the Championship game that had since been renovated, Clancy’s Diner, and our favorite Dairy Queen, where we stopped to get a Blizzard.  When I said it had been twelve years since my last trip to Dairy Queen, Brian started say, “How the hell can you go –“. He stopped himself, realizing it hadn’t been by choice.

Eleven years prior, I was arrested for the murder of Charles Hong, a fifth grade teacher at Kester Elementary School in Sherman Oaks, California.  He had been on his way home from his Wednesday night bowling league – his favorite weekly activity.  He had bowled a 215, his best game ever.  At 11:27 pm on the sixteenth of March, he pulled into the Shell Station at the corner of Van Nuys Boulevard and Magnolia.  He filled his car with fourteen dollars worth of premium and walked around the back of the station to use the bathroom.  He had drunk three large Sprites at the bowling alley and couldn’t hold it anymore.  As he walked out of the bathroom, he was stabbed nine times in the chest and robbed.

I pulled into the Shell Station at 11:39 pm, according to security cameras.  I didn’t need gas but was in the mood for a hot dog.  But, I too had to relieve myself. I ran around back to use the bathroom, but it was locked.  I didn’t know, at the time, but Charles Hong was using it.  I was in a fix; I really had to pee, so I ran to the far side of the car wash, which was closed at that point, and let it fly.  As I wandered back towards the front of the station, ready and excited for the hot dog, I found Charles Hong’s body outside of the bathroom, still, lifeless, and bloody with a knife sticking out of his chest.  I am not sure why I touched him. I guess I wanted to see if he was alive.  I wasn’t exactly thinking straight.  The only other dead body I had ever seen was my dad’s, in his casket, already fixed to look like he had never been sick.  This was different.  There was blood everywhere.  His eyes were open.  He looked like he was about to say something, and I kept waiting for sound to come as I screamed for help.  I don’t even remember pulling the knife out.  The cameras at the Shell Station showed me heading for the bathroom two minutes after Charles and, when the cops arrived, I was standing over him, covered in his blood.  My prints were on the murder weapon.  They ignored the other set of complete prints on the handle and the matching partial on Charles’ face.  I was sentenced to a minimum of twenty-five years.

My release came ten years later.  Charles Hong’s true killer was arrested at that same Shell Station after attempting to stab and rob a sixty-seven year old retired gaffer named Robert Pollace.  His prints matched those found on the knife I had pulled from Mr. Hong’s chest, and, given the similarities between the crimes, detectives realized my story had been the truth. Plus, the middle aged junky confessed after sobering up.  The arresting officer, the judge, and my lawyers offered apologies.  My mother picked me up and took me to her sister’s house in Dallas.  She had visited me once, three years into my sentence, with her sister, who she had moved in with when I moved to LA, but I could see it in her eyes; the disappointment, the fear.  She believed I had done it.  I told her not to come back.  She didn’t.  No one did.  I can’t blame them.  As far as they knew, I had killed Charles Hong.

Brian’s parent’s house was exactly the same.  Right down to the plastic garbage can filled with baseball bats, lacrosse sticks, hockey sticks, and golf clubs buried in the corner of the garage.  I wondered if the bag of weed we had almost been caught with after prom was still there.  We went in through the basement, because Brian wanted me to meet Karen before I saw anyone else.

The rest of the day went by in a blur of introductions, awkward moments, and old stories.  There were a few times, I could tell, people wanted to ask about everything that I had been through, maybe about what prison is like, but they held back.  Paul made a joke about it after he was drunk.  It was pretty funny.

Everyone went to bed by 11:15, saying they didn’t want to be tired for the wedding. I flipped through Brian’s 200 channels, being unable to sleep, but couldn’t decide what to watch. I ended up turning off the TV and pouring myself another whiskey.  Brian’s dad had bought a stock of single barrel bourbon for the weekend.  It was warm and smooth.  It made me think of what my life might have been like had I stayed in Michigan like Brian, had I not been sent away.

The rain had stopped around nine-thirty and was replaced by a warm breeze.  I wandered outside through the basement door, just as Brian, Paul, Ward and I had done when we were in high school, and I headed to the only place that made sense.

The four of us had been inseparable throughout middle school and high school.  Every weekend night was spent at a different one of our houses – each one of which had its advantages.  Ward had a huge basement and three different video game systems. Paul’s mom had a second refrigerator in the garage that was kept fully stocked with all sorts of frozen treats.  I lived within walking distance of our middle school; it didn’t take long to figure out how to break in through the art room’s faulty window.  And Brian lived closest to the lake.  Nights at his house always ended up by what we called “the weeping beach.” We would sit by the calm water and watch the reflection from a street lamp dance in the soft ripples while we discussed everything from the girls we had crushes on to our teacher’s bad breath.  No matter the house, we always had fun, but the nights at that beach were always our favorites.

I was relieved to find out the beach hadn’t changed a bit.  It was still sunk in at the bottom of a steep, grassy slope.  It was outlined by five long logs, which, on warmer days, would seep a sticky, nasty sap that ruined more than a few bathing suits.  There was a long dock that was perfect for jumping or early morning fishing.  There were two picnic tables, one of each side of the sandy area.  We always chose the one to the right.  One, it couldn’t be seen from the road (there was a large pine tree blocking it).  Two, it offered the perfect view of the dancing reflection from the street lamp.

I sat down on the table with my feet on the bench. The air was calm and warm and steam was starting to rise from the water.  As the wind blew, the reflection spread wide in the ripples.  I sank into the feelings of solitude and freedom that had been so foreign to me for so long.  I could feel a tear slipping out of my right eye and felt no shame in it.  The beauty of that reflection that we had so many times referred to as our private ballerina, that I had dreamed about and prayed for night after night, was even more precious than I had remembered.

Brian appeared behind me as though out of nowhere.  He wasn’t surprised to find me there, he said.  He couldn’t sleep, nervous about the wedding.  He had barely sat down when Paul and Ward came stumbling down the hill with a bottle of whiskey in hand.  They were laughing and loudly discussing how I had changed.

Brian sat next to me, on the table.  Paul and Ward squeezed between our legs, on the bench.  We passed the bottle around and stared at our flickering ballerina.  We sat in silence for longer than the four of us had ever done while together.  I had forgotten what that was like; to be so connected to three friends that no matter how much time had gone by, no matter what had happened in between, the true joy of the friendship was knowing we could always come together and enjoy the simplest moments.

Ward finally broke the silence.  He had a joint and said it was only right that we celebrate Brian’s last few hours the right way.  Who were we to disagree?

Conversation took a turn for the reminiscent at that point.  We drifted back into the same topics we had first discussed at that table – my crush on Martha Digsby, Mrs. Stafford’s horrible coffee breath, our created players on NBA Live ’97, porn, cars, movies, etc.… And, after a while, the conversation slowed.  We found silence again.  Brian put his arm around me and told me how happy it made him that I was there.  Paul and Ward turned around and said they had always hoped.  I didn’t know what to say.  I was high and drunk and nervous.  I told them how nervous I was and how scared I was to come.  I told Brian how happy I was for him, for all of them.  But how hard it was to see, how hard it was to know what should’ve been, what could’ve been.  I was angry.

Since my release, I had been so relieved to be out, so nervous about the wedding, so focused on everything else, I hadn’t taken the time to realize how angry I was, how unfair what I had been through was.  I screamed.  I swore.  I cursed the junky that stabbed Charles Hong nine times that night at the Shell Station.  I wished ill upon the cops that didn’t believe me.  And I promised revenge on the judge that had sentenced me.

Brian, Paul and Ward sat with me through all of it.  They kept their arms around me and they swore and cursed with me.  They passed me the bottle of whiskey when it was needed and made me laugh when the times were right.  They sat with me all night, taking it all in, understanding, learning who I had become.  And as the sun rose and our ballerina disappeared in the daylight, Ward looked at me and nodded. He cracked a devious smile and before I knew what was happening, the three of them grabbed me, carried me to the end of the dock and tossed me into Lake Sherwood.  “Consider this your second baptism, you convict.” Ward pushed Brian in as he was saying it.  Then he and Paul jumped on top of us.  We were fifteen again and couldn’t have been happier.

My flight left Detroit at six thirty.  It was raining.  In fact, the only time, the entire weekend, that it didn’t rain was that night spent sitting on our picnic table, reliving the greatest moments of our lives.  All three guys dropped me off.  Nothing was said.  We had already said it all.  I was to visit Ward in Cleveland the following month.  He thought he could set me up with a pretty good job.  And I would be close to him and Brian.  Paul was in New York and promised if I got the job, he would fly in for a celebration.  I gave each of them a hug.  I said congratulations to Brian. And I made my way to the gate.

3 responses to “Dancer in the Water

  1. Knowing this is part of a bigger, non-fictional story, I am awed at how you managed to develop a fictional story that still captured that true closeness and depth of lifelong friendship. Bravo!

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