McNalty's Tavern, voted most non-existent bar three years running.

The Judge

            I grew up in a small town, one that was a lot like all of those country tunes you hear on the radio nowadays, it was a nowhere place, with parties on Fridays and church on Sunday. I used to think in my younger years that one day I would come back here and remember the good times I had here with my friends, and that all of the bad things would be washed away. I know now, standing here in this room full of strangers that was just a youthful pipe dream I had created to keep me from hating myself, to keep me from acknowledging the truth, the bad times never leave us, they lurk in the shadows and wait for us to weaken, then come roaring back. I don't come back here a lot, I don't keep in touch with the people I knew then, I've moved on, gotten clear of my past, because I had to, I had to run.

            It's our thirtieth high school class reunion, the dress code is semi-formal I wore a collar shirt, sports jacket and tie, a lot of the other people here have dressed much more blue collar, but I should have expected that, I've been gone a long time and forgotten how things work. Most of the people are smiling and drinking, having a good time catching up with the people they have missed. I stand in the middle of the room looking around, I feel like a stranger in this place, a fish out of water gasping for air. A man with a graying beard approaches me and puts his hand on my shoulder. I read his name tag, “Joe Miller.”

            “How the hell are ya, Ben?” he says.

            “I'm good, Joe. How have you been?” I say, trying to be cordial with him. Joe and I weren't good friends in high school but now I guess we're close enough, there aren't a lot of us left.

            “Pretty good. Heard you got finally yourself that big office you always wanted. Judge Evans.” he says with a smile, patting my shoulder.

            “Yeah, I sure did. It took a lot of hard work but it was worth it.” I say, I'm not sure how to approach the situation, I left here a long time ago and never looked back, kept moving forward, I was the youngest DA in the country, tried and failed spectacularly at running for the Senate, and now I've taken the bench, I've put a lot of work into my life, but it doesn't look like Joe has. He's fat now, his hair is gone and his teeth are yellow. “Do you know if Luke is here, I'd really like to see him, Y'all still work together?”

            “Nah. Luke ain't here, he died about three years ago.” He says with a grimace.

            “Really. What happened?” I ask.

            “He got back on the pills, wife left him. Couple months after that they found his truck out on the old bridge. Found the body downstream a couple days later.” he says.

            “Fuck. That's sad, man.” I say. Luke was a good guy, but he was an addict, I remember the last time I saw him he had been sober for four or five years, had a good wife, seemed to finally be getting his life together.

            “Some people would be better off just leaving here, ya know? His wife kept begging him to move to Florida, but he wouldn't. He was always chasin' some sort of high, that's just how he was, ya know.”

            “That's true. Well, shit man, I didn't come down here to be all sad and shit. What are you doing now?” I say.

            “Ah, I'm still out there at the factory, electrician.” he says.

            “Good money in that?” I say.

            “Yeah, pays pretty good and I don't have to do a whole lot.” he says.          

            “What is the name of that place? I always want to say Hibachi, but that's fucking Japanese food.” I say laughing, the truth is I didn't forget the name of it, I never learned the name of it because I didn't care. The factories weren't ever for me, I never wanted to work there, the people always looked so defeated, so lost.

            “Used to be Henson but it's just called HGK now though. Sold to some Asian company a couple of years ago.” He says, he has that same look when he talks about it that all of those other people did back then. He knows he's putting in his time for someone else, he'll be alright but never good, probably already started counting down the days until he can retire.

            “So, they make car parts?” I ask trying to extend the conversation until I can finish my beer.

            “Oh, yeah all sorts. I bet you got some on your car. What do you drive?” he asks.

            “Just bought an Audi A6.” I say.

            “Damn that's a nice car. We don't make anything for something that nice.” he says. “I guess life's going pretty good then.” he says.

            “Eh. It's not all rainbows.” I say. My wife took off to Belize with my kids college fund about three years ago and I've been trying to raise them by myself since then, it's certainly not the life I wanted to have. I think about telling him that, but it would seem pathetic and weak. Just because we knew each other thirty years ago, for a brief flash in life doesn't mean I owe him anything, I don't owe him a glimpse into my despair, we all have sad stories but that doesn't mean their special, life is a struggle, I just keep my head down and try to move forward.

            “I bet it's pretty nice though.” He says.

            “Can't complain much. How's the wife?” I ask.

            “Left me.” he says, but seems happy. “We weren't going anywhere, she just took the kids and left, moved to Memphis with her parents. But it's alright I see them every now and then.” he says. I don't get it, he seems happy that he's alone. He seems content with the fact that his wife would drive six hours with their children and move in with her parents rather than live with him. He seems happy that his children will only know their father as a hardworking man that lived six hours away and paid the child support. But I can't blame him, his life is easy, goes to work, goes home. That's not a bad deal in the grand scheme of things, he's not trying to change the world or even stand out, he's just trying to get on with life.

            “Well that happens.” I say. “Anyone else from the old team here? I'd really like to see some of the boys.” I say, trying to move on and not talk about the difficulties of life, I certainly didn't come here to hear about sad stories.

            “Oh, yeah we got a table over there.” He says pointing.

            “Well let's go.” I say.

            I walk over to the table and sit down, I look around at the aging faces at the table, I recognize most of them. There's J.H. Thompson, Bobby Conner, Mitchell Garret, Tim Holder, and Wes Johnson. I knew them all, they used to be my friends, now they’re all just memories, fading day by day. I don't know them now, I'm sure most of them are different people, we all are when we get this old.

            I remember the last game we all played together, it was the day after Thanksgiving in 1985, we were in the State Semi-final game, the pinnacle of our high school football program. We had put four years into our team, striving to be the best and we almost were. It was brutally cold, and ice covered the field that night, we were playing a big catholic school from Louisville and we were winning by two points, all we had to do was keep the ball and we would have won. Our lives could have changed that night, or maybe they did, maybe they were supposed to be different and they changed in a different way. It was the fourth quarter and I led the team back onto the field, I called the play and handed the ball off to Danny Taylor, my best friend, the best friend I've ever had. He sprinted through the line and got hit hard, jarring the ball from his hands, it bounced around like a super ball, through hands and hands before someone grabbed it. He was a big linebacker for the other team, I knew him, we were going to play together in Ann Arbor the next year. I stared him down as he charged towards me, I stood as strong as I could and hit him in the body, he rolled over me and walked into the end zone after that, and it was over. I tore all three ligaments in my knee on that play, never played football again, he went to the NFL.  That memory still haunts me, not because of the play or the game, but because of what was lost then, in that moment our future collided with the past and none of us could see it.

            “Man, Evans, it's a shame you weren't this big in high school.” Bobby says to me. “You might have made that tackle.” I always liked Bobby, he was a kind giant in an unkind world. It was the eighties in a town just north of Dixie and our world was never kind to Bobby. It spat on him, told him he wasn't good for anything, and he would become a strung-out druggie like his parents. All because of his skin color, that's the place I'm from, a facade of class, a hypocrisy of society, a lie.

            “I married a good cook. That's the secret boys.” I say taking a drink of a beer.

            “I still think about that all the time.” Mitch says, “Those were the good days weren't they, we had it all then.” They all agreed with him as if they had nothing after that, I understand that he didn't mean it literally, but still we didn't have anything, we almost had it all. Life could have been so different if things would have happened the way they should have, I make that tackle and everyone's life is better, Danny and Jay are still alive, Luke doesn't take a header off a bridge, Joe wears a State championship ring to work. As they keep talking I think more and more about what happened after, how we got sucked into the black hole that led us all here.

            It's the spring of '86 now, I'm at a field party on the back of a tailgate with my girlfriend, Maddie Clark. We were in love then, so deep in love, I stare deep into her eyes, they look like there's a storm happening in there, the oranges and the greens swirl together creating something mesmerizing, something unforgettable. It's a typical Saturday night for us, we're on the back of my old truck watching the party, holding each other, not knowing it would be a night that would change the course of our lives forever. The party is going strong, there's two or three hundred people there from all ages, all drinking of course, some were doing other things too.  Danny hops up on the truck bed, his eyes are pinned, he's high again. Ever since he dropped that damn football all he ever did was drugs.

            He got it earnestly though. His father would soon be indicted on 28 counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, possession with intent to sell, and everything else that goes with the life of a drug kingpin. When we were growing up, I was poor, I didn't know it but that's what we were, most of us. My father was a hard man, he farmed his whole life and left this world with little more than nothing, he spent his youth in Saigon or out in the jungle somewhere, I wouldn't know he never talked about it much, he never talked about anything much. Danny's father had also spent his youth there, but he had come home with an idea and ambition. Over the next ten or so years he grew massive amounts of marijuana in the knobs of Kentucky, the plains of Minnesota and the deep forests of Georgia. He would trade the pot for other drugs and so on. I may have not known what poor was but we all knew what rich was, Danny's father and his partners drove new corvette's, had massive houses, wore thousand dollar suits to run errands. Some people grew up wanting that, I never did, I knew where that life lead, for Danny's father it lead to twenty years in prison and nothing but memories, now I'm not sure that isn't where my life has lead too.

            “Hey, man, you want some?” Danny says pulling out a bag full of white power.

            “No, I'm good.” I say.

            “How about you Maddie?” he says.

            “No, Danny.” She says.

            The night ended with a big fight out by the barn, it was the end for some friendships. Danny and Jay Hawkins had started the fight because Lenny Ball, a black football player, was dancing with Jay's little sister. They yelled “nigger” and threw bottles, tackled him and beat him, soon others jumped in on both sides, I just sat back and watched, probably thought it was entertaining. It wasn't one of my prouder moments but compared to the rest of that spring it was small potatoes, maybe if something bad would have happened then, it could have saved us, but it didn't. After all of these years I've learned that your often left to make your own path in life and that you have to live with the things that you have done.

            “Hey stranger.” A voice says. I look up, I don't need to read her name tag, I know who it is. Maddie Clark, the one that got away, or that I pushed away.

            “Hey girl.” I say standing up and hugging her. She starts talking about something, but all I can think about is how it all ended.

            It was prom night, we were all drunk, half-lit, we used to call it. Danny walked up to me with his girlfriend, she was pregnant then, not many people knew. It was a tough time for us, it should have been one of the best nights of our lives but the pressure of the outside world had popped the bubble of our high school social sphere.

            “Come 'ere for a second.” He says wrapping his arm around me and pulling me to the side. “I got us something that's gonna sit us up real good.”

            “What are you talking about?” I ask. He knew that I need money for college, my dad had told me that I was either going to school or the factory, and the latter wasn't going to happen.

            “I went up to LaGrange to see pops yesterday. He told me about this coon down in the heights that’s' got a big pile of cash in a safe.” he says.

            “Well what fucking good does that do? I don't know anything about safes. This type of shit is gonna get us killed.” I say.

            “Pops said he's got about $200,000 in there.” Danny says.

            “That changes things I guess. You got a plan?” I ask.

            “I'm working on something. Me and Jay will get something figured out.” he says. We go back to the dance and I tell Maddie I love her when she asks me what we were talking about. I knew if I told her she would have stopped me, hell she probably would have gotten her dad to pay for school for me, but I didn't take charity. I wanted to make my own way in the world, to owe no man anything, I wanted to be a man, and if that meant ripping off a drug dealer than that's what I was going to do.

            At the end of the night Maddie and I drove out to a river bottom where there was a party, we sat on the hood of my old truck. She turned to me and just stared into my eyes, she knew something was wrong, I was slipping and she could see.

            “Do you love me, Benjamin?” she says.

            “I do Madeline.” I say smiling back at her.

            “Are we going to be together forever?” she says touching my hand.

            “I don't have any other plans. One day, a long time from now, we'll be sitting here on this truck with a couple of kids playing in the river, picking out all the glass from them bottles. And we'll be happy.” I say.

            “Promise.” She says.

            “I promise.” I say.

            “So, I hear you’re a judge now.” Maddie says, I look at her, her face has a couple more wrinkles, her eyes haven't changed though. She got married, had kids, became the principal of the high school. She looks happy, I'm glad she is.

            “Yes, Ma'am 1st district of Chicago.” I say.

            “Well you finally made it didn't you?” she says.

            “I guess so.” I say as someone takes the stage.

            “Alright Rebels, it's time for one more speech from our president, Judge Ben Evans. Give it up for him guys.” Connie Drummond says.

            I walk up to the stage an unfold the speech I have written, a confession really, about the things we did. Two weeks after graduation Danny called me up one night and said they had it all worked out. I was going to drive his car, him and Jay were gonna go in with guns and get the guy to open the safe, it would be easy. I sat in the car as they walked in toting guns and wearing ski masks. I sat there in the parking lot, keeping an eye out, then I saw someone walking to the house, I pushed on the horn but it was too late, too late for everyone. Jay opened the door and shot the guy, I heard another shot go off. I could see them running around in the house, I started the car, things were out of control, I was just hanging on. They ran out with their masks off, and I could see a fire burning through the opened door. I sped off taking some hard turns and heading out to the country. They had gotten the money but it didn't go the way it was supposed to, no one was going to get hurt and we weren't going to set fire to a fucking building.

            The next week the front page of the paper said that four people had died, four, the two people they had shot and the drug dealers girlfriend and child that had been hiding in a closet upstairs. I cried when I read that, I waited that whole summer for the Sheriff to come up to the door and drag me off. But they never did, they didn't care, probably thought that one less drug dealer was a positive regardless of the damage. It changed my life, I had the money to leave, and I did. For a while I forgot about it, forgot about helping in the robbing off four lives. It was always around though, and now as I get older, the guilt just builds, I've been running my whole life from that night, and as I look out into the crowd of people that are left, I decide to keep running just a little while longer.

            “How's everyone doing tonight?” I say. “I've got a big speech here about the past, and all the good times we all had. But we're not quite old enough for that I don't think.” I laugh. “I just wanted to tell you all that I love ya, and I miss ya.” I say walking away. My heart flutters a bit as I step off the stage, I make a bee line for the bar.

            “Buy you a drink?” Wes Johnson says.

            “Sure, whiskey double.” I say.

            “It's not the same, is it?” he says. I look at him, I always liked Wes, he was a smart, smart kid. He grew up in the projects, and had a rough life, I always thought he would have made it out.

            “Nah, it sure isn't.” I say drinking the double in a gulp.

            “I wish Danny and Jay were here.” He says.

            “Yeah, me too.” I say.

            Somewhere in the middle of college, it was winter of my sophomore or junior year. Maddie and I were sitting in my bed and my phone rang, I picked it up.

            “Thought you should know. They killed that Taylor boy last night down there at the Big Horn.” My dad said.

            “What? Who? What?” I said.

            “I don't know anything for sure but what I heard was it had something to do with that fire a couple years back. Bunch of blacks went down there and got him in the parking lot, stabbed him a whole bunch of times, damn savages.” He said.

            “Oh. God.” I said shaking and hanging up the phone. I shook for what seemed like hours, Maddie sat there and held me. If they got Danny, I knew that they would get to Jay too, then probably me, the past was running me down. I tried to call Jay a couple of days after that, I didn't see him at the funeral. Never got a hold of him, not too many people ever saw him after that, then one day he was just gone. Years went by, I always liked to think that he just left one day, ran like I was, and that if he was smart he'd never come back. In 1998 somebody was building a house, ran across some bones in a grave, he never left either.

            I've always thought that they would have had to know that there was a third person, and surely someone would have been smart enough to figure it out. The only people I ever knew that for sure knew what I had done were Jay, Danny, and Maddie, I never told her but I could see the look on her face after I found out Danny had died, she knew. I took her out for the last time the night I got into Duke Law, I had bought a big ring, was going to make an honest woman of her. When I got there the waiter handed me a note, it was from her, she wasn't coming.

            “Ben,

            I love you so much, you're the light of my life and I think I know why you wanted to have this dinner. But I also know what you did, I'm not going to say anything to anyone, but I'm not staying with you either. I hope so much that you have a good life, and do great things, but I can't live looking over my shoulder, I can't live with your secrets. I hope you find someone to sit on that truck bed with you.

            Love always, Maddie”

            I was crushed but I understood. I moved on, well, ran, I went to Northwestern instead of Duke, tried to surround myself with good people and tried to start making a positive change in the world before my past caught up to me. But I've failed at that, a part of me thinks that I'll never be able to get some sort of redemption from what I've done.

            “Gotta take a leak.” I say to Wes.

            “Me too, man.” He says following me to the bathroom. I walk over to a urinal and he picks him one too. Suddenly I feel it, I feel the past, and after all of these years it's caught me. He plunges a blade in to my side, three or four times. I gasp and fall over into a wall, slide down. He looks at me, and I at him. The blood begins leaking out more and more, I try to open my mouth, blood pours out. He drops the knife and walks away, I fall over. One last try I think.

            “I-I'm” I cough up more blood, “sorry.” I say as the door shuts. I roll over and face the ceiling, it won't be long now. I can't feel any pain, I'm just cold, yet with all this I can't help but smile, it's over now. I can stop running. The past and the present flow together now, we could have had so much but this fate took it all. It ate our dreams and spit them back in our face, we were left to pick up the little pieces of them off of the floor and move on, just keep going. We hoped that one day we would be happy again, find another second where nothing matters but the moment that we were in, where life is bright, the birds sing, the grass is freshly cut. But we didn't, our time was then and we let it go, let it slip away, our life is spread out in those streets speeding away from that fire, blood running through a dark parking lot in 1988, in a dark hole begging for our lives on the outskirts of town. I always told myself one day that I would find peace, make up for the bad things that I had done, move on with my life and be a good person, but I wasn't ever going to do that, I wasn't ever going to get out of that car, the lights are getting bright now, I take a deep breath.

            The truth is we weren't ever going to leave that car, me, Danny, or Jay, no, once we had done it that's what the rest of our lives were. All we wanted was to stay on the top of the mountain, I wanted to go to school and Danny and Jay wanted to be drug dealers, mafia types, we did what we did for that reason, but we should have known that one day it would come back. We all went somewhere did something we thought would make us happy again, wash away the bad and make us whole but that wasn't possible, because a piece of our souls burned up that night. Danny knew it as he laid out in the parking lot, I'm sure Jay realized it as he heard the cocking of that gun behind his ear, and now I know laying here covered in my own blood. I never said anything when they left this earth, just stood over their graves, and sobbed, I never said anything when I read the letter in that restaurant that night, just tucked it into a pocket with a diamond. I told myself that deep down inside I was a good man. But that doesn't exist, there is no deep down inside, there's only the things we have done, the horrible things I have done. I'm still back on that field, laying there looking up as the future ran by.

          I thought there would be more in the end, but there isn't. I'm not worried about my kids, they'll be fine, I made sure there was something set up for them. I know I'm not going anywhere good now, I don't deserve that. The lights are getting dimmer, breaths more shallow, I smile one last time, I want whoever finds me to know that I died happy. Relieved, I stared down my judgment and for the first time in thirty years I took the sentence I deserved. One more deep breath, everything's gonna be fine now. I can feel that black hole finally grasping me down, everything is gonna be fine now.

Part II: Surviving the worst party house in America.

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