I met Tyler in the waning weeks of 11th grade. He walked into Health class after the bell, wearing his oversized leather jacket and a Misfits t-shirt. He looked around the colonized room with the preppy girls up front by the jocks—with the grease monkeys and the stoners in the back. He sat next to me—the short, skinny kid with plain old clothes and messy hair.
“I’m Tyler,” he said. “Today’s my first day.”
I gave a nod. He stunk like pot and cigarettes. His hair was long—like a girl. He was obviously a back-of-the-room kid, yet he sat in the middle, with the ghosts, with me. It was as if he didn’t understand the social pecking order.
“I got expelled from Creekridge High,” he continued, with a big-ass grin.
“For what?” I asked.
“Pot. They found a dime in my locker. And they think I broke in and stole a radio from one of the classrooms.”
“I broke in, but I didn’t steal anything. I don’t steal.”
“Do you do that a lot, you know, break into schools and not steal shit?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I do do it a lot.”
I rolled my eyes and put my head down on the desk for my nap. But Tyler kept at it.
“Dude, who’s that chick? Do you know if she’s got a boyfriend?”
“Dude, what class do you have after this one?”
“Dude, I got some weed, do you want to skip next hour?”
“Dude, man, do you gotta car? You’re sixteen, right, can you drive?”
Skip class? Smoke weed? A car? Who was this guy? I lifted my head, “Dude,” I said. “I’m trying to sleep.”
“I just need to find a ride to work. Thought if you had a car, maybe you could do me a favor.”
For the rest of the class period, and all of Biology, I learned nearly everything about Tyler. I learned he had a sister, a year younger. His dad was an asshole and not just because he grounded Tyler for the weed—took away the keys to his car, a 1970-something bright-orange Gremlin. According to Tyler, his dad was an asshole for tons of reasons. Tyler told me he worked in the produce department of a grocery store, Shop–N–Save, the same chain I worked at. So along with the move to a new house, a new school, he was transferring to a new store, my store.
“Dude, that’s cool. I thought it was gonna suck at a new store, but now we can hang out.”
“Cool, dude,” I said without enthusiasm.
Those first few weeks I knew Tyler I was a complete dick, but he never took the hint. I ignored him best I could when he talked to me at school and at work, but he was always around. In the morning, I’d walk into school and find him hanging out by my locker, waiting.
“Dude, what’s up?”
I’m not sure why he tried so hard to be my friend. Tyler wasn’t stupid. Maybe the booze or the dope fogged up his perception a little, or maybe he saw through my “dickiness,” straight through to my loneliness.
At work, he’d turn up in the break room, talk to me while I was trying to read a book. It wasn’t just that he was there. It was the fact that he never shut up. When he wasn’t talking about heavy metal or getting laid, he was asking me questions, personal questions, questions no one ever asked before.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Are you still a virgin?”
“A virgin, you know, sex. Have you ever done it?”
“Why would I tell you that?”
“You haven’t done it,” he said and my face flushed. “You ever smoke weed?”
I thought about lying. Since I didn’t really have any friends, I was sheltered, in a way, from the cool sins of high school. And because I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t really know what I was missing. Now here was this kid, Tyler, who had lived life and who was constantly pushing me to confess. And for the first time I wanted to confess. Except I had nothing to confess. I wanted to say, Hell yeah, I smoke weed. I smoke it all the time, dude.
“No,” I answered.
“Did you ever get drunk?”
“Once,” I said, a little proud that I had one of his badges sewn on my sleeve.
“Dude, you got some catching up to do. I got a feeling that this is going to be a great summer.” He lit a cigarette and handed it to me.
In Health class, the teachers and counselors warned us about the dangers of peer pressure. They said, just because your friend does something, doesn’t mean you have to. They said, following the pack doesn’t make you cool. What they didn’t know is that we don’t cave to peer pressure because of our friends or because we want to be cool, we don’t fall to peer pressure because we want to follow the pack. What they never understood is how fucking horrible it feels to not be in a pack. I took a drag from the cigarette and coughed until my eyes hurt.
I was stocking empty beer and pop bottles on my 17th birthday. Tyler found a pallet of liquor fresh off the truck. He picked off a fifth of vodka. “Happy birthday,” he said and we each drank from the bottle—a big swig, then another.
“The idea is not to get stupid,” Tyler said. “But to feel good enough to not really care.”
The vodka warmed me up. And for the first time in a long time I wasn’t worried about anything.
“One more?” he asked, handing me back the bottle for a third drink. “Next time we’ll smoke some weed. Pot is the best.”
Instead of sorting the bottles, I sat around talking. Instead of pulling the brown bananas off the shelf and replacing them with green bananas, Tyler sat around talking. He told me about his parents’ divorce. How his mom lived in another state now so he never saw her—but she always sent birthday cards filled with money. “And I talk to her on the phone sometimes,” he said.
I told Tyler a little about life in my house—all Jesus, all the time. I told him how my dad worked every night and half the day and how he didn’t know what was going on. I told him that I had enough money saved for a car and my dad promised to take me out one day and find one. “But then my stupid stepmom keeps saying I’m not ready for a car and my dad keeps having to work on the weekends so I don’t think I’m ever gonna get a car.”
I told him I wished my parents would get divorced. I wished that my step-mom would move out of state. “And she doesn’t even have to send me birthday cards.” Maybe it was the vodka or maybe it was simply the fact that someone was listening; whatever the reason, the words ran from mind to mouth without restraint.
“Dude, can you get me a ride home tonight?” Tyler asked at the end of his shift.
“My stepmom’s picking me up and she doesn’t like to pick me up, much less drive friends home.”
Truth: I didn’t want to ask her. She would if I did. She never passed up an opportunity to testify the Lord Jesus Christ. So I stopped introducing my friends to her. I stopped talking about my friends. In fact, I pretty much stopped having friends. And if I did introduce Tyler to her, with his long hair and heavy-metal leather jacket, then she would try and convert him, and Tyler would stop being my friend. For me, it was better to keep Tyler in the shadows, hidden away in a box and brought out only when it was safe.
“Can you ask her, just this once?”
“Dude, even if she says yes, which I doubt, then we will have to listen to church the whole time.”
“It’s only a couple of miles, how bad can it be? Just this once?”
It’s an act. It’s always an act. She started with “Tyler, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. Please, call me Mom.” I was slumped in the back seat behind her, out of sight from the rearview mirror. Tyler sat up front, next to her.
“It’s nice to meet you too, Mom. Thank you for driving me home.” He gave her a genuine smile.
“My pleasure, anytime, really.”
I flipped off the back of her seat.
“So tell me how to get you home.”
She put the car in gear and turned up the radio—Amy Grant singing her praises to the lord. She sang. She raised her hand to the ceiling as if she was in church and sang. After the song ended, she turned the radio down. “I just love that song. It moves the spirit through me. Do you like Amy Grant, Tyler?”
“Never heard of her. I like Metallica and King Diamond. Do you like them?”
“I don’t listen to secular music anymore,” she answered as she stopped at a red light.
“Oh, they’re not secular, they’re heavy metal,” he said. “I have a tape. Do you want to hear it?” I was confused. Perplexed. Was Tyler playing around or was he trying to have a serious music conversation with my stepmom?
“No, Tyler, that music is of the devil, and it does not get played in my car.” Catching my eye in the rearview mirror, she said, “Right?”
“Right,” I mumbled. Tyler looked back at me. I shrugged.
“You see, Tyler, I used to live a worldly life but I have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.”
“Green light.” I blurted.
As we continued toward Tyler’s house, she told us how the sins of the world will damn us to hell—not might, will. She told us of the one and only way into heaven. I had heard it all before; I could give the speech. I watched Tyler nod in understanding. He was listening to this. I wondered what would happen if he believed it—if he chose to convert.
We pulled into his driveway and I held my breath; for a half-second I think we all held our breath. I imagined my stepmom was preparing to ask the big question. I imagined, I hoped Tyler was preparing his escape. Me, I only wanted Tyler out of the car.
“Tyler,” she said, “Jesus can save you from a life a sin, he can save you from an eternity of pain and suffering. All you have to do is pray with me right now, turn your life to Christ. Will you pray with me right now? Will you accept Jesus into your heart?”
I hate you.
“No, thanks, Mom. But thanks for the ride,” Tyler answered with his genuine smile. He opened the car door and got out. Before he closed the door, he stuck his head in toward the back seat. “Happy birthday, dude. See you tomorrow.” He shut the door and I released my breath quietly.
It’s cold, but not that cold, so my car starts. The engine roars. Black smoke, then white blows out the tailpipe. I jam the gas, jam the car into gear, and sidestep the clutch. It’s pretty pathetic, actually—this piece of shit blue hatchback burning rubber down the street lined with autumn-red, orange, and yellow-leaved maple and birch trees—puking toxic smoke everywhere.
I race down the street, trying to outrun my anger. I wonder why I don’t tell her to fuck off. Let her try to throw me out, I think. Dare her to. I imagine what life would be like on the street at 17. I can sleep in my car—park it in the woods—til it snows anyway. I want a cigarette so I speed up. 60 in a 25. That’s a hell of a ticket. But there’s never a cop here. 65. Then 70. Then slamming the brakes to turn into Tyler’s driveway.
When I open the front door, I know by the musk of burning pot that Tyler’s dad has left for work early—a meeting or a sales trip to Ohio. In the family room, Tyler watches cartoons and smokes a joint. I take a hit and grab a Marlboro, light it, then plop on the couch.
“You wanna cut out today?” he asks.
“Can’t. I have too many skips in third hour. One more and they’ll send the note.”
I take another hit from the joint. And another. “Dude,” Tyler says, taking back the joint, “what’s up with you? You never burn this early.”
“That sticker shit again.” My anger resurfaces. “That stupid fucking Jesus bumper sticker. She wants it on my car.”
“Just tell her no.”
“I tried. She says I’m booted if I don’t.”
“So put it on. I don’t see the big deal.”
“The big deal is that she wins.”
“So she wins.”
“And I look like an asshole driving to school with that on my car.” I watch the cartoon mouse put a stick of dynamite under a cartoon cat’s ass. “What if I don’t? What if she does throw me out? Can I stay here?”
“My dad won’t let you stay here. He don’t even want me here. He keeps telling me I’m gone as soon as I turn eighteen.” Tyler hands me the joint and I breathe in more haze.
My anger doesn’t fade; it rages. Sitting on Tyler’s couch. Then sitting in class. At lunch. The drive home. Rage. Then the house. Parked outside. I sit for a while, engine running. And there she is, at the front door, watching me. With nowhere to go, what choice do I have? I could say no.
“No,” I said out loud, hoping it sounded strong, confident—like that time Tyler told her no. He said no and walked away. It worked for him. Why doesn’t it work for me?
“No.” It sounds weak.
And she is still watching. I get out of the car with the crumpled sticker in my hand. She’s smug. I peel off the slick white backing and place Jesus on my bumper.
Picture this. Driving down the freeway, Pink Floyd on the car stereo—Goodbye Blue Sky. Birds tweet in the background. I round a curve, jump on the gas, and climb the ramp of the overpass. In my speakers, a kid says, “Look, Mommy, there’s an aeroplane in the sky,” and I jerk the wheel—steer the car off the overpass. The car drifts ever so slowly to the peaceful rhythms of acoustic guitars and Roger Waters singing.
A few weeks into my senior year of high school, this dream invaded my sleep—nearly every night for months. And each time, I’d wake before impact. I didn’t wake in a start. My heart wasn’t racing. I wasn’t freaked out or scared. Only disappointed. Disappointed I woke before the impact. Disappointed I woke.
After a couple of weeks of the dream, when I woke, I’d sneak out my bedroom window to my car, insert Pink Floyd into the tape player and drive that stretch of freeway. At first, I would start the tape on different tracks so that when I got to the overpass the kid would say, “Look, Mommy.” When I couldn’t time the song so that the kid spoke at the right time, I started adjusting my speed, going slower, then faster, trying to set the time just right. I practiced all fall, all winter, I figured if the kid ever said it at the exact right time—like in the dream—then I would do it. I’d jerk the wheel.
In early spring, three weeks before my stepmom moved out, five weeks before prom, nine weeks before high school graduation, ten weeks before my father filed for divorce, I did get the timing right. And I did turn the wheel. I didn’t jerk it…just sort of leaned into it. As soon as the tires hit the shoulder, I jumped on the brakes. A cloud of dust, gravel, and burnt rubber surrounded the car. I leaned my forehead on the steering wheel, breathing, and I listened to the song. Then flashing blue lights.
“Is everything okay?” the officer asked.
“Yes, sir,” I said. I was steady now, but still not right. “No, sir, I haven’t been drinking. No drugs, sir. Insomnia. I couldn’t sleep. Some kind of animal, a rabbit I think, maybe a deer, jumped out and ran across the road, sir. I’m not hurt. I was trying to get myself under control, sir, because for a minute, I thought I was going to drive off the overpass. I thought I was going to die, sir.”
The policeman followed me for a mile or so as I drove back home.
The next morning, before Tyler went to auto shop and I went to co-op, we drank a vodka shot and I told him what happened. I told him about the dream, the test runs, and the cop. I told him I thought I really wanted to do it. I told him I chickened out.
He said, “I’m glad you didn’t do it, buddy. I mean it, man.”
He said, “You’re the only brother I’ve got.”
It didn’t matter that it was Prom Night, my curfew was still 11:15 p.m.—the time my dad left for his midnight shift at the auto plant. And because my dad had to work that night, leaving no adults in the house, I hosted the post-prom party. Two cars loaded with Tyler’s friends and friends of his friends and trunks loaded with beer waited four houses down. “Wait five minutes,” I told Tyler. “Make sure he’s gone. Then come on in.”
By 1 a.m., the crowd was gone. I was drunk and Tyler was bored. We had to get out of the house—so we wandered the subdivision and talked. He told me he was thinking about joining the Navy. He said there was nothing here for him. War—real war—never crossed our minds.
We walked up to my old elementary school. Behind the school was a hill. When I was little, third grade—maybe fourth—all the boys would play king of the mountain. Tyler lit a joint as we sat on the hill overlooking the playground—the monkey bars, dodgeball court and the lone tetherball pole. Behind us a few hundred feet away was the baseball field where my team almost finished in first place and the track where I walked during recess with my first-ever girlfriend—holding hands and confessing how scared we were to start junior high.
Tyler handed me the joint.
“If I join, will you?” he asked.
“The Navy, you could join too. We’ll travel the world.”
“You were serious?” I asked and handed him back the joint.
“Yeah, I think I am.”
Tyler often had these weird ideas—random declarations that later would be forgotten. Maybe it was the pot—or maybe I was still too drunk—but this time, right then, there was something in his voice. Maybe he was really going to do it. It was too much to think about.
“Do you see that door on the corner?” I asked as Tyler handed me the joint again.
“That’s where I would line up to go into class. Fourth grade. My teacher was Ms. Lewis. I remember she was so tall. And she had really long black hair—so long it touched her ass.” I took a hit and handed the roach to Tyler to finish.
“This kid Mitch—he was my best friend until fifth grade—he moved—he used to joke around about how long it was. This one time, he said he thought that her hair got wet when she sat down on the toilet to take a shit.”
Tyler laughed and coughed out his smoke and I laughed like crazy at the image of this thought.
“You wanna go inside?” Tyler asked. “I can get us in.”
“It’s easy,” he said. “Let’s go.” He took off running toward the back corner of the building.
He was serious. He was going to break into the school. If we got caught I could go to jail. We could go to jail. For a second, I had no idea what to do. I was thrilled and scared and confused. I watched Tyler run. I never asked for his friendship, but I had it. At times, he annoyed me, made me uncomfortable; he pushed me from the safety of my solitude and somehow he became my best friend, my brother. Yeah, we were both a little fucked-up but still mostly harmless. He did his crazy shit that could’ve gotten him in a lot of trouble and I did mine. Now we were going to do this shit together.
I ran after him and by the time I caught up, he already had a door open.
“How the fuck did you do that?”
“I’ll show you next time. Let’s go.”
As we stood in the hall, I remembered, like flashback, all my trips up and down the glass corridor. Trips to the gym, to the art room, to the nurse’s station, to the principal’s office.
Tyler lit a cigarette and said, “I am going to join.”
We stood quiet for a minute.
“I don’t think I want to,” I said.
“So now what?” I asked.
“Now? Now, we look around.”
“Because we’re not allowed to.”
And because we weren’t allowed to, we went to my old second grade class, then third, and then fourth. By the time I stood in my old sixth grade classroom, I was surprised how little everything changed. All the rooms had the same coat racks and closets. They all had the same bathrooms and the same desks, except now everything seemed so small.
Jim Miller received his MFA from the University of South Florida. Publishing credits include: Midwestern Gothic, Palooka, Fiction Fix, Prick of the Spindle, Fiction Fix and others, with work forthcoming in C4. He is the Co-Founding editor of (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image and is the Graphic Nonfiction editor for Sweet: a Literary Confection. You can visit his website at http://www.miller580.com.
Q: What surprised you most during the process of composing and revising this piece?
A: “Under Control” has been hanging around for quite awhile. I tried to push bits and pieces into their own thing—hiding them behind the masks of different characters. But no matter how hard I tried to let them hide in the safety of plausible deniability, they escaped and gathered in this space. I think what has surprised me most is how this story never gave up on me—no matter how hard I tried to break it—to leave it untold—it kept on until it was satisfied.
Q: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received? Did you follow it? Why, or why not?
A: One of my first writing teachers—an adjunct at a community college—told me after reading some really, really bad poems from the previous class that I had strength in prose and should focus on that. But that wasn’t really advice…that was a fact. Did I mention that the poems sucked? The advice ha gave was during our end of the semester conference. He handed me back my two short stories. He pulled a Matrix on me…offered me a choice, he would either tell me what he thought of my stories or he would tell me what he really thought of my work. I had been working in advertising for a while and had pretty thick skin so I asked for what he really thought. He told me that my stories were ok—but if writing was something that I really wanted to do, then it was time for me to quit fucking around and write. He said storytellers don’t need to act clever and demonstrate that they own a thesaurus…they just need to tell the story. He said that only when I was ready to tell the story would people want to read what I wrote.
I’d like to think that I have followed his advice. I’d like to think that I do tell stories. But I guess that’s for the reader to decide.
Q: What three to five authors and/or books have inspired your journey as a writer?
A: I draw inspiration from my old school literary heroes—ranging from Virginia Woolf, Fitzgerald and Vonnegut to contemporary writers such as A.M. Holmes, T.C. Boyle, Junot Díaz, and yes, Stephen King—all of which have their own unique voice entrenched in the American life.
Q: Describe your writing space for us. Are you someone who finds the muse in a public space such as a café, or in a cave of one’s own?
A: These days, I am writing everywhere from Panera, to the Kitchen table. Sometimes I write in a small bedroom with only an air mattress, a desk, and a 1980’s TV. The rest of the time, I write in my not yet renovated mess of an office where I am surrounded by cardboard boxes stacked as tall as me and large pieces of wood that will one day be my desk.