Ted McLoof

So my plane gets in early and there's zero to do in my home town—which I haven't visited in three years—but I remember that if there's a place to be on a Saturday night in Midland Park, New Jersey, it's Legends. You know, Legends. Every town has one. Not Legends specifically but a townie bar of its ilk: shittily lit, oak tables, dance floor dimpled and pock-marked like it's got acne. I take a look around the place and I recognize not a soul, which, to give you context, when I was coming here nightly for those few years after high school when I didn't have my shit together and I was living in my mom's attic—during those years we knew everyone at Legends, this place was like our living room, actually I probably knew more people at Legends than at my own house considering how seldom I knew the names of the guys my mom brought home. But since then the crowd I used to go with has gotten older, traded in their Irish car bombs and beer bottles for German car dealers and baby bottles, so anyway I don't know anyone here right now and I'm about to 180 and put a Ted-shaped hole in the north wall when I see Horse at the end of the bar, watching the game. Horse: former Midland Park High School quarterback. Horse: who had more sex our freshman year of high school than I've had my entire life. Horse: who's right now sitting alone, slumped in his chair, waving me over like he's been expecting me.
     What have you been up to Horse I ask, and he smiles like it's all one big joke, and it is, life, for him. Getting thrown out of ex-girlfriends' houses he says. Getting thrown out of bars. You know how it is. I don't, but I half-smile anyway, making sure not to fully smile since it's difficult to forget when Horse was twelve and it wasn't girlfriends or bouncers turning him away but his own father. It's easy to surmise that Horse's life has been basically a series of getting kicked out of places where he thought he felt home sweet home.
     It's a small shitty bar in a small shitty town where everyone knows everyone else's shit, and I wonder momentarily if Horse knows what I've been up to, and it's like he can read my mind because he says How's it out there? ASU right? and I say U of A to the TV screen where, sure enough, the Wildcats are showing the Sun Devils what's what up and down the field as we speak. The cameras pan to a shot of the cheerleaders and Horse says The chicks must be smoking hot at that school, huh? And I say Well they're my students, in a tone where I may as well be saying they're my daughters, So it's not really like that. He raises his hand at the bartender like a man hailing a cab. Smokin hot he says, and flicks my sternum to punctuate each word. I insist that he not pay for my beer, I mean I'm not exactly planning on staying here with him if you get me, but there must be some secret Jerseyan handshake I've forgotten because the bartender's already popping the tops off our beers before I can say anything, so I say You smoke and he goes Cigarettes? and I nod, and he's already grabbing his coat with one hand and patting the small of my back with that quarterback's mix of fuck-you and good-to-see-ya as we walk out.

Real quick so this one thing about Horse: our senior year of high school I threw a party when my dad went away for the weekend, and Lindsay Allen broke up with me at it—at my own fucking party at my own fucking house she did it, I swear to God—and so I figured fuck it, it's my party and I'll cry if I want to, so I just went upstairs to mope in my bedroom until the last person left and I had to clean up. But when I got up there I saw Horse dangling one of my dad's cats upside down by his tail and the other cat under the bed and I went What the hell are you doing, me, I said that, all 90 pounds of me at the time, to Horse, the school quarterback, who even at seventeen looked like a well-built full-grown man; Horse, who two nights later had sex with Lindsay himself. But at that second I was drunk and all I saw was someone fucking with my dad's cats on the night the first girl I ever loved broke my heart. So I said Get the hell out of here and he put the cat down and shrugged and walked past me—no pun intended—with his tail between his legs and I checked to see if the cats were okay, and before I knew it Horse had my throat in his grip, my head against the wall, his face turning purple like he was the one being choked, talking through those huge two front teeth that earned him his nickname, saying Don't ever. Fucking. Talk to me like that. Again.

I'm telling you this because it's what I'm thinking about right now while we're outside smoking my cigarettes together, the professor and the quarterback—I wonder if he remembers nearly choking me to death, but I can't bring it up because I'm looking at him now and he doesn't look like the quarterback, I know it's a cliché but this is a true story, what am I supposed to say, Horse really looks like this: beer gut, barely any hair left, baggy eyes. I couldn't feel any worse for him if he himself was a cat being tortured by a sadistic seventeen-year-old. So instead I just say What are you doing for work, Horse? And he goes Pipes, underground piping, wall piping, that kind of thing and I open my mouth to respond despite the lack of anything on my tongue's tip since I'd be hard pressed to name a corner of the world I know less about, but he lets me off the hook when he says I'm basically a glorified plumber, not anything as fun as ASU I'm sure and I go U of A and he just keeps it up while he stares at the window advertising 99 cent hot dogs at 7-11, he says I was gonna go to Australia, there's this program at work where they send you for five months and you learn more about piping and water systems down there, at which comment I can't help myself and so say I'm sure it's eye-opening to work with toilet water that spins clockwise, which joke he either doesn't appreciate or doesn't get because he just goes I dunno and stares at the two blonde teenagers walking out of 7-11 with Red Bulls in hand, I mean they're seventeen years old if they're a day and Horse is staring at them hungrily, like they themselves are 99 cent hot dogs, and they're pretending not to notice in that teenagery way where let's face it they clearly do notice and I'm feeling really uncomfortable until Horse goes, Hey, I wanna show you something.

One more thing about Horse before I get to this last part. I haven't seen him in probably eightish years and sure part of that is because I moved out to Arizona five years ago but more generally it's because of the fundamentally divergent paths our lives have taken since we graduated high school a decade ago. Horse went to Springfield University on a full football scholarship for exactly one semester until—and again I know this is a cliché but again I don't know how to avoid cliché when you're doing nothing more than recapping the facts of someone's life—Horse got kicked out for drinking too much one night and wrapping his car around a lamppost in the parking lot of the student union. Kicked out, mind you, from yet another place he was supposed to feel home sweet home. After that I saw him a fair amount, this was when I was still going to Legends and Horse's face started appearing more and more right around the time mine was appearing less and less, and he basically just lived at home with his mom and drank until one night he got arrested for having sex with a fifteen-year-old and went to prison for three years—he'd wanted to become a gym teacher but obviously those three years more or less eviscerated that plan, hence I guess the plumbing—and when he got released he moved back in with his mom, who died of breast cancer this past January and left her house to him.
     We're standing in said house right now, in its carpeted living room with its floral wallpaper, the lights are off and we're looking at the fireplace which is surrounded by kind of basically what you'd call a shrine if not a full on memorial, actually you're all from Tucson so here you go: what it looks like is the sign outside Gabby Giffords' office c. February 2011 when the whole community came together and decorated the place with flowers and banners of support, except instead of flowers this whole thing is covered in pictures of Horse's mom. There might be a hundred and it's her at every age, she has short hair and dark hair and long hair and light hair and 80s hair and 90s hair and in nearly all of them Horse is with her, and in nearly all of those she's holding him somehow, in her arms when he's a newborn and on her shoulders after a little league game and in an embrace at our graduation, and in all of these pictures Horse looks like—well, he looks home sweet home. She was pretty, Horse's mom, and we used to give him shit for that, as you do, and I feel like an asshole right now because all I can think of is Gene Hackman's line from The Royal Tenenbaums: I'm sorry for your loss, your mother was a terribly attractive woman. Instead thank god I just say What is that, meaning the shrine, even though I know the actual proper word for it. That's my mom he says, and his tone is weird, like I'm a stranger he's introducing to her, like we're looking right now at the woman herself. She liked this thing, he says, this thing he doesn't know the word for, so I figured I'd make it nice for her. It looks like he's gonna cry any second, not sob or wail but something quieter, like someone trying to stifle a yawn, and he says She missed me a lot when I was away, and we let the words "in prison" float around for someone to catch but no one does. I think of Tucson and want to cheer him up so say They have this thing called the Day of the Dead parade in Tucson. Where we celebrate the lives of people who've recently died. He just keeps looking at what he's made so I go on. That I point at it is called a "retable." It's a French word but I think it originated in Latin. It's an unattractive word but I almost like that. There's a kind of music in its clumsiness. In what it means. He looks at me like he's just been slapped. Ted, he spits my name like a curse, that's always been your problem. You can never just call something what it is, and he turns back to the pictures and says That's my mom, and then says it a few more times, as though the repetition will help everything make sense: That's my mom, that's my mom.