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"Three Cheers for the Loser Generation"
by Laura A. Hyman
Three Cheers for the Loser Generation
Asheville, North Carolina, 1995
It was the day that everything changed.
No, not “everything” as in I had a life-changing epiphany while waiting for my Big Mac in the McDonald’s drive-thru. No one died, and I didn’t meet anyone new. No, nothing like that.
I mean everything changed as in it was the first day of fall. Not the calendar date, calendar dates don’t mean shit. I mean the first realday of fall, when you wake up and the air is cooler and smells different and you know that from here on out you’ll be able to walk across a parking lot and not break a sweat. The days progressively get colder and your layers accumulate to keep up until one day you feel like that kid from “A Christmas Story” who can’t put his arms down.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was the first day of fall and I was walking downtown, my bare feet scraping against the sidewalk. Not wearing shoes was a habit of mine. Some would say a bad habit but I don’t buy into that. It was just a habit, neither good nor bad. My backpack was strapped to me and I mouthed along to the Janis Joplin song coming through my headphones. I stopped when I came across Wayne, one of the only friendly bums in town. He went from being a big shot on Wall Street back in the day to writing Dada poetry on scraps of paper he pulled out of garbage cans and talking to his water bottle. Coke and hookers sure will blow your money. “Hey Latoya.”
I took off my headphones and hung them around my neck. “Wayne, you know that’s not my name.”
“I know, I know.” It was our typical conversation. Sometimes he’d switch out Latoya for Wanda or Janet or some other name that obviously didn’t belong to me. It was part of his charm I guess.
“How’s it going, Wayne?”
“I heard a rumor today.”
“Yeah?” Being the town bum, he saw everything that happened and felt the great need to pass along any information he received. Telling Wayne something was the easiest way to start a rumor. In fact, I’d done it myself on several occasions, the crowning achievement being junior year when I told him that the quarterback had gotten herpes from a teaching intern. Within twelve hours everyone at school had heard it. Mark did eventually prove it to be nothing but a rumor, but I had never laughed so hard in my life.
“Actually,” Wayne said, “I saw it.”
“You can’t see rumors, Wayne.”
He waved the criticism off. “I saw your boy drive back into town today.”
“My boy?” I felt the need to ask even though I knew exactly who he was talking about. Danny, that good-for-nothing son of a bitch who told me he loved me and then proceeded to cheat on me with a sorority slut.
“Yeah, your boy, what’s his name? Daniel. He was in this nice new Corvette or something.”
“Don’t tell me he’s back in town. You know I told him I’d have to kill him if I saw him again and you don’t have the money to get me a lawyer, do you, Wayne?”
He laughed but I was only half joking. “No, ma’am, I do not have the money to hire you a lawyer. I knew a couple, but I lost their numbers.”
“Well if you see Danny again, tell him to eat shit and die. And tell him it’s from me.” I gave Wayne a smile and walked off.
“I think he’ll know who it’s from,” I heard him say, but I didn’t know if he was talking to me or his water bottle.
I kept walking, trying to think of all the reasons Danny Murphy would be back in town. I hadn’t heard of any of his family members dying, and something like that would certainly be big news. And I knew his sister was getting married but she lived in California or Nevada or somewhere out in another time zone. There was no logical reason for him to be back. It had been a year, and while a bigger person may have moved on and forgiven, if not forgotten, it still made me fucking crazy to think that he’d nailed some random sorority chick before sleeping with me hours later. After I gave him a fucking year and a half of my life that I’ll never get back.
It was Wayne who broke the news to me. “I don’t want to upset you, but…” He then told me how he’d seen Danny leaving a sorority house with a shit-eating grin on his face and a girl standing in the doorway in nothing but a towel. “She yelled to him thanks for everythingor it was all it was cracked up to beor something like that.” It didn’t matter what the hell she’d said because when I confronted Danny about it he didn’t even have the good sense to lie to me.
“It didn’t mean anything, though, baby.” But I had already launched his shoe at his head. Too bad about his quick reflexes.
I turned the corner and crossed under the gate into the park, where sweaty high school kids were playing a pickup game of baseball. I sat on a bench and pulled out a worn copy of On the Road. Dean was a hero of mine, being able to just say “fuck it” to everything and go from coast to coast whenever the whim struck him. Never mind that I didn’t have a car, or my license. That was merely a technicality.
I’d barely read ten pages when Stacy appeared out of nowhere and took a seat next to me. We’d been friends since eighth grade when we’d worn identical Grateful Dead shirts to school. Turns out, both of us had washed-up hippies for parents who knew each other in the ‘60s and ‘70s but apparently didn’t remember until about two weeks into our friendship. “My dad says he knows your mom,” she said. “But he can’t remember where he met her.” When I asked my mom about it, she said “I met him at a Be-In, in LA. We were lovers for a while,” which of course caused me to gag a little. No one wants to know about their parents’ love lives, especially when it involves the parent of a friend. “Wow. What are the odds?” she said, smiling.
More recently, I’d been crashing at Stacy’s place since Danny left town. Her parents moved to Florida after we graduated high school and left her the house she’d grown up in. There were a bunch of us crashing there, a revolving door of friends which meant there was always something going on. And music, there was always music playing, either from speakers or some makeshift band that formed from whoever happened to be in the house.
Stacy pulled my headphones off. “How can you read and listen to music at the same time?”
“It’s an acquired skill.”
I closed the book and shoved it in my backpack. “Danny is back in town.”
Her eyebrows pulled together. “What is that fucker doing back?”
“I don’t know. Wayne saw him driving.”
“Shit. What are you going to do?”
“Nothing. I do nothing. Why should I do anything?”
“Because. It’s fucking Danny.”
“It’s been a year.”
“And that makes it okay?”
“He already knows it wasn’t okay.”
She shrugged and sat back, her legs coming uncrossed. “Well do you want to at least egg his house or something?”
“No. I’m not going to let it hurt me anymore.” It was a rash decision, because up until the words came out of my mouth it was still hurting me, but as soon as I said it I knew I had to make it true.
“Whatever, man. Can I egg his house?”
“If you want, I guess.”
We sat in silence for a minute, me thinking of how egging his place would be super satisfying and one last hurrah before he stopped hurting me, and Stacy probably thinking it would just be fun. “I can’t believe that fucker is back,” she said finally.
I shrugged. “Nothing we can do about it.”
“I guess. Do you have to go to work?”
I looked at my watch. “In about an hour.”
“I can’t believe Danny is back.”
“It’s not that bad!”
“You say that now. Wait until you run into him. It’ll be bad, I guarantee it.”
“Must you always predict gloom and doom?”
“I’m just being realistic. You’ve let this hang over you for a year, you can’t just drop it.”
“What are you Oprah or something?”
“I’m just saying.”
“Well don’t say, all right?”
I looked over at her and she was trying to suppress a laugh. That’s the thing about Stacy. She can never end a conversation without laughing, no matter how serious things are. Except the time her dad called to say her grandma died. There was no laughing then. She told me once that she laughed because she thought the world was an absurd joke, and whenever she caught herself being too serious, she realized what an asshole she was being. “You’re a crazy bitch, you know that?” I laughed.
“Don’t I know it.” She got her laughter under control and ran a hand through her hair. “Look, I’m just saying that I agree with you. You shouldn’t let it hurt you anymore. I just don’t think you can do it over night.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“I’ve got to meet Matt. I’ll see you at home.” She hugged me, like she always did before she left, and walked off, waving to the guys playing baseball even though she didn’t know any of them.
Matt was her on again, off again boyfriend who was currently in the process of getting back on. It had been this way since our sophomore year of high school. I liked him well enough, and whenever they were together- or apart, for that matter- Stacy would always proclaim how much she was in love with him. I couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t just get it together.
I went back to my reading but was interrupted by a voice I knew all too well. The voice wasn’t talking to me but I heard it, from the makeshift baseball field across the grass, and my jaw clenched.
“Mind if I join you guys?” it asked, and I felt like screaming yes! We do mind.But my jaw remained clenched.
I watched the owner of the voice but he wasn’t looking at me. I muttered a few obscenities and shoved Kerouac in my bag. He looked exactly as I remembered him except for the stubble that had finally sprouted. I swung my backpack over my shoulder, deciding that going into work early wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
The best thing about working at Twice Told Tales was, of course, that there’s nothing cooler than working at a used bookstore, except maybe owning one. The second best thing was that it was the only place in town that would let me go shoeless. I walked in, the familiar smell of old paper greeting me.
“Why are you in so early?” Mrs. Rita asked. She’d owned the place for twenty years and no one was sure why everyone tacked the “Mrs.” onto her name. She wasn’t married, and as far as anyone knew never had been.
“What, you’re not happy to see an employee eager to work?”
“If you’re expecting an extra half hour pay, you can forget about it.” She smiled and I knew she’d give it to me. Her wrinkles were a timeline of her fifty-something years, during which she’d done things that earned her the title of Most Interesting Person Ever. I knew probably less than a quarter of her escapades, but I knew they included hippies, war protests, trekking across a desert and Prince Charles, who she insisted she’d met in a bar once.
I tossed my bag behind the counter, which roused Mr. Kite, the store’s resident cat. I gave him a quick pet. “Mrs. Bales came in today. I don’t even want to look at what she brought,” Mrs. Rita said.
I shook my head. Mrs. Bales was about a hundred and forty years old and had an apparently never ending collection of books. She’d come about every other week on the bus and make the driver wait while she came in and commandeered one of us to carry a paper bag full of books in. She never wanted cash or store credit for the books and she never bought anything. “I just don’t have the need for all these anymore,” she’d say before making her way back on the bus and heading to the grocery store.
“I can’t deny her,” Mrs. Rita said. “How can you tell an eighty-year-old no?”
“You can’t.” I pulled all the books out and made three stacks on the counter.
Mrs. Rita left to run errands. I was halfway through shelving the books when the bell above the door announced a visitor. “I’ll be right with you,” I called. I stuffed one more book on a shelf and stood.
The back of his head came into view before anything else. I knew it was him, even though his hair was longer. Longer but just as curly. Why I thought his hair wouldn’t be curly anymore, I don’t know.
Everything I’d said to Stacy about letting it go suddenly seemed irrelevant and impossible. “Are you stalking me?” I walked around the counter to put a buffer between us.
“What are you talking about?” His voice had none of the unpleasantness mine did.
“I saw you at the park.”
“What, I can’t play baseball anymore?”
“What are you doing here then? I’ve never seen you pick up a book in your life.”
That produced a smile from him, the smile I’d loved so much for so long. “How do you know what I’ve been up to these days?”
“I knew what you were up to a year ago and it was something you shouldn’t have been.”
“I’m here because I actually need a book, Emily.”
I laughed. “Yeah right.”
“This coming from the girl who reads Kerouac every other week?”
He had me there, I admit. “With the K’s in fiction. Go find it yourself.”
“Really, Emily, it’s with the K’s? I had no idea.”
“Good to see you’re still an asshole.”
I went back to shelving while he scampered off to find Kafka. I didn’t buy that he needed the book, not for a single second, otherwise he wouldn’t have waited for me at the counter. Kafka was probably the only author he could remember off the top of his head. I squeezed books in where they shouldn’t have fit, my jaw clenched the whole time.
“I’m ready,” he called.
I stood and brushed my hands on my jeans. “Is that what that sorority slut said?” I said as I came around the counter.
“If sleeping with me makes someone a slut, what does that make you?”
“It makes me the dumbest person on earth for thinking that you actually loved me. Three dollars.”
He produced a five from his pocket and handed it over. “I did love you.”
“Not enough, apparently.” The cash register popped open right into my stomach. I pulled out two singles.
He practically ripped the cash from my hand. “You know, I didn’t think you’d still be so pissed off.”
“Why would you think that?”
He shifted his weight from foot to foot and looked at a point beyond my head. “It’s been over a year. And…” He paused and cleared his throat. “I’m not worth it, Emily.”
My eyebrows knit together. “What?” Danny was nothing if not crafty, and I suspected some ploy to get me back on his good side for whatever reason he may have for wanting me on his good side.
“Never mind.” He slid the book from the counter and walked out.
A moment after the door closed Mrs. Rita walked in. “Was that Danny I just passed?” There was always a hint of mischief in her voice, but those words contained an extra helping or two.
“The boy is stalking me.”
“Showing up in the town he grew up in now constitutes stalking?” She came around the counter and I propelled myself to sit on top.
“Come on. He shows up after a year suddenly wanting to read Kafka. Have you ever seen him read anything before?”
“Stranger things have happened.”
“No, they haven’t. And then he said some shit about him not being worth my hatred or something.”
“Maybe he’s finally regretting the one that got away.”
“I didn’t get away.” I stretched out full across the counter, as though Mrs. Rita were my therapist. “I was pushed away.”
“That may be so, but maybe he’s finally regretting it.”
“I doubt that.”
“Get up off my counter, I don’t know if you’ve showered today.”
“As a matter of fact, I have.” But I sat up anyway.
“All I’m saying is people really do change, and you shouldn’t forget that.”
“There’s no way I’m giving that bastard a second chance.”
“I wasn’t saying you should.”