Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
  • Home
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
Short Story
2954 words
SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

An American Day

by Brian Howlett

“That is, without a doubt,” George says blissfully, issuing a tight funnel of smoke. He leans against the elm tree, finding shade and his own space within our tight little circle. He is a little boy on Christmas morning who has just opened the gift he asked Santa for; the starting quarterback for the high school varsity watching a long bomb drop safely into his receiver’s hands; the lead singer of a boy band finishing its first set for ten thousand sixteen-year-old girls in heat. He is a glorious white Buddha, and we wait, respecting his moment with the weed, yet also expecting him to complete the thought. But he simply smiles into the silence that he’s created.

“Get on with it,” grumps Barker. “And if you’re done, pass her along.”

“What?” George asks sweetly.

“That is, without a doubt, what?” Barker suddenly grabs the joint from George, something we never do. Barker is impatient with life and that includes getting high. Me, I fancy myself a gentleman stoner. I appreciate the ritual of rolling a perfect joint while discussing politics, music, or the economic outlook as my co-conspirators watch my clever fingers at work.

“Right. Apologies,” continues George. “That is, without a doubt, a strain of marijuana my brain cells do not have on file.” He chuckles, maybe more at his own sudden verbal dexterity than at the humor. His eyes are glassy. Wow. One toke.

The four of us haven’t been together in six years, and here we are, eight minutes into the sacred reunion, hiding behind Doug’s garage so the nanny doesn’t see us. We’ve barely had time to say hello. Then again, we’ve known each other so long we don’t feign interest in mundane talk of marriages, jobs, or prospects in life. We say, “How’s it going?” but don’t expect an answer. Which isn’t to say we don’t care. Never confuse interest with caring. Two different ships; two different seas.

“Pot is way more potent these days,” Doug, ever the diplomat, weighs in, politely waiting his turn. “Female plants breeding with females, what do you expect but power run amok?” He laughs but no one joins in. Doug is funny on the phone, but for some reason he loses his touch face-to-face. Still smiling, he keeps his eyes on Barker, who is indulging in a second, brutally long toke. We are humbled at his lung capacity. The heater sizzles along the spine of the joint, the rolling paper disappearing fast, never to be seen again. “I don’t know how you manage to keep smoking the stuff, Barks,” Doug continues.

“Don’t bullshit us,” Barker finally replies after a long exhale. He gets right in Doug’s face. “You partake at this buffet as much as me.”

I spark up a second joint, as much to change the subject as anything.

“Life moves pretty fast.” It’s George again. This time his memory is bang on. I exhale prematurely, eager to complete the sentence before anyone else.

“If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” I say.

We all laugh at the famous line from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Correction: one of the famous lines. Ferris is our all-time favorite flick. We know it by heart. It’s why we’re here at 8:21 on a Tuesday morning, when all the other grown-ups are at work. Every year we take a “Bueller.” Or at least, these past few years, have talked about taking one. Not that I’m pointing fingers. I have no abiding interest in regrets. And I certainly don’t want to experience the meaning of resentment. I want to taste only sweet, light offerings. Swimming pools. Blueberry pie. Snowboards. Marching bands and tailgate parties.

This is the movie’s thirtieth anniversary, and we agreed that nothing was going to stop us from marking it. I’m Paul, by the way. Which leaves us two names short of a full Beatles. Shit—I’ve never thought of that until just now! Doug is right. This dope is strong.

It’s unusually warm for November but that doesn’t surprise me. Ferris has the magic touch. We’ve often debated whether he is meant to be more than a mere teenager, kind of like Chauncey in Being There was just a simpleton gardener until he walked on water at movie’s end. Ferris doesn’t perform miracles but he does somehow transcend the mortal limits of high school life.

“Is the nanny hot?” Barker asks Doug. Good. He’s calming down.

“A bonfire. I make it a point not to engage in eye contact with her,” Doug replies. However much of a dick Barker can be, Doug is always quick to accept his olive branch.

“That can’t be helpful to have around the house,” George offers. George was the first to get divorced. Growing up, none of our parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, or siblings got divorced. Weird, for sure. So when it happened to George, the day before his fortieth, there was no context. He emailed us a clip from Ferris: the shot of Cam’s dad’s Porsche going bumper first into the pool. All he wrote was, “Lori’s checking out. She’s taking the cabin. I get the kid. Me.”

We never mentioned her name again. Maybe one day when we’re old and even George doesn’t care about her anymore, I can tell him I never liked her.

“At this time of year, children are prone to taking the day off.” I pluck another Buellerism from the air. We laugh again. Reciting a movie line takes no talent, but who cares? We find ourselves, at the moment, to be the four funniest guys on earth, which also qualifies us as the four luckiest guys on earth.

“The work bell rings in twenty-nine minutes,” says George. He could have said thirty but with dope comes exactitude. “We gotta do something. Pancakes at The Willow? Head to the driving range? Maybe go into the Smoke, see if there’s a decent band playing tonight?”

Deciding what to do is the toughest part of a “Bueller.” The number-one rule is there can’t be too tight of a plan. When Ferris rolls out of bed in the opening scene, he is stepping off the hamster wheel, prepared to roll with whatever the day presents. He knows, as do we, that whatever happens, he has already won just for checking out.

Doug brings a cooler of beers from the garage. “Beer o’clock. Where does the day go?”

I’m disappointed to see cans of Schlitz under too few cubes of ice. “Discount.”

“It’s garage beer.” Doug’s defensive. “I don’t need premium to do chores on the weekend.”

This will be my earliest beer since camping as a teenager with these guys at Lake-No-Name. The beer tastes pretty good for 8:34 a.m.

“I can’t believe it’s been thirty years since the movie came out,” says Doug, more to himself.

We lean back into our beers, nodding, casting our thoughts over the remnants of three decades. It’s nice not having to talk. I miss having these guys keep me company while I’m alone with my thoughts. Walking over to Doug’s place earlier this morning was strange. It’s my neighborhood too, but I felt like an intruder. Weekdays in the suburbs belong to the school kids and crossing guards and plumbing vans and roofing trucks and postal trucks. You aren’t supposed to be here, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, no briefcase in hand, or jogging gear, just walking along without a kid or dog in tow.

We hoover through two beers each, pot chasing beer chasing pot. We don’t notice that George is gone until he reappears, smiling. “Bang like that.”

“Not again. Finish your fucking sentence,” says Barker.

“I got her number. Jill, the nanny.”

“No way,” I muster.

“You can never get a girl’s name, let alone number,” argues Barker, too happy to bring George back to earth.

“It was easy. A little eye contact was all it took, brother.” He holds a scrap of paper aloft like the Stanley Cup. “Besides, she had to give it to me today.”

“Because it’s a Bueller,” I say, completing his thought.

George winks at me.

“You can’t date my nanny, George,” says Doug finally. He realizes he sounds ridiculous, and he knows we’ll ignore the comment.

“I have never seen an ugly Jill, have you?” Barker wonders aloud. “I must have met, I don’t know, eight or ten girls with that name, at least. Every single one was totally cute. Maybe there’s some kind of Jill-law.”

We can’t stay here. Or two beers will become five, 8:30 will become noon, and we will have wasted an entire precious Bueller.

“How many bikes are you up to now?” I ask Doug. I go into the garage and see five bikes hanging on the wall. “Buddy, you got a problem, you know that?” I go over to take one down.

“Hold on! I’ll do it.” Doug pushes me away. “They’re not all mine. Sarah and the kids ride too.”

“We’ll be careful,” says George. “You know we’ll respect your rides.”

“I’ll have to adjust the seat posts.”

“We’re all pretty much the same height,” I counter. “That’s one reason people got us confused growing up.”

“Okay. Okay.” Doug takes four bikes down. He knows he doesn’t get a vote.

“You have an electric lawn mower? You pussy,” says Barker.

George is the first to wheel down the driveway, beer in hand. We catch up to him. And here we are, closing in on 9:00, closing in on forty-five, cruising along Wilket Street without a care in the world. Our pace picks up. We all understand that this bike ride must turn into a race.

“Pedal like you aren’t afraid to die,” screams Barker as he passes me, hands-free, laughing wildly. He veers around a slow car, then jumps the curb. Not bad.

“No curbs,” screams Doug from behind. “The rims!” A crossing guard comes into the street to stop traffic for us but thinks better of it and retreats to the sidewalk. The four of us weave around each other at high speed, narrowly missing each other, like an eight-wheeled symphony. I feel it and I know they do, too. We’ve always been better together than alone. That is something even Ferris wasn’t fortunate enough to experience.

St. Pat’s is up ahead. We could turn left and avoid it, but of course we keep going, back to high school. Even though it’s in the neighborhood, I rarely go by it, but being with these guys changes everything. We slow along the street behind the school. The teachers’ parking lot presents the same cross-section of sensible sedans from our day. Not much has changed in the student parking lot either. Jacked-up pickups stand beside beaters that those students with part-time jobs have managed to buy. There is even a van right out of our own decade. A few students mill about, even though the bell has rung. Do they know about Ferris Bueller? Is it their classic too?

We pass the soccer field. Poor St. Pat’s. The turf is brown dirt. The goalposts are rusting, the crossbars sagging. Other schools have installed the vibrant artificial grass that is eternally spring-like. St. Pat’s has always been at the end of the line for school-board largesse.

Barker leads us through the gate behind the field, and we find the narrow path to the ravine. Down below I see that the dopers are there, as usual. Nothing has changed. The hill is steep but none of us dismount. George flies down but hits a boulder and does an end-over. We grind to a stop at the bottom. He gets off the ground.

“Not a scratch on me,” he says. “I should have broken something but I’m good.”

Doug examines the bike but, amazingly, it’s also fine. “Wow,” he says in relief. “I guess it is a Bueller.”

“Spark one up, Paul,” Barker says. The three teenagers ease silently over to join our circle, a testament to dope’s ability to eliminate age differences. We exchange some “heys” but not much else. I don’t have any interest in hearing what life at St. Pat’s is like these days nor in what a seventeen-year-old today might be thinking. We quickly burn through two joints. They offer one up but it’s poorly rolled. “No, thanks,” says Barker. “But maybe we’ll come back and teach you how to do it properly one day.” He breaks the circle.

“Time to rob Starbucks,” he continues, hauling his bike back up the hill, and we follow. We’re pretty stoned now and need to stick together. We ride the few blocks to Main in silence, slowly, this time not challenging each other. Doug opts to remain with the bikes as we head inside. Tony Bennett is on today’s playlist. Not sure why Starbucks loves jazz so much. Between Diana Krall and Bennett and Norah Jones, they do what they can to discourage me from overstaying my welcome.

“Okay, let’s rob them,” I say to Barker with a laugh.

“Bloody right,” he says, his pace picking up. A shot of panic passes between George and me. I know what he’s going to do before it happens, like I’ve seen this movie before. He’s actually going to rob the place. Luckily, we’re the only customers.

“You’re a trainee,” Barker says pleasantly to the barista. “My lucky day.” I don’t recognize him as I watch him lean over the counter and grab a fist full of cash from the till. He drops a few coins into the tip jar on his way out. I look back to make sure no one is coming in and notice the clock. It is exactly 10:13 a.m. when we commit our first felony.

Barker races by me and we rush outside, hop on our bikes, and fly. Doug, confused, is not far behind. I veer off Main into the safety of the cul-de-sacs we know so well. Barker is laughing, the bastard. I want to lose him, but he keeps up with me, pedal for pedal. For the first time I want to put all three of these guys far behind me, but I’ve never been able to outride them. I turn onto Willow Street. This is where we grew up; we’re the people who hung the tacky, multicolored Christmas lights while the richer neighborhoods strung their subtler, soft whites. The bungalows we knew as kids are gone, replaced by monster homes that take up as much of the modest lots as the city allows. But these elms and willows and spruce are in our bones. We come to a stop. We see that we aren’t being followed and know we’ve gotten away with it. That poor trainee will be about the worst witness the police could hope for. But how far will our luck take us on this day?

“Thank you, Ferris!” Barker says. He holds up a small wad of bills, maybe forty or fifty bucks. “Love Dunkin’ Donuts. Hate fucking Starbucks. That’ll serve them right for firing me.”

“You didn’t work at Starbucks,” Doug says. “You sell insurance.”

“These big global companies, they’re all the same,” says Barker. “But I’m good now. Things are square with the universe.”

“I can’t believe what you just did, you stupid idiot,” says Doug. “Next time you have an idea, let us in on it.”

There is a Porsche parked in front of us, testament to how far upscale the neighborhood has come.

“Panamera,” says Doug. “Worse than the Cayenne. Still can’t believe Porsche did it. Four doors.”

“Do you believe it?” George says. “The asshole left his keys inside.”

“Of course he did,” says Barker. He gets off his bike.

“A man with such priorities doesn’t deserve this fine automobile,” George nervously offers up another Bueller-ism, but no one laughs as Barker opens the door.

“Okay, Doug,” Barker says. “This time I’m telling you my idea. You might want to lock up the bikes.” He slips into the driver’s seat. I look at Doug and George. I suddenly feel faint. Barker turns the car on. I look up at the house.

“Naturally. It’s an automatic,” Barker says. “Blasphemy.”

“Maybe I did sprain my ankle or something,” says Doug. I see that it’s swelling up.

“Nah. I’m sure you’re fine,” says George.

“Next stop, my office,” says Barker, pulling out. “Are you with me?”

Why would I want to be part of this? We should just get on the bikes and go, but Doug has already locked them up and goes into the passenger seat. George climbs into the back seat. Barker pulls out a few feet; they’re waiting for me. The engine, even though it may be a bastard Porsche, sounds like nothing I’ve ever driven. I get inside. I lean back into the leather upholstery, feeling the engine hum through its acceleration.

“I told my boss I’d clean my desk out today,” says Barker. “We’ll just head over there for a few minutes. Maybe I’ll grab a quick coffee with her. Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be fine.”

He pushes it past sixty. I close my eyes and push away the anxiety. The four of us are together. We’ve lifted our heads from the rabbit hole to see what’s out there in the big, wide world. I feel free. I know in my heart that nothing can go wrong because I am forty-four years old, and I have never once believed, even for a second, that a train can go off the rails. That a twister can touch down on a house or a flood break the banks of the river. Not a chance. Bueller rules, always.

SHJ Issue 14
Spring 2016

Brian Howlett

is an advertising copywriter who recently started getting serious about writing short stories. He has enjoyed early success, having had his first efforts published in Limestone Magazine, Crack the Spine, and Queen’s Quarterly. He was also a finalist in the Writer’s Union of Canada 2015 Short Prose competition. Brian received his B.A. in English from McMaster University, where he was recipient of the Humanities Medal and served as Managing Editor of the university newspaper.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury