“It’s just a stud, you’d barely even notice it!” Steve Andrews had been begging his mother to lend him some money to get a nose ring. It was the kind of thing she would never have let her older kids do, but last semester she had agreed to let him get one if he could get all his grades up to at least a B-. It wasn’t that he was a particularly bad student or that he had bad influences. He was highly intelligent, had never done drugs, had only had alcohol that once when he snuck a beer from the fridge and drank it alone in his room. He drank half and poured the rest in the toilet. No, he was just not that interested in school. He just wanted to hang out. But the nose ring? That was worth trying for. He came through. All Bs, except for that A in woodworking, which was really a pass/fail grade. Now it was summer and he was going to hold his mother to her end of the deal.
“How much was it, again?”
“It’s only $65.”
“Only? Let me guess. You’re expecting me to pay for it.”
“Moooom! That was the deal! Remember?”
“I said you could get an earring, not me.”
“That is NOT what you said!” In fact, it wasn’t what she had said. She had clearly promised she would buy him a nose ring if he could get his grades up. Only, at the time she didn’t think he could do it.
“Fine, but I’ll only pay for half. You’ve got to start taking more responsibility.”
“What am I supposed to do? I’ve only got, like, $10.”
“Ha! What are you supposed to do? Get a job! Start earning your keep! All you ever do is sit around playing video games with those loser friends of yours and eating anything good I have in the house.”
“Whatever.” Steve slunk up to his room and called his friend Adam. “Dude, you’re mom’s a B!”
“I know, right?”
“What’re you gonna do?”
“Get a job, I guess.”
“Hey, I know how you can make some money. Bottles.”
“Like, selling sodas?”
“No! There’s this bottle redemption center in Maine my dad sometimes goes to. They give you ten cents for every bottle and can. And I think it’s like 45 cents for liquor bottles. There’s one in Mass, but they give you, like five cents. Maine’s the way to go.”
“Awesome! Hey, I’m gonna text Ashley and see if she can get the empties from the diner.”
Steve was up until 11:30 making calls, texting and sending private messages on Social Media, and when he was done, he had 16 friends lined up to supply him with all the bottles they could get their hands on. Over the next week, he traveled back and forth between houses and restaurants, stopping to pick up any stray bottles or cans he saw by the road. At last he had 12 black plastic bags filled to capacity with soda cans, beer bottles, juice bottles and liquor bottles.
“Mom, I need the car, I’m going to drop off some stuff in Maine.”
His mother was sitting on the couch shifting between a sitcom and a reality TV show about cat breeders. She looked at Steve skeptically.
“What kind of stuff?”
“Oh, that stuff. Do you have enough for gas and tolls?”
Steve hadn’t mapped out his route, let alone calculated gas mileage, and he didn’t know there were any tolls, but he had roughly estimated how much you could get for a bag of cans and he figured he would definitely have enough once he got there.
“Yeah. I got plenty.”
“Fine. But I need the car later, I’ve gotta run errands.”
Steve crammed the last bag into the passenger seat. Every square inch of the car, aside from the driver’s seat, was crammed with bottles. He had had to split one of the bulky black bags into grocery bags so he could Tetris them in, and he still had to take a few out and wedge them individually into stray open patches in order to fit everything. Finally he was getting on the road. He found the address of the nearest redemption center in Maine, asked his phone to navigate, wedged it between the dashboard and a bag, and started the engine. He was going to be rich! If he’d calculated right, he had at least $100 worth of bottles, maybe more!
Steve pulled into the Mobil gas station at the edge of town. Which side was the gas tank on? Left I think. He popped the gas tank and got out. Yes!Today was his lucky day! As he filled the tank, he thought of all the things he would do with the rest of the money. There was the new Battle Wager coming out, but his dad would probably get it for him for his birthday. With that kind of money, he could order out every night and never have to come down for dinner! He could buy some skinny jeans like Adam’s. He looked at the gauge and saw it had hit $11.35. Panicking, he ripped the pump handle out of the car without waiting for the gas to stop flowing, drizzling a brown puddle that caught his white sneakers. Steve looked down at his feet. That’s ok, I’ll have enough to buy some All-Stars. He rooted under the car seats and found two quarters, three dimes, a nickel and several pennies. He looked at the gauge again. $11.87. He rummaged through his pockets and found another quarter and his lucky silver half-dollar, but hey, he wasn’t a kid anymore. He took out his $10 bill and added it all up. He was still three cents short. Thank God for the penny bin. Finally he was on the road, headed for the Maine border.
At the border he saw a sign reading “Toll road ahead. $2 per axel.” Oh man! He had totally forgotten about the tolls. Then he had an idea: he could just ask for a ticket and pay it on the way back when he had the money. “Uh, I don’t have $4. Can I, like, pay later?”
The man took out a brochure and circled a website on the back. “You have to log in here and give your info. There’s a $15 fee for missing a toll.”
Steve drove on. That’s ok, I’ll have enough after Maine. After taking a wrong exit, wandering around some run down mill town, finally finding the right exit, wandering around an even more run down mill town, he arrived at “Dupuis’ Convenient Store and Redemption Center.”
He unloaded the bags and began dragging them into what used to be a garage. Inside he saw an old man with a wrinkled red face and a flannel shirt, and a young man with a slightly less wrinkled red face and a stained t-shirt. The air was thick with a cloud composed of an assortment of evaporated beers, wines, liquors and sodas, and the dust of countless cellars and sheds mixed with particles of broken glass. The two men sat on stools behind a row of folding tables covered with banana crates. They didn’t say anything, but grabbed the bags out of Steve’s hands and began emptying the bags into the banana crates, then sorting them into large cardboard bins behind them. They seemed to go out of their way to break as many of the glass bottles as possible as they threw them into the bins behind them. They worked so quickly that Steve could barely bring the next bags in before the last had been sorted.
“These ‘uns ain’t no good.” Said the older man as Steve dragged in the last two bags. The man was holding up a couple of juice bottles.
“Gotta have labels.” He threw them back into one of the bags. They finished sorting the last two bags, and the younger man started punching numbers into an antique cash register. When he had finished, he handed Steve a receipt and a full bag of rejects. Steve stood there in the door looking at the incomprehensible slip of paper as the two men started sorting the bags brought in by a man in camouflage overalls whose clothes gave off the sweet smell of fresh manure. “Gotta go nex’ doah!” Called one of the men. Steve walked out of the open garage door and into the little convenience store that was connected to it. He got it line for the register. A man in front of him was buying a box of donuts and a six pack of beer. Steve, still holding the bag of rejects, handed his receipt to a large woman whose wrinkled red face told him she must be connected to the two in the garage. She looked at the slip of paper, pressed a button on the cash register, and handed him a wad of crumpled bills and a handful of coins. He practically ran back to the car where he sat counting the money two or three times. $189.55! He was rich! He got on the highway, barely noticing the clinking of the bag of rejects and the few stray bottles rolling around in the trunk. His mind was racing with all the things he was going to do with all that money. He was going to get a tongue ring and a nose ring. He was going to buy a whole new wardrobe. He was going to throw a party and feed all his friends. He would buy a set of scented candles for his mom. Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by a tinny rendition of his favorite song. It was his mom calling.
“Steve, where are you?”
“I went to Maine remember?”
“I need the car!”
“I’m on my way home.”
“Look, I’m going to be late for my thing now! You never think about other people! You’re nothing but a spoiled brat. I shouldn’t have let you borrow the car.”
“Mom! You said I could. You knew where I was going. If you needed the car, you could’ve said so. If you’re late, it’s your fault.”
“Shut up, Steve! If you don’t get back here in ten minutes, you’re grounded. And you are never using that car again, do you hear me?”
Steve was not so much annoyed by his mother’s unreasonable request as by the fact that she had ruined the moment for him. How could he enjoy his triumph with all that nagging cutting into his ear?
“Whatever!” Steve shut off his phone and stuffed it in his pocket. He took the next exit that looked like a real town, wandering up and down streets until finally he saw a storefront covered with neon signs that read “tattoos, piercings, body art, smoking supplies.” He parked the car and pushed open the door. A man with a massive beard and arms covered with his earlier artistic achievements looked up from the lower back of a large teenage girl where he was filling in the final details of a black rose framed by black wings.
“Be with you in a minute!”
Steve sat down in a chair and leafed through a magazine that seemed to be more about the girls than the actual motorcycles they sat on.
“What can I do for you kid!” The man shouted everything as if he were speaking over some loud noise.
“Do you do tongue rings?” Steve looked at the man’s brown hands and was suddenly hesitant about the idea of those fingers doing anything in his mouth.
“Yeah! Moon does ’em! She’s out back smokin’ a butt! I’ll go tell her you’re here!”
A thin blond woman of indeterminable age walked in through the back door and said in a gruff voice, “Hey kid, what’s up?”
“I’d like a tongue ring.” She moved a little closer and sniffed.
“You smell like a drunk mechanic. What’ve you been up to?” He gave her an abbreviated version of his trip to the redemption center and the gas spill.
“How old are you?”
“Your parents ok with this?”
“Yeah, my mom said I could.”
“Good enough for me.”
The procedure took about 45 minutes. It stung pretty bad even though she used an anesthetic, but that didn’t matter. He was finally getting his tongue ring!
“That’ll be $87.50!”
Steve looked at the man and was about to protest, when he remembered it was that place on Pearl St. that had been $65 and that he had never actually asked how much it would cost here. He pulled out a wad of crumpled bills and counted out $90.
“Thanks, kid! Good luck!”
“Shanksh…” The ring still stung a bit.
When Steve opened the door to leave, he was surprised to see how dark it was already. He told his phone to navigate home, climbed into the car and picked his way through streets that seemed more cramped in the twilight, till finally he saw the sign for the highway. When he was able to relax, his mind ran over the events of the day until they rested on the final phone call from his mother. Why did she always have to ruin everything? She was going to freak out when he got home! But why let her ruin his fun right now? He tried to push every thought out of his mind except the victory of just spending nearly $90 on a tongue ring and still having over $100 left. He turned on the radio and scanned until he found the university station. They were playing the kind of hip-hop the other stations weren’t allowed to play. Steve cranked up the volume until the speakers crackled and his eardrums buzzed. This was living! He sped down the highway as if he’d totally forgotten the dreaded confrontation that awaited his return.
Suddenly, the car was lit up with flickering blue lights. Steve was paralyzed with a fit of panic, and for a moment he contemplated making a break for it, but there was no way his mom’s little sedan could outrun a state trooper. He pulled over and waited, so flustered he forgot to turn off the radio. The state trooper tapped on Steve’s window. He rolled it down a crack. The trooper gestured to the radio. He turned it off.
“Do you know why I pulled you over, son?” His voice sounded far away after the blare of the radio.
“I guesh, I wazh…” Steve swallowed. The tongue ring was starting to ache pretty bad now and it was hard to control his tongue. “I gueff I wazh gohing pooty fasht?”
The police officer leaned a little closer and sniffed.
“How much’ve you had to drink this evening?”
“I havungt hadh anyfing!” Then he began the abbreviated stories of collecting bottles, driving to Maine to collect the refund, the spill at the gas station, the tongue ring… But his tongue got tired after a few sentences and he heard himself trailing off into nonsense before the trooper interrupted him.
“All right, kid, let me see your license and registration.”
Steve fumbled through the glove compartment, not really sure what he was looking for. He handed the trooper a pile of old insurance papers, inspection and oil change receipts, a flier for a summer camp his brother had attended, and the registration. He got out his wallet and handed the trooper the temporary operator’s permit that he would use until his 21st birthday. The officer handed back the extra papers and returned to his car.
Steve sat slouching behind the wheel watching the flashing blue lights reflected in the rear view mirror. Feelings of anger, embarrassment, fear and hatred flashed through his mind alternately directed toward himself, his mother, the state trooper and whatever higher power let all this happen. The trooper returned.
“All right, Stephen, step out of the vehicle and put your hands on the roof.” The police officer frisked him, finding a metal object in his pocket.
Steve pulled out a spoon he had absentmindedly slipped into his pocket that morning after eating a pudding cup in his room. The trooper gave him a look that said, “I really don’t want to know,” and asked him to walk the white line that lay between the two parked cars. Steve had never been clumsy, but on being asked to prove his coordination, he was struck with the dread that he would definitely trip. He focused on his movements, but the more he focused, the more awkward he felt. The edge of the road was strewn with gravel that had washed up in some rain storm, and each pebble looked like it was trying to trip him. A car passed, and for a second its headlights shone on the ground just in front of Steve’s foot. The pebble he was about to step on was revealed to be a small toad, which hopped out of the way. As Steve attempted to save the life of the poor toad, he stumbled and fell hard on his left hand, gashing his palm on the rough gravel.
“That’s ok, Stephen.” The trooper’s tons was now more gentle. “I’ve got a first-aid kit in the car. Why don’t you wait there while we see what to do next?”
The phone rang again. Steve’s mom had been in the shower and hadn’t heard the first call. She ran to the phone, still in a towel. An anonymous caller. Probably Steve on a pay phone. What’d he do now, run out of batteries?
“Hello, is this Marjorie Andrews?”
“This is officer Michaels of the Greece, Maine police department. We have your son Steve in custody for driving under the influence of alcohol. He was not administered a breathalyzer test, but based on his gross motor coordination, and given the fact that adolescents tend to show motor impairment only at higher levels of blood alcohol content, I would estimate that his BAC is at least three times the legal level for intoxication.”
She had to wait for her husband to get home from work. She took his truck and drove the 60 miles to Greece. His bail was set at $1000.
(Copyright Bill Herreid, 2015)