Lancelot and the Big Bang
by Rick Beck
Lance looked at Bang for a long time. Bang felt self-conscious. Lance usually took quick glances while trying to see how serious he was about something outrageous he said. He rarely looked at him for more than a few seconds at a time even when they talked.
Bang was sure it was a jock thing but now he stared relentlessly as they drove through the Maryland mountains. He finally took his eyes off him to look at the speedometer and then out the windscreen. The car eased along just a little under the speed limit. "We're never going to make it to Nebraska," Lance finally said.
"Why not? The car is perfect. The guy that tuned it said the engine was almost new. One of the old 327 cubic inch jobs. He called it "a honey." It'll be fine. I'll be in Seattle this time next week."
That brought another stare. Lance studied the face of his roommate. They'd been together for months and Lance suddenly realized that it was coming to an end. Bang had been the first friend he'd made since grade school. He always called his teammates friends, but they weren't. He'd only had one close friend and he was a soccer player, but he'd graduated two years ahead of Lance and he went off to college and never returned to Nebraska.
Lance never had the experience of people leaving him because no one had ever been there. He'd learned to trust and love Aunt Brenda's family but there was always the knowledge he didn't belong there. He knew his own father had rejected him and that's why he spent all his time with his Aunt's family and with his grandparents. He'd never had people leave him or drop him off and never come back. He couldn't imagine which might be worst.
"You drive like a fucking sissy," Lance said, "I mean you can't drive a Vette this fucking slow. Can't you kick it up a notch?"
The wind blew through their hair as they moved through the farm country. Lance took an interest in some farms but ignored most others. He spent some time leaning on the door jamb looking off into the rolling hills in front of them.
"I'm hungry. We'll stop at the next restaurant. I got a feeling the food up here is pretty good."
"I don't have money for a restaurant. Stop at McDonald's."
"I'm not putting a bucket of grease in my stomach. We got a thousand miles to go and I'm eating real food."
"I'll wait in the car and you can stop at McDonald's when we come to one."
"Okay, and I'll leave you there and you can walk to fucking Nebraska for all I care. You think I'm really dying to see a bunch of hicks walking around in bare feet and bib overalls? Get over yourself. I'm going there for you."
"Why are you taking me home?"
"Because you need to go and I'm a nice guy."
"You'll never be around long enough to see me in bare feet and bib overalls," Lance said from a distance. "You're going to be in Seattle in a week. Why waste time at a restaurant?"
"Well, good to know I'll be welcome. …I always wanted to see the northwest. No time like the present, I guess. Nebraska is just a pit stop on the road of life. Besides, I got the old man's credit card. It's on him and there's no reason we can't eat real food, so unless you want to walk, we'll do it my way. How do you feel about it?"
"Yes," Lance said. "Yes! Yes! Yes!"
"That's better. I knew you'd be reasonable if I explained it to you in simple enough terms."
"Yes, I think you tried to kill yourself. You asked me if I thought you did or not. I think you did. I think you've been lying to me. I think you're a fraud, Bartholomew. I think you are a gigantic fraud. I think you're as scared as the rest of us. That pretense and air of superiority is just a mask you use to keep people away. They can't hurt you from a distance."
They always found a way to hit a brick wall when things went too smoothly, even when driving fifty-five down a country road. The sun burned the back of Bang's neck, but Lance's year of soccer had his neck conditioned to the warmth of the sun.
This round went to Bang because it was his car and his cards. Lance knew the money didn't come out of Bang's pocket, but taking things without some ability to return something of value wasn't Lance's style.
By this time neither of them took their disagreements all that seriously. They were polar opposites after all. Even with all that going against them, their similarities continued to take center stage. They approached the difficulties in their lives from different directions, but there was a common thread running through them.
Why not MacDonald's? It was fast and cheap, but they probably didn't take cards. Lance wondered how much cash Bang had. He could borrow some from Aunt Brenda to repay Bang's investment in him if he was running low on pocket money.
Trust was a difficult commodity to come by. Both boys learned early that they could only trust in a loose-fit way. The picture that represented the American family didn't apply to either of them. For whatever reason, the people responsible for teaching them to trust were absent. While they knew one another as well as they knew anyone, their trust in one another was limited by a harsh past, yet, while they hadn't actually put their faith in one another, they didn't mistrust each other either. This was an accomplishment for both of them. Each boy was aware of important pieces of the other's life that no one else knew. It was a place to build.
There wasn't a word between them when Bang pulled over at the diner. He thought it was a compromise. He got veal parmesan with spaghetti, while Lance ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke in spite of an excellent variety of food. Their eyes never met and they ate in silence. When Bang got up to pay, Lance left three dollars for the tip. It just about covered his meal.
The car immediately purred to life. The sun was setting lower in the sky as they turned west onto the turnpike. The rumble of the engine gave Bang a powerful feeling that started in his arms and ran through his entire body. He decided he would make just one more effort.
"Want to drive?"
"No," Lance said.
The miles were melting, but not the ice.
Smithton sounded harmless and the toll-booth operator directed them to a motel near the ramp. In ten minutes they were emptying the car into the basic room for the night. Lance turned on the television, leaned his cane next to the door, and plopped down on the bed and stared into the tube at a baseball game. Bang took a shower and came out in a fluffy white towel, took a book from his bag and started to read.
"Want an energy bar?" Lance asked, rummaging in one of his bags.
"Sure," Bang said, taking the copper, silver, and blue wrapped concoction from his roommate.
Lance lay back on his pile of pillows and crunched the substance.
"How could you do that? I mean all the crap you say to me. Tough upper lip. Straight ahead. Find your passion. You only get one shot so go with what you got. You've lied to me all this time and I sucked it up like you were someone I could always depend on."
"Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Heaven and Saints preserve me from the fires of damnation," Bang chortled. "Is that what the silence is about? I didn't lie. I told you like it was. I simply left out the little detail about knowing the chemicals I was using could be hazardous to one's health if applied in the proper quantities and in the proper order. I really didn't know what I was doing, but it didn't seem important at the time."
"Why? I fucking was brought up without a mother. My father didn't give two shits if I lived or died. I never once thought of doing that, and you've got the nerve to feed me this line of shit about how wonderfully well adjusted you are?"
"I put the past behind me, Lance. That's all I did. I wasn't intending to upset you so damn much. If I'd known it meant that much to you, I'd have told you. It didn't seem important. You don't give a fuck about me. I was merely trying to encourage you. Why all the theatrics? It's no big deal."
"You're a fraud. I looked up to you. You got it all together. That Bang is one hell of a guy. Here I am just barely getting through and he's giving me his time and helping me out. I thought you were something special."
"Could have fooled me all to hell," Bang quipped. "Besides, that was a lifetime ago. I was a little squirt, didn't amount to much. Certainly I didn't amount to much as far as my parents were concerned. I was just one more piece of property they got rid of so they could forget they were ever married."
"You're smart. You can do anything you set your mind to. You can be anything you want. Like you say, athletes have ten years at the most before they're fighting to keep up. You got a brain that'll last a lifetime. You got it made and you try to kill yourself? You wouldn't do something like that now?"
"Yes, in fact, I'm considering it right this minute. I'm sorry I didn't live up to your standards. My life was over and I just decided to go out with a bang. No pun intended. Perhaps if you had been around or if anyone had been around, I might not have thought it was the end of my life."
Bang chewed on the energy bar and the bitter words. Had he missed something? Had they actually been having the same experience, living together? Bang didn't remember it anything like Lance described it. Up until the last few weeks it had mostly been arguments followed by disagreements. He liked Lance but he couldn't stand him.
At best Lance was an ungrateful asshole. He never said thank you and always needed more help than Bang had time to give him. Bang had carried Lance since he showed up at his door. Now Lance was pissed because Bang failed to measure up to some image Lance built around him. An image Lance inadvertently forgot to mention to Bang.
The entire situation would have been funny if it didn't make him so angry. It was like when he was a kid and struggling to find a way to make it work. Mr. Thompson had to remind him what had really happened. It was easy to tell the story about getting the name Bang while staying detached from the details.
He had been in a fog that day. He'd been in shock over the impending loss of both parents at the same instant. Both wanted the other to take him, but in the end they decided that a boarding school was the perfect answer so neither of them was stuck with the geek.
There were tears in his eyes as he recalled those fearful frantic feelings that took over while he waited to be dispatched.
"What's wrong now?" Lance asked, staring at him again. "What are you crying about? Don't do that. Real men don't cry. Don't do that. I know I have no right to expect anything from you. I'm sorry I said anything. Stop it, will you?"
The tears and the snot ran. He grabbed some tissue and blew his nose and wiped his eyes and Lance stared, feeling responsible and feeling bad about it.
"What the fuck are you looking at?" Bang yelled angrily.
The old wounds that had taken twelve years to heal had started to open up. It was like exposing a raw nerve in a tooth and then biting down on a hard piece of bitter sweet candy.
"You can't imagine what it was like back then. They screamed and yelled at each other. They broke dishes, furniture, anything they could get their hands on. They were crazy."
"I don't want to hear this dude. I'm sorry I brought it up."
"Yeah, well, you've been needling me all day, so shut up already. You wanted the story, you're going to get it."
Bang's eyes filled again and he blotted them and blew his nose forcefully.
"Neither of them wanted me. I was the geek that screwed everything up. I couldn't get out of my own way back then. I did okay in some subjects but was a spaz in just as many.
"One night they were yelling and screaming. It went on for hours. I was in bed, but I just wanted it to end. You saw that big house. My bedroom was in the back, on the third floor, and they were on the first floor, all the way over in the kitchen, but the kitchen was in the back of the house and just fifty feet from my window. I could hear every word they said; it wasn't like they were keeping it secret from the neighbors or anything.
"I knew they didn't want me and I suddenly decided I would just check out of the smiley-face motel. I remembered the chemicals my old man kept in the garage. I knew certain combinations and to me, they represented my version of the Big Bangf. You know, if it kills you, it'll be the loudest God damn noise you ever hear.
"I wanted to make the biggest explosion ever. I wanted to kill myself, but I hoped it would kill both of them too. I hated them. They brought me into this lousy fucking world and I wanted to take us all out the same way, just like they did it, without ever asking how I felt it about it. I was going to reverse the process without them having any say. It seemed fair since they were hanging me out to dry. Good luck, kid, we've done everything we can possibly do for you. Get a good education and make something of yourself. That's the way they had it figured, but I didn't figure it that way.
"But I didn't use enough of this and I used too much of that, and goodbye back wall and you know the rest. I think Mr. Thompson said it best. I was a strange bird, …but when it came to the big bang, I only fizzled. Couldn't even do that right. So after that I was on my own dime. I figured they were off the hook for my life since I had tried to end it. I wasn't any better at that than I was at being likeable. No one liked me. Some things don't ever change."
"I'm sorry," Lance said, and he was sitting on the corner of Bang's bed, touching his foot and meaning every word of it. He could see the pain was honest and there was no fraud in any of it. Bang had done the best he could. What do kids know? They don't have that much to go on.
"You're sorry? What are you sorry about? You didn't hand me the chemicals."
"I don't know. Making you think about it maybe. I had no right saying what I did. It sounds like it was pretty bad, Bang. I might have done the same thing if I had half a brain."
"Well you don't, so we're safe from explosions for the time being."
"I did stop eating once. I thought I would die from that, but I got hungry after two days. Brenda threatened to have me fed through a needle. I hate needles."
"You're as pathetic as I am," Bang said
"Well, I wouldn't go that far."
"I guess we do have things in common."
"Except I wasn't smart enough to know I could end it all."
"I'm glad you didn't. I'd be out here on my way to Nebraska all alone if you had and to be honest about it, I don't even know where Nebraska is. It was just a rumor until you came along."
"Thanks," Lance said.
"For insulting you? No thanks needed. I rather enjoy it."
"No, thanks for all the stuff you've done. Thanks for helping me get home. I know I'm an asshole, but I also know I wouldn't have made it through my courses if it wasn't for you. I don't know why you put up with me. I am a dick. I just don't know where people are coming from. I want to believe in you, but it scares me. Trusting someone gets tricky and I don't like leaning on anyone. I guess I always have, but I never liked it."
"Not to mention you'd have fallen on your face a few dozen times if you hadn't."
"Yeah, that too. You always try to help me and I'm such a jerk. I don't know how to be nice. I wish I did. I would want to be nice to you because you're the only one that's helped me at school and you didn't even want anything for it. Brenda's the only one I could ever trust for sure."
"You and Aunt Brenda have something going?" Bang quipped.
"You know, you can be a total dick sometimes, too," Lance growled, standing up and going back to his bed. "A real, first class, total dick."
"Yeah, I guess both of us have that in common. Not much else. We both go to the same school but even you knew that."
"I'm not stupid," Lance defended, turning up the volume of the television.
"I know that. You just haven't figured out where you belong yet. School's not your area of expertise. Soccer doesn't seem to be what it once was either. You need to find your passion and live it. It's all that matters in life. If you aren't passionate about what you are doing you're only taking up space, dude. No matter what you have, it isn't worth a thing without the passion that keeps you alive."
"No, I've felt like a fish out of water since leaving home. I don't like school at all. The best part about it has been knowing you and I don't like you half the time. I'm starting to think I don't like soccer anymore either. I know I don't like my teammates much. They act so juvenile all the time. Pussy, booze, and soccer is all they talk about. I mean, it's all they've ever talked about, but after ten years it's getting old."
"Ah jocks!" Bang lamented.
"I probably wouldn't even notice it if I hadn't been hanging with you these past few months. I've never been around anyone smart before."
"Believe me, you still haven't. It's all an act. I'm half-smart maybe. Every time I learn something, I understand just how stupid I am."
"You? Right! You're the smartest person I've ever known."
"Yeah, but you're from Nebraska."
"Very funny. I always wonder why you bother to help a dope like me." And for the first time in recent memory Lance didn't take Bang's bait.
It made Bang uncomfortable when he didn't get the immediate rise he expected. He didn't know if he liked a kinder and gentler Lance. His being a dick had always been fine with him. It's what he expected of a jock, but suddenly they were getting beyond the divisions that defined them at school. They'd actually completed an intelligent conversation about one aspect of their lives.
"You needed help. I'm a sucker for someone that needs help," Bang said, once Lance turned the television back down.
"Yeah, I figured that. So in a way I'm doing you the favor by needing help, right? I'm a nicer guy than I figured."
"I suppose in some warped logic that could be true."
"So why the hell am I thanking you, then? It's you that should be thanking me, for being helpless so you can do your thing and feel really nice and fuzzy about yourself."
"Yep! That be true."
Both boys laughed and Bang dried the last of his tears, but this time they came as tears of laughter delivered by a friend. The sting had been taken out of distant memories and both boys fell asleep with a slightly different perspective of the other.
This made the trip easier on both of them.
"We'll stay in South Bend tonight. I want to see Notre Dame. Tomorrow we'll go to Chicago and see the Sears Tower. Then we'll go to St. Louis to see the Gateway Arch," Bang said, as he took the ticket from the woman as they entered the turnpike.
"Okay. Isn't that the roundabout way to Nebraska?"
"You're on my dime now. I always wanted to see them. I may not get another chance."
"You going to see the Space Needle?"
"That's in Seattle."
"Yeah, I know. You said you wanted to see the Northwest. That's all I know is up there."
"Yeah, I suppose I will. I hadn't really thought much past Nebraska to be honest."
"You want to stay a few days? I'll show you around. Introduce you to all of our cows, and if that bores you we can go watch granddaddy's corn grow, or slop his hogs for him. You'd like his hogs. Things ought to be really busy along about now."
"I'm not sure I can take all that excitement," Bang said, wondering what it would be like having room around him.
They walked around the Notre Dame football stadium in South Bend. Bang acted more impressed than Lance.
"It's like Byrd Stadium," Lance said putting things into his perspective.
"Except for the history."
"You saying Byrd don't got no history?"
"A different kind, Lance. The history here is on a grander scale."
The drive to Chicago was the fastest leg of their journey. They both enjoyed the fresh air and the cooler temperatures. On the top of the Sears tower they looked out at Lake Michigan. They were both impressed.
"How do I know that isn't the Atlantic Ocean?" Lance said.
"We were a hundred and fifty miles west of the Atlantic when we started our trip. We've been moving west for two days. Physical impossibility."
"It's a big piece of water. It's on the wrong side for the Pacific. It's the Atlantic Ocean. They just manipulate it somehow."
"Yeah, well in that case, using your logic, if you turn around this way you can see Nebraska," Bang said.
"Funny, looks a lot like Chicago to me," Lance said, looking west across the city. "How can anybody live here? It's nothing but glass and metal. Nothing could live here. Nothing could grow here."
After St. Louis they went west and then north out of Kansas City. On the fourth day they reached Nebraska. Lance became more animated and identified landmarks for Bang, telling him what he knew as they drove. Soon they were tooling on a road that seemed too narrow for Bang. The fields on either side hugged the black paving with little or no shoulder to speak of. The corn was just defining itself and the earth had turned black.
Lance directed him until they got to a lonely looking lane on the far side of a small town that was gone before Bang got a good look at it. There were sheets blowing gently on several clotheslines at the side of the house. There was a vintage pickup truck, an equally aged station wagon, and a newer SUV parked beside a dirt and gravel driveway. The house sat back a hundred feet from the street and there was a large gray wooden outbuilding in back that hadn't been painted in decades. It seemed to lean slightly to the right and Bang leaned his head to make it seem straighter.
Noise came from several children playing on the dirt and gravel directly behind the house as the car stopped. A big man in a white T-shirt stepped out onto the concrete back stoop and he immediately folded his hands up on his hips as he examined the red Vette.
"Coming up in the world, son," he said in a casual voice as he looked at Lance. "Lost child's made it home," he yelled back over his shoulder at the wide open door.
A dark haired woman about the same size as the man came rolling through the door with too much momentum to stop at the top of the steps. She charged down them like a woman on a mission. Wearing a white stained apron, she dried her hands nervously. She moved hastily and was waiting for Lance as got out of the car.
"I've been so worried about you, Lan," she said in sobs.
Bang watched them hugging; Lance seemed tiny inside the beefy arms. Big flaps of flesh swayed as she held him to her humungous bosom. She cried and he held on tight, seeming comfortable inside her embrace.
"I'm Roy. She's Brenda. She's his aunt, but thinks she's his mother. Those two out back, I don't know who they are. She takes them in while I'm at work. There's always more kids when I get home than when I left. I stopped trying to figure out where they belong."
The big man moved past the huggers and reached for Bang's hand as he got up out of the car.
"Pardon?" he said, turning his ear closer to Bang's mouth so he could catch the name the second time.
"Bang Phillips. His roommate."
"Oh, yeah. Roommate."
"Well you boys must have that new radar. I was just getting supper on. Lucky I got the big roast out. You are hungry?" Brenda said.
"What's this do?" Roy asked, holding up the cane.
"I sprained my ankle. It's nothing. That's just a conversation piece."
There was a huddle now, Roy and Brenda surrounded Lance, staring up and down like they wanted to make sure no parts were missing.
"You've lost weight, Lan. Some good home cooking will straighten that out. You don't know how good it is seeing you. How's school?"
"Oh!" Lance said. "School?"
"It's still a struggle for you, isn't it? You'll be the first Harris to graduate college. First to go as far as I know," she said. "We're so proud."
"First to flunk out maybe," Lance said.
"It's that bad?"
"If it hadn't been for Bang my ass would be grass right now."
"I see you've learned to cuss," Brenda declared. "I'm sorry. I'm Aunt Brenda. Lan calls me Brenda. You can too," she said, charging at Bang and throwing her arms around him like it was customary. "Thank you for taking care of my boy," she whispered in his ear while giving him what seemed like quite a gentle hug for a lady her size. Bang knew he was blushing, but the hug wasn't all that bad.
The screen door banged and an attractive teenage girl came down the stairs and hugged Lance. She stepped back and looked at him about the same way Roy and Brenda had.
"You've gained weight. You're taller."
"Looks the same to me," Roy said. "What's your friend's name?"
"Bang," Lance said as they started into the house.
"What kind of name is that?" Roy inquired of Lance.
"It's okay, Roy. He's from the city."
"I'm Millie," she said to Bang, extending her hand to be shaken.
"I'm sorry," Lance said. "Brenda, Roy, Cuz Mil, Henry's missing, another cuz. I don't know the two kids in the back but they could belong to almost anyone. Kids come and go around here."
"The boy's Bette Patterson's and the girl is the Moyers' baby. You remember," Brenda said.
"I remember they used to live on the other side of town when I left."
"Well, times is hard, Lan. I do what I can. Moyers broke up and she's, well, she is drying out over Shadygrove, up Lincoln way. Bette's been sick with the cancer and it doesn't look good. I promised I'd see to their kids is all. Kids can't be tossed away just 'cause their parents hit hard times. At least they'll get fed and loved here. It's the state home otherwise."
"She's the human version of the dog pound," Lance said over his shoulder as he walked up the steps with his hand around a small portion of Brenda's waist.
"Lan, they're people. People get themselves in trouble and it's up to us to see to them," Brenda declared.
"I'm only pulling your chain, Brenda," Lance said.
"Pulling my what?"
"Pulling your leg."
"Oh, well, that'll take some doing."
"You took me in. Who knows what would have become of me if not for you and Roy," Lance said.
"You're my blood. There was no way I was going to leave you to my brother. No, sir. No way. He'd a had you up the state home for sure."
"Yeah, Bang wasn't so lucky. They just sent him off to school for ten years. His parents divorced."
"Well, he's here now. We'll do fine by anyone that brought my Lan home to me. I sure have missed you."
"Woman, let's have less talkin' and more cookin' around here. You've got all summer to visit and my stomach is starting to raise Sam with me."
"One meal being a little late isn't going to hurt that stomach," Brenda reminded him.
Bang thought he recognized the raw wit.
They all ended up around the largest kitchen table Bang had ever seen. There were five chairs of various descriptions on each side of the table and one at the top and bottom. Brenda went to the sink and started whittling away on a sink full of vegetables. As they made small talk, she reached under the sink and pulled out two huge potatoes to join the ones she had already peeled.
"Gran!" Lance said. "Is he home yet? I want to go over right away. Maybe after supper."
The beehive of activity suddenly came to a screeching halt. No one could look at Lance. All eyes went immediately to the floor. Brenda's shoulders slumped seriously as she leaned hard on the sink. Then there was something stern that stiffened her back and picked her shoulders back up. She wiped her hands before turning to face us.
"Lan," she said, moving toward the table.
"No!" Lance said. "You didn't call. No one called. No! Don't tell me that. Don't tell me that."
"You were in school. It was sudden. He died the day I sent you the note."
"I want to see my Grandfather," Lance said like a little boy being denied something he had always been familiar with.
"We didn't see the point. We buried him the day after you called. Why ruin your entire school year for something that was finished. There was nothing you could do here then that you can't do now. He's gone."
"Fuck school. I don't give a damn about school," Lance yelled as Brenda hugged him from behind.
"We don't talk that way at my table," Roy said passively. "You take that language back where you got it. Gran was old. It was his time. Talking trash won't change that."
"Leave the boy alone. He's upset. His Granddaddy is gone and he's hurting. Just leave it alone."
"What's happened to the farm?" Lance asked.
"Your daddy's got it up for sale. Says he don't want nothing to do with that 'God forsaken place.' You know how your daddy is."
"That cold hearted son of a bitch," Lance yelled even louder.
"Lan!" Roy said.
"Roy!" Brenda said.
"We're going out there. I'll pull down the fucking for sale sign. The old man's too cheap to advertise it," Lance said. "Did he plant?"
"Yep, him and old Rivers were out there planting in April," Brenda said.
"College sure has increased your vocabulary," Roy said. "Did he cuss before? You never cussed at my table before. Show some respect for your aunt if not for me. I don't want to hear that word again, and don't shush me, Brenda. It's my house."
"Roy!" Brenda said, stomping her foot and Lance slipped her grip and headed out the door. "I told you to leave it alone."
"Come on, Bang. We'll be back later."
"Sorry," Bang said. "I think he's upset. He needs to get some air in him."
"I'll save you dinner," Brenda said, as Bang followed Lance out to the car.
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