I Didn’t Know What to Say, So I Just Said Thanks by David Joseph

People knew Lonnie because they saw him outside our high school each morning, smoking cigarettes across the street. He was the kid who waited until the very last minute to enter the building, and sometimes he waited longer than that, strolling into the corridors completely unaffected after the bell had rung.

There were other people that hung out with him. But it was his crew. They had clearly gathered there to be around him, not the other way around. Lonnie had an uncommon poise that wasn’t often seen in kids his age. He wouldn’t have been classified as typically handsome, but there was something about him that suggested he knew more than the rest of us.

In middle school, his parents had returned home one night to find him passed out drunk. He had gotten into their liquor cabinet and had apparently sampled his father’s fine Scotch collection. There was no sign of a party. He didn’t invite people over. They say they found him in the most decadent chair in the living room, passed out with an emptied highball glass in his right hand. It was something out of Mad Men. Lonnie could make getting busted seem cool.

This didn’t keep his parents from sending him away to a rehabilitation center. He was only fourteen, after all, and finding him passed out drunk was more than enough cause for his parent’s strong reaction. Lonnie’s enrollment in the program was immediate. He just vanished into another world. Everything we heard about that night came from someone else, and this only seemed to add to his mystique. Lonnie became something of an urban legend. The longer he was away, the more it grew.

When he appeared at high school the next year, he was quieter, harder, and he had grown taller and skinnier during his time away. He had always carried himself beyond his years. Now, he didn’t just look older, he looked weathered; with more facial hair and narrow, unmenacing eyes. He looked like someone we’d only seen in the movies, a man who emerges after a lengthy stint in prison with the type of untouchable bravado that can’t be manufactured. It made us want to be around him and a little afraid of him.

The high school girls were different. The darkness that surrounded Lonnie only enhanced his appeal. It wasn’t so much a bad boy appeal as a world-weary knowingness that seemed to captivate the girls, especially the older ones. If there was an element of Lonnie to be feared, teenage girls were so blinded by his quiet charisma they didn’t see it. He was just the kind of guy their fathers would have told them to avoid at all costs, and this only made him more desirable. One minute he was passed out drunk with a glass of Scotch in his hand, and the next minute he was James Dean. Lonnie seemed to take life as it came. The slower he moved, the faster life was thrust upon him. It was a strange phenomenon.

Everything about him was just a little different. Even the way he took a drag on a cigarette was different from the rest of us. He didn’t hold it like a joint, and his lungs accepted the smoke as if they were born to poison themselves without a hint of remorse. Even the way he put the cigarette out was done with style. He would toss it on the ground, disinterested, step on it with the ball of his foot and twist it back and forth as if he was just about to square off in a gunfight. Then, he would sidle across the street and through the front door of the school he seemed to have outgrown even though he was only in the ninth grade.

He approached his classes with body language that went out of its way to signal an air of passive detachment. He appeared neither engaged nor combative. He sat in class with an almost unmistakable joy about the absurdity of it all — kids torturing themselves as if their lives depended on it, and teachers constantly scolding them in search of order and control. Nothing about this atmosphere appealed to Lonnie and so he simply took a different approach; one that was wholly unsettling for both students and teachers alike.

We could not understand how Lonnie was able to sit there each day, legs stretched out in front of him with a wry smile as he watched the world go by. While he emoted very little, we got the sense this was like theater to him, that we were all “players in the play” and he could enjoy the rare privilege of serving as the audience. It wasn’t just his easy calm, but his role as an amused spectator, that was most unnerving.

Teachers were frustrated by Lonnie’s behavior. He didn’t misbehave, so the option of punishment was nonexistent. If called upon, he was often clever. When he didn’t know the answer, he informed the teachers of just that. What made him unique was that he did so without a hint of embarrassment. He wasn’t remotely embarrassed he didn’t know the answer and when teachers admonished him or implored him to do his work, he just smiled wide and easy and said, “okay.” If the teacher was attractive, he might say, “Yes, ma’am” with a touch of enthusiasm —sufficient to get a laugh from the rest of the class, but not enough to be sent to the office. It was just a game to him, and he had it figured out. To the students, he was a legend. To the teachers, he was a discomfort. They were probably unsure whether to pass him on (undeservedly) to the next grade or risk another year of awkward moments.

By senior year, Lonnie and I had become friends. He went to all the parties and Carla Tannyson was having one on Saturday night. I wasn’t invited to many parties, but I knew Carla from math class. She had told me I was welcome to come. I wasn’t cool. In fact, I was the antithesis of cool. I might gain some level of acceptance if I showed up at the party with beer.

I had cobbled together a fake ID from a guy in our grade named JT, who made them for a small fee. It wasn’t perfect, and it just sat in my wallet taking up space. I couldn’t imagine it would be enough to pass inspection at a convenient store, but I felt cooler having it. Lonnie said it looked good. There might have been a hint of truth in his comment, but I was hardly convinced. The last thing I wanted to do was get turned down. That would be more embarrassing than showing up at the party with nothing … or not going at all.

“Come on,” Lonnie said. “I’ll go with you to the convenient store on Beaumont tomorrow night and you can pick up your beers.”

Beaumont Avenue was about fifteen minutes from the school. Thirty years ago, it was a pretty cool place with a decent nightlife and some cool storefronts. My parents used to talk about it sometimes. But now, it was pretty rundown — one of those forgotten areas of a city that doesn’t go bad overnight, but dies an inevitable death.

When we got to the convenient store, Lonnie told me what to do. “Don’t go in there getting beer and a bunch of other stuff,” he said. “Nobody buys beer with bubble gum, Gatorade, and Skittles. You need to look like you’ve done this before. Beer and a pack of smokes. That’s all.”

Even as Lonnie talked me through the steps coolly, I was perspiring. My pulse quickened and I had my doubts I could pull this off. I just didn’t possess Lonnie’s requisite bravado, even with my ID. The older I got, the more it seemed life was about bravado and confidence. You could fool someone into thinking you knew what you were doing if you did it with certainty. That may have been more important than competence, and I lacked the outward posture to ever look certain about anything. Still, Lonnie had inspired me. Perhaps inspired isn’t the right word, but he gave me the temporary courage to go through with something I surely would have backed out of were he not there.

“Alright,” I said, and slammed the door while Lonnie watched from the car.

I walked in the store with an external calmness I hadn’t felt before. The bells jingled on the glass door behind me. I studied the St. Pauli Girls in the cooler. I hadn’t really considered which brand I was going to purchase, but I liked the girl with the yellow hair and pigtails on the label. There was no one else in the store. I grabbed the six-pack and walked to the register.

The woman behind the register was about a decade older than me, but she looked like she had lived a lifetime more — at least, in terms of experience. She wore jeans and a black tank top that revealed just enough to allow you to dream, if only for a second. She was lean with straight brown hair, chocolate eyes, and a tattoo of a small dagger on the inside of her left wrist. She didn’t have a shred of makeup on. It was clear she didn’t need it.

Once I came back to reality, I remembered what I was there for. I set the beers down on the counter, glanced over her shoulder and said, “Beers and a pack of smokes. Newports.” Just like Lonnie had told me.

It sounded good. Much better than I thought I could do. I could feel something changing inside me; a feeling of belonging ... of validity, like I was absolutely meant to be there buying beer. I don’t know why, but for the first time in my life I felt ... legitimate.

“Can I see some ID?” she asked.

I reached for my pocket and handed her my fake ID. She looked down at the photo and date and then back at me, then down at the ID again before sliding it back across the counter.

“That will be $6.59,” she said.

I was really feeling it now. I pulled out a ten-dollar bill and said, “Here you go.” She handed me the change, and I walked out of the store irrevocably altered. I opened the car door, passed the beer and smokes across to Lonnie, and started the car without a word. I’m not sure what made me do it, but I peeled out of that parking lot.

That weekend, I showed up at Carla’s party with a six-pack of St. Pauli Girl tucked neatly under my arm. Lonnie threw his arm around my shoulder, giving me instant credibility.

“My boy,” he said, as I handed him a beer. He introduced me to a few people and then Carla saw us walking into the kitchen where people had congregated. It seemed like Carla was seeing me for the first time or, at the very least, seeing me differently.

I liked Carla. She was nice and pretty. The kind of girl who was previously unlikely to glance in my direction. But I was a guy who had just bought a six-pack of beer — with a fake ID no less. I was now someone who was no longer afraid to be there, to be face-to-face with her. “What’s up, Carla?” I said, tipping my chin upwards. “Nice party.” She smiled and said hello, as if she was glad to see me.

I had even impressed myself. I wasn’t sure what came next, so I offered her a beer. She reached for it and placed her hands around the cold can, her fingers brushed against mine. She bobbed her head to follow her, and we walked outside and sat on a picnic table in her back yard. I saw Lonnie nodding in approval as we moved through the crowd and out the sliding doors.

From that night on, time moved at a different speed. Carla became my first girlfriend and we shared the summer months before heading off to different colleges. Lonnie was getting ready to join the Navy, and went through basic training in Virginia before being shipped out. I never saw him again, but someone told me he had met a Romanian woman and was living somewhere on the coast of Spain. Carla found a new boyfriend in college and I moved on as well.

A few years after college, I returned home. I was working for a small business in town when I went to a concert on a Saturday night. It was at a tiny club, and I was standing with some friends when I saw her. She was older now, probably in her mid-thirties, but I was sure it was her. The tattoo on her wrist was unmistakable. She was still lean with straight brown hair, although it didn’t quite have the sheen I remembered. I tried to avert her glance when she caught me looking at her. Surely, she didn’t remember one night when a high school kid bought beer for the first time.

I just kept looking forward, but I could see her pay the bartender out of the corner of my eye. She held her drink in her left hand and began shuffling to the right, clearly moving in my direction. Finally, she stood in front of me and said, “Six pack and smokes,” laughing through her lipstick as she said it. I didn’t know what to say, and she seemed to sense this.

“You know, Lonnie set the whole thing up. He told me about you, and he liked you a lot. He hardly liked anybody, but he liked you. He really liked you and he asked me to do this one favor for him, even though I was risking my job. It was a lot to ask, but I think he knew I’d say yes. He had never asked me for anything. I was more than a decade older than him, but I didn’t care. He was wild, like a real cowboy, but also a gentleman and I loved him.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just said thanks.