May didn't begin well for Phillip.
The Cleo Johnson family lived across the street from the Titus's. A guy obsessed with one of the blonde, bland, indistinguishable daughters went ape shit on the first Monday of the month. Apparently she had broke up with him, and stopped taking his calls. Something obviously snapped, and he began driving his Trans Am across their lawn at around 5am, sideswiping cars and mowing down bushes and small trees.
When the first collision happened, Phillip looked out his bedroom window, and worried that the guy might hit his precious Cougar. Not bothering to dress, he ran outside waving his arms and yelling at him to stay away, prompting the guy to swerve, whirl around and smash into the Cougar's rear bumper. As Phillip ran toward him, the Trans Am backed up, swerved onto the Titus's lawn, and ran over his foot. It was Phillip's subsequent scream that woke the neighborhood, described afterward as being a cross between the roar of an angry lion and the throaty moan of a febrile, anguished bear. As the neighborhood poured outside to find freshly dented cars, chewed up lawns and two hundred pounds of very pissed-off Phillip clutching his foot and moaning (and wearing only tighty-whities), the guy squealed away. It was later, in school, that we heard that after arriving home, inconsolable and hopeless, the poor sonofabitch shot himself.
Phillip's graduation impended, and it should have been a really happy time, but he was troubled. His foot was okay in a few days (strong Cajun bones) and a friend of his fixed the dented bumper for nothing, but something else evidently was weighing on him, because he wasn't his usual carefree self. I didn't see him for days at a time, and once when I did, he and Mike were huddled together whispering about something. When Phillip left, I asked what was up, and Mike just shook his head, and said it wasn't good.
On a weeknight, a Wednesday or a Thursday I think, just after the middle of the month, Mike and I were hanging around the parking lot drinking beer, when Phillip showed up. He was drinking whiskey from a pint bottle, and was sullen and distracted, not himself at all. He came cruising with us awhile in Mike's truck, and before we completed a single circuit, he became annoyed with a guy driving a truck next to us, some guy I didn't know. Phillip was screaming obscenities at the guy, and telling him to pull over, which the guy wanted no part of. Philip was so angry he looked a little ridiculous—he'd packed his front lip with what must have been an entire can of Skoal, and he was flipping the guy off maniacally, with the first and third fingers uncurled, and flat against his palm.
The refusal to stop caused Phillip to become unhinged. As both trucks navigated the crowded boulevard, he climbed out the open window, and perched atop the cab. Mike screamed over at him to stop fucking around, but Phillip ignored him, and when we were near the other truck, he leapt onto its bed, ran over then and swung neatly, feet first, through its passenger window, and proceeded to beat hell out of its astonished and terrified driver. The truck careened sharply to the right, over a curb and into a vacant lot, before coming to rest about 30 yards in. Mike parked his truck along the road there, and we ran over to where Phillip was pounding the mystery guy, arriving just as a police car rolled in, lights and siren sounding. Several more cop cars rolled in over the next few minutes, and by the time we were permitted to get anywhere near him, someone was tending to the battered driver, while a couple of cops were standing over Phillip, who was hand-cuffed and silent, sitting in the back seat of an open-doored cruiser facing out, with his feet in the grass.
"Goddamn it Phillip, what's wrong with you?"
"What would your father think?"
A flicker in his eyes, but still no response.
"Well, your lucky the other boy doesn't wanta press charges. We convinced him—understand?—we convinced him—that in the interests of justice—and his own ass—that no harm's been done."
"And do you know why we convinced him of this, Phillip? Do you know why I'm disposed to leave twenty dollars on the table and a nice game of forty-two just to save your dumb ass from going to jail? You think its your dumb ass I'm thinkin of, son?"
"I knew your daddy, boy. And the only reason your going home now instead of under the fucking jail is because I knew him. Comprende?"
Phillip looked up, slowly. In a deliberate, neutral tone, he asked, "Can I go now? Or are you gonna keep jabberin'?"
The cop looked over at Mike and I, and exploded. "Get him the fuck OUT of here! Goddamn it! And don't make me look at him again tonight!"
We gathered Phillip in the truck, and drove back to the parking lot. Mike was pretty pissed. "You're trying to kill yourself, ain't you? Or go to fucking jail. It ain't funny, Phillip. It ain't funny at all."
Phillip didn't answer, or say a word all the way back. As he headed to his car, I told Mike I was afraid for him.
"Go after him, then, " he said. "He won't let you drive, though"
Phillip was just sitting in front of the steering wheel when I walked up. "Mind if I tag along?" I asked.
He actually smiled, just a little, and seemed grateful. "Let's go for a ride."
We made a couple of circuits, and I don't believe he said a word. Somewhere along the way he finished draining the pint, and we headed over to Zackies. I walked into the store side, bought a six pack of Lone Star, and said hello to Cathy Cee. Phillip walked in with a new fifth of Jim Beam in his hand, drinking from it hard.
In the car again, he turned right onto Texas Avenue toward LaMarque instead of left, back to town. After a minute or so, he said, "We're going to see a lady."
A few miles further west on Texas, we veered over to first street, and I realized where we were going. When we parked outside Cherie's apartment building, it was about 9:15.
I drank my beer, and Phillip sipped his whiskey, while we listened to George Jones, Gary Stewart, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Bush. Sometime during the evening, Bryan Collins Statue of a Fool (an inferior version by Ricky Van Shelton Can be heard here) was played, a big favorite with our crowd. Bryan came from Texas City, used to bag groceries at Weingartens, and we'd all been to see him at the Red Barn a few months earlier. The song itself was melodramatic and over the top, and we loved it a lot.
I sang along, and somewhere during the last verse—
"So build a statue/and oh, oh/build it high-i/So-oh, that all/can see-ee-ee-ee (da-da-da-da-da-da)/Then, inscribe it/oh, to the Wor-or-ld's Greatest Fool/And name/it/af-ter/me-ee-ee-ee-ee/after meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee"
—I looked over at Phillip, and saw that his eyes were glistening. I was surprised, and unsure of what to do, at first. Then, the situation sort of dawned on me—I'm slow getting there sometimes, but I usually do finally arrive—and my heart sort of sank. I reached over and put a hand on his shoulder. Phillip closed his eyes for a minute, like he was biting hard, then looked over at me and grinned a little.
"Fuck it, right?" he said, and took a long drink from the Jim Beam. For the next couple hours, we sang along with the radio, and drank, having a pretty pleasant time. It was about 12:30 that we saw the light switch on, in Cherie's second floor apartment.
The windows were large, and we had a really good view. Phillip leaned forward, expectantly, though what he really expected to see, I don't know. Cherie came to the window to close the drapes, wearing a low-cut blue dress, her hair down, over her shoulders. Immediately after, a man wearing an unloosed tie approached her from behind, and wrapped his arms around her waist. The drapes abruptly closed.
All the breath seemed to leave Phillip, that moment. He slumped in his seat, and gasped for air. When he jumped out of the car, I followed, as he stood under the moon, holding his head in his large hands, and bowling over, as if he was stricken, by bullets or lightning, or something even more terrible—his eyes told the rest, and the light was fled from them, and I feared, greatly, not only for him, but for the two people upstairs who had hurt him.
After a few minutes, when he began to breathe normally, he began walking toward the front door of the apartments. I followed after him, unsure of what to do, or how to stop him, if the worst began happening. "Are you sure this is a good idea?", I asked, lamely, as we started up the stairs, but he didn't answer, just began climbing faster, and at the top of the landing, I saw him clench both of his fists. I stood beside him when we arrived at the door, praying silently that no one would die.
Phillip rapped loudly on the door. After a few moments passed, I heard stirring, inside, then muffled voices. Finally, just the other side, voices again. A slight pause, and the door gingerly opened. Cherie was in her bathrobe, and she looked blankly at us, not sure what to expect, I guess.
More moments passed, and a large tear formed in one of his eyes, and then in the other, though he tried hard to bite them back. As they streamed down his reddening face, I saw him clench his fists again, tightly. "I was gonna marry you," he whispered, letting the words hang in the air a spell, before turning away, and headed back to the stairwell.
I stood there a moment longer, a little stunned. I thought I saw Cherie's face change, saw pain and sadness replace the feigned indifference. Tears were welling up in her eyes, as she closed the door.
Hurrying after Phillip, he seemed to be walking dead. Back in the car, he worked the last of the Jim Beam, and began beating his head against the steering wheel. He looked over at me, his eyes glazed and bewildered, like a wounded kid. "Why didn't she love me?" he asked, earnestly, nearly imperceptibly.
I reached out and touched his shoulder again. "Brother, I'm the last one to ask about that. Nothin they do makes any Goddamn sense to me."
He laughed a little, and eased his head against the wheel. He looked at me again, sidewise, and said once more, wonderously, reverantly, ever so softly, "I was gonna marry her."
About a half hour later, he attempted to start the car, but thankfully, he was too drunk to find the ignition. I waited another half hour for him to begin snoring before beginning the monumental task of removing him to the passenger seat. It was about 2:30am when I finally got him back to the Titus's. Lew and Phyllis, Scott and Mike's parents, helped me get him from the car into the bed. They hovered over him like they were his parents, Lew roughing his hair, and Phyllis kissing his cheek, as we left the room.
Next day, Phillip was his old self. It was like nothing had happened, and I don't remember him mentioning Cherie, or what happened that night, ever again. He graduated, a week later, and was working as an operator at one of the plants a few weeks after that.
Phillip wound up marrying a terrific girl named Rhonda that summer, a girl who I think he was undoubtedly better suited for, anyway. I hope he's plant superintendant, and I hope they have a passel of kids, just like they wanted.
Cherie, though, I wonder about. Screwing her bank president boss may have seemed like a percentage move at the time, but I kinda doubt it worked out well for her, even if he divorced his wife, and married her. Could be they deserved each other, but if I had to guess, I'd bet she lies awake nights, wondering about Phillip. Ain't all that many guys know how to love that deep and clean, and it seems to me once you've known one, you'll notice the difference, always.