Part 1: Ping-Pong and Desert Eagles
“That was the last time I brought a bat to a gunfight.”
This is how it all went down.
As a graduate of an institution with a less than impressive football team, Homecoming weekend at Dartmouth College was not an event based around a game. It was more a reason to drink more than we usually did. So when Ronnie pushed the idea of a group of Hurricane Campers heading out to Baton Rouge for the LSU homecoming game, it piqued interest a bit. Janos and I had been back at camp from our Dartmouth weekend for a week and a half but the time didn’t matter— there was another school, another event and another populace to which we could take our fraternity road trip mentality and indubitably make an adventure. I wasn’t even really sure I was going to go with them until I packed up a backpack 10 minutes before our 7 o’clock departure.
One of my reasons for hesitating was that the night before we left was the Night of the 25-Beer Debacle. That evening, a group of no less than twenty Hands Oners piled into the back of the Dumbdock’s dump truck to attend a high school football game in Ocean Springs. Janos, Ronnie, and I respectfully requested a stop at the Circle K for a requisite pair of 18-packs for the group in the back. I spent the ride there shivering over a few Miller Lites with Casey, a volunteer with Down’s Syndrome that was in Biloxi with his mother (don’t worry, she gave him permission.) The game was uneventful, I got a picture with the mascot, and we stayed for a few quarters before heading back home. The mood was jovial as ever; although we shivered and rubbed our hands together flying back home on I-10 in the back of a pickup truck, we kept our spirits up by belting 80s ballads. When we pulled into the parking lot of the Project Lounge, Janos and I assumed everyone was on the same page. Ronnie jumped out of the truck and ran into the bar. Janos stands up.
“Project Lounge night, everyone in the bar!”
Silence. The friends that had just been singing along with us looked at us as if we were suffering from Katrina cough of the senses. I stood up next to Janos and threw my hands out.
“Alright, who’s coming with us?”
Andre looked down. Gennessee leaned her head back on the edge of the cab. Tuffie looked straight at us.
“Guys, I think we’re all kind of tired.”
Stunned at this blatant stymieing of what was sure to be a fun time, Janos and I climb down out of the truck and pace toward the bar. It was like a Jerry Maguire, “who’s coming with me” moment, except no one came. We shook our heads in disbelief and walked into the bar as the engine of the truck started up once again.
The night ended up being called the Twenty-Five Beer Fiasco for one simple reason: Ronnie had ordered twenty-five Budweisers at two dollars a pop from the Project Lounge, and the only people there to drink them were himself, Janos, Nurse Carrie, and I. These beers were non-refundable, as Ronnie had had the bartender take the liberty of opening all twenty-five bottles before Janos and I could enter the bar to tell him of the exodus. The four of us sat down at a table near the entrance. Nurse Carrie sips on a beer as Ronnie, Janos, and I go to work on bottles. We called up a couple of friends, Shortstack, Cora…no dice to be had. There are four or five senior citizens drinking a round at a table near our own, and on his way back from the bathroom Ronnie goes to take one of their empty chairs.
Now the following actions should have for all intents and purposes been dealt with in a more appropriate manner than they were. However, we were all three or four beers deep at this point. And Ronnie was an excitable drunk, had been through some shit in his life, and never hesitated to defend anything needing defending.
Prologue over. As Ronnie goes to take a chair, a sixty-year old woman returning vocally tells him to drop the chair. Ronnie looks at the woman.
“You aren’t using that chair, I need it for my friends that are coming.”
“I am using it, get another chair.”
Ronnie about-faces, walks over to our table and throws his hands up. Janos and I shrug. To put in perspective, this whole chair argument is really not a huge deal, as there are three other empty tables in the bar with numerous chairs. Even if we had actually found people to come drink these beers with us (which we hadn’t at this point) the chair wasn’t really a point. However, Ron’s pride was hurt. Ronnie did not bring bats to gunfights, and Ron stood up for anything worth standing up for when it came down to it because he pretty much just liked standing.
“Stand up, boys.” Janos looks at him quizzically.
“Why are we standing up?”
“We need to make room for our new tables.”
Ronnie grabbed our table and moved it two feet closer to the table where the other patrons are sitting. He then walked over to an empty table near the jukebox and audibly dragged it across the bar, tangent to our table. He proceeded to walk around the bar collecting all the unused tables until he formed a quarter-circle of tables around the senior citizens. At this point, he pulled out his phone and called the rest of Team Termite.
“Gerry. It’s Ron….yeah, I’m at the Project Lounge right now with uh…with Janos and Will.”
We shouted in the background for Gerry to come drink beers with us. Mississippi patrons at the bar were now starting to turn around and stare. Ronnie got off the phone and announced to us that Termite was coming down “for back-up.”
Janos and I, working on our fourth or fifth beer in twenty minutes at that point, were fairly oblivious to the going-ons of Ronnie’s confrontation with the entire bar. Next thing I knew, the door opens and Termite walks in with authority. Billy Beckett. Polesaw Pete. Gerry. Rohde. I think N8 might have even been there with them.
Billy Beckett later related to me over the campfire his exact impression of what was going on at the Project Lounge.
“Guillermo, let me tell you exaaaaactly what happened. Ronnie calls us up as if there’s some big brawl that’s going to go on so we come to save your asses. I walk in and assess,” Billy nodded his head down with emphasis, “the situation. O.K. What the hell are we doing here? I say, Ronnie. Come over here with me. We walk over to the bar.
‘Ronnie, what’s going on?’
‘I’ll tell you what’s going on.’ And Ronnie starts pointing directly at these poor old people. ‘That motherfucker, that motherfucker, that motherfucker…that bitch!’
‘I say, Ronnie, we’re going home. I then proceed to walk over to you and Janos, who are both shit-faced, pick your asses up, and drag you home to the campfire.”
This is all true. Despite being shit-faced, however, I have a perfect recollection of getting home to base camp, Ronnie stumbling around the fire yelling at people, telling me he hated me and that he and Janos were going to the game tomorrow by themselves, Billy Beckett discreetly walking past Ronnie to the campfire mid-ramble, quietly saying “Look out” with half a second’s warning before tossing a cup of White Lightning Whiskey on the logs, the small explosion afterward, and Ronnie falling to the ground, his entire left side on fire. Not a huge fire, but on fire enough to blister, little mini licks of flame all up the side of his Levis like bright studs. Billy was nice about it though, he was right there above Ron smacking him with a folding chair to put it out. Ron pretended things were all good between them until 3:30 am when he snuck over to Billy’s tent and flipped the entire thing over with Billy and Sarah in it asleep. I remember all of this. It was just another night before the ball dropped on the Bates Brothers— such antics were typical of us, the long-termers that sustained the organization.
In my early adulthood, I often found myself adhering to the following credo: if one surrounds oneself with interesting people, interesting things will happen. As long as there’s a good story at the end it’s worth the squeeze. Ron had since forgotten his drunken tirade and asked me to be ready at 7 pm to leave. He spent all his time after work wandering between the Colony and the main hall humming the LSU theme song. Janos also wanted my company. Keep in mind, none of us knew anyone in Baton Rouge besides Ronnie, nor did we know anyone at LSU. However, that fact alone never stopped any courageous road trip. That Friday night, I left Hands On to get myself into whatever the road brought with Ronnie, Janos, Josh, and Interiors Alex.
Janos was driving, Ronnie was riding shotgun, and Josh, Alex, and I manned the vodka, whiskey, and beer in the back. It was a short enough road trip to negate longer road trip etiquette, in which passengers plan sobriety appropriately in order to switch off driving shifts. I pulled long on the vodka and encouraged my backseat compatriots to do the same. Josh, the fallback lynchpin of sanity in any social situation, sat complacent as I tried to get him to share in the bacchanal revelry of the Subaru with the rest of us. Convincing Josh to come with us was a coup of sorts for us; prior to this trip, I knew Josh only as Kate’s quiet guy, seemed like nice enough though. Ronnie pulled whiskey and hummed the LSU fight song. Then his cell lit up and Ronnie started talking on the phone. Josh and I continued talking for a couple seconds before realizing that the current entertainment option likely laid in quietly eavesdropping on Ron’s conversation.
As Ron spoke to the unknown caller, words turned aggressive but not tone— throughout the conversation, Ron kept his poise.
“Look, I think she’s playing you man, I don’t know what you think of all this but you’ve got to understand, she’ll do what she’ll do…No, man, I’m not the one being played. I know exactly what goes on, so I’m not being played.”
Ronnie was speaking with some poor guy with the unfortunate circumstance of falling into some romantic triangle of Ron and some girl named Crystal. The only thing I knew of Ronnie’s sexual exploits up to this point was that the night Cindy the Lesbian had been rebuffed by Jen in the Project Lounge parking lot that Tuesday (only after their shirts were off as they made out in the backseat while I drove them home,) someone had dropped her on top of Ron’s air mattress. At 4 a.m. they both sobered up enough to fuck in the loft, in plain sight of a poor Boy Scout that had woken up and watched coitus intently from behind a metal buttress. I listened to Ron and chuckled with everyone else.
“…look, man, I ain’t trying to play ping-pong with no pussy…what? No, you heard me. I ain’t trying to play ping-pong with pussy, but if you’ve got things you want to talk about you should talk to her…uh huh…oh ,wait…” Ronnie pulled the phone away from his ear, looked at the flashing call waiting name, and then, “Look, my man, Crystal’s calling right now, we’re gonna sort this out right now.”
Ron clicked the three-way button and smiles as he put the phone back to his ear.
“…hey…hey baby? Listen, I’ve got your guy on here on three-way, you’ve got to pick one or the other here. And you’ve got to talk to this guy…uh huh…”
The conversation drags on for a bit as Ron mediates and every now and then expresses disdain for the game of ping-pong. Five minutes later, he hung up and turned back. Ron had brown hair with this peculiar natural streak of white at the forehead, and it shone as bright as his smile in the headlights of I-10 traffic as he pulled the Jack out of my lap and took a swig.
“Did everything work out, man?”
Ron nods as he replaces the cap and hands it to Alex, laughing.
“I don’t know, I just don’t play ping-pong man, you know what I mean?”
We drove on to Baton Rouge, with a quick stop at a couple motels outside of the city. Ron was to be staying with his brother but seemed wary about letting us all crash there. Homecoming related or not, however, hotel room prices were way out of the league of hurricane budgets and there were hardly rooms left as it was. Ron called his brother who agreed to meet us outside of a movie theater in the neighborhood where he lived. As we descended into Lousiaina suburbia, Ron looked around at the restaurants and gas stations and began telling us stories about each, stories I touched upon earlier. Never bring a bat to a gunfight. We met Ron’s brother and his boy outside of the movie theater, and we all got out of the car to shake his hand. He was real nice and gave us the keys to his house, which we then drove to.
“Ron, what does your brother do?” Alex asked as we pulled into the driveway of a split-level in a pleasant looking neighborhood.
“You mean like landscaping?”
“Yeah,” Ron spoke as he jiggled the key in the door, looking over his shoulders. “Yeah, just things with lawns and what not.” Ron got the door open and we stepped inside.
The interior was beautiful. It was a huge house, especially so considering it was only Ron’s little brother and his recently wed wife. I was fairly buzzed by this point as we surveyed the living room, the entertainment center, the pool table, the arcade game, the plush leather couches, the boxing bag, the fully stocked kitchen, the wedding album pictures adorning the walls. It was amazing. If any of my failed romances from high school or college would have added up to a perfect suburban house with a dog, it would have closely resembled this. The friendliest pit-bull followed us around the living room area as we shot pool and finished off the remaining whiskey. In short time, Ron’s brother’s wife came home. She was blonde, athletic, and attractive— at that point I consulted with my bottle and decided that Ron’s brother must know something I don’t because his life seemed perfect. I then passed out on the most comfortable couch in the room.
The next morning I woke up to a gun in my face.
Well, let me start over. I woke up because I heard a door open in another part of the house and groggily sat up. Janos, Josh, and Alex were still asleep on other couches in the two living room areas and Ron had crashed in the guest room down the hall. I heard the door jangle, looked up, and saw Ron’s brother enter the house. He was wearing clean jeans and a button-up shirt, far from the typical purple sweatshirt that Ron sported, with a gelled crop of hair on top of a face with just enough stubble to look intentional. He disappeared down the hall, and after thirty seconds returned hastily, walking with purpose.
“Hey, what’s up man?” I said groggily and sat up.
“Not much, not much.” Ron’s brother spoke with a friendly Louisiana drawl as he glanced around his front door area, his back to me. He looked out his window, and then glanced back over his shoulder to me.
“Hey, you’re cool with guns, right?”
He turned around and was holding a large black pistol by its handle, pointed down. I myself had never had friends that carried guns around their homes so nonchalantly. Once I went to a shooting range with a friend and used a shotgun, but that was atypical. I said the only thing anyone with any street sense would say in this situation, standing in a person’s house you hadn’t yet met as he stands five feet from you gauging your firearm comfort.
“Yeah, man, of course. What kind of gun is that?” In my head, I instantaneously started analyzing everything I’d ever suspected about Ron’s genetic sanity, genetics shivering, my sympathetic system bubbling as I smiled and nodded toward the gun. Ron’s brother walked over and stood in front of me, glowingly surveying the gun in his hand like a shiny red fire truck on Christmas morning.
“Desert Eagle, man. 0.58 caliber bullets, that’ll fuck somebody up, you know what I’m saying?” He laughed and the gun shook with him. I kept smiling.
I heard a motion behind Ron’s brother, and saw Josh waking up on the next couch over. I looked back at Ron’s brother.
“You want to hold it?”
Of course I didn’t want to hold it…or did I? The normalcy of the situation had been established upon consciousness. Maybe it was normal that I held my hands out.
“Yeah, sure…. it’s not loaded, is it?”
“No, I unloaded it a couple minutes ago, you’re good.”
I took the gun slowly in my hands and felt it over. It was heavy. The handle was smooth and smelled like polish. This thing in my hand can kill someone so easily, I thought. Three months after this encounter, I read on CNN.com that a preschooler had shot another preschooler at a nursery school about 2 miles from my home in Germantown. The father is being charged for negligence in the case. When I heard about that, I thought about this moment, my beard unshaven and my hair tussled with the restlessness of drunken sleep, waking up and holding a gun with the naiveté of a child. Josh was looking quizzically at me from across the room and I used the opportunity to escape from my encounter. I carefully gave the gun back to him.
“It’s nice man. Josh check this out, man.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said lazily. “That’s a big gun.”
Ron’s brother nodded and offered it to Josh. He declined and I immediately though I should feel more jealous of his cool refusal than I actually did.
“How much does that cost?”
“I got it for a thousand. It’s not bad though, it’ll get the job done you know? (What fucking job? I thought.) It’s nice though.” Ron’s brother turned away from the couches and walked back up the hallway to his room.
“Sorry I took the good couch.”
“Nah, nah don’t worry about it man. You looked a little more tired than us.”
“Yeah, well.” I stood up and escaped to the porch to smoke my last cigarette.
The next hours of the morning passed as familiar as any plan-less morning. We sat around and waited for everyone else to wake up. I watched an infomercial on accessories for Bobcats, and was secretly pleased that I actually recognized the machinery. We lounged around a room that wasn’t ours, waiting for a plan put itself together. I bummed a cig from Ron, who eventually emerged from his room, and I stood on the porch with my crew in the morning light. A car pulled up right as Ron’s brother came out of the house to join us. He immediately started laughing as the car pulled away to round the cul-de-sac.
“Ronnie, there she is.”
Ron smiled, took another drag, and turned to Janos.
“Who might that be, Janos? Who could that be?” He sauntered down the walkway toward the car that was now pulling into the driveway of the house. The car parked, and the door opened. A blonde in heels stood up and spoke animatedly to Ron, who smoked and laughed. Ron did not play ping-pong. Crystal had arrived from Shrveport.
The two walked up and Ron introduced us to Crystal, who looked infinitely more attractive from 40 feet away.
“It’s nice to meet all of you,” said Crystal, and Ron led her into his brother’s house. Ron’s brother came out a couple seconds later and announced that he’d take us to Waffle House. The shower started inside behind him and Crystal laughed somewhere. We gathered our things from the living room and drove away from the neighborhood, following Ron’s brother. Janos shuffled through his CD books as I tried to keep pace with the speedy black coupe racing through the service roads of an industrial park.
“So, uh…” Alex spoke. “So, Ron’s brother does lawn services?”
“I think he does that officially,” Janos spoke, selecting his favorite mix from his Los Angeles ex and popping it into the CD player. “But, I mean, you guys can figure it out.”
“Not just weed then,” I offered as we flew past a water tower.
“No, definitely not.”
I suppose that was the answer to the perfect life I had mused on the night before. Living like that may get you a beautiful wife and a sweet house at the ripe age of 24, but I suppose it also means you come home from undisclosed locations at 8 a.m. to immediately retrieve your piece and peek out your front door window at who knows what. I’ve been involved in some sketch in my day, the extent of which will have to wait until we get to know each other better, but I’d never want a life looking over your shoulder. That makes it not worth it; I don’t care how much money and comfort and pleasure that life brings. It’s like when Spider-Man can’t date Mary Jane because of all the super-villains that would get her, except the opposite of that. Or maybe I just don’t have the personality to be a hard drug dealer. I don’t know.
We rolled into Waffle House circa 11 a.m. None of us had actually ever been to Waffle House, staple of the South, so there was a muted excitement to the experience. The way Waffle House works is like so: you sit at a table, the series of which all are placed right up next to a short order counter. The waiters and waitresses walk up and down behind the counter, taking orders, filling coffee, bringing out food from the kitchen on the other side of their serving aisle. For what it is, it’s a pretty brilliant operation, expeditious delivery of trans-fatty food to a clientele requiring just that. My chili and cheese hash browns were superb. As I looked over a sports page, Ron’s brother offered that he had played backyard football with Mewelde Moore, off-and-on starting running back for the Minnesota Vikings. Midway through this explanation, the door to Waffle House opened and four mascara-smeared teenagers walked in with animated whispers. Blonde, brunette, pupil-dilated smiles for all. Ron’s brother smiled and motioned toward them with his head while continuing.
“Heyyyy [Ron’s brother’s name here, which I’ve purposefully avoided using thus far, along with Ron’s last name]…how you doing this morning?” One of the blondes punched him on the shoulder as the rest continued past her toward the bathroom.
“Just trying to have some breakfast, beautiful.”
Ron’s brother had another forkful of eggs as the blonde’s friend pulled her toward the bathroom. Giggling wildly, she waved bye and disappears into the room. I looked at Janos and met his knowing smile. Forty-five seconds later, all four girls exited together with staggering smiles and blew through the exit, the bell jangling violently behind them.
“Short time to be in the bathroom, right?” I asked Ron’s brother. He nodded, took another bite, and continued on about what a good kid Mewelde was, staying out of trouble in high school.
Ron and Crystal arrived soon and we thanked Ron’s brother for taking us to Waffle House.
“Anytime, y’all have a good time at the football game.”
“Aren’t you coming with us?” asked Alex.
“Nah, I’ve got some things I’ve got to do. It’ll be fun though, LSU games always are.”
Ron’s brother put his aviators on, walked over to his car, and drove away.