Ten years ago, my sophomore year in high school, I killed a woman on Halloween.
I had been drinking at Ed Sales’s house all afternoon, which I wasn’t supposed to be doing because I was on probation. The probation rules said I was only allowed to drive to school and then right back home after school was out. But it was six months since I’d been arrested for being a minor under the influence, and my parents had become lax about the driving rules. On that Halloween Tuesday, instead of going home, I took some friends over to Ed’s and we all got drunk.
His father was a mathematics professor at Stanford and his mother was a nurse, and neither of them came home until at least six but usually seven. His professor father had a great liquor cabinet. I had my first drink there when I was thirteen, and in the three years since then we had been taking from his cupboard and putting water back into the bottles. We could never get much from any one bottle because it would be too obvious; so we would take a little from all the bottles and mix everything into a punch like the bums did in Cannery Row. I like that we did that, I liked thinking that we were like Mack and the boys, even though the punch tasted horrible. We’d usually mix it with grape juice, but it wouldn’t help much.
We were all sitting in the backyard on a little picnic table that you might find at a park. His dad probably took it from the dump. He was always doing weird stuff like that to save money. Ed did it too, like scraping the mold off old bread and then eating it. His dad was a mathematics professor who smoked a pipe, every night. His teeth were yellow and crooked and horrible. Ed had a little pipe and he smoked tobacco with his dad at night. Ed was half Korean and half white because his mother was Korean and his dad was white from Gary, Indiana.
Outside, we were smoking weed in Ed’s little tobacco pipe. We were all planning on going to Alice Wolfe’s house later for the Halloween party, and we were getting ourselves revved up. I picked a fight with Nick Dobbs. I had seen him hanging around my girlfriend, Susan, and I didn’t like it. I spotted them a couple times laughing in the corner of the library at school. I probably wouldn’t have cared if he had been just one of those theater dorks that she was always planning events with, but he wasn’t. He was a handsome skateboarder, and I had enough of the alcohol punch in me to start something.
“I heard you and Susan did acid. Why did you give my girlfriend acid?”
“She wanted it.”
His eyes actually looked worried. It was not the reaction I was expecting. I suddenly felt powerful and a little bad for him at the same time. I probably couldn’t have asked for a better reaction because I really wasn’t a fighter, and this way, because he looked scared, I had beat him without having to fight him. I didn’t like to see people intimidated, but this guilt made me turn meaner because I told him to apologize, and when he did, I demanded that he say it louder so that everyone could hear. I was pushing it a little and I could see him consider just taking a swing at me, but he apologized again slightly louder. Jack spoke up.
“What the fuck do you care, Ryan? She does acid and other drugs all the time, with all of us.”
Well, I didn’t like that. Funny how new facts pop up and make you doubt that there’s any goodness in life. Everyone pretends to be normal and be your friend, but underneath, everyone is living some other life you don’t know about, and if only we had a camera on us at all times, we could go and watch each other’s tapes and find out what each of us was really like. But then you’d have to watch girls go poo and boys trying to go down on themselves.
Then Ed’s Korean mom came home. She was only about four foot ten, but we all got scared anyway. We heard the front door close inside the house, and Ed said, “My mom’s home!” And we grabbed most of the cups and someone grabbed the punch and Ed grabbed his pipe and we all scrambled over the fence and jumped into my car. It was a Honda Accord I’d inherited from my father when things were better between us, and it was pretty small for eight people. There were two others in the front besides me and five in the back. Jack’s elbow was in my face, and when I looked in the rearview, the backseat was a jumble of arms and torsos and heads up against the ceiling. Nick wasn’t in the car. He ran off somewhere to go and cry, I guess.
I raced out of there. It wasn’t time for Alice’s party so we had to find a place to go. The sun was going down, and there were already trick-or-treaters out with their parents. Everyone started getting rambunctious. It made it hard to drive with all the yelling and Jack’s elbow in my face.
“Get that thing out of my face!”
Jack just laughed because there wasn’t much he could do with his elbow. Everyone was talking very loudly, and the people that had saved their cups were trying to drink their punch and were spilling it all over the car. Then for some reason everyone started chanting, “Fuck Alice Wolfe, fuck Alice Wolfe, fuck the Wolfe!” We didn’t know why we were saying it, at least I didn’t, but it was really funny, and some of the guys were howling and everyone was feeling good from the drinks and about the escape and about the night ahead.
For some reason I was still driving fast. As if we were racing somewhere. I guess I just wanted to get this octopus of bodies out of the car as soon as possible, but it was also more fun to drive faster, as if we were really having a crazy adventure. I used to think of these escapades around the neighborhood as good life experience.
We decided to go to Eleanor Park to lie low before the party. There was a little community garden in the back of the park where people could grow their own vegetables, and there were some picnic tables there just like the one in Ed’s backyard. We all sat down and continued what we had been doing at Ed’s house. Ed went over and started picking baby tomatoes and carrots from the garden. They were small but tasted really good, and the carrots were soft and buttery tasting. Ivan went over and started kicking a trellis down, and everyone laughed because his foot went through it.
It was a simple existence, when I look back on it now. I have friends who grew up in New York City, and the stories they have from their childhoods are amazing. Full of color and culture and danger. I envy them.
At about eight we went to Alice Wolfe’s party. We had finished the punch in the park, and everyone was feeling even happier. The Wolfe chant started up again, but this time it was slurred. Now that we were close to the house, the chant began to take on meaning for me. It meant that we had little respect for Alice Wolfe and her friends. Yes, they were the prettiest, most popular girls in our class, but they weren’t that pretty. And our chant meant that we were going to dominate them. We were going to go over there and do our best to get them alone and fuck them.
We had decided to go as monkeys. We had identical monkey masks that we’d stashed in the trunk. All eight of us wore one so no one could tell us apart. At Alice’s it worked out great. It broke the ice because we could act as stupidly as we liked, and we ended up making the girls laugh a lot more than they usually did. I had a few more beers, and then I found myself talking on the back porch with Sandy Cooper.
“I know it’s you, Ryan.”
“Nooooo it’s naaaaht.” I was using a deep, doofusy kind of voice like Baloo from the Jungle Book movie.
“I’ll pretend it’s not you so if I get caught I won’t get beat up by Susan.”
“Shut up, Ryan.”
I took the monkey mask off, and we made out for a bit in the backyard. Then I figured that I had better call Susan because I said I was going to. She was going to a different, less cool party with her girlfriends because they weren’t invited to Alice’s. I needed to come up with an excuse not to meet her. I told Sandy to wait, and I went inside to use the phone.
I called Susan at her house.
“Took you long enough,” she said.
“You were supposed to call me two hours ago.”
“Sorry, we were just over at the park and there wasn’t a phone around.”
“It’s true. So you’re still at home?”
“Yeah, we’re just getting our costumes on.”
“Me and Elizabeth and Jenny and Hart and Nick.”
“Nick Dobbs? What’s he doing there?”
“Putting his costume on. He and Hart are going to be the guys from A Clockwork Orange with Terry and Pete.”
“Why the fuck are you hanging out with Nick?”
“He’s my friend.”
“Yeah, getting real friendly in the library.”
I hung up the phone. I told Jack and Ed that I was leaving, and I ran out to my car. The driveway and bushes were blurry as I ran. I got the car handle in my grip and opened the door. I got in and took off toward Susan’s.
I was racing on my anger. On the righteousness of catching Nick with her. I had no clear plan for what I would do when I arrived, but I could see my fist going toward Nick’s face. I had glimpses of Hart’s angry face; I’d probably have to deal with him too. He was bigger than me. I’d probably have to reason with him after I kicked the shit out of Nick. I saw Susan’s horrified reaction, and I felt buffeted on a hot wave of self-righteousness. The streets were fairly empty, and I accepted them as my personal roadway. My ordinary submission to traffic laws evaporated. I raced around corners without looking and shot through the phantom walls of the stoplights. The more recklessly I drove, the easier it was.
The Main Library passed on my left. I went through the red light at Embarcadero and Newell and passed Candice Brown’s house on the right. Bitch, she cheated on her boyfriend too. I shot down Newell, busting through neighborhood stop signs toward Jordan Middle School. At the school I screeched through the stop sign and around the corner to the right.
There was no time to do anything about the dark figure standing in the road. The car went right at it. There was a bump and the figure disappeared underneath the car. I realized I was already pressing the brakes when the car stopped ten yards away. I put the car in Park and pressed the button for the automatic window and stuck my body out the window to look back. The figure was lying facedown on the road. There was no one else around. Just the empty school on one side of the street and on the other some sycamores in shadow. Whoever the figure was couldn’t have seen what kind of car raced into her. I took the moment and drove off before she started moving.
I was driving fast again, but I obeyed the street signs now. I didn’t know where to go. My rage had dissipated into a little boy’s fear for his safety. I couldn’t go to Susan’s, and I didn’t want to go home because my father would see how drunk I was; but I wanted to get the car off the street. Ed’s house was close, and I drove in that direction. The flaccid monkey mask in the passenger seat looked like it was grinning. It was an object from a different time. Alice Wolfe’s house and Sandy Cooper were far away. The accident had drained the life from everything that had happened earlier.
Near Ed’s, I parked the car very carefully under the shadow of a large tree. I got out and forced myself to look at the front of the car. There was only a small dent on the front of the hood where the head must have hit. I didn’t see any blood. I realized I was only wearing a T-shirt, and I was shivering.
I knocked on Ed’s door. Inside, someone grumbled, and then, finally, there were footsteps. Ed’s professor father opened the door. At first only a little, and then he saw it was me and stuck his bald lightbulb head out and smiled, showing his bad teeth.
“Why, hello, Ryan. I thought you were some late trick-or-treaters, and I was about to tell them to go screw.”
“Can I come in?”
“Uhh, sure. Is everything all right?”
I was still shivering.
“Yeah, I’m just drunk and I don’t want to drive right now. I don’t think it would be safe.”
I thought he would understand about being drunk better than my own father. My father was tired of my shit.
“Sure, come in,” he said. He sat in his chair and I sat on the couch. Ed’s mom wasn’t there. The TV was on to the news, something about the Gulf War. Ed’s dad took up his meerschaum pipe and lit it.
“Would you like to smoke? Ed usually keeps his pipe here on the bookshelf, but I don’t see it. Here, I have an extra.”
He picked up another old pipe and loaded it with tobacco.
“Just suck a bit while you get it started or it will go out.”
I did, and inhaled sweet-tasting tobacco.
“Where’s Ed?” he said.
“Oh, out with the guys, I guess.”
“Chasing tail, no doubt.”
This was funny because Ed wasn’t the best guy with the ladies.
“Hope it works out for him,” he said. “He’s gone through all the tissues in the house.” He laughed a high-pitched, too-big laugh. The longer I sat there, the more I calmed down. It meant no one was coming after me. My father would hardly notice the dent on the already beat-up car. I might get in a little trouble because I had kept the car and not gone home after school, but that would blow over. I would tell Susan that I got upset over Nick and went home.
After about an hour there was something on the news about the actor River Phoenix overdosing outside a club in LA. Then I decided to go.
“You sure you’ll be all right?”
“Yeah, I feel okay now. Thanks, Mr. Sales.”
I never told anyone about the accident. The San Jose Mercury ran a story about the woman the day after and so did the Palo Alto Weekly. She was a librarian and had been walking home from work. She lived alone.
My last couple of years of high school, I passed that corner a few times, and the little-boy terror came back. But eventually the feeling left. When I went back home from college to visit my parents, I’d drive past the corner, and it seemed like the accident only happened in a movie.
After my father died, I’d visit my mother at Christmas. One December, I passed the corner while driving my mother to the library. At first the corner didn’t register. My mother was talking about the new children’s book she was working on, and I was just listening to her when, halfway down the block, I remembered, “Oh yeah, that’s where the accident happened.”
James Franco’s story collection traces the lives of a group of teenagers as they experiment with vices of all kinds, struggle with their families and one another, and succumb to self-destructive, often heartless nihilism. In “Lockheed” a young woman’s summer—spent working a dull internship—is suddenly upended by a spectacular incident of violence at a house party. In “American History” a high school freshman attempts to impress a girl with a realistic portrayal of a slave owner during a classroom skit—only to have his feigned bigotry avenged. In “I Could Kill Someone,” a lonely teenager buys a gun with the aim of killing his high school tormentor, but begins to wonder about his bully’s own inner life.
These “spare and riveting” (O, The Oprah Magazine) stories are a compelling portrait of lives on the rough fringes of youth. Palo Alto is, “a collection of beautifully written stories” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) that “capture with perfect pitch the impossible exhilaration, the inevitable downbeatness, and the pure confusion of being an adolescent” (Elle).
Features a bonus essay by James Franco on Gia Coppola's film adaptation.