Spring. I love Spring. I love breathing the chill air that somehow hints of warmth. I’ve always wondered if that hint is in my head because of the calendar or if something in the green coming-back-to-life sneaks out. Trinket left on a sickly, below-zero day. I remember the light of the sun warmed nothing, even magnified through the window. I sat reading her letter in my room, shivering. When Spring came, I knew she was okay. I knew she loved me and would come back for me. I even started imagining how she had gotten a place of her own—I was too young to grasp that she couldn’t buy a house and I pictured this brick home, tiny but sturdy and safe. Every Spring since, I start looking for her. I don’t imagine I see her in every brown-haired girl. But I look.
This Spring, I will see her. Somehow we will find her and she will have her life together and maybe she’ll even be able to help me a little. I know I’m fantasizing, but it comes to me in April.
I need to find some books for my term paper for senior honors English. I want to cruise in my last classes, or just ignore their exis and hope the teachers care as little as I do. But I won’t do that in Mr. Charles’s class. However bad my senioritis gets, however much my brain tunes in only on the channel of my future with Guin, I won’t slide in there because I couldn’t face his withering sarcasm…or having him think less of me. So I’m dragging my carcass to find more sources on General George Rommel. He fascinates me. From what I’ve read so far, he was Nazi Germany’s one honorable warrior. He outmaneuvered and outfought the Allies with inferior forces (armor) for years. When he was finally brought down, it wasn’t by a shot from a Sherman or a pincer movement by Patton. Bloody Rommel died when his psycho madman Fuhrer cast him as a traitor—of all the generals of Germany, the only one who remained loyal to his country—and gave him the choice: public repudiation with stripping of rank, or suicide. It makes me sick and compels me to learn more. I probably fancy myself Rommel’s equivalent on some infinitesimal level. But that’s just leftover martyr complex with Coach, and do I care now, anyway?
Sometimes I forget that I don’t.
As I’m entering the library, Jamie Lindbeck comes out, sees me, and circles back through the automatic exit door so she can join me. Sweet.
I liked Jamie for about a year. I know, I’ve only had eyes for Guinevere since the moment I met her. But I discovered girls, as they say, before that moment. Jamie thought I was funny and cute like a Springer Spaniel (yeah, she said that). Had I actually been one, she should have been reported to PETA. I can’t count how many times I made an ass of myself over her, but what else is junior high for, right? We’ve stayed “friends” in that way you do in a small town, when the choices are friends, enemies, or having sex.
“Hi, Paxtie! How’s it going?”
“I’m good, Jamie. How are you? How’s Rob?” Rob and Jamie have been together since…well, since she stopped teasing me.
“He’s great! He’s going to spend the summer in England. His parents will probably fly me over for a couple of weeks. Have you decided where you’re going to school?”
I’ve reached the history section, so I don’t have to look at her. War, modern warfare, World War Two…
“Nah, not yet.”
“Are you and Guin really getting married?”
Still not dignifying this with eye contact.
“Yeah, we really are.”
“That’s so weird.”
My head swivels before I can stop it. I try to snap back to The German Military in Africa, 1939-1944, but she’s too quick. She stretches her arm out and rests her hand on the spines of the books whose titles I’m reading. This is the time to mention that Jamie is very well-endowed. If I don’t look at her eyes right now then I’m left staring at her breasts.
“That she’s marrying me?” That someone would like me back? I want to say. Problem is, that’s my question.
“No, Pax, you’re so sweet, of course lots of girls would want to marry you!” She leans closer to me as she says it. Ef word! Why do girls like to do this?
“So what, then? That I’m marrying her?” I juice this with all the sarcasm I’ve got.
“Well yeah, kinda. I mean, of course Guinevere is crazy talented and like the best music person this school’s ever had…” She pauses and nods big. Drama queen. And “music person?” Why did I like her, even in junior high?
“Yes, she’s a gifted musician.”
“Uh-huh. She just doesn’t seem like, I don’t know, the settling down type, I guess? I mean, it’s pretty different than her pattern.”
I almost have to laugh out loud, but it would sound like bile. For a second, I actually thought she might try the “could I still lure him away?” Just to test if I’m still on her hook, you understand, not that she wants me. But this is different. I’ve got to stop her. I start grabbing books at random: Churchill’s Speeches, The Holocaust and Resistance in Holland, Roots of the Cold War. I pivot and racewalk toward the check-out desk.
Six people in line. I’m committed. She swings around behind me and leans in to make our conversation private. And makes contact with my elbow. I can smell her body wash now. She still uses the same kind.
“I mean, I think it’s really cool. Of course people can change. We’re all going to change a lot after we get out of here, right?” She nods my agreement for me, then goes on. “I’ve just always thought of Guinevere as more of the artist type, right? I mean, she’s kind of a free spirit, she tries different things, she–”
“She what, Jamie?” I pull my arm away and step back.
I thought she might be offended, but instead she becomes more serious.
“She’s just had a lot of boyfriends, Paxton. How many guys has she dated?”
Depending on how you score it, nine. Before me.
“Do you think she was ever serious with any of them? I mean, they…”
Here’s my take: Jamie believes herself that she’s trying to help me by reminding me that my fiancé has had sex with a lot of guys in our school. She’s got the self-righteous position staked out, because she and Rob have been monogamous straight through high school. This has nothing to do with my crush on her—no, wait, I’d guess she’s doing me this favor because I had a crush on her and that makes her feel a little more bound to watch out for me.
“Jamie, you don’t like Guinevere much, do you?”
“Paxton, just because you get the girl that you wanted doesn’t mean you’ve gotten what you wanted.”
My mouth stands open with the riposte for what I expected her to say…which wasn’t that. She waits a moment for my non-answer, then subtly pats me on the hip/butt as she walks away.
I hate still being in high school. I hate the games everyone feels the need to play with me and Guin (as if we don’t have enough real stuff to work out), I hate that someone in this library (or six someones) can’t wait to tell Guin that Jamie Lindbeck just put her hand almost on my butt, and I hate that I had—have!—a physical reaction to this. Being male is the dumbest damned thing imaginable.
For a bonus, Jamie used the same argument as Gretchen.
The past week has gone by like a train. It’s been noisy and pumped a lot of smoke into the air. I can’t stop thinking about the stupid conversation with Jamie. Guinevere did hear about our interaction, and she couldn’t wait to laugh about it with me.
“Somebody said I needed to be jealous today,” she said as we walked down the school steps. She shook her head. “Did Jamie Lindbeck have a crush on you at one point?”
“Not exactly. Why?”
“Well, according to reliable sources, she ‘made moves on you’ in the library today.” She squeezes my hand. She’s…delighted?
“Um, yeah, not exactly, but I guess it looked like it. She was talking to me pretty close—you know how she doesn’t have a space bubble—and then she…” Guin’s nodding, like she wants to hear details. I’m sure not going to get in trouble for hiding something I didn’t do. “She hit me on the rear. About there. I don’t know why.”
“What were you talking about?”
The air smells great, clean and strong with Spring. I’ve just about got Jamie’s smell out of my nostrils. I’m just about not feeling guilty, but I’m not even close to sorting out that conversation.
“She thinks it’s weird we’re getting married.”
“And that made her want to play with your butt?” She’s still smiling, but…
“Not exactly. Are you jealous?”
“Not exactly. That’s a way to not say something, by the way. What are you not saying to me here?” And she’s still smiling. But I’m not.
“Jamie didn’t have a crush on me. She was, um, I liked her for a while in eighth grade. She thought that was funny, and she–” how do you tell the girl who likes you about the girl who didn’t? Doesn’t that imply something negative? “She jerked me around for a while, I guess.”
She looks me up and down for a moment though she doesn’t break stride.
“Does this embarrass you, Paxton? I’m not trying to embarrass you. I mean, maybe a little.”
God, what would it be like to have that kind of confidence? Not like this, I’ll tell you.
“No, I just didn’t want it to upset you. I think she’s freaked out that we’re doing this, getting married, because it makes them all feel–”
“Maybe. Or maybe like we’re trying to play grown-ups.”
“You think we are? Playing grown-ups, I mean?”
We’re a block from her house. This isn’t a conversation I’m going to have walking through her front door, so I stop and she tugs my hand before she realizes I’m not coming along. But she doesn’t let go.
“Guin, I don’t know what I am, but I haven’t felt like a kid for a long time. My life, my home, doesn’t really work that way. I know basketball isn’t—I mean, I really get that now—but I could pour my energy into it so I didn’t go nuts. I don’t know if I’m mature enough to get married, even though I know for sure I want to marry you, but it isn’t about playing grown up. Sometimes when I listen to what our classmates are getting upset about, I just feel like, I don’t know, like–”
“Like you’re visiting daycare. That’s how I feel, anyway. I know that sounds really bad. But it seems like our engagement has made it worse—and I wouldn’t have thought that possible.”
“So you’re not jealous at all?” Stupid question, at least needy, maybe even planting a seed. But I asked it.
“Of Jamie Lindbeck? Hunh. No, Honey,” she says with the half chuckle saved for ridiculous thoughts.
“Wow. I really love you.”
She grins at me.
“Yeah, I know that. I love you, too.”
“You’re just not going to be one of those jealous types, are you?” I wink.
“If I ever need to be jealous, you better tell me. And then watch out. It won’t be pretty.”
The problem is, I want to talk about Jamie’s question, or at least the issue Jamie raised. But how exactly could I do that? Oh, by the way, you have no reason to be jealous of Jamie, and I’m really glad you’re not the jealous type in general, but NOW could we talk about the nine guys you’ve had sex with?
I don’t have any sense of what I should do next. So I’m just lowering my head and doing what I know how to do as hard as I know how. That’s what I did in basketball and it didn’t work out very well, but I can’t find any inspirational movies telling me how to do anything else. Rocky never sits down and works out a different strategy with Mick. Unless “Cut me, Mick!” counts.
Many times. No one getting up. What time is it? What day is it? Saturday morning? I laid down Friday night. At Guinevere’s until 10 then went back to work for three hours. Got home about quarter till two. Dark outside and the phone is ringing. I’ve been asleep for three hours. Or an hour. Why is the phone ringing and it’s dark? Why didn’t Dad answer?
It must have rung thirty times now. I’m out of bed and groping my way through the hall.
“Pax? It’s Jeff.” His voice is wrong. I’m awake.
“Jeff. What are you doing?”
“I’ve got a situation.”
“’Mkay. What do you need me to do?”
“You’ve gotta get a car.”
“Jeff, I don’t have a car.” Not all the way awake.
“Paxton, I need you to get a car and come pick me up. I’m in Culver.”
“You’re what? Culvert?”
“Paxton, I’m on a payphone at a gas station in Culver. The other side of Grenton.”
“Why can’t you drive your car?”
“It’s in the river.”
“I’m coming. Which gas station?”
“Texaco. On the road into town.”
“Jeff, did you—no, it’ll wait. Need me to bring anything else?”
“Yeah, some clothes. Not mine, just bring me whatever of yours I could wear home. And…” While waiting for him to finish his sentence I start noticing the night noises out my window. It’s not really warm enough for me to be sleeping with it open, but I’d rather have the room cold and wrap up in blankets than get too hot. A cat yowls somewhere.
“…Paxton, bring me some girls’ clothes, too.”
You know how when you drink too much and then think you’re sober again, but then your head clears up and now you know you’re sober, except then you get a degree clearer again and realize that you definitely weren’t sober the first time and maybe you are now but then again maybe the fog will lift one more time? Okay, I’ve never experienced that, but Jeff described it to me. Waking up now feels like that.
“Jeff, I don’t—okay, what size?”
“Like I fucking know what size she wears!” He laughs like I’m an idiot. Trying to tell me he hasn’t known her long.
“Jeff, focus. I don’t know who you’re with. I don’t need her measurements, I need to know general size so I can find something. Is she my mom’s size?”
“Got it. I’d say she’s the same size as Guinevere,” he laughs again.
Fuck. Okay, now I’m awake.
“Jeff, is Guinevere with you?”
“What? No, Dickhead, what are you talking about? I would have said that, and why would she be? I know she’s got some clothes over there. Grab anything and get here fast as you can. Okay?”
Even in the middle of the night, that was a stupid thing to say. Gonna have to deal with this jealousy.
It’s 4:48 am. Jeff’s car is in the river. I don’t know what river is near Culver; I barely know where Culver is. I’ve never been there. It’s a little town right next to a reservation, and the only reason people go there is the Culver Casino.
Here I go. This is going to suck.
“What?” He sounds like he’s awake, almost like he was waiting for me. Did the phone wake him?
“Jeff needs help. Can I take the car?”
He flicks on the lamp next to their bed. He was already sitting up and doesn’t look like he’s been sleeping. Mom is out, hair sprawled, mouth open. How do they share a bed every night when they can’t stand each other? However many times I’ve asked myself that, I’ve yet to find an answer.
He doesn’t speak.
“Dad, I don’t know what’s happened, but he’s stuck. He just called. I gotta go help him.” Oh, God, there’s a lecture coming and I’m going to have to walk out on him and then find a different car and who am I going to call now? Maybe Nill. How long would he take to get here? He’d have to be willing to come with to Culver, since driving him back would take too long. Better to leave before it begins here. I start backing out. “I’m sorry, I just have to–”
He finally shakes his head. “You aren’t the first generation that’s lived. The key’s hanging up. Be careful.”
So that’s how I come to be racing out of town at five a.m. Saturday morning.
Sometimes when I’m driving at night I get kind of paranoid about getting pulled over. I know it’s something to do with Dad and Coach and generalizing that others have it out for me. But sometimes even when I’m driving the speed limit and doing everything right, I start compulsively glancing in my rear view mirror until I’m not driving straight and then I know I’m going to see flashing lights.
I’m paranoid right now, but I’m also speeding. It’s just gray enough not to be able to see, but the edges are starting to solidify. I’ve got five miles on the old blacktop (I don’t know most of the official road names in or around town; no one ever calls them by name) and then it comes out by Murrey’s Salvage Yard. You turn there onto the highway and that takes you to Alvan. Alvan is the town on the way to the bigger city of Toledo (always referred to as “Toledo, not Ohio”). Guys take girls to Toledo for fancy dinners or to dance at their two clubs (one’s a bar with country dancing, really), or to get motel rooms where they’re completely anonymous. I haven’t had need to utilize any of these establishments, but I’ve been to Meyers’ Sporting Goods, which is bigger and nicer than ours. Dad got it into his head to get me a “shooting ring,” a smaller basket that goes inside the basket so that if you can start making shots with that on, the regular hoop looks like a bushel basket. Or so he told me. We drove hundreds of miles and he finally tracked one down that they shipped to Meyers’…and I could barely make lay-ups. I tried. I shot for hours and missed almost every shot. For hours. I finally got discouraged and took it off. He told me that was another way that I failed and blew my chance. And I’m a quitter.
I’m slowing down to only eight over on the parts where I know the cops hide. There’s a two-mile stretch on the other side of Alvan where they stake out behind the grain elevator. I have to go the speed limit there. But for the last five miles before Alvan I’m in the nineties. I can’t stop checking my mirror.
It’s 5:36 when I come out on the other side of Toledo. Twenty miles of bare nothing, then two turns that are supposed to be obvious (“you can’t miss ’em, even if you’re getting a blow job” is how Jeff described it to me once. I didn’t ask.) and I’m in Culver. I got this car up to a hundred a couple times when I turned sixteen. I’m going ninety-five now and the rear end is starting to rattle like I’ve got cans tied to the bumper. Everything vibrates around me. If I get a flat now, I’ll probably die, which won’t help Jeff much. But I’m not slowing down. Cops don’t drive between Toledo and Culver unless they’re in pursuit. The reservation has it’s own laws and police. I don’t know anything about it, except that guys use this stretch to race because neither set of officers cares what happens in between. There’s literally nothing out here: no houses, no fields, no bushes or trees. It’s all scrub, like I’m in the desert, but we don’t have deserts in the Midwest. Now that I can almost see without headlights, I’m guessing this is the ugliest piece of road I’ve ever been on. Maybe this place gets nicer when the sun is shining, but I doubt it.
Ninety gets you there faster than sixty. At 5:47, one minute short of an hour since Jeff called, I see the first lights of Culver, then the green “Welcome to Culver, Population 900” sign, then red Texaco neon. I’m slowing way down in case, but there’s nobody.
“Way down” is fifty when I come even with the station and I have to slide the turn to keep from taking out a pump. There’s no attendant to get pissed because the station is closed with no lights anywhere. Jeff is propped against the door. He smiles when he sees me. His clothes look like he put them on straight from the washing machine and, when he gets up, there’s a big damp spot where he sat.
This is what I can tell you about my best friend: though his Thunderbird is somewhere in a river, though he’s sitting at an unoccupied gas station at dawn after being awake all night, walked I-don’t-know-how-far to get here, wet for I-don’t-know-how-long, and though he would do it a thousand times for me and have gotten here thirty minutes faster every time if our roles somehow reversed, he smiles when I finally arrive. He smiles like I’m a legit best friend.
Or maybe he’s still drunk.
“Nice turn. Man, Paxton, this has not been my night. Tell me how great it is to be settling down, ’cause I may be done going out on weekends.”
“Dude, what the hell happened?” He gives me a damp bear hug that I return, trying to ignore how he smells.
“Well, I was with this girl, and—Man, doesn’t it always start ‘I was with a girl…?’ We decided to go to the casino because there wasn’t anything happening in town. I drank some and she told me she should drive. I told her that was crazy and we parked someplace and…did stuff while I sobered up. But then I ended up letting her drive anyway. We were coming around this curve and she was going a little fast, I didn’t even notice, really, and then there was a deer standing dead center of our lane and a car coming the other way and it started honking—the other car—and the deer just stood there, never flinched, and she swerved and the shoulder was soft and really steep and she just couldn’t get it back and it kind of slid half sideways down to the bank and the front wheels hit the water. It’s in up to the front doors—I took a plunge when I got out,” he gestures to himself.
“We got wet trying to figure out what to do, but there’s no way you could drive it back up even if you could get it out of the water, and even if the ground was level right next to the river there’s no way you could drive it out of the water because those two wheels are sunk in deep. I don’t think she’s even that damaged, except the rims might not be that great from how hard we stopped. We’ll see. But it didn’t even die. I couldn’t believe she didn’t lose it and take her foot off the clutch, but she actually turned the key off when I told her we weren’t going any further. She handled it pretty good. She could have rolled and that woulda been a hell of a mess, but since she didn’t, it’s better than smashing into the deer. I’ll just need to get a tow truck with a winch to pull her out of there.”
This is what I have to tell you about my best friend: he just described how his car is okay after the accident. Also, note the pronoun “she” shifts interchangeably between car and female.
“Were either of you hurt?”
“Nah. She was pretty shook up. I’d be surprised if she didn’t get a little whiplash, the way we hit the water. I’m fine except my shoulder’s bruised where it hit the passenger door.”
He climbs into the car and I wish to God I’d brought a towel for Dad’s seat but there’s nothing to be done. His jeans squish onto the fabric.
“Okay, two questions. One, which way am I going? And two, do you know this girl’s name?”
Jeff barks out a laugh. He’s in a good mood, I’m reasonably sure he’s not drunk, and I have no hint how his brain works. I would be livid. If not at the girl, at least at the situation.
“Go right, away from town, and we’ll take a left at this little road up here. It looks more like a dirt patch than a road. Of course I know her name, Pax. It’s Emily.”
“Who’s Emily? Do we have an Emily at school?”
“No, she’s not from school.”
“Does she go to—oh, that bag back there has some dry things you could put on. The sweatshirt should do, it’s huge on me. I didn’t have any pants close but I brought some sweats that you could use to wade into the river.”
“Dude. You’re it.”
“Sure I am. You’ve done more for me. As for, uh, ‘Emily,’ I just brought a long-sleeved t-shirt, another sweatshirt, and more sweatpants. They’ll probably be a little long but she can roll them up.”
“That works. But seriously, Paxton, we could have washed them before Guinevere wore them again—oh, turn here.”
“Slow down, you’ll see it.”
I’d say something about the words “slow down” coming out of Jeff’s mouth in relation to a motor vehicle, but I’m too tired to get the sarcasm right and I seriously can’t see any road. The land is just as drab and featureless as it was the twenty miles getting here, including the spot at which he keeps pointing.
“I told you, it doesn’t look like a road.”
I finally just stop, mostly out of frustration. As I do, the dirt road separates itself from the dirt fields on either side. It’s rutted land with no road markings of any kind. It’s also one long washboard. If Dad’s car breaks down out here…
But I’m not going to say that.
“Jeff, who’s Emily?”
“Wow, you sound like my parents. You know, it’s a little weird you wouldn’t just bring some of Guinevere’s clothes.”
“No, Jeff, it isn’t weird. I’d rather just have this girl, whoever she is, wear something of mine. It doesn’t have anything to do with washing, it’s about lending other people’s stuff for them.”
“What, you think Guin wouldn’t let Emily wear her clothes?”
“Jeff, I know you’ve had a hellish night, but you can’t really be asking me if Guin, who’s never heard of Emily and doesn’t know I’m here or that you got your car in the river, would have a problem with lending her clothes to this girl who’s out here soaking wet, whoever she is. Seriously, who is she?” Unfortunately, I sound more like a cartoon character than anything else, since the road generates vibrato with every word.
Jeff looks at me, then rolls his eyes.
“You haven’t had sex with her.”
Jeff’s explaining that I haven’t had sex with Emily?
Oh. Got it. Sleep helps the brain function.
“She would have clothes at your house if you had,” Jeff adds.
“No, she wouldn’t. You think I’d bring her to my house to have sex? Have her keep a drawer there? Remind me, have you met my parents?”
“Don’t dodge the question. You still haven’t.”
“I’m dodging? Who is Emily?”
“Emily’s the girl I’m not engaged to. Pax, how can you be marrying this girl and not have had sex with her?”
“Whoa. She isn’t ‘this girl.’ I’m marrying Guinevere, you’re going to be best man at my wedding, and who cares if I haven’t had sex with her?” Jeff snorts. “We’re talking about it, but she wants to wait. We’re going to have plenty of that, don’t worry.”
Jeff nods. He looks at me. Then he looks back at the road.
Silence. Not literally, since I can hear every bolt on the car jouncing loose, not to mention my teeth clacking together. But Jeff stopped speaking.
This road probably isn’t that long, but I’m going twenty-six miles an hour; it’s taking forever.
“Nothing? B.S. When, in all the time I’ve known you, have you said ‘nothing?’ You think it’s weird she won’t have sex with me yet?”
Jeff screws his mouth up into this expression like he can’t figure out what’s in his drink, like he took his hand and twisted his face a quarter turn. It’s not his most attractive look.
“No, Pax. I think she really means to marry you.”
I can’t answer that.
We bounce on for three or four miles.
“What?” Jeff asks.
“Nothing. No, I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
I think I wanted him to be pissed off that we weren’t having sex so I could—how ridiculous is this?—get Jeff to put words to it and maybe give me an argument I could use. Instead, it confirms for him that we’re serious. But if I’m going to wade into this with him, I’m going to have to say it.
“I don’t know if I can handle how many guys she’s had sex with. I mean, how come she has sex with every guy but me, the one she’s going to marry? How does that make any sense?”
Jeff doesn’t hesitate a single bump.
“You get religion or something? What, you were hoping your first child would be a virgin birth? Who cares if she’s had sex with the Vancouver Cannucks? That’s over now. She wants you. She wants to marry you. You win.”
“Okay, I’m confused. I don’t really expect you to make sense, but ten seconds ago you were ripping me for not having done it with her and now that same chastity convinces you we’re getting married, which I told you about six weeks ago. How did my lack of consummation switch from disaster to proof?”
“Because, you dipshit, she’s the one who doesn’t want to.”
“What? I’m not tracking. You got drunk tonight, got laid, and let a girl named Emily—whoever that is—drive your favorite thing in the world into the river. Now what are you explaining to me?”
“Females decide who gets to have sex and when. Always. If you weren’t having sex because of you, you’d be blowing your chance because you were scared and maybe lose her. I can’t really believe you’d do that unless you turned out to be gay after all this. But her deciding she doesn’t want to break your cherry until you’re married—wait, does she know you’ve never…?–no, that’s like the rules of the universe, the girl deciding, and she isn’t giving it up because you mean something to her. That’s the crazy part. We just do it when we can, almost all of us, and they decide when they’ll let us, and when it’s important to them—or when they don’t know if they like us enough or when they want to play power games—then they hold out. If it’s important to them, they’re more likely to wait. I’m not saying that makes sense, just that’s how it works. She wants to marry you and doesn’t want to have sex until she does, then it’s real for her. Get it?”
“There! Right there!”
I whip a turn and stop. Skid marks run from the side of the “road” (this makes the one we were just on look like the autobahn), describe a choppy staccato and then disappear over the bank. Jeff jumps out.
“Hey, Emily, you there?”
When I get out of the car, everything smells wrong. We have hog farms and “rendering works” (which means “slaughter houses” in small-town lingo) and when the wind blows from the East, the whole town inhales reek. This isn’t that kind of wrong smell. Maybe we’re all used to our own stench but offended by someone else’s. It smells sweet but off, almost like when you catch a whiff of peppermint in the school hallway and it’s nice for a quarter second before you realize that’s the stuff they use when kids vomit.
Jeff is over the bank and out of sight, so I run after him.
It’s steep. I stop for a second to see what’s going on.
Sure enough, there’s The Love Machine, looking worse than I’ve ever seen her, as out of place as if a helicopter picked her up out of Jeff’s driveway and dropped her into this mini-ravine, so wrong it’s almost funny. A girl sleeps curled up in the front passenger’s seat, deaf to Jeff’s shouting and everything else in the outside world, and she’s not white.
I know I sound racist, saying it like that. I’m not. Sure, that’s stupid to protest, when I just proved that I am. But almost every girl from our town and every town around us is white, so that’s what I pictured. Of course, not every girl who lives out here is white. Probably very few are. Emily is clearly Native American.
I start down and the slope immediately threatens to pitch me headfirst into the river. Slowing down isn’t an option, so I keep my steps short and choppy and look for a soft landing other than water.
There’s nothing to grab, nothing to help me. I could throw myself onto the ground and still roll into the river. How do I always do these things? CrapCrapCrap!
I run into the side of Jeff’s car, which rocks toward the water, and, for one nauseating moment, it’s going in. I’m the final straw—I’m the one who rolled it into the river.
But the weight pendulums back, and then it’s solid under my hands again, not going anywhere. Jeff and Emily both stare at me.
“Right. Yeah.” Jeff shakes his head, erasing what almost happened. “Emily, this is Paxton I was telling you about.”
Emily looks at Jeff and blinks twice. Then she climbs over the stick shift and reaches for his hand, since the car is thirty degrees off level and her first step would put her hip deep. Jeff hoists her over the water. After she gets her feet under her, she stretches. With slept-on hair, damp and slept-in clothes, and destroyed make-up from the night’s adventures, she is beautiful. Period.
Emily is beautiful in a different way than Guinevere, though I can’t explain what I mean and it might sound racist again if I tried. She also looks harder, tougher, and her curves somehow don’t look soft. But she’s turn your head, stop-in-the-middle-of-the-road-and-get-run-over gorgeous. I don’t mean I’m attracted to her. I mean, I understand why Jeff was here with her in the middle of the night and maybe even why he’s not mad about his car. Emily makes Shop Queen Darla mistakable for a two-by-four.
“Hi, Paxton. Thanks for coming to get us. Jeff said you would.”
“No problem,” I tell her, which seems ridiculous in this situation, but what do you say?
She smiles. I’m staring at her. Dang.
Jeff smiles, too, a different smile.
“Should we head back, Pax, or would you rather hang out down here and see how much the three of us can get her rocking?”
“Sorry, Man, slipped coming down. Didn’t realize it was so steep.”
“Yeah, that’s how the car got down here. It’s steep.”
Emily looks at him. “That and I went off the road.”
Jeff shrugs one shoulder and grins with half his mouth. “True. Credit where credit’s due.”
She doesn’t apologize. Probably she apologized enough right after it happened, but she seems only faintly embarrassed.
“So, let’s go, then. The tow truck guy said he couldn’t come until this afternoon—Emily tells me this area isn’t their highest priority, and he sure didn’t sound in a hurry. I’m gonna just meet him and ride out in his truck, since there’s nowhere to wait out here.”
Jeff locks his car and we hike back up the bank. Keeping control is easier going up than coming down, and we work our way three abreast, since there is no real path and the vegetation is only as high as our shoes. How can so little grow next to a river?
When we get to Dad’s car, Jeff opens the door for Emily, directs her to sit in the front, and then takes the backseat. I’ve never seen Jeff sit in a backseat. I’m about to start the car when I remember the clothes.
“Hey, I brought some dry stuff. They won’t fit, but at least it’s something.”
“Thank you, Paxton. That was nice of you.” She sounds almost formal.
“Jeff, grab that bag back there.” He does, and I get back out. “I’ll just wait while you…”
I walk about twenty feet away and just stand there, looking into space. There should be trees growing out here or something, even scrub, but I can’t see any. We get too much rain for an area just not to grow much, and most rivers have trees and bushes next to them. The ground cover is something weedy and coarse, not even prairie grass or crab grass. I’m waiting for Jeff’s footsteps to follow me, but that’s stupid, isn’t it? I can’t see them suddenly getting modest around each other, and the only reason for him not to watch her change is to keep me from feeling awkward. Probably not.
I’m not letting myself turn around and see where he is, I’m not letting myself think about turning around, I’m not thinking about her taking her clothes off. At all.
The unmistakable sound of urinating reaches my ear. Jeff is a little ways away, relieving himself. Okay, that settles any argument, but now I’m aware how much I need to go, too, and there really isn’t an inch of cover out here. My best strategy is to go exactly where I am and keep myself squarely turned away from the car.
As I’m finishing, I hear Jeff’s footsteps approaching.
“Hey, Pax, I don’t guess you brought anything to eat?”
“No, Man, sorry. I should’ve thought of it. I had to talk with Dad on the way out the door and it kind of took my attention.”
“Sure. Hey, I hope this isn’t going to get you hell when we get back.”
“No.” Of course it might, but who can guess? It feels safe to say the odds are no worse than any other time I’m coming home. I can round that down to “no.”
“Okay, Boys, I’m ready,” Emily calls.
Jeff walks back, opens the back passenger door, and squeezes himself in. I’m sitting next to Emily. I have an image of double-dating together, ordering burgers at a drive-in with Guin while these two still wear my sweat pants.
Once we’re driving away, my tiredness pounds over me in waves. The stunted ground shimmies a little in front of the car. If a cop notices me, he’ll think I’m drunk. I’m groping for small talk, but my brain keeps stalling out.
“Hey, Emily, Paxton is engaged,” Jeff announces.
Emily raises her eyebrows at me. She smiles a tiny trying-not-to-reveal-that-I-know-a-secret smile. At least, I think it’s that smile, but I don’t know her. She doesn’t say a word.
“Isn’t that right, Paxton?” Jeff prompts again.
“Yeah, I am.”
“Well, that’s unusual,” Emily observes.
“Oh, Pax is unusual. He’s been in love with this girl for, what, ten years?”
“Four,” I say. She’s looking at me. I’m trying to keep the road where it belongs.
“How come you want to get married?” she asks.
“Because she wants to marry me.” That didn’t sound right. Why don’t they just go to sleep?
“So if I wanted to marry you, you’d want to marry me?” My eyes pull off the road and we swerve because my hands turned with my eyes. Jeff laughs sharp and staccato, a pistol shot. But she isn’t smiling now.
“I didn’t think she’d want to marry me. Or get married at all. But she does. Jeff’s right. She’s the one for me.” God, that sounded like a dweeb. And why would I care? “I want to be with her for the rest of my life. Is that unusual?”
“Well, where I live it is. Maybe you all marry right away.”
“No, just Pax.”
It’s quiet for a few minutes. I’m more awake now, which helps with the driving.
She might be drifting back to sleep.
“So where we need to go?” I ask Jeff.
“Good question. I dunno. Where do you want to go, Emily? And where’s a good place to meet the tow guy?”
“Either back to that gas station where you walked or else the casino. Might not be much to do at the station but the casino’s a lot farther to go. You’re going to pay for them to haul your car all the way back to your town? That’s going to cost as much as the car.”
Jeff has hit people for saying less about The Love Machine. I’ve seen the results.
“Nah, it won’t be too bad. I have Triple A extended. You need to get home? Somebody be worrying when they wake up?”
“I don’t know what ‘Triple A’ is. Is that insurance? No, there won’t be anyone worrying when they wake up.” She says this second part so flat, even Jeff won’t ask questions. I hope.
“It’s an auto club. You pay to be a member and when you lock yourself out or break down or try to turn you car into a boat, they come help. It’s kind of like insurance for this stuff, but not the same as regular insurance.”
“Right,” she says.
We’re all silent another minute.
“I’ll go with you, whichever,” Emily says.
“When the tow truck guy comes, I won’t be able to get you a ride home. Paxton doesn’t mind, right Pax?” From this tone, clearly I don’t mind.
“No,” I say, nodding too much, “that’s what I came for.”
“I don’t need a ride anywhere else. I’ll get back okay.”
“You sure? Because–” Jeff starts to insist.
“It would be better for me if you didn’t drop me off.”
I hadn’t even considered it from that direction. I can almost hear Jeff’s brain whirring in the backseat, trying to figure out the right thing to do since she won’t let him. Who is she? I still don’t have close to an answer. I just know this girl has Jeff so wrapped up that his car doesn’t seem to matter to him, yet he’s never mentioned her to me before. Of course, I have been a bit occupied lately. But come on, he doesn’t wait for me to ask before he tells me about a new pursuit—much less a conquest. Did he just meet her?
“Waiting for an answer!”
Wow. Totally checked out.
“Sorry, to what?”
“Dude, should you be driving? I mean, should you be driving us?”
I start a retort about drivers who put cars in rivers, then remember he didn’t do it.
“I’m awake. What did you say?”
“I asked if you need directions to the casino from here?”
“Yes. How far is it? We’ll need to get gas soon. Is that station on the way there?”
“It is. The casino’s the only reason it’s out here.” Emily said.
“Wait, what time do they open?” Jeff asks.
“They’ll be open now. As long as Henry showed up.”
When we pull up, there’s an ancient Jeep Cherokee parked in the Texaco station lot, right up near the door. The sun is just coming up and the florescent lights from inside glow out onto the pumps. I park next to one to fill Dad’s car.
“I’ve got this. Less than the least I can do.” Jeff throws open his door and lopes over to the building in four strides.
“How come you and Jeff are best friends?” Emily asks.
“You mean like how’d we meet?”
“No, what I said. Why are you friends? You aren’t like each other at all. He talked about you like you’re some kind of genius,” her tone implies it’s a joke we’re both in on, “and I can see you’re a good friend to him, but what’s in it for you?”
“Are you kidding? This is the kind of thing he would do for me—he does for me—all the time. Not that I get my car stuck in the river–”
“Thanks,” she says.
“No, I meant, I don’t have a car. He lets me use his. And he loves that car.” I look her in the eye for the first time, and they’re brown-black with gold flecks. I’ve never seen eyes this color—these colors—before.
“Thanks again. You think I fucked up there, huh?”
“I think you don’t get how big a deal it is that he’s calm about it.”
Jeff hits my window with the heel of his hand.
“Gas tank, Pax!”
“Sorry!” I pull the lever.
“Why don’t you have a car? I thought all you college kids had at least one.”
“What? I’m not in college.”
“He said you’re going to some fancy, expensive university with your rich fiancé.”
“Seriously? That’s what he said?”
“Not exactly, but yeah. Aren’t you?”
“We’re trying. But her family’s rich, not mine.”
“Oh. Like that.” She winks at me.
“No. Nothing like that.”
She smiles, shifts around and leans her head back against the window so she can look at me through her eyelids. From this angle, the sweatshirt shows her cleavage.
“Actually, he said your dad is kind of nuts.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
“Is Jeff afraid of him?”
“Everybody is, a bit. He’s…unpredictable.”
“You mean psycho? Like how Jeff should be right now but isn’t. That kind of crazy?”
“Pretty much. But he doesn’t need a reason. Not any real ones.”
“He should live out here. He’d fit right in.”
I’m still working out that I’m a stereotype to her; I don’t know how much she’s messing with me or what she really thinks. But what she just said was a hint you’d catch if you were deaf.
“Lot of people like that where you live?”
“You want to ask if any aren’t. Not many, no.”
“What about yours?”
“My what?” Inexplicably, she glances down at her chest, then back at me. But I didn’t look there. I swear.
“Oh, you mean ‘my’ father? Heh,” she says.
Emily holds my eye for a long time. I’d look away, but I’m afraid my eyes will slip downward. Then she reaches up slowly and pulls the baggy sweatshirt aside at the neck toward her right shoulder. Now I look involuntarily, but she’s showing me. First I notice no bra strap, then the topography on her back and shoulder register in my brain. Scars run in every direction out of sight under her clothes. I hadn’t noticed the line on her neck that runs above her collar before; now I can’t miss it. Her flesh in these four inches looks like a movie shot of a slave’s back.
“Yeah, you could say that,” she says. I did not mean for that to come out.
I’m still staring.
“He’s okay until he drinks. That makes him okay a few hours a week.”
“My dad doesn’t drink. He just flies into rages.”
I expect her to come back with how much worse her dad is—for which she has ample evidence—but she doesn’t. She covers her shoulder back up.
“Does he hit you?” she asks.
I think about this. Nobody has ever asked me that before. I would have lied if they had, but why is it so easy for her to ask what no teacher, counselor, or Sunday School teacher might have…
“He used to sometimes. When I was younger.”
“I didn’t know that happened to you rich kids.”
“I’m not rich. We’re not all rich.”
“Oh, ‘we‘ aren’t, are we?”
Jeff jerks open the door and climbs back in.
“Whoa, that’s a huge tank. I thought mine was big.”
“Yeah, Dad likes big cars. This thing gets such bad mileage it has to hold like thirty gallons just to keep from running out all the time.”
“Your dad, huh?” Jeff says, like we all share the inside joke about my wacky father. “So, who’s the ‘we’ you guys’re talking about?”
I start the car. Emily turns to Jeff and winks, slow like a Fifties starlet. She doesn’t answer.
“What were you guys talking about, Pax.” Jeff’s cheerful, but his voice doesn’t rise like it’s a question.
Getting beaten by our dads?
“Rich kids,” I say.
“Oh, yeah. Must be nice. Why, is Pax telling you we’re rich?” He wants to be in on the fun.
“Which way?” I ask.
“Go through town, turn left at the last tavern, Tiny’s, that’s Highway 16b, you’ll see a sign for Culver Streak. Just follow that. It’s about eight miles out.”
I’ve never been to a casino before, or near a reservation, or through Culver. It’s ugly. I can’t think of a better way to say it. There’s a Buick from the sixties rusting out on a lawn, somebody’s got a pile of scrap metal two stories tall next to their house, and then there’s a house with no grass at all, just weeds and so many dog piles you can’t miss them, even driving by. That’s describing three houses in a row, not highlights. Some are just small and unpainted and sad-looking, without any noticeable eyesores. But they make our place look new.
“No, ‘Pax’ was trying to tell me he isn’t.”
“Nah, he’s not. He’s got a job, but he’s saving it all for college, like I was telling you. They’re probably about the same as us, and we’re not rich.” Jeff has no idea what he’s stepping into, and I’m scared to see if she’ll humor/patronize him or spring a trap. I don’t know this girl at all, but right now she and I are having an inside joke on Jeff even though she’s been up all night having sex with him and driving his car down an embankment while I’ve only known her since I ran into the car (literally).
She looks out the window away from both of us. Jeff is sitting behind me, with his knees jammed into my back and probably against his chest, so that he can see her. I’m so used to him as player that I’m only now getting the picture: he’s fallen for her. Twitterpated. That scares me, on more levels than I care to describe. I don’t want to be that guy, the best friend who—what? Has to say, “the girl you’re sick for is hard as rock, and no, it has nothing to do with that she’s not white?” Oh, doesn’t it?
“When I was a kid, there was a guy who lived on the Rez. He doesn’t live there anymore. But he walked around with a violin—I called it a fiddle and he corrected me. But he didn’t hit me,” she turns and looks my way, then watches the town pass again. “He would play that thing everywhere, all the time. He could play any song we asked for, just by thinking about it. Even if we could only hum a few notes, he would work it out. Nobody had anything better to do than sit and listen to him and call out songs, so he’d have fifty at a time or more sitting by the river, just listening and asking for more. When we went to find him one morning, he was gone. His place was empty, no one knew where he’d gone or that he’d planned on leaving. We figured someone might have tried to stop him if any of us knew, so he just left during the night. He was one of the few who had a running car, because he would get paid to play at some of the taverns, here and in your towns.” She points as we pass Tiny’s, a concrete block building with a darkened front window almost covered with neon beer signs switched off. I turn, and that’s the last stop in town, because now we’re back in the scrub countryside again. “We got news every few months or so, sometimes a postcard would come from some part of the country, addressed to his mom and sisters, but for everybody to read. They were always from cities in other parts of the country, Memphis and San Antonio and Las Vegas, and sometimes they just had city lights but other times they had pictures of weird stuff. He sent one of this huge plaster statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. His mom would stick them up on the board of our post office where people tried to sell their shit cars to each other. Sometimes people would take them down and pass them around, and eventually they would disappear, but that one of Paul Bunyan and Babe stayed up a long time. Nobody touched it. Do you know that story? They taught that in your school, right? That’s not a popular story where I live. But I would study that picture and try to feel what that was like, looking up at that 90-foot statue and standing on the hoof of that huge, fake ox, and just being able to go see things and send their pictures back. Last I heard, he had an old motor home and was still out somewhere playing, though he hasn’t sent a picture in years, maybe since I was ten. Some people said he should come back and build a nice house on the Rez and share some of what he made with us, or at least send his mom something. But he doesn’t have lots of money. He just has enough to travel around and play and see things, and I say, why shouldn’t he? Why should he come back here, just because people here can’t leave?”
She’s been talking a long time, which I’m hypersensitive to, but it doesn’t bother me any more than when Guin gets going on something—and that comparison really does bother me. I don’t know if Jeff gets what she’s saying, and I’m not going to ask him. I don’t get her.
“You sure he’s still out playing?” It isn’t a nice thing to say, and I don’t say it nicely. How do you know?
“He’s my uncle.”
“So you’ve heard from him?” Jeff asks.
“No. I just know.” I feel her tensing, ready for me to attack her statement.
Jeff doesn’t know about Trink. He doesn’t know how sick his question just made me, or how much worse what I asked was.
“I get that,” I say, I hope just loud enough for her to hear.
She turns all the way around toward me. She isn’t wearing her seatbelt, and with her legs tucked under her and my clothes on, she looks child-sized. She seemed bigger before, but that’s probably just my head playing tricks. I’m not tired right this second, but my skin feels prickly.
“You’re cute. Good thing you’re engaged or I might have to dump your best friend.”
“Say what!” Jeff says, laughing and choking at the same time.
“I wasn’t making fun of you,” I tell her.
“I wasn’t making fun of you, either.”
“What the fuck are you two talking about?” Jeff’s laugh rings metallic now. His eyes look wrong in the mirror, like mine looked the time I reacted to my saline solution and my vision blurred for two days. Or maybe I just can’t focus now?
Emily goes silent again.
I have no good options. Obviously, I’m not mentioning Trink. Not going to explain to Jeff that Emily thinks all us white folks are rich (and that she’s probably right), not going to make excuses for why she’s flirting with me because I had nothing to do with it. I did not even look. I still can’t figure out if she’s screwing with me or what, but no way I’m going to team with her against Jeff; that’s not why I came out here. She can find some other way to play with his head.
“I was just telling Emily I believe her about her uncle.”
“Why wouldn’t you?”
Then, right in front of us, the casino. Maybe I shouldn’t be driving. It couldn’t have snuck up on me out here where there’s nothing else, but I’m staring at it nonetheless and I didn’t see it a second ago.
It’s squat and shabby-looking in the gray morning light, with no landscaping whatsoever, beer bottles and hundreds of scraps of paper (I assume signifying some kind of lost wagers) covering the ground between the parking lot and the entrance, but even now I can see how darkness and neon would provide some illusion of…what? Escape? Drink and sex and the chance to get rich. To get out. Or just be somewhere seductive and slightly dangerous for kids our age…and color.
As we pull up, I see a figure crumpled against the wall near the corner. Passed out drunk, beat up, or worse. The person has on a trench coat so bulky I can’t tell whether it’s a man or woman, nor what race the person might be. The face is wedged up against the concrete blocks.
“Are they even open?” I ask. Four or five other cars sit in the lot.
“It’s always open. Wouldn’t want to let down folks who need their hit.”
I can’t decide if I like Emily or not. Maybe I’ll feel differently after I’ve slept, but right now either option feels threatening. I’m pretty sure I’d prefer never to see her again.
“Paxton, do you want to…” Jeff’s question fades. My real name in his mouth sounds off, like when people you don’t know use your middle name.
“There’s food,” Emily fills in. “It’s cheap.”
“I’m not really hungry,” I say, which is both a lie and true. My stomach has been growling for an hour, but I’m queasy and the frying grease I can smell from here assures me that right now I couldn’t hold down much of what they serve.
“Why don’t you grab a pop or force down some coffee, just so you get back home awake. You’re not really yourself right now.”
He gets out right after he says it, and starts moving slowly toward the building. I don’t know if that’s a test or he’s just unhappy with us, but I’m not playing. I unbuckle quickly, reach for the door—and Emily grabs my right hand.
“I think she’s okay.”
“No. Whoever’s missing.”
“What? Did Jeff–?”
Then she’s out of the car, catching up to Jeff, and they’re walking into Culver casino together.