This is how it begins:
Travis Pitney disappeared in the early morning hours of the last Sunday in July. It was the hottest weekend of the summer, and he had come up the day before to Jeff Halscomb’s cottage. Everyone was there. They drank all afternoon, sat in the shade, and horsed around in the water. That night, after most people had gone out on pontoon boats to skinny dip in the lake, Jeff Halscomb made a bonfire, and the rest of them sat around and ate leftovers from the cookout. At one point, when a few people began unrolling their sleeping bags for bed, Travis Pitney jumped up, ran to his truck, and pulled out his beer hat. He put it on, came back, and began dancing around the flames. He waved his hands in the air and howled to the heavens as the long straws from his beer hat cut circles around his face. He looked like a warrior getting ready for the hunt or so it seemed to Ben before he finally passed out. The next morning, he was gone.
Louie Freenar, who had always been a dumbass, wanted to know where Travis was. He asked Ben, but Ben didn’t respond. He and Jeff Halscomb were floating on their backs in the lake, trying to escape the heat, and he pretended not to hear Louie. Louie walked into the water and began asking Jeff the same question. Then the words fell away. He stood there a moment more and walked back to shore alone. Ben listened to his footfalls, then he looked over at Jeff. His eyes were closed and he made small ripples in the water to keep himself afloat. After a moment, he let out a long breath and disappeared below the surface. Ben closed his eyes and turned toward the sun. It burned his face.
Now Ben goes out every night.
One night, nobody’s home at Lisa Reeting’s, so that’s where everyone goes. Lisa greets them at the door. She is dressed in flip-flops, frayed jean shorts, and a white crop-top that reveals her bellybutton every time she lifts her hands above her head. Because she is short, she often lifts her hands above her head, especially to squeal whenever she greets someone new. She does this even before she is drunk, and when she is drunk, she squeals even louder.
“You’re here!” she says, “Come in!” Lisa Reeting is drunk by now, and she hugs Ben tightly about the waist. He pats her ass dismissively and steps inside the house. Lisa holds tight, and Ben drags her down the hallway, one of her flip-flops flip-flopping onto the floor. He comes to the edge of the living room. It is dark there. The room has become a dance floor, thick with people. The air is oppressive. Ben looks over the crowd, bopping his head to the beat. Then he dumps Lisa on the floor and heads into the kitchen for a drink.
Louie Freenar, who everybody knows is a dumb ass, sits at the kitchen table. He is smoking a joint.
“You look like shit,” he says.
“Little tired,” Louis replies. He’s staring at the tabletop. He doesn’t bother to look up.
Blue half moons hang from either eye.
Ben steps up to the counter where a makeshift bar has been arranged and begins rummaging through the bottles. He woke to a dull headache that morning, the legacy of another late night, and a long day at the hardware store slowly sharpened the pain. It came to a fine point just a few minutes before close when he was told that he would have to stay behind to help restock the shelves. He raced to finish the work and fled to Lisa’s for the blessing of a first drink, the one he always shares with Jeff Halscomb and his silver pocket flask. Jeff’s flask is never empty, a fact Ben observes whenever he takes his first drink. Jeff smiles accordingly, unwilling to share his secret, even though it is Ben, and they have known each other forever. He just smiles and offers Ben a second drink.
Tonight, however, with a fine point boring between his eyes, Ben is willing to forgo the ritual if another bottle of whiskey is available. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. Ben is irritated.
“Louie,” Ben asks, still rummaging through the bottles, “where’s Jeff?”
Louie remains entranced by the tabletop. He is unresponsive.
“Jeff,” Ben yells, crossing the kitchen. He stands at the threshold of the living room.
“Come in here for a second.”
His voice is lost to the music; no one pays attention to him. He calls a second time, louder, but again, no one responds. He will have to find Jeff himself.
Ben steps into the living room and begins pushing through the crowd. Some of the people are actually trying to dance, but most use the music as an excuse to stand near each other and begin their groping. Their bodies still sway to the music, but they’re indifferent to its rhythm. They bump each other constantly, like buoys strung too close together. They frustrate Ben as he tries to make his way across the floor.
“That fucker,” Ben mutters. He emerges from the crowd and stands at its edge. He scours the perimeter of the room. Most of the people are stoned or no longer need an excuse to continue their groping. Jeff is not among them. Ben crosses to the hallway that leads back to the bedrooms. He considers going door-to-door, but the doors are all closed. He shakes his head. If
Jeff’s silver pocket flask is behind one of these doors, Ben will have to settle for another drink.
“Shit,” he concludes and walks over to the sliding doors.
Ben emerges into the open air of the back porch. It’s cooler there. Ben finds a group of people congregated near the far railing. Jeff is not among them, but Lisa Reeting is. She hasn’t recovered her second flip-flop. When she sees Ben, she runs unevenly over to him and throws her arms around his neck. She squeals the whole way.
Ben pats her ass dismissively.
“How are you, sweetie?” she asks, burying her nose in his chest.
“Fine,” he says. Lisa takes no notice of his sullen tone, or else she is indifferent to it.
She merely coos and stands on tiptoes so that her head rests comfortably in the crook of Ben’s shoulder. After a time, she begins tracing the ridge of his hairline, her knuckles nicking one ear.
Ben appreciates the suggestion, and his focus shifts to the modest promise of Lisa’s touch. He ceases to pat her ass, and his hand comes to rest against it, his thumbs hooking inside the back pockets of her frayed jean shorts.
The people on the porch begin to disperse. Beyond them, they reveal an electric blue horizon and Lisa Reeting’s backyard. It is long and flat, and in the middle stands Betty Klaynar.
She is facing away from the house, but in the half-shadows of the porch light, Ben recognizes her immediately. She is slender and small and her long blond hair touches the small of her back.
She is standing barefoot in the backyard. Alone.
Betty is the girl that Jeff always goes home with. Betty would be Jeff’s girlfriend if only he allowed her.
“Let me go,” Ben says. He knows that Jeff is not behind one of the hallway doors. “I want to talk to Betty for a second.”
“Oooooh, Ben,” Lisa replies, stroking the base of head. “Let’s go inside.”
“Give me a second,” Ben says, signaling his seriousness by pressing against Lisa’s grip,
“I want to ask Betty where Jeff is.”
“Oooooh, Ben,” Lisa repeats, her arms collapsing around Ben’s waist before he has a chance to move. “Let’s go inside—you and me.”
“No,” he says, “I need a second.” He squirms but Lisa’s arms remains fixed about his waist. She continues to coo. “What’s wrong with you?” he says, breaking her grasp. “I just want know where Jeff is.”
Her body stiffens.
“Ben,” she whispers, “please.”
He moves to reply then he stops.
He turns and looks at Betty. In the middle of the yard, she rocks quietly from side to side.
That night Ben dreams of Jeff Halscomb. The two of them are together in the woods sitting in a small circle with the rest of the guys. There is Teddy Boosner and Albert Dilly, the boy with the bad acne and bullfrog cheeks. Beside them is Fat Phil Popper, whose sleepy eyes make him look stoned, and Scooter Dollen, whose giant hands gain people’s trust and get him in girls’ pants. Across from them are the twins, Kenny and Kip Tinklemann. Kip is preoccupied with his jeans, his tight, tight jeans. He tugs at them constantly, hoping to relieve the discomfort around his crotch. The task, Ben sees, is hopeless, and he fails to stifle a grin.
The others are there too, including Jeff Halscomb. He sits next to Ben and jabs him in the ribs whenever somebody tells a dirty joke. There are many of these jokes, and Ben’s side begins to ache, but he does nothing to stop Jeff. He wouldn’t. That’s just how things are between them, that’s how they’ve always been.
After a while, the daylight retreats, and the shadows lean. Someone in the group takes out a joint, and soon it is moving about the circle. Ben watches the ash. At each stop, it changes from orange to an angry crimson, before traveling on, the colors growing in strength as the world continues to fade.
The joint is passed to Ben—once, twice—then he loses count. It swings around to him, enters his grasp then continues on its orbit. When the shadows have grown so long they disappear altogether, the ash provides the circle’s only light. Each time it pauses, for a moment,
Ben sees the red glow of some familiar face.
Over time, the joint speeds up, and the light from the ash does not grow angry so often, or at least it seems that way to Ben, who can only account for the change when he holds out the joint for no one to receive. Only then does he notice that the hum of the circle has died and his side no longer aches.
He stamps out the joint and stands up. The world is cold now, and Ben holds himself tightly. He leaves the circle and begins walking through the woods, extending his legs carefully for the night sky is bare, and he can see nothing before him.
The ground is uneven, and Ben stumbles across the forest floor. Still he walks determinedly, for those who walk with determination know where they are going. They have a destination. Ben has no destination but he acts as if he does, as if walking with determination might somehow make it so.
He moves like this through the forest, aimless and determined, stopping only when he hears the voices. Wild and joyous, he runs toward them, descending a hillside until he sees a massive bonfire in the middle of a clearing. The voices grow, and soon he sees them. They are dancing about flames, hands raised to the sky. They are all there, every one of them, all except for Jeff Halscomb. He is standing next to Ben, who notices him only when he squats down to pick up a beer hat that is lying at his feet. He holds it before him and stares intently at the flames. Ben tries to say something, but before he can, Jeff puts on the hat and runs toward the fire, the silver pocket flask peeking from his back pocket.
There he joins them. They’re all wearing beer hats now, and they dance about the flames, hands held high, howling to the heavens above.
Ben wakes and sits up in bed. Lisa Reeting is in sitting her underwear at the edge of the mattress. She’s crying.
Long before senior year ended, there had been moments for Ben when the quiet inevitably of it all had appeared to him like lightening: unmistakable and brief. But such moments are easily forgotten, their message lost in general mess of daily demands.
Sometimes they persist, long enough to give birth to resolution, even action, strong expressions whose significance tends to pass with the passing significance of the moment. They leave behind only the action and, perhaps, an effect whose significance is slow to develop, one that becomes clear to us only in hindsight.
The morning after prom saw one such moment. Ben awoke, sat up in bed, and stared at the far side of his room. Then he got up, took a few aspirin for a hangover, and got into his car. He returned his tux, gassed up, and stopped by the local pawnshop. There he quickly bought a gun. When he was done, he went back to his car and stared at it. Then he opened his trunk and stuck the gun beneath the spare tire. That way he wouldn’t have to look at it. The moment had passed.
He was putting his cooler back into the trunk when he remembered the gun. His eyes passed over the tire, and he recalled what was beneath. He drove back from Jeff Halscomb’s cottage and stopped at his grandpa’s farm. After checking the house to make sure no one was around, he took the gun out of his trunk. Then he went into the barn and gathered some old coffee cans. He brought them back behind the barn. There he lined them up on top of a tractor that hadn’t moved in years. He was a terrible shot. After reloading the gun three times without hitting anything but the back tire, he walked up to one of the cans and shot it. It flipped once and dropped from view. Satisfied, he put the gun back in his trunk and tried to forget it again.
They take turns hosting now, an act that is regarded as a duty, one that is unspoken for very reason that some can no longer honor it. The word goes out and everyone gathers at somebody’s house. The parties seem no different (a prerequisite for their success) but things have changed. That much is unmistakable, if unspoken as well.
For one, Ben finds that he has never had an easier time getting laid, even by girls who have always made a practice of reintroducing themselves every time they meet.
After everyone has arrived, Ben begins circling the dance floor, scouting the crowd for opportunity. When he locates some girl he desires, or one that simply will do, he slips into the crowd. Navigating his way around the clanking bodies—unless he is drunk, in which case he just pushes them aside—Ben comes up behind the girl and dances near enough to make his intentions clear. If the sign is given, he closes in.
They dance until the dancing becomes an impediment to further desires. Then they leave the room. Pressed tightly against each other, they wander the house, looking for an empty bedroom or a large closet or some other place where they can be alone or close enough to alone that it doesn’t matter.
Then they screw.
Ben is amazed by his success. Night after night. But he knows the reason. It cannot be mistaken in the quiet moments when the act is done, and the girl clutches him too tightly, and they wait patiently, together, until the two of them pass out.
When he is not pursuing another girl, Ben makes new friends, or rather elevates those he has rarely spoken with before to the level of friendship. They meet in improvised moments (social scripts having lost their cues) and though they have always been indifferent to each other, the single experience they do share is enough to ease any embarrassment.
They greet each other casually, exchange a few observations, perhaps pour each other a drink, and that is generally enough to guarantee their kinship. By the end of the night, they are slapping each other on the back, telling familiar jokes, and wondering aloud whether they’ll guarantee the kinship of any of the girls who are left.
Ben is happiest in these moments. Almost immediately the friendships seem strong to him, so strong that he is reminded of their newness only when he has to supply some obvious detail about himself or forgets someone’s name.
One person in particular, Brian Somethingorother, becomes Ben’s closest friend. Though he had long been aware of Brian, Ben had always found his long hair and single earring highly unreliable and kept his distance accordingly. Nevertheless, a week after the disappearance of
Jeff Halscomb and his silver pocket flask, Ben finds himself sitting alone in somebody’s kitchen when Brian walks in with a bottle of whiskey tucked under his arm. Spying the bottle, Ben invites him to sit down, and soon the two of them are chasing drinks and laughing loud enough to compete with the music in the living room.
Like Ben, Brian believes that what a car says about a man is all that anyone needs to know about him, and near the end of their first night of friendship, he shows his to Ben. It is a monstrous convertible, the midnight color of a hearse, old but well maintained. Brian leads Ben in a lap around the car then they get in. When he has finished detailing for Ben the finer points of the interior, he puts back the black canvas top, and the two of them sit there and stare at the night sky and pass the bottle of whiskey between them.
Scorning female companionship, they spend their nights like this for almost week.
Sometimes they talk, but mostly they just look up at the sky and wait for the bottle to thump against their chests, signaling its return. One night it rains. They keep up the top, turn on the radio, and watch the rain trails on the glass. In the corner of the canvas, where the passenger window meets the windshield, Ben notices a small tear that is bandaged with electric tape. When the storm grows stronger, raindrops like perspiration appear at the edge of the tape. After a moment of indecision, one-by-one they roll toward the window and then down the glass, where they are lost amid the rain trails outside.
Ben says nothing about the tear, but when he drives home that night, he is struck with an idea. The next afternoon, when his boss at the hardware stores leaves for lunch, he slinks over to the aisle where the tent repair kits are stacked. He takes one of them to the back room. There he butchers the kit and pockets one of its small black patches, burying the rest of the kit in the bottom of the garbage bin.
With the excitement of a schoolboy, he drives recklessly to the party and bursts through the front door. He wanders the house looking for Brian, through the group milling about the kitchen, the crowd on the dance floor, and the people hanging around out back. He circles the house twice but Brian is nowhere to be found. He is about to circle a third time when the feeling sets in. It collects in his stomach, gray and heavy. Ben sits down in the kitchen. He is staring at the cupboard when a hand slaps his shoulder. An open bottle of whiskey slams down in front of him.
“Time’s a wasting,” says Brian and tips the bottle toward him.
The two of them drink, and it is not long after when they are sitting in Brian’s convertible, staring at the stars, that Ben remembers the patch. He takes it out of his pocket and hands it over to Brian. He tells him what it’s for and how to put it on. Brian stares at the black disc, then he turns to Ben and says thanks man, nodding his head in just such a way that Ben knows he means it.
The next day Brian Somethingorother is gone.
The gun stayed in Ben’s car for most of August, though he moved it from the trunk to his glove compartment when Jeff Halscomb disappeared. It remained there until so many others followed that Ben took it out and began carrying it with him.
The pistol was small, unobtrusive. (He had been drawn to it for that reason.) At first, he kept it in the waistband of his pants, for that seemed to him what one did with a gun of that size, but he found that whenever he danced it had a tendency to slip down into the cradle of his underwear and terrorize his imagination. In turn, he transferred the gun to his calf, taping it to his leg and rolling the top of his sock over the barrel.
Satisfied, he went about his days, occasionally reaching down and grasping his leg to make sure the gun was still there. At work, Ben would sometimes drift to the back of the store and, hiding behind one of the aisles, drop to one knee, pretend to pull the gun from his calf, and fire an invisible shot at the circular saws that lined the far wall. Then he would go back to work.
Once, when he was alone in the storage room, he tried doing a roll to take out the paint cans that were stacked in the corner, but he didn’t tuck his head quickly enough and banged it on the concrete floor. Red stars rolled across his eyes.
He didn’t try that again, but he kept the gun by his side.
Ben doesn’t try to stop Louie from telling stories now, even if he doesn’t really tell stories but remind Ben of those he already knows. It’s all the same to Ben. He just needs someone to talk to, even if that someone is Louie Freenar, who is dumbass but still a friend.
They go to the old diner, the one along the main highway where truckers eat as they pass through town. They arrive at the end of the night, every night, and talk until dawn. Ben likes it there. The food is cheap and they never have to leave.
“Only losers work here at this time of night,” Louie Freenar observes as they arrive at the front door.
“Only losers eat here at this time of night,” Ben replies, opening the door for Louie.
The August heat is still thick and oppressive, but the summer has begun to fade. It’s unmistakable; for every day when Ben leaves work, the sun stands nearer to the horizon, until one day, it has already slipped away.
“You want smoking, right?”
“Yeah,” Ben replies. “Thanks.”
Though he still heads out each night, Ben no longer stays so long. The homes provide too much room now, and it’s harder for Ben to avoid those who aren’t there. The scene depresses him, though he wouldn’t be anywhere else.
“Bust me some smokes, Lou,” he says, looking over the menu.
“Fucking mooch,” Louie Freenar replies and slides the pack across the table.
Still, the nights are precious to Ben, so precious they make him want to scream and weep and shake his fists in the air, even if they are all pretty much the same.
“You remember that thing we did to Mr. Drieser?” Louie Freenar asks, a big dumb grin spreading across his face.
“Sure I do,” Ben replies. He has had the same conversation with Louie Freenar three times that week.
“Oh man, that was some hilarious shit,” Louie Freenar says. It had been his idea, and everyone agreed because it was exactly what Mr. Drieser deserved. Louie provided the picture, which Ben knew came from the stash of magazines his father had hidden behind his stereo.
They pasted Mr. Dreiser’s portrait over the face of the woman spread-eagle on a pool table.
Then they made hundreds of copies, sticking them to windows, bathroom stalls, bulletin boards, even lockers.
“All over the place,” Louie exclaims, he’s talking to himself now. “Even the library!”
That had been Louie’s idea, too. When all of the pictures had been taken down, he distributed the remaining copies to the guys and told them to put them in library books. That way it would be years before they were all found.
“Drieser’ll shit when those start popping up, again. Goddamn, it’ll be hilarious.”
“Yeah,” Ben replies. He is watching the electric clock buzzing religiously above the counter. “Hilarious all right.”
“Yeah man, that asshole will get what he deserves,” Louie says, clenching his fist. Then he pauses and looks down at his plate. He is quiet for a moment, reflective even. “That was the smartest shit we ever did,” he says to Ben. “I just wish I could see his face. I mean—it’ll be hilarious.”
“Yeah,” Ben says. “I know it will.”
Louie nods his head. he thinks for a moment.
“What do you think they’ll say, Ben?”
“The people who find the pictures—what do you think they’ll say?”
“I don’t know. They’ll laugh probably.”
“Yeah, but don’t you think they’ll wonder—you know, who did it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Yeah, well, I mean it’s such a cool joke and all, don’t you think they’ll want to know?”
“Yeah. I mean I guess so. Probably.”
“Yeah. I bet they will. They gotta.”
Louie sits back in his seat again and takes a long drag off his cigarette. Then he springs back up excitedly.
“You really think so?”
“Yeah, Lou,” Ben says. “I think so.”
Louie flicks the ashes from his cigarette into an empty coffee cup.
“Do you think people will tell them?”
“Yeah,” he says, “about us, about all the shit we did.”
“Yeah, I guess. If they remember.”
“Yeah,” Louie says. He looks at the table. “If they remember.”
Ben remembered all summer. He remembered not to ask the wrong questions, not to question beyond the moment, not to think about the inevitable. The remembering was important for him, crucial really, for if he was good enough at it, the forgetting would seem inconspicuous, natural even, and the days would unwind one-by-one. And so Ben remembered, and by remembering tried hard to forget—forget the fear that never seemed to leave him and the reality of what he was losing with each passing day. He was successful, for most of the summer at least, but by the end it became difficult, and though he was determined to remember, the forgetting did not come so easily. Not anymore. He could not make his eyes forget.
In the end he forgot something simple: a road, a shortcut really. It didn’t save him that much time. Just a few minutes perhaps. It was easy to forget about it. It was easier just to drive around.
He only took the shortcut once. It was the final weekend of August, almost a week since he had last seen Louie Freenar. His boss had collared him for sneaking out early the night before and forced him to stay behind to take inventory with him. The procedure was slow and deliberate, and by the time they had made their way to the final aisle, Ben’s jaw was clenched so hard his teeth began to ache.
He finished and burst out of the hardware store. He burned through the parking lot and out onto the highway. He drove so fast the dashboard rattled and the rearview mirror shook and he forgot to take the road he had remembered to take for almost two months now. Instead he took the shortcut, never noticing the road he was on until came around the bend and had already seen the familiar flagpole.
He eased off the gas. The car rolled to a stop near the main entrance. He stared at the steering wheel then he turned his head and looked.
The building was empty, the parking lot, too, except for the far corner, where a half dozen busses huddled under the dirty orange glow of streetlamps. Inside the lights were off and the darkened windows that circled the building seemed like a giant black bow that kept the walls from falling onto a lawn which had yellowed in the August heat. Ben stared at the building. Then he bent down and tore the gun out of the tape.
He opened the door and began walking across the parking lot. His footfalls clicked on the asphalt and echoed their way across the empty lot. When he came within a few yards of the school, he stopped. He stood there for a moment, feeling the anger fill him. Then he raised the gun and pointed at a window. That’s when he saw the sign.
GRRR!!! Berry County High School Gives a Big Bear Welcome to its Fall Freshman Class it read. He paused then he looked at the sign again.
GRRR!!! Berry County High School Gives a Big Bear Welcome to its Fall Freshman Class it still read.
Ben stared. Then he saw his face in the window. He dropped the gun to his side. He turned and walked back to his car. He got in and drove off toward the highway. While crossing the bridge that connected either side of town, he found that he was still holding the gun. He rolled down the window and tossed it out. The small gun sailed to the barrier, nicked the guardrail, and skipped into the darkness below.
Now Ben is late for the party. He parks down the street from the house and stares out the window. He begins itching the tape, which is still wrapped around his leg. The skin is raw there and soon it begins bleeding.
“Fuck it,” he says and props his leg on the dash. He begins tearing at the tape. It’s silver and sticks fast to his skin. He grimaces, ripping the hair off as he tries to free himself, but the tape won’t give. He yanks wildly at it, the tape tightening like a noose. At last, it finally gives way. It comes off in narrow bands until he catches a main strip. He howls and the tape releases its grip. When it has come off, he bunches the tape in a ball and throws it out the window.
He opens the door and steps into the street. He is parked far from the house but he can already hear the music. He begins walking toward it. Soon he is running, leaning into the wind.
He bursts into the house, storms into the living room, and seizes some girl on the dance floor. The music roars, and he pulls the girl against him, drawing her close so he won’t lose her, holding her tight so she can’t slip away.
Lisa Reeting looks at Ben and touches the side of his face. She asks him what’s wrong.