When Eli turned fifteen, he abandoned his former friends and started running with Rusty, a blue-eyed boy from the trailer park. It was then that Eli first began to think of independence as something attainable. Rusty’s parents were always fighting, so the boys were left to pursue their own wants. Together, reckless and bored, they stalked the grid of Maiden Head. When they were not about town, they were down in the shed behind Rusty’s trailer. The shed had a TV, a CD player, Metallica posters, and a threadbare couch, which became Rusty’s bed when his parents were engaged in battle. To Eli, it was exciting in that shed with Rusty, low down.
A benefit of friendship with Rusty was proximity to Rusty’s mother Stephanie. Eli’s parents, middle class, middle-age, and disinterested, neither encouraged nor discouraged Eli in anything and had little regard for his comings and goings as long as he did not cause trouble and brought home B’s on his report card. In this persistent disinterest, they rarely asked him what he planned to do after high school. But Stephanie always asked Eli about his future, about who he could become. Stephanie, a woman prettier and more girlish than his own mother, a woman who called him sugar and wore low cut tops and miniskirts. The few times she had picked them up from school, Eli sensed the utter rancor with which the other women looked at her, and he climbed into the car with her, proud. Whenever she saw him, she touched his arm, his shoulder, his back, and at night as he drifted off, he replayed her touches, but always then the touches became deeper, longer.
“You could do anything you wanted, kid like you,” Stephanie said one day after school. “All the cards stacked in your favor.”
Eli blushed and looked down at her hands, the nails bitten to the quick, the only feature of hers that lacked femininity. He could not imagine living a life other than that of his parents, nor could he imagine living their life. He felt twisted up inside when he thought of his future, as though the tree of himself were growing crooked.
“Anything you want. You’re just so lucky,” Rusty said, mocking her.
“Not like this one,” she said, poking Rusty. “Probably end up like Rick.”
“Piss off, Ma,” Rusty said, his leg bouncing up and down under the table.
“What’s wrong with Rick?” Eli asked.
Rusty and Stephanie both looked at Eli blankly. Then Stephanie burst out laughing.
“Nothing, sugar, nothing at all.” She paused. “Rick always says that me and him are like geese…”
“Mom, don’t start that.”
“Shut up, Rusty.” She slapped his arm. “Rick always says me and him are like geese.” She clutched the little gold pendant on her necklace and slid it back and forth on the chain. “Geese mate for life. Sounds sweet when you’re 19. But when you’re 19, no one tells you what that actually means.” She dropped the pendant back to her chest.
“C’mon,” Rusty said, “let’s go.” He stood up and walked over to where Eli was sitting.
“You’re gonna leave your mom all alone?” Stephanie asked. She had been drinking a glass of bourbon on ice, and her voice was beginning to show it. “You don’t want to stay home with me? My goose is gone.”
Rusty ignored her. “C’mon, man,” he said. “Now.”
Eli waved at Stephanie.
“Where’s your dad?” Eli asked when they were outside. Rusty nearly loped toward the shed, and Eli had to jog to catch up.
“Bad checks. Again.”
“So where is he?”
Rusty stopped and turned around. “Pierce County. Any more questions?”
“Shouldn’t we stay with your mom?”
Rusty shook his head as he opened the door to the shed. “She’ll be there for another 20 minutes, and then we’ll hear the car pull out. You can bet on it. You don’t know my mom like I do.”
“Whatever, man.” Eli said, but Rusty turned on music, drowning out his words.
Eli felt sorry for Stephanie sitting there all alone. For a moment, he wanted to get up and walk back into the trailer, to go to her, to comfort her, to talk to her gently. As Rusty pulled out an old copy of Rolling Stone, Eli stood, about to invent some excuse to go back into the house, but then as Rusty had predicted, the car pulled out.
“See?” Rusty said, not bothering to look up from his reading.
Eli grabbed a magazine from the pile and flipped through the pages, though he did not care about what was on them. He dropped the first one and then picked up another, equally bored by it. A sort of agitation came over him and as Rusty’s knee continued to bounce, a movement began inside Eli, a static shaking that grew the longer he sat. You can bet on it, he heard Rusty say in his mind.
“I’m gonna get going, man,” Eli said, tossing the second magazine back on the pile.
“It’s early yet.”
“I don’t want to sit around anymore.”
“Then let’s do something. Let’s go somewhere.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Rusty said. “House across from the Den.”
“What about it?”
“The lady that lives there doesn’t close the curtains.”
“Yeah right,” Eli said.
“Seriously,” he paused. “What? Are you saying you don’t want to see anything?”
“Not at all.”
“Then let’s go.”
Eli followed though he knew Rusty was lying. The Den was the little hole of a bar where Stephanie went when she and Rick were fighting. Rusty invented excuses to hang around that part of town when Stephanie was there, though he and Eli normally went to the park down the street to look for cigarette butts. But today they ventured into the parking lot on the side of The Den, their youth marking them like a deformity to the bar’s patrons, the house across the street empty, dark.
“She must not be home,” Rusty said.
Eli nodded but said nothing because he had known that, of course, there would be no naked woman in the window. Rusty scanned the parking lot until he found a long butt. He picked it up and lit it, offering Eli a drag. Eli took a shallow hit and then walked to the front of the bar and glanced inside the darkened windows. It was what they were really there for, and delaying it was pointless. He scanned the stools, his eyes tripping on beer posters and the various junk that decorates small town Wisconsin bars—deer heads, photos of long time patrons, plaques with clever sayings: My Bucket List: Ice, Beer. You Can’t Drink All Day If You Don’t Start In The Morning! Stephanie was on the far side of the bar, leaning against the pool table, wearing the same pink tank top from earlier. Stephanie’s mascara had run beneath her eyes. But it had not run from tears. She seemed to Eli one long laugh, her trunk, her stems all part of the joke. She looked older than she had earlier, her features in an acute stage of wear. A man in a bandana and a leather jacket despite the warm weather walked up behind her and gently slapped her ass. She turned toward him and smiled. He ruffled her hair, and she pushed away his hand. It made sense to Eli now, all of it, Rick, the liquor, the way Rusty was with her. The agitator inside him moved faster and he felt worse than he had earlier. You don’t know my mom like I do.
Rusty slunk down against the wall next to him.
“Let’s go man,” Eli said.
Eli stayed standing, trying not to look in at Stephanie and the man.
“What are they doing in there?” Rusty asked.
“Who?” Eli slid down next to Rusty.
“Cut the shit.” He spat and put his cigarette out in the pool of saliva.
Eli said nothing. That Rusty had likely guessed what happened in that bar, Eli realized; that Rusty was angry, Eli knew; what Rusty wanted from all of this, Eli could only wonder.
“They’re just talking,” he said.
“So if I stand up and look in that window, I’ll just see talking?”
“That’s what I said.”
“Just do it.”
Eli sighed and stood up. He scanned the ground for a butt like Rusty had found but saw none.
“What now?” he asked.
“Look in the window,” Rusty said.
Stephanie and the man had moved to the back of the bar. She stood against a wall near the disused payphones.
“What am I looking for?”
“I can’t read your mind. Why don’t you look?”
“What are they doing now?”
“They’re just talking.”
The man ran a finger down Stephanie’s cheek. She tilted her head and then looked down.
“I’m not lying.”
“I can tell you’re lying.”
“I’m not fucking lying, man.” He stared at Rusty clear in the eyes for emphasis and then looked in again. The man’s finger trailed down Stephanie’s neck and between her breasts.
“You lie to me and I’ll never talk to you again. You understand? I fucking hate liars more than anything.”
Eli’s palms began to sweat. Stephanie let her mouth graze the man’s, and he let his hands run across her ass.
“So?” Rusty said.
Just then Rusty’s mother turned toward the window, and for a second, Eli swore she looked directly into his eyes, but then her face erupted in laughter as the man whispered in her ear. Her laughter jarred something loose in Eli. That fucking bitch, he thought.
Rusty struck him in the leg, a warning, just as the thought evaporated.
“He’s sniffing around her again, isn’t he?” Rusty asked.
Eli looked at Rusty in solidarity.
“Who is he?” Eli asked.
“Some asshole,” Rusty said. “Needs to go fuck someone else.”
Rusty stood up keeping his back to the window.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Eli lingered. The man’s hands were still cupping Stephanie’s ass.
“Come on, dickhead.”
Finally, Eli turned, trailing behind Rusty. He looked back at the front of the bar again. One of the lights in the sign had started to burn out, and the whole place looked ridiculous. The world inside it, merely an extension of its cheap façade, and inside that world, little dramas would play out, dramas in which someone would win and someone would lose and someone would be hurt without even knowing. The world shifted slightly just then, but it was a shift so exact that everything and everyone Eli knew were different now. Even the ground beneath him, the oaks and elms that lined the streets, and the open-faced houses assumed a foreign quality, one that had abruptly displaced Eli, and he had no mark with which to steady himself.
Back at Rusty’s, they stole some of Stephanie’s bourbon. They filled the bottle back up with cold, weak Lipton tea. They mixed the bourbon with Coke and took it to the shed where they drank it in gulps while listening to an old Metallica tape. Neither of the boys could sit still, and Eli knew what would come next. Turning off was what Rusty called it, and so far Eli had only done it with him once. Tonight he knew he would do it again, for tonight Eli truly understood wanting to turn off. Rusty got out the red can and doused a black handkerchief with gas. He put the handkerchief over his nose and breathed deeply. Then he doused it again.
“Here,” he said, handing it to Eli. Eli took the rag from him. He stared at the pattern, a pattern so familiar that on examination it became an oddity. He noticed a stain on one of the white parts. It looked like blood. He looked at Rusty. He looked at the rag. He put it over his nose and mouth and breathed deeply. His head spun. The first time he had done it, it felt like he was floating inside of a silent machine, but this time he did not feel that way. Instead, he felt bound to the dirty floor of the little shed.
“I’m going to get the fuck out of here when I’m 18,” Rusty said. “I’m already saving money.”
“Doesn’t matter. Just drive. Stop when I feel like stopping.” His eyes were steady. He did not look at Eli. “Maybe the city. Milwaukee. Chicago. Somewhere big enough that no one notices me. Just like camouflage.”
“Yeah, me too,” Eli said. But as he said it, he knew it wasn’t true. His life was already forecasted in a way that Rusty’s could never have been. He would go to school in a Wisconsin college town—Eau Claire, River Falls, Whitewater—and come back to Maiden Head in the summers. He would get a sensible degree, one that guaranteed a job. He would work in an office and marry a girl from Iowa or Minnesota. They would settle down somewhere near Maiden Head. They would have children. There would be church and dinners and holidays with his grayscale parents, who would compliment him on how well he had done for himself.
“I’m getting out of here as soon as I can,” Eli said, as though setting the words to flight meant they would land somewhere true.
Rusty snorted. “Sure you are.” He took the drink from Eli and had a long pull.
“I am,” Eli said again. But now Rusty was turning up the music, and Eli’s words were swallowed so that it seemed he was simply talking to himself. The music and fumes sealed them both in private rooms. In his private room, Eli kept seeing Stephanie, her hair and her body, her face as she looked out across the bar. When he thought about her, the world seemed huge and full of hidden danger. Until this moment, life had only seemed to be building. But looking at Stephanie, he could see the fall of it, how quickly life could descend into ruin—the ruin of the body, the waste of the mind. He wanted to stop thinking, but it was too late; he had already started.
Rusty leaned forward, keeping up with the drums on his knees. His mouth was set in some half-snarl. For a moment Eli thought he looked like a coyote—no—a mutt, a mutt who was caught in steel jaws. An animal ready to sink its teeth in its own limb. He sang along with the music. You will do what I say when I say ‘back to the front’! He stood abruptly then and yelled his own words above the song. “No allegiance!” He pumped a fist in the air. He leaned over and punched Eli in the shoulder. “No gods, no masters!” he yelled in Eli’s face.
Eli pushed him. “C’mon man,” he said, his heel grazing something as Rusty turned around. There, sticking out just slightly from beneath the couch was an old shoe box. While Rusty’s back was still turned, Eli eased the top off it. Inside were several cards. The first was a cheap one, the graphics on the front impersonal and over bright—a dumb cake on a dimwit table. Happy Birthday, Son! it read. 15th had been scrawled in between Happy and Birthday. He opened the card, the edges of it worn soft from having been read so many times. Inside Stephanie had written nothing but Mom. Eli remembered Rusty’s 15th, so shortly after his own when they had first become friends. He and Rusty had spent it in the shed watching movies turned up loud enough to drown out the sporadic eruptions coming from the trailer. Each time there had been a yell, a crash, Eli had tensed. But Rusty, Rusty stared straight ahead at the TV and laughed at all the jokes, though one of his fingers or one of his feet had kept invisible time throughout. Eli opened another and yet another; they were all the same—the outsides equally generic, the insides equally impersonal, the corners equally worn. He put them back and closed the lid just as Rusty turned around.
“I gotta go,” he said, shooting up from the couch. It was not true, of course, but he could not stand the shed right now. He grabbed the bourbon and slugged it back.
“Easy, you fucker,” Rusty said. “There isn’t anything else in the house. She drank it all.”
Of course she did, Eli thought.
Eli looked Rusty in the eyes and took another pull. He wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve. Rusty glared at him but said nothing. Then Eli walked out, turning back once to flip Rusty off, though he wasn’t sure why. Rusty flipped him off back and kicked the door shut.
The night was humid, Wisconsin humid, where the air has weight, and breath feels strangled. The streets of the trailer park were empty and quiet. Eli still had a half hour to get home, but he had no intention of making his curfew. He had no desire to see his parents, who would be planted on the couch trading inane comments about reruns.
His head was buzzing from the liquor and the gas, and as he passed a particularly ruinous trailer, he imagined walking off down Highway 35, walking all night until dawn broke open in its signature strata of orange and pink and he could see enough to leave the road and venture into the oaks and pines. He could live by the river. He could build a home with his bare hands. He could fish for bluegills, trout, muskies. He could hunt deer, rabbits, ducks. He could steal anything else he needed from the small cabins hidden in the trees on the banks of the Mississippi.
But before he understood the direction of his feet, he walked back to The Den where Rusty’s mother was dancing with the man in the bandana and leather jacket. He stared inside the bar as heat lightning flashed around him, charging him, so that he feared for whatever or whomever he touched next.