by Christopher Harris
Is it weird I used to confuse myself with Jesus?
I don’t mean I thought I was good; I was under no illusion there. Rather, I lied out of charity to myself: I, too, was fatherless, and without comfortable footwear. I have always favored the underdog, and during my childhood felt nostalgic at recountings of Christ’s suffering. It wasn’t unusual for me to play “Squash The Pharisees” over an anthill in our backyard, and my Sunday School daydreams were filled with sacramental car chases and seraphic fistfights. (Mine was an Action Jesus.) The Holy Ghost was everywhere I looked, and I was everywhere too, so you can understand my miscalculation. I didn’t go for infallibility, though. Invulnerability was enough for me.
I crashed go-karts and keggers, I fell into empty swimming pools and sexless crushes, I stole video games and parents’ hearts, and I never suffered a scratch. If my friend Tom Yeager was irresistible to Ness City girls, I was magic on the town’s moms…and carnival roustabouts, concert roadies, and any other adult who held the keys to something devilish. I was short and probably looked younger than 16, had blond hair and skin like a Hudson’s Golden Gem apple, pinchable cheeks and too-generous eyes. People wanted to hug and feed me. I was glad to use my alleged artlessness to conceal our misdeeds, but I worried it was more than an act. I wanted to be truly cynical and ironic, but I didn’t know enough.
Everyone called me Frog. The story is: one of my mother’s boyfriends, Uncle Chase, was pawing through my father’s books, and pulled out The Adventures Of Augie March. He read the name aloud, tossed the book at me and said, “Have you studied this one, pipsqueak?” I was four and did not read; I said yes. Uncle Chase said if I was so smart, why not reel off the first few sentences for him. My eyes went helplessly over the type. Pretending to read, I repeated the book’s name, but mistook “Augie” for “Froggy.” It sent him over the moon. He reported it breathlessly to my mother and the name Froggy stuck, though after Uncle Chase got sent to Norton for kiting checks I insisted on the short form. My sophomore high school class was 35 strong, and not a single one of them called me any other name.
It was my legacy to want and want. If Doug Delaney asked me to cruise in his restored ’72 Chevelle SS, I hooted and came along for the night, but eyed the purple neon trim around Alex Fast’s GTO. If we were up in Hays at the ’Wagon, I was convinced the dancers must be prettier over in Salina. If we were drinking Hamms, I wanted Bud. Don’t get me wrong: I was never what you’d call spoiled; I was a poor Kansas teen who understood foot-blisters and shit-stained overalls. Neither could I boil down my condition to simple covetousness. Partly, yes, maybe I felt owed by history—for the hardness of a departed and unremembered father, for a string of quasi-abusive “uncles”—but also I felt crushed by the middle: I was neither passive enough to smile and swallow God’s will, nor naturally aggressive enough to feel genuine while blundering into the world, hiding my intelligence. Yet these, it seemed, were my choices. So I blundered. I was unfailingly polite in school and church, careful never to offer an opinion unless asked (and then delivered my words with what I hoped was a charming lack of self-confidence), and always looked for opportunities to “let off steam.” It was my favorite phrase.
One July night Yeager and I watched Norman Quink set his skateboard on fire and ride it off the Sacred Heart roof. Quink broke his ankle, and by some divine kinetics the board bounced off concrete and up through one of the church windows. Quink followed after it, limping. Yeager and I paused a beat, then cackled and also climbed through. None of us were Catholic.
The skateboard set aflame several cassocks left hanging near the pulpit, or I guess the papists call it the “ambo.” Quink hobbled over to retrieve his board, but succeeded in lighting his pant cuffs on fire. He rolled over altar and tabernacle, howling. One of Sacred Heart’s walls was also now ablaze, but I sat myself in a back pew and watched, absolutely ensorcelled. That night I’d taken speed for the first time—methamphetamine, bought for us by our soon-to-be-wealthy friend Patch—and my euphoria, my magnitude, made intervention impossible. Yeager had swallowed a pill, too, but seemed to feel less appreciation for the moment. He sang “There Shall Be Showers Of Blessings” and beat Quink’s legs with a collection basket. The room became quite smoky, and finally a young priest came in. He and Yeager succeeded in extinguishing Quink, whereupon I sprung atop my pew and wrenched a sharp brass crucifix from the wall. We left coughing, each with our trophy: I with the cross, Yeager with the dented-up basket, the priest with Quink.
We became heroes. Somehow the fire was judged the result of shoddy wiring, so our story was we’d broken in with the intention of assisting trapped worshippers. This is how it was for me. I listened to my Social Studies teacher say “Dwight Eisenhower beating Adlai Stevenson was the first moment when America willfully picked anti-intellectualism” as though he believed he delivered Rosicrucian insights, but I still ate conocybe mushrooms, and buried paper bags filled with dogshit deep inside the upholstery of my latest “uncle’s” car, and masturbated like a wild monkey whenever Loni Anderson appeared in a rerun of WKRP In Cincinnati. To be a know-it-all in school was the social equivalent of the Red Death, and Mr. Colton (my Social Studies teacher) could stick his wistful all-is-lost routine up his faded-hippy wife’s love cake.
But Yeager had trouble. He was two years older—a senior—and had impregnated Dora Ballas, a classmate of mine commonly called “Dora Borealis.” Yeager was the best-looking boy produced by Ness City in anyone’s memory, hateably ravishing as class president, rumored to be Hollywood-bound: easy and sweet and occasionally Christian. The Wife of Bath tells us “He is gentle that does gentle deeds” and Mrs. Honour attached “Handsome is that handsome does,” and to these I might add one chestnut from our modern age, “I’m gonna milk it till I turn it into cheese.” Yeager spread his love around. And Dora Borealis wasn’t even pretty: just a plain girl with big glasses and breasts, but 15 and equipped with a country daddy with friends in the Ness County Sheriff’s Department. She swore Yeager had been her only.
So Handsome Tom spent the autumn that year with an Army Recruitment catalog in one hand and a Kansas Judicial Handbook in the other. Cops had come by around Labor Day and informed Yeager that Mr. Ballas would press charges for statutory rape unless Tom married Dora. “But here’s my plan,” said Yeager, as we drove down Locust Street, stopping to snap Jesus Fish off parked cars. “It’s not statutory rape if the girl’s 15. It’s ‘aggravated indecent liberties.’ And the book says they have to charge me within five years. So I marry her for five years, and then get a divorce. Or else I grow a sac and hit Iraq.”
Five years, though! It was an unimaginable length of time. The moon was out, and as was my habit I thought of someone long ago—Benjamin Franklin, or Charlemagne—staring up at that same moon with awe. I never got to experience the moon as a natural object: I felt I must have been taught about the moon’s scientific existence before I ever even observed it, and was thus educated right out of my wonder. We drove to our spot out in the woods off Beach Street and nailed our Fish to trees, adding to our collection. The police had given Yeager a couple weeks to think it over. We sat in our lawn chairs with our flashlights, surrounded by a glittering flock of hubcaps and license plates, real-estate and No Parking signage, a “Clinic For Women’s Health” banner, and we made vows of wildness.
The ’Wagon had Jell-O wrestling every Wednesday, and we drove up the first cold night. Quink put a plastic bag over his cast and I made a performance of hiding condoms all over my person: up my sleeve, in my sock, under my hat. Once we got off 283, Yeager handed one baseball bat apiece to me and Patch Grabowski, then veered back and forth.
“It’s not a choice, it’s a chiiiiiiiiiiiiild!” said Patch, and he splintered a driver-side mailbox. Its demolition was ear-splitting, but the sound shrunk immediately into our wake. “Now you, Frog!”
“Gun control means hitting your tarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrget!” I said, and swung hard, hanging out Yeager’s passenger window. Bees filled my fists.
“If you’re going to burn our flag wrap yourself in it firrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrst!” Whump.
“Pray for our trooooooooooooooooooooops!” Thunk.
Yeager knew the ’Wagon bouncer, who didn’t inspect my fake ID. The music was appropriately rollicking but it was a slow night; while honey-thighed nymphs rubbed themselves on a pole, the bartenders all hollered at a TV. I swallowed some pills Patch brought along, and drank a beer. Yeager wasn’t the only one waiting for big change; Patch came from sorghum money but was blocked from spending by a trust fund. Most creditors in western Kansas were waiting for his 18th, now eight months away. Where Quink explored self-erasure, and the operators and regulators in Yeager’s cells gave him a certain upright perplexedness—in other words, where these boys (and I) possessed curtained chambers from which weakness made its case—Patch was granite. He’d have benefited more than anyone I knew from stripping bivalves from pearls in Bahrain or chanting with Sikhs in Hemkunt Sahib, but Patch said he was never leaving Kansas, never leaving the suds stink of sorghum. He paid for breasts to be rubbed against his hatchet face and rebel-yelled, and I thought there must be a finger’s worth of sadness in him, but just as the notion suggested itself, as tonight, he did something like jump in the empty ring and coat himself in peach Jell-O.
“Look at that,” said Yeager.
“I see him,” I said. “Do you really think they’ll let him wrestle?”
“No, not him. Look at the TV. They’re watching that movie, the one about the helicopters that get shot down over Arabtown.”
“Nuh-uh,” I said. “I think they’re watching the news.”
“No way. I love this part. This is where they take a missile right through the fucking windshield. Watch this.”
“I don’t think so, Tom. I don’t think it’s a movie. See how shaky the camera is? I think this is news footage, like on CNN or something. Or it’s live. I think it might even be a live battle.”
“No, watch. They’re about to take a missile. I’ve seen it before. It’s a movie. Fucking special effects, man!”
“Look at that,” I said. “Wow. I wish I knew, like, if I’m supposed to be enjoying this.”
A boxing bell rang. Did they not notice Patch? Two topless women began grappling in the inflatable ring, staggering to keep upright, executing stripper jujitsu until the longer-haired lady fell on her back and a crest of pink gelatin soaked Patch. He ran a finger over his blue jeans and tasted, then waved to us. The ’Wagon crowd was maybe ten strong, but they hooted and whistled, and over a popular bluegrass tune I could hear the wrestlers grunting and squealing, and Patch circled behind one of them, pretending he was taking pictures. Like everyone, I laughed. All was confusion, hypocrisy, madness, but it was my private policy to acknowledge and enjoy chaos as the logical result of having flesh; I felt good and anchored, and I had a long life to make amends. Yeager manically clapped his hands. Quink stood on one leg and bounced spastically, broke a bottle on the table, held the stem aloft and caterwauled.
The wrestlers took full notice of Patch and crushed him between four breasts. He hit his knees, and I could see his mashed lips and nose, which sparkled with Jell-O. The ladies’ malice fell squarely on their intruder. They kicked and elbowed him: judging by Patch’s expression a sweet torture. They scooped more gelatin and ran it through his hair, and the larger girl shoved him down and clamped her pelvis over his neck, trapped his ears between her knees, and flourished to the audience, wagged her breasts. Patch was trapped on his back, bleeding a little, singing something to himself like a prisoner of war. I couldn’t believe they really meant to hurt him, but he was crying, too, and now Quink was peg-legging toward the ring with his broken bottle, lunging, and he stabbed its plastic floor. Yeager jolted as though a current had shocked him through; I couldn’t tell his destination but he was gone and I moved too, I was happy for a chance to be of use.
Quink, drunk in his awful, sudden way, cantilevered himself up into the ring, which was deflating and blasting out air. He tried to trip one of the naked ladies but she was big and righteous, and felled him with a karate chop. The bartenders were shouting and rumbling this way: big, round men with stubble on their heads and cheeks. Chairs scraped the floor. I ducked and Yeager took a blow on his shoulders, Patch was bawling, Quink’s cast rose toward the ceiling. The wrestlers were laughing. I held up my hands and smiled, and one of the bartenders wrenched me up by the shirt. But it is my destiny, as I have said, to escape serious physical insult. The man had annihilation in his eyes but he set me down with care atop a pool table, then pinned me. Yeager had his bouncer friend in a headlock. Patch had got out of the ring and took up his coat, ran past the men’s room, sobbing. Quink righted himself and jumped on Yeager piggyback style and they, too, hit the back exit. My captor held me fast.
Simplicity is what’s expected from a country boy and simplicity is what I had. They knew me by sight in that place. No, not actually; I’d been to the ’Wagon many times, but had never spoken to anyone, had never gotten beyond gawking. But they knew me: they had me down for Alamota and not Ness City, but they guessed about the gone father, and they knew about that awful shame of mine, my virginity. I tried acting quiet and sullen but they wouldn’t have it. The weeknight manager was named Butch, and he asked if he should call my mother to let her know I’d be staying late to help clean up. I wished I’d brought the brass knuckles Jaret Luby kept hidden in his father’s garage. Butch had a big scratch across his cheek where one of the women had lashed out blindly during the melee. He daubed it with a cloth handkerchief.
“Don’t be a little pussy,” he said. It was a casual, dangerous tone of voice. “Jesus, how the hell old are you? You’re lucky no off-duty cops were here.”
“So. You’re a fuckup.” I didn’t answer him. “You know,” he said, “I heard this guy on the radio. Big musician, I forget his name but you know him. Take this mop and start cleaning.”
“I don’t like music,” I said.
“He’s bragging how he’s never finished a book his entire life. Got millions in the bank, all the women he could ever fuck, cracking himself up in this interview ’cause he never read a single book.”
I swabbed the deck. The music was off, the girls were gone, the ’Wagon was closing up early. Two bartenders stood by each door while I picked up broken glass. “You’re gonna offer me a job,” I said. “You’re gonna take me under your wing and rescue me from my humble beginnings, educate me, make me your apprentice. I’ll get to know the business, make a lot of cash. I’ll learn to appreciate a hard day’s work and call you Dad.”
“I lived in New York,” said Butch. “I lived in L.A. I got out for a little while at least.” He replaced a few pool cues. “If you were my son, I’d tell you to get the fuck out of Kansas, that’s for sure.”
“I’m joining the navy,” I said. “One more year.”
“Not pulling shit like tonight you’re not.”
He said this like he’d stumbled upon life’s truth, like he’d cast his line in deeper waters and something far below the surface had struck. But I was lying. Joining the service was Yeager’s escape hatch, not mine. Hot mordancy filled me like battery acid but the reasons were confusing: not exactly that I’d been caught or abandoned, not exactly that Butch was patronizing me so, not exactly that my momentary fantasy—peregrine ports and non-speakers with dark labia—overwhelmed anything my actual life had in store for me. All these, yes, but also my aloneness, or my suspicion that I’d been mistakenly delivered to this version of life, no manger, no alms, and a floor that could fall out from under me at any moment, no solidity, no security except Tom Yeager whom I’d known from six years old. So yes, self-pity was a significant portion of my act. I nodded as though Butch’s generosity had really gotten me. After I cleaned as much as I could, they gave me a beer and told me the right way to perform oral sex on a woman: a bunch of big guys sitting around licking the V of their thumbs and forefingers.
Later, Butch said, “So tell us. Are you a good boy, Frog?”
“It is my intention,” I said, drunkenly. “It is always my intention to be good.” And the degree to which I believed this—it was my core self-conception, it was the thing in which I had the most faith—now leaves me astounded.
I was blessed, if such a thing is possible, but watched helplessly as Yeager’s father bought Dora Borealis a wedding ring, and Quink acquired a staph infection in his injured leg, and Patch’s parents threatened him with rehab. Winter came hard and for a while I played at bitterness while Yeager and Patch tried to make their abandonment up to me, but my flair for histrionics was never good. I grew bangs over my face and decided escape was much better than crying in bed all night. I stopped crawling out my bedroom window, and began using the front door.
In school they told us the current generation was the best-behaved in a half-century: crime rates, drug use, teen pregnancy…all were low. It mystified us. We tagged buildings and boosted pawnshop knives, spat on cars from highway overpasses. Even in church, other kids all looked like us—disaffected, ironic, eyes-half-closed—but we realized they weren’t rule-breakers and it crawled under my skin, that this was the state of rebellion. How was listening to hiphop going to make us free? How was wearing a backwards baseball cap or a hooded sweatshirt cinched tight around my face going to bring back my father? How was slurring a southern accent and blowing snot-blobs in the snow going to glorify God or do the opposite?
One afternoon Patch was waiting for me outside my high school, nursing a black eye. The wind rocked around his earring. He lived an hour east in Great Bend but his truancy was perpetual, so his presence here was no shock. He said, “Yo, bitch,” and we walked to his car. Yeager was in the backseat. We drove to Quink’s house, and Patch got out to fetch him.
“You going to Winter Festival?” said Yeager.
“I don’t know. It’s pretty churchy.” This was a knee-jerk derogation of mine.
“I have to go. Dora’s family always goes. Maybe the reservoir will freeze over and I can escape across the other side.”
I was beside him, and I could see the scar on his neck, from where doctors once removed some sun-related lump (“when they put it on that surgery table it looked like a cheese ravioli,” he said), but even that scar was admirable and beautiful, indented and monochromatic and very smooth, and I knew that wasn’t how I would scar. My scars would be thick and raised and heavy and pink and grotesque. But then, I had no scars.
“Actually I’ll probably be there,” I said. “I like it. Remember when we tackled Reverend Horgan in the snow? They’re planning a 7-on-7 ice football tournament this year.”
“It’s good they do this,” said Yeager. “It’s good they keep some of these traditions alive.”
“It is.” I couldn’t tell why we suddenly sounded like adults.
“I know my dad’s an asshole most of the time, but in a way he’s right. Sometimes I think there’s a war against Christianity. People don’t complain about Jews or Arabs or whatever the way they do about us. I know it’s because we’re the powerful ones, but still.”
“When I get out of here,” I said, “I think I’m moving to Costa Rica. You can surf the entire year in Guanacaste, and pick coffee beans or something to make money. Or else Tongariro National Park in New Zealand, right?, where you rent rooms in Turangi and walk up that volcano they filmed in Lord Of The Rings.”
“People get, like…jealous of faith. They want you to be as miserable as they are.” But Yeager himself sounded miserable, drawing crosses in the window-steam. His engagement weighed on him, perhaps not only because of the avenues it obstructed but also because it was a just punishment, and there was nobility in being dismembered by justice. Yet he frightened me just then, and I punched him very hard on the shoulder. In retaliation he bent back my arm, and certainly could’ve snapped me in two, but his better angels were always powerful. It was what made us all love him, his handsomeness and his mercy.
Patch came back with Quink and we drove south to Dodge City. For some, that place meant Henry Fonda and Boot Hill and marauding Indians leaving behind buffalo bones that locals converted to china. For Patch, it meant iniquity: his drug dealer lived in a lonely split-level ranch between the airport and interstate, and we headed there directly, clowning and messing each others’ hairdos. The dealer’s yard was a steamrolled garbage plot. Patch got out and emptied his bladder on the front-door path, then howled like a wolf. Yeager and I gave him the finger and laughed. Quink was silent, hurting in his foot, waiting for some liquor to change him into a madman.
“Quinky-dink,” I said. “Quinky-dinky-doo.”
Kansas! Ad astra per aspera! Home to my slut mother and her thousand suitors, home to the best air on this planet, safe because of its topography but wicked for its nearness to the muck of being. No sewers to channel away the unpleasant, no elevators to lift the privileged high above the rest of us, no easy way to escape one’s peculiar fate by dematerializing into a crowd of thousands. And an Oz’s worth of flesh and fluids, calves dropping from vulvae, horses shattering legs and receiving bolts through brains, coyotes destroying kittens for sport. We were raised to believe in the softness of the Coasts, compared to the truth of our barrenness, its proximity to humanity’s original state and its strength in the face of manmade ambiguity. Ask a bushman what he thinks of careerism or national defense budgets or Attention Deficit Disorder. Ask an Eskimo (but are there any left?) whether she cares about the tension between spirituality and filthy lucre. I will not make an argument in favor of my retrograde native dirt, nor will I make an argument against.
Patch came out cackling, with several bricks of hash under his arms. “Just one more stop,” he said.
“Let’s smoke it now,” said Yeager.
“I have to go buy a piece.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “What do you mean ‘piece’?”
“He means a gun,” said Yeager.
“You have guns,” I said. “You have like three guns already. I watched you shoot fucking bottles for an hour.”
“Shut it, Frog. I need a clean piece.” Patch swung us around and made a short-lived gravel storm. “To shoot Mr. Sharper. He’s my school principal.”
“Bullshit,” said Yeager.
“What’d he do?” I said.
“I’m getting a Glock from this guy. He’s a badass…he did fucking time man, he cut off a guy’s ear with a carpet knife. Anyway, so I rented Death Scenes 2 yesterday, it was fucking gross. They were making a movie with this guy wading in water holding two kids and a helicopter overhead, and the helicopter gets too low and crushes the fuck out of them, and you can see the old dude’s head get cut off for real.”
Yeager shook his head. “You’re twisted, man.”
“Fuck I am. You can walk around pretending it doesn’t bleed if you cut yourself, and you don’t have bones and shit. I accept what I am, I wanna get closer to it.”
“You can’t just shoot the principal,” I said.
“You wanna bet, Frog?!” Patch was suddenly Mars hurling shields down on Rome, bright red, armored. “Wanna make a big fucking bet? You can come with me. Blow off school tomorrow and fucking watch me do it!”
We were quiet. Patch was supposed to meet his ex-con friend Dennis at 6; he pulled us into St. Cornelius’ parking lot where a big orange sign said, “Crew Working In Trees” but we heard nothing—no workmen jabbering, no climbing, just the flat echoing nothing of Marshall Matt Dillon’s Dodge City—so we got out and threw rocks at the sign. It felt wonderful and theatrical to do something as hard as possible, to throw at my right arm’s limits.
“Don’t worry,” Yeager told me privately. “He’s not shooting anyone.”
“Are you really doing it?”
“You mean am I marrying Dora? Shit. Things are getting narrower, Frog. Isn’t the whole entire point of things not to be so narrow when you’re young?”
“You can’t just marry her and then leave, and leave the kid behind,” I said. “Don’t. Don’t do that. Really.”
“There are other ways.” We watched Patch and Quink take turns kicking the sign. The sky was dark now. “If only I could get her to agree.”
I knew what he meant. I threw a rock high onto the church roof.
“No,” he said. “No, I could never really do that. I understand what everything is for now. Movies and TV and church and everything. You’re the smart one, Frog, you probably knew it years ago. It’s all advice, it’s all recommendations and whatnot. ‘Be good. Seriously, be good.’ It’s not just so everyone will be, like, orderly. It’s so you don’t get in a deep deep hole.”
I wanted to tell him we’d live next-door to one another forever, I’d help him take care of his child, we’d shitkick way into middle age and never compromise. Instead I said something in my deepest voice, something I didn’t mean. I stood outside myself and saw the picture of this intimate moment. For reasons beyond my child’s mind, the words tasted like ashes; it was the last time I ever spoke them. “You know,” I said, “God loves you.”
Yeager nodded anciently, reared back and fired a rock across this parking lot, where it thumped convincingly off Patch’s back. “Oops,” he said, “sorry.”
“Fuck!” Patch said. “That fucking killed!”
“You’re the one going Columbine,” said Yeager.
Patch charged him and they wrestled, but Yeager didn’t give his all. I felt cold, like I’d opened some freezer in me: maybe the burned-off feeling just after electrocution (we’d intentionally shocked ourselves many times), or the shivers of chewing on tinfoil. I-56 rush hour, such as it was, hissed nearby.
“Grabowski!” This was a new voice. Three men had taken shape behind us. They wore cowboy boots and denim coats with fake sheepskin collars.
Patch got off the ground and followed one of these cowboys out of the streetlight, into a dark empty plot closer to the highway. Two men remained—and they were men: stubble-chinned and contused, unhappy fireplugs who would not be receptive to horseplay. Yeager stepped forward as though to follow Patch, but they stopped him. Quink swayed near a tree, and I sat down. We were kids.
It took a long time. The curb beneath me was wet from snow. Had Yeager just said I was the smart one? My marks were below-average, I daydreamed about dropping out…I tried to imagine the world through Tom’s eyes—to be him, viewing me, seeing me as intelligent—but my powers of empathy were terrible. I was stuck envisioning his sex encounter with Dora Borealis. I was a steaming mess of impulses and wishes for which I had no words…I was, I suppose, human: frightened, yet conditioned to believe my fear was baseless. Every single avenue was open to me, including the archangel’s chair. It was awful.
Now a series of shouts—shapeless words, male voices—sounded big and close across the street in that slushy lot; someone was cursing, thundering. I turned to look at Yeager, but before I could find his face a gun fired. It echoed for ten miles. The civility of my life’s mischief was palpable, cemented me. This was the place where any instant could spell the end, where a human’s worth was as hot meat. This was the wild.
Someone ran our way. It was the third denim-man, he was hollering, Yeager stepped forward and lowered his shoulder, the man tried dodging but Tom was second-team All-Kansas, and they landed together at my feet. Quink shook himself awake and with his cast kicked another man in the balls. Someone hit me in the back of the head, I fell forward, I felt alluvium on my cheek, I was deaf. A foot nearly crashed on my nose, I rolled into a ball, touched my face, came back with blood. They left me alone: instead they focused on Yeager, I saw them bend back his elbow and try to break his arm across a tree. He screamed. Quink had a gash on his ear. I curled, put my face down against my chest, under the parka my mother bought me.
Was there more gunfire? I couldn’t tell. It all lasted perhaps a minute, and they were gone.
“Frog!” This was Yeager, through a fisheye lens, above me, come to care for me. “Frog! Frog!”
They’d slashed the tires on Patch’s Explorer, had stolen everyone’s wallet, and we were sure Patch was dead but he came stumbling into the streetlight holding a silver gun. I held my face and Yeager held his arm and Quink held his ear, but Patch was unscratched.
“It wasn’t me! Dennis shot another guy! He’s dead over there!” Yeager ran across the street and confirmed it: a man with a reddened black hole in him. “This is my fucking father’s gun,” said Patch. “Last week Dennis saw it, he liked it, he borrowed it. I had to come down and get it before my father knew it was missing. I have to get it back home. We have to wipe off the fingerprints and shit!”
“A gun just went off,” Yeager said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“We have to go back! My father shoots on Wednesday mornings!”
But should we leave the car? Should we throw ourselves onto the highway and make someone stop? Should we bang on St. Cornelius’ door? Yeager found a sweatshirt in Patch’s trunk and sliced it in half, made Quink and me stanch our cuts. He put his arm in a sling. He drove us to a garage, riding on rims. He sat us down in an Arby’s on Wyatt Earp Boulevard, and he charmed a fat lady cashier into giving us free sandwiches.
“Somebody’s shot,” I said. “Somebody’s dead.”
“We have to go back and hide the body,” Patch said. “They’ll trail it back to me!”
“Shh,” said Yeager. “Be cool. Let’s concentrate on getting home.”
“H-h-how is your arm?” said Quink.
“I’m fine. Listen, how are we paying for new tires?”
“We can’t,” I said. “We can’t pay.”
“Oh, fuck,” Patch said. “They took my hash.” He looked at us and nodded. “So this is what it’s like. This is what it’s like to be an outlaw. ‘I’m above the law. I am the law!’”
“D-d-dickhead,” Quink said, admiringly.
I walked to the bathroom. It was shit-smelling and muggy. I read graffiti:
If black is beautiful, I just shit a masterpiece
ANAL INTERCOURSE IS FOR ASSHOLES
I FUCKED YOUR MOTHER!—to which someone else had written:
GO HOME DAD YOU’RE DRUNK!
Check your face for cocaine
TAKE THE POWER BACK
I want a cheeseburger
Why should I deny myself?
I thought I should write something else, I thought I should add to this nonsense, but I was frightened and didn’t have a pen. I was especially chafed by that last line: Why should I deny myself? Why should I deny myself was a taunt meant for me, because sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t.
We left Patch’s Explorer behind, and tried hitchhiking out 50 and then up 283. It was fifty miles, it was cold, and Quink wasn’t walking well. Three cars heading east stopped, but no one was going north; we asked the third driver for phone money, and he gave us a single quarter. No one’s cell worked way out here.
“This is a homily,” said Yeager, “about what Patch’s life would be like without money.”
“All I know is I like my balls,” Patch said. “I like ’em fucking attached.”
We banged on a dark gas station door, then Quink found a payphone around the corner.
“Y’know,” Yeager said, “I don’t feel like rushing anymore. I don’t give two shits what your dad does with your nuts. I’m using this here quarter to call a pizza place and ask ’em to make me a fucking Scab Supreme hold the Band-Aids unless you tell us what really happened back there with that gun.” But Patch wouldn’t be blackmailed. He just walked way ahead with his thumb out, as no traffic drove by.
Yeager called Doug Delaney, who said he’d leave right away. We sat on the gas station’s stoop, and I peeled long whorls of green paint off an oil drum.
“What did it look like?” I said. “What did that dead body look like?”
“A lot like you,” said Yeager, “only horizontal.”
This made my insides sore. I felt I’d been promised something…my mother, my uncles, my town, somebody had promised me immortality. It was turning out that I was a Christian the way a politician is a public servant: in theory, in speeches. All these things I wanted to get, all these sights I wanted to cram into my eyes, I didn’t understand how they fit. Was it God’s plan to shoot that man in an empty lot, and to impregnate Dora Borealis, to ruin Tom Yeager’s life? Of course it was. But I was sick over it.
“I s-s-saw a dead guy hanging from a power line,” said Quink. “W-w-when I was really little. M-m-my daddy said it was a scarecrow, but I knew it wasn’t. He was b-b-blue.” Yeager shrugged. “D-d-didn’t they teach you how to make fire in the G-G-Gay Scouts?”
“Yeah, great. That’s just what we want. Fire in the middle of the highway, at a gas station. Naw, the cops’ll totally leave us alone then.”
“We should all go,” I said.
“Go?” said Yeager.
“Wherever you’re going to get away from Dora. All four of us can go. Someone can always stay awake and keep watch, we’ll do shifts. We can plan it all out beforehand. And, like, make money for cheap tickets and fly to Kyoto and go to Gion, where they have all those geishas and they love white guys. Quink, we’d all get to be like Yeager for a day, have all the girls just fall all over us. It’s like, ‘Oh, Quinky-san, you are packing such a huge one!’”
“H-h-how many girls have you f-f-fucked, Yeager?”
Yeager smiled and hugged himself for warmth.
We were quiet for a while, and then I said, “One too many.”
Headlights appeared coming north on 283. It was too soon for Delaney, and the headlights passed. I blew on my hands. A few minutes later, the same pickup came back down the highway in reverse, and Patch had his head out the window. He said, “I got us a ride. Let’s go, ladies!”
“We called Delaney,” Yeager said. “He’ll be here in half-an-hour.”
“Fuck Delaney, man. This dude’s got pot in here.” A figure behind the wheel waved.
“We don’t leave our friends hanging,” I said.
“I told you, Frog, I gotta get back. My father’ll freak the fuck out.”
“I smelled the gun,” said Yeager. “I smelled it. It hasn’t fired. You’re fulla shit, Patch. What are you, a Mafia hitman now?”
“Die in the freezing cold,” said Patch. “See if I give a fuck. I gotta get back. Later, douchebags.” He rolled up the passenger window and the pickup revved away.
But we weren’t going to die. Our ride would be there in minutes. I hugged my knees and Yeager sat with his legs spread out, and then Quink started laughing. Yeager flicked a fingernail against his cast, but Quink couldn’t stop. He doubled over. It seemed the early onset of hypothermic dementia. Yeager said, “What’s so funny, boy?” and Quink sat up straight, put a hand under his shirt, withdrew something and tossed it onto this stoop. It was the silver gun.
“You boosted it,” I said. “You took it right off him.”
“Oh, m-m-man,” said Quink. “I need a f-f-fucking drink.”
I have said that it was my legacy to want and want, but I must concede at that moment, rather than feeling filled by mortal dread or covetousness, I was plainly happy. So happy, I allowed myself to stop thinking, and that blankness was related to my school-bound silence and my religious confusion and my personal destructiveness, and I thought of Mr. Colton’s complaint and I didn’t know what I wanted for myself, except I loved feeling like this. Quink hobbled off the stoop, still giggling and similarly exalted. He said, “Hey, Frog. Do those geishas really f-f-fuck white guys?”
“You have to understand,” I told him, “compared to the Jap guys they’re used to, every white dude is hung like a bear. They pretend to be all afraid of a white dick, but they like it.” Quink was walking up to the road where our friend would stop.
He called: “D-d-do you have to pay a lot?”
“I don’t know if you even have to pay at all. I mean, they might just want the pleasure of an American.”
“It s-s-sounds good, man! It s-s-sounds really good!”
I rolled onto my back, and looked up. The sky was clear; the moon was colossal and brainless. I had a hard-on; I didn’t bother to conceal it. These boys were my brothers. I was their satellite. I would do my singular miracles for them. I watched my breath rise out of me like a ghost, and I cracked my knuckles. But after I was done, there was an eleventh click.
Yeager, seated beside me, had the gun in his mouth. He looked at me wearily, like an old pig who knows slaughter is near.
I mouthed the word, “No.”
But his eyes closed, and his thumb jerked on the trigger, and his lovely masculine jaw clamped down hard, and I put up my hands in self-defense, as if I were the one under attack, as if I were the one about to be erased. Who knows what parts of our brains are accessed in such moments. There are some things, at least, science can’t yet perfectly explain.
Yes, Yeager pulled the trigger, and the hammer fell, and his head lifted.
But there was no sound. Because there were no bullets.
Yeager said, “Fucking Patch,” and began to cry. I got on my knees and hugged his head; he was fevered, hot to the touch, filled with thoughts of sin. He pulled himself against me with his good arm and wept, open-mouthed, hysterical: gone to another, different kind of blankness, where thought was no less unwelcome, and I knew I would never leave Kansas.