from Slant Six, a novel
We wanted the wine coolers, otherwise we never would've dragged ourselves all the way down Route 501 with the asphalt so hot we felt it through the soles of our sneakers. Any other day we might've stayed at the pond or lolled in front of a fan eating ice cubes or begged my mom for a ride to the mall where they did not skimp on the air-conditioning, where Carolyn would try on girly outfits and we'd wander through stacks of albums, and everything would've turned out different. But we wanted the wine coolers. Sweet-tart lemon flavored, bottles with screw-off tops. We walked all the way to town, past the baseball field, the car wash, the hair salons, Big Abe's Diner. The houses flush up against the sidewalk were baking in their layers of siding. Air-conditioner drips seemed to evaporate before they fell to the sidewalk. The houses across the street looked cooler with their little grassy lawns and shady porches. We finally arrived at the bar and loitered near the edge of the lot. Just beyond us, the downtown sidewalk simply stopped where it met a field. This was the most deserted place in the county. Three cars sucking up heat, waiting.
Carolyn scanned the road. She cracked her knuckles one by one and then closed her eyes purposefully. They were dusted with sparkly shadow. The dumpster's sweet decay wafted over to us.
"I give you fifteen minutes."
Her eyes cracked open. "C'mon, twenty. It's hot. We have to factor that in."
"Exactly," I said.
"I need time to work," she said, closing her eyes again.
Some people have photographic memories, some perform mathematical high wire acts without a calculator, some perceive the inner lives of machines. Carolyn knew how to get what she wanted. I could feel her brainwaves rippling out to the men, sending them thoughts of the bar, cool beer, pretzels set out in little bowls.
The setting sun was a hot orange ball hanging low above a ridge. It looked in danger of losing its hold on the western sky and landing on that tree-lined horizon, where it would burn us all in no time. Beer flashed orange and red neon, but the sign looked small and unimpressive. The bug light made a few zapping noises by the door. I studied the cars out in the lot and tried to divine whether their owners might help us out. Closest to us sat an old maroon truck with a racing stripe down its flank, then a low-slung Cadillac with whitewall tires and no rear bumper, and finally a light blue import built for gas mileage.
Carolyn jacked her eyes open. "Soon," she said.
An oldish guy with graying hair left the bar, and the sound of country music drifted our way until the door swung shut again. The man worked a wad of chaw in his cheek. His keys jingled in the twilight as he made for the little import. Carolyn sized him up. She pressed her lips together, evening out her pale pink lipstick. I nudged her, but she fixed her eyes on the door again.
"Why not?" I asked.
"He'd say no." She ran her finger under an eye, inspecting her fingertip for excess liner. The car backed from its spot and nosed to the edge of the lot. It strained to pick up speed on the empty road, and then the stillness returned.
"Ah Mavis," she said. "You'll figure it out." She nodded to herself.
I felt certain I wouldn't figure it out. I didn't have her instincts. Some innate knowledge enabled Carolyn to drape herself, without effort or self-consciousness, in appealing positions at a moment's notice. At this moment she wore one of her more sophisticated looks that said, Bored but open to entertainment.
Carolyn peered at the two remaining cars by the door. "He'll come," she said. "He'll fall in love with me and drive me away in the cab of his eighteen-wheeler."
Glancing down the road I made out one of the few houses that dotted the fields between here and Canaan Grove. "Wouldn't you wonder about a guy who'd pick up a sixteen-year-old in the parking lot of a bar?"
"Don't worry," she said. "I'll make him get the coolers before we run off together." When she laughed I saw a strand of spit, fine as a spider's thread, between white teeth.
"Let's see," I said. "With me you'll be in a convertible, turbo-charged engine, open sky above you. Then there's life with the trucker. Eighteen wheels to park in your small town driveway. He's blasting country music and has a paunch within five years."
"Jeez," she said, laughing. "It's you and me."
Her hand, when she put it on my shoulder, drew up all my thoughts and my breath. Everything went still and quiet there under her palm. Even my sweat paused. Even the mile markers of my road dreams, the white and yellow lines guiding me forward, they all stopped short where her hand rested for that second. Then she let go.
A truck with a horse trailer drove past slowly, the horses swishing their tails against the flies. From the other direction, a roaring engine noise surfaced in the distance. The sound could only belong to Pauly Stauffer's Chevy Impala, which everyone at school called the trouble car. It was kind of a dumb name, but it'd stuck. I wondered if he ever wished for a cool car nickname like "the piranha" or "the devil's due" or something like that. The noise got so loud the asphalt vibrated. The car pulled into the darkening lot and idled with its cherry red lights. Pauly had painted the car with coat upon coat of chalky gray primer instead of getting a real paint job. Up close the thing looked like a creature with a thick skin. Elephant, whale, or shark.
Carolyn's chest rose in a sigh. "You only die of embarrassment once."
"Good luck," I said, but she didn't seem to hear me, already making her way across the parking lot. Her walk swiveled like her joints had gotten too much grease.
There had been a time when I'd walked blocks to avoid Pauly Stauffer, the bully who'd sooner steal your Popsicle than look you straight in the eye. I couldn't see who was riding with him, but from the back window a cigarette butt flew in a pale arc to the ground. The ember glowed until it snuffed itself out. Someone stepped from the car. Kevin Shenk with his long skinny legs and his restless hands adjusting the brim of his baseball cap. I didn't know him very well. He was seventeen, about a year older than me, but he'd been in a few of my classes. He asked to copy my homework once, but I said no. He flicked me with his pencil every day for the next week. Carolyn's silhouette leaned towards his, and he looked over at me.
Maybe he'd destroyed so many brain cells between then and now that he wouldn't remember the big globe in the geography room and how we were supposed to write about another country, somewhere we'd like to visit. I tried to explain to him you can't copy something like that. I'd spun the globe and pointed -- Antarctica? I was no science geek, but I wouldn't mind living at a research station. All around the wind whipping across wide expanses of ice and snow. Blue glaciers. Penguins.
When she came back, Carolyn put on a fresh coat of lipstick. "He can get the stuff. Connections, you know."
"Whatever happened to fake IDs?"
She studied Kevin while he opened the heavy bar door. "These guys have class."
"Tell me you're kidding."
Soon Kevin returned, cradling a case of beer in his arms, a brown bag on top. "Coolers for the ladies," he said, handing me the bag. He wasn't bad looking, but he had one of those narrow rodent faces. I couldn't quite decide which variety though. His nose didn't have much of a valley at the top, and it coasted straight into his forehead.
"Come say hello," he said, ushering us to the car.
I stood by a window and offered up a fake prom queen wave, my hand rotating at my palm. Nobody got it. I hoped this interlude would be brief so they'd go back to belching or whatever they did in our absence. Sitting in back was Ronny Shenk, Kevin's older brother. Not a talker. Early receding hairline. Big. I'd seen him making his way through the hallways at school. He often looked like a WWF wrestler who'd accidentally stumbled into the set of an after school special. Then there was Pauly sitting up front with an arm slung over the wheel. Rumpled reddish brown hair. He was one those boys who'd crossed over the hormonal divide to become a man while still in high school. He'd grown trim but adult-looking muscles that made most of the other boys look scrawny. He did six years of high school before graduating. Once he got big, he didn't need to be a bully -- people just got the hell out of his way.
Carolyn leaned into the open front window on the passenger side. Pauly said something that made her laugh in a way that sounded almost liquid. As her shirt inched up in the back I imagined the blonde hairs at the base of her spine, invisible in all but direct sunlight.
Next to me, Kevin cracked open a beer. "So, Mavis," he said, slouching against the car. "How's it going?"
"Okay," I said.
"Whew," he said, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. "Last night I had the fan right on me. Barely slept even then."
I couldn't wait to get to Fountain Park. I wanted to put my head under one of the spigots and drench my hair in the cold spring water. Sometimes, after she finished her first cooler, Carolyn would rest her head on my stomach. This made it harder to breathe, but I didn't mind.
"Nice car," I said, peeking past Carolyn's shoulder into the window. At the sight of the ripped vinyl seats and the littered floors I got this feeling in my head, like all my synapses firing all at once. Like, This is the real thing.
Carolyn was telling Pauly, "I mean, what assholes. So I didn't sign it. Now I have to wait two more months." She'd been so excited when she sent away for her driving permit that she didn't finish the forms. Pauly nodded in sympathy. "Screw you every chance they get," he was saying. "The one thing you can count on." He lit a cigarette and flicked his lighter closed. He reminded me of Marlon Brando playing Johnny in The Wild One.
Carolyn stepped back from the car and Pauly called out, "Shenk, get your ass in here."
Kevin turned to me with a grin. "We've got business to take care of."
"What kind of business?" I asked. Carolyn shot me a look.
"Well, let's see." He glanced down at the can in his hand. "We got our beer already. I guess there's only one other thing it could be." He hitched his eyebrows up at me. "I bet you know how to have a good time." He looked into my eyes so long that my face went hot. Then the front passenger door opened, dome light flashing on. Kevin slipped inside, raising his can towards Carolyn and me. "Later days."
The car revved up, but it only rolled a few feet forward before stopping. Kevin stuck his head out the window. "We got some room in here you know. I mean, if you ladies need a ride anywhere."
Carolyn flipped her hair over her shoulder and leaned into the dim car. "Which way are you going?"
"Just driving around," Pauly said.
"Around?" She sucked on her front teeth. "I don't know..."
A jag of tightness came at back of my throat.
"Maybe show you something you haven't seen," he said.
She looked at me with a carefully blank face. "Well? What do you say?"
I shrugged. There was nothing I could do. "It's a nice car."
Of course we got in. If I couldn't press my feet on the pedals, at least I could ride. The car smelled like a mixture of ashtray, skunky beer, and the faintest competing undertone of the air freshener dangling from the rearview. Carolyn landed next to Pauly who moved a towel over some rusty springs, and I ended up backseat with the Shenk brothers in a cloud of aftershave fumes. I could see the brothers together in business someday, their office in a trailer with fake wood paneling. Construction business or car repossession or maybe used car sales like Carolyn's dad. Kevin would do all the talking and Ronny would contribute the intimidation factor.
As soon as the car lurched forward, they turned up the music. Heavy metal. I liked how crazy the singers went, ruining their vocal cords over lyrics I couldn't even make out.
"You like this?" Kevin asked, but it wasn't really a question. He reminded me of our skinny rooster at home as he crowded me with his big wingspan across the seatback.
On the other side of me, Ronny sat picking at the white fringes of his jeans shorts. He seemed wistful, and the fact that he had an old man's scalp on a young man's big body just added to it. He swayed with the music. "This song is about a guy dying and being brought back to life," he said over a scorching electric guitar solo. "Some serious shit." He closed his eyes prayerfully. We all murmured in agreement. Was he actually smart or did he just say so little that he sounded like a rock n roll sage without really being one?
Each time Pauly accelerated, the force pressed me deep into my seat. Many times in the past I'd stood on sidewalks when the trouble car came down the street. People yanked kids from the road. Now Pauly careened around corners at high speeds, rode bumpers, gunned his engine, zoomed into the passing lane with oncoming cars dangerously close.
I opened two wine coolers and handed one to Carolyn. We clinked. The stuff washed into my mouth, tart and shockingly sweet flavors riding that alcohol wave. Carolyn swiveled her head around and gave me the thumbs up. I liked cruising nowhere in particular, bass thumping, becoming one with the thunderous Flowmaster muffler. One day I'd write a song about a girl who almost died of small town suffocation and came back to life in a car with such an exhaust system. This summer was starting to feel different to me, substantial. Carolyn was sixteen and I'd be too in a few months. Each summer we earned another year. Since I was little, every time my aunts and uncles saw me they'd say, You're getting so old. And finally it was true. A kind of payoff we'd been waiting for since we were kids. We could almost touch the outside world.
The bottle was so nicely chilled in my hands, and the sweetness kept me craving the next sip. As we drove, the fresh air blew through the windows. Dark banks of weeds stood tall in the ditches beside the road. I wanted to stick my head out the window and whoop. Pauly looked at me through the rearview and said I was grinning like a goddamn fool. In the last light I could see his neck was pink and peeling, but it seemed tough, manly on him. When he looked up at the rearview a crease formed in his neck. When he looked down at the instrument panel I saw the pale line the sun hadn't been able to get to.
We drove around for a while, burning up gas while Pauly tore along, until Carolyn and I with our lemony-tart wooziness begged him to drive slower. We sat back and listened to music as the scenery changed in front of us. The Amish farms, nighttime-deserted fruit stands and dusty lanes turned to small towns and the half-deserted shopping mall on one side of town. It looked like we were headed to Lebanon more or less. We passed Bethlehem Steel where my father was working through the night. I had the urge to scrunch down when we drove past, even though I knew he'd be inside in his coveralls working. I tried to see his truck through the chain link fence, but it was lost among the others. My father called guys like Pauly and Kevin yahoos. Even surrounded as he was by concrete walls and the smell of grease and metal, he might lift his head for a moment and pick up the trace of us in the trouble car. But even if my father tried, he could never catch us.
We came to the outskirts of the rich part of town, with its wide lawns and arcing tree branches. The night had cooled, but my thighs were still sticking to the vinyl and I'd turned sweaty everywhere that bent. Pauly turned his lights off and we swept past a long fancy building with peaks and turrets. The country club. Floodlights washed over an acre of lawn. We glided away again, and Pauly flipped his lights back on, turning the corner at a side road with white birches on both sides. A golf course stretched beyond these trees. Beyond that lay a swimming pool. And this, they told us, was the destination of the evening.
"We go in through the golf course," Pauly said.
"Isn't somebody watching the place?" I asked.
"Come on Mavis," Carolyn said.
Kevin poked me in the side. "Jeez, you're a dork."
"Assface," I said, shoving his bony hand away.
He laughed. "Nobody's gonna catch us."
Before I could get in another word, doors started opening. Carolyn squeezed my hand and gave me a million dollar grin, whispering, "I guess we're going swimming."
We got out and sprinted across the road. The trees grew so closely together in some places we had to weave through them single file. Through a clearing the green lawn stretched as far as I could see. Occasional flags and sand traps were the only interruptions in its smooth surface. We headed up the fairway towards the club in a single mass, like the scene from The Wild One where Brando comes into town with his motorcycle gang. The grass was cut so short it felt unreal. Dim floodlights shone on a patio and dark swimming pool. I wondered how much it cost to keep up a place like this. How many expensive bottles of alcohol were consumed here each weekend? What was the total cost of the members' cars? These people wouldn't be caught dead in a car more than three years old. I'd heard about a guy who got a brand new BMW when his permit arrived, and at the mall I saw a girl from my school with a brand new convertible. I thought how free she must feel, roofless with sunglasses, cruising down to the boardwalk in Maryland with daddy's gas card anytime she wanted.
If I had a car, I'd hand Carolyn my big map book, and we'd hit the road. We'd never run out of miles. We'd learn to maximize our gas mileage and change the oil so fast the truckers would whistle at our skill. We'd sleep in cheesy motels and laugh our asses off rattling around on vibrating beds. We'd develop a taste for bad truck stop coffee. We'd wind our way across the country to San Francisco and surf those big hills, and if the mood struck us we'd come back here before school started and tell them all we'd been to the other side of things. But we'd probably just send postcards.
Nearing the patio, everyone got quiet. Directly ahead was a wire mesh fence. Sunk in concrete, the murky rectangle of pool was waiting for us. Chlorine rising up to meet us. A waist-high gate hung open, and Carolyn strode through it like she'd received a personal invitation. The rest of us followed. An overhang and some pillars kept the far end of the patio in shadow, and darkness lay behind the glass doors leading inside. We looked at each other and at the pool and waited. What was there to say? Pauly lit a cigarette. I straddled the nearest deck chair, a recliner, the webbing creaking beneath me.
Kevin sat at the foot of the recliner, digging in his pocket. He came up with a little sandwich bag. "Who's smoking?" he asked, turning to point a tiny pipe at me. "Mavis?" As if trying to lure a child into a car.
I put my hands in my pockets. I'd done it once before, with my cousin in Horseheads, taking hits off a refitted soda can. I'd just gotten bored. Eventually we'd fallen asleep under the green glow of the corrugated plastic roof in their hayloft.
"Give it here," Carolyn said, sitting on the concrete at his feet.
"I'll get her fired up." He tamped his thumb into the pipe and then lit up. The pot glowed orange. His mouth stayed in a tight pucker when he held his breath. Carolyn put the pipe to her lips while Kevin relit it. I imagined the smoke settling into the thin tissues of her lungs. Pretty quickly she sounded like she was hacking up a hairball. Her coughs must have echoed down the quiet expanse of golf course.
"You don't get off until you cough," Pauly said and crouched next to her. She smiled at him with watery eyes. Then he took a hit off the pipe. I wondered if Carolyn was also noting their spit mingling in this remote way. "This is some good shit," Pauly said to Kevin. He went back to his cigarette.
Suddenly a rush of light came on inside the pool. We gasped and Kevin almost dropped the pipe. I leapt to my feet, but then Ronny came walking over from near the building. "Found the switch," he said, as proud as I'd ever seen him.
Kevin said, "I thought we were dead."
"You're still with the living," Ronny said. He took a hit off the pipe, walked over to the pool and started fiddling with what I realized was a boomerang, which I'd never seen anywhere except in cartoons. He threw it over the pool, end over end, and each time the slicing arc returned to him. His fingers would graze each other gently after each throw, and then open again as the boomerang sought out his hand. He looked magical standing over the blue pool of water, as if he might take a step out onto its surface, or beckon the water up in an enormous levitating cube.
When they were done smoking, we sat around talking. The guys went off about the three-wheelers and dirt bikes and cars they'd worked on. Around the county there had to be a dozen metal carcasses waiting to be fixed by these guys. I'd seen an old Grandma Buick parked at Kevin and Ronny's house, near the fairgrounds, across the road from the Pen Supreme. I asked why the old thing was just collecting rust.
Kevin was sitting next to me on a recliner, his legs stretched in front of him and crossed at the ankles. "Too complicated. Best not to get into all that."
Ronny stepped in, "Transmission won't go into gear." He notched the air with his boomerang for emphasis.
"Then some asshole put sugar in the gas tank," Kevin said. "Totally uncool."
"I didn't think anyone really did that."
"Fuel system fucked," Kevin said.
Pauly winked at Carolyn and jerked his chin in my direction. "She know about cars?"
"She totally does," Carolyn said. "I mean, she's done stuff."
"No big deal," I said.
"That's not true," Carolyn said. "Don't believe her. She does all the oil changes for her father. And other stuff too."
I glared at her. "Just bits and pieces," I said. I'd puttered around, but it was nothing in comparison.
The guys let it drop and began discussing the difference between a bass and an electric guitar. Someone brought up hunting and Kevin started to explain the best way to track and kill a deer. Traditions, he told us, passed from generation to generation. They debated between Coke, New Coke, and Pepsi, Army and Navy, McDonald's and Burger King.
"Just don't make Mavis go to Burger King," Carolyn said, and then whispered, "She's a vegetarian."
"No meat for you," Kevin said. Laughs all around.
"No meat," Ronny echoed.
Giving them the finger would've taken too much effort. I looked out over the fake blue water. They needed to keep their voices down. We didn't have rich fathers who'd bail us out of jail. Carolyn was getting on my nerves. When the laughter died down, I said, "Eat whatever crap you want to, but nobody's gonna tell me what to do."
"Alright then," Kevin said. "A firecracker. Sexy." He went to jostle me on the shoulder, but I dodged him. "Jeez," he said, "I'm cootie-free."
"She's cruel and unusual," Ronny said, a big smile on his big face.
Finally Pauly came out with, "Quit bugging her," like he was some hero. On some miniscule level we were in debt to him now. Carolyn looked at him in that certain way of hers. After a while they sank into a serious one-on-one eye-lock. So many boys lusted after her, but none of them knew her like I did. They didn't know how she burrowed under the pillow when the alarm went off for school, that jeans always fit her too big in the waist, that losing her mother had hurt her worse than she'd ever let herself know, or that her one imperfection, besides her crooked front teeth, was her secret -- her hammer toes. For Pauly, this asshole who didn't even know that she had no middle name, Carolyn might risk being grounded or shipped to relatives in Ohio which was her father's threat the last time he'd caught her sneaking out.
Mr. Zimmerman had once taken me aside and said, I know how she is. I know what happens out there. I'm counting on you. His brown eyes had looked like sad pools. He must've been thinking of his wife. People said her wildness killed her. I remembered her stirring instant lemonade one hot summer day when me and Carolyn were eight. She'd worn the prettiest red sandals I'd ever seen. That evening she lit candles in the living room, and striking the match into a brilliant sulfur star, her hair hung around her shoulders and face, all blonde and soft and shiny. She tucked her hair behind her ear and smiled at me, her face gone honey-colored in the light. It was last time I'd seen her. I felt an ache for her and us. We'd never see her again, in those red sandals or in anything at all. My own mom seemed so normal in comparison to Mrs. Zimmerman. Her frizzled red hair. Her reading glasses. But she was still here.
Kevin nudged me.
"Come here," he said, pulling me to my feet. We stood at the edge of the swimming pool. A few dead bugs floated at the clear blue surface.
After a while I said, "It looks like a cube of Jell-O."
"Sort of," he said. "Not really."
"What flavor?" He was standing closer now, swiping at a mosquito.
"Light blue flavor."
"Don't slip," he said, giving me a little shove. A little yelp came out as I tried to recover my balance, flailing. Everything seemed extra-vivid as I teetered, the glow of the blue water, the tiles around the edge, the sandpaper quality of the concrete under my feet. Kevin caught me by the arm, yelling, "Gotcha! Shenk's the man!"
"Shut up dude," Pauly said.
"Kevin, did you know the word asshole was named after you?" I whispered, giggling despite myself.
"I caught you, didn't I?"
I stuck my tongue out at him and walked away. Even though I hadn't smoked any pot, I was weaving under the influence of two wine coolers and a beer. Had I been driving, I definitely would've gotten pulled over. I clicked my teeth together, and they felt numb at the roots, sort of muffled. Moving my legs took great effort, as if I were walking up a tremendous hill.
All of a sudden Kevin bellowed from the lifeguard chair. He stood tall for a second and then he dove, slowly, it seemed, into the water, his legs in a jumble. Pounding the water as he came up for air, he yelled, "Fuck you rich fuckers!"
"What the hell?" Carolyn said.
Pauly laughed, saying, "Shut up, man," his words drowned out by Kevin's thrashing.
Kevin sloshed out of the pool in a miniature tidal wave, dragged off his waterlogged shirt and hurled it with a splat onto the ground. He walked off a few paces and started gathering up stones from the flowerbeds at the edge of the patio. The cradle of his arms filled with rocks. Then he was chucking the rocks at the floodlights with spaghetti arms. Pauly tried to stop him, but he didn't move fast enough. The first few lobs thudded into a bed of geraniums. Then he hit dead on, and the glass shattered and fell. I gritted my teeth. The patio darkened a shade.
"Fuck it," Pauly said, turning away.
Stranded with a bunch of drunk crazy people. If the cops came I'd explain that I'd just shown up to get my friend.
Carolyn came over and whispered, "He's fucking wasted." She took my hand in hers. It felt so damp and small.
"We should go," I whispered back.
"Probably." She nodded. "But I don't want to."
"We have to get home soon." I didn't want to let go of her hand. I could feel her temperature and the slight clench of her fingers. Let go before she does, I told myself, and did.
Kevin nailed all the lights except one. The crickets were chirping, louder now that it was darker here. "What I wanna know," he said, "is why no one's in that swimming pool?" A gust of wind brought the smell of earth from the golf course. Ronny took the bag of weed in one hand, pipe in the other. He mashed a big clump into the bowl, took a hit, and pocketed the sandwich bag.
"I'm serious. It's skinny dipping time," Kevin said. "Who's with me?"
Pauly looked over at me and Carolyn and then back at the guys. He threw his arms up in the air and said, "Hell. Why not? I'm in."
"At least some of the lights are out," Carolyn said.
"You're not going to, are you?" I whispered, jagged.
She grinned. "You only live once."
"That's what I'm saying," I said.
She was already wedging off her shoes.
"They'll see you naked."
"I'll be under water the whole time."
Some small combustion started in my chest. When Carolyn got around guys it was like everything else only served to get her there. It took them treating her like little queen, their eyes cutting over to her when they talked, it took that for her to feel happy. Hanging out with me -- what was that? Like sitting on the couch too long on your tired flattened ass, watching reruns with an empty bag of chips next to you.
The dim figures of the guys yanked T-shirts off. I tried not to see, but everywhere I turned I saw the double globes of their butt cheeks, thatches of dark pubic hair, waggling dicks. Carolyn pulled her T-shirt over her head. Everyone was looking. I wanted to stuff her back into her clothes. The patio grew so quiet I heard the hum of a generator near the building.
Standing there in her bra, she said, "Are you sure you won't come in?"
"They'll think you're cute, don't worry."
"Shut up," I whispered, heat spreading over my cheeks.
"Suit yourself," she said, tossing her shirt to the side and unclasped her bra to reveal the bulls'-eyes of her nipples. Next came the shorts. When she came to her underwear she paused. In an impressive move she leaned over and pulled them down, keeping one hand over her crotch. She stepped out of one silky leg-hole and then the next and put her hands over her triangle of hair. We all stared at her butt cheeks, which wobbled ever so slightly as she ran to the pool. She dove in and stroked away, churning up little foot splashes. Pauly dove in next, and soon nobody was left on the patio but me.
"Aren't you coming, Mavis?" Kevin yelled from the pool. He was at the edge, hugging the concrete with his elbows, naked under that water.
"No way," I said. "You'd get way too excited."
I flipped him off, and he swam away, and it was just me and the recliner again, the plastic sticking to my legs. I almost called him back.
I picked up the Zippo from the concrete, sniffing the fluid before I pocketed it along with the pipe. Maybe I'd smoke later in the car, not that it would do anything for me. They all talked and splashed in the blue-lit water, Carolyn's laughter rising above the other noises. She dove off the board, no longer hiding her crotch. She didn't even know how to do a decent back dive, much less a flip, but they were cheering her. Man, screw her, I thought. I hoped her makeup smeared all over her face.
I leaned back and looked up a twinkling plane that slid across the sky. I imagined people inside -- most of them sleeping but a few gazing down at the nighttime panorama of southeastern Pennsylvania. They'd catch glimpses of Three Mile Island nuclear plant to the East. They'd be confused by the strange beauty of the reactors standing white against the night sky. The reactor lights shone like earth bound stars, completely out of place here in the patchwork of small towns and small farms. And here we were, stuck in Lebanon County where a fun night meant hitching rides from yahoos and driving around drunk and stoned. We could sink no lower. Bad enough that we hounded bar patrons for drinks. We didn't even have our own wheels. Both our permits were due in the fall now. If nothing else, we'd get Carolyn a fake ID for drinking. I couldn't do another night like this.
And then all of a sudden light spiked into my eyes. One of the country club windows was blazing. A dark head pulled back a curtain. The head looked out at us. I wanted to disappear, but then the head did.
"Fuck!" I yelled. "Run!" I got to my feet and scooped up Carolyn's clothes before anyone got out of the pool. I kept checking to see if the lights were on in foyer yet. In seconds everybody hoisted themselves out and tore over to their clothes. Carolyn streamed water as she stumbled over to me.
All at once, light blared out from the foyer. Both doors slammed open so hard they hit the walls. "Who's there?" A bulky man hurtled out and bolted in our direction. "Who's ass is mine?"
With her stuff under my arm I dragged Carolyn down the walkway and through the gate. As if she didn't understand, she stopped and looked to the others fumbling with their clothes.
"Forget them. Just go!" I gave her a shove. We ran down the fairway with me holding her clothes tightly like a football player running for a touchdown. I kept saying, "Go! Don't look back."
But we did look back, stumbling, craning our necks. Behind us the others swarmed away like bees from a ruined hive, and ahead of us the grass spread for miles. The man had got himself locked on Ronny, and he sprinted along in Ronny's back draft with a baseball bat. I wanted my legs to work better so I could run my ass out of there, but my buzz slowed things down. Carolyn panted. She ran too close, her elbow jabbing mine. The stiff trunks of the birch trees got closer. Ronny started ripping along, but the man was still there, the bat pistoning up and down with each pump of his arms.
In the woods Carolyn looked very pale, her skin still dotted with wet from the pool. Her breasts rose and fell with each gasp. A wet hank of hair was stuck to her cheek. "Where's Pauly?" she said. "We have to find him."
I wanted to shake her. "You're pathetic! Just get your clothes on. That guy's behind us." I shoved her stuff at her.
She stumbled a little, and her clothes fell. She turned to me, her chin jutted out as if she wanted to spit. I was about to tell her exactly how dumb she was acting, but she leaned over and started groaning and choking. She puked up everything from dinner to pool water. Then dry heaves. I tried to steady her, but she shrunk from me. I hoped the guard wasn't searching the trees. I searched my pockets for breath mints or gum, but all I found was the pipe and lighter.
She wiped the sourness from her mouth with the back of her hand and looked up at me. I wished I had a tissue for her blurry mascara rings. She lurched upright and gave me a full-on glare. "You are such a bitch! You just want a ride home, and fuck everyone else." She spat the last of her stomach acid and glared at me again, "And you're fucking frigid!"
"Just get moving." I grabbed her tee shirt and yanked it over her head as she struggled against me. I managed to force the shirt down over the crown of her head. The collar squished her face a little.
"Leave me alone!" she yelled, pushing me away.
I stepped back, afraid of myself. My heart pounded. Frigid bitch. Did she really think that? She fumbled with her shorts and the rest.
"I didn't mean -- " I started. "Of course I care about them."
"I know you," she said, and took one last condemning look before weaving off towards the car. I caught up with her, but she wouldn't look at me.
Out at the car the guys had the door open and the motor running. "Christ," Pauly said. "We were starting to worry."
Carolyn dashed into the front seat, and I scooted into the back. She sniffled.
Then I realized -- "Where's Ronny?"
Kevin punched the seat back in front of him.
"Fuck." Carolyn grabbed Pauly's shoulder.
"We were hoping you ran into him," Pauly said.
"He's gonna come," Kevin started saying. "He's big but he's fast." He got out of the car and started pacing.
Carolyn glanced over her shoulder and gave me a condemning look, as if my not caring about the guys had caused this.
"We can't just sit here." I wrenched the door handle open.
"I'll keep the car running," Pauly said.
"What if he catches you?" Carolyn said, but Kevin grabbed my hand and we took off towards the woods. We dashed between the trees. We were an easy target for the watchman, but I couldn't find my way into creeping and tiptoeing. We didn't have the luxury of time.
We got to where you couldn't see road or golf course, past where Carolyn had puked, and then all the way to the lush green lawn. We only found the empty grass, the deserted swimming pool in the distance, lights still on inside the building. Kevin hit himself on the head with the flat of his hand. "He's gotta be here," his voice gone ragged and high.
I turned away. "Hey," I said. "We'll find him."
"Maybe he thinks we're that guy. Chasing him."
We started off, combing the edge of the woods. Tripping on dark underbrush. I kept feeling the guard sneaking up on us, but when I'd stop and listen, nothing. I thought of Carolyn in the front seat with Pauly. Probably telling him what a bitch I was. I could just see Pauly stroking her hair and making her think he cared.
Finally we called off the search. We headed back to the car. I hoped Ronny wasn't with the guard inside the country club. He might be handcuffed. What if the cops came? Kevin crashed along, breaking twigs and kicking trees. Now it seemed like Carolyn was right. Somehow Ronny got nabbed because of my failure to believe in these guys, which could never be remedied, not by all the dangerous missions searching dark woods.
We'd almost gotten back to the shoulder of the road when Kevin let out a huge whoop. He flew from the woods and straight into Ronny, clapping him on the back. I felt a flash of triumph. And then it all happened fast, clambering back into the car, screaming and laughing. I tried to catch my breath. Grinning like my face could split open. We were saved, all of us!
"Yes!" Kevin hooted as we burned away. It felt like warp-speed in a space movie, where all the stars get blurry and you end up in another galaxy. In that moment, I loved that car so much. We were kicking ass.
"Holy shit, he didn't get you!" Pauly slammed the steering wheel. "Can't believe it!"
"Dropped a sock back there," Ronny said, loafing back exhausted. "Not bad considering."
"What happened?" Kevin asked at the same time I was saying, "We looked everywhere."
"Shit, you should've seen it," Ronny said. "He was all over my ass. I mean, he got so close he tried to hit me with the bat. But I -- somehow I slammed him in the face with the boomerang! Threw it at him. Hard. So, like, he wiped out for a second, and I knew I had to disappear. I pretty nearly flew. Got way deep into the woods. I never want that dude to find me. He's so mad." Ronny chuckled. "Course I got lost as hell. I can run, but I can't find my way out of a paper bag."
He was a hero. We were patting him, congratulating him, Carolyn all squealy. She even smiled at me. I felt the rush of it all. For an instant Kevin grinned at me. His two front teeth were set too close to each other in his narrow face, and now I saw which rodent he was. At this moment he looked like a really excellent weasel.
Then he gasped. "My pipe," he said. "Shit. He'll find it."
Ronny said, "At least I got the weed."
"Who cares," Pauly said. "I'll buy you a damn pipe."
"That was my favorite one."
I pried my fingers into my pocket and handed his stuff over.
Kevin grinned his weasel grin. "You're the best." I shrugged.
I leaned forward to give Carolyn a squeeze on the shoulder, but Kevin intercepted. His face closed in. My lips registered the slipperiness of his mouth on mine before the rest of me understood what he was doing. I shoved him away. Nasty pot-and-spaghetti-breath.
"Hey now," Kevin said with his goofy laugh. "Just fucking around."
"Well don't," I said. I tried to put a few more inches between us, but there wasn't much space on the seat with Ronny next to me. I didn't want to know what Carolyn was making of this. She rested her face in her hand and watched the passing blackness out her window. Maybe later things would be different. I'd fill her with ice cream until she forgot the bad parts of the night. We'd snuggle in bed and I'd rub her back. Maybe.
The music blared almost as loud as it had on the trip out, but as soon as the rush had passed, everyone seemed waterlogged and tired. Ronny shook his head, "Welcome to the fucking country club," he said. We all murmured. Kevin popped open a beer.
We threaded past the dark fields and finally through the quiet streets of Schaefferstown. Up ahead sat the bar with its lit sign. The lot was packed with cars. The Cadillac with no bumper was parked in. Definitely not leaving until the bar closed. All those beer drinkers finally came. Carolyn's magic drew them down to the bar after all. Way at the back of the lot, near the dumpster, sat an eighteen wheeler. Carolyn turned to me, victorious. In that moment, it was like winning the lottery, I swear. That smile, and it was for me. She started laughing. For a second I thought I might cry, but once the laughing came I couldn't stop. My jaw ached and my eyes teared. I shook so hard, and the same thing was happening to Carolyn. I never wanted it to end. The guys kept asking why, but we wouldn't tell.