I was there because my shoes needed scuffing, and because the air that summer was humid and bug-clotted and I had decided that I would not waste my days inside reading or doing summer math but would instead engage adventure by exploring the marshes along the river. It was a two-mile walk from my house to the bend around which Lake Michigan was no longer visible. I was a lone explorer at twelve, swiveling at the hip to drive my Chuck Taylors into the mud, and I was mid-twist when a small boy appeared in a patch of weeds that looked like my dictionary’s line drawing of poison ivy. “You want to help me with this?” he said, as if we knew each other. He was rolling an old tire and let it drop where I stood.
“Hi,” I said. The tire’s force had splattered my shoes nicely.
The boy’s head was wide, his freckles were pale, and his cheekbones were set at angles as severe as those in my mother’s beauty magazines. He was younger than me by at least a year. As a twelve-year-old, no social distinctions were more pertinent than age and grade.
“Come on, then,” he said. “Get off your butt and help me.”
Sludge slid off my toes as I lifted them.
“You’re wrecking your shoes,” he said. His own were crumbled and paint-spattered. The heel flopped off his left foot like a diving board.
“I know that,” I said.
“It’s a fishing platform. They like these shadows.”
Half a dozen cinderblocks sat in a loose rectangle in the gap between land and water.
“If I get a couple more,” he said, patting the tire, “I’ll have a place to sit.”
My parents would not be happy with me sitting on strange tires that had likely been covered in poison ivy, but it fit my goal for the summer, so I took one side and helped him.
“I’m Joey Fondaleno.” He squinted and cocked his head, as if he wasn’t sure that was actually his name. I told him mine and he asked what school I went to.
“Clarke Middle,” I said. It was the only public middle school in town.
“I think they’re gonna be biting tomorrow,” he said. “You can use my brother’s pole if you want.”
We lifted the tire onto another. Both were thin and narrow, from cars much smaller than my parents’. The stack wobbled.
“You mean like a fishing pole,” I said.
“I get to sit here though. I was the one who built the fucker.”
“He’s not going to miss it?”
Joey narrowed his eyes and turned his head to look into the weeds. “Oh, sweet,” he said, and pointed at a two-by-four riddled with nails. “We can use it.”
My parents had a Sam’s Club membership, which meant not only that we drank water from a cooler like you saw on TV and that my undershirts were a brand of combed cotton that took two cycles to dry, but also that our pantry was lined with cartons of fun-size Doritos and Pub Mix and pretzels and Cheez-It Twists. Snacks would be my contribution.
But the next day, when I brought the fun-size packets of Doritos from under my shirts—I was fat then and always wore two and had to hide the bags to get them past my mother and out of the house—Joey shook his head.
“You know what’s in that, right?”
“I like cool ranch, but some people don’t so I brought one of each just in case.”
“Cool ranch? More like poop ranch. You know about natural flavors? That’s what they call it, but it’s actually animal product.”
“I think they’re just corn chips,” I said.
“No, man, gotta say, pretty sure. They melt down the cow fat, turn it into seasoning or something. That’s natural flavor. That’s what they mean.”
“That’s what my brother said.” Joey’s face twitched and his nostrils flared. “If you want to eat it, though.” I frowned and dropped the bags onto a rotting log, and Joey began to unpack a bag of tools. Fishing rods were not among them, but he had brought the kind of flat edger that my parents had used to scrape the NASA wallpaper from my room at Christmas break. Joey had brought a bucket and dipped it into the river until it was half full.
“Now we just need the mix. I don’t want those tires going nowhere.”
“Concrete, man. I asked my dad to lend me the keys to his truck but he was all like, safety first, like always.”
“What do you need a truck for?”
“I drive all the time, man, you don’t even know.”
“How old are you?”
“How old you think?” he said, and waved his arm like a quarterback flinging a pass.
“Come on, the fucker’s heavy, let’s get a move on.”
Joey’s house was farther down the river. We waded through the weeds past a rusted-out truck bed—no cab or tires or engine—and a small island appeared in the river. Just off its far tip, heads bobbed in the silt.
“Why’d anybody ever swim here?” I said. Our town, Lake Bluff, sat on the edge of Lake Michigan and was home to what Parents magazine consistently named one of the top ten family beaches in the country. My mother put the article on the fridge every year. “We have the lake. It’s not far. Who swims in the river?”
Joey turned. His face twitched again, and in this new angle of sunlight his freckles seemed to glitter like the ripples around the swimmers—were they naked?—upstream.
“I swim in the river,” he said. He tipped his chin up the hill that had emerged from beyond the weeds. “We all do.”
The top of the hill was covered in houses that did not seem to have borders between them. The neighborhood—two streets in an L, a cul-de-sac at one end, four-story trees with dying limbs, maybe a dozen small houses—was shaded and mostly dirt. They could put in ivy and hostas, like we had, or a pine-straw footpath, like behind our subdivision. Instead, the yards were littered in brush and the plastic wrappers from cigarette packs. “That’s mine,” he said, and pointed with a small Bic lighter to a red house. Its roof sat at a sharp angle, and the second story only covered half of the first. There was a detached garage and a metal picnic table in the front yard. From this distance the house reminded me of hunched shoulders.
“It’s not there, though,” Joey said. “Come on.”
Inside Joey’s house a curtain moved, a swoop of gray. I saw fingers. And then he was tugging me along.
The mix was at Nichols’, which shared a yard with Joey’s, and we took the back door, specked with green from a recent repainting. As soon as we were in the kitchen a woman shouted from the front room, “You kids better shut that door or else Mike’s gonna—oh, Joey, hi! It’s you.” She sat on a couch in a narrow room next to the kitchen. Her hair was dyed black and her skin was the color of an eggshell. Her knees touched a coffee table, which nearly touched the TV stand. Joey squeezed between and sat. “How are you, sweetie? You help yourself to a Coke. I’m watching a house show. You ever watch these? Right now they’re in Turks and Caicos—those are islands, honey—and they gotta figure out which one to buy. I like the villa but it’s out of their price range. Always upselling on this show, you ever notice that? But they’re all so beautiful, you can’t blame.”
Joey motioned me in.
“And who are you, honey?” she said.
Joey told her.
“That’s sweet. Are you new here?” As she spoke she turned away from the TV and her eyes met mine. All I could hear was an announcer recapping the highlights and prices of each vacation house, but I could see in Mrs. Nichols’s eyes something move, like communication.
“Just move in?”
“No,” I said. “I’m—”
“He lives in the township,” Joey said.
“Oh.” Mrs. Nichols turned back to the TV. “You want a Coke? It’s hot out.”
I was about to say sure but Joey’s hand jittered in his pocket and he said, “No time. We’re getting the concrete mix from Mike.”
When we were out the front door, Joey said, “That’s Darla.” He pointed to a large, brown bag, crimped at the top, stitched with twine, and stamped with the name of a hardware store. “Mike picked it up for me. He’s her boyfriend. He’s not always here, though. It’s gonna be heavy. That’s why I didn’t want you carrying a Coke.” He squatted on one side of the bag and I bent to the other. “No. Not like that. With your knees. Gonna throw your back out lifting like that.”
An hour later the sack of concrete mix sat next to the rotted log where, through some miracle, my two bags of Doritos still sat. My knees quaked with hunger and as Joey dug into the bag with a stick I opened one pack of chips.
“I can’t believe you,” Joey said.
I tipped the bag back, sliding three or four into my mouth. I couldn’t help thinking of cows, or the other thing I had discovered through Google, which was that the bags were pumped full of nitrogen, to keep the chips from being crushed during shipping.
“Any wonder why you got no friends,” Joey said.
I stopped. I crushed the chips in my palm and flung them outward, into the water where the shards—blue and white and red and yellow—settled like river insects.
“Who said I don’t?”
Joey was staring at where the chips had settled and sunk. “Let me see one then.”
For a moment I thought he meant he wanted to see one of my friends. The previous year everybody at my school had begun to keep photo portraits of their friends in their billfolds. I didn’t have a wallet because sitting on one aggravated my back, so I had nothing to show.
Joey snatched the bag from me and took the Bic from his pocket. It was red, like his house. He flicked it and the chip took flame immediately. The chip burned for a few seconds in his hand before he dropped it to the muck, where it sizzled and contracted into greasy ash.
He handed me the Bic. “Try it. Cool freaking ranch.” I took the lighter and felt something rough under my fingers. I turned it over to find along the side a crude engraving, something you might do with a thumbtack: JOHN.
Amazingly to me, Joey did succeed that afternoon in mixing the concrete and pouring it into gaps around the stacked tires. He spread it flat across the top with the edger and soon had a seat, three tires high.
“I lied about the fishing pole,” he said.
“Your brother doesn’t have one?”
“My brother is dead,” he said. He stuck his hand out for the lighter and I gave it to him. He flicked it over and over, never holding the button long enough to keep a flame.
“John,” I said.
“Doy,” he said. He raised his arm and wound up like he was about to chuck the lighter across the water, but he didn’t. His arm fell. “We don’t gotta talk about it any more, okay?”
I nodded. I knew enough to say nothing.
We never fished. Instead we lit snack food on fire, or tried to. We agreed that we hated sports. He asked which teacher I’d had for fifth. He asked about girls—”If you could have any girl in your school as your girlfriend who would it be?” and wouldn’t shut up until I said something along the lines of I didn’t like any of them, they were all hoes, which was neither true nor kind but shut him up. We talked about drugs and video games. We knew mushrooms were supposed to give you a body high and pot made you hungry. We knew it took three or four times to feel anything because your body had to learn how to accept the high. We couldn’t remember a time when we didn’t know about the secret passage at the end of the second level in Mario, it was like modern-day mythology. We agreed that Halo was basically the best game ever made, a total revolution in first person shooters. “It’s like the Moby Dick of games,” I said, but he didn’t understand the reference. Joey often went back to what his brother had said about cocaine—that it didn’t mess with your mind or change your perception or fuck with your personality, it was more like you were boom, ready to go.
I didn’t ask about his brother. It would not have been kind. So we talked, flicked the lighter, chucked stuff into the water. Our words wound round the river’s bend to limbs stuck in the current, where box turtles lingered in the sun.
On the third of July, he asked me to meet him the next day at his dad’s house.
“You mean your house?” I said.
“I live there, yeah.”
“You make it sound like it’s temporary,” I said.
“It is, though.” He nodded at the island, his face twitching like it did. He did not have much of a chin, and his neck sloped directly down from his lower lip, in a way that reminded me of a frog. “Just come whenever.”
My parents were surprised.
“We usually go to the movies,” my mom said. “It’s our Fourth tradition.”
“Remember when we saw Apollo 13?” my father said. He was at the dinner table, reading a paperback. “We came home and lit off sparklers. You were running around yelling, Houston, we have a problem!”
“We can go to the movies alone,” my mother said.
“Now, don’t make him feel bad.” My dad put the book down. “He’ll get discouraged. We should be encouraging this kind of thing for him. It’s a friend’s house, right, champ?”
“We don’t know his parents,” my mom said.
“But he’s your friend, right, champ?”
Neither of my parents nor I had ever come close to success in sports, and they took this as a sardonic point of pride, which I think was why my father called me champ.
“He’s my friend,” I said, and went to the office, which was covered in loose papers. I switched on the computer so I could play Halo. Joey had said something about a secret cache of weapons in the ventilation shaft and I wanted to find it. I turned the sound off because my mother didn’t like me playing war and my dad said headphones would make you go deaf.
When I knocked on Joey’s door a man answered immediately, as if he’d known I would be arriving, and had been waiting next to the door all day. He was short, with gray hair and crinkles around his eyes, like a father on ABC Family. “He’s at Nichols’,” Mr. Fondaleno said. In his hand was a clear plastic cup, half full of beer.
Joey was on the couch next to Darla Nichols. Two shirtless boys sat on the other end, their ankles tucked under. They shared one set of in-ear headphones, each with one bud in his ear. They were maybe five.
“There you are, man,” Joey said. “Come on.” He patted Mrs. Nichols on the knee, shaking her awake. “Gotta split, Darla. See you at the fireworks.” He led me to the fridge, from which he removed two cans of Coke. “For later,” he said. “Now we got to get the keg.”
We cut the long way through the neighborhood, gliding over sidewalk split into chunks by tree roots. In the middle of the cul-de-sac stood a large concrete cylinder that I would learn was called a mortar. Men squatted around it, cigarettes pinched in their mouths.
Down the other side of the hill was a small park, wet with standing drainage. Three toddlers slopped in the water under the swings while two young women watched a few yards off. Wind swished the hems of their long dresses. I heard voices but no words, and tried to calculate how far vertically these women were from me.
“Come on,” Joey said. “Way too old for you anyway.” He put his arm on my shoulder. “You don’t want no chicks who’ve been pregnant anyway. Johnny said they’re all loose and shit, plus they make you provide for them.” He brought me around to his house again. “My dad bought it and we got to carry it over.”
Inside, Joey’s dad had disappeared. But the keg sat in the middle of the front room. A black pump contraption sat on top. “Dad!” Joey yelled. “Dad, you here?” Joey’s face twitched. “He’s not. He already tapped it. Geez.”
“He was drinking beer when I was here before,” I said.
“You came here?” Joey said. “Don’t tell me you talked to him.”
“It’s just as well. Come on, this fucker’s heavy.” The handles slipped easily into my hand but as we hoisted it my palm immediately began to burn. By the time we had it to the cul-de-sac, my shoulder felt ripped out of joint. We set our Cokes in the recess at the keg’s top, and they rolled around the circle as we carried it out the front door, down the steps. In the cul-de-sac, someone had placed one of those giant rubber trashcans they put in the hall on the last day of school for you to empty your locker into. An obese woman waited with three bags of ice. Three men joined us around the keg and helped us hoist it into the trashcan.
“I don’t really drink alcohol,” I said.
“Good,” Joey said, ” ’cause it’s not allowed.”
“Lucky you didn’t snap that tap off,” one of the men said. “Shouldn’t do that until you’ve got it where you want it to be.”
“It was Joey’s dad,” I said, proud that I could say something true in this company. But Joey shot me a glare like, you fucker.
“Cheryl, where’re the glasses?”
The obese woman tossed the bags of ice onto the top of the keg and produced a plastic sleeve of cups. A very old man began to pump the tap’s button with the butt of his hand.
“Boys,” he nodded. “You first.”
“It’s not allowed,” Joey said.
Then Joey’s dad was approaching. He moved with the stiff grace of an old person. He was thin and hunched like a marathoner. “You boys staying safe out here?”
We nodded. He removed a cup from Cheryl’s plastic sleeve. “I’m Joe’s pop,” he said. “Fill your old dad up, huh, son?”
“I got you a Coke from Darla,” Joey said.
The men around the keg backed away, going back to the mortar.
Mr. Fondaleno shook his head silently. A smile slowly faded from his face. He took the plastic hose from Joey and slid it into the cup. “Give me a pump there, Joe,” he said. “Just one, or else it’ll foam up.”
Joey nodded and followed instruction. When his cup was full, Mr. Fondaleno went to the men around the mortar. We found two chairs and cracked our Cokes.
We didn’t speak. Kids and men and women circled us, darted from yard to street to sidewalk to cul-du-sac, in the middle of conversations that seemed to have begun weeks or years before. We watched bare knees fidget, bend, kiss. We heard laughter but there was nothing for us to join. After fifteen minutes, Joey handed me his empty can. He had been keeping an eye on his dad, I realized, and now he was giving it up.
“Let’s pretend it’s a parade,” he said, as a battery of bare knees flew past us. I smelled charcoal on a grill; I heard the round picking of a guitar; a man said in a slippery voice, “Josh, honey, wait until it’s dark, okay?” Condensation from somebody’s beer cup drizzled onto my shin. As I glanced at Joey flicking his red Bic I resolved that once he stood up—whenever that would be—I would get to the bottom of what had happened to his brother.
“Screw it,” he said. “You want one?” Without waiting for me to answer, he went to the trash can and got in line, flicking the lighter in his pocket. Then I was up and wandering. A girl my age looked at me and giggled. Her laugh was not mean. Just embarrassed. I would come to have this effect on girls as I grew older, and I knew in that moment that Joey never would. He moved too quickly. Maybe he wouldn’t have wanted girls’ attention anyway. This girl’s name was Vicki and I recognized her from art class. There was something curious about her lower lip: it drooped down the left side of her face, as if she were about to spit out of the corner of her mouth. I waved and she dissipated into a group of adults waving cigarettes. I jogged through a dirt yard and down the hill to the flooded park. The mothers and children had gone. There were no lights. I had never known this park existed. It occurred to me that my mother, waiting there in the township, would have appreciated a phone call.
We had moved when I was nine. Ours was the second house of a planned two dozen, but most of the development was still dirt lots and poured foundations. They were planning a park and my mother spoke daily of how nice it would be to have a place for the children to go without needing to be watched so closely. For the first year, I wasn’t allowed outside because of the construction. When the walls had been hung, and the houses wrapped, shingled, sided, and fenced, I ventured out with my mother’s blessing. But all the kids who’d moved in were years younger. They never did build a park. The spot my mother had pointed out became a sales office for the subdivision.
So I had retreated inside to help my parents chop vegetables, play Minesweeper with my dad, practice my piano lessons on the small electronic keyboard set up in the living room, lounge on the floor with the cat and a snack and a book. It was probably good for my grades, to be alone and quiet. By eleven I had already been set up for the honors track.
In Joey’s neighborhood kids poured into and out of houses, up and down hills, between fence slats and along curb troughs; a constant whirl of dash and gather, hello and separate. People wandered and smiled and nothing seemed wrong, though when I sat on the swings—my feet in a puddle—I heard a kid scream his way down the hill, followed by a parent. “Lemme just see, okay?” the dad was shouting. The kid clutched his ear and stopped halfway down the hill and the dad grabbed his wrist and tossed him over his shoulder.
When Joey found me the men had just begun to set off the mortar.
“Kid shot a roman candle into the side of his frickin’ head, man. Idiot.” He had one cup of beer, which had sloshed down the front of his shirt. “Good spot down here. Good idea.”
The first zing and boom and bloom came, and the smell of gunpowder. “I didn’t know you could do these yourself,” I said.
“Gus Dooley’s dad’s a cop,” Joey said. “They buy it in Indiana.”
Another explosion squelched my ears. The displays were as large as any I’d seen. They reminded me of disintegrating umbrellas. Our faces, tilted up, shone; ash twinkled down like snow. At one point, Joey turned.
“I like to pretend it’s a war,” he said. “And we’re all soldiers. And this is enemy fire. And we’re on a journey to save the world.”
I nodded along. Between blasts my ears whispered. Joey’s head slung low after a moment, and he handed me his cup of beer, which I finished. It was bubbly and sweet and tasted of metal, and soon after I swallowed I felt like I had to pee, which I did, right in the middle of the jungle gym, while fireworks sizzled above me. This, I thought, is a moment to remember.
Afterward we climbed the wet hill and helped the old man shine a deer spotlight inside the mortar while he swept it out. The inside was ringed with black and gray and purple and blue. Joey’s father stood a few feet away, swaying with a long, calm smile that didn’t change. He stumbled, took a sip of beer, and motioned for Joey to come over. Joey did, and I worried. His face was blank and sorrowful; according to the videos we’d watched in seventh grade QUEST that year, this was how abuse started: a father beckoning drunkenly to a son. But Mr. Fondaleno did nothing but squeeze his son’s shoulders. His face turned to me, and nodded, so sad that I felt I had to leave immediately. “No, no,” Joey said from his father’s embrace. “I was gonna see if you could spend the night.”
But I shook my head and walked home past the hospital, where nurses on their smoke breaks oohed and ahhed over the city’s display, a mile away, over the lake. At home I discovered that my clothes and skin were covered in soot, and I stripped in the garage and ran past the living room, where my parents dozed, to the shower, where soap scum ran black down my legs and gathered in clumps at my toes. The next day at the river, Joey wasn’t there.
In the end, it was easy to figure out what had happened to John Fondaleno. The Herald had even done an article on him. 2004, Fallujah. I spoke the name of the city aloud and it rang in my ears like a song I had known my entire life. Fallujah. A father was mentioned, and a dead mother, and a toddler brother, which meant Joey was probably ten, eleven—a year or two younger than me.
One night late in July, my father called me to the office, where he spent every evening after dinner plugged into a headset, speaking to clients in different time zones.
I had knocked over a three-hole punch a few afternoons before and never cleaned it up, so multicolored dots littered the floor like drops of paint in art class.
“Your mother tells me you’ve been staying at home.”
“It’s fine if you want to go play.”
“What happened with your friend?”
“We don’t see each other.”
“Not really friends, then,” he said. “More of acquaintances.”
I nodded, although something in the way he said it, without looking at me, with the same calm voice he sometimes spoke to clients with, made my throat tighten into almost a cry.
“So long as you’re here you might think about that advanced math course.”
“I’m already going to be in honors,” I said.
“This is advanced, though. This means two years of calculus when you get to high school, and you could start college with multivariable or algebraic structures.”
“Put in the work now, champ, and it’ll pay off in the end. I don’t want to push.”
The entire time we spoke he continued to type. I started on the advanced math workbook the next morning.
Through August, after my math was done, I returned each afternoon to the river’s muddy bend. I took an old bike from our basement, de-cobwebbed the frame, washed the seat, replaced the chain, tightened the brakes, cleaned the bearings, and straightened the spokes as best I could. It was a good ride—I imagined I could feel the fat wisping away from my back and thighs as I pedaled. I would zoom down the dirt path until branches nicked my cheeks and weeds caught the sprocket. But I never saw Joey. So I’d bike up the hill to the downtown gas station and buy Doritos. I had earned them, I felt. All that biking, and Joey wasn’t even there. And if he ever was, I would have no reason to buy them. So if I stayed fat, the logic went, then it would be his fault.
Two days before school started I entered the gas station like usual to find Joey leaned over the counter, talking to my favorite cashier. She was a high school girl named Anne. Her long hair was dyed red and always looked wet. He was trying to convince her to sell him cigarettes.
“They’re for my brother,” he was saying.
I stood behind patiently, trying not to crinkle my bag. But no luck. Anne smacked her gum and shouted past Joey. “Just Doritos again?” Her voice came through her nose in a way I associated with grandmothers.
Joey turned, his mouth pursed, unsurprised.
“I don’t always get them,” I said.
She cocked her head and punched in the price.
“He’s lying, you know,” Anne said.
“I’m not,” I said.
“No. Him.” She pointed at Joey and her voice went low. “I knew Johnny Fondaleno, okay? And that’s just wrong. You can’t use somebody like that.” She turned to me. “I hope you aren’t friends with a person like that.”
How she knew I had no idea.
“We’re not, though,” I said. “More like acquaintances.”
Anne raised her eyebrows. “That so?”
I nodded, and Joey made a sound like the pump needle ripped from a bike tire. “I’m out, yo, peace.”
Anne watched the door drift shut. “That poor boy,” she said. “You’re about as bad as he is, you know that?” She shook her head as she slid my change across the counter. “All you boys. You just don’t know how to be friends with each other.”
Afterward, I found myself walking the bike to the river, along the faint path through brush to our old spot. The tires still sat in the concrete we’d poured, though it had cracked and would not last if the river rose. A bottle floated in weeds, fresh enough to have retained its label. Next to it was a keg pump. I sat around kicking stuff for five minutes before seeing a notebook tucked into a cinder block. I removed the stone that sat on top of it and opened the book gingerly. A pressed leaf flew out and onto the river and was carried away.
The writing was very small and very neat and no sentence was followed by a period. I read for ten minutes before I realized what it was.
The notebook contained an extensive plot outline for some kind of fantasy novel. There was a Book I, Book II, Book III, each with Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. The sentences were difficult to read but I eventually made out the story: armies of goblins and orcs had teamed up to dominate the land of the gentle Na’abriel, which seemed to be a race of sentient unicorns. The evil alliance would first attack wizards and destroy them, then, in an ambush, destroy the civilization of men, protectors of the Na’abriel. Only one boy would survive the attack, and it was his duty to travel mountain, forest, and sea to the mythical land of the raven people, known for wisdom and magic, which the boy could bring back to save the Na’abriel. Battles were outlined with drawings and a few characters were sketched, although the names kept changing. The only name that stayed consistent was that of the boy hero: Edward, called Teddy.
That was me. That was my name.
I saw Joey many years later, at a party. He had gone to the Catholic high school, which in our town was reserved for dropouts and pregnant girls. But St. John’s kids sometimes came to Lake Bluff parties to deliver drugs or booze, which somehow they had better access to, despite the fact that they were generally poor and we were the rich township preps. Joey was one such deliveryman. He had come into the party alone, had not removed his shoes, and had looked around nervously until the host, a round-shoulder linebacker who was both the son of a state senator and about the most assholic piece of shit in school, although his sister was hot, came over to do business. Joey and I looked at each other for no more than three seconds. He hardly seemed older. His freckles still glittered and his chin was nonexistent. He swam in oversized clothes and wore a stocking cap pulled very low. His eyes were brimmed in red and circled in a deep blue, like a woman wearing makeup. After three cases of Natural Ice, a crumpled sandwich sack containing a tennis-ball-sized chunk of weed, and an orange bottle of dark pills were exchanged for a wad of cash, Joey went out to the porch, where another boy stood waiting. Joey put his arm around this boy and pulled him close. He lit a cigarette, placed it into the boy’s mouth, and kissed the boy’s ear.
The lighter was red.
“What are you watching that faggot for?” Somebody clapped me on the back and I returned to the world I was about to grow up into—the world of senator’s sons and sports taken seriously and off-limits sisters and booze that was cheap by choice not necessity—the world of no brothers killed in war and no memorial lighters etched with a thumbtack.
“He gets the best fuckin’ weed, though. You know his brother got killed in Afghanistan? Too bad, you know? It’s like, gotta get that Afghan connection, you know? They grow weed, heroin, all that shit, like Iowa grows fuckin’ corn. Afghanistan—fuck. If you survive that shit you gotta be allowed to import all the dope you want. Bet somebody’s doing it already. Sewing it up in body bags like Denzil Washington.”
“It was Fallujah,” I said.
“Huh,” somebody said.
“Whatever, Teddy. Point is—”
I went to the door, slipped on my shoes, and stepped into the night. I don’t remember if it was hot or cool, windy, rainy, or what. I breathed in, trying to find a trace of the cigarette smoke, but I couldn’t. Instead, I walked to the river. It was three miles; my feet knew the way. When I got through the weeds to our old dock, which still stood, I saw a small fire burning on the bank of the island past the bend. Voices murmured across the water, and heads bobbed in silhouette against the fire. I could hear the sizzle of wet logs and the pops of acorns. On shore, I looked down at my shoes. They were, as always, too new.
Front page image courtesy of Andrew Malone.