Underneath the bridge
The tarp has sprung a leak
And the animals I’ve trapped
Have all become my pets
And I’m living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling
— Kurt Cobain, Something in the Way
We missed it when we heard the whistle and climbed up, but from the hilltop we saw the train coming towards it. The beacon of light from the engine shined brighter and brighter as it neared with deep darkness behind it and an elbow of forest blocking the train’s end; the lights of the mall were in the distance, over the other side of the tracks, beyond where the end would be. The lights of the town glimmered past that with scattered stars like reflections above them. I stared back down at the yard and the animal. Charlie ducked down behind a shrub to the left of me.
“Should we do something?” I asked him. The horn blew as I asked; he lifted his hands to his ears.
He mouthed, I can’t hear you.
Once the horn stopped, I asked again.
“Should we do anything?”
Charlie shrugged. “What can we do?”
I searched around for a rock. The bluff was smooth but some gravel had been driven up from the train yard. I plucked the largest stone I could find from the ground, about the size of a golf ball. The bottom of it was muddied; it adhered to my fingers as I took aim at the track.
“What are you doing, man?”
I chucked it. I missed the animal, but scared it. It moved down the track, but still stood between the rails, chewing on the bone it had been working on since we noticed it. The train sounded the horn again, twice, deafening the noises of everything — the crickets, its own clacking.
“Maybe that dumb thing deserves it,” screamed Charlie.
I grabbed another rock and threw it towards the animal. No luck. It didn’t move. The ground beneath us began shaking and the light was almost parallel. The dog finally looked up, first glancing up at us then towards the light. In the brighter light, you could tell the dog was not full grown, still innocent and dumb. Its coat had almost no shine, matted and gray and filled with dust, and its ribs cast strange shadows down its backend.
The dog reached back to grab its feast, tried dragging it away with its head down. I yelled down as a last resort.
“Get off the fucking track, dog!”
The howling train was right in front of us now; we could see the graffiti on the side of the boxcars. The breaks of the train began squealing just as the dog looked up one last time and we, Charlie and I both, turned our heads to look away. Charlie pulled his hood over his head.
The collision below did not make the expected noise. It was no louder than a slap, a slightly audible tick above the sound of the squealing, tapping breaks of the train. We turned around, looking first at each other then towards the tracks. The light had passed and the spot of the collision was dark, but it looked like nothing more than a puddle, a mud splatter caused by a heavy train pushing through water. The train pushed forward, slowly, shaking.
That summer I would get my first car, but until then, I spent most mornings carpooling with Charlie or my mother to school. I rode with my mother the next morning. I rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, looking at all the identical trashcans lined up along the passing driveways, a never-ending row of green block containers.
“So, you’re just not even going to hide it anymore, huh?”
“I don’t think I said you could smoke in here.”
I ashed out the window; I blew some ash from the windowsill.
“It’s only a cigarette,” I commented. “I could be lighting something worse?”
“Okay. Fine. But you should really watch it with those.”
We pulled up to a stoplight. The blinker clicked-clicked-clicked.
“So what did you do last night?”
I blew out smoke.
“Just hung out.”
The sun was peeking behind my mother’s head; the tip of her pointed nose shined and she squinted her big eyes pinched into slits. She searched around for her sunglasses. Her hair had been recently permed and the blonde curls that stuck up from the top of her head looked like white yarn in the glowing light. The stoplight turned green and the car slowly inched up until Mom was able to turn right onto Mulberry. I saw my school, up two lights, and wanted to be inside. Once I was inside, I’d want to be out.
“Just hung out, huh? What does that even mean?”
I flicked my cigarette out the window and, knowing my demeanor at that time, I likely rolled my eyes. I don’t remember exactly, but I remember what my mother said next. She said:
“You know, your brother never talked to me either and then he left.” She looked over to me, “Could you please just humor me?”
We pulled up to school and I grabbed my backpack from the back seat. I closed the door on my mother and walked into the building with my eyes pointed at the ground.
Inside school, Sam was sitting against my locker, her feet on the ground and her knees up, hiding her face and helping to hold the book she was reading. She didn’t look up until I was right in front of her and my shadow overtook her undersized body. She raised her head, pushed her dark hair to one side of her face and tucked it behind her ear. She smiled when she realized it was me. I shook some change in my pocket and unzipped my sweatshirt.
“Charlie’s dumbass was by here looking for you earlier,” she smirked.
She pushed herself off of the ground and I grabbed her hand and helped her up. She stood up on her toes, her ballet flats bending and falling off her heels, and she leaned in and kissed me on the cheek. A group of younger kids walked past us.
“Have you read this book?”
She held it up.
“You should. I’ll give it to you when I’m done.”
I looked at the paperback, the spine cracked and webbed. It was the first time I’d heard of Salinger. I opened up my locker, took the keys and change out of my pocket and put it in a Dixie cup I had taped onto the top shelf of the metal cabinet. Inside the cup were three dinars my brother had sent me and a few Advil. I fished out the Advil and asked Sam if she had any water. She pulled out a bottle from her backpack and I swallowed the pills, finishing almost all of her bottle.
“Shit, sorry. I didn’t mean to drink that much.”
“No big deal. I think I can find more water.”
Charlie parked his car under the concrete bridge, hit the lights, and we grabbed our supplies and walked towards the trains. The moon was high and the railroad tracks shimmered underneath its light. As we walked, our backpacks swayed and the ping of metal spray cans hitting one another echoed in the night, the balls inside the cans sloshing the paint back and forth. Charlie walked in front of me, balancing on the track, his shoe slipping off the mirror every five steps. The gravel grinded and slipped under my shoes with each stride. A train sounded its whistle far off beyond the line of trees to the east; it faded into itself and quieted.
Charlie and I arrived at a train and kneeled down beside it. We were quiet for a minute or two, looking around for any other life, any rumblings, any people. The warm wind pushed against our cheeks, rushing from the tunnel ahead. The smell of burnt paper and grease.
Charlie stuck his finger in his mouth and raised it into the air, looking up at the tip of it.
“Yep,” he said. “We’re all clear.”
He smiled and pulled his backpack toward his front and unzipped it, searching through the bag for his white can; Charlie always started with white. I pulled open my bag and found the black cap, held it up into the light to double-check its color. I pulled my sketchbook from the bag and opened to a page I’d recently created, examining the corners and each letter, determining a starting point. Charlie shook his can. The hiss of the spray paint began as Charlie tested the white on the train’s wheel. The paint sound became more consistent and, for the next twenty minutes, we stopped only to step back and see what we missed. A cloud formed around us, backlash bouncing off of the train car steel, swirling down the line above the reflective tracks.
When Charlie was done, he stepped back. Pleased with himself, he chucked his spray can into the creek bed down below the yard. I was done already, but still thinking of something to add, something to make the train stick out. I gave up and joined Charlie on the empty track across from our tags.
“Man, I’m getting pretty fucking good, right?”
I looked over at him; he stared at his work and reached into his pocket. He pulled out his pack of Camels and a red Bic lighter.
“It’s a regular masterpiece.”
“It’s better than your fingerpainting over there.”
Charlie smirked and pulled a joint from his pack. He held it up into the light and smiled wide, his teeth white in the darkness. The joint was rolled in rainbow rolling papers. He twisted it in his fingers, put it up to his mouth and lit it, puffing smoke until the end was an even orange.
“I’m just kidding, you choad. Yours looks good, too.”
“Yeah, it’s alright.”
Charlie passed the weed to me. I took a few hits, held the second one in and stared at Charlie’s tag across the way.
“You know,” Charlie started.
“Here we go.”
“I was just thinking. They should be paying us to do this shit.”
I handed it back to Charlie.
“It’s a service,” he said. “Here they have these ragged-looking trains, all corroded and beat up, and we put a mark on them and make them noticeable.”
“Seriously, man. And they should let us paint whatever we wanted — as long as there’s no dicks or anything, you know, keeping it appropriate — and keep these trains looking fresh.”
Charlie hit the joint again. He opened his fish-mouth wide and blew out thick, oval smoke rings into the dark. I watched the smoke move down the yard and up into the atmosphere. Down the track, beyond the trees, I saw a light move. I squinted towards the glow. Homeless men wandered around down by the tracks and, as I watched the faint light bounce behind the line of brush, I assumed it was one of them.
“You see that light over there?”
Charlie took another hit; he glanced out toward it.
“Yep. Guess it’s time to go.”
He handed the joint to me. I took a hit and it burned my fingers. I put it out in the gravel and handed it back to my friend. He blew on it, making sure there was no more cherry, and he stuffed the roach back into his pack of smokes. He looked at our tags once more.
We returned our backpacks to our shoulders; they were much lighter now but more audible in the deep night. The clink of the cans grew as we walked back towards the car.
“These bums that live out here have the life.”
I kept walking.
“No one to report to. Sleeping under the stars every night. Probably drunk and high all the time.”
“No money either.”
“They don’t need money. They don’t have rent and shit to pay. They sure as hell aren’t paying rent or anything. They can get out of Dodge anytime they want.”
“Yeah, what a life,” I smirked.
We arrived at his car and I tossed my pack into the backseat. We slid inside and slammed our doors shut. The clunk echoed against the cement pillars and retaining walls beneath the bridge. Charlie started the car and drove off with only his parking lights lit until we reached the main road. He looked both ways, turned on the headlights and drove on.
We listened to music on the way home and when we pulled up to my house the music was still loud, and his windows were down, so I reached over and turned the knob to lower the volume.
“You’re such a pussy,” snarked Charlie.
“It’s late, man, and I don’t want my mom to wake up and give me shit.”
“Yeah. Don’t wanna wake your mommy,” he mocked.
I got out of the car and opened the back door to grab my gear. I waved to him, more of a salute and nod than a wave. Charlie popped his head out of the window.
“Same thing tomorrow?”
“What? You got plans or something?”
“Me? No, I just…we’ll see…”
“Whatever’s clever, nerd. I’ll just call you tomorrow.”
“Cool,” I lied.
“Hey,” I added. “Could you bum me a few smokes?”
He had an older sister who worked at the Phillips station and she provided him with cartons weekly along with a steady supply of pretzels, soda, and, sometimes, if Charlie bribed her with God-knows-what, six packs of beer. Charlie pulled out his Camels and fished out three cigarettes and presented them out the window.
He put his car into reverse, turned up the music and backed out of the driveway.
I went inside and the house was dark and the air conditioning was blowing loudly in the silence. I turned on the kitchen light, threw some bread in the toaster and took out some turkey and sliced cheese and made a sandwich. I was eating and watching Conan and the phone rang. I picked up and it was Sam.
“What’s up, Buttercup,” she answered.
“Hey there. What are you up to?”
“Nothing really. Are you watching Conan?”
“Yep. And eating a sandwich.”
“Is your mom there?”
I wiped my mouth with a napkin, crumpled it up and threw it away in the kitchen trashcan. There were several cans of Shiner Bock crumpled in the bag. I looked in the fridge and there were three beers left from a six-pack. I pulled one from the plastic rings and popped it open.
“Nope, she’s not here. Surprise, surprise.”
“Yeah. My parents are out tonight, too. Hey, what do you have planned tomorrow night?”
“Not shit, really. Why? Wanna hang out?”
“Well, there’s this movie I really wanna see playing at the Madison.”
“Oh, I see. A sappy sucker movie?”
“Maybe a little bit,” she laughed. I could almost see her. “I mean, not too sappy, I hope. It’s the new Charlie Kaufman flick”
“Ah, I see.”
“So you wanna?”
I pulled my wallet from my back pocket. I opened it and fingered out two crumpled dollar bills. I took a chug from the beer can.
“Okay, great,” she exclaimed. “Oh, shit. My brother’s crying.”
“What time is this Kaufman flick playing?”
“I think 9:30. Should I swing by and pick you up around 9:00?”
“Deal. Can’t wait,” I replied.
She grunted, muted, like she was holding the phone away from her mouth. I heard her say, Alright, alright. The background noise suddenly grew louder and there was crying in the background; she was walking up the stairs.
“I gotta go, my love.”
“Sounds like it. See you tomorrow.”
We hung up and I took another drink of my beer. The cold rushed to my head. I threw my wallet onto the counter and collapsed onto the couch and pictured Sam pushing her short hair behind her ear, her deep blue eyes smiling at me from someplace beyond any place I knew.
Sometime before noon, I woke up and made a quiet breakfast trying not to wake my mother. I peeled apart a package of bacon, threw the strips onto a cookie sheet and placed it in the cold oven. I cracked six eggs, threw them in the black frying pan. I scrambled the eggs, cooking them a little too long. They were dry so I added the last handful from a bag of shredded cheddar cheese; the eggs were orange and yellow and steam rose up from underneath the fluffy chunks in the pan. I slid bread into the toaster and pushed down the handle.
There were no plates clean in the cabinet so I pulled two plates from the pile in the sink and rinsed them off. I split the eggs between the two plates and sat down at the kitchen table to wait for the bacon. Across the kitchen, the shelf was lined with my brother’s old trophies, shiny plastic baseball players and baseball gloves mounted to slick black bases. A few metals hung from red, white, and blue striped ribbons. I got up and walked over to them and grabbed the smallest trophy with the star on the top; it was the only one that was mine.
She walked down the stairs without me knowing and entered the kitchen from the opposite doorway, standing by the oven behind me.
“He was once a good kid, you know,” she mumbled.
I turned around to see my mom there in her sweatpants and old church sweatshirt. She rubbed her eyes. I put the trophy back on the shelf.
“Yeah, Mom, I know.”
My mother pulled her hair back into a ponytail, her curled blonde streaks split at the ends. She looked at me like she does. She wanted to say something else.
“It smells good.”
“Thanks. Bacon should be about done.”
The timer counted down the seconds. The seconds took longer than seconds take. I walked over to the oven and opened it and removed the tray. The oven door squeaked as I shut it. My mother took a seat at the table, her elbows on the edge, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands.
“Should I make some coffee,” she yawned.
“No, I got it.”
I took two cups from the cabinet and poured coffee from the pot. I put two scoops of sugar into my mother’s cup, one in mine. I took the coffee and the food over to the table and the two of us sat chewing our food and slurping our coffee.
“This is great, son. Thank you.”
I stuffed a piece of bacon into my mouth and washed it down.
“Have you always drank coffee?”
“I haven’t always, but I have for awhile.”
“I don’t remember you drinking coffee.”
“I don’t remember you caring whether or not I drank coffee.”
She looked up at me from below her lashes; she shook her head. She took another drink and another bite of her eggs and she wiped her mouth with her napkin. She placed the napkin over her plate and leaned back in her chair, stretching her long thin arms up over her head and then dropping them back into her lap. The television was on in the background — the sound muted — and I watched a news reporter stand on a lawn in front of a flood rushing down some street in some place, the brown water pushing and turning white against a street sign in the middle of the charging river.
“I think I might go to Mass tomorrow. Will you go with me?”
I continued to watch the television.
“I doubt it,” I said.
“You doubt it? What does that mean?” she asked. “You don’t have to go. I’d like you to, but you don’t have to.”
“I don’t know. I’d rather not.”
She looked at the ceiling.
“Well I’m going to go. It’ll be good for me, I think.”
She got up and grabbed our dishes from the table and went and placed them in the sink. She walked back upstairs. I stood up and made my way into the living room, still watching the television without noise. The newscaster gestured towards some people on a fishing boat, paddling in the current with a single oar. There were two people in the boat, a man and a woman, and the man had a cigarette dangling from his mouth, the filter hanging onto his lower lip, while he pushed the oar into the earthy broth. The cameraman zoomed in on the boat and the woman in the back was half-asleep, perhaps sick, holding onto both sides of the skiff. The man stopped paddling for a second, long enough to ash his smoke, then continued to paddle out of the shot.
I clicked the TV off. I went out the front door and sat down on the porch. The sun was almost at its apex, high in its daily ascent, and the air was thick and humid. I pulled a cigarette from my pocket and lit it and watched the kids from down the street ride their bikes in circles around one another, their laughter bouncing off the blacktop in the hot sun.
I was napping upstairs when I heard my mom:
“Your friend’s here.”
I sat up in bed and heard someone coming up the stairs. The visitor knocked twice on my door, swung it open.
“Wake up, Buttercup.”
Charlie was wearing the same zip-up sweatshirt he wore last night. He wore a grey t-shirt under that, with Kansas across the chest in red block letters, and camouflage cargo shorts with specks of white paint trailing down the left side. He sat down on the end of the bed. He reached over to my dresser and grabbed a Rolling Stone and began flipping through it. He was smacking his gum, slapping through the pages.
“I didn’t know you were coming over.”
“Now you do,” he laughed.
He stared down at the magazine; he flipped the pages. He turned to the last page then closed the magazine and threw it down on my bed.
“I was talking to Danny earlier and he told me about this new spot on the other side of town.”
“A skate spot?”
“No. A spot to paint,” he explained. “Interested?”
“Yeah, where at? When?”
“It’s out by Chamber Park.”
“Well, we could do that next Friday? I’ve got…”
“No, we’re going tonight,” he interrupted. “It’s gonna be perfect. My sister even got us some beer.”
“I don’t know, man.”
“You don’t know? What don’t you know?”
“I’m supposed to do something tonight.”
“Something gay, I’ll bet.”
“I have to help my mom clean tonight.”
Charlie glared over at me with one eyebrow raised; he shook his head and walked over to my bookshelf, fingering through a stack of magazines. He snatched up my sketchbook and sat back down on my bed. He tossed through the pages, most of them smeared with gray pencil marks. I got out of bed and opened up my closet and pulled a shirt from a hanger.
“Whatever, man,” he smirked. “I can get you back in time to play housewife.”
I pulled my shirt over my head and brushed my hair from my eyes.
“I have to be back here by around 9:00. At the latest.”
“You’re lame. But yeah, that’s cool,” he said, looking down at the book. “You should paint this one tonight.”
He held up my sketchbook and nodded his head, pointing to the small drawing I had done. I squinted to look at it even though I knew it well.
“For sure, dude,” he affirmed. “Hey, your mom got any more V?”
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“Can I go check?”
“She’s downstairs, you idiot. At least wait a little bit.”
I pulled my backpack from inside the hard guitar case in my closet. I knelt down, unzipped it and checked its contents. As I was taking inventory, something sharp hit the back of my head. It fell hard to the ground next to me. My ears rang and Charlie erupted with laughter.
“Don’t forget that,” he howled.
My sketchbook was next to my knee. I checked the back of my head for blood. He was laughing.
“What the fuck, man?”
“I’m sorry,” he quieted. He took a deep breath and tried to hold back his giggling. “I only meant to hit your arm or back.”
“You’re an asshole.”
I grabbed my sketchbook from the floor and stuffed it into my backpack. Charlie hung his head and lowered his eyes, fumbling with a string hanging off the end of his shorts.
“Really. I’m sorry.”
“Whatever. When should we go?”
“We need to wait until it’s dark.”
It was on the other side of town; I hadn’t been there since I was a child. When I was younger, the park was in decent shape, before the highway construction had scared away the wildlife and before the City, underfunded and preoccupied, had let it go to neglect.
As we drove into Chamber Park, Charlie reached over and turned the dial on the radio then leaned opposite and rolled down his window. I looked at the playground equipment. The jungle-gyms and swing sets were faded into a chalky baby blue, paint peeling away from the metal, impaired by streaks of brown and flecks of rust. Most of the lights around the park were burnt out and spiderwebs made their way across the grey trees. The pleasant silence that I remember had evolved, too. The new highway on the south end of the property produced the purring sound of cars fading in and out, echoing in the overgrown forest beyond the playgrounds and baseball fields.
“You hear those cars,” Charlie asked. “That’s where we’re painting.”
“Wait,” I coughed. “What?”
Charlie just smiled. He turned into the parking lot beyond the last dusty field. We pulled into the innermost parking spot in the lot, under a broken streetlamp. Charlie turned off the car, opened his door and got out. I followed him. We got our things out of the backseat. Charlie pulled out a pack of smokes from his sweatshirt pocket and lit a cigarette. He took a few drags and passed it over to me.
“So, where to?”
“Through here,” he said, pointing toward the broken woods in front of us.
I took a long puff from the cigarette. It burnt my throat and I handed the smoke back to Charlie. We walked towards the trees with a sharp crescent moon shining above us, a slight breeze pushed against our backs. Charlie stepped into the trees and I followed him in. Leaves crunched beneath our feet, the fattest maple leaves tossed alongside their slim cousins; cicadas squealed and chirped all around us. The moon cast shadows at random across the vertical lines of trees and the floor below was dark and moonless. Charlie threw down his cigarette, the ash glowing red on the black forest floor. I stomped it out; I broke a large branch and it whipped me in the calf. I reached down to rub it and then continued on.
Charlie stopped before me and reached back and held up his hand. We were to the end of the treeline, where the Chamber Street crosses over the highway. Beneath the overpass, on our side of the highway, there was a hill that lead up to a large cement structural wall, an oversized triangle of concrete above the embankment. From the highway, the concrete wall was visible at the edge in its entirety, only the arbors of smaller oak and cedar trees giving it some cover. Above the wall, steel I-beams reached across the highway to the other side; above that, a brushed metal guardrail glowed under the moonlight.
We bent down and unzipped our packs. We waited and scanned the highway in front of us. We watched the headlights of two cars come towards us and then move on. I looked at Charlie; his eyes were wide and focused on the wall. He pulled his hood over his head. I glanced back to the highway. My hands were wet and my mind full of everything and nothing at all. The highway went dark.
“You think it’s safe?”
“Safe as it’s gonna be,” he mumbled.
He pulled out a can of paint and yanked off the cap, the pop echoing in the woods. He sprayed a pile of leaves next to him. The pile slowly turned darker and glossy. He looked at me with a crooked smile, his eyes still wide, and jumped out onto the open hill. My heartbeat moved to my ears. The smell of new paint.
I grabbed a can of green paint and went out to the wall. Crouched hunters, delicate in our stepping and in our work, we started spraying the wall. I finished a letter and looked over at Charlie; he studied his can, puzzled. There wasn’t a dot of paint on the wall in front of him. I looked back at my letter and heard the hissing sound of spray finally coming from Charlie’s side. I shook my can and began to spray my next letter. A car’s headlights shined on the bottom of the bridge and we both looked backwards and crouched down further, doing our best to resemble boulders. The car continued forward, the lights growing above us, the roar of its engine unsetting the quiet of the overpass. We held still as it drove through and under the bridge and onward down the highway.
We returned our focus. Another car passed beneath us, we paused and then went back to our labor. The cloud of overspray grew up over the edge of the bridge. The hooded figure next to me shook his can, sprayed, stepped back, resumed painting again. I turned my head to look down the highway. Another car’s headlamps shined on the black pavement below, made its way toward us. I held still again, staring at the paint dripping on the wall. The headlights seemed to last longer than the ones before, but I continued to wait.
The lights did not pass like the others. I heard the car slow down behind me. The sound of tires on gravel. Then there was the sharp sound: a horn, a siren. Charlie and I both looked back as a spotlight came on and lit up the ground beside us. Before the bright beam hit us, we were gone.
“Goddamnit,” I heard through the sound of our stomping feet. We tore through a gathering of trees. I thought, drop to the darkness. No, climb a tree.
I kept running; the woods were not thick enough to hide us. I pushed on, my hands in front of me, ducking under the limbs. I kept on, slashing through the leaves and sticks under my legs; my shoes rolled over mounds of dirt, over other things. I tried to follow Charlie through the slivers of light coming through the trees. Images blurred, moved behind me as I passed. Panic smelling of mud.
We darted out of the dark forest cover into the parking lot. We pounded the pavement, past the tattered baseball field, into the playground area. We heard a car coming around the bending road. I panicked, ran towards the only hiding place I saw. Charlie ran straight. I threw myself into a line a bushes past the jungle gym. I crouched and crawled halfway underneath the shrubs. The needles poked my legs, my back. My breath was heavy, my heart beating above my shirt. Sweat dripped into my eyes. I found a spot that I could look through the brush. My shoes were soggy and the bottom of my jeans soaked. I heard my breath, my pumping heart and the sound of slow-moving water in the creek behind me.
A car pulled into the parking lot in front of me; it turned in and neared Charlie’s car. Headlights came on. Blue and red lights swirled in the dark sky. The spotlight clicked on and lit up the entire lot. I could hear the static voice from the police radio.
I held my breath; I cursed myself. The spotlight drifted near me; it shined over me. The leaves beneath me still crunched without motion. The bright light continued to move and I let myself breathe, letting the air leak in and out, slow and steady. I did not move; I did not look up. Red, blue, white illuminated the ground. Tires popped and turned and the engine purred and the car continued onward. The rubber rolled on the gravel and the car turned out of the lot. I remained still; my lungs pushed against the ground. The engine dissipated, echoed in the playground, the baseball fields, quieter every second.
I waited several minutes. I stared at an unfinished spiderweb in front of me, a spider unmoved in its corner. Sweat dripped from my brow, my chest and armpits; my feet were heavy and wet. I closed my eyes, calmed my heartbeat. Questions and doubt swirled inside. The doubt and the questions of every sin resurfaced, a rush to the head of all the bad decisions.
The urge to move became too hard to hold. I reached for my cell phone, contemplating whether or not to call Charlie. It was not in my pocket. I sat up and padded myself down. No lump; no phone. I looked over to Charlie’s car and then around the park in front of me. The park was mostly dark and quiet; the highway was soundless. Two swings on the playground, light and bare, made slight movements with the wind.
My legs were sore when I pushed myself from the ground and dusted off the front and rear of my pants. I walked to the car in its dark corner. I tried the door and it was unlocked so I got in and looked around. I searched in the center console and the glovebox. I searched again for Charlie’s phone. I came up empty and I punched the dashboard. I hung my head, a sigh and laugh escaped.
I waited for an hour, sitting again behind the bushes, anticipating that the cops would take another turn. I have never been a man to wear a watch but then I looked at my wrist several times. The bottom of my jeans and my shoes were caked with mud. My shirt was sprayed with something, too. The slivered moon above me was bright and a few clouds, thin and staggered, moved slowly through the night sky.
I got up and walked into the forest again, looking down for any sign of my phone, Charlie, our things. When I got back to the wall I saw no evidence except for the first three letters of two incomplete words, written but unwritten. The cops had taken our bags. I turned around and went back the other way, staying in the shadows at every chance. I walked along the edge of the park, smelling the damp air and the earth. Before I got to the edge of the park, just on the other side of the entrance, the police car came back. This time, they saw me.
Off I went, running again. The cop was shouting at me; he urged me to stop. He began after me. I could hear the stumbling behind me; I could hear the gear on his belt clicking and thumping against his legs. I pushed through a field, a line of trees, hopped over a fence. I could hear nothing now but my own heavy lungs and the stomp of my cement feet. I was tiring fast. I ran into another open field, recently cropped, the high lumps of dirt tripping me and keeping me off balance until I reached another row of shadowy wood. I needed to rest and I prayed my lungs had outlasted his. I dropped down behind a tree, a thick maple, red on one side and black on the other.
He had fallen behind. I tried to listen but my heart was in my eyes and ears and my lungs exploded from my chest, threatening to release themselves from their cages. I heard no follower. I blew out air, sucked it in. My vision was blurring. I sucked in, I wheezed out.
He had outsmarted me. I caught sight of him in front of me. He had a round, red face and the shiny objects along his belt were glowing against his dark suit. I froze in my sweat, the hair stood high on my arms. He scanned the area. His eyes met mine, and although it was dark, he saw me.
“Stop,” he demanded. “Don’t fucking move.”
Against my better judgement, I did not listen. I pushed hard against the floor; I tripped. He began running towards me. I jumped up and started running, my legs unknown to the rest of my body. I wheeled around tree limbs, rushed towards the last field I had visited. I pushed on; I pushed on. He followed and followed. I reached another line of trees, tripped again and a sharp curl of pain slid upward into my chest. My leg twisted under my knee. I got up and limped onward. He slowed behind me. I kept on and on, all earthly things — mounds of soil, piles of leaves, green puddles — appearing and disappearing under my vision.
I fell a third time attempting to hop over a small canyon carved by an old creek. I slid down a hill and slipped into a dried-up stream and jumped into an embankment and, again, stumbled into a flat expanse. I was upright again but my legs were unable to continue; my knee was another heart far below the proper one. I reached another field beyond the last and dropped into a high crop growing within it. I pushed leaves aside until I couldn’t anymore. The stalks were thick and green and the high leaves blocked the moon from my sight. I stopped running. I collapsed underneath the shadows of the carnivorous plants, eating away my breath and blood and leaving me without sight. I was lost without loss. I was all I knew. I was dizzy and shook beneath the hairy limbs around me.
“I give up,” I huffed. “I give up. Just take me.”
There was only the sound of crickets and frogs, barking loudly above my heartbeat. Pumping and chirping, chirping and croaking, breath, in and out. The darkness of the plants and the night listened only to my hard, heavy heaving. I turned and coughed and tears formed in the corners of my eyes.
The earth beneath the tall plants was cool and it welcomed my surrender. My body sunk deeper and deeper into the soil.
It was midnight when I walked into the Phillips 66, my hair and clothes ragged. Charlie’s sister was behind the counter on her phone, she paused all movement when she saw me. She roughly chewed her gum. Her red polo shirt clung tight to her breasts; her dark hair lay on her shoulders.
“I have to go,” she said into the phone. “I’ll call you right back, okay?”
She dropped her phone on the counter.
“What the hell happened to you?”
I roughed up my hair even worse and pushed it from my eyes. I looked down at myself.
“Just got back from a rave.”
“Some rave, I guess?”
“Can I please use your phone?”
I stared at her. I looked around the store for other patrons.
“Does it fucking matter?”
She shrugged, shook her head. She chomped her gum.
“Here you go, Buttercup. Knock yourself out.”
I grabbed the phone and called Charlie. He didn’t answer. I waited. The cool air inside the store was sent from God. I looked through the shelves and eyed all the bags of chips, beef jerky, the small rectangular packages of gum in every bright color. I grabbed a candy bar and asked Shannon if I could eat it. She obliged. I tore it open and devoured the chocolate tube in seconds. I could have eaten four more. I handed the phone back to Shannon.
“Any chance you could give me a ride home?”
“Why can’t my brother come pick you up?”
“He didn’t answer.”
I crumpled up the paper from the chocolate bar and shot it into the trashcan behind the counter. It landed inside and bounced back out. Shannon gave me a look of disgust and picked it up and threw it away.
“You could just give me your keys?”
“Are you even old enough to drive?”
“I’ve got my license, yeah.”
She stared me down and laughed, her mouth tight but her teeth exposed.
“Yeah, right. You can wait until my brother calls you back.”
I was tired and didn’t care what she said. I pushed out the doors of the gas station and sat down against the edge of the building. I placed my head between my knees and closed my eyes. I looked down at my muddy shoes, the line of moisture on the bottom of my jeans. I went back in and asked for the phone. I tried three different numbers before I reached Sam. She was crying.
“I’m so sorry,” I began.
“I’m sure you are.”
I walked back outside. Two older men pushed past me into the gas station.
“I almost got arrested. It’s been a night. I didn’t mean to ditch you, okay? I lost my phone and I had to run and everything.”
“You could have just told me you didn’t want to go.”
“I did want to go. I just…”
I could hear her sniffles stunted by an arm or a heavy tissue.
“I waited for you. I could have gone without you but I waited.”
“This isn’t an excuse, I seriously got stuck. And I don’t have a phone.”
“You have a phone now?”
“It’s Shannon’s. Charlie’s sister.”
She hung up. The phone went black. I cursed and kicked the trash can. A pain shot up my leg into my chest and head, ears ringing. I sat down and dialed her again. It rang several times. She answered.
“Will you please just listen,” I pleaded.
“I’ll make it up to you, okay? I really need you to be…I need you to trust me.”
It was too quiet.
“Fine, we’ll see. I’m not picking you up though. Call me tomorrow.”
She hung up again. I leaned my head against the store window.
A few minutes later, Charlie pulled into the parking lot and got out of his car and started walking into the gas station. He opened the glass door to walk in and saw me, a bewildered look on his face.
“Holy shit,” he said. “What the hell happened to you?”
He looked untouched, not a scratch or speck of dirt on him save his usual appearance. I stood up and leaned against the store. He walked over to me. We exchanged stories about what had happened: which way he ran, which way I ran, how the cop had tracked me down a second time, how he had ran to the closest neighborhood. He smiled the whole time; I told my story unamused.
“That was nuts,” he screamed. “We got lucky on that one, right?”
“Hell yeah. We got away without a scratch.” He looked at me, up and down. “Well, without much.”
“I guess. All I know is that I’m not going there again.”
He stared, his mouth wide.
“Seriously? We gotta finish those tags, man. Adds a nice challenge, don’t you think?”
“Why don’t we just tag the police station while we’re at it.”
“We should,” he smiled. He slapped my shoulder.
“Hey, you wanna go back to this party with me?”
I was kicking at some trash on the ground. I stopped.
“Wait. A party?”
“Yeah, dude. House party. At Stevenson’s, not too far from here. I went there after I grabbed my car from the park. Bitches everywhere.”
“What? You went to Stevenson’s?”
“Yeah. What else was I supposed to do?”
He smiled and stuck a piece of gum into his mouth. He began chewing it and looked around at the bugs flying around the light above us.
“I’m gonna grab some beer from my sister and go back. You game or not?”
I watched the small insects swirl above us, run into the glass and bounce off and return to the air.
“Can you just take me home?”
“Home? If you want…”
“Come on. You can just drop me anywhere on our side and I’ll walk.”
“I’ll take you to your house,” he responded. “Just give me a minute.”
Charlie walked inside the gas station and argued with his sister for fifteen minutes until he stomped out empty handed.
“Let’s get the fuck outta here. Hey, can I grab a few beers from your mom?”
“Whatever. If there’s any left, they’re all yours.”
Sam kneeled down and tied her shoe before we began our hike through the forest. The woods before us were in their most green, boundless trees and bushes and weeds popping out of every spare inch. It took me a few minutes to find the path; the greenery had pushed into the cleared ground and left only a space wide enough for one leg.
My knee had swollen to the size of a bowling ball by the time we reached the field. The sunflowers were bright yellow and tan forever, the tall stalks blowing in unison like the waves of a great amber lake. Sam pushed aside a tree branch, ducked under it and dropped herself onto a fallen log and gazed out onto the yellow expanse.
“How’s your knee?” asked Sam.
“It’ll be okay,” I said. “What do you think?”
She continued to gaze into the flowers.
“You were right. It’s unbelievable.”
I ducked under the same branch she had earlier and sat down next to her. The look she had was one I wouldn’t see again until much later in my life I took my future wife to the ocean for the first time. A stare beyond all other stares; the deepest kind of gaze, where her eyes had created their own blinders and nothing else was visible, just the flowers and the sky and the way the tips of the yellow petals reached out into the blue. I was not even there; I did not matter. She floated above the field and stayed there then she cried and came back down. She laid her head on my shoulder, wrapping her arm around mine and grabbing my hand.
From where we sat, the flowers all seamed muddied, planted haphazardly together, unorganized and dirty. But as our sight moved outward through the field, lines began to form and by the end of the line, we could see the green stalks and the rows of dirt between the tall line of earthy soldiers, their yellow scarves the only touching parts in an organized madness.
“Have you heard from your brother lately,” she asked.
I let one side of my mouth move and shook my head.
“Did I tell you about the postcard?”
“Yeah, you told me. Greece, right?”
“Yep. That was then. I’m sure he’s having a grand time somewhere else now.”
She looked up at the sky, squinting. She looked over at me.
“It won’t last forever, you know. He’ll have to come back and face it sometime.”
“Sometime. I guess that’s true.”
A large, dark bird took off from a tree beyond the field. The bird’s long wings pushed once in the air and then held still, gliding among the lowest hanging clouds. The flowers below moved with the wind, the yellow ocean shifting back and forth. The sun was dropping each passing minute.
Sam pulled out her phone and took a photo of the field then turned her camera to me. I turned half a smile and stared into the camera as the flash went off.
“Good one,” she said, looking at the phone.
She looked up, smiled at me; I smiled back. She rose and asked if I wanted to go; I grabbed her hand and she helped me get up. I slid down the hill and plucked one of the smaller flowers from the plants. I crawled back up and held the sunny bloom in front of me.
“For you,” I said. “They were all out of roses.”
She laughed and grabbed the flower. She put it to her nose, inhaled, and then threw the flower back at me. Seeds from the flower’s center went down my shirt; I shook them from me.
Shannon got me a job at the Phillips station stocking shelves, emptying ashtrays, taking out the trash, etcetera. I took one week off to go see my father in Wichita and welcomed the first night back on the job. After my shift I climbed to the roof with a tall can of beer in a paper bag and looked out onto the fields and houses around the town. The tar on the roof was soft and tacky. I watched cars pull into the pumps, get their gas, and drive on. The back end of the parapet and its upper edge were tagged with Sharpie, a handful of names written in hieroglyphic letters. The moon hung above me. I drank my beer and smoked until the cherry of my cigarette became grey and cold beneath my nose. I smothered the cigarette under my shoe and watched insects cling to the lights and canopies below, crawl around the ground in a panic. I finished my beer and climbed back down. The air was thick and tasteless.
I pulled my car around and filled up my tank and drove home. The late night radio was playing track after track of songs that I did not know, but liked, so I turned it up and rolled down the windows. I wasn’t paying attention and I missed the turn to my own neighborhood; I hit the brakes too late and continued on until the next stop and U-turned back towards my street. As I turned onto my street, I saw my mother pull out. She didn’t see me; she was in the process of rolling down her window and smoke was billowing from the crack.
I turned into my street and drove down the hill and turned into our driveway. She had left the garage door open so I pulled my car into the garage. I sat in the car and listened to the radio before going inside. My shirt was heavy with sweat, especially damp in the armpits.
Upstairs, I took my shirt off and lay down in bed. The ceiling fan was spinning, the wind from the blades lightly lifting the edges of the paper on my walls. To the left hung a bootleg print of Jasper Johns’ Flag. On the opposite wall, there were a few new sketches I had made, hung with masking tape. One of them, an open field and a weathered barn, was painted with yellow and blue watercolors. The other drawing was a line of train cars, sketched out in black and white. I kept the former for a long time, framed it even at my place in college; the latter ended up lost somewhere in the shuffle.
About the Author: Andrew Gordon Rogers writes poetry and short fiction, both of which have appeared in various publications including Counterexample Poetics, First Stop Fiction, Commonthought and Meniscus Literary Journal. Rogers graduated from the University of Kansas with a BA in creative writing and he now lives and works in Kansas City, Missouri.