Eleven-thirty. Her mother would be counting pills at the pharmacy until eight o’clock tonight. This left Jacey to spend the day with her cousin Maya, who was down here for the week. Four days ago, Maya had descended from the mountains to visit before going off to a free government school for the best young dancers in the state. In Jacey’s opinion, Maya had already been here too long. As children, they’d spent nearly every summer together in joy. They’d suffered summer camp as a team, had stolen newts from mountain ponds and chocolate and lipstick from Charlotte drugstores and, in later days, some wine and painkillers from Maya’s unhappy mother. They had tried out their first kisses on each other, just as practice, and one summer, when Jacey was ten, they’d eaten scabs from each other’s knees to cement a pact to someday raise their families in the same duplex home on the Carolina coast.
But the bond of that scab lunch was no longer worth much when puberty hit and aimed the girls at different destinies. Three weeks shy of sixteen, Maya had evolved into a five-foot-ten-inch mantis of legendary poise and ballet repute, while Jacey still went around with a shiny chin and forehead and a figure like a pickle jar. Maya sighed a lot over Rudolf Nureyev and often said how hard it was to love a dead man. She worried about her art in language borrowed from New York critics—“It’s so hard to find a balance between exactitude and passion”—talk as comprehensible to Jacey as whale song. She fretted over the precious cartilage in her knees and ankles, saying, “I’ll never forgive myself if I have to fall back on modeling”—already, she’d appeared in local circulars for a chain of department stores.
It wasn’t as if Jacey lacked gifts of her own. Her singing voice was a confident, husky alto that never strayed from key. At the junior follies, she performed the anthem “Strawberry Wine” with so much solitude and longing that the gym teacher, a white-haired gargoyle who’d never expressed a single sentiment besides “Muscles work by shortening,” had had to dab away tears. So what? You didn’t hear Jacey going on about how all of Manhattan or Nashville would be aching for her soon. No, she planned to plow on to a career in pharmacy or physical therapy, maybe sing a little around the house if she found a husband who could play a good guitar. Where Maya had been chosen to flit high above life’s brambles, Jacey was not ashamed to be the honest little boulder, rolling bluntly through the thorns.
Though this would probably be the last summer interlude the cousins would share, Maya had shown insultingly little interest in spending time with Jacey. Here were things Maya had so far declined to do with her cousin: go ice skating at the mall, see a movie, attend a secret beer party two neighborhoods over, shop, and watch the volunteer fire department light a derelict house on fire and hose it out. Maya seemed to regard all the attractions of greater Charlotte as tiresome backwoods dullness—this from someone whose hometown consisted of railroad tracks, two dozen hicks and craftsfolk, and some dogs. What could you do with a person like that? You could not say another nice word to her until she left for dance school on Monday, which is what Jacey resolved to do as she made her way downstairs.
In the sun-warmed closeness of the room, Jacey sprawled across the daybed. The toasted, musty scent of the quilt was pleasant in her nose. Jacey decided she would be happy in this spot until her father arrived that evening and took her out to dinner. Every two weeks, he drove up to see her from where he lived with his wife in Southern Pines. Jacey was still recovering from the half decade of seething hostility she’d felt toward her father after her parents’ divorce. During the worst of their difficulties, two years ago, Jacey had tried to stab her shy father with a nail file. This news had gotten out, and to this day Jacey’s extended relatives viewed her as the family’s embarrassing lunatic, bound for a life of poverty and disgrace, though Jacey was a responsible student and had made the A/B honor roll four semesters straight. There wouldn’t be any more violence with her father. Hate is tiring when the fun wears out, and she lacked the energy for it now. Anyway, her father really hadn’t done anything wrong except marry a tall, raucous woman whose stirrup pants matched her army-general bearing. Jacey looked forward to seeing her father tonight. She hoped to persuade him to take her to Crawdaddy’s Restaurant, so she could have the Cajun Chicken Littles that she liked.
Jacey clicked the television on. It showed golf, golf, Mama’s Family, and the program Wild America. The host, Marty Stouffer, was busy at his habit of laying bare hands on something horrid and fascinating from nature—today, a heap of freshly discarded velvet from an elk’s horns. Veins were in the stuff. It looked like carpet from a murder site.
“Look at you, little cozy,” Maya said when she entered the sunroom at a quarter of twelve. She was dressed in her latest style, a gauzy swoon of scarves and shawls in the mode of Stevie Nicks. In one hand she held a handkerchief, in the other a box of Vantages. Maya smoked openly. No one gave her trouble about it because in her profession a cigarette was seen as something like a vitamin. Maya yawned and began to twist her hair into a knot. It hung thick past her waist, and she complained about it often, usually declaring in the same breath how she planned to donate it to a company that made wigs for cancer patients. Really, it was a small miracle that Maya had not caught fire with all her gossamer swaddlings and surplus moral hair wafting near the embers of her cigarettes.
“There’s a dead bird in my bed,” Jacey said, not taking her eyes off the screen.
Maya looked quizzical. “What’s that, code for something?”
“For a dead bird in my bed.”
“Seriously? Right now?”
“What kind of bird?”
“Nasty,” said Jacey. “An ugly wet little baby.”
“Can I see it?”
“Nope,” said Jacey.
“Scopes is locked in there with it, is why. I’m not letting him out until he eats it.”
“Aren’t you clever,” said Maya.
“Compared to what?” said Jacey.
Maya looked discomfited. She gave an awkward rear-throat chortle. Jacey thought with some glee that Maya was already feeling the sting of her indifference. As if seized by a sudden chill, Maya launched into a piping suite of sneezes. “Excuse me,” she said. “Something around here is really giving me the snuffles.”
Jacey flipped the channels through the whole loop and came back to Stouffer, still handling that awful velvet. “Hold your breath, I guess.”
“Mm-kay,” said Maya. “So you just left it there? The bird?”
“I’ll throw it out for you, if you want. I don’t mind dead stuff.”
“Scopes is on the case,” Jacey said. In the face of Maya’s sudden gentleness, now Jacey felt small and childish. “Hey, you hungry?”
Maya said she’d love a bite of something, and Jacey went into the kitchen to whip up a large gourmet brunch for two. She forked cheddar cheese into some eggs, and with a butter knife, she pried a gray cube steak from the rink of ice-tray sloshings at the bottom of the freezer. She threw that in the pan with a clang and goosed the flame until the meat bent and smoked. Then she doused it with a pour of red wine from an open jug.
“Oh, my God,” Maya groaned over her plate, though the piece of beef she had accepted was no larger than a domino. “Jace, this is literally the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.”
“Plenty left,” Jacey said around a juicy mouthful.
“Ooh, better not,” said Maya, which Jacey would have taken as an insult had Maya not winningly disclosed that as much as she loved red meat, it tended to strand her on the commode. Jacey finished the steak in good cheer while Maya rounded out her brunch with cashew butter spread thin across an oaten shingle, foods she’d packed down specially from the hills.
For three quarters of an hour the girls lay on the daybed in companionable style, talking of the habits of their mothers, both single ladies, and of the failings of their fathers and their fathers’ wives. They talked of rock ’n’ roll, shampoo, and of a terrific new brand of wine cooler for sale at your better stores. Then Maya glanced at the brass pocket watch she was affecting these days. She said, “Ah, suck. Jace, do you think Aunt June would care if I called Charleston? I need to. I can leave her some bucks.”
“Who’s in Charleston?”
“Oh, this guy Doug”—a fellow model, Maya explained, with whom she’d been photographed last spring in a seaside embrace, an advertisement for the Big Stick Surf Shop in Myrtle Beach. Maya reached into the Guatemalan bag that was always close at hand, and produced a photograph of a tanned young man with a cowrie shell necklace standing on a beach. Teeth so white and even they looked false, eyes large and liquid as a mule’s beneath dark and tousled salt-stiff hair. He was a person of such beauty that Jacey had to check the back of the photo to be sure it wasn’t a clipping from a magazine.
“This is your boyfriend?” Jacey said.
“In his opinion,” Maya said. “He’s been up to see me a few times. He wants to take me to Burning Man in August. He’s always talking about how you can get married in Nevada when you’re sixteen. I can’t say how many times I’ve told him no, but he keeps not getting the message on purpose. He’s really kind of a pest.”
Jacey was still gripping the photo. “Shit, Maya. There’s people out there who’d cut off their foot to get with somebody that looks like this.”
“Fine but poor, dumb Doug,” Maya said with a sigh. “The other day, I was telling him about how I want to do the Peace Corps in Suriname, and he asked if there were any tigers left in Africa.”
In Jacey’s opinion, Maya herself was guilty of some idiocy here. You did not low-rate a racing stallion because its command of French was poor. But Jacey kept her mouth shut because she didn’t know where Suriname was, either. If she had to guess, she’d have said it had something to do with the Vietnam War.
Maya cut her eyes at Jacey. “But actually, that’s not why I need to ditch him. There’s something else.”
“It’s a secret. You gotta swear you won’t tell.”
“Sure,” said Jacey.
“Not anyone. Not even what’s-her-name, Dana.”
“We’re not friends anymore.”
“Don’t even put it in your diary. If Aunt June finds out, I am so seriously fucked.”
“Shit, I won’t already. Would you just tell me?”
The secret was this: Maya had been intriguing with Robert Pettigrew, an assistant director at the Governor’s School of the Performing Arts, where Maya was heading next week. She’d met Pettigrew at a statewide competition in Lenoir the previous spring. They had been corresponding, and his letters had confirmed that he was a sincere and caring person who, despite their age difference, was, Maya said, “totally in touch with my world.”
“He just turned thirty-five,” said Maya.
“Jesus Christ! Did you say thirty-five?” yelled Jacey.
Maya’s face grew cold and dark. She went for her cigarettes. “Forget it. Stupid to tell you.”
“Look, Maya, I’m not gonna narc you out, but it’s just, I mean, thirty-five.”
“Judge me, I don’t give two shits,” Maya said curtly. “It’s between me and Robert, and as far as I’m concerned, everyone else can cram it. Age is just a label. Our thing is, we’re both old souls.”
Maya sighed. “I love him, Jacey.”
There was no responding to this remark. Jacey’s own father was merely thirty-seven.
“He just unlocks these rooms inside me,” Maya was saying. “It’s like he knows things about me that I don’t even know myself.”
In private revulsion, Jacey clenched her teeth so that an upper canine screeched against a lower. “God, well have you, I mean did you-all...” Jacey could not find a term appropriate for when a young girl is groaned on by a thirty-five-year-old lieutenant of the arts.
“Have we been lovers?”
Been lovers—the eyeteeth screeched again. Who said that? It called up an image of those two at it beneath a flowering arbor while swans watched. “Did you?” Jacey said.
“Robert wants to wait until Thanksgiving, until I turn sixteen.”
“Wait for good, is my advice. I think you’re insane to give up on Doug.” Jacey was gazing at the photo, smoothing the hair with her finger. “Suriname. I’d take him if he couldn’t find the earth ona globe.”
Maya giggled into her teacup with a bubbling grotto sound. “Well, you’re welcome to him, Jace. I can hardly stand to talk to him on the phone. After with Robert? Seeing how it can be? Even talking to Doug makes me feel so incredibly alone. When he talks, it’s just sound. It’s like the noise in a seashell.”
“See, I love that sound! It’s relaxing!”
“Then you guys would make a nice pair.”
“Yeah, except he’d never like me,” Jacey said.
“Trust me, Jacey, he’d be lucky to get you.”
“Sure he would.”
“Why not? You’re beautiful. You’re hot. I’d pay a million dollars to have your eyes and your sweet freckles. Believe me, you’d be selling yourself short. He wouldn’t even get your jokes. You’d be instantly bored.”
“That would not happen,” said Jacey.
“You do the road trip with him, then. Four days with Doug will send me off the deep end. It really will.”
“I’d go in one second.”
Maya laughed her trilling laugh. “Fantastic. You’d be bailing me out in a major way.”
“No, I’m serious!” said Jacey, now sitting cross-legged and straight-backed on the sofa bed, nearly quaking with interest. “I’m there.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t swallow your tongue. Anyway, I really do need to call him. You don’t think Aunt June would mind?”
Jacey felt a little dizzy. “Hell, no!” she said, and ran off to fetch the cordless phone.
Maya looked a little put out that Jacey hovered so near while she dialed up Charleston. But Jacey, who was temporarily insane with fantasies of coasting through Nevada buttes in the car of Doug, the mule-eyed cowrie man, was not about to leave. She wanted to see what wiles and arts Maya would use to bring this thing about. Let him down easy, and then slip him Jacey as a substitute when the moment was perfect, that was the trick—like the moment in Indiana Jones when Jones swipes the golden idol off the weight-sensitive dais and swaps it so deftly for the bag of sand. A delicate maneuver, one that only someone like Maya with her grown-up, alien grace had the gifts for pulling off.
To her disappointment, Jacey could just barely make out the sandy rasping of Doug’s voice in the receiver. She wished she’d thought to listen in from the extension in her room. Wisely, Maya did not launch straight into talk of Jacey but first lulled him with some chitchat. She talked about a chigger bite on her knee. Then she had some words to say about someone unknown to Jacey named DJ Now-and-Later. Then Maya started discussing the photo shoot for a Belk Leggett holiday mailer. By now Jacey was thinking it was probably time to get down to brass tacks on the issue of her trip to Burning Man. But the chatter wound on through another seven (probably expensive) minutes of friendly nonsense before Maya finally said, “I told you, Forgetful Jones, I’m not at home. I’m down near Charlotte, staying with Aunt June and my cousin Jacey.”
Hearing her name, Jacey felt an exhilarating terror that Maya was going to put the phone into her hand. What could she say to such a man? Wild-eyed, she shook her head at Maya, who returned a bothered look and went on talking. Though Maya was more the expert in these matters, Jacey felt she could use some coaching at this point. She tapped Maya’s knee. “What is it?” Maya whispered.
“Look, just say I’m funny,” Jacey said.
“Just tell him I’m funny and hot.”
Maya nodded. “Yeah, Doug? Hey, I’ve got a message from my cousin. Yeah. She wants me to tell you she’s funny and hot.” Jacey felt an urge to barf.
“Of course she does, dummy.” Maya cupped her palm over the receiver and said, “He says to tell you ’preesh.”
Jacey gaped at her cousin for a moment. Quitting the sunroom, she had to try hard not to break into a run.
Up in Jacey’s bedroom, Scopes the cat had done nothing with the bird. He was hunched beside it on the pillow, settling in for an all-day gloat. Jacey scowled out her window. Her pulse drummed in her cheeks. She wished she had something valuable to smash. She heard Maya hang up on Charleston, and her breathing slowed a little. Then Jacey picked up the phone and called Leander Buttons at his parents’ home.
Jacey had necked with Buttons ten days earlier. It had sort of been an accident, and Jacey’s plan was not to talk to him until school started in the fall, if then. Leander wasn’t much more than five feet tall. He was known behind his back as Little Buttons, and sometimes to his face. He’d been homeschooled until eighth grade. A boy of mixed interests, he was good on the trombone and was also aspiring to be a burnout. His crowds included both the doofs of the marching band and those lesser hippies who kicked the Hacky Sack on the farthest circle of the school’s doper scene. Little Buttons’s hygiene was poor. His eyes watered, and he so often had a piece of food in the corner of his mouth that you wondered if he kept it in a bedside saucer overnight and donned it in the morning. One time at lunch, his friends took a set of clippers to his head, and the resulting ball of hair was a marvel of filth, full of so much natural grease that it held its form when kicked about the Hacky ring.
But there had been mitigating circumstances for Jacey to get close to him the other night uptown. That evening, Jacey had climbed high into the magnolia tree overreaching the New Life Church with her best friend, Eileen Gutch. They’d drunk three bottles apiece of Little Kings Cream Ale before a rough, hot rain began to fall. The weather sent Gutch running home. With two hours until her mother picked her up, Jacey was alone, woozy, and heart-swollen in the downtown, wandering wet streets that gleamed as you would have them gleam in the sweet summer film of your life.
Down by the parking deck, she saw Little Buttons stagger from a shrub. They were not friends, but they had shared homeroom and English class two years in a row. His shirt was mulchy, and he had a red dome on his forehead. He explained he’d just now bashed it on something during a bout of “The Elevator,” also known as “The Charlotte Classic,” in which you hyperventilated and your friend rammed you on the sternum so that you fainted for a low-rent high. Leander’s partner in the Classic had also vanished when the weather came. So in an act of beery tenderness and rainy-night desire, Jacey took Leander’s hand in hers and led him to the planetarium. Not to the main theater, where you had to pay four dollars to watch the star machine throw the constellations—but to an old, free place, the Copernican Orrery on the forgotten second floor. Here, when you mashed a green lozenge on the wall, the lights dimmed, hidden gears in the ceiling thunked and squealed, and for five minutes the planets of the solar system, portrayed by foam balls spray-painted Day-Glo colors, lurched around a yellow party bulb that was the sun.
She and Buttons lay in there an hour and a half and mashed the lozenge eighteen times. The necking got fairly grave, but nothing irreparable took place. At one point, Little Buttons quit his exertions to ask if Jacey was a virgin, a question she had no exact answer for. The story was this: Last summer, at a coeducational overnight camp in Tennessee, she wound up in a tent with a boy from New Jersey, also thirteen at the time. He went at her. His wooing was a literal impersonation of the ardent French skunk Pepé Le Pew. Miraculously, this had resulted in both Jacey’s first real kiss and her first mostly nude movements with a boy. For technical reasons, she had not wholly “given up the rock,” as Eileen Gutch liked to describe the act. If she had to put a figure on it, Jacey supposed she’d given up the rock by about forty percent. So there in the orrery, she whispered “Not really” to Little Buttons, who was so stirred by this news that he began to breathe as though another Charlotte Classic was at hand.
Leander Buttons had telephoned three times the day after their solar-system interlude and four times the day after that. Jacey had not called him back. Until this very morning, Jacey hadn’t seen much value in being liked by a stray runt like Leander. But now with her intolerable cousin in the house, Jacey had the blues. She thought it might be good to have somebody, anybody, come by and like her for a while, no matter how much food he wore in the crook of his lips.
“Jacey?” came the high kazoo of Leander’s voice over the phone.“Yes, Leander.”
“Wow. It’s weird you’re calling me,” he honked. “I only left about fifty thousand messages.”
“You could’ve told me you made it home, at least. Somebody could have murdered you, for all I knew.”
“Yeah, well, I did get murdered, but just a little. But listen, Leander, what are you doing today?”
“Not much. Practicing my trombone.” He gave a little blurt as proof. “Then I told my sister I’d help her make a peanut-butter log because she’s bummed out and wants to cook. Then maybe duckpin bowling with Josh Gurskis and some dudes.”
“I’ve got an idea. Don’t do any of that stuff,” Jacey said briskly. “Come over to my house. I want to have a movie day.”
“At your house?” His tone was cautious. He seemed to smell a trap.
“Yes, Leander, at my house.”
“With your parents?”
“No. No parents. My mom’s away all day. She’s at work.”
“Um, well, what kind of movies are you talking about?”
“Let’s see, there’s at least Jaws and Turner & Hooch and I think Excalibur and one that I don’t know what it is. The label’s rubbed off.”
“Well, what do you think that one is?”
Jacey sighed. “Shit, Leander, I don’t know! But if it’s been here this long, it’s probably something good. Now, look, do you want to come over here or not?”
He said he’d be there in about one hour.
Little Buttons had to ride a Puch-brand moped eight miles to get to Jacey’s house, which lay in a rear-county outbreak of brick ramblers on the verge of some state woods. Jacey ran downstairs when she heard the moped blat into the lane. By the time she was out the front door, Leander already had the kickstand down and was inspecting a ding in the Puch’s blue flank.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“For one thing, I nearly got in a wreck coming over here. Somebody threw a Cheerwine can at me on Piney Mountain Drive.”
“No way. Are you hurt?”
“Nah, it was just an empty can, but still, I almost drove into a tree. That fucker. He’s lucky I was trying to get here fast, or I’d have followed him home so I could cut his tires sometime.”
Honestly, Jacey could see how somebody might want to throw a can at Little Buttons. He was dressed to invite one. His hair was not the usual nest. Rather, he had slicked it back with so much styling crud, it looked like a knob of fresh pavement. His shirt was a nightclub shirt of a shiny fabric, and he wore tight black jeans that tapered to a pair of feathered loafers like something stolen off an Alpine pimp. In one way, she was flattered that he had taken the time for all that primping, yet the outfit bespoke an intensity and strangeness of affection that Jacey did not feel equal to. Also, it made her uncomfortable about what she had on, cutoffs and a t-shirt from her bagging job at the Harris Teeter grocery store.
“What did you get so dressed up for, Leander?”
“You don’t like it?”
“No, no, I do like it. It’s just, you sort of got a lot going on.”
Buttons scanned the ground unhappily. “My sister Gina did it. I told her I was coming to see you, and she put all this crap on me. I look like a shithead, right?”
Jacey laughed. “No, Leander, you look fine. You look nice.
“You look nice,” said Little Buttons, sauntering to her. He squinted into her face and made her feel shy. He smelled clean. “It’s weird to see you.”
“Yeah. It’s weird and great,” he said.
Jacey managed not to flinch when he hugged her and gave her a brisk kiss on the cheek. Unreproved, Buttons prolonged the clinch, sighing and gulping in her ear, running his finger along the proud flesh where Jacey’s bra strap cut into her back.
“Okay, okay, Leander,” said Jacey.
He fell back and went into a fit of feeling his hair. Then he did a queer, vaguely palsied move where he dragged his wrist across his zipper and gave his hips a light twist.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“No, it’s cool,” said Jacey. “I just wasn’t ready to get squeezed like that.”
Leander cracked his knuckles.
“So anyway, I think Jaws is what we ought to watch, that is if it’s Jaws 1 you’ve got,” Leander said. “I like it when they’re on the boat at night.”
But Jacey was now unsure if she’d been wise in committing to an afternoon on the sofa with Leander Buttons. An old-time porch swing would have been the thing right then. Before being trapped with him on the couch, she wanted to sit in the open air with Little Buttons, to see in clear light this face that had kissed her in the dark of the orrery.
Jacey balked and squinted at the green cottage across the street as though it had just been built the night before.
“Are we going inside?”
“In a minute,” said Jacey, with no idea of what she wanted to do.
At that moment, Maya appeared on the front steps. She’d shed her gypsy scarves for a t-shirt, sneakers, and a pair of blue cotton shorts that were not far from underpants. Looking at her cousin, Jacey was suddenly reminded that a theorem for telling whether two right triangles are congruent is “leg-leg.”
She was still sore at her cousin over the Charleston phone call, and would be for a long time to come, though she was grateful that Maya didn’t smirk or lift an eyebrow at Leander’s garb. Maya, the lovely hypocrite, was back to all sweetness and sorority. She said that she was going for a walk. Would Jacey like her to bring back some birch beer or snack cakes from the little store up the road?
Now that Jacey thought of it, a trip to the store seemed like a good idea, the right kind of break-in period she wanted before settling down to Jaws and Buttons in the dim light of the den. Jacey suggested they all walk to the store to buy things for “movie salad”—popcorn tossed with Chex mix, M&M’s, and plenty of melted butter. Buttons said that he could double Jacey on the Puch. Jacey said no. She had firm views on doubling. She had been pretty good friends with Ricky Murphy, who that past spring had slipped off the back of a scooter and caved his skull in on the curb.
On the walk up Smithfield Road, Maya did not talk of Nureyev, or modeling, or of her own greatness. Instead, she boasted of Jacey’s triumphs, her singing voice, and her speed in the fifty-yard dash (Jacey had the surprising fleet-footedness you sometimes find in the plump); how at the girls’ camp of their childhood, Jacey had outfoxed a group of Methodists who’d beaten the cousins to the signup sheet for canoes by reminding them that at Judgment the last would be first, and that the meek would inherit the earth. The Methodists had stampeded to be the first to surrender their paddles, and all day the cousins had cruised the lake. Jacey could not help but revel in the praise. Amazing how Maya could make herself nearly impossible to despise for very long.
As it turned out, the store was closed without explanation, and Maya said they should all go to the woods. “Because, check it out,” she said, and she pulled from her tiny pants a wizened marijuana jay. What better way to enjoy this day, she pointed out, than to get high among the trees? Leander said what fun it would be to watch Jaws behind a buzz. Jacey could not disagree.
The state forest was a realm of oaks and scrub pine blackened from controlled burns, with the new growth already assailed by wisteria and the hairy cursive of poison-ivy vines. In search of a toking place, they left the wide gravel lanes where equestrians clopped and took to the secret tracks through the thickets and thorn sward. Jacey and Maya had wandered here often in summers gone by, and Maya led the way through the old hidden trails. How nice it was, thought Jacey, that while three years had passed since they’d been here together, and the girls were not the friends they’d been, some part of Maya still kept a memory of the place.
Leander didn’t seem to mind the mud spoiling his Tyrolean loafers, or the rebel strands that had escaped his pomade helmet and swung loose about his face. You could not walk close to him because he was swinging fiercely at the brush with a walking stick he’d found.
But the trek went on longer than it needed to. Maya seemed to have forgotten about the joint and had gone into a pageant of mountain knowledge, showing Jacey and Little Buttons how to identify wild ginger, elderberry, oyster mushrooms, and sassafras. She came across a deer jaw, and wrenched loose the molars and passed them out as brown mementos of the day. Jacey lagged at the rear, now and again losing sight of Leander and Maya in the brush. It annoyed her to hear Buttons plying Maya with his own tidbits on the outdoors—the mythic depth of loblolly taproots, pyrite and arrowhead information, and how you could train a crow to be your pet with patience and crumbs.
Jacey was almost furious when they reached their resting spot—a low bluff with a view of both the main path and the gravy-colored creek at the bottom of the ravine. The waxy leaves of rhododendrons formed a thick barrier from the path. The joggers and equestrians passed by and did not notice them. Nobody saw the teenagers until a youngish man with unruly hair and an old warm-up jacket happened down the trail. He stopped, peering through the bushes. He doffed an imaginary hat and strolled down to the creek. They watched him shed his jacket, shirt, and boots, and take a seat, Indian-style, on the big island of dun stone in the middle of the stream.
Once the man was past, Maya pulled the joint from her shorts.
“You’ll like this stuff,” Maya explained to Leander, licking and pinching the paper before she lit it. “Just a nice mild mind high. Not so much a body high.”
“Are we gonna smoke it or just fuckin’ talk about it?” barked Jacey, who’d had marijuana twice and never felt a thing.
“What’s up your butt, Jacey?” Maya asked.
“Nothing. I’m hot. My legs itch.” Jacey scratched her calves furiously, and Maya watched.
“Mine get like that, too,” Maya said. “Mostly when I haven’t gotten exercise in a while.”
“I exercise,” Jacey snapped. “I swim laps four times a week.”
“That’s terrific,” said Maya. She handed the joint to Leander, along with a thin box of matches.
“A swimming person sweats a gallon of sweat an hour,” Leander said. “My brother works at the Community Center pool. They have to mess with the chemicals constantly to keep up with it. Here, Jacey.”
She took the joint and drew a cautious amount of smoke into her cheeks and passed the joint to Maya, who took a long drag and lay back in the shadow of the rhododendrons. Languidly, she put her palms to the sky and went into a spell of practiced breathing. “You know what I love?” she said. “I like the smell, that groovy rotten smell. All these plants that took in the sun and the rainwater out here years ago or whatever; now the leaves and fallen trees are rotting back into the earth, and they’re breathing all that energy back out into the air. Literally, that’s summer you’re smelling, from five, ten, a hundred years ago, all that energy coming back now. I can’t explain it. It’s sad, but it’s beautiful, too.”
“I hear you,” said Leander.
“You know what else I love?” Maya asked.
“Cheetos?” Jacey offered, trying to rupture the spell of woodland sensuality Maya had begun to weave.
“A Pringle,” said Leander Buttons. “A Pringle is a convex paraboloid.”
Whatever else it was that Maya loved, she forgot about it when the shirtless fellow down on the creek cranked up a little radio, and suave casino jazz blared dimly through the trees. The music brought Maya to her feet. She felt the air with her palms and swooped her hips around. “Get up, Jacey. Come dance with me.”
“I will not.”
“Fine, stinker. Leander. Get up. Come here. You don’t have a choice.”
Leander, nervous and gleeful, allowed Maya to pull him up. She glided around before him, and Leander staggered after her, kind of shadowboxing, his head lolling and looking everywhere, because he couldn’t settle on which was the best part of Maya to watch. The next tune started, a waltz. Maya drew Leander to her, squiring him around the bluff. He was grinning like a fool. He got his hands down on the bare gap between Maya’s shirt and shorts and left them there.
Jacey could feel the anger coming off her like heat lines on a road. She managed to restrain herself the first time Maya lowered Leander in a competition-grade dip, but the second time, the rage spilled out of her. “All right,” she yelled. “You know how to fuckin’ dance. We get the goddamned point, Maya. You can sit down now.”
Leander and Maya stopped, but they didn’t turn each other loose. Maya showed her smooth teeth in a quizzical half smile. “Jesus, what the hell is wrong with you?” she asked. “I asked you to dance and you said no. What do you care?”
“I don’t care,” Jacey said, getting up. “Dance all you want. Or actually, why don’t you just go off somewhere and fuck? I mean, there’s all kinds of bushes and stuff around here for you all to fuck in.”
Maya drew in a sharp, shocked breath and dropped her arms from Leander’s shoulders. Leander tittered. Jacey went on. “Yeah, you want to, Leander? She’ll totally do it. She’s a pretty big slut. See, there’s a guy in Charleston she’s trying to quit fucking, because of this other guy she’s getting ready to fuck, her teacher or somebody, but she can’t fuck him yet because he’s so goddamned old it’s against the law, even though she wants him to.”
A collapsed, stunned look came over Maya, as though a piece of crucial rigging had been snipped behind her face. Her mouth hung open wide enough to take a tangerine.
Whatever sound Maya was about to make, Jacey didn’t want to hear it. She ran off through the understory, and it was not until she reached the creek that she began to cry. Hot tears rushed out of her. But fearing that Maya and Buttons could see her from their roost, she quickly choked her weeping off and rinsed her sticky face in the creek.
What she wanted most was to go back to the afternoon dark of her mother’s house and watch TV and eat Triscuit crackers topped with cheddar cheese and a pickle coin. But to leave the woods, she would have to pass the spot where Maya and Leander were hiding out. She felt she couldn’t let them see her heading home and hold on to any dignity, so she wandered the creek, hoping to look distracted and at ease. She walked downstream and upstream again. She pitched rocks into the water. She stroked lichen and squatted for crayfish, which calmed her not at all.
Not far from the bluff, she paused to look at the shirtless man lying out on the stone island. He had his radio going and his eyes closed, as glad in the sun as a cat. She watched him put a green beer bottle to his lips, drain it, and set it in the creek. The bottle bobbed through the eddy and lodged downstream in a wad of beige foam. Then he felt for another in a crowd of bottles clanking in a pool near his hand, opened it, and tipped some of it back, all without opening his eyes. You had to appreciate somebody who all he needed was a hot stone, beer, and a cheap radio to have a good time. Jacey thought she might like to talk to him, just say hello, at least, but he just kept on sunning himself. Minutes went by, and Jacey could feel Maya and Leander’s eyes on her, watching her loiter on the bank like a fool.
“Hey!” she called to him.
The man lifted his head to look at her, raising cobbles of muscle on his stomach. “All right, now,” he said with a yawn. He tasted his mouth, blinked, and stacked his fists behind his skull so he wouldn’t strain his gut looking at her. “What’s happening?”
“You don’t have any more of that beer, do you?” Jacey asked.
The man gazed down the path. Then he glanced at the bottles chilling in the creek and scratched at his hair.
“Come on, please,” Jacey said. “I’m so thirsty I’m about to die. Give me one. I can pay you for it.”
He sat up, looking put-upon, but then he shook his head and chuckled. “I guess,” he said. “Come on.”
Jacey stepped with care across the algae-sueded rocks that led out to the little island. When she got there, the man had already pulled a beer from the water for her and levered off the cap.
“It’s not cold, but it won’t burn your mouth,” he said. His voice was mild. Jacey took two lusty, gasping pulls on it, and then stared at the bottle with great interest. Shyness warmed her, a heat deeper than the sun’s.
“Heineken,” she said. “Best beer on the market, if you ask me.”
The man didn’t say anything but let a mirthful little blast escape from his nose.
“Anyway, I didn’t mean to come out here and bug you,” Jacey said. She hooked a finger in her pocket and drew out a pair of crumpled bills. “Here. I got two dollars. That enough?”
“Don’t sweat it,” said the man. “Have a seat, if you like.”
Jacey sat, her sturdy pink legs stretched out in front of her, crossed at the ankles, which was how they looked best. She took another deep draw on her beer, and before she could stop it, a terrible wet belch came out of her.
“Gesundheit,” the man said, peering back at her with fond gray eyes set deep in merry creases. His blond hair was thinning just a little bit in front, showing a flecked scalp, but you had to look close to see that. A more obvious thing was the condition of his right arm. It was scarred badly at the shoulder. A rumpled welt snaked down the inside of his biceps, tapering almost to his wrist. Black hairs, thick and glossy as stray sutures, punched through the scar here and there. The arm bore three tattoos, all of women, done in surprisingly good taste, none of them posed nude or in an indecent way. The one on his upper arm showed a lady in her middle years, sitting as for a school portrait, her hair parted down the center, wearing a pair of large glasses with half-smoked lenses. A second woman on his forearm was smiling at a little bat-eared dog she cradled in her hands. The third showed a woman dressed in capri pants, fishing in the surf with the sun going down. Jacey had to look at it awhile to notice that in all three pictures, the woman was the same.
“You live near here?” the man asked.
“Pretty close: right off Smithfield Road, which I call Shitfield Road,” said Jacey, fast and nervous. “There’s nothing going on out here. I wish I lived in town.”
“Yeah, town’s pretty good if bankers and spear chuckers are your thing,” the man said.
He shook a cigarette from a green pack and offered one to Jacey, which she took. She leaned back, smoked, one palm braced on the rock. The bluff was behind her. She hoped Maya and Leander were getting a full load of her, her hair hanging down her back with the sun on it, the beer she’d bravely gotten for herself, and the admirable tobacco smoke rising from her hand.
“I’m Stewart Quick,” the man said. “What’s your name?”
Jacey told him June, her mother’s name.
“Now, I like that,” he said. “The girl I probably should have married was named August.”
“Why didn’t you?”
Quick drew his lips back from his teeth and squinted amiably into the past. “I don’t know—fear, stupidity, cash, her old man, and the most god-awful mole you’ve ever seen, right here,” said Quick, pointing at the place where his right nostril joined his cheek. “It was about like a golf ball.”
Jacey covered her mouth to hide her braces and laughed into her hand.
“So how old are you, June?” he asked her.
“Guess.” She dropped her empty bottle in the creek as she’d seen Quick do.
“Forty-five,” he said, handing her another.
“Shut up,” said Jacey. “I’m eighteen.”
“Now, there’s a coincidence,” he said. “I’m eighteen, too.”
Then he wanted to know things about Jacey: how long she’d lived there on Smithfield Road, what she’d read in school, if she planned to go to college, what she would study there. She told him what felt to her like clever, nimble lies. She figured she’d go to Emory and study premed, but a part of her felt tugged to New York, where a school whose name escaped her had offered her a full ride to study acting and voice.
To everything she said, Stewart Quick would smile and nod and tell her how full of good sense she was, how gifted she must be to have such fine prospects at her feet.
Then he gazed at the rise, at the thick green canopy of oak and gum and pine. “Your buddies still up there?” he asked. “Maybe they’d like to come down and fuck up with us out here on the creek.” Jacey didn’t like the sound of that. It wounded her to think that Quick didn’t feel it, as she did, the special, private atmosphere of just the two of them together on the warm stone.
“Nah,” said Jacey. “Those people are stale. I’m not trying to see any more of them today. Hey, let me ask you something, Stewart.”
“Yeah, all right.”
“Who’s that on your arm?” she said. “She’s pretty. It’s all the same lady, right?”
Quick looked over his tattoos, angling his arm in a pained, ungainly way that caused his lower lip to jut out and shine. “Yeah, my mother. As far as I’m concerned, this is her arm, right here.”
“How do you mean, ‘hers’?” Jacey pictured that torn and whiskered limb stuck onto that proper-looking woman and she giggled into her bottle.
“I mean I wouldn’t have it if it wasn’t for her.”
“You wouldn’t have you if it wasn’t for her,” said Jacey, feeling light and bold with beer.
“If it wasn’t for her I’d have lost it, is what I’m saying,” said Stewart Quick. The sun slid behind the trees and the light went to bits.
“In the war?” said Jacey.
“Shit, no,” said Stewart Quick. “It wasn’t in a war; it was in a fuckin’ car wash. You want to hear the story?”
Jacey said she did.
“Well, I had this boss. I’m telling you, if you asked me for an asshole, and I gave you that guy, you’d have owed me back some change. Anyway, one day we had a bunch of cars lined up, honking their horns and shit, and this guy’s yelling at me to get some clean towels out of the washing machine. Now, I’m not talking an ordinary washing machine. This thing spun about ten times as fast as what you’ve got at home. So he’s going nuts on me, ‘Get some towels! Goddammit, get them towels, Stew!’ I go over to the machine. I open it up and reach in, only it’s not through spinning yet, so what it does, it tears my arm off and dislocates my elbow and crushes up my hand.”
“Holy shit, seriously?” said Jacey.
“Yeah, I didn’t even know what’d happened, I was in shock so bad. I just walk out into the parking lot in the middle of the afternoon, and it’s full of all these people trying to get their Mercedeses and shit cleaned after work. They look up and they see this kid and he’s dragging his arm behind him on the concrete like a toy boat, just hanging on by a little thing of skin. Doctors said, ‘Hell with it, take it off.’ But my mom went in there, fuckin’ went primal on them, screaming, raising hell. Made them put it back on. They said there wasn’t any point. She said, ‘I don’t give a fuck if it turns black and rots. You sew my son’s arm back on. If it dies, we’ll cut it off again. But you sew that damn thing on.’”
Quick held up his hand and gave it a remote, appraising look, as though it was a rare object he’d picked up in a store, something he admired but could not afford to buy.
“Kind of a miracle, I guess,” said Jacey.
“Pretty cut-rate miracle,” he said. “Bone hurts like shit a lot of the time. Plus, I don’t have hardly any feeling in my hand.”
“That sucks,” Jacey said.
Now Quick was touching his thumb to the fingers of his damaged hand, one by one, watching the performance closely, smiling with a kind of mystified amusement. “I don’t know. Makes you glad for what you got, I guess. Also, there’s something about it, having this part of you you can’t feel. Kind of like being two people at once.”
“It’s not boring, at least,” said Jacey. “I think it looks cool, looks tight, those scars and everything.”
Quick laughed. He opened another beer and, in handing it to Jacey, he arranged himself beside her, propped on his side, his head close enough to her knee that she could feel his breath drying the sweat on her skin. “How about we swap?” he said. “You take this arm, and I get, I don’t know. Maybe I have this leg.”
Jacey shied away. “You wouldn’t want my big, dumb leg,” she said.
“Wrong again,” said Quick. “Premium merchandise. Mint condition, except this bit of stuff right here.”
Quick put his bad hand around Jacey’s calf. He brought his other one to his mouth, sucked for a moment on his thumb, and then used it to rub slow circles over a brown splotch on the inside of Jacey’s left leg, just below the knee. She let him do it for a moment. Then she eased her leg from his grasp. It very much alarmed her, the glistening patch Stewart Quick had left there, but she feared it might offend him if she wiped it away. “It’s a birthmark,” she murmured. When she was a child, her mother had taught Jacey to use the mark to tell her left from right. “When I was little, it was shaped like a fish. It still kind of is.”
She had another sip from the bottle, and watched a tiny red beetle struggle through a crevice in the rock. Quick sat up. He took the beer from her, grasped her chin between his forefinger and thumb, and kissed her lightly on the mouth. Then he drew back and watched her with a spreading grin.
“That all right, June?” he said. “Thought I saw you wanting to.”
Her lips tingled from Quick’s stubble, a complicated sensation. She wondered if her mouth looked different now, disfigured maybe, or possibly altered in a good and glamorous way. She had an urge to touch her lips, but she didn’t, afraid that the older man might see it as a rebuke of the unbidden gift.
“Yeah, no,” said Jacey. “I was. I mean, I’m glad you did.”
Quick let out a satisfied sigh, loud and crisp as a steam leak. “Goddammit, are you kidding me?” he cried. “This is summertime, right here. This is what I’m talking about. This is what a day’s supposed to be.”
“I know,” said Jacey. “I wish there was more of it left.”
“Oh, there’s plenty,” Quick said. “There’s lots of it to go.” Quick dipped his hand in the current and daubed the folds of his neck with creek water. “Something just hit me, June.”
“What we need to do to have ourselves the perfect day, we could go up the road to Hidden Lake and take a swim. I just remembered it’s Saturday. They’ll have a band set up and shit. Got that beer tent going. That’s where I need to be.”
“Maybe. I don’t know,” said Jacey. “I’ve got to meet some people at seven.”
Quick looked at his watch. “Well, it’s, what, four now, but do what you got to,” he said. “I’m just talking about going for an hour or so. That’s what I’m going to do.”
The red beetle was turning puzzled circles in the shadow of Jacey’s ankle. She ushered it onto the narrow canoe of a willow leaf, and set the leaf in the water. It surged through the eddy and out of sight. Then she glanced back at the bluff and saw only leaves. “I guess,” said Jacey. “I guess that’d be cool.”
Briskly, Stewart Quick donned his shirt and packed away his radio. Then he led Jacey across the creek and down the path, a different one from the path she’d come in on. In fifteen minutes, they reached the trailhead where Quick’s car, a two-door Mitsubishi Lancer, was parked. He’d geared it out at some expense—smoked glass, chrome rims, and a large aftermarket windjammer swooping up from the trunk. Quick opened the door for her. Jacey balked. “Just an hour? You swear?” she said.
“No question,” said Quick. She got in.
Quick stowed his gear in the backseat. He inserted the key and rolled the windows down but didn’t crank the motor. “Hey, come here,” he said to Jacey.
“What?” she said.
“Come on over here, June.”
She didn’t move. Quick leaned over the emergency brake and put his mouth on Jacey’s, not as gently as before. He drove his tongue through her teeth and put the palm of his damaged hand against the front of her shorts, moving it with painful force, as though trying to rouse enough sensation for his deaf nerves to feel. Nausea gathered in Jacey’s belly. She was sure she was going to vomit or yell, but to humiliate herself in front of the older man seemed an agony at least as bad. Her hand was reaching for the door handle when Quick abruptly turned away and gripped the wheel, and ground the heel of his other hand against his eye, as though something was lodged in there. He mumbled something to himself that Jacey couldn’t hear. “Let’s keep it focused. Let’s tighten it on up.”
For a moment, Jacey thought Quick might open the door and take her back into the woods, but he started the car, pulled onto the road, and patted Jacey’s knee in a friendly way. “How we doing there, June? We hanging in?”
“Fine, all right,” said Jacey. “Oh, shit, actually, hey, Stewart? I just remembered. Can we turn up here real quick? I need to go by my house for just a second. I want to get my suit.”
“You don’t need to fool with that,” said Stewart Quick.
“Yes, I do. I want to swim. You said we would.”
“You can go in what you got on,” said Stewart Quick. “It’s a laid-
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