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Hillbilly by Ben Rogers

Hillbilly by Ben Rogers

Fiction, Vol. 5.2, June 2011

A TENNIS COURT FENCED IN IVY. A man in a white hat and matching warm-ups feeding volleys to an eager, sunkissed blonde. A gazebo, the centerpiece of a garden, and behind it a swimming pool, flat as glass.

The pictures were of a place called Stewart’s Tennis Ranch. The brochure came to me in the mail when I turned 12. Across the front someone had written simply, “Enjoy!” There was no return address, nor was it signed, but we knew who’d sent it.

Grandma Jane found ways to pepper our lives with flavors of a lifestyle just beyond our grasp. Tickets to plays in San Francisco, weekend getaways to wine country. Grandma’s benevolence often came by just such “anonymous” means.

Dad had recently lost his job when the bank he worked for pulled out of Nevada. They offered him a job managing home loans at a branch in Utah—a promotion in all but the geographic sense—but Todd and I cried for hours at the prospect of relocating. Life as we knew it in Reno would be different (over) in Ogden. Dad selflessly declined the offer. The Reno loan department he oversaw was phased out, but he stayed with his branch, working as an account manager and finally as a teller supervisor until at last the sign on the door changed.

That was a few months ago. He was still looking for a job. He resented his mother-in-law’s charity, and I think Mom did too, but how could they argue? I argued though. The tennis camp was three weeks long.

My friends will be here, I said.

This was going to be a crucial summer for us: ten weeks to transform ourselves, by all mischief necessary, into middle schoolers, pedaling our bikes over hill and dale to whichever of our homes lacked parental supervision.

This camp cannot be cheap, Oby, Mom said. You’re writing Grandma a thank-you note this afternoon.

Stewart’s Ranch was outside Carmel. Dad drove me. We made our way down from Nevada’s hills into California’s long central valley, then over to the coast. We arrived around sunset and splurged at a Sizzler. After dinner we turned inland and drove to a little two-story motel that was the only place to stay near the camp. As we were waiting to be issued our key I noticed a doughy, freckled boy availing himself of the complimentary coffee. He polished off the pot into two Styrofoam cups. I noticed the tennis camp logo on his hat and hoped Dad wouldn’t.

Maybe you two will be bunkmates, Dad said to the boy. There was nowhere to hide from his enthusiasm.

You drink coffee? Dad asked.

Everybody drinks coffee, I said, turning my head.

You don’t, Dad said.

Susan and I have a cup of decaf at night, said the boy. His name was Jean-Philippe Sassoli. Later I learned that Susan was his mother. Later still I learned that he was from Switzerland, but had recently moved to New York after his father died, having wrapped his BMW around an overpass support column while drunk driving. Jean-Philippe asked if I’d like to come up to his room. Dad told me to go on ahead while he parked the car. He tossed me our room key, which I dropped.

Jean-Philippe’s sister, Zoe, answered the door to his room. She was dressed all in black and her hair was blood red, parted up the middle. She looked at me then fell back onto one of the two beds. Susan! she yelled.

Susan emerged from the bathroom in a robe and slippers, smoking a menthol. A hairdryer droned. Jean-Philippe handed her a coffee.

Okay now, she said. If I’m not back before the morning, you kids get yourselves ready for camp. I’ll leave a couple hundred bucks on the TV.

Jean-Philippe slipped away to the corner of the room, where he was rooting through his gear. Stacks of folded white tennis clothes rose from his footlocker like baking dough. He pulled out a plastic baggie. A novice might have mistaken its contents for golf tees. But not a boy who’d tossed whippersnappers at all forms of domestic wildlife, ridden over long lines of them with his bike to simulate machine gun fire, and Scotch-taped bunches into softball-sized bombs. Jean-Philippe pinched one from the bag and threw it at his mom. That, I’d never done. It popped on the vanity mirror.

Goddamn it, Jean-Philippe!

Perhaps expecting one in her direction, Zoe just said, Don’t.

You like firecrackers? I asked. Jean-Philippe held up the bag as Exhibit A. I mean real ones, I said.

He set the bag down. You got some?

A few, I whispered. Some Roman candles, black cats, bottle rockets, M-88s, M-90s…

M-90s! he said. I heard those are illegal!

M-80s are.

Isn’t an M-90 bigger than an M-80?

I wish.

Jean-Philippe was already at the door. I looked back to see his mother wink at me in the bathroom mirror. She was puckering up to a tube of lipstick. Zoe didn’t move. We ran downstairs, where Jean-Philippe chatted with Dad about the details of his mother’s relationship with Donny, the owner of the tennis camp. Meanwhile I slipped across the room to get into my backpack. I reached in, feeling around. I could tell the 90s from the 88s by touch. I grabbed one of each and a couple bottle rockets, then pulled up the cuff of my jeans and stuffed everything into my sock. Jean-Philippe suggested we go buy some candy at a 7-Eleven up the road.

Dad looked at me and hugged my head to his chest. I stood still lest the wrappers in my sock crackle. He took out his wallet and thumbed through the bills. He handed me a five.

Big spender, Jean-Philippe said.

Dad teased out another five and, with a mischievous wiggle of his brow, handed it to Jean-Philippe. Here, he said. You stock up too.

*

Jean-Philippe loved to prod me about bands and movies, just to see if I’d heard of them. I didn’t know what a 747 was and this shook him to the core. Having attended camp since he was 11 he knew the juicy backstory of most of the campers, the counselors and, of course, Donny, the owner. This knowledge went both ways though. At the welcoming barbeque a boy named Gavin Dell—a boy with hair so fair even his eyelashes were blonde and whose father owned the New England Patriots—held his racket handle between his legs when Jean-Philippe walked by. Apparently, Jean-Philippe had never lived down a poorly timed arousal in the boy’s shower a few summer’s earlier. And, apparently, whatever Gavin said was funny to the other boys, even when it wasn’t, really. In a crowd of Richie Riches, Gavin was Richiest.

The camp sat on 25 acres near the Carmel River. A full-time squad of gardeners tended to the grounds, cringing each time a shanked ball tore through a flowerbed. The ranch’s borders were hedged and fenced to such a degree that we quickly became unaware of traffic or commerce or the outside world in general. My sense of security was hardly diminished, even when Jean-Philippe told me about the hillbillies who lived on the ramshackle ranches nearby. He said that they sometimes played pranks on the tennis brats: a skunk trapped in the stringing room, holes poked in an entire shed full of tennis balls, a turd drifting in the swimming pool.

I had glimpsed some boys playing stickball in the road on the other side of the fence by Dorm 3. They didn’t look all that devious or poor, really. They were dressed like the guys I hung out with in Reno. I said as much to Jean-Philippe.

No, no, he said. The hillbillies are white trash. They fuck their cousins and their dogs.

Each morning we woke up at 7 a.m. to sweep the courtyard or blow leaves off the courts. Chores were a novelty to some of the campers, like an affected accent; to others chores were a complete mystery. I had to teach the heir to Banco de Mexico how to operate a push broom.

The camp director was Gordy Stewart. A tour in Vietnam had ruined his knees and his chance at the pro tour, but legend had it he could still get his kick serve over the back fence and that his backhand was prettier than Ken Rosewall’s. To Gordy, tennis was tantamount to religion, with less singing. He made lazy campers cry occasionally. His palms were wooden. Though I’d never seen him play tennis, I had seen him hit a ping-pong ball ninety degrees around a tree trunk and into play on the table, where it aced a very perplexed boy from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

When we weren’t on the court we’d lounge around the dorms, listening to music and lighting our farts. Farts burn blue. Natural gas, I called it. This made a few kids laugh. I was just getting warmed up.

*

As incentive for us to get settled into our bunks without a fuss, our dorm’s head counselor Jason read aloud from Penthouse. While my bunkmates reached down in their sleeping bags to tuck erections behind elastic waistbands, my hands were also deep in my bag, sorting through my stash. The days, to me, were an absolute bore, and I loathed the sport of tennis more and more, even as my game improved. At night however, I’d become cooler than I’d ever been in my life. My popularity was nocturnal.

About an hour after lights-out, I would climb down from my bunk and slip outside. The grass was wet. I saw owls. Jean-Philippe would make his break a few minutes later and we’d rendezvous behind a shed with kids from other dorms. George from Hong Kong was usually there, and the Chase triplets, and Billy Tracy, and Fernando and Guillermo—cousins from Mexico. Under moonlight we’d follow a dirt road that meandered through camp, beyond the greenhouse, through a fence and across a meadow. We moved as an amorphous little herd, complete with stragglers and zigzaggers and frontrunners, but it felt as though I was in charge. I was the nucleus. It’s hard to explain. I just knew that if I veered into a thicket, everyone would have followed. I’d never felt that way. We’d walk for a mile or so down the hill to a small canyon where a creek joined the river. Jean-Philippe said we looked like ghosts in our tennis whites. So we adopted that as our official name: The Ghosts.

The first night I brought some Roman candles. The next, a Tijuana Tremor fountain. Then George convinced me to throw a couple M-90s into the river and I did. Each explosion made a crowd-pleasing splash. River rocks clattered. We lit a whole package of sparklers in celebration and ran wild under a canopy of oak trees, trails of light lingering in our wakes.

That night we snuck back into our dorm, sometime after 3 a.m. The cold nylon skin of my sleeping bag raised the hair on my neck as I snuggled in, waiting as my warmth multiplied inside the down. I drifted off. The next thing I knew, the dorm’s screen door creaked. My drowsiness evaporated. I caught a glimpse of a boy moving across the room.

Jason rolled over in his bed and grabbed a watch out of his shoe. The phosphorescent watch face lit up his eyes. Gavin? he said in a groggy whisper. Where the hell were you?

Out.

Don’t give me that, Jason said, sitting up.

Jean-Philippe and I looked at each other, listening. The air in the dorm was clammy, overbreathed.

I was with Zoe, Gavin said.

That freaky little vampire girl? Jason said. She’s older than you.

A little.

Did you kiss her?

Gavin nodded. I saw Jean-Philippe stir in his bed.

Jason persisted. Tongue? he asked.

More stirring from Jean-Philippe. Another nod from Gavin.

C’mon pal, Jason said. Details. Did she bite you? Suck your blood?

Smell my finger, Gavin said.

I heard Jean-Philippe’s bedsprings coil. I expected at any moment to see him lunge from his top bunk and wrap his meaty hands around Gavin’s throat.

Jason told Gavin to get in bed. Then all was still again.

*

The next morning Jean-Philippe and I were zombies with mops. It was Sunday and we had a white glove inspection. The guest inspector was Lloyd Bentson, U.S. Vice Presidential nominee from the year before. Jean-Philippe dragged a bucket across the tile floor, wheels clacking, suds sloshing out. In an abrupt rage, he javelined his mop into the shower room. I hurried to pick it up.

Leave it! he said.

He’d cracked a couple tiles. A counselor rushed in, wondering what the ruckus was. I told him I’d dropped the mop. The counselor looked at Jean-Philippe, who’d taken out a can of Comet and some paper towels to distractedly rub a faucet. The broken tiles went unnoticed.

Later, we did a skit for Lloyd and his entourage and they asked us if we were enjoying camp and we told them what they wanted to hear. A woman with her white hair in a taut bun wore the ceremonial glove. She got a kick out of caressing the undersides of things. Her face was stern but it was an act, just like our skit. Having deemed our dorm immaculate, the inspectress awarded us first place. Gavin had been elected dorm captain and was asked to pose with her and Lloyd in a photo commemorating our win to be framed and hung in the tennis shop. The inspectress held up her gloved finger to show off its spotlessness. The photographer thought it would be cute for Gavin to hold up his finger too.

Lloyd had his arm around Gavin but kept his eyes on the camera. He said, Tell your father I haven’t forgotten about that box of Montecristos I owe him.

Of course, Gavin said as the camera flashed, his teeth the whitest of whites.

That was the afternoon I stole five big boxes of Diamond strike-anywhere matches from the charcoal cabinet beside the barbeques and buried them in my footlocker.

When I returned to the common area I found everyone at the hot tub. Ghosts and girls alike dangled their legs in the swirling jets, sneaking peeks at each other between wisecracks. Gavin was there with his hand on Zoe’s knee. She was rubbing Carmex on her lips. The circle of backs at water’s edge seemed impenetrable so I sat on the pump box. I asked Zoe where Jean-Philippe was.

Who cares, Gavin said, prompting the usual sycophantic laughter.

Hasty disrobing had left shoes and warm-ups strewn about the pool deck. That the tub served as sexual hub of the camp was no secret. Counselors took their dips, too. Whoops, giggles, and the occasional moan issued from the gazebo after lights out.

Outside the circle, my ear caught only fragments of conversations. Soon a spot opened up. One of Zoe’s friends, a girl named Jessica from Long Island, looked over at me, then to Zoe. Smiling. Jessica was knotting a friendship bracelet, one end safety pinned to her skirt.

There’s room, said Jessica.

I was staring at a tenacious gob of foam revolving near the middle of the tub—the flotsam of suntan lotion, sweat, secretions—and doing the math. Five boxes times two-hundred-and-fifty matches per box was plenty of matches.

Oh, I said, realizing Jessica was still looking at me. My feet aren’t cold.

*

There was a ball machine at the far end of camp that campers could reserve by the hour. The sign-up sheet hung outside the snack shack. On the day Gavin Dell’s name graced the noon timeslot, I went to the dining hall in search of Jean-Philippe. I found him alone, dredging steak fries through barbeque sauce. I told him I had something to show him.

We walked together out to the meadow courts, then cut through a row of trees. I told Jean-Philippe to keep quiet, which irritated him because he was the kind with rash-prone skin and we had to trudge through tall brush. We got on hands and knees to slip under a hedge and he almost turned back, but I insisted. We stalked up to a wood fence and peered between the slats. Before us was a row of bushes, then sloping lawn that gave way to the red concrete of a tennis court, which was empty save for a ball machine.

Why had I chosen to inherit Jean-Philippe’s vendetta? To collect on a debt not mine? For one thing, Gavin Dell had it coming. Leonardo Da Vinci invented all sorts of bombs and flame-throwers and things to earn favor with wealthy heads of state, people with enemies. I don’t think I was quite so in tune with my ambitions. I will tell you this, Leo: with a good pair of scissors you can snip the heads off half a dozen matches at a time. The strike-anywhere variety have little white yarmulkes. These are critical. They lend spontaneity to the combustion.

Gavin walked onto the court. Jean-Philippe let out a dismissive, pfft. I held a finger over my lips.

Watch, I said.

Gavin did some calf stretches against the fence, then flipped on the machine. With a whir it began spitting balls into the empty court. Gavin got in position. Forehand, backhand. He lunged back and forth, punching with his racket. Grunting.

Okay, that’s pretty funny, said Jean-Philippe. He stepped away from the fence.

Keep watching, I said.

Kids, write this down: First you get a tennis ball. Cut a small hole in it, about as big around as a pencil eraser. There are 250 matches in the big box. It takes roughly 800 match heads and a little over an hour of your time to fill the ball to a volatile density. Certain kinds of water coolers (coincidentally including the type often found on tennis courts) dispense small paper cones instead of cups. If you cut the point off one of these cones, you can use it as a funnel to get all the match heads in. I recommend cotton to plug the hole.

A pod of girls materialized courtside. It was the girls’ hour off before lunch. Zoe was among them. Gavin said something to her and she said something back.

Jean-Philippe put his ear to the fence. Damn it, he whispered. Can you hear what they’re saying?

A few of the girls were giggling. One of them was braiding Zoe’s hair. Gavin took a few more volleys, then stepped out of the oncoming barrage. I held my breath. He walked around the net while balls were wasted on an empty court. He crouched out of view behind the machine, adjusting its controls. Suddenly the trajectory changed. With about a third of the balls left in the hopper, Gavin Dell, bless his heart, decided to practice his overhead. Big, juicy lobs rained out of a blue sky.

A man standing on a moving rail car tosses a ball in the air. To him, the ball goes up and down in a straight line. But to the man watching the rail car go by, the ball travels in an arc. It’s relative. Gavin, and Jean-Philippe too, saw normal lobs. But for me the balls oozed through a syrupy space-time continuum.

The girls pretended not to be watching; and Gavin pretended not to be affected by their presence, though he swung hard enough to make a few balls stick in the diamond mesh of the back fence. The steady thwacking entranced me, but then it happened. He swung at a ball just like all the others, though this ball made a dull sound against his strings, burst into a white flame, loud as hell, and disintegrated just above his head. Singed particles of rubber and fuzz carried on the breeze. The smell was fantastic.

Better yet though, Gavin lost his mind. He shrieked. His Prince Profile fell from his hand and as it clattered to rest on the court he ran in place, thrashing his arms as if to defend himself from a swarm of wasps. The girls backed away. Balls continued to plummet, one after another, bouncing to rest at Gavin’s feet. He looked to the sky. He looked to the horizon. The girls started laughing. He looked right at the wood fence.

Eat fuck! Jean-Philippe hollered, then we bolted. Jean-Philippe was laughing and snorting as he ran. I gave a whoop.

We circled around the back of camp behind the maintenance shed and re-emerged by the pool, where counselors were sunning themselves on the deck. Jean-Philippe jumped into the pool with his tennis clothes on so I followed suit. We plunged without hesitation into the deep end and sank to the bottom, howling and laughing until our lungs were empty. I watched the bubbles float up to the glassy surface. They made it roil.

*

When Gavin showed up behind the shed a few nights later, cronies Laird and Kristof in tow, I feared my number was up. But he didn’t even know my name. Feeling more at ease, I started down the moonlit road. Eleven boys fell in behind me and we headed toward the edge of camp. Gavin stopped in the middle of the road.

You ever set off anything in camp? he asked.

I laughed and most everyone else did too. I kept walking. But Gavin hung back. Laird and Kristof did too. So did George from Hong Kong, and the Chase triplets, and Billy, and Fernando, and Guillermo. Even Jean-Philippe. Gavin’s gravity was lunar. I felt the tide at my toes.

Gavin was grinning. Everyone’ll think it’s the hillbillies, he said.

I appreciated better than any of them what this meant, what it entailed. If firecrackers were to be set off in camp, then those responsible would need to have already made themselves scarce before the firecrackers went off. Which was to say I needed to make a fuse.

The importance of a reliable fuse cannot be overstated. An older brother of one of my friends had shown us how to make them by soaking shoelaces in lawn fertilizer and smashed-up vitamin C pills. But in the middle of the night at tennis camp, one must improvise.

A candle, I said. We need a candle.

Kristof asked if the birthday variety would work. His mother had made him bring some to camp to celebrate his upcoming 13 th birthday. I nodded, and he snuck off to the dorm to fetch them. Meanwhile, everyone huddled over me as I rigged our device. After considerable debate we decided upon the rear gate, the one delivery trucks used, as the best location for detonation. It was across the street from a few hillbilly houses, out of the way enough that we’d most likely go unnoticed as we set it up, but close enough to the dorms that everyone would hear it.

As a test I lay one candle on the ground and lit it, checking the second hand on my watch as the flame inched along. It took about three minutes to go the whole length of the candle. That would be all the time we had to scurry back to our dorms and pretend to wake up, just as shocked as everyone else. I considered stringing candles together to make a longer fuse, but it was too risky. I didn’t have time to experimentally verify the candle-to-candle transition. I positioned the candle between some rocks to keep it from rolling. I had a full magazine of firecrackers—bangers—each about the size of a AA battery. All of them were braided into a common Bickford fuse that ran up the center of the pack. I arranged the end of this fuse just above the butt end of the candle so that the flame would slide right under. Then I lit it.

Run, I said.

*

Sprinting in utter silence, our footfalls quieted by tube socks, we made for our respective dorms. When you can’t see the fuse, it’s always the same. At first you expect to hear the bang at any moment, but when it doesn’t come, you second-guess. Is it still lit? Was it a dud? This is when idiots go back and end up losing fingers. Jean-Philippe, Gavin, and I made it back together. We slipped in through the bathroom. I scaled my bunk’s metal frame in one motion and fell on my sleeping bag, forcing breath through my nose in an effort to calm down. The fuse would reach its end any second. Jean-Philippe climbed into his bed. Gavin had a bottom bunk, but he had yet to get in it. The fool! He was just standing there, staring at his sleeping bag as if a corpse was in it. Then I saw the corpse too. And it moved.

Mr. Dell, Jason said. I see you took some friends along this time. Well, I want details, gentlemen. What was it, some sort of gang—

Bang! Bang…Bang!! B-B-B-b-B-b-b-Bang! BANG!!!!! Bang! Bang! Upon bursting, a single banger releases five kilojoules of energy and forms a pocket of overpressure, making waves that propagate through the air at the speed of sound. Bang! Bang. Bang, Bang! One hundred and sixty decibels, unless the factory worker responsible felt frisky and added an extra pinch of aluminum. BANG, bang, BANG!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Bangers always seem louder at night.

One of my dorm mates screeched. Others rushed to the windows, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Everyone used their best swear words. Were we under fire? Jason ordered us to stay put and ran into the night wearing only tennis shorts and running shoes. While he was gone I gathered my remaining M-90s and flushed them down the toilet. We had no idea if any of our cohorts had been nabbed, or what commotion might have been stirred up in the other dorms. A few days earlier, a girl had been rushed to the camp doctor when her lily white bloomers suddenly flushed crimson. If a footwork drill can induce a girl’s first period, what about a few dozen firecrackers in the middle of the night? When Jason returned he said not a word, except to tell us to go back to sleep. His calmness put me on edge. They knew.

I bet it was a hillbilly, Gavin said.

Jason wasn’t in the mood. Shut up, Dell, he muttered.

*

After flag the boys were dismissed to breakfast. It was a hot morning with no clouds. On the path to the dining hall, Gavin, Jean-Philippe, and I were pulled aside and asked to return to our dorm unfed and await further instruction. So we were right back in our bunks.

They’re treating us like criminals, Gavin said. I should call my dad. Get Gordy canned for this.

No one cares about your dad, Jean-Philippe said.

Guys! I said. We’ve gotta get our stories ironed out. If I get kicked out of this camp, my dad—Jesus… (This was the first time it had struck me that this was a possibility, and suddenly I needed to urinate—some kind of fight-or-flight response.)

They don’t know shit, Gavin said. The evidence exploded!

They know we snuck out, I said.

Jean-Philippe shook his head. This is no big deal, Oby, he said.

Are we still going to say we saw someone by the back gate? I asked.

But neither of them answered because we heard footsteps on the path. The creak of the door. Sunshine framed Jason as we shielded our eyes. He demanded to see our footlockers. The lighter inside my dopp kit was confiscated. Meanwhile, Gavin was sent to the office. Our instructions were reiterated—stay put—and Jason was gone again.

Later, he returned to fetch Jean-Philippe. I was left alone. I retreated into a lonely pocket of my mind where all I could see was myself, and my predicament. I wanted to travel back in time to when Gavin suggested we set off the fireworks in camp. Or maybe further back, to when I was packing for camp and I tapped into my stash—no, let me go all the way back to the family trip to San Francisco, the Chinatown alleyway I found when I was supposed to be at the arcade, the collapsible street booth bursting with all things pyrotechnic. Give me back three months of squandered allowance.

I’d never said a word to Gordy and had never been to his office. It was tough to visualize our impending encounter. Both Jean-Philippe and Gavin went to prep schools and so were surely accustomed to living under the thumb of a headmaster—his giant desk candlelit and leather-bound, overlooking a quadrangle where boys in button-downs and slacks roughhoused between Latin lessons, their fragile futures at his discretion. Gordy was a headmaster in his own right. Unmarried. Enigmatic. And I, lacking backbone and pedigree, was a Chef Boyardee noodle of a boy.

Jason came and ushered me without a word through camp. I either sensed or imagined the false indifference of the campers we passed, all of whom must have known something by now. I could feel their eyes on my back, but I couldn’t feel the sun on my face nor the path beneath my Nikes. I’d become a ghost during the daylight hours.

Waiting on a bench outside Gordy’s office, I noticed a Jaguar under an oak tree. Some small leaves and twigs dappled its otherwise spotless red paint. The ornamental cat leapt from the hood into a ray of sun and glinted regally. The front tires were left casually turned like in an advertisement—the car at ease. The California plates read NE1410S. (“Anyone for tennis?”) The windshield was a slice of sunlight, a gilded mirror I couldn’t see through. A woman’s arm emerged from the passenger side to ash a cigarette.

A man came out of the tennis center. He looked at me. His silver hair was slicked back. He wore powder-blue tennis warm-ups, a clunky gold watch, and loafers without socks. He walked across the grass to the Jag, slipped in, and started the engine. The woman flicked the butt of her cigarette into the roots of the big oak. They drove up the hill out of camp and I saw her lean across and plant a kiss on his cheek, and I remembered where I’d seen that Jaguar before.

Jean-Philippe came in through the door. His eyes were glassy and red. He saw me and tried to tighten his upper lip.

I think I just saw your mom, I said. What kind of car does Donny drive?

Just tell Gordy everything, he said.

I started to ask him what he meant, but the door opened and Gordy came out. I stole one last look at Jean-Philippe. He wouldn’t look at me.

Mr. Brooks, Gordy said.

*

Your grandmother calls, Gordy said, every few days.

He looked at me, registering my reaction. I sat with my hands in the taut pockets of my tennis shorts. In the corner there was an old couch and a television with a VCR. I’d been told Gordy brought the best players here to analyze video footage and find flaws in their form.

She likes to know how you’re progressing, he said. I suppose she has that right. I told her you’ve got a decent serve. Maybe some potential. What I haven’t told her is that you’re unmotivated and undisciplined. You could be an A2 if you worked at it.

Bastard was flanking me. I hadn’t expected to come under fire for my tennis game. The psychological bunkers I’d built were facing the wrong direction.

He pulled out a notebook. Its pages were thick with pencil entries. He looked through it, then crossed his hands atop his head. Leaned back.

You’ve played about half as many challenge matches as everyone else, he said. It seems someone in your position ought to feel fortunate to be here. Make the most of it.

I bit my lip. When I wiped my cheeks I realized I was crying.

Gordy picked up my lucky Bic lighter. Rubbed his calloused hands over the flint finger wheel, the red gas trigger. I’d found that Bic in the grass at school and had been determined to never use up all the fuel. For no good reason really. But I’d decided that that particular lighter had to last me the rest of my life. A Bic is supposed to be good for 2,500 lights. Gordy held it at the bottom, dangling it in front of me.

You smoke, Oby?

I shrugged. Gordy was going to crack me. Wouldn’t take long. I was a frightened boy and he’d killed Viet Cong and he wasn’t married and it was hard to believe he’d ever been a boy himself. He was going to crack me. But I held out for as long as I could, fuse-like.

Oby, I’m not asking you these things because I need to know the answers. Your cohorts Mr. Dell and Mr. Sassoli were quite helpful.

Are Gavin and Jean-Philippe in trouble? I asked.

You’d be wise to worry about yourself, son. Those two have their own arrangements.

Am I in trouble?

Give me your parents’ phone number, Gordy said.

Don’t tell them about the fireworks, Mr. Stewart. Please.

He was shaking his head already. He sat back. I stared at his mustache.

See that picture? he said. He flicked his head, directing my gaze over his shoulder at a bookcase. On the top shelf sat a framed photograph in which everything—the jungle, the mud, the tents, the fatigues—was some shade of green. Except the horse. The horse was white. Straddling it were three men, boys really. They were all in some stage of laughter and none of them were looking at the camera. I recognized the one facing backward on the saddle.

Fella in the middle, Gordy said, that’s Todd Diaponte. He was our Ammunition Chief. Smart kid. Taught me trig. I used to help him inventory the rockets and landmines, grenades, whatever came off the trucks.

Had I misread Gordy? Was this man reaching out to me? Did he know the difference between gun-cotton and picric acid? I couldn’t be sure. I asked a stupid question.

Whose horse is that?

Gordy pointed at the picture again, this time jabbing his finger as he spoke: Todd can’t see anymore, Oby. And he can’t read Braille because he lost his hands. Not because he was careless either. It’s because explosives are unpredictable.

We just had some firecrackers.

I know what you had.

Are you going to tell my parents?

No promises, he said. He uncradled the phone and looked at me, waiting.

I relayed the ten digits, the combination of a lock.

*

Dad drove down from Reno early the next morning. My footlocker packed, my sleeping bag stuffed, I sat in street clothes on my bunk. A maid came and stripped my sheets. Everyone was gathered at the other side of the ranch to watch the finals of the mid-session tourney. I heard only birds. Their stupid singsong, their rhetorical questions.

I know, I nearly told them.

It was another beautiful day in the Carmel Valley, the fog having burned off late in the morning. The dorm was surrounded by evergreens. I felt the breeze through the screen door and the shadows on my skin and I was shivering. Gordy told my mother that I had left camp property without permission, repeatedly violated curfew and coerced others into doing the same. Made me sound like some cult leader, but a leader nonetheless. While I was away, Dad had found a job selling insurance. He had to skip a training seminar and burn a vacation day in order to come get me.

I heard the Wagoneer roll along the dirt road. The engine died and a door opened. Footsteps.

Oby, he said through the mesh of the screen door.

Yeah.

Footsteps. I heard the car door open again, shut again. The engine came back on. I lugged my footlocker down the steps and loaded it by myself into the back of the idling Wagoneer. When our eyes finally met it was in the rearview mirror. Dad looked tired. More tired than I was.

The road out of camp led past the center courts. I slunk down in my seat. Jean-Philippe and Gavin and all the other Ghosts were sprawled on a knoll overlooking the matches. Jean-Philippe stood up and came over to Dad’s side of the car. There was a tiny polo player embroidered on his white shirt, galloping off the fabric right at me, mallet poised to strike.

Hi Stan, Jean-Philippe said, nodding to Dad. Dad’s expression softened a little. Jean-Philippe didn’t look at me, which was just as well since I felt like ripping his face off. Everyone’s gonna miss your son, he said.

There came a sudden roar from the crowd. Then another, even louder. Jean-Philippe turned away from us for a moment. Dad inched the Wagoneer forward and Jean-Philippe walked alongside it for a moment. He gave one last look at us, Dad and I, sitting there in what suddenly felt like a windshield-less, clattering Oldsmobile truck overburdened with furniture and footlockers and frying pans. Jean-Philippe patted the hood twice with his palm, as New Yorkers do to dismiss a loaded taxi.

The Flood by Ryan Rivas

The Lost Soul Boys by Ian Singleton

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