Fiction, Vol. 5.2, June 2011
At school, we have to tuck our shirts in, remove any piercings. We have to buzzcut our hair. They confiscated my skull rings, my spike bracelet, and my handcuff belt. My head aches from the fluorescent light, my butt from the welded jailhouse desks, my gut from the slop in the lunchroom. Today’s the Eureka High Talent Show. The coach—known for manhandling us non-physical achievers before he became campus cop—hauls out across the gym floor at the start. I plug my ears, shut my eyes, bite my lips. I know dead on what Coach Stark’s fixing to say. “Good clean fun, ya’ll. None of that sex, drugs and alcohol, or…punk rock. Just good clean American music, like they used to play.”
Our band would have stolen the show. Not that we never had any accolades. We had some fame, sure. But it was the kind of outlaw fame stifled by our school and by society.
We originated on a Friday afternoon, one of those when we used to flee to Alabama’s copses, clandestine haunts, where three corpses propped up in cages—for use by the local FBI training facility to identify how long a body had been dead—hanged under a corrugated portico way off the marked trail, what was left of their faces grinning up at the splintered sunlight. They say the bodies were people who killed themselves.
Further along the trail we found an old shotgun house by a rusty, empty whiskey still. The house was rank, bowed, held together by nothing but kudzu and human grime from the generations before us. We remained on the porch, never passing through the holey screen door. Our band would include myself, Lucas, and a boy nicknamed Vacant. In the locker room, boys call me scrawny, but when I look in the mirror I see a thin-lipped, big mouth and blue eyes behind a curtain of jet black, oily bangs. Lucas wore strictly blank T-shirts and let his image do most of the talking. Nobody, including us, hardly knew Vacant, but he always showed the cigarette burns on his arms to fix our attention. He always wore a knit cap, even in the summer, and we figured his brains were boiled and took pity on him.
Lucas supplied the case of beer and the blunt. There were even crushed balls of aluminum containing tiny tabs of LSD. We imbibed, then jimmied planks off the shotgun house to build a fire. Ignoring all boy scout convention, Lucas doused them in lighter fluid and set the flame with his zippo. A mature fire flared up. The planks burned well, paint peeling, green smoke wreathing the night sky poked through by stars.
Next thing I knew I was lying belly down on the porch, my head hung over the side. The empty shell of a cicada hung upside down from the floorboards underneath me. As I turned my head and scanned the dirt, my body followed my vision and I slipped off the side. When the buzzing stopped, I laid my head against a barrel connected to the still. There was a bullet hole there with light passing through. I plugged it with my finger, sawing at the rust. Lucas watched the screen door with one of his zombie stares. He, Vacant, and I walked on our knees together in the humus and mushrooms, the moss and leftover bottles. I took a blue one and wore it on my finger. Lucas chucked one at a tree to shatter. Vacant stood, crowed, and tossed three bottles at once. When one smashed on a rock next to us, Lucas moved to bust one over Vacant’s head. I grabbed his wrist.
We sang “Mutant Makeout” by The Fiends, Lucas playing air guitar. When we finished, Vacant spilled into a song only he could hear, howling out indecipherable words.
“Got a voice like shattered glass,” I said. “He can’t sing worth a damn. Gonna end up owing us for the damage done to our hearing.”
“You’re a poet and don’t know it,” Lucas groaned. He had flopped back against an old oak that swayed in the wind. “Vacant! Shut up before you wake a snake.” Then he showed his gappy smirk.
After another long glance at the shotgun house, Lucas reached over and unlatched his guitar case. With the guitar in his hands, he looked sober as my dead grandpappy. His specialty was punk songs played acoustic. I was the one who introduced him to the Blues, always wanting to start a band with him. I wasn’t much of a singer, but I could read music since I had been in the church choir. I wanted to sing songs about what mattered to us, not about angels or joy or death on the cross. Because she was a bad girl, I thought of the name Delilah for the band.
But Lucas always gave me the cold shoulder. He wasn’t sure I’d let him have the spotlight and, for Lucas, the spotlight was more important than Jesus. I was a good friend to him, but Lucas had trust issues ever since he broke up with an exchange student from Frankfurt, Germany—Greta, a dirty blonde like him, but not as scruffy. He came across a diagram from her doctor’s office one day while we rifled her purse. Turned out she had six toes on her left foot and, instead of disgusting him, it turned him on. After that Lucas asked her to take her shoes off during their many intimate moments.
He was staring at that shotgun house again when he just blurted out, “Let’s try and play one of your songs.” He waited while I fetched my three-ring binder covered in electric tape and took a seat on the porch steps of the shotgun. He strummed a minor chord, with a sad lilt to it, nodded at me, and I set in droning my poetry. Lucas riffed and Vacant banged on the ridged metal still. My mumble slowly turned into a moan—
Got down on my knees
and asked for Darkness’ help
said, Man won’t you please
build up my teenage yelp.
Vacant wanted to change the lyrics immediately, saying something about the head cheerleader, while Lucas sucked his teeth and listened. Then he played an instrumental, halting every few seconds to ponder. “Well,” he said, “we got the spirit.” He eyed Vacant. “I don’t know if we got the skill.”
Behind us, the screen door of the house clapped and we leaped up. “Looksy here,” rasped a voice from the darkness with a lisp as if the tongue were forked. “Y’all practicing for y’all’s band?” From the darkness came a gangly man in black overalls that started just below his nipples. His hair was only a few strands of steel wool, his reflective wire glasses so old, I’d call them “spectacles.”
“You lost?” asked Vacant, making Lucas slit his eyes at him.
“Sonny, I been found.”
“You live here?” I asked.
“I look like I live here?” the stranger asked back. He lifted his overalls and let them drop, as if showing nothing was up his sleeves. “Only body that lives here’s them science experiments over there. I live up yonder in Eureka, just likely same as y’all.”
“Right,” said Lucas, kneeing me.
“You sure got a funny way of talking, Mister,” said Vacant.
“Boy, you letting your tongue work before your brain does. People say the way I talk is—prepossessing.”
None of us commented. The man’s vocabulary impressed me. But I had heard talk of backwoods romances in the woods between the high school and Winn-Dixie. I met the stranger’s stare with my own. His spectacles grilled me.
“Well, y’all are as quiet as church boys. Don’t be afraid. I’m just an old rube.”
“If you say so,” murmured Lucas.
The stranger stretched, cracked his joints, pored over his fingertips. “What kind of guitar you got?”
“Acoustic,” said Vacant. Lucas glared at him again.
“Y’all like The Fiends?”
“Course,” said Lucas.
“You know the singer Woland? He’s my cousin.”
“Naw,” said Lucas. He leaned closer, but then he shook his head and eased back.
“Sure is. Back in eighty-five, at the old Faith and Unity bar, I played guitar with them. Wyatt was sick as a dog, so I stepped in. Y’all believe that?”
None of us had been born when The Fiends played at the Faith and Unity. I snuck in once, years later. The bouncers grabbed my collar later, hauled me out, and the rest of the show I spent against the wall in the alley, surrounded by weeds and bits of clover grown through the huge cracks in the pavement, wishing someone would talk to me. Weeks later, the floor of the Faith and Unity collapsed, breaking limbs and mohawks moussed up with egg white.
“I asked if y’all believe that,” growled the stranger.
“Dang, man. Hold it down.”
“Give me that thing,” the stranger barked. He walked up and snatched the guitar from Lucas’ hands, then sat in the place between Vacant and me. I clenched my butt.
“Y’all were trying to squawk y’all’s way through a song. Y’all got the skill, just not the right spirit. Take a listen here.”
He played his way through “Devil Beats His Wife” by The Fiends. His voice became a Bluesy, hangdog, Elvis croon, wholly unlike the rusty trap of his speaking voice. His singing was almost identical to Woland’s. Jiggling off the end of the song, he cut out by pressing his palm into the strings. An otherworldly silence hung over the woods. “Y’all should be impressed,” he hissed.
Vacant began to clap, slow, but Lucas punched his shoulder.
“All right. Y’all wanna start a band? I can show y’all how.”
Vacant nodded, Lucas stared. In a daze, I piped in, “Sure.”
“Your friend here don’t seem to agree,” said the stranger, his spectacles aimed at Lucas. “I’ll play a few more, see what he reckons then.” The stranger smiled, baring a few teeth proudly, as if they just came to his mouth. He played the entire opus of The Fiends, some Forty-Five Grave, Misfits, Dead Kennedys, Crass, Birthday Party, Cramps, Gun Club. Then he played a song he said he wrote himself—
I always try to give ’em hell
but whatever I do, I do it well.
Even Lucas leaned close enough to see his fingers on the frets. “Y’all can’t even count how many years I had to learn these songs.”
When Vacant rubbed his eyes and yawned during a solo, the stranger broke with a twang and said, “Boy, I probably slept longer than you been alive.” In a flash, he set the guitar down, took a couple bounds, and started to piss against a tree. “I bet one of you’s got some girl you wanna charm. I bet she wants a rock star.”
“Maybe,” I answered in a halfhearted voice. When he flipped around, his face was covered in glistening sweat, as if he were just standing over a barbecue.
“Now listen. Y’all’s band is gonna be like this. You play the music,” he pointed a finger at Lucas: “you sing,” then at me: “and you,” his arm dropped when it moved toward Vacant, “just bang an old wash basin. Try to keep up with the rhythm, I suppose. Y’all gonna play primitive punk rock. You know some riffs, right?” Lucas nodded. “You got lyrics?” I shrugged. “You,” he aimed those blank lenses at Vacant, “just bang out any old shit, as long as it goes with the guitar. With the po-etic lyrics, I guarantee y’all some straight up success, maybe a goddamned record contract. I know a lot of people.”
I cleared my throat. “Well, what’s the catch? You want us to let you touch our junk or something? What do you get?”
He pitched his gaze out into the darkness surrounding us. “I just wanna name the band, that’s all.”
Vacant gasped, like he’d been holding too much in his shriveled lungs.
“All right. Let’s hear the name.”
The stranger leaned in, the firelight glaring off his spectacles and the beads of sweat on his face. “How about…The Lost Soul Boys.”
There was a pause, but then someone let out a titter that tumbled into a guffaw. Lucas slapped his knee and spasmed with laughter. Vacant and I joined him and we all cawed in chorus.
“The hell y’all think is funny,” shrieked the stranger. He stood and stamped his foot, he shook his fists. If he had a tail, he’d have whipped it, standing there dancing like that. “Y’all got my songs. Y’all can’t turn back now,” he snarled. “Just like y’all punks to up and cross a fellow on a goddamned deal.”
Lucas hooted as the laughter fizzled out. “All due respect, it ain’t just that that name is one of the stupidest things I ever heard,” he said, “but me and Emory always said if we ever had a band, it’d be called Delilah, hands down. We made up our minds a while ago.” He winked at me after he spoke.
“I think y’all are trying to hustle me,” the stranger bellowed.
“Y’all never told me about that,” murmured Vacant, squinting at Lucas and grinding his gums.
“What’s your name, sir,” I asked.
“Shade,” the stranger hissed, “Jess Shade.” He spun around and hoofed it through a stand of pines into the predawn dark. Vacant shined a light out after him but he was gone. We hurried back to Lucas’ car soon after hearing the cry of a whippoorwill.
After dropping Vacant, I asked Lucas if I could crash at his place. I reckoned my daddy would be up soon and I didn’t want to be bothered by his morning noise. Lucas had been silent the whole ride while we listened to a zapped cassette of Son House. When we stopped outside his garage, I assumed I could stay over. After stepping out, he muttered, “We can play them songs.”
“You want me to sing?”
He nodded, took out his key, and opened the door to the garage. Inside the dank room, the corroded garden tools cast wicked shadows.
“What you thinking, Lucas?”
He mumbled, too quiet for me to hear. Then he hit my stomach with the back of his hand.
“Battle of the Bands is a month away in Montevallo, at the Cowtip. We can practice every day until then. Then the talent show’s the month after.”
“You wanna do Delilah?”
“Hell yeah. We got thirty days.”
“Well, I can’t do it tomorrow. I got a date with Nadya.”
“Just bring her. We don’t have much time. Life moves fast in punk rock. Don’t you know the average life span?”
“It’s about twenty-eight. If you’re not gone by thirty, you’re gonna start doing the sellout stuff, more talk less rock, know what I mean?”
“I didn’t know you were so well-versed in the subject.”
“It’s about all I know. You gotta be jaded when you’re young. Someone’s gotta die or something. By thirty, if none of us has overdosed and we haven’t got a couple albums out, I’m gonna have you shoot me in the gut with a thirty-eight special. I don’t wanna live no other way.” While he spoke, Lucas’ eyes drifted sideways, out of this world.
“Why’s it me who’s gotta shoot you, Lucas?”
“Who else is there but Vacant. And he’s too much of an idiot.”
“Why don’t you just shoot yourself?”
His eyes shimmered wide, trembling, the watery unease floating over to me. “Well, Emory, killing yourself’s a mortal sin.”
There was the drugs and rock n’roll, but there was sex too. To a virgin with a gorgeous girl, three months equals about infinity. For three months my romance with Nadya was only kissing and fondling, while my virginity dangled above. Before her there was only a desolate spell as a lonely teenager, so I took whatever came. Her hair was the color and shine of obsidian, her eyes wild and elastic, her pale body tight as a slingshot. I impressed her once by giving a screamed performance of one of my poems to a boy who challenged me and his friends. She captured me with the sweet gushing song of her tongue in my ear.
“This is supposed to be a date,” Nadya whined in the alley behind Winn-Dixie, where she worked Saturday mornings. She inhaled from a clove cigarette, puckering off smoke rings that whiffed past my face through the window. When I reached out, she tucked her uniform tighter and looked out her window.
“I don’t got much time today. I got band practice later at Lucas’.”
“Band practice?” I heard a rustle of tulle from the skirt she wore.
“Yeah, band practice. Last night, we had a,” I paused for the right word, “breakthrough.”
She daintily flicked her clove out the window and tucked her chin to look at me, “You’re seriously in a band?”
Nadya said the backseat was unnatural, so I escorted her into the woods, near the shotgun house but out of sight of the FBI corpses. In a crooked ring of sycamore, we gathered a pile of leaves. She knelt, clawing through the button of my pants while I lifted her shirt. I had imagined this moment so many times, I guess my expectations were high. Because of that and the knowledge that she came from Russia, I took a long time. If we were caught, I figured the family would cast some kind of Russian Evangelical exile curse on me.
“C’mon. You don’t gotta bring him into it.”
I had promised myself to be strong, be a man, but afterward, when we lay on the leaves catching our breath, I wanted to cry, thinking, I’m in heaven. I can still just sit back and remember that day. I still moisten up. Is that age? I hoped Lucas could have that too, to be able to take a girl into a mute clearing from here to eternity. But Lucas loved music more than love.
As she buttoned up her boobies, Nadya said, “I wanna see y’all play.”
In the garage where Lucas had set up, a plain rusty hole in the daylight, I wondered if we could come through even today’s practice. Lucas was the only one who knew how to play a song. Punk rock is simple, not fancy, not even meant to be music. To psych myself and the band up, I flashed the condom wrapper in my pocket.
Vacant hit the wash basin with one beat, “In honor of you busting your cherry.”
Nadya blushed. I opened my fat electric-taped binder of lyrics.
“Here we go,” I said. “One, two, three.”
Our first song was “Moanin’ at Midnight.” If you don’t know it, it begins with a long throaty wail. Lucas knew what to play after that and Vacant would probably crash in with his one, one-two downbeat. But I had to begin. I thought of how long I had waited—for our band to come together, for the end of my innocence to the female, even for the bell to ring at school. I had waited long, I thought. From all that waiting of my childhood came a wail, a moan, as if from a dark hole larger than me. My voice took on a lilt, even though I had passed puberty, then sunk through me, down into the earth, far enough that there was only the sound of whatever was there.
After the bridge, Lucas was so excited he hooted and whacked Vacant over the back of his head. I believe now I could have stopped him at that moment. I could have changed the outcome then, while ever after our fate was set. The ache on Vacant’s face yanked me out for a second. But I heard the music, shut my eyes, and opened my mouth instead.
“That wasn’t bad. Not bad at all!”
Lucas and I progressed into songs with twanged-out hillbilly standards and my voice amplified loud enough to hear. Vacant tried to keep up, while we tried to drown each other out. It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. We’d stolen from the Blues to create music beyond such bourgeois conventions, burning through all the old songs in half-time.
Nadya danced before us, snaked arms above her like rising fumes. But hearing the name Delilah, she snickered, “Nobody likes church names.”
Lucas narrowed his eyes and I interjected, “We had this name in mind for a long time.”
Her mouth twitched, eyes set on me, “Well, it’s bad.”
“Least she’s honest,” Lucas hummed.
“You’d probably like it if I had some redneck church name,” Nadya spat.
Vacant raised his mallet. “Maybe we could change the name.”
“What,” Lucas and I squawked.
“Do you have a better name,” asked Nadya.
“Hey, are you in the band?” Lucas snapped.
“How about,” we all froze, “The Lost Soul Boys.”
The brutal clapping of hands in the tiny garage tapped my spine. “That’s your name,” said Nadya as she clapped.
I gazed at my shoes and said, “Whatever.” Lucas trapped me in one of his longest zombie stares yet. Vacant counted off. I shut my eyes and started to scream.
It was only Vacant and I who sat over the form for the Cowtip Battle of the Bands. Lucas refused to join us. Vacant’s hand squiggled along the dotted line the name The Lost Soul Boys.
It’s all true about life speeding up during high times. Before you know it, you’re old, sitting in the booth of a dive bar near a liberal arts college out in the sticks of Alabama. Iron dumbness had stricken us after Lucas thumped Vacant’s cranium several more times, telling him to get some rhythm in his head. I figured we already were losers. I had no hope. I wanted to win, because Nadya depended on it and that was the only way I could be a man, so my manhood depended on it.
The announcer scampered past, wearing a barker’s hat and thick make-up which formed a false leer on his face, the plywood of the stage platform bowing under his boots. “How you guys doing!” he shouted.
A unanimous howl struck up from the crowd.
With the feedback, each word was like the shrieking ring of a striking hammer. “You ready for…The Lost Soul Boys! They must not have seen the eighties vampire flick.”
The crowd parted for us and we shuffled past, eyes to the floor. A girl in the corner vomited on herself, then drawled, “Take me home.” We plugged in and Lucas bludgeoned the guitar strings. I droned, “Good evening.”
The crowd’s voice came back in one funneled wave. With a sudden bang on the strings, no countdown, Lucas moved into an accelerated version of “Rye Whiskey.” I slurred through the lyrics while Vacant banged a couple times, then lost his sticks. Lucas finally slowed down, only becoming louder. Vacant recovered by the next song, “Hellhound on my Trail.” But Lucas only scowled without giving us a glance. After we dove head first into the next, I gulped the words to the song, trying to listen to Lucas for guidance. He was drawing sound out of the guitar—beautiful sad waves a teenager shouldn’t know, sound which I had never heard before.
In the patchy view I had of the audience, Shade migrated among the bodies, as if he were only a floating head.
We played through our routine one song after another, so fast no one could applaud. As we came to the end of our set list and Vacant started to flag, Lucas hovered close enough to say to me, “Let’s just you and me do ‘Alone and Forsaken.’” I was afraid of the symbolism. After our sexual encounter, I figured Nadya and I were deeply in love and would marry. Lucas began the sad, A-minor lowness, slow like the song is. But he sped it up to a punk rock time signature. My singing had none of the soul of the song, the lingering ache living through it. At that moment, only Lucas carried us. He humped his guitar and pointed the neck out at the audience as the refrain wound up before plunging into the major chord.
When the song ended, he chucked his instrument aside, lay down, his mouth open in a frown, his eyes rolled down to study his chest, where he began to carve, inscribing a jagged D, then moving onto an E. His head dropped and he collapsed from his elbows onto the platform before he could finish the second letter. But, like lightning, he was up again, on all fours, scrabbling through the legs of the audience members and barking and baying like a dog.
The crowd watched slack-jawed. I followed Lucas’ trail through the stomping limbs out to the parking lot, in between two cars. He lay there, snatching at breaths, as if he kept a gust deep inside his lungs. Inside the bar, I heard the crowd explode with applause.
“Well?” Lucas gasped.
“You think we’re still failures?”
“I think you brought us through.”
“Goddamn Vacant can’t get rhythm to save his life.”
I said nothing, figuring Lucas was just being a typical artist who never stops picking. I figured we had done it—we had moved into the realm of fame, of sex, drugs, and punk rock n’ roll. But I was just the singer, Lucas would say.
I cooled him down and wiped up his chest with his bedraggled T-shirt. Nadya came out still applauding, the sound shrill in our revved-up eardrums. Vacant was carrying out his drum set with the help of the announcer, who had changed into a Slayer shirt. One of those types, I thought. Lucas, still shirtless, stood up faster than he should have. “Who won, man?”
“Well, you guys blew the generator. The contest’s over,” the announcer murmured without meeting Lucas’ eyes.
“So, who won?”
“The prize is right there,” he pointed at a leather jacket, spikes lining the shoulders with the words Best Punk Band We Dont Care on the back, “but no one won it. You guys were great, but the judges disqualified you because of the generator. It’s not fair to everyone else.”
“We killed all the other bands,” whined Lucas.
“All right, man,” I said. Lucas grabbed the jacket, the announcer took the other end. Lucas shoved him against the trunk of the car. When Lucas raised his fist, the boy flinched. His makeup exaggerated his pleading expression. “All right, hold up.” Lucas turned his teeming eyes on me.
“It’s nothing, man,” said Vacant. Lucas’ neck cocked and he narrowed his gaze at Vacant, then released the announcer. The boy took off into the bar, leaving the jacket. The door slammed and the deadbolt slid into its housing.
“I know it’s nothing to you,” said Lucas. He put on the jacket and pivoted to the other side of his car, opened the door, and sat inside. Before he shut the door, he told Vacant to find another ride home.
As if it were all a dream, I woke from my desk Monday just after lunch. Whatever fate had in store, I knew the boredom of school was even more deadly. I forged a blank hall pass I had stolen from a teacher’s desk and cut out during sixth period. After exiting from the gym, I bolted across the football field toward the woods, hoping to avoid Coach Stark, whose suicide runs had trained me to sprint long distances, especially from security guards and cops like him.
Over the dirt road and through the pine eaves, I found the red clay path leading to the shotgun house. Branches sheathed by bottles clinked in the wind. The cables dangling the caged corpses groaned. I heard the seesaw coo of a mourning dove. Here, I was at peace. But the wind and the mourning dove hushed when I saw, sitting on the porch in a rocker, flicking a zippo against his pant leg, his face split by a shit-eating grin and not bespectacled, Jess Shade. “Caught y’all’s show the other night. Hot stuff, you punker boys. Course, I ain’t so sure about that drummer. Y’all might have to give him the axe.”
“Well, we ended up losing, so none of that matters now.”
“You’re goddamn right it matters. Y’all can’t give up now! Just like y’all punks to give up when y’all gotta make tough decisions. If not for y’all’s drummer—” he cut himself off and shook, like a molting chicken. He clacked his tongue once. His eyes were black as dolls’ marbles against the gray sky. I caught a whiff of gasoline. “Y’all need a manager and I’m available. I’m willing to take that risk now. I wasn’t so sure before.”
“You couldn’t manage manure,” I said.
“Boy, you got a lip on you.”
The static ping of rubber rolling over gravel sent us both ducking, Shade into the house and I around back where I crouched against the foundation. The car switched off, then heavy feet carried themselves across the dirt and broken glass. They climbed two steps, paused, and descended again.
There was a hiss above me. Shade’s hollow eyes and jeer jutted out of the first-storey window. “Y’all need y’all an edge,” he whispered. A line of saliva oozed from his mouth and small bubbles popped off his lips.
I made bounds off the tufts of crabgrass anchored in the hill. Coach Stark hollered after me, “How fast can you run, boy? My best mile’s five even.” I passed the line of corpses and burst through needled branches until I saw Coach Stark’s parked police cruiser. From where I stood, I spied the keys hanging below the wheel. I threw myself against the door, flung it open, and snatched the keys before I sprinted off. My lead was strong but I knew his competitive pride would keep him after me as far as Mobile.
Through several stands of pine, I emerged behind Winn-Dixie. Nadya’s house was nearby. When I came to the alley behind her house, I approached on tiptoe. I climbed the fence and landed in a vegetable garden. Under the darkening sky, I spotted an engraved sandstone garden decoration leaning against the house with the words—Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. My fall had squished a tomato. I tracked red footprints through the open back door and up the stairs to Nadya’s room. I had only been there once, when her parents were away. I waited there, sitting on the foot of her bed, for a long piece of time. Outside, the sky was becoming the color of a bruise.
When she finally arrived, she screamed, “What the hell did you do?”
“I gotta tell you something.”
“Where were you?”
“They let us out early ’cause of the weather.” She shook her head and began to feel along the surface of the dresser. “Where’s my cross at?”
“How should I know? I’ve never seen that thing.”
The sky was even darker outside. There was a knock at the window—a ball of hail bounced in the sill. In my seventeen years, I had never seen hail in Alabama.
She sat on the bed and said, “There was a shooting today,” staring off as if someone were whispering the words into her ear for her to repeat. “Your friend Lucas. I was waiting to meet Vacant when I heard shouting in the bathroom. Lucas was shouting that Vacant didn’t have no soul. Vacant said he did too have a soul. I heard a gunshot,” she sobbed, “and Mr. Calhoun went in and dragged Vacant out. Lucas shot him in the hand and he passed out. Then Lucas came out of there waving a gun around and baying like a dog, like he did the other night. Coach Stark was gone somewhere.” She bowled into me and I lay back in the bed, horrorstruck.
The hail came down and sirens blared in the streets. I had wanted to tell her about Jess Shade, about what Lucas had said to me that night in the garage, about how much she meant to me. But all that ran through my mind were memories of Lucas wasted, slinging his arms like The Hunchback and growling a metal song, I’m summoning the ancients.
The fall of hail, violent but distant, sent me into a spell. I understood what being forsaken meant, all of a sudden. It was to wait for something so long, too long, until you’re nothing but an old crow. Then, to get what you longed for.
Nadya was kissing my neck and sliding her hands up my shirt. I slid her pantyhose off. We set into a quickie. When we were done, she held me tight and still while I napped.
I woke to the mew of enraged Russian. Nadya’s mama howled and beat her fists against her apron, while Nadya stood half naked, weeping and screaming back at her. As I pored over the bed for my pants, Nadya pulled her T-shirt down to cover her legs while jumping to avoid the whip of her mama’s dishcloth. I wriggled into my pants, stood, and grabbed my shirt. Her mama said something to me in Russian, as I backed out of the room. I stopped when I bumped up against a brick torso.
Coach Stark took me out into a world mute after the storm, the sun hooded. He stared at me, his hands squeezing at his belt. I wondered how he had found me at Nadya’s. Had she betrayed me? I figured he was too embarrassed to tell anyone what had happened. He let me pass in front of him. But, once I passed, his hand clodded the back of my head. Clutching the place where he hit me, I turned to face him. He took me by the collar and growled through his teeth, “I got your friend to take care of first. After that, you better watch out.” He shoved me so hard my chest arched and one foot caught the other’s heel, landing my knee against the concrete. “Get up,” he barked, “and give me my damn keys.”
From the rear window of a police cruiser at the curb, the rabid eyes of Lucas stared out into thin air. I thought Coach Stark was approaching again, so I opened the back door and sat down. In cuffs, Lucas perched on the edge of the seat, forehead against the grill. First I only looked at him indirectly, through the rearview mirror where he appeared smaller. Then I sat back and saw his hands behind. Crawling on all fours had scraped them raw. When I finally glanced into his eyes, I flinched. Outside, Coach Stark ignored us and spit into his radio.
“Did you shoot Vacant?”
Lucas sucked in his bottom lip.
“Nadya said—” I started but clapped my mouth with one hand.
“Frauleins talk, don’t they.”
“She’s not German, Lucas.”
“He was holding us back. If not for him.”
“I don’t know,” I said. Then I leaned closer to tell him, “I don’t think the band can go on.”
He threw me a bloodshot glare. Then he lowered his eyes to the floor and hung his head. “Then you gotta do me just one favor.”
“I’ll do anything,” I said.
His mouth trembled and a squeak came out. Then he jutted toward me. His eyes had welled. His breath was on my cheek as he whimpered, “Do like I asked you to.” I was grabbing for the handle before his lips stopped moving. While my fingers clawed for what wasn’t there, I screamed for Coach Stark. His forlorn eyes begged me, “Just get that twelve gauge out the front. Quick and easy.” My fist banged the glass. If my throat hadn’t seized, I would have asked why. When the door opened, I took off running again.
Past Winn-Dixie, deep in the pine woods, the moon shined auburn against the Alabama clay. I found the sycamore ring and let my knees break where the leaves were disturbed. “Grow me up,” I prayed. Where I’d lain with Nadya in the leaves, two copperheads, their silver-brown skin glistening in the moonlight, lay tangled and writhing. I hurried further into the woods. When I came to our shotgun house it was a silhouette of ash, not even smoldering anymore, finally dead, only the metal pieces of the still remaining. All that was left were the corpses, hanging out in their cages. I stared hard into the grimacing face of one of them. It was wearing Jess Shade’s spectacles. Around me the trees applauded with their leaves.
At home I knelt again to pray. But I only cried, like a boy.
When I returned to school, no one spoke about what happened. Coach Stark only eyed me up and down. Nadya gave me the cold shoulder. Vacant was gone forever, transferred to a new district, maybe even out of state. They put Lucas in the West Alabama Juvenile Facility. The other day his mom brought over the prize leather jacket and left without a word.
I figure all I can do is wait. Fame’s in the cards one way or another, I believe. I’m the last Lost Soul Boy. If I pawn the jacket, I can buy a clunker from my cousin and drive north through Tennessee and Kentucky, along the Bluegrass Parkway into Ohio, Michigan, out of the South.