(A still rough piece of short fiction that came to me yesterday. The setting and the time are the same as the novel I’ve been working on, but the characters are new.)
It stormed the night before, thunder claps and lightning flashes moving stealthily across the sleeping town. It took only about an hour to pass through, but it was enough to finally break the heat wave that had gripped the town for the first two weeks of August. The cool breeze that blew out of the north was a welcome reprieve from the hot and damp southern winds that pushed daytime temperatures into the nineties, but as welcome as it may have been, it was also cool enough to remind everyone that summer was almost over, and that autumn was on its way.
Autumn and other things were on Bill Michaels’ mind as he sat in the passenger seat, the wind through his open window rolling back his black hair. It was cold enough to cause his girlfriend, Peggy Olsen, sitting alone in the enormous back seat of Jeff Fry’s 1965 Rambler, to complain about how chilly it was and what a mess it was making of her hair. Without hesitation, Jeff reached down and grabbed the handle and rolled up the drivers’ side front window. Bill didn’t move, his blue eyes fixed on the endless rolling corn and hay fields of county highway F that had been dipped in the golden late afternoon sunlight.
“I’m glad there’s at least one gentleman in this car,” Peg said.
“Don’t get your panties in a bundle,” Bill said. “It’s only for a minute or two.”
Peggy folded her arms and bit her tongue. She wanted to tell Bill what a jerk he’d been lately, but she reminded herself that Bill had a right to be on edge. She thought about how this was the last night she’d have to tiptoe around him, the last night she’d have to suffer his uncharacteristically brooding and short fuse, and then she felt guilty.
Bailey’s Bridge, where the Canadian Pacific railroad line traversed Count Highway F, appeared ahead of them. Jeff slowed the Rambler down and parked under it, on the side of the highway. They got out and Jeff opened up the trunk, and looped his right arm through the three folded up lawn chairs and reached out his right hand and grabbed the case of Old Milwaukee. Peg and Bill both took a bag of groceries. Jeff took the last bag, from the Orchard Depot Ben Franklin hardware store, and lifted it out of the trunk with his left hand.
“What’s in there?” Bill asked.
“Spray paints!” Jeff was pleased with himself. “I’ve got four different colors. I figured it’s time we immortalized ourselves.”
“Far out,” Peg said, as they started climbing the dirt path from the highway to the top of the bridge. The side of the bridge was covered with graffiti, the largest and freshest addition a psychedelic-ish red, white and blue “Class of 69” that word around town their class president, Tom Robinson, painted the night of their graduation, openly defying the town president, Frank Cornish, and his promised crackdown on “the bastardization of valuable public property” that graffiti represented. As they got to the top of the bridge, Bill thought about Tom Robinson and how “brave” and “daring” everybody said he was, and wondered how much courage it’d take to start college in Madison in the fall compared to how much Vietnam would require from Bill, and he got pissed off again. Robinson would spend his days that autumn fucking coeds, while he’d be in the jungle getting shot at by the Viet Cong. He resented Robinson, and wondered why his number didn’t come up in the lottery, and he thought of Robinson up at the lake with the spectacular Janice Shaffer in her two piece swimsuit while he was left to spend his last night before shipping out to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri at the gravel pit with his idiot best friend and his moody girlfriend. He extended his hand and pulled her up the last step to the railroad tracks, taking note of the jacket she was already wearing.
They walked along the tracks west from the bridge for about a half mile, the same terrain Bill and Jeff knew so well from rabbit hunting. They’d done it so many times in winters past that they’d execute the routine without speaking, the shooter getting high up on the elevated tracks and the pusher taking the wooded brush below and beside the tracks, on the north side of the tracks first, walking through the thickets and stomping on the brush piles while the shooter up above, on the tracks, kept his eyes peeled on the brush in front of the pusher below and his 20 gauge shotgun on the ready for the inevitable rabbit that would feel the pressure and try to escape, running ahead until the shooter got a bead on him and squeezed the trigger. They’d hunt like that, walking west, until they got to the gravel pit, when they‘d switch roles, with the shooter taking the south side and becoming the pusher, and the north side pusher taking the role of the shooter, as they’d make their way east back to Bailey’s Bridge.
“I’m gonna miss rabbit hunting,” Jeff said.
“You can still hunt,” Bill said.
“Not by myself.”
“Then find someone else.”
“Wouldn’t be the same,” Jeff said.
After about a fifteen minute walk, they arrived at the gravel pit. The sun was sinking in the west. One of the first times they hunted the tracks, about six years earlier, they “discovered” the gravel pit. Inactive since at least the late fifties, it still carried the scars from the big digger machines that cut and carved and dug holes in the earth to load boxcars that used to take the sand and gravel harvested by the machines to the county municipal building, where it’d be put to use as fill and ice melt. In addition to the cuts and wide holes left in the earth, there were also new hills created in the process of piling once loose rocky soil and sand that over time became attached to the terra firma. The highest of these hills, known as “Gravel Hill” stood about fifty feet above the ground, or just high enough to provide the best view of Orchard Depot short of being in an airplane. Bill and Jeff and Peg climbed to the top of Gravel Hill and opened up their lawn chairs around the fire pit that had been installed at its peak. Jeff and Peg collected fire wood while Bill took some newspaper and a book of matches he’d stuffed in the back pocket of his jeans out and lit the kindling until the flames were strong enough to ignite the bigger logs.
Soon it was dark and chilly out, the fire providing light and warmth as they sat in their lawn chairs next to it, on its east side, drinking warm Old Milwaukee and looking out over the fire to the west, where the yellow and white lights of Orchard Depot stood out against the black horizon, while above a handful of stars tossed up against the clear night sky sparkled and shone. Bill and Jeff told the story about how, when they were in seventh grade, they came out to the gravel pit and found, unearthed by the swipe of an old digger machine that’d scraped a hole in the ground, a rock that glittered and glowed. Peg had heard the story countless times before, about how they convinced themselves they’d found a deep vein of gold or silver or some other mineral of untold value, and she always loved hearing them get more and more animated as they described the plans they’d made for their harvest and the lengths they went to in order to keep their finding and their subsequent expeditions secret. They finally go up the nerve to approach the middle school science teacher, Mrs. Breck, about their finding and how her examination of the sample they presented to her resulted in her declaring, “what you’ve got there is a sizable chunk of Pyrite.”
“Pyrite.” Bill and Jeff repeated the term in unison. It sounded impressive. “How much do you suppose it’s worth?” Bill finally asked.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I’ll give you each fifty cents for it.”
“Fifty cents!” Jeff couldn’t hide his disgust. “More like fifty dollars!”
She laughed. “That’d definitely be paying too much,” she said, “too much for fool’s gold.”
“That’s right. Not worth a cent. But it’d be worth a buck to me to use it in class.”
At this point in the story, Bill and Jeff would always go over the list of things they’d planned on buying with their precious metal, and Peg loved hearing them say, “mini-bike? Scratch. Snowmobile? Scratch.” Peg came from a home environment that was dominated by alcohol and divorce and was completely humorless. The concept of self-deprecation was so foreign and new to her that she found it hysterical.
It was times like this, with Peg laughing so hard and loud at such a simple story that convinced Bill he was in love with her. It was the pureness and the genuine joy she felt, and the way her face lit up when she was happy and laughing. At times like this, Bill was certain that she was the prettiest girl in town. The problem was that she was so hesitant to let her guard down that few people had ever seen her like that.
Bill and Peg had been going steady since the previous October, their senior year, when Bill asked her out to the Homecoming dance. They had a class, third hour senior civics, together. Bill, who’d always been painfully shy around girls, found himself seated behind Peg, and every day as he silently stared at the back of her head, at her full reddish-brown hair, he grew more and more enamored with her. Then one day, as she passed a test back to him, he smiled at her and she smiled back. Emboldened by the exchange, he vowed to talk to her the next day, asking her what she thought of the test, and she said that she thought it was really hard, which surprised him, because he found it to be quite easy. But he didn’t let on, instead agreeing with her.
The ice successfully broken, they started talking more and more until Bill finally worked up the nerve to ask her to the Homecoming dance. Once there, they were both able to brush off their initial awkwardness enough to successfully take a couple of slow dances together. At the end of the night, Bill drove Peg home and walked her to her front porch, the glow of the porchlight exposing peeling and faded green paint on the siding as they quickly kissed good night, their lips barely making contact.
The first time they made love, had sex, was three months later, a cold Wednesday night in mid-January, the day Bill received his draft notice. It hadn’t really sunk in yet, that he was going to Vietnam. Bill used it to his advantage to get what he’d been pestering her for the previous month or so, as he parked his dad’s green Ford LTD on Brown Woods road, a short and uninhabited stretch of gravel north of town off of County Highway G. It was cold as they climbed in the back seat and unsnapped their jeans, the windows quickly frosting over as he thrust himself into her, exploding after only a few rushed strokes, the whole thing over just moments after it’d started. As they were putting their jeans back on, he caught a glimpse of a single tear running down her cheek before she quickly wiped it away with her hand. He felt horrible.
It’d be another month before they tried again, again on Brown Woods Road, again in the back seat of his dad’s LTD. This time was different, though, as they didn’t rush things, taking off their shirts as well as their pants, their bodies lit by the pale and cold moonlight that streamed through the windshield. Bill found her beautiful, her bare breasts and her hips and her waist, but especially her bare upper back, between and under her shoulder blades, her skin milk white and smooth.
By the time they found themselves sitting in the fire light on Gravel Hill on the night before Bill was to head to basic training, they’d had sex eight times. Bill hated that he knew this. He understood that he was cheapening the experience, cheapening Peg, by keeping a count, but he also knew that he couldn’t help it. He’d always seen and processed the world through numbers, since before he could remember, and he counted and stored everything. Times he and Jeff had gone rabbit hunting: twenty-six.
At one time, in Junior High, it looked like his proficiency with numbers would be the ticket for Bill to become the first Michaels to attend college. But although he got good grades in math classes, he remained a poor and unmotivated student in his other academic endeavors.
His senior year, especially the spring semester, after receiving his draft notice, was especially bad. There were many days he didn’t show up to class at all. The school administrators had grown all too familiar with the phenomenon of the unmotivated drafted senior and agreed that compared to going to war on the other side of the world, high school just didn’t seem that important, and adopted an unofficial policy of graduating these individuals regardless of academic achievement.
Bill glanced at his Timex, a graduation gift from his grandparents. It was shortly after one o’clock. Time was running out. His folks were taking him to Mitchell Field, in Milwaukee, at six o’clock in time for him to check in and board his 7:30 flight to Saint Louis. He’d told his mom and dad all along that he planned on staying out all night before leaving. He could feel the moments ticking away, and as he reached down for another beer, he realized they were almost gone, too. As he pulled the top off the can of Old Milwaukee, he looked across the fire at Jeff and Peg and felt the same panic that’d been hitting him too frequently lately, that everything was moving too fast and that the very earth itself was about to spin off of its axis.
“I sure wish I was going, too,” Jeff said.
“No you don’t,” Bill replied.
“That’s not true,” Jeff said. “Just because I can’t go, doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”
“Why on earth would you want to go?” Bill asked.
“Because I, be-be-because I just want to,” Jeff said. He was starting to get agitated.
“That’s the dumb …”
“Bill,” Peg interrupted, “that’s enough.”
“I’m sorry, Jeff.”
“You just think I’m dumb,” Jeff said.
“No I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I really don’t. You’re my best friend, Jeff. I’m just saying, you don’t want to go to Vietnam.”
“How do you know what I do or don’t want to do? Just because they won’t take me doesn’t mean I don’t want to go. Just like you – you’re going but you don’t want to.”
“Jeff,” Peg said. “Just calm down. Who wants to go and who doesn’t want to doesn’t matter. This is the last night we have together. That’s what’s important. I swear, I’m so sick of hearing and thinking about Vietnam.”
Jeff got real quiet. It was getting late, and he was getting tired.
When Jeff was six years old, while chasing an errant basketball into the street, he was hit by a delivery truck in front of his house. His head bounced off of the pavement, and he suffered a fractured skull. The incident left him with minor but permanent brain damage, and a lower than average I.Q. and some short term memory loss that was enough to earn him a draft deferment.
Bill knew Jeff since seventh grade and Peg had spent enough time with him that they both understood him. Most of the time, he was just a little bit slow mentally, not bad, just slightly, so slightly as to be almost unperceivable. But once he got tired, once fatigue set in, he’d become easily agitated and forgetful, and start slurring his words. As they looked at him in his chair beside the fire, Bill and Peg knew that in a minute or two he’d be sound asleep, and given an hour’s nap, he’d wake up refreshed and coherent, and he’d be Jeff again.
Once Jeff was asleep, Bill and Peg sat close to one another, forsaking their lawn chairs to sit on the ground next to the fire. The night was getting cold, and Bill, in his black t-shirt, was struggling to keep warm.
“Still think I was stupid for wearing a jacket?” Peg asked.
“No, I guess not,” Bill replied. He sat close to her, absorbing her body warmth. He reached his left hand into her jacket and between buttons on her blouse and over her bra covered beast and gently squeezed. She turned her face toward his and they kissed.
“You want to go in the bushes?” Peg asked.
“No, that’d be about the last thing I’d need. Start basic training with poison ivy all over my ass.”
Peg laughed, and then said, “well, I wouldn’t be comfortable doing it out here in front of Sleeping Beauty.”
“No, neither would I.” They then agreed that the cold, the poison ivy, and the presence of Jeff were all enough to make sex, last night together or not, a dubious proposition that wasn’t worth pursuing.
“Just keep me warm,” Bill said, as they huddled together. Jeff was snoring loudly from his lawn chair.
Bill cleared his throat, and said, “Peg, I’ve been thinking.”
Bill nervously poked at the fire with a stick. “About us,” he said.
“What about us?” There was apprehension in her voice.
“I was just thinking …” he started. “I was just thinking that if something happens …”
“Now I told you we weren’t going to talk like that.”
“I know, I know,” he said. “Okay. It’s just that I’m going to be gone for so long, and I’ll be so far away, that, if someone else comes along, I don’t want you to feel you have to wait for me.”
It was the truth, at least the partial truth. He had been thinking about that lately. The complete truth, though, was that part of him was looking forward to getting out of Orchard Depot, and finding new people, instead of the only other two people in town who were as lonely as he was. He’d been wondering how it came to this, how on the night before he was to ship out he found himself alone on Gravel Hill with the daughter of the town drunk and a brain damaged imbecile. He wondered what his flaw was, and all he could come up with is that he’d been a math geek with a photographic memory filled with nothing but numbers, because that’d been all he allowed himself to experience, and now he was going to war, to face possible death, without ever having really lived, and having seen so little of the world. He looked at Jeff and Peg, their faces lit by the firelight, and he realized how much he loved them both, and how much he needed to move beyond them. He saw the tear rolling down Peg’s face and he suspected she knew it, too.
Jeff woke up and saw Bill and Peg sitting by the fire, and said, “How long was I asleep? You two getting cozy together?”
Peg wiped her face and stood up, saying that she had to go in the brush and pee and that nobody better follow her.
“How you feel, Jeff?” Bill asked.
“I feel like another beer,” Jeff replied. Bill grabbed one of the last Old Milwaukees and tossed it to Jeff. “What time is it?” Jeff asked.
Bill cocked his wrist so that his watch was lit by the fire. “It’s two thirty,” he replied.
Peg returned from the brush and the three of them sat and finished the beer, talk and laughter coming easily in the pre-dawn darkness.
Finally, at 3:45, they decided to call it a night. They put out the fire and picked up. Jeff held a flashlight in his hand as they prepared to walk east along the tracks to the bridge and Jeff’s Rambler, when Bill stopped and looked west towards town.
“Guys,” he said, “if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to walk home.”
“Are you sure?” Jeff asked.
“Yeah,” Bill replied. “One last long look at things.”
They said their goodbyes, there on the railroad tracks, Bill shaking Jeff’s hand before Jeff pulled him into a big hug, both of them slapping each other on the back. Then it was Peg’s turn, and they kissed and held each other tighter than they ever had before. Tears were running down both of their faces as they finally let each other go, neither one of them able to think of a single word to say to one another.
Bill stood still on the railroad tracks, facing east, and watched Peg and Jeff walk away until all he could see was the faint and fading glow of Jeff’s flashlight and when he couldn’t see that anymore, he climbed back to the top of Gravel Hill and looked to the west, to the sleeping lights of his hometown, Orchard Depot, Wisconsin. They’d never before shone so vividly, and it was as if he was looking at them from the other side of the world, from the jungles of an unknown place called Vietnam, yet he still could see, as clearly as if they were standing next to him, sparkling and glittering in the yellow streetlight lit haze of memory like rare and precious minerals, his best friend and his first love.