“Alexander, take the money.”
Alex glanced at the worn ten-dollar bill in Mr. Henri’s work-battered hand. “Thanks,” he said. “I appreciate the offer.” Rather than take the money, he grabbed his backpack from the bare metal floor of the old pickup truck, and checked that the tightly rolled sleeping bag was securely strapped.
“I really don’t need it, Mr. Henri,” he said, even as his fingertips traced the folded Buck knife in the right front pocket of his jeans, then pressed on the left pocket, confirming his net worth, four paper bills and a clump of coins—$8.79.
“Comrade Alexi, is only paper!” Mr. Henri switched to a cartoonish Russian accent. “You take. You spend. Buy the vodka if you like. Da?”
Alex echoed the accent, “Nyet. Eeez filthy lucre.” He lifted his baseball cap from the cracked, dust-covered dashboard, a black letter C in a white field of the front. Putting it on, he pointed to the C on the hat. “Word for day, Capitalists!” In an exaggerated sneer, he added, “Zees idiot capitalists, day vill sell us rope we hang dem with!”
Even as Mr. Henri belly laughed, the only way he ever laughed, he reached across to grab Alex’s brown flannel shirt, pulling him back before he could shoulder open the truck’s door. “Alex. Take the money. You may look twenty-five, with that excuse of a mustache and stubble, but you’re a kid, just an overgrown kid. Same as my Pierre.”
Pierre was the middle son of Mr. Henri’s five sons, and like Alexander, fully gown and solid, but only just past sixteen-years-old.
Not for the first time, Alex slept last night on the broken-down sofa in the Henri’s one-hundred-year-old ramshackle house, near the harbor in the three-hundred-year-old Connecticut town where he grew up. This summer, like the last summer, from the day the school year ended until it would start again, Alex slept anywhere he landed, other than his parent’s house. He often landed at the Henri’s.
Mr. Henri released his grip and patted Alex’s shoulder, leaning close, he switched back to the Russian accent. “Comrade Alexi, you take money, da? Is not problem. I know tree which on it grows. I get more. I get more!”
Still, Alex hesitated. Mr. Henri was a bombastic, theatrically incompetent alcoholic who, despite his college degree, had not held a steady job in years. He was married to a weepy, equally incompetent alcoholic who every Saturday afternoon sat on their piano bench in the dilapidated living room, sighing and drinking and weeping for three hours, as she listened to opera broadcasts over the static of their radio.
Yet, somehow they managed to keep themselves soaked in supermarket wine, and to feed rack of lamb with cauliflower in heavy cheese sauce to five oversized-teenaged sons inside a house built in 1870 that was now rapidly deconstructing. The odds were high that the ten-dollar bill being held out to Alex, pinched between Mr. Henri’s thumb and forefinger, was the only bill in his wallet.
He plucked the bill from Mr. Henri’s hand, and felt the hurt pass through both of them.
Alex stood on the shoulder of the interstate belting around Hartford, and leaned into the open window of the truck, raising his voice above the roar of traffic. “Thank you!”
Mr. Henri crunched the truck into gear. “Come the revolution, Comrade Alexi, we will eat the rich!”
Two hours later, after the rushing commuters got themselves inside their offices, warehouses, stores, and factories, a red station wagon, its entire right side crumpled in dents, pulled over to the shoulder of the highway. The pack slung over Alex’s shoulder thumped his back as he jogged fifty yards to reach the rolled-down window of the front passenger door. The driver was a woman, still in her twenties, with two boys under ten sprawled in the back seat, staring at him, their eyes narrowed in wariness.
Without removing the cigarette from her mouth, the woman spoke in an effortlessly loud voice, “Where you going to?”
She exhaled a jet of blue air. “Like Canada north? Like North Pole north?”
“Never heard of it.”
“Small town. Finger Lakes area.” When her expression did not change, Alex added, “Upstate New York.”
“Well, I suppose I can get you thirty miles closer.”
Seeing him hesitate, she waved her thin arm, “Well jump in. Ain’t got all day.”
She watched him wedge the backpack on the floor between his legs and twist to grab and buckle his seat belt.
She smirked. “You really think that’ll save you?”
Before Alex could answer, she looked over her shoulder, and accelerated into traffic, the car’s muffler rattling the floor. From the side of her mouth, she blew smoke out her window, and spoke to the dirty windshield. “Jesus wants you, Jesus takes you. End of story.”
“You should stay with us. My ma won’t mind.”
Alexander said nothing, working quickly to assess the situation—the driver, the ten-year-old yellow Dodge Coronet, half-prepped to be repainted black, with rough patches of gray Bondo on both front fenders, had a foot-long crack in the passenger side of its windshield. The sun had nearly set and the buildings of downtown Albany were black rectangles against an on-fire sky. For the past hour, the driver talked a disjointed stream of baseball, football, and hockey. All Alex had to do was grunt in agreement with an opinion, or drop the name of an athlete, and the driver would incorporate that player into his opinionated monologue.
“You could sleep in Phil’s bed. He joined up with the Marines. I got the room to myself now. Two beds in it.”
Alex estimated the driver was maybe five years older, twenty or twenty-one. He had crew cut hair, was maybe taller, and maybe thirty pounds heavier, and maybe forty points lower on an IQ test.
“You get up early with me and I’ll drop you at the on ramp. On my way to Manpower.”
“What’s Manpower?” Alex asked.
The guy formed his words carefully, as if he were reading the words from a brochure while driving. “Temporary employment agency. Contract day labor.”
Alex added up the guy’s battered work boots, the black dirt pancaked on his jeans, the once white tee-shirt, the kind sold in packs of twelve, now soiled by sweat and dirt. “I’m Alex,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“Vincenzo. That’s what’s on my birth certificate. Vincenzo. But people they all call me Vinnie.”
Vincenzo’s mother nodded once at Alex but spoke only to her son. She was short, and the floral print dress she wore strained against her soft rolls of fat. She rubbed her hands continuously, as if drying them with an invisible towel. She seemed to accept that Alex was just there, having appeared before her, like the next story on the local television news she watched when they arrived in the small, dark apartment that smelled of something sour Alex could not identify.
She fed them spaghetti and meatballs. They dipped stale breadsticks into the soupy red sauce. There was no conversation while they ate, or later when they sat with her, watching loud game shows on television until she went to her room.
They walked to a bar two blocks from the apartment.
The single large room was loud, packed with men who were older versions of Vincenzo. The only women Alex saw were the two harried bartenders.
Above the din Alex yelled, “I’m buying you a beer, Vincenzo.”
“Make it a Rock.”
“Rolling Rock. Best beer in the world.”
As Alexander pressed into the backs of the men standing four-deep along the bar, they simply turned a shoulder, opening a seam of space for him to pass through, the seam resealing in his wake. Standing behind men seated on stools along the bar, he held up two fingers and shouted, “Two Rocks.”
When the nearest bartender gave him a nod, Alex grinned—he spoke the local language.
Alex scanned the press of bodies and faces around him until his eyes stopped on a man two barstools to his right. Old, far past working age, his body was brittle-thin inside a far too large dirty tweed jacket and Irish flat cap, as if the hot summer night and heat from the close-packed crowd did not reach him. When he stopped on the man’s nose, he tried to look away quickly, but could not. He stared at the huge misshapen lump, a rampaging cancerous growth, inflamed in purple and red with thick blue veins and hair-filled pores so large they were visible in the dim light.
Alex could not turn away, seeing the grotesque nose and watching the man’s toothless mouth move as if puffing out silent words, making Alex think of a grouper fish. When the man spun on his stool, his mouth gaping in a silent laugh, his gaze locked on Alex. He tipped the neck of the bottle of beer he held, as if he and Alex were secret acquaintances. Dumbly, Alex nodded once, and turned to face the bar. In a section of mirror not hidden by shelves of bottles or neon signs, he saw his own reflection. He pushed aside the impulse to stare into the mirror, to see what it might reflect after decades of hard time.
Carrying the two cold green bottles, slick and dripping from the ice they were stuffed into, shaking his head and expelling his breath, Alex failed to break apart the image of the man before it sank into his memory.
He passed a bottle to Vincenzo. “Thanks for the ride, and for dinner.” They chinked the bottles and drank. Alex, conscious of the lessened money in the left pocket of his jeans, kept his lips tight to block the beer from going down too fast.
As if he sensed Alex’s thought, Vincenzo said, “You should come with me to Manpower. You’ll get work. Definitely. They always telling us they need more men. Get half your wage in cash the same day. The other half every Friday. Like clockwork. Definitely.”
Without waiting for an answer, Vincenzo downed his beer in two gulps and pushed into the crowd along the bar. Alex tried not to look back, tried not to see the man with the malignant nose. He pushed his gaze anywhere else in the dark room, but could not shake what most disturbed him—the deep light of intelligence in the man’s eyes when they locked on Alex.
Vincenzo returned cradling three slippery wet green bottles against his chest. “Take one, Alex!”
Holding a bottle in each hand, Alex sipped. The thick air of burning tobaccos—cigarettes, pencil-thin cigars, blunt cigars, smoldering pipes—caused a faint wave of nausea to pass through him. The inarticulate roar of male voices filled the room and made him remember walking in the damp cold of autumn outside the high walls of a stadium in some forgotten city just as a touchdown was scored.
He asked Vincenzo, “Manpower. What kind of work?”
He stood on the hammered flat dirt at the bottom of a twelve-foot-deep hole walled with perfectly set and mortared cinder blocks. Looming at the edge of the hole, a cement trunk, its engine alternately whining piercingly or roaring deafeningly, shook with the violent force of tons of concrete sludge being spun inside its huge revolving cylinder.
Alexander struggled to keep from imagining all the things that could go wrong. Nothing more than a set brake and blocks of splintered wood chucked under its double tires kept it from falling into the hole. He muttered and shook his head, “I am not, not, not about to be buried alive. Or fuck it, maybe I am.”
Coursing down a narrow metal trough attached to the truck, a heavy slurry of cement hit the ground inches from Alexander’s feet, almost too thick to splatter. Vincenzo and half a dozen other men worked smoothly around Alex as he strained to rake and push the heavy gray slush out across the raw, flattened ground. Sweat pumped from every pore of his body and blurred his vision. His hands were locked in a grip on the wood handle of the rake, his palms burning with rapidly forming blisters.
Molecules of aerosolized cement coated his tongue and throat as he struggled to mimic the smoothly competent movements of Vincenzo and the older men who pushed, raked, coaxed, and corralled the rapidly hardening cement. Two supervisors, one above, leaning over the edge of the hole, the other walking among them, hollered insults and directions at the raking men, their words obliterated by the roaring truck, but their intent came through.
Alex, Vincenzo and the other men wore high rubber boots pulled over their own shoes. But over the hours, small drops and clumps of wet sludge splashed over the lip of the boots and worked their way down into the small gap of space between his foot and sneakers, soaking his socks, slowly hardening, pressing itself into the thin skin of his heels.
It went on forever.
And then it stopped.
He used a high-powered hose to blast the cement off his feet, off the outside of his sneakers and from the inside. He threw his socks onto a pile of shattered cinder blocks, twisted iron rods, and wood planks bristling with nails and encrusted with dried concrete like an invasive fungus. He managed to open his knife, used the hose to knock cement off the blade and out of the slot where it rested when folded.
Inside the slummy office of Manpower, he stood in his soaked sneakers, the youngest worker in a silent queue, as a woman in her forties, her breasts so large the sweater she wore to warm her against the frigid air-conditioning could not be buttoned, strolled along the line, calling a name and then handing a yellow envelope to the man who raised a hand and grunted. Alex’s envelope held a five-dollar bill, a one-dollar bill, and four dimes.
They went to the same bar, without showering or changing clothes, the sun now just above the roof tops, its brutal heat transferred to the stone and asphalt to be radiated through the night. He drank his first three beers almost as fast as Vincenzo. The alcohol infused and soothed the locked muscles of his neck, shoulders, lower back, thighs, calves, feet, and fingers. His hearing, ringing for hours, softened the clamor of the bar, the sounds slowed by having to cross vast distances to reach him.
Somewhere during the night, Alex woke, escaping a dream of standing on a beach at night as a black glimmering wall of water swelled upward to an impossible height. As he stood, transfixed, the top of the mile-high water collapsed, its incalculable weight accelerating downward to smother and crush him.
In the car the next morning, Vincenzo drove slowly, and spoke slowly, trying to persuade Alex. “It gets easier, man. Definitely. Really. You just do it, man. It becomes like, you know, habit. And then boom, it’s Friday. Goes by fast, super-fast. Definitely.”
When Alex walked up the long ramp to reach the shoulder of the highway leaving the city, his still-wet sneakers pressed against the hardened pebbles of concrete imbedded in the abraded, blood-raw skin of his heels.
“Where you going to?”
Alex lowered the opened road map and looked at the two guys.
“West,” Alex said, hesitant to tell them his destination.
“You’re going the wrong way, man,” the short, wiry one said. The large one beside him, blocking the door of the gas station’s convenience store, laughed slowly, as if reading instructions on how to do it.
They were maybe twenty. Their blunt-cut short hair, stiff new plaid shirts and jeans with creases in them, made Alexander cautious.
The short thin guy squinted against the afternoon sunlight and asked again, “Where you going to? What town? We know this whole state. We can direct you.”
Alex caught the acrid smell of beer on his breath. He said, “Watkins Glen.”
“We just been there, man,” the large one said. Alex glanced at him, taking in the crew cut hair, the black frame glasses, the large body carrying the soft fat that accumulates on the indolent.
“Give it here.” The short guy thrust out his hand for the map. “Lemme show you.”
Alex passed him the map and watched him snap the paper wide between his small hands. His eyes darted, his feet tapped, and his hands, arms, neck, and head were in continual motion as he scanned the map.
The large one smiled at Alex, chewing a sausage he bought inside the convenience store. “Why Watkins?” he asked, dropping words as if they were too heavy to carry.
“For a concert.”
“Allman Brothers. The Dead. The Band.”
The short guy looked up from the map, frowning. “We were just at Watkins. There’s no concert, man.”
“July 27,” Alex said. “On the racetrack grounds.”
“Mr. Early Bird, man!” His eyes flicked across Alex’s face then went back to the map.
The large one pushed his black framed eyeglasses back with one hand, tossing the plastic wrapper of the sausage aside while spluttering, “You, you, you could walk there by then!”
The short one asked, “Why you going so early?”
“Try to get a job,” Alex said. “Before—”
“Watkins is fucking podunk!” His small face expressed incredulity. “And no jobs there, man. Trust me. We’re looking. I don’t know about no rock concert. But for sure no jobs at Watkins. Fucking small-ass stuck-up town.”
He stared at Alex as if braced for an argument. When it didn’t come, he spoke in a serious, almost solemn tone, causing Alex to think of television fathers imparting life-lessons to their television sons, and making him repress a grin. “I think you would do a whole lot better getting a job where we’re going. Lake George. Resort town.”
“Party town,” the large guy said. He grinned and nodded, “Par-tay town.”
The short one continued, “Restaurants, bars, marinas. Huge lake. Hiring all the time, man, right through tourist season. Hiring all the time.”
Alex decided not to explain how he planned to seek a job, not in the town of Watkins Glen, but with the concert’s promoters, gaining free admission in exchange for his labor. He did a quick calculation. If these two had not seen any sign yet of the massive one-day concert being prepared, he risked arriving too early, being stuck in a too small town.
Alex lifted his chain toward the map, “Where’s Lake George from here?”
Alex tossed his backpack against the side of a cheap Styrofoam cooler on the back seat of the powder blue Ford Falcon. Stu, the small wiry guy, drove. Larry filled the front passenger seat, having to slouch to keep his head an inch below the roof of the car.
As they exited the gas station, Alex noted the stickers of unicorns and cartoon bears on the dashboard. When he noticed the maroon and white graduation tassel dangling from the rearview mirror, he realized Stu was watching him in that mirror.
“It’s my sister’s car,” Stu said. He yanked the tassel off the mirror and dropped it on the floor. “She don’t need it. She’s at college in Boston.”
He told Alex, “Grab a Jennie.”
“Yeah,” Larry, said. “Pass me two them Jennies, Alex.”
The cooler was filled with cans stuffed in a hard slush of ice. As he passed the two cans to Larry he asked, “Gen-eh-see? You pronounce it that way?”
Larry, not answering the question, snapped open a can and passed it to Stu, then snapped open the other can and drank.
“You got it,” Stu said, accelerating onto the highway while drinking from the can. He smacked his lips, the fingers of the hand on the steering wheel tapping rapidly. “Gen-eh-see. Gennie. Best beer in the world.”
He glanced in the rearview mirror at Alex. “Got a friend in Lake George. Navy, like us. Big ass victory house, just outside town there.”
“A Victorian house?” Alex asked.
“Victory, Vic-tor-e-an. Shit. You know what I meant right?” In the rearview mirror, Alex saw the irritation cross his face.
“You guys are on leave or something?” Alex asked.
There was a beat of hesitation before Stu said, “Or something.” Then he spoke slowly, as if explaining a mysterious subject, “Let’s just say we are taking some time off, some time off to ponder over the question, ‘Is the Navy and us a good fit? Is being stuck on a big-ass ship with a thousand fucking guys fifty miles off the coast of Viet-nam what we want to be doing?’”
Larry laughed, mis-swallowed his beer, then held the white can up as if making a toast. “We’re pondering, man!”
Standing in the doorway of the house, the man in the white tee shirt and baggy white painter’s overalls slowly placed one thick hairy arm and then the other across his chest, making a hairy X above a keg-sized beer belly. He was a decade older than the two sailors who stood with Alex on the cluttered wraparound porch of the small house.
They called him Chief, and Stu used words and pantomime, practically dancing in place, telling Chief how they came to be there, their plan to get jobs, and who Alex was.
“Hitch-hiker,” the man said, like cursing. He squinted his eyes and sucked in a long breath, as if to enlarge himself to better block the doorway. “You two fucks,” he jabbed a finger at each of them in time with his words. “Two fucking days. Then job or no job you pay rent or I’ll kick your asses out.” When the finger was aimed at him, Alex could see black grease under the fingernails and ground into the scarred skin. “Long-hair hitchhiker guy, no offense pal,” he spat the word, waiting a beat to see if Alex reacted. “But don’t know you from fucking Adam. You don’t come in my house.”
In the hour-long twilight, Alex trudged through the village, memorizing the stores, restaurants, and landscape of the main street and side streets. As the night darkened and the streetlights brightened, he spoke with people near his age who gathered at a stone and concrete wall along the sidewalk outside of a loud pinball arcade. He watched passing couples, families, groups of all men or all women getting in and out of cars, going in and out of restaurants and bars—talking, laughing, sometimes shouting. Parents ignored whining kids scuffling behind them in flip-flops, their soft skin burned bright pink from hours spent sitting in powerboats churning up and down the thirty-mile-long lake.
It was past midnight when Alex walked out of town, returning along the main road that fed traffic into and through the town. Not far past a golf course, when no headlights were visible from either direction, he slipped into the light woods. Fifty yards in, beyond a band of littered paper, bottles, and cans closer to the road, in a clear space ringed by thorn bushes and sapling trees, he spread his plastic ground sheet and unrolled his sleeping bag. With his denim jacket folded on top of the backpack under his head, he lay on his back and stared into the black and blue sky holding sparkling galaxies of stars behind scudding white clouds. It felt like only a breath later, only a blink of his eyes, when he awoke under a soaking dew and the gray light of dawn.
In the center of the bustling village there was a public park with acres of grassy hills rolling down to sandy beaches ringing the three-mile-wide lake. After swimming, during which Alex tried to be discreet as he used Dr. Bonner’s soap on his body and to shampoo his hair, he sat on his bath towel at the edge of the grassy slope near the light forest of new growth trees. His hair and cut-off denim shorts were still plastered wet against his skin, but drying quickly in the hot sun.
His glance followed a young woman walking past. Aware of him watching, she stopped and faced him. “I saw you washing up.”
She pointed to a sign posted ten yards away. “Bathing in the lake, using soap like you did, they’ll bust you for it.”
He used both hands to shade his eyes. “Thanks for the warning.” He took in her short, blunt-cut hair that seemed as white as her teeth when she smiled. “Didn’t know.”
“So I figured.” She put her hands on her hips and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Doesn’t bother me. Just thought you should know.”
“You live here?”
“Born. Raised. Dying to get the fuck out.”
The oversized tie-dyed tee-shirt she wore had the profile of a bearded man with heavy framed glasses and shaggy hair. Alex asked, “So you’re a Dead head?”
She glanced down at the image on her shirt. “Not really. My boyfriend bought it for me.”
“Boy-friend,” he nodded, saying the word in two slow syllables.
“Boy-friend,” she echoed, slowly nodding back.
He smiled, and felt a twist of surprise at how good it made him feel, to just smile without any trace of wariness.
She glanced around. “You here with your family?”
Her question confused him for a moment. “No. No family. On my own.” He paused, then added, “Just passing through.” Hearing himself say the same words, with the same insular tone, that men in movies and television shows said, changed his smile into a bemused smirk.
As if she read his thoughts, she spoke in an exaggerated drawl, “Just passing through, ma’am,” and she swept up one hand as if to tip an imaginary cowboy hat.
He laughed, easily, lightly. “I think I like you.”
She ignored that. “You should go over there.” She waved her arm toward the far side of the acres of mown lawn, to where trees heavy with leaves in every shade of green, grew down the hillside right up to the sandy edge of the placid lake. “Walk into the trees and go up a ways from the park. It sucks, but if the moms in the park see you lathering up, they’ll run to the cops, squealing about dirty hippies bathing in their lake near their precious children.”
He looked up from her sandaled feet and purple painted toenails. “Well, I appreciate the warning, ma’am.” He repeated her earlier movement, tipping an imaginary hat to her.
She glanced down at her own sandaled feet before looking straight at him. “They really will bust you for it.”
She walked away before he could think of a way to extend the conversation.
“See you around?” he called to her.
She smiled over her shoulder. “It’s a small town.”
Alex stood inside the State employment office, scanning the ten-foot-long bulletin board covered with yellow index cards thumbtacked into its cork. When he read the typed description of a job posting that might work, for a dishwasher or busboy in a restaurant, he shifted the backpack on his shoulder and wrote the address in a small notebook.
“Hey, man! Alex, man! What’s happening, man?”
The two AWOL sailors saw him the moment they pushed through the glass doors of the Employment Center.
“Chief shoulda let you stay at the house, man,” Stu said. “He’s an asshole.”
“Yeah, an asshole,” Larry repeated.
“However, the asshole is letting us stay another week,” Stu shrugged. “Go figure. Guess he doesn’t hate us as much as he says. Probably because I found a job. First day. That helps.”
Stu’s job was dishwashing in a “high end” restaurant on the edge of town known for its large and lively bar. “I swear though,” he shook his head. “You’ve never seen so many faggots. Half the bar, I swear. And you can’t always tell. You can’t. They look like regular guys, talk regular shit, hunting fishing, all got tricked out trucks, too.” He was bouncing on his toes as he talked. “Telling you straight-out Alex, man, any fag grabs my ass or says something I’ll punch them out and quit on the spot.”
They sat outside a wood shack on a pier that jutted into the lake. A middle-aged woman took their order. Stu and Larry ordered Genesee beers, fries and fried fish sandwiches. Alex ordered a beer.
Stu asked, “Not hungry?”
“Nope. Just thirsty.”
“Hey, if it’s money, man. I’ll buy your food. Not a problem, man.”
Alex waved him off, although his stomach tightened. “I’m good.”
The waitress brought their beers. As she walked away, Stu eyed her. “She should stay home and send her daughter to serve us.”
Larry sniggered. “Yeah. Her daughter would be hotter, right Stu?”
Alex sipped his beer, and pulled his baseball cap low against the hard sunlight that banged off the blue-white lake.
Stu talked a stream of consciousness in which he built up momentum and eventually strung together a disjointed future in which he would rapidly move from washing dishes to managing the restaurant to owning a ‘fully loaded’ four-wheel drive truck matching those he saw each night parked outside the restaurant. Larry punctuated Stu’s spun-out fantasy with grunts, chortles, and “fucking right man.”
When he finished the beer Alex stood. He put three dollars on the table and placed the metal napkin holder on the bills to keep the strong breeze from blowing them away. “For my beer. And I’ve got the tip.”
“A tip?” Stu squinted up at him. “I only tip good-looking waitresses.”
Alex said, “That’s what I figured.”
Stu laughed, which triggered Larry to laugh louder.
When Alex walked into a small grocery store on a tree-lined side street, his head ached from the hard sunlight, and the cold beer dropped inside his empty stomach. Two days earlier he found this store, and went inside each day, moving down the narrow aisles as if looking for something specific, but failing to find it. He would leave with a cold package of hotdogs shoved down the front of his jeans. The same cashier was there each time, a skinny woman in her thirties. She never spoke to him, never offered to help him find something, her mouth closed tight as she avoided watching him move around the store.
This time, he carried a can of Spam to the checkout stand, making sure he already had the money to pay in his hand, so he would not have to dig it out from his pocket and risk dislodging the two packages of hot dogs bulging in the front of his jeans, covered by his untucked plaid shirt.
She rang up the sale, seeming to hold her breath while her eyes looked everywhere but at him. When Alex neared the door, he stepped on a squeaky board, but was certain he also heard the woman behind him letting out a long-held breath.
“Hey, stranger.” She looked up from the circle of people sitting cross-legged on overlapped blankets and towels. “Me Jill,” she stuck a thumb at her own chest. “You?”
He imitated the motion, poking his chest with his thumb. “Me Alex.”
The black tank top she wore made her white-blond hair even brighter. She patted the blanket beside her. “Sit, Alex.” When he hesitated, she made as if she were coaxing a dog. “Come on, boy, come on! Sit!”
There were a dozen others with her, although some would leave to swim and others passing by would drop into an open spot on the blankets spread at the far edge of the park, close to the trees. He came to swim and wore his one pair of cut-off denim shorts. The bold-colored blankets were woven in geometric designs and the rough wool scratched his bare legs. As each was handed to him, he puffed a joint, took a handful of corn chips from a noisy plastic bag, and sipped from a canteen filled with a syrupy brown mixture of alcohols.
To them, he was a novelty, a peer, but independent. He was in the world on his own, doing the unimaginable—traveling unencumbered by family. They peppered him with questions, prompted him for stories, like school kids circling a guest speaker.
“It is so freaking cool how you’re on the road, man!” a girl commented, barely in her teens with a red bandana tied in a headband too large for her small face. Her squeaky enthusiasm made Alex uncomfortable.
“My older brother has tickets,” a guy Alex’s age said, a wisp of mustache and long sideburns, with tangled black hair down to his tan shoulders. “Him and his girlfriend. If I had a ticket—” He inhaled a joint, holding down the smoke in his lungs, then released his breath. “Fuck having a ticket!” He stared into the space before him, as if reading his own words printed on the air. “Fuck yeah!” He sat straight, and used both hands to flip his hair up and backward, although it fell into the same place it had been. “Fuck. Yeah. Hell. Yes! I’ve decided!” He looked directly at Alex. “You’ve inspired me, man. I don’t need no ticket. I’ll just show up. Crash the party!”
When Alex stood, shouldering his pack, he looked only at Jill, but thanked the group, “For sharing your pot…and food…and whatever was in that canteen.”
They laughed, mumbling, “See you around, man!”
He went down the slope to the lake, then cut across into the woods, going a hundred yards along the ragged shore, picking his way over roots, fallen branches, and clusters of rocks, his steps making the sun-scorched leaves crackle. At a small spit of sand, he set his backpack down and pulled off his shirt. He spotted Jill, coming along the shore.
“I got bored the moment you left.” She stood on the sand, hands on her hips, naturally confident in the universal passkey of her good looks and easy smile.
He waded into the lake deep enough to dive under the water and swim out. When he came up, he watched her do the same.
After they swam, he used his towel to dry her off, liking how she stood, seemingly comfortable with his touch, but her nipples hardened under her wet tank top. When he unzipped and spread out the sleeping bag, she came up behind him. “Oh, wow. Alex. What happened to your ankles?”
He said nothing, smiled, and gestured for her to lie down on the sleeping bag.
“Tell me,” she said. “Both your ankles are—”
“I collided with a possible future.”
She looked in his eyes, her mouth opened slightly as if to speak, but she said nothing.
“Doesn’t hurt any longer,” he said, motioning to the sleeping bag.
When they lie side by side on the sleeping bag, the warm air wicked the damp off their skin. “I’m sure it looks worse than it is,” he said. “Really. I forgot about it. Can’t even feel it.”
She rolled on her side, leaned over him, and softly kissed his lips. When he met her kiss and pressed his lips on hers, she gently pushed him back. She studied his face, her eyes moving from feature to feature, saying nothing, assessing.
“You amaze me,” she whispered.
He frowned. “How so?”
“You just go.” She hesitated, then found the words, “You just go, you just do what you want. Me? I’m always waiting. Waiting for other people to let me do what I want to do.”
He moved to kiss her but she kept both hands against his chest. “I didn’t even know about this huge concert. And, it’s like, in my own backyard, practically.”
He could not keep from smirking. “You live a sheltered life.”
“Fuck you, Mr. Alex.”
When it was clear she was not ready to resume kissing or touching, he asked, “So why don’t you go to the concert? Now that you know about it.”
She blew air out her mouth and nose. “You just go! You just go! I can’t. That’s the point. You get on the road and hitch-hike a hundred miles. I can’t do that. That would be insane. I’d become a police report. Or newspaper headline.”
“Come with me.”
She was so wrapped up in her thoughts that it was not so much that she ignored him, but as if his words evaporated before reaching her. “My big adventure?” She spoke as if arguing. “I get to sit on blankets by the lake smoking pot with high school drop outs and counting down the days until September.”
Leaning on one elbow, he asked, “What happens in September?”
“I get transferred to a different jail.”
His eyebrows raised. “Meaning?”
She smiled. “College. All expenses paid. With plenty of strings attached. The only good part, I got to choose my jail. And I made sure it doesn’t fucking snow there.”
“If I could go to a jail like that…” He smiled, but felt a corner of his mouth twitch. “I’d be trying to get busted.”
She sat up, wrapped her arms around her bent knees, looking aside at him. “You’re the cool guy hitch-hiking around the country, the hobo with a hardcover copy of Walden in his backpack. Me? I just read Jack Kerouac and write a paper so I can get an A and go to the next cage.”
“Don’t forget my old paperback of Erewhon.” He smirked, “Shoplifted, of course.” When she did not react, he eased onto his back, reached for his baseball hat near the blanket. He placed the hat to shade his eyes and spoke into the bright empty sky, “Nowhere.”
She lay on her side close to him, brushing her fingertips along his stomach, and whispered, “I would bet you a hundred dollars my dad doesn’t even have those two books in his library, Alex.”
It took a moment for him to understand. He sat up, adjusted his hat and wrapped his arms around his knees. “Your dad has his own library? A private library? Like, in a separate room?”
She sat up. “It’s the biggest nicest room in the house, of course. And it’s far from the pool so he can hide there if he gets bored at one of my mom’s parties. He lets me drink, just in the library, as long he’s there, and I only have one. And of course, I have to be reading something.”
Her tone of voice was a complaint, but woven around that he heard another tone, a secret boast.
When she felt him watching her closely, she turned from the lake to look at him. “I mean, why not? He’s the one who pays for everything. My mom’s a lawyer, too. She was ranked higher in their law school class than my dad, although she’ll never say that in front of him. But then four kids in six years, as she never tires of reminding us. Boom, boom, boom, boom. Me being the second boom.”
Alex squinted as a fluorescent-white power boat plowed the blue lake close to the shore, pulling a guy his age on water skis. The roar of its twin engines and a radio blaring a defiant Aretha Franklin song, obliterated the small chirping birdsong in the branches above them.
The wake from the boat pulling the skier reached the shore, the first wave, the following waves quickly diminished. She asked about him, his family, his life, he deflected, easily pushing her back into describing her own family, her own life. At the same time as he listened and questioned, a memory rose in him, and he saw in disconnected images, his parents who never read books, buying tan-colored cardboard bound volumes of Funk and Wagnalls encyclopedia, one volume at a time, at the checkout stand of the A&P grocery store. The precarious, secretive feeling he experienced when he took a volume from the shelf where the encyclopedia was kept, with cheap figurines of dancing French royalty, and framed family photos. He would take the book as if was stealing it, and go to a corner of the small house to read random entries, being rocked by the successive shocks of half understood ideas that were beyond his imagination, yet somehow crossed the expanding unseen space of the world to reach him, to find him as he ignorantly, myopically, stumbled forward.
“What are you thinking?”
“Nothing,” he said too sharply. “A whole world of nothing.”
“You were somewhere far away, Alex.” She tilted her head, moved her cool hand slowly, massaging his bicep and up to his shoulder.
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah.”
She frowned hard at him.
“What?” he asked.
“You should be in college. Why don’t you?”
In reflex, he kept his face blank, not giving away the cut from her question. “I’m a bad student.”
“You’ve got the brains. Curiosity. I think you’re original, the things you say, how you see things different. You know, college is different. It ain’t high school.”
When he said nothing, she sighed, “At least, I’m hoping it isn’t.”
The next moment, her face brightened and she sat up straighter. “I’m going to tell Kenneth about the concert. I want to go. He’s going to drive me.” She chuckled. “He just doesn’t know it yet.”
They stopped talking long before they crossed the rolling lawn of the park, now half covered in shade, with only a few scattered families on blankets or sitting in circles of lawn chairs around smoking hibachi grills. As they approached the traffic-filled road, he noted how she easily slipped her hand from his, combed her fingers through her thick short hair, and did not return to holding his hand.
When they reached the sidewalk, a burgundy Mercedes convertible with its brown fabric roof folded down, pulled sharply to the curb.
“That’s Kenneth. On the dot. As always.”
He watched her skip-walk to the car door, open its door and drop inside, draping herself on the driver, tight-lipped kissing him once on the mouth, then falling back into the wide brown leather passenger seat. Hidden within her quick movements of pulling on and fastening her seatbelt, she glanced back, beamed a smile at Alex, and rapidly folded her fingers to the palm of one hand, the way a child would wave, as the car pulled away.
He sat on the wall in the center of the village outside the arcade long after the sun set. When he saw the two sailors a block away, their stiff plaid shirts and creased jeans separating them from the richly colored, loose-fitting clothes of tourists, he grabbed his backpack, hopped off the wall, and walked in the opposite direction.
They called his name, and jogged up to him.
“What’s up, man?” Stu asked.
“Chief kicked us out,” Larry said.
“Yeah, fucking Chief kicked us out. No fucking warning.”
“We sleep in the car now,” Larry said.
“Come on, Alex. Let’s go for a drive.”
When Alex hesitated, Stu added, “Got beer and a mess of food.”
Larry snickered, as if Stu had made a joke.
As they drove, Alex in the backseat leaning on his backpack pushed up against the cheap white cooler, he felt an unexpected comfort. He owned nothing more than what he carried, with no home or a room or even a pitched tent in which he could be safe, separate, alone. The dirty tan fabric of the backseat of this small, worn-down car was comfortable now, because he had been here before.
The way the two AWOL sailors, not knowing that they were five years older than him, pursued him, seemed to need his approval, both annoyed and amused him. Drinking their beer, eating their store-bought sandwiches, as they drove back and forth on the main street in the village or aimlessly around the unlit streets, threading the woods and hills outside of the town, slouching in the familiar backseat, made Alex relax. He felt lazy, as if he was released from the pressure of having to watch every word as it left his mouth, ready to respond if the words triggered an unexpected reaction from the surging stream of people he passed, people he did not know, people he had to be careful around.
It was past midnight when they parked in a dirt pullover on a back road. Through the thin trees, Alex caught a glimmer of the massive lake.
Stu glanced into the rearview mirror and spoke to Alex. “Yeah, the asshole kicked us out. No fucking warning.”
“That sucks.” Alex sighed, as he had already done several times. It seemed being thrown out of the Victorian house was the only topic Stu and Larry would talk about.
“Yeah. Tried to extort rent first, the fuck.” Stu chuckled derisively. “But we got revenged.”
“Yeah!” Larry shouted, slapping his palms on the dashboard in a clumsy drum roll. “We revenged on Chief good!”
They competed to tell Alex how, the morning after they first slept in the car, they went back to the Victorian house while Chief was at his welding shop on the outskirts of the village. “Wrapped my hand in a towel,” Stu said. “A right jab into the window pane. Pow! Open sesame.”
“Took all his beer. Food,” Larry said. “Good sandwiches.”
“And cash,” Stu added, with a snicker. “I’d been watching. I pay attention wherever I go, you know? That’s how you learn what’s really going on. Got to pay attention. That’s just me since I was a kid, just always paying attention, man. So I had a good idea where Chief’s stash was.” He gloated, “Eigh-tee-five-bucks.”
“Took his weed, too!” Larry added.
“Cash and grass!” Stu said, slapping the steering wheel and blowing air through his teeth in a whistle.
“Good sandwiches,” Larry said.
“He never shared any of it,” Stu muttered. “Smoked our weed. And sat on his stash. Fucker didn’t share.”
Larry belched loudly. “Hey, Alex. Pass me another Gennie.”
It was past two in the morning when Stu turned into the parking and threaded through the dozen pickup trucks and cars close to the entrance of the restaurant. He parked at the far edge of the gravel lot, beyond the reach of the single wooden lamppost near the entrance stairs, and turned off the engine.
When Stu turned in his seat to face him, Alex saw the whites of his eyes and teeth in the dark oval of his face.
“You got your knife, right?” Stu whispered.
The windows of the car were all rolled down. Alex spoke quietly, but refused to whisper. “Always.” He paused. “Why?”
“This guy I mentioned. He’s a faggot, a pussy. And he’s drunk by now, always dumb drunk by this time of night. Bars been closed for half an hour but they keep feeding drinks to the regulars.”
Alex let his words carry the contempt rising in him. “So you lure this guy out, and expect me to stab him if he doesn’t hand over his wallet.”
“It won’t come to that, man!” Stu whispered urgently. “He sees you, sees this gorilla standing next to you” he nodded toward Larry. “He sees the knife. He hands over his wallet. Do the math.”
Alex asked slowly, “And what about you?”
“I just back away like a little girl and say, “Oh, please don’t stab me!”
“Oh, please don’t stab me!” Larry enjoyed repeating the line.
“You should hand over your wallet, too.” Alex said.
Stu’s mouth popped opened, but then shut. “Fuck,” he whispered, shaking his head. He turned and faced the windshield but spoke to Alex. “You’re right. That covers me if he calls the cops. And he ain’t gonna call the cops. He ain’t gonna tell the cops we were strolling to his car so he could pay me fifty bucks for a blow job.”
“That’s real smart, Alex.” Larry said, as if realizing something important.
Stu nodded. “Yeah, smart.” But he sounded angry.
Alex said nothing.
Stu pushed open his door, the dim interior light showing their faces but their eyes in shadow. “I’m going in for recon. I’ll make sure he’s there. Then if you’re in, we do this. You get half, Alex. Me and Larry take just a half. Not thirds. Fairer for you.”
Stu closed the car door gently, the interior light snapped off, and his steps crunched across the gravel parking lot.
“Hey, Alex,” Larry said, then belched, then continued, “tell me what you think.”
“About?” Alex asked, as he fingered the latch to his door, checked that the lock was not engaged.
“Okay, so sure, Stu is the one who figured out where Chief’s stash was,” Larry said. “But we’re a team, Stu always says, we’re partners.!” On the word “partners” Larry’s voice touched falsetto.
Alex said, “So?”
“So ain’t it fair for him to split the money with me?” Larry asked. “Like fifty-fifty? Or maybe like sixty for him, and what’s left over, for me?”
When Alex spoke, he heard the drained weariness in his voice. “Stu didn’t give you any of the eighty-five bucks?”
“He said he did all the work so he should keep what he earned. He said, ‘Besides, I’ll just be spending it feeding you sandwiches and beer, Larry.’ That’s what he said to me.”
Alex turned at the sound of quick steps on the gravel. Stu opened the driver’s door, dropped hard into the driver’s seat, said, “He’s there!”
He turned to face Alex. “The motherfucker’s there. Drunk. Ready, eager, and willing. The faggot.”
An impulse shot through Alexander Selkirk’s body and locked his muscles. He vividly and instantly saw himself, like an actor in a film, reaching forward, using his left hand to grab Stu’s head and yank him halfway into the backseat, his right fist punching into his surprised face, again and again.
Instead, he crumpled the thin aluminum beer can in his grip, dropped it on the floor of the car, and grabbed the straps of his backpack.
When he shoved open the backdoor, the flash of the interior light made Stu flinch, and he blinked rapidly to hide that he flinched. “You in, Alex? What’s going on?”
As he walked off, Alex felt every piece of gravel through the thin soles of his sneakers. Heat flushed from every pore of his body, radiating into the damp summer night.
He was already a quarter mile away when they pulled over, Stu driving the car slow, staying parallel to Alex.
Alex kept his eyes forward, and said nothing.
When they tried to coax him back into the car, he stopped and turned. The car creaked to a stop.
Alex said, “Fuck off.”
Stu shouted, “Fucking pussy! No fucking balls!”
Alex stared into the car, barely shrugging to let his backpack drop to the ground behind him.
Stu shouted, “You’re a fucking asshole pussy!”
The car accelerated hard, one back tire gripped and screeched on the asphalt, causing the car to spin wildly from the back end, then whiplash the front end as Stu jerked the steering wheel to counter the movement. The car groaned and rattled as it accelerated down the center of the dark road.
Alex stood, long after he could see or hear the car, until he became aware of the complex, throbbing buzz of insects in the high grass and trees around him.
He walked in the opposite direction.
Alex awoke, pushing upward, struggling against a mountain of black seawater collapsing on top of him.
He sat up inside his rain-soaked sleeping bag, shaking off the dream, staring into a grey-white mist pushing across the ground in every direction. When he went to sleep, two nights before the day of the concert, there were no more than twenty people and a few cars scattered in the small clearing. Now there were hundreds, their bodies uneven lumps inside wet sleeping bags, or standing near smoky campfires with plastic sheets or garbage bags pulled over them. They slept in tents, cramped in cars or vans, filling the beds of pickup trucks. It was as if they had dropped from inside the heavy mist while Alex slept. Radios and stereos, close and distant, pumped out clashing rock music and agitated middle-of-the-night advertisements purchased by small businesses a hundred miles away to sell waterbeds, head shop paraphernalia, trade school promises of high-paying jobs, and tickets to other concerts.
It was still another day until the concert would happen. There was nothing he had to do, nothing he needed to do, other than to continue doing what he had done the day before, from the moment he walked through an unattended entrance gate, one cell of a bloodstream coursing into the ninety-five-acre site, and the shirtless, sunburned man beside him yelled, “Trust in the Great Spirit, man!” He grinned at Alex. “Don’t need a ticket for this show, man! Just be here.” He flashed yellow, crooked teeth, and the anemic girl beside him stared at Alex, her head drooping to one shoulder, then slowly moving to the other shoulder, her enlarged black pupils as empty as her expression.
All day he walked. He walked randomly, flowing around shifting obstacles of people or vehicles, tents, canopies, campfires, and continued to walk as if he were water seeking its own level. He walked, empty of any purpose beyond seeing, watching, and listening. He told himself he was one atom within a swelling multitude, and felt himself an audience of one, at the center of a movie being acted out 360-degrees around him. Like an army of exploring ants, humans swarmed over undulating fields, down into and across a wide basin of flattened land that contained two-and-a-half miles of serpentine asphalt, where, on most weekends, swarms of ear-shattering Formula One cars tracked through hairpin corners at forty miles per hour, then accelerated down straightaways to four times that speed.
His bare arms stayed slick all day from sweat, humidity, and sporadic showers of warm rain. When he neared a table where bottles of water were being taken away by the passing crowd as fast as they were dumped from boxes, he pushed his way in, grabbed four bottles, then pushed out of the crowd, and put the bottles in his backpack. The phalanx of portable toilets already reeked, fouling the air within a thirty-yard radius. When he needed to urinate, he stood in some small place near trees or bushes and did it on the ground.
There was a pressure that steadily increased as more and more people arrived on foot or in packed cars, rented panel vans, converted school buses, pickup trucks, and campers. To get close to the stage took him over an hour of determined threading through people standing, sitting, sprawled on the acres of dirt half-turned to mud, stumbling into clogs of bodies, stepping on a hand or foot. The stage, raised twenty feet off the ground, seemed huge but almost all of it was crowded with stacks and walls of speakers, amplifiers, pianos, drum sets and percussion instruments. The tall scaffolding at each end of the stage was clustered from mid-height to top with dozens of black box and horn-shape speakers. A hundred yards from the stage smaller towers held more speakers to relay the music, when it would finally come, pushing it deeper into the crowd without an audible delay. But the moment he arrived, standing close to the stage, it became meaningless. He would not be able to endure staying there through the day, the night, and into the next day. He turned, took three hop-steps, then paused and looked back. The clear space where he had stood no longer existed.
Two hours after sunset, the hot push of wind was gone, the temperature dropped twenty degrees. Streams of smoke from orange-yellow campfires clung close to the ground. The flow of people arriving on foot and in vehicles continued. Still, Alex walked. To keep his night-vision, he shielded his eyes from the glare of hissing white-gas lanterns he passed. The darkness punctuated by lanterns and campfires, the shadowy figures moving around him, made him recall reading an encyclopedia entry about Plato’s Cave.
When he heard voices he recognized, he stopped. The familiar voices came from dozens of loud people jostling around the orange nimbus of light cast by a large campfire encircled by cars, trucks, a van. He thought of simply continuing to walk, his anonymity, his insularity, not breached. But the aromas of food sizzling on charcoal grills drew him in.
He had his back slapped and hand grasped. Guys roughly slammed into him and shouted his name. One of two stumbled against him and hugged him. He drank cans of warm beer and ate three hamburgers off a paper plate, the buns, condiments, salads and side dishes already consumed. There were no conversations, only ejaculated exclamations, “This is surreal!” “Fucking mind blowing!” “What a trip!”
Within minutes the greetings subsided and Alex was, once again, indistinguishable, a shadow figure standing in a ragged circle of people roughly his age with roughly similar experiences, moving his feet only when the smoke from the fire came toward him. It was as if he were falling in slow motion down a deep dark bottomless shaft. After everything he had pushed out to seek, to experience and explore, here he was, again, standing in a circle with people he knew, drinking beer, smoking passed joints, the same loud songs in the background, just as it would have been on the town green, or gathered around a keg of beer and a campfire in a state park, or on the town beach, or down a deserted sand pit. Despite all the vigor and surging energy and desperate boredom pounding in his blood, he had failed to create, failed to invent, failed to discover anything more than this.
No one noticed he stepped away from the fire, and slipped back into the anonymous darkness. Only now it was different, changed. His aloneness held no promise.
His feet, ankles, shins, thighs all ached from the hours of walking. His muscles and tendons felt too short for his limbs, his nerves were singed with exhaustion. Beams from headlights jounced over the same ground he walked on, drivers searching for enough unclaimed space to fit their car, truck, camper or bus, just as he searched for a clear space to lay out his sleeping bag.
He had to walk a long time before the crowd was thinned and he found a scraggly tree, not much taller than he was, on a grassy mound. He spread his plastic ground sheet and damp sleeping bag beside the tree, hoping it would protect him, not just from the rain that had already started, but from being run over by a car or truck.
He lay with eyes open, hearing, yet ignoring the impenetrable density of man-made noise enveloping him. He dropped into a wakeful-sleep, hearing it rain, then hearing it not raining. The on-off, off-on of the rain, counted the passing of time.
He was awake before he understood that he was. He was hearing music, not just the recorded songs blasted through and distorted by scratchy radios and stereos, but a stream of clear, amplified, living music. If this was a sound check, musicians playing on the distant stage, the music carried through the giant arrays of speakers, why was it so full? Why did it continue?
As if watching himself inside a dream, he stood, shouldered his backpack but left the sleeping bag as his claim on the small space under the tree.
He walked toward the music, picked a path through the maze of people sleeping on the ground, passed smoldering campfires, edged around hulking buses and trucks and cars aimed in conflicting directions. The aching soreness in his leg muscles felt distant now, not a part of his body.
He found a small space on the rise of a hill. The stage, a platform of bright light, looked small from this distance, the dozen musicians on it were like semi-transparent stick figures.
The music reached him, effortlessly loud, the vibrations of sound waves slipped into him, through him, washed past him.
People pressed close on him. Just shifting their feet would jostle him. Yet he was aware of a universe of distance separating him from them.
The thirst in his throat, the pangs of hunger in his stomach, the weariness in his muscles, arms, legs, were all entirely his own.
Everything he witnessed, all he saw, felt, tasted, smelled, touched, and sensed coalesced in a field of energy. But it was all trapped under a bell jar formed by time and space.
No one has a clue, he thought.
No one knows what to do, he understood.
With any of this.