2005 Short Story Contest Winner
On the Verge
by Tim Mullaney
“Do they really drink blood?”
Ethan’s lip curls as he asks the question, as if to indicate he already knows–is already mocking–the answer. But his irony is mitigated by his directness, and Toady struggles, as he has all summer, to formulate a reply.
“Piet took a bite out of a raccoon that got run over in the parking lot. Supposedly.”
Toady has settled on the safest way of answering Ethan: with specific information tempered with a tone of casual skepticism. It is a technique he has refined since the day he graduated from Jackson High, which was the same day Ethan got back to town and asked if Carousel Kitchen had changed its menu since his last time home, during winter break. Toady had said no, the menu was still the same; he had been a little puzzled by the question and a little hurt when, after he answered, Ethan had laughed and said, “Never mind.” The memory of this laugh, a condescending note rising and falling in Ethan’s throat, still hovers close to Toady’s skin, threatening as a yellow jacket. To avoid being stung he assiduously avoids answering “yes” or “no” to Ethan’s, or anyone’s, questions.
Ethan spits this out straight, and Toady is reassured by such definitiveness. For an instant, he has the feeling that the ship he is on has crested a dangerous swell and is sliding easily back into the calm pocket of the trough. But then Ethan exhales cigarette smoke through his nose and squints in a peculiar way, as though he’s found something covertly sought-after. Toady narrows his eyes in the same direction as Ethan’s, but can’t focus through his feeling that something is off kilter and won’t right itself. There’s a rustle where there used to be a sigh, and his ship is again climbing the wave.
The night is warm, with an inviting heaviness in the air, but Toady wishes it was cold. He wants to sit in Ethan’s rusted hatchback, the way they used to on winter nights, wants to listen to the radio until the car’s battery dies and the music cuts out and they are left to fill the silence with their talk. Then they would be alone, the windows steamed with their breath, the crowd in the parking lot rendered invisible. He doesn’t like the way Ethan’s attention wanders as he smokes, slouched against the hood of his car, scoping out their old schoolmates loitering in the parking lot and under the restaurant awning. These are the people he and Ethan discussed on those nights when the car’s power failed, leaving them separate and superior in a cocoon of ripped leather upholstery. Ethan has been uninterested in private gossip sessions since the beginning of summer, when he perfunctorily asked Toady how everyone was doing, what they were up to. Toady, thrown off by Ethan’s apparent disinterest, aimed for nonchalance but felt petulant and defensive when he said he wasn’t really sure, didn’t really care what was going on with people. Ethan shrugged off that response and stopped pumping Toady for information, but during the first few nights of June, the first few nights everyone gathered at Carousel Kitchen, Toady reluctantly trailed Ethan as he made his way from one table to the next, then through the throng in the parking lot, asking everyone how they spent their last year and how they planned to spend their summer and the next year. Now Ethan has stopped this kind of mingling, but the old order is still disturbed, and it is increasingly difficult for Toady to master his desire to take Ethan’s face in his hands and sift his expression for clues as to what excites his curiosity and why. He wishes they had talked more often during the last year.
Tonight, as on many recent nights, Toady’s palms sweat with the exertion of secretly reading Ethan’s inscrutable expression, tracking his attention as it is directed here and there. He follows Ethan’s gaze across the street. The parking lot at Lou’s Diner is swarming with the usual crowd dressed in shades of black and purple, shot through with electric stripes of green or pink or blue. Many faces are accented by heavy makeup that glows in the neon light of the Lou’s Home Cookin sign. Lately a rumor has circulated through Carousel Kitchen that these freaks on the opposite side of the street have stopped ordering food at Lou’s and instead drink coffee and smoke cigarettes and then peal out to go in search of their real meals: squirrels and raccoons and opossums. Rumor has it they thrive on fresh blood, that they are, or least have deluded themselves into thinking they are, vampires.
“I should go,” Toady says, hoping Ethan will look at him when he replies.
“. . . Okay.” Ethan looks at the ground in front of Toady’s feet and then away again, quickly, back across the street.
“I mean, I’m not really tired. But I’ve gotta be on the line at seven.”
“. . . ’s a shitty job.” Ethan closes his eyes as he says this, as though in pain, and then squints at Toady like someone who’s stared at the sun too long.
“. . . Yeah . . . well . . . waited too long to try to get a job, I guess this is what I get.”
“I need the money.”
“Yeah. I guess.”
Men work on the loading docks or the mechanized lines, the lines with big machines that dye pistachios red and wrap gift baskets in three layers of plastic. Women and students assemble the baskets on the stationary lines. Standing behind long tables, they pass the baskets down from one hand to the next, each person adding another item: a sausage, a block of cheese, a small bag of just-dyed pistachios, a tin of dog biscuits.
Dell is the only man over the age of eighteen who works on the stationary lines. His hands are just as callused as those of the men who spend their days unloading trucks and driving forklifts and oiling the gears of the primitive machines on the mechanized lines, and his skin has the same sheen of metallic sweat. From these similarities, Toady figures Dell must have once worked with the other men, but he can’t tell whether Dell wants to rejoin them. Occasionally Dell mutters something—“clucking hens” or “fucking tired” or just “fucking”—but usually he is quiet. Toady senses menace in this quiet. During their fifteen-minute mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks, Dell loiters alone under a stand of pine trees and smokes a cigarette. He eats his lunch there as well, alone. Toady sits on the hood of his car to eat lunch; he often watches Dell and imagines what must have happened to send him to the stationary lines. A fight. Sharp words spoken, fists clenched, an Exacto blade drawn. There are times, usually in the dead heat of mid-afternoon, when Toady catches himself examining the faces of the forklift operators and the bare forearms of the men on the loading docks, searching for a scar from the cut Dell made with his blade. Sometimes Toady sneaks sideways looks at Dell’s exposed flesh, at his hands and arms and neck, and, when he bends over, the small of his back, trying to find the mark that has set him apart from the other men. But aside from the calluses on his hands and a few strands of violent, wiry hair poking from the places where his flesh folds when he bends, Dell’s skin is smooth and dark beneath its oily film, and Toady is left wanting physical proof of Dell’s difference, of his past violence. Still, Toady has sometimes caught eyes with women working on the line and detected a warning in their glance, a warning he can’t decipher but that he senses is meant to alert him to one fact: Dell is dangerous. This is why he is kept apart from the men, why the men keep their distance. This is why the women defer to him and stroke him with soothing words when he seems particularly tense. Because they know his secret. They know the terrible things of which he is capable.
“Theodore . . .”
There is a delay before Toady looks up, in which he is just able to regret that he was too embarrassed to introduce himself as Toady at the factory. He isn’t sure which of the women cooed his name. They are all looking at him. His finger is wrapped in the ribbon decorating the handle of the basket in front of him, and there are two more baskets beside him. He has fallen behind.
“This one . . . head’s always in the clouds.”
Leona, the retired schoolteacher who is the unofficial manager of the stationary lines, says this with the air of doting chastisement Toady assumes she perfected in the classroom.
“Leave him alone, he’s a good worker.”
There is silence after Dell says this, a pause, and then Toady grabs three blocks of cheddar from the box in the middle of the table and goes to work packing the baskets he let pile up. He blushes at the words spoken in his defense and can’t look up to confirm his feeling that Dell is looking at him, and that all the women, though they have returned to their work, have their feathers raised in warning.
It is drizzling at lunchtime, so Toady abandons the hood and eats in the front seat. He plays the radio softly and hopes he doesn’t kill the battery. Dell isn’t eating under the pine trees, although it appears the branches would keep him sheltered from the light rain. Past the pine trees, on the other side of the train tracks running behind the factory, the tops of four brightly colored golf umbrellas are just visible over the high grass and reeds which border both sides of the railroad embankment and mark the edge of the eighteenth hole of the country club golf course. The umbrellas bob and sway in an indecipherable puppet show, then disappear. On sunny days, Toady eats his lunch accompanied by a chorus of shouts and splashes from the club’s pool, punctuated now and then by the dull crack of a golf ball being teed-off or the hydraulic hiss of a forklift unloading trucks a few dozen feet in front of him. Toady imagines the scene in the clubhouse: a few kids who showed up hoping the rain would die down, his brother probably among them, eating potato chips and watching TV as golfers walk in and shake off rain-slicked windbreakers, tally up their strokes on soggy scorecards. Toady dwells on this conjured tableau with a fascinated intensity, as if it is a newly discovered photograph of some long-forgotten festivity, until the percussive spiel of a used-car salesman blares through the speakers. He snaps the radio off. He is about to take the key out of the ignition when he sees Dell, leaning against the factory between docks three and four, smoking. The glowing tip of his cigarette is dramatic in the day’s gloom. Toady sends the windshield wiper in a single arc across the glass. In the sudden clarity, he is certain that Dell is looking straight at him, and for a moment, Toady doesn’t look away.
Piet balances on the exposed root of an elm tree in the yard. As usual, he is dressed entirely in black, and the light of the street lamp filtering through the leaves hits him only in certain places, making him look, Toady thinks, like a spirit struggling to materialize. Toady stuffs his hands deeper in his pockets when Ethan tells him to relax. He resents Ethan for bringing him here and subjecting him to the moment that is now fast approaching, when he will be tested by Piet on Piet’s own turf. Already, Toady senses Piet’s eyes narrowing and back straightening at the approach of something vulnerable. Toady isn’t sure how to guard against the coming attack.
When Ethan suggested going to the party, Toady regarded the proposal as just another of the ridiculous plans Ethan had been pulling out of his hat all summer. Most of these schemes—like replacing all the menus at Carousel with stolen menus from Lou’s—were self-consciously elaborate and not pursued with any seriousness, so Toady felt it was safe to encourage Ethan’s plotting tonight. But now, with Piet only a few yards away, Toady regrets supporting Ethan’s determination to show up at this party. He sets his jaw against all of Ethan’s directives to loosen up; his teeth grind as he considers the curious, prolonged looks Ethan has been giving the crowd at Lou’s. Toady tries to count the times he has left Carousel early, before Ethan, and wonders what Ethan has been doing when they haven’t been together. It seems that Ethan has already won approval from Piet, that Ethan’s presence here won’t be challenged. In fact, it seems Ethan expects a warm welcome. A vague fear keeps Toady from asking Ethan how this all came about, and Ethan’s unwillingness to volunteer any information, coupled with the confidence in his step, has Toady suspicious and irritated.
When they are close enough to make out the glint of Piet’s eyebrow ring, they stop. Piet and Ethan share a nod, and Piet casts his eye over Toady, who clenches his stomach as if he is about to be hit. Piet asks his question.
“Are you a faggot?”
“I’m here with Ethan, aren’t I?”
Toady, surprised by his quickness and the real venom in his answer, is instantaneously giddy, close to sick, at hearing someone pin down and give voice to that question which has long darted about, playing in his mind and the air between Ethan and him, always disappearing before exposing its true contours. He looks at Ethan, apologetic and hopeful. Ethan smirks in a way that strikes Toady as approving, but this smirk quickly widens to a strange, complicit grin. It occurs to Toady that the half innocent, half bullying tone of Piet’s question was in a register that Ethan himself has been using lately. Piet smiles, wide, and Toady, startled by the pale yellow glow of his teeth, is frustrated by the satisfaction he and Ethan seem to be milking from this complicated moment. Considering their pleasure, Toady is certain that he has somehow betrayed himself by implicating Ethan in his reply to Piet. Just as Toady is gripped by this apprehension, a sudden foreboding of imminent collapse, a dread that his entire universe is a house of cards held together by a thin glue of accumulated assumptions, Piet disappears, swallowed by the night, the relative brightness of his teeth leaving a sickly impression in the blackness that fades as Toady’s disquietude plummets into fear. His fright is only partially relieved when he realizes Piet has not vanished, but has crouched on his root-perch like a tree-dwelling animal about to pounce. Sure enough, in one, smooth, feral gesture, Piet spits a stream of tobacco juice onto the tree, leaps down and licks Toady’s face from his chin to a spot just behind his ear. The metal stud in his tongue is cold and sudden against Toady’s skin. Toady instinctively puts a hand to his cheek, sticky with fast-drying saliva, while Piet, squatting on the ground, emits a low growl, like a dog warning off a challenger. Ethan grabs Toady’s arm, roughly, just beneath the shoulder, and leads him toward the house. Piet barks at them. Ethan holds the door open, and Toady goes inside as Piet howls, long and mournful.
The house is more brightly lit than Toady expected. Curtains or blinds are drawn across all the windows, and from outside the house was distinguished from the darkness only by the porch light flickering over the three oversized wooden numbers of the address, 785, tacked to the brown-stained siding beside the door. But low-wattage, exposed bulbs on the ceiling of almost every room give a washed-out yet emphatic glow to the interior. The kitchen is particularly bright, the overhead light reinforced by a shadeless lamp sitting on a card table doubling as a bar. Scanning the collection of bottles on this table, Toady runs a hand along his face, retracing the path of Piet’s tongue as he mentally retraces Piet’s history. It is a history tangled with this address, dating back to the days when the house, just a block away from Thomas Jefferson Junior High, was notorious among the middle school students for its beer-can and cigarette-butt littered yard, the mean, scraggly cats that lived in the overgrown shrubs out front, and the snowman that appeared in the winter wearing panties instead of a stocking cap, with a carrot and two pieces of charcoal arranged to approximate the male anatomy.
Lisa Prue appears and plunges her plastic cup into the bag of ice. Toady knows he shouldn’t be as surprised as he is to see so many familiar faces. In the Carousel Kitchen parking lot everyone might whisper disapprovingly about Piet and the crowd at Lou’s, but among the Carousel regulars, rumors about the goings-on at 785 were long ago replaced by certainties. Toady knows he is in the minority of students to have gone all four years at Jackson without venturing even once to this address.
“Glad Ethan convinced you to come,” Lisa smiles as she struggles to light a cigarette without dropping her drink.
“. . . Yeah.” Toady holds her drink and tries to pick out Ethan’s voice through the static of the party, braving his fast-rising sense of abandonment by focusing on the task.
“Cool. Thanks.” Lisa takes a satisfied drag and offers the cigarette to Toady. He refuses and she smiles, winks and walks away. Marilyn Manson starts playing somewhere upstairs and Toady feels a sickening slipping, the threat of a curtain falling, or rising, the fear that he is the victim of systematic lies. Ethan’s strange interest in the nightly assemblage at Lou’s, his elaborate schemes, his new kind of impatience and sarcasm, these fragments of thoughts, duplicating as though reflected off opposing panels of glass, persistently crowd Toady, as if trying to assemble themselves into a meaningful shape, an explanation for the misgivings lodged like buckshot in his chest. The house is a network of narrow hallways and sticky floors, and as Toady wanders he feels he is a mouse trying to make his way through a maze in which other mice have made their home. Returning to the kitchen, he tries a rickety screen door, all but invisible in a dark nook beside the refrigerator. It opens onto an unlit, screened porch. A large plastic trash can occupies one corner, surrounded by loosely tied black garbage bags that camouflage three or four bean-bag chairs in which people lounge, passing a joint. A sagging couch with ripped cushions exposing disintegrating foam occupies the other corner. Two people are lying on each other on the couch, grinding their hips. Toady releases the screen door and it whips back on its tight hinge and slams shut. The people on the couch glare at him with the quicksilver animosity of two animals interrupted in the midst of mortal combat. The girl on top has long, tangled black hair with bangs cut straight across her forehead; the black mascara and lipstick obscure her features and lend her a pale, androgynous aspect. Ethan lies below her. He grins at Toady, half-wicked, half-shy. The girl’s dark make-up has rubbed off and smeared his upper lip and the skin under his nose, bruising him. Toady sees teeth, bared and dripping. He quickly backs into the kitchen and goes directly to the drink table.
Was he looking at her? Toady rubs the salt off his wrist and watches it fall into the crack between the armrest and the seat cushion.
“Toady, you okay?”
Up to this point, each successive drink had dampened more and more the thoughts jockeying for position in his head, making him feel increasingly aware of the things going on around him. But the world was flipped inside out by the last shot he took, and now the music and conversation are distant and indistinct, and his thoughts are loud, coming one word at a time. He. Was. Looking. At. Her.
Lisa Prue is offering him a drink, but he ignores her. A uniformed police officer is standing in the doorway. Toady has drunk too much to be afraid, but his face drops in surprise.
“It’s okay, he’s my cousin,” Lisa explains as she thrusts the cup into Toady’s hands, and the cop raises his drink, takes a sip, and disappears down the hall. Lisa follows him, and Toady downs the water he has been given.
Ethan appears and disappears, and Toady loses track of time and falls into a rhythm. Like a child in a pool, content to simply move through the water and experiment with the ways a body can feel alternately heavy and light, Toady wanders through the party caught in a hypnotic cycle of expectation and disappointment. His imagination has been blunted by alcohol, so when Ethan is not by his side he can trust a certain blankness will descend. His mind will not re-create too vividly Ethan’s odd grin, or his laugh. Still, every moment Ethan is not beside him, Toady waits. And each time Ethan comes back, it is without any significance in his step, and when he speaks his tone is flat—normal—and he doesn’t make any reference to the girl with dark make-up. It is when Ethan is standing next to him that Toady is sure, finally, that he doesn’t inspire in Ethan any feeling of muscle-tightening suspension, of possibility, and this certainty unspools his memory, which plays footage that is suddenly painful: a look Ethan once gave him while they were singing along to the radio, the time Ethan playfully ran an ice cube down his back, the “love you, man” Ethan awkwardly spat through his car window just before he drove off to college. Toady prefers, in a way, the forgetfulness he can enjoy when Ethan is absent. Finding that the stench of garbage has finally driven everyone out of the porch, he sits on the broken couch to be alone.
Closing his eyes, Toady is aloft and spinning, so he leaves them open just a crack. He hears voices in the kitchen. Piet and Lisa and someone he doesn’t know. They go away. Somewhere else in the house, the music blares for a second and is gone. A tree branch brushes the porch-screen. There are more whispers in the kitchen. Or are there? Toady opens his eyes completely. Someone is close by, but Toady can’t make sense of anything. He realizes he is about to throw up. A few seconds of intense concentration succeed in dispelling the acute nausea, and as he feels the perspiration gathered on the hair beside his ears, he realizes he is surrounded. People are crammed onto the porch. No one is talking. Someone hits his arm. He looks up, recognizes Ethan, makes room for him on the couch. The girl with dark make-up sits on the floor between Ethan’s legs.
Piet enters stealthily, holding two bottles. One is half full of whiskey, one almost entirely full of a dark red liquid Toady doesn’t recognize. Piet hands the whiskey to someone propped on one of the bean bags, then uncaps the bottle of red stuff and takes a long swig, which sets off a round of muted hisses. He smacks his lips and offers up the bottle. It is taken by a hand that seems unattached to any arm, and then a voice, rising like a plaintive wind, comments on the stench of garbage and is swiftly told to shut up. Piet says, startlingly loud, “It’s cool.”
There is a short, expectant silence, and then Piet continues, more quietly, “Ethan. Shoot, fuck, marry. Mandy Czaplinski, Jenny Sturwitz, Jenny Stern.”
Ethan’s immediate response, “Fuck Jenny Stern, marry Jenny Sturwitz, shoot Mandy,” is met by muffled giggles and groans, and Toady is struck by the impression that everyone is acting out some sort of well-rehearsed routine. He panics, realizing he doesn’t know how to play his part, or even if he has a part to play. He turns to Ethan, who mouths, “The cops.” Toady looks for Lisa Prue, but can’t find her among all the people pressed together in the dark. The whiskey reaches him and he passes it to Ethan without taking a sip. Ethan tosses back a quick swallow. The girl with the make-up drops her head so that it rests on Ethan’s lap. She opens her mouth and Ethan pretends he is about to pour whiskey straight down her throat, then he bends over, wags a playful finger in her face and says, “No more for you.” She grabs the bottle, which Ethan relinquishes as he leans close to Toady and explains, with a harsh edge, “Lisa’s cousin’s talking to them. Relax.”
Toady looks over Ethan’s shoulder, through the screen, and zeroes in on the top of the high flagpole of Thomas Jefferson Junior High School, visible above the roofs of the houses across the street, flashing silver between the streetlights and the moon.
Toady is halfway through the line at the country club brunch buffet when a new pan is brought out and placed in an empty chafing dish in front of him. The blast of steam that escapes when the cover is removed is pungent and milky. Before the steam clears to reveal a mound of scrambled eggs, the back of Toady’s throat constricts; his eyes water as he stumbles in a sick panic to the sideboard, where he sets down his plate and tries to pour a glass of water. A piece of ice lodged in the spout of the pitcher diverts the flow of water into a trickle that dribbles onto his plate and runs down his arm, soaking the cuff of his shirt. Toady gasps at the cold and nearly drops the pitcher, but at the shock, the crisis is past. He succeeds in pouring himself a glass from a different pitcher and after a few sips is breathing with ease, but the sight of his plate—toast and hashbrowns, soggy in spots from the spillage—roils his stomach again. As he steps away from the sideboard, abandoning his plate, he spots his father at a table in the corner, reading the paper. Exhausted by the previous hour at church, spent clutching a missal and trying to swallow away his nausea, and disgusted by the thought of watching his family eat, Toady slips into the hall and out to the patio. The clubhouse chatter and the clatter of silverware diffuse into laughing overtones hung in the humid air. The patio is wet, the mist gathered at the edges of things. His heart beating fast, Toady trots across the damp stone, through a gap in the hedge, over the putting green, past the pool, into the men’s locker room.
Sitting on a bench between two rows of small gray lockers, his eyes closed and his head between his knees, Toady breathes deeply, settling his jitters with the familiar scent of mildew and chlorine. A pleasant tingling in his neck is soon accompanied by a feeling of expansion and relaxation in his stomach. He opens his eyes and savors the sensation of relief. He presses first one foot and then the other into the carpet, perpetually squishy, and recalls past summers, relives tortured minutes in the pool spent dreading the inevitable moment of crisis, when he would no longer be able to hold it. Then he would come in here and walk across the slimy carpet with his bare feet, an unpleasant tingle scurrying up his spine with each footfall. Toady shivers at the thought of these excursions. He looks up at the saloon doors marking the entrance to the urinals and showers. A flutter in his stomach reminds him of the reason why he never put anything on his feet before entering the locker room. Why he never just went in the pool. There was a kind of possibility in the waterlogged carpet and the chill of the tiled bathroom floor, and while this possibility might make him grit his teeth, it also made him tremble with anticipation. It was a generally expectant feeling he still has sometimes, right before he does something that will make him feel guilty.
He treads to the saloon doors, remembering what it was like to stand in front of the urinal, bare-chested, drops of pool-water beading on the hem of his trunks and falling onto his feet. He thinks back to the occasions when, while he peed, he heard the showers running. He is alone in the locker room now, as he usually was on those bare-footed afternoons, but whereas on those afternoons he would feel disappointed in his solitude and sometimes even linger with a vague hope that someone else might come in, now the quiet invites him to contemplate what he might do in a stall or at a urinal. On the verge of stepping through the swinging doors, a memory of the previous night, a memory of Ethan on the couch, partially blocked by the body on top of him, paralyzes Toady; indistinct thoughts regarding Ethan have nagged at him all morning, spiking his hangover with confusion and disappointment, but now these thoughts are amplified. Impatient for an immediate replacement, for something else to excite him with the same kind of tension he enjoyed with Ethan, Toady leaves the locker room.
Without any sunlight glinting off the water or bobbing bodies disturbing the perfect flatness of its surface, Toady can see straight down to the bottom of the deep end of the pool. When he looks up, a gray-white shroud obscures everything more than a hundred yards in front of him. He squints through the haze, trying to see a place beyond the fence, beyond the caddy shack, beyond the red tee boxes of the eighteenth hole. He tries to locate the spot where the manicured grass of the golf course gives way to the wild weeds growing beside the train tracks, and then he narrows his eyes to see beyond the tracks, to the pine trees towering next to the factory parking lot. He is sure of what is in front of him, but can’t see anything through the fog.
The sun beating down on his face lends an orange tint to the darkness behind Toady’s closed eyes. The hood of his car is warm on his back, and he knows what is happening to the turkey sandwich in his hand. The mayonnaise is melting in the heat, and the bread is becoming soft and gooey where his fingers are pressing into it. But he remains still, allowing the sun to fire this moment, to make it hard and strong. He thinks back to the night before, to the way he and Ethan said good-bye in the Carousel Kitchen parking lot. It was casual, barely more prolonged than any other night’s good-bye. It wouldn’t be the last time they saw each other. Ethan even suggested Toady come visit him the next weekend, before the start of classes, but the idea of visiting Ethan had already become abstract and improbable. Toady decides he won’t go. He will tell Ethan he is too busy preparing to leave for school himself. And this excuse won’t be a lie, but Toady knows it will feel like one. Toady feels the weight of uncontrollable forces acting on him and all at once is grasping at straws, trying to come up with a course of action that will somehow put him in the driver’s seat. He sits up and suffers a slight pain, the sensation of a marble rolling from the back of his head to the front, as he opens his eyes. His vision distills slowly, and as the flashes darken and drift away he tries to come up with a number, the number of times in his life he will know he is leaving something behind him for good, the number of times he will be able to mark a moment of definite departure. As he is seized with the desire to at least mark this moment, insignificant as it may be, he sees Dell, leaning between the loading docks, looking at him.
Dell’s skin shines. His short sleeves are rolled to expose his shoulders, glistening like polished fruit. His face is nearly blank, an expression of challenge cancelled out by one of invitation, leaving a tension at the corners of his mouth. Toady reads a promise and a question in this tension, and when Dell turns and walks toward the pine trees, the tension doesn’t break, but extends like a lengthening cord between them, and Toady doesn’t so much follow Dell as get pulled behind him by this rope woven in their mutual stillness and silence.
Dell goes through the pine trees and disappears into the tall grass beside the train tracks. Toady trails him. He halts with one foot in the grass and one on the bed of pine needles, until his foot sinks slightly into the weeds and slides a little forward, and he wades in. The growth is thick. The marshy ground descends steeply into a gully running beside the embankment. The reeds, many of them taller than Toady, are snapped and matted where Dell stepped through them. Toady follows this path and finds Dell standing with his back to a cluster of towering cattails growing at the spot where the soil gives way to the rocky roadbed of the railroad.
Toady meets Dell’s gaze and after a flickering moment takes a few last, slow steps, narrowing the distance until they are close enough to touch each other. The tension warps and quavers, their stillness no longer perfect at this range where every small shift is perceptible. They meet each other’s adjustments, swallow for swallow, sigh for sigh, as if trying to synchronize themselves to find a moment to act by common consent. Toady sees something else now in Dell’s face, in his posture and presence, something urgent, about to spill out of control, and again senses his potential for violence. A trembling in his chest makes it difficult for Toady to breathe, and he exhales, abrupt and loud; Dell meets this with a sharp intake of breath that almost whistles between his teeth, and then he seems to hum a word from his chest, something that sounds like “Yeah,” and his right hand drifts from his side to his thigh, and up, and he extends his thumb and runs it along the ridge running at an angle beneath his fly. Toady looks from fly to face and Dell mouths the words “You want it?” and Toady’s answer, something between yes and no, gets stuck in his throat, and he gags, chokes, and forces his hesitation down into his lungs, to make himself heavy, so that breath after breath he sinks and sinks, but still he’s frantic because the sensation is of rising, of being just on the verge of breaking the surface. He closes his eyes and Dell’s thumbs press against his temples, his cheekbones, the skin between his nose and lip. Dell stretches this skin, peels Toady’s mouth open and for a flashing purple and yellow second Toady smells wood chips, mud, oil and steam and then nothing; he can’t breathe or open his eyes. He’s suffocating, but is paralyzed, as though his mind has been knocked into a separate orbit from his body by a terrifying, slapping, sudden impact with steel or rock or water, so he drifts, riding secret vibrations in the ground until there is a rushing and crashing, like a cascade, like oblivion. The train hurtles past and is gone, and as the dying wind descends on Toady, on every freshly exposed part of him, he opens his eyes, takes a deep breath, and comes back to himself. He is squatting; he kneels, leans back, looks up, holds Dell’s legs for support. The sun, radiating behind Dell’s head, blinds Toady, but before he turns away he discerns a submissive glow in the murky silhouette of Dell’s face, a grin of helpless gratitude. Toady runs his tongue along his teeth, then covers them with his lips and rocks forward, and Dell is in his mouth again. Toady’s head thrums; he’s not sure if he is hearing his own blood circulating or Dell’s, and then the surging, lapping, waves-in-a-conch vibrations coalesce into a rhythmic pounding. As it beats against his tongue, Toady clocks the inevitable thump of Dell’s pulse, and like a rope falling from his neck, the hard knot of Toady’s hunger unravels and unravels and unravels.
© 2005 Tim Mullaney