Issue 133 |
Summer 2017

Midnight Drives

In the field behind Scoop’s house was an abandoned Pontiac Firebird and inside this Firebird was a three-foot-long rat snake, and I said, “Kill it,” but Scoop said no, that was bad luck, what had the snake ever done to us, and using a branch, he wrangled it from the driver’s seat. “The King of Serpents is merciful,” he said as the snake slithered into the high, hot grass, and I imagined the Firebird bursting open like a piñata, spilling a hundred more snakes at our feet. It was the first week of summer vacation, the sky a lesson on blue, high school on the other side of the next two-and-a-half months. The car had belonged to Scoop’s older brother, Eric, who had died the previous October—to be more specific, he’d canoed into the middle of Pearl Lake and shot himself with a .38—and today would have been his nineteenth birthday. I was holding a small cake with the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY SHITHEAD written in bright blue icing over vanilla frosting. In all directions the grass surrounded us, and occasionally a diesel-scented breeze would skim the surface, bending the grass low with a sound like escaping carbonation, so that Scoop’s house was momentarily visible again in the distance. During the walk from the house to the car, a grasshopper had sprung out of the grass and landed on the cake, sticking in the frosting next to the D in SHITHEAD like a twitching exclamation point.

“It’s not in bad shape, right?” Scoop asked, and for a second I thought he meant the grasshopper. He rapped his knuckles against the Firebird’s door, said, “I mean, it could be worse.”

“It could be,” I said, though the car was even more wrecked than I’d imagined. Eight months marooned in this field had wrought certain marvels of deterioration. The paint, once cranberry-red, was faded and rust-scabbed. The back windshield was shattered—someone had hurled a brick through the glass—and the interior was smoky with dust, the tattered seats studded with dozens of little white mushrooms.

Scoop chewed the inside of his cheek, a tic he’d picked up from his father. “This town’s full of assholes,” he said, knocking down mushrooms with his branch, the crumbs scattering like teeth. He popped the hood. It opened with a sound like a rusty hiccup. Lodged between two black hoses next to the engine was a thick pulpy thatch of shredded paper mixed with twigs, grass, leaves, and, strangely, a scrap of fabric imprinted with dancing cartoon pineapples. Scoop pulled out a handful of this mixture, let it sift through his fingers, said, “Know what this is?”

“No idea.”

“Nest—mice,” he said, slamming the hood shut so hard I felt the impact in my chest. The mice, he went on, had probably gnawed through every damn wire. Repairs would cost hundreds of dollars—thousands, maybe—and where the hell was he supposed to come up with that kind of cash? He slapped a mosquito on his elbow. I placed the cake on the hood. The blue-icing lettering was beginning to melt. It was ninety degrees and humid, the air dense with the memory of last night’s rain. The grasshopper, half-cocooned in frosting, had stopped moving. I heard a car rumble along Emerson Hill Road, but I could see nothing over the rim of grass save a sprawling shiver of mosquitoes and black flies sparking in the sunlight. Scoop’s father was at his new girlfriend’s apartment over in Lincoln—said he’d be home late, possibly not until tomorrow morning—but nevertheless I expected him to return any minute, feeling guilty for having left in the first place. Today of all days.

“Let’s eat,” I said, eager to head back to the house. I pulled two forks from my pocket and handed one to Scoop. He stared at it with a dazed, puzzled expression, as if I’d bestowed upon him some otherworldly technology. I was hot and tired. I wanted nothing more than to sit in Scoop’s bedroom in front of his huge rattling fan and play Mortal Kombat until my fingertips were raw. Scoop didn’t like coming over to my house. He believed my mother hated him, no matter how much I told him otherwise, due to an incident in which he’d attempted to balance a gallon of milk on his head, only to have it fall and explode on the kitchen floor.

He plucked the tines of the fork with his thumbnail. “I’m going to bury it,” he said.

“The fork?” I said.

“The cake.”

I waited for him to say he was kidding, but he just gazed at the ruined car. “The ancient Egyptians did shit like that all the time,” he said after a brief silence. “Like, you know, as a sacrifice or something.”

It was just like him to spend hours making a birthday cake only to bury it in the ground. Growing up he used to draw elaborate maps of imaginary worlds—colorful continents marked with rivers and mountains and cities—and then immediately burn them, scattering the ashes in the woods.

I don’t want anyone to know about those places, he’d told me. Except you, Ethan.

“The least he could’ve done,” Scoop said now, “was give me the car before he—” and here he put the fork to his temple like a pistol and pulled the pretend trigger. He sat on the ground, leaning against the front bumper, and ripped out handfuls of trampled grass, then scratched at the freshly exposed earth with his fork.

“I’ll get a shovel,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Please, just help me dig.”

Four nights after Eric’s funeral, Scoop’s father drove the Firebird into the field. Scoop had asked me to spend the night, and around one in the morning I’d woken to the sound of the Firebird’s engine coming to life, followed by the faint melody of a John Prine song Eric had listened to again and again, and upon hearing both the engine and Prine, as I had so many times before, my first thought was that Eric had returned, his death had been a misunderstanding, here he was about to embark on another one of his midnight drives.

“Scoop?” I whispered, but he was still asleep, and something told me I shouldn’t wake him. From the bedroom window, I watched the Firebird creep toward the edge of the field, then stop. In the moonlight the grass looked like shredded pewter, except for the bronzed section ensnared in the shine of headlights. The driver’s-side door swung open and Scoop’s father stepped outside. Even from that dark distance I knew it was him—the hunch of his shoulders, as though he were constantly bracing himself against a strong wind. He sat on the trunk and lighted a cigarette. The little orange ash winked like a satellite. The music was still playing, though quieter now, a fragile string of notes threaded through the autumn night.

Then Scoop’s father climbed off the trunk and got back into the car, moving so quickly and suddenly I thought he must have seen something in the starlight. The car lurched forward. Beneath the heaving surface of grass, the headlights rolled like some kind of small fire on the run. Before I knew what I was doing, I hurried out of Scoop’s bedroom, tiptoed downstairs, and slipped outside. Barefoot, I ran toward the light smoldering in the field.

The next morning, however, Scoop claimed he himself had driven the Firebird out there. “I would’ve invited you, but you were out cold, man,” he said.

The flagrancy of the lie stunned me. Was he trying to impress me? Didn’t it occur to him I might have seen what really happened? Perhaps, I thought, he wanted to cover for his father because he was embarrassed or frightened of what his father was already becoming mere days after Eric’s death—a gaunt, jittery caricature of the man he was—and believed he could prevent the transformation if he somehow contained it, kept it hidden from the outside world, including me. The reasoning for the lie seemed irrelevant, but uprooting it now felt dangerous, as if exposing the truth might drive us apart, and so from that point on, the lie was entrenched: I never told him what I’d witnessed. I simply went along with his narrative, no matter how much he embellished it, like when he claimed his father had chucked the car key into the woods to punish Scoop. Looking for that key even became a game of sorts for Scoop and me, though I knew, and Scoop must have known too, that it wasn’t in those woods. That spring and summer, we searched among the trees at least a dozen times, shouting out false alarms—bottle caps, rusted nails, any glint of small metal—as though we really expected to discover something, an artifact from one of those lost cities on Scoop’s incinerated maps.

“Eric was a million-and-one kinds of messed up,” Scoop said on one of these searches, and went on to tell me some of the outlandish things his brother supposedly did and believed: how he’d claimed there were minuscule cameras installed inside dragonflies; how he’d only drunk water pumped through a bubbling silver-laced filter he kept under his bed; how certain noises made him moody and temperamental, noises most people wouldn’t even notice—nothing noises, Scoop called them—like the tinkle of a brass chain on a ceiling fan, or a lid being screwed onto a jar of pickles, or the chirp of coins rustled together.

These stories, however, did not reconcile with what I knew of Eric, which granted wasn’t all that much—aren’t our best friends’ older siblings always mysterious to us?—and sometimes I wondered if Scoop exaggerated Eric’s eccentricities in order to tie that terrible, ultimate act on the lake to something a bit more related to cause and effect, because without a clear connection, Eric’s death was impossible to understand, a horror anchored to a bottomless hole.

The Eric I’d known was filled with a quiet, gentle confidence, as though he’d overheard some amusing secret the rest of the world wouldn’t be privy to for decades. He loved basketball, though to my knowledge he never played on any organized team, and many nights, I’d hear the thump-thump-thump of his ball, the crack-rattle as it struck the backboard and glanced off the garage door, the repetition working its way into my dreams. Every once in a while he let Scoop and me play, us versus him, allowing us to the brink of victory before taking over, swish-swish, good game, little dudes, next time, next time.

He never seemed self-conscious about being seen with us either, despite the fact that he was five years older, though it’s also true he never really sought us out, with one clear exception: one night, when I was spending the night at their place, Eric had shaken Scoop and me awake around midnight and told us to get dressed, said he was going to the twenty-four-hour Burger King over in Lincoln, he knew a girl who worked the night shift and she’d hook us up with as much free food as we wanted, come on, did we want to go? Of course we did. The places Eric went on these midnight drives were frequent topics of discussion between Scoop and me, and I was thrilled to be invited now, though a small part of me was also disappointed: Burger King was a bit anticlimactic compared with the destinations Scoop and I had envisioned—a secret society in the derelict pulp mill over in Livermore Falls; covert FBI training in Turner Park; etc.—and I told myself this trip to Burger King was an intentionally mundane ruse designed to throw us off Eric’s trail.

Driving through Outlook Springs that night in the Firebird, the windows down, John Prine on the stereo, Eric had said, “The world feels empty, doesn’t it? Like it was built just for us.”

“It was so obvious he’d pull shit like this,” Scoop had said at the funeral, though to me there was nothing less obvious in the world.

Until now, however, Scoop and I had mostly steered clear of the abandoned Firebird, as though it were radioactive with whatever poisonous air had chased Eric into the lake eight months prior, and the fact that Scoop had led me here today—Eric’s birthday—made me uneasy. The sight of the brick resting in the nest of broken glass felt like an omen, as did the rat snake on the driver’s seat. Before today the car had been little more than a dreamy abstraction of possibility, something Scoop and I talked about when we were bored, all the places we’d go once it was fixed up, the color we’d paint it, the girls we’d taxi around in it, conversations exchanged in that aggressively unfocused and optimistic language of thirteen-year-old boys in which everything was possible, everything was ours, everything possible was ours, everything, everything.

“Hope you brought candles,” I said, still clawing at the dirt with the fork. I’d meant this sarcastically, but Scoop grunted and pulled a pack of candles and a Bic lighter from his pocket.

“This is plenty deep,” he said, standing. He passed me the cake. Inside the hole, worms the color of kidney beans wriggled deeper into the earth. The heat was a scream against the back of my neck. Kneeling, Scoop poured the candles onto his open palm and rattled them softly together. He planted them one by one into the cake, then pinched each wick straight with his thumb and middle finger, a series of gestures so delicate I couldn’t help but be moved. He lighted one candle, then used it to light the others. The buds of flame stood tall, shrank, shivered.

The following summer, Scoop’s father landed a job in Kalispell, Montana, at a plant that manufactured aluminum trailers, and Scoop was gone, for good it turned out, though for a while we kept in touch via email and Instant Messenger. Eventually, the house sold, the Firebird was towed out of the grass, and my father—hired by the property’s new owners—mowed the field, telling me afterward that a small, champagne-colored coyote had trotted in the wake of the tractor almost the entire time, like some kind of obedient dog, searching, no doubt, for critters turned up by the tractor’s sudden revelations, groundhogs and moles and even fawns. Scoop and I knew none of this on that particular day, but I nevertheless felt a shift as I watched Scoop lower the birthday cake into the hole we’d dug with our forks, a sensation that this summer, though it was just beginning, was almost gone, that the machinery of the rest of our lives was humming below the surface of things. And when Scoop pushed the first wedge of dirt into the hole, spattering the cake and extinguishing half the candles, I told him to hold on, please, wait.

“For what?” he said.

It was the closest I ever came to confessing what I’d seen that night last October. How I’d run into the field and found his father sitting in this exact swath of flattened grass, his face in his hands, the Firebird still on, as if he’d crash-landed from another world and stumbled out in a daze, whacked breathless by the alien atmosphere. I wanted to tell Scoop—because in that brief moment, I was sure he’d understand—how I’d hid in the shadowy screen of grass, my whole body jangly with adrenaline, until at last Scoop’s father rose to his feet and wandered deeper into the field. How I’d then stepped into the clearing—cautiously, carefully—and got behind the wheel of the Firebird. How I’d turned off the engine. How I’d tucked the key beneath the driver’s seat.

“It’s been here the whole time,” I almost told Scoop.

But before I could speak, Scoop reached into the hole and plucked the dead grasshopper from its grave of frosting and wiped it off with his T-shirt. Using one of the doused candles, he pried open the grasshopper’s front legs and placed it back on the cake, upright this time, with its now-extended legs wrapped around one of the lighted candles, as though it were shinnying toward the flame. A pale, pink bead of wax dripped onto the grasshopper’s head.

Even now, all these years later, I’m not sure what possessed me to do what I did next: I grabbed a fistful of dirt-covered birthday cake and stuffed it into my mouth. The frosting was sour with grit, but the spongy cake was warm and sweet. The act, it occurred to me, might be interpreted as a betrayal of something sacred—this cake, after all, was meant to be buried—but Scoop snatched a handful too.

“It could use less dirt, don’t you think?” he mumbled through his mouthful, and we were both laughing. The humming was gone. It was summer. We had nothing to do except everything we’d ever wanted.

Then Scoop did something I didn’t expect: he seized another handful of cake and pitched it at my face. I couldn’t believe it. I scraped frosting from my eyes. Scoop bolted into the grass, his laugh dwindling in the gathering distance between us. I grabbed as much cake as I could, squeezing so hard it oozed through my fingers. “Here I come,” I whispered, and half blind with frosting, I ran in the direction of my best friend, because he had got me, and now I was going to get him back good.