If you were to approach the town from the air after dark, you would see a yellow cluster of lights burning at the center of a great blackness. It is in this blackness that we love to go riding. In the blackness there are barns and graveyards, churches and rivers. In the blackness we think about evil but do no evil.
We pick up our empties and switch off our headlights when we turn around in some farmer's driveway. We are gentlemen when we ride.
Three nights ago I am sitting in the back of a Honda with the hatch open and a freezing wind tearing the breath out of my lungs. I am sitting crushed up next to the girl I am in love with but haven't told yet. She is sitting in the lap of a boy who has his hand on the inside of her thigh and they are both laughing. Tomorrow, I decide, I will start growing a beard. I will grow it until my whole face is covered and the lights go out.
Tonight I have a good start on it. Tonight it is only Todd and Marshall and me, riding around in the blackness, thinking about evil but doing no evil.
A friend of mine says she wishes she could imagine what men do when they are alone together. I'll tell you what we do. We love each other in secret, right in front of each other's faces. It's the only way we know.
Three nights ago, I am leaning my head out the window, trying to catch the river smell, the honeysuckle smell, the sperm smell of certain leaves that have baked in the sun all day and release their scent to the night air. I am trying not to see the hand on the thigh of the girl I am in love with but haven't told yet. I am willing those smells and the motion of the night air around me and what is in the bottle in my right hand to lift me out of my poor, scrawny body, to take me out of here. And it works. If it didn't work, at least once, then people would never become drunks or run away with each other. All it takes is one good time when it works and you are sold for life.
Tonight Todd and Marshall and I are looking for the way out but we haven't found it yet. You might say it's getting harder to find. You might also say we have no idea what those ways might be yet.
Tonight, Todd and Marshall and I are fulfilling a tradition.
It's Tuesday night and a full moon, not exactly full but close enough for us. On Tuesdays when it's a full moon, we load up a car with our favorite substances and head out into the blackness.
The point is not so much what we will find there, but what we will lose---our way, ourselves, our minds, whatever is troubling us most.
If we were in fact tougher, wilder than we are, we would be driving a pickup truck, riding high above the road; instead, we are in a midnight blue Honda, sitting low to the ground where even the smallest hills rise up and threaten to swallow us. Todd is at the wheel where he likes to be, with Marshall at his side; I am in my place in the back where I can lean forward and join in if I want, or sit back where I can get lost in the roar of the engine and whatever is passing by outside my window, the limestone cliffs that loom like icebergs in our headlights and fall away, then the old farmhouse I know will be next, falling down and covered with kudzu.
If you were to see us, with our Apostolic beards and long hair, our long ragged coats flying, you might think you had seen three versions of Jesus escaped from the Salvation Army store. People who do not know us well often confuse us with each other and place us in times and locations we could not possibly have been in. Sometimes we enjoy this blurring of distinctions between us; sometimes we do not, and tonight it feels like one more thing we are trying to get away from.
Marshall is the saint among us, the good nurse, the guardian angel of us all. He is probably the most adept and comfortable with his role, counselling us on which roads to take, reminding us to bring enough matches and a warm jacket, keeping one eye on the weather and another on the road, a rag magically appearing in one hand to mop up whatever drinks are spilled, he graciously pours with the other to replace what is lost. Five years from now he will ask me in a painfully roundabout way if I would like to sleep with him and I will pretend not to know what he's talking about. I still regret it--not my not going through with it, but the playing dumb which I think was more cruel than a blunt refusal. Marshall and I, after all, are southern boys raised by southern women and are not schooled at being blunt, even (or especially) where desire is concerned.
Todd, darker and more high strung, is from another place; all signs point to the northeast, though this is not clear since his story changes from time to time. His nerves are wired differently than ours and the whiskey and smoke do not reach him in the same places they reach us. We do not know what to expect of him, and this is at least partly why we are drawn to him, like red corpuscles rushing to take care of a wound; dealing with Todd's moods gives us something to do and has become part of who we are together.
As for me, I'll tell you that when I moved to a large city years later with another friend of mine, a man we had just been introduced to took one look at me and said, "Don't tell me---you're the quiet one who watches everything, right?" Today I would have laughed but then I just looked at him and didn't say anything---which, I suppose, made him right. Anyway, it's a judgement I won't argue with.
At this point we do not trust anyone else's judgement of us, not even from the people who love us most. But these judgements slip through anyway and have their effect; they come at us indirectly, ricochet from person to person, from Todd's girlfriend's sister, to Todd's girlfriend, to Todd, to us---How does it feel being in love with a failure? This means all of us, we are well aware. Failure is a word we have trouble applying to ourselves. At twenty four we have not had time to fail at anything. True, the jobs we hold are not the ones we'll have for the rest of our lives, the apartments we live in are not the ones we'll always live in. We are the ones nothing has happened to yet. But this is precisely the freedom that allows us to do what we want, more or less. This life is our life but it is not our life forever, and that is the beauty of it, the beauty that escapes the ones who love us. What we have is not what we can buy but what we can do, and we do what men do best together, keep each other entertained. This is our calling---we tell each other stories and we tell them best in the dark.
Coming down one hill, the car is suddenly full of the rotten egg smell of burning sulphur, natural gas. "And now, ladies and gentlemen..." I hear the grin begin in Todd's voice.
"...Pull up your socks..." Marshall picks it up, and I finish it--- "...We are going through hell."
A flame appears high on a hillside to our right and moves along the ridge, following us. "It's the ghost of the old lady with her hair on fire!" Todd says, his voice tight with excitement for the first time tonight.
"The ghost of the old lady with an axe and her hair on fire," I add.
"The ghost of an old lady with an axe and her hair on fire, running down the hill to kill us!" Todd jams his foot down on the accelerator and I feel everything inside me pull to the left as the car starts its hard turn to the right. The flame on the ridge moves toward us, racing down the hill to meet us at the corner and we scream as it blazes past our windows and blacks out behind a wall of trees. But there's something wrong with our screams; there's a weariness to them, like they're echoes of earlier, better screams. We ride along in silence for a while, embarrassed, three astronauts left on the launching pad.
Did Todd come up with that story first---how many Tuesday nights ago---or did I? These are stories we tell so many times, we own them mutually and no one tries to claim them. Except on certain nights, like this one, when something changes and one person moves forward to take credit. That person is usually Todd, almost always Todd, breaking out of the circle, falling out of the rhythm we have set for ourselves. You can see it coming, first in the way the white grows wider around the dark brown centers of his eyes, then in his long silences broken by sudden bursts of talk that has built up inside him, talk that doesn't hook into anything the rest of us are saying. And his anger, gradual and real, against us, against me. For what? For not seeing what he sees, for not going with him to whatever place he is in.
Tonight we are trying to repeat a success and the possibility of failure hangs heavy over us for the first time. Or, we all three same aware of it for the first time. This is hard to explain; I ask you to remember the sudden, inexplicable silences you've suffered with your own friends. It's a final, little thing like the death of love between a man and a woman, and I believe the three of us are grieving for it without knowing it.
Just ahead, there's a place where the land flattens out and two roads make a perfect cross. The only things higher than the grass are a crumbling cinder-block building that glows white like sugar in the moonlight and a couple of ruined gas pumps. Tonight there is a fourth object in this landscape. We all see it from far away and recognize it as human before it starts to move and wave its arms. A young boy---younger than us---wearing lake clothes and carrying a gas can we already know is empty from the easy way he swings it over his head to signal us.
Todd slows the car to a stop in the middle of the road. The boy's look of relief fades as he takes us in, judging us. I wonder how we look to him.
"Need some help?" Marshall asks. What Marshall does best is help and he moves toward it quicker and easier than Todd or me.
"Yeah. Ran out of gas a couple miles back," he holds his empty gas can up apologetically for us to see. "Can ya'll spare some? I can pay you. I got a siphon in my trunk..."
"Nah. Just get in," Todd speaks suddenly, "We'll take you back to town---you can get some there."
"You sure?" the boy asks. Marshall and I both look at Todd, surprised.
"Sure," Todd says, "Get in."
The boy hesitates for a moment, then walks quickly around the back of the car, and for a second I truly believe Todd is going to floor it and leave this poor kid standing in the dust. But Todd waits while the boy opens the door and climbs into the back seat next to me. In an instant, the car is filled with the smell of gasoline and a faint whiff of suntan lotion.
"I sure appreciate this," the boy says, "I got some friends at school. I can call them and have them run me back out here." He says this brightly, then seems to pull back inside himself.
"Did you leave anyone else back at your car?" Marshall asks, ever mindful of the practical details.
"My girlfriend," he says, then I can feel him regretting saying it.
"Would you like us to go back and get her now?" Marshall asks.
"No, that's okay. She's watching the car. She'll be safe."
Safer than she'd be with us is what I'm thinking but don't say, of course. I picture this guy's girlfriend waiting for him and I'm disappointed and relieved that I'll never see her--sitting in the back seat with another girl who's playing hands with the guy next to her is more than I can stand, even tonight. I look down at his bare legs, strong and tan next to mine, and feel a flash of hate.
"Want a beer?" I ask him.
"Sure," the boy says and takes the cold, wet bottle from my hand. We drink and ride along in silence for a while. Marshall starts asking our passenger questions, making small talk to put him at ease. Todd drives and doesn't say anything---I watch the back of his head and imagine him resenting this interruption he's invited.
After a few miles, Todd speaks.
"You ever hitch a ride before?"
"Once," the boy answers slowly, "In high school."
"So, you're not afraid to hitch a ride with strangers?"
The boy hesitates, then laughs, a nervous expulsion of breath.
"A lot of people get killed that way," Todd says, "Doing what you're doing." Todd starts telling stories about people who've been killed hitching rides with strangers---some of them I recognize from movies we've seen or talked about; some of them are new to me and I know Todd must be making them up on the spot.
"So," Todd says again, "You're not afraid to hitch a ride with strangers?"
"I don't know," the boy finally says, taking a deep breath and bringing up a smile, "Guess I'm just lucky." It's not a very funny thing to say at this point, but I admire him for trying.
No one speaks for a while. I stare at the back of Todd's head and try to picture all the words fighting to be next. Although we appear to be the same thin, Christly figures, if you were to strip away our long heavy coats and scarves you would see that Todd is in fact the strong man among us. If you saw him in summer in his green T-shirt with what his girlfriend calls his Vietnam arms, although Todd has never been to Vietnam, you would see and know what she means.
After a moment, Todd speaks again, "Anyone know you're out here?" The boy laughs again, the same spastic burst of breath, not wanting to acknowledge what he feels taking shape around him.
"I mean," Todd says, "What if something happened to you out here? Who'd know it? What do you think would happen to your girlfriend back there?"
I listen and try to understand what's happening. Todd, I want to say, It's all right. You don't have to do this. We love you. But I don't say it. Not because I'm afraid to--we've all said it, many times---but because I'm afraid to see how little good it may do now. Something else is being asked of me.
Todd is talking faster now, getting into it. "I mean, you don't even know who we are." I steal a look at this kid and see he's stopped smiling. "You know," Todd turns to Marshall, "Wouldn't it be great if we were killers and we just picked this guy up?" Marshall laughs and pours another bourbon; he knows this is the safest answer. "I mean," Todd continues, "There's three of us, right? We could dump his body in a ditch somewhere and no one would find it for weeks!"
"Or the dam," Marshall says suddenly, "We could do it there!"
My mind goes white for a second before I figure out what Marshall is doing. He knows that opposing Todd when he's like this just makes him worse, so he's going along with him, picking up the pace to wear him down. But I'm not part of this yet; it's moving too fast and too far for me and I can't stay with it.
They've left me behind. I turn and see my face, haggard and old-looking, reflected in the window with trees rushing away behind it in a dark blur. What am I doing here? I look at the kid next to me. Even in fear, he looks strong and young. Golden. The very image of a promising lad. Take a dictionary, look up the phrase "promising lad" and you'll find a picture of this boy's face. Not mine. Not anymore. A promising lad. What exactly do you promise, I want to ask. Who do you promise it to? And what happens when you break your promise? Do you know when you break it, or do you realize it only after it happens?
I look at the boy riding next to me; he's staring out the window, looking hard for the lights of town, wishing himself ahead in time to a safer, brighter place. I want to help him get there. Even though I see the bottle forgotten in his fist, still two thirds full, I dig into the cooler at my feet and hold a fresh one out to him. "You want another?" I ask, making my voice go softer, warmer for him. It's all right, I want to tell him,
Don't worry, it's all right, but he won't look at me. The bottle he won't take grows heavier in my hand and I feel the same blind anger a parent might feel toward a child who won't take the medicine that will save him. Then he looks at me and in his eyes I see the same ugly reflection of myself I saw in the car window moments ago. I watch his young, unmarked face curl and twist around those twin reflections like, if he could, he'd spit me out of his eyes with his eyes. In that one look I feel the rest of what I know myself to be rise up for a moment then die. All right, I think, I tried to help you---Now I will be what you think I am.
"Wasn't somebody killed out here on this road just last week?" I ask, very loud.
"Yeah," Todd answers quickly, not missing a beat, "Some college kid. Found him in a ditch by the lake. Never did find out who did it..." and suddenly I'm with them again, the three of us all in the same place, telling our stories together. I feel a surge of grateful energy in my veins; it's working again, better than it has for a long time, maybe better than it ever has before.
As we get closer to town, I wonder how far Todd will push it. The first exit sign whips past us; I glance at the boy to see if he'll squirm but he doesn't see it or he's pretending not to see. There are two exits left. The second one comes hurtling toward us and is gone; this time I see a ripple pass through the boy's body like a runner waiting at the starting block. The third exit sign appears far down the road; when it's just a few yards away, Todd flips on the turn signal and in five minutes we're all blinking under the lights of a convenience store. The boy doesn't wait for Todd to switch off the motor but opens the door and dashes across the parking lot and inside the through the glass doors.
"Nice to meet you," Todd calls after him.
Next door there's a big white house with a party going on inside, loud music thumping across the parking lot. I look back at the store; through the big glass windows I can see all the late night people lining up to pay for their doughnuts, sodas and gasoline, including two cops and our boy headed in a straight line right toward them. Before he reaches them, I have us out of the car and into the big house next door.
Inside, it's all bodies, heat and noise. Someone puts a beer in my hand. I don't realize how far gone I am until the music hits me. Somehow I am sitting in a rocking chair talking to a boy with long red hair. We seem to have been talking for a long time. He is telling me his troubles. The boy seems to know my name but I do not know his. This is not unusual. Inside this house there are people who know our names and want to tell us their stories.
Outside in the dark, there are men in uniforms looking for us. They shine their lights across the walls and windows and light up the faces of the people who are dancing and laughing inside. Inside this house it is safe. In here we could be anyone. Outside, there are people waiting for us. They will not go away. We will have to come out and face them sooner or later; I know that now. We will have to come out sometime.
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