Nic Pizzolatto

The Guild of Thieves,  Lost Women, and Sunrise Palms

 

 

The RV park was basically six trailers surrounding a grassy mound. On the mound old concrete foundations shot up from the grass like broken teeth. Hoyt’s glasses steamed up on the ride over, sweat soaked his back. He leaned his bicycle against CB’s silver Airstream. He pulled his shirt down over his large stomach, a gesture that always brought a pang of self-loathing. He mounted the concrete steps and paused because he heard voices on the other side of the thin doorway. CB never had visitors, and Hoyt guessed it might be cops.

            The night before, CB had used his good hand to spread out jewelry stolen from the Tronke home: many rings, a silver Rolex and gold Tag Hauser, a choker lined in diamonds, a pearl necklace and other precious things. The back office of CB’s pawn shop smelled like dust and rat poison. To one side of the jewels had sat a DVD player, fifty-capacity CD changer, and two shotguns, also from the Tronke’s house. CB always said to get guns whenever you can: guns moved easier than jewelry. Guns were the easiest thing to sell.

            CB has told Hoyt that CB used to mean Charles Bailey, but now it meant Coffin Boat. CB used to be enormous. He used to hold the state triple-A division record in the shot put. He has a composite plastic plate in his hip and a note that excuses him from metal detectors. He’s always refused to tell Hoyt stories about Iraq. CB’s skin is dark brown and hard like wood, and he has a thick face, a flat nose, black eyes. He is full Choctaw. Great pink scars engulf his left arm¾ a gnarled arm seeded with shrapnel, always bent in a way that reminds Hoyt of the tiny, useless claw of a T-Rex. Hoyt met CB two years ago, pawning the first thing he ever stole, a neighbor’s shiny .45 Magnum.

            At the RV park Hoyt decided the voices he heard were too quiet to be the police, so he knocked on the door. From the other side of the door CB said “hello” like it was a question.

            Hoyt opened the door and saw CB kneeling on the floor. His bad leg was stretched  out. His thick black hair fell around his big face. The hair covered an arc of scar Hoyt knew existed above CB’s left ear. A woman was lying on CB’s couch. CB nodded to Hoyt and returned to what he was doing.

            He’d propped a small bowl of water between his knee and bad arm. He was washing the woman’s feet with a purple sponge. The girl looked at Hoyt once, then ignored him. She had short red hair and very white skin. Moon white. She was slim in a muddied green dress, her white legs dangled off the arm of the couch. She looked like she had just run through the forest. Her top lip and right eye were bruised, swollen. Blood trickled from her feet and into the bowl. A few pebbles and pine needles stirred in the water.

            CB looked up and his eyes were trembling. “Can you give me ten minutes here man?” Then he wobbled on his knee and the bowl tumbled, splashing pink water over the all-weather carpet. The girl moved off the couch to help him gather the bowl. Before he left, Hoyt saw them both kneeling in front one another.

            Across from CB’s Airstream was a larger, brown trailer. A wooden sign leaned against the trailer. An opened pink hand with a blue eye at its palm hovered above the words Mother Divine¾ Palmistry Tarot Spiritual Guidance Your Future. The words were written in an arcing script, as if across a globe.

            After Hoyt had sold the .45 Magnum to CB two years ago, he started hanging around and asking to hear war stories. The most CB ever said was, once, “I’s nineteen when I went and it only took me three weeks to get blown up and I came back.” CB showed Hoyt how to cross-hatch strips of duck tape for windows, so when the glass shatters you can pull the tape away and the whole window comes with it. He showed Hoyt how to use a thin blanket to muffle the single strike of a ball peen hammer. There had been many rules. Don’t mess with storm windows or dead bolts. A back entrance is good, a garage entrance is ideal. Partners divide search time and police pursuit. If you have to make a noise, make it once, and decisively. CB had told him, “I never met anyone who could disarm a good electronic alarm.” CB put all his faith in the unobstructed entrance. The unobstructed entrance is something people forgot, a wood chute or crawlspace, a third story attic window. A point of safe penetration. The parts of an average door lock include the escutcheon, the faceplate, the latch bolt and the rose. CB showed him how to use freon to freeze the bolt, then shatter it with a tap. Then he told Hoyt to forget all that stuff. He said to find the unobstructed entrance.

            CB said he learned everything from two uncles in the thieves' guild. And he said, If you’re caught, no one is going to help you. And whatever you say, don’t say anything.

            By the time CB came outside the pines around the park were practically glowing, a fresh, reflective green. CB dragged his left leg down the steps and lit a cigarette. He cocked a big thumb toward the trailer. “She’s asleep or I’d let you in.” He’d put on blue jeans and sneakers, a black rodeo shirt with red flames stitched over it, the left sleeve knotted and tied off to cover his arm. He’d said once that doctors tried to remove his arm but he wouldn’t let them.

            Hoyt said, “What’s going on? How’d you find a girl that would talk to you?” He noticed that he felt a little jittery.

            Smoke eased out CB’s stony face. “That’s Robin. I used to know her a long time ago. She showed up here this morning.”

            Hoyt wiped the sweat off his glasses. “And then you beat the crap out of her?”

            “Shut up. That’s how she was when she got here. I hadn’t thought I’d see her again.”

            “How’d she get hurt?”

            The muscles in CB’s face tensed. He looked annoyed. “She’d married some punk in Westlake.” That was a neighbor town, a swampy place of oil refineries and meth labs. “Anyway, what do you care man? Go eat something, fat boy.”

            “Maybe I’ll just blow up half my body.” Hoyt kicked at pebbles. “I need that stuff I asked you about. By Friday.”

            “The coke?”

            Hoyt nodded. CB told him he’d have it by Thursday. Sometimes CB gave Hoyt drugs to sell as a kind of cash advance against one of their scores. Over the past year, his senior year, Hoyt had traded drugs for academic work several times.

            A light breeze blew CB’s long hair across his cheeks. Where the wind lifted the hair you could see the bald curve of scar. Hoyt asked, “So what’s up with you and that girl, man? Did her husband do that to her?”

            CB chased Hoyt off, hollering that it wasn’t anyone else’s business but his and hers. Just before riding away Hoyt yelled, “Hey! Does this have anything to do with the war?”

~

The next morning Hoyt woke to the sound of loud whooping. The wall thumped. His dad had been sleeping with a woman named Miss Tilly for the past few weeks. She danced at T-Back’s over in Westlake. The week before, they’d been eating pancakes and Miss Tilly had popped open her robe, flashed one breast at Hoyt and winked. He thought about that as he finally got out of bed. He waited until he heard the sound of her Jeep leaving before exiting his room. He heard his father grunting through his morning push-ups. He poured a bowl of cornflakes and ate. His father appeared a few minutes later wearing a blue jogging suit. Where Hoyt’s body was soft and expanding, his father’s was tight, muscled. He told Hoyt ‘good morning,’ drank the rest of the orange juice, and went for a run.

            Strange things had been happening in their house. Hoyt heard late night phone conversations, his father’s voice raised in anger. He found his father home at noon, drinking whiskey and smoking cigarettes in silence. His father had started bring home boxes, something he’d never done before, boxes labeled Sunrise Palms. The week before Hoyt had found three thick rolls of hundred dollar bills in his father’s sock drawer.

            After two home invasions in their neighborhood, Hoyt’s father had installed an American Security 9000 alarm system. It had motion detectors. If you crossed an invisible barrier, high electric wailing commenced. Hoyt knew there were voids in the radio waves that caged their house. He couldn’t know where they were, though. The unobstructed entrance to his own house eluded him.

            Inside, there were no pictures decorating the house. Walls were empty and bookshelves bare. There used to be many photos of Hoyt’s mother, but they had gradually disappeared, and finally, one day years ago, his father had told Hoyt that it was time they both moved on. Then all the pictures came down. Hoyt remembered a couple times with his mother that had terrified him as a child. They told him that she was a danger to herself and others, that she wouldn’t want to hurt him, not really, but she might.

            When he was six she was delivered to a gated white building that stood alone in green and open country. Ever since then, Hoyt had felt the house was frozen in a certain moment. Shortly after the pictures came down Hoyt’s father began exercising relentlessly, devoting long hours to his real estate agency. He was tan. His teeth got whiter.

            His father hadn’t mentioned the new rug in the dining room. Hoyt looked at it. Blue and white with a muted bird pattern, the rug lay in a column of sun. The rug appeared to Hoyt in Wal-Mart, and he’d felt the familiar impulse to possess something. Hoyt always felt that impulse. It was unpredictably particular, and the things he shoplifted often seemed random and useless. During his quieter moments he was conscious of a thousand vague desires tugging at him, yet the objects of these wants seemed to constantly change. He could possess things, but often once he acquired something he lost all desire for it. He couldn’t find whatever had attracted him about the rug now, but at the time of the theft, he’d thought it must remind him of his mother. The rug was so big that he simply walked out of the store with it rolled on his shoulder. It wasn’t the kind of thing the store expected to be shoplifted.

            Hoyt had known the thrill of burglary before CB. But what he liked was the air of a strange house, its furnishings and photographs, its smells. Two houses never had the same air. His feet padding silently, his flashlight’s beam might find a pair of shoes or half-drunken soda can, a family portrait, and in a hundred ways he could feel human essences filling the house.

            Bored, alone, Hoyt walked to the slough at the end of their block and smoked a cigarette. He smoked True menthols, CB’s brand. Along the bank of the slough, so many white egrets were roosting, they obscured the trees. A three story waterfront home stood across the water. It stood off the land on stilts. Hoyt had discussed the potential burglary of that house with CB, but a plan was never formulated. He swirled smoke in his mouth and got the idea to enter the home from the water, through the boathouse. He felt that if he could keep coming up with jobs for him and CB, then the future was secured, and things didn’t really need to change.

~

Later in the week, one of the football players that wanted the cocaine gave Hoyt two hundred and fifty dollars. The player’s name was Lucas George. He had long blonde hair and looked like somebody’s hero. Lucas was having a party at his parents’ house later in the week. He hadn’t really invited Hoyt to the party when he asked for the coke. It was suggested that Hoyt could just ‘drop it by.’  His girlfriend picked her lip while she waited for Lucas to count out the money. She had a long waist and pert chest, and her body made Hoyt want to steal something.

            He felt excited biking to CB’s to deliver the money. He figured CB would offer him a drink, maybe they’d watch television, or maybe CB would let Hoyt fire his .380 as he’d done in the past. He could explain that girl who’d been there last time. Why, after all his stories about women, had CB never told him about one with red hair and skin like a white statue? At the RV park, a different CB stood in the doorway.

            His black hair was cut short and choppy, his thin sickle of scar tissue banding the left side of his head. He wore a plaid button-down shirt, with one sleeve rolled up and the other tied over his bad arm. “Hey man,” he said. His big head constantly leaned toward his right shoulder.

            “Hey.” Hoyt craned his neck trying to see around CB. The aroma of cooking meat blew through the door. “I got the money for that stuff.”

            “Right. Oh, right. Cool.” CB stepped back from the door and it opened wider. “I’ll get it.” He walked toward the small loft area at the trailer’s rear. He didn’t indicate if Hoyt should follow or not. Hoyt stepped inside the trailer.

            Things had been put on shelves. Beneath the smell of cooking there was the sharp hint of Lysol in the air. CB’s car magazines were stacked neatly beside a row of records that before had been sprawled around the stereo. Hoyt looked at the woman in the kitchen area. She stood before a skillet of hamburger meat and noodles. The meat sizzled and popped while she stirred it, and tiny beads of sweat were broken over her forehead. Her red hair was pulled behind her face, and her bruises had faded some. She was almost beautiful. Her eyes met Hoyt’s and he immediately looked away, feeling ashamed of something but not knowing what.

            When CB reappeared he passed Hoyt the small baggy in a handshake. CB’s stiff leg dragged toward the door. He said, “You still owe me two for that nine.”

            “I know.” Two weeks before, Hoyt had purchased a nine-millimeter automatic from CB on credit. Hoyt stopped walking and asked, “What’s for dinner?”

            The girl, Robin, answered from the kitchen. “It’s just hamburger helper.”

            “I love hamburger helper.” Hoyt moved toward the couch. He sat down. “I think I figured something out about that house on the water. We should talk about it, you know, come up with some plans.”

            “Not right now.” CB rubbed the short hair on the back of his head.

            “What’d you cut all that off for? You look retarded now.” Hoyt motioned at his hair.

            “Ah, it’s too hot.”

            “There’s not much to eat,” Robin interjected. She turned the stove off and lifted the skillet above two bowls on the counter. “It don’t make much.” The counter was clean and shiny.

            Hoyt felt mean all of a sudden, insulted. “Hey, I forgot your name, lady,” he said.

            She served the meat and noodles into the bowls. “Robin.”

            “Hey, Robin, do you know what CB stands for? You probably think it stands for Charles Bailey, don’t you?”

            She put spoons in the bowl and gave CB an impatient expression.

            He put a thick hand on Hoyt’s shoulder and said, sternly, “Hey man, what’re you doing?”

            “Tell her about Coffin Boat. Give her the score.”

            “Come outside. I want to show you something.” He guided Hoyt off the couch and out the door.

            Sun sparkled in broken glass on the ground. Hoyt said, “What I was thinking was we could paddle into the boathouse from the lake.”

            CB’s dead foot scraped loose bits of glass and gravel. “Look dude, the thing is, she’s having a kid, okay?”

            “She’s pregnant?”

            CB nodded. A trace of happiness in his features alarmed Hoyt.

            “So what? Where’s her husband?”

            “She’s with me now.”

            “How do you know her?”

            “We go back. This’s how it is with me.”

            Hoyt held out his hands. “Don’t you think somebody’s looking for her?”

            “Man, get out of here.” CB turned with his stiff gait. “You’re a negative mother, you know that?”

            He went inside and closed the door. Hoyt saw the sign across the way. Palmistry Tarot Spiritual Guidance Your Future. He had three scenarios for his future. In one, he worked his way into the full-time position of drug dealer and fence. In another, unlikely, he was employed, with a family, sitting down for dinner. In the third scenario, he pictured himself going crazy, just like his mother. They’d put him in a white room where he’d sing to himself.

When he got home he could hear music from his father’s room. The door was shut, and Zydeco music played loudly. This was the music his father grew up with as a boy in Morgan City, a gulf port where the first Tarzan movie was filmed. Hoyt knocked softly, but no one answered. A moment later, the music raised in volume.

~

The next afternoon Hoyt’s father said he wanted to talk to him. Hoyt had seen his father folding clothes into a suitcase earlier that morning. His father came into the living room carrying a large gray suitcase and a red duffel bag. He sat down next to Hoyt and turned the television off.

            “How you doing?” His father had the same friendly expression he used when showing someone a house. He put his hands on his knees and said, “Listen, if I had to go away for a little while, just a trip for a few weeks, you’d be okay, huh? I mean, you’re out of school and everything.”

            “Yeah,” Hoyt shrugged. The back of his neck became hot. “Where you going?”

            A tan line was drawn just below his father’s hairline. His few wrinkles had been hardened by exercise, making sharp creases. “Well, I’m not sure yet. It could be a few places right now. It depends on some things.” His blue eyes glanced at Hoyt then darted away. “Don’t worry about it. Best thing I should do is call you when I get there. It might be better.”

            “Why?”

            His father scratched his forehead and smiled at Hoyt. “Listen, I might not be going anywhere. It might not even happen. If I¾ I mean, we’ll see. But I’m going to leave you some money.”

            “I got money.”

            “You do?” His father rose on heavy, flexing thighs. “It doesn’t matter.” His father dug in the duffel bag and produced twenty 100 dollar bills. “This is just in case, okay?” He handed it to Hoyt and for just a moment, a brief instant, his voice seemed to crack and reveal something else. “Be careful with this. It might have to last you a while. Okay? You want to stretch this out.”

            He touched Hoyt’s shoulder, then hoisted the suitcase and duffel bag. He walked to the driveway and loaded the bags into the trunk of his car, a red early-nineties Cadillac he’d bought at an auction the summer before.

He came back in the house and said, “Like I’m saying, I don’t even know if I’m going to have to leave. It’s all just in case.” He made another tip to the bedroom, this time moving the cardboard file boxes to the Cadillac.

Shortly after, his father said he had a date, and left wearing a brown suit and gray silk shirt. Hoyt explored his father’s room.

The drawers were empty except for bits of odd change, matches and scraps of paper. Slippers were under the bed, but many hanging clothes were gone. The closet was nearly bare. In the very back, at the top right of the closet was a shelf Hoyt had never noticed. It would have been blocked by clothes before. A paper bag sat up there in the shadows, and he took it down. Things inside rattled. Hoyt’s own closet was filled with unopened CDs, stolen clothes he never wore, books he never read. He wondered what his father had been hording, feeling for the first time that they had a common secret.

He sat on the floor and unfolded the bag. All the pictures of his mother that his father had taken down were in the bag. He touched their frames.

He put them back in the bag, and put the bag back in the closet.

He didn’t see his father the next day. By nightfall he was supposed to deliver the cocaine to Lucas George’s party. Hoyt walked his bicycle past cars that started filling the curb about fifty yards away from Lucas’s house. The neighborhood contained large homes with nice lawns. The George’s had two stories of brick and brown siding, two gables and a long porch. A plank fence with open sides surrounded their acre. Hoyt had done a few lines of the drug Lucas ordered, and his vision felt clear and his head hummed with purpose. He was aware that he would be nineteen in a few months. The same age CB was when he got blown up and lived, when he became Coffin Boat.

Young voices carried down the street. Hoyt’s heart quickened as he moved toward them. Ahead, lights in the house were on, and a few teenage silhouettes meandered in the yard. He could faintly hear the music as he walked. He felt his jacket. In one pocket was the gram of cocaine, in the other, the nine millimeter. He thought he’d really like to shoot someone in the foot. Maybe they would put him in the gated white building in the green and open land.

            He was late. Hoyt began circling the perimeter of the party. He recognized many of the people as faces that didn’t know him. He stayed in the dark, the way a prowler might. Through french doors, young people could be seen, the girls laughing, boys wearing ballcaps, clutching cans of beers and talking too loud. People in the back yard surrounded a keg, and the girl Hoyt recognized as Lucas’ girlfriend was walking around with a garbage bag, picking up discarded beer cans and removing drinks from the lacquered tables and shelves.

            Hoyt paused and wondered why he was not one of those voices, why he had never been. The answer felt clear, but was broken across eighteen years. His thumb brushed the trigger guard of the gun in his pocket. Then his thoughts were stopped by a girl’s voice.

            “Oh, hey, I know you. Luke was looking for you.”

            Hoyt looked down and saw Lucas’s girlfriend. She was small and smiling pleasantly, holding a garbage bag full of cans and cigarette butts.

            “What are you doing out here? There’s beer in the back.”

            “Oh, yeah. I just got here.”

            She put one hand on her hip and cocked her head backward. “Luke was waiting on you. I’ve almost had enough, but you should go in.” She lifted the garbage bag. “This is bullshit.”

            Hoyt watched the party while the girl began to pick up the stray bits of trash on the ground, tossing them into her bag. The way she moved and smelled made him swoon with want, and he was so tired of that feeling, and felt the gun in his hand, knew she was so close. He took a long breath. He had a clear thought, in a voice different than his own, No one is going to help you. The phrase seemed to lift his spirits.

            He walked up to the girl. “Hey, it’s Mary, right?”

            “Mm-hm,” she nodded like a hostess.

            “Mary, could you tell Lucas that Hoyt said forget it. Also that he’s not getting his money back. I spent it. I’m not dealing to some shitbird that can’t invite me to his party.”

            At first she laughed a little. “What?”

            “Seriously. Not this minute, though. Give me about ten to hit the road.” He winked at her and walked away, fading back into the shadows. She had a very small smile on her face. That was the first time he’d ever winked to anyone, he thought.

~

His father had never come home. A small shed behind their house contained rusted garden tools and beach toys, an inflatable child’s raft. The raft was gray rubber and took some time to inflate. He squatted in the dark, puffing hard. Its nozzle tasted moldy and plastic in the total dark of the shed.

            The raft sank in its middle while its front and back ends jutted upward. Hoyt’s legs hung over its sides. His legs disappeared into black water that covered his lap, drenched the paper bag on it. He paddled across the slough in the dark, liquid silence, sliding toward the house on the other side of the water. The house loomed, a mass of shadows on stilts. It might have been the future there, black, waiting to be discovered. Hoyt rubbed his nose, which stung. Drips echoed as he drifted into the boathouse, just curious. He could see the outline of a door which seemed connected to the main building. It would have worked, he told himself.

            He paddled back toward his side of the slough. Some gray clouds unveiled a moon like the glowing print of a boot’s heel in black mud. At the center of the slough he dropped the paper bag with his mother’s pictures into the black water, and he watched them sink. In the water the pictures ripped through the wet bag. The brown paper floated back up, torn and empty, sitting on the surface of the water like a twisted scar.

 

~

A week passed. Rain on a few days. His father never came back.

He got beaten up by three football players, but he felt good.

One of the men in a black suit pointed to the bruises on Hoyt’s cheek and forehead. “Did your dad do that to you?”

Half his forehead was swollen, and his left cheek was purple and maroon. “No. Some kids jumped me.”

Hoyt sat on the couch. Two deputies stood by the front door, and a second man in a black suit was strolling around the house casually, inspecting bookshelves, opening cabinets. They’d come early in the morning. He’d seen two cruisers pull into the driveway. He rose from bed in a hurry. He expected questions about a series of home invasions, or maybe to just be arrested. His fear felt anticipated, like this was something he’d sought. The deputies wore brown, short-sleeved uniforms with wide-brimmed hats. Two other men, in dark suits, had a search warrant. The deputies stayed by the front door while one of the men in a suit walked back and forth in front of Hoyt. Hoyt was waiting to be charged when they saw the contents of his closet. But when the questions started, all they talked about was his father.

“You sure he didn’t hit you? A guy who’d do that, he’s not too good.” The man paced, shaking his head slowly.

“He didn’t.”

The other man in the suit walked out the hallway. “This’s in the bedroom.” He held up a fold of bills.

            “What’s that?”

            The man in the hall thumbed through the bills. “It’s two thousand dollars.”

            “Two thousand dollars.”

            Hoyt didn’t look at them. “He said he was leaving and that had to last me a while.”

            The man sat on the couch next to Hoyt, resting his wrists on his knees. He had a soupy voice and a messy mustache. “And he didn’t say anything to you about where he was going? You got no idea where he is?”

            “He wouldn’t say. Just said he’s leaving for a while.”

            The two men in suits looked back and forth at one another. One dropped the money on the couch.

            “Your dad ever talk about something called Sunrise Palms?” He squatted down to look Hoyt in the eyes. “He ever say anything about Florida? Come on, kid.”

            “I don’t know.”

            “You don’t know. You don’t think it’s a little weird your dad lays two G on you and leaves all of a sudden? You don’t ask about that?”

            Hoyt lifted his head. His eyes were wet. “I did ask. I did ask.”

            “And?”

            He put his head down again. The two men exchanged looks. One of the deputies idly examined a fingernail.

            The one on the couch spoke. “And you got a mother in Charter House. That right?”

            Hoyt nodded.

            “You see her much?”

            He shook his head.

            The man stood and walked over to his partner. “So what are you going to do?”

            “I don’t know.”

            “How old are you?”

            “Eighteen.”

            The men stood still, communicating with eyes and tilts of their heads. They handed Hoyt a card and instructed him to contact them if he heard from his father. The card said Securities and Exchange Commission. They told him they would be watching. They said, keep your nose clean.

            On the way out, one of the suited men turned around and said, “Is there someone you want us to call?”

            Hoyt thought a moment, then stepped back into the doorway. “I don’t want anything.” He closed the door.

~

CB smacked his lips and rubbed his eyes, groggy in the doorway. He was shirtless. Half his big chest was collapsed scar tissue that flowed horrifically into his left arm. His eyes were bloodshot and murky. “What happened to you?” He said. “Look at you, dog.”

            Hoyt shrugged. “Got jumped.”

            CB turned back inside, opening the door for Hoyt to follow. A box of cereal and several empty beer bottles were strewn around the living room, some broken glass, disarray. CB put on a T-shirt and came back in the room with two bottles of Old Style. One of the plaster walls had a fist-sized hole in it.

            “Where’s that girl?”

            CB handed him a beer and shook his head. He turned the bottle up, drawing almost half of its contents.

            “Gone?” Hoyt said.

            “She wasn’t ever here, man.” CB kicked an empty bottle over with his dead leg. He moved to a pile of records on the couch, sorted through them and found his box of cigarettes. “Stupid, man. Look at me.”

            Hoyt watched CB fall into the couch and suck hard on a cigarette.

            “What’re you up to?”

            “Nothing.” Hoyt set down the beer and turned to the doorway. He sat down on the steps outside, looking at the park, the concrete slabs that broke through the ground. Mother Divine’s sign. CB came and stood next to him, leaning against the doorway.

            “You want something else to drink?”

            Hoyt shook his head.

            “You all right?”

            “I think I am.”

            They stayed there for several minutes, and neither spoke. The shadows in the grass stretched, and the lights between the pines became orange and red. CB flicked his cigarette and cleared his throat. “I’s thinking about what you said. About paddling up to that lake house? That might work. We should get on the water and check it out.”

            “That’s okay.”

            “No?”

            He watched the high grass wave against the concrete. “Never mind about it.”

            “You don’t want to?”

            “No.”

            CB bent down and studied Hoyt’s cuts and bruises. He stood up and turned away. “You know, you always ask, but I wasn’t even in the fight. We were playing football around mines. We didn’t know.”

            Hoyt said, “Don’t tell me about it.” He tossed a rock. “You took out fifteen enemy troops with your bare hands before they got you with a grenade.”

            “I was swatting them off me like ants.”

            “They thought you were a giant.”

            “You know they did.” CB threw his bottle into the trees. A sunset haze covered the clearing. “You want to get high?”

            “No,” Hoyt said. “I don’t want anything.” And he didn’t, except maybe for this lonely sense of completion to last.

            But on the way home he saw two pretty girls walking the street outside the mall, laughing and eating ice cream, a glittering 4X4 Jeep with chrome package. He pedaled toward deep recesses of cypress and sumac, and he saw the egrets in white ascension and the moon on the water. He recognized the old ropes of want, desire, tugging. It was clear to him that he had no choice, that the world would never let him go.