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It was a dark and stormy night.
It was an ebony and tempestuous eve.
It was the last day of high school for seniors Dan and Linc; at the end of the day, as always, they would meet in the school parking lot. Dan made it there first; Dan always made it there first, glad to have the school day behind him. Before long, trailing in the wake of his afternoon shadow, Linc appeared.
Dan said, "Well, I guess that's it, Linc; that's the end of the show."
"So what do you think, Lincoln?"
"I'm thinking I want a beer."
"A very good idea, Lincoln."
Other youngsters hurried by them. Some of these took the time to hail the two boys and holler something about school being over, while others just passed along their way to waiting cars and buses, too overcome by the event to think of a thing to say about it.
The school was small, the students closely knit. They knew that this was no end, only a new beginning. Most of them had been together since elementary school, and many of them would be going on to college together--a lot of them with rock-solid plans for a career they had chosen.
Linc Lebeau was different, or so he thought. He had no inkling of what he would be doing with his future--a future rapidly becoming the present. It was coming round, facing him square, and he blanched at it. He was smart enough to know that his future held for him great promise, if only he could make the right choices, locate the right path to travel; still, that didn't make him any less hesitant about facing it.
Linc had, since being a young boy, some vague notion in the back of his mind about one day becoming a writer. But how to go about that? He must first, he had no doubt, see a lot of the world, observe many people, experience many places. And once he had gained all those experiences, he would write a novel--and not some tiresome, plodding novel, but instead one that was worth reading, one that was fun to read, like certain ones he had discovered in the local library.
Several times he had begun writing a novel, only to find himself empty of anything further to say once he had reached a certain point. He thought, only after he had seen more of the world, been a gypsy, would he ever be able to write through those sticking points where the words ceased flowing.
But he asked himself if he would really ever be able to leave his home and loved ones. Linc's had been an idyllic childhood--glorious times spent with his family, with his great friend Dan, and with his many lesser friends. Whenever he saw the half-filled pile of spiral notebooks stacked neatly in the back of his closet, all of them aborted novels or short stories, he told himself he must find somewhere within himself the strength to leave behind all the splendid trappings of his dear childhood, and travel down the road of experience.
He had read biographies on his two favorite authors, Thomas Wolfe and Jack Kerouac, and he knew that their ties to home ran deeply (though not nearly as deeply as his own, he reckoned), yet they were able to summon the strength and courage it took to get out there among the people and places far from home. He figured he would have to be about as strong and brave as those two combined.
Linc was lost in reverie, something that happened often lately; he just stood there, leaning against the hot fender of his car, oblivious to Dan, not saying a word, watching the students go past. Ready to get out of that direct sunlight, Dan asked him if they were going to go get that beer or not.
"Yeah," said Linc, still staring blankly at the streaming students, "I want to put off all that college-talk crap for as long as I can."
"I know what you mean," said Dan. He cocked his head to one side and said, "Shall we?"
Each boy got into his own car. Then Dan followed Linc to a nearby convenience store. Linc went inside to buy the beer--because he was rather big for seventeen, he rarely got carded; and because he always shaved at night, his beard was rather heavy by that time of day; anyone would take him for a young man in his early twenties.
Linc was glad to see that the proprietor had added a pinball machine to the many other temptations in the crowded little store. It stood there silently, poised to come to life in a burst of clangs and buzzers, right beside the glass entry doors. Linc ran his hand along the cool metal casing of the machine and wondered what the owner had gotten rid of in order to make room for the tempting new addition. He was just about to ask the man what was missing, when it occurred to him: the old Mexican owner had simply taken everything along that wall and slid it to the rear of the store, where the refrigerated drinks and things were kept. Now the right-hand, rear glass door of the refrigerated section was blocked by a rotating stand filled with all the latest comic books, a colorful tableau Linc often sent spinning when he was back there, so he could watch all the colors sail around indistinguishably. That glass door could no longer be opened, and now one must first open the left-hand door in order to reach back into the right-hand side where now only columns of snuff tobacco cans stood tottering, kept fresh by the chill.
The old owner had been crafty. He had learned, the hard way, that because they were so easily concealed, those snuff cans were a favorite of teenage shoplifters. With this new arrangement, stealing those snuff cans would take some doing. He figured the money he saved on snuff cans not being stolen would in no time pay for the cost of the pinball machine.
Linc couldn't resist; he would play a quick game. It always took him a few games to learn the nuances of a machine. He didn't put up much of a fight, and he tilted on his last ball. He slapped the top of the machine, leaving his ghostly palm print on the clear glass.
"Ah-ah!" snapped the owner, his eyes glowering at Linc from underneath an unplucked, united eyebrow, for he had just finished polishing that surface before Linc entered. Linc had been subconsciously aware that the glass had been recently cleaned, because he had noticed the cleansing foam that remained between the frame and the glass. Now glancing up at the man, Linc detected in his nostrils the distinct vomity scent of glass-cleaner. With the tail of his shirt he wiped away the smudge he had made on the cool glass.
Linc traded at that store all the time, and he didn't see any sense in getting on the owner's bad side, even though the man knew little English and had never had much to say to Linc; still, they had always treated each other with a quiet respect.
As usual, Linc had no trouble transacting his business with the man and soon came out with the beer. He walked out to Dan's car, stuck his head in the window, and said, "Let's take yours."
"Take all damn day, Linc," said Dan. "Let's go." Dan resented being left waiting in that hot car.
Linc handed the two quart bottles through the window to Dan, who proceeded to reach over the back seat with them and wrap them in a towel he kept handy for just such occasions. Though Linc usually only purchased them a single can of beer each, Dan didn't question why Linc had splurged this time; he figured it was in celebration of school being out for the summer--or out forever, if either of them so chose. Dan knew it didn't ever do any good, wrapping their beer in a towel that way, still, it was something he always did. He had an ice chest back in the trunk, but his key had broken off in the lock a couple of months before, and he still hadn't gotten around to having it removed. Because his spare tire was back there, too, for the umpteenth time, he made a mental note to take care of it one of these days.
Linc drove his big Impala around to the side of the store and parked it there without locking it--because it was fast, everybody new Linc's car. It was also long and broad, with lots of room in front between the seats and the dashboard, a dashboard littered with all kinds of mementos--photographs, ticket stubs, miniature-golf scorecards, and such. On the rare times he cleaned out the interior of the car, Linc would trash most of that stuff so a new collection could accumulate. To prevent rust, he kept the exterior of the twelve-year-old car clean with frequent washings and waxings; it was, however, about time for another wash, for the car was coated with a veneer of fine Texas dust. The paint job was only two months old, a metallic color Linc insisted on calling gunmetal gray, just because he liked the sound of it. But for a peeling bumper sticker praising Linc's favorite engine cleaner, the car was unadorned, much like its owner, who considered himself simple and would have his car thought of in the same way. But oh, how that engine roared when he started it up. People knew when his car was within a two-block perimeter.
He got in Dan's car and suggested they drink their beer at the lake. "Uh-huh," replied Dan, as he pulled into the street.
Dan's car was something special--a gold, two-month-old Pontiac Firebird; it was an early graduation gift from his parents, a gift, Dan was sure, meant to speed up his departure from the family nest--an unhappy living situation for Dan, because his parents had never made much time for him. Whereas Linc wouldn't change a thing about his parents, Dan would have preferred having a father who wasn't a doctor and a mother who wasn't a registered nurse. He would have rather had parents with 9 to 5 jobs--maybe even a mother who didn't work at all. But those things didn't bother Dan much anymore: one can only kick a dog so many times before that dog becomes inured to the pain.
Linc jammed a cassette into the player and turned it up loud. He was trying to discourage Dan from starting up a conversation; and since both boys had their window down, conversation would be just that much more difficult.
Linc didn't want to talk about school being out and what actions he was going to take concerning his future. Neither was he interested in talking about his girlfriend, Clare, and what the future might hold for the two of them; after all, he had lost most of his interest in her a short time back, when she had finally given in to his ardor and coupled with him in the back seat of his car. He was now rather indifferent to her. And yet he had this long-standing appointment with her father to discuss their future--a future Linc had, to all intents and purposes, relegated to the past. Still, meeting with Clare's father would be much easier than saying why the meeting would no longer be necessary, so Linc would keep that appointment with him . . . eventually, but not right now. He then thought of Clare's father, and how the man had no doubt figured his demand for a meeting with Linc would have all the authority of a papal bull. Linc shuddered. He wondered why must life be so complicated. All he wanted to do right then was to spend some uncomplicated time with his buddy Dan.
Having known him for a long time, Dan knew exactly what Linc was trying to accomplish by having the tape up so loud; so Dan, always pleased with an opportunity to badger Linc, hollered over the music and wind:
"Did you see Clare today?"
"Yeah, I saw her," Linc hollered back, greatly annoyed.
"What's she gonna do?"
"I can't hear you, Dan, and I won't holler back and forth."
Dan shook his head. They drove on to the lake; it wasn't far. The sapping Texas sun burnt down on their sunburnt arms hanging over the car doors.
Linc was so unlike himself today, he hadn't even once commented on Dan's driving.
Dan's driving would scare any normal, intelligent person. The first time he went to take his driving test, he gave wide berth to all the parked cars on his side of the street, resulting in his car spending a good deal of the time over the imaginary line dividing those neighborhood streets into halves. He thought it was a good safety measure, driving that way, because there was no sense in getting close to those parked cars on his side, when there was no one coming in the opposite direction. He couldn't believe it when the man giving him the test failed him. He casually informed Dan that he had been driving on the wrong side of the road. Dan then pointed out his logic in driving that way, but the man wasn't buying it. He told Dan there was plenty of room for two cars on a street and that there was absolutely no reason for Dan to drive on the wrong side. Dan then started getting into the question of the man's age, and how it would certainly make more sense for there to be a younger man giving those driving tests, someone whose eyes weren't "shot," as Dan put it. Growing angry, the man related to Dan how he had been giving those tests since long before Dan was born, and he didn't need Dan telling him his business.
The next week, Dan was back to take the test again. He was glad to see that the man giving the test either didn't remember him or at least wasn't holding any grudges over the way Dan had questioned his competence the week before. The man was even being helpful. When it came time for Dan to parallel park his car, as Dan backed toward the curb, the man kept saying, "a little more, a little more," ostensibly so Dan would be parked just right. Unfortunately for Dan, on the man's last "a little more," Dan pulled up onto the curb, jarring their bodies.
"Stop the car," said the man. Dan turned off the engine, one of his tires still up on the curb.
"Driving on the sidewalk," said the man, as he wrote something down on the papers on his clipboard.
Dan had failed the test again. He got angry and told the man he had tricked him, that he would never back over a curb, that he would never have done it if the man hadn't kept telling him, "a little more, a little more." Dan wound up calling the man an old buzzard. The driving examiner then gave Dan a cold stare and got out of the car. He told Dan that he would have to telephone some licensed driver and have them come and drive the car home.
Every day after that humiliation, Dan sneaked into the motor vehicles building until he was sure the old man had the day off. Driving with a different, younger instructor, he passed the test easily, even though he now overcompensated for driving on the wrong side of the street by getting so close to parked cars on his side of the street that any sensible passenger would cling to anything offering a handhold to them. This young instructor got so frightened, he gave Dan an abbreviated test, one that got him out out of Dan's car fast. The man's legs quaked as he filled out Dan's temporary license.
But Linc wasn't making any critical comments about Dan's driving today; no, other than his unconsciously electing not to use the armrest, due to the parked cars whizzing by so close to his door, he wasn't paying any attention to Dan's driving. He didn't even shout in fun when Dan--at forty miles per hour--hit the dip in the road beneath the railroad trestle just past the boarded-over bait stand, sending both boys four inches into the air above their seats. Nor was he inclined, while passing the driving tee on hole four of the public course beside the road, to holler at the golfers teeing off there, thus ruining their shots, just because he didn't feel like doing it--though Linc would only rarely do that, because he would hate for someone to do the same thing to him if he were the one standing at the tee; Dan, however, always did that whenever Linc was driving to the lake; Dan was just like that, that's all, and he always got angry with Linc whenever Linc failed to holler at them.
Upon reaching the lake, a quick glance around told them there wasn't much going on there that hot afternoon: only some man fishing by the edge of the water, and his wife, or girlfriend, sunning herself farther up the bank. Dan drove past the two of them, but then Linc suggested they turn around and park near them because the girl was attractive.
Dan parked about thirty yards behind the nice-looking female, and then the boys walked toward the lake at an angle they hoped wouldn't disturb the couple's privacy too much.
As if sizing up two trespassers, the couple turned and looked at the boys.
"Any luck?" Dan called to the fisherman.
"No, not much at all," the man replied. "Too hot, I guess." He wiped his forehead and cast his line back into the water.
"You know, you may be right," said Dan. "Me, I need a nice shady spot."
"Gimme the keys," said Linc.
"Huh?" said Dan, looking at his friend strangely.
"You got the poles?"
"You know my trunk's broken. Besides, the poles are in your car."
"Well, crap," said Linc. Then, looking back over at the girl, "No matter."
"You know that lock's been busted for weeks. What do you want to fish for today anyway? It's too damn hot. That old guy probably hasn't even had a nibble all day."
They looked over at the man. He was already checking his bait again.
"He'll never catch anything that way," Linc observed, shaking his head.
Though they often went after school to the lake, the boys never actually did much fishing. They were more inclined to sit there and talk. That's why it wasn't much of a catastrophe that they didn't have along their fishing poles.
They walked up to the edge of the water and sat down on a couple of flat limestone rocks beneath a cottonwood tree, their usual spot. It was quiet, still. A single bass boat rocked on the far side of the glary lake.
Linc, hoping to prevent Dan from bringing up Clare (Linc's girlfriend) again just then, said, "Well, Dan, I've been waiting all day to talk to you about something."
"What?" said Dan.
"Do you remember last week when I was sick and asked you to deliver those dinners for me?" (On certain weekends Linc delivered meals to senior citizens who were no longer able to do for themselves. He did this through a local church. He wasn't part of the church flock, but one of his teachers, a Miss Trace, thought he might be interested in it and told him about it at school.)
"No, I don't remember," said Dan. He cleared his throat and started humming to himself, poking at his shoe with a stick he found lying beside him.
"Oh, come on, Dan. You don't remember taking dinner to those two old people?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah . . . I remember now. That can just be one you owe me, Linc--No, on second thought, just forget it."
"Forget it? Dan, you got me fired from that, and it was a volunteer job, for Christ's sake!"
"What'd they fire you for?"
"Why don't you tell me, Dan? They fired me for something you did. I want you to tell me what happened when you took that man his dinner."
"Nothing happened. I just gave him his dinner and that was all. . . . Well, that was pretty much all there was to it. I only--"
"Yeah, I thought so," interrupted Linc. "I want to hear the whole story, Dan." (Linc already knew the whole story. Miss Trace had told him all about it earlier that day. But besides hoping to keep the conversation off Clare, he was interested in hearing Dan's version of what happened.)
Dan said, "All right, all right. . . . I walked into that old guy's house and then set his dinner down for him--it was some kinda rice and broccoli casserole; it didn't look too great. I guess they want 'em to have something they can gum in case they don't have any teeth left. But this old guy had some teeth, just not a bunch of 'em; probably about as many as a jack-o'-lantern, I guess. Anyway, that ol' casserole didn't look too great. I remember thinking: I'm glad it's this old-timer having to eat this, instead of me. Man, it looked so--"
"Don't bother with telling me every little thing you were thinking, Dan; just tell me what you did."
"I'm trying to tell you, Linc. Hmm. . . . Where was I? . . . Oh, yeah. I set down his plate and said, 'Dig in, old-timer.' So then he took a little bite of it. He said, 'This is too damn cold!' Can you believe it, Linc? That old gripe swore at me! Next he asked me how that stuff got cold--you know, he wondered what I had been doing that would keep me from getting his dinner to him while it was still warm. Linc, I got it to him at four-thirty, for Christ's sake! Some of those old-timers think it's just the worst thing to ever have happened in the whole world if they get their dinner after four-o'clock.
"Anyway, I heated up his oven so I could warm up that gunk. He takes a bite of it and says, 'Now it's too hot!'" Dan looked up at Linc and said, "Now what does that make you think of, Linc?"
Linc shrugged his shoulders to show he didn't know what Dan was getting at.
Dan said, "It sounds like the damn three bears."
Linc nodded and couldn't help a little chuckle.
"So, naturally," Dan resumed, "since it sounded like that, I said, 'Sit down and let it cool off for a minute, Goldilocks.' I thought that was real funny, Linc, but that guy just didn't have any sense of humor at all.
"Then I sat down with him--you know, you told me I was supposed to kinda sit down and shoot the bull with 'em while they ate. Well, he wasn't saying too much right after I called him Goldilocks--Remember, we're talking no sense of humor. No, he wasn't saying anything; he just kinda sat there shaking--you know how they do when they're mad, Linc.
"But after a while he turned into a jabberbox. It was pretty boring to listen to him, though, because he just kept on talking about the war. Linc, that guy could be two hundred years old, so I'm thinking: Which war, old-timer? The Revolutionary War? Only I didn't just think it, Linc; no, I must've been thinking out loud, because I said it to the old lunatic. Well, that's when he called me a smart aleck. I called him an old blister right back, and then we got into a big cuss fight."
Linc shook his head at what he was hearing. Only Dan, he thought, only Dan.
Dan said, "Just when I thought I had gotten in the last word, guess what he did."
"What did he do, Dan?"
"He threw what was left of his dinner at me--plate and all!
"Anyhow, I ducked, and that plate hit his door and left a big mess all over his kitchen floor. His old walking cane was between us, kinda leaning against the table; and when I turned back around to him--you know, to cuss him some more--I saw him reaching for that old cane, so I kicked it halfway across his living room before he could grab hold of it.
"Next he turned around in his chair and reached inside a drawer. I figured he had a gun stashed in there--the sneaky old crook--so that's when I ran for the door. But then I nearly busted my ass, slipping on that damn casserole! I just knew when I looked up that he was gonna shoot me; but as it turned out, he didn't have a gun in that drawer after all: no, he had just gotten a pill outta there and was washing it down with the glass of water I sloshed out for him when he said the food was too hot. So there I stood, ass nearly busted, wanting to wring that old goat's neck. But I just kept my cool, Linc. It was really something to see. I just told him I hoped he'd fall and break his scrawny neck whenever he got around to cleaning up that slippery mess he'd made on his floor. And that's when I left."
When Dan had finished relating his tale, he once again began to hum innocently. Linc asked him if he had left anything out of the story.
"Not a thing, Linc; I told you the whole story. Now, tell me, is there anything in that whole story that should get you fired? Me, I could understand, but I don't see any reason for them to fire you. You must've done something to make them mad the last time you delivered 'em."
"Yeah, you're probably right, Dan. It must've been something I did last time. I'm sure it didn't have anything to do with you getting that old man's bad heart to start acting up on him."
"Linc, he was fine when I left him. I swear he was. Did the old guy die or something?"
"No, he didn't die; you just got him all worked up."
"Linc, you gotta remember that it was your idea for me to take that dinner over there. I told you at least ten times that I didn't want to be spending my weekend delivering dinners to a bunch of old-timers, didn't I?"
Linc didn't respond.
In conclusion, Dan said, "Anyway, that old guy is nuts, so you're better off not having to go back there anymore."
Again Linc didn't respond. He wasn't really angry with Dan; he had been, earlier, when his teacher first told him about the incident, but he could never stay angry with Dan for long. Linc knew it was his own fault for asking Dan to deliver those meals for him. And he knew Dan rarely got along well with the elderly. He had thought it might do Dan some good to meet some new people, even if they were old. Still, Linc hated the idea of losing that volunteer job just because of something the intractable Dan had done. Delivering those meals may not have amounted to much in the great scheme of things, but to Linc, it was the only worthwhile thing he was doing at that confused stage of his life. He felt that if someone were spying on his life, some anonymous someone on the outside peering in at him, taking note of his day-to-day activities, delivering those meals once a week might be the one thing that onlooker might witness and mark to Linc's credit. It wasn't that delivering those meals was at all important to Linc; it was rather a case of Linc not letting down that watcher in the shadows, that someone who might one day be needed as a character witness as to Linc's life, someone to say, indeed, that Linc Lebeau was not as worthless as he thought he was. So he would continue to deliver meals--that is, if his friend Dan hadn't ruined it for him, and that remained to be seen. Be that as it may, he thought, that was a funny account Dan had just shared with him about his misadventures with the old man, so Linc tried to put out of his mind the consequences that might stem from it.
The boys sat without speaking. All at once the girl called out, wrecking the tranquillity:
"You guys want some beer?"
"Have some," said Dan. "Thanks, though."
Reluctantly, Dan stirred himself from his comfortable perch and went to fetch the two bottles of beer; they had lost their chill. Walking back over to Linc, he said, "Maybe I'll ask them if I can put them in their ice chest for a little while."
"Let me take 'em over there," said Linc, stealing another look at the pretty girl.
"All right, Lincoln, but only if you behave yourself like a gentleman. Just keep telling yourself to do what Dan would do." He handed Linc the bottles.
"I'll be real good, Danny," Linc said, as he took the bottles.
"Just hurry it up, Linc. I'm thirsty, man."
Linc walked toward the girl, while Dan grumbled something about the weather, and then something more about how thirsty he was. Just when Linc was about to reach the girl, he misstepped and nearly fell. He got control of his feet, then looked up quickly and was glad to see the girl hadn't witnessed his clumsiness. He cared little about falling and breaking his neck just then, but he would have hated to do it in front of such a pretty girl, especially while he was trying to appear so cool as he walked over to her.
She was sitting on a picnic table, the ice chest before her on the ground. Several yards away the fisherman knelt baiting his line.
She looked around at Linc. He tried to give her his most nonchalant smile possible. She didn't return his smile. From that, he deduced that she was playing hard-to-get. But anyhow, he assumed, she had most likely already been gotten by the restless fisherman, who was once more checking his bait there by the bank of the water.
"Listen," said Linc, "our beer got all warm on the way over here." Then, indicating the ice chest, "Think we can drop 'em in here for a while?"
"I think that would be all right," she said. "I know Pete wouldn't want anybody drinking warm beer. Hey, Pete," she hollered, "can they have some beer?"
"Yeah," hollered Pete the fisherman, not even bothering to turn around. "I thought they didn't want any."
"I'm letting them cool theirs off in the ice chest."
"That's fine. Let them have all they want," said Pete the generous fisherman. He scowled at his float which was already drifting back to shallow water.
"Give me the bottles," she said.
Linc quickly looked her over while she switched out the beers. She wore short denim cutoffs, so short, the bottom of her front pockets showed beneath the fringe limit of her shorts, and a light-blue bikini top completed her sparse ensemble. Her bare feet were richly tanned, as was the rest of her, and her toenails were painted bright red. Her shiny black hair was swept behind her ears the way pretty girls often arrange their shiny black hair. Suntan oil glistened on her brown stomach.
She handed Linc the two cans of beer. Her lovely face made him want to tell her to freeze for a moment that he might take her all in. She had a fine, serious brow over steady brown eyes; a perfect nose, small, turned up and perspiring; and beneath this was a full, heart-shaped mouth, glistening with clear lip gloss. He knew it wasn't wise, noting such a girl's charms, taking them in as a whole, features instantly locked up tight in his memory, like those of so many other enchanting girls, but he couldn't help himself. He could have admired her for an eternity, and then eaten her in one bite.
"Take a picture," she said, her severe expression telling him he had admired her about long enough.
Linc felt the humiliation rush to his face, coloring him as if the girl had just dashed a gallon of red paint in his direction. He finally regained enough composure to thank her, to tell her how much they really appreciated the two beers, and then he walked back over to where Dan was sitting.
"She's nice?" asked Dan.
"She's very nice."
"Did you get anywhere?"
"I wasn't trying to get anywhere, Dan. I only wanted a proper look at her tits."
"How were they?"
"They were just right, Daniel."
"Umm. What was the guy like? Was he much?"
"Didn't notice. Only noticed tits--tits everywhere. Here," he said, handing Dan a beer. "I think she likes you. She sent you a little present."
"Ah, a lass after my own heart. Did she say anything about me?"
"Only that you're a big, strapping, handsome young man who most certainly likes his beer cold."
"Well, she has good taste, I'll give her that," said Dan, as the boys splished open their beers, Dan saluting with his the pretty girl with the large breasts and suntanned feet. The girl nodded back without expression one way or another.
Dan said, "Your friends drink expensive beer."
"That's nothing. You see their car?"
"Spanking new Camaro. I saw it up there just around the bend." Linc was always impressed by fancy cars and such.
"Jesus," said Dan, slicking back his dirty-blond hair, "and all those tits to drive around in it."
"And what does the guy do?" asked Linc in his most exasperated tone. "He stands there fishing like me and you--if we had the poles."
"Yeah, if," said Dan, lowering his head, pretending shame. The boys clunked their cans together and took deep draughts of their beer.
Dan wondered if Linc still didn't feel like talking about Clare. Lately he could never tell when Linc was about to snap his head off. And now that the cat had been let out of the bag about what happened when he delivered the dinners, Dan was twice tentative about bringing up Clare.
He glanced over at Linc. His friend looked harmless enough. He had taken off his shirt and was leaning against the old cottonwood, his eyes closed, sipping his beer.
Dan said, "So you saw Clare?" He winced as soon as the words were out of his mouth, preparing himself for the scolding that was sure to follow; or, he wondered, would Linc just ignore him the way he had done so often of late?
"I saw her," said Linc, now squinting at the lake.
"What's she gonna do?"
Linc stared with exasperation at his friend. He told himself to count to three, just breathe and count to three. He then leveled at Dan a gaze that would have withered any young man of lesser stuff, and said, "I don't know what she's gonna do, Dan. I only saw her today; I didn't talk to her. I suppose she'll go on to college just like everybody else."
Then, rather timidly, Dan asked him if he was going to graduate. He looked away from Linc and awaited his response.
"Yeah, I'm going to graduate! Are you?"
"Just a simple question, Linc. You don't have to get all pissed. You're my friend, man. I've been worried about you, that's all."
"You worrying about me--well, that's a switch. Listen, I passed, all right? I was a little bit short on the algebra, but Miss Trace gave me a little boost because she likes me, and because I put a nice, fat, shiny red apple on her desk."
"I'll miss Miss Trace."
"I'll miss her sweaters," said Linc.
But that wasn't all Linc would miss. He would also sense the void left by special teachers when they are left behind by their graduating students. He had only known Miss Trace for one semester, but in that short space of time, she had befriended him and taken a real interest in some of his writing. She even took the vow he demanded of her, the one by which she promised never to reveal to anyone else those minutely printed stories he shared with her. He hated that, a few weeks before, he had stopped showing her his work because, as an algebra teacher instead of an English teacher, she must either know no better or, and this was what killed him, she must certainly only be humoring him by telling him his stories showed a great deal of promise. How sweet those words sounded to him the first time he heard them, long before he ever really mulled them over: a great deal of promise. Now those words sounded insincere and made his stomach go to knots.
Dan said, "It's funny, Linc, you dream all your life about getting a teacher like Trace, and then, in your very last year--your very last semester--God finally smiles down on you."
"How old do you suppose Trace is, Danny?"
"Linc, when they reach that age, it's hard to say for sure--probably about forty." (She was twenty-three.)
Linc said, "I'll give her this, she's the only teacher who ever had my undivided attention."
"And yet it was always so hard to concentrate on the algebra."
They pitched some pebbles into the water. They noticed the fisherman walk up to the girl and talk to her for several minutes and then return to his place at the edge of the water.
Then a police car pulled up behind the girl, slowly crunching its way through the gravel as if the policeman were trying not to raise any dust. He stepped out of the car and, before closing the door, hiked up his pants in privacy. He was a big man, out of shape, with a lazy look about him. He nodded to the girl as he walked past her, and then he took a second look at her. He left great prints in the gravel as he walked, huge tracks that, if fossilized, and viewed by geologists in the distant future, would surely lend credence to the legend of Sasquatch. It was obvious he had run out of steam by the time he walked up behind the silent fisherman. The policeman put his hands on his hips and looked out over the lake, his considerable stomach and chest heaving, starving for air. When he got enough breath, he said, "Not much bitin', I see."
"Nope," said the fisherman, taking little notice of the intrusion.
"Got a license?"
"I live here, officer," said the fisherman, turning to face the officer for only as long as was needed to say his piece.
"Well, then, that's fine. I'm new here. Man, this heat--whew!" The officer grabbed the top button of his shirt and moved it back and forth rapidly, fanning his chest.
"Yeah; I'm about ready to pack it in," said the fisherman.
"That's a good idea. This sun'll getcha in a hurry. I thought I'd be real smart and come down here for a minute just to cool off, but I think it's even hotter off this bright water."
His hospitality triggered, the fisherman said, "Hey, go over there and get something to drink. There's Cokes and beer in the box." He pointed over to the ice chest near the girl, and the officer looked where the man pointed.
"Oh, nah," said the officer bashfully.
He then began to plod back to his patrol car. Being a man, however, he went on over to the ice chest resting near the attractive girl. He only took his eyes off her long enough for him to choose a can of soda. The girl was occupied reading a travel magazine, so the officer got an eyeful. He then got into his car, secured his drink while continuing to ogle the girl, started his car, and slowly pulled away, glancing back in his rear-view mirror until the girl was beyond his sight. Once the policeman was out of sight, the fisherman and the girl looked at each other and grinned.
Linc and Dan hadn't paid any attention to the officer. Like many young Texans, they knew it was always a good idea to mind one's own business. Dan was plunking rocks in the water near the shore. Linc was doing a good job of playing possum, pretending he was asleep; finally, he said, "You know, Clare's old man says she and I are through if I don't go to college." He looked over at Dan. It was a rare thing for him to want advice from Dan, but this was one of those times.
"That old grump," said Dan. "Did he say that to you, or to her?"
"He told her, and she told me."
"Whatcha gonna do?"
Linc said, "I don't think college is for me, but I'm not sure."
"If it were me, I'd do it for Clare--college, I mean."
"Well, it's not you, Dan."
That was so like Linc, lately, to get angry at Dan when Dan had only provided the opinion for which he was asked. Linc was rapidly becoming one of those types one had carefully to navigate around, as if on eggshells, out of fear of evoking his ire.
"I've never understood what she sees in a jerk like you, Linc, I swear I don't."
"That's right, folks, my dearest friend in the world," Linc said loudly, for the benefit of the fisherman and the girl, while indicating Dan by pointing his finger at him, "Daniel Sydney Blair."
"Hush up, Linc," Dan said urgently. "Stop it with that Sydney stuff."
He hated whenever Linc gave away his middle name. He glanced over and was relieved to see that the other couple didn't seem to have heard what Linc said. Dan crossed his legs Indian style. He said, "To work, or not to work: that is the question. Whatcha gonna do?"
"Dunno," said Linc.
At that, Dan made a sound of exasperation. He chunked a rock as far as he could, sailing it far out over the lake, and said, "For about six months you've been saying that all the crap would be straightened out by now, and that we would all be allowed to discuss it once school let out; well, Lincoln, the show's over, man. School's out."
"You know, I might just take a year or so off and go to work--if it's not too lousy."
"And start college a year behind everybody else?"
"Yeah--if at all. And when did I ever want to do what everybody else was doing?"
"Oh, never, never, never ever, Linc," Dan said sarcastically. "Work where?"
"My dad's shop."
"Changing oil?" Dan tried to exhibit disbelief through his facial expression, but Linc wasn't looking at him.
"Yeah, if it isn't too lousy."
"What do you mean 'too lousy'? Jesus, Linc, you've worked there every summer for the past three years. Is it lousy or not?"
And Linc had worked there those past three summers--hard, hard enough to earn the money to pay for his car and its insurance. But it wasn't a job he much liked; he could take it or leave it. He said, "Oh, it's lousy enough; I'm just not yet sure if it's too lousy."
"Well, when will you know for sure, Linc? Are you waiting for it to come to you in some grandiose revelation, for Christ's sake?"
"I'll know it on the day I can't stand to work there anymore."
"What's that mean?"
"All I'm saying is I'm pretty sure the day will come when I will consider working there a ridiculous way to spend my time. Life is short, Daniel."
"Oh, God yes! 'Life is short, Daniel.' Here it comes; the philosopher is getting ready to hold court. Everyone take heed! Hear ye, all! Jot down any little word that might pass the philosopher's lips."
Linc ignored Dan's baiting and continued tossing pebbles, then paused, taking dead aim at a turtle craning its neck out of the water, well beyond Linc's range with the pebbles.
"Tell me, Lincoln, how do you think Clare would like being married to a grease monkey? Man, I'll bet she'd just love that. I can just see you walking in on her bridge club."
"She wouldn't care."
"And her dad?"
"That'd be his problem. Besides, I don't care anything about marrying Clare."
Linc was being honest: he wasn't interested in marrying Clare. Unfairly, he considered her weak for finally giving in to his desires. Girls like her were fine, he thought, but they wouldn't last in the long run; he was convinced they would eventually be tempted away from him by somebody else. He figured the reason God commanded girls to stay pure before marriage was because that purity was to be a sign of their being loyal to their future husbands even before they met them. He never once considered that he himself had not kept that commandment; he felt God knew that young men could never live up to it, that God had a sense of humor that way where boys were concerned. And maybe Linc would never find anyone that devoted to him, someone able to keep herself pure for him, but he would certainly not settle for anyone less. Just for a moment he wondered if he wasn't so cranky and snappish lately because Clare had given in to him. No, that wasn't the case: he had grown cranky and snappish long before that had come about; it was his constant dread of the future that had lain him low, distracted him from the here and now.
"Does she know that?" asked Dan, the news of Linc's not being interested in a lifetime with Clare coming as a mild shock.
"She better, if she knows me at all." This time Linc wound up and threw a rock as far as he could. Dan watched him; Linc was red-faced from the heat and the bit of exertion it took to throw the rock. Then Linc settled back against the familiar tree and closed his eyes. A fly buzzed at his nose, and he worried it away with splayed fingers.
"All right, Linc, say you could be anything you wanted--anything at all--what would you be?"
Linc replied without hesitating. "A gypsy," he said. He would never say anything to Dan about wanting to be a writer, because he knew Dan would tease him about how "fancy" and "grandiose" that would be.
Dan laughed derisively and asked him what was stopping him.
"Everything, Dan. The whole damn system."
"Listen, I'm being asked--no, I'm being told to play a game I don't even believe in. Everyone thinks I'm supposed to be so excited about going to college for four long years just so I can be molded to fit some ridiculous slot in the system. Well, Dan, I'm not excited about it, not one bit."
"And, of course, being a gypsy wouldn't be filling some ridiculous slot? Tell me that, Linc. That's what I want to hear all about. Tell me how being a gypsy fits into the philosophy of Linc Lebeau. Man, I'm dying to hear it." Dan's sarcasm was thick, provoking.
"Well, Dan, if I was a gypsy, then I would at least know I was alive."
"That's it? That's all?"
"That's about it, Daniel--and that's plenty for me."
"So, go. Be a gypsy, Linc. Why not go traipse the width and breadth of Europe, for Christ's sake!"
When Linc didn't respond, Dan said, "Man, let's just fish."
"Uh-huh, ahem," said Dan, remembering they had no fishing poles. Then, pointing to the couple, he suggested they go down and find out how they were doing.
Linc tucked his shirt into his belt, and then he and Dan walked over and stood beside the fisherman. The girl joined them almost immediately, sidling up to Linc, their arms touching, electrifying them both.
"Still no luck, guys," said the man. "Too damn hot. . . . Need any more beer?"
They said no. The pretty girl was sneaking looks at Linc's bare chest. She admired his tan, muscular build. She then looked down at the skinny, white legs of her companion and frowned at what she saw; she was embarrassed for him. To make matters worse, in her opinion, the man wore old white sneakers without socks. His laces were untied and dangling out to the sides, caked in mud from the shore. She wished he made a better impression. He was becoming sloppier and sloppier as time passed. He didn't, in her estimation, amount to much beside these two handsome young men who looked enough alike to be brothers, and she assumed that they were. And they were tall, both six-footers, a good four inches taller than the fisherman.
"Don't think we've seen y'all around here before," said Linc, ogling the girl without the man's knowing it. "I would've remembered that car of yours." The girl smiled at that; she knew he was admiring her, not the car.
The man said, "We don't come here too often--probably while you guys are in school. School's out now, huh?"
"Yeah," said Dan. "We're seniors and today was our last day. We came over from Fort Worth."
"Well, that must feel pretty good," said the man. "Going on to college in the fall?"
Knowing Linc's dislike of that subject, Dan wasn't sure how to reply. He told the man they would probably think about that over the summer.
"A little free and easy time, huh?" asked the man, a reflective look on his face as he recalled days gone by.
"Yeah," said Dan. "You know how that goes."
"Well, don't think too long, boys; go to college if you can," said the man, executing a decent cast, considering the others were crowding him.
"What do you do for a living, sir?" asked Linc, a question that caused the girl to let out a giggle and then cover her mouth with her fingertips.
After cutting his eyes at the girl, the man replied, "I'm a lawyer."
"How is it?" asked Linc.
"I'm not complaining."
"But how do you feel at the end of the day?" asked Linc, regarding him closely, forgetting, momentarily, the pretty girl inching ever closer to his side. He wondered how she could possibly get any closer without crawling beneath his skin.
The man wiped a drop of sweat from the tip of his nose. "How do you mean, friend?" he asked.
"Do you feel ridiculous?"
The man let out an uncomfortable laugh. "I'm not sure what you mean by that," he said.
"I want to know if, at the end of the day, you feel your time has been well spent, or do you feel your time has been ridiculously spent?"
The man stared for a moment at Linc. He wondered if the boy was in earnest, or if he was only trying to embarrass him in some way. He would trust in the boy's earnestness; he said:
"Like everybody else, a little bit of both, I guess. Look, I work in a nice, cool, air-conditioned office; the people I work with are mostly pleasant; I'm able to buy a nice new car every couple of years; and I have a nice place to go home to every night."
"Is it enough?" asked Linc, again searching the older man's eyes. All those things the man had mentioned sounded well and good to Linc, but he was hoping for a more tangible response, something he could hang his hat on.
The man laughed at Linc's dogged persistence. He said, "You'd make a good lawyer yourself. You don't stop asking a question until the person gives you just the answer you're looking for.
"You know, it's funny," the man continued, "just a little while ago I was thinking to myself about how I'm out here fishing in order to . . . to round off my day. Truth is, I think fishing is closer to 'enough' than all those other things."
Linc said, "Then why aren't you a fisherman?"
"I wish I knew, friend."
With the palm of her hand the girl began to rub her brown stomach. It was plain she was wanting to be elsewhere. Both boys noticed she wasn't wearing a ring of any kind. Dan put his hand on Linc's shoulder and informed the others that Linc's aspiration in life was to be a gypsy. That irked Linc. He hated having to explain himself to people, especially strangers. He held liberal beliefs that weren't often shared or understood by his fellow north-Texans. Linc waited for the probing to begin, the questions about why the status quo wasn't good enough for him.
"A gypsy?" said the girl, instinctively drawn to the idea. "Now that sounds like fun." Though she smiled when she said it, her smile fell into a frown when her companion said:
"Don't know that that pays too terribly well."
Linc reddened and, with great conviction, said, "There are other ways to be paid than in coin," (a statement which made Dan roll his eyes in dread of what Linc might say next).
Linc resumed: "It's just that Dan asked what I would be if I could be anything I wanted, and that's what I told him. I'm not stupid enough not to realize a guy can't be a gypsy these days."
"And why is that?" asked the man, as eager to hear what Linc might say as Dan was eager not to hear it.
Linc said, "Because a guy can't just go off and live by his wits these days. There isn't any land set aside in this country, where you can go and set up a shack and take your food from the land."
"Sure there is," said the man. "They're called farms." Everyone laughed--Linc not as boisterously as the others.
Linc said, "That's not what I meant. I was talking about land you don't have to buy from someone, land that you don't have to own. Just a place to farm or hunt. The government owns everything some guy doesn't own. That's just how it is."
The man said, "I don't think gypsies farmed or hunted: I think they stole what they ate."
"But gypsies rejected the way everyone else lived," said Linc. "I'm not so sure it's stealing if you reject the system and live the way you want to. See, if a gypsy takes an apple, it's not so wrong, if the system doesn't provide him with an apple he doesn't have to take. If the system doesn't provide him with an apple to eat or some land where he can plant an apple tree, then he has to take the apple, or starve. He would find himself in a position where if he didn't take what he needed to survive, he would be a fool."
"Come on," said the man. "Don't you think the system works pretty well for most people?"
"No, I don't. I don't think it works at all. How can you say it works, if there is one single child with an empty belly? How can you say it works, if there is one single person who wants a job but can't find one? Christ, there are millions of cases of both of those examples."
Dan had stopped listening; he hated whenever Linc sounded like a know-it-all. The fisherman and Jamie, however, hung on Linc's every word, both of them wondering why they didn't have the same kind of conversations with each other.
"Well," the man said, "how would you make things better? What kind of system would you like to see put in place of the one we have?"
"But I'm not interested in being part of any system--that's just my point. All I want is not to have to be a part of a system I was born into but don't believe in. I guess I would just like to have a choice, but there isn't any. I guess I just want to live free."
"You seem free to me--I mean, here you stand, doing as you wish."
"But what about tomorrow, mister? What about next year?"
"I don't follow."
"I'll either be at college or some dumb job I think is ridiculous. Does that sound anything like being free to you?"
"Not the way you say it, it doesn't. Tell me, where do you think the problem lies, the root cause of hunger and unemployment?"
"I'm not smart enough to know that, mister."
Linc was thoughtful for a moment. He said, "I think it's because high unemployment is built into our system."
"Well, the fewer employees a company uses, the higher the profits. That right there guarantees you high unemployment. Oh, and the people lucky enough to have jobs have to work twice as long and hard because the large number of unemployed aren't around to help them. You might think that's not important if we have a low, say, five or six percent, unemployment rate, but have you ever stopped to think about how many millions of people that five or six percent amounts to? Man, it's a bunch of 'em."
The man smiled at Linc and thought the boy probably did give just such things a good deal of thought. He said, "You know, you're smart; you should go to college. Maybe you'll find answers to some of your questions."
"How about this one, though?" said the girl, nodding her pretty head in Dan's direction. "He doesn't seem to have a whole lot to say for himself."
"That's a sad fact," replied Dan. "I spend most of my days just following Linc around, pencil and paper in hand, waiting to jot down any little thing the lad might say." All laughed.
"It's hot out here, Pete," said the girl. "You're fried to a crisp. Let's go."
And he was sunburned, especially his face and his ears. He asked the boys if they were going to hang around at the lake any longer. They told him they would probably only stay a bit longer, because of the heat. Because of the afternoon angle of the sunrays, the hot reflections off the water made lingering by the lake no pleasure. He told them, if they wanted to, they were welcome to come and have another beer at his house.
"Oh, do, guys," urged the girl.
"I don't know, mister," said Linc. "Where's your place?"
"Up there," said the girl, turning around and pointing at the enormous, incongruously modern-looking house on the bluff overlooking the lake, dominating like a patch of Eden the otherwise stark landscape.
"Jesus!" said Dan.
"I guess that makes you Peter Amesley," said Linc.
"The third," said the girl. "Are y'all coming or not?"
Once again Linc looked to Dan for his opinion. Dan said, "Let's go, Linc. You can put off the confrontation a little while longer."
"You just said the magic words, Danny. Let's go."
"We don't even know you fellows' last names," said Peter Amesley.
"I'm Dan Blair. And this is Linc Lebeau, the pride of Beaumont, Texas."
"Nice to meet you," said Pete. He nodded to the girl. "She's Jamie."
"But not Jamie Amesley?" asked Linc.
"No," said Peter Amesley, snorting at the idea of that. "That would be a bit of a mouthful. She's just my lay."
At that, Jamie snatched Pete by the hand and bit his forearm! She said, "Tell them what kind of a lay I am, Pete."
Regarding the wet teeth marks on his arm, he smiled and said, "The best one between Beaumont and El Paso. But I'm afraid she needs a good spanking."
Dan and Linc looked at each other doubtfully. Though nothing ever embarrassed Dan, Linc was sure he could feel himself blushing. He had never known a girl like this, one completely uninhibited.
Jamie and Pete began gathering their things. There wasn't much to account for: Pete's limited fishing tackle, the ice chest, Jamie's folding aluminum chair, and two towels. Once they had those things in hand, Pete and Jamie began walking to his Camaro.
"Just follow us on up," said Pete. "But I warn you ahead of time, it's a dusty ride up to the house."
The boys thought it would be rude to back out now; so, even though Linc was rather
taken aback by Jamie's and Pete's behavior, he was intrigued by it, too. They got in Dan's
car and began to follow up the dusty road to the Amesley house.
Continue . . .
All text copyright John T. 1995-Present. All rights reserved.