The boiler was an oven, three stories high, tiled inside with innumerable iron plates. It incinerated bark and limbs and waste wood to power the generators that ran the paper mill, burning twenty-four-seven, except when, like that afternoon twenty years ago, it needed to be overhauled. That’s when they fed people like Mo and me into the boiler. Mo and I were in the summer work program for college-age kids of mill employees. We worked on the unskilled manual labor crew, doing the dirtiest jobs.
When the boiler got below 120 degrees, the supervisor sent us through a two-foot-high opening running along the bottom. We were both tall and lanky, likely why we were the ones sent in first, skinny enough to squeeze through. We were always partnered up that summer, folks calling us the Ebony and Ivory Twins, Mo black and me white, the people at the mill always so clever. To get in the boiler, we balanced on our hands, the heat coming up through our leather work gloves as we slithered in—first Mo, as I slid scaffolding pieces through to him, then me, joining Mo on the inside. The heat pressed through the soles of our steel-toed boots, blasted through our thin white T-shirts, and drenched our jeans with sweat and soot as we built scaffolds around all the walls. The bandanas under our hardhats failed to stop the sweat from running down our faces to sting our eyes.
We worked fast and spoke little. “The hammer, Joe,” Mo said.
“Go right,” I said.
“Watch your fingers,” Mo said.
“Fuck,” I said.
We banged metal against metal. Our flesh burned. By the time we were done, it had cooled down another ten degrees. We slipped out and the skilled mechanics entered and scaled our scaffold. In the sun outside the boiler building, it was close to 100 degrees, refreshing after where we’d just been. We sat on the trailer we’d used to haul the scaffolding over from the shed. I offered Mo a cigarette.
“You know what I heard Billy say in the crew shed this morning?” I asked. Billy was one of the other kids working that summer with us on the labor and relief crew. “Said ‘it’s hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock.’”
Mo didn’t respond.
“I thought that shit was kind of funny, you know?”
“Billy’s a redneck,” Mo said. “He’s no Shakespeare or nothing.” We stared over the field behind the paper mill toward the tree line that ran along the river.
“Well, I’d never heard it.” I didn’t hang out much with Billy or any of the kids on the white side of the crew shed in the mornings, sitting mainly to myself, drinking the thin brown coffee the crew chief made.
“I thought all you white folks were up on your redneck sayings,” Mo said. “I know you’re from Meadowview and all that, but you ain’t so fancy.”
Over the trees, a hawk flew in erratic jerks and circles, dodging three sparrows.
“I was late to the Klan meeting where they handed out the book of sayings,” I responded.
The hawk spiraled higher into the sky, riding warm currents. Two of the sparrows continued to chase. The sky was silver hot, all color wilted out of the air. The birds were stark and black as they climbed.
“Come on, now. All you white folks are in the club together,” Mo said. “Don’t deny it.”
Talking with Mo that summer was easy. He didn’t know any of my baggage from Meadowview. The mill employed people from all over the surrounding counties. I rode in with my dad from an hour north. Mo rode in with his mom from twenty minutes south. In Meadowview I’d been Joe the trouble-maker, Joe the race-traitor. But to Mo I was just some dude, and that wasn’t easy to come by. We weren’t far from the end of that summer of 1992, when all the summer work program kids would go away again to our own schools. Mo would head up to Tuscaloosa and I’d go down to Mobile. This was easy, no history and no expectations, and that summer at the mill had been a kind respite up to that point.
The river’s smell waved in on the summer heat. From out of the routine hum of the paper mill, the sound of a truck engine separated and moved closer. A dust plume trailed behind a white pickup, moving our way along the network of dirt roads.
Mo hopped down. “Jones coming.” Jones was the labor crew’s supervisor, a short, tough man, but fair, and one of the few black managers at the mill. “We better move this shit back to the yard.”
I got up and grabbed one end of a stack of leftover scaffolding. “You got anything going on this weekend?” I asked Mo as we heaved the stack onto the trailer.
“Probably going with some of my boys up to your neck of the woods in Meadowview,” Mo said. I jumped onto the trailer and sat astride the scaffolding. “Get a few in at the Lucky Cue, then go wherever the women bring us,” he continued as he climbed onto the tractor and started it, the engine catching into a chugging roar.
The tractor lurched forward. “Maybe I’ll come find y’all,” I yelled.
We passed other workers, yellow hardhats bright under the sun. I nodded my head, lifted an index finger where my hand rested on my knee. That was hello.
My dad drove us home that early evening. I stared out at passing red-clay ditches, pine woods, shack houses, cross-road gas stations, a blur of greens and browns and oranges and paint-peeled whites and blacktop patched and re-patched and never ending.
“I’m going out tonight,” I said, about twenty minutes down the road.
Dad looked over. He and I didn’t say much to each other back then. Not until years later, after I’d left college and gotten a real job, a wife, our boys, did I understand what it was to be him, and then we started to really talk again. But that summer when I was twenty we packed as much conversation as we could into as few words as possible. “Where?” he said.
“Mo’s coming up with some friends, said maybe the Lucky Cue.”
“He invited you along?”
I sighed, loud enough to be my answer.
“Not really our kind of place,” Dad said. I never could figure out where his head was at. He would complain about the old ways of the town, yet it’s where he and my mom chose to move before I was born. I doubt they’ll ever leave. But when we were marching against the white school board’s firing of Meadowview’s first black schools’ superintendent my senior year of high school, he wrote letters to the editor supporting our protests. Yet he’d say shit like the Lucky Cue’s not really our kind of place.
“Maybe I’ll go out and find some of the old high school crowd,” I said, meaning to throw it at him like an accusation. The other white kids had shadowed me down hallways, thrown insults at me, were not my crowd. Yet when I said it to Dad, I was still young and foolish enough to thing it made sense that maybe things actually had changed. In two years away at school, I’d changed plenty. Mellowed out, gotten into theater and music and art. So why not everyone else, too? Hell, maybe they’d even have come around to figure that I’d only been protesting because I wanted something good for the town, that it wasn’t my fault their parents all decided to pull them out of school our senior year and send them to the seg academies on the edge of town.
“Didn’t think you much wanted anything to do with folks in Meadowview,” Dad said to me.
“It wasn’t everyone.”
“Damn near.” Dad turned his attention back to the road. “Keep an eye out for deer.” It’s what he always told me when I rode with him; still does.
I shifted in my seat, restless. “I should get to be home for the summer and not stay locked up in the house. Ain’t nobody going to bother me. It’s a Friday night. I’ll just drive around.”
When we got home, I showered off the layers of sweat-caked dirt, dressed in clean jeans and a shirt not too stained from the mill. At the Winn-Dixie I picked up a six-pack from the cooler case in the back corner of the store. On the way to the check-out, I saw Cindy, a girl I used to know. In fourth grade, I picked flowers from the roadside on my bike ride to school and left them on Cindy’s desk in homeroom at least once a week for a couple months. By high school, we hung out in different circles.
“Oh hey, uh, Joe,” she said. “Long time.” Her smile seemed obligatory. She dropped her eyes to my torso, my arms, away from my face. “You look like you been out in the sun.”
“Working down at the mill. It’s brutal.”
“Right,” she said. She lifted her hand, fresh red nail polish, up to her blonde hair. Then she crossed her arms in front of her.
“You know anything going on tonight?” I asked. “Thought I might catch up with folks.”
“I don’t know about any of them folks you hung out with back in school,” she said, “Marcus or Shaun or them.”
“I don’t know, either,” I said. “They’re not walking the aisles of this Winn-Dixie, you know? I haven’t seen anyone, really, all summer.”
Cindy looked around, maybe hoping for a friendly face. I could tell she didn’t know what to do with me. “There’s a thing going on down at the old river landing later,” she said finally. “There’ll be a bunch of folks.”
“You think it’ll be all right, me coming out there?”
Cindy wrinkled her forehead for a moment, then unfolded her arms and waved off my doubt, “Oh, that?” she said. “Nobody cares about any of that anymore,” and her smile looked real then, like I really was off the hook.
I left the store and drove the periphery of town, past fast food joints whose signs were beginning to light the sky, past the bowling alley across from the skating rink, through quieting subdivisions smelling of charcoal pits, into rolling farmland, listening to old punk rock mix-tapes, until dusk fully draped the sky. I headed south and felt my way to the dirt road that led to the boat landing just upriver from where the Cahaba emptied into the Alabama.
I parked at the end of a long line of cars and pickups. Through my open window I heard laughter, music from someone’s truck stereo, a fire crackling. Girls talking. I smelled weed.
“Shit, Joe,” I whispered. If I cranked the car back up and drove out of there without seeing anyone, I was never going to know if I still had friends rooting me back to the place where I grew up. I still want that, some feeling of rootedness to a place, so as foolish as I can see I was now, I’d probably do it again. Replaying that night, I always want that choice to work out differently than it did.
I stepped out onto the dirt road. A wind came off the river through tight-packed trees. Cottonwood. Sycamore. Hickory. River-bottom hardwood black against the purpling sky. In the spring, the river would swell and swallow that part of the county in a tangle of cottonmouths and catfish and muddy swirls. Some local boy always got his picture in the Times-Journal holding open the mouth of a gator he shot in the backwater.
I picked my way through the trees toward the fire, the light of it illuminating the undersides of the leaves in the higher limbs. The river wind shifted my hair, grown long over the spring and summer.
Groups huddled in the shadows under the trees. I couldn’t make them out, and nobody said anything to me. Maybe they weren’t friends of mine, but they didn’t seem to be enemies either. They let me pass, just another white kid headed to the fire.
When I got to the fire circle, Cindy was across from me. A wiry-limbed, tow-headed boy had his arms wrapped around her from behind. I’d seen him around town, but didn’t know his name. So many kids from around the county went to our big high school, but I’d stayed focused on what I had in front of me—the protests, but also girls, classes, trying to get a scholarship, anything to get the hell out of Meadowview. But faces were familiar.
Cindy’s eyes caught mine. I lifted my chin slightly, mouthed “hey” at her.
The conversation and music lulled as Cindy said, “Oh, Joe—hey!” She was tipsy, loud. A new song started. Cindy said, “Didn’t think you’d come.”
“Friday night. Gotta’ do something.” But Cindy wasn’t listening for my answer. Her eyes were closed. The tow-headed boy’s hands rubbed up and down her sides. Around the fire all the kids were tanned and toned, without cares, white teeth and bare summer skin. I wondered who to join, whose name to try to remember.
Then my eyes rested on one large mound of a kid staring at me from his perch on a cooler he threatened to cave in. He set his jaw and glowered under the brim of a baseball cap. I didn’t recognize him at first, out of context like this, out of the work crew shed, but it was Billy. He and I hadn’t gone to high school together, but he was from Meadowview, too, had gone to one of the seg academies.
I waved at him, weakly, then turned and pretended to be involved in the conversation of the group of kids next to me.
“Hey, faggot,” Billy said. I kept looking at the group next to me. I nodded my head, smiled like I really liked whatever it was they were saying.
“Queer-boy, with your little limp-wristed wave, you know I’m talking to you,” Billy said. People looked at me, tried to gauge what it was that had roused Billy. I looked, finally, back at him.
“Hey, man,” I said, “there’s no problem here.”
“I’ll tell you if I got a damned problem with you.”
“That’s Alsobrook,” a skinny kid to my right with a brown mullet said about me. “The nigger lover.” I remembered him from middle school. His name was Brian. He had been the quietest kid. Small-framed and meek. I used to try to smile at him in the halls because it never looked like he had any friends.
“Been trying to place you all damn summer,” Billy said.
“But we’re all cool, right?” I said.
“Fucker,” Billy spat. “Y’all all remember this sonuvabitch said all of us at our school was racists? And all y’all transferred out of the high school to our school was racists, too?”
Kids shifted their feet, watching Billy, looking at the fire, looking down at the ground, not looking at me. They’d come to the landing to get loose, get drunk, get high, get laid, get something, all kinds of things I wouldn’t’ve minded, either.
“So is that still right, faggot?” Billy asked. “You still think we’re all racists?”
“Hey,” I said. “I don’t even care about any of that.” Nausea crept into my stomach.
Billy shifted forward, his face closer to the firelight, flickers shooting orange up his jowls toward his eyes. “Who said you could come out here?”
I flashed eyes toward Cindy. I looked back at Billy. “Nobody. Just heard folks were getting together tonight.”
“You don’t belong out here, Mr. Long-Haired Faggot Freak. I reckon I got a jack-knife in my pickup says you need a damned haircut.” Billy flicked his head behind him, to a clump of trucks parked deeper in the woods.
Sweaty bodies packed tighter around us. I had become the night’s entertainment, but I stayed quiet. It would have to be Billy’s move.
“Tell you what,” he said after a moment, “I’m going to walk over by my truck. I got to piss something awful. Then I’m going to have a little talk with my knife, and if we come back over and you’re still here, we’ll just fucking see what your night’s going to end up like.” I was a tall kid, couple inches over six feet, but I was a string-bean, too, and when Billy rose, he was a head taller than me, and weighed at least two of me. He stepped out of the circle, kicking a couple crumpled beer cans from around his feet.
“Oh, knifey,” he yelled. “Where ya’ at, Big Jack? Got us a job to do.” Brian smiled at the boys around him. They appeared to laugh, but I couldn’t hear it. I’d retreated to a place in my head where I could only hear Billy’s zipper grating open, his piss hitting the leaves at his feet, a snake slithering out of his reach, a cloud gliding through the sky to cover the moon, steam rising from the dirt at his feet.
“I’m opening my truck door, Assholebrook,” he called out. “Oh, Jack, oh dear, sweet Jack. It’s been a long time, brother,” he said, apparently to his knife, crazy fucker, loud enough to carry from his truck over to the circle. “We got us a faggot nigger-lover,” he said. I imagined his thumb running across the blade. Around me, there were giggles and laughter.
“Well,” I said, “guess it was good seeing everyone.” I tried to put a smile on my face. I backed up a couple steps, turned, and, as slowly as I could force myself to, walked back into the woods. Blackberry thorns scraped my ankles. Undergrowth saplings grabbed my arms. I expected any second to hear a lumbering through the leaves behind, but all stayed quiet. Only the fire crackled.
When I stepped onto the road and the breeze hit my face, I realized how still the night had been in the press of kids and fire. I quickened my step, got in my car, breathed. Then I pulled a three-point turn, yelled “Fuck you!” out my window, and headed toward the highway back to town. I was reckless in those days. I hadn’t learned much at college, yet, beyond how to tempt destruction, probably trying to escape all the seriousness of Meadowview, but that night that impulse erupted out into that yelled challenge just as I had managed to escape a bad night.
Ten minutes driving the two-lane highway and the road widened to four streetlight-punctuated lanes as I entered town. Not far from my neighborhood, distant headlights in my rear-view mirror sped up until they became a red pickup riding close on my bumper. I put my beer down in the cup-holder and passed my street.
I pushed my foot harder on the accelerator. The driver of the pickup followed suit. Approaching the road that turned off by the Country Club, I maintained speed, then jerked my steering wheel and turned, tires singing. The truck sailed through the intersection. I was halfway past the golf course and headed toward the sawmill that sat on the other side of the railroad tracks from the Club when I saw the headlights turn onto the road behind me and approach fast.
I bumped roughly over the tracks. The buzz and roar of the sawmill couldn’t drown out the hollers from the truck coming up behind. It pulled into the oncoming lane, empty of traffic, and came even with me. Billy was at the wheel, Brian riding shotgun, windows down, with Cindy and three boys in the truck bed. Brian hollered, “Fuck us? Fuck us? You want to fuck us, we’ll show you fucking, mother-fucker!”
The three boys in the back howled—the tow-headed kid and two big kids, short hair, football players probably, muscles stretching their polo shirts. Cindy looked at me, yelled, “Hey, Flower Boy, how about these roses?” and lifted her shirt over her head. The boys howled harder.
Just past the sawmill was another intersection. I cut the wheel right. Billy fell in behind me and followed. I swept around a long curve and across the bridge over Valley Creek. Billy’s truck was back on my bumper. I ran a red light past the Big Bear grocery. A couple of blocks more, I approached Broad Street.
On the other side of Broad was the black side of town. Billy slowed. I went straight across Broad, running another light. As I watched in my mirror, Billy turned onto Broad and was gone.
The jukebox at the Lucky Cue alternated between John Lee Hooker and Whitney Houston, a lovers’ quarrel between grit and grace. Four old men slapped cards down around one table. Three young women laughed around another, their dates stationed around the pool table. It was half past ten.
As I nursed a beer at my own table, the door slammed open and voices filled the space. It was Mo and four guys I didn’t know.
The bartender said, “All right, Country, don’t be bringing no foolishness in here tonight.”
“Damn, Pops. Why you always got to be busting on me?” Mo said. His friends laughed. I laughed, too. Mo turned and saw me. “Joe Joe? What the hell you doing up in here? Lost your way?”
“Trying to find it, actually.”
“I’m going to get a beer, then you’re going to tell me some stories,” Mo said. His friends barely glanced at me before they were at the bar, throwing cash on the wooden top, ordering drinks.
I dragged my chair over to the table where they landed. “How’s Dixon this fine evening?” I asked Mo. Dixon was the little cross-roads where Mo stayed with his mom.
“Why you think we’re here and not there?”
“I’ve heard some stories about Dixon and what’s hopping around there,” I said. “You know Luther at the mill?”
“The carpenter? Yeah. But he didn’t tell you nothing. Luther don’t talk to nobody. Especially no white college boys.”
“Shut up,” I said. “He didn’t say much the first few weeks, but now he tells me shit almost every day.”
“Well what’s he got to say about Dixon, then?” Mo’s friends listened in closer.
“He says that he and all the other old guys pay this girl our age to have sex with them.”
They all looked at me like they were expecting more to the story. “So?”
“So, I didn’t think a place like that was even big enough to have hookers.”
“Boy, what are you talking about?” Mo asked. “What else folks going to do around there?” His friends chuckled. “Y’all hear that?” Mo called out loudly, addressing everyone in the bar. “Our white friend here thinks small town country folk don’t get no paid pussy!”
“I told you, Country,” the bartender said, “don’t come in here and start stuff.” The old men at their card game stared over at us. The women at their table stopped laughing.
“Just trying to make this place more lively,” Mo said.
“Get out, you and your white boy.”
I looked at the bartender, unsure what I’d done.
“Your other friends can stay, but I’m tired of you.” Then he looked right at me. “You pack up with the riff-raff and get the hell out.”
“Come on,” Mo said to the table, “we can go buy beer where folks know how to be hospitable.” I got up. Mo’s friends didn’t move. “So that’s how it is?” Mo said. His friends looked at each other, then up at Mo with faint smiles. “Fine, then. Let’s go, Joe. You’re my ride now.”
Mo only overturned one chair on his way to the door. In my car, I said, “I’ve got a few more beers in the cooler in the backseat.”
I drove back across to the white side of town, to the playground behind my old elementary school. I parked on the grass beside the ball field and reached into the backseat for the six-pack, four beers left. I opened my car door. “Come on,” I said to Mo. “Nobody’ll see us or fuck with us here. Drink in peace.”
Mo looked over his shoulder at the houses across the street.
“It’s fine,” I said.
He followed me across the field to the playground, built out of old tires half-buried in the dirt and railroad ties bolted together, ramps and swinging bridges and raised platforms we pretended were Civil War forts at recess when I was a kid. Mo and I shimmied into one of the forts. Five feet above the playground dirt, in a space roughly five feet square, wooden walls hid us while we sat and opened our beers, no ceiling but stars and clouds above us.
“So,” I said to Mo, “second place I’ve been kicked out of tonight. Appreciate it.”
“Only my first.” Mo took a swig. “Where else you get kicked from?”
“White kid party over at the old river landing.” I pulled a pack of smokes from my pocket, put a cigarette to my lips, tossed one over to Mo.
“What’s wrong with you, anyway,” Mo asked. “You don’t hang out with the white folks at work. You don’t go out in your own town. And, when you do, you get chased off by your own kind.”
“Looks like you’re not doing so well with your own kind, either.”
Mo smiled, “That old man just has it in for me. Ain’t city enough for him, I guess.”
“Well, I ain’t white enough for the white folks.”
“You black and I don’t know about it?”
“Not quite. My grandmothers’ grandmothers, on both sides of my family, are Cherokee. Like one-eighth Cherokee blood in me, but I think those white kids can smell it or something.”
“Come off it, Joe,” Mo said.
“Now you know all you white folks think you got some Cherokee in you somewhere. Y’all think it’s romantic or it absolves you or something?”
“Come on, man,” I said, “it’s true. I got that blood in me.”
“All I’m saying is that’s got nothing to do with why they don’t like you. Somewhere along the way, you had the choice to be like them.”
“Not true,” I said. “Not true.”
“If all those rednecks by the landing tonight had welcomed you with open arms, hugged on you, given you their beer and shit, would you have been like them?”
I hesitated a moment, mulling the truth of how I’d wanted to talk my way into those kids’ good graces earlier, but then I said, “No.”
“Ain’t none of us perfect,” he said.
“What about you? How come your friends didn’t back you up back there?”
“Always that way,” Mo said, “Kids up at the University think I’m too rural, but I’m too college for the boys back at home. Or I’m too city around the fellas at the mill and then too country when I come to town.”
“Fuck ‘em,” I said.
“Shit,” Mo said. “It’s like birds of a feather flock together, but the rest of us …”
We smoked and drank in quiet for a few minutes, then the sound of a truck engine broke the silence, the rattle of a vehicle leaving the road and crossing the ball field, the muted skidding of tires on grass. Headlights beamed through the boards of the fort.
I peered through one of the cracks. “Funny thing about that party I was at tonight,” I said.
“What?” Mo was looking through, too.
“Billy was there.”
“From the work crew?”
“One and the same. And I may have told him to fuck off.”
We both watched Billy and Brian, the mullet boy, get out of the cab of the pickup. The three other boys from earlier were still in the bed of the truck, with Cindy.
“Maybe,” Mo said, “you shouldn’t have left your car parked up on the road where he could see it?”
“I know you’re up there, faggot boy,” Billy yelled.
“Sorry,” I said to Mo.
“Don’t be.” Then Mo stood up, his chest and head above the wall of the fort.
“Ooh, got your nigger friend from work to protect you,” Billy yelled.
“Let’s get down there,” Mo said so only I could hear him.
I grabbed the last beer bottle by its neck and smashed the end off on the wooden floor. Then I stood, too. “We can work this out, Billy,” I called out as I dug my keys from my pocket and handed them to Mo. “Hit them with these,” I told him, then we swung down from an opening in the wall of the fort. We stepped out from under the fort. I held the bottle slightly behind me. The truck headlights were blinding.
“You ain’t running away this time?” Billy asked
“No,” I said. “Hey, Cindy.” I waved in the direction of the truck, though from down here I saw nothing but light.
Somewhere behind one of the houses across the street, a dog barked.
Out of the glare of the headlights Billy and Brian walked from either side. Billy held his knife. He walked up to me, his gut pushing against me, and pointed the knife at my throat.
Beside me, Mo said, “Asshole, fuck you.”
Brian positioned himself between Mo and me. “This don’t involve you,” he told Moe. Billy’s knife was closer to me, an inch from where the blood pounded through my jugular. “Now you, faggot, you and me and Big Jack here have to have a little talk about a haircut.”
I circled my right hand up fast to knock away the arm holding the knife. The broken bottle was still in my hand. It shined like fire in the truck headlights, sharp edges scraping past Billy’s chest. Streaks of red beaded through little rips snagged across his shirt. Billy brought his other arm up and pushed me roughly. The bottle dropped from my hand and I staggered back. To my side I saw movement as Mo and Brian began to get into it, heard the smack of one’s fist hitting the other’s head. I brought my left fist up, not knowing quite what to do with it, but before I could swing, Billy ducked and all I saw were his truck lights. That’s when I felt a sharp hit on the back of my head, the light intensified, and all went dark. I felt sensations of pressure, pains all over my body, heard hooting and laughing and cussing, all of it in a disoriented swirl, and then I felt and heard nothing.
* * *
Wind roared over me. I was awake, but it was a strange awake. I couldn’t move at first. My eyes wouldn’t open. I was all pain.
“What are you going to do? Just dump him outside the emergency room doors?” I heard someone ask.
“Damnit,” another voice yelled over the sound of wind. “Damnit.”
And another one was saying, “Why’d the fucker have to go ballistic with that damn bottle. Could’ve just cut that faggot hair off and let him be.
“Damnit. Fuck damnit!”
Then I moaned. And I moaned again.
“Shit, pull over,” a voice near me called out, “he’s coming to.”
The roar of the wind ceased and I felt all my bones shift in the sack of my skin. Then someone grabbed me by the chin, squeezed, forced my lips open, and I felt a glass bottle stuck between my lips and burning liquor pour into my mouth and down my throat.
“Wake up, boy!” I finally opened one eye a little. I saw the face of one of the big football player kids in the center of my vision.
“What?” I tried to ask. I lifted a hand and pushed the bottle away.
I managed to open my eye more and squeeze my other eye open a slit. We were in the back of Billy’s pickup. My head pulsated. I felt sharp pain whenever I breathed in, and my eyes stung from a streetlight overhead.
“What do we do with him now?” someone across from me asked. I turned my head and looked. It was the tow-headed kid, leaning against the side wall of the pickup bed, an arm draped over Cindy.
“Hell,” came Billy’s voice from the opened back sliding window of the truck cab, “he don’t look too bad. We’ll go leave him off in his front yard.”
Tow-headed boy smirked. “Don’t say we ain’t hospitable.”
I felt the truck start to move again. Nobody said anything until I felt new pain in my ribs as Billy bounced over the curb up into our half-circle driveway. “Get his ass out of my truck.”
I tried to stand, but the muscle kid and the tow-headed kid stood first and grabbed me under my arms, pulled me to my feet. Billy got out of the cab and came around the back and opened the tailgate. The boys half-dragged me to the end of the bed.
I saw my car pull up on the street by the driveway, the lights off, and wait.
Billy grabbed me around the legs so I fell over his shoulder, a fireman’s rescue carry, and he grunted and heaved me over into the grass beside the driveway, set me down roughly so I was lying face-down. I put my hands down on the ground and started to push myself up, my whole body protesting, but then I felt a boot on my back push me back down.
“You hold on a second,” Billy said, whispering loudly enough for me to hear.
Then I felt my head jerked backward by the hair, lifted up, then a quick ripping cut and my face slammed down into the ground.
“Whooooo!” Brian yelled out from the truck. “Marcher boy got a haircut!”
I rolled over and looked up at Billy, standing above me, holding a fistful of my hair above his head.
“That’s all I wanted,” he said, rasping in a raised-voice whisper. “Rest of it’s on you.”
Then I heard two sounds, my car door slam shut as Mo got out of my car, and my house door wrench open.
I heard the mechanical, unmistakable schick-ik of the pump-action of my dad’s twelve-gauge, ready to shoot. “You’ve got four seconds to get the hell out of here,” my dad said, calmly.
“Shit, man, get back in the truck,” Brian said, then Billy beat it to his truck, his tires squealed, Cindy shrieked, the boys whooped, and they were gone.
“Joe? Is that you?” Dad walked down the front steps and over to where I lay in the yard.
“Yes, sir.” I sat up.
“Mr. Alsobrook?” I looked over to where my car was parked on the street. Mo stood behind my car, ready to duck, I guess, if my dad was still inclined to shoot people.
“Mo Williams?” Dad asked.
“Help me get Joe in the house.” They helped me stand.
“You all right?” I asked Mo.
“Evil headache, man,” he said. A dark blotch on his cheek expanded into a serious-looking black eye. “You got the worst of it, though. At least until Mom gets me.”
We walked up the steps and into the house. “I’m sorry, Daddy,” I said. I meant it. I felt I would’ve burst into tears, but I was just too hurt to. Breathing was killing me, like big rubber bands were wrapped around my chest, squeezing in.
“Just hush. Mo, phone’s in the kitchen. Call your mom and tell her you’ll stay here until the morning. She knows me. I’m going to try to clean Joe up some.”
We walked into the half-bath off the front hallway.
“Sit down, son,” Dad said, motioning to the closed lid of the toilet. As I went to step past the sink, I was stopped by my reflection in the mirrored door of the medicine cabinet. A purple and yellow blotch covered my left temple. Dried blood crusted the right corner of my mouth. I lifted my shirt and saw both sides covered in blue bruises like shit-kicker boot-prints.
“Fuckers,” I said. I winced and sat down on the toilet.
“I told you folks don’t let go of things around here. You want to call the cops, make a report?”
I looked at my dad. I could tell he meant it, that he’d do it, he’d take it up. “No, sir. Wouldn’t do any good. Y’all have to live here.”
Dad opened the medicine cabinet, pulled out the brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide and a bag of cotton balls. “We don’t have to do anything. We live here because we want to. But we can take care of ourselves.” He opened the bottle and poured some carefully onto a cotton ball. He applied it to a cut by my eye. I flinched. “Hold still.”
* * *
In the morning, early, I slipped into jeans and a T-shirt, laced up my steel-toes. Mo appeared in my bedroom door. His face already looked a good bit better, the swelling gone down.
“It’s a Saturday,” he said.
“Yeah, I know, but I figure if I’m going to drive you all the way back to Dixon, I might as well go by the mill, too.”
I stood from the edge of my bed. Everything hurt. “I’m done, man. With this summer, this fucking place. Only two weeks left, anyway, and can’t imagine working with Billy for a second of it. Him sitting in that crew shed, smirking at my hair, thinking he’s got something to lord over me.”
So he wins?” Mo asked. “Where’s the bottle-breaking bad-ass from last night?”
“That was just some stupid kid. I’m going to drop by the office and quit. Get my final check. Get back down to Mobile.”
Mo said, “Well, all right then.”
In my car, I sped south. The sun had risen and poked bright through the trees. Mo drifted to sleep. I began to feel light-headed, queasy. After I passed the cut-off to Camden, I pulled to the dirt shoulder. I opened my door and stood outside, leaning against the car, letting the sun hit my face. My head began to clear. I walked up into the trees by the road and took a leak, and then I felt good enough to finish the drive. Mo’s eyes cracked open. “Y’alright?” he asked.
“I will be.”
“You know,” Mo said, “maybe I ought to go in and quit, too.”
“You sure? It’s my damn fight,” I said.
Mo looked over at me. “That’s your problem, right there. Thinking it’s all about you. That it was your march and your protest when you were in high school, or that it was your fight last night, or that this is just your summer. You need to grow up, Joe Alsobrook.”
So I drove straight through the flashing light at Dixon and kept going.
At the mill, I skidded to a stop in the gravel of the parking lot. I opened my trunk and grabbed out two yellow hardhats, my regular one and an extra I’d had to take one day I forgot mine at home. I tossed one to Mo.
“Give me a smoke,” he said.
I handed him a cigarette from my pack and lit one for myself as we walked across the parking lot toward the mill entrance. The mill screamed and roared like a big city in the woods. At the administration building in the front, we threw our smokes to the ground and went in.
A middle-aged man sitting at a desk in the ante-room, a white hardhat sitting on the desk beside him, looked up at us. “You boys here to work on the boiler overhaul?”
Mo and I looked at each other, then back at him. “Jones there?” Mo asked. If he was around he’d be the one I needed to quit to. He’d been nice to me all summer.
“Y’all better hurry on up.”
In the boiler building, Jones stood among a group of workers huddled around the control panel. Two yellow hard-hatted crew members were pulling the scaffolding pieces out of the boiler opening and stacking them to the side.
“Mr. Jones,” I said as we walked up. “Good morning.”
He looked at me, then Mo, then back to me, his eyes widening only slightly. “What happened to you?”
“Nothing. Just got into a place I didn’t need to be.”
“Didn’t happen on mill property, did it?” he asked.
“Sir, I’m leaving for the summer,” I said.
“Yeah. Me, too,” said Mo.
Jones looked from one of us to the other again, putting something together in his head. “Mm-hm,” he said. “Well, y’all best be gone out of here, then.”
The boiler walls shuddered. A red glow showed through the opening at the base, quickly heating to white.
“I just wanted to …,” I started.
“What? Thank me for your excellent summer? Fine, you’re welcome, but ain’t going to be a cake or nothing.” He flicked his chin in the direction of the door. “Go on now.”
We stepped out into the morning sun. The sky was blue. A dot far above the tree line neared closer, took the shape of a hawk, wings outstretched, dive-gliding to the treetops, shifting slightly then grazing down along the field, talons outstretched, grabbing something, a mouse, a squirrel, a smaller bird, and rising again, wings flapping, strong muscles rippled with golden feathers, guided by yellow eyes, back into the sky.
Tad Bartlett received an MFA in fiction from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans, where he was a reader for Bayou magazine. He is now the Managing Editor of the Peauxdunque Review. His creative non-fiction has been named a “notable” essay by Best American Essays, and has appeared in The Chautauqua Literary Journal, The Bitter Southerner, and the online Oxford American. His fiction has been published by The Baltimore Review, Carolina Quarterly, Stockholm Review of Literature, Bird’s Thumb, and others.