Sweet was fastest at the game of knuckles, almost undefeatable, with an uncanny sense of how to feint, how long to wait between strikes, and when to drive his knuckles into the flesh of an opponent’s fist, rapid-fire, whap, whap, whap, whap. He’d roll back the sleeve of his jacket to show the shiny circular scar he’d burned into himself with the hot rim of his pot pipe sometime the previous year—a way to mark himself apart, piss off his mom, ask for attention, demonstrate the lasting seriousness of his dedication to being a fuckup, or maybe to prove once and for all that everything was a joke and there was no reason for anything. My Satanic vaccination, he called it sometimes. I don’t even fuckin remember, I was so high, he’d say at others. He’d make a fist and stick it into the circle of friends, waiting for any one of them to accept the challenge. Fist to fist. Feint, fake out, and hit until you whiffed, fist driving through air, then take your turn being hit until you dodged a blow. A game so pure in its primitiveness it never failed to draw them around in a ring. Twin fists hovering, beating, and pressed together like sharks’ heads, or like flesh ball-peen hammers raining down blows, one boy or the other howling with pain and laughter at each direct hit because it stung a little but never that much, not until later, hands barely able to hold a pen, an ache spreading through the fingers and forearm, the skin along the backs of their hands mounded with blue-yellow bruises. “Yee! Fuckin-A YEE!” Sweet would yell, until someone in the group yelled it back like a rallying cry, “Fucking motherfucker YEEEEEEE!” they’d yell back and forth, the rush of sensation tweaking through Sweet from his thighs to his throat like a compressed spring releasing, making him dizzy, buzzing all the bones in his head in concert with the same impulses by which he knew, almost without looking, how to anticipate every move in the little theater of pain made by his fist and another boy’s, the rest of them standing around watching—Come on, come on, bunch of pansies—striking, striking, being struck.
Will met Sweet and his crew selling Sweet a dime baggie of his uncle’s weed at lunch earlier that year. He threw in an extra joint for good measure and then smoked it with them to be sure they liked it. Harsh crap, stems and brown dust and curls of gold leaf concealing seeds that sometimes popped or flared in your face mid-toke, threatening a mini-conflagration. A taste like Scotch tape and burnt glue that Will masked with flavored rolling papers—strawberry, raspberry—but a good clear head high to last for hours. Shit. You can’t get shit this good for three times as much money in New York, Will said. Straight from Mexico. Acapulco Gold. A-co-pokey Gold. Plenty more where that came from! Maui Wowie too. You just say the word. These guys weren’t Will’s type really, but he was new in this backwater New England town, this school, needed friends, and there was something about Sweet. The first time he saw him cuss out a lunchroom monitor and do a kind of scrambled handspring dive over the lunchroom table and leapfrog a chair before turning to yell “Fucking YEEE,” and slam open the crash bars of the door going outside, he thought, Interesting. Also, Out of control. Also, Good times. He was like some kind of living cartoon character, always flipping up his eyelids to leer jelly-eyed as a zombie, pulling the over-flexible skin of his face in ways to make you think it was a rubber mask about to peel off, shaking his head hard enough to make his cheeks and ears flap and rattle with a motorboat sound. He had stumpy, rotten brown teeth pitted with resinous-looking decay, a short, orange tongue with a cleft tip. That day, their first day smoking together, Will and Sweet had an entire conversation in Daffy Duck talk, squirting ducky word-sounds around their teeth and through their cheeks and laughing until they could hardly see, and then singing some of their favorite Queen and Led Zeppelin songs, while Sweet buzzed the backing tracks with his lips and Popeye cheeks, note for note, catching every nuance of the rhythm and harmonic texture. We are the champions my friends . . . and we’ll keep on fighting till the end. Cause we are the champions. We are the champions. No time for losers, cause we are the champions . . . of the world. Will wasn’t a musician. He’d tried playing at various times, taken a few lessons, given up, but still considered his knowledge of songs an innate interest, an internal puzzle to curate and connect with instinctually. He liked to imagine that he knew a musical talent when he saw one, could recognize an antic ability to copy. That was Sweet, brilliant in his manic way, riding with Will, in wave after wave of imagined sound, to nowhere.
Most days his path crossed Sweet’s only at lunch and in the final free period of the day for clubs and orgs, none of which Will or Sweet or any of Sweet’s gang belonged to. Will had only a vague sense of what they all did with their days—Sweet, Burnt, Fiske, a guy they called Crotch (extremely bow-legged, last-name Critchfield), and others who came and went. Some shop classes, some home economics, he guessed, the rest super-remedial special ed classes with bona fide half-wits who could rock for hours, staring at their fingertips, and also yell things to make their heads spin without the help of any drugs. Sometimes they’d pass in the halls and yell greetings. “YEEE! Fuckin-A YEE!” Degenerates, his father would have called them. Straight up shit-for-brains. But his father wasn’t with them anymore. In Sarasota still with his young girlfriend. So what.
Sweet loved the way Will carried himself, hated it too, that strut with his chest stuck out like a boast to underscore or make light of the ridiculous girlish narrowness in his shoulders. A kind of fearlessness about that, possibly supported by the length and thickness of his arms, and by the stamped and dated ski lift tickets papered over and over each other and stapled through, hanging from the zippers and pocket snaps of his coat. Little flags advertising money and travel. Mountains he’d gone to, states he’d visited, waist-deep powder he’d blown through, goggles flaring with western sun like the pictures Sweet had seen in old copies of Ski Magazine at his uncle’s. Thick as plates, those tickets, and easy to grab in a fight and yank on, so Will might break out some of his so-called judo moves, all of which tended to strike Sweet as simultaneously lethal and hilarious. Like ballroom dancing combined with fighting—the roundhouse kicks, swish of nylon, arms flying in choreographed-seeming circles and then the sudden weight of the hands landing sideways on you—chop, chop, chop—blow to the throat, blow to the septum, the sternum, fractions of an inch from really striking. Always ending, And right about now, you’d be dead.
In a game of knuckles between the two, it was not always clear who would dominate. Will’s hands were oversized like his arms, veins roping over tendons, knobby silver rings riding in the hollows between his fingers, the sting of which they’d all felt on their faces and bellies at times, joking and laughing, and had heard about in stories of other fights, in other schools and towns—times he’d cut cheeks, lips, and temples to the bone, busted teeth with a skull-faced or a bug-faced ring. Sometimes Sweet would distract himself, thinking, I’m going to hit that motherfucker? That tan skin. Yes, I am. That fucking perfectly sculpted hand. How did he get a tan in January? Fucking pussy. That is a hand . . . what the fuck is wrong with me? Sometimes the distraction was deliberate, to make the game last longer. To figure out what it was about Will, the pungency of his smell—tobacco smoke and citrus, weed and cologne and fresh air—the over-confidence of his voice and his laugh.
Last period of the day, and once again they were behind the snowbank, this time smoking dregs of resin from Will’s pipe. First, weed cured in smoke from Sweet’s pipe barrel—his last bowl and baggie done, crumpled and blown away in the wind—and then, because it wasn’t quite enough, curated globs of black goo on strawberry rolling paper which Will had scraped from everywhere inside the pipe during French class earlier that day, his book propped open on the desk as a barricade and the end of a twisted-open paperclip to work through every crevice of the pipe, scraping aside residue one glob at a time onto a piece of strawberry rolling paper to stuff into the pipe and smoke later. Harsh and nasty, hillbilly hash, bitter as tar, but effective. The girls next to him on either side, in their preppy argyles and leggings and clogs, their shiny hair in clips, he goaded with this display for the fun of it. The forced collusion a way of gaining intimacy with them, daring them to tattle, knowing they wouldn’t, would only roll eyes and keep stealing glances, whispering things like waste and scum and burnout, passing notes to each other. Occasionally, to add to their consternation, he’d raise his hand and answer the teacher’s questions without seeming to have been listening to a word of what was going on around him, always picking the most complex verb conjugations or relationships between past and present tense to comment on, because he’d covered all of this two years ago in his accelerated actual prep school classes when he still lived with his father in Florida. He winked and smiled at the girls, watched them glare, and slid the tip of his paperclip meaningfully in to extract more goo. Eventually he’d make a show of packing it all away in his coat pockets, closing his book, yawning, and asking for a bathroom pass in the last ten minutes of class, to impress on them his complete lack of caring. Gotta take a dump, he’d say under his breath to one of them—usually to Pam, the girl on his right, the one who smiled least and who he knew, because of her rigid Christian upbringing, would be the most shocked to discover an attraction to him. The most overwhelmed by it.
The resin and resin-soaked weed made their heads feel stuffed with cotton and gave the world a warped, two-dimensional aspect so that the game of knuckles seemed better and more surreal than ever. The air was slick with an ice mist that was almost rain, almost sleet, before it actually started coming down, stinging and melting on their faces, their breaths misting into it. Will kept trying to force Sweet around to where he’d be on lower ground, pushing with his fist, singing, “He’s Popeye the sailor man . . . he’s strong to the finish, cause he eats his spinach,” little nudges to fake him out, like he was about to strike, but a glancing side blow at the knuckle above his first finger, not dead center, so Sweet kept jerking away and to the side. Always the same side, enabling Will to catch him by surprise again and again on the return, pivoting further so Sweet would be driven to lower ground. It shouldn’t make a difference, having a few inches of extra height. But it did. Maybe only psychologically. Whap. Whap. It felt good, too, to Will, the force of his knuckles driving through soft flesh, connecting through the tendons on the back of Sweet’s hand, breaking the chafed skin of his middle finger knuckle. Laughing. The rhythm of Sweet’s breathing magnified in his ear and the sense of something twitching, lithe, almost out of control somewhere inside him behind his fist. Everything in the world boiled down to this simple struggle of instinct, pain, and speed. “Pussy! Sorry man. Oops! Got you again! Oops! Damn. Not your day is it, Sweet! Bam!”
Sweet was only dimly aware of the disadvantage of being on lower ground and of his feet slipping in the icy grooves worn into the hard snow under his feet. Mainly he was focused on the theater of their fists crashing together, the field of energy radiating around them, their white forearms hovering like sleeping sharks in a tank—the swiftness of the blows and trying to feel when Will would finally get over-confident enough to whiff. It had to happen, it always did, and when it did he planned to nail him like he’d never seen before. No mercy! Between strikes he glimpsed the rain freezing in shiny paint-like patterns on the shoulders of Burnt’s down jacket. Fucking Burnt with his foliage of orange-red hair, like dead maple leaves, the ends all frizzed with icy droplets; his eyes swollen to half-shut molten slits, split lips hanging open, yellow plaque-encrusted buck teeth on display. You need to brush, man! This was something Sweet knew. From his uncle Mikey and his mom, who’d passed on bad genes and had reminded him constantly about good dental hygiene. Hypoplasia and dysplasia—words he wished to unknow and forget (means fucked up enamel, man, and nothing you can do about it) and hated as much as he hated his own reflection every night, brushing and spitting blood. Brush, brush, brush. Brush, brush, brush, brush. Didn’t even fucking matter. Meanwhile an idiot like Burnt didn’t have to think about it. Could fall asleep with a mouth half full of pizza—something Sweet had seen him do once or twice. Come to think of it, in all the nights they’d spent sleeping over at one friend’s house or another he’d never once seen Burnt brush. Not once. No justice.
“Hit me,” Will said. “Come on. Let’s call it. You get three tries and I’m done. Fuck this rain. Come on. Come on. Hit me.”
“Not my turn yet.”
“I don’t care. I’m done. I’m hungry! Just fucking go. Hit me!”
Bam. Sweet dropped his fist as hard as he could, like he wanted it to go through Will’s hand.
Will didn’t even move, didn’t even try to dodge the blow. Just left his fist hanging there like a four-ridged stone ledge. A flesh stone ledge. Not for the first time, Sweet remembered what Will had said a while back about toughening. Part of the judo practice. You bruise first, then you toughen. Eventually, you don’t even bleed. All part of the martial arts training. How else do you think you break boards and bricks with your head? Yeah, break boards. Like hell, Lansman. You can’t break any fucking boards with your head. Get the fuck out. You expect me to believe that shit? And there it was again—the thing about Will Lansman: even when you knew he had to be bullshitting, you still believed him, if only because of how easy it was to picture whatever he was saying. Five boards. I can bust five boards. With my head. He’d snapped his head forward, neck muscles jerking taut, hair flowing forward and back, a shiny dent appearing suddenly just below the hairline where Sweet imagined previous contact with stacks of two-by-fours, and like that, he could almost believe it. In spite of himself, he did believe it. It’s easier than kicking, actually. A head is harder than a foot.
Now Sweet’s hand throbbed agonizingly, but between the pulses it felt okay. Toughened maybe. Ready for more. So maybe there was something to it.
“That’s it?” Will said. “That’s all you got?”
“Fuck you, motherfucker. Motherfucking YEEE!”
Again he struck, but this time Will dodged to the right.
“Ha,” Will said. “Try again.”
Sweet snapped his wrist so the sharpest edge of his knuckles would drive into the soft skin between the tendons closest to Will’s wrist bones. Before he could really register the pleasure of the connection, a solid hit, Will had dropped his hand out of sight, shaken it once, sucked a breath and sunk it deep into the pocket of his down jacket. “Fuck you,” he said. “Cunt.” Then, “Let’s go, man.”
The heat and humidity of bodies inside the cafeteria made the surface of Will’s skin ring and sting, made an aura of sensation well up around everything, adding a further layer of unreality to the scene—puddles left by boots and dirty footprints over warped linoleum, stink of meatloaf and spilled milk from lunch—was any of this real? He angled his head back an inch or two to absorb it and absent himself visually. See who he knew and who he didn’t, who to talk to, who to avoid. Two of the girls from French class. So French Club must have got out early, or been canceled. A kid with braces he’d mistakenly picked on earlier in the year and laid off of as soon as he discovered his sister was the finest thing in the entire school. Too late. She’d never talk to him. Picked a path from the doorway to the candy cart, zeroing in on the boxes of candy bars there in rows, the girl from student senate with her cash box ready to make change—and kept his right hand buried to the forearm in his coat pocket like a sling because of the spot of pain emanating from where Sweet had hit him that last time. Began his signature shuffle stride, legs wide, head back, chest out. Keep it big, no one will bug you. Stoned, he told himself, picturing crushed tendons. I am so high. Tendon sheathing broken through, torn and snagged, ruptured or snapped. He opened and closed his hand, reminding himself that he was certainly too fucked up to know how anything really felt—too likely to dwell on and freak out over recollected visuals from x-rays of old injuries from days gone by if he didn’t put a stop to it. The time he busted an elbow falling off his bike. The time his shoulder came out of its socket playing football. Finger popped out of joint. Ankle broke. The time his dad hit him hard enough he chipped a tooth. Not real anymore, any of it. Past and gone. Gone, gone, gone . . .
“Lansman.” It was the girl from French class. Pam. Popping up in his field of vision like a Star Trek head in a video conference call, ship-to-ship, awaiting teleport. Alien life form. “You are such a freak.”
“Hey.” He put up a hand to block her, screen her out, like a game of peek-a-boo. Moved it side to side, seeing her around it, making her bob her head to see him, grinning at her.
“You’re a total freak and a loser! What you were doing in class today . . .”
The colors in her hair were entirely absorbing—brown, yellow, black, red, gold—a shiny sheaf of hues and tones spun together like a scarf that went around her neck and halfway over her breasts there under the stiff cloth of her mannish Oxford shirt, the quiver in her button-down collar betraying whatever emotion she felt in addressing him this way. Smells of baby powder and something softer and more flowery surrounded her, pungent with sweat.
“Pam, Pam, Pam,” he said. “Pam. Pam.”
“It’s against the law and if you do it again, I’m going to turn you in. Consider yourself warned, Lansman. Okay?”
“And here I thought you were going to try to recruit me for French Club.”
Her mouth opened slightly, damp pink tongue, neat overbite. “Are you for real?”
“No.” He shrugged. “Maybe.” He touched a finger to her hair. Substanceless. Like touching colored air. “But you have like the prettiest hair ever. Did you know that?” And gesturing in some vaguely French way (he hoped) to make light of it all and move her past the penguin-like stiffness of the moment she seemed caught in, he repeated it in French. “Tes cheveux sont très belle, très belle mademoiselle. Je suis enivre par mon amour.” Her eyes had a cloudy, hazy aspect, a complexity to draw you in, slightly hooded and drowsy he decided, with so many colors conveying so many different emotions simultaneously, which taken together with the sad shape of her mouth and the smile creases in the corners . . .
“Fuckin YEEE!” Sweet. Punching him in the shoulder, shoving him to one side. “Lansman! Out of the way!” Kicking him in the shin. “YEEE!”
“Sorry, Pam,” he said, turning away from her, following Sweet’s Popeye bounce across the room, “Au revoir, au revoir, a demain . . .”
Had that just happened at all?
The warmth up to his elbow mostly concealed the pain, and he found that if he stretched his fingers apart and balled them together again in a fist, it was almost possible to move past it and forget. And then he did forget. Shifting from coat pocket to jeans pocket, he dug for the crumpled bills folded in quarters there, all his attention focused now on how good this was going to be—ripping aside the candy wrapper, that first bite-sized square sticking out, taffy covered in rippled dark chocolate—so the moments of first contact and the moments leading up to it all became a kind of blur. A static and haze of anticipation, desire, and satisfaction. Burnt, Fiske, Crotch, each of them suddenly shy and half-whispering the same phrase to the candy cart girl—A strawberry Charleston Chew bar for me too yeah, thanks. Oh, and then the first hints of bitter fudge as the outer layer dissolved in his mouth, the strawberry taffy inside, the endlessly chewy sweetness of it permeating his senses, melding together with the ache in his jaw and the memory of the chocolate flavor as he rolled it side to side, chewing, chewing, chewing, working it with saliva and then chewing some more, swallowing back saliva, chewing until the sweetness seemed to have penetrated more than just his senses, and only the little chill sensations of drool tickling the corners of his mouth, and the reminder to dab at them with a wrist not to look a complete moron, kept him in mind that he was still here at all. In the history of the world, had there ever been a better candy bar? “Good god,” they said to each other, all of them leaning against the radiator at the window in the corner closest to the exit, Burnt and Fiske sitting astride it, legs swinging, Sweet, Crotch, and Will leaning, each lost in his own singular surrender to sweetness. If all of time and reality could be folded over like this, Will thought, like a stage set or a painting or a reflection in a spoon . . . if you looked at it in the right way, that is, and folded it according to some very specific kind of distortion, like the sudden heat after coming inside from the cold, and being high and the sugar and the pain in your head from chewing, if you could just poke a hole through it all somehow. As always when such thoughts overtook him he was transported back to childhood—days on the beach, the glassy heat underfoot as constant as the heat surrounding and beating down from above, the sting of sand in your eyes and crash of surf, surf-cooled sand at the ocean’s edge. But why remember these things if it only left you pissed off and sad and with the certain knowledge you’d never get back? Like some part of his brain was just stuck, and given the right cue would always point back to it: the sun-hot sand, shells and driftwood, the wind making patterns in the sand . . .
Dimly he became aware of some commotion going on beside him and knew, almost before looking up and out of his thoughts, that what he witnessed next would also be forever emblazoned in his brain: the stumpy points of Sweet’s clay-brown, decay-resined front teeth stuck in the taffy and chocolate coating of his Charleston Chew bar—stranded there like tree stumps in a pink-brown swamp. Ripped from his head. Sweet with a hand over his mouth looking at it, holding the chocolate bar up in disbelief and saying over and over, “My fucking teeth! My fucking teeth! What the fuck! My fucking teeth! MY MOTHERFUCKING TEETH!”
Because they were all laughing—Burnt, Fiske, Crotch, and at first Sweet too—Will couldn’t help himself. Teeth stuck in a candy bar! Teeth so rotten they pulled right out of your head and now sat there like stupid little kids stuck up to their waists in quicksand, like tiny hillbilly shacks in a brown field. So funny! He couldn’t help it. He doubled over with laughter. Sweet, outraged now, no longer laughing, only made it funnier. Punching the wall, kicking it. Throwing the candy bar. Making a spectacle of his despair and laughing again now at the same time too. “Fucking teeth! It’s not funny.”
“No. No. It’s not funny,” Burnt said, controlling himself for a second, shaking his head, running a finger under his nose. But then picturing them again, the stranded ridiculous useless teeth and Sweet toothless as a jack-o’-lantern now, more Popeye than ever before, they fell forward laughing again. All of them laughing so hard they could no longer see, but heard the crash bars slam as Sweet blew out the door like a Tasmanian devil still kicking and whirling and cursing. “MY FUCKING TEETH!”
It was all Lansman’s fault. Lansman and his Acapulco A-co-pokey Gold and his fucking Charleston Chew bars. If they hadn’t quit playing knuckles outside, smoking cigarettes and not bothering with the lunchroom like usual, like they used to do, before Lansman . . . if Lansman hadn’t said, whenever it was, last week or last month, No man, you gotta try! The Charleston Chews are the best, man! I swear. Especially if you’re high. It’s perfection. Here, I’ll buy you one. How many times had his mom told him not to eat taffy? How many times had his uncle said? Steak, taffy, jerky, hard bread crust, anything you have to tear at. Just don’t. Again and again the moment replayed in his mind—lips closed and suckling around the candy bar, the melted chocolate outer layer making him salivate, saliva trickling down his throat a little, and then working the taffy back and forth, up and down gently, tonguing it to make it softer, swallowing, biting down more firmly and finally pulling. No more patience. Just a quick tug down and back. Worked fine the last couple of times. Why not? Uncle Mikey didn’t have to know everything. And then . . . the crunch echoing through his lip and sinuses, the flash of light like a circuit blown, and the knowledge with it that even the second he’d initiated that little tug backward it was already too late—the teeth had broken from their rotten roots still stuck under the gum line. Oh, and then the sight of them there. Fucking traitorous shitty rotten teeth. And feeling with his tongue, to confirm, yes in fact, gone, and with the back of his forefinger—the serrated shreds of roots stuck there. No, this was not a dream. This was not something you could undo by blinking your eyes open. He’d just pulled out his own goddamn front teeth.
To his left was a constant sound of traffic he didn’t even look up at. Tires splashing through water, engines revving past him. Because who could give a fuck. “Just hit me,” he yelled. “Fucking run me over, okay?” Wind and freezing rain in his face. Mountains somewhere off in the distance shrouded in clouds and mist. More engine and muffler noise and a sting of exhaust in his nostrils as one car and another splashed by. A sudden heavy gas smell he liked. Truck diesel in the distance and a chainsaw starting up somewhere. He kept his tongue tucked up in the hollow where the teeth had been, to protect the shorn roots—to mourn and guard and make the loss less real. Or maybe more real. He didn’t know. Nnng, he thought, buzzing the syllable in his head for the feel of it. Nnng. So this is it. Nnng. This is the fucking end. Under the traffic sounds was a circular thud-thud whish-whish like his own circulation but more distant somehow. More externalized. Like what he heard or imagined that he heard sometimes if he lay just right on the pillow with his ear cupped to it and the ends of his hair brushing the pillowcase. Closer, closer. Again that moment. The crunch and then the horrible distress of his own voice breaking through, echoing around the cafeteria. My fucking teeth! But he’d show them all. Motherfuckers. He’d drop out of school and get all of his teeth pulled right out if that was the best his mother’s insurance would cover. No fake teeth, nothing. Just get all the fuckers yanked once and for all and quit hoping for any goddamn thing.
By the time he figured it out—footsteps, clomping boots, and the swish of Lansman’s ski jacket, his oversized arms pumping, none of which there was actually any way he should have been able to hear from such a distance, and yet he had somehow, had heard-felt or some way intuited it—here he was, practically on top of Sweet. The smell of him, and his arm falling heavily over Sweet’s shoulders, breath touching the side of his face as he heaved air in and out, cool stinging whip of his hair hitting Sweet’s cheek. Cologne smell and smoke and strawberry taffy.
“Hey, man,” Will said. “Are you okay?”
My fucking teeth, he wanted to yell again, but didn’t. Let the weight of Will’s arm ride there and kept walking.
“Man, seriously, like are you all right?”
“I just . . .” he began. “I mean . . .” And a second later, breathing more under control, “I don’t know if you know, but my dad’s like a dentist so maybe I can see if there’s something he could do. To help. You know? Like if you saved the teeth or whatever. He’s in Florida but I can call. See if he knows someone.”
“You can’t do a fucking thing, Lansman, it’s genetic, so fucking fuck off. ”
“Nah, man. There’s always gotta be something.”
“No! There doesn’t always gotta be something, motherfucker! So fucking fuck the fuck off!”
Sweet jerked his shoulders so Will had to release him, but he continued walking alongside awhile all the same, kept pace with Sweet’s bouncing Popeye gait, the tread of his boots slipping under his feet and the water beginning to seep in through all the same places as ever, touching the balls of his feet, his instep. Soon enough he’d be soaked through and then the cold water would begin warming to body temperature, sloshing against his insole, or he’d just stop feeling it except as a kind of annoying icy tickle.
“Hey,” Will said again, stopping. They were still about a mile from town. The shoulder of the road, where the guardrail ran out a little ways ahead, met up with a trail he knew Sweet would likely take, a shortcut through farmer’s fields, closer to where he and his gang all lived, trees arching over it to create some cover and a barbed wire fence to duck. “HEY,” he tried again as Sweet ducked off the road, under the fence and up the trail. A backward wave, that was it. Sweet’s black knit cap bobbing along parallel with the road for a moment before dropping out of sight.
In the future he’d revise what followed for whomever wanted to hear about it—wives, classmates, business partners, friends out for a drink. He’d run after Sweet or gone on walking beside him, an arm around his shoulder, until one or the other of them started singing—Queen, Zeppelin, whatever—like that first day smoking up. The hilarity and punch-drunk silliness of it, making a whole band with their mouths and bobbing heads, riding those waves of imagined sonic confluence. Or he’d squared off and started hitting him. Pushed him over in a snowbank and pulled him back up and said, “Come on, man. Hit me! Just hit me. Give me your worst, all right? Hard as you can! Hit me!” He’d stood there and not even raised a hand to protect himself, just let Sweet punch himself out as long and as hard as he needed—try to make up for whatever shit was coming in the rest of his life. To even the balance. Or he’d shaken the water gathering in his hair and icing the ends of it, opened his arms, and shouted after Sweet, “Fucking YEE. Fuckin-A YEEEE man! YEE!” and kept shouting it until finally an echo came back to him from somewhere closer to town. Yee. Yee. Anything but what he actually did, which was to stop and withdraw into himself, hands in his coat pockets, pissed off at his aching wrists and knuckles and wet feet, and knowing there was more cruelty in the world than he’d ever be able to rectify, unfairness he had no business meddling with or trying to balance in the first place, and which Sweet had always been destined to run into head on, friendless, luckless, loveless, and now toothless. He spit once on the wet muddy ground. “Goddamn. Fuck you, then,” he said, and turned back to school.