The Golden Youth

At 7:37 AM, the Golden Youth arrives, smiling, via a sleek red sports car driven by his girlfriend. Even from her car, where she watches the beloved scaling the shallow draw before the worksite, Jenny can sense some shift in the air, some (how to describe it?) invisible current turning, polarities reversing. She notes how the other men brighten, lift like parched flowers in a gently pattering rain.

A brief note about his smile, if we may: if he were officious (like Eric), or stupid (like Tiny Tim), or sullen (like Shelley), the Golden Youth would only make the other men on the crew jealous, and spiteful. But his smile augurs nothing of mood or of thought. It is a smile that means nothing and says nothing, the teeth of it tobacco-tinted to a shade like woodglue, and for this reason the Golden Youth is a gently pulsing enigma at the margins of their lives. Which is to say, they adore him.

 

Shelley, for instance, to whom the Golden Youth is both joyous possibility and terrible dread. For Shelley knows that everything disappoints, in time. Circa half after nine in the AM finds him gazing up at the Golden Youth with an admiration unalloyed by envy: cutting a cricket, his powerful legs gripping the transom, shirtless in the bone-knocking cold of this morning in March, 1988, the muscles swaying and tightening in his broad chest and tree-bough arms:

“Hey, Miss America!” calls Shelley from the ground floor. “You working on your tan?”

Shelley is no different from the other men on the crew, except perhaps that he feels more keenly the need for a friend, a gnawing sort of absence Shelley has known since forever. And just as he has known that absence, so has Shelley known of the general futility of such desires. And yet: does he not recognize some kindred fire, some mirrored wanting after things that cannot be?

 

Ten o’clock finds Tiny Tim crouching next to Eric in the shade of a piñon pine at the edge of the lot. Smoke break. Tiny Tim is smoking unfiltered Kool 100’s, blowing the smoke into an empty two-gallon jug of Mountain Dew. Beside him, Eric is watching Shelley and the Golden Youth, ten or so yards away. How they stand kicking at the dirt, smiling at one another between silences.

“Them two,” Eric mutters. “Fuck is with them?”

And Tiny Tim—who has known boys like Shelley before, and never minded them, who does not plan to start minding them now—arches his eyebrows before pointing the smoky green eye of the Mountain Dew bottle at the foreman, and squeezing.  Even Tiny Tim, the dumbest man on the crew, understands that a subtle form of flirtation is the best way to stay on Eric’s good side.

And Eric, coughing and giggling as smoke gushes from the bottle’s green eye, curses Tiny Tim good-naturedly, You asshole, he says, swatting at the smoke with his hands.

 

Yet the question lingers: what is that strange and secret knowledge that will draw men steadily nearer? Like Tiny Tim, Eric senses but cannot name it. Though vigilant against the feelings the Golden Youth stirs in his breast, the foreman cannot help noting the astonishing speed with which the Golden Youth has taken to this work—indeed, it is Eric’s job to notice such things. Patching the frame with Shelley in the pseudo-warmth of midday, Eric smiles to recall that afternoon in January he called out to the Golden Youth:

“Go fetch the plywood from out the truck.”

And how with a nod, with that illegible smile, the Golden Youth disappeared. The rest of the crew continued working, lost themselves in this business of framing, pneumatic hammers hissing and popping as they drove sharpened steel into pinewood.

It was Tiny Tim who straightened first, held a rust-red hand up to his brow, muttering: “Jesus Christ, but look at him.”

And Eric turned to find the Golden Youth walking up the lane, no fewer than four sheets of plywood balanced against his great square head: four sheets at fifty-five pounds apiece was two hundred twenty pounds.

In the face of such staggering achievement, mockery is the only viable response. Eric called, laughing: “Well I didn’t mean all at once, numb nuts!”

And the Golden Youth smiled, shucking away their envy to leave just the kernel of admiration.

 

Like all men, these men are their memories.  The boy in Houston, for example, who was practically begging Shelley for it. Of that strange night, a blurred memory will sometimes flit across Shelley’s mind. The boy standing in just a miniskirt and bra, the absurd wig hanging crookedly from his head.

“Just mouth,” the boy was saying, holding up ten fingers.

Why should Shelley’s limbs still grow heavy with desire, remembering this night? The question puzzles and shames him. For let us not misunderstand our Shelley, who knows the ways in which such cold and arid passions can sap a man of spirit and strength.

If a night finds Shelley sleepless, he does not imagine the Golden Youth’s hands fanning over his chest. Nor does Shelley imagine the satisfying heft of the Golden Youth’s tumescent cock in his mouth. Nor does Shelley imagine the harshness of the Golden Youth’s lips against his own.  Rather, Shelley imagines all the many things he would tell the Golden Youth, if only he could. In his dream, Shelley lays out a great map of the soul, whispered words like fingers indicating the harsh and beautiful contours of his interior landscape.

 

At 2:24 PM, the generator quits and simply will not start again, no matter how much coaxing. They drive in a great convoy to a bar just a short distance away from the worksite. The bar happens to stand on the far side of Highway 6 from the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production facility. The Golden Youth, riding shotgun, tells Tiny Tim tall tales of mutant refugees from that ugly, mysterious place: five-legged deer, jackrabbits with great fangs and claws, tortoises with fins like lake trout.

Tiny Tim is pleased to have his friend in the truck with him. In spite of himself, he likes the bullish and arrogant voice in which the Golden Youth makes this nonsense up. He likes, too, that the Golden Youth never pretends to be any smarter than he actually is.  And when Tiny Tim calls his bluff (“Bullshit.”), the Golden Youth only shrugs, smiling:

“Well, sure, I never saw it. But my cousin works for the BLM. He says…”

Going on and on this way.

 

For nearly an hour, no mention is made of Jenny, who is to collect the Golden Youth from work at half past four in the afternoon. Then:

“Jeez Christ,” says the Golden Youth, as it suddenly dawns on him, “Jenny’s gonna kill me.”

The Golden Youth has a two-step before him on the dinged-up bar. Eric is watching him sip at the whiskey, grimace, set the shot down, raise the beer to his lips.

“Jenny,” Eric echoes, as a cold heat travels down his spine before settling somewhere in the pit of his stomach. “That’s your girl?”

“Fiancée,” the Golden Youth affirms.

“She’ll kill you for hwat?” Eric wants to know.

“When she shows up—”  A nod now, in the general direction of the worksite.  “And I ain’t there.”

Eric grunts: “Payphone outside. Call her up.”

“You got a quarter?”

When Eric shakes his head, the Golden Youth muses aloud: “Too late, anyway. Probably she’s already come and went home.”

“Yeah,” agrees Eric (who has no idea), “probably.”

“She likes me close by,” the Golden Youth elaborates after a silence. “She doesn’t trust me, is what it is.”

And Eric is unsure how to respond to this. After a moment, he offers: “I was married once.” And he thinks not without regret of that black-haired stranger, of the three years he spent puzzling her with his dogged, unhappy love.

 

Before long, two comely middle-aged women have attached themselves to the Golden Youth. This is part of their routine. For two hours every day, during which time the price of red wine is halved, Joaney and Latrice drink. Drinking the wine, they hardly notice the smell of bleach on their fingers, the way it lingers like the dime-sized pain at the back of Latrice’s skull. A tumor, probably, she thinks: the radiation.

Right now, Joaney is sitting on the Golden Youth’s left, Latrice on his right. Opposite the trio in the booth, unhappily, Eric and Tiny Tim. Raucous laughter—Joaney’s smoky and low, Latrice’s a sort of squeal—punctuates everything the Golden Youth says, whether or not it be in jest.

The laughter, too, is part of the routine—part of the rites of evening. In laughter, both women arrive at some basic understanding of the sort of man this guy Ryan—that is, the Golden Youth—truly is. Joaney is reminded of her first husband, whom she fled in sobbing terror one night seventeen years ago. Latrice, on the other hand, is reminded of her sister’s son, a blond Adonis currently serving a twenty-five-year sentence for attempted murder and statutory rape.

Sure, they like the Golden Youth, but they are wise enough not to fall in love with him. At least, not much, for to resist love is to sometimes make matters worse. Be, rather, as the planets that whirl and swirl in orbit about a bright-burning star.

Joaney, Latrice: Venus, Mercury.

 

And Shelley? By sundown, Shelley is a Saturn, a distant Pluto: a presence spinning hardly noticed at the edge of the room. He will not draw closer—nor can Shelley tear himself away, exactly.  Who are these fucking whores? Shelley asks himself, as the barman poses a question of his own:

“You heard the one about the horse who walks into a bar?”

And Shelley cannot escape a feeling of having lived precisely this night countless times. It is not just the joke the bartender tells, the punch line to which Shelley sees coming a mile away. Nor is it the monotonous thump-tap of Buddy Harman on the jukebox. No, it is something else—some obscure, scraped-out feeling in the pit of his stomach. And the joke is mercifully short, the bartender leans across the bar top:

“Hey, buddy,” he says, “why the long face?”

The scraped-out feeling renders it impossible for Shelley to even pretend to smile (“Surly motherfucker,” Eric sometimes curses Shelley, behind his back). Shelley, merely nodding, answers: “Gotta piss.”

The lavatory lies beyond a shrieking clapboard door marked “Cowboys,” this fetid hellscape. The walls are decorated with hand-drawn swastikas, festooned with boogers and caked toilet paper. The sink is a hull of cracked porcelain below a faucet that drools some orange liquid. The solitary stall lists hard to one side. On the wall opposite the mirror, long ago reduced to a network of jagged cracks, some long-gone vandal has made a red-lipsticked promise of felatio.

A solitary fly perches in the basin of the urinal, attracted by some spat-up foulness beneath the grate.  With a sad sort of contempt, Shelley directs the stream of his urine at the creature, cursing when the fly dodges first one blast and then another.

Suddenly, the door marked “Cowboys” shrieks open.

 

Ryan Blaylock, the Golden Youth, sways for a moment just Shelley’s side of the bathroom. He emits a guffaw, as if to say: Fancy meeting you here. There is almost no point in navigating the stupid wilderness of Ryan’s thoughts: quite literally, he won’t remember any of this. Let us speak, then, of the Golden Youth’s soul, which is ruled by a basic indifference to tenderness and good will. Ryan Blaylock is a man who does not second-guess his desires.  He sees the broad shoulders and powerful neck of some dude standing at the urinal, and he wonders vaguely (with a chuckle), What you got going on down there?

Stepping behind Shelley now, the Golden Youth fits careful fingers around his coworker’s penis, his left hand about the base and his right perhaps a knuckle’s length from the tip. And the two men stand this way while Shelley makes water, both of them sort of giggling:

Ha ha ha! Ho ho ho!

They stand thus, even after Shelley has finished, at which point the Golden Youth whispers into his ear: “Guess I’d better give it a shake, huh?”

Which he does, vigorously.

 

And Shelley grows hard precisely as the Golden Youth sets him loose. There is, for a gorgeous moment, no such thing as agony. There is just this: a man tucking his swollen cock behind his waistband (a lovely ache), a man bracing to turn, to meet the obscure object’s eye.

But the Golden Youth shoves Shelley bodily from in front of the urinal. The Golden Youth lowers his fly, urinates.

Puzzled, Shelley intones: “You crazy son of a gun.” His face fixed into a smiling kind of sneer, his eyes drifting down, naturally, to the Golden Youth’s beautiful peach-pink cock.

As though in response, the Golden Youth breaks wind and Shelley, obliged to laugh, sort of slides toward the shrieking door, slides out into the hallway, out the rear exit, out into this strange half-night.

He passes along a row of trucks of by and large American make. Shelley does not think to himself: I love him. He would not think to call it love. Shame tiptoes at the edge of even this feeling, whispers to Shelley:  Get in your vehicle, boy, it growls, go home.

At the western margin of the lot, the gravel pitches suddenly downward and into a deep ravine. Shelley must teeter-totter in the heavy steel-toed boots along the ragged lip of it. And in some ways we wish we could end our story thus: poor Shelley loses his footing, tumbles into the ravine, snaps his neck on a red tongue of flagstone.

But Shelley is hardly drunk—and even if he were very drunk, Shelley is too sure-footed. He steps gingerly along a concrete barricade and then, whistling to still his hammering heart, completes his lap of the bar.

Inside, he finds no Golden Youth. At the booth where he’d been sitting, Eric and Tiny Tim remain, quietly drinking their beer in the awful silence between “Wings of a Dove” and whatever is to come next.

“Where’s Ryan went to?” Shelley wants to know.

Tiny Tim shrugs and glances at his wristwatch.

“Left with one of them whores,” says Eric, unable to disguise the contempt and envy in his voice.

 

And miles south of the bar, Jenny is pulling up to the site in the red coupe to discover a drywall crew loading pneumatics and squares of sheetrock into a van. No sign of her beloved anywhere. It is nearly an hour’s drive up to the site from their apartment in Boulder. Yet she only laughs to herself, consigning this latest snub to a great pile of them she hardly thinks of.

To Jenny, the Golden Youth is a man so nearly perfect that his few imperfections—an inability to hold down a job, his varied indiscretions, the small thefts of jewelry and money—become precisely the grist of her love, its sum and square root. When they argue, for example, and Jenny removes from this pile each small sin and holds it up to the Golden Youth, that is when their love burns at its fiercest and purest.

At home, she knows, they will scream until their voices boil down to whispers, until they are whispering the unforgivable things to one another:

“You blood-sucking bitch,” he is fond of telling her. “You spoiled little rich whore.”

“You trash,” she answers, scratching at the buttons on his chest, “you pathetic, miserable trailer park trash.”

And how to fit words to his bronze chest, how it heaves with hatred? How to account for her hands as they trace the yellow curl of his mouth?

J. P. Gritton

J. P. Gritton

JP Gritton’s novel Wyoming, a Kirkus best book of 2019, is out with Tin House. His awards include a Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellowship, a DisQuiet fellowship and the Inprint Donald Barthelme prize in fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, Southwest Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor of creative writing in the department of English at Duke University. (Photo: Katy Tartakoff)
J. P. Gritton

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Author: J. P. Gritton

JP Gritton’s novel Wyoming, a Kirkus best book of 2019, is out with Tin House. His awards include a Cynthia Woods Mitchell fellowship, a DisQuiet fellowship and the Inprint Donald Barthelme prize in fiction. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, Southwest Review, Tin House, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor of creative writing in the department of English at Duke University. (Photo: Katy Tartakoff)