Or else I hated you that afternoon beginning of August, how you stood with one foot planted in the miracle turf and the other against the corrugated vinyl:
“When the sun went down,” you explained between drags on a Pall Mall. “I figured I’d better try and find it. Got on 1-70, drove west. Drove all through the night, looking for the sun. And then about four, five in the morning, I see this great big pink-and-orange fire, right there in the middle of the desert…”
You deployed your conspiratorial grin. You waited a beat—waited exactly long enough— before delivering the punchline:
“Las Vegas,” you said. “I’d drove all the way to Vegas, looking for the sun. That’s how messed up I was. Out of my tree.”
And even if the rest of the crew laughed (“Damn, Wonder Boy!”), I could feel them working out the math, second-guessing the story, poking around for holes in the narrative. Denver to Vegas in one night? Later on, you clarified: “I think it was Vegas. Might’ve been Salt Lake.”
But this was before. It was summer, the warm months, and there was enough work for everybody on the crew. That day it was postholes, a job for which we felt a sort of happy dread. Happily, we dreaded the sun grinding into our backs like a hot crotch. Happily, we dreaded the grips tearing horseshoes of skin from our palms. Happily, we dreaded Jake Lundeen, who’d show up at a quarter to five, simpering like a Pop Star:
My, my, my, ladies, he’d say, we seem to be taking our time, don’t we?
And we’d smile, because we knew we had to.
And I’d find myself wondering what Mom saw in Jake, exactly. It’s her fault, by the way, not that I blame her. This was back in May. Mom couldn’t have known how bad I would prove to be at this work, that by June everybody on the crew would be calling me “All Thumbs.”
My dad had been better for a little more than two months by then. Better, meaning remission. Remission, meaning he paced the condominium like a tiger in a cage, cranked out of his head on the steroids they gave him to get his weight up. Home improvement projects, that was Dad’s jones: state-of-the-art stereo systems, for instance, and a brand-new toilet. That afternoon, he would disassemble all the doorknobs in the house, strip them down to brass casings and screws. When he wasn’t improving the house, he was trying to improve me:
“You stoned?” he hollered once. “You look like you’re sleepwalking.”
It was the afternoon they made it official: the tumors had withered away to practical nothings, gone elsewhere. I was drinking champagne with him and Mom and Mom’s new boyfriend: Jake Lundeen, in other words. At first, I’d thought it a little strange, Lundeen being invited. But that was before I saw him and my dad together. Half an hour they’d sat hunched over my dad’s records—Band of Gypsies, the Doors, the Stones—before Mom called them over (“Quit flirting!” she’d teased. “Time to pop the bubbly!”).
It was Mom who answered for me, anyway, now as ever: “He’s just jet-lagged, Lee,” she told my father. “It’s almost bedtime in New York.”
“So he’s tired.”
“Tired from what?” Dad wanted to know. “He doesn’t work.”
I heard Jake Lundeen sniggering under his breath. I wonder did he notice the look in Mom’s eye, the one that meant ideas were coming to her, taking hold?
She said, as though speaking to everybody but Lundeen, “I wonder if Jake could get him a job on one of his crews.”
When no one answered, silence clicked along, mile markers on an empty road. It couldn’t have been five minutes later, Lundeen was sighing his apologies, reckoning aloud it was about time he hit the road. It must’ve surprised him, as it surprised me, when Mom explained I’d drive her over later, after we’d finished the champagne.
“Well—sure,” he said, something like a frown dragging across his face. “That all right with you, LJ?”
I shrugged because I owed her at least that much, didn’t I? Mom had been the one driving Dad to appointments, swatting unlit cigarettes from his lips, watching poison drip-drop down the IV. Now I was home, now it was my turn. Lundeen had hardly left when Dad brought up the idea again:
“Well how about it, LJ? Good money in construction.” I shrugged.
“Guess he wants to take it easy,” Dad said. “Guess he thinks he’s only just got here.”
It’s hard to tell now, but my father and I used to look a lot alike: same coffin-shaped face, same black hair swished out of our eyes, which are blue or green, depending on mood. They were flashing blue as butane now, watching me. Mom laughed when I shrugged again:
“I said leave him be.”
Used to be, they weren’t this civil. Let me tell you.
When we’d drained the last of the champagne, I gave Mom a lift back to Lundeen’s place. Probably it was only half-accident when I missed her exit, probably I just wanted to put off going home. I had to loop around 270, drove practically out to the airport. And it was there, the brown smudge of plains at the edge of Denver:
“Look,” Mom said.
She was pointing to a low-slung building out in the dust. There was a caterpillar, a couple dozen guys in hard hats hauling lengths of rebar and shouting into walkie-talkies. Hanging from a pair of I-beams was an orange banner: “INOTEC – a Lundeen Construction, LLC Project.”
And it’s that same gig, the Inotec warehouse out by the airport. One day it’ll be a biotech firm, or they’ll make apps or wind turbines. Right now, though, it’s just rebar and dust. I’m leaned against an I-beam, watching July heat curlicue the air on the runway. It’s a hundred and five today, climate change I’m thinking, and then this shadow slides over me, over the page.
It’s you. Wonder Boy.
You are standing directly in the sun’s path, backlit, so it takes me a second to make the grin on your face. Until I do, I’m sure you’ve come to roust me, tell me get back to work. I’m thinking, Mind your own business. Tucking the notebook and pen into the pocket of my shirt, I make to stand.
But you stop me, wonder: “What they call you that for? All Thumbs?”
“I guess ‘cause my thumbs are big,” I tell you, because it’s easier than explaining about that afternoon end of May, when the crew foreman stood gaping in horror at a stack of two-bys I’d just maimed, and how I’d cringed an apology: I’m All Thumbs with this thing, I told him, gesturing to the quicksaw held loosely in my hands.
“Huh,” you tell me, by way of answer. The look you give me now makes me wonder if you knew the story already, if you wondered because you figured I’d lie.
You say, “What’re you doing out here, anyway?”
I say, “Working on my tan.”
You say, “Working on your melanoma, looks like. You’re red as jelly.”
We’ve never spoken before, nothing beyond a quick dap, Sup? And, How you doin’? Now I tell you, “Don’t worry about me, Wonder Boy.”
It’s the nickname they gave you when you took to the work like a rat to a hole, when you marked plum-lines and crowns and threw plywood over frames and never, not once, made a mistake: Wonder Boy, they called you, and I heave the words like an accusation. But when you smile and shake your head and look off toward the landing strip, it’s as if you’re saying: Yeah, sure, I know. And what do you know? It’ll take me months, figuring it out.
“So what’s your deal, anyway? You in school?”
“Already been,” I explain, but suspicion narrows your eyes.
“How old are you?”
I answer honest, but you think I’m lying: I don’t look 27, you say, but you’ll never get around to telling me why.
We have five minutes for smokes and after five minutes the foreman will shove through the trailer door and tell us get back to work. But I have the strange sensation the whole crew is holding its breath, waiting until we’ve finished whatever this business is.
Now you point at my pocket: “What is that?”
I’ve been writing in the Mood Journal since just before I left New York: my therapist’s idea, she thought it might help after my dad got sick. But I can’t explain all that, so I say: “Notebook.”
“What notes?” you ask. “Notes for what?”
“I’m clearing my head,” I tell you.
You nod (amused), you say: “Hold out your hand.”
You glance around. But it’s just us, and the jets. “Just hold your hand out,” you say, “you’ll like it.”
Later on, what I will remember is the surprising, perfect heft of that thing: this is exactly how much a pill ought to weigh. I’ll remember that, and I’ll remember your fingers sliding over my palm, and the hair on the back of my neck going electric.
You tell me, laughing, “Gonna clear your head for you, Thumbs.”
It wouldn’t take you long to turn on me, of course. That gig in Castle Rock, the reno. It was you and me and Tim and Eric-from-Phoenix. We were hunched in the shade, a smoke break. And they were laughing their asses off while you told about the girl from the bar, the one you’d grabbed at the knees and hauled off the dance floor, banging your chest like King Kong.
I smiled at the story, but it didn’t feel right to laugh. I’d been there that night, after all, and knew all the parts you’d left out. You never mentioned you knew the girl, that she was Lucy. You never mentioned anything that came later, not that I blame you. And when the boys wiped the wet from their eyes and drifted back to work, it was just us for a while, smoking our Pall Malls to the filter.
“You’re a crazy motherfucker,” I told you: what I thought you wanted to hear. But you didn’t so much as smile. You looked only bored, listless, like somebody who can’t muster the energy to walk across the room and shut the TV off.
“Yeah,” you said. “I’m crazy, huh?”
I chewed my lip, knowing something was wrong. I stabbed the cigarette out and got to my feet, sensing your impatience for me to go. But then I thought that no harm could come from asking, after all:
“Hey,” I said, “you holding?”
“Am I what?”
“You got anything for me? Something to clear my head?” You gave me a quick, venomous smile.
“Sure,” you said. “Fifteen.”
Dad never bought your act, either. I think of that morning after you and Lucy crashed and the four of us—you and me on one side, Dad and Lucy on the other—sat around the card table in his kitchen and ate eggs and bacon and toaster waffles. Lucy teased and flirted with Dad, filled the little room up with her smoky laugh. But you just sat there, shy, grinning into your Eggos, suddenly and shockingly unsure of yourself. Just once, you tipped your eyes up at my father:
“What did you do to these eggs, Mr. Cryder?” you wanted to know. “I’ve never tasted eggs like this.”
Dad’s course of steroids was over. He’d gotten his weight back, and his wits: “What I did, Brian,” he said, “is scramble them.”
Lucy shrieked, laying her hand on my dad’s for a beat while a sort of happy jealousy went through me.
“Just try to ignore him, Mr. Cryder,” she said, her lips inches from Dad’s ear.
Later on, after I’d dropped you off at her place, I came home to find Dad on the sofa in the TV room. John Gruden was on the screen, shouting about the quarterback you resemble vaguely: dimple-chinned, towheaded, pretty. Half the towering speakers buzzed like horseflies and the others didn’t work at all, something about the wiring.
He shifted down the couch to make room, said: “So who was that, exactly?”
“That’s my buddy,” I told him. “I work with him.”
“Not him. Her.”
“This great big fire in the night,” you were saying. “All these pink-red-yellow lights, flickering and flashing like I don’t know. A great big fucking flamingo-looking thing, out in the middle of the desert. And big shining avenues lined with palm trees and pretty girls in short skirts and I don’t know what all. And then it hits me, this is where the sun lives. This is where the sun goes to sleep at night.”
You paused a beat before going on, drawing the line out.
“And I drive up and down the strip, up and down, until the come-down and I realize my dumb ass come clear to Las Vegas.”
Everybody laughed, but not me: I’ve heard the story a dozen times. And there was something strained about their laughter now—feedback, I want to call it, that fly-buzz of a blown speaker—and something in Eric’s smile, too, a definite edge, although his question seemed innocent enough:
“Denver to Vegas,” he said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “How long that drive take?” And just like that, something clicked.
And when the beer comes I promise myself, Ten minutes. If he’s not here in ten minutes, then I’m gone. And sixteen minutes go by before you slouch through the door with Lucy. I don’t know she is Lucy yet. Right now, she is just this howlingly beautiful girl staring out at the bar with a sort of “fuck off” expression on her face. Fishnets under cutoff shorts, Chuck Taylors, a white halter with red flowers—marigold, maybe, narcissus—stitched on each of the breasts. Her hair’s this bleach job, clumsy and uneven but it looks good anyway, and I picture her with the bottle, her body balanced on the rim of the tub and her hair coiled around her shoulder like a thick, black snake. My breath catches.
You’re wearing the same clay-smeared blue jeans and Timberlands you were wearing at the worksite, although you’ve traded the sweat-yellowed tank top for another that announces, BEACH. You have your arm draped over her shoulders and your hand hangs between the blossoms in a casually proprietary way that will eventually make me despise you. When you flop into the booth opposite mine, I feel this happy pang of envy. That Lucy feeling.
“Happy birthday,” she says, the scowl fading as she holds out her hand, “I’m Lucy.” And her smile surprises me, how it is sweet and even a little shy.
“Don’t mention the birthday, hon,” you advise, “this man’s old.”
So Lucy fixes me in place with eyes blue as antifreeze, piercing as rusty needles. “Are you one of those old guys who just looks young?”
Or maybe I mishear, or misremember. Maybe it’s, “Are you one of those young guys who just looks old?”
“Depends,” I tell her. “Is twenty-seven old?”
My hand has found its way to the top of my skull, just visible in the tilted mirror over the booth, and the skin like a hot stone under my fingertips. But she doesn’t notice, she’s reeling off their names in a dirge, going:
Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Brian Jones…
And then I’m going: “Kurt Cobain.”
“Kurt Cobain,” you agree. “Exactly. And here’s the deal, Thumbs. Twenty-seven isn’t old, but twenty-eight is ancient.”
And Lucy starts talking shotguns, the mechanics of operating trigger with toe.
I needed no reminder that at work it was different, that at work we were strangers to one another. That add-on, for example, end of August. Wildfire smoke lay thick enough to choke by then, to turn tedium into torture. I was holding fast while you came through with the nailgun, pop-pop-pop, shifting to make room for you as you drew down the near side of the plywood. But when I wrapped my fingers under the bottom edge of the sheet, you warned:
“Don’t do that.”
“Put your fingers there. Plywood’s liable to break your fuckin’ hand when I come through.”
I was used to it by then, all that insider stuff, your habit of talking like you knew better. A week earlier you’d shown up to work with a handful of Oxys rolled up in a ziplock bag, run your mouth about your hookup: Perfect, you kept telling me, Lucy’s a hospice nurse. When the patient dies, she just…
“Don’t worry about it,” I said flatly. What did you know? “I’ll be fine.”
“No, you won’t. Move that hand, Thumbs.”
But I worked my knuckles further under the plywood. Fifteen a pill you were charging. And you brought the tip down, then came the hisspop! of the pneumatic, then a rush of pain and my own voice strange and far off-sounding when it called out. After that I remember just a confusion of cursing, you laughing your ass off as the foreman pried my hand loose from the splintery jaws of the frame.
“I told him and told him,” you laughed, “I told him, ‘Move that hand, Thumbs!’”
And a summer passed like the quiet before a punch line, like the hot rush of an express train on the middle track. Then September. Then October, which was the month my father began to die again. You and I were sitting in his truck, before work. We had a baggy full of crank and a ball-peen hammer and maybe ten minutes to sunrise. We used the dashboard, breaking it up, and though I was worried about cracking the vinyl, I never said so: by then, I was beyond arguing.
And then you said, “Know what we ought to do, it gets warmer?”
I sat there waiting for the punchline, but it never came. Instead, you looked embarrassed to have had the idea, to suggest that our friendship extend beyond the weird vagaries of getting high.
“Where at?” I wondered, but I’m thinking you didn’t hear me, couldn’t make out the question over the tap, tap, tap of ball-peen against dashboard. And I might have asked again but an ugly blue flame was hissing in the dark, solid and blade-sharp, and you held it to the bowl and took a rip before handing it over to me. So you would remain a mystery, but maybe that cuts both ways: two days earlier I’d sat in an oncologist’s office, quiet as he explained the dime-sized agony in my father’s head was a metastasis, was the cancer come again. Later, I’d watched my father weeping at the card table in his kitchen and tried to feel something beyond a vague desire to get high.
I held the flame to the bowl, saw the vapor billowing inside, gathering like a wild fog. I breathed in, plastic bubblegum, I held it. There was nothing but the sun burning up the edge of the mountains, the frame gridded and cross-hitched like a cartoon jail.
“Just wait,” you said.
We finished what was left of the bowl and stepped from the cab of the truck, out into the cold. Down the canyon, it was still Indian summer, but up here it was bare-knuckled winter. And that’s what I felt, winter, this icy tingling toward the back of my skull, and every sound crisp and clean: my boots in the gravel, that un-sound of the wind going over the top of the mountain. And then, as the first rays of the sun stabbed out from the east, we heard Jake Lundeen’s truck winding up the lane.
“Shit,” you said.
“Shit,” I concurred, because being friendly with the boss was asking for trouble. And because I could feel it now, just like you’d warned, I could feel that high coming on, this diesel train moving up my spine. And what did my eyes tell that the rest of me couldn’t?
We watched Jake step out onto the gravel, fix us in place with his glare. “Boys,” he said, “gimme hand.”
I couldn’t tell you why Lundeen never fired me. It’s a small miracle that I’ve beaten him to it, that I’ve quit—or anyway, quit showing up—before he had the chance to let me go. And I swear, that’s what I thought was coming when we’d done hauling the generator and tool chest and ladders and levels from the truck bed.
“LJ,” he called, “I talk to you a second?”
I made my way over to him as that big diesel pulled into my brain, its engine turning and turning and turning in the snow. This was a new, ugly kind of high. I could feel in my hands this hunger for work, a powerful desire to take hold of something: a hammer, a skill-saw, somebody’s neck.
“Fine,” I said, and because I smelled bait: “What?”
He gave me a smile I couldn’t read: “Just asking.” I did not even think to turn, to leave.
“You and Brian are getting to be pretty good friends,” he went on.
“Yeah,” I told him, “guess so.”
He was quiet for a second, watching you draw the ladder up to the rafters, pull hammer and hanger from your belt.
“I need you to do me a favor,” he said. “I need you to keep an eye on him for me.” Maybe I nodded. I think I must have gone pale.
“We’ve had some stuff missing. Little stuff, mostly. I’m not worried about the little stuff. But, look—”
I peeled back my eyelids, jumped out of my brain. He said it again, said, “Look: how’s your mom?”
Because, I forgot to mention, she’d quit him, too, had her own place by summer’s end, a condominium on Wynkoop: We don’t have anything in common, was as much as she ever told me about it. And yeah, I get that, but since when does love make such considerations?
Bow, turn, change partners. We’re in the honkytonk down the road from Dad’s place, dancing. Or rather, you and Lucy dance while I stand against the far wall. When we got here about an hour ago, I knew better than to be surprised you knew all the changes, all the weaves and turns. I knew better than to be surprised that you looked easy up there in your blue jeans, in your steel-toed boots, in your shirt to match the very red of Lucy’s gingham dress, to match the very red of her lipstick when she tipped her mouth to my ear: “What should we do while we’re waiting?” You stood up at the bar, lost among the cowboys, buying a round. And I must’ve turned red, explaining, Dunno. And, Gotta take a leak. And the walls of the bathroom a chipped red to match shirt, dress, lips.
I know better, but that’s not all I know. I know if the chemo doesn’t work, there are experimental options available. I know what is meant by the words medical trial. I know I can leave anytime I want, walk the three blocks to my dad’s place, text some pseudo-apology about an upset stomach, migraine, hay fever.
But now your eyes have locked on mine, now you’re reading me from across the room, now you shake your head, like, Don’t you dare leave. I glance toward the door, already knowing I can’t go, not now. Your mouth splits open. Even from where I’m standing, even over the music, I can hear you, your voice pitched somewhere between moan and scream.
You beat your chest, you gather Lucy up by the knees and throw her over your shoulder. I catch a glimpse, the whole room does, of a beautiful turquoise hourglass under the hem of Lucy’s dress. She knows her part, she starts to shriek, play-beating her fists against your back. And I know my part, too: I laugh.
Two days later we’re up in Castle Rock, that reno. We’re hunched in the shade, listening to you tell about that dance hall, the sweet little blondie you took home with you, how you banged your chest and tore out with the girl over your shoulder, Tarzan-and-Jane style.
The rest of the crew is laughing, but I know better. I know you knew the girl. I know you didn’t take her home with you, either. I know you and me and Lucy lurched down the street, that I warned you to be quiet when we slammed through the front door of my dad’s house.
“He’s a light sleeper,” I explained, but the truth is, he could’ve slept through a carpet bombing: these headaches he’s been getting.
I led you upstairs, to the guest room. The nights were already getting cold, so I fetched a quilt from the linen closet. When I came back, you and Lucy were sitting on the edge of the bed. Lucy had taken off her dress.
Oh, I said. Sorry. You asked what I was sorry for. I never answered you, instead I walked to where you were sitting, the quilt held out in front of me. I wasn’t sure where to put my eyes, they kept finding turquoise between her legs.
“Night,” I said, shoving the quilt at you, turning for the door.
But you stopped me, Wait a sec. And I turned around, cringing, the dog who knows what’s coming.
“Give her a goodnight kiss.”
I glanced at the doorway, thinking of my dad, sleeping (please, god) in his room on the first floor. I wondered what he would make of this: me bent over a naked girl, kissing her on the cheek while some jackass rubbed her thigh.
What I’m remembering at the gig in Castle Rock, while Eric and Tim howl with laughter: hot, breathless shame.
“No,” you said. “Give her a real kiss.” And so I did, I gave her a real kiss.
And was it you who’d worked loose the knot around her neck? Was it you who’d tugged it past her hips when you heard me coming up the stairs? Her breasts were a little bigger than I’d imagined, with areolas so dark they were nearly purple. You spoke, gentle but firm: “Now kiss her here.” You’d moved her underwear off to the side, I can remember a perfectly hairless slit, and your index and pointer beside it like a pair of ugly turnips. Was it your idea? And had you expected anything but a thirty-second blur, my thumb plunged inside your girlfriend while she pretended to like it?
You leave almost everything out. You don’t mention how I pulled the door shut and smiled, trying to show you it was no big deal: nothing had happened, after all, just a kiss. You don’t mention, bragging in the shade while the boys egg you on, the next morning. You don’t mention sitting at the breakfast table with my dad, when our shame caught up with you and you could hardly meet his eye. You don’t mention any of that. Me, neither.
When Tim and Eric have gone, I want something concrete, something that will suck the strangeness from the air. I want a pill. Hey, I say, you holding?
And like how at first it was kind of extracurricular. I got high after work, on weekends—maybe, if things were slow, I popped one on the job, cleared my head. But before long my head wasn’t ever too clear, I was walking through this fog, and when it started to drift away a horrible panic would settle over me. And then I was getting high everywhere, I simply was high, balanced on the edge of dreaming. The whole time, panic waited around the corner of the next hour. When winter dried up work and money, I found myself staring down at the compressor—brand new, hardly a chip in the glossy red paint—then up at the pawnbroker, who squinted at me from across bullet-proof glass.
“What d’you mean you cain’t find the ticket?”
Consider if I’d saved myself the trouble of meeting you. Consider that afternoon, my mother pointing across dusty emptiness, up at the banner where Jake Lundeen’s name was printed in electric-yellow: Look.
I shifted my eyes back to the road.
“Let me know if you think you want a job,” she prodded. “Might be good to get out of that house.”
And I nodded, knowing better: me, a construction worker?
I drove slow, going back to my dad’s place, wondering all the things I hadn’t let myself wonder before then. I wondered why I’d waited until he was better to come home. I wondered how long before the cancer came again. I wondered how long we’d be able to stand one another if it didn’t.
When I got back to his place, there was no doorknob. I found him crouched on the floor in the TV room. He had the classifieds section of the Denver Post spread out in front of him, and scattered across the paper was every last doorknob in the house. He had a can of WD-40 and he was working the mouth of the can into each one of the casings.
I said, “What are you doing?”
It came out wrong, more accusation than question.
His hands shook, and the oil was streaked thick and black over the brass. He reared up at me: “The fuck’s it look like, LJ?”
But it didn’t look like anything. And without saying so, without offering the help I knew he didn’t want, I went up the stairs, to the room where my mother had slept, those strange nights at the beginning, the nights she couldn’t stand to leave him again. I stood there, feeling like I’d forgotten to do something but not remembering what. I sat down on the twin bed and took out my cell phone and called my mother to see could Jake Lundeen give me any work. Let’s call it premonition, then, a thing that hadn’t dragged itself into was yet. A night sky littered with stars. A cackling fire. The grunt of a park warden’s Chevy, reminder of all the things you’re sorry for.