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Approaching Lightness

Monday

From across the street Jimmy Woods looked like a bored teenager who’d begun the early stages of melting. The covered porch stretched the entire front of the house—two whole rooms—but the hot August morning air was still and close, the sun having hazed the streets and houses to a sallow milk and lemonade, the humidity chasing every movement, sweat like tiny boils all over his skin. The radio behind him announced it would only get hotter. It was only nine in the morning but he’d already taken on the vacant stare of a professional daydreamer, a lump in a plastic sun chair, having slumped until his chin was nearly level with the armrests, a young man who had the entire summer at his fingertips yet still felt empty-handed, as though there were so many thing that he could be doing that just deciding what to do seemed to take all of his energy and ambition. Nothing ever happened here and the stillness of everything made it seem like nothing ever would. Chalky stripes of sidewalk unrolled perpendicular from front doors like piano keys. Rectangles of dried bronze grass filled the gaps between houses. The street was a river of hot black, jeweled with bits of dirt and gravel, tossing up streamers of heat. The trees stood motionless, the houses simmered, the entire neighborhood bracing for one great big bombastic nothing of a day.  
Look out, a car just went by. Rush hour.
   Jimmy stared and blinked, stared and blinked, took a sip of water, stared and blinked. The morning passed, a total of ten cars and three pedestrians. Nothing ever happened here. Nothing. A summer of blinks and nothing had changed.
   It was sometime around noon when he stood, sweat sliding down his legs, making his bare feet on the wood floorboards sound gummy and gross, and made his way into the house. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the dark; his mom insisted that they kept the windows and drapes closed, following some ancient whack-job decree that somehow a house would stay cooler if everything were fully enclosed like an oven or a furnace, when all it would have taken was installing an air conditioner—but no, the money they could have spent on an air conditioner instead went to purchase a two week long trip to cool, breezy Alaska for good ol’ Mom and Dad, who no doubt at this very moment were wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants as whales danced and spouted water for their pleasure. He tread through the living room, tilting somewhat to the left with the slope of the floor, dropping his enormous and empty plastic cup on the kitchen table as he pissed and washed his hands in scalding hot water, grimacing with a sadistic joy as steam fogged the mirror.
   He refilled his giant plastic cup with cold water and dug into the ice pail. Empty. He looked to the sink; he’d forgotten to refill the trays again. He slammed the door shut and the huff of cold air teased his skin. Nose-high was the note. Hanging, pinioned by a red, yellow, and blue butterfly magnet, a garish color combination that made him queasy for some reason. His mother’s overly-cheery handwriting groused out flight numbers, times, and a viciously joyful, “Be back before you know it!” He studied it coolly, taking it in one more time, getting its full measure. Wars were started over less offensive gestures. That little piece of buff-colored stationary seemed to concentrate and clarify everything he couldn’t stand about his parents, this house, this town, his life. Jimmy gripped the freezer door handle, opened it, and slammed it shut. Slam! Slam! Slam! Slam! again and again, harder and harder, only stopping when everything that was attached to the refrigerator spilled to the floor. He shouted, “PIG FUCKERS!” though it didn’t seem to be directed at anyone or anything in particular. The note had floated lazily to the edge of the kitchen table where it teetered until he swatted it, sending it to the vinyl floor. He marched back to the front porch, sat low, hunched in on himself, seething. He blinked and stared, blinked and stared. He reached for his water and realized he’d forgotten it. He sank deeper into the chair. The heat folded in around him, pressing on him. His gaze went long, the full 1,000 yards. The haze stirred everything to a chalky blur. Time became sluggish, each hot, humid moment stretching outward. He could feel the tack of his body slackening, his heartbeat slow, his arms and legs akimbo. He was part of a still life now, an inert thing just sitting there, another piece of the scenery.
   His best friend Kenny had had the right idea when he took his summer job. Kenny had cash in his pocket and something to do while Jimmy mastered the art of bedsores.
   A gust of wind purled through the trees, a blue van passed, headed to the prison, a raven landed high in the oak across the street. Noon rush hour. He forced himself up and went inside for the water. He took a sip, looked at the note on the floor.
   When his parents, accountant Doug and nurse Carol, had escaped Catfish Bend, Iowa for their cruise to Cool, Breezy Alaska, Jimmy had thought their absence would be a weight off him, an unshackling, and for a while he felt free, unburdened, the happiest he’d been in a long time, until gradually the euphoria wore off, boredom set in and an unmistakable feeling of being abandoned and overlooked crept in—why the fuck wasn’t he invited to Cool, Breezy Alaska? Why would they leave him, their youngest, behind like a forgotten toiletry or tube of sunscreen? While a part of him conceded that if they’d forced him to go—and they definitely would have had to force 16 year-old him to go, that he’d resent both it and them and pout and heave petulant sighs the entire trip—he couldn’t escape the feeling that at the center of his abandonment and rejection was the simple fact that his parents just didn’t like him and his being ditched, being Home Alone-ed was because they couldn’t wait to get away from him as much as he couldn’t wait for them to be gone. Before the weekend was over he took to wallowing in a palpable sense of desertion and grievance—and the accompanying boost of self-pity that came with it. As the hot, steamy hours passed, his resentment redoubled on itself as another grievance surfaced: not only was he denied the chance at a change of weather and scenery, a chance to escape the eternal doldrums of summer but while he was stuck at home, all alone, they would be dancing and laughing and carousing and smiling, that they would be happy while he sat stewing in his own juices, festered and boiled.
   Jimmy returned to the porch. There was a girl. There’s always a girl. Laura. She was somewhere out there, not thinking of him, hoping someone would notice her. Kenny’s sneer, his taunting voice echoing the most oft repeated refrain between them: “Ask her out yet?” Kenny would snicker and tell some fantastic lie that give Jimmy a moment of hope before the reality of the lie set in. “Dude, heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another she wants to talk to you.”
   First of all, Jimmy was Kenny’s only friend. Secondly, Kenny was a fucking idiot. It wasn’t as though Laura was a John Hughes girl, so far out of his league that the idea of his asking her out was absurdity itself; she was a quiet, unassuming, pale string of a girl who wore glasses and was kind to everyone who wasn’t a complete jackass. For show and tell in the fourth grade she brought a baby bunny that had all the girls cooing and for a brief moment there seemed the possibility that she was going to butterfly, come out of her shell and blossom before the whole class but instead she took her bunny, coddled it, and retreated into what seemed to be a very contented sense of tranquility and repose, carrying the bunny with her for the entire day. She always said “Hi” to Jimmy when they passed in the halls, she stole glances at him over her shoulder in the one class they had together. He liked her, he was pretty sure she liked him, but…
   He had tried to explain it to Kenny once but the words came out awkward and wrong. How could he explain it? It didn’t feel right. He didn’t feel right. A wheel rutted in a gully. A knotted bit of twine. A busted filament. How could he move on to her when he couldn’t even get past himself? He was as stuck in himself as he was stuck on the porch, nowhere to go, nothing to do.
   Other than the brief burst of joy when his parents left, the last time he remembered being unstuck and un-miserable was in April. For about the 1000th time he’d asked Kenny if he could drive Kenny’s car, the most improbable thing about Kenny: a 1965 red Corvette convertible he’d inherited from a well-off bachelor uncle who’d died in a freak hunting accident over a year ago. When Kenny said, “Sure” Jimmy was stunned. Kenny didn’t even drive Kenny’s car, it stayed in his parents’ garage, covered with canvas, only brought out once every few weeks to keep the engine purring and to examine the car for any trouble areas. “Sure. If you’ll go along with a little April Fool’s joke.” Yep, there it was, the catch.
   With the top down, wind and drizzle freezing their hair to porcupine quills, they drove around town for a while, pointlessly, never going over 30 MPH, catcalling pretty and ugly girls with equal disdain until it began to get foggy and Kenny instructed Jimmy to swing by Kenny’s house. He set an aluminum folding ladder into the “back seat,” a space suited for maybe one and a half suitcases, and with a delicious smirk said, “East.”
   “East?” Jimmy asked.
   “Holiday Inn East.”
   “Uh-uhn,” Jimmy said, “no way, man.”
   “Go.”
   They drove to the prison. With the lights off, they silently crept up to the shortest part of the tall sandstone walls, Highway 61 a few yards away. With instructions to keep the engine idling, Kenny quietly unfolded and planted the ladder. He climbed to the top of the wall, spread apart the ring of razor wire and sat. Jimmy stared up in slack-jawed disbelief, his heart rounding third, his clammy palms hot and viscous on the steering wheel. Kenny waited. When a search light found him, he banged the ladder against the wall twice and yelled artificially loud, “OH. SHIT.” He slid down the ladder and quickly folded it up. He took such deliberate and meticulous care while putting it in the back seat Jimmy was tempted to say something along the lines of “ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME WITH THE LADDER?” Searchlights sought out the ‘Vette. Kenny slid into the passenger seat, carefully closing his door. With the widest grin Jimmy had ever seen on him sober, Kenny shouted in mock fear, “GO, DUDE! THEY’RE GONNA CATCH US! GO! GO! GOOOOO!” As the wailing prison alarms ruffled the still brume, Jimmy gunned the engine and sped north on 61, not waiting for permission from Kenny to floor it. “April fools, bitches!” Kenny yelled as he gave the finger to the prison. Jimmy let out a sonorous yawp as they swerved onto a country road, nearing 90 miles per hour on a hilly straight away. “Don’t pick up hitchhikers” signs jumped out at them through the swill, the damp foggy midnight air layered on them like silt.

Copyright 2020 by Andrew Wallingford