Vin was on the phone. Warren and Trace were going swimming on Memorial Day at this quarry out near Perryopolis and did I want to come? All I can say now is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.
It was Saturday afternoon, Memorial Day weekend. I had been cleaning the kitchen when he called. The window was propped up with a two-by-four. A warm humid breeze blew in, slightly tinged with sulfur from the coke works over the hill. Kitchen cleaning hadn’t been our specialty that year. Now there was a smell inside that wouldn’t go away, like we were culturing penicillin. The open windows helped with that, sulfur or not. The warm weather also meant the radiators had stopped banging.
Vin and I had gotten the apartment so we could skip the long bus commute to campus every day from home. At least, that’s what we told our folks. My year in the apartment had been a blur. Grain punch in red solo cups. Differential equations. FORTRAN code. Loud parties and Aerosmith and Boston and the Cure and R.E.M. and The Violent Femmes. Taking Marci to the top of fire escape to make out. By February I’d been hundreds of dollars in debt to Vin for rent and food and in danger of failing half my classes. My plan for the summer was to work on campus, banking as much cash as I could, and to re-take the second semester of Linear Circuits And Systems, so I would still be an engineering student in the fall. Vin had gone home after finals, and was working in his dad’s plumbing business.
Our apartment crouched in the back of the first floor of a four-story building on the farthest corner from campus that could still reasonably be advertised as walking distance. The three other shitty apartments on the first floor were empty now. So were most of the twelve apartments on the three floors above them. I didn’t mind. It was quieter that way. And safer. One weekend in the fall, the building two doors down from us had burned. Three weeks after that, the dickheads above us knocked over a candle and set their balcony on fire. They put it out with a bucket of water before the firetruck got there. Across the street was the bulletproof KFC, where you could get fried chicken and biscuits through a wall of two-inch-thick ballistic glass. I guess I couldn’t blame Marci when she stopped coming over, not that I had called her either.
So yeah, swimming on Memorial Day sounded great, even if I had to go with Warren.
The last time I’d seen Warren had been at a party at the apartment in April. Not coincidentally, it was also the last time I took Marci to the top of the fire escape. The fire escape was the one treasure in that building. That night she had leaned backward out over the railing, over the dark drop to the parking lot. She dared me to lean in to her, but I balked. She laughed and grasped the open neck of my jacket in both hands and pulled until we were eye to eye, nose to nose, my weight against her, against the steel railing. Then she turned away, suddenly coy, as I tried to kiss her. My hand found the small of her back, that warm smooth spot beneath the rough wool of her sweater. From below us, through an open window, we heard my friends screaming the lyrics to Blister in the Sun.
I kissed her neck, warm in the cool air. Behind her thicket of curls, past the rooftops and trees, all the lights of the city spread out for us. Far to the left was the flare where the coke works burned off gas waste. It whipped in the breeze like a glowing orange pennant at the top of its tall stack. A hundred eighty degrees around from it, to the right, the half-lit glass and steel verticals of downtown peeked over and around the hill. Filling the space between, across the silent black flow of the Monongahela, the rectangular grid of the South Side, dense with low buildings, receded in perspective, then gave way to the jumbled pile of houses that rose up the slopes to Arlington and Mt. Oliver and the starless charcoal sky. In the middle of it all, the great red neon octagon of the Stroh’s Clock on the Duquesne Brewery told us it was one-fifteen A.M.
It was hard to keep hold of her hand as we raced down toward the apartment and my bedroom. Our footsteps clattered and resonated along the steel stairs. The rear fire door opened into the first floor hallway.
We stepped inside and stopped. Ahead of us, Warren faced off with Rudy in the open doorway of my apartment. Rudy was wearing a t-shirt with that picture of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. The door slammed behind us, as Warren jammed an index finger right between Einstein’s eyes. The music was loud and I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Rudy replied with a shrug and a smirk.
As we came near, Warren turned to me.
“Where do you find your asshole friends?” he said.
“I was going to ask the same question,” said Rudy, still smirking.
Warren dipped his shoulder and faked a right cross, almost too fast to see. His fist stopped an inch from Rudy’s nose. Rudy flinched, but far too late to have saved himself. His eyes were white all the way around. He held up both hands, palms outward, and backed away into the doorway.
“That’s right!” said Warren. “Fuckin pussy.”
“Hey!” I said.
He turned on me. “You have something to say?”
He looked me in the eye and hot fear spread from someplace above my balls through my belly and up my spine. I looked at the floor.
That instant, Vin loomed tall in the doorway. His boyish face, normally tolerant and welcoming, turned to ice. “What the fuck, Warren? That’s not cool. Rudy is our guest. Take it somewhere else.”
Warren looked from Vin to me and back to Vin. He turned and punched the wall. Water-damaged plaster crumbled, opening a crater that exposed the lath. Warren stalked off down the hall and out the front door toward the street.
“Wow, who was that guy?” Rudy asked as we went into the apartment.
“A guy we grew up with,” said Vin.
“Does he go to Pitt?”
“What’s his problem?”
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
“Nothing,” Rudy replied. “I was telling the story of Bobby Z and the Q-V-cross-B incident, and everyone was laughing, and then he just came up and started calling us stupid.”
F = qV × B is a an equation from electromagnetism. It’s important for things like electric motors. They taught us a hand-sign called the right-hand-rule to help remember which way the forces act. In our class this kid who sat in front of me had turned the right-hand-rule into a gesture for whacking off. The prof saw it and walked out in disgust. Rudy and I thought it was hilarious.
Marci had heard this story before. “I would’ve hit you sooner,” she said. “Nerds.”
Rudy ignored her. He said, “Anyway, I told your friend he’d think it was funny if he understood the background, but he just got more pissed off.”
Warren was gone now. I told Rudy that he should drop it.
I got Marci in my room and shut the door. When I turned she was on my bed, sitting with her knees drawn to her chest. She had wedged herself into the corner at an angle that made it impossible to get next to her.
“Way to jump in back there, dude,” she said.
“What are you talking about?”
“Rudy’s your friend, right?”
“And Warren too?”
“More or less.”
“But you grew up with him. You know him.”
“Why didn’t you get between them? Why didn’t you… I don’t know… say something?”
She didn’t stay that night. The next week I looked at my grades and my schedule became a death march of all-nighters: computer lab and library, and home at dawn for a few hours of sleep and back again. I was too busy to notice that she hadn’t called. Just before finals, I called her, but got her machine. She left me a message on the morning of the day of her last exam. She apologized for being so busy, and said something half-hearted about staying in touch. Then she was gone.
“Jesus. How far is this place?” Warren asked. He and Vin each had a handle of the cooler. We had been taking turns.
“I dunno. Not much farther, I think,” said Trace.
“You said that five minutes ago.”
Trace hadn’t really known where he was going, but after a while we’d found the trail on a road thick with woods, across the Youghiogheny from Perryopolis where the hills started to get steep. The trail started off looking like maybe we could drive down it, but there was a clearing off the side with some cars parked, a couple crappy compacts and one of those lame third-generation Mustangs. Trace parked his Corolla there and we started walking.
The trail descended along the steep side of a valley. On the right side of the trail, the wooded hillside rose above us. On the left it dropped off. Both above and below were too steep, too clogged with trees and undergrowth to be passable, even on foot. Now and then, thick tree roots and huge rocks interrupted the ruts of the trail. Our car would never have made it. Soon a young couple came along in an old Jeep Waggoneer and stopped when they saw us.
“Hey how far to the swimming hole?” Vin asked.
The woman in the driver’s seat answered, “A ways. Maybe a mile.”
“Damn. Can you give us a lift?” asked Trace.
We squeezed in the back of the Jeep, between some lawn chairs and a big, friendly black dog with bad breath. Then we all bumped down the rest of the way over the roots and rocks. At the the bottom we could hear music and the sound of rushing water. We tumbled out in a kind of parking lot, a rough a clearing where someone had spread a thin layer of large-gauge gravel. Beside the Jeep were other Jeeps and Blazers and pickup trucks with raised suspensions. A few yards of trees and growth screened us from the water, with some paths cutting through. We lugged our cooler toward the noise.
Our path came out of the woods on a rocky ledge. In front of us was a deep pond or pool, some sixty feet across, formed where a gushing creek fell over a twelve-foot drop. Ledges and cliffs surrounded the pool on three sides. A jutting rock split the waterfall in two. The falls were on our right and we were level with the top of them. Across the pond the cliffs rose higher, thirty feet or more, then broke backward into steep, tree-covered slopes. The trees themselves reached higher still. Together the cliff and trees gave the impression of a wall a hundred feet high or more. Upstream of the falls, the floor of the valley was a broad, flat stone bed. The creek cut a twisty network of channels in it. You could walk across the stream in the shallows, if you took care to avoid the deep narrow flumes. Across the creek, the cliffs continued up around a bend and out of sight.
In that flat area above the falls, a couple dozen locals sat in lawn chairs or stood, grouped around charcoal grills and coolers. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. They ranged from our age up to early thirties. In bandannas and black concert t-shirts, and cut-off jeans, they looked just like us. Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein was playing on a boombox. They all ignored us, except for one guy. It was tough to tell his age. He could have been anywhere between twenty and thirty-five. He was not tall but broad, with thick muscles in a tight tank top. His most prominent feature was his mustache. It was not the wispy, transparent travesty so popular and so inexplicable among the young men of western Pennsylvania at the time. Dark and impenetrable, this mustache cleared the way for the rest of his face. It announced his presence, and left no doubt that he was there.
Mustache Guy fixed us with a hard stare for a few seconds, unsmiling, like he was taking attendance. Then he turned back to his grill without saying anything.
We turned to find a place to sit. When Vin had told me about this place, I had expected a something like state park, but it was not anything like that. The locals drank beer and grilled burgers right out in the creek bed. Empty beer cans, labels faded half away, lay in the brush. Graffiti spattered the cliffs across the creek: the usual mixture of lame love declarations and swastikas painted by downy-lipped losers.
We didn’t have a grill or chairs, so we tucked our cooler in a shady spot along the ledge a few feet from where we stood. I stuffed my wallet and keys in my high-tops and covered them with my socks. I took off my shirt and looked at the water below us.
“This isn’t a quarry,” I said. “It’s just a pond.”
“It’s a plunge basin,” said Vin.
We all stared at him.
“The fuck is that?” said Warren.
“A plunge pool. Didn’t you take geology?” he said. “The water and rocks dig out a deep pond under the waterfall.”
Warren looked at him like he’d grown another head. Then he said, “Whatever. I’m plunging!” He backed up, took three running steps, leaped from the ledge, and pulled a cannonball. When he surfaced, he yelled, “Jump you losers!”
Trace and Vin jumped at the same time and I watched and waited for them to surface. Vin looked up at me, “Dude, come on! It’s deep!”
“Jump! Don’t be a pussy!” said Warren.
Don’t be a pussy. When we were thirteen, a rumor had gone around school: a bunch of kids from the neighboring borough were coming down to our town for a rumble — as if things like that ever happened in suburban Pittsburgh. That Friday night amped-up boys packed the Italian Village pizza shop. When nobody showed up to fight, Warren assembled a posse of four or five of us to walk up the road and find the cowards. To prove he was serious, he produced a two-foot steel chain he had stolen from the junior high auditorium. He swung it around by a kind of hoop on one end, and struck the other end against the brick sidewalk, making sparks. A mile up the road, we found nobody. Warren pushed on. We were bound to find those dicks, he said, and when we did he was going to kick their asses. We did find someone after a while. I finished the night knocked down in a shop doorway, chased down and sucker-punched by some kids twice my size. That was nothing compared to what Warren got, standing his ground. But you wouldn’t know it to talk to him on Monday. We had been the pussies for running.
I took a single big step and leaped. It seemed like I was in the air for minutes, though I know it wasn’t more than a second. The water was cold and clear and dark, and seemed to go down and down. Coming up, I misjudged how deep I was, and exhaled too soon. I hit the surface in a panic for air. The others were already swimming to the banks.
We all got out and found the way back up to the ledge for another go around. Warren went up above the falls. He picked his way across the stream to the jutting rock that split the falls in two. The rest of us stayed on the ledge on the side and watched.
“Make sure you jump out,” I said. “That rock sticks out below you. It’s not straight down.”
“Fuck off, I see it.” He took two big steps and hurled himself forward, clearing the rocks by a mile. Then we all jumped again.
Vin took a long time to come up this time. When he did he blew a big spray like a whale and gasped.
“Man. It’s deep,” he said. “Hold yourself stiff and see if you can reach the bottom. I just kept going down.”
We settled into a cycle: jumping, swimming, climbing, drinking beer, jumping, and swimming some more. I lost count of how many times we went around. Then one time I hit the water and crotch of my cut-offs exploded. I surfaced with my shorts turned inside out and wrapped around my waist. Those old jeans had been pretty worn, and maybe I’d cut them a bit too short. Each jump filled them with water like a parachute. Forcing all that water up into them, hard, over and over, had ripped them apart. Now they were a skirt.
I pulled the denim back down around my hips while treading water. Nobody said anything about it when I got out. But I felt exposed. I went to Vin.
“Dude, what the fuck do I do?”
“My shorts. They ripped. Look.”
He looked down and laughed. “Hah! Yeah that’s pretty funny.”
He kept laughing. “It is.”
“Man, what can you do?” he said. “Go home and change? It would take three hours. Look, nobody will notice. I wouldn’t have noticed if you hadn’t pointed it out,” Vin said. “Nobody cares, anyway. Let your balls swing free, man. Have another beer.”
So I did.
There is no comfortable way to sit on the ground in a miniskirt. I lounged in the weeds on our ledge, watching groups of people trickle in through the woods, as the afternoon ripened. I had a buzz on. A bottle of High Life warmed in my hand. Vin had gone up among the locals to try to bum a smoke. I didn’t know where Warren and Trace had got to, and I didn’t care. The woods crowded over the creek from the steep sides of the valley, as if to protect it. The springtime crispness of the morning had given way to muggy summer heat. Down the valley, the hills receded, green and grainy, to a sky whitening with haze. The deep notes of the falls rumbled beneath layers of rush and hiss.
We had gotten there early. As more people arrived, a rough organization emerged among the locals and tourists like us. The falls formed a kind of dividing line. The locals, many driving down in pickup trucks and jeeps, came with lawn furniture and grills and claimed the broad flat area above the falls. The tourists came on foot and traveled light. They dumped their backpacks and small coolers on the banks and ledges around the pool, below the falls.
It was a soft border. The locals still jumped and swam in the pool, and the tourists still ventured above the falls. But each group had its home turf to hang out in, unmolested by the others, at least for a while.
The height of the drop-off and the noise of the water blocked both sight and sound. If you were in the pool it was impossible to see or hear what was happening above the falls. Likewise, anyone on the flats above had to go right to the edge to see what was going on in the pool below. By luck, we had snagged a prime spot. Our ledge had easy access to the water, but was on the same level as the top of the falls. We could see everything.
Two girls sat on the bank of the pond below me. Twenty minutes before, they had walked in and stopped to chat with some local guys at one of the grills. Then they came down and jumped in the pond, right where we had first jumped. Now one of them looked up toward me. Cute. She turned and said something to her friend and they laughed. I wondered if they could see my shorts.
The girl who had looked at me stood up and climbed up to my ledge. She had short straight brown hair and a field of freckles that originated at the bridge of her nose, and seemed to extend over her entire body. She wore a one-piece strapless swimsuit that cut oddly across the top of her breasts.
She smiled. “Hi.”
“Hey,” I toasted her with my beer and waited for her to make a crack about my shorts.
“Do you know where we can get some beer?” she said. “We don’t have ID.”
“I don’t know. I can’t get served either. Anyway, I came in my friend’s car.”
She cocked her head at an angle, still smiling. I was missing something.
Warren had quietly come up behind me. “Give her a beer you moron!” he blurted, making me jump. He opened the cooler and pulled out two bottles and handed her one. “What’s your name?” he asked.
She took the beer and smiled at him. “I’m Lydia,” she said. “Do you have one for my friend, too?”
Warren fished out another bottle. “Where’s your friend?”
“Down there.” Lydia pointed. Her friend waved.
He stopped and looked at her. “That suit makes your tits look funny.”
Her eyes widened and she looked hurt for the briefest moment, but then she laughed. “Fuck you!” she said, still smiling.
“Hah. I’m just goofing!” he smiled back. “I’m Warren.” He extended his hand and she shook it, pinching his palm between her fingers and thumb. Then Warren pointed up, high, across the pond. “That’s Trace,” he said.
Trace was at the top of the cliff, leaning against a tree near the edge. He had found some hidden path up there. He waved, still the handsome stranger that he had been in high school. Trace hadn’t grown up with us. He had arrived in our junior year, transplanted from Texas somewhere, tan and blonde and trailing all the girls behind him. I had no clue that he and Warren even knew each other until he started showing up at parties at our apartment.
Warren and Lydia climbed down to the water. I stayed where I was.
As we all watched, Trace took a big step into the air. One of the girls squealed. He dropped slow, and then fast, his arms out sideways, windmilling, trying to counter a slow backward rotation. His body slapped the water at an angle with a huge sound that echoed in the valley. Warren, Lydia and her friend all said “Ooooh” at the same time.
“That’s gonna sting,” Warren said, laughing.
Trace surfaced and swam over to the trio, his back red. When he climbed out, he smiled and said something I couldn’t hear and they all laughed.
I got up and walked away.
Vin stood a little ways above the falls, smoking with the woman who’d given us the ride down the trail. I hadn’t been able to see much of her from the back of the jeep. I had heard her talk, and gotten an image of someone big and kind of scary, but next to Vin she was small, pale and delicate. Bleached hair, dark at the roots, parted in the middle and swept back like Cherrie Curry from the Runaways. She wore a kind of cropped black denim vest laced up the middle. The lacing wasn’t tied at the top, and the sides curved away from each other like an open zipper. She and Vin were laughing as I walked up.
“Tammy, this is my best bud Dan,” said Vin. “Dude, this is Tammy.”
She caught my hand in a tiny, firm handshake, palm-to-palm. “Hey,” she said. Her voice was not tiny. It attacked the air like a saxophone, or a lawnmower. “Nice skirt.” She grinned at me with small, straight, white teeth.
“It’s the new look in Milan,” I said.
She nodded knowingly, but before she could say anything more, a loud noise like a pack of firecrackers erupted behind me. Everyone turned. Down the creek, fifty yards past the pond, a huge rock jutted into the stream. On top of it two dudes stood firing handguns at a styrofoam cup floating in the water. One was shirtless, with shoulder-length brown hair and the obligatory weak mustache. He held a small black semi-automatic pistol. The other had a marine corps buzzcut and wore a sleeveless black t-shirt with huge confederate battle flags covering the front and back. The two looked about my age. Buzzcut gripped a small, fully automatic assault pistol in one hand. An Uzi. Its magazine extended a foot below his wrist. He sprayed rounds at the surface of the water, but the cup passed out of sight unharmed.
“Aw, Larry and Jerry got their guns out again!” said Tammy.
“Larry and Jerry? Are they twins?”
“No, just brothers. There’s two more, but I think Gary and Kerry ain’t here today.”
“Larry, Jerry, Gary, and Kerry”?
“Yeah, all spelled the same.”
“G-A-R-Y, L-A-R-Y, J-A-R-Y, C-A-R-Y. Gary, Lary, Jary, and Cary,” she said, like it was the most natural thing, but her eyes twinkled.
“Which one’s which?” he asked.
“Lary has the crewcut.”
We watched Lary toss another cup into the creek. As it floated past them, Jary took his turn with the Uzi. He had the discipline his brother lacked. Holding the weapon with two hands, he sighted in on the cup and fired in bursts of two or three rounds at a time, adjusting his aim in between. He sank the cup on his third fusillade. A few locals behind us hooted and cheered.
I wasn’t thrilled. I looked at Vin, but Tammy read my eyes.
“Hey, it’s safe,” she said. “We all been comin’ here for years. They ain’t hit nobody yet. They know better than to shoot up this way.”
I looked around. The locals had been watching and hooting encouragement, but they were losing interest, going back to what they had been doing. No one was alarmed. I shouldn’t have been surprised. All of Pennsylvania got a day off school for the first day of buck season. Every boy and a lot of the girls knew how to shoot. Even in the suburbs my dad had insisted I take rifle safety, and we’d gone to the range.
“I hope they brought the cannon,” said Tammy. “They got a little civil war cannon. It’s real loud.”
Vin looked at me and shrugged. I kind of wanted to see the cannon too.
Lary and Jary were reloading. Vin asked Tammy something about when she’d first come there, but I stopped listening. I was looking at the graffiti on the cliff wall, across the creek. Bob Loves Taci TLA. Terry+Frankie 4EVER — one of those was probably a girl. Led Zepplin — spelled just like that. In the middle of it all was a wide red rectangle with a big blue X connecting the corners. I thought of Lary’s shirt.
Warren sauntered up with Trace and the two girls behind him.
“Hey. We’re gonna go get more beer,” he said. Trace put his arm around Lydia’s friend.
“How long you gonna be?” I asked. “It’ll take a half hour just to get back to the car.”
“Don’t worry about it Danno,” Warren said. “We’ll be back.”
“Don’t leave us stranded,” Vin said.
Warren inclined his head back half a nod and then turned toward the parking lot. He always walked like a boxer entering the ring, head down and forward, eyes up, shoulders rolled, prepared to throw a jab. Lydia followed a few steps behind him. Trace and the other girl brought up the rear, intertwined.
“More beer,” said Tammy, grinning. “That ain’t all they’re gonna get.”
People had been trickling in through the afternoon and no one paid much attention, but when nine hippies showed up all at once, everyone looked. A sharp-eyed girl in a bandanna led the group. She wore a denim jacket with the sleeves cut off and an elaborate, hand-painted skeleton-and-roses filling the back panel.
Close behind her came a thin slouchy fellow like a walking question mark, with long stringy curls and a tiny brown tuft on his chin. Seven others trailed behind in tie-dyes and peasant skirts and cut-off army pants and sandals.
They emerged from the woods right at the falls. The bandanna girl saw the locals, sized up the situation and led her friends in the opposite direction. They settled on the far banks of the pond. Seeing them head away, everyone lost interest, except for Mustache Guy. He watched them from the moment they appeared until they climbed down the ledges out of sight. Even then, he stared a moment longer, then turned and said something to the group sitting around his grill. None of them laughed.
I nudged Tammy and indicated Mustache Guy with my head. “Who’s that guy? Does he own this place?”
“No,” she answered. “He just thinks he does.” She looked me up and down, then caught my gaze and held it. “Probably best just to steer clear of him.”
“Who does own this place?” Vin asked.
She shrugged. “I think it’s state game land.” She swept a hand toward the graffiti-covered cliffs. “Anyway, it’s someone who doesn’t give a shit about it.”
Until now, we hadn’t seen Tammy’s man, the guy who’d ridden shotgun coming down with us in the jeep. But when she swept her arm around, I saw a very tall dark haired guy across the creek near the cliffs, playing with the dog from the jeep. His hair was exactly like hers, except black. When he saw her gesture and us looking, he smiled and waved. Shirtless, in short cutoffs, he looked like a guy who spent a lot of time lifting weights and running. She blew him a kiss. “That’s Tommie,” she said.
The skatepunks arrived over the next hour or so, lanky dudes coming down from the road wearing low canvas sneakers, baggy cargo shorts cut off below the knee, and white sleeveless t-shirts printed with huge, over-saturated, incomprehensible black and white photographs. They came in twos and threes like they had all come from different directions and planned to meet there. Each new group brought another glare from Mustache Guy and muttered words among his friends.
In the end there were at least a dozen punks, swimming and drinking with the rest of us. In the last group to arrive was this black kid with a Mohawk. The sight of him shocked me, and then I was shocked at my own surprise. Back in the city, on campus, on the sidewalks of Forbes Avenue, or in class, there were black people all around. But out in the sticks it was a sea of whiteness. His shirt had a kind of symbolic equation drawn in black marker: peace-sign + anarchy-sign = smiley-face-with-Mohawk. Peace and anarchy make a happy punk.
When the Mohawk guy and his crew arrived, Tammy had been standing behind him with a paper plate loaded with hot dogs. At the same time that they moved off to find their other friends, the edge of the paper plate buckled, and she spilled the hot dogs in the dirt near the side of the creek.
The only other witness to this event besides me was Charlie the dog, who was still with Tommie across the creek. With a singular canine talent for sensing dropped food at long range, Charlie forgot what he was doing ran straight toward the spilled feast, ignoring all obstacles, including the creek.
His mission was aborted when he landed in a deep channel and couldn’t get out. He was stuck. With all four paws on the stream-bed he could stand with his head above water, but that was all. The current, swift so close to the falls, pushed him and he inched downstream. The stone banks there were smooth and wet. There was no place where his paws could grip. Each time he tried to lift his front legs to the bank he lost his grip and the current pushed him faster. He was gaining speed. Tammy was on the bank calling and coaxing, trying to get him to find a way to jump out.
At first, hardly anyone noticed. But as the dog tried and failed to get out, and Tammy kept calling to him, first one person and then another came to help, until we all mobilized for his rescue. Some people lay on the bank, as close as they dared, mindful of what might happen if a person fell in the channel. But the dog was out of reach. Two guys retrieved a long branch from the woods and held it out. Charlie missed it, or ignored it. He wasn’t afraid of the water, but he was picking up speed.
At the last point before the sides of the flume became too steep for anyone to reach him, Tommie lay prone on the bank. His long arms and shoulders cantilevered out over the water. One of the punks and some long-haired redneck held his legs. It was the point of no return. The dog floated toward them tail-first, trying to swim upstream.
It had dawned on him now that this wasn’t as much fun as he had hoped, but the current was carrying him faster than he could swim. Tammy shouted encouragement. As the dog passed, Tommie grabbed at him, but his fingertips only spun the dog around in the water as he drifted out of reach.
Now there was nothing left to do but watch. Everyone crowded up toward the falls, or on the ledges next to the pond. My angle was bad. I could see the water rushing over the top of the falls, but I was too far back to see much else. The dog went backward over the edge and we all went silent. The Allman Brothers’ Midnight Rider was playing on the radio.
Someone said, “Poor dog!” and was shushed.
A hoot went up from someone beside the pond, then another. A stoned voice from the deadheads on the far bank below let out a long, “No waaayyy!” Everyone who could see the pond was cheering. Soon a black shape swam to the far bank, climbed out, shook itself, and sprinted around, looking for a way back up to Tammy and Tommie. The crowd cheered. Vin and I cannonballed into the pond.
Warren and Trace hadn’t taken any beer with them. The shadows had moved around so that the whole pond was in the sun. Vin and I had recommitted ourselves to swimming and finishing the beer.
I stoked my buzz to that warm, soft anesthesia, that euphoric point where I felt no pain, but nothing had started to spin yet. I found a spot on the far side of the pond. There, between the falls and the high cliff, was a ledge a few inches beneath the water, shallow enough to lie on. The spot was warm in the sun and had a view down the valley to the far hazy green hills. The rumble and hiss of the falls drowned out all voices.
Vin was up on our ledge, talking with the sharp-eyed deadhead girl, trying to score some weed. The water lapped my flanks. I watched the sun going in and out of the clouds, I don’t know for how long. At first the clouds were few and small, moving fast, each a brief shadow. But as I lay there, they grew wider and more frequent, until they covered half the sky.
When I looked back, Vin was staring straight at me, hands cupped around his mouth, shouting. All I could hear was the waterfall. When he saw me look, he waved and beckoned to me to come over, the inner ends of his eyebrows drawn up with concern. The bandanna girl was looking up past the falls toward the locals. I swam over and climbed out of the pool. Downstream, I could see that Jary and Lary had also stopped whatever they were doing and were standing on their rock looking up past us, too.
I climbed to our ledge. All the locals above the falls were on their feet. Near the edge of the woods, four or five of the punks faced off against Mustache Guy and handful of his friends. The rest of the punks were gone. Tammy and Tommie stood between the two groups. Tommie was holding the punks back, trying to herd them all toward the parking lot with his giant wingspan. The punks shouted and pointed and made a show of trying to get past him. Tammy stood toe-to-toe with Mustache Guy, one tiny finger in his face. Mustache guy grimaced, his brows drawn together and coiled like two snakes ready to strike.
“What happened?” I asked.
Bandanna girl answered, “Don’t know exactly. The black kid, with the Mohawk, walked past the dude with the mustache and they started talking. Seemed okay for a minute, but then a couple more punks came over, and Mustache stood up. It just snowballed from there. The other punks started coming over, then everyone stood up and it became a whole thing.”
“Where’s the guy now? Mohawk?” I tried not to say the black guy, but that’s what everyone was thinking.
“Halfway to the road, I hope. He didn’t want to back down, but once all the locals stood up, his friends had the sense to drag him out of there. Look around this place. Honestly, I gotta hand it to the guy for even coming down here.”
There was a shout from Tammy that I could almost understand over the noise of the falls. Two of Mustache Guy’s friends grabbed him from behind and pulled him backwards. Tammy turned around and said something to the punks, and they turned toward the woods and walked away. Mustache Guy leaned against his friends’ grip and yelled something. He pointed toward the hills and the road. Tammy turned and glared at him. The punks disappeared into the woods. Tammy and Tommie followed.
Mustache guy watched them go out of sight. Then his friends started trying to turn him away and distract him. He glared in our direction for a few seconds, then went back to his grill and fished a beer from a cooler, but he kept turning and shouting things at his friends and pointing toward the parking lot.
“Why don’t we hang out down there for a while,” said Vin, pointing down at the pond, out of Mustache Guy’s line of sight.
“Good idea,” I said. “Where the fuck is Warren?”
We climbed down the ledges to the water’s edge to get out of sight of the locals, but nobody really wanted to party anymore. Bandana girl went back to her crew and they started packing up their stuff.
Then Vin stood, looked back up toward the woods, and said, “Wait here a sec. I’ll be right back.”
He climbed back up and disappeared down a path toward the parking lot. Five minutes later, the deadheads got up and trooped away in a solemn line. There I was, like I’d been hours before, sitting in the weeds alone, wishing for a safety pin to hold the crotch of my shorts together.
Warren and Trace had left us stranded, but I couldn’t blame them for splitting with those girls. Warren had done me a favor. If that girl was into someone like him, then I would have hated her.
Anyway, there was only one girl I wanted, and she wasn’t there. She’d never be there. I looked across the water at my little nook by the falls and imagined her. She would swim up and pull herself out of the water. Her curls loose and heavy and wet. I’d act serious and she would mock me, and I would laugh. I would touch her shoulder, stippled with goosebumps.
An empty Bud Light can sat half-crushed beside me on the bank, flattened in the middle but still round on the ends. I flung it into the water. It floated, caught in the current, and drifted toward the narrow mouth of the pool where the creek flowed out. I watched it and waited to see it catch in the stream and head away. Lary or Jary could gun it down — though I hadn’t heard them firing in a while. Or, if not, it might make it down to the Youghiogheny, or even to the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico. But it didn’t even leave the pool. Instead its path curved, almost almost imperceptibly at first, and then more. Caught in the sucking current of the falls, it revolved back around the pool, moving toward the inevitable plunge beneath the torrent. If there was enough air inside it, it might pop back up, or else it would find the bottom.
My buzz was gone now and my feet were cold in the water. The sky had clouded over completely. Vin hadn’t come back. The banks and ledges around the pond were deserted. The sound of the falls was too loud for me to hear anything, but it felt like everyone was just gone. Downstream, Lary and Jary and their friends had disappeared, but their grill was still there smoking.
It was time to go. I climbed up to where our stuff was and looked around. The other locals were still upstream, still partying, but Mustache Guy was not there. No sign of Vin either. Gone to take a leak, I thought. I took one of the paths back to the parking lot. Nobody. Tammy and Tommy’s jeep was gone. I looped around the perimeter of the parking area. There was no sign of anyone until I got to where the trail came down the hill from the road. Up the hill, Mustache Guy stood at the first bend of the trail, facing away from me and shouting something angry and unintelligible.
As I stared, he turned and walked down the trail toward me. I turned away and crossed the parking lot.
“I know you’re with ’em, too!” he shouted.
I pretended not to hear, and kept walking. The gravel hurt my feet. I tried to walk faster.
He outflanked me, cutting me off from the creek.
“Yeah you! I know you were with ’em. Yinz and yer friends need get the fuck outta here!”
“With who?” I asked.
“Them other jagoffs. You know who I mean. I want yinz all outta here.” He pointed back over my shoulder toward the trail.
Fuck. We stood eye-to-eye, but he outweighed me by at least thirty pounds. And he had shoes on. His extra weight was all muscle in his chest, arms and legs, jammed in a tight tank top and hemmed denim shorts. I became conscious again that I had on nothing but a wet miniskirt.
No. All my shit was back by the pond — my shirt, my shoes, my wallet. What was I going to do, walk thirty miles home barefoot with empty pockets? I looked him in the eye, and felt the familiar hot fear spreading from my belly.
No. If I backed down now, I was just fucked. There were no more options.
No. Fuck this guy.
I held his gaze. “Hey man, you got it wrong. I don’t know who you think I was with, but I’ve been here minding my own business with my friends all day.” I focused on his left eye.
“Bullshit. Get the fuck outta here.”
“Seriously, man.” I tried to keep my voice even. To cringe would be blood in the water. “You got the wrong guy. I just been here with three other guys. Two of them took off hours ago with some chicks and haven’t come back. My other friend went to take a leak.”
Without warning, his right fist lashed out, striking where my chest met my left shoulder. It felt like being hit by a brick. Somehow I didn’t stumble. I had been trying to distribute my weight to reduce the pain of the gravel on my bare feet. Maybe that helped. Probably I was just lucky.
I looked him in the eye again, expecting the next swing to be at my head, no clue what I would do then. He held his right hand loose at his side. I kept eye contact. The hot terror had spread from my belly and started to creep up my spine, but something else was pushing it down.
“Hey man,” I said. “There’s no need to get violent. Really, we’ve just been drinking beer and minding our own business. We were here when the dog went over the falls, trying to help. I got no quarrel with you, man. I just want to find my friend.”
He looked at me silently. Over the sound of the falls, a loud laugh reached us through the woods from the creekside. Then he extended his left hand, twisted around, thumb downward, offering a weird handshake. He said, “You’re alright, man. You know that. You’re alright.”
I shook his left hand with my right and acted like this was all totally normal. “Like I said. I got no beef with you man.”
“Yeah, you’re alright,” he repeated, and turned and headed back toward the falls. As he turned, he swayed and shuffled sideways a half step. As he passed into the trees I thought I could see him holding his right hand and rubbing it with his left. It was hard to tell for sure.
As soon as he was out of sight I turned and headed fast up the trail. As I walked I probed my chest and shoulder with my fingers. That would hurt tomorrow. It didn’t hurt now. Or, at least, on some level I knew that it hurt, but it didn’t bother me.
My feet didn’t hurt either. Pain seemed impossible. This wasn’t the blurry anesthesia of the beer. The outline of every leaf and branch was distinct. I could hear the rush of the falls behind me, and the murmur of voices. In my nose was the loamy smell of the packed mud trail, mixed with honeysuckle or mountain laurel blooms. My muscles felt light and strong, like it would be nothing to run all the way to the road. A branch dangled low in the middle of the trail and I jumped and grabbed it. The leaves stripped off as it slipped through my hand. I ran.
Vin was waiting around the bend with the gang of deadheads and some other tourist refugees. I spread my hands as he came into sight, “Dude, what the fuck happened?”
“I went to see if I could talk to Tammy. Get us a ride. But she was gone. Then that big guy with the mustache ran us all out of there.”
“Why? Did you say something to him?”
“I don’t know. No! He thought we were with those other guys, before. The punks. I guess.”
“That guy is crazy,” one of the others said. “All those people are crazy.”
I turned back to Vin. “Where the fuck are Warren and Trace?”
“Man, I don’t know. Dude we gotta go, though.”
“I gotta go back and get my stuff. All my shit’s back there. My shoes, my wallet.”
Bandanna girl said, “You shouldn’t go back there. That guy’s crazy.”
“Yeah, I know, but I talked to him. I think I convinced him to leave me alone. I don’t know. He let me go.”
“Suit yourself.” She shrugged.
I looked at Vin. “Seriously. He said I was ‘alright’. I’m gonna run and get my shit.”
“Get mine too.” he replied. He was also barefoot.
I picked my way across the gravel as quick as I could. I slipped through the trees on the path that was farthest from where Mustache Guy had been sitting, but when I came out on our ledge I was in full view of everyone. Without looking up, I sat down and put on my socks and shoes. I tried not to hurry. I felt sure that Mustache Guy was coming toward me. It was like I could feel his figure looming over me.
As I yanked my shirt over my head, I stole a glance around. Nobody. The people who had felt so close were far away, and nobody was even looking at me. I got up, and put my wallet and keys in my damp pockets. I grabbed Vin’s shirt and shoes, making sure that his stuff was still stashed inside, and walked away. Then, as soon as I was out of sight of the creek, I ran. I left the cooler behind. Fuck that. It was Trace’s anyway.
When I got back to Vin, the others had gone. He put on his shoes and we started walking. The trail cut a steep diagonal up the side of the valley, but we made the best pace we could. The sky was thick and low above the trees. The woods on either side were uniformly dim and shadowy. There were no markings or signs to let us know how close we might be to the road. We didn’t talk.
We’d been climbing for fifteen minutes when the rain started: big splashy drops smacking the roots and rocks — first a few, wide apart, then more.
We started jogging. My shoulder hurt for real now. The trail was steep and we both got winded fast, but soon it leveled off and we could see the road and the parked cars ahead. Warm rain fell straight down. It plastered down my hair and dripped from my nose and eyelashes.
When we got to the road, the refugees who had gone ahead stood there, looking panicked. The punks were long gone. Broken glass glittered on the ground. Windows on every car were smashed, and some of the headlights, too. Warren and Trace were not there.
“What the fuck?” I said. “Who did this?”
The slouchy deadhead with the long curls looked like he was crying. Bandanna girl said, “It was those guys who got run off before. It must have been. They were pretty pissed.”
The crying dude said, “They fucked up all our cars. Why’d they have to fuck up our car? We didn’t do anything to them.”
I said, “It’s raining down there too. Everyone will be coming up.”
Vin understood. Bandanna girl looked at me, eyes wide. She understood too: There were a lot more cars here with busted windows than there were people to ride in them. That meant that most of them belonged to locals who were still down at the creek. At that very moment they were packing up. Soon they would be coming up the trail, bumming rides with friends in their jeeps and trucks. They would get up the hill a lot faster than we did.
Bandana girl turned to her friends and clapped her hands. “Okay people! We gotta go!” She opened the doors of their cars and got her friends busy clearing the broken glass off the seats.
I walked out to the road and walked up and down the row of parked cars to see if Trace’s car was there, but I knew it wasn’t. By the time I got back to the trailhead, the deadheads were speeding away.
The rain splashed on the pavement and sprayed into a knee-high mist. My socks squished in my shoes. No part of me was dry. I walked across the road and peered into the woods. How fast could we could run through the undergrowth? How far would we have to go before we were completely hidden? How much poison ivy would we get? Somewhere behind us in the woods a car horn honked.
I turned to Vin. I was about to yell run! But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I turned around and faced the trailhead, expecting to see headlights at any second. Vin stood with me. The rain sizzled on the road.
Trace’s Corolla hissed around the bend, and rolled to a stop in front of us, like a cab we had just hailed. Warren was driving. That Smell by Lynyrd Skynyrd blasted from an open window.
He leaned out and looked at us and laughed. “You dicks look like drowned cats!”
Vin yanked the back door handle and we piled in, dripping.
“Where the fuck have you assholes been?” Vin said.
“Relax man,” Warren laughed. “We came back as soon as the rain started. Vin, man, I gotta tell you about these girls…”
“Can we just go, please?” I said.
The wheels spun on the wet road. I rolled the window down and leaned out, looking back. I could see more headlights in the woods as we rounded the bend. I turned and looked forward, warm rain in my face. The poor Corolla’s engine sounded like it might blow as Warren floored it up the first hill. He seemed pretty fucked up. I was going to have to get him out of the driver’s seat somehow.
Copyright © 2018 JP Fosterson. All rights reserved.