He says, “I remember warmer nights.” This is a land of the indigenous refugee, a population of unemployed high school dropouts. We’re standing outside on the back porch and he’s smoking a cigarette. Tomorrow is for job searching, tonight is for burning.
My legs dangle from the railing, jeans brushing against the unfinished wood and the side of his thigh. My one cigarette for the evening went out long ago and now I’m just waiting for him to finish his so we can find some other entertainment but he’s refusing to finish.
His mom’s inside asleep and I snatch the bottle from her. She ignores me whenever I come around, so I don’t feel too bad about it. He’s still talking outside about old times. I sit down and drink straight from the bottle, lip to lip. His mom’s snoring.
“Jenna’s back in town,” I say more to get him to shut up than anything else. It works. He thinks it over, rolling the cigarette round about the corners of his lips. I wait and drink and wait.
The horizon’s gone spectacular, out here in a graveyard of stone giants. Between the granite legs and torsos the last remnants of the distant sun fade away in purples and oranges. The wind’s been blowing for a long time now.
He walks over to the truck. I follow, bottle still in hand.
The drive goes silent, him pouring out smoke like his own tail pipe. At Jenna’s he bangs against the front screen door. It rattles in its spot. Jenna appears behind the screen in just her underwear, hair pulled up on top of her head. “Knew you’d be coming around,” she says to him, me I’m not even there. “What kind of trouble it’ll be tonight?” I sip at his mom’s bottle again.
I follow him in. I put down the bottle. It seems polite. Her dad’s not around. He’s out with his own kind of trouble. Her mom waves. “Hello boys,” she says. “You haven’t been around in a while.” I nod and he mumbles something. “How about some pasta? I got some spaghetti here, still warm.”
“We’re heading out ma,” Jenna says. Wearing jean cut-offs and an old class t-shirt. Everyone’s name signed in white ink. Hers and mine and his stacked on top of each other.
“Good to have you boys around again,” her mom says.
I sit in the middle in the cab of the car. Him driving, Jenna shotgun. Me rattling in between. A tight crew.
At the bar we let Jenna talk. She talks about old times, the only thing left in this town. She talks about the jobs we don’t have anymore, how bad they were. She talks about grad school. He says the occasional word. I wait.
When they close the bar down, he’s the one who suggests the high school.
It starts off with us circling around a few times. The school looks the same. It smells like a long time. We park the truck and climb out.
The door is locked by someone smarter than us. We shake a few windows, but none give. Too many robberies. Too many pawned computers from the year of our birth.
We stop at the usual spots, the back corners and hidden alleys where you could smoke. Where Jenna would talk and we would listen, the words still echoing in the bricks. Where the two of them had made out a few times, me keeping look out. And after Jenna left, our familiar silence became the only company we needed. After, we made a different kind of conversation.
Jenna shakes her head. “The worst,” she says. We nod yes. Jenna grabs his lighter and flips it open. “The worst,” she says again. There’s a wicked gleam in her eyes but that’s nothing new. It’s how we pass the time here in the land of the dead.
Much later we’re down in county property, in the rusted bed of the truck. My head is by his boots, thick and mud crusted, and Jenna’s boots, cowboy boots made for sidewalk. None of us talk, the taste of smoke too thick in the mouth. I stare up at the lightening sky.
Jenna sits up. “Mexico?” she asks.
He sits up also and flick cigarette number one thousand out on the grass. “Don’t go starting another fire,” she says. He jumps out and stomps on the remains.
Her butt inches down my way. Truck bed ridges carved into her bare thighs. “You boys made things bearable around here.” She throws her arms around me. He stands by the truck, hands in his back pockets watching us. The sun peeks up over the ridge and bathes us in gold. We’re like a jeans commercial. Some of Jenna’s hair gets in my nose. She smells like a hotel. “I miss having somebody to talk to.” She puts her head on my shoulder. “I miss my soft boys.”
He doesn’t say anything. He’s looking away. He’s smoked his quota for the month in one night. He’s smoking like a seventies hero or a nineties villain. I want to push Jenna off and hop out and punch him. I want to shove her out of the goddamn truck.
In front of us the sun comes up. Behind us the black smoke of the burning school, winding up into the sky. Her soft boys. I never said anything to her about it. Did he? Her soft boys. Did he tell her about us? Her soft boys. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, but she does, she does.
Fred Pelzer lives in Chicago and is a co-founder of Cloud Gate Productions. His chapbook collection Static: Stories can be ordered through Etchings Press. Other things he’s been blamed for can be found at www.fredpelzer.com or @fredpelzer.