I. This place could be anywhere—the last trace of a renovated barn, an old sound-proofed warm-up room, an abandoned storage space—but you don’t care as long as you’re alone. You’re slumping on a sofa upholstered in cracked leather, trying to pretend you can’t hear what’s going on just twenty meters away from you. Carson will be disappointed, but he’ll get over it. He knows you’ve never been one for concert crowds. On a small wall screen (the only thing that looks like it was installed later than 2005), live footage of your closest friend crooning into a microphone plays without sound. In the dim incandescent light, you watch for a few moments, then pull up a podcast about fig wasps on your phone. Pollinators are lovely creatures. Especially if they can distract you from wondering what convinced you to come out here for a performance you’ve already seen a hundred times. “The life cycle of the fig wasp is closely intertwined with that of the fig tree it inhabits,” returns the narrator. Onscreen, Carson wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. You can feel the heat yourself and it must be worse onstage, surrounded by a squirming mass of humanity to, as Carson does, perform your pain for a couple hours. The recorded spotlights flicker, and red floods the screen, settling across Carson’s shoulders, streaking his hair as he presumably begins another set. II. You and Carson are sixteen and mad with the injustice of it. So at the sink in the corner of Carson’s garage, surrounded by rusting garden tools, you’ve plugged in his father’s hair clipper. Carson is stirring a bowl of red dye with a comb, a homemade recipe you’d pulled off a DIY website. The acrid smell of it mingles with lingering dust and faintly sweet gasoline fumes. In your hands, the motor makes a satisfying whir as you run the clipper blade through your friend’s dark brown hair. Small clumps float downward, coating his old white T-shirt and the chair where he sits before a cracked mirror held precariously against the wall by a faucet. He watches your movements, his reflection staring back at you with a raised brow. “You sure you’re doing that right?” he asks. “Yeah, Wikihow said you have to make the scooping motion. Like this.” And you demonstrate with an upward flourish from the nape of his neck to the top of the back of his head, launching a tuft of cut hair into the air that falls past Carson’s wrinkled nose. Inspecting an uneven patch, you run two fingers along a slight bump, the skin freshly discolored by a green bruise. The air stills. No sound but the buzz of the clipper. He won’t meet your eyes in the mirror. “Jay. Are you going to get the top any time soon?” he says. “Hm. This is harder than it looks.” You make another pass through. Not too bad. Soon enough he’s left with around a half-inch of (mostly) even hair. He nods in approval, offering up the dye. “Are you sure about this?” “Do it.” There’s a harshness in his voice and a stubborn set to his mouth that makes you lose focus for a moment, makes you remember wanting. You bite your chapped bottom lip and gather dye in your hands, massaging the thick liquid into what remains of his hair. Once you’re done, you let the rust-choked water of the sink run long enough to turn clear and rinse your hands off, the basin red enough to suggest the murder of a small animal. Carson turns his head from side to side, staring at his reflection, and shrugs. Emmy will barely be able to look at him on Monday. “So how horrible do I look?” he asks. “Kind of like dried-up spaghetti sauce.” “Whatever,” he says. You can’t tell if he’s smiling or scowling. “Do me, too.” “What?” “Maybe just the top.” You want very desperately to be seen by anyone and you don’t care how or why. Carson laughs, standing up so you can take his place. “You’re an idiot. Everyone at school is going to see this.” “I hope they do.” He looks at you like he knows exactly what you mean, and for a moment, you feel as if you are flying—must be the fumes. III. Before you met Carson, you were an only child with nothing to your name but a vague suburban malaise and a fascination with puzzles and perfect squares that had your parents discussing you behind closed doors at 2AM—you’d woken up and felt the sudden craving to count the kitchen tiles (5 by 5 equals 25 but don’t forget about the line of half tiles against the side closest to the backyard for a 27.5 that makes your left ear itch and the back of your throat tighten)—and you’d heard them as you tiptoed past their room in the dark, on your way back to bed. Your mother’s evaluation: “I think he just needs some friends his own age. And he needs to stop with the math books during recess, but one step at a time.” “Maybe the math is the problem.” “Well, he seems happy at least. It’s just, he creeps out some of the cousins. I don’t know why. Something about calculating their total surface areas.” “You mean you wouldn’t be put off by a seven-year-old asking you for all your measurements? Suggesting skinning you?” “Well.” Your mother sighs. “A new family moved in two days ago. Across the street. I talked to the wife and she seems nice enough. They have a son, in Jay’s grade. Maybe we could have lunch sometime and introduce them?” You imagine your father running his hand through the curly hair you both share, starting from his hairline, which you estimate recedes around a millimeter each year. “Saturday?” And that’s all before you see the thermometer on the wall reading 81℉, which is around 27℃, which you know by instinct is a perfect number to sleep to, so you head back to your room. Later that week, while Carson’s mother and your parents talk, you and Carson wander into your backyard. You both have knobby knees and elbows sharp enough to cut glass, except Carson has probably attempted worse with his arms, judging from the scabs that decorate his sunburned skin. It’s been a few weeks since you went outside for recreational purposes (to note wall bricks as you swung your legs over a 100-centimeters-squared mosaic of a hummingbird). You’re out of your element. “Want to see how many leaves our string beans have?” you ask hopefully. “No. Want to see how many ants I can fit in my mouth?” This is how you find your best friend—grabbing insects whose tiny jaws are too weak to pierce your skin, counting the number he stuffs into his chubby cheeks, until the sun begins to set and your mother screams when she walks out to call you both home. You and Carson get to 64. IV. On Sundays, in the early morning, you have a weekend habit of visiting the cafe by the creek near your house. In recent years, water doesn’t run regularly, but you like looking out the windows anyway, at the grasses sprouting after the winter rains, drying golden in the summer. Some autumn mornings, you can barely identify the stalks from their indistinct swaying motion as the air turns hazy with distant wildfire. The food here isn’t great, but the bitterness, the quiet, and the view is more than enough for you. You sip at your lukewarm black coffee, your laptop open to your calendar. Meeting on Monday about a new project. You type in a reminder to organize some data and make a presentation before Thursday. The bell jangles, announcing another cafe patron. Someone wearing heels—they click on the tiled floor. You don’t look up. The crinkle of newspaper in the background, a woman murmuring an order. You raise your head as footsteps approach you. From behind, a hand ruffles your hair. “Emmy!” “You still come here every Sunday?” she asks, taking the seat across from you. “You’re the one who stopped.” “Well, I moved halfway across the state.” She stirs her paper cup of hot chocolate—you’d bet she’s still dumping as much sugar as will dissolve into it—and nods. “And as I expected, the drinks still aren’t worth returning for.” “Why are you back?” “There’s a publishing conference in the area tomorrow. I figured I’d come a day early, visit my parents. Juliana and her kids, too.” Even on her day off, Emmy is as well-dressed as always: a long-sleeved collared maroon blouse, checkered grey dress pants. Hair twisted into a tight bun. As usual, her definition of casual is untucking her shirt. “And no plans for me?” You meant it as a joke, but from how she blinks, hard, you know you’ve hit a nerve. “I didn’t—I was thinking I might. Ask if you were free tonight. I mean, I missed you.” “When was the last time you visited, four months ago?” She doesn’t say anything. “I missed you, too,” you offer. “I just wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back to your place.” “Because Carson was there?” “Yeah. And I didn’t want to watch him wallowing in another love song after everything that happened.” “It wasn’t your fault.” You reach for her hand across the table. “He’s a little better now. He’s making plans to start things up again in a few weeks.” “Really? That’s good to hear. He still calls me. Mostly just to complain on bad nights.” “You don’t have to pick up.” “I know. But sometimes I do.” “I can get him to stop.” “It’s fine. One of the reasons I took the job in Oakland was to get away for a while. But we’ll get over it.” You believe her. It’s Carson you’re talking about, and who could simply leave him? As a child you were terrified he would find other, better friends, who didn’t quiver at the sight of sharp objects; you hid pieces of yourself you thought he wouldn’t like until you finally realized a life was possible without him. But it’s been you and Carson for as long as you can remember, and you and Carson and Emmy since she announced it a decade ago, at a middle school cafeteria table the day after her former friends laughed at her kinky hair and stopped saving seats for her and forgot her name. It’s been you, and Carson and Emmy, for only a little while. “Alright,” you say. “Will you visit tonight, then? Jackie’s making dinner.” “I’ll be there.” “And Carson won’t.” Which you realize, too late, is obvious and maybe not the best thing to say, and your nails dig into your palm, but Emmy almost smiles. “Poor Carson.” She stands up. “I need to go now, but I’ll be over at seven.” You’re almost certain she mutters something else under her breath about you and Carson, but before you can process it, she’s out the door. You’d rather not think about it, anyway. V. “I’m not doing it.” “You are.” “No, I’m not. I’ll wait for you and Emmy outside.” Carson sighs. A drop of sweat rolls down his neck. You watch it darken the neckline of his grey T-shirt because you don’t want to look him in the eye. “Jay, would you just try it one time? It’ll be just like when you got on your first roller coaster.” “No. I don’t want to get wet.” “It’s almost 100 degrees out. What is wrong with you?” Emmy tugs his arm. “Carson, just let him. Let’s go wait in line.” “Are you scared of the germs? Is it that? You’re fifteen, get over it.” “Carson, just leave him alone! Let’s go.” The sun is too bright, your tongue is too dry, and you’re tired of everything today—the endless crush of people all around turns your stomach—but you feel a twinge of guilt watching your friends walk toward the entrance to River Twist. Once again, you’re the buzzkill. “No, wait.” They probably don’t even hear you, but you rush after them and tap Carson on the shoulder at the end of the queue, too out of breath to speak. He nods, not even surprised, and pulls you to his side where there’s a patch of shade. You swallow and close your eyes, trying to hold back the feeling of being compressed. “Are you sure you want to do this, Jay?” Emmy says. “Yeah, yeah. I’m fine now.” The line snakes all around you, and you don’t want to know it exists, roping you in. You stare at the ground, dotted with blackened gum. Water from the ride flows in a trickle around your sneakers. You shuffle forward while Emmy and Carson talk, tuning it all out by listening to your heart beat. After half an hour, you’re at the front of the line. You look up, the movement dizzying as gravel crunches beneath your feet. Round yellow rafts move on a conveyor belt. The blue, blue sky swirls with them, fragmentary splashes of color dipping across your eyelids. Someone is talking to you—the ride operator? You can’t tell what she’s saying. Carson is pulling your arm gently. Maybe staring at you, you think. He’s tall. When did he get so tall? “I can’t… I’ll line….” There are voices, but you can’t make out the words. Your vision goes black. The ceiling is made of tiles. Tiles with brown specks. This is a hospital bed. You remember waking up an hour ago, your mother standing over you. You shift your weight, noting that the tubes that were feeding into your arm are gone now. Soon enough, you’re going through discharge with your parents, dropping into the backseat of the car. “Go to sleep, Jay,” your father says. “You should rest. And you’ll have to drink at least ten cups of water every day from now on.” But you can’t get to sleep until you’re at home in your own bed again. You don’t even have the energy to get under the covers before you shut your eyes to the late afternoon light. It’s almost night when you wake again. Carson is reclining nearby—at first you think he’s sleeping—but when you turn your head to look at him he shifts forward, bunching your blanket with a fist. You watch him tap one of the bandages on your wrist. Apparently you haven’t perfected your falling technique. Slowly, he traces an inch of vein across the back of your scraped hand with a calloused finger, as if he’s following a roadmap to somewhere he’d thought he lost. You’re uncertain about everything, up to and including this gentleness, so you lie still and watch the shadows of branches creep across your ceiling. Carson leans back. “It was getting late, so Emmy went home. I’m sorry about trying to get you onto the ride.” “Hey, it doesn’t matter. I’m fine. Did you get to ride in the ambulance?” He nods. “I told them all fourteen of your allergies.” “Did they give you any of those plain crackers in the hospital?” Wrappers crinkle as he places the snacks beside your bed. VI. In his third major release, Blurred Light, Cheap Canvas, Carson discusses (once again) his strained relationship with his father. He’d always been a disappointment to the man, too stupid or too scrawny or too sensitive to be a decent son. His father had died when Carson was seventeen, weeks after discovering his persistent cough was only a symptom of metastasized lung cancer. Three cash cows of albums and four ex-wives later, Carson continues to rehash the same old wounds. You think maybe even if the man wasn’t gone, Carson might still be as he is, chasing himself into holes just for the thrill of digging himself out again. On your back on the fraying couch, you’re drifting into memory. Years ago, after the funeral, he called you over to an empty corner behind the gym, asking you to listen to something he’d written. He’d started spending lunches strumming chords there far earlier, but never so seriously as the past few weeks. You listened to his voice arc like a wishbone, break on the high notes, sounding less like a human than an angry bear, and you would have held him if he would let you. Instead, you told him it was good because it felt like it meant something, and he didn’t ask you to explain, only looked at the ground between you and almost lost the frown he’d been carrying for months as he scribbled edits, turning phrases in his mouth. Later, you asked him again if he had talked to anyone, a counselor, or even his mother, about the aftermath of anything that had happened. He’d just shrugged and replied, “I don’t want to be happy. I want to make art.” A pattern that could describe Carson’s trajectory up to now. On the screen, Carson is probably drifting into a metaphor involving honeybees. You know the lyrics by heart. Carson sent you a recording a year ago, asking not for advice but validation. You recall the bitterness of it—resignation distilled into torn-up phrases and reverb. Some anger would have meant there was hope things would change, and by effort or random chance, your friend would stumble into a resolution to his worst habits. There is little of that hope now. Carson’s performances stem from his unfulfillment. Without it, you’re not sure anyone, least of all Carson, would know who he is. Yes, the sound changes, but fundamentally the same pains are there, obsolescent adolescent yearnings that no longer feel anything like poetry. You listen to all of Carson’s songs only once if you can help it: you hate to admit it to yourself, but Carson’s music bores you. A magazine lies nearby on what appears to be a disconnected bathroom counter, minus the sink. It’s an issue from three years ago—you know because you’d read an interview Carson had done in there. The critic threw in phrases like “deeply furrowed brow” and “soulful and brooding,” noting a “tension” in his life and concerts. It was a lackluster attempt at analysis, but at least she stuck mostly to business, avoiding anything that would have Carson fleeing the room. VII. Carson sprawls across the floor of your childhood bedroom, on a fluffy rug you bought anticipating it would be used this way. He stares up at the popcorn ceiling, but you know he’s just doing it to avoid looking at you. “I said, you’re making a mistake.” And you can’t avoid looking at his crooked nose and wondering what it would feel like to break it. “I heard you the first time.” “And?” “And what? I told you, she’s the one. I don’t know why you can’t see how well this works, but you know what? You don’t have a say.” “You mean you’re not going to listen to my entirely reasonable concern that this is just going to be another failed relationship like the last eight? Except this time with someone you should actually care about?” Carson laughs and rolls onto his side to face you. “Oh, and what would you know?” “Do I need years of experience writing sad songs about girls to know you’re screwing up? The last one who dumped you was right, you’re so in love with the act of longing you can’t care about—” He’s standing up. He’s slamming your door. “—anyone but yourself.” You say it into the vibrations of your room, the wooden steps of the porch in resonance with Carson’s stomps and the rumble of the engine of his car. He used to run when he was angry at you, on the playground when you refused to do something any other child would have done, knowing you hated being left alone, knowing you’ve never been fast enough to catch him. Now he’s the last person you want to see. You want to be swept up, so you walk out, into the early autumn night, in the exact opposite direction from Carson’s car. The bulk of the last three years you’ve spent in a city with real winters, but even this Californian imitation of season, wind whipping up brown leaves from the maple-lined sidewalks, would still chill your skin if you weren’t too angry to notice it. Not quite paying attention to where you’re walking, you startle at the lights decorating the building ahead of you—your old elementary school’s yearly fundraiser. “Winslow’s Twentieth Annual Gourd Festival” announces a banner at the entrance. “Jay, is that you?” someone calls from the gate. You wander closer. “Mr. Walski?” There’s white in your fifth grade teacher’s beard now, but he looks much the same, though a bit smaller somehow after your growth spurts. “Well, it’s good to see you again. I heard from your dad you’ve been up to some exciting things up north.” “Yeah, I guess so.” Mr. Walski nods as if your response had been the peak of eloquence, looking at you steadily. When you were younger he’d always seemed to know when you were upset, and you suspect that hasn’t changed. You’re self-conscious in your faded black T-shirt and old jeans; the wind raises goosebumps on your arms as you hold in a shiver. “For a returning alumnus of Winslow School District,” Mr. Walski says, “I’ll waive the entrance fee. Just remember to Have a Gourd Time!” “Thank you,” you respond automatically, too surprised to refuse, and you walk through the gates into the bright lights of the festival. The playground blacktop is sprinkled with gourd-themed pop-up tents in clashing colors, pumpkins stacked in a pyramid as tall as you on a nest of hay, squash baskets and potpourri and apple pie featured for sale and auction. Strings of lights are draped over the basketball hoops. Parents guide their children in decorating butternut squash with edible paint. You pay a dollar to put in an estimate for the number of pumpkin seeds in a bin. If you had arrived here an hour earlier, it would have been more packed, but the event is already beginning to wind down, the pie eating competition long cleaned up. Still, it’s a welcome distraction from tonight’s earlier argument. Faint in the warm glow of the festival, a few pale stars trace what Emmy had told you was Cassiopeia, when you were sitting together on the courtyard roof of the library two nights ago—you’ll take her word for it. You stare at a festival poster clipped to a tent, realizing it’s an acrylic painting. “Hello,” says someone from behind the table. “Hi.” You turn to look at him. He has gelled black hair and a tan that still hasn’t faded. The plain silver rings on his fingers glint in the lights. “Here for a face paint? I’m also selling some original stickers for the school.” “Oh, I was just looking at your painting. It’s really nice.” You wish you were better at complimenting: there’s a studied intricacy to the branches of the trees, not realistic but intentional in a way you appreciate. Despite your awkwardness, he grins. “Well, that’s good to hear. I practice a lot.” “It reminds me of an Escher drawing. The trees especially.” “Yeah, I’m into fractals. Getting infinity on a page.” He notices you gazing at a drawing of a tiger behind his head, each large stripe kaleidoscoped into smaller and smaller triangles. “I’m guessing you can tell.” “It’s pretty cool.” He won’t stop smiling. You don’t know why—he should probably be used to people saying this kind of thing to him. “If you’re not going to another booth, would you sit down and have some pie with me? I have two full sweet potato ones and can’t finish them alone.” You settle into another chair under his red and white striped tent and accept a slice. “No other customers?” “No kids for the past thirty minutes. A lot of them have headed home.” He twirls a forkful of sweet potato on his plate. “So what are you doing here, by the way? Unless you’re just a large elementary schooler?” “I used to go to school here,” you say, not wanting to go into detail about what had driven you out of your house. “I thought it might be nice to see the Gourd Festival before I head back to college.” “Ah, nostalgia. Did you go to Madison High, too?” “Yeah, class of 2016.” “I’m ‘15. My name’s Jackie, by the way.” “I’m Jay.” “Are you sure you don’t want a face paint? I could do a jay. I’m good at birds.” You offer him your arm. “Infinity snail, please. On my wrist.” “Glitter paint or no?” “Glitter.” That smile again—you track the trace of the paintbrush instead, so you won’t stare at him. A spiral in silver curls across your brown arm. His hands are soft and uncalloused, and you don’t think about anything else. VIII. “Wake up, Jay, you’re going to get locked in.” You stretch and prop yourself up into a sitting position at the end of your couch. Your fig wasp podcast has morphed into an ointment commercial. “I didn’t see you in the crowd,” Carson says. He wipes sweat from his temple, his eyes shadowed by dark circles his stage makeup can’t conceal. “I wasn’t there.” Carson expects this now. He would have called you if he couldn’t find you. You head outside with him, down the sidewalk toward your car. “It’ll be good to see everyone again,” Carson says, his unbalanced steps more shambling than walking. Last time you saw him, had he seemed so fragile, the bridge of bone strut beneath his fleshy neck so prominent? “My mom has been prepping a meal for you for a week.” You can already imagine how she’ll tell him he’s lost weight, though he must be just as bulky as ever. “But first you’ll need to get through a night with Emmy and Jackie, if you can handle it.” “Nothing to handle.” Carson smooths his shirt down, trying to appear untired and less hungover with little success. You’ve always liked how he looks in the dark. The streetlights glance off his left cheek, highlighting a pale triangle under his right eye. Budget chiaroscuro. The shadows sharpen his already well-defined features. Tonight, there’s a greenish tinge to his papery skin and you imagine it’s not entirely from the reflection of his tacky St. Patrick’s Day necklace, on which is strung a large plastic shamrock. Blurred light, cheap canvas indeed. You snuck out of your room to stand under so many harsh streetlamps like this before, just to watch him talk, his hands always violent in their gestures even when you hushed each other so as not to wake any neighbors. A stoplight shades him red. You’re flooded with the memory of being sixteen together in his garage. If you concentrate, just barely, you can still taste the stale air of that old place, the bitter chemical tang of scarlet dye, iron and rust, spilled drips of gasoline, blood mingled with your sweat and his in the late summer heat.
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