When they cotton dive, the boys become serious. They coil into themselves, squatting on the lip of the metal cotton bins, and they thrust their bodies into the air. The boys go for distance, they go for height, but their main concern is arc. They’re trying to pierce the cotton deeply and completely. So, against the sunset, they curve together like dolphins into the ocean, and the cotton catches and folds around them as they disappear beneath, swimming into the soft waves, bits of husk floating by their bodies like shells. They do this over and over, pulling themselves back up to the lip of the bins and then hurling themselves off again. The bins grunt under the pressure. The boys dive until their arms and legs ache. In midair, wisps of cotton flutter from their hair and fall behind them like bits of sea foam.
When they were 16, this was their routine.
Though the boys were physically distinguishable—Jeremy, tall and dusky; Peter, dirty-blond—together they acted like a mechanically simple but efficient machine, first the tall body, then the short, moving together through their high school lives, chewing through each new day, benefiting from the technological advantage of two heads, four feet, four hands, four eyes. They had been friends since the fourth grade, though they never considered how or when the friendship started. It simply existed. They might have well have been fraternal twins for the way they finished each other’s sentences, inhabited and discarded each other’s clothes, were fed and parented in each other’s houses.
The diving always made them late. For Peter, dinner was at six, precisely. His grandfather, bitter and enfeebled, had always had his dinner straight up at six, and he wasn’t going to change just because he was forced to live with his goddamned daughter, Peter’s mother. As part of the family agreement, the old man had given up his car—a mid-80s Lincoln Town Car, a midnight blue monster that Peter did his best to rag out. Jeremy, whose mother was still litigating the proper amount of alimony out of his own father, was without a car and rode with Peter everywhere.
Peter always knew they had to get home, but he was loathe to leave the cotton bins, which they had found one afternoon while riding around the farmland north of Niskayuna High. The bins were huddled together in the corner of a cotton field, metal boxes of bleached orange peeling to rust. After diving, Peter liked to smoke while reclining, delicately flicking his ashes out through the finger-thick holes of the wire mesh, intent on not staining the cotton with his ash. Jeremy, on the other hand, was an incorrigible napper and liked to be submerged, the cotton tucked up to his chin. At an impossibly long distance away, his bare toes protruded.
At school, cotton had become a code word. Whenever they saw girls walking by, girls they knew or wanted to know, girls in boot cuts and belts, sweaters and pullovers, fleeces with and without hoods, the girls became “like cotton.”
“Just like cotton,” Jeremy would say with a contained smile.
“Fresh warm cotton at two o’clock,” Peter would say.
“Very uncotton,” Peter would sometimes say.
No matter the time, Peter would drive home slow and take the back roads into Jackson and roll down the windows and sometimes Jeremy would dial the soul station run out of Gluckstadt and they would listen to Al Green and smell the farmers grilling out behind their houses.
If, looking back, Peter had had to trace the beginning of Jeremy and Lina’s relationship, he would have said it began at a party at Robert Birch’s house in the winter of their sophomore year, not too long after that first cotton-diving season had ended. She was sitting on a couch in the living room, her legs folded under her Indian-style. A half-finished can of Beast rested between her legs. Peter noticed how the sweat of the can left damp marks on the inside thigh of her jeans. They had a button fly, shiny like new nickels. Lina was short with long black hair that mysteriously contained surprising strands of brown, and sometimes red, depending on the light. She was dark, even in the winter, and when the couples walked among each other at basketball games in February, it was obvious she wasn’t from around there. All the Mississippi girls had lost their brown, gone back to pearly white skin, tan lines gone for a few more months. Lina was from down further south, though the boys did not know where. She was telling some story, surrounded by other girls, gesturing with her one free hand, using the other to hold the beer steady between her legs.
“So like ro I am so not kidding that boy was fucking wasted,” Lina said.
She was famous around the school, although no one discussed why. All the boys who had been there at Niskayuna since seventh grade knew who she was, and remembered the day they first noticed her, the day she was pulled out of the junior high tableaux. Lina was the girl who had her first period publicly, during the morning break, as she ate an apple on one of the picnic tables out in front of the quad. Nobody remembers the actual scene when it happened. They only remember the small spot of blood that stained the picnic table bench. Lina went home early. Nobody ever questioned her about the incident or gave her a hard time. Nobody said anything. Though the junior high boys would never confess to this, most of them stopped by the table at some point during the day. They approached slowly, with the rolling crunch of gravel under their feet, and they stretched their necks out and looked down at the spot of blood, making sure not to bend over, not to get too close. They stood there looking at it for a minute and let out a breath, recognizing that what they had heard was true. They then turned around and crunched back to their class, or their friends, or their mothers waiting for them in their cars.
“What the hell does ‘ro’ mean?” asked Peter, later that night back in the car.
“I think it might be short for ‘bro,’” said Jeremy.
“That’s stupid,” said Peter. “Is that some sort of Florida thing?”
“Lighten up, Pete.” Jeremy lit another cigarette and spent the rest of the evening looking out the window, finally asking around midnight to be taken home, even though his mom was out of town, and he could have done anything, and could have done it all night.
Peter’s full name was Peter Allen Traxler. He called the car the Traxler Town Tank—“a couch on wheels handed down through generations.” When he drove people home from parties—he was always looking for an excuse to drive—he’d throw his arm up on the seat and crane his head backward and say, “Welcome to the finest automotive contraption in Northeast Jackson. Don’t worry about your safety”—and at this point he’d let go of the wheel and completely turn to the backseat passengers, Jeremy manning the steering—“if we hit anything, we’ll probably come out all right.”
On some weekend nights, months into their relationship, depending on the schedule of the evening, Jeremy and Lina would make-out in the Tank. If there was a party, Jeremy would snatch away Peter’s keys as he stood pumping up the keg, or if they went to a movie, Lina and Jeremy would take a long trip for snacks. Since both houses were on “permanent lockdown,” Jeremy claimed, they made time where they could. Once, when Lina’s father had to make an emergency business trip in the middle of a week, Jeremy begged Peter into driving him over to Lina’s house. Peter did his homework out in the car, hunkered beside the window to get the good streetlight, pre-calc notes spread across the dash.
In their second year of diving, junior year, their technique became more intricate, involving flips and twists and convoluted and ultimately foiled landings. Daylight Savings Time was about to end, and the specter of a 5:20 sunset haunted Peter. He whined about it at school so much Jeremy had to tell him to shut up before someone got curious.
The boys also became self-aware of their diving. They became finicky and pedantic about the details of the dive. They were harsh in their critiques of each other’s performance. They developed rules: you must always cotton dive shirtless. You must wait at least 48 hours after a rain. Sunset is the optimal time to dive, but full-on darkness is too dangerous. You should never cotton dive alone. Each person should act as the other’s lifeguard. You must check in with your diving partner after every dive to ensure he has not smothered.
Then, one day, while standing one the edge of a bin, psyching up for a backflip, Peter took off his shorts.
After landing, he began victoriously swishing his arms and legs in that way people do when they’re making angels in the snow.
“What in the hell are you doing?” asked Jeremy, who had turned around to Peter’s bin.
“I don’t know,” said Peter.
“You don’t have any clothes on.”
“Put your fucking shorts on.”
“Yeah, but Jeremy, it feels—”
“I don’t fucking care. Put your shorts on.”
“Because it’s against the rules, that’s why.”
Peter glared at him for a moment. Then Peter leaned up and reached for his shorts and grunted out a Fine.
“Oh, shit—Goddamn it. Put your pants on.”
“That’s what I’m doing. Jesus,” said Peter.
“No!” screamed Jeremy, his voice cracking. He was diving for his shirt and shoes.
On the horizon, a tornado of dust funneled behind a pick-up truck. It was speeding along the road next to the strip of thorny trees that led to the bins. “Maybe he isn’t coming—” began Peter. The furious cloud of dust only grew. The truck was coming right for them. The boys busted it. Peter had never dressed so fast. The boxers and shorts went on as one. Belts and buttons and zippers were left undone. Feet were stuffed into untied shoes. Shirts were on inside-out. Socks were crammed into pockets. And everything was accompanied by Jeremy’s wail: “Get in the car hurry up I can’t believe we’re gonna get busted for this shit I hope he didn’t see your naked ass we are so dead oh my God would you just hurry the fuck up.” The Tank tore away. The pick-up was about fifty yards behind them. You could have seen the dust for miles. They drove so fast that the speedometer—a bright orange toothpick—peaked out at 80 and stuck there vibrating. The car shook, and the wind gushed through the open windows and pummeled them. Three minutes later when they swerved through the gate at the school and parked behind the observatory, Jeremy pronounced the coast clear.
Peter heard his mother come into his bedroom early to put away clean clothes, the socks and boxer shorts and generic white undershirts. She did not do this quietly, the warped dresser drawers needing two hands, their metal pulls clinking when slammed shut. Peter pretended to sleep. She let out a heavy sigh, a sigh that Peter recognized as his mother’s trademark, a theatrical expression of her martyrdom. He wasn’t sure—lying there encased in the down comforter—if she were sighing because of him, or his father, or his Grandpa. Same difference, he thought.
“What’s this?” she said. “What’s this?”
Peter feigned sleep. She had picked up Peter’s dirty clothes that had been shed in a wad next to his bed, peeling undershirts out of knit shirts, boxers out of khaki pants. Peter mentally inventoried all the contraband he could remember. Cigarettes and lighter? Wedged underneath his car seat. Plastic traveler-sized bottle of Southern Comfort? Wrapped in a Piggly Wiggly bag and bundled with the spare-tire gear in his trunk. The half-smoked dimebag of pot bought from Binc Manchester? Was in car, now given to Jeremy to hide at his house once he heard rumor of drug dogs patrolling the Upper School lot. String of six condoms acquired two years ago at camp? In the Lincoln’s glove compartment, hidden inside the owner’s manual. Three consecutive issues of early ’93 Penthouse? Accidentally thrown out the fall before, still sad about it. Peter could think of nothing else.
“Peter, what’s this?” his mother said, her sad presence now sitting on his bed, impossible to ignore.
“Mom?” he said, emerging, playing his best. “That you? What’s up?”
“Peter, what’s this? It fell out of your clothes.”
She held a tuft of raw cotton in her hand. Peter, dramatically groggy, worked at the wicks of his eyes with his fingers until they squeaked, and leaned over her hand, breathing hard. He tried somehow to reverse the blushing; he could feel the heat rush up his throat and over his cheeks. His lips felt chapped. He tasted the rusty morning taste in his mouth. Fabulous excuses began developing in his mind, intricate plots involving car wrecks and hospitals and emergencies and trauma.
“I dunno. Is it lint or something?” he said.
“It’s not lint, honey. This is cotton. Like the kind you pick off a bush.”
Peter just kept staring at her hand, its fine wrinkles like the depthless cracks seen on old paintings.
“I dunno, Mom. Where did you get it?”
“It was in your clothes—where did you and Jeremy go last night?”
“Just the game. Like we always do.”
The hand retracted. The lint clutched tight, her face a blank hardness.
“Did we win?”
“No. Of course not,” Peter said, coughing up a laugh. “They beat us like a drum.”
“Wonderful,” his mother said. She got up, leaving the rest of the clean clothes stacked next to Peter in a neatly squared pile, the lock of cotton caught tight in her hand.
That next week, without explanation, Peter inherited his father’s cell phone. “Just in case something comes up,” his mother said.
“I had a strange afternoon,” Jeremy said.
He looked off to the horizon, the way Peter had seen people in movies do when they are about to expel a great secret. They were on their way to a Halloween party.
“It was different. Like nothing else. Ever.”
Jeremy was very solemn when he spoke. He was dressed as Ricky Martin, with squeaky leather pants that Peter insisted were too shiny and radiant to be merely leather, that the pants were either pleather or vinyl. Vinyl, pleather, whatever, Jeremy had said. It ain’t cotton. He wore a cream-colored, tight shirt. Neither tried to identify its material. It was collarless but had a diagonal slit at the throat-line that flapped open at will in a way that Peter said was either distinctly Ricky Martin or distinctly Vulcan.
“What is so different?” asked Peter.
“Can you keep a secret?” asked Jeremy. Peter nodded automatically. “I was there when you came by this afternoon.”
“So why didn’t you come to the door?”
“Well, Lina was there, too. But no one else was around. So, you know, we started to make-out.”
“And well, we went . . . further.”
“You did it? Oh.” Peter was at a total loss. He was dressed in his normal clothes. He didn’t have a costume but an injury; a fake, rubber screw was glued onto his forehead with trickles of blood dried down his face and throat. His grandfather had said it was so lifelike that he wanted to vomit. Peter was proud and asked for pictures.
“No no no. We didn’t do it. I told you that we are not going to do it for a while. Not until we’ve been going out for at least a year. We just said we loved each other like a month ago.”
“We didn’t. We just. Well . . .”
“I don’t want to say it.”
“Well, it sounds so cheap when you just blurt it out.”
“Aw, J come on.” They were quiet. Peter checked his screw. It still looked perfect—blood spreading like branches across his face. It had tickled horribly when his mother squeezed the fake blood out of the dropper. But it had tasted oddly sweet, as if sugared. He glanced over at Jeremy, whose hair was a caramel bouffant. Peter wondered if he would try to carry the impersonation completely through the party that night. He had been practicing.
“What she going as?” Peter asked.
“Huh?” And then after a moment, he said, “Oh, yeah. She’s going to be a geisha girl.”
“A geesha girl? What’s that?” asked Peter.
“I don’t really know. Some oriental thing.”
“So are you going to tell me?” Peter asked, sounding more eager than he had intended. They were almost at the house. He could see the cars half-parked on the lawn.
“Listen, just.” Jeremy crossed his arms. Peter pulled up and killed the engine. The house thumped with faint music.
Jeremy stuck his right hand into Peter’s face. “Sniff,” he said. Peter knitted his brows. “Do it. Sniff.”
Peter inhaled. Jeremy’s index and middle fingers floated under his nose for a brief moment.
They were both quiet. And then Peter said: “That’s way better than cotton.”
The party was lame. The boys mulled around on the back porch. Their breath was the same white cloud as their cigarette smoke. Lina and Marianne, Peter’s date, were somewhere inside. Around eleven it started to sleet.
“Do you think she wants to?” Peter asked. They were standing under the overhang of the roof. Peter’s sneakers were slowly soaking. The bottoms of their jeans were damp, as if they had been running through tall, wet grass.
“I don’t know. Probably. Maybe,” Jeremy said.
“How can you tell?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she’ll say something.”
“You could say something.”
“Oh, yeah.” And when he noticed that Peter wasn’t kidding, he said: “But how?”
“What do you mean ‘how’? You must have talked about this some.”
“No, I mean where? As you well know, I have no car.”
“Your house?” Peter said.
“With my parents? Are you kidding? My mom hears it when the dog farts. She’s up checking to see if it’s a burglar. We can’t get halfway through a movie, for chrissakes.”
“No. Her father dates.”
“I think I’ve seen him. Homecoming?”
“Yeah. He was her escort.”
“How did someone so tall have someone that short?”
“Okay, I’m sorry. I’m just saying that if you ever had kids, they might be tiny.”
“Let’s not even go there.”
“Well, have you thought about that?”
“So . . . I got some condoms.”
“Good. What kind?”
“I can’t remember.”
“What do you mean you can’t remember? It’s not that hard. They’re either—”
“I haven’t actually gotten them yet.”
“Well, you need to.”
“I know,” said Jeremy. “I am. I will.”
Peter caught himself glaring at Jeremy, as if he was squeezing the agreement out of him. His bouffant had lost its shape and it was just regular Jeremy hair now, except lit with the glittery hair-paint Lina had bought him. The sleet was coming down heavier. It sounded like bits of plastic falling. The blood on his face had begun to itch.
“Is she on the pill?” asked Peter.
“Has been since she was fourteen.”
“Fourteen? What for?”
“I don’t know. It like helps them with their thing. You know.”
“It does? How?”
“I don’t know—I heard it somewhere.”
Peter, after smirking disbelief for a moment, said, “Has she been screwing around since she was fourteen?”
“Peter. Goddamn it. Why do you say shit like that?”
There was a knock on the sliding glass door behind them. It was Lina—her face ghostly white in the makeup. Her hair had come down too. It had been up, intricately braided and folded, and Peter had told her she looked like origami. Her small smudge of lipstick and the white paint around her mouth had faded from the drinking, so she looked like she was in reverse black face. Let’s go, she mouthed to Jeremy.
“Now?” he asked. She nodded and mouthed, please? He said okay and held up his cigarette, only burned a fourth of the way down. She mouthed okay and her floating ghost-face disappeared back into the house.
“She’s been on the pill since—” said Peter.
“Shut up,” Jeremy whispered. “It’s a fucking miracle I don’t kick your ass.” Peter started stamping his feet. His legs felt numb from the calves down.
“You couldn’t even try, Ricky,” he said back.
“How would you like it if I said something like that?”
“All I’m saying,” Peter said, still stomping, “is that you should ask how many partners she’s had.”
“Because it’s important.”
Peter was now bent over rubbing his shins. The rhythmic sound of his hands on his jeans. He couldn’t help but think of what this weather was doing to the cotton. It was probably turning into oatmeal and would take days to dry enough for another jump. And before they knew it, it would be Thanksgiving.
“What in the hell are you doing, Peter?”
“My feet are practically frozen solid,” he said.
“Well why didn’t you say something?” said Jeremy.
“Because you said you wanted to stay out here.”
“But not if you are freezing to death,” said Jeremy.
“Are you pissed at me?” asked Peter.
“No,” said Jeremy. “It’s just this night has so completely sucked.”
“Well, maybe we could—”
There was another knock on glass, much harder. They both turned around. Now, she mouthed.
“Okay,” Jeremy said back. Peter heard him curse under his breath and saw him drop his cigarette into his beer can and swish it around, like Peter’d seen cousins do. It was nearly finished anyway. But Jeremy didn’t move, only stood there looking at the glass door. He was probably watching Lina walk, Peter thought. She had been wearing a kimono but ended up borrowing someone’s sweat pants after about 20 minutes. At school, she had a way of positioning herself at the front of whatever group of girls she was walking with so that you could always see her, despite her shortness.
Peter remembered how she squatted down, like a catcher, to get her books for each class. She didn’t carry her backpack compulsively like the other students. She carried only the books she needed for the next class, propping them on her hip. (Because of some unspoken tradition, the lockers at Niskayuna High were mostly decorative.) When she squatted down, her shirt would sometimes separate from the waistline of her pants, so that there was a band of flesh uncovered, the amount depending on the type of shirt and pants. Peter had seen her shrink down to replace a binder, a highlighter, a copy of Othello, and when the portion of her lower back had appeared, he had once seen, just above the waistline, a glitter of metal. At first he didn’t know what it was and he tried to stare inconspicuously, while fiddling with his locker. But as she moved, the belly-chain moved, and the light reflected off it again, as if the metal were jeweled. Peter stepped closer, to peer down at what he thought looked like a necklace. He was almost over her, trying to decipher exactly what was tied around her waist, exactly what it was composed of. Then she stood up. Peter straightened and stepped back, suddenly self-aware. Lina walked off to her class without turning around. All Peter could now see were jeans and a sweater.
“Jeremy,” Peter said. “Come on. Let’s go.” He stood behind Jeremy, waiting for him to slide open the door. Jeremy was still looking into the glass, into his reflection. Peter gave him a little push, very soft, just under his right shoulder blade. After a second push, Peter felt him un-tense, and he finally slid the door open and the boys walked into the warm, dry party together.
After daylight savings passed, their trips to the cotton bins became short and intense. They had seen the pickup once more, pulling up a dust storm on the horizon as they’d pulled off the road, and it had turned toward them, so Peter gunned it back onto the road. But they still returned, only once or twice a week, one of them standing on the edge of a bin, fully clothed, the car keys held tight, keeping watch, while the other jumped and whooped and flipped and cursed the farmer, wherever he was. Peter typically took the first lookout.
Now that it was getting dark early, Peter’s mom wanted him home first thing after school. He needed to bring his grades up, she’d said. He had come home the week before with a scratch on his nose he couldn’t explain. He had scratched himself on a cotton bulb husk, but he was sure she thought it was drugs.
Jeremy was out sick, and Peter had been driving around Niskayuna after school, thinking about going diving solo but always deciding it was too risky. He would get home by four and his mother would ask where he’d been, and he couldn’t even come up with a good lie. She knew Jeremy was sick and trusted him even less alone.
After three days of his mumbled evasions, she said, “What part of come home right after school don’t you understand? Either get home or give me the keys.”
The next day after school, walking out to his car, Peter saw Lina waiting at the curb, amidst the backpacks and the baseball hats.
“Need a ride?” asked Peter. She shook her head. She was in a black skirt that touched the tops of her knees. A black sweater buttoned twice over a sky blue stretchy shirt. Her hair blew in the wind and a strand stuck to her lip.
“My dad’s coming. He’s bringing me my car.” And then as an explanation: “It’s my birthday tomorrow.”
“Oh. Happy birthday. Jeremy hadn’t told me. You’re getting a car?”
“Mhmm. A Forerunner.”
“Sweet,” said Peter. “You talk to Jeremy?”
“Bummer. I haven’t seen him in like a week.”
“How do you go on?”
“Why do you hate me so much?” he asked.
“I don’t hate you at all.”
The flow of cars kept running through the carpool line with a stuttery consistency, like the time-lapsed photography of blood circulation he’d seen in biology earlier that day.
“What’s he getting you?” Peter said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I hope he just gets well enough to go out. His mom keeps saying he’s got mono.”
“Ro, I totally did not give him mono. Don’t even joke.”
“I didn’t say that. I wasn’t even gonna.”
A hunter green Forerunner was making its way around the curve of the entrance road. Lina’s hair swirled around her face in the wind. It looked almond-colored in the bright November sun, Peter thought.
“So that it?” Peter asked.
She nodded, her excitement undisguised. “That’s really nice,” Peter said.
“Thanks. Maybe when J gets better, we can all go out. I’ll drive.”
“That would be nice,” Peter said. “Is it four-wheel drive?”
“I have no idea. You could ask my dad.”
“Nah. Just curious. If it was we could take it mudding.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
The truck pulled up in front of them and Lina put her stuff in the backseat, and then did a sort of hop to get into the front passenger’s seat. She made some indecipherable, excited noise to her father. She gave a quick wave before closing the door, and Peter waved back, but by then the door was closed, the glass tinted, the truck pulling away, and Peter was left alone in the carpool line, another car pulling up and jolting to a stop and another person jumping in and leaving.
The next day, a Friday afternoon, was perfect for cotton diving. The air was crisp; the sky was cloudless, a deep, blinding blue. Peter sat out on his back porch, smoking a cigarette. His mother was happy. He’d finally come home straight from school. She gave him an exaggerated thank you before leaving for the store. Said she’d make him one of his favorites—chicken and dumplings—for finally listening.
Jeremy was still out of school. Peter had tried to find Lina, to see what the gameplan was for the weekend, but no luck. It was getting close to five, and he was growing desperate from the lack of communication and the vision of Friday night at home with the family, watching Grandpa’s mouth work on the dumplings at dinner, Dad turning up Nash Bridges too loud. He started another cigarette and called Jeremy.
Jeremy’s mother was startled to hear from him. “Yes, Peter. He’s doing much better. Doctor gave him a shot yesterday. Turned out not to be mono—just a bad cold, I guess. Anyway, he told me he was with you,” she said.
Peter tried to cover, but his voice went shaky, and he could tell from the way hers became thin and angular that she did not believe anything he said.
He called Lina’s house. He felt odd doing this. He had seen Jeremy do it so many times. The number-pattern was not familiar but the sound of their touch-tone keys was comforting. The voice of a very large man answered. She was out, for her birthday. She would not be in until late. Peter beeped off the portable phone and began to pace. It was almost five. Three cigarette butts lay crushed in black, ashy smudges at his feet on the back porch. His mother would be home soon with with the dumpling mix. Birds chirped. Everything outside turned a shade darker, as if the world had just slightly condensed. The old man was out with her, riding shotgun, guarding all the coupons, reading the obituaries, telling her to slow down. Leaves were turning orange, a purplish-brown. It was four forty-five. Thanksgiving was two weeks away. He dialed Jeremy’s cell phone. It rang and rang, went to voicemail. He imagined it bleating next to him, sitting on the seat against his thigh, wherever he was. He re-dialed.
They measured the circumference of the four bins with their feet, one placed carefully in front of the other. Jeremy took off his shirt, his watch, his shoes, his socks, his belt, his jeans, his boxers, one leg at a time so as not to fall. Lina began undressing as well, sandals flipped over the side, T-shirt on the edge of the bin, bra thrown back toward the truck, jeans unbuttoned one at the time—the delicate tambourine jingle of the button fly—sliding off the left leg, then the right, holding her hand out to Jeremy for balance. She tossed the jeans over the edge. She wore no underwear. A thin wire sparkled around her waist. She pranced away from Jeremy on the balls of her feet. The bin whined underneath, and Jeremy followed her out to the center, to the cross created by the conjoined bins. They embraced, their two vague shadows momentarily congealing. Holding hands, standing side-by-side, they turned to face one of the bins. After glancing at each other, they leaned back, together, falling backwards into the cotton, swimming in back strokes. Again, over and over, together or on their own, they dove with a deep arc into the cotton and pulled themselves towards the bottom and found the metal mesh that now covered urine-colored dead grass, and then they turned around, pushing upwards, towards the orange light, towards the air.
Peter saw it all. He was squatting behind a row of trees, delicately holding back a ring of thorns. It was almost dark, and the world had blurred. He couldn’t control his breathing; his undershirt was stuck to his chest; the thorns were pricking into his palms, into his fingers; one scratched his neck like a broken fingernail.
He saw the pick-up truck, almost gray and invisible in the dusk, slowly creeping down the dirty road towards the bins. It was already almost a hundred yards away.
Peter had summoned it. He had seen the Forerunner on his initial drive by the field, and in silence, with no thinking, no pause to consider what he was doing, he drove around the circumference of the field, looking for the nearest one-story farmer’s house, trying to find the one with that truck. It didn’t take long. The truck was innocently parked in a carport, and Peter idled in front of the house, leaning on the horn, until a curtain twitched in one of the windows, and he was sure he had been seen. He then stomped on the accelerator and sped back to the cotton bins.
Lina’s dark green SUV floated next to the bins like a fat shadow. They continued to dive—an awkward and sincere motion. Peter heard Lina giggle. A cell phone chirped from inside the Forerunner, but it was ignored. Their clothing lay strewn on the lip of the bin. A couple of articles rested on the top of the Forerunner. Jeremy was a pale shadow, with dirty shadings where his hair was supposed to be. Lina was compact and dark. The belly-necklace sparkled.
The sky behind the bins had turned a navy blue.
Peter heard a twig snap under the tire of the approaching truck.
He thrashed, twisting his body. A thorn traced across his forearm, and he felt a sizzling sting. It left a thin, red scratch—the kind that never bleeds but always appears to be on the cusp of bleeding. Lina and Jeremy continued to dive. He saw them perform a flip into a bin together, hollering as they dove. Peter could almost see the fluff and recoil of the cotton as it caught them.
The truck was fifty feet away. Peter saw the vague outline of a driver bent over the wheel.
Peter sucked his scratch, hoping to make the sting go away. Lina and Jeremy did not come up from the cotton. He knew they were under its covers. He fought the urge to run for the bins and fling himself into the cotton. Instead, he turned around and walked back to his car, sloppily parked in the soybean field behind the trees. He left the couple naked in the cotton, floating together in the twilight with the pick-up truck approaching—he left them to go home, back to his mother who would be waiting at the dinner table with her old man.
Peter did not hear from Jeremy for another week. Both he and Lina were at school but neither approached him. He didn’t even see them together. All he got as he walked down the hall was a fake, partial smile, or a slight head nod. After a week, Jeremy finally approached Peter after school. “Hey, man.” Peter was leaning over his backpack, trying to force the zipper to close. “Ya think we could start carpooling again?” Without looking up Peter said sure.
They walked out to the parking lot. The dark blue Lincoln sat alone. Frost had hit and they moved slowly in their thick jackets and under their bulging backpacks. When they had almost reached the car, Jeremy said, “Hey, Peter. I’m sorry about the last week. About not talking.”
Peter nodded. “I’ve been in some serious shit.” Peter said, yeah, he’d heard things.
Peter nodded. “I’ve been in some serious shit.” Peter said, yeah, he’d heard things.
They crawled into the car. The doors whined. Peter put the heater on high but the air was cold at first. The seats and steering wheel felt stale.
Once they were situated—the backpacks put away, the wipers massaging the blurry windshield, the boys buckled in and rubbing their hands together—Jeremy looked over at Peter and with a frightened but elated smile said: “Pete. Man, I have had the weirdest fucking week. You wouldn’t believe it. You wouldn’t beleeeve what happened to Lina and me. We—”
“Get out,” Peter said, his hands now stuffed into his coat pockets. The smile on Jeremy’s face made Peter want to pummel him.
“Get the fuck out.”
“I said: get the fuck out of my car.”
“Man, I’m sor—”
“Jeremy Moultas, if you don’t get out of my car right now, I’m gonna beat the shit out of you.”
Peter was now shaking, and his fists coiled around Jeremy’s undershirt, just below the soft, hollow indention of his throat. He yanked him close enough to see the darkness of his mouth, to feel his breath, the only warm substance in the car. In his grip there was a tear—perhaps only a stitch—that sounded to Peter like a distant explosion from somewhere deep inside Jeremy.
“I’m so not kidding, J.”
Jeremy grabbed his things and fled the car, and Peter sped away.
With no explanation to his mother, Peter insisted shortly thereafter that the family sell the Lincoln Town Car. His parents were flabbergasted, but Peter staunchly refused to drive it ever again, and after two weeks of acquiescing to his mother’s pleading (“I just don’t have time to take you to school every morning”), he dropped the keys on the kitchen counter and did not come near the car for the six more weeks it took them to sell it. Everyone tried to talk sense into him, even his grandfather. That’s a perfectly good car, he had said. It was good enough for me. (Everyone thought that Peter was embarrassed about the car’s model, its angular shape, its bruised color.) Listen to me, son, he continued, keep driving that car. I’ll buy you a new one as soon as you get into college. Grandpa pushed his glasses up on top of his bald head, a gesture known throughout the family as one of concrete sincerity. Son, he finished, it ain’t a bad car. I know it ain’t cool. And then, pulling Peter closer, he said: Son, listen, I promise you that car’ll get you pussy just as fast as anything else.
Barrett Hathcock was born and raised in Jackson, Miss., but now lives in Memphis, Tenn. He teaches writing at Rhodes College. For more stories, please visit barretthathcock.com.