Will was destined to be a pilot, to skim above surfaces. So why is he in wood shop class? He doesn’t know—or maybe he just doesn’t want to admit the truth.
When local teens begin committing suicide, their deaths all have one thing in common: beautifully carved wooden tributes that appear just after or before their bodies are found.
Will’s afraid he knows who’s responsible. And lurking just behind that knowledge is another secret, so explosive that he might not be able to face it and live…
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“I said, nice table, that. Pretty work. The inlay is classic. And it’s strong, huh?”
He stands on the table, adding eighteen inches to his height. He bounces up and down on his toes, testing the table’s strength and adding, taking away, adding and taking away, an additional two inches. He hops down, to where nature put him. Five foot seven. Do you know this one’s name? No, you don’t. Don’t and won’t.
“But it doesn’t look it. That’s what’s really nice about work like this. Real strong and functional, but with delicate lines. Nice, nice work.”
He is sliding his hand over the highly polished finish of the nice, nice work in question.
“Thanks. But it’s not mine,” you say.
“What? What are you taking about? Of course it’s yours.”
“No. Sorry, but it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is. What are you, jerking me around? I been sitting here three feet away from you for two weeks watching you do it.”
Watching you. Watching you? Two weeks watching you.
“You just finished it yesterday morning. It’s just dry today. It’s nice work, why you want to pretend you didn’t do it?”
You look at that table, and you agree. It is nice work.
“Two weeks?” you ask. “Does it really take somebody two weeks of life to make something like that?”
“Fine. Be that way.”
The surface of the table is the size of a chessboard. Your classmate has left it to get back to his own knotty-pine creation which he says is a bookshelf, but you know is for videos.
Why are you here?
Whose table is that?
Why are you in wood shop? You are meant to be a pilot. How does wood shop get you any closer to being a pilot?
But here you are. And you do not like to be idle. Devil’s workshop and all. You don’t know why you are here but you know you are, and you are meant to be doing something so you might as well.
Why would somebody spend two weeks of his life on a table big enough for one small lamp, one can of Pringles and one glass of water and nothing else?
And why would another somebody spend two weeks watching him?
Beautiful plank of blond oak. Four feet long, two feet wide, two inches deep. Little table maybe means nothing, but this is a beautiful piece of wood.
“This is a beautiful piece of wood, Mr. Jacks. May I?”
“Yes it is, and yes you may, and what’s more I have fifteen others just like it stacked up in the storage. Sweetheart deal, fell from the sky, and you shoppers are the beneficiaries.”
You stroke the piece of wood as if it were an Angora cat. You could do that stroke up or down or sideways or swirls all day long if you wanted to and never pick up a splinter. It is a magnificent piece of wood.
“That mean you’re finished with that table now?”
“The table. You filing it?”
Your classmate takes this as his cue, sliding on over beside you. “He says it ain’t his, Mr. Jacks.”
“Well it’s not, if he’s finished with it. It’s the school’s. Just like that video rack is going to be if you ever complete it.”
“It’s a bookshelf, sir.”
“You done with the table, then?” Mr. Jacks, just like the video-shelving guy, takes an up-close-and-personal inspection of the table in question. “Nice finish. I can see myself. Extra credit when I can use myself. Smooth, strong, clean edges. Fine work, as usual.”
The kid is laughing in a way that makes clear to everybody that he doesn’t find anything funny. “He says it’s not his, sir.”
“It’s not mine.”
“No, sorry to say,” Mr. Jacks says, “but it isn’t. I wish I could let you guys keep some of your stuff, but the rules are the rules. We keep them through term, then we donate.”
Mr. Jacks takes the table up and walks it off, to where they take the wood that has been made furniture and is thus no longer of any use to the class.
“Mr. Jacks.” You are looking ever closer at that beautiful blond board and all its fine grains.
“Huh? Oh, ya, knock yourself out. But it better be great, using my star lumber.”
“Great,” you say. An answer. “Great,” you repeat, a question, a promise, a further question.
• • •
Why do you do it? What is the driver? You don’t know.
“What are you making there, Will?” Mr. Jacks asks.
You release the trigger on the handsaw, raise your protective glasses. “Not sure, really.” The rest of the class continues with hammering, planing, chipping and slicing with pneumatic tools and raw muscle power, so that you have to strain to be heard. But this is not new. It is standard and barely noticeable, to have to strain to be heard.
“Well, it’s rather important that you know what you’re making. Otherwise, how can I judge whether you’ve made it or not when you’re done?”
You look up, and try to smile. You do smile, successfully if not radiantly. “Faith, Mr. Jacks,” is what you say.
“Faith,” he says. “Faith. You mean I’m just supposed to trust you, that you’re doing something worthwhile with your time and my wood and the school’s machinery?”
“Well. Well, I suppose that’s what I’m saying, sir.”
Mr. Jacks looks all around, for comic effect, the way teachers do in regular classrooms when they want to emphasize that a student has said something fairly ridiculous. But this is not the regular class, nobody hears or notices what is going on between you two, and Mr. Jacks has to give an answer all on his own.
“Okay,” he says. “You haven’t botched anything so far. So I guess you’ve earned a little faith.”
Is it? Is it faith if you’ve earned it? Isn’t faith putting trust in something for no good reason? Maybe you should ask.
Or maybe you shouldn’t. Since you have no idea what it is you’re doing, or why.
• • •
This means you.
Asking you. Is there a voice in your head, directing you what to do? Is that how it gets done, what gets done?
If so, why do you listen? Is it authority because it is in your head? Or is it in your head because it is authority?
“Gran? Hello? Pops?”
Nobody is home. This is not all that unusual, they are largely functional people still, and do go out from time to time. But they were supposed to be home this afternoon. That’s how it was supposed to be, and you really prefer things to be the way they are supposed to be.
Funny, when you find things to be not to your liking you try to force them to be otherwise.
“Gran?” you call again, louder. “Pops.” The house is small. It is easy enough to know when no one is in it, and yelling louder doesn’t conjure them. Neither does standing frozen in the doorway.
Go on. Step inside. There’s no other way. There will be a reasonable explanation. Check the refrigerator. The refrigerator. There wouldn’t be a note anyplace else, and you know that. The grandparents are not thumbtack people, they are magnet people. You know that. And do you see any metal walls around here? Go on, go to the fridge.
Will. Went to bocce ball. Beautiful day. Come on down. Love, Gran & Pops.
And here’s the thing. You do it once more, don’t you. Like the note is lying to you or something. Like there is some kind of conspiracy.
“Gran?” you call. “Pops?”
• • •
She is so right. It is a magnificent day. You stare up searching for a cloud and see but one anemic-looking excuse for a wisp of a nothing probably a thousand miles away in the sky. The rest of what you take in is such a deep and hard crystalline blue, like a swimming pool, that you feel drenched in it after staring up for only one minute. One minute is a great deal of sky-staring for most people. It is nothing to you. The clack of bocce balls against one another plays as the soundtrack.
“So how was it today?” Gran says, first grabbing, then pulling on your arm as if you were a window shade and she wanted you down.
“Shush,” Pops says. He is lined up, staring down the improbably perfect crew cut of the bowling green. His size-twelve feet are tight together, his elbows bent, the ball resting just under his chin. He is stooped over as he addresses the ball, but truth be told he would be stooped over anyway. Pops is a stooped-over man.
“It was good today, Gran.”
“Shush, I said. Did you hear me say shush? This is a critical shot.”
He shushes you a lot, doesn’t he? Does he like you, do you suppose? Or does he tolerate you? Those are the choices anyway, right? Like or tolerate? Love wouldn’t come into it, would it? No, you don’t suppose love would . . .
“Started on a gorgeous piece of wood today, Gran. Even without doing anything to it, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s too good to be furniture. It should be growing in your garden, but of course, it can’t. So I’m going to set it free.”
Pops drops his ball right there on the perfect green ground. Slowly he turns to face the two of you, wife and grandson, sum total of family. “Did you even hear me, Will?” He gestures toward the little cluster of black balls down at the other end of the pitch. Like, if you see them, you will comprehend. “I told you what a critical shot this was, and you know I can’t bowl properly if you two are conversing.”
Do you like him, Will? Or do you just tolerate him? Or does it even matter? Don’t suppose it does. You’re essentially . . . what would they call it . . . a circumstance, until—god willing, as they say—you turn eighteen at least.
“Are you listening to me, Will?”
“Oh, Pops, take your shot, after all.” Gran calls Pops Pops. You like that, don’t you. And she doesn’t take him always so seriously. You like that, too. She does manage to be very kind, doesn’t she?
They are kind to you. Kind people. Kindly. They didn’t have to take you in. Or did they? Love? Is it love? Charity. Somewhere in the Bible, doesn’t it indicate that they are both the same thing? Does that matter to you either way?
Pops bowls, finally, after taking a good long time lining himself up again. Twice as long as he needed, that’s for sure, but he had to be dramatic about how you had inconvenienced him, and then he must have put a mighty backspin on the thing because it took about a month to reach its destination where it nestled snugly among its colleagues.
“Pretty shot, Pops,” you say.
Pops is pleased. He is rubbing his hands eagerly as he walks back to you. “Ya, wasn’t bad, huh? You playing today, Mister?”
You look up, at the sky, down, at the almost grainless surface of the lawn, left, at the creamy well-kept skin of Gran’s face under her sensible massive sun hat, and finally right, at the bronze road map of Pop’s gnarly mug.
“Sure, I’m playing,” you say.
“Good,” Pops says, clapping his hands loudly and rubbing them together hard enough to light a fire. “I’m gonna kick your ass, boy.”
He always says that, doesn’t he? Funny. But wouldn’t you really like to know how much of it is play and how much of it is spastic honesty?
“Ya Pops,” you say. “You are going to kick my ass, I know it.”
That’s what you always say, too. Is that what you want to say? Wouldn’t you like to say something else? How would it feel?
Better? Might you feel . . . better? Would you like that?
• • •
“Hmm,” she says thoughtfully.
Angela is standing over you. You are sitting. If you were standing, she would still be standing over you. She is tall, hard in a track-star way because she is a track star, and has a closely cut orange Afro probably an inch thick all around. Has she spoken to you before? You know her name, though, don’t you. Haven’t bothered knowing any of the others. What’s the use, after all. But you haven’t been able to not know Angela.
“You’re Angela, right?”
“Right.” She is talking to the woodwork. “Hmm.”
“So what does it do?”
“Um. Doesn’t do anything, far as I know.”
“So what’s it gonna be then, when it’s finished?”
You are both staring at it now, as if it were one of those alien patterns in a wheat field, or a crying Virgin Mary statue.
“It already is what it’s going to be.”
We all wait.
“I don’t know.”
“Oh come on. What does it mean?”
What does it mean? Do you think it means something?
Does it have to mean something?
“Everything means something.”
“Oh. Okay. Well maybe that’s true. And maybe this means something. But if it does, then I don’t know what.”
“You might not know what. But I bet you there is an answer.”
“So why are you making a pole?”
“Shut up. It’s not a pole, it’s a coat tree. Just doesn’t have any branches yet.”
Angela is leaving. Back to work. Done with you.
“I like your hair.”
She stops, does a half turn. “Thanks. Didn’t do it for you, however.”
“I liked it better when it was yellow, though.”
“Well I think I’ll keep it like this just the same.”
“Do you know what today is? May fourteenth? It’s one year ago today Sinatra died.”
She waits for you to make any sense at all. She’ll be waiting a long time for that, won’t she.
“Sorry about that, but I’m still sticking with orange.”
“How do you figure, a guy as rotten as him, could do something as moving as ‘Summer Wind’? Is there any sense in that, do you think?”
Is there any sense?
She goes back to honing an already well-honed trunk of a limbless coat tree.
She is back.
“So why does it look like a penis then, huh? Why you sitting over here quiet like a monk, working on a big ol’ penis all this time, huh?”
Angela is a tad piqued. Not unpleasant. But piqued still.
You look seriously, closely, at your work.
“Does it, you think? Look like that? I don’t really think it does. Does it though?”
“So that’s why you were talking to me?” You look at your thing. “Because I offended you?”
“Well I don’t think that’s what I’m making. No, now that I look at it, I really don’t think that’s what I’m making.”
Funny, how Angela looks at you, at you, the same way she looks at the piece. You are a study.
“Fine. Maybe it isn’t.”
You are looking at each other now a very long time. Nothing much comes of it, though.
“Mr. Jacks. Mr. Jacks, I’m done here. Would it be possible to start on another one of those nice pieces of board in your stash?”
“You’re done? With that?” Mr. Jacks is marching over now, with a sense of purpose. He’s staring burn holes in the wood and you know what he wants.
He wants what. And he wants why.
But you can’t give them to him.
It’s not as if you invented it, whatever it is, anyhow, is it? Does anyone else know what they’re doing? Or why? Do you think that stops anybody from doing what they do?
Take a look at what people do, Will. Go ahead. Look. See if any of it makes any sense. He can’t make you do what nobody can do. He can’t make you explain.
Jacks is standing over you now. You and yours. Lips pursed, finger pointing.
But then he goes limp. As if he has played the scene out in his head, he has seen where it does and doesn’t go. And is drained by the effort. He knows why you are both here. He knows both your limits.
“Go ahead, take another board,” he says.
• • •
Why is it you should do the shopping? Not that you mind doing the shopping, you don’t, at all. It’s the why that nags. That is, it’s their shopping. Do you have some kind of cosmic debt because you have been stuck with them? Isn’t that, isn’t this, life? You are theirs, are you not? Theirs? You didn’t kill anybody. Did you? Did you, Will, kill anybody?
Of course not. So why do you owe them? Why should it be that you are treated like an imposition? What does it mean? That you don’t belong? That you don’t belong there? That you don’t belong to them? That’s a shame. That’s a dirty damn shame. Tough break, kid.
“Hello,” Angela says. She is half-buried in a survey of the comparative unit prices of Green Giant and store-brand garden peas. She waves a can, then gets back to business.
“Hello,” you say, a little startled. You continue on.
Next aisle, breakfast cereals.
“Hello,” you say, as if you have not already said it.
Angela is walking with her mother and a bulging cart. Mother looks much like daughter, and not all that much older, either. Good skin. Not as tall and muscular. Softer. Walking into a dance, you might very well make a run for the mom.
“Hello,” Angela says, grinning like people do at nuts.
Next aisle, pastas, rices, sauces and whatnot. No mother. Angela.
You burble at her. “I just never figured, I guess, you to be doing the shopping-type stuff, y’know.”
“And I never figured you, to be eating, y’know, food-type stuff.”
Angela laughs first at her own joke, which gives you the green light to laugh too. She’s peeking now, and poking at your cart while you look all over nervously, as if she is poking around your underwear rather than your produce.
“What is with all this creamed corn, All-Barn, prunes . . .”
“My grandparents. I shop, for them.” You pull your cart back away from Angela slightly, protectively.
She gets the message. “Sorry,” she says. Sounds insulted. “Didn’t mean to go there. Just making conversation.”
You edge your cart back toward hers, offering another peek. Clumsy. Bump.
She smiles. “Thanks, anyway, but I’ve had enough thrills for today. See ya.”
And she is gone and you are standing, like a cardboard whatever parked in front of an unmanned display selling old-folks groceries. You sneak a look over your shoulder, catch her rounding the corner, and snap into gear.
She has skipped the next aisle, but you are ten feet of the way up before realizing, so you continue on, make the turn, and start a slow-motion pursuit through cosmetics and toothpaste and deodorant.
What will you do though? You don’t, do you? You don’t do, do you? Do you even know why you are following her?
You slow down. Slow down some more. Angela’s mother rounds the corner, looks at you, and you know the look. The I’ve-seen-you-and-now-I’m-seeing-you-again-too-soon-and-what-do-you-want-with-us look. Fact of life, you make people nervous. You see it, and you wince. Angela, apparently, sees it too. Looks at her mother, follows her line of vision, traces it back to you.
“Hey,” she says. “You following me? Or are you lost?”
And you don’t even have an answer for that soft line, do you?
“Sorry,” you say, and busy yourself pawing through the medicated shampoos for old flaking scalps.
You can’t see, because you are intensely trying not to see, but you can hear, somewhat. Angela’s mother is nervously asking what on earth you are. Angela is, in fits and stops, trying to tell her.
Might be nice to hear, what you are.
“What are you doing?”
“Sorry, Angela. Sorry.”
“Do stop apologizing. Just, like, what are you doing? Are you okay? ’Cause, you don’t seem it, you know. And you are scaring my mother.”
“Oh. Damn. Should I speak to her?”
“Ah, no. Thanks anyway. But are you following me for a reason?”
“I don’t date guys, just for the record.”
“Just for the record, neither do I—I mean, that’s not, I’m not like that . . . I don’t date, like, anybody, so you don’t have to worry.”
“Didn’t say I was worried.”
No, she doesn’t look worried. You don’t worry her. That’s good. More than good, that’s it. Can you think of anyone else you don’t worry?
“I should finish the shopping,” you say.
“Ya, so should I. Don’t you hate it?”
You’d like to say you do. Just to be agreeing with her. And to approximate the normal behavior of a seventeen-year-old guy.
“I kind of like it, really.” You shrug. Perfect for you, you know. The shrug. Even if it isn’t what you mean. What do you mean, Will?
• • •
“See, this is what I mean,” Mr. Jacks says as the two of you leaf through the photo album. “Where did all this go?”
You have no idea where it went, or where it came from in the first place.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Jacks.”
“You recognize it, though, right? I mean, that desk there,” he points, madly flips pages, “that corner cabinet,” flip, flip, flip, “and of course these . . .”
These are the worst of it. These are so grotesque you cannot believe it.
“What are you laughing at, Will? They are beautiful. You have every reason to be proud of work like that.”
Every reason. Except one. You don’t have the primary reason to be proud of work like that. You don’t remember doing work like that.
“Yes, Mr. Jacks. Sorry.”
But you cannot stop staring at page after page of this garish nightmare that you are supposed to be so proud of. Angela wants to talk about penises? She should have a look at this gallery of freakish penile gnomes so carefully sculpted and hand-painted in loving detail down to the laugh lines spiking out of their charming soulless eyes. And whirligigs, with their fantastical shapes, improbable forms, and propellers to nowhere. Scores of them, all the work of an exceptional craftsman who must have worked hundreds of hours on them.
Who was you.
All those hours. All that concentration. All that dedication to craft.
“Why?” you blurt.
Good boy. For once. That’s the stuff. If you’re going to listen to voices, why not listen to your own?
Alas, Mr. Jacks doesn’t get it. Doesn’t get why you asked why. Doesn’t get the important part anyway. The important part is the complicated part. Is the hard, hard part. It’s not Mr. Jacks’s job, to get that part.
“Why,” he repeats calmly, “is that, I think it is better for you to keep that kind of variety in your work, rather than what you are now doing. You will advance much further in woodworking by broadening your—”
“I’m supposed to be a pilot, Mr. Jacks. How did I wind up in wood shop? What good does wood shop do for a pilot?”
That is the stuff. Why indeed. Go on, go get it.
Mr. Jacks takes a good long sigh. That is never good, is it? He leans far back in his squeaky wooden chair, behind his well-turned hard pine desk, looking like one of the important administrators of the school except for the smell and faint dusting of wood powder that is settled on everything in the office including Mr. Jacks himself.
“I am sorry, Will, for what happened to your folks. I am truly sorry, for what has been dealt you. But we have to move ahead . . .”
Do you like that we, Will?
“. . . The requirements, for your program, can’t be any different than . . . somebody else’s. In fact, it’s even more important now, that I don’t let you slip through the cracks. You are not a pilot, and never were. The aptitude tests don’t lie, okay? And the tests indicated that . . . you don’t have the skill set, for a pilot. As I understand it, Will, you don’t even drive, is that correct? Most guys your age can’t wait—”
“Surfaces,” you say, stopping him dead. “Surfaces . . . are what I don’t like. Doesn’t mean I couldn’t operate a car or a boat or a motorcycle if I wanted to. I just . . . see myself flying above stuff, you know, Mr. Jacks? That’s what I’d be better at. That’s all.”
That’s all. Is that all? You expect he’ll hand you your wings now?
He nods. He is good at nodding. From practice, and from wanting to nod, agree, understand. Even if he doesn’t.
“The assessment said you would be good with this kind of work, Will. And you are.”
You wait. Wait for what, Will? He said his bit. That’s his bit. Do you want to say yours? Do you think he’s right? Do you think anything is right?
“I’m a pilot, Mr. Jacks, not a woodworker.”
Jacks gets frustrated, bangs his index finger hard off one photo after another. “You used to be a woodworker. Used to be an excellent woodworker. Do you mind telling me just exactly what it is you’re doing out there now?”
He is pointing toward the door that leads from his office to the classroom/shop, where all the other students are most likely inching closer to get a listen. You should run over and throw the door open to catch them, Will. Would you like to do that?
“I don’t know.”
He sighs again. “Will, there are four of them already. You gotta know what they are.”
You shake your head. It is a strong move, your head shake. The only strong move in your bag, wouldn’t you say?
“Honestly, Mr. Jacks. I don’t.”
He stands up. Walks around his desk, over to the wall where pictures of the finest works of wood from the cream of his students of the last ten years are represented in carefully arranged photographs. He looks like he’s shopping for something that he has misplaced, but as everyone knows he spends hours on end going over that wall. You know he is merely stalling. He doesn’t know what to do with you. It’s not the woodsman’s job, to know what to do with you.
Nobody knows what to do with you.
“Will you do something for me, Will? I’d like you to make me a nice gnome. Would you make me a nice gnome? I showed some of your stuff to my mom, right, who has this big garden, and she said she would really like to have one of those nice gnomes you do, only sort of customized for her with an extra-big chubby, happy face. Then maybe a whirligig if that works out. I know we’re bending the rules a bit but it’s a technicality because as a local senior she would be eligible at the end of the term to select the piece anyway. And I do want to see your stuff get publicized. You are very gifted, you know, Will, and if word started circulating, who knows what this could do for you. So.” He puts his hands on your back, eases you up out of the chair and toward the door as if the two of you have agreed to the deal—or he has just fired you—and sees you out.
A nice gnome. A nice gnome.
Angela slides over your way once you are settled back at your post, sizing up a block of wood, and staring.
“That was a long meeting. What did you do to deserve that?”
“A nice gnome,” you say.
“He wants me to make a nice gnome for his mom.”
“Ooooh. You mean those nasty little horrors you used to make all the time before you started making these what-the-hells over here?”
There would be no shame in getting irritated with all this by now. No shame, Will.
“Ya,” you say solemnly. “He wants one of those.”
She laughs. “Guess his mother did some terrible shit when he was little, huh?”
• • •
The radio is playing. Are you listening? Listen. No, listen. Down at the pond, last night. Somebody was killed. Listen, Will. You didn’t know her. She was your age. You sort of knew her. She didn’t go to your school. Are you listening? You have to be waking up anyhow. Somebody was killed. A pretty girl who went to school not far from here. You knew her, though not real well. She was very nice. She drowned. Very mysterious. Cops don’t know what is going on. Won’t know until they investigate. You’re awake now. Sad, no? These things are so sad. Aren’t they so sad?
And they just never, never, stop. They keep coming at you.
But you do keep setting the alarm to wake you up to it.
You knew her, didn’t you?
• • •
“Maybe you want to stay home today,” Gran says as she wastes another valuable minute of her diminishing time on this earth whipping up some oatmeal and whipping it down in front of you. “I don’t see the harm. Pops, do you see the harm, if he takes a day off today?”
“I don’t see the harm,” Pops says. He probably doesn’t see the harm. He sees the newspaper pretty well though.
“So there, see, it is a good idea. Beautiful day like this, a young man like yourself in the prime of life. You should be able to take a day now and again. Your grandfather and I will be going to the bowling green, and you could too. Then we’ll take you to lunch. What do you think, Pops?”
Pops looks up from the paper, and you can see he’s been frozen in a grimace. “Ya,” he says. “Ya, we could do that.”
You take four or five decent-sized spoonfuls of oatmeal, which is more than usual and not at all easy for you to manage. To be polite. And reassuring. Then you stand to go.
“I’m fine, Gran,” you say, standing directly in front of her. The two of you stand there, like the two of you do. Not kissing or hugging or patting shoulders or shaking hands. Not contacting.
Gran wakes up to the same news you do. She knows.
Why does she worry so much? What does she think you’re going to do?
“Really, I’m fine. I have stuff I have to do at shop. I’ll check the green on the way home and if you guys are there I’ll come play. Okay?”
She just looks at you, little lined corners of her mouth turned down like that. “Okay,” she finally says, though she seems to want to go with you to school rather than go bowling in the sun.
• • •
“How’s it coming?” Mr. Jacks asks brightly.
How’s it coming. It’s a block of soft wood with a few chips lopped off it. It’s nothing yet. He knows it, you know it, his mother knows it. Tell him that.
You stare at it. “Coming along, Mr. Jacks. Taking shape.” You are looking at it as if it is staring back.
Is there a face in there, Will?
• • •
It is an ungodly massive and professional-caliber high school stadium, representing the other half of the school’s occupational-therapy approach to education. “Busy hands and busy feet, keeps the sad sacks off the street.” It’s not on a plaque anywhere. You all just sort of know it.
You sit up in the stands, a soft air rubbing up and over your face. You eat a bag of cheese curls and watch her every move even though from this vantage point in the highest reaches of the stands it is hard to follow any one being. From here it looks like an army of busy, possessed little creatures—ants stocking their nest, or slave peoples building pyramids. Everywhere, athletes are doing their thing—springing, jogging, stretching, throwing. You think there will be accidents eventually, pile-ups like on the expressway, but nobody seems to cross anybody else out, even if they all cross paths.
And Angela does it all. She must be one of those Greek things—decca, hepta—some kind of ’thlete, because she no sooner finishes spiking that javelin than she is out on the oval track, orange head bobbing around four hundred meters like the taillights on a springy jacked-up old Camaro.
When she cruises to a stop, she tails off the track at the foot of your section of bleachers. She walks in a way you only ever see track speedsters and campy flamey guys do, all loose floppy legs thrown way out ahead of them and hands placed flat over their own kidneys as if giving themselves spontaneous back rubs.
She looks up, right at you.
So what? What are you doing? What’s so wrong about that? There are more athletes on the ground than there are watchers in the seats because who is really interested in watching high school runners do their boring meaningless training stuff on a brilliant afternoon? You can be seen, up there in your perch, like they cannot. So what? Are you doing something wrong? If you were, would you know?
You look down, concentrate hard on your cheese curls. Two left. One left. Crumbs. Tip the bag up. Drink the last of the cheese powder, whey powder, salt, color, monosodium glutamate all down. Wipe the orange bits off your lip.
You look down again. She’s moving on. You have survived it, whatever it was. Though look there, she is glancing back over her shoulder. Like she doesn’t have anything better to do than worry about you.
Up you get, and down you go, back out of the stadium. You have things to do anyway, rather than spend your valuable hours watching some sport that hardly anybody cares about even when it is a competition, never mind practice.
• • •
Did you hear that? They have not ruled out suicide. They have not ruled it out. But of course they haven’t. They never do, do they? Are you listening? If you didn’t want to get up you wouldn’t have set the clock radio for six forty-five on the all-news-all-the-time station. So listen. Are you listening? They have not ruled out suicide. She may have done it herself, but they are not sure.
How screwed is that, that they can’t be sure? Of course they can’t be sure. They can never, ever be sure, and they are lying sacks of dirt to ever claim that they can. Isn’t that right?
Suicide is still a possibility, says mister investigator. You could have told him that.
Because you know what he knows what we all know. That as an alternative to absolutely everything, suicide can never be ruled out.
That’s why we have it.
Neither can foul play, adds mister investigator. He’ll keep you posted. On the bright side, a lovely memorial to the girl is accumulating at the site. Flowers. Cards. Notes. Bears, and things. People care. People are good.
• • •
“Okay, so are you following me for real? Am I supposed to think now it was a coincidence that you found me at the supermarket? What gives with you?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to watch track-and-field practice, that’s all.”
“Nobody watches practice. Practically nobody watches meets. What are you after?”
“I’m not after anything.”
“I told you I don’t date guys. I did tell you that, right?”
“You did. I’m not looking for a date.”
“So then what are you looking for? And what could you possibly want from me?”
Go on then, tell her. Tell her what you want from her.
“Bullshit. Everyone wants something.”
“I don’t. At least not that I’m aware of.”
Now there’s a distinction. Maybe that’s worth exploring. Awareness. Do you think?
Is something there. If you’re unaware?
“Will,” Mr. Jacks interrupts. “Will, it appears that one of your . . . things . . . has gone missing. You know anything about that? You know you’re not supposed to remove any of the works.” Unless they are specially commissioned for his mother.
“I know, Mr. Jacks. That I’m not supposed to remove them. So I don’t know. What happened.”
“Hmm,” Jacks says, and walks away.
“You stole one of your own . . . things,” Angela says with an incredulous half grin.
“Could I come watch you again today?” you ask her.
She was shaking her head before you’d even asked. “No.”
“Oh. Okay. I see. Okay.”
“There is no practice today.”
You have not been rejected, Will. Congratulations. You may as well proceed.
“Would you like to come play bocce with me?”
“Play what? I mean, the answer is no, but, play what?”
“Nevermind.” You’re talking into your shirt. What did you expect, after all? “Italian lawn bowling. Nevermind.”
Angela’s face is now all contorted. “Ya, that’s a good idea, neverminding. Let’s nevermind, huh?”
She goes back to work. You stare at your gnome with the face that nobody can see but you. You pick up your mallet, and your chisel, and you stare and you stare more, as if you are going to make it take shape with nothing sharper than your glares and the laser zigzags of your mind.
Then you slam down the tools and walk over to Angela’s workspace.
“It’s just that, I figure, you don’t have any friends around here like I don’t have any friends around here, and so maybe, we could just, y’know. I don’t know.”
“Whoa. Time out. The reason I don’t have any friends around here is that people suck and I’m not interested. The reason you don’t have any friends is that you’re a damn weirdo. The main reason I talked to you in the first place was that I figured being seen with you would make me even scarier and less approachable.”
She is joking with you, Will. Half, anyway. Don’t you think she’s half joking with you? That would be a good sign, actually, right?
If she were joking. Maybe. Maybe not.
“Oh. I see.”
You all but bow before taking your leave, returning to your spot, gathering up your tools, and embedding that chisel a good three inches in, right between the gnome’s eyes.
She is standing right in front of you. Both of you. Neither you nor the gnome appears to notice, but that is not true, is it? You know she’s there. You both know she’s there.
“Listen, this is all wrong. It got kind of confused. You’re kind of confused. I came to this place to run. That’s it. Track and field and minding my own business and if they want me to assemble shelving to earn my spot then fine. I said hi to you once, fine, it was like a freak solidarity thing maybe. I didn’t mean for it to be a relationship. That was my mistake.”
You figure that’s an apology?
“Are you a freak?” you ask. Hopefully.
Finally you do look at her. And find her very much looking at you. It’s a punishing look.
“No, my mistake again. I am not interested in talking about myself.”
“But you said that’s why—”
“What is your story, creep boy? That’s the real question. You been here three months already, and you still got this mystery shit all over you.”
“I don’t have a story.”
“Oh, now I know you got a story, and it’s probably a hummer. You gonna tell it to me?”
What else is there? Where else is there to go?
You gonna tell your story?
“No,” you say.
She is about to leave. “Good. I was afraid you were gonna tell me.”
She is about to leave. Will. Do you want her to leave? Do you want that? What do you want, Will?
“I don’t know what I want with you,” you announce. And that is all.
A kind of a growl thing comes out of her. You are trying her patience. But it is not the unfriendliest growl you have ever heard.
“Okay, there’s this vigil sort of a deal. Down at the pond. For that girl who died. That’s where I’m going this afternoon.”
Angela pauses. Under the mistaken impression that you will be able to take the logical step into the breach and say something. You know better though.
“So do you want to go?” she asks finally.
“Yes,” you say.
“Did you know her?”
Did you know her?
“No,” you say.
• • •
There is a pond, sitting in the bottom of a grassy glacial bowl that sits next to a smaller, drier grassy glacial bowl just outside of town. As if two glaciers stopped by for a sit twenty thousand years back, had a look around, then got up and went on their way again. More recently this location is renowned as someplace you come to have picnics or beer or sex. It is equally famous for what you do not have here. A swim.
Everybody knows this. It is not a safe swimming hole. No one even claims to know how deep it is, with its forest of underwater vines thriving so thick under there that the Loch Ness Monster could still hide successfully even if the water all dried up.
This is not legend, this is fact. Fact enough that even though it can be a very inviting sleepy-looking little pool, nobody takes the great obvious dare.
Nobody who doesn’t want to be dead, anyway.
You are sitting on one of the slopes rising steadily away from the wilting willow tree that is growing as it has for ages, half in and half out of the water. It looks, as it has likewise looked for ages, as if it is ready to quit this life and tumble in.
Right now, though, it is hosting the most lifelike event it has seen in quite some time—the unhappy hoopla surrounding the unfortunate and untimely death of a seventeen-year-old girl.
“Can you believe this has happened?” Angela asks. She is asking you, probably, since you are the only person within the sound of her voice, but other than that she does not seem to be communicating with you personally.
“I can believe it,” you say. “Why wouldn’t you believe it? It’s right there.”
Right there is actually about sixty yards away but it is deadly unmistakable all the same. A carpet of flowers, yellows and pinks and whites and reds, fans out from the base of the tree and covers the same area as the shade cover that same willow would throw at the high point of a sunny summer day. Also you can make out other, non-flower things, tributes, difficult to see clearly but familiar enough at dead spots these days. Little hand-printed signs of undying affection, and teddy bears.
And there is one more thing. Like the centerpiece of the whole affair. Leaning gracefully against the tree. It’s got a certain power to it somehow, and good thing too, since these high schoolers gathered here would really have no experience in conducting this kind of thing, and in fact there is a danger of the entire proceeding dissipating without some kind of focal point.
And they all seem to have caught it. Nice work there. Fitting. Somebody knows his business. This sad black business.
“So what is your story?” Angela asks.
You get to your feet. “What?” you ask nervously. “Why should I have a story? Is this about me?”
Is this about you? Will? What’s your story? Tell us a story.
She is staring, and leaning away from you. “Maybe. What are you jumping for?”
“It’s about her.” You are pointing, down there, down at the shrine, and down at her, even though she’s not actually down there.
Why should we believe you? You don’t appear to believe yourself. Do you believe yourself? What’s your story?
“Is it, though?” she asks. “I mean, I don’t know. Why do people come to these things? I’m not sure why I did even. But if you know, I’m listening.”
She doesn’t believe you know. She is looking you up and down and up and down, you planted rigid like a totem stuck here in the side of the hill, symbolizing god knows what.
You are visible, conspicuous. You are aware. Suddenly, almost involuntarily, you drop to the ground. “Can we just maybe sit here quietly for a while and, like, watch? That would be the respectful thing to do, wouldn’t it? We owe her that, I think.”
You owe her. You owe. When are you paid up?
Angela continues to sit calmly. She shakes her head. “I don’t owe anybody anything.”
You stare down for a second, trying to work it out. Is she testing? Is she for real? Is this a conversation? Triple-thinking yourself again, coming full circle back to nowhere. You clutch two tufts of grassy turf. Tether, Will. Hold on, and try not to give all away.
For a tenuous silent minute or so, the two of you manage to watch uneventfully. It is mad cacophonous noisy on the inside. You have no idea what the outside shows.
“So,” Angela says, “did you kill somebody or something?”
You remain silent. You clutch harder at the grass. If this is what shows . . .
“Sorry,” she says.
You manage after that to stay quiet long enough to think more and more about the girl. She was a fixture around town. Pretty but not gorgeous. Popular but not wildly so. Social to the point of being somebody you thought you saw almost everywhere, but who you probably saw less than that. Neither here nor there, but everywhere. That’s why you knew her, because everyone around here did. You didn’t stare, abnormally, you looked, like anybody would. Just because you didn’t speak, didn’t mean you didn’t know.
“Did she kill herself, you think?” Angela asks, extra quiet. As though there is some harm in the question itself.
You slide, on the seat of your pants, a few feet down the hill, toward the thinning gathering, away from Angela.
She catches up.
You slide farther.
It now looks like some sort of an inchworm race, the two of you scooting your way down the hill, digging in your heels, dragging your bodies along behind.
Angela isn’t long patient with this. With you. Watch it, boy. You might lose this. You don’t want to lose this, do you? Or does it matter? Does anything matter?
“Right,” she says sternly, from three feet behind you. “You want company, you don’t want company. You want to talk, you don’t want to talk. I never asked to have you dogging me, you know, and I can get along just fine without this, you understand? So don’t bother with all this moody broody, all right, because I do not care.”
Did you hear that? Did you hear it, Will?
“Did you even hear me?”
With your back to her, you are well protected, aren’t you? She cannot see you biting your lip, can she? She cannot see the way your face is now folded into that singular arrangement of conflicting lines that amount to something closer to a fractured mirror image than one coherent expression. She can’t see it. Of, do let her see it. Because you know she’s not going to make the effort to peer around. She doesn’t care, remember? People don’t.
“Damn,” she says as she brushes past on her way downhill. “What do you think we’re here for, you?”
There’s a question. You want to field this one, before she’s too far off? Are we here for you? Is everyone here for you? Is everyone everywhere here for you? Or against you?
You watch her pound down the green hillside and whether you are here for you or for the dead girl or the dead girl’s family or the six o’clock newscam or whoever, right now you cannot think past Angela. She is a force. All athlete, all tall and sinew and control. She is a mountain goat, same speed uphill or down or sideways, apparently never taking a misstep, or a cautious one.
You get to your feet. Cautiously, you go after her.
By the time you get there, to the tree, a lot of folks have left. The ones who are there are mostly paired off in couples or huddled in threes to stare blankly red-eyed, or to sob quietly and hold one another. Angela, though, has gone dead front center, getting right to the heart of the matter.
“Do you suppose it matters, is all I was thinking,” you say, telling her not all you were thinking, but certainly a part of what you were thinking. You have come up close behind her, unusual for you. Unprecedented for you. She allows it, as you speak closely enough to her small copper-brown ear. “I mean, whether she did that to herself or not. Does it really matter, to what life is about?”
“When did you do that?” Angela asks, pointing ahead at your carefully sculpted wooden contribution to the tribute. It is a fine piece of wood. You didn’t ruin it.
You are both facing the same way, looking at the same thing, faces inches apart. Frozen in tableau.
“I don’t know,” you say.
“Cut the shit now,” Angela says, pulling away from you and turning to look at your face. “Are you suggesting that somebody else took one of your sculptures out of the school and planted it here? Is that it?”
You run through the possibilities. There aren’t many, actually.
“I’m . . . I’m having a hard time . . .” is the closest you can come.
She turns again, to it, then again, to you. “So you started it all. That must have been here before everything else. Because it all seems to sort of grow, out of your thing there. You’re the architect of this.”
You shake your head, wave a hand. “No. I’m no . . . of anything.”
She looks ready to tear into you. But why? What did you do? Do you know? Does she? Was it bad, was it good?
It sure would be nice if Angela would tell you, so you’d know.
“What happened to you, before you came here?” she asks gently.
You close your mouth as tight as you can, making those rigid white muscle lines grow like tentacles from your lips. You close your eyes just as tight.
That is your move, isn’t it, Will? From when you were a kid. Still expecting that it is you who disappears when you shut your eyes. That the world spins around you.
You open them again. She is still there. You are still there. You are lucky. Do you know that? Do you feel it?
“How do you suppose they figure it out?” you ask. “Whether it was suicide or not? I mean, can they ever know for sure? I don’t think they can. You cannot ever ever know really what is in there, even if you are right there with somebody. So no way can you know after they take the whole secret with them and go. Don’t you think?”
“Will. I won’t tell anybody. Hell, you’re the only person in the school I’ve talked to in a month.”
“I came here to live with my grandparents.”
“That wasn’t the question. It’s a start though, I suppose.”
Yes, why? Will? Hello?
“Hello? Will? You don’t want to talk about it. That’s cool. I shouldn’t do this. You don’t want to talk about it, fine.”
But you do. Don’t you? And you’re blowing it. Talk. Go on and talk. Tell her, everything you know. Tell. Her. Everything.
“I was going to be a pilot,” you say. Your eyes are suddenly so watery you could be looking at her from the bottom of a chlorine pool. “But they put me in shop. Wood shop. Tied me up in wood shop. The opposite of learning to be a pilot. Like a punishment.”
Now you have done it. Don’t you ever tire of it? Don’t you ever wonder what it would be like to talk to somebody and not scare her away?
She goes right up to the sculpture, rubs her hand over it, and as she does, you can feel it in your own fingertips. The hours of careful rubbing, just so, not too fast, but not too slow, until there is nothing but butter there to the touch. She looks at it and talks to you.
“It is very nice, what you did. It is very nice. Beautiful.”
Beautiful. That didn’t hurt a bit.
“You know,” you say, backing up, backing up the hill, backing away from Angela and the poor lovely girl whom you knew. Did you know her? “Even if you did like guys, I wouldn’t bother you. I wouldn’t even think of it.”
You make her smile. She still has her hand on the piece. She looks your way, smiles a rare broad grin that makes her look about half as old. “I think I know that already,” she says.
She does not try to persuade you not to go.
• • •
Listen to it, Will. You are the one who keeps setting the alarm to turn on the radio to talk the talk and deliver you the news before your being gets filled with anything as useless as music or the goodness of oatmeal. So you listen.
People are copycats. Teenagers are worst of all. Why be like that, when life is still fairly new and all the choices are still wide-open? What is wrong with people, that they are doomed to repeat what has come before?
Helpless? Is that what they believe? That they are locked into a pattern of behavior that was established perhaps before they were born, and so when they get the signal, they leap?
Small towns are the worst, aren’t they? Why is it that one sad sorry story has to lead into another? Shouldn’t it, if life made any sense at all, work the other way around? Cautionary tale, and all?
Hear that? This one was seventeen. Say, you are seventeen, aren’t you? This one was also a guy, though he was neither a pilot nor a woodworker. And importantly, this sad unfortunate young man dated that sad unfortunate young lady, while you never did. You’ve never dated anybody, so you’re safe there.
• • •
This time, you are not alone.
In the murky blue of predawn, she is already there when you arrive at the bridge. The diving point.
The point of departure.
You know how you manage it. You manage it because you keep setting the foolish alarm ever earlier. You should sleep more. Even when you lie there, hour blooming on hour, you know you are not doing anything like sleep.
But Angela. What is she doing here? You were to be first. You are supposed to be first. You like being first. Second isn’t even close.
So you should be more upset than this.
“Hi,” you say as if you had been expecting her, which makes no sense.
“Hi,” she says in the same way, which makes plenty.
You lay the wood carefully against the riveted steel abutment near the hundred-year-old dedication plaque, high above the burbling brown river.
“So then. What are you doing here?”
She shrugs. “Grieving. Mourning. I’m curious. I’m a ghoul. I’m afraid. You tell me.”
You nod. Good move there. Could mean a lot of things. Could mean nothing. In your own ways, both speaking exactly the same language.
“You don’t seem the type to be afraid,” you say.
“That’s appearances for ya,” she says.
You go to the edge together, peer over together. Talk doesn’t come easy now. Talk never does. But this is worse, these things more impossible. You have more experience with this than most, but always you are lost for the right things to say. So you say other things.
“Sure is dirty water,” you say. “I don’t think I could throw myself into that.”
“Because it’s dirty,” she says flatly.
“I see. So this is what you do for fun.”
You move along the rail, away from her.
“What is that move?” she says harshly. “You know, you could just say ‘Shut up, Angela. That’s not true. You’re wrong,’ instead of doing that slither-away maneuver.”
“You’re wrong,” you say.
“So slither on back then.”
You do. “For fun?” you ask.
“Ya, what do you do for fun?”
“I like bocce ball. And, you know, I do the shopping and other stuff for my grandparents. Stuff like that.”
Now she looks like she will be the one slithering away. But she doesn’t, yet.
“That’s not fun, that’s minimum security.”
Something comes out of you now. Unusual. Unheard of. It frightens you, doesn’t it? Because it doesn’t come out of your eyes or your pores or your nose. It comes out of you, from somewhere in the diaphragm region and sounds as foreign to your ear as Mandarin Chinese.
Is that a laugh?
“Was that a laugh, just come up out of you, or are you gonna be sick?”
You have a hand on your belly. “I think I’m okay,” you say.
That must be how skydiving feels. Terrifying but thrilling at the same time. You’re thinking about that right now, aren’t you, as you look down. Skydiving.
“There’s no doubt about this one, huh?” Angela says. “He did it.”
“He did. I suppose. There’s always doubt. But . . .”
“They still don’t know about her, though. Not for sure.”
“Never will,” you say. “Never can. A person takes that with them, no matter what the cops or anybody think they know. Nobody ever knows who’s responsible for anything if they don’t see it with their own eyes. Or even if they do see it. Nobody knows anything, that’s what I think.”
“You don’t really think that, do you?”
“Yes I do.”
“Come on. I think maybe he did it. That’s what I think. Did her, then himself. A guy would do something like that.”
You couldn’t possibly speak any slower than this. “Cannot know. Nobody can know what happened.”
“What if they find a note? That’ll tell it, for certain.”
You shake your head.
“What do you mean, no?”
“If you are not inside someone’s head, or they are not inside yours, then how can you ever know one hundred percent anything about them?”
Sometimes, even if you are in the head. You still can’t know. Isn’t that so?
The sun is coming up, pale and milky in an unclear morning sky. The water below, looking like Willy Wonka’s chocolate river now in daylight, is going past faster than you thought.
“Is this what you’ve been carving these things for all along?”
“Then what you been carving ’em for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then what you bringing them to these places for?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you get out of it?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you know, Will?”
“Nothing, Angela, I don’t know a thing.”
With a sudden, spasmodic shove, you are away from the bridge rail. Standing three feet back, and now looking at the wood carving as if it is a surprise guest at your little party, you say to Angela. “I know this: I need to go finish that stupid fat-face little gnome.”
She checks her watch. “Yup,” she says, and you start off.
First Angela, then you, as you make your way back over the bridge toward school, pass a hand over the woodwork. Stroking its rounded top, looking down on it. It fits. The way the plaque fits, the railing fits, the abutment fits, as if it were incorporated into the design of the lovely miserable old gray structure. It probably won’t even get noticed for the first few hours, as drivers pass it by feeling like it has been there all along forever. No fuss. Good.
You walk in a file, she first, you following.
“Do I scare you at all?” you ask.
“Not at all,” she says.
“So you get it, then. Like, you understand.”
“Not at all,” she says.
What did you think, that you were going to slip one past her? That by tricking her into saying the wrong thing somehow the contract would be legal and binding and therefore you would make sense because you made sense to Angela? Is that what you were hoping to achieve? To cheat your way in?
“So why are you bothering?” you ask, rather recklessly.
“I don’t know,” she says.