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She glared at me. "Don't be an asshole."
I pulled her wet head firmly against my shoulder, felt a cold spot seep through my t-shirt. She left it there and I could feel her shoulders relax for a moment, before she gave me a little shove and walked back through the woods to the party. I looked up at the clouds cruising through the night sky, just above the bushy tops of the trees, and sat back down for a moment to catch my breath. The party was tinny and distant, as if dubbed too many times on an old tape, and as I listened to its sad babble, I looked down at my splayed legs, which were finally covered in ugly, dark hair.
I looked for Cuppo in the keg line, and up on the deck, but he wasn't anywhere, so I went back out to the pool, which was full of people in their clothes, floating in the water with their shirts billowing around them like jellyfish. He wasn't there either, but Agatha was, bent over a foam noodle with a beer in her hand. "Ready — one, two three," I heard someone bark poolside, and before I could see who it was, she flipped on her back and began to chug.
• • • • •
On the ocean like churning cement we sailed without care or worry. I held the jib sheet and kept it taut — taut! — and you sat back with the rudder, unaffected entirely by the early winter breeze. On the shore, the sand on the beaches was darker, the snack bar abandoned and boarded up. We cruised along at a slight angle, the hull slicing the water, which made a quiet hissing sound like a newly opened can of Coke. You wore a baseball cap only on the boat and you had it pulled down so your eyeballs disappeared under the bill. You seemed to steer us effortlessly. You seemed to steer us even though you were blind.
• • • • •
Cuppo has a weakness for crazy ideas. He not only comes up with them but he can actually follow through. He's my go-to guy. That's how we ended up running naked down Main Street in March and replacing all the chairs in the faculty lounge with toilets (did you know that was me?) And that's how I ended up skipping out of summer school — that bullshit gym credit they were making me repeat — and filling the back of Cuppo's caravan with all of the essentials: 53 boxes of Kraft EZ-Mac, a dozen cartons of Cap'n Crunch Crunch Berries, a garbage bag of t-shirts and boxers, and Sausage's life-size cardboard cutout of George Burns, which we all agreed would look splendid in the passenger seat.
"You sure you don't want to make any calls?" Cuppo's Groucho Marx eyebrows were obscuring his eyes.
"Yeah, let's go."
"Not even a message for the folks?"
"Or the missus?" said Sausage, looking around for a laugh. I flipped him the bird and pushed it all the way against his flat ugly nose.
"I left the Phish newsletter on my bedside table. It has all the dates. Just drive."
"You hear that, George?" said Cuppo, looking at his passenger. "He left clues."
The tour started in Kansas and ended in Indiana, via Atlanta and New Jersey. We would go to 23 shows total, through 13 states and two countries, sleep in the car, eat only what we brought, and return a month and a half later with exactly one week to spare before shipping off to college. We had no tickets yet, but we had 500 dollars in cash between us, Mom's Mobile card, Sausage's Foreman grill, and Cuppo's dad's Diner's Club card. I-95, shimmering and distorted, gave way to I-80, which was pristine and hummed a low little theme song: ba-bum ba-bum, ba-bum ba-bum. In the front seat, George, cigar in hand, was waving.
We left without warning. Otherwise, it wouldn't have worked. I left you and Mom and Agatha without an explanation or a hint.
• • • • •
There are some things I've been meaning to ask you. We spoke deeply about so few things that now I find myself only wanting to ask you questions. Like, have I asked you why you were on a benefit ride for MS, of all things? Did you actually know someone who had it or was it just a random act of generosity? Or have I asked you why you were riding a bike when I've never seen you ride one in my life? Have I asked you these things? Have I asked you why a car was on the road when it was supposed to be closed? Have I asked you if she was speeding? Or why you were riding so close to the yellow line or why if you were in a pack of riders only you fell and why no one stopped to help you? Have I told you I was in Indiana? That Cuppo told me he had his cell-phone just in case something went wrong but when we got to Pittsburgh and we were going to call you, he smiled a stupid smile and laughed in a loud, uncomfortable burst and said he must left the charger on his bed at home? Have I told you I left Mom that cell-phone number on my bed? Have I told you Cuppo's a goddamn idiot? Have I told you I heard all of Mom's messages on Cuppo's phone, about the bike, about the funeral, about how it was a beautiful service, a real tribute, about who showed up and what they brought, about how she told them I was on the Appalachian Trail and that's why I was unreachable and absent, the fucking Appalachian Trail? Have I told you she spoke to his voicemail as if it was me? That she called it a few times a day? That she thought maybe I was ignoring them? Have I told you that I still have no idea what I'm doing? That at times I wish I had that baby here, that it may have been pear-shaped and ugly, but payback nonetheless, payback? Can you see that I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry? Can you see that? Have I told you that babies are the currency of the universe, the severance package of the grieving? Can you see that I've paid my dues, that I was offered redemption and I turned it down, that there is a balance to things that is only apparent in hindsight? Have I told you that I would've traded all that time with Agatha Berger to have been with you, all of that lost time? Have I told you that I would've actually spoken to you, would've asked you how to navigate the awful fact of growing up, would have asked you to do the impossible and stop it, to pause it all right there, and allow fathers to be just fathers and children to be just children, so that for once we could all stay together, so that for once no one would die?
Ted Thompson is from Connecticut. He has received a Truman Capote Fellowship from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a Work/Study scholarship from Bread Loaf. His stories have been published in Tin House and Best New American Voices 2010. He currently lives in Iowa City where he is finishing a novel.