Varieties of Religious Experience

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By Ross Feeler

1

Seated on a deck overlooking the Guadalupe River, Dylan dodges razorblades of sunlight, fights off the hangover shakes, and grades religious experiences on his MacBook Air.

He deserves this.

He almost deserves this.

After handing out the day-one assignment to his freshman comp class, which called for an epiphany paper, he forgot to announce his singular caveat: Omit God. As a result, the essays exist at the confluence of bad grammar and bad faith. Students await deus ex machinas, grades saved along with souls. In the dim, throbbing theater of his mind, Dylan imagines foam-jowled believers pitching epileptic fits between pews. He hears the promises they feed their microscopic, heart-inhabiting Christs: Welcome to the temple, forgive the congestion, fried chicken and Fireball, funnel-cakes in the atria, but listen, I’ll hit the Stairmaster after biology, we’ll power-wash the walls, and — swear to You — this shack’ll look like a mansion by the time You’ve unpacked your toothbrush.

On the riverbank, half-naked Texans are toe-testing the water, unloading inner tubes, cracking Coors Lights. Dylan watches them for a moment before he closes his incessantly twitching left eye and with his right scans the essay on his screen. He jots corrections as he reads.

Crash into Hope
by Kara Bartlett

You never know what might happen when you least expect it [avoid use of the 2nd person]. Like my friend Ashley and me were driving to my brother’s soccer game. We were on a country road, it was really dark and I had rolled down the windows to look at the stars [shouldn’t the stars be above you?]. My brother plays soccer for the high school in my hometown. Ashley said my name. She said, “Kara Kara Kara.” Then I turned and looked and headlights swerved into our lane. [I like that you start with an attention-grabbing anecdote] Ashley slammed on the breaks and the next thing I knew I was being pulled out of the car by a paramedic and everything smelled like blood. I felt God inside of me like a bright light, [describe this feeling concretely] I knew that everything else was darkness. Someone [singular] had been texting and then when they [plural] looked up they realized they were drifting off the road and swerved back and ran into us headon. My nose was broken but I was fine, only I look a little funny now like Owen Wilson but on a girl. Ashley is still unconscience. [sp. THESIS?]

It’s been three weeks since the wreck now, three weeks since my life got totally flipped upside down [weak topic sentence]. Like my car. I heard Ashley’s dad talking outside of the waiting room about it. He said it’d been so hard and Ashley was never coming back and they might as well let her go but miracles happen everyday [give an everyday example of this], and when we were little Ashley and I used to sell lemonade for fifty cents each and sometimes she used to lie on the sidewalk when cars were passing, like she was hurt or dead, and cars would stop. Then she’d snap back to life and the people who weren’t mad would be so relieved she was alive they’d buy at least a cup or two. Now I know its crazy but I think she could snap back to life at any time. Euthanasia means ruling out a miracle basically and ruling out God. The human heart and prayers can bring the human mind back to consciencesness [sp.]. I believe after my epiphany that euthanasia should stay illegal because there are too many outside factors. [THIS is your thesis]

So that’s why I think euthanasia should be against the law after my epiphany. Last night while I was praying I thought for a second I was talking to Ashley and I asked her to come back and then remembered I was talking to Jesus and thought I might be doing something wrong so I asked Jesus to let her come back to life and then I slept really well. So I still have hope. I still keep praying. Please keep Ashley in your prayers and tell everyone you know about her.[odd tonal shift] Because euthanasia is really about a lack of faith. And when I pray at night and know that Ashley probably might never wake up, I feel God near me and I know that someday she’ll wake up. [ends on a non sequitur]

Grade: D

As Dylan presses a wet rag to his forehead, Jill shuffles out along the wooden deck, graceless as a fawn. Barefoot and bra-less, she nibbles Dylan’s left ear and asks, too loudly, about his grading progress. She’s as good a woman as Dylan has ever known. Every morning at nine, she takes her birth-control pill without being reminded, and she’s a far more stable drunk than he, sob-free and sociable. She doesn’t bother him while he’s reading — grading is different; he craves distraction — and she never interrogates him on issues like marriage, or whether he’s happy, or if he believes in fate. (He doesn’t.)

And when Dylan awoke this morning, Jill was sitting upright in bed, a Cosmopolitan in one hand, her thumb pressed to its spine. She was almost to the last page. Her right index finger rested on Dylan’s wrist. He judged the bright pink, block-letter headlines — Naked You vs. The Mirror; Change Your Hair, Change Your Life — a moment before the hangover descended buzzard-like, and then memory met understanding: Dylan had blacked out on tequila; Jill was making sure he didn’t die in his sleep.

Now, she’s massaging his scalp. The breeze tastes sweet in his mouth.

He wants to thank her: for this, for everything. For the last five months of his life. But he can only manage to say, “Why the heart?”

“What?”

“Why, when the believers invite Jesus in, does it have to be the heart? What’s wrong with the other organs? The brain, for instance. Why not invite Jesus into the brain?”

“Don’t get intellectual before I’ve had my coffee, baby. I didn’t get much sleep.”

“It’s because thinking goes on in the brain. You can’t think about inviting a fairy tale to inhabit your body. Why not let Aeneas bed down in your spleen? Beowulf in the bowels? Because if you think about it, it’s absurd. So you’ve gotta feel about it. Your pulse kicks up. Systole, diastole. And then follow your illiterate freshman heart straight to heaven.”

Jill sits beside him, her pudgy fingers pressed against her cheeks, her chin resting on her bridged palms: the look students assume when they want a teacher to know that, though physically present, they’ve checked out. Then her face brightens. “Can I read a paper?”

“That would violate various codes of conduct.”

“You should like that. It’s — what’s what word you always use? Transgressive.”

Jill’s a bartender, but smart, acerbic: usefully intelligent. Not like Dylan and his colleagues, who amass endless quantities of what sometimes, in his head, he calls baknowledge (or banaledge, but both are unpleasing to the eye), e.g. the ability to distinguish between e.g. and i.e; to slide quotations from The Great Gatsby into everyday conversations, judging listeners on their ability to pick up the allusion; and to use other as a verb.

“You don’t wanna read this,” Dylan said.

She walks to the edge of the deck. “The river’s gorgeous from here. I can’t believe we got it so cheap.”

“Advantages of living in a floodplain,” he says. “But you’re right. It’s lovely.”

Jill has, over the past six months, taught Dylan the beauty, the truth, of surfaces. She has showed him how to not only maintain a relationship, but to thrive. Essential to this flourishing is the division between the public and private self. When he stopped, finally thinking of his mental life as the only life worth living, instead accepting it as one easily compartmentalized element of identity, he understood how people stayed together in the flaccid hours of the day. In the same way that no one is identical in two different sorts of company, the internal and external selves are necessarily asymmetrical.

This is a good thing. Jill has taught Dylan to admire the tarp thrown over the abyss; and sometimes the tarp is breathtaking.

Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are.

The beauty of a paper parasol on the edge of a glass which has no effect on the flavor of the cocktail. A sunset, a sundress, a mowed lawn. Dust jackets. Jill, in the morning, without make-up, without speaking, in a thin t-shirt, her breasts bulging to her collarbones, the cords visible along her tanned throat, the streak, bright red and absurd, of hair scything down her left temple: the covenant of the body, which consists of its assurance to break down, to squeak at the joints, to forget its functions, but, for now, to lubricate and dilate, to twitch and come, to shiver when cold.

Dylan is a work in progress. And he’s still pretty hungover.

“Let me make you some coffee,” he says.

When he returns with a mug in the model of the Guggenheim, Jill is reading Kara Bartlett’s essay. She twirls her Monroe stud, which is shaped like an umbrella, with the tip of her tongue.

“She got a D?” Jill says. “That first part’s pretty good.” She scrolls back to the front page. “Here, for instance,” she says. “‘I felt God inside of me like a bright light, I knew that everything else was darkness.’ Isn’t that sort of cool, even if you don’t believe it, or whatever?”

“She’ll be banging third-string shooting guards by fall.”

“Hey,” Jill says. “What’s the matter with that? I dated a few jocks in high school.”

“This is college. And jocks don’t date anyone.”

Dylan quickly recalls the girls he courted, and/or fucked, in high school. The list begins with an embarrassing entry and ends with embarrassing speed. What he remembers now of Lindley, the peroxide blonde on whom he’d finally squandered his virginity, is that her top two incisors, which more than once he had occasion to lick, were chipped from a time she fell rock climbing, one chipped more severely than the other, so that sliding his tongue from tooth to tooth was like ascending or descending an oral stair. He hopes she still has those chipped teeth. He hopes they’ve yellowed and rotted to the root and she doesn’t have dental insurance. He hopes that God tells her that her smile is ugly, the way God told her, in tenth grade, after Dylan had wasted his summer savings renting a tuxedo and slick black Oxfords for the Fall Formal, that she needed to break up with him. He spent his Saturday night in front of a bathroom mirror wielding his grandfather’s pocketknife, carving at a small mole near the base of his right nostril. Blood soiled the front of his tuxedo, and he had to surrender another thirty dollars to the Shylocks at the rental facility to have the stain removed.

Dylan likes to consider his youth the flyleaf, rather than the opening chapters, to the book that is his life.

“Jack Henders,” Jill says. “He was a fullback.”

Dylan’s hangover re-emerges, sharp and splintery above one eye. Turning the laptop, he shows her another essay from the English folder. “How about this,” he says: “‘God’s the one thing that nobody can deny.’ Nobody? Tell that to Chris Hitchens.”

“He died, right? Maybe his views have changed.”

Dylan kisses her before she can say another word. He hoists her up into his arms and, on wobbly legs — she isn’t thin — carries her inside, through the kitchen, into the bedroom.

When the light catches the saliva-slick scar on Jill’s lower lip—the result of a teenaged, thumb-tack attempt at piercing — something inside of Dylan aches for every human in this black-humor world, each biped outside of this house, without this woman, never experiencing this instant which harbors eternity. They burn through the toxic, pore-poison of the weekend’s liquor early on, and then, as Dylan approaches orgasm, they drip sweat clean and clear, almost scentless, almost sacred. And Dylan aches: for the semi-sentient rednecks floating the river and the bloat-bellied children starving in parts of the world he chooses to ignore and his maternal grandfather whose gum cancer left him without a lower jaw. He uses the images to keep from coming, because he wants the pain to last.

“I love you with every particle of my junk heap heart.”

“Smack my ass,” she says. “Hard.”

Maybe, he thinks, I should marry her. Stupid, sure, and incredibly bourgeois. But she’d appreciate the ceremony, the ritual. The beauty of surfaces, temples without gods. He bites her shoulder. He breathes in the scent of her hair. He’ll do it, he thinks. Whatever she wants.

Afterward, Jill dabs between her legs with Dylan’s discarded shirt, rises from the bed and, on the way to the bathroom, lowers the thermostat to seventy-four.

In her absence, Dylan considers, as he always does, how different, how incompatible, are the visions of the world with and without an erection.

He hears the toilet flushing, then the faucet running, and a moment later, Jill returns to the bed, where they lie together, feeling the cold air dry their bodies.

Dylan kisses Jill’s navel, noticing as he does a speck of what appears to be coarsely ground pepper in its recesses. “So,” he says, pressing his ear to the warmth of her stomach. “How long?”

“How long what?”

“Jack Henders. How long did you date him?” He hears the internal sounds of digestion: pops and clicks and echoes. He moves his head up to the pillow.

“Oh,” she says. She clamps the bed sheet between two toes and pulls it up over her delta. “From my junior year of high school till I dropped out of college.”

After a moment, Dylan says, “You took your birth control today, right?”

2

Obsess over that poorly written, thesis-free wreck of a paper, the one you read for a second time last night after Dylan slid his right hand into the elastic lining of his Hanes and began to snore, when memories of your mother attacked and sleep became as elusive, as unlikely, as world peace or a happy marriage.

You’ve spent most of the last twelve hours praying; now you’re glad to be back in the tangible world of work, of cocktail napkins, coffee straws, washrags, and cash registers. Unmanned stools swivel inspired by the ceiling fan or some invisible force, as if the long-dead customers whose lassos and rifles and sabers and maps line the walls might still populate the Lean-To, unseen, chewing cigars and quibbling over the price of cattle — you almost smell the smoke, almost see a gray inch of ash fall from a bobbing cherry to the floor — and only the dim lighting keeps them invisible.

Does your mother sit before you now, one shade among many, praying for her daughter and drinking Shirley Temples?

The world is not so tangible, you think. It is eleven a.m. You are alone.

Tension in your neck forces you to view the room from a slight rightward tilt, relying on your peripheries.

You enjoy mixing cocktails: proportion, scale, ritual. Dashes and jiggers, garnishes. Zests of orange rind, a flaming match. But today the bar’s a ghost town, and the manager has repeatedly warned you: No boozing on the clock. The Lean-To is a classy, historically important bar: Plant your elbows on the polished cherry wood, study the framed pictures of cattle drives, smell all that dust and beef and sky, the distinctly male scent of history, and try not to choke.

Pour a ginger beer into a Collins glass, pinch a lime wedge over its surface. Watch the citrus snake down the pale, murky liquid. Stab the ice with a swizzle stick, as the carbonation forms a thin skin of bubbles at the rim of the glass.

Enjoy.

A single golden bell on the door announces the day’s first customer, a man with a trunk like a beer can, short and stubby. He flaps his elbows as he walks to let his armpits dry.

“Stella,” he says affectionately, like he’s greeting his girl.

Fetch the beer and flip on the walled TV. At home, you watch only Dylan-approved programs — mostly indie films, muddled sex and violence and poetic voiceovers. Sometimes, after the two of you endure a documentary on the evils of factory farms, Dylan will say, “Holy fuck. How’s that even possible?” But by the next morning, he’s asking if there’s bacon in the fridge, which is his way of telling you to cook the bacon in the fridge.

Your hands are speckled with grease burns.

Today, flip on a sitcom. Let waves of artificial laughter wash over you.

“Jameson, too,” the man says. Now he’s listing his friends. He rolls back his sleeves. In a moment, he’ll study the pictures. He’ll ask a question or two, play the historian. Like all men alone, he wants conversation, but doesn’t know how to talk.

“Rocks?”

“Neat.”

You pray, as Dylan’s student suggested, for critical-care Ashley, her wrecked life. If you were Christ, you would say, simply: Pluck out your catheter and walk. You remember the blessing your mother spoke before prayers every night, then later, after you moved away, murmured over the phone. You wanted to repeat that blessing at her funeral, but she was dead, and everyone speaking from the pulpit knew God, in a real way, in a personal way, as if they could text his cell after a grueling workday, meet him for happy hour, and have him pick up the tab.

What the fuck did you know?

May the Lord bless you and keep you. May his face shine upon and be gracious unto you. May the Lord lift up his countenance unto you and give you strength.

“Got any sports on that thing?”

You sip the ginger beer, enjoying the peppery after bite of carbonation. “I’ll check.”
Scan the channels in search of basketball, then settle for men pummeling each other in an octagon with a beer logo in its center. Squeeze one more lime wedge into your drink. When you look back up at the television, a man lies concussed on the mat. He rolls onto his stomach, trying to lift himself on rubber arms, failing and falling. The victor circles his floored opponent as though participating in some ancient ceremonial dance, a jig around the sacrifice.

What does it mean?

Televised applause.

What does anything mean?

Nature has no thesis. The world is not an argument. What assertion does a tree make in sprouting from a seed? What point does the cloudless sky through the window above the front door of the Lean-To prove?

Your lone customer taps a hand against the bar. “Another Stella.”

Empty chairs swivel.

Uncap the beer.

You think: Dylan’s arrogance and Kara’s essay — they’re both ways of ducking a fundamental truth, which is that we know nothing. We live and die. Everything else is guesswork and hard liquor.

Pray to a certainty, you tell yourself. Address death. Ask what you will regret and change your life accordingly.

“So how old’s this place?”

“The original building’s from eighteen-seventy-something. Three, maybe. Not long after the Civil War, ranchers met here to settle cattle deals; you can see some of the artifacts on the wall.”

You regret what you recall clearly, mental Polaroids in which every character, motive, and moral appear distinct, no blurring around the edges, no ambiguity. You cherish the shadow, the half-memories that come alive and reveal themselves differently in each evocation. Jack Henders in the back of your mother’s minivan. Sloppy sing-alongs at a lake house. Wine drunk in Paris, carrying on a one-sided conversation with a mouse that nibbled fallen bar-nuts beneath your table. Remember the mouse? The next morning, the other foreign-exchange student said, You look like an ugly, hungover American. And you said, I bonded with a local last night.

“I make something called a Cattle Drive,” Jill says, “which all the cowboys supposedly toasted with after they’d made a deal.” The truth is, of course, they drank whiskey, straight. But where’s the elegance in that?

“I’ll try one if you try one,” he says. “On me.”

Your manager is not here, and one never hurts, except in its insisting on a sequel.

The thinnest wafer of orange peel, three dashes of Angostura, two Overholt ounces, a blackberry syrup you made yourself, on another Monday. Ice. A mist of Pernod on top.

Clink one glass against another.

Talk history. Stories, dates, details. According to legend, an open-range cowboy, in that corner, ripped open a rancher’s throat with a strip of barbed wire. In the 1880s, the original proprietor’s wife birthed her child in a feeding trough out in front of the bar. Charlie Goodnight, who came here at least twice, had a reputation for smoking fifty cigars per day. You rattle off facts, or what have been accepted as facts. The man is fascinated, happy, because as long as you’re speaking, he’s not at a loss for words.

The drink is strong but smooth, and when the glass is empty, you feel better. You suck the muddled orange peel until its bitter oil coats your gums and throat.

Here’s your thesis: After my epiphany, I realized I should get drunk at noon, at work, with a beer-can-shaped man who speaks primarily in one- to three-word sentences. And your support: Ashley is still unconscious; my mother is dead; Mondays are slow.

Another round and the tension in your neck is gone.

The bell rings again. In walks a panting, middle-aged woman, cheeks vivid with sunburn, pushing a stroller, but before you can tell her No babies in the bar, you see that the stroller is empty — just a bottle, a blanket, and an unfastened safety belt. One of the wheels is defective, and when she lets go of the handles, the carriage veers hard to the right, stopping beneath a framed lasso. The image is so strange, you almost forget to hide your drink under the bar.

“What’s that in your face?” the woman says.

“Excuse me?”

“That thing,” she says, tapping her cheek, “in your face.”

Your knight with sweaty armpits speaks: “Those are fashionable,” he says, and you understand they’re talking about the Monroe piercing you got one weekend in Galveston with a group of friends you now know only via the Instagram. Convincing the tattoo artist to push the needle through your cheek had been like talking a cop out of writing a ticket.

Sure you haven’t been drinking? he kept saying.

And later that night, while smiling still hurt, you strolled along a filthy beach, drunk-dialing random numbers from your phone book, until you reached your father. You asked him to put your mother on the phone. She had been dead for seven months.

Is that — you? he said. Jill?

You don’t remember your response; you don’t remember how the conversation ended. He might have passed the phone to your mother, who might have answered from the other side of existence to speak a blessing.

Miracles happen everyday.

“Hello?” the offended woman says. “I’d like a drink? That is what people do here, isn’t it? Drink? Or are those bottles for decoration?”

“I’m sorry,” you say, fumbling for your glass underneath the bar. “I’m sorry.” This is the one prayer in which you can always believe. “But you seem to be missing a baby.”

“You seem to be missing your manners.” She dabs her forehead with a cocktail napkin.

You take a sip. You keep thinking of how that prick with his cell phone — you assume that the distracted driver was a man — couldn’t wait until he got to a red light to text his girlfriend. How Ashley’s mental life — which is to say, her life — ended in a wash of headlights, to the sound of one vehicle crushing another, the scream she emitted before she could speak, a pop song still playing on the radio. If you could find the prick who killed Ashley, you’d shove his cell phone down his throat until it lodged against his balls. You’d be the one to make the decision, as he choked on your elbow, whether to allow him the privilege of breath. What would you decide?

Your glass is empty, always empty.

The rude woman wants a Bloody Mary, mild, with a celery-salt rim, celery-stick garnish. The scent of tomato juice is nauseating, but you work efficiently: Your fingers and mind, inspired by an increasingly heady buzz, operate in tandem, a perfect team. You slide the drink across the bar.

“Did it hurt?” she asks, tapping her face again.

“It all hurts.”

You’re peeling, pouring, mixing: Negronis now, one for you, one for your knight. “But I’m not quite ready,” he starts, and you say, “Keep up, Cowboy. This round’s on me.”

He smiles.

“What are y’all, in love?” the lady says.

“Do those stools look like they’re swiveling to you?”

The carriage is empty, and the baby bottle is empty, its nipple cloudy with the memory of milk. You try to remember reclining in a stroller, strapped tight, a child, guided from event to event, in the idiotic womb of trust, insulated from fear and doubt and the responsibility of steering. Now you finish your drink, and you wonder: Who’s driving me home?

3

Drought has withered the grass along the banks of the Guadalupe River and slowed the current to one notch above stagnation. A live oak with a trunk as big around as a ceiling fan reaches out over the water like a half-built bridge. The homeowners’ association strung the tree with barbed wire to discourage swimmers from using it as a diving board; this has only added to the appeal. Boys climb carefully to the top and free-fall like rotten fruit.

It is a Friday afternoon, mid-July, and Dylan has just finished teaching his Summer II students the difference between who and whom, subject/object. What he didn’t tell them is this: In the world, there are no real actors, only the acted-upon and the grammatical illusion of agency. Dylan touches the small of Jill’s back to mute his thoughts. She’s lying on her side, wearing a lime-green cover-up over a frilly, white bikini.

People drift by slowly, varyingly sloshed, in cheap imitation Wayfarers with neon stems bearing the logos of beer companies. They splash water on their inner tubes to keep from being burned. Through the trees, just beyond Dylan’s field of vision, three women, too old for this shit, float by, unimpressed.

“Be honest,” one says, “if you just saw my feet, like if you were sitting on the bank, would you think I’d been dead for two weeks?”

“Honestly? Yes.”

Her head tilted back, the third woman is margarita mute, having leapt from buzzed to comatose — only proper for a bride-to-be. Her tiara is covered with antennae on the ends of which are inch-long rubber penises which skim the water like pond skaters.

Slightly behind the bachelorette party, two fifteen-year-old boys swim without tubes, running their feet along the algae and crushed cans lining the bottom of the river. The older of the two — by fifteen days — is a virgin, currently suffering from a submerged erection. This is nothing new. He wakes with an erection, he goes to sleep with an erection. In between classes, he holds his backpack over his erection as he walks the halls. He feels certain the only thing he needs, really the only thing, is to have sex, just once, to exorcise the evil, and then, finally, thank God, he’ll be able to spend one hour without thinking about his concrete cock. The bachelorette’s tiara is not helping his situation, nor is his friend, who recently had momentary intercourse with a woman whose identity he will not reveal. The woman’s name is Mrs. Endelthorp, a ninth-grade history teacher. She is not attractive in the traditional sense — she wears thick spectacles and no make-up — and the friend wishes desperately that he was not so in love with her. Her naked body smells like copper and cocktail sauce. Her son died at the age of two, of a disease that, even now, seven years later, she still cannot pronounce, much less comprehend. For one year, every night, she prayed to hear a cry from his bedroom. What she heard, every night, was the mechanical clang and clatter of her husband working on his ‘81 Mustang. When he’d rebuilt that engine, he drove to Arkansas to be with his mother, and he never returned.

“We should talk to those girls,” the virgin says.

“Like, what are we gonna say?”

“Um, ‘show me your tits’?” He takes his uncle’s pack of Pall Malls from a waterproof camera-case. Inexperienced and afraid to inhale, he chambers a drag in his cheeks.

A new set of boys, four in number, line up at the base of the live oak. They spit out long tendrils of mud-colored liquid while they wait to climb the tree. Sun-tanned skin, hairless chests. Death has not registered internally: The rest of the world might melt or freeze; they will survive. They are the sort of vulnerable that can result only from a complete denial of vulnerability.

Dylan and Jill lie on a beach towel printed with pictures of seahorses whose tails interlink to form the outline of an actual horse. A copy of the Collected Poems of Philip Larkin is face-down in the grass between them. When Dylan mentioned reading to Jill by the river, listening to barroom language about the meaninglessness of life was not what she had in mind.

“Jack Henders dipped,” Jill says, remembering the stupid, strange sense of attraction she used to feel, seeing his lower lip bulge with tobacco. Only later was the habit disgusting, when he smiled and she recognized Skoal strands straggling his teeth.

“How quaint,” Dylan says. He re-opens the Larkin book, and reads “Aubade.” “Postmen like doctors,” he repeats once he’s finished, laying the book aside. “God, too good.”

“The poet guy gets smashed and realizes he’s going to die. I’ve done that — I did that on Monday. Does that make me Shakespeare?”

“You know Shakespeare’s not the only guy to ever write poetry?”

“Does that make me Larkin, then?”

“That makes you the girl I drove home before her shift ended,” Dylan says. “The amazing thing about Larkin is, he reminds us that we’re going to die.”

“Did someone forget?”

I’m going to die, Dylan thinks. He looks at the kids crawling up the tree. Bad country music plays from down the river. I’m going to die? He squeezes Jill’s hand; he flips a page.

Just then, a boy climbing the live oak — his name is Jamal Watkins — considers his next birthday. In September, he’ll be fourteen. He wonders whether he should invite girls to his party. If there are girls, they can’t play video games. Plus, his mom will go ape-shit if one shows up dressed all slutty, and Jamal only wants to hang out with a girl is if she’s dressed all slutty.

And Jamal’s nearing the treetop. As he climbs, he listens to his friends: They’re talking about a kid at his school who got busted with his father’s pistol in his backpack. They talk about what they’d do if he’d started firing a gun in a classroom: where they’d hide, how long they’d wait before tackling him, how they’d kill him. “I’d gut him with my fucking pocket knife,” one boy says. And as Jamal listens, he feels a sharp prick, the rusty bite of a barb in his palm, and jerks his hand back, throwing his body off balance. To right himself, he swings his opposing hand forward, but that palm finds a matching barb.

The oddball symmetry of the suffering — the pulse of blood in the center of each hand — makes him feel, for a second, as if this were supposed to happen.

A larger plan. A larger pain. The strings of destiny guiding his actions.

Then he falls. There is no part of Jamal Watkins that does not hurt — a kind of prophetic agony — and he has not yet hit the ground.

“Jesus fuck,” Dylan says as the boy splash-thuds in a shallow stretch of river.

Blood swirls from the boy’s stomach. He displays his hands in wonder, and wonderful they are, both palms pierced with sinewy holes. He’s saying, “Help me help me I’m dying.”

“Do something,” Jill tells Dylan.

Dylan tucks his finger between the pages of the book. He gets to his feet.

“He needs a doctor,” Dylan says. “What can I do?”

By now, Jill is moving. “It’s okay,” she says, approaching the boy. His shaking hands make the blood spurt down his forearms in awkward jags. “You’re not dying,” she says. His belly is ripped from above the umbilicus to the left nipple. Jill tries to remember first aid from her lifeguarding days, but only the image of a classmate straddling a mannequin comes to mind.

One of Jamal’s friends leans against the base of the tree, pinching moist tobacco off his gums. “I think I’m gonna vom,” he says.

Jill turns to Dylan and tells him to give her his shirt. She tears a hole in the fabric and pulls the fabric into strips, which she presses into the boy’s palms.

“It hurts.”

“Make a fist,” Jill doubts her own advice, but no one else is speaking. She guides the boy to the bank. She has him kick his legs. She washes the blood from his stomach and applies the rest of the shirt to his gashed midsection. She clenches her toes around pebbles in the shallow water.

The virgin and his companion have, using their feet as anchors, turned around to watch Jamal bleed. Because they cannot see his wounds as well as they’d like, they paddle back up river. Paddling is hard work after a cigarette.

“So we beat on,” Dylan says. Shirtless on the bank, he has the sudden urge to climb the wire-wrapped tree, dive into the water, and emerge into a new world. The other boys, terrified by the fall, have stepped away from the live oak: With no line, Dylan could scale the trunk in two minutes. He doesn’t move; his chest is white. “Boats against the current,” he says.

“If you can’t act,” Jill says, “don’t speak.”

“Speech is action.”

“Dear God, you —”

“I’m hurt,” Jamal mutters between sobs. “I’m fucking hurt.”

____________________________________

Ross Feeler’s writing has appeared in New South, The Common, Arcadia, and Pembroke Magazine. In 2013, he received his MFA in Fiction from Texas State University, where he now teaches composition and literature. From 2013-2014, he served as writer-in-residence at the Clark House in Smithville, Texas. He is currently at work on his first novel, entitled Tarsh, an earlier version of which was a finalist for the 2016 James Jones First Novel Fellowship. He lives just south of Austin, with his wife and their dachshund.

Image courtesy www.stocksnap.io

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