“So you mean we don’t have to worry about Decker anymore?”
“I don’t know all that.” Daniel spoke excitedly into the phone, “but Jason got the check in the mail today. Insurance company said the investigation closed. I think they knew something went down, but I don’t think they could prove nothing. So they sent Jason the check.”
“Thank God.” The weight that lifted from my shoulders was profound. For months everyone had been on edge. Decker kept the pressure on Steven and Kenny. He worked at driving a wedge between them, telling each that one had betrayed the other in an effort to get someone to change their story. I spent long nights on the phone calling both Steven and Kenny, desperately trying to keep everyone on the same team. Decker showed up at Steven’s home and Kenny’s workplace on more than one occasion. But Kenny and Steven followed my advice and spread the story broadly. We told our parents, friends, and casual acquaintances the story of the stolen van. And all of those people reported the story to Decker.
He even went as far as showing up at my house. My parents knew the story, and they couldn’t understand why he was continuing to harass me. When Decker showed up, my Mom asked him if he still had my written statement. He admitted that he did, and she told him to get off of her property.
Decker was clearly out of his element in the honor culture of the hollow. People distrusted outsiders, doubly so for outsiders with authority, triply so for outsiders with fake authority. When Decker walked out the front door of my house, my dad came in from the wood shop and asked me if Mom “told that rent-a-cop to fuck himself?”
We owned the story. We shared the story, and the story protected us. But it was a hard fight. Steven had it the worst. During the final weeks of the investigation, Steven was like a rabbit in a shaken cage. He was reticent to talk to new people. He was terrified of traveling. He seemed constantly on edge. Decker had gotten into his head. But Steven held on.
“Does Stevie know?” I asked Daniel.
“Not yet. I called you first. We are gonna have a party to celebrate.”
“I’ll call Stevie. Let me break it to him. He’s had a rough time. This whole thing has made him paranoid.”
“The last couple months sucked. That’s been for sure. Decker fought for it.”
“I’ll believe it’s over in a decade. What’s the statute of limitations for insurance fraud?
“Haha. Let me call my lawyer. So party’s here at the trailer, tonight, all night.”
“Cool. It’s Friday, I was just getting ready to get my paycheck, so I’ll grab that and be out. You guys goin’ to the liquor store?”
“Yeah, Grey’s goin’ here in a bit.”
“Pick me up a bottle of Jack?”
“Yeah. Pay us for it when you get here.”
I hung up the phone and called Stevie. The phone didn’t even ring, “Hello?”
“Party tonight at Del and Grey’s. It’s required.”
“I don’t know Mike.” Steven’s voice sounded hollow and tired. “I don’t know that I want to party with those guys with everything that’s been going on.”
“Well, I got good news for you.”
There was a long pause, “don’t fuck around with me Mike.”
“Jason got the check this morning.”
There was static, and thudding, and then visceral celebration. I imagined Steven jumping around his bedroom, hooting, hollering, and stamping his feet. I didn’t know that a phone could convey happiness the way it did while I listened to Steven skip around his room. In a moment Steven picked up the receiver. “Oh thank that dear sweet baby cherub Jesus. Oh thank God the merciful in heaven.”
I smiled broadly. “Now I don’t know about you, but I think news like that deserves a celebration.
Steven let out another, long, exhale. “Yes, yes it does.”
“I’m getting my check, and then I’ll be out to get you. See you in thirty?”
“I’ll be ready. Oh, and don’t be loud or honk the horn or any of that shit. Mom’s asleep.”
My mom was downstairs in the kitchen when I went to leave the house. I gathered my shoes from the hall closet and put on my ball cap. “Ma, I’m going out to Del and Grey’s tonight. Daniel’s throwing a party.”
“Ok sweety. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t drive anywhere and call me when you get there and then before you leave in the morning. If you do anything stupid, I swear to God I will hurt you.”
“If I do anything stupid, you’ll be the first to know,” I winked at her.
“I have my doubts about that. This’ll be one of your last times together with your friends before you get too busy with school.”
“It’s almost the end of summer.”
I looked at the calendar hanging on the wall by the kitchen entrance. Sure enough, my start date for West Virginia University was next week. Before long Daniel, Steven, and I would be living different lives. Daniel would continue doing odd jobs here and there until he got fired, and Steven would soon have to go to work full time.
It didn’t take long for Daniel’s money to start running out once he began living with Del and Grey. Daniel slowly sold off all the luxury that his father’s untimely death provided. He hit a deer with the Firebird and cracked the radiator. He sold me the stereo out of the back of it for three hundred dollars to pay for the repairs. I didn’t really want the stereo. It did fit nicely in the Camaro, and I loved the depth of sound and bass provided by the giant subwoofers. But I felt conflicted about buying it because I was paying far less than what it was worth. But I had money, and Daniel needed it. So I bought Daniel’s stereo. And later his plasma screen and Playstation. It was an imperfect solution to a problem that I was unable to solve.
“This’ll probably be your last time with all of your friends.” She repeated.
“I guess it will be. I mean, I’ll be coming home for holidays and breaks. I’m sure I’ll see them then.”
“It’ll be different,” she said simply, and returned to her work in the kitchen. “Have fun Mike. Don’t forget to call.”
In the car, alone and driving to Shop N’ Save, I couldn’t help but think about what my mother said. It would be different when I came back. It had to be. Suddenly the world around looked dimmer. The hollow was all I’d ever known. It’s people had played such an important role in my life. The hollow as a whole had raised me, protected me. In the hollow, I was known. I had people looking after me. I owed them a lot. The hollow, its kindness and corruption, was the reason I hadn’t ended up dead or in jail. But ironically, the hollow had taken me as far as she could. I had to leave her behind to go farther. And I had to wrestle with all of the resentment and feelings of inferiority that my leaving would bring out in people.
But I tried to push those anxieties down as I parked the Camaro in the fire lane in front of the store. “Hey Michael,” I heard someone shout from behind me.
It was Eddie. Eddie bagged groceries. He was semi-retired, but he really liked working at Shop N’ Save. My boss often joked that Eddie, a man in his seventies, would outlive all of us. Eddie always smiled, and he shouted greetings from across the store to anyone he knew. Eddie lived without embarrassment. And a smile seemed to be permanently fixed to his face.
“Hey Eddie!” I raised my hand in greeting. “How are ya?” I clasped his hand, and it was like grabbing hold of a cannon ball. “You need a shave there ole boy.”
Eddie withdrew and scratched the new whiskers on his chin, “no sir, no sir.”
“Oh, you’re growin’ it out?”
“I’m living up to my civic responsibility.” Eddie laughed. “I’m fat, old, and have white hair. The way I see it, I have a duty.”
“A duty to do what? Be Santa Claus?”
“Well,” Eddie nodded, “yeah!” Eddie pulled up his trousers high around his belly button, “HO! HO! HO!”
“I’ll tell you Eddie. You’ll be a wonderful Santa.”
“Thanks Mike. I always loved Santa when I was a kid. Can you think of any kid who isn’t happy to see Santa?”
“Well, what if they’re on the naughty list?”
“HO! HO! There’s room for everyone on the nice list, Mikey.”
I smiled and took the old man’s hand once more. “I’ll see you later Eddie.”
I collected my check from the front office, and walked to Miss Mimi’s register. “Hey baby! Get you the Friday special?”
“Cash your check and a pack of Marlboros?”
“Mikey, when are you gonna quit these things? Smart boy like you can do better than smokin’ these things. But at least you can buy em’ legal now.” She smiled at me from across the register, I handed my check over.”
“I’ll quit one day Miss Mimi. Just for you.”
“Full of shit as always, Mike. I used to expect better from you.”
“And I’m always sorry to disappoint you. Now, about that pack of cigarettes.” I winked at the old lady.
“I used to like you Mikey.”
“You said that to me the day we met.” We shared a laugh. She handed over the Marlboros and a wad of cash.
I left the radio off during the ride to Steven’s house. I rolled the window down and listened to the hum of the Camaro’s engine blend with the whipping wind. I watched the lit end of my cigarette be consumed by the air, the ashes flew away little by little. I thought back over the years about each person that touched my life, and though I couldn’t remember all of them, even so, they made me.
I put the Camaro in neutral and drifted slowly downhill to Steven’s back door so as to not make too much noise. Steven gently closed the back door of the house and climbed in the Camaro.
“You alright Mike? Got a long face for a day this good.”
“I’m just goin’ through some shit man. Worried about goin’ off to school. That’s all.”
“Well knock that shit off. We are getting fucked up tonight. You can worry about school another time.”
“Ha. Yeah, I guess I have four years to worry about that.” I pushed in the electric cigarette lighter in the Camaro’s dash.
“Yep, but you only got 12 hours to worry about partying with your friends.”
“And we gotta celebrate Decker being out of our lives forever. Can you believe that?” I took a cigarette from my pack and held it in my teeth, waiting for the lighter to pop. “I mean, I’m not gonna get my hopes up quite yet. But yeah, it’s good to have that whole thing be over.”
” Can I bum one of those?” Steven reached for the box of cigarettes without waiting for my reply. “So Daniel’s throwing a big party at the trailer?”
“I think it’s because he came out to everyone about being on pills.” I held the glowing hot lighter to my face and puffed. The paper and tobacco ignited. I handed the lighter to Steven.
“Well, it wasn’t a secret, we all knew.” Steven lit his cigarette and rolled down the window.
“Yeah, we gossiped about it back and forth, but he never told us until the thing with Decker started,” I argued.
“No, Mike. I knew. Everyone knew. You were the last person he told. He didn’t tell you until the thing with Decker started. He didn’t want you to think he was a drug addict.” Steven took a deep drag and blew the smoke from the corner of his mouth.
“Since when does he give a shit what I think? He’s always been the one with the money and the fast cars.”
“Right. But you got something we don’t Mike.”
“Oh yeah,” I laughed, “what’s that?”
“You’re book smart. You’re goin’ to school. I mean, I’m goin’ to community college, but my mom’s making me.” Steven shrugged, “I don’t really want to go.”
“Why don’t you want to go? I mean what else is there to do. There’s no work, unless you’re gonna work in the sand mine.”
“I’m gonna move outta here. I don’t know where I’m going to go, but I’m not going to stay here.”
I’d heard this dozens of times from dozens of people. Everyone at school talked about how they were going to leave the hollow and never come back. They thought that the hollow itself, was the cause of their failings. They were right, to a degree. The hollow could be a hopeless, lonely, and empty place, devoid of much opportunity- all of those things were, and remain, true. There’s not much in the hollow for the young. But leaving to find opportunity doesn’t solve for a fundamental lack of giving a shit. Steven never picked up a book of his own volition. Steven skipped school the day we took the military entrance exam. Steven never signed up for the SAT or the ACT. Steven flat out refused to go to the tri-state college and job fair.
The school and the hollow provided those opportunities, and Steven scoffed. But instead of pointing his resentment at himself, he directed it outward, at the hollow. I didn’t tell him that moving wouldn’t solve his problem. It wasn’t my place.
“You gonna be alright if they’re doin’ pills and shit tonight?” Steven popped his shoe off and put his foot on the dash.
“You know I have to clean your foot print off the glove box every time you do that?”
“A small price to pay for the honor of driving me places.”
“Um. Truthfully, it makes me uncomfortable. But they’re still my friends. If they are addicted to pills, well, we are probably the only normal friends they have left. You know?”
The inside and outside lights were all on when we pulled up to the trailer. There was a four-wheeler parked in the front yard. It was still running. “Wonder who this is?” I asked Steven as I grabbed the door handle.
The trailer was hazy with smoke. Daniel was the only one in the living room. He was sitting on the couch with both of his feet tucked under him. There was a pile of money in small bills on the coffee table. “Hey guys.”
“Where’d you get all that?” I pointed to the pile of money and flopped down in the chair near the door.
Steven walked across the room and pushed the wad of money into neat stacks. “I can’t believe you would treat money this way.” Steven worked at flattening the bills and putting them in order.
“Today is pay day. That’s our paychecks.”
“You, Del, and Grey?” I asked.
“Yep.” Daniel nodded
“Your whole check?”
“Well, we put back some for food and gas and shit, but yeah. It’s gonna be a hell of a party. We gotta celebrate!”
“Yeah, it feels good to be rid of Decker, and to have that bunch of bullshit behind us.” Steven agreed.
“Your whiskey is in the fridge Mikey. Beer’s in there too.”
In the kitchen, I heard voices coming from the bedroom. I fixed myself a drink, grabbed a beer for Steven, and returned to my seat. Del, Grey, and someone I recognized but couldn’t name came out of the bedroom after a few moments. The stranger didn’t seem pleased that we were there.
“Who’re these guys?” the stranger crossed his arms.
Del introduced us. The man’s name was Dominic Dodd, but everyone called him Doddy. I’d seen Doddy around town and at school a time or two; he seemed like a person who was always around but never named. Doddy had the same drawn, gaunt face, the same pale, milky complexion as the others.
Steven and I shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with Doddy, but it was clear that Doddy had somewhere else to be. Doddy snatched the pile of money from the coffee table, counted it with all of the efficiency and flourish of a bank teller, and then he was gone.
“How’d we do?” Daniel asked.
Grey shook his head. “Shit’s gettin’ harder to find he says.”
“Says there’s a crack down at some of the doctors offices. He’s running all the way to Baltimore now,” Del explained.
“I get it.” Daniel was growing impatient. “How much did we get?”
“Well, Percs were twelve, hydros were eight. He had some of those methadone patches too.”
“Those never do anything for me.” Daniel whined.
“I keep telling you, you gotta eat the gel. You can’t just stick it on.”
I listened with one ear while Daniel, Del, and Grey talked about the harsh economics of addiction. They talked about how the price of pills seemed to be going up every week. They discussed the possibility of going to Baltimore themselves to cut out Doddy as a middle man. They considered other dealers in town and even getting prescriptions of their own. But they ultimately decided to do nothing.
“We got a surprise just for you Stevie.” Grey’s smile was sinister.
“Yeah, come outside with me for a second. I gotta dig it outta the foundation.”
“I’ll go with you.” I stood and lit a cigarette. “There’s bound to be some fun shit out there.”
Steven, Grey, and I walked across the narrow yard between the trailer and the unfinished cinderblock building. The roof was still covered in a blue tarp. Collected water sagged in the middle, and threatened to burst through the thin blue barrier. The inside was filled to the brim with unlabeled boxes and nameless odds and ends. Grey climbed over the first row of cardboard, “it’s around here somewhere.”
“Jesus, look at all this.” Steven and I stood in the doorway.
“What is all this, Grey?”
Grey was rummaging toward the middle of the room. “Well, Pops was building this place to move into before the economy started taking a shit. No one is building much these days. Ain’t got no money to finish buildin’. But Mom’s a hoarder.” He chuckled, “this is all her yard sale winnings.” Grey shouted, “got it! You all watch out!”
A white bucket flew over the wall of boxes and bounced around our feet for a moment before settling. I picked it up. I shook it around a little bit, there was something inside. “Grey, what the hell is this?”
“It’s Stevie’s surprise.” Grey trudged back to the door over, climbing over walls of boxes without care.
“Do I have to take it?”
“Oh, you’ll want to,” Grey grinned.
“I’m not sure I like how he said that.”
When we walked back inside, Del and Daniel were snorting pills off a piece of glass in the kitchen. I’d liked to say that I was shocked and outraged. But I wasn’t. I reacted with indifference because I saw what I expected to see. I didn’t view my acceptance as endorsement. I knew that it didn’t matter whether I was angry or not. Daniel stood up from the counter top and rubbed remnant white powder from his nose.
“You found it!” Daniel crossed the room and took the bucket from Grey and sat it on the floor in the kitchen. “Del, fill that up with water.” Del took the lid off and inside there was a three gallon water jug that had its bottom crudely removed. There was a cap with a stem sticking out, and there was a fine screen that looked like it had been cut from a sink strainer. Del dumped the contents out on the floor and took the bucket to the bathtub to be filled. Daniel rummaged through the drawers in the kitchen, talking to himself. “I know I put that shit in here somewhere. Oh, here it is!”
He tossed a little plastic tin to Steven. “Here’s your present. Jason bought it for you. Said you deserved it for dealing with Decker.”
“Is this?” Steven ran his fingernail around the lid, carefully prying the lid.
“Yep. Salvia.” Daniel smiled just as Del brought the water-filled bucket back from the bathroom. “And we call this, the one hitter quitter. You take one hit, and you quit.”
“Am I missing something here?” I looked at the contraption on the floor.
“Oh.” Steven grew excited. “It’s a gravity bong.”
“That bucket is a bong?”
“A scary bong. You put your smoke in here.” Steven grabbed the screen and pipe fittings and assembled them, making a basket from the screen. “This sits in the top of the water jug like this. Then the jug gets submerged in the water.” Steven lowered the jug into the bucket of water with the stem pointed up. Water flowed into the jug. “So then, what you do, is you draw the jug up and it pulls the smoke into the jug. You remove the stem and cap, and then you suck the smoke up.”
“So what’s Salvia?” I asked.
“Supposed to make you see shit.” Del answered plainly. “Like LSD.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve heard about this. It’s like synthetic weed.”
“Nope. Not like weed at all. Weed doesn’t make you see shit.”
“It will if you take enough.”
“Well let’s get this show on the road.” Steven dumped the tin out into the screen and then lowered the bottle into the bucket of water. “How much is a hit do you think?”
“You all wanna try some?” Steven looked around for someone to share with. Everyone refused. Steven shrugged, “I guess I’ll just do the whole tin.”
“That’s,” Del took a moment to think, “a great idea.”
“Are there any side effects with this stuff?” I asked.
“No one’s ever died from doing sage.” Del rolled his eyes. “Do the whole tin, Stevie.”
Steven held a lighter up to the bundle of ground leaves until they smoldered. When he drew the jug up from the water, it created a vacuum, and the smoldering leaves glowed red and filled the jug with smoke. Steven removed the cap from the water jug and put his lips over the nozzle. In one smooth motion, Steven lifted the bucket from the water, breaking the vacuum, and he inhaled the contents of the jug.
Del was already laughing. “This’ll be a fun ride for him. Doesn’t last long.”
Steven dropped the jug on the floor. His eyes crossed and uncrossed. They seemed to scan the room for something that wasn’t there. He looked down at his legs, “hello bugs,” he started sweeping his hands down his legs. “No bugs, you can’t eat my legs. I know what I’ll do.” Steven squatted down, grabbed at the floor, and stood upright. “Why can’t I get them up?” Steven repeated the motion. “I can’t get my pants up.”
“They’re already on buddy.” Del grabbed Steven by the arm, and Steven pulled his arm away. “I’m your buddy right?”
“I gotta go outside.”
“No.” Del tried to keep a hold on Steven’s arm, but Steven jerked away and moved toward the front door.
“There are so many doors. Which one do I go through?” Steven reached for an invisible doorknob. He pulled the invisible door open, but when he tried to step through, he ran his face into the wall. “I need to get outside!” Steven was starting to panic. We were rolling on the floor with laughter, but there was an edge of panic starting to grow in Steven’s voice. Del recognized it.
“I’ll take you outside, buddy. Come here.” Del held the real front door open.
“How did you open that wall?”
“Let’s get some fresh air.” Del waved Steven to the door. Steven followed.
Grey stood up to follow, “I’m gonna go help Del out. And make sure he doesn’t fuck with Stevie too hard.”
Daniel and I were the only ones left in the tiny trailer. I lit a cigarette.
“We’ve been through some shit haven’t we?” Daniel said. There was sadness in his voice. He shifted in his seat uncomfortably. There was a new distance between us. My mother’s words rang again in my mind. Even though virtually no time had passed, Daniel’s experiences and mine were so far removed from each other that now, sitting here in this trailer, it was difficult to find anything, apart from the past, to talk about. Everything would change when I went to West Virginia University.
“Yeah, we have,” I agreed. We talked about Jimmy and his El Camino. We laughed about the way Jimmy would stand on the accelerator until the transmission caught. “We nearly broke our necks,” I joked.
We talked about the legendary parties and me getting lost in the graveyard. We talked about almost getting arrested for blowing a donut on the dual highway. We talked about drag racing through the center of town. And though there was a new distance between us, and though neither of us said so explicitly, we decided not to abandon our friendship.