Lakeside at the Start of Summer
The last time I saw Julius he was dressed up as a cheerleader. It was Halloween, or close to it, so I suppose that was about a year and a half ago. Feels like less. If you told me it was a week and a half ago I might take your word for it. Time moves so fast now.
But he was dressed up like a cheerleader and me like a farmer and we were at a girl called Riley’s apartment that she shared with two friends and there was a swimming pool in the courtyard and I got pushed in. By that point I had had too many shots of Cuervo to care. Anyway it wasn’t too cold out and a few people wound up diving in. Then all of them got out in a hurry, splashing around and making a big commotion like a shark had found its way into the pool. When I look to see Julius is standing over the edge, his skirt hiked up and his hog poking out and that blond wig on his head, and he’s shooting an arch into the deep end. It was a good time.
Some of Riley’s neighbors joined us later on and I hit it off with one and could probably have laid her if I hadn’t passed out on a deckchair and stayed that way till morning, wet clothes and all.
As I said it was a good time. It was always a good time whenever Julius came around.
“This is perfect,” Ronnie says. He’s got three cases of High Life on the table and he’s taking the cans out and dumping them into the big red cooler he dragged onto the deck a minute ago. There’s a speaker set up on a bench near the sliding glass door that leads into the kitchen—”Yeah Yeah Yeahs” sound from it. “He’s gonna love this,” Ronnie says.
Chuck and Tom are in the yard pitching horseshoes. Tom’s shirtless and his shoulders are already starting to look pink. The white sun is standing up tall in the sky, way up there, high and bright and blaring, poised right on top of us so that we hardly make shadows at all. The surface of the lake catches its glare like a mirror.
I finish sticking the small American flags I bought last night into the ground around the deck and sit back down in the chair to Nova’s right, sweating. She takes a picture of herself with her phone and, wiggling her toes, asks me whether I like her nail polish. She’s got her bikini on—sooner or later she’ll want to go for a dip in the lake. Sue and Mandy are wearing bikinis too, though Mandy’s got a tank top on over hers. I wouldn’t mind laying Sue.
“We got enough ice?” Tom says, pitching a horseshoe.
“Sure,” Ronnie says. “We got enough.”
“Get it outta the sun,” Chuck says. “It won’t last five minutes in this.”
“It’s alright,” Ronnie says.
Around three Owen turns up with his new girlfriend and a case of Coors that he got from the supermarket where he works as a manager. He wears brown shades and a brown beard and a wide toothy smile. He’s got sleeves of tattoos on both arms. I think his girlfriend’s name is Anna, but I don’t know that to a certainty. Henceforth she’s Anna. The last one was called Naomi and the one before that was Beth. I’ve known Owen since we were kids. Ronnie and Chuck and Tom since high school. Nova I’ve been with a year. She hasn’t met Julius yet, but she’s seen pictures of him.
The sun shifts in the sky, slanting down at us. The back of my neck is hot. It’s Memorial Day weekend but it feels more like Fourth of July—maybe because Chuck bought fireworks.
“Wanna go in?” Nova says at length.
I drink from my High Life. “Not now.”
“I wanna swim with you.”
“Later. Go ahead—I’ll meet you down there.”
Nova rolls her eyes and makes a kind of hoarse sound in her throat. She doesn’t move from her chair. The heat is starting to really weigh on me. There’s no shade anywhere. We got going too early today.
“Don’t you have a parasol or something?” I say to Tom. His family owns this place. They rent it out all summer long so it stands to reason there’s a parasol or something somewhere. Tom doesn’t answer me. He’s reclining far back in one of the sun loungers, just lying there with his shirt off and his eyes shut, his white barrel-like chest beaming in the hot sun and going up and down with his breathing.
“What.” He doesn’t open his eyes
“Is there a parasol somewhere?”
“‘What for?’ It’s like a desert out here. You could fry a fuckin’ egg on my head.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Is there an umbrella or not?”
“There might be one in the garage,” he says. “Or the basement. Then again, there might not be.”
“You’ll feel better if you swim,” Nova says.
I look at her. She’s smiling at me with those straight white teeth. Her sunglasses are big and round and black—they cover half her freckly face. I say:
“Lame,” she says. “Way lame.”
“Can you change this?” Owen says, meaning the music.
“Change it yourself,” Tom says with his eyes closed.
As I said it’s been about a year and a half since I saw him last. A month after the Halloween party he flew down to Georgia for basic training and the following spring I heard he was going to Afghanistan with seventeen thousand others. I called him up before he set off and we chatted awhile. We used to yak on the phone all the time—two, three, four hours at a stretch. Like a couple of chicks. My girlfriends used to get jealous. Maybe they had good cause to be. There were things I told Julius that I never told them. Or anybody else, come to think of it.
“How long you gonna be over there?” I asked.
“Shit. That’s a long time. How d’you feel?”
“I feel alright.”
“No,” he said, laughing a little. “I probably won’t get to see much action. We’re mostly in a stabilizing role now.”
“What’re we stabilizing?”
“Oh. How long’ve we been over there now?”
“Well. About nine years now. Just short a nine years.”
“And you’ll be there twelve months.”
“That’s a long fuckin’ time,” I said. I didn’t envy him. There were times when I envied Julius but that wasn’t one of them. But he said he felt alright about it. So I told myself to feel alright about it too.
Out of the house comes Tom with a package of hot dogs in one hand and a plate of raw hamburger meat, plus a garden burger for Nova, in the other. His shoulders are bright red now, about the same color as the meat. He walks over and puts the stuff down next to Ronnie who’s manning the grill. The raw flesh spits and hisses as Ronnie arranges it over the flames. I tell him to use a separate spatula for Nova’s.
“Otherwise she won’t eat it,” I say. Tom goes back in and comes out with a second spatula. “And put foil under it,” I say. “Don’t let it touch the grill.”
“Christ,” Tom says, going back in.
Nova’s been swimming in the lake with Mandy and Sue—Chuck and Owen are down there as well. They make five dark shapes, vague and wobbly, on the gleaming blue surface. Their voices are carrying up the long sloped yard, sailing between the rangy trees that wall in the property on either side, echoing a bit when they get to us. They’ve been down there a while. Half hour, maybe more. My shadow is stretching way out in front of me now, as though reaching for something. Soon Julius’ parents will be dead, two of their neighbors injured. The town where we grew up will teem with police.
“What time is it?” Ronnie asks, moving the hot dogs around with a big fork. The air on the deck is warm, hazy with smoke.
“Almost six thirty,” Anna says. It’s about the third thing I’ve heard her say all afternoon. She’s not having a swell time by the looks of it. The same could be said of me, if I’m honest. Feeling sort of heavy and bogged down at the moment. The sun must have baked the life out of me. We got going too early today. That’s a fact. But I’ll persevere. I rise up and go to the cooler and reach down into the cold water where the ice used to be and pull out a can of Coors.
“He said around eight thirty?” Ronnie asks.
“Eight thirty, nine,” Tom says. “He had some family thing goin’ on.”
“A family affair?”
“Yeah,” Tom says, “a family affair.”
“Paul’s bringin’ him?”
“Heard from him?”
“Talked to him earlier.”
“What’d he say?”
“That they’d be here by nine.”
“And he thinks it’s just you and Mandy out here.”
“Hope Paul doesn’t tip him off.”
“I don’t think he’d do that.”
“We lucked out as far as timing. Fuckin Memorial Day. The flags’re a nice touch.”
“Yeah—it came together pretty well, didn’t it?”
There was another side to him. I don’t know how to describe it. One time he brought a handgun to a party. For example. It was a friend’s eighteenth birthday. I swung by his house and picked him up in my Jetta. He showed it to me while I was driving. Just pulled it out from underneath his shirt and said, “Look.” I didn’t know what say to that, didn’t understand why he had it or what he planned to do with it, or how he expected me to react, but when we got there I told him to leave it in the glove box, which he did. To my knowledge the gun was never in our friend’s house. And I never saw it again.
Another time, senior year, when I was walking to the locker room after football practice, I saw his girlfriend sitting on a bench by herself, looking at me. She didn’t play sports or do anything else that would require her to stick around after school let out, so I wondered what she was doing there. I told the guys I’d catch up with them and made my way over. Approaching her I could see that she was on edge, blinking a lot and touching her curly brown hair in a skittish kind of way. She tried to smile when I came up but didn’t do a very good job of it.
“What’s up?” I said, holding my helmet under my arm.
With that strained smile she asked how I was, what I’d been up to lately, all the things you say when you have nothing to say, or when you have something good to say but can’t figure out how to say it, and I was ready to tell her that, while I thought she was cool and all, I would never consider doing that to my best friend—I was about to say this when she asked me if Julius ever became violent around me.
“What d’you mean, violent?”
“You know,” she said, “like wanting to hurt someone.”
“I’ve seen him hurt people on the ice,” I said. “But that’s what hockey players are supposed to do.”
“I don’t mean like that,” she said. “Well, maybe I do. I dunno.”
I looked at her sideways.
“Forget it,” she said after a minute. “I’m probably overreacting. It’s just …”
“Well, I dunno. Have you seen him when he’s angry?”
“Yeah. Sure I have. I’ve seen him angry. Many times.”
“And he didn’t do anything weird?”
“Forget it,” she said, and got up from the bench. “It’s nothing.”
“Whatever it is,” I said, “you can tell me.”
“It’s nothing,” she said.
That was the extent of it. We made small talk as we walked back to the school, then she went off toward the parking lot and I went inside to take a shower. By Thanksgiving she and Julius had called it quits and I never had much of a chance to talk to her again. Later on Julius told me she was a head case. I took his word for it. He was my friend and she wasn’t. End of story. It wasn’t until recently, just a few months ago, that I recalled our conversation that day on the bench near the football field, and thought that maybe it meant something. God knows what.
Tom’s got the handle of Stoli and Chuck is right on his heels with two stacks of shot glasses. He sets them down on the table among the dirty plates and empty cans and Tom cracks the bottle’s seal and starts to fill them up, spilling far more than he has to. I notice for the first time that there’s a retractable awning that can be drawn out over the deck.
“Waste a good vodka,” Mandy says.
“We got more,” Chuck says.
“We’ll need it,” Ronnie says.
“It’s a celebration,” Tom says.
We reach for the brimming shot glasses. Two are left standing in the middle of the table. Tom does an inept drum roll on the table with his hands. At his signal we toss back the Stoli. Nova and Anna wince but Sue and Mandy put theirs away with aplomb and I’m thinking I’d really like to lay Sue now. I will lay Nova later and picture Sue, I think as Tom refills the shot glasses.
It’s past nine—the sun’s down, but a piece of the sky is still blue, a bright vivid belt of color, staying behind as though to remind us that the sun was up there today and will be there again tomorrow. We take the shot glasses and raise them up over our heads and Tom does a drum roll on the table and down goes the Stoli.
Then Sue and Owen and Anna and Tom bolt down the sloping lawn in the direction of the lake. Nova runs after them and I run after Nova. I beat her there and pull off my shirt and dive in ahead of her, nearly landing on top of Owen. The water is way colder than I expected. We’re all jazzed up now, our loud voices colliding and mingling together in the darkening air. I end up swimming too far out and by the time I get back to the pier I’m panting hard and sort of dizzy. I lift my body out of the water with shaky arms. I can’t find my shirt.
Back on the deck, dripping water all over the wood, we drink more of the vodka. Tom lights the tiki torches. Ronnie brings out some ginger ale and plastic cups and soon he has to go back inside and grab the other handle of Stoli. Owen pouts for a while when he realizes that he jumped in the lake with his phone in his pocket. I mix him a drink and bring it to him and pat him on the back and then he’s in good form again. Anna is having a swell time now by the looks of it. Chuck rammed his knee into a horseshoe stake as he ran down the yard—he’s got his t-shirt tied around it and he’s walking with a pronounced limp. Nova wants to go upstairs. “In a few minutes,” I tell her. She’s not happy but she’s too drunk to be angry and she knows that I know it. Tom hands out cigars.
We’re all sitting together on the deck illumined by the tiki torches and drinking Stoli with ginger ale. I don’t know what time it is and I’m out a shirt. I’ve got a cigar going. I’m loose but not lit. Another drink and I’ll be lit. Sue’s got a cigar going. Nova’s lit. That awning was there all goddamn day. At length Chuck limps around the side of the house and returns carrying a big wooden box filled with fireworks.
“Wait’ll you see this,” he says.
Nova tugs on my wet shorts. I say, “After the fireworks.” She groans.
Chuck limps away toward the water and all of us duly follow. Back down to the lake. Tom says he thinks we ought to wait for Julius and Ronnie says he agrees.
“We will,” Chuck says, setting the box down. “I just wanna test a couple.”
We stand at a distance while he loads one up. “This one’s not so big,” he says. “But it should still pack a punch.” He lights the fuse and limps clear of it. Moments later there’s a pop. A red-orange dart whistles into the sky, disappears. Then another pop, and a modest shower of pink and yellow pellets over the lake. Then nothing. A few people clap. Mandy whoops. Chuck goes: “Huh.”
He sets another off to identical effect. No one claps.
“OK,” Chuck says, “moving on.” He digs around in the box and comes out with a long thin malicious-looking cylinder. “He said this one packs a major-league wallop.”
“Let’s hope so,” Owen says.
While Chuck’s loading it up Tom’s phone starts to ring. He takes the call, moving a few paces away from the group so that he can hear better. I’ve got an arm around Nova and I’m holding my cigar with my free hand. I left my drink on the deck which is a drag. Nova sips from hers. Everyone seems to have remembered their drink but me. I puff my cigar and take in the night. The galaxy is on full display. The moon hangs like some profound lantern. When Tom gets off the phone he stands still and stares at the ground in front of him. The look on his face is the kind they’re always trying to reproduce in movies when disaster strikes. But I see now that it can never be done.
“Who was that?” Sue asks.
“He’s not coming,” Tom says.
Chuck lights the fuse and limps toward us as though something bad is after him and we’re his only refuge. I’m trying to look at him and Tom at the same time. Someone asks Tom why. Chuck says, “Watch.” I’m looking back and forth. Nova is leaning into me. Sue is puffing a cigar. It’s Memorial Day weekend and I’m out a shirt and I think Anna is the name of Owen’s girlfriend. The message carried by Tom’s words goes off like a bomb overhead, up in the sky with all those stars, where the sun was today and will be tomorrow, and looking into the blacks of his eyes I see a great flower of light reflected there, a vivid flourish, blooming for a flash of time, then dying away forever. It’s going to be a strange summer.
© Michael Howard
Michael Howard’s essays and short stories have appeared in a wide variety of print and digital publications. His website is michaelwilliamhoward.com.