Jamie Barrett lived close enough to Lake Michigan to spend weekend nights there with his friends drinking a couple of beers supplied by his father and sleeping in the sand amid marrum and sandreed and waking earlier than his friends and watching the black water in silence and sometimes at the first breezeless grays of the sky he’d see mist rising from the smoothly lapping water, rays of mist rising like innumerable streaming arms and gathering in a dense and serried multitude and he’d watch that multitude’s soft advance on him, its softness hushing him into a gentle and mindless complaisance until it finally enveloped him entirely in a dimness tight and unyielding as a body bag, and he’d feel the way he felt now in this sudden letdown at the wheel of an old moldy stickshifted pickup truck, and his spirit would reel off images and sounds like those emerging from his oblivion now.
You know, I can run as fast as you can. It’s Braid talking to him, looking cocky. Looking at her, cockier, smiling. No you can’t. I don’t think so.
Braid cocks her head, wavy auburn hair, naked upside curve of her ear, tiny red stone glistening on its lobe. Smooth jawline. You don’t have any idea how fast I am. I’m the fastest girl in my school, I get first place in every race I’m in, and I can beat almost all the boys in ninth grade.
You can’t beat me though.
Ha! She wore a blush of lipstick. Her teeth looked wet. He knew he wouldn’t be able to beat her in a footrace now, at this instant. He was too weak looking at her. Listening to her. He couldn’t even reply, he merely smiled at her stupidly.
See? You know, don’t you. She picked a handful of grass and tossed it at him. He retrieved some of the bright blades and put them in his mouth, widened his eyes and raised his brows as if tasting a sweet new fruit. She laughed, picked more grass and flung it this time, he ducked, received it in his hair. Ah Braid, you want a race don’t you.
I thought you’d never ask.
She sprang up, left him looking at the grass matted by her rump and legs. He raised his eyes, let them linger on her sneakered foot, her smooth bare leg, he wished his gullet were a kneelength sock surrounding that leg. He tilted his head and her face against the backdrop of the Lincoln Park conservatory’s opaque glass glistened impishly, her green eyes playfully tense, inviting, she extended her arms to him, her fingers long and thin, come on I’ll help you up, I’ll race you to the fountain. He grasped her hands, worried they’d break, but she pulled and he felt her strength.
You know, I win almost all my league races and I can beat all the boys in my class. Girls too.
But I’m not in your class. I’m not even in your league. She clenched her hands and thrust them against the sides of her waist, she grinned, the tip of her tongue appeared between her teeth and covered her lower lip. In fact, if you really want to know, I’m in a class of my own.
He faced her against the backdrop of the conservatory, pictured the two of them in there last year among the ferns whose names he did not know then, felt again their first kiss at age thirteen in the greenhouse’s wet heat. We haven’t seen each other in a year and you want to have a race? he said. You want a race and then when I leave you in my dust you’ll sulk and feel bad the rest of the day. Prettily cocked head, halfclosed eyes, lips hidden between her teeth. Then: You’re really afraid I’ll beat you, aren’t you.
He let her get the better start and then had to run hard to catch her saying nothing as he passed her, “willowy,” that’s the word he had come up with after rummaging through his thesaurus and dictionary back home and at school during the agonizing months since he had seen her last, “willowy,” that’s her, willowy, but how can a willowy girl run that fast? Between the colorful flowerbeds across the great lawn they ran and he heard her exertion, she was hanging on his speed, right there, right on his heels, he skewed his head stretched his eyes sneaking a look, her face grim and drawn and her neck taut, eyes two sharp trajectiles aiming past him for that fountain ahead, should I let her beat me he thought. No. He pushed harder but she stayed with him, he touched the fountain first, the dark bronze figures of naked laughing boys cavorting at its rim each holding a long squirming pike spitting clear streams of water into the basin, she pulled up only a step or two behind sweat glistening on her forehead and gasping dipped her hands into the swashing water and threw it on her face and he stood hands on his knees watching her and loving her.
Slowly he became aware of himself the crown of his head cupped in his broad hand, arm resting on his thigh, his shallow breathing, he cracked open his eyes and shut them again wanting to sleep. Smelled must and old frenchfries and lubricant. He heard some whining voices from inside his belly and his hand passed down the back of his head and hard across the back of his neck and swept around its side and up his jaw, twisted and ended up cupping his mouth and chin. He shook his head as though rattling it, inhaled deply and opened his eyes and beheld a worn steering wheel and a dusty odometer and hestruggled to contain himself. Please help me sweet Jesus he thought. I’m scared.