BY DEAN MORTON
Copyright is held by the author.
DANNY COLEMAN had a boat. At least, that’s what he said. Danny was my best friend, but he was also a liar. Everyone knew that. Danny lied about everything; the movies he had seen and the grades he got on his science quizzes and all the Carolina Panthers games he claimed to have gone to with his dad when he went to visit him up in Charlotte. There were a lot of things that Danny said he had done, but more often than not it seemed that he never really did anything. When he wasn’t in school, or doing chores, he was either walking to McDonald’s or coming over to play Grand Theft Auto in my bedroom, but not much else. As long as I’d known him, Danny never had much of anything, and he sure as shit never had a boat.
Danny and I were walking home from school one day. It was a warm April Friday, and the trees were finally reaching that shade of green that, to 13-year-old boys like me and Danny, signified the final weeks of the school year and that feeling of expansive freedom that comes with them. We were taking the shortcut home, through the woods and past the Methodist graveyard that let out at the edge of our cul-de-sac. My ancestors were buried there, but Danny’s weren’t. His family was Baptist.
“Did you hear I got a boat?” Danny asked.
“It’s true. I got a boat.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Did too. I found it down by the inlet. I was sitting underneath the bridge the other day, throwing rocks. And then I just felt like walking, so I walked along the bank for a while, and then I found it. Just waiting there.”
“So, you found someone else’s boat.”
“It ain’t no one’s boat but my own. It didn’t have a lock. It didn’t even have a name.”
I ducked under a low branch and kept on walking. Danny followed a few feet behind me.
“I ain’t lying,” he called out.
“Yeah,” I said. “OK.”
In the past week, there had been tension between Danny and me. Not that we were fighting, but that we had been witness to some bad news that neither of us yet had the courage to talk about. Come fall, I was going to a different school. A private school. It was called Benson Academy, and it was on the other side of the bridge. Their buses didn’t even come out here onto the island, and it was almost a thirty-minute drive to get there by car. It was my mom’s idea. She said she was trying to do what was best for me. She didn’t like Joyner Middle for a number of reasons. She would go to PTA meetings and when she came home she was always upset about something — the low-test averages, the overcrowded classrooms, the violence amongst students. Not that she ever did anything about it. That is, until she got back together with my dad, who had left her four years earlier for a younger woman who had since left him for a younger man. With my dad back, my mom said we had money again and that there wasn’t any reason why I shouldn’t get the education I deserved. So that spring, she signed me up for fall enrollment in the eighth grade, and she took me to the mall and we picked out the black chinos and powder blue button-ups that would soon constitute my school uniform. I had never worn a uniform before, and, looking at myself in the floor-length mirror of the Belk’s dressing room, I felt tacky and dumb, like a dog in a Christmas sweater.
Even though Danny and I hadn’t yet talked about my leaving, he already knew. My mom had told his mom, and his mom had told him, and my mom had told me all of this. There’s something about moms where they just can’t seem to keep their mouths shut sometimes. So, Danny and I, at this point, had continued for about two weeks in this dynamic wherein our conversations were bookended by awkward silences, provoked by the understanding that in about four months our friendship would face a challenge that not many friendships endured. This had made it particularly difficult to do anything together besides throw rocks at trees or sit indoors and trade off turns on the PlayStation.
“You know,” Danny said, “with a boat, we can ride out to the islands off shore. We could take girls there. Probably fuck them.”
“We aren’t gonna fuck anyone.”
“What are you, gay?”
“I ain’t gay. What I mean is that you don’t have a boat.”
“Why do you keep saying that?”
“Because you never have anything you say you have. I ain’t stupid.”
“Come down to the bridge, then. I’ll show you who’s stupid.”
“Do we have to do this now?”
“Sooner you see it, sooner you’ll believe me.”
“I’ve got to get to dinner.”
“Dinner ain’t for a couple hours, at least.”
I stopped in my tracks and Danny stumbled into my back. “I’m just tired,” I said. “Tomorrow. We’ll see the boat tomorrow.”
“God damn right we will.”
The rest of the walk home was quiet, except for the snapping of branches at our feet and the dashing of cars along the asphalt on the other side of the trees. When I got home, I crawled into bed and took a long nap, and when I woke up, the blue-green sky had rolled into a dense grey, and the April rain was falling hard.
I didn’t have lunch until three o’clock the next day. No later than eight-thirty that morning, my dad busted through my bedroom door, dragged me to the garage and placed a flashlight in my hand, where it stayed, fixed on the timing belt of the Dodge until well into the afternoon. We didn’t say much. If I got anything from my dad genetically, it was my hatred of small talk. And so the time that morning didn’t so much as pass as it did slowly crawl away from us like dying deer, the silence only briefly interrupted by my dad’s stubborn cough. Eventually his coughing turned to muttering, then to cursing, then to yelling, and then to the inevitable drinking. As I was leaving, he told me to come back in an hour, but we both knew that I wouldn’t, and that he didn’t want me to anyways.
I walked out the garage, across the yard, in the back door, through the kitchen, out the front, and down the street a mile to Bojangle’s, where I ordered enough food to last the rest of the weekend. Boxes of dark and white chicken, a couple of steak biscuits, fries, a few paper discs of mac and cheese, some orders of mashed potatoes and two sweet teas, all for just under twelve dollars. I took my bags and cups, made my way to a corner booth, and sat hunched over two biscuits like a starving rodent.
Besides me, there was only one other customer; a man, middle-aged. He was too narrow to be fat, and too soft to be fit. He wore a bathing suit, as well as a loose white t-shirt, partially darkened in wetness, and sandals on his hairy feet. A tourist. The first of the season. He had his back to me, so I watched him as I ate, the way you would watch a child work a math problem, knowing the answer but waiting impatiently as they struggle to solve it themselves. He ate slowly, and the smacking of his lips echoed throughout the empty dining room. Watching him, I felt a strange sense of irregularity that I couldn’t place, and it wasn’t until ten minutes had passed that I realized—he was only eating fries. No chicken, no biscuit, not even a tea. Quietly, I moved forward to the booth in front of me to get a better view. There must have been four or five orders of fries, collected into a pile along his plastic tray. With the dusting of Cajun seasoning to decorate it, it looked like a large, starchy mountain, crumbling piece-by-piece with each lazy pluck of his hand. He didn’t slow down, and he didn’t change his form, but continued to trace his arm along an invisible track between his food and his mouth, the mountain shrinking in steady time.
The voice came from behind me and turned around to see her.
“Must be hard to reach from all the way over there.” It was Georgia. She was alone and standing next to my booth, eyeing my food with that want that comes with waiting for an offer and expecting to receive it. I stood up and retreated to the booth, glancing over my shoulder to make sure the tourist hadn’t looked my way.
“You spying on me now?”
“If I wanted to watch a boy play video games and jack off I’d sit outside my brother’s window.”
Besides Danny, Georgia was my oldest friend. She had grown up in the neighborhood with us. Same schools, same grades. She played basketball with us and watched TV with us and road bikes with us to the pier to fish. About the only difference between her and us was that in public she had to use a separate bathroom, a fact that was easy enough to ignore until time and age gave Georgia a pair of tits. And the things that can’t be ignored are too often the things we don’t wanna talk about, so naturally we began to see less and less of Georgia. For about the past year we had only seen her at school, where she was always talking with some older boy, his arm stretched out against the locker next to hers while they laughed and giggled through their hushed conversation. Alone with her in the booth at Bojangle’s, I realized that this was probably the first time I’d really spoken to her in months.
“You hungry?” I asked.
Georgia opened one of the mac and cheeses and dug in with my plastic fork. “Where’s Danny?”
“I don’t know. I ain’t his dad.”
“That’s news to me.”
She smiled, and I tried to remain cool in my indifference. “I’m meeting him down under the bridge in a bit. He says he found a boat.”
“He didn’t find a boat.”
“I know, but he says he did. What can I do?”
Georgia pushed the mac and cheese aside and ransacked the bag for a piece of chicken. She gnawed the leg and spoke with heavy mouthfuls. “So, Benson Academy, huh?”
“How’d you know that?”
“Your mom told my mom. At the Food Lion. I overheard.”
“You heard right.”
“Apparently they got a swimming pool there. And they put new nets on the basketball hoops every season.”
“That’s what they say.”
She stopped eating and looked at me. I didn’t remember her eyes ever being so big.
“It’s gonna be all right,” she said. We sat there and didn’t speak, but stared, and I wondered if my eyes looked any different to her. After a moment, she returned to her chicken and looked down at the table. “It’s gonna be alright.”
I had met Danny under the bridge and now we’d been walking down the shore for 45 minutes, Danny assuring me every few hundred feet that the boat was just up ahead. I carried the Bojangle’s bag in one hand and one of the sweet teas in the other. Danny had offered to carry the second tea but he was sneaking generous sips all too often and I knew it would be gone soon enough. This time of year it didn’t get dark till about seven-thirty, but here in afternoon the clouds of the previous evening had not yet gone, still masking the sun and giving the sand along the inlet a morbid pale-yellow colour.
“Danny,” I called ahead of me. He didn’t respond, but increased his pace. “Danny.”
I stopped to pick up a rock and threw it at his legs. It wasn’t a big rock, but when it hit his calf it must have startled him because he nearly tripped over himself and he had to extend his arms out to gain balance. Confused, he searched around the ground until he spotted the rock, and then he turned to face me.
“Why are you throwing shit?”
“Where’s the boat, Danny?” I was surprised by the aggression in my own voice.
“It’s right around this bend.”
“What bend? The shore is straight for the next two miles.”
“Just shut up and follow me. It’s up here somewhere.” Danny turned and started back on without me.
“There ain’t no boat, Danny.”
I was thinking about my feet standing on top of all this sand, and how it seems like we should just slide right through, into the earth and out the other side. “And you weren’t born in New York City. You were born in Fayetteville.”
“And your brother works at the Food Lion, not for Microsoft.”
“I said shut up, God damnit.”
“And you never fucked that girl at summer camp. There probably never was a girl.”
“It ain’t real. None of it.”
“What do you know?”
“More than you. White trash piece of shit.”
Danny stopped this time on his own merit and began to slowly walk the twenty feet back to where I stood. He didn’t stop walking until I could feel the warm breath of his nose against my mouth. He stood in silent fury and waited.
“There ain’t no boat,” I said. “Never was.”
“Whatever you’ve got to say, come out and say it.”
“You’re a goddamn liar, Danny. I know it, everyone at school knows it, the teachers know it, your mom knows it, and I bet your dad would know it too if he ever cared enough to stick around for more than a month.”
I don’t know if Danny was gonna punch me that day for what I said. I certainly deserved it, and I often wonder what would’ve happened if he did — if it would’ve hurt; if I would’ve seen it coming and fought back; if the force would’ve knocked me down into the sand and if Danny would’ve helped me up or let me lay there on my ass and feel the pain as it came; if the punch would have been more than just a few words and a make believe boat, if in the knuckles that he dragged across my face Danny would’ve channeled years of anger — at long days and short nights and at the unstoppable passing of time and the tendency of perfectly good things to change without your consent or knowledge.
But Danny didn’t punch me that day. Because as we stood there, face to angry face, we heard a screaming from the nearby woods, and it was without thought or hesitation that we took off side by side into the brush.
We had run about 50 or 60 yards when we approached what looked to me like two people hugging. Danny, a few steps ahead of me, ducked behind a tree and extended a stubby arm to stop me as well. He grabbed my shirt collar and pulled me into cover.
“She’s with Jason Trimmings,” Danny whispered. “He’s a high schooler.”
I was too worn out, and admittedly a bit too scared, to follow what Danny was saying. “What? Who is?”
But before he could answer, the pulsing of my heartbeat subsided in my ears, and in its place flooded the desperate whimpers and cries of struggle. Only this time I heard them with a sense of unsettling familiarity, the way you might hear a song which brings to you a series of bad memories that irritate that back of your mind, like the explosion of two reacting chemicals into a vicious, consuming gas.
“Georgia!” I said, suddenly.
Danny shushed me. “Be quiet.”
“What do we do?”
Danny was on one knee, staring silently at Jason Trimmings.
“Danny,” I whispered. “Do you have a plan?”
Danny turned to me, looking confused as to why I had even asked. He smiled and looked forward again. “No.”
And with one fluid motion he was up and off, bounding forward in the wild motions of a teenage apache, whooping and yelling like the beautiful idiot he was. Before I knew it, I was running too, with the numbness of thought and body that makes it feel like you’re swimming in a great big clear ocean. We charged twenty yards and Danny plunged directly into a full-force tackle, bringing Jason into a pile on the ground, onto which I dove, and we flailed our firsts, chaotic and ape-shit, with more intensity I think than all the barroom brawlers and misfits that had ever walked the streets of Joyner Island.
This lasted briefly. It wasn’t long before the elements of surprise and confusion inevitably wore off, and Jason, six-inches and forty pounds our senior at least, grabbed us each by the throat and flipped us swiftly onto our backs. He set one knee on top of each our sternums and swung with both hands, in perfect time like a human metronome. Each connection rang with a deep, powerful slap, but it wasn’t until he had knocked me three or four times that I realized that I could hardly feel a thing. I wasn’t in pain. I wasn’t wincing, or crying. In fact, I was laughing. And when I managed to look over at Danny, I saw he was laughing too, a trail of blood running down his cheek, and the two of us laid there with smiles on our faces while we got the worst beatings of our lives.
At some point, Jason’s thundering punches lost their tempo, I became aware of Georgia standing over my head, trying and failing to stop Jason, or at least his fists. It wasn’t until Jason grabbed Georgia by the back of her hair and shoved her into the dirt that he let us loose, standing up slowly and dusting off the knees of his jeans.
“Y’all stay down there until I’m out of sight.”
We didn’t respond, but Jason left anyways, and when his footsteps dissolved into the distance, there was no sound left except for the heavy shaking of our collective breathing. I’m not sure how long we stayed down there, but when Danny helped me up, the afternoon was waning, and the thick humidity of the air had cooled. Georgia still laid on her stomach, and when we picked her up she had only one thing on her mind.
“I’m hungry,” she said. “I’m so hungry.”
We walked together through the woods and back toward the inlet, where we found a log and sat and watched the sun spread across the sound. Georgia was between us and at her feet sat the bag of Bojangle’s, from which we ate with the hunger of those celebrating an inconceivable victory.
We stayed until the sun disappeared, and the blue of dusk blurred the lines between sky, tide, and sand. For all we ate, there were still generous portions of food left, and Danny had thrown the scraps back into the bag and extended a hand to offer it to me.
“Tomorrow’s lunch,” he said.
Danny and Georgia began to walk on, but as I held the bag, I stood still and thought.
“Wait,” I called.
They looked back and watched as I kneeled by the log and began to fish items from the bag. I assembled the food like a banquet along the length of the log, short only a gravy boat and some nice candles.
“For the animals,” I said. “They’d like that.”
And then we walked home, side-by-side, along the shoreline, bleeding silently into the sand.