Seventeen
Ken Cormier

Winter parking lot in the dark behind the Pizza Palace, and I'm kissing Tracy and she's kissing me. I'm running my hand up the inside of her sweater and she's got her hand down the front of my pants. I look out over her shoulder at a street lamp. She presses her head into my chest. After a few seconds it's over and I catch my breath. She smiles up at the sky. It starts to snow and we say a couple of things and then get into our cars and go home—no good-night kiss—and the wipers won't work because they're frozen to the windshield. Two days later I get a thank-you note from her in the mail.

The cat gets out and he's supposed to stay inside, so I put on my coat and chase him across the back yard to the spot behind the garage where he goes every time. I don't see the cat, but I find the paddle ball that I got for Easter and the rubber band is still attached so I bring it into the kitchen and start bouncing it, bouncing it. My mom comes in and tells me how good I've always been at paddle ball, and I keep bouncing it, and now I'm doing more bounces in a row than I've ever done, and I wonder if maybe I can get a job someday doing paddle ball. I remember an old 3-D move I saw when I was a kid where a character in a straw hat is doing paddle ball right into the screen. I try to imagine how much a guy gets paid for doing a scene like that, but then the rubber band snaps and I hear my cat meowing at the back door to come inside.

I'm sitting with Rory at 2am in the back seat of my car in the empty parking lot of the oral surgeon's office. Rory's lighting a pile of stems and seeds on a dented soda can and he passes it to me and I inhale as deeply as I can, but it doesn't matter because I'm already stoned. We talk about the oral surgeon and how we heard he keeps a stash of nitrous oxide for his personal use in a filing cabinet somewhere, but maybe we didn't really hear that, or maybe we made it up. Rory laughs so hard he starts puking in his mouth. I push him out the door because I don't want him to mess up my car, because really it's my mom's car. It's freezing cold so I shut the door and slump back into the seat and fall asleep. When I wake up Rory's gone so I drive home.

It's getting dark and we're walking past the pond and up the path to the Bomb Shelter. I'm walking faster than I should, and Tracy is trying to keep up. I keep talking loudly, and finally we get there and I push through the hole in the fence and help her through, and she says, Why is there a fence in the middle of the woods? I tell her to stand back for a minute while I wrestle with the heavy lid. When I start climbing down the rusty metal ladder into the darkness she starts to have second thoughts, but I tell her it's OK. I get down to the bottom, about twenty feet underground, and my voice starts to echo. Finally Tracy comes down the ladder, and she keeps saying she's scared, and when she reaches the bottom we stand there in the darkness and listen to ourselves breathing. Every time we move our feet or let out a little laugh it echoes all around us, and her dark hair glows a little from the orange light filtering down from the opening. She's doing this open-mouthed smile she does sometimes when she's excited, and she asks me what this place is, and I say, The Bomb Shelter! really loudly so the echo drowns out everything else. Then I pick up a stick that I see near my feet and throw it as hard as I can and it bounces somewhere in the darkness and makes a huge racket. I scream and the whole place shrieks, and she grabs my jacket and I can feel she's shaking so I pull her close to me and we start kissing. Our breathing echoes all around us, and it gets louder as I run my hands over her chest and then down the front of her jeans, but she pulls my hand up. I keep kissing her, and then I try to move her hand down to the front of my pants, but she pulls back and says, What about Cat? Suddenly the whole thing just stops, except for her words, which echo all around me like some kind of bad dream, or a bad TV drama—What about CAT, Cat, cat cat?—and everything drains out of me in a second, and I start feeling like an asshole for bringing her here. Then she asks if I think we should leave. I help her onto the ladder and climb up after her. When we get up into the night air it feels colder than before. We walk down the path and I think of a million ways to say I'm sorry, but instead I just keep biting the inside of my mouth.

I tell my parents that I'm sleeping over at JW's (which I always do), and JW tells his mom that he's sleeping at my house (which he never does). We meet up with Timmy, who said we could use his car, at 11pm in the mall parking lot. I get behind the wheel and we make the two-hour drive into Brooklyn. We wake up my art-school brother at 1am, and his eyes are all bloodshot and he's totally out of it, and we make him get up and buy beer for us, and we all walk out to the East River and drink out of paper bags and make noises on the docks and pretend to be rock stars making music videos, smashing bottles in concrete corners. When the sun starts to come up we get back into Timmy's car and I drive us home, and when JW falls asleep in the back seat Timmy tells me in a whisper that he thinks he's probably gay, and I say, That's cool. You know my brother's gay, right? and Timmy doesn't say anything, and then he looks like he's going to cry, so I say, It's alright, you're probably just drunk.

I'm in the car on top of Willis Hill and it's quiet and I can see my town, the whole thing, from left to right, and my street is somewhere near the middle winding up toward Newtown where Cat lives. The trees are all bare and brown, except for bunches of pine trees, and there's no snow on the ground but it's cold. The car's been shut off for twenty minutes and I can see my breath, and usually it's peaceful to be alone and look at everything from up here, but this time it makes me shake, little tremors in my neck and my arms. At first I think it's just the cold, but then I can really feel it in my brain, in my thoughts, and I start to think about everyone I know, and everyone I don't know, moving around down there, moving in patterns, bouncing from here to there to there, and they're all convinced that they're doing what they want to do, making choices about doing this or that, but it suddenly seems to me that they're just moving in patterns, like insects, like machines, and I'm up here watching it. Then I picture Cat in her room at home, and she's probably doing something interesting like reading or singing or painting, but all I can think is that she's an insect, or a machine part, just moving along the line with everyone else, and her mom's an insect, and her dad, and my mom's an insect, too. I rub my eyes, and my nose is running, and then I'm lying across the front seat crying so hard I can hardly catch my breath, but after a few minutes it stops. I start the car and steer back down the steep hill into town, and I'm driving really slowly. I want to see Cat and tell her how hard I cried and see if she wants to talk about the insect thing, but I know she won't talk to me. I start to go even slower because now it seems to me that the only way to ease back into all those patterns is with one foot on the brake.

JW is telling me about a dirt cellar he found underneath his regular cellar at home, and he says his mom didn't even know about it, and he's all excited and telling me to hurry up as we walk up the hill to his street. He says I won't believe what he did down there, and he's practically hopping up and down. When we get there his mom's boyfriend, Doc, is standing on the sidewalk with two of his work buddies, and they're passing a bottle of vodka around and smoking cigarettes. Doc looks at JW and says, Your mother wants to know where you been. I follow JW into the front door and down the cellar stairs and to the corner of the cellar where he lifts up a big piece of plywood and crouches down into a hole. I follow him down a couple of really steep, long steps and then it opens up into a small room with a ceiling high enough to stand in, and it's dark. JW is feeling around the floor with his hands, and then he says, Watch this, and he plugs something into an extension cord and the room lights up with strings of green and blue and orange Christmas lights. There's a plywood desk with a folding chair and a thrift-store lamp and all of his paper and pencils neatly arranged, and the walls are plastered with his drawings—all kinds of portraits (there's one of me and Rory), outdoor scenes, industrial looking stuff, crazy superheroes he's invented—and when JW says, What do you think? I don't say anything because it all just seems too beautiful for words, because all I can think of is JW working down here, creating this whole underground world while up there Doc and his buddies pass their bottle around. When JW asks me again I realize that I've been holding my breath, so I finally let it out and say, Holy fuck!

I'm on the roof outside my bedroom window reading a Hardy Boys book, which I haven't done since I was twelve, but I have the whole set on my shelves still, and I picked What Happened at Midnight, which was always my favorite because I love the trench coats they're wearing on the cover and because they go to New York City and their wallets get stolen so they have to sleep in Central Park. The first time I read that I thought, Yes! I want to sleep in Central Park, and I still want to. I'm a few pages into it, but it's not as good as I remember, and then my mom sticks her head through the window and asks what I'm doing and she laughs when I hold up the book. But then her voice becomes serious and she tells me my art school brother is in some trouble and he's going to have to come home because it turns out he's failed all of his classes for two semesters in a row, though this is the first she's heard of it. What's worse is that he went crazy one night and smashed up a bunch of stuff in his apartment and almost jumped out of his window, which is six stories up, and his roommates had to pin him down on the floor and call an ambulance because they couldn't get him to calm down. As she's telling me all this she's got tears streaming down her cheeks but her voice is completely steady, and I've never seen anyone cry this way before, no gasps or chest heaves or nose blowing, just two streams of silent tears. All I can do is shake my head and look down, and when she's done she tells me I'm a good boy and she apologizes for all of this trouble and says she'll leave me to my reading. When she's gone I look at the cover of the book and I think about the Hardy Boys spending their scary night in New York, and I wonder if my brother ever slept in Central Park.

JW is dragging me to a party at Tracy's house and he's telling me to relax and stop obsessing about Rory, who just got kicked out of his house after his uncle found him drunk in his room. Rory was so out of it that he got angry and put his uncle in a headlock. His aunt practically had a coronary because she's nervous anyway, and once Rory's uncle got free from the headlock he said, That's it. You're going back to your mother's. And he drove him all the way back to Lowell, where Rory's mom is living with her loser boyfriend. According to Rory, he and his uncle didn't speak one word the whole way. When Rory told me about it on the phone he was kind of laughing, and I didn't know what to say. Now Rory is doing god knows what up there in Lowell, but JW just keeps saying, Come on, come on, let's just have fun at this party. We get there and it's dark in the basement, and someone's playing the Frankie Goes to Hollywood album, and I find a plastic bottle of gin on a table in the corner and I drink it fast. Pretty soon I'm speaking loudly about some bullshit, like I know everything about everything, and I see Tracy rolling her eyes. Then JW is making out with her on the couch, and I'm talking to Jen's little sister, who's a freshman now, and a while ago I heard she gave Timmy a handjob, even though he's gay. I ask her if she wants to go outside, and I lead her over to a tree in the back yard. We start kissing, but she won't let me do anything else, and after a few minutes I just give up, and the yard is starting to spin. I think the best way to get my balance back is to run really fast in one direction, but that doesn't go well and I trip and fall on top of Billy and his girlfriend, who are lying on the grass. I get up and say, Hey Billy! What's up? because Billy and I used to be good friends. I say he's a lucky guy to be banging his girlfriend in the grass, even though I never say things like "banging your girlfriend." When Billy punches me in the chest I land hard on the ground. I can't catch my breath, so I just lie there for a while and wait for it to come back, and the whole time I'm looking at the stars, and they're not spinning so much as kind of twitching and rearranging themselves every couple of seconds. I finally get on all fours and crawl out to the front yard and sit on a curb and look up at a streetlight for a long time until JW finds me and we walk back to his place. I try to tell him what happened but I'm slurring and laughing too much for him to understand me. When we get to his place I insist on sleeping in the sub-basement. He tells me I'm crazy, but I will not be stopped and so he gives up and I manage to feel my way down there. When I lie down on the dirt floor in the absolute dark I get a tingling feeling in my stomach and at the base of my spine, and it spreads out like glitter over my legs and arms and my face. It's a feeling that I can almost see in the blackness. I smile and dig my fingers into the dirt a little and think, even though shit gets so bad sometimes, the world is still a fucking miracle.

I'm looking at JW and his hair is bright orange, and I can't believe he did it, and I ask, Like, what did you use? He says he bought some hair color stuff at the drug store—the one where I got caught stealing cigarettes last year—and he just followed the directions in his bathroom at home. I say, Holy shit! and he says, Man, can you believe this color is for old ladies? I tell him I want to walk on the abandoned highways, so we drive up there and park near the playground. We cut through the swamp and hop the chain-link fence and walk up the entrance ramp, all cracked and overgrown with weeds and little trees, and we smoke some cigarettes and throw some rocks and eventually we get bored. Then JW remembers he's supposed to be working at the chicken place, so we run as fast as we can, hop the fence like we're in a cop show. I cut my arm on the fence, but we keep running until we reach the car, and I flash my bloody arm at some kids and moms on the playground and they wince and squeal. I drive JW to the chicken place, and when I drop him off I watch him run in, and I hope he doesn't get fired for being late because then he won't be able to give me free chicken anymore, and I love that chicken.

Today we're supposed to go to a counseling meeting for my brother. I'm lying on my bed waiting for my mom to tell me it's time to go, and I keep thinking about a day I spent at the beach last summer. It's low tide so I have to walk out past many sandbars to get into some deeper water. I float on my back, look up at the sky. My ears are underwater so all I can hear is my breathing and there are a couple of clouds passing over me and I start thinking about how high up they are and how they're made of water and how I'm floating in water on this huge planet. Then I can feel the whole planet moving, rotating, and all of a sudden it seems like I'm in some kind of ancient Greek situation and the sky is a pale blue cameo and one of the white clouds looks like the head of Poseidon or Achilles or something. It occurs to me that the breathing I can hear in my head is the same breathing that everyone hears, and always has heard, and I'm no different from anyone. Then a wave pushes me up and around and the water splashes my face and I find my footing and start to walk back over the sandbars to the shore. I can see that JW and Rory have given up trying to fly a kite and now they're just sitting on the sand smoking cigarettes and looking bored, and JW is fully clothed, black boots and all, because he hates the sun, and Rory is drumming on his thighs and staring at the sky. I start to wonder how we ever became friends, out of all the millions of people on the planet, and why we're here together at the beach at this particular moment, and I have to tense up my face to stop myself from crying. I know it's because I love them so much, but it starts to feel like I should be walking in the opposite direction, out there, into the sea, into the deep end.

Ken Cormier is the author of Balance Act (Insomniac Press) and The Tragedy in My Neighborhood (Dead Academics Press). His live, multi-media performances have been described as "a William Burroughs exorcism through a Karaoke machine." Ken also makes radio fiction and documentary pieces, many of which have aired on public-radio affiliates around the US and on the BBC. He teaches Creative Writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. www.kencormier.com