“Now?” she says.
“It appears so. It’s CT,” I say.
“Go back to sleep.”
I am in bed, the one I grew up in. I’m holding the screen in front of my face. Holy shit your in town!!! Come play night golf! Gus n I out here. “I should see him.”
My wife of two years moans. “Maybe you should.” She sits up. “I guess you probably should. He needs you.” She thinks I’m harmless.
I haven’t seen or talked to CT (Chris Thomas to everyone else; CT to me) in six months. When interest in Flint’s death waned we gave ourselves distance, which wasn’t difficult as I’d moved halfway across the country for a too-good-to-resist accounting job. How’d Flint die? CT, Flint, and I took Flint’s parents’ boat into the Pacific for a long summer weekend. Six had committed to join, including Gus, but three had bailed. If we had a fourth it would have turned out differently. Three days later Flint was floating lifeless in the big careless ocean. I know what happened. CT is still grasping for understanding. I don’t need to have seen CT in six months to know that. Samantha has something to do with it. She dated CT first. Then she dated Flint. Now she’s about to marry Gus. A team player. CT doesn’t care about who’s dating whom. Not much. Though I try not to, I do. Care. I like Samantha a lot. I more than like CT. I don’t like everybody.
I park my mom’s old Subaru at Rolling Hills and shortcut through a swath of trees between holes. I feel my way in and see flickers of light on the other side. The flickers increase as I stumble along the dirt and pine needle floor, hands out swatting limbs. CT’s chirpy laughter reaches me. I stop behind the last layer of pine branches.
CT and Gus walk along the path that leads to the fifth hole. The mild light shows me their long, hunched frames. They are upright overgrown mustelids; CT a wolverine: girthy and tall; Gus a weasel: long-necked, narrow. Glow rings hang on their scruffs like collars, but they don’t look domesticated.
I wait to see if I can catch private chatter. They aren’t talking. They are familiar with each other, like everything’s been said, waiting for action to necessitate speech. But everything hasn’t been said.
I emerge from my jungle and run at their backs. The night is peaceful and they hear me before I open my mouth. They each flash unprepared-and-expecting-the-worst expressions. Gus dodges out of the way. CT jumps back and trips over his golf bag.
CT is sprawled out. He rests his head on the grass. I can’t see his smile in the dark. I see it in my head. “Hey, fucker,” he says.
Gus and I handshake and half hug. CT kicks up onto his feet like a break dancer and then lifts me off the ground. He smells familiar, like fresh-out-of-the-dryer clothes and Tennessee whiskey. When he’s hoisting you off the ground or otherwise manhandling you in his jock-playful way, he feels gigantic, but he’s just big: small forward, inside linebacker big. He releases me when my shoes hang a foot from the grass.
“Too cute,” Gus says and swings a club at a ball. “You bitches can catch up with me.” He disappears down a hill.
CT moves me backward, his hands on my shoulders. He looks me up and down, his teeth glowing behind his smile. “Why not let your best friend know you’re going to be in town?” he says.
“Only here for the weekend,” I say, “and you know my mom’s sick.” My hands are at my side. I let him do the jostling.
“The weekend. You’re here for the weekend and you don’t let me know.” He shakes me and his grin takes on a maniacal quality, the way the glow light plays with his features.
“Thanks for sending her flowers.”
He removes Jack Daniels and a driver from his golf bag. “And chocolates. Like Valentine’s Day,” he says.
“It meant a lot to her. And to me,” I say.
“That wench practically raised me. I owe her my life.” He laughs, head back, drunken, but when his head comes forward, he’s sober and says, “Wish I could do more.”
“She read me your sorry-you-have-cancer note.”
“Bitch! Did she read the part where I told her not to read it to you?” He plugs a tee into the grass and places a red-glowing ball on it with his left hand in one movement, then pulls his hands together on the rubber grip and taps the head of the club behind the ball.
“That and every other word your pansy ass wrote,” I say. “You know, there’s this thing called spell-check.”
“Nancy. My favorite MILF.” He squeezes my shoulder and turns away so I won’t see the emotion building. But I see it.
The silver shaft gleams as it moves back in a controlled sweep, then springs forward. No hesitation. The ball is easy to follow, a flying Christmas light. CT glances back at me before the ball touches down. It lands a couple hundred yards away between the strip of glow lights that line the fairway.
I walk behind CT and Gus, carrying CT’s clubs, stealing sips of whiskey as payment. I advise CT like a condescending caddie who would be the one playing if it wasn’t for his damn elbow, who, when the player hits a poor shot, says, “I said nine iron, didn’t I?” which I say to CT now in my faux-deep authoritative voice. CT shakes his head and grins the way he did in high school. And I’m glad I came. I’m thinking I might talk to him, tell him I don’t sleep much and when I do, what I dream about.
CT has an effortless swing. His expression becomes focused the moment before he sidles up to the ball and for the moment after he swings and has watched it lift. Seeing him tense up in an athletic stance takes me back. Playing a sport with him or watching him as a spectator, I felt safe and proud to have known him since elementary school, to have seen his colored pencil drawings, to have secured his animalistic loyalty. He seemed in control, like he would come out all right.
Gus finishes the seventh hole before CT. He’s near the path, leaning against a signpost, thumb-tapping away at his phone. “Hey, you want to play the last two holes? For the greater good,” he says to me.
The greater good? A sacrifice for the greater good. “I wasn’t planning on it. No shoes or anything.” I lift a tennis shoe toward him.
Gus raises his face from his phone. “Shoes? Really?” He looks at me the way a self-important starter looks at his bench-warmer backup, which he was and I was. “I’ve got a girl to see,” he says, bobbing the phone with a twitch of his wrist and chuckling. “I’m on the clock.”
I walk up next to him as a crooked smile forms, like we’re in on something together. “Sure,” he says, “as far as it’s anyone’s business. I know you won’t say anything.”
I want to get away, but I can tell he’s not done. “Aren’t you and Samantha married now?” I say.
“Engaged, and not in a rush. You’ll get your invitation when we’re ready.” He watches CT line up a ten-foot putt. CT is a bulky shadow behind the bright ball and the ring around his neck. “Speaking of divulging shit,” Gus says, “you should just tell me what happened on the boat. It’s all over. I wouldn’t—”
“Chris felt guilty right after.” Gus straightens up and takes a step toward me. His eyes are fierce. “Not survivor’s guilt. Something more. I’ve known him since sixth grade. I know him. What went down?” His gaze calms and he retreats a pace. “I let it blow over. I never said anything. But now I want to know.”
I feel the first stage of the old tightening in my chest. I try to take a deep breath, but something’s in the way and I cough. I look toward CT for relief. He saunters up, whiskey bottle swinging, maybe having heard the end of the conversation. He says, “I can’t make me a putt like I used to,” and brings the bottle to his lips, then holds it out between Gus and me. I take the bottle. Gus tips his golf bag toward me. I catch it. He says, “You gonna be at the house later?”
“I think so,” I say.
“Good,” Gus says and takes long-legged steps away from us.
On the last two holes, CT and I walk together until we are forced to separate by the varying successes of our drives. When one of us reaches the green, the other waits until the lit-up globe bounces nearby.
On the ninth hole on the apron just off the green, I take a sizable hit of whiskey, let the burn pass, and say, “Have you told anyone?”
Like a catcher, CT positions himself behind his ball, two feet from the green. His head shifts to face me and the glow-ring around his neck shows the shaded creases of a frown.
“About what?” he says.
“What else?” I tap my putter on the grass.
“I’m a suppresser. Have you?” he says.
I run my hand against the grain of my buzzed head. “Are you dissimulating? Yes or no?”
“I just answered the question. Putter or wedge?”
“Wedge, because I really think putter but you’ll do the opposite.”
“Well, now you’ve put me in a dilemma.”
“I’ve smoothed the field.”
He is ready to putt but he stops. “Why don’t you just say, ‘evened the playing field’? It’s the same thing. Just one is straightforward and the other is snobby.”
“Of course no. It’s an insult you asked.” He pokes the putter back into his bag and takes out the wedge. “Forget it. Please.”
Without prepping, he hits the ball within a foot of the illuminated pin. And I love him again.
We stop walking when we reach a midpoint between our cars. The parking lot is empty and only three of the towering lights are on. Half of CT’s face is shadow. His hands are tucked into his khaki pockets, thumbs fidgeting in the open air. “Come over. There’s a party,” he says. “Of course there is.”
“It’s Friday night.”
“It could be Monday night.”
“But it’s not. It’s Friday. I always left you alone Mondays so you would hang out Friday.”
“It’s technically Saturday.”
“You’re technically a fucking nerd. But I forgive you.”
I try to study his face, but it’s dark. “You do?”
He chuckles and pushes me toward my car.
CT’s latest rental house is ten minutes out of the city, off a gravel road, where neighbors don’t hear his parties. It must have taken a dozen po-po visits for CT to start renting big houses on the outskirts.
I enter the front door without knocking. Though I’ve never been to this one, it is familiar. Old hardwood floors, a mismatched assortment of brightly colored, stained couches and love seats, posters everywhere, many of them having traveled to each of CT’s post-high school homes, creases, tack holes, and curling corners betraying their ages—it is depressing and nostalgic and invigorating, invigorating because CT is behind it all, and within it.
I greet old friends in the foyer, then stop in the kitchen and pour Maker’s Mark into a glass with large ice cubes. I see Samantha at the poker table in the adjacent room. The green felt is littered with poker chips. A stockpile of empty beer and liquor bottles has been pushed to the far end of the oval table. I sit next to Samantha. I wrap an arm around her. She is warmth. She leans her head on my shoulder. She’s a part of the best memories. She asks about my mom, then about Gus. “So night golf isn’t a lie?”
Before I can answer, Gus pushes through the door and swings a leg over the bench on the other side of Samantha. On the table he places a glass vase full of ice, the neck of a Corona bomber sticking above the rim, and sandwich makings, including an unopened jar of pickles. He steps back into the kitchen and returns with a stack of plates, a bottle of Jose Cuervo, and more bombers. He slams the head of a bottle against the corner of the table with his palm. The cap bumps across the floor. He slides the large beer to me, takes a swig of tequila, scowls, then pushes the bottle to me.
The jar of pickles sits on the table. The pickles are wedge-shaped, upright, cramped. I feel a stabbing desire to pop the seal. I press my hand against the lid to test the surface. The slight moisture on my hand creates a grip. I press harder and twist. The seal resists and pops.
Gus shuffles a deck of cards and Samantha gets up to talk to a friend in the kitchen. He grabs a stack of poker chips, splits it in half, presses the two stacks together to ensure equality, and slides one to me. We’ve done this before. He flicks us each two cards, sets the deck down, and says, “You know Chris has stopped working?”
“He works at Chesterton’s.”
“That’s what he tells people. And he fills in from time to time, but he’s been going downhill.”
“He’s resilient. He’ll be fine.”
Gus ducks his head toward me and lowers his voice: “You should tell me, as a friend, what really happened at the coast. That’s when his life turned,” he says.
“Your friend dies. And you’re with him when it happens. There’s going to be an adjustment period.”
Gus folds his cards into the pot. He looks up at me, holds a hand over the inside of his elbow, presses his thumb down and makes a “pfffffff ” sound until his thumb reaches his fingers, as if operating a syringe. His eyes and smile widen, like he’s helping me make a profitable discovery.
“That’s ridiculous,” I say and and shuffle the cards. “Don’t start rumors.”
“If you’re going into denial mode, I get it. I think I get it—but what happened? The mysterious day, enlighten me,” he says.
“Google it,” I say.
He googles it. Reads from his phone: “‘Former Westerly High School standout athlete drowns off Coast.’ Blah blah, blah. ‘The three friends took Flint’s parents’ 30-foot flybridge cruiser for a bros-bash mini-vacation.’ Ha ha, that’s good. Blah blah. ‘The two survivors claim they had all been drinking and the survivors had fallen asleep and the victim was gone when they woke up. They phoned the coastguard and their friend’s body was found five hours later.” Blah blah blah. “The medical examiner has called it an accidental drowning and no charges have been filed.’ Blah blah. You know what? That’s all I know. Chris is my best friend. Flint was a close friend. And that’s all I know.”
“All there is to know.”
“You guys are sticking to your story. And good for you. But I’m your loyal friend.” He is staring at the table, tapping a black chip. “Flint was, yes, a dick, but also my friend.”
I watch him, wait for him to look me in the eyes, but he doesn’t.
I get up to search for CT. I pass the doorway to the stairs that leads to the basement and hear the “Yellow Ledbetter” guitar solo drifting up from below. I pause, listening, then I bound down creaking, naked wood steps. The room is murky, smells of mildew, ten degrees cooler than the main floor. A thin carpet has been rolled over concrete. Couches and chairs are assembled around a coffee table. Filling a piece of the gap in the circle, guitar-laden Heather Stein, a high school legend and now an amateur who is too good for the small gigs she plays but is rumored to lack ambition, is picking and singing with her eyes closed. Though I haven’t seen her in five years, social media fills me in on her anticipated underachievement.
CT is on a couch lengthwise, facing Heather, knees up, feet on the mustard upholstery, fingers orchestrating back and forth arcs. His eyes are closed when I sit next to his feet. My weight shifts him but his movements continue. When the song ends he sits up and drops a heavy arm over my shoulders.
Heather sees me and smiles. Then she sings one of her originals, “Games in the Dark,” about life as a series of falls from one hole to the next, about not knowing what you’re falling into until you’ve begun your descent.
Heather has gained a little weight but is still slender. I watch her jaw work delicately. She wears this sublime expression when she finishes a verse, and then it fades while her fingers pull the strings. Heather is set apart. She was always above us. She became an asexual work of art to CT and me, a revered big sister whose every sentence was a proverb to internalize.
Heather plays one more song, then sets her guitar down and approaches us with her arms out. She looks at me first. People usually start with CT. People expect the action from him, but they don’t know everything. Heather seems to know everything. I give her a longtime-no-see hug and CT gives her a familiar one and raves about her music, drink-less hand around her upper back, drink-hand bobbing exclamations.
She says, “The boys back together,” and other words. She addresses us with an air of sympathy, the way one talks to a recently diagnosed leukemia patient, wanting to treat him normal, help him escape dreadful victimization, but also trying to maintain the necessary gravity.
CT and I climb stairs to refill drinks. We sit at the kitchen table and chat with the late-nighters who filter through. CT is in and out and hasn’t touched his drink since we came upstairs. I have touched a lot of drink since Gus put Cuervo in front of me. A timeless period, probably less than an hour in hindsight, elapses that feels like a repeat. It is drunkenness seeping in while surrounded by cards and familiar faces. The next brief phase of the night is blank. I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but here I am sitting on a rickety wooden bench on the small back porch, feeling relief in the cool air.
Heather pokes her head out. “I was hoping you were still here,” she says. She sits down on an all-weather plastic chair across from me. The roof overhang conceals the moon. A cobwebby coverless lightbulb hangs catawampus next to the door, but I don’t search for the switch to turn it on.
“Why were you looking for me?”
“I wanted you to know that when I heard you and Chris weren’t in trouble,” she says, “I was glad Flint died.”
The buzz of cicadas charges the air. An empowering lightness inflates me.
“That’s terrible,” I say, but my tone is weak.
“This is just for you. I thought maybe it would help.”
She leans back into her chair and it squeaks, like it can’t handle the weight.
“I believe in bad people,” she says.
I rub my forehead and then my temples. “People can change.”
“We usually don’t.”
“We’re complex. There’s a lot of gray between good and bad.”
She sits up. The chair moans. “Complex and bad aren’t mutually exclusive,” she says. “Chris needs you.”
I lean toward her, try to make out her face. But it is all shadow: a small nose, lips slightly darker than the skin that surrounds them, and recesses below eyebrows, no light to show me her eyes.
“Maybe I needed to hear that,” I say.
We hug and go our separate ways.
I wander. Time drips along and then I’m upstairs with CT and Gus in the Sport Room, which consists of a large TV with three video game consoles and a smattering of controllers, a poker table with mismatched chairs, a couch and bean bag chair in front of the TV, a putting green, two small windows that serve as mirrors against the night, and memorabilia from CT’s childhood.
Gus slinks into a cracked leather chair. His arms dangle over the edges, the down-to-the-dregs bottle of Cuervo in one hand. I’m standing on the putting green holding a putter, facing Gus. Gus has been betting against my putts. I’m up fifteen bucks. CT has been in the bathroom for over thirty minutes.
The toilet flushes, water runs, CT emerges.
“Well, shit,” Gus says. “Look at the junkie smile. Everybody loves a happy junkie.”
CT forearm-nudges Gus as he passes him, the left side of his open mouth contorting for a carefree, Gus-you-hilarious-bastard smile. But it is forced. CT’s cheeks are flushed and he’s a beat slow. I wonder when he last slept.
Before CT drops onto the bean bag chair, Gus says, with a built-up release like this comment has been awaiting CT’s return: “People don’t just drown, Chris. Insanely athletic guys don’t just drown.”
CT’s smile vanishes. “Fuck off, Gus.”
Gus breathes heavy. “I just want to know. To be a friend.”
CT settles into the bean bag. The fixity of CT’s gaze on the wall behind Gus, his unwillingness to make eye contact, it seems to peel a layer off Gus, to draw out a primal boldness. “You killed him, didn’t you, Chris? It was an accident, a moment of rage? What?” Gus says.
Gus stands and picks up the second putter, steps closer to the bean bag, nods his head over CT. “Because he fucked Samantha? You never got over her. I get it…” Gus waves his hands as if to a crowd after a mesmerizing speech, except that his eyes are veiny and bulging, and no crowd. “I need to know.”
I cross my arms to hold the thing in, my hand squeezing the rubber grip of the putter. If the levy can hold out a few minutes the flood will abate. But I hear Heather in my head talking about bad people. I see CT holding Samantha in the past. I see CT on the ground in the present and my mom dead in the future. Sacrifices for the greater good.
Gus grinds his teeth, turns to me, says, “You’re both here,” clipped, his lips hardly moving. “One of you tell me.” He motions the putter toward CT but keeps his eyes on me. “You leave town, he falls off. Big surprise. You propped him up.”
“Enough,” I say and step toward Gus.
Gus turns back to CT. The soles of CT’s shoes point toward Gus from the bean bag. Gus taps them with his putter.
Gus faces me. “Stop trying to help,” he says. “You’re not…”
I look at Chris on the bean bag near the floor. “Helping,” I say. Chris is looking at the ceiling now. His eyelids flutter. A coldness lurches between the lower sections of my ribs.
“Why Chris?” I say to Gus. “Why not me?”
Gus stares at me like he’s never seen me before.
“And why does it have to be about a girl?” I say.
Gus drops the putter and brings his hands together against his forehead, bows and shakes his head. “You?” he says.
I watch Chris. He’s losing focus. He’s on his back on the bean bag. All four of his limbs are touching the floor. Above Chris’s head a colored-pencil drawing from third grade hangs on the wall. Two boys stand next to each other on grass in front of a purple sky and an orange-red sun. One of the boys is taller and his weight shifts toward the other boy so that he’s leaning over him. The arc of the taller boy’s smile curves more and is longer than the shorter boy’s smile, which is almost a straight line. I always liked the way their stick-finger hands are touching, that it could appear incidental due to proximity or they could be holding hands.
My grip on the golf club loosens. “I wasn’t helping,” I say, and I’m not sure if it’s a question or a statement.
Gus studies me as I study the drawing.
The doorknob rattles. Gus and I turn as Heather appears in the doorway. The light shines on her and I see crow’s feet I hadn’t noticed in the dark. She smiles, says, “Just wanted to make sure y’all were okay.” She looks at each of us a moment, CT the longest, then backs out of the room.
Joel Clay lives in Kansas City, where he is an entrepreneur by day and writer by early morning. He is a 2019 graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha MFA program, and his fiction has appeared in Boston Accent Lit. He is currently finishing his first novel.