Authors: Brad Land
Table of Contents
Yes lady, that is what I said. Goat.
But listen: here is the point. The boys thought to have
Their fun and be done with it. It was harder work than they
Had imagined, this silly sacrifice, but they finished the job,
Whistling as they washed their large hands in the dark.
What they didn’t know was that the goat’s head was already
Singing behind them in the tree. What they didn’t know
Was that the goat’s head would go on singing, just for them,
Long after the ropes were down, and that they would learn to listen,
Pail after pail, stroke after patient stroke. They would
Wake in the night thinking they heard the wind in the trees
Or a night bird, but their hearts beating harder. There
Would be a whistle, a hum, a high murmur, and, at last, a song,
The low song a lost boy sings remembering his mother’s call.
Not a cruel song, no no, not cruel at all. This song
Is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.
THIS IS HOW IT GOES:
We’re getting floored at a beginning-of-the-semester party. Me, my younger brother Brett, these three people we came with. At this old fraternity house. Two stories with a big front porch and a backyard with a chain-link fence.
Brett’s on the porch standing next to me. People moving all over the place. Like cells. Everything pulsing. All sweat and smoke. The house is breathing.
These two girls come up. Just stand there looking us over. One of the girls looks at Brett like she loves him already. She’s short and has long hair pulled into a ponytail. Legs all muscled like a soccer player’s. She’s wearing a Zeppelin T-shirt with a hole beneath the neck cuff. The other girl’s standing beside her all bucktoothed and shaky. Got a tattoo on her left shoulder blade. Something swirled and tribal. Her arms crossed. I give her a smoke and she nods, cups one hand around the lighter I hold out and I can tell she’s drunk by the way her eyes wobble, the way she squints them against the porch lights. The other girl rubs the shaky one’s back, runs her hand down and pauses in the bare patch of skin between her jeans and top. The shaky girl looks her over and smiles. Brett tells them to kiss. They look at each other and laugh and then the shaky girl moves toward the other one, puts a hand around her waist and holds the cigarette out to the side. Her tongue’s out and inside the other’s mouth and they lock together, wet cheeks pulsing with the overhead light. The shaky one steps back and pulls on the smoke, exhales and looks at Brett. I’m staring at the two girls and the shaky girl asks if that was okay, and Brett says yeah that was cool, and I nod, say yeah good, and then Brett says do it again and they just laugh. The short girl says you don’t even know us and Brett says so and cocks back his beer. When he brings it down, she takes the beer from Brett and drinks. Hands it back. And now the shaky girl looks at me like she knows something about me with my skinny arms and black hair all matted from the hot air outside. Brett’s talking to the short girl and I don’t know what to say with this shaky one staring at me. The short one leans, whispers in her friend’s ear. They turn and walk away.
Brett tells me they want us to come over later.
I nod like it’s standard.
SCHOOL’S TWO DAYS away, and for both Brett and me, it’s the whole college-in-the-same-town-you-went-to-high-school-in thing. It’ll be my second year, Brett’s first, and right now I’m not too happy with this small liberal arts school because it’s backward and I went to high school with most everyone there, but for right now, just right now, it’s okay because my brother’s here.
I couldn’t hack school last year at another college because I was lonely and I failed most everything. I tell everyone it was from the drugs or the alcohol but the truth is I was just lonely and cried all the time and lived in an old house with lots of dust.
This is what they say:
Didn’t like it there man? That place is fucking cool, fucking badass town man, why’d you leave man, I mean why’d you come back here?
This is what I say:
Too much, just too much.
And then they say this:
Yeah man I understand that I mean that town does it to the best of them man, gets everybody all fucked up with all that shit they got there, there’s so much shit there man, you know I understand that shit really.
And Brett gave up a soccer scholarship upstate. He didn’t want to do the summer workout and couldn’t make up his mind about anything, and it’s lame to be here and we know it, but it’s cool and livable for a little while because just a few minutes ago Brett and I decided to leave here next semester. We got the idea a few days ago when we helped a friend move in at Clemson where everything’s huge and it’s where my grandfather went and where my dad went and after we decided Brett said fuck yeah and I said yeah fuck man.
Both of us.
So this party in August is the beginning of the end of our time here.
We leave after Christmas.
THIS PARTY IS just a party with people from all over the town, which is not really a college town even though we have a college. Brett and I aren’t in a fraternity but it doesn’t matter even though it’s a frat party because if there’s a party, any party, anyone who sees it, or knows about it, or hears about it comes, because the town’s small and there’s not much else to do.
The town’s named Florence and it’s this crumbling place in South Carolina with steel mills and railroad tracks. There’s a country club made up of all the old families and the new ones who have money. And even though Brett and I have lived here for three years we don’t come from here and our dad’s a preacher but he’s strange (not like hellfire crazy strange, or standing on a sidewalk holding a Bible up in the air strange, but just strange, like once he melted down the gold caps from his teeth and made them into a cross) and he doesn’t have enough money to be in the club and neither does my mother (she’s a school nurse and when we get sick she’s always the one who tells us we’ll be better soon, tells us what pills to eat) but occasionally we get invited to their parties because we know the sons and the daughters, and it’s always us just standing there with our cigarettes and the free booze, but we know we aren’t like them and we couldn’t marry one of the daughters because we don’t come from where their future husbands are supposed to.
BRETT’S ONLY THIRTEEN months younger than me but bigger and everyone we meet thinks he’s older and I have to say nah it’s me thirteen months and two days.
Point at my chest.
THAT’S HOW IT always goes. Me measuring up to my brother. He’s good-looking and all the girls swoon when they see him. Six-one. Dark skin. Brown hair. Broad shoulders. This chiseled face. My mom and dad say I’m good-looking but it’s not the same as when a girl says it.
For example: My brother and me in our grandparents’ driveway playing basketball. I am fifteen. He is fourteen. I am tall for my age, the only growth spurt I really ever have, full of acne, awkward, he is shorter and still has that boy look to him. My first cousin (two years younger, a girl) comes over with one of her friends. They stand there and look us over, hands on their hips. My cousin looks over at her friend, says what do you think about Brett, like she’s trying to set her friend up and the friend says oh he’s fine. Gnaws her fingernail. My cousin asks about me. Weird, the friend says, he’s weird. Looks at the ground.
There you go.
And it isn’t just the looks. It’s everything. Brett is athletic. He makes all-state in soccer junior and senior years. I quit soccer when I am twelve. I quit tennis when I am fourteen. I am good at neither. But mostly it’s just the air about him. Like he can have anything he wants. He just needs to point.
Me seventeen. Him sixteen. Me drunk and standing by a fire. Arms crossed. Brett inside the tent, the door zipped. The tent shifting. I’m facing this girl Kathleen across the fire, her face lit orange, and we don’t know what to say to each other. Breath fogged. Brett’s head from the tent door. Then he’s standing. Kathleen’s cousin Alice leaving the tent after Brett. Brett smoking. Alice shaking. Both back inside the tent. And I keep shaking, looking over at Kathleen with the words stuck. She tells me I’m boring. I tell her I know. I sleep in the dirt beside the fire. Kathleen goes in the tent with Brett and Alice.
But I know that Brett feels sort of the same way about me. Like he wants the things I’ve got. He thinks I am creative. I can play guitar and he wants to be able to do that. I start playing guitar after I quit the violin, then the piano, then the trumpet. And he thinks I’m smart. But I’m always thinking fuck smart and creative. I just feel weird. With Brett and me it’s like this dual-adoration thing but the truth is I’d give all the stuff he wants for all the stuff I want in a heartbeat.
And this is also Brett and me:
This band we have in high school. Me fifteen. Him fourteen. Brett singing. Me playing guitar. This kid Chris on the drums. This other kid John Michael on bass. The band’s name is Lethal Injection. We draw syringes on pieces of paper. Write Lethal on top. Injection on the bottom. Record this song in the room Brett and I share. Use this tape deck. The song is called “Fuck the School and the Administration” and the creative impetus for this song comes from a phrase written in green spray paint on a sidewalk at our high school. The song has three chords, G, C, D, over and over. The words:
Fuck the school (Brett singing this part).
And the administration (Me singing this part).
We hate everybody then. All the country club fucks. All the football players. This is who we like: ourselves. And we both agree the word cool is used too lightly. There are these cool people out in the world, fictional or otherwise: Holden Caulfield. Axl Rose. Kurt Cobain. The Clash. And that’s about it. Who’s cool besides these people? we say. Who deserves the word? We look at each other. Nod. Us, we say. You and me. And we know it’s true.
AND THERE ON the porch Brett tells me this: we should fuck these two girls. The short one. The shaky one. Me and him. And I can see myself with the shaky one, all sweat and open mouths, and I’m there, right there, me and Brett with these two girls in some smoke-filled apartment.
But then I remember that I can’t because I don’t do these things. Because when these things happen there’s always this part of me that can’t talk, this part of me that knows I won’t be good at the sex, this part of me that stumbles and shakes around girls. But Brett doesn’t shake. He does these things. And right now my hands are shaking and I say I don’t know (look around) and I try and think of an excuse, I’m tired man, long day you know, and that’s what comes out, this excuse, this reason I know Brett has heard before. Brett nods yeah but I know he wants this for me more than he wants it for himself, like it’s a gift, but for some reason I can’t take it or be like him, and I’m nineteen years old and I weigh one hundred thirty-two pounds and my hands shake a lot and I’m always nervous and scared but I don’t know why.
WHEN THE GIRLS are gone and I know I’ll leave soon, Brett looks me over and says you sure about leaving? and I say yeah, I’m cool, turn eyes to the floor, drag the cigarette and he puts a hand flat on my back and without saying anything else he turns around and then he’s gone. Inside the house. All these bodies moving up around him. I stay leaned up against the porch railing alone. The street that runs in front of the house is dark both ways, shrouded by oaks leaning in. The sky is ash.
AND THE VOICE comes soft at my back. Over my shoulder. I am walking down the sidewalk away from the porch to my car. I turn my head and he’s there, this face I don’t know, all teeth and glowing eyes, one hand laid against the chain-link fence running along my right shoulder. One hand is shoved down into his left pocket. He cocks his head to the side.
So, he says, so man give me a ride right? and I look at him and my head drops, yes, sure, yeah, where you going, up the street, he says, just up the street, hand pointed now, the index finger hooked at the knuckle. And inside I’m shaking my head, telling him no, no ride, sorry gotta be somewhere, but I can’t stop myself from saying yes. My head also saying this is a stranger but I think I have seen him here, at this party strolling, sipping a beer, placing a hand on a girl’s back, throwing his lit smile into the dark. Or maybe this person is simply someone who needs a ride and I can’t say no because I’m afraid to tell people no.
And then the smile is turned around saying I’ll be back, let me get my boy, right back, and I’m standing there with my hands in my pockets sweating in the dark heat, pulling the bottom of my shirt up to my forehead, again thinking turn and go, just turn and go, but my feet won’t move and before I can breathe again the smile is back saying hey man this is my boy and I’m shaking hands with both of them and their skin is cool and rough and I’m nodding, pulling keys from my pocket. I unlock the door to my car, this maroon Oldsmobile with the streetlights gleaming off the hood. Drop down into the seat and pull the door shut. Fumble with the keys. They shake in my hand like a rattle. The smile is looking down into the car. I lean over across the passenger seat and pull up the silver lock.
INSIDE THE CAR the smile speaks of the school where he goes, says he’s leaving tomorrow to go back, and the pussy, he says, ah man the pussy, so much it’s everywhere, and I say yeah man I know, even though I don’t and we stop at a gas station where the smile gets out and goes inside and through the windows I can see him leaning over the front counter and he’s moving his head back and forth smiling. He takes a step back and points at the girl behind the register. Still smiling. She hands him a torn piece of paper. He looks it over and folds it once, shoves it down into his back pocket. I look at the rearview into the seat behind me and it’s a head turned sideways, this silent profile, forearm strung like concrete across the top of the backseat, and when he turns I look down at the radio. The car shifts when he leans toward the front seat, and for a moment, I can feel his breath from behind me. The passenger door opens and the smile’s back inside, he says got that number, points at the girl in the gas station. He’s throwing candy at the breath in the backseat. He sits down. More candy in his lap.