The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to he down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name's sake....
Andy shouts as I walk into the party, "Hey! It's Helen! Let's all bow and grovel!" He's referring to my being this year's homecoming queen. His eyes danced wicked circles across his audience's faces.
Vying for the status of the girl most guys want to screw and girls want to imitate wasn't something I enjoyed. It wasn't until Michael told me to go for it that I'd agreed, but the dance was miserable. The girls chattered about who was too fat for her dress and who was panting after someone else's date. Michael had looked like he wanted to run but had nowhere to go.
I don't primp, preen, or sulk about my newly won honor like Andy wants, so he goes back to what he does best: entertaining. Actually, he's the one acting like small-town royalty. His mouth flaps like a duck's ass--my dad's favorite phrase--while he guzzles a cheap beer. Andy goes on and on about the king, his father.
"It all started," Andy says, "at my party last winter. The one where that freshman drank too much and had to have his stomach pumped."
Several boys nod. Several more swig beer. Only Josh Stedman remains still, except for his lips. Part of me thinks Josh's praying for Andy to shut up. The room reeks of spilled beer, alcohol breath, soggy chips, and sweat, with a hing of vomit. I never like coming to a party late unless I've had a few.
"This guy at the party said his car's air conditioner was broken." Andy's in the boasting stage of his drunk, not far from the staggering point. He may not even make it to the end of his story if he emphasizes the main points with too many gulps of beer.
My shoulders tense, and Michael massages them as though he can hear what I'm thinking. He knows me better than a dog knows his own privates, which is another of Dad's phrases. Michael says into my ear, "Not this story again. I'm finding something to drink. What do you want, Helen?"
"Whatever, I say. "Just not beer."
I can't take my eyes off Andy. He's not drop-dead gorgeous, but he's close. He smiles at a girl, and she melts. But not me--Andy isn't my type. Besides, he acts exactly like how I imagine Dad did at my age, trying too hard to impress people. What would I be like if I'd been born the boy Dad wanted? Would I be an Andy or a Josh or a Michael? Maybe I'd be one of the wannabes flocking around Andy, telling jokes bordering on porn to watch a prude's reaction, or smacking heads to see who's tougher. Like it matters. I'll always be a girl, and Dad will continue to be disappointed in me until death do us part.
"We decided," Andy continues, after shouting down a belching contest, to take. m take some Freon from the fridge, figuring he didn't need much to get his air conditioner working again. We were drunk, or I'd have told the guy to just open his car window. It was winter." He waits for a laugh. The guys give it to him, all except Josh. He's staring over Andy's head, past me.
I swing around slow and see Victor Munger, the class time bomb, on the porch. Someday, somebody will say the wrong thing, and Victor will blow. I don't intend to be around when he does. I edge farther into the room, staying within story range.
"When we hauled the fridge away from the wall, we nearly gagged. You wouldn't beheve the shit that accumulates behind a fridge, especially out here in the woods. Dead mice husks were everywhere. They looked like they'd been mummified. And the mouse crap! The mice had dumped so often, the floor was crunchy. We had to push the fridge against the counter before this guy could look for the Freon. I let him take care of that, but I shouldn't have. A couple of shits and damns came from behind the fridge, but even then I didn't check on him. He left carrying something, but I didn't know whether he'd actually drained any Freon or not. It wasn't until later that I remembered his hair looked icy. Anyway, I had to shove the fridge back myself because he skipped out."
Andy glances at Josh's empty hands, but Josh doesn't notice. Josh hasn't been smashed since his sister's accident. Come to think of it, he hasn't had any fun since then. He's been all prayers and church services, somber eyes and devoted son. Almost like a kid who's making up for something.
Andy's mouth is off and running, again. "Well, I didn't come back to the cabin for a month. Then I came with Dad." Grins and groans greet the mention of Mr. Grabbit. "He was planning a snowmobile party with a bunch of out-of-town dickheads. You know, the guys who come up here and pretend they know the woods?"
Michael slips a bottle into my hand and tries to lead me away, but I'm trapped by the inevitability of Andy's story. This one, like his others, will end with some gross, supposedly, wonderful act on his father's part. Yet, here we stand, listening like a paying audience.
"Dad wanted the place cleaned up, because he needed to impress these guys. He took the kitchen and gave me the bathrooms, jerk. Like I know how to clean a toilet, or I'm actually going to do it." He pauses for his laugh track. When it arrives on cue, he says, "I never had to, either, because Dad was bellowing like a cow with a calf turned backward."
Michael whispers. "Like he's been on the same side of a fence as a cow."
I elbow him and stifle my laugh. Michael never wanted to be part of the in group, not even before he graduated. He's always cracking irreverent lines.
"Turns out the guy had cut the Freon thingie wide open. What he didn't take ran onto the floor where it made mouse-shit soup and ruined the linoleum, not to mention the fridge. Everything was spoiled. It stunk like a rotting skunk."
He chugs half his beer while the guys chuckle at his latest "funnv."
Dad made me push the fridge onto the porch. I left it about where Munger's standing now. Then he ordered new flooring and appliances. He wanted the stove and fridge to match, so he bought both." This is to remind us that Andy doesn't have to worry about money like the rest of us.
"When we came back a few days later, the fridge door was off its hinges and lying in the yard. The food had been eaten, and the containers- plastic. glass, aluminum - shredded. A bear had visited, which shouldn't have surprised us since Dad has his own personal dump out back."
Which is illegal, but Andy doesn't care if his dad gets in trouble for dumping trash.
"Dad set a big jar of peanut butter on the old fridge to lure the bear back. The bear didn't wait for dark like Dad expected. It showed up for dinner. It ate the peanut butter, but it could smell better things cooking inside the cabin. It took less than a minute for it to tear the back door off its hinges and lumber in."
Several girls gasp, and Andy bloats with storyteller's pride.
Victor moves into the light. His grin is laced with scorn. He creeps me out worse than any bear.
"What'd you do?" squeals a girl.
"I ran for it. I want to make it to twenty whole, you know? I figured that the bear wouldn't come upstairs, so I made for the farthest bedroom."
He acts like this isn't cowardly, but Victor, slithering ever closer, says, "What?' Mr. Tough Guy didn't take on the bear with a kitchen knife?"
I can almost see Victor's hand groping for his knife. He wears these steel-toed boots his dad gets at work for free, and he uses them in fights. Broke a kid's ribs last year, then told the whole school he did it. He also let it be known that he keeps a "blade" tucked in his boot.
"Shut up, moron. I'm not stupid." Andy says. Only he would insult Victor like that. I don't know where he finds the guts.
Andy's been hanging With Victor more and more. None of us can figure out why. Poor Josh is left in that awkward position of sticking with them or finding a new friend in a high school class of only seventy kids. With Josh going holy and Andy running wild, it'd be logical if they parted. But they've been friends since they were babies.
"Helen," Michael says. "Let's find someplace quiet."
"In a minute." I say, remembering the stories Moshie tells the kids who hang at his store. They're always about people who've done stupid things. "Think." he says. "Think before you do something. Is what you're about to do worth the embarrassment of being caught or having the police after you?" Andy's story will be a good one to tell Moshie. He's obviously building up to something massively stupid.
"The bear didn't make it to the kitchen. My dad grabbed a gun and blew it out the back door." He points at a skinny door. "I didn't even know he kept a gun in there."
"In here?" Someone opens the door, which leads to a pantry.
"Yeah." Andy says. He straightens as though his dad took out four terrorists instead of a hungry bear. "He walked toward the bear to grab the gun.
Michael pulls me away, and I let him. I don't want to hear how many shots it took to kill it. I take a long drink of my wine cooler to banish the image of a bear lying dead on the floor.
"You shouldn't have listened," Michael says after he's secured a place on the sofa close to the fire. "It's only bravado anyway. No bear came in the house. The guys at the shop said Mr. Grabbit shot it on the porch. Then unscrewed the hinges to make it look like it had come inside."
"He still shot it, Michael. What's the difference?"
"The truth. If Mr. Grabbit hadn't done something to make it look like the bear was coming after him, he'd have been in trouble for hunting out of season."
I nod swallow more of my drink, then try for a subject change. "Have you been painting lately?" Michael's the best painter I know, and I'm not talking, houses.
Michael twists a finger around his bottle's neck. "Not much time." Oh yeah. Michael has to work to pay rent to his idiot dad.
"Moshie says you could have as many commissions as you can handle. You shouldn't be fixing cars."
"I could watch Richie on your afternoons off." Richie is Michael's younger brother. He's so cute, but too quiet. Sort of like how Michael is around his dad. It's as though they're afraid to talk or think.
"No!" Michael's fierce, but not angry. He grasps my hand as though to pull it out of the fire. "You're not going there."
Given the tension in his "home," I'm glad he rejects this possibility. I can't imagine explaining to his dad that I'm watching Richie so Michael can paint. "Bring Richie to my house," I say.
He relaxes but doesn't say anything He waits for me to admit this won't work, either. My parents would never let Richie or Michael come over. They want me to break up with Michael and stay away from his "disreputable friends." They can't wait for me to go off to college. I sigh. What will happen to Michael when I leave?
Michael misinterprets my sigh. "I'll finish it." he says. "Dad's hunting tomorrow, and I have the early shift at the garage, so Richie and I will be alone all afternoon. I'll paint then."
I long for summer, when he can take his paints, brushes, and canvases into the woods and spend hours working on a still life or a landscape. Planning to raise a hunter, not an artist, his dad taught him to slip through the forest like a shadow, so he paints wild animals when he finds them. But for two thirds of the year, it's too cold to hold a brush in an ungloved hand, so he doesn't paint as much. Sometimes, when he or I have a car, we sneak over to Moshie's and he works. I hang with him, not saying much and reading whatever Moshie has around. I wish Michael were still in school. Mrs. Winthrop has added a bunch of new art classes he'd love. I g him the notes, but it's not the same as taking the class.
Andy has left center stage and is working the room, hitting on the girls and insulting the guys. Victor's gone into hiding with his own personal cooler. Josh is huddled by the fire, his hands clasped in front of him and his eyes training, has the hots for a girl. I'm on the verge of telling Michael, when Josh raises his head, and I see his face. I swallow my words. Then Michael nuzzles my neck as the wine cooler tops off my bladder. His kiss and the urge to pee converge in an idea, and I go upstairs, like I have no other plan than to use the bathroom. Once upstairs, I find an empty bedroom, slip inside, and check the lock. It works.
From the top of the stairs, I watch Michael sitting by the fire. A couple has taken over most of the couch, and they're making out. He squeezes his lean body into a small space, as though he doesn't know what else to do besides give them room. He looks so alone. Maybe that's why I love him. We're both loners at heart.
When he sees me. I motion for him to come up. He saunters through the crowd, grabs a beer and a wine cooler, then heads for me. His black, curly hair bounces with each step. His tie-dyed Question Everything shirt from Moshie's shop rises and falls rhythmically. Someone else might have thought he didn't care that I'd called him to make love. Someone else would've missed the way the bottles chattered in his artist's hands like a pair of fourth-grade girls'. Someone else wouldn't have seen the depth of the love in his eyes or the crinkle in his cheek where his dimple hides. But I did.
When he reaches the top, he takes my arm in his free hand and kisses me. Then he tries to hurry us out of sight. He doesn't want anyone to spread rumors that will reach my mother.
But I don't care. I stop and kiss him long and slow, like in the movies. I claim this man, I think. I love him, and we'll be together always.
Let the gossip begin. I'm ready for it. My parents can lecture me all they want about my supposed recklessness. I love Michael, and that's all that counts.