In the months before the lake disappeared, I began having lunch every day with my high school guidance counselor. It was early in the semester, a few weeks into my final year of high school, and I’d taken to eating my lunches with her because Joby, my one real friend, had a different lunch period. The counselor’s name was Susan and she had the undeserved surname of Cox. It was a name for pranking and practical jokes, a name to be yelled over the intercom by juvenile delinquents during the pledge of allegiance, as Robbie Toobler did the previous spring: Ms. Cox I need your help! I think I’m in love with you! Ms. Cox aaahhhh … We became friendly after I mistakenly barged into her office looking for the school nurse and ended up talking right through my fourth-hour trig. But we spoke less as student and counselor than as neighbors on barstools. She must have realized that since she didn’t recognize me the first time we met I had to be a slacker of astronomical proportions, one of the doomed and futureless, destined for a life mopping floors at Shop ‘n Go, for the avoidance of all things class reunion. And perhaps because of this, she seemed to let her guard down in front of me.
That day, the day Joby first started suspecting her father of following her, Susan and I were talking about Mr. Hudson, the seventh-grade English teacher who’d hanged himself earlier in the week. Susan was spending a lot of time at the junior high helping out. Underequipped to handle the aftermath, the principal called for reinforcements, and in Susan he found the right person. Tragedy and general ill fortune were her bread and butter. She was three times a divorcee and her daughter, Jeanie, had a prosthetic leg from the time a doctor’s knife slipped during surgery and severed a nerve he was trying to spare. When I asked how she helped the shaken students, she replied, “I don’t hold their hands,” steeled by her scientist’s sense of sympathy. “I listen. Best thing you can do. How can you ever try to reason something like this to kids?” I nodded as the memories of Mr. Hudson slowly stretched back to life inside my head. I’d had him in eighth grade for a month before I was pulled out and switched to the remedial English class. Thinking of him after he was gone, I remembered all sorts of things I hadn’t thought of for years, all that matter which lies dormant until someone has taken his life: how he was always reading in his classroom after school let out; the way he encouraged his students to call him Jim; his gait, the somber milling of a dreamer. She shook her head and nibbled on the small block of cheese that, along with a Granny Smith apple, she ate every day for lunch. “Still, it’s sad, you know. All those kids, most of them dealing with death for the first time. You should see them, Tom. They walk around the hallways like ghosts.”
“Yeah, like ghosts,” I said, wondering what I must have looked like myself walking down the hallway, eyes down, trying to survive those terrifying five minutes of anarchy between the bells’ rings unmolested as the gauntlet of high-fives and ball-grabbing swallowed up those around me.
Just then there was a knock on the door and Joby popped her head in.
“Hey,” she said. She had that look about her, up to no good. “Let’s get out of here.” Like junkies sick for truancy, we’d developed a bad habit and as it was so early in the school year we were cutting with a frightening regularity.
I looked at Susan and she threw her hands up. “I don’t want to know anything about it.”
And with that Joby and I took off down the hallway, ducking out a side door, skulking past Mr. Mineo, the ever-watchful parking attendant, and dove into her car, where we both crouched for a few seconds. We waited until he circled around to the other side of the parking lot and then left. When we reached the street and zoomed away from the school, we shouted triumphantly, extending our middle fingers out the window, and Joby turned the music up full blast. She had on a tight red shirt purchased on a recent trip to Kansas City. The shirt was made to look older and less expensive than it was, projecting a silhouette of Lenin flanked by the hammer and sickle. Her finger- and toenails were painted black and she’d drawn little anarchy signs on the white tips of her black Chuck Taylors. “Fascists,” she said, looking at our school shrinking in the rearview. Joby spoke in the language of those stuck in a state of permanent revolt. When asked, she’d identify herself as a Socialist, but as far as I could tell her platform was a hodgepodge of leftist ideas designed to get a rise out of anyone over the age of thirty. I lacked her passion. Apathy was the bedrock of my ideology, a veritable third rail. Despite this, we’d become friends through high school’s strange process of natural selection. Physically we were opposites, too. She was tall and bone-thin, pretty even, with straight brown hair and a long angular face—intimidated the hell out of most boys—and I was short, a little pudgy, invisible but for my big-ass head. We were, Susan liked to tell me, quite the pair.
Joby sped through town, headed toward her family’s house. Her family’s gigantic house. Her folks were loaded, a fact she resented more than anything else, the unwashable stink of her own privilege. She lectured constantly about the evils of capitalism, yet drove the SUV her parents gave her for her sixteenth birthday with no sense of irony, with reckless abandon.
The house was part of a private development that bordered the lake that would disappear in a matter of months. We often went to the lake on these afternoons, to smoke up or talk, taking refuge from our families and school, though today we found ourselves just wandering throughout the house, looking for anything to distract us. I followed behind her, looking down at the back of her Converse, where she had scratched off the All Starand written Anarchy in black marker. Aimlessly we went from room to room picking things up—home-decorative magazines, antique clocks and wooden pieces, pillows embroidered with passages from the Bible—sometimes commenting on them before setting them back down. When we were bored with one room, we went to the next. The house was huge, but more than that it was hugely empty.
“Where are your parents?” I finally asked as we stood before the closed door of a room I knew was her father’s office, though I’d never been inside before.
“They’re out. Mom’s garden club meets all afternoon and you know my dad,” she said touching the knob of the door hesitantly.
What she meant was that her dad was rarely home anymore. In fact, beyond a few pictures on the walls, I’d never actually seen him. Apparently he once owned a small livestock farm outside of town and made a fortune selling the sperm of a prize bull. As Joby told it, coming into all this money was a sign, so he sold the farm and moved his family here, where, born again, he took up the cause of a church of growing notoriety. He spent most of his time and disposable income developing an ongoing series of videotapes called The Antichrist Chronicles, which he sent to people selected from the phonebook—the “chosen,” as Joby referred to them—trying to show the myriad ways we had failed God in hopes they’d hightail it for church. Judging from booming attendance rolls and the increasing number of highway billboards that read HELL IS REAL and REPENT AND BE SAVED, the operation was a rousing success.
I was curious. I’d never seen one of the videos before, so when I said, “Show me one of his tapes,” it seemed to give the afternoon a purpose. Joby eased open the door, slipping inside, and quickly shut it. When she appeared again, she was holding a videocassette. We went down the hallway to the TV room, where I plopped into one of the beanbag chairs.
“This’ll be on volume thirteen but it’s not edited yet,” she said, loading the tape into the VCR. “He’s going to start transferring them to DVD soon. Keep up with the technology, you know.” She punched a button on the remote and the unsteady picture spilled over the television. We sat quietly as the camera zoomed in on a man bent over a moped chained to a parking meter. I wasn’t sure what to make of it until he removed the gas cap and shoved his nose deep into the hole. He huffed the fumes for a good thirty seconds before his legs gave out and he fell to the sidewalk.
“Your dad filmed this?”
“I don’t know, maybe. Could be any whacko from his group.”
“Do they just wait around for stuff like this to happen?”
“Pretty much,” she said, hitting the pause button, which froze on a close-up of the man’s face. He looked, I remarked, happy.
“I guess that’s sort of their point, right?”
“Whatever. They’re all crazy, if you ask me. You know, sometimes I swear he’s following me with that fucking camera. Seriously, no joke.” She hit the eject button. “This is creeping me out. Let’s go to the lake.”
The town where we lived was a small agrarian community in central Kansas, not far from Salina. “The Center of the Center of America,” as the welcoming billboard on the edge of town announced. In recent years most of the small, independent farms had gone bust or been swallowed up by corporations and developers. Or worse, they were given small governmental subsidies not to farm their land. No one could really make a living on the subsidies so most had foreclosed or turned to agritourism to stay afloat. This was what accounted for our amazing number of pumpkin shooting ranges, shitty Kansan vineyards, country hayrides, and corn mazes in the shape of famous Kansans like Eisenhower and Amelia Earhart. All this to avoid foreclosing or watching their tenable land waste away unused, though sometimes even this was not enough, which had given birth to our other great industry: the production and consumption of crystal meth. This was rural Kansas, where Mom and Pop farms were giving way to Mom and Pop methamphetamine labs. Where the divide between rich and poor was a gulf and with a few exceptions like Joby’s neighborhood, the streets were lined with doublewides and the cheap bourbon flowed like water. This was a town where everyone knew each other, but no one wanted to admit it.
My dad and I both worked on the weekends. On Saturdays we’d head out early to grab a bite at Ma’s diner before the rush and afterwards he’d drop me off at Shop ’n Go, where I’d spend six hours mopping floors and bagging groceries, while he went on to his job at Alive With History! The crown jewel of our agritourism boom, Alive With History!—part museum, part amusement park—was comprised of a series of historically recreated farms from different time periods that together told the history of Midwestern agriculture on nearly 600 acres of land. My dad was a “historic actor,” which meant he pretended to farm and delivered an informative spiel on farming techniques of the period whenever a tour group arrived. When the park opened, he started out on the 1785 farm, and every few years he’d moved up to the next, the “Bleeding Kansas” 1859 farm, the post-Civil War 1870 farm, and now he had made it to the post-Industrial Revolution 1920 farm. For fear of sinking further into the dross of coolessness, I’d never told anyone this, even Joby.
After my shift I usually walked over to SUNFLOWER’S, where Joby worked as a line cook. I sat at the bar sipping pop, talking to her on her breaks, waiting until she finished. It was an awful place, an unfortunate knockoff of Hooters that not so cleverly punned on our state flower, but Joby didn’t seem to mind it much. The monstrous sign outside depicted a buxom blonde with triple D sunflowers for breasts. Today I was seated next to a couple from the northeast who, I gathered from eavesdropping, were driving to California and had mistakenly come in looking for local color, not realizing it was a boobs-and-wings joint. They were staring anxiously at the menu when Joby tapped on my shoulder. A white apron, mottled by sauce and grease stains, hung from her neck. The woman next to me scoffed to her female partner, “Look, they actually have salads in Kansas.”
Joby leaned over, an inch away from the woman’s ear. “Yes we do, but we smother them in gravy,” she said and walked off.
I followed her out back and she lit a joint by the Dumpster. “All through?” I asked, and she nodded, balling up her apron and dropping it to the ground. We were exhaling little plumes when Jonas walked outside from the kitchen with a bag of garbage. He bussed tables there and occasionally attended our school, but he’d been suspended so many times it was hard to tell if he was actually enrolled anymore or not. Every month or so, just when I thought he’d surely been expelled, I’d see him walking the hallways or sleeping on his desk in class.
“Hey,” he said, looking at Joby. “What’re you doing?”
“Nothing,” Joby said, “gonna walk around or something.”
Jonas had shaved his hair into a Mohawk, though the remaining swatch was trimmed so close that it looked less punk than military. He laughed and put up his hands. “Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt anything.” He was almost a foot taller than me, but I wanted so badly then to bruise him in the shins.
“Fuck off, Jonas,” Joby sighed languidly, like the chorus of a sultry song about a never-ending summer. Our friendship had always been asexual, something that seemed to confuse those around us. “Come with.”
Smoking another joint seemed to put us in a mood to walk around, so there the three of us were, watching the lights from the bars and pool halls switch on. Neon bands of light snaked through the dark and the smell of ozone singed the air. Men in newly bought cowboy hats practiced their strut around town, wearing multiple turquoise rings and belt buckles the size of championship boxing titles. It had been a brutal summer, the heat unyielding, and even now in mid-September we wondered when it would cool. The landscape was dominated by long stretches of sunflowers that would only disappear when the heat broke. We walked through town saying things like, “It’s too hot to smoke,” but did so anyway.
Paranoia was a major buzz kill with the local ragweed we smoked, and later when it was full-dark Joby said again that she thought her father was following her. She was convinced he had started planting microphones and miniature cameras in her clothes. “That’s the kind of shit they do in totalitarian regimes,” she said, her eyes wild. I tried to calm her, telling her we’d leave, but she wouldn’t settle down. When we got back to the parking lot where Joby was parked, Jonas wiped his nose on his shirtsleeve and held out his hand, saying, “Wanna try? Won’t make you paranoid as weed.” In his palm sat an eight ball of the ice-like chips that had provoked the President’s drug czar to compare what was happening in rural parts of Kansas and Missouri to the crack epidemic that plagued inner cities in the eighties. Joby was looking down the neck of her shirt, trying to find some means of surveillance, and only looked up at Jonas’s hand after having found none, smiling. “Phew, I think I’m clean.”
When I was three, my mother came home from work, fixed my father dinner, and put me to bed. Then, that night, after my dad had fallen asleep in front of a Star Trek rerun, she packed a bag, left the house, and disappeared. I say disappeared because there was never a note or phone call, never a reason or explanation, just the reality: she was gone, vanished. I knew all this only from the bits I’d been able to pull out of my father when he’d had a few drinks; without one he’d tell me I was adopted. There were no pictures; all evidence of her existence was gone. I remembered so little, a form mostly. We’d lived in Kansas City then, where my dad was a lit professor at UMKC, but after it was clear she was never coming back he moved here to get himself together. His uncle Mort owned a little bar in town and we stayed with him a while. Dad spent most of his days drinking at the bar with Uncle Mort, where he developed his habit. For a large part of my youth he collected unemployment and lived off savings. When Uncle Mort died, though, my dad sold the bar. He only began working at Alive With History! when the money was nearly gone. The only traces of his former life as an impassioned lecturer of poetry survived in fragments, popping up unexpectedly, as in notes he’d leave on the kitchen counter: This is just to say: I’ve ventvred to the store. Shall retvrn henceforth, ioyovsly, Redcrosse.
It was several Saturdays later, in early November, that the lake disappeared. From our table at Ma’s diner my dad rattled the newspaper. “You’ll never believe what happened.” I was looking down at my plate, trying to discern if the black flakes floating in my yoke were cigarette ash or pepper, and mumbled back, asking what’s up. When he didn’t respond, I looked at him. His mammoth eyebrows dwarfed his eyes, and he’d long since stopped trying to control the Einsteinian flair of his wild gray hair. He was wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of Leonard Nimoy under the heading What Would Spock Do? and he was grinning, holding the front page of the paper out for me to see. As the wave of intrigue moved across his face, he looked like a mad scientist from some old Universal horror film who was on the brink of a major discovery, of something that could either save the world or end everything.
After breakfast we went to see the lake. I studied the article as my father drove uncle Mort’s old truck, a big pewter tank of a thing that would survive long after the asteroid hit. I was slow to realize that it was our lake—Joby’s and mine, the one by her house—that had vanished. The article said officials weren’t sure what had caused the strange occurrence.
“What do you think happened?” my dad said, shaking his head. “What happened to all that water?”
“No idea,” I said, folding up the paper and dropping it into the foot well. “Aliens,” I offered, and before I could take it back the word was suctioned from my mouth like a losing lottery ball. He said nothing, but I could feel him bristle at my sarcasm.
My father was a Believer.
We arrived to find a growing crowd of rubbernecks looking at the hole where the lake had been only yesterday. There was a post-Apocalyptic air about the place that seemed to fit with the premillennium angst the country was working through. The lakebed was swampy with mud, sailboats stranded in the muck, and dead fish lay quietly decomposing in profile. The stench was awful. The local news media were live on the scene, updating the fact that they had no new information minute by minute. It was dizzying; the headline Water Stolen! ran on ticker tape around my head. In the distance, all around the perimeter of the hole, were the huge lakefront homes like Joby’s and behind them was a new development of condominiums. I studied the crowd but couldn’t find her in the swath.
My dad looked at the lake in awe. “Where the hell did all of it go?” he said quietly.
It was hard for me to imagine my dad in that other life. Some of my earliest memories involved the two of us Dumpster-diving, rummaging through rot and stink, for things people had thrown away—so unwavering was his commitment to avoiding work. As scavengers for the debris of other people’s lives, we populated our house with their unwanted memories, those possessions whose histories we’d never know. The house was still largely made up of them, even though things were different now. In some ways he was better, and in others he’d never been worse. I knew there were parts of himself he never let me see, parts that were pushing him farther away from reality, deeper into space. I watched him glance over his shoulder as he pulled a silver flask from his pocket. Raising it to his lips, he held it there like a microphone: “Star date: zero, zero, dash, one, nine, nine, nine. We have successfully discovered the site of a failed Klingon attempt to end life as we know it on this strange planet. So much like Earth,” he said, then stopped, with a pause that would give Shatner a boner, “but entirely different.”
Susan looked at her reflection in the glass that framed a Van Gogh self-portrait, inching close to the painting and pulling down the skin below her eyes so that she looked like a basset hound. “Jesus, I look like hell.” She was telling me about the trouble she’d had trying to get her daughter Jeanie’s new prosthetic leg; they’d driven to Kansas City three separate times for fittings that failed her five-year-old’s stub. There was a picture of Jeanie on her desk, a pretty sprite of a girl with saucers for eyes, blonde hair, and a smile that could move millions of boxes of cereal.
Susan’s face bore the topography of a hard life. She was pretty though. Very pretty, in fact. She’d broken the hearts of many high school boys who feigned mental instabilities and interest in college just to sit in her office, so I felt lucky to be whatever it was we were. “So have you thought about schools,” she said, picking up the apple on her desk and tossing it to me. She’d been doing this lately, asking me to think about college.
“No,” I said, and lobbed it back to her.
“Where do you think you might like to apply?” She underhanded it to me again.
I threw it back. “Did you hear about the lake? It disappeared.”
“What part of the country do you think you’d like to be in?”
“They have no idea what caused it.”
“There are only two more chances to take the ACT. Have you signed up?”
“Do you believe in aliens? My dad actually thinks they might be mixed up in this.”
“It’s important you sign up to take the test, Tom.”
“My dad says they could have a strong interest in our water supply because of the high iron content.”
“Colleges will not accept you if you don’t take the test.”
“He says there’s an outside chance they might give the water back,” I said, as Susan caught the apple we’d been tossing back and forth the entire time. “But it’s best not to get our hopes up.”
“Your father,” she said, setting the apple on her desk. “And what does a professor think of his son not wanting to attend college?” It caught me a little off guard, this lie. Like everyone else, I’d told her he still taught. I said that he was leaving it up to me and she nodded, eyebrows raised, sighing. She looked at the file on her desk with my name on it, and then up at me, and said, “Tell me about your mother.”
“I have to go,” I said, standing quickly. “Class,” I nodded towards the hallway.
She rolled her eyes, saying she needed a cigarette, like it was an invitation or peace offering, but this time I would not follow her outside.
After school Joby and I drove to her house and walked to the lake. There were men in rubber suits that looked as though they should have been handling plutonium, though they were just tossing the dead fish into big yellow barrels. The smell was horrible, pestilent, the ground still muddy. There were people walking around the lake bed in fly-fishing boots and, for a reason lost on me, hard hats. They were setting up surveying equipment.
A small group of onlookers still crowded the perimeter and Joby spotted her father amongst them, filming, so we quickly walked the other way, a half mile on the abandoned baseball field where a minor league team once played years ago. The advertisements lining the outfield wall were all faded and the field had grown over with dead sunflowers, scrub, and brush. Joby took a can of black spray paint out of her bag and went over to the fence, spraying over advertisements for athlete’s foot salve and Simoniz, writing little enigmatic anarcho-haikus like This Is Terrorism; Fuck Nazi Sympathy; Anarchism Is the Union of Lovers; and the classic God Is Gay. Afterwards we walked over to home plate, where the grass was thinner, and sat down. She lit a joint, took a couple puffs, and passed it to me.
“Out here, everybody’s crazy with looking for something,” Joby said. “I swear, sometimes I think it’s only God or drugs that ever finds them though.” She pulled her long brown hair back tight and let it fall down her shoulders. “Like my dad. He thinks this all has to do with God.” She motioned with her chin in the direction of the barren lake as I passed the joint back. “He’s been out there every day with his video camera recording what’s happening. Gonna put it in one of his stupid tapes probably.” She flicked the ash off the tip of her Converse. “At dinner he talks about God’s judgment, that He took the water to punish us for our sins.” She laughed sadly, shaking her head. “And people wonder why I’m the way I am. It’s like how they say preachers’ daughters are the most rebellious, only my dad’s not a preacher. He’s a psycho.”
“Your dad’s not a psycho,” I said. “Look at my dad. He didn’t do anything but watch Star Trek for an entire decade after my mom left. Barely even spoke to me. That’s messed up,” I shook my head. “Your dad, he’s just religious.”
“What he is has nothing to do with religion,” she said, and she proceeded tell me about their last attempt at reconciliation a few years before. At her father’s urging, she’d agreed to go to one of his church’s rallies, not knowing exactly what it would entail. That night he drove a busload of followers all the way to Lawrence on the night of the big KU–Mizzou basketball game. There were thirty or so others from the church and they congregated in the parking lot outside the game, holding signs and posters, waving them at fans who walked past. “I still remember the one I was holding. It was right after Oklahoma City and mine had a picture of the Federal Building after the bomb exploded under the heading my father had written in black marker that morning: God’s Wrath for Gays. Everyone was holding something similar—pictures of the Challenger exploding, of Mathew Shepard, aborted fetuses. It was horrible, you should have seen people’s faces—the way they looked at us.”
“Exactly,” she said. “I knew then there was no hope for us.” She took a last drag and let the nub fall to the dirt. “The thing is, he wasn’t always like that. He was once just a farmer. But that was a long time ago.” She put her head down and shook it, then looked up with sudden conviction. “You don’t understand. These people aren’t harmless, Tom—they elect presidents, for Christ’s sake.”
Later that night when I arrived back at the house, I found my dad sitting on the couch, dressed up as crewman Scotty from Star Trek. This, strangely enough, was not abnormal. “There’s my boy,” he said in a faux Scottish accent that was a conflation of Irish, Australian, and Jamaican. I’d almost forgotten about the convention that weekend in Kansas City. He’d been going to these things ever since I could remember and liked to try and get into character a day or two before—he could be almost Method about it. I’d heard stories about how he once went to a convention as Uhura, dressed in blackface and drag nonetheless. “That was Toronto ’77,” he’d blushed. “You could get away with that then. Boy that was a great one though. You should have seen it, Tommy—thousands of Canadians saying ‘ooter space.’ ” I could smell the scotch on his breath and saw the tumbler, nearly full, tilting half off a coaster bearing the likeness of George Takei. On the television ran a special about how the 1969 moon landing was faked. This was heresy in my father’s house, but he seemed to watch with the interest of an interloper, a sports coach who’s snuck into the opposing team’s gym to see what plays they’re going to run. The TV flashed the familiar pictures of Neil Armstrong beach-balling across the lunar surface with the voiceover: “Notice that the flag isn’t moving. Our expert scientists attest that the shadows are reversed from normal—they’re physically impossible.” The screen switched to show a man standing in a NASA-type control room.
My father drained his glass in one throat-searing funnel, then leaned forward and started rocking, trying to get some momentum off the couch. I gave him a little push and he rose, banging his knee against the corner table as he left the room. I turned my attention back to the television, where I learned that the moon landing was actually filmed on a Hollywood soundstage, simply a strategic bluff to scare off the Russians as our countries fought to determine whose galactic balls were bigger. “Interstellar brinksmanship,” the host called it with his slithery English accent. “Imagine,” he said, slowly raising a hand up to the wall of clocks, monitors, and glowing buttons behind him, “the repercussions.”
I flipped the channel and caught the tail end of the national news. More about our virtuous bombing of Serbia.
“What are you watching that for?” my dad said from behind me when he returned. “Turn it back to my show.”
But it was too late; the moon-hoax special was already over and the familiar opening music of our local news began. There was a breaking story about the lake. That entire week people had been speculating about what happened, flooding the editorial pages. To try and quell the fervor the mayor called a press conference. The news anchor explained this as the screen showed the stout mayor trotting out a team of white-coats to address the media. Without wasting a moment, the lead scientist offered a logical, if unusual, explanation for the strange phenomenon: a sinkhole formed when water eroded the limestone deep underground and created pockets in the rock. The entire twenty-three-acre body of water disappeared into one of these sinkholes, worming deep into the ground below town. In what seemed a stab at humor, the lead scientist grinned, analogizing: “Think of a plug being pulled on a bathtub.”
“These guys don’t know similes from metaphors, their asses from sinkholes,” my father mused, shaking his head.
When the press conference finished, after my dad had had another drink, I helped him upstairs to his room, where he plopped down on the bed.
“Are you drunk?” I asked.
“I am,” he grinned, stretching out the declaration, “not.”
I sat at the foot of the bed, the only spot free from the piles of creased sci-fi paperbacks littering the surface. “Tell me about Mom,” I said.
“Nothing to tell. It’s just you and me, kid. I grew you in the basement like a sea monkey.”
“What happened to her?”
“Moved to Mexico. Joined the circus. Perished in a fire at a mental institute.”
He was quiet a minute, eyes closed. He shook his head back and forth and began humming some sort of Irish ballad. Then his eyes opened abruptly. “I am not drunk,” he said, raising a single finger. “I’m a romantic. I’m a poet. I am the bard of agriculture!” His voice was strained, and he lowered his hand, accidentally knocking over a stack of books that were at his side. He gave a little shrug, as if to say, That’s life, and turned off the lamp on his bedside table, filling the room with darkness.
With winter’s descent, the question dividing most of the town was what to do about the lake. After the geologists and surveyors gave the okay to work, there was still the matter of cost. Because the lake was private property, the subdivision’s residents were saddled with the burden of fixing it. Some estimates were as high as $5,000 a household. Factions formed within the subdivision: those who thought the city should assume some of the cost; those who thought the lake should be filled with dirt and turned into either park or parking lot; people who wished to move; and the few, like Joby’s parents, who could afford to pay and were willing to do so, whatever the cost. To further complicate the matter, the cold weather meant that it would be spring before anything could be done about it. The papers covered the drama daily. Even the major circulations in Wichita and Kansas City began carving out space for updates on the lake, for our little town, this theater of the absurd.
Susan and I were sitting in her office discussing the drudgery of the holidays when school resumed after break. We were oathless and irresolute in the New Year, this new millennium. She told me about Jeanie finally getting her new prosthetic, how on the way home from the hospital they composed a new song: “All I Want for Christmas Are My Two Front Feet.” “She’s such a good sport about it,” she smiled. I told her about how my dad and I settled for watching It’s a Wonderful Life with gigantic twin mixing bowls of instant mashed potatoes settled on our laps.
Before the bell rang, she said, “I need some fresh air,” meaning she wanted to smoke, so we left. As I followed her down the hallway, a few students looked at us, whispering to one another or laughing. Susan didn’t seem to notice and I thought they were jealous. Secretly, their jeers made me feel good. Outside it was cold. I put on my black stocking cap and she pulled up the collar of her coat. She took out a cigarette and rifled through her purse for a lighter. I could make out the calloused and yellowing tips of her fingers and suddenly wanted to touch them. Her hair wisped around her face in the wind. Her ears were already red; I offered her my hat, but she declined. “You know,” she said, holding a hand to block the wind, “you missed the ACT exam. I checked the roll.” She spoke out the side of her mouth. I shook my head. Great, she’s gonna start this again, I thought. “If you just take the damn thing you’ll at least have some options.” I didn’t have a good excuse for not taking the test, other than that I didn’t want to take the goddamn test. That, and because Joby and I had plans for the next year that didn’t involve college. “Higher education is indoctrination,” Joby liked to say. Relieved of the burdens of schooling, she planned on leading the Revolution from a studio apartment in central Kansas, and I planned to be right alongside her, still working at the Shop ‘n Go most likely. Apathy, remember. I’d accepted my lot. I told Susan this and she said, “That’s the most bullshit excuse I’ve ever heard.”
A group of kids walked past us. One of them waved at Susan but she didn’t see.
“I mean, why do you want me to take the test so bad anyway? What do you care?”
“Because I want you to get the hell out of here!” she said, throwing her hands onto my shoulders. The emphatic outburst took me aback and the commotion caught the attention of the kids, who turned to look at us. Quickly, Susan took her hands away. “You don’t want to end up in this place,” she shook her head. “You should see what else is out there.” She told me there was only one more test next month, the last before applications were due. “Promise you’ll take it,” she said. I didn’t know if I meant it, but I told her I would, and she smiled.
As with many vices, the beauty and bane of crystal meth is its simplicity. Anyone who has Internet access and the will to shoplift from the drugstore can manufacture it. It was a serious problem in our town. All of a sudden iodine, camphor oil, and cold medicines were flying off the shelves, stuffed in the bottoms of lint-filled pockets and the crotches of unchanged underwear. Those with more gumption stole the anhydrous ammonia tanks from farms. And it wasn’t just the poor and desperate who were making it. People were paying their mortgages, financing their farms, and saving for college funds or retirement. It was making fortunes for suppliers and taking the hair and teeth of the addicted. I knew all of this and yet Joby’s habit happened right underneath my nose.
One night late in spring, when the weather had finally started to warm, Joby invited some people over to her house. Her father was out of town for the weekend at a religious convention in Kansas City and her mom—silently sympathetic to Joby’s misery—agreed to house a party, this antiprom. Joby invited about twenty or so of us, including Jonas, and her mom greeted us at the door with an uncertain smile, a look that seemed to say, Don’t trample my flowerbeds and please use coasters. Inside, cold thirty-packs of beer were stacked like bullion. People were talking, playing music they were too cool to dance to, and trying to find a vacant closet to fondle one another in. Joby wore a red shirt with Che Guevara emblazoned on it and she’d paid a salon to put her hair in dreadlocks. Later, when most people had passed out or fallen asleep, Joby told me to follow her. We were both pretty soused by then and she pulled me by the hand to her dad’s study. It was the first time I’d been inside. There were several bookshelves lined with videocassettes flanking both sides of a messy desk.
“Check it out,” she said, pointing at the bookshelf closest. “They’re of the lake.” I looked closer and saw they were dated consecutively. “He’s been filming every day since it disappeared.”
“We can watch it if you want,” she said. For a long minute we were quiet and then she moved closer to me, within a few inches, and said, “You can stay here tonight, you know.” She began rubbing her hands against my chest. This surprised me. I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t do anything. She rubbed harder, then leaned into me. Still I didn’t move. It must have been like hugging a two-by-four. I’d had this dream before, where Joby confesses she’s really loved me all this time and we make love and live happily ever after, but I was frozen, as though anything I might say or do would make her stop. Then she kissed me, our lips bumping together awkwardly, like seventh-grade dance partners. “Do it with me, please. You’ll like it.”
“I don’t know,” I finally managed to say, eyes still closed.
She leaned closer, laughing a small amorous laugh, and bit the lobe of my left ear. “Please, Tom. It’ll be fun.” I inhaled the cocoa butter scent of her skin and for a moment it made me feel good, but quickly the smell turned oppressive, falling over us like a gigantic blanket dropped from a distant ceiling, trapping me.
“I can’t,” I said. “I don’t have a condom.”
I heard her breath catch and she pulled back from my chest, her scent wafting away. When my eyes opened I saw she was holding a small baggie. Quickly, she stuffed the meth back in her pocket and lowered her head, rushing out of the room. I let her go, standing still for a minute, confused. I didn’t know what to say, so I snuck out to the deck to get my head together. There I watched in the sky the soft glow that precedes the sun in the early morning. There was just enough light to make the ground visible. I traced the circumference of the empty hole below me. The ground of the lakebed was fully thawed now, deep and cavernous, like the site where a meteor had tried to end the world.
As I leaned my elbows on the wood railing, a flicker of light from the trees caught my eye. I looked down below me and saw it again, a glint, like the face of a watch momentarily catching the sun. I squinted. It was still quite dark and I tried focusing my eyes, but I couldn’t quite make it out. Then I saw it again, the little flash, several yards away from the first. “Who’s there?” I called out. There was no response and all I heard was the shuffling of bodies moving past limb and leaf.
I went inside to find Joby, to tell her that people were prowling around, and when I walked downstairs I had to step over the bodies of sleepers splayed and passed out on the basement floor. Joby and Jonas were sitting on the carpet, backs to the wall. She looked at me, expressionless. Jonas had his arm around her. “Tom, you gotta take a hit off this,” he said, holding out a CD case with several thin dust lines on top.
“Don’t,” Joby said, holding back his arm. “He doesn’t have a condom.”
The morning after Joby’s party I slept through the last ACT exam, and the morning after that the school fired Susan. Joby delivered the news in a note passed during chem. I asked to go to the bathroom and rushed to Susan’s office but it was too late; her stuff was already cleared out, as though she’d just vanished. Joby arrived a minute later. “I saw her earlier, loading boxes into her car before school.” These were the first words she’d spoken to me since the party.
“What’d she say?” I asked, stepping inside the empty office and looking around. “Didn’t she say anything?”
“That she was leaving.”
“Is that all?”
“No, Tom. She said she loves you.”
She was still mad about the other night, but a kindness seemed to come over Joby then. She exhaled heavily. “She said with the school year almost over she was strongly encouraged to leave now and spend the summer looking for other employment because ‘her conduct had not been professional.’ ”
“Professional? What the hell does that mean?”
“Shouldn’t you be the one answering that?” I looked sharply at Joby for the first time, but couldn’t muster a word, and then turned my attention back to the vacant room. I wanted to ask if Susan said to tell me anything, then felt stupid and young for thinking she might have. Joby moved closer, touching my shoulder. “Come on, let’s cut out.”
Mr. Mineo was noticeably absent when we ran for Joby’s car. I’d never seen him miss a day and for a fleeting instant I thought it had to be related to Susan. I pictured the two of them in a car, fleeing this awful place together. Joby said we needed to talk, that she had something to tell me. She asked where I wanted to go. “To the lake?”
“Head out toward the highway.”
She took her foot off the gas and our speed dropped sharply. “I’m not taking you to find her. She’s gone. Get over it.”
“Just drive,” I affirmed.
She looked as if she was about to object, but only eased back onto the accelerator. Periodically I gave directions, telling her to switch lanes here, to make a turn there, and soon we were sitting in a parking lot. “Mind if I ask what the hell we’re doing at this place?” she said. I told her to follow me. Begrudgingly, she obliged, removing a flaccid cigarette from her jeans as we walked toward admissions. After I paid, we entered into the 1850-style frontier town that served as the gateway to the farms. We passed different trade booths and crafts stores, places where you could watch horses being shod or glass blown, where you could dip your own votives or mint bronze coins. Joby regarded the people dressed in the oppressive period costumes they’d sweat through all summer, unimpressed. We walked to the south end of the miniature town and caught a tram to the 1920 farm, passing the 1785, 1859, 1870, and 1900 farms in a slow succession of agrarian history.
We exited the tram and walked past a reconstructed farmhouse and paddock to a wooden fence on the edge of a cornfield, where before a crowd of school children a man leaned against one of the early mechanized plows.
He looked tired in his worn brown trousers and heavy boots. He removed his rumpled period hat and wiped his brow, smiling at the kids before him. “Hot enough for you?”
“I don’t understand why we’re—look, I have to tell you something, Tom.”
“That’s my dad,” I interrupted.
Joby looked confused. “I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but we really need to talk.”
“Seriously,” I said. She looked away from me at the man with the crazy hair, wielding several stocks of corn. He saw us and waved before delivering his short monologue on what farming was like in 1920, not long after the world had become modernized. Business industries were creating new innovations that would forever make farming easier and more productive, he told them. What he didn’t say was that these were the same innovations and developments that would eventually make it near impossible for family farms to exist today. He seemed at ease, smiling at the kids as he handed each child a cornstalk. “Well, you ain’t no use to me standing around like this,” he said, assuming a countryish accent. “Now listen, I need your help. My wife,” he said, motioning toward the white farmhouse, inside of which was a woman who cooked authentic meals for tour groups to sample while delivering her own speech on the woman’s role of running of a homestead. “Well, the missus is expectin’ some corn for supper. I’m runnin’ behind today, see, and need your help. Who here knows how to husk corn?” The kids looked at one another, clueless, and he proceeded to show them, first tearing off the corn from the stalk and slowly folding back the layers of husk to reveal the corn-silk-covered kernels. The kids struggled to do the same, looking surprised when they unearthed the yellow vegetable. My father smiled as he walked up and down the line, offering encouragement, so comfortable talking to them. He looked amazingly functional, as he often did despite the disease. Without nerves or edge, this must have been what it was like all those years ago teaching students at the university.
When it was over, my father couldn’t resist telling the children to live long and prosper, and Joby and I walked away.
“Why did you bring me here?” she asked.
“Don’t know,” I said, mumbling something about truth.
She didn’t ask me why I lied to her about my dad, perhaps because she didn’t have to; she must have known we tend to believe what we need to.
As we walked back to the tram and through the town to the parking lot, Joby revealed her own secret. She told me that she applied to UMKC in the fall, just to keep her options open, though she never mentioned it to me. She was sorry, but she’d been accepted and was going. I watched our feet move as we walked in a strange syncopated rhythm. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” she asked. I thought of a story Susan once told me about how Jeanie sometimes still felt the leg that was gone—that when Susan got her ready for bed Jeanie would take off her prosthetic and point to the air below her kneecap, saying, “My leg hurts, Mommy. Will you touch it?”
“You need to quit that junk, you know. It’ll ruin you good.”
She didn’t respond, didn’t say anything until we got to her car, asking if I needed a ride. I told her I was going to wait for my dad’s shift to finish, that it was almost over. We both seemed to sense the finality—that whatever connection we’d had would never be the same—and understood the lack of fanfare with which it arrived.
After she pulled out of the parking lot, I noticed the headlights of a black SUV, identical to Joby’s, turn on. The light shining right at me, I couldn’t make out the driver but had the feeling I knew who it was. It was a cool evening. Small buds from a flowering tree floated in clusters through the air, and for a second it seemed that if I were just waking up now I might think it was snowing. I stood there looking at him, a silhouette in a hulking car, knowing I was being filmed, and stretched my arms out.