Lowe Township, Part Six / by Raymond Belli

A Certain Kind of Man, Part 2

Deb can’t sleep. For the third time this month, she asks about Jake.

  “You have to remember something about him, Gene,” she says. She fidgets under the covers and nuzzles against my chest. She insists this stuff’s important to know before getting married.  

 I wrap my arm around the small of her back, wondering where to begin—if to begin.

“I remember some things. But you wouldn’t understand,” I say.

“Of course I’ll understand,” Deb says.

A lick of night air drifts in from the window, cooling the sweat on my bare chest.

She must get these big ideas about Jake from me, the way I talk about him. Sometimes I don’t realize I still talk about him.

“Well, you know. We were just … boys together,” I say, not knowing what else to say.

Deb shifts in place and her dark brown hair spreads like a fan beneath her head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on, tell me a story. Anything,” she says. “Actually, wait.” She wriggles out of bed and walks naked and drunk into the kitchen. She comes back with a joint and two drinks and settles back alongside me.

It’s almost been fifteen years—I have my uncle to thank for that. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if me and Jake had stayed friends. Sometimes more than sometimes I wonder how he’s doing.

* * *

We met in the summer of ’99, the summer I lived with Uncle Joe. He dropped me off at the park every morning, insisting that it was good for me. I was bad at sports—terrible, really—but he said that boys my age were supposed to have fun playing sports and making friends outdoors. No one ever picked me to play on their team, so I’d just stand on the sidelines and watch everyone else play. That’s where I met Jake. We played the same videogames and watched the same TV shows and read the same comic books and started getting along. He was two years older than me and went to a special school because he was smart and quiet.

One day he tugged on my shirtsleeve and said, “Let’s leave.” I told him that Uncle Joe had strict rules about not leaving the park, but Jake convinced me that he’d never find out. That it didn’t matter.

Jake had a strategy for sneaking past the park counselors and told me to follow his every move. Once we were out of the park, the pressure in my chest began to disappear and I started having fun. We didn’t have a place to go or anything to do, but it was enough to just talk about things we liked. Anything was better than standing on the sidelines alone.

When we came to the bridge that crosses over the river, we stopped to look at our reflections in the water and noticed two people smoking cigarettes in the distance on the riverbank.

“What do you think they’re doing down there?” Jake asked.

“Fishing, maybe?” I said, but no one ever fished in the river. It was dirty and shallow and surrounded by a tall barbed wire fence. How they got on the other side of the fence was a mystery to me. Again, Jake tugged on my shirtsleeve and said we needed to find a way in. The pressure in my chest came back, and I told him it was probably a bad idea. He called me a chicken, but he said it with a smile, as if he knew something I didn’t know.

“We’ll treat it like a mission,” he said. Putting it like that did make it sound like fun. “By the end of the summer,” he promised, “we’ll make that river ours.”

* * *

Everybody called his dad Pops—the mailman, the neighbors, you name it—and after a few visits to Jake’s house, I was calling him Pops too. His father was a tall, fat, balding man with a grey mustache and round-rimmed glasses. The balding part was funny since Jake had some of the nicest brown hair I’d ever seen.

One day we lost track of time playing video games up in his room and I wound up staying for dinner.

  “Have fun up there, Jake?” Pops asked. Jake nodded. He didn’t talk much around his parents and never looked them in the eyes.

“Not much into sports either, huh?” Pops asked me.

“Flat feet,” I explained. “Like my father.”

“If you’ve got more than his feet, your father must be a good man.”

“I guess so.”

Pops stroked his mustache at that. It must have been the tone of my voice. I think he understood the situation without needing to hear more. He scooped mashed potatoes onto my plate, smiling, always smiling, and thanked me for spending the evening with his family.

Potatoes, salad, roast beef—it was a feast whenever his mother cooked. She was a nervous but well-meaning mother, the kind of mother whose main priority is to make sure everything is all right at all times. I liked that about her. I liked how much she cared about everyone that set foot into her home.

“How’re your new glasses, honey?” she asked her husband.

“Still getting used to them,” Pops said. “When I was your age, boys, I had the best eyes in the world. After Jake was born my eyes started to go.  Myopia, it’s called. You wouldn’t know what it’s like yet. It’s when things at a distance get harder to see.”

Myopia. Every time I talked to Pops, I seemed to learn something new. Or maybe I was just young then.

* * *

When Uncle Joe dropped me off at the park the next day, someone I knew from school was making fun of Jake. I don’t think it was anything serious, but Jake, being too sensitive, dragged me by the hand out of the park and didn’t let go until we were out on the street. I don’t think he realized he’d grabbed me like that. Really, he was just upset. Luckily he didn’t turn around to see the rest of the kids laughing and pointing fingers at him.

We roamed through town without saying much. Finally I mentioned that he probably shouldn’t grab my hand like that in public—or anywhere, really. Jake thought about it for a second, and then said, “Okay.” It was a funny thing when he grabbed my hand, though. He had small, smooth hands.

Later, Jake wanted to get ice cream, but the ice cream parlor was close to Uncle Joe’s, and it was best if Uncle Joe didn’t catch us together. He didn’t Jake, I think because Jake was too quiet. That had to be it.

Instead of getting ice cream, we decided it was about time to find a way down to the river.

* * *

There used to be a bakery on Main Street with a parking lot that dropped off into the riverbank. We made it as far as the barbed wire fence, but Jake caught his foot in some shrubs and sprained his ankle before we found a way through. Jake stayed home for about a week, and without Jake, I didn’t see the point in going to the park. I tried one excuse after another to convince my uncle to let me stay home. The thing that finally sold him was a bargain to start my summer reading, and even that ended with an argument. We agreed on the condition that I stay in my room unless told to come out, which I thought was stupid but okay. I didn’t like being around Uncle Joe, anyhow.

One afternoon, I forgot the rules and went downstairs to the kitchen for a glass of iced tea. Uncle Joe was nowhere in sight, but I saw his car parked in the driveway beside another car I’d never seen before. I pressed my ear to the basement door and heard his voice spilling over with high-pitched laughter. His voice, and another man’s voice too.

I went back upstairs and decided to never mention it to him.

* * *

That night my mother called from Florida. She said her vacation was going well, and when she asked how I was doing, I started telling her about Jake. “That’s nice,” she said. “That’s nice. That’s nice.” After a few minutes she had to go.

“So what is it you like about Jake so much?” Uncle Joe asked. For some reason the question made me feel guilty. He had a way with his words that always made me feel guilty.

“Um,” I said. “He’s my friend.”

The next day Uncle Joe dropped me off at the park. He decided it wasn’t good for me to stay home and work on my summer reading because I needed tougher friends that would—I don’t know, I just needed tougher friends, he said.

When he drove off, I left the park. By now, I knew the way to Jake’s house on my own.

* * *

As soon as Jake’s foot was feeling better we went down to the river again to try to find a way in. Sure enough, farther down from where he’d hurt himself, someone had cut a hole in the fence that was big enough to crawl through. I can’t tell you why being down there was such a big deal. But it was. It felt like we were conquering something, all on our own. I guess it’s because we were young—I mean, all of this is just about being young.

We followed the bends in the river toward a long, dark sewer pipe that stuck erect out of the earth. I poked my head inside, and the echo of my voice bounced in the darkness like a rubber ball. It was completely empty and we crawled inside.

* * *

“And that’s it,” I sigh.

“That’s it?” Deb says. “I don’t get why your uncle stopped you from being friends.”

My head’s sore from pot and alcohol and it’s hard to think straight, to think quick. “See … there was a dead body that washed up on the riverbank a few days later and—”

Deb jolts up and looks at me like I’m crazy. “Gene, you’re lying!”

“No … really. The town kept it out of the news because … I don’t know. But Uncle Joe found out about it somehow and—”

“I don’t believe you,” Deb stares down at me, looking ten feet tall. “How come I never heard about it? I didn’t grow up far from here.”

I shrug.

“What’s that even got to do with Jake?”

I shrug again. Her expression says shrugging’s not enough.

“My uncle knew that we played by the river, and he had this crazy idea that we might have … oh, I don’t know, it really doesn’t make any sense.”

That’s as far as I can take it. It’s an incredible stretch as it is. I repeat what I’ve already said, and after the fifth time, the look of doubt on Deb’s face starts to change. I can tell by the look in her eyes that she’s more than a little out of it. Good.

“This Jake’s not as interesting as you make him out to be, Gene.”

“Huh. I guess you’re right.”

  She pulls my body close and starts talking about the wedding. The wedding, the wedding, the wedding. She tries making love again and I tell her to stop because I feel sick. All those drinks, I say.

I excuse myself to the bathroom where I can sit on the toilet alone and think about Jake until she blacks out and forgets everything I’ve said.