High Cotton, by Barrett Hathcock

When they cot­ton dive, the boys become seri­ous. They coil into them­selves, squat­ting on the lip of the met­al cot­ton bins, and they thrust their bod­ies into the air. The boys go for dis­tance, they go for height, but their main con­cern is arc. They’re try­ing to pierce the cot­ton deeply and com­plete­ly. So, against the sun­set, they curve togeth­er like dol­phins into the ocean, and the cot­ton catch­es and folds around them as they dis­ap­pear beneath, swim­ming into the soft waves, bits of husk float­ing by their bod­ies like shells. They do this over and over, pulling them­selves back up to the lip of the bins and then hurl­ing them­selves off again. The bins grunt under the pres­sure. The boys dive until their arms and legs ache. In midair, wisps of cot­ton flut­ter from their hair and fall behind them like bits of sea foam.
When they were 16, this was their rou­tine. 
 
###
Though the boys were phys­i­cal­ly distinguishable—Jeremy, tall and dusky; Peter, dirty-blond—together they act­ed like a mechan­i­cal­ly sim­ple but effi­cient machine, first the tall body, then the short, mov­ing togeth­er through their high school lives, chew­ing through each new day, ben­e­fit­ing from the tech­no­log­i­cal advan­tage of two heads, four feet, four hands, four eyes. They had been friends since the fourth grade, though they nev­er con­sid­ered how or when the friend­ship start­ed. It sim­ply exist­ed. They might have well have been fra­ter­nal twins for the way they fin­ished each other’s sen­tences, inhab­it­ed and dis­card­ed each other’s clothes, were fed and par­ent­ed in each other’s hous­es.
###
The div­ing always made them late. For Peter, din­ner was at six, pre­cise­ly. His grand­fa­ther, bit­ter and enfee­bled, had always had his din­ner straight up at six, and he wasn’t going to change just because he was forced to live with his god­damned daugh­ter, Peter’s moth­er. As part of the fam­i­ly agree­ment, the old man had giv­en up his car—a mid-80s Lin­coln Town Car, a mid­night blue mon­ster that Peter did his best to rag out. Jere­my, whose moth­er was still lit­i­gat­ing the prop­er amount of alimo­ny out of his own father, was with­out a car and rode with Peter every­where.
Peter always knew they had to get home, but he was loathe to leave the cot­ton bins, which they had found one after­noon while rid­ing around the farm­land north of Niskayu­na High. The bins were hud­dled togeth­er in the cor­ner of a cot­ton field, met­al box­es of bleached orange peel­ing to rust. After div­ing, Peter liked to smoke while reclin­ing, del­i­cate­ly flick­ing his ash­es out through the fin­ger-thick holes of the wire mesh, intent on not stain­ing the cot­ton with his ash. Jere­my, on the oth­er hand, was an incor­ri­gi­ble nap­per and liked to be sub­merged, the cot­ton tucked up to his chin. At an impos­si­bly long dis­tance away, his bare toes pro­trud­ed.
At school, cot­ton had become a code word. When­ev­er they saw girls walk­ing by, girls they knew or want­ed to know, girls in boot cuts and belts, sweaters and pullovers, fleeces with and with­out hoods, the girls became “like cot­ton.”
“Just like cot­ton,” Jere­my would say with a con­tained smile.
“Fresh warm cot­ton at two o’clock,” Peter would say.
“Very uncot­ton,” Peter would some­times say.
No mat­ter the time, Peter would dri­ve home slow and take the back roads into Jack­son and roll down the win­dows and some­times Jere­my would dial the soul sta­tion run out of Gluck­stadt and they would lis­ten to Al Green and smell the farm­ers grilling out behind their hous­es.
###
If, look­ing back, Peter had had to trace the begin­ning of Jere­my and Lina’s rela­tion­ship, he would have said it began at a par­ty at Robert Birch’s house in the win­ter of their sopho­more year, not too long after that first cot­ton-div­ing sea­son had end­ed. She was sit­ting on a couch in the liv­ing room, her legs fold­ed under her Indi­an-style. A half-fin­ished can of Beast rest­ed between her legs. Peter noticed how the sweat of the can left damp marks on the inside thigh of her jeans. They had a but­ton fly, shiny like new nick­els. Lina was short with long black hair that mys­te­ri­ous­ly con­tained sur­pris­ing strands of brown, and some­times red, depend­ing on the light. She was dark, even in the win­ter, and when the cou­ples walked among each oth­er at bas­ket­ball games in Feb­ru­ary, it was obvi­ous she wasn’t from around there. All the Mis­sis­sip­pi girls had lost their brown, gone back to pearly white skin, tan lines gone for a few more months. Lina was from down fur­ther south, though the boys did not know where. She was telling some sto­ry, sur­round­ed by oth­er girls, ges­tur­ing with her one free hand, using the oth­er to hold the beer steady between her legs.
“So like ro I am so not kid­ding that boy was fuck­ing wast­ed,” Lina said.
She was famous around the school, although no one dis­cussed why. All the boys who had been there at Niskayu­na since sev­enth grade knew who she was, and remem­bered the day they first noticed her, the day she was pulled out of the junior high tableaux. Lina was the girl who had her first peri­od pub­licly, dur­ing the morn­ing break, as she ate an apple on one of the pic­nic tables out in front of the quad. Nobody remem­bers the actu­al scene when it hap­pened. They only remem­ber the small spot of blood that stained the pic­nic table bench. Lina went home ear­ly. Nobody ever ques­tioned her about the inci­dent or gave her a hard time. Nobody said any­thing. Though the junior high boys would nev­er con­fess to this, most of them stopped by the table at some point dur­ing the day. They approached slow­ly, with the rolling crunch of grav­el under their feet, and they stretched their necks out and looked down at the spot of blood, mak­ing sure not to bend over, not to get too close. They stood there look­ing at it for a minute and let out a breath, rec­og­niz­ing that what they had heard was true. They then turned around and crunched back to their class, or their friends, or their moth­ers wait­ing for them in their cars.
“What the hell does ‘ro’ mean?” asked Peter, lat­er that night back in the car.
“I think it might be short for ‘bro,’” said Jere­my.
“That’s stu­pid,” said Peter. “Is that some sort of Flori­da thing?”
“Light­en up, Pete.” Jere­my lit anoth­er cig­a­rette and spent the rest of the evening look­ing out the win­dow, final­ly ask­ing around mid­night to be tak­en home, even though his mom was out of town, and he could have done any­thing, and could have done it all night. 

###
Peter’s full name was Peter Allen Traxler. He called the car the Traxler Town Tank—“a couch on wheels hand­ed down through gen­er­a­tions.” When he drove peo­ple home from parties—he was always look­ing for an excuse to drive—he’d throw his arm up on the seat and crane his head back­ward and say, “Wel­come to the finest auto­mo­tive con­trap­tion in North­east Jack­son. Don’t wor­ry about your safety”—and at this point he’d let go of the wheel and com­plete­ly turn to the back­seat pas­sen­gers, Jere­my man­ning the steering—“if we hit any­thing, we’ll prob­a­bly come out all right.”
###
On some week­end nights, months into their rela­tion­ship, depend­ing on the sched­ule of the evening, Jere­my and Lina would make-out in the Tank. If there was a par­ty, Jere­my would snatch away Peter’s keys as he stood pump­ing up the keg, or if they went to a movie, Lina and Jere­my would take a long trip for snacks. Since both hous­es were on “per­ma­nent lock­down,” Jere­my claimed, they made time where they could. Once, when Lina’s father had to make an emer­gency busi­ness trip in the mid­dle of a week, Jere­my begged Peter into dri­ving him over to Lina’s house. Peter did his home­work out in the car, hun­kered beside the win­dow to get the good street­light, pre-calc notes spread across the dash.
###
In their sec­ond year of div­ing, junior year, their tech­nique became more intri­cate, involv­ing flips and twists and con­vo­lut­ed and ulti­mate­ly foiled land­ings. Day­light Sav­ings Time was about to end, and the specter of a 5:20 sun­set haunt­ed Peter. He whined about it at school so much Jere­my had to tell him to shut up before some­one got curi­ous.
The boys also became self-aware of their div­ing. They became finicky and pedan­tic about the details of the dive. They were harsh in their cri­tiques of each other’s per­for­mance. They devel­oped rules: you must always cot­ton dive shirt­less. You must wait at least 48 hours after a rain. Sun­set is the opti­mal time to dive, but full-on dark­ness is too dan­ger­ous. You should nev­er cot­ton dive alone. Each per­son should act as the other’s life­guard. You must check in with your div­ing part­ner after every dive to ensure he has not smoth­ered.
Then, one day, while stand­ing one the edge of a bin, psych­ing up for a back­flip, Peter took off his shorts.
After land­ing, he began vic­to­ri­ous­ly swish­ing his arms and legs in that way peo­ple do when they’re mak­ing angels in the snow.
“What in the hell are you doing?” asked Jere­my, who had turned around to Peter’s bin.
“I don’t know,” said Peter.
“You don’t have any clothes on.”
“Yeah, but—”
“Put your fuck­ing shorts on.”
“Yeah, but Jere­my, it feels—”
“I don’t fuck­ing care. Put your shorts on.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s against the rules, that’s why.”
Peter glared at him for a moment. Then Peter leaned up and reached for his shorts and grunt­ed out a Fine.
“Oh, shit—Goddamn it. Put your pants on.”
“That’s what I’m doing. Jesus,” said Peter. 
“No!” screamed Jere­my, his voice crack­ing. He was div­ing for his shirt and shoes.
On the hori­zon, a tor­na­do of dust fun­neled behind a pick-up truck. It was speed­ing along the road next to the strip of thorny trees that led to the bins. “Maybe he isn’t com­ing—” began Peter. The furi­ous cloud of dust only grew. The truck was com­ing right for them. The boys bust­ed it. Peter had nev­er dressed so fast. The box­ers and shorts went on as one. Belts and but­tons and zip­pers were left undone. Feet were stuffed into untied shoes. Shirts were on inside-out. Socks were crammed into pock­ets. And every­thing was accom­pa­nied by Jeremy’s wail: “Get in the car hur­ry up I can’t believe we’re gonna get bust­ed for this shit I hope he didn’t see your naked ass we are so dead oh my God would you just hur­ry the fuck up.” The Tank tore away. The pick-up was about fifty yards behind them. You could have seen the dust for miles. They drove so fast that the speedometer—a bright orange toothpick—peaked out at 80 and stuck there vibrat­ing. The car shook, and the wind gushed through the open win­dows and pum­meled them. Three min­utes lat­er when they swerved through the gate at the school and parked behind the obser­va­to­ry, Jere­my pro­nounced the coast clear.
###
Peter heard his moth­er come into his bed­room ear­ly to put away clean clothes, the socks and box­er shorts and gener­ic white under­shirts. She did not do this qui­et­ly, the warped dress­er draw­ers need­ing two hands, their met­al pulls clink­ing when slammed shut. Peter pre­tend­ed to sleep. She let out a heavy sigh, a sigh that Peter rec­og­nized as his mother’s trade­mark, a the­atri­cal expres­sion of her mar­tyr­dom. He wasn’t sure—lying there encased in the down comforter—if she were sigh­ing because of him, or his father, or his Grand­pa. Same dif­fer­ence, he thought.
“What’s this?” she said. “What’s this?”
Peter feigned sleep. She had picked up Peter’s dirty clothes that had been shed in a wad next to his bed, peel­ing under­shirts out of knit shirts, box­ers out of kha­ki pants. Peter men­tal­ly inven­to­ried all the con­tra­band he could remem­ber. Cig­a­rettes and lighter? Wedged under­neath his car seat. Plas­tic trav­el­er-sized bot­tle of South­ern Com­fort? Wrapped in a Pig­gly Wig­gly bag and bun­dled with the spare-tire gear in his trunk. The half-smoked dime­bag of pot bought from Binc Man­ches­ter? Was in car, now giv­en to Jere­my to hide at his house once he heard rumor of drug dogs patrolling the Upper School lot. String of six con­doms acquired two years ago at camp? In the Lincoln’s glove com­part­ment, hid­den inside the owner’s man­u­al. Three con­sec­u­tive issues of ear­ly ’93 Pent­house? Acci­den­tal­ly thrown out the fall before, still sad about it. Peter could think of noth­ing else.
“Peter, what’s this?” his moth­er said, her sad pres­ence now sit­ting on his bed, impos­si­ble to ignore.
“Mom?” he said, emerg­ing, play­ing his best. “That you? What’s up?”
“Peter, what’s this? It fell out of your clo
thes.”
She held a tuft of raw cot­ton in her hand. Peter, dra­mat­i­cal­ly grog­gy, worked at the wicks of his eyes with his fin­gers until they squeaked, and leaned over her hand, breath­ing hard. He tried some­how to reverse the blush­ing; he could feel the heat rush up his throat and over his cheeks. His lips felt chapped. He tast­ed the rusty morn­ing taste in his mouth. Fab­u­lous excus­es began devel­op­ing in his mind, intri­cate plots involv­ing car wrecks and hos­pi­tals and emer­gen­cies and trau­ma.
“I dun­no. Is it lint or some­thing?” he said.
“It’s not lint, hon­ey. This is cot­ton. Like the kind you pick off a bush.”
Peter just kept star­ing at her hand, its fine wrin­kles like the depth­less cracks seen on old paint­ings.
“I dun­no, Mom. Where did you get it?”
“It was in your clothes—where did you and Jere­my go last night?”
“Just the game. Like we always do.”
The hand retract­ed. The lint clutched tight, her face a blank hard­ness.
“Did we win?”
“No. Of course not,” Peter said, cough­ing up a laugh. “They beat us like a drum.”
“Won­der­ful,” his moth­er said. She got up, leav­ing the rest of the clean clothes stacked next to Peter in a neat­ly squared pile, the lock of cot­ton caught tight in her hand.
That next week, with­out expla­na­tion, Peter inher­it­ed his father’s cell phone. “Just in case some­thing comes up,” his moth­er said.
###
“I had a strange after­noon,” Jere­my said.
He looked off to the hori­zon, the way Peter had seen peo­ple in movies do when they are about to expel a great secret. They were on their way to a Hal­loween par­ty.
“It was dif­fer­ent. Like noth­ing else. Ever.”
Jere­my was very solemn when he spoke. He was dressed as Ricky Mar­tin, with squeaky leather pants that Peter insist­ed were too shiny and radi­ant to be mere­ly leather, that the pants were either pleather or vinyl. Vinyl, pleather, what­ev­er, Jere­my had said. It ain’t cot­ton. He wore a cream-col­ored, tight shirt. Nei­ther tried to iden­ti­fy its mate­r­i­al. It was col­lar­less but had a diag­o­nal slit at the throat-line that flapped open at will in a way that Peter said was either dis­tinct­ly Ricky Mar­tin or dis­tinct­ly Vul­can.
What is so dif­fer­ent?” asked Peter.
“Can you keep a secret?” asked Jere­my. Peter nod­ded auto­mat­i­cal­ly. “I was there when you came by this after­noon.”
“So why didn’t you come to the door?”
“Well, Lina was there, too. But no one else was around. So, you know, we start­ed to make-out.”
“Yeah?”
“And well, we went … fur­ther.”
“You did it? Oh.” Peter was at a total loss. He was dressed in his nor­mal clothes. He didn’t have a cos­tume but an injury; a fake, rub­ber screw was glued onto his fore­head with trick­les of blood dried down his face and throat. His grand­fa­ther had said it was so life­like that he want­ed to vom­it. Peter was proud and asked for pic­tures.
“No no no. We didn’t do it. I told you that we are not going to do it for a while. Not until we’ve been going out for at least a year. We just said we loved each oth­er like a month ago.”
“But—”
“We didn’t. We just. Well …”
“Well, what?”
“I don’t want to say it.”
“Why not?”
“Well, it sounds so cheap when you just blurt it out.”
“Aw, J come on.” They were qui­et. Peter checked his screw. It still looked perfect—blood spread­ing like branch­es across his face. It had tick­led hor­ri­bly when his moth­er squeezed the fake blood out of the drop­per. But it had tast­ed odd­ly sweet, as if sug­ared. He glanced over at Jere­my, whose hair was a caramel bouf­fant. Peter won­dered if he would try to car­ry the imper­son­ation com­plete­ly through the par­ty that night. He had been prac­tic­ing.
“What she going as?” Peter asked.
“Huh?” And then after a moment, he said, “Oh, yeah. She’s going to be a geisha girl.”
“A gee­sha girl? What’s that?” asked Peter.
“I don’t real­ly know. Some ori­en­tal thing.”
“So are you going to tell me?” Peter asked, sound­ing more eager than he had intend­ed. They were almost at the house. He could see the cars half-parked on the lawn.
“Lis­ten, just.” Jere­my crossed his arms. Peter pulled up and killed the engine. The house thumped with faint music.
Jere­my stuck his right hand into Peter’s face. “Sniff,” he said. Peter knit­ted his brows. “Do it. Sniff.”
Peter inhaled. Jeremy’s index and mid­dle fin­gers float­ed under his nose for a brief moment.
They were both qui­et. And then Peter said: “That’s way bet­ter than cot­ton.”
###
         
The par­ty was lame. The boys mulled around on the back porch. Their breath was the same white cloud as their cig­a­rette smoke. Lina and Mar­i­anne, Peter’s date, were some­where inside. Around eleven it start­ed to sleet.
“Do you think she wants to?” Peter asked. They were stand­ing under the over­hang of the roof. Peter’s sneak­ers were slow­ly soak­ing. The bot­toms of their jeans were damp, as if they had been run­ning through tall, wet grass.
“I don’t know. Prob­a­bly. Maybe,” Jere­my said.
“How can you tell?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she’ll say some­thing.”
“You could say some­thing.”
“Oh, yeah.” And when he noticed th
at Peter wasn’t kid­ding, he said: “But how?”
“What do you mean ‘how’? You must have talked about this some.”
“No, I mean where? As you well know, I have no car.”
“Your house?” Peter said.
“With my par­ents? Are you kid­ding? My mom hears it when the dog farts. She’s up check­ing to see if it’s a bur­glar. We can’t get halfway through a movie, for chris­sakes.”
“Hers?”
“No. Her father dates.”
“I think I’ve seen him. Home­com­ing?”
“Yeah. He was her escort.”
“How did some­one so tall have some­one that short?”
“Lay off.”
“Okay, I’m sor­ry. I’m just say­ing that if you ever had kids, they might be tiny.”
“Pete.”
“Okay, sor­ry.”
“Let’s not even go there.”
“Well, have you thought about that?”
“Yes. Duh.”
“So?”
“So … I got some con­doms.”
“Good. What kind?”
“I can’t remem­ber.”
“What do you mean you can’t remem­ber? It’s not that hard. They’re either—”

I haven’t actu­al­ly got­ten them yet.”

“Well, you need to.”
“I know,” said Jere­my. “I am. I will.”
Peter caught him­self glar­ing at Jere­my, as if he was squeez­ing the agree­ment out of him. His bouf­fant had lost its shape and it was just reg­u­lar Jere­my hair now, except lit with the glit­tery hair-paint Lina had bought him. The sleet was com­ing down heav­ier. It sound­ed like bits of plas­tic falling. The blood on his face had begun to itch.
“Is she on the pill?” asked Peter.
“Has been since she was four­teen.”
“Four­teen? What for?”
“I don’t know. It like helps them with their thing. You know.”
“It does? How?”
“I don’t know—I heard it some­where.”
Peter, after smirk­ing dis­be­lief for a moment, said, “Has she been screw­ing around since she was four­teen?”
“Peter. God­damn it. Why do you say shit like that?”
There was a knock on the slid­ing glass door behind them. It was Lina—her face ghost­ly white in the make­up. Her hair had come down too. It had been up, intri­cate­ly braid­ed and fold­ed, and Peter had told her she looked like origa­mi. Her small smudge of lip­stick and the white paint around her mouth had fad­ed from the drink­ing, so she looked like she was in reverse black face. Let’s go, she mouthed to Jere­my.
“Now?” he asked. She nod­ded and mouthed, please? He said okay and held up his cig­a­rette, only burned a fourth of the way down. She mouthed okay and her float­ing ghost-face dis­ap­peared back into the house.
“She’s been on the pill since—” said Peter.
“Shut up,” Jere­my whis­pered. “It’s a fuck­ing mir­a­cle I don’t kick your ass.” Peter start­ed stamp­ing his feet. His legs felt numb from the calves down.
“You couldn’t even try, Ricky,” he said back.
“How would you like it if I said some­thing like that?”
“All I’m say­ing,” Peter said, still stomp­ing, “is that you should ask how many part­ners she’s had.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s impor­tant.”
Peter was now bent over rub­bing his shins. The rhyth­mic sound of his hands on his jeans. He couldn’t help but think of what this weath­er was doing to the cot­ton. It was prob­a­bly turn­ing into oat­meal and would take days to dry enough for anoth­er jump. And before they knew it, it would be Thanks­giv­ing.
“What in the hell are you doing, Peter?”
“My feet are prac­ti­cal­ly frozen sol­id,” he said.
“Well why didn’t you say some­thing?” said Jere­my.
“Because you said you want­ed to stay out here.”
“But not if you are freez­ing to death,” said Jere­my.
“Are you pissed at me?” asked Peter.
No,” said Jere­my. “It’s just this night has so com­plete­ly sucked.”
“Well, maybe we could—”
There was anoth­er knock on glass, much hard­er. They both turned around. Now, she mouthed.
“Okay,” Jere­my said back. Peter heard him curse under his breath and saw him drop his cig­a­rette into his beer can and swish it around, like Peter’d seen cousins do. It was near­ly fin­ished any­way. But Jere­my didn’t move, only stood there look­ing at the glass door. He was prob­a­bly watch­ing Lina walk, Peter thought. She had been wear­ing a kimono but end­ed up bor­row­ing someone’s sweat pants after about 20 min­utes. At school, she had a way of posi­tion­ing her­self at the front of what­ev­er group of girls she was walk­ing with so that you could always see her, despite her short­ness.
Peter remem­bered how she squat­ted down, like a catch­er, to get her books for each class. She didn’t car­ry her back­pack com­pul­sive­ly like the oth­er stu­dents. She car­ried only the books she need­ed for the next class, prop­ping them on her hip. (Because of some unspo­ken tra­di­tion, the lock­ers at Niskayu­na High were most­ly dec­o­ra­tive.) When she squat­ted down, her shirt would some­times sep­a­rate from the waist­line of her pants, so that there was a band of flesh uncov­ered, the amount depend­ing on the type of shirt and pants. Peter had seen her shrink down to replace a binder, a high­lighter, a copy of Oth­el­lo, and when the por­tion of her low­er back had appeared, he had once seen, just above the waist­line, a glit­ter of met­al. At first he didn’t know what it was and he tried to stare incon­spic­u­ous­ly, while fid­dling with his lock­er. But as she moved, the bel­ly-chain moved, and the light reflect­ed off it again, as if the met­al were jew­eled. Peter stepped clos­er, to peer down at what he thought looked like a neck­lace. He was almost over her, try­ing to dec
ipher exact­ly what was tied around her waist, exact­ly what it was com­posed of. Then she stood up. Peter straight­ened and stepped back, sud­den­ly self-aware. Lina walked off to her class with­out turn­ing around. All Peter could now see were jeans and a sweater.
“Jere­my,” Peter said. “Come on. Let’s go.” He stood behind Jere­my, wait­ing for him to slide open the door. Jere­my was still look­ing into the glass, into his reflec­tion. Peter gave him a lit­tle push, very soft, just under his right shoul­der blade. After a sec­ond push, Peter felt him un-tense, and he final­ly slid the door open and the boys walked into the warm, dry par­ty togeth­er.
###
After day­light sav­ings passed, their trips to the cot­ton bins became short and intense. They had seen the pick­up once more, pulling up a dust storm on the hori­zon as they’d pulled off the road, and it had turned toward them, so Peter gunned it back onto the road. But they still returned, only once or twice a week, one of them stand­ing on the edge of a bin, ful­ly clothed, the car keys held tight, keep­ing watch, while the oth­er jumped and whooped and flipped and cursed the farmer, wher­ev­er he was. Peter typ­i­cal­ly took the first look­out. 
###
Now that it was get­ting dark ear­ly, Peter’s mom want­ed him home first thing after school. He need­ed to bring his grades up, she’d said. He had come home the week before with a scratch on his nose he couldn’t explain. He had scratched him­self on a cot­ton bulb husk, but he was sure she thought it was drugs.
Jere­my was out sick, and Peter had been dri­ving around Niskayu­na after school, think­ing about going div­ing solo but always decid­ing it was too risky. He would get home by four and his moth­er would ask where he’d been, and he couldn’t even come up with a good lie. She knew Jere­my was sick and trust­ed him even less alone.
After three days of his mum­bled eva­sions, she said, “What part of come home right after school don’t you under­stand? Either get home or give me the keys.”
The next day after school, walk­ing out to his car, Peter saw Lina wait­ing at the curb, amidst the back­packs and the base­ball hats.
“Need a ride?” asked Peter. She shook her head. She was in a black skirt that touched the tops of her knees. A black sweater but­toned twice over a sky blue stretchy shirt. Her hair blew in the wind and a strand stuck to her lip.
“My dad’s com­ing. He’s bring­ing me my car.” And then as an expla­na­tion: “It’s my birth­day tomor­row.”
Oh. Hap­py birth­day. Jere­my hadn’t told me. You’re get­ting a car?”
“Mhmm. A Fore­run­ner.”
“Sweet,” said Peter. “You talk to Jere­my?”
“Still sick.”
“Bum­mer. I haven’t seen him in like a week.”
“How do you go on?”
“What?”
“Noth­ing.”
“Why do you hate me so much?” he asked.
“I don’t hate you at all.”
“Right.”
The flow of cars kept run­ning through the car­pool line with a stut­tery con­sis­ten­cy, like the time-lapsed pho­tog­ra­phy of blood cir­cu­la­tion he’d seen in biol­o­gy ear­li­er that day.
“What’s he get­ting you?” Peter said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I hope he just gets well enough to go out. His mom keeps say­ing he’s got mono.”
“Real­ly?”
“Ro, I total­ly did not give him mono. Don’t even joke.”
“I didn’t say that. I wasn’t even gonna.”
A hunter green Fore­run­ner was mak­ing its way around the curve of the entrance road. Lina’s hair swirled around her face in the wind. It looked almond-col­ored in the bright Novem­ber sun, Peter thought.
“So that it?” Peter asked.
She nod­ded, her excite­ment undis­guised. “That’s real­ly nice,” Peter said.
“Thanks. Maybe when J gets bet­ter, we can all go out. I’ll dri­ve.”
“That would be nice,” Peter said. “Is it four-wheel dri­ve?”
“I have no idea. You could ask my dad.”
“Nah. Just curi­ous. If it was we could take it mud­ding.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
The truck pulled up in front of them and Lina put her stuff in the back­seat, and then did a sort of hop to get into the front passenger’s seat. She made some inde­ci­pher­able, excit­ed noise to her father. She gave a quick wave before clos­ing the door, and Peter waved back, but by then the door was closed, the glass tint­ed, the truck pulling away, and Peter was left alone in the car­pool line, anoth­er car pulling up and jolt­ing to a stop and anoth­er per­son jump­ing in and leav­ing.  
###
The next day, a Fri­day after­noon, was per­fect for cot­ton div­ing. The air was crisp; the sky was cloud­less, a deep, blind­ing blue. Peter sat out on his back porch, smok­ing a cig­a­rette. His moth­er was hap­py. He’d final­ly come home straight from school. She gave him an exag­ger­at­ed thank you before leav­ing for the store. Said she’d make him one of his favorites—chicken and dumplings—for final­ly lis­ten­ing.
Jere­my was still out of school. Peter had tried to find Lina, to see what the game­plan was for the week­end, but no luck. It was get­ting close to five, and he was grow­ing des­per­ate from the lack of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and the vision of Fri­day night at home with the fam­i­ly, watch­ing Grandpa’s mouth work on the dumplings at din­ner, Dad turn­ing up Nash Bridges too loud. He start­ed anoth­er cig­a­rette and called Jere­my.
Jeremy’s moth­er was star­tled to hear from him. “Yes, Peter. He’s doing much bet­ter. Doc­tor gave him a shot yes­ter­day. Turned out not to be mono—just a bad cold, I guess. Any­way, he told me he was with you,” she said.
Peter tried to cov­er, but his voice went shaky, and he could tell from the way hers b
ecame thin and angu­lar that she did not believe any­thing he said.
He called Lina’s house. He felt odd doing this. He had seen Jere­my do it so many times. The num­ber-pat­tern was not famil­iar but the sound of their touch-tone keys was com­fort­ing. The voice of a very large man answered. She was out, for her birth­day. She would not be in until late. Peter beeped off the portable phone and began to pace. It was almost five. Three cig­a­rette butts lay crushed in black, ashy smudges at his feet on the back porch. His moth­er would be home soon with with the dumpling mix. Birds chirped. Every­thing out­side turned a shade dark­er, as if the world had just slight­ly con­densed. The old man was out with her, rid­ing shot­gun, guard­ing all the coupons, read­ing the obit­u­ar­ies, telling her to slow down. Leaves were turn­ing orange, a pur­plish-brown. It was four forty-five. Thanks­giv­ing was two weeks away. He dialed Jeremy’s cell phone. It rang and rang, went to voice­mail. He imag­ined it bleat­ing next to him, sit­ting on the seat against his thigh, wher­ev­er he was. He re-dialed.
###
They mea­sured the cir­cum­fer­ence of the four bins with their feet, one placed care­ful­ly in front of the oth­er. Jere­my took off his shirt, his watch, his shoes, his socks, his belt, his jeans, his box­ers, one leg at a time so as not to fall. Lina began undress­ing as well, san­dals flipped over the side, T-shirt on the edge of the bin, bra thrown back toward the truck, jeans unbut­toned one at the time—the del­i­cate tam­bourine jin­gle of the but­ton fly—sliding off the left leg, then the right, hold­ing her hand out to Jere­my for bal­ance. She tossed the jeans over the edge. She wore no under­wear. A thin wire sparkled around her waist. She pranced away from Jere­my on the balls of her feet. The bin whined under­neath, and Jere­my fol­lowed her out to the cen­ter, to the cross cre­at­ed by the con­joined bins. They embraced, their two vague shad­ows momen­tar­i­ly con­geal­ing. Hold­ing hands, stand­ing side-by-side, they turned to face one of the bins. After glanc­ing at each oth­er, they leaned back, togeth­er, falling back­wards into the cot­ton, swim­ming in back strokes. Again, over and over, togeth­er or on their own, they dove with a deep arc into the cot­ton and pulled them­selves towards the bot­tom and found the met­al mesh that now cov­ered urine-col­ored dead grass, and then they turned around, push­ing upwards, towards the orange light, towards the air.
Peter saw it all. He was squat­ting behind a row of trees, del­i­cate­ly hold­ing back a ring of thorns. It was almost dark, and the world had blurred. He couldn’t con­trol his breath­ing; his under­shirt was stuck to his chest; the thorns were prick­ing into his palms, into his fin­gers; one scratched his neck like a bro­ken fin­ger­nail.
He saw the pick-up truck, almost gray and invis­i­ble in the dusk, slow­ly creep­ing down the dirty road towards the bins. It was already almost a hun­dred yards away.
Peter had sum­moned it. He had seen the Fore­run­ner on his ini­tial dri­ve by the field, and in silence, with no think­ing, no pause to con­sid­er what he was doing, he drove around the cir­cum­fer­ence of the field, look­ing for the near­est one-sto­ry farmer’s house, try­ing to find the one with that truck. It didn’t take long. The truck was inno­cent­ly parked in a car­port, and Peter idled in front of the house, lean­ing on the horn, until a cur­tain twitched in one of the win­dows, and he was sure he had been seen. He then stomped on the accel­er­a­tor and sped back to the cot­ton bins.
Lina’s dark green SUV float­ed next to the bins like a fat shad­ow. They con­tin­ued to dive—an awk­ward and sin­cere motion. Peter heard Lina gig­gle. A cell phone chirped from inside the Fore­run­ner, but it was ignored. Their cloth­ing lay strewn on the lip of the bin. A cou­ple of arti­cles rest­ed on the top of the Fore­run­ner. Jere­my was a pale shad­ow, with dirty shad­ings where his hair was sup­posed to be. Lina was com­pact and dark. The bel­ly-neck­lace sparkled.

The sky behind the bins had turned a navy blue.

Peter heard a twig snap under the tire of the approach­ing truck.
He thrashed, twist­ing his body. A thorn traced across his fore­arm, and he felt a siz­zling sting. It left a thin, red scratch—the kind that nev­er bleeds but always appears to be on the cusp of bleed­ing. Lina and Jere­my con­tin­ued to dive. He saw them per­form a flip into a bin togeth­er, hol­ler­ing as they dove. Peter could almost see the fluff and recoil of the cot­ton as it caught them.
The truck was fifty feet away. Peter saw the vague out­line of a dri­ver bent over the wheel.
Peter sucked his scratch, hop­ing to make the sting go away. Lina and Jere­my did not come up from the cot­ton. He knew they were under its cov­ers. He fought the urge to run for the bins and fling him­self into the cot­ton. Instead, he turned around and walked back to his car, slop­pi­ly parked in the soy­bean field behind the trees. He left the cou­ple naked in the cot­ton, float­ing togeth­er in the twi­light with the pick-up truck approaching—he left them to go home, back to his moth­er who would be wait­ing at the din­ner table with her old man.
###
Peter did not hear from Jere­my for anoth­er week. Both he and Lina were at school but nei­ther approached him. He didn’t even see them togeth­er. All he got as he walked down the hall was a fake, par­tial smile, or a slight head nod. After a week, Jere­my final­ly approached Peter after school. “Hey, man.” Peter was lean­ing over his back­pack, try­ing to force the zip­per to close. “Ya think we could start car­pool­ing again?” With­out look­ing up Peter said sure.
They walked out to the park­ing lot. The dark blue Lin­coln sat alone. Frost had hit and they moved slow­ly in their thick jack­ets and under their bulging back­packs. When they had almost reached the car, Jere­my said, “Hey, Peter. I’m sor­ry about the last week. About not talk­ing.”

Peter nod­ded. “I’ve been in some seri­ous shit.” Peter said, yeah, he’d heard things.

They crawled into the car. The doors whined. Peter put the heater on high but the air was cold at first. The seats and steer­ing wheel felt stale.
Once they were situated—the back­packs put away, the wipers mas­sag­ing the blur­ry wind­shield, the boys buck­led in and rub­bing their hands together—Jeremy looked over at Peter and with a fright­ened but elat­ed smile said: “Pete. Man, I have had the weird­est fuck­ing week. You wouldn’t believe it. You wouldn’t beleeeve what hap­pened to Lina and me. We—”
“Get out,” Peter said, his hands now stuffed into his coat pock­ets. The smile on Jeremy’s face made Peter want to pum­mel him.
“What—”
“Get the fuck out.”
“Pete—I”
“I said: get the fuck out of my car.”
“Man, I’m sor—”
“Jere­my Moul­tas, if you don’t get out of my car right now, I’m gonna beat the shit out of you.”
Peter was now shak­ing, and his fists coiled around Jeremy’s under­shirt, just below the soft, hol­low inden­tion of his throat. He yanked him close enough to see the dark­ness of his mouth, to feel his breath, the only warm sub­stance in the car. In his grip there was a tear—perhaps only a stitch—that sound­ed to Peter like a dis­tant explo­sion from some­where deep inside Jere­my.
“I’m so not kid­ding, J.”
Jere­my grabbed his things and fled the car, and Peter sped away.
###
With no expla­na­tion to his moth­er, Peter insist­ed short­ly there­after that the fam­i­ly sell the Lin­coln Town Car. His par­ents were flab­ber­gast­ed, but Peter staunch­ly refused to dri­ve it ever again, and after two weeks of acqui­esc­ing to his mother’s plead­ing (“I just don’t have time to take you to school every morn­ing”), he dropped the keys on the kitchen counter and did not come near the car for the six more weeks it took them to sell it. Every­one tried to talk sense into him, even his grand­fa­ther. That’s a per­fect­ly good car, he had said. It was good enough for me. (Every­one thought that Peter was embar­rassed about the car’s mod­el, its angu­lar shape, its bruised col­or.) Lis­ten to me, son, he con­tin­ued, keep dri­ving that car. I’ll buy you a new one as soon as you get into col­lege. Grand­pa pushed his glass­es up on top of his bald head, a ges­ture known through­out the fam­i­ly as one of con­crete sin­cer­i­ty. Son, he fin­ished, it ain’t a bad car. I know it ain’t cool. And then, pulling Peter clos­er, he said: Son, lis­ten, I promise you that car’ll get you pussy just as fast as any­thing else.

Barrett Hathcock was born and raised in Jackson, Miss., but now lives in Memphis, Tenn. He teaches writing at Rhodes College. For more stories, please visit barretthathcock.com.
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