The new law, which stipulated that registered offenders couldn’t live within 1000 feet of a school, church, or other place where children congregated, drew circles all over Georgia: circles standing alone, circles within circles, circles in connected rings. In cotton country miles went by without one, but the few isthmuses between Atlanta’s circles were narrow as lawns. Tiny islands formed in the shape of boomerangs. North of Kennesaw the terrain grew hilly and the population thinned. Some miles out Glade Road the road crossed a power cut beyond which a bluff climbed up from the lake. In a hilltop copse at the top of it lived four former child molesters, three rapists, and a man convicted of indecent exposure. They slept in tents under the tree canopy and parked downhill from it. The youngest was twenty-five, the oldest fifty. All were white. On Mondays water coolers were delivered to an office park down the road; Randall, the first settler, would steal a few to hang from trees as showers. He drove a bus, and Bruce edited at CNN. Jeremy worked at the World of Coke. Patrick clerked at 7-Eleven; Allen and Travis had jobs at Boeing; James sold glasses. Stephen, the exhibitionist, was a lawyer. For years he’d been a partner at a prestigious firm; then, in 2007, he was brewing coffee in the nude when a school bus stopped outside his window. In court a father claimed he’d planned it: “Who makes coffee in his living room?” The judge handed down a suspended sentence, but the statewide registry forced him out of his Midtown home. “Have you got a tent?” asked the deputy who evicted him. “No? Might wanna get one.”
When Stephen showed up at the camp, Randall asked him, “What do you want.” “Cops sent me,” he answered. “Well what did you do.” “Exposure.” “That’s lame.”
They thought he was hiding a worse crime, but he didn’t care; these men were monsters. He stayed gone all day and at night lay in his tent reading. In ten days he read all of Proust. One night after a hard rain, Bruce, the video editor, stuck his head in and said, “Which ones you done with?”
“Which ones what?”
“For the fire,” Bruce said, climbing through the half-open zipper to kneel by a stack of novels. “The Man Without Qualities.”
“If you touch it, I’ll shoot you.”
“Felons can’t own guns.”
Stephen pulled out a .45-caliber pistol, aimed it, and said, “Plan to tell?”
“Fine, keep your books, crazy fuck.”
For months he kept his distance, working long hours and reading himself to sleep, until one night the temperature fell to eighteen. He lay alone shivering until Randall called, “We know you’re awake.” Wrapped in his sleeping bag he staggered out and took a seat by Allen, who passed him a bottle. He drank and listened to a debate about Michael Vick, the quarterback, who’d been charged with running a dog-fighting ring. “Asshole ought to rot in jail,” said Bruce, “and never play ball again.” He held up a glowing branch from the fire. “This was our year.”
“Stevie, could you get him free?”
“I couldn’t get myself free.”
“You defended yourself?”
“A partner would’ve, but the judge didn’t like him.”
“Vick’s Judge hates Vick, too. You eat meat?” Stephen nodded. “They do worse things to pigs than dogs. I say lock up the pig farmers and let Vick go.”
Allen said if Vick came to live at the camp, they could play touch football together. Or fight dogs, said Bruce. Randall shook his head and said no blacks, he spent enough time with them on his bus. But he’s Michael Vick, said Allen. I don’t care if he’s Mother Theresa, said Randall. She was white, said Allen. I don’t want women neither, said Randall. They were all missing the point: Vick, once he’d served time, could live where he pleased. No law would keep him away from pet stores or vet clinics. Stephen lay back and watched embers rise into a starless sky. Snow was in the forecast, and he hoped it wouldn’t begin until he’d driven to work. He hoped to be stranded in his office, unable to leave until he’d prepared the case he’d been developing in his mind to challenge this law. If he could only find a sympathetic defendant—but that was the catch, he decided, as he watched his neighbors’ frosty breath mingle with smoke and knew he was forever the same as them in the law’s eyes.
At dawn, when the snow began falling, Jeremy, the youngest, woke by the smoldering fire. He wiped melted snow from his face, fetched his uniform, pulled it on over his long underwear, and descended the trail. It took ten minutes to de-ice his windshield and another twenty just to reach I-75. An hour after that, when he finally arrived downtown, several inches of snow lay unblemished on the empty parking lot of the World of Coke. He walked six deserted blocks, bought the paper, and went into a diner. The primary election was tomorrow, and Obama was expected to beat Hillary. His candidates were like his baseball teams: they lost each time. When he was eight, his class flew to Chicago, and he was the only boy who didn’t get a window seat on either flight. He’d learned to expect that sort of thing. “You’ll get stranded,” said the waitress, whose hair was the color people called dishwater.
“Is there a school or church nearby?”
“I doubt it. Why?”
Folks all reacted one way or the other. He liked putting them to the test. He said he was twenty-five and his ex was twenty-two and it had happened seven years ago.
“Did she testify against you?”
“Her dad convinced her I’d brainwashed her and sent her to Spain. You know the age of consent in Spain?” She shook her head. “Twelve.”
She said she should get back to work. She was thinking he meant it sounded nice, that age. He paid and walked out into the storm. Across from Turner Field he stood on asphalt where the old stadium had had its home plate. David Justice had stood here and hit a foul into Jeremy’s glove. Jeremy’s mother, who’d lost her feet recently, used to take him to the games. He couldn’t live with her now because her house stood by a church. No one under sixty attended, but he wished a few kids did, so he could imagine touching them just out of spite.
After a while his phone rang. “Jeremy?” said his mother, “are you inside?”
“I’m at work, Mom.”
“You’ll stand out in the snow and catch cold.”
“I’ve been in a warm building all morning.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about. I’m immuno-compromised.”
He promised her that he would stay inside. She asked if he would come by later to feed the birds. Of course, he said, drawing his coat hood up to lie in the snow. The sky was deeply gray, and he doubted he’d make it home. He could stay one night at his mother’s house but he didn’t want to. She was the reason he had to stay in Georgia, she and the parole board; otherwise he’d hitchhike to Alaska. Summers here made the cops restless. One had asked Allen if he wanted a taser up his ass. Maybe that was what Allen deserved, thought Jeremy, closing his eyes. He moved his arms to make angel wings and dreamed he was in a gold rush looking for gold. When he awoke, he lay in a white room with a nurse hovering over him and a guard in a hallway. “We had to amputate,” the nurse said.
In a panic he tried wiggling his toes and could feel each one: was this phantom pain?
“I’m teasing. It could have been worse, though.”
So the computers had told her he was a sex criminal. “Let me guess,” he said. “You took all the kids to another floor.”
“What would you have had us do?” she retorted, sounding beleaguered. The guard asked if Jeremy was harassing her. Yes, she said; she would let the floor supervisor take care of him. A huge black woman named Mathilda came to check his signs. He told her about his girlfriend’s begging him to marry her.
“You got someone to pick you up?”
“Were you listening to me?”
“No.” She let the air out of his cuff. “What about you, were you listening? We need somebody to release you to.” There was only his footless mother, so an Officer Bryant, blond and young like Jeremy, drove him to the World of Coke. The car was buried deep in a snowdrift. Bryant retrieved Jeremy’s registered address. “Looks like I’m taking you home,” he said, but the address was an open field, and Jeremy told him so, then said he lived in a tent in the woods north of town.
“It tells what you did, case you’re worried what I think.”
“If you’re not a dick, you shouldn’t be a cop.”
“My wife was sixteen when we first hooked up.”
“Mary was twelve when she had Jesus.”
“Just get an apartment. Or leave Georgia.” Some states had better laws. If his mom died, he said, he would leave the whole country. Well good luck getting a passport. What’s that supposed to mean? Oh, forget it.
They were silent the rest of the way. At the gravel pull-off Bryant asked, “Does Kennesaw know about you all?” and Jeremy said the cops came only when it got warm.
“What do they do when it gets warm?”
“Play their games.”
Bryant was about to ask if he could help, but Jeremy cut him off. “The day a cop helps,” he said, “will be the day I die.” When Bryant was gone, he stepped uphill into a snowdrift so steep he lost his balance. Again he lay in snow. Maybe he’d wake up in another hospital. Snowbanks were beguiling. In ‘93, when the blizzard trapped his family at home, he’d been nine years old. His mom asked his dad to go out for orange juice, the only drink that let her swallow her pills without gagging, but the roads were icy. Drink water like a normal person, said Jeremy’s dad. She put the bottles back on the shelf. What will happen now, asked Jeremy, and she said, “My blood pressure will rise until I have a heart attack.”
He trekked alone through the snow to Food City, where with numb hands he picked out a gallon of Tropicana. Carrying it the mile back uphill, he lost feeling in his fingers, but his heart surged to think of her accepting his offering. The sun was setting when he found her sitting in her chair in the dark, staring at a crossword. He flipped a switch, but the power was out. “I got juice.”
She didn’t move. “No pulp?”
He looked at the carton. Lots of pulp, it read. Pulp made her gag. He recalled that now, along with the time he’d trampled her camellias, and of course the class trip on the plane. God was trying to make him cry. She called after him as he ran away, but it was too late; a blizzard provided a lot of hiding places, and he found a long string of them before they melted. He crouched in those holes like a gopher and never cried. It was too cold for his eyes to create water. The juice turned the snow amber instead of orange, and it felt good for his limbs to go numb, although heating them back up afterward caused a bit of pain.
As a parole term, Stephen had to attend a weekly group, and so far he hadn’t gone to the same meeting twice. By spreading himself out he was more likely to be recognized, but that was better than for folks at one meeting to grow familiar with him. On the last Monday in March he printed directions to a Unitarian church. He went by way of Vickery’s, where he drank two martinis. Back in the car he listened to the news. In Georgia, complained a lobbyist for tort reform, a family had won two hundred million in a suit Stephen had helped with. If his firm hadn’t dismissed him, he’d have earned a six-figure bonus. He tuned the voice out and prepared for the moment when some addict would say you know there’s a problem when sex affects your work.
The church, a low brick building, was a former school, which led Stephen to imagine a double gnat line around it. That was his nickname for the outer limits of circles. He’d seen them mapped out at the police precinct. When he’d heard Patrick mention the real gnat line—“Folks is different below it”—he’d thought the term stupid: did the line extend beyond Georgia? Did it stretch across Dixie? Wasn’t this a bit like astrology, deeming huge swaths of people to be identical?
He followed signs to a gym where twenty adults sat in a circle, and took the last chair. “I’m Pam,” said a young woman with vibrantly curly hair. “My husband’s into cuckolding. I invite guys over to tie him up and he watches them screw me, which was fine till we had kids and suddenly he’s got a problem.”
The facilitator, a Hispanic man in a pink tie, said, “Thanks.” “I’m Lucas.” “I’m Frank.” “I’m Mary.” Stephen focused on the speaker of each name. It was fun to guess who else was there for a signed note. He studied a dead ringer for Lee Harvey Oswald, then a Mexican girl, and then he jerked back: the next person was Jeremy, wearing his red shirt from the World of Coke. He was staring at the woman named Mary. Clearly he hadn’t noticed Stephen, who couldn’t help watching him as Mary said, “I’m taking it day by day, trying not to play games.”
“Thank you, Mary.”
“My name’s Jeremy,” said Jeremy, his glazed eyes focused straight ahead. “When I was sixteen, this guy Kevin smashed into my mom’s car. He didn’t have insurance, so he begged my mom not to report it. She agreed. That night her back started to hurt. Pretty soon she couldn’t walk. Three weeks later Kevin hadn’t paid her a cent and her car wouldn’t run, not that she could drive. She just sat there in pain. All day I thought about my mother in pain. I went to Kevin’s and he said his dad had just died and he’d pay us next Friday, so I said okay, but then in his car I saw these empty beer cans.”
Jeremy swallowed and took a breath. He turned his focus to a fiftyish man with a trimmed beard who sat near Stephen.
“Kevin vanished. I went to his work; he’d quit months ago. My mom was in agony. I drove to Kevin’s one last time and banged on the door until this boy of about nine, wearing Mickey Mouse ears, opened the blinds.”
When Jeremy said “Mickey Mouse ears,” Stephen knew he wasn’t speaking as himself, but as Bruce, the CNN video editor from camp.
“The door was hollow. I busted through. Kid runs to his room. I follow him in there. I pull my pants down. Next thing, he’s got this yellow lighter, and he burns my arm. I grab it from him and burn his cheek and say suck my cock or I’ll hurt you even worse, so he does it.”
Jeremy shifted his gaze, saw Stephen, and froze. Stephen watched him growing aware of the crowd’s opinion: they had worked themselves into a silent, righteous anger. “The reason was to get Kevin back for my mom.”
There was a long pause Mary broke by saying, “I can’t sit here and nod.”
“I’d like you to leave,” said a guy in Army clothes.
“I need a form signed at the end.”
“Then I’ll be the one leaving,” said the Army guy. He walked out followed by two women. It was hard to tell what might happen next until Stephen heard himself say, “My name is Stephen.”
When he spoke, he could feel the relief all around him and in his own shoulders. “I used to get high and invite guys over. I never used condoms. If I had a partner, I cheated. If he said he loved me, I left. There was this boy I met at N.A. He had stringy dark hair and arms that bent way back, like Gumby, and he was trying hard to quit. I did everything in my power to keep him high so I could just fuck fuck fuck fuck until he shot himself and fell over Niagara Falls.”
Stephen swallowed. All eyes were on him. Jeremy must be thankful. What a great outcome, he must be thinking. Then again, Jeremy had chosen Bruce’s story: maybe he thought Stephen had invaded his meeting, pulled the rug out from under what he was doing. The catharsis shriveled up in Stephen and was replaced by worry. Jeremy was a loose cannon, maybe a dangerous one. Maybe he thought Stephen was stalking him. Who could trust a convicted sex offender? Stephen had gotten himself into trouble. He stopped listening to anything but his fear. By the time the meeting was over, he was so keyed up he rushed to the man in the pink tie, got his form signed, and darted to his car before Jeremy could speak his name.
Patrick came from down below the gnat line. His grandfather was a white sharecropper, his father was a drunk, and his mother was a nurse. In fifth grade he pushed a girl off the bus and went to reform school. “Lots of blacks in there,” said his dad, and sure enough Patrick became friends with some and rode with them to Macon in a car they stole. It was the music, not the cars, his dad threw him out for. “There’s places for that, and you can go live in one,” so he went to Atlanta and found a job detailing cars. At night he rode around in those cars with Rooney, who liked to hold his gun to a girl’s head while she sucked him off. Just for kicks. In a few months Patrick’s turn came. The girl, who looked like she’d been born with a cleft palate, was barely awake to hear the words of the guys watching. He kept thinking of his sister Jamey, who’d also had a cleft palate. Jamey was thirteen, the girl was sixteen, and he was fifteen. “Get me a black one next time,” he said, and they did. The boss started paying him to drive cars across the line to Florida. On his nineteenth birthday, as the sun rose over Daytona, he was arrested. Four years later, on the day of his release, Rooney brought him a girl. He talked a blue streak as Patrick undressed: Tony’s dead and Donald’s in Newark and Javon got a straight job to pay for his kid. Patrick pictured himself working to pay for this girl’s kid. It would be his kid, too, and there was a chance it already had siblings. “Ain’t she sweet?” asked Rooney, just as the cops busted in and said freeze.
He might have obeyed, but he was about to come. He wanted to fill her up so she’d have his kid, and that—more than Rooney’s having drugged her, more than his having just been freed—was what offended the jury most.
The worst part of prison was having to be in the white gang, but it wasn’t half as bad as when he got out five years later and learned the offender camps were segregated too. The black one was an abandoned motor court south of town, where four spotless Neons were parked in a row. Patrick was praying Rooney would be there, and sure enough Rooney emerged from room five. “Rooney,” Patrick said, ready to embrace him, but he was met by a 12-gauge shotgun.
“I’ll give you to three,” said Rooney, as other men emerged. “One.”
“I hung with those guys cause I had to.”
“Two and a half.”
He went to the white camp and got a job at 7-Eleven. He grew a beard. One day his sister Jamey stopped into the 7-Eleven and didn’t recognize him. She had had surgery on her scar. He handed her some a pack of Camels and watched her leave, then went in back and opened some Boone’s. It was his first drink since that girl. He drank the bottle and opened another. In two days the cops would be shutting down his camp. “Anyone back there?” called a white lady.
“Why, you horny?” he shouted, after which there was no more need to go up front. He carried some malt liquor to his car. He filled his car with malt liquor until it sagged from the weight. He unplugged the master camera, pulled the fuses out of the fuse box, changed out of his shirt, removed his license plates, replaced them with ones from the manager’s broken-down van, took off his socks, cut eye holes in one, pulled it over his head, drove around front, walked inside, and fired his pistol at the ceiling. A woman screamed; a man sank to his knees. He aimed at the man who was still standing and said, “Put the cash in a bag. Key’s in the drawer.”
It was the easiest thing he’d ever done. “Now put your wallets in,” he said, and they obeyed. This was how white folks behaved. He drove to the lake and counted out nine hundred dollars. He rolled down the window, opened a Steel Reserve, and thought of spending it on a girl. There weren’t any nearby, which was why he lived here, but there weren’t any at schools, either. The last place his type of girl went was a school. He filled his backpack with booze and started uphill, lamenting that there was no one to give his money to. On the hilltop around the flames of a fire waited his neighbors. “Who’s that?” said a voice he didn’t recognize from across the fire pit.
“Patrick, you drunk?” said Randall.
“Your mom,” he said again, falling into position beside Randall, who was roasting a slab of beef. Allen sat on the other side of him savoring the smell.
“I’ll give you half this steak for whatever you’re drinking.”
He offered Randall a Steel Reserve, and Randall gestured with it across the fire to a stiff corncob of a man sitting upright on a rock. “This is my cousin Gary. Runs a quarry up in Rome, needs five guys.”
“They’s no schools or churches,” Gary said.
“What’s in it for you?”
“His niggers quit,” said Allen. “All at once. Tell him what you said.”
“Why don’t you.”
“Like it was some kind of convention.”
“You know what?” said Patrick, feeling in his pocket. “It always seemed to me, why that word’s unfair is there’s none like it they can use on us.”
“Honky,” offered Allen.
“Say ‘His honkies quit.’”
“Four of your friends have signed on, and I’ve got room for one more,” Gary said.
“These aren’t my friends.”
“Day after tomorrow the cops will ask your intended residence. If you ain’t got one, they’ll take you back into custody.”
A quarry was a filthy place, thought Patrick; the only good work he’d ever done was on cars, cleaning them inch by inch with a fine brush.
“Why’d they leave?”
“Your niggers,” he said.
Stephen ambled over and sat down beside Gary. “This one’s a lawyer,” said Randall. “Too smart for your quarry.”
“Maybe your niggers were too smart for your quarry.”
“Maybe you’re shit face drunk,” said Randall.
“Maybe I don’t want somebody else solving your problems.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Randall, reaching for the steak with a thick square of foil. Patrick decided he would answer the question. As Randall bit into his steak, Patrick aimed across the fire and shot Gary in the temple. Gary gasped, bleeding out the hole that formed, and the meat fell out of Randall’s mouth. Allen let out a belated scream as Gary toppled forward.
“The blacks were always nice to me,” he said, already smelling the burning flesh of Gary’s face. “Maybe they’d have done you right, too, if you’d looked them in the eye.”
He’d intended to go into the woods to do it, but watching the fire eat Gary he saw how he could force the rest of them to deal with his mess. Drag him out of camp, explain it to the cops. He pictured five black cops listening to Allen tell it, and it was too good to pass up. He’d heard that men shat their pants when they died. He picked up Randall’s steak, took a bite, chewed it, swallowed, licked his lips, pointed the gun down his throat, changed his mind, aimed toward his brain, pulled the trigger, lost his balance, shut his eyes, and never hit the ground.
On the last day of the month Jeremy left work early, telling his boss he had to take his mom to the doctor. He drove out Pulaski Highway to a strip mall where, between a gospel church and a Navy recruitment center, he found the law office of Brick, Butter, and Younce. In a low room lined with faux wood-paneling he stood facing an unmanned desk stacked high with papers and called, “Hello?”
Stephen emerged through a door and asked, “Jeremy?” as if after all these months he wasn’t quite sure of Jeremy’s name.
“I was hoping to talk to you.”
Stephen invited Jeremy into a tiny, crowded office and told him to sit. He did. “I’m wondering what happens if I violate a restraining order,” he said.
“Depends who took out the order.”
“The father of the girl I slept with,” he said, a little more aggressively, because he knew how Stephen felt about the other men at camp. He’d also seen Stephen staring hungrily at him at the meeting.
“What is it you want to do?”
“Tell her I love her.”
“I don’t advise it.”
“How long could I go to jail?”
“Are you on parole?”
Jeremy nodded, suddenly ashamed of bringing such stupid questions to Stephen, questions whose answers would be obvious to any child.
“If you write her a letter,” offered Stephen, “I could deliver it.”
You’d really do that? he almost replied, abjectly, before realizing Stephen’s offer wasn’t selfless. Stephen had a crush on him. When he left, Stephen was going to jerk off. That was the only reason anyone helped anyone. He thanked Stephen and said goodbye. Twenty minutes later he was in Little Five Points. Melissa opened the door holding a Siamese cat, wearing a leather jacket, her auburn hair so stylishly coiffed that he gasped aloud.
“You’re here,” she said as the cat scrambled to get away. It leapt out of her arms, scratching her, as he spoke to her for the first time in years.
“You’re all I’ve got. I’ve loved you this whole time.” Those lines fell out of him like lead pellets. Speaking them, he got the sensation that love wasn’t a real word, that he’d misheard it as a child.
“I haven’t read your letters. My brother was here when the first one arrived, and he made me promise to throw them all away.”
She might as well have slapped his face. He almost slapped her back. His mind wasn’t in his head; it was in his arm, slapping her. Holding that arm down with his other hand, he noticed her diploma on the mantel. “Congratulations,” he said, pointing to it.
“I’d have graduated no matter what.”
He wondered if she meant no matter how many times you’d raped me. “What was your GPA?”
“Three seven. What do you care?’
“Dammit, I’m being nice.”
“You’re not even sorry.”
“Maybe if you admit you love me.”
“I used to think I did.”
“Melissa, don’t say that.”
“Why? Does it hurt you?”
Nodding, he realized that had been her aim. He had to get her outside. “Come for a walk,” he said, gesturing up the block, where people were gardening and walking dogs. No way could she claim to feel unsafe. So she agreed, and they strolled toward the main shopping street, passing other couples who smiled and said hi.
“I’m moving,” he said, figuring she’d ask if it was to New York, where they’d planned to be models.
“Me too. To Chapel Hill, for a master’s in social work.”
To help abuse victims like yourself. He could have pushed her into traffic for being so smug. You wanted me before I wanted you.
“I’m going to Spain,” he said.
“I did my year abroad in Seville.”
He knew that already. “Do you speak Spanish?”
“I had a boyfriend there who taught me a lot.”
“Melissa, I’ll never stop loving you.”
“There are some pretty girls in Spain.”
“Don’t be fucking stupid.”
“Your camp was in the news.”
“What do you mean my camp?”
“Dad’s still kind of obsessed. He followed you to where you live and talked to the cops and now they’re shutting it down.”
They were passing a newspaper box, and she bought a Journal-Constitution. On page A8 she showed him a headline that read, “Homeless Sex Offenders Pitch Camp in Wild,” along with a picture of his and Allen’s tents.
“I see,” he said, because he really did. He saw that he was a puppet. He saw couples eating at cafes. He decided to have a panic attack. She would be forced to take care of him. He knelt on the concrete. She told him he needed to breathe. She begged him to. His plan was working. All he had to do now was stop loving her. One time when she was fifteen, they went to Burger King, and he discovered he had just three dollars. What if we share a Whopper and a Coke, he’d suggested, but she wanted her own Whopper and her own Coke. As he watched her eat, she told him, “You’re the one who forgot the money.” His head grew light and his vision blackened. She squeezed his hand. When he came to, he was lying beside a juniper bush and she was kneeling over him. “Are you okay,” said a girl in a Starbucks apron, and he sat up and said, “Go home, Melissa. I’m done.”
She followed him down the street, saying, “We can’t leave it like this.”
“You’re too old for me now.”
“We could stay friends,” she said. Someone must have convinced her she needed closure in the form of an admission of his guilt. “Where will you go when they close your camp?”
“I told you. Spain.”
“Do you have the money?”
“No. Why don’t you ask your dad to lend me some?”
For some reason that was what finally made her cry. He didn’t see why. To his mind it was a funny joke, given that Mr. Fisher really would have paid any amount of money to send him so far away.
After crossing a train track he came to a tavern with a neon Miller sign. Inside he found six black men in a row facing an old bartender. He asked for a shot of tequila. “These Braves,” said a man who held the sports pages, “their time is up.”
“Fire that manager, they’ll be fine,” said the next man. “His is the only time that’s up. What brings you here?”
Jeremy opened the front section of the man’s paper to A8 and said, “I’m being evicted.”
“I heard of one of these south of town.”
“That one’s for black guys. Mine is for white guys.”
“You a Braves fan?”
“Off and on.”
“Foul. Used to hate them and now I like them.”
They fell silent. “You look like a girl just broke your heart.”
“No, you’re wrong. It was a while back that she broke it. But I only became aware of it this afternoon.”
The name on Allen’s birth certificate was Al Jack Downey, after his dad, who was named for two minor-league all-stars. When Allen learned to drive, he looked them up. Al, the shortstop, lived in a swamp in a pine shack. He was blind and he thought it was 1989. “Living in the future, old man,” said Allen, to which Al croaked, “You’re living in the past.” Jack’s shack was on a mountain near Rabun Gap. He was eighty, but the man who opened the door was twenty, with a bottle in hand and a joint in his mouth. “Who are you?” he said, and Allen said he had come to meet the pitcher he was named for.
“Is that gin?”
He invited Allen into a room whose windows faced down four slopes. Allen saw a town out the open window above the girl who offered to give him head. She was the boy’s cousin and Jack’s grandchild. They did acid together until they ran out. They drove to Nashville to buy more, but somewhere in the night their axle broke and the boy died. Allen and the girl held hands in the rain and vowed never to part, but then in Nashville she asked if he would ever consider an abortion. I’m a dude, he said, watching her tears roll into the river. As she slid down the bank toward her tears, she told him their mother had wanted to abort her and Jack.
“You were twins?” he said, astonished.
“We were four years apart.”
He saw into her question and understood she was making fun of his cock. Whenever he tried to put a condom on, his cock went soft. “Your mom didn’t say shit about abortions,” he accused, which felt good, yelling at her. She liked it too. He was squeezing her hand as they walked to the courthouse to be married. They never made it past security. “I don’t even know your last name,” he cried as they dragged him off, knowing his tears would never make it to the river.
They’d caught him with three sheets of LSD, which got him four years. Brushy Mountain loomed over the prison of that name, and there was a house on it where a woman watched them through a spyglass. Allen’s cellmate had been with her on his furlough, and she liked guys like Allen. Every day Allen stood in the yard facing that house. The sun would reflect off its window and he would wave. In March 1994 they set him free. He followed the highway to a gravel drive up the mountain. When he reached the clearing on top, an orange sun was sinking over the plateau. Below him lived everyone he knew on earth. Ready to knock, he stopped in his tracks: it wasn’t a house, just a stone wall made to look like one. On the ground lay a pile of gaffing lights soaked in mud. He pushed at the wall until it began to budge: it was plastic. Except for two blow jobs he was a virgin. The sun vanished as the wall crashed down, and he rode an old bike downhill into a town called Wartburg where at a trailer bar by the river he took his first girl. Her name was Cheryl. Afterward she drove him to a town called Harriman. The girl in Harriman said yes, but he treated her like she’d said no. He stayed until he couldn’t bear her yeses anymore, then hitched to Chattanooga, where he found Infinity. If she’d lived in Tennessee, he might have gone to prison for good, but there was some kind of division between Georgia and Tennessee. Georgia was where he met Travis. They got paroled and rented a house with a girl Travis knew. The school opened in 2006, and then the law passed in 2007. The girl said she’d keep the house for herself. She said if Travis had admitted what he was, she’d never have loved him. They made their way to camp and lived there until the fire. Allen’s tent was a Marmot, and it saved his life, because he stole it instead of buying it. Everyone else bought theirs, which meant they couldn’t afford flame-retardant cloth, not that Allen had been looking for any himself. He just wanted to be warm. The night of the fire it was ninety degrees. They argued about what to do with Gary and Patrick. Travis said it was so hot that they’d smell awful by morning. Randall countered that they were all leaving camp anyway so who cared?
For once Allen didn’t take Travis’s side. He felt like he’d been dragging corpses around his whole life. Fuck it, he said, they can smell or not smell, and he went in his tent and jerked off to the Brushy Mountain girl. It was her fault he’d gotten in trouble. If she’d been on her mountain, he’d never have touched Cheryl. Fuck that bitch, he was thinking as he came, and then he fell asleep. When he awoke, bright flames surrounded him. Without thinking, he rolled, inside the tent, over the hill’s edge. He heard strange voices. He was rolling too fast to stop. Besides Jeremy, who vanished, and James, who never spoke another word, he was the only one who survived to hear the story. These men got a preview of hellfire, said an editorial he read on a barstool at the Waffle House. Some guys to his left were reading it too, and the waitress overheard. “I had a cousin burn up in Iraq,” she told them, “and it’s not a good death.”
“So you feel sorry for them?”
She shrugged. “One used to come in for omelets. This lawyer. He was sweet to me.”
“Probably wanted to hurt you,” said one of the men, and she shrugged as if maybe he was correct. They moved on to the sports pages. The Olympics in Beijing! You couldn’t have paid that fellow enough money to go to Beijing. The waitress drifted over to Allen, refilled his coffee, and asked, “You okay?”
“I will be when I get on the road.”
“Where you headed?”
“Well, funny you should ask. I was heading into the city, but now I believe I might be headed to Tennessee.”
On the first warm morning Stephen went to the clearing edge and righted the upended jug, the one with holes in it. Water spilled out at his feet and muddied the dirt. It was the first of April, the day after Jeremy’s visit to his office, and the woods were in bloom. There was a rope dangling from the oak that he tied to the bottleneck and pulled until the jug hung above him. He looped it around a branch and undressed. The temperature was about seventy, and for the first time since fall it felt bearable to stand under water. He hummed “Sea of Heartache” as he scrubbed himself, and a bird chirped in answer. Later that day he would defend a woman accused of stealing a purse. Macy’s had spent more prosecuting her than the purse had cost, but he couldn’t mention that in court. The bird flew away. He turned to see Randall grabbing his pajamas and running off with them.
He pulled the rope until the jug was in his hands. He clutched it and stared after Randall, drying off with a washcloth and devising a hateful lie to tell the D.A. about him. When he reached the tent city, no one was in sight. He stuck his head into his tent and froze: his clothes baskets were gone too. Behind him he heard giggling, and he backed out to find everyone except Jeremy by the fire pit. When he cupped his hands over his cock, they laughed harder. “It don’t bother us. Be naked all you want; don’t you like to be naked?”
“Maybe we’re too old to be naked in front of,” said Bruce, which caused more eruptions. Now he let his hands fall to his sides. He wanted his calm to convey that he had friends in high places. One night while they slept, those friends would kill everyone here but him and Jeremy. Someone told him his clothes were behind the sycamore, but he wasn’t sure who, because his eyes had gone unfocused and he had no friends.
“We were just having fun. I mean, can’t you laugh?”
He felt acutely aware of the breeze as he bent to pick up a solid tree branch. He focused in on Randall’s pouty eyes. “Dude, we’ll give you your clothes,” said Randall, as Bruce appeared from behind a tent with Stephen’s pajamas.
“Keep them,” said Stephen. “You’re right. I like being naked.”
“So you did open those blinds on purpose.”
He nodded. “The bus came each day at seven and at three,” he said to their mesmerized trance, as rapt as any angry jury’s. “There was a girl named Emily; she had coppery hair and a blue backpack.”
“And?” said Randall.
“And this.” He swung the branch like a bat into Randall’s head, hitting him in the ear. Everyone stood stunned as blood trickled out of Randall’s ear. Randall staggered backward and sat down, and Stephen’s pajamas fell out of Bruce’s hands. “I’m not one of you,” said Stephen, focusing on Bruce’s gold cross. “All that was a lie.”
“It’s the truth according to Georgia,” Bruce said, as Randall sank to the dirt to blot at his blood with the pajamas.
“I’m leaving Georgia.”
“You’re a shitty lawyer if you don’t know reciprocity.”
“That’s just with bordering states.”
Bruce shook his head, and indeed Stephen’s words were more of a lie than the bus was. It really had come at those times, although the girl had no name. It was only men he liked. He’d been dating a man who watched porn on Stephen’s PC. One day the man showed Stephen a site with old photos of pubescent boys in Corsica. The man was a methhead, which was why from jail Stephen called his friend Max, and not the methhead, to burn his hard drive. But Max had kids now, and he must have been following the news. Although the cops found no damning files, the mere request was enough in the jury’s eyes to prove guilt.
“Your clothes are over there.”
Stephen stood behind the tree on dead leaves that crumbled beneath his feet as he pulled his pants on. He thought of his client, whom he’d been trying to persuade to dress up. “I’ma wear what I want,” she’d said, and he thought, I’ma wear what I want, too. I’ma drive to Mexico. In college, when his first boyfriend jumped off a balcony, he’d thought only idiots killed themselves without first trying to live out some dream. Of course Silas would still be dead in Mexico. That was his third boyfriend, the one he’d loved. Silas had shot himself in a truck in Buffalo, not without trying to fulfill a dream, the dream being a man from Buffalo. His dead foot stepped on the gas and drove him into the river because the man loved his wife.
Stephen extended an arm into his sleeve, saw Bruce watching, and buttoned the cuff. “Stop for a second,” Bruce said.
He stared at Bruce’s cross as Bruce unzipped him. It was hilarious that men attended church. It was a Honduran girl Bruce had fucked with; she had come to clean his hotel room while he was peeing. He lurked in wait, and now he was swallowing Stephen like that had been another life. He walked back to camp. When Stephen followed, he found Randall crying by the fire, his blood dried in the pattern of a river delta. Randall looked helplessly up and said, “What did I do?”
“I don’t know,” Stephen said.
“Most days you won’t even talk to us.”
“I was framed by a judge.”
“How do you know I wasn’t?”
“Why should I tell you?”
He sat down opposite Randall and thought of answering. There was a bathhouse called the Downtown Men’s Club, and after Silas died he took to sitting in its darkroom until someone chose him. Within a month he knew the regulars by their cocks. Sometimes in the locker room he knew their faces. Baxter Philpotts was a prosecutor who’d beaten him in a suit over faulty swing sets. About once a week he would suck Baxter off, and he doubted that Baxter knew. One day Baxter showed up with the judge from that case, a bald man named Blake. Baxter and Blake were soaking in the hot tub when they saw him lurking, wrapped in a towel. The judge pursed his lips, and Stephen smiled. The slightest smile in return would have said join us, but neither man gave up that gesture, and he retreated and was left to wonder in jail if the encounter had been his true crime. Wrong place, wrong time, and most of all a failure to be ruthless.
“Are you gonna answer?”
“I’ve forgotten your question, but I imagine the answer’s no, or fuck you, or you have a guilty look, or I don’t care, or I’m not sorry because it’s the first brave thing I’ve done in a while.” Randall was pushing himself upright, scared. As Stephen laughed at his fear, he heard footsteps. He turned and saw two cops. “You’ve got three days to vacate,” said the one Stephen recognized from the Atlanta Eagle.
“You’re the same one told me to move here,” said Randall.
“Newspaper found out. They’re running a story Friday, so tell your buddies we’ll be back Friday to arrest whoever’s left.”
Stephen, aware now of the danger of letting people know he knew them, backed away. He walked to his car and drove to court. His client didn’t show. Who cared? Nothing was at stake; she was just another poor black woman. Afterward he sat at Vickery’s drinking martinis, one two three four. The sun was sinking below the hillside when he arrived at camp, where the residents sat in a circle around the fire. “We’re discussing what to do.”
Stephen chose a book randomly from his tent without noticing which it was, then took a seat. Allen was proposing that they move deeper into the woods. Patrick said the cops were bluffing. Travis said why not try assumed names. Bruce suggested they take their case to some fair-minded official. Jeremy’s idea was mass suicide. There was an old fire tower up the hill and they could leap to their deaths. It would become a national news story. Stephen listened, wanting to reach out and touch the little blond hairs on Jeremy’s arm, which glowed in the firelight. Jeremy was straight, so if Stephen fell in love it would be a fittingly painful form of love.
“If you want my opinion,” he said, “I think we should practice Gandhi’s brand of nonviolent resistance.”
“My mother died,” said Jeremy, directly to him. He saw the others nodding like it was old news. “I can leave the country now.”
“Where will you go?” asked Randall.
“Spain, to start.”
“I used to have this book Europe on a Shoestring.”
“It’s seventy dollars to get a passport,” said Jeremy, seeming almost happy. To Stephen he added, “I was joking about the tower.”
When he smiled, a dimple appeared in his left cheek. He was twenty-five, and if he left this country he would have a life ahead of him, which made Stephen say, “They won’t give you a passport. They’ve got you where they want you.”
Jeremy looked stunned. “Of course they’ll give me one.”
“Even if they do, Spain will send you back when you arrive.”
“You’re just jealous,” said Jeremy, which was true, he’d have been an idiot not to see it. This was how Stephen treated the ones he loved. Watching Jeremy grapple with never seeing Spain, he hoped there was really a fire tower. Jeremy jumped up, bound for it: Stephen still had his touch. But instead of running off, Jeremy snatched his book, held it over the fire, and demanded, “Why are you saying this?”
“Because somebody’s got to show you how it is.”
He dropped the book into flames that crackled as they leapt up to engulf it. The spine curled and was gone, and he sat back down to cry. The reflecting tears made him more beautiful. What a clichéd idea of beauty Stephen had. Not only that, Jeremy might be crying about his mother and not him. More than all other envies, Stephen envied the death of Jeremy’s mother. Never again would Jeremy be ashamed of her thoughts, whereas Stephen’s mother was alive and well in Augusta in the house he grew up in. It was buttressed by a middle school and a high school. His mother, a socialite, had thrown legendary Masters parties until his arrest lowered her standing. “When you were gay I never said a word, but this?” He tried to write her shouting off as shallow, but those people had been her friends. It hurt when friends took themselves away from you. You wanted to hurt them in return. If you couldn’t, you were liable to hurt yourself instead. After Silas died, when he realized he’d be feeling no more pleasure anyway, he bought a thousand dollars’ worth of cocaine. It would use up his serotonin. He snorted it over seven days. On the eighth day he was feeling as though he might fall asleep. His dealer wouldn’t answer, but he wanted to keep going until his heart burst. He poured an entire bag of coffee into one filter and brewed it, then stripped naked and opened the windows to let in the cold. Before he could close them, he heard a popping sound. He ran to the kitchen, where steam was rising from the griddle. He’d forgotten to fill the reservoir with water. He carried the pot, empty, into the living room. This would create a hole in his defense: the pot, as seen in a cell-phone picture, was empty. He went to close the shades. There in front of him, not twenty feet away, was a school bus, through whose row of windows ten kids stared. It was too interesting a situation to respond to. He thought of Silas’s stories about the bus: they’d traded baseball cards and showed their cocks and played truth or dare. What a contrast with his own stifled childhood, when he’d begged his mother to drive him to school. Fine: all he had to do, she said, was join the golf team. He stood staring at the bus door until a girl appeared in it. Her name probably wasn’t Emily. The driver warned her back inside, and not until the bus had chugged on down the road did Stephen finally close the blinds. And now he looked around at his neighbors and wondered how many times he had wished for their deaths. Life at this camp with them wasn’t any worse than life anywhere. He felt exhausted from so much petulance. In the morning he would move with them deeper into the forest; for now he would rest. His penultimate thought before dragging his sleeping bag closer to the fire was that they had no reason to trust the cops to wait, and his final one, which overrode it, was that he was too tired to care.