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Authors: Carter Coleman

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BOOK: Cage's Bend
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Breaux passed us, heading for an underfed, bony-faced girl with puffed-up blonde hair, and I called out, “Hey, coon-ass boy, best you get used to staring at the back of Nick’s jersey.”

“Fuck you, rich boys. Wait for track season.” Breaux’s chest was all bowed up.

“Hell, we ain’t rich,” Nick, the diplomat, said. “Just go to a rich school’s all.”

“That’s right, Breaux. We’re all bros,” I called out.

“Bonjour, Monsieur Breaux,” Dad said, coming up from the side. He was as tall and slender as the muscular Cajun runner whom he patted on the back. In the twenty-five years since he was a quarter-miler at Sewanee, he had run five miles at first light while saying his daily prayers.

Breaux’s chest fell and he humbly shook Dad’s hand. “Bonjour, Père Rutledge.”

“Coon-ass Catholics have an inbred respect for clergy,” I whispered to Nick as Dad inquired after Breaux’s family, and I suddenly felt bad about being mean.

“My boys.” Mom, a foot shorter and ten years younger than Dad, bobbed up and down, beaming like a lighthouse. “My champions. Where are your warm-ups? You’ll get pneumonia.”

The other runners were crowding through the chute.

“Come on, Nick, let’s go congratulate the losers. I’m going to miss Ford.”

“Shouldn’t you wait for your warm-ups?”

“Robin’ll bring ’em, Mom,” I said over my shoulder, placing my arm around Nick’s back. “It’s going to be just you and Breaux next year. You saw you can beat him today. Don’t ever let him beat you again. Drive him down. That’s what I did to Fode. Hell, his kick used to be twice as fast. I just beat the spirit out of him.”

“The Machiavellian approach.” Rubbing his arms, Nick shivered and looked around for Robin. “Where’s your girlfriend? I’m freezing to death.”

After a race I never felt the cold. “You’re my wingman, Nick. Couldn’t have a better wingman.”

“I’ve got a better one.” Nick looked straight at me. “I got the best wingman in Baton Rouge.”

1989

Cage

I
struggle not to see, not to hear, to hold on to the vision which melts away into red darkness. Then I open my eyes. Black water slowly swallows the sun. The beach is bathed in faint pink light and the ocean breeze combs the tall sea grass like invisible fingers through thick fur. I’m not sure how long I’ve been dreaming on this dune. Waves roll in endlessly, rushing back and rolling in again. Silently I pray, Where are you, Nick? Are you with me? Don’t abandon me now out here on the edge of night. I’m not the boy I used to be. Can you forgive me? A falling star streaks across the paling sky. I tell him, “Little Harper’s coming tomorrow, but he’s all grown-up now. Bigger than you and me. He’s the only one of us who’s as big as Dad.”

“Harper?” a soft voice whispers in the wind. “Who’s Harper?”

I turn and watch as her hair darkens, the lines across her forehead disappear, and the flesh beneath her chin draws taut until she’s the age when she brought me into this world.

“Cage, do you hear me?” the girl asks, smiling like she’s about to burst out laughing.

I realize that she is the girl who gave me the acid and I cast around my head for her name. “Do you hear me?”

She laughs. “Where were you?”

“Tripping,” I say.

“No shit, Sherlock. You were
gone
.”

“Time tripping.” It’s too difficult to explain. “Did I tell you you look like my mother? She’s very beautiful.”

“That’s a line.”

“That’s the gospel truth. Same raven hair and angelic face. Just like my mama in the full bloom of youth.”

“There is something very, very wrong with you.”

“And you are very, very intuitive. Where are you in school again?”

“Sarah Lawrence.”

“I forgot. I’m very, very impressed.”

“Let’s go.” She lifts a half-empty bottle of Rolling Rock, stands up, and reaches her hand down to me. “We’re out.”

“I like your spirit.” I rise and brush the sand from my pants, then brush off her small, flat ass. She laughs and pushes my hand away. I pick her up by the waist and she tilts forward, kicking her feet and giggling as I carry her over the dune. “Were you ever a cheerleader?”

“Hell, no.” She twists free.

“I dated a cheerleader in high school. A homecoming queen. I was just thinking of those provocative uniforms. Imagine dressing up the prettiest girls in tight sweaters and tiny miniskirts and having them jump up and down, bouncing their boobs and flashing their crotches at all the middle-aged dads in the crowd. It’s perverse.”

“Are all southern boys as crazy as you?” she asks, smiling.

I stop walking. “What do you think?”

“I hope not.”

Harper

I
n late May after my freshman year at Tulane, I leave the South for the first time. I’m worn-out from exams and partying but too excited to sleep, since I’ve never been so far north and never been to an East Coast resort island. I’m nervous about going someplace full of rich Yankees who might take me for a hick but I’m also thrilled to spend time with Cage. It’s just like him to get me a cool summer job. He’s ten years older and has always been the ideal big brother. On the long flight from New Orleans to Boston, I remember times he took me fishing and hunting and how when I was in high school he would come to Baton Rouge nine hours from Vanderbilt in his ancient Oldsmobile just to cheer me on during championship meets, the way he would run along the field beside me, urging me to run faster. And I did. Broke the freshman half-mile record when he was driving me on. Cage is a very cool brother.

Indirectly Cage was responsible for my first sexual experience. When I was fourteen, I met him over Mardi Gras in Pensacola, where we stayed in a house with some of his college friends. We were deep-sea fishing on his friend’s boat. One night a girl named Katy took me to a bar and we shot tequila. She had long curly hair and huge breasts and a really sweet smile and I could hardly believe it when she started kissing me at the bar after last call. We got in her car and she stuck her hand down my pants, the first time a girl had touched me there. I gathered up courage and unzipped her jeans and in a matter of seconds I was looking right at that object of long speculation. I’d only seen them in magazines. I didn’t know what to do, so I started lapping it, my head bobbing up and down like a puppy. Suddenly she came to her senses and pushed me away. She hardly said a word to me for the rest of the week. Remembering Katy always makes me wince with humiliation and lust.

I was never close to my other brother, Nick, who was eleven months younger than Cage. He was always nice to me but we never did much together. He thought of me as his annoying little brother, a pest, not as a comrade. Nick was in grad school at Berkeley. He wanted to be an ecologist. In July it will be two years since his car crash on the Golden Gate Bridge late at night. A drunk nailed him head-on in the wrong lane. They both died. I wanted to sue the guy’s insurance company but Mom and Dad said, We’re not that kind of people. No one should profit from this tragedy. I had just turned seventeen. Mom and Dad were out of town on a spiritual retreat and Cage was the one who found out first. He went out and got Nick’s ashes. He told me that the reports said Nick was over the limit, too, though it obviously wasn’t his fault. Still, we never told Mom or Pop.

Nick crashed two months after my parents moved from Baton Rouge to Memphis, where Dad was consecrated the Episcopal bishop of Tennessee. It was the last move after six different cities. Dad’s first church was a tiny one in Thebes, the farming town outside Nashville where Mom comes from. Cage was born there. Nick came along when Dad was a chaplain at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Then the family moved back to Tennessee, Knoxville, and I was born in Bristol. We moved to Roanoke, Virginia, before I could walk and then to a big church in Baton Rouge a few years later. Mama told me that Nick, who’d been alienated in Roanoke, came out of his shell and became as popular as Cage. Nick surpassed him academically, though he never beat Cage running. They were competitive and they were as close as two brothers could be. Nick quietly looked up to fast-talking, quick-witted Cage. To Nick, Cage was a romantic hero.

Nick’s death sent Mom into a tailspin. Except for attending the small early Sunday morning service, she dropped out of all the church activities. She dropped all her charitable work. She dropped the workshops she did in inner-city schools for the botanical garden, giving children their first opportunity to grow a plant. One by one, she dropped out of everything and spent more and more time in her own garden. I’d stayed on in Baton Rouge as planned to finish my senior year at Louisiana Episcopal, living at my best friend’s home in our old neighborhood, so I didn’t witness much of this, but Dad told me that for a time she was sleeping through the days and gardening at night. Then, after about a year and a half, she reentered society, took up where she left off, and was as active as ever.

When Nick died, Cage was at Vanderbilt two semesters short of an M.B.A. and a law degree, a tough year-round program. He was making mainly Bs and a few As. The next semester he logged all Cs and at Christmas he announced that he was taking some time off, going to Mexico for a couple of months and then up to Nantucket, where a friend from Sewanee was going to renovate his parents’ house. By the end of the summer a dozen homeowners had asked him if he would shut up their houses and open them up in spring, repairing anything that had been damaged during the winter storms. In late August he was still promising Mom and Dad that he was going back to Vanderbilt for his last semester. Then, when school was about to start, with twelve grand in the bank from Nantucket, Cage flew to Memphis and announced he was on his way to Mexico for the winter to write a novel. Mom and Dad were furious that he would jeopardize his degrees and Mom demanded that he pay them back for some of the school costs instead of heading off to surf and smoke pot. The next day Cage caught the train to New Orleans and spent the night at a hotel in the Quarter, took me out to get drunk on hurricanes before he caught a plane for Cancún. That was the last time I saw him.

The single-engine prop plane from Boston flies through so much rain and fog that I don’t glimpse the ocean until we’re almost to the island. Cage isn’t in the arrivals area. I check the restaurant and then wander outside and stare at the parking lot, which is empty except for an old, rusty Bronco.

“Are you lost?” says a deep bass voice from the doorway behind. Startled, I turn around expecting to see a big black guy.

Cage gives me that wide, winning smile that girls always fall for. I hardly recognize him. The last time, he still resembled the clones at Vanderbilt with their short hair and oxford cloth shirts and pleated khakis. Now he looks like Indiana Jones. He has a deep tan and long, sun-bleached hair. He’s wearing an earring, a leather jacket, faded blue jeans, and suede cowboy boots. He hugs me and claps me on the back. “Welcome to Nantucket.”

“Damn, Cage, you look . . . different.”

“I am.” He winks. “And it looks like you’ve been burning the candle at both ends.”

“Well, I’m just glad school’s out for the summer.”

“School’s out forever.” Cage strums a couple of chords in the air, then picks up one of my duffel bags and starts for the Bronco. “A girl gave me some acid yesterday. We tripped on the beach. I had some kind of memory vision. You were in it. Just a punk in your St. James uniform standing along the edge of the LSU course with Mom and Dad at the cross-country championship senior year.” Cage talks rapidly, crossing the parking lot with long strides. “I typed it out last night when I was coming down. You should check it out. It’s not bad. I wasn’t tripping any longer, I just had so much energy I couldn’t sleep. I was like Jack Kerouac banging along on my old Royal. You know what Capote said about Kerouac? That’s not writing. It’s typing.” Cage laughs and runs his hand through his hair.

“Remember the first time I did shrooms?” I say, trying to connect. “We were hiking in the Smokies. I was fifteen. Nick was worried I would trip first with the kid who’d transferred to Episcopal from L.A., Buzz Vanderpost, and freak out, so we decided to do them together. At the last moment you changed your mind. You didn’t ever want me to trip. And you and Nick started fighting by the campfire. I was afraid one of you was going to get burned.”

“In the end we gave you such a small dose you didn’t get off.” Cage snorts, lifting the rear door of the truck open. He throws the duffel in the back, walks around to the driver side. “That was back when we suffered from the romantic delusion that psychedelics could reveal inner truth. And we listened to rock lyrics like they were poetry. Imagine looking for truth from a drug-addled pop singer.” Cage climbs in the car and rests his head on the steering wheel for a moment, then turns and looks at me, and he has tears sliding down his cheeks. “I miss him, Harper. Two years now and not a single fucking day goes by when I don’t mourn him.”

“Y’all were close.” A miserable little laugh catches in my throat. “Like brothers.”

“Irish twins.” He starts the car. “That’s what we were—two brothers born within a year.”

The island is still cold in May. Driving from the airport toward town, we pass heath moors and cranberry bogs. The Algonquin Indians, Cage says, believed the island was made by Mashop, a mythical giant so large he could only sleep comfortably along the shore of Cape Cod. One night, restless and irritable from sand in his moccasins, he kicked one of them off. It landed not so far offshore and became Martha’s Vineyard. Later in the night he kicked the other moccasin harder and it formed Natockete, “the far-off place.”

The town’s deserted, so we park right in front of a seafood place on the edge of the harbor. A dark-haired hostess about my age recognizes Cage when we stroll in, her blue eyes lighting up like candles.

“Charlotte, I want you to meet my little brother, just arrived from Sin City, you know, the Big Easy, Nah Ahlens.” Cage drapes his arm over my shoulder. “He was working as a stripper on Bourbon Street, pulling in more money than a Nantucket plumber. His name’s Harper. He’s kinda shy.”

BOOK: Cage's Bend
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