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Authors: Brad Land

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BOOK: Goat
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I know, he says, I know. I shake my head.

No, you don’t, I say, no, you don’t.

2

AN ELEVATOR DOOR opening. My father stepping in first. Turning to look at me, holding his hand out. I take it and step inside. We’re at the district attorney’s office in another town because I was beaten in another county. I sit with my father on a brown leather couch, and lining the walls are pictures of old men with white hair and they’re all in robes. A woman comes in behind us, I feel her pass by me, the air shifts and she smells like flowers and then she’s behind her desk with her elbows propped and her fingers laced together. She looks at me and smiles and I smile back even though it hurts and her hair catches the light coming through the blinds and she’s wearing a navy blue suit.

You’ve been through a lot I know, she says.

I nod.

So what I’m here to do is to punish those who did this to you, okay? she says and I nod again.

Yes, I say, the bones of her face sharp in the light.

So I’m going to ask you some questions, she says, and I know it might be hard to answer but if you could do your best that’s all I ask.

Sure, I say, okay, I’ll do my best, and I say it because I love her now because she is smiling at me.

   

GRAVEL CRUNCHING BENEATH tires in the police station parking lot. I am here to answer questions about what happened. The sun dropping behind the station, behind the treeline, and the light bleeds red over everything, streaming through the windshield and landing on my chest. It’s warm and I close my eyes and let it stay there pressed like an open palm.

My father’s hand on my shoulder.

Time to go, he says.

I nod. Open the door and drop my feet down into the gravel. The light shrinking. I follow my father across the parking lot.

   

AN OFFICER TAKES me to a room past the waiting area, and my father has to stay behind. The officer sits me down at a long table in the center of a room with desks where other officers are typing. Some talking on the phone. I hear papers shuffle. The officer taps me on the left shoulder. I jump.

Sorry, he says. I turn and he’s there sitting beside me with a yellow legal pad and a pencil. Pushes the square glasses up his nose, he leans in toward me, breath hot against my face. I turn my head down to the table.

Write, he says, I want you to write it down just like it happened.

Sure, I say. He slides the pencil and the pad in front of me and I take the pencil, clutch it tight between my fingers, run one hand over the paper and the officer leaves and the pencil starts to move and I can’t stop. I’m writing about teeth and growls and foxes and smiles and breaths and I know it makes no sense but I know at the same time that every word is true.

   

THE OFFICER TAKES the pad from me. Hands me a book.

Look at some pictures, he says, just flip through these and tell me if you recognize any.

Shoves blank white paper toward me.

You write down the numbers, he says. Opens the book in the middle, points to a picture. See? he says, like this. Points to the numbers below a picture of a white man with a blond crew cut. Okay, he says, you got that? Just write down numbers, okay? I nod.

Yeah, I say, I can do that.

Start at the beginning, he says.

Right, I say and he turns the book to the first page, stands up and leaves. I can’t make any sense of the pictures. I don’t write anything.

   

WHAT I WANT to know is this. How come a nice-looking boy like you picks up two guys you don’t even know and gives them a ride? A long ride. To the middle of nowhere.

I’ve been moved. I’m sitting at another table in a room separated from the big office. I hate these cops and I want to be left alone. There’s a mirror behind me. The officer with the shaved head sits in front of me. Asking me questions. Now the officer with the brown mustache stands behind him.

Who said I was nice-looking?

My eyes down on the table.

I did.

Oh.

So. Clear it up.

I told you already. I wrote it down.

He holds up a yellow legal pad with my scribbles. This? This is junk. I can’t understand this. You wrote about foxes. You didn’t write any numbers from the pictures.

He throws the pad down on the table.

It’s true, I say. It’s all I know.

It doesn’t make any sense, son, I know you were out of your head but it doesn’t make any sense, it doesn’t mean anything to us.

That’s what I remember. I can’t get at anything else.

I’ll tell you what I think happened. He leans toward me. I think you wanted drugs. You were trying to buy drugs. I look at him and shake my head.

I don’t do drugs. (Lying.)

Yes, you do.

No, I don’t.

You do do drugs. We know you do drugs.

You don’t.

We do.

No.

Yes.

No.

Listen, son, we already got one, he’s right back there, says you wanted drugs from him, says he knew you already.

Right back there?

I point toward the mirror behind me.

Yeah. Right back there. Says he knew you good.

I shake my head.

You can’t catch them. Him. Them.

We did, he’s right back there, you want me to bring that boy in here so you can look him in the face?

I look up at him.

He doesn’t have a face. I say it softly.

What? The officer leans closer. What? His face red.

I said he doesn’t have a face.

Both officers look at me like I’m crazy but I know I’m not.

   

I MISS A week of school. The cuts on my face heal into shiny red patches. The bruises turn dull and gray. My lips are only a little swollen. My mother says look you’re better already, and she knows I’m not, but I know she can’t deal with this thing, so all she knows to do is give me pills and Neosporin and tell me I’ll be better. Nobody says anything and I like it that way. My teachers understand the absence. Make concessions. But even when I’m there at school, sitting in Cultural Geography or Political Science I’m not really there. I’m dreaming. I’m shaking. The smile and the breath everywhere. In breezeways. Walking down halls. Sitting at the back of classrooms. I have to go into bathrooms, pull the stall doors shut and slap my face until my ears ring.

——

I’M IN THE car with the brown mustache speeding past fields through dark. He’s got both hands on top of the steering wheel. We’re trying to find the road where the smile and the breath left me. The road I wrote about on the yellow legal pad. We have to look in the dark because it’s the only time the brown mustache can go. He looks over at me with my hands in my lap and my head down.

Need you to look, son, he says and I nod, raise my head to the window, to the fields, the treeline, the lumped soil and bent soybean.

I am, I say, and I am looking but I don’t recognize anything, just this blackness and the moon standing over everything.

   

I ASK THE officer for a cigarette. He looks over at me, his face dark.

Why do you think I smoke? he says.

Because, I say, I can smell it in here and he raises a hand to his shirt pocket and pulls a crumpled pack from it just like I knew he would. He holds the pack toward me and I take it, shake out a smoke and then he hands me a lighter and I hold the flame up inside the dark, it lights my arms, my chest. I blow the smoke out the window and hand the lighter back and he takes a smoke and lights it and I wonder why he hasn’t smoked yet, but I don’t ask. We just sit there driving and smoking and this is all there is.

——

UNTIL THE CAR slows and he says that look familiar?

It’s an old logging road, he says. Don’t use it much anymore but that house you found it’s not too far from here. This was the only place I could think of.

The car’s stopped at the head of a road with the headlights lighting both sides, the pine, the tall grass leaning over the lip of the ditch. The brown mustache gets out and stands with one forearm draped over the edge of the open door.

Get out, son, he says, I need you to look.

Okay, I say. Open the door, and beneath my feet through my shoes I feel the same heads of granite push into my soles and I don’t even have to look anymore. I get back in the car and shut the door, the officer gets back in and shuts the door.

Son, he says, what’s wrong?

This is it, I say, I know it.

How? You didn’t even look.

I just know I could feel it through my feet those stones those are the same it’s like a hand you know every time you take this hand you’ve held you know it?

   

I’M LOOKING DOWN into the floorboard, the torn coffee cups, a hammer with tape on the head, I keep my eyes there. We can leave now, I say, can we leave now? and I’m rocking back and forth in my seat, hands against the dashboard, my heart clenching, the officer looks over at me, puts the car in reverse and backs up, the granite beneath the tires giving way, and then we’re back on the asphalt, we drive away and I rock in my seat, I laugh and the officer turns the radio up loud this country station Hank Williams I’m a long gone daddy I don’t need you anymore he says.

Hank the senior, the officer says, he was one of the good ones.

Yeah yeah you know how he died, right? I say. The officer turns the song down.

Yeah, he says, he was a drunk.

No actually that’s wrong well he was a drunk but that’s not how he died see he had some problems, back or something, I don’t know, but it was chronic, like it hurt all the time, so he had this doctor who gave him pills for the pain, and he got hooked and ate too many pills with whiskey one night in Louisiana I think, and the band was Hank Williams and the Drifting Cowboys, something like that, and Hank he died in the backseat of a car driving somewhere, and the doctor he turned out to be a fake doctor.

The brown mustache just looks over at me.

That so? he says, I didn’t know all that how do you know all that?

I have all this useless information in my head, I say, you know just banging around up there all this stuff and sometimes I just have to spit it out even if it’s not exactly right you know the stuff about Hank that might not be exactly right.

The officer nods.

Well, he says, it sounds like a good story to me. He breathes out, scratches his shoulder.

We drive back to the police station. I can see my father’s car in the parking lot. I can see him sitting there resting his arms against the steering wheel.

   

WHEN WE WENT to get him he took off, he says. Playing basketball with all these boys he saw the car and shot off. Right to the woods. But we couldn’t catch him. I’d be willing to guess that he’s left the state.

The brown mustache is saying all this to me, a week after we drove around looking for the road. I’m sitting in his office in a chair directly facing his desk, my hands are in my lap and I’m slouched over. The light inside is bright and plain. There’s a framed picture on his desk of a yellow Lab.

We picked up the other one a few days ago, he says. He’s already said they did it. Told us everything.

I nod.

Okay, I say.

Part of a car theft ring. They found your car a few counties up. They tore it up though. The boys who had it told us about these two. And when we picked up the first one he told us everything, where to find the other one.

I want to ask why they wanted to know about drugs, why they insisted, why they didn’t believe me, even after they saw my face and I know that both the brown mustache and the officer with the shaved head were lying, that there was no boy behind the window. I want to ask why he’s making no attempt to cover his lie, it is so plain there floating between us but he’s just sitting there, and I’m tired and want to be done with this.

We just need you to look at their pictures, he says. Just their pictures. Even though we don’t have the other one we’ve got his picture. Both of those boys have been in trouble before. We have to put a few others in, you know, but only a few. He leans over his desk.

He says I want you to pay attention now, son, when I show you these.

I don’t say anything.

All right? he says.

Okay, I say.

He pushes a sheet across the desk toward me. I lean over to the desk, put my elbows on it and look. And it’s six men, the top row, the first two across white, the third black, and the bottom row it’s one white man, the last two black and then I see these faces, the bottom row, the last two, and I know these faces, know the cheekbones, the mouths, the eyes and I can’t stop looking at them, I’m staring down. The officer reaches over and touches my forearm and I jerk it back, I’m still looking.

Son, do you see them? he says and I can’t say anything but I place my hand over the two faces, run spread fingers across the pictures and then I hold my palm there flat and the officer takes the picture sheet from beneath my hand, pulls it toward his chest and then he stands up.

   

THIS IS WHAT happens: The breath pleads guilty. The smile fled. I don’t testify. He gets seventy-five years. These are the charges: Grand theft auto. Kidnapping. Strong-arm assault and battery. They’re gone but they aren’t gone. I can see them everywhere. The smile and the breath are out walking. Always just at my back.

3

WHEN LEAH PICKS me up I’m applying paste to my mouth.

My mother calls me from the hall.

I’m leaned over the sink toward the mirror and I’m sticking my tongue out, dabbing it with tissue, laying the paste all over. My mother has taped Bible verses all over the edge of the mirror because she thinks it will help but it doesn’t. The verses written on index cards in her sharp handwriting. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults for the moth will eat them up like a garment.

I have ulcers all over. My tongue, my cheeks, my lips, my throat, like coals in my mouth. The doctor says it’s from the stress and from biting my tongue when I got beat up, from having my teeth mashed into my lips. It hurts to breathe, to talk, to swallow. It doesn’t hurt so much with the paste, but I can’t really open my mouth that wide because then you’d see all the white paste and all the sores. I have antibiotics, because it’s like an infection and the doctor says that these ulcers will go away soon.

   

IN THE HALL between my bedroom and the den there’s a picture of Brett and me, we’re very small sitting together on a stump surrounded by brown leaves. Brett wearing a tan sweater with a plaid number twelve on it. His pants are plaid. Hair long and curled on the sides. I’m wearing a red sweater with patches on the white chest band, they’re all different colors and supposed to resemble octopi or urchins but really they just look like blobs with eyes. My hair is a bit darker but also curled at the bottom. My pants are navy and I am also smiling. Brett is holding my hand.

In the den my mother and father are sitting on the couch and my father’s asking Leah about her parents and Leah says oh they’re fine, good, and my parents nod their heads. My youngest brother Matthew comes through the den and my mother says where are you going? and he barely looks up, says out, going out, and he nods at Leah and she nods back, and he takes his keys from a bowl on the television and opens the door.

Leah’s standing next to the fireplace and she’s got this big smile. Above the fireplace is a portrait of me. My mother had it done when I was a senior and I hate it being there in the den where everyone always sees it because I look goofy with my pleated olive pants, my navy sweater with a blue oxford beneath it. Brett’s senior picture is in the hallway and no one sees it like they see mine. There are pictures of Brett and me together everywhere. As babies. As kids. Slumped as teenagers. Leah is my friend Tom’s little sister but he doesn’t care that I like her, he says he’d just as soon it be me than some bastard. I say so we should go, right, and look at Leah, hope she can’t see in my mouth, and she nods, says yeah, we don’t want to miss the game.

   

IT’S HOMECOMING AT my old high school but it feels strange not only because I am old and shouldn’t be going to the football game but because I know everyone knows about me, because everyone looks at me strange, and the whole time I stay close to Leah there in the bleachers with all these people around us. Leah shines beneath the field lights, she glows, and when the wind comes off the field it brings the smell of torn grass, of sweat, of blood. Leah turns her head and I put my face in her hair and she smells like the first light that ever was.

After the game we go to this party, with all these people I know, some I graduated with that are still hanging around, some that are still in high school. It’s at a guy’s house whose name I don’t know, in a subdivision, all manicured lawns and sprinkler systems. And if I could I’d hold Leah’s hand the whole time. I wouldn’t talk to anyone.

   

BUT AS SOON as we walk inside I lose her. I can’t find her and my heart starts beating, it’s in my ears, in my neck and I can’t be inside anymore so I don’t look at anyone, push my way toward the door, walk down the front steps and out into the yard.

——

CARS MASHED AGAINST one another. I find Leah’s Explorer and sit on the bumper where I think no one will be and while I’m sitting there I light a smoke, blow it up into the hanging leaves still green even though it’s close to fall. I look over to my right, a small Honda, the windows dark, the spark of a lighter going off inside. And it opens, smoke spilling out, four boys dropping their legs onto the ground. They walk toward me and in the dark I can’t make out faces just outlines, one very tall the others about my height. The tall one calls my name, Brad he says, I hold up one hand, yeah I say, and this boy comes out of shadow. He sits down next to me on the bumper. The others stand. He holds out his hand. I give him mine and then I give it to the rest of them. Danny is the kid on the bumper next to me. He’s a big (six-four, two forty-five) eighteen-year-old who works as a carpenter for his dad. There are two other kids standing around me whose names I can’t remember. Another kid named Adam. I look over at Danny.

Damn, he says, fucking good smoke.

I nod. Raise my eyebrows.

Oh, yeah? I say.

He coughs. Adam coughs. The others cough.

Yeah, you want? he says. Pats a bulging pocket.

Nah, I say.

Too bad it’s good good good, he says.

It’s cool, I say.

Okay, he says and then he says just like I knew he would because it is all anyone ever says to me anymore, he says so I heard you got into some shit.

Yeah, I say.

All these boys standing around me making me shake.

Why didn’t you just fucking beat the shit out of them? Danny says.

Couldn’t really, I say, they were too big and then Danny stands, pulls his sleeve up.

See this? he says, points to his arm, a tattoo of an eagle with a lightning bolt in its beak. I’m going into the marines, he says.

Yeah, cool, I say and he keeps his sleeve up, keeps looking down at his arm, turns to Adam.

You think this is good, right? he says and Adam says fuck yeah. Leah comes around the left side of her car. Sits down beside me. Danny shows her his tattoo.

Yeah, she says, that’s really cool and I know she’s being sarcastic but he believes it. He flexes the bicep. Pats it. Lets his arm down.

So, he says, just talking to your boy here, asking him how he let two people steal his car and beat the shit out of him.

I have my head down, I drop my smoke on the ground, stab it out with my foot. Leah looks up at Danny.

Shut the fuck up, she says, what do you think you would’ve done? Danny looks over at the three boys standing around him.

I’ll tell you what I would’ve done, he says. Leans down close to me. Sleeve still yanked up. His breath against my face. I would have killed those fucks, he says. Easy as that. He snaps his fingers. I keep my head down because now I’m shaking and the paste has worn off, my mouth weeping, I can feel my heart beating in my tongue, I keep my hands on my knees and Danny stands back up. Leah looks up at him, tells him to fuck off, and he sticks up his middle finger, shoves it toward her, calls her a bitch, calls me a pussy and then he and the other boys leave and go up to the party.

Leah leans over and clutches my forearm. It’s shaking there holding my knees.

Don’t listen to him, she says, he’s a shit, you know that. She touches the back of my head. I nod. Bring a hand up to my lips and when I pull it down my fingers are red. I lean over and drag my hand across the grass. I spit. All blood. Leah looks over at me and doesn’t say anything. She takes my hand and pulls me up. Walks me around to the passenger side of the car and opens the door.

   

ON A FRIDAY in mid-October Brett and I go to this place called Deberdieu. We have these friends, three sisters, whose dad’s a rich tax lawyer who has a house that he lets us use sometimes. We’re meeting about fifteen people there but I’m going because Leah is there and because all I do is think about her.

When we get to the house everyone’s already drinking. Sitting around this long table on the second floor. Playing circle of death, a card game that makes you drink a lot. Brett and I both sit down at the table. Brett hands me a beer.

   

AFTER EIGHT BEERS I’m stupid. I can’t see straight. I’m blabbering. I’m thinking about Leah the whole time.

And for the first time in a long while I don’t hurt. The ulcers have healed. I can talk without drooling. I can eat without wincing. At the long table it’s me and Brett, Justin, Mackie, Tom and Rick. Rick deals you a card and you have to say whether the next one will be high or low and if you lose you have to drink this gold rum. Brett loses the first time. Takes a shot and says go again. He loses again and after the shot he has to lean over and concentrate so he won’t throw up. I lose the first time and the rum burns, I feel the blood rise in my face, hold my hands out to my sides like I’m trying to balance and I have to be very still so I won’t puke.

Tom wins.

Justin loses. Runs to the bathroom.

Mackie loses. Wipes his mouth after the shot.

What? he says and he’s all calm like he just drank water.

Rick calls us all pussies. Except for Mackie.

So fuck you, man, Brett says, your turn. Slams the deck.

All right, Rick says, bring it on, and Brett throws him a card.

Jack.

Low, Rick says, and the next card’s high (queen) and then he’s bringing the shot up to his mouth, gold in the light, he takes it, looks at us and pukes all over the table.

   

AT THREE TWENTY-EIGHT, me with Leah at the long table. I’ve watched her the whole time, moving around the room, putting hair behind her ears, changing the music when she doesn’t like it, drinking something dark red. Rick passed out on the table. My brother gone. Mackie punched a hole in a bedroom door after he found out Justin was making out with this girl and now he’s gone.

Leah and I are the only ones awake. We’re listening to beach music which always gets played here, Otis Redding and the Spinners and the Platters, all these bands my parents love.

I tell Leah we should go on the beach. She’s peeling the label off a beer. Looks over at me.

I’m not going to put the moves on you, I say. I promise. And she nods yes, we take the long steps leading down from the porch through sand dunes, grass tilting, the air thick with salt.

It’s dark on the beach. We sit in the wet sand and for a long time we don’t say anything. We smoke cigarettes and watch the flat water. And then Leah stands up, knocks the sand from her jeans. I stand up, too, and when I do I rise into her mouth, it’s just there, her hands behind my head, my hands on the small of her back and the rain begins, it comes down soft and warm, slicks our faces, our hair, our arms, but we just stay there all locked up and then I pull back from her. I take her hand. She pulls me down. I touch her wet cheeks with both hands. Close my eyes. Hold my breath and wait for her mouth. She kisses me again and then pulls back, turns her head down and places it against my chest. She wraps her legs between mine and we stay like that, tangled and covered with sand and rain, until it’s light.

   

LEAH’S VOICE LIKE a sigh. The phone trembling in my hands.

I tell her I love her and I mean it this time, I do, because I’ve said it before, said it because it sounded nice, said it because the words hovered thick between me and a girl named Sarah Hughes. I could see them. Hold them. But now I’m saying these words on a telephone and it’s different. It’s the only true thing I know.

But she doesn’t say anything. She breathes into the phone. I tell her again.

What do you want me to say? she says.

I want you to say it back, I say, I want you to say it’s true.

I can’t, she says, it’s not like that, how I feel and all.

The beach, I say, you know the rain and the sand, it was important, I mean like something that happens once.

A kiss, she says, that’s what it was and I want to say no no it was so much more than our mouths and bodies, it was like God and I want to tell her she makes me feel safe, like I want to be inside her, like I want to be the last thing she hears before she falls asleep but my voice is shaking and all that comes out are these clumsy words.

Please, I say, please.

I can’t, she says and then I’m sobbing, placing one hand against the cold windowpane in my parents’ living room and through my handprint the oaks outside are still in the cold dark and Leah hangs up. I hold the phone to my ear, my face wet and streaked, I listen and wait for her voice to come back, her mouth, her words like light, but the phone hums silent.

   

WHEN I GO to sleep I have this dream:

Faceless men crouched low and moving on elbows and knees toward the windows, the doors of my parents’ home. And I’m the only one there, crouched low in the corner of my bedroom, clutching my father’s rusted twenty-two. Fingers claw at the windows and then I’m holding the gun toward the doorway, waiting for a body to fill it and it does, this black outline, and I’m pulling the trigger, it clicks, it clicks and nothing comes. I pull the trigger again, I pull it again, and in the dark of my room I hear only the sound of my breath, the drop of the hammer.

I wake up sweating with my legs pulled up against my chest. Shaking.

   

ON A THURSDAY in mid-November my left ear bursts.

I’m taking a bath holding my nose with my fingers trying to pop my ear like on the airplanes because it’s been stopped up all week. I’ve been asking people to repeat themselves, tilting my head toward them, always standing on their left side so my good ear faces them. I can feel the heavy fluid in my head. I push the air through my nose into my head, I push until I can feel it leaking from my ear and then it all comes in a rush, this blood streaming from my ear into the water mixing red and yellow in my lap and it won’t stop. I hold a hand to the ear and the blood runs through my fingers. Call my mother but the door is locked. She pounds on it, I stand up naked and dripping, a hand against my ear and the blood falls onto the tiles, leaves a trail. I unlock the door and go back to the bath, my mother comes in, sees the blood, me clutching my ear, she bends low beside the bath, pulls tissue in a handful, presses it against my ear and when it soaks through she gets more and does it again and she’s a nurse and has always fixed me and she tells me that it will be all right like she always does but I know it won’t.

BOOK: Goat
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