There was a Thursday night in late summer when Dad was still away and Charlie rested against me in a tired sort of way and said, “I think you’re going to die young.”
We were sitting in the back of his older brother’s car, and it smelled a little bit like a McDonald’s double cheeseburger and a little bit like a new car and a little bit like a Christmas tree all at once. Charlie told me the Christmas tree smell was because of a thousand air fresheners his mother had stored in the trunk, those hanging tree ones with fancy names like “Evening Sea” and “Meadow Fresh.” My nostrils burned and my lungs gasped, but I stayed in my seat. Charlie and I had been double-dog dared to spend seven minutes of heaven together, and I wanted, if not to actually spend those minutes as they were intended, to at least be able to step out of the car giggling softly, perhaps tripping a little into his arms, whispering things no one could hear in his ear, and know Maureen Biggert was watching from the window.
Charlie Safron was wearing his red football sweater that tightened at his biceps. I had only ever seen that it tightened at his biceps, but as he leaned against me in the back of his brother’s car I could smell that it was washed in Tide laundry detergent and feel that it must be polyester, because my arm was starting to break out in hives. I did not scratch them. I was staring instead at a dark street lamp at the end of the road, and thinking about how silly a street lamp was during the hours it wasn’t needed, during the day, for instance, when there’s plenty of light to go around, and how then a street lamp stands there rooted to the spot, an onlooker with nothing to do, nothing to give. And while I was doing that Charlie Safron was yawning on my shoulder, and then told me he thought I was going to die young.
I pulled up fast, at least at first it seemed like I had, but then I realized I had not moved, not an inch, and it was only something inside myself that had exploded, a small, sudden explosion like a light bulb in a street lamp. I glimpsed Maureen Biggert peeking out from the downstairs window.
“What the hell are you talking about, Charlie?”
“Huh?” He was trying to sweep some cheese puff dust from the seat, but it only burrowed deeper in the ridges, leaving a bright stain.
“I said, what the hell are you talking about, Charlie? Just what in the hell do you think you’re saying?”
“Well, you don’t have to take offense,” he said, wiping glowing orange hands on his corduroy pants. “You should take it as a compliment.”
The windows were closed. The air was hot and stale.
“You know, we only have a few minutes left, Charlie.”
The sun was setting over the ice cream shop down the road. I couldn’t see it behind the trees, but I knew on a night like this, a last summer night, there’d be a long line of kids pulling on their mothers’ arms, tilting their heads way, way back to look at the first stars, and teenagers who laughed too loudly and fixed their hats and flirted with Mandy behind the counter. Mandy would smile back and say, “A few pennies for a treat, sir,” because she heard it in a raunchy movie once, only she just thought it was a movie, and missed out on the raunchy part.
Charlie sighed and sat up, readjusting his sweater and slicking back his eyebrows, something he always did at strange times, like before he raised his hand in class or while warming up in gym. I smoothed my skirt, a purple one that stretched over my thighs because it was actually Mandy’s, and Mandy was smaller and prettier than I was. I tucked my hair behind my ear and then quickly pulled it back again, something I always did at strange times, like talking to the boy I liked on fading summer afternoons.
“Well, then,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.
Maureen Biggert had disappeared from the window. The white lace curtains in the kitchen did not move. A few cars ambled by on the main road ahead of us, and the houses lining the street had nothing to give but mailboxes with gaping metal mouths that had never been closed, and one fading blue tricycle overturned in yellow grass that might have just been left there a moment ago, but gave the distinct impression nevertheless that it had been alone much longer than that. Outside the air probably buzzed with that summer buzz that’s part cicada and part imaginary, but we couldn’t know because we were in an old car that didn’t breathe.
Charlie was looking at his corduroy pants. “A compliment, really. People who die young live more than those who die when they’re old.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said, and the streetlamp turned on at the end of the street. “What about four-year-old cancer patients, or toddlers eaten by dingos at the zoo?” I thought about Dad. “What about soldiers who never wanted to fight in the first place, whose heads get blown off before they can fill them with things like baby names or batting averages?”
“I like how you swear, Beth.”
The night was suddenly very dark, even though the street lamp burned, and our seven minutes in heaven were up, but still no group of gangly high schoolers came banging on the window making kissy faces and yelling obscene things that made neighbors lock their doors. The air did not move and my arm itched and Charlie was picking at cheese dust in his pants and I was incredibly sad.
“How’s your sister?”
I thought of Mandy closing up the ice cream shop for the night, the boys begging for one more scoop, candy girl, just a scoop, and slapping her on the ass while she screamed in delight.
“She’s fine. Same as always, I guess.”
“And your mother?”
A dark room, stale air, a lump of a body sweating under lumps of laundry, and the dog whimpering on the floor.
Charlie slicked his eyebrows and slid closer, and I fixed my yellow cardigan and blushed. My feet played with the Cheetos bag that crinkled like static. Charlie placed his hand on my knee, and I saw how hairy his knuckles were, dark hair, too. I felt his breath in my ear, which felt too warm, not a good warm, not a burst of summer breeze, but a burst from a hot oven, a bubbling volcano. I started to think about lots of strange things all at once, which is something I do sometimes, like when the neighbors ask how my mother is with frowning eyebrows or the newsman says in a suddenly serious tone, “Now to our continuing, always up-to-date-first-here-on-channel-seven coverage on Afghan resistance.” And sitting in the back of a 1995 black Toyota Corolla with Charlie Safron, charming football player with amber eyes and a hand on my thigh, I thought of my mother in the dark under the sheets and the kitchen clock ticking and a spider crawling across my bedroom ceiling, then stopping, then starting for just an inch more, and the way my father used to say Hello, Sweetpea, in that tired way and rub between his eyebrows, kind of like the tragic way bag boys look at 9 PM on a Tuesday at the grocery store, and then whether or not everyone would be more content or more miserable living alone on the top of Mt. Everest.
“Looks like they forgot about us,” and I felt the grin in his hot breath, in the way the wet, warm words trickled into my ear. “How ‘bout you and I don’t time this thing?”
I wondered if Mandy got home all right. We’ll drive you home, sweetheart. Hop in, candy girl. She didn’t understand the raunchy part of the movie.
“You said you thought I was going to die young,” I said, and my eyes stared at crushed Cheetos and my nose smelled evergreen.
“Maybe I did, because you’re kinda a wild girl, I bet, Ms. Betha Morten.” His knee was inching up between my legs, and I was wondering how it got there. I pulled at the sleeves of my cardigan and the knee kept inching. “But tonight, you are most certainly alive.”
“Rules of seven minutes of heaven,” I said, and pulled back, my neck pressing against the cold metal of the seatbelt. “Seven minutes, and that’s all.” Altitude poisoning on Mt. Everest, paper or plastic, Hello, Sweetpea, I’m going to Afghanistan.
“And you know all about heaven, baby. You’re dyin’ young.” I thought about moves I had learned in self-defense class, but then realized my high school never offered that. I thought about stunt moves in movies, where the female heroine with two big boobs and a too-small waist always aimed right for the groin. And then I sat there and let it happen.
The night was solid and black and breathless.
I stared at the burning streetlamp, rooted to the spot, offering its glow, and wondered where Maureen Biggert and all the rest of them had gone. Maybe to order a pizza or play spin the bottle.
Charlie Safron moaned and shuddered.
I thought again.
A carnival came to town when Mandy and I were seven. Every morning for four straight days we fought for the window seat on the bus, pushing each other so that we could see the men in baggy sweatshirts and low-set baseball caps fiddle with big metal poles. They were setting up the rides in the old, yellowed field behind what used to be a small shoe factory, Mom told me. It had been out of business since the ’40s, but no one could tear it down because it was filled with asbestos. The school bus chugged its way through morning traffic on windless, damp days with heavy gray clouds, and Mandy and I watched with wide eyes as the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster extended towards the sky like half-formed monsters.
“It certainly doesn’t look fun right now,” Mandy said, her nose crinkled.
I pressed my face against the glass.
“Carnivals only come alive at night, that’s why.”
“How do you know? We’ve never been to a carnival before. We’ve only ever been to that horse fair with Aunt Carol one time.”
Mandy fogged up the glass with her breath and I thought about movies with girls who laughed and wore red lipstick while holding big stuffed teddy bears and tufts of pink cotton candy. I thought about men in striped jackets saying, “Step right up!” and I thought about black nights colored with burning fluorescent bulbs that popped and crackled and whirled and screamed.
“They just do. Everybody knows it.”
Mandy shrugged. The half-Ferris wheel clawed at the sky.
The night the carnival opened, Mom was sitting in the kitchen smoking a cigarette with the fan on high. I choked on the heavy gray air. Then I asked her if Dad could drive Mandy and me to the carnival.
“He’s at Home Depot,” she said. Drag, cough, drag.
Mom looked at me in her faded, tired, pretty way. The kitchen clock ticked and my eyes watered from the smoke.
No, I murmured, and Charlie Safron said, Shh.
“Now, Betha,” she said, drag, cough, drag, “You won’t be going to the carnival. Carnivals are run by criminals.” She looked at me. “It’s a common fact.”
“Criminals, Betha. It’s too dangerous.” The fan whirled gray smoke. “You’d be killed on one of those rides, or some ex-murderer would take you away. Do you want that?”
I stared at the outline of my mother veiled in smoke. The static of silence rang in my ears. Then the newspaper crinkled.
“Unload the dishwasher, won’t you? Tell your sister to get up here and help.”
Mandy and I looked out the grimy bus windows at the carnival for the next week, only during the early morning hours and after school, when the Ferris wheel stood still and silent and the dragon roller coaster glared at us menacingly, except it wasn’t very menacing at all, with no electrical, fiery glow behind its eyes. We watched uniformed women with black hair in tight buns pick up half-eaten caramel apples coated in yellow grass and discarded tickets flutter on pavement. I closed my eyes and imagined blinding lights. I opened them and saw gray.
Charlie Safron was sweating. My cardigan was damp.
“Get off,” I said.
There was a moan.
Charlie Safron fell to my side, resting his face against the window.
The lamp burned, the car smelled, Mandy’s skirt was torn. A car ripped down the road beside us, rubber tires on concrete. Then silence picked up the pieces again, filled in the cracks, and buzzed.
“Let me take you home,” said Charlie Safron. He slicked his eyebrows and stared out the window at nothing. I couldn’t make out the outlines of Maureen Biggert’s house. We were a car suspended in space, in summer night, in empty air. I thought of the black-and-white pixelated image of a man saying in a dramatic, hollow voice, “This is…the Twilight Zone.”
“No.” This is the Twilight Zone, a Ferris wheel that spins until it is a glowing orb, my father baking in a desert, pulling at his collar with one hand, the other burning on a gun’s hot metal.
Charlie turned to me, but looked at the orange Cheetos stain. “Do you want to talk?”
Burning on a gun’s hot metal.
He glanced up at the front seat of the car. “Do you want to drive? Somewhere, anywhere?”
Burning on a gun’s hot metal. I wondered if he ever shot. I wondered if he ever wanted to. Not to kill, not to protect, not to defend national honor. To shoot. To be able to pull a trigger and hear sound break, instead of wandering around a Middle Eastern desert with quiet bullets on his thigh.
“Let’s drive, Betha. I’ll take you anywhere you want to go. We’ll go, together. Where you want to go? I mean, anywhere, Betha. Where you wanna go?”
I was sitting in a car and nothing moved.
“Let’s go out to Providence. What do you think of that? Things happen in Providence, Betha. There’s the ocean. There’s arcades.”
“I want to be on a Ferris wheel.” I stared at darkness.
“They got plenty of Ferris wheels in Providence! You want to ride a Ferris wheel? I’ll take you to a motherfucking Ferris wheel!” Charlie breathed rapidly and looked anywhere but me, the torn skirt.
I was riding a Ferris wheel that burned the sky.
“Let’s go to Providence,” Charlie said a little quieter, his breath slowing. “Motherfucking Providence.”
I tried to think my list of things, but my head buzzed with nothing, with static.
“I hate this town,” whispered Charlie Safron, resting his head against glass. “I hate it.”
I tried to see a Ferris wheel spinning in the sky, moving up, then down. Around, around, going nowhere, but moving with purpose all the same, moving and burning a thousand bright lights. I tried to see myself jolted out of my seat, tumbling through light to ground, at an age too young, a time too soon. Or better yet, I tried to see myself standing bold and firm in the midst of the whirl and jumping, jumping for reasons we’ll never know, the newspapers will say. I tried to see and all I saw was gray car seats and a Cheetos stain and a burning lamp and Charlie Safron with his head in his hands.
“God damn it.” I said, and I meant it. God damn it. “I’ll live forever.”