Kirsten Anonymous

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Chapter Three

A couple weeks later, Chris had come over for dinner. Nothing special was going on or anything, but sometimes he would stop by, usually when Christy had to work late or had plans with her college friends or something. They were movers and shakers, so there was alway something moving or shaking. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of them is the governor someday. It would only be a brief stop on the way to something bigger, though; you can count on that.

Anyway, we were all sitting at the table. Mom had made this spaghetti she makes because Chris really likes it, and we were just kind of hanging around post-meal, talking about whatever. It turns out she (Christy) was at some kind of Crime Tips fundraising meeting, one of those deals where you’re supposed to call in if you know about crimes. Not the meeting, I mean. That’s what the organisation itself did. I’m not really sure why they needed a fundraiser though. To tell you the truth, almost all of the things Chris and Christy did, I didn’t understand what they were, or how they worked, or what the point of it was. But I’m sure they were all definitely on a Good Things list.

I’d thought about going with them to things before, but usually came up with an excuse at the last minute. I only own one tie, and it’s been tied for a decade because, before I left for college, my dad tied it for me, and I never learned how to tie one by myself. Point being, you don’t really want to show up looking like a slob if the other person with you is your little brother. Not just because he’s your little brother though, I guess. You just don’t want to be the slob ever really, and a guy in a white shirt and Dickies pants he claims are “dressy” because they’re navy blue, sporting a tie he doesn’t know how to tie, that guy is probably the slob.

Plus, there were always jokes like this:

“Crime Tips? Maybe she’ll run into somebody you know.”

To be fair, I usually made the joke first though, so the other people wouldn’t feel bad about thinking it.

To be overly fair though, I kind of was afraid of that exact thing happening. I mean, what is the best case scenario there at all? I’m a felon in a room full of law enforcement. I get an award for being rehabilitated? They ask me to go undercover and I somehow redeem myself and become the hero in the family? Take down a drug lord? Rescue a maiden? This is Arden, not Miami. Or Camelot. Our only royalty is fair queens and the drug lords work in their pole barns. If the cops just spent a summer wandering around and acting even kind of suspicious, they’d probably flush out half the people cooking, and gobs of others who are just nervous about an unpaid bill or an old medicine container in the bathroom cabinet.

But, anyway, every once in a while I’d been thinking about trying to learn how to have conversations, or be more inquisitive, or at least more gentlemanly. Hold doors. Say hi to the gas station cashier. Ask questions when people are talking. So...

“So, what’s their arrest rate then? From the tips, I mean,” I said.

“You know, that’s the interesting thing,” Chris said. “And I asked her a little about this, but she’s more of a ‘it’s better to have it than not’ type mentality. From what I’ve read, the percentages are pretty low. I mean, when you think about it, how hard is it to call in? Anybody can do it. I’m not trying to argue they are all false calls. I’m sure those would, or at least could, be prosecuted. But let’s say we hear a gunshot, right now. Maybe somebody screams. Tires screech. The whole nine yards. We call Crime Tips, and what are we going to tell them?” He counted off on his fingers, “Gunshot. Scream. Tires. Our address. A basic emergency call. Once the cops get to the actual scene they are either going to find someone dead, who will tell them nothing, or someone alive, who may or may not tell them anything.

“Best case scenario, every Crime Tip is a burned partner or somebody with a conscience who has actual concrete information before the fact. Otherwise, at least from my understanding, it’s not a lot more than hearsay. Plus everybody knows there’s never enough cops as is. Even if there were, the county’s been debating over enlarging the jail versus lighter sentences for two years. I’m not saying Christy’s wrong, by any means. I just don’t know what the best solution is currently.”

Then there was the pause, which of course, I knew would come when I had decided to open my stupid mouth and continue the conversation.

“Yeah, I don’t know either,” I said, looking at my plate.

“Have you seen that new show,” dad started, “where they have volunteers go undercover in the county jails?”

“Yeah,” Chris said. “That was actually what started Christy’s interest in all this.”

“I always wondered if I could do that,” dad said. “Be undercover. I don’t know if I could handle the strain.”

I laughed. “You’re sort of always undercover,” I said. “You go to work every day and pretend to be over-the-moon about what you’re selling. And I’m not saying you don’t support your products. I just mean, like, nobody is that excited all the time, y’know?”

He smiled. “True, and that’s a good point, but I’ll counter with this. Those people know exactly why I’m there, and more importantly, I know that I get to be done at a certain time. If you got to clock out from your cover ID at five pm and come home and forget about the day, then sure, maybe there would be more parallels, but I don’t think I could do it, day in, day out, with no sure stopping point. I’d get too frustrated and just want it to be over.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe. I mean, that makes sense.”

“Have you watched it?” Chris asked. “Like, is it realistic?”

I shrugged. I had seen about twenty minutes of one episode once. Not that it gave me PTSD or something, but it was less exciting to watch when you knew how boring most of the unedited days are. Plus, I wasn’t undercover, like dad had said. Everybody knew why I was there. And I had a definite stopping point.

“I’ve seen a little,” I said. “It seemed pretty much the same. I was only in county for a little bit, but there wasn’t a whole lot of difference as you work your way through. If you want to know something weird, at least the route they had me on, county was the worst part. It got better, well, not better, less crappy?, after that.”

“How so?”

I laughed. “County was like being at a sleepover with a bunch of middle-schoolers. Everybody is up all night, bragging about how tough they are, getting in fights, but not real fights because everyone is scared of getting into actual trouble and having to go to prison. There’s a whole lot more shoving type fights. Everybody in your face but nobody wanting to throw the first punch.

“Prison was more like being at a sleepover with a bunch of high-schoolers. Maybe college kids. There were still people that stayed up all night, but they weren’t like, so obnoxious about it. And if you pissed somebody off they’d just jump you at some point, and you’d either win or you’d come back bloody and that was kind of the end of it.” I shrugged. “I wasn’t in a real serious prison though.”

If you wanna know the truth, I was barely in prison. I’d kind of been off and on psych meds for a couple years before everything went south, and this made me a “special case.” I was still locked in. There were still bars and barbed wire and COs and all that. Bunks got tossed. People made wine. All the trite stuff. But it wasn’t like I was in constant fear of getting shivved or raped or something. Or at least not once I got settled in, anyway. When they were transporting us from county to the holding facility, there was a kid in the van with us, eighteen or twenty or something, and he was one of those people that just talks to everybody. About anything. No real ego, just a transparent guy, and he was asking this older guy (who’d clearly been in a time or two), what it was really like, what to watch out for or expect. How to not get killed. I remember laughing, thinking how these were the “usual” things one needed to bone up on before going in. Anyway, the old guy’s kind of enjoying this, you can tell, because here, in one thing, he is the expert. But he’s also playing it cool. Being the tough guy that’s just in because he didn’t run fast enough this time. And the kid keeps on asking him, y’know, what’s it like, is he gonna get jumped, what should he not do, did he need to join a gang? If so, were some gangs better than others? And finally, the old guy looks over and goes, “Just act like you got some sense in your head, and you’ll be fine.”

And honestly, at the time, that was probably exactly what I needed to hear. I could act like I had sense, in spite of the fact that my very position in the world showed that, according to the laws of society, I had no sense at all. “Keep your mouth shut and leave” was my basic strategy. I was thinking maybe this was advice I should be holding onto, not just for incarceration but for like, life.

Anyway.

“So, okay,” Chris says. “I can see that. Sort of like detention after school. You can push the line a little bit in prison.”

“In ‘jail,’” I said. “They are very particular in jail that you do not say you’re in prison. I think it’s like, the last bastion of pride for those guys. Yeah, you’re in trouble, but you’re still not in the most trouble you could be in; you’re only in jail.”

“That makes sense,” he said. “But didn’t you go somewhere else in between?”

“Yeah,” I said. I’d been specifically non-talkative about most of this, especially when I was in. I figured, the more of a joke I could make of it, the less my mom would worry about it all. Of course, then, you feel kind of weird when you’re out and nobody even knows you were gone, or where you were, or what happened, even if that is what you wanted. At the same time, I figure, you can always eventually say something, but you can’t really ever un-say something.

“At the holding facility, nobody does anything, because you’re separated all the time except for breakfast, and you only had ten minutes to get there, eat, and get back, so it was mostly a mad dash to shove food in your mouth. The rest of the time you got food through Ye Olde Beanhole, that slot thing in the door. That part really wasn’t that bad. They didn’t have very much to read, but I wasn’t there very long either. But as far as ‘concern for safety’ goes, at most you only had one guy to deal with, and if you got along with your bunky, I mean, really, you didn’t see anybody else.”

“What was he like?”

Something, maybe Christy not being there, was allowing Chris to be more of the little brother. Not necessarily proud of me, but curious, and less anxious about seeming curious.

“He was all right,” I said. “Believe it or not, he went by Bones, which, fairly trite, I guess. He was in for transporting across state lines, which is bad enough, but he got busted trying to sell to a UC, so double-whammy there. I think he had five years to go, or had gotten five years initially, I don’t remember which. I know it seemed like a lot. But he was just passing through from one state to another. I don’t know what happened with him. They moved me out first.”

“Huh.”

Another pause. “Yeah.”

“So, back to the Crime Tips thing then, do you think it would work? Like, did you have any experience with people having information? Or talking about wanting to talk, I guess?”

“No,” I played with my glass a little. The conversation had gone on long enough, judging by mom’s nonparticipation. And who can blame her really? Even if it is over with, nobody wants to think of their kid in lock-up. “About the closest I came was, there was a guy in prison with me for about three weeks who ended up getting jumped for one thing or another, and they had to move him out. But then, it turns out, one of the guys was telling me, this dude’d been in for maybe four or five years, and moved around at least that many times, because his plan was, he’d get himself jumped, sue whatever county or municipality or state or whoever you sue for these things, saying they weren’t providing adequate security for him. Typically whoever it was would cow because unsafe prisons look bad and he’d win some settlement. Then they’d move him somewhere else, and he’d just repeat it all again. Granted, this is all hearsay, but you figure, if that’s true, that guy is pretty brilliant.”

Mom made a noise here, some noncommittal thing, so I clarified as fast as I could.

“Not like, brilliant-brilliant, like someone to look up to. I think he was in on a sex case, for crying out loud, but I mean, you hear about those guys that get law degrees or whatever and everybody thinks, oh, wow, he really used his time wisely. But then there’s this guy, even if he only gets twenty grand out of each place, shoot, if he even only gets two, you do that ten times, you’ve got a decent amount of cash waiting on you when you get out. A lot better than the twenty-five cents an hour they pay if you work while you’re in there.”

“Interesting,” Chris said.

“Who wants dessert?” mom said.

After dinner, you could tell Chris hadn’t stopped chewing on things. Not because he was so intrigued by prison, or that guy making thousands of dollars getting jumped, (which, isn’t that kind of what a boxer does anyway?), but because this was some odd thing that he hadn’t thought about before. His brain worked like those economists who can tie things like Pop-Tarts to natural disasters, or lottery sales to gas prices, or some crazy idea that doesn’t make any sense until they say one sentence and then suddenly, of course!, you get it, and you realize it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Mom had moved on to other things though, and neither dad nor Chris was so dense as to bring up something she didn’t want to talk about again. He hung around for a little while longer, talking shop, talking sales with dad, talking about their upcoming weeks, when they could swing getting together for lunch, where mom and dad were thinking of going for their annual week-long vacation extravaganza, and then he got ready to head out.

“What’s your week look like this week?” he said to me.

“Um,” I paused, thinking it made it at least look like I had the potential of having something to do. “Pretty much the same. Pretty open. What’s up?”

“Nothing. I just have open lunches Thursday and Friday, thought maybe you’d wanna meet up.”

“Yeah. Sure. Shoot me a text or something. I oughtta be around.”

“Cool. All right.”

He said his goodbyes and walked out to the barely dark driveway, heading home.

Mom and dad came back from the door and sat down on the couch.

“Hey,” I said, “I didn’t mean to be weird. I know you don’t like to talk about any of that.”

“It’s fine,” mom said. “I mean, you’re right. I don’t like to talk about it or think about it, but it’s over, so…” she shrugged.

“Okay.”

* * *

After the bike ride the next day, I was downstairs laying on the couch, looking at Facebook on my phone and realizing I wasn’t really friends with any of the people on my list. Half of them I wouldn’t have recognized on the street. If I was supposed to literally delete my friends and get new ones, it wouldn’t hurt much, other than my ego when my number of “friends” went down to less than half a dozen. Although, even then, how many of the SHitS had Facebook, anyway? I wondered if Kirsten had an account. But, I thought, helpers help; they don’t force their way in.

I could hear mom walking around upstairs, getting ready for lunch with dad. They don’t have Facebook. Plus, I wasn’t sure if they counted as friends or not, since they sort of had to like me, or probably at least admit they knew me.

I tossed my phone toward the end of the couch, between my feet, slowly not caring to carry it around more and more as the days went by. I had an idea though. A really good one, where I could make new friends and everything. In fact, I could totally change my self, pick apart the things I didn’t like, reinsert a bunch of new skills.

I went upstairs just about the same time dad came through the door.

“Hi.”

“Hey. How’s the day going?”

“Same old thing,” he said. “You?”

“Um...also, the same old thing.”

“Hungry?”

“Ish.”

He walked in to talk to mom and I followed, hopping up on the counter to wait for them to finish their midday pleasantries.

“Hey, so,” I started, “Remember that thing about that cookout?” I was almost positive I hadn’t mentioned it, but sometimes you don’t want to feel like the one that’s out of the loop, the one that always forgets things.

Mom cocked her head to the side, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Oh.” They had a way of answering things, the ability to nonchalantly and confidently admit ignorance that only actually smart people can do. I made a note to try and remember how to do that.

“Well,” I went on, “Trey, the guy that runs that meeting out east, is having this thing at his place this weekend and I was thinking I might go out to it. I don’t know if it counts as a meeting or anything. I think they sometimes do though, and I thought it might be a quick way to check off an easy box.”

“Oh yeah?” dad said. “Where does he live?”

“I dunno,” I looked at my hands. “Over there somewhere. He made it sound like it wasn’t far from where I go anyway, and like I said, I thought maybe I could count it as a meeting and all...”

“When is it?” Mom.

“I don’t remember. Some time this week. I think.”

“That could be fun,” she said. In the way that only someone who hadn’t gone to these meetings could say.

“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “But I thought I might swing by.”

“May as well make the most of it,” dad said.

“Yeah, well,” I trailed off, not sure what my point was. “I guess I was thinking about going was all, and wanted to let you guys know, for some reason.”

Mom smiled. “You’re more than welcome to go; you don’t need our permission or anything. But I appreciate you letting us know.”

“Cool.”

I lingered for the rest of dad’s lunch, not really sure what I was supposed to be saying or doing or anything. What I did know was that, in spite of this pretty uninteresting introduction, I was going to begin building a new self at this thing.

After dad left, I went back downstairs and texted Kirsten, not even really noticing that she hadn’t texted me.

“Hey,” I said. “Are you going to that thing at Trey’s? Or do you know when it is?” I hit send, thinking how I was nailing that nonchalant thing.

It’s not like I needed her there anyway. I’d been going to meetings longer than she had, and I wouldn’t want to get roped into one conversation the whole time. I was going to start being more social after all. I was going to talk with people. And not just because I was inquisitive, but because I was genuine.

Surprisingly, she texted back almost immediately.

“Yeah, man. I love that dude. Are you going?” Heart smiley face.

“I was thinking about it.” I paused, trying to think of something to add. Conversations went back and forth, after all, and this was good pre-practice. Maybe just “practice.”

Either way, I came up blank, reminded myself to remember this, and hit send.

“Kewl. You should def go. I feel like you don’t like me anymore...haha”

I started to type something about how she was technically the one that hadn’t responded, but deleted it. She had a lot more going on than me, after all, and I couldn’t start finding fault with the people I was going to mentor.

“Haha,” I typed. “Whatever. You know how it is. I’m glad you’re going though. I’ve missed seeing you around.”

“Likewise, handsome.”

It’s not like I’m hard to track down, I thought. Instead, I sent “Well, cool.” Then, smiling to myself, typed, “Put on something cute for me” and hit send before I had a chance to change my mind.

“I’d rather take something cute off for you.”

I laughed, only partly noticing this text was emoji-less. No coy smiley face. No heart eyes. Maybe it was just a fluke; maybe she was just doing something else and texting on the side, but the lack of indication made me imagine her saying it with a straight face, big dark eyes staring straight into mine, one eyebrow slightly up, letting a spaghetti strap hang off one shoulder. The works.

I caught myself. “Maybe not in the middle of a crowd of old people. Haha,” I wrote. “You don’t want to give them all heart attacks.”

I waited for her to respond, but the time began to drag out, and I became more sure I had lost her to whatever it was she was doing besides focusing on me.

I swiped back up and read through the conversation, all our conversations. They always, except for the texts I’d been asleep for, ended with me saying something, and her saying nothing. I tried to see if there was any pattern, any stupid thing I was saying that was either off-putting, or just un-respondable-to.

The only thing I could really see was that I tended to catch myself before things got overtly sexual. Or at least on my side. Maybe, instead of that being me being mature, maybe that was me not playing the game right. Maybe she read it as a reprimand. I’d be the first to admit I was more than a little out of the dating scene. Maybe I should play more. They’re just texts after all. Maybe she needed built up a bit. If what the guys said was true, and everybody had to hit rock bottom, a little bit of flattery, a little bit of encouragement, a little bit of normal flirty conversation might not be the worst thing in the world. Especially for a girl. They get such flak about the importance of their looks after all.

I tried to split the difference and wrote, “Not that I’m gonna complain in any way,” and hit send.

Twenty minutes later she still hadn’t said anything, and I left it as a lost cause for the time being. There was a documentary on tv about a secret Nazi base in Antartica that I was almost sure dad hadn’t seen, and even though it was kind of stupid, it might give me something to talk about. Probably not at the cookout, but who knows. I focused on the tv, pulling my laptop out about halfway through to fact-check and fill in some holes, and stayed downstairs till dinner time. After that I sort of hung out, but didn’t end up bringing up the base. It sounded too much like a bad novel for me to really feel comfortable mentioning it to people like my parents.

* * *

Two days later I was driving across town, back towards the meeting place. Technically, I was going to have to backtrack to get to Trey’s house, but he had only given directions from the church, and since apparently nobody else was coming from my direction, I didn’t want to make a deal of myself and ask for special treatment.

I’d texted Kirsten in the morning, but hadn’t heard back. The night of the Nazi base, though, after I went to bed, she’d texted me.

“How’s nothing sound? That’s what I’m wearing now.”

Two minutes later. “Wanna see?”

Five minutes later. “Ouch, dude.”

Waking up to that, hardly thinking, I’d texted her back before I even kicked the sheets all the way off. “I can’t even express how sorry I am I missed this last night. Offer still standing? Haha.”

Of course, she said nothing back, and against my actual wishes, I’d refrained from texting her again until the morning of the cookout, seeing if she needed a ride.

Since she hadn’t responded, I sort of figured it was a pointless question. Of course she knew I could drive her; the last thing she probably needed was me rubbing her nose in the fact that I had a license. Although, to be fair, I didn’t know if she did or not.

I found the intersection Trey had started his directions from and followed a winding back-country road for a few miles, over hills and through hollers, whatever those are called when the majority of the widely spaced homes on either side of the road are of the mobile type.

Watching the odometer, I slowed down with about a tenth of a mile to go, as best as I could tell. You don’t wanna be that guy that drives past. Then you know everyone is saying “Hey isn’t that....” and then laughing when you actually pull in, and then you have to do all those fake laughs about how “oh, yeah I just wasn’t paying attention” or whatever lie you come up with.

And that wasn’t how I’d been envisioning the day. I wasn’t even all that worried about Kirsten, to be honest. After the last couple days of silence I had sort of figured I would do better without having to second-guess every single thing I said around her. Plus, it would be hard to have a conversation with the guys if she decided to make some kind of move, put her actions into words.

I didn’t mind the flirting, but in front of people, it would be difficult to explain that I actually did have a plan, one that didn’t involve my genitals even, one that was going to be really helpful for her.

Rows of trucks parked in a front yard tipped me off. I pulled into a gravel drive by a small white farmhouse, slowly driving up between it and a barn, making a wide circle and following everyone’s gestures to an empty place in the grass.

A few shade tents had been set up. A small bonfire was burning. Lawn and camp chairs were scattered around. A large cast iron pot was suspended over another fire by the garage. I parked the truck, pressing against my pockets and looking in the rearview mirror, taking longer than is usual to exit a vehicle, but I needed a moment. This was going to be good. I’d been telling myself this over and over, not sure if I believed it or not, but also not wanting to psych myself out this close to looming success.

All I had to do was talk, and I’d known how to do that for years.

I hadn’t seen her when I’d driven around, but that didn’t mean anything, really. From where I sat, I could see people walking in and out of the garage, more farther out in the large yard, throwing a frisbee, a baseball. I knew how to do those things, I thought. I’ve done those things. I can throw something. I can catch something. And I can talk. My mouth and my vocal cords work. This will be a good thing.

I had a momentary panic attack when I couldn’t decide if I should wear my ball cap or my sunglasses, then forced myself to open the door. Nobody sits in a car with the door open, after all. I opted for the sunglasses, slammed the door and pulled my phone out of my pocket. Even if nobody actually ever contacted me on it, nobody here would know that, and it made me look like I was doing something instead of just walking up to a large group composed, at best, of acquaintances. I was basically alone, with no idea how I was going to handle this, but a sudden surety I hadn’t planned well at all.

Glancing up over the top of my sunglasses, I could see a few people I recognized, but many, many more that I didn’t. I guess I always knew this was kind of a community, but at the same time, after a few months of going to meetings, I felt like I ought to know most of them. Of the fifty or so people sitting at the tables and wandering around the yard, I recognized maybe eight or ten faces, a dozen if you counted the ones I sort of maybe thought looked familiar.

I noticed Trey under a white canopy tent and walked over to say hey. It seemed like the proper thing to do, greet the host and thank him for the invitation. And if I was going to be the classy gentleman in this group of misfits, I needed to start out right.

Truth be told, my whole plan at this point still consisted of the oft-repeated mantra, “Fake it till you make it.” I would just start pretending I was smart, well-read, a conversationalist. I would be like someone out of an old French novel. Completely sophisticated but also humble and approachable. Witty but thoughtful. Honorable and heartfelt. But also always ready to stand up for my band of outlaws.

Even just saying this now, I can barely believe how stupid it sounds.

I walked up to Trey, shook his rough hand and thanked him. “Glad to see you made it,” he said.

And then I was stuck. I was hoping for something that left me open for a little more back and forth. Some kind of question at least. I tried to channel my dad.

“Good turn out,” I said. “I was curious to see what one of these was like.” (I’m interested in you.)

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s not bad. They kinda trickle in and out. They even got a van running back and forth between the house and here, I think.” He laughed, so I laughed, but I wasn’t one hundred percent sure if it was a joke or not. It seemed a reasonable plan, I mean.

“There’s food in the garage there. Go get yourself a plate. Pop in the fridge. Water out here,” he kicked a large cooler by his feet, nestled under the edge of the table. “Make yourself at home.”

“Thanks, don’t mind if I do.” It sounded wittier in my head (though I still am not sure how), but I took advantage of the smooth exit opportunity and wandered over to the garage.

Card tables were set up in a row, your typical family reunion type spread. Beans. Mac and cheese. Hot dogs, burgers, chips.

A handful of people were making their way around the tables or just chatting in the corners. I didn’t see a face I even slightly recognized over here, and I was beginning to realize this wasn’t just uncomfortable, it was a full-on horrible decision. In nearly every way.

I lingered at the tables, taking as long as possible to arrange my plate with a reasonable amount of food. With every spoonful I added, I was gauging how long it was going to take me to eat it, where I was going to sit, what in the world I was supposed to say to these people.

It should’ve been easy. I’d spent hours hanging out with these types of folks. Unlike almost every other social interaction in my life, I knew I had at least one thing in common with them, and it wasn’t like we all liked the Cubs or something. We were gathered because our lives were crumbling. Three score people standing around campfires, clinging to sobriety because literally everything depended on it.

The problem was, I didn’t feel that way.

Something inside, maybe arrogance, maybe some kind of self-delusion, call it what you will, but I still felt like I had only made a mistake. And that mistake was still simply getting caught.

I walked out of the garage, a coke in one hand and a plate in the other, looking for a table or a chair to sit in and eat so I would at least appear somewhat busy, and less like some random kid hanging around, waiting for someone to talk to him because he was almost thirty and didn’t know how talking worked.

I really needed Kirsten to show up.

A few empty camp chairs were left by one fire, three of them off to the side and empty. I walked over, standing across the firepit from the other people sitting there.

“Anybody in these?” I gestured with my coke.

“Just you,” a lady said. She was sitting up close to a guy I didn’t recognize, holding his hand across the arms of their chairs. A third, a girl about my age, was on his other side, the three clearly good friends, laughing and talking like this whole get-together wasn’t inherently weird.

“Well, I only need the one, I’d think,” I said.

I’d waited a beat too long. The woman glanced back over and, echoing Trey, said, “Make yourself at home.”

I sat down, putting my can in the cup holder, balancing my plate on my leg, and immediately pulling out my phone.

No messages, of course, but it gave me a few minutes of intent pressing and scrolling to make me look at least slightly less out of place.

Under a canopy off to my left, people milled in and out, Trey’s table denoting a kind of central stop. Yup and a few of the other older guys I recognized were sitting, sprawled back in their chairs, relaxing, enjoying one another’s company, even if they weren’t exactly splitting one another’s sides. With this group, I’d learned, the most you could hope for was a smirk, or a kind of half-laugh that didn’t crack their exterior too much.

Watching them, and carefully beginning to spoon food in my mouth, I started to see something. It wasn’t necessarily that I wasn’t supposed to be there. Like I said, the courts told me I had to be so I couldn’t argue that. But it was that, even here, I didn’t quite fit in, and it was in precisely the same way I didn’t quite fit in most places. Here, I had exactly the same chance of meshing with a group of steam-fitters and electricians and bikers as I would have anywhere else. I glanced over the fire at the girl across the way. She was cute enough, and on second look, I was almost sure I recognized her from some of my early meetings. Not that that was enough to start a conversation with or anything.

For a while, after college, I lived in the capital. I had exactly one friend there, a last desperate hanger-on from our school time. Or maybe just the one guy that hadn’t moved on and abandoned me quite yet. Of course, after a while, things went that way, like they always do. I am exceptionally easy to leave behind, or maybe just really good at being leave-able, to be more fair. I hadn’t talked to him in probably four years, but sitting at the fire, eating, seeing people just being regular, I missed him. We hadn’t always been drunk (though in hindsight it was probably more often than not), but I was starting to see how much I didn’t take advantage of having that guy around.

You don’t get an infinite number of friends. Or at least guys like me don’t, and I was really beginning to regret not taking care of at least one of them.

I finished my food and slowly wandered over to the trash can. The cooler of water was still under Trey’s table, and in a moment of gumption-over-self-pity, I tossed my stuff in the trash and went over to the “head table.”

“Hey guys,” I leaned down and opened the cooler.

“There he is,” Yup said.

“He’s been here for an hour,” Trey said, grinning.

“Well I didn’t know that. I’m not the gatekeeper. Sit down, young man.”

That was certainly more than I could’ve hoped for. “Happy to,” I took a chair at the end of the table, cracking open my bottle of water and getting ready to get myself back on track.

“You get yourself something to eat?” Yup asked.

“Yeah,” I grinned like I was so stuffed my brain couldn’t even comprehend it. “It was all really good. Don’t think I’ll be needin’ supper tonight.”

I was a little grossed out by myself, dropping g’s and attempting to create a kind of drawl that I thought would mimic these guys, but it was my best, or only, plan at that point. Show that you are the same. Show that you could fit in. Show that you are just peachy with all of this.

Trey and the guy next to him, an older gray-haired, gray-mustached guy I thought but wasn’t sure was named Jerry were in some kind of conversation about a tractor, or maybe a backhoe. I didn’t know most of the terms they used. Yup jumped back in with them, and for a moment, I was happy to just sit quietly, laughing when they laughed, looking out over the field at the woods on the far side, trying to slip in a joke or two, but mostly aware that, from everyone else’s perspective, it looked like I knew what I was doing.

It lasted almost fifteen minutes, which was much longer than my recent, post-arrival predictions would’ve guessed. The conversation never made its way around to me; I never had to fake my way through something I didn’t understand. For a moment, I felt like Yup wasn’t entirely full of shit when he always told us how happy he was we had just shown up.

In a lull, I pulled my phone out, no messages of course, but a chance to flick and swipe like I was completely comfortable. On a whim, I said, “Anybody hear from that Kirsten girl ever? I thought she might be here. Or thought she’d said somethin’ about it, I mean.”

Yup looked confused for a second. “That blonde? Oh she’s a cutie.”

I laughed. “Not like that. I was just curious. Thought with her still being kinda new and all she might be lookin’ for familiar faces.”

“I dunno,” Trey said. “I’m pretty sure she lives at the house, or that’s what one of the guys said.” He looked over at Jerry (they had used his name at some point, and I was scrambling to figure out a way to remember it).

“Yeah,” he said. “I see her over there sometimes.”

When no one else said anything, I said, “Cool,” and sort of let it drop.

A few minutes later, Yup said, “She’s a cutie all right.”

“Thinkin’ she needs a new grandpa?” Trey grinned.

“Fuck you,” Yup said. “I just like helping these kids out. They’re all gorgeous and I’m happy to see any of them.”

I smiled, but kept my mouth shut.

After another few minutes, when she hadn’t texted, hadn’t shown up, I’d pretty much written the whole thing off. She wasn’t what I was here for anyway. I was here for something else. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I almost felt like I could even just scrap the whole French novel thing and do something entirely new. I could learn how to sit quietly with a group of guys and have the occasional “hey” in a public place count as my social life. It felt okay somehow. More American maybe. I smiled a little to myself and checked the time on my phone.

“Well, guys,” I said, “I probably oughtta be gettin’ outta here.” I waited for protests or something, like they couldn’t dispense with my clever social observations.

“All right,” Trey said. “Thanks for stopping by. You wanna take a plate with you?”

“No, no, I’m good. Thanks though.” I stood up. “See you guys at the meeting I guess.”

“Yup,” said Yup.

I walked back to the truck and drove home, trying to figure out what had just happened.

“Hey, you’re back,” mom said when I walked in. “How was it?”

“Oh,” I started, looking for the right explanation of something I didn’t quite understand. “About like you’d expect.”

She made a half-sympathetic face and said, “Well, did you get your sheet signed at least?”

Shit.

“I forgot all about it,” I admitted. The immediate pull to lie was still an integral part of my being, and yet, every time I didn’t, it felt kind of good.

“Maybe they’ll sign it next time? Can they do that?”

I shrugged. “I’m not that worried about it. Worse ways to spend an afternoon, y’know?”

“True.” She was sitting at the desk off the kitchen, a pen in one hand. “Well I’m glad you had a nice time.”

“Yeah.” I lingered for a second and then walked downstairs, trying to figure out if “nice time” was the right term.

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