by Craig Davis
Not too much later Ray came back, shirt in hand. This time he was smeared with drying mud, cracked about the eyes and mouth. He looked like a mongol herdsman. For a minute he stood with his feet wide, beside them. Katie looked up at him, offered her throat. The first pink had snuck into the sky across the lake. It was a reservoir, really. Anyway, it lit upon her nose and brow and her wide dull eyes, half closed. Tim looked at her openly, maybe for the first time, and felt sick at his self in this new light. Without taking her half-shell eyes from Ray, she managed to smile at Tim. She smiled easy and with more awareness than Tim’d thought her capable of. He, too, looked up at Ray, mostly to avert his eyes.
Ray, weathered and asiatic, like a guide come down from the high desert to lead them back from the deep night. Back to where the sun rose close. Where it burnt the flesh so slowly and for so long. Where no camera could profane his image with its nauseous yearning for youth. Ray, smeared with mud and night time.
And Katie, of course, she was young. And maybe a little lovely.
Or Tim sitting Indian style in jeans and a collared shirt, arms back with his palms pressed flat against the browned out lawngrass. It was summer. It was drought. The water had slunk away somewheres and the docks were high like diving boards.
Ray Trestle was still a boy, actually. Sixteen maybe. His friend Tim had few friends. They both padded their spaces with their own kinds of silence — shrugs, mostly, mutual misunderstandings. Ray was quick to smile and slow to respond. He liked the taste of company swirled in his mouth and spat back. Timmy preferred then the gullet, the gag reflex, the loud ways of boys talking. But they found themselves around one another some Saturday nights, dazzled by boredom, trying to keep the car straight between the lines, skirting the arterial streets where the patrol cars pulsed, passing back bottles together. Katie was a girl who found herself wherever she was. Somewhere between these boys and some others, always in an envelope someone else could seal.
Certain girls, right?
The three of them, then, sitting on the cracked earth shore of some developer’s idea of a lake. Big enough for a couple of modest docks and the annual drowning of a high school kid with a lot of friends and futures. Not big enough to hold a wake of either kind. The water was a long way away. Katie laid her hands on her knees and pushed herself up.
“I’m going up to the house. I think I’ll crash here. Want to come?”
Tim looked to Ray. Ray shrugged, and mud cracked along the humps of his shoulders. Ray looked at Tim, and by the time he realized how loud their laughter had grown, Katie was gone.
“Timmy,” said Ray. “I think maybe Katie made this mud.”
He picked a rounded plate of it off his shoulder.
“What the fuck are you talking about, Raymond?” he said, squinting. The line of light was up now, over the fake shake roofs across the lake. Fall would come sudden one morning like this one. The change comes quick in dry years. Some species of tree had already begun to change. The air at this hour, like it had been run through a sieve.
“Ray,” he said. Louder. Ray Trestle was staring up at the house, were Katie’d gone. He was lean and slight, but muscly, like the black kids who sold the ditch weed and wore wife beaters around school. The ones you saw in pick-up games in empty church parking lots around town but who never played school ball. He was standing over me, and mud chinked off his slips of muscle when he moved, idling, unaware.
“Ray,” Tim hollered.
He turned his head down to Tim. Tim felt suddenly uncomfortable and tried once to stand.
“I think she made this mud, Tim.”
“God made that mud, Ray.”
“Did God piss by that tree tonight?” he said, and raised his arm to point.
Tim looked. He thought maybe it was an oak tree. He knew you were kind of supposed to, but he’d never really learned the trees.
“Shit, Ray. That’s a lot of mud.”
Ray was still. The sun topped the trees at his back and sculpted him in peals of flat brown crust. They were both still and Tim’s mind slipped sideways for a while. When he caught up to his own thought, he was wondering if maybe they might look like some kind of monument, the two of them. Like if somebody’d come down from the house and seen them there, what else would they think about these two boys, backlit and now with the water throwing back the impossible colors of dawn. Sunrise, Tim reminded himself. Dawn only happens to assholes.
“Shit, Ray,” he said. “She’s not that big, man.”
“She drank a lot of beer tonight.”
“What kind of tree is it, anyway?” asked Tim. He looked at the darker blue where Ray had pointed. There were 2 or 3 big trees, trimmed up high, with straight, columnar trunks and big boughs. There were totally empty washes of cottony cyanotic night time captured in the spaces where the branches should have been. The sun began picking out leaves one by one.
“It was a squatting tree. That’s what I think.”
“Where did all of it come from, though? I mean, seriously, you’re covered.”
“It came from under that tree. Where Katie went to piss.”
“Maybe it’s an oak.” Tim said, and turned away from the trees and watched the tiered houses materialize across the sliver of water.
A monument to what?
Ray shrugged and mud flaked down into Tim’s upturned face and open mouth. He gagged a little and started to stand again. Ray motioned him to sit, dismissing him with a lazy roll of his forearm. Ray lowered himself to the ground and held out his hand for a beer. Tim opened two and handed Ray one. They were the same temperature as the night, stolen from somewhere with streetlamps outside. Ray wiped his lip off before he drank. Tim swilled and spit.
“Still tastes like piss.”
“Now it tastes like dirty piss,” said Ray and more mud fell from around his eyes as they pulled up and troughed at the edges. A mongol guide. A gargoyle being birthed from dirt. Some kind of message from the little cottages of Collins Park, sent out among the heathens to be pissed on, like all your prophets.
“I guess, Ray. I never learned, really. But I think it is.”
“I sure as fuck hope so,” said Ray.
Never knew why. A monument to I never knew why.