It was the end of an era and we didn’t know it. I look back and realize now that we couldn’t see that our youth was passing, that the world was never going to be the same.
Speeding out past the last houses of Kansas City on Stateline, Jeff’s car seemed to find its own way down a little gravel-and-dust country road. An abandoned house stood near the pavement, its dooryard filled with hardwood saplings and the kind of cedars and brush that fill anything untended that once was. Every now and then, a small airplane would land at the private airport at the corner of Stateline and 135th Street. Beyond that intersection lay nothing but endless rolling hills of corn and beans that turned tawny and yellow in the late evening sun.
We’d stacked our supply of beer from the local Kansas liquor store in the back seat of the car. Back then, the drinking age in that state was 18 for 3.2 percent beer. Jeff and I were in pursuit of nothing. We had time and some pocket money. He worked at a restaurant washing dishes. I pumped gas 10 hours a day, six days a week. We spent our money on gas, cigarettes, and beer. That was the whole of our lives that summer, the summer we turned 18.
I was on my way to college, my first foray into education outside of Catholic school. I was making enough money at the time to save for my first year of school. Jeff was undecided. He was a guy who couldn’t imagine himself in college. He had been a mediocre student at the local public school. He knew things I didn’t—the soft touch of a woman, the intricacies of buying and smoking weed, and how to jimmy car doors when he didn’t have cash.
But he had only done that a couple of times for a few bucks—enough for a six pack and a couple of packs of cigarettes. The restaurant had him working six days a week now that he’d gotten out of high school. He was making plenty of money and could now afford the straight-and-narrow life.
We came from different families. My dad made a good, middle-class living but spent most of our money on mortgage and tuition for Catholic school for four kids. Jeff’s dad worked an obscure desk job, that of an insurance agent or salesman. Jeff never talked much about it. He and his sisters shared a small house not far from ours but in a poorer part of the neighborhood. Neither of us received any kind of money from our parents, not allowances, not pocket cash. What we had we made ourselves.
Neither of us fit in well with the kids from our schools. After I left high school, probably the worst years of my life, I never looked back. I wasn’t close to anyone and didn’t have any friends that lived close by anyhow. Jeff’s classmates all lived in the same general area, but the only kid he really palled around with was Ricky, and he wasn’t a drinker.
So, Jeff and I fit together well. We had a taste for drink and a thing for sitting by a fire and whiling the night away with cigarettes and weak beer. It wasn’t much, but it kept us busy.
We had been visiting the small, gravel-and-dust road all summer. Here it was the end of July. The heat was oppressive, even as the sun set. We found our little clearing in the hedgerow bordering the corn and beans. We gathered enough firewood for a couple of hours. Settling into the grass beyond our fire ring, we watched lightning bugs flash along the darkness of the shelterbelt. The sky was deep purple and there wasn’t a breeze. The mosquitoes set on us and we used some repellent we kept in the back of the car.
In less than a month, I would start school. Jeff had little to look forward to but endless nights sweating it out in the back room of the restaurant. Our trips to the fire ring had been becoming less frequent over the last weeks. He often found himself sitting in his room, listening to records. I was always in bed early since my morning shift started at 6 a.m.
But it was Saturday night and both of us had Sundays off. We were bushed from the work week. After the fire really got going, the mosquitoes thinned and we tipped back several cans of beer in a row, almost as if we couldn’t get enough fast enough. My parents would haul me off to church in the morning but it was a late start for me—I didn’t have to get out of bed until 7, almost two hours later than my working-day rising time. Jeff’s parents, Protestants, might go to church or not. It depended on how much his dad drank that night.
“You think we’ll ever amount to anything?” he asked after we’d had about four beers each.
“I don’t even know what it means to amount to anything,” I said, poking the fire with a long stick. “Why?”
“Well, you’re going to school at least,” he said. The fire lit his face like a Manet painting. The shine of sweat had given over to a matte sheen. A lightning bug landed in his hair and he reached up and grasped it gently in two fingers.
“I’m going to school because I made enough money and don’t know what else to do,” I said.
“What are you going to study?”
“Who knows,” I said. “I’m just taking classes they tell me I have to. Art history and the like.”
“Art fucking history,” he said. “What the hell do you do with art history?”
“I don’t know. Maybe study art.”
“What’s in it?” he said. “I mean, what do you get out of it? What kind of job?”
“I pump gas,” I said. “As far as I know, I’m going to be pumping gas a long time.”
Something changed. He knew I wouldn’t pump gas forever but his only horizon was a time clock between shelves of canned tomato paste. It went unsaid.
Our paths diverged after that night. We only spent one or two more nights at the fire but there wasn’t anything in it. By the time I started school, he had passed from my life. I spent another year on the pavement, dealing with the petty complaints of people who thought I was ripping them off. Jeff went from restaurant to restaurant. In the meantime, he married a 17-year-old girl and had a couple of babies.
The last time I saw him, I gave him my car. He’d shot a man dead and went to prison for six and a half years on a manslaughter charge. By that time, the girl had divorced him and took the kids away. I was doing well enough to give him something to get a leg up after his stint in the pen. I steered him toward a felon-friendly company that hired him as a truck driver. He resented me for it.
It’s been many years since I’ve seen him. When I go camping with my son, I sit at the fire and wonder about Jeff sometimes. In my mind, he’s driving truck and seeing life from behind the wheel, a decent job where he’s his own boss. He’s happy in my dreaming. He has a wife and a house and a couple of kids. He’s transcended the fire. He’s finally made it.