A thick wake of country dust plumed up from the tires of the big Chevy in front of us. My headlights were breathing life into cloudy specters that flew angrily toward the windshield, banked wildly and disappeared into the darkness behind. The moon was just a sliver, ideal conditions for a night of rustic meditation. Meiss Road is a bumpy, unpaved trail to nowhere that shoots straight off a dogleg on the two-lane capillary that connects my small hometown to a country highway toward Sacramento. It’s a common stop for county kids returning from a night in the city, looking for a place to trip on the primitive darkness.
The vehicles came to a halt with the sound of braking tires reluctantly arrested against dry earth and rocks. The specters calmed and dissipated into shimmering particles that floated listlessly in the flood of headlights. I killed the engine, and night stretched across the barren landscape. It was dead quiet for a second; then the sound of car doors slamming discordantly to our front.
“Wait,” Sara said from the passenger seat. “Can we just listen to the end of this song?”
“Oh, yeah, dude,” I said. “Totally.”
It was “Summertime Rolls” by Jane’s Addiction, a favorite of ours from high school. Sara was still lying back and staring out the moon roof of my Honda Civic, one arm draped behind her and one leg resting carelessly on the dash. The excess of her black dress poured delicately over her smooth, strong legs. At 29, she was as beautiful as the day I met her in the seventh grade. I remember her eyes and her smile that day – the kindness in them, the sensuality. Her face was an ideal in my mind. It reflected a pureness of spirit that I wanted to possess. The instrument lights kept directing my eyes to her bare knees, which hinted at her thighs, which made me look away.
It was obvious Sara was already invested in the whole idea. We all were I guess – out here looking for a loophole, a fold in space-time, where we could wrap ourselves up in yesterday. We’d come to Meiss Road after many years away, searching for our lost leader of adolescent discovery. Saying goodbye to him all day didn’t stop any of us from somehow believing we might still find him somewhere in this foothill fantasyland, wandering among our most joyous memories. In our minds, he wasn’t lying limp and defeated in his closet, an exit wound in the back of his skull. That image was what we’d fled from all day, and it had chased us here, where I guess we hoped to find our old friend, Jess, still smiling his carefree smile and making all of us laugh endlessly.
Just as the song ended, Adam’s always-boisterous voice boomed toward us.
“What the fuck ya’all waitin’ for? Turn the music up and get out here. It’s time to smoke a fuckin’ dooby.”
Adam and Nick had already set up our circle: four fold-up canvas chairs and a Coleman lantern on a stool in the middle. Sara and I obliged Adam, and soon the four of us were passing a joint around the circle, telling more stories – plunging hard like surfer Buddhists into the waves of time, praying for reincarnation.
Adam and Nick had been Jess’s best friends since kindergarten. They had all grown up in “The Highlands,” a little neighborhood in the tiny, foothill town of Jackson, just a short drive from where the California gold rush was born. They were Amador County boys, bound by the smallness of their world, a world that had its roots firmly planted in a simpler time. There was half of a stoplight in Amador County on our side of the Pardee Dam, which cuts across the Mokelumne River and into Calaveras County, where the other half of the light resides, letting cars know the single-lane dam is clear to cross. Jess, Adam and Nick -- county boys from the Highlands; blood.
Sara and I joined the family as teenagers when we started making the 11-mile trip up Highway 88 every weekday to the high school in Jackson from our neighboring town of Ione. Sara’s beauty and spirit made her immediately popular, and the boys gravitated to her charming spirit, just like she did to theirs. I had to endure a few months of Adam’s territorial pissings – adolescent bullying from the only dog in the pack scrawnier than me – before Jess prevailed in convincing Adam I belonged. Soon after, we became inseparable.
“I remember,” Nick began. “We went golfing one time. Adam and I waited for Jess for a good 20 minutes before we decided to start without him. By hole three, we were both golfing like shit and kind of pissed about the whole situation. It was hot as hell that day, and there was this old lady teeing off for what seemed like 10 years. We were about ready to say fuck it and go back to the clubhouse to drink beer in the air conditioning. All of a sudden, right when this dinosaur lady is about to tee off, we hear somebody wailing on a golf-cart horn. Sure enough, we look up the cart trail, and there’s Jess. He’s wearing a pink polo shirt with the collar popped, white man-pris, a lime green visor and some gaudy sunglasses that would make Elton John proud, and he’s got his own driver from the clubhouse staff like he’s some Roman aristocrat in a chariot. So he rolls up, and without missing a beat, he says, ‘Sorry I’m late, gentlemen. There was a major miscalculation in our latest shipment of corn seeds to Nebraska.’ So of course, we all look at him like he’s fucking crazy while he tips the driver and sends him on his way back to the clubhouse. So I’m like, ‘What the fuck was that about?’ And without missing a beat, he says, ‘I told him I was with the Monsanto convention and was late for a very important tee time with my boss but couldn’t drive myself because I suffer from epilepsy and already had two strong bloody Marys to calm my nerves.’”
We all laughed, and Adam picked up where Nick paused.
“Yeah, then he’s like, ‘Hey look; it’s Betty White! I loved you in Golden Girls, Betty. Want a beer?’ And she just grabbed her ball and walked away.”
Sara said laughing, “That is awesome. I’ve never heard that story, but it is so Jess.”
“Yeah,” Nick said, “That’s what he always did. He just made life ...”
He couldn’t finish. We sat stunned for a moment. I was first to try and lift us back up, and I charged forward against the sad thoughts.
“Remember that one night we came out here after a rave in Sacramento?” I said. “Jess and I were high on ecstasy, just stupid.”
“Shit yeah,” Adam said. “You mean the night that hot little blond gave me and Nick that liquid acid?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And you lost your mind, running around screaming at every stranger in the place, ‘THIS IS THE MOST AMAZING DJ IN THE UNIVERSE!’”
“Ha! Man, I was fucked up that night,” Adam said.
“We all were, dude. That’s why we came out here.”
“Was that the night with the cows?” Nick said.
“Yes, dude!” I said. “We came out here to finish our trip on a chill vibe. You and Adam went off to do your acid thing, and Jess and I stayed at the truck, lying in the back and looking at the stars. Suddenly, Jess goes, ‘Dude, I just had a terrible thought.’ So I’m like, ‘How could you have a terrible thought right now? There are no terrible thoughts right now.’ And Jess’s like, ‘No, bro, I just seriously pondered the possibility of sticking my dick in my gas tank. That is a terrible thought. You should never fuck your gas tank, or even want to fuck your gas tank. Drugs are bad.’”
We all laughed like Jess and I had laughed then, and suddenly all of us were back up again, paddling out toward the waves.
“So we’re sitting there laughing our asses off, and when it finally dies down, Jess turns to me smiling, and he says, ‘I love you, Glenn.’ And even though we were out of our heads on hallucinogenic love pills, it was real, and I said, ‘I love you too, bro.’ And right in the midst of this tender moment of male bonding, we hear Adam in the distance: ‘MMMMMMOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!’”
We all laughed uproariously, and Nick picked up where I left off.
“See, Adam and I had gone on a walkabout in one of these pastures, and he was determined to communicate with the cows. We were actually trying to get close to the cows, but we were too high to orient ourselves. So when one of them mooed, Adam decided it was a good idea to try and strike up a conversation.”
“Yeah, it was perfect timing too,” Adam said. “If it hadn’t been for me, Glenn and Jess might’a taken their ecstasy trip up on Brokeback.”
Adam’s country-bumpkin sensibilities were ever present, but we all knew his personality was more like a humorous mask he always wore. He refused to ever take life too seriously. There just wasn’t time for that in Adam’s world. He was simple, and he liked being simple. His accent was an invention, a badge of honor he contrived for himself. Underneath it all was a warm and wise young man who just loved people and life. That was the thing that made Jess and Adam so close, and it was also the thing that was eating at Adam, way down where he wouldn’t let anyone see. I could see it though – in the jokes he’d laid on so heavy all day, in the alcohol, in the lack of tears. Jess’s suicide terrified Adam because if life could get to Jess that way, maybe it could get to him too. I could see this because I knew Adam in a way the others couldn’t.
After high school, Adam and I joined the Marines together. It seemed like the right thing to do after what happened in New York. The Corps put us through boot camp and infantry school together and then assigned us to the same unit. Adam was a natural leader. I wasn’t. When we saw combat together, I followed him without question. I knew he cared more about the men he served with than he did himself, and I could never understand how he could be so selfless and strong through all the shit we saw. I was always so scared. He got wounded in the Battle of Fallujah when he ran into a building full of insurgents to rescue a team of Marines who were wounded and trapped. He killed all the insurgents and applied first aid to all the wounded Marines before he passed out from his own wounds. He got medically evacuated back to the states. They gave him a medal and then medically retired him from the Corps. He came home to the county, and a year later, I reenlisted. To this day, I’m not sure why I did it, but I think I’ve been trying to live up to Adam’s example ever since that day in Fallujah. And the truth is, I don’t want to do it anymore. I almost didn’t come home for Jess’s funeral, and now I can’t imagine missing this. I don’t want to leave. I want to come home.
Sara was still laughing at the acid-cow story, and she tried to start one of her own stories.
“He was such an easy man to love …” she began.
There was a brief moment of unnatural silence, and then Sara’s face suddenly tightened as she strained to push tears back behind her eyelids. She sucked in a painful sob that chopped her breath in a machine-gun rhythm as her shoulders jumped with the force of release. She couldn’t hold it back anymore. She started crying frantically—a painful crying, the kind that sucks the life out of the universe, the kind you want to run from when you hear it. She had broken down several times throughout the day, but this was different. Adam reached over and put his right hand on her shoulder and clasped her hand with his left, the one with just four fingers on it.
“I know, dude,” Adam said softly, scooting his chair toward her and then wrapping her up in an awkward, sideways chair-hug. “Go ahead and let it out, girl.”
Sara returned the hug, pulling her knees tighter into her and reaching up and clinching the arm stretched across her chest and grabbing with her other hand the back of his head, which now lay on her shoulder. Sara’s sobs twisted through her.
“No,” she cried suddenly, “No, no, no!” Her voice was an echo of the pain in her face. “You guys don’t get it. Nobody h-h-h-h-has any idea h-h-how fucking sad I am … because I can’t tell … anybody why I’m sad!”
Adam pulled his head from her shoulder and looked up at her. She pulled away gently and continued.
“I mean everybody’s sad because Jess is d-hhh-hhh-hhh-ead,” she seized on the word but kept going. “Everybody loved h-h-h-h-h-him. I … know that. Half the county was … h-h-h-h-h … at his ffu-funeral today, and everybody cried and told stories about … h-h-how great … he was. But I didn’t …” Her face was utter desperation. “… go up there.” She paused a long time, working out her breath and what she wanted to say. “Icouldn’t go up there … because if I did … someone would have, h-h-h-h, would have seen. Someone would have kno-o-own …” She let out a shamed whimper. “That I …” she gasped for a deep breath. “… loved him …” She gasped again. “... like, really loved him … like, wanted to marry him. And if I h-h-h-had said anything at the funeral … or the reception … everyone would have h-h-h-h-h known. She would have … h-h-h, known.” She grabbed her stomach as if she would be sick. When she began again, she kept her head hung and talked to her knees. “She would have known that h-h-h-h Jess and I had … h-h-h been seeing each other again since Christmas. She would have h-h seen the ring he gave me.” She flipped up her left hand to show us, still not able to look at any of us. Then she whispered, “And everyone would have had their answer.” She balled herself up tight, burying her face in her knees and muffling her anguished howling.
I could see that Adam was having a hard time processing it all. Jess’s widow, Stephanie, was family to him. But Sara was family too and had been a lot longer than Stephanie. Adam and Sara had dated in high school, just long enough for Sara to take his virginity, a memory Adam often recalled with great pride. In high school, Sara was the nice pretty girl. She always had an anti-homecoming queen quality to her, despite actually being our homecoming queen. When she got accepted to the Juilliard School in New York to study dance after high school, everyone figured she’d never come back, but she did. After ten years, she just left it all behind: the Broadway stages, the marquees and lights – the high-culture lifestyle that stood in direct contrast to the glaring averageness of the county – she just dropped it. She came back home and opened up a studio, where she made a very modest salary teaching mostly little girls how to dance. And apparently, about six months ago, she and Jess had picked up where they left off in high school. I tried to see what Adam was thinking. He just sat there somewhat blankly and reached over to grab his Coors Light. He took a long pull and stared at the lantern in the middle of us.
“Safe to say nobody’s expectin’ that little hydrogen bomb,” he said, letting out a lighthearted chuckle that split the tension and caused all of us to laugh a little too. “Hell, girl, I ain’t judgin’. You know I love you like my little sister, and God knows I ain’t got room to judge nobody. I don’t give a shit what’cha did. You loved Jess, and that’s your only sin, same as all of us. Hell, if I was a smokin’ hot chick like you, I’d probably wanna have some burnin’ love with that beautiful, charming sonofabitch too.”
We all let out the laugh Adam was digging for, and he took another pull off his Coors, leaning back and smiling his proud, jester smile.
As the laughing died down, Nick was first to break the silence.
“Well, since this seems to be a night of confessions, I guess I’ll go. You guys are the people I trust most in the world, so it makes sense that I tell you this before anyone else. Not really sure how to say this, so I’m just gonna say it: I’m gay.”
Sara sat up, and her mouth dropped open. “Oh my God, Nick,” she said. “I had no idea; how could I not …”
She caught herself, seeing Nick’s smirk peeking through. Her shock turned to amused embarrassment.
“You little fucker,” she said, smiling through a tear-melted face.
All of us burst out laughing. Adam was especially tickled by the ruse, and he capped off his laugh with a melodic “Whooooooooooh, boy! That was fucking brilliant, bro! I mean, we all know how deep down you’re a bigtime wiener lover, and you had Sara convinced you were ready to live free and gay once and for all.”
“Yeah,” Nick said smiling. “I’m not really ready to come out yet, Sara, but if I were, I’d be proud to come out to you. Then I’d tell Adam how I’ve secretly wanted to cornhole his ignorant, trailer-trash ass ever since the first time he snapped me with a towel in the shower after gym class in eighth grade.”
“See that,” Adam said, pointing with his Coors. “I fuckin’ knew it. Peterson’s as queer as a three-dollar bill.”
“Only for you, bro,” Nick said, raising his flask before taking another swig.
“Yeah, I can’t blame you for wantin’ to fuck me. I am a pretty handsome motherfucker. Tell ya’ what; I’ll let you blow me if you gimme a sip ‘a that bourbon.”
“Here,” Nick said as he passed the flask. “I’ll take a rain check.”
There was a long silence attached to the remnants of our laughter, and it hung in the air for a second before I said, “I think it’s about time to light that last joint, Sara.”
“Yeah,” she said, softly, still smiling. “Let’s smoke that thing and hit the hay, dude. I am so tired right now.”
Sara fished out the joint. She lit it and inhaled a long drag. She took it from her mouth momentarily and gently licked her lips before inhaling again. She looked toward Nick, squinting as she reached out to hand it to him and not noticing my staring. I looked away out of habit. Sara exhaled the word, “Boys …”
“Today was a horrible day, one of the worst of my life. But it would have been a thousand times worse if I didn’t have you three beautiful men with me through the whole thing. There is no one else I could have told about Jess and me, and having to bottle it up was literally killing me. I love you guys.”
Adam and Nick both acknowledged and returned her sentiment, passing the joint between them at the same time. I waited for them to finish. Something didn’t feel right to me. I felt like I could hear what Sara wasn’t saying – what was still hanging in the back of her psyche. It was in her face: Why did Jess do it? She was still trying to imagine a future in which she could ever not feel like it was somehow her fault. I took the joint from Adam and took a big hit. I knew in my heart, or maybe I felt in my heart, Jess didn’t do it because of Sara. He was too strong for that – too noble.
I exhaled and said, “I love you too, dude.” I turned my head toward Sara and looked up at her, wanting to make eye contact, something I usually avoided. “I’m gonna tell you something.” I had her full attention now. “Today—this whole thing—it’s not your fault. Jess was too big for that. Whatever made him go was something that had been there for a long time. It wasn’t you. It was just the world got too heavy for him. All the time he spent shewing away the pain of others – maybe he was just collecting it all, and maybe it got to be too much. They say in combat, every man’s got a ‘well of fortitude,’ and some men’s wells are deeper than others. And the ones with the shallow wells borrow from the ones with the deep wells. But every man’s well has a bottom, and when everybody keeps tapping your well, eventually you got no more to give. Sure as any of us knew Jess, that’s what happened – Jess’s well ran dry, sweetie. It WAS NOT you.”
My hand was on her shoulder, and she grabbed it. The look on her face was gratitude and release. She was smiling.
“Thank you, Glenn,” she said. “You are one sweet, smooth-talking man, and what you just said – I really needed to hear. And I really want to believe that; I do. I just wish he would have left us a note or something. Something to let me know …”
“—But you do know, Sara,” I said. “If you know Jess, you know in your heart why he did this. He was just too big for this world. He was always mending holes in it with little pieces of himself.” I paused for a moment, trying to think of what else to say.
“He just got tired,” I said.
“Ahh fuckin’ horseshit!” Adam said, chopping into the brief silence. “Jess didn’t get tired. He fuckin’ found the key to the big party in the sky. He’s probably up in heaven right now with Johnny Cash and Bukowski, snortin’ coke off a stripper’s tits and makin’ fun ‘a Jesus ‘cause he ain't never been laid. Hell, I’m thinkin’ about blowin’ my own brains out so I can join ‘em. I bet they aint outta beer up there.”
We all managed to laugh at Adam’s morbid humor, and we knew it was time to try and move past the explanations because we knew there would never be one. Our friend was gone, and we had to go on living without him. Adam was right; we couldn’t let ourselves wallow in the thoughts of why. They would not undo what had been done.
“I guess you guys are right,” Sara said. She paused for a second and then cried out, “I’m just so angry at him!” She stood up and screamed toward the stars. “Why’d you leave me, Jess! Didn’t you love me enough?! Why didn’t you talk to me?!”
She was crying hysterically again, and she fell to her knees in defeat. The display was enough to make the rest of us finally crumble. Adam finally showed the terror and desperation he’d been hiding, and I saw in his face a vulnerability I’d never seen before. It was a look that grabbed my heart and twisted it. Our bleary eyes met for a second before I leaned forward, grabbed the back of his neck and pulled him into me. He just held on like a scared child, and we wept. Nick was on the ground with Sara, and they were holding each other the same way. We all sat there crying into the lonely darkness.
When I finally opened my eyes, I saw the blur of a shooting star forming in the horizon. My mind fought with the sight. It was the most vivid shooting star I’d ever seen, and it seemed to drag itself into existence in slow motion, its fat, fiery orange tale slowly burning to life.
“Holy shit,” I said, sniffling and pointing. “Look at that. That’s gotta be the craziest fucking shooting star I’ve ever seen.”
Sara turned to look and said, “Oh my God!”
Instead of petering out and fading into oblivion, the star’s tail started to grow, longer and faster.
“Ok, what the fuck is that!” Nick said, standing up, obviously disturbed by the inexplicable phenomenon, which was now glowing vibrant orange and tearing through the night sky with relentless aggression. I was trying to explain it in my mind, and I had to stand up.
“That aint right, dude!” I said. “That sure as hell is not a shooting star. That is something really fucking freaky!”
The orange was changing to red as the streak crossed its zenith above us. It took me a second to notice that we were all standing in the same sort of half-crouch posture in our circle around the lantern. We had unconsciously formed a defensive perimeter against the impending alien attack. At that moment, an extraterrestrial invasion was actually crossing my mind as a highly plausible explanation. For a moment, my thoughts flashed into some weird video-game scenario in which we ended up like the Wolverines in Red Dawn, staging guerilla attacks against aliens like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray against the Russians. Sara wrenched me from the war of the worlds when she said, “Could it be a meteor or something?”
That’s when logic returned. That’s when I suddenly remembered: the space shuttle. It was reentering the atmosphere right now, just like they said it would on CNN this morning. About the same time I was having this revelation, something clicked for Adam too, something much different than logic.
“That aint no fuckin’ meteor,” he said quietly, his eyes still locked on the awesome sight. Something seemed to be pulling him toward it as he pushed past us, stumbling over the chairs and knocking over the lantern as he went.
“That’s Jess Goddammit!”
He started running toward the electrical tower about 100 feet away, yelling frantically as he went.
“That right there is fuckin’ Jess, and he’s flippin’ us all the bird from his rocket ship! Jess! I’m comin’, boy! I’m comin’!”
Sara, Nick and I just stood there stunned as Adam reached the tower and began climbing. He kept screaming his deranged diatribe the whole way as he ascended the tower with uncanny speed and perched himself halfway up, where he shook his fist at the awesome blaze of morphing colors, which had gone from orange to red and finally deep purple.
“I see you, you cocky sonofabitch!” Adam yelled. “I know this world can’t hold you, boy! I know this world can’t hold you!”
The streak reached the opposite horizon and finally trailed off, along with the last of Adam’s impassioned cries, which he seemed to be belting out through conflicted tears: “I love you, Jess! I love you, baby! I ain’t mad atcha’, boy! I ain’t mad atcha’, Jess.”
Serenity finally settled on the scene again. The remnants of the shuttle’s reentry trail hung in the sky above us. Nick spoke.
“What the fuck just happened?”
“The shuttle,” I said stoically, finally dropping my head and not really looking at anything.
Sara picked up the rest.
“It was the space shuttle reentering the atmosphere,” she said, almost to herself.
We stood there for a few moments and said nothing. An inexplicable feeling hung in the space between us. The cool, early morning air of a new day was all around, and I felt suddenly very aware of the stillness of that place and how beautiful a thing it was. I thought about that day in the seventh grade when the ardent eyes of a soulful young beauty held me in that same stillness. I remembered dreaming about the future in those eyes, and I searched hard in my memory, trying to recall if it was this very moment I had seen. When I looked up, the eyes were there, already staring deep inside me. I held that gaze with Sara for the first time in my life without flinching, and far off in the distance, I heard the faint sound of a cow mooing.