One summer, when I was in college, I planned a hike from Georgia to Virginia on the Appalachian Trail. It was going to be over 500 miles and take seven weeks.
I spent the last afternoons of classes doing calf-raises and squats in the hallway of my dorm, listening to Bob Dylan’s Hurricane on a boombox that could get pretty loud.
There was no AC, and I’d been tying a bandana to my forehead, breathing hard, when a sophomore named Jeremy Urosky walked up to me. He was on the lacrosse team, and I hardly knew him. But I knew his name, at least, so when he asked if I was Shaun Fenster, some small part of me twisted at the formality. We all knew each other’s names, even if we hadn’t been introduced. It was a tiny school.
“You’re doing that hike, right?” he said. “You’re going alone?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Who are you going to talk to?”
“I’ll meet people along the way,” I said.
That had been my plan—to find the company I wanted in other hikers. A summer hike on the AT; I knew there’d be other people.
“You want a partner? I mean, to start out with?”
I hadn’t expected anyone to ask to join me, and I faltered.
“I’m planning on 15-mile days,” I got out. “It’ll be tough.”
“My dad and I used to do overnights on the Continental Divide,” he said. “The Montana section. Then I did some of New Mexico when I was in high school. You have to carry two gallons of water at all times. I humped a seventy-pound pack.”
I thought about that. “You were close with your dad?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said.
“The thing is, I don’t want to share a tent.” That’s what had kept me from posting my plans on the message board outside the cafeteria, where the student body propositioned each other with flyers—buddying up for Euro trips and rides home for gas money and summer sublets. I knew that once I was dirty from a day of hiking, I’d want my own private nylon ceiling to stare up into. “You have a tent?” I asked.
He looked at me and smiled, knowing I’d already agreed. “I’ve got it all,” he said.
We drove a rental down to Springer Mountain, where my sister, Susan, was going to meet us with her husband. Susan lived in Atlanta then. I’d worked the details out a month in advance.
Even after a few hours in the car with him, each time Jeremy spoke, it gave me a fresh shock that I’d agreed to let him come along. Sitting there next to me was a stranger.
When it was his turn behind the wheel, he clammed up, concentrating on the road like he was new to driving—and he continued his silence when I took over again. It seemed to me there was something stuck in his mind, or that he felt he’d embarrassed himself in some way… that I hadn’t let him off the hook.
One of my problems back then was saying no. I recognize that now. It would have been so easy. I remember thinking back to that morning, Jeremy standing in the hallway with his arms crossed behind his back; me, sweating, tying that bandana in a knot at the base of my skull. If our places had been reversed, I would never have approached him. He’d asked because he was an athlete, and because he’d been conditioned, somehow, to seek out what he wanted. But if I’d have said no, I believe he would have simply said okay.
“It’s good of your sister to come,” he said finally.
“What?” I said, though I’d heard him.
“It’s good of her. That she’s willing to meet us. That she’s taking time out of her day. It’s good to have family who’s generous like that.”
“You have siblings?”
“I have a sister, too, but we don’t speak.”
He was wearing squared-off Oakleys, and when he stared out the window, it was like he was posing for a picture.
“Sorry,” I said.
“There’s no lack of love between us. I’m just not ready. When she calls me, I don’t answer.”
“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want,” I said. “My sister’s only going to hike in with us a mile. Then she has to get back to work.”
“When I was a kid, I heard somewhere that Native Americans don’t celebrate birthdays,” he said. I saw that his train of thought had not stopped for mine as it went past. Maybe he hadn’t heard me. “I don’t even know if that’s true, but I’ve always remembered it. Something like, they only celebrate milestones. Some big life event, or some time when they’ve overcome something emotionally. Only stuff that’s really worth celebrating. Like just being alive for another year is no big deal. So, when you get braver or stronger, or you build your first house or learn how to fish or something, that’s when you have a party.”
He continued to stare out the window. He had feathered hair and a jaw that twitched when he concentrated. I remembered, faintly, hearing a rumor that the girls in our hall were crazy for him. It was the kind of thing I’d pay attention to. I was a virgin still.
“I’ll talk with my sister when I have something important to say,” he said. “When what I have to say really means something.”
“What’s the lacrosse coach think of all this?” I said.
“How would he even know her?”
“Of the hike, I mean. What’s the coach think of you hiking all summer?”
I happened to know the lacrosse coach was a stickler. He’d given the drinking speech at freshman orientation, insisting we all respond, ‘Excellent, Mr. Weber,” when he’d asked us how we were doing. I had the sudden suspicion that Jeremy was not going on a hike at all, but was running away.
“He loves the idea. All those rocks on the trail will strengthen my ankles, tighten up my balance.”
“What do you play?” I asked, and he looked at me with the smiling pity he might use on the hopelessly uninformed.
We stopped for gas somewhere in North Carolina. There was a recreation area off to the side with a trailhead on a wooden sign. I could smell the summer wilderness just behind the wall of trees, into which a pathway disappeared.
“Maybe we should start here,” I said. “Just walk home.”
“No,” Jeremy said. He’d balled his left hand into a fist. “We have to meet your sister.”
“I’m kidding.” I had a tendency then to smile like a fool. “I’m just ready to get going. Aren’t you?”
“Sure,” he said. “I’m gonna take a leak.”
When we were back on the road, the sun shone down flat and hot, and the air through the windows felt good. We were driving through green fields of something low to the ground.
“Look at those triangles,” Jeremy said. “It’s like a painting. Like they were painted on the road.”
His eyes were wide, and my first thought was that he’d done some kind of drug in the toilet.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Shadows. You see them? It’s just the trees, but they cancel out the light. Can you imagine cancelling out light? Look,” he said, oscillating his hand at me. “I could stand out there and make a shadow just like this. Light should be everywhere, but it’s so easy to block it out. Looks like they’re goddamn stencils.”
It was true that the big pines were casting shadows across the highway, and the one car in front of us was dragging a buggy-black shape behind it. It was true that for a moment I marveled at it, too, the day making me spacey enough to delight in the wonder of something so basic and beautiful as a midday shadow.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“No,” he said. “I have these moments where I feel like I’m dreaming.”
Susan met us in the trailhead lot. Her husband, Paul, was with her. I hadn’t expected him to come. He was a man who would ask me if I wanted to talk to my sister instead of chatting me up on the phone. The two of them had on expensive-looking packs and hiking boots. They wore matching purple tops made of hi-tech material.
“You made it!” Susan said.
“What a drive!” I said.
Susan had left home for college when I was only in the sixth grade. With her marriage, her career, her group of friends I’d never met, she sometimes felt more like an aunt, or a friend of my mother’s.
“This is Jeremy,” I said. “He’s on the lacrosse team.”
Inexplicably, I felt my face get red.
“He used to hike out West with his dad,” I went on. We were all quiet, waiting for Jeremy to pitch in, to say something cheery to these people who were doing us a favor.
I said, “It will be good to have the company.”
Paul said, “Or someone to call for help when the bear attacks.” He was being a sport for a change, grinning up at Jeremy and inviting him to join in with the ribbing. Suddenly, we were all on the same team, doing our best to coax him out.
Paul said, “Where are you from, man?”
Jeremy sighed. I heard the air escape his mouth like a bag being squeezed. As he did, something squeezed inside me, too. I thought about going home. The image of Paul’s bear attack was not a bear attack, but some other pulsing problem in the future, something awful that was bound to happen, that I’d be bound to deal with alone.
“Ottawa,” Jeremy said. “At least, that’s where I was born.”
“A Canuck!” said Paul. “You play hockey?”
“Not really. We moved when I was two.”
There was a three-mile approach trail to get to the Springer summit, and Jeremy started up it.
“Ready?” I said to my sister.
“Aren’t you going to ask us what we’re doing?” she said.
“You mean with your gear? Oh. I guess you’re coming with us.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Just for the night,” she said, softening already. “We thought it might be fun.”
“Yeah,” said Paul. “Fun. We took off work.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” I said.
“It will be fun. Hey,” she said, leaning into me, lowering her voice to a tone of playful conspiracy. “Your friend is cute.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Paul, coming up on us, marching ahead along the trail. “A real charmer.”
There was a plaque at the summit—the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail—and Susan took a picture with me hunched down beside it. Jeremy had already gone ahead by the time we got there.
“How will he know where to stop?” Susan said.
“I don’t know. I think it’s different when you hike out west. I think you can see down the trail much farther.”
“What’s that got to do with it?” Paul said. “What if there’s an emergency?”
“I mean without the tree cover,” I said. “You don’t have to stick as close together.”
“Yeah. I’m sure that’s what he’s thinking.”
I didn’t like how easily Paul had included me in his agitation with Jeremy. We still had to spend the evening together, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to play both sides. Jeremy would see where the battle lines were drawn.
“I’m sure he’ll stop,” Susan said.
But he didn’t. We made camp that night at a three-walled shelter with a fire pit. There was another hiker there, planning to walk all the way to Mount Katahdin in Maine. It would take him six months, he told us. He introduced himself as “The Razor’s Edge.”
“When you Thru-hike, you get a trail name,” he told us. He built a fire, and read us Bible passages. Paul rolled his eyes. When The Razor’s Edge kept going, he whispered, not quite quietly enough for kindness, “How much of this do we have to take?”
I was glad The Razor’s Edge was there, though. He gave Paul’s anger a target.
Only when it was getting really dark did Susan say, “Should we worry?”
“No,” I said, but I could tell that her worry had already picked up speed. She pulled a cell phone from her pack.
“Who are you calling?” Paul said. “The Mounted Police?”
“Don’t,” I said. “I’m sure he’s fine. He’s done this kind of thing before.”
“Well I haven’t,” she said. Panic was making her voice shake. “I haven’t ever heard of anyone doing anything like this.”
Paul looked at her with the eyes of an inveterate catastrophe-settler. “Be calm,” he said. “Just calm down. We’ll take deep breaths.”
I watched my sister’s chest rise and fall.
The Razor’s Edge had come closer to us without any of us realizing. He stood above us with his Bible open, smiling like he understood the general plight of man. “‘Many sorrows shall be to the wicked, but he who trusts in the Lord, mercy shall surround him,’” he said.
Paul had beers that he’d stuck into the roll of his sleeping pad, and he drank one with his arm around my sister’s shoulder. Then he drank the other. I watched the fire burn.
That night, through the nylon of our tents, I could hear her crying.
In the morning, The Razor’s Edge was gone. I kissed my sister goodbye and shook Paul’s hand, and listened to him say, “This ought to be interesting for you, at least.”
Though the rhododendron and the mountain laurel was blooming, I didn’t see it as I hiked—I made the long, grinding climb up Sassafras Mountain, covering my shoes in the red dust that rose from the pine needles. At the summit, I didn’t look out at the vista. My mind was
that roiling soup that only reveals ingredients as they bob quickly to the surface and are sucked down again. I’d told Susan and Paul that I was fine.
In the early afternoon, I found The Razor’s Edge sitting on a stump. There was a whole row of stumps, the tree-flesh still bright yellow from where the chainsaw had cut through. I picked the one right next to him.
“That climb kicked my ass,” I said. The straps of my pack dug into my shoulders, and taking it off was a breath of air against my back. I was soaked all the way through.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” said The Razor’s Edge.
“There you go,” I said. “Here,” I rummaged through to the bottom of my pack. “You want a Little Debbie?”
“What’s that, cream pie?”
“Cream pie, yeah.”
“Eww-ee,” he said, his eyes alight with pleasure.
We hiked the rest of the day together, and made camp at a shelter 11 miles in.
“I like this Georgia dirt,” he said. “Easy on the knees.”
“You got knee problems?” I asked.
He said, “The Lord gives me no problems I can’t handle.”
We made another fire, and I ate a peanut-buttered bagel. The Razor’s Edge ate a trail mix that consisted mostly of gummy bears. Already, the dirt caked around my ankles felt routine. I had no great urge to shower, no great desire for a bed. When the sun went down, The Razor’s Edge sang hymns and tooted on a little harmonica. A breeze dried the sweat into salty stretches on my face and arms.
After a while, he pulled out a flask. It had gotten fully dark, and the treetops obstructed any light from the stars. We hadn’t pitched our tents yet.
“Turkey?” he said.
I wasn’t accustomed to drinking, and he laughed when I puckered my face. The warmth seemed to hang in the space between my neck and ears.
“Belt another,” he said. “You gotta chase the first with a second.”
After a while, he said, “You know John Prine?”
“Sure,” I said again.
The Razor’s Edge sang:
“Blow up your T.V., throw away your paper
Go to the country, build you a home
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches
Try to find Jesus on your own.”
I joined in. It was the only verse we knew, and we sang it over and over again. I felt delirious with being there. If there’d been a bucket of peaches at my feet, I would have eaten them until I was sick. I stumbled to my pack, clicked on my headlamp, and fumbled through my tent poles.
“Blow up your TV, blow up your TV, blow up your TV!” sang The Razor’s Edge.
I got into my tent and giggled. For a while, I could hear him knocking around outside, and when it was quiet, I thought of what Jeremy had said about the shadows. If they were miraculous, I was floating in a great miracle now, dark as it was. I was drifting off when the mouth of my tent unzippered. I felt hands press the nylon floor down into the ground. I recoiled as if they were animal claws.
“We’re friends now,” The Razor’s Edge said.
This time, that sense of dread was sharper. I was trapped, but there seemed to be no real danger. I didn’t want to be rude.
“Yeah, but I’m fine,” I said. “I’m fine in here by myself.” My heart was beating fast.
“Just one night.” His hand was on my ankle and it was that touch that sent me shrimping into the rear tent-supports, unmooring the base so that it puffed for a moment before enveloping us.
The Razor’s Edge found his way out first.
“God’s will,” he said. He was standing next to the fire shaking himself off like he’d just come up from water. “God’s will was done here tonight.”
“I’m gonna keep going,” I said. I gathered my tent in my arms and stuffed it into my pack. I headed on the trail blind with my arms out in front of me.
“Nothing to be scared of,” I heard from behind. “God’s grace, Shaun. You’ll remember it.”
I walked fifty steps in the pitch black, dinging my ankles against rocks and spilling into the arms of a bush before I thought to turn my headlamp on. The forest groaned with horny life, and it began to thwack against my forehead. Big-winged things. I was disappointed to find that I was scared. Quite simply, I was scared of the terrible dark. I found a clearing and set the tent back up, keeping my light on until I thought what that must look like—my tent as it would appear to a woodland creature—a glowing blue orb, and so I sat in the dark and imagined for the rest of the night that I heard The Razor’s Edge coming toward me with a camping knife.
But he didn’t come.
When the sky purpled enough for sight, I was back on the trail, double-timing it up a climb so fast that my chest pounded and sweat tingled in my hair. Mist had settled in the valley below me, and I ate an energy bar still walking. It wasn’t until midday, just about tired enough to drop, that I saw him. Jeremy had propped his pack against his walking stick, and was pulling fists of greenery from the side of the trail.
“Jewel weed,” he said, grinning and looking fresh.
“What the hell?” I said.
“You can rub it on your legs when you get poison ivy.”
“What happened to you yesterday? You abandoned us.”
He righted himself and grinned some more. “Abandoned?” he said. “I’m not your dead-beat dad, Shaun. Let’s choose more appropriate words, shall we?”
“What do you call what you did to my sister? Where the hell’d you camp last night?”
“Are we or are we not in these beautiful woods? I didn’t think there were rules to this. We’re not friends. Remember? I hardly know you. That was a selling point for me. That’s why I agreed to come along. I like hiking alone.”
“You asked me if you could come.”
“Listen. You want to hold hands for the next however many weeks, you need to find someone else. Believe me, you will. I’ve seen people on the trail already today.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know there are people. You’re not the only goddamn one who knows there are people.”
He bugged his eyes out and crossed his arms so that the jewel weed seemed to sprout from his armpit. He was waiting for me to accept his terms, though I wasn’t sure exactly what they were. I felt like what I said next should somehow salvage our partnership.
“Just,” I said, “let me know. Okay? Let me know when you’re going to take off.”
“I’m taking off, Shaun,” he said. “Right now.”
“Did you eat yet?” I felt that same heat coming into my cheeks. Something had been resolved. “Come on. Stick around and eat.”
For the first time in hours, I let the ease of sitting down pass through my muscles. I dragged out the last bite of bagel, knowing that Jeremy would be off down the trail as soon as I licked my fingers. I wanted to lie down right there and go to sleep.
“Okay,” he said. “You’re happy now? You ready to kick this thing in the ass?”
“Ready,” I said, and to my strange delight he waited as I strapped my pack on, hiking just in front of me for the rest of that day. We summitted a peak, and then took a peanuts and M&M’s break together. Later, we made camp. The Razor’s Edge was gone. With the pace we were making, I was not concerned I’d see him again. Not if I kept walking.
We’d pitched our tents that night on a piece of ground that exuded smooth stones the size of softballs and yet I slept like I’d been drugged. In the morning, Jeremy was gone, his tent footprint just a square of matted grass. I boiled water for oatmeal. There was nothing final to the way he’d left. I knew I’d catch up to him, and when I did, later that day, he waited for me, let me pass him, and then lagged behind for the afternoon. It was a hard day of climbs, three peaks, all harshly switch-backed. By 5 o’clock, I was done. I made camp and ate dinner and was in my bag with a good two and half hours of light left. A shadow came over my tent and said, “Knock, knock.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“I think I’m done today, too. You got any water left?”
“No,” I said. “But the spring’s good.” He walked off to the spring and made his dinner, and then set up next to me until morning.
It became our routine so quickly: we’d pass each other back and forth, never talking much, until we crashed for the night. Often we slept on the wooden floor of those shelters, right next to one another, so that I could hear the rasping of his breath.
About a week in, he sprinted ahead of me by a full day, but I dug in for the next twenty miles—a day and a half—and found him in a stream, his body submerged up to his neck, his eyes closed, exposing nothing but a floating head.
“Jeremy,” I said, as sweetly as I could.
He sputtered and sunk and came up smiling. He was naked.
“Shaun!” he beamed. “This water! Oh my god!”
He hoisted himself up, letting his pink penis dangle with the comfort of someone used to locker rooms. He had dark hair from his chest down to the tops of his thighs.
“How’d you like that climb?” I said.
“Hey,” he said. “Shaun.” He came and put his hand on my shoulder, naked still. “I forgive you.”
“Yeah?” I said, playing along.
“Yeah,” he said. “I understand why you did it, and I might have done the same, now that I see what they mean by ‘trail disease.’”
“What who means?”
“All these thru-hikers. You haven’t heard them? ‘Trail disease.’ How we’re always starving. I mean I am just fantasizing about burgers these days.”
“Yeah,” I said. It was as if giving it a nickname had breathed an emptiness into my stomach. I’d been doing it, too. But in my head it was Rocky Road. I was so relieved to hear it spoken that I forgot he’d accused me of something.
“Just ask next time,” he said. “I’ll give it to you. I’ll give you whatever you need.”
“Ask for what?” I said.
“Extra food. Those Pop Tarts you took from my bag.”
“I haven’t been near your bag in days,” I said. “I haven’t seen you in days.”
“I know.” He was calmly practicing his Buddha-nature or something. I wanted to punch it out of him, but he stood there grinning and naked so that my violence would have seemed childish. “It must have happened days ago,” he said. “This is the first time I’m getting a chance to talk to you about it.”
“What can I possibly say?” I said. “How can I possibly defend myself?”
“You don’t have to say a thing,” he said. “I’ve already forgiven you.”
I took off up the trail, leaning my body hard into the pounding of my steps. There was a climb right out of that swimming hole. I couldn’t hear him following me, or even breaking branches hurrying to gear himself back up. It was better that way. I could put some distance between us. By the time it flattened out, the sweat was pouring off of me, but I didn’t take a break. I kept on hoofing it.
The next three days were strange. Something fragile had crumbled and left within me a density instead. My pelvis felt weighted with a shiny metal ball, propelling me forward on the upward swing of a giant pendulum clock. I rarely stopped for water breaks, and at night I hiked until I couldn’t see. I wasn’t boiling water for rice at dinner, but wolfing what was left of my dry food: the bagels, the cheese, the bag of peanuts and the energy bars. I set my watch alarm for 4:30 in the morning and was on the trail in the dark and mist, spider webs draping across my face. I did a 22-mile day, a 23-mile day, and a 19-mile day. On the fourth day, my shins rebelled. It started with a twinge so acute that I had to remember if I’d banged into a rock. It spread, and by the end of the day, both my legs were burning. It was like countless tiny fractures—so that at each step I was balancing myself on increasingly brittle bones.
I limped into a shelter, nearly crying, and was relieved to find it empty. It had a tin roof and looked out onto a gulley that crossed the trail. I sat up on the deck and sipped from my water bottle. Then I lay down on my bag to think of a plan, but instead, I fell asleep. And sleep, like a salve, soothed me.
In the morning, it was raining hard enough to make a racket on the roof. I lay there for an hour or two, just listening. It was cool, and when the wind shifted, a bit of mist settled on my face. I got out to test my legs, and electric shocks ran up my shins. I ate my breakfast slowly, and thought a little more. My only plan was not to walk, and so I sat, nibbling on the last of my peanuts. I was hurt and out of bagels. Somehow, I’d have to hitch into town, either for a doctor or a grocery store.
It was around noon that Jeremy showed up. I couldn’t believe it, as fast as I’d been going. He was soaked, his hair plastered into face.
“How fast were you going?” I asked. I wanted to hear that he’d been trying to catch me.
“I haven’t been looking at my watch,” he said. “I love it, though. Strolling through the rain. What’s with you?” He pointed his walking stick at the sleeping bag I hadn’t put away.
“My shins are on fire. I don’t know if I can go today.”
“Shin splints, probably. I’ve had them. In high school, my team used to run on pavement. Everybody’d get shin splints.”
“What do you do?”
“Nothing to do. Rest. Ice. Sometimes it gets better once you’re warmed up. Try walking it off a little.”
I got up and tried to get to the creek, but felt my legs collapse beneath me. I had to grab a tree.
Jeremy plopped his pack onto the floor of the shelter and unzippered it to find his map.
“Look,” he said, pointing to where a red line intersected with a blue one. “There’s a road right here. That’s four miles away. You can make it. Then you’re in Franklin. You can call your sister. What are we, a couple hours drive? Take it easy at her place and then have her drop you back off in a few days. It’s dumb to do it here. You’d just be uncomfortable.”
“You’re right,” I said, too quickly, and he said, “Alright then.” I felt some of that brotherly spirit again, half expecting him to let me put my arm around his shoulder and get me hobbling up the trail. But he didn’t dally. He swung on his pack and bolted up past the gulley. A spray of mud spattered up his legs from where the bottoms of his feet had flung it up.
Eventually, I hopped around through the forest behind the shelter, gunking up my palms on tree sap, until I found a stick with a smooth curve I could lean on like a crutch. I spent the rest of the day picking down the access trail, stopping to rest when my legs hurt too much to stand. I took breaks fifteen minutes apart, but after a couple hours, I could only limp a few paces before having to lie down again on the trail. Once, I opened my eyes to the sound of footsteps, a small muted rumbling up above. Sticks had popped. I had my ear pressed to the ground, and when I sat up, pine needles adhered to my cheek and forehead. Another hiker was standing above me. He wore his bandana like a hippie, rolled, and his legs were as sturdy and hairless as banister poles.
“Hey, buddy,” he said. “You okay?”
“I think I have shin splints,” I said. “They hurt like hell.”
“You getting down to Franklin?”
“What can I take? Come on, let me help you out.”
We transferred my tent and food bag over to his pack, a good fifteen pounds.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Hell yeah. It’s like another mile, tops. Trail magic, right?”
“Right,” I said.
He went on ahead of me, and then stopped and seemed to consider. He looked over his shoulder and said, “I’ll leave your gear right by the road.”
“You’re really helping me out,” I said, but by the time I’d made it to where the trail left the woods, I couldn’t find where he’d put it anywhere. He was gone. I hopped around, looking behind trees, then called him a motherfucker to the empty road in front of me. The grass was high and yellow and the crickets and grasshoppers shrieked, and by the time I was standing on the roadside, my face was hot with tears. I stuck my thumb out and caught a ride into town.
The driver left me in an empty parking lot with a fireworks stand. There was a payphone there, and I called Susan. She’d just gotten home. “I can barely walk,” I told her. “But otherwise, I’m okay.”
The fireworks stand was made of bright tarpaulin, and a man with a long brown ponytail and turquoise jewelry stood behind the pyramids of cylindrical paper bombs. I dropped my pack on the asphalt just behind his line of vision, so I could sit by myself in peace. After a while, I slid down and rested my head on my pack. I fell asleep. When I woke up, a line of cars was at a standstill down the road. The beating of helicopter blades was getting closer.
The man behind the fireworks stand was sitting on a camp chair, smoking a cigarette. I left my pack on the ground and walked to him, my body feeling wonderfully light. The man watched the traffic with a little smirk on his face, squinting and sucking the cigarette.
“You know what happened?” I asked.
He tapped a wallet-sized radio. “Five-car pileup,” he said. “There’s a dead man’s turn up ahead.”
“Did you hear any ambulances?” My heart was beating fast. I wasn’t sure of my bearings, of which way Susan would have come.
“They’ll be here soon, I guess. No point in rushing, though. They’re just gonna be harvesting organs.”
“You don’t have a cell phone, do you?” I said.
“You gonna buy some fireworks? Or just sit over there with a walking stick up your ass?”
It took Susan another hour and a half, and by the time she got me back home, it was past midnight. On the drive, something had been decided, and Paul got up at dawn the next morning to take me to the bus station. He was oddly pleased to buy me the ticket home, like by doing so he’d won an argument we’d been having.
Back in Maryland, I had to wait a few hours at the bus station because one of my father’s clients had been late. When my father saw me, he shook my hand with the easy respect I’d seen him give players he’d bested on the golf course. I’d been having trouble thinking of how to tell him why I wasn’t on the trail, but he didn’t broach the topic. He was rushing around. It was as if I’d already done what I’d set out to do.
That was the summer he’d finally moved into the Bay house, though he spent most of his time in the city, in a one-bedroom apartment he shared with his new girlfriend, Sharon. He seemed pleased to have me back to look after the place while he was gone. He offered me $500 to paint the deck on the waterfront side.
In a few days, my legs were feeling better. I started going for walks around the neighborhood, feeling that wonderful lightness again. Just my body, walking. No tent, no food, no mountains. The air was warm off the water. I had the house to myself, and cooked microwave pizzas for dinner. I woke up early each day to paint for an hour, before it was too hot, and while the sky and the Bay were the same light gray, both like quicksilver.
There was a community pier at the end of the block, and I’d stroll along the boards with my hands behind my back. Men fished and spoke in Spanish. Occasionally, I’d have to step around a patch of fresh fish-blood that stained the decking, and once, a fisherman asked me to hold his rig while he reeled in another. While he was occupied, I felt a tug on the end of the line. The man looked over and saw it, too. He opened his eyes wide and nodded his head and said, “Go, go.” I reeled it in and pulled up a six-inch white fish with a ridge on its back like a novelty comb. I watched the man slide his hand down from the mouth, pressing the comb back before unhooking it and throwing it back. “Too small,” he said. “I only take keepers. Not like them, ha.” He gestured to the rest of the fisherman on the pier.
“How many do you catch?” I asked.
“Today? Not many. Come back at night you want to see keepers.”
So, I went back that night.
The tide made shushing sounds against the sand, and as I walked out over the dark water, my footsteps could have been echoing over an ocean. Everything was quiet, deadened. I watched the men stand above their shadows, pulling excitedly on their poles. I went and stood between two light posts, watching them move their fists down over caught fish’s mouths until the hooks were free, watching them drop them into buckets.
By the second night, they’d gotten used to me. They yipped unabashedly with a fish on the line. “Come here. Look,” one of them said. He held the fish up and squeezed its cheeks together, opening the mouth to expose a row of sharp little teeth. “See,” he said. “A monster.”
On one of those nights, I watched as a man in a straw hat hoisted a skate up on the pier. At first, I froze where I was. All I could see were the fins flopping. It looked as monstrous as anything I could imagine would live in those waters. Three or four of the men gathered around, while the man who had caught it stepped on it, right where the tail connected to its body. Then, he cut a circle in its head. It bled as a man might bleed, thick black blood. When the flopping stopped, he cut the tail, and then he cut the fins and put them in his bucket. With the side of his boot, he scraped what was left of the animal back into the Bay. It left dark streaks on the pier.
I finished painting the deck. On weekends, my father and I would go out for dinner. There was an Italian place up the street, and a little dock restaurant at the marina, where a girl I knew from high school was working as a hostess. “Are you hiring?” my father said. It sounded like a come-on. “Only if you want to wash dishes,” she said.
After she’d brought the check, I lingered as my father went to get the car, and filled out an application. They called the next morning to offer me the job.
It was easy work. After a week, I felt my brain was floating in the suds. I’d see her, Amanda, before I walked into the kitchen for my shift, and she’d be gone by the time I left. For a week, near the end of the summer, I convinced myself I loved her. One night, after a late shift, we stood together in the parking lot. I was feeling dreamy. “Shaun,” she said, and squeezed my hand. “Are you going to take me back to your place and fuck me silly tonight, or what?” Then she laughed. I tried to say something that would change it from a joke, but I couldn’t think of anything. She drove a little white hatchback, and after she let go of my fingers, she got in and closed the door like she hadn’t said anything. Then she drove away. I’d missed my chance. Things weren’t the same after that.
It was only at the end of August, packing up for school, that I felt a knot tighten in my stomach. I was nervous about running into Jeremy—that I’d see him paling around with the lacrosse guys—that in front of all of them it would be revealed that I’d chickened out.
But when I finally asked around, I heard that he had transferred.
That was all ten years ago. Ten years ago this summer—July now, so ten years ago and a month. Last week, Jeremy looked me up on Facebook and told me he’d be in town. We engaged in an endless email exchange that could have been taken care of in a single call. But neither of us wanted that. The Olive Branch on F Street, did I know it? I did not. Not the shitty Italian thing, he wrote. It’s a vegan place. He was sure I could find something I liked, and sent a link to the menu. Okay, I wrote. I’m sure it’s fine. It’ll be good to see you.
I didn’t know what to wear to a vegan restaurant. I was anxious in a way I hadn’t been anxious for a while. Last year, a friend from work took me to an anti-war rally on the Mall, and I’d squirmed the whole time. These days, I live in the part of my brain that tells me that I’m fully formed, that I’ve figured out the more complicated parts of surviving in the modern world. But sometimes, it wavers. Sometimes, I slip back into feeling this way.
When I got to the restaurant, Jeremy stood up from his seat, and grinned enormously. He had either already been drinking or had changed into a creature of pure kindness and light. I recognized him immediately. His hair was still thick, and his face still had that aggressive handsomeness that the girls in the dorm had liked. He looked gaunt, though, and as he stood, I thought I saw him shaking. He wore a vest that he could have taken on a fishing trip, full of pockets.
“Shaun,” he said. “Oh, wow. It’s you.”
Though I’d already seen the menu, I let my eyes pass over the categories. It was nice to sit there quietly with something in front of my face. When the waitress came, I ordered the Udon Bowl.
“So,” I said. “What brings you down here?”
“One of these conferences that seem to take up so much of my time these days.”
“What do you do?” I asked.
“Oh, right. Duh,” he said, bouncing the heel of his palm off his forehead. “That’s kind of important in this reintroduction. I’m a professor of philosophy at Hampshire College.”
“Really. You studied philosophy, I guess. It was strange not seeing you when I got back. You know, I thought we’d have this big reunion. Do you like it?”
“The students are my life, Shaun. Really, they are my life. I’ve come to see the truth about small communities. It’s all right there, everything a person needs. I can ski to work in twenty minutes.”
I felt myself rambling just to put words into the air between us. “I bet you’ll grow old there. Small college. Great students. I bet you just love it.”
“I’m building a zero-carbon-footprint house. It’s amazing what you can do when you work with a builder these days. I mean, it’s really exciting stuff.”
“What’s your research?” I said.
“That’s actually one of the things I want to discuss with you.” He chewed on a forkful of sprouts. Then he smiled. “I’ve felt so bad about this ever since the hike. Can you believe it’s been ten years? When I saw you in that hallway, doing those exercises, I knew you’d never make it. Wait, wait,” he said, holding up his hand. Had I flinched? Had he seen my muscles tighten? “I wanted to go because I thought maybe I could keep you on track. You probably don’t believe that, and I don’t blame you, but it was one of those strange moments where I just knew. I knew I could help you get through something important in your life.” He lowered his hand, as if he’d built a morally unassailable justification. “But then I didn’t. I let you leave. I kept on going. I know this may sound arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it as a way of apology. That was a period in my life when I often felt superior. I had such great physical strength! But I never felt superior to you in spirit. I want you to know that, Shaun.”
“How does that tie into your research?”
“If you only knew,” he said. He shook his head at his plate of beans as if beans were a funny thing. “Listen, the reason I wanted to get together was to extend an invitation. I want to get you back out on the trail again. Let’s start from where you left off. It would mean a lot to me.”
I had to resist the urge to reach across the table and grab him by his vest. Weighing whatever he did now, I felt I could fling him over my head. But I didn’t move; I sat there and felt my anger burn. My anger felt like what I’d come there for.
“Well?” he said. “What do you say?”
“What about your students?”
“It will be summer soon. I don’t teach in the summer.”
I laughed—one of those head-back laughs I’d only ever seen in movies. I loved it, the tightness in the back of my neck, the wildness of my volume. People at other tables turned to look.
“I have a family now,” I said. “My son was just born. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t… My son was born last month,” I said quietly.
He smiled his buddhic smile again. “I didn’t know. Congratulations.” His warmth broadened, and I was scared for a moment that he would stand and call the restaurant to attention with a clink of his glass. “That’s wonderful news.”
I wolfed my food to make the meal go faster. Both of us ate like that, fiercely, territorially, and I remembered eating on the trail—that hunger that could not be satisfied. How I’d felt, for those minutes, like an animal must feel.
It hollowed me there as it had hollowed me then. A cavity of wanting. Too much of me had been civilized, though. I was too grown up to let that hollowness remain—to want to let it sit there.
“Okay,” said Jeremy, when the meal was over. He held the door for me and we stepped into the balmy evening. It had rained while we ate, but I hadn’t noticed. Now there were hot puddles quickly shrinking on the sidewalk. “If you change your mind, you know how to reach me.”
“Sure, I do.” I said. “I guess no one’s out of touch anymore.”
I drove home to my apartment and sat outside on the balcony. The woods were full beneath me; there was a creek down there, with trails that ran through the easement. You could hardly tell I was in a city. A neighbor banged around on the deck overhead. I didn’t know why I’d said what I said, about having a son. I don’t have a son. My girlfriend took a job in Atlanta, and now I’m single again. But I felt the joy of all that nervousness behind me, the thrill of my life, as if it would be a new life. My body felt light again, inconsequential, just as it had when I’d taken off my pack.
I brought out my laptop, and looked up the philosophy faculty page at Hampshire College. I was not surprised to find he wasn’t listed.
Benjamin Warner teaches at Towson University in Baltimore. His novel, Thirst, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Publishing.
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