Laura Valeri is the author of two story collections, Safe in Your Head (Stephen F. Austin Literary Prize) and The Kinds of Things Saints Do (John Simmons/Iowa Award). Her work appears in Glimmer Train, Waccamaw, Conjunctions, Night Train, Patterson Literary Review, V.I.A. and others. She is Associate Professor of creative writing at Georgia Southern University and founding editor of the literary journal Wraparound South.
Jud knows a lot about Cory that would seem sort of irrelevant in the scheme of things. For instance, he knows that Cory wears tinted contact lenses, that he shaves with a manual blade because electric razors give him bumps, that his mother is a consultant for the IT industry, and one of the few programmers who still works with C++ besides. Corey is 16 or maybe 17, a Leo, a hipster, the type who likes to wear thrift store shirts that are open at the chest to show off his pecs like in a commercial for TAG. The girls at school don’t mind seeing Corey in his shirt and his leather wrap bracelets, two, three, on his left wrist only, the left ear pierced seven times, the nostril once, with one small diamond stud that teachers at Scudboro High won’t let him wear. Cory wears it, anyway, pointing to the Gothic cross tattooed on his upper arm, to the Latin words, vade retro me Satana, expecting, of course, more detention.
This is what Jud thinks: If Corey had stopped to consider Scudboro, if he’d driven on 67 along the miles and miles of planted fields, corn, soy, tobacco, cotton, and pastures where the cows graze and the egrets stand tall near their piles of dung, and if he’d paid attention in town and read the church marquee that said “Without Jesus, There Would Be Hell To Pay,” and if he knew that the hottest things that ever happened during a Scudsboro summer is the wind, he might have maybe opted for Prep school, like his mother wanted. He would, then, maybe understand why the teachers talk about him when he’s close enough to hear them, “They don’t belong to any church,” “The mother goes to Unity, bless her heart,” “The kid growing up without a father like that.” Corey doesn’t seem to want to blend in like the rest of the kids, not like Jud, who’s always helping out Jack Wyndham’s mom with the grocery and cutting the lawn for Captain Yarbrough, a Vietnam vet, so the kids at church know him, know what he does, who he is. Corey does none of those things. Corey thrives on being the odd ball, even as he still manages to avoid getting noticed by, say, the Jack Pembertons and Ted Holloways of the situation, guys whose noses Jud had to bust before he got some respect. But even if he did understand it, Corey wouldn’t care. It’s South Georgia, a place of breath-stifling summers, of twilight gnats, river tides, and swaying marsh grass, it’s church bells tolling and choirs singing, it’s coal rolling on 67, state troopers on 80, eighty miles to the nearest beach on five gallons of gas, and everybody here owns a gun and loves Jesus, even the Democrats, who will lock and load standing next to their Obama lawn signs that their neighbors keep stealing.
Corey says he’s no fashionista: his hair is so kinky he can’t keep it straight any other way but with dreads, and besides, he says he’s part Dominican, on his mother’s side (Jud suspects black: the flat nose, the wide nostrils, the tanned smooth skin). In Atlanta, Corey says, kids slammed him into a locker once, called him a cracker trying to be a brother, but here in Scudsboro only the teachers care. Corey threatens to just, fuck it, shave it all off one day, there, bring it right up to Miss Marie, and fuck her and the kids in Atlanta and their pseudo-liberal dribble.
They’re standing in the parking lot, now, smoking a joint, talking about Corey’s hair. Jud thinks he should head for History, but he gets a feeling Corey is waiting for someone, and that this someone is Michelle. It feels like someone’s pulling out his stomach with a pincer when he thinks about Corey and Michelle, the same funny feeling he used to get when his Mama came home late with her hair all mussed up and reeking of Old Spice and mint Juleps.
Corey says, “Cultural appropriation is where left wing politics becomes a caricature of itself. Where’s the damage? In the mind of a few privileged ivy league talking heads whose minority card should be seized ‘cause they’re fucking green all over.” Corey’s always talking too loud, his voice rising with every statement, his hands moving large, pointing, dropping, clenching and pinching things that don’t exist, and Jud watches it, thinking it’s like a dance, what Corey does, like the way the body moves is part of the music with some of the Hip Hop groups Corey listens to.
Corey says, “This sort of thing contributes to the kind of puppet theater politics instigated by the corporate-controlled media.” He waves the joint, even though their cars are parked right by the classrooms because Corey thinks the Principal won’t know a blunt from a rolly, anyway.
“Who cares about dreadlocks, for fuck’s sake?” Corey says, biting down on the blunt with his front teeth. “Think same sex marriage. What do the neo-cons say, that it compromised the sanctity of marriage, right? So, what they’re saying is that gay people are culturally appropriating marriage. It’s all fucked , this political shit.” He drills his temple with his middle finger, which is also tattooed with something that looks like a gang sign.
Jud pulls his baseball cap lower and pops another beer. He doesn’t quite know why he even listens to Corey. It’s not as if Corey’s ideas are interesting or even surprising. Each time Corey says fuck it feels to Jud like someone gave him a wedgie.
For Jud, Corey is reality TV, something so gross that you can’t help watching because there’s nothing else worth turning the channel for.
Corey says, “Am I right?” hands open, like a shyster from a Tarantino movie.
“You’re full of crap,” says Jud. Can’t even bring himself to say shit, which is what he really wants to say, because Nana’s got it drilled in him so much she’d slap him across the face. Nana doesn’t get worked up about much, but things like language really set her off. Jud respects Nana, which is more than he can say about his own mother, who left his Dad for some tire salesman in Alabama right after Dad lost his hand to a wood chipper.
Corey sucks on his blunt with his left eye squinting, his nostrils folding in. He holds in the smoke and nods as he hands it over to Jud, who is supposed to be in History right now, who has rugby practice at four and will surely be kicked off the team if he misses again. It gives Jud a bit of a thrill, coach threatening to kick him out: and it’s not because he doesn’t love rugby– he loves crunching bones without having to apologize – but it will make Pops angry, like it might be possible for him to drop his Jud persona like dirty socks, and become something different than the kid who works on his F-350 truck with Pops every Sunday afternoon, the kid with the catalectic converter and the diesel fuel pump tricked up to run tracks with the boys.
He squints at Corey through the smoke between them, and Corey squints back at him like he understands, and this makes Jud want to drive over Corey’s Euro-motorcycle with his truck. It had to be a Ducati Hypermotard., an expensive import that fits in Scudsboro like Satan fits at a church potluck. Jud feels personally offended that Corey owns one of the most gorgeous bikes ever made.
Present from the old man. To make up for the fact that he’s never around. But Jud thinks the bike is weed money.
It’s Jud’s turn on the blunt. It’s wet, but he puts it between his lips all the same and nods back at Corey, who laughs like he knows something Jud doesn’t. But then, it’s Casey and Julia and Michelle crossing the parking lot, their giggles and talks rising suddenly in the quiet. Jud feels a clutching in his stomach seeing Michelle. When they pass each other at school, they both avoid eye contact now. Corey waves like it’s Algebra and he’s got a question for the teacher that’ll make him look smart.
The ladies wave back. They say Hi Corey, hi Jud. Jud nods.
Rugby is in an hour and he’s missing History, and he’s guzzling beer and smoking pot. It would be better for Jud to miss practice than to show up stoned and drunk. To Corey, he says, “Hey, don’t fuck with Michelle, ok?”
Corey’s got his back to him, his arms open like he’s Jesus welcoming sinners.
“Hey, you hear me? Not Michelle, ok?”
Corey makes like he doesn’t hear. By then the girls are too close for Jud to keep going, and Corey’s going at them with the smile of a prophet. Jud crushes the beer can and throws it into the trash bin in a perfect hoop shot.
Jud tries to pretend not to see Michelle, but she shows him her teeth in a pretend smile, so he grins. It was Jud’s fault they broke up again. Out on the bed of his truck, all things good, his hands on her flat stomach then up under her bra, her pepperoni pizza breath in his mouth: “Slow down, come on Jud, I’m not ready for that.”
He sat up and lit up a stick, Michelle’s saliva still on his face, and said, “You look like a whore in that top. What did you wear it for if you don’t want to do it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Were you hoping he’d come tonight?”
“I saw you texting him. I was standing right there.”
Michelle slipped off the truck bed, pulling on her jacket.
“Hey!” He jumped off the truck after her.
“You’re a real asshole. Get off the booze, Jud. You’re turning into your Pops.”
Now it all seems to him like a bad TV show, that cliché that Corey’s always said he is, except he did grab Michelle’s ponytail. He tugged on it hard, like Pops with Nana: “What did you say? What the hell is that supposed to mean?” And the kind of shit he thought he should say.
It was, really, just the Bourbon. He threw up an hour later, his truck parked sideways on Nana’s hydrangeas, and Jud with his face to the lawn, tasting dirt. Michelle’s dad called Pops when she showed up home with a bruise on her lip, and he threatened to drive over with his shotgun. The whole business ended up in a lot of screaming on both ends.
But Michelle struts up to him like nothing happened, pulling her cheerleading jacket tight, though it’s really only October, and it’s eighty degrees, and they’re all wearing flip flops except her. She’s got her cheerleader uniform. Her long, tanned legs so nicely defined, her calf muscles flexing out of ankle socks so perfect it makes Jud want to start it up again. Julia and Casey pull Corey in a bear hug. Michelle’s lip looks normal now.
She says, “Hey.” He nods and sucks on the blunt.
“Pops know you’re doing that?”
He shrugs again. “Your old man still mad at me?”
“Pretty much.” She turns to look over at Casey and Julia, who are still wrapped around Corey, then, “Yeah, you’d better not show up anytime soon.”
Jud shrugs and looks away as he pulls on the joint. He wishes he could say something about what an asshole he was, wishes he had that kind of courage: he really is turning into Pops.
At home, he walks on eggshells all the time. Didn’t used to be like that. When he was a kid, his Paw Paw was the smartest man in the world. Jud loved to quiz him on Civil War Trivia.
“Hey Pops, what’s the bloodiest battle in the civil war.”
“Battle of Antietam, Setpember 17, 1862. Give me a hard one.”
“Ok, uh, what’s the capital of Cincinnati.”
“Tits on a bird is what you are. Get me a beer.”
These days Pops can’t make it past noon without staggering, and by evening something sets him off, his burger, his beer, his cigarettes, the game on TV, Goddamnit, fists tearing down Jud’s wrestling trophies, Jud’s Nascar posters, till Nana rushes after him in her floral cotton nightgown and then Pops turns it on her.
This is the thing about Jud. He’s the kind of kid that Pops would say is the right kind of American: good Christian, Georgia born and bred, cruises his F-350 weekends afternoon downtown, wrestling champion, rugby team. He can hold Pops down, for a while at least, but he won’t beat on the old man.
What it seemed like ages ago Jud accepted Jesus. He hates the way that sounds, now, like he was always that kid with the button up sweater and the Harry Potter glasses and a Bible in his backpack. It wasn’t like he’d ever taken that whole Jesus thing seriously. He went to church because of Nana, because he figured if she could get up at six to make him scrambled eggs or peanut butter sandwiches every morning that God puts on earth, then he could goddamn well stand it to get up on Sunday and take her to church. But one of those morning following one of Pop’s nights, he was shaving, looking at the bruise Pops put on his cheek. Nana had the radio on, and Peter Frampton sang and you don’t even know wrong from right, and no matter what, he just couldn’t see it, couldn’t see Jesus, Heaven, the whole thing, not with Pops like he is, one day helping Jud rig his diesel truck, or taking him out to the river for bass, and another busting down his bedroom door, cussing like a sailor, Goddamned son of a bitch.
He looked into the mirror and said, “God, I’m going to hell.”
A cold black feeling slid inside him, got into his lungs and into his blood stream. He’s not sure why he slammed his forehead hard against the bathroom mirror, cracking it, leaving a streak of blood there for Nana to clean up. His face was half covered in shaving cream when he sat on the floor, the dread coming over him He laid on the cold bathroom tiles, his hands over his heart, a barrage of knocks shaking the door, “Son? Open the door, son? What did you break? Open the door or I’ll bust it down.”
Jud told that story to Corey once, back when he still believed Jesus was speaking through him, when he could see it like Nana said it should be, the Spirit moving through the trees, through the swaying marsh grass: for a while at least, Jud could see it. He could feel Spirit coming over him with just a gust of the hot breeze, with only a blessing of sunshine. He could see Jesus in the moths dancing over the river, could hear it in the crab holes popping when the tide came in. Jesus, in the red clay, in the wiregrass and in the Spanish moss draping the Southern oaks.
Corey at that time was seeing his cousin Ashley. Jud walked right up to their sleeping porch, one Sunday. He knocked on the front door, standing there under the wind chimes, Tyrone barking and barking, scratching his nails on the other side. He stood for twenty minutes in the August heat until Ashley opened, and Tyron jumped on him and licked his face, Jud wrestling the old boy in his clean clothes, pressed jeans, and ironed golf shirt.
“Hey, Jud? It’s like eight in the morning.”
He pretended not to notice Ashley’s dead breath, her puffy eyes, the way she kept squinting at him, then back into the hall where Corey lurked, (Jud saw only the occasional ember glow and curl of smoke). Her cotton robe reeked of dog and old underwear. Her bare foot scratched her calf.
Jud told her about that time he cursed God, and then about that Sunday only three months later when the pastor put his hands on his head and compelled Satan to leave him, shouting, “Do you renounce sin?” in a voice so booming that it overwhelmed the buzzing in his head. All that singing, “Bless you, brother,” all those warm hands on him making him light headed. His thought he could just rise up and float to Heaven with only just a little push. Something struck him, a jolting charge that had him bucking and flailing, his head going this way and that, his eyes rolling inside his skull, while his church brothers and sisters held him, singing, Hallelujah.
When the Holy Spirit came into him, Jud cried, the weight of his fear lifting, and in its place a fire in his heart, love, this love Jud had never felt, not like with girls or with Nana, not like that, a love that was contained in itself, the means and the end.
Corey said, “You did it to yourself. The whole thing. You can’t scare yourself to shit that you don’t believe unless you believe it, you fuck.”
Then Corey said, “You’re a fucking cliché, buddy. Your truck, your Jesus, your tobacco chewing: you’re the Aunt Jemima syrup label, buddy, face it.”
Jud followed Corey around for a month, his mouth full of Bible verses. He thought Jesus was making him do it, but now when he thinks about it, he doesn’t know, really, what made him follow Corey like that. Always in the wrong places, Corey was, in the parking lot when he should be in English, playing frisbee when he should be in Study Hall, Corey riding his bike down 80, “Come on, Jesus boy,” Jud hanging onto the backseat, stiff like a corpse, the wind so hard it hurt, trying to lean in when Corey leaned in, the road swallowing them, speed getting them high, and Jud knew that he was running, but he would never get there, never where Corey was.
“Wasn’t that dope?”
Jud told Corey about his dad, about how he got his hand caught in the wood chipper, then the drinking, the DUI, and the accident down by the old railroad, the girl with two broken lips and a smashed wrist, also drunk driving, under age and without a license. “They say everything happens for a reason,” Jud said. “But I just can’t see no reason in this.” To which Corey said, “Listen to this shit, dude, it’s dope,” some French guy rapping through the mp3. “Psy 4 de la Rime,” said Corey.
It’s Corey who is an advertisement in a glossy, a trailer for a movie that doesn’t exist.
The Bible still sits on his bedside table, but though Jud still goes to church every Sunday, he knows he’s going to hell. There is a reckless calm attached to this, like getting kicked out of rugby if he doesn’t show up in the next twenty minutes.
“Let’s go get something to eat,” Corey says.
Michelle and Julia and Casey crowd around Corey.
“I got practice,” says Jud, looking back over his shoulder for teachers. He passes the blunt on to Casey who shakes her head no, then Julia, who just gives it to Corey, and it makes him feel like an ass for some reason.
“Well then you’re going to miss the party,” says Corey, looking at Michelle.
It’s Michelle who gets to ride on the back of Corey’s bike. Julia and Casey pile up in the truck with Jud, who’s got fifteen minutes to get to rugby practice.
Casey and Julia all ooh and aaah at Jud’s new front panel. “What’s that?” Julia points to the switch, one of many modifications Jud worked on last summer.
“I’ll show you.”
Jud revs the engine, puts it in gear and rolls through the parking lot, over the median to cut off Corey and Michelle. He waits a while, slowing down, then speeding up, making sure that Corey won’t try to show off and pass them with Michelle clinging to him, her arms tight around Corey. Jud waits until they’re on to 80, a semi on the right, and Corey behind. Then, he floors it and flips the switch.
“It’s for tailgaters and bad drivers,” he said. “To teach them manners.”
Through the rearview, Jud sees a cloud of black smoke blowing out the tailpipe right onto Corey and Michelle. It’s perfect, the way the cloud wraps around them, swallowing their heads.
“That was messed up,” Casey says.
“Shit,” Julia says. She flinches, painted blue fingernails in her mouth. “Shit,” she says again, “that sucked.”
“Want to see that again?” Jud says.
Casey and Julia squeal, no, but Jud’s already floored it, and out comes another puff. They watch as Corey tries to weave out of the cloud, Michelle hanging on to him, so that all Jud can see from the rearview is her blond ponytail flapping behind Corey’s shoulder, and the hands that are clinging to Corey’s jacket up front.
“You’re being a jerk,” says Julia.
“You mean an asshole,” says Jud. “Why don’t you just say it? Say what you mean. What’s the matter with the word asshole? It’s part of our anatomy. Shit. Fuck. Asshole. Cunt. Use words, Julia.”
Casey squeals, “What’s wrong with you?”
In the rearview, Corey’s revving up the Ducati, and coasting next to the truck. Jud swerves a little into the other lane. Corey would rev it up, Jud can see, if Michelle weren’t hanging from his back, screaming. Corey’s helmet is dark with soot, his shirt and jacket nearly all black.
“Why are you doing this? You’re being a jerk.”
Jed floors it one more time, gets ready to flip the switch, the last time for sure cause each time he knows he’s smoking the turbo intake, the manifold, everything black. He’ll have to spend another weekend with Pops to clean it out, maybe install a new drain line, too. But for now, it’s all worth it to see Michelle and Corey smoked out in that black cloud.
Corey’s bike rides the line between the semi and Jud’s truck, a space so narrow that all it would take is for Jud to swerve even just a tad, and down they would go, he and Michelle, splattered all over the side of the semi, the bike shaving the road ahead. In the rearview, Corey’s shouting, “Fuck you, asshole,” pulling on the clutch and gears. He’s almost there, almost flush with the window, and Jud is flooring it, too, but the Ducati’s pick up burns his. The bike veers, narrowly misses slamming into the semi and pulls in front of the truck. Michelle’s ponytail flaps behind her. Julia and Casey scream. Jud gets that dread feeling again, like when he cursed God in the bathroom. His hands sweat. His head is buzzing. Then Corey swerves in front of him, pops a wheely, Michelle looking like a small blackened head with a ponytail, but Corey pulls the bike too high, and when he comes down, he slams hard. When the front tire hits the asphalt, it bursts. The bike wobbles wildly, drawing larger and larger hoops as it swerves this way, than that way, the tail pipe hitting asphalt, sending an arch of sparks ahead.
Jud braces the steering wheel.
Jud stomps on the brake pedal.
Just before the motorcycle rolls, the fairing scraping into the concrete, Michelle rolling and rolling, her arms and legs splayed and flailing, just before he screams, “Jesus,” and knows for sure he won’t be saved, only one thing comes to mind.
Corey washing the pill down first, lying in the back of Jud’s truck down a dirt road out by the old abandoned farm, waiting for a ghost that the kids at school say comes out at midnight on a full moon. “This is my church,” Corey says. “Try it.”
And Jud does swallow the pill Corey gives him, and lies down on the back of the truck and washes it down with a beer. The gnats bite, swarm on his body. He doesn’t feel them. The blue sky bleeds pink, then red and yellow, then bruises dark, and there it is, that Jesus high, that feeling that even the grass loves him, all shaking and filling, all weightlessness and bliss.