S&R Fiction

S&R Fiction: "Mile 127" by Joseph Lambach

So, they’re all just sitting there. Looking into the camera. She – Lisa – has that smile I know so well.

But that’s only because we have history.

Not to be too pragmatic, or over-zealous, or somehow say that there was real-life no-shit chemistry, because there wasn’t. To say that wouldn’t be the truth.

But that’s kind of a lie too.

Because boys and girls, men and women, we all can’t be just friends. Those relationships just can’t be platonic.

But that’s just one of those points I think I need to point out. Just because. You know, it sort of defines who I am.

To a certain extent.

But, that’s irrelevant I guess.

Sort of.

But it’s her, just sitting there, all smiles and teeth, and that one molar that came through to early. The one that feels like a pointed triangle.

Because I was in the theater with her, watching some movie that was really just some excuse to hang out with her. Sitting there, scared, reaching over to casually play with her fingers, and then I can’t stop myself. Leaning over, pulling her in, kissing her.

Either way though, that’s just all the past. Part of being sixteen, and just not being able to stop your hormones.

But the thing is, it all started out innocent. The whole boy meets girl type thing. And it was so real. The kind of real where you’re driving down the road, and then there’s a premonition.

The kind that is just screaming in your ear, in your head, just trying so hard to get your attention. But you just keep flushing the mental toilet, so to speak, and try to swat it away. Mentally.

But it’s there, and your palms are sweating. You know, just so sticky and slippery and wet, and the steering wheel is actually starting to slip with each little over-corrective jerk you make. The kind that’s supposed to fix that close call between your passenger side wheels and that curb you swore wasn’t there. But maybe it had been, but it was just you, inside your head, thinking about this and that. Because after driving for twelve, maybe thirteen years, you’re doing just that.

Getting lost every time you go somewhere. Not in the literal sense of you don’t know where you are. But you’re so lost inside your head. That whole interstate thing, where the green marker for Mile 87 is just all of the sudden Mile 127 and you’re just beginning to get your focus back.

Where it’s all not-so-hazy this time, because you’re blinking away your thoughts, trying to get back to driving and not plowing into whatever’s out there. So, you glance over to check the mile marker, get inside your own head for a little while, and BAM!, there it is: Mile 127.

And you’re kind of screaming what the hell to yourself.

So, you see, it’s this whole epic love story that I just decided might be a good idea to play up in my head. Not because it was necessary, but because it just happened to be here. There. That day. In that spot, just sitting there, cute, making that smile from somewhere between way-back and God-knows-when.

This whole love story that Mom, or anyone else really, would have told me to not play up so much. Don’t start just imagining everything—making this whole great life out of nothing.

Because that’s what she would have told me if I had mentioned Lisa, and how much I really was in love with her.

Because being sixteen means you have to fall in love with her, with that girl, because it’s just how it works at that age.

Not that hindsight is always twenty-twenty, because sometimes, even after the fact, you still think you were right. But growing up, graduating high school, maybe even making it through one, two, four semesters at community college, it all ends right before it even starts.

When you’re from northern Mississippi and the droughts have been licking the tail end of your dad’s farm a couple years in a row. Started burning everything up, but not completely. Then, that is when it has to end. When the high-school-sweet-heart-love-story has to end. And life has to kind of kick you in the face.

So, before it all ends and she just drifts away, you just fall in love, romanticize the next eighteen months or so in your head, and it all seems so worth it. Thinking, I’m marrying Lisa, and we’ll sit around that same breakfast table, but with Mom and Dad there too. But, just in my head, making it so fucking textbook.

Mile markers are just flying by now and I might be at Mile 98. The black Maverick, with all its broken gauges, gulping miles of gas every couple of minutes.

She’s just chewing her bottom lip, half of it, and then it’s her little dimple peeking out. Smiling at me, like she knew I really was there the whole time. It’s just that she couldn’t let me know, it would have been out of character.

You know, because that would be beneath her. To admit she’d notice everything she’d sworn off. Like it was possible to actually get away with that. Like it had ever been something she thought she could get away with.

Not that it was even an ego thing, or how much I thought of myself, or stood in front of every mirror I passed, and just stared at myself from every angle allowable. It was just I knew. Simply that.

But things are never simple.

So I’m walking up to her. Wallet pulled out and all kinds of open, rummaging through those extra pockets, so I could make it into a race of who looks up last. Who happens—and maybe it would be better to just throw up those revolver quick-draw little finger quotes, but I’m better than that, come on, man—but it’s that race to see who just happens to look up last. If I can get her, if I can just get Lisa to look up right before I do, then it’s obvious she has to do something, say something, make some sort of gesture in recognition.

Those are just the rules. The unwritten, unsaid rules of boy meets girl, but I’m her friend mostly, most of the time, really. But I’m just so sexually charged, hormones just always there. No way around it. And it’s Lisa too, obviously so sexual, and so, just there, I guess. Available, by default really, because she, in not these words exactly, said let’s be friends.

Just to be that boy, that guy, she’s calling in the afternoon after school, to talk for a couple hours. Talk, as in her doing it, me listening, agreeing, doing that thing where I tune her out but strategically place those uh-huhs and okays in there.

Lisa, God, just so sexual though. Always riding up on my leg, hugging me close enough, her cleavage just so right there, feeling my heart pounding out line after line.

“Is there a condition?” she says.

“Not really.”

“It’s just, I can feel my head practically bouncing off your chest.” I can smell it, that sweet fruit and pomegranate smell of shampoo. Some sort of honey conditioner too.

“I don’t know.”

“…”

“Maybe I just have an extra pint stored away somewhere. So my heart has to compensate,” I say.

I feel stupid. So conspicuous, because she’s noticing what I always tried to convince myself only I could see. This undocumented heart condition I knew I had to have. Not that I needed a doctor to tell me. But I’d always been told you needed to make that boy scout’s honor sign with you fingers, find the pulse on the neck, at the wrist, and feel for the heartbeat. Not just hold my breath, then see the thump that shouldn’t have been visible.

Me. It was the Richter Scale going off every time I laid down in bed.

She held on, burrowed her head, somehow, even farther into my chest. Into that weird spot where my chest sort of caves in. That football injury from way back in elementary school.

It was this whole church thing. Small church, and this potluck and the pastor, who decided to bring all these kids over for a church get together. Doing the whole be-a-good-neighbor, help those who need it thing. Because it’s what a Baptist preacher does.

You know, just does those kind of things.

But all these kids, funded through the Lions Club, somehow, all orphans and parentless, and this Southern Baptist preacher brings them out. Maybe thirty of them. Piled into some County bus he’d been able to get for free since he knew this or that bus driver. Maybe it had been the Mayor’s call.

He’s running around telling them, no, you can’t smoke here, not at the potluck.

Why?

Because it’s church property, and that’s just not how we do it, you see. Just wait, please, till you’re back at the house. And you can light up, just not here.

It wasn’t even marijuana, just good old fashioned Camels maybe, or Marlboros, but either way, just tobacco.

So it’s these kids, half of them twice my height, and because it’s the South, we just play football. Not two hand touch. We play real tackle, the kind where you’re just hoping that last one doesn’t end up in more than a bruised elbow. That’s just how it’s done, how the game’s just supposed to be played.

And no ones forcing you either. You just sort of man up, act like you’re not scarred. You get out there and try and get at least one hand on that football every so often.

Even though it’s church, it’s still northern Mississippi and it’s football, and all the dads are watching. Talking trash to each other—quietly, so the pastor doesn’t here the occasional unchurch like words slip out, dancing off all the dad’s lips—because it’s Jimmy and Chad and Junior and Bo and all these other kids that are just so grown up.

Definitely bigger than me, by far.

But everyone’s watching, and I’m playing Safety, trying to just scan the field, the forty kids out here playing (well over regulation limit) and this kid gets the ball, a lateral to the left after a fake to the right. He’s running. Straight down the middle, through that hole that shouldn’t have opened up in the first place. And he’s just barreling through, all twenty, forty, sixty pounds more of him than me, but his weight is where it should be, proportioned out. A fucking oxen more like it.

Just watching, scanning, hoping he’s not going to break through that hole or that tackle, but he has to, because I’m standing back there, pretending I don’t give a shit, that I’m not scarred.

Then it’s his right shoulder, the one holding the ball, lowered down, going straight for my chest. Trying to push a hole straight through it. So professional, so smooth.

This kid doesn’t have any parents and has to prove himself to the world.

Maybe he was one of those Ronald McDonald House kids, a sponsored kid. Either way, he has to be something great so the other kids aren’t wiping his ass all over the playground, shoving him into a locker, because Mom and Dad never showed up for anything.

So he’s practiced, way more than me, way more than the occasional throw and catch, sprint, cut right, then just wait for the ball to Scotty-beam-me-up into your hands. You know, the way kids just practice routes because they look good and sharp and there’s that ninety degree angle they all make. But it’s all so occasional and under-practiced.

Me, I’m so not ready for this moment. But this Oxen Kid is, he’s ready, he’s coming, non-stop.

And I can see it, see that look he’s got, like he doesn’t really see me there at all because the makeshift end zone is just right there, right past where my feet are planted.

I grab him.

I try to grab him.

And my chest sinks in. Sort of near my heart. But a little to the left of it.

Flying backwards, his momentum way greater than the half-assed stance I thought would maybe make some sort of a difference.

Just like the movies, it’s all so slow-motion and Hollywood for those few seconds. It’s surreal, and I’m waiting for the ground to come up and slap me on the back. Tell me, “Good game kid, you really tried out there today.”

And when it does, that’s my breath, somehow gushing out in one fell swoop, like it did every time I slipped of those monkey bars when I was five, or six years old. Just poof, right out of my lungs and mouth.

It’s just me, laying there, trying to suck air. But so impossible. And my chest is burning, feeling so sunken in, because that parentless kid just gave it his all, and ran through me.

Laying there, choking on nothing, choking on not having any air, I finally suck in that breath, that gust of air, because my lungs are done playing games and are ready to work.

Lisa’s head is just there, pressed into this cavity, this not-so glorious football injury that proved to me I just wasn’t cut from whatever it was that all these other kids were.

But I was one hell of a friend. For her.

God, her hair smells so good, so eucalptis, so smooth, so silky, so fuckable. And her tits, smothered into me, and her playing that game she knows she is playing but just would never say it out loud. Because then it wouldn’t be a game, but just what is really there anyways, just said aloud, finally.

And even when I masturbated. It wasn’t always Lisa, but it was her a lot.

She was just there, popping into my head, into my thoughts. While I’m trying to get off, for the second or third time that day. It’s Lisa, that angle she’d been standing at, standing there, in some doorway, or against some wall. And I couldn’t help myself.

What a friend.

Christ.

More miler markers, just wooshing by. And I might be passing Mile 103.

But it was the year me and my friends were all Man In Black, sometimes changing Chris or Tom to Sue. Either way, we’d just discovered the real Johnny Cash, and I had Lisa there too, kind of that fall-back-on plan. In case all my not-so-careful planning didn’t work out, the way it never did anyways.

So there’s that phone with the overly long twisted phone cord that loopty-loops over itself when you cradle it back into the receiver.

Senior year, high school that is, where the majority of the population, already, they’re just going to end up at the community college, make it through one, maybe two semesters, and go back to smoking pot and delivering pizza. And working at Auto Zone and Pep Boys, and hunt duck and deer and rabbit. Just pull those tractors and bail up cotton or work those sunflower farms that cover half of those little towns, go way out of the county and just keep going, disappearing, taking us all with them.

Because they have to.

Because it’s northern Mississippi, and it’s farming and hunting. And football.

Prom, yeah, it’s homecoming. And there’s Ms. This and Ms. That and Heath took Amy—because she’s pregnant again, and maybe her mom found out and made her keep this one. It’s all that just combined into one, wrapped up into this whole big shebang with all those coaches and chaperone’s there. Trying to not hand out condoms because the Pastor said it wasn’t right, it was abstinence—“Aren’t you at the service every week, John?”

“Well, yeah, but it was just a thought,” Coach Gibson said. Raised his voice at the end, made it sound more like a question.

And I might be at Mile 113.

And my date, not Lisa, but some girl named Sarah. She’d said yes because I sat next to her for two or three periods every day. And I wasn’t threatening. She’d noticed how I looked at her—Lisa—mentioned something about if I strained enough I might pop a couple blood vessels.

I’m tux’ed out, sitting there, trying to engage Sarah in something about maybe making State this year, but probably not, because, well, you know, there’s just too many damn farms and dads that can’t decide what’s more important. And then she’s sliding something to me, under the table, metallic and smooth.

“Don’t pull it up, just look down,” she says.

“What is it?”

“Just put your cup under the table, mix it.”

“But, what is it?”

“Shine, from Mamaw’s. Had to water down eight jars just to even it all out.”

“Okay.”

So, it’s Senior Prom and I’m finally drunk the way every Senior before me had said prom was, back in the day. Back when they just didn’t give a shit, when football mattered a little more than it does now.

Sarah, she’s pulling me out of my seat, whispering let’s go for a ride and forget Lisa for right now.

I’m saying okay and kind of swaying to one side, then the other. Watching Coach Gibson watch me, because he knows I’m drunk and shouldn’t be, but it’s no use anyways, to say anything. Because there’s no future for us besides tonight. Because it’s all high school football and Mississippi and we won’t be able to leave. Because this part of the country doesn’t let you go till it’s ready to.

But I don’t remember anything after nodding to Coach, mouthing to him it’s all good, and jumping in Sarah’s dad’s Maverick and gunning it out of the parking lot.

And I’m at Mile 127. That whole road time-travel thing. Drunk.

The only reason I know about Lisa’s mom ending up thirty five feet in front of her car covered in what looks like bird-shot shell full of glass is because the Southern Baptist preacher came to my hospital room and told me. Patted me on the arm, really on the cast, treating it like maybe I could still feel something through all the drips and whatever the nurses and doctors got me to take.

Sarah was somewhere else, the preacher said, and he had to see her next. Hopefully the broken nose, what they had mentioned before he got here, maybe that was the worst of it.

But he said either way, we’ll say some prayers for you. And her. And that poor lady you hit.

Then Mile 128 is still one mile away, green and reflective. Shimmering off to the side, maybe not even noticeable to anyone but me. Because I’ve driven past 127 enough, enough times to remember where it was Lisa’s mom had been laid out on the road. And maybe those black streaks were her tires trying to screech themselves around the Maverick. Around me in the front seat.

Then it ended up being five years later. Watching Lisa across the football field. Knocked up again, her first one sitting next to her, ball cap turned backwards, and his daddy’s way-too-big Letterman’s jacket bunched up all over the place. And Lisa’s dad, sitting there next to little Scott, his arm around his shoulders, tossing his hair around.

And I’m across the field—visitor’s side—hunting jacket, torn up Bass Pro Shop trucker hat, arms crossed and inconspicuous. Trying to stay leaned up against the bleachers, and just watch.

Because it’s football season again and Mississippi won’t let me leave, knowing I need to still watch Lisa smile, even with her mom not there anymore. Even if there’s no wave across the supermarket when we both somehow end up there, just her glancing up, looking for a second then pretending I’m gone too—like I should have been that night.

Friday night football and Lisa’s friend is there, clicking some old Polaroid camera, spitting out pictures, and they’re sitting there, with that smile that I know so well.

But that’s only because we had a history before Mile 127.

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