Thaddeus Pencilton stops his car before the river, the moon reflecting off of the Ohio’s surface like the spotlight of God, the white light rippling with the waves of the river. His heart is beating a little too fast as he rolls down his window and lets in the humid night’s air. Pamela Jean Harvey is sitting in the passenger’s seat, but he doesn’t dare look at her yet. The frogs and locusts hum down by the river; the bank sports a tiny park with a swing set and a sidewalk that stretches for about a half mile. Wes Montgomery is on his stereo, playing a song called Polka Dots and Moonbeams, soft, melodic jazz. Thad likes the song, but he’s selected it to make him appear sophisticated to his date; his outfit, a tucked-in collared shirt worn with khaki pants and wingtips, is another attempt to convey an idea to his date’s mind, this idea being that Thaddeus Pencilton is a mature young adult with aspirations far exceeding those of his classmates. He’s smuggled a couple of his grandfather’s finer cigars and hidden them in the glove compartment, but too many variables (Does she hate cigar smoke? Does she hate smoking? Do you offer a woman a cigar?) keep him from offering the contraband. Instead, he stares at the river, watching it undulate like serpent, wondering how it feels to go out into those muddy waters, polluted and full of driftwood, to go out there drunk and naked, a little mad, a little lovesick, hornier than he’s liable to admit, to see what will find him in the ancient, abused river, leaving the girl here to wait in the passenger’s seat for all eternity. Wes Montgomery has ended and a song called Alcoholiday booms out of his speakers—it must’ve switched disks, the damned CD player, but Pamela is looking at him now, smiling, so he lets it be and looks back at her. She’s worn a dress; none of the girls ever wear a dress—it’s blue with straps and she’s got her hair down and lipstick smeared all over her lips—and she’s possessed by a reckless beauty accentuated by her youth, her inexperience, and her own barely contained nervousness, which Thad is oblivious to, of course, being a boy and being rather stupid at the moment and unable to see past his own scared, selfish desires. He puts his arm down on her arm rest, his hand lingering in her space, his fist curled up into a tight ball, knuckles almost white. He sees past her face through her hair and eyes and lipstick, and there's something behind her, the silhouette of a teenager's woman, tiny and lean and clad only in a black brassiere with a guitar at her feet, its headstock just covering her pubic hair, all legs and tapered waist and white breasts, and this spectral minx looks at Thad and winks while showing her teeth, her lips as red and wide as a cartoon's, and then he blinks and he's still staring into the pretty innocent visage of Pamela Jean Harvey, who looks at him quizzically, so he feels compelled to cease his hallucinating and speak.
"It's a pretty moon outside." He sniffs and coughs softly, the lingering hand now back in his lap.
"Did you space out for a second? Or is there something in my hair?" Her hands flutter up like birds, feeling, kneading.
"It's kind of hot in here, isn't it? A little too humid outside."
"It's not bad," she says, still smiling. Her eyeliner is starting to run down her cheeks. Thad notices immediately but feels neither revulsion nor pity. I could hand her a handkerchief he thinks, but then remembers that he's left it at home, thinking it, like the cigars, too anachronistic and strange to bring on a date.
"We like a lot of the same music," she says. "Maybe we could go to a show."
Thad's arm has made one terribly slow motion toward Pamela and as her eyes follow the limb, he pauses and nearly withdrawals it—staring at her, frozen, he grins sheepishly—and then the arm is around her shoulders and he's pulling her to him but his seatbelt is in the way, he's never taken it off, so he stares down at the buckle like he's forgotten how to press a button. It was all so easy the other night he thinks while wondering where this awkwardness has come from. She's put off already, I've blown it, she thinks I'm an idiot, and then Pamela reaches down and unbuckles the seatbelt, and her free hand is on his thigh and another button has been pressed and suddenly his penis is hardening, clearly visible through the thin fabric of his kakis, and it travels down toward Pamela's hand, unresponsive to his mental energies, moving with a mind of its own. She's looking at it now—her hand has inched off his thigh somewhat, to give the thing a little breathing room—and Thad is unable to completely interpret her expression (there's fear there, a little bit of curiosity, and perhaps a dash of humor), so he stares straight ahead, catatonic, almost closing his eyes out of embarrassment, and his cheeks redden when she suddenly bursts out laughing, and he looks at her and sees her makeup running down her face, she looks like an insane harlequin, and he's out of the car now, walking through the grass, part of his brain registering that Big Star's Sitting in the Back of a Car is playing, his incompliant penis now finally deflating. He moves down the path, not looking where he steps, and nearly falls when his left foot kicks a fire hydrant. The little animals continue to make their night noises, oblivious to the drama unfolding before them, and Thad keeps walking, picking up his pace, his embarrassment turning into anger. Why does everything have to be so goddamn difficult? he wonders. He stops by the swing set and leans against its cold metal supports, his gaze directed at the river, breathing hard, burrow furrowed, hands in pockets. He hears her creep up to the swing set, but he doesn't turn his head to look at her. Pamela sits down on a swing and starts to rock back and forth, her motions initiating an ugly creaking sound from the set.
"I'm sorry," she says, the sides of her face still upturned.
"It's fine," says Thad curtly.
"It's so goddamn hot out here," replies Pamela. "Let's go somewhere else."
Thad shrugs. He doesn't really want to get back into the car, but he's equally reluctant to abandon this date.
"What are your friends doing? Dwight and Jasper?"
"They're probably sitting around the fire pit at Dwight's house," he says. "Drinking and playing cards and eating frozen pizza."
"That sounds fun," she replies.
"You think so?"
As they leave the park, Thad wonders if it's a good idea to take Pamela to visit his friends. He's never brought a girlfriend to them; he's never had a girlfriend, and he contemplates how they'll react. They'll either be overly quiet or show off like morons, and what will Pamela think of me, associating with such idiots? The are, however, the crème de la crème of Hillsdale, Indiana High School. Who else am I supposed to hangout with? The Watsons? The hot air feels thick as a blanket with the windows down as they drive up Main Street, passing Thad's family's restaurant and hotel and then the Angry Bear, a bar of ill repute run by the father of Gordy Weaver, one of their classmates. Main Street is well-lit, the bright lamplights provided by the riverboat casino that employs much of the small town, and the moths have gathered around the globes, bats darting in to feast on the insects, and Pamela points them out to Thad, who looks and nearly crashes into a parked car. He hasn't been driving for very long, having just turned sixteen last month, but the near crash doesn't disturb Pamela, who continues to smile and wave her slender arm out the window. The song California Son by the Adolescents is playing on the radio; Thad's CD player has shifted to his punk mix, and he reaches to change it before deciding that, hell, it really doesn't matter. A wave of relief has taken him suddenly—no longer will the difficult and stressful task of handling a female be his alone—and even if his friends act like morons, their idiocy will make him look better.
They turn onto the narrow gravel road that lies behind the school and in front of the town's largest cemetery. The road turns and winds past the headstones, a fog moving over the graveyard like a scene from a horror movie; Thad's about to point this out when he sees a red Firebird heading straight for him, smoking billowing out of its rear windows, and as Thad pulls into the ditch, the Firebird does a tire-squealing U-turn and burns rubber down the road, accelerating and then abruptly turning into the dump that lies across from the Howard house, it's headlights flashing maniacally, the mangled structures of the dump illuminated in static images, large bins full of blighted branches and old washing machines appearing and disappearing in the dark.
"That's Toblé," says Thad, shaking his head. "You sure you want to go down there? I can see the bonfire from here." In the near distance, the flames were high and clearly visible, looking as though they would lick the tops of the trees.
"I'm sure I can handle it," says Pamela.
"Many have spoken those words and never returned from the Howard bonfire," replies Thad.
"May they rest in peace," says Pamela. "Let's go down there."
The Howard house is a ranch bungalow gently easing into a dilapidated state. Grandma Howard, the main parental figure and chief resident (Dwight's wayward father pays the bills but is treated the same as the other members of the family), is of an advanced age, and though dementia has not quite set in, its specter hovers around her stern, implacable face. Thad parks his car and looks at the porch, squinting his eyes to see if Grandma Howard sits on the porch swing, not wanting to deal with her lack of recognition or her antiquated values regarding the presence of unaccompanied females on her property. Thankfully, she is not there; Artemus Howard is the only occupant of the swing, Dwight's slightly younger brother, and Thad can see that he's holding a beer can in one hand and an unlit sparkler in the other.
"Where's the banjo and the blind boy?" asks Thad of Art, exiting the car.
"Huh?" says Art, sipping his beer.
"Why don't you light that thing? Where's your brother?"
"Who's that?" asks Art, pointing at Pamela.
"She's a crazy pixie illusion, brought on by your nascent alcoholism. She's a cross of Tinkerbell and Marilyn Monroe and whatever porn you've been watching." He glances at Pamela, feeling his confidence restored, and takes her by the arm. "Where's your brother, you goddamn simpleton?"
"There out by the bonfire," says Art. "Gordy's with him."
"That little weasel in the polo shirt? One of your buddies, right?"
Art just stares at him. He wears a white t-shirt and pair of jean shorts, and he's started fixing his hair into a pompadour, which annoys the hell out of Thad—Fourteen is an obnoxious age, and God knows where he picked up the style, probably MTV or some shitty pop punk band—but he doesn't want to be too mean to the little twerp, not with Pamela watching. He takes his date by the arm and leads her past the boy, who is gawking at her without any sense of modesty, letting her lean on him a little as they traverse the hillside and step off the pavement onto the long yard that needs to be mowed. The bonfire is near, burning tall and bright, and they can see two figures sitting on stones like gargoyles, hunched and strangely quiet, as though transfixed by the flames. Toublé's red Firebird has disappeared down a side road of the graveyard, but his smoke remains, sticking in their lungs. "Watch out for the gopher holes," Thad whispers into Pamela's ear, apropos of nothing, and the edge of his top lip touches her earlobe, causing her to shiver suddenly. "Why?" whispers Pamela back. "Because they're out here," Thad replies, making a move to kiss her on the neck, but she deftly moves aside. He's about to seize her and get at least one kiss in return for the laughter earlier in the evening when Gordy Weaver stirs from his firelight reverie and shouts "Hey, who the hell's there!" with a formidable stick in his hands, lengthy and at least an inch in diameter, and he's brandishing it like a weapon, staring into the darkness, unable to see Thaddeus and Pamela, yet they can see him. Thad puts his finger to his lips and sneaks over to an apple tree, part of a neglected orchard planted by the previous owners of the Howard dwelling. He plucks a small developing apple from the branches and waits for Gordy to turn back to the fire. "Watch this," he whispers to a nonexistent Pamela, who is walking toward the fire.
"Hey," she says, and Dwight and Gordy nearly collide leaping out of their seats. "Thad is back there. I think he's planning on pelting you two with apples."
"No shit?" says Gordy, staring at her incredulously. Dwight looks at her like he's never seen a girl before. Even with her melted makeup, Pamela Jean Harvey is a stunning young woman, as captivating as any siren conjured up from the depths of Dwight's teenage mind, and unlike those enchanting seductresses, she shows no sign of vanishing.
"Have a marshmallow," he says, extending the bag toward her, his brain as stagnant as the stinking creek that lies just beyond the fire pit.
"You can sit by me," says Gordy, patting an empty tree stump. Gordy is fourteen, two years younger than Pamela, and a freshmen, but he's knows it's time to perfect his courtship skills, as he's right in the middle of puberty, its initial onset having hit him like an atom bomb, and he's just now coming into his senses and is loath to pass up any opportunity to practice. Pamela doesn't think about any of this; she sits down on the stump next to the horny young boy, after taking the proffered marshmallow.
"Who buys you guys beer?" she asks.
"This is Dad's stuff," replies Dwight. "The garage is full of beer. He never notices a missing case."
"Why does he have so much beer?"
"He knows a liquor distributor, and I guess he owes him. Plus, he's an alcoholic."
"Mean Steve Reeves," says Gordy. "That's who my dad gets his Miller from for the bar."
"What does your dad do?" Pamela asks Dwight.
"I'm not really sure," admits Dwight.
Thad stays in the apple orchard, watching them, wanting to move but unable to, for some phantom reason. Toublé tears down the road, smoke still pouring from the windows of the Firebird, and Thad hypothesizes that the boy is testing out a smoke machine that he's undoubtedly constructed in his primitive laboratory. Jasper will only tolerate people in small doses, as he's far more comfortable around the din of machinery and power tools. Thad feels like Jasper more often than he'd care to admit, and right now is one of those times when he'd rather linger in the dark beneath an apple tree, a witness and an observer, just a person who watches and waits. His friends have not disemboweled Pamela, and she seems to be engaging them better than he could have imagined. He starts to move his feet toward the bonfire when he steps into a gopher hole, his shin sinking in nearly to his knee. These things must be huge, he thinks, imagining beaver-sized rodents lumbering through spacious tunnels. Toublé is making a howling noise now; he can't tell if the sound is coming from the boy or his sound system. He looks toward the graveyard as he removes his foot from the hole and through the rows he thinks he sees something large and black, doglike, yet moving with an alien purpose, seemingly gliding among the headstones. When he blinks, it is no longer there. The hallucination, if that is what it was, makes him abandon the orchard and move toward the refuge of the fire, gooseflesh forming on his neck, a chill suddenly on his arms, his legs, and his forehead.