I stay in the car under the streetlight while Jerome goes to find the dumpster girls in the tree shadows. The light shines down orange and dreamy on the car. There is a rug of filthy snow all around the grocery store parking lot and on the car hood where the heat of the engine melts a perfect hole. It’s a salt-eaten Firebird that Jerome said he borrowed, and I consider this lie among the other sins that float around the dark interior and trail up in the smoke of his cigarette. He brings me out on weekends and always to the threshold of an awful idea; tonight it happens to be these girls. They’re the age of the almost innocent and he hopes they won’t understand the whole of his delusions. They’re whoever you want them to be, and dressed top to bottom in black, they could be freegans, Wiccans, mall-branded emos, or prep-school brats with neglecting parents.
For the last half hour, we’ve been watching them mill around the green dumpsters. Jerome sat passenger with a Cheshire smile and completed his assessment in silence. It seemed to me they were trying to believe the story of their abandonment and looking for someone to offer warmth or maybe honk for their attention. But it happens Jerome has the talent of an actor, and the charging heart of a garage band. So now, he’s hunched out there under the streetlight in his cracked leather coat, knocking the snow from the soles of his combat boots, and courting the dumpster girls with his usual fare of generic cigarettes and other performances of punk virtue.
They almost come out of the shadows toward him. Jerome has slender fingers that he conducts best with the cherry of a smoke to balance their flighty movement. The rest of him is as compact and intense as an eight ball, his eyes sharp and blue, his hair smooth, shiny, and black. He is without temper and would rather move through the steady cool of his head until inspiration strikes. Then his face becomes a stretched canvas where I can almost see him painting the carnival colors inside. It looks now like he is talking to himself, or to the curtain of darkness, but two girls come farther out from between the dumpsters and stand with their arms crossed. They’re wearing black T-shirts and short skirts above their bright white legs. They’re cold and in need of jackets. Tonight it will be in the twenties. Jerome points toward the car, and I think of pulling out of there or flashing the headlights to signal “no” or “screw you,” but really, I know whatever sign I give him, he will pretend it is a merry gesture of my agreement. The three of them come toward the car. The girls squeeze each other’s hands like younger schoolgirls, and I know there is no possible way I can let them in the car.
I open my door and walk toward Jerome, putting my hands up like before the arrest. “Jerome, no way. Absolutely no way. You can stay with them,” I say.
“Boyd, that is so unbelievably rude.” He shakes his head parentally and motions them toward me. His voice rises higher. “We were just coming to meet you. You haven’t met Kate and Alexandra.”
They come up close and I am mouthing the words “hell no” to Jerome. The girls are younger than what I expect, and too young to drive. They are about the same height, but different thicknesses. They wear matching band shirts with THE DONNAS on the front and have pulled their hair sideways in black pigtails. Below the waist, they’re wearing black ballet slippers and black skirts with sarcastic ruffles midway up their thighs.
“They’re twins, Boyd,” he says. “You’re not really paying attention are you?”
I look closer. One of the girls has round features, Kate I think, and the other is a beanpole, Alexandra. With all the black and the matching pigtails, they look like before and after photos of a diet infomercial with a low budget, the kind insomniacs see after midnight.
“Look at that,” I say, pretending to examine their outfits. “Too bad this is good-bye. I have to work in the morning carrying important things between important people.”
“Do you mean pizzas?” the cute girl asks. She’s Alexandra.
“We’ve got a bullshit alert!” Jerome yells at the top of his lungs.
He starts into a childish tune and then gets the girls to start chanting bullshit-bullshit-bullshit-bull to the tune of “Final Jeopardy.” This is one of the ways he leverages, communal humiliation, and I suppose it’s better than pummeling me with my own insecurities or exposing one of the many faults of my body. I have short teeth and two heron legs, he’s told me. Then Jerome looks at me with loving eyes, and they tell me again, like they have been telling me since we were boys, that he really needs to carry this idea off. He needs to clamp his teeth around life before the kidney disease kills him.
He has a degenerative kidney condition with a limited range of prognoses and little hope even with a transplant. He interpreted the renal blood work and X-rays for me once. One doctor gives him three years, another gives him five. His parents shovel their own misery—they’re born-again addicts who Tilt-A-Whirl through binges of meth and booze only to wake up, when convenient, to the forgiveness of the Lord. Their idea of faith is why Jerome insists that I take him each week to Saint Mary Magdalene’s Church. He slumps through the back door looking hollow, and then I imagine, down the run of carpet between the pews, looking all of the accused under the rosewood Jesus above the altar, before he sends open the tall front doors with a smack of his boot and gets in the car I’ve pulled around the block. He’s quiet, straight-faced, getting in.
“What you’d see, the gates of heaven?” I ask.
“Just a light flickering out above the altar,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“You think that’s symbolic?” I ask, smiling.
“Nah, it has to be electrical,” he says, looking soberly out the window.
When he’s not wrestling with holy guilt, he’s telling me how his death makes everything a matter of first or last. It’s his first time on a borrowed Harley when we jet through the night and smuggle ourselves for the last time through the doors of a dive bar in Poy Sippi. When we’re flung back out the door after the fight, both of our cheeks smashed into the gravel, Jerome is chuckling while the blood streams down his nose. Making our retreat, we park in the ditch on a back-country road, and he sparks a bowl and turns the radio up to a terrifying volume. He blares it because it might be the last time he hears Jimi Hendrix wave his freak flag and scream “If 6 Was 9.” I would say it’s his problem, these girls, but he makes it so it’s us who search for younger and younger girls with the right sympathies to understand his condition.
Jerome walks up close to me. The dumpster girls whisper to each other. “Boyd, baby, you got to.” He plucks an imaginary guitar. “Come on, cousin. One more time again.” He lowers his voice only to me. “Listen, we’ll just take them around for a little ride, and then it’s back to the dumpsters for them.”
“No,” I say. We’re not cousins, but he likes reminding me we are—in the cosmic sense, he says. He tries to plant his smile into my stony face. The cold has made his face all rosy. Two dimples pin up his cheeks. “Do I have to go birds and bees with you, Boyd? I’m a honeybee who has to buzz-buzz. Fly to all the pretty flowers in town.”
“Jerome,” I say.
“What?” he asks.
“No,” I say, flatly. I feel the impossibility of him leaning in on me.
“Cousin,” he says calmly, “we both know you’re just the driver.”
He thumps my chest with his hand in an act of brotherhood and then turns back toward the girls, singing “Good Morning, Little School Girl.” It’s Muddy Waters.
I yell toward him while he walks away. “When the bank robbers get caught, the driver of the getaway car still does time!”
“Nobody’s a thief!” he yells back, smiling. “We’re just a pair of fuzzy bumblebees tonight, man.”
The girls don’t bother to hold their skirts when they pile into the backseat with Jerome so I see their white thighs and a glimpse of a yellow sunflower on Kate’s underwear. I try to ignore the cheap thrill, keep it for myself. He sends Kate, the chubbier one, up to me and she sits in the passenger seat holding a cigarette in her fingers as though she wants me to light it. We drive off in a wide loop around the grocery store parking lot before I circle back to the dumpsters after a few minutes. The car is stopped.
Jerome is occupied with Alexandra, and he lifts his head over the seat when we stop.
“Oh, hell no, this is a cruise. We’re cruising like it’s the 1950s. Grease your hair back and keep flying Boyd, remember?”
“Yeah, we want to go somewhere,” Alexandra chimes from behind my headrest.
“Okay, okay, where then?” I ask.
“I don’t know, man, you think for me,” Jerome says.
“You’re not very creative,” Kate says, lighting her cigarette between falling pigtails. “You are not supposed to smoke in this car,” I say. She blows the smoke long and wide across my face and then tries to flick me with a ponytail by turning her head sharply. “All right, you guys are fucking Magellan and Michelangelo, where do you want to go?”
“Somewhere, man, just somewhere,” Jerome says, occupied.
“Can anyone here be more specific?” I ask.
“I can,” Alexandra says.
“All right, then what is it?” I ask.
“The playground,” Alexandra says.
“Vetoed,” I say.
“Which one?” Jerome asks, curious.
“Beasley Lake. Where we have the water-ski shows,” Alexandra says.
“You water ski?” Jerome asks.
“Of course, it’s a club,” she says, smoothly.
“Crazy cool. Boyd, we got to see where this shit goes down. We have to do it for Alexandra. She won’t be happy unless we do, right?”
“Right,” Alexandra laughs quietly to Jerome. Their voices come from the same place in the backseat, the sound smothered under clothes.
“You’re outnumbered,” Kate takes a drag on her smoke and blows it at me inside a burp.
“Pigtails, is that chili cheese on your breath?” I ask.
“Shut up. My breath has nothing to do with chili,” she says.
We drive to the lake in the cold dark. There is a winter fog that is broken up by the car and the wind as it moves around the empty branches.
Jerome and Alexandra are about to break the law in the backseat. They’re squeezing each other in the game that comes before kissing and fondling while I fight with Kate about the radio station. I turn it up slightly and she turns it up even louder. She’s into distortion and feedback; it’s growling deathcore metal they play on an awful station, and I try to maintain some semblance of decorum by changing it to classic rock.
“This is shit,” Kate says.
“You’re full of shit,” I say. “This is Sir Fuckin’ Mick Jagger.” I turn it up.
“You’re a mean asshole,” she yells over the music.
I turn it down. “I love you, dumpster girl,” I say.
“Kiss my ass,” she says.
“You’re going to have to wait until we park, sweetie,” I say, turning it up again.
“Suck your own blue balls!” she yells.
I turn it down. “Trust me, they’re not blue for you, baby. They’re pink as a present,” I say.
I park the car on the overlook and keep it running to stay warm. The playground sits above the lake atop a sandy ridge. The lake is mostly frozen over and wind-swept clean. A thin sheet of snow covers the banks all around and a light fog drifts slowly away in the wind off the ice. It might be a depressing scene, snow covering the black swings and the monkey bars outlined with a careful dusting of white. Everything is frosty and closed looking, but Jerome leans over into the front seat and warms us all with his breath.
“Perfect, man, perfect geometry,” he says, all whispers.
“You flunked that enough times to teach it,” I say. We graduated high school a few years ago and started painting houses together for summer work. I run a plow in the winter and Jerome subsists through the cold on borrowed money.
“I don’t hate it when it’s like this,” he says. “When it’s all in front of you.”
“What’s in front of you?” I ask.
“Shut up, man. Let him talk,” Kate says. Her eyes are glued through the front windshield.
“Well, it’s just at total peace, the whole scene,” he says.
“Peace?” Alexandra says. She’s all breathy like she’s pretending to be in a movie where women ask questions that barely escape their mouths.
“I just wish I could get that way inside,” he pauses, “I mean—before I’m gone.”
“Gone where?” Alexandra asks.
Jerome quiets and takes a few labored breaths. The dumpster girls are not acquainted with this allusion to his short life. When we’re alone I sometimes offer to give him my kidney to avoid the details of his ailment. We happen to match, we think; I am O positive and he is AB negative. But usually, when I offer my kidney, he puts his hand over his heart and says, “Thank you, cousin, but—,” then he motions his head toward heaven, “wait for the sign, from upstairs.”
The dumpster girls are hooked like pike and waiting to gobble up his every word and gesture. He reaches down and lifts a bag of Funyuns to the front seat between Kate and me.
“Here,” he says, “I can’t finish these.”
“What’s wrong?” Alexandra asks.
I begin munching down the Funyuns and the onion smell reeks almost as much as Jerome’s whining. He bends his head down and lays his chin across my headrest. He’s one of those sad dogs on a long trip. “It’s not something that matters—I mean—not for you.” He pauses longer to catch their ears. “Not tonight, Alexandra.”
“No, I want to,” she says, confidently. “We want to. Me and Kate want to know what is wrong with you.”
“Yeah,” Kate says. She’s looking at herself in the side mirror and plucking chunks of mascara out of her eyelashes.
“Give them the long, epic version,” I say.
“Shut up,” Kate says.
“I love you, dumpster girl,” I say.
“It’s my kidneys,” he says. “They’re deteriorating quickly. It’s hard to explain. I guess you have to imagine my kidneys like two cookies. Now imagine dropping those cookies in a glass of milk and watching them dissolve into a soft nothingness at the bottom of the glass.”
“And your fingers are useless?” I ask.
Alexandra swats me with a red stocking cap she has found under the backseat. “Can’t you be real for once, asshole?”
Jerome raises his hand in the air. “No, Alexandra. He deals with me all the time. It’s not his fault. He’s just tired to death of hearing about me. He should be a saint.”
“I’m not the villain,” I say. “The kidneys are the villains, right? Couldn’t we say that?”
“Fucking-fuck-you-a-thousand-fucking-times,” Kate says.
“I’m peppered, I warrant for this world,” I say. “A plague on both your dumpsters.” Then I grab my stomach and make a retching-blood sound for better theatrical effect.
Jerome pops the door and spills out into the snow. Alexandra follows, slamming the door behind her and sending a whirl of cold air through the car. Kate opens her door and steps halfway out. Her skirt wedges in her butt; the sunflower on her underwear is headless, deformed. I smile. She turns back to me in a fury, saying, “I hope you know—you’re not his friend.”
I sit alone in the running car, sharp heat blowing across my face. I think of summertime when Jerome and I come down to Beasley Lake to wash house paint from our bodies. He can’t swim so we kick around the shallows and scrape paint off our skin with our fingernails. We peel off the paint globs that the other can’t reach. There’s nothing clear about this lake, it’s all choked with milfoil and pickerelweed. Sometimes we stand in the water until sunset with our toes in the muck and only our heads above the water. I don’t know if it’s the daze of hot work, or the heaviness of thought, but there are times when Jerome’s face goes as slack as that lake. His face falls heavy around his skull and he can’t shake it. Even when I move up close, cup my hands along the surface and splash him in the face, he won’t give up that look, or even blink it away.
Summer is when we go door-to-door convincing people they can’t paint their houses themselves. Jerome does all the talking-into while I offer the estimate, buy supplies, and keep Jerome alive—and usually out of jail. When we’re on a job and the people have gone out somewhere, he likes to climb inside and steal from their refrigerators or parade through the second floor rooms. I paint the window trim outside and keep watch down on the street for the car coming home. He finds the humorous articles in every household: a kid’s elephant costume or a scuba mask, and of course, various sex paraphernalia. All are his treasure while their owners are gone. The performance goes along until he makes me laugh into a mistake, and I have to wipe the paint off with a rag. It takes more than figurine clowns fornicating or breakfast cereal eaten out of an antique bedpan to throw me, and now that I think about it, the gags that usually get me are not even funny. They are more complex installations requiring Jerome to take a couple hours from painting. I let it pass, though.
I forgive him because there was one time when I rounded the eaves on the second story and saw him inside some little girl’s bedroom. He had killed the lights and draped the walls with bedsheets and hung from the ceiling abstract shapes of sculpted tinfoil. Herds of stuffed animals on the ground were tied by their necks with small appliance cords. The animals seemed to move in a funneling procession toward the center where there was a box formed of throw pillows. Light beaconed and slashed out from a lamp inside the pillows and the tinfoil shapes shimmered like a hundred sun-reflecting wristwatches. It’s hard to say how he bounced the light around, but it was a twinkling, blinding world that he half admired, leaning himself slant against the wall. The window between us, he gave me a questioning shoulder shrug, asked me what I thought, thumbs up or down. It was more awe than humor I felt, and giving him a thumbs-up, I thought about what art there was in living, and how little some wring out of a day, and that family, and that little girl, what would she think to see her room transformed into something unimaginable?
I signaled Jerome with a knock when the family pulled into the driveway. He rushed around like a superhero in double speed, tearing down, stuffing under, and returning the room to something like normal disorder. I watched him with one eye and the family coming home with the other. They schlepped groceries and tried to punt the kids through the front door. Being Jerome, he finished early and waited until the last possible moment to bail. Classic prick. I propped open the window and waved frantically for him to climb out because I could hear them creaking up the stairs toward us. Jerome played the sunbathing beauty, and the indecisive buffoon, all to torture me into hyperventilation, and I swear to Jesus, he dashed toward me on the open sill and sailor-dived out the second floor window just as the bedroom door swung open.
He must have exchanged his bad-luck kidneys for good luck because he landed on the lawn with a somersault and enough momentum to bring him back to his feet. Not a scratch. He grinned up at me with the drunken face of a trapeze artist and waited for my reaction with his arms outstretched. And it occurred to me then—as I flipped him the bird—that an asshole like that might deserve one of my kidneys.
Kate stays close to the car and smokes while Jerome and Alexandra vanish behind the swing set and over the ridge toward the lake. Down there in a small clump of pines, he is probably reconciling himself to his fate, speaking of his death nonchalantly, and imagining how he might tickle the bud of a dumpster girl with appropriate speed to avoid being found presumptuous. If he warms her sensitivities, she will take his hand and put it there and anywhere she thinks will make him feel that life is still life. Nothing is misbehavior on death’s door, she will realize. She won’t need promises, and he won’t offer any, so they will go on kissing and struggling together to free him. It’s beginning to snow again, and I stop the car and get out to see how cold it is outside.
Over the top of the car, Kate pretends not to see me. She is not bad looking if you ignore her chubbiness, and I know there is cruelty in thinking that way. Smoking with a quiet smack of her lips, she seems to huddle around her age, maybe 14 or 15. She looks young enough to forgive me for anything, or forget.
“I’ll push you, if you’ll pump.” I motion toward the swings on the ridge, over where Jerome and Alexandra disappeared.
“What if I don’t want to pump?” she asks.
“Then you’ll stop,” I say. “I’ll push as long as you keep pumping.”
“You’re not lying?” she asks.
“Of course not,” I say. “I love you, dumpster girl.”
“Stop saying that. It’s retarded,” she says.
“Okay,” I say, giving in.
I march through the snow and take my bare hand and wipe off the black rubber seat of the swing. Falling snowflakes disappear on the seat. Kate walks over and stands in front of me, and I hold the cold chain.
“Warm it up for me. Could you warm it up?” she asks, hint of baby in her voice.
“No, you can warm it up,” I say.
“No,” she says, insisting, “I can’t.” I sit on the cold seat and rub my butt back and forth jokingly.
“I didn’t ask for butt juice,” she says, smiling.
I get off the seat. “Well then, it’s on the house,” I say.
She sits and I push. Leaning back on the chains, she presses her bare legs through the air. She is a good pumper and I keep pressing against the small of her back, thinking of exactly what I shouldn’t. Jerome and Alexandra return over the hill looking triumphant. She has given him some pearls about living life to the fullest, and Jerome has put on his hopeless face for long enough for her to believe him and offer some consolation of flesh.
“What is this?” Jerome asks. His pants are wet to the knee.
“Swinging!” Kate sings. Her enthusiasm is out of proportion.
“We’re doing something better over here,” Jerome says.
“Seriously better,” Alexandra echoes.
We follow them over the hill and down the incline of empty woods and packed snow. Across the frozen lake, the streetlights illuminate the few snowflakes flying through, and there is an ice fisherman perched on his bucket jigging for bluegills near the middle of the lake. Jerome shows little interest in it and runs toward the bay and the vacant icehouse where the figure skaters and hockey players suit up on weekends. Open water flows out from the icehouse and cuts through the smooth ice growing out from the shore of the bay.
Following Jerome’s boot tracks through the snow, Alexandra and Kate seem to keep warm by squealing and bouncing along in their ballerina slippers and flippy skirts. They want to sit down on the shoreline when we arrive at the lake, and Jerome plays up his courtliness by laying down his leather coat for Alexandra. She wraps it up around her ears as though it were a fur and she were naked. I toss my coat to Kate and show less ritual than she would like, so she sticks her tongue out at me, and I return the favor, sticking my tongue between a peace sign.
Jerome crunches through cattails and mounds of dead grass before he leaps down to the ice with a deep thud. He almost slips backward, but he catches himself.
“Easy,” I say, “you’re stamped fragile.”
“Watch this,” Alexandra says, turning to Kate. “He’s so gangster.”
I hop down to the ice and test it with my heel. It’s good ice, a few inches thick. Jerome moves out toward the middle of the bay and open water. I want to follow Jerome, but he slides fast on the slick bottoms of his boots. The water drops off quickly from shore, and I know he knows it, but he’s way over his head if he breaks through. It’s thick enough beneath my feet, but while we move out, the ice starts to look bad, and I see chunks of snow and air bubbles trapped inside. I slow down and start to feel the faint pulse of the underwater spring moving in my feet. Jerome slows, looking back at me. I pound my heel every couple steps and look back at the girls sitting like nesting ducks on shore. They’re waiting to be entertained or abandoned.
“Come on, cousin.” Jerome waves me toward him.
I’m 30 feet behind him when the ice pops a small hole under my pounding heel, spitting weedy water up the leg of my jeans.
Jerome has his back to me. I shout, “Hold up, Jerome!”
He ignores me and moves up to the last couple feet of ice. From the top of the ridge, the open water looked like no more than a knife slash, but down here, it looks more than eight-feet wide. The ice is thin and delicate and it touches water only when the wind ripples the surface. Jerome is already too close when he takes a running start and launches himself like a dancer winging across the water. His landing breaks the ice into a single pane that turns on its edge. His feet won’t hold, and he claws for solid ice, slipping backward until his hips are under water. “Jerome!” I scream, but I’m stuck to my feet.
By some miracle, he kicks wildly at the water and finds enough of a fingerhold to pull himself up onto the shelf of ice. He catches his breath lying on his back before he rolls magically to his feet and starts clapping his hands above his head. Apparently, he’s the lead singer tonight. “You can’t swim, asshole!” I scream, but he’s not listening to me. The dumpster girls clap from their distance and let out animal howls that bounce around the hills of the bay.
I shuffle toward him with my arms stretched wide for balance. There’s still 20 feet between us. Jerome builds up for another jump, this time without the running start, and he leans back like a tomcat gathering his feet under his hips. The anticipation drives the dumpster girls into hysterics; they twirl their skirts and wreck themselves with laughter. The wind picks up and throws heavier snow down. The girls are pulling their bras out of the shirt sleeves and dangling them from their finger tips when I realize I am the only one who can save Jerome from the stage he imagines he’s on.
But there is no saving him when he lands the next jump sweetly on my side of the ice. He takes sliding steps toward me; his face is a glimmer better than gold. “Are you seeing this shit?”
“No, I missed everything,” I say, mocking him. “What’s happening?”
He looks at me, his eyes locked-in and focused. “I feel like every single angel tonight.”
Suddenly, beyond Jerome, in the parking lot near the icehouse, a police squad rolls in hot with its lights blaring red and blue. It’s another scene from the movie of my life, the one that’s too familiar to be strange anymore, but still I ask Jerome, “Where did you get the Firebird?”
Jerome doesn’t answer me. He leaps over the water and stumbles toward the other side of the bay. The dumpster girls scatter up the hill into the woods beneath the playground. The cop circles the shoreline on foot and Jerome has to veer toward the middle of the lake. The cop has him, almost has him, when they vanish beyond the streetlight near the point of the bay. Inside my head I see them chasing after each other like two quarreling birds. But there is no shouting from the darkness, nothing for a long time. I walk slowly out to the parking lot past the flashing squad and start on a trail we know inside the pines. The snow is done. The tree branches close off the sky. Behind me, there is nothing left of the night except an empty voice on the police radio.
—Ben Ristow is an emerging fiction writer and interdisciplinary scholar who teaches at the University of Arizona. His first published short story, “Denise Pearson,” appeared in the Indiana Review last December. He lives in Tucson with his wife and two daughters. “Saint Jerome and the Dumpster Girls” was the runner-up for BOMB’s 2009 Fiction Prize, judged by Jonathan Lethem.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation and the Thanksgiving Fund.