Late in the day, after Jerry had left, Ray worried that the image of the dead thing they had encountered and its stench would always be associated in his mind with his memories of Lexie, a woman he had fallen in love with over thirty years ago and thought of almost daily since. Disturbing also was Jerry’s reference to the fly-covered sow’s head impaled upon a stake in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The novel had been on both Ray’s and Jerry’s lists of favorites during their college days. They had discussed it at length, along with other books—Hemingway, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Steinbeck—over sweating mugs of draft at a popular off-campus bar. Jerry had also loved Lexie. Images of the three of them together had grown dull, worn by life’s grinding and the mind’s persistent recording, stacking, and sorting of successive experiences leading up to this most vivid picture: a dead snapping turtle as big around as a galvanized wash tub, bloated, covered with flies, stinking to high heaven.
The carcass had been floating in debris-filled water near the bank of a small cove fed by a creek that flowed between mossy green, tree-lined banks before rushing over rocks into the backwaters of a large hydro-electric impoundment, Lake Okatchee. The turtle was surrounded in death by a semi-solid film consisting of twigs and larger pieces of driftwood, soft drink bottles, red and white plastic bobbers, and fishing worm cartons. Its legs were comically extended from the front and rear of its shell, never to be drawn back in. They were too swollen now to fit into their former space. A prepuce of rotting meat encircled each limb and protruded from the edge of the carapace, beyond which the clawed hands extended, reaching for something, longer life perhaps. The effect was that of a fat man who has rolled his pants and shirt sleeves too tightly, producing a swelling in his limbs. The head and neck were also extended, in an attitude of striving, past another band of puffy skin at the edge of the shell.
Ray noticed the stench and the humming noise of the flies before he discovered the source. Jerry actually saw the thing first, after he had commented on how beautiful the spot was where they were fishing. “Damn!” he said. “There’s ol’ Beelzebub. Wasn’t expecting to see him today.” Then they were both cursing, gagging, and laughing at the same time as they reeled in their lines. Couldn’t stay there, even if it was a beautiful spot. Ray used the trolling motor to back them out of the narrow channel into larger water. Then he started the outboard, eager for fresh air and a change of scenery.
They weren’t much as fishermen anyway. Casting lines was really an excuse for spending the morning riding around the lake in the pontoon boat and reminiscing. Ray and Jerry only got together once or twice a year now, less frequently in past years when they had both been in midcareer and different marriages.
They shared lots of memories, but now after the passing of so much time the memories weren’t as solid as they had been. They remembered some of the events differently, especially those that hadn’t been discussed numerous times. And, naturally, they would have different memories of Lexie. She was a character in many of their shared recollections, but seldom the subject.
Midday followed quickly after the encounter with the dead turtle. Ray showed Jerry some of his favorite spots on the lake: a giant osprey nest in the top of a dead tree jutting out of the green water, another hidden cove with a small waterfall, lake houses as big as hotels with elaborate docking systems for luxurious speedboats, long stretches of water with nothing but trees along the banks, inverted before them on the smooth surface, their tops nearly touching in the middle of the channel. At each stop they fished a little, laughing at their ineptitude, tangled lines, and lost lures. The sun beat down, drawing beads of sweat from Jerry’s pink brow. Ray asked if he was okay.
“Fine,” Jerry answered. “Got plenty of sun block on.”
Ray, growing impatient, said, “I’m getting a little hungry, about ready for something more substantial than trail mix and Diet Coke. Whatcha say we reel ’em in and go get some lunch?”
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. I think we can call it a day since we’ve already surpassed our previous record for fish caught.”
It was true: Ray had caught one bluegill, nearly big enough to keep, just before they discovered the stinking turtle. The fish had swallowed the hook, and Ray, being as delicate as he could, used a pair of hemostats from his tackle box to remove it. He noticed, though, as they were backing out of the cove, the fish had gone belly up.
Ray had moved to the lake six years before, and the adventure of it all was just now starting to wear off. He was located about thirty minutes from the Georgia-Alabama line, ninety minutes from Birmingham, two hours from Atlanta, the middle of nowhere, really. Crossing the line into Alabama from Aaron County, Georgia had seemed like a trip back in time to a simpler way of life, away from the urban sprawl of Aaronville, where he and Jerry had earned their English degrees in 1977. In those days Aaron County, outside of the college town that served as the county seat, was a rural area made up mostly of rolling green pasture land, crisscrossed with winding two-lane blacktops and dotted with farmhouses and old barns. It had become a highgrowth area in the years since; now the whole place seemed to Ray like one big subdivision. He had longed for open spaces, back roads, creeks, and the company of authentic individuals with sturdy roots connecting them to the land. He had thought that life on Lake Okatchee would be more real somehow and provide his children with character-developing experiences, and his wife Sue had been excited about the idea of a new house.
Moving from Georgia to Alabama wasn’t like moving across the country, but it had been an ordeal for Ray and his family. Now they lived in a big house on a deepwater lake nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians, but the experience sometimes did not live up to the sacrifice. Living in such a remote area was inconvenient in many ways, and they had given up so much: connections with friends, family, and community, along with places to shop. These matters hadn’t seemed so important when they were caught up in the excitement of building and moving, but now, he could tell, Sue missed the old life. She had not made many friends in the rural community. They were outsiders, referred to by the locals as “lake people.” Ray didn’t need new friends as much; he lovingly clung to his memories of old college times and a few friends from those days.
After docking the boat and getting in the car, Ray resumed his role as tour guide. He enjoyed showing Jerry the decrepit trailers, farm houses, and barns, scattered along the back roads that wound over hills and ridges away from the lake. Jerry said, “This is pretty country, but it must be hard for some of these people to make a living out here.”
“Yep, since moonshining’s not profitable anymore, I guess most of them just sit around waiting for their government checks, when they’re not hunting and fishing, that is.”
“Or watching NASCAR and SEC football on their flat-screens. There’s a satellite dish on every house, looks like.”
Ray laughed. “You’ve got ’em pegged pretty good. I find it hard to engage in conversation with most of the locals, since I’m not that well versed in War Eagle or Crimson Tide lore.”
The natives were easy to characterize, but Ray did not hold them in contempt. He respected their simple dignity and the way they fixed their trucks in their front yards and generally took care of one another; and some of them, those of the older generation, still valued hard work. They weren’t phony and pretentious at least, or totally caught up in materialism like the suburbanites he’d moved away from.
“What do you feel like eating?” Ray asked. “There’s two or three gas stations that serve prefab pizza, and there’s a semi-famous, southern-fried, meat-and-vegetable kind of diner in town, Miss Retha’s.”
“Miss Retha’s . . . I like the sound of that. Might as well absorb some local color while I’m here.”
The restaurant, a bustling Okatchee landmark for years, was busy as usual, with only one unoccupied booth in the corner. Walking toward it, Ray nodded at two or three people he recognized from church and the hardware store. Jerry smiled, as he often did, when he was pleased with his surroundings.
“What’s good?” he asked.
“Fried chicken or pork chops with the usual array of vegetables on the buffet.” When Ray tilted his head to indicate the direction, he saw something that had not been there at his last visit: a large flat-screen TV mounted on the wall over the counter where the cash register sat. Many of the customers were watching it as they ate, a phenomenon that, in Ray’s mind, changed the whole dynamic of the place. “Damn,” he said.
“I can’t believe they hung that thing on the wall, in here of all places. Ruins the whole atmosphere.”
Jerry smiled, a familiar impishness in his eyes in spite of the crosshatch of lines surrounding them. Ray had seen that look many times, usually when they had been on the verge of resolving one of life’s persistent enigmas at a party or bar, or while simply conversing, lounging on the flea-market furniture in one of their rented pads.
The TV presented divided-screen coverage of, apparently, an important auto racing event. The port-tuned, bass reflex, surround sound system pumped into the restaurant the vibrating engine noise along with the excited voices of the announcers. When the waitress approached their booth, she had to bend in close in order to be heard. Ray could see that her make-up was caked on, meant to disguise the wrinkles of middle age.
“What can I get for you boys?” she asked.
Jerry said, “What?”
“Y’all want the buffet or do you need to see a menu?”
“What’s on the buffet?” Ray asked.
“Fried chicken, pork chops, turnip greens, green beans, butter beans, pintos . . . um—oh yeah—squash, coleslaw and fried okra. Small salad too, but it’s a dollar extra.”
Ray, Jerry, and Lexie did lots of drugs together during the seventies. Aaron-Maslow State College in those days, even though it was located in a small town an hour’s drive from Atlanta, had been recognized as one of the top party schools in the nation. The hippie movement, having already peaked in San Francisco and the northern cities, was coalescing here, gathering mass and energy. The college and the surrounding area, because of the southern hospitality of the locals and one of the few humanistic psychology departments in the nation, attracted people from around the country. Ray, a local boy, enrolled there because it was convenient and affordable. Jerry came from Rome, Georgia, a midsized town about an hour north; Lexie had grown up in the Atlanta suburbs.
Ray’s memory of the circumstances and connections that brought them together was clear. He had made friends with a hippie girl he had several classes with. They were in the “education block” together, studying to be English teachers. Jessica’s network of friends extended through her roommate to include several guys, now “heads,” Ray had gone to high school with. Ray and Jessica worked on projects together and talked about mutual friends. One afternoon Ray suggested they take a break and go get a beer at the off-campus hangout Suds n’ Silk, an old Victorian house converted into a restaurant and bar.
“Sure,” Jessica replied, tossing back her wavy brown hair, “that would be nice. And we can get my roommate Lexie to go with us. You’ll like her, she’s great.”
Lexie had been in the library working on a paper that was due the next day, but persuading her to shelve her project in favor of happy hour at the bar had been easy. They found her at a back table on the second floor, where all the scholarly journals were stored. “Come on,” Jessica pleaded. “You can have a couple of beers with us and work on your paper later tonight. I’ll even help you.”
“Well, okay,” the pretty girl answered, “since you put it that way.” She closed her books and stuffed everything into a large batik shoulder bag. Her hands seemed busy as she put her things away. The nails, polished and painted red, were cut, or bitten, short. Her eyes, salty blue and moist, darted back and forth between her roommate and Ray.
Jessica said, “This is my friend Ray. We’ve got methods class together. Going for beers was his idea.”
“Hi,” Lexie said, smiling. “Nice meeting you.”
Their eyes met for only an instant, long enough for him to notice their reflective qualities and quick movement. He also noticed her thin nose, perfectly proportioned yet slightly crooked. Actually, he concluded, she was perfectly proportioned all over. She wore clog sandals that exposed lovely feet with polished red nails. She walked in them expertly across the library floor without making much noise. Her trim erect body, shapely in her tie-dyed shirt and frayed cutoffs, was feminine and athletically graceful, that of a cheerleader turned hippie.
The girls, smiling and chatting softly, walked as a pair while Ray followed a few steps behind. He didn’t know what to say. On the ride to the bar, Lexie sat up front with him in his little beat-up Datsun while the conversation continued between her and Jessica in back. Jessica leaned forward in the seat so that her head was nearly between theirs. Ray drove and listened, delighted to be in the company of these girls.
At the bar, he finally got into the conversation by sharing stories about someone whom they’d discovered was a mutual friend. Donnie Eubanks had been, a year or so earlier, a spoiled local who loved to buy beer for his friends and drag race up and down the back roads in his rich dad’s gas-guzzling Chrysler. Now, apparently, he was “cool.”
“I can’t believe ol’ Danny’s doing drugs these days,” Ray said. “Last time I saw him he was hangin’ with the rednecks, kinda hating all the heads over here at the college. He enrolled for a quarter, then dropped out. Said there were too many freaks and weirdo professors for him.”
Lexie laughed. “He’s a leader of freaks now, an evangelist really. Wants to save the world by turning everybody on to MDA.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Ray said. “Horse tranquilizer, isn’t it?”
Lexie laughed. “No, no, no. Not this stuff. It’s a blend of cocaine and heroin. Some people call it the ‘love drug.’”
“I thought it was made from acid and speed,” Jessica said.
“Whatever. It’s good stuff is all I know.” Lexie turned to Ray. “Donnie came by our house last weekend. Had a bunch of people with him. I’m sure you know some of them. Anyway, he had about an ounce of that stuff, MDA. Turned us all on. We sat up all night laughing and rapping about everything. It was great.”
“I’ve never done any,” Ray said.
“Well, we’ll just have to fix that. We’ll score a gram or two next time Donnie comes around. Like I said, he’s an evangelist.”
Ray nodded in agreement and saw that Lexie was still looking at him, an expression of amusement on her face.
“So you’re from around here,” she said.
“Yep. Lived in Aaron County all my life. Momma and Daddy’s house is only about twelve miles away, toward Prathersville.”
“Say that again.”
“Pray-thers-ville. Come on, say it.”
Lexie was leaning in on her elbows, looking Ray in the face. Her playful expression encouraged him. Drawing out each syllable, he said, “Pray-thers-ville. How’s that?”
She laughed with exaggerated excitement, not at him, but as a child laughs in the process of discovering a new game. “Good, good! Now say per-co-later.”
“My God, am I that much of a hick?”
“No, no . . . it’s just—I don’t know—I like the way you talk. Just say it, come on!”
He complied, once again to her approval.
Jessica, took a sip from her mug, pulled a pack of Salems from her purse. “Y’all are weird.”
Lexie said, “Your friend’s great, Jess. I like him.”
Ray smiled, feeling his cheeks flush a little.
Lexie took a big swallow from her mug, wiped her mouth, then refilled everyone’s glass from the half-full pitcher. “Oh!” she said, “I’ve got one: say Nox-er-pater.”
“Are you making up words now?” he asked.
“No. It’s a place, small town in Mississippi. I’ve got a great aunt who lives there. I love to go visit just to hear the locals talk. Come on, let’s hear you say it.”
She wrinkled her pretty nose and batted her eyes. “Nox-er-pater. Don’t you love it? Now you gotta say it.”
So he did, and many other words over the course of the evening as they sat in their booth and drank beer. Before long they were joined by friends, acquaintances, and friends of friends—all part of the Aaronville party scene. Ray couldn’t remember what else happened that night, but he was certain that Lexie didn’t get her paper turned in on time.
He turned when he thought he heard his name called to see Lexie waving excitedly. She was in the middle of a group of people congregated around the back door. He waved back and they began to cross the parking lot toward each other. Ray was disappointed that she was pulling a couple of guys along with her.
He did remember when he first met Lexie’s boyfriend, Jerry. Ray and a group of his Aaron County friends were in the parking lot of Suds n’ Silk, trying to decide how to spend the evening. They were surrounded by the laughter and voices of people leaving and entering the bar. He turned when he thought he heard his name called to see Lexie waving excitedly. She was in the middle of a group of people congregated around the back door. He waved back and they began to cross the parking lot toward each other. Ray was disappointed that she was pulling a couple of guys along with her.
“Hey, whatcha doin’?” she asked, smiling.
“Not much,” he answered, noticing the guy at her side, grinning and looking him up and down. “We were talking about driving to the top of Cutnose Mountain and hanging out up there awhile. Maybe build a fire and look at the stars. My friend Tyler’s got a bag of Columbian.”
“Sounds fun,” Lexie said. “Got room for us?”
“We’ll make room.”
“Oh,” Lexie said. “Almost forgot. This is Jerry, my boyfriend. And this is Todd, Jerry’s roommate. He’s an art major.”
Todd, short and sturdy, seemed confident, mature in his hippie-ness. His blond hair was long and parted in the middle, his high-collard shirt open at the chest. He said, “Nice meeting you, but I guess I’ll hang here. Annie was talking about a small party at her apartment after she gets off.” He motioned with his head toward the door of the bar.
They left Todd there and divided into groups for the ride up the washed-out logging road that wound its way to the top of the mountain. Several of the locals piled into Josh Ruthven’s Jeep, and Lexie, Jerry, Tyler, and a long-haired boy Ray didn’t even know rode with him in the Datsun. As soon as they were underway, Tyler produced a joint, which circulated through the cramped interior to the stereo sounds of Yes’s Tales from Topographic Oceans.
The drive up was rough, requiring all the concentration Ray could muster. His passengers laughed and chattered at first while the joint was going around, but later became meditative from the effects of the weed, music, and wild scenery. The terrain flattened out at the top, providing plenty of room to park and get out and walk around. Ray left the doors open and the music playing. The charred remains of a campfire blackened the center of this area. On the side facing away from Aaronville, toward nothing but farmland and forests, the plateau abruptly ended at the edge of a steep face continuously buffeted by strong winds rising from the fields below. They occupied the highest point around. Below them the lights of Aaronville and the adjoining smaller communities shone in muted, blinking tones, smudged by the wind. Above them in the clear sky of early autumn a panoply of stars glittered around a full yellow moon.
After getting out of the vehicles, they all seemed confused about what to do next. The conversation was subdued as beer tops were popped. Tyler produced another joint. The music, wind, and stars conspired with the weed to produce a mood of awe and reverence, but then Jerry began to interpret the experience through a series of absurd bodily contortions and improvised vocalizations.
He centered his swaying movements in the abandoned remains of the old campfire, his feet planted firmly in the ashes.
Lexie said, “Stop, Baby. You’re gonna get ashes all over you.”
When Jerry said, “Fuck it,” Ray noticed for the first time that deeply impish look of pained understanding, a wisdom he was willing to share. He continued his motions and became a reed in the wind, then a tree, windmill, bird, and all manner of wind-driven things. Still rooted in the ash pile, he produced from his throat whooshing, clicking, and moaning effects marginally harmonious with Yes’s music and the surrounding night sounds.
Lexie turned to Ray with helpless resignation. “He’s tripping. Dropped some acid just before we met you.”
One of the guys who had ridden up in the Jeep said, “What the fuck’s the matter with that freak?”
“Just trippin’,” Ray said. “Nothing’s wrong with him. Just trippin’ and enjoying himself. That’s okay with you, ain’t it?”
“Hell yes! I’m cool with whatever turns the brother on.”
Someone else said, “Cool!” Then the expression, “Far out!” echoed through the group. Tyler was the first to start moving, skipping in short toe-heel steps like an Indian war dance around Jerry in the ash pile. Others began to swirl and sway, clap and chant. Lexie did a hip shimmy with elbows locked and palms pressing toward the sky. Laughter caught and spread like a match flame in a dry corn field. Jerry began bobbing up and down in the ashes, squatting and rising in rapid succession, each time bringing up handfuls of ashes and disbursing them on the wind; then he smeared his face with ashes and laughed loudest of all.
After going through the buffet line at Miss Retha’s, Ray and Jerry settled back into their booth with heaping plates. Jerry commented that he normally tried to follow doctor’s orders and stay away from too much salt and fried foods, but this was a special occasion. He dug enthusiastically into the battered and fried okra and the chicken breast. Someone turned the volume down a notch or two on the NASCAR race, so they were able to converse between mouthfuls. It seemed they could talk for days and never exhaust the old stories, the shared experiences of their wild college days.
Most of the recollections commenced with the mentioning of a name, one of their old classmates, professors, or party pals. Ray had recently seen Donnie Eubanks. He had given up drugs years ago, and had been since the mid-eighties a real evangelist for the Lord, a lay preacher. He’d become a millionaire from his inheritance—vast acreage on the outskirts of Prathersville, now a booming commuter town, straight off the interstate to Atlanta. Ray had run into him in Okatchee, of all places; Donnie had bought a lake house there.
Jerry grinned. “Donnie always was a preacher of sorts. He did a good job back then of spreading the Gospel of MDA.”
“Don’t I know it.” Then Ray was pierced with a crystalline memory: Jerry, Lexie, and himself vibrating with drug-induced love for each other, courtesy of Donnie Eubanks. Lexie had been true to her word that afternoon in the bar when she had told Ray they would have to score some MDA the next time Donnie came around. Ray couldn’t remember the events that led up to that special night—there had been so many that centered around scoring, hitting, dropping, or snorting—but he did remember the culmination, the high itself. It had lasted till morning and had been one of the most revelatory experiences of his life. Ray, Lexie, and Jerry away from the others, walking along the nearly deserted streets of Aaronville, living each moment as a self-contained eternity, wrapped in the universal flow.
Of all their shared memories, this particular night, now vivid in Ray’s mind, had not become one of their popular reminiscences. In their conversations over the years, Ray and Jerry had danced around it as they had danced around Lexie that night, their high priestess and object of adoration.
As clear as the image was, he couldn’t quite see the clay pot they had carried, the design of it. “Do you remember the time,” he asked, “when we were high on MDA—me, you, and Lexie—and carried that damn pot around Aaronville all night?”
Membership became a requirement for anyone who expected to party with the little group that kept Lexie at its center. The three of them, on the night they carried the clay pot, had been the founding members.
There it was, the amused expression of understanding, the impish twinkling of the eyes. “Hell yes. How could I forget that? Haven’t thought about it much, though, for a long time.”
“That pot. It was huge, wasn’t it?”
“Yep. About as big around as the dead turtle we saw this morning.”
Ray laughed, speared a piece of okra. “I remember when we picked it up—it was stacked with a bunch of lawn and garden stuff behind the hardware store—but I can’t remember what it looked like or the point of carrying it. What did we think we were doing?”
“It was the pot of sacrificial offerings, to our high priestess of Nanner Warrior-ism.”
“Sure. I remember us being Nanner Warriors. That night was how it got started.”
Ray had lots of Nanner Warrior memories. Membership became a requirement for anyone who expected to party with the little group that kept Lexie at its center. The three of them, on the night they carried the clay pot, had been the founding members. Todd was added a day or so later when he became hysterical over the concept. He was so enthusiastic he designed and made a few prototype T-shirts that launched the Nanner Warrior logo: a plump yellow banana, curved like a saber, made ridiculously warlike by a hilt and hand guard on one end. Lexie, Jerry, Ray, and Todd would be permanent Nanner Warrior council members. Todd even suggested they submit documents to the dean of student affairs to be listed as an official campus organization, kind of an anti-fraternity, but no one ever took the initiative.
“That name, though,” Jerry said, “I don’t remember where that came from.”
“An Indian word, referred to a creek, I think, near that little town in Mississippi that Lexie liked so much. It was one of the words she kept making us say that night.”
An image of the pot came into focus then as he glanced up at the busy waitress. It had been really fancy, not just your standard clay planter. A band near the top was etched and glazed in an elaborate Native American pattern. For an instant in his mind’s eye bison stampeded and braves danced in full feathered regalia against a patterned background of colorful geometric shapes. A beautiful pot—he understood now why they had carried it, and he decided to drop the topic. He lifted his glass to let the waitress know he needed a refill.
Ray had talked to Lexie once in the last twenty years. He would always remember that February night, Super Bowl Sunday, and the words they had said. His phone had rung a few minutes after the Stones’ halftime performance. The voice on the other end said simply, “Hi, Ray! How ’bout that ol’ Mick Jagger. Can you believe he’s over sixty?” He had known immediately who it was and that she had been drinking.
Sue had been bustling around the den after halftime, clearing away snack remains and empty soft drink cans. Ray stepped out on the back porch with the phone, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
“You do know who this is, don’t you?” Lexie asked.
“Of course. I’ll always recognize your voice.”
“I just wanted to call to let you know I love you.” There was a pause before she continued. “It’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. I know your wife is probably there with you.”
Ray had a hard time returning the sentiment even though it was true. He did love her and always would, but he had been pushing thoughts of her to the back of his mind for nearly twenty years. His last words to her had been, “Have a nice life,” during a period when they both had been recently divorced. He had believed, at the beginning of this awkward dating period, that their time had finally come, and he was angry that she still teased him, still didn’t take him or his love seriously, and still flirted with other men. His anger had smoldered throughout the years since, and he had not been able to forget her.
He finally said, “No. It’s all right. I love you too. I’m glad you called.” They shared a few minutes of small talk about how great the Stones were and how hard it was to believe that so much time had gone by. They were amazed and encouraged that Mick appeared to be in such good shape and could still rock.
Lexie said, “Maybe we have some good years left.”
“I think so,” Ray answered, trying to sound upbeat. He knew through sporadic reports from Todd, who still saw her occasionally, that she had struggled in recent years, going through another divorce because her husband had grown tired of her drinking and reckless behavior. She had lost custody of her two adolescent boys and had been to rehab several times. He also knew, by the animation in her voice, that the treatments had not worked.
“I’m at Todd’s,” she said. “We’re just having a few drinks and watching the Super Bowl. I quit for a while, you know.”
“Drinking, you dummy. But it’s hard, staying quit, I mean. What do they expect you to do, be sober for the rest of your life?”
“I can imagine it must be tough, and frustrating. Jerry quit, you know.”
“Yeah, I heard.”
Then Ray bragged a little. He told about how he had quit drinking years ago, except for an occasional glass of wine and a shot of bourbon every now and then for medicinal purposes. He told Lexie that he, with his daily three-mile jogs, was in the ninety-ninth percentile in fitness for men his age. He also told of the big lake house he had built and how much fun he and the wife and kids had there.
Lexie said, “That’s great, Ray. I’m happy for you. I’m in pretty good shape myself, you know. I’ve still got the body of cheerleader.”
“I know. You always did.”
“I think of us a lot. Especially that time we got so high on MDA and walked around all night.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“There’ll be other times for us to be together, to let go and have fun like that, won’t there?”
“I don’t know, Lexie.”
“Maybe in the afterlife.” Her voice was a high, nervous giggle. “We can be ourselves again then.”
“I . . . yes—yes, I’m sure you’re right. We’ll have great times again in the afterlife.”
Ray couldn’t quite let Lexie go as he and Jerry finished off their chicken and vegetables at Miss Retha’s. He found a roundabout way to steer the conversation back to her. “You don’t do Facebook, do you?”
“No, but I know what it is.”
“I discovered it recently through some of my students. It’s pretty neat, really. I’ve connected with people I haven’t seen in years. I think nearly everybody in America’s on it now.
Well, all the cool people, at least.”
“I tried to search for Lexie, but I couldn’t remember her last name, the name of her most recent husband. Or did she go back to her maiden name?”
Jerry’s grin evaporated. “She’s dead, Ray. I thought you knew.”
He heard and felt a surge of blood in his head before he understood. He measured his voice as it came out, to know how it sounded. “What? How can that be? I talked to her not that long ago. She called me. It was right after the halftime show, when the Stones played.”
Jerry’s bushy eyebrows bunched together in thought. He glanced up at the flatscreen. “That was nearly four years ago.”
“Damn! Yeah, I guess it has been a while. But . . . she seemed okay. What happened to her?”
“Car wreck. Don’t know the details but it was bad. I think she’d been drinking.”
Ray looked at his plate, now empty except for the chicken bones. “Why didn’t I know? I’d have gone if somebody had told me. How did you find out?”
“I got a letter from Todd. I guess it was about six months ago.”
Then Ray remembered a strange letter he’d received from the fourth Nanner Warrior a while back. It had come from Iraq, where Todd, who had become an engineer, was making lots of money helping to rebuild the infrastructure. Filled with vague, oblique references indicative of a drunken author—characteristics typical of the rare communications that issued from him—this letter was exceptionally maudlin. The gist was how much Todd loved Ray and recognized him as a soul mate, how he needed to say it now before it was too late, and how in heaven they would be able to spend time together, to finish all the conversations they had started in this life.
“Yeah, me too. But mine didn’t make sense. Now it does.”
After the restaurant the afternoon became gray, lusterless. They took the shortest route along a paved county road back to Ray’s house, which was empty. Sue and the kids had gone to Aaronville to visit her parents. In that hollow space the old friends spent a few minutes sharing their recent music and reading discoveries, burned some CDs and swapped books. Jerry decided that he needed to get on back to Rome before it got too late. He needed to get ready for a busy work week.
“I understand,” Ray said. “We’ll get together again before long. I’ll try to get away and come up to your place.”
“Cool. I look forward to it.”
Ray waved goodbye from his front porch and watched Jerry as he pulled out the long driveway. There was something about the shape of the receding rear of the vehicle that prompted it, the flash he would rather not have seen: the fly-covered dead turtle, Beelzebub. He shook his head, turned, and stepped back inside his big empty house.
Ron Yates lives on Lake Wedowee in the Appalachian foothills of eastern Alabama. He holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His work has appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Clapboard House, Rose & Thorn Journal, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Prime Number. His novel, Ben Stempton’s Boy, is set in the rural South of the tumultuous early 1970s. Ron has taught high school English, journalism, and creative writing for many years. When not teaching or writing, he tinkers with old cars and motorcycles, spends times with his son and daughter, and tries to fish a little.