By Tim Fitts
Matthew was intent on catching a bullfrog. He said it was easy. All you had to do was estimate the direction of the frog’s leap and time it to the exact moment of the frog’s reaction. Then you had it. You had to sneak up on it, but once you did that, all you had to do was predict the time and direction.
“No shit,” Fisher said.
“You got a better plan?”
“Yeah, a net.”
The three boys had gotten sidetracked at the pond while walking to the school. They had decided on the location after Marlon told them that the janitors always left the side door open on the far end of the church. He and his neighbor had gone in last week. They had taken the shortcut by the soccer field and walked up Old Tyler Road. They had made their way into the girl’s locker room, rifled through the desks of all the teachers, and even found a chamber above the pulpit where you could observe the congregation on Sunday mornings without anybody knowing. Once you got into the church, all you had to do was wander through the halls to the back, and the door connecting to the school didn’t even have a lock. It was that easy, Marlon told them, and they headed off. But after they trekked down Savoy from Matthew’s house, they turned up on South Saunders Road and heard a water sound where the drain from the pond emptied into a ditch. “Shit,” Matthew said. “Those are bullfrogs,” and jumped down to have a closer inspection.
Matthew said if they could get one bullfrog, they could cut it up, tie the pieces to milk jugs, and catch a bunch of snapping turtles. They could all sneak out at night and meet up. They could jump the fence and put the jugs out into the water. Come back in the morning and get the turtles.
“What are we going to do with snapping turtles?” Fisher asked.
“Sell’em,” Matthew said. “Plenty of people would buy snapping turtles. Everybody wants a snapping turtle.”
Marlon said nobody’s going to catch a bullfrog with their bare hands, and nobody’s going to catch a snapping turtle. You could try your whole life and you wouldn’t be able to do it. If you wanted a bullfrog, you had to come out at night with a gig and a flashlight, and then you look for beady red eyes, and the light beam paralyzes them. That’s when you stick them. But you have to have your bucket and your jugs all ready. You don’t do one thing on one day then the other thing another day. Plus, you don’t do any of it unless you have a market. If you know somebody who wants a snapping turtle, then you do it. You do it if the price they are willing to pay is worth the time and effort and your expenses. “You don’t go to all the trouble with the vague hope that you might find somebody willing to buy a snapping turtle. Sure, people out there want to buy snapping turtles, but do you know them personally?”
“I’ll figure out who,” Matthew said.
“Besides,” Marlon said, “we come here at night, walk around with flashlights, somebody’s liable to start shooting at us with rock salt.”
“Marlon’s a pussy,” Matthew said.
“You two are small time,” Marlon said. “Bullfrogs. Snapping turtles.”
“Forget about the bullfrogs,” Fisher said, suggesting they keep on walking to the school. They should go inside and turn everything upside down. “We should steal all the chalk and erasers.”
“Smash all the mirrors in the bathroom,” Matthew said.
They thought about other types of mayhem. They mused upon going into the walk-in refrigerator, dumping milk on all of the carpets and making the entire building stink, turn over the library shelves, change all of the grades, or steal the gradebooks altogether, bend the legs of the chairs so they all wobbled. Fisher said they should steal some toilet paper from the janitor’s closet and roll some houses. Buy a couple dozen eggs at the grocery store.
“Again, small time,” Marlon said.
“Again, Marlon’s a pussy,” Matthew said.
Marlon said he wasn’t a pussy, it’s just that all of their ideas ended up making their own lives more difficult. Stinking up their own classrooms rooms with rancid milk, sitting in uneven chairs, making pissed off teachers re-grade them. Marlon said he wasn’t a pussy, but if he was going to do something at all, he was going to do it big. He wasn’t going to trash any classrooms, break any mirrors or anything like that. If he was going to do anything, he was going to go big. All that stuff was petty vandalism. If he was going to fuck with them, he was going to fuck with them. You could burn the whole school down in an hour. “Less than an hour,” Marlon said. “Guaranteed. All you have to do is pull the fire alarm, get everybody out, and burn the place down. I can get some sodium from my dad’s lab. We could pack the sodium in a shell of sugar and flush a couple cubes down the toilet. By the time the sugar melts, all hell breaks loose. Or we could sneak in some gasoline, hide it in the janitor’s closet on Friday, show up Saturday morning, climb up into the ceiling tiles and pour it down the inside of the walls. We do it on all four corners of the school. Keep the windows shut so the fumes build up. Flush the sodium, leave a trail of rubbing alcohol to the hallway. You could make the place one big bomb. Turn the place into an actual inferno.” Marlon then presented the other two with an image. The school itself, three stories high, one hundred fifty feet in length, burning from all sides, flames catching wind and forming a vortex. He told them that it is entirely possible during forest fires for the wind to create small tornados consisting solely of flame. “Imagine that,” Marlon said. “Our school, a monolith of fire licking the sky. It would be like the Earth opening up and swallowing that shithole. If we do anything at all, we do something big, like that.”
Just two years prior, the boys had practiced school spirit with nationalistic fervor. They wore their Shades Mountain Bible soccer uniforms all day after games, green Adidas jerseys with white shorts with the built-in jock and the three stripes down the side. The varsity team had won the State finals two consecutive years, and students at Shades Mountain Bible Academy walked with pride. In the autumn and winter they donned nylon green jackets with an Eagle patch sewn to the back and chevrons stitched to the sleeves signifying years of athletic service.
But then things took a turn. Newschannel 6 showed up one weekday morning at Shades Mountain Bible after Pastor Vincent had delivered a mandate that each student bring to school an item that causes him or her to stumble in their Walk with the Lord. And by stumble, Pastor Vincent explained that it could be anything—not just dirty magazines, chewing tobacco, televisions, or rock albums, but anything that distracted you from your quiet time, your tithing, your prayer life, your anything. It could be a bicycle, favorite shirt, favorite socks, favorite cereal. If you awoke in the morning thinking about cereal before Jesus, bring in the cereal.
In a single day, the school’s fortune shifted. Newschannel 6 created a montage of images—students standing behind shimmering heat waves and smoke, teachers tossing baseball gloves and money onto the pile of char, a shot of Pastor Vincent observing his handiwork, standing stoic behind a sheet of white smoke. The exodus of normal students concentrated the children of fanatics, and those left behind could feel their skin bluing in the Appalachian foothills, the sounds of banjos emanating from the woods across the street. The finances of the school also plummeted, and to make up the tuition gap, the school began taking on a disproportionate number of students who had been expelled from public schools, establishing an undercurrent of vice ranging from pot to pills, and even a sixteen-year-old eighth grader who had caused one of the star cheerleaders to hemorrhage.
Marlon said they were better off walking around Bluff Park collecting deposit bottles and blowing their loot at Wizard’s Palace, spending the afternoon playing Dig Dug or Tron. At least they would go home and not have to worry about whether or not they were going to JDC or some kind of bullshit like that—live their lives like criminals and worry all the goddamn time. “We go to the school, we burn it down, or we don’t go at all,” he said. “We can siphon some gas from the lawnmower at my house. We don’t need much. Get the gas, we go.”
Matthew pointed to a snout poking out from beneath a rock in the small pool where the drain emptied. “That’s a bullfrog,” he said. “Get it,” he said to Fisher.
Matthew pointed to a spot where one of the rocks jutted out at the bottom, with a small crevice covered with algae. It was difficult for any of them to determine whether what Ryan saw was a rock or one of the bullfrogs. Fisher said if he wanted a bullfrog so bad, he could get it himself.
Matthew said he couldn’t believe that he had friends that were such cowards and removed his socks and shoes, stepped in the water, and caught his balance on a piece of sandstone that crumbled to the touch, sinking Ryan immediately to his knees, muck halfway up his shins. Heightening his embarrassment, when Ryan looked up, behind Marlon and Fisher, he saw the open passenger-side window of his uncle Runner’s Pontiac Sun Bird Sport Coupe.
“What are you idiots doing?” the voice said from inside the Pontiac.
“Catching bullfrogs,” Fisher said.
Matthew told Fisher to shut it and climbed out of the muck.
“Come on,” Runner said. “Get in the car.”
“What for?” Matthew said.
Runner stepped from the car and approached the three boys, Matthew’s feet covered in black and green. “Wash those feet before getting in the car.”
Matthew stepped back in the water and shook his feet. Runner told him to cut the crap, and forced Matthew into a sitting position and scooped water onto Matthew’s shins, rubbing the grime from his feet and between his toes. Runner stepped back to the car and took a towel from the trunk and wiped Matthew’s feet dry. “Now, get in the car. All of you.”
“What I do?” Matthew said. “Did mom send you to pick me up?”
“There’s a fight at the church,” Runner said. “It’s going to be big.”
“Our church?” Matthew said.
“No. The Baptist church. Andy Moseman is fighting some guy that used to go to your school. We gotta get there before it starts. We have to see this thing.”
Runner pulled a three-point turn and took off towards Savoy, passing Matthew’s house on the back way to John’s Convenience Store to pick up a pack of cigarettes. When he got back in the car, he packed his cigarettes and said that somebody at the fight was going to have a chain. That’s what he heard. It could be Moseman. It could be the other guy.
“What kind of chain?” Fisher said.
“I don’t’ know,” Runner said. “A chain.”
“A bike chain?”
“Who cares?” Matthew said.
“Not a bike chain,” Runner said. “Just a chain. Don’t worry about it.”
Marlon said that the Bible says that if you attack a country, you should destroy every single person in the country. You have to have a total cleanse. Otherwise, the war goes on forever.
Runner said they weren’t going to see a war. They were going to see a fight.
“You still don’t show up to a fight with a chain. What is the person going to do with the chain? Is he going to kill the other guy?”
“Probably,” Runner said. “Why else would you bring a chain? Why else would we go see it?”
Fisher said if you hit someone with a chain, the other person could just grab it and pull you closer.
Marlon said if you bring anything to a fight, you bring a gun. If it comes to it, you kill the other person. Otherwise, don’t bring anything. But if you beat somebody with a chain, that person, and their friends, and their parents, and their children, and their children’s children, are going to come back and exact revenge a hundred fold. You bring a chain, you win one fight, but the rest of your life is misery.
“Who are these guys?” Runner asked out loud to the three in the back, then hit the gas and drove toward the Baptist church.
Runner was ten years younger than Matthew’s mother, almost young enough to look like her son. Runner had dropped out of high school after getting his girlfriend pregnant and had started working at a sheet metal factory in Bessemer. He used to show up at Matthew’s house regularly for dinner. After his girlfriend had the baby removed and left him, Runner showed up less frequently and usually unannounced. When he did show up, he brought barbecue or a bag of hamburgers from Jack’s and would talk about how much he loved his job as a sheet metal worker. He told Matthew’s family that he was going to go into sales once he put his time in. Sheet metal was big business. He told Matthew’s family sheet metal was his calling. He told them he knew this to be true when he first saw fresh stacks of aluminum slabs, and they shined so clear and alive that he ran his hands across the surface, and it was like the metal had spoken to him in secret code transmitted through his fingertips. He told them that when aluminum is molten, it does not glow like iron or steel, but holds its color. Ryan noticed that his uncle’s eyes watered as he talked about this world. Runner said that he was not sure why, but this trait in an element was a thing to admire, and the smelting process is so hot and smoky and oppressive that you cannot imagine anything so beautiful emerges. He sat up and told Ryan’s family that he didn’t even feel normal unless it’s a thousand degrees and he’s dripping with sweat.
After dinner, Runner showed Matthew how to smoke pot. He told Matthew it was the best education you could get, but Matthew was unsure of whether Runner was referring to the weed or the aluminum.
“It’s simple, and it’s everything,” Runner said. “You don’t learn it from school, and you don’t learn it from pussy. You almost learn it from pussy, but pussy burns you. It’s this. This is what I am talking about,” but Matthew was still unsure about what ‘this’ thing was; he felt as if a layer of film had been placed between his mind and his thoughts, and all he could think about was terror. He thought about botulism and wild dogs, and all the accidents at the plant Runner had told him about. Stifling heat and smoke, fingers snipped like putty, thumbs and raw skull against sharp edges and unmovable objects, whole patches of skin peeled from forearms and faces, the sight of raw bone. The filter in Matthew’s psyche, the film, remained fixed, and Matthew wondered if he would ever come down, or if this was just the new him.
At the Baptist church, cars had lined up around the perimeter, and a crowd had gathered in the middle of the parking lot like a rock festival. People walked around without aim, girls wearing concert shirts, tits on all of them. The crowd grew dense at the middle, but it was impossible to tell who was fighting, or if the people fighting were in their respective camps, or if they had even arrived. All three of the boys felt the tension of some great possibility. Many of the teenagers walked on tiptoes, straining to look over the heads of their peers, also trying to figure out who was where, and what was going to happen, and Runner told the three boys to climb a tree, or stay around the edges. Just get a good place to watch and stay out of the way. Somebody had already ambled up the angled concrete supports of the church, and crawled monkey-style up the rooftop at sixty degrees, all along the tiles to the apex, where the church suggested a steeple, but now featured a late teen in blue jeans, hands gripping the peak and legs dangling over the edge.
A couple of teenagers told the boys to stand on the hood of their car, a 1971 Dodge Dart, and the view opened up before them. Two cars, a sky blue Chevy Nova and rusted out red Volkswagen Rabbit, had been parked in the center of the crowd forming an impromptu pit. More girls in concert shirts. More tits. Moccasin boots laced all the way up with fritters. But then the crowd parted, and a tall preppie walked to the center. Marlon knew him from the way he walked, a slight bow in his legs. Nelson Hadley, the goalie of their varsity soccer team. State champ. Nelson had been a part of the exodus after the burning of worldly goods. Marlon recalled a moment during the bonfire, where Jimbo Parsons had emptied a sack of worldly goods onto the heap before the pile was ignited, including a can of beer he had drained on the way to school and a porno. The leaves of the magazine had flapped open, and Marlon remembered catching a quick glimpse of a blonde woman on her knees, hands tied behind her back while she performed fellatio on a man painted purple with an oversized helmet, looking part spaceman, part light bulb. Marlon remembered Nelson, too, taking offense to this and getting in Jimbo Parson’s face, demanding to know exactly what Fred wanted to accomplish. Participate, or stay home, he shouted at Jimbo Parsons. Participate or stay home. This is not a game. This is not entertainment.
Nelson Hadley was considered by the students at their school, as well as the coaches and most of the parents, to be a true athlete. Once, during the semi-finals of the state soccer tournament, with the game on the line, the opposing team had kicked a corner. The ball veered way out to the edge of the penalty box, then turned inward. While players from opposing teams jumped to head the ball either direction, the figure of Nelson Hadley’s torso had risen above the players, scooping the ball to his chest, then somersaulting over the shoulders of his opponents, careless of whose head and feet and elbows might be out for him, then landed on his back, tightening into a fetal position, before rising and booting the ball deep into enemy territory. He spat a wad of blood to the ground. Marlon remembered seeing the blood bounce off the dusty surface of the soccer field, reflecting in the afternoon sun like a discarded jewel. Game over. Nelson Hadley also pitched Pony League baseball, ran cross-country, and had placed two consecutive years in the Vulcan Run. Now, he danced on bare feet with the sleeves of his Izod royal blue velour shirt pulled up to his elbows.
“Look at that,” Fisher said to Marlon and Matthew, pointing to two people standing next to a green Kawasaki dirt bike. One of them stood tall, taller than Nelson Hadley. Marlon said the next guy, the small guy, was Andy Moseman, who was crazy. Small and stocky. Marlon looked at his friends and said that Moseman lived two blocks over, and once he saw Moseman getting high from the fumes of his bike. Marlon told the others that he had seen him in his driveway, staring at his grandmother, who watched him from their front porch while he huffed gasoline straight from the tank of his motorcycle, the siphon held to a single nostril until he passed out. Other things were common knowledge about Andy Moseman. He had fallen from the bluffs on Shades Crest Road, fifty feet to granite, cushioned by a layer of autumn leaves, only to get up and walk away with a chipped tooth. He had been hit by a car, and made the papers two years before after he had beaten up the father of two girls in the Skate World parking lot.
Moseman walked towards the parking lot with his helmet on, his eyes shaded by a black visor. His stocky frame waddled, swinging his hips awkwardly as he walked—his feet, in a pair of blue and yellow Nike LDVs, moved faster than his body. As he approached the pit and the two cars, he removed his helmet. Moseman’s shoulder length hair fell out, framing a face impossibly packed with pimples—ridges and inflammation clear and defined from fifty yards away, a face pulsing and bulging with pus. Moseman held the helmet his with his right hand, then brought it down hard against Nelson Hadley’s extended forearm. The crowed surged forth and turned into a sound of collective awe, terror and glee, while Moseman’s arm swung with machine like precision, rapid fire, knocking down Nelson’s arm and connecting with Nelson’s orbital bone, driving him to the ground. The boys wondered if the blows had killed Hadley. He had fallen backward, and his head bounced on the pavement. Both of his arms raised in a slight begging position, as if his nerves had taken over.
The crowd reminded Marlon of the scene of the bonfire, the same intensity. He remembered seeing Pastor Vincent walking along the outskirts of the scene, his suppressed joy at Newschannel 6’s appearance, and the regional attention the event would garner. Marlon could see Pastor Vincent formulating a sermon in his mind at that very moment. People would jeer, people would ridicule them for their righteousness. Let them. First purification, then longsuffering. If people wanted to laugh, let them laugh. If people wanted to mock, let them mock.
However, later that day, after the burning, the look over Pastor Vincent’s face had changed, and he had visited each individual classroom to speak his mind. He spoke to the students with frankness at his horror that morning, shuffling through their objects of worldly goods before dousing them with lighter fluid. “The level of your stumbling is frightening,” Pastor Vincent had said to them. “Abhorrent. Prophylactics. Cigarettes. Rock albums. Playboy.” Pastor Vincent looked at the classroom and seemed to make eye contact with each student simultaneously. “What troubles me is that you don’t even know what you did today. My fear is that those who will mock us will be none other than yourselves.”
Moseman turned around and faced the crowed of teenagers and grabbed himself. However, Hadley came to. The boys saw him vomit, then get to his knees and take in his surroundings. Blood covered the side of Hadley’s face and neck, but still, he raised himself to his feet, and it was not until that point that he appeared to be aware of the situation, and the blood coating his face and neck, blackening his royal blue velour shirt, was his own. Somehow, he stood, but before he could land a punch to the side of Moseman’s turned head, he was pulled back by a rush of teenagers, who slammed him against the side of the sky blue Chevy Nova. His velour shirt came apart in strips, and the boys saw that the blood and had soaked through to his torso as well. In the pocket of mayhem, the boys saw Runner make a move forward, delivering a few lightning fast body blows of his own to Nelson’s ribs, followed by an open handed slap to the face. That’s when the boys saw that Runner was right, Moseman did have a chain, a thin chain, five or so feet in length, designed as a dog leash. Moseman wrapped the around his hand like a whip, striping Hadley’s back and shoulders, until the crowd was upon them, dense and pressing, then popped loose like wild atoms, punctured with the modulating pulse of a squad car.
That night, Marlon awoke to a scraping sound in his room. A soft grind, slowly scratched, as if someone stood in the dark dragging the edge of a sheet of typing paper against the surface of his dresser drawer. The sound stopped, and just before he re-entered his slumber, the sound picked up again. It was difficult for him to tell if the aural image resulted from a cockroach or a mouse, but the timbre struck a nerve that allowed neither sleep nor proper relaxation. The sound seemed to Marlon bigger than a cockroach but smaller than a mouse or a rat. The sound stopped again, but he had awoken. He looked at the ceiling and could see colors swirling in his vision, greens and yellows, and orange and red and a flare of bright orange dots that shifted from defined patterns to a blur. When he closed his eyes, he found himself thinking about Nelson Hadley and replayed the scene in his mind from that afternoon. Marlon wondered if maybe was dead, maybe he was in a coma. He wanted to ask his parents if they had heard anything on the news but knew that question would lead to many other questions. He closed his eyes again and imagined Nelson at Parisian’s walking around with his parents, trying on Izod velours. Marlon imagined Nelson’s mother giving him a burgundy sweater, telling him to try it on, then handing him the same one in green, and then blue, then trying a size larger, then a size smaller, and his mother asking the salesperson fold the sweater in white tissue inside the cardboard box. But it probably didn’t happen like that at all. Nelson’s mother probably bought the velour sweater for him while he was at school without even mentioning it to him. She probably just brought home the shirt and hung it up in his closet. Who knows, Marlon thought. It could have been hanging there for weeks.
Tim Fitts lives in Philadelphia with his wife and children. His short stories have appeared in journals such as The Gettysburg Review, The Madison Review, Granta online, Shenandoah, the Xavier Review, among others. Tim currently serves on the editorial staff of The Painted Bride Quarterly, and he teaches at Drexel University and the Curtis Institute of Music. “Does Anything Beautiful Emerge?” is part of Fitts’ forthcoming collection of stories, “Home Fries,” which will be published by MadHat Press in 2017.