In the last weeks of the school year the hallways empty out and summer gets so close you can taste it like iron in your throat. Invermere, the whole town – maybe all of B.C. – is suddenly the eye of a desert storm. The wind kicks dust down the main haul but there’s not a soul, not a tumbleweed, only this feeling in your gut that you’re shooting on through. My days blur into report cards and administration and the occasional phone call to a student’s mom. Ceremonies, grad pranks, a party in some teacher’s backyard with a bonfire as big as a motorhome. It’s euphoria, it’s like a thing earned, and the hours swelter by without worry over recompense.
But you never quite move on from what you’ve left behind. At night, on my porch, I eat grapefruit wedges and think about who got me here. The air smells like the mountain wind and the citrus juice pooling on my plate. Life is a series of events between shitstorms, or so my dad used to say. On the porch, I’ll imagine Bellows, the only guy who ever bared his teeth for me, his bob-and-weave walk, his messy hair and that grin more bucktooth than lip. Then I’ll remember the hick, Ham, huffing on the asphalt, his breath sticky with hops and his mouth full of blood and sand, how bad he looked after Bellows beat him pulpy. And for a moment I lose track of myself: there’s only the grapefruit and the valley wind and the questions that will trouble me to the end of days.
We met at the end of our grade eleven year when Ham, this highschool dropout with a pigskin face, caught me late for class. He pinned me to the school’s stuccoed wall and waved a bony fist under my nose. —This is what you get, he said, and pushed the knuckles against my nostrils. I was a hundred and five pounds and Ham had one fat arm across my chest. He stunk of chewing tobacco, wore an nWo ballcap turned one-eighty, a button-up denim coat. I was a teacher’s boy, the kind of kid rednecks take a fancy to, and I generally spent my free time hiding behind the tungsten-coloured portables, in a cubby someone had hollowed in the earth.
I smelled that jagged fist and imagined how bad Ham would smash my face with it, but then Bellows, a Jehovah’s Witness with biceps bigger than my neck, came out of nowhere. He threw himself at Ham, this tornado of arms and grunts and spit. Afterward, he brushed dirt off my shoulder and asked if I was alright. —Yeah, I told him. —And thanks.
Bellows was new to town, said being a JW often caused him trouble in Christian settlements like the Kootenay Valley. Settlements – he used that word, I remember. He had dog-brown hair and freckles and a mole beside his nose. Having him around felt like having a police escort. His family had moved to the valley from Manitoba, where his dad worked as a mechanic for a JW community outside Winnipeg. Bellows claimed to not touch alcohol and he was forbidden from eating ketchup or having sex out of wedlock, but rumours said he and a girl named Charlie tried it in the backdoor. He had one green eye but the other was colourless grey. His dad could refute the theory of evolution. I once saw him curl a one-hundred-pound dumbbell in each arm, and that made him the stuff of legend, like a figure out of the WWF.
We killed time together at lunch hour in a walled-off courtyard accessible by a door marked Staff Only. The stucco was algae-green with a shin-level strip of sandstone brickwork. Bellows only ate peanut butter sandwiches and a grapefruit, quartered, and he always offered me one of those wedges and I always accepted. For the first time in four highschool years the hicks hesitated to pick on me and for the first time since he could remember Bellows had a friend who didn’t care that he was a JW. I showed him the dirty hollow I used to hide in and he collapsed it with two great guillotine-stomps. He read me a couple verses from his Bible. We hiked Invermere’s main haul and he bristled whenever we passed anyone who might cause trouble. A couple times he thought somebody was making a move and he went stiff, pupils dilating and his heart a-thump like a kid in love.
At the end of May, Bellows found an ad in the newspaper selling a ’67 Camaro, so we drove to a town called Edgewater to have a look. When we got there, the car was on cinderblocks outside a mobile home – cobalt blue, darker than the desert sky, rust-peppered tinwork. Bellows lowered a palm to the frame like worship. He lifted the hood to stare at the V-8. When he blew across the engine, dust coiled into the air, thick with the smell of carbide. We tried the doorbell but all we got was a Rottweiler’s bloodhowl, so deep and throaty it left you scratching your chest for an itch, and we hightailed it out of there. A few days later Bellows took me to his garage, and perched amid the clutter and the freezers full of elk meat was that beautiful Camaro. —My project, he told me.
Summer got into swing. Beach parties, valediction, a gathering at the gravel pits where guys shotgunned cans of Hurricane like it was coming into style. Me and Bellows spent so much time in his garage that we missed the big happenings around the valley. Some kid wandered out of the gully at the edge of town. A retired highschool teacher signed up for the MMA Tough Guy tournament and shattered a student’s nose. Us: we tinkered with the Camaro. Bellows flung me tools and crooned instructions, and for the first time in a really long time I thought life was going alright. At home, my old man asked me what the hell I’d been getting up to, and I just told him, —Tweaking that car, Dad, and he gave me the eye, as if to say, Is that all? The whole time, Ham drove loser laps along Invermere’s main haul and we saw him with a puck slut riding shotgun, a giant decal on the tailgate that said: UR2SLO.
In July Bellows fired up the Camaro for its virgin run. His dad helped us with the guts but when we repainted the body Bellows made a point of it only being me and him. Afterward, the cobalt drew the eye like an athlete. We cruised around in that beater-on-the-rise. Bellows pushed a Queen album in the tape deck and we blared “Fat Bottomed Girls.” People gave us looks. At the only red light in town we sidled up beside some hicks in a raised pickup. Their bass drowned ours, but Bellows gave them the eye. They called us fags, and he revved the engine. Then the light greened and Bellows dropped the clutch straight to second and I made a paddling motion out the passenger window as we shot on by.
Near the end of summer me and Bellows swung by the lake, just bombing around, desperate to scrub up excitement. On the way, we bumped into his friend Charlie, wandering home with a bottle of Crown Royal. She crammed between us – athletic, brown haired, with nice teeth and a smile that showed her molars. At the lake, Bellows parked the Camaro under a street lamp and we hiked with Charlie to the water to circulate the booze. We sat on the sand with our shoes off, dipped our feet in the lake.
—How much that car cost you? Charlie said. She gave Bellows a look, a once-over. I’d have traded anything to be in his shoes.
—About two grand so far.
—You ever wonder, she said, but didn’t elaborate. She tapped her feet against Bellows’. Their knees brushed. The water swam with sediment. I had Bellows’ shoulder wedged against mine but I thought I could smell Charlie – the scent of citrus fruit. I’d have given anything to switch places with Bellows.
Charlie dangled the Crown Royal between her thighs. —I can’t drive stick, she said.
—It’s just timing, Bellows said.
—You could show me.
—Yeah, if the time’s right.
He never closed the deal. Charlie offered him more whiskey but he had to drive. Out of courtesy she offered me some and I tried to taste her lips on the bottle. Then we heard boys yell and tires screech, and when we looked at the Camaro there was Ham’s truck and a bunch of guys scrambling out of it. Bellows straightened. I caught Charlie’s eye and I could see that she wished I were not there. Bellows took off in a sprint. By the time he reached the parking lot the hicks had scratched Fucking Fag across the Camaro’s hood with a key.
Ham was halfway inside his truck when Bellows heaved him to the asphalt and kicked him in the ribs, hard. He grabbed Ham’s hair in one fist and cracked him in the nose, and cracked him again, and again. Other hicks climbed from their truck but one glare from Bellows made them wait it out. The whole time Ham blubbered like a kid being beaten. He was saying sorry. He was saying he was so sorry.
When Bellows finished, Ham’s face was puffy, as if by bee stings. He went fetal. Bellows had blood and snot on his knuckles and teeth marks in the bone and one hand had swelled to the size of a ten-ounce boxing glove.
—Call someone, he told me.
—Bellows? I said.
—Call someone, he said again, this look in his eyes as if he meant help me.
Bellows’ parents didn’t take well to the news. In a few days his dad made plans for him to hash out his last school year in Manitoba, at that community for JWs. It was August. Town slowed to a drift. Summer jobs ended and kids hit the streets to meander their dwindling freedom. Me and Bellows did what small-town boys do. We got shitfaced on cheap vodka and pinged rocks off coal trains. We made half-hearted attempts to score girls. In the dirty hours of the morning, with the sun cresting the Rocky Mountains, we traipsed down the street and discussed anything except the fact of our parting.
In four months I’d be in the thick of my grad year and Bellows would join the Canadian Forces, take his knuckles overseas to the sandblasted Afghanistan dunes. There, some iron shrapnel would open his throat like a quartered grapefruit and he’d see God as things go blue. I’d graduate at the top of my class, and on the evening of convocation Bellows’ old man would show up and pat us all on the shoulders. I’m still not sure why he came – to look for ghosts, maybe, or to hang on to something. At the end of the night he caught my arm and hissed, —You were everything to him. A decade later I’d need a new electrical panel and the electrician turned out to be Ham, clean shaven and ready to make a name for himself. —Whoever woulda thought? he’d say to me.
But that’s summer for you. Or, that’s summer for me. These nights are short, and some evenings I sleep and wake and dream, here on this porch, until the sun lifts over the mountains. Bellows was the only guy who ever bared his teeth for me. Even my dad, rest him, never had the stones. When night recedes and the dawn turns cobalt, I shuffle inside and put music on to make it sound like there’s somebody home. I pour myself a drink. There are probably a few things left unsaid between me and Bellows, but that ship, as my dad used to say, has run aground.
This is how me and him say goodbye: on the eve of his departure we climb into the Camaro and blaze around the gravel pits with the headlamps dark, and we bawl and laugh and hug and skid donuts until we’ve kicked up so much gravel it’s like a sandstorm passing in our wake.